On the surface, Ecclesiastes paints a pretty morbid picture about human labor. Here’s ol’ Solomon’s pep rally:
What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? (1:3)
So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. (2:20)
And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (4:4)
Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand. (5:15)
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. (9:9)
I’m sure you can relate. Day by day, you swim through a tidal wave of emails, swing a hammer, or stare at the same spot in the assembly line you’ve been looking at for months. You’re glad to have the work, of course, but no matter how much you get done, it’s as if you never really make any progress at all. Tomorrow, those emails will be there, nails will still need to be smacked in, and the assembly line will keep churning along.
Sometimes, all you can really think is this: The job pays for the car that you need to get to the job. “Chasing after the wind,” indeed.
In some sense, nothing brings us more face to face with the Fall of humanity than work. In toil we see how the earth no longer produces like it once did (Genesis 3). In bitterness we see how “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” (1 John 2:16) can get us stuck on an endless uphill treadmill. In sorrow we can easily get burned (and burned out) by life “under the sun.” If our eyes can see no farther than “this world,” our work has nothing to offer beyond a paycheck.
But under the Son, labor takes on a completely different dimension—a Kingdom dimension. No, that doesn’t mean work suddenly becomes always awesome. It means that we recognize work as part of our calling, our marching orders to make Jesus-followers wherever we are. The true labor isn’t in email or hammers or assembly lines; it’s in throwing out nets and harvesting grain. We are where we are as a sliver of light to those around us.
Christ answered Solomon’s questions from all those years before. Carpenters, fishermen, tentmakers, shepherds, clothiers, tax collectors, soldiers, priests, and beggars, all found what gain there is in labor. It’s not empty toiling under the sun at all. It’s Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).