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Joy in the Toil

May 12, 2024

Teacher: Daniel Baker
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 1–2

Joy in the Toil
Ecclesiastes 1–2 – Joy in the Toil: Ecclesiastes – Daniel J. Baker – May 12, 2024


Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is one of the great musical achievements of all time. Beethoven wrote the work in his early 50s.

The symphony is most known for its final movement, an unprecedented musical dialogue where various parts of the orchestra are in a kind of back-and-forth with the soloists and choir.

Eventually, almost 7 minutes into the 18-minute final movement, the great melody we all know as “Ode to Joy” breaks through and then builds throughout the massive composition.

It premiered on May 7, 1824. But Beethoven was unable to conduct this greatest of his works, because he was almost completely deaf. He beat out the tempo for each movement, but then turned the baton over to another conductor.

When the symphony was finished, Beethoven himself could not hear the thunderous applause. A musician had to turn him around to see the response.

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” melody captures something of the optimism and triumph of the lyrics Beethoven borrowed. He borrowed them from Friedrich Schiller’s 1786 poem.

The poem sounds at times almost Christian with references to angels and “your maker” above the stars and forgiveness of sins. The “joy” in the poem is a triumphant joy.

But the poem’s Christianity is no orthodox Christianity, since the final lines of the original are, “Every sin shall be forgiven, Hell itself shall cease to be.” Beethoven left these lines out.

If you take a snapshot of the premier of Beethoven’s symphony you get something like what Solomon describes for us in Ecclesiastes: A brilliant composer who can’t hear his own music, the pursuit of a joy that doesn’t come from God but is trying to mimic a Christian joy.

The book of Ecclesiastes:

  • Written by King Solomon. See Eccl. 1:1 and 1:12.
  • A sober reflection on the world as it is and not the world as we wish it was.
  • Solomon became king at the death of his father the great King David.
  • In a dream the LORD said, “Ask what I shall give you” (1 Kgs 3:5).
  • Solomon famously said:

“Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” (1 Kgs 3:9)

  • The LORD granted it:

29 And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, 30 so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 For he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. 32 He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. 33 He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. 34 And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom. (1 Kgs 4:29-34)

I say all this to get us aquainted with the author—wealthy, powerful, wise, brilliant author. In a position to write Ecclesiastes.

In Ecclesiastes he looks at the world around him, explores what it has to offer, and then reflects on what brings happiness, joy, life—and what doesn’t.

He looks at life “under the sun,” a phrase he uses 28 times in the book. His focus is the present, not eternity past or eternity future. But even though it’s looking at things “under the sun,” he will lift his gaze to heaven throughout the book.

Solomon guides us in a way that isn’t for the faint of heart. He doesn’t give easy answers. He speaks honestly about the fallenness of life in this world.

At times he will talk in such a way that you don’t think he believes in God. But just before you fall off the cliff into total despair, he lifts our gaze to God.

With that introduction, let’s hear what King Solomon has to say to us.

This morning, we’ll look at three big themes from chapters 1–2 that are also big themes in the whole book: (1) Vanity, (2) Toil, and (3) Joy.

Let’s pray

I. Vanity

We can see this word in Eccl. 1:12–14, the last few verses that were read. Helpful to look at these again. Solomon describes himself as “the Preacher.” Often the Hebrew is used to describe him, Qoheleth.[1] “Preacher” is meant because the word pictures an assembly of people, a congregation, and this person rising up to address the congregation.

But our Preacher is also “King over Israel in Jerusalem.” And in Eccl. 12:12, he’s also a father addressing his son, just like in Proverbs.

In Eccl. 1:13 he tells us what he’s doing in this book: “To seek and to search out by wisdom ALL THAT IS DONE UNDER HEAVEN.” He’s trying to make sense of all that concerns humanity.

Notice he is making this search with an awareness of the reality of God. The world is not self-made and people are not self-made. “God has given to the children of man”

One of the most famous words in Ecclesiastes is “vanity.” In the ESV, the word is found 34 times (37 in KJV). It’s from the Hebrew hebel.

We don’t have to read far in Ecclesiastes before we find this word: Eccl. 1:2, 14.

But what does “vanity” mean in Ecclesiastes?

The Hebrew word often means “breath” or “vapor”:

Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah (Ps 39:5)

And in Eccl. 1:2 this meaning makes good sense. “All is a mere breath!” Momentary. Passing. Inconsequential.

You can see this idea in his opening reflection. He says “all is a mere breath” in Eccl. 1:2 and then illustrates it with his opening reflection. Eccl. 1:11 speaks to the “breath” or “vapor” of things:

There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after. (Eccl 1:11)

“Former things” and “later things” come and go like a breath, a puff of air. In the moment they feel like such a big deal, but “former things” are forgotten and “later things” will also be forgotten.

But in other passages, something different is meant. E.g., Eccl. 2:1–2, 16–17:

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” (Eccl 2:1-2)

For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. (Eccl 2:16-17)

Now the point is not the “mere breath” idea. But it’s “vanity” as “meaningless.” Pleasure doesn’t satisfy in the end. There’s something “meaningless” about it. The fact the wise man and the fool both die and are forgotten speaks to the “meaningless” of this life.

