In the previous section, the author ended by saying he “hated life” because everything he did was grievous to him and meaningless. The result of this is that he also hated all the fruit of his labor. And this was most likely not the present enjoyment of the fruit of his labor, which in the beginning of chapter 2 he clearly enjoyed, but rather in what happens to it all when death becomes him.
This is a very interesting thought because once you are dead, why should any possessions you once had even matter? Are not most men pleased that they are able to leave an inheritance to their children? Clearly something about this is a negative thought to him. Verse 18:
Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me.
Wether or not the recipient of his inheritance is a wise man or a fool has importance to him. If it had no importance, I don’t think he would have mentioned this as he does in verse 19:
And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun.
He is clear that, wise or not, someone will inherit the fruits of his labor. He must, however, hope that he who gains control is wise. A fool who acquires a large inheritance is more susceptible to squandering it and wasting all of the hard work and wisdom it took to build it. Thus it is not a mystery as to why this thought occurred to him. If I spend hours and hours building a fragile work of art, I’m not going to want to put it in the hands of a child. The same applies for the inheritance you pass down.
I think he is foreseeing the potential negative effects of leaving behind a sizable inheritance. Receiving a large inheritance may cause the beneficiary to not need to work and be able to live off of what was received. This is not God’s design for man in this life. In fact, the author goes so far as to call this a “great evil” in verse 21, and he despairs of this thought in verse 20.
I find this quite interesting. It seems, by what he is saying, that the best design does not include the concept of inheritance. Let every man work for what he earns. Is that what he is suggesting here? But what happens if he makes more than what is needed and has an inheritance left over? Is it a great evil to receive this? If so, what should be done with what the dead leave behind?
Verse 22 takes a shift out of pondering inheritance, but is connected in thought. He says in 22-23:
For what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving with which he labors under the sun? Because all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity.
What does a man get? Obviously he receives a means of being able to pay for housing, food, water, and the things necessary to live without having to rely on someone else. But clearly the author knows this, so what then is he getting at? Clearly he perceives all as meaningless in the end. But at this point, I’m not quite sure how the author would answer his own question here. This is definitely a depressing statement for man, that our work is grievous and painful, and that even our rest is plagued by a restless mind.