Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed–and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors–and they have no comforter. –Ecclesiastes 4:1
In Ecclesiastes 4 and 5, the ancient Searcher of Israel answers a question all of us have asked at one time or another. Whenever a tragedy occurs, or a terrible injustice is revealed, someone is sure to remark, “You say your God is a God of love, but how could a God of love allow such a thing to happen?”
How, after all, could a God of love allow thousands of innocent Indians to die choking from poison gas? How could a God of love sit by and watch as husbands, wives, sons, and daughters fry to death in the crash of a faulty commuter plane? Sometimes the question is more personal: “How can you say God loves me when He lets me work my fingers to the bone and allows other people who have inherited wealth spend their days enjoying themselves?”
In chapter 3 the Searcher declared that God has a wonderful plan for each life. There is a time for everything: “a time to be born and a time to die… a time to weep and a time to laugh.” Solomon thereby declared that God has a perfect plan including everything that we need, the painful as well as the pleasant.
If we accept both as God’s choices for us, as coming from His loving heart–not out of anger nor out of desire to punish, but out of love–we will discover three wonderful things. First, we will be enabled to enjoy all of life, even the painful things. Second, we will learn to know God. Jesus said, “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). We will satisfy the sense of eternity which God has put in each heart. That will happen when our attitude toward life changes with a new relationship with God. Third, this lesson will be repeated until we learn it, until we get it right.
Now we’ll consider four frequently voiced objections that seem to contradict the idea that God has a wonderful plan for everyone. We looked at the first in the last chapter–that injustice thrives where justice should be found, in the courts and judicial systems of our land. Recently the newspapers told of a man who spent five years in jail for another man’s crime. When this was discovered he was freed, but he was given nothing for his time in jail. That sort of injustice raises the question, “What do you mean, ‘God has a perfect plan for our lives?’ How can you square that statement with such an injustice?”
The Searcher gives us two answers. One, we must remember that the final recompense lies ahead; God has appointed a time when He will bring to light all the hidden things and straighten them out. Second, even injustice teaches us something of great value–it reveals the beastliness we share with the animals. Not only do we have a temporary existence like the animals, but we share with the animals a beastly quality which injustice will bring out. In chapter 4 the Searcher discusses three more objections to the idea that God has a wonderful plan for our lives. First, he ponders oppression in society:
Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed–and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors–and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive.
But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun (4:1-3).
Oppression almost invariably preys on the helpless, the weak, and the infirm, those who cannot defend themselves. The Searcher knows this. Notice how he records the anguish, the misery that it causes. He speaks of “the tears of the oppressed,” of the weeping, of the sorrow and brokenness which the oppressed feel over something they can do nothing about. Then he twice categorizes the awful sense of helplessness that oppression evokes. There is no one to comfort the oppressed in a world filled with injustice. The hopeless and the helpless ask, “Who can we turn to? Where can we go for deliverance?” They believe that death would be preferable to what they are going through; they even come to the point where they wish they had never been born. Job felt that way. “May the day of my birth perish,” he said (Job 3:3). “Why did I not perish at birth… ?” (v. 11).
How do you square that with the glib declaration, “God has a wonderful plan for your life”? How can you say that to someone who is being oppressed? The Searcher does not attempt to answer that for the moment. He records it and sympathizes, but for the moment, he lets it be.
First, he looks at another objection, that envy and ambition really are the driving force behind man’s activity, rather than the enjoyment of life.
I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind (4:4).
How accurately this records what actually happens! People really do not want things, they want to be admired for the things they have. What they want is not the new car itself, but to hear their neighbors say, “How lucky you are to have such a beautiful car!” That is what people want–to be the center, the focus of attention. I clipped from Newsweek magazine an article on life in Washington, D.C. This is what the reporter says drives people in the nation’s capital:
Ambition is the raving and insatiable beast that most often demands to be fed in this town. The setting is less likely to be some posh restaurant or glitzy nightclub than a wholly unremarkable glass office building, or an inner sanctum somewhere in the federal complex. The reward in the transaction is frequently not currency at all, but power, perquisites, and ego massage. For this, the whole agglomeration of psychological payoffs, there are people who will sell out almost anything, including their self-respect, if any, and the well-being of thousands of others.
