Am I Headed for Failure?
Eccl. 5:8-16,18-20; 6:7-10
Tom J. Nettles
Last week, the comments inadvertently included texts for the lessons this week. Therefore those relevant comments are repeated with some additional notations of biblical synthesis and application. This lesson shows three substantially different outcomes to the phenomena of labor and accumulation of wealth. One is gain and loss, another is gain and enjoyment, and another is gain-retention-but no opportunity to benefit. Solomon seeks to put the material possessions of people in a proper perspective. He is not an ascetic, nor does he recommend an abstemious life style, but encourages the use of wealth and material within the context of their usefulness. Nor does he see wealth as more than it is. It relates only to this world, can only provide those things necessary for the maintaining of life, and can be detrimental if one places more value on it, and sees more meaning in it than is appropriate for it in this sphere of earthly existence.
I. Chapter 5, verses 8-17 - How passing and frivolous and subject to abuse and evil interlopers are all material possessions. To maintain justice a constant and pervasive system of governing officials must be present. This testifies to the sinfulness of human society, but also shows that even those put in positions to execute justice partake of the same nature and can easily be corrupted. Then the protectors become the oppressors.
A. verses 8, 9 - The tendency to oppression and graft in society calls for authorities and then authorities above authorities. A society is blest if its highest authority—the king in this case—is committed to a productive economy that will provide the necessities for all the land’s inhabitants. Otherwise bribery and sheer power will rule society and justice and honest production will be rare.
B. verses 10-12 – How greed for more consumes its subject.
1. In a fallen world and a parasitic society, those that love money and obtain it will find themselves unsatisfied, for their desire for wealth can never be quenched. They also will find themselves surrounded by flatterers, on whom they depend for their sense of accomplishment, and their wealth becomes consumed by the pure vanity of both flatterer and flattered. But a man who works and enjoys the challenge of labor in itself, because work is good, will sleep well with a sense of fulfillment though he might have little to eat. The full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep because, “The folks with plenty o’ plenty, got a lock on the door. ‘Fraid somebody’s a’goin’ to rob ‘em while they’s out a makin’ more. What for? What for?”
2. On the other hand, those that know that money is not an end in itself, but only a means for support of life while we pursue the will of God and seek to execute his calling will find a mere sufficiency to be an abundance: “Keep your life free from the love of money,” the writer of Hebrews says, (13:5) “and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” Paul’s extended statement about earthly provisions and their spiritual significance in Philippians 4:10-20, provides a notable and edifying contrast to the mesmerizing greed of the man pictured by Solomon. “I have learned in whatever situation I am in, therewith to be content. . . . I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. . . . I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacr5ifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”
C. verse 13-17 – Some in an effort to gain more money quickly, make investments that promise to multiply their principle rapidly. The investment turns bad and the money is lost. His plenty has turned to nothing and his son who could have benefited from a more discreet and discerning father in money matters, now has nothing. The man returns to his original position of having nothing. He came into the world naked and so shall he go out of it. He spent his life in the service of money and it deceived him. “What gain is there to him who toils for the wind?” This loss, because it represents the failure of his life, that to which he committed his energy and in which he found his only delight, slipped away in a moment and all he has left is loneliness, vexation, sickness and anger. No wonder Paul told Timothy to charge those that are rich in the things of this present age “not to be haughty, not to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19) No wonder Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33)
II. Verses 18-20 – The writer expands his statement on the present enjoyment of temporal blessings as a manifestation of divine providence.
A.. In proper perspective, meaningful toil will yield pleasure of the right sort if seen as a gift of God and used for the advancement of joy. It will yield the fruit of temporal satisfaction within a godward framework.
1. Note that Solomon points to the enjoyment of this one who toils as consisting of eat and drink and satisfaction in the toil itself. The laborer is fully capable of great joy when his work is acknowledged as a gift of God.
2. One who labors knows that it will soon cease, It is done “under the sun,” on this side of heaven, in the world of change and decay, and passes more quickly than the wind. To realize such prompts the worker to savor each opportunity for work as a gift of God, a day soon gone never to return but filled with the actions and attitudes that will appear again as God judges all the secrets of men’s heart.
