Watch our Livestream 10am Sundays Give Online

The Search for Joy in the Toil

June 2, 2024

Teacher: John McLeod
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 4-5


Ecclesiastes is a critical book for our time.

For most of human history, the ability to even attempt such pursuits illustrated in Ecclesiastes was limited to a very small percentage of the population in any particular culture.

However, we enjoy a greater amount of wealth, freedom, and ability to pursue our dreams than most humans since the beginning of the world. Perhaps this book can speak prophetically to us in a way that many throughout history only could imagine.

We can buy more. We can go more places. We can change vocations. We can pursue education. We can retire from our careers in relative comfort at an earlier age. We have access to amazing healthcare. Our life-expectancy is longer. We have access to more knowledge, more technology, more gadgets, more nice things than most of the people that have ever lived.

Even if we don’t compare our opportunities to human history—if we compare to most people in the world today—we are all very wealthy.

I don’t bring this up to try to put a guilt-trip on you. We should be grateful for the wealth and opportunities we enjoy. I’m simply pointing out that even with all of this, like Solomon, we still find joy elusive.

The culture has come up with its own diagnosis for why finding joy is so elusive. We are encouraged to blame our parents, blame our spouse, blame our bosses, blame the patriarchy, blame the political system, blame our biology, or even blame God,

The world has its own proposed solutions to find joy as well. “Follow your heart.” “Be the best you can be.” Find the career that connects with your interests so much that it doesn’t even feel like you’re going to work.

Even worse, the world offers solutions that go against our very humanity. Cast off the shackles of morality—God’s rules are only holding you down. Choose your own sexual journey. Choose your own gender and biology. Murder the baby in your womb that threatens your happiness.

But, the world is outmatched. The problem is deeper than anticipated. The proposed solutions cannot get at the real issues of the human heart and the fallen creation. Solomon knew this. God is speaking to us through him.

This morning, I hope to show you from our text:

  1. Three Stumbling Blocks to Our Joy
  2. Three Pursuits that Don’t Lead to Joy
  3. The Gift of Joy

Pastoral Prayer

I. Three Stumbling Blocks to Our Joy

I started to call this point “Three hurdles to our joy.” Hurdles make running harder, as if running wasn’t hard enough on its own. But we put hurdles on the track purposefully. They are put at a certain height and a certain distance apart. They are predictable, and runners train to clear them consistently.

The idea is a little different in our text. Solomon exposes at least three “joy-killers” or as I’m calling them here, three “stumbling blocks” to our joy. Stumbling blocks are not for sport—their purpose is not to make the race more interesting or competitive. They exist to make one fail—to keep you from reaching your desired destination.

Our destination is joy. But, it is elusive; it is difficult. The vanity of life is in the way.

So far in our series through Ecclesiastes, which we’re calling “Joy in the Toil” we have acknowledged that Solomon is teaching us about the reality of life “under the sun.” He’s not sugar-coating the vanity of life. Much of what we pursue and experience is described as vapor. He is also, though, giving us glimpses of life from God’s point of view. He’s attempting to help us see what really matters—what will last.

We encounter this key term for the book, hebel (vanity, meaningless, vapor) at least six times in our two chapters. We’ve already heard it four times in Chapter 4.

We will also encounter another repeated word that you can look for in the text—“better.”

The first stumbling block to joy which we’ll see is oppression.

Oppression (4:1-3; 5:8-9)

Ecclesiastes 4:1 (ESV)

  • (1) Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.

Solomon does not describe the all of the kinds of oppressions he has seen. Oppression is done to you. It is the powerful taking advantage of the weak, the rich taking advantage of the poor. Oppression occurs when justice fails.

Oppression is so common that Solomon reminds us in 5:8 not to be surprised when we see it.

Ecclesiastes 5:8 (ESV)

  • (8) If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.

Do not be amazed. Don’t be surprised. Unbridled human nature plus political power leads to oppression and injustice. Throughout human history, and throughout all cultures some individuals rob others of opportunities to enjoy life and thrive. Some governmental models handle this fallen nature more carefully than others. Our own three branches of government with their checks and balances are intended to minimize the effect of fallen human nature and the thirst for power.

This oppression can be towards groups of people or classes—slavery, racism, religious persecution, or ethnic genocide. But it can also come to individuals through emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.

