Sermons & Sunday Schools

The Vanity of Wealth, Part 1

In this sermon, Pastor Dave Capoccia begins looking at Solomon’s teaching on the vanity of wealth in Ecclesiastes 5:8-20. Solomon gives two main reasons to beware vainly seeking after wealth and to gratefully rejoice instead in your portion from God. In part 1, Pastor Dave covers Solomon’s introduction in verses 8-9 about government corruption and then examines the first main reason to beware seeking after wealth in verses 10-12: wealth ultimately won’t satisfy you.

Full Transcript:

Between the last time I preached and being with you today, I went and got a haircut if you can tell. I love going to Ermanno’s barber shop and how he cuts my hair. I happened to overhear an interesting conversation that ties in with the passage we are looking at today. The conversation was between another barber and a customer in the shop and was about the recent stock surge of the company GameStop.

I don’t know if you followed that saga in the news, but don’t worry about it if yo didn’t. Just know that there was a bunch of people that decided to invest in mass in this company stock and its share price rose meteorically. The stock has since fallen back to where it started but over two weeks or so, there was a huge increase.

The barber and the customer were talking about this development and the customer remarked about how he received a number of shares in that stock before the amazing price surge. Close to the peak of the price, he was able to cash in and make $100,000 within a week.

As I was listening, a pair of thoughts momentarily passed through my mind like this. “Boy, if only I were so fortunate. What could I do with a $100,000.” Have you ever wished for more money? Maybe when you saw somebody else’s success or saw an advertisement? Or maybe when you dealt with a problem for the umpteenth time and you cried out in your soul, “If only I were rich!”

If that seems too arrogant maybe you thought, “If only I made more money then I wouldn’t have so many problems, annoyances or worries. I could finally pay off my bills and the expenses of my loved ones. I could finally get involved in the church and become a part of gospel ministry. I could finally buy my dream house, travel, and enjoy life.”

Have you ever found yourself saying those kinds of things to yourself? We’re encouraged in these thoughts by our culture and the famous American dream that promises us that if you work hard and long enough, you too could achieve that good life. And maybe that is the dream that you’re working towards right now. But what if I told you that more money and more possessions definitely, absolutely, and without a question would not make any of us happy?

What if I told you that being wealthy would cause just as many problems for you and me as being wealthy solves. The way to enjoy life most is to fear God and be content with what you have. Now this is not just my opinion or some conclusion I’ve come to after a fallible life experience. This actually is the very wisdom of God in His Word. This is the wisdom that God is going to speak to us today.

Please take your Bibles and open to the book of Ecclesiastes chapter 5. The title of this sermon is “The Vanity of Wealth.” This is part one of what will probably be two parts in this passage. Ecclesiastes is a book written by the wisest and most knowledgeable man who ever live apart from the Lord Jesus Christ, and that is King Solomon of Israel. He wrote this book at the end of his life to instruct the next generation on how to live life well in a vaporous world, a world that is fundamentally broken because of the fall.

Last time we looked together at Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 which was the first part of this chapter. Solomon taught us not to speak or about God casually, thoughtlessly, hypocritically. We are to watch our mouths even in worship and wisely fear God instead of ruin ourselves with mere religious folly. The theme of this section is not thinking too highly of ourselves or what we are able to accomplish.

Let’s read Ecclesiastes 5:8-20:

If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight; for one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them. After all, a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land. He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income. This too is vanity. When good things increase, those who consume them increase. So what is the advantage to their owners except to look on? 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. There is a grievous evil which I have seen under the sun: riches being hoarded by their owner to his hurt. When those riches were lost through a bad investment and he had fathered a son, then there was nothing to support him. As he had come naked from his mother’s womb, so will he return as he came. He will take nothing from the fruit of his labor that he can carry in his hand. This also is a grievous evil—exactly as a man is born, thus will he die. So what is the advantage to him who toils for the wind? Throughout his life he also eats in darkness with great vexation, sickness and anger. Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s labor in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward. Furthermore, as for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, He has also empowered him to eat from them and to receive his reward and rejoice in his labor; this is the gift of God. For he will not often consider the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart.

