Hugh Grosvenor, aged 25, became the most eligible bachelor in the country this week. That is because, on the death of his father, the Duke of Westminster, Hugh inherited a fortune estimated by Forbes to be worth £9 billion. This makes the young Hugh, the third wealthiest landowner in Britain and the 68th wealthiest person in the world. His estate includes 190 acres in Belgravia and thousands of acres in Scotland and Spain. Contented? Wouldn’t you be? What price contentment? A fraction of £9 billion you might think.
Well think again. Although the word doesn’t actually appear in our passage this morning, the theme of Ecclesiastes 5 is contentment. In verses 5:8-17, the Lord looks at the world and observes how we buy into a number of myths about money. In verse 17, we are reminded of the consequences: “All their days they eat in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger.” (Ecclesiastes 5:17).
That’s a pretty accurate picture of Britain at the moment isn’t it? People are becoming more and more angry at what they see around them and some tabloid newspaper have been accused of stoking that unrest. People are blaming politicians, blaming foreigners, blaming the weather. People are frustrated and that is fuelling extremism. This is why the solution to our problems does not lie in yet another £150 billion pound economic stimulus package. It won’t be solved by raising taxes, or by cutting taxes; it wont be solved by another referendum, by 600 more armed police on the streets of London, by a General Election, by winning more golds than four years ago at the Olympics, and God-forbid, by distracting us with another war in some far-off distant land.
In verses 18-20 the Lord provides us with a very simple solution to our search for contentment. But before we consider the answer, we need to examine the alternative in a little more depth.
I’ve broken the passage into three overlapping sections and given each a heading: The love of money will never buy satisfaction (5:8-17). The honest work of your hands will earn contentment (5:12-18). Thankfulness for God’s provision leads to lasting fulfilment (5:18-20).
1. The love of money will never buy satisfaction
The love of money will never buy satisfaction. Why is that? There are at least five reasons:
1.1 The love of money leads to exploitation and injustice
“If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.” (Ecclesiastes 5:8-9)
The love of money as opposed to the love of people invariably leads to covetousness, greed, bribery, oppression, exploitation, inequality and injustice. This is true in every country in the world. In some countries if you want to get anything done, whether its government department, the police, or a tradesman, a bribe is expected. It is the norm. In Europe, where it is illegal for companies to pay bribes, other ways are used to exploit the system and avoid paying taxes. As we now know the British Virgin Islands which has a population the size of Kendal in the Lake District, is home to 450,000 registered companies. As a result of this kind practice, personal wealth inequality has increased consistently year on year. In 2010, for example, 388 people had the same wealth as the poorest half of humanity. In 2011 this number had fallen to 177. In 2014 it was 80 people. By 2015, just 62 people between them have a net worth of £1.76 trillion dollars, which as much as the poorest 3 billion people combined. The love of money leads to exploration, inequality and injustice.
1.2 The love of money results in addiction and dissatisfaction
“Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owners except to feast their eyes on them?” (Ecclesiastes 5:10-11)
J.R.R. Tolkein’s depiction of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings portrays what happens to the human soul when we become preoccupied with money and it becomes our idol “my precious”. It diminishes and destroys our humanity. For four of the last five weeks in Egypt I have lived out of a suitcase. And after a while you know what happens? No, I don’t mean you begin to smell. You learn to live with two pairs of trousers, with half a dozen shirts, one pair of shoes and a jacket. You learn contentment. It made me realise why most people in the world do not have a wardrobe. You know why, they don’t need one. The love of money leads to exploitation. The love of money leads to addiction.
1.3 The love of money arouses anxiety and insomnia
“The sleep of a labourer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep.” (Ecclesiastes 5:12)
This is why its not good to watch TV before going to bed. Your mind is full of images from the adverts reminding you about what you don’t have, or what you do have, but might lose or ought to replace. If you can’t sleep, check out the advice in the outline. Better still read your bible and give thanks for all God has given you. The love of money leads to exploitation, addiction and insomnia.
1.4 The love of money causes harm and insecurity
“I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners, or wealth lost through some misfortune,
so that when they have children there is nothing left for them to inherit.” (Ecclesiastes 5:13-14)
It is wise to save, but there is a fine line between saving and hoarding. What is the difference? What are we saving for? For a rainy day or the next ice age? If your savings worry you then perhaps you are hoarding not saving. In God’s eyes holding on to wealth when it could be used for good is as bad as losing it through misfortune.
Here’s another thing most people in the world don’t have which typically causes anxiety for us. Insurance. Not just because they can’t afford it but more often because they don’t have anything worth insuring. Think about it – we have National Insurance, life insurance, health insurance, travel insurance, property insurance, home contents insurance, with, or without new for old, and last of course, funeral death policies, guaranteed to pay out. And part of the stress of buying a car, even a second hand one, is deciding whether you need fully comp insurance, or just third party, fire and theft. And which insurance company gives the lowest premiums. Then just before you sign the deal, you are offered shine protection, gap insurance, tyre and alloy insurance, recovery insurance, and dents insurance. I’m sure I’ve missed one. The principle seems to be – the more we have the more insecure we become. The love of money leads to exploitation, addiction, insomnia and insecurity.
