Why Do We Toil In Vain?

As I have been reading through the Minor Prophets I have noticed a recurring theme which is well worth highlighting. It seems to be as relevant today as when it was back during the life of ancient Israel. That is the theme of dashed expectations, unfulfilled dreams, futile endeavours, and unrewarded labour.

That is, this is the idea of God nullifying and bringing to nothing the activities of men – men who have wandered away from the Lord. Such people wonder why they don’t seem to be getting ahead, why their toil is in vain, and why they have nothing to show for all their efforts. Futility and despair abound.

All work and no reward – that is the life of the person out of God’s will. It is the “vanity, vanity, all is vanity” motif of Ecclesiastes. It was true of rebellious Israel long ago, and it is true of us today. If we are not walking in obedience and faithfulness to our Lord, all our efforts will come up empty.

Consider some of these powerful words from the prophets. They pronounce God’s judgment on a wayward people. Quite a few of them speak to this issue. They proclaim what have been called “futility curses”. Amos for example put it this way:

Amos 5:11-12 You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.

Alec Motyer remarks, “This is frustration, the cramping, non-productiveness of a life apart from God. There is an impressive timelessness about these strictures of the prophet. Stability and satisfaction – to achieve that which will endure and to enjoy the benefits of having achieved it – have ever been the objectives of man. But they cannot be brought to pass apart from a living and life-giving relationship with God.”

And Micah had this to say:

Micah 6:13-15 Therefore, I have begun to destroy you,
to ruin you because of your sins.
You will eat but not be satisfied;
your stomach will still be empty.
You will store up but save nothing,
because what you save I will give to the sword.
You will plant but not harvest;
you will press olives but not use the oil,
you will crush grapes but not drink the wine.

David Prior comments, “They will put in all the effort and spend much time and many resources in production, but there will be nothing to show for it. Their hard work will prove useless. Worse than that, the benefits will be reaped by others; the profits will go to boost the revenues of competitors.”

Why was all this happening? Because of their sin and disobedience. Richard Phillips explains, “The missing ingredient was God’s blessing. As Solomon taught, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain,’ and unless God’s blessing rests upon you, ‘it is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil’ (Ps. 127:1-2).”

Or as Yahweh said through Zephaniah:

Zephaniah 1:12-13 At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps
and punish those who are complacent,
who are like wine left on its dregs,
who think, ‘The LORD will do nothing,
either good or bad.’
Their wealth will be plundered,
their houses demolished.
Though they build houses,
they will not live in them;
though they plant vineyards,
they will not drink the wine.”

O. Palmer Robertson says of this text, “Absolute frustration is the consequence of this curse of the covenant. All the labor of their hands shall be for nothing. Adam had been cursed originally in the labor of his hands. But at least he was assured that he would eat bread (cf. Gen. 3:19).” Or as Waylon Bailey remarks, “Zephaniah affirmed the truth that human effort apart from the blessing of God is futile.”

Similar words are found in Haggai:

Haggai 1:6-9 You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.” This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways.  Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, ” says the LORD. “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the LORD Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house.

This is God involved in human history, bringing chastisement and judgment. Says Pieter Verhoef, “The theological perspective on the word of God to the people is that their adverse economical circumstances were not the result of mere natural phenomena but were due to God’s judgment.”

Motyer concurs: “Haggai bluntly lays the blame for the lack of fulfilment on the temple’s lying in ruins. . . . The Old Testament is not unaware of the existence of second causes, but constantly forces us to face that it is the first Cause with whom we have to deal.”

Of course none of this should be surprising. Way back in Deuteronomy 28 Moses had laid out the clear covenant conditions: blessings of obedience (vv. 1-14), and curses for disobedience (vv. 15-68). See for example vv. 30-41, parts of which I present here:

“You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape her. You will build a house, but you will not live in it. You will plant a vineyard, but you will not even begin to enjoy its fruit. Your ox will be slaughtered before your eyes, but you will eat none of it. Your donkey will be forcibly taken from you and will not be returned. Your sheep will be given to your enemies, and no one will rescue them. Your sons and daughters will be given to another nation, and you will wear out your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand. A people that you do not know will eat what your land and labor produce, and you will have nothing but cruel oppression all your days. . . . You will sow much seed in the field but you will harvest little, because locusts will devour it. You will plant vineyards and cultivate them but you will not drink the wine or gather the grapes, because worms will eat them.”

I like what v. 34 says: “The sights you see will drive you mad”. Yes you can go crazy all right when all your efforts amount to nothing. But that is the promised outcome for Israel when it rebels and disobeys, and it is the promised outcome for both non-believers and disobedient believers today. It certainly is not a good place to be in.

So if you feel that your wheels just keep on spinning yet you are getting nowhere, then it may well be time to take stock of your life. Where are you at spiritually? Are you walking in obedience, faithfulness and the fullness of the Spirit, or are you simply leaning on the arm of flesh?

We all need to take stock of where we are at, and the message presented in these Scriptures gives us a very good way to assess what our condition really is. It is well worth all of us contemplating this carefully – and the sooner the better.

[1292 words]

5 Replies to “Why Do We Toil In Vain?”

  1. Dear Bill, The Minor Prophets were certainly not minor in their closeness to God and the way they tried to improve the spirituality of the Israelites. Thank you for the article.
    Regards, Franklin Wood

  2. Dear Bill, thanks for delivering the sermons we all should be hearing from the pulpit, but sadly don’t get from many modern preachers.

    Dan O’Meara

  3. Do you have citations for the quotes you used? I am trying to find where these people wrote these things.


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