Expositor's Bible Commentary
There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men:THIRD SECTION
The Quest Of The Chief Good In Wealth, And In The Golden Mean
Ecclesiastes 6:1-12; Ecclesiastes 7:1-29, and Ecclesiastes 8:1-15IN the foregoing Section Coheleth has shown that the Chief Good is not to be found in that Devotion to the affairs of Business which was, and still is, characteristic of the Hebrew race. This devotion is commonly inspired either by the desire to amass great wealth, for the sake of the status, influence, and means of lavish enjoyment it is assumed to confer; or by the more modest desire to secure a competence, to stand in that golden mean of comfort which is darkened by no harassing fears of future penury or need. By a logical sequence of thought, therefore, he advances from his discussion on Devotion to Business, to consider the leading motives by which it is inspired. The questions he now asks and answers are, in effect,
(1) Will Wealth confer the good, the tranquil, and enduring satisfaction which men seek? And if not,
(2) Will that moderate provision for the present and for the future to which the more prudent restrict their aim?
The Quest in Wealth.
Ecclesiastes 6:1-12His discussion of the first of these questions, although very matterful, is comparatively brief; in part, perhaps, because in the previous Section he has already dwelt on many of the drawbacks which accompany wealth; and still more, probably, because, while there are few men in any age to whom great wealth is possible, there would be unusually few in the company of poor men for whose instruction he wrote. Brief and simple as the discussion is, however, we shall misapprehend it unless we bear in mind that Coheleth is arguing, not against wealth, but against mistaking wealth for the Chief Good.
The Man who makes Riches his Chief Good is haunted by Fears and Perplexities: Ecclesiastes 6:1-6Let us observe, then, that throughout this sixth chapter the Preacher is dealing with the lover of riches, not with the rich man; that he is speaking, not against wealth, but against mistaking wealth for the Chief Good. The man who trusts in riches is placed before us; and, that we may see him at his best, he has the riches in which he trusts. God has given him "his good things," given him them to the full. He lacks nothing that he desireth-nothing at least that wealth can command. Yet, because he does not accept his abundance as the gift of God, and hold the Giver better than the gift, he cannot enjoy it. But how do we know that he has suffered his riches to take an undue place in his regard? We know it by this sure token-that he cannot leave God to take care of them, and of him. He frets about them, and about what will become of them when he is gone. He has no son, perchance, to inherit them, no child, only some "stranger" whom he has adopted (Ecclesiastes 6:2)-and almost all childless Orientals adopt strangers to this day, as we have found, to our cost, in India. A profound horror at the thought of being dead to name and fame and use through lack of heirs was, and is, very prevalent in the East. Even faithful Abraham, when God had promised him the supreme good, broke out with the remonstrance, "What canst Thou give me when I am going off childless, and have no heir but my body servant, Eliezer of Damascus?" Because this feeling lay close to the Oriental heart, the Preacher is at some pains to show what a "vanity" it is. He argues: "Even if you should beget a hundred children, instead of being childless; even though you should live a thousand years, and the grave did not wait for you instead of lying close before you: yet, so long as you were not content to leave your riches in the hands of God, you would fret and perplex yourself with fears. An abortion would be better off than you, although it cometh in nothingness and goeth in darkness; for it would know a rest denied to you, and sink without apprehension into the ‘place’ from which all your apprehensions cannot save you (Ecclesiastes 6:3-6). Foolish man! it is not because you lack an heir that you are perturbed in spirit. If you had one, you would find some other cause for care; you would be none the less fretted and perturbed; for you would still be thinking of your riches rather than of the God who gave them, and still dread the moment in which you must part with them, in order to return to Him."
The Quest in Wealth. Ecclesiastes 6:1-12He depicts a man who trusts in riches, but honestly believes that wealth is the chief Good, or, at lowest, the way to it. This man has laboured diligently and dexterously to acquire affluence, and he has acquired it. Like the rich man of the Parable, he has much goods, and barns that grow fuller as they grow bigger. "God has given him riches and wealth and abundance, so that his soul"-not having learned how to look for anything higher-"lacks nothing of all that it desireth."
