Ecclesiastes 5:9 - 6:12.
The Corrupting Power of Wealth
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
There are probably few influences in an individual’s life that has more power to corrupt than the possession of great wealth and/or great influence. As Solomon observes the “government” of Israel, a collection of leaders who “serve” in the courts and in the Temple, he finds he is surrounded by corrupt, wealthy men. Certainly corruption in government is nothing new, and seems to be an ever increasing characteristic of our own as it seems that the wealthiest and most powerful often lose touch with reality, rationalizing decisions that serve only to increase and concentrate their own agenda of personal wealth and power.
Ecclesiastes 5:9. Moreover the profit of the earth is for all: the king himself is served by the field.
Solomon understands that the profit of the earth is a blessing from the LORD to serve the needs of all people. The purpose of the King in virtually every people group was the same: through the exercise of his authority, people were able to live in a stable society. A benevolent king would assure the safety and security of all of the people in his kingdom. Usually a king was a leader of a large tribal group, and his centrally located residence, often a fortress, served to store much of the “profit of the land” for distribution to the people in times of need. When enemies would approach, the people could retreat into the fortress for shelter and defend themselves. When the government operates in the manner that the LORD ordained, all of the people in the society are blessed. The king of such a society loves his people, and recognizes his responsibility under God to serve them.
However, when sin enters the process, everything changes.
Ecclesiastes 5:10-11. He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity. 11When goods increase, they are increased that eat them: and what good is there to the owners thereof, saving the beholding of them with their eyes?
Hoarded treasure serves no positive purpose for anyone. Jesus stated, “For where your treasure is, your heart will be also.” Solomon notes that when one loves silver or gold, they set their heart on it thinking that they will be satisfied with a little more, yet as they increase their holdings, they are never satisfied. The numbers in the bank account may get larger, or the piles of gold and silver may grow, but the satisfaction that the hoarder is searching for is never found. What good comes from the stockpiling of such resources? In reality, no one gains when valuable resources are hoarded. Even the one doing the hoarding can do nothing but look at it.
Ecclesiastes 5:12. The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep.
Solomon draws a stark contrast between the hoarder and the satisfied worker. Another characteristic of the hoarder’s experience is the stress that the gathering, maintaining, and protecting of his treasure causes. One who spends his day in hard, physical labor finds rest at the end of the day. A return to his family at the end of the workday is filled with his interaction with that family, and evening rest is easily welcomed. However, the hoarder has placed his focus on his hoard that requires little or no physical labor. His day ends without the physical exhaustion, but rather with an emotional or mental exhaustion that comes from his focus on his hoard. Sleep is difficult to find as his mind is busy processing his concerns about his hoard.
Ecclesiastes 5:13. There is a sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt.
As the king, Solomon would have had a close relationship with many of the wealthy members of the community. Some of these he would know through their work in the governing agencies: the courts and the temple. As he has witnessed their accumulation he notes something that others in their culture probably do not realize: while most might think that the rich are blessed by their wealth, the truth is quite the opposite. Hoarded riches bring only stress and hurt upon those who invariably make these the focus of their lives.
I was employed about 30 years ago by a well-known national corporate management group where virtually everyone in the company was extremely wealthy, and hoarded their riches. They were, without exception, basically joyless, had experienced one or more divorces, they were estranged from the friends of their earlier years, and each fiercely managed millions of dollars in their personal investments. After ending my year-long contract, they offered me a lucrative position with the promise of similar riches. Having witnessed the price they are all paying for their wealth, I simply smiled and told them I was going back to the university and my Christian ministries. They called me a fool. From a recent search of their website, I note that all of those I worked with are no longer there. Since they were a generation older than I, my assumption is that they died as they lived, and their wealth simply serves to corrupt the lives of others.
Ecclesiastes 5:14. But those riches perish by evil travail: and he begetteth a son, and there is nothing in his hand.
A common proverb is “A fool and his money are soon parted.” Just as the wealthy covet their own riches, there are others who will work to take those riches away from them. Often those who obtain great wealth, particularly those who receive it without personal work or investment, lack the wisdom to administer it, only to lose it through foolish ventures. It is these who come under the attack of those who will work to separate them from their largess. Solomon has seen those who have amassed wealth only to die poor, lacking any inheritance to provide to his family.
Today we witness television programs that feast on our base greed and covetousness by publishing “reality shows” that present images of “ordinary people” instantly receiving great possessions, one clear example is the series, “Extreme Makeover, Home Edition” that built or renovated homes for special needs people. Selecting people with sensational stories, their gift of a house would often have a value reaching into the millions of dollars, placing a burden on the family that they lacked the background or resources to handle. Often individuals who win great lottery prizes manage their winnings foolishly, ending up in debt and estranged from their previous relationships with others.
The human desire for wealth seems to be a universal axiom. Like any of the things of value in life, when managed unwisely, and taken to excess, even mismanaged wealth serves only to “steal, kill, and destroy.”
