Topic: Expository Passage: Ecclesiastes 4:4-16
Good morning! Please turn to the book of Ecclesiastes 4:4-16.
“Work-life balance” is a hot topic these days. Have you heard that term? Basically, “How do I keep work from running (and thus, ruining) my life? How do I keep work in check?” Have you heard of TED talks? It’s a forum where various successful people give informative or motivational speeches. Their slogan is “ideas worth spreading.” I looked on the TED website, and there are 14 separate talks on the topic of “work-life balance.” That’s a lot! Apparently this topic hits a nerve with our society.
But what’s also interesting is that God cares about this topic. Through Solomon, God inspired the text we’ll look at today, which corresponds pretty closely to the modern concept of “work-life balance.” So today, I’d like to offer my own talk. It won’t be based on personal anecdotes or flashy statistics; but it will be based on ultimate truth from the Creator, which is infinitely more valuable.
Let’s begin by reading Ecclesiastes 4:4-16.
TRANSITION: The question today is how to keep work from running (or ruining) your life. Three points. Point #1: Check your motivation. There are two wise motivations and two foolish motivations in verses 4-9. Let’s start with a foolish motivation.
II. Check your motivation
Foolish motivation #1: jealousy - In vv. 4-6. Solomon presents a study in contrasts. On one side, you’ve got the jealous over-achiever; and on the other side, you’ve got the slothful under-achiever. Let’s look first at the jealous over-achiever (v. 4). The first sentence in that verse is a bit difficult to translate; but I like how the Holman Christian Standard Bible puts it: “I saw that all labor and all skillful work is due to a man’s jealousy of his friend.” In other words, Solomon’s point is not that jealousy is the result of labor but that jealousy is the motivation for labor. Does that make sense? That’s different than the way the NKJV takes it, so I want to be clear.
What does Solomon mean by the word “jealousy” in v. 4? Another word we could use would be “rivalry.” You’ve heard the phrase, “Keeping up with the Jones’s”? That’s what he means. It’s the part of human nature that thinks, “I always want to be better than the next guy, in some way or another. Maybe I can dress a little bit better than he does. Maybe my truck will be 10 years newer. Maybe I’ll be better educated, or I’ll live in a nicer neighborhood.” You see, we work our tails off in order to achieve these status symbols for the sole purpose of proving, “I’m better than you.” Are people really dumb enough to fall for that? Yes! Are you and I dumb enough to fall for that? Sadly, the answer is “yes.” We don’t like to admit it, but at times, we can be brutal.
Someone illustrated this attitude to me using a popular hand symbol. He said, “We want to say of our friends, ‘He and I are like this [cross fingers]. This is me [point to taller finger].’” “He and I are tight; but just so you know, I’m better.”
I want you to see 3 facts about jealousy from this passage.
First, jealousy is everywhere. We find this attitude among groups of Jr. High girls, and we find it among professional athletes. It’s a problem with young people, and it is a problem with senior citizens. It shows up when mothers of preschoolers get together for a play date, and it shows up when the leaders of the free world meet at the United Nations. Solomon says “all toil and every skillful work” is the result of jealousy. It’s everywhere!
But second, it’s also a powerful motivator. Jealousy produces “toil” and “skillful work.” In other words, it makes people work hard and leads to remarkable output. There are men who put in countless hours at the gym, for the sole purpose… of being the biggest guy at the gym. There are people who spend hundreds of hours manicuring their lawns (or dirt) … so that they can have the nicest yard on the street.
The third fact about jealousy that we see in this passage is that it’s an unhealthy motivator. Solomon calls hard work motivated by jealousy “vanity and grasping for wind.” Look at how he says it in v. 6 (v. 6). Notice that the two occurrences of the word “with” are italicized. So this verse literally reads, “Better is a handful of quietness than two fistfuls of toil and grasping for wind.” “Alright, Mr. Jealous Man, you achieved two handfuls. Good for you! You’ve got a lot of stuff. But what does all of that stuff boil down to? In the end, it’s just “vanity and grasping for wind.” So, “Congratulations! you just earned two fistfuls of vanity! That guy over there only earned one handful of vanity, but you earned two!” You see, if your work is motivated by a spirit of jealous rivalry, then you can kiss happiness goodbye, because “keeping up with the Jones’s” will never satisfy you. Why is jealousy an empty motivation? Why will “keeping up with the Jones’s never satisfy you?
First, there will always be some who’s better than you. Even in rare situations where that’s not the case, someone will claim that it is, so you still won’t be satisfied! As soon as Michael Jordan retires, the next guy comes around, and people start saying, “I think he’s even better than Jordan!” So Jordan wants to come out of retirement to prove that he’s still the best. Do you see how that is an endless cycle?
