Ecclesiastes 6:1-12 How to Make the Most of Life
If money doesn’t bring happiness (as we saw in Ecclesiastes 5), then the question is: what does bring happiness? The theme shifts from dealing with money to dealing with circumstances in life and how to deal with them. There are two directional outlooks on life addressed in this chapter:
I can look at life in a negative light.
1. I make no money (Ecclesiastes 6:1-2)
“Here is a tragedy I have observed under the sun, and it weighs heavily on humanity: God gives a man riches, wealth, and honor so that he lacks nothing of all he desires for himself, but God does not allow him to enjoy them. Instead, a stranger will enjoy them. This is futile and a sickening tragedy.” (Ecclesiastes 6:1–2, HCSB)
You can make money but not have enough to enjoy for yourself. Instead, other people derive enjoyment from your money. Tremper Longman notes: “As a matter of fact, in 6:1–6 he claims that many well-off people cannot experience the enjoyment described in 5:17–19 (English 5:18–20), not because they lack resources, but because God will not let them enjoy life.”1
The fact is that I can look at my financial situation with a tragic and negative view. The reality is that money is like a river. It flows in and it flows out. Instead of complaining that the river leaves you, one should be happy that the river come by you in the first place. But that is hard to do.
A person develops a new product and then calls in someone else to help him market it. Before long, the newcomer has taken over and the inventor has been robbed of his rights. A person toils for years to build his business and is snatched by death at the moment the business turns a comfortable profit. These are the vexations Koheleth had in mind. Solemn reminders they are of the frustrations that one faces if getting rich is the chief aim, including the frustration that wealth can readily be taken from us. We should remember that as we watch the ball bounce its way through the marble machines. Neither instant wealth nor long-term wealth can accomplish all they promise. Their failure to do that sharpens our frustration.2
As Warren Wiersbe notes: “Enjoyment without God is merely entertainment, and it doesn’t satisfy. But enjoyment with God is enrichment and it brings true joy and satisfaction.”3
2. I can’t enjoy what I have (Ecclesiastes 6:3)
“A man may father a hundred children and live many years. No matter how long he lives, if he is not satisfied by good things and does not even have a proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.” (Ecclesiastes 6:3, HCSB)
DILEMMA OF FULFILLMENT IN VIEW OF ETERNITY
“For he comes in futility and he goes in darkness, and his name is shrouded in darkness. Though a stillborn child does not see the sun and is not conscious, it has more rest than he. And if he lives a thousand years twice, but does not experience happiness, do not both go to the same place?” (Ecclesiastes 6:4–6, HCSB)
Things like prosperity, children, and long life that are expressions of God’s blessing and indications of his favor do not necessarily give meaning to life or guarantee that it will be satisfying and fulﬁlling. The ultimate meaning, satisfaction, and proﬁt that Solomon—and every human being—seeks will have to come from something other than simply possessing these blessings.4
Solomon “finds it more than conceivable that a person may be blessed with abundant offspring and a long life but still be absolutely miserable. So miserable, indeed, that a stillborn baby has had a better life.”5
Iain Provan notes that “Without contentment—that is, “seeing the good” in things—the goods things of life are of little benefit. Verse 3 seems to envisage, indeed, only a frustrated life followed by a lonely death for this person; he “does not receive proper burial,” or indeed any burial at all (“proper” does not appear in the Heb. text)”.6
The man in these verses seemed to have it all. Not only was he worth a fortune, but he was also famous, which many people value even more highly than money. Yet for some unspecified reason he was unable to enjoy what he had. Martin Luther called these verses “a description of a rich man who lacks nothing for a good and happy life and yet does not have one.”7
In other words, money alone will not make you happy. Stated another way:
The Preacher was obviously exaggerating here in order to make his point: no matter how much you possess if you don’t possess the power to enjoy it, you might just as well never have been born.8
3. I have to work too much (Ecclesiastes 6:7-8)
“All man’s labor is for his stomach, yet the appetite is never satisfied. What advantage then does the wise man have over the fool? What advantage is there for the poor person who knows how to conduct himself before others?” (Ecclesiastes 6:7–8, HCSB)
When Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was arrested by the Nazis in World War II and put in Auschwitz, the infamous death camp, he was stripped of everything: property, family, possessions—and a manuscript he had spent years researching and writing on finding meaning in life. The manuscript had been sewn into the lining of his coat.
“Now it seemed as if nothing and no one would survive me; neither a physical nor a spiritual child of my own,” Frankl wrote. “I found myself confronted with the question of whether under such circumstances my life was ultimately void of any meaning.”
A few days later, the Nazis forced the prisoners to give up what little clothing they still wore. “I had to surrender my clothes and in turn inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had been sent to the gas chamber,” said Frankl. “Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in the pocket of the newly acquired coat a single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, which contained the Jewish prayer ‘Shema Yisrael’ (Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one God. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.)
“How should I have interpreted such a ‘coincidence’ other than as a challenge to ‘live’ my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?”
Frankl later reflected on his ordeal in Man’s Search for Meaning, saying, “There is nothing in the world that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is meaning in one’s life.… He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how.’”9
I can look at life with a different positive perspective.
