Solomon has been portraying the emptiness of life under the sun – even ‘religious’ life (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7). He now turns to deal with wealth and its limitations, kicking off with a statement like the old cliché that money can’t buy you happiness… (Ecclesiastes 5:10).
Maybe here is some solace – certainly some timely wisdom – for us as we wander into recession.
The Shortcomings of Wealth
A psychologist called Michael Argyle in his influential book The Psychology of Happiness statistically shows that people who most value money are less satisfied and are in poorer mental health.
Solomon knew this from his own modest research (and God’s wisdom…) the fact is wealth cannot make you content – it was not created to! It was created as a means of worshipping the only one who makes us content.
Three other problems add salt to the wound. Firstly, the more cash you make the more accountants, consultants, brokers, managers and friends there are who will want a piece of you. You may spend decades making a fortune you never touch. You merely watch it going out the back door (Ecclesiastes 5:11).
Secondly, the wealthy lifestyle is rarely healthy. Stress, overwork and big dinners will mean that your designer clothes become what Douglas Wilson calls ‘wrapping paper for ulcers’ (Ecclesiastes 5:12).
Thirdly, wealth is fleeting (Ecclesiastes 5:13-16). It just is. Surely the last 2 months of global finance confirm this. Whatever success we have, we are fools to imagine our fortunes secure.
The Gift of God
Maybe after all this we’re tempted to think the answer is poverty. Whether through deliberate downsizing or by sheer misfortune we might hope to become happier by possessing nothing. Not so. It’s far more likely that those who lose everything pass their remaining days in bitterness (Ecclesiastes 5:17).
So neither poverty nor riches will do for the person who is truly searching (Proverbs 30:8-9). Solomon points to another hope.
In the end there is one way out of the distress: the gift of God. Amidst the apparent emptiness and vanity of life God provides a way that is ‘good and fitting’ (Ecclesiastes 5:18). And it has nothing to do with wealth, but everything to do with contentment.
The truest contentment comes from knowing the God who rules over the apparent chaos (financial, social, political, emotional or whatever) and makes everything beautiful in its time (Ecclesiastes 3:11). He is able to give us our ‘lot’ (Ecclesiastes 5:18-19) – our portion – or, as Jesus friend Peter has it ‘everything we need for life and godliness’ (2 Peter 1:3).
The Gift of Enjoyment
The need for God-given contentment is seen starkly in the case of those who have everything they apparently need – but no ability to enjoy it (Ecclesiastes 6:1-2). Even those who sail through recession, untouched by the murky financial climate, are not guaranteed true happiness.
What’s needed is the contentment of knowing the true and beautiful God. With him firmly in the equation we see money in the right perspective. It’s not bad – it’s a useful tool. The greater goal of all creation – including your bank account – is God’s glory. So use it for that.
We continually pursue that which doesn’t satisfy because our appetite wanders away from the one right in front of us who became impoverished, with nowhere to lay his head, naked and less than nothing, suffering in darkness the death of a criminal. He became poor, that through his poverty we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
He will meet our needs and enable us to enjoy the world he made. He will see that, eternally, we don’t go hungry and thirsty (John 6:36). He really will – he died to ensure it. We can, and should, trust him; and live generously, giving thanks for every good gift, holding each one lightly and remembering how we got them: because of his kindness.