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Author:Pastor Keith Davis
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Congregation:Bethel United Reformed Church
 Calgary, Alberta
 www.bethelurc.org
 
Preached At:Lynwood United Reformed Church
 Lynwood, IL
 www.lynwoodurc.org
 
Title:Labor pains
Text:Ecclesiastes 2:17-26 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world
 
Preached:2012-01-29
Added:2012-06-20
Updated:2016-12-04
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Toil Is Meaningless

17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.
19 And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?  Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. 
20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. 
21 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. 
22 What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?
23 All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.
24 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,
25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?
26 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. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Labor Pains

Ecclesiastes 2.17-26

Preached by Rev. Keith Davis at Lynwood URC on 1-29-12 (Songs: 31, 112, 404, 462)

 

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ, complaining about work is hardly anything new.  We’ve all done it; we’ve all heard others do it, too.  We complain about NOT having enough work.  Other times we complain about having TOO MUCH work.  We complain about work being too difficult, to demanding, others complain that their work isn’t demanding enough.

 

We also complain about the monotony of work; or the weariness of work.  We complain that we are over-worked and underpaid, or over-worked and under-appreciated.  We complain about long hours, or the pressure and anxiety of work that follows us home – turning into sleepless nights.

 

Some call this “the working man’s blues” and we sing it with the best of ‘em.  The lyrics to a song by Leo Sayers sum it up well: Five days outa seven, Eight hours of every one; I'm tryin' to buy a piece of heaven, but I'll be gone before that heaven comes.  Work, work, work!  Who needs it.  It's all I ever seem to do.  I'm killin' myself for a livin'.  Livin' the working man's blues.

 

That captures the way a lot of people feel about the work. We work so hard to attain financial security, but we never attain our goal.  It’s apparent from our text that Solomon was no stranger to the working man’s blues.  The words he writes express very powerful feelings of grief and frustration – and yes even of hatred for work and for life in general due to all the toil and pain.  

 

But this morning (and for the first time in this book), we see a shred of hope, a glimmer of light. In the closing verses of this passage, Solomon mentions something positive about the fruit of a man’s labor, that a man can find joy and satisfaction even in the difficulty and drudgery of work.

 

So that is what we’re going to be looking at together this morning.  Here, Solomon Speaks of the Futility of Laboring Under the Sun.  Notice with me 

1)      The Constant Grief

2)      The Lack of Gain  

3)      The Need for God      

 

 

1)  The Constant Grief

Solomon begins this passage on a very sad and solemn note.  In fact, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him here.  It would appear that his grand experiment has backfired.  He had high and lofty goals of seeing if he could find meaning and purpose in the things of this world.

 

He devoted himself to study and explore wisdom and knowledge; he indulged himself in all the pleasures of the world, denying himself nothing.  He even undertook great projects – constructing buildings, gardens, vineyards, reservoirs,; he amassed flocks, herds, gold and silver.  He acquired men and women musicians, and a harem that would delight the heart of any man.

 

Yet, all this failed to satisfy.  And of all the things mentioned, I think what’s most surprising is that Solomon found no meaning, no purpose, no satisfaction in the work of his hands.  I find that astonishing because of all things work is said to give people meaning and purpose; work is said to give us a sense of value, worth, a high level of self-esteem.  We take great pride in our work! 

 

For many of us, our jobs give us a sense of identity.  It’s who we are.  That’s reflected in our conversation with total strangers.  One of the first questions we ask someone when we meet them is what is your occupation?  What do you do for a living?

 

Yet, no matter how noble or worthy or respectable an enterprise WORK may be, Solomon concludes that this too is meaningless.  No matter what people say, no matter how highly they regard their occupation, Solomon says work by itself does not give life meaning or purpose.  We can’t find what we really need in our work.  Any who claim otherwise are self-deceived.

