FROM ECCLESIASTES 6:1-12
This morning, we pick up where we left off last week in our study of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. We’ll see this morning that the author continues to expose the lie that the things of this world can bring lasting satisfaction to our lives. Up to this point he’s revealed that pleasure, wisdom/education, our careers and as of chapter five, material wealth should never be expected to bring us lasting satisfaction. It’s vanity--foolish for us to look for satisfaction in those things. Though these things are intended for good and are gifts from God, his material blessings cannot bring enduring meaning to our lives. In the text we looked at last week, the Preacher or Qohelet addresses five reasons why money is a dry well for those looking for lasting joy in life.
As we move into chapter six, the author continues to discuss money and wealth as an unsatisfying option. For the first several verses he exposes yet one more lie concerning money’s inability to satisfy. The world maintains that wealth is inherently satisfying. If you have money and you aren’t happy, there’s something wrong with you because money brings satisfaction. The final reason in this section why it’s foolish for us to look to wealth or material possessions for satisfaction is: Possessing wealth and deriving joy from that wealth are often not found together. In addition to the truth of God’s Word, the empirical evidence for this claim is overwhelming.
Think about all the people who in our culture have wealth and ready access to unfettered sensual pleasure, fame and power. In every generation, many of the biggest and most powerful of these people conclude that, in spite of their wealth, life isn’t worth living. Even with all their wealth and notoriety, this life at one time held no appeal to the following. Frank Sinatra, Ozzy Osbourne, Bridgitte Bardot, Ken Griffey Jr., Drew Barrymore, Halle Berry, Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana, Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Britney Spears, Elton John and Eminem all have one thing in common. They all at one point made serious attempts to kill themselves.
Those very successful people didn’t find in their wealth enough satisfaction to motivate them to even remain alive. We can add to that list those who had great wealth, but who found their wealth to be far from sufficient. Even with all their money, they needed something more. They were driven to chemically enhance their lives through drugs and as a result accidentally overdosed in their pursuit of something their wealth could not give them. John Belushi, Lenny Bruce, Tommy Dorsey, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holliday, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, Sonny Liston, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Amy Whinehouse all died from drug overdoses. Those two lists include a significant percentage of our culture’s most wealthy and powerful cultural icons in recent times. They had wealth—some of them great wealth and not one of them found it to be enough.
Their lives illustrate the truth we’re looking at this morning--possessing wealth and having the capacity to enjoy it often do not go together. In the first six verses of our chapter, the author describes two scenarios to make his point. In the first one he says, “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.” In this first scenario, he cites an evil he has seen “under the sun.” We’ve said before that when the author of Ecclesiastes invokes that phrase he is speaking about life without God in the picture.
It may seem like God is not absent here because the author tells us that God is the one who gives the blessings and God is the one who withholds the ability to enjoy them. That however, is simply a restatement of what he has said in the preceding verses. After these initial references to God which connect these verses with what has come before, all vestiges of God are removed. In fact, these next several verses are very depressing as he writes from a godless perspective. One commentator says that this is one of the darkest chapters in the Bible. In the first situation is a man who has [verse two], “…wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires.” This man doesn’t lack for anything—he has received everything from this world he could possibly want. There aren’t too many people even in our wealthy culture who would say that. But he does NOT have the key to unlock the real blessings attached to these things and that is—the God-given capacity to actually enjoy what he has given to him.
God has allowed him to be good at accumulating wealth, possessions and honor, but he has not given him the capacity to derive much joy from these gifts. He’s not saying that God has gifted NO ONE to enjoy these things. But not this man and in the end— “a stranger enjoys them.” Whether this man loses it all or dies and it all goes to a stranger, we don’t know. He accumulates—he does the work, he makes the necessary sacrifices for his wealth, but he can’t enjoy what he accumulates. Instead, someone who has done NOTHING to acquire this material wealth enjoys it—like a lion who steals another predator’s freshly killed prey. He didn’t do any work to get it, but he reaps the benefits from it. The author says this is a “grievous evil.” That phrase is a very strong one in the original and could be translated—“this evil makes a person sick.” It is a sickening evil to see one man who has the gift to accumulate, but not the gift to appreciate and another who has no gifts to accumulate, but who gets to enjoy what others have labored for. In verse one it says that this evil “lies heavy on mankind.” That means—this happens all the time. This is not some bizarre occurrence—this is commonplace. If you’re a person who is skilled in accumulating wealth but find little joy in it—you’re not alone. There are many who have wealth, but God has not gifted them with the ability to enjoy it.
