Last week we introduced a man who had “wealth, possessions, and honor,” who “a hundred children” and lived “a thousand years twice over,” and who could not enjoy it. Unlike the man in Ecclesiastes 5:18-20, God did not give this man “the power to enjoy them” (v. 1), rather someone else did, and therefore this man believes it would have been better not to have been born.
Clearly, like us all, he is seeking contentment and joy, satisfaction and fulfillment, but was not finding it.
Again, listen to the sad litany in Ecclesiastes 6:
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?
Last week we noticed that unless God grants the gift of enjoyment (5:18-20), that man can enjoy great riches and still feel disappointed with life, considering it “a grievous evil” and “vanity” (6:2). Today we will look at the reality that again, unless God grants the gift of enjoyment, all our labors will not satisfy either.
Solomon has addressed the situation of the rich man (6:1-6) and now he discusses the situation of the poor man (6:7-9). Both must labor to stay alive. But whereas the rich man can use his money to provide for his needs, the poor man has to use his skills if he and his family are going to survive.
But surviving is not thriving. That is what Solomon says in vv. 7-9. Verse 7 says that a man toils so that he can eat, but eating adds no years to his life. Again, Solomon is not speaking medically here—it is important for us to eat to maintain our health. Solomon is speaking philosophically of the reality that all our labors and even our eating does not extend our lives.
The trouble is, we always have an appetite. And it is not wrong to labor or to eat. Solomon is dealing here with our desires, something we will always struggle with.
In verse 7 the Preacher tells us what happens when we feed that appetite: we get hungry all over again; the same cravings return day after day. It’s cyclical. We eat food to give us strength to work to earn our daily bread, which we eat to give us strength to work again tomorrow, and so it goes, day after day.
So Philip Ryken says…
We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to come to simple rest. Desire is always stronger than satisfaction. (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 139)
Nor does it matter how wise we are or how much money we have — we all have unfulfilled longings. It is better to be wise than foolish, of course, but even wise people have desires that life does not fully satisfy. Nor can noble poverty deliver us from desire. The poor man described in verse 8 is wise enough to know the right way to live. That’s a commendable virtue. Yet even he cannot avoid all the disappointments that rich people have when they expect money to give them satisfaction and purpose in life. Thus, the poor man is going to be as disappointed as anyone. Neither wisdom nor poverty proves to be the advantage that Solomon is looking for. Both rich and poor have distresses, diseases and ultimately die.
Maybe Solomon is sensing here what Moses had already said and what Jesus would later affirm: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4).
We think we can find joy and satisfaction in the things this life has to offer—food and drink, music and entertainment, family and friends. Yet desire is never satisfied. Verse 9 says that desire isn’t satisfied to stay at home, it goes a wandering.
9 Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Our desires are always moving about, never really satisfied. This is the wanderlust of the human heart.
Solomon is saying here, “It’s better to have little and really enjoy it than to dream about much and never attain it.” It’s like the familiar proverb “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
Be satisfied with what God has given you, don’t keep grasping for what you may never attain.
A striking example of perpetual dissatisfaction comes from the excavations at the city of Pompeii. When Vesuvius erupted and Pompeii was buried, many people perished, with their body shapes, postures, and in some instances their facial expressions preserved in volcanic ash. One woman’s feet were pointed in the direction of the city gate, headed for safety. Yet her face was turned back to look at something just beyond the reach of her outstretched hands. She was grasping for a prize — a bag of beautiful pearls. Whether suddenly she remembered that she had left the pearls behind or else saw that someone else had dropped them as she was running for her life, the woman was frozen in a pose of unattainable desire.
What a vivid picture for us—to realize that much of what we desire and reach for is just out of our grasp. But that again is “life under the sun,” life without God.
And with this woman from Pompeii, it resulted in death. It may for us as well. We reach for food or drink to mask our pain, or sexual pleasures to erase our boredom, or maybe just spend hours playing computer games to titillate our senses. But whatever it is, our wandering appetites are always reaching for something we hope will satisfy, but that satisfaction and joy lie just outside our grasp.
Be content with what you have–your work, your food, your family; do not count on what is beyond your reach. What you see with your eyes you can deal with; what you crave with your soul you may not attain. (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 154-55)
The truth is, only God can fully satisfy. Only God, as we saw in the last chapter, can grant us the gift of enjoying life. But that satisfaction comes through Him, not apart from Him. When we leave God out, we leave joy out; we leave satisfaction and meaning out.
The Westminster Confession of Faith begins with the question:
“What is the chief end of man?
And the answer is: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
John Piper has noted that a better way of conceiving of the meaning of this answer is “the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever.” He is our greatest enjoyment; He is our greatest satisfaction, our greatest treasure.
But through Him, for His sake, we can also enjoy the things of this life. Not apart from Him and not ahead of Him, but through Him and for His glory we can enjoy the good gifts of this life.
Instead of turning to drugs and alcohol, instead of turning to television and computer games, instead of turning to pornography when you are feeling empty and bored, or in pain and agony, turn to Jesus Christ. Run to Him.
John Piper, in his book Future Grace, writes:
The human heart produces desires as fire produces heat. As surely as the sparks fly upward, the heart pumps out desire after desire for a happier future. The condition of the heart is appraised by the kinds of desires that hold sway. Or, to put it another way, the state of the heart is shown by the things that satisfy its desires. If it is satisfied with mean and ugly things, it is a mean and ugly heart. If it is satisfied with God, it is a godly heart. As Henry Skougal put it, “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its desire.” (John Piper, Future Grace, 277-78)
If you desire God, you will be satisfied.
If not, if you leave God out, none of these good gifts will satisfy. It will all be “vanity and striving after wind.”
