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Stuart Chase - 17 January 2021

What Do You Want? (Ecclesiastes 5:8–20)

In Ecclesiastes 5:8–20, Solomon tackles the issue of wealth and its ability—or inability—to provide satisfaction. He highlights three basic realities we must consider: money’s inability; money’s ability; and money’s purpose.

Scripture References: Ecclesiastes 5:8-20

From Series: "Ecclesiastes Exposition"

A devotional exposition of the book of Ecclesiastes by various contributors.

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What do you want? I know it sounds like one of those trick questions, where you know the answer you shouldgive, even though it’s not the answer you want to give. But think about it for a moment: What do you want?

In 1959, Barrett Strong recorded a song, later popularised by the Beatles. Here is the chorus line:

That’s what I want, (that’s what I want), yeah,
(that’s what I want).
Well now give me money (that’s what I want)
a whole lotta money (that’s what I want),
whoa yeah, I wanna be free (that’s what I want):
oh, a lotta money (that’s what I want).

More recently, Travie McCoy and Bruno Mars recorded a song containing these lyrics (edited for the sake of cleaning up the language):

I wanna be a billionaire so [very] bad—
buy all of the things I never had;
I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine,
smiling next to Oprah and the Queen.

Oh every time I close my eyes,
I see my name in shining lights, yeah:
A different city every night, oh I
I swear the world better prepare
for when I’m a billionaire.

Travie McCoy’s net worth stands at an estimated $9M, while Bruno Mars boasts an estimated $175M net worth. Apparently, it’s not enough. And that’s the story of humanity—the story that Solomon addresses in Ecclesiastes 5:8–20.

Structurally, the section under consideration here carries over all the way to 6:9, and we will see something of the significance of lumping the entire section together a little later, but we will limit ourselves for the sake of this study to 5:8–20.

To put Solomon’s words into perspective, remember that, early on in his reign, the Lord appeared to him and promised to give him anything he asked for. Simply put, the Lord once appeared to young Solomon and asked, “What do you want?” It was a blanket offer. Already displaying a good deal of wisdom, Solomon resisted the temptation to request wealth or power or fame and instead asked for wisdom to lead God’s people. The Lord responded, “Behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honour, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days” (1 Kings 3:1–15).

The Lord delivered on this promise. LoveMoney.com estimates that, taking into account the biblical evidence, Solomon’s peak net worth, accounting for inflation, would have been in the region of $2T. Clearly, he was a man in a position to speak about money. He does precisely that in 5:8–20, where he lists three basic things we need to consider: money’s inability (vv. 8–12); money’s ability (vv. 13–17); and money’s purpose (vv. 18–20).

As I said above, we could include 6:1–9 in the section we are considering here because, in one sense, Solomon returns to the first two considerations in those verses: money’s ability (6:1–6) and money’s inability (6:7–9). You could visualise his argument like this:

A. Money’s Inability (5:8–12)

B. Money’s Ability (5:13–17)

C. Money’s Purpose (5:18–20)

B. Money’s Ability (6:1–6)

A. Money’s Inability (6:7–9)

The structure above is known as a chiasm. It is a literary device in which the central section is the main thrust of the argument. In this case, money’s inability is the bread, money’s ability is the garnishing, and money’s purpose is the meat. We won’t touch so much on the verses in chapter 6 in this study, but it is helpful, nonetheless, to bear in mind the structure above, because we want to understand that vv. 18–20—money’s purpose—is what Solomon really wants us to focus on. But first we must consider money’s inability (vv. 8–12) and money’s ability (vv. 13–17).

Money’s Inability

In vv. 8–12, Solomon details at least two things that money is unable to offer. These two things are things that we desperately and rightly want, but if we think that money is going to bring them to us, we will be sorely disappointed.

Inability to Offer Justice

First, we learn that wealth cannot offer justice:

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. But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.

(Ecclesiastes 5:8–9)

Human beings have a deep, abiding thirst for justice. Even if we can’t quite agree on what justice is, and on what oppression looks like, we know that we should want justice. And we know that God has appointed government to pursue justice (Genesis 9:1–6). Since government has access to vast resources (thanks to equitable taxation!), the equation is simple: Government plus money equals justice. But we know that that is not how it works.

