Ecclesiastes 6



In vs. 1-6, Koheleth  illustrates the fact which he stated at the end of the last chapter,

viz. that the possession and enjoyment of wealth are alike the free gift of God.

We may see men possessed of all the gifts of fortune, yet denied the faculty of

enjoying them. Hence we again conclude that wealth cannot secure happiness.


1 “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common

among men:”  There is an evil which I have seen under the sun. The writer

presents his personal experience, that which has fallen under his own observation

(compare ch.5:13; 10:5). And it is common among men. Rab, Translated

common,” like πολὺς - polus in Greek, is used of number and of degree; hence

there is some doubt about its meaning here. The Septuagint has πολλή - pollae -

much,  the Vulgate frequens. Taking into account the fact that the circumstance

stated is not one of general experience, we must receive the adjective in its

tropical signification, and render, And it is great [lies heavily] upon men.

Compare ch.8:6, where the same word is used, and the preposition עַל is

rather “upon” than “among” (Isaiah 24:20).


2 “A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honor, so that

he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God

giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is

vanity, and it is an evil disease.”  A man to whom God hath given riches,

 wealth, and honor.  This is the evil to which reference is made. Two of the

words here given, “riches” and “honor,” are those used by God in blessing

Solomon in the vision at Gibeon (I Kings 3:13); but all three are employed in the

parallel passage (II Chronicles 1:11). So that he wanteth nothing for

his soul of all that he desireth. “His soul” is the man himself, his

personality, as Psalm 49:19. So in the parable (Luke 12:19) the rich

fool says to his soul, “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years.”

In the supposed case the man is able to procure for himself everything

which he wants; has no occasion to deny himself the gratification of any

rising desire. All this comes from God’s bounty; but something more is

wanted to bring happiness. Yet God giveth him not power to eat

thereof. “To eat” is used in a metaphorical sense for “to enjoy,” take

advantage of, make due use of (see on ch.2:24). The ability to

enjoy all these good things is wanting, either from discontent, or

moroseness, or sickness, or as a punishment for secret sin. But a stranger

eateth it. The “stranger” is not the legal heir, but an alien to the

possessor’s blood, neither relation nor even necessarily a friend. For a

childless Oriental to adopt an heir is a common custom at the present day.

The wish to continue a family, to leave a name and inheritance to children’s

children, was very strong among the Hebrews — all the stronger as the life

beyond the grave was dimly apprehended. Abraham expressed this feeling

when he sadly cried, “I go childless, and he that shall be possessor of my

house is Dammesek Eliezer (Genesis 15:2). The evils are two — that

this great fortune brings no happiness to its possessor, and that it passes to

one who is nothing to him. An evil disease; αῥῤωστία πονηράarrostia

ponaera - Septuagint, an evil as bad as the diseases spoken of in Deuteronomy




The Unsatisfactoriness and Transitoriness of Earthly Good

                         (vs. 1-2)


Men are prone to be guided, in the conclusions they form regarding human

life, by their own personal experience, and by the observations they make

in their own immediate circle of acquaintance. So judging, they are prone

to be one-sided in their estimate, and to take a view either too gloomy or

too roseate. The author of Ecclesiastes was a man who had very large and

varied opportunities of studying mankind, and who was in the habit of

forming impartial conclusions. This accounts for what may perhaps seem to

some readers opposed and inconsistent representations of the nature of

man’s life on earth. In fact, a more definite and decisive representation

would have been less correct and fair.




OUTWARD CIRCUMSTANCES. The first question that occurs to many

minds, upon forming a new acquaintance, is — What has he? i.e. what

property? or — What is he? i.e. what is his rank in society? A man to

whom God has given riches, wealth, and honor, who lacks nothing for his

soul of all that he desireth, is counted fortunate. He is held in esteem; his

friendship and favor are cultivated.



OTHER ELEMENTS IN HUMAN WELFARE. For instance, it cannot be

questioned that health of body and a sound and vigorous mind are of far

more importance than wealth. And there may be family trouble, which mars

the happiness of the most prosperous. The wise man had observed cases in

which there was no power to enjoy the gifts of Providence; and other cases

in which there were no children to succeed to the possession of

accumulated wealth, so that it came into the hands of strangers. Bodily

affliction and domestic disappointment may cast a shadow over the lot

which seems the fairest and most desirable. “This is vanity, and it is an evil





DOUBTS. Those who not only remark what happens around them, but

reflect upon what they witness, draw inferences which have a certain

semblance of validity. If we judge only by the facts which come under our

cognizance, we may be led to conclusions inconsistent with true religion

Men come to doubt the rule of a benevolent Governor of the universe,

simply because they cannot reconcile certain facts with such convictions as

Christianity encourages. Skepticism and pessimism often follow upon bitter

experiences and upon frequent contact with the calamities of this mundane






Ø      It should be remembered that what any individual observes is but an

infinitesimal part of the varied and protracted drama of human life and



Ø      It should not be lost sight of that there are moral and spiritual purposes

in our earthly existence. It is a discipline, a proving, an education. Its

end is not — as men too often suppose that it should be — enjoyment

and pleasure; but character — conformity to the Divine character,

and submission to the Divine will. The highest benevolence aims at the

highest ends, and to secure these it seems in many cases necessary that

lower ends should be sacrificed. If temporal prosperity be marred by

what seems misfortune, this may be in order that spiritual prosperity

may be promoted. It may not be well for the individual that he should

be encouraged to seek perfect satisfaction in the things of this world.

It may not be well for society that great and powerful families should be

built up, to gratify human pride and ambition. God’s ways are not as

                        our ways, but THEY ARE WISER AND BETTER than ours.


3 “If a man beget an hundred children, and live many years, so that

the days of his years be many, and his soul be not filled with good,

and also that he have no burial; I say, that an untimely birth is

better than he.”  If a man beget an hundred children. Another case is

supposed, differing from,the preceding one, where the rich man dies

childless. Septuagint, Ἐὰν γεννήσῃ ἀνὴρἑκατόν. "- Ean gennaesae anaer

ekatonIf a many fathers a hundred children - “Sons,’ or “children,”

must be supplied (compare I Samuel 2:5; Jeremiah 15:9). To have a

large family was regarded as a great blessing. The “hundred” is a round

number, though we read of some fathers who had nearly this number of

children; thus Ahab had seventy sons (II Kings 10:1), Rehoboam

eighty-eight children (II Chronicles 11:21). Plumptre follows some

commentators in seeing here an allusion to Artaxerxes Mnemon, who is

said to have had a hundred and fifteen children, and died of grief at the age

of ninety-four at the suicide of one son and the murder of another.

Wordsworth opines that Solomon, in the previous verse, was thinking of

who, it was revealed unto him, should, stranger as he was, seize

and enjoy his inheritance. But these historical references are the merest

guesswork, and rest upon no substantial basis. Plainly the author’s

statement is general, and there is no need to ransack history to find its

parallel. And live many years, so that the days of his years be many; Et

vixerit multos annos, et plures dies aetatis habuerit (Vulgate). These

versions seem to be simply tautological. The second clause is climacteric,

as Ginsburg renders, “Yea, numerous as may be the days of his years.” The

whole extent of years is summed up in days. So Psalm 90:10, “The

days of our years are three score years and ten,” etc. Long life, again,

was deemed a special blessing, as we see in the commandment with promise

(Exodus 20:12). And (yet if) his soul not filled with good; i.e. he

does not satisfy himself with the enjoyment of all the good things which he

possesses. Septuagint, Καὶ ψυχὴ αὐτοῦ οὐ πλησθήσεται ἀπὸ τῆς ἀγαθωσύνης 

– Kai psuchae autou ou plaesthaesetai apo taes agathosunaes -

 “And his soul shall not be satisfied with his good.” And also

that he have no burial. This is the climax of the evil that befalls him.

Some critics, not entering into Koheleth’s view of the severity of this

calamity, translate, “and even if the grave did not wait for him,” i.e. “if he

were never to die,” if he were immortal. But there is no parallel to show

that the clause can have this meaning; and we know, without having

recourse to Greek precedents, that the want of burial was reckoned a

grievous loss and dishonor. Hence comes the common allusion to dead

carcasses being left to be devoured by beasts and birds, instead of meeting

with honorable burial in the ancestral graves (I Kings 13:22; Isaiah

14:18-20). Thus David says to his giant foe, “I will give the carcasses of

the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the

 wild beasts of the earth” (I Samuel 17:46); and about Jehoiakim it was

denounced that he should not be lamented when he died: “He shall be

buried with the burial of an ass, drawn and cast forth beyond the gates of

Jerusalem (Jeremiah 22:18-19). The lot of the rich man in question is

proclaimed with ever-increasing misery. Ha cannot enjoy his possessions;

he has none to whom to leave them; his memory perishes; he has no

honored burial. I say, that an untimely birth is better than he (compare

ch.4:3). The plight of a still-born child is preferable to one whose destiny is so

miserable (see Job 3:16; Psalm 58:8). It is preferable because, although it has

missed all the pleasures of life, it has at least escaped all suffering. The next two

verses illustrate this position.


