Previous article in this series: September 1, 2014, p. 465.
In the preceding verse, the text concluded, “…the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep” (). Riches, for a man given to covetousness, bring with them fretful care and worry lest they be lost. In verses 13-17, the Preacher turns to this reality of loss by again describing what is seen under the sun in the life of men. What is seen is a sore or grievous evil, a spiritual sickness. “There is a sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt” ( ).
What is this evil? Riches kept for or by the owners thereof. The picture of that keeping is one of a guarded hoard, like a walled prison, a secured barn, a bank vault, acquired by heaping and gathering and building bigger barns and treasure hoards. The owner is truly rich according to this world. The world about us proclaims that this is a good thing, for riches and wealth give one security, power, and the ability to enjoy life, lifting a man above his fellows. Yet these riches are hoarded “to their hurt,” that is, to the owner’s own hurt, particularly of his soul, in covetousness. The Word of God declares that “this is a sore evil,” which the text further explains in two ways.
First, “but those riches perish by evil travail: and he begetteth a son, and there is nothing in his hand” (). The “evil travail” is not specified. It may be a bad business decision, some physical or natural calamity, or upheaval in the world. The precise circumstance is not the point. Trouble comes; the riches are lost, destroyed, or perish. They are gone, and of them the once rich man now has nothing. He is reduced to poverty. His hand is empty and his son has no inheritance. Where earthly riches are one’s only treasure, the loss of them leaves one with nothing. The man who is not rich toward God gives no spiritual treasure to his children, and if his earthly riches fly away he is empty-handed. His riches are vanity, and he himself is vain.
Solomon does not mean that this loss of earthly riches happens to all rich men, but examples of it are frequent enough, as warnings from God to testify to both the people of God and the world of sin as well, of the folly of trusting and seeking after uncertain riches. The man who would keep his riches under the sun has no peace, for an evil travail can and does carry them away. He cannot by his own power truly keep them, though in his pride of heart he deceives himself concerning them. This also besets us, so that the psalmist in Psalm 73 speaks of his battle with this temptation when he says, “For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (). The rich man of this world who trusts in uncertain riches is not simply wicked, but spiritually “foolish,” though he may think that he is the smartest person in the room because of his riches. “Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain…” ( ).
Secondly, regardless of his keeping of his earthly treasure in this world, he himself, the rich man, flies away. This second further explanation is universal and absolute: he shall die. “As he came forth of his mother’s womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand” (). Whatever legacy of the things of this world a man leaves behind him, he himself leaves. He came into the world naked, that is, with nothing, and so also will he leave it. The text as it were piles up the horror of the reality of death under the sun. First, as he came so shall he go; second, he shall take nothing of his labor; third, he may carry nothing away in his hand. He is stripped. His labor is vain and he is empty; he has nothing.
This confronts all of us in the labor and toil of life under the sun. Solomon, who had wrought many works, feels the weight of it. “And this is a sore evil, that in all points as he came so shall he go…” (). Yet the issue is not simply death, but that the one who is here described as leaving this life is one who has no fear of God, who has accomplished nothing, of whom nothing of value abides. “And what profit hath he that hath labored for the wind?” (Eccl. 5:16). His earthly riches and treasures are the wind, empty air that blows away. Seeking earthly riches as the end and goal of life is a vain striving after the wind, after that which does not and cannot profit. Riches cannot deliver from death. Moreover, death as the judgment of God upon sin is such that riches cannot obtain righteousness, pardon for sin, or deliverance before God. The man striving after uncertain riches is a fool striving and laboring after the wind.
Yet the world abounds with this seeking of material riches, with seeking the god of materialism, Mammon. It preaches such laboring after the wind, and its song fills our ears as we are also in the flesh and have need of earthly things. We have the calling to labor, to provide for our families. We seek to establish businesses and make them prosper. We are called so to labor in this life under the sun, but if this be the end and goal of our life, if it is first, and not subordinate to seeking the things above, then we also fall into the folly of seeking after the wind. The text calls for some sober assessment of our spiritual priorities. The picture is not one of pessimism. There is positive instruction to be heard in verses 18-20, but we will not rightly understand its blessedness for a child of God, as the “gift of God” (), unless we first make a right evaluation of the folly of the sin that seeks uncertain riches and labors after the wind.
The Word of God then brings the picture of this unbelieving laborer after the wind to its concluding assessment. While a child of God may struggle because of the flesh and the temptations of indwelling sin, the man described here is the rich, unbelieving, and reprobate fool, and the consequences described are of his seeking after the wind. His days are very different from those of the one blessed of God. He does not “enjoy the good of all his labor” (). Rather, his days, all his days, have a certain character. “All his days also he eateth in darkness, and he hath much sorrow and wrath with his sickness” ( ).
The viewpoint is not one day or a collection of days but the organic whole of his life, the tenor or character of his days, and that particularly in the context of the rich man who heaped and gathered and then lost it all through an evil travail. His days are spent in darkness, darkness of mind, of gloom and disappointment, a darkness that is the consequence of the spiritual darkness that is without the light of the knowledge of God and His fear. In darkness he heaped and gathered. Enough was never enough. In darkness he lost much sleep worrying over his riches, seeking to guard them from evil travail, and yet the travail came upon him. Riches were his god, and losing them he now has nothing. He will die and carry nothing away. He has striven for the wind and obtained empty air.
He ate his meals in that darkness, and the loss of his riches now reminds him of that loss whenever he sits down. He is sick at heart; frustration, anger, and bitterness of soul are his portion. The sickness mentioned is the sickness of his soul without true peace and joy, rather than that of the body. It is a spiritual sickness over the very emptiness of his life. Wrath and anger at the circumstances that robbed and cheated him of his riches, an anger not just at men, who may have been the instrument, but at God who is Lord of all. His sickness is a spiritual one, not a physical one.
It is out of that bondage to covetousness and that darkness rooted in man’s depravity that grace brings us as children of God and gives to us the light of life, even eternal life. That blessing gives us to eat and drink with a well founded joy: “This is the gift of God” (Eccl. 5:19).