What gain has the worker from his toil?
I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his [good labor]–this is God’s gift to man. I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away. – Ecclesiastes 3:9-15
Preacher Solomon doesn’t just jump to the conclusion. He allows you to grow and build toward it through the book. Wisdom isn’t something you get simply by reading propositional truth claims. It is a process of maturation. Part of this process involves some repetition. In the passage above we hear again of “the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.” When we saw this previously (1:13), it became clear that Adam’s sin and the resulting curse (“children of man” is literally “sons of Adam” in Hebrew) means that our work often doesn’t “work.” This is because God has twisted it (Gen. 3), and we can’t straighten it completely out no matter how hard we toil.
This theme is repeated in chapter 3, except with some extra comments. One of those is that God “has made everything beautiful in its time.” The common meaning of “beautiful,” which is an aesthetic description, is not how we should understand this statement. In this case, the meaning is “suitable” or “fitting.” The poem (vv. 2-8) in this chapter is where Solomon says everything fits into God’s plan, whether birth and death, war and peace. He now tells us that what God does is fitting for its time. God has a plan, and everything He has done is suitable or fitting with that plan.
People seem to be hardwired to look for meaning in everything. This is good and right, but it also leads to frustration because we can’t see the end from the beginning and sometimes make foolish decisions as a result. “He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” That’s where this frustration comes from. It seems ironic that God has put a yearning to understand that which transcends the present moment. There are not just a few people trying to forget this with numbing behaviors, but God doesn’t let us forget. We are stuck without being able to see where we are going or if the destination is near or far. We are stuck between time and eternity. It is wisdom to know that.
In spite of the irony of being wired with eternity in our hearts, and the frustration that causes in a crooked world, Preacher Solomon is clear that it is still a gift of God. He offers two reasons that are indicated by “I perceived.” 1. “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his [good labor]–this is God’s gift to man.” And 2. “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.”
On the first, men and women should learn to accept the good gifts that God is pleased to give them. Eternity in our hearts means that we know our good labor and food and drink and all are from God. We should enjoy these gifts with thankful hearts, which excludes pouting, sulking, and cursing because we’re not getting what we want. On the second, we see that man is bound to the present, unable to discover the activity of God from beginning to end. God, by contrast, transcends creaturely work. All of the past and the present are exposed to God and subject to His sovereignty. Nothing escapes His dominion, and eternity in our hearts means that we should fear Him in light of His sovereign dominion. It is wisdom to know that.
And here we find wise and Divine comfort. Our toil is a vapor, a mist, and like shepherding wind. The wise know this and escape the futility of it. But hear the good news: God’s labor is not a vapor and He shepherds the wind effortlessly. In our union with Christ we know that His labor is always good, and we can rest in His sovereign control of it all. That’s the gospel.
Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.