What defines “success” for you? What measurement do you use to evaluate fulfillment in life? How do you identify an accomplishment, an achievement, or a victory?
For many people, the answer to those questions often include things like the acquisition of money, status, or numerous possessions. But in the world of the Old Testament, a successful life was usually marked by three basic characteristics: financial wealth, a large number of children, and a life span that stretched well into old age.
Like a person of status and recognition today, the person who lived a long life with numerous children and great financial resources was someone who was worthy of great honor and respect in those days. But even though the measurement of achievement and success may have changed since the days of the Old Testament, there is one problem that still remains.
You see, the simple acquisition of any of these things does not automatically guarantee that we’ll receive contentment, fulfillment, and satisfaction from them. In other words, those things that may appear to guarantee a certain level of status, achievement, or recognition in life may not always deliver on what they seem to offer. This reality is illustrated by the old saying that warns us to “Be careful what you wish for- you might get it.” Another author once illustrated this idea by saying, “There are two tragedies in life: one is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.” (1)
While this reality may be difficult enough, there’s something else to consider: even if we somehow achieve those cultural measurements of “success” in life, there is no guarantee that we’ll actually get to enjoy those things. Poor health, unforeseen circumstances, or other responsibilities may all serve to impact our ability to enjoy the things we’ve achieved. And if we really want to be honest about it, the truth is that some things in life may initially seem bad but actually turn out to be good- and some things that originally seem good actually turn out to be bad. The reality is that the cultural gauges of success may not always guarantee a feeling of satisfaction in life, just as hardships, difficulties or misfortunes don’t always lead to dissatisfaction.
So how can we tell which is which? Well, it’s not always possible to tell the difference- unless we take a viewpoint that focuses on God and His plans for our lives. That’s something that the Teacher will begin to explore in Ecclesiastes chapter six.
(1) George Bernard Shaw, “Man and Superman” (1903), act 4
“There is another serious tragedy I have seen under the sun, and it weighs heavily on humanity. God gives some people great wealth and honor and everything they could ever want, but then he doesn’t give them the chance to enjoy these things. They die, and someone else, even a stranger, ends up enjoying their wealth! This is meaningless—a sickening tragedy” (Ecclesiastes 6:1-2).
Solomon displayed a great number of God-given talents, skills, and abilities during his reign as king of Israel. For example, the Old Testament book of 1st Kings describes Solomon as a wise judge (1 Kings 3:16-28), a skilled executive (1 Kings 4:1-20), a prolific poet and writer (1 Kings 4:32), and a prominent botanist (1 Kings 4:33). Yet hidden among these capabilities is another of Solomon’s talents that may be easy to overlook: his keen sense of observation and analysis.
Most people recognize the value of experience in making good judgments. The problem is that experience often comes from making bad judgments. Although Solomon definitely made some bad judgments in life (see 1st Kings 1:1-11), he was able to address this problem by using his ability to observe, analyze, and learn from the experiences of others.
In this instance, Solomon observed a common experience that he identified as evil (KJV), unfair (CEV), and a serious injustice (GNB): “God gives great wealth, riches, and honor to some people; they have everything they want. But God does not let them enjoy such things…” (Ecclesiastes 6:2 NCV).
From a strictly horizontal perspective (or “under the sun” to use Solomon’s wording), it would certainly seem very unfair for God to allow someone to possess something without the capacity to enjoy it. But what if we were to employ some observational skills of our own to ask why God would allow something like that to occur?
Well, a few possible answers might be found within the Old Testament book of Proverbs:
“Ill-gotten gain brings no lasting happiness; right living does” (Proverbs 10:2 TLB).
“The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it” (Proverbs 10:22 NIV).
“The house of the righteous contains great treasure, but the income of the wicked brings them trouble” (Proverbs 15:6 NIV).
If the blessings we have received are causing us trouble, then it may be time to adjust our vertical perspective to determine if we are using those blessings in the way that God intended. We’ll take a look at a few New Testament responses to this question next.
“God gives some people great wealth, riches, and honor. They have everything they need and everything they could ever want. But then God does not let them enjoy those things. Some stranger comes and takes everything. This is a very bad and senseless thing” (Ecclesiastes 6:2 ERV).
On the surface, it might seem grossly unfair for God to allow someone to possess something but keep that person from enjoying what He has given them. But before we jump to conclusions concerning God’s motive in this area, let’s first stop to consider what He might be trying to accomplish.
