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There’s No Profit in Work. But There Is a Reward.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” We prime our children with this question almost from the beginning, urging them to envision themselves as doctors or lawyers, firefighters or police officers.

“What do you do?” That’s the easiest go-to question when we meet a new person. Based on the answer, we make an array of assumptions about a person’s worth in the world.

I know a guy who farms maggots. When he first told me, I was disgusted, then shocked, then curious about why in the world he’d do something so beyond the pale. Turns out he became a Christian and his former, more “respectable” work required him to compromise his convictions. So he started farming maggots, work that brought him enormous joy, put food on the table, and never once tempted him to compromise his faith.

We don’t just evaluate others’ worth by their work; we often view ourselves through the lens of our vocation too. I matter because I’m a _______. My work adds value to the world; it means something, and because my work means something, I mean something. Most of us don’t just want to matter now. We want to leave a legacy through our work.

The book of Ecclesiastes acknowledges humanity’s complicated relationship with work, and it offers a different perspective on this gift God has given us. It points us back to Eden where before the fall, Adam and Eve enjoyed food, work, wine, and each other (see Eccl. 2:24–26; 3:16–22; 5:18–20; 8:10–15; 9:7–10; 11:8–10). Ecclesiastes affirms work is a good gift from God, but then it confronts our tendency to make work the ground of our identity.

No Profit

Ecclesiastes 1:3 asks, “What profit is there for humanity in all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” (author’s translation; see also 3:9). After listing his grand accomplishments in 2:4–10, the Preacher answers the question: “There is no profit under the sun” (v. 11, author’s translation). The Hebrew term yitron here references profit, gain, or something left over. The Preacher tells us that in all the work we do, even if we attain the most magnificent success imaginable, there’s no “gain” or “profit” in it.

If we’re looking for our work to give us ultimate meaning or produce lasting satisfaction, we’ll be sorely disappointed.

The Preacher tells us that in all the work we do, even if we attain the most magnificent success imaginable, there’s no ‘gain’ or ‘profit’ in it.

This doesn’t mean our work doesn’t produce good fruit; it can and does by God’s grace. One of the most rewarding parts of my work as a freelance editor is to hold a published book in my hand. I play a small role in the entire process. My name is nowhere in the book, and typically no one knows I played any part in its production. But I know my work has made the book better, and there’s a unique joy in that. However, I can turn sour if I begin to think the moments of satisfaction are something I’ve earned or deserved. When this is the case, I turn inward and begin to long for more credit and recognition. That’s because “profit” was never meant to be our goal in work.

But Gift

But, the Preacher tells us, there is a reward, portion, or, as the ESV translates it, a “lot” in work. The Hebrew term heleq refers to one’s “share,” what rightfully belongs to a person, such as the “portion” of land the Lord gives to each Israelite tribe—one’s family inheritance. In Ecclesiastes, the word contrasts with “profit.” Work does not and cannot give “profit” according to the Preacher, but humanity’s “reward” for work is to enjoy it.

Ecclesiastes makes this clear in a few places:

My heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward [heleq] for all my toil. (2:10)

There is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot [heleq]. (3:22)

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 [heleq]. (5:18)

The gift of work, Ecclesiastes tells us, is found in enjoying the work itself. The Preacher laments that his grand building project in chapter 2 was nothing more than “striving after wind,” yet the “reward” in it was “pleasure in all [his] toil.” In chapter 3, his response to the crushing reality of death is to commend “that a man should rejoice in his work.” And in chapter 5, he recognizes that selfishly accumulating wealth leaves one miserable and alone. By contrast, what’s “good and fitting” is to “eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils.”

Joy in Work

Work forms only a piece of Ecclesiastes’ full vision of the human life, but it remains an important piece, especially for a culture that valorizes achievement and hard work at the expense of all else. In contrast to the modern American—and ancient Near Eastern—view of work as a means by which ultimate value is achieved, Ecclesiastes calls us to recognize work as a grace in and of itself and not to strive for what it can’t give us.

Ecclesiastes calls us to recognize work as a grace in and of itself and not to strive for what it can’t give us.

On a bright Sunday morning, I asked my maggot-farming friend about the joy he finds in his work. Eyes beaming (I’m not making this up), he talked about how God created this world and how he gets to see it in amazing ways while working with maggots. My friend talked about the creatures’ life cycle, the people he interacts with, and his tiny part in the larger economy. There’s no doubt our culture values some forms of work over others, and we’re often tempted to measure our lives against what others say matters. But that’s the way of folly.

Ecclesiastes urges its readers to take real joy in work. Not just in what we might consider important work, but in all work—from raising maggots like my neighbor to the work of the most revered pastor you can imagine. If we want our vocation, whatever it is, to fulfill us, to make us matter, to ensure some sort of legacy after “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (12:7), then we’ll be sorely disappointed. That’s not why God gave us work, and to ask something from our work that only God can give is idolatry.

But if we reorient our hearts to see and embrace work as a gift from God for our joy, then we can offer a different vision of life to those around us—a vision that looks backward to the garden of Eden, where before their grievous sin, humans enjoyed work, food, wine, and each other.

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