FROM ECCLESIASTES 5:8-20
People have tried to find satisfaction in the temporal, material things of this world since the fall. Jesus repeatedly warns of the folly of trying to find our treasure in this world. In the Old Testament, the wisdom literature (which includes Ecclesiastes) frequently speaks on wealth and there are numerous warnings about the potential dangers and deception of possessing material wealth. Ecclesiastes, written by a man who had very great wealth, cautions us about placing our hope for lasting satisfaction in wealth. This materialism theme is one we’ll see again later on in Ecclesiastes. This repetition is intended to cause us to tightly focus our attention on this topic. A theme that God chooses to repeat so often in his inspired book must be of profound importance to our souls. This is especially the case in a culture like ours that is absent any warnings about possessing wealth. The words “wealth” and “warning” are seen as mutually exclusive in much of America. Wealth is not something to be cautioned about—it’s universally good and exalted as being essential to a better, fuller life.
Last week at the Oscars, in that theatre filled with rich people dressed in obscenely expensive clothing, wealth and the value system that exalts it were unashamedly flaunted. Each guest who attended the Oscars received what they called a “goodie bag” reportedly valued at $45,000—just for showing up. Much of the television audience, upon seeing those beautiful, limousine-riding, goodie bag-bearing people no doubt felt at least a twinge of envy. According to our cultural value system--they had it all—fame, talent, money, beauty and celebrity. America’s most seductive idols were on center stage for a spiritually destitute nation to look on and covet. From a spiritual perspective, the Oscars are essentially a very long commercial promoting the best this materialistic, dark world has to offer.
Our text this morning digs underneath the sequins and satin and exposes the root lie at the center of that value system. The Scripture strips away the external skin of glitz and glamour to reveal what this world works so hard to conceal. That is—none of those cultural idols will do a thing to genuinely enrich your life in the areas that matter most or satisfy your deepest longings. The text we read a few minutes ago pulls down the curtain on the lie of materialism and reveals reasons why wealth and the intentional pursuit of it is in fact, an empty cistern. It divides these reasons why wealth will never satisfy into two categories. The first and much shorter section looks at the dangers of wealth on a corporate scale—in a business or government. The second section brings these reasons down to the individual level and as he concludes; the author reveals what indeed CAN bring deep satisfaction to our lives.
Verses 8-9 says, “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.” This first reason why wealth not only doesn’t satisfy, but its abuse can often bring pain is implied in these verses and that is—Money is often accompanied by oppression and social injustice. The author describes a context where those in positions of power and implied wealth are oppressing the poor and violating justice and righteousness. He says, when you see that happening, “do not be amazed at the matter.” Then he gives the reason why this should not surprise us, “…for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.” The question is—how does this hierarchy of officials bring oppression to the poor? There are at least two possibilities.
First, this verse is a testimony to the long-standing evils of bureaucracy. Like materialism, bureaucracy is nothing new. One scholar posits this connection between the oppression of the poor and bureaucracy. He speaks of “…the frustrations of oppressive bureaucracy with its endless delays and excuses, while the poor cannot afford to wait… justice is lost between the tiers of the hierarchy.” Bureaucracy can smother people who need to accomplish something with any expedience. Anyone who’s had significant interaction with the IRS, DMV or tried to get a building permit can attest to that. Red tape can be oppressive—especially if you’re poor and every moment you’re standing in a line somewhere is a moment you should be working to put food on the table. A second possible connection between oppressing the poor and this hierarchy of officials is found in one of the verbs in the verse. He says, “…one official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.” The verb “watched” in context may mean that these officials were watching out for each other’s interest. You know how this works. Simon is a common laborer living in ancient Israel who lives hand to mouth. His wife dies and he later meets another woman with two kids he wants to marry and adopt her children as his own. This requires some legal action so he goes down to the courthouse where he encounters an official—a clerk who collects his information and reports it to a judge who acts on his request to make everything legal. However, the judge, unbeknownst to the public, has made an “arrangement” with his clerk in these cases. He is to charge 10 dollars for this legal service. The actual fee for this service is two dollars but the judge tells the clerk that if he’ll cooperate, he’ll skim off a dollar for him while he keeps the rest of the “fee” for himself.
