Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes 5:8-17

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Ecclesiastes 5:8-17

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The Right Outlook on Injustice and Gain (Part 1)

Continuing in the last subsection of the second major section, Solomon turns next in chapter 5 to matters previously raised that might seem to call into question God’s sovereignty and power—distracting from the healthy fear and reverence for God we must have. He starts in verse 8 with the issue of widespread injustice, earlier brought up in Ecclesiastes 3:16. The translation and point of Ecclesiastes 5:8-9 is highly disputed. One way to read verse 8 is as a corrective to systemic corruption—that everyone is answerable to someone higher up. Some, however, see the tiers of authority here as further oppression going up the chain. Others believe “watches over” here should be “watches out for,” meaning that government officials are protecting one another, thus preventing corruption from being rooted out.

Verse 9, which may be a proverb, could be read to say that all the officials are unjustly taking from the land and its produce, all the way up to the king—as a summary of the corruption, leaving the matter unresolved. However, others render the verse to say that on the whole, “a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land” (NASB). Some think this means a good king is an answer to the injustice in the previous verse. Others take this rendering to mean that government, even with its corruption, is better than anarchy. The New American Commentary states: “In an anarchic society no boundaries or property rights can be maintained, access to wells and other common resources cannot be fairly regulated, aqueducts and dikes will not be kept in good repair, and no organized resistance to ravaging armies can be offered. In short, the agricultural economy will collapse. Government may be evil, but it is a necessary evil” (Garrett, note on verse 9). Indeed, God makes the necessity of human government plain in Romans 13. But this may not be the point of the passage here.

Consider again that verse 8 of Ecclesiastes 5 could mean that there is always someone higher up in authority to deal with one practicing injustice. As one commentator notes: “There is a chain of command and this means there is a chain of responsibility. In it we may have abusers of authority but they too are under authority and on and on up the chain of command…all the way up to the very throne room of God” (Daniel Hill, “Ecclesiastes: An Old Testament Study,”, note on verse 8). This might well be the implication here, as others also believe. Dr. Walter Kaiser notes, “The highest judge of all is the One who will evaluate every judgment ever made” (Ecclesiastes: Total Life, p. 76).

While God is not directly mentioned here, it’s possible that He is referred to by implication in verse 9, with everyone dependent on agricultural produce—produce that is from His hand, which He may withhold in judgment against corruption. Tommy Nelson writes: “The blessing of the Lord is for all. Even a king needs the blessing of God upon the field. A king is not sovereign. He looks to God to bless the land. These wicked men must deal with those above them who must deal ultimately with a sovereign God” (A Life Well Lived, p. 78). Kaiser states: “Ruler and people are happiest when they both realize that they are served by the farmed fields. But should human government also fail, there is still redress from God” (p. 76). As one commentator translates the end of verse 9, “Even a king is subject to the soil” (Robert Gordis, Koheleth—The Man and His World, 1968, p. 166). Of course, this may not require God’s  direct judgment. If a king is corrupt or allowing corruption, proper cultivation in agriculture and the other economic fundamentals in society will suffer—as will everyone, all the way up to the king. The consequences are thus automatic.

Others maintain that a textual problem exists in verse 9 and have advocated reading the same Hebrew consonants minus the later vowel pointing with the words divided differently: “Without changing the consonants of the Hebrew text…one may read… ‘the advantage of land is in its yield, that is, if the field is cultivated for [its] yield’…. [Read this way] the verse thus makes the point that land ought not to be accumulated for its own sake but to be cultivated for what it produces—its yield” (C.L. Ceow, The Anchor Bible: Ecclesiastes, 1997, p. 204). There is in this case no mention of a king, but this wording could still conceivably serve as a metaphor for society in that it needs the right kind of care to flourish— against the injustice mentioned in the previous verse. Yet the translation remains questionable— particularly as the verse can make sense without changing the vowel pointing and word division.

Verses 10-17 give us some of the problems with wealth, starting with what may be a few proverbs. This passage could be here as part of the corrective for the corruption in verse 8—and possibly of verse 9 if that is referring to officials unjustly taking profit. Those who are all about padding their own pockets will end up with these problems of wealth accumulation. Of course, these problems exist even if the accumulation was not achieved unjustly. And it may be that these problems with wealth are here as a warning to those who respond to injustice in society by just trying to get what they can—focusing on self-reliance rather than relying on a God who continues to let bad things happen. But money is no substitute for God. And while it can be a help in life, it can also present serious burdens and difficulties. As part of the right approach and outlook, all of us should guard against setting the accumulation of wealth as life’s goal—though we do need to strive to obtain adequate income in balance with meeting spiritual needs.

In verse 10, “the topic of an insatiable appetite is addressed [again, as we saw with the miser in Ecclesiastes 4:8]…. Desire always outruns possessions, no matter how vast acquisitions may grow” (NKJV Study Bible, note on 5:10). However much one has, it is never enough. Thus, “wealth is both addictive and unsatisfactory” (NAC, note on verses 10-15).

