Ecclesiastes 6:1-12

Submitted by admin on Thu, 2010-12-30 18:19.

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Koheleth “saw” or observed an “evil,” a calamity, or a misfortune “under the sun,” that is, on earth, with particular reference to the realm of human affairs. He described this “evil” as “great [rav] upon man.” (6:1)

The Hebrew term rav denotes “great,” “large,” “numerous,” “much,” or “abundant,” and the corresponding Greek word polýs (LXX) basically has the same significance. Because the Hebrew expression is broad in meaning, translations vary in their renderings. The word may be understood to signify great in degree and, therefore, something that “weighs heavily upon” those who must bear it or, by extension, something that is “grave” or “serious.” This term could also mean great in number and, hence, something that is “common” or “frequent.” Modern translations generally show preference for a rendering that emphasizes degree, and this appears to preserve the thought of the Hebrew “great upon” better than a rendering that focuses on number. Additionally, what follows reveals that the situation involves a man who possesses riches, wealth, and honor. This has always been descriptive of the few, not the majority, and so would not usually be regarded as a frequent or common occurrence. (6:1)

Having mentioned the “evil” he had “seen,” Koheleth proceeded to provide the details, “a man to whom God has given wealth and treasures and honor, so that he is not lacking in anything for his soul in all that he desires.” The word “man” in this case is not ’adhám (“earthling”), but ’ish, which at times signifies a man of high rank or station. This would fit the context, as the man has wealth, treasures, and honor. As in Ecclesiastes 5:18(19), the use of the Hebrew terms for “wealth” and “treasures” may serve to show that the man owns much property and a great variety of possessions. The Hebrew word for “honor” is kavóhdh, which in a literal sense means “heaviness” and, figuratively, describes one who amounts to something or who enjoys a position of distinction and is accorded respect. By virtue of divine permission, the man has an abundance and is also esteemed. That is why Koheleth spoke of the wealth, treasures, and honor as having been “given” by God. (6:2)

From the standpoint of wealth and position, the man has everything. He lacks nothing for “his soul,” or “for himself,” that he might desire or crave. Expressed in modern idiom, he has or is able to obtain anything that money can buy. (6:2)

Nevertheless, his situation is tragic or lamentable. Koheleth continued, “God does not give him power to eat of it, but a foreign man eats it — this [is] vanity, and it is an evil affliction.” (6:2)

The Hebrew word for “to eat” apparently is used in a figurative sense and signifies “to enjoy.” By saying that God does not enable him to “eat of” or “enjoy” what he has, Koheleth appears to suggest that the man’s situation is the result of circumstances beyond his control. Factors that would prevent enjoyment could be depression, serious illness, crippling disability, or heavy demands imposed by wealth and position — anything that could rob one of the time or the capacity to engage in enjoyable, refreshing activities. (6:2)

Adding to the man’s pain is the fact that a stranger or foreigner, someone not even distantly related, is able to enjoy what he cannot. The case of Abraham (Abram), while childless, illustrates one aspect of this situation. When assured by Almighty God that his reward would be very great, Abraham replied, “What can you give me, seeing that I am childless? The heir to my household is Eliezer of Damascus. You have given me no children, and so my heir must be a slave born in my house.” (Genesis 15:2, 3, REB) Circumstances other than childlessness that could lead to a foreigner’s getting the benefit include loss through war, robbery, fraud, or unjust seizure by official decree. (1 Kings 21:7-16) In view of the focus on children in the next verse, Koheleth may have had childlessness in mind as the circumstance that would allow a foreigner to derive the enjoyment. (6:2)

When there is no enjoyment from wealth and position, when a foreigner benefits instead, life seems vain, empty, meaningless, or purposeless. As Koheleth expressed it, “this is vanity, and it is an evil affliction.” The Hebrew expression for “evil affliction,” “disease,” or “illness” evidently should be understood in a general sense as something very painful. This significance is conveyed by the renderings of many translations — “grievous ill” (NRSV), “dire affliction” (REB), “dire plague” (NAB), and “grievous suffering” (NJB). (6:2)

Whereas a man’s not having an heir was regarded as very distressing, Koheleth next indicated that having children and attaining to advanced age (both of which were regarded as blessings from God) do not necessarily result in a purposeful life. Koheleth observed, “If a man fathers a hundred [children], and lives many years, and the days of his years are many, and his soul is not satisfied with the good, and also [there] is no burial for him; I say, a stillborn [is] better off than he.” (6:3)

