Unless it is appreciated and stewarded in obedience to God and his Word, wealth proves to be nothing but a burden and vanity.
The historical witness is unanimous that no political program is able to gloss over the oppression manifest when man acts as his own law and god. It is in God’s house and by his Word that we first learn this reality. Israel learned it, and the true church has learned it and so calls upon all authority to worship and serve the living God.
As we emerge from the house of God, we confront a world where oppression and injustice proliferate; and we are not immune from its effects –indeed the reality of oppression can be quite depressing. Yet in Ecclesiastes the Teacher reminds us that God does not just meet us in his house, he meets us in his world. He meets with us in the ordinary stuff of life from gardening to homework – for although we are not immune to the injustice and oppression of man in a fallen world, we can have intimacy with God, receive his gifts with joy, and rejoice in our labors. God is still in control and in the midst of appetite run riot, God’s purpose and will prevails.
The Root of the Problem
We were created in God’s image, to be self-controlled, creative or productive, and obedient in these activities to our maker. By wisdom and knowledge the goal of man’s life was the cultivation of the kingdom of God, and our joy and satisfaction was to be in knowing God and accomplishing this purpose. In rebellion however, instead of seeking God’s kingdom, appetite has been corrupted into an ‘insatiable want’ that cannot be satisfied by the things it sets its heart on – worldly wealth, goods and security in them. Jesus came to the heart of this challenge when he said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (justice) and all these things will be added to you as well” (Matt. 6:33). But sinful man does not believe God’s way is the route to satisfaction. Deceived in his sins, he thinks his way is better than God’s and the Teacher shows us that God frustrates man’s plans for satisfaction by his own way. His wants are never satisfied, no matter how much he accumulates in the world.
Want or desire in itself is not a product of the Fall – man’s original ‘want’ was good in seeking dominion under God for his glory, but the redirection of that desire by sin is destructive. God’s way leads to satisfaction and joy, the other to a ravenous and insatiable craving and slavery to want. A good illustration of this is the way folk in the wild Canadian north have historically killed wolves. A sharp knife is placed in the ground with the blade facing up. It is then covered in the fresh blood of an animal. The wolf comes to lick the blood and in the process cuts its tongue. In its craving for the blood it does not notice its wound and does not realize that it is soon drinking its own blood till it grows faint and dies.
One of the most obvious contemporary illustrations of a self-destructive appetite or craving is pornography. Man’s good desire for sexual intimacy is corrupted by sin into a ‘want’ that is thought to satisfy in itself without reference to God. Instead of seeking the godly fulfillment of sexual desire in marriage as ordained from the beginning, it is sought in the depersonalization and objectification of sexuality and treated as something that can, in itself, satisfy man’s needs – but which only exacerbates the problem. Instead of satisfaction, an insatiable craving is established that is never satisfied no matter how much is consumed. It serves instead to steadily alienate people from real, healthy relationships, and ends in impotence.
This is a clear picture of man redirecting godly desires on his own rebellious terms and therefore seeking ultimate fulfillment in corrupted appetites rather than God. Because man is God’s creature, the ‘I’ or ‘self’ at the centre of human experience cannot be understood or fulfilled by any aspect of created reality that surrounds him. Even the self-conscious ‘I’ disappears into vanity and meaninglessness when not understood in reference to God our maker (this is the crisis of philosophy). Appetite’s ‘want’ redirected toward man’s own sinful desire is vanity and a chasing after the wind.
The Violation of Justice and Righteousness
The first place we are pointed by the teacher where ungoverned and misdirected human wants are on display is in the realm of government and state administration (Ecc. 5:8-9). He tells us not to be surprised at oppression and corruption, for man is crooked and fallen. And this verse affirms in fact the ubiquity of corruption and oppression in officialdom.
Consider the US primaries. People are fed up with corruption and manipulation. Mrs. Clinton may well herself be indicted by the FBI for her corruption. Her competitor believes the answer is in the envy and avarice-driven system of Marxism. None of this should surprise us –all these people are fallen men and women in whom crookedness resides. When you walk out the House of God, beware, says the Teacher, but don’t be amazed that people are trampled on by ‘the system.’ Without submission to God’s Word, what can prevent the organs of power from becoming tools of plunder by people anxious to acquire the treasures of life? The love of money is at the root of all kinds of evil!
It is thus not surprising that the corruption in officialdom is often carried out and called for in the name of ‘justice.’ The powers of distribution for so-called ‘equality’ are largely in the hands of a centralized and increasingly totalizing state with corrupt figures all too often lining their own pockets. Because justice is a religious concept, when denuded of its biblical dress as an aspect of man’s idea, it inevitably becomes a progressivist myth, simply an expedient means of social control by fallen men and women. One social commentator describes the problem well:
If men of wealth control the state, the law becomes their tool to subjugate the poor and make them poorer. If poor men control the state, the law then is used to rob the rich and all hard-working men to support those who want to live on the proceeds of robbery. In the one case it is called the maintenance of social order, and in the other it is called social justice and social welfare, but in both cases it is robbery. And today, because God’s righteousness is despised, the nations of the world are becoming robber states and lands without justice.
This is the challenge the church has always faced in one form or another. As Augustine put it, “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves but little kingdoms?” It is the religion of humanism/paganism, reinforced, endorsed and embodied by the modern state that has divorced justice from the righteousness of God and enshrines theft into law, whilst colluding with corporations and banks to rob the populace of their future – and call it bail outs.
