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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator

Ecclesiastes 6

Verses 3-4

Ecclesiastes 6:3-4

If a man live many years, so that the days of his years be many, and his soul be not filled with good, I say that an untimely birth is better than he.

The sorrows of old age

The wise Preacher supposes a man to have seen the utmost possible limit of human existence. And then he estimates the worth of the whole of this proud and protracted life, if it has passed without the acquisition of that object which the Word of God proposes for the attainment of man.

What is the great object of human life? It is that “the soul may be filled with good.” It was to gain this that each one has been placed in his period of earthly education. It is for this alone that Divine forbearance lengthens out to grey hairs the life of man who has not yet secured it, to give to men the full opportunity to be wise, and to think of the things which belong to their peace. How, then, shall this soul be filled with good? Is there anything within the limits of the gifts of this world, which can thus fill it? When he can sow grace in the furrows of his field, or fill his barns with glory, when he can plough up heaven from” the earth, and extract God from perishing creatures, the world may fill his soul with good and furnish an adequate exchange for its loss. But who does not see the utter disproportion between the desires of the soul and all the fruits which earth produces? The sinner is descending where his earthly glory cannot descend after him, and where, for a soul unredeemed, all redemption ceaseth for ever.

The sorrows of the man who has lived long without attaining this great object of life, whose soul is not “filled with good.”

1. He has passed through a life, a reflection upon which gives him no comfort. Every hour rises up as the accuser of a guilty conscience. The remembrance of youth is a remembrance of convictions smothered, the Holy Spirit resisted, and a Saviour’s love despised. The thoughts upon manhood present the awful picture of the self-immolation of the sinner’s soul to the enemy of God and man upon the altar of worldly gain. All the resolutions and plans which were made for life have gone by unfulfilled. Every opportunity has been lost. Every mercy has been abused. Oh, what sorrow for the aged sinner does such a life produce!

2. He is pressing onward to a near eternity, for which he has no preparation. How truly is that old age which has no such provision for eternity, and to which “hope comes not, that comes to all” besides, an evil day, in which man finds no pleasure!

3. He has experienced the vanity of the world, and has nothing which can supply its place. They are thus left without a single source of comfort; and while they are struggling thus with unconquerable despair, they feel that the man who has not an interest in the Saviour, and a sure acceptance in His redemption, has no hope, though he has gained, when God bakes away his soul. (S. H. Tyng, D. D.)

Sorrows of old age without religion

Even with all the comforts and hopes of Christianity, old age is not a desirable condition of being. We naturally desire to live; we shrink instinctively from death--and yet many an aged one longs to lay down the oppressive burden of life before the appointed time. If this be true, with all the consolations and supports which true religion affords, how unutterably sad and sorrowful must old age be to the aged pilgrim who has no home in the skies to look forward to--no God and Saviour to light up the dark valley and welcome him to an eternity of bliss! But why are the sorrows of an irreligious old age so many and poignant?

1. A portion of them is natural and common alike to all. Nature will decay; the system wear out. The organs of the body and the faculties of the mind become impaired. We are out of touch with the life around us. Our children, our friends, our neighbours, are gone from us. We are solitary, desolate.

2. The retrospect of a godless life from the period of old age must necessarily be a painful one, at least one destitute of rational comfort and satisfaction. The day of activity, of passion, of recklessness, has gone by. With old age come reflection, introspection, seriousness, and the monitions of a coming judgment. O the bitterness of the retrospect of a life devoted to the world--a life without God and without a serious purpose!

3. If such the bitterness of the retrospect, what shall we say of the anticipation? Very few repent in old age. What a prospect! A misspent probation, a hopeless death, a lost eternity! (J. M. Sherwood, D. D.)

Verse 6

Ecclesiastes 6:6

Do not all go to one place?