What we have here from Solomon is a fundamental presentation of the vanity or vapor life nature of wealth. Solomon has broached this concept and topic a few times but now faces it head on. We can summarize the main idea in this way: Solomon gives two main reasons for you to beware vainly seeking after wealth and instead gratefully rejoice in your portion from God.

What are those two main reasons? Number one, wealth ultimately won’t satisfy you and number two, wealth won’t protect you. We won’t cover this whole passage today because we have the Lord’s Table. We are just going to cover the introduction and the first reason to beware seeking after wealth.

Let’s start with the introduction which appears in verses 8 and 9. It seems to be a little random, not connected to the previous section on worship and not connected to the following section on wealth. What’s it doing here? Actually the brief admonition of verses 8 and 9 bridges the two sections by linking the concepts of arrogance and wealth seeking. What is Solomon specifically addressing? Government corruption.

Now these verses are very difficult to understand in the original Hebrew. If you compare the modern major translations, the vary in capturing what these words say. While we can’t be too dogmatic in the specific message of these verses, the main point is certainly clear from the beginning of verse 8. That point is don’t be surprised by corruption. I think there’s an additional message which I’m going to argue for a little more tentatively, which is that government is still good. But fundamentally, don’t be surprised by corruption. Look at the beginning of Ecclesiastes 5:8 again:

If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight.

Notice the term oppression. This is a word we already saw in Ecclesiastes 4:1. It describe someone who has power mistreating someone who doesn’t have power for the sake of gain. The oppression Solomon has here is primarily financial and judicial. The people being oppressed are the poor. They are without the financial resources to resist mistreatment or obtain justice in court. The word denial literally means violent robbery. It’s like these rich persons have violently stolen the court’s just judgment to pull off and get away with their schemes against the poor.

We see this in the Scriptures and the Bible is full of these warnings and rebukes against this behavior. We see the rich and powerful using their wealth and power to get more for themselves. We can look at passages such as Proverbs 14:31, James 5:1-6, 1 Kings 21, where we had the narrative Ahab and Jezebel taking Naboth’s vineyard.

We don’t have the time to look at those passages now but know from the Old and New Testament that God says this kind of activity and corrupt oppression gets His attention and will result in His holy judgment. It is a serious matter. But that’s what’s being described here: maybe the rich had workers working from them and at the last minute said they weren’t paying. Maybe a rich person said they really like a piece of land, and won’t pay the owner for it or will give them a really small amount.

This is the kind of behavior that Solomon is talking about. Notice where it takes place: in the province, which is one of the administrative districts away from the capital. Remember that in a world before fast communication like we have today, no internet, no phone, no telegraph, it was hard to keep tabs on what was taking place away from the capital. Powerful men used this distance from the seat of government and king to their selfish advantage.

Now let’s say you’re a government servant sent out to the provinces on behalf of the king and you discover instances of oppression and corruption. How should you respond? This is what Solomon says: do not be shocked at the sight. Is this oppression evil and will it bring God’s judgment at the appointed time? Yes. But should we be surprised by it? Not at all.

This is just a sad fact about life in a fallen world. People with power and wealth are going to oppress those without in order to get more. Thankfully, not every authority or rich person is guilty of this. Thankfully, some do fear God and they manifest God’s common grace. It is an error for us to say that ever rich person is an evil oppressor.

Nevertheless political, financial, and judicial corruption should be expected in this world. This doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything about it when it’s discovered. Like we said from Ecclesiastes 4, if there is something you can do genuinely help a situation of oppression, then do it! God is a God of justice and Christians should love that and seek it. Many times there will be nothing that we can do to stop the evil oppression and corruption because it is too powerfully entrenched. I believe that is what Solomon tells us in the second half of verse 8:

For one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them.

The word translated for official here is literally high one. Solomon is referring to people in high authority and government administration. Solomon employed many such officials in his purposefully arranged bureaucratic network. One might think that this network of officials overseeing one another would prevent any oppression that would occur. One might be tempted to take Solomon’s earlier admonition not to be surprised in a positive way. As if not to be horrified or alarmed because the administrator will identify and take care of the injustice in no time.

