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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Preached At:
Title:The Vanity and Joys of Wealth
Text:Ecclesiastes 5:8-20 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

TH 457 - Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
TH 455 - And Can It Be That I Should Gain
Psalter 136 - The Issues of Life
Psalter 305 - The Blessed Life

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

“God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us.” “It’s God’s will for you to live in prosperity instead of poverty. It’s God’s will for you to pay your bills and not be in debt.” “Give, give, give expecting to receive, and God will open the windows of heaven and pour you a blessing you can’t contain. This is true investing.”

If I preached like this, the elders would convene a heresy trial. These words were taken from some preachers of the prosperity gospel. But I’m sure we all know better here. Or do we? Many people look to religion to prosper them financially. The ancient Canaanites worshiped Baal for blessing and fertility. The ancient Romans worshiped Fortuna. The Hindus - Lakshmi. And the Chinese - Cai Shen. Christians read how Abraham had many servants and much wealth, Job was rich and became richer, and Solomon had gold mines and international trade - and we hunger for these things, thinking that God should bless in this way. But Christians forget the passages that speak of the poor in Israel - debt, slavery, the fatherless, theft, famine. There was alms collection for the poor. God’s people comprise of rich and poor and everyone in between - people who have and don’t have money. And we will experience vanities with regard to money in life under the sun. Solomon, who was rich wrote about its vanity and joys in that order. Firstly, the sad and difficult parts of wealth. Secondly, the good and comely portions from God.

Firstly, the sad and difficult parts of wealth. Now, to be sure, wealth is not bad. To be rich is not a sin. It is a blessing. Money is not the root of all evil, but the love of money is. But when it comes to money, there are sad and difficult parts to it. Why? Because the fall has made things sad and difficult - by the sweat of your brows, you shall labor all the days of your life - Genesis 3. 

What are these sad and difficult parts? The system is broken. In verses 8-9, Solomon revisits the issue of injustice in the area of wealth. “If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgment and justice in a province, marvel not at the matter: for he that is higher than the highest regardeth; and there be higher than they. Moreover the profit of the earth is for all: the king himself is served by the field.”

Solomon said here - don’t be surprised if you see the poor cheated and oppressed by the powerful. The system is broken. There will be miscarriage of justice. Every official has orders from higher up; justice gets perverted - maybe not intentionally - maybe things get lost in bureaucracy, or a lack of information, so people’s hands are tied. Or maybe officials don’t care about the oppressed, or possibly, rich oppressors bribe officials to ignore problems. This is the way of things. Even the king benefits from the poor who work the fields. The leader of the land milks what you have for his own benefit. This is how things are. This is the sad and difficult part of life.

Dearly beloved, there’s no perfect system. Some people believe in a liberal economic policy like capitalism. When people get richer, everyone benefits. But no, the poor become poorer, and the rich richer. That’s why communism became popular - it was ideal in theory - everyone works, everyone gets the same pay, wealth is equally distributed. But that didn’t work. Instead of growing richer together, everyone became poor together, except those in power. Why? Because of sin. Then there’s the middle ground of socialism - the rich pay more taxes, the poor receive them; and this causes the rich to hide their wealth, and the poor to refuse to work to get more benefits. Whatever it is, someone is gaining from someone else’s expense. What you gain in wealth goes to someone else. This is the result of sin. There’s no perfect system, but sinners make them worse - much worse. So the preacher tells us not to be surprised that the systems are broken and unjust. Those appointed to care for others, are the very ones who are sinful and incompetent. And even though we know this, each time it happens, we’re surprised. Each time we’re wronged, we’re appalled. But the preacher says - don’t be surprised. How many leaders do not serve the people? 

And this has always happened. Eli’s sons were wicked. When the people brought their sacrifices, Eli’s sons took the meat and fat before they were offered so that they could eat it. They took from the people. There was Haman and King Ahasuerus. Haman convinced Ahasuerus to carry out genocide so he could have a share of the confiscated goods. Queen Jezebel trumped up charges against Naboth - to kill him so Ahab could take his field.

But this sad and difficult part of wealth is not just the system. We ourselves make things worse. The rich fall into temptation and a snare and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition - 1 Timothy 6. We take what is already sad and difficult, and we add more sin into it and make it worse. This is what we see in verses 10-17. Verse 10 describes a common truth of common people - “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity.” God has given wonderful gifts like silver and wealth to satisfy us. But we aren’t satisfied. When we love these things, we corrupt them. How much is enough? When we started work, we started with lower pay. We struggled to get by, but we got by. Then we got increments. We look back and wonder how we survived. We think $100 more a month would be good. After our raise, we think the same next year - another $100 would be better. All things being equal, the issue Solomon was tackling was dissatisfaction. And he called it a vanity. 

