There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil.
If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered. Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he. Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good—do not all go to the one place?
All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage has the wise man over the fool? And what does the poor man have who knows how to conduct himself before the living? Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he. The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 6:1-12)
In chapter 6, the Preacher continues his observations about money and materialism. Perhaps you remember that he covered the same topics in the previous chapter, though he has some additional insights here. In chapter 5, he addressed the oppression of the poor, wealth and its drawbacks, what happens when money is loved and lost, and finally, he reached the conclusion that there is still joy to be found in this world. Whether we are rich or poor, it is God and God alone who gives us the ability to enjoy what we have. So long as we are willing to look to God as our sovereign provider, he said, “God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them” (Ecc 5:19).
The Preacher gives a similar presentation here in chapter 6. He begins by relating more of the problems that come with wealth, and he ends with what I’ll call an impasse. He reaches a point in the final verses, verses 10 through 12, where it seems there is nowhere left to turn. He’s run out of options. Where can he possibly go to find meaning in life? But unlike chapter 5, he doesn’t mention God, not directly. Instead, he slams shut every door but one: the door that inevitably leads to God.
Let’s not mistake Ecclesiastes for the hopeless ramblings of a cynic. As cynical as the Preacher was near the end of his life, he was not altogether without hope. He knew the answers. He knew where to find joy and meaning. But he also knew, learning this lesson firsthand, how a person might ensnare himself with the fleeting things of this world, becoming fixated on things which the Preacher classified as vanity (or vapor that won’t last).
Ecclesiastes is actually an evangelistic book of the Bible. The Preacher cleverly ruminates over every problem of secularism that he can think of, and just when he seemingly leaves his readers without hope, he dangles the answer in front of them. He provides these subtle reminders that there is an existence beyond time. There is life after death. Most importantly, there is a God who has sovereign control of both this world and time itself. Do you remember his poem in chapter 3? “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecc 3:1). Why is that? It is because there is a God who “has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecc 3:11). There we see the meaning of life: God and eternity.
Without God and without life beyond this dying world, what meaning could anything have? Well, the secularist would likely point to several things that give life meaning. Maybe they’d suggest that your work, or your wealth, or your experiences, or your legacy, or perhaps something else gives your life meaning and purpose. But that only brings us back to the Preacher’s cynicism, which really isn’t cynicism at all; it’s realism. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we can easily see that’s true through even our own experiences.
For instance, we don’t really need someone to tell us that money can’t buy contentment. If it could, Americans would be the most content people on earth. But look around you. The guy buying a $5 coffee drink at Starbucks is yelling at the barista for using whole milk instead of skim milk. The guy driving down the interstate in his air-conditioned, semi-autonomous sports car is pounding his horn because the truck in front of him is only going the speed limit. Then there’s the guy who throws his $800 iPhone across the room out of frustration because it dropped his call. These are not signs of a healthy, happy, satisfied people.
On average, one person dies by suicide every forty seconds. That statistic is sad and troubling, of course, but it’s also telling. It certainly lends credence to the Preacher’s observation that life apart from God is void of meaning and enjoyment. In God, however, we find hope and purpose. But to see that in The Book of Ecclesiastes, we have to (1) pay attention and (2) follow the Preacher’s train of thought all the way to the end. Our hope in God becomes abundantly clear by the time we reach not the Preacher’s conclusion, but the narrator’s final remarks in chapter 12. (Remember, though Solomon may be responsible for this book, it contains two voices: the Preacher and the narrator.)
Chapter 6 begins with yet another pessimistic but realistic perspective on wealth and money. The fact is, money has real limitations. First of all, wealth cannot guarantee happiness. As we learned in the previous chapter, it may even lead to greater misery. In verse 11, he said, “When goods increase, they increase who eat them” (Ecc 5:11). In other words, wealth attracts dependents (the government, for instance, or long-lost relatives). Wealth has a way of consuming itself.
Plus, verse 12 adds, “The full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep” (Ecc 5:12). It may seem counter-intuitive, but wealth can actually do more harm to a person’s peace of mind than poverty. That’s not to say poverty is ideal because it’s not. But wealth doesn’t automatically ensure peace. Again, it cannot guarantee happiness.
