Over the last couple of weeks we have had some cold mornings. Stepping outside into the crispness of the new day invigorates the soul and sends a tingle through the extremities. Ears and the nose stand to attention as the cold air hits them for the first time; beanies are pulled low and collars are pulled high and from in between every puff of breath is briefly visible as it quickly disperses and disappears.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (NIV). Or depending on the translation, Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities! All is vanity (NRSV). I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
Anyone who has ever examined the entries of the author of Ecclesiastes is usually puzzled by the repetitious phrases throughout its twelve chapters. However, the picture the author paints, most likely King Solomon, is a simple one and anyone who has ever breathed on a cold morning can understand it. Vanity of vanities, meaningless meaningless all is meaningless, all is vanity. We all get the picture here, the author who calls himself the teacher says everything is futile, empty, nothingness, or better still – fleeting, brief, momentary, short-lived, or passing. He goes on to say that everything is fleeting or short-lived a chasing after the wind. Imagine trying to grasp the steamy air you expel on a cold morning. Your breath in its visible form is present for only a moment, it is fleeting, short-lived, and in a second it is gone. Therefore, the task of trying to catch one’s fleeting breath in the hand is totally meaningless and silly.
But the book of Ecclesiastes is more than just about one blowing steam on a cold morning. In fact, despite the immediate negative impression it leaves, the author of Ecclesiastes has a very important message for Australians today, especially for hard working Aussie blokes and sheilas. Unfortunately though, many just don’t get what the book is all about, all that’s heard is an old misery guts whining about how pointless everything is. So let’s first look at the audience in Ecclesiastes; which in our reality today is the hard working Aussie.
Have you ever wondered just what the point of working is? Day in day out the grind of daily life seems pointless. Year after year similar patterns are followed. Farmers know the pattern well; working the soil, planting the crops, hoping and praying for rain, doing your tax, haggling with the bank manager about the overdraft, maybe harvesting if it has rained, working the soil and the process repeats itself over again. What is there to gain? The obvious fruits of farming might be - bad back, weary bones, and an attitude like that of the author of Ecclesiastes.
Mums must wonder too! What’s the point of working? Day after day taking care of the kids while they continually wreak havoc on the home environment! It looks like a daily cyclone passes through the house. Then there’s the washing, the dishes, the ironing, the folding, the cleaning, and all the other things a mum does. One thing get’s done but there’s always something else needing to be done.
Work can definitely be testing and a grind. Thank goodness we have the weekend to look forward to; we have the holiday down the coast or over seas to look forward to. Maybe, we long for the day of retirement, or for the right balls to drop and the lotto win falls on us. Then our work will pay off, we will be able to enjoy ourselves, and take life easy. We will be able to live the great Australian dream; sell up, buy a caravan and drive around Australia. Working to build for the future, we work and live in hope of enjoyment.
In the parable of the rich fool Jesus condemns the character putting his trust in wealth. To the man who had plenty of good things laid up so he can take life easy, God says, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you’ (Luke 12:20). This man thought his life was going to be easy in the future; would it have been even if he’d lived? How much better it would have been if he had put his faith in the one who gave him his earthly wealth! This man was no slouch, he was a hard worker; he worked so hard he had to build bigger barns in which to store his produce. But it was to no avail, he died before he could enjoy any of his treasures.
So what are you to do? Should you give up working and wait to die? After all, we might work hard and get nothing for it, as many of us are use to in Australia after suffering from years of droughts. Or we might make a heap of money and have plenty of possessions stored up for the future only to find we are struck by poor health leading to death and what we have worked for is all for nothing.
Why should we work? What is the point of working? We work hard and nothing comes of it, or we work hard creating a nest egg only to be cut from it? Maybe everything is meaningless, as the author of Ecclesiastes claims! Perhaps working is nothing more than one’s attempt to seize their short-lived steamy breath on a cold and frosty morning!
But we know work is important! Imagine how dysfunctional society would become if everyone decided not to work. Work is necessary for life to continue, it is essential for the wellbeing of our country and our community. In fact, work was given to humanity before the fall. Work is a part of the perfect order of creation. We’re told in Genesis 2:15, ‘The Lord God took the man, Adam, and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it’.
Working is also critical for every individual too; it’s healthy for one’s state of being. How many times have you heard about the person who retires from work to enjoy life only to fine that retirement kills them? Or the person who wins a fortune on the lottery, tells the boss to jump in the lake, and takes an early retirement, only to find they no longer enjoy life ending up broke and broken.
Sadly work is meaningless to many; it’s what one does until something better comes along. For the farmer this might be retirement, for the mother this might be when the kids grow up and move out of home. For the employee it might be to make money and fill in the time between weekends or holidays.
Attitudes like these surely add something to the increasing rate of depression in our society today. Work has become so demanding, so performance orientated and so necessary for future survival and recreation. However, why God created work and gives us work to do has been lost in our society. Work for many is a painful pointless exercise in chasing after short-lived nothingness. Work is meaningless, like chasing after one’s breath.
And so it seems the author of Ecclesiastes comes to the same conclusion. And this conclusion is right if one doesn’t recognise what our work is all about and who gives us our work. Listen to the conclusions of the author of Ecclesiastes who has investigated the life of a human.
I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. (Ecc 3:12-13)
This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—this is the gift of God. For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts. (5:18-20)
So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun. (8:15)
God gives life, and God gives work. Enjoy your work, enjoy your life. Enjoyment comes with living life; life nor enjoyment mightn’t come when you retire from working – this week, at holiday time, or even when end your careers in old age.
Our wealth is God. We can look forward to retiring from this earth into his loving presence. Meanwhile in this hope we live wealthy lives here on earth regardless of what we have massed for ourselves. But even as we look to him to take us home we are called to enjoy the gifts he gives us in this life – ourselves, our time, and our possessions. The greatest wealth one can gain in their toil on this earth is enjoyment from doing the work God has provided for us.
But when enjoyment becomes the god it makes work anything but enjoyable and breaks people under the hopeless and meaningless oppression of their god. A puff of air, an apparition, a frustrated chasing after a short-lived mirage – meaningless vanity!
Isn’t it much better that we place our hope in God; he will never disappear like a puff of smoke or steamy air on a cold morning.
Our Heavenly Father has given us the gift of salvation and freedom from eternal death on your cross. Instead he put his one and only Son, Jesus Christ there, and there he conquered death.
Because you have the gift of eternal life let us enjoy our work and our lives now as we wait to be with him forever? Amen
Key verses on the theme of enjoyment in work in Ecclesiastes: 1:2,12-14; 2:18-26; 3:12-13,22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-9; 11:7-12:1.