“What do workers gain from their toil?
At my mother’s grave on Friday, I prayed from the Book of Common Prayer: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” And as I prayed, I pondered the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes: “What do workers gain from their toil?” Yes, my mother toiled, she sacrificed, she gave, and she saved. And at my mother’s grave, I wondered — what does it all mean? What is there left to show for her effort?
This is the hard question Solomon asks at the end of his immortal poem in Ecclesiastes. It is the poem that was read at my mother’s memorial service. The poem that begins: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.”
Then after these opening words, Solomon’s poem follows with 14 pairs of opposites, 14 pairs of human activities that seem to cancel out one another:
a time to be born, and a time to die,
a time to plant, and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal……”
And Solomon wonders — if one human activity only cancels out the other — if we are born only to die, and we plant only to uproot, then what is the gain from it all? What use is all our effort? In asking this question, Solomon actually uses a word from the business and accounting world of his day — “What is the net profit? he asks. What is the bottom line? Does income exceed outgo?
That’s the question I wrestled with at my mother’s open grave — is there anything that remains from all her toil?
Solomon answers that question for me in a way that only Solomon could. With characteristic beauty and insight Solomon affirms the bottom line of existence for the believer:
God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has set eternity in the human heart, yet no one can fathom what God has done from the beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil – this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever. (Ecclesiastes 3:11-14)
Ponder again God’s incredible truth! With eternity in our hearts we cannot yet know life’s eternal dividend. We cannot yet grasp the beauty of life’s completed tapestry. Yet one day we will look back and see that indeed God “has made everything beautiful in its time.” Every piece will fit!
In the meantime, Solomon advises: “Be happy…do good…eat and drink….find satisfaction in all your toil.” So tonight I toast Berniece Smith! I savor the beauty of her life now complete, and I enjoy. And I will enjoy all the days to come. “This is the gift of God,” that I will not squander!