Oppression in High Places (5:8-9)

5:8 If you see in a district the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. 5:9 On the whole there is profit for the country when there is a king over cultivated field.

Having “digressed” so that he could make a direct appeal to fear God (5:1-7), Qoheleth now returns to the subject of oppression. In chapter 4 he used this subject to open up a discussion on the futility of pursuing after power. Now he uses the subject to open up a discussion on the futility of pursuing after money (5:10-17). The reason for using oppression in each case is perhaps to link his reflections on power and money to the poem of 3:1-9. For following a reflection on the poem (3:10-15) he had used oppression (3:16-22) to reinforce the sense of vanity evoked by the uncertainties of life that the poem expresses.

This present observation about oppression, more specifically about corruption in the government, would then also be intended to sustain the sense of vanity evoked through the poem. He tells his audience not to be surprised when they see corruption practiced rampantly and openly. This is because a corrupt official is “watched,” or protected by those more powerful than him. (Recently, it has been reported that in one country a corrupt official would even issue a receipt for the bribe taken!) Qoheleth reminds his audience that despite a corrupt government, on the whole, it is profitable to have “a king over cultivated field,” that is, “for the sake of agriculture” (Garrett 1993: 312). In other words, it is still better to have a corrupt government than have no government. Otherwise there will be anarchy from within and without and agriculture (economic production) will not be possible.

He is not condoning corruption. Later, he warns against doing evil even when evil seems to go unpunished (8:12-13). By expressing apparent acceptance of the status quo Qoheleth conveys a feeling of helplessness that sustains the sense of vanity. It also suggests the need to look to God, who in His own way “will judge the righteous and the wicked (accordingly)” (3:17).

Addiction to Money (5:10-14)

Repetition of Theme: “What Profit is There?” (5:15-17)

5:10 One who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor one who loves wealth with income; this also is vanity. 5:11 When affluence increases, those who consume it increase. So what is the advantage to its possessor except to see it with his eyes? 5:12 Sweet is the sleep of the worker, whether he eats little or much. But the full stomach of the rich does not allow him to sleep. 5:13 There is a grievous affliction that I have seen under the sun: riches was hoarded by its possessor to his own hurt. 5:14 For those riches were lost in a bad investment. And he fathered a son and had nothing in his hand. 5:15 As he came from his mother's womb, naked he will depart as he came. And he will take nothing from his toil that he may carry away in his hand. 5:16 This is also a grievous affliction: just as he came, so will he go, and what profit does he have that he toils for the wind? 5:17 Even all his days he eats in darkness with much vexation, sickness and anger.

There is perhaps another reason Qoheleth uses the subject of corruption to introduce the observation on the love of money in this passage. Corruption not only exposes the human predisposition towards greed but also demonstrates its inhumane ugliness. What Qoheleth just said about corruption, and the feeling of helplessness conveyed, should evoke a sense of outrage against greed. And the love of money is also about greed. So in terms of the art of persuasion, we cannot think of a better way for him to prepare his audience to see the evil of greed and of the love of money.

He declares without apology that he who loves money will not be satisfied with riches. Thus riches will not only be ultimately profitless as their possessor has to leave them behind when he dies. But to him who loves money, riches are also immediately profitless in the sense that they do not satisfy their possessor's actual needs. This immediate vanity is experienced in two ways. Firstly, when “affluence (income) increases those who consume it (expenditure) increase.” We should not limit “those who consume it increase” to the involuntary increase in expenditure due to “parasitical friends and relations” and the “taxes and other expenses pertaining to a large fortune” (Whybray 1989: 99). For human beings love riches because of the trappings of wealth. And this usually means not just the luxuries but also the glamor that riches bring. For what is the point of wealth if you cannot show it off? In fact, a good way to find out whether a high official is corrupt is to investigate whether he is living beyond his (legal) means.

