The sixth chapter of Ecclesiastes also ties together the strands concerning wealth and blessing which had been raised in various forms throughout the preceding chapters. It also brings the previous points together with heightened vividness. There is even a slightly different rhetorical effect in that the passage does not ask questions but rather lays out some definite conclusions. Yet when reading the passages on wealth together, it is instructive to read them in tandem with the story of Solomon’s life. Even those who reject Solomonic authorship still admit that book uses Solomon’s life as a background for at least the first two chapters.
I contend that the parallel between Solomon’s history and the commentary of Ecclesiastes persists even beyond Ecclesiastes 2:11 (where many commentators believe the parallel falls off).
The Correspondence Between the History of Solomon and Ecclesiastes
First, we begin with a brief recount of Solomon’s wealth:
11 God answered Solomon, “Because this was in your heart, and you have not asked possessions, wealth, honor, or the life of those who hate you, and have not even asked long life, but have asked wisdom and knowledge for yourself that you may govern my people over whom I have made you king 12 wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like.”
2 Chronicles 1:11-12. This astounding wealth is described in Ecclesiastes 2:3-10: money, land, buildings, pleasures, human beings (it is a recapitulation of Eden, but it also makes a perverse parallel of the parody of Eden in Revelation 18):
3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine-my heart still guiding me with wisdom-and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.
4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself.
5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees.
6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.
7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.
8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man.
9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.
10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.
However, looking back on it, Qoheleth (at the very least speaking as Solomon) can offer only a triple condemnation and despair over his life:
Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 2:11. The extraordinary wealth and bounty ending in a bitter taste well parallels the life of Solomon. First Solomon did acquire an astounding hoard of humanity and wealth:
1 Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women 2 from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love 3 He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart 4 For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father.
1 Kings 11:1-4. Yet, for all his wealth and women, he lost the blessing of God:
9 And the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice 10 and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods. But he did not keep what the LORD commanded.
1 Kings 11:1-4, 9-10. Thus the blessing became a curse in Solomon’s mouth. He had the stuff, he it seems he lost the ability to enjoy it. When reading the story of Solomon, it seems the trouble with the wealth only came at the very end, when God finally pronounced judgment upon Solomon.
Using Ecclesiastes to Understand Solomon
However, when we read Ecclesiastes as partial commentary on the history of Solomon (especially if one takes Solomon as the author, Qoheleth), one can conclude that the property did not bring contentment to Solomon.
This point becomes even tighter when we come to Ecclesiastes 5 & 6. The thoroughly negative valuation of Ecclesiastes 2:11 seems like the despair and disgust did not come until after he come to the end of his life. But Ecclesiastes 5 & 6 adds something more: it states that the “blessing” was really no blessing unless God provides an additional element: the blessing to enjoy the abundance.
Ecclesiastes 5 states the proverb that one cannot be satisfied with money:
10 He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. 11 When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Ecclesiastes 5:10–11 (ESV)
When one considers both the absurdly large household of Solomon, you think Of course! The wealth of gold and goods, of slaves and wives (human property)could not possibly be enjoyed in any sort of intensive manner. Solomon could see the harem of a 1,000 women, together with their servants and attendants, and think I must feed them all. In fact, Ecclesiastes 5:10-11 is precisely the sort of conclusion one would expect from a man in Solomon’s position.
Verse 12 casts an almost envious eye on the men who built the palaces and public buildings:
Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep. Ecclesiastes 5:12 (ESV)
One must note that Solomon is not describing abject poverty – the man does have labour and is not starving. Yet, he does put his finger on the important aspect: the little bit the labourer possesses has come with the blessing of God – and thus sleep.
Ecclesiastes 5:13-17 then sets out the fear which comes from possessing property:
13 There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. 15 As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. 16 This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? 17 Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.
Earlier in the letter, Solomon had raised the opposite circumstance: What if I keep my property and then leave it to a fool:
18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. Ecclesiastes 2:18–21 (ESV)
This, of course, draws another direct line between Qoheleth and Solomon: Qoheleth fears his wealth will be left to a fool. Solomon did leave it to the fool, Rehoboam – you managed to loss 10 of the 12 tribes in a single afternoon.