But the “vanity” of things can mean something even worse. It can mean something that’s absurd and offends our reason and sensibility.

You can see this in Eccl. 8:14:

There is a vanity 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. (Eccl 8:14)

When the righteous are treated as the wicked, and the wicked are treated as the righteous, this is not just speaking to the brevity of life. It speaks to the real wrongness of this world so much of the time. It’s offensive to us. It’s wrong. It’s a sign that this world isn’t right at a very deep level.

“Vanity” here is something like an “offensive absurdity.”

Application: Vanity

Oswald Chambers was a Christian made famous for his writings. He worked with the YMCA during WWI and ministered to thousands of soldiers during the war. He died in 1917. Most of us know him for his book, My Utmost for His Highest.

Chambers wrote many books. And by the 1940s a printer in London had 40,000 in stock. But a German bomber in WWII destroyed all of them. Millions of books were destroyed in printing houses in London.

Over time they were able to recover and reprint almost all of them, but at a tremendous cost.[2]

The way that a man’s writings can be destroyed in a fire, the way such wealth can be destroyed by a war, the way that this can happen and few of us even know the story—that illustrates hebel, the “vanity” Solomon is talking about.

II. Toil

A second big theme in Ecclesiastes is “toil.” The meaning of the word is more straightforward than “vanity” (hebel). It means hardship or labor. Especially what you do for the bulk of your days. Your job or occupation.

Calling it “toil” is a reminder that we live in a fallen world. The sin of Adam means that the work we do is not unopposed. We plant and harvest in fields with thorns and thistles. Only by “the sweat of our brow” do we bring in the food we need and the profits we make (Gen 3:17–19).

Solomon uses this word 32 times in Ecclesiastes, 12 times in chapter 2. About half of all the occurrences in the Old Testament.

Right off the bat he asks a question he revisits in the book: Eccl. 1:3.

What is the sum total of the “gain” for all of our work? With this thing we do for so much of our lives, what is the real “gain” to result from it?

In Eccl. 2:4–11 he gives himself “toil” to see what is to be “gained” from it:

4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man. 9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 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 2:4-11)

King Solomon was famous for his work projects—his palace, gardens, eventually the temple of God. In Eccl. 2 he mentions his artistic and architectural endeavors.

Of course, there’s also his pleasure experiment—giving himself over to his bodily appetites. And the man who had hundreds of wives and hundreds of concubines (1 Kgs 11:3) did this at an almost unimaginable scale.

There was some “pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (Eccl 2:10). But in terms of “gain”? He said “there was nothing to be gained” by it.

In other words, the toil did not lead to greater or enduring rewards. To think of striving after lasting “gain” with your toil is nothing more than “vanity and a stiving after wind” (Eccl. 2:17).

Part of his realization was how short-lived toil is. In Eccl. 2:18–19 he even said he “hated all my toil”:

18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. (Eccl 2:18-19)

To “toil” and accumulate wealth and then to leave that wealth to someone who proves to be a fool? “This is also is vanity” (Eccl. 2:23).

Now it’s critical to see that in these passages at the end of chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2, there is no mention of “God.” God is mentioned in Eccl. 1:13 and then not again until Eccl. 2:24.

In all this “toil,” he is “toiling” as if there’s no God. He explores “toil” in itself, “toil” seen by itself.

“Toil” in itself is “vanity and a stiving after wind” (Eccl. 2:11).

Application: Toil

A lot of life and the endless repetition. Often doing the same tasks, that have to be done again...and again...and again.

On this Mother’s Day, maybe in your weaker moments, motherhood feels like that. A repeating cycle of activities that feel a lot like “toil.”

And words like “meaningless,” “offensive absurdity,” “breath/vapor” feels pretty accurate.

Of if you’re a student, MATH fits the bill.

If you’re in your 50s or 60s, all the shine is gone from your career. Yep. Solomon’s message rings pretty true.

But whether it’s being a mom, a student, or advanced in your career—the bleakness here is a bleakness when God is not in the picture.

If you take God out of the picture, even incredibly worthwhile things like motherhood can feel like “vanity and a striving after wind, and there is nothing to be gained under the sun” (Eccl. 2:11).

Let’s turn to Point 3 to bring God into our picture.

III. Joy

As I said at the beginning, Ecclesiastes is not a simplistic book. It’s mature writing that doesn’t give away it’s wisdom cheaply or easily. In some ways you have to read the whole book to grasp the message.

It’s like building a puzzle when you don’t have the original box. You’re guessing the picture as you assemble the pieces. You fill in the edges, then you group similar colors or patterns. Then you the picture takes shape and you see how everything fits together.

In many commentaries, the elements of joy in Ecclesiastes are either missed or very minimized. But in the flow of Solomon’s work, these joy passages are critical.

Each major section ends with some kind of refrain about joy. And as these refrains repeat, they get more intense and more developed each time.

