Is there gain in our labor? – Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

Sigmund Freud, the “father” of modern psychology, once wrote concerning the meaning of life: “When we begin to ask questions on the meaning of life and on death, we become sick, for none of this exists in an objective way.”

To his credit, Freud was very true to his worldview. If you believe in evolution and humans being the random result of natural causes, you shouldn’t ask yourself if life has a meaning, because there wouldn’t be such a thing as a meaning for life. In fact, the reality that you would even consider asking yourself the question would just be the evidence that you are mentally sick, unbalanced and in internal conflict.

Because without God, a meaning for the life is just an absurd thought.

Can there be any meaning in this life apart from God?

No, there cannot be.

But then, it make us wonder…if there is no meaning in life without God, how can my life looks so much the same as my neighbor who doesn’t believe in God? Both of us were born in this world the same way, both of us look the same, and both of us spend most of our days doing the same thing, namely to earn our bread, eat it, and rest a little before starting the process again, until both of us die. Of course I go to church and I pray and read the Bible, but still 90-95% of life is still the same as unbelievers.

Is there anything to gain from our toil under the sun? Think about it a second…ask yourself…is there anything lasting and meaningful to gain from all your daily toil under the sun? For working a job? For studying in school? For keeping a house together? For changing diapers?

Well, I’m glad you asked, because I just happen to have come across a book written by the the wisest man who ever lived on earth and who and saturated his mind with a quest to understand this question.

This question, Solomon would ask it six times, once in every first six chapters of the book of Ecclesiastes, where I invite you to turn in your Bibles. And we will look at the first chapter, from verses 1-11.

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.”

Before we even get into the text, this needs a little explanation. Here we have the words of Solomon, son of the most popular king that Israel ever had, was himself king of Jerusalem during its most prominent days, and was known as the Preacher. As the wisest of all men, no doubt Solomon’s “sermons” must have been the best ones you could ever imagine.

Now no doubt Solomon’s personality is confusing. On one side he appears like a megalomaniac lover of money and women and pleasure, on the other side as the most profound thinker and theologian of the old covenant.

How can this be? There is only one thing that can explain this reality. God’s grace.

2Sa 7:12  When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. [13] He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. [14]  I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, [15]  but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.

God had promised David that his steadfast love would never depart from Solomon. And even when Solomon gave himself to folly, he writes that even then his wisdom did not depart from him.

In all of Scripture, this is probably one of the most striking pictures of God’s grace. That God would commit to bless so much someone who would sin so much. He was capable of the best and of the worse, but for the worse he was the best. And although it might be easy for us to judge him and point all his sins and excesses and mistakes, there is a truth that we cannot escape: this book was written by a sinner who had been overwhelmingly covered by God’s grace. Even to the point that after his wanderings into folly he could come back and write some of the most profound truths you will ever read.  

You might wonder why he would not mention his name here but only introduces himself as the preacher. His name, “Solomon” means peace. He failed to do it justice. Instead of peace, his life had been full of toil, most of it being meaningless. And so we read:

Ecc 1:1  The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. [2]  Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. [3]  What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? [4]  A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. [5]  The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. [6]  The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. [7]  All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. [8]  All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. [9]  What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. [10]  Is there a thing of which it is said, « See, this is new »? It has been already in the ages before us. [11]  There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.

 “Vanity of vanities” said the preacher…we’ve heard this phrase many times. But why do you think Solomon said it…to make you feel bad about your day? To help you better understand despair? To make you spend money on a psychologist? To make you empathize with him because he was a loser?

We’re talking about the wisest man who ever lived here…

No, the reason why he states this so bluntly is to provoke you to think about the matter. Because the only way you will ever do anything with his message is if it creates convictions in your heart about what you really believe. Because everyone needs to know what they live for, and how this should flesh out on a daily basis. When I first began to study the book of Ecclesiastes as a teenager, it changed my life. And even to this day, I can say without a doubt that the book of Ecclesiastes has been the book giving me the most hope concerning the meaning of my life on earth.  

The book of Ecclesiastes is a book of answers, just as it is a book of questions. Now, not all the questions in the book have answers. Some of them he throws at us just to provoke us. I mean, the book has over 30 questions that he asks us, such as:

–           Is there such a thing as something new?