4 “For he cometh in with vanity, and departeth in darkness, and his

name shall be covered with darkness.  For he cometh in with vanity;

 rather, for it came into nothingness. The reference is to the fetus, or

still-born child, not to the rich man, as is implied by the Authorized Version.

This, when it appeared, had no independent life or being, was a mere nothing.

And departeth in darkness; and goeth into the darkness. It is taken away

and put out of sight. And his (its) name shall be covered with darkness.

It is a nameless thing, unrecorded, unremembered.


5 “Moreover he hath not seen the sun, nor known any thing: this hath

more rest than the other.”  It has seen nothing of the world, known nothing

of life, its joys and its sufferings, and is speedily forgotten. To “see the sun” is

a metaphor for to “live,” as ch.7:11; 11:7; Job 3:16, and implies

activity and work, the contrary of rest. This hath more rest than the

other; literally, there is rest to this more than to that. The rest that belongs

to the still-born is better than that which belongs to the rich man. Others

take the clause to say simply, “It is better with this than the other.” So the

Revised Version margin, the idea of “rest” being thus generalized, and taken

to signify a preferable choice. Septuagint, Καὶ οὐκ ἔγνω ἀναπαύσεις τούτῳ

ὑπὲρ τοῦτον - Kai ouk egno anapauseis touto huper touton -

And hath not known rest for this more than that  — which reproduces the

difficulty of the Hebrew;  Vulgate, Neque cognovit distantiam boni et malt,

which is a paraphrase unsupported by the present accentuation of the text.

Rest, in the conception of an Oriental, is the most desirable or’ all things;

compared with the busy, careworn life of the rich man, whose very moments of

leisure and sleep are troubled and disturbed, the dreamless nothingness of

the still-born child is happiness. This may be a rhetorical exaggeration, but

we have its parallel in Job’s lamentable cry in Job 3. when he“cursed his day.” 


6 “Yea, though he live a thousand years twice told, yet hath he seen

no good: do not all go to one place?”  Yea, though he live a thousand

 years twice told, yet hath he seen no good. What has been said would still

be true even if the man lived two thousand years. The second clause is not the

apodosis (as the Authorized Version makes it), but the continuation of the

protasis: if he lived the longest life, “and saw not good;” the conclusion is

given in the form of a question. The “good” is the enjoyment of life spoken

of in v. 3 (see on ch.2:1). The specified time seems to refer to the age

of the patriarchs, none of whom, from Adam to Noah, reached half the

limit assigned. Do not all go to one place? viz. to Sheol, the grave

(ch. 3:20). If a long life were spent in calm enjoyment, it might

be preferable to a short one; but when it is passed amid care and annoyance

and discontent, it is no better than that which begins and ends in

nothingness. The grave receives both, and there is nothing to choose

between them, at least in this point of view. Of life as in itself a blessing, a

discipline, a school, Koheleth says nothing here; he puts himself in the

place of the discontented rich man, and appraises life with his eyes. There

is a  common destiny that awaits peer and peasant, rich and poor, happy and




The Misfortunes of a Rich Man (vs. 1-6)




Ø      A frequent occurrence. The picture that of one who has attained to

great wealth, power, and honor, who has been conscious of large

ambitions and has realized them, who has been filled with insatiable

desires and possessed the means of gratifying them, and yet has been

unable to extract from all his possessions, pleasures, and pursuits

any grain of real and solid happiness.


Ø      A sorrowful experience. The Preacher characterizes it as an evil which

lies heavy upon men. Upon the individual himself, whose hopes are

disappointed and plans frustrated, whose riches, wealth, and honors thus

become mocking decorations rather than real ornaments, and whose

pleasures and. gratifications turn into apples of Sodom rather

than prove, as he expected they would do, grapes of Eshcol.


Ø      An instructive lesson. The valuable truth that the soul’s happiness is

not, and cannot be, found in any creatures, however excellent, BUT

ONLY IN GOD (Psalm 37:4), is thus forcibly pressed home upon the

hearts and consciences of rich men themselves, and of such as observe

the experiences through which they pass.



diminution to the rich man’s happiness, who, in having no son or child,



Ø      That which is dearer to the heart of man than wealth, power,

or fame.  Unless the instincts of human nature have been utterly

perverted by avarice, covetousness, and ambition, the hearts of rich

no less than of poor men cling to their offspring, and, rather than lose

these by death, would willingly surrender all their wealth

(II Samuel 18:33).


Ø      That without which wealth and honor lose the greater part of their

attractions. Abraham felt it a considerable detraction from the sweetness

of Jehovah’s promise that he had no heir, and that all his possessions

would ultimately pass into the hands of his steward, Eliezer of Damascus,

the steward of his house.  (Genesis 15:1-3).


Ø      That which gives to wealth-gathering and power-seeking their

best justification. It is not certain that anything will justify these when

inordinate; if anything will excuse a man for heaping up wealth in an honest

and legitimate way, and for endeavoring to acquire power and influence

amongst his fellows, it is the fact of his doing so with a view to promote

the happiness of those God has made dependent on him, and bound to him

by the ties of natural affection.



different rendering of this clause, “And moreover he have no’ burial,” see

the Exposition.)


Ø      The case supposed. That of a rich man surrounded by many (an

hundred) children, who lives long, but has no true enjoyment of his good

fortune, and when he dies is denied the glory of a funeral such as Dives

doubtless had (Luke 16:22), and the shelter of a grave such as was not

withheld even from Lazarus. How he should come at last to have no

burial, though not explained, may be supposed to happen either through the

meanness of his relatives or their hatred of him, or through his perishing in

such a way (e.g. in war, at sea, through accident, by violence) as to render

burial by his children impossible. Commentators cite as an illustration of

the case supposed the murder by Bagoas of Artaxerxes Ochus (B.C. 362-

339), whose body was thrown to the cats. Another may be that of

Jehoiakim, of whom it was predicted (Jeremiah 22:19), “He shall be

buried with the burial of an ass, drawn and cast forth beyond the

 gates of Jerusalem.”


Ø      The judgment pronounced. That such a case is not to be compared in

respect of felicity with that of “an untimely birth,” which “cometh in

vanity, and departeth in darkness, and the name thereof is covered

with darkness;” i.e. which enters on a lifeless existence when born, and

“is carried away in all quietness, without noise or ceremony,” having

received no name, and becoming forgotten as if it had never been. The

grounds on which the Preacher rests his judgment are three:


o       that an untimely birth never sees the sun, and so escapes all sight

of and contact with the sufferings and miseries of earth;

o       that it never wakes to the exercise of intelligence, and so is never

conscious of either the wickedness or the woe that is surging

around it; and

o       that it rests better in the grave to which it goes than does the

corpse of the joyless rich man.


Ø      The correction needed. This pessimistic view of life may be thus

admirably qualified. The allegation here made “contains a thought to

which it is not easy to reconcile one’s self. For supposing that life were

not in itself, as over against non-existence, a good, there is yet scarcely

any life that is absolutely joyless; and a man who has become the father

of a hundred children has, as it appears, sought the enjoyment of life

principally in sexual love, and then also has found it richly. But also,

if we consider his life less as relating to sense, his children, though not all,

yet partly, will have been a joy to him; and has a family life so lengthened

and rich in blessings only thorns, and no roses at all? And, moreover,

how can anything be said of the rest of an untimely birth, which has been

without motion and without life, as of a rest excelling the termination of

the life of him who has lived long, since rest without a subjective reflection,

a rest not felt, certainly does not fall under the point of view of more or less

good or evil? The saying of the author on no side bears the probe of

exact thinking!



NEIGHBORS. “Do not all go to one place?” In the grave rich and poor

differ not. The dusts of the patrician and of the plebeian, freely

intermingled, no human chemistry can distinguish. A tremendous

humiliation, no doubt, to human pride, that Solomon and the harlot’s child,

Caesar and his slave, Dives and Lazarus, must ultimately lie together in the

same narrow house — that rich and poor, wise and unwise, powerful and

powerless, honored and abject, kings and subjects, princes and peasants,

masters and servants, must ultimately sleep side by side on the same couch;

but so it is. And this, also, in the eyes of worldlings, but not of good men,

is a vanity, and a sore evil beneath the sun.




Ø      Riches are not the chief good.

Ø      Temporal evils may be sources of spiritual good.



Life Without Enjoyment Valueless (vs. 1-6)


The problem which occupies the Preacher (vs. 1-2) is virtually the same

as that in ch. 4:7-8. It is not that which is discussed in the Book of Job,

and Psalms 37 and 38, viz. why the wicked often prosper, and the

righteous often suffer adversity. It is that of men blessed with riches,

with children, and with long life, and debarred all enjoyment of these

blessings. In the Law of Moses these had been the rewards promised for

obedience to God (Deuteronomy 28:1-14), but the Preacher sees that

something more is needed than the mere possession of them.

There is another “gift of God” needed in order that one may enjoy the

good of any one of them.


