Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes 6

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Ecclesiastes 6

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“Who Knows What Is Good for Man in Life…?”

We arrive now at the third major section of Ecclesiastes (6:1–8:15). This, says Dr. Walter Kaiser in Ecclesiastes: Total Life (the outline of which we’ve been following), “is the central portion of the whole argument. Here Solomon will apply the two conclusions of the first two sections of his work (about the gifts and the plan of God) to the alleged inequalities and the apparently unfair variations in divine providence” (p. 78). As with the previous sections, this one also ends with an occurrence of the refrain commending enjoyment in daily living (Ecclesiastes 8:15). Despite the presentation of further vanity or frustration, we see the positive direction of the argument.

This section’s first subsection (6:1–7:15) concerns a proper evaluation of man’s circumstances. What some possess and the difficulties some must endure should not lead us to think that God is not righteous and fair or that He is unable to effectively deal with the human condition. We see this point “developed in two complementary arguments that form two subdivisions of 6:1–7:15: 1. Prosperity is not always necessary or good (Ecclesiastes 6:1-12). 2. Adversity, or affliction, is not always or necessarily evil (Ecclesiastes 7:1-15)” (Kaiser, p. 80). The first subdivision here is our current reading.

Solomon gets into this matter by returning to the wealth discussion of chapter 5. There he warned that riches could perish (verse 14). Now he starts chapter 6 with reference to an evil affliction or calamitous plague he says is sadly common—a person given great wealth by God so as to have no lack, here with the addition of honor or fame, yet ultimately having no power to eat of it, i.e. experience or enjoy it (compare Isaiah 3:10), with it going to a foreigner or stranger (Ecclesiastes 6:1-2). So when it comes to wealth, all is not as it may seem. Solomon’s father David had earlier stated, “Surely they busy themselves in vain; he heaps up riches, and does not know who will gather them” (Psalm 39:6).

If the person was denied enjoyment of prosperity while it lasted, then it would seem there was a wrong focus here. Perhaps boredom set in. Or maybe there never seemed to be enough. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary notes on Ecclesiastes 6:1-2: “Without straining the interpretation, it seems that Ecclesiastes 5:19 describes the person who accepts a standard of living for which he has worked, without continually craving for more (cf. Ecclesiastes 5:10; Ecclesiastes 6:9). The man in 6:2 is more concerned with having everything he wants, and his God-given status in life allows this. But inasmuch as his heart is centered on his accumulated wealth, his tragedy comes when God allows this wealth to be taken over by a stranger” (Wright).

Solomon goes on in verses 3-6 to show how greater apparent success only magnifies the tragedy. “The three traditional conditions for happiness were wealth, long life, and many children” (Garrett, New American Commentary, note on 5:16–6:6). Here we see the exaggeration of the person having a hundred children and longevity of 2,000 years—more than twice the length of time that the oldest patriarch, Methuselah, lived. But despite the long life, “his soul is not satisfied with goodness” (verse 3). This refers to the person’s physical being, including his consciousness, having no enjoyment or contentment in blessings (not to his supposed inner spiritual “soul” not being satisfied by doing good as some would interpret this—likewise verse 7).

Yet we might wonder at the added statement “or indeed he has no burial” (verse 3). Not having a proper burial was viewed as a terrible dishonor (compare what happened to King Jehoiakim in Jeremiah 22:18-19). The statement here could mean that despite the person having such a vast family, no one comes to bury or mourn him. This would mean that on top of being joyless, he would also have been unloved—which certainly could go together. Yet a wealthy person having no funeral or burial seems unlikely, as arrangements for that would likely have been secured ahead of time. Indeed, wealthy people have elaborate funerals today, and that does not mean that they lived happy, joyful lives or even that they were loved. But maybe this is speaking of the wealthy person who loses everything in verse 2. Then it’s perhaps more conceivable that he might not have a funeral, yet it still seems unlikely in Israelite culture.

