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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Ecclesiastes 6

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 6 The Rich May Not Have All the Advantages. Life Is Not That Meaningful. And Why Should Man Think That He Is Special?

The general view would be that life was for the wealthy. It was they above all who would find joy and happiness, and it was they who would be most acceptable to God. So the Preacher makes quite clear that in fact it was not so.


Verses 1-7

Life Is Not Enjoyable To Even Some of the Rich (Ecclesiastes 6:1-7).

Ecclesiastes 6:1

‘There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavily on men. A man to whom God gives riches, wealth and honour so that he lacks nothing for himself of all that he could desire, yet God does not give him the privilege (power) of enjoying them, but a stranger eats of it. This is vanity and a sore affliction.’

He points out that life is not always consistent. There may be many reasons why a wealthy man may not be able to enjoy his wealth. He may have food incompatibility which prevents his enjoyment of food, he may find wine makes him sick, he may overindulge in the wrong foods or in drink, he may have health problems that prevent the enjoyment of life. Then he has the pain of watching strangers who enjoy the hospitality of his home eating and enjoying what he himself cannot enjoy. (Contrast Isaiah 3:10).

On the other hand he may have it taken away from him by invasion, or through brigands, or through those who dispense justice unfairly and use their position to grasp what is not theirs. Then a stranger again enjoys what was really his. His possession of wealth has been in vain.

‘This is vanity, and is a sore affliction.’ The grief that the man suffers will be great, but it also brings out again the ultimate meaninglessness of life if this is all that there is to it.

Ecclesiastes 6:3-5

‘If a man beget a hundred children, and live many years so that the days of his years are many, but he is not himself filled with good, and moreover he has no burial. I say that an untimely birth is better than he. For it comes in meaninglessness and departs in darkness, and its name is covered with darkness. Moreover it has not seen the sun, nor known it. This has rest rather than the other. Yes, even though he live a thousand years twice told, and yet enjoys no good. Do not all go to one place? ’

The begetting of children was seen as a great blessing (Psalms 127:3-5). Here the man has ‘a great many children, more than the norm’ (the significance of ‘a hundred’). A long life was also seen as a blessing (Deuteronomy 11:21). But if his days are not enjoyable and he lacks essential provision or he is bowed down with illness (he ‘is not filled with good’), or in some other way his life is not good because for example of family feuds, (and then he adds to make matters worse - ‘and has no burial’), then the baby who dies at birth is better off than he. And this is true for the man, if during that time he actually receives no ‘good’, even if he lives for a thousand years and more.

‘And moreover he has no burial.’ Not to be buried properly was looked on as something deeply humiliating and to be avoided at all costs (2 Kings 9:30-37; Isaiah 14:19; Jeremiah 22:19), and especially for a man with many children, whose responsibility it was to bury him. Perhaps here the thought is that his hundred children were alienated from him and wanted nothing to do with him in the day of his death, adding to his other problems. So being rich is not always the answer.

‘An untimely birth is better than he. For it comes in meaninglessness and departs in darkness, and its name is covered with darkness. Moreover it has not seen the sun, nor known it. This has rest rather than the other.’ Such a life is even worse than that of a stillborn child. That is bad enough. The child comes in meaninglessness, and dies in the darkness of the womb, never having seen light, or the sun, and its name is never mentioned. But it has more rest than this poor rich man. And in the end they go to the same place, to the place of the dead. Both are the same in the end, it is simply that the stillborn child has escaped the misery.

The lesson is that both these men described had not in the end been given the blessings of God’s allotment, even though outwardly it had seemed so, emphasising again how important to the enjoyment of life was the walk with God. The writer no doubt shared the popular viewpoint that not to be blessed was a sign of not being in right relationship with God.

Ecclesiastes 6:7

‘All the labour of the man is for his mouth, and yet he himself is not satisfied.’

This refers back to the man we have been considering. The whole purpose of his labour was to feed himself, for he gained no other benefit from it. And this he achieved. But he could not achieve satisfaction for himself.


Verse 8-9

Even The Wise Do Not In The Last Analysis Have Any Advantage Over The Unthinking. So We Should Hold On To What God Gives Us Rather Than Dreaming Of More (Ecclesiastes 6:8-9).

Ecclesiastes 6:8-9

‘For what advantage has the wise more than the fool? Or what advantage does the poor man have who knows how to walk before the living (or ‘who has understanding, in walking before the living)? Better is the sight of the eyes, than the wandering of the desire. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.’

