A. The weakness of wealth
1. (1-2) Others can take one’s wealth.
There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men: A man to whom God has given riches and wealth and honor, so that he lacks nothing for himself of all he desires; yet God does not give him power to eat of it, but a foreigner consumes it. This is vanity, and it is an evil affliction.
a. There is an evil which I have seen under the sun: The Preacher still speaks from his under the sun premise.
b. A man to whom God has given riches and wealth and honor, so that he lacks nothing… yet God does not give him power to eat of it, but a foreigner consumes it: Solomon saw the tragedy of those who are given great gifts from God – yet they do not have the opportunity to enjoy what God gives. Solomon understood this to be vanity and an evil affliction.
2. (3-6) The meaninglessness of life that does not go beyond death.
If a man begets a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with goodness, or indeed he has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better than he – for it comes in vanity and departs in darkness, and its name is covered with darkness. Though it has not seen the sun or known anything, this has more rest than that man, even if he lives a thousand years twice – but has not seen goodness. Do not all go to one place?
a. If a man begets a hundred children and lives many years… but his soul is not satisfied with goodness: The Preacher knew that a man could have all the outward signs of a good life – but still not be satisfied with goodness.
i. “One could have the things men dream of – which in Old Testament terms meant children by the score, and years of life by the thousand – and still depart unnoticed, unlamented, and unfulfilled.” (Kidner)
ii. “Like the Mosaic law (cf. Galatians 3:22), the Preacher is slamming every door except the door of faith.” (Eaton)
b. I say that a stillborn child is better than he: This is a bitter statement, the kind we might expect from one who had suffered like Job (Job 3). Yet Solomon – with all his blessings and advantages – felt and knew the same despair of life as Job had. Life seemed so meaningless that he felt it would be better if he had never been born.
i. “To die unburied was the mark of a despised and unmourned end. Better to miscarry at birth than to miscarry throughout life.” (Eaton)
c. Though it has not seen the sun or known anything, this has more rest than that man, even if he lives a thousand years twice – but has not seen goodness: In Solomon’s mind, the stillborn child – tragic as it is – is better off than the man who knows the crushing disappointment of the realization of meaninglessness, even if he lives a thousand years.
d. Do not all go to one place: Solomon writes with his under the sun perspective, and shares much of the Old Testament uncertainty about the afterlife.
B. What good is it all?
1. (7-9) Suffering under dissatisfaction.
All the labor of man is for his mouth,
And yet the soul is not satisfied.
For what more has the wise man than the fool?
What does the poor man have,
Who knows how to walk before the living?
Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of desire.
This also is vanity and grasping for the wind.
a. All the labor of man is for his mouth, and yet the soul is not satisfied: Man works for the very bread he eats, yet it does not satisfy his soul. Solomon sensed what Moses had already said and Jesus later repeated: Man does not live by bread alone (Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 3:4).
b. What more has the wise man than the fool: Wisdom itself can’t fill a hungry man’s stomach. For all the superiority of the wise man compared to the fool, they both get hungry. Being wise isn’t as much of an advantage as commonly thought.
i. “The necessaries of life are the same to both, and their condition in life is nearly similar; liable to the same diseases, dissolution, and death.” (Clarke)
c. Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of desire: The Preacher knew that in a world of such uncertainty and absence of meaning, that what one can actually see is always better than what one merely desires.
2. (10-12) The futility of feeling that nothing can make it better.
Whatever one is, he has been named already,
For it is known that he is man;
And he cannot contend with Him who is mightier than he.
Since there are many things that increase vanity,
How is man the better?
For who knows what is good for man in life, all the days of his vain life which he passes like a shadow? Who can tell a man what will happen after him under the sun?
a. Whatever one is, he has been named already: This is a fatalistic view of God’s sovereignty. The idea is that God is completely in control, and whatever one is, it is because the all-powerful God has named it already.
i. “Since God is supreme, he has surely predestined everything and has made man too weak to resist. Reasoning, complaining, and arguing bring no answer and lead to further frustration.” (Wright)
b. He cannot contend with Him who is mightier than he: Solomon’s great frustration is rooted in the understanding that man is man, God is God, and man can never successfully contend with Him who is mightier than he.
i. Many today refuse to know what the Preacher knew. They believe that when they face God (abandoning Solomon’s under the sun premise) they will in fact contend with Him, and tell God a thing or two. Such are seriously and sadly deluded.
ii. “God will have the better of those that contend with him: and his own reason will tell him that it is not fit that God should cast down the bucklers first: and that the deeper a man wades, the more he shall be wet.” (Trapp)
c. Since there are many things that increase vanity, how is man the better: The Preacher felt that life was a game that could not be won. There were too many things that increase vanity that ultimately man would become no better.
i. “Evidently the thought of the preacher is that the more a man possesses under the sun, the more profoundly conscious does he become of the vanity and vexation of it all.” (Morgan)
d. For who knows what is good for man in life: We often think we know what is good for us; but do we really? In the course of a life, which is better: Wealth or poverty? Health or sickness? Fame or obscurity? Many who have what is commonly thought of as good are not the better for it.
e. All the days of his vain life which he passes like a shadow? Who can tell a man what will happen after him under the sun: Solomon looked to life and it seemed vain and a shadow. He looked to death and saw only darkness and uncertainty. To this point there is little relief from the tragedy of meaninglessness of life (and death) under the sun.
i. “So the chapter will wind its way down to a depressing and uncertain finish, well suited to the state of man on his own.” (Kidner)
ii. We can explain Solomon’s lack of knowledge of the afterlife by understanding the principle of 2 Timothy 1:10: that Jesus Christ brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. The understanding of immortality was at best cloudy in the Old Testament but is much clearer in the New Testament. For example, we can say that Jesus knew fully what He was talking about when He described hell and judgment (such as in Matthew 25:41-46). We therefore rely on the New Testament for our understanding of the afterlife, much more than the Old.
iii. We also understand that this does not in any way take away from the truth of the Bible and the Book of Ecclesiastes. What is true is that Solomon actually wrote this and actually believed it (with his under the sun premise); the truth of the statement itself must be evaluated according to the rest of the Bible.
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission