Ecclesiastes Lesson Eight: Ecclesiastes 4:1-6 – The Tears of the Oppressed and Frustrated.

Again, I observed all the acts of oppression being done under the sun.  Look at the tears of those who are oppressed; they have no one to comfort them. Power is with those who oppress them; they have no one to comfort them. So I admired the dead,  who have already died, more than the living, who are still alive. But better than either of them is the one who has not yet existed,  who has not seen the evil activity that is done under the sun. 

I saw that all labor and all skillful work is due to a man’s jealousy of his friend.  This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind. The fool folds his arms and consumes his own flesh. Better one handful with rest than two handfuls with effort and a pursuit of the wind. (HCSB)

The teacher now addresses two issues, which is how this lesson will be divided.

  • Corruption in society – verses 1-3.
  • Corruption in the workplace – verses 4-6.

Corruption in Society

Israel had a fair judicial system based on divine Law. The details are contained in Exodus 18:13-27, Deuteronomy 17 and 19. Moses warned officials to judge honestly and fairly.

  • Leviticus 19:15  You must not act unjustly when deciding a case. Do not be partial to the poor or give preference to the rich; judge your neighbor fairly.
  • Deuteronomy 1:17  Do not show partiality when deciding a case; listen to small and great alike. Do not be intimidated by anyone, for judgment belongs to God. Bring me any case too difficult for you, and I will hear it.

Both prophets and the psalmist spoke out against social injustice.

  • Isaiah 56:1  This is what the Lord says: Preserve justice and do what is right, for My salvation is coming soon, and My righteousness will be revealed.
  • Amos 1-2
  • Psalm 82

Solomon had demonstrated fairness and wisdom in judging cases; 1 Kings 3:16-28.

However, every society through the ages experiences corruption, which can often lead to a downward spiral. In some cases, this downward spiral will lead to the end of the established government or at least a major evolution in how it operates.

Now, let’s take a closer look at these first three verses.

  • The teacher said that those who were in positions of power were using that power to oppress the less fortunate.
    • The powerful enjoyed the freedom to do as they wished, with little or no repercussion when they abused the less fortunate. 
    • The less fortunate people had no advocate to argue on their behalf.
    • Ultimately, the less fortunate had no means to receive justice and comfort from the society that was supposed to protect them.
  • The oppressors in the Jewish government had fallen from the instructions set forth by God.
    • Leviticus 6:2-5  When someone sins and offends the Lord by deceiving his neighbor in regard to a deposit, a security, or a robbery; or defrauds his neighbor; or finds something lost and lies about it; or swears falsely about any of the sinful things a person may do— once he has sinned and acknowledged his guilt—he must return what he stole or defrauded, or the deposit entrusted to him, or the lost item he found, or anything else about which he swore falsely. He must make full restitution for it and add a fifth of its value to it.  He is to pay it to its owner on the day he acknowledges his guilt.
    • Ezekiel 22:7  Father and mother are treated with contempt, and the foreign resident is exploited within you. The fatherless and widow are oppressed in you.
    • Ezekiel 22:29  The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery.  They have oppressed the poor and needy and unlawfully exploited the foreign resident.
    • Micah 2:1-2  Woe to those who dream up wickedness and prepare evil plans on their beds! At morning light they accomplish it because the power is in their hands. They covet fields  and seize them; they also take houses. They deprive a man of his home, a person of his inheritance.
    • Jeremiah 22:17  But you have eyes and a heart for nothing except your own dishonest profit, shedding innocent blood and committing extortion and oppression.
  • We see again the problem of “everything under the sun.”
    • People who live in this manner live with a sinful and materialistic mindset.
    • They use their power or influence to take advantage of others for their own benefit.
  • The oppressive nature of the social structure which the teacher witnessed had such a profound effect that he admired the dead.
  • If we remember back to the previous lesson, death is the arena of hope for the oppressed.
    • The dead are judged for their actions.
    • The righteous, even if they were oppressed, are spared eternal judgment.
    • The oppressors, regardless of their wealth, power, or position, will receive eternal punishment for their wickedness.
    • It is in death that the oppressed will finally find their rest.
  • However, never being born is the best solution.
    • They will never be tempted by what’s “under the sun.”
    • They will never be the victim of oppression and despair.
    • I think it’s a fair understanding that the teacher is using hyperbole in verse three.
      • Every human is made in the image of God.
      • All are wonderfully crafted.
      • Yet, at the same time, there will be those who are oppressed and live in despair.
      • It is in the face of this conundrum that the teacher makes the statement about never having been born.