While the passage allows for that interpretation, I think that if we become familiar at all with any government system, ancient or modern, we know that this is not actually how it works. A system of checks and balances can help. But all too often these systems can become themselves a source of corruption and oppression.

Officials who are supposed to watch one another and keep them in line to make sure they are upholding a justice standard, must watch out for one another to make sure that their mutually corrupt acts do not get reported or punished. They just need to give a little of what they’re making. No societal system is immune to this disease. All are vulnerable: democracy, monarchy, capitalism, socialism. Be sure that you will find corruption and oppression in all of them. Now these systems may vary in the types and levels of corruption. It may change over time. But some corruption will always be there.

Why? Is it because governments are innately evil or property is innately evil? No! It is because man is evil at his core and he is characteristically enslaved to his lust for more. Man is the ingredient that makes every societal recipe, even the best ones, fail. Until you fundamentally changed man and society is filled with men and women with hearts changed to love God and justice, you will not see the end of corruption, oppression, and injustice.

I take the second half of verse 8 as a negative observation and not a positive one. Those in power are frequently arrogant and committed to their own game. Don’t be surprised when you see that corruption manifest, even when a multi-level system designed to check selfishness instead becomes an exploitative system feeding selfishness.

And then we come to Ecclesiastes 5:9:

After all, a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land.

You might be wondering how these verses relate to what was just said. Again, the Hebrew is very puzzling. Literally the original text reads, “and the advantage of the land in all the king for the work field.” That’s a little bit hard to untangle. What exactly is the relationship between the king and the land’s advantage or profit? Without getting too technical or involved in the debate about this, there are three main possibilities for the sense of verse 9 and I’ll just give them to you briefly.

Number one is that the king brings profit to the land by fixing the corrupt bureaucracy and restoring land cultivation. That’s a very positive view. Number two, the king takes profit from all of the land in league with the corrupt bureaucracy, which is a very negative view. Number three, the king and bureaucracy, despite their corruption, are still an overall benefit to the land by allowing the cultivation of fields. This is kind of a neutral view.

From just this passage alone it’s hard what sense Solomon means but considering the rest of Scripture, I think the third view is what is intended here. Governments will be corrupt and imperfect, but still on the whole they are a benefit to man. After all, God Himself is the One who instituted governments when he inaugurated capital punishment after Genesis 9. It says in verse 6:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.

Romans 13:1-7 further clarify that not only were government authorities established by God, but designed by God to report good and punish evil. Paul even goes so far to say that these authorities are ministers of God to you for good! That’s kind of profound. Paul is saying that human authorities, often full of inefficiency, exploitation, and outright persecution of Christians, are a benefit to the people.

A good example of this is the Roman Empire. This is the entity under which Paul and the early Christians operated. Rome was by no means a righteous entity. It was pagan and substantially built on military conquest and slavery. Rulers like Julius Caesar and Augustus were ruthless and self-seeking men. The administration of the empire was full of corruption and inefficiency. The empire at times targeted Christians in deadly persecutions.

But was the Roman Empire a benefit to its people? Even to Christians? I think so. It provided protection from invading neighbors, stability against internal unrest, and even some measure of justice for its people. Historians note that the Pax Romana was the period of Roman peace in Europe. A time of great economic and cultural flourishing. It was part of what sped the first proclamations of the gospel. Now assuredly, some governments have been worse than Rome and some have been better. Rome itself had periods of better and more just rule and worse and more oppressive rule.

But the principle that Solomon appears to be teaching in this last part of the introduction still stands. Imperfect governments are nevertheless a net good for its land and people. As one commentator said, even tyranny is better than anarchy.

How about America? There’s a lot of talk these days about corruption in this country. It seems that every week there is a high-profile figure on the news is accused or caught in some scandal. We know the politicians are constantly hurling the accusation of corruption against one another. Even our own former president was put on trial this past week. This is a lot on people’s minds. But whatever you think about current events, you better believe that our American system contains much inefficiency, corruption, and oppression. And you know what? These are not new in the world or in this country.

