Solomon on Wealth

stacks-of-money

Just what is “wisdom,” anyway? For starters, wisdom is more than information. Wisdom cannot be taught. Wisdom does not consist of facts. Wisdom is not learned. Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right and noticing the results, good or bad. Wisdom must be practiced constantly or it slows fades away.

Every society and culture on Earth has its wisdom. It develops over time and is passed on from generation to generation in philosophical writings and teachings and even verbally from elder to child. One of the central themes of the Old Testament is wisdom, and the Old Testament contains a group of books referred to as Wisdom Literature. These include: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and The Song of Solomon. In the Bible, wisdom is always linking to knowing, doing, and worshiping.

Chasing after wealth: what a waste, Ecclesiastes 5:10-17

Solomon was a king and he was wealthy. Just how wealthy was he? 1 Kings 10:23 tells us:

King Solomon was richer and wiser than all the kings of the earth.

That’s a lot of wealth! Considering that, we know that Solomon’s advice concerning wealth must be accurate; he is writing from personal experience. Though he does not criticize wealth or the blessing of wealth, the Teacher zeroes on two long-standing problems most people have: the twin problems of greed and envy. These two problems work in concert to make life miserable for people if they let them. We see what others have and we see what we don’t have. We envy them and become fixated on acquiring what they have. Truth be told, to fix your heart on gaining wealth until it becomes your chief concern is nothing if not frustrating!

He who loves money shall never have enough. The foolishness of thinking that wealth brings happiness! (Ecclesiastes 5:10 TLB)

What other people have will always better than what you have. It may be human nature, but it’s also a very foolish, self-destructive way to live. Wealth is not the same thing as happiness.

The more you have, the more you spend, right up to the limits of your income. So what is the advantage of wealth—except perhaps to watch it as it runs through your fingers! (Ecclesiastes 5:11 TLB)

Or, we might say: Enough is never enough.

Solomon’s observations about man’s attitude toward money was later taken up by Jesus, who taught things like this:

Beware! Don’t always be wishing for what you don’t have. For real life and real living are not related to how rich we are. (Luke 12:15 TLB)

Nowhere in the Bible is wealth ever condemned, but what it does condemn is the love of money. Money is not evil, it’s the love of money that gets man into trouble.

For the love of money is the first step toward all kinds of sin. Some people have even turned away from God because of their love for it, and as a result have pierced themselves with many sorrows. (1 Timothy 6:10 TLB)

It’s man’s attitude toward money that is at issue here. There is nothing wrong with wealth, but when chasing wealth with the wrong motives becomes your all-in-all, then you will soon find out with Solomon knew to be true:

The more you have, the more you spend, right up to the limits of your income. So what is the advantage of wealth—except perhaps to watch it as it runs through your fingers! (Ecclesiastes 5:11 TLB)

Reliable Matthew Henry’s comments are worth a second look—

The more meat, the more mouths…The more men have, the better house they must keep, the more servants they must employ, the more guests they entertain…and the more spongers they have hanging on them.

Wealth and riches can do a lot of good, no doubt. It’s hard to build a church or embark on a missionary enterprise without resources. But sometimes, riches hurt rather than help some people.

I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners… (Ecclesiastes 5:13 KJV)

This “evil” was something that Solomon observed while he was trying to figure life out; wealth can hurt people. In particular, the “hurt” came when the wealth was lost. Having lost everything, the one who suffered was the one who was destined to inherit it. All of that father’s plans came to nothing. In the king’s mind, that is a most grievous evil.

In Luke 12, Jesus answered a question about a family inheritance by telling short story that reinforces what Solomon taught. In the story, a rich man hoarded his wealth in barns, only to die before he could enjoy it. The punch line says everything—

Yes, every man is a fool who gets rich on earth but not in heaven. (Luke 12:21 TLB)

In other words, your attitude is important. To be concerned only about how good you have it on earth will blind you to the necessity of preparing for eternity. Such a person, Solomon concludes, is living a very foolish life—

…he has been working for the wind. (Ecclesiastes 5:16 TLB)

Accumulating wealth for the sake of accumulating wealth is wrong, but accumulating wealth for the right reasons can and does glorify God.

Wise decisions, Ecclesiastes 10:1—7

Dead flies will cause even a bottle of perfume to stink! Yes, a small mistake can outweigh much wisdom and honor. A wise man’s heart leads him to do right, and a fool’s heart leads him to do evil. You can identify a fool just by the way he walks down the street! (Ecclesiastes 10:1—3 TLB)

The theme that runs throughout Ecclesiastes is that wisdom is far superior to folly. It is better to be wise that stupid. And that is the point of the proverb in verse 1. Almost nobody is completely wise or completely foolish, so those of us striving to live in wisdom must be very careful to keep our foolishness in check. One foolish action can ruin a life.

