December 3, 2017 Series: Ecclesiastes
Topic: Expository Passage: Ecclesiastes 6
Good morning! Please open your Bibles to Ecclesiastes 6. If you’re wondering where we are in this series, we’re exactly halfway through the book. There are twelve chapters in Ecclesiastes, and today, we’ll cover chapter 6. In fact, if you want to get technical, 6:10 is the middle verse in the book of Ecclesiastes. I’ll say a little bit more about that in a minute; but first, let’s read the passage (6:1-12).
Earlier this year, I read a book called, “The Conviction to Lead,” by Al Mohler. It’s an excellent book on leadership! But one of the ideas that stood out to me from that book was that good leaders face harsh realities. Mohler says, “The conscious denial of reality is a central danger of leadership…. History is filled with generals who refused to admit they had been out-maneuvered, captains who refused to admit they were lost, and CEOs who refused to admit no one was buying their products (61).” In order to be a good leader, you’ve got to face and understand “the cold hard facts.” The same is true when it comes to life in general. In order to live well, you’ve got to face the harsh realities of life in a fallen world. So this morning, I’d like to give you nine hard facts about yourself that you’ve got to come to grips with.
All nine of these realities have one common theme: “You’re human.” The central statement of this chapter is found in v. 10b. “For it is known that he is man.” The Hebrew word for man is the word “Adam.” Which happens to sound a lot like the Hebrew word “adama,” which means, “ground.” Genesis 1-3 plays on this similarity. Genesis 2:7 says, “And the LORD God formed man [Adam] of the dust of the ground [adama]….” And after Adam sins by eating the forbidden fruit, God says to him, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the adama [or, “ground”], For out of it you were taken….” The central harsh reality that you must admit about yourself is that you are mortal. You can brag all day long, but in the end, you’re made of dust. And one day, they’re going to put your body in the ground or burn it or something, and you’ll become dust once again. As Mohler says later on in that book, one day “They are going to put you in a box… and put the box in the ground, and throw dirt on your face, and then go back to the church and eat potato salad” (203). You’re not really that important. So that’s the common theme: “You’re human.”
But even though all nine realities have one common theme, they still break down into two separate groupings. And here’s where what I said a minute ago about v. 10 being the middle verse comes into play. It appears that in this chapter, Solomon is doing a couple of things. He’s wrapping up part 1 of the book, and then introducing part 2. In general, chapters 1-6 are about enjoying life, whereas chapters 7-12 are about understanding life. There is some crossover, but in general, that’s the case. So, with that in mind, we find this break right in the middle of today’s passage between v. 9 and 10. For instance, after v. 9, we no longer find the phrase, “vanity and grasping for the wind” throughout the rest of the book. So in vv. 1-9, we are going to see your inability to enjoy life, or we could also say, your inability in regards to satisfaction; whereas in vv. 10-12, we are going to see your inability to fix life, or we could say your inability in regards to work.
Your inability to enjoy life/your inability in regards to satisfaction
You don’t control your ability to enjoy what you’ve been given (vv. 1-2).
In 5:18, Solomon describes someone “to whom God has given riches and wealth, and given him power [or, “ability”] to eat of it, to receive his heritage and rejoice in his labor.” Now, in 6:2, he describes a man who’s been given one but not the other. He has got riches and wealth and even honor. In fact, he has everything he wants! Except what? (The ability to enjoy those blessings.) For whatever reason, this person is unable to enjoy the good things God has given him. Not only that, but his goods end up passing to a foreigner or a total stranger! This verse reminds me of the farmer in Jesus’ parable in Luke 12. He didn’t know what to do with all his wealth, so he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. And then, once those barns were full, he would retire. He’d say to himself, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry. But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’”
Have you heard of people who put aside lots of money that they plan to spend in retirement, but then die before they get there? Are there people who become so sick so that they aren’t able to enjoy the things that they have? This kind of thing happens all the time!
Now let me ask you a question, and think really hard about this. Whose fault was it that the man in v. 2 couldn’t enjoy his blessings? The fact is that we don’t know. Perhaps it was his own fault for being discontent. But it could also be that some calamity was to blame! In fact, calamity appears to be at least part of the answer, because it says that a stranger or foreigner ends up consuming his wealth! And that thought is also reinforced by the next verse (v. 3). Did a certain phrase in that verse stand out to you? the phrase about not having a burial is somewhat unexpected. If you’re thinking merely in terms of contentment, that phrase doesn’t make sense. So again, it appears that Solomon has calamity in view. And that brings us to point #2.
You can’t stop tragedy from striking
Whatever the misfortune was that led to this man’s not being buried or to a stranger ending up with his stuff, he was powerless to stop it.
To me, this is one of the most unpleasant realities of life. I’m a planner; I like to plan. I want to think through contingencies and avoid unnecessary discomfort. But the fact is that I could be sitting at the traffic light at Navajo and Bear Valley on my way home today and get rear-ended by a truck, and through no fault of my own, my life might never be the same. I like to eat healthy, but I could still get cancer. I have a strong desire to protect my girls, and yet something terrible could happen to one of them, and I could be powerless to stop it. Do you know how that makes me feel? Sick. That’s why in v. 2, Solomon calls this “an evil affliction”—literally, “a terrible sickness.”