If you learn about American history you will see that these terrible realities appear all throughout our history, in both parties we have today: Democrats and Republicans. Sometimes it has been better in America and sometimes it has been worse. There is no perfect system of government or economics in this fallen world.

Nevertheless, can we not thank God for the many benefits and blessings that we have enjoyed even under an imperfect government and a flawed economic system. We have been greatly blessed by this country despite all our problems. Consider the alternative: we have seen in recent months what anarchy looks like when there are no forces to restrain the hands that would steal and destroy. I don’t know about you but I take an imperfect government over that.

Solomon teaches us not to be surprised when people in power try to enrich themselves driven by greed and arrogant entitlement. These persons will evoke God’s wrath by oppressing the poor just to make money. What will be the outcome for these corrupt oppressors. Ecclesiastes 3 shows there will be a time of judgment eventually. In the short time, will they enjoy the good life while the rest of us suffer? Maybe we should join in on their greedy and ruthless game to try and get ours while we can.

This is where we transition to the rest the passage is teaching us about the vanity of wealth. Solomon shows us that tragically all of the oppression, corruption, and injustice that the powerful use to obtain wealth is vain folly and foolishness. These high ones will not obtain happiness or true gain in this world through their increased possessions, and neither will any of us.

Solomon gives two main reasons to beware vainly seeking after wealth and to instead gratefully rejoice in your portion from God. The rest of our time today we will look at the first main reason in verses 10-12. Number one: Wealth ultimately won’t satisfy you. Let’s start with Ecclesiastes 5:10:

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income.

The general rule is that those who love money will not be satisfied with it. I should remind you of 1 Timothy 6 where it says that money is not the main problem but love of money is the main issue and the source of all evil. What does it mean to love money? It means to cherish it as a chief treasure and to continually seek after it, serve it, and worship it as one’s functional god.

Money seems to promise so much and supposedly can buy you lasting pleasure, comfort, power, prestige, and security. The person who loves money commits himself above all to obtaining money and what it can buy. Money becomes that person’s source of happiness and the key to everything that will satisfy. Which kinds of people in the world love money?

Not all rich people love money and some do follow Paul’s counsel. In 1 Timothy 6 it talks about living contentedly even to gladly share money and possessions in service to God and His people. Of course there are also rich people who love money and are fundamentally devoted to it. There are also poor and middle class people who don’t have to have money to love it. If you suppose that money will unlock all your dreams or resent or complain about your lack of money, you love it.

These are the kind of people that Solomon is taking about. Most people in the world are lovers of money and functional worshipers of it. That’s why we see so much materialism around us in our society. That’s why we see so much false religion that are centered around promises of money and prosperity.

The promos that Solomon gives about those who love money this way is that they will not be satisfied with money. In Ecclesiastes satisfied literally means to eat one’s fill. Your soul wants to eat and drink its fill of money. Solomon has news for you: it never will! No matter how much you consume, you will still be hungry and your appetite will only increase.

Do you remember when you thought that having one dollar was a big deal? You were probably young and thought that the whole dollar could get for you everything you really needed or wanted, like a piece of candy. But then you got that treat and realized there are so many other attractive offers in the world that cost more than a dollar. So you wanted more yourself, like ten dollars, and a hundred dollars, and a thousand dollars. Now that you’re an adult, 10,000 or 100,000 dollars doesn’t feel like anything much.

You thought that a particular amount would satisfy you but then like a magic trick, it didn’t and the satisfaction went up in smoke. So you thought you needed more. The problem for us is not our lack of money, it’s our lack of contentment with our money. Notice in Ecclesiastes 5:10 that what is true about money is also true about income. Those who love abundance will not be satisfied with what they already have and will always want more production and profit.

Let’s remember in this time that people actually lived off of the food that they grew. They would sell part or all of it in order to get their needs. At that time no matter how many fields they had, they still craved more. It was not enough income or yield. They felt like they needed more to be safe and happy.

I doubt any of us here are land owning farmers hungry for greater harvests. But do we not often hanker after more lucrative employment? Ah, if only my job paid me more or if I got a promotion! Maybe you crave a greater income in other areas like renting out property, owning a small business, or investing in the stock market. You find yourself saying that it is not enough profit or resources. If you find yourself thinking that way then you need to take care because you know what that kind of thinking is a sign of? Love of money and love of wealth in the heart.