·         The first picture (vs. 1-2) is that of A RICH MAN, able to gratify

every desire, but incapable of making his wealth yield him any pleasure or

satisfaction. He may be a miser, afraid to make use of his riches; he may be

in ill health, and find that his wealth cannot procure for him any alleviation

of his pains; his domestic circumstances may be so unhappy as to cast a

cloud over his prosperity. From various causes, such as these, the evil upon

which our author remarks is common enough in human society — great

wealth failing to procure for its possessor any enjoyment he can relish, and

perhaps passing at last, on his death, into the hands of a stranger, for want

of an heir to whom he might have had some satisfaction in leaving it.


·         A second case of a different kind is suggested in vs. 3-6. The rich

man is NOT CHILDLESS, but has a numerous family, and lives out all his

days; but he, too, often has no happiness in his life, and perhaps even fails

to find honorable burial when he dies. His fate is worse than that of the

stillborn child that has never tasted of life. “The stillbirth has the advantage

in not having known anything; for it is better to know nothing at all than to

know nothing but trouble. It is laid in the grave without having tasted the

miseries of human life; in the grave, where, amid the silence and solitude of

death, the cares and disappointments, the disquietudes and mortifications

and distresses of this world are neither felt nor dreamed of.

However gloomy these reflections of our author’s may seem at first sight,

when we examine them a little more closely we find that they are not so

somber in their character as many of the utterances of pessimistic

philosophy. He does not contrast being with not-being, and declare that the

latter is preferable, but he declares a joyless life to be inferior to that which

has been “cut off from the womb.” His teaching that the value of existence

is to be measured by the amount of good that has been enjoyed in it, is so

far from being the utterance of a despairing pessimism that most sober-minded

persons would accept it as reasonable and true. Specimens of

utterances which, to a superficial reader, might appear to be closely akin to

his, but which really are the expression of a very much darker mood than

his, might easily be given. Thus we have in Theognis (425-428) —


“Best lot for man is never to be born,

Nor ever see the bright rays of the morn:

Next best, when born, to haste with quickest tread

Where Hades’ gates are open for the dead,

And rest with much earth gathered for our bed?


And in Sophocles (‘fed. Colossians,’ 1225) —


“Never to be at all

Excels all fame;

Quickly, next best, to pass

From whence we came.”


And according to the teaching of Schopenhauer, the non-existence of the

world is to be preferred to its existence. The world is cursed with four

great evils — birth, disease, old age, and death. “Existence is only a

punishment,” and the feeling of misery which often accompanies it is

“repentance” for the great crime of having come into the world by yielding

to the “will to live” (Wright, ‘Ecclesiastes,’ p. 158). Such despairing

utterances, when found in the writings of those who have not known God,

move us to compassion, but we can scarcely avoid the feeling of

indignation when we find them on the lips of those who have known God,

but have not “retained him in their knowledge.” And we must beware of

concluding, after a hasty and superficial reading of the Book of

Ecclesiastes, that its author, even in his darkest mood, sank to the

Depth of atheism and despair which they reveal.




The Insufficiency of Circumstance (vs. 1-6)


The Preacher recurs to the same strain as that in which he spoke before (see

ch. 2:1-11). We have to face the same thoughts again.


  • AN IMAGINARY ENRICHMENT. Let a man have, by supposition:


Ø      All the money that he can spend.

Ø      All the honor that waits on wealth.

Ø      All the luxuries that wealth can buy of every kind, material and mental

(v. 2).

Ø      Let him have an unusual measure of domestic enrichment and affection;

let him be the recipient of all possible filial affection and obedience (v. 3).

Ø      Let his life be indefinitely prolonged (v. 6), so that it extends over

many ordinary human lives. Give to a man not only what God does give

to many, but give him that which, as things are, is not granted to the

most favored of our race; and what then? What is:


  • THE PROBABLE RESULT. It will very likely end in simple and utter

dissatisfaction. “God giveth him not the power to eat thereof;” “His soul is

not filled with good;” he gets so little enjoyment out of all that he has at

command, that “an untimely birth is better than he;” he feels that it would

have been positively better for him if he had never been born. Subtract the

evil from the good in his life, and you have nothing left but “a negative

quantity.” This is quite in accord with human experience. As much of

profound discontent is found within the walls of the palace as under the

cottage roof. The suicide is quite as likely to be found to be a “well-dressed

man,” belonging to “good society,” as to be a man clad in rags and



  • ITS EXPLANATION. The explanation of it is found in the fact that

God has made us for Himself, that He has “set eternity in our hearts”

(ch. 3:11), and that we are not capable of being satisfied with

the sensible and the transient. Only the love and service of God can fill the

heart that is made for the eternal and the Divine (see homily on



  • ITS CHRISTIAN CORRECTION. There need never live a man who

has known Jesus Christ of whom so sad a statement as this has to be made.

For a Christian life:


Ø      Even when spent in poverty and obscurity, is filled with a holy

contentment; it includes high and sacred joys; it is relieved by very

precious consolations.

Ø      Contains and transmits a valuable influence on others.

Ø      Constitutes an excellency which God approves, and the angels of God


Ø      Moves on to a glorious future. It does not end in the grave.




The Gloom of Disappointment (vs. 3-6)


The case supposed in these verses is far more painful than that dealt with in

the preceding passage. It is now presumed that a man not only lives to an

advanced age — “a thousand years twice told” — but that he begets “a

hundred children.” Yet he is unsatisfied with the experience of life, and dies

without being regretted and honorably buried. And in such a case it is

affirmed that the issue of life is vanity, and that it would have been better

for such a one not to have been born. It must be borne in mind, when

considering this melancholy conclusion, that it is based entirely upon what

is earthly, visible, and sensible.





The standard of the world may be a real one, but it is far from being

the highest. Wealth, long life, important family connections, are good

things; but they are not the best. Much of human unhappiness arises

from first overestimating external advantages, and then, as a natural

consequence, when these are lost, attaching undue importance to the

privation. If men did not exaggerate the value of earthly good,

they would not be so bitterly disappointed, so grievously depressed,

upon losing it.




Person  imagined it is assumed “that his soul be not filled with good.”

The fact is that men seek satisfaction where it is not to be found,

and in so doing prove their own folly and short-sightedness. God

has given to man a nature which is not to be satisfied with the

enjoyments of sense, with the provision made for bodily appetite,

with the splendor, luxury, and renown, upon which men are so

prone to set the desires of their hearts. If what this world can give

be accepted with gratitude, whilst no more is expected from it than

reason and Scripture justify us in asking, then disappointment will not

ensue. But the divinely fashioned and immortal spirit of man cannot

rest in what is simply intended to still the cravings of the body, and

to render life tranquil and enjoyable.




hedonistic test, and then it may be disputed whether the sum of pain and

disappointment is not in excess of the sum of pleasure and satisfaction; if it

is, then the “untimely birth” is better than the prosperous voluptuary who

fails to fill his soul with good, who feels the utter failure of the endeavor

upon which he has staked his all. (Wouldn’t it be something if the

55,000,000 abortions in the United States since 1973, are better off

than the proponents of “Abortion on Demand.” – CY – 2013).

But the test is a wrong one, however hard it may be to convince

men that this is so. The question — Is life worth living? does not

depend upon the question — Does life yield a surplus of agreeable

feeling? Life may be filled with delights, and the lot of the

prosperous may excite envy. Yet it may be nothing but vanity, and a

striving after wind. On the other hand, a man may be doomed to

adversity; poverty and neglect and contempt may be his portion;

whilst he may fulfill the purpose of his being — may form a

character and may live a life which shall be acceptable and

approved above.



Vs. 7-9 tells how Desire is insatiable; men are always striving

after enjoyment, but they never gain their wish completely — which

fortifies the old conclusion that man’s happiness is not in his own power.


7 “All the labor of man is for his mouth, and yet the appetite is not

filled.”  All the labor of man is for his mouth; i.e. for self-preservation

and enjoyment, eating and drinking being taken as a type of the proper use

of earthly blessings (compare ch.2:24; 3:13, etc.; Psalm 128:2). The sentiment

is general, and does not refer specially to the particular person described above,

though it carries on the idea of the unsatisfactory result of wealth. And yet the

appetite is not filled. The word rendered “appetite” is nephesh, “soul,” and

Zockler contends that  “mouth”  and “soul” stand in contrast to each other as

representatives of the purely sensual and therefore transitory enjoyment (compare

Job 12:11; Proverbs 16:26) as compared with the deeper, more spiritual, and

therefore more lasting kind of joy.  But no such contrast is intended; the

writer would never have uttered such a truism as that deep, spiritual joy is

not to be obtained by sensual pleasure; and, as Delitzsch points out, in

some passages (e.g. Proverbs 16:26; Isaiah 5:14; 29:8) “mouth” in

one sentence corresponds to “soul” in another. The soul is considered as

the seat of the appetitive faculty — emotions, desires, etc. This is never

satisfied (ch.1:8) with what it has, but is always CRAVING FOR



8 “For what hath the wise more than the fool? what hath the poor, that

knoweth to walk before the living?” For what hath the wise more  than

 the fool? i.e. What advantage hath the wise man over the fool? This verse

confirms the previous one by an interrogative argument. The same labor for

support, the same unsatisfied desires, belong to all, wise or foolish; in this respect

intellectual gifts have no superiority. (For a similar interrogation implying

an emphatic denial, see ch.1:3) What hath the poor, that knoweth to walk

 before the living? The Septuagint gives the verse thusὍτι τίς περίσσεια 

(A, C, אτῷ σοφῷ ὑπὲρ τὸν ἄφροναδιότιπένης οἰδε πορευθῆναι κατέναντι

τῆς ζωῆςHoti tis perisseia to sopho huper ton aphrona; dioti ho

 penaes oide poreuthaenai katenanti taes zoaes -  For what advantage hath the

wise man over the fool? since the poor man knows how to walk before life?

