The Life of Futility
1 I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men: 2 God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil. 3 A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. 4 It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. 5 Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man— 6 even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place? 7 All man’s efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied. 8 What advantage has a wise man over a fool? What does a poor man gain by knowing how to conduct himself before others? 9 Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 10 Whatever exists has already been named, and what man is has been known; no man can contend with one who is stronger than he. 11 The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone? 12 For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?
Solomon has been considering wealth, and last week we looked at another some dangers that Solomon demonstrated concerning wealth.
That was demonstration of the utter futility of wealth.
Man is never satisfied, and so he’s always accumulating more for himself. (Ecc. 5:10)
This pursuit of wealth very often brings sleeplessness, so the person isn’t able to sleep well at night. (Ecc. 5:12)
The wealth is sometimes hoarded to the harm of its owner (Ecc. 5:13)
All of those aspects that we look at last week as we considered Solomon’s words had to do with an attempt at gaining more, and being very worried to protect that which has already been gained.
But in this morning’s text, Solomon considers another man in life, also with relation to wealth, but this man has been blessed in abundance, and yet is unable to enjoy that blessing of abundance.
1. An Abundance Unenjoyable (vv.1-2)
1. An Abundance Unenjoyable (vv.1-2)
As we look at this passage, we see that Solomon continues in his consideration of life under the sun.
Notice his words in verse 1...
1 I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men:
As has been mentioned, Solomon is attempting to find solutions in his search for meaning in life, but continues to come up unsuccessful.
As we consider his words here, what we need to keep in mind is that this life that Solomon is considering is a life divorced from relationship with God.
Solomon does not come from a perspective of truly knowing and understanding God, or living in right relationship with God.
As we will see in a moment, he has not entirely forgotten God, for He still makes mention of God, and acknowledges God at least in some measure.
But it is not a life lived in proper communion and fellowship with God. It is not a life lived in right relationship with God.
And the conclusion that he comes to as he evaluates life from this reference point is that it is evil.
Furthermore, it places a heavy burden on man.
I would add one further reminder here before we delve into the details of this passage, and that is that the scenarios that Solomon describes are not necessarily true of every person all the time.
God deals with different people differently according to His providential working.
With that in mind, Solomon begins in verse 2 to outline what specifically this grievous evil is that he is now considering.
2 God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.
Notice as we consider this grievous evil, that Solomon indeed begins by acknowledging God.
As I’ve said, Solomon has not left God entirely out of his equation of what’s happening in the world.
In this instance, he acknowledges that God is the giver of good things.
Solomon states unequivocally that God is the giver of the gifts of a man.
It was God who gave this man wealth, possessions and honor, no doubt through hard work and toilsome labour as Solomon has previously described it.
This perfectly fits in with the common grace of God to mankind.
To this extent at least, Solomon is acknowledging or admitting to God being the provider of these “good things”.
But we must look carefully at the next phrase Solomon uses here.
He says that this person lacks nothing that their heart desires....
This is a very important statement for us to consider and take note of as we study this passage.
Within the heart of this man are his desires.
In the Scriptures, the heart is the control center of the body.
23 Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.
It is the place where our desires in this life are born.
We want things out of life.
To achieve things
To accomplish goals
To pursue wealth, status, positions...
All of these desires begin in our hearts, and once birthed in the heart, we pursue those desires.
The heart desires drive us towards that which we believe will satisfy us.
This is not intrinsically wrong… if we never had any kind of desire, then we would never accomplish much in life.
The problem comes in when heart desires after things in this world become the focal point of our lives.
Look at some of the examples of the good and bad heart desires that we find of this in the Scriptures.
9 People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.
Consider Solomon, who had some fairly noble desires in his heart in his early years as king...
11 God said to Solomon, “Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, riches or honor, nor for the death of your enemies, and since you have not asked for a long life but for wisdom and knowledge to govern my people over whom I have made you king, 12 therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you. And I will also give you wealth, riches and honor, such as no king who was before you ever had and none after you will have.”
Consider the parable of the sower and the seed, and that seed falling on different kinds of soil.
When Jesus explained the seed that fell among the thorns, he explained it with these words...
18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.
Those desires that Jesus speaks of are the desires that are in opposition to God-oriented desires of the heart.
A question that we need to ask ourselves is, what are the desires of our hearts?
Solomon shows that this person has desired the things of the material world - wealth, possessions, and honor among men.
Furthermore, God allowed them even to obtain the desires of their hearts.
