Graduation Day According to Ecclesiastes

Graduation Day According to Ecclesiastes

The Creation (1534 Luther Bible), by the Lucas Cranach Workshop
The month of May is the month of graduations.  Graduation day is a big deal.  It’s a big deal for the students who worked hard to complete their classwork and pass their tests.  It’s a big deal for parents and grandparents who are proud of their child’s accomplishments.  

Graduation day, therefore, is a day for celebration.  It can also, though, be a time for personal reflection: both for the students who are graduating as well as for those of us who are looking back on our own graduation day.  With regard to our high school or college graduation, past or present, we might ask ourselves hard questions like: “Have I done enough?”  “Are my accomplishments good enough?”  “Could I have done more?”  For Christians these questions can easily turn into: “Have I done enough to please God?”  “Am I doing what God wants of me?”  “Am I following God’s plan for my life?”  

Questions like these can lead one into despair.  The answer to any “am I doing enough” type of question, at least in relation to God, will always have a negative answer.  No, you are not doing enough for God.  No, you will not please God if you do more.  No, you will not find God’s plan for your life by searching within yourself and your own work.

If you don’t believe me, just ask King Solomon.  If anyone could ever suppose he did enough to please God it was Solomon.  Solomon was the smartest, richest, greatest king of his day.  Solomon was the best at everything he did: from building houses and planting vineyards to acquiring flocks of sheep and courting wives!  Yet here is what King Solomon concluded of all his great works:
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.  What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?  A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.  The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.  The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.  All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.  All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.  What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us.  There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after. (Ecclesiastes 1:2-11)

Solomon answers his own question of “what does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” with a definitive: absolutely nothing.  Solomon concludes that no matter how good you are or how much you do, it is only a matter of time before all your works turn to dust.

But does that mean that our accomplishments, and the quality and quantity of our work: academically, professionally, or personally, is all useless?  If the works of our hands are here one day and gone the next, does that mean we should just give up, quit trying, and stop working altogether?

Interestingly, the answer Solomon provides in the book of Ecclesiastes is no, you shouldn’t stop your work, as fleeting as your labors may be!  If you read the book of Ecclesiastes carefully you come to find that Solomon’s opening question, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun” is more of a riddle than a rhetorical question.  The answer to the riddle is this: yes it’s true that in the end man gains nothing from the work of his hands… and that’s just fine!  For as difficult as this is for our American, productivity-driven minds to process, Solomon leads us to see that the reason we work is not primarily to produce or accomplish anything.  Rather, Solomon says:
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.  Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart. (Eccl. 5:18-20)

According to Solomon, we work because we have been blessed by God with work to do.  Just as a house sits on a precisely measured lot of land, God has given us all a specific lot in life: a specific spot in this creation which God has carved out for us to exist.  God gives to us as a part of this lot in life a particular collection of gifts such as intelligence, skills, and relationships which allow us toil toward the goal of loving God and loving our neighbor in the best way that our lot in life allows.

Solomon counsels us that far greater in importance than the productivity and proficiency of our work is the joy of our work!  Your academic studies and your job is not about producing the most or being the best or reaching the top.  Your job is about receiving from God an opportunity to receive your daily bread and an opportunity to love and support your fellow man.

Whether your job makes you a whole pile of money or you’re a mother whose job doesn’t pay at all, whether you have a doctorate degree or just finished high school, whether you work in the big city or on the family farm, at the end of the day you can eat and drink and find joy in your work because that is the lot God has given to you in this life.  Don’t find yourself in the dangerous habit of comparing your lot with your neighbor’s lot.  God has given us all our own lot and we know that if our lot in life has been given to us by God then it is just what we need.  Of course if someday you decide to get more education or get a different job, God will be pleased with you then too – provided you continue to see your work as a gift from His hand and you find joy in doing it as a result.  

This all doesn’t mean you’re not going to have bad days and hard days and days not quite filled up with joy.  We are sinners living in a sinful world after all.  What this means is that if you are living and working according to God’s commands and promises and finding joy in the gifts God gives you, especially the gift of daily repentance and forgiveness of sins in Christ, then wherever you are in life and whatever you are doing you are pleasing God, you are doing enough, and you are following God’s plan for your life.

Therefore, whether you are graduating this month or reflecting on a past graduation, celebrate the day and the degree and the education and effort it represents as one special day in the midst of all the days that God gives to you as a gift as a part of your lot in life. “For there is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find joy his work.  This also, I saw, is from the hand of God (Eccl. 2:24).”

+Soli Deo Gloria+
Pastor Thomas Cowell 
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Thomas Cowell