“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (Ecclesiastes 9:10, NIV)
Many people read only the first part of this verse and think that it means any effort we put forward and devote ourselves to will succeed. Others think of the passage in the New Testament, where the apostle Paul exhorts us to work faithfully for God wherever He plants us (Colossians 3:23). However, anybody who has read through Ecclesiastes with an attentive mind will see that the author intends a very different conclusion.
#1 Unveiling Wise Teachings
Ecclesiastes is one of the most unique books of the Bible. It is a treasure trove of wisdom and perspective that all believers can learn from. It is traditionally attributed to King Solomon, who was regarded as the wisest person who ever lived (1 Kings 3:12, 28). He is known for the great period of prosperity in the unified kingdom of Israel, as well as for constructing the first Temple of the Lord. He also wrote much of the book of Proverbs, which functionally serves as a collection of his wise sayings (Proverbs 10:1).
While Solomon is never explicitly named as the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, he identifies himself as “the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:1).
#2 Unsatisfactory and Worthless Tests
The book then meanders down a path toward what Solomon hopes will be the meaning of life. He is on a determined quest to find something that gives life meaning, but he fails (Ecclesiastes 1:2). He tries wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:13), pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1), common sense (Ecclesiastes 2:12), and hard work (Ecclesiastes 2:18). Each one ultimately disappoints him, as he brands each one futile in its attempt to provide lasting peace for his spirit.
We can learn from this lesson to not trust in things created by mankind. We can pour ourselves into our careers, pursue pleasures of every kind, seek comfort in relationships and loved ones, and devote our time and energies to gaining wisdom and wealth and power and anything else that will only leave us unsatisfied. All of these things can only lead to “vanity and vexation of spirit” (Ecclesiastes 2:25).
#3 Ultimately Wasted Toil
The author also provides smaller segments of wise counsel amidst his expressions of frustration at the emptiness he finds at every turn. He observes that there is an appropriate time for an entire lifetime of feelings and emotions (Ecclesiastes 3:1). He provides a clear contrast between wisdom and folly, painting wisdom as the better path (Ecclesiastes 7, 10).
Most significantly, however, Solomon has a low view of life. In countless places throughout his book, he bemoans the fact that it doesn’t matter how much we do in this life. We’ve all heard the phrase, “You can’t take it with you.” That saying may well have had its origins in Ecclesiastes. We are unable to bring any of our wealth with us when we die; it is instead passed down to our children, and we have no control over how it is used at that point. Our work will be undone, our wisdom does not provide a lasting benefit, and it doesn’t matter whether we are rich or poor; we all meet the same fate in the grave. Cynical and exhausted from his search, the author arrives at the conclusion that we should simply do our best and enjoy what we can out of life (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25).
#4 Unearthing Wisdom from Tragedy
Although it can seem fatalistic and pointless, the author concedes that everything in this life comes from God anyway (Ecclesiastes 3:14), and this line of thought carries throughout the rest of the book. While he searches in vain for an earthly answer to his question, he returns again and again to the throne of God, and advocates for careful observance of the Law and faithfulness to His covenant (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7). Wisdom and goodness are said to come from God, and wickedness will lead to destruction. In this way, Solomon does arrive at the true meaning of life.
Some seasons in our lives may seem pointless, but we should remember that God is working good through it all (Romans 8:28). In those moments, Ecclesiastes says, it is best simply to remember that God has given us simple pleasures that can brighten our day in the midst of it all. And when we wonder what supernatural purpose drives our lives, we should remember that there are blessings in the mundane, and God’s favor can be seen in our strivings.
What we do matters. What we say matters. And we should not feel guilty for finding light and joy in the midst of our struggles. God is the Author of all good things, and that includes the security of a relationship, the joy created by sights and sounds and smells, and the satisfaction of a job well done. As long as we bring our work in alignment with God’s will and we are faithful to seek Him first, we should claim the freedom we have to put our all into our work and strive for success. Even though it is only temporary, it is a gift from God, and we should be grateful to Him for giving it all to us.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.