–          What is true wisdom?

–          Do animals go to heaven?

–          If you could live 2000 years, would that really make you happier?

–          Is there a benefit of being wise if no one listens to you?

–          What is next?

–          Will you always find someone to answer questions of things that are beyond your understanding?

–          Can you improve or correct God’s creation?

–          Do you know if anyone has the authority to have the final say in an interpretation?

But the main question remains: Is there any gain in our toil? And the answer is: yes, there is gain, there is infinite gain. And today we are going to look at 4 realities concerning our toil that should make us toil even harder. 4 realities concerning our toil that should make us toil even harder.

[Now bear with me. Solomon uses the power of opposites and of contrasts. So don’t get depressed in the beginning. The good stuff will come at the end when we wrap it all up.]

I.                    Earthly Toil Defines our Lives (vv.1-3)

The first aspect of our toil that we see here is that earthly toil defines our lives.

Ecc 1:1  The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. [2]  Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. [3]  What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?

The reason why Solomon asks this question about the meaning of our toil is because it is the reality of our lives. All that we do is toil. There is nothing on earth that is done that doesn’t require effort. As a result, the sum of our lives is really the sum of our efforts.

And without God it is all vanity.

The term “vanity” is actually a pretty good term to define our lives. It comes from a Hebrew term that comes from a root meaning “vapor” or “breath.” And just like breath, most of what you do will pass without being seen. Like a breath, your life will pass without leaving anything of itself behind. It will pass and be gone forever from under the sun. Like a breath, your life is one among billions and is insignificant in comparison to the scope of this world. A breath is meaningless. It cannot be grasped, cannot be seen, cannot be measured, it doesn’t last, it comes from nowhere and goes nowhere, and it is not worthy to be remembered. And yet, that’s all that we got.

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” 

Without God, there is absolutely nothing that we can contribute to this world. In and of ourselves, we are absolute nothingness. That is our identity, and the reality of everything that we do. We are but empty vessels.

And so Solomon asks, rhetorically,

“What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”

I mean, doesn’t just asking the question make you tired? “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” Doesn’t that just want to make you exhale “pfffiu!” Isn’t it tiring just to think about all the things that you need to get done? 

But Solomon gets the guts to ask: If we are nothing, and everything that is done is nothing, then why do we keep on doing it?

His answer throughout the book seems even more fatalistic: we do it because God made us to toil, and there is nothing we can do about it. This is the lot given to men. Adam was given work in the Garden, it became harder after the Fall, but that’s basically our story. We were created to work and since the first day of creation we’ve been busy working. That’s pretty much the unifying factor of all of humanity. Hard-working people have worked hard, and lazy people have worked the system so that they could be lazy, but even that is work. There is no such a thing as a break. There is no such a thing as a vacation, we all know those require even more work and rarely do they make us actually rested.

We work because we’re humans and that’s what humans do.

II.                  Earthly Toil is Powerless (vv.4-7)

So first earthly toil is what defines us, secondly, earthly toil is powerless.

Ecc 1:4  A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. [5]  The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. [6]  The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. [7]  All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.

Here we see four different images from nature that show to us how powerless we are as humans to change anything in the world in which we live.

There is the earth that remains forever, there is the sun that remains forever, there is the wind that reminds forever and there are is the sea that reminds forever.

Simply put, we live in a world in which we cannot change the rules of the game. We are creatures of limited power in a world of excessive power. And even though we crave for power, no matter how much little power we can attain in our limited state, we will never be able to change anything with the forces that set this world in motion. The laws of nature cannot be altered, slowed down, broken or changed. And if our existence was to find meaning in us making a difference in this world, we would be doomed to total despair.

The earth, the sun, the wind, the sea…all trump us.

As Newton would say, “Gravity of gravities, all is gravity.”

And it doesn’t matter that we understand some of those laws of nature more than our predecessors. There is still that pull that is stronger than us which will always get the best of us, and there is nothing we can do about it.

And the truth is that all of the efforts of humanity will never change how this world is ran. You can combine all the generations that ever lived and all the toil ever sweated on the face of the earth…there is nothing that we can do that can actually truly change what humanity looks like, needs and depends on. We’re always going to need to breathe, to sleep, to eat, and to wish for good weather.