The great tragedy which Solomon sees is that when experiencing oppression, one is often alone. There was no one to comfort them. Their only companion—tears.

If we’ll accept it, Solomon expresses the magnitude of the tragedy of this oppression by overstating the case.

Ecclesiastes 4:2–3 (ESV)

  • (2) And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive.
  • (3) But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.

The reality of our fallen world is that from a strictly earthly perspective it’s better for those who have died or for those who have not even been born yet than it is for those undergoing such suffering.

Solomon is not offering a solution right here for this oppression, but there is comfort in knowing that the Bible treats such realities honestly.

We do know, of course, that there is a perspective beyond the merely earthly one. God is working an eternal justice, righteousness, and salvation through his Providence, and through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Oppression comes from outside us. It is outside our control.

The next stumbling block to our joy comes, not from outside us, but from within our own hearts.

Envy (4:4-6)

Ecclesiastes 4:4 (ESV)

  • (4) Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Solomon will return to discussing the vanity of wealth and possessions quite a few times throughout the book, and we’ll have a closer look at the pursuit of wealth in our next point in Chapter 5, but here his focus is more targeted—the motive that drives much of our skill and toil.

I believe we can all relate to the desire to keep up with or surpass our neighbors. It is a fundamental weakness in our fallen natures to desire what others have. Even in the Garden, Satan’s tempting offer was that Even would be like God, knowing good and evil. It was the temptation that there is something out there that others have that—if you could get it—would give you joy and happiness and fulfillment.

How much of your toil; how much of your striving for money or possessions is driven by your desire to have what others have? This could be trivial—I want the same kind of stylish shoes that my friend has. Or, it could be monetarily significant—we have to move to that same expensive neighborhood and buy that new house in order to fit in with the friend-group we want to be part of.

The focus here for Solomon is not the possessions, but the motive. Why do you desire the things you desire? What is the happiness or acceptance that you’re seeking? Why do you care about these things enough to sacrifice so much time and energy?

Some will be tempted to overreact to this tendency to try to keep up with the Joneses.

Ecclesiastes 4:5 (ESV)

  • (5) The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.

Instead of overworking to attain possession to find happiness, this fool stops working—he folds his hands—and gives up on being industrial altogether.

Solomon’s solution is in between. Work, but also rest.

Ecclesiastes 4:6 (ESV)

  • (6) Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.

Oppression and Envy can steal your joy. So can loneliness.

Loneliness (4:7-12)

The Preacher here transitions to another stumbling block—loneliness. He continues of the theme of toil under the sun, pointing out the sad reality that there are those that toil even though they have no one to bless with the income.

Ecclesiastes 4:7–8 (ESV)

  • (7) Again, I saw vanity under the sun:
  • (8) one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.

There is a double-whammy here. This person is toiling after riches that never satisfy AND he’s not sharing these riches with others.

Solomon also helps us see part of what he means by “toil.” Yes, it’s hard work, but it also involves depriving yourself of other things you’d want to do with your time—depriving yourself of pleasure. This pleasure need not be sinful in itself. He simply means that if you are toiling, you’re not also on vacation at the beach.

Sharing the fruits of your labors with others is one of the great joys of living life under the sun. It’s amazing to watch young men in their late teens or early twenties. There is a seismic shift in how they approach toil when there is a young woman in the picture. Suddenly, they are willing to endure more, to save more, to forego some pleasure, in order to win or provide for a wife. Then the same happens again in order to provide for kids.

It is possible to share in your labors with persons other than family as well—in fact that it is the example Solomon gives—he mentions brother or son in verse 8, and perhaps business partners in vv. 9-10.

Ecclesiastes 4:9–12 (ESV)

  • (9) Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.
  • (10) For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!
  • (11) Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?
  • (12) And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

It is very possible in our culture and economy to pursue your vocation and riches while living a very isolated life. If you do, you’ll likely have more toys, be able to go more interesting places, and pursue more hobbies. However, you will very likely miss out on some significant joys. In the end, loneliness is a stumbling block to joy.

It is interesting that relationships are one thing in the book of Ecclesiastes that Solomon never calls vanity.

II. Three Pursuits that Don’t Lead to Joy

Now that we’ve looked at three roadblocks to joy, let’s see three pursuits that do not lead to joy. Roadblocks are often not under your control. We might make the case that envy is a choice. But oppression and even loneliness are not always up to us.

