WRESTLING WITH STUFF

 

Week of January 24, 2010

 

Bible Verses:  Ecclesiastes 2:4-8; 5:10-16.

 

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about the place and power of material possessions in our lives.

 

I Have a Lot of Stuff: Ecclesiastes 2:4-8.

 

[4]  I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. [5]  I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. [6]  I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. [7]  I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. [8]  I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man.  [ESV]

 

In this first test we get a good look at the means by which the Preacher will try to answer the question of the benefit of labor under the sun. Experience and observation are core elements. Pleasure presents itself as an answer to his question, and he abandons himself to it relentlessly, using all the resources at his disposal. He explores the pleasure of wine, extensive building projects, gardens and parks, the accumulation of wealth and treasures, music, sex, and so on, but all to no avail. Once he stops and reflects on this test, he concludes that it too leaves his quest unanswered [2:11]. The Preacher is at pains to name his approach wisdom, but clearly this is something very different from the wisdom in Proverbs, in which abandonment to wine, women and pleasure as a way to find meaning is folly, not wisdom. In Proverbs the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge or wisdom. With this motto Proverbs enunciates a fundamental principle in biblical wisdom: all human knowledge comes back to the question about commitment to God. There lies behind this statement an awareness of the fact that the search for knowledge can go wrong because of one single mistake at the beginning. The fear of the Lord must be the starting point in any search for true wisdom. Thus true wisdom is not empirical but observes the world from the vantage point of the fear of the Lord. In these verses the Preacher depends on experience and reason alone, and in this sense manifests an autonomous epistemology that is quite different from that of Proverbs. His own consciousness rather than the fear of the Lord is the center from which he operates, hence the constant repetition of the first person “I” throughout the book. His search for wisdom in verses 3 and 9 follows the pursuit of pleasure as the key to meaning in life which is similar to our contemporary times. Consumerism, one can argue, is the dominant ideology of our age, and central to consumerism is the quest for pleasure through possessions and experience. Yet the quest for fulfillment and meaning remains as elusive as ever. To this context the Preacher’s test of pleasure and his decisive no to its effectiveness speaks powerfully.

 

The projects the Preacher embarks on in these verses and the possessions he accumulates fit with what we know of Solomon and kings in the ancient Near East. The list of accomplishments is paralleled by comparable lists in royal inscriptions found in the ancient Near East. The Preacher built multiple residences for himself and planted vineyards from which would come the exquisite wines with which he would try to sustain himself. These residences would include gardens and parks. Gardens were an important part of the irrigation economies of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and in the case of wealthy and influential persons the garden could be expansive and generally adjoined the residence. The ancient Egyptians also cultivated gardens, orchards, and parks, and wealthy families often maintained country estates where the owners could relax amid flowers, fruit trees, and ponds. The parks might also contain animals for the pleasure of hunting. The Preacher made pools to irrigate his forest of growing trees. Several pools are mentioned in the Old Testament, including some in the area of Jerusalem. These pools were used to irrigate the fruit trees. The residences required many slaves, and these he acquired as well as their offspring, which would belong to him. Slaves would also be needed to care for his herds and flocks. In verse 8 he refers to his royal treasure, much of it acquired from foreign tribute (the treasure of kings) and through taxation of the provinces. His residences were full of valuable and aesthetically pleasing objects, and his singers provided the best music of the day. Royal inscriptions from the ancient Near East often note the presence of singers as one of the king’s achievements. The Preacher is thus not exaggerating when in verse 9 he asserts that he became great. In the ancient Near East of his time he bears all the marks of royalty and greatness.

 

As in verse 3 he again notes that his wisdom stood by him in all these activities [2:9]. With Proverbs and Genesis 1-2 as background it is thoroughly perplexing how the Preacher could think that this approach to life is wise [2:3,9]. By drawing his method to our attention in this way the Preacher alerts us to its ironic nature – it is not what it seems. In Genesis 1, God continually reflects on His creation and declares it good. In Genesis 1:31 he declares it very good. The Preacher’s response to his “creation” is radically different, in verse 10 he sums up his experience of this test of pleasure – he did not withhold from himself anything that might bring pleasure and resolve the question of the meaning of life for him. But did it work? The answer is a strong no [2:11]. Once he reflected on all his projects and his experiment with pleasure, he finds no resolution – all remains vanity and a striving after wind. These efforts, when compared with similar endeavors today, look remarkably modern. In the world of human ambition, there is, in principle, still nothing new under the sun. And it is still true, is it not, that even the most sophisticated of today’s pleasures offers only an illusory escape from the prison and despair of secularism.

 

I Want More Stuff: Ecclesiastes 5:10-14.

