Toiling Under the Sun
Ecclesiastes and a Biblical Theology of Work
Thomas Kinkade, whose paintings of misty lighthouses and glowing cottages have been reproduced over ten million times, once defended the wistful sentimentality of his work by stating, “I like to portray a world without the Fall.”¹
Theologians who would serve working men and women cannot live in such fantasy. Any theology of work which emphasizes the doctrine of creation and God’s blessing on human work, but fails to come to grips with life east of Eden, cannot sustain people through the frustrations of daily work.
Ecclesiastes provides a vital counterweight in a fully biblical theology of work, reminding us all our toil under the sin is blighted by the curse and doomed to futility apart from eschatological redemption in Christ.
More than any other Old Testament book, the interpretation of Ecclesiastes depends on how one understands the book’s overall structure. Are the author’s introduction (1:1–11) and epilogue (12:8–14) meant to confirm or conflict with the cynical voice of Qohelet, the philosopher-king?
Tremper Longman represents the view that “Qohelet’s speech is a foil, a teaching device, used by the second wise man in order to instruct his son (12:12) concerning the dangers of speculative, doubting wisdom in Israel.”² On this reading Qohelet’s theology of work is not merely neutralized, but warned against as positively dangerous.
While this view has the apparent advantage of evading the force of Qohelet’s cynicism, it ignores the narrator’s own judgement that “the Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth” (v. 10) Peter Enns pointed out what should be obvious: “Qohelet represents a point of view about which the frame narrator feels strongly enough to lay out patiently for his readers over 203 of the 221 total verses in the book.”³ Qohelet’s words may not tell the whole story, but they contribute a vital chapter in it. The student who seeks wisdom should listen to Qohelet with respect.
Work is a key theme in Ecclesiastes. Given the sheer amount of time human labour occupies, whether in an ancient agricultural or a modern knowledge economy, Qohelet’s opening question is an urgent one: “What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?” (1:3) The business of life is one which will consume all our resources, and then ourselves; what dividends might we look forward when our work is done?
Qohelet’s judgement can be summed up in a single word: “meaningless” (NIV) or “vanity” (KJV, ESV). These are attempts to translate the Hebrew hebel, which occurs 38 times in Ecclesiastes, more than half of all the Old Testament occurrences. Although the word might be literally translated “breath” or “vapour,” its use in Ecclesiastes emphasizes the ultimate futility of life rather than its transitory nature.⁴ Life might be long or short, Qohelet proclaims, but in the end it will be for nothing. “All is untrustworthy, unsubstantial; no endeavour will in itself bring permanent satisfaction; the greatest joys are fleeting.”⁵
Over twelve chapters Qohelet repeatedly returns to the theme of work, demonstrating its futility from angle after angle. One might imagine a Stoic doing the same, only to conclude with a paean to the “consolations of philosophy,” but the acquiring of knowledge and wisdom is the first kind of human activity to be dismissed by Qohelet (1:12–18). His own experience taught him that “the more knowledge, the more grief’ (v. 18) because one becomes painfully aware of the “heavy burden God has laid on mankind”: everything is meaningless. (v. 14)
Qohelet is also frustrated by the limits of his own knowledge. While he could boast of seeing “all the things that are done under the sun” and having more wisdom than all Jerusalem’s kings before him, his quest is an unattainable “chasing after the wind”. Being “under the sun,” he has no vantage point to make sense of this incomprehensible life, and must accept that “what is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted” (vv 14–17). Something is deeply wrong with life as humanity experiences it, and it is beyond Qohelet’s power either to change or understand it.
If intellectual work will not satisfy, perhaps practical, hard-headed achievements will — so “I undertook great projects” (2:4). This a likely reference to Solomon’s construction projects described in 1 Kings 4–10 and II Chronicles 1–9. William Anderson notes the “astute foreign affairs policy which insured substantial business transactions with king Hiram of Tyre,” the management of slave labour and collecting of tributes, and the “massive administrative work” entailed in these public works projects.⁶ Qohelet immerses himself fully in this demanding work, and declares, “My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil.” (2:10) Nevertheless, his sober verdict is the same as on his pursuit of wisdom:
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless,
a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. (v 11)
The shadow of death now darkens Qohelet’s pleasure. Though the wise is better than the fool, “the same fate overtakes them both” (v. 14). And what happens to one’s wisdom and toil then?
