Work is a Chasing After Wind (Eccl 1:12-6:9)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
Having declared his theme that toil is vanity in Eccl. 1:1-11, the Teacher nonetheless proceeds to explore various possibilities for trying to live life well. He considers, in order, achievement, pleasure, wisdom, wealth, timing, friendship and finding joy in God’s gifts. In some of these he does find a certain value, less in the earlier explorations and more in the latter. Yet nothing seems permanent, and the characteristic conclusion in each section is that work comes to “a chasing after wind.”
First the Teacher explores achievement. He was both a king and a sage — an overachiever to use today’s terms — “surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me” (Eccl. 1:16). And what did all his achievement mean to him? Not much. “It is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl. 1:13-14). No lasting achievement even seems possible. “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted” (Eccl. 1:15). Achieving his goals did not give him happiness, for it only made him realize how hollow and limited anything he could accomplish must be. In sum, he says again, “I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind” (Eccl. 1:17-18).
Next he says to himself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself” (Eccl. 2:1). He acquires wealth, houses, gardens, alcohol, servants (slaves), jewelry, entertainment and ready access to sexual pleasure. “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure” (Eccl. 2:10a).
Unlike with achievement, he finds some value in seeking pleasure. “My heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (Eccl. 2:10). His supposed achievements had turned out to be nothing new, but his pleasures at least were pleasurable. It seems that work undertaken as a means to an end — in this case, pleasure — is more satisfying than work undertaken as an obsession. Without necessarily taking “many concubines” (Eccl. 2:8), today’s workers might do well to take time to smell the roses, as the saying goes. If we have ceased to work towards a goal beyond work, if we can no longer enjoy the fruits of our labor, we have become slaves of work, rather than its masters.
Nonetheless, toiling merely in order to gain pleasure is ultimately unsatisfying. This sections ends with the assessment that “again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Eccl. 2:11).
Perhaps it is good to seek an object outside of work itself, but a higher objective is needed than pleasure. So the teacher reports, “I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly” (Eccl. 2:12). In other words, he becomes something akin to today’s professor or researcher. Unlike achievement for achievement’s sake, wisdom can at least be attained to some degree. “I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness” (Eccl. 2:13). But other than filling the head with exalted thoughts, it makes no real difference in life, for “the wise die just like fools” (Eccl. 1:16). Pursuing wisdom led the Teacher to the brink of despair (Eccl. 1:17), a result that remains all too common in academic pursuits today. The teacher concludes, “all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl. 2:17).
Then the Teacher turns to wealth, which may be gained as a result of toil. What about the accumulation of wealth as the higher purpose behind work? This turns out to be worse than spending wealth to gain pleasure. Wealth brings the problem of inheritance. When you die, the wealth you accumulated will pass to someone else who may be completely undeserving. “Sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil” (Eccl. 2:21). This is so galling that the Teacher says, “I turned and gave my heart up to despair” (Eccl. 2:20).
At this point, we get our first glimpse of the character of God. God is a giver. “To the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy” (Eccl. 2:26). This aspect of God’s character is repeated several times in Ecclesiastes, and his gifts include food, drink and joy (Eccl. 5:18, 8:15), wealth and possessions (Eccl. 5:19, 6:20), honor (Eccl. 6:2), integrity (Eccl. 7:29), the world we inhabit (Eccl. 11:5) and life itself (Eccl. 12:7).
Like the Teacher, many people today who accumulate great wealth find it extremely unsatisfying. While we are making our fortunes, no matter how much we have, it doesn’t seem to be enough. When our fortunes are made and we begin to appreciate our mortality, giving away our wealth wisely seems to become a nearly intolerable burden. Andrew Carnegie noted the weight of this burden when he said, “I resolved to stop accumulating and begin the infinitely more serious and difficult task of wise distribution.” Yet, if God is a giver, it is no surprise that the distribution of wealth, rather than its accumulation, might be more satisfying.
But the Teacher does not find satisfaction in giving wealth any more than in gaining it (Eccl. 2:18-21). The satisfaction God in heaven finds in giving somehow escapes the Teacher under the sun. He does not seem to consider the possibility of investing wealth or giving it away for a higher purpose. Unless there is indeed a higher purpose beyond anything the Teacher discovers, the accumulation and distribution of wealth “also is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl. 2:26).
If work has no single, unchanging purpose, perhaps it has a myriad of purposes, each meaningful in its own time. The Teacher explores this in the famous chapter beginning, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl. 3:1). The key is that every activity is governed by time.
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Work that is completely wrong at one time may be right and necessary at another. At one moment it is right to mourn and wrong to dance, and at another moment the opposite is true.
None of these activities or conditions is permanent. We are not angels in timeless bliss. We are creatures of this world going through the changes and seasons of time. This is another hard lesson. We deceive ourselves about the fundamental nature of life if we think our labors can bring about permanent peace, prosperity or happiness. Someday, everything we have built will rightly be torn down (Eccl. 3:3). If our work has any eternal value, the Teacher sees no sign of it “under the sun” (Eccl. 4:1). Our condition is doubly difficult in that we are creatures of the moment, but, unlike the animals, we have “a sense of past and future” in our minds (Eccl. 3:11). Thus, the Teacher longs for that which has permanent value, even though he cannot find it.