This kind of corruption is as old as the fall and it still happens all the time--here in America, but especially in the third world where it’s the only way things get done in many countries. In those places, the people just assume there is corruption and this oppresses countless people, keeping them from getting what they need. Seeking after material wealth can cause oppression and social injustice to others. That’s a broad, corporate reason for his warnings against pursuing wealth. As Qohelet turns to verse ten, he states a truth the next seven verses will unpack. He says, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this is vanity.” Here is yet one more thing the Preacher rejects as being incapable of bringing satisfaction to us. He’s already eliminated pleasure, wisdom and our careers. Now he adds money as something that will never give us ultimate satisfaction in spite of how convincingly it may promise it. There’s never enough money. John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil and more than ten times richer than Bill Gates was once asked, “How much money is enough?” His classic response was, “Just a little bit more.” Our culture tells us the problem with money is the lack of it. It’s a supply problem. The Bible says the problem with money is—it’s inherently unsatisfying. The issue is not the lack of supply—it’s expecting money to do what it’s incapable of doing. Trying to get meaning and satisfaction from money is like trying to get blood from a turnip—it can’t give that—it wasn’t intended to. The amount of it you have is irrelevant—the bottom line isn’t the bottom line.
That’s why the Preacher tells us that if we desire to find satisfaction in wealth--our desire will never be satisfied—it will be insatiable. Next, he gives five reasons why money or the pursuit of wealth can never satisfy us. The first is in verse 11. “11 When goods increase, they increase who eat them...” In other words, as Randy Alcorn says of this verse, The more wealth you possess, the more people (including the government) will come after it. It’s easy to think, “If we could just have a bit more cushion—just another X amount of money, we’d be set.” If we in time earn X amount of money, we may very well discover that the increase in funds has made us little if any better off than we were before the boost in pay. One reason is because--the more you earn, the more consumers show up. One way this manifests is that as you acquire more money, you discover you have “needs” you never knew you had before.
Your couch was just fine when your main financial goal was simply trying to feed your family. But now that you’re earning more money, you notice that in truth—you’re in desperate need of a new one. When you earned $50,000 and your expectation of a car was just getting from one place to another as cheaply as possible, a used Toyota was just fine to drive. But years later, God has blessed you and you’re earning three or four times that much and many of your new friends drive new luxury cars or big SUV’s. You gradually come to discover what had somehow escaped you before--that is--you need one of those too and you can list several compelling reasons for this previously unknown need. The second half of the verse paints a pathetic picture of the level of satisfaction our new purchases bring, “and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?” As you get more money and possessions, the payoff is not that you are significantly more satisfied with life or your life has become more meaningful. According to Qohelet, here’s the payoff—you get to take what you’ve purchased… and look at it! We’ve all done this. We save for something and are finally able to purchase it. We excitedly take possession of it and…we look at it sitting there on the driveway or in the jewelry box, closet, at the lake or the cabin. At first, that look brings a thrill but in very little time, you stop gawking at it because the newness is worn off and you’re already saving up for your next purchase that you’ll be able…to look at. Wealth can never satisfy.
A second reason why that’s true is because: The more wealth you possess, the more headaches you suffer. That’s the big point of verse 12. “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.” The laborer in the Ancient Middle East earned only enough to get by and they worked long and hard—like laborers typically do. The Preacher says, “They work hard, but they sure sleep well.” That third of their life they spend horizontal is sweet to them. They get good rest—they look forward to bedtime. Conversely, the rich person has a full stomach that brings indigestion that hinders his sleep. The principle is--riches can bring overindulgence and overindulgence brings misery. Behind the literal meaning about indigestion, however is probably the idea that those who have a lot of money also have a lot of stress to go with it. Their lives are filled with details and plans and proposals and schemes and strategies and challenges—all somehow related to their wealth. They go to bed and their minds are focused on problems or potential problems that will require solutions, fixes, negotiations, a new purchase etc… They go to bed but they aren’t sleeping. While the poor laborer is enjoying sweet, restful sleep, the rich are wrestling with corporate demons every night. According to Qohelet, those kinds of headaches and sleep-depriving stressors disqualify wealth as something that will satisfy.