But God didn’t allow them to enjoy those desires.
Although they had obtained the very desires of their hearts, they were in no way content!
According to Solomon, this is a grievous evil!
Remember that Solomon is looking here from the perspective of man… through man’s eyes without considering a right relationship with God.
A grievous evil indeed, that man would seek after these worldly pleasures with no thought for God Himself!
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.” (in Ryken p.140)
2. An Infant Unfortunate (vv.3-6)
2. An Infant Unfortunate (vv.3-6)
As Solomon continues to lament the situation of a man being unable to enjoy their wealth, he begins to consider that perhaps the unfortunate fate of the stillborn child is better than that of the man who cannot enjoy his prosperity.
3 A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.
Both of these phrases again speak of the blessing of God upon the life of the person being evaluated.
Solomon speak of long life being given to a man, even up to two thousand years (as Solomon mentions down in verse 6).
Long life is that which itself should be understood to be a blessing from the hand of God...
16 With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
33 Walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.
We recall also the commands of God to children:
1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”
So this long life that Solomon considers is again a gift from the hand of God...
The other aspect that Solomon addresses is a great offspring - he mentions even a hundred children.
That certainly doesn’t speak of the average person..
This is hyperbole, although in royal families in that day the kings often had many wives and concubines which could have led to high numbers of children.
Again, the point that Solomon is driving home is the blessing from the hand of God.
3 Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him. 4 Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. 5 Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.
A man may be richly blessed, and may have long life and many children, but if he is not able to enjoy that prosperity, and also to have a proper burial, then a stillborn child is better.
Just a note on “proper burial”.
A proper burial was an important matter on that day.
A person would desire to be honoured with a proper burial.
A person who didn’t receive a proper burial may even have been seen to be under the curse of God.
An example is Abijah, the son of Jeroboam, who was the only son who would receive a burial…
13 All Israel will mourn for him and bury him. He is the only one belonging to Jeroboam who will be buried, because he is the only one in the house of Jeroboam in whom the Lord, the God of Israel, has found anything good.
The rest of Jeroboam’s children were killed and were left to be eaten by wild animals, again demonstrating the curse of God upon them.
Solomon continues by saying that if a man has prosperity, long life and a multitude of offspring, but then cannot enjoy them, and be honoured in his burial, "a stillborn child is better off than he.”
He then goes on (in somewhat morbid fashion) to describe the coming and going of the stillborn child...
4 It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded.
When Solomon speaks of this stillborn coming without meaning, he certainly does not mean that its life has absolutely no meaning.
All life will have some kind of meaning, certainly for the parents of that child.
The fact is that this stillborn child will never have the opportunity to make any significant impact on the world.
The stillborn child “comes in futility” (see ESV / NASB etc.)
The name of the child, says Solomon, is shrouded in darkness.
Philip Ryken says here:
“Even its name is covered in darkness — not because the child is never named by his or her parents, but because death shrouds his or her identity and personality. No one ever gets to know the child’s character or abilities.” (Ryken, p.142)
In a sense this is a very depressing kind of picture.
When we consider such a child, we would think about this situation with sadness.
We would probably consider such a child to be very unfortunate.
But Solomon seems to think that this stillborn child’s life is better than going through a life in which prosperity is obtained, but then cannot be enjoyed.
He goes on in verse 5 to explain...
5 Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man—
The stillborn child doesn’t even get to see daylight, or experience anything of life.
But herein is the place where Solomon sees their advantage.
As he sees it, the stillborn child at the very least doesn’t need to go through the pains of learning and growing.
The stillborn child doesn’t need to suffer in life with other people giving trouble or hardship.
In a stillborn child, there is no guilt, no disgrace, no pain, no discouragement, no hurt of loss, no punishment.
Furthermore, within the direct context of Solomon’s greater argument here, the stillborn child will not need to enter into this world and grapple with the perplexities of a life that doesn’t appear to be fair.
They’ll never have to despair that although they may have tried to do everything right, things can just seem to go so wrong.
Solomon then refers back to the man who is apparently blessed with long life...
(v.5) …it has more rest that does that man -
6 even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place?
Although a man may enjoy not only long life, but super-long life, more than twice that of Methusela, the oldest man recorded in Scripture - what is the point if unable to enjoy prosperity?
Surely we would be happy to live 200 years if our health remained good and we were able to enjoy the fruit of our labours.
But if God takes away that ability to enjoy what you have, how unpleasant wouldn’t that be?
