Sometimes we do not appreciate the freedoms and benefits that Christianity has given us in the West. It is like a child who has never known hunger and is therefore not so appreciative of food. In the West we have a Christian legacy that, although much of the heart has gone, still provides a ripple effect.
One of these ripples is the notion that things should be done fairly and honestly and that bribery and corruption should have no place in the political system. There are countries in the world where backhanders, bribes to police, and corruption of every sort are considered normal. They happen here but it is expected that it will not be the case. I believe the primary reason for that is the continuing effect of the Christian principles which were so foundational in this country. Many of our parliamentarians and opinion makers forget this foundational truth. They need to be careful – in rejecting the roots they will eventually lose the fruits.
It is good that we ask what kind of society we want to live in. What kind of person do you want to be? And again for the Christian this is crucial. We are not just concerned for ourselves, we are concerned for others. It's why after considering the nature of public worship Solomon now moves on to consider what kind of society we want to worship in.
1. The corrupt society, verses 8-9
Solomon speaks of the oppression of the poor (see also 3:16 and 4:1-3) through a corrupt political system. 'Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge' (Deuteronomy 24:17).
He also describes how a complex bureaucracy, instead of being a system of checks and balances, enables oppression and the denial of rights. Everything gets caught up in red tape unless you have a good lawyer, money and power. The top official oppresses the next, who oppresses the other, all the way down until the bottom – the poor and the powerless. They are the ones who suffer.
Sometimes corruption goes all the way to the top - the king profits from the fields. However it is better to have a government, even if it is corrupt, than not to have a government at all. We need stable government. It's why Paul tells Timothy that the first thing the church should do is pray for politicians (1 Timothy 2:1-7). I wonder how many of our churches obey that biblical instruction?
We should seek a political system in which justice and rights are not denied. But we are not surprised when that does not happen. So we sometimes think that we should just leave politics to the politicians and get on with making money – will that not provide security? Which leads us on to Solomon's second description of society – the materialistic consumer society.
2. The consumer society, verse 10-17
Myth no.1: Money satisfies. The first problem with loving money is that we never get enough to satisfy. There is always room for more. As one's wealth increases so do the bills. And so do one's friends – as the prodigal son could testify. Everyone wants to be friends with the lottery winner. I read with some bemusement a columnist complaining in The Scotsman that an income of over £150,000 was not enough to live an 'ordinary life' in Edinburgh! 'Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.' (Isaiah 5:8) 'For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs' (1 Timothy 6:10).
Myth no.2: Money solves every problem and brings security. It does not. Solomon talks about the insecurity of the rich insomniac compared with the sleep of the poor labourer. He talks about a great evil – that wealth is hoarded and not used. It can be taken away as Job who lost all his money through a series of misfortunes, could testify. 'Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked.' (Psalm 37:16). It is the dreadful evil of having money and yet not being able to do anything with it.
This is set into sharp contrast when we consider materialism in the light of eternity – we take nothing with us: 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised' (Job 1:21).
Verse 17 is a brilliant summary. All their days they eat in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger. They eat in darkness – alone. Preoccupation with wealth leads to frustration. It leads to sickness, stress, strain and thus anger. Our plans are defeated and we get frustrated and angry. Does that not describe our society? Does it describe you?
3. The contented society, verse 18-20
There is another life. Equally outward, real and observable. I love Matthew Henry's observation on this passage: 'Nature is content with little, grace with less but lust with nothing.' What do we need to be content?
The basics. Food and drink, the simple pleasures, companionship, joy, satisfaction – including religious celebration -this is the simple and contented life.
Satisfying work. 'Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare' (Isaiah 55:2).
Wealth and possessions – the gift of God. We must be in control of our attitude to wealth and not the other way round. 'I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want' (Philippians 4:12). But if we have them we are to be thankful for them. I love Wesley's motto: 'make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.'
J D Rockefeller aged 53 was the world's only billionaire, earning $1 million per week. He was a sick man, living on crackers and wheat because he was so worried. When he started to give his money away his life changed and his health improved dramatically – he lived to 98!
Too content to think? There is a kind of disadvantage in being given these basic needs. Sometimes they lead to a contentment that means we are too busy to reflect upon our lives. And we do need to think about it and contemplate it because there is more to life.
Christian Contentment: Perhaps Solomon is being a little more positive than that. Perhaps he is saying that we are aware of the brevity of life but we so enjoy it that we do not spend all our days thinking that we are going to die. The Christian is able to live and enjoy each day as it comes. The worldly man looks to money and business to preoccupy himself. The Christian has a life of joy and faith to preoccupy him. Secular life is a life of drudgery. Christian life is the opposite. We are to enjoy life. Think of it like this; the non-Christian life is like the person who goes to the best restaurants and has no taste buds, the Christian life is one of tasting and seeing that God is good and richly enjoying everything that he gives us. Choose life!
'But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well' (Matthew 6:33).