“I have seen all the work that is done under the sun and, behold, all is vanity and exasperates the spirit.”
In another place, Solomon writes:
“The one who walks with the wise will be wise and the friend of the stupid will do evil.”
Who is wiser says the old sage? The one who learns from his own mistakes or the one who can learn from the mistakes of others? Solomon has seen the folly of his own errors and offers it to us as a great gift, worthy of our cherishing it and holding it up high. As we have noted before, this is not so much a book that espouses a kind of nihilism, but one of great hope…so long as we learn from the lessons of this ancient king who has gone before us. If we lose sight of that reality, we will miss the point of these words. The Jewish Midrash describes the reader at a crossroads with Solomon standing before him saying, “Do not take this path.” Shall we not rejoice in such counsel?
The first portion of this verse is fairly straight-forward. Solomon, as king of Israel has the opportunity and the means to see all sorts of works done “under the sun” and to consider them vanity. But, let us also not forget the perspective of the author. As king watching the labors of his people, he is not unlike a man watching the labors or a colony of bees constructing a hive. The bees come and go, assembling the hive and then filling its combs with honey, only to have the honey extracted by an animal or man. And, if we take that at face value, it is a vain labor. Yet, from another perspective entirely, this is what God has designed bees to do and their labors not only are such that they preserve the colony, but they also provide enduring food for man and beast alike (and indeed, who does not cherish the sweetness of the honey!).
Now, apply this to the labors of men. If men just labor to labor, it is meaningless. Yet, if this is what a man were designed to do (we would word this, “what he was called to do” — vocation) and his labors provide food and shelter for his family, then are his labors truly meaningless? Indeed, not. There was a point in seminary, to provide for my wife and newborn son at home, I worked five part-time jobs while carrying a full-time course load. It was not always pleasant and most of the jobs I was working were menial labor — I turned rugs in an oriental rug store and mowed lawns, for example, neither of which required much brainpower. And, at times, I was tempted to be discouraged. At the same time, I had a wife and child that were relying on me to put food on the table, pay the rent, and keep the electric bill paid.
Meaning is found in the reason that hard work is engaged it — to fulfill your calling, to provide for your family, to minister to others, etc… Have you ever considered what a great ministry your trash collector provides to you and to your family? Often they get looked down on by society because they have a dirty job. But, where would we be without them? While I suppose that those of us who live in the countryside would simply burn our trash, what of those who live in the cities? This may seem an empty job, done thanklessly week in and week out, but is it not a job for which we are grateful? This is the distinction we must make and is the question of perspective that we must have as we read these verses.
There is a little debate as to how to translate the final clause to this verse. The Hebrew word רוּחַ (ruach) can either mean “spirit” or “wind” depending on the context. Most of the time, our English translations parallel this passage with Hosea 12:1 and thus speak about “striving after the wind…” In other words, even if you could catch the wind, it is intangible, so you could not grab ahold of it — it is vanity. Instead, I prefer to render this as “soul” along with some of the Rabbinic interpreters. The overall implication is the same — work for the sake of work does nothing but exasperate the soul of man — it is vanity. Yet, the use of the idea of “soul” here over “wind” preserves the heart of Solomon’s wisdom, that indeed, if you work only for the sake of work, you do nothing to feed your soul. But if your work has meaning and purpose, then your soul will be satisfied in your labors.
Paul the Apostle will write:
“And when you do all things, in word or in action, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Here is the heart of the doctrine of vocation. If we do all things (great and small, important and mundane) to the glory of Christ, they will not be vanity. We were created for good works (Ephesians 2:10), let us glorify God with them and in them.