Let’s be real with each other: so far, the book of Ecclesiastes has been quite the downer.
From the very first chapter we see that the author of the book, King Solomon, set out on a lifelong experiment in which he tried to determine the meaning of life, and this twelve-chapter book sandwiched between Proverbs and Song of Solomon is the result of said experiment – the project report, I guess you could say. In chapter 1 he started out by exclaiming that, and I quote, “Everything is meaningless!” (1:2), pointing out that while everything here on earth does have a meaning in and of itself, if we try to find our meaning in those things, we will find nothing but heartache, pain, and ultimate dissatisfaction. In the chapters that followed, he proceeded to define other “meaningless” things with wisdom, pleasures, toil, and advancement – all the things we so often look for in life – being among the lot. The third chapter reassured us that God has a set time for everything that takes place here on earth, whereas the chapter after that ended on a really depressing note by pointing out that people’s efforts are often without any real purpose.
So, yeah…it’s a very cheerful book.
All of this has brought us to Ecclesiastes chapter 5, the whole of which I can summarize in two sentences: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (FUN FACT: I didn’t come up with that summary; Jesus said it, and you can read more about it in Matthew 6.) The whole point of this chapter, in the end, is to prove that, ultimately, you should respect God and not love money. This is Solomon’s thesis and main point for this chapter, and I believe it can be further broken down into five separate sections:
PART 1: REMEMBER YOUR PLACE
Before even addressing the topic of money, Solomon wants us to talk about our personal relationship with God, which He begins to address by giving us some advice: When we go to God in prayer, we need to remember who it is we are talking to! While God has given us many metaphors to go off of in order to understand our relationship to Him – man and beast, father and son, teacher and student, artist and artifact, husband and wife – we have to realize that no metaphor does or can properly grasp the entirety of our relationship; it is something entirely unique that only He and we share. He cares for us like a man cares for a dog, seeking only love in return; He raises us like a father raises a son, seeking to lead him along the right path; He molded us like a potter molds clay, seeing our true beauty despite the faults we gave ourselves; He teaches us like a teacher to a student, patient with us in our slow learning and encouraging us to hunger for knowledge; He love us with the passion of a husband to a wife, though we constantly cheat on Him and find our meaning in the meaningless. But despite all these metaphors, none of them manages to encapsulate the relationship we share with Him, so Solomon is reminding us to remind ourselves.
You see, this chapter provides a dramatic shift that will pick up and be built upon for the remainder of the book. Solomon is showing us that, in order to truly take our minds away from the hevel (vapor, smoke, meaninglessness), we have to remind ourselves of who God is. He is in heaven and we are on earth, so rather than trying to justify ourselves to Him, we must accept our imperfection and align our minds with the truth. Rather than making rash promises that we cannot keep – for instance, “I will never sin again!” – we should approach God with an open mind and let Him bring the solution into our hearts. He has overcome the world (John 16:33), so He knows what to do! So as we go to God to turn away from the meaningless things we struggle with, Solomon encourages us to “guard our steps” (v.1) and remember not to accidentally answer our own questions. It is far too easy to attempt to solve our own problems, but we need God’s help in keeping our minds on Him (Col 3:2).
PART 2: BE ACCOUNTABLE
Having realize who God is – the bigger your view of sin, the greater your understanding of our lowly, unworthy states and, resultantly, salvation – we likewise see how important it is to keep our oaths to Him. For the sake of metaphor (though, as we established, no metaphor accurately portrays God and us), imagine a homeless man making a promise to a multi-billion-dollar CEO. Little that the homeless man promises the CEO (wealth-wise) can affect the CEO, but given his position and status, the promise made between them has become the forefront of the homeless man’s life – it can make him or break him.
In a similar way, God cannot be affected by what we do for Him – for no one can add to or subtract from God or take away from His glory, since He is complete, perfect, all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful, and all-present – thus in our promises we should remember the importance in fulfilling those vows made to Him. We are lowly creatures and He the Creator of all things, so promises made to Him should not be taken lightly. Especially in Old Testament times (and still now), promises to God had/have very serious implications (Deut 23:21-23, Jdg 11:35). It’s better to not make a promise at all than to promise something and not fulfill it, a truth that applies not only to the God-man relationship, but to earthly relationships as well.
Solomon also warns us to choose promises wisely – in other words, don’t promise something that your fleshly desire will break. “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41), this is something we need to remember! Think about Peter the night of Jesus’ arrest – “I would die for you!”…denies Jesus three times; “I will watch over you”…falls asleep while Jesus prays in agony. It’s very easy, in our selfish and fleshly desires, to break promises (think of all the times you cancelled plans with a friend or, say, put off church of a Bible study because something more “interesting” came up). And, likewise, fess up when you do break a vow, something Solomon also wants to drill into our heads. Don’t deny your sin or make it seem like a small thing. “Be responsible for your actions,” Solomon is telling us, taking on the fatherly role he wishes to portray.