TRANSITION: You see, you’re not in control. You can’t control your ability to enjoy what you’ve been given, nor can you stop tragedy from striking. What’s more, you can’t escape death.
You can’t escape death.
This idea comes up a couple of times throughout the chapter. But we’re going to talk about it here. At the end of v. 6. Solomon says, “Do not all go to one place?” And the answer is, “Yes, they all go to the grace.” No one escapes death. We see this idea again in v. 12 (v. 12). Our lives pass by like a shadow. There’s a verse in the hymn, “Like a River Glorious” that says, “Every joy or trial falleth from above, Placed upon our dial by the Son of Love.” What’s it talking about when it says “a dial”? It’s a reference to a sun dial, which indicates time by the presence of a shadow. Just as quickly as the shadow passes, and the day is over, our lives pass, and we die. The most telling sign that you’re not in control is the fact that you will die.
You are unable to satisfy your own deepest longings.
I’d like to skip vv. 4-6 for right now. We’ll come back to them in a minute. But for now, I want you to skip down to vv. 7-8 (vv. 7-8). These verses are a very brief summary of what Solomon learned from his quest for satisfaction. Verse 7 says that all the labor of mankind is for his mouth. In other words, we have these desires that drive us to work because we want to achieve net profit. And yet unbeknownst to most people, there is this deeper longing that is at work below their surface-level desires, and that is the real force driving them onward. One commentator refers to this as “the ravenous appetite of a sick soul.” I love the way he puts that. One of the symptoms of spiritual deadness is ravenous hunger. Or as Jesus put it, when He was talking to the woman at the well, insatiable thirst. He said to her, “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst.” What an incredible promise! To know Christ is to be satisfied!
And yet apart from Christ, we are truly lost! It doesn’t matter how hard we work—v. 7—it doesn’t matter how much metaphorical food we put into our mouths, it doesn’t even matter how much knowledge we have or how prudent we are (v. 8)! The scholar is not at an advantage when it comes to enjoying life; neither is the sensible poor man. And of course, Solomon has already gone out of his way to prove that riches won’t cut it, either. So what’s the solution (v. 9)? This is the closest Solomon comes to application in this chapter. He says, “It’s better to enjoy what you’ve been given that’s right in front of you (what your eyes can see) than it is to constantly be shopping for something better. This is true when it comes to marriage, when it comes to possessions, when it comes to career choices, and in many other contexts. A wandering appetite gets people in trouble! So don’t do that! Be content.
But let’s go back now to vv. 4-6. What if you’re not content, and what if calamity strikes? What then (vv. 4-6)? Solomon’s pronouncement about a man who suffers from chronic dissatisfaction and calamity is found at the end of v. 3: “a stillborn child is better than he.” You say, “Why? How can Solomon possibly make that pronouncement?” Look down at the end of v. 5: “this has more rest than that man.” The stillborn or miscarried baby is better because, in terms of life on this earth, at least the baby had peace. Solomon’s statement about a lack of burial finds an interesting parallel in Jeremiah 16:2-4. In that passage, God says to Jeremiah, “You must not marry and have sons or daughters in this place. For this is what the Lord says about the sons and daughters born in this land and about the women who are their mothers and the men who are their fathers: ‘They will die of deadly diseases. They will not be mourned or buried but will be like dung lying on the ground. They will perish by sword and famine, and their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals.’” God says, “Jeremiah, you don’t want to subject anyone to that kind of suffering, so don’t get married and don’t have any children.” That’s a difficult command for us to swallow, but I think it illustrates what Solomon is talking about here in these verses. Even though the miscarried baby comes to no purpose, in a sense, and departs in obscurity, or in darkness; even though nobody knows the child’s name; even though the baby never sees the sun or knows anything about the world; and even if the man lives two thousand years (which is obviously impossible) and fathers one hundred children—he has all three ingredients that lead to a happy life according to the ancients—a long life, wealth, and many children—despite all of these things, the stillborn baby is better. Because he has something that rich man doesn’t have—rest. Both individuals end up in the grave; the baby just gets there with a lot less heartache. Are there any questions or comments about vv. 4-6?
TRANSITION: So we’ve seen so far your inability to enjoy life/your inability in regards to satisfaction. Now let’s take a look at your inability to fix life/your inability in regards to work. #4: “You can’t change the way things are.”
Your inability to fix life/your inability in regards to work
You can’t change the way things are
The first part of v. 10 can literally be translated, “That which is has already been named.” What does that mean? In Bible times, names were more than just verbal tags. They had to do with an individual’s character. In that culture, the act of naming something or someone was undertaken by a superior and was seen as establishing the character of the person or thing named. During the creation week, God named the Day, the Night, the Heaven, the Earth, and the Seas. Then, He gave Adam the responsibility of naming all the animals. So when Solomon says, “That which is has already been named,” he seems to be saying that the nature of things as they are has already been established. Throughout this book, Solomon has been noting various facts about life, and now he is reminding us that those settled characteristics are not open to change. The way things are, is the way things are. A significant example of this is the settled nature of mankind. “It is known that he is Adam”—a man, mortal. We talked about that earlier. So you can’t change the way things are.
