The Problem with Wealth

| Ecclesiastes 5:8-20

Week of March 31, 2019

The Point:: Contentment comes from Christ, not our wealth.

 The Vanity of Wealth and Honor: Ecclesiastes 5:8-20.

[8] If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. [9] But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields. [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? [12] 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. [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. [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. ESV]

[5:8-20]The Vanity of Injustice [8-9]. All of us feel the tension over how easily money can pull our souls away from the worship of God. We know that God demands our highest allegiance. We believe that nothing is more precious than the message of His gospel – the forgiveness of our sins and the free gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Yet we are easily distracted. The Solomon of Ecclesiastes wants to help us win this spiritual struggle by showing us the vanity of money. He starts by talking about the injustice that people suffer from the sinful structures of society. In a moment he will make this personal, but he starts by talking about the system [5:8]. The Preacher sees something that we all see – oppression and injustice at every level of society. Ecclesiastes tells us not to be surprised by the vanity of all this injustice. This is not to excuse unrighteousness; it is simply being realistic about life in a fallen world. What is hard to understand is exactly why Qoheleth thinks we should not be surprised by all this injustice. He refers to an official hierarchy, in which one person oversees another. But it is not entirely clear why this causes injustice. Maybe the issue here is government bureaucracy. Somehow a multilevel bureaucracy always seems to open more doors to injustice. In the words of one scholar, this verse is about “the frustrations of oppressive bureaucracy with its endless delays and excuses, while the poor cannot afford to wait, and justice is lost between the tiers of the hierarchy.” Or perhaps the point is that each level of government takes something from the level below. We should not be surprised when people in authority abuse their power. Eventually injustice reaches all the way down to the poor, who would probably oppress someone if they could, but they can’t because they are at the bottom. On this interpretation, the problem is not bureaucracy but tyranny. The right way to interpret the verse partly depends on the meaning of the word for watched. Occasionally this word has a negative connotation. So it might refer to the way that different branches of government tend to be suspicious of one another. To “watch” in this sense is to keep people under surveillance, looking for a way to take advantage of them. But “watch” can also be taken more positively, in which case it would imply that people in government are watching out for one another, protecting each other. This kind of cronyism creates a political machine that leaves poor and ordinary people on the outside looking in. It is hard to be certain exactly which kind of injustice Ecclesiastes has in mind, but even the uncertainty helps prove the Preacher’s point. There are so many kinds of injustice in society that we should never be surprised by sin. Our experience with injustice in this fallen world leads us to expect corruption at every level of government, right up to the very top. Although some leaders are motivated by a pure desire to serve society, many others are just interested in themselves. The best governments assume from the outset that people are sinners and that therefore they need checks and balances to restrain unrighteousness. But even the best governments are far from perfect. As long as we live on this earth, we will see people buying their way to power, using public position for personal gain, and manipulating the system for their own advantage. Rather than looking for the government to solve our problems, we need to acknowledge that even the best rulers fall well short of perfection. Therefore, we live in the hope of a better administration – one that we may not find in Ecclesiastes but do find in the gospel.

