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? – Ecclesiastes 6:1-12 ESV
From Solomon’s unique vantage point as king, he has been able to see and experience a great deal of what life has to offer. Some of his observations are more objective in nature, providing the perspective of an impartial outsider, viewing the lives of the people in his kingdom. He has been able to witness first-hand, the oppression of the poor. As a judge over his people, he has had to preside over countless cases involving injustice and abuse. He has had to listen to the cries of the destitute and needy, as they have begged for someone to help them in their time of need. But some of Solomon’s most powerful insights come from his willingness to look at his own life and share his more subjective and personal observations. In this chapter, he seems to be speaking from personal experience, revealing his own frustrations over what he sees and what he fears. First of all, he starts with what he describes as an evil or wickedness that he has observed “under the sun” or in this life. He writes from a human perspective, presenting his earth-bound opinion regarding of what he sees as a prevalent problem among mankind. There are those whom God has obviously blessed with great wealth, but He has also denied them the power or capacity to enjoy all that they have been given. These people have all that their hearts desire, except contentment and joy. And to make matters even worse, when they die, their God-given blessings are enjoyed by someone else. It’s all a grievous evil. Or is it? First of all, Solomon’s viewpoint reflects the commonly held perspective of his day. Anyone who enjoyed great wealth had obviously been blessed by God. And if they had been blessed by God, their lives must have been pleasing to God. Which is why it made no sense for God to withhold the one thing these people needed: The ability to enjoy what He had given them. Solomon was right when he concluded that all good things come from God. In fact, he would have based his view of the Scriptures themselves.
11 Truth springs up from the earth,
and righteousness smiles down from heaven.
12 Yes, the Lord pours down his blessings.
Our land will yield its bountiful harvest. – Psalm 85:11-12 ESV
Even the New Testament author, James, echoes this view.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights… – James 1:17 ESV
But where Solomon missed the point was in his assumption that wealth and material goods were to be the source of his enjoyment. In other words, he wrongly assumed that it was the blessings of God that brought joy, contentment, satisfaction and significance. He misunderstood the true nature of the source of those things. God was to have been his focus. Not just as the giver of good things, but as the only good thing anyone could ever need. God was to be enough. The apostle Paul expressed this viewpoint when he said:
11 Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. 13 For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT
It didn’t really matter to Paul whether he had a little or a lot. As long as he had his relationship with Christ, that was all that mattered. Solomon placed his emphasis on stuff and things. For him, the proof of God’s love was in the presence of material goods and the ability to enjoy them. And yet, what Solomon was experiencing was the very painful lesson that nothing can ever satisfy our inner longings like God Himself.
But for Solomon, the measurement of a successful life was based on both quantity and quality. He pessimistically observed that if a man ended up fathering hundreds of children (and he did), and lived a long life (which he had), but his soul was not satisfied with life’s good things (and his wasn’t), then his life was a waste. In fact, he would have been better off if he had died at birth. Notice what he is saying. He is measuring the significance of life based on a quantitative basis. He operated on the commonly held assumption of the more, the merrier. It was long life and lots of kids that brought joy. But having hundreds of children, none of whose names you know, will never bring satisfaction. Living a long life, but without a relationship with the One who gave you life, will never satisfy. Acquiring much wealth and accomplishing great deeds will never make anyone truly happy or content, if they fail to seek the giver of all good things.
For Solomon, nothing was more futile and frustrating than the thought of living a long life devoid of contentment. He states that a man “might live a thousand years twice over but still not find contentment. And since he must die like everyone else—well, what’s the use?” (Ecclesiastes 6:6 NLT). And, sadly, this is a description of Solomon’s life. This describes where he finds himself. He is at the end of life looking back, and while he can claim to have fathered hundreds of children and lived many years, he cannot say as Paul did, “I have learned to be content.” More was not merrier.
In his mind, it was all about satisfaction. Even the poor, who spend their days trying to scratch out a living and provide food for their next meal, only discover that they’re hungry again. The wise, the wealthy, the foolish and the poor are all faced with the same grievous problem: Enough is never enough. Satisfaction and contentment are illusive. And the only advice Solomon can come up with is “Enjoy what you have rather than desiring what you don’t have” (Ecclesiastes 6:9 NLT). But again, his emphasis is on the wrong thing. He is not recommending that we find our satisfaction in God, but that we simply resign ourselves to enjoying what little we have been given by God. He has missed the point.
And because he has missed the point, he misses out on the real meaning and purpose of life. It is not about gaining and getting. It is not about acquiring and accumulating. It is about learning to seek satisfaction, significance, joy and contentment from a relationship with the God of the universe. But Solomon had a warped perspective about God. He refers to God as “one stronger than he.” He doesn’t see God as Father, but as enforcer. He doesn’t approach God as the gracious giver of good things, but as a capricious tyrant who withholds the ability to enjoy what has been given. And while he rightly understands that God knows all and sees all, Solomon seems to resent the fact that God keeps the future fate of man a mystery. Which leaves man stuck in the here-and-now, trying to make the most out of what he has before his life comes to an abrupt end.
What Solomon describes in this chapter is the sad state of all men and women who refuse to see God as the central source of all good in their lives. He does bless. He does give good things. He is the author of life and the source of all that we can see. But God is not to be viewed as some disembodied purveyor of presents, like a cosmic Genie in a bottle. He is the gift. He is the good. He is the satisfaction and significance for which man so desperately seeks. The apostle Paul summarized it well when he spoke to the people of Athens, describing the nature of the “unknown god” to whom they offered sacrifices, but of whom they remained ignorant.
24 “He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, 25 and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need. 26 From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.
27 “His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. 28 For in him we live and move and exist. – Acts 17:24-28 NLT
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.