That’s right, I said it: Even God thinks that you should retire early. I know what you’re thinking: “Man, I just wanted to learn about early retirement. Why did you need to bring religion into this? We were getting along so well.” I’m sorry, but I bring it up to make a point. Many here in the FIRE community propose that the principles of frugality, saving, and money-making are not only intellectually solid – but timeless. Yet, in making that claim they only bring up quotes from wise men a hundred, two hundred, or maybe even three hundred years ago. Apparently no one ever thought about money before Ben Franklin and Adam Smith.
People, let’s get real and admit that humanity has not changed that much since we walked out of the forests. The ancients may not have had as much technology as us, but they could still think about the past, look forward into the future, and come to realize the best paths through life that experience reveals. They probably had an even better understanding of it than we do today, given how much closer death was on a day-to-day basis. If pain teaches us a lesson, watching others perish or fall into ruin all around you teaches even better.
With that said lets see what the ancient King Solomon the Wise says about work, life and a life of ease, as revealed to him by God. Let us be blown away with how often the advice from 2,000+ years ago is still relevant today. There’s nothing new under the sun, not even early retirement.
The Book of Ecclesiastes (the NRSV Bible)
“What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” – Ecclesiastes 2: 21-23
“Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work comes from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and chasing after wind. Fools fold their hands and consume their own flesh. Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind. Again, I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. “For whom as I toiling,” they as, “and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.” – Ecclesiastes 4: 4-8
“As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. This also is a grievous ill; just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind? Besides, all their days they eat in darkness, in much vexation and sickness and resentment.” – Ecclesiastes 5:15-17
As these passages show, all people will die and they can take nothing with them. Don’t spend your life trying to acquire transitory things; consumed by negative emotions to work and acquire things you don’t need. If you work 60+ hours a week to buy the latest cell phone, only to throw it away next year for the latest model, then what was the point of everything that went before? You can’t get that time back. Makings things worse, the odds are good that most of what you make will go to other people or be lost by chance anyways. God wants you to focus on only the most important things, the things that last.
Two more passages:
“The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.” – Ecclesiastes 5:10
“There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon humankind: those to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that they lack nothing of all that they desire, yet God does not enable them to enjoy these things, but a stranger enjoys. This is vanity; it is a grievous ill. A man may beget a hundred children, and live many years; but however many are the days of his years, if he does not enjoy life’s good things, or has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For it comes into vanity and goes into darkness, and in darkness its name is covered.” – Ecclesiastes 6:1-4
Wisdom revealed to King Solomon here that money not does not make you happy, because the lust for money can never be satisfied. If you don’t enjoy life while you have it – the company of your children, the loveliness of the day – then you might as well not be born at all. By making mankind unable to derive joy solely from money, God is telling us to go down a different path. Learn to know when enough is enough and be happy with it.
“When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them [his money] with his eyes?” – Ecclesiastes 5:11
Lifestyle inflation is not a new concept, nor the notion that many people flock to the rich like parasites to a carrion bird. After a certain point, all the money and wealth that you earn goes not into your pocket, but the pockets of other people, either because you are buying things to relieve your stress from working, or buying friends because you don’t have the time to make real ones anymore. God doesn’t want that for you.
“Divide your means seven ways, or even eight, for you do not know what disaster may happen on earth…In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hands be idle; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” – Ecclesiastes 11:2, 6
Its mentioned periodically in the FIRE world – and not enough in my opinion – that not only should people save their money, but this money should be divided several ways to insure against loss. You should never put everything in the stock market, or in real estate, or underneath your mattress, because disaster may strike and destroy it all in an instant. This was recognized over 2,000 years ago and is still valid today.
The Book of Proverbs (the NRSV Bible)
“Some pretend to be rich, yet have nothing; others pretend to be poor, yet have great wealth.” Proverbs 13: 7
Some say that Thomas Stanley of The Millionaire Next Door was the first to discover that the truly rich are often those you’d least expect, because they live so frugally. Alas, Solomon beat him by 2,000 years. Turns out, people have always been more than what they appeared to be at first glance.
“The righteous have enough to satisfy their appetite, but the belly of the wicked is empty.” Proverbs 13:25
“The wise are cautious and turn away from evil, but the fool throws off restraint and is careless.” Proverbs 14:16
“A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.” Proverbs 14:30
“The highway of the upright avoids evil; those who guard their way preserve their lives. Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:17-18
“Do not be among winebibbers, or among gluttonous eaters of meat; for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe them with rags.” Proverbs 23:20-21
Obeying your passions and becoming wealthy person are polar opposites. If you cannot reign yourself in, you will destroy yourself one way or another. You spend too much and fall into debt; you eat poorly and your health falls apart; you chase excitement in the short run and leads to pain in the long run. One could say that the entire message of the Bible is “Your passions will be the end of you and will only bring a life of misery. Follow my ways and let me get you a way out of here.”
Here are some more passages:
“Why should fools have a price in hand to buy wisdom, when they have no mind to learn?” Proverbs 17:16
“The wealth of the rich is their strong city; in their imagination it is like a high wall. Before destruction one’s heart is haughty, but humility goes before honor.” Proverbs 18:11-12
“Prepare your work outside, get everything ready for you in the field; and after that build your house.” Proverbs 24:27
“Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds; for riches do not last forever, nor a grown for all generations.” Proverbs 27:23-24
“I passed but the field of one who was lazy, by the vineyard of a stupid person and see, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior.” Proverbs 24:30-34
The point of these words is that possessing wealth is not enough for actually keeping and enjoying it. If you don’t spend the time to learn, or are arrogant about your investments, or fail to plan ahead, the money will be gone before your know it. This happens continually, throughout human history.
“The hand of the diligent will rule, while the lazy will be put to forced labor.” Proverbs 12: 24
“The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” Proverbs 22:7
“Debt is slavery” is a common refrain in the FIRE community, but in Biblical times those words would’ve been quite literal! If you cannot work hard and keep what you make, eventually you will be working for someone else against your wishes. While God stresses the bonds of family, community and nation, everyone must be capable enough to contribute or else face the consequences.
“Do no wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist. When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven.” Proverbs 23:4-5
In this passage, Proverbs repeats the words of Ecclesiastes on how fleeting wealth really is. When you think you have enough, suddenly you want more and your goal escapes you. Or you work yourself to the bone to hit X dollar figure and the market changes, or the economy collapses, or your house burns down and everything is gone. Make enough for what you need and be happy and enjoy the life given you.
To close, it can be truly said that the notion of early retirement has existed for millenia, if under different terminology and less concise language. People in the ancient past had a better appreciation for how short life was than people of today do, and how the wealth gained in one generation was so often wasted in the next (if it wasn’t taken by others first!). Moreover, it is a part of God’s moral universe that everyone should strive to be diligent and wise in all of their doings, but should not waste life in work striving for the false idol of money and not enjoy the life given to them. To be consumed with greed, money, and material objects is to truly be lost to vanity and the wind inherent to human nature. God and eternity are elsewhere and he wants you to find them.