Click here for a list of all our sermon series. 查阅我们所有的讲道系列

You Toil for What?

Sermon passage: (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11) Spoken on: May 29, 2016
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Ecclesiastes

Tags: Ecclesiastes, 传道书

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is currently serving as a pastor in the children and young family ministries, as well as the LED and worship ministries.

Title: You Toil for What?
Date: 22 May 2016
Preacher: Rev Wong Siow Hwee

Peace to you, brothers and sisters. In the midst of my sermon preparation, suddenly I received news of how our Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat suffered a stroke during a cabinet meeting. Like many of you, I felt feelings of compassion for him and his family, and surely also anxiety for the country. But, I must confess that besides these feelings, a very different thought did also flash across my mind: “为谁幸苦,为谁忙?”. (loosely translated in Singlish: You toil for what?) Law Minister K. Shanmugam gave an insight into the “incredible” load that the Finance Minister had been carrying, saying “I have been telling him that he was overworking so much that it will affect his health.”

“为谁幸苦,为谁忙?” Minister Heng toiled for the future of Singapore. In the same spirit, many of us also toil for our families, for our personal achievements, for pleasure and security, for many different reasons. For the next few sermons, we will also examine each one of these reasons. We do this because life is multi-faceted, and it is important that we examine all these topics carefully. But whichever reason you may have for your toils, there is a common denominator in every one of these reasons: we expect returns for our toils. Simply put, we do not toil for nothing. It is true that sometimes we don’t get any returns despite much hard labor. But still, the expectation of returns is always there. What makes us expect returns for our toils? Is this expectation reasonable?

In the late 80s, there was a song written in Taiwan during the time of their economic revival. The lyrics aimed to spur those who were down, and to encourage all to overcome the odds to triumph in life. Let me read a few verses to see if you know them. Life is like the waves of the sea, sometimes rising, sometimes falling. Good luck, bad luck, you still have to do your work. 30% is decided by the heavens, 70% depends on fighting. You must fight, then you can win. 人生可比是海上的波浪,有時起有時落。好運歹運,總嘛要照起工來行。三分天注定,七分靠打拼,愛拼才會贏。I’m not sure if the lyrics are really correct, whether it is really 30% divine fate and 70% personal effort. But I believe that the song became one of the most popular Hokkien songs, famous in every Chinese community, for a reason. [1] And the reason is that it strikes a chord in everyone’s heart, knowing it to be the truth. Life can be full of ups and downs, but in the end, you must labor hard to win. We toil, because we expect returns for our toils. In the end, you may or may not actually get the due returns. But the expectation itself is entirely reasonable.

Proverbs as a wisdom literature makes the same observations about life.

Proverbs 10:4 Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth.

Proverbs 12:27 The lazy do not roast any game, but the diligent feed on the riches of the hunt.

Proverbs 13:4 A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.

Proverbs 21:5 The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.

Proverbs states the first principle regarding the work and toils of life: laziness will lead to poverty and hunger. But if you are willing to toil and work hard, putting in your due diligence, then you may expect returns in the form of wealth. You can be satisfied in your desires and dreams. You can have security and pleasure. You can get the rewards of your planning. 愛拼才會贏。We toil because we have observed this to be true in life.

But fortunately, or unfortunately, life is a little more complicated than that. The Chinese have a saying: 只知其一, 不知其二。If the first principle about life and work is all there is, then life is a straight-forward fight, fight, fight. Then, we only need Proverbs and can do without Ecclesiastes. But if we observe life a little more, then you will discover a second principle: In the grand scheme of things, all these toils will result in no actual gain.

Ecclesiastes 1: 3 What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.
8 All things are wearisome; more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?
It has already been, in the ages before us.
11 The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.

Today’s passage provides the explanation to the rhetorical question: 3 What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? The implied answer is that we can gain nothing. The “gain” here as explained in last week’s sermon is that at the very end, is there a profit at the bottom of the balance sheet? And the answer is no. And the reason is time. Whatever it is that you do, whatever it is that you feel you have accomplished, time goes on. And generations after generations, would any of these accomplishments count for anything? The earth remains the same, whereas you are eventually forgotten. With the passage of time, there is no gain in the end.

In 1821, a colossal statue of Ramses II, acquired for the British Museum by the Italian adventurer Giovanni Belzoni, arrived in London. The poet Shelley was inspired to write this poem:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ramses II is often regarded as the greatest, most celebrated, and most powerful pharaoh of the Egyptian Empire. His successors and later Egyptians called him the "Great Ancestor". [2] He is also famous as the pharaoh during the time of Exodus. You can imagine his pride when he had his statue made, declaring with the inscription: 'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!' His works could refer to the extensive boundaries of his kingdom, his many monuments including palaces, temples and cities. He crafted statues of himself in lots of places, and he stored so much treasures and provisions accumulated from everywhere hoping that his kingdom would last forever. 'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

Shelly’s poem describes a scene in the desert, and it resonates just like our bible passage today. The scene was that of a traveler passing by the statue in the Egyptian desert but with only the feet left behind. Given the pompous words and the size of the wreck, the traveler could imagine the cold confidence of the command from the pharaoh to the sculptor, to create this monument to his legacy. But in the end, as the traveler looked around, all that remained was the empty desert. This is the scenario also described in Ecclesiastes. Life goes on in time, and only the earth remains. You may think that a lot of things were done, but it is just like streams flowing into the sea. It makes no difference to the sea, as it is never filled. You may think that you are building something special, making a mark in history. But as history stretches on and on, the mark eventually disappears. In the end, there is no actual gain.

