Non-Enjoyment of Prosperity (6:1-9)

6:1 There is a grievous thing that I have seen under the sun, and it is prevalent among men: 6:2 a man to whom God gives riches, possessions, and honor, so that his soul lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not empower him to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity and it is a grievous affliction.

Qoheleth now contrasts the carefree person in the previous passage with one who is not able to enjoy the riches, possessions and even honor (apparently as a result of the wealth and not of righteousness) that God has given him. Unlike the carefree person, “God does not (also) empower him to enjoy them.” He is like the sinner whom He “has given the business of gathering and collecting in order to give to one who pleases God” (2:26). Here Qoheleth calls the one who pleases God “a stranger.” As we saw in the exposition of 2:24-26, what he means is that the wealth would only benefit some others who are able to enjoy it because they please God. Like in 2:26, Qoheleth says, “this is vanity”--wealth does not profit its possessor. For it fails to fulfill even the immediate purpose why the wealth was pursued: enjoyment and satisfaction.

Qoheleth observed that one could have everything one ever wanted (“his soul lacks nothing of all that he desires”) and yet find no satisfaction. He himself had a similar experience (2:1-11). This observation of vanity reminds us that the ability to enjoy life is beyond self-determination--it is the side-effect of fearing God. Qoheleth introduces this observation with, “there is a grievous thing,” and concludes with, “it is a grievous affliction.” But because the non-enjoyment of prosperity is “prevalent among men,” it may not seem grievous. What is the “norm” (average experience) is usually felt to be “normal” even though it is not what it could and should be.

6:3 If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many the days of his years may be, but his soul is not satisfied with good things, I say, even though it has no grave, the stillborn child is better off than he. 6:4 For it came in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name will be covered. 6:5 Even though it has not seen the sun or known anything, it has more rest than he. 6:6 Even if he had lived a thousand years twice over, yet does not enjoy good things--do not both go to one place?

To help us feel the grievousness of the non-enjoyment of prosperity, Qoheleth compares the case of one who is not only wealthy but has many children and a very long life, with that of a stillborn child. In the ancient biblical world, “wealth, progeny, and longevity are the items that humans, even kings, most commonly requested from the deity” (Seow 1997: 225). In contrast, a stillborn child comes into this world “in vanity” (in vain), as its birth amounts to nothing. To “see the sun” is to be alive in this world, as “under the sun” is the realm of the living. The stillborn “goes in darkness” because it goes to the netherworld without having “seen the sun” at all.

That means it never had the chance to taste even fleetingly what this life is like and hence “has not known anything” about it. It does not even have a grave to indicate that it ever existed, as “stillbirths were cast into pits or hidden in the ground in no recognizable graves” (The Jewish Publication Society 1985: 1448). Since its “name” (memory) is thus “covered in darkness,” it is considered to have never existed. As Robert Gordis aptly puts it, “the lot of the still-born was regarded with a particular horror precisely because both avenues of life, directly or vicariously, was denied to it, since it neither experienced life nor left any offspring or memory behind” (1968: 259).

As horrid as the case of the stillborn may be, Qoheleth tells us that it is better off than the one who has wealth, progeny and longevity but does not enjoy the good things he is blessed with. This is because “it has more rest” than the rich man. To appreciate this comparison we need to recall what Qoheleth has just said about the consequences of loving money (5:10-17), which is the basic reason why a rich person could not enjoy his wealth (this is confirmed in verses 7-9). For his covetousness not only robs him of the gladness of his heart but also plagues him with cares and miseries. On the other hand, specifically because the stillborn never had a chance to know what it is like under the sun, it has never experienced unrest whatsoever. Thus Qoheleth “could not emphasize the rich man’s plight more strongly than by this comparison. The stillborn lies at rest while the rich man continues in frustration” (Crenshaw 1987: 127).

The only “advantage” the rich man has is the chance to experience life and even accumulate wealth under the sun. But what is the whole point of this “advantage” if his life lacks enjoyment, since he must ultimately die and “go to the same place” as the stillborn? Compared to such a life, what does the stillborn really miss by taking a “short-cut” straight to the hereafter? Nothing but the toils and sorrows that we must all bear in this life. So unless these inevitable experiences are adequately compensated for by an overall sense of carefreeness and satisfaction, life is not worth living. Many people are simply enduring a meaningless existence. The stillborn is better off than them. Qoheleth affirms that this is still the case, “however many the days of his years may be,” and even if he lives “a thousand years twice over,” but does not enjoy what he has.

