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Ecclesiastes: Joy in the Toil

• Daniel Baker

Posted in Gospel, Sermons, Suffering

Death. Injustice. Mistreatment. Undeserved job loss. Squandered wealth. Unfulfilling pleasures. Funerals. Meaninglessness. Absurdity. Accomplishments that get forgotten by others. Betrayal. Vanity.

Not the stuff of greeting cards and bedtime stories—but it is the stuff of the book of Ecclesiastes. Sunday we begin a six-week series in this Wisdom book of the Old Testament.

In twelve tight chapters Israel’s King Solomon takes into some of the dark places of life and helps us find understanding. At times we wish his honesty wasn’t quite so...honest. He not only peers into the dark places but he captures the reactions and feelings we have in those dark places. In fact, his brutal honesty has led many commentators astray, persuading them Solomon’s final conclusion is that “all is vanity” (1:2), life is pointless, and God is not to be trusted. But if we go there in our thinking, we’ve missed what Solomon is doing.

We’ll start with Solomon as the Preacher of Fallennness and then turn to Solomon as the Preacher of Joy.

Preacher of Fallenness

In these “words of the Preacher” (1:1), Solomon is facing head-on what it means to live in a fallen world. In a fallen world, shalom is a rarity and nothing works like it should: relationships, work, pleasure, food, marriage, justice, bodies. Duane Garrett says in his commentary that Solomon is really unpacking Genesis 1–3 and what it means to live in a good creation that was corrupted by the fall.[1]

What marks a fallen world as much as anything is “toil.” God told Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life....You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:17, 19). Where work should be satisfying, profitable, and meaningful, God tells Adam that it shall instead be marked by difficulty, opposition, and futility. For Solomon, this idea is summed up in the word “toil,” a word found 35 times in Ecclesiastes,[2] a huge number since it occurs only 41 times in the rest of the Old Testament.

Solomon will open his work asking, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Eccl 1:3). At one point he will conclude that what we gain is not much at all: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Eccl 2:11). A little later he goes further, “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun” (Eccl 2:18).

Such a conclusion occurs regularly in Ecclesiastes, often using the term “vanity” from the Hebrew hebel. In fact in 1:2 he will say, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” and in 12:8, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.”

“Vanity” (hebel) is not easy to define in Ecclesiastes. It is found an astounding 38 times in the book, the second-most occurrences in a book being 9 in the book of Psalms. The basic idea of the word is “breath” or “vapor,” something brief and inconsequential. English Bible translations often use “vanity” (ESV, NASB, KJV), but some use “meaningless” (NIV) or “completely meaningless” (NLT) or “absolutely futile” (NET, CSB). Craig Bartholomew uses “enigmatic.”[3]

Yet, the truth is no one English word captures all the occurrences of the word. For a verse like Eccl. 1:14, “breath/vapor” seems to fit: “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity [a breath/vapor] and a striving after wind.”

But in Eccl. 8:14 a different gloss is needed, something like “absurd and offensive to reason”: “There is a vanity [offensive absurdity] that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity [offensive absurdity].” “Offensive absurdity” would capture better the intent than the ESV’s “vanity.”

In Eccl. 2:1–2 “meaningless” is a word that fits hebel in the original: “I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity [meaningless]. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”” “Vanity” doesn’t quite capture Solomon’s language.

When you come across “vanity” in the ESV’s Ecclesiastes, remember that a translation principle for the ESV was generally to use the same word to translate a word in the original language to help us to see the repetition in the original. This is often really helpful, but at times it misses the range of meaning in certain Hebrew and Greek words.

When you come across “vanity,” have in the back of your mind some options to understand the verse: “breath/vapor,” “offensive absurdity,” and “meaningless” can serve well.[4]

Solomon has a long list of things that because of human sinfulness are brief and inconsequential, offensively absurd, and meaningless. As one example, he often looks at our work. Work fills our days and is something we do for almost our entire lives. With the exception of some years at the beginning and some at the end, we will spend years and years and years working at something in our lives. What is the total result of this work?

At times we accumulate riches but never really enjoy them (Eccl 4:8) or accumulate an inheritance that the next generation squanders (Eccl 2:18–19). We might work and build and accomplish great things, but often we are quickly forgotten by anyone outside of our imemdiate family (Eccl 9:5).

Solomon lets us see our work in an honest light. He doesn’t pretend there’s more enduring value than there really is. When we think soberly about our life’s work, terms like “breath/vapor,” “offensive absurdity,” and “meaningless” feel close to the mark.

