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Message # 4 | Ecclesiastes 2:18-26 | July 31, 2016



Different Views of Work

A man must work to provide for his family. A mentality that was once prominent in society seems to have waned in the last couple of generations, a mentality that demanded that a father work to provide for his family. The work itself or the pleasure in work wasn’t really important.  What was important was the fact that they provided for their family. He would work long hard days and would find satisfaction in that he took care of his family.

Men are to be characterized by hard work. Hand in hand with this expectation of providing for one’s family was the virtue of hard work. Emphasis was placed on a man being a hard worker. Once again, it didn’t matter so much what the job was just that you worked hard at it.

You need to work in a field or profession you enjoy. There are others who would agree that hard work is important but feel that the type of work or profession is of equal or more importance.  They would say that someone can’t truly be satisfied if they are not working in a profession they enjoy – even if they work hard.

But what if I’m successful and satisfied with work? Let’s assume for a second that you have adopted one of these approaches above. Let’s as well assume that you have been “successful” in that approach.  Will this chapter in Ecclesiastes apply to you? Solomon’s negative view of work carries over to even the person who is successful.  Solomon concludes that all labor, even labor for the successful individual, is vanity.

Let’s take an initial look. Solomon, as he approaches this discussion, reflects on a time of hatred and despair (vs. 20).  Some would like to see this time of ‘despair’ as a step of repentance on the part of Solomon.  It is true that the passage speaks of a change of direction or turning, but there is no indication that the turning was to God.  In despair his heart turned from attempting to find satisfaction in his work, but his heart did not yet turn to God. Take notice of the negative conclusions he draws in reference to work.

Ecclesiastes 2:18-23 (ESV) 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, 19 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. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 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. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.

Remember that Solomon is looking at work “on earth” or “under the sun.”  As he views work on earth, he comes up with some conclusions.

The Future Results of Your Labor

The Fruit of Labor may go to a fool (2:18-19)

I recall a job I once held.  When I entered into the business my particular aspect of the work was not well organized.  The beginning of my employment came at the onset of a move for the company, and I was responsible for setting up my area of the company.  I took great pride in making sure everything was done well and orderly.  I put together a notebook to offer guidelines for the next employee who would take my position.  I had very specific ways of doing things; and I had this naïve idea, that if I organized the position right, my manner of doing the job would continue on long after I left.  What I found was that other people didn’t really care about my way of doing things.  My order didn’t really matter to them.  The man I trained to take my position began overlooking some of my methods even before I had left.  I had felt a lot of pride in my manner of work, and yet it didn’t seem to matter to the next employee.  In no way was the man a fool, but I did have to leave my work to someone who didn’t accept the organization I had taken a couple years to establish.

Imagine Solomon, the wisest man alive.  Everything he did was probably extremely well done.  He knew that someday he would have to leave his work to someone else, and it was inevitable that his successor would not follow the example he had set. We are going to feel unsatisfied if our focus in work is on leaving an earthly legacy or establishing a permanent way of doing something.

The Fruit of Labor may go to someone who didn’t work (2:21)

I imagine that someone would be frustrated if they had worked all their life in a particular field, and then had to leave all the fruit of their labor to some young guy who had never worked in the field. Consider –

A parent working hard to establish an inheritance only to leave it to a lazy child.

After having transformed a business, seeing that same business dismiss you and go back to their prior way of business.

Receiving no appreciation for the hard work you did.

An executive being let go so the business could hire young blood.

An older pastor leaving a church to a younger pastor.

A layman seeing their church, that they had worked so hard within, change.

The Present Traits of Your Labor

Characteristics of Labor

Wisdom, Knowledge and Skill Required (2:21). These three terms convey a very successful, well-balanced man.  His wisdom suggests that he is a morally sound man with the great ability of discernment.  His knowledge suggests years of experience.  This man is not only book smart but is as well street smart.  His wisdom and knowledge have resulted in great success.  He is accomplished in his field. [1]

While it is obvious that these qualities are not characteristic of everyone, it appears that they are characteristic of most successful workers.  This successful worker has many years of experience.  He has invested a lot, both mentally and physically, and has been rewarded for his hard work.  As he looks back on his life of successful business ventures, he finally realizes that he will soon leave it all to someone who hasn’t done nearly as much work or is foolish.

Drudgery (2:22-23). The root word for toil [2] often refers to “drudgery of toil” rather than the “nobility of labor.”  It relates to the dark side of labor, the grievous and unfulfilling aspect of work. This idea of drudgery carries with it a very negative connotation. Solomon is not looking at work as a means of fulfilling a greater purpose, but is instead wanting to find satisfaction in the labor.  His focus is on the fact that he has to work hard but will have to leave all his work to someone else.  With that mindset it is easy to see why a job would be drudgery.