Why? Because of verse 11 - “When goods increase, they are increased that eat them: and what good is there to the owners thereof, saving the beholding of them with their eyes?” When we have more money, we spend more. And there will be people who help us spend it. Yes, we have children - can I have that snack? It’s only $5. Can I have the new iPhone? Yes, those who have money watch on as others spend it. Those with spare money to invest - pay commission to real estate agents when they buy property; or pay extra taxes to IRAS. Interest on loans. Even advertisers. “We have the Secret Lab chair - good for work from home. You need the new Razer mouse - it’s very responsive. Reverse cameras are so last decade, you need reverse radar.” They are increased that eat them. If you have money, others will help you spend it. And we become accustomed to a new way of living. We can’t reduce consumption anymore. We hope to increase earnings to keep up our lifestyle. We take good and make it worse.

Another thing we make worse is sleep. And that’s related. Verse 12 - “The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep.” There are those who work hard and sleep well - they’re tired. Sleep is well-deserved. But the rich - they who have more worry more. And those worries disturb their sleep. God gives rest as a gift, but we corrupt it. When we have more, we have to figure out how to manage the money - how to file taxes to maximize returns. Keeps us up nights. Many have more, but are restless. 

That’s why verse 13 says, “There is a sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt.” We amass great wealth to our hurt. If this follows from verse 12, it could mean this - you work hard and get extra income, you don’t see the profit. How many families have dual income, but half go to childcare? Benjamin Shaw says, “in seeming to have gained profit, the man has not profited. He has not, ultimately, benefitted from his amassed wealth.” But what’s worse is when he loses it. Verse 14 - “But those riches perish by evil travail: and he begetteth a son, and there is nothing in his hand.” Through bad or risky investments, we lose so much that we have nothing to pass on. Yes, there’s gambling, bad investments, market collapses, even scams. And this can be frustrating. It’s hard for those with money to be reduced to nothing - look at what it did to Job. There are those who went from Giordano to Giorgio, and back to Giordano again. There are those who could once eat king crab, but can now only eat burger king. We make things worse; others make things worse for us. But Solomon says in the end, in verse 15 - we die with nothing anyway. We can’t take it with us. 

We have twisted the good gift of money into our greatest goal. And that’s sad. Verse 16 says that it’s a sore evil - a serious problem. Why? There are 2 reasons. Firstly, it says, “in all points as he came, so shall he go: and what profit hath he that hath laboured for the wind?” In other words, in the end, when we die, we go with nothing. So why are we working so hard and making money our goal when we’re going to lose it anyway? We’re working for the wind - it blows everything away. But secondly, if money is our goal, then life will be troublesome. Verse 17 gives a very stark reality of life - “All his days also he eateth in darkness, and he hath much sorrow and wrath with his sickness.” At the end of his life, he will experience dark disappointment - he will be frustrated, angry, and sick.

People think that things are better with money. Money is not bad. But things can get worse with it because of sin. Jack Whittaker won $314 million in 2002 - the largest prize won by a single person in the US. Whittaker was already a successful businessman, but the extra money was not a blessing. Over the next decade, his granddaughter and her boyfriend died from drug overdose, his daughter murdered, he was robbed more than once, arrested for drunk driving, and sued by a casino, because he couldn’t pay his gambling debts. His debts? $1.5 billion. We make things worse.

In cooking, if you have bad ingredients, you generally get bad food. But some cooks are amazing. They can transform bad ingredients - like kwaychup. But if you have bad ingredients and a bad cook - it’s bad food. We make bad things worse. But we can also make good things bad. We can take Kobe beef and burn it. We can take the good gift of wealth and pour our sin into it. Wealth is good - but it can be corrupted.

Solomon recognizes how difficult life is. And here he shows us a better way. What we can do with our wealth and our substance - even if we don’t have much. This is the silver lining. We now see the good and comely portions from God under the sun. Even though things are broken, we can rejoice. We see this in verses 18-20. Now, in verses 8-17, there was no mention of God. But in verses 18-20, we see God has given us good things. 

In verse 18, despite all of the corrupt systems of the world and us making it worse, there was one thing Solomon noticed that was at least good - that people can eat, drink, and enjoy their work during this short life God had given them - and to accept their lot in life. Chancellor Angela Merkel grew up in Communist East Germany. Things were bad. Bad system. But she recently reflected that life was simple. She said, “Sometimes [it was] almost comfortable in a certain way because there were some things one simply couldn’t influence.” This is what Solomon was saying.