So having more money to spend will often result in splurging on the family as well as friends and relatives. And to support this lavish lifestyle, there will be more expenses on servants too. But neither wealth nor its trappings satisfy. So what is the advantage to the rich man except to see with his eyes lots of money coming in and going out, a privilege and pleasure the poor man does not share? But even this “advantage” comes with a price. The poor worker sleeps soundly, whether he eats much or little, but not so the rich person with his full stomach. We must be reminded that Qoheleth is not commenting on wealth itself but on the love of money. For a wealthy person who loves riches is not only anxious about making more money, but also about keeping on making more money. And in a world full of uncertainties, when you have the compulsion to protect a glamorous lifestyle and project a fabulous image, how well can you sleep?

Not every rich person treats his wealth and experiences its immediate vanity in the same way. For secondly, at the other extreme is the miser who hoards his money. Perhaps he cannot bear to see with his eyes so much money coming in and going out. He wants money to come in and stay. He derives his sense of being glamorous and fabulous from how much he is “worth,” measured by the amount of wealth accumulated. But this is also harmful. For since he who loves money will not be satisfied with riches, he who hoards it will keep on investing it. Like the gambler at the casino who does not know when and how to stop even after a winning streak, he may invest compulsively even when prudence dictates otherwise. For to him, getting more is more important than having much.

His investments may not be as risky as gambling in a casino. But for one who loves and so hoards money, the risk of losing everything through a bad investment is there. “There is a time to make lots of money and there is a time to lose them all,” echoes the poem. In this specific case that Qoheleth observed, the miser did lose everything. And then, he fathered a son. What was supposed to be a source of joy became a cause for pain. For he had thought that his son would be the proud heir to a large fortune. But as neither he nor his son now has anything left, he feels the pain of loss not only for himself but also for his son. No wonder Qoheleth calls the hoarding of money, especially in this particular case, a “grievous affliction.”

People who lose their wealth suddenly are known to be prime candidates for suicide. But even if one is so fortunate that he will never lose a lot of money in an investment, the stress that comes with investing a lot of money for quick gain is harmful enough. The difficulty in sleeping applies to him more than to his counterpart who spends lavishly. And even if he keeps winning without any setback, since he will die, sooner or later he will lose them all. Qoheleth could not have stated it better: “As he came from his mother's womb, naked he will depart as he came. And he will take nothing from his toil that he may carry away in his hand.” The miser who loved and hoarded money to his own hurt through losing it all, should have recognized this reality. If he did, his greed for more and more money could have been tempered and he may have avoided the painful eventuality. In light of this reality, what he did with his money does not make sense at all. So by stating it right after describing the misfortune of this rich miser, Qoheleth seeks to evoke the sense that the affliction was not only grievous but also meaningless.

He adds that this reality, which he rephrased as “just as he came, so will he go,” is also a grievous affliction. But we must not take what Qoheleth says out of context. This reality does imply that everyone “toils for the wind” as it means there is no ultimate profit to human labor. But this, in and by itself, need not be a grievous affliction. In this context, Qoheleth is saying that this reality is a grievous affliction to a person like this miser, who would hoard money to his own hurt. His comment, “Even all his days he eats in darkness,” further clarifies why it would be a grievous affliction to him. Whatever the imagery “eats in darkness” means specifically, it gives the impression that when he eats he is full of unhappiness, because he eats “with vexation, sickness and anger.” Since he is a miser, this misery is most likely due to his compulsion to hoard money and thus his revulsion to spending it, even on food. A person like him will not be able to come to terms with the reality that, in the end, he will not be able to take his unspent money with him. It will afflict and grieve him.

This example is an extreme case of hoarding money. Most rich people who love money will fall somewhere in between the two extremes of spending and hoarding that Qoheleth discusses here. They will then experience to varying degrees a combination of the consequences of loving money expressed through splurging as well as hoarding. But it is possible to be rich and avoid these consequences. To this Qoheleth turns next.


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