Proper 24 • Ecclesiastes 5:10–20 (Mt 5:9–19) • October 21, 2012
By Jeffrey Gibbs
Textual Notes (using English Bible versification)
One of the challenging issues in translation occurs in verse 10, the first verse of the appointed reading. The second line reads, literally, “And whoever loves abundance, not revenue (or income)—also this is vanity.” James Bollhagen suggests that since the particle לֹא normally negates a verb, one should repeat the verb from the prior clause. He translates, “And whoever loves wealth [will] not [be satisfied] with his proceeds.”
In verses 13 and 16, the Preacher employs the Qal active participle of the verb “to be weak, sick” (חָלָה) to modify the evil that he is describing. ESV and RSV both render this participle, “grievous.” Perhaps a gloss such as “debilitating” or “weakening” might also capture the meaning; Bollhagen translates it as “pathetic.”
As the brief comments below will suggest, the noun “lot, portion” in verses 18 and 19, especially in combination with the truth that “God gives” such a portion, is a key to the meaning of this reading. Although in other contexts one could presumably choose one’s own portion, it is not the case here. The reading teaches that God is the one who allots a portion to men and women, and that life should be lived in that profound truth.
The text evidently can be divided into two sections. Verses 10–17 describe the vanity and debilitating evil that arises from loving money (v. 10) and from the fact that one has no ultimate control over whether accumulated wealth will last or even benefit one’s own family. Although any attempt to structure this proverb-like teaching might be an over-reading of the text, perhaps verse 10’s truth that wealth ultimately cannot satisfy is explicated by verses 11–12. In turn, the fact that the future use of wealth cannot be controlled or determined (v. 13) may be extended and expounded in the images of verses 14–17.
The second section (vv. 18–20) offers a remarkably different tone and message from the first one. Bollhagen treats verses 18–29 as an important summary of the book’s theme to this point, and Franz Delitzsch describes it as an interruption that offers the ultimate alternative to “the sad evils that cling to wealth.”
Perhaps the key thought in these verses is the double notion that God’s human creatures, and especially those who are his children by faith, must regard their lives and their creaturely possessions as nothing other than the “lot” or “portion” that God himself gives to them. This perspective will enable God’s people to avoid the vanity and debilitating evils that arise from the love of money and the inordinate longing for material success.
It would be fairly easy to turn the teaching of this lection into a sort of moralistic admonition to safe, prudent living. And, to be sure, such a turn would not be completely unrelated to the message of the reading. Money doesn’t satisfy. Don’t pour your water into a leaky vessel. Stop and smell the roses; enjoy life each day, as God gives it to you, and leave the rest to him. Such a reading would underscore the fact (which is true enough) that the wisdom literature of ancient Israel shares themes with wisdom sayings both ancient and modern. At the risk of dating myself, “I don’t care too much for money; money can’t buy me love.” It’s a truth that a lot of people know, just by reflecting on life.
To be satisfied with such a reading, however, would neglect the truth that Ecclesiastes belongs to the wisdom literature of Israel, and so therefore is also Scripture for the Christian church, and that all Christian Scriptures must be read in light of the God of Israel’s revelation of himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In light of the gracious covenant that God made with Israel then, and of the eschatological and gracious new covenant that God has made with new Israel in Jesus now, this lection teaches about the utter folly of making second things first. Here Solomon invites us to live in the knowledge of the God who has our times in his hands and who, for Jesus’s sake, will not let us go.
Possessions have no ultimate value. Yes, this truth can be ignored for a long time, especially if a person accumulates considerable wealth and is also blessed with good health. Nevertheless, how urgently we all need to call into question many assumptions of our culture that lead us into unthinking pursuits of better clothes, nicer cars, larger homes, better technology, whatever. You start life naked; if you die before the return of the Lord, you will go out of the world naked. Possessions were ever and always intended to be seen and received as gifts of a giver, and to direct our attention to him. When you use a hammer to try to turn a screw, you’ll do damage. If you love silver and set your hopes and hitch your value to material success, this is a pathetic, debilitating evil—not least to your neighbor, who needs you to be better than that.
Yet we are physical beings; we need a certain amount of possessions, and food is a good thing. So the text is not a call to asceticism or to denial of the physical. Rather, it is a call to faith and to the acknowledgement that, ultimately, what I have in life is my portion which God has allotted to me. This faith is rooted in the Christ who taught that God provides for non-laboring lilies and sparrows that make no investments for the future (Mt 6).
And there is work to be done, in God and in Christ! Seen in this light, our work can be satisfying because it serves a greater end and is done for a greater purpose than to amass stuff. When daily toil and material accumulation are thus “demoted” to their proper place, there is joy in them each day; our “daily bread” becomes a means through which we give thanks to God the Father and find contentment in Christ.
None of this sounds all that radical. The preacher, however, will search for applications for himself and his congregation that may very well strike at the root of things. Sell that expensive car and get out from under payments that are stressing life and the family. Stop pursuing whatever the next thing is that comes along through my smart phone or my computer that promises to entertain us. Slow down. Ponder what it is to be a creature whose needs are met by a loving Father. Look our culture in the eye, and tell it, “no.” Long for what God is doing in Christ, for you and for the world. Seek first the reign of God, and his putting the world to rights, and all these things will be added unto you.
 James Bollhagen, Ecclesiastes (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011), 199.
 Ibid., 198.
 Ibid., 198.
 Ibid., 207.
 Carl Friedrich and Franz Julius Keil Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes Vol. 6 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 6:301–304.