If the writer of Ecclesiastes felt there was an issue with the consumption rates of people in his day, what would he think of our appetite levels in the 21st century? To that question, we see once again how this book is both timeless and simultaneously timely to the reader. In this post I will break the text into three sections, all under the theme of consumption which is pointed out in various ways.
Don’t be surprised if you see a poor person being oppressed by the powerful and if justice is being miscarried throughout the land. For every official is under orders from higher up, and matters of justice get lost in red tape and bureaucracy. Even the king milks the land for his own profit! (Ecclesiastes 5:8-9, NLT)
In the first section, the Preacher points out the oppression of the poor by the powerful in the name of organizational growth. As societies emerge to the point of governance, bureaucracy increases, creating inequity between the stronger ruling classes and the weaker working class. At the top of the pyramid sits the king, who consumes profit from all who are beneath him. His initial word of caution, “Don’t be surprised” recalls the words of warning that the prophet Samuel spoke to the Israelites when they demanded a king. (cf. 1 Samuel 8:1-22)
Those who love money will never have enough. How meaningless to think that wealth brings true happiness! The more you have, the more people come to help you spend it. So what good is wealth—except perhaps to watch it slip through your fingers! People who work hard sleep well, whether they eat little or much. But the rich seldom get a good night’s sleep. There is another serious problem I have seen under the sun. Hoarding riches harms the saver. Money is put into risky investments that turn sour, and everything is lost. In the end, there is nothing left to pass on to one’s children. We all come to the end of our lives as naked and empty-handed as on the day we were born. We can’t take our riches with us. And this, too, is a very serious problem. People leave this world no better off than when they came. All their hard work is for nothing—like working for the wind. Throughout their lives, they live under a cloud—frustrated, discouraged, and angry. (Ecclesiastes 5:10-17, NLT)
The second section deals with the challenge of possessions. Do we possess our possessions? Or do our possessions possess us? Here, Qoheleth offers a series of reasons for not making the pursuit of personal wealth the goal of our lives.
- The pursuit of wealth can be both addictive and unsatisfactory. The law of diminishing returns applies to the pursuit of wealth as much as any narcotic: more and more produces less and less. Wealth can be a wonderful servant, but is always a terrible taskmaster.
- Wealth attracts “hangers on” who are more interested in your money than they are of you personally. Do I need to cite any number of news stories about entertainers, athletes, or lottery winners who have been financially drained by those who demand help?
- As wealth increases, so does anxiety, thus reducing the person’s ability to sleep.
- Wealth that is accumulated is taken our of circulation and serves no purpose other than to exist.
- Risky investments may be made in order to extend wealth, thus endangering the inheritance they plan to leave to their children.
- Ultimately, we die, leaving the world no better than we began at birth. This can foster frustration, discouragement and even resentment. Once again, death is the ultimate leveler of the playing field.
Which brings us to the final thought of chapter 5.
Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life. And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it. To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God. God keeps such people so busy enjoying life that they take no time to brood over the past. (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20, NLT)
In the midst of such a dark, dismal evaluation, comes the wise counsel of how to possess our possessions appropriately. The first step is to embrace the joy of living each present moment, respecting the brevity of life. The second is to accept one’s wealth and health as gifts from God. By acknowledging that all we have comes from God as an act of grace, we can be thankful without resentment and joyful without fear.