The Man who makes Riches his Chief Good is haunted by Fears and Perplexities. Ecclesiastes 6:1-6He has reached his aim, then, acquired what he holds to be good. Can he not be content with it? No; for though he bids his soul make merry and be glad, it obstinately refuses to obey. It is darkened with perplexities, haunted by vague longings, fretted and stung with perpetual care. Now that he has his riches, he goes in dread lest he should lose them: he is unable to decide how he may best employ them, or how to dispose of them when he must leave them behind him. God has given them to him; but he is not at all sure that God will show an equal wisdom in giving them to some one else when he is gone. And so the poor rich man sits steeped in wealth up to his chin-up to his chin, but not up to his lips, for he has no "power to enjoy" it. Burdened with jealous care, he grudges that others should share what he cannot enjoy, grudges above all that, when he is dead, another should possess what has been of so little comfort to him. "If thou art rich," says Shakespeare,
"thou art poor: For like an ass whose back with ingots bows, Thou bearest thy heavy riches but a journey, And Death unloads thee."
But our rich man is not only like an ass; he is even more stupid: for the ass would not have his back bent even with golden ingots if he could help it, and is only too thankful when the burden is lifted from his back; while the rich man not only will plod on beneath his heavy load, but, in his dread of being unladen at his journey’s end, imposes on himself a burden heavier than all his ingots, and will bear that as well as his gold. He creeps along beneath his double load, and brays quite pitifully if you so much as put out a hand to ease him.
For God has put Eternity into his Heart; Ecclesiastes 6:7-10From this plain practical argument Coheleth passes to an argument of more philosophic reach. "All the labour of this man is for his mouth": that is to say, his wealth, with all that it commands, appeals only to sense and appetite; it feeds "the lust of the eye, or the lust of the flesh, or the pride of life, and therefore his soul cannot be satisfied therewith" (Ecclesiastes 6:7). That craves a higher nutriment, a more enduring good. God has put eternity into it: and how can that which is immortal be contented with the lucky haps and comfortable conditions of time? Unless some immortal provision be made for the immortal spirit, it will pine, and protest, and crave, till all power of happily enjoying outward good be lost. Nay, if the spirit in man be craving and unfed, whatever his outward conditions, or his faculty for enjoying them, he cannot be at rest. The wise man may be able to extract from the gains of time a pleasure denied to the fool; and the poor man, his penury preventing him from indulging passion and appetite to satiety, may have a keener enjoyment of them than the magnate who has tried them to the full and has grown weary of them. In a certain sense, as compared the one with the other, the poor man may have an "advantage" over the rich, and the wise man over the fool; for "it is better to enjoy the good we have than to crave a good beyond our reach"; and this much the wise man, or even the poor man, may achieve. Yet, after all, what advantage have they? The thirst of the soul is still unslaked; no sensual or sensuous enjoyment can satisfy that. All human action and enjoyment is under law to God. No one is so wise, or so strong, as to contend successfully against Him or his ordinances. And it is He who has given men an immortal nature, with cravings that wander through eternity; it is He who has ordained that they shall know no rest until they rest in Him (Ecclesiastes 6:8-10). And because God has put Eternity into his heart, He cannot be content with Temporal Good. Ecclesiastes 6:7-10But the Hebrew Preacher is not content to paint a picture of the Rich Man and his perplexities-a picture as true to the life now as it was then. He also points out how it is that the lover of riches came to be the man he is, and why he can never lay hold on the supreme Good. "All the labour of this man is for his mouth," for the senses and whatever gratifies sense; and therefore, however prosperous he may be, "yet his soul cannot be satisfied." For the soul is not fed by that which feeds the senses. God has "put eternity" into it. It craves an eternal sustenance. It cannot rest till it gains access to "the living water," and "the meat which endureth," and the good "wine of the kingdom." A beast-if indeed beasts have no souls, which I neither deny nor admit-may be content if only he be placed in comfortable outward conditions: but a man, simply because he is a man, must have a wholesome and happy inward life before he can be content. His hunger and thirst after righteousness must be satisfied. He must know that, when flesh and heart fail him, he will be received into an eternal habitation. He must have a treasure which the moth cannot corrupt, nor the thief filch from him. We cannot escape our nature any more than we can jump off our shadow; and our very nature cries out for an immortal good. Hence it is that the rich man who trusts in his riches, and not in the God who gave them to him, carries within him a hungry craving soul. Hence it is that all who trust in riches, and hold them to be the Chief Good, are restless and unsatisfied. For, as the Preacher reminds us, it is very true both that the rich man may not be a fool, and that the poor man may trust in the riches he has not won. By virtue of his wisdom, the wise rich man may so vary and combine the good things of this life as to win from them a gratification denied to the sot whose sordid heart is set on gold; and the poor man, because he has so few of the enjoyments which wealth can buy, may snatch at the few that come his way with the violent delight which has violent ends. Both may "enjoy the good they have" rather than "crave a good beyond their (present) reach": but if they mistake that good for the Supreme Good. neither their poverty nor their wisdom will save them from the misery of a fatal mistake. For they too have souls, are souls; and the soul is not to be satisfied with that which goes in at the mouth. Wise or foolish, rich or poor, whosoever trusts in riches is either like the ass whose back is bent with a weight of gold, or he is worse than the ass, and longs to take a burden on his back of which only Death can unlade him.
