Today, we are talking about contentment and prosperity. It is a timely topic as this past Tuesday was the Lunar New Year. I grew up in a Christian family so while we celebrated Chinese new year, I am unfamiliar with those Chinese customs that are more religious in nature. However, I do know that many aspects of the Chinese New Year do focus on prosperity. Of course, you receive gifts of money. But also, a popular new year’s greeting is about prosperity: gong xi fa cai, which literally means congratulations and be prosperous (according to some google search results).
Should you google, “should christians say gong xi fa cai?”, the first hit is an article from the Evangelical Times, which says that for Christians, “it is not appropriate for Christians to wish people Gong Xi Fa Cai, which refers to tangible or financial wealth for that person. Wishes for peace in the new year, or eternal joy from God, are more appropriate.”
Today, I will not be weighing in this issue. However, it is certainly true that prosperity is a touchy subject. It is not considered an appropriate topic for polite conversation. People do not like talking about the extent of their prosperity, how they got it, or what they plan on doing with it. Yet we all have our own views on prosperity.
As Christians, we must be discerning. There are proponents of extreme views on prosperity: from the complete renunciation of prosperity and vows of poverty to the prosperity gospel where being a faith-filled Christian results in living like little kings and queens so that all will see that you are a child of the King.
While these are the extreme views there are also views that should be more familiar to those of us who are urban North American evangelicals. On the one hand, there is what I would call, Christian conservatism. Those of us who hold to this view are tempted to look at the homeless among us or the brother or sister who is struggling financially or is out of work and conclude that that such brothers and sisters are simply not faithful. They must be wasting their money. They must be lazy. They must just be irresponsible. For these people, being poor is the mark of a bad Christian and being middle-class is a mark of being a good Christian. This perspective is suspiciously similar to the pull-yourself-up-by-your-boots-straps individualism of political conservatism. The result is that middle-class-ness becomes akin to godliness.
On the other side, there’s the view I call, radical Christianity. Often a response to Christian conservatism, radical Christianity emerges from Christians who grew up in middle-class homes, became disillusioned by what they perceived as worldliness and hypocrisy in their home churches and their Christian families, and therefore decided that, even though they are university educated, academically gifted, and have lots of opportunities, they were called by God to intentionally live in the worst neighbourhoods in town, to abandon career paths to work at McDonalds, and to urge other Christians to do likewise lest they waste their lives and ruin the Church’s witness.
Perhaps this simply reflects my own experience, but these two views appear to be popular perspectives on prosperity: Christian conservatism and radical Christianity. But what does the Bible say? What does God think of prosperity? And with that question in mind, let’s turn to Ecclesiastes 5:8-20.
If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.
He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.
There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. As he came from his mother's womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart. (ESV)
May God bless the reading of His Word.
Our topics today are prosperity, greed, contentment, and stewardship. First, let’s define our terms. When I speak of prosperity, I am referring to material prosperity in this world. These are the things Solomon mentions in verse 19, “wealth and possessions and power.”
When I use the word, greed, I mean the selfish desire and pursuit of prosperity for its own sake. A love of prosperity over the love of God and others. That’s what I mean by greed.
When I talk about contentment, I mean what Solomon writes in verse 18, to “find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.” Contentment is finding joy in the lot that God has given you.
Finally, when I speak of stewardship, I mean being faithful with the gifts that God has given you. When God gives gifts, He entrusts them to us and we are to be faithful with them. That’s stewardship.
Those are our terms today: prosperity, greed, contentment, and stewardship. And what we see in today’s passage is that Solomon does not condemn prosperity but condemns greed. Greed is bad. Prosperity itself is not bad but is in fact a gift from God. And so, we should find contentment and practice stewardship. So now, let’s look at the passage in detail.
We are in the book of Ecclesiastes. To summarize what we have learned in the past few weeks, Solomon looks at the human condition and concludes that life does have purpose. Life is in fact beautiful. In Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, he summarizes the purpose of life,
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
God is judge and king. Therefore, fear God and keep his commandments. Trust and obey. As the children’s song goes, there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey. This is Solomon’s point. Prior to our passage today, we have seen Solomon’s reflections as he looks out at human existence and observes a lot of bad stuff. This world is often a sad place. Life is short, confusing, and monotonous (Eccl 1:1-11), and often unsatisfying (Eccl 1:12-2:26). Furthermore, humans are evil, indulging in injustice, oppression, and conflict (Eccl 4). Yet life is also beautiful. Every season in life is a gift from God above (Eccl 3). Moreover, even in the midst of evil, God is good, currently testing our hearts and to judge our wickedness (Eccl 3:17-18).