This truth lives in tension with what much of the rest of the Old Testament teaches about wealth. Although there are texts—like the one we looked at last week that sound a warning about the dangers of wealth, the predominant message of the Old Testament about wealth is—it’s a good thing—a blessing from God. God gives great wealth to Job and it’s clearly a blessing. Proverbs chapter 12 says, “27 Whoever is slothful will not roast his game, but the diligent man will get precious wealth.” Wealth is precious and it’s the diligent that get it. Proverbs 14 says, “24 The crown of the wise is their wealth, but the folly of fools brings folly.” Wealth is the crown of the wise so you would assume it brings enjoyment to those who possess it. Not necessarily—not if the wealthy person isn’t also given the capacity to enjoy it.
In the second hypothetic scenario beginning with verse three we read, “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.” Again, we’re met with a man who has what to the surrounding culture are two highly coveted, God-given blessings. This man is given a hundred children and the long life of 2000 years—exaggerated for the sake of argument. In this Ancient Near Eastern culture, to have these two blessings was about as good as it gets.
Proverbs 3:1-2 says, “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, 2 for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you.” “Length of days and years of life” are a blessing from God as a result of living in accordance with his wisdom. Later on in the chapter, the author says this about wisdom, “15 She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. 16 Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.” Again, long life and riches and honor are a God-given consequence for living a wise life. In the Old Testament, longevity is among the most powerful blessings of God. Another is having many children. Psalm 127 says, “4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. 5 Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them…!” A full quiver—depending on which scholar you consult—is around 13. Having 13 children is a blessing from God! This sounds strange to our culture that encourages couples to exert time and energy figuring out how to effectively limit the size of their family and how to have their children at the most convenient and cost-effective season of their lives.
Long life and many children are seen throughout the wisdom literature as great blessings. But when we come to this text in Ecclesiastes, it’s as if the other shoe drops. Here is an exception clause. A man with many, many, children lives an astonishingly long life. It should follow according to these Old Testament texts that this would be a very joyful man. Instead, the author says this man—who is so completely set up to enjoy life, would have been better off if he were a still-born child, never seeing the light of day. That certainly doesn’t fit the pattern in other places in the Scripture. The reason why there are these differing accounts is because the Bible doesn’t portray life as predictable, where circumstances, relationships, actions and consequences always follow a given pattern or norm. No—life is messy and filled with inconsistencies. People are different—God’s interaction with people is different and circumstances are different. The wisdom literature as a whole reflects those complexities of life—the messiness.
The reason why being stillborn is preferable to these God-given blessings is because “his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things.” The author uses these stark, morbid terms to spell out why this man, who had been so prolific and had been given such longevity, would have been better off stillborn. Speaking of the stillborn child, “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.” The child is never exposed to the grand frustration of having good things but not being able to enjoy them—never experienced these unmet expectations that can make life so maddening. Proverbs 13:12 says, “12 Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” When some blessing in our life doesn’t result in the good we expected it would bring—those unmet expectations make our heart sick. What the stillborn child knows is this—rest and that is a good thing according to the Preacher. That means, he knows only good. To a man living without God in the picture, to never know life is better than to have good things and not be able to enjoy them—the frustration and emptiness that produces is worse than having never lived.
In verse six he expands on this truth, “6 Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good—do not all go to the one place?” His point here is—even someone who lives 2000 years, ends up in the same place as the baby who never sees the light of day—they both die. In a world without God, death equalizes things to the point where a 2000 year-old man and a stillborn child are in the same place. As we said, this a very dark perspective, but life IS very dark without God in the picture. Our neighbors who live without Jesus—though they may seem happy enough—deep down in that place they won’t talk about, there is intense pain and darkness that they have no way to successfully process. And there are times when, in the face of things like painfully discovering the promises of this world are false, they wish they had never been born.
