From:  Ecclesiastes and the Perpetual Paradoxes of Life               Return to Home

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2012

 

 

 

[Page 74]

 

 

Chapter Four:

The Paradox of Wealth:

It is Both Desirable Yet Potentially Tormenting

(5:10-6:11)

 

 

 

            Even a predominantly barter economy requires some cash.  Modern economies have shifted the situation a 180 degrees to where almost nothing can be done without it; barter now seems a strange, exotic and almost incomprehensible phenomena.  Hence, if anything, Ecclesiastes’ critique of money and wealth is even more relevant today than when the book was written.  Everyone then might have a little money, but they would be essentially “cash poor” and virtually what the twentieth century called “stone broke.”

            Yet Qohelet does not target money alone, but money as a symbol of wealth in general.  And even the “cash poor” in the ancient world might have some of that—in the form of abundant crops, herds, or property.  Ultimately this enhanced both their status in life and the possibility of leisure within their social status. Since it was the natural human aspiration to share in such abundance, Solomon’s words were relevant to both those who already possessed such blessings and to those who could only aspire to them.

 

 

 

 

 

Flow of the Argument

[Page 75]

A.   Love of money breeds dissatisfaction (5:10-12)

B.   Wealth can be lost while we have it (5:13-17)

C.   Prosperity should make us happy (5:18-21)

D.  Yet it can be lost to foreign conquest (6:1-2)

E.   It can destroy the satisfaction that should be found in moral character (6:3-6)

F.   It can keep one from being contented (6:7-9)

G.  It can delude one into believing that God can be safely ignored (6:10-11)

 

 

 

 

A.  Love of Money Breeds

Dissatisfaction (5:10-12)

 

 

            When Qohelet critiques wealth as stirring up discontentment (5:10-12), he does so on three grounds: 

(1) Psychologically it breeds the mind frame that there is never enough (5:10).  Ebenezer Scrooge is the literary embodiment of this in modern western literature.  The danger of the obsession with money is most famously summed up in the Pauline admonition that, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil . . .” (1 Timothy 6:10).  The Proverbist warned that such an attitude is folly for wealth is like a bird:  it can fly away out of one’s grasp like an eagle (23:5). 

            Solomon calls it an absurdity that one should want yet more silver than he already has (5:10).  That is, oddly enough, quite logical.  After all, the underlying rationale for seeking wealth is that it brings happiness.  The fact that it never quite does makes the whole enterprise rather absurd no matter how rational it seemed at the beginning.[1] 

(2)  Increased wealth requires increased expenses and therefore it often only creates the appearance of growing wealth rather than its reality (5:11).  In modern parlance we would speak in terms of a corporation whose income is growing greatly, but whose expenses are growing even more.  The reality is no genuine gain at all.  In individual and family life the modern equivalent would be that all our purchases give the illusion of increased economic well-being, when, in reality, we have only increased the indebtedness.  After all, real wealth is what you have after the bills are paid.

(3)  The poor man can sleep without worrying about what is going to happen to his money tomorrow since he has little or none; the rich man (as a generalization) won’t be able to do that.  He has so much to lose, he will be tormented by the possibility of its loss (5:13); instead of being a source of encouragement and joy it becomes a source of emotional hurt and injury.  Of course, in extreme cases it can become the cause of literal injury and self-damage as well.  The destruction of physical health; the destruction of reputation caused by the exposure of corrupt practices; even the loss of life itself through the despair of suicide.

[Page 76]

           The text viewed from the standpoint of the author.  As ruler, Qohelet would have been well that regal prestige demands that a monarch have more.  If he can’t afford it, that itself is a form of humiliation.

            Increased properties and possessions brought with it a disproportionate increase in manpower.  Individuals may “cheat” by reducing staff to a minimum, but a king can not afford the personal and national “humiliation” of having such a modest court that any of his fellow countrymen can come close to equaling it.

            And if the ruler has any meaningful concept of how much all this is costing, he is going to be deeply concerned about assuring his revenue inflow.  For those costs in goods and cash are present even in years when agricultural and other production can not cover it.