There’s a famous story about John D Rockefeller, the billionaire oil tycoon from the 1800s. A reporter once asked him how much money is enough. He allegedly responded, “just a little more.” What does your heart say? Does it say that you have more than enough? Or that you need just a little more to be happy?

Look at the end of Ecclesiastes 5:10 where Solomon gives the short but profound judgment on this life:

This too is vanity.

Or we could also say that this too is vapor. Solomon is very plain with us and that it is all a big chase. We are grasping after mere air and won’t find what we are looking for. It won’t last because it is vapor! How will you continually crave and chase after wealth? Why not take the wise way and live humbly and gratefully before God and enjoy what you already have from Him?

Perhaps you say that you know wealth won’t ultimately satisfy you but will get rid of some frustrations that you have to deal with. Well, listen to what Solomon says next as to why money and wealth never satisfy. Look at Ecclesiastes 5:11:

When good things increase, those who consume them increase.

Solomon says that more wealth means more consumption, more eating. That is to say that as you get richer, the costs of operating your life increase. Just ask any new pro-athlete or NFL star. The more you make, the more you will feel obligated to buy clothing and experiences befitting your rich status. People call this lifestyle inflation or creep.

The more you make, the more the government will reach in and take part of it in taxes. The more you make, the more your friends, family, and charity cases will expect you to reach out and help. The more you make, the more the salesmen, leeches, and thieves are going to try and come after you. The more you make, the more you’re going to hire people to maintain and protect your stuff. And then there are the natural forces working against you to break down your stuff like moth, rust, rot, etc.

In short, it is amazing how expensive it is to be rich. You’re suddenly feeding so many mouths that you never even anticipated. And all that wealth you worked hard to accumulate suddenly starts disappearing fast. You know what you have to do? You have to start working harder to stay on top and maintain your rich lifestyle. When you make even more, the costs increase and consumption increases.

Pursuing riches quickly puts you in an unending cycle of needing more money and needing to work to get more money. That’s why many pro-athletes, after they retire, and most lottery winners, after they consume their wealth, end up just as poor as when they started. Sometimes even poorer.

Therefore we can understand why Solomon says at the end of verse 10. What is the advantage to the owners except to look on and observe that wealth for a little. What is the advantage? There is none. The rich person can’t even enjoy what he has because he’s too busy making more to keep up with his increasing expenses. There is no rest, just the brief sight of the wealth before it’s consumed and the rich person is taken away to toil for more. Ask yourself, is that really the good life? Is that the best way to live and enjoy life?

There is another painful and unexpected cost to wealth that Solomon mentions in Ecclesiastes 5:12:

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.

The phrase working man is in reference to a poor farm laborer who doesn’t have much and is not even guaranteed a good meal every day. But his sleep is great! The word pleasant here is a Hebrew word translated to mean sweet in the Bible and is often used here to mean honey! The farm laborer may not eat well but he sure has sweet dreams.

Contrast the rich person who has a full stomach, literally satiation or abundance. He has such plenty that we think his sleep is just as good if not better. Of course, the rich man can afford the best blankets and pillows and servants around him to protect and secure him. Surely the rich man’s wealth will cause him to sleep well. Solomon says that his plenty will not allow him to sleep at all? It’s not because the poor man has to work and the rich man doesn’t, although physical labor has a way of making you exhausted. The rich man has to work too and has got to toil to keep up with all those expenses. He is getting exhausted too.

It’s not the lack of work but the difference is in possessions. The poor man has so little that he is not concerned about his stuff at all. The rich man has so much that he is anxious about all of it. After all if he can’t keep making money, his expenses will start catching up with him. And what if some calamity takes away all that he has gathered up? He thinks if he made the right investment choices and secured his wealth properly. He is literally kept up at night thinking about it. The man’s wealth makes him more anxious, not less, because he has so much more to lose.