If a job was viewed as a means to fulfill a greater purpose, the aspect of drudgery might diminish.  If we see a job as a means to provide for our family, if we see a job as a means to minister to other people, if we see a job as a divinely appointed meeting established by God, if we see a job as an opportunity to glorify God in all that we do . . . we might not struggle as much with the feeling of drudgery.

Consequences of Labor (2:23).

Sorrow. Although this word can be translated ‘painful’ and is used to express physical suffering, it much more commonly has to do with mental anguish.

Although the root can be used to express physical suffering, it much more commonly has to do with mental anguish. . . . But the word of hope is that Jesus has borne all of this suffering . . . that we might be healed (Isa 53:3–4)[3]

Isaiah 65:14 (ESV) behold, my servants shall sing for gladness of heart, but you shall cry out for pain of heart and shall wail for breaking of spirit.

Isaiah 53:3–4 (ESV) He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.

Vexation. The root meaning is to vex, agitate, stir up, or provoke the heart to a heated condition which in turn leads to specific actions. [4]

Unrest. The primary meaning conveys the idea of ‘lying down’.  His mind continues to run at night keeping him from truly resting.  Why is it that hard work does not necessarily produce restful sleep? The simple answer is – the Fall. We live in a broken world and our world doesn’t work the way it was initially intended to in the garden.

Genesis 2:2 (ESV) 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.

Because of the fall we were brought into a relationship with creation that is unsatisfying.  Adam and Eve experienced beautiful satisfaction in the work they accomplished in the garden prior to their sin.  When sin came, work became drudgery, vexation, sorrow, and unrestful.

Psalm 95:11 (ESV) 11 Therefore I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest.”

Yet Christ is our Sabbath rest.

Hebrews 4:3–9 (ESV) 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’ ” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” 5 And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.” 6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience. . . 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.

Solomon’s Conclusion

Don’t look for Lasting Satisfaction in Labor (2:26c)

Attempting to find lasting satisfaction in work is going to leave one feeling empty.  As well, don’t use the fruit of your labor (power, money, prestige) as a means to satisfaction.  Some might attempt to find satisfaction in the actual fulfillment of the job.  Others might attempt to find satisfaction in the fruit of their job.  Either way, you will be unsatisfied.

Enjoy the rewards of your labor (2:24-25)

Ecclesiastes 2:24–25 (ESV) 24 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, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

 ‘Carpe Diem’ (Seize the Day!).  Let’s consider two views in light of verse 24. The first view is that Solomon is presenting, reluctantly, that ‘there is nothing better.’  He could have said ‘this is good.’  Apparently he was resigned to the fact that this was the best there was, even though he wishes there were a better option.  Since man can’t find any satisfaction in the fruit of his labor, he might as well enjoy the simple pleasures that come along.  After all, those might be the only pleasures he ever receives.

Ecclesiastes 3:22 (ESV) So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?

Ecclesiastes 8:15 (ESV) And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

A second view is that Solomon is not resigned.  He is acknowledging that God has given man the ability to enjoy life in the present.  Verse 25 keeps the enjoyment in the context of God’s presence.  While we ought to live life with the future in mind, it is not inappropriate to enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

Remember that God is Sovereign (2:26)

God’s sovereignty is displayed in this passage.  Not only does God gift the righteous, but uses wicked people to accomplish His own purpose.  Someone might look at this passage and think that God is arbitrary and that we are at the whim of an unpredictable God.  The reverse is true.  Great comfort can be found in knowing that there is a God who rules over our lives and that we are not merely left to our own fate.




[1] All three definitions are summaries from the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, used in Bible Works. Wisdom. (1) Reflected in OT wisdom is the teaching of a personal God who is holy and just and who expects those who know him to exhibit his character in the many practical affairs of life. (2) In Greek philosophy if a person had perfect knowledge he could live the good life (Plato).  Knowledge. Knowledge was virtue. This root expresses a multitude of shades of knowledge gained by the senses. Its closest synonyms are “to discern” and “to recognize.” Skill. The root expresses to be right and proper to; to prosper (Eccl 11:6); skill; success (Eccl 2:21; 4:4); advantage (Eccl 5:10).

[2] 1. distress, trouble Gn 41:51; Is 53:11;—2. what is gained by toil (i.e. land & produce) Ps 105:44;—3. toil, effort Ec 1:3;—4. misfortune Nu 23:21;—5. disaster, evil Ps 7:15.  William Lee Holladay and Ludwig Köhler, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 276.

[3] John N. Oswalt, “940 כָאַב,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 425.

[4] “1016 כָעַס,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 451.

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