Ecclesiastes 5:15-16. As he came forth of his mother’s womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand. 16And this also is a sore evil, that in all points as he came, so shall he go: and what profit hath he that hath laboured for the wind?
Job, upon the loss of his great possessions stated, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return.” It is rather obvious that we will take none of the “profit of the land” with us when we leave this earth and enter eternity. Both Job and Solomon recognize that this life is short, and the most important things in life are those that will not be lost at life’s end. All of the profit of one’s labor will remain behind when we enter eternity, so any attempt to hoard is simply an exercise in futility.
Ecclesiastes 5:17. All his days also he eateth in darkness, and he hath much sorrow and wrath with his sickness.
Solomon also notes the universally corrupting power of the miser’s hoard: it serves to displace one’s relationship with the LORD. Jesus stated that it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. When one has amassed a great amount of wealth and power that has become the focus of their lives, their dependence upon God is minimized. Feeling that they do not need the LORD, there is little or no incentive to repent. Furthermore, if their wealth has been obtained by corrupt means, repentance would serve to expose their guilt and force them to make a decision concerning the disposition of their wealth. The need for the LORD is a basic need of every person, but the distraction of wealth can serve to overwhelm one’s sensitivity to that need. Consequently, it is rare to encounter an extremely rich Christian, though a few do exist.
Because of this self-sufficiency, the wealthy miser does not recognize his need for God, and lives a life apart from Him, a life of darkness. His choice of separating himself from God carries the same consequences of anyone who rebels against God and carries that choice to their grave. However, this individual also suffers the consequences of the control that his riches have over him. Solomon refers to this desire to hoard as a sickness.
Ecclesiastes 5:18. Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion.
It is God’s purpose that people who trust in Him would be blessed with an abundant life. That abundance takes many forms, and one of these forms, according to Solomon, does include the “profit of the land.” Rather than hoard that which God has given to us, the “profit of the land” is to be used for good and wise purposes, purposes that bring glory to God, blessing to the one who has possessions, and blessing among those whom those possessions are shared.
God’s purpose is that we would enjoy the profit from our labor for all the days of our lives. One can enjoy what the LORD has provided for them when they employ the wisdom of God in its use. What is the wise use of material possessions? Certainly, wealth in and of itself is a relative concept. Among the worlds extremely poor, one who is in the middle-class in another culture would be considered obscenely rich. The happiest people I have met in my travels have been those who live in poor cultures, but who love the LORD and are quite satisfied with what they do have. They tend to be generous to the point of great sacrifice, making it difficult for this middle-class traveler to accept that generosity. Yet when I compare these with the rich partners I once worked with, the life of the poor is far better.
Solomon’s advice that the “profit of the land” is to support us all the days of our lives does imply that wisdom dictates some form of financial planning, the determination of a budget that utilizes our means in a manner that will continue to support us for the remainder of our days. Spreading out our resources throughout our days is not hoarding, it is wise stewardship. Wise application of resources would result in the expiration of those resources coinciding with the expiration of life.
Ecclesiastes 5:19-20. Every man also to whom God hath given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God. 20For he shall not much remember the days of his life; because God answereth him in the joy of his heart.
What about those who have been able to amass great wealth? Solomon, holding to an understanding of the sovereignty of God, notes that even those who have honestly received great riches have been given this by the LORD. It is these who have an even greater responsibility to exercise wise stewardship. Note that Solomon does not imply that they are to give away all of their possessions. Given these riches by God, they have the power and opportunity to consume a portion for themselves and to rejoice in the consumption, recognizing that this a gift from the LORD. However, a heart that loves the LORD and is shaped by His wisdom will also reveal to one the appropriate stewardship of what God has provided. The recipient of this wealth will be able to find great joy in using his/her largess in ministering to the needs of others, much like the ancient benevolent King used the profit of the land to minister to all of the people in his Kingdom.
One who treats his possessions in this way lives a life of joy. Solomon notes that this person’s life will be characterized by that joy. His will be a life of relationships with the LORD and with others, and those relationships will take such priority in his life, that he will not give authority over to his wealth as the miser does. When he looks back on the days of his life, it will not be the pile of coins that he considers worth remembering, but rather the largess of love that his relationship with God has empowered him to share with others. When he counts the most important things in life, it will not be possessions. When called upon to recall the days of his life, he will tend to talk about his relationship with God and his relationships with others, whether they be family, friends, or the recipients of ministry. He will remember his mentors and others who helped him to live a truly abundant life.
If you were to place the aged miser and the aged man of faith side-by-side in their latter years, their description of their lives would demonstrate a stark contrast as the former testifies to the stress and ailments of life, and the latter testifies to the goodness of God and the abundant life that He has provided him.
Ecclesiastes 6:1. There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men: 2A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease.
