The Wealthy and the Stillborn
Here is another misfortune that I have seen on earth, and it weighs heavily on people: God gives a man riches, property, and wealth so that he lacks nothing that his heart desires, yet God does not enable him to enjoy the fruit of his labor – instead, someone else enjoys it! This is fruitless and a grave misfortune. Even if a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years – even if he lives a long, long time, but cannot enjoy his prosperity – even if he were to live forever – I would say, “A stillborn child is better off than he is!”
Though the stillborn child came into the world for no reason and departed into darkness, though its name is shrouded in darkness, though it never saw the light of day nor knew anything, yet it has more rest than that man – if he should live a thousand years twice, yet does not enjoy his prosperity. For both of them die! (Ecclesiastes 6:1-6)
You really, truly cannot take it with you.
Throughout Ecclesiastes 1:1-5:20 the Preacher has meditated upon the hevel of life under the sun: all is vain, futile – truly absurd. He compares most human endeavors toward meaning as “chasing after wind”: people pursue pleasure, wealth, wisdom, or other things looking for ultimate purpose and satisfaction and will be disappointed and frustrated by all of them.
The Preacher has attempted to truly hammer this point home in terms of wealth. In Ecclesiastes 5:8-20 he critiqued the impulse to obtain and maintain great wealth: with wealth comes anxiety, the wealthy easily become miserly, all which has been gained can be just as easily lost, and then what? Truly, the Preacher thought, it is best to enjoy what one has and to enjoy one’s labor, for this is God’s gift.
The Preacher continues the theme in Ecclesiastes 6:1-6. He had spoken previously of a man who gained great wealth but lost it all through bad business ventures; he then considers a man who was finally able to obtain everything he might want but is not granted time or opportunity to enjoy them (Ecclesiastes 6:1-2). Instead, someone else is left to enjoy them, a “stranger” according to the Hebrew, yet such a person is not explicitly identified; it might involve someone who is not strongly connected to the man, like an oppressor or an enemy, but could also be a descendant or perhaps a spouse. The person who enjoys the fruit of the man’s labor is not the man who put forth the labor to obtain it.
To the Preacher this represents a terrible tragedy, even a travesty, and he describes it in shockingly hyperbolic fashion. Even if such a man fathered a hundred children and lived a hundred years, or even could live forever, but could not prove able to enjoy the fruit of his labor, the Preacher would consider a stillborn child more fortunate than he (Ecclesiastes 6:3). The Preacher reckoned the stillborn child as born in vanity and darkness, never seeing the light and knowing nothing; yet such a child has more rest than the man who never enjoyed the fruit of his labor, even if the latter lived two thousand years, for both have died (Ecclesiastes 6:4-6).
As Christians we always do well to remember how Israel according to the flesh maintained a much more concrete and physical covenant with God through the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and governed by the Law given to Moses. Witness regarding the afterlife was dim in these days; blessings and curses were understood in far more physical and concrete terms. Consider Leviticus 26:3-43: if the Israelites obeyed God according to the Law, God would provide them the blessings of the early and late rains, successful crops, abundant cattle, generations of descendants, and victory over enemies; if they Israelites proved disobedient to the Law, they would be subjected to the curses of famine, drought, pestilence, and violence.
According to this view we can somewhat better understand the Preacher’s attitude regarding the stillborn child: by never enjoying any of the blessings of life, they did not receive any of the blessings of the covenant. As Christians we have hope for children such as these to inherit the Kingdom and obtain the resurrection of life (cf. Matthew 19:13-14); we also mourn and lament with all who have experienced the birth of a stillborn child.
A contextual understanding can help us see just how incensed the Preacher has become at the prospect of not enjoying the fruit of one’s labor. For a man to have a hundred children and to live a hundred years, let alone even longer, would generally be understood as powerful signs of God’s favor and blessing. Thus, considering such a person to be worse off in the end than a stillborn child, and all over the inability to enjoy the fruit of one’s labor, is all the more shocking!
We might be puzzled at the depth of the Preacher’s frustration at this scenario; we may know some people who have many children, lived long lives, and invested what little they had in their families and others and thus never really enjoyed the fruit of their labor themselves. In fact, many such people seem to have more satisfied and fulfilling lives than those who do get to enjoy the fruit of their labor! Yet we must remember what the Preacher has declared in Ecclesiastes 5:18-20: after people are stripped of their pretensions, all which is left is for people to be able to enjoy their labor and the fruit thereof. The ability to enjoy one’s labor and its fruit allows people to be distracted from the ultimate futility and meaninglessness of life under the sun.
If such enjoyment of one’s labor and the fruit thereof is what God has really given to a person, to have accumulated some fruit of labor without enjoying it would seem very cursed indeed. This is especially true if the person found little joy in their labor and endured it all with the hope of enjoying the fruit of it one day, only to perish when the day arrived. For such a person, it was all for ultimately nothing. In fact, it leads to its own form of moral travesty, in which all the labor was done in futility for someone else who put in little to no effort to enjoy it all!
In the end the Preacher is incensed at death, for death is the reason the stillborn had nothing to enjoy and the ultimate futility of the man who had labored to obtain fruit but could never really enjoy it. Trusting in wealth, imagining wealth would be the solution to all of one’s problems, and/or getting blinded by wealth are all futile and foolish because of death. We all die, whether rich or poor. People have tried to take their wealth with them after death; museums around the world are filled with the grave goods people have deposited with the dead for millennia. In truth all such items just sat in the dust until taken by someone else, either to be melted down to facilitate their survival or to be encased in glass to be shown off to others. We brought nothing into this world; we cannot take anything out of it.
Jesus made it clear we could not have two masters; we must choose whether we will serve God or money (Matthew 6:24). Money might seem to be great in the short-term, but the Preacher’s wisdom is important for us: it corrupts, corrodes, and misdirects us terribly. We cannot take any of it with us; we may think our material wealth might assist our descendants, but it may be the cause of their doom as easily as it might provide them comfort. Instead, in all things, we do best to serve God, find enjoyment in our labor, glorify God in all we do, and obtain the resurrection of life in Jesus.
Ethan R. Longhenry