On Labor Day we celebrate the American worker. The workplace can be both a positive and negative experience. Sometimes we can get very frustrated. At a large company one day, an employee entered the managerís office to ask for a raise: "Iíve been here nearly ten years doing three menís work for one manís pay," he said. "Iím sorry, we canít give you a raise," said the manager, "but if youíll tell me who the other two men are, Iíll fire them."
Because of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century, many people found themselves employed in large factories. The work conditions in the early 19th Century were poor, which spawned the growth of Labor Unions. These unions were especially strong at the end of the 19th Century and early 20th Century. Because of the importance of this movement, in 1882 Labor Day celebrations began in America. However, the last half of the 20th Century has seen a marked decline in labor unions with the increase of service and information industries. Unions now only represent 14% of Americaís workforce. In spite of the union influence, Labor Day has always been a day Americans honor its workers. The traditional American work ethic is what has brought the amazing financial and economic success to our country.
Laboring is nothing new. Solomon wrote about toil under the sun 3000 years ago in the book of Ecclesiastes. I want to look at some of what he wrote and perhaps we can see how it applies to our work situation today.
What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
You might ask yourself this question from time - what use is all my hard work? Thatís what Solomon asked. We spend a good portion of our lives toiling under the sun. For some of us, it can be a very fulfilling endeavor, for others it can be a time of stress and frustration. The author of Ecclesiastes uses this term often - "under the sun." By this phrase, he seems to indicate what we try to accomplish in our earthly pursuits instead of heavenly pursuits. If all we do is live and work for ourselves, it will seem like meaningless toil under the sun. But we donít have to stay under the sun. We can work with heaven in our heart and Godís joy in our life.
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains for ever.
Edward Fitzgeraldin his free translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam wrote these lines:
The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
As we get older, we start burying our parents and see our children having children - one generation goes and another generation comes. If all we have to live for is to someday die, then this thought could be very frustrating as it was to Omar Khayyam. But notice Solomon tells us, "but the earth remains forever." We may depart this life, but our legacy lives on in our children and grandchildren. What kind of influence are we being on our future generations? We donít know how long our descendants will continue on this planet, but we do know that someday we will dwell in our eternal home. Let us do all we can to pass our faith to future generations so that they will be with us for all eternity.
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.
From sun up to sun down we are busy. We work, we plan, we prepare. As soon as one dayís work is done, it is time to rest to prepare for a new day of working, planning, preparing. It seems like this cycle never ends.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in The Village Blacksmith
Toiling - rejoicing - sorrowing,
You may feel like Longfellow or Solomon that one day runs into another. But what are you doing with the day that the Lord has given you? Are you grateful for Godís blessing and are you endeavoring to fill your day with constructive work? When our focus is on God, we will find every day will be filled with joy and meaning.
The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
Have you ever noticed how there are certain weather patterns that repeat themselves? Year after year there are similar occurrences. Even with all the advances in meteorology we are only beginning to understand how the weather patterns cause the winds to swirl and blow and effect our climate.
Atkinscomments, "...we live in alternating cycles of waking and sleeping, of working and resting; in the words of the psalmist, of going out and coming in.... It is the very constancies in nature and experience that make ordered life possible. Ancient and established habits of earth and sky are our safeguards."
Just as the winds always return, so we can make plans and preparations in our own life. Each day is a gift from God. Some day it may be bright and sunshiny, other times it may be windy and cold. Sometimes a new day will bring storms, other times it brings calmness. But we know that storms donít last forever, and we know that the rain clouds are finally replaced by the sunshine.
So also in our work let us not be frustrated when things donít go well - when the storm clouds are fierce and angry. We know that soon the weather will change. God has given order to his creation, and God is faithful to us. Times of difficulty will soon enough change to times of blessing as long as we can walk in patience and in faith.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
Here Solomon speaks of the water cycle in nature. The streams run to the sea and yet the sea is not full. The water evaporates off of the ocean and becomes rain clouds which deposits snowfall on the mountains. When the snow melts, the streams flow back down to the sea. To Solomon it seemed like an endless cycle. Perhaps your work or your life seems like an endless cycle. You donít feel that you can ever get ahead. You always seem to be working, but you feel that you are accomplishing little.
