Ecclesiastes and Vanity of Life, Part 8
Ecclesiastes 2:4-11 is a longer section in which Solomon turns his attention to another area of life that, sure enough, turns out in his estimation to be utterly futile as well. It deals with materialism.
4 I increased my possessions:
I built houses for myself;
I planted vineyards for myself.
5 I designed royal gardens and parks for myself, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them.
6 I constructed pools of water for myself, to irrigate my grove of flourishing trees.
How many of us buy things because we can? Nearly every generation has had its interest in consumerism. Historians point out a major emphasis on this during the Roman Empire among the upper classes. But it wasn’t just Rome of course that seemed to force-feed itself on opulence and the things that money could buy. Here in America, consumerism really began to take shape in the mid-to-late 1940s, though some historians point out that materialism was alive and well during the Roaring Twenties when jazz clubs, speak easies, and the stock market became a normal part of the average American’s lifestyle.
However, it really wasn’t until well after WWII had ended and G.I.s came home that the age of materialism kicked in. Everyone believed that WWII was the war to end all wars. Our military personnel were considered heroes, having pushed back successfully against Hitler’s Third Reich in Europe and Japan’s push for domination in the East.
Once the military came home to American shores, they wanted homes in the suburbs, cars, and everything else to go along with it. Even as a kid in the late-50s/early-60s, I can recall taking Sunday drives over what seemed like endless miles of open road. There was much to be explored in America and much to buy.
Here we are in 2016 and consumerism has taken on a life of its own. Our economy thrives on it. In today’s market, electronics rule and every time a new or upgraded cell phone comes out, there are lines of people waiting to buy and the $300 to $700 price tag doesn’t seem to bother anyone. It’s the same with video gaming consoles and software. In fact, it’s the same with clothing lines and all sorts of accouterments. Corporations have long taken an interest in creating advertising that hits young people because they know those kids will bother mom and dad for the money to buy those things, if they don’t have their own dollars.
But during Solomon’s time, there weren’t many who could do what he could do where materialism was concerned. Whether he deliberately set out to increase his possessions or whether he increased his possessions and then noticed after all the dust had settled that those things didn’t provide him lasting happiness doesn’t really matter. The point is the same. He was in the position of being able to add to his own storehouses of material possessions and did so. In the end, he built homes, planted vineyards, created royal gardens and parks especially so that he could walk through them and enjoy their surroundings. He constructed pools filled with water for the purposes of providing irrigation for his trees. He did all this and lots more. In the next few verses, he tells us what else he did to satiate his consumer gene.
7 I purchased male and female slaves, and I owned slaves who were born in my house; I also possessed more livestock—both herds and flocks— than any of my predecessors in Jerusalem.
8 I also amassed silver and gold for myself, as well as valuable treasures taken from kingdoms and provinces. I acquired male singers and female singers for myself, and what gives a man sensual delight—a harem of beautiful concubines!
He bought more slaves and added those to the ones who had already been part of his household, either through purchase, trade, or birth. He had slaves to cater to his every need and want. Beyond this, he bought more herds and flocks of numerous animals to enlarge his ranch and holdings. He got to a point where he owned many more animals and slaves than any of his ancestors.
Of course, Solomon didn’t stop there either. No, he gathered as much silver and gold as he possibly could, adding those to the royal treasury. Along the way, any treasures he “found” in other kingdoms he took for himself, adding those as well.
Solomon even tells us he acquired singers for his own entertainment and the pièce de résistance – he enlarged his harem, filled with beautiful concubines! What more could any man want? Solomon had the power, the position, and the wherewithal to go after and take these things. But that’s not all because verses 9 and 10 of Ecclesiastes 2 show us how much further he went.
9 So I was far wealthier than all my predecessors in Jerusalem,
yet I maintained my objectivity:
10 I did not restrain myself from getting whatever I wanted;
I did not deny myself anything that would bring me pleasure.
So all my accomplishments gave me joy; this was my reward for all my effort.
Notice the avarice here. I’m really not sure that King Solomon actually did all of these things from the perspective of avarice or if he is playing “devil’s advocate” here and presenting the things he did as though he did them from that frame of mind. But the point is still very clear. Solomon knew people’s hearts. He clearly understood that most people will chase after things for the sole purpose of having them! Have you ever done that? Admittedly, I have to say that I have done that. I’ve made purchases that left me wondering why after the fact. Did I really need a new drum set? A new this or that? Why did I buy them? Most often because they were there and I was in the position to do so. Ultimately, the purchase was made because it was thought that it would fill an empty space, I guess.
Did I need everything I bought? No, and while it is fine to have hobbies and to indulge a bit here and there, I think it is fairly safe to say that most people today have gotten so caught up in consumerism and materialism that the average person sees everything they buy as a legitimate need.
Notice in the latter portion of verse 10 above, Solomon does admit that his accomplishments (and purchases) gave him joy. That was the reward for all of his purchases. Joy. But did it last? More importantly, did it have any real value beyond the secular realm? His very next statement in verse 11 provides the answer.
11 Yet when I reflected on everything I had accomplished and on all the effort that I had expended to accomplish it, I concluded: “All these achievements and possessions are ultimately profitless— like chasing the wind!
There is nothing gained from them on earth.”
The purchases and his collections initially gave Solomon joy. However, in the end, it was all vanity, chasing the wind! In short, there was nothing of eternal value in all the things he had amassed for himself. He’s not talking about building the Temple here or doing other things for God. He is talking about the things he pursued for himself, in order to make his own life easier and feel more rewarding.
I’m never impressed when someone who has become exceedingly wealthy then becomes a “philanthropist.” Whoopee. They have millions or in some cases, billions of dollars, and after they walked all over people, possibly destroying lives as they chased after wealth, now they decide they’re going to “give” something back. Andrew Carnegie did it. John D. Rockefeller did it. J. P. Morgan did it and we have extremely wealthy people today who do it.
Of course, we all know that the foundations they set up are in their own name, for their own glory. The money they “give” away usually has some set of strings attached to it. A new hospital wing? A new library on a college campus? No sweat, here’s $20 million for that project. Oh, and that new wing or library will be named after the person giving the money, right?
That version of philanthropism ultimately still means that they are doing everything for themselves. They are still chasing after the wing. It is all vanity. None of these things gain eternal rewards for anyone. It can honestly be said in almost all cases that these people have their reward now. They live in opulence. They command respect, attention. People want to be around them hoping to gain some of their wealth or stature. These rich folks are often treated like kings and queens, but without their wealth, they are just like the rest of us. In fact, God does not respect them more.
Solomon would go further to say that these people even with their wealth are no better off than anyone else, in the spiritual realm. They only benefit – and for a short time compared to eternity – in the here and now.
The more I read Ecclesiastes, the more I realize just how wise Solomon. I don’t think I’ve given him enough credit.
Solomon is still building his case here and will eventually get to the point of it all. Until then, join me next time as we review some of the other things that Solomon did in order to see if there was something that was not utterly futile or vanity.
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