Less or Full: A look at work in Ecclesiastes 2
August 8, 2016 Series: Less or Full: A Look at Ecclesiastes 2
Topic: Work Scripture: Ecclesiastes 2:17–2:26
Less or Full: A Look at Work in Ecclesiastes 2
Ecclesiastes 2:17-26 | August 7, 2016 | By Pastor Matt Wilcox
I want you to take a moment and think of the worst job you’ve ever had. Just think back. Maybe it was your first job or one you had to work through college. Maybe it was a chore your parents always seemed to pawn off on you. Every single one of us has probably had a job we didn’t like, maybe even downright hated. For me, it wasn’t my first job. My first job was at McDonald’s. I worked the drive-through window, had to wash some of the grossest dishes I’ve ever had to clean, and left every shift smelling like grease. That wasn’t my worst job. My worst job came during college breaks. And funny enough, aside from my ministry career, it was the highest paying job I ever had. I worked as a flagger for a tree-cutting company. You know, the folks who stand on the road with the signs that say Stop or Slow? 9 hours a day I’d stand there with that sign. This was during the dead heat of summer and the freezing cold of winter. But the thing that killed me the most was my sole form of human interaction was speaking into a walkie-talkie and saying something like, “Last one was a red Honda. Over.” If you’ve gotten to know me a little over the last few weeks you may have learned I’m a people person and a talker. That job killed me.
Thankfully and hopefully, we don’t find ourselves stuck in jobs like that our whole lives; jobs that seem to drain the life out of us in exchange for some numbers on a check. But we all must work. It’s a fundamental part of the human experience. Even when we look at Scripture we find the truth. From the very beginning, God created us to be creatures of work and participation. The very first thing God did after declaring us “very good” was to give us a job naming the animals and tending the Garden of Eden. Work is a part of who we are.
Last week we started taking a look at Ecclesiastes 2. We dove into this somewhat misunderstood book of Scripture and tried to determine if it really is a depressing record that says all things are meaningless – or – perhaps, something more is happening. We worked through the first part of chapter 2 as our author and teacher explored the depths of pleasure.
Yes, he declared it all meaningless but he did so only because his search was not to find the ultimate pleasure but to find something wholly and entirely meaningful. A perfect great as opposed to a passing good.
Well, this week we continue and conclude our brief glimpse into Ecclesiastes by finishing chapter 2 and looking at how our author and teacher engage the reality of toil, work, and labor. Fair warning here, our author and teacher from our text offers the same kind of sobering tone as we found in the first part of Ecclesiastes 2 last week. At least, on the surface.
Read Ecclesiastes 2:17-26.
Like I said, not a real “feel-good” message right there. But just like last week, our author and teacher (most likely, Solomon, son of David) offers his equivalent of a splash of cold water on what may seem like a ho-hum subject: work.
Right away we reiterate that which we already know: work is inevitable, our teacher, the king of Israel and wisest man to walk to the earth, worked. Just like you and just like me. He toiled and endured and created and produced. Just like us. And we have to remember that throughout all of Ecclesiastes our author and teacher is looking for something truly meaningful. Something great and not simply good. He’s examined pleasure and found it wanting and meaningless. It appears work and toil doesn’t do much better under his investigation and scrutiny.
He begins with, “So I hated life…” No, our author isn’t an angst-filled teenager. But he is fed up. He looks over all that he has done, all his work, everything and realizes something very important about our work. It’s transient and passing. It doesn’t remain and most certainly doesn’t remain ours. Everything he had done would be passed to another. For example, tending to a field or a garden or the maintenance of a project or creation. The state of his kingdom, the fate of his people, all of it would pass to another when he left this world.
In short, our author and teacher is sad and struggling in a real way. He says that his “heart began to despair” and we can hear it throughout our text. He’s troubled. He isn’t concerned with his death, per se. We get to that later in chapter 3. Here, we find a person distraught at leaving behind something that has meant so much to them. He pours his heart and soul into his labor and when he brings all that effort under the magnifying glass to determine its worth he is hit with a staggering reality he isn’t prepared for. His work will end and his contributions cease.
