Previous article in this series: December 1, 2014, p. 106.
There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men: A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease.
“There is an evil which I have seen under the sun…” (Eccl. 6:1a). The Word of God introduces a new observation of what Solomon, the preacher, has seen under the sun.
This observation stands in contrast to that which he has just shown, that which is “good and comely” (). What is good, as a gift of God under the sun in the vanity of this present life, is to eat and drink, to enjoy the good of one’s portion. That portion is transitory and its present enjoyment in contentment is its proper use. This, however, he has shown is a gift of God, a singular blessing, not only in outward circumstances but of grace, in which God answers a man in the “joy of his heart” ( ). This blessing is a gift of God unto His people.
To the one who is evil in the sight of God, namely, the wicked man, is given rather the travail of heaping and gathering. He is in bondage to covetousness. This results in the evil he now turns to as being “seen under the sun.” This evil is the consequence of his sin and depravity, of his walk in covetousness, and of his desire for earthly riches as an end in themselves. It is, therefore, in harmony with man’s state as he lies fallen in the midst of sin and death and under the curse of God upon sin.
This “evil” must be understood, then, both as the fruit of sin and as a judgment of God upon the sin of fallen man. It is an expression of God’s wrath, a working out of the curse of judgment in the life of men. That judgment of God does not come upon the world only as an eternal judgment. God judges fallen men in time as well as in eternity; it is a temporal as well as an eternal judgment. Through the fall into sin, the world was subjected to vanity, to the misery of sin and its consequences, to evil “seen under the sun.”
In the opening verses he states what this evil is, as it is seen among men, and he will develop more fully what is intended as he unfolds it in the chapter. First, however, he would call our attention to it as something which can be seen and noted under the sun. The reason to attend to it is this: “…and it is common among men” (Eccl. 6:1b). It is seen more than once. It is seen in the life of the world among men on every side. He speaks of it as common or heavy, a thing that multiplies in the life of men under the sun.
What is this evil, or misery, common among men? This: “A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honor, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease” (Eccl. 6:2). It is well to ponder this picture and what is said, for he speaks of two gifts. The one gift that is given is outward and external, readily seen. The other gift is not given nor seen in the same way.
A man to whom God giveth or upon whom God bestows riches, wealth, and honor—who would not desire such a portion? Material riches and the wealth and abundance that they purchase are a portion given among men by God’s providence. With it comes also honor, a place of dignity, a position of power and respect among men. There is a certain order to the words used—from riches, to wealth, and to honor—for that is the sequence among men in the vanity of this world.
Does that mean that this outward circumstance is given only to the wicked? No, for he has spoken of a child of God, who likewise has received wealth and honor, but with the gift also to eat of his portion and rejoice in it (). Solomon himself was such. But here he has in view the children of this world—the man described by Asaph in , “their eyes stand out with fatness: they have more than heart could wish.” It may well be that he has that psalm also before him as he ponders with us what he sees under the sun.
The man he has in view has it all: riches, wealth, and honor, “so that he wanteth nothing.” In earthly terms, he lacks nothing. He has everything heart could wish. He wants or lacks “nothing for his soul,” that is, for his life in this world. Soul refers here to the needs of body and mind in earthly terms; the reference is not to the spiritual needs of his soul. He lacks “nothing for his soul of all that he desireth.” His portion is such that all that he desires in this life and world, from food and drink to the pleasures of life, whether wholesome or sinful, he has the means to satisfy.
God in His providence gives these things to him. Note well, it is the Lord’s doing. The man himself may deem it his own doing. He may boast of his own achievements, his own labor and accomplishments, but it is under the hand of God—“God hath given….” God gives to each his portion in this life. If a man prospers in his way in the things of this life, this too is of the Lord.
But what is described here is not grace. Grace is not in things. Grace is not measured by riches, wealth, and honor in the world. Solomon sees one who is “known that it is man” (Eccl. 6:10), that is, one who is born of Adam, a creature of the dust who shall return to the dust.
That brings the second element before us, which is not always as clearly discernible but is also seen under the sun: God’s gift of riches, wealth, and honor is a judgment of God upon the covetousness of men, a work of His divine displeasure, not grace. For this man under consideration, though he have all these things, “yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof ” (Eccl. 6:2). He is not given the gift “to eat and drink and to enjoy the good of all his labor…” (). He is not given “power to eat thereof and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labor” (Eccl. 5:19). “This is the gift of God” (Eccl. 5:19). And he does not have it! It is not given unto him by the hand of God. The reference is not to a physical problem, such as a medical condition which makes him unable to eat, though that may not be excluded, but to an internal problem, a problem of the heart. His covetousness and bondage to the things of this life deny him the power to eat and enjoy.
It might not always seem so. It did not seem that way to Asaph as he struggled with this in Psalm 73. Inwardly, however, as Asaph learned when he contemplated the end of the wicked, “they are utterly consumed with terrors” (). God sets them in slippery places and casts them down to destruction (Ps. 73:18). Their end is one of eternal misery, and in this life fear of losing all they have, for it is their only treasure. Solomon however, adds a certain element to our understanding here. Because such a man is not rich toward God ( ), even in this life, he does not truly enjoy the blessings of the things which he possesses. The very covetousness of such a man means he is never satisfied. “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this also is vanity” ( ).
He has all that his soul could desire, lacks nothing of all that his soul might want or desire, and yet truly enjoys none of it. And that, because the love of God is not there, either in his heart toward God nor in God’s attitude toward him. He may have houses and lands, banquets and all abundance; he may even seem to have more than heart could wish, but “better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble therewith. Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith” ().
The wicked from that viewpoint do not even truly enjoy the things of this life. The pleasures of sin, and those of the world with its covetousness and abundance bring no true joy. Covetousness is bondage. “The way of the wicked is an abomination unto the Lord: but he loveth him that followeth after righteousness” ().
“God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it” (Eccl. 6:2). A stranger or foreigner comes into his place, and takes and eats the substance of his labor. Many commentaries, that make the book written by one living after the time of the captivity instead of by Solomon, apply this text to the state of Israel and the devouring of their substance by foreign powers. Such a view really misses the point of the text. While this might be an illustration, the text is speaking about the life of individual men and of something “common among men” under the sun. It is evident in the world to this day that the wicked in their covetousness devour one another. That one labors and another—and that a stranger—comes in his place. Earthly riches make themselves wings and fly away; they are vanity. It is true in every age as Solomon has said: “There is a sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt. But those riches perish by an evil travail: and he begetteth a son, and there is nothing in his hand” (). God’s judgment upon the covetousness of men rather confronts us: “God giveth him not…” (Eccl. 6:2).
Seeing these things as children of God, we may well tremble, “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!” (b). It is by grace alone. Covetousness and God’s judgment upon it bring the world to empty vanity. Pondering the circumstance described, we read, “This is vanity, and it is an evil disease” (Eccl. 6:2). It is a grievous misery, and in that sense, a disease, but one of the soul of fallen man and of the folly of sin in which he lies in the midst of death. It is God, in Christ alone, who delivers from such misery and gives both our portion in this life and the gift of joy therein. But He also gives an eternal treasure in a joy that fades not away.