Second, there are so many arenas for potential competition that keeping score is impossible! “He’s more respected in the community, but my kids are better behaved.” “Her house is decorated nicer, but I get to go on fancy vacations.” “He’s got more followers on Instagram, but I have more Facebook friends.” Do you see? Apart from God, there’s simply no way for us to measure who’s really the best!
Finally, “keeping up with the Jones’s” doesn’t leave room for the most important things in life. While you’re pursuing your career, your dreams, or whatever, who’s watching your kids grow up? Who’s taking your wife on dates? Who’s telling your neighbor about Jesus? Who’s volunteering in the church nursery? Do you see how much we sacrifice on the altar of our jealousy? “Keeping up with the Jones’s” can never satisfy. Only Jesus satisfies.
TRANSITION: So foolish motivation #1 is jealousy. Wise motivation #1 is necessity. We might say it this way: “Don’t live to work; work to live” (v. 5).
Wise motivation #1: necessity
This verse is a proverbial statement that calls for some explanation. Basically, the fool looks at this whole rat race that’s happening as a result of jealousy and says, “I don’t want any part of it!” So he goes to the opposite extreme! He folds his hands, and he refuses to work. Is this a proper response? No! In fact, it’s just as much a problem as jealous ambition! The person who refuses to work has nothing to eat. Metaphorically, he ends up eating himself. In other words, his laziness destroys him. Do you know someone like this? He drags his feet about everything. He’s got all these excuses for why now is not a good time to look for a job. Or maybe he can’t decide which career to pursue, so he doesn’t do anything. Or maybe his slothfulness has to do with something other than his career, like eating right or exercising. Little by little, he’s destroying himself.
All of us probably tend to one of these two extremes. Sometimes, we might even switch back and forth, depending on the situation. For instance, in some situations, I’m prone to jealous rivalry. But sometimes, when it comes to something like exercising, my tendency is to be like, “You guys go ahead and tire yourselves out! I’m going to take this easy.” We would do well to recognize our sinful tendencies and to work hard to counteract them. In your life, is there a balance between being a slave to work and being lazy?
Foolish motivation #2: greed (vv. 7-8) - The guy Solomon describes in vv. 7-8 is almost mindlessly enslaved to work. He’s the first one to the office in the morning and that last one to leave at night. He’s constantly on business trips. But the million-dollar question is “why”? Solomon says, “For whom”? “Who are you working for, buddy? You’ve got no wife. You’ve got no kids. You never hang out with family or friends. You don’t have time for that because you’re always working!” But if you don’t have anyone with whom to share your riches, what’s the point of having them in the first place? You see, this man makes a massive strategic blunder. He assumes that money is more valuable than people! What a sad, lonely life! Have you heard of someone like this? I know I have! I’ve heard of entire companies that expect this kind of mindless commitment from their employees. But it’s foolishness. It’s slavery— “the golden handcuffs,” as it’s sometimes referred to.
TRANSITION: That brings us to wise motivation #2: generosity
Wise motivation #2: generosity
This motivation isn’t specifically stated, but Solomon’s argument pushes us in this direction. The man who is enslaved to work in vv. 7-8 should consider the question, “For whom?” And if he would follow Solomon’s advice about community in vv. 10-12 (we’ll get there in a minute), his answer would be, “for others.” “I work so that I can take my kids to McDonalds for ice cream. I work so that we can go on a family vacation. I work to help put my kids through college or so that one day, they won’t have to support me. I work so that I have money for presents at Christmas. I work so that I can give to my church.”
I think Elise’s stepdad is a great example of this. He didn’t get married till his mid-30’s, but he had a good job long before that. However, instead of spending all his money on himself like most single men would, he saved it, hoping that one day, God would give him a family. So when he married Elise’s mom and she brought along four children, he went crazy! He was taking them out to nice restaurants, he bought a big house, they bought new suburban—he was having a ball—giving his money away! You see, he understood the biblical principle that God’s blessings are more enjoyable when we share them.
TRANSITION: That leads us to our second point. You might remember that the question was how to keep your work from running (or ruining) your life. Point #1 was check your motivation. Point #2: invest in community. Don’t be like the man in v. 8 who works so hard that he doesn’t have time for people! In vv. 10-12, we see three benefits of community: help for the fallen, warmth for the cold, and defense for the weak.
III. Invest in community.
Three benefits of community
Benefit #1: help for the fallen (vv. 9-10) - In the journey of life, we will all fall at times. We may fall financially, or physically, or spiritually. But mark it down: all of us will fall. It’s silliness to say, “I’m such a good runner; I’ll never trip!” So the wise individual prepares ahead of time by surrounding himself with people who can help him up.