A second limitation of money is that a person who has it all, even if he is also blessed with a large family, will still die. In fact, he could die completely unsatisfied and unmourned by his own family. Both limitations addressed here hinge on two basic facts: (1) Money does not equal contentment and (2) death is inevitable. You can’t buy your way into satisfaction, and you can’t buy your way out of mortality.
The Insecurities of Wealth
So chapter 6 begins this way: “There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil” (Ecc 6:1-2).
Keep in mind how chapter 5 ended. The Preacher said that money isn’t the problem. The problem is money without God because it is only by God that we can enjoy what money we have, no matter how much or how little. So here he turns his attention back to the person who has money, not to mention honor (that is, glory or nobility)—in fact, he has everything he’s ever desired—but he also has a severely limited, purely secular perspective.
Notice the phrase, “under the sun.” When the Preacher uses that phrase, we know that he has set aside the reality of God for a moment to consider what life is like without him. Life “under the sun” refers only to a secular existence that is bound by time, concluding with death. Eternal life is not a factor, and God is not a part of the equation.
This man here doesn’t recognize the source of his wealth. And as a result, God has not given him the power to enjoy his wealth. He’s absolutely miserable. It lies heavy on him. Actually, it lies heavy on the Preacher just thinking about it. It’s not only vanity, but it’s also a grievous evil. It’s devastating. He has wasted his life toiling to accumulate money, possessions, and perhaps power only to find enjoyment altogether elusive. He managed to gain everything his heart ever desired, but for what? Apparently, it was all so a stranger could come along later and enjoy the fruits of his labor. That stranger, I assume, is someone who inherits everything he owns after he dies.
But it gets even worse. Verse 3 says, “If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he” (Ecc 6:3).
Have you ever noticed how different people can have radically different perspectives on children? Some parents consider their children to be God’s greatest blessing in their lives. They love to quote Solomon’s psalm which says, “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them” (Ps 127:3-5). To those parents, every additional child is just one more blessing.
But to other people, children are viewed as a burden. You know, kids rob you of your freedom, your resources, your money, your time, your attention, and for what? What do the parents get out of it besides an empty wallet and a few headaches? (Don’t “amen” that.)
It’s not just money that this man failed to appreciate as a gift of God. It would seem that he was also dissatisfied with his own family. This is hypothetical, of course, but we’re told he had a hundred children. That’s one hundred arrows in his quiver, one hundred distinct blessings in his life. We’re also told that he lived many years. Chances are, he lived to meet possibly hundreds of his own grandchildren, and maybe a few great-grandchildren. And the Preachers says, “His soul is not satisfied with life’s good things.”
What do you suppose happens to a child who doesn’t feel wanted or loved by his or her parents? Well, I suppose some will try harder to earn that love. Others may simply respond with rebellion. “If my parents don’t want me, I don’t want them.” Regardless, I imagine most children will eventually grow bitter toward their parents, indifferent at the very least.
So what happens when the child is all grown up and moved away? Let’s say he gets a phone call one day. And the person on the other line says, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your mother or your father is dead.” How does he respond? He’s probably thinking, What do I care? My parents have been dead to me for years. Click. He hangs up the phone and continues on with his life as though nothing ever happened. I believe that’s what the Preacher is implying when he says, “And he also has no burial.” He had immense wealth and honor, not to mention a hundred children, but no one cares even enough to bury him. There’s no one to attend his funeral.
Now I realize this is a hypothetical scenario, but I wouldn’t call it fiction. People do live this way. People do obtain great wealth, and fame, and family, but they essentially die alone and unwanted. It’s truly sad. It’s a grievous evil. And as the Preacher confessed, the thought of it should weigh heavy on our hearts. In fact, it should motivate us to tell the world that it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to live for fleeting materialism. You don’t have to let the totality of your person be what you own or what you gain under the sun. And if you don’t think you know anyone who lives that way, look closer.
The man described here does have it all. He has wealth, a prominent reputation, and even a large family. But his problem is not that he has wealth, or vast possessions, or honor. After all, verse 2 says that it was God who gave him these things. But he doesn’t enjoy them. Why? Well, I guess we could blame God because God hasn’t given him the power to enjoy them. But there’s a reason God hasn’t given him that power. What is it?
