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VII. The Vanity of Wealth (5:8–6:12)

The material in this section is centered around poverty and wealth.

Qoheleth seems resigned to an oppressive bureaucratic hierarchy where public office holders are preyed upon by higher ones, resulting in corruption at all levels of government. In turn, the poor seeking justice are victimized by this corrupt system (5:8-9). Bureaucracy, while decried, seems to be accepted as necessary and inevitable.

Three sayings about money follow. First, the desire for money is insatiable (5:10). Second, the advantages of wealth are only temporary since it will soon be consumed by others (v. 11). Third, wealth can result in insomnia for the rich, a condition unknown to the untroubled laborer (v. 12).

Qoheleth now presents a scenario that he characterizes as a deadly evil (5:13). In some undefined business venture a rich man loses all his acquired wealth, leaving his family destitute (v. 14). He himself dies in poverty (v. 15). The trouble and tension associated with acquiring wealth (vv. 12, 17) and the trauma associated with losing it do irreparable damage to him. He loses on both scores, causing Qoheleth to be dissatisfied with such a prospect.

But not only does Qoheleth express his dissatisfaction, he also offers an alternative approach to life (5:18-20). In the above scenario no reference is made to God, but in this alternative approach, God is mentioned four times. It is God who gives life, wealth, and the ability to enjoy possessions. Recognizing God and appropriating wealth as his gift make a significant difference. Wealth is to be celebrated and shared with others (v. 18) rather than hoarded. While this will not increase the length of life, it will increase the quality of life (5:20).

Qoheleth considers it imperative that wealth be enjoyed, and he recognizes that the power to enjoy it comes from God (5:19) who can choose to withhold it. He now gives instances in which this power to enjoy was withheld by God.

The first one (6:1-2) is similar to the scenario of the previous chapter (5:13-17) except that the person considered here not only had wealth but also honor (6:2). This added dimension is significant and should have changed the situation but did not. He too lacked the ability to enjoy life and God's gifts.

Inability to enjoy life is illustrated further in the next section (6:3-6). Here a man, in addition to being prosperous, has a large family (a hundred children, v. 3) and lives a long life (a thousand years twice over, v. 6). The figures employed here are exaggerated for emphasis. This man also fails to enjoy God's gifts. The stillborn child without any experience, accomplishments, and fame is better off than the man just described (vv. 3-5). At least the stillborn has rest.

A series of unanswered questions further demonstrates the human plight (6:7-12). Efforts are essential to maintain life. People work to eat so that they may have strength to work again, but their appetites are never sated and become even more demanding as times go on (v. 7). The wise and the pious poor (v. 8) are not exempt from such a treadmill. They too experience insatiable appetites. It is better to use that which is available and realize joy in what they have than to yearn for that which is beyond them. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Qoheleth now seems to pause to summarize what he has said to this point. People must accept themselves and their world the way they are. The statements that “whatever exists has already been named and what man is has been known” indicate that the essence and character of human life and of the world have already been determined (6:10). People are limited and mortal. They may choose to challenge God but to no avail (v. 10). They may multiply words, but words are not effective in producing change (v. 11).

This chapter concludes by noting that humans lack knowledge and advisers (6:12). They neither understand this life nor the nature of the future. Two obvious conclusions are found here. People by their own efforts cannot discover God's plans for themselves and their work; neither can they alter or change those plans no matter what they do. Apart from divine help, they are both ignorant and helpless.