He makes the somewhat comical statement that he doesn’t know who will take over his work. It could be a wise man or a fool. Our author and teacher has spent his life on these things and now he has to turn them over to someone he doesn’t know who might do a good job or who could botch the whole thing. They don’t know his work and his legacy like he does. And he’s worried they can’t handle the task. We’ve seen situations like this in other areas of life. The one that comes to mind is a dedicated pet owner. The one who leaves elaborate and sometimes hilariously specific instructions for caring for their pet. My wife and I really enjoy the TV show Gilmore Girls. The show goes through the life of a mother and daughter and, at one point, the mom (Lorelei) gets a dog. She names the dog Paul Anka. Yes, the same as the famous Canadian musician responsible for hits like “Having My Baby.” Well, Paul Anka the dog is going to be spending the night away from Lorelei and she offers some…helpful instructions.
Like I said, helpful instructions, (a little nutso.) But she’s concerned about leaving something she loves dearly, her dog, in the hands of another. Our teacher and author is thinking along those lines but instead of worrying about a furry friend he’s worried about the legacy of his life and work. William Brown, a Presbyterian pastor and professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, says this about the feelings of our author and teacher, “What [our teacher] finds particularly disturbing is having to give up all that he worked for with tremendous effort and ingenuity, leaving it to the whims of underserving successors, like casting pearls before swine.”
And so we find that our author and teacher is much more than a disgruntled curmudgeon or an overly-anxious pet-owner. He’s wrestling with the profound struggle of legacy. He’s struggling through the realities of a temporary existence and wondering what, in the end, will be his mark. Will he leave behind anything that cannot be declared meaningless? This is what leads him to penning those ancient but all too personal self-reflections in verses 22-23: “What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.”
Our work can consume us. I think that’s a pretty given reality for many of us. If we allow it to, our work will take as much of our time as we give it and, often times, offer us little more than the normal return in exchange. This is true for pretty much any profession, position, or venture. I’ve known successful businessmen who toted the mantra: “There’s always more to do.” They were inches from the surface but always drowning it seemed. I’ve known technicians and service people who knew there was always “a new one on the list” and another call to be made. They checked an item off their list only to find two take its place. Even pastors are not immune to this threat. If you google it or cruise through Amazon you will find countless volumes written about self-care for pastors and the need for protecting our hearts, our time, and our families. And these aren’t frivolous placations made for self-important pastors. They’re wisdom written for the struggling minister who has to choose between meeting with a hurting congregant who walked into their office suddenly with heart-breaking news and missing dinner with their spouse and children for the third time that week. Every single one of us, regardless of what we do and who are boss may be, are vulnerable to being consumed and spit out by the work we do.
And some of us, many of us probably, find it hard to escape that. It’s possible there’s even some enjoyment in it. We dive into our work and we feel that sense of accomplishment and thrill at doing something we enjoy or finishing a task. It can lead us to work harder than may be good for us. To work longer hours than is necessarily good for us and for those we love. There aren’t many who don’t know the classic song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin. It’s a bracing and chilling account that should give every father pause. Listening to it this week in preparation for this message I got goose bumps just listening to it and trying to recall only the two years of Isaac’s life that I’ve been his daddy. Work can be meaningful. It’s why our author explores it so. And it can be enjoyable. Just last week we heard our author and teacher share how he gained so much pleasure from the work of building and planting and ruling. But work can demand a steep price. One we sometimes don’t perceive until it’s too late.
It reminds me of the piercing words of Christ from our first reading this morning. “What good is it for a person to gain the whole world and lose their soul?” Christ is speaking in the context of following him and the faith of a human being but it can and has been easily applied to the loss of family, friends, and self when we disregard all else in the name of the company, business, or lifestyle we so desperately want to maintain. And so I offer you an opportunity and challenge I had to accept myself while preparing this message: How are you doing with the balance of work and family and your own self? It’s a tough question to ask ourselves most of the time. We have justification after justification to explain the long hours or the missed moments. But those don’t change the answer to the question. If you’re like me, you might not be quick to want to answer or share that answer.