All men’s place

Do you know what the wise man means when he offers this question to your consideration, “Do not all go to one place?” The thing, no doubt, here spoken of is death; the place here spoken of, no doubt, is the grave. An amazing consideration! part of the first sentence that the great and holy God ever denounced against fallen man, to one and all, “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” But in another case we may venture to contradict even Solomon: for ii we consider the words of our text in another view, all do not go to one place; it is true, all are buried in the grave either of earth or water, but then after death comes judgment; death gives the decisive, the separating blow. Suppose, then, in our enlarging on the text, we should confine the word “all” to the unregenerate; these, indeed, die when they will, all go to one place. O awful thought I and yet it is n certain truth, all on earth must go to one place; if we live like devils here, we must go to, and be with them, when we die, for ever! A blessed minister of Christ, in Scotland, told me a story he knew for truth, of a dreadful answer a poor creature gave on her deathbed. This person when dying was asked by a minister, “Where do you hope to go when you die?” Says she, “I do not care where I go.” “What,” says he, ‘“do not you care whether you go to heaven or hell? No,” says she; “I do not care whither I go.” “But,” says he, “if you were put to your choice, where would you go?” Says she, “To hell.” To that he replied, “Are you mad--will you go to hell?” “Yes,” says she, “I will.” “Why so?” says he. “Why,” says she, “all my relations are there.” But I have another place to tell you of, and another sort of people to speak of, who shall all, as well as those I have spoken of, go to one place; blessed is it to live in God. When death closes the eyes, an actual separation is made, and instead of hearing “Depart, ye cursed,” they will hear, “Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” If you ask where that place is? I answer, to heaven; if you ask to whom they shall go? I answer, to the spirits of just men made perfect; and, what will be best of all, to Jesus Christ, the heavenly inheritance. If we were not to go to Him, what would heaven be? If we were not to see Him, what would glory be? (G. Whitefield, M. A.)

Verses 10-12

Ecclesiastes 6:10-12

That which hath been is named already, and it is known that it is man.

Solomon’s dark ideas of life

He says in effect--

Fate is fixed. “That which hath been.” Everything is fate. Most men feel this at times. Do you ever say, I must obey my destiny? It is no use contending with fate. Mine m an unlucky star. There is some truth in this idea. Christ taught a preordination in all events. But His fate was moral, not mechanical; not a blind destiny, but a wise decree.

Man is feeble. “Neither may he contend with Him that is mightier than he.” And Christless humanity is a very feeble thing. His bodily frame is feeble. An insect’s sting has been known to consign it to dissolution. Man’s intellect is feeble; still the human intellect can do something great in connection with Christ.

Joy is futile (Ecclesiastes 6:11). What the better is man for all he has? What the better for his wealth, his reputation, his philosophy?

Life is fleeting. It “is a vain life,” and all its days are a shadow. A shadow is the nearest thing to anility. A cloud may catch the eye, and its changing views and figures may give amusement for a few minutes--a shadow, who notes it or records it?

The future is enigmatic. “Who can tell what shall be after him under the sun?” (J. Hamilton, D. D.)

Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the better?--

How is the adherent vanity of every condition most effectually abated by serious godliness

Every condition is clogged with vanity.

1. God never made the world, nor any condition in it, to be a place of rest and satisfaction. And since sin hath so far marred the beauty of the universe, there is a judicial vanity upon the whole creation (Romans 8:20).

2. We know but very little of the true nature of things, nor of ourselves, nor of our temptations, nor of our interests (Job 8:9).

3. That little that we do know of anything, we come so droppingly to the knowledge of it that, ere we can lay things together, so as to compare them, and separate them, and sort them, and compound them, so as if to make a judgment, either things themselves or our circumstances are altered, or upon alteration.

All things on this side religion, whereby men endeavour to get above vanity, increase it. The multiplication of cyphers amounts to less than nothing. Can anything of the world supply the soul with grace, satisfy the desires in so much as any one thing, or fill any one faculty of the soul to satisfaction? Can the world fill the mind with heavenly light, or the will with heavenly love, or the conscience with that “peace that passeth understanding”?