The Vanity of Prosperity [10-12]. To this point the Preacher has been talking about wealth and poverty on the national scale, but beginning in verse 10 he brings things down to the personal level. Public officials are not the only people who want to get more money; this is a temptation for all of us. So the Preacher warns us about the vanity of prosperity: He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. Here we have a well-known truth, stated as a proverb, to which the Preacher adds his typical editorial comment about vanity. No matter how much money they have, people who live for money are never satisfied. They always want more. Most Americans have at least a mild case of this deadly disease. Even if we are thankful for what we have, we often think about the things that we do not have and how to get them. The appetite for what money can buy is never satisfied. The only way to curb it is to be content with what God provides. This is a lifelong struggle. The fact that we have resisted the temptation of money before does not make us immune to it from now on. Ecclesiastes warns our divided hearts that living for the things that only money can buy is vanity. The first problem with money is that other people will try to take it from us [5:11]. The phrase they increase who eat them refers in some way to people who consume our wealth. It might be the oppressive government described in verses 8-9, which takes away our money through higher taxes. It might be our children or other dependents – the hungry mouths around our table. Or it might be the people who come begging for us to give them something. But no matter who they are, the more we have, the more other people try to get it. A second problem with having more money is that it will keep us up at night. The Preacher-King makes this point by drawing a contrast: 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 [5:12]. As a general rule, people who work hard all day, especially if they work with their hands, are ready for a good night’s sleep. Whether they have had a decent supper or else are so poor that they go to bed hungry, they will be tired enough to go right to sleep. The idle rich do not enjoy this luxury but are up all night. This is not because they are worrying about all their possessions, like the rich fool in the parable that Jesus told [Luke 12:13-21], but because a gluttonous diet of fatty foods gives them a tummy-ache. Their insomnia is caused by indigestion. Having a lot of money can be very unhealthy – not just spiritually but also physically. People who work hard should count their blessings, even if they cannot always count on getting a fat paycheck. Refreshing sleep is the blessing of manual labor. But the lifestyle of the rich and lazy tends not to be very restful.

Temporary Prosperity [13-17]. Thus far Qoheleth has been talking about the vanity of having a lot of money. In verses 13-14 he talks about the vanity of losing it. This is a third reason why living for money is meaningless: it may be here today, but it will be gone tomorrow. The Preacher calls this a grievous evil, which literally means that it makes him sick even to think about it. To explain why, he gives us a case study, the point of which is to show that God permits the very riches in which people trust to bring about the ruin of those who own them. The story Qoheleth tells concerns a wealthy man who tried to hoard his wealth, yet lost it all in some risky investment. Today people lose their money in places like the stock market. In those days their ships foundered at sea or their camel trains were attacked in the wilderness. But whatever the reason, this man took a gamble and ended up destitute as a result. Even worse, the man was a father, and now he had nothing to leave his son. The story thus assumes what the Bible teaches in other places: parents should leave a legacy for their children [e.g., Proverbs 13:22]. In financial planning for the future, we should think not only of ourselves, but also about what we can give to our families, including our spiritual family in the church. Fathers and mothers have a duty to save and sacrifice for their sons and daughters. Yet this does not mean that getting and keeping more money should be our primary focus. Just the opposite: the whole point of this story is that counting on money is vanity and striving after the wind. Then the Preacher-King gives us a fourth reason to resist the fevers of materialism. The reason this time is that we can’t take it with us. He continues the story of the man who lost his money in verses 15-16. The language of these verses is familiar to anyone who knows the story of Job. When that poor man lost everything that he had, he said, Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord [Job. 1:21]. The Apostle Paul took the same truth and applied it to all of us: We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world [1 Tim. 6:7]. One day all our labors will be lost. This is the tragic reality that every one of us must face – the reality of our mortality. So what gain is there in living for money? Martin Luther said, “As I shall forsake my riches when I die, so I forsake them while I am living.” One way to forsake our wealth is simply to look around at what we have and say to ourselves, “Now here is something that God has given me to enjoy for the time being, or maybe to give away for the work of His kingdom, but I need to remember that I will never be able to take it with me when I die.” Solomon summarizes the many reasons not to live for money in verse 17: Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger. This verse gives us a pathetic picture of where greed will lead. The miser will end up alone in his misery. Because he lives in spiritual darkness, his soul will be vexed with many anxieties. The ungodly pursuit of wealth will take its physical toll, leaving him in poor health. He will also be very angry – a bitter old man – for who has ever heard of a happy miser? People who live for money try to hold on to as much of it as they can, but when they have to let it go – as everyone does eventually – it makes them angry with everyone and everything. This gives us a helpful question to ask about our own anger, some of which may well be caused by excessive love for the things of this world. When we get angry, what is the reason? When husbands and wives have arguments about how much to spend, for example, and what to spend it on, are they disagreeing about the principles of Biblical stewardship, or are they really just fighting for what they want to have? The unsatisfied desire for worldly possessions is one powerful producer of anger.

