Wealth and Joy
Here is a misfortune on earth that I have seen: Wealth hoarded by its owner to his own misery. Then that wealth was lost through bad luck; although he fathered a son, he has nothing left to give him. Just as he came forth from his mother’s womb, naked will he return as he came, and he will take nothing in his hand that he may carry away from his toil. This is another misfortune: Just as he came, so will he go. What did he gain from toiling for the wind? Surely, he ate in darkness every day of his life, and he suffered greatly with sickness and anger.
I have seen personally what is the only beneficial and appropriate course of action for people: to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in all their hard work on earth during the few days of their life which God has given them, for this is their reward. To every man whom God has given wealth, and possessions, he has also given him the ability to eat from them, to receive his reward and to find enjoyment in his toil; these things are the gift of God. For he does not think much about the fleeting days of his life because God keeps him preoccupied with the joy he derives from his activity (Ecclesiastes 5:13-20).
Humans persistently tell themselves more money or resources will solve their problems despite all evidence to the contrary. The Preacher lamented it and reinforced the kind of joy people can expect to receive in this life.
Throughout Ecclesiastes 1:1-5:7 the Preacher has meditated upon the hevel of life under the sun: all is vain, futile – truly absurd. He compares most human endeavors toward meaning as “chasing after wind”: people pursue pleasure, wealth, wisdom, or other things looking for ultimate purpose and satisfaction and will be disappointed and frustrated by all of them. In Ecclesiastes 5:8-20 the Preacher returned to the subjects which tend to consume human activity, life, and thus aspiration: labor, wealth, and joy. The Preacher understood how oppression is perpetuated by those in authority gaining some benefit from it and set forth how wealth does not lead to an elimination of anxiety and expenses, but oftentimes, a heightening of them (Ecclesiastes 5:8-12).
The Preacher persisted in his explorations of the underbelly of wealth and riches by considering stories often told, and generally with great bitterness and lamentation. Think of a man who hoards wealth to his own harm (Ecclesiastes 5:13). Perhaps the now classical example of such a person is the “pre-conversion” Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: fantastically wealthy but a miserly hoarder of wealth, cruel and heartless toward other people, a cause of great suffering to others and one who would not be missed when he perished. While the Preacher would no doubt find a character like Ebenezer Scrooge lamentable, he would ask us to take another step, and imagine a person like Ebenezer Scrooge, with all kinds of money, finally willing to commit his wealth to some kind of business venture which failed and led to the loss of everything (Ecclesiastes 5:14; NET “bad luck” associated with a “bad business deal,” with some kind of misfortune coming to the endeavor). The Preacher observed how such a man came out of his mother’s womb naked with nothing, and he would die with nothing, and not be able to take anything with him (Ecclesiastes 5:15). The Preacher would have us “sit” in such a man’s situation for a moment: imagine hoarding wealth, the sort of which can only be obtained without regard to the plight of one’s neighbors and community, often with a single-minded devotion which alienates such a person from their friends and family, and then losing it all when the business investment and venture failed through some kind of misfortune (Ecclesiastes 5:16-17). He might well have thought he was investing to make more to provide security for his child or children, but now he has nothing to give to them; he has worked hard to no end in bitterness and anger and ultimately for no good purpose.
The truly bitter part of the Preacher’s observations in Ecclesiastes 5:13-17 involves its unrelenting persistence in humanity. People persist in devoting their lives to the accumulation of wealth to their own hurt and certainly do not become better people in the process. Jesus would warn about those who were consumed with greed and their ultimate fate in Luke 12:13-21; He made it plain no one can serve both God and money in Matthew 6:25, yet people persist in trying to accommodate both. Furthermore, people persist in starry-eyed optimism regarding various business schemes and investments by which they might obtain greater wealth. A select few might obtain great wealth in the process, yet a good number will find themselves in a worse financial position afterward than they were at the beginning. We speak of the maxim how no one, on their deathbed, wishes they had spent more time working in the office; Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” proves an evergreen lament of those who have prioritized career over family. And to what end?
