Like sands through an hourglass…
Ecclesiastes, which is the Greek name, more properly known to the Jew as Kohelet, was written by a variety of authors between the years 450 and 200 BCE. That means, when it comes to the Old Testament, this, rather than Malachi, is the last words recorded in our Protestant Bibles. But because this book is strongly associated with wisdom literature, it is put with Psalms and Proverbs, which is ironic because much is what is taught in Kohelet is the antithesis of Psalms and Proverbs. When I say antithesis, that means it is the direct opposite, the other side of the coin, or opposite perspective. While attributed to Solomon, not one was penned by his hand. The Psalms, again the Greek name of the book, better known at the Ketuvim which is Hebrew for “writings”, those books were collected by several authors between the 900 and 500 BCE. During that time of the recording of Psalms, the Israelite sees their kingdom split into two, Judah and Israel. They see the northern kingdom of Israel fall to the Assyrians under Sennacherib. Eventually they see the eventual destruction of the most sacred place, the Jerusalem Temple, by Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar. This all happens during the inspired words of both Psalms and Proverbs to help guide the people during this upheaval and disturbing events in their history. Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, is recorded by the people during the time of the conquests of Xerxes and during the time of the rule of Cyrus, king of the Medes and the Persians, who toppled the Babylonia Empire. In the year 538, Cyrus issued the decree that Judean exiles still in Babylon could return home if they so chose to. For nearly two centuries until Alexander the Great, the Jews knew Persia as their governmental leader. Books that were written at the same time in our Bibles are the books of Chronicles, Deuteronomy, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, and the chapters 7-12 in Daniel. This leads us to today’s Scripture:
Ecclesiastes 5:16–20 (NLT): 16 And this, too, is a very serious problem. People leave this world no better off than when they came. All their hard work is for nothing—like working for the wind. 17 Throughout their lives, they live under a cloud—frustrated, discouraged, and angry.
18 Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life. 19 And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it. To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God. 20 God keeps such people so busy enjoying life that they take no time to brood over the past.
Some translations choose to say in verse 16 that rather a very serious problem, instead a grievous evil. Let me share with you some historical perspectives so that you can walk the same sod that the ancient Jew did. Ecclesiastes 5:7 sets the premise for the who chapter.
As rulers, the Persians adopted a rather laissez-faire attitude toward the people they ruled. Their empire, which went into Egypt and Turkey to the west and India to the east, basically used the same governmental framework as the Babylonians. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it so life for the Jew was exactly the same as before, except they were able to return home, however most decided to stay in Babylon. For the ones that did return to Judea, it was a tough life indeed. By the testimony of the book of Ecclesiastes, it was government bureaucracy in which bribing judges and corrupt officials was the order of the day. “Don’t be surprised when you see it,” when Kohelet says about the perversion of justice, “for one money-taker watches over another, with the higher-ups over them” (Ecclesiastes 5:8)
This then develops the context of today’s verses. These verses have everything to do with justice. If indeed the observations of the author are correct, the people with money can easily make decisions that benefit themselves without a care for those it has a negative effect. Our verse reflect how hard it is to deal with this imbalance of wealth.
- A person works hard but has nothing to show for it. (vs 16)
- A person who chooses must choose food to survive must do so because he cannot afford oil to light his home in the darkness. (vs 17)
- When possible, find time to enjoy the fruits of your labor because our lives are short. (vs 18)
- When God allows more wealth than is common to someone, enjoy them properly and be happy that you can, it may be temporary. (vs 19)
- Focus on the blessings because it makes your heart and mind happy. (vs 20)
It reminded me of something I use to hear on television when I was a kid at 2 pm in the afternoon. It went like this…Like sands through an hourglass, these are the days of our lives…
What we have here is a paradox. The author shares wisdom on how wealth is corrupted as it is entangled with justice and righteousness as viewed from a bureaucratic governmental problem and in 2500 years, we still have the same problem. But the author is also cautious in shaming those who have worked hard and done so the correct way, not by bribing, or coercing, using people as pons to attain temporal wealth. Some of you have heard me say in private conversations that money has a funny way of corrupting the finest politician and this saying is not original to me, it is biblical. The author of this observation notes that the ways of governing in this world is broken as money dictates most decisions, but this is not supposed to be the way it works. Inadvertently, or even perhaps purposefully, attaining wealth often means denying justice and oppressing populations of people.
1 Corinthians 9:9 (NLT): 9 For the law of Moses says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.” Was God thinking only about oxen when he said this?
