What Money Can’t Buy
(Ecclesiastes 5:8-Ecclesiastes 6)
By David Feddes
When God gives any man wealth and possessions and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God. (Ecclesiastes 5:19)
There’s an old comedy routine where an armed robber walks up to a comedian, shoves a gun in his ribs and snarls, “Your money or your life!” There’s a long pause. The comedian does nothing. He says nothing. The robber nudges him with the gun and impatiently asks: “Well?” The comedian hesitates a moment longer, then says, “Don’t rush me. I’m thinking about it.”
That’s how attached some of us are to money. Given a choice between our money or our life, it’s hard to decide. If a robber pointed a gun and asked for our wallet, we’d probably give him the money instead of losing our life; but in other ways, we have in fact chosen money over life. Some choose what career to pursue and what job offer to accept based not on our life’s dreams but on what pays the most money. Some move from one place to another not because it will be a better life for their family but simply because if it will mean a pay increase. Some worry more about property values in their neighborhood than about bad moral values being taught in their school district. When faced with the question, “Your money or your life?” too many of us have chosen money, not wholesome and abundant life.
Social and political structures are often shaped more by money than by what’s best for the life of society. In some societies officials take blatant bribes. In other societies they simply take “campaign contributions” and offer friendly legislation or government contracts in return. Business leaders and politicians may have started their career with high ideals for public service but many end up letting money determine all their decisions.
Is it possible to really get a life instead of merely getting more money? Yes, it certainly is. The Bible offers an extended discussion of money matters in Ecclesiastes 5 and 6, and in the heart of that discussion it says: “When God gives any man wealth and possessions and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God.” In order to reach that point and accept God’s gift of happiness, we first need to let it sink in that there are some things money can’t buy.
One thing money can’t buy is contentment. Ecclesiastes 5:10 says, “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.” Have you ever had poison ivy or some other kind of itchy rash? You feel like you have to scratch that itch to feel better, but the more you scratch, the more the itch spreads and becomes worse. You scratch harder and harder, you may even draw blood and hurt yourself, and still you keep scratching. You can’t stop. So it is with the itch for money: the more you scratch, the more you itch. The more money you make, the more money you want. You’re never satisfied. Enough is never enough. Money can’t buy contentment.
Something else money can’t buy is friendship. Money can bring you lots of people who pretend to be your friends, but how many of them are more interested in your money than in you as a person? The more money you make, the more parasites you attract. Verse 11 of Ecclesiastes 5 says, “As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them?” A woman wins the lottery, and suddenly she’s got long-lost relatives and friends coming out of the woodwork. An athlete gets a huge paycheck, and suddenly he’s got an entourage of groupies trailing him wherever he goes, all wanting a piece of his fame and fortune. Someone builds a booming business, and instantly he becomes the darling of lawyers, accountants, investment advisers, political and charitable fund raisers, and people with a thousand other ways to get some of his money. Once you get rich, it’s hard to know whether people are interested in you—or just your money. Wealth attracts greedy parasites as meat attracts maggots.
A third thing money can’t buy is peace of mind. Money lovers have a hard time with worry. We might think that an ordinary working person with bills to pay and almost no money to spare would worry more than the person who is financially set for life. Not so! Verse 12 of Ecclesiastes 5 says, “The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.” An ordinary guy who puts in a hard day’s work, eats a sandwich, and lives in a humble home can relax and sleep at night. Meanwhile, the tycoon tosses and turns. The head of one of the world’s most successful corporations wrote a book awhile back. Did he title it How Success Freed Me From Worry? No, he called his book Only the Paranoid Survive. He doesn’t say how relaxed and satisfied he is with his fortune. No, he worries constantly that some competitor will catch up with his company or even get ahead. Money can’t buy peace of mind.
