This article can also be read in The Expository Files.
“Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, ‘For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?’ This also is vanity and an unhappy business.” (Eccl 4:7-8)
He has an impressive résumé, a solid work ethic, a lucrative job, a large nest egg, and a debt-free balance sheet. Any one of those would set a man up for success. All together they paint of picture of a man set for life. There is no reason to suspect that the man in Ecclesiastes 4:8 lacks any of these. Yet he is not happy. When even the most admirable financial traits are combined with a greedy heart, wealth creates a lonely wretch. How?
Greed alienates us from people. As the preacher begins describing this wretch, he first imagines “one person who has no other, either son or brother…” Why doesn’t this man have anyone? Perhaps he was too busy amassing his wealth to be bothered with family or friends. His money makes him suspicious of anyone who tries to get close to him—he is always wondering, “are they just after my money?” He could even have a literal son, yet he may as well not have one because of his neglectful workaholism. Greed makes us love money more than people.
Greed is an unending obsession. Despite the fact that this man only has himself to provide for, “there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches.” This is the way all self-indulgent sin works. The devil tells us, “if a little feels good, then more is always better.” We get more, but it is still not enough, so the pursuit continues. “Enough” is a moving target. The preacher will later assert, “he who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income” (Eccl 5:10). Just as the alcoholic does not quench his addiction by drinking more, the greedy man never overcomes his by earning more.
Greed rarely takes a break to examine life. “He never asks, ‘For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?’” In his unending toil, this man never stops to ask himself important introspective questions. “What am I really accomplishing by sacrificing every relationship for more money?” “What use will my money be to me when I’m dead?” “Why am I dedicating my life to something that can never love me back?” The daily rat race is not compatible with spiritual contemplation. Workaholics don’t do Psalm 119:15 very well: “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.”
Greed makes us unhappy. In summation of these observations about the greedy man, the preacher declares, “This also is vanity and an unhappy business.” The saddest part of the greedy wretch’s life is that his precious money will never make him happy or whole. Don’t envy the greedy wretch; pity him.
God commends hard work (Eph 4:28; 2 Thess 3:10-12). But when hard work is done for purely selfish reasons and crowds out more important causes and people, it is nothing but vanity. What if every disciple posted Ecclesiastes 4:7-8 on their workbench or desk (even preachers)? Maybe it would cause the businessman to stay home with his family instead of going on that fourth overnight business trip of the month. Maybe it would help a man choose the assembly of the saints instead more overtime. Maybe it would help a young college student select a career that is oriented toward the Kingdom instead of toward mammon.
Following this description of the wealthy wretch in v8, the preacher gives the happy alterative in vv9-12. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil” (v9). They can pick each other up (v10), keep each other warm (v11), and withstand an attacker (v12). Companionship and relationships are far superior to workaholism, greed, and independence.