Vulgate, Quid habet amplius sapiens a stulto? et quid pauper, nisi ut pergat illuc,

ubi est vita? “And what hath the poor man except that he go thither where is life?”

Both these versions regard הַחַיִּים  as used in the sense of “life,” and that the life

beyond the grave; but this idea is foreign to the context; and the expression must be

rendered, as in the Authorized Version, “the living.”   “What advantage hath

the poor over him who knows how to walk before the living?’ (i.e. the man of

high birth or station, who lives in public, with the eyes of men upon him). The

poor has his cares and unsatisfied desires as much as the man of culture and

position. Poverty offers no protection against such assaults, But the expression,

to know how to walk before the living, means to understand and to follow

the correct path of life; to know how to behave properly and uprightly in

interaction  with one’s fellowmen.   The question must be completed thus:

“What advantage has the discreet and properly conducted poor man over the

fool?” None, at least in this respect. The poor man, even though he be well

versed in the rule of life, has insatiable desires which he has to check or conceal,

and so is no better off than the fool, who equally is unable to gratify them. The

two ‘extremities of the social scale are taken — the rich wise man, and the

prudent poor man — and both are shown to fail in enjoying life; and what is true

of these must be also true of all that come between these two limits, “the

appetite is not filled” (v. 7).


9 “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this

is also vanity and vexation of spirit.”  Better is the sight of the eyes than

 the wandering of the desire (nephesh, “the soul,” v. 7). This is a further

confirmation of the misery and unrest that accompany immoderate desires.

“The sight of the eyes” means the enjoyment of the present, that which lies

before one, in contrast to the restless craving for what is distant, uncertain, and

out of reach. (It seems to be human nature that one wants what he cannot get,

until he obtains it, and then it was not what he wanted after all!  - CY – 2013)

The lesson taught is:


·         to make the best of existing circumstances,

·         to enjoy the present,

·         to control the roaming of fancy, and

·         to narrow the vast field of appetency.


We have a striking expression in Wisdom of Solomon  4:12, ῤεμβασμὸς ἐπιθυμίας 

- rembasmos epithumiaswandering concupiscence -  by which is denoted the

giddiness, the reeling intoxication, caused by unrestrained passion. The Roman

satirist lashed the sin of unscrupulous greed


“Seal quae reverentia legum,

Quis rectus aut pudor eat unquam properantis avari?”

(Juven., ‘Sat.,’ 14:177.)


“Nor law, nor checks of conscience will he hear,

When in hot scent of gain and full career.”



Zockler quotes Horace, ‘Epist.,’ 1:18. 96, sqq


“Inter cuncta leges et percontabere doctos,

Qua ratione queas traducere leniter aevum;

Num te semper inops agitet vexetque cupido,

Num paver et return mediocriter utilium spes.”


“To sum up all —Consult and con the wise

In what the art of true contentment lies:

How fear and hope, that rack the human will,

Are but vain dreams of things nor good nor ill.”



Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 1v.26.  “Has any advantage happened to you?

It is the bounty of fate. It was all preordained you by the universal cause. Upon

the whole, life is but short, therefore be just and prudent, and make your most

of it; and when you divert yourself, be always on your guard’ (J. Collier).

Well is it added that THIS INSATIABILITY OF THE SOUL which never

leads to contentment, is vanity and vexation of spirit, a feeding on wind,

empty, unsatisfying. Commentators refer in illustration to the fable of The Dog

and the Shadow:


It happened that a Dog had got a piece of meat and was carrying it home

in his mouth to eat it in peace. Now on his way home he had to cross a plank

lying across a running brook. As he crossed, he looked down and saw his own

shadow reflected in the water beneath. Thinking it was another dog with

another piece of meat, he made up his mind to have that also. So he made

a snap at the shadow in the water, but as he opened his mouth the piece

of meat fell out, dropped into the water and was never seen more.

                                                (Aesop Fable)


Also, the proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”


In vs. 10-12,  the fact is revealed that All things are foreknown and

foreordained  by God; it is useless to murmur against or to discuss

 this great fact; and as the future is beyond our knowledge and control,

it is wise to make the best of the present.





The Insatiableness of Desire (vs. 7-9)


·   IT CONSUMES THE LABOR OF ALL. “All the labor of man is for his

mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled” (v. 7). The appetite, as an

imperious master, urges on the soul to labor with all its powers and

energies to furnish food for its delectation; and yet the utmost man can

provide is insufficient to fill its capacious maw. However varied man’s

works may be, they have all this end in common, to appease the hunger of

the sensuous nature; and all alike fail in reaching it. The appetite grows by

what it feeds on, and hence never cries, “Enough!”


·   IT AFFECTS THE CHARACTERS OF ALL. “What advantage hath

the wise more than the fool? or what [advantage] hath the poor man, who

knows to walk before the living, over the fool?” (v. 8).


Ø      Intellectual gifts do not argue the absence of desire. The

philosopher no less than the peasant, is under its dominion. The

former may attempt to control, and may even to some extent

succeed in controlling, his bodily appetites; but the appetite is

there, impelling him to labor equally with the fool.


Ø      Material poverty does not guarantee the absence of desire. The

Poor man who knows how to walk before the living, i.e. who

understands the art of living, is no more exempt from its sway than is

the rich man, though a fool. The poor man may have learned how to

put restraints upon himself, because of inability to gratify his desire,

but the appetite is as much felt by him as by his rich neighbor.


·   IT DISAPPOINTS THE HOPES OF ALL.Better is the sight of the

eyes than the wandering of the desire” (v. 9). Just because desire is never

satisfied, it wanders on in pursuit of other objects which are often

visionary, and almost always illusory; as a consequence, desire

frequently misses such enjoyments as are within its reach through striving

after those that are beyond its power.




            1. The danger of self-indulgence.

            2. The difficulty of keeping the lower nature in subjection.

            3. The propriety of preferring present and possible to future and

                perhaps impossible enjoyments.





The Insatiability of Desire (vs. 7-9)


In these words the Preacher lays stress upon the little advantage which one

man has over another in regard to the attainment of happiness and

satisfaction in life. All are tormented by desires and longings which can

never be adequately satisfied. His reference is principally, if not entirely, to

the cravings of natural appetites to which all are subject, and which cannot

by any gratification or exercise of will be wholly silenced. The instinct of

self-preservation, the necessity of sustaining the body with food, inspire

labor, and yet no amount of labor is sufficient to put an end, once and for

all, to the gnawings of desire. The sensuous element in man’s nature is

insatiable, and the appetites of which it consists grow in strength as they

are indulged. Though the pressure of appetite differs in different cases,

none are free from it. The wise as well as the foolish, the man of simple

tastes and chastened temper, as well as he who gives free rein to all his

impulses, feel it. Gifts of intellect, acquirements in culture, make no

difference in this matter. Some little obscurity seems at first to hang over

v. 8b, but a little examination of the words disperses it. The whole verse

runs (Revised Version), “For what advantage hath the wise man more than

the fool? or what [advantage] hath the poor man [more than the fool], that

knoweth to walk before the living?’ “To know to walk before the living is,

as is now generally acknowledged, to understand the right rule of life, to

possess the savoir vivre (knowledge of life), to be experienced in the right art of

living, (Delitzsch). The question accordingly is — What advantage has the

wise over the fool? and what the poor, who, although poor, knows how to

maintain his social position? The matter treated of is the insatiable nature

of sensual desire. The wise seeks to control his desire; he who is spoken of

as poor knows how to conceal it, for he lays restraints upon himself, that

he may make a good appearance and maintain his reputation. But desire is

present in both, and they have in this nothing above the fool, who follows

the bent of his desire, and lives for the passing hour. In other words, “The

idea of the passage seems to be, the desire of man is insatiable, he is never

really satisfied; the wise man, however, seeks to keep his desires within

bounds, and to keep them to himself, but the fool utters all his mind

(Proverbs 29:11). Even the poor man, who knows how to conduct

himself in life, and understands the right art of living, though he keeps his

secret to himself, feels within himself the stirrings of that longing which is

destined never to be satisfied on earth” (Wright). The reference here to the

poor man may possibly be made because the Preacher has already praised

the lot of the laboring man (ch.5:12) in comparison with that

of the rich, whose abundance will not suffer him to sleep. If so, he virtually

says here, half-humorously, “Don’t imagine that poverty is the secret of

contentment and happiness. Poverty covers cares and anxieties as well as

riches. Both rich and poor are pretty much on the same level.” A very

simple and practical conclusion is drawn from the fact of the insatiability of

desire, and that is the advisability of enjoying the present good that is

within our reach (v. 9). That which the eyes see and recognize as good

and beautiful should not be forfeited because the thoughts are wandering

after something which may be forever unattainable by us. So far the

teaching is not above that of the fable of the dog who lost the piece of flesh

he had in his mouth, because he snapped at the reflection of it he saw on

the surface of the water. And if this be thought but a poor, cold scrap of

morality to offer to men for their guidance in life, the answer may be given

that multitudes spend their life in fruitless endeavors after what is far above

their reach, and bereave their souls of present good, from an insatiable

greed which this fable rebukes. Constituted as we are, placed as we are

amid many temptations, we need not despise any small scraps of moral

teaching which may be even in threadbare fables, and homely, familiar

proverbs. To say that the words, “Better is the sight of the eyes than the

wandering of the desire,” is about equivalent to the proverb, “A bird in the

hand is worth two in the bush,” may seem irreverent to some, who would

fain read into the text more than it contains. But instead of imagining that

the Word of God is degraded by the comparison, let them recognize the

good sense and prudent advice which lie in the proverb which corresponds

so closely to the sense of the Preacher’s words.