I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun… A person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune, (vv. 18–21)
The object lesson is close at hand: Solomon, wisest and wealthiest of kings, was followed by a foolish son who quickly lost half the kingdom. Inevitably, this happens to all wisdom and toil: its painstaking fruit is frittered away by foolish people.
The poor do not have to wait for death to lose their reward. They are robbed by powerful oppressors (4:1,2), who are part of a corrupt system that goes all the way to the top. Longman offers the following translation of 5:8,9:
If you see oppression of the poor and deprivation of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be surprised concerning the situation. For one official watches out for another, and there are officials over them. The profit of the land is taken by all; even the king benefits from the field.⁷
Are the rich better off? Instead of providing satisfaction, material goods fill their owner’s minds with worries about losing or schemes to increase them. In the end the exhausted labourer enjoys better sleep than the anxious rich (5:10–12).
Our survey of Ecclesiastes reveals a bleak picture of human work. Work is not without joy, to be sure, and Qohelet repeatedly urges his hearers to enjoy the pleasures of life (2:24–26; 3:12,13; 5:18–20; 7:14; 9:7–10; 11:7–10). But these are to be read, not as an exuberant carpe diem philosophy, but as a resigned determination to make the best of a bad situation. As Longman observes, Qohelet “couches his language in a way that communicates his reluctance and his lack of enthusiasm.”⁸
How does Ecclesiastes’s lament over the futility of work fit into the rest of the canon? Given that fact that Qohelet seriously questions the simple platitudes of Proverbs and the rest of wisdom literature, the reader must look to the larger themes of the Old and New Testaments for coherence.
The book is best read as an extended meditation on the grim reality of living under the curse in a fallen world. Ecclesiastes’s allusions to the early chapters of Genesis are strong and frequent, particularly to the divine curse on Adam’s labour in Gen 3:17–19:
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”
The “painful toil” that is to be humanity’s lot from then on is a repeated theme for Qohelet. The word could also be translated as “hard work,” “drudgery,” or “misery”.⁹ Even if human toilers can eke out a little joy, “that joy is simply a narcotic that numbs the recipient to the true nature of reality”: that “all their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest” (Eccl 2:23).¹⁰
Ecclesiastes’s distinctive expression “under the sun” occurs 29 times in the book but nowhere else in the Old Testament. Ten times it is the setting for human toiling (1:3; 2:11, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22; 5:18; 8:15; 9:9). Longman wonders if “the phrase also communicates the discomfort of Qohelet’s perspective by invoking an image of sweltering heat,”¹¹ but his suggestive idea may be used instead as a bridge to Gen 3:19: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.” Instead of plucking fruit in the cool of Eden, human survival (“All the toil of man is for his mouth”, Eccl 6:7) now demands painful exertion under a burning sun.
Another connection to Genesis 3 is offered by David M. Clemens, who points out that in both books “human knowledge is beset with pain.”¹² Instead of becoming like God in knowing good and evil, autonomous human beings are frustrated at the limitations of their knowledge, and instead of perceiving the purposes of their lives, can see only meaninglessness from their limited vantage point under the sun.
What renders life most meaningless is death. Here we find the strongest links with Genesis 3. Eccl 3:20 (“all come from dust, and to dust all return”) and 12:7 (“and the dust returns to the ground it came from”) are direct allusions to Gen 3:19: “for dust you are and to dust you will return.” In both books, death is viewed, not as a benign part of the cycle of life, but as a tragic and wasteful destruction of human potential.¹³
Who is responsible for such misery? Ecclesiastes gives two answers. On one level, much of the evil is blamed on human beings. In the courts of justice, there is wickedness (3:16); the powerful oppress the weak (4:1); corrupt politicians milk the system (5:8). Foolish children waste their inheritance (2:18,19). Adulterous woman enslave sinful men (7:26). Ungrateful citizens forget those who ruled well (4:13–16), while the wicked are publicly praised (8:10). People’s work is driven by envy of their neighbours (4:4), whom they often curse in their hearts (7:21,22).
In sum, not only must one admit that “there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins” (7:20), but that “the hearts of people are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live” (9:3). Qohelet’s oft-quoted statement that “God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes” (7:29) tersely summarizes Genesis’s story of the Fall.
