Wealth, the Problematic Gift of God (Ecclesiastes 5:8–20)


In Ecclesiastes 5.8–20, the Preacher lists three problems with wealth but then, surprisingly, concludes that it is nevertheless a gift from God.[1]

The first problem with wealth the Preacher identifies is the unholy nexus between wealth and oppression. Verses 8–9 are notoriously difficult to interpret because the Hebrew underlying them is enigmatic. The English Standard Version translates them as referring to corrupt government officials who oppress the poor, but are protected in their injustice by their bureaucratic superiors. This is probably the best reading of the text, and it highlights a perennial problem with government. In the words of Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The antidote to corrupt government is not anarchy, however, but good government: “a king committed to cultivated fields.” A good government official desires that both the capital (land) and labor of his nation be fully utilized.

The second problem with wealth the Preacher identifies is that the desire for more is unquenchable. “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (verse 10)—a thing that goes “Poof!” The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence; the Joneses cannot be kept up with. Any person, therefore, who measures his life by how much stuff he is accumulating will be eternally disappointed. To think otherwise is foolish.

The third problem with wealth the Preacher identifies is the difficulty of keeping what you have earned: “riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture” (verses 13–14). The picture seems to be of a man who has saved up all his money to invest it in a single venture, which goes bust, costing the man everything. He has spent hours, days, weeks, months, and years accumulating his wealth, but loses them in an instant. In a larger sense, of course, this is the course of everyone’s life: We are born possessing nothing but our own skin and we die the same way. So why spend our few hours on earth working, when its only result is “darkness…vexation and sickness and anger” (verse 17)?

Having identified these three problems with wealth, however, the Preacher comes to a surprising conclusion—at least in my mind. Wealth is “the gift of God,” and everyone to whom God has given “wealth and possessions and power” ought to “enjoy them” (verses 18–20). There is, you see, nothing inherently wrong with having abundant material possessions. God, after all, created a very material world, pronounced it good, and invited us both to enjoy and cultivate its bounty. Wealth becomes a trap to its possessor when he uses it to harm others, makes its acquisition an ultimate priority, or lets its maintenance cause him great anxiety of soul.

As Americans, we are very wealthy people, comparatively speaking. But we ought to make it our aim to avoid the dangers of wealth by earning it honestly, investing it wisely, sharing it generously, and above all remembering that, in the words of Jesus, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12.15).

 

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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