The Preacher says that God “has set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV). This is within the broader context of his discussion of the paradox of exploring the wonder of God’s creation and the vanity of human striving in a fallen world.
But the more immediate context is a discussion of work. In verse 9 he asks, “What do workers gain from their toil?” A bit earlier he discusses the meaningless of work, but concludes that “a person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil.”
The entire book of Ecclesiastes is an excellent primer on relating human happiness to material and spiritual goods. These sections on work and satisfaction are some of the most significant along these lines. For as the Preacher continues, such “satisfaction” in work “is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”
So work is both significant for our satisfaction but no substitute for eternal things. This resonates quite well with the picture of work we get in Lester DeKoster’s book on the subject. It also brings to mind some of Arthur Brooks’ work on the social science of happiness and “earned success.” One caveat, or at least necessary frame of reference for the discussion of earned success, it seems to me, is this idea that our enjoyment of things on this earth is to be properly oriented to and subjoined under the higher things of God.
If, as Augustine put it, “our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord,” then whatever happiness we derive from work, earned success, and everything else “under the sun” must be appreciated as the gifts of God that they are and properly valued as such. Such a perspective helps keep us from confusing heaven and earth, so to speak, and turning work, happiness, or anything else in the created order into an idol.