For instance, Jesus once offered the following counsel in the New Testament gospel of Luke: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15 NIV). He then followed this advice with a short story (or “parable“) that was designed to illustrate an important spiritual truth:
“The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16b-21 NIV)
Like the rich man who was denied the opportunity to enjoy the riches he possessed, God may sometimes choose to keep someone from enjoying his or her blessings in order to focus that person’s attention on the Giver, instead of the gift. Others may fail to find enjoyment in their possessions by using those things in a way that doesn’t honor God…
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:1-3 NIV).
These examples help remind us to keep an important recommendation from Romans 15:4 in mind: “…everything that was written in the past was written to teach us…” (NIV).
“A man might have a hundred children and live to be very old. But if he finds no satisfaction in life and doesn’t even get a decent burial, it would have been better for him to be born dead” (Ecclesiastes 6:3).
In the days of the Old Testament, a large and growing family was viewed as a valuable asset and sign of God’s divine favor. Children were essential to maintaining the lineage of each family in a society where the record of someone’s genealogy was more than just an interesting hobby- it represented as an important legal and historical account (see Genesis 10 and Luke 3:23-38). Children also served as shepherds, shepherdesses, and farmers and helped the family maintain a local economy that was largely focused on ranching and agriculture.
So the idea of a man with one hundred children served to represent a person who had been blessed almost beyond belief. But then again, Solomon had seven hundred wives and three hundred secondary wives (or concubines- see 1 Kings 11:3) so perhaps this illustration isn’t as far-fetched as it may appear.
If the overwhelming abundance of children wasn’t enough for this hypothetical illustration, the Teacher also went on to add the additional benefit of a long life. Later on in verse six he will build on this idea by saying, “He might live a thousand years twice over but still not find contentment.” A two thousand year lifetime was more than twice as long as the oldest recorded lifespan in the Scriptures (see Genesis 5:26-27) so the idea of a greatly extended lifetime served to reinforce the concept of a person who had been blessed well beyond any reasonable expectation.
These illustrations help to paint the word picture of someone who “had it all” in life. A person who enjoyed the pleasure of a hundred descendants, each one carrying his own personal genetic distinctiveness forward for centuries to come. A person who enjoyed the good health necessary to support a two thousand year lifespan. A person who clearly enjoyed “the good life” with all the outward signs of a prosperous and satisfying life.
Unfortunately, it’s been said that all good things must come to an end and the Teacher will go on to take that idea into account as part of his illustration as well. In the world of Solomon’s day, the way someone died was almost as important as the way that he or she lived, and we’ll see how the importance of an “honorable burial” (GW) will factor into the Teacher’s illustration next.
“If a man has a hundred children, and his life is long so that the days of his years are great in number, but his soul takes no pleasure in good, and he is not honoured at his death; I say that a birth before its time is better than he” (Ecclesciastes 6:3 BBE).
In addition to a large number of children and a long lifespan, the Teacher mentions one additional item that marked the conclusion of a seemingly fulfilling Old Testament life: “…an honorable burial” (GW).
For instance, when Sarah, the wife of the great patriarch Abraham passed away, Abraham purchased an expensive burial site for use as her final resting place. Later on, Abraham, his son Isaac and daughter in law Rebekah, and grandson Jacob along with Jacob’s wife Leah were laid to rest there as well (see Genesis 49:29-32).
However, the best example of this mindset may have been displayed by Jacob’s son Joseph. Even though God had placed Joseph in a position of honor and prominence within the Egyptian government, the importance of securing a final resting place in the land that God had promised to give to his ancestors was at the forefront of his mind at his time of death…
“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ And Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath and said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.
So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt” (Genesis 50:24-26).
While this passage clearly focuses on Joseph’s faith in God to fulfill the promises He had given to his forefathers, his desire for a final resting place in the Promised Land -the land of his birth- seems clear as well. And even though Joseph’s coffin remained in Egypt for the next four centuries, God made certain to grant his request:
“When the people of Israel left Egypt, they brought the bones of Joseph along with them. They took the bones to the town of Shechem and buried them in the field that Jacob had bought for one hundred pieces of silver from Hamor, the founder of Shechem. The town and the field both became part of the land belonging to the descendants of Joseph” (Joshua 24:32 CEV).
“His birth would have been meaningless, and he would have ended in darkness. He wouldn’t even have had a name, and he would never have seen the sun or known of its existence. Yet he would have had more peace than in growing up to be an unhappy man. He 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 6:4-6).