Although a polygamous man might have been able to father a hundred children by his many wives (Judges 8:30; 10:4; 12:9, 14), the expression “hundred” apparently is here not to be taken literally. It simply is a large round number that denotes “many.” (6:3)

The repetitious words “lives many years” and “days of his years are many” seem to suggest that, though the life is long, one day after another passes slowly, dragging on day in and day out, year after year. This would contrast with the man described earlier, the one who does not “much remember the days of his life” (5:19[20]), and so may also be understood as implying that the days are filled with distress, worries, and problems. The man’s life is filled with unpleasant days year after year. (6:3) His situation is like that described by Job, “Why is life given to those who find it so bitter? They long for death but it does not come, they seek it more eagerly than hidden treasure.” (Job 3:20, 21, REB)

As in the previous verse, “soul” means the man himself. He is not filled or satisfied with “the good,” evidently what Koheleth had earlier identified as “the good” — the enjoyment of the fruit from labor. (5:17[18]) Since the man experiences no real joy, his long life means that he faces more problems, frustrations, and difficulties over a longer period of time than does one whose life span is short. (6:3)

The reference to “no burial” may mean that, even when the long life of misery ends, the man is deprived of a proper or honorable burial. Thus to die unlamented was regarded as a terrible calamity. (Jeremiah 9:22; 14:16; 25:32, 33) The comment about “no burial” may also signify that, on account of his wretched life, he longs for the grave and, still, his miserable existence continues. (6:3; compare Job 3:22.)

Viewed from the standpoint of an empty life filled with distress and hardship, a stillborn baby, as Koheleth noted, is better off than the man whom he described. Unlike such a man, the stillborn escapes all misery. (6:3)

Without life, even a fully formed baby can do absolutely nothing. Lifelessness or nonexistence is the utmost “emptiness,” “vanity,” or “nothingness.” As Koheleth said regarding the stillborn baby, “in vanity it enters.” Since there is no independent existence for it outside the womb, the stillborn’s entrance into the world is purposeless or futile. (6:4)

Not even for a moment does a stillborn baby experience the light of life. As it enters the world outside the womb in a state of nonexistence, so it immediately departs in the darkness of that lifeless condition. The stillborn baby has no opportunity to make a name or reputation for itself. So it really has no name. As Koheleth expressed it, “and in darkness its name is covered.” The stillborn’s name is forever hidden in the pitch blackness of its nonexistence. (6:4)

Life on earth is dependent upon the sun. Without its light and warmth, humankind could not survive. Thus, “to see” the sun means to be alive, to experience life in the earthly realm beneath that celestial orb. The stillborn baby, however, “has not seen the sun.” Its eyes never caught even a brief glimpse of this orb. At no time did the stillborn feel the sun’s warmth. The reference to “not knowing” could either mean that the stillborn baby had not known the sun or had not known anything. Both aspects would be true, for the stillborn had no sensation of anything associated with earthly life. It therefore also escaped the wearisome, exhausting or painful toil of the living, and the sufferings, hardships, and frustrations that are an integral part of human existence. Accordingly, Koheleth concluded that, unlike the long-lived father of many children who derived no enjoyment from his labor, the stillborn does have “rest.” (6:5)

An extraordinarily long life — usually viewed as a blessing — would not improve the man’s lot. Koheleth, when referring to a man who might live “one thousand years twice over” and did not “see good,” raised the question, “Do not all go to one place?” Without “seeing good,” without experiencing enjoyment from the fruit of his labor, a man whose life was more than twice as long as that of Methuselah (Genesis 5:27) would not be better off than the stillborn. His long life would prove to be one of prolonged misery and agony. At death, he would go to the same place as all others do — the realm of the dead. Unlike the stillborn which arrives in that realm without a moment’s delay, the long-lived man eventually gets there in a far more painful manner. He must first endure a wretched life of exhausting and wearisome toil. Only in the grave would he finally have the complete rest that had eluded him throughout his long, unpleasant life. (6:6) “There the wicked cease from troubling, there the weary are at rest. There the captives are at ease together, and hear not the voice of the slave driver. Small and great are there the same, and the servant is free from his master.” (Job 3:17-19, NAB)

To continue living, a person must eat and drink. Humans must work to be able to obtain the food and the liquids that get into the body through the mouth. Koheleth observed, “All man’s labor [is] for his mouth.” (6:7) A similar thought is expressed in Proverbs 16:26 (NAB), “The laborer’s appetite labors for him, for his mouth urges him on.”

Whereas much of life is spent in laboring to be able to procure necessities, complete satisfaction is elusive, unattainable. Koheleth continued, “and yet the soul is not filled.” The “soul” evidently is here to be understood as meaning the “desire” that is bound up with the “soul” or the person. Because everything in the realm of human affairs is transitory, a feeling of emptiness exists. One’s being able to enjoy food and drink is not enough to satisfy deeper desires and longings for a meaningful or purposeful life. The harsh reality that death reduces everything to nothingness makes life appear pointless, unfulfilled. (6:7)

The fact that the “soul,” desire, or appetite is not filled or satisfied prompted Koheleth’s questions, “What gain [is there] to a wise man over the fool? And what [gain is there] to a poor man from knowing how to conduct himself before the living?” Because the wise man possesses sound judgment, he is able to restrain himself respecting longings that are unattainable through proper means. The suppression of his desires does not remove them. They continue to be troubling and disturbing. The fool, the individual with a moral defect, lives for the moment. He recklessly disregards what is right, giving in to his desires and doing whatever it takes to satisfy them. The fool does not think about possible and probable hurtful consequences from his course. Although the wise one and the fool may deal differently with their desires, they are alike in having them. Wisdom does not liberate one from troubling desires. So, in this respect, the wise one has no advantage over the fool. (6:8)

Similarly, the poor man does not really gain or have an advantage from knowing how to keep up appearances in society. He may be able to hide his nagging desires so that others cannot see how deeply disturbed and frustrated he is because of having no hope of fulfilling his longings. The ability to conceal, however, does nothing to eradicate the desires. (6:8)

Since unfulfilled longings greatly diminish the enjoyment of life, Koheleth observed, “Better [is] the sight of the eyes than the wandering about of the soul.” To “see” with one’s eyes signifies possession. It is indeed better to be content with what one has than for one to look longingly and to seek restlessly for something else to bring satisfaction. The “soul” (as in verse 7) denotes the “appetite” or “desire” that fills and occupies the soul or the person. Unfulfilled and unattainable, the desire that occupies the soul is like a wanderer who is unable to find a home. The person plagued with such a nagging desire has no peace. His desire prompts fruitless longing and struggling for the unreachable. As Koheleth said, such “wandering about of the soul” is “also vanity and striving after wind.” It is “vain,” empty, meaningless, futile, or purposeless, never coming to a successful conclusion. The effort expended in longing for the unattainable and seeking the unreachable is a striving after wind, after unsubstantial nothingness. (6:9; see the Notes section.)

To be content with what is seen or possessed, a person needs to appreciate that many things are unchangeable. There must be a willingness to accept the inevitable. Koheleth continued, “Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is and that he cannot contend with one mightier than he.” (6:10)

In a general sense, the name by which something is called identifies it as to its nature or purpose. Whatever exists in the present, therefore, is exactly what the name given to it in the past identifies it as being. God named the first man Adam (’adhám, apparently denoting an “earthling,” a mortal, one formed from the reddish soil). Regardless of what a man may do or attain, he cannot be anything more than implied in the name of the first human. Accordingly, “what man is has been known” from the very start of human existence. He is an “earthling,” a mere mortal. As such, he is in no position to contend with one who is mightier than he. There is no such thing as his being able to present some argument or make some bargain to keep himself alive indefinitely, proving himself to be greater than his identifying name — “earthling” or mortal.

The one “stronger” than man may be the Creator. (6:10) Koheleth’s thought would then be similar to that found in Psalm 49:7-9 (NIV), “No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him — the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough — that he should live on forever and not see decay.”

