The Bible in its ancient context was a profoundly countercultural document. Its creation account revealed a single, omnipotent ruler. There were no shenanigans; there were no death matches with other gods. There was only Yahweh. It presented a lofty vision of humanity created in God’s own image for the purpose of ruling his creation as his emissaries, a far cry from other ancient Near Eastern accounts in which humans were slaves created to serve the needs of the gods. Its laws valued life over property in distinction to other law codes, such as Hammurabi’s.
In the ancient world, people didn’t “follow your dreams” or “study what you love” or “do what makes you happy” or “find a fulfilling job.” They did what their parents did. For women, this meant running the home and, for men, working their father’s trade. Many were slaves. Most were poor. There was no ladder to climb, no American dream to pursue, no career options to consider. (Of course, one could point to figures such as David, the shepherd turned king, but his case is exceptional.)
My dad worked at a paper mill for thirty years or so, which likely accounts, in part, for his alcoholism—he was deeply unfulfilled in his professional life. He told me nearly every time I saw him to go to college and do better than him, that factory work was no good, that he wanted me to have a better life. And so I did. See, in the Western world we have choices about work. Not so in the ancient Near East, which is why comments in Ecclesiastes about work were so countercultural:
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. (Eccl. 2:24)
I perceived that there is nothing better for them [people] than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man. (Eccl. 3:12–13)
So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. (Eccl. 3:22)
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. (Eccl. 5:18)
Ecclesiastes draws heavily on the book of Genesis, which also views work as a gift from God. It was given to humans to oversee the garden before sin entered into the picture, and the curse on Adam was that his work would now be difficult. And that is the world in which we now live—work is hard. And yet, as Craig Bartholomew notes, Ecclesiastes calls for a return to that vision of life that God set forth in the garden of Eden (Ecclesiastes, 152). It is a life of purposeful work, imaging God in our shepherding of his creation (thanks to my student, John David Vereen, for this language).
In American culture, or at least in my experience of American culture, folks tend to live for the weekend. We drudge through the week, anxiously anticipating the weekend. We call Wednesday “hump day” because it’s all downhill to the weekend from there. We greet each other with “TGIF!” and walk a little more slowly on Mondays.
Yet, that’s exactly the opposite of the biblical vision of work, thus creating for followers of Christ an opportunity to be radically countercultural, just like the original readers of Ecclesiastes. We have the opportunity to vividly show God’s original intent in creation when we take the advice of Ecclesiastes and rejoice in our work, when we enjoy the task God has given us and, in so doing, present to the world a vision of Eden in which we image God by working as God worked.