The great equalizer - death - would ultimately catch up with you, and you’d ultimately end up in the same place as the stillborn infant.
In the grave!!
And so if you’re going to choose between a long life of toilsome labour, so that you can amass your goods, but then not even enjoy what you’ve gained, over against rather being a stillborn baby, that never has to face this life’s pains, then perhaps you may come to a similar conclusion as what Solomon came to.
3. An Appetite Unsatisfied (vv.7-9)
3. An Appetite Unsatisfied (vv.7-9)
As Solomon proceeds, he makes some very important observations concerning our appetites for satisfaction through things in life.
7 All man’s efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied.
All of man’s efforts are for his mouth
A man works with the goal of satisfying his appetite
A man works so that he may eat food… and enjoy it.
In the words of one commentator:
“In verse 7 the Preacher tells us what happens when we feed that appetite: we get hungry all over again; the same cravings return day after day. We eat food to give us strength to work to earn our daily bread, which we eat to give us strength to work again tomorrow, and so it goes, day after day.” (Ryken, p.143)
But we can hardly limit this appetite that is spoken of here to food - the context here is so much broader.
Solomon is speaking about the person who sets his heart’s desires on things and accumulates them, the person who hoards goods.
The appetite of a man drives him to continue - whether that appetite be for food in order to gain strength for a new day, or an appetite for the desires of the heart - a man is driven forward to satisfy the internal hunger.
The simple reality is that this appetite is never satisfied.
This is the reality of the person without God… they are never satisfied. Indeed, they cannot be satisfied.
This reality of the inability to satisfy our appetites leads Solomon to consider further that if this be the case, then there really is no gain for any person over against another (apart from God)...
8 What advantage has a wise man over a fool? What does a poor man gain by knowing how to conduct himself before others?
Whether a person is wise, or is a fool, their appetites and cravings are very similar.
The naturally (not spiritually) wise man doesn’t gain any advantage over the fool, because both continue to have cravings that will not be satisified by the world’s offerings.
Recall the words of Solomon back in 2:15...
15 Then I thought in my heart, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” I said in my heart, “This too is meaningless.”
To live in poverty, and even to do so with some measure of wisdom, will not deliver us from desire.
In verse 8, Solomon describes a poor man that is wise enough to know the right way to live.
So maybe he can avoid all of the disappointments that rich people have when they expect money to give them meaning and purpose in life.
Yet when it comes to satisfying desire, the poor man will be as disappointed as anyone.
Neither wisdom nor poverty proves to be an advantage.
This leads Solomon to his conclusion, or at least his advise for the moment to those whom he is teaching:
9 Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Solomon resigns himself to the conclusion that we are better of simply being happy with what our eye sees - with that which we have in our possession.
There is little benefit to have an appetite that continues to roam and to seek after satisfaction.
4. An Argument Unproductive (vv.10-12)
4. An Argument Unproductive (vv.10-12)
With all of this consideration of Solomon, he eventually gets to a point where he needs to make some important assertions.
He begins in verse 10 with these words...
10 Whatever exists has already been named, and what man is has been known; no man can contend with one who is stronger than he.
One of Solomon’s key threads through Ecclesiastes is that there is nothing new under the sun.
He is here reviewing the result of his long and extensive investigations into all that takes place under the sun.
Every bit of satisfaction that may possibly be obtained from any source, whether it be wisdom, pleasure, honour, riches etc. has already been named; it has already been experienced and evaluated.
And all that they may provide is a sense of vanity and meaninglessness.
The experiences of Solomon are the same experiences that we will continue to have in our own day.
Having said this, Solomon makes a somewhat strange comment:
“No man can contend with one who is stronger than he.”
While it is possible that this phrase refers to a man contending with another man - one who is stronger - this is surely not what Solomon means here.
A brief scan through Scriptures demonstrates that the one stronger than man is the creator of man, that is God.
2 “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!”
30 There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord.
9 “Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker, to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘He has no hands’?
Or the account of Job is helpful, as he questioned God concerning His actions, and then had to confess and repent...
3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. 4 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ 5 My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. 6 Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Solomon is showing to us that while we may not have full understanding with regards to all that happens in this world, and although it may all truly appear to be meaningless, and perhaps vexing to the soul, it unwise to begin to question the wisdom of the Almighty.
The one stronger than us is not to be contended with, for that would be foolishness.
The one who set everything in motion for His own purposes and glory is all-knowing and all-wise, and for us to begin to question Him on these things would be foolishness, and ultimately an exercise in futility.