The author next takes his argument a step further. He has established that it’s better not to live than to have wealth but no ability to enjoy it. Next he adds another burden to the person without God which is the painful truth that—Our inability to derive joy from wealth does NOT remove our desire to find joy. It would be very nice if—upon discovering that the things of this world have never brought us genuine satisfaction, that we would accept that fact and stop pursuing dead ends. That’s not the way it works. Back in 3:11, Qohelet tells us that God “has put eternity into our hearts.” We all hunger for the transcendent satisfaction only God brings. But for someone living without him and therefore unable to find that satisfaction, their appetites will in futility perpetually drive them to find satisfaction. An animal in an enclosure where there is not a scrap of food in sight will, until his dying breath still scratch and sniff around for something to eat. Our appetites can, in utter futility drive us like that as well.
We see this in 6:7, “All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied.” He uses food to make his point, but the same truth holds for all our appetites—our appetite for significance, sexual pleasure, acceptance, affirmation—all of them. He says we toil for food but our appetite is never permanently satisfied. We keep getting hungry. The picture is of the endless cycle of futility. You work to earn money, to buy bread to acquire strength so you can work to earn money to buy bread to acquire strength to work to earn money to buy bread and on and on it goes. Without God, life can be this seemingly endless and pointless cycle of provision and consumption driven by our appetites. Verse eight tells us this insatiability of our appetites, like death is the great equalizer. The author writes, “8 For what advantage has the wise man over the fool?” Qohelet says in effect—because when you boil it all down, a God-less life is essentially about vainly trying to satisfy our insatiable appetites, then what’s the difference between a wise, appetite-driven creature and a foolish appetite-driven creature. They’re both enslaved to their appetites and the result is the same for both—no satisfaction.
The preacher asks in the second half of verse eight, “And what does the poor man have who knows how to conduct himself before the living?” What ultimate benefit is it to the poor man to learn how to live life more wisely if the wise end up in the same shape as the poor? Even if, in his wise living, the poor man moves up the socio-economic ladder, what good will it do him? Whether rich or poor, wise or a fool, his appetites will never be satisfied. In verse nine, the author says, “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite…” He’s saying that it’s better to enjoy what you have—what you can see with your eyes—than be driven by appetites that wander after 1000 things you don’t have. It’s a bit like our proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” That may be true, but in the end—the bird in the hand doesn’t satisfy—without God, our appetites can’t be forced to be content with what we have. So, the Preacher says, “…this also is vanity and a striving after the wind.” You stand as much chance of being satisfied with what you have and can see than you do grasping the wind.
Up to this point we have seen first—a person who cannot enjoy what God has given him is better off having never lived. Second, our inability to find satisfaction does not prevent us from vainly trying to satisfy our insatiable appetites. Those are dark enough—a picture of ultimate frustration. The only question left is—will these dark, maddening realities ever change? And Qohelet’s God-bereft answer is—no. Not only are we better off not having lived, having not enjoyed what we’ve been given—not only are we destined to keep vainly pursuing satisfaction for appetites that are insatiable but finally—apart from God these realities will never change. This cycle will never end. The implicit point is--Apart from God, our unmet desires will never be met…never. There will be no reprieve from these dark truths when God is not in the equation. Verses ten and following. “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?”
He gives two reasons why our unmet desires will never be met outside of God. First, in verses 10-11—this dynamic will not change because our destinies are set—“whatever has come to be has already been named” or determined and “he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he…” You can’t convince God to alter that destiny—he is stronger or greater than you. There is simply no way out of this situation without God in the picture. What will be, will be—we can’t argue God out of it.
