Ecclesiastes Lesson Five: Ecclesiastes 2:17-26 – The Emptiness of Work Apart From God

Therefore, I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me. For everything is futile and a pursuit of the wind. 

18 I hated all my work that I labored at under the sun because I must leave it to the man who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will take over all my work that I labored at skillfully under the sun. This too is futile. 20 So I began to give myself over to despair concerning all my work that I had labored at under the sun. 21 When there is a man whose work was done with wisdom, knowledge, and skill,  and he must give his portion to a man who has not worked for it, this too is futile and a great wrong. 22 For what does a man get with all his work and all his efforts that he labors at under the sun? 23 For all his days are filled with grief, and his occupation is sorrowful;  even at night, his mind does not rest. This too is futile. 

24 There is nothing better for man than to eat, drink, and enjoy his work. I have seen that even this is from God’s hand, 25 because who can eat and who can enjoy life apart from Him? 26 For to the man who is pleasing in His sight, He gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy,  but to the sinner He gives the task of gathering and accumulating in order to give to the one who is pleasing in God’s sight. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind. (HCSB)

This passage ends the first section of Ecclesiastes, where the teacher looks at the futility of life. However, in the final part of this section, he gains clarity on the goals and purpose of life. I’ll split this passage into two sections.

  • The emptiness of work – verses 17-23.
  • The joy of obedience to God – verses 24-26.

The Emptiness of Work

Verse seventeen acts like a bridge between the previous section and this one. The word “therefore” is a key to understanding this bridge. You may have heard this said before, but it’s worth repeating. When you see the word “therefore,” you need to ask the question, “what’s it there for?” Now, let’s dig deeper into the bridge and this first section of the lesson.

  • When we remember back to the previous lesson, we remember the teacher coming to the conclusion that the end result for both the wise and foolish man was the same, death.
    • That’s the reason the teacher uses the word “therefore” to start verse seventeen.
    • Because he realized that all of his work, wisdom, and accomplishments were useless once he looked back on them, the teacher “hated life.”
    • The teacher was engaged in the constant and pointless “grind” of life.
    • No matter what he accomplished, it left him feeling empty and unsatisfied when he had a chance to look back and consider his life.
    • The teacher’s hatred of his work is also an indicator of a sinful heart.
      • It began and grew through the continual pursuit of the meaning of life without including God in the equation.
      • It was a revelation of the folly of his life. He hated life, but he was afraid to die.
    • This attitude is in contrast to the Christian attitude. Our lives should be joyful regardless of our circumstances, and death is a new beginning.
  • In verses eighteen to twenty-three, the teacher considers all the wealth he’s accumulated and the work he’s accomplished and comes to the following conclusions.
    • He wasn’t able to keep any of it.
      • Sooner or later, the teacher would die, and everything he had would be left to other people.
      • 1 Timothy 6:7-10  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
      • A writer once said money is “an article which may be used as a universal passport to anywhere except heaven, and as a universal provider of everything except happiness.”
      • At the same time, we need to remember that we are stewards of what God has given to us.
        • Deuteronomy 8:18  But remember that the Lord your God gives you the power to gain wealth, in order to confirm His covenant He swore to your fathers, as it is today
        • We have the privilege of enjoying it and using it for His glory.
        • One day, we’ll all have to give an account of how we used the gifts we’ve received.
    • He wasn’t able to protect it.
      • Not only must the teacher leave it all behind, but he might also pass it to someone who would waste it.
      • This very thing happened with the teacher’s son, Rehoboam. 1 Kings 11:41-12:24.
      • It may be possible to try and write your will in such a manner that your estate won’t be wasted, but the effort doesn’t always succeed.
      • Parents never know how the next generation will turn out.
      • The teacher’s response to this revelation was to live in despair about the situation.
    • He wasn’t able to enjoy his wealth and accomplishments as he desired.
      • The teacher dwelled on his great wealth and worried about what would happen to it after he died.
      • He did all the work but would have to leave it all to someone else.
      • The teacher questioned whether or not this was fair.
      • He spent so much time accumulating wisdom and wealth, yet it would all pass away.
  • At this point, it appears that the teacher is extremely pessimistic, but he doesn’t remain that way for long.