 

          The text viewed from our standpoint.   A million sermons have surely been preached utilizing one or more of these points, especially the perpetual discontent that obsession with wealth can and usually does produce.  I have personally known only two millionaires.  One I worked for and he drove his daughters to distraction because he dared do his own laundry.  “They were dirty,” was simply not adequate justification to his children. 

The other had retired from the insurance business in Florida in mid-life and purchased a large piece of land in rural Pennsylvania.  He was going to be the sole insurance agent in that county and his son was, literally, going to have his own mountain to play on.  “I spent half my life earning money and I’m going to spend the second half enjoying it,” he explained to me decades ago.

            For every man like either of these, there are a hundred who never dare slow down.  They are in a perpetual race to increase their bottom line.  Not because they need it any more, but because it is the only way they know how to live.  Wealth is no longer the useful means to an end, but the end itself.  The preservation and growth of that wealth becomes as heavy a cross to carry as was the literal one that a condemned man carried to his crucifixion.    

 

 

 

B.  Wealth Can Be Lost While

We Have It (5:13-17)

 

 

            Wealth also needs to be kept in proportion by recognizing that whatever we have gained we can also lose (5:13-17).  He has in mind in particular the person who has misused wealth, who has “riches kept for their owner to his hurt” (5:13).  What immoral or other evil purpose the riches were diverted into is not mentioned.  Perhaps because it was an irrelevancy.  There are so many destructive channels (drugs, liquors, promiscuity, and then into the more exotic), that all one could have done was to mention representative ones anyway.

[Page 77]            A second form of losing wealth is to do so literally (5:14a) and the overtone in this verse seems to be of mismanagement.  In this case any offspring are born poor instead of with the advantages they should have had (5:14b).

            If this is not bad enough, the naked truth is that even if we avoid such perils, we will still leave the world just as we came into it:  naked and without a penny of our own (5:15).  This inflicts upon us a “severe evil” (i.e., something extremely undesirable) in that no matter how hard we have labored we leave it all behind (5:16).  It can’t be avoided, but it is hard not to call it absurd.  The person who becomes obsessed with this reality, however, will spend all the days of his life in sadness, rage, and “sickness” (probably both physical and emotional; 5:17).

            As ruler, did the author go through a stage like this?  Was there a period when the economic foundations of his reign gave every indication they were going to crumble and he foresaw such a danger just over the horizon?  If he did, it would explain the pain in the words.  Yet observation of lesser richer men in the kingdom would have brought to him more than one example to illustrate the danger as well.     

            The truth of these verses had been reworded in the modern age to suggest that wealth lasts three generations:  one to earn it, one to preserve it, and one to lose it.  Certainly that is common enough.  Given that length of time you are certainly going to find one immoral spendthrift or one pivotal purveyor of fatal business misjudgment.  Either one can effectively wipe out even a large fortune. 

The parent (assuming that he or she hasn’t chosen the path of drug or alcohol addiction and, hence, may not have the foggiest perception of what is going on) inevitably feels both embarrassed and humiliated—not just for what they have lost but also for not being able to assure that the next generation is generously provided for.

Such has been the traditional mind frame in western society.  It will be interesting to see how long it survives with the welfare state taking on the responsibilities traditionally assumed by family members.  Not to mention the “me first” ideology that became so popular in the 1960s and which is now resulting in many parents consciously spending their savings on personal pleasure in their senior years rather than preserving it for the next generation.  If children are no longer taught to have ongoing respect and concern for their parents, why should it be surprising if the parents feel equally unobligated for their offspring?  

 

 

 

C.  Prosperity Should Make Us

Happy (5:18-21)

 

 

            Although he has been describing the reality of many/most of the well-to-do, in these verses Qohelet argues that there should be a very different mind-frame toward wealth:  (1) It should be counted as something to be enjoyed; (2) it should be counted as a gift of God.

[Page 78]            In taking this approach, he has embraced a common Old Testament theme:  God’s ability to provide wealth (Genesis 24:35; Deuteronomy 8:10-18; 1 Samuel 2:7; Proverbs 10:12).  The wisdom literature of Egypt also recognized the need to regard wealth as a Divine blessing.[2]

            Yet if God makes the wealth possible, then that should transform our view of the wealth itself.  It is no longer simply something we have earned; it becomes also something we have been given.  As Deuteronomy 8:18 has it, “You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth. . . .”  If it is something we have been given, then it, like any gift, is something that we should smile at and take pleasure in possessing.  Not something we clutch to ourselves out of the desperate fear we may loose it.