William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet contains one of the most well known quotations in all literature: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” However, the verses quoted above tell us that the Teacher of Ecclesiastes pondered a similar question thousands of years earlier. For Solomon, the question was this: was it better for someone to die at birth rather than live out a worthless existence under the sun?
From the Teacher’s perspective, there seemed to be very little point in living if everything in life is meaningless. Even if someone were to attain all the external characteristics of success in life, how would that person ultimately be better off than a child who died at birth? This is ground that Solomon has already covered in the book of Ecclesiastes and for him, the idea of a meaningless world was so painful and depressing that death or a state of non-existence seemed to be the best option of all. One commentator summed up this thought process when he said, “Better to miscarry at birth than to miscarry throughout life.” (1)
Solomon based this reasoning on two observations about life under the sun, or a life lived without the acknowledgment of God. First, a child who dies at birth will never experience the ultimate futility of an empty and unfulfilling life, even if that life is filled with things that are supposed to bring happiness and satisfaction. Secondly, a stillborn child will never have to live with the realization that his or her life will soon be forgotten after death. In the words of another commentator, “If life is nothing more than a meaningless journey to death, then a stillborn (child) is better off, for that child reaches the end of the worthless journey with less pain.” (2)
These verses point the way to a depressing reality for the person who lives his or her life without regard for God or an afterlife: if this life is all there is to our short, painful, unfulfilling existence, then death may seem to be the best option of all.
(1) Eaton, Ecclesiastes : an introduction and commentary quoted in Guzik, Commentary on Ecclesiastes http://enduringword.com/commentaries/2106.htm
(2) Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1997). The Nelson study Bible : New King James Version. Includes index. (Ec 6:3). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
“All people spend their lives scratching for food, but they never seem to have enough. So are wise people really better off than fools? Do poor people gain anything by being wise and knowing how to act in front of others? (Ecclesiastes 6:7-8).
Have you ever had the experience of walking near a kitchen, restaurant, or other location where food was being prepared and enjoyed the aroma of a delicious meal as it was being created? The ability to take pleasure in a good meal is a blessing from God that should never be taken for granted. Yet even the most satisfying and enjoyable cuisine imaginable will still leave someone hungry after just a short while. No matter how much effort we put into satisfying our appetite, we still must work to eat on a daily basis.
This fundamental truth exists for everyone, regardless of race, culture, social, or economic status- everyone must work to eat. This cold, hard reality presented the Teacher with a difficult question:“What advantage does a wise person have over a fool? What advantage does a poor person have in knowing how to face life?” (Ecclesiastes 6:8 GW).
As a teacher, author, and communicator, Solomon had a rich supply of literary devices available to effectively convey his message. In this instance, the Teacher chose to employ a rhetorical question, a figure of speech where a question is asked for emphasis or effect. This question was not designed to obtain any information because the answer was clearly implied; a wise person has little or no advantage over a fool or someone with limited resources because they both share the same ultimate fate: death. It’s not that wisdom fails to offer any short term advantages but that wisdom fails to offer any ultimate advantage over those who are foolish.
“Enjoy what you have rather than desiring what you don’t have. Just dreaming about nice things is meaningless—like chasing the wind” (Ecclesiastes 6:9).
Another Biblical translation renders the first part of this verse in a somewhat more poetic form: “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire” (RV). The idea is that it’s better to have relatively little and really enjoy what you possess instead of living in an unrealistic dream world that’s filled with everything you might like to have someday. As the Teacher said earlier, “Talk is cheap, like daydreams and other useless activities. Fear God instead” (Ecclesiastes 5:7). To do otherwise, “makes no more sense than chasing the wind” (CEV).
Ecclesiastes 6:10 marks the mid point of this book and if we wanted to identify the basic message of Ecclesiastes so far, we can find a good summary in chapter two…
“Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere” (Ecclesiastes 2:9-10).
So if everything is meaningless, then what’s the point of life? This question led the Teacher back to a familiar (but fatalistic) response…
“Everything has already been decided. It was known long ago what each person would be. So there’s no use arguing with God about your destiny” (Ecclesiastes 6:10).
Having tried (and failed) to find meaning in life apart from his Creator, Solomon had little choice but to return to acknowledging God as the Source of meaning in life. The problem was that his “under the sun” view of God’s relationship to humanity was more robotic than human. Solomon’s point was that any attempt to argue or complain about God’s predetermined direction would only lead to frustration and disappointment. This is something that the Teacher has struggled with before- and it’s something that people often struggle with today.