 

In verse 22 Solomon explains part of the reason he feels this way about work.  He says what does a man get from all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun.  Of all men who walked the earth, Solomon seems to have a heightened sensitivity, an acute awareness of the curse of sin upon this world and upon man’s labor – that man’s labor would be painful toil. 

 

Solomon feels that pain, that frustration and despair deep within his heart and soul; he sees it in his labors and in the labors of his fellow man.  There’s something about the nature of work that gnaws away at him, that causes him to (quite literally) hate life itself.

Matthew Henry wrote about this as well, saying: He came to that, at length, that he hated life itself (v. 17), because it is subject to so many toils and troubles, and a constant series of disappointments. God had given Solomon such largeness of heart, and such vast capacities of mind, that he experienced more than other men of the unsatisfying nature of all the things of this life and their insufficiency to make him happy. Life itself, that is so precious to a man, and such a blessing to a good man, may become a burden to a man of business.

 

Remember, Solomon’s job was reigning as king over Israel; and being king was no nine-to-five job (if any of those exist anymore).  As king he was expected to make important decisions; everyday he was asked to judge matters that couldn’t be settled by the elders in the gate.  Much like the President or CEO of a big corporation, everyone looked to him to lead, to guide, to govern properly, to set the example, to keep everything in the kingdom running smoothly.

 

But the burden of all this work and responsibility weighed heavily on Solomon Look at verse 23. He says this about man’s labors: all his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is meaningless.  Solomon could find no relief, no rest, no vacation from his work. 

 

Perhaps he too, had a hard time getting to sleep after long meetings with his advisors.  Perhaps he too agonized over his decisions; he felt the pressure and responsibility of leadership.  Maybe he too second-guessed his decisions and he ran through his mind the alternatives and option.

 

In short, he found his work to be a wearisome and burdensome task.  And just as soon as one sleepless night was over, the next day of drudgery began.  Although Solomon was king, I think the problems he encountered are experienced by all workers everywhere -- no matter what we do or where or when we live.  Even if we don’t have to make weighty decisions every day.

 

We also feel the pain of toilsome labor.  Maybe we grow weary of the daily grind -- of doing the same old thing whether we work in the home or outside the home or even both!  We feel overwhelmed at times, like our work is swallowing us up and demanding more and more of our time and energy.  Or we feel jilted because we’re not getting the raise we think we deserve.   

 

But then there’s also the problem of over-working – of being a workaholic, of making our work our god.  We say we’re working to provide for our family, to make ends meet, to pay the bills, but all we ever seem to do is work. And we can’t see that we’ve become enslaved to our work.

 

As a result, other callings and responsibilities suffer: our family, our church, our marriage suffers for the sake of our work. This too is a result of the fall; this too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.  This too is a constant source of grief, a source of great pain and anxiety to man.

 

2)  The Lack of Gain 

So Solomon hates life because work is a constant grief.  But there’s a second reason he finds work to be meaningless: it’s the Lack of Gain.  Solomon speaks of his hatred for all the things for which he has toiled under the sun, because (in the end) he has to leave them to the one who comes after him. 

 

Solomon reaches the painful conclusion that:  You can’t take it with you!  In the end, all that we worked for, all that we build in this life, all that we have accumulated for ourselves -- all our riches, all that we own, all that we possess will become the property of someone else.   

 

That’s a truth that’s hard to swallow.  Think of the Egyptians who defied this truth.  They buried the Pharaoh’s with all the riches they thought they’d need for their journey through the afterlife.  They buried them in the great pyramids sealing them deep inside with valuable treasures of gold, silver and costly jewels.

 

Yet, over the millennia, what happened?  The great treasures of the pyramids of Egypt have been plundered by thieves, archeologists, and treasure hunters.  Try as they might, they couldn’t take it with them either!  That’s the interesting thing about ownership.  Ownership, you see, is at best a temporary arrangement. We may possess something for a great deal of – and call it “mine”, but in the end, nothing is really ours.  We only exercise temporary custody over our possessions.  