“Right” and “left” are often used as symbols representing good and bad, strong and week, right and wrong. In fact, in Latin, the word sinister means “left.” Solomon makes an obvious observation: wise people will gravitate toward the good (the “right”) while the foolish lean to the bad (the “left”). No matter how hard a foolish man tries, he will always lean left. This is how you can spot a wise or foolish man: which way does he lean? Does he gravitate to the good? Or the evil?

If the boss is angry with you, don’t quit! A quiet spirit will quiet his bad temper. There is another evil I have seen as I have watched the world go by, a sad situation concerning kings and rulers: For I have seen foolish men given great authority and rich men not given their rightful place of dignity! I have even seen servants riding, while princes walk like servants! (Ecclesiastes 10:4—7 TLB)

The goal is to walk in wisdom, but sometimes that’s hard when you encounter foolish authorities. Your boss has authority over you and often it’s wiser to bite your lip than say too much.

With verse 5, Solomon turns to another evil, but it’s an evil related to the previous one. The evil is appointing or electing fooling people to positions of power. This leads to the obvious question: Who is more foolish—the foolish, incompetent leader or the people who put him in power? Both situations are bad. It’s a heavy responsibility to vote for leaders or to appoint them, and that responsibility requires wisdom.

Skill or wisdom? Ecclesiastes 10:8—12

Our teacher has been dealing with walking in wisdom and making wise decisions, especially where leaders are concerned. Here, Solomon gives some proverbs that seem unrelated but do, in fact, deal with the idea of skill versus wisdom.

Dig a well—and fall into it! Demolish an old wall—and be bitten by a snake! When working in a quarry, stones will fall and crush you! There is risk in each stroke of your ax! (Ecclesiastes 10:8, 9 TLB)

You may have all the skill in the world, but that doesn’t guarantee success! It still takes wisdom:

A dull ax requires great strength; be wise and sharpen the blade. (Ecclesiastes 10:10 TLB)

Austin Phelps, the great Congregationalist preacher, remarked—

Vigilance in watching opportunity; tact and daring in seizing upon opportunity; force and persistence in crowding opportunity to its utmost of possible achievement—these are the martial virtues which must command success.

Work wisely, trust God, Ecclesiastes 11:1—6

Solomon, the Teacher, was nearing the end of his search for meaning in life. He’s been cynical and sometimes profound till now, but here he nails it. His conclusions from here on in are optimistic and correct. Nobody is able to see all of God’s plan. No man can figure out his destiny just by observing life and thinking great thoughts. For the Christian, we please God greatly by finding ways to fulfill God’s purpose by accepting our daily lot in life as His will for us for the moment. But how can we do that when we don’t know the whole story? Solomon has already taught that some things in life are obviously right and obviously wrong, and a sensible person will be able to discern between them. Making the right choice is a good indication that God’s will is being followed. In light of the fact that the future is uncertain from our vantage point, here is some more good advice.

Give generously, for your gifts will return to you later. Divide your gifts among many, for in the days ahead you yourself may need much help. (Ecclesiastes 11:1, 2 TLB)

Earlier in this book, our wandering king made some observations about wealth. He decried the grievous evil of other people getting somebody else’ wealth, and yet here, Solomon comes to the right conclusion: it always pays to be generous. He’s not talking about charity, though, as verse 4 seems to indicate—

If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done. (TLB)

He’s talking about wise investments, not gambling. There’s nothing wrong with charity, and it pays to be charitable, too. But here, Solomon encourages his son to be like the wise merchant who uses his wealth for trade, thus increasing his wealth. John Calvin wrote about wealth. He believed in money making money. He believed in creating wealth, but also believed that with wealth comes responsibility. John Wesley, who lived two centuries after Calvin, and who had differing theological ideas, did agree with Calvin when it came to money:

Get all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.

So, work wisely but don’t hold on too tightly to your earnings. Jesus taught something similar in His famous parable of the talents found in Matthew 25:14—30. The point of the parable is that the people who invested their money (talents) and made more, did the right thing and were further rewarded. But the one who hid or hoarded his money actually lost it all.

For the man who uses well what he is given shall be given more, and he shall have abundance. But from the man who is unfaithful, even what little responsibility he has shall be taken from him. (Matthew 25:29 TLB)

Good advice from both Solomon and Jesus!

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