I’ll give you a hint. It’s the same problem that underlies every vexation the Preacher describes in this book; he lacks faith. Rather than trust in God, he trusts himself. After all, why would a man of his stature, of his wealth need to humble himself before anyone else? He’s provided his own security. He has his money to get him through life, and he has his many, many kids to take care of things when he’s gone. But, of course, it didn’t work out that way.
Sadly, he never gave any thought to God, the one who gave him his wealth and could surely take it away, not to mention his life. Perhaps he never gave any thought to the fact that his life was only temporary. He was too focused on the here and now to consider what comes after. And for all we know, this man sat in the front pew of the church every week. Would it shock you if he did? If so, let me remind you of a young man we read about in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 19.
We are not given his name, but he’s described as one who had “great possessions” (Mt 19:22). He was a wealthy man. And he approached Jesus with this question: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Mt 19:16). So Jesus told him to keep the commandments. Well, he was a good Jewish boy all of his life. He never committed murder or adultery. He never stole anything. He never lied or deceived anyone. Best of all, he always honored his parents, and he always loved his neighbors. That was his claim anyhow.
Obviously, this man was not ready to humble himself before Christ and plead, “Lord, help me because I can’t help myself.” He was still holding on to this self-sufficient mindset that made him believe he could somehow save himself. “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” In short, the answer is nothing. There is nothing you can do to have eternal life. Until you reach the desperation of Peter when he was drowning in the sea of Galilee and cried out, “Lord, save me,” you will not come any closer to knowing the salvation which only Christ can provide (Mt 14:30).
So knowing the rich man was not yet to his breaking point where he felt helpless and desperate, ready to fall at Christ’s feet, Jesus challenged him by saying, “If you would be perfect [because that’s what eternal life requires], go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mt 19:21).
That is not a commandment for every Christian disciple, by the way. Within reason, you can give away as much of your stuff as you want. By all means, help the poor. But this commandment was exclusively for the rich man. He needed it which is made evident by his reaction to it: “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful” (Mt 19:22). Needless to say, he wasn’t ready to “deny himself and take up his cross daily” (Lk 9:23). He wasn’t ready to lose his life for Christ’s sake.
Jesus prodded him by poking his most sensitive spot. His money and possessions were the things he held most dear in life, and he wasn’t willing to let them go. The challenge was this: “What do you want more: your possessions or Christ?” Remember, “no one can serve two masters…you cannot serve God and money” (Mt 6:24).
So the rich man in Matthew 19 faced the same dilemma as the man described here in Ecclesiastes. Both men overvalued their wealth. Both men were prone to trust in their material things more than God. And for the rich man in Matthew’s Gospel, he refused to put his faith in Christ even though he had supposedly committed his life to serving God.
My guess is that we’ve all been guilty at times. Our particular idols may look different, but they’re idols nonetheless, and we’ve held them in higher regard than God himself. Maybe it was your money, your job, your house, your car, your family, or your friends. Or maybe your idol was yourself, or your abilities, or your mind, or your talents. If you trusted in it more than God, it’s an idol. If it’s more important to you than God, it’s an idol. If it’s distracted you from God, it’s an idol. And no matter what it is, if we’re not careful, the outcome could be as devastating for us as it was for this man in Ecclesiastes.
The Preacher says it would have been better for him had he never been born. Verse 4 adds, “For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered” (Ecc 6:4). That describes the stillborn child. “Darkness” is a reference to Sheol, the realm of the dead. It’s the opposite of the Preacher’s popular phrase, “under the sun.” In short, darkness is all the stillborn child knows. It’s all he’ll ever know, and it’s all that will ever be known about him. And that stillborn child is better off than the rich man who lived in misery and died in obscurity.
“Moreover,” the Preacher says, “it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he. Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good—do not all go to the one place?” (Ecc 6:5-6).
While the stillborn child never gets to experience life, at least he has rest. He doesn’t have to spend years and years toiling for things that may never make him happy. That’s his advantage over the rich man. The rich man may live a long, long life—here the Preacher says, “a thousand years twice over”—but what good is that if those years are spent in misery? Furthermore, the end is the same. We all wind up in Sheol.
