The Meaningfulness of Work in Light of the Meaninglessness of Life: A Theology of Work in Ecclesiastes 1-3

Introduction

Work, both its reality and its concept, are inescapable parts of the human endeavor.  It seems from the moment we are born until the very moment we die, we are “working” in one capacity or another.  Yet, despite the all-encompassing nature of work in our lives, a precise definition eludes us.  What exactly constitutes work?  Potential answers to this question lead to even grander notions: What exactly is the meaning of work?  How does the meaning of work relate to the meaning of our lives, if at all?  One author makes a very provocative point which only complicates our study even further: “The reason why theologians have had so little success in the construction of a theology of work is that professional theologians today are not workers, are not members of the working class, and therefore do not have the first hand experience of work—at least not in the sense of labour or manual work.”[1]  In light of these imminently foundational questions, perhaps it is best if we turn to the Scriptures, the sole final authority in evangelicalism, not primarily so that we may have our questions answered by the text, but so that we can see what the text has to say for itself regarding the nature and purpose of work in our lives.

As one theologian frequently reminds his listeners, oftentimes we bring questions to the text that the Bible simply is not interested in answering for us.  Tom Nelson, arguing from Scripture, claims the following: “As human beings, we have been designed not only to rest and to play but also to work.  From the very beginning of Scripture we see that the one true God is not a couch potato God, nor did he create a couch potato world.  As the Genesis storyline opens…we are immediately introduced to God as a thoughtful and creative worker.”[2]  That said, the purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that enjoying God is the ultimate purpose behind human work after formulating a theology of work from Ecclesiastes 1-3.

The Problem: Vanity of Vanities

For much of church history, Solomon has been the traditional assumption regarding the authorship of the book.  Yet modern scholarship, even the most conservative varieties, have begun to reject this assertion.  For example, Tremper Longman III has this to say: “There are clear signs within the book itself that Ecclesiastes was not written by King Solomon in the tenth century B.C.”[3]  The author of the book of Ecclesiastes, whoever he may be, begins the book in a rather somber tone: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2).  This phrase, “vanity of vanities,” sets the tone not only for chapters 1-3, but for the entire book.  Craig G. Bartholomew’s comments are helpful if we are to understand the purpose behind this rather morose introduction: “Ecclesiastes attracts attention and resonates deeply with the existential struggles of people today…Ecclesiastes takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride as its main character, Qohelet, sets out to explore the meaning of life.”[4]  Considering that last statement, namely, that the author of Ecclesiastes seeks to explore the meaning of life, it is particularly interesting that he claims right from the start that everything is meaningless.  This has profound implications for our study of the theology of work.  If all of life is meaningless, work can be nothing more than a means to accomplish ultimately meaningless ends.

At this point we must ask if the author of Ecclesiastes really intends to say that everything in life, even life itself, is meaningless.  It seems that at one moment the author will claim “all is vanity,” yet we must ask: In what way is everything vain?  Or, more precisely, in what way does the author mean that all things are meaningless?  The structure of the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes gives us an important insight into this question.  Here we find three examples from the life of the narrator to illustrate to the readers that all things are vain.  In 1:16-18, the author describes the vanity of wisdom in this way: “I said in my heart, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’  And I applied to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.  I perceived that this also is but a striving after the wind.”  Then, in 2:1, we find, “I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.’  But behold, this also was vanity.”  And finally in 2:18-19, the author addresses the specific topic at-hand: “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?  Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun  This also is vanity.”

With these verses in mind, it is hard to come to any other conclusion than that life, including the work which so permeates it, is utterly meaningless.  It seems that wisdom is meaningless because the wise and the foolish both perish.  It may be that pleasure under the sun is also meaningless, for it eventually runs its course and exists no longer.  Even work and toil appears to be meaningless, according to the author, because the results of one’s work and toil must be left to those who did not toil for it.  As such, this is the primary problem: It seems as if life, and the work we do therein, is totally meaningless under the sun.

Yet, what if we were to look beyond the sun?  The author answers that question in this way: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.  This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (Eccles. 2:24-25, italics added); and later, “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man” (Eccles. 3:12-13, italics added).

