Solomon is now looking carefully at life in the breath. He has considered that only God can bring beauty into the life because he has appointed every season and time for his purposes. Yet when Solomon looks carefully into the breath, he sees much that is not beautiful, in fact, much that is ugly. Solomon is a realist, it doesn’t do to ignore the harsh realities of life, but he knows the must be explored, discerned. He’s not running from the hard questions, but realizes that if he really wants to make full sense of life, he’s got to evaluate both the good and the bad.
This brings us to the problem of evil - for Solomon observes much that would be fittingly described as evil. If God is sovereign over all things - does this mean that he is also sovereign over evil? Solomon in this chapter pears into the problem of what we might call institutional or structural evil - evil that corrupts our social systems, specifically he considers our systems of justice and economics. What’s the problem with these two systems - we are. We made them and we use them and we are used by them. His first two observations have to do with our systems of justice:
Injustice: Eccl. 3:16 Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. Here, Solomon is speaking of the reality that systems and institutions meant to preserve righteousness and justice, yet these institutions themselves are bereft with wickedness. Injustice in those tasked to administer justice, injustice in the court systems, injustice in the legislature, injustice and bias in the media that is supposed to hold all of these other institutions in check.
Oppression: Eccl. 4:1 Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. The verbal root עָשַׁק is concerned with acts of abuse of power or authority, the burdening, trampling, and crushing of those lower in station. And there is no one to take up there cause, because of the aforementioned injustice and wickedness found in the places of judgment, there is power on the side of oppressors.
Notice that Solomon is speaking injustice in these systems in broad terms. He doesn’t need to get specific, because injustice and corruption ravage our social institutions in a multitude of ways, wether it is corruption, nepotism, discrimination, unfair housing or labour practices - take your pick, and each generation, we take our picks of the social causes that we think are important. It might be the environment and the justice system in our sights today as the cause that social reformers set in their sights, and it might be something else tomorrow, but in reality there is nothing new under the sun because all these things are just the current expression of injustice and corruption. You could remedy every societal injustice today and tomorrow the injustice and corruption of our human systems would pop up somewhere else. And so, we need to ask, where is the beauty in this? How is God making this beautiful? Solomon then turns to our economic systems and makes two more observations.
Competition: Eccl. 4:4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. the NASB translates the second half of that verse as “rivalry between man and neighbour”. Solomon is observing something very profound here. The principle he is observing is rivalry between neighbours is the key component in producing skill in labour. It would be nearly 3000 years before Solomon’s simple, yet profound, observation would be fully articulated. In 1776, the moral philosopher Adam Smith released his seminal work, “The Wealth of Nations”, on the basis of which Smith is referred to as the Father of Economics, in which he made observations of how the market works. Two of Smith’s observations relate directly to Solomon’s thesis:
Self Interest is the motivator of economic activity: To be self-interested simply means that you seek your own personal gain. You go to work because you want to get paid so you can buy the things you want. You go to school so you can get a better job someday and earn more money to buy the things you want. Adam Smith described it this way in his book, The Wealth of Nations: "It is not from the benevolence (kindness) of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." The baker wants to earn enough money to feed his family and buy the things he wants and the most effective way he has found to do that is to bake bread for you. In fact his bread has to be good enough and the service friendly enough that you are willing to give up your money freely in exchange for his bread. The baker while serving his self-interest has produced a good that is very valuable to you.
Competition is the regulator of economic activity: Because other self-interested people are competing in the marketplace, my self-interest is held in check. For example, if I were a baker, the only way I would be able to earn your dollars is to produce bread that is better, cheaper or more convenient than the bread produced by the other bakers in town. If I were to increase my price too much, you would likely buy bread from my competitors. If I were to treat you poorly when you enter my store, you would likely buy from my competitors. If my bread were moldy or inferior in any way, you will likely buy from my competitors. In order to earn your money I must provide a high quality good or service at a reasonable price.