It is only serious godliness that can any whit really abate the vanity that cleaves to every condition. To hate sin and love holiness; to live a life of faith, in dependence upon God and resignation to Him; to live above the transports of hopes and fears about things temporal; in short, to be blessings to the world while we live, and to be blessed with God when we die: this is the business and fruit of serious godliness; and this alone is that which at present can effectually abate the vexatious vanities which every condition swarms with.

1. Serious godliness will make your present condition good for you, be it what it will.

2. Serious godliness will make every change of condition good for us, though the change shock both nature and grace.

3. Serious godliness will make relative afflictions (which of all outward afflictions are the most grievous) good for us; and nothing else can do it.

4. Serious godliness will make horror of conscience and Divine desertions good for us.

5. Serious godliness will force something good out of the evil of sin. The rising ground of a dunghill may help to raise thy flight towards heaven.

6. Though to your own apprehension you have no faith at all to believe any one word of all this, nor any skill at all to know what to do; yet serious godliness will make all this good to thee.


1. Set your hears upon serious godliness.

2. Learn to be more than barely contented with your present condition.

3. Make conscience of both sorts of duties,--religious and worldly; and allot fit and distinct times for heavenly and worldly business. But with this difference, let religion mix itself with worldly business, and spare not; but let not the world break in upon religion, lest it spoil it.

4. Whatever you do for the bettering of your condition, follow God, but do not go before Him. (S. Annesley, LL. D.)

Verse 12

Ecclesiastes 6:12

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?

The known and the unknown

Our life which we do know.

1. We do know something about our present life, and what we do know about it should humble us in the presence Of God, for, first, it is very short. Solomon here says nothing about the “years” of our life, he only counts it by “days.” The older a man grows, the shorter his life seems to be; and it was because Jacob was so old, and had seen so many days, that he called them “few and evil.” Children and youths appear to have lived a long while; men seem to have lived only a short time; older men an even shorter period; but the oldest man reckons his days the shortest of all. The calculations about time are very singular, for length seems to turn to shortness. Well, then, since I am such an ephemeral creature, the insect of an hour, an aphis creeping on the bay leaf of existence, how dare I think of contending with Thee, my God, who wast long before the mountains were brought forth, and who wilt be when mountains are gone for ever?

2. Our life, besides being very short, is singularly uncertain. Do not let us forget this fact, for if the thought be unpleasant to us, it is because there is something wrong within. The child of God, when he is right with his Father, forgets the uncertainty, and remembers that all things are certain in the eternal purpose of God, and that all changes are wisely ordained, and therefore the uncertainty causes him no distress. Yet should this truth make us live with much caution, and tenderness, and watchfulness.

3. Yet again, our life is not only short and uncertain, but, while we have it, it is singularly unsubstantial. Many things which we gain for ourselves with much care are very unsatisfying. Have you never heard the rich man confess that it is so? Have you never heard the scholar, who has won many degrees, and stood at the head of his profession, declare that the more he knew the less he felt that he knew? “Verily, every man at his best state is altogether vanity.” Now, look ye; it ill becomes us, whose lives are so uncertain, and whose lives at the best are so unsubstantial, to begin to contend with Him in whose hand our breath is, and whose are all our ways. It were better far for us at once to submit ourselves to Him, and to learn that in Him we live, and move, and have our being. It were well for us also to give the Lord all this poor life, be it what it may, to be used in His service, and to be spent for His glory.

