Death and Toil in Ecclesiastes

In Ecclesiastes 1:14, the Teacher declares all earthly deeds vain and futile. This is because there is no discernible relationship between one’s conduct and the outcome of one’s life, particularly in the face of death (8.14). Further, because God shapes both events in the world and the world itself in such a way that all of His deeds remain an unsolvable puzzle, humans are ignorant of how to properly conduct their lives (3:11; 8:17). In this essay, I evaluate the Teacher’s notion of a meaningful life in the context of these constraints. I argue that despite the absolute limitations God imposes on human knowledge and action, two constraints in particular–death and toil–leave room for humans to derive meaning from life. 

The Teacher begins by lamenting the “vanity” of the toil he endured in order to achieve his earthly “accomplishments,” which produced nothing but a fleeting sense of pleasure (2.9-11). The Teacher equates vanity to a sense of uselessness, insofar as one’s conduct bears no relation to the outcome of one’s life. Because the “same fate befall all [humans],” the Teacher states that it is impossible for humans to know how God judges their earthly deeds, and act in accordance with his judgment. (2.14). This “same fate” is death, which erases all prospects of benefitting from one’s toil: “there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (2.11). After examining how even the wise are unable to surmount the futility of earthly deeds, the Teacher states, “the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate one does not know. Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked” (9.1-2). In other words, God does not reward or punish individuals on the basis of their conduct; at least on Earth, God’s judgement seems to be irrelevant to the outcome of one’s life. The Teacher thus concludes that the outcome of human life is not ordered by justice, but is instead dictated by time and chance– factors beyond human control (9.11). 

Noting the equalizing effect of death, the Teacher concludes that humans experience a universal, eternal ignorance of God’s reasons for arranging creation as He did. The Teacher states that “[h]owever much they may toil in seeking [an understanding of the work of God], they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out” (8.17). Nevertheless, this ignorance, like all things, is purposefully built into the world so that humans might “stand in awe before [God]” because “whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it” (3.14). Spending one’s life attempting to elicit a good outcome from God by gaining an understanding of His creation is deemed a futile exercise. Thus, the Teacher looks to construct a framework for how to live in accordance with what we do know, lest we spend our lives hopelessly conjecturing. To this end, the Teacher turns to two constraints on human life to provide the foundation for an enjoyable life in the face of vanity: death and toil.

Although the Teacher identifies death as a primary contributor to life’s vanity, he nevertheless incorporates death into his framework. For the Teacher, death is intrinsic to human nature. Much like the wind, death is simply a fact of earthly existence: “No one has power over the wind to restrain the wind, or power over the day of death; there is no discharge from the battle” of life (8.8). While expressing the inescapable reality that “the days of darkness will be many” and that “all that comes is vanity,” the Teacher insists that such limitations do not prevent one from rejoicing in all of his years (11.8). Given that the constraints on life are immutable, one must orient oneself toward enjoyment in spite of death. Lest one should waste God’s gifts and be punished by Him, the Teacher also instructs the reader to follow several commands in accordance with this enjoy-life-while-you-can sentiment: to rejoice while one is young, to follow the inclination of one’s heart and the desire of one’s eyes, to banish anxiety from the mind, to expel pain from the body (11.9-10). For the Teacher, there is nothing better than enjoying all the good that life has to offer, no matter how transient that enjoyment might be: “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live” (3.12). 

Alongside death, another constraint on human life is toil. According to the Teacher, toil is a gift from God that we are meant to enjoy (3.13). If humans are meant to attain enjoyment during earthly existence, it will not necessarily be found in the products of human toil, but in toil itself. The Teacher urges his reader, “Enjoy life… all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom… [where] you are going” (9.9-10). In other words, the products of toil are just as transient as existence, so one must find enjoyment in toil itself before death, “for this [enjoyment] will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun” (8.15). Toil, not its products, is a constant in human life; therefore, if one is to take advantage of this life with any degree of success, one must derive enjoyment from toil.

Although the Teacher gives primacy to toil in defining meaning in human life, he does not discount other possible sources of human pleasure. The Teacher contrasts toil itself with the fruits of toil, noting that fixating on the products of one’s toil, such as wealth and material possessions, only brings humans pain, vexation, and anxiety. Unlike toil itself, toil’s products are not guaranteed. However, we can enjoy them when we “accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—this is the gift of God.” (5.19). In this way, the Teacher exhorts us to enjoy not only our toil, but also our wealth, so as long as we accept the vanity of human existence. While the Teacher initially stated that the vanity of his deeds caused him to “[hate] life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to [him],” this should not be interpreted necessarily as disdain for earthly life, but rather disdain for its misuse (2. 17).

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