The sacrifices sometimes made by family are not the only loss we endure when we give too much to the toil of work. Like I said, our first text this morning comes not when Christ is talking about family or personal self but rather in regards to our following of Himself. He says, literally in the verse before the one we heard already, that whoever wants to save their life will lose it but whoever loses their life for Christ will find it. Christ is making a declaration of not only the earthly and the temporal but a declaration of the eternal.
And this is where we are drawn back to the idea of legacy. Our author and teacher from Ecclesiastes is heart-broken and despairing over seeing his life’s work passed beyond his control and care. He’s wondering what mark will be made in his name. What will he leave behind that is truly meaningful? Perhaps he is so keenly aware of God’s presence in His life that he does not consider the eternal. After all, we read elsewhere that Solomon spoke with God and from that conversation gained his renowned wisdom. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like I can leave the eternal unmentioned and unaddressed in my own life.
You see, the toil we endure and practice is aimed toward something. Providing for those we love. Accumulating the financial resources that we need to live. The practice of doing something we enjoy. All are viable and justifiable reasons. And I am in no way advocating for a society where no one works. But we must explore further than our teacher and author. We must explore the spiritual and eternal ramifications of becoming lost in our work and our personal legacy. In the end brothers and sisters, it is not our legacy that will be lasting but that of Christ. And the beauty is that the work of that legacy has already been accomplished.
When Christ went to that cross and endured our sin, shame and punishment…when He endured our death…a lasting and eternal legacy was written. A lasting and eternal work was accomplished. One that we are invited to claim and share freely, without any need to earn or buy into its promise. We are counted as children of God and, as Paul says in Romans, co-heirs with Christ. We receive that which Christ receives. Some understand this in theological terms of imputed righteousness. An accurate terminology, I think, but one inadequate at describing the full depth of what was won and given to us on the cross. Friends, we become one with Christ when we accept His work on the cross and make the decision to follow Him as disciples. That is a lasting legacy we are not only given but we can pass to others. It is a lasting legacy we will remember when we come to the table in a few minutes.
Can I share a vulnerable truth I’ve been wrestling with recently? I served as a youth pastor for eight great years and saw students grow not only in stature but also in faith. It was a blessing and a profound joy of my life. And somewhere along the way I picked up the idea that I was necessary for God’s work in their lives. And maybe, for a short time, I was. But I have since left that place and that call. And I wonder and I have wrestled if I will be remembered and loved by those students and the families of that church. If they were here, I have no doubt they would proclaim with great volume their love for my family and role in their life. But I wrestle nonetheless. In the end, the greatest solace I have is that I offered those students the Christ I know and love. The Christ who saw me and said I was worth saving. The same Christ who looks at each of them, each of us, and says, “I love you and have done this for you.” If their love for Christ burns more brightly and grows more deeply than their memory of me can fade and I will rejoice with them one day in the presence of God.
Those 8 years were the beginning of my life’s work of ministry. In the end, my hope is that those students would become passionate followers of Christ. And that’s what I hope for my life. That I would be remembered not only as a good pastor, not only as a loving husband and father, but also as a passionate and faithful child of God and follower of Christ. As we finish this brief look into Ecclesiastes we can think about the realities of pleasure and work. A chance to try and see if our author and teacher is truly proclaiming a doom and gloom message of total and utter meaninglessness or, perhaps, is giving us a chance to find something truly meaningful. I believe that his search should be ours.
Not a search for meaningless things but a search for that which is truly meaningful. Last week that was found by seeking our ultimate fulfillment and joy in Christ. This week, we find it in seeing that the lasting legacy and work that we so desperately want to be associated with doesn’t have to be ours but can be that of Christ and His cross. That is a message of meaning I can get behind. Moving us past the meaningless and encountering and participating with and in the meaningful.
More in Less or Full: A Look at Ecclesiastes 2
July 31, 2016Less or Full: A look at pleasure in Ecclesiastes 2