3. He sees this as a “few days.,” no matter how many on this side of the sun, in the context of eternity the word few is used to show how truly short is one’s duration here; We are born as morally responsible beings, answerable to God from the moment of conception, aware of a transcendent obligation throughout our lives and so called upon to see “Now” as the accepted time, “Now” as the day of salvation. The urgency of seeing life as just a few days was on Peter’s mind when he wrote, “Whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. The time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do. . . .But they will give an account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” (1 Peter 4:1-5)
4. This is his lot – This idea of a “lot” or an “allotment” or a “portion” is used 8 times in Ecclesiastes (2:10, 21; 3:22; 5:18, 19; 9:6, 9; 11:2). It is the word Nehemiah used when he told Sanballat and Tobiah, “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem” (Nehemiah 2:20). Psalm 119:57 uses it when the writer said, “The Lord is my portion; I promise to keep your words.” And in Psalm 142:5, when the writer sees no one to help among all his acquaintances he cried to the Lord, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.” A Lot, or portion, is a particular blessing designated as ours by God himself to show us that we are under his sovereign rule; it is given both to induce joy for such special and particular attention given to us but also to point to its temporality and limited scope that we might not rest in any lot that we presently have but know and exult that He Himself is our everlasting portion (Psalm 73:26)
5. Solomon says that such enjoyment is “good and fitting.” God has made food fit the palate so as to give pleasure; he has made sunsets and sunrises and cloud formations to excite the eyes and inflame the imagination with wonder. He has made song from birds, and sounds from nature, and music composed by those skilful in tune and harmony to enter the ear and then lift one beyond his surroundings in the engagement of emotion and exalted thought. The pure teleology of the world in its fitness for human senses is a marvelous evidence of not only the existence of God but of the goodness and pure beauty of God. When one experiences and seeks these joys with full knowledge of their temporality but that they point beyond themselves to the inexhaustible moral goodness, the infinite beauty of divine holiness, the incorruptible delight of the presence of the triune God, then its passing is not vexation but an invitation to enjoy even more profound pleasures in the eternal life that consists of living in the presence of this God who is our final lot.
B. Likewise wealth, when taken in context of God’s providence can yield the satisfaction of which it is capable, though this is rare. Note the conditions summarized so tersely by Solomon.
1. The person recognizes that “God has given wealth and possessions.” He does not arrogantly attribute it to himself and say, “Soul, you have many possessions laid up for many years. Take your ease and enjoy it.” Rather the man that is set to enjoy these things for what they are always bears in mind, “The Lord giveth; the Lord taketh away.”
2. He has power to enjoy them. First, this means that he must have health of sufficient quality to gain benefit from the things that one can do. Money without the physical ability to enjoy the possibilities puts before its possessor a mere theory, a figment of possibility that can never culminate in a meaningful activity. Second, he must be of a mind, that is the power of both affection and projection, to see wealth and possessions not as an end in themselves—he does not become a hoarder of wealth—but as a means for experiencing life in a more abundant way, to enjoy more of God’s creation, to provide without miserliness for his family, to involve others in the experience and thus expand one’s own pleasure by seeing others benefit and hearing their impressions. Third, he must have the ability not to idolize the peculiar joys accessible only through sufficient material resources, but must see the source of his joy always in God and in no sense diminished by the loss of the material advantage. “I have learned in whatever state I am, therewith to be content.”
3. He must accept his lot – As seen before, accepting one’s lot, means a conscious awareness of the sovereign pleasure of God in disposing of our days and our bodies and granting us temporal blessings as he sees fit, according to his purpose. This is one that has been taught to number his days in accordance with the reality of this life, a life lived in a fallen world in which all already should be forfeit and anything beyond the just torment of hell is a manifestation of mercy. “For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you? So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:9-12)
4. He sees it as the “gift of God” - .Again we reiterate, Ecclesiastes encourages those that live under the sun to enjoy all that God has given in the context of its temporality to use it for the most temporal joy it affords, but also constantly to seek its usefulness for eternal things. We see this theme as a refrain throughout this book 2:24-26; 3:9-13; 5:18-20; 8:15; 10:17. In the New Testament Paul sees the proper enjoyment of temporal blessings as a confession of God as Creator and sustainer and an opportunity for demonstrating thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3, 4). The sharing of material wealth becomes a spiritual sacrifice when used to give physical sustenance to those that are preaching the everlasting gospel (Phil 4:12) The Rich Fool saw material tings as an end in themselves and as giving him opportunity for a life of personal indulgence (Luke 12:13) The unjust steward, commended by Jesus, knew that money could be transformed into a sense of personal indebtedness and secure relationships if handled with discretion. The children of the kingdom must be even more intent on the transformation of money into personal relations of an eternal nature (Luke 16:1-9).
