Ecclesiastes 6 • The Futilities of Life


This is not going to address all the humdrum, generic shortfalls of our few years on this planet, but rather touches on the same cycle which not only every person, but every generation has had to deal with since the beginning of time. In the realm of Christian literature this is particularly interesting because every generation lauds pastors, theologians and authors whom they believe to have preached something relevant in a way never before seen, only to find that the very same wisdom was taught by many generations previous. It’s just that we keep falling victim to the notion that our time is “different”, no one has faced what we currently face, and “times have changed”. This is the true futility of life, to engage in the deception that we are not having to learn exactly what Adam and Eve first learned, along with every generation in between.

Read verses 1-6

Q: According to the world’s standards of happiness, what are the three main objectives being addressed?

A: Wealth (v.1-2), long life (v.6) and family (v.3).

Q: What is deemed futile in this particular scenario of wealth?

A: The allusion to “a foreigner enjoys them” is an ancient description of having no bloodline heirs to receive one’s inheritance or heritage. This is a scenario where worldly possessions brings neither happiness to the possessor who then passes them on to someone who is nothing to him. His wealth has failed to bring satisfaction on two fronts.

Q: How does this scenario of “a hundred children” extend the teaching even further?

A: This is a scenario at the opposite extreme of someone who although is blessed in the numbers of his family does not find satisfaction because of a failure in those relationships. Having what the previous lacked is still no guarantee of happiness.

Q: What does it mean, “he does not even have a proper burial”?

A: This appears to be an idiom which conveys the thought that there is no honor among the family members upon his death as they are fighting for his possessions. We might describe this as, “They’re picking the carcass clean” to describe family members as vultures fighting for their share of an inheritance.

Q: What is deemed futile about a long life?

A: Inevitably, “all go to one place”. The end result is eternity regardless of the number of mortal years experienced prior.

Q: What does the middle reference to a miscarriage have to do with this discussion?

A: It is a poetic way of saying that it would be better to have no experience of life than to have lived out these scenarios. Normally we think of anything as being better than death, but it is being argued that is not always the case.

Application: The world’s ideals for happiness don’t just fall short for this life, but especially for the next.

Read verses 7-9

Q: How has the focus of the discussion changed?

A: It has gone from the issue of wealth to the issue of wisdom.

Observation: This section revolves around a series of three proverbs with two common keywords.

Q: What is the meaning of the first proverb in v.7?

A: One’s needs may be a real and sincere motive—“his mouth”, but the lusts of the flesh drive it to the point of excess because it—“his appetite”, is never satisfied.

Q: How does the second proverb in v.8 seem to exacerbate the problem?

A: Once someone gives in to their appetite, wisdom provides no advantage. The desires of the flesh are allowed to trump the conscience.

Application: While the pursuit of wealth is certainly one of the most visible signs of a flesh-controlled life, an equally enthusiastic pursuit of any worldly thing is just as destructive and ultimately spiritually futile.

Q: What is the meaning of the third proverb in v.9?

A: This is a poetic way of saying it is better to be satisfied with what one has—that is, “what the eyes see” as something already in one’s possession that can be seen, touched and felt, rather than to become obsessed to obtain more—“what the soul desires”.

Q: What are the contrasting keywords which tie these extremes together?

A: “Satisfied” and “desires”.

Application: The world’s ideals for this life’s pursuits are never obtainable because instead of arriving at a level of satisfaction, they simply induce a lust for even more.

Read verses 10-12

Observation: The English words in this section rendered as “man” are from the Hebrew word “adam” (Strong’s #120), and at times may allude to the original person known by the proper name of the same Hebrew word “Adam”.

Q: To the ancient eyes who originally wrote and read this text, why might v.10 immediately remind them of the Garden of Eden and the Fall of man?

A: Because in Genesis 2-3 Adam was called upon to name things (“whatever exists has already been named”), and the encounter with the tree of knowledge of good and evil brought about his present spiritual state (“it is known what man is”). His encounter with the serpent shows “he cannot dispute with him who is stronger than he is”.

Point: An entire sermon could be derived from this summary of man’s spiritual condition that there is nothing new, man is fallen, and he is unable to resist.

Q: How is the original Adam mirrored in the life of the Preacher as exposited in Ecclesiastes?

A: Like Adam, he sought an encyclopedic mastery of knowledge (Ecc. 1:13) and even experimented firsthand in good and evil (Ecc. 1:17), only to discover his own mortality and weakness before God.

Q: What does v.11 mean?

A: It is an idiomatic expression of the useless attempt to add to man’s knowledge—“many words”, which cannot alter the fundamental issues.

Point: In other words, technological innovation does not contribute to addressing the core spiritual issues each person of every generation is faced with. This is why even today, the most poverty-stricken person in the Third World has the exact, same spiritual issues as the most wealthy and technology rich Westerner.

Q: How might v.12 again reprise the story of Adam to ancient readers?

A: The question, “who knows what is good for ‘adam’” reminds of the time prior to the Fall when so much was characterized as appearing good, but turned out otherwise. And though Adam is recorded as having lived nearly a thousand years, they were still spent “like a shadow” for which no one could tell him that which would follow.

Point: Previously many things which seemed good have been presented such as health, wealth and family, which turned out to be equally capable of being misused for the worst possible results or for no benefit at all. A lesson is being provided that what Adam experienced was not unique to him alone, but emblematic of what every person subsequently experiences.

Application: Every generation’s journey toward self-discovery has been the very same since the very beginning. There is truly nothing new under the sun.

Overall Application

In many respects, Ecclesiastes is a treatise addressing the issue of whether things which are not automatically evil in and of themselves have been allowed to either be misused or misapplied because of one’s spiritual condition. The question of the quality of one’s faith in Christ has a visible component in whether it extends to our family, finances, career and even daily navigation of life .