Four reasons to use Ecclesiastes in a workplace Bible Study:
1)Ecclesiastes is the most extensive meditation on the meaning of labor in the Bible.Ecclesiastes begins with the question, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” and much of the book is dedicated to answering that question.There are many other portions of scripture that address work, but for the most part those portions provide us with instruction as to how best to work. For example, the book of Proverbs gives direction as to how to apply wisdom in work. It describes the difference between the wise worker and the fool, the worker who pleases God versus the worker who is a disgrace. The book of Proverbs asks “how?” Ecclesiastes asks “why?”The book of Ecclesiastes asks the more basic question:“What is the value of work?What is the purpose of work?What’s the point?”It asks the question other books take for granted.
2)Ecclesiastes gives us a good starting point for meaning-of-life discussions with our coworkers. It contains one very wise man’s ruminations about the value of work, ruminations that ring true for us all. Anyone who has thought deeply about the meaning of our labor, and asked “why?” ought to resonate with the Preacher’s observations and his conclusions. Although Ecclesiastes takes the existence of God and his activity and interest in the world into account, and interprets the meaning of our labor in light of that, this is a perspective most of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, share. The philosophy of Ecclesiastes falls short of a full-blown Christian view of work.[i] It is common ground.
3)Ecclesiastes itself claims that its own observations and conclusions are true.Even though we may find Ecclesiastes perplexing at many points and may feel dissatisfied with its seemingly incomplete conclusions, we have to acknowledge the assessment of its own teaching at the end of the book, “The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.” (Ecc. 12:10)This is a two-fold commendation of the Preacher’s writing.He wrote “uprightly” and the words he wrote are “words of truth.”
4)The New Testament endorses the conclusions of Ecclesiastes. Paul tells us that the answers in Ecclesiastes are as good as it gets apart from the reordering of priorities brought in by the resurrection of Christ with its promise of our own future resurrection. Ecclesiastes describes a rational life. It describes the best life has to offer. This is the way our coworkers ought to live. If they have constructed their lives around their work and the well-being of their immediate families, that’s a good thing. Cocooning is rational.
Look at what Paul says in 1st Corinthians.
19 If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied …32b If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” (1 Cor 15:19, 32b-33)
And, compare this with Ecclesiastes:
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God. (Ecc 2:24, see also 3:13; 5:18; and 8:15)
Paul endorses the ruminations of Ecclesiastes. He affirms that if there is no resurrection then there is nothing better for us than to eat, drink, and pursue pleasure in our labor. That’s all there is to life. Our coworkers who live to work have it right, so long as they maintain a proper work/life balance and are conscious of an ultimate accountability to God.
The New Testament endorses the truth of Ecclesiastes – but then it claims that Easter changes everything.
[i] Both my wife and my son, Eric, have read through this and asked how this could be consistent with our belief in the absolute authority and inerrancy of the Bible.It seems weird to claim that Ecclesiastes does not present a fully Christian view of work while asserting that it is authoritative for our Christian faith and practice.I have a couple responses to this:
First, Hebrews 1:1,2 teaches clearly that all revelation prior to Christ is partial.The word translated as “in many ways” in “God spoke to our fathers through the prophets at many times and in many ways” could just as well be translated as “in many parts.”God’s revelation prior to his full, consolidating revelation in the Son, is progressive.It unfolds over time.Each revelation in the Old Testament is partial; it is a piece of the whole.Asserting the fragmentary nature of Old Testament revelation does not say that it is wrong.It remains true, but we ought to interpret it in light of the fuller revelation we have in Christ.
Second, when we claim that the Bible is inerrant, we are asserting that it is never wrong in what it affirms.It is inerrant on its own terms.Proverbs, for example, sometimes includes descriptions of what is generally true in the wise man’s observation.The diligent generally prosper while the idle suffers want.It would be wrong to think that inerrancy must imply that the diligent always prosper.That simply goes beyond the intent of the Proverb.Likewise, the Preacher is reporting his observation, which is absolutely true and without error.There is no mistake in anything he says.