Second, according to verse 12 we don’t even know what is good for us, “For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow?” He points out a sad reality that’s been proven countless times in the last 4000 years. That is—apart from God—we don’t even know what will bring us enjoyment. Adam and Eve thought eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would improve their lot and they were dead wrong. Humanity has been pursuing equally ridiculous and harmful options to find joy ever since. In our fallen condition, we’re not wired to know what will bring us contentment apart from God. In the New Testament, Paul will tell us why this is in Ephesians 2:1 “You were are dead in trespasses and sins.” We will never choose to find our joy in God apart from his electing grace—it’s hopeless because spiritually dead people don’t have the capacity to choose God. As if to add an exclamation point to this depressing section, the author adds one final dreary note. “For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?” Apart from God—no one can give you any assurance there will be anything better after this life. Apart from God, we cannot know what will happen to us after we die. There’s no promise this will get any better after we die.
Plenty of people who don’t know Christ are hoping that heaven exists and that it will be a better place for them but apart from God, that is nothing but wishful thinking—a fantasy floating in mid-air with no evidence to support it. Again, the author paints an oppressive picture of the person without God. God gives them blessings like wealth, but it can do more harm than good for them because there’s no guarantee they will be able to enjoy them because God often does not give people the capacity to enjoy them. If they can’t enjoy the blessings then they’re better off never living. It would be nice if—as we find frustration in our quest for satisfaction, that we could just turn off our desires for satisfaction and stop looking, but we can’t—our desires and appetites continue to drive us in this futile search for fulfillment. This desire for satisfaction will never be met because God has sovereignly predestined that humanity will never find satisfaction apart from him and disputing him about that arrangement is pointless. What’s more—we can’t find satisfaction because apart from him we don’t know what will satisfy us—we’re groping around in the dark for something we can’t even identify. And to cap it all off—there’s no hope for this to change even after we die because apart from God you caanot know what will happen to you.
The author wants us to see that for those who don’t know God—there is no possible way for them to know anything but futility as they search for satisfaction in the things of this world. God has placed eternity in our hearts which causes us to yearn for satisfaction outside of ourselves, but he has slammed every door shut that would lead us to that satisfaction…except one. We mustn’t conclude that God is cruel in the way he deals with the sinner. One reason he slams all those doors is because he wants us to see that this world cannot ever be able to meet our need for fulfillment. The eternity he’s placed in our hearts—that desire for something beyond this world—is not found in pills or pleasures or possessions but is met only in himself. Only God can fill the God-shaped vacuum he has placed in our hearts. And we can only have God through his Son Jesus Christ who has made it possible for us to know him.
Only Jesus is the High Priest that reveals God to us and makes us acceptable to him through the sin-cleansing blood he shed on Calvary. Only Jesus has, through his death reconciled us to a holy God who detests sin. Only Jesus can bring us to God, not only as servants, but also as his adopted sons. Only Jesus can forgive us and make us holy—preparing us for eternal life as his bride. Only the cross can bridge the great chasm that separates sinners from a holy God. There is no other path to forgiveness and fulfillment in life. If you’re here this morning and you have not placed your trust in Christ, please see the futility of trying to find lasting joy in any other place—all other roads have been closed off to you—don’t waste your life chasing down dead ends. Come to Christ—place your trust in him as the payment for your sin and come to know joy unspeakable and full of glory.
you’re a believer but living without joy—please see the utter futility of thinking that perhaps someday you’ll
stumble into joy accidentally. Joy will not come with the passing of time or by coming to church or by hoping
it will come as you continue to live the way you do. It comes only when you are rightly related to God—seeking
to find your joy in him—not the things of this world which can so easily seduce us. Renounce the lie that
this world holds any joy for you and give up whatever you’re clinging to that gives you a false promise of satisfaction.
It may be material wealth or sexual pleasure or professional success or having good kids or a life without problems—none
of those bring joy. Repent of seeking after joy in anything but Jesus and save yourself the futility of chasing
after the lies of this world. May God give us the grace to take to heart these dark words about living without
God and by God’s grace, come into the joyous light that only Christ can bring.
 Ryken, Ecclesiastes, p.140.
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