Empty words and unrealistic dreams are vapor, something that will slip through your fingers and fog your vision. Also, they will affect your accountability and make it so that people can’t – or don’t feel that they can – rely on you. It’s a “boy who cried wolf” scenario where people will see you as flaky or unreliable, so Solomon gives us some friendly advice in reminding us to be accountable.
PART 3: RICHES ARE MEANINGLESS
We once again approach the backwardness, the chaos, in society, as Solomon tells u not to be surprised if our idealized and moralized aspirations of the world are not reflected in the reality of it all. Those who have a high status in life will undeniable find easier and simpler ways to achieve further success, whereas for the poor man the struggle for a penny will be just as hard if not harder than before. Though we wish this were not the case, this is life and we can’t change it. The utopian ideal of our minds will not be realized until heaven.
Likewise, we then return to the idea of temporal satisfaction (v.10) and how no one will ever be satisfied with what they have (see 1 Tim 6:9-10). This is an easy pitfall to succumb to since pleasures, wisdom, knowledge, toil, and everything – all the things we so often find meaning in – are reliant on money. NOW LET’S BE HONEST…this is probably why Solomon waited so long to point out the meaninglessness of riches. In our earthly minds, money is necessary to go to college, to travel, to eat, etc. and thus it is so, so easy to hunger for wealth, but this is why we are called to live “in the world, not of it” (John 17:16), remembering that though there will be trouble in this world, it has no effect on us. What good is this money to us than for providing more meaningless things to distract us from the Lord? (This isn’t to say that money in and of itself is bad, but the love of money, as we saw in 1 Timothy 6:10, referenced earlier.) Earthly treasures have temporal benefits, yes, but they likewise bring anxiety (v.12) and pain (v.13). The more you have, the more you have to stress you out and keep you up late at night, and likewise wealth provides us with the opportunity to bring harm to ourselves. BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Despite the work [typically] required to get wealthy, it can pass away from any person in but a single misfortune or some bad business (How often do we hear about famous people going bankrupt? All too often.). Wealth is so temporal that it can be gone with the blink of an eye (v.14).
To emphasize his point more, Solomon reminds us that we all die. Just as we came naked – no clothes, no money, no possessions – from our mother’s wombs, in the same way we will depart. Nothing comes with us. Despite all our hard work and effort, none of it comes with us.
Still, remember his uplifting reminder in 2:24 and 3:22 to take pleasure in your work, for that is your lot! While we are called to keep an eternal mindset, we still have to provide for ourselves and others while living here on earth. The point is that we can’t get too caught up in it. You can be friends with both God and money (or, better, mammon), but you can serve only one (Matt 6:24, Luke 16:13). A life defined by the confines of earthly wealth will never satisfy, so don’t get lost in the hevel. You can serve one of two masters, so choose wisely.
PART 4: LIFE IS FRUSTRATING
If, at this point, you are beginning to think how annoying it is that we have all these earthly things to distract us from our true meaning in God, you aren’t alone: Solomon reflects on the previous grievances by once again pointing out that after all we do, nothing is ultimately gained from it, and that is annoying! He discusses this grievance in direct terms with moods: though we have been given gifts by God, we are still haunted by foul tempers, pained agony, and a seeming constant annoyance. Though life is good, we, as imperfect and temporal humans, are often frustrated by even the minor conveniences.
PART 5: COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS
Having stated all these things, Solomon feels comfortable enough to draw a conclusion: Life is short, so appreciate what good the Lord has given. Finding meaning in creation is a dumb thing to do (though we all do it), but if we instead turn that meaning into gratitude, a greater meaning can be found! If God is your true source of wealth, then you can suddenly find a means of enjoying all other pleasures and riches. God gives us what nothing on earth can give, so we must remember Him, enjoying the satisfaction in all He has given.
And here’s the best part: When a person recognizes the goodness and sovereignty of God, the result is joy! Rejoice and sing, for the Lord cares for you! We will not dwell unduly on any earthly troubles when we are guarded and have become one with the One who has already overcome the world, and the result of this revelation is that we will “rejoice always” (1 Thess 5:16) and will be in constant reminder of how awesome our God is. We won’t even have time to worry about our troubles because we will be lost in the blessings of an Almighty God, seeing the true beauty in all of His creation.