Closely related to this is something else money can’t buy: security. When you’re a money lover, you can’t live with money, and you can’t live without it. In verses 13 and 14 of Ecclesiastes 5, the Teacher says, “I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner, or wealth lost through some misfortune, so that when he has a son there is nothing left for him.” If you hoard money like a miser, if you’re always focusing on your finances, you miss out on many great things in life that are unrelated to money. Why be a miser? Add a “y” to the word miser, and what do you get? Misery! Money makes a miser miserable, and to make matters worse, the possibility of losing his money makes him even more miserable. Thieves can strike so quickly, markets can change so rapidly, currency can lose value so suddenly that no wealth is safe. The Bible says, “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle” (Proverbs 23:4-5). A fortune can fly away in a moment.
That brings us to the most important thing money can’t buy: life after death. Even if your money doesn’t fly away and leave you behind, you will fly away and leave your money behind.
The story is told of an angel who visited a businessman and promised to grant him one request. The man thought for a moment, then smiled and said, “I’d like the financial section of a newspaper from one year in the future.” His request was granted. Eagerly he scanned the future stock prices, marking the biggest winners, gloating over how much money he’d make by investing in them. Then he glanced across the page. Something caught his eye. It was his own picture. Beneath the picture was his obituary. The man would be dead, unable to enjoy his wealth.
Of all the problems money lovers face, this is the biggest: death. All the money in the world can’t prevent death from coming, and when it comes, you can’t keep one penny of what you’ve piled up. Listen to verses 15-17 of Ecclesiastes 5.
Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand. This too is a grievous evil: As a man comes, so he departs, and what does he gain, since he toils for the wind? All his days he eats in darkness, with great frustration and anger.
Ecclesiastes doesn’t say that when you die you take nothing with you; it says you take nothing you can carry in your hand. But you do take something: you take yourself, your character, and your relationship to God—or the lack thereof. These are the things that last beyond death. These are also the things that make life worth living. And these are things that money can’t buy.
If it sometimes looks as though success depends more on finance than fairness, more on money than morals, look again. If money is all you’ve got, you’ve got nothing—except maybe an itch for more money, some parasites wanting a handout, sleepless paranoia, misery with money or without it, and utter bankruptcy in the face of death. If you love money, you can’t live well, and you certainly can’t die well, because the most important things in this life and the life to come are things money can’t buy.
Gladness of Heart
Ecclesiastes doesn’t stop there. It goes on to talk about the kind of person who really knows how to live and enjoy life “because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart” (5:20). What a difference between someone blessed with God’s gladness and the kind of person who has money but is unhappy while he lives and unmourned when he dies! In Ecclesiastes 5 the Bible lists some problems of money lovers and then describes a person who really loves life, who is satisfied and full of gladness. The biblical writer says,
Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart. (5:18-20)
What a huge difference God makes! The money lover has problems galore, but the person with God in his life is delighted to be alive. Sure, he knows that life isn’t always fair and that the poor sometimes get a raw deal from people with money and power. But in spite of all that, he doesn’t get discouraged or down. He relishes his meals; he does his work with gusto; any money or possessions he has are a blessing and not a burden. How is that possible? “God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.” He’s too busy enjoying God and his gifts, too busy carrying out his God-given tasks, too busy making the most of life, to get bogged down in greed or gloom.
You see, there are certain things only God can give, things money can’t buy. Money can’t buy happiness in this life and it certainly can’t buy eternal life. When you die and stand before God’s judgment, your money won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on. The Bible says, “Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death” (Proverbs 11:4).
There is only one payment which can cover our debt to God, one payment which can give us life now and forever: the perfect righteousness and sacrificial death of Jesus. God’s Word says, “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19). Existence without God is “an empty way of life,” what Ecclesiastes calls vanity, meaningless. Money can’t buy your way out of that empty way of life. But Jesus’ blood, poured out when he was nailed to a cross, can pay the price of your sins and purchase the gift of eternal life for you.
Money can’t buy eternal life with God, and it can’t buy the right to have God’s life within us right now. God’s fullness of life comes to us through his Holy Spirit, and money can’t buy the Holy Spirit. The Bible tells about Simon the Sorcerer, a man who offered money to the apostle Peter for the right to receive the Holy Spirit. But Peter rebuked him: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money… Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you” (Acts 8:18-24). It’s not money but the living Lord Jesus Christ who can give you the Holy Spirit as his free gift. The Holy Spirit fills you with God’s life both now and forever.
