Summary: In today's lesson we learn that apart from God, we will not gain anything from toil.
We continue in our sermon series on the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. The writer of Ecclesiastes, also known as “Qoheleth” and “the Preacher,” wanted to know how to live a meaningful life. He tried all kinds of ways to live a meaningful life. Today we shall see how he discovered the vanity of toil.
Listen to how the Preacher put it in Ecclesiastes 2:18-26:
18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.
24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26)
The song known as “Sixteen Tons” was recorded by a number of different artists. George Davis claims to have written it in the 1930s when he worked in the coal mines of Kentucky. In those days coal miners purchased most of their household goods at the local company store. Miners resented the company store for three reasons: prices were much higher than those charged by independent retail stores, their grocery and supply bills were checked off their earnings even before they received their pay, and trading was compulsory. The result was the miners got deeper and deeper into debt and found that they virtually owed their souls to the mining company because of the company store. And so the chorus of “Sixteen Tons” goes as follows:
I loaded sixteen tons and what do I get
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don’t call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.
I think that the Preacher has someone like this coal miner in mind when he wrote Ecclesiastes. He wrote about the vanity of toil.
The Preacher opened the book of Ecclesiastes with an introduction of himself (1:1), a statement of his theme (1:2), and a poetic summary of his theme (1:3-11).
His theme is simple: all is vanity.
The Hebrew word for vanity means “vapor” or “breath.” It refers to that which is meaningless, futile, ephemeral, and passing.