            Solomon, of all people, had good reason to view wealth through this prism.  Though he had been offered any blessing he wished and had chosen wisdom so that he could govern his people wisely and well (1 Kings 3:9), his good judgment on this had been generously rewarded in other ways as well, “And I have also given you what you have not asked:  both riches and honor, so that there shall not be anyone like you among the kings all your days” (3:18).

            We have no idea how long it took Solomon to grasp this and adopt this view of his possessions.  Perhaps it only came when he recognized that the sole alternative was despair over the inherent dangers of maintaining and preserving it.

              Humans in general have an even greater difficulty in putting wealth in perspective.  Lacking a spiritual commitment that tells us that there is far more to our existence than mere fleshly attainments and possessions, the danger of losing the temporal assets easily becomes not only a concern but an obsession.  Especially in our western society where we have come to view being prosperous—at least in the broadest sense of the term—as not only a blessing but virtually a constitutional right.

 

 

 

D.  Yet It Can Be Lost to

Foreign Conquest (6:1-2)

 

 

            We Americans do not know what it is like to be a conquered people.  Only the southern United States has suffered prolonged military occupation since our nation gained independence—and that was by a people who at least spoke the same language, shared the same general cultural outlook, and was solely the result of a lost war for regional independence.  There is a world of difference between this and being conquered by a people who do not speak our language, who despise our culture, and have no compunctions about how many of us get killed in the process of maintaining their conquest.

            The ancient world knew the phenomena all too well and many parts of our globe today still do.  In comparison to Egypt and the powers that arose at different times in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, even expanded Israel was a secondary power.  [Page 79]    And though Solomon was able to keep the lid on any major war erupting, there was not a citizen who did not recognize that his policies might fail to keep the peace and whatever they had might well go down the drain.  (All those spiritually ill-advised marriages of his make a lot more sense politically--as a means to preserve peaceful relations--don’t they?)

            Modest border conflict and internal raiding parties by marauders were far from impossible but such incidents did not rise to the level of a major conflict and the danger of a governmental collapse.  Even if that were not the case, the generality of foreign conquest that Qohelet develops was still readily recognizable for its validity.

            For the ruler it meant he might lose his throne or at least valuable possessions.  For the less wealthy scattered throughout the land, it could mean that they would lose everything.[3]  Faced with such calamity what else could it be called but an “absurdity” (“vanity”) and “an evil affliction” to be survived?

 

 

 

E.   It Can Destroy the Satisfaction That Should

 be Found in Moral Character (6:3-6)

     

 

            In these verses the author equates two things as equally humiliating:  to lack a burial (which shows no one has any respect or abiding concern for you) and for a well blessed person being “not satisfied with goodness” (6:3)—the goodness he has been blessed with and the character he exhibits in his life.  Furthermore, if he has “not seen goodness” (the advantages, blessings, and potential abundances of life) it would do no good to live two millenniums (6:6) or to have “a hundred children” (6:3).  Hebrew society counted large progeny as a wonderful blessing of God; modern technocratic society has transferred it to the individual being healthily old—preferably very old age. 

But both a large number of children and personal old age shrivel into insignificance if accompanied by bitterness, rage, and a lack of personal satisfaction.  Indeed, if one can not enjoy the blessings of life, it would be better to be born dead (6:3):  at least in such a tragic case the person has not had to endure the decades of frustration and injury.[4]  It becomes a “shorter and less agonizing way” to reach the Sheol that the aged must also enter.[5]   

            In this context of wealth, the connection would be that the search and maintenance of it can drive out the pleasure of having abundance in the first place—not to mention that it can be an excuse to purge out all the inhibitions regulating conduct that every one else is expected to be governed by.  The famous trial of O.J. Simpson for alleged murder illustrates this.  Many were convinced it was a racial affair.  Far from it to the bulk of Americans. 

As I explained to those who would listen, “He stopped being black years ago.  He became green (= wealthy) and there’s a different set of standards for anyone that is green.”  They can’t get away with “everything” but who would question that they [Page 80]    can’t get away with most things that would never be tolerated from anyone else?  When the daughter of a U.S. President is treated unusually generously on liquor charges (or a niece on drug charges) do we really believe that power and wealth (through the purchase of an expensive lawyer if nothing else) had nothing to do with it? 

