The Emptiness of Work
Open Your Bible
Ecclesiastes 2:1-26, Genesis 1:26-28, John 15:9-11
BY Ellen Taylor
I turned sixteen the summer before my junior year of high school. Along with the new excitement of being able to drive came the responsibility of having my first “real” job. I worked as a cashier at a neighborhood pharmacy and gift shop in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, taking phone calls for prescription refills and stocking the shelves with face lotion and hand soap. But the best part of this summer job was something we lovingly referred to as “Christmas in July”—receiving all of the seasonal products for Christmas at the pharmacy, pricing them accordingly, and keeping track of inventory until they put out the Christmas items in late fall.
I was constantly confused by the juxtaposition of the stifling Alabama summer heat with the Santa Claus figurines and snowflake ornaments. Even so, I loved that job. The fragile ornaments and figurines needed special care while unpacking, and even though it meant I left covered in glitter every day, I paid special attention to them, lifting them gingerly out of their boxes and placing them on the storage shelves where they would sit until they made their debut in the pharmacy. It might not have been the most important job, but I found purpose in it.
King Solomon had one of the most important jobs in the Old Testament. God called him to build the temple where God’s presence would dwell among the Israelites (1Chronicles 22:6–10). This was an incredible honor, one that God didn’t even entrust to King David, who was considered a “man after [God’s] own heart” (1Samuel 13:14).
Despite all this, Ecclesiastes 2 tells us that King Solomon struggled with the purpose of work. He writes, “I hated all my work that I labored at under the sun because I must leave it to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will take over all my work that I labored at skillfully under the sun. This too is futile” (Ecclesiastes 2:18–19). To the author of Ecclesiastes, leaving his work behind after death made it meaningless, a pursuit of the wind. But he goes on to explain that while he felt as though his work was meaningless, there is “nothing better for a person than to eat, drink, and enjoy his work” (v.24).
In Genesis 1, after the creation of humankind, God instructed Adam and Eve to work, telling them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). God’s design for humanity always included work—it preceded the fall! Our work is not meaningless; we are called to it. And when we do our work for the glory of the one who worked first to create us, it has eternal meaning and significance.