When we think of corruption, our mind immediately goes to government. In 2017, the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index assigned South Africa a justice rating of 43 out of 100. Many South Africans probably think that that is too generous! The truth is, South Africa has pretty robust anti-corruption laws, but they rarely seem to be enforced and corruption abounds. You might consider the Gupta family scandal, wasteful spending of state funds, or delegating of massive contracts on the basis of nepotism. Questions might be asked about the use (or misuse) of the COVID-19 relief fund. Or what about the recent suspension of certain SASSA payments and the insistence by the minister that these payments will only resume upon in-person reapplication at government offices, despite lockdown restrictions against gatherings? And then consider the use of water cannons to disperse crowds of SASSA grant applicants at said government offices. Stories of police brutality abound and apparent incompetence at government departments is rife.

The solution to this, surely, is money. Right? If the government just has sufficient resources, problems will go away. Solomon’s point is that that will never happen. Government can have limitless resources, but we should still “not be amazed” to see “the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness.”

What is the problem? “The high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.” The word translated “watched” carries dual senses. On the one hand, it means to protect; on the other, it means to be circumspect of. The problem, then, is that, despite the resources at its disposal, there is mistrust and cover-up within the government system. Some officials protect others. Some officials are suspicious of others. It’s a big mess; the vulnerable are caught in the crossfire; and money can’t solve it.

If the solution to corruption in the government is not money, what is it? “But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.” The solution is not resources but righteousness. If leaders are committed to that which will benefit the country—to “cultivated fields”—corruption will be minimised. If leaders stop looking out for each other, and stop being suspicious of each other, and instead pursue what is best for the citizenship, justice will begin to prevail. The solution to the problem of injustice has little to do with money. In itself, money cannot solve the problem.

Inability to Offer Satisfaction

Second, Solomon argues that money cannot offer satisfaction.

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a labourer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.

(Ecclesiastes 5:10–12)

According to Solomon, money cannot offer satisfaction, for at least three reasons.

First, money cannot offer satisfaction because lovers of money will never be satisfied with how much they have: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (v. 10). Any satisfaction that they have will be short-lived. It’s something like sitting down to a sumptuous Christmas lunch. By the end of the meal, you may feel as if you will never eat another thing, but by dinnertime, or breakfast the next morning, you find yourself yearning for more. The satisfaction is transitory.

So it is with those who love money. They may experience short-lived satisfaction when they reach a specific goal, but soon they find that there is more to be had. Money is a god that always keeps you wanting more. The surest sign that you are not a lover of money is that you are satisfied with what you have.

Second, money cannot offer satisfaction because it always invites new problems: “When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?” (v. 11). When you come into a sudden windfall, all sorts of investors appear on the scene. Friends and family you never knew you had come crawling out the woodwork. Organisations begin appealing for support. In the ancient world, increased income meant increased need of servants, which meant more mouths to feed. New decisions must be made, which invites new headaches.

The rich man has no “advantage … but to see [his riches] with his eyes.” He can walk out and view the property he owns. He can download a bank statement and see his bottom line. He may have the “advantage” of financial security, but he also has the disadvantage of increased worry.

Third, money cannot offer satisfaction because it robs him of sleep: “Sweet is the sleep of a labourer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep” (v. 12). When is the last time you worried about money? How did you sleep? How did that lack of sleep help you the next day? Money invites worry, which robs us of sleep, even if all our other early needs are met. This is no benefit.

And so we see that, in many different ways, money is powerless to offer justice and satisfaction. But now we turn our attention to what money can do.

Money’s Ability

Having considered money’s inability, we must also consider its ability. We have seen what it can’t do, but now we consider what it can do.

There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. 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. 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? Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.

(Ecclesiastes 5:13–17)

Solomon points to an example of wasted wealth to make the point that money’s real ability is the ability to cause pain. Rather than being generous with his wealth, a particular man hoarded his riches. At some point, he entered a “bad venture.” Perhaps he had sought financial advice but had ultimately gone against it, investing in a scheme in which he ought not to have invested. In the end, he lost all his wealth. This left him unable to provide from his family. He went to the grave as emptyhanded as he had come into the world. All the money he had earned during his productive working years meant nothing. His wealth offered him nothing of substance but brought only pain.

