Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:12 – Work & Wealth

Notes from a sermon preached on 25.01.09am

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the more famous of the founders of the theory of evolution (the other being Alfred Wallace). I would imagine that if I was to come up with a phrase that summarises what Charles Darwin was about, I suspect you’d come up with ‘survival of the fittest’, and that was the phrase that came to my mind when I started reading this passage.

‘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.’ (5:8-9)

The popular understanding of Darwin’s theory of evolution says life is a case of the ‘survival of the fittest’, the fittest thrive at the expense of the weakest. Now I am in danger of doing here what I get passionately frustrated by, well meaning Christians taking sound bites from science to work with – either promote or denounce – without understanding the intricacies behind them. Darwin had a lot more to say than simply life is about ‘survival of the fittest’, but this isn’t the time or place for that discussion. For today, let’s take that bleak sounding sound-bite.

As the Teacher surveys life, he comes to the same conclusion. As Jesus himself saw, he recognises that the poor will always be here and that others trying to get ahead will always oppress them. But his view is starker than ‘survival of the fittest’. Not only are the weakest doomed, but also the lot of the strongest isn’t so good either.

He tells two little stories about seemingly successful people to drive home his point…

…A man hoards wealth, accumulating as much as he can, but in the end his riches bring him harm. Maybe their stash attracts thieves? Maybe their greed gains them ridicule? Maybe those they gain it from become bitter and turn against them?

…What was the point of his striving?

…A certain woman was also in the business of accumulating wealth, but this time not for their own benefit, but in order to pass it on to her children. Something goes wrong. Maybe a stock market crash wipes off the value of her shares? Maybe the government takes most of it away in inheritance taxes? Maybe in her old age, the money she’s earned is needed to pay for her care? When she dies, and the time comes for her fortune to be handed over, there’s nothing left.

…What was the point of all her striving?

…We enter this life with nothing and we leave with nothing.

Now remember what kind of writing this is – it is important to remind ourselves of that fact at this point, as we consider what this means for us. Ecclesiastes is part of the wisdom writings in the Bible; the Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. These writings have their own particular style and customs, and it is important to take note of what they are. Here are two:

· Sometimes they contain a conversation. In Job it is between Job, his friends and God. To understand what God might be saying to us you need to ask who’s talking. If it is a character it might be a reflection on life, but not necessarily what God thinks. Where God speaks, you know that is what he thinks and wants! In Ecclesiastes it’s similar. Here we have a conversation alternating between observation by the Teacher on life under the Sun, life as we see and experience it, and life under God, life lived with recognition of God and in faith in him. Just because the writer of Ecclesiastes says something in the context of ‘life under the sun’ that doesn’t mean that that is the truth or God’s will for us – rather that is how people of no faith might see things. There’s an important difference here. That in itself puts a question mark over what he’s been saying so far…

· The other thing to note is that being wisdom writing, Ecclesiastes, like the Proverbs is full of pithy down to life saying. These are used to forcefully make a point. These are of course generalisations, and often the writer exaggerates to make a point. Take today’s passage for example. Of course it is possible to become rich and use it for good. Not all rich people are unhappy. But the point is that the pursuit of wealth for contentment is in many ways a futile thing and it is often done at the expense of others. Wealth cannot guarantee happiness, health, a good future, and can’t keep away death.

So, the Teacher surveys humanity’s striving and comes up with an even bleaker conclusion than the sound bite understanding of Darwin. Life is not just survival of the fittest at the expense of the weakest, but ultimately, even the strongest are left empty. What have I achieved with my life? Have I made a difference, made my mark? Or have I wasted it on the daily drudge? I wonder if the Teacher was going through some kind of mid-life crisis, because that’s what it sounds like?

But wait. Does it need to be this way? Is life meaningless? The Teacher says no!

‘18 Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot. 19 Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God. 20 He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.’

Sometimes as Christians we have this feeling that we should be about big things. Our lives should be devoted day and night to changing the world, serving the poor or sharing the gospel with the globe. It is no wonder when we then look at our lives that we can feel someone disappointed!

Sometimes, God does call people to become world-changing figures. God called Mother Teresa to her work with the poor and Billy Graham to his evangelistic campaigns. But that’s the Teacher’s point. God called Mother Teresa to her work, not you. Equally, he called you to your work, and not Mother Teresa. God has given us the life that we have. It is a tailor-made gift from him to you. We don’t need to go chasing after another life to find satisfaction, for this is the one that God has given us, and he knows the one that is right for us. Of course, I’m not saying that every situation we find ourselves in is wonderful, or as God wills it – remember we are living in a fallen world, things are never going to be perfect, but God has given you this gift and offers the possibility of satisfaction in it.

The people in the stories of warning that the Teacher tells are people who endure work, so that they can gain something else at the end of it. Work is seen a means to an ends, a ‘necessary evil’ if you like. How easy it is to see our daily chores that way. But what about the labourer who goes to sleep satisfied at night in verse12. Why is his sleep sweet? He has learnt that work itself, the act of working is in itself a gift, to be enjoyed in its own right. Work is a good thing (paid or otherwise).

Going back to the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall, when God utters the curse after sin enters their lives, work becomes effected:

17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

But work existed before this point! God worked in creating the world – on the seventh day he rested from his work. He looked at what he’d done and it was good. Adam was invited to play a part in that work, naming the animals and keeping the Garden.

Working is part of living out God’s image in us. Being creative is part of who God is, and as we follow his example, then we will find satisfaction as it is part of what God has made us to be. If we give thanks for the work that we have – whether that is paid or not – if we seek God’s Presence in our work, and do it with him and for him, then we shall find that it is satisfying. If we seek to do it as well as we can with the ability that God has given us, rather than rush through it, then we shall find fulfilment in what we do, and that fulfilment may fill that void that those who seek after more and more wealth are seeking to plug.

Equally, enjoying our relationships and our social lives, our rest and recreation, is also part of the image of God in us – he exists in the community of the Trinity, he walked with Adam and Eve. It is right, good and proper to enjoy ourselves and rest – as God himself did. These things are important, and not a waste of our time or energy. Rest is certainly not wrong. Seek God in work and relaxation, work hard at both and do them for and with him, then you will find that you are fulfilling his image in you, and that is the route to fulfilment.

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