What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
I’m preparing right now to teach a class on Ecclesiastes at our congregation, so I’ve been reading it quite a bit and trying to get the flow of the writer’s thinking. I’m assuming the writer is Solomon, but I know there’s debate about that. Solomon begins with a question, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”
In the first two chapters, Solomon goes through all the things he has tested, seen, experienced and observed. He tries everything including, wisdom, work, wine and women. It all leaves him wanting. By the middle of chapter 2, he gives an answer to his question…there is NOTHING to be gained.
Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
Where does this leave this great and wise king?
So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. 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. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.
He hates life! He hated all his toil! He gives his heart up to despair! “What’s the point?”, he asks in anguish.
But then at the end of chapter 2, Solomon seems to completely contradict himself and say that you should enjoy your toil.
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?
What? Are you barking mad, Solomon? You just said you hated it and life, now you told me to enjoy it?
Go back and read through chapter 1:1 through chapter 2:23 and look for what you don’t find there. What you don’t find there is God. There is one reference to God in 1:13 but it is not a positive outlook on God. God is basically missing from the first two chapters. Why was Solomon’s conclusion about his work so despairing and negative? Because he was doing all this without a mindset of connecting it all to his relationship with God.
If life only consists of going to work, getting money, building stuff, going places, being entertained and getting in and out of relationships, then yes life is quite the unhappy business! Is it any wonder why the suicide rate is so high? Solomon’s question answers that with Spirit-filled wisdom and accuracy:
“For apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”
When Solomon turned his perspective to God and looked for God’s involvement, then things turned around in his mind. When the great-old-wise king began seeing God’s purpose and God’s working in things, the enjoyment came back. Brightness comes back to his eyes, and a spring comes back in his step. There is meaning to all of this, and yes, we can enjoy this fleeting life, because God is here with us.
It’s all about perspective. You can go to the same job and do the same work, but have two very different attitudes about it. We can live with the same wife and kids, and have two very different perspectives. As you look around the house and property and see all that you have and all you have to do, you can look at it as a curse and drudgery, or you can see it as a blessing.
So which will you be? Will you be the Ecclesiastes 2:18 Solomon that hates work or the 2:24 Solomon that loves work and finds enjoyment in it? It all comes down to where your focus is.