Satisfaction Better than Desire (vs. 7-9)


It has sometimes been represented that the quest of good is better than its

attainment. The truth and justice of this representation lies in the

unquestionable fact that it would not be for our good to possess without

effort, without perseverance, without self-denial. Yet the end is superior to

the means, however excellently adapted those means may be to the

discipline of the character, to the calling out of the best moral qualities.



APPETITE, ASPIRATION. Man’s is a yearning, impulsive, acquisitive

constitution. His natural instincts urge him to courses of action which

secure the continuance of his own being and of that of the race. His

restless, eager desires account for the activity and energy which distinguish

his movements. His intellectual impulses urge him to the pursuit of

knowledge, to scientific and literary achievement. His moral aspirations are

the explanation of heroism in the individual, and of true progress in social





of these who have gone before us is uniform upon this point.


“We look before and after,

We pine for what is not;

Our sincerest laughter

With some pain is fraught:

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”


Thus it becomes proverbial that man is made to desire rather than to enjoy.

Of our aspirations some can never be gratified on earth. The lower animals

have desires for which satisfaction is provided; but whilst their life is thus

thoroughly adapted to their constitution, this cannot be said of man, who

has capacities which cannot be filled, aspirations which cannot be satisfied,

faculties for which no sufficient scope is attainable here on earth. His, as

the poet tells us, is


“The desire of the moth for the star,

Of the night for the morrow;

The longing for something afar

From the sphere of our sorrow.”



INSATIABLE DESIRES. It is not only upon the lower grade of life that

we observe a discordance between what is sought and what is attained. For

the philosopher, as for the uncultured child of nature, there is an ideal as

well as an actual. Prudence may enjoin the limitation and repression of our

requirements. But thought ever looks out from the windows of the high

towers, and gazes upon the distant stars.


“Who that has gazed upon them shining

Can turn to earth without repining,

Nor wish for wings to flee away,

And mix with their eternal day?”





IMMORTAL PROSPECT. They to whom the bodily life and the material

universe are everything, or even anything regarded by themselves, may well

give way to dissatisfaction and despondency when they learn by experience

the vanity of human wishes.” On the other hand, such reflections may well

prompt the spiritual to gratitude, for they cannot believe the universe to

have been fashioned in vain; they cannot but see in the illusions of earth

suggestions of the heavenly realities. The storms of life are not to be hated

if they toss the navigator of earth’s sea into the haven of God’s breast. The

wandering of the desire may end in the sight of the eyes, when the pure in

heart shall see God. “In his presence is fullness of joy, and at his right hand

am pleasure forevermore.”  (Psalm 16:11)


10 “That which hath been is named already, and it is known that it is

man: neither may he contend with him that is mightier than he.”

That which hath been is named already; better, whatsoever

hath been, long ago hath its name been given. The word rendered

“already,” kebar (ch. 1:10; 2:12; 3:15; 4:2), “long ago,”

though used elsewhere in this book of events in human history, may

appropriately be applied to the Divine decrees which predetermine the

circumstances of man’s life. This is its significance in the present passage,

which asserts that everything which happens has been known and fixed

beforehand, and therefore that man cannot shape his own life. No attempt

is here made to reconcile this doctrine with man’s free-will and consequent

responsibility. The idea has already been presented in ch. 3:1, etc.

It comes forth in Isaiah 45:9, “Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it,

What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?” (compare Romans

9:20; Acts 15:18). “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning

of the world.” The same idea is brought out more fully in the following clauses.

Septuagint, “If anything ever was, already hath its name been called,” which

gives the correct sense of the passage. The Vulgate is not so happy, Qui futurus est,

jam vocatum est nomen ejus, being rather opposed to the grammar. And it

is known that it is man. What is meant by the Authorized Version is

doubtful. If the first clause had been translated, as in the margin of the

Revised Version, “Whatsoever he be, his name was given him long ago,”

the conclusion would come naturally, “and it is known that he is man”

(Adam), and we should see an allusion to man’s name and to the ground

(adamah) from which he was taken (Genesis 2:7), as if his very name

betokened his weakness. But the present version is very obscure. The

clause really amplifies the previous statement of man’s predetermined

destiny, and it should be rendered, “And it is known what a man shall be.”

EVERY INDIVIDUAL  comes under God’s prescient superintendence.

Septuagint, Ἐγνώσθηἐστω ἄνθρωπος - egnosthae ho esto anthropos -

 It is known what man is - Vulgate, Et scitur quod homo sit. But it is not the

nature of man that is in question, but his conditioned state. Neither may he contend

with Him that is mightier than he. The mightier One is God, in accordance with

the passages quoted above from Isaiah, Acts, and Romans. Some consider

that death is intended, and that the author is referring to the shortness of

man’s life. They say that the word taqqiph, “mighty” (which occurs only in

Ezra and Daniel), is never used of God. But is it used of death? And is it

not used of God in Daniel 4:3 (3:33, Hebrew), where Nebuchadnezzar

says, “How mighty are his wonders”? To bring death into consideration is

to introduce a new thought having no connection with the context, which

is not speaking of the termination of man’s life, but of its course, the

circumstances of which are arranged by a higher Power. Septuagint,

οὐ δυνήσεται κριθῆναι μετὰ τοῦ ἰσχυροτέρου ὑπὲρ αὐτὸν - Kai ou

dunaesetai krithaenai meta tou ischuroterou huper auton – neither can

he contend with Him that is mightier than he.. With this we may compare

I Corinthians 10:22, “Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? are we stronger

 than He? (μὴ ἰσχυρότεροι αὐτοῦ ἐσμένmae ischuroteroi autou esmen

we are not stronger than He).”




Contending against Power (v. 10)


The limitation which is characteristic of the human life and lot is

observable, not only in man’s inability to attain the happiness he conceives

and desires, but also in his inability to execute the purposes he forms.

Conscious of powers which are yet undeveloped, inspired by an ambition

that knows so bounds, he puts forth effort in many directions, at first with

strong confidence and high hope. Experience alone convinces him of the

truth expressed by the wise man in the assertion, “Neither can he contend

with him that is mightier than he.”


  • THE WAY OF RESISTANCE. The will may be strong, and naturally

prone to self-assertion, to energetic volition, and to contention with any

resisting force.


Ø      God is, as the providential Ruler of the world, the Lord and Controller

of all circumstances, mightier than man. Men fret against the conditions

and limitations of their lot; they would fain possess greater strength and

health, a longer life, enjoyments more varied and unmixed, etc. They

resent the imposition of laws in the determination of which they had no

voice.  They are even disposed to believe that the world has been ordered,

not by a benevolent Intelligence, but by a hard and cruel fate.


Ø      God is, as the moral Administrator and Judge, mightier than man. In

their selfishness and prejudice, men may and do question the sway of

reason in the universe; they assign all things to chance; they deny any

laws superior to such as are physical and political; they deem man the

measure of all things; they ridicule responsibility. All this they may do;

BUT IT IS TO NO AVAIL  God is mightier than they. They may

violate His laws, but they cannot escape from their action; they may

spurn His authority, but that authority is all the same maintained and

exercised. The time comes when the insurgent and the rebel are

constrained to admit that they are powerless, and that the

Almighty is, and that He works and rules, and effects His righteous



  • THE WAY OF SUBMISSION. It is the province of religion to point

out to men that there is a Power in the universe which is above all, and to

summon men to yield to this Power a cheerful subjection.


Ø      Submission is a just requirement on the part of God, and an honorable

attitude on the part of man. He is no tyrant, capricious and unjust, who

claims our loyalty and service; but the Being who is Himself infinitely

righteous. To do Him homage is to bow, not before irresistible power

merely, but before moral perfection. Resistance here is slavery;

subjection is freedom.


Ø      Submission is the one only condition of efficient work and solid

happiness. Whilst we resist God, we can do nothing satisfactory and good;

when we accept his will and receive our commands from him, we become

fellow-workers with God. Just as the secret of the mechanician’s success is

in obeying the laws of nature, i.e. the laws of God in the physical realm, so

the secret of the success of the thinker and the philanthropist lies in the

apprehension and acknowledgment of Divine law in the intellectual and

moral kingdoms. Man may do great things when he labors under God and

with God. And in such a course of life there is true peace as well as true

success. “If God be for us, who can be against us?”