And this should lead us to worship. The evil in this world and God’s justice should drive us to put our faith in Him and not in ourselves nor in the things of this world (Eccl 5:1-7). As Solomon in Ecclesiastes 5:7
For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.
Forget words and dreams, fear God. Listen and submit to Him.
This has been the fruit of Solomon’s observations so far. In our passage today, Solomon looks out at greed in the world and gives us three pictures of greed. First, he shows us power abused, then he shows us possessions consumed, and finally, he shows us wealth hoarded and lost. Each picture shows the futility and evil of greed, and also points us towards contentment and stewardship. And following these pictures, Solomon explicitly calls us to contentment.
Picture no. 1 - Power Abused
The first picture is of power being abused. In verse 8,
If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter,
Solomon looks out and sees the poor oppressed, justice not being served, and righteousness not being upheld. This is not how it should be. Elsewhere in the Bible, we see that authority is given by God to the state to protect the poor, preserve justice, and promote righteousness. Paul writes in Romans 13, telling the church to be subject to their rulers,
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.
God gives the state authority so that they will approve of good conduct and serve God by being an instrument of His wrath on evil such as oppression, injustice, and unrighteousness. Yet here in Ecclesiastes 5, Solomon sees that rulers do not serve their people. In fact, in verse 8, he writes,
for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.
There are a few ways of reading this verse, but commentators suggest that Solomon sees that, instead of serving the people, the rulers serve each other. They spend their time looking out for one another and neglect their subjects.
Solomon continues to see this abuse of power in verse 9,
But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.
This is also a difficult verse to interpret but some commentators believe that this refers to a king profiting from the cultivation of the land. Furthermore, what is being highlighted is that it is not the people who profit but the king. The labourers in the field toil under the heavy hand of their lords and do not enjoy the fruits of their labour. Again, Solomon sees greed: power abused. Instead of the authorities using their power to help their people prosper, they seek to prosper themselves through the toil of their people.
This is the story of so many in power. Today, so many men and women with good intentions end up using their power for the sake of themselves and their political parties instead of for the sake of doing good.
It is especially sad because the pursuit of power is like, to use Solomon’s phrase, a striving after the wind. As we’ve studied Ecclesiastes, we’ve talked about the breathy-ness of life. Everything, Solomon says, is a mere breath: temporary, elusive, and fleeting. The pursuit of power is no exception. Those with power end up, as verse 8 says, being an official under a higher official under a higher official. Even the amount of power one does gain is so easily lost. It is precarious like a house of cards; you must expend all your energy guarding your power lest the house falls. Power is like a mere breath.
At the micro-level, you see this in almost every workplace. Obviously, the power Solomon is talking about here is not the same as being the team lead at your office. Yet the same greed and the same breathy-ness exists in our workplaces today. We see people jockeying for position, trying to get their dream job. Yet even if they get that dream job, they so often end up devoting their time to protecting their position of authority and feeling threatened by those who might take it away. They still end up experiencing the vapour-like quality of the greedy pursuit for power.
Greed is evil but power is not inherently bad. Jesus Christ showed us how to steward power. Being equal with God, He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing. He chose to use His power to die on the cross as a substitute for the punishment for the sins of those who will believe in Him. Jesus used power to bless others and as a result, God has highly exalted him. He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.
What an example of stewardship. More than an example, Jesus is a saviour. We are all greedy oppressors at heart and deserve the just wrath of God but thanks be to God that Jesus died to save sinners! So the redeemed can repent of their sins and follow Jesus’s example by faith, even enjoying whatever power they have been given to use it for good, stewarding it as a gift from God. May the humility of Jesus cause us to repent of our own greed for power.
The first picture of greed was one of power abused.
Picture no. 2 is a picture of possessions consumed.
In verse 10, Solomon writes,
He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.
Solomon says greed for money is insatiable. It is never satisfied. Greed for money is like a mere breath. The satisfaction the greedy seek always eludes them. More specifically, Solomon then turns to possessions. Stuff. He writes in verse 11,
When goods increase, they increase who eat them
Solomon means that the more stuff you have, the more people there are to share your stuff. Think of the musician who make it big and suddenly has an entourage of family members and friends eating their food, enjoying their houses, and using their stuff.
