[This week: three posts taken from a Sunday School lesson I taught recently on Ecclesiastes 4.]
In Ecclesiastes 4, the Teacher gives a bit of an object lesson of 3 postures we can have when it comes to work and wealth:
The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.
Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind. (Eccles. 4:5-6 ESV)
The first approach to work and wealth is symbolized with clasped hands. The writer here isn’t talking about the gift of rest and sleep at the end of a hard day’s labors. These are the hands of the fool or the sluggard, who decides that it’s not worth it to work hard, because “the little man can’t get ahead.” Instead, these foolish folks do little or nothing to take care of themselves, and then expect others to care for them. Elsewhere in the Scriptures, they are described as turning on their beds like doors on their hinges. The sluggard’s house is in disrepair because he doesn’t bother to take care of what has been entrusted to him.
And sluggards can even spiritualize their laziness, as some did in the church at Thessalonika. They argued that Jesus’ imminent return was a good reason to stop working and wait for heaven. (The Apostle Paul strongly disagreed.)
What is the result of this folding of the hands? The text says that the lazy fool devours his own flesh. Some commentators describe this condition in this way: This person not only devours all of his physical possessions or resources, but then starts to lose himself in the process. He loses his ability to care for himself and others. He loses self-respect. He loses perspective. A person who is consumed with laziness becomes a shell of the person they were meant to be.
The second posture we see portrayed is that of contented hands. The word “quietness” in verse 6 can also be described as “peace of mind.” The idea here is a person who recognizes that God has provided everything that they need, and they find contentment with what they have. These are the people who know that it is better to have “a little” and walk in peace and righteousness, than to have great wealth and encounter great trouble with it. (Or, in the words of the great sages of the age, Biggie and Puffy, “mo’ money, mo’ problems.”) Those with contented hands recognize that godliness with contentment is truly great gain, and that the craving for more and more wealth ultimately produces heartache.
And the thing about having “one handful with quietness” is that you have another hand free. You can use that free hand to worship, to give, to serve, to comfort. Your hands are not tied up in your possessions.
Contrast that with the third posture: clutching hands. These two hands are full of toil and striving, a desire for more and more. This is the person who spends all their energy gaining and preserving their possessions. The story is told (and it may be apocryphal) of John D. Rockefeller, oil baron of the early 20th century. Rockefeller, one of the richest men in the country, was reportedly asked how much money would be enough for him. His response? “Just a little bit more.” This is the idea of a man with clutching hands: hands full of striving and toil for things that ultimately won’t satisfy him. As the verse from Ecclesiastes says, the man with clutching hands is ultimately grabbing at smoke. He will never find satisfaction in his pursuit of wealth, and will spend his time anxiously toiling to protect the very thing he thinks will protect him.
One might argue, “Sure, I work all the time, but I’m not doing it for me–I’m doing it for my family. I’m supposed to take care of them.” That’s true: if you have a family, you have a responsibility to take care of them. It is wise to store up for the future. But the question is: where is your security, really–in God, or in what you own? Do you find your ultimate peace of mind in a big emergency fund and investment portfolio? Are you putting your trust in your wealth? Be careful that you aren’t clutching at smoke.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing sinful about having wealth. Indeed, the Bible says that when the Lord gives wealth, it’s a blessing. But those who are wealthy are commanded to put their trust in God, rather than their possessions. If you find satisfaction in Him, rather than in your wealth, you can find true contentment.
So here’s my challenge to you today: take a moment to consider the posture of your hands, when it comes to your work and wealth.
- Are you tempted toward laziness, when there is work to be done?
- Are your hands endlessly, anxiously toiling to build more wealth?
- Or are you seeking to be content with “one handful,” knowing that your security is not in what you are able to hold, but rather in Who is holding you?
One last encouragement for you:
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Heb. 13:5 ESV)
Note this, Christian: the reason we can be content with what we have, and not be driving to pile up wealth endlessly, is that we have the One Thing that lasts, when all else fades away. We have Jesus.
He will never leave us or forsake us. And if that’s true, we have all we need.