This is contrasted with the one who has received a blessing from God:
18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil-this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart. Ecclesiastes 5:18-20.
Yet, even at this point, one might think that Solomon did not sour on wealth and privilege until the very end of his life.
The Blessing Solomon Lacked
However, Ecclesiastes 6 puts a dagger in that theory: Ecclesiastes 6:1-3 shows that the acquisition of tremendous property and extraordinary comforts provide not real comfort with the added blessing of God to transform the external into a true subjective blessing. However, it is best to read this as not just a speculation but an experience. To see the pain of Ecclesiastes 6:1-3, we must not abstract it from an actual life.
The relationship between Ecclesiastes 6:1-3 is not merely at a general leval. When look at the precise language used to describe Solomon’s wealth as recorded in 2 Chronicles 9:22-23 and compares it to the man recorded in Ecclesiastes 6:1-3, it seems that we may be looking at the same person:
22 Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. 23 And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.
2 Chronicles 9:22-23. Now consider the man of Ecclesiastes 6:1-3
1 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind 2 a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil 3 If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.
Consider this closely: First, both Solomon and the man described in 6:1-3 have received profound material “blessing” from God. God says to Solomon, “I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like.” 2 Chronicles 1:12. The lists almost match. Moreover, as just noted, it also matches the list of 2 Chronicles 9:22-23.
Second, note that God did not promise Solomon that he would have enjoyment from all his property. In fact, God’s covenant with Solomon contains the express condition of obedience: 2 Samuel 7:14. When God blesses Solomon with the promise of material good, he makes the quality of life a matter of obedience:
And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days. 1 Kings 3:14 (ESV)
As in the NT, the matter of “eternal life” is not merely a matter of duration but of quality.
How Then May We Receive That Blessing?
This of course begs for an answer to the question, How does one obtain the blessing of the Lord to enjoy the pleasant things of this life?
First, we must think rightly about wealth and its true benefit. For this we have help of Proverbs:
10 The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.
11 A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall in his imagination.
12 Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor.
Proverbs 18:10-12. The middle proverb of the triplet notes that wealth is an imaginary protection. Reliance upon one’s wealth is pride, which will only result in destruction. However, the one who trust in the Lord will be safe.
Second, we must thus avoid the sin of seeking protection from money; rather, we must place our hope solely in the strength of God:
5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
6 So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
Hebrews 13:5-6. It is interesting to note that here love of money is contrasted with trusting in God:
24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Matthew 6:24–26 (ESV)
And lest we think such talk is a mere fairy tale, the Apostle Paul gives us a picture of such in action. To make the point more plainly, God graciously – for our sakes – has Paul write from prison:
10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.
12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
While the text does not explicitly entail happiness, yet it does seem that a “long” and bitter life would be no blessing. This is consonant with the understanding of Deuteronomy 5:16 which corresponds obedience to covenant with long life – and thus a quality of life.
16. Prefer the Lord and His kingdom before all things, for the Divine Love and Wisdom have shown the soul that these are the fountains of life, that thus states of blessedness may be acquired in heaven, and that the soul may be led into the state of order and happiness which is designed for it by the Divine Love and Wisdom.
A. Payne, A Study of the Internal or Spiritual Sense of the Fifth Book of Moses Called Deuteronomy (London: James Speirs, 1881), 47.
Calvin commenting on Ephesians 6:3, which quotes the OT commandment likewise long life to happiness and not solely duration:
The promise is a long life; from which we are led to understand that the present life is not to be overlooked among the gifts of God. On this and other kindred subjects I must refer my reader to the Institutes of the Christian Religion; 63 satisfying myself at present with saying, in a few words, that the reward promised to the obedience of children is highly appropriate. Those who shew kindness to their parents from whom they derived life, are assured by God, that in this life it will be well with them.
And that thou mayest live long on the earth. Moses expressly mentions the land of Canaan,
“that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” (Exodus 20:12.)
Beyond this the Jews could not conceive of any life more happy or desirable. But as the same divine blessing is extended to the whole world, Paul has properly left out the mention of a place, the peculiar distinction of which lasted only till the coming of Christ.
John Calvin, Ephesians, electronic ed., Calvin’s Commentaries (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998), Eph 6:3.