The Search for Meaning at Work (Ecclesiastes 2) - God’s Word for Work, Online Video Bible Study

Small Group Study / Produced by TOW Project and Partners

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The Search for Meaning at Work (Ecclesiastes 2) 

Agenda

1. Leader gathers the group in an online meeting.

2. Leader shares screen and audio.

3. Leader plays video. The video includes:

  • Introduction to God's Word for Work
  • Opening prayer
  • Bible reading: Ecclesiastes 2:1-24
  • 1 minute for quiet reflection
  • Excerpts from the Theology of Work Bible Commentary: Work is a Chasing After Wind

4. Leader pauses the video and the group discusses the readings.

5. Leader resumes the video with the closing prayer.

Opening Prayer

God, we invite you to speak to us through the Bible today. Show us what your word means for our work. Amen.

Bible reading: Ecclesiastes 2:1-24

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure”; but surely, this also was vanity. I said of laughter—“Madness!”; and of mirth, “What does it accomplish?” I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives.

I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made myself water pools from which to water the growing trees of the grove. I acquired male and female servants, and had servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds.

So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.

Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them.
I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure,
For my heart rejoiced in all my labor;
And this was my reward from all my labor.
Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done
And on the labor in which I had toiled;
And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind.
There was no profit under the sun.

Then I turned myself to consider wisdom and madness and folly;
For what can the man do who succeeds the king?—
Only what he has already done.
Then I saw that wisdom excels folly
As light excels darkness.
The wise man’s eyes are in his head,
But the fool walks in darkness.
Yet I myself perceived
That the same event happens to them all.

So I said in my heart,
“As it happens to the fool,
It also happens to me,
And why was I then more wise?”
Then I said in my heart,
“This also is vanity.”
For there is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever,
Since all that now is will be forgotten in the days to come.
And how does a wise man die?
As the fool!

Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind.

Then I hated all my labor in which I had toiled under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will rule over all my labor in which I toiled and in which I have shown myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity. Therefore I turned my heart and despaired of all the labor in which I had toiled under the sun. For there is a man whose labor is with wisdom, knowledge, and skill; yet he must leave his heritage to a man who has not labored for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun? For all his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity.

Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God.

Excerpts from the Theology of Work Bible Commentary: Work is a Chasing After Wind

Having declared his theme that toil is vanity in Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, the Teacher nonetheless proceeds to explore various possibilities for trying to live life well. He considers, among other things, achievement, pleasure, wealth, and finding joy in God’s gifts. In some of these he does find a certain value, 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. 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” (Ecclesiastes 1:13-14). No lasting achievement even seems possible, because “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted” (Ecclesiastes 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.

Next he says to himself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure” (Ecclesiastes 2:1). He acquires wealth, houses, gardens, alcohol, servants, jewelry, and entertainment. Unlike with achievement, he finds some value in seeking pleasure. 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. Today’s workers might do well to take time to smell the roses, as the saying goes. 

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” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

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” (Ecclesiastes 2:21). This is so galling that the Teacher says, “I turned and gave my heart up to despair” (Ecclesiastes 2:20).

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.” 

And yet, the character of God in the book of Ecclesiastes is that of a giver. “To the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy” (Ecclesiastes 2:26). The giving aspect of God’s character is repeated several times in Ecclesiastes, and God’s gifts include food, drink and joy, wealth and possessions, honor, integrity, the world we inhabit, and life itself.

In the last section of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher explores 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” (Ecclesiastes 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” (Ecclesiastes 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.

Group Discussion

  • How does what you heard apply to your work?

Closing Prayer

God, thank you for being present with us today. Please stay with us in our work, wherever we go. Amen.