Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? Ecclesiastes 1:2-3
It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. Ecclesiastes 1:13-14
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. 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. Ecclesiastes 2:10-11
For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. Ecclesiastes 2:16-17
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. What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 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. Ecclesiastes 2:18-23
Do you give much thought to what you accomplish with your daily work? Solomon spent a great deal of time considering all the time and energy that can go into a man's work and his conclusions sound pretty discouraging. What benefit does all that work bring when life comes to its inevitable conclusion and everything that was seemingly gained has been lost forever? Why devote so much effort accumulating wealth only to benefit someone who never had to work for it? Why pursue great wisdom and understanding only to be forgotten by future generations? In everything he studied, Solomon concluded that hard work ultimately yields frustration, and any pleasure it might produce is nothing more than a temporary satisfaction. While this seems like a rather bleak perspective on life, other Scriptures would seem to indicate this is, at least in some sense, exactly what God intends.
And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:17-19
Although man had been given work prior to his temptation and fall (Gen. 2:15), the nature of that work changed dramatically as a result of sin. God cursed the ground with the expressed purpose of making work painful and difficult. Hard work would characterize every day of man's life until he met his physical end and his body wasted away. Solomon's repeated use of the word "toil" is a fitting description. "For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest." (Ecc. 2:23)
But some may object, "Isn't it cruel that God would punish men by making their entire life such a burden?" If every day is a vexing punishment and the nights offer their own kind of turmoil, what reason is there to go on living? We might argue with Cain, "My punishment is greater than I can bear." (Gen. 4:13) However, God's purposes often go beyond what we see on the surface. In fact, the frustration we often experience in our day to day labor can actually serve to benefit us and direct our wayward hearts back toward God.
From the time of Adam's fall, God's intent has never been to make the most of a fallen creation. Rather, His plan is to eventually create it anew. The trajectory of Scripture points us toward a "new heavens and a new earth" which is distinct from the creation we presently experience (Isa. 65:17; 2 Pet. 3:13). The struggles we face now are designed to motivate us to press on toward inheriting that new creation, but our tendency is to place our hope in what we see - the things that are immediately in front of our eyes. While trials and difficulty should remind us not to place our hope in this world, we can often find ourselves attached to the comfort we think it can provide. As an example from which we can learn, the Israelites suffered severely as slaves in Egypt, yet found themselves drawn back to Egypt by the "pleasant memories" of their time in bondage.
“Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Exodus 16:3
Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” Numbers 14:3-4
Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt. Acts 7:39
While God was trying to lead the Israelites toward "a land flowing with milk and honey" (Num. 13:23, 27), they were dreaming about a return to Egypt because they had faced some hardships along the way and inheriting the land God had promised seemed too daunting a task.
|Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.|
|Confessions, St. Augustine|
When we encounter the same toil and vanity of life that Solomon observed, it is good for our hearts to be left empty and longing for something substantial, but we shouldn't expect to find it in our work or anything else that's part of the world as we know it. The Lord is trying to lead us to a better land and if we are fully satisfied with the work of our hands here, we run the risk of being content with lesser things that will not last. And so, God has mercifully ordained that the things of this world should come up short and leave us wanting more.
He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. Ecclesiastes 5:10
All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied. Ecclesiastes 6:7
The Old Testament patriarchs experienced this same lack of satisfaction with the present world.
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. Hebrews 11:13-16
The brokenness of this world feeds our longing for another one. Whether it's thorns and thistles in the backyard, a flat tire in the driveway, or an unexpected trip to the emergency room, we are being reminded to look for something better and we should be thankful that God is directing our attention elsewhere (Heb. 12:7-11). When enthusiasm for a job begins to wane, or married life is not everything it was expected to be, we can't assume that the next job or another spouse will be able to satisfy our longings any better. A fallen world will never satisfy our longing for a perfect one.
Considering the Israelites again, the Lord gave them a very practical routine to direct their hearts toward a "new heavens and a new earth." Six days out of every week were given to work. During those days they would deal with all the hardships of toilsome labor - thorns in the vineyard, disease among the cattle, broken carts, disobedient children, clothes in need of mending, even spoiled milk at breakfast. But on the seventh day they were given respite from their suffering. It was a time to experience some measure of relief from the trials of daily life, to be reminded of God's original work of creation (Ex. 20:11), and to be refreshed (Ex. 31:17). But it also pointed them toward God's work of redemption (Dt. 5:15) and the hope of a permanent rest. Through every difficulty they endured during the week, they could anticipate an upcoming day of rest and the promise of a day when toil and sweat would cease completely. In the New Testament, we see redemption and rest has been offered through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Heb. 4). He bore the curse given to Adam - the thorns (Mk. 15:17) and sweat (Lk. 22:44) and death (Mk. 15:37) - and promised to make all things new (Rev. 21:4-5). So in every hardship and challenge we face today, we can anticipate the day when Jesus will redeem all of fallen creation and bring a final and lasting rest to the weary.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Romans 8:18-28
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis tells the allegorical tale of a trip from Hell to Heaven, but the travelers can find no satisfaction in any of its beauties. Nothing about it is attractive to them, and they ultimately turn back to their bleak, grey lives, preferring all of Hell's "problems" to the reality and joy of Heaven. From the opposite perspective, it might have been just as easy for Lewis to tell the story of believers travelling through this world. While they may appreciate certain aspects of the world around them and find some measure of joy in their earthly lives, there is never enough to capture their hearts. There is too much hardship and sorrow, too much toil and grief. They are confident there's something better, realizing everything on earth is just a shadow of the reality they long to know. Because their hearts are firmly set on heaven, all the "sufferings of this present time" only serve to make them more resolute in their pursuit of "the glory that is to be revealed." Daily they may toil, but they are toiling toward redemption.
Related post: Toiling (Less?) Until Redemption