One way to address this concept is to return to something we established earlier. The fact that God knows our choices in advance does not necessarily mean that we are no longer free to make those choices. Instead, we could say that God directs human history by incorporating our free choice into His ultimate plan. In other words, God controls the world by what He knows people will freely do- and knowing what people will do with their freedom is not the same as ordaining what they must do against their freedom. In this way, God works “…so that people are reverent before him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14b CEB).
But there’s another aspect to Solomon’s argument. You see, people sometimes seek to contend with God regarding the circumstances and events of their lives. Some may even anticipate the opportunity to “put God on trial” in the afterlife and stand in judgment over His choices for their lives. But as we pointed out earlier, some things in life may initially seem bad but actually turn out to be good- and some things that originally seem to be good actually turn out to be bad. Only God knows the end from the beginning and He is the one who ultimately “…works all things together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 ISV).
“The more words you speak, the less they mean. So what good are they?” (Ecclesiastes 6:11).
A number of years ago, a prominent athlete for a well known sports team was criticized for some comments made following a particularly difficult loss. This athlete was well known as an outspoken Christian and someone who openly discussed his faith in Christ. However, this player was also known as a person who liked to talk at length and he was often quoted in the newspapers of that time.
In the locker room following the team’s defeat, this athlete was asked to summarize the reason for his team’s loss. The player proceeded to describe the team’s failure in a manner that was later criticized as thoughtless and insensitive towards one particular group. In the face of that criticism, the athlete later apologized for his careless choice of words.
In the days following that episode, two fans were discussing the player’s remarks. One fan had difficulty understanding why the player had chosen to say what he did. “I thought he was religious” the fan said. “Why would he say something like that?” The second fan replied by saying, “He is religious but when you talk as much as that guy does, it’s only a matter of time before you say something stupid.”
This real life parable helps to provide a good illustration for the verse quoted above. While the primary meaning of this passage involves a statement about the futility of life under the sun, there is a secondary application for those who are willing to look a little deeper. In saying, “The more words there are, the more pointless they become. What advantage do mortals gain from this?” (GW), the answer is assumed to be nothing. So this helps to remind us to choose our words carefully lest they multiply and devolve into something pointless.
Although the Teacher has already covered this theme within the book of Ecclesiastes, this basic idea is also found in other Scriptural passages as well…
“When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19 NIV).
“Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 29:20 NIV).
“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19 NIV).
In Matthew 12:36 Jesus said, “I can guarantee that on judgment day people will have to give an account of every careless word they say” (GW). That by itself should provide enough encouragement to think carefully before we speak.
“In the few days of our meaningless lives, who knows how our days can best be spent? Our lives are like a shadow. Who can tell what will happen on this earth after we are gone?” (Ecclesiastes 6:12).
As we enter the second half of Ecclesiastes, we’ll find our author moving back towards an acknowledgment of God as the only real source of meaning and purpose in life. One subtle example of this shift in perspective is found by looking at the questions contained within the verse quoted above: “…who knows how our days can best be spent?” and “…who can tell what will happen on this earth after we are gone?” While there may be no shortage of people who are willing to provide their opinion in answering those questions, there is only One who is truly qualified to speak on those subjects.
You see, we often think we know how to decide what’s best for us in life, but concepts like “best” or “good” are only as reliable as the information that those decisions are based on. The problem is that people rarely have all the information they need to make good decisions.
Because of this, we are often forced to make decisions based on whatever information is known to us at the time. If more information becomes available later on, the wisdom or foolishness of a particular decision might easily be seen. This is why people are often heard to say things like, “If I only knew then what I know now…” after making a bad decision. Experience (or inexperience), personal bias, peer pressure, and the advice and opinions of others may also serve to influence the decision making process for better or worse
This is why the questions of Ecclesiastes 6:12 help shift our focus from an “under the sun” perspective to a viewpoint that acknowledges God and His plan for our lives. By asking “…who knows how our days can best be spent?” and “…who can tell what will happen on this earth after we are gone?” Solomon has left the answer unstated but unavoidable: “No one, except God”
Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (NIV). While we may not have the ability to understand everything that occurs during our short existence here under the sun, God is worthy of our trust in providing wisdom and direction for our lives.