And what is humbling about all of this is that entities of nature that are much bigger, much older and much stronger know no change. So if those great things don’t have the ability to alter their course, who are we to think that we can?

We simply can’t. We will never be able to improve humanity with our cunning, resources, and toil. We are powerless to make this world a better world. At the end of the day, mankind we still remain as depraved, as needy, as wicked, as weak, as limited and as powerless as it has been since the Fall.

III.                Earthly Toil is Wearisome (v.8)

So first, we saw that earthly toil is what defines us. Secondly, that earthly toil is powerless. Thirdly, we see that earthly toil is wearisome.

Ecc 1:8  All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

Earthly toil is wearisome. It is tiresome. It makes you sweat, it makes you hungry, and it empties you of your strength.

Life is a constant investment of self. There is nothing that you do that does not require a part of you: whether it is your time, your energy, or your resources. Man is constantly losing his most precious possession which he calls life, to never get any of it back.

All things are full of weariness, so much that we cannot describe it. Because everything requires effort, to describe effort makes effort, and so the weariness will always outbalance its explanation. Labor is a competitor that can never be out-bided. It will always trump you in everything you do. No human being able to talk will ever be able to describe all the efforts that they had to do to live on earth.

But is even more deplorable about this is that even though everything takes effort, there is no reward for it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. It is as if the human’s soul is bound to a formula in which all satisfaction is measured by the amount of toil multiplied by zero. How can you win when you multiply by zero? You can only lose.

Can wealth bring happiness?

Do you guys realize how wealthy Solomon was?

The weight of gold that he made every year just from the profit in Israel was 666 talents of gold (1 Kings 10:14), which is the equivalent of 25 tons of gold every year. You are talking about a massive cube of over 6 feet on each side, which in our day, since one ounce of gold is worth between $1700-1800 and there are over 35,000 ounces in a ton, would be about $1.5 billion. $1.5 billion every year…and he was king for 40 years. That’s 60 billion dollars too spend.

But he writes concerning money:

Ecc 5:10  He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.

Can pleasure bring happiness?

Ecc 2:10  And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. [11]  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.

 Ecc 6:7  All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied.

You can desire pleasure, you will never get enough…

And it is sad, but a lot of people start life thinking that they are the new Christopher Columbus on board of his brand new vessel, ready to explore seas of pleasure, only to eventually become stranded with no land in the horizon, no direction, and no hope.

And the list continues…Solomon tried to find satisfaction through human wisdom, through human success, through romance, through power, through fame, through the search of human perfection…all failed. And it didn’t matter how many excesses he had…it was always multipled by zero.

I mean we know it…one episode does not satisfy. That’s why we watch the next one, and the next one, only to finish a series and to start another, always on our hunger. Same with video games. One level is passed, then the next, then the next one, then what? The eyes are never satisfied. All that the world gives us is salt water. It is made of the same stuff that satisfy, but it just never gets there. It only makes it worse.

But again, that’s just how man is made. We are made to toil, we are made to be limited in power, and we are also made to have holes in our heart that longs for something bigger than ourselves, for something infinite and eternal.

IV.                Earthly toil is Meaningless (vv.9-11)

First earthly toil is what defines us, secondly it is powerless, thirdly wearisome, and fourthly it is meaningless. Earthly toil is meaningless.

Ecc 1:9  What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. [10]  Is there a thing of which it is said, « See, this is new »? It has been already in the ages before us. [11]  There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.

Listen to this story: Workmen in Rome, digging gravel for ballast, were instructed to dig from one central pit so as not to spoil the site with too many holes. They unearthed an ancient plaque inscribed in Latin, which turned out to be a sign intended for workman digging ballast for Roman ships. It instructed them to dig from a central pit so as not to spoil the site with too many holes.

Do things really change? There is nothing new under the sun. Mankind is and will always be made of the same mold. And we might like our Steve Jobs and our Einsteins and our pop stars, but eventually it all passes like a breath, and all is forgotten.

Now, when Solomon says there is nothing new, we must understand the context. It’s not that man cannot makes inventions, but about the incapacity to change who we are and what makes us happy. The 20th century is a great testimony of that, as it showed that technology does not improve man’s morals or well-being…while some might have enjoyed lives a little more comfortable, tens of millions have perished in world wars and weapons created by our “new” technologies for mass destruction.

