Ecclesiastes: Gain and Toil
Published February 22, 2023
“What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” Ecclesiastes 1:3
After the superscription (1:1) and the motto “vanity of vanities” that opens and closes the book (1:2; 12:8), the preacher asks a simple yet profound question: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Eccl. 1:3). Keen readers may recognize from the get-go that this is a rhetorical question and may be answered with a resounding “nothing.” Patient readers will find this same answer confirmed in the next chapter: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Eccl. 2:11, italics added). Yet, the exploration of this rhetorical question drives a large portion of the book and is vital to understanding the preacher’s arguments, which is why it has been called the programmatic question by commentators. In this post, I will break down and examine each of the question’s components, then I will put the pieces back together and address the question as a whole.
The Hebrew word for gain only appears in the book of Ecclesiastes, and it means “advantage” or “profit.” Depending on the context, it can refer to a limited, temporal advantage such as the advantage of wisdom over folly in this life (2:13), or to an ultimate advantage in life (or lack thereof, since Ecclesiastes teaches that ultimate gain cannot be found; Eccl. 2:11).
Like “vanity,” “toil” is another favorite word of the preacher, occurring over twenty times in the book. It is a common word in the Old Testament, but in the book of Ecclesiastes, it seems to take on a theological meaning beyond its normal use, much like the word “vanity” (for an explanation of “vanity,” see the previous post). God’s perfect design for mankind always included work (Gen. 2:15), but as a result of the fall, work became toil. In place of paradise lost, man was given a cursed ground of thorns and thistles that yields it produce reluctantly, and only to those who sweat for it (Gen. 3:17-19). In Ecclesiastes, “toil” refers to all work, all human endeavors in a post-fall world. Some translations use a more neutral word such as “labor,” but “toil” better captures weariness that permeates our activity.
Under the Sun
“Under the Sun” is a poetic way of referring to life here and now in this fallen world, as opposed to life in the age to come. It is another favorite phrase of the preacher, occurring frequently throughout the book, and it is mostly synonymous with the phrase “under heaven” (e.g., 1:13). Perhaps one reason this metaphor is used, especially in conjunction with “toil,” is the imagery of the exhaustion that results from working under the relentless heat of a scorching sun.
Putting It All Together
Humans are fallen, finite, and feeble, yet in every age man wants to become like God. Rather than accepting our limitations, we attempt to find ultimate gain through our toil. We want to control life, beat the system, crack the code, get ahead of the game. As one of your own poets has said, “Everybody wants to rule the world.” When the preacher asks about gain, he is essentially asking if it is possible to overcome our limitations and manipulate life to in order to gain some advantage. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”
Christian readers will immediately answer in the negative, yet there is still tremendous value in exploring a question to which we already know the answer. The preacher will not merely answer the question but will systematically show how he reached his conclusion. Not only that (cue a Billy Mays style “But wait, there’s more!”), he will present an alternative approach to living. Rather than informing us of where gain may be found, the preacher will show that finding gain was the wrong goal from the outset. (Unpacking this idea will be the job of a future post).
In the meantime, I’ll add one more reason why we can find value in reading a book that answers a question to which we think we already know the answer: As Christians, we still sometimes operate under the delusion that we can control life. We may verbally affirm that that there is no ultimate gain to be found through human effort, yet we still struggle with giving up its pursuit. Ecclesiastes is a call for Christians to surrender to the God who is in control and cease toiling after gain.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30