(An explanation of Ecclesiastes Chapter 4)
There it was – only inches from my eyes – the document that I’ve heard about since my days in Mr. Bowman’s 4th grade class. Only a few weeks ago I stood in the National Archives Museum with my wife and three children looking through bullet-proof glass at a document that changed the course of history. I could barely make out the words at the top of the page. The ink faded due to exposure and time, I read, “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”
I’d be lying if told you that I wasn’t at once both inspired by the simplistic beauty of the words and intrigued by the possibility of Nicholas Cage rushing through the door and announcing his intention to steal the beloved document.
Today is July 4th. 240 years ago our American forefathers adopted this recently written and revised Declaration of Independence. The moment of our separation from the British Empire had begun and a quest for national identity ensued. Who would we be and what about this new nation would deliver us from the oppression and tyranny we had endured under British rule? I believe the intended answer is found in the preamble to the Declaration itself.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
There it was! These rights are not bestowed upon us by a benevolent monarch, charismatic dictator, or dynastic oligarchy. God is the giver of these rights! Yet what about the one who denies the existence of the great Deity?
To be an atheist and an optimist simultaneously must be a very difficult balancing act. How anyone could honestly look at the tedious suffering of humans at the hands of other humans and remain a humanist is beyond my comprehension. To think that man might hold the answer to our own happiness is height of unrealistic optimism and Solomon points to one concept to prove the foolishness of such Humanistic thought: Universal Suffering.
Here is the unvarnished truth about human suffering. Every human suffers at the unmerciful hands of other humans.
1. Suffering at the Hands of the Politically Corrupt
Ecclesiastes 4:1-2 So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter. Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.
How sad it must be for the Heavenly Father to watch his children oppress one another simply for political gain and financial reward. Solomon notices the tears of the oppressed and suddenly realizes that they have no one to champion their cause. The poor of his society had no one to bring them comfort. The politically corrupt have all the power and they use it to oppress the powerless. It’s as if all those in governmental authority are corrupt (Ecc. 3:16a), and all those in religious authority are hypocrites (Ecc. 3:16b). He even admits later, as King of the land, that he’s part of the problem (Ecc. 5:9). Then He says something extremely dark and disturbing. He states with boldness that the dead are better off than the living because of the evilness of this corruption.
How is it that anyone could have hope for humanity after seeing the reality of what political leaders, religious authorities, and governmental powers have always seemed to be? I can’t turn on the news without hearing about crooked politicians, corrupt attorney generals, deviant business men, and disgraced clergy. The more I look to mankind for answers the more I come away empty, sad, and depressed.
Is there hope? Is there a better kingdom? Is there a better priest? Is there a better king?
2. Suffering at the Hands of Monetary Greed
Someone cue the capitalist who will now boldly declare that the answer is not in government but rather in the free market. If you need a savior, declares this well-intentioned egotist, look no further than your morning mirror. Yet Solomon declares the foolishness of this perspective by pointing out four characters:1.
1. The Competitor
Ecclesiastes 4:4 Again, I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbour. This is also vanity and vexation of spirit.
Here is a man that is so competitive that he works like a dog (in every right work) simply to become the envy of others. Does the work provide for his family? Perhaps. Does the work help society? It might. But none of these things are his motivation. He works to prove something to himself and to others. This very insecure individual makes a god out of own accomplishments, bows to this false and feckless god, and then posts to social media to see if he can make his neighbor envy his success. Solomon says, “this too is meaningless… like chasing the wind.”
2. The Lazy Sluggard
Ecclesiastes 4:5 The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh.
So is Solomon advocating for a life of ease and lazy living? NO! Wealth may not be able to buy happiness, but poverty isn’t able to buy anything. Here Solomon states clearly that the answer is not found in sloth. Many are suffering because they are simply too lazy to get up and go to work. They end up feeding on their own flesh.
3. The Balanced Worker
Ecclesiastes 4:6-7 Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit. Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun.
The man with one full hand and peace is better off than the man with two full hands and stress. This man is hard-working but not a slave to his business. This is the balance man but Solomon declares even of him: this was meaningless. Why? Because even this man will one day die and leave it all behind (Ecc. 2:18-19).
4. The Workaholic
Ecclesiastes 4:8 There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, it is a sore travail.
Lastly we see a man who is completely alone. He has no time for his child, he has no time for his brother. He only has time for his work. The only problem is that he isn’t satisfied. In the dark of night when his offices are empty and them employees who hate him have gone home to their families he begins to question his choices. “Why am I living this way? Who does it benefit? Why have I sacrificed everything good for this?”