What is best for us is not known to us. Suppose we ask the question, “Which is the better for a man in this life--wealth or poverty?”--what will be the answer? Wealth--the eye is dazzled with it; it brings many comforts and luxuries; yet there is a passage of Scripture as true now as when the Master first uttered it, “How hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God.” Who knows, then, that wealth is a good thing? Do any choose poverty? There is as much to be said concerning the evils and the disadvantages of poverty as there is to be said on the other side. He that lacks bread is often tempted to envy, and to many other sins which he might not have committed if he had not been in that state. It is not for you or for me to be able to balance the answer to this question, “Who knoweth what is good for man in this life,--wealth or poverty?” There was a wise man who said, “Give me neither poverty nor riches,” and he seemed to have hit the golden mean. Now, take another question,--that of health or sickness: “What is good for man in this life?” It seems at first that it must be good for a man to enjoy the best of health, and the most sprightly vigour, does it not? We all wish for it, and we are allowed to do so. Nobody thinks that sickness and disease can really be in themselves a blessing. Yet have I seen some gentle, holy, devout, matured spirits that could not have come from any garden but that which was walled around with disease, and grief, and woe. The graver’s best art has been spent upon them, the graving tool has been very sharp, and the hammer has smitten them very terribly. They had never been such marvels of the Master’s grace if it had not been for their sorrows. Yet I doubt not that there are other spirits who have been brought nearer to God in their gladsomeness, saints who, for very gratitude to God for their overflowing delights, and the mercies of this life, and the health of their bodies, have been drawn and bound more closely to their God. So is it with regard to publicity or obscurity. There are some persons whose graces are best seen in public, and they minister for the good of others; they have to be thankful that God has placed them in a position where they are seen, for it has led them to watchfulness and carefulness. The vows of God have been upon them, and they have been helped in their way to heaven by the very responsibilities of their public position. But, sometimes, I have wished that I might be a violet, that I might shed my perfume in some lowly spot hidden by leaves. Yet I do not doubt that obscurity has its ills as well, and that many a man would fain escape from it. “Who knoweth what is good for man in this life?” All depends upon your being where God puts you. Any man is safe if he is where God would have him to be, and if he trembles for his own safety, and clings to the Strong for strength; but those who think that their position gives them immunity from danger are in peril already from their fancied security. I believe that the same question might be asked concerning Christian experience: “Who knoweth what is good for man in this life?” It must be good to be full of high joys,--to rise to the loftiest heights of holiness and blessedness, must it not? Yes, yes, but it may be good to go down into the very deeps, and to know the plague of your own heart, and to feel the scourging of your Father’s rod. “Who knoweth what is good for man in this life?” A mixed experience may be better than one uniform level either of height or depth.

The text mentions another form of our ignorance, and it is this, what shall be after us is not known to us: “for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?”

1. The question may mean, “Who can tell a man what he will yet go through in this life?” He is now well-to-do, he is prosperous, he is healthy; but who can tell him what is yet to come to him? No one; therefore, let not the rich man glory in the wealth which may take to itself wings and fly away. Let not the man who is honoured by his fellows reckon that the applause of men is any more substantial than a vapour.

2. But I think that the text has its main bearing on what will happen after death. That we must leave in the Lord’s hands; it is not for us to know what will be done when we are called away from the earth. (C. H. Spurgeon.)

The secret of a happy life

The question of the text has been repeated many a time since the days of Solomon, and various replies have been given by teachers who have claimed to be the leaders of men. The Stoic has replied,--“The chief good for man in this life is to take everything just as it comes, and maintain stolid indifference,--be like a cold, unmoved statue amid the storms or amid the sunshine of life.” The Epicure replies,--“Eat and drink and be merry; indulge your senses, and banish all thought and care about the future.” The Miser replies,--“Get all you can, and give as little as you can; heap up riches, and treasure up the choicest thing earth can yield--gold.” The Ascetic says,--“Treat the world with disdain and scorn, retreat from it, and trample upon all its associations and joys.” Let us answer the question of the text in the light of the New Testament, and we shall see that it is good for man in this life--

To experience reconciliation to God. The prodigal could not be happy while away from his father, while at variance with him; and man cannot be happy away from God, while at variance with Him. Enmity in the heart is a disturber of joy; and for a man to have enmity in his heart against God cannot be good, cannot conduce to joy. It is good for a man to surrender himself, and be on the Lord’s side; then, instead of discord, there will be harmony in his heart; instead of conflict, there will be peace in his mind.

To exercise resignation to God. A man cannot have a happy life who denies God, or who harbours doubt about His goodness and wisdom, whose will runs counter to the Divine will. This is the mind that was in Christ; He surrendered to the will of His Father constantly and entirely.

To expect restitution from God. We shall only find rest and joy by believing in the final triumph of goodness, in the ultimate reconciliation of all the apparent discrepancies of the now. These things comprise the good for man in this life, and will make human existence not only tolerable, but happy. (F. W. Brown.)

On our ignorance of good and evil in this life

Let us inquire what account can be given of our present ignorance, respecting what is good for us in this life; whether nothing be left, but only to wander in uncertainty amidst this darkness, and to lament it as the sad consequence of our fallen state; or whether such instructions may not be derived from it, as give ground for acknowledging that by this, as by all its other appointments, the wisdom of Providence brings real good out of seeming evil.

Illustrate the doctrine of the text. When we review the course of human affairs, one of the first objects which everywhere attracts our notice is the mistaken judgment of men concerning their own interest. The sore evil which Solomon long ago remarked with respect to riches, of their being kept by the owners thereof to their hurt, takes place equally with respect to dominion and power, and all the splendid objects and high stations of life. We every day behold men climbing, by painful steps, to that dangerous height which, in the end, renders their fall more severe, and their ruin more conspicuous. But it is not to high stations that the doctrine of the text is limited. Around us, we everywhere behold a busy multitude. Restless and uneasy in their present situation, they are incessantly employed in accomplishing a change of it; and as soon as their wish is fulfilled, we discern, by their behaviour, that they are as dissatisfied as they were before. Where they expected to have found a paradise, they find a desert. The man of business pines for leisure. The leisure for which he had longed proves an irksome gloom; and, through want of employment, he languishes, sickens, and dies. The man of retirement fancies no state to be so happy as that of active life. But he has not engaged long in the tumults and contests of the world, until he finds cause to look back with regret on the calm hours of his former privacy and retreat. Beauty, wit, eloquence, and fame, are eagerly desired by persons in every rank of life. They are the parent’s fondest wish for his child; the ambition of the young, and the admiration of the old. And yet in what numberless instances have they proved, to those who possessed them, no other than shining snares; seductions to vice, instigations to folly, and, in the end, sources of misery?

The fact then being undoubtedly certain that it is common for men to be deceived in their prospects of happiness, let us next inquire into the causes of that deception. Let us attend to those peculiar circumstances in our state, which render us such incompetent judges of future good or evil in this life.

1. We are not sufficiently acquainted with ourselves to foresee our future feelings. Our minds, like our bodies, undergo great alteration, from the situations into which they are thrown, and the progressive stages of life through which they pass. Hence, concerning any condition which is yet untried, we conjecture with much uncertainty.

2. But next, supposing our knowledge of ourselves sufficient to direct us in the choice of happiness, yet still we are liable to err, from our ignorance of the connections which subsist between our own condition and that of others.

3. Farther, as we are ignorant of the events which will arise from the combination of our circumstances with those of others, so we are equally ignorant of the influence which the present transactions of our life may have upon those which are future.

4. Supposing every other incapacity to be removed, our ignorance of the dangers to which our spiritual state is exposed would disqualify us for judging soundly concerning our true happiness. Can you esteem him prosperous who is raised to a situation which flatters his passions, but which corrupts his principles, disorders his temper, and, finally, oversets his virtue? In the ardour of pursuit, how little are these effects foreseen! And yet how often are they accomplished by a change of condition! Latent corruptions are called forth; seeds of guilt are quickened into life; a growth of crimes arises, which, had it not been for the fatal culture of prosperity, would never have seen the light.