Simple things are good. God gives good gifts - and if we know how to enjoy them and be content, we can be satisfied. We all have a portion from God. Some have more, some have less, we’re not equal. And sometimes, the simple things are best. You may not have that coveted job - but do you enjoy work? That’s a blessing from God. There are plenty of people who hate their stressful and high powered jobs. You may not have Chatterbox chicken rice, but you can have Loy Kee best chicken rice. Or you enjoy your comfortable oversized Giordano - it’s old and soft. You have many toys, but you really like your old lego collection in a tub. Simple things are good. 

But the reason why we can enjoy simple things - and not lust after greater wealth - is because God has given us these good and comely things. These are good and comely portions, as verse 18 says. Good means morally good. Comely means beautiful. Therefore, when we can’t enjoy what God has given us whatever our lot - it’s evil and it’s ugly. Like someone who is forever disgruntled. Always having complaints. The taugeh in the char kuey teow is not crunchy enough! Why 95%, what happened to the other 5%? This is not what I paid for, take it back. We all have complaints - it’s true - sometimes it’s not wrong. But we all know someone like that who is never happy - or we may be someone like that. It’s ugly. Why? Verse 19 tells us that God has given 3 things - “Every man also to whom God hath given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God.”

He has given the gift of wealth, the power to use it, and the ability to rejoice in them. Whatever our lot in life - God takes care of us. Whatever we have is a blessing from God. These things are from the hands of God. And therefore, we’re not to seek these things - but we seek God. And when we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, these are the things he gives to us. And that’s when we can appreciate them - because our love is not for them, but for the one who has given them to us. When we love someone, whatever they give to us, we will appreciate. But when we don’t love them, whatever they give us, we will disdain. 

If we love God, we receive with thanks what he gives. We rejoice in the work he gives, the ability to work, and the fruits of our labor - even if our portion is small. Despite sorrow under the sun, God has given us a lot. And if we can enjoy, it’s a wonderful blessing. Verse 20 says, “For he shall not much remember the days of his life; because God answereth him in the joy of his heart.” Meaning, we will not brood over what we don’t have in life, because God keeps us busy enjoying life. Children, it’s like if you’re busy playing the lego you have, you won’t be complaining about the computer games you don’t have. When we enjoy our walks along East Coast, we won’t be complaining about how we can’t walk in Gold Coast. But because we are sinners, we want more - we think we deserve more. But a man who fears God knows that he does not deserve more, but less - and so delights in what he has as a gift from God. 

An American historian was visiting the president of Argentina about one hundred years ago. He asked the president why South America had less progress in civilization and wealth compared to North America when it was settled earlier and had more resources. The president replied that he thought the explanation lay in the fact that South America was settled by Spaniards who came seeking gold while North America was settled by Puritans who came seeking God.

When we seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, he will give us joy in the midst of the brokenness. He will give us a good and comely portion. Why can we rejoice despite the messiness of this world? Why can we rejoice even in suffering and disappointment? Because we see things from the perspective of Christ. 

What do we do? Be content in Christ. Give thanks for what  you have and what you don’t have. Learn to enjoy what you do have. Save, yes - but spend if you can. But if you can’t make ends meet despite being prudent, please remember, the storehouse that is the church and the ministers of mercy who are the deacons. And if you can more than make ends meet - you are God’s special gift to the church to provide for others. 

Above all, remember that we have all wealth and riches in Christ. Jesus Christ, left heaven’s riches - he did not cling onto them - and came to be a servant. He feared God, greatly loved God’s will, so that he might share with his people his reward and fill their days with blessings. When he died and resurrected, he ascended to prepare for us a mansion. Abounding wealth shall bless us there. He has befriended us weak sinners to bring us there. He has remembered us who are poor, and provides for us here, but will make us rich there. Dearly beloved, wait awhile. Rejoice in what you have so you don’t fret over what you don’t have. You can’t take it with you anyway. And you will have far more. Your gold here is dirt there. May he fill your hearts with joy in knowing these things, in being broken down in our idolatry. Next week we will consider the common things that we think will satisfy us but don’t. Prepare for more breaking of idols and healing of hearts.

Sermon Outline:

1. The Sad and Difficult Parts of Wealth

    A. The system is broken

    B. We make things worse

2. The Good and Comely Portions from God

    A. Simple things are good

    B. God gave them to us

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Mark Chen

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