Nevertheless, the misery of life cannot be explained merely as the natural consequences of sinful choices. After all, under the sun the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer (8:14), and in the end everyone dies alike (9:1,3). Instead, Qohelet perceives the hand of God behind these evils, and complains, “What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!” (1:13; cf. 3:10, 9:9). Therefore, as Barry Webb argues, “Hebel is not a brute fact, something which happens to be there without cause or explanation. It is a judgment, a condition, imposed on the world, and on human beings in particular, by God.”¹⁴
A naive reading of Proverbs might suggest a tidy cause-and-effect relationship between work and reward. Belief in a good Creator who blessed human work and governs the world would lead one to expect life to function with such elegance. But Ecclesiastes reminds us that wisdom means reckoning with life under the sun, life under the curse: “The Fall and original sin would explain to wisdom circles why an orderly universe, which was the basis for the ordering of a person’s life, is corrupted—and why wisdom fails at times to deliver its promises.”¹⁵
Ecclesiastes’s contributes to an Old Testament theology by preparing the reader for the frustration and fruitlessness of all human toil. One should not expect much even from skillful and diligent work. Since only God’s work will endures forever, “we deceive ourselves about the fundamental nature of life if we think our labors can bring about permanent peace, prosperity or happiness. Someday, everything we have built will rightly be torn down (Eccl. 3:3).”¹⁶
The best response to life’s meaninglessness is modest: to enjoy God’s gifts as much as possible, and to remember to “fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13). Resolution of our existential predicament must be left to his judgment (v. 14). Ecclesiastes offers no solution to these problems of life and work. “Unless there is a larger perspective to temper his observations,” Duane Garret observes, “Ecclesiastes can be a very dreary book indeed.”¹⁷
Before reflecting on the New Testament’s answer to Ecclesiastes, it is worth remembering that those redeemed by Christ still live under the same sun as Qohelet. And in some ways, as Timothy Keller points out, modern toil may be even more frustrating. Workers on a production line or in a sweatshop repeat the same mindless tasks ad infinitum, while others are locked into “low-paying service sector jobs that experience the same alienating disconnection from the fruits or products of their work.” And for the powerful, “the size and complexity of global corporations now makes it difficult for even high-ranking executives to understand what their labor is producing.”¹⁸ And in these contexts, as Duane Garrett observes,
Ecclesiastes makes a vital contribution to the theology of work through its honest, unvarnished look at the reality of work. Any thoughtful person who is engaged in their work, whether a follower of Christ or not, will connect with it. Its refreshing honesty opens the door for deep conversations about work, more so than the tidy prescriptions for doing business God’s way so commonly encountered in Christian circles.¹⁹
Far from evading Qohelet’s lament over the futility of life under the sun, the New Testament acknowledges and points beyond it:
For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? (Rom 8:19–24)
The purposelessness itself turns out to be purposeful; the transitoriness will itself prove transitory. Christ’s redemption involves a triumphant eschatological hope: the resurrection of our bodies, and with them, the liberation of all creation. The gospel invites men and women seeking meaning in their own fruitless toil into the only work than will endure forever: the work of God (Eccl 3:14).
Yet this hope is something believers still await; meanwhile they groan inwardly in their experience of present futility under the sun. Qohelet’s words still speak to us, but the eyes of faith transcend his limited vision.
Our future hope transforms all our toil. Paul concludes his great chapter of the resurrection with the stirring exhortation to “always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).
When we are brought into the kingdom, all our work done in Christ’s name is acceptable to him and partakes of the life to come. For now, we may share the bitter lot of humanity under the sun, but we look forward to a city so glorious the sun will no longer be needed (Rev 21:23). And there at last human work will escape its bondage to futility and become what God created it to be.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain. (Isa 65:21–23)
- Gregory Wolf, “The Painter of Lite,” Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion 34 (Spring 2002), 3.
- Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 38.
- Peter Enns, “Ecclesiastes 1: Book of,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2008), 125.
- Longman, 32.
- Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, Ill.: 1983), 67.
- William H. U. Anderson, “The Curse of Work in Qoheleth: An Exposé of Genesis 3:17–19 in Ecclesiastes,” Evangelical Quarterly 70 (1998): 110.
- Longman, 6.
- Ibid, 107.
- Ibid, 65.
- Ibid, 35.
- Ibid, 66.
- David M. Clemens, “The Law of Sin and Death: Ecclesiastes and Genesis 1–3,” Themelios 19 (1994): 7.
- Anderson, 101–102.
- Barry Webb, Five Festal Garments: Christian Reflections on The Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther, New Studies in Biblical Theology 10 (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP, 2001), 104.
- Anderson, 101.
- Duane Garrett, “Ecclesiastes and Work,” http://www.theologyofwork.org/old-testament/ecclesiastes(accessed January 21, 2016).
- Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (New York: Penguin, 2012), 105.