Another problem with having money is that people will take it (verse 11). As the Preaching the Word commentary notes: “The phrase ‘they increase who eat them’ refers in some sense to people who consume our wealth. It might be the oppressive government described in verses 8-9, which takes away our money through higher taxes. It might be our children or other dependents—the hungry mouths around our table. Or it might be the people who come begging for us to give them something—the spongers, the freeloaders, and the hangers-on. But no matter who they are, the more we have, the more other people try to get it. No one knew this better than King Solomon. He was the richest man in the world, but given the many thousands of people whom he had to feed (see 1 Kings 4:22-28), he almost needed to be!” (Ryken, p. 133). The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries says: “Increased wealth brings increased taxation (in more than one sense!). For riches have a knack of disappearing down a drain of increased responsibilities. An ‘extended family’ will extend a bit further with each increment; the wage-earner will see the goods but no more” (Eaton, note on Ecclesiastes 5:11).

Yet another drawback of riches is not being able to sleep at night (verse 12). Some translations specify the “abundance” here as the wealth itself, so that worrying over how to safeguard and maintain it is the cause of insomnia. Others, considering the mention of what a laboring man eats, specify the abundance of the wealthy here as that of a full stomach or gluttony—bringing indigestion and poor health—in contrast to the laboring man being able to quickly fall asleep no matter what he eats. “Translations which maintain the ambiguity are best” (Tyndale, note on verse 12).

A further problem with money—Solomon calls it a severe evil or, as this may be rendered, a sickening calamity or terrible tragedy—is that it can do its owner harm (verse 13). A person who is not wise and careful in the use of wealth can suffer horribly—and we often see such stories about young Hollywood actors and musicians getting caught up in drugs and other wrong habits supported by their suddenly deep pockets. Indeed, Solomon himself was a premier example of one’s wealth funding personal destruction. Despite his earthly wisdom, which no doubt gave him tremendous financial acumen, he allowed himself to pursue many vain and immoral ventures—which he would obviously not have been able to do to the degree he did if he had not been so wealthy. Nelson asks, “Have you ever considered that one of God’s great mercies toward you is that He restricts the amount of money you make?” (p. 80). (Compare with the prayer in Proverbs 30:7-9.)

It’s also hurtful for a person with wealth to come to rely on it. For even if one is wise and proper in using money, it can still be lost. The word translated “misfortune” in verse 14 “literally refers to a worthless task (compare Ecclesiastes 3:10)” (NKJV Study Bible, note on Ecclesiastes 5:14). It might be a bad business venture or investment or a seemingly valid decision that proves catastrophic. The problem is compounded here with the mention of a man losing it all and then having a son and not being able to adequately provide for him or leave him an inheritance. The reality is that money can be here today, gone tomorrow (see Proverbs 23:4-5)—for many reasons. Jesus warned against trusting in earthly treasure, which can decay, be consumed or destroyed, or stolen (Matthew 6:19-21). This is certainly no secure basis for happiness.

Moreover, everyone parts with accumulated wealth at death. All of us are merely stewards of whatever material substance we have in our keeping—never truly owners in this life in an ultimate sense. The words of verse 15 recall those of Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). And Paul would later affirm, “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (1 Timothy 6:7). As the expression goes, “You can’t take it with you.” Or put another way, “The more you have, the more you’ll leave behind” (PTW, p. 135). Solomon labels this another severe evil or terrible tragedy (Ecclesiastes 5:16).

Nelson writes: “How much will a rich man leave? Everything. Every single dime. The only time in the Bible that God personally calls a man a fool is in Luke 12:19-20: ‘And I [a rich man] will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?”’…. If you’re a person who lives for accruing wealth—thinking that it will give you status, significance, and happiness—it will actually be a blessing if God halts your progress” (p. 81).

Such pursuit will only make for a wasted life—so that there is no profit or benefit, having “labored for the wind” (Ecclesiastes 5:16). Yet some still spend themselves for this empty goal. “The ‘darkness’ in which the miser eats (v. 17) is metaphorical for isolation and joylessness” (NAC, note on Ecclesiastes 5:16–6:6). Eating would normally be done in fellowship with others, but not here—though eating could refer in a broader sense to living life (compare Amos 7:12), yet here alone. Tyndale notes on Ecclesiastes 5:17: “Preoccupation with wealth led to a gloomy life. Sickness points to the physical strain. Vexation [or sorrow] indicates the cares and frustrations that tore at his mind and heart. Wrath [or anger] tells of the times he was enraged over thwarted ambitions and schemes.” The miser will end up “a bitter old man— for who has ever heard of a happy miser?” (PTW, p. 136). Here is another awful way wealth is kept to one’s own hurt, as mentioned in verse 13.

We find the remedy in what follows.