 

But what really bothers Solomon, what really troubles him, is the thought that all that he had worked for, all that he possessed, all that he had built with his own hands might fall into the hands of a foolish man. Look at verse 19 and who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun

 

Isn’t that so true?  It’s not enough just to own things while we’re living; we want to have a say about it even after we’re gone.  We want to control our estate from the grave.  We want to be in control of our things even long after we’re gone. That’s a key concept in this whole discussion, isn’t it?  Control.  We want control. It’s hard to give up control.  

 

But the pain of this life is knowing that as we get old as we grow weak, as we die, we gradually (sometimes suddenly) loose control over everything we have.  We have to move to assisted living or the Holland Home, and so our children or loved ones start making decisions about what furniture “we” should keep and what “we” should give to the thrift store or to a grandchild. 

 

Slowly but surely, our control over what we have (over what is ours) slips away.  And even what we have left is spoken for.  The kids have it all figured out – who’s getting what.  Some people don’t mind that. Others are bothered by it quite a bit.  But I don’t think anyone likes to lose control of that they have.  But Solomon says, that’s the way life is.

 

And there’s something else about this that deserves mention.  One of the popular shows on TV right now is American Pickers.  It’s about these guys from Iowa who own an antique store, and they go all over America looking for antiques to fill their store.  And many times what they’ll do is drive down the road until they find a property that has a lot of old cars and junk sitting around, maybe a lot of barns; they stop by and ask the owners if they can look around.

 

As they look through the barns, they might come across old cars, old motorcycles, old bicycles, old signs, old gas pumps – a lot of things that have value to collectors.  And more times than not, the people who own these barns are old themselves, they’re in their 70’s and 80’s and they say they’ve been collecting these things all their life.

 

So the men from American Pickers will ask them how much for this? How much for that?  What always fascinates me is how many of these owners are not willing to part with their things – at least not at a reasonable cost.  Here they have these old chairs, or antique lamps and rusty toys just sitting in a barn, collecting dust, they haven’t seen the light of day in years, they still the owner are reluctant, and many times unwilling to part with these things.  

 

That tells you something of the pull that these earthly riches and possessions have on us.  Truth is, we don’t possess them, they possess us.  And as proof of that, we say we’ll go down to the grave before we give them away or sell them for less than we think they’re worth.   

 

But there’s one other point about this that’s worth mentioning.  There are times on that show when the owner IS willing to part with a valuable piece, maybe a classic car, or a collectible bike or motorcycle because they trust that the men who are purchasing it know it’s value, they appreciate the history of the piece; they have a great deal of fondness for that particular item.

 

And I’ve heard them say -- I’ll tell you what.  I hate to part with it, but I’ll sell it to you because I know you’ll find a good home for it; or I’ll sell it to you because I trust that you know its value and worth and you prize it as much as I do

 

Well isn’t that exactly what Solomon is getting at here?  We want to be assured that our property, our assets, the things we value, the things we worked so hard to gain, and the things we worked so hard to maintain don’t fall into the wrong hands!  We want the peace of mind of knowing that what we owned will be taken care of years after we’re gone.

 

But Solomon knows better.  For who’s to say that the next person to buy our house won’t be an irresponsible fool and he’ll ruin the house that we took years to remodel – or just as bad, who’s to say that this fool won’t accidently burn down the house that we built with our own hands.

 

Who’s to say that the person buying our expensive car won’t baby it like we do or smash it into a tree?  Who’s to say that the relative who inherits all our fine China won’t chip and break every piece in the span of a few years?  No one knows.  That’s the folly of work and life.  You can’t take it with you; you have no control, no power over it after you’re gone.  

 

And just think for a moment how this applied to Solomon.  He was king over Israel and during his reign Israel experienced a period of peace and prosperity and expansion unlike any other time in her history!  Yet, all the power and prestige of his kingdom was left to his son Rehoboam. 