This is instructive to us, who are tempted to seek after wealth. Do you want more anxiety and less sleep? Then by all means love money and pursue wealth. Do you want to be at rest in both heart and body? Give up the chasing after wealth and fear God and be content with what you have. It’s not wrong to have wealth and if wealth comes to you, then fine. Don’t be eager to obtain it and don’t chase after it.

Did you notice the metaphor that is so prominent in these verses? The whole argument as to why wealth does not satisfy has to do with eating. Possessions are like tasty food, which we all like. In verse 10 it basically says that if you supposed that eating a greater amount of tasty food will satisfy you, and that you will be filled up once and for all, then you don’t understand how eating works. Even when we have had the most sumptuous and delicious meal and we say that we will never eat again, you will still be hungry again in a few hours.

Human hunger for food is never fully satisfied. In the same way, the hunger for things and wealth is never satisfied. What happens with more and unrestrained eating looking for satisfaction? Literal increase as it says in verse 11. The body literally gets bigger to accommodate and store all that food. Rich people in the ancient world were quite fat and it was a sign of prestige which many people envied.

But what happens when you have that extra body mass? It increases appetite in a vicious cycle and the need for more money in the same cycle. What happens to a persons’ health and sleep after too much unrestrained eating? The full stomach experiences discomfort and indigestion, keeping the rich man up at night. Meanwhile, the poor man with little food and few concerns enjoys sweet, even delicious sleep.

Brothers and sisters, is not the vanity of wealth made so clear to us in this passage? Should we not heed the wisdom of God and beware of the desire to get rich? Should we not respond to the thought that says wouldn’t it be nice to have more money with the wisdom of God that gaining more wealth will not make me happier, but give me more problems.

See the key to wisdom and happiness in this life is not getting more, but wanting less. This basic wisdom is even articulated by people in the world. This will only happen for you when you recognize that the beautiful painted, and exquisitely carved idol named maman or wealth is just that. An idol and a false god, what the Old Testament many times called vapor because it couldn’t do anything for you and is not even alive. It is a false god always demanding more and never giving satisfaction.

Is that the god you are worshiping and is it evident by the way you pursue more and more money in your life? If so, turn from the love of money and from the worship of wealth and return to God. To the One who is generous and the rightful Sovereign that gives us all things richly to enjoy. Fear this God, revere Him and walk before Him in holy fear.

Trust in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who is the only and perfect provision to cover and clothe you for the sinful, selfish, and greedy life that you have been living. It has been offensive to God because you have served wealth and not Him. He will judge you for it unless you turn and cover yourself with Jesus Christ. Repent, turn, and trust in Jesus Christ. Take the Father’s Son, the Lord as your chief Treasure.

The essence of eternal life is knowing God and Jesus Christ. He is to be our Chief Treasure and take it so you can follow Him all the days of your life. This life will be over soon for each one of us and we will meet the Lord when He comes or when we die. When we take the Lord as our treasure now, we will be very happy meeting Him. But if we take the treasures of the world, it will be a fearful meeting with the Judge of all the earth.

The way of wisdom is being laid out for us and are you going to take it and believe it? Here is one more exhortation. John 6:27 says:

Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.

Let’s close in prayer. Great Holy Sovereign God, everything on this earth is dependent You. You give us the food, the weather, the very life breath every day. You give us such good and Lord we know we have problems. To a certain extent we do need money to obtain the necessities of life and support ourselves and our families. It can be difficult sometimes but You do us such good and give such kind and simple gifts like a sunny day or a time of companionship with a family members. As Acts 14 says, this is a testimony that You are God and a good God.

How evil of us to take those gifts and try to twist them into gain and serve the things of the world. We serve You because You are the Giver of all good gifts and we know that what we ultimately need is You. We need to be pried away from clinging to the things of the world to start to cling to You and Your Son Jesus Christ. If there are any who are caught up in the weeds and thorns of the concerns and desires of the world and wealth and for obtaining and keeping it, I pray that they would repent and embrace true wisdom. That is to fear You, take You as treasure, and repent of this idolatrous way and to walk in the way of life. God, give us our portion, we know what we need. Protect us from the deceitful love of wealth. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.