The Vanity of Wealth

Wealth and things will not bring the happiness we seek.

Vanity Fare (5)

He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver;
Nor he who loves abundance, with increase.
This also
is vanity.
When goods increase,
They increase who eat them;
So what profit have the owners
Except to see
them with their eyes? Ecclesiastes 5.10,11

How much?
“How much is enough?” asks the bumper sticker, then answers its own question, “Just a little bit more.”

Whether as the pursuit of riches or of things, the notion that wealth can bring meaning and happiness to life is as old as the human race. In every generation and culture, people have lusted for wealth in one form or another, in the misguided belief that riches are the yellow brick road to freedom and bliss. That the record of history is littered with the disillusioned, disappointed, and decadent lives of the wealthy seems not to matter. Each generation hears the siren promise of wealth and sails eagerly toward it, convinced it can navigate the rocks and make the lie the truth.

The drumming of a materialist worldview into the minds of young people – through education, advertising, and pop culture – has made the quest for wealth and the things it can buy the driving force of human life in our secular age. Knowledge, however acquired, is only as good as the material rewards it brings, which is why the study of history, art, poetry, and music have all but disappeared in schools, while the STEM curriculum – the key to economic success – dominates the education of our children. We have become no longer homo sapiens but homo economicus, a species that exists only for getting and spending.

Truly, as Solomon observed, there is nothing new under the sun.

Get it while and however you can
For many people in a secular society, wealth is the key to happiness. Things and material comforts are glorified as the sine qua non of the good life, the end every reasonable person should seek. People struggle to accumulate wealth by working hard all their lives; for most of us, though, work enables us just to get by, with only a little left over.

Others seek to acquire wealth by shortcuts: winning a lottery or sweepstakes, making it big on a TV game show, inheriting someone else’s hard-earned wealth, or perhaps even stealing whatever they can.

The vision of the “golden years” features an abundance of retirement funds, good health, and leisure time to enjoy the “good things” of life.

Erasmus, one of the greatest minds of his day said, “Whenever I get a little money, I buy books; if I have any left over, I buy food.” He would be regarded as an object of ridicule or pity by our secular age – certainly not as a role model for the young.

The idea that wealth can bring happiness to people for whom this life is all there is, is an illusion, as any number of miserable millionaires can testify. In a secular world, accumulating wealth is just one more vanity in a life without meaning.

Solomon on the vanity of wealth
Few people who ever lived have accumulated as much wealth as Solomon. 1 Kings 10 relates how the nations of the world flocked to Jerusalem year after year to gawk and wonder at the wealth and wisdom of Solomon. And they all brought their gifts to add to his incredible riches. In Ecclesiastes 2.1-10 Solomon outlined his many achievements, and all the pleasures and riches he was able to acquire by the work of his hand. His was wealth to die for. Houses, vineyards, pools; servants, flocks, herds; silver, gold, precious items; wine, women, and song. Solomon had it all: “So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem” (2.10). He boasted,

Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them.
I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure,
For my heart rejoiced in all my labor;
And this was my reward from all my labor.
Ecclesiastes 2.11

But now firmly set in his hiatus from trusting in God, Solomon reflected on the meaning of all his great wealth:

Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done
And on the labor in which I had toiled;
And indeed all
wasvanity and grasping for the wind.
There wasno profit under the sun. Ecclesiastes 2.11

How many wealthy materialists have echoed that same sentiment?

Solomon reflected gloomily on those who seek riches as the key to happiness. The wealthy lose sleep worrying about how they’re going to keep the riches they’ve accumulated (5.12). They can become miserly and manipulative in the preservation of their riches, taking advantage of others by various means to secure their own prosperity (5.13). If he makes a foolish investment, the wealthy man can lose all his riches in a moment (5.14). Strangers, sycophants, and governments threaten his wealth by one means or another (5.11; 6.1-3). Besides, we’re all going to die, and no one knows when his number may be up; there just isn’t enough time to acquire and enjoy all the wealth we think we need (9.1, 2, 11, 12).

Not even wealth can enable men to escape the vanity that is the inherent property of a secular age. People today want to be happy, as people in every generation. But they’re looking for happiness in all the wrong places. The vanity fare of wealth will no more satisfy the hunger in their souls than will relationships or work.

For reflection
1.  Why do you suppose people keep falling for the notion that wealth and things can bring complete happiness and fulfillment?

2.  Christians face this temptation as well, and not always successfully. Wealth and things are not inherently evil. They have their place in the life of faith. But how can we keep them from becoming an idol, to which we look for that which only Jesus Christ can provide?

3.  We do not disparage our neighbors’ desire to find happiness, but we want them to know the real joy that comes from knowing the Lord (Ps. 16.11). How would you explain the difference between happiness and joy?

Next steps – Conversation: What is the measure of true happiness? Ask some of your secular friends how they gauge happiness, what they are pursuing as the ideal of the good life. Listen, and see what you can learn.

T. M. Moore

For a more complete study of the book of Ecclesiastes, download our Scriptorium series on Ecclesiastes by clicking here. Ecclesiastes is an excellent book to share with an unbelieving friend, as it confronts all the idols and vain hopes of unbelief, exposing their folly and holding out the hope of life in God alone. We’ve prepared a verse translation of Ecclesiastes which is suitable for sharing with believers and unbelievers alike. Order your copy of Comparatio, by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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