 

And how did that go?  The Bible tells us that under Rehoboam’s reign, the kingdom was rent asunder.  The Kingdom was divided.  Granted, this was the penalty for Solomon’s sin against God, but Rehoboam himself was also to blame as he foolishly rejected the wisdom of his elders and turned the people of Israel against him.

 

And so as his own life drew to a close, Solomon knew what would become of all he had built.  He saw the vanity, the emptiness of it all.  And Solomon sees that if a man’s life consists only of the abundance of his possessions, then that man is truly poor; then that man has nothing in this life or the next -- for death will certainly dispossess him of all his wealth, of all his worth.   

 

And this is why Solomon says that he hates this life, and that all work is painful toil.  For, if all we work for, if all we value, if all we possess is right here on this earth, then we’re truly empty, we’re truly miserable, we’re truly hopeless.  Man needs something more. 

 

And this is what Solomon finally understands.  As he weighs all these things together, he finally comes to the conclusion that man needs God in order for his life to have meaning.  That is our third point: The Need for God.

 

3) The Need for God

In verse 24 we sense a shift, a change in Solomon’s outlook and perspective.  There’s a glimpse of optimism.  Solomon says: A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.  This too, I see, is from God, for without Him, who can find enjoyment?

 

It’s very important that we understand what Solomon is and isn’t saying here.  Solomon isn’t saying that with God life and work isn’t burdensome and worrisome and toilsome.  He’s not saying that belief in God suddenly makes life easy, and removes all the tares from the soil.   No.

We talked about that last week as well when we made the observation that life in Christ does not magically make straight all that is twisted and bent out of shape.  We concluded that there are some things in life that are simply beyond human repair; yet God in His grace, through His Son Jesus Christ, gives us the grace and strength and patience not only to endure, but even to address the brokenness; to give us comfort in the face of loss, and injustice, and imperfection.

 

Here too, Solomon draws the same conclusion.  Life in this sin-cursed world will always be toilsome and difficult and (in itself) unrewarding; and while all men eat and drink and try to find joy in this life, and while all men strive to find meaning and take pride and satisfaction in the work of their hands, only those who walk with God, only those who believe in God will find true happiness and happiness -- and yes even satisfaction in their work and in his life.

 

Why is that true?  How is this possible?  When we place our faith in God, when we believe on His Son Jesus Christ, then (maybe not all at once, but eventually) our priorities and our perspectives in this life change.  As one commentator noted: it’s the difference between those who work “under the SUN” (with no regard for God), and those who work “under the SON”(who believe in God and His Son, Jesus Christ).

 

For, when we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, we begin to see and understand that the life we live on this earth is to be a life lived in service to our God, and to the glory and honor of our God. We gain a new understanding and perspective on work.  Essentially we learn two things.

 

First, we learn that work is good.  For God himself works.  In fact, we can see how each person of the Holy Trinity works on our behalf.  God the Father works in the Creation, government and preservation of the world and universe.  God the Son works especially in the salvation of sinners.  We speak of how Jesus came to earth to accomplish the work of redemption and now that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave, we speak of the finished work of Jesus Christ as it concerns his earthly ministry. 

 

But now (as Hebrews teaches us) Jesus works in heaven on our behalf, as he sits at the right hand of the Father.  We’ll hear about that in tonight’s sermon on Christ’s work of intercession.  And we may also speak of the work of the Holy Spirit as He sanctifies us in Christ each day, working within our hearts, calling us to holiness.  And I don’t know about you, but I know my own heart, and I know what a big job that is! 

So our God works, and certainly then we who are God’s image ebarers should look upon work favorably as well. A second perspective on work is this:  we realize that all the things of this life -- earth’s riches, wealth, and the abundance of blessings and possessions are not designed to be an end in themselves. 