In the face of these vicissitudes of life, and especially in the face of death (compare Ecclesiastes 6:6 and Ecclesiastes 2:14-16), what advantage does the wise man have over the fool? In the face of such circumstances neither can do anything about it. So both are in the same position. Nor could the poor man do anything in that situation, whatever understanding he may have about walking before the living. Illness and death are the great equalisers for all. Thus it is best to accept what we are given, holding on to what we can see rather than dreaming of what is unobtainable..

‘Better is the sight of the eyes, than the wandering of the desire.’ It is better to have something which is real and can be seen, than a desire and dream which may never be fulfilled, caused by wandering longings. This expresses a general thought following the descriptions of the two men whose lives were sadly lacking. Its point is simply to stress the fact that if we have something good we should hold on to it, and not look for more, for if we are too ambitious we may lose what we have.

So his final word of counsel is to be content with what we have (compare. Hebrews 13:5). This is the last of nine times that the phrase "striving after wind" occurs (see Ecclesiastes 1:14; Ecclesiastes 1:17; Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 2:17; Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 4:4; Ecclesiastes 4:6; Ecclesiastes 4:16). It opens and closes the section of the book dealing with the futility of human achievement (Ecclesiastes 1:12 to Ecclesiastes 6:9), and stresses that that is what much of life can be if we do not walk with God, a striving after what cannot be obtained.


Verses 10-12

Man Should Not See Himself As Anything Special (Ecclesiastes 6:10-12).

The section closes with the warning that man should not see himself as anything special. Like all creatures he was named by God (Genesis 1:26). Thus he must beware of setting himself up against the One Who is mightier than he. ‘Man’ is simply one name among many which are applied to what has been seen as futile, the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9; Ecclesiastes 1:14; Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 2:18 etc), the rivers (Ecclesiastes 1:7), the fruit trees (Ecclesiastes 2:5), the herds and flocks (Ecclesiastes 2:7), man’s labour (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11; Ecclesiastes 2:19; Ecclesiastes 2:22; Ecclesiastes 2:24; etc. What then is man? (Psalms 8 has a different perspective on him). What he must recognise is that only God knows what is good for a man in his life (which is but a shadow), and only God can tell him what will be after him.

Ecclesiastes 6:10-12

‘Whatever has been, its name has already been called. And it is known that it is (the same for) Man. Nor can he contend with him who is mightier than he. Seeing that there are many words that increase vanity (futility, meaninglessness), what is ‘Man’ the better? For who knows what is good for Man in his life, all the days of his vain life which he spends as a shadow? For who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?’

The reference here is back to the creation accounts in Genesis, when all was ‘named’, and man was named Man (Genesis 1:26-27; Genesis 2:7). Everything that exists originally came into being and was ‘called’ by a name (see Genesis 1). That revealed God’s sovereignty over it. And it is something that has already happened. So all is thus under His control and sovereignty. The same is true of the one who was called ‘Man’. He also was called by a name from the beginning. His name too has already been called. He too is under God’s control and sovereignty. Thus he is unable to strive with the One Who is mightier than he, the One Who named him. In this Man is no different from any other part of creation.

Furthermore there are many ‘words’ that were used of things that were named that he has shown are a part of the meaninglessness of life, ‘the sun’ (the ‘light’ of Genesis 1:14) in Ecclesiastes 1:5 and often; the rivers (Genesis 2:10-14) in Ecclesiastes 1:7; the trees of all kinds of fruit (Genesis 1:11) in Ecclesiastes 2:5; the herds and flocks (Genesis 2:20) in Ecclesiastes 2:7; man’s labour (Genesis 2:15) regularly in Ecclesiastes. Even the ‘breath’ of life (Genesis 7:22) in Ecclesiastes 3:19. So what is ‘Man’ the better? For none can really declare what is good for man in all the days of his vain and meaningless life which ‘makes like a shadow’, that is as something that is not permanent, as being on the edge of death (1 Chronicles 29:15; Job 8:9; Psalms 144:4). Nor can anyone tell what shall be after him. He is merely living a short span, a meaningless part of the time-line, the time-line that goes on everlastingly. He only gains importance when he becomes in touch with God.

So the Preacher closes off the first section of his book on a pessimistic note. But he is talking paradoxically. Outwardly what he says is correct, but he himself has already spoken of what is good for man (Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 5:18). Thus there is the struggle within him between the outward meaninglessness of life and the inner meaning that he discerns for the godly man, for the man who lives before God. As a philosopher and thinker he is pessimistic, although as a believer, at least to some extent, he is optimistic. But there is still the problem of death to be taken into account.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 6:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/ecclesiastes-6.html. 2013.

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