1.5 The love of money fuels anger and frustration
“This too is a grievous evil: As everyone comes, so they depart, and what do they gain, since they toil for the wind? All their days they eat in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger.” (Ecclesiastes 5:16-17)
This is the predicament of any one who covets what they can’t get enough of, can’t get it quick enough, or for long enough. The love of money will never buy satisfaction. Instead it leads to exploitation, addiction, insomnia, insecurity and frustration. So what respite is there? If we go back over these verses again, there are few indicators about where fulfilment may be found.
2. The honest work of your hands will earn contentment
“The sleep of a labourer is sweet, whether they eat little or much…” (Ecclesiastes 5:12)
“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18)
No doubt you have heard of the businessman visiting a developing country, disturbed to find a fisherman sitting lazily beside his boat before lunch time. “Why aren’t you out there fishing?” he asked. “Because I’ve caught enough fish for today,” said the fisherman. “Why don’t you catch more fish than you need?’ the businessman asked. “What would I do with them?” “You could sell them and earn more money,” came the impatient reply, “and buy a better boat, so you could go deeper and catch more fish. Soon you’d have a fleet of boats and be wealthy like me.” The fisherman asked, “Then what would I do?” “You could sit down and enjoy life,” said the businessman The fisherman said, “What do you think I’m doing right now?!”
If you have a vegetable garden, or an allotment, you know what it feels like after a few hours labour, to bring home and eat the produce of your own labour. You sleep better for the exercise too. I tried when we first move to the Vicarage but i soon discovered I was merely increasing the deer population. The love of money will never buy satisfaction. But the honest work of your hands will bring sleep, a sense of achievement and contentment. But is there not more to life than work, rest and play? Yes there is, most emphatically.
3. Thankfulness for God’s provision leads to lasting fulfilment
“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20)
Do you notice the change in emphasis. God is now centerstage. Verse 18, “during the few days of life God has given them”. Verse 19, “when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.” Lasting fulfilment comes from recognising what we have is given by God, indeed is a gift from God. James evokes the same perspective as Ecclesiastes:
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17)
So where does lasting fulfilment lie? in a thankful heart that recognises three gifts from God. First that life itself is a gift of God, “during the few days of life God has given them” (Ecclesiastes 5:18). Second, that wealth and possessions are “a gift of God”. And third, the the ability to enjoy them is a gift. (Ecclesiastes 5:19)
So much so, that when enjoyed with a thankful, generous heart, we lose track of time, and of our mortality. “They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20)
Do you remember what life was like before you wore a watch? You had a ball, and all that mattered was staying close enough to home to hear mum call out “supper is ready!” How time flies when you are having fun. Our thoughts are not on how long we have left to enjoy life, but upon the one who bestows life and all good gifts around us.
So do you see life as gift from God? Do you view your assets, your belongings, your income, your savings, in the light of eternity? Ecclesiastes reminds us that ultimate fulfilment comes from being in a right relationship with God, thankful for the temporary gifts God has entrusted to us, to be invested in his service and for his eternal glory.
While in Cairo, I got round to reading the last book written by John Stott. Its called The Radical Disciple: Wholehearted Christian Living. I so wish I had read it earlier. John completed the book aged 88. It contains eight chapters describing eight characteristics of a radical disciple of Jesus. The last chapter is entitled ‘death’ and chimes with much of what we have learnt today from Ecclesiastes 5. John writes, “Death inspires terror in many people… But death holds no horrors for Christians.” He paraphrases the words of Jesus in Mark 8:35,
“Whoever is determined to hold on to themselves and lives for themselves, will lose themselves. But whoever is willing to die, to lose themselves, to give themselves away in the service of Christ and the gospel, will (in the moment of complete abandon) find themselves, and discover their true identity.”
John Stott concludes his final book with those words,
“We cannot conclude better than to hear and heed the words of Jesus in the upper room “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am (John 13:13). Basic to all discipleship is our resolve not only to address Jesus with polite titles, but to follow his teaching and obey his commands.”
Amy Carmichael, who served as a missionary to India for 55 years, put it like this, “We have all of eternity to celebrate the victories but only a few short hours before sunset to win them.”
Today we have been considering contentment and where to find it. We have discovered that the love of money will never, ever, buy satisfaction. We’ve been reminded that the honest work of our hands will bring contentment, but that true, deep and lasting fulfilment is found only in appreciating all God’s good gifts and resolving to invest and employ them for his glory. Lets pray.