When you have that gift of divine life, you have a source of joy that never runs dry. God keeps you occupied with gladness of heart, as Ecclesiastes puts it. You can “rejoice in the Lord always,” as another Bible verse puts it (Philippians 4:4). If you’re a child of God, you can enjoy food, fun, family, even money, as gifts from God. And when you lack some of these gifts, you can still have a joy that nothing can take away. God keeps you “occupied with gladness of heart” over his love for you and your eternal destiny with him.
Having It All?
Now, take this joyous life of faith, and contrast it with a person who “has it all”—except faith in Jesus. Step from Ecclesiastes 5 into Ecclesiastes 6, and you find a portrait of someone who has everything he ever wanted. He has money, he has fame, family, and long life—but he still isn’t happy. Why not? Because although he has everything he ever wanted, he never wanted the one thing that could make him truly happy: the life of God. God gives him everything his heart desires—but his heart doesn’t desire the one thing it needs most: God. The Teacher says,
I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men: God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.
A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive a proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man—even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place? (6:1-6)
Ecclesiastes says that it’s better to be a stillborn baby than to exist to a ripe old age as a spiritual stillborn. If you’re a spiritual stillborn, if you don’t have God’s gift of spiritual life, you can’t live well or die well. You may think that if you’re unhappy, it’s because you don’t have enough money or because not enough people appreciate you or because your family situation isn’t what you want or because your life is too short. But just suppose you had a billion dollars, plus a million admirers, plus a hundred sweet kids, plus two thousand years until your death. Would that help? No, says Ecclesiastes, it wouldn’t change the basic fact that life without God isn’t worth living.
Jesus made the same point when he asked, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). If God gives you every last thing your heart desires, but you don’t desire him, you will be forever empty. The difference between a worthwhile life and a wasted life is whether or not you have God’s gift of new life. If you don’t have God’s life in you, if you’re a spiritual stillborn, then what you need more than anything else is to be born again.
Greedy for God
If you have piles of money but don’t have God, you have nothing. If you don’t have money but do have God, you have everything. If you believe that money makes the world go round, if you think that money is the key to satisfying your desires, then you will miss out on life. But if genuine, joyful life is what you want, then don’t be greedy for money. Be greedy for God. Seek him. Pray that his life will live in you.
Forsake the supremacy of money and trust in the supremacy of God. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24). Is money supreme or is God? Would you rather be driven by an appetite that will never be satisfied, or rest in the rule of the God who can satisfy your soul’s deepest longings? Ecclesiastes 6 says,
All man’s efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied. What advantage has a wise man over a fool? What does a poor man gain by knowing how to conduct himself before others? Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (6:7-9)
If your main comfort is your portfolio, and if your main form of recreation is shopping, you’re never going to be happy. Stop trying to earn or spend your way to happiness. You may think it’s unrealistic not to go along with a system where money is the answer to everything, but what’s really unrealistic is not to go along with a system where God is in charge of everything. In the closing verses of Ecclesiastes 6, the Bible says,
Whatever exists has already been named, and what man is has been known; no man can contend with one who is stronger than he. The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone? For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone? (6:10-12)
God names and knows all that exists, including the heart of man. God is Almighty. He is in control. Money doesn’t make the world go round. God makes the world go round. The more we ignore God or resist his ways, the more frustrated we become. The more we talk and argue against his commands and his promises, the emptier our words become. Who knows what is good in life? God knows! Who can show us what is going to happen after we die? God can! What’s good in life? Being a new creation in Christ and tasting his eternal joy.
So one last time, which will it be: your money or your life? Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… But store up for yourselves treasure in heaven… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
Set your heart on God and on heavenly treasure; then you’ll also have a new perspective on earthly treasure. You’ll be able to enjoy it, share it, and use it to add to your heavenly treasure. The Bible says,
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.