If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, ado not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.
He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? 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.
There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. 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. 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? Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.
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. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions land power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.
Ecclesiastes 5:8-20 ESV
After taking a brief intermission to discuss how to properly fear and worship God, the Preacher now resumes the report of experiment by turning to the vanity of wealth. Money and the love of it are some of life’s chief motivators. Actions are driven by it. Thoughts are captive to it. Partnerships are forged with it. Betrayals are bought by it. Money and the power that it buys is seductive to nearly every human. Yet even though Solomon was one of the wealthiest men to ever live (if not the wealthiest), he writes from personal experience that the quest for more money is never ending nor satisfying. Wealth will always fail to provide true lasting joy and meaning in life.
OPPRESSION REVISITED // VERSES 8-9
To begin this next section on the vanity of wealth, Solomon turns his eye once more to the oppression that he sees. However, this time he tells us that we should not be amazed by the injustice that we see being done. His reasoning for such as statement is that there is always a hierarchy of officials. Thus, we can be certain that the person who creates oppression in our lives also has someone above him creating oppression. It is an endless cycle of injustice, but don’t be amazed, this is simply the conditions of a fallen world. This is not cynical of Solomon, just realistic. He is merely describing this aspect of a post-Genesis 3 life.
Fortunately, verse 9 quickly tells us that a king cultivating the fields is a gain for the land in every way. To be honest, upon first reading this, the structure of verses 8-9 made it sound like the Preacher is saying that oppression is a way of cultivating the fields, and so it is good for the land in every way. Thankfully, that is not what this verse is saying. Instead, Solomon is providing an alternative: a king cultivating the fields. In other words, just because authority tends to be abused doesn’t mean that authority itself is bad. Authority is ultimately good for everyone, even when it is occasionally misused. Since we in the United States lean toward possessing a phobia for authorities, we need to keep this reminder in our minds. After all, God Himself is the ultimate authority, and throughout the Bible, He gives portions of His authority to finite and fallible creatures like us. Genesis 1:26 provides the first example as God grants dominion over the earth and its creatures to humanity. The judges and kings of Israel continue this cycle. Romans 13:4 applies this to all governmental authorities saying: “for he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” We rejoice whenever the legal system enforces justice rightly because it is a physical instrument of God’s judgment on earth. And this is not just righteous governments. Throughout the Bible, God even used pagan nations like Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon to enact His judgment. Therefore, as followers of Christ, let us never be a people who wholeheartedly reject authority. We lament that authority will be abused in this life, but in general, God has ordained authority for the benefit of all people.
THE LOVE OF MONEY // VERSES 10-12
Within these three verses, the Preacher presents three truths regarding money and wealth.
The first truth, found in verse 10, is that money cannot satisfy. Don’t you love how Solomon doesn’t add any qualifying comments to that statement? Quite simply, if you love money, you are chasing after something that cannot be captured. To illustrate this, a commonly told account of Rockefeller says that during an interview, the reporter asked him which was his favorite million dollars. Rockefeller simply responded, “The next one.” Even with all the money he could ever hope to spend, his heart was set on the next earning. The love of money runs contrary contentment. The two cannot coexist as they are mutual exclusives. This is why Hebrews 13:5 warns against the one and commands the other: “Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” The love of money and contentment are like oil and water, like black and white. They oppose one another. Since contentment cannot exist alongside the love of money, the often misquoted 1 Timothy 6:10 makes much sense: “for the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils.” Discontentment caused Adam and Eve to eat the fruit in order to become more like God than they already were as image-bearers. Of course, we can go one step further by concluding that the root of discontentment is pride. Discontent first forms because we are prideful enough to believe that we deserve something more than what we actually possess. Love of money ultimately creates within us a heart of envy, jealousy, and dissatisfaction. Eventually, it will bring us to the place where we are willing to do anything to get what we want.
Verse 11 gives us our second truth: needs increase along with wealth. Whenever goods increase, so do the eaters of those goods. This can point to two things. First, wealth brings beggars. Time and time again, we read stories of people winning the lottery only to have a multitude of distant friends and family flock around them. This is likely Solomon’s primary meaning. However, we can also see the principle that vacuums must be filled being described here. A large surplus of income often means more spending. We see this whenever someone buys a larger home thinking that it will not be as crowded with things, but having a larger home just means it gets filled with more stuff. Because needs tend to increase with wealth, lower income families are not the only ones who live paycheck to paycheck. More money simply means more spending.
The third truth is presented in verse 12: anxiety increases with wealth. Solomon describes the laborer as coming home from his day of work and finding sweet rest in his sleep. The wealthy person, however, is restless because of the great needs that accompany his great wealth. An interesting thought struck me as I meditated on this verse: which countries tend to have the highest cases of sleep deprivation? Often it is the wealthier nations of the world. Writing primarily to a Western (and therefore generally wealthy) audience, Tish Warren Harrison notes the following about sleep:
According to data from the National Health Interview Survey, nearly 30 percent of adults average less than six hours of sleep per night, significantly under the recommended seven to eight hours. Only about 30 percent of high school students reported getting at least eight hours of sleep on an average school night, though they need around ten. In one national study, over 7 percent of people between twenty-five and thirty-five admitted to actually nodding off while driving in the past month. In 2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared, “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem.” Most of us have heard statistics like this before. And we yawn and pour more coffee. We know, we know. We’re busy, we’re tired, we’re worn out. But this public health epidemic is indicative of a spiritual crisis—a culture of disordered love and disordered worship. We disdain limits. Wendell Berry warned, “It is easy… to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.”