TRANSITION: But not only can you not change the way things are; you also can’t argue with the One who made them that way (v. 10)!
You can’t argue with the One who made them that way.
In the NKJV, the word “Him” in the phrase, “contend with Him” is capitalized. Now that’s just the opinion of the translator—there is not distinction between uppercase and lowercase in the Hebrew; but still, I think that’s the right way to take this. The phrase, “Him who is mightier” is primarily a reference to God. Can you think of anyone who wanted to argue with God? (Job) How did that go for him? God said to Job in Job 38:2, “Who is this who darkens counsel By words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man: I will question you, and you shall answer Me.” In other words, “I’m the one who asks the questions around here! You’re adam, a man; it’s not your right to argue.” Isaiah 45:9 says, “Woe to him who strives with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ Or shall your handiwork say, ‘He has no hands’?” In other words, when you try to argue with God, you’re like a lump of clay saying to the Potter, “Your work look like someone with no hands made it!” That’s inappropriate; and it’s not going to fly! And of course, Paul picks up this same idea in Romans 9, when he says, “Indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” So you can try to argue with God, but it’s not going to work. He’s the potter, you’re the clay, and He’s the One who gets to decide. The sooner you realize that, the better.
TRANSITION: But not only are you unable to argue with God; you’re also unable to say anything at all to fix the situation.
What you have to say isn’t helping (v. 11).
The Hebrew word translated “things” in v. 11 can also be translated, “words”; and I think that’s the better translation here in context. Here’s how the ESV puts it: “The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man?” Sometimes, we think we can fix things by talking about them. And so we read, we discuss, we write books, we debate, we air our own opinions—and in some contexts, those things are helpful! But when it comes to the vanity of life, words are of no use to fix that problem. Remember, we can fix individual issues, but no sooner have those issues been resolved than other issues pop up. So we feel like we’re playing “Whack a Mole” and spinning our wheels. Because the reality is that no amount words, is going to fix everything! And in fact, the more we talk, the more we waste time, and the more we become entangled with the vanities of life. Our words don’t help; they actually just make things worse.
TRANSITION: So basically, Solomon is saying, “This world is messed up, and you can’t fix it.” If that sounds like a pessimistic statement, we’ll talk more about that in a minute. But first, we need to see that we’re limited in terms of what we know.
You don’t know what to do (v. 12)
At first, this might seem like an odd question. But you know what the answer is, right? Who knows what it is good for man in life? (God) Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?” The Bible tells us what is good! It tells us how to live!
But apart from the Bible, we would be absolutely lost! And that’s the main point here. In that book on leadership that I referenced earlier, Mohler says that the central virtue of leadership is knowing what to do. The problem is that apart from God, you don’t know what to do!
TRANSITION: But maybe somebody else does! Maybe you can use a lifeline and phone a friend. Not so fast. Not only are you clueless in and of yourself, but so is everyone else!
No one can tell you the future.
The ability to look ahead and foresee the consequences of a particular action is invaluable. And yet, the best we as human beings can do is predict the future based on what has happened in the past. We can’t actually say for sure what is going to happen.
You say, “Pastor Kris, this has been a miserable lesson. I didn’t really come to church today to hear about how bad I am!” (or maybe you did). But you say, “Are there any positives in all of this?” I’d like to answer that question by asking you some questions based on our main points. Point # 9 was “No one call tell you the future.” That’s true of everyone except whom? (God) Isaiah 46:9-10 says, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure….” No one knows the future but God. Point #8 was, “You don’t know what to do.” Ah, but who does? God! And He’s given us His Word. Point #7 was that your words are unable to fix the problems in this world, but whose words brought the world into existence? Whose words give life to the dead? Who will defeat the armies of the Antichrist with a word? God! Jesus! Point #5 was that you can’t change the way things are, but the Bible says that one day, God will fold up the earth like a garment, and it will be changed. One day, the creation itself will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God, Romans 8 says. Point #4 was that apart from God, you are unable to find satisfaction for your deepest longings, but with Him, as Jesus said, you will have no more thirst. Point #3 was that you can’t avoid death, but there is Someone who conquered death, and with Him, you can have eternal life! Points #1-2 were that you can’t control your ability to enjoy God’s gifts or stop tragedy from striking, but God in control of all of things, and you can trust Him!
I love the way that one commentator puts it. He says that in Ecclesiastes 6, Solomon slams shut every door except one—and that’s the door of faith. He shows us that we are completely insufficient to fix life’s problems in order to prepare us for his one primary command: “fear God.” Trust Him by faith. Walk with Him in humility. Fear Him.