The Solution: Joy in God

The problem of work in Ecclesiastes 1-3 is that it appears to be devoid of meaning.  And the solution to be found is not ultimately in the work itself, but primarily in the Giver of the work: namely, God himself.  The author of Ecclesiastes lays out this claim in explicit terms in 3:11-13: “Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.  I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toilthis is God’s gift to man” (italics added).  From this we can gather that the best possible thing, at least in Qoholet’s mind, for humans to do is to be joyful, do good, eat and drink and take pleasure in our toil, for these are God’s gifts to us.  At this point, the comments of Philip West are of some value: “Work is the way in which the human creature is kept in existence so that he or she may then live the active life that is God’s plan.”[5]  Here we find, at the very minimum, that work is necessary for us and for our existence.  The major point I wish to make at this juncture is that pleasure in all our toil is explicitly claimed to be a gift from God.  The obvious implication here is that if one enjoys their work, one has been granted the gift of enjoyment by God.  When this thought is paired with 2:25, “for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”, another conclusion seems to be obvious.  That is, not only is enjoyment in general a gift from God, but enjoyment of God is the ultimate purpose of our work.  And this enjoyment of God is given as a gift to us by God.

Allow me to piece it together like this.  The author begins Ecclesiastes with the claim that “All is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2).  Then he continues by saying, “I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun” (Eccles. 2:20).  These two verses represent the problem of our work.  But the author does not leave us here; rather, he claims that “from the hand of God” (Eccles. 2:24) comes enjoyment in our toil.  We now have an explicit connection that the purpose of work is our enjoyment of it, particularly because the author claims that “There is nothing better for a person” to do than that (Eccles. 2:24).  But the author takes us one step further, and that is the intended argument behind this paper.  “Apart from him,” Qohelet asks, “who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (Eccles. 2:25).  This rhetorical question is meant to demonstrate the entire purpose of his discourse so far: namely, apart from God one cannot have genuine enjoyment in anything, especially in toil, labor, and work.  Volf makes a striking observation when he says, “Without God’s constant preserving and sustaining grace, no work would be possible.”[6]  So, not only is enjoyment impossible apart from God, but work itself is impossible apart from God.  The reason why it appears that “All is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2) is because Qohelet is not experiencing the joy that can only be given to him by God.  Andy Crouch puts it this way: “God’s first and best gift to humanity is culture, the realm in which human beings themselves will be the cultivators and creators, ultimately contributing to the cosmic purposes of the Cultivator and Creator of the natural world.”[7]  Qohelet is struggling to experience this gift rightly, and that is the primary reason he claims that everything is vain.

At this point I hope to make the penultimate piece of my argument clear.  I will do so by attempting to give an all-encompassing purpose of work: the ultimate human end or purpose of work is to enjoy God.  At first glance, this definition is not exceptionally distinctive or novel, nor is it remarkably precise.   In fact, it might be argued that this purpose needs to be tailored to be more unique and more narrow in order for it to have any meaningful impact on our lives.  Yet, life is not always cut into nice, neat lines for us to decide and define the exact nature of work.  Each person who works will undoubtedly work in a different way and in a different format doing a different task than those around them; as such, a broad purpose is necessary so that we may have include all work rather than the parts and tasks that seem most important or pleasing to us.  Bonhoeffer, in arguing for the right to bodily joy, seems to agree with this notion as well: “Within the natural life the joys of the body are reminders of the eternal joy which has been promised to men by God.  If a man is deprived of the possibility of bodily joys through his body being used exclusively as a means to an end, this is an infringement of the original right of bodily life.”[8]  That is, work is not only a means to enjoyment of God but it can be viewed as an end in itself because it inevitably comes from the hand of God for us to be enjoyed.

Finally, I wish to argue that the primary purpose of human existence is to work to enjoy God.  This ambitious leap is only the next logical step in the proceedings.  Qohelet makes this plain when he asserts that “There is nothing better for a person than that he should…find enjoyment in his toil.  This also, I saw, is from the hand of God” (Eccles. 2:24).  While it may be true that the author of Ecclesiastes is given to exaggeration, the claim he makes here is not an exaggeration in the slightest.  “There is nothing better,” he argues, than to find enjoyment in our toil (italics added).  The clear implication of this statement is that the ultimate purpose for our existence is to find enjoyment in our toil, which happens to come “from the hand of God.”  I take this to mean that not only is work a gift from God, but our enjoyment of it is a gift as well.  And this gift is only meant to lead us to greater enjoyment of the Giver of gifts: God himself.  Again, this is obvious when Qohelet asks, “For apart from him…who can have enjoyment?” (Eccles. 2:25).  The answer is that no one can have genuine enjoyment apart from God.  Calvin puts it this way: “There is no real enjoyment except in following God.”[9]

Implications and Objections

The conclusions reached and the insights gained so far probably will not come as a shock to most Christians.  Arguing that joy in God is the deepest root from which all our enjoyment flows is not a unique concept.  In fact, many Christians would readily agree that the purpose of work has at least something to do with the glory of God and our enjoyment of him.  That said, there are at least two important questions that rise up as implications from the foregoing conclusion.  First, can unbelievers enjoy their work?  And second, what happens when believers do not enjoy their work?  These two critical questions will now be explored.