We skip sleep because there is simply too much to do. There aren’t enough hours in the day. But often the reason we continue to have more things to do is because we continue to have more things that we want. Our lack of contentment with what we have leads to our exhaustion-inducing efforts to accumulate more and more.
An example of this type of contentment stands out vividly in my mind. About two years ago, my wife and I bought our first home, a nearly 100-year-old space of 1400 feet. Upon first seeing our house, people would often comment that it was a beautiful and quaint starting home. The underlying idea, of course, being that we will need to upgrade in the future. But those comments stood in sharp contrast with my wife’s visiting grandparents from Colombia, who immediately asked if such a big house was only for the two of us.
Unfortunately, much of our stress is self-induced, stemming from our lack of contentment. We may not think of ourselves as possessing a love of money in the traditional sense. We can, however, very easily fall for the trap of trying to keep up with the Joneses. We become dissatisfied with things that are sufficient and long for things that are ultimately unnecessary. Agur, in Proverbs 30:7-9, gives us a prayer that stands in sharp contrast to modern consumerism: “Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” How many of us make prayers like that? Our prayers tend to be for God to increase our possessions and wealth, not for Him to keep wealth out of our hands. Agur essentially prays, “God, I know my heart. I know my desires. Keep me out of poverty and riches. If I have too much wealth, pride will grow in me as am able to provide for myself. I will reject You and believe that I am self-sufficient.” May we learn from Agur’s prayer to be content.
A CASE STUDY // VERSES 13-17
Here Solomon provides a helpful example of how wealth is vanity. He describes a man who, after damaging himself through hard work, loses everything in one bad venture. Then having nothing to give to his son as an inheritance, he dies with nothing, leaving behind a life of misery and sorrow. Being a financial burden instead of a blessing upon his son would have been a severe shame in the ancient world, which only serves to emphasize the vanity of this man’s backbreaking work to accumulate wealth. His final days are nothing but sick, vexation, and anger.
This example may be a hypothetical case study, but many have unfortunately walked through this as a reality. Last week, I finished reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. The general of the Union Army during the Civil War, who went on to serve two terms as president of the United States, lived a life of success that few could match. However, during the final days of his life, Grant fell victim to one of the first Ponzi schemes and lost all of his wealth. Eventually, he spent the final days of his life desperately writing a memoir as he was dying from esophageal cancer with the hope that his wife would be able to live off of the book’s sales. The memoir sold beautifully and is still considered a masterpiece, but Grant died only a few days after completing it.
In Luke 12:13-21, Jesus gives us another hypothetical account of this kind of misfortune as a warning against all covetousness:
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years, relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
Isn’t the fool in the parable how many view retirement? We await the ceasing from work in order to eat, drink, and be merry, but we do not know that we will ever be able to enjoy the rejoices that we have stored. Solomon’s case study and Jesus’ parable are both presenting the same idea: wealth is vain. It is a terrible god that can be taken away in a moment. And if it is not taken away from us, we might be taken away from it.
What is the answer then, if wealth is a vanity? Our final three verses present the answer.
CONTENTMENT: THE GIFT OF GOD // VERSES 18-20
The hopeful refrain of Ecclesiastes returns! Notice that when Solomon says that everything under the sun is vanity he is not saying that nothing is good on earth. The Preacher emphasizes that he sees with his physical eyes that it is good and fitting to eat, drink, and find enjoyment. Just because life is fleeting doesn’t make it bad. Christianity does not align with the gnostic heresy that threatened it in the first century. We do not believe that spiritual things are good and physical things are bad. No, we believe that in the beginning God made a physical world and declared it to be good. Things may be broken after the Fall, but they are not utterly broken. If we are not careful, we can fall victim to such hyper-spiritualizations that declare all wealth and possessions to be evil. But the Preacher explicitly states that wealth, possessions, and power are gifts from God, along with the ability to enjoy them.
How exactly do we enjoy these gifts of God properly? Enjoying God’s gifts means accepting our lot in life and rejoicing in the toil that He sets before us. We are to be content, and God gives contentment by keeping us occupied with Him. How are we kept occupied with God? With joy in his heart. It is all too common for people to think of God as a cosmic killjoy, that His commands limit our freedom and force us to obey His arbitrary guidelines. But Solomon emphasizes that God is not a killjoy but the giver of joy.
Later in Luke 12, verses 32-34, Jesus gives us these words:
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Jesus (and Solomon) are both calling for us not to forsake all treasures and wealth but for us to chase after eternal and lasting riches. Money is fleeting; God desires for us to know real wealth. The Bible is commanding us to pursue treasure, wealth, and riches because God alone is the greatest of all treasures. Furthermore, if He is more valuable than everything else put together, then He often loves us by stripping us of our lesser loves in order to bring us to Himself. God does not forbid idolatry because He is a killjoy. He forbids idolatry because idolatry will kill our joy. The wealth of this world is appealing, but even the very words of God are better than gold (Psalm 19:10).
Of course, the Christian life is one of suffering, a call to grab our cross, to come and die. At the epicenter of our faith is the humiliating death of our God after all. We must never ignore such difficult and sobering truths. But let us also never neglect the joy of the following after Christ. Let us sing with the psalmist to God, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). He is a God is worthy of following, of treasuring, and of enjoying. God is not a megalomaniac who says, “Worship me or else.” He is a loving Father, who offers Himself freely as the highest good and richest treasure.