Maybe you had this happen to you as a child. It’s Christmas morning and under the tree are a variety of gifts, some of them for you. You open your gifts. You play with them for awhile. But soon those gifts don’t satisfy. We find ourselves wanting something else, or something more.
Jonathan Clements reached that conclusion in the pages of the Wall Street Journal . “We may have life and liberty,” he wrote. “But the pursuit of happiness isn’t going so well. . . . We constantly hanker after fancier cars and fatter paychecks — and, initially, such things boost our happiness. But the glow of satisfaction quickly fades and soon we’re yearning for something else.”
Will we learn to be content? Where is the joy? Where is the satisfaction?
Listen to the sad words contained in Ecclesiastes 6:
1 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: 2 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. 3 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. 4 For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered. 5 Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he. 6 Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good–do not all go to the one place? 7 All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied. 8 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? 9 Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind. 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. 11 The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? 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?
The word “vanity” (vv. 2, 4, 9, 11) or “vain” (v. 12) is used five times in this chapter. Throughout the whole chapter is this sad refrain. Twice he says it is “an evil” (vv. 1-2); twice he says he is “not satisfied” (vv. 3, 7). It’s just a sad chapter.
So different from the end of chapter 5.
18 Behold, what I have seen to be good [not evil] and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil–this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.
The key difference between chapter 6 and the end of chapter 5 is that God has given this person the ability to “find enjoyment” and God “keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.” It is God who does this. The ability to enjoy life, to find satisfaction, comes from God.
We cannot produce it ourselves—not from the accumulation of things, not from the heaping up of accolades, not from the affections of others—but from God. You leave God out of the picture, and you leave joy out of your life. It’s as simple as that.
Ecclesiastes 6 gets us back to the grind—living life under the sun (v. 1)/without God in the picture. Whereas God is mentioned four times in all three verses in Ecclesiastes 5:18-20, and in a positive way, Ecclesiastes 6:2 says that God “gives wealth, possessions, and honor,” yet “God does not give him power to enjoy them.” This is the only mention of God in Ecclesiastes 6. Ecclesiastes 6 gives us a long list of life’s disappointments.
The Preacher’s first disappointment related to people’s possessions. Satisfaction, he saw, is not guaranteed:
“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” (Ecclesiastes 6:1–2).
The man in these verses seemed to have it all. Not only was he worth a fortune (he has “wealth, possessions”), but he was also famous (he has “honor”), which many people value even more highly than money. Yet for some unspecified reason he was unable to enjoy what he had.
Martin Luther called these verses “a description of a rich man who lacks nothing for a good and happy life and yet does not have one.”
Of course, he means that he lacked nothing as far as earthly possessions or approval, but he lacked a good and happy life because it was not given to him by God.
Unlike the man described at the end of Ecclesiastes 5, the man in chapter 6 had the acquisition without the satisfaction. In the end he lost everything, and thus he never had the chance to enjoy what he worked a lifetime to gain.
Perhaps he lost his property in wartime or through theft or threw it away in some risky investment (see Ecclesiastes 5:13–14). Maybe he was too sick to make good use of his money or died before he reached retirement (see Ecclesiastes 2:18), as many people do. But for some providential reason, someone who seemed to have everything that he could want never had the chance to enjoy it.
J. Vernon McGee tells the story…
“A friend told me that when he was in a hotel in Florida, he saw John D. Rockefeller, Sr., sitting and eating his meal. He had just a few little crumbs, some health food, that had been set before him. Over at a side table my friend saw one of the men who worked as a waiter in the hotel sitting with a big juicy steak in front of him. The man who could afford the steak couldn’t eat one; the man who could not afford the steak had one to eat because he worked for the hotel. It is better to have a good appetite than a big bank account!”
And what is particularly irksome, is that someone else, a “stranger,” gets to enjoy it. Not him, not his kids, but a stranger. He never gets to enjoy it while he had it. All that he worked for goes to someone else.
Thus, he rightly calls this “vanity,” so empty. It was a “grievous evil.” This may mean an evil that causes grief. It causes affliction and confusion. Earlier in verse 1 he had said this “lies heavy on mankind.” We cannot bear it; it is too heavy a load.
While this expression may refer to the severity of the situation, more likely it refers to its frequency. It happens all the time: one person loses everything he has worked so hard to gain, and then someone else comes along to enjoy it. As David wrote in one of his psalms, “man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!” (Psalm 39:6).
Why is Solomon hammering away at the disappointment and frustration of life? Even with money and fame, there is no enjoyment. Why not? Solomon is wanting us to become desperate enough that we will look up and seek our satisfaction in God.
He has not attached his name to it, but there is little doubt that Ecclesiastes 6 is a picture of Solomon as he sees himself. This portrait is a disturbing one, not only because of how it depicts a God-fearing leader, but also because it drives us to seriously examine our own lives. (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 59)
The key to all this is in the phrase, “God does not him the power to enjoy them.” This book pounds home that lesson over and over again. Enjoyment does not come with increased possessions–it is a gift that God must give! If He withholds it, no amount of effort can gain it. That is a difficult lesson for some to learn. We are constantly bombarded with alluring pictures in catalogs and in commercials that relentlessly advocate the opposite message. Enjoyment, however, is a gift from God. (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 81) You cannot have enjoyment without God.
