Previous article in this series: March 1, 2015, p. 248.
Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this is also vanity and vexation of spirit.
That which hath been is named already, and it is known that it is man: neither may he contend with him that is mightier than he.
Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the better?
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?
“Better is the sight of the eyes….” With these words Solomon introduces a conclusion to this section of Ecclesiastes, comprising chapters five and six. His concern is that we spiritually make the warning concerning covetousness our own. The sight of the eyes is that which stands before us this moment, under God’s providence, as our portion of the day. It is what is given us, seen and known, the profit of the day’s labor, our daily bread. It is the good, that which is fitting, and to be enjoyed as the blessing of the day. It is also that which the wicked man, given to covetousness, is not given to see. For though he live twice that of Methuselah, “…yet hath [he] seen no good” ().
The problem is in man’s soul. In discontent, he wanders in heart and mind. His soul roams about, covetousness always leading him away from what is immediately before him to all that he desires and lusts after. The wandering or roaming about of the desire and lust of men brings with it only vexation of spirit, or more literally a striving after the wind, which is thus one of futile frustration. Therefore, “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this is also vanity and vexation of spirit” (). Where discontent and covetousness rule, there can be only an empty futility because the striving of such an one is ultimately with God.
Solomon then returns to this point that has been made before, as an explanation of this, “That which hath been is named already, and it is known that it is man: neither may he contend with him that is mightier than he” (). This explanation takes us back to man’s creation. It contains two conjoined elements. The first is the meaning of the name “man.” It refers to the first man, whose name was Adam, the Hebrew word derived from the word for “dust.” This emphasizes that man is of the earth earthy, a creature of the dust. Being fallen in sin, he receives its wages: “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” ( ). The result was, “Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken” ( ).
Because this is so, all man’s days are bound to a world subject to vanity. This is the judgment of God upon sin. Apart from the grace of God in Christ, he cannot return to Eden’s paradise or enter into glory. He lies in the midst of death. Leaving aside the question of his eternal reward, man, in himself and in this world under the sun, can be only a creature of the dust, returning to the dust from whence he was taken. Covetousness leads him to pursue what is vain.
Yet man, who is dust (Adam), strives with this reality, for the text continues, “…neither may he contend with him that is mightier than he” (). Shall the dust contend with the Almighty, the creature with the creator? But that is exactly what Adam did in his rebellion in the fall. The lie of the devil was, “ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” ( ). In rebellion man sets himself in the place of God, in pride lifting himself up to strive with God who is “mightier than he.” This arrogance shows itself, of course, in many ways: in sin and rebellion, in lawlessness, in vain boasting in himself. Man seeks to change times and laws and seasons as if the life of man, the world, and all things are in his own hand. He would be his own lawgiver. Here, however, the focus is on the pride of man who so thinks he is in control of his life upon earth, that in the wandering of his desire and in covetousness he may contend with God and determine his own portion. The rebellion and pride of man rejects the confession, “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” ( ).
The fool says otherwise. He says, “I will build bigger barns and enjoy my ease,” until, as Jesus Himself illustrates, “…God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” (). Nebuchadnezzar’s boast in himself expresses the same spirit of exalted pride: “The king spake, and said, Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?” ( ). The judgment of which he was forewarned came upon him. The Lord smote him, gave him to eat grass like an ox, and took his understanding from him until he was compelled to confess the Most High, the Almighty,
whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation: And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou? ().
Covetous man walks in that same spirit of Nebuchadnezzar. In his wandering desire after earthly things, he seeks not what is before him, nor acknowledges that it is from God, but will be his own master. His own will, his own plans and desires, will rule according to his own imagination. In his blindness, the future is deemed to be in his own hand; and yet it is not so. Man is a potsherd, a broken piece of clay pottery. God says to him, “Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?” (). Yet the covetous man denies that sovereign power of God, not only over great issues in his life, but also in the wandering of his lust over the very present reality of daily life. He says, “…Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell and get gain” ( ). To which the Word of God in James, who may well have had this passage in view, answers “Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” ( ).
Solomon makes the same point. He first reminds us, “Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the better?” By “things” he has in view earthly things, earthly abundance. He has said, “When goods increase, they are increased that eat them“ (). Earthly riches, the things of this world, belong to its vanity. When they increase, then vanity also increases and man is not better off. He has still no profit in anything of abiding value. Nor can the riches truly satisfy. It is not in the things themselves, which man covets and desires, to do so. It is not in their nature, that is, in the “stuff ” of this world under the sun, to give abiding profit or satisfaction that endures.
Solomon then adds, “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 life of man is as an insubstantial shadow moving over the ground that vanishes away; he is a vapor as James puts it. He does not know what the morrow will bring. He may think his life is in his own hand. He may deny there is a sovereign potter, deny that God has a hand in his life, but he is a fool in bondage. He does not know what is for his own good. Neither does he determine the course of his own steps. His wandering desire leads him to the delusion of his own power, when he is actually but a vapor, a moving shadow on the ground, frail, weak, and brief. Not only is that which he pursues vanity, he is himself vanity. In the flowing stream of life he has no idea what the next bend in the river will bring, for he cannot see beyond the curve of the river. It may be placid water or it may be a whitewater rapids and destruction. His “control” of the future is a delusion and an attempt to strive and contend with his Maker.
In pride man says within himself, “I will have this or that; I will get this or that,” turning from what is before him to his own imagination, relying on his own power. And yet he does not even know what the next day or hour may bring, even in daily matters of this life and his place in it. He is truly a shadow in himself. “For who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?” (Eccl. 6:12). The text certainly includes the fact that he shall die and then what? But the addition, “under the sun,” suggests that Solomon also has in view the fact that, even in this life, while “under the sun,” man does not know what comes after, even on the morrow.
Better, therefore, is the “sight of the eyes,” that is, what is for today, our daily bread. Prudent provision for the morrow we may make, for the point is not to be profligate or a poor steward of God’s gifts as God’s people. But it is always, “If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (). To walk thus requires the grace of God to humble ourselves under His hand, to flee from covetousness, and to receive that which He wills for us, which only is good. This is the gift of God.