If you, like me, tire quickly of the cutesy rosy platitudes that Christians like to throw around, then you will find Ecclesiastes to be a delightfully cynical book. How many times have you heard someone quote Jeremiah 29 “I know the plans I have for you…” or Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ…” and you just wanted to retch? Like yeah, those verses are true an’ all, but sometimes they get taken pretty grievously out of context. And, more to the heart of the matter, people sometimes use these verses to hide from the reality that sometimes life just plain stinks. The book of Ecclesiastes, meanwhile, unapologetically explains in great detail just how stinky life can be.
If you want a quick introduction (with video!) to Ecclesiastes, I made one here a few days ago.
So let’s look at the beginning of chapter 6 right now.
There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity, it is a grievous evil.
The author goes on from there to detail similar forms of successful living that goes uncelebrated and unenjoyed, declaring them pointless, and asserting that it would be better not to be born at all. Hardly a rosy cozy Christianity.
The end of verses 6 and the beginning of verse 7 are perhaps the central thoughts that tie this chapter together:
…do not all go to the one place?
All the toil of man is for his mouth…
Taken in reverse order, this is a profoundly simple biblical truth, yet enormously life-changing if you take it seriously. “All the toil of man is for his mouth” – that is, our normal earthly labors are all geared toward keeping ourselves and others alive. Yet, “do not all go to the one place?” that is, to death. We spend our whole lives working to survive, only to die in the end; there is no escaping that. The philosophy of Nihilism is very influential in our culture right now; it wisely recognizes the truth of these two statements, and rightly concludes that life is meaningless and pointless; we have to create meaning for ourselves where there is none. But what the author of Ecclesiastes teaches, if you push through the book as a whole, is that while earthly life is pointless, God is still very real and serving him is very meaningful. And thus we can do things in this life and in this world that do ultimately matter!
This is a super timely message, as the Rogation Days are wrapping up and Ascension Day is tomorrow morning. The Rogation Days are special times of prayer for labor and work, especially (historically) for agriculture and lands. These are the classic toils that feed the mouths of mankind. And Ascension Day is the day Jesus rose bodily into heaven. If we are in Christ, then we too share in his heavenly reign and intercession – we have been lifted above the futility of this life, our labor can be hallowed if we labor in the Lord.
So, as the title of this reflection indicates, being rich is kind of pointless. If the goal is to have stuff and accumulate money then you’re living a life without true meaning or purpose. If you aim to live for God, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor. Earthly success can be useful, but it makes for a useless god or goal. That is the profound wisdom of Ecclesiastes.