Vain Labor

Isaiah 49:4 is a verse I memorized at some point in the past. It has been going around in my mind lately as I ponder 2016, and my whole life in some respects. 

The first half…

Isaiah 49:4 NIV- “But I said, ‘I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all.’” 

Sometimes I feel like this is me.

NLT- “I replied, ‘But my work seems so useless!  I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose.’”

Getting the short end of the stick.

NET- “But I thought, ‘I have worked in vain; I have expended by energy for absolutely nothing.”

Wondering if all I’ve given out in my lifetime will ever pay off in something long term and tangible that I personally get to benefit from.

God’s Word Translation- “But I said: ‘I have worked hard for nothing.  I have used my strength but I didn’t accomplish anything.”

Often feeling unrewarded.

Today I went back to this place in the Bible, to read the context, to find the end of this story.  Turns out, Isaiah 49 is a Messianic chapter, describing the Messiah’s mission.  In other words, the “I” in this verse is actually Jesus speaking his feelings.

Yes, believe it or not, Jesus was feeling this.  Numerous commentaries back this up and expound on it:

Barns- “This is to be regarded as the language of the Messiah when his ministry would be attended with comparatively little success…The expression used here is not to be taken absolutely, as if He had no success in His work, but it means that he had comparatively no success; He was not received and welcomed by the united people; He was rejected and despised by them as a whole….it means than in His personal ministry He had exhausted His strength and seen comparatively little fruit of His toils.”

Gills- “…this is not to be understood of the travail of his soul, or of his sufferings and death, which were not in vain…but of his ministry and miracles, and fatiguing journeys among the Jews; which, with respect to them, were in vain, as to their conversation and reformation; they were rejecting the Messiah, slighting his doctrines and miracles, refusing to be gathered by him, being a faithless and perverse generation.”

Pulpit Commentary- “The Servant had momentarily desponded, seeing the small results of all his efforts to reclaim Israel, and had felt a natural human regret at so much labor apparently expended in vain…”

Trying to grasp that Jesus felt exactly the way I do.  That He, too, looked back over many years of miles He walked, prayers He prayed, people He poured into, hours of sharing his heart and being vulnerable with people, hard work He did, giving it all over and over, and momentarily wondered, “Was all that pain and sacrifice proportionate to the little bit of good that came out of it?”

I picture Jesus near the end of His ministry, standing on a hill a small distance away from His disciples sitting around the fire at night, watching them and listening to them talk and laugh, and feeling very tired, alone and discouraged.

To realize that these feelings I have were shared by Jesus, brings immeasurable comfort that I am not, indeed, at a dead end.  My feelings are real, and the place of grappling with disillusionment is also real.  But this is something normal that happens when we try to make a difference in the world, when we go out on a limb to not just look out for ourselves but invest in others. We will come to a place of wondering if the hard work and pain it cost us, and the lack and emptiness we now feel personally as a result, was worth the outcome.

But the reason for that may be because we invested largely in other peoples’ outcomes, not our own. We aren’t experiencing the fruits of our labors, they are.  So we feel empty because we have poured ourselves out, but there are other people in the world a little fuller because we did. 

The extent of our efforts may not fully be understood even by those we served, nor accurately measured in this lifetime. Those of us who try to be the most generous may look like we are coming in last.

But the end of the verse is our hope:

NIV- “ … Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.”

All that we have given, invested, sacrificed does count.  It may not count in immediate tangible numbers, but in the final accounting, it does and will.

NLT- “…Yet I leave it all in the Lord’s hand; I will trust God for my reward.”

There are many kinds of rewards.  Some include appreciation, respect, loyalty, promotion, good outcomes, and positive results. 

NET Bible- “…But the Lord will vindicate me; my God will reward me.”

Or maybe even financial renumeration.

God’s Word Translation- “…Yet, certainly my case is in the Lord’s hands, and my reward is with my God.”

But the reward we get from the very hand of God, either in this life, or the next, will trump all else. Our current status, our position and our bank account balances are not the final indication of our effectiveness.

Barns- “…This expresses the confidence of the speaker, that God approved of his work and that He would ultimately give such effort to His labors as he had desired.  The sense is, ‘I know that Jehovah approves my work, and that He will grant me the reward of my toils, and my sufferings.  The idea is that he knew that God would own and accept His work through it was rejected by mankind.  It indicates perfect confidence in God, and a calm and unwavering assurance of His favor, though His work was comparatively unsuccessful- a spirit which, it is needless to say, was evinced throughout the whole life of the Redeemer.”

My 2017 prayer for myself and for my friends who feel the way I do is that we, like Jesus, will have a calm and unwavering assurance of God’s favor, regardless of all the things that haven’t worked out for us, even when we did our best to do the right thing.

And that we will learn to look to Him for our reward.

ISV- "I said, 'I've labored for nothing.  I've exhausted my strength on futility and on emptiness.' Yet surely my recompense is with the Lord, and my reward is with my God."


  1. Kingdom of God culture is a funny thing in a world that measures success and significance in odd ways. I think of that verse about building with "hay, wood and stubble" or "gold, silver and precious stones". Heart to heart ministry doesn't fill stadiums or "build ministries" but I love the way Jesus measures our work. Heard a great sermon on healing from shame once, talking about Romans 14 - "who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls, and s/he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him/her stand." and asking, whose servant are you? You're JESUS's servant .... so don't judge yourself (rate, compare, evaluate, measure etc) but look to Jesus to see what HE says - this helped me a lot. Much love to you dear Roxanne.


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