Solomon tackles two opposite problems here. First, in verse 5, the person who doesn’t work at all, where Solomon says,
The fool folds his hands
and ruins himself.
I don’t think much needs to be said here. I think it’s self-evident that by not working, you bring poverty upon yourself. Even if you were born rich and manage to just live off of that money, you find a life that’s ultimately empty. As I’ve mentioned before, God created work as a good thing. And the most important work we can do is the building up of his kingdom. And if you’re rich, and you never use what you have to invest in God’s kingdom, you will be held to account for it. (See Luke 12:15-21).
But the polar opposite problem is the person who works too much. Who lets his or her work consume them.
The biggest culture shock I had when coming to Japan was when I taught an English class, and one of my students said, “My husband is in Germany on business.” When I asked how long he was going to be there, she said, “Oh, 5 years.” I couldn’t believe it. But that is fairly typical in Japan. While in America this kind of lifestyle is lived mostly by traveling salespeople, sports players, military people, or entertainers, this is common with just about anyone with a full-time office job in Japan. The company will unilaterally tell the employee, “You’re moving here.” And really, their only options are to quit, or to refuse risking demotion, or being stuck in a dead-end situation. To the typical Japanese company, job trumps family every time.
This attitude can also lead to people staying at work far beyond normal working hours, with fathers almost never seeing their children. The result: many dysfunctional families. The divorce rate in Japan if far below the divorce rate in America, but with fathers often overworking, the results can be somewhat similar.
And so Solomon wisely says that there is a need for balance. In verse 6, he says,
Better one handful with tranquillity
than two handfuls with toil
and chasing after the wind.
What happens when we don’t? Our relationships fall apart. In Japan, you hear of many couples getting divorced after the husband retires. Why? Because for so many years, the wife basically lived a single life with her husband always at work. They never cultivated their relationship, and so when the husband retires, she finds they have nothing in common, and can’t bear the thought of living with him every day.
Solomon foresaw this and said,
There was a man all alone;
he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
“For whom am I toiling,” he asked,
“and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”
This too is meaningless—
a miserable business! (8)
In other words, when you work too much, you lose perspective. You get so focused on making money that you forget that it’s people, and most namely, your family that is most important. And when you focus so much on work, you can forget the need to enjoy life, and especially those relationships along the way. The result? A lonely, meaningless, miserable life.
But when you focus on those relationships, you find a more productive life (9), as well as people who love you and can support you in times of trouble or difficulty (10-12).
Where is your focus in life? Is your work consuming you? If it is, it’s time to start focusing on what’s important. Your relationships with your family, and even more important, your relationship with God. Because as Solomon said,
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (12)
Your life intertwined with the lives of God and others who love you make a cord that cannot easily be broken.