 

[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. [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.  [ESV]

 

[10-12]  The Preacher now goes on to give us three very clear reasons why more money will never bring more true happiness. First, it is never enough [10]. It is the getting, not the mere having, that is exciting. What we have is not enough. The fun or satisfaction are in the act of acquiring what our heart desires. Second, it is always a bore [11]. Success is an anticlimax. When you finally acquire the things you want, they so often become a bore. Success always necessitates the recruitment of a staff to administer the growing establishment and its assets. Expenses and overheads increase. Profit margins decline in relation to gross income. Wealth has its own burdens. Third, there is no real security in wealth [12]. Jesus taught His disciples to put things – and he meant things that are good in themselves – in a divine perspective. Don’t store up treasures on earth, He said. After all, they are subject to decay and to theft. Rather, store up treasure in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also [Matt. 6:19-21]. Earthly treasures have a place, but in perspective to their true value. In an under the sun outlook, overestimating material prosperity is unavoidable, because to a secular humanist, there is no heaven in which to store up the spiritual treasures that Jesus had in mind in the Sermon on the Mount. To be an earthbound, under the sun humanist means that decay and theft nibble daily at the fragile meaning of your life. It is all you really have until and unless you receive the Savior who is Christ the Lord.

 

[13-14]  Materialism is not merely a theory or a lifestyle which is morally neutral and physically harmless. Materialism maims and kills, it has consequences that the Preacher describes as severe evils. In these verses the Preacher gives another illustration of the utter vanity of riches. In verse 13 he describes a man who may hoard his wealth. This is to the hurt of its owner. But what is that hurt? The text does not spell it out for us, but it gives us a clue: it is the notion of hoarding. If you ask your average miser why he hoards his wealth, he will tell you that he is not hoarding but saving. He is just being prudent in conserving his assets. Well, is there a substantive distinction between hoarding and saving? The biblical answer is defined by the purpose of wealth itself. Why does God give prosperity to people? Just so that we might, from our bounty, supply the needs of those who are truly poor [2 Cor. 8:13-15]. Money and goods are God’s provision for our sustenance, but for the Christian who has much wealth they are also a channel of God’s love that reaches out toward others. Biblical saving is never an end in itself, but a means toward a loving, outward-reaching end – that is, provision for real needs. Saving has definite God-honoring goals. The channeling, not the immobilization, of resources is in view. Saving takes its place in the spectrum of a dynamic scriptural spectrum of Christ-centered personal financial goals, which must include obedience in the areas of personal consumption, family support, giving to the Lord’s church, and long-term provision (saving). Saving is one component among many – and not one that dominates – in a life that is constrained and guided by a balance of biblical direction for the whole life. Hoarding, in contrast, is the heresy of which saving is the orthodoxy. The hoarder serves his hoard, the biblical saver serves his Lord. The hoarder locks up resources that belong ultimately to God. He keeps them from God and, therefore, he keeps them from their true purpose. He is willing to starve men and women to keep his wealth intact. And, ironically, he even keeps them from himself! Misers are miserable people. And that is the picture of the person in verse 13. In verse 14 the Preacher mentions one thing that can happen to the miser: he can lose all of his funds in a bad investment. This can be a catastrophe for all involved, including the next generation. Having to tighten our belts or cut back in our standard of living is always a tremendous challenge. But what if the goal of our life is embodied in our wealth? What if all we hold dear is tied to our material prosperity? In that case, to lose it is to lose the central motive of life. This is not just a change in our lifestyle but a devastation to the purpose of our existence. And that is the situation for the miser. The thing he built his life around (his wealth) is now gone; the thing that gave his life meaning and purpose is now lost forever.

 

I Don’t Want to Leave My Stuff: 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?  [ESV]

 

 

[15-16]  Death is the great leveling ground for all people. No matter what material wealth you have accumulated in this lifetime no one can take any of it with them. To live for wealth is simply futile. Where is the real and lasting gain? He eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger. In the parable of the sower, Jesus says that the seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful [Matt. 13:22]. Why does our Lord say this? Surely it is because wealth promises more than it can deliver. The deceit is in the human heart, of course, and it consists in the notion that a particular level of wealth, or a specific acquisition, will confer a lasting satisfaction of heart and soul. But, as we all know, there is never a complete stamp collection, a perfect house, the best vacation ever, etc. Today’s goal becomes tomorrow’s baseline. Unhallowed ambition never stops hustling. To attempt to find satisfaction in increased wealth is like the man trying to jump off his own shadow: the further he leaps, the further his shadow falls. If we believe that throwing money at the problem of life will actually give it meaning, we need to stop and listen to the words of Jesus concerning the deceitfulness of wealth. 

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         What is the difference between worldly wisdom and biblical wisdom? What can you do in your life to resist worldly wisdom and cultivate biblical wisdom?

 

2.         What conclusion does the Preacher draw in 2:11 about a life built upon seeking pleasure? Have you seen this to be true in your own life or in the lives of people you know?

 

3.         What are the three reasons the Preacher gives for why more money will never bring more true happiness [5:10-12]? What does it mean to put things in a divine perspective?

 

4.         What is the biblical definition of the purpose of wealth? How do you decide the best way to channel the funds God has given to you so that they bring the most glory to God?

 

5.         What does Jesus say about the deceitfulness of wealth?

 

References:

Ecclesiastes, Craig Bartholomew, Baker Academic.

Ecclesiastes, Gordon Keddie, Evangelical Press.

Ecclesiastes, Duane Garrett, NAC, Broadman.