A third reason why pursuing wealth will never satisfy is: The more wealth you possess, the more you can lose. Verse 13 says, “13 There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand.” These verses speak to the person who acquires some wealth, but in his greed he hoards it—doesn’t share it with anyone to the point of bringing hurt on himself. Hoarding alienates you from others. When the man in this example decides he wants to use his wealth to make more money—assumedly so he could hoard that too—he loses it in a bad venture. It doesn’t have to be a bad venture; it may just be a bad economy. The simple truth is--if you don’t possess wealth, you won’t feel the pain of losing it. First Timothy 6:17 says, “17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.”
Wealth is by its very nature is--uncertain. Things you could never have expected can occur to empty your investment portfolio. If you build your happiness on the shifting sand of uncertainty, you’re bound to end up unhappy at some point. What’s worse—and this is especially shameful in the East is--if you shipwreck financially, your family goes down with you. “and he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand.” This was and is a source of great shame in the Middle East. Proverbs 13:2 says, “22 A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children…” There was and is—the expectation that you’ll leave an inheritance to those who follow after you. Yet, this man leaves nothing to his son who in many cases would have been counting on that inheritance so that he could leave something for his offspring.
That leads to the next reason why pursuing wealth will never satisfy. Verses 15-16 tell us, “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?” The fourth reason wealth and its pursuit will never satisfy is because: The more wealth you possess, the more you leave behind. This is a common Biblical theme. Job states the same truth when he lost all his wealth and Paul echoes both the Preacher and Job in First Timothy 6:7, “7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.” The implicit truth underlying all these verses is—nothing that becomes meaningless to you at your death can bring ultimate satisfaction--not money, not our families, not our degrees or skills or careers—those are of absolutely no benefit to us the moment our heart stops. The acid test to determine whether someone or something will bring ultimate meaning to your life is—will it still be satisfying to me in the next life? Answer that one question and you’ll know if you’re chasing an idol. If you’ve never trusted in Christ, what you’ll bring with you to the next life is not your car, spouse, boat or estate—you’ll bring your sin and that sin will bring you eternal destruction. But if you are living for God—if you’re trusting in Christ as your ultimate treasure, he’ll satisfy you forever. In fact, the satisfaction he brings in this world is only a foretaste of what he will bring when we meet him in glory.
A fifth and final reason why wealth and its pursuit will never bring satisfaction is in verse 17. “17 Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.” For the reasons he has listed (and for many more he does not), this is too often the end result of someone who’s looking to wealth for their satisfaction—isolation, confusion and bitterness. We’re witnessing in America the great social isolation wealth brings. Fifty years ago, many people spent their summer evenings with friends and family sitting out on their porches. They had deep relationships forged through countless hours spent together just talking. Neighbors would come over and chat and share their problems without being self-conscious about it and when you were out on a walk, you’d do the same with your neighbors. You knew most of the people on your block by name.
Now, we have wealth and we are either too busy managing it to develop deep relationships or--it enables us to buy things that consume the time we used to spend building relationships. We’ve left the porch—most houses don’t even have porches anymore. We’ve gone inside to explore the “deep, abiding” relationships provided by the internet, Facebook, Netflix, Play Station, television, smart phones, Ipads, mp3’s, CD’s, DVD’s of all kinds and more. Those all contribute to the isolation we experience compared to our grandparents. Isolation in turn can bring sickness, vexation and anger or bitterness. The devil must laugh to think people created to find their joy in God instead believe his lie that money and the things it can buy is the secret to satisfaction. And the sweetest moment of his diabolical revelry must be when he sees a person created in God’s image—having wasted their one life chasing after his lie--sitting in some form of darkness and sickness, vexation and anger. All they have left to do is die and he’ll then claim their soul as his prize.