Heroism; Infatuation; Wisdom (v. 10)


Translating the latter part of this passage thus, “And it is very certain that

even the greatest is but man, and cannot contend with Him who is mightier

than he” (Cox), we have our attention directed to three things.


  • REAL HEROISM. This is found in opposing ourselves to the strong on

behalf of the weak, even though the odds against us are very great, and

apparently overwhelming. Wonderful triumphs have been achieved, even

though the agents have “been but men,” when they have courageously and

devoutly addressed themselves to the work before them. They have

triumphed over:


Ø      powerful “interests;”

Ø      imperious passions;

Ø      deep-rooted prejudices;

Ø      mighty numbers, in the cause of their country,


through Jesus Christ.


  • PITIFUL INFATUATION. This is seen in those who are foolish

enough to measure their poor strength (or their weakness) with the power

of God, with “Him who is mightier than they.” And this they do when they:


Ø      Act as if He did not regard them; when they say, “How doth God

know?  and is there knowledge in the Most High?” (Psalm 73:11).


Ø      Imagine they can outwit Him; when they think they will sin and be

forgiven; will corrupt their lives and waste their powers, and yet find

entrance at the last hour into His kingdom. But “God is not mocked;

whatsoever a man sows, that does he reap.” (Galatians 6:7)  Sin always

carries its penalty at one time and in some form, if not in another.


Ø      Live in simple defiance of his rule; go on in conscious wrong-doing, in

the vague and senseless hope that somehow they will “escape the

judgment of God.”


  • TRUE WISDOM. This is realized in:


Ø      Submitting to His will; in acknowledging His supreme claims, as Father

and Savior of our spirit, upon our worship and trust, our love, our service,

and in yielding ourselves unreservedly to Him.


Ø      Enlisting His Divine strength on our side. For if we are reconciled to

Him, and become His true and trusted children — “his disciples indeed”

 then is God on our side; there is no need to speak of “contending”

with Him that is mightier than we; there is no further contest or variance.

Surely “God is with us,”


o       bestowing upon us His fatherly favor,

o       admitting us to His intimate friendship,

o       accepting us as His fellow-laborers (1 Corinthians 3:9),

o       overruling all adverse (or apparently adverse) forces and

o       making them work our true and lasting good (Romans 8:28),

o       guarding us from every evil thing, and,

o       leading us on to a peaceful end and out to a glorious future.


11 “Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the

better?”  Seeing there be many things that increase vanity. The noun

rendered ”things” (dabar) may equally mean “words;” and it is a question

which signification is most appropriate here. The Septuagint has λόγοι πολλοί

logoi polloi  - many words.  So the Vulgate, verba sunt plurima.

If we take the rendering of the Authorized Version, we must understand the

passage to mean that the distractions of business, the cares of life, the constant

disappointments, make men feel the hollowness and unsatisfactory nature

of labor and wealth and earthly goods, and their absolute dependence upon

Providence. But in view of the previous context, and especially of v. 10,

which speaks of contending (din) with God, it is most suitable to translate

debarim “words,” and to understand them of the expressions of

impatience, doubt, and unbelief to which men give utterance when

arraigning the acts or endeavoring to explain the decrees of God. Such

profitless words only increase the perplexity in which men are involved. It

is very possible that reference is here made to the discussions on the chief

good, free-will, predestination, and the like subjects, which, as we know

from Josephus, had begun to be mooted in Jewish schools, as they had long

been rife in those of Greece. In these disputes Pharisees and Sadducees

took opposite sides. The former maintained that some things, but not all,

were the subject of fate (τῆς εἱμαρμένης - taes eimarmenaes) and that certain

things were in our own power to do or not to do; that is, while they attribute all

that happens to fate, or God’s decree, they hold that man has the power of assent,

supposing that God tempers all in such sort, that by His ordinance and man’s will

all things are performed, good or evil. The Sadducees eliminated fate altogether

from human actions, and asserted that men are in all things governed, not by any

external force, but by their own will alone; that their success and happiness depended

upon themselves, and that ill fortune was the consequence of their own folly or stupidity.

A third school, the Essenes, held that fate was supreme, and that nothing could happen

to mankind beyond or in contravention of its decree (‘Joseph. Ant.,’ 13:5. 9;

18:1:3, 4; ‘Bell. Jud.,’ 2:8. 14). Such speculative discussions may have

been in Koheleth’s mind when he wrote this sentence. Whatever may be

the difficulties of the position, we Christians know and feel that in matters

of religion and morality we are absolutely free, have an unfettered choice,

and that from this fact arises our responsibility. What is man the better?

What profit has man from such speculations or words of skepticism?


12 “For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of

his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a

man what shall be after him under the sun?”  This verse in the Greek and

Latin versions, as in some copies of the Hebrew, is divorced from its natural place,

as the conclusion of the paragraph, vs. 10-11, and is arranged as the commencement

of Ecclesiastes 7. Plainly, the Divine prescience of vs. 10-11 is closely

connected with the question of man’s ultimate good and his ignorance of

the future, enunciated in this verse. For who knoweth what is good for

man in this life? Such discussions are profitless, for man knows not what

is his real good — whether pleasure, apathy, or virtue, as philosophers

would put it. To decide such questions he must be able to foresee results,

which is denied him. The interrogative “Who knows?” is equivalent to an

emphatic negative, as ch. 3:21, and is a common rhetorical form which surely

need not be attributed to Pyrrhonism.  All the days of his vain life which he

spendeth as a shadow. These words amplify and explain the term “in life”

of the preceding clause. They may be rendered literally, During the number

of the days of the life (ch.5:18) of his vanity, and he passeth them as a

 shadow. A life of vanity is one that yields no good result, full of empty aims,

unsatisfied wishes, unfulfilled purposes. It is the man who is here compared

to the shadow, not his life. So Job 14:2, “He fleeth as a shadow, and

continueth not,” He soon passes away, and leaves no trace behind him. The

thought is common. “Ye [Revised Version] are a vapor that appeareth for a

little time, and then vanisheth away.”  (James 4:14)


Plumptre well quotes Soph., ‘Ajax,’ 125 —


            ορῶ γὰρ ἡμᾶς οὐδὲν ὄντας ἄλλο πλὴν
            Αἴδωλ ὅσοιπερ ζῶμεν η} κούφην σκιάν


            "In this I see that we, all we that live,
            Are but vain shadows, unsubstantial dreams."


To which we may add Pind.,Pyth.,’ 8:95 —


Ἐπάμεροι τί δέ τις τίδ οὔ τις σκιᾶς ὄναρ Ἄνθρωπος

Epameroi ti de tis tid out is skias onar Anthropos


“Ye creatures of a day!

What is the great man what the poor?

Naught but a shadowy dream.”

The comparison of man’s life to a shadow or vapor is equally general

(compare ch. 8:13; I Chronicles 29:15; Psalm 102:11; 144:4; James 4:14).

The verb used for spendeth is asah, “to do or make,” which recalls the

Greek phrase, χρόνον ποιεῖν  - chronon poiein – after they had tarried

 (Acts 15:33) but we need not trace Greek influence in the employment of the

expression here. For who can tell a man what shall be after him under

the sun? This does not refer to the life beyond the grave, but to the future in

the present world, as the words, “under the sun,” imply (compare ch.3:22;

7:14). To know what is best for him, to arrange his present life according to his

own wishes and plans, to be able to depend upon his own counsel for all the

actions and designs which he undertakes, man should know what is to be after

him, what result his labors will have, who and what kind of heir will inherit his

property, whether he will leave children to carry on his name, and other facts

of the like nature; but as this is all hidden from him, his duty and his happiness

 is to acquiesce in the Divine government, to enjoy with moderation the

goods of life, and to be content with the modified satisfaction which is

 accorded to him by Divine beneficence.



Four Aspects of Human Life (vs. 10-12)


Ø      MAN AS A CREATURE OF DESTINY.Whatsoever hath been, the

name thereof was given long ago, and it is known that it is man” (v. 10);

or, “Whatsoever he be, his name was given him long ago, and it is known

that he is man” (Revised Version margin); or, “That which hath been, its

name hath long ago been named; and it is determined what a man shall be”

(Delitzsch, Wright). These different readings suggest three thoughts.


Ø      That mans appearance upon the earth had been long ago foreseen.

The sentiment holds good of man collectively or individually, i.e. of the

race, or of the unit in the race. Neither did “man” originally spring into

being by a happy accident, without the direct or indirect cognizance of

God, nor does the “individual” so arrive upon the scene of time; but both

the hour and the manner of man’s arrival upon the globe, and of each

individual’s birth, were PREARRANGED FROM ETERNITY

 by Him who “made the earth, and created man upon it” (Isaiah

45:12), and whogiveth to all life and breath and all things”

(Acts 17:25).


Ø      That mans character as a creature had been long ago foreknown.

In this respect, indeed, he had in no way differed from other creatures.

