The Phantom Menace of Covetousness
I like to refer to Ecclesiastes as the Scripture’s “earthy sermon,” both because its message is matter-of-fact and down-to-earth, and because its deliverer is unassuming and unorthodox. There’s no spiritual parlance wasted in this text. All of it is gruff truth and gritty dialogue about the reality of “once-Eden.” What’s accomplished, though, through this earthy discourse, is the exposing of the soul’s agony after wholeness. This message speaks to all people, in all times, in all walks of life, giving voice to the universal clamoring of mankind to be filled and at peace. Yet, as is observed by our Teacher, nothing “under the sun” can quench this soul-thirst. And so long as earthy novelties are the means by which man seeks his fulfillment, he will always come up short.
What’s observed, therefore, in Ecclesiastes 4, 5, and 6 is, perhaps, some of the most relevant commentary in existence on the fallen personalities of human beings. From about the midpoint of chapter 4 through the end of chapter 6, our Teacher proceeds to survey the folly of wealth “under the sun.” He meticulously investigates the loneliness of success, the menace of mammon, and the crippling nature of bowing to the god of earthly gain.
What’s more, our Teacher’s analysis of a life spent on a pursuit of wealth doesn’t come from an unfamiliar lectern. He’s speaking clearly and concisely because he’s been there. “I saw,” he writes. (Eccl. 4:4, 7) “I lived this way and it didn’t work.” These are firsthand perspectives on the futility of living for earthly gain. He isn’t speaking presumptuously, but authentically. “The one who loves silver,” he says, “is never satisfied with silver, and whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with income. This too is futile.” (Eccl. 5:10) In these words, he articulates what each of our souls know to be true, even if it’s never admitted: that we are insatiably covetous.
Sin has infected the heart of man like an incurable disease. Its prognosis in the long-term is terminal. And its consequences in the present are insanely grim. As this infirmity eats away at our being, it leaves massive craters in its wake from all the avenues it leads us down in the hunt for something filling. What the Teacher admits, here, is that pursuers of wealth and success never realize that which they’re after. “The one who loves silver is never satisfied with silver.” (Eccl. 5:10) For all his striving, he never achieves satisfaction. Actually, just the opposite is true — he becomes increasingly disgusted with what he has. “Whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with income. This too is futile. When good things increase, the ones who consume them multiply; what, then, is the profit to the owner?” (Eccl. 5:10–11)
This reminds me of the familiar anecdote regarding American business tycoon John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, who was once asked by a reporter, “How much money is enough money?” To which Rockefeller is said to have replied, “Just a little bit more.” The man whose estimated net worth was upwards of $340 billion (in adjusted dollars) was seeking “just a bit more.” The oil magnate of the early 20th century, who is widely considered the wealthiest person in the modern era, wasn’t satisfied with what he had. His “enough” wasn’t enough. He wanted more. So rings the deafening cry of “once-Eden” souls: “More! More!”
The appetite for wealth is created and agitated by wealth. The more things you attain, the more apparent it becomes the things you don’t have. This is the dreadful irony of the “one who loves silver” — he is never satisfied with silver. His monetary thirst is never quenched. No amount of financial gain ever fills his belly. Greed is never gratified with the gain it gets. With each new dividend accounted for, his soul cries, “More!” His “enough” is never enough. And as he chases affluence and assets, his heart is eaten by moths and his joy is consumed by vultures. He obtains no profit from all his profits, “except to gaze at them with his eyes.” (Eccl. 5:11) He’s still hungry and thirsty for soul sustenance. “All of a person’s labor is for his stomach, yet the appetite is never satisfied.” (Eccl. 6:7) The peace and satisfaction longed for by the lover of wealth remains unreachable, out of the grasp of his greedy fingers.
The Teacher refers to this reality as man’s “wandering desire.” “Better what the eyes see than wandering desire. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.” (Eccl. 6:9) The soul-cravings of the “one who loves silver” are ever-moving and evading him, removing any possibility for rest in “once-Eden.” He can’t even sleep at night because he’s so consumed and concerned with his “abundance.” (Eccl. 5:12) That which we reckon brings rest and security actually heightens insecurities and intensifies anxieties. Whatever is promised by gain “under the sun” eludes us like a mirage in the desert. Indeed, every form of happiness “under the sun” is a figment of the imagination. “Strange delusion,” writes Charles Bridges, “to suppose that more of this world would bring increase of happiness . . . No fruit of happiness can be found in this world’s vanity.” (126, 130) The menacing phantom of covetousness wreaks untold havoc on all citizens of “once-Eden.” Mammon, the devil’s wraith, (Matt. 6:24) haunts this world, besetting us in all manner of “sickening tragedies.”