Instead of only lamenting this ignorance, let us consider how it ought to be improved; what duties it suggests, and what wise ends it was intended by Providence to promote.

1. Let this doctrine teach us to proceed with caution and circumspection through a world where evil so frequently lurks under the form of good.

2. Let our ignorance of what is good or evil correct anxiety about worldly success.

3. Let our ignorance of good and evil determine us to follow Providence, and to resign ourselves to God. Study to acquire an interest in the Divine favour; and you may safely surrender yourselves to the Divine administration.

4. Let our ignorance of what is good for us in this life prevent our taking any unlawful step in order to compass our most favourite designs.

5. Let our imperfect knowledge of what is good or evil attach us the more to those few things concerning which there can be no doubt of their being truly good.

6. Let our ignorance of what is good or evil here below lead our thoughts and desires to a better world. (H. Blair, D. D.)

Object of human life

What is the use, the meaning of my life? For what purpose was it given? To what end shall it aim? Is life an instrument ministering to some solid purpose, or a fleeting phantasmagoria, that leaves no lasting result? Such, substantially, was the inquiry of the Preacher three thousand years ago, and which demands an answer still from every new generation and living man. Have any of you been willing to go on, without settling, or even starting, this great query; willing to sail in this frail boat of our mortality down the stream of years, without knowing whither, or desiring any port? If you reflect, you cannot proceed in this ignorant and accidental way. “Commune with your own heart,” and you will not be satisfied till some object rise broad as the horizon before you, embracing all lesser occupations and pursuits in its glorious compass, and enabling you, by clear and continual reference, to shape every daily trifle and detail, otherwise worthless or perhaps unmeaning, towards its accomplishment. To this single point I would hold your attention, to decide whether such an object be yours; for in the want of it lies, if anywhere, man’s great fault, fatal error, unpardonable sin. The principle may be put into various forms of statement. You may recur to the old Preacher’s language, or you may say with the modern catechism, that the “chief end of man is to glorify God, and enjoy Him for ever.” You may speak in the phrase, rightly understood, of the philosophy of our time, “Self-culture”: or in the phrase, profoundly interpreted of the philanthropy of our time, “Reform.” All these mean essentially the same thing, requiring in the analysis the same elements. This solution of our problem carries us into no fanatical austerity, does not abolish the minor callings and aims of activity, of study, or traffic, or mechanical skill, in this world. It but leavens them with a higher spirit, and turns them to a nobler influence. It polarizes the wandering and aimless affairs of time and sense, makes all our dealings not only serve temporary purposes, but, in their effects on our hearts, point to permanent results. It puts a new question into our mouth, which the changeling slave of temporal expedients and little ends does not think to ask,--a question that rightly comes up with every transaction we engage in, every conversation we hold, every plan we form, every measure we execute,--Are we promoting here in this very thing, however great or trifling it may look, the object of life? If not promoting, but defeating this object, it bide us beware and abstain. It does not shut us up in a narrow place of hermit stiffness and seclusion, but goes with us over the broad ocean of worldly business, only asking that it may stand a Divine pilot at the helm. It lays no bar upon pleasure, tasted with an innocent moderation, but it converts pleasure itself from the foe into the friend and servant, as it well may be the true friend and faithful servant, of virtue. It does not condemn the acquisition of wealth as a means which may accomplish the very ends of religion; but it inquires with a searching whisper at the very confessional of man’s spirit, and which, beside God, only the man himself can hear, whether the heart is given to wealth, delighting in it, with supreme habitual desire; or, on the contrary, as a steward regarding it as God’s loan, as a worshipper proffering it for his sacrifice; while, on the wings of its chief and ardent aspiration, itself ever rises to him as the Infinite Good, takes the breath of His Spirit in return for the incense of its praise, and, from the elevation of its prayer, brings down the counsels of His majestic law upon its mortal conduct. (G A. Bartol.)


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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ecclesiastes 6". The Biblical Illustrator. 1905-1909. New York.