Even so, there will always be people who continue to pursue what can’t possibly satisfy them apart from God. You may notice that in the next few verses the Preacher doesn’t focus on wealthy people. As far as I know, he’s talking about an ordinary person working an ordinary job. He’s just working for a living as we all do.
Our Insatiable Longings
Verse 7: “All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied” (Ecc 6:7).
This man is working to survive, that’s all. He’s not necessarily living in a mansion with an eight-car garage and in-ground swimming pool. He’s not bringing home a six-figure income. He’s working just to feed himself. And yet, he’s still not satisfied. It would seem that bread alone cannot meet his deepest needs. So this observation prompts the Preacher to ask a couple of questions.
“For what advantage has the wise man over the fool? And what does the poor man have who knows how to conduct himself before the living?” (Ecc 6:8).
Both questions imply they deserve negative answers. First, does the wise man have any advantages over the fool? And second, does it really help the poor man to have a favorable reputation in the community? But before we attempt to answer these questions, let’s continue reading as the Preacher explores this subject further.
Verse 9: “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecc 6:9).
What does that mean? Well, there’s a lot to see in this world. There’s a lot to look at and wonder, What do you think it would be like to own that or live that kind of life or—? Use your imagination. When Danaé and I visited the Biltmore estate, I tried my best to imagine what it would be like to live in a house that size. I can hardly fathom it. That house has four acres of floor space. It has more than thirty bedrooms, more than forty bathrooms, and more than sixty fireplaces. My current home has well below one acre of floor space, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and zero fireplaces (unless you count the electric one). Needless to say, it hardly compares to the Biltmore.
But you know, there is no harm in driving to Asheville and taking a tour of the Biltmore. What would be a problem is if I came home and suddenly felt disgusted by my own house. “Look at those floors. We don’t have a single custom hardwood floor in the house. Just look at that molding. That’s stock molding from Home Depot. I want something hand-carved. So we have an electric fireplace, so what? I want a real fireplace made of stone. I want a fireplace so big that I can stand in it.” You see, that’s what the Preacher calls a wandering appetite. When we stop looking and begin coveting, we have a wandering appetite. And a wandering appetite means we are not content. We’re not satisfied with what we have.
So, going back to the questions in verse 8, we have a wise man and a poor man, both trying to improve their situations. The Preacher implies that the wise man thinks he can improve his lot by virtue of his wisdom or knowledge. The poor man thinks that he can gain the favor of those around him and maybe they’ll do something to elevate him. However, they both suffer from the same affliction; neither of them is content with what God has already given them. They toil and toil, but their appetites can never be satisfied. The Preacher says this is like striving after the wind. They would have a better chance of catching the wind than finding satisfaction in a secular world.
Nature Cannot Be Changed
“Now wait just a minute,” someone says. “I am sure that if I can just reach the next income bracket, I’ll be content. I’ll have everything I need and be happy. If I can just land that job I’m after— If I can just get that promotion—” That is not how life works.
Look at verse 10: “Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he.”
To name something is to study it or, better yet, define it. In this case, the Preacher is talking about life in general and the nature of people in particular. In other words, life is what it is, and people are who they are. The nature of this world and the nature of man are not going to change. We can debate about these realities all we want, but we can’t change the facts. God, who is stronger than us, will win every argument. He’ll always be proven right.
What exactly is he right about? A purely secular life is meaningless. Without God, there can be no purpose and no lasting enjoyment. You can dispute that claim, but the Preacher says, “The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man?” (Ecc 6:11). No argument you make is going to change the nature of the world.
Verse 12: “For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?” (Ecc 6:12).
The Preacher expresses a twofold problem here. First, left to ourselves, we can’t figure out what’s best for us. Second, neither can anyone else. We’re all trapped in the fog of life, and each person is as ignorant as the next.
So if wealth and honor can’t give our lives meaning, if we can’t improve our lots because of that insatiable longing we all possess that will always leave us unsatisfied, and if no one can change these basic facts, then what do we do? Where do we turn? Where do we find any hope at all?
The answer is God and God alone. And by the time we reach the end of Ecclesiastes, it becomes abundantly clear that life cannot have meaning without God.
Preached at Joy Christian Church (Benson, NC) on February 19, 2017