By the way, verse 9 is the last of nine times the phrase “striving after wind” occurs (cf. 1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16). It opened and now closes the section of the book dealing with the ultimate futility of human achievement (1:12—6:9).
All idolatry is not only treacherous but also futile. Human desire, deep and restless and seemingly unfulfillable, keeps stuffing itself with finite goods, but these cannot satisfy. If we try to fill our hearts with anything besides the God of the universe, we find that we are overfed but under-nourished, and we find that day by day, week by week, year after year, we are thinning down to a mere outline of a human being. (Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 122-23)
Solomon would have a son, Rehoboam, who would covet his father’s fame, wealth and power. Covetousness is, in many respects, the gateway of all other sin. Whoever allows covetousness free rein in his soul will tumble through all kinds of temptations into the snares of sin (Jas 1:13-15). That’s why, Solomon implies, it is better to be content with what one has than to let his appetite wander to the possessions of others (cf. 1 Tm 6:6-10). (T. M. Moore, The Christian Worldview Journal, June 10, 2011)
True satisfaction comes when we enjoy God and do His will. This was expressed by Jesus when he said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go into fulltime ministry before your work will be fulfilling. But are you doing it with the intent to glorify and enjoy God in your work? Are you doing it dependent upon His wisdom and strength to accomplish the work?
Yes, when we include God in our lives, and walk according to His will, there can be riches and labor and enjoyment. But we must accept His plan for our lives, receive His gifts gratefully, and enjoy each day as He enables.
Verses 10-12 represent a third group of people. There is not only the rich who get little to no enjoyment out of their riches, and the poor who labor but are not satisfied, but there are also people who want answers to all of life’s questions, but aren’t satisfied with the answers.
In 6:10-12, Solomon returned to his theme of the immutability and inscrutability of divine providence (i.e., why God allows things to happen as they do; cf. 1:15, 19; 3:11, 14, 22).
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?
These verses fall virtually at the midpoint of Ecclesiastes, but the Preacher is still saying some of the same things he said at the beginning of his book. If he has said it once, he has said it a dozen times: there is nothing new under the sun. The names have already been assigned; everything is labeled and categorized.
“Named” (v. 10) refers to the practice of expressing the nature of something by giving it an appropriate name. In the ancient world people recognized that the person who named someone or something was sovereign over it. Thus God “called” what he had created day, heaven, man, etc.; and Adam named the woman, the animals, etc. Solomon’s point in verse 10 is that God has sovereignly decreed the nature and essence of everything that exists.
Furthermore, the human condition is what it always has been ever since the fall of Adam and Eve: vanity and a striving after wind. This lament reminded Martin Luther of an old German proverb: “As things have been, so they still are; and as things are, so they will be.” (“Notes on Ecclesiastes,” 15:101).
Even if we are unhappy with the way things are, there is no sense in disputing with “one stronger” than you. This seems to be a reference to the Almighty God. Some people have tried to argue with God, like Job, but they usually come to regret it.
After God answered him out of the whirlwind, Job had to confess, “I have uttered what I did not understand . . . therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3, 6).
It is foolish for us to argue with God over what is, what He has ordained. More arguing will only result in greater futility (v. 11).
Man does not know what is best for him because he does not know what the future holds completely (v. 12; cf. 3:22b). Solomon pointed out that we are ignorant of our place in God’s all-inclusive plan. Even though we have more revelation of God’s plans and purposes than Solomon did, we still are very ignorant of these things.
It is pointless to argue with God about His plan. We cannot talk Him out of it.
In the words of Derek Kidner, “Whatever brave words we may multiply about man, or against his Maker, verses 10 and 11 remind us that we shall not alter the way in which we and our world were made.”11
In fact, the more we talk, the emptier our words will sound. To help keep us in our place, the Apostle Paul asked, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (Romans 9:20).
Rather than ending this part of his book with an argument, therefore, the Preacher closes with a couple of rhetorical questions: “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 6:12).
The first question is about our present existence. What makes up the “good life” for man “the few days of his vain life?” Solomon has been proving that most of the things we think make up the “good life” really don’t, not without God at least.
But Solomon will continue in the rest of the book to try to identify what that “good life” looks like. I’ll tell you one thing that David adds that really gives me excitement for everyday life. He says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
When I include God in my life, I become more aware that his goodness and mercy chase after me every single day of my life. There hasn’t been a day that God hasn’t chased after me with goodness and mercy. But if I leave God out, I won’t see it. I won’t believe it either.
In the last question Solomon deals with the afterlife.
Secularists, materialists, humanists don’t believe in an afterlife. They don’t believe that we still exist after death in any meaningful sense.
According to the British Humanist Association, “Life leads to nothing, and every pretense that it does not is a deceit” (quoted by John Blanchard in Where Do We Go from Here? (Darlington, UK: Evangelical Press, 2008), p. 10).
Some skeptics are more careful. They may not believe in kingdom come, but they know they cannot deny the possibility. Thus they die in uncertainty, like Rabelais who said, “I am off in search of a great Perhaps,” or Thomas Hobbes who famously described his death as the “last voyage, a great leap in the dark” (ibid., p. 9)
But those who believe in the Bible know differently. Gradually, as the Bible unfolds, we learn of a real, even glorious future for those who know God through Jesus Christ. It is a place called heaven, which John three times was instructed to write about because “these words are trustworthy and true” (Revelation 19, 21, 22).
If there is no Heaven, then there is no way to escape the vanity of our existence. Nothing matters. Our longings will never be satisfied. Our appetites will keep wandering forever.
But there is a heaven, because there is a God. And Jesus is preparing a place for us there!