The Unhappy Wealthy Man

1I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men: 2God 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. 3A 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. 4It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. 5Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man— 6even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place?

Solomon has been writing, in the last few sections, about the inability of material things, in themselves, to bring satisfaction in life. He ended the previous section by telling us that it is God who enables us to enjoy our lot in life. And when God enables us to do so, then we can live a happy, fulfilled life. Solomon described such a man’s life: "He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart" (Eccl. 5:20). Solomon here gives us an example of the opposite case: "I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men: 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" (vss. 1–2). I believe that all of us have seen examples of this. We read in a newspaper or magazine of someone who has "wealth, possessions, and honor", and yet we read of how miserable his life is. "‘Never judge a book by its cover,’ goes the old saying, and men should never get confused about the true state of others’ affairs by looking merely at their outward welfare. A man may possess wealth, honor, numerous children, long life, and virtually every outward good that anyone could possibly imagine; yet he can still be a very broken, dissatisfied, and unhappy person" [Kaiser, 80]. We see in our day and age the same thing that Solomon saw thousands of years ago. And such cases have been occurring countless times over and over in the intervening years. Why then do we still think that "wealth, honor and possessions" will bring us happiness?

Solomon elaborates on the futility of the life in his example: "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. It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man—even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place?" (vss. 3–6). Solomon argues that this wealthy, powerful man, even if he enjoys one of the greatest blessings of those in his culture—even if he has a "hundred children"—he would have been better off never having been born, and worse than that, he would have been better off if he had been stillborn. The crux of Solomon’s argument is clear: what good are "wealth, possessions, honor, prosperity, a hundred children" if you aren’t given the ability to enjoy them? "Despite the complete absence of identity and utter lack of experience of life, the stillborn has a huge advantage over the shattered man—the advantage of ‘rest’ or even ‘pleasure’ as the rabbis sometimes translated the word. To feel nothing, know nothing, experience nothing, [Solomon] deems preferable to the vexing pain of missing out on all the things that bring satisfaction" [Hubbard, 153]. And yet, how many of us envy the man with "wealth, possessions and honor", and pray to be like him? Should we not rather pray that God enable us to enjoy our lot?

Concluding his argument with a forceful point, Solomon asks the rhetorical question: "Do not all go to the same place?" (vs. 6). As we have mentioned numerous times in our study of Ecclesiastes, Solomon throughout this book argues from a worldly point of view, as he seeks to find fulfillment and meaning in life. Eventually, all discussions concerning meaning and fulfillment in life must consider the afterlife. Death must always rear its head, because life itself is so fleeting. The worldly man believes that death brings nothingness. For him, there is no afterlife. And so, in Solomon’s argument, the stillborn child is better off than the unfulfilled wealthy man, because the stillborn child goes directly to nothingness, while the unfulfilled wealthy man must suffer in life, and then die. His wealth does not do him any good in life, and it certainly will not do him any good in death. As Paul teaches: "For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it" (I Tim. 6:7).

The main mistake of the unfulfilled wealthy man is that he seeks fulfillment and meaning in this world alone. He "misunderstands the fact that the earthly life has its chief end beyond itself; [his] failing to penetrate to the inward fountain of true happiness, which is independent of the outward lot, makes exaggerated and ungrateful demands on the earthly life" [Keil & Delitzsch, 307]. God does not enable him to enjoy his wealth, because he is so occupied with his material things that he gives no heed to God. For true fulfillment in life, for true happiness in life, he needs to follow the advice of Jesus: "Seek first [God’s] kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matt. 6:33).

 

Concluding Statements

7All man’s efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied. 8What advantage has a wise man over a fool? What does a poor man gain by knowing how to conduct himself before others? 9Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 10Whatever exists has already been named, and what man is has been known; no man can contend with one who is stronger than he. 11The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone? 12For 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?

The first six chapters of Ecclesiastes contain a running discussion by Solomon concerning meaning and fulfillment in life. These verses conclude this discussion with a series of statements and rhetorical questions that touch on what Solomon has found in the course of this discussion. Solomon’s conclusion is that he has found no conclusion. Using man’s wisdom, Solomon could not discover the answer to finding meaning in life. At every turn was "meaningless"ness.

Seeking material riches did not provide fulfillment: "All man’s efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied" (vs. 7). Seeking wisdom did not provide fulfillment: "What advantage has a wise man over a fool? What does a poor man gain by knowing how to conduct himself before others?" (vs. 8). Even if we focus on what we have, rather than getting carried away with our desires, though this is "better", we remain unfulfilled: "Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind" (vs. 9).

Solomon is spent. His argument has run its course. The answers are beyond him. "Whatever exists has already been named, and what man is has been known; no man can contend with one who is stronger than he" (vs. 10). He has found no benefit from his musings: "The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?" (vs. 11).

The lesson Solomon has learned is that man, through his wisdom alone, cannot find the answers to meaning and fulfillment in life. "For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow?" (vs. 12). The answers must come from someone outside of life. Death nullifies any worldly advantage. The briefness of life, as compared to eternity, makes any worldly advantage meaningless. Any meaning found in life, therefore, must necessarily be connected to finding answers concerning what is beyond this life: "Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?" (vs. 12). The One who has eternity in His hands, is also the One who can tell us "what is good for a man in life." For what we do in this brief life, affects our destiny in eternity. If we ignore in this life the Lord of the Universe, who holds eternity in His hands, He will ignore us in eternity. On the other hand, if we seek Him in this life, seek to do His will in this life, seek to obey His commands in this life, He will not only give us fulfillment and meaning in this life, He will bring us into a glorious eternity in His presence after this life in concluded. May the Lord be praised!

 

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