Posted: 10/31/16 at 11:45am. Column by Ed Jordan.
What does one gain from all their labor under the sun? It seems that no matter how many hours a week we work, there is always more work to do, and every week it starts all over again. This is one of the messages of the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes.
In Ecclesiastes 1:2-3 (The Message) we read: “Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.] There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke. What’s there to show for a lifetime of work, a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?”
In other translations, it says all is vanity (instead of “smoke”), because the word vanity is the word for a wisp of air or a passing breath, here translated as smoke. It is like your visual breath on a cold winter’s morning; it is there for a moment, then gone. So also are our lives lived under the sun.
One of the key phrases in order to understand the book of Ecclesiastes is the phrase “under the sun,” which repeats often. For example, Ecclesiastes 1:3 (ESV) states: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” Many people see Ecclesiastes as being terribly pessimistic. Others see it as being realistic.
I side with the realistic point of view. The source of Ecclesiastes is thought to be Solomon, one of the wealthiest kings to ever live. He built palaces and gardens and infrastructure to provide water for the trees and plants in his gardens in an arid land.
The moral of the story is not encouraging laziness or avoiding work. The point the author is making is that if life only consists of that which we accomplish or possess while we are living under the sun, then all those things are nothing but smoke. For when one dies and departs this life, one’s wealth is left behind for others. The knowledge and wisdom learned during our lifetime dies with us, unless we effectively impart it to others, or write books, or find other ways to impart what we have learned to others.
Beginning in chapter two, the author explains that life lived without interaction with God is a big part of understanding his phrase “life under the sun,” and the message of the book. For the author, “life under the sun” means living as though there is no God, no afterlife, and living only for today.
While the author tells us it is important to enjoy our lives, he adds the major qualifier in Ecclesiastes 2:24–25 (ESV): “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, for apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”
So we are to work, and we are to enjoy the fruit of our labor, but if we try to do this without God, i.e. without the involvement, interaction and acknowledgment of God, we cannot really even eat or enjoy what we have accomplished.
Life under the sun is very short, and if that is all you have, it is vanity and emptiness. It is like a breath. Breathing keeps us alive, it is vitally important. But what does one have after breathing ceases? All our fame, accomplishments, and material possessions stay under the sun and are transferred to someone else at our passing.
If we are not investing our lives with God and in the values and accomplishments that will transcend death, then the investments of our time, work and efforts all go up in smoke. They are an illusion, one that has deceived us, as well as those who thought that we are so great. If we want our lives to be more than smoke and mirrors that are here today, and gone tomorrow, we need to put God at the center of our lives.
As we live with God at the center of our lives, our priorities change to the priorities that have eternal significance, and the things we value will become those things which transcend death. Since only Jesus has defeated death, it is the investment in the things of Jesus that take on eternal meaning, and become things which are real and lasting, rather than those that disappear like a wisp of breath.
When we become aware that this earthly life is brief and vanishing like breath or smoke, then we will choose to spend our time living our lives under the Son (Jesus), which will then bring value and meaning to our life lived under the sun.