That says exactly what Solomon is saying. The drive to be admired is the true objective of many lives. But, he says, this too “is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” It will not give lasting enjoyment.
Sometimes when people become aware of this they flip over to the opposite extreme. They drop out of society, they get out of the rat race, they go on relief and let the government support them. We saw that kind of reaction in California in the sixties. Young people, particularly, were saying, “We don’t want to be part of the rat race anymore; we don’t want to make money or play games to be admired. We’ll drop out instead!” But that is not the answer either, the Searcher says.
The fool folds his hands, and consumes his own flesh (4:5, NASB).
Many young men and women who were part of the counterculture of a decade ago have found this to be true–that when you sit in idleness you devour yourself, your resources disappear, your self-respect vanishes. They had to learn the painful lesson that the only way to maintain themselves, even physically (let alone psychologically), was to go to work and stop devouring their own flesh.
It would be much better, says the Searcher, to lower your expectations and choose a less ambitious lifestyle.
Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind (4:6).
Yet so powerful is ambition and the desire to be envied, he says, that men actually keep working and toiling even when they have no one to leave their riches to.
Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” This too is meaningless–a miserable business! (4:7-8).
How true! Some people keep on toiling although they have no one to work for, and nothing to do with the money they make. They even deny themselves the pleasures of life so they can continue to amass funds. What a sharp example was given to us in the story of the late billionaire Howard Hughes.
He did not know what to do with his money. His heirs, who have been impossibly difficult to identify for certain, were left to squabble over it. Somehow, in all his tragic existence, the man never seemed to ask himself, “Why am I doing this? What is life all about? Why am I amassing these tremendous amounts of money when I don’t even spend a dime on myself?” Such is the folly of toiling for riches out of ambition and ego.
In contrast, the Searcher admits that companionship is better than loneliness.
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken (4:9-12).
Someone may say, “It’s true that men work out of a sense of ambition and a drive for admiration from others, but companionship is useful while doing so.”
The Searcher agrees, and lists four advantages to this. First, having a partner will increase the reward. Two really can live cheaper than one.
Many people get married on that basis. During the Depression there was a popular song that said, “Potatoes are cheaper, tomatoes are cheaper, now’s the time to fall in love.” Many young people agreed with that and got married. But the economy has changed. Today “potatoes are dearer, tomatoes are dearer…”, but still “now is the time to fall in love” because you can combine your resources. Even the IRS recognizes the advantage of this by giving tax breaks to married couples in certain tax brackets.
Second, the Searcher says, a friend will help in times of trouble. If you get into difficulty your friend or roommate will be there to help you.
You have to have grown up in Montana to fully appreciate the third advantage! When the temperature is 40 degrees below zero outside, you understand what the Searcher means when he says, “If two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?” Even at the physical level, companionship is an advantage.
Fourth, the presence of another or more than one other in your life makes defeat unlikely: “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
Still, while there are advantages in companionship, the Searcher’s argument nevertheless is that it adds up to emptiness; it does not satisfy the sense of eternity that God has put in men’s hearts. Many a couple sit in loneliness, staring at a television screen for hours at a time, or seek some other diversion to fill the emptiness and misery of their lives. No … companionship, though better than loneliness, is not the answer either.
A final objection is raised in the latter part of chapter 4. This says, in effect, that living a long life does not always guarantee that one will learn the secrets of enjoyment. The Searcher has been saying that God has a perfect plan and He will teach you as you go; if you live long enough and listen carefully you will learn that enjoyment is a gift of God. But now someone argues that he knows people who live a long time who still do not seem to learn this.
Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning. The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom (4:13-14).
Age can make you headstrong and fanatical, convinced that everything you want to do is right. Even living a long time does not teach us all the lessons, although a long life usually does teach much. But all of us know people who should know better, people who have forgotten the lessons they learned in their youth. Here was a king who had gone from prison to the throne because he understood life; he had been poor and he was exalted to a position of power, but he forgot all the lessons he had learned. Compared to him, even a callow youth is preferable.
