10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. 14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. – Ecclesiastes 3:10-14
This is a pivotal segment in Solomon’s Great Life experiment. The word for business in v.10 (הָעִנְיָן) means business, hard labour or (as the KJV has it) “travail”; and rightly so, as labour, work and toil are results of the Fall (Gen 3:17-19). And in the same tone of futility, you can almost hear Solomon sighing as he says these words. That awful, necessary business that God has given people to occupy themselves with until they die, is what we often refer to as “hard work” or “career”.
Ahem. Let’s move on before we get derailed.
Solomon, the old, repentant king of Israel, after having tried EVERYTHING a person could ever experience in a lifetime, draws his earth-shattering conclusions. Remember, he’s preaching (cf. 1:1,2). Imagine him standing on a pulpit with an enormous crowd of his people around him, telling them what he has discovered.
Now picture yourself in the crowd.
Here’s what gets me with this passage (the bold section should be a hint): [God] has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (v11b).
First, that we all have a sense of eternity in us. Now, some translations have “knowledge” (YLT) or “the world” (KJV) for that word (הָעֹלָם), which literarily means “obscurity” or “something concealed” “vanishing point” but is used several times in the OT with the sense of “forever” (e.g. 1 Chr. 16:36) or “eternity” as in here.
I will hasten to add that this is not Calvin’s “sense of divinity” – at least not in the context of Ecclesiastes. Solomon is telling us that we all carry in us a sense that we are not transient creatures; an innate understanding of what timelessness is and how we fit into it. Too abstract? Think about is this way: This is how we differ from animals. After all, have you ever seen a monkey drop its banana and lament, “what is the meaning of life?”
So this is how Solomon drives home his point: The result of our rebellion against God has trapped us in this futile cycle of toiling and working and striving and doing and achieving and gaining and producing, only for us to be too old to enjoy any of the fruits of our labour in the end, and then die only to leave all we have made to the ones after us (cf. Ecc. 2:18-20; Ps. 39:6, 49:10). But the fact that we can see all of our struggle and labour from an eternal perspective is what drives people to madness and/or suicide. It’s what makes us want to stay under the covers and never go back to work again. It’s what has driven most of western philosophy (you know, the one on TV) since the days of Plato. It’s what we take great pains to avoid contemplating and furiously distract ourselves from with anything we can lay our hands on.
And then, oh, those words: yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. Now, the word “yet” is crucial because it’s actually not there in the original Hebrew (don’t doze off, this is important!). In the Septuagint, the Greek scholars threw in the word “όπως” (“so that”) to connect the phrases. Now, I don’t think it’s without merit, although some other translators have opted for “except that” and “however”. You can see the difference: “Yet” implies that God has meant for us to never realise what He is doing; “except that” simply observes the sad reality that we are unable to do so. My preference is actually for the second translation, because it underscores the burden that we carry as fallen creatures; also, God never leaves His people in the dark concerning His plans (cf. John 15:15). It’s the great lesson Job finally grasped: We are not God.
The point is this: the human tragedy is that no matter how much we work and create and enjoy, we will never be satisfied, never be content, never be completely happy and never be at peace because we are eternal creatures stuck in a temporal, fleeting world.
Please allow me some presumption: If you are of any age and haven’t ever been struck by that reality, then you don’t know anything about life.
We are born, we get on a treadmill of labour, toil, sorrow and grief with brief respites of rest and enjoyment, and we absurdly just go on, too scared to lift our eyes from our feet because then we’d realise that we’re really not getting anywhere.
So what is the resolution to all this? I mean, there’s got to be one! This is the Bible, and we expect answers.
Well, there are answers, but we seldom like them.
Remember 1 Cor.15:58? “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
Think about it. We are eternal creatures, and we will never be truly satisfied with the temporal value our work unless we do something with lasting (aka “eternal”) value. And the only one who could give our labour eternal value is someone who is eternal too. And that, friends, is God.
Life for life has a net value of zero. But a life that is lived for God rather than myself is a life graced with everlasting fruit and joy. And when that becomes a reality, we are set free from the pointless pursuit of equally pointless goals. See, our existence is infected with futility. Nothing we achieve will ever have any value in of itself. And even though we long to, we are completely unable by ourselves to comprehend the Big Picture and understand how our existence – that is like a breath (Ps. 39:5; 144:4) – fits in God’s eternal plans. But when we completely and utterly trust in Him, we can then begin know all this; and in knowing we can rest because of who God is.