Thus far, the Preacher has presented before us his investigation to find something under the sun that isn’t vanity. He attempted giving himself to unmitigated pleasure. He studied the rhythms, randomness, and inevitability of time. He observed the necessity of community, while also noting how we each threaten to destroy that community. He has presented what he learned about God and wealth. Yet in each topic, his conclusion is still the same: all is vanity under the sun.
After warning of the vanity of wealth, Solomon now expands his focus beyond the monetary and onto the full breadth of blessings in this life. He soberly declares that even if a man lived two thousand years and had one hundred children, there is still no guarantee that he will actually enjoy the blessings of his life. Like our appetites, our souls constantly crave more, making satisfaction always sought but never gained. Fortunately, there is an answer to the endless desires that we chase: God Himself.
THE UNSATISFIED LIFE // VERSES 1-6
While it may sound strange to be talking about the vanity of blessings because we (rightfully) think of blessings as coming from God, Solomon’s main message is that even if we have the gifts and blessings of God our lives can still be completely and utterly devoid of purpose and meaning when we do not have God Himself. How often do we chase the gifts instead of the Giver!
Notice that these verses are the exact opposite of verses 18-20 of chapter five:
Behold, what I have seen to be good 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. 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. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.
In chapter five, Solomon saw the good of life, a man who enjoys the gifts and blessings of God. Now he also sees a grievous evil, a man who possesses the gifts and blessings of God yet cannot find enjoyment in them. How scary is this thought! No wonder Solomon warns us about the weightiness of this topic. Take a moment to allow the reality of this truth to sink in: there are people in the world right now, to whom God has given everything that they want, but He withholds from the ability to enjoy it. The Preacher remarks that even if a person such as this lived two thousand years (more than twice the age of Methuselah!) and had a hundred children, a stillborn child is still better than him if cannot enjoy those blessings.
Before discussing the seriousness of using a stillbirth as a comparison, let’s briefly address why Solomon mentions children and longevity as being the two great blessings. In the ancient world, longevity and progeny were nearly synonymous with being blessed by God. This makes complete sense in its context. How many people lived to see old age throughout the ancient world? Doing so would mean witnessing firsthand the deaths of countless others who were not so blessed. And how many people were fortunate enough to have children of their own? The answer, at least for men, is less than half. Dr. Baumeister, in his book, Is There Anything Good About Men?, tells us this clearly:
Of all the people who ever reached adulthood, maybe 80% of the women but only 40% of the men reproduced. Or perhaps the numbers were 60% versus 30%. But one way or another, a woman’s odds of having a line of descendants down to the present were double those of a man…Most women who ever lived to adulthood probably had at least one baby and in fact a descendant alive today. Most men did not. Most men who ever lived…left behind no genetic traces of themselves. (64)
The sad reality is that the majority of all people who ever lived did not see old age. Nor did the majority of men leave behind a legacy of their DNA. This sharply contrasts with today, where most people simply assume that we will live to see old age and that we will be able to have children should we desire to do so. We, therefore, feel robbed and cheated if we do not get experience those things, but the ancient world knew that they were not guaranteed. Longevity and progeny were thus the epitomes of being blessed by God.
The greatness of being blessed with living two thousand years and having one hundred children only amplifies that sting of Solomon’s next thought. Even if such a man existed, if his soul was unable to enjoy those years and those children, a stillborn child is better off than him. Some translations may say a miscarriage instead of a stillborn. Both are valid translations, and both a devastating to walk through.
The first thing we must note here is that Solomon is not making light of miscarriages and stillbirths. In fact, he is using this comparison precisely because they are so tragic. The very fact that they are so tragic emphasizes that unable to enjoy the blessings of life is even more tragic. Michael Eaton summarizes this as, “Better to miscarry at birth than to miscarry throughout life” (121). It would be better for such a person to have never lived through life in the first place.
In other words, the Preacher is teaching us that death is better than living an unenjoyed life. If there is anything that we should be picking up from Ecclesiastes, it ought to be this refrain. Of course, the most frequent word of Ecclesiastes is vanity, but the constant refrain for us to enjoy the life that God has given to us is Solomon’s ultimate message. After all the vanity of life, he keeps lifting our eyes above the sun by pointing to the enjoyment that only God can provide. If God does not give us this enjoyment, we can chase after our pleasure, our satisfaction, our meaning, our joy, and all of it will be vanity, a striving after wind. The endeavor is futile.
Once again, let us remember that God is not a cosmic killjoy. In fact, God so delights in our joy that He is now warning us about the worthlessness of living a joyless life. Is this how we think of God? This week while preparing our house for a birthday party I found myself wrestling with these verses because in the midst of stress and work, it is all too easy to ignore the multitude of blessings that are all around. Fighting for joy is hard while deep cleaning the bathroom and rummaging through junk that should have been trashed years ago. Yet the Preacher is repeatedly urging us to enjoy life not just during vacations but in the middle of the toil and daily grind of life. In a sense, all of life is toil anyway. Life is composed of monotonous everyday routines. And yet we often hear that the breath-taking moments are where life is truly lived. If we are only living for the highpoints of life, we will waste everything that we do. God did not simply create mountain peaks; He also formed the valleys. Weekdays are not a product of the Fall; He made us to enjoy both work and rest. If we cannot observe the blessings that God gives us by first fixing our eyes upon the Giver of those blessings, we will never be able to enjoy the everyday joys that God constantly surrounds us with.