This is Solomon the Preacher of Fallenness. But he is also the Preacher of Joy.[5]

Preacher of Joy

A critical thing to see in Ecclesiastes are seven passages where Solomon calls us to be joyful. Without these we can overstate the bleakness of his message. The bleakness needs to be seen for what it is, but the key here is that it’s not an absolute, unqualified bleakness.

These calls to joy are refrains placed throughout the book like lighthouses in a storm casting light for a ship that’s adrift. They light the way on a coast filled with dangers and death.

These seven passages (Eccl 2:24–26; 3:12–13, 22; 5:18–20; 8:15; 9:7–10; 11:8–12:1) contain repeating elements we don’t want to miss. Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 belongs on the list of key passages as well, but it presents "the end of the matter" in a final summary conclusion of the whole book. The joy passages are inseparable from 12:13–14. 

I’ll look at just one of the joyful refrain passages and highlight the ideas common in them:

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart. (Eccl 5:18-20)

A few things we need to see.

First, “God” is in the picture. For Solomon, joy is possible, because God is real. Without God in the picture joy is an impossibility and living in the world of make-believe. God (Elohim) is mentioned four times in these verses, and mentions of God are prominent in the joy passages.

Second, God is the giver of gifts, even to sinners living in a fallen world. Notice the ways “God” is presented as “giving” things in the passage: our days are “given” to us (v. 18), “wealth and possessions” are “given” to us (v. 19), even the ability to “rejoice” in our “toil” is “the gift of God” (v. 19).

Third, joy starts right where we are and rejoices in just what we have. The very toil that can be so aggravating is here seen as something to “find enjoyment” in (v. 18). We rejoice in what we “eat and drink” (v. 18). Later, joy will include “the wife whom you love” (9:9). Solomon is saying that joy isn’t found in getting what we don’t have but in rejoicing in what we do have. This is profound and transformative wisdom.

Fourth, joy will be found when we don’t make simple gifts into gods that will fail us—and then destroy us. Food, drink, work, and a spouse are good gifts—but terrible gods. Wine is a good gift that adds flavor to meals, but when it becomes our master and we its slave, it destroys us. Solomon tells us to enjoy our work, not to obsess about how long our accomplishments will be remembered or how much wealth we accumulate because of it.

Fifth, joy is possible only with a right relationship with God. The Preacher of Joy fills out his gospel message with a summary statement at the end which is essential to bring the whole book together:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Eccl 12:13–14)

“Fear God and keep his commandments” is the Old Testament equivalent to “believe” in John 3:16, where “eternal life” is ours when we “believe” in the Son given to us to save us from “perishing.” “Fear” has a slight accent, though, on God’s supremacy and perfect righteousness as our Judge. "Fear God and keep his commandments" is to "trust and obey." Joy is found through living coram deo, “before the face of God.”

Keep alert for these seven passages as you read Ecclesiastes. They're like breadcrumbs to guide you to Solomon's message.

Another aspect of the joy passages is the way they help to organize the book. They function as conclusions to the sections right before them, brief reminders of good news before Solomon goes back into the hard news of life in our world.

Seen in this way, here’s the outline of Ecclesiastes:

  1. (Eccl 1:1–2:26) The Vanities Under the Sun (Eccl 2:24–26 is joyful refrain)
  2. (Eccl 3:1–22) A Time for Everything (Eccl 3:12–13 and Eccl 3:22 are joyful refrains)
  3. (Eccl 4:1–5:20) Toil (Eccl 5:18–20 is joyful refrain)
  4. (Eccl 6:1–8:15) Death (Eccl 8:15 is joyful refrain)
  5. (Eccl 8:16–9:10) Wisdom (Eccl 9:7–10 is joyful refrain)
  6. (Eccl 9:11–12:8) Reflections (Eccl 11:8–12:1 is joyful refrain)
  7. (Eccl 12:9–14) The End of the Matter

Our sermons will more-or-less follow the sections of Ecclesiastes. This Sunday we begin with Ecclesiastes 1–2.

So, read Ecclesiastes and be sobered about the realities of a fallen world. But also, read Ecclesiastes and be encouraged that God’s good gifts are ours to be enjoyed. Above all, "fear God and keep his commandmenets, for this is the whole duty of man" (Eccl 12:13). 



[1] Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, NIVNAC (1993), 278–279.

[2] 35 times is both the noun and verb, which come from the same root in Hebrew. “Toil” in English is similar, being both a noun and verb (cf. Eccl 1:3).

[3] Craig Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 93–94.

[4] On this understanding of hebel see Garrett, NIVNAC, 282–283.

[5] “Preacher of Joy” is a phrase used by Robert Whybray in his article,

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