Part 6 might as well enjoy it (Ecc 2:17-26)
My first real job right out of college was as a CAD Technical Specialist at AT&T. My job was essentially to update the plant location records, a mapping system database that shows where AT&T has items of network, such as telephone lines, poles, terminals, etc. Within the geometry that represents those items of network, lies information about what type of phone service is entailed, whether the cable for example, is buried, aerial, or underground. Whether the poles belonged to AT&T or the power company. When I began working there in 2000, I was assigned to update the records in an area of North Austin that had been poorly managed by the person that I replaced. So I began to work very hard to clean up these records, these maps. Everything that I did was done in order, with order, neatly, and precisely. After working in this area for about 2 or 3 years, what the engineers once viewed as a joke, a disaster area became a reliable source of information from which they could design a work order. I took a lot of pride in my work, I took ownership; it was my baby. Well, in June 2008, I left AT&T.
Do you know what bothered me the most about leaving that job? The fact that everything I had worked so hard to fix, and maintain, and perfect was going to be handed over to somebody else. And who knows whether the person who inherited that territory was going to do a good job as I did or a poor job as the person before me.
For anyone who works hard and sees the accomplishments of their toil, takes pride in their work – one harsh reality of life under the sun is that at some point whether it is while you are alive or upon your death – at some point, that for which you worked so hard will fall into the hands of another. You will either leave a job and your role will be filled by another or you will leave the earth and leave your possessions to an heir. The latter seems to be the observation of the Teacher in this morning’s passage in Ecclesiastes.
Let’s open our bibles to Ecc 2.
So far, the Teacher has observed that everything is meaningless, asking what does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? He notes that life is a monotonous cycle of repetition. In modern terms, we do laundry, but the laundry is never really done. We do dishes, but the dishes are never really done. We work but the work is never really done. It’s like we are a hamster in a wheel that keeps on spinning but we aren’t getting anywhere. Generations come and go but there is nothing new under the sun. We can’t fundamentally change anything, and often our toil is foolish, striving after unrealistic goals that lead only to disillusionment. So he set his heart to study by wisdom that which is done under the sun. He explored wisdom and folly, noting that wisdom is better than folly, but we cannot expect wisdom to solve all of life’s problems or answer all of life’s questions. In fact it can often raise more questions than it answers and it doesn’t secure enduring rewards or advantages because in the end, the wise man, like the fool, must die.
Now, in Ecc 2:17ff the Teacher draws on his previous observations to show the reader that the more you ponder these things you can find yourself getting more and more frustrated. Then after he draws the reader deeper and deeper into a state of frustration, he offers a conclusion, painting a silver lining on the dark cloud, adding redemptive value to his observations and a word of encouragement which becomes a reverberating exhortation throughout the rest of the book.
So let’s dive into the text and see what the Teacher has to say in conclusion of these observations.
Ecc 2:17 – 26 17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 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. This too is meaningless. 20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. 21 For 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. 22 What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? 23 All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.
Here, the teacher makes yet another observation about life under the sun with regard to work. He has already discussed toil, labor, work. The book opened by discussing work in general and how it seems like a chasing after the wind. Chapter 2 opens with his list of accomplishments in attempt to assess the pursuit of pleasure. He built houses, planted vineyards, gardens, and parks. Now he considers what will come of all of his toil. And it leaves him frustrated; in fact, he hates all the things for which he toiled. Why?
He worked hard on all this stuff, he poured effort and skill into them, and he labored with wisdom. Now he wants to enjoy the fruits of his labor. But all these projects take time. And by the time they are complete how many years will he have to enjoy them before his days are over? He won’t be around forever to enjoy them. On that note, someone else – someone who didn’t even do the work – is going to end up with them and get to enjoy them. And who knows whether that person is going to be wise or foolish? They will have control over it all and they may mismanage it, they may handle it poorly. So what does a person gain for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? Here comes the climax, where he draws the reader deeper and deeper into a state of frustration. All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is vanity, meaningless, hebel. So what is his conclusion on the matter after he surveys all of these observations?
