Ecclesiastes 5:18-19, “18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment[a] 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.”
Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:9 introduces us to the dark and dangerous side of riches. It tells the tragic tale that those who hunger and thirst for money will not be satisfied. It calls us to abandon the sad, bad investment of the love of money as well as to embrace the wise investment of trusting God by enjoying his good gifts.
A Sad Investment
The first point in this passage is that the love of money is a sad investment; it cannot bring ultimate satisfaction. Money can’t buy joy any more than it can buy love. Eccl. 5:10, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money.” This theme is found in Ecclesiastes 5:8-12 and Ecclesiastes 6:7-9, “7 All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied.[a] 8 For what advantage has the wise man over the fool? And what does the poor man have who knows how to conduct himself before the living? 9 Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind.”
We all have an appetite for food and work to get it. When we do get it, we consume it. Yet we soon discover that a particular meal didn’t permanently satisfy our basic craving, because a few hours later the same cycle recurs. So also is the appetite for wealth. Whether we are rich or poor, smart or dumb, we can feed our money-loving appetite all we want but we will always want more. It is better to see rightly and be content with our daily bread than to be blind to the law of diminishing returns.
The theme of no satisfaction and the comparison between the rich and the poor touched on Ecclesiastes 6:7-9 also surface at the start of our text in Ecclesiastes 5:8-12 we read, “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.[a] 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.”
Here the poor have it both good and bad. What is good is their sleep. Unlike the insomnia caused by overindulgent indigestion (“the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep”), the sleep of the working-class man is “sweet, whether he eats little or much” (Eccl. 5:12). Perhaps part of the reason he sleeps well is that he is not worrying about the business—its employees, profits/losses, lawsuits, or a sudden financial swing or crash. The lack of fatty foods milling around in his digestive system helps, too. Bread and water digest better than the beer and meat consumed by the rich.
Yet sometimes the poor would trade in sweet sleep for better wages and working conditions. Those verses are notoriously difficult to translate and explain but they focus on the unjust oppression of the poor (Eccl. 5:8) is caused by bureaucratic business hierarchy that is corrupt from the top (“a king”) down (v.9). The whole system is run by guys who love money (v.10). The higher-ups line their pockets on the labor of the poor. Trickle-down economics has not trickled down here. The rich hoard their wealth while the poor make it for them. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19) has been erased from the lawbooks.
Solomon tells us not to be “amazed” at this (the fallen world is what it is, and there is very little we can do about it), but he does call it a “violation of justice and righteousness’ (Eccl. 5:10). In that sense, we should do whatever we can do and at the very least grieve over how unloving the lovers of money are to others.
There is a flaw in their system, however—a God-designed flaw. When the rich get money, they do not get satisfaction from it—not the satisfaction they thought it would bring. There is a God-made and God-shaped void that even a billion dollars can’t fill.
Moreover, the accumulation of money comes with some additional and unexpected costs. Loving money and having money to love can be costly. How so? Look at Ecclesiastes 5:11. The first half reads, “When goods increase, they increase who eat them.” Wealth attracts a circle of dependents.
The second half continues, “and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?” The answer to this rhetorical question is “none.” All that he can do is to watch the leeches slowly suck him dry.
He will need a maid to clean his big house. He will need a personal chief to cook his rich meals. He will need a gardener to trim the trees. He will need an accountant to keep the books. He will need a broker to invest his savings. One by one and week by week, in their different and seemingly subtle ways, they will all leech a little more and more and more from his back pocket. Then there is the family (which seems to continually extend outward the more he makes), and the old friends, and the new acquaintances (who never have enough and want a little more), and finally the tax man (who is usually the first at the front door to collect).
Wealth has its advantages, and the wisdom literature of the Bible is not averse to highlighting them. It also has its disadvantages, some of which are highlighted here. But the love of money is especially disadvantageous. It cannot satisfying the craving of the covetous: the stronger the money addiction, the wider the hole in the human heart.
