Why do you work? I once heard a rather depressing answer that went something like this: “We get a job so we can buy our kids shoes, so they can go to school, so they can get a job someday, so that they can buy their kids shoes, so that they . . . ” In other words, work is meaningless. In fact, from this perspective life itself becomes rather meaningless—simply an endless cycle.
I’ve also heard it said that we work so that we can support ministries that do the real work—kingdom work. Now, I’m not opposed to giving to ministries. In fact, I think you can make a strong biblical case that we are obligated to do so. But I wonder if this fully captures the meaning of work.
So again, why do you work? I find the start of the answer in Psalm 104. Psalm 104 is a reflection on creation and maybe even a further reflection on the flood of Genesis 6–8. We see the psalmist poetically describing not just God’s creation of the earth and of all creatures, but we also see God’s intimate work in sustaining His creation and the creatures He made (vv. 1–13).
In verse 14, we read that God provides for both livestock and people. But we also read that people have a role. They are to cultivate the plants that God causes to grow. What we have here is the function of image-bearing in action. As those who are made in God’s image, we are to have dominion and subdue the earth. We are to enlarge that original, God-given garden. We see here an application of the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26–28.
We see this in verses 21–23 of Psalm 104 as well. As the lions go out to seek prey—as they function as they were made—so too does man go “out to his work and to his labor until the evening” (v. 23). There is a harmony here that should not be missed. All God’s creatures, great and small, are presented as working in harmony with their original, created design. Lions were made to “work” as lions. We were made to work as image-bearers. In fact, the psalmist moves seamlessly not only from creature to creature, but also from creature to God, the Creator. In the very next verse, verse 24, the psalmist declares, “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”
The psalmist wants us to make some connections between our work and issues of larger meaning. As we work, we reflect the work of God, the Creator. In our work of subduing and having dominion, our work of cultivating, we see something else. Our work gives testimony and points to the one in whose image we are made. Our work is a testimony, a pointer, to God the Creator. C.S. Lewis once said we have never met an ordinary person. Maybe we could paraphrase that: We never do an ordinary job. Work is not menial, trivial, pointless, absurd, or meaningless. Our work is best understood as overflowing with meaning and significance.
But, wait, there’s more. In verses 25–26, we read:
Here is the sea, great and wide,
which teems with creatures innumerable,
living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.
Clearly the sea and sea creatures testify to the greatness, majesty, and beauty of God. But look closely at verse 26. The psalmist puts two things in parallel: ships and Leviathan. The poetic books, like Psalms and Job, and even the occasional prophetic book, refer to this creature, Leviathan. There has been no shortage of speculation over the exact identity of this creature. Is it a great whale? Is it a dinosaur? A giant squid? What we know for certain is that Leviathan takes our breath away. We likely use the word awesome far too often and have consequently depleted it of its rhetorical punch. But in this case the word fits. Leviathan is awesome.
Leviathan also likes to play. We can’t miss that. Jonathan Edwards, in writing of the flying spider, notes that when this spider flew it had a smile on its face. This led Edwards to conclude that God provided “for the pleasure and recreation of all sorts of creatures, even the insects.” Even Leviathan. This magnificent beast plays. And then there is the other creature in verse 26. This creature is man-made: “There go the ships.” Now, we must think this through. God’s creation and our creation are put side-by-side, right next to each other in parallel. The psalmist marvels at Leviathan, and the psalmist marvels at ships. You can picture it. Maybe you’ve said it yourself: “Look, there go the ships. Amazing.”
What goes into shipbuilding? Mathematics and physics, skilled carpentry, experience, multigenerational shared expertise through much trial and error, much labor—all of this goes into shipbuilding. What goes into ship sailing? Navigational techniques, expertise, muscle, strong backs, strong arms, grit, determination, generations of collective wisdom—all of this goes into sailing ships.
Our psalmist is amazed when he sees the ships going across the expanse of the sea. Our psalmist is amazed when he sees Leviathan frolic upon the expanse of the sea. These are awesome, indeed.
We find, as we keep reading this psalm, that there is more here than natural and man-made giants crossing seas and playing in the waves. Verse 27 tells us: “These all,” referring to all of God’s creatures, “look to you, to give them their food in due season. . . . When you open your hand, they are filled with good things.” We get pleasure, we get fulfillment, we get meaning from our work. We acknowledge our God-given gifts, our God-given resources, and then we go to work. And then we are satisfied. Wine gladdens our hearts (v. 15). Our creations amaze us.
These are all results of our work. But none of these is the chief end or the ultimate result of our work. The chief end of our work comes in verse 31: “May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works.” Our work has meaning. Our work points to the One in whose image we are made. As we work, we bring glory to God. As we work, God is delighted with us. Now we have stumbled upon our answer to why we work.
Did you notice what is not in Psalm 104? There is not one reference to the temple, to temple musicians, to priests and their activities. There is reference to farming. There is reference to tending vines. There is reference to manual labor. There is reference to work. There is reference to building ships. “There go the ships.” To God be the glory.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on December 2, 2013.