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. 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 and 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)
I’ve mentioned before how this middle section of Ecclesiastes is made up of rather short proverbs that appear somewhat disconnected from one another. The Book of Proverbs is very similar. Proverbs was not designed to have an intentional flow from beginning to end. It’s not a letter. It’s not a chronological history. Rather, it’s simply a collection of wise sayings put together in one book. But unlike Proverbs, I believe Ecclesiastes does have a flow to it. The so-called Preacher, the Qoheleth in this book does bind together his proverbs under general themes.
With this text, we are in the middle of a section that runs from chapter 4 all the way through chapter 10. In this section, the Preacher focuses on the problems of life under the sun. He deals with various issues related to secularism, or a life without God. To be more specific, most of chapter 5 and chapter 6 fall under the banner of poverty and wealth. First, we read about the poor who are dealing with oppressive bureaucracy. Then we see the drawbacks of money in general. The Preacher then examines how wealth can be loved and lost. At the end of chapter 5, he brings us back for a moment to the remedy. He reminds us that there is another aspect to life beyond secularism. Then as we move into chapter 6, we learn about the insecurities of wealth, the insatiable longings of man, and finally, we come to an impasse where the Preacher slams shut every door but one: the door that leads to faith.
It should come as no surprise that The Book of Ecclesiastes addresses the matter of materialism and money as much as it does. If there is anything in our world that is going to distract us from our purpose, or rob us of joy, or give a false sense of security, it is money. Specifically, it is the love of money; it is our desire for more and more; it is our satisfaction with meaningless stuff. You know, I’ve had several people look at me funny when I’ve tried to explain that our nation’s prosperity may be the American church’s greatest hindrance. But that’s not as crazy as it sounds.
Paul said it quite succinctly when he wrote, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith.” Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and money.” That’s practically an assault on the American dream. He also told his disciples, “Only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.” Of course, there’s also the familiar example of the lukewarm Laodicean church to whom Jesus warned, “I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” I doubt they ever said those things out loud, but they certainly lived as though they had need of nothing. Their wealth and prosperity were sufficient to them.
But maybe you’d argue that our prosperity is a blessing from God. Maybe it is. It certainly was in the days of ancient Israel. We’re specifically told that God blessed King Solomon with both wisdom and wealth. In fact, God said to him—this is in 1 Kings 3—”I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you.” You see, money is not the specific problem. The real issues are what we do with our money—we call it stewardship—and how we view money. If we look to money for meaning or contentment, our perspective is, well, ungodly. Or if we use our money to overindulge ourselves at the neglect of helping others, then we have become poor stewards. And that is something Solomon learned through his life of wealth.
Money isn’t the answer. We’re inclined to think that life will get a little easier and be a little more enjoyable if only we had a bit more money, if only we could buy that one more thing we’ve had our eyes on. Well, the Preacher says, “I hate to disappoint you, but that’s not how it works. Money cannot buy lasting satisfaction.”
The Oppression of Bureaucracy
First of all, the Preacher gives us an example of frustrating, oppressive bureaucracy. Verses 8 and 9: “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. But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.”
This is what we could call a tangent on the part of the Preacher. He offers no solution to the problem, and the problem itself fits only loosely within the scope of this chapter. But rather than try too hard to make it fit, let’s just consider what he had to say.
Here he describes impoverished people who really can’t afford to wait for help, but they have no choice. The officials—the government if you will—are not doing anything to help them. Why is that? Notice the latter part of verse 8: “Do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.” There’s a lot of red tape and bureaucracy slowing down the process. One official has to get approval from another official. And that official needs yet another official to sign off on it. In the meantime, the poor are subjected to injustice and oppression, and there is no one rushing to their rescue.