Is there any hope for humanity? The governments of the earth seem to hurt more than they help and the corporations of the earth seem to take more than they give. So then, is there a better way of looking at this world? Is there another value system that brings satisfaction, meaning, and purpose?
3. Suffering at the Hands of Loneliness
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. 10 For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. 11 Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? 12 And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
At this point Solomon wants us to see that suffering doesn’t only occur due to the presence of other people. If the reader ends up with this conclusion then he may run from all corrupt governments and all social structures in order to keep himself from suffering. Yet avoidance of mankind will also lead to terrible suffering.
With the help of a friend you can accomplish more work (v.9). With the help of a friend you can be more stable in your walk (v.10). With the companionship of a friend you will find warmth (v.11). And, with the presence of a loving friend you will find welfare when someone tries to harm you (v.12). The more true friends a man has the more this truth compounds and the stronger they will be together.
Yet where can a man find such friends? Where can a community of genuine helpers be found in a world of suffering? If there were a God would he not create such a refuge for lonely souls who have been hurt by political corruption, religious hypocrisy, and corporate greed? Perhaps there is such an assembly planned for the one who believes in a sovereign and merciful God.
4. Suffering at the Hands of the Fickle Crowd
These are my favorite verses of the day. King Solomon reveals to us the deepest fear of any powerful ruler through a little story about an old king and a young king.
Once there was an old and prideful king who would no longer endure the rebukes of anyone. He needed no counsel of elders, no questions from youth, and no wisdom beyond his own. Ecclesiastes 4:13 Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished.
This great king kept his own counsel and his own counsel was all he really needed; until one day a poor but wise, and young but charismatic man began to challenge the king’s authority. Out of the prison came this young reformer and took the throne and kingdom from the elderly king. Ecclesiastes 4:14a For out of prison he cometh to reign…
And the great King who had been born into this royal position is dethroned. Ecclesiastes 4:14b …whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor.
All of the people in the kingdom who lived under the sun loved this new shiny king and supported the overthrow of the former king. Ecclesiastes 4:15 I considered all the living which walk under the sun, with the second child that shall stand up in his stead
The new generation loves their new king. It seems as if there is no end to his supporters among the people. Ecclesiastes 4:16a There is no end of all the people, even of all that have been before them…
But then the next generation will grow up and will not rejoice over this new king for he will also grow old, boring, and will need to be replaced. Ecclesiastes 4:16 …they also that come after shall not rejoice in him (the new king). Surely this also is vanity and vexation of spirit.
So Solomon declares that the adulations of the crowd are also empty. The roar of an approving crowd will also fade away. As quickly as popularity sprouts it can die away. Just ask the one-hit wonders of our society. Speak to the winner of American Idol Season 4. Every Super Bowl, Emmy, Oscar, and Grammy winner can tell you the same thing. The crowd is fickle! The will love you today and forget you tomorrow. This can be dangerous to someone in Solomon’s position. This can bring terrible suffering to someone who lives for the acceptance of others.
Oh my heart cries this evening for the one who is suffering due to rejection by their peers. You have been bullied. You have been abused. You have been mistreated. Perhaps you were once shiny, new, and exciting to someone and now they are wanting to replace you as they replaced the last. Solomon understood this kind of suffering. Moreover, God knows your suffering.
Is there hope? Is there anyone who will truly accept you as you are and begin to transform you into your greatest potential? This is why my heart breaks for the atheist who is honest enough to see the universal suffering of man but too prideful to see the never-ending love of our Heavenly Father. Perhaps you are simply confused as to who is the source of this terrible suffering. Perhaps you lay at the feet of God the sins of mankind. My dear friend, don’t make the mistake of confusing God’s gift of free-will to man as a lack of powerful sovereignty. It is God alone who offers eternal acceptance to all those who simply believe on His Son and the work which was accomplished upon the cross.
I can understand why an atheist is a pessimist. When someone sees the tremendous suffering mankind must endure at the hands of other men it becomes abundantly clear that we need someone who is more than a man to save us. Under the sun, we simply have no hope. However, beyond the sun we have God.
Join us for Chapter 5 of Ecclesiastes this Sunday at Southern Hills Baptist Church of Las Vegas!
(This post may be an encouragement to one of your friends. Please SHARE, Retweet, or Pin. Thanks)