Ecclesiastes 2:20-21, 24-26 “So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune…A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge, and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God.”
The writer of these words (likely King Solomon) understood the truth that there is no U-Haul behind the hearse. Ancient Pharaohs may have been buried with their royal treasures, even food for the next life. Vikings were buried in their ships with their weapons. You may be buried in your best dress or favorite suit. But all these things must still be left behind, together with the other things that don’t make it into the tomb. No matter how expensive, how useful, or how enjoyable they are, we don’t get to keep the fruits of our hard work forever.
Despairing over our work signals that we are ready to give up on these things to do so much for us. We might even say that it is the logical conclusion. In some cases despair is a sin. Martin Luther says that when we pray, “And lead us not into temptation,” we are asking God to “guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh do not deceive us or lead us into despair…”
But when God is using it to rearrange our priorities, it is a wholesome thing. When it is teaching us not to put so much trust in our human efforts or perishable earthly possessions, he is blessing us. Despair hurts, but so does pulling an infected tooth. There is a reason that the Bible describes repentance–and confessing our false hope in hard work and possessions is certainly repentance–as a kind of death. It hurts. But the rotted tooth needs to go, the sinful nature needs to die with its evil desires, and we need to despair of the idea that there is any lasting comfort to be found in our earthly labor and its results.
Solomon did not intend to discourage work altogether. He simply wants to help us keep it in its place. Has it kept us clothed and fed? Do we have enough for today? Do we have a way to serve God and serve our neighbor? Then our labor has done all God expects it to do.
But how can we be satisfied with that? “To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge, and happiness.” Such a satisfied and happy life is a gift from God. He gives it “to the man who pleases him.” But doesn’t that exclude us, since instead of pleasing God, we have been trying to replace him with our work and with our things?
No, pleasing God is another place where our hard work does not apply. If we think working to build a lasting legacy, or have our daily bread, is hard, that would be just a drop in the ocean compared to the effort required to secure God’s smile. We could work from now until eternity and never do enough to secure forgiveness for even a single sin.
The one who pleases God is the one who has put his faith in someone else’s work–the work of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ faultless work led the Father to say at his baptism, and again at his transfiguration, “This is my Son, whom I love. With him I am well-pleased.” Jesus’ death on the cross was the pleasing sacrifice that pays for all our sins. Jesus did the hard work of fulfilling God’s demands. Jesus did the hard work of dying the death that sin demands. So it is that pleasing God is not our hard work for him. It is Jesus’ hard work gifted to us by faith.
More than anything else, that truth transforms our work. God has already given us all we need. We can trust him to bless our work the way he determines will serve us best. We can work hard, not to get, but to give–give him our best. That’s a joy. That’s a satisfying life. When we are satisfied by results like this, then God has shown us the true meaning of hard work.