Even in our everyday lives, we see that the more stuff you have, the more you have to share. Think about the process of buying a house: you pay a lawyer, hire a home inspector, get a mortgage and pay interest to a bank, pay insurance, property taxes, and on and on it goes. And most of that is before you even own the house! The more stuff you have, the more people there are to share your stuff. Solomon asks in verse 11,
and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?
Solomon asks the greedy owner, do you really enjoy your stuff? Or is your stuff just a decoration to look at? This is so relevant today. How many of us have books on our bookshelves that we have never read? How many of us have that record player we purchased in hopes of going retro with a record collection with albums that have only been played once? There are those we know with houses with great backyards with pools. Yet the family only has dinner in the backyard twice a year and use the pool three times a year. Those are just examples; we all have our own pet decorative possessions that we could substitute in. I know I can. We accumulate so much stuff and yet they sit there and we just look at it all.
For those of us who greedily accumulate this stuff, is it really worth it? Solomon continues his reflection in verse 12,
Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.
Solomon points out that at the end of the day, rich and poor both go to sleep and the one who labours sleeps soundly whether he’s rich or poor. On the other hand, the greedy cannot sleep. They are in pain either from overconsumption or from anxiety about their stuff. There is an indigestion that comes from knowing you have so much stuff; you are filled with worry about your stuff and feel the discomfort of knowing that your stuff does not make you feel any better. It is but a chasing after the wind.
Yet stuff is not bad. Greed is bad. That car you drive can be a blessing to give your friends a ride home when it is cold. That backyard can be a place that you invite your friends and family over for dinner. God gives us stuff but He expects us to be faithful.
Yet this is in an important sense bad news because we are not by nature faithful. Greed is our default setting. We need God’s Word to expose our sin and reveal the God who gave us everything we have and even gave His own Son to reconcile us to Himself and to transform us into faithful stewards of the gifts that God has entrusted to us. May we forsake the greedy pursuit of possessions and may God make us faithful stewards of His gifts.
That is the second picture: possessions consumed. Solomon sees power abused, possessions consumed, and third,
Picture no. 3 is a picture of wealth hoarded and lost
Solomon’s third picture is all about money. Money is hoarded. Money is then lost. Solomon writes in verse 13,
There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt,
This is a picture of a rich man who in his greed keeps his money; he hoards it. And this hoarding was to the man’s “hurt”. In the Hebrew, it is the same word for evil. There are a number of things that this might mean. It might mean that the man had to do something evil to gain all that money. It might mean that the hoarding itself was evil. Or it might mean that the hoarding caused evil in the man’s life. In any case, Solomon shows us that this man’s greed was evil. His accumulation of great wealth for its own sake was evil. Not only was it evil, Solomon points out, it ended very badly. In verse 14, he writes,
and those riches were lost in a bad venture.
It is not clear what this “bad venture” was. The hebrew means something to the effect of “evil business”. The New Living Translation paraphrases it “risky investments” and the New International Version paraphrases it “misfortune”. But it is unclear; we don’t know why, but the rich man lost all his money. So much so that verse 14 goes on to say that he had nothing to leave as an inheritance,
And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand.
For all this man’s work, his gaining wealth and hoarding it, he had nothing to show for it. No inheritance to leave. Solomon elsewhere writes,
A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children,
but the sinner's wealth is laid up for the righteous. (Proverbs 13:22, ESV)
A good man leaves an inheritance to grandchildren. Yet this man could not even leave anything to his son. When we are greedy, money can be lost so easily. The greedy find that their pursuit of wealth is a chasing of the wind.
It is also like chasing the wind in that it is ultimately a vain pursuit. Solomon continues by pointing out something that’s true of the rich and poor, both for those who manage their money well and those who lose it all,
As he came from his mother's womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind?
We spend our lives gaining money, but we cannot take any of it with us. We all leave the way we came, from dust to dust.
In the case of this man, Solomon writes that, worse than this, his loss of money resulted in a life of frustration,
Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.
The breathy-ness of this man’s pursuit has led him to a place of anger and despair. And he has cursed himself to live his life in this place “all his days.”