1. I can learn to be content (Ecclesiastes 6:9)
“Better what the eyes see than wandering desire. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 6:9, HCSB)
Verse 9 is Solomon’s version of the familiar saying, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” This proverb has been around for a long time. The Greek biographer Plutarch (46–120) wrote, “He is a fool who lets slip a bird in the hand for a bird in the bush.” Solomon is saying, “It’s better to have little and really enjoy it than to dream about much and never attain it.” Dreams have a way of becoming nightmares if we don’t come to grips with reality.10
The key to a positive perspective, especially when it comes to money and riches is contentment. The phrase “this too is futile and a pursuit of the wind” indicates that the previous verses describe a state of meaninglessness that frustrates Solomon. But it is also a transition to a positive perspective one should have in live. There are “better” things for the eye to see than wandering after desires. Solomon will address these in the next two verses. After this chapter, Solomon will start to share a set of proverbs that address this new positive look on life.
2. I can live to the best of my potential (Ecclesiastes 6:10)
“Whatever exists was given its name long ago, and it is known what man is. But he is not able to contend with the One stronger than he.” (Ecclesiastes 6:10, HCSB)
Ecclesiastes 6:10–12 begins the second half of the book and looks back at important themes, like the meaning of life, satisfaction, fulﬁllment, “hebel”, and proﬁt/ advantage. The verses also introduce important ideas in the second half of the book, such as people’s limited ability to know or discern what will happen in the future. The proverbs in chapter 7 are set in a context that emphasizes human limits and the work of God.11
“Go with God’s sovereignty” is the implied command of this verse. It echoes a theme familiar to us from the poem on the changelessness of creation (1:4–11), the problem of our inability to change the way things are (1:15), the verses on the fixity of time and our need to bend to it (3:1–9), the verdict that what God does is fixed forever, with its consequent call to fear God (3:14–15).12
3. I can learn to live at peace with others (Ecclesiastes 6:11)
“For when there are many words, they increase futility. What is the advantage for man?” (Ecclesiastes 6:11, HCSB)
As we continue through Ecclesiastes, we see that Solomon is frustrated that he cannot escape the presence of fools. This is especially true when it comes to conversations. In a Dilbert comic, Dilbert speaks to children at school on “Career Day” about his job: “My job involves explaining things to idiots. Then the idiots make decisions based on misinterpreting what I said. Then it is my job to try to fix the massive problems caused by the bad decisions. Eventually, rumors overwhelm facts and I give up.”13
Although he has mentioned God from time to time, he has mainly been looking at life from a human perspective, which is true as far as it goes. We do suffer a good deal of disappointment in life. We also have questions that have never been answered to our satisfaction. But understand the Preacher’s purpose: by talking openly about our disappointment with life, he is trying to awaken our longing for God. Some of our questions will get answered by the end of his book. Others will be left unanswered for the time being, but they do get answered in the gospel.14
This the reason that we need to learn as Christians to live at peace with one another.
4. I can make the most of each day (including today) – as God planned it – because I don’t know the future (Ecclesiastes 6:12).
“For who knows what is good for man in life, in the few days of his futile life that he spends like a shadow? Who can tell man what will happen after him under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 6:12, HCSB)
In his amazing story ‘1984’ George Orwell writes, ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’5 It is evident that man has been unable to exercise any control over his destiny, yet he persistently seeks to discover what the future holds. Lost in the shadow of his own ignorance, he hangs on the words of anyone who claims prophetic vision. Presidents have turned to astrologers and numerologists; hard-bitten businessmen have made decisions on the turn of a Tarot card—all in a vain attempt to crack the code that will unlock tomorrow. ‘What vanity,’ declares the Preacher. ‘Who can tell a man what will happen after him under the sun?’ There is no ghost of Christmas past, present or future—destiny lies in the hand of a sovereign God.15
US Navy Radio Communiqué:
VOICE 1: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.
VOICE 2: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.
VOICE 1: This is the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert your course.
VOICE 2: No, I say again, divert your course.
VOICE 1: This is the aircraft carrier Enterprise. We are a large warship of the U.S. Navy. Divert your course now.
VOICE 2: This is a lighthouse. Your call.
It is one of the great delusions of our time, and of some earlier, more ancient times as well, that the exertion of human power can change the shape of reality. The fact of the matter, however, is that reality is a solid rock with a lighthouse sitting upon it, and we can either alter our course to take account of it or keep on going until it imposes itself on us with force. We can insist all we like, with increasingly strident and authoritative words, that reality should be different, but all the words in the world will not make it so (Eccl. 6:10–12).
The reality is this: God has created human beings in his image to love and honor him, to love and respect their neighbors, and to look after the planet on his behalf. That is how the universe is, and all who refuse to accept this in the short term will, sooner or later, have to come to terms with the truth.16
1 Tremper Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 169.
2 David A. Hubbard and Lloyd J. Ogilvie, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, vol. 16, The Preacher’s Commentary Series (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1991), 150.
3 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Satisfied, “Be” Commentary Series (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 74–75.
4 Edward M. Curtis, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, ed. Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton, Teach the Text Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 57.
5 Tremper Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 170.
6 Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 129.
7 Martin Luther, “Notes on Ecclesiastes,” in Luther’s Works, trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, 56 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), 15:94. Found in Philip Graham Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010).
8 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Satisfied, “Be” Commentary Series (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 75.
9 Craig Brian Larson and Phyllis Ten Elshof, 1001 Illustrations That Connect (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2008), 241. Based on Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, (Pocket, 1997).
10 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Satisfied, “Be” Commentary Series (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 78.
11 Edward M. Curtis, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, ed. Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton, Teach the Text Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 62.
12 David A. Hubbard and Lloyd J. Ogilvie, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, vol. 16, The Preacher’s Commentary Series (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1991), 156.
13 Douglas B. Miller, Ecclesiastes, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA; Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2010), 117.
14 Philip Graham Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010), 146.
15 Jim Winter, Opening up Ecclesiastes, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2005), 90.