This is a problem. According to Scripture, it is never a good thing to neglect the poor. One way or another, we as a nation and especially the church have a God-given responsibility to help those in need, starting with widows and orphans. According to Jesus in Matthew 25, this is what he’ll say to his people at his second coming: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” The people then ask, “When did we do these things?” And Jesus answered, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” At the end of time, it seems Christ’s primary concern will be whether or not we helped others when we could.
But the Preacher recognized that help isn’t always offered even by those people who have a public obligation to help. It’s their job to help. They are paid to prevent oppression and injustice. And the Preacher clearly knew something about this. After all, he was a king. He was the highest ranking official in all of Israel. So he saw the oppression of bureaucracy first hand.
He also learned this nugget of wisdom: It is good for a nation if its leaders do everything within their power to get out of the way and not make matters worse. Look at verse 9 again: “This is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.” For clarity’s sake, let me slightly rephrase this: “It is gain when a king allows the land to be cultivated.” In other words, it is to the advantage of a nation when its leaders free the people to cultivate the fields and realize that the bureaucracies they’ve created are doing more harm than good.
But don’t get carried away with this verse. Obviously, the Preacher is sensitive to government oppression, but he says nothing here to promote anarchy or revolution. I’m not sure I would even call this an argument against big government. I mean, even local school boards create maddening bureaucracies. Rather, I believe the Preacher’s frustration stems from the fact that downtrodden people are not helped by those with the power to help.
Three Drawbacks to Wealth
Now as we move into the next passage, the Preacher wants us to know that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Being rich can be just as miserable as being poor.
Verse 10: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.” So for all of the problems that come with poverty, covetousness isn’t a good alternative. The fact is, we can never have enough money to satisfy our souls. John D. Rockefeller once said, “If your only goal is to become rich, you will never achieve it.” I believe his point was that money alone doesn’t possess any lasting gratification. So obviously, gaining a little more and a little more won’t help. While the impoverished person probably dreams of a day when they have more money and, of course, having some money will make life easier, wealth does not guarantee peace and contentment.
You’ll also notice that the Preacher made a distinction here between money (or income) and wealth. “Money,” of course, refers to money while “wealth” is most likely a reference to goods and possessions. So coveting after material things isn’t any better than coveting after money. They go hand in hand.
Keep in mind, this verse is not an indictment on the rich. This is a warning against greed and covetousness. Chances are, the wealthy among us are not struggling with these issues nearly as much as those with less. The rich have their own problems, I’m sure. And, of course, wealth doesn’t make you immune to greed. But we should understand that this is a universal principle. No matter what income brackets we fall into, we could be guilty of coveting after what we don’t have. In America, we often refer to it as keeping up with the Joneses. And by its very definition, covetousness means we are perpetually unsatisfied. So rather than thinking, “If only I had a little bit more,” we could save ourselves a lot of grief by learning to be content with whatever we have.
Just look what happens when we are in constant pursuit of more. The Preacher says in verse 11, “When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?”
As it turns out, increase is more enjoyable when we anticipate it than when we actually have it. In other words, money and material things are more attractive before we have them than after we get them.
As an example, let me share with you a personal vice I have. I love hot vanilla lattes. Starbucks is good, but I especially like the lattes from the coffee shop in Buies Creek. Now, these drinks are pricey at nearly $5 for a large. That’s $5 for a single drink. To put that in perspective—I know I’ve shared this figure with you before—something like 80 percent of the world’s population lives on less than $10 a day. More than half of the world’s population lives on $2 a day. So with every latte I buy, I am spending twice as much on that one drink than most of the world is spending on food, clothing, and shelter.
But it gets even worse. I’m fairly certain that I’m lactose intolerant. Milk does not agree with my stomach at all. If I have a bowl of ice cream, you have about one hour to clear the room, and that’s not an exaggeration. Well, a latte has two basic ingredients: espresso and milk. It’s basically coffee-flavored milk. So every time I buy one, I get excited because I’m thinking about how good it will taste. Those first few sips are like heaven to me. But it isn’t long before regret sets in. Not only am I out five bucks, but I’m also left with a grumbling stomach that is begging to know what in the world I was thinking. Just ask Danaé. She’s probably lost count of the times I’ve vowed to never drink a latte again.