There is no such a thing as a new source of pleasure, there is no such a thing as a new message of wisdom, there is no such a thing as a deeper and better definition for the meaning of life.

Think about the life of Solomon.

In Ecclesiastes 7:15 he writes, “In my vain life I have seen everything.” Now don’t you think that someone who has seen everything could give you a deeper sense of what this world is all about?

Well, listen to his last words…

Ecc 12:13  The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. [14]  For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Now listens to the last words of his father, king David,

1Ki 2:2  « I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, and show yourself a man, [3]  and keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his rules, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn,

Is it really different? Here they are with the same message: if you want to be a man, fear God and obey Him, because He is the only who can truly bless you.

Now, don’t you think it would be humbling for Solomon to write this as his conclusion? The man was the wisest man who ever lived before Christ. Not only that, but he experienced all the excesses and the depths and heights of human life…and yet he couldn’t even improve or add anything to what had been passed down to him.

So here we are in our quest of defining the meaning of life: man is a creature that is made to toil, that is incapable of changing his nature, that is condemned to suffer weariness and pain, and who longs for something bigger than himself of which he will taste out of his own toil.

Conclusion

So, well…thank you for listening, now you can go home and cry, lament, quit your job, and curse the day of your birth

Well, God would not have placed the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible if that’s all it did.

But before we get to the “good” stuff, don’t move away mentally from the feelings that this provoke in you. I mean, when we read and study this stuff, it should create unrest in our souls, because we all know that this world must be full of meaning, that there must be a sense for all of our toil.

While Solomon asks 6 times, “why do we toil?” Seven times he answers, like in Ecclesiastes 2:24:

Ecc_2:24  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, [12]  I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; [13]  also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

Solomon’s answer to our question is simple: mankind is the way it is because God has willed it this way, and it is a blessing; not because mankind is glorious, but because God is with mankind. His hand is directly involved.  He is there with us, even in the mundane. He alone brings meaning, because when we live by faith, He works through us, anywhere, anytime, in whatever situation.

And here it becomes super awesome. Without God, all we can do with our toil is take the pleasure that is given to us and multiply by zero. But when God is on our side, He takes these things ad multiply them by infinity.

Ecc 3:14  I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.

 The works of man don’t last. But whatever God does endures forever. And God has made man to be a vessel of His very glory and of His very works. And he makes everything beautiful in His time (Ecc 3:11).

I mean…can you imagine multiplying your bank account by infinity? Wouldn’t that rock your world? Well, that’s what happens in heaven with our reward, every single time we depend on God. 

And what becomes so meaningful is that anytime we depend on God, we wait on Him, we obey His commandments, we live with the fear of His presence, He transforms those opportunities into works that are eternal and of eternal rewards.

When you go to work with God in your mind, you don’t go to work like unbelievers do. You go to work bringing God’s peace, God’s joy, God’s blessings and God’s love with you. And you know that when you live humbly and by faith, you will get a reward that is beyond your understanding. When you go to school with the fear of God, you go to school with hope, with purpose, because you know that God is watching you and is there to help you at any time. And when you do those math homework with faith, you get an infinite reward in heaven that earthly words cannot even fathom. When you stay at home with God in your soul, doing mundane things or raising kids with a heart of submission to God and of praise, you do for an eternal reward that will never be taken away from you.

So why do we toil? Why do we have to wake up early tomorrow go to work or to school or to take care of a family?

Because God has made us this way. To be so needy, so useless, so insignificant, that we would live with a constant understanding of our need for Him, and as we do so, to give Him the opportunity to work through us.

And so, what do you think, how much should we work? How much should we toil?

Ecc 11:1  Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. [2]  Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.

 Solomon’s conclusion is clear: work your tail off. Give yourself to others. Sweat like God cursed you to do. Work hard with your family. Work hard at your job. Work hard at church. Be human as humans should be, tired, weak, needy, but always filled with joy because when you have faith God is with you everywhere you go, to bring eternity in action through the mundane of life.

Without God, all the pleasures of life are multiplied by zero. With Him, they are multiplied by infinity. If this isn’t meaningful, I don’t what is.