The Joy of Obedience to God.

As we look at the last three verses of this passage, we encounter the first of six conclusions the teacher reaches in Ecclesiastes. Each of these conclusions emphasizes accepting life as God’s gift and enjoying it in God’s will. Now, let’s take a closer look at these verses.

  • The teacher wasn’t promoting the idea of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” That is a fatalistic mindset.
  • The teacher is saying, “Thank God for what you have, and enjoy and use it for the glory of God.” 1 Timothy 6:17  Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy.
    • Not only are blessings from God but even the enjoyment of the blessings should be viewed as a gift.
    • The teacher believed it was evil if a person was blessed but couldn’t enjoy them.
    • The Jews would read Ecclesiastes during the Feast of Tabernacles because this festival was a time of rejoicing and reflecting on God’s abundant provision for their needs.
  • Verse twenty-five encapsulates what the teacher means.
    • The problem is not necessarily with the “things.”
    • The problem is with the “thinking.”
      • It’s impossible to enjoy the fruits of all of our labors apart from God.
      • But, when we are rooted in God, we can fully enjoy the fruits of our labors because they fall in line with God’s will.
  • The key to our happiness and enjoyment of life is directly related to our obedience and desire to please God.
    • When we walk in obedience and trust Him, we live in a spirit of satisfaction.
      • This doesn’t mean we won’t have trials.
      • But we trust that God will carry us through those trials.
    • God will give wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those walking in obedience.
      • These three gifts allow us to appreciate God’s blessings and enjoy them.
      • It isn’t enough to possess “things.”
      • We must also have the type of character that enables us to use “things” wisely and enjoy them as God intended.
  • The sinner has a completely different type of experience.
    • They may accumulate great wealth but will never find fulfillment because they’ve left God out of the picture.
    • Their wealth may go to a righteous person. Proverbs 13:22  A good man leaves an inheritance to his grandchildren, but the sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.
  • Throughout history, Israel acquired an enormous amount of wealth from countries that walked apart from God.

The end of chapter two completes the first section of Ecclesiastes, often described as “The Problem Declared.” Let’s take a summary look back at the first two chapters.

  • The teacher presented our arguments that painted a picture that life isn’t worth living.
    • The monotony of life – 1:4-11.
    • The vanity of wisdom – 1:12-18.
    • The futility of wealth – 2:1-11.
    • The certainty of death – 2:12-23.
  • These points are valid if you only consider “life under the sun” from the human viewpoint.
  • But what happens when God is brought into the picture?
    • Everything changes.
    • Looking back at the first two chapters, we see God isn’t mentioned from 1:14 to 2:23.
    • Yet, life and death, wisdom and wealth, are all controlled by God’s hands.
    • God wants us to enjoy His blessings and walk in obedience to His instructions.
    • If we revel in the gifts but forget where those gifts come from, we are nothing more than ungrateful idolaters.


  • Take stock of what you’re pursuing in life. Are you chasing things “under the sun,” or is your vision focused on God’s will and being obedient to His instructions? If you’re dissatisfied with life, it may be because you’re focused on the wrong things or at least viewing them in the wrong way. 
  • Come to grips with the fact you can’t take your possessions or accomplishments with you after you die. Then, focus on whether your accomplishments are of an eternal or temporal nature. Trim the temporal goals and focus on or add to the eternal goals.
  • God’s Word says that those who are pleasing in God’s sight will receive wisdom, knowledge, and joy. Sometimes we lose sight of how short our life is on earth and how long eternity will be. Focus on those things that will be credited to your eternal account and remove those that are credited to your earthly account.

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