The Illusive Nature of Contentment.

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.

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. 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? 17 Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.

18 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. 19 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. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart. Ecclesiastes 5:8-20 ESV

As Solomon looks back on his long life as the king of Israel, he reflects on the many life lessons he has learned and, in this section, presents them in the form of a series of proverbs. These short, seemingly unrelated maxims, most often utilize comparisons to drive home a point and to present time-proven truths in a manner that makes wisdom practical and applicable to everyday life.

In verses 8-9, Solomon readdresses the issues of injustice and the oppression of the poor, which he initially covered at the beginning of chapter four. The presence of these problems within a society should not shock or surprise us. The wealthy and powerful, driven by a desire to maintain and even increase their social standing, will be tempted to use their power and influence to take advantage of those less fortunate than themselves. And in these verses, Solomon points out that every high official who takes advantage of the poor or practices injustice, must answer to yet a higher official who wields even greater authority. In other words, there is a chain of command that ultimately leads to the king. And the more powerful always control and take advantage of the less powerful. It is the nature of things. Injustice and oppression, abuse of power and unethical leadership seem to be inevitable outcomes of government. It is inevitable. But Solomon seems to conclude that a monarchy is preferable to anarchy. Even with its potential for abuse, government provides a semblance of stability and control that results in cultivated lands. In other words, the very presence of governmental structure and hierarchical authority can result in abuse of power and lead to injustice, but it can also produce corporate benefits that all enjoy. Underlying so much of what Solomon says in this book is the undeniable reality of sin and the fallen condition of the human heart. Even good men are prone to do bad things. As the prophet Isaiah so aptly put it: “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT).

In the next section, verses 10-12, Solomon addresses a related topic: The love of money. Solomon flatly states, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 5:10 ESV). When it comes to wealth, you can never seem to have enough. The pursuit of money can become addictive. And it can be accompanied by a fear of losing what you already have. Money makes conspicuous consumption possible, which Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes as “lavish or wasteful spending thought to enhance social prestige.” But as Solomon warns, it doesn’t work. It never satisfies. The primary reason we pursue wealth is in order to satisfy our desires. But we tend to find that, with all our newfound capacity to acquire and accumulate, the one thing we can’t get our hands on is contentment. Timothy warned against the dangers of making money our master.

Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.

But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. – 1 Timothy 6:6-10 NLT

One of the realities that come with increased wealth is an increase in responsibilities. The more you have, the more must take care of and maintain, and that requires help. And no one knew this better than Solomon. The book of 1 Kings gives us a glimpse into Solomon’s vast wealth and allows us to imagine just how extensive a retinue of servants was required to care for all that he owned.

22 The daily food requirements for Solomon’s palace were 150 bushels of choice flour and 300 bushels of meal; 23 also 10 oxen from the fattening pens, 20 pasture-fed cattle, 100 sheep or goats, as well as deer, gazelles, roe deer, and choice poultry.

24 Solomon’s dominion extended over all the kingdoms west of the Euphrates River, from Tiphsah to Gaza. And there was peace on all his borders. 25 During the lifetime of Solomon, all of Judah and Israel lived in peace and safety. And from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south, each family had its own home and garden.

26 Solomon had 4,000 stalls for his chariot horses, and he had 12,000 horses. – 1 Kings 4:22-26 NLT

Back in chapter two, Solomon described his vast and expanding network of servants, slaves, employees and concubines.

I bought slaves, both men and women, and others were born into my household. I also owned large herds and flocks, more than any of the kings who had lived in Jerusalem before me. I collected great sums of silver and gold, the treasure of many kings and provinces. I hired wonderful singers, both men and women, and had many beautiful concubines. I had everything a man could desire! – Ecclesiastes 2:7-8 NLT

He had everything his heart desired, except contentment. And he was forced to feed and care for all those who worked for him. Which is what led him to write, “The more you have, the more people come to help you spend it. So what good is wealth—except perhaps to watch it slip through your fingers!” (Ecclesiastes 5:11 NLT). And the truly vexing thing about it all is that the man who has it all can’t sleep at night. When Solomon states that “the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep”, he is not speaking of indigestion, but of insomnia caused by constant worry over wealth. What you own ends up owning you. You become a slave to that which was intended to serve you. And yet, in contrast, “People who work hard sleep well, whether they eat little or much” (Ecclesiastes 5:12 NLT). 

With his next proverbial statement, Solomon addresses the fleeting nature of wealth. He describes a “grievous evil” that he has witnessed in this life, and it is likely that he is speaking from personal experience, not objective observation. He had first-hand experience with this kind of evil or misfortune, having had his fare share of bad business deals and risky investments.

13 There is another serious problem I have seen under the sun. Hoarding riches harms the saver. 14 Money is put into risky investments that turn sour, and everything is lost. In the end, there is nothing left to pass on to one’s children. – Ecclesiastes 5:13-14 NLT

In one fell swoop, the money and material assets we have worked so hard to accumulate, can be gone. They can disappear in an instant, leaving us in poverty and our children with no inheritance. And even if we are able to maintain a hold on all our assets to the bitter end, we can take none of it with us. Our wealth remains behind us. And as Solomon stated earlier, “I must leave to others everything I have earned. And who can tell whether my successors will be wise or foolish? Yet they will control everything I have gained by my skill and hard work under the sun. How meaningless!” (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 NLT). 

When all was said and done, Solomon was left with one observation that allowed him to extract a bit of hope out of all the meaninglessness and despair of life. He saw that man had been gifted by God with the ability “to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life” (Ecclesiastes 5:18 NLT). Not exactly a cheerful observation, but it seems that, for Solomon, the only recourse he had to keep from being frustrated, discouraged, and angry, was to enjoy life as best as he could in the time he had on this planet. Because, after that, no one really knew what came next. What Solomon concludes must be closely examined.

19 And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it. To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God. 20 God keeps such people so busy enjoying life that they take no time to brood over the past. – Ecclesiastes 5:19-20 NLT

There is a degree of truth to be found in these statements, but we must not fail to recognize that Solomon is speaking from a position of resignation and, in some ways, resentment. He is frustrated by all the inequities and injustices of life lived under the sun. He has tried anything and everything to find satisfaction and significance in life. And when he simply states that the only thing left to do is to enjoy your work and accept your lot in life, he does not appear to bespeaking as one who is content and satisfied, but as someone who has resigned himself to something less than what he had hoped for. There is no joy in his statement. He almost describes God as a divine taskmaster who keeps us busy in order to distract us. If we compare the words of Solomon with those of his father, David, we see a marked difference in how they both perceived life and the God who made it all possible.

11 Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty. Everything in the heavens and on earth is yours, O Lord, and this is your kingdom. We adore you as the one who is over all things. 12 Wealth and honor come from you alone, for you rule over everything. Power and might are in your hand, and at your discretion people are made great and given strength.

13 “O our God, we thank you and praise your glorious name! 14 But who am I, and who are my people, that we could give anything to you? Everything we have has come from you, and we give you only what you first gave us! 15 We are here for only a moment, visitors and strangers in the land as our ancestors were before us. Our days on earth are like a passing shadow, gone so soon without a trace. – 1 Chronicles 29:11-15 NLT


English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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