5. Verse 20 - The person that so enjoys both his work and the benefits that accrue to him because of his work will not be conscious of the oppressive pace of day-after-day vanity of life, but will have a transporting sense of the continual joy of God before him, for he has seen and grasped his “lot” with gratitude and purpose.
III. Chapter 6: The man that has “power to enjoy” is greatly blessed, but many have the things from the hand of God, but God does not give him “power to enjoy them.”
A. verse 1 - Solomon points to an “evil,” that is a situation that causes oppression of spirit by reminding us that we dwell constantly in a world under the curse of God because of sin. Such “evils” as this, God himself brings, for they are constant reminders not to look to any present pleasure or sense of stability as sufficient for the eternity that awaits. This evil “lies heavy upon mankind,” that is, he sees it often in many different circumstances and its incongruity creates a frustrating sense of inequity and futility.
B. This “evil” shows that we have nothing that we do not receive. Solomon beholds those to whom God has given both gifts and opportunities and consequent success in achieving financial and material goals. Though these gifts are given, the utter futility of such events, even in this world, is seen when God does not give him the “power” to enjoy them.
1. As indicated in the discussion of “power” above, this person either does not have physical ability or opportunity to enjoy these, or he is so miserly that he cannot part with them for the sake of the benefits that can come, or he does not view them in terms of proper stewardship to the glory of God. God has left this person to himself to treat his wealth as is the wont of the worldly person, and it thus becomes a poison to his soul. Matthew Henry says, “He has not power to reason himself out of this absurdity, to conquer his covetous humour.”
2. Another, a stranger, gains the benefit of them. Instead of providing benefits for himself and his family, or those loved ones and friends of his own choosing, this gifted man, who has not the power to enjoy his wealth, finds that somehow a stranger, one not in his family or among his closest associates, has manipulated a way to gain the benefit from this wealth.
3. Just how futile is the condition of such a man? An unwillingness of heart to enjoy temporal blessings for their intended purpose would remain the trait of such a person no matter how many generations he lived. Experience would not teach him, and the death of children would not teach him. His stingy, niggardly spirit dominates him and without a change of heart he will never become generous and joy-giving with his wealth, for he has valued it for itself and not for the sake of its potential to tap the reservoirs of joy, delight, and true satisfaction, even in this world, to say nothing of that to come. He is even unwilling to provide a decent burial for himself; so he lived with unbecoming stringency and he died without honor.
4. Even as tragic as is the case of a stillborn child, this man’s final state is even more tragic. The still born never even has the experience of seeing the sun and being startled or fascinated with the reality of light. It came into darkness and departs to darkness. Though it had no joys of this temporal existence, neither did it know any of its evils. For that reason Job lamented that he had not been stillborn (Job 3:16-19). But this is far superior a state, Solomon argues, to that of the person that has lived long and enjoys nothing because of a fearful, covetous outlook. Both die, and neither has experienced a sliver of real enjoyment. One, however, had both the time and the material means but was weighed down with a narrow and grasping spirit, so departed and ended, like the still born in the cessation of time for earthly good. One has left no offense behind and does not leave missed opportunities still awaiting; the other leaves behind resentment and ill opinion and finishes with unfulfilled opportunity for pushing forward in an exuberant way to experience the goodness of a world made by God and to give delight to the souls of friends, and family, and perhaps even to bless enemies.
5. Solomon now reinforces this point by comparing the one that possesses wealth with the fool and the poor man. Verses 7-9
· In the end all that wealth can provide in a quid pro quo exchange is sustenance for physical life. Food is purchased or gained by personal industry, clothes are purchased, shelter is purchased. The meeting of present, but ever recurring needs, is the chief end of wealth. The one who feasts will hunger again; and the one that eats simple fare will be satisfied as soon as the one that feasts sumptuously. There will be a need for another meal, and another, for both.
· Verse 8a - Concerning the things provided by wealth, the fool has as satisfying a time in eating, dressing, and staying sheltered as the rich. Ornamentation in any of these does not make the basic level of sustenance of any greater preserving power. Nor does abundance of wealth have any usefulness beyond procuring the things that give satisfaction to all our temporal needs. As a matter of giving wisdom, or knowledge of God, or increase of the blessings of eternal life, wealth has no advantage. Its intrinsic usefulness is absolutely nothing. It is not the rich that differ from the fool, nor even the wise of this world, but those that grasp the wisdom from God, that differ. It is not the ability to procure, but the ability to discern and improve one’s mind and discipline one’s spirit that divides the wise from the foolish.
