Chapter 6 serves as a summary statement of sorts for all of the preceding material and is best understood with that thought in mind. At the conclusion, Qoheleth will transition into the second half of the book that is noted by a shift in the tone of his argumentation. For today, however, I’ll consider chapter 6 in three parts, beginning with humanity’s inability to enjoy God’s gifts apart from God’s permission.
There is another serious tragedy I have seen under the sun, and it weighs heavily on humanity. God gives some people great wealth and honor and everything they could ever want, but then he doesn’t give them the chance to enjoy these things. They die, and someone else, even a stranger, ends up enjoying their wealth! This is meaningless—a sickening tragedy. A man might have a hundred children and live to be very old. But if he finds no satisfaction in life and doesn’t even get a decent burial, it would have been better for him to be born dead. His birth would have been meaningless, and he would have ended in darkness. He wouldn’t even have had a name, and he would never have seen the sun or known of its existence. Yet he would have had more peace than in growing up to be an unhappy man. He might live a thousand years twice over but still not find contentment. And since he must die like everyone else—well, what’s the use? (Ecclesiastes 6:1-6, NLT)
We are quick to agree with the Preacher’s observation, that nothing can be more pitiful that to have tremendous personal wealth yet be unable to find lasting joy. He argues that the gifts of God and the ability to enjoy the gifts of God are mutually exclusive. Money, longevity of life, and a quiver full of children do not yield happiness. At the end comes death, which again points to the absurdity of such pursuits.
Simon Sinek, among others, have pointed out that “people lose their way when they lose their why.” This insight is sometimes more easily understood against the backdrop of other’s lives more quickly than our own. We can get so caught up in the “what” that we forget the “why”, making the meaning of it all even more elusive than it already is.
All people spend their lives scratching for food, but they never seem to have enough. So are wise people really better off than fools? Do poor people gain anything by being wise and knowing how to act in front of others? Enjoy what you have rather than desiring what you don’t have. Just dreaming about nice things is meaningless—like chasing the wind. (Ecclesiastes 6:7-9, NLT)
Derek Kidner describes the second section of chapter six by observing the primitive imagery of scratching out a living. One works to eat in order to gain the energy and strength to work so that he can eat again. Whether one is poor, earning a meager existence from the land he tills, or climbing the corporate ladder to success, they both remain on the treadmill of life chasing the dreams of things they will be able to acquire. The only real guarantee that dissatisfaction provides is that you will only gain more dissatisfaction.
This section points to two real challenges we each face. The first is the fear that exposes our thirst for financial security, and the second is desire, which exposes our inability to learn contentment. Until we can overcome our fear and lack of contentment, we’ll continue to set the alarm every day and continue the hamster wheel.
Everything has already been decided. It was known long ago what each person would be. So there’s no use arguing with God about your destiny. The more words you speak, the less they mean. So what good are they? In the few days of our meaningless lives, who knows how our days can best be spent? Our lives are like a shadow. Who can tell what will happen on this earth after we are gone? (Ecclesiastes 6:10-12, NLT)
The chapter ends with two rhetorical questions. The first question is “what is good?” In other words, what are the values that make your life meaningful? Since most of the world does not have inordinate wealth nor ever will, possessing it will not guarantee that you will find life satisfying. Satisfaction is based on clearly defined values, which are obtainable by all socio-economic levels.
The second question is “what will be?” We do not have control over the future, nor can we live life with many practical certainties. But we can navigate any anxiety related to our uncertain futures by being clear on our present realities. Living each day, moment by moment, according to our clearly defined values is the key to finding present joy and future hope.