The emphasis of the book, remember, is that nothing lasts, nothing satisfies, nothing in this world is sufficient once and for all. That truth, pursued to the nth degree by Solomon, is again driven home by this repeated litany of hunger/work/food, hunger/work/food. True satisfaction may be found only in the world to come, in the presence of the Lord. (Jay E. Adams, Life under the Son, 64)
It is his grace, not our gain, that leads us beyond the frustrations of earthly wealth to the riches that bring full satisfaction: the riches of fellowship with God now and forever. (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 158)
If satisfaction is not guaranteed, then maybe we would be better off dead. This is the dark possibility that the Preacher considers next:
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? (Ecclesiastes 6:3–6)
Here is another one of the Preacher’s “better than” statements, in which he compares one thing to another. In this case, he compares a man whose life is full of blessing to a child who never sees the light of day. Given the vanity of life in this fallen world, Qoheleth bitterly concludes that the stillborn child gets the better end of the bargain.
Solomon uses two vital images from the life of the ancient Israelites: children and long life. These are two of the fondest desires of the heart of every Israelite– a quiver full of children, and the days of many years.
In the ancient world, bearing children was one of the most important components of a good life. Children not only provided the labor necessary to an agrarian lifestyle; they also ensured that one would be cared for in later years. Thus, speaking of one who fathers a hundred children expresses the idea of superabundant blessing (cf. also Ps. 127:3–5).
In the OT era, long life and numerous children were considered some of the highest of all earthly blessings (e.g., Gen. 15:15; Psalm 127), but a discontented heart will be unsatisfied even with these in excessive measure.
The Preacher also speaks of the blessing of living many years. Life in the ancient world was tenuous. Roughly half of all children died before the age of five, and youth and young adulthood were hazardous as well. In a world with only the most rudimentary medical care, disease threatened everyone. Beyond that, the complications of childbirth took the lives of many women. Work in the fields and the dangers of war could lead to injuries for men, and even a very slight injury could lead to infection and death. To survive all these hazards and live into old age was a rare blessing (cf. Gen. 15:15; 25:8; Deut. 4:40; 6:2; etc.).
The man Solomon describes here is doubtless a hyperbole. In order to express his extreme wealth he says he fathers “a hundred children” and lives “a thousand years twice over.” Of course this is hyperbole, but it expresses exactly what Solomon wanted to communicate: even absurd wealth and an unheard-of long life cannot necessarily make one happy.
This man has these two basic, but vital blessings, in extreme measure, but “his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things.” God has not given him the power to enjoy life’s good things. It’s not that life isn’t filled with good things, but he is not given the ability to enjoy them.
Why? Assumably because he has no relationship with God.
If anything good can come from this unfortunate situation, it is the recognition that our possessions 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. 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. (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 141)
Notice that it is this man’s “soul” that was not satisfied. His body could be satiated, but his soul was not satisfied.
It is not length of life that matters; however long you live, in the end you go the way of all flesh. It is the quality of life that is important, and life is meaningless unless it brings joy, satisfaction and happiness. (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 41)
And what is meant by the words near the end of verse 3: “and he also has no burial”?
Certain passages of the OT (e.g., 1 Sam 31:11-13; 1 Kgs 14:10-11; Isa 14:19-20; Jer 16:4-5) illustrate the importance of burial to the ancient Semitic peoples, as the community of the living sent the deceased person to be at rest with the community of the dead. A good life came to an end in a good death. Here in Eccl 6:3, a miserable life comes to an end in a bad death. (Iain Provan, The NIV Application Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 129)
In verse 3 Solomon seems to be describing a wealthy man who puts off his own enjoyment and saves up for his children. They, however, are ungrateful and do not even honor their father with a proper burial, a matter always considered of importance in the Jewish community. In life and even in death the man is frustrated. (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 58-59)
Michael Eaton succinctly says: ““To die unburied was the mark of a despised and unmourned end. Better to miscarry at birth than to miscarry throughout life” (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 106)
It all goes to show that a person can “have the things men dream of — which in Old Testament terms meant children by the score, and years of life by the thousand — and still depart unnoticed, unlamented and unfulfilled” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes , The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1976), p. 59).
Now, is life really as bleak as this for all people? We know that the man of faith at the end of Ecclesiastes 5 has a different experience, and admittedly, many even of unbelievers seem to live life at least somewhat contentedly. Few wish they had never been born.
Kidner points out:
“Once more he is inviting us to think, and in particular to think through the secularist’s position. If this life is all, and offers to some people frustration rather than fulfilment, leaving them, nothing to pass on to those who depend on them; if, further, all alike are waiting their turn to be deleted [to die], then some indeed can envy the stillborn, whose turn comes first. Job and Jeremiah, at times, would have fervently agreed. (Job 3; Jeremiah 20:14ff); and if we disagree with that mood of those two men, it is because we judge their lives by values that transcend death and outweigh a lifetime’s pains and pleasures—criteria that the secularist cannot logically use.
All of this is damaging to any rosy picture of the world; but TEV goes far beyond its brief in calling it ‘a serious injustice…done to man’ (6:1), and in making 6:2 say, ‘it just isn’t right’. Qoheleth is very far from holding that man has rights which God ignores; it is rather than man has needs which God exposes. Some of these, as we saw, are of a kind that the temporal world cannot begin to meet, since God has ‘put eternity into man’s heart’ (3:11); other, more limited, are of a kind that the world can satisfy a little and for a while; but none with any certainty or depth. If this is a hardship and lies heavy upon men (v. 1), it is also a salutary thing. The world itself is made to say to us in the only language we will mostly listen to, ‘This is no place to rest.’” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 60).
Or, “this world is not my home.”
Again, Ecclesiastes proves to be a pre-evangelistic book, pointing out the failings of the secular worldview, the materialist worldview that only believes that what is real to the sense is real and vital. These worldviews leave God out, and thus they leave out joy.
For those who are feeling that disappointment and discontent with this world, they are primed to be pointed to Jesus Christ, the true joy of our souls.