· Verse 8b - Solomon asks a rhetorical question. “And what does the poor man have who knows how to conduct himself before the living?” The knowledge of how to conduct oneself pertains not to wealth, but to wisdom. Thus, in those things that truly matter in relationships, a poor, but wise, man has as good a carriage in public as does a wealthy man. Through industry and discreet use of what he has, he may live with as great satisfaction in material necessities as the wealthy. In his public demeanor, “before the living,” he may carry himself with such dignity and affability that he gains meaningful and edifying friendships and far outstrips the wealthy man that is arrogant, exclusivistic in his social contacts, and shrill in the way he points to the superiority of his material status.
· Verse 9 – When wealth becomes an end in itself, and the “wandering of the appetite” causes dissatisfaction with one’s status, covetousness eats away one’s spirit. “Godliness with contentment is great gain” seems an unrealistic and foreign concept to one consumed by a wandering appetite. Learning to be satisfied with the reality of one’s earthly status, “the sight of the eyes,” far surpasses the grasping mentality of a discontent person. Covetousness has captured the mind and greater gain breeds deeper frustration. When wealth is not used within its proper sphere of meaning, but takes on a more significant, and thus more deceitful, importance in a person’s affections, it is not helpful but destructive. Thus the divinely bestowed “power to enjoy” wealth is a better blessing than wealth itself. When John wrote Gaius, he prayed that his overall prosperity would be commensurate with the prosperity of his soul. He then gave him both a commendation, and an implied instruction when he wrote, “Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church. You will do will to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore, we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth” (3 John 5-8). In this way, when we allow wealth to do what it can, provide food and raiment and shelter for those that are going to the gentiles, we turn wealth to the advantage of the truth. This would be the ultimate manifestation of the Preacher’s declaration “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” (Ecc 5:19)
C. verses 10-12 - One must recognize that finally life is subject each moment to divine providence. What God has determined for us in his wisdom, how he has set our life in this world in which each thing has its own time, is beautiful in it own time, and in which we must learn to find joy in our lot, cannot be predicted from day to day.
1. verse 10 - Everything that comes to be has been designated as such by God. Everything happens according to God’s decree; but also in accord with his intention for the proper relation of events to their effects as well as the secondary causes that give rise to them. Every thing is both an effect and a cause, all operative under the inscrutable and incomprehensible power, purpose, and wisdom of God. Job learned that he could not dispute with one stronger than he, and that he had no ability to comprehend the massive displays of power and immanent control even of the phenomena of nature. How much less could he control or even object to the divine wisdom in ordering his life.
2. verses 11, 12 - ESV says “The more words, the more vanity” while the KJV says “Seeing there be many things that increase vanity” Either could be the right translation, for the word for “thing” is also the word for “word.” Both also are contextual (5:2, 3; 2:17) It seems to me that “things” is the proper concept here, for Solomon has pointed out that everything from wisdom to folly, from wealth to poverty, from labor to laziness, in terms of the end of man in this life is vanity and a striving after the wind. Our final meaning is not to be found in the condition or circumstances of our present life when considered only in terms of its purely temporal effects. Is wealth better than poverty? No, it is worse, in fact, if one has not taken proper advantage of wealth for its designated place in this life. Is wisdom better than folly. Perhaps for the temporal gain it normally gives, but at death, “How dies the wise man? As the fool.” Only God knows what is good for each man in his situation and in the purpose for which he made him. Those things that we deem as good may indeed become a snare. Its greatest pleasures soon pass and its most difficult trials can only kill us. This life itself, and all that is in it is but a shadow and we must cling to with no greater tenacity than we would a shadow. What will be after us “under the sun” we cannot tell.
3. We, therefore, must place our affections on things above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God the Father. (Colossians 3:1). We should have no settled connection to an earthly object or relationship as a final source of life and meaning, but hold even the dearest of earthly relationships loosely (1 Corinthians 7:29-31). “Set your mind on things above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:2) “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world; for all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, are not of the Father but are of the world. And the world is passing away, and its desires, but he that doth the will of God abides forever.” 1 John 2:15-17