Working Under the Sun (Eccl 1:1-11)
Work is the core activity explored in Ecclesiastes. It is generally called “toil,” (Heb. amal) which indicates the hardship of work. The topic is introduced at the beginning of the book in verse Eccl. 1:3: “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” The Teacher’s assessment of toil is that it is “vanity” (Eccl. 2:1). This word, hebel in Hebrew, dominates Ecclesiastes. The word hebel actually means “breath,” but from that it comes to refer to something that is insubstantial, fleeting and of no permanent value. It is superbly suited to be the keyword for this book because a breath is by nature brief and of little discernible substance, and it quickly dissipates. Yet our survival hangs upon these brief intakes and exhalations of puffs of air. Soon, however, breathing will cease and life will end. The word hebel, similarly, describes something of fleeting value that will ultimately come to an end. In one sense, “vanity” is a misleading translation, since it appears to assert that everything is utterly worthless. But the real point of hebel is that something has only a fleeting, ephemeral value. A single breath may not have permanent value, but in its one moment, it keeps us alive. In the same way, what we are and do in this transitory life has real, though temporary, significance.
Consider the work of building a ship. By God’s good creation, the earth holds the raw materials we need to build ships. Human ingenuity and hard work — also created by God — can create safe, capable, even beautiful, ships. They join the fleet and transport food, resources, manufactured goods, and people to where they are needed. When a ship is launched and the bottle of champagne broken across its bow, everyone involved can celebrate their accomplishment. Yet once it leaves the yard, the builders have no control over it. It may be captained by a fool who smashes it against the shoals. It may be chartered to smuggle drugs, weapons or even slaves. Its crew may be treated harshly. It may serve nobly for many years, yet even so it will wear out and become obsolete. Its eventual fate is nearly certain to be a ship breaking yard, probably located in a country where worker safety and environmental pollution are treated lightly. It passes, like the puffs of wind that once powered ships, first into rusty bones, then into a mix of recycled metal and discarded waste, and finally out of human knowledge. Ships are good. They do not last forever. As long as we live, we must work in this tension.
This brings us to the image of the sun racing around the earth, which we discussed in the introduction (Eccl. 1:5). The ceaseless activity by this great object in the sky brings the light and warmth we depend on every day, yet changes nothing as the ages go by. “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). This is an unsentimental observation, though not an eternal condemnation, about our work.