A Bad Investment
The first point is that the love of money is a bad investment; it cannot bring ultimate satisfaction. The second point is that the love of money is a bad investment; it can bring you harm. This theme is found in Ecclesiastes 5:13-17 and Eccl. 6:1-6 and is summarized in Eccl. 5:13, “13 There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt,”
Hording can hurt the hoarder in at least three ways. First, riches can be suddenly and ruinously lost. Verse 14 throws the first match into this bonfire of vanities, “14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand.” As wise as it is to diversify earnings, salary and savings can still go up in smoke. Just ask Job. He did not foresee his personal stock-market crash (Job 1:13-19). He lost it all in one day! Or ask business leaders during a recession. They might or might not take their losses in faith, as Job did. Job 1:21, “21 And 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.” When the economy falters, some business people take their own lives. In Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters, Tim Keller writes of a tragic string of suicides that followed the global economic crisis that started in 2008:
The acting chief financial officer of Freddie Mac, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, hanged himself in his basement. The chief executive of Sheldon Good, a leading U.S. real estate auction firm, shot himself in the head behind the wheel of his red Jaguar. A French money manager who invested the wealth of many of Europe’s royal and leading families, and who had lost 1.4 billion of his clients’ money in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, slit his wrists and died in his Madison avenue office. A Danish senior executive with HSBC Bank hanged himself in the wardrobe of his E500-a-night suite in Knightsbridge, London.”[i]
To such powerful men, money was everything. It had power over them. And so when they lost everything, there was nothing worth living for. Thus, the sudden loss of riches is not an exclusively ancient phenomenon. Financial ruin can happen to anyone anywhere at any time.
In any case, riches are certain to disappear at death. This is the second way in which hoarding hurts. At the turn of the century, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts exhibited fourteen contemporary artists; works on the theme of vanity. A book was written to display and explain the works—the Vanitas: Meditations on Life and Death in Contemporary Art. For this exhibit Yukinori Yanagi contributed his work Dollar Pyramid. Using colored sand, he carefully replicated an enlarged dollar bill in fifteen fragmented parts enclosed in plastic boxes forming a pyramid, each connected by an invisible tunnel. Eventually the artists released a colony of ants into these sand paintings (contemporary art at its best!) A few weeks later, as the ants worked their way through each box—digging tunnels and carrying grains from one box to another—the image of money eroded.[ii]
We find a similar image in Ecclesiastes 5:15-16, “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?” Just as we were born without any clothes so we will leave this world with nothing. In the grave all our investments add up to zero. “You can’t take it with you” is not merely a creative bumper sticker; it is also a true scriptural slogan.
If that is the case (and we all know that it is), then what is the profit in money? Is wealth worth it? If we “cannot take anything out of the world” (1 Timothy 6:7), why toil for dust? If even the rich man “will carry nothing away” with him “when he dies” (Psalm 49:17), why make money our god? For as Martin Luther rightly asked, “What sort of god is it that is not even capable of defending himself against moths and rut?”
Third, without God’s gift to enjoy abundance, everything that money can give is joyless. As Luther again put it, “The wicked begin their hell in this life.” This touches back on the “I can’t get no satisfaction theme” Solomon explored earlier in Ecclesiastes 2:1-11. It puts an exclamation point on it, however, because of God’s clear role in the matter. It is not merely that money can’t buy joy it is also that God makes sure of it.
In skimming through Ecclesiastes 5:17 and 6:1-6, notice that God is mentioned twice. In 6:2 we read that God is the One who has given the particular rich man talked about here “wealth, possessions, and honor,” and yet he withholds the ability to enjoy it all—“God does not give him power to enjoy them.” Also, the word darkness is repeated three times.
The second and third references illustrate the darkness of the grave, specifically referring to a stillborn child, “For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered” (6:4). The physical darkness (death) of the stillborn child is better (can you imagine!?) then the spiritual and mental darkness that plagues the living rich, “Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger” (5:17).
In biblical time, eating was a social occasion intended to bring great joy. The picture here is the opposite: an unhappy man sitting in the dark eating meal after meal alone. The other picture is even grimmer and more shocking! For an Israelite, the ultimate earthly blessing would be to have wealth, a long life, and many children. Yet we read:
“3 If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. 5 Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he. 6 Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy[a] no good—do not all go to the one place?“ (Eccl. 6:3, 5-6).
This stillborn child who never lived is better off than the rich man who lived two thousand years and fathered a hundred children. Why? Because the child has found “rest,” while nothing can compensate for the rich man’s lack of joy. The child rests in peace, while the rich man is choked by what Jesus called “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches” (Matt. 13:22). The point? A long life is without enjoyment tis far worse than no life at all, and a hundred heirs with a thousand cares is a miscarriage of life.
