“I’m thankful that the Lord hasn’t made me rich, because it’s so easy for wealth to become an idol.” — Middle-class Christians.
“I’m not rich.” — A friend’s client who owns several dozen properties including a prominent local wine estate.
“He who dies with the most toys wins.” — Malcolm Forbes (allegedly).
Ecclesiastes was most likely written quite late in Israel’s BC history (it uses a couple of Persian loanwords, which suggests that it was finished sometime after the Persians took control of the empire in the 6th century BC), though parts of it might have been written by earlier authors, including Solomon himself. In this section, the Preacher adopts the persona of king who sounds very much like Solomon. However, he doesn’t identify himself as Solomon and he boasts of surpassing the wisdom and wealth of all those who were over Jerusalem before him (1:16, 2:9), which, in Solomon’s case, would only have included David. So he’s also envisaging a king who encompasses all of Jerusalem’s great leaders.
There are obvious reasons why he would want to call Solomon to mind: Solomon’s wealth and wisdom were legendary, but he was a conflicted figure too. His love of many women was also legendary (see 2:8) and his wisdom didn’t ultimately spare him from destructive disobedience. If one is looking for an example of someone whose foolish son ruined his legacy (2:19), Solomon is again your guy (see 1 Kings 12). So, Solomon is both the peak of Israel’s leadership and a great example of the good and bad of wealth, pleasure, and wisdom itself.
When we speak about wealth in Christian circles, most of us acknowledge the ambivalence about money in the New Testament: it is good not to be poor, but the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. And yet, while we dare not be rich (or at least not to admit to it), we don’t hesitate to add to our wealth if we can.
The Preacher here reflects the difficulty when talking about the pursuit of wealth and success. He refuses to be constrained by simple positives and negatives.
Everything is meaningless (1:14); what is crooked can’t be straight and what is lacking can’t be counted (1:15). The human project is doomed, crooked, lacking. Work is vexation and toil (2:22-23). And yet on the other hand, there is delight and pleasure (2:8-10) and enjoyment (2:24-25) in work–if God grants it.
Wisdom and folly are both striving after the wind (1:17), and the wise and foolish both suffer the same fate (2:15). They die the same way and both are forgotten. And yet wisdom is greater than folly because the wise person “has eyes in his head” (2:14).
The Preacher believes that God may grant good things to those who please him (2:26). But he also acknowledges that the sinner might accumulate too, if only to hand over his own wealth to whomever pleases God (2:26). Yet he himself is concerned that he will hand his achievements over to a foolish son (2:19).
There’s nothing simple about wealth. Some people pursue it no matter what the cost. Most of us get it if we can. But what the Preacher says is undoubtedly true: it is no guarantee of happiness and it is of no use in securing any hope in the fight against mortality.
In the current pandemic, the good and bad of wealth is so easy to see. Those who have it are insulated against the effects of this virus. I write from the comfort of my house with technology that enables me to keep working and entertains me in the gaps. I can avoid people, and if I get sick, my medical aid gives me some hope of good treatment.
On the other hand, our society at large is testimony to the effects of selfish accumulation. Ours is one of the most divided countries in the world, with several millions living below the poverty line and at the mercy of this virus if it takes. The Apartheid state was set up to benefit one sector of society. The inequality that it produced (in family stability, in education, in infrastructure, in inheritance) will be with us for decades still. The attempts to correct inequalities have seen too many stories of selfish accumulation of the few and the continued degradation of the many.
I don’t know what the solutions are to the massive structural problems that we have, and I suppose the point is that there are no easy fixes. But the vulnerability that our nation has to this virus is just one more demonstration that we have to live the change that we want to see.
Wealth can be a trap, but it is also a tool. The Preacher suggests that accumulation and “leaving a legacy” are dead ends. The one who dies with the most toys wins nothing; he is just a different kind of loser. Most of us spend because we can, without asking whether we should. Those of us in a position to create wealth have an opportunity to put it to work to image God in our society. Pay your workers who are stuck in lockdown. Pay your taxes. Fund organisations and projects that are addressing inequality and making structural change. Having a groundswell of people working for the social upliftment of others has the potential to make a genuine difference. “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes has shown us the failure inherent in living like kings. We, however, have been given a better pattern by our Dying King who calls us to self-sacrificial love of God and neighbour. Let us be those who live with eyes in our heads.