What you have forgotten to realize is that as the water flows down the streams, it feeds the plant and animal life. New trees grow, new vegetation occurs, fish and animals feed on its life-giving sustenance. From an earthly perspective it may seem that the water is flowing in a monotonous, meaningless cycle. But from a heavenly view we see that this water cycle is what sustains all life on the planet. Who does your life affect? How many people have you influenced, how many have been touched by your faith or been moved by your testimony? We donít really know how many lives we have touched, but someday when we get to heaven I think we will be amazed how the little kindnesses we have done have had major influence on so many people in so many ways. Let us be willing to have Godís love flow from us to others.
All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
When we work long and hard, we may become weary. But no matter how much money we earn, we always seem to need more. No matter how many things we purchase, we always see more things to buy. No matter how many good things we hear, we are always ready to hear more.
The blessing of work is that we are never satisfied that we have done a perfect job. If we do a poor job, we want to try harder next time. If we do a wonderful job and receive praise for it, we want to do even better the next time. Steady and constant work is its own reward. Our fulfillment does not come from getting things. Our fulfillment comes from striving to reach goals and when those goals are reached, setting new goals to pursue. The real joy of living is in the journey.
Too often we are blinded by the desire to acquire. We would love to have someone hand us a check for one million dollars, and we think that we would be so happy buying whatever we wanted. But the truth of the matter is that there is great joy in working hard to achieve things. Items purchased through long times of struggle are so much more worthwhile than something handed to us.
The Interpreterís Bibleremarks, "The protest against the always recurrent without lift or fruition, the protest which accentuates the minor music of these verses, is really the adventurer in the human spirit always seeking new frontiers, the Ďdivine discontentí which, though it forbids us the lesser peace, calls us to the heights. That is why the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The human spirit seeks the unseen and listens for the inaudible voice."
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.
Here is Solomonís conclusion to his philosophy of life. In spite of our struggles and our endless work cycles, we will find real meaning in everything we do when we make God part of our work, our lives, and our play. Solomon said, "fear God and keep his commandments." When we do this, even dull and boring tasks take on new meanings.
Martin Lutherwrote, "The Christian cannot have his God without being willing to work in His service. Even Adam was not allowed to be idle in the Garden, but was given something by God to do."
What is it that God has given you to do? No matter what job or activity you are involved in, do it as unto the Lord. Give it your best effort, and allow the Holy Spirit to guide you in your work. You may discover that work that seemed boring and meaningless suddenly takes on new importance. You may start seeing things through heavenly eyes instead of being blinded by your earthly vision "under the sun."
For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
This is why we can take joy in all we do. We know that God will reward good. God can see every deed that we do - whether done openly or in secret. Nothing is hidden from him. So no matter how frustrated or disappointed we may feel, we can know that all things are in Godís hands. In fact here in this one verse, Solomon summarizes Immanuel Kantís moral argument for faith in God - God will judge all of us. So we know that as long as we are faithful and true to Godís commands, it doesnít matter what anyone else does. God will work it all out in the end.
When we realize this, then it is so much easier to take abuse in the workplace and even love those who are persecuting us. Because we know someday God will judge us by our deeds. We will even begin to feel compassion for those who are doing so much wrong to us, and we will want to pray for them and see them find Christ in their lives too.
Whatever work you do, do it as unto God. And you will experience a joy and contentment that you have never known before. God loves you and only has the very best for you.
This study on Ecclesiastes 1:3-8, 12:13-14 © 1999 by David Humpal, all rights reserved.
The story of the employee from The Complete Speakerís Sourcebook pg. 387 © 1996, Zondervan Publishing House
Fitzgerald: Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam pg. 94 & 111 (stanza 71 & 100) © 1947, Random House
Atkins: The Interpreterís Bible, vol. 5, pg. 27-28 © 1956, Abingdon Press
The Interpreterís Bible, vol. 5, pg. 29 © 1956, Abingdon Press
Luther: The Complete Speakerís Sourcebook pg. 388 © 1996, Zondervan Publishing House