Ecclesiastes 2:24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Now, I totally get how we can find enjoyment in eating and drinking, but the preacher had spent the previous 6 verses talking about the vanity of labor and toil, so how can he now say that we are to find enjoyment in it?
Because work, also is a gift that we receive from the hand of God. This has been true since the very beginning. Sometimes we imagine that Adam and Eve had nothing to do in the Garden of Eden, but in fact God gave them good hard work to do (Genesis 1:28; 2:15). Work is one of the ordinances of creation — part of God’s original goodness to humanity. It is a part of the shalom that God intended with his creation of humankind in particular.
Unfortunately, because of Adam’s sin our work has been cursed, which turns our labor into toil and trouble. But there is still a basic goodness about work that comes from our Creator. We were made in the image of a working God, and thus we have the capacity to find his pleasure in work itself, even apart from anything that we gain by working.
Work is the natural exercise and function of man — the creature who is made in the image of his Creator. When we work, therefore, we feel his pleasure. The way to experience this pleasure is to work for God and not simply for ourselves.
It is so easy to get caught up in our career ambition, our work schedule, and our paycheck without ever stopping to consider whether our work is pleasing to God — both what we do and the way we do it. Difficult work is more satisfying and even more enjoyable when it is done for the greater glory of God.
For the believer in Christ, our true Boss and ultimate Master is the Savior who gave his life for our sins. Whatever our job happens to be — whether we work as a teacher or a student, a homemaker or a cabinetmaker, a buyer or a seller, an office worker or a factory worker, in food service or financial services, we are working for Christ and for his kingdom.
So the Scripture gives us this command: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23–24; cf. Ephesians 6:5–8).
But immediately the problem of gain and reward creeps back in for the preacher of Ecclesiastes in v. 26. Here the Preacher makes a clear distinction between two kinds of people: those who are under the favor of a gracious God and those who are lost in their sins.
This may seem like a form of works-righteousness: good things happen to good people, while bad things happen to bad people. There are also some scholars who see this verse as arbitrary and capricious: God rewards some people and punishes others, and there is nothing we can do about it — it is all part of the vanity of life. But both of those are wrong what we see here instead is a careful distinction between people who live under the mercy of God and people who persist in their sins.
Notice how the people who please God are described — as the grateful recipients of spiritual blessings, not physical ones. God has given them “wisdom,” which for the first time in this book is described as a divine gift rather than a human enterprise. With wisdom comes “knowledge” and also true spiritual “joy.” If we live and work for God’s pleasure and glory, we will be richly rewarded with all of the choicest bounties that God loves to lavish upon those who rely on his mercy and grace. But for the impenitent sinner there is no reward, only loss. This is the first time the Preacher has spoken directly about sin, which will become an important theme throughout the rest of his book.
One of the biggest vanities under the sun is human depravity. The sinner’s business is to gather and to collect; in other words, his life is dominated by the acquisition and accumulation of consumer goods. But sooner or later he will have to leave them all behind. Then he will turn them over to someone who is pleasing to God — this, indeed, is vanity.
Sometimes the transfer of property takes place in the present life. There are some good examples of this in the Bible, like the Canaanites who lost their cities to the children of Israel, or wicked Haman who had to dress his mortal enemy in the royal robes he thought to have claimed for himself in Esther 6. This doesn’t always happen, of course — at least not right now. In fact, one of the vanities of a fallen world is that while the righteous suffer affliction, many sinners seem to prosper.
But it will not always be like this. At the end of history, the wealth of all nations will be brought into the kingdom of Heaven (see Revelation 21:24). The meek really will inherit the earth, as Jesus promised (Matthew 5:5). According to the justice of God’s sovereign providence, his people will receive what sinners have gathered. This is the heart of the parable of the ten minas in Luke 19 when the wicked servant who did nothing with his gifts to multiply for the Lord had it taken from him. As Jesus said, “To everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Luke 19:26).
In the meantime, we have the reward of our work — not just the fruit of our labor, but the labor itself. God has given us good work to do. We do this work knowing that Jesus has already done the hard work of our salvation.
One of the reasons why Christians often talk about “the work of Christ” is because this is the way Jesus talked. “My Father is working until now,” Jesus said, “and I am working” (John 5:17). “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Jesus Christ as the god-man worked unceasingly. Think especially of all the heavy lifting he did on the cross, where he carried the full weight of our sin all the way to death — what theologians call “the finished work of Christ.”
Jesus is still working today, not by adding anything to his sacrifice for sin but through the ministry of his church (see John 9:4; Acts 1:1; Ephesians 4:12). We share in the good work of extending God’s Kingdom by giving people the gospel, by singing God’s praise, by loving our neighbors, by praying for his will to be done, and by giving generously to Christian ministry. We also share in that good work by doing our own ordinary daily tasks in a way that gives glory to God. This, too, is kingdom work.
As Martin Luther once said, “The entire world [should] be full of service to God, not only the churches but also the home, the kitchen, the cellar, the workshop, and the field.”
Businessman work for the glory of God, nurse, teacher, police officer, carpenter, cleaner, doctor, technical analyst work for his glory, and watch your work become a delight not a burden.Build a legacy not of fame and fortune, but of evangelism, service, and love.
Don’t waste your life, but be busy with the great work of Kingdom growth. Each of us works in a different way, but it is all part of the same greater work, to the glory of God.
So “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).