Corruption in the Workplace

Being disgusted with what he observed in the judicial and governmental sectors of Israel, the teacher ventures into the workplace. He was certain he would see a better situation here since honest work was a gift from God. Let’s take a closer look at what he found.

  • He found people who worked hard.
  • He found people who were skillful in their craft.
  • He found jealous competition. The workers’ jealousy was the problem.
    • The workers were highly skilled and produced quality products.
    • However, the only reason for their skill and quality was to be better than their competition.
    • It wasn’t to benefit the buyer; it was to benefit themselves.
  • God didn’t put selfishness into work; it was the result of sin in the world.
    • People covet what others have, even in the workplace.
      • A better reputation.
      • A product people desired to buy.
      • We envy when others have more or better “things” than we do.
    • Coveting, competition, and envy are often found as companions.
    • Competition is not sinful; it’s when being first or the best becomes more important than being honest that trouble rears its ugly head.
    • Rivalry, if done with an honest heart, will produce better products.
  • Consider examples from Scripture where jealousy or envy resulted in the committing of great sin.
    • 1 Kings 21 – The example of King Ahab’s desire for Naboth’s vineyard and the false accusation bought against him to allow the king to acquire the vineyard.
    • 2 Samuel – King David, even though he had many wives, desired Bathsheba and had her husband killed to cover up his adultery.
  • Healthy competition benefits everyone.
  • Jealousy and envy hurt everyone, including the one who seems to “come out on top.”
  • The teacher now moves to people of the opposite extreme; those who don’t possess any ambition at all.
  • Scripture is clear in its view about laziness.
    • Proverbs 6:10-11  A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the arms to rest, 11 and your poverty will come like a robber, your need, like a bandit.
    • Proverbs 18:9  The one who is truly lazy in his work is brother to a vandal.
    • Proverbs 19:15  Laziness induces deep sleep, and a lazy person will go hungry.
    • Proverbs 24:30-34  I went by the field of a slacker and by the vineyard of a man lacking sense. 31 Thistles had come up everywhere, weeds covered the ground, and the stone wall was ruined. 32 I saw, and took it to heart; I looked, and received instruction: 33 a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the arms to rest, 34 and your poverty will come like a robber, your need, like a bandit.
    • 2 Thessalonians 3:10  In fact, when we were with you, this is what we commanded you: “If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat.
  • When we consider the extremes of verses four and five, we observe that the industrious person was motivated by competition and consumed by the rat race of life. They had no time for leisure. The idle person was motivated by pleasure and was rushing toward ruin. They weren’t productive.
  • This begs the question. Is there a happy medium between the two extremes?
  • Verse six answers this question with a resounding “yes.”
    • This person was productive.
    • They also made sure there was time for rest and leisure.
  • The person who is driven for gain, whether it be money, power, position, or “things,” will never have time to enjoy them. They’ll always be looking for more. They’ll never be satisfied, and the obsession for more will consume them.
  • The lazy person believes that doing nothing will bring them peace, but this lifestyle will destroy them.
  • The balanced approach allows the person to enjoy their work and their leisure time.

Applications

  • Don’t tolerate oppression. All people are made in the image of God. When people are treated unfairly, Christians should peacefully stand against that oppression. Sometimes there’s a fine line we need to walk. We should never condone or tolerate behavior that goes against Scripture. However, that doesn’t give Christians the right to treat these people as less than human. Jesus never did that, and as followers of Christ, we shouldn’t either.
  • If you are in a position of leadership, don’t use that position to oppress others and elevate yourself. Treat those under you, whatever the relationship, in a respectful and honoring manner.
  • How do you approach your work? Do you do it because you want more stuff; money, possessions, position, or power? Or do you work to glorify God, provide for your family, benefit society? Make sure you build rest or leisure into your life. God provided the Sabbath as a day of rest. He recognized the need for rest, and we should, too.

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