 

Yes, they provide us with comfort and financial security and even entertainment and leisure, but by themselves, they can never bring us true satisfaction and eternal security.  We also realize that our goal in life is not to possess, or own or hoard unto ourselves as much wealth as we can; rather, we make it our goal in life to honor and glorify God with all our being, with all we have.

 

We recognize that our job (as well as our material possessions), are a blessing from God; they are a gift from God.  And instead of worrying about our wealth and obsessing about what will become of our things after we’re gone, we see that God calls us to receive these blessings with thanksgiving, and to render all honor and worship to God for the good gifts He has given us.

 

Ray Stedman (who writes many Bible studies) says this: Isn’t it strange that the more you run after life, panting after every pleasure, the less you find, but the more you take life as a gift from God’s hand, responding in thankful gratitude for the delight of the moment, the more that seems to come to you!

 

And so it is.  We experience true joy and genuine satisfaction when we learn to receive the good things in life as gifts from God, rather than seeing them as entitlements, or as things that we earned, or as things that we deserve, or as things that we built or accomplished on our own.

 

And there’s something else for us to take away from this passage as well.  God’s Word reminds us that only in God, only the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ at work within us can transform “work” into something gloriously satisfying and rewarding for us, and glorifying to God.

 

Yes, work is hard. And yes, work can be tedious.  And it’s no doubt true that some jobs aren’t as appealing and as glamorous to us as other jobs.  And yes, there may be days when we feel like we hate our job and want to find another job.  But no matter what our job is, God reminds us that ultimately we’re not working for a paycheck; we’re not working to impress our boss or to make him happy.

 

We’re not working for our retirement, or to fill out our resume or for our own pride and enjoyment.  No. Ultimately we work for the glory and honor of God!  Colossians 3:17 says and whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  Colossians 3:23 says:  Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.

 

And in Ephesians 6: 5-8 God’s Word even addresses those who work as slaves – who work under earthly masters: Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free

 

And there it is.  The reward for our labor comes from God – not men.  And that is the inheritance we should be seeking; that is the fruit of our hands that we should be setting our eyes and hearts upon.  And isn’t it interesting what Solomon says right at the end of this passage.  He gets at this very point.  He says 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

 

Now it’s true that in our world today, the righteous often suffer injustice and loss and even destruction at the hands of the unrighteous.  But here God’s Word promises us that in the end, as Jesus Christ Himself said --the meek will inherit the earth.

 

And as the Bible makes clear in many other passages, the wealth of the nations, the riches of all kings will be brought as a tribute to Christ and His kingdom.  Think of Israel in Egypt, and how the Lord brought them out of there with al the gold and silver; think of how kings and nations brought gold and silver to Solomon to honor him with their wealth.

 

And think of how the wise men form the east came to worship baby Jesus bringing with them expensive gifts.  That’s the Bible way of saying that what is true now, but realized only in part, will be fully realized on the day of Christ’s return, namely,  The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. 

 

The greatest treasure on earth is not found in gold and silver; it cannot be calculated in dollars or Euros.  It is not found in the possession of land and assets and real estate holdings.  No, as Jesus said, the greatest treasure on earth is to be found in possessing the Pearl of Great Price – the Lord Jesus Christ.  He made himself poor, that we might become rich; He gave himself up for us on the cross, that we might have our sins forgiven and have eternal life with God in heaven above.

 

That is a treasure worth more to us than anything here below; and that is a treasure that no one can take from us, come what may; and just as importantly, it is the knowledge and assurance that this treasure is ours, that we belong to God, and He to us, that gives us our sense of purpose, and worth, and value in this world.  

 

And come what may, we don’t despair, we don’t hate this life; we don’t loath our job.  Rather we endure it, and we work hard and we toil by the sweat of our brow, but we do so with joy and satisfaction -- knowing that it’s all for a glorious purpose; we work (we live life) to the glory and honor of the God of our salvation! Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was: www.lynwoodurc.org

(c) Copyright 2012, Pastor Keith Davis

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