This story has been repeated time and again in history. Charles M. Schwab was a young man who worked his way up from an entry-level job in an Andrew Carnegie steel mill at age 17 to become president of Carnegie Steel at 35. He served as president of United States Steel before taking over Bethlehem Steel in 1904, where his business acumen and perceptive risk-taking made him a millionaire many times over by 1923. A combination of bad investments, the 1929 stock market crash, and the prolonged economic depression of the 1930s greatly diminished his wealth. Despite his losses, he continued to spend lavishly. He lived his last years on borrowed money and left behind an insolvent estate with debts and obligations totalling over $1.7 million.

If you hope in money to grant health, happiness, fulfilment, and purpose, you are putting your eggs in the wrong basket, betting on the wrong horse, and misplacing your trust. The question is, where are you placing your trust? We do well to heed the caution that Paul issues to Timothy:

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. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

(1 Timothy 6:17–19)

This brings us to Solomon’s main point: money’s purpose.

Money’s Purpose

The closing verses of this chapter almost sound contradictory, but they fit beautifully with what he has just said.

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. 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. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

(Ecclesiastes 5:18–20)

In vv. 13–17, Solomon told of “a grievous evil” that he had seen “under the sun.” Now, he turns to consider what is “good and fitting … under the sun.” This section is intended to contrast with what he has just written. “Behold,” then, should be considered in the sense of “on the other hand.” You’ll notice a stark difference between Solomon’s language in vv. 8–17 and vv. 18–20. That difference is the word “God.” There is no mention of God in vv. 8–17, but now he mentions God four times in the closing three verses. Here, rather than leaving us in a lurch, he is bringing God into the picture.

If money cannot, in itself, produce justice and satisfaction, and if money, in itself, tends to bring complication and pain, how should we think wisely about money? “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.” Here is Solomon’s point: When it comes to money, most people expend huge amounts of energy pursuing it and trying to build enough of it to find security for the future. That leaves us so preoccupied with other things, and with our future security, that we find ourselves unable to enjoy what God has given us in the present. Having tried it all, Solomon counsels that the best thing to do is to find satisfaction in God and his good gifts to us now.

God is the one who has “given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them.” Wisdom is for the man of God to “accept his lot and rejoice in his toil” for “this is the gift of God.” Notice, once more, the frequent references to God in this section. In a nutshell, Solomon is saying that the person who finds his satisfaction in God, and in the things that God has given to him—whether little or much—is the person who is living with true wisdom. If your trust is in money itself, you are living foolishly; if your trust is in the God who gives money (and all other good gifts), you are living wisely.

In fact, the one who learns to live daily in God’s presence “will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart” (v. 20). Those who learn to rejoice in God and his good gifts in the present will find such joy in God that the troubles of life will seem insignificant in the bigger scheme of things.

In a nutshell, Solomon is arguing that the purpose of money is to remind us that we should not find satisfaction in money but in God who gives the money.

In fact, only as we find our satisfaction in God can we find those things we so yearn for. Money cannot produce justice, but God provided perfect justice in Jesus Christ. On the cross, Christ was punished for the sins of his people so that perfect justice could be exercised. And because perfect justice was exercised in him, the grace of forgiveness is available to repentant sinners. Justice—true, eternal justice—can only be realised in Jesus Christ.

Satisfaction can likewise only be found in Christ. Augustine famously said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” God, in Christ, offers us the satisfaction that we will never find in money. If we look to him for satisfaction, the sorrows of this life will fade into insignificance as God fills our hearts with eternal joy.

Is this not how Jesus lived? He did not spend his time on earth figuring out how to hoard for retirement. He had nowhere to lay his head, but trusted his Father to meet his daily needs and learned to find his joy in daily obedience. The result was that he was a man who was “occupied with joy in his heart” even though he was a man of sorrows.

Christ was willing to forsake the riches of heaven, and to become poor on our behalf, in order to do what his Father had called him to do. While we should be thankful for the good gifts that God has given to us, we must at the same time be willing to part with them for the sake of obedience. That is the path to true joy. May we all find that joy in Christ.