You see, increase always has its downsides. The Preacher says, “When goods increase, they increase who eat them.” Let’s say you buy a new house. And let’s say it’s an even bigger house than the one you had before, with a bigger yard. So now your goods have increased. Guess what else increases: your property tax, not to mention your upkeep and maintenance costs. Suddenly, you discover all of these people who must have been waiting in the shadows for you to gain a little bit more so they could come in and start eating away at it. Or think about someone who wins the lottery. Not only will Uncle Sam want his cut, but overnight, this person is going to find that he has a lot of cousins he didn’t know about before. They’ll be clamoring for a chance to get to know their long-lost relative. “You won the lottery? Oh, I had no idea.”
I think we can all relate to this. Maybe you’ve had your eye on something awhile. You’ve been saving for it. And the day finally comes when you can go out and buy it. It’s so exciting, right? You can hardly wait to wear it, or drive it, or show it off. But then what happens? The excitement eventually wears off. Now that’s not to say you don’t continue to appreciate it, but it doesn’t quite have the allure it once did. So if you have invested too much of yourself in that thing—whatever it is—it’s only a matter of time before you begin to feel empty and want to fill that void with something else.
So with that in mind, you were actually better off before you got it in the first place. “What advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?” I actually prefer the way the NIV translates this verse. (The King James says something similar.) The NIV says, “And what benefit are they to the owners except to feast their eyes on them?” As parents often tell their children when walking through retail stores, look; don’t touch. If you’re not satisfied now, you won’t be satisfied with more money or more stuff.
The Preacher continued. Verse 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.”
Here the comparison is between the guy who has everything and the one who may or may not have much, but he works hard for what he has. So at the end of the day, the worker, the laborer sleeps soundly. He doesn’t have a care in the world while the rich person is tossing and turning all night. Why? Well, given the context, I have to believe that he can’t sleep because he can’t settle his mind. The trouble is that he hasn’t yet achieved whatever level of success or accumulation he thinks he needs in order to be content. No matter how high he gets on the ladder, he’s always thinking, “Just one more rung. If I can climb just one more rung, then I’ll be satisfied.” But that day never comes because he’s always chasing a little more and a little more.
So the Preacher shows us three significant drawbacks to wealth. First, according to verse 10, wealth cannot satisfy someone who covets. Second, according to verse 11, wealth not only attracts dependents, but it’s also more appealing before you get it than after you get it. Finally, according to verse 12, wealth can actually disturb your peace of mind if you’re not already content without it.
Of course, the Preacher doesn’t stop there. He wants to make it abundantly clear that wealth does not guarantee a better life. In fact, it can make our lives worse. So rather than sit around wondering why God has not blessed you with more, maybe you should thank him for not giving you more. Maybe he knows that wealth would be to your detriment. Needless to say, those false teachers who are peddling the prosperity gospel, claiming that faith guarantees material success and that material success guarantees happiness—well, they’re going to be very selective about what passages from Ecclesiastes they’re willing to preach from.
When Wealth Is Loved and Lost
Verse 13: “There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun.” In other words, this calamity that the Preacher goes on to describe is painful. It’s sickening. “Riches were kept by their owner to his hurt.” Why? It’s hard to imagine how a man’s wealth could lead to distress.
Well, let’s continue reading: “Those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand.” So something unexpected happened, causing this man to lose everything. Throughout his life, he accumulated what we can assume was a vast amount of wealth. And chances are, he never considered a scenario where he could lose it. Like the Laodicean church, he probably felt very satisfied, thinking that he had made it. He felt secure because of his wealth. But then, it was gone. There is nothing in his hand. Every tangible, material possession was lost. Worse yet, his son gets dragged down with him. This man can no longer provide for his children like he once did nor will they receive any kind of inheritance in the future. In short, a lifetime of work and sleepless nights and dissatisfaction was all for nothing.
