Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
Like a squash ball bouncing around the court, the Teacher comes at the topics of wealth and work from many directions! In today's passage he describes a situation mostly similar to that in Ecclesiastes 5:18-20, but in one crucial respect different (6:2): What if God gives you wealth, possessions, and even honour (not mentioned in 5:18-20), so that you really lack nothing-but does not enable you to enjoy these things? Then, so far from being a ″gift of God″ (5:19), this state of affairs is futile and ″a grievous evil″ (6:2).
It is pointless to toil and to have no one to inherit the fruits of one's toil (4:8). But now the Teacher asks (6:3-6): what if someone has many children and has a long (maybe fantastically long) life, but does not enjoy his wealth and finally dies without a burial?8 He is no better than a stillborn child: he might as well never have lived. He ends up as dead as the stillborn, after all (v. 6): ″Do not all go to the same place?″
But what is the Teacher implying here? Does he mean that God toys with humans, blessing some and taunting others by giving them something and then snatching it back?
Frustratingly, the Teacher does not give details. We would like to know more about the situation in today's passage: What was the problem, exactly? Did the people he is describing make money, but go astray in one of the ways the Teacher has previously described (e.g., 5:10-17)? Did they gain wealth in unjust ways (Proverbs 16:8)? Did they put their trust in money instead of God (18:10-11)?
Perhaps, but the Teacher doesn't say. Maybe his real point here is: There are many situations where we don't have all the facts. We may think that we know what we are talking about, even (perhaps) that we are justified in saying that God treats some people unfairly. But perhaps we are talking out of ignorance; if we are inclined to blame God for our troubles and those of others, maybe we should think again.
One of the questions which has loomed increasingly large in the first half of Ecclesiastes is: what is God doing in the world? There have been a number of references to God and how we should conduct ourselves before God (Ecclesiastes 1:13; 2:24-26; 3:11-18; 5:1-7; 5:18-20). But the Teacher has yet directly to address the issue: how are we to make sense of what happens in God's world, and particularly of God's dealings with humanity? That will come in the second half of the book, where (appropriately) one of the Teacher's main themes is the limits of human understanding.
8This could mean that the person dies too poor to be properly buried, or that he dies alone, perhaps unloved by his surviving family. Burial rites were important in Israel (1 Samuel 31:11-13; 2 Kings 23:30; Jeremiah 16:4).
Review the various pictures the Teacher has painted in Ecclesiastes 4:1-6:6 of work and wealth, and how work and wealth may be a source of unhappiness or of blessing. What do you think the Teacher's main point is in all of this?
According to the interpretation of 6:1-6 above, one of the points the Teacher is making (indirectly and by implication, but nonetheless very clearly) is: there are situations where we simply don't know what is going on, and where we should refrain from passing judgment. If this is the Teacher's point here, what is your response to it?