Pleasure, Pain, and Labour in Ecclesiastes

Pleasure, Pain, and Labour in Ecclesiastes

Would Ecclesiastes’ Preacher have us believe that all our work under the sun ultimately counts for nothing? Andrew Matthews challenges this reading, revealing that beyond painful toil, labour can transcend human frustration and be a source of joy accepted with gratitude.

Full Title : A Fine Line between Pleasure and Pain: The Perspective of Labour from the Book of Ecclesiastes


A dominant theme within the book of Ecclesiastes is the treatment of the benefits of human labour. After “the Preacher,” (Qohelet) pronounces the “vanity of vanities” motto, he asks the probing question, “What does a person gain from all the labour at which they labour under the sun?” This question about the worth of a person’s work controls much of Qohelet’s discussion about human living. A key issue is whether work is regarded by Qohelet as an intrinsically painful and futile enterprise. A study of the work terminology of Ecclesiastes paints a picture in which God has imposed upon humanity a work mandate, much of which is painful and futile, but not necessarily so. Much interpretation of Ecclesiastes assumes that the Hebrew term עמל, “to labour, toil,” characterises all work as “painful labour.” However, the term is often associated with pleasure from work. As Qohelet addresses the theme of the worth of work, he employs a “dialectical polemic” that first demolishes the false expectations and folly of human labour, and then replaces it with a wise and affirming perspective on work’s benefits.  As a person works within the purposes of God, they can attain the outcomes of true value and happiness from their labour.


Andrew Matthews is a Ph.D. candidate at Christ College, Sydney working on a doctorate on the book of Ecclesiastes entitled, “The Worth of Work in a World of Vanity: Qohelet’s Vocational Dialectic.”  Andrew has published two works on Christian discipleship: Christian CoreStrength, and Christian Jump Start. Andrew is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church of Australia and lives in the Wollongong region.

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