That’s one possible outcome anyhow. Here’s another: “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?”
Even if the rich man doesn’t lose everything in his lifetime, he will inevitably lose everything, at least everything that is material. Notice that the text says he won’t leave this world carrying anything in his hand. In other words, he’ll take something with him, but it won’t be those things he valued most while he was still alive. He is leaving “just as he came” which is an emphatic expression, meaning that he’s leaving exactly as he came. All of his accumulation was futile. He might as well have spent his days trying to catch the wind. At the end of his life, he would have been no better and worse for it.
Verse 17: “Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.”
This is what his wealth cost him while he was still alive: misery, frustration, and anger. Add to those things the possibility that we could lose our prosperity at any moment or that we will eventually die and take none of it with us, we’re left wondering whether money and material things have any value at all. Right about now you may even feel guilty about the prosperity you currently enjoy. But before you go and make a vow of poverty, the Preacher has another aspect of life for us to consider.
The Gift of God
Verses 18 through 20: “Behold [notice the transition of thought] 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 and 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.”
Does this passage seem like a contradiction to the rest of the chapter? I assure you it’s not. But we have to pay attention to what is different about this passage. There is something new introduced here. Or maybe I should say, there is someone new introduced here.
In the previous verses, there is no mention of God because the Preacher was solely focused, once again, on secular life (that is, a life without God). But here he acknowledges a second and equally real and observable reality. And that reality is that there is a sovereign God who providentially gives us things to enjoy while we’re living on this earth. But as we’ve learned in prior chapters (namely, chapter 3), the truth of God and the satisfaction it brings does not become our personal realities until we trust in him, until we fear him.
If we do, the very things that once vexed our souls become precious gifts that bring us joy. We then realize that these things are given to us by God. More than that, we realize that he not only gives us these material things, but he also gives us the power to enjoy them. The Preacher says this is a gift of God.
You see, wealth in a purely secular context leads to misery. The problem is that the secular mind assumes that wealth and joy invariably go together. They don’t. The Preacher says they are two distinct concepts. Wealth is wealth, and joy is joy. And only God through our faith in him can give joy (with or without wealth, by the way). So what we learn here, especially in verse 19, is that we must be in control of our attitudes toward wealth rather than allowing wealth to control us.
I love verse 20 in particular: “For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.”
Imagine a life so preoccupied with the joy of heaven, a joy that surpasses our natural understanding that the world’s vanity is barely a passing thought. Imagine being so consumed by jubilation that you hardly notice whether you’re wealthy or not. It’s not something you think about all that much. You certainly don’t worry about it. You don’t lose sleep at night because you have it, and you don’t lose sleep because you don’t. If you have any concerns about not having enough or gaining more, it’s only because you’re concerned about giving more.
The joy of God not only fills you with peace and contentment, but it turns you selfless. And when we’re not focused on ourselves, we’re not thinking about our material problems. We’re not thinking about all of those things we want. When we’re thinking beyond ourselves and about God, we’re thinking about eternity. And when we’re thinking about others, we’re thinking about their needs.
That’s the life I want. I don’t want to be guilty of not helping those I could have helped. I don’t want to waste my time chasing something that will never satisfy me. I don’t want to toil through years of stress for something I can’t even keep. I want to enjoy what I have no matter how much or how little. I want companionship. I want joy. I want satisfaction. I want celebration. I want contentment and happiness. All of these things are implied in this passage. All of them can be obtained, but they can only come from God.
Now, we’re not finished with the subjects of wealth and materialism, but we’ve reached a good stopping point. And now I want to leave you with a question. This is a question for all of us, but especially for those who have neglected God and other people for their pursuit of a job, or money, or perhaps something money can buy. And the question is this: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”
Preached at Joy Christian Church (Benson, NC) on February 5, 2017