The Vanity of Work (3:9-4:3)

Bible Passage: Ecclesiastes 3:9-4:3

So far in Ecclesiastes the teacher has been looking for meaning in life ‘under the sun’ but has failed to find it. Despite trying wisdom and folly, and all sorts of pleasure and indulgence, he has come up short. Everything is vanity and chasing after the wind. In the passage, the theme continues as the teacher reflects on the ultimate futility of work and even justice when seen through the lens of this life only.

The Futility of Work: In verses 9-15, the teacher reflects on work as a potential source of meaning and satisfaction for life, but he concludes that there is very little gain. People keep themselves busy, and deep down have a sense of eternity, yet cannot find anything to satisfy that. Life is full of toil, but most of what we do will only last for a short while and then be gone. It is hard to look to work as a source of ultimate meaning and satisfaction. When we are living ‘under the sun’, the very best that is available is eating and drinking and making the most of what we have (v13).

The Futility of Justice: The same is true when it comes to seeking justice, and this is the theme that the teacher explores from verse 16 onwards. It is not that seeking justice is bad, but that wickedness persists and often it can seem like justice cannot be done. Ultimately we all will die, and in this we are no different to animals. Many who suffer and are oppressed do not find justice in this life, and if this life is all there is then it could lead to despair at the futility of it all. The teacher draws the bleakest of conclusions in 4:2-3 that it is better to die than to live and it would be better not to have been born than both.

The Hope: The teacher is speaking from the perspective of somebody looking ‘under the sun’. When this world is all that there is then the conclusions reached make sense, but we know that this world is not all that there is. The teacher mentions in verse 17 that God will be the one to ultimately bring justice, and it is only as we look to him that the futility fades and meaning can be found.

Potential Applications:

  • Challenge people to think about how much their life reflects the ‘under the sun’ life described here of toil accompanied by ‘eat, drink and be merry.’ Are they satisfied with that or do the long for more?
  • There is a word of encouragement for those who have a heart for justice. Sometimes it can seem frustrating when evil and oppression persists, but God has set a day where we will truly bring justice in all things.
  • Point people to Jesus. He is the only one in whom meaning can truly be found. He counteracts the conclusions of 4:2-3 and makes living worthwhile.