BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES/The emptiness of affluence
Wednesday, July 2, 2014 1:00 PM
We have discovered the theme of Ecclesiastes to be that "life apart from God is empty." The Preacher then raises the question of injustice and oppression, but now zeroes in on another route that people attempt to take in order to find meaning. If they don't find meaning in wisdom, if they don't find meaning in pleasure, if they don't find meaning in work, what are some of the other routes they go to try and find meaning? One way is affluence. And in Ecclesiastes 5, the Preacher directly addresses the escape route of affluence and shows us its emptiness.
Wealth, an Awful Curse Without Him
In this passage, the Preacher points to the emptiness of wealth and prosperity and affluence without God. In other words, he says these things without God not only come along with problems that rob them of their ability to make us temporally happy, but they cannot ultimately satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. First of all, he says if you're living life without God and you're trying to find satisfaction in affluence and prosperity and things, it doesn't satisfy. In verse 10, the Preacher says, "He who loves money will not be satisfied with money; nor he who loves abundance with its income." The more we have, the more we want.
Secondly, in verse 11, he says wealth, apart from God, is burdensome. There is a burden that goes along with wealth. "The more meat, the more mouths," they used to say. The more money, the more house; the more resources, the more responsibilities. Listen to what the Preacher says, "When good things increase, those who consume them increase."
Thirdly, in verse 12, Solomon says that wealth is, in fact, disquieting. Far from providing us peace and contentment and joy and satisfaction, it can actually disquiet us. Look at verse 12. "The sleep of the working man is pleasant, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich man does not allow him to sleep." In other words, the Preacher says the day laborer sleeps hard and well, but many a magnate goes sleepless. Instead of satisfying and bringing contentment, what those who experience wealth without God find is that it is disquieting; it is unsettling. It robs one of contentment.
Fourthly, in verse 13, he goes on to say that wealth, especially apart from God, can be hurtful. "There is a grievous evil which I have seen under the sun. Riches being hoarded by his owner to his own hurt." People amass something; they enjoy what they have amassed, but then, insecurities come. There are insecurities about those around them-can they be trusted? Can my financial advisor be trusted? Can my children be trusted? Can my wife be trusted? Can my relatives be trusted? Can my friends be trusted? Solomon had seen it hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Riches can promote paranoia and isolation when they are not received under God and in relationship with Him.
Fifthly, in verse 14, he points out another reason why wealth and affluence and prosperity cannot satisfy--because it perishes. It can all be lost on one bad move, one bad investment. You've experienced great economies and you've experienced bad economies. You've been wealthy and you've had nothing, and you've gone in both directions; and some of you, more than once. Riches perish; they are not constant. Therefore, they cannot be the thing that provides constant satisfaction, contentment, and joy in this life.
Sixth, in verses 15 and 16, he points out that you can't take your riches with you. And then seventh, in verse 17, he says that riches, wealth, prosperity, affluence, cannot provide meaning and satisfaction because in fact, they become occasions of anxiety. If the heart fixes on things, instead of life being freed up to be enjoyed, it actually becomes uncomfortable. It becomes filled with fears and concerns and anxieties. For all these reasons, the Preacher says that money and things are not the solution to a meaningful life. In fact, in many cases, they are the problem because there are people who are pursuing them as if they will provide the final answer and at the end, they realize that they have taken a long, expensive, dead-end detour. Affluence cannot provide meaning. Worldly wealth cannot provide satisfaction in this life.
Wealth, a Major Trial Even With Him
The Preacher is saying that wealth, though it can be a gift from God, as much as it is an awful curse without God, it can be a great challenge for those of us who love God. For all of those who are pursuing affluence as the way that they find meaning in life, there's a word for believers too. For believers who have been given much, the word is this; it's two-fold. We, as believers, must recognize that wealth, resources, money, affluence, prosperity, is a trial. And, in fact, it is in some ways a more difficult trial to endure than adversity. William Wilberforce, one of the evangelicals who did so much for the social causes in Britain in the nineteenth century said, "Prosperity and luxury gradually extinguish sympathy and harden and debase the soul. So the first word for those who do love God, and who have been given much is, "Recognize, if you have been given much, it is not only a blessing, but it just may be one of the biggest tests that God has given you in this life."
Now, the second thing that this passage reminds us about is this. The way we use what God has given us, is the key to whether we will be owned by things or whether we will own the things. Do the things that we have dominate us, or do we take dominion over them? Do we use them to glorify God, to meet the needs of our families and ourselves, and to do good to Christians, to promote the gospel, to contribute to those around us in this community? Do we take dominion of our goods or, have they gotten hold of us?
The Preacher is speaking today to those who are seeking to live life in such a way that affluence fulfills the void of the heart-it cannot. But his words are equally timely for those of us who do trust God, but who very much love the gifts of this life. The question that is vital for us to answer is, do we love the gifts and lose the giver, or do we love the giver more than we love His gifts?
The Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary. He can be reached at 601-923-1600 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.