            Money exempts from the rules mere mortals must live by.

            And it was no different in Solomon’s ancient kingdom. 

            This was especially true of monarchs themselves.  In most countries and most of the time, they were the law.  It was not designed for them.  And even if, theoretically, it was, only personal scruples kept them from bending it for their own benefit.  Think of king David setting up the death of Bathsheba’s husband (2 Samuel 11:14-17).  He could do it only because he had power and position.  Lesser individuals could not have done that evil, but their wealth and position would have permitted many others instead. 

At least David—when he was publicly confronted with what he had done (2 Samuel 11:27-12:14)—was willing to admit personal guilt and responsibility.  In many cultures he would not have been expected to do that much.  As David’s offspring, Qohelet would have been well acquainted with these traditions.

 

 

 

F. It Can Keep One From Being

Contented (6:7-9)

 

 

            Without contentment the wise man is no better off than the poor “fool” who seems ignorant and without understanding (6:7-8).  It is better to be content with what we see in front of us that to be tormented by wandering “desire[s]”[6] that always want more than what we have (6:9).  Analogous in meaning would be the modern adage, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,”[7] what you have is worth far more than what you might have but don’t.

            In this book Qohelet comes face to face with his own wandering mind and discontentment.  He has repeatedly made plain that the disgruntlement is not just that of others but of himself as well.  He is brutally honest.  He hides nothing from us. 

Yet people in general often fail to be equally candid.  They are tormented over the futilities of life but refuse to admit it.  They are anguished over their failures but never seek out an explanation for it or a broader philosophical framework in which it would make sense.  Yet if we are to preserve our full mental well being, we must ourselves wrestle with these same demons and triumph over them.

 

 

 

[Page 81]

G. It Can Delude One into

Believing that God Can Be

Safely Ignored (6:10-11)

 

 

            God is but one element—almost a secondary element—in the author’s thinking.  It is not that He is unimportant but that Qohelet is desperately thinking in terms of an answer in the “here” and “now.”  Yet even that inevitably and repeatedly causes our relationship to God to be introduced.  For we have some kind of relationship with Him in the present world even when we do not consider it the central core of our lives.

            In these verses we come face to face with the fact that in the final analysis, we can not ignore God.  We “cannot contend with Him who is mightier than” we are (6:10).  The reason is not stated, but the use of “mightier” provides the unstated reason:  we will lose.  In the broader content of this discussion of wealth, the point is that our wealth must be exercised in such a manner that it will not antagonize God.  In such a battle we will inevitably be defeated.  We will be the losers.  If not of the wealth then of something equally important to us.

            Although this is true of mankind in general, it is hard for a monarch to come to terms with this reality.  In Egypt the king was god.  (The Romans claimed the same thing, but they usually considered the elevation as actually coming after death and when a Caesar claimed the status during life he was typically viewed as unbalanced.)  Even without such pretensions, rulers could typically get away with anything. 

            In Israel it was no different.  But in Israel this was balanced with the recognition that answerability was never removed.  Not answerability to another arm of government (as in the modern world).  Nor answerability to the consensus of aristocrats.  But answerability to a Supreme Power that even monarchs had to yield before.  As long as a man or woman kept this in mind, the behavior had to be tempered with at least a rudimentary respect for the rights and privileges of every one else.

 

 

 

Footnotes

 



[1] Kamano, 139.

 

[2] For a quotation from the Instruction of Ptahhotep, see Kaiser, 40.

 

[3] David A. Hubbard, 151-152, in effect, interprets the text to refer to those from some other region of the same land who obtain control “by confiscation, court

[Page 82]    order, or distress sale.”  Foreign conquest seems the more likely though occupiers might well utilize the latter two techniques to maintain a façade of semi-legality.

 

[4] Longman, 171.

  

[5] Buck, 517.

   

[6] For the argument that the text has death rather than wandering desires under consideration, see Whybray, Ecclesiastes (Century), 109.

  

[7] Tamez, 89-90, quotes the Spanish form of this, “A bird in the hand is worth more than a hundred flying.”