In 1:13-2:26 the Preacher outlines his search for the meaning of life. He looks for it in pleasure, wisdom, work... Yet, like everyone he must die and this inevitability destroys the worth of his quest. He concludes that life doesn't offer meaningful existence; at best it can just be enjoyed. In our passage for study the Preacher looks for meaning in work. He concludes that authentic existence, substantial satisfaction, is not found in creative effort because death inevitably makes such striving meaningless.
v18. The Preacher is not very impressed with work. There is no point to it, 1:3, he dislikes it, 2:17, and here he says he actually hates it. He now gives his first reason for this hatred of work. He cannot stand the thought that someone else will squander the fruit of his labor after he dies.
v19. A person can work diligently all their life, but when they die the fruit of their labour may well fall into the hands of a fool. The "who knows" expresses his "utter skepticism", J. Crenshaw. The Preacher uses the phrase a number of times to show that there is no answer to this situation. "The whole mess is meaningless."
v20. The Preacher now moves to his second argument for the meaninglessness of work. His first argument has pushed him toward despair, now he is totally disillusioned.
v21. He gives us an illustration of a person who works with great diligence, fortitude and wisdom and so builds up his wealth. Yet, inevitably the person dies and another, who has not struggled to build this wealth, then gets to spend it and enjoy the fruits of his labor. As far as the Preacher is concerned, this proves that "the whole mess is meaningless." The situation is "a great misfortune", or better still, "a great evil." In the quest to find meaning in work, the Preacher finds life unfair.
v22. In a rhetorical question the Preacher asks, what is the value of work? The question implies a negative response. Given the effort, both physical and mental ("anxious striving" lit. "strivings of his heart"), the gain is not worth the effort.
v23. In v22 the Preacher answered the question by implication, but now he explains why work is not worth the effort. First, a person's days are used up in heavy physical exertion and mental stress (lit. "pain" and "frustration"). Second, even in the evenings when a person should be able to rest and rebuild their strength, they end up having to plan out the next day's work - "no rest for the weary." Work just goes on and on. The whole mess of it is meaningless.
In our day, just as in the Preacher's day, popular wisdom teaches that those who work hard throughout their lives will prosper. In developed countries this tends to be true. A person who applies the social formula of eight hours work, eight hours play, and 8 hours sleep, usually finds that their 9 to 5 is both rewarding and fulfilling. They come home and don't think about work and have a ball on the weekend. They survive with the bare essentials for they know that the winner in the game of life is not the person with the most toys when they die.
For others, work is the reason for their existence. It's no longer make do, it's now make money, gain status, succeed in some business or professional career. At this level life becomes a daily grind, both physically and mentally. When it comes to the evenings, if the upwardly-mobile person still has energy enough to stay awake, then they are planning the next days activities. This pattern goes on day after day. When finally they come to the end of their life, someone else gets to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and that person may be a total fool.
So, is there lasting reward in chasing the dollar, in fame, or in some high flying career? Some say yes, claiming that it brings lasting satisfaction, even meaningful existence. The Preacher disagrees, and he has examined every aspect of life. As he puts it, "The whole mess of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind."
Pursuing Babel's baubles takes massive effort, and for what gain? Jewelry is a perfect example of the "vanity" of it all. We buy a ring for $2,000 and have it valued at $3,000 replacement, but if we want to sell it we are lucky to get $200. That's right, its wholesale value is only 10%. The 90% is the operational costs of a consumer society.
All that we earn gets used up. Have you ever noticed how people on higher salaries end up with higher debt and not much to show for it? We live to our income and then a little more. Even what we create is ephemeral. So, how do we live with this vanity? The Preacher has two recommendations for us:
i] Try to "enjoy" work, 3:22. Life can work well for us when our expectations are realistic. Work is not substantial in itself, it is just an element of the created order now affected by sin and therefore at times enjoyable, at other times frustrating ("thorns and thistles", Gen.3:17-19).
ii] "Remember your Creator", 12:1-7. When it comes to authentic life, to meaningful existence, the beginning of such wise-living is found in the respect of the Lord, Pr.1:7. Only in a personal relationship with the living God in Christ is it possible to find a depth of meaning and substance that will satisfy us, both here and in eternity.
From the film "Working Class Girl" discuss the premise that satisfaction in life is found in the secular "new Jerusalem."