When life is worth living, longevity is a blessing. When it is not, it is a curse, a curse worse than the fate of the stillborn. By emphasizing the longevity to the point of fantasy, Qoheleth makes sure we do not miss the meaninglessness of an existence such as that of the rich man described here.

6:7 All the toil of man is for his mouth, and yet his appetite is not satisfied. 6:8 Indeed what advantage has the wise man over the fool? What is there for the poor by knowing how to conduct himself before the living? 6:9 What the eyes see is better than what the soul desires. This also is vanity and a pursuit of wind.

Having considered the grievousness of the non-enjoyment of prosperity, Qoheleth states the cause: one who craves after prosperity cannot be satisfied by it. He has earlier made a similar statement that he who loves money will not be satisfied with it (5:10). Now he goes on to explain why.

He uses the universal human experience of eating to illustrate that craving after more things is insatiable. For just as the food that we put into our mouth will not remove our hunger once and for all, there is no end to our appetite for the other things that we toil for. We cannot deny our biological craving for food. But Qoheleth is calling us to deny our psychological craving for prosperity. The proverbial statement, “What the eyes see is better than what the soul desires,” is comparable to, “One bird in the hands is better than two in the bushes.” The Good News Bible captures the meaning well: “It is better to be satisfied with what you have than to be always wanting something else.” For otherwise we will not be able to enjoy what we have, no matter how much we already have.

And when prosperity cannot be enjoyed, then the wise who knows how to make wealth has no real advantage over the fool. To further drive home the point, Qoheleth adds that there is also no use for the poor to gain wisdom and become successful through “knowing how to conduct himself before the living.” For he is only graduating from one form of misery to another.

Qoheleth’s concluding statement, “this also is vanity and a pursuit of wind,” does not refer to the comparison--“what the eyes see is better than what the soul desires”--itself. It refers to the tendency implied in verse 7: attempting to satisfy our psychological “appetite” (same Hebrew word as soul) by means of the things we toil for in this world. And this is futility in light of what is assumed in the comparison: the insatiability of “what the soul desires.” But how do we overcome the craving of the soul? In the immediate context the answer is to be satisfied with what we already have (“what the eye sees”). This can happen through a heartfelt recognition that everything is ultimately profitless. This is partly why Qoheleth seeks to create, amplify and reinforce the sense of vanity in our heart.

But there is more to it. The main reason Qoheleth wants us to feel deeply the reality that all is vanity is to prod us into recognizing our accountability to God, to fear Him and keep His commandments. Another name for the craving of the soul is covetousness. One who truly fears God desires to please Him and so has an inner strength to overcome covetousness. For he is conscious that God knows what he is harboring in his heart and his God-given conscience restrains him from evil and constraints him to do good. He will not be perfect in keeping God’s commandments. But his fear of God keeps him repentant, enabling him to progress in living a conscientious life. As a covetous person is “not satisfied with what he has but always wanting something else,” he is by definition not a carefree person. So Qoheleth’s teaching that the fear of God is basic to carefreeness and enjoyment is built on rock solid ground.

The soul, presented here as the seat of desire, is insatiable when one yields to its covetousness. But one could and should “let his soul see good in his labor” (2:24). We stated in the exposition of 2:24 that this refers to the soul finding satisfaction in one’s labor through the enjoyment of its fruit. This interpretation is confirmed when Qoheleth equates he whose “soul is not satisfied with good things” (6:3) with he who “does not enjoy (‘see’) good things” (6:6). Qoheleth has also affirmed that one who “sees good” in his labor (5:18) is one who rejoices in it (5:19). The soul can even find joy in one’s labor! This clarifies the kind of satisfaction Qoheleth has in mind. And by now it seems redundant to add that the prerequisite is a carefree disposition cultivated through a God-fearing way of thinking and living. To avoid misunderstanding, we must add that the word “carefree” as used throughout our exposition of Ecclesiastes does not imply being careless or complacent. Qoheleth will soon admonish us to be “careful” in light of the uncertainties of life (9:10-11:6).


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