Known unto God had been all his works from the beginning of the

 world (Acts 15:18). Human character is not in any instance an

accidental product of blind forces, but is determined by fixed laws,

moral and spiritual, which have been prearranged and instituted by

the supreme moral Governor. Hence, within limits, it is possible for

man to predict what himself or another shall become. “He that doeth

righteousnessnot only “is righteous” in the sense of already

possessing the fundamental and essential principle of righteousness,

viz. faith in, love of, and submission to God, but his righteousness

shall eventually become within him the all-pervading and

permanent quality of his being; and similarly he that doeth

unrighteousness” not only is potentially, but shall become

permanently, unrighteous. Moral character in all men tends to

fixity, whether of good or evil. Hence the greater possibility,

amounting to certainty, that the Divine Mind, whose creation the

laws are under which these results are wrought out, can, ab initio

[from the beginning], foresee the issue to which, in every separate

instance, they lead.


Ø      That mans destiny as an individual had been long ago determined,

The doctrine of Divine predestination, however hard to harmonize with

that of human freedom, is clearly revealed in Scripture (Exodus 9:16;

II Chronicles 6:6; Psalm 135:4; Isaiah 44:1-7; Jeremiah 1:5; Matthew

11:25-26; John 6:37; Romans 8:29; 9:11), and is supported by the

plain testimony of experience, which shows that


“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,

Rough-hew them how we will.”



Or, in the words of Caesar, that nothing


“Can be avoided

Whose end is purposed by the mighty gods.”

(‘Julius Caesar.’)


·         MAN AS THE POSSESSOR OF FREE-WILL. “Neither may [or,

‘can’] he contend with Him that is mightier than he” (v. 10); in which are

contained the following thoughts:


Ø      That mighty as man is (in virtue of his free-will), there is a mightier

than he. That mightier is not death, but God, who also is a Being

possessed of free-will, which must still less be interfered

with by man’s choices and intentions, than man’s free-win must be

impaired by God’s purposes and plans. This thought frequently

forgotten, that if man, in virtue of his free-will, must be able to

carry out his volitions, much more must God be able to carry

out the free decisions of His infinite mind. In this concession

the whole doctrine of predestination, or election, is involved.


Ø      That if in any instance man’s purposes and God’s come into

collision, those of man must give way. One has only to put

the question, whether it is of greater moment that God’s

purposes with regard to the universe and the individual

should be carried out, or that man’s with regard to himself

should, to perceive the absurdity of limiting the Divine

sovereignty in order to avoid the appearance of restricting

human freedom, rather than seeming to impair human

freedom in order to preserve intact the absolute and entire

supremacy of God.


Ø      That Gods determinations, when accomplished, will not be

impeachable by man. The veil of mystery now shrouding the

Divine procedure will in the end be in great measure, perhaps

wholly, uplifted, and man himself constrained to acknowledge

that the supreme Ruler hath done all things well (Mark 7:37).


·         MAN AS A VICTIM OF IGNORANCE. “Seeing there be many

things [or, “words that increase vanity,”] what is man the better? For who

knoweth,” etc.? and “who can tell?” (vs. 11-12).


Ø      The fact of his ignorance. Elsewhere in Scripture explicitly asserted

(Deuteronomy 32:28; Psalm 14:4; Proverbs 19:3; John 1:5;

Ephesians 4:18), and abundantly confirmed by experience.


Ø      The extent of his ignorance. Restricting attention to the Preacher’s

words, two subjects may be noted concerning which man — apart, i.e.,

from God and religion — is comparatively unenlightened:


o       the supreme good (Psalm 4:6), which he places now in pleasure,

now in possessions, now in philosophy, now in power, never

in God; and


o       the future, which is to him so much a sealed book that he cannot

tell what a day may bring forth (Proverbs 27:1), and far less

what shall be after him under the sun.”


Ø      The strangeness of his ignorance. Considering that man is a being

possessed of high natural endowments, and is often much and earnestly

engaged in searching after knowledge. That with all his lofty capacity,

and devotion to intellectual pursuits, he should, if left to himself, be

unable to tell either what is good for man in this life (all his discussions

upon this subject having been little else than words, words, words), or

how the course of events shall shape itself when he has passed from this

earthly scene, is a surprising phenomenon which calls for examination.


Ø      The explanation of his ignorance lies in two things:


o       in the natural limitation of his faculties, which are finite, and not

infinite; and

o       in the moral depravation of his faculties, which are now those not

of an unfallen, but of A FALLEN BEING!




Ø      His continuance is not permanent. He and his generation shall pass on,

that those coming after may enter in and take possession (ch. 1:4).


Ø      His days are not many. His life he spendeth like a shadow, which has no

substance, and abides not in one stay. “Man that is born of a woman is of

few days, and full of trouble.”  (Job 14:1-2).


Ø      His life is not good. Apart from God and religion it is “vain,” i.e. empty

of real happiness, and destitute of solid worth.


·   Lessons:


            1. The sovereignty of God.

            2. The weakness of man.

            3. The duty of submission to the Supreme.

            4. The inability of earthly things to make man better.

            5. The chief good for man on earth is God.





                                    Inexorable Destiny (vs. 10-12)


Before considering these words of the Preacher, we need to obtain a clear

and precise idea of the statements he makes. A considerable measure of

obscurity hangs over the passage, and renders it all the more difficult to

catch the writer’s meaning. This is apparent from the alternative renderings

of several clauses in it which we have in the margin of the Revised Version.

The general idea of the passage seems to be — Mans powerlessness and

short-sightedness with respect to destiny. “Whatsoever hath been, the

name thereof was given long ago, and it is known that it is man: neither can

he contend with him that is mightier than he” (v. 10). The difficult phrase

is that thus translated — “it is known that it is man,” But if we take the

Hebrew phrase, as several eminent critics (Delitzsch, Wright) do, to be

equal to scitur id quod homo sit — “it is known that which a man is” — an

intelligible and appropriate meaning of the passage is obtained. It seems to

point to the fact that man has been placed in certain unalterable conditions

by the will of God, and to urge the advisability of submitting to the

inevitable. Both as to time and place, the conditions have been fixed from

of old, and no human effort can change them. The same thought occurs in

St. Paul’s address to the Athenians: “He made of one every nation of men

for to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed

seasons, and the bounds of their habitation” (Acts 17:26, Revised

Version). It is to be found also in Isaiah’s saying, “Woe unto him that

striveth with his Maker! a potsherd among the potsherds of the earth! Shall

the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He

hath no hands?” (Isaiah 45:9And this passage in Ecclcsiastes seems to have been

in the mind of the Apostle Paul quite as certainly as that just quoted from Isaiah,

when he wrote the famous paragraph in the Epistle to the Romans on the

potter and the clay (9:20, et seq.). That God has predetermined the

conditions of our lives, and that it is useless to strive against His power,

seems, therefore, the teaching of v. 10. The obscurity in v. 11 is caused

by the translation, both in our Authorized Version and Revised Version, of

the Hebrew דברים as “things” instead of “words.” In the Revised Version

words” is given in the margin, but assuredly should be in the text, as in the

ancient versions (Septuagint, Vulgate, Syriac): “Seeing there be many words

that increase vanity, what is man the better?” (v. 11). Most probably the

reference is to discussions concerning man’s freedom and God’s decrees,

that were coming into vogue among the Jews. The nascent school of the

Pharisees maintained fatalistic views concerning human conduct, that of the

Sadducees denied the existence of fate (Josephus, ‘Ant.,’ 13:5. 9; 18:1.3,

4; ‘Bell. Jud.,’ 2:8. 14). The uselessness of all such discussions is also

asserted later in ch. 12:12, and is pathetically reiterated in the

famous passage of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ in which some of the fallen

angels are described as discussing


“Fixed fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute;

Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy.”


The twelfth verse is clear enough. After all discussion as to the true course

of life, who can give a decided answer? Life is a shadow; the future is

unknown to us. “For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the

days of his vain life, which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a

man what shall be after him under the sun?” No one can read the words

without being struck with the dark, despairing Pyrrhonism of their tone. “A

cloud of irrepressible, inexpressible melancholy hangs around the writer, a

leaden weight is on the spring of his spirit.” And it is only when we

consider that the spiritual education of the world by God has been gradual,

that we can tolerate the words as expressing the thoughts of a mind not yet

privileged to see truth in its fullness. If we believe that the light of truth is,

like the light of the sun, increasing from the first faint rays that begin to

dispel the darkness of midnight to the splendor of noonday, we shall not be

surprised at the words of the Preacher. They would be highly inappropriate

in one to whom the revelation of God in Christ had been given; as used by

him, they would necessarily imply a gross unbelief, which would excite our

indignation rather than our sympathy. Christianity puts the facts which the

Preacher regarded as so somber in a fresh light, and strips them of all their

terror. Let us take them in order.