Again, Solomon understands that all we receive is a gift from the LORD. When one receives great wealth and honor a person of a wise and mature faith in God will honor the LORD in the manner that he manages his estate, opening up the opportunity for the LORD to fulfill his promise to protect and to bless those who love Him. The evil that Solomon witnesses around him is that this is not the typical behavior of those around him who have appropriated wealth and power. Living in darkness, devoid of a relationship with God, these lack the wisdom to manage their estate in a godly way, and they, by their rebellion against God, are living outside of His hand of protection. Solomon has witnessed the result of their apostasy: they are not able to hold on to what the LORD has given them. Their focus on their wealth and influence overwhelms their perceived need for God, leaving them immersed in the intrigue of a cruel, violent, and pagan culture. The respect that they receive, as well as the “friendships” they maintain are all tied to their wealth instead of their character. When, through the intrigue that surrounds them they lose their wealth, they also lose those friends as well as the respect that they thought they had.
Ecclesiastes 6:3-6. If a man beget an hundred children, and live many years, so that the days of his years be many, and his soul be not filled with good, and also that he have no burial; I say, that an untimely birth is better than he. 4For he cometh in with vanity, and departeth in darkness, and his name shall be covered with darkness. 5Moreover he hath not seen the sun, nor known any thing: this hath more rest than the other. 6Yea, though he live a thousand years twice told, yet hath he seen no good: do not all go to one place?
The issue concerning the corrupting power of wealth is a spiritual one, not a physical one. The Apostle, Paul, did not say that money is the root of all evil, but rather it is the love of money that is the root of all manner of evils. It is man’s self-centered and prideful bent to sin that leads him to replace a relationship with God with his relationship with wealth. When a man’s coveting of riches leads him to reject a saving relationship with God, he has lost everything.
Ancient Israelite culture gave its highest honor to those who had many children, and one who lived many years as each was considered to be a specific blessing from God. However, even if one has received these blessings, yet lives an entire life in darkness, dying without faith in God, all is lost, and the individual has no hope. All of the riches of this world, and all of the blessing of children and long years will not purchase an eternal relationship with God.
Ecclesiastes 6:7-9. All the labour of man is for his mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled. 8For what hath the wise more than the fool? what hath the poor, that knoweth to walk before the living? 9Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this is also vanity and vexation of spirit.
When one lacks faith in God, all of the works of this life gain nothing of lasting value. He may be able to eat, but the hunger that is deep within himself is never satisfied. He knows the frustration and turmoil that work within his heart. However, he also can sense the peace in the hearts of those who have something that he lacks. He witnesses those around him who may be poor, but these people are happy. They may not have great influence, but there is a wisdom in their spirit that is difficult for him to understand.
What is the difference between them? Solomon is simply using this contrast to teach to the frustrated miser the cause of his misery (note the play on words here): he needs the LORD. He has searched the world over for that which will fill this need in his heart, a search that he has found to be fruitless and unending.
Ecclesiastes 6:10. That which hath been is named already, and it is known that it is man: neither may he contend with him that is mightier than he.
Solomon notes that the very nature of man (his name) was determined long before. Human nature has been demonstrated since the creation of man, a nature that is self-centered, prideful, violent, and disposed to evil. Consequently, it is his very nature that leads him to corruption. His bent to rebellion against God is foolish, and will never accomplish anything but separation from Him. One cannot contend with God. God is sovereign and it is He who determines His purposes for Himself and for man. It is God’s purpose that man would turn from the wickedness of this world, and turn to Him in faith. Salvation can only be found through faith; not through riches, not through influence, nor through the blessing of many children, or many years of life, or any other work of man.
Ecclesiastes 6:11-12. Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the better? 12For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?
In this entire discussion, Solomon has been illustrating another characteristic of man that serves only to separate him from faith in God. There are many things in this world that work to keep an individual immersed in its godless perversity. Solomon asks, “how is a man made better” by any of these. Man searches among a myriad of godless pursuits trying to find the answer to what is lacking in his soul, but he searches in darkness, in a shadow. There is simply nothing in this godless world, “under the sun,” that can lift man out of the darkness of this perverse and evil world.
So, what is the solution for man? True fulfillment of the heart cannot be found in wealth. It cannot be found in influence. It cannot be found in any of the possessions of this world, including a large family, or in a life of many years. God created mankind so that the true fulfillment of his heart can only be found with a relationship with Him, a need for relationship that the evil of this world serves to blind one to.
Solomon is witnessing the apostasy of the nation around him as the people are failing to turn to God in faith. He sees the corruption that the things of this world bring into the heart of an individual, a corruption that stands between them in saving faith. Just as Solomon noted that things have not changed since the creation of man, things also have not changed in the three thousand years since these words were written. People are still immersed in this pagan and secular world searching for the one thing that will bring peace to their heart, searching among the shadows of this world rather than in the light of God’s love.
Solomon could not change the hearts of those around him, and we cannot change the hearts of those around us. However, by sharing the truth with the lost, as Solomon is attempting to do, people can hear the truth and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and turn to God in faith. When we witness those who are caught up in the things of this world in their search for peace, people of faith have an opportunity to share the good news of the gospel: that God is simply waiting for them to turn to Him in faith. Such a decision of faith will fill that hole in their heart that they so desperately, and so vainly, seek to fill.