Well, since a man isn’t going to be around to enjoy the fruit of his labor for all eternity, and since his years of enjoying the end product are limited, he might as well enjoy the process, enjoy the journey during these few years under the sun. Not only should he enjoy the fruit of his labor for a few years before someone else inherits it all, he should enjoy doing the projects. He should enjoy building the houses, planting the vineyards and parks, and gardens, planting the fruit trees. He should enjoy his toil under the sun.
In his words, to continue in the text:
24 A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 26 To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
So his conclusion on the matter is that a person should eat and drink and find satisfaction in their toil; this is from the hand of God, the one who grants man the ability to eat and drink and find employment.
And then, he throws in a nugget of wisdom, a general precept that is quite comparable to that which is found throughout the proverbs.
Just one example is Proverbs 13:22 A good person leaves an inheritance for their children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.
As I mentioned before, Proverbs teaches what is generally true. And in general terms, the sinner receives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. There are obviously exceptions, but especially under the old covenant, which is when this was written, God rewards and blesses the righteous with prosperity and abundance, but the wicked receive or at least deserve wrath.
Last week I compared the book of Ecclesiastes to a Bob Ross painting. Bob Ross is our friend with the awesome afro who hosted “The Joy of Painting” on PBS in which he would paint a masterpiece in a 30 minute segment. He was known for painting happy trees.
I mentioned that if we were to walk right up to a Bob Ross painting until our nose touched the canvas and our eye was about an inch away, we would only be able to see some arbitrary and abstract yellow and green brushstrokes. But if we start to inch our way back, we can see that there is more to the picture than just those green and yellow brushstrokes; those are simply part of the picture and they work to create a bigger picture that features happy trees.
The book of Ecclesiastes is a canvas on which the Teacher is painting a picture of life under the sun. And there is far more to the picture than arbitrary brushstrokes.
As we step back and look at the book as a whole, we begin to see one happy tree after another until we see a skyline of happy trees, a happy forest.
That’s a metaphorical way of saying that as we look at the book of Ecclesiastes as a whole we see more than a series of depressing statements and get a better idea of what the Teacher is ultimately trying to say. When we look at a small portion of the text we don’t see the big picture and we can easily get the wrong idea.
So let’s inch our way back and see the happy forest.
We already saw one happy tree in the text: 2:24-25 24A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?
Now look at 3:12-13 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.
3:22 So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?
Your lot in life is labor. Do your job and find satisfaction in your toil. You don’t know whether the person that comes after you will do a good job or a poor job with what you leave them. You won’t know and you can’t control it anyway so don’t worry about what you can’t control. Worry about what you can control, which is how you do your work and how you view your work. Since it is your lot, enjoy it.
Look at chapter 5, verses 18-20.
5:18-20 18 This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot.19 Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. 20 They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.
8:15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.
9:7-10 7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
It has been said that a good preacher makes points that are bluntly stated, clearly explained, and endlessly repeated. The Preacher, is doing this very thing. In case you forgot, I will say it again: life under the sun is hebel. It’s meaningless, it’s a chasing after the wind. And, you should enjoy your lot in life, which is eating, drinking, and working.
We will look at all of those verses in their respective contexts when we get to those portions of the text, but in terms of stepping back and getting a broad view of what the Teacher concludes from his observations we can clearly see a theme, an exhortation that he repeats over and over and over: enjoy life. Now we already know that he doesn’t mean to set aside wisdom and foolishly plunge into the plight of pleasure in order to enjoy life hedonistically. In other words by the term enjoy life, the Teacher doesn’t mean live life however you want and seek pleasure in sin or live for self. He already pointed out in 2:1-11 that pleasure in and of itself as a means of serving self selfishly is meaningless. And as we will see later in the book, man’s duty is to fear God and keep his commands, so enjoying life must be understood within the bounds of God’s requirements.