A Wise Investment
The first point is that the love of money is a sad investment; it cannot bring you ultimate satisfaction. The second point is that the love of money is a bad investment. The final point—the point of all points (the center of the chiasm!)—is to make the wise investment of trusting God by enjoying His good gifts. Unlike the grievous evils that Solomon has seen in Ecclesiastes 5:8-17 and 6:1-9, in 5:18-20 he writes of the great joys:
God is mentioned four times, and for the fourth time in Ecclesiastes eating, drinking, and finding enjoyment are recommended (Eccl. 2:24-25; 3:12-13, 22). What is taught is this: We are to accept our “lot” in life (5:19). We are dust-destined creatures. So, then, work hard. Find enjoyment in that work (vv.18, 20). Eat up and drink down the simple, everyday pleasures that money can buy (v.18). And acknowledge the absolute sovereignty of God in all things: as not a drop of rain falls to the ground unless God so wills it, so not an ounce of joy flows through our hearts unless the Lord gives it. God is the Giver of all good things. He alone is the Giver of joy! Just as riches are heaven-sent (2 Chron. 1:11-12; Job 1:21), so, too, is the power to enjoy them.
Too often we are like Israel in the wilderness. Though God promised to provide us with daily manna from heaven, we want to hoard what we are given. We hoard because deep down we do not believe that the Giver will continue to give. But listen: the “insatiable materialistic soul” can be satiated only by totally dependence on our always-sovereign and happy Lord.
Every day we are to come to God with open hands, admitting our anxieties and confessing our idolatries, and asking him to make us more and more dependent on his plan and provision for us—its molding and unfolding in our lives. We are to work and work hard. But we are to work hardest at sitting at the feet of our Lord, the “one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42).
We sit at the feet of our Maker and Master because he alone gives the days of our lives (Eccl. 5:18), as well as “wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them” (v.19). To quote the venerable British philosopher Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” (Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Out of Our Heads (RCA Studios, 1965). What we need is for God to give us the ability to enjoy possessions. If you do not have that joy, pray for it. If you cannot sing, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4), ask God for the strength to grab hold of blessed contentment (Phil 4:10-13).
My Treasure Thou Art
For many people—the finally-rich lottery winner and the little-bit-poorer lottery loser—coveting money is idolatry (Col. 3:5). Against this idol God’s Word comes with the hammer, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5; Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). This is the greatest commandment. God first! Jesus restates this command with reference to himself, “37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matt. 10:37) You can’t have money first and Jesus second, “No one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24).
Christianity seeks to destroy money as the god of our hearts, and erects in its place the understanding that money is a blessing from God and thus a bridge to God—who is to be our highest treasure. As we sing in the classic hymn “Be Thou My Vision”:
Riches I heed not, not man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and thou only, first in my heart,[iii]
Throughout His earthy ministry, Jesus warned about the deceitfulness of riches (Matt. 6:24; 13:22; Luke 12:15) and the futility of greed (Matt. 19:22-24; Luke 12:16-20). Moreover, he admonished us to be “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21), to seek first his kingdom (v.31), and to trust and thank God for provision (Matt. 6:19-33). Following Jesus (1 Tim. 6:3), Paul speaks of the damnable dangers of the love of money (v.10) and the uncertainty of riches, charging wealthy Christians instead to “set their hopes on God who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (v.17). Likewise the author of Hebrews wrote what can serve as a wonderful summary of our text in Hebrews 13:5, “5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
When it comes to money, we all face the same choice: between acknowledging Jesus as king and submitting to His Lordship or else remaining under our own perceived rule over our lives. If we keep the puny crown on our big heads, we will find the investment to be both sad and bad. Greed will not satisfy. Even the green that greed sometimes gets will not gratify. But if we allow King Jesus (who is King whether we acknowledge it or not) to graciously remove our crowns and toss them into the seat, we find that seeking first the kingdom of God is the wisest investment of all. Trusting God by enjoying his good gifts brings us all that we truly need. For as the wisest age ever to live once instructed us in John 6:27, “27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.”
[i] Timothy J. Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The empty Promises of money, sex, and power, and the only hope that matters (New York: Dutton: 2009), ix-x.
[ii] John B. Ravenal, Vanitas: Meditations on Life and Death in Contemporary Art (Richmond, VA: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2000), 27-28, 64-65 (plate 14).
[iii] High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou Art.” (Mary E Byrne, trans., “Be Though My Vision” (1905).