That is, it doesn’t last. It’s not just that the land produces thistles. It’s that however hard we work, we’ll never be able to keep the thistles away. Our work doesn’t last.
This added problem comes partly from the fact that we too don’t last. So Adam himself would die and return to the dust. And after he’s dead he can’t work much. In fact his body becomes the land that gets worked by future generations.
The ephemeral nature of work is fleshed out in more detail in the book of Ecclesiastes. You would do well reading the whole book if, because the frustration and seeming pointlessness of living in a frustrated world is a recurrent theme.
So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.
A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?
No work on earth will last. People dedicate their lives to build something. But it won’t last. Bill Gates will be forgotten one day. Microsoft will be no more. Even those who built empires will not stand. The Roman Empire might have left a few ruins behind. But that’s all they are. They’re not used for what they were designed for. And they are the great success stories. It cannot last. It will be forgotten.
Shelley’s Poem Ozymandias captures well the fleeting nature of all work, even of empires.
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Whatever you think you will achieve by your work for things in this world, it is an illusion.
You are writing a dissertation. It’s not just that nobody will read it but it will be useful to you: you yourself will probably forget it before you die. You are fixing a car. It will be on the scrap heap in a few years. You are baking a cake: it will be eaten and forgotten. You are teaching a lesson. It will be ignored and probably disproved. You are building a house. It will be owned by a fool. You are giving medicine to a child. That child will die one day. Enjoy your work in this world. Yes! It is a gift from God! But don’t live for it. For if you are working for this world it will come to nothing. It will give you food and enjoyment, but it will be a denial of the whole purpose of being a human being: to reflect the glory of God as his image bearer.