Moreover, even the timely good that people try to do may be thwarted by oppression. “On the side of their oppressors there was power — with no one to comfort them” (Eccl. 4:1). Worst of all is oppression by the government. “I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there” (Eccl. 3:16). Yet the powerless are not necessarily any better. A common response to feeling powerless is envy. We envy those who have the power, wealth, status, relationships, possessions or other things we lack. The Teacher recognizes that envy is as bad as oppression. “I saw that all toil and skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl. 4:4). The drive to gain achievement, pleasure, wisdom or wealth either by oppression or by envy is an utter waste of time. Yet who has never fallen into both of these follies?
But the Teacher does not despair, for time is a gift from God himself. “God has made everything suitable for its time” (Eccl. 3:11a). It is right to cry at the funeral of a loved one, and it is good to rejoice at the birth of a child. And we should not refuse the legitimate pleasures our work may bring. “There is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil” (Eccl. 3:12-13).
These life lessons apply in particular to work. “So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot" (Eccl. 3:22a). Work is under the curse, but work is not in itself a curse. Even the limited vision we have into the future is a kind of blessing, for it relieves us of the burden of trying to foresee all ends. “Who can bring people to see what will be after them?” (Eccl. 3:22b). If our work serves the times that we can foresee, then it is a gift from God.
At this point, we get two glimpses of God’s character. First, God is awesome, eternal, omniscient, “so that all should stand in awe before him” (Eccl. 3:14). Although we are limited by the conditions of life under the sun, God is not. There is more to God than meets the eye. The transcendence of God — to give it a theological name — appears again in Eccl. 7:13-14 and 8:12-13.
The second glimpse shows us that God is a God of justice. “God seeks out what has gone by” (Eccl. 3:15) and “God will judge the righteous and the wicked” (Eccl. 3:17). This idea is repeated later in Eccl. 8:13, 11:9 and 12:14. We may not see God’s justice in the apparent unfairness of life, but the Teacher assures us it will come to pass.
As we have noted, Ecclesiastes is a realistic exploration of life in the fallen world. Work is toilsome. Yet even amid the toil, our lot is to take pleasure in our toil and enjoy our work. This is not an answer to the conundrums of life, but a sign that God is in the world, even if we do not see clearly what exactly that means for us. Despite this somewhat hopeful note, the exploration of timing ends with a double repetition of “a chasing after wind,” once in Eccl. 4:4 (as discussed above) and again in Eccl. 4:6.
Perhaps relationships offer real meaning in work. The Teacher extols the value of friendships at work. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil” (Eccl. 4:9, emphasis added).
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How many people find their closest friendships in the workplace? Even if we didn’t need the pay, even if the work didn’t interest us, we might find deep meaning in our work relationships. That’s one reason that many people find retirement disappointing. We miss our workplace friends after we leave, and we find it difficult to form deep, new friendships without the common goals that brought us together with colleagues at work.
Building good relationships at work requires openness and a desire to learn from others. “Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king, who will no longer take advice” (Eccl. 4:13). Arrogance and power are often barriers to developing the relationships on which effective work depends (Eccl. 4:14–16), a truth explored in the Harvard Business School article, “How Strength Becomes a Weakness.” We become friends at work partly because it takes teamwork to do the work well. This is one reason many people are better at forming friendships at work than in social settings in which there is no shared goal.
The Teacher’s exploration of friendship is more upbeat than his earlier explorations. Yet even so, work friendships are necessarily temporary. Job assignments change, teams are formed and dissolve, colleagues quit, retire and get fired, and new workers join whom we may not like. The teacher likens it to a new, young king whose subjects receive him gladly at first, but whose popularity drops as a new generation of youth comes to regard him as just another old king. In the end, neither career advancement nor fame offers satisfaction.“Surely this also is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl. 4:16).
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The Teacher’s search for meaning in work ends with many short lessons that have direct application to work. First, listening is wiser than speaking, “therefore let your words be few” (Eccl. 5:1). Second, keep your promises, above all to God (Eccl. 5:4). Third, expect the government to be corrupt. This is not good, but it is universal, and it is better than anarchy (Eccl. 5:8–9). Fourth, obsession for wealth is an addiction, and like any other addiction, it consumes those it afflicts (Eccl. 5:10–12), yet it does not satisfy (Eccl. 6:7-8). Fifth, wealth is fleeting. It may disappear in this life, and it is sure to disappear at death. Don’t build your life on it (Eccl. 5:13–17).
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In the midst of this section, the Teacher explores again the gift of God in allowing us to enjoy our work and the wealth, possessions, and honor it may bring for a time. “It is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us” (Eccl. 5:18). Although the enjoyment is fleeting, it is real. “For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts” (Eccl. 5:20). This joy comes not from striving more successfully than others, but from receiving life and work as a gift from God. If joy in our work does not come as a gift from God, it does not come at all (Eccl. 6:1-6).
As in the section on friendship, the Teacher’s tone is relatively positive in this section. Yet the final result is still frustration. For we see plainly that all lives end in the grave, when the life lived wisely comes to nothing greater than the life lived foolishly. It is better to see this plainly than to try to live in a fairy-tale illusion. “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of desire” (Eccl. 6:8a). But the end result of our lives remains “vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl. 6:9).