“Since fate bears sway, and everything must be as it is, why dost thou

strive against it?” said the Stoic, Marcus Aurelius (12:13), and his words

seem exactly similar to those before us. The idea of a fixed order in human

life, a Divine will governing all things, does not necessarily fill us with the

same gloomy thoughts, or summon us to a proud and scornful resignation

to that which we cannot change or modify. In the teaching of Christ we

have the fact of a preordination of things by God frequently alluded to, in

such sentences as:


Ø      “Mine hour is not yet come;” (John 2:4)

Ø      “The hairs of your head are all numbered;” (Matthew 10:30)

Ø      “Many be called, but few chosen;” (ibid. ch. 22:14)

Ø      “No man can come to me except the Father draw him;” (John 6:44)

Ø      “For the elect’s sake whom He hath chosen God hath shortened the

      days.” (Matthew 24:22)


This is not a dark, inexorable fate governing all things, but the wise and

gracious will of a Father, in which His children may trust with confidence

and joy. The thought, I say, of all things being predetermined by the Divine

will is prominent in the teaching of Christ, but it is set in such a light as to

 be a source of inspiration and strength. It prompts such comfortable

assurances as, “Fear not, little flock; it is your Father’s good pleasure

to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)



HUMAN’ WEAKNESS. “Neither may he contend with one that is

mightier than he.” But we know more clearly than he did of the Divine

compassion for the poor and feeble and helpless — a compassion that

prompted God to send forth His Son for our redemption. We know that the

Son of God took on Him our nature, submitted to the toils, trials,

privations, and temptations of a mortal lot, and overcame the worst foes by

whom we are assailedsin and death. If, as some think, “the mightier”

one here referred to is death, we believe that Christ took away his power,

and that in His triumphant resurrection we have the pledge of everlasting

life. And the one great lesson taught by the Church’s history is that God

has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the strong.



CHARACTER OF LIFE. “Vain life which man spendeth as a shadow.” But

this does not afflict us, who know that the grave is not the end of all things,

but the door of a better life. The present existence acquires new value and

solemnity when we consider it as THE PRECLUDE TO ETERNITY,

the time and place given us in which to prepare ourselves for

THE WORLD TO COME!  We have His words, “I am the Resurrection

and the Life:… whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”

(John 11:25-26)  The sorrows and trials of the present dwindle into

insignificance as compared with the reward we anticipate as in

store for us if we are faithful to God. “Our light affliction, which is but for

a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of

glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things

which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the

things which are not seen are eternal” (II Corinthians 4:17-18).



DARK AND UNKNOWN. “Who can tell a man what shall be after him

under the sun?” This is still true in many departments of life. The mightiest

potentate cannot tell how long the dynasty he has founded, or of which he

may be the brightest ornament, will last. The conqueror may be distressed

by the thought that the power, to obtain which he has squandered myriads

of lives and countless treasures, may soon fade away, and in a short time

after his death vanish “like the baseless fabric of a vision.” The poet does

not know that even the most brilliant of his works will be kept alive in the

memories of men, and treasured among the things they will not willingly let

die, within a generation or two after he has passed away. The successful

merchant, who has built up a colossal fortune by the labors of a lifetime,

cannot guard against its being dissipated in a very short time by those to

whom he leaves it. But the Christian is in no such uncertainty. The cause of

his Master he knows will prosper and grow to far vaster proportions in the

time to come. The good work he has done will aid in the advancement of

the kingdom of God, and no blight of failure will fall upon his efforts; the

plans of God in which during his earthly life he co-operated will not be

frustrated, and his own personal happiness is for ever secured. All the

various causes of despondency by which the Preacher’s mind was harassed

and perplexed vanish before the brighter revelation of God’s will given us

in the mission and work of Christ. And it is only because we keep in mind

that the truth vouchsafed to us was withheld from him, that we can read his

words without being depressed by the burden by which his spirit was borne

down and saddened. It would only be by our deliberately sinning against

the light we enjoy that we could ever adopt his words as expressing our

views of life.




What is Man’s Good? (vs. 11-12)


The author of this book constantly reverts to this inquiry, from which

tendency we cannot fail to see how deep an impression the inquiry made

upon his mind. In this he is not peculiar; the theme is one that grows not

old with the lapse of centuries.



NECESSARY. “There be many that say, Who will show us any good?”

(Psalm 4:6) Sometimes the inquiry arises upon the suggestion of daily

occupation; sometimes as the result of prolonged philosophical reflection.

The good of man is certainly not obvious, or there would not be so many and

Varying replies to the question presented. A lower nature, not being self-

conscious, could not consider such a question as the surnmum bonum (the

highest good); being what he is, a rational and moral creation, man cannot

avoid it.





Ø      The occupations and enjoyments of the present are proved to be

productive of vanity. “Many things increase vanity.” Man “spendeth

his vain life as a shadow.” The several objects of human pursuit agree

only in their failure to afford the satisfaction that is desired and sought.

Yet the path which one has abandoned another follows, only to be

misled like those who have gone before, only to be put further than ever

from the destination desired. The objects which excite human ambition

or cupidity (greed) remain the same from age to age; and they have no

more power to give satisfaction than in former periods of human



Ø      The future is felt to be clouded by uncertainty. “Who can tell a man

What shall be after him under the sun?” This element of uncertainty

Occasioned perplexity and distress in former times, as now. What shall

be a man’s reputation after his decease? Who shall inherit his estates?

and what use shall be made of possessions accumulated with toil and

difficulty? These and similar inquiries, made but not satisfactorily

answered, disheartened even the energetic and the prosperous, and took

the interest and joy out of their daily life. The present is unsatisfactory,

and the future uncertain; where, then, shall we look for the true,

the real good?



we confine our attention to what can be apprehended by the senses, we

cannot determine what is the real good in life. For that, in the case of

rational and immortal natures, lies outside of the province in which

supreme good must be sought. Good for man is not bodily or temporal

good; it is something which appeals to his higher nature. The enjoyment

of God’s favor and the fulfillment of God’s service — this is the good of

man.  This renders men independent of the prosperity upon which multitudes set

their hearts. “Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us:” such

is the desire and prayer of those who are emancipated from the bondage to

time and sense, who see all things as in the light of Heaven, and whose

thoughts and affections are not called away from the Giver of life and

happiness by the gifts of His bounty, by the shadow of the substance that

endures for ever. “Thy loving-kindness is better than life.”  (Psalm 63:3



“Who Can Tell?” a Sermon on Human Ignorance (v. 12)




Ø      The nature of the duty. Can thou by searching find out God,” etc.?

(Job 11:7).


o       To define God as Spirit (John 4:24),

o       to characterize Him as Love (I John 4:8, 16) or

o       as Light (I John 1:5),

o       to ascribe to Him attributes of Omnipotence, Omnipresence,

       Omniscience, etc.,


is not so much to explain His essence as to declare it to be something

that lies beyond the bounds of our finite understanding (Psalm 139:6).


Ø      The mystery of the Incarnation. “Great is the mystery of godliness:

God was manifest in the flesh” (I Timothy 3:16). To show that

Jesus Christ must have been “EMMANUEL, GOD WITH US

(Matthew 1:23), may not surpass the powers of man; to give an

adequate exhibition of the way in which IN CHRIST  the human

and Divine natures were and are united does.  The best proof of this

lies in the number of the theories of the Incarnation.


Ø      The contents of the atonement. That Christ, as a matter of fact, bore the

sins of men so as to expiate their guilt and destroy their power, one can

tell from the general tenor of Scripture declarations on the subject

(Matthew 26:28; Romans 3:24; II Corinthians 5:21; I Timothy 2:6;

I Peter. 2:24; I John 2:2; Romans 3:25); but what it was in Christ’s

obedience unto death” that CONSTITUTED THE PROPITIATION  

is one of those “secret things” THAT BELONG UNTO GOD!


Ø      The movements of the Spirit. Thou canst not tell whence it [the wind]

cometh, or whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit”

(John 3:8). That the Holy Spirit is the Author of regeneration and of

inspiration is perfectly patent to the understanding of the Christian. The

theory that shall adequately explain how the Spirit renews or inspires the

soul has not yet been elaborated.


Ø      The events of the future. “Who can tell a man what shall be after him

under the sun?” or even what shall be on the morrow (Proverbs 27:1)?




Ø      The character of God. The Ninevites could not tell whether Jehovah

would be gracious to them (Jonah 3:9); we can tell from the revelation

of Scripture, and especially from the teaching of Christ, that God is

Love, and willeth not the death of any  (II Peter 3:9). 


Ø      The Divinity of Christ. Human reason is perfectly competent to decide

upon the question whether Jesus of Nazareth belonged to the category

of common men, or whether He was a new order of man broken in

upon the ordinary line of the race. The evidence for such a decision

has been provided, and any one who seriously wishes can arrive at a

just conclusion.


Ø      The work of the Savior. This also has been fully discovered in the

Scripture. Christ came:


o       to reveal the Father (John 14:9),

o       to atone for sin (Matt, 20:28),

o       to exemplify holiness (I Peter 2:21), and

o       to establish the kingdom of heaven upon earth.

 (Revelation 1:6).


Ø      The fruits of the Spirit. If a man cannot always judge whether

the Spirit is in his own or another’s heart, he should be at no loss

to tell whether the Spirit’s fruits, which are love, joy, peace, etc.

(Galatians 5:22), are discernible in his or his neighbor’s life.


Ø      The goals of the future. If the separate incidents that shall hereafter

occur in any individual’s life be concealed from view, the two termini,

towards one or other of which EVERY INDIVIDUAL IS MOVING









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