There is a possibility, though, that the original-language expression for “one mightier” does not apply to God. The adjective rendered “mightier” or “stronger” (taqqíph) is found only here and five other times in Aramaic portions of Ezra (4:20) and Daniel (2:40, 42; 4:3; 7:7), where the reference is not to the Most High. Later in Ecclesiastes (8:8) apparent mention is made of the relentless war that death wages against the living, providing a basis for concluding that death is being called the one who is mightier. The rendering of the Tanakh would allow for this meaning. “As for man, he cannot contend with what is stronger than he.” (6:10)

Koheleth’s next words apparently are to be linked with man’s inability to contend with one who is mightier. His comments may be understood to mean that the more “words” (plural of davár) are spoken, the more “vanities” result. Then comes the question, “What benefit [is this] to a man?” A mere mortal is powerless in altering anything that God may do or allow and, in an attempt to change the inevitable, is in no position to contend with the one who is mightier (either the Most High or death). (6:11; for another possible meaning, see the Notes section.)

The more words spoken, the greater would be the vanity or futility of it. In case the one who is mightier denotes the Almighty, man simply must submit to whatever may occur by divine action or permission. There would be no advantage, gain, or benefit for a man to say anything. Man’s position in any contention with God is expressed by Job (9:3, 4, NRSV), “If one wished to contend with him, one could not answer him once in a thousand. He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength — who has resisted him, and succeeded?” (6:11)

If the reference is to death, this likewise would emphasize man’s powerlessness, and the futility of uttering a single word. No skillful argumentation, no word of protest, would change anything. Death would claim its victim. (6:11)

Evidently since there is no way for one to know or to alter what will take place in the future by God’s allowance, Koheleth raised the question, “For who knows what [is] good for man in life, [during] the number of the days of his vain life?” The uncertainties of life make it impossible for one to be certain about what would be “good,” or the best thing, for one to pursue in life. Humans cannot be sure that certain objectives can be achieved and, even if they can, that satisfaction will result. What may initially appear desirable may, in the end, turn out to be disappointing. Just how many days a person may have during “his vain life” is also unknown. So, time spent on failed endeavors can never be regained and redirected for a beneficial purpose. Even notable accomplishments are not lasting. All the wearying, exhausting, and painful labor that is expended will eventually come to nothing. The shortness of life, coupled with the transitoriness of all accomplishments, makes it “vain,” empty, futile, or meaningless. (6:12)

The brevity of man’s life is further stressed by the words, “he spends them like a shadow.” A shadow is ever changing and then finally disappears. Likewise, the days of life are soon spent and come to a swift end. (6:12)

No one can tell a man “what will be after him under the sun” (on earth in the realm of human affairs). The words “after him” could denote after the man’s death. He could not then be informed about what was happening to the products of his toil that may have passed into the hands of children, grandchildren, and others. It is also possible that “after him” simply denotes “after him in time,” without reference to his death. In that case, Koheleth’s question could serve to emphasize the impossibility of determining “what is good for man.” Since the future is unpredictable, no one knows which ventures will be successful and which ones will fail. (6:12)


The Hebrew word rúach and its Greek equivalent pneúma can mean either “wind” or “spirit.” Instead of “striving after wind” or a similar expression (in verse 9), a number of translations read “vexation of spirit” (KJV, Young). In its rendering of the Septuagint, a new English translation (NETS) uses the expression “preference of spirit,” whereas The Orthodox Study Bible says “choice of one’s spirit.” A German translation of the Septuagint (Septuaginta Deutsch), however, reads “a striving after wind” (ein Streben nach Wind). The Greek term rendered “preference,” “choice,” or “striving” is proaíresis and can also signify “commitment.” Persons who have committed themselves to, chosen, or preferred something that is mere wind could be spoken of as striving after wind.

In verse 11, the plural of the Hebrew term davár can mean “words,” “matters,” “affairs,” or “things.” A number of translators have chosen the meaning “things.” “Since there are many things that increase vanity, How is man the better?” (NKJV) “Seeing there are things in abundance which make vanity abound, what profit hath man?” (Rotherham) “For there are many things multiplying vanity; what advantage [is] to man?” (Young)

If “things” is the intended meaning, the words of Koheleth could relate to the reality that human life is filled with many uncertainties. Nothing is enduring. Everything is subject to change. A person may gain fame and fortune, or he may be disgraced and lose everything. Unforeseen occurrences can increase the “vanity,” emptiness, or purposelessness of life by reducing what is built up to nothingness. So there would be no advantage, profit, or gain from anything that individuals may have or acquire. Sooner or later, they must part with everything.