Perhaps a better solution is that given in The New American Commentary in quoting another commentator: “. . . that the line [about burial] is not predicated on the rich man but is a proleptic [lookingahead] reference to the miscarriage [that follows in the sentence]: ‘Even if it does not have a proper burial, I say that the stillborn is better off than he’” (same note). That is, if a man has many children and lives long but is dissatisfied, even a miscarried child with no burial is better off than that man.

In any case, Solomon says the miscarried child, which comes and goes in obscurity (verse 4) and has not seen the sun or the light of day (verse 5; compare Job 3:16; Psalm 58:8)—whether or not the burial reference is to it—is better off than a person who has lived for ages without joy. We recall that earlier in Ecclesiastes 4:3 Solomon had said it would be better to have not been born than to see the evil oppression in this world. Of course, he wrote this with understanding that there will be a future resurrection in which God’s way of life will permeate the world. Likewise, when he speaks in Ecclesiastes 6:6 of all going to one place— defined in Ecclesiastes 3:20 as returning to the dust of the earth—it is with the understanding that the dead will one day rise again in a better world. Remember that Solomon had a brother before him who died just days old, and that David had said he would meet this child in the future (2 Samuel 12:15-24). Solomon was no doubt well aware of this—and of the truth about the resurrection and the world to come, as taught to him by his father.

In the meantime, as sad as a fleeting moment of life extinguished is, even thousands of years of life with no joy is worse. The many years will come to an end at death, and what will there be to show for all that time? “Although others may have looked on with envious eyes, the truth is that the extension [of life] is not what it appeared to be; it was a compounded sorrow” (Kaiser, p. 81).

Solomon then gives a few proverbs to bring out some important lessons. In Ecclesiastes 6:7 we read, “All the labor of man is for his mouth, and yet the soul is not satisfied.” The mouth here directly represents both receiving sustenance and tasting—or, as the Amplified Bible brackets, “self-preservation and enjoyment.” And yet the soul—the physical, conscious person—is unfulfilled. Some take the problem here to be expending effort to satisfy ones material wants and desires without pursuing inner spiritual fulfillment. Yet the mouth here is probably meant to convey the full breadth of experience a person might take in to live and find happiness, including mental endeavor. The point seems to be that if we pursue fulfillment directly, by whatever means, we will never be fulfilled. Happiness is the byproduct of another pursuit.

The meaning of verse 8 is a matter of dispute. As the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries volume on Ecclesiastes points out, “Expositors differ widely on this verse” (Eaton, note on verse 8). Yet with consideration to various arguments, we may deduce the likely meaning. While the verse’s proverb is distinct from that in verse 7, the “For” at the beginning of verse 8 shows that it should be read in the context of verse 7—as does the meaning of verse 9, which ties back to verse 7. These all must go together. Verse 8 begins, “For what more has the wise man than the fool?” The context from verse 7 is that of the effort made to supply one’s needs and desires in trying to find fulfillment. Those who are “wise”—skilled and educated in how to go about this—will succeed more in meeting needs and wants than fools who make terrible life choices. But if that’s the only difference, they both end up in the same situation of being unfulfilled.

The latter part of verse 8 then asks, as the NKJV renders it, “What does the poor man have, who knows how to walk before the living?” The concluding phrase here seems to denote those who know how to conduct themselves as needed among others. This appears to parallel the wisdom at the beginning of the verse, so that this second question is probably a more specific rephrasing of the first question—the thought rhyming of Hebrew poetry seen in other proverbs. There is evidently recognition here of the problems that wealth can bring, including trying to maintain and increase that wealth. So now we are presented with a poor man—this description fitting most people, relatively speaking (especially from Solomon’s perspective)—who is doing what it takes to continue obtaining, even if that is only to just get by, to be happy. Yet what is this person actually left with? Perhaps the latter part of the verse should be understood to mean, “What does the person of modest means who knows how to conduct himself in pursuing needs and wants ultimately have more than the fool who does not know or choose to so conduct himself?” Again, if that is all the difference, really nothing—as neither will be left fulfilled.