These pursuits, however, are active, not passive. They connect with your goals and life directions. This doesn’t have to mean, though, that you are always consciously aware of them. It’s amazing how much we can do in life without paying attention to our direction or motivations. We are often content to do our day-to-day lives with almost no reflection on why we’re doing things.

Honor (4:13-16)

The end of chapter 4 tells a version of a “rags to riches” story. There was a youth, poor, but wise, who eventually made it to the throne (Aladdin comes to mind). This poor youth pursued honor and power until it took him to the very kingship. He rose up out of his poverty and became ruler of all the land. Verse 16 begins, “There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led.”

What is wrong with this? Is it wrong to work hard, exercising wisdom, leaving poverty behind, and pursing a position of high honor? I think we can extrapolate and apply this to more than becoming king. Perhaps you are pursuing a political position, or want to become a partner or part of the C-level team in your company, maybe even CEO. These are very legitimate vocations and worthy goals. The position itself need not even be particularly lofty. It could be as simple as desiring the honor of being a home group leader or pastor in the church, or being a team leader at work. What’s the problem then? If you’re doing it for the honor, you will likely find disappointment. The honor itself is very fleeting, vaporous, vanity. Look back at vs. 16.

Ecclesiastes 4:16 (ESV)

  • (16) There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him.

Your popularity will not last. Others will come later who do not remember you. Joseph is a great example of this in the Old Testament. As you remember, he rose to become 2nd in command in Egypt. He served faithfully in that role for decades. We find this startling reality in the beginning of Exodus.

Exodus 1:8 (ESV) — Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.

If you expect to find joy by pursing honor; if you expect this recognition to last…

Ecclesiastes 4:16 (ESV)

  • (16) …Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Now, let us turn to another vain pursuit—wealth.

Wealth (5:10-17)

Perhaps honor is a little too lofty for you. You’re sure that a certain level of wealth will bring you joy. Solomon has a reality-check for us. Before we read these verse in chapter 5, though, remember how we started today. We are some of the wealthiest persons in all of human history, even though we wouldn’t measure ourselves that way.

Solomon’s warning, however, is not about “being rich” but about pursuing satisfaction or joy in money.

Ecclesiastes 5:10–17 (ESV)

  • (10) He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.
  • (11) When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?
  • (12) Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.
  • (13) There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt,
  • (14) and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand.
  • (15) As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand.
  • (16) This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind?
  • (17) Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.

Let’s make a few observations about Solomon’s advice concerning wealth. First, the issue is not having wealth or money, the problem is with the love of money.

1 Timothy 6:9–10 (ESV) — But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

It is very possible to love money whether you have little or lots of it.

It is sobering to consider what we are willing to do in order to gain wealth, even a little bit of it. We’ll cheat our employers. We’ll lie on our tax returns. We rob banks. We risk relationships. We gamble. We forego time with friends and loved ones. We break the Sabbath. We stay in a job that regularly puts us in morally compromised positions. We take unnecessary financial risks. We avoid generosity.

Solomon gives several warnings to keep our relationship with money in check. Remember that with more possessions comes more responsibility. Remember that all of your possessions could be swept away in a moment. Consider Job. Remember that you cannot take any of your possessions with you into the New Heavens and New Earth. Remember that there is a price too high to pay for riches—“spending all your days eating in darkness, in much vexation and sickness and anger.”

The words of 4:6 come back to mind.

Ecclesiastes 4:6 (ESV)

  • (6) Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.

Remember the words of Jesus as well.

Matthew 6:24 (ESV) — “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

Religiosity (5:1-7)

The final vain pursuit in our text may surprise you. We are accustomed to identifying the pursuits of honor or wealth as vain, but Solomon also warns us that there is a way in which we may treat God or religion in the same way. Brian Borgman says it this way in his book on Ecclesiastes:

[The Preacher] seems aware that just as we may seek success or pleasure to mitigate hebel [vanity] and to have a sense of advantage, we may also try to use God for the same reason. (Borgman, Don’t Waste Your Breath, p. 84)

There is a way in which we might approach church, religion, or even God for our own selfish purposes. Here are just a few examples:

  • Do we use church just to find a good homeschool community for your kids or to find the kind of people that you enjoy being around?
  • Do we use church primarily for efficient business networking?
  • Do we use church to have particular standing in the community? (This is less and less the case as Biblical Christianity is frowned upon in our culture.)
  • Do we use terms like God, grace, forgiveness, and salvation to ease our own consciences with no real regard to the actual God we pray to or say we worship?