The Searcher’s second argument is that even the wise youth will go on to repeat the same error.
I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind (4:15-16).
Here is a young man who went through the same difficulties as the old king had. He won his way to popularity and power, yet he did not learn either. Although he had the example of his predecessor, he ultimately lost the respect of others. So time does not always teach us the right lessons. All of it remains “meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
In chapter 5, a marvelous chapter, the Searcher answers these objections. He declares four things. First:
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God (5:1).
That is, learn to let God be God; this is the first thing he suggests. The lessons of life will fall into place when you learn it. God is in charge of life, so let Him be in charge.
The place to learn this is in the house of God. When you go there, guard your steps–enter thoughtfully, meditatively, expect to be taught something. In ancient Israel the house of God was the temple in Jerusalem. There sacrifices were offered along with explanations of what they meant. There the law was read, and the wisdom of God about life was declared. This marvelous Old Testament was unfolded, with its tremendous insights into the truth about life and humanity. The temple was the only place in the land where people could learn these things.
In our day the house of God is no longer a holy building. We must be clear about that. We, believing people, are the house of God! What the Searcher is saying is that when we gather as the people of God, be expectant; there is something to be learned, something important. Being with the people of God is important to learning to let God be God.
Second, he says, listen carefully:
Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong (5:1).
A fool is someone who glibly utters na•ve, ingenuous, and usually false things. What the Searcher clearly has in mind here is that human tendency to complain and murmur about what has been handed us in life. When we grouse about our circumstances we are really complaining against God. We are murmuring against the choice God has made in His wonderful plan for our life.
We will never learn to enjoy anything by complaining. We will not even enjoy our pleasures, let alone our pain. So, he says, “Listen carefully,” for among the people of God the truth of God is being declared; the wisdom of God is being set forth.
Recently in church a man said to me, “I have been going through a painful experience this past week. I learned to see myself and it horrified me. I saw things in myself which I despise in others.” That is encouraging, for that man is learning truth about himself. The Searcher continues:
Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.
As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words (5:2-3).
It is easy to take the phrase, “God is in heaven,” to mean that God is far off somewhere, high above the universe and watching the affairs of men while we insignificant humans struggle along down here. But that is not what this means. Heaven is not some distant place. In the Bible, heaven means the invisible world of reality, the arena in which things are going on that we cannot see, but yet is really here. God is in that realm, and He sees much more than we do.
As a preacher, when I look out on a congregation I see bodies. They reveal certain things–some are interested, some are asleep. But if I were to pray for those people, there is no way I could understand the complexity and depth of struggle that many are going through.
But God sees. God sees not only your body, He sees what is inside, even what you cannot see. He sees everyone that way. Remember that when you are coming to God. When He speaks through His Word, that Word is much more true than anything You can imagine as an explanation of life, because God sees all of life from beginning to end. He is in heaven and you are upon earth, so for heaven’s sake, don’t start griping about what God has handed you! That is the Searcher’s argument.
The saints have had to learn this lesson from time immemorial. It is reflected in a hymn by William Cowper. God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform: He plants His footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm. Deep in unfathomable mines Of never ending skill, He treasures up His bright designs, And works His sovereign will. You fearful saints, fresh courage take! The clouds you so much dread are big with mercy, and shall break In blessings on your head. “God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” Then the Searcher adds, “A dream comes when there are many cares.” By “dreams” he means fantasies, and fantasizing produces much activity but accomplishes nothing. So also a fool with his many words of complaint accomplishes nothing.
Again, he says, “Don’t play games with God.”
When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow (5:4).
God is a realist. He never plays games with us. He sees things the way they really are and He tells us the way they are. God expects us to carry out our word when we give it. It is dangerous to make superficial promises about what we will do if He will only do this or that. He hears our promises, and He takes us at our word. There is a penalty when we do not keep it. This warns us to be careful about what we promise God. Do not make rash vows, for He is not pleased with fools.
