If you see the extortion of the poor, or the perversion of justice and fairness in the government, do not be astonished by the matter. For the high official is watched by a higher official, and there are higher ones over them! The produce of the land is seized by all of them, even the king is served by the fields.
The one who loves money will never be satisfied with money, he who loves wealth will never be satisfied with his income. This also is futile. When someone’s prosperity increases, those who consume it also increase; so what does its owner gain, except that he gets to see it with his eyes? The sleep of the laborer is pleasant – whether he eats little or much – but the wealth of the rich will not allow him to sleep (Ecclesiastes 5:8-12).
No, you never will be wealthy enough to resolve all of your problems.
Throughout Ecclesiastes 1:1-5:7 the Preacher has meditated upon the hevel of life under the sun: all is vain, futile – truly absurd. He compares most human endeavors toward meaning as “chasing after wind”: people pursue pleasure, wealth, wisdom, or other things looking for ultimate purpose and satisfaction and will be disappointed and frustrated by all of them. In Ecclesiastes 5:8-12 the Preacher returned to two themes he has discussed previously: injustice and oppression, wealth and labor.
The Preacher had previously lamented injustice and oppression where there should be justice along with a lack of care and concern for the oppressed (Ecclesiastes 3:16-17, 4:1); in Ecclesiastes 5:8-9 he counseled people against surprise at institutional corruption. The poor get extorted and justice and fairness are perverted; it is so because officials allow it at all levels. Everyone in society, ancient and modern, is fed and sustained by the produce of the fields; such is the wealth of most laborers, and those with means, power, and/or wealth seek to seize it. Note well the Preacher does not seem to justify or rationalize such extortion, injustice, and oppression, nor is he suggesting we should just accept it and be fine with it. In fact, if the Preacher is indeed Solomon son of David, then his counsel can be seen as somewhat self-serving: as king, who else would have the power to root out corruption among officials so that government might run with less corruption and oppression? Perhaps Solomon did exercise good faith initiatives to root out corruption in the Israelite bureaucracy and found the results wanting.
However Solomon may or may not have managed corruption in his empire, we do well to heed the Preacher’s advice. We should not commend or rationalize corruption and injustice, but we should never be surprised to find it. Wherever we find it we should know it is being looked past or actively supported by many people with greater authority. Furthermore, we should keep in mind how all wealth derives from human endeavors, and is extremely unevenly distributed. Those with means, power, and wealth will always develop various contrivances and justifications for such inequalities, and the people of God must always look upon them with great skepticism.
The Preacher frequently considered matters relating to wealth and effort (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26); he returned to the same theme in Ecclesiastes 5:10-20, and in Ecclesiastes 5:10-12 specifically almost as if anticipating a reaction to what he has declared in Ecclesiastes 5:8-9: “if the poor are thus subject to oppression, then would it not be better to maintain wealth?” The Preacher has seen the end of those who love money: they never have enough of it, and as wealth increases, so does financial obligation (Ecclesiastes 5:10-11). The laborer works hard every day and is able to rest; the wealthy cannot enjoy such rest (Ecclesiastes 5:12).
In Los Angeles we can summarize the Preacher’s wisdom as “there is always a house higher up on the hill”: as one moves further “up the hill” into Bel Air, Brentwood, Calabasas, and the Hollywood Hills, the houses get more and more expensive, and the clout and cache which comes with said houses increase exponentially. It can become very easy to feel quite poor by comparison even if one has much greater wealth than might be found in many other parts of the country, let alone the world. Such is why it is foolish to compare oneself to such people and lament how much wealth is expended in order to demonstrate and reify class and social standing. Furthermore, if you have ever experienced increase in income, have you noticed how expenses seem to rise to meet whatever gain you obtained? In this way the laborer can get good rest without the anxiety which comes from maintaining and preserving wealth, a kind of rest which the wealthy cannot enjoy, since there is always a level of anxiety about maintaining wealth or what might happen to them if they lose that wealth.
We should not press the Preacher’s wisdom into absolute terms: poverty comes with its own set of anxieties, and a lot of those anxieties can be relieved when a person can earn a living wage. Wealth can insulate those who maintain it from a lot of challenges and difficulties in life. Nevertheless, the Preacher’s main premise stands: wealth is not a panacea. Not everything is made automatically better if you have wealth. From the perspective of the poor life with money might seem like “easy street,” but those who maintain wealth can still have class envy, still think they need to make more money, and still not find comfort or rest.
The Preacher will have much more to say about difficulties regarding wealth along with its proper use (cf. Ecclesiastes 5:13-20); nevertheless, what he has already made known in Ecclesiastes 5:8-12 remains as relevant in the early 21st century as it was when originally composed thousands of years ago. Human societies still manifest significant wealth inequality. Many seek to rationalize such inequalities with arguments relating to nobility, merit, or some other justification, yet there remains no defensible rationale for the kinds of inequality we see in modern society. As God’s people we know God sees and will judge: many who received good things and comfort in this life will find torment in the next, and many who experienced great suffering in this life will find comfort in the next (e.g. Luke 16:19-31).
The people of God should not commend, excuse, justify, or rationalize the kinds of income inequality prevalent in modern societies, but such inequality should not surprise them. God’s people should expect corruption and extortion to be normalized in this world, whether justified by laws written to privilege those with means or not. While it would be a good thing for the levels of wealth inequality to decline, and for many in poverty and the lower middle class to receive fairer wages for their labor, the people of God likewise cannot imagine wealth will be the solution or the panacea to fix the problem. Wealth comes with its own anxieties, fears, and challenges. There is no “fix” for these challenges “under the sun”; there is no intrinsic merit in either poverty or wealth; we can find contentment with little or much or always have reasons to believe we do not have enough whether we are poor or rich in material things. Instead we do best to consider all we are and have to be gifts from God which we ought to use in ways which glorify Him and serves one another. May we seek to glorify God in Christ in all things and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry