Pastor John, there’s an interesting pair of passages in the book of Ecclesiastes — specifically Ecclesiastes 5:19 and Ecclesiastes 6:2. In those passages, we are told that God is not only the source of material possession, but he is also the source of the power to enjoy those material possessions. What do you think this means? How much of delight in creation is a miraculous gift from God?
Here is the short answer: Yes, we should pray for the ability to rightly enjoy what God has given us to enjoy. And all truly God-honoring delight in creation is a miraculous gift of God. There is much non-God-honoring delight in creation that is not a miraculous gift of God’s grace. But if any of us delights in creation at all with a heart for God that sees him as the maker and sees the gift as a taste of the giver, that delight is a gift of grace. None of us came up with it from our fallen selves. So, that is my short answer: Yes.
Possessions: Gift and Evil?
But to answer the question of what Ecclesiastes 5:19 and 6:2 mean, we have to read them. So, let me read those verses and then make a brief comment.
Here is Ecclesiastes 5:19: “Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil — this is a gift of God.” So, yes, the gift of possessions and the power to enjoy them is a gift of God.
Now, here is Ecclesiastes 6:1–2:
There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him the power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil (or “a sore affliction” in another translation).
Now, just a word about Ecclesiastes: However you interpret this book, almost everyone agrees that one way or another, the book of Ecclesiastes is meant to expose the emptiness and futility and frustration and final misery of life without God — or, as the writer calls it, “life under the sun.” But the writer has a profound view of God’s sovereignty and a profound view of God’s total involvement in creation, and that we will all give an account someday. So the last verses of the book are, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14).
God: Providence and Power
The person who asked this question rightly notices that two things are owing to God: 1) the measure of wealth that anyone has and all his possessions — yes, the providence of God governs that; and 2) the power to enjoy it. Ecclesiastes 5:19 tells us God has given wealth and the power to enjoy. Ecclesiastes 6:2 tells us God has given wealth and no power to enjoy it — a stranger enjoys it. So, the person who asked this question is asking, What does this mean? What this means is that in God’s providence, you can miss out on pleasure in more ways than one. You can be deprived of material things that you want, or you can get them and be deprived of the power to enjoy them, because they are snatched away.
“The book of Ecclesiastes is meant to expose the emptiness and futility and frustration and final misery of life without God.”
I think this is a perfect illustration of what he is talking about: I read the other day of a man and his wife who were building a dream home. They dreamed about it. They planned it. They had designed it. They moved into a trailer beside it to watch it go up. And just when it was finished and they were about to move in, she died of a heart attack. That is Ecclesiastes. And his purpose in pointing out these miseries, the grievous evils — or these “sore afflictions” as the writer calls them — is not to make us godless or cynical or hopeless. His point is to make us despair that meaning and joy can finally be found in this world under the sun — that is, as naturalists, as godless. One man gets rich and gets the ability to enjoy his riches. Another man gets rich and loses his ability to enjoy it. And the lesson for both is: Don’t set your heart on riches.
Storing Up Kingdom Treasure
And so maybe the last thing I should do is read Paul, because Paul just writes like he has read these texts. He says,
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17–18).
In other words, taking “hold of that which is truly life” means life with God in the kingdom, not finally life here under the sun. I think the writer of Ecclesiastes would say, “Amen.”