If it is true that work and the enjoyment of work comes as a gift from God, how, then, should we understand the ways in which unbelievers enjoy their work, if that is even possible?  The most pressing issue here is whether unbelievers can genuinely enjoy work at all.  If we take a brief look around, it seems as though unbelievers do actually enjoy their work.  How are we to understand this?  First, it should be noted that there is a distinction between enjoying work and enjoying God.  Qohelet makes this abundantly clear in his discourse.  Enjoyment of work and enjoyment of God are both gifts from God, but that does not mean they are necessarily the same thing or come to us in the same exact way.

Next, even though there is a distinction to be made between enjoying work and enjoying God, they are connected in such a way that one cannot avoid speaking of enjoying work without eventually mentioning the ultimate purpose of work: namely, enjoyment of God.  Again, it is true, according to Qohelet, that there is nothing better than that we enjoy our work.  And the next step is that this kind of enjoyment should inevitably lead to joy in God.  The reason for this is that the gift of work and the gift of enjoyment of our work both come from the hand of God, and thus our enjoyment of work should overflow into enjoying God.

Finally, even though it may be true that unbelievers can enjoy aspects of their work, it must be noted that they cannot find lasting, genuine enjoyment in their work apart from God: “for apart from him…who can have enjoyment?” (Eccles. 2:25).  As has been stated previously, the ultimate purpose of work is to enjoy God.  Unbelievers, by definition, can do nothing of the sort: they do not even believe in God!  And even though this may seem a bit harsh or abrasive, it is true that unbelievers completely miss the entire point of work.  The ultimate purpose of work is totally and utterly missed by unbelievers.  Rather than being a reason for us to feel superior over them, it should actually compel us to share the good news of the gospel in order that their lives could come into alignment for how God designed them to live.

Another, arguably more practical question for our context, is: What happens when believers do not enjoy their work?  It’s one thing to claim that unbelievers miss the ultimate purpose of work by not being able to enjoy God.  But it is another thing entirely to wrestle with the real struggle that many Christians face today: specifically, they do not enjoy their work.  There are a variety of reasons why this may be the case: certain Christians have a predisposition towards melancholy and may find that joy does not come easily; others may have wrong beliefs about the purpose and nature of work; still others may believe the work they are doing is meaningless or useless.  Oftentimes lay people think their “non-ministry” work is less meaningful or impactful than the work of pastors; conversely, pastors can be prone to discouragement when they believe their work is having little lasting or visible effect.  So then, how are we to help believers consider their work in a way in which they can begin to genuinely enjoy God?

The book of Ecclesiastes helps us acknowledge the brutally raw nature of our own existential angst.  That is, there are times, even as believers, that we are filled deep-seated anxiety about the problems of life generally and work in particular.  The book of Ecclesiastes should come as a comfort to all those who are struggling.  They can resonate with the apprehensiveness Qohelet feels.  Here we might suggest to them that “all earthly callings that feed into the well-being of society are legitimate.”[10]  For those struggling with the meaningfulness of their work, this truth made manifest will certainly go some way in easing their conscience.  Or it may be that some Christians have too narrow a view of the gospel and need their understanding to be shifted just a bit.  Amy Sherman puts the remedy this way: “Jesus’ work is not exclusively about our individual salvation, but about the cosmic redemption and renewal of all things.”[11]

Conclusion

From Ecclesiastes we have seen that work, as well as the enjoyment to be found therein, is a gift from God.  Moreover, enjoyment of God is the ultimate purpose of work, and this is an important piece in the overall purpose of life itself: explicitly, that we should work to enjoy God.  We have noted that there are genuine and real times when work can seem to be utterly meaningless.  The book of Ecclesiastes helps us press into the profoundly practical truths that while things may seem totally vain, they are, in fact, not ultimately meaningless.  Finally, it is God who must grant us the gift of joy in our work.  Without him, no one can have enjoyment.


[1] Albert Nolan, “Work, the Bible, Workers, and Theologians: Elements of a Workers’ Theology,” Semeia 73 (January 1996): 214.

[2] Tom Nelson, Work Matters (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 20.

[3] Tremper Longman III, Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 3.

[4] Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 17.

[5] Philip West, “Karl Barth’s Theology of Work,” Modern Churchman 30, no. 3 (January 1988): 16.

[6] Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1991), 121.

[7] Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 110.

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955), 156.

[9] John Calvin, 1 John (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998), 90.

[10] Carl R. Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 183.

[11] Amy L. Sherman, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 67.


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