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Previous article in this series: May 15, 2014, p. 368.

Ecclesiastes 5:8-12

Ecclesiastes 5:7 ends on the note, “But fear thou God.” This is the sum of the whole matter. Yet man shows that he himself does not fear God when, in his folly, he enters God’s house and utters his vows before Him. It ought not to surprise us therefore when we see oppression and perverting of justice. He who does not fear God regards not his neighbor. “If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgment and justice in a province, marvel not at the matter” (Eccl. 5:8).

With this observation Solomon introduces several observations concerning human life. Solomon’s kingdom was a well-ordered one, with chief officers, princes, captains, and other rulers, not only in the military but in the levy for the work of the temple and other projects (I Kings 5:13-18; I Kings 9:17-23). This organization continued even into the reign of Ahab (II Kings 20:13-21). This ordering of the kingdom involved also judges and administrative officials, along with taxation. The division into provinces and their administration took the form of a hierarchy of officials exactly “that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained” (Belgic Confession, Art. 36). The need for it is that man, by nature a sinner, having no fear of God, walks in covetousness and abuses power and authority. It is the responsibility of those who are higher to watch over those under them. But corruption and oppression are still not abolished, for it pervades the life of men so that those who are higher are by nature no different. He tells us, “… marvel not at the matter: for he that is higher than the highest regardeth; and there be higher than they” (Eccl. 5:8). The king himself sees what is happening in the kingdom and beyond, and he sees also that God the eternal king, who is Lord of all, regards it. God will also judge the works of men. He is to be feared.

The second observation he sets before us is the boundary of man’s life. “Moreover the profit of the earth is for all: the king himself is served by the field” (Eccl. 5:9). The picture is that of tilling a field and of the earth yielding its increase to the advantage and profit of all who dwell in the land. All live by the fruit of the field. Food and drink are the necessary boundary of man’s life, his portion of his labor under the sun (Eccl. 5:18, 19). However high a man’s estate, even that of king, he is dependent on that most basic necessity of daily bread and the produce of the land.

Yet the root of so much oppression and corruption is the seeking of earthly riches in covetousness, although the things of this life are but vanity and for a moment. They are not an end in themselves, yet men seek them as if they were the treasure of a man’s life. This yields the third observation: “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity” (Eccl. 5:10). The things of this life are the necessary portion under the sun. The folly of sin is that it leads man to seek the things of this life as if they will satisfy his soul. Because of sin, the things of this world present themselves to the eye as that which is to be desired as an end in itself, as that which will make one happy. This belongs to the deceitfulness of sin, with which we struggle. But in the heart of a man who does not fear God, this desire brings him into bondage to uncertain riches and to covetousness, the lust for them. Earthly abundance does not satisfy. Enough, whether of gold and silver or any other abundance, is never enough.

Jesus makes the same point that Solomon is making in this chapter, when He warns us, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15). He then proceeds to tell the parable of the rich fool, who will build bigger barns, and God says unto him, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” (Luke 12:20). Jesus continues, “So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). Jesus is, in effect, summarizing this and much of the following chapter in Ecclesiastes.

The viewpoint, however, is slightly different. Solomon points us to the vanity of covetousness and of seeking earthly riches as it is manifested even in this present life. We read, “When goods increase, they are increased that eat them: and what good is there to the owners thereof, saving the beholding of them with the eyes?” (Eccl. 5:11).

He makes a twofold point: first, that as wealth increases, so do the demands upon it. The cost of living expands with one’s paycheck, so that there is no real progress or getting ahead. They simply increase that eat it up. Pursuing earthly riches is a vain treadmill that does not profit. Second, where riches do increase and are heaped up as stored treasure, there is no real good or profit in them. Solomon had great storehouses for treasure and armories. He asks what genuine good it did him. All he can do is look at it. To put it in another form, a closet full of shoes, once the latest fashion and style, what good are they? You can wear only one pair of shoes at a time. Heaped gold, if you spend it, is eaten up; if you hoard it, all you can do is look at it.

But that is not the end of the matter. Hoarded treasure needs to be kept, housed, guarded, so that a man can become a slave of his possessions. Jesus says of this, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt and where thieves do not break through nor steal” (Matt. 6:19, 20).

Solomon, looking at the vanity of such treasure from the viewpoint of this world under the sun, makes essentially the same point in a slightly different manner. We read, “the sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep” (Eccl. 5:12). The laboring man, by way of contrast to the rich, is poor; he has little. He has the fruit of the hard work of the day, his portion or daily bread. It was obtained by hard work, whether he eats a small meal or a large one, and by implication also in the light of verses 18-20, he eats it with thanksgiving as from the hand of his heavenly Father. He is tired from the day’s labor and can sleep at night. Jesus said, “Take no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Matt. 6:34).

The rich man, like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable, cannot do so. He must either build bigger barns or live in fear of losing what he has because moth and rust do indeed corrupt and thieves break through and steal. He lives in anxiety and fear, full of fretful care. He tosses and turns on his bed. The very “abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep.” By implication the rich man here is also like that of Psalm 73, a man ruled by covetousness in unbelief. “How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! they are utterly consumed with terrors” (Ps. 73:19). Fear of loss, fear of being robbed or cheated, troubles his sleep. Beholding it with his eyes only adds to his worry. Behind it all stands the reality that he must die and then whose shall those things be?

For a child of God, earthly prosperity is a passing thing of this life at best. It is not our treasure. It is a means to serve the Lord and His kingdom, never an end in itself. When it becomes an end in itself, through the infirmity of the flesh and covetousness, then we also will spend sleepless nights to no profit. The sinful weakness Solomon describes cleaves to us. Hence, as he has said, “But fear thou God.”