All this runs counter to the biblical view that human beings are given a stewardship over creation under God, to care, cultivate, develop and transform wilderness into gardens and raw materials into useful instruments of culture, commerce and civilization. Production, conservation, and replenishment (stewardship) are a mandate in order that the creation is not plundered but cultivated and its resources developed and replenished for the blessing of all mankind (Gen. 1:26–29; 4:18–22).
Indeed, according to St. Paul, the created order groans for man to take his proper place as God’s dominion people in Christ Jesus. The earth cries out for its cultivation in terms of the kingdom of God. This is why the Teacher tells us, “this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.”
A king committed to cultivated fields (Ecc. 5:9) is also a government committed to a culture of family/private property rights protected from state seizure, with an economy centred on production, and being productive, not obsessed with consumption, accumulating debt (national or personal) and printing worthless paper and calling it money (the economists call this quantitative easing, which is a fancy term for theft).
To declaim corruption and the love of money is not an attack on wealth as evil. Solomon was one of the wealthiest men who ever lived, and his wealth was God’s reward for asking for wisdom. However he also says, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.” This love of money (v.10) is the dedication of life to a rival God and is a want that is never satisfied. At the same time liberty is not poverty, but the love of God and thankfulness for his gifts.
The Problems of Wealth
The Teacher then points out to those whose deepest desire is wealth is that what it seems to promise it cannot deliver. First, to have wealth is to quickly find that there are many who want to eat it … family, friends, the tax man and many others. The wealthy attract attention and many people want to be them, be like them and have what they have. And so the ungodly wealthy rightly perceive their situation as a dangerous one. The man who loves wealth is consumed in his quest to guard it against loss or diminution. The ordinary employee sleeps well since he isn’t worried about preserving wealth he doesn’t have, and his modest diet lets him sleep better than the luxuriant foods of the wealthy (Ecc. 5:12).
This is not to say that industrious poverty is a virtue over wealth; rather, with an inordinate love of wealth comes many troubles. Instead of rejoicing in God for his gifts and one’s productive accomplishments, the lover of wealth cannot rest easy. A society caught in that trap of craving wealth alone is facing decline. The consumer lust of man in our culture that drives him to constantly want the latest and best thing (and he will go into much debt for it) because he is sold an ‘image’ of what life will be like when one possesses it; the lust that drives people to buy lottery tickets rather than cultivating something by being productive, is a culture on its last legs.
Further, the one who loves wealth will find it is fickle – an unreliable god (v. 13-17). The hoarder who doesn’t sow his wealth can lose it any number of ways. Wealth proves to be a bad security plan for those who make it their all. It cannot be ‘safeguarded’ against sudden change or misfortune, whether in natural disaster, a deal gone bad, a collapsing market or currency, or theft, or gambling money away, so that there is nothing to give to the children (Ecc. 5:14). Many people lost all their pensions and savings in 2008, in institutions thought to be bulletproof. I had friends who lost millions – whose portfolios were decimated. This threat terrifies the one who craves wealth for its own sake. It is a grievous thing to sinful people that they take nothing out of the world. The ancients stocked their tombs with riches that were plundered (sometimes centuries later) by thieves. But we bring nothing in, we take nothing out. The thing more certain than wealth is death.
Appreciating and Enjoying the Gifts of God
If we are to escape the false god of want and consumption, we must learn to make God our only true security and rejoice in him whatever our circumstance! This means relying on his grace.
That which is truly good in life is good because it is accompanied by God’s presence. If we fail to recognise this we will encounter the bitter experience of man under the sun (Ecc. 6:1-2). One can have all the world has to offer and find no joy – consider any of the recent celebrity suicides. God gives wealth to some, but no power to enjoy it. It is God who gives wealth and God who enables us to enjoy his gifts. It is God who allows us poverty and enables us to be thankful and rejoice in life despite it – He teaches us to be content with much and with nothing, to do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:12-13).
Zack Eswine points out that the Teacher offers us two analogies to bring home this point. First he considers a man with more children than you can count, prosperous, long-lived and with numerous heirs, with all the good things life has to offer but ‘has no burial.’ This phrase designates an isolation from true community and benefits of true godliness. It is reminiscent of the parable of the rich man in Luke 12:13-21 who hoarded his wealth, took early retirement to try and enjoy it, who was rich toward himself but impoverished toward God. He was a fool, because his life was required of him the very night he hatched his plan. He gained the world, had no time to enjoy it, and lost his soul.
The second analogy is a sobering one. He tells us that a stillborn child is better off than the man of wealth who has no thought for God and has no burial (is cut off from true community with God). The stillborn child, who is knit together by God in its mother’s womb, has a very brief time under the sun and is dead at birth. The child comes into the vanity of a fallen world and goes unknown in the womb and likewise its name is covered, for even if the child is named we have no time to know them – their true character is hidden from us. The Teacher says, “Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he” (Ecc. 6:5).
The soul is never satisfied by all that man acquires. If we do not submit to God and acknowledge that the material dimensions of this life have meaning only as they serve spiritual ends, the end result is disillusionment and despair. Our Lord, the one greater than Solomon put it with total finality when he said, “Blessed (happy) are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness (justice) for they shall be satisfied.”
Only as we want and hunger for God’s kingdom, for his justice and righteousness, do we find life and joy. Here alone is our thirst quenched. As we seek first this kingdom, all the other things we need will be added to us.