Verse 9 then caps off the vanity—the futility and frustrated and worthless grasping at wind—of this constant pursuit of more to satisfy longing, giving us a “better than” proverb (a common poetic form). In this case, “the sight of the eyes” is declared better than “the wandering of desire.” The sight of the eyes here must mean what is right before you that you already have rather than what you see elsewhere or that someone else has—the latter coveting fitting with wandering desire. Recall the related warning in Proverbs 27:20: “Hell [the grave] and Destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied.” Covetousness leads to more covetousness—and ultimately destruction. This is not the way to happiness.

In its note on Ecclesiastes 6:10-12, The New American Commentary states: “This text is held together by the fourfold use of the catchword adam (‘man’), here used not merely as a generic for human beings but as a term that points back to Gen[esis] 2–3.” We find the connection to creation further drawn in Ecclesiastes 7:29.

Verse 10 of Ecclesiastes 6 says that “whatever one is, he has been named already, for it is known that he is man [or Adam]; and he cannot contend with Him who is mightier than he.” This is not speaking of each person being named individually in advance. Rather it refers to all being originally given the collective name of man or, specifically, Adam—a name related to adamah, meaning red earth or soil, the ground from which the first man was formed. This goes to the very heart of the human condition. Man is of the earth and of himself cannot truly “rise above.” In fact, his body will ultimately return to the earth (Ecclesiastes 12:7), so that the name “draws attention to human mortality” (same note). Consider further the fact here of being named or identified. Adam received dominion over the other creatures of the earth, which was symbolized by the fact that he named them. But Adam himself was named by God, showing God’s superiority and making it clear that the one whom man “cannot contend with . . . who is mightier than he” is God. God’s judgment and rule over life stands. People cannot contend with God in the sense of taking Him to court to debate His supposed lack of fairness. Job desired to do this but ultimately withdrew his case, recognizing God’s care and righteousness and his own lowliness and sin. Contending with God might also refer to some trying to change the universe to work how they think it should—and that obviously is not going to happen. The world is the way it is. Arguing against God or trying to change things only increases vanity or frustration. How are man’s circumstances thereby better? (verse 11).

Verse 12 then asks two questions: Who knows what is really good for man all through the course of frustrating and fleeting life? And who can tell a man what will happen afterward with him in this life under the sun? (The rendering that some versions have of “after he is gone” seems incorrect, as that appears irrelevant to the point here.) Of course, none of us can say what is always for the best and what is to follow. The answer to both questions here is God—and only God.

Looking back through the chapter, we can see how this applies. With the issue of wealth at the outset, we might think of all that we want and imagine that it’s “good” to be really prosperous. But what do we know? It’s revealed here that wealth can end up an effective curse. In verse 2 we see that the more one has, the more one has to lose. And here it is lost. Yet is even that necessarily a “bad” thing? It’s a calamitous affliction, as described. But maybe it actually saves the person from becoming worse like the utterly joyless person described in the verses that follow. And certainly the lesson is beneficial to others. The fact is, only God can say whether various circumstances in life are ultimately good or bad, as only He understands their full context and impact—and what will yet happen. Coming to accept this is to embrace the life of faith—trusting in God’s sovereign direction and plan even though we don’t understand all the things He brings about or allows to happen in life.

The Preaching the Word commentary says this about the calamitous loss at the beginning of the chapter—and it really sums up all we’ve seen here: “If anything good can come from this unfortunate situation, it is the recognition that our possessions [like other pursuits of fulfillment] can never bring us lasting joy. The gifts that God gives us and the power to enjoy those gifts come separately. This is why having more money can never guarantee that we will find any enjoyment. Without God, we will still be discontent[ed]. It is only when we keep him at the center of our existence that we experience real joy in the gifts that God may give. The fear of the Lord is not just the beginning of knowledge; it is also the source of satisfaction” (Ryken, p. 141). Again, true happiness is not a result of directly pursuing happiness but of pursuing a right relationship with God through Christ.