Today, we are going to discuss a little batch of poetry in the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes as a book stands to reason out where one can find satisfaction in life, declaring time and time again that all is vanity. We ultimately discover that the whole duty of man is to fear God and obey His commandments.
While that is the main lesson of Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiastes also has a secondary theme that is developed throughout the book, especially the early portions of the book - everyone should enjoy the work that they are called to do and be content in the station that the Lord has placed them in. Just to list one example, this theme is referenced in Ecclesiastes 3:11-13,
"He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God."
Like I said, this theme of enjoying the labor that is placed before us is seeded throughout a large part of the book; however, I would not like to bite off more than I could chew. Thus, today we will focus in on the theme only as it develops in Ecclesiastes 6:3-12,
"If a man beget an hundred children, and live many years, so that the days of his years be many, and his soul be not filled with good, and also that he have no burial; I say, that an untimely birth is better than he. For he cometh in with vanity, and departeth in darkness, and his name shall be covered with darkness. Moreover he hath not seen the sun, nor known any thing: this hath more rest than the other. Yea, though he live a thousand years twice told, yet hath he seen no good: do not all go to one place? All the labour of man is for his mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled. For what hath the wise more than the fool? what hath the poor, that knoweth to walk before the living? Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this is also vanity and vexation of spirit. That which hath been is named already, and it is known that it is man: neither may he contend with him that is mightier than he. Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the better? For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?"
Solomon starts his discussion here with a nice parable. A man lives two thousand years, and has a hundred children. He is the pinnacle of what man would desire in his life. Yet Solomon argues, that if "his soul be not filled with good," that he would be better off to have been still-born. That is quite harsh, there, King Solomon.
But how could this wonderful life not be filled with good? We've just discussed that he has everything that man desires in his life, so that nothing is lacking! But notice that this is not what Solomon has said.
Solomon never denies that this man's life is filled with good. On the contrary, his entire parable is centered on that fact. Solomon wonders whether his soul is actually quite filled with good. The consensus on what Solomon means on this (examining the context, I would have to agree) is that Solomon was discussing whether this man was enjoying his good, whether he was truly joyful about his circumstances.
Solomon is very gently reminding us that our joy is independent of our circumstances. If our circumstances are great, we may not be any more joyful than if our circumstances are depressing. The thing about circumstances in life is that they just don't satisfy our joy the way that God can.
It is of course much easier for us all to say that we believe this than to actually live our life that way. There can be a disconnect between what we profess to believe and how we actually live. As Orson Scott Card writes in his science fiction novel, Shadow of the Hegemon,
"I don't know a soul who doesn't maintain two separate doctrines - the ones that they believe that they believe; and the ones that they actually try to live by. I'm simply one of the rare ones who knows the difference."
Of course, there is no easy way to bridge this gap, and going too far into that topic would branch me away from the thesis I am developing, so just acknowledge that knowing this is not the same thing as living it. (Also note that my use of this quotation does not endorse all of the psychology included within that particular chapter.)
So back to our main point, Solomon shows us the meaning of his parable by reminding us that many parts of life increase vanity. Thus, finding a way to better our own circumstances should not be our focus.
After all, with so much that just doesn't satisfy, how are we to know what is best for us? Now don't get me wrong. As a Libertarian, I still strongly believe that I know what's best for me more than anyone else on earth, and that you know what's best for you more than anyone else on earth. But as a Christian, I know that the one person who truly knows what's best for me is God.
Indeed God is the answer to Solomon's rhetorical question, "For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow?" You better believe the Lord does. Thus, we all should be glad that God hath "named already" that which is to happen unto all men. Why would we "contend with Him that is mightier" than us?
That is why our goal should be focused on being content with where God puts us. As Ecclesiastes 6:9 states,
"Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this is also vanity and vexation of spirit."