The Power to Enjoy [18-20]. When we hear the story of the angry old man in Ecclesiastes 5, we cannot help but think that there must be a better way to live, and there is. The Bible tells us not to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy [1 Tim. 6:17]. In verses 18-19 the Preacher gives us a balanced, God-centered view. Just as he has been honest about the vanity of our existence, so also he wants to tell the truth about finding joy in the everyday things of life, the working and feasting. He has talked about these blessings before, in the so-called “enjoyment passages” of Ecclesiastes [e.g., 2:24-26]. He knows that joy is real because he has experienced it himself. He also knows that joy is “good and fitting” – something appropriate for the people of God. Yes, our time on earth is short, but whatever time we do have is a sacred gift. When the Preacher calls life the gift of God, he is giving it the highest praise. This is not stoicism or sarcasm but godly gratitude. The Preacher can say this because he believes in the God of joy. Earlier in this passage, when he was talking about the vanity of money, the Preacher hardly mentioned God at all. But in verses 18-20 he mentions Him repeatedly. Whatever enjoyment he finds is God-centered. Without God, life is meaningless and miserable, especially if we are living for money. But when we know the God of joy, even money can be a blessing. To understand this, we need to pay attention to the phrasing of verse 19. Earlier the Preacher listed some of the many reasons why accumulating money is vanity. Yet here he tells us explicitly that if we are wealthy, we should enjoy it. It almost sounds like a contradiction, but notice where the power of enjoyment comes from: it comes from God. Both having things and enjoying things are gifts from God. This profound insight helps us have a balanced view of our earthly possessions. The world that God created is full of many rich gifts, but the power to enjoy them does not lie in the gifts themselves. This is why it is always useless to worship the gifts instead of the Giver. The ability to enjoy wealth or family or friendship or food or work or sex or any other good gift comes only from God. Satisfaction is sold separately. So the God-centered verses at the end of Ecclesiastes 5 call us back to a joy that we can only find in God. The person who finds the greatest enjoyment in life is the one who knows God and has a relationship with Him through Jesus Christ. Have you turned away from the weariness of wealth to find your joy in God? This is part of the Preacher’s answer to the problem of life’s vanity. He is teaching us to depend on God for our enjoyment rather than depending on one of His many gifts. The person who learns this lesson well will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart [5:20]. Here the Preacher uses positive words to make a positive point about the joy that God alone can bring to the human heart. When we learn to enjoy God, we experience so much joy that life’s short vanity is all but forgotten.” [Ryken, pp. 129-138].

Questions for Discussion: 

  1. What happens to so much of the fruit of honest toil [5:8-9]? Why is wealth deceitful [Matt. 13:22]? Can materialism give lasting happiness [5:10-12]? Is materialism a ‘victimless’ pursuit [5:13-14]? What basic truths put wealth in a balanced perspective [5:15-17]?
  2. In verses 18-20, the Preacher changes his perspective and gives us a balanced, God-centered view of wealth. What is this view? Earlier the Preacher listed some of the many reasons why accumulating money is vanity. What does he now teach us about how to find joy in money? What profound insight does he give us about how we can develop a balanced, God-glorifying view of our earthly possessions? Have you found this perspective in your life? Does God keep you occupied with His joy in your heart instead of seeking joy in possessions [20]? Memorize and meditate this week on 1 Timothy 6:17.

References:

Ecclesiastes, Craig Bartholomew, Baker.

Ecclesiastes, Duane Garrett, NAC, Broadman Press.

Ecclesiastes, Gordon Keddie, Evangelical Press.

Ecclesiastes, Philip Ryken, Crossway.