Benefit #2: warmth for the cold (v. 11) – Some people have taken this as describing the husband-wife relationship, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Just think of two travelers on a journey in the wilderness. When it gets cold at night, it’s nice to have two people in the tent! That’s all Solomon seems is saying. And his point is that in life, there will be sad times, difficult times, uncomfortable times. But living in community can help to lessen those discomforts! Community keeps us warm! Community helps to mitigate some of the vanity associated with life in this fallen world. That’s a big deal!
Benefit #3: defense for the weak (v. 12) – Another circumstance that all of us will face is attack by an enemy. As Christians, we can count on attacks from Satan, as well as from the world. But we find in God’s Word that there is strength in numbers. It’s kind of like the three brothers who stick together in school. If there was just one, some bully could pick on him. But they’ve all got the attitude, “Nobody messes with my family.” Do we value that kind of loyalty anymore? Do we value it in our families? In our churches? When Paul talks about the armor of God in Ephesians 6, he is very clear that as Christians, we’re all in this together. We’re supposed to be watching and praying for one another. Do you do that?
I want to take a minute to talk about different types of community that we can be a part of. I’ve mentioned two already: the family and the church.
So let’s talk about the family. Parents, you ought to invest like crazy into your kids. Don’t just take them to sports practice. Teach them God’s Word! Husband and wives, make time for each other! In most cases, if you’re too busy to spend time together, you’re too busy.
Another crucial community that you ought to be investing in is the church. I don’t think I need to say much about this, because Pastor Kit has been preaching on it.
Finally, I can think of two other communities besides your home and your church. The first would be your extended family and friends. You shouldn’t prioritize this group above your home or your church, but these people are still worth taking time for. For me, that means calling or messaging my siblings, parents, and some old friends on a regular basis.
And then there’s your local community, including your neighbors and such. Sadly, the importance of this community has been diminished in our culture. However, it’s still profitable to get to know your neighbors, especially for the sake of evangelism. So have a block party, or attend a town event; but do so for the purpose of engaging lost people with the gospel.
Finally, before moving on to point #3, I’d like to suggest four ways to invest in community.
#1: location – Choose your geographic location strategically in order to maximize opportunities for community. It has become common in our culture for people to move all the time. Sometimes their job moves them. Sometimes they want to live in the suburbs so that they can have cheaper housing. Sometimes they just get bored of living in one place. But they often fail to consider how the move will affect their ability to invest in community. If you’re offered a job in another state, you should seriously consider whether there are any good churches in the area. And I mean as a potential deal-breaker! Unless you’re moving to be a part of a church plant or something, you should probably think twice before moving away from believing family members. Maybe, instead of buying a fancy house 30 minutes from church, you should buy a decent house 7 minutes from church, so that it’s easier to get together with people.
#2: time – As a parent, one of the greatest gifts you can give your kids is your presence. Take time as a family just being together. The same goes for church. I know I’m preaching to the choir, but you can’t invest in church community if you’re not here!
#3: effort – Some people complain that no one befriends them, but they never befriend others! Give a 100% effort into community, and you be surprised what you get out of it.
#4: money – Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” First and foremost, that means we ought to give to God. But if we love people, we will invest money in them, too.
TRANSITION: So how to keep work from running (or running) your life? #1: check your motivation. #2: invest in community. #3: don’t let success get to your head (vv. 13-16).
IV. Don’t let success go to your head.
Work can ruin your life if you become proud about your successes. This happens over and over again in the Bible. 2 Chronicles 26:16 says of godly king Uzziah, “But when he was strong his heart was lifted up, to his destruction.” 1 Corinthians 10:12 says, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” In this passage, we find two pitfalls of pride. The first pitfall is refusing to take advice (v. 16). Verse 16 is a proverb that introduces a parable. The old king in v. 16 is foolish because he will not listen to counsel. Because he’s old and experienced, he thinks he knows it all.
But he’s about to be disappointed, because a young upstart rises to take his place. This young man overcomes two huge disadvantages. First, he’s born poor. Second, he ends up in prison! And yet, like Joseph, he comes out of prison; and even better than Joseph, he actually becomes king! “All the living who walk under the sun are with him”—he’s wildly popular; and “there was no end of all the people over whom he was made king”—his kingdom is huge! And yet, what happens to this youth? “Those who come afterward will not rejoice in him.” The next generation doesn’t think he’s cool. His popularity is short-lived. Solomon says, “Surely this also is vanity and grasping for the wind.”
The second pitfall of pride is forgetting your place. It’s very tempting for the guy at the top to assume that he’ll stay there forever. But that’s just not the case. Popularity is fickle, and each one of us has an expiration date.
Don’t let work ruin your life by turning you into an arrogant person. Listen to wise counsel, and remember that you won’t stay on top forever. Then let that knowledge push you to find your satisfaction, not in work, but in God. Be humble, recognize your own limitations, and find joy only in grace.