In chapter six of Ecclesiastes, Solomon invites us to examine what people normally pursue with their lives. As an old man, he can testify that the rat race does not have a winner. There are no gold medals or trophies for those who pursue temporary things, and it is all temporary.
1 There is something wrong that I have noticed under the sun, and it is such a burden to humanity: 2 God gives a man wealth, property, and the respect of others, so much that he does not lack a thing that he wants, but God does not enable that man to enjoy the gifts, but a stranger ends up enjoying them. This shows how impermanent life is; it is a terrible wrong.
The collector asks his students to imagine a contest in which both teams continue to train and compete, but the competitions never complete so that no one is ever declared the winner. As such, there is never a victory party. We call that competition the rat race. Solomon said that life is like that. A person might strive for progress, success and satisfaction, but too often he is dead long before anyone ever realizes how successful he was. There is something fundamentally wrong with that.
Because of Christ, we now know that no life is ever wasted. There will be an eternal victory party when our Lord returns. We need not fear the impermanence that Solomon saw as a terrible wrong. Because that impermanence is actually temporary. God has intervened in the person of Jesus Christ, and through his atoning sacrifice on the cross.
3 If a man has a hundred children and lives many years, so that the years of his age are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s enjoyable things, nor is he properly buried, I conclude that a stillborn child would be better off than he. 4 Because it comes into this temporary world and goes out in darkness, and its name is covered by darkness. 5 Furthermore, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest sooner than he does. 6 –even if he could have lived a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no enjoyable thing. Does not everyone go to that one place?
The one place where everyone goes is Sheol – Hades – the grave. It does not matter how long you live, or how much you do, or who you leave behind. It is an appointment we all will keep. A person who accomplishes much but never considers that reality is a worse failure that a stillborn infant. The world is full of such people today. They are deeply engaged in the rat race, never stopping to think of that one place. Solomon had the wisdom to re-evaluate his life, and he urges us all to do so. We need to stop the race long enough to focus on the gospel, because our present rat race lives are not as significant as the glorious ones to come. It really does not matter how much of an impact we are making if our lives are impermanent, and they all are.
7 Anything a man works for gets eaten, yet his appetite remains unsatisfied. 8 Because what advantage does the wise man have over the stupid one? And what does the poor man get for knowing how to conduct himself before others? 9 Better is what you can now see over the target of the wandering appetite. This reality also shows life’s impermanence. It is like striving after wind.
Greed, lust and gluttony occur when our natural appetites are allowed to wander into extremes. Wisdom looks at the forbidden targets and trains the body to walk away – to focus on enjoying what you can now see over against the empty promise of what greed, lust and gluttony wants. Wisdom reminds me that today’s pay check is a gift, my beautiful wife is a gift, my daily bread is a gift. Wisdom does not teach me to remain unsatisfied. It teaches me to find satisfaction in the right gifts. The rat race promises something better later. A relationship with God allows you to enjoy life now, and gives you something that even death cannot take away. It satisfies the spirit.
10 Whatever has come to be was already decided, and it is known what a man will be, and that he is not able to argue that point with the one stronger than he is. 11 The more words he uses, the emptier they are, so how does that benefit a man? 12 Because who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his temporary life, which he passes like a shadow? Because who under the sun can tell man what will happen after him?
The shadow analogy as a description for life is very insightful. First, it speaks to the brevity of our lives. They are temporary. They come and go with the sun we are all under. Secondly, the shadow analogy is appropriate because a shadow does not have an existence independent of the sun. We can argue free will all we want, but each of us will eventually succumb to the decisions made by our sovereign God. He is the sun who gives temporary life to our shadows. He will be here long after we are gone. Everything under that sun – all that people spend their lives working for in the rat race – is transient. Seeking a relationship with God makes sense because he is the only one who is not trapped in a temporary existence like we are. Escape the rat race. Seek God and his eternal kingdom.