In verse 11, he continues this argument...
11 The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?
The more the words you bring against God, the less will be the meaning of those words.
It is the fool who multiplies words (Ecc. 10:14)
“We need to know our limits, and one of our limits is that we do not have the wisdom to out-talk God. No matter what we say, telling God that he ought to do this or shouldn’t do that, our words will never change his wise plan for ruling the universe.” (Ryken, p.145)
In closing, Solomon asks two rhetorical question...
12 For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?
These questions are those which go to the heart of the meaning of life, and even of death.
In his first question, Solomon asks what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days that he has.
He recognises the brevity of life, that life is but a vapor.
He recognises, as he’s come to explain, that before we know it our days are over in this world.
And that leads to the second rhetorical question regarding what comes beyond this life.
“Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?”
That question would be directed at what may happen in this world once one man leaves, but also what would happen for the man who goes beyond the grave.
Man is unable to give clarity and light on these issues, apart from relationship with God.
Oh, man may try and provide answers, and try man does!!
But these answers are not to be found in the wisdom of man, or the deductions that may be made through scientific observations.
Application and Conclusion
Application and Conclusion
A.1. Don’t Set Your Heart on Things
A.1. Don’t Set Your Heart on Things
We have it within us to crave the things in this world.
This is the effect of sin, and the desires of our hearts now wanting that which was never meant to satisfy in place of Him who was meant to satisfy.
As those who are Christians, we must ask ourselves what our desires are.
What do we set our hearts on in this life?
Jesus said to his disciples that if anyone could come after Him, they should deny themselves, and take up their cross daily, and follow Him.
Very often the Christian life may begin with a desire for Christ.
When we are born again by God’s grace, we have a deep desire to serve God and know Him and we’re “all in” as it were.
But as life continues, if we’re not careful, we can have our attention being drawn back, pulled back to seek some measure of satisfaction in the world.
We know well the story of Lot and his family living in Sodom - a place that was beautiful and in a sense prosperous, but a place that was full of evil.
As God prepared to bring judgment on that wicked place, the angel of the Lord told Lot and his wife to flee from Sodom before it was destroyed, they were told not to look back to that place.
When they fled, as Lot’s wife was going, she “looked back...”
That looking back was more than merely glancing back over her shoulder.
She lingered, and she looked back to, and longed for her life in Sodom, and the joys and pleasures that it could offer her.
On the other hand, she hesitated in her obedience towards God, wondering if going to this place of nothing was worth it was longing for her life in Sodom, or was hesitating in her obedience to God - probably both.
So often we as Christians have that tendency to want to look back to the things of this world to satisfy heart desires, rather than keeping our eyes on and fleeing to Christ to find true and lasting satisfaction and joy there.
We need to avoid this friends, not only because things in this world cannot satisfy us, but because this is what God has called us to.
62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
To follow Christ really was something quite radical.
We are not called to commit to following Christ, only to turn our attention back to the world, and to keep running after satisfaction in the world.
Yes, we should remember that Jesus Himself was the only person who perfectly kept His hand to the plow… the only one who perfectly obeyed.
At those moments where are tempted to look back, and perhaps give in to some measure to the temptation, we are always resting in the grace that is found in Christ.
But that doesn’t erase the fact that we are to pursue Christ-likeness in this regard.
And so we are called to not turn our eyes to the pleasures of the world...
A.2. Do Set Your Heart on God
A.2. Do Set Your Heart on God
We need to realise that setting our hearts on God brings satisfaction in this world....
As we live here, the more we have set our hearts upon God, and living for His glory, the greater will be our satisfaction.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
Are these the words that we are able to speak .
The earth has nothing I desire beside you!!
This reality will be demonstrated more and more as our hearts and minds are oriented more and more towards bringing glory to God in all things.
When we ask God for things in prayer, are our requests demonstrating a God-ward orientation.
God has said that if we ask for anything according to His will, we will receive it. (1 John 5:14)
What are we asking God for? Biblical examples of good desires of the heart...
Are we asking for, seeking those good biblical desires, and do we pursue them?
We look forward to receiving a crown of glory in heaven one day. All our lives now are in preparation for then.
We need to return to a simple trust in the Gospel message, and a delight in knowing God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Conclusion - Our hearts are deceitful things, and we desire things in this world that bring such temporary satisfaction. May God so radically transform our hearts that they are set on worshiping Him and living in humble obedience to Him alone!