The Search for Satisfaction

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.

10 He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. 11 When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? 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.

13 There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. 15 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. 16 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? 17 Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.

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. 19 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. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart. Ecclesiastes 5:8-20 ESV

As Solomon looks back on his long life as the king of Israel, he reflects on the many life lessons he has learned and, in this section, presents them in the form of a series of proverbs. These short, seemingly unrelated maxims, most often utilize comparisons to drive home a point and to present time-proven truths in a manner that makes wisdom practical and applicable to everyday life.

In verses 8-9, Solomon readdresses the issues of injustice and the oppression of the poor, which he initially covered at the beginning of chapter four. The presence of these problems within a society should not shock or surprise us. The wealthy and powerful, driven by a desire to maintain and even increase their social standing, will be tempted to use their power and influence to take advantage of the less fortunate. And in these verses, Solomon points out that every high official who takes advantage of the poor or practices injustice must answer to yet a higher official who wields even greater authority. In other words, there is a chain of command that ultimately leads to the king.

The more powerful always control and take advantage of the less powerful. It is the nature of things. Injustice and oppression, abuse of power, and unethical leadership seem to be inevitable outcomes of human government. It is unavoidable. But Solomon seems to conclude that a monarchy is preferable to anarchy. Even with its potential for abuse, the government provides a semblance of stability and control that results in cultivated lands. In other words, the very presence of governmental structure and hierarchical authority can result in abuse of power and lead to injustice, but it can also produce corporate benefits that all enjoy.

Underlying so much of what Solomon says in this book is the undeniable reality of sin and the fallen condition of the human heart. Even good men are prone to do bad things. As the prophet Isaiah so aptly put it: “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT).

In verses 10-12, Solomon addresses a related topic: The love of money. Solomon flatly states, “Those who love money will never have enough. How meaningless to think that wealth brings true happiness!” (Ecclesiastes 5:10 NLT).

Wealth is not only illusive and hard to come by, but even when you get it, you can never seem to have enough. The pursuit of money can become addictive, and it can be accompanied by a fear of losing what you already have. Money makes conspicuous consumption possible, which Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes as “lavish or wasteful spending thought to enhance social prestige.”

But as Solomon warns, it doesn’t work. It never satisfies. The primary reason we pursue wealth is in order to satisfy our desires. But we tend to find that, with our newfound capacity to acquire and accumulate, the one thing we can’t get our hands on is contentment. Paul warned Timothy against the dangers of making money our master.

Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.

But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. – 1 Timothy 6:6-10 NLT

Increased wealth tends to come with an increase in responsibilities. The more you have, the more you must take care of and maintain, and that requires help. And no one knew this better than Solomon. The book of 1 Kings provides a glimpse into Solomon’s vast wealth and allows us to imagine just how extensive a retinue of servants was required to care for all that he owned.

The daily food requirements for Solomon’s palace were 150 bushels of choice flour and 300 bushels of meal; also 10 oxen from the fattening pens, 20 pasture-fed cattle, 100 sheep or goats, as well as deer, gazelles, roe deer, and choice poultry.

Solomon’s dominion extended over all the kingdoms west of the Euphrates River, from Tiphsah to Gaza. And there was peace on all his borders. During the lifetime of Solomon, all of Judah and Israel lived in peace and safety. And from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south, each family had its own home and garden.

Solomon had 4,000 stalls for his chariot horses, and he had 12,000 horses. – 1 Kings 4:22-26 NLT

Back in chapter two, Solomon described his vast and expanding network of servants, slaves, employees, and concubines.

I bought slaves, both men and women, and others were born into my household. I also owned large herds and flocks, more than any of the kings who had lived in Jerusalem before me. I collected great sums of silver and gold, the treasure of many kings and provinces. I hired wonderful singers, both men and women, and had many beautiful concubines. I had everything a man could desire! – Ecclesiastes 2:7-8 NLT

He had everything his heart desired, yet he lacked contentment. You can almost sense the philosophy that drove his life: Enough is never enough. And with his addiction to conspicuous consumption came the relentless requirement to feed and care for all those who worked for him. This is what led him to write, “The more you have, the more people come to help you spend it. So what good is wealth—except perhaps to watch it slip through your fingers!” (Ecclesiastes 5:11 NLT).

Solomon had it all, yet he could afford a good night’s sleep. When he states that “the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep”, he is not referring to indigestion, but to insomnia caused by constant worry over wealth. What you own ends up owning you. You become a slave to that which was intended to serve you. And yet, in contrast, “People who work hard sleep well, whether they eat little or much” (Ecclesiastes 5:12 NLT). 

With his next proverbial statement, Solomon addresses the fleeting nature of wealth. He describes a “grievous evil” that he has witnessed in this life, and it is likely that he is speaking from personal experience, not objective observation. He had first-hand experience with this kind of misfortune, having had his fair share of bad business deals and risky investments.