Therefore, I believe that what he is saying is this:
You have a lot of options in life. You can go to college, pursue education, do projects, take ballet, play football, do artwork, act in plays, play boardgames, watch TV; there are a lot of options for how we can spend the waking hours of our lives. And different strokes for different folks. One pursues this another pursues that and that is fine. But regardless of who you are and what path you choose, one thing is true of all of us. We all have to eat, and drink and work. These are daily necessities. Now, there are obvious exceptions to the need to work; lottery winners, those who inherit large sums of money, and people who marry wealthy spouses don’t necessarily have to work in the sense that we typically think of work. But, that is the exception to the rule and even then, a wealthy person still has a household and possessions to manage and chores to do. And even if they pay people to manage those things, the wealthy person still has to manage those paid employees, so there is still some level of administration, some form of work involved.
So regardless of who you are or what you do, you have to eat and drink and work. And since you have to do those things, you might as well find enjoyment in them. When you sit down for a meal, enjoy it, and thank God, for it is from the hand of God and without Him, who can eat or find enjoyment?
Yes, it may feel like I’m a hamster on a wheel going nowhere in my labor, but it is necessary and I might as well enjoy it since it has to be done, it is my lot. Yes, the wise man and the fool both die in the end, but wisdom is better than folly, so I might as well pursue wisdom while I am alive. Yes, I worked hard for what I have and in the end I hand it over to someone who didn’t work for it and they may squander it, but while I am toiling, I might as well find enjoyment and satisfaction in it, since it must be done, since it is my lot in life.
And if we step back even farther until we see the entire canvas, we can see the entire landscape. In other words, although we can learn a lot about life under the sun from the book of Ecclesiastes, we get an even better understanding of Biblical wisdom when we look at all of the wisdom books together.
Now, in case you haven’t been here, or in case you didn’t read the newsletter that went out for October, I want to remind you of my challenge to read through the book of Proverbs – one chapter a day. Today is the 13th, so today we would read chapter 13, tomorrow, read chapter 14 and so on. Now, this month we raised the bar and said let’s choose from each chapter a particularly meaningful verse and commit that verse to memory each day. So by the end of the month, we should each have about 30 verses committed to memory. The purpose of this challenge is to give us proper lenses through which we can understand this book of Ecclesiastes. As scholars have pointed out, Proverbs is the one book in the Wisdom literature of the Bible that teaches the general truths about the norms of life. So familiarizing ourselves with the proverbs so intimately will give us a healthy approach to Ecclesiastes.
And I personally believe that Ecclesiastes is a cultural apologetic, a philosophical work that was written to and for those outside of Israel, which is why there is no mention of Abraham or Moses or the Law, no reference to God by his personal name Yahweh, but simply uses the term Elohim, or God.
So the Teacher, here, I believe is appealing to the frustrations common to all people, whether Israelite or Gentile. It’s like a Seinfeld stand up segment. Jerry asks things like, “What the deal with the B.O. on the cabbies in NY? How long are these shifts?” He asks questions that everybody chuckles at because everybody has thought the same exact things. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes, I believe is asking similar questions. What’s the deal with work? Everybody has to do it, nobody wants to do it. The work is never really done. The things you work for you have to leave to someone else who didn’t work for it.
I believe the Teacher is using all of these Seinfeld-esque observations to lead the reader to consider the fact that viewing life simply in terms of all you can see and experience here and now under the sun leads to frustration because it is a chasing after the wind; it is meaningless, futility, hebel. The things that people chase after here on earth are not everlasting, they are but a vapor.
The conclusion? There must be something that transcends all of this. Rather than chasing after the wind, perhaps there is something bigger and better to live for. Yes, we all eat and drink and work, so we might as well enjoy those things while we do them. And by the way, you know who grants man these things and the ability to enjoy them? God does.