The first principle states: you shall have returns for your toils. 有做有回报。This is true. Due diligence in your work will pay off, whether in the forms of security, pleasure, increasing possessions and knowledge, even achievements and legacies that you can pass on. This is something very tangible. The gratification that comes from reaping what you sow is very real. And because it is so tangible and real, it feels very lasting. You might even feel this is how you will last forever. The Chinese have a saying: 豹死留皮,人死留名。(At death, the leopard leaves behind its skin, a man his name.) Some may even dream of accomplishments that last for thousands of years千秋伟业. Emperor QianLong of the Qing Dynasty even has the 10 complete military accomplishments, calling himself the 10 complete man. 十全武功是指中国清朝乾隆皇帝的十次重大战事。乾隆帝因此自称“十全老人”。 [3]

But Ecclesiastes examines life carefully. And concludes: 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are vanity, a chasing after the wind. The second principle states: With the passage of time, generations after generations, there is eventually no gain. There is nothing new that is added to the world. All accomplishments will be forgotten, just like a drop in the ocean.

Does it mean that therefore all toils and labor are meaningless because they are not lasting? No! Does it mean that we should give up being diligent? No! Does it mean that we should feel resigned or helpless because there is no real gain in this world? No! In fact, I believe that we need both principles. It is only when we have both principles, they become a true gospel to us. Why is today’s message a gospel for us? It makes us fully realistic about our toiling. Go ahead, live your best life possible! Enjoy fighting for your beliefs. Enjoy the fruits of your labor. Of course, there will be sacrifices. And so, you have to weigh your priorities carefully. And this is where being realistic is important. Are the toils and labor truly a blessing to you, to those around you, or even the country and the world? Or are you trying to make a mark in history, or impress the world, or even thinking of yourself as the Creator? If it is the latter, what are you sacrificing along the way? What have you sacrificed to end up chasing after the wind? Today’s message is a gospel because it allows us to see our ultimate fruits of our toils and labor so clearly. ‘All is vanity’ is not to end your life; it is to have a new beginning.

Do you know what was the biggest accomplishment that happened this month? In my opinion, it was Leicester winning the English Premier League. If you are not a football fan, let me explain that at the beginning of the season, the bookmarkers gave their odds of winning as 5000-1. You can get the same odds if you prove that Elvis is still alive, or if Kim Kardashian becomes the President. Leicester was accomplishing what was considered the impossible. Yet, I’m humbled by the thoughts of its manager Claudio Ranieri. In April, when Leicester was just a few matches from claiming the title and the fight was really close, he struggled with the dilemma in his heart. This is a man with many near misses in his career, with Roma and further second-place finishes with Chelsea and Monaco.

"I'm very happy with what I've done," the Italian said. "In fact, two people co-exist inside me. One who says, 'You have to win, you have to win!' And the other that says, 'but look at what you've accomplished!'
"Will it happen? I don't know. I'm ambitious. I want this title, but inside me there's this thought that says, 'Claudio, what you've accomplished is no mean feat.'" [4]

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Coming in first was obviously a big deal to him. But he struggled well to put this in proper perspective. He learnt to treasure what he had. Does it mean that he does not toil and labor? No!

His main striker Jamie Vardy told Betfair: “I think he just examines every single aspect of every opponent that we’re playing. “He comes into our team meetings where he’s been up all night watching 50-60 clips of just one of the opposition’s players and he will tell you exactly what he’s done in 49 of them and what he did in the other 11.” [5]
Ranieri works hard. But Ranieri said although he had been working seven days a week during his time at Leicester, doing something he loved so much did not feel like a chore.

In the end, Leicester did complete the miracle and won the Premier League. But I admire his perspective on this:
Ranieri told La Gazzetta dello Sport: "People always try to look for something exceptional in sport but I think that, 30-40 years ago, Nottingham Forest did something even greater than what we have done.
"They got promoted from the second division, then they won the First Division title and then won the European Cup twice, so let's just wait a few more years."
"Life is beautiful and is there to be lived to the full," Ranieri said. [6]

Ranieri may have accomplished a miracle in the football world. But I believe he got it right. There is nothing new under the sun. Blackburn did it 20 years ago. Nottingham Forrest did it 40 years ago, and with even bigger accomplishments. But like all things, it was slowly forgotten with time. With the proper and right perspectives, Ranieri is a hard worker. And he is always enjoying the fruits of his labor, whether they are successes or not. I hope today’s message is also a gospel to you. That you live well, that you live fully. Be diligent in all that you do. Pursue happiness for yourself and those around you. May you be rewarded for your toils. But be realistic and acknowledge that nothing lasts forever. You are not toiling to ‘gain’ anything. If you have been delusional, this is a gospel to help you destroy your meaningless dream. And as you carry on your pursuits, I hope you can find true joy and peace in your life.