That’s horribly depressing and the author wants us to feel that. It’s pathetic for a person to live and die in the emptiness that comes from vainly chasing after satisfaction through wealth. The remaining verses point to a very different option available to us. “18 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. 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. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.” The author makes a radical shift here. The main shift is that God shows up. In the first 11 verses there is no mention of God and the end result in verse 17 is darkness, vexation, sickness and anger. In the last three verses, God is mentioned four times. In verse 18, God is the one who gives us life. In verse 19, it’s God that gives us, not only wealth and possessions, but more importantly, the power to enjoy them and the power to accept our lot–be content with what we have--and rejoice in our toil. Finally in verse 20, God keeps his people occupied with joy in their hearts—to the point where they barely remember the hard times in life.
Not coincidentally, when God shows up, so does joy. In the first 11 verses of this text, there are zero references to joy. In the last three verses, joy is mentioned four times. Verse 18—it is good to find enjoyment in all our toil. Verse 19—we get the power to enjoy our toil from God and, as we have that power and the power to be content with what we have—we rejoice in our toil as God keeps us occupied with joy in our hearts. The author wants us to see that without God at the center--there is no joy connected to our wealth or toil, but when he is injected into the center of the picture, joy abounds because our joy is not found in money, it’s found in God. When God is at the center of our life—not just the margins-joy is experienced. When we put the things of this world in the center of our lives, joy vanishes—it’s replaced by a vain search for satisfaction in those empty cisterns of this world.
For those of us who are in Christ, the main source of our joy in God is found in Romans chapter five. “10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” People who haven’t placed their trust in Christ to save them from the penalty and power of their sin, whether they realize it or not, are at war with God. And God is at war with them. You can’t know lasting joy if you’re warring against your Creator. Our sin makes us his enemies because as a holy God he hates sin. He finds it infinitely offensive and he must oppose us because we are living in opposition to him whether we intend to or not. The good news is that God was not willing to remain at war with his people. He reconciled us to himself by sending his Son where on the cross he waged an assault against HIM instead. He poured out his wrath on him as our substitute to punish our sin that he took on himself when he went to the cross. When the penalty for our sin was paid in full through the blood of Jesus, God was free to be reconciled to us. It was a very costly reconciliation—this truce was signed with the blood of his Son.
A person who knows Christ as his Savior and increasingly understands and internalizes the wonder—the joy of a holy, Creator God—punishing his holy, sinless Son in order to make peace with arrogant rebels who hate him—that person will know the joy of forgiveness and the ongoing joy of knowing that in Christ, God’s love for them will never fail. He once and for all proved that invincible love in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. If you’re here today and haven’t trusted in Christ, but are instead looking to get to heaven on the basis of how nice you are or the fact that your virtues outweigh your sins, you do not know joy because you do not know God. We must repent of leaning on our own good works to earn credit with God—no one but Jesus can do that. Place your trust in him today—receive forgiveness of your sins—be reconciled—allow God to make peace with you as you trust in His Son and his death on the cross to make you acceptable to God. If you refuse to do that, your pursuit of satisfaction in the idols of this world will leave you empty and when you die, you will in hell deeply yearn even for that emptiness.
here today as a believer, but don’t know joy, part of the reason for that is surely—you are looking for joy in
the wrong places—in worldly pleasures and relationships, in your career, in your education, in the approval of
others or as we’ve seen today—in the wealth of this world. Your
absence of joy is God’s gracious way of telling you that you are deceived—you’ve displaced Christ from the center
of your life for something else that can never bring joy. Ask
God to show you what that is and when he shows it to you, repent of making it an idol by putting it in its proper
place so that Christ can once again bring his joyful reign to your life. Some
of you already know what you’ve made an idol of. God
is graciously giving you an opportunity to deal with that today. Repent
of looking to anything other than God to bring you the joy of satisfaction in Him. May
God give us the grace to do that for his glory and our joy.
 Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC, Intervarsity, 1983 as quoted in—Ryken, “Ecclesiastes, Crossway, 2010, p.130.
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