THE WANDERING APPETITE // VERSES 7-9
Solomon’s point with verse 7 is that God can give us all the blessings we desire, but at the end of the day, we will still desire more. Why is this so? Our appetite is never satisfied. But the appetite here isn’t just about food because the literal translation in Hebrew is soul. The soul is not simply the spiritual essence of a person. No, the soul is who we are as a human being, physical body included. Indeed, at the resurrection our soul will be restored, and we will live in physical, glorified bodies with Christ for all eternity. So Solomon is claiming that our appetite, our soul, is never satisfied. We work our entire lives, but the work is just for our mouths. We continue having desires, wants, and blessings that do not fulfill. We work for what we consume. We consume, and we continue to work. The consumption never ceases.
Verse 8 is quite a difficult verse to interpret, but I believe Solomon is essentially asking whether we can avoid the vanity of life through wisdom combined with poverty? Is the answer to forsake wealth and riches altogether? The answer is no. Wealth and poverty have their own unique challenges, but both still face the stark reality of life under the sun. After all, at the end of the day, both will be buried. As we said in an earlier study, go to the cemetery and identify the wise and the fools. Both go six feet underground.
But is this a direct contradiction of Proverbs’ frequent plea to get wisdom? This is no contradiction; rather, it is the rest of the story. While studying Proverbs 1-9, I used this analogy to describe the purpose of wisdom. If life is a river of water, then following the path of wisdom is swimming downstream, while the way of folly is upstream. But swimming downstream only means that you are moving with the river; it is not, however, a guarantee that you will not be bit by a snake, stub your toe on a rock, or get your foot caught in tree roots. The path of wisdom is obviously and ultimately better, yet in our sin-marred life under the sun it can often look like wisdom has little or even no advantage over the fool.
Verse 9, however, presents what is better for us. What does he mean by the sight of the eyes being better than the wandering appetite? Being content with what is in front of you is better than longing for what you don’t have. We even have a proverb similar to this in English: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Perhaps we could phrase the meaning like this: contentment is better than perpetual dissatisfaction. One commentator described our desires as “always traveling, but never arriving. This is the wanderlust of the human soul.” Chasing our desires is like chasing the wind. It is a vain and fruitless endeavor. Nothing is ever enough. We crave endlessly the gifts of God without understanding that God alone can truly satisfy.
THE ILLUSION OF CONTROL // VERSES 10-12
In many ways, these three verses transition Ecclesiastes into the second half of the book. So far, Solomon has presented to us his quest for meaning in life, but now and for the rest of the book, the Preacher will begin to assume a more blatantly didactic discourse. In other words, the Preacher’s about to start preaching.
In order to understand verse 10, we need first to understand the significance of naming things. In Genesis 1, an essential element of creation is God’s naming the things that He made. Similarly, Adam was made in God’s image and given the task to name the animals that God placed under his dominion. Naming something, therefore, designates an exercise of authority. So when Solomon says that everything has already been named, he means that God has already placed the cosmos into order, whether we comprehend it or not. In a similar yet contrasting manner, he then states that we know exactly what man is. We might, thus, paraphrase verse 10 as the world is what it is and we all know how man-kind is, so why bother disputing with God about what happens here?
Yet this does not stop us from trying to dispute with God. Consider Job. After suffering tremendously, he utters his complaint before God (which we are told was not sinful), and God responds to him from a whirlwind by questioning Job’s understanding of God’s created order. In the end, Job repents his dispute in ash and dust. The world, though, is what it is and we all know how humans are, so why bother disputing with God about it all? In fact, verse 11 adds that the more we try to dispute with God or talk our dreams into existence, vanity only increases.
Verse 12 concludes this chapter with two questions that will linger in the background of the rest of Ecclesiastes: 1) how do we enjoy life here? and 2) what happens to us when we die? Remember that Solomon penned these words roughly 3000 years ago. Have we ceased to ask these questions? Indeed, are these not fundamental questions in the mind of every human to ever live?
Yet notice that he leaves these questions dangling in the air. Fortunately, the rest of Scripture provides answers to these questions. First, we are told that if we truly wish to enjoy our life here then we will love God and love others. As Jesus said, we keep our life by losing it, and we lose our life by keeping it. Selfishness is a dead end, while selflessness is a fountain of joy. But still our broken nature screams for our own wants and desires to be met. Second, when we die, we are with the LORD. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5:8, “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
THE END OF THE MATTER
What then is the end of the matter?
One of our root problems is that we desire God’s gifts and do not desire Him. We hunger and thirst for that which cannot satisfy us. All our toil is for our mouths, yet our souls are never fulfilled. We desire to have the blessings of God rather than being blessed by God. And indeed, there is a tremendous difference between having blessings and being blessed. Being blessed means possessing the unmerited favor (grace) of God. It means having God as our Father. By His common grace, God gives many good gifts to those who are ultimately perishing. God Himself is the only blessing that will endure for all eternity.
Let us also close by reminding ourselves that our desires and passions are not sinfulness in and of themselves. In fact, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). The problem with our appetite is that we do not know what is truly best for us. We do not know what truly satisfies. As Isaiah 55:1-3 says,
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
Jeremiah similarly uses the imagery of broken cisterns that cannot hold water. When we chase after the blessings of God without chasing after God Himself, we are essentially pouring water into a broken cup.
What desire are you chasing after?
Why are laboring for that which does not satisfy?
Why are you depriving yourself of real food and drink?