There is another serious problem I have seen under the sun. Hoarding riches harms the saver. Money is put into risky investments that turn sour, and everything is lost. In the end, there is nothing left to pass on to one’s children. – Ecclesiastes 5:13-14 NLT

All the money and material assets we have worked so hard to accumulate can disappear virtually overnight. They can disappear in an instant, leaving us in poverty and our children with no inheritance. And even if we are able to maintain a hold on all our assets to the bitter end, we face the grim reality that we can’t take any of it with us. When we die, our wealth remains behind. And as Solomon stated earlier, “I must leave to others everything I have earned. And who can tell whether my successors will be wise or foolish? Yet they will control everything I have gained by my skill and hard work under the sun. How meaningless!” (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 NLT). 

When all was said and done, Solomon was left with one observation that allowed him to extract a bit of hope from all the meaninglessness and despair of life. He saw that man had been gifted by God with the ability “to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life” (Ecclesiastes 5:18 NLT).

Not exactly a cheerful observation, but for Solomon, it was the only thing that kept him from being frustrated, discouraged, and angry. He had resolved to enjoy life as best as he could in the time he had on this planet. Because no one really knows what comes next. What Solomon concludes must be closely examined.

And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it. To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God. God keeps such people so busy enjoying life that they take no time to brood over the past. – Ecclesiastes 5:19-20 NLT

There is a degree of truth to be found in these statements, but we must not fail to recognize that Solomon is speaking from a position of resignation and, in some ways, resentment. He is frustrated by all the inequities and injustices that come with a life lived “under the sun.” He has tried everything to find satisfaction and significance in life but remains discontented and disappointed. And when he states that the only thing left to do is to enjoy your work and accept your lot in life, he is speaking as one who has resigned himself to accept less than what he had hoped for. There is no joy in his statement. He describes God as a divine taskmaster who keeps us busy in order to distract us. If we compare the words of Solomon with those of his father, David, we see a marked difference in how they both perceived life and the God who made it all possible.

Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty. Everything in the heavens and on earth is yours, O Lord, and this is your kingdom. We adore you as the one who is over all things. Wealth and honor come from you alone, for you rule over everything. Power and might are in your hand, and at your discretion people are made great and given strength.

“O our God, we thank you and praise your glorious name! But who am I, and who are my people, that we could give anything to you? Everything we have has come from you, and we give you only what you first gave us! We are here for only a moment, visitors and strangers in the land as our ancestors were before us. Our days on earth are like a passing shadow, gone so soon without a trace. – 1 Chronicles 29:11-15 NLT

David seemed to understand that this life was a preface to something far more meaningful to come. He was a man who believed in the hereafter. But his son had become obsessed with the here-and-now. Solomon had been on a lifelong quest to discover meaning and significance on this side of death. But David knew he was nothing more than a visitor and stranger here. The best was yet to come. This led David to write, “Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the LORD forever” (Psalm 23:6 NLT).

Solomon had resolved himself to live for the moment, while his father had decided to live with a more eternal perspective. David’s faith was in God, while Solomon’s hope was in the things that God had provided. He put all his emphasis on this life. And nowhere is this more evident than in a prayer he penned in the book of Proverbs.

…give me neither poverty nor riches!
    Give me just enough to satisfy my needs.
For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?”
    And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name. – Proverbs 30:8-9 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Just Do It

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. 2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.

When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 ESV

Up to this point, Solomon has provided us with a somewhat autobiographical and deeply personal look at life. He has revealed a perspective on life as seen from his unique vantage point as an aging monarch whose reflections are filled with regret and remorse. Yet, he sees himself as a preacher or teacher, whose responsibility as a leader of his people is to share his mistakes and the insights he has gleaned from them.

In this section, Solomon’s writing style becomes less autobiographical and more proverbial, similar to that of the book of Proverbs, which he wrote and edited. Proverbs are succinct, simple statements designed to teach powerful truths using few words, but in a memorable and impactful manner. Typically, proverbs are gathered in collections, with what appears to be little or no rhyme or reason as to their order or flow. They appear as isolated and seemingly unrelated thoughts, with each operating as a stand-alone truth claim.

In chapter five, we have a series of these proverbs, and the first few all have something to do with making vows before God. As has been the case before, Solomon appears to be writing from personal experience. These are not simply words of wisdom he has run across and deemed worthy of inclusion in his book. They are practical life lessons that he has experienced firsthand. And the very first one he shares has to do with the attitudes one should bring into the house of God. They concern one’s worship of God.

When entering into the presence of God, attitude and actions should not be separated. He warns against offering sacrifices to God in a flippant and disrespectful manner. For Solomon, it was a dangerous thing to go through the motions of worship while showing no reverence or fear for God. He describes a form of worship that is self-motivated and manipulative, offering sacrifices and making rash vows to God in order to get something from Him. He recommends listening over sacrificing.

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. – Ecclesiastes 5:1 ESV

The Hebrew word translated as “listening” is shama` and it carries with it the ideas of hearing and obeying. Solomon knew that there was a real risk of showing up at the temple to offer the required sacrifices and failing to hear what God might be trying to say. You could end up going through the motions of worship while ignoring the very one to whom you were offering the sacrifice. There is little doubt that Solomon was very familiar with the words that the prophet Samuel spoke to Saul, the first king of Israel.