And much that he gains only feeds Vanity; Ecclesiastes 6:11Look once more at your means and possessions. Multiply them as you will. Still there are many reasons why if you seek your chief good in them, they should prove vanity and breed vexation of spirit. One is, that beyond a certain point you can neither use nor enjoy them. They add to your pomp. They enable you to fill a larger place in the world’s eye. They swell and magnify the vain show in which you walk. But, after all, they add to your discomfort rather than your comfort. You have so much the more to manage, and look after, and take care of: but you yourself, instead of being better off than you were, have only taken a heavier task on your hands. And what advantage is there in that? Much that he gains only Vanity. Ecclesiastes 6:11It is not of much use, perhaps, to argue with one so besotted; but lest we should slip into his degraded estate, the Preacher points out for our instruction the source of his disquiet, and shows why it is impossible in the very nature of things that he should know content. Among other sources of disquiet he notes these three.
(1) That "there are many things which increase vanity": that is to say many of the acquisitions of the rich man only augment his outward pomp and state. Beyond a certain point he cannot possibly enjoy the good things he possesses; he cannot, for instance, live in all his costly mansions at once, nor eat and drink all the sumptuous fare set on his table, nor carry his whole wardrobe on his back. He is hampered with superfluities which breed care, but yield him no comfort. And, as he grudges that others should enjoy them, all this abundance, all that goes beyond his personal gratification, so far from being an "advantage" to him, is only a burden and a torment.
(2) And other source of disquiet is, that no man, not even he, "can tell what is good for man in life," what will be really helpful and pleasant to him.
Neither can he tell what it will be good for him to have, Ecclesiastes 6:12Another reason is, that it is hard, so hard as to be impossible, for you to know "what it is good" for you to have. That on which you have set your heart may prove to be an evil rather than a good when at last you get it. The fair fruit, so pleasant and desirable to the eye that, to possess it, you were content to labour and deny yourself for years, may turn to an apple of Sodom in your mouth, and yield you, in place of sweet pulp and juice, only the bitter ashes of disappointment.
Nor foresee what will become of his Gains. Ecclesiastes 6:12And a third reason is, that the more you acquire the more you must dispose of when you are called away from this life: and who can tell what shall be after him? How are you so to dispose of your gains as to be sure that they will do good and not harm, and carry comfort to the hearts of those whom you love, and not breed envy, alienation, and strife?
These are the Preacher’s arguments against an undue love of riches, against making them so dear a good that we can neither enjoy them while we have them, nor trust them to the disposal of God when we must leave them behind us. Are they not sound arguments? Should we be saddened by them, or comforted? We can only be saddened by them if we love wealth, or long for it, with an inordinate desire. If we can trust in God to give us all that it will be really good for us to have in return for our honest toil, the arguments of the Preacher are full of comfort and hope for us, whether we be rich or whether we be poor. He cannot tell what it will be good for him to have: Ecclesiastes 6:12Many things which attract desire pall upon the taste. And as "the day of our vain life is brief," gone "like a shadow," he may flit away before he has had a chance of using much that he has laboriously acquired.
Nor foresee what will become of his Gains: Ecclesiastes 6:12(3) And a third source of disquiet is, that the more a man has the more he must leave: and this is a fact which cuts him two ways, with a keen double edge. For the more he has the less he likes leaving it; and the more he has the more is he puzzled how to leave it. He cannot tell "what shall be after him," and so he makes one will today and another tomorrow, and very likely dies intestate after all.
Is not that a true picture, a picture true to life? Bulwer Lytton tells us how one of our wealthiest peers once complained to him that he was never so happy and well-served as when he was a bachelor in chambers; that his splendid mansion was a dreary solitude to him, and the long train of domestics his masters rather than his servants. And more than once he depicts, as in "The Caxtons," a man of immense fortune and estate as so occupied in learning and discharging the heavy duties, of property, so tied and hampered by the thought of what was expected of him, as to fret under a constant weight of care and to lose all the sweet uses of life. And have not we ourselves known men who have grown more penurious as they have grown richer, men unable to decide what it would be really good or even pleasant for them to do, more and more anxious as to how they should devise their abundance? "I am a poor rich man, burdened with money; but I have nothing else," was the saying of a notorious millionaire, who died while he was signing a cheque for £10,000, some twenty years ago.