Matthew paints the scene for one of the most famous comments Jesus had ever made. The Pharisees and the Sadducees and demand a sign and Jesus warns his followers not to listen to their teachings (Gospel of Mark adds Herod) because they claimed to know the ways of God, but they were oppressing the people for their own benefit. Then Jesus begins to talk to his disciples, and we can now parallel what we read in Matthew 16 when compared to Mark 8 and I like to point towards something that is recorded in Mark but not in Matthew. Matthew records Peter’s confession of Jesus being the Christ, but Mark takes it further. When Matthew paints the “upon this rock I will build my church, both Matthew and Mark add on another conversation:
Mark 8 (NLT): 31 Then Jesus began to tell them that the Son of Man must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead. 32 As he talked about this openly with his disciples, Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things.
33 Jesus turned around and looked at his disciples, then reprimanded Peter. “Get away from me, Satan!” he said. “You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.”
34 Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. 35 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. 36 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? 37 Is anything worth more than your soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Peter reprimands God? Then God reprimands Peter. In Peter’s mind, Jesus is the Christ, but he is confused on the idea that Jesus must die. Why? Well, wasn’t Jesus supposed to ride into Jerusalem and sit on the throne of David and establishing a new government as rightful king in the lineage of David? Peter still wanted an earthly king. The people who were oppressed, they wanted an earthly king. But God had other, better plans. This is a common problem that the people of God have struggled with, even still today. Perhaps this story may help you:
1 Samuel 8 (NLT): As Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons to be judges over Israel. 2 Joel and Abijah, his oldest sons, held court in Beersheba. 3 But they were not like their father, for they were greedy for money. They accepted bribes and perverted justice.
4 Finally, all the elders of Israel met at Ramah to discuss the matter with Samuel. 5 “Look,” they told him, “you are now old, and your sons are not like you. Give us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.”
6 Samuel was displeased with their request and went to the LORD for guidance. 7 “Do everything they say to you,” the LORD replied, “for they are rejecting me, not you. They don’t want me to be their king any longer. 8 Ever since I brought them from Egypt they have continually abandoned me and followed other gods. And now they are giving you the same treatment. 9 Do as they ask, but solemnly warn them about the way a king will reign over them.”
10 So Samuel passed on the LORD’s warning to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 “This is how a king will reign over you,” Samuel said. “The king will draft your sons and assign them to his chariots and his charioteers, making them run before his chariots. 12 Some will be generals and captains in his army, some will be forced to plow in his fields and harvest his crops, and some will make his weapons and chariot equipment. 13 The king will take your daughters from you and force them to cook and bake and make perfumes for him. 14 He will take away the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his own officials. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and your grape harvest and distribute it among his officers and attendants. 16 He will take your male and female slaves and demand the finest of your cattle and donkeys for his own use. 17 He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you will be his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will beg for relief from this king you are demanding, but then the LORD will not help you.”
19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel’s warning. “Even so, we still want a king,” they said. 20 “We want to be like the nations around us. Our king will judge us and lead us into battle.”
21 So Samuel repeated to the LORD what the people had said, 22 and the LORD replied, “Do as they say, and give them a king.” Then Samuel agreed and sent the people home.
Perhaps Jesus clears this up the best when he said this:
Mark 10:45 (NLT): 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
While tempted to do so by the Devil, Jesus was not interested in attaining worldly wealth and popularity as he had already known the unjust ways the world operated. He did not consider wealth and prosperity as something to strive for, instead, bringing justice to the oppressed. Perhaps we should reflect on Jesus’ words in a more contextually relevant manner. It sheds light on the story of the Rich Young Ruler who was not willing to part with his wealth. The fact he was a ruler meant that he had attained a rather lofty position that was usually bought much like what Rome did by placing Caiaphas as High Priest. Caesar couldn’t stand him, but his family paid good money to the empire, so Caesar put him as far away as possible in Jerusalem. What about when Jesus says this too:
Mark 10:25 (NLT): 25 In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
This is relevant in Jesus’ day as money and bribes put people in powerful positions that used people as a means to get what they wanted without a care of how those actions pushed out and pushed down on the people. Jesus clearly states that the Kingdom of God does not operate in this way. You soul is worth more to God than the accomplishments of the vessel that carries it. As God looks out for our souls, we must look out for others that Good equally cares about.
 Kugel, James L. 2013. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. Pp. 645.