“What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” I am a young father of three, and one of our family’s nightly, pre-bedtime rituals is to pick up the living room. My wife and I try our best to make it as fun as possible–even though our toddlers get bored easily. But inevitably, picking up the living room always proves to be an exercise of futility. Sure, the toys are picked up, the stray socks are found, the furniture is repositioned in the proper place, the lamp shades are straightened, the sippy cups are washed, the fallen-food is swept up, BUT there is the ever-nagging reality that tomorrow the living room will be just as messy as it was before. In my short tenure as a dad, I’ve learned to hold loosely to the hopes of a tidy, toy-free living room. And the harder my wife and I work for a clean living room the more God sanctifies us with hidden Cheerios in the couch.
Truth be told, life in this world is filled with futility. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes rightly questions what “gain” there is in all man’s toil. He goes on to say that one generation goes, and another comes (and implicit in his statement is that no generation goes on forever). The sun rises and the sun sets. The wind blows south and then it blows north, around and around it goes without end. The streams continuously pour into the sea, but the sea is never full. These meditations lead him to lament, “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (vv. 8, 9).
Keep in mind that this is Solomon speaking. The King of Israel’s golden age laments over the futility of this world. “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is [a vapor] and a striving after wind” (v. 14). Remembering who Solomon was helps to make sense of why he laments in this way. As a king, Solomon built palaces, stables, accumulated wealth, built amazing gardens, and led Israel to become one of the most prosperous nation in the Ancient Near East. This was a man who was so successful that his everyday drinking cups were made of gold, and silver was viewed as just another common metal (see 2 Chron. 9:20). And yet, he finds it all “a vapor.” Ultimately nothing he had done would last forever. After all the countless hours of tedious labor, the stress, the meetings, the money–after it all–he discovers that there was no eternal gain in any of it.
As is seen in subsequent chapters, Solomon does not question the value of hard work, of wisdom, or of accomplishments. He only wants to remind his readers that nothing under this sun can give us eternal gain. Everything including our jobs, our education, our achievements, and our aspirations carry only temporary satisfaction. Ecclesiastes warns that those who pursue these things as if they were eternal will ultimately find them to be “vanity.”
It is not that we should give up on life and do nothing. Solomon simply wants us to keep things in the right perspective. He chuckles and warns young dads like me, “Pick up the living room, but remember it’ll be messy again tomorrow!” He warns workaholics, “Remember! Your job is going to end someday, and all your achievements will be handed to someone else.” He warns students, “Get your degree! But remember your degree is for this world only…there are no PhDs in heaven.”
For true eternal gain, the Preacher would have us to lift our eyes above this world. If the “world under the sun” can never give us lasting satisfaction, then surely only the God who is above the sun can. This is the Old Testament’s way of saying, “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1b). Are you pursuing true eternal gain?