Again, greed is evil but wealth in itself is a gift from God. Wealth may not last in this life but it can be used to bless others. It can be enjoyed to the glory of God and used to do good. Yet again, we need God to create in us hearts of generosity that reflect the generous heart of Jesus Christ who gave His own life that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.
To summarize: greed is bad. Greed is the pursuit of prosperity for its own sake. It results in the abuse of power, the idolatrous accumulation and consumption of possessions, and the love of money that often results in evil hoarding and foolish loss. Greed takes the gifts of God and makes them idols.
Yet as we’ve also seen, there is a better way. Power and possessions and wealth can be blessings if we enjoy them as gifts from God and steward them for His glory and for the good of others. This is what Solomon concludes in the next three verses.
Solomon’s conclusion: Contentment in Stewardship
Look at verses 18,
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.
Solomon calls us to contentment. Solomon wants us to “find enjoyment” in our lot in life. We are to be happy and enjoy God’s gifts. And this includes prosperity. In verse 19, he writes,
Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God.
Prosperity is a gift from God. We are to be content with God’s gifts. In fact, Solomon says that this joy is a gift from God to enrich our lives. Solomon writes in verse 20,
For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.
Contentment is to fill our hearts and give us strength to endure life.
Prosperity is a gift from God. A clear implication of this is surely that we must be good stewards. Contentment and stewardship go hand in hand when you understand that life is a gift from God. In this passage, Solomon is rearticulating an idea from Ecclesiastes 3:12-13,
I perceived that there is nothing better for [mankind] than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man.
We are to be joyful and do good. Contentment and stewardship: this is what Solomon calls us to. Greed is bad but prosperity a gift from God. And so, we should find contentment and practice stewardship.
I would like to close with five implications.
First, greed must be atoned for. This passage has shown that greed is evil. It is one of man’s common sins. I hope that you have seen that it is not a sin that you or I are immune from. Furthermore, it is ultimately a sin against God from whom all blessings flow. God will bring every deed into judgment and if you have not put your faith in Jesus, you are still in your sins. I urge you to repent before God and receive Jesus Christ as your saviour. Talk to someone today about becoming a Christian!
Second, greed must be renounced. Whether you are rich or poor or somewhere in between, we are not to pursue power or possessions or wealth for their own sake. We must remind ourselves of the vanity and evil of greed. It is a chasing after the wind and it hurts others. We must renounce it.
Third, prosperity should not necessarily be renounced. I wish to be careful. We are called to be sacrificial; whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake will find it. We are also called to be generous; it is better to give than to receive. However, we are not called to renounce prosperity. Prosperity is a gift from God. There is no virtue in throwing God’s gifts away for no reason. However, some of you may also have other gifts. Perhaps God has blessed you with a desire to serve in a poor neighbourhood. Perhaps God has blessed you with an opportunity to use your talents and gifts in a developing country. Perhaps you have a special gifting in evangelism or ministry that would best be stewarded by going into full-time ministry. Yet we must evaluate our hearts to see if we are being good stewards.
This is especially relevant to young people. Today, a real problem is what some call extended adolescence. A fear of what some call “adulting”. I believe this occasionally manifests itself in the Church with young people excusing themselves from using their gifts in ordinary jobs to receive ordinary paychecks to buy houses and cars. Instead, they justify their fear, baptizing it in the language of being “radical”. It is not radical to avoid adulthood, maturity, responsibility, and the toil of everyday life. Solomon writes that we should take pleasure in all our toil. Life is toil. Life is stewardship. We must beware of radical Christianity’s tendency to self-righteously renounce God’s gifts.
Fourth, prosperity must be understood as a gift, not simply a wage. God gives gifts in varying measures which means that some Christians get more prosperity than others, even if they are equally faithful and responsible and mature. We do not help our brothers and sisters pursue contentment by judging them based on their prosperity. Some of our Christian brothers and sisters will be poor and will need our help. We must not simply buy into the premise of political conservatism that everyone who is poor is probably just bad.
Lastly, prosperity must be stewarded faithfully. Many in our congregations have been given the gift of prosperity including wealth, possessions, and power. We ought to be good stewards of that prosperity. Paul teaches Timothy to teach the rich in 1 Timothy 6:18-19,
They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
To those of you who are prosperous, I urge you to reflect on how you may enjoy your prosperity but also use it to do good and to glorify the name of Jesus Christ.