In my first blog post of this series we looked at ‘living for greatness’, and how the fleeting nature of time makes all human greatness eventually fade away. Ecclesiastes, or ‘The Teacher’, concludes that our lives are to reflect the greatness of God, instead of living as an attempt to forge our own. In this post let’s look at what Ecclesiastes has to say about our careers, and the temptation to use our accomplishments as a way to make our lives feel and look meaningful.
When giving the end of chapter 2 a quick glance, it may seem like the Teacher is a pretty dramatic and depressive chap who sounds like most of us on a Monday morning, he says: ‘I hated life because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.’ (Ecc 2:17) At first, it may seem like the Teacher believes all work is futile and even against the divine nature of things. But this is not what he means. So, let’s take a look at what God thinks about work, and how we are to view it before understanding what Ecclesiastes is meaning here.
As we know, the very first thing we understand about God when we open our bible is that God works. We are introduced to God creating something out of nothing: working. One translation of this Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:2 for work, mela’kah, is business or craftsmanship. In fact, this same word used for God’s work in Genesis 1 and 2 is used to describe Joseph in Genesis 39:11 when he was working for Potiphar’s household. That is very significant, Joseph’s daily laboring in Egypt for a wealthy man is described and sought to be understood in the same way as God when He was beautifully creating the universe.
The indispensable reality of work is not unheard of in the secular world either. In the 19th century, socialists began to outline what kind of society, or utopia, they were pursuing. Interestingly, work played a key part. William Morris, an artist and socialist during this era, wrote a socialist utopia that he believed reflected true perfection. He described how doing away with work altogether does not reflect a utopia which best suits our human nature: we were built to take pleasure in labour. Morris was absolutely correct in what he said here, and although he was not able to understand where this desire to work and create came from, we undoubtedly do as we look to Genesis 1.
So, already we can conclude that Ecclesiastes is definitely not saying work is a result of the fall and something we should disdain, rather work is holy and we are made to do it. What can he mean then when we speaks so ill of it? This is where we need to take a closer look at this verse from Ecclesiastes again. Immediately, we can see a difference in the work God does, and what is described as work here in this verse. The Hebrew word used for work here is not mela’kah but ma’aseh. Instead, this word translates as accomplishments or achievements, thus what we gain when we do the work we do. The Teacher here is not talking about work as our career or hobbies, instead he is talking about the idol we can make of all the by-products of work: money, achievements and promotions.
The by-products of work were what the Teacher was ‘toiling for’ (Ecc 2:18). Work was a means to an end, not an end in itself! The Teacher admits he had lost the simple joy of work as something God-given, instead the chasing after of achievement made work slowly decay and turn sour. This is because when we turn work into something it was not created for, our ultimate meaning in life, work will twist into something ugly and dissatisfying. This is the enigma: our nature pursues work and yet our heart tirelessly yearns for approval within it; we know it to be good, as Morris did, and yet we can find ourselves disillusioned by it.
What wisdom does the Teacher give for this enigma? He ends chapter 2 like this: ‘There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. For without Him, who can eat or find enjoyment?’ (Ecc 2:24) The simple joy that work brings food to our table, and serves the community around us, is where we should find work’s goodness and pleasure. More importantly, it is God who provided our ability to work, our opportunity for that role, and our schooling in order to fulfill it. All thanks and honor are thus brought to the Lord. He is the one we truly work for, and He is the one from whom ultimate approval truly lies; and look, our approval and affirmation is won there on the cross so that work becomes just work for us to enjoy for what it simply is.
Written by:Abigail Armstrong