“What profit does a worker have in his burden?
If you are laboring after earthly rewards, Solomon is teaching us, then of what value will that be in the scope of eternity? The works of man are but a flower in the field while the Word of God will last forever (Psalm 103:15-16; Isaiah 40:6-8; James 1:9-11; 1 Peter 1:24-25). This is not a matter of fatalism but perspective. How often we labor for things that are used and consumed in a moment. In the west, we have embraced what some call a “Throwaway Society.” In other words, most things are not made to last or to be repaired when broken. They are made to last a few days and when broken, be thrown into the garbage dump. And while this mindset creates great problems in some areas, it does illustrate Solomon’s point: if you spend your days laboring just for things that will last a year and then be thrown out, have you really gained anything?
Jewish tradition, found in the Midrash, would suggest that this passage also reminds us of our study of God’s Word. Indeed, we labor day in and day out but often forget what it is that we have studied or, when studying one thing, discover three other things that we need to spend time studying. I remember sitting down with one of my professors while a senior in seminary and telling him that at the end of my seminary training, I felt like I knew less about the Bible than I did when I first arrived at seminary. Of course, that is not because I lost knowledge, but my perception of what there was left to learn only grew while in seminary. And thus, while I learned a vast amount as a student, I also became aware of the vastness that there was yet to learn.
The point behind this is not to say that the study of the Bible is futile. It most certainly is not. The study of the Bible reveals God and his character and that ought to draw you more deeply in relationship with Him. At the same time, the infinite depth of God’s Word and the countless nuances and things to learn is meant as an assurance to us that we will never get bored with such a study and we will never — even in eternity — fully plumb the depths. Instead, we will always be pursuing more.
Yet, the same thing cannot be said about the endeavors of man on this earth. They are shallow puddles compared to the oceans of depth found in Scripture. And so, if your end is little more than the toils of your labor, you will find it frustrating and wanting — it is vanity if left to itself. Do you want to know what Paul means when he says that we are to do everything in the name of Christ (Colossians 3:17)? It means that we find meaning to our labors (whatever our trade may be) in Christ and not in the labor itself.
Before entering full-time ministry, I spent 11 years as a tradesman installing carpet. In many ways, home improvement work can be satisfying because you can witness the transformation of a room or a home through the work you do. But the true satisfaction came not because I was putting down a new surface for people to walk on, stain, and wear out. The true satisfaction came with the recognition that I was using skills that God had gifted me with to bless and minister to others. In addition, it gave me the opportunity to spend time in a lot of people’s homes, to pray for them and often to talk to them about eternal matters. In those eleven years, I was easily in several thousand people’s homes; who knows how many seeds God gave me the privilege of planting during those years. That, beloved, is how you find meaning and not vanity in your toils.