The first of these is at the end of Ecclesiastes 2. After he reflects on “toil in which I toil under the sun” (Eccl. 2:18) and says he “hates” it, we might think there’s no such thing as “toil” that’s redeemable.

But that would be to stop the puzzle before we’re finished.

Here at the end of chapter 2 (Eccl. 2:24–26) we get some puzzle pieces to help us see the full picture:

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, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Eccl 2:24-26)

Earlier he had sought pleasure and wine and “the delight of the sons of man” (Eccl. 2:8), but he did this to see what he would gain, to see what they would bring him.

They weren’t being enjoyed for themselves but as a means to an end. Solomon was looking for meaning, for something of lasting value, something that would endure.

When you go to pleasure and food and drink wanting these things, they can’t deliver. They disappoint. When you try to find something of lasting value in your “toil,” it too often falls short.

But here at the end of chapter 2, he says something different. He says that while there may not be eternal meaning in our food and drink and toil, but there is joy in them, that comes to us as a gift “from the hand of God.” That’s the message of Eccl. 2:24.

And then in Eccl. 2:25 he says that “apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”

If you take God out of the picture, the pleasures we pursue disappoint. Toil is called even “a vexation” in Eccl. 2:23.

But when we see these things in light of God, these things take their proper place. We’re not looking to them to be our god. In their proper place, food, drink, and even our daily “toil” can suddenly be a source of “joy.”

And then in Eccl. 2:26, we see that being rightly related to God changes everything. The person “who pleases God”—more literally, “who is good before God”—is “given” from God “wisdom and knowledge and joy.”

Being “good” before God does not mean being perfect. We learned from Abraham what it takes to be “good” before God:

And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Gen 15:6)

To please God we must be in a right relationship with God, which means to “believe in God”—to believe that he exists, to give him the place of first allegiance in our lives. That is the one who is good before God.

To this person, God gives wisdom and knowledge. We know from Solomon’s other famous work that wisdom and knowledge cannot be separated from God himself:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. (Prov 9:10)

God gives wisdom and knowledge. But he also gives JOY.

And part of the “joy” that comes from God is the capacity to enjoy the simple things in life—food and drink and the work we do.

These things are “from the hand of God” and the joy they bring comes “from the hand of God” (Eccl 2:24).

So, really King Solomon is holding up to us two very different ways to live.

One way is to see the stuff of this world, the stuff of life, and pursue it with abandon without God. When you do that the things of this life at best are “vanity and striving after wind” (Eccl 2:11). Endlessly disappointing.

The other way to live is to be good in the eyes of God, to be rightly related to him, to have God as the orienting center of your life.

When you do that, the simple things in life can provide great joy and be seen as gifts from God. He adds even more besides, even “wisdom and knowledge.”

Derek Kidner contrasts our two perspectives in Ecclesiastes. He says,

Here is another side to the ‘unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men’ (1:13), for in themselves, and rightly used, the basic things of life are sweet and good. Food, drink and work are samples of them, and Qoheleth will remind us of others. What spoils them is our hunger to get out of them more than they can give; a symptom of the longing which differentiates us from the beasts, but whose misdirection is the underlying theme of this book”
Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes[3]


Friedrich Schiller and Ludwig van Beethoven weren’t wrong to see in “joy” something that is God-given, something that echoes of heaven, something worth pursuing.

But each in their own way tried to do what many have done, separate the gift from the Giver, separate joy from God the giver of joy.

True joy only comes to those who are rightly related to God. As we said, that means those who believe in him.

To believe in God is to believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God. There is no saving faith that is not faith in Jesus Christ.

When we turn to him to be saved we have the source of all true joy.

The riddles of life will remain. Many things will still be “toil” and “vanity,” as we’ll see from Ecclesiastes. But a deep source of joy is open to us in Christ that will never be taken away.


  • Believe – Trust that his word is true. Joy in toil is possible.
  • Ask – In your toil, ask for faith to enjoy the toil.
  • Give Thanks – for simple gifts, simple joys

Douglas O’Donnell has a good summary of the connection between Christ and Ecclesiastes:

Jesus Christ redeemed us from the vanity that Pastor Solomon so wrestled with and suffered under by subjecting himself to our temporary, meaningless, futile, incomprehensible, incongruous, absurd, smoke-curling-up-into-the-air, mere-breath, vain life. He was born under the sun. He toiled under the sun. He suffered under the sun. He died under the sun. But in his subjection to the curse of death by his own death on the cross, this Son of God “redeemed us from the curse” (Gal 3:13). By his resurrection, he restored meaning to our toil. And by his return, he will exact every injustice and elucidate every absurdity as he ushers those who fear the Lord into the glorious presence of our all-wise, never-completely-comprehensible God.
Douglas O’Donnell, Ecclesiastes[4]

Prayer and Closing Song, “Ode to Joy” with distinctly Christian lyrics.

[1] In the Hebrew, the word is related to qāhāl, which is a “gathering” or “assembly.” “The Preacher” is thought to be the one to officially address the gathering.

[2] See

[3] Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, BST, 35.

[4] Douglas O’Donnell, Ecclesiastes, REC, 12–13.

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