There is a sickening tragedy I have seen under the sun: wealth kept by its owner to his harm. (Eccl. 5:13)
Here is a tragedy I have observed under the sun, and it weighs heavily on humanity: God gives a person riches, wealth, and honor so that he lacks nothing of all he desires for himself, but God does not allow him to enjoy them. Instead, a stranger will enjoy them. This is futile and a sickening tragedy. (Eccl. 6:1–2)
Striving after success “under the sun” is a futile and fruitless endeavor. As soon as you procure what your soul campaigned for, you recognize another, better pursuit. Our Teacher saw this as the fundamental motivation behind all of man’s occupations after opulence. “I saw that all labor and all skillful work is due to one person’s jealousy of another. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.” (Eccl. 4:4) The “miserable task” of chasing success “under the sun” is driven by pride and fueled by envy. But the truth behind this labor is more than a little disheartening, because just like Rockefeller, your soul will always be envious for “just a little bit more.” “There is no end to all his struggles,” the Teacher says, “his eyes are still not content with riches . . . This too is futile and a miserable task.” (Eccl. 4:8)
For all its promised benefits and perceived conveniences, wealth and success offer no buffer when it comes to the End of Days. (Eccl. 5:13–17; 6:1–6) No measure of abundance or amount of success can safeguard your soul for the afterlife. In fact, the grievousness of gain under the sun is aggravated in the truth that it can’t come with you. The wealthy industrialist and the penniless waif approach death’s door in the same manner: “exactly as he comes, so he will go.” (Eccl. 5:16) “As he came from his mother’s womb, so he will go again, naked as he came; he will take nothing for his efforts that he can carry in his hands.” (Eccl. 5:15) Those who are thought to have everything leave “once-Eden” the same as those with nothing.
This the insanity of sin. It tells us to spend our lives, to waste our existence on dead-end pursuits that have long been found out and found wanting. It swindles the desire to chase after the same appetites that have failed over and over in times long gone. Humans of past, present, and future partake of the same vanity. Man’s been chasing the phantom menace of covetousness since his banishment to “once-Eden.” But still, we’ve been duped into thinking that the same methods “under the sun” will bring us everlasting peace and joy and happiness. History reveals a starkly different portrait, however, bringing to light man’s utter impotency and ineptitude at ever finding what he longs for on his own. (Eccl. 6:10–12) That’s because earthly gain was never meant to bring you lasting joy. All things “under the sun” are fragile, finite, and flimsy. They were never meant to fill you.
The triumph of grace interjects our tragedies and comes to us in this broken, barren wasteland, and allows us to find true happiness not by looking to something or someone or somewhere else but by contenting us with “what the eyes see,” with what’s in front of us. (Eccl. 5:18–20) Grace makes us okay with the little life and lot God’s granted us — because grace gives us God himself.
Who do I have in heaven but you? And I desire nothing on earth but you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart, my portion forever. (Ps. 73:25–26)
The gospel alone lays to waste our idols of jewels and jealousy by gifting us the portion of Jesus Christ. God’s word to us is rest from our labors after “more.” (Matt. 11:28–30) “Come to me,” Christ says, “and I will give you the rest of my ‘enoughness.’” All that man longs for is found in Christ alone. “The sweet savour of Christ is the only antidote to the wretchedness of man,” says A. H. Frost. (in Bridges, 125) “When we thus realize our rightful standing in heaven,” writes Bridges elsewhere, “we rise above the dying vanities of earth.” (128) Covetousness is slain and contentment is stoked to the degree that you’re satisfied in Jesus’s “enough.” Only he can fill us. (Ps. 16:11) Only what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do can ever give you the satisfaction your soul craves. The gospel is the gift of God’s portion, which is himself — a portion which can never perish. It is the grand news that you no longer have to chase phantom happiness. Grace is restoring you to Edenic joy.
- Charles Bridges, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009).