In fact, the Searcher goes on to say:
It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger [The priest or pastor, the representative of God], “My vow was a mistake …” (5:5-6).
Do not say when the shoe begins to pinch, “1 didn’t really mean that.” How many have said this about wedding vows! But God takes you at your word. “It was all a mistake,” they say, “I didn’t know what I was doing.” But the Searcher warns:
Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God (5:6-7).
We are dealing with the Author of life itself. He holds our lives in the palm of His hand. God is not cruel and heartless; He is loving, but He is real, so do not play games with Him. Be honest with God; that is all the Searcher is saying. Pay attention when you hear the words of God. Listen as He describes life to you. He is telling you these things so that you might find enjoyment in all that you do.
Third, value government, for it too is from God.
If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things [do not be angry and bitter over this]; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields (5:8-9).
The argument is very simple: do not be astonished and bitter at injustice. God has set up higher officials who may correct oppression when they become aware of it. But even if they do not, there is One yet higher. He is aware, and He knows what He is doing. Recognize that there is good in government. It has been well said, “Even bad government is better than no government at all.” We cannot live in anarchy. Even the worst kind of government is better than no government, so value it. Such an attitude will greatly help in dealing with the problems of life.
Finally, the Searcher deals with a fourth circumstance. Most people feel that if they could only get rich, they could handle the pressures better. The Searcher examines that more closely in verses 10 through 17.
Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless (5:10).
First, money will not satisfy, for money does not leave you feeling full and enjoying life. There is plenty of testimony to that today from the rich and popular. Second:
As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them? (5:11).
If you do get rich, you will soon discover that a crowd of parasites will gather around to spend your money for you. You will get nothing out of them but expense. He develops this even further:
The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of the rich man permits him no sleep (5:12).
Another disadvantage to having money is that you worry about how to take care of your property. You stay awake nights, stewing about how to keep what you have.
There is still a third disadvantage:
I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner, or wealth lost through some misfortune, so that when he has a son there is nothing left for him (5:13-14).
You can lose riches too. They can disappear overnight. A turn of the wheel, a drop in the Dow Jones average, and your fortune is gone. Your family may well suffer with you.
Finally, riches will not survive death, but you will.
Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand.
This too is a grievous evil: As a man comes, so he departs, and what does he gain, since he toils for the wind?
All his days he eats in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger (5:15-17).
You can take absolutely nothing away with you. Life is empty and meaningless for so many wealthy people. They suffer from “Destination Sickness.” Having arrived at where they always wanted to be, and having everything they always wanted to have, they do not want anything they’ve got. And at last they must give it all up.
So the Searcher clearly reveals where the answers to life’s quest will be found: It will be in “the house of God,” the place where the people of God assemble and the word of God is unfolded. If one listens carefully and does not play dishonest games with God, he will learn to value government and distrust riches.
The Searcher closes the chapter with a return to his repeated theme:
Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him–for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables hint to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work–this is a gift of God (5:18-19).
Enjoyment does not come from possessions or from riches. Nor does it come from companionship, from popularity and fame, from the approval and the admiration of others. Enjoyment comes by knowing the living God and taking everything from His hand with thanksgiving, whether pain or pleasure. That is the gift of God, and that is the lesson of this great book.
Notice how the chapter closes:
He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart (5:20).
Have you ever met people like that? They have lived a full life, but they seldom talk about the past. Some people live only in the past.
William Randolph Hearst, who amassed one of the great fortunes of our time, ended his days amidst all the opulence and splendor of the castle which he built in southern California, sitting in a basement, playing over and over again the movies of his paramour from Hollywood, in a vain effort to gain a degree of enjoyment from the past. When people discover the richness of life that God has provided, they do not much think of the past, or even talk about it. They do not talk about the future either, because they are so richly involved with savoring life right now.
How good it is to know the living God, to know that He controls what comes into your life. He expects you to make choices; Scripture always encourages that. But rejoice in the wisdom of a Father’s heart, and richly enjoy what is handed you day-by-day. That is the secret of life.
Such a one “seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.”
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