“What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.” – 1 Samuel 15:22 NLT

Solomon’s own father, David, had discovered this same truth.

“You take no delight in sacrifices or offerings.
    Now that you have made me listen, I finally understand—
    you don’t require burnt offerings or sin offerings.
Then I said, “Look, I have come.
    As is written about me in the Scriptures:
I take joy in doing your will, my God,
    for your instructions are written on my heart.” – Psalm 40:6-8 NLT

And after the Pharisees accused the disciples of breaking the law by harvesting grain on the sabbath, Jesus responded, “I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices” (Matthew 12:7 NLT).

Jesus was condemning these men for placing a higher priority on the sacrificial system than on the God to whom the sacrifices were being offered. And Solomon warns his readers: “Don’t make rash promises, and don’t be hasty in bringing matters before God. After all, God is in heaven, and you are here on earth. So let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:3 NLT).

Solomon is not simply spouting a clever-sounding maxim, but revealing a painful, yet valuable lesson learned from real life. He reminds us that God is transcendent. He is in heaven and we are on earth, and there is a great gulf that separates us, both literally and figuratively. God is holy and we are not. God is sinless and completely righteous in all He does. We are just the opposite. And we cannot afford to enter into His presence with a sense of dishonor or disrespect.

And one of the areas in which we can get ourselves into trouble with God is through the making of vows or commitments to Him. Vows were commonplace in Solomon’s day. They were verbal commitments made to God. A vow was a solemn promise to do something for God or to offer a sacrifice to God in the hopes of receiving blessings from Him in return. And Solomon warns, “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow” (Ecclesiastes 5:4 ESV).

There is little doubt that Solomon had made many rash vows to God, promising to do something for God in return for His blessings. But Solomon knew the truth. He had failed to keep his side of the bargain, and he had learned the valuable lesson that God does not suffer fools lightly. The kind of vows to which Solomon refers could have been free-will offerings that were not part of the normal sacrificial requirements. When going through a time of difficulty or trial, it would be easy to promise to offer God a free-will offering in return for His rescue or relief. But it’s nothing more than a form of bargaining with God., and the book of Judges records just such a rash vow.

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord‘s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” – Judges 11:30-31 ESV

And the story goes on to record that God gave Jephthah victory over the Ammonites, but it also reveals the tragic outcome of Jephthah’s rash vow.

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” – Judges 11:34-35 ESV

Solomon wants his readers to know that God takes vows seriously, which is why he states, “It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it” (Ecclesiastes 5:5 NLT). Keep your mouth shut. Don’t be hasty. Treat God as holy and don’t be too quick to make promises you have no intention of keeping. Because God will hold you to your word. Again, Solomon seems to speak from experience when he writes:

Don’t let your mouth make you sin. And don’t defend yourself by telling the Temple messenger that the promise you made was a mistake. That would make God angry, and he might wipe out everything you have achieved. – Ecclesiastes 5:6 NLT

And it would seem from this verse, that Solomon has widened the application to include vows or promises made to other individuals. If you make a commitment to someone, keep it. You can’t get out of it by stating your original promise was a mistake.

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had some serious things to say about the matter of vows.

“You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ But I say, do not make any vows! Do not say, ‘By heaven!’ because heaven is God’s throne. And do not say, ‘By the earth!’ because the earth is his footstool. And do not say, ‘By Jerusalem!’ for Jerusalem is the city of the great King. Do not even say, ‘By my head!’ for you can’t turn one hair white or black. Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one.” – Matthew 5:33-36 NLT

Don’t miss what Jesus is saying. The prevalent perspective in His day was to keep any and all vows made to God. But Jesus warns not to make any vows at all. His reason for this was that the Jewish religious leaders had developed a variety of loopholes and workarounds that would allow people to make vows without having to keep them. And Jesus lists just a few. They had developed a system by which you could make a vow that was legally breakable because you made it based on something that was non-binding. Through clever use of words, you could make a vow that sounded binding but wasn’t. It gave the impression that you would follow through on your commitment, but with no intention to do so. These kinds of vows were little more than lies, and Jesus warned His followers not to make them. Instead, they were to say “Yes, I will!” or “No, I won’t!”

Solomon wraps up this short section with a somewhat enigmatic verse.

For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. – Ecclesiastes 5:7 ESV

The New Living Translation sheds some light on what Solomon may have been trying to say. “Talk is cheap, like daydreams and other useless activities. Fear God instead.” Someone who experiences an abundance of dreams ends up struggling with whether what they have dreamed has true significance or meaning. What are they to believe? The same is true when we use too many words and make too many vows. No one knows whether what we are saying is true or to be believed. Dreams mean nothing unless they are put into action. And words are of little value if they are not accompanied by follow-through. Remember what Solomon said: Let your words be few. Verbosity is no substitute for integrity. Why waste your time making promises? Just do it.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.