- July 21, 2013
- By Derek Hatch / Howard Payne University
• The Explore the Bible lesson for Aug. 4 focuses on Ecclesiastes 5:8-16, 18-20; 6:10-12.
This week’s passage expands upon themes mentioned in previous sections of Ecclesiastes, including the function of wealth, the purpose of work and the meaninglessness of speech.
Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, already has mentioned acquiring wealth is meaningless, since death ultimately equalizes the rich and the poor. Here, he elaborates by noting excessive wealth and corruption are linked. One official commits an infraction, which leads to another and another, but the responsibility, indirectly or directly, falls to the king (vv. 8-9).
While we may find ourselves empathetic with the frustration over this sort of corruption, more is at stake here. What is lost in this scenario is justice and righteousness, terms that in their Hebrew context refer primarily to caring for the most vulnerable in society (v. 8).
Care for the poor
Thus, the concern is not simply on the rule of law, but on whether the poor are oppressed and downtrodden and whether everyone participates in the common good. This subtle yet significant shift refocuses attention on themes that recur throughout the prophetic literature and push back against claims that wisdom literature is primarily concerned with maintaining the status quo.
The theme of wealth as a dangerous distraction is furthered by discussing its results. In our society, people often say to themselves, “If only I had X sum of money, I would be happy.” It seems Qoheleth knew people who said similar things or perhaps had said so himself. He notes, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income” (v. 10).
In other words, there always is another financial hurdle to overcome, whether a new promotion, a new task, a specific income level or a particular possession to own. Consequently, the rich—or even those who aspire to be rich—never are content, but they always are worried about protecting their wealth from loss. By experience, we know this to be true, whether the focus is on a bigger house, a better car or even a better quality of life. Moreover, this concern for climbing the ladder produces a protectiveness that views even friends and family as threats to one’s nest egg.
Danger of covetousness
For the author of Ecclesiastes, this anxiety is crippling, especially in comparison to the average worker: “The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep” (v. 12).
Rather than attempts to hoard or protect wealth, which Qoheleth calls evil (v.13), the text advises readers to remember, “Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart” (vv. 15-16). There is no place in birth and death for money or wealth. Thus, as one commentator has noted, “riches kept are riches lost.”
Regarding work, Qoheleth reiterates the meaninglessness found there. That is, there are no guarantees work will give purpose to human existence. Just like everything else, it is utterly meaningless. Nonetheless, work, though hard at times, should be embraced: “It is appropriate for a person ... to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them” (v. 18).
Work is not bad
Work, then, is not bad; in fact, when accepted for its own sake—and not for the money it may provide—work can furnish genuine contentment and joy, which is what eludes the wealthy (Ecclesiastes 6:1-2). This, of course, is a rare gift from God (Ecclesiastes 5:19). Even if wealth accumulates from this embrace of work, it certainly is not the goal of working. Instead, the joy that emerges from work can distract from the anxieties of the world (v. 20).
The final three verses of chapter 6 return to an earlier point concerning human beings in comparison to God, the one who names everything that exists and knows the essence of human beings (v. 10). In short, God is the Creator. As we have seen earlier, silence is the appropriate approach: “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” (v. 11). So, humans cannot talk their way out of their circumstances—that produces more vanity. Instead, we should embrace reverent silence.
This passage concludes with a series of rhetorical questions: “For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?” (v. 12).
After having read approximately half of Ecclesiastes, we now can see the answer is clear—not humans but God. Thus, any attempt to pursue wisdom should have limited expectations—hence the emphasis on eating, drinking and satisfaction in work. Human wisdom does not hold the keys to the secrets of the universe; only God holds those.