The Preacher’s declaration in Ecclesiastes 5:15 proves true well beyond the person striving for wealth, and humans have virulently resisted it for thousands of years. Around the world various cultures have buried the dead with all sorts of symbols of wealth and power; we know such things since such objects have been plundered from ancient times until now. None of us came into the world with anything; none of us can take anything with us. We want to hold onto things tightly, presuming we “own” them as our “property,” or we strongly value them as cherished items (or people!); but we will never be able to take any of them with us. We do not even maintain the amount of power or control over them as we might want to think; anything we use is destined either to perish in its using or become the possession of another, and no relationship under the sun will persist after we perish in death. The Preacher’s insights ought to remind us of the futility of “ownership”; in truth we are but stewards of God’s blessings which He has bestowed upon us, and He will hold us to account regarding how we have encouraged, leveraged, and/or managed those gifts and blessings (cf. Matthew 25:15-30).
Since we cannot take any of it with us, the hoarding of wealth is futile. Either it, or us, will be here one minute and gone the next. Human labor and search for meaning under the sun is futility and chasing after wind. These observations are body blows for people who have derived meaning and purpose in life from such things; we might wonder what might be good or enjoyable about life at all. Yet, as a result of all he has witnessed, and particularly the matters described in Ecclesiastes 5:8-15, the Preacher commends finding joy in eating, drinking, and in one’s labor, for such is the reward God has given for people in their lives under the sun (Ecclesiastes 5:18). If a human has received some measure of wealth and possessions from God and is able to eat and drink from them, and if he or she enjoys their work, such a person has received all of this from God as a gift; by focusing on the joy they obtain from their labor and relationships he or she will have fewer opportunities to dwell upon their short and ultimately futile time under the sun (Ecclesiastes 5:19-20).
We might be tempted to reduce the Preacher’s observations to a hedonistic Epicureanism, as if since nothing really matters let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. While Epicureanism and its conclusions derived from similar observations regarding the general futility of life under the sun, Epicurus and the Preacher come from very different perspectives about God and the greater order of the cosmos (or lack thereof). The Preacher also is not encouraging everyone to “work to live,” or to store up wealth in a big barn and then live off of it in a placid retirement; far from it. Instead, the Preacher here reinforces his ultimate purposes in his discourse: we humans tend toward investing meaning in the pretenses we establish about our labors and look for happiness on a level never guaranteed, and which does not satisfy even if obtained. It is the silver lining of Adam’s curse in Genesis 3:17-19: mankind can only eat bread on the basis of his effort and the sweat of his brow, but mankind can eat from the fruit of labor. Labor might be futile under the sun, but such does not mean we cannot find enjoyment in our labor. For good reason we encourage young people to explore career paths in fields they enjoy; we intuitively understand the Preacher’s wisdom, for it is a lot better to do what you love and enjoy your labor than to spend countless hours in miserable drudgery wishing you were doing anything else. And when you do things you enjoy, and survive on it, you will be well distracted from the ultimate futility we experience in life. And the same goes for the cultivation of meaningful relationships.
We may not like what the Preacher has observed, but we know he is not wrong. What is more miserable about our lives in futility than to spend it all in agony, anger, bitterness, and despair? Life under the sun may be futile; we cannot take anything on this earth with us. Yet we can enjoy life: we can enjoy what we do, we can enjoy the fruit of our labor, we can enjoy sharing our blessings with others, and we can focus on the good gifts which God has blessed us, and in so doing be effectively distracted from the futility and suffering of life. Our hope can never rest in anything under the sun, but instead in what God has accomplished in Jesus and the hope of resurrection in Him. May we give thanks for God’s blessings, prove effective stewards of them, and obtain the resurrection of life in Jesus!
Ethan R. Longhenry
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