Solomon warns us against these. He speaks specifically of words and vows.

Ecclesiastes 5:1–2 (ESV)

  • (1) Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.
  • (2) Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.

I doubt many of us approach God “with a high hand” to use him in these many ways. But we can easily go through the motions of worship, uttering the words of the songs and prayers, listening to the scripture readings or sermons half-heartedly. Are you scrolling through Ecclesiastes right now or through Instagram? I have no way of knowing.

Have we become too casual with God, believing that he doesn’t expect us to follow through with our words of obedience and devotion?

Ecclesiastes 5:4-7 (ESV)

  • (4) When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow.
  • (5) It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.
  • (6) Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?
  • (7) For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.

Solomon’s point is not that we must approach God with certain words or actions, but that we must remember who we are and who God is.

Hebrews 12:29 (ESV) — for our God is a consuming fire.

We can only approach God at all by grace through faith. We sang earlier this morning, “Boldly I approach your throne…” We do approach boldly through the righteousness and mercy of Christ. But, we are not approaching our equal. Our God is in the heavens and does all that he pleases. “Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his. (Psalm 100:3)”

We cannot dabble in religion and hope to receive the joy, comfort, peace, and salvation that comes to those who fear God and worship him.

True joy is found in knowing God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.

Having explored the stumbling blocks of oppression, envy, and loneliness, and having abandoned the pursuits of honor, wealth, and religiosity, let us now turn to the Gift of Joy.

III. The Gift of Joy

When Daniel introduced the book of Ecclesiastes to us, he told us to look for the “joyful refrains” throughout the book which help give it structure. We come across one such refrain in 5:18-20.

Ecclesiastes 5:18–20 (ESV)

  • (18) 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.

There is a simplicity here. Eat and drink and find enjoyment in the toil. We want something more complicated; we want something more lofty; we want something more lasting. Honor, wealth, legacy. But those are just the things Solomon will not give us—they are vapor.

Instead Solomon recognizes that the joy that we long for is a gift from God. We can have wealth, honor, and friends, but lack the power to enjoy them. Just cue up the soundtrack in your mind of your complaints and lack of contentment with your lot in life.

If the power to enjoy them is itself a gift, what are the implications for us?

Finding joy does not require a change in circumstances

Fill in the blank:

  • Life would not feel like vanity if [blank].
  • My life would have real meaning if [blank].
  • I could find real happiness if only [blank].

If joy is a gift, and that joy is the power to find enjoyment in the toil then joy does not require your circumstances to change. The joy does not require escapting the toil. It doesn’t require a new boss or a new job or winning the lottery.

This could be a complete paradigm shift for you.

Joy can be found in the present, though it is informed by the past and the future

This is a very similar point. We must not look for joy in the future or the past. God offers it to us in the present. Perhaps you spend lots of time reminiscing about some season in your past which was filled with more happiness than usual. That is not where your present joy will come from.

Or, perhaps you tell yourself that you can endure a season of joyless toil now so that you can enjoy joy later. To slightly twist a Dave Ramsey quote: you “live like no one else now so that you can live like no one else later.” I’m not rejecting the principle of sowing and reaping or delayed gratification. But, I believe Solomon is telling us that it’s foolish to put all of your joy off until the future.

Conclusion / Application


Take a look at your own life to identify the impact of your pursuits of joy. Are you pursuing wealth or honor or religion in order to find some future joy?

You may not be able to see it.

It’s helpful to ask someone who knows you well if they see those vain pursuits in your life.


Turn complaining into “seeing the good.”

This joy is not found in the past or future, but in the present.


Ask God to help you: “Find enjoyment” (6:18) is literally “see the good”

Pray for the “power to enjoy” your current circumstances.

Remember that our ultimate joy is actually found in knowing God and Jesus Christ. Worship Him.

Recent Messages

Here are some other recent messages.

Cornerstone Fellowship Church logo

We are a church built on the Bible, guided and empowered by the Spirit, striving to make disciples, and pursuing holiness in the context of robust biblical relationships.

Email Updates & Newsletter

Times & Location

10am on Sundays

401 Upchurch St, Apex, NC 27502

© 2024 Cornerstone Fellowship Church of Apex