Smith’s insights are simply Solomon’s observation restated: all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. However, some may say, and in fact some did say, and still say today: if what drives the economy is self-interest and competition, doesn’t that mean that we are setting ourselves against one another? Won’t there then be winners and losers in this competition, as some people will be more skilled, more adaptable, or better positioned to succeed? Won’t the inequality between the winners and the losers lead to struggle between the classes and societal breakdown? You may note that they words Solomon uses seem to indicate that there is indeed a darker element to this economic principle he observes, is “rivalry between man and neighbour” - how is rivalry between man and neighbour consistent with the moral law of Scripture - to love thy neighbour?
And so in the name of social harmony and equality, some have tried to deny Solomon’s principle, have tried to create economic systems that remove or minimize the role of self-interest and competition - can we change the game so that everyone wins? However, what the last 150 years of marxist and socialist experimentation has conclusively demonstrated to us, is that when we try to win the game so that everyone wins, we remove the incentive to play at all and everyone loses. And so Solomon’s observation is that it seems that an economic system can either promote industry or equity, but cannot promote both.
Work-Life Imbalance: The final vanity that Solomon sees is a person who has reduced the purpose of his life to economic prosperity - he’s not living for any eternal purpose, he’s hardly even living for temporal purposes. In his striving to get ahead and pursue prosperity has not only driven away his friends, but has also toiled his life away to the point that he has no one to share it with at all, yet he has so deeply internalizes the economic reductionism that he continues to go on in his toil without ever questioning what he is doing!
Eccl. 4:7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 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.
This economic reductionism is so prevalent today, in which we assign or reduce value to people and interests on the sole basis of how they are directly contributing to the economy. We devalue house-work or volunteer work, or the raising of kids - we still see them as valuable, but not as valuable as working a job.
The Warning: Solomon finishes this section by telling a parable that serves as a warning to us, for he knows that the vast majority of the people will not receive his counsel. Instead of looking up to God and looking out for our brothers, we will turn to politicians and government to save us and redeem these systems themselves.
Eccl. 4:13 Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. 14 For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. 15 I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. 16 There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led.
There are a lot of details Solomon introduces in this short paragraph. First, notice the tyrant - he is described as the old and foolish king, who no longer knew how to take advice; that is, no no longer listened to any of his advisors and in effect ruled as a tryant. A small detail tells us that this tyrant used the justice system to silence opposition, as the poor and wise man is first found in the prison, likely the target of the kings oppression. And Solomon tells us that here is this wise young man, this revolutionary. Twice it is remarked that this young man comes from poverty - born poor. This young man, becomes the hero of the people, there is no end to all the people who fall in behind him. You can imagine this, can’t you. He goes on cable news and tells his story of how he will be the champion of the poor, for he comes from their neighbourhoods and knows their plight. We listen to him and believe him because he comes from an oppressed group, a victimized group, he must be the people’s champion. He will fight for us! Yet, hear Solomon’s summary of his reign - “Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him.” The revolution has ended with a new tyrant upon the throne and the people still in their oppression. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Solomon’s Reflections: Look Upward, Look Outward or a “Heart to God, Hand To man”
God will ultimately judge every act of mankind: 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. The answer to some of the injustices and social issues that confront us in life is that we must look up to God to judge the wicked. This is first comforting, for what it means is that people will not get away with their wickedness and corruption. This is a comfort for those who long for justice and receive none, and for those who are the target of injustice at the hands of those who should be preserving justice. It is secondly, correcting. The fact that God is going to judge the wicked implies that that there is an absolute standard of righteousness, that there are in fact moral absolutes. This seems a bit radical in our day and age in which we have been trained to believe that there are not absolute moral standards, only relative, subjective moral standards. I say trained to believe that because not only is the idea inherently self-defeating, the that the absences of absolute morality is in itself an absolute moral principle; but also it is an idea that leads to greater levels of injustice. If morality is relative, then we define it for ourselves, and what will ultimately rule the day is not right, but might - this with power will use their power to define right and wrong and silence any who oppose them.
Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland has written about an illuminating encounter with a student at the University of Vermont.3 Moreland was speaking in a dorm, and a relativistic student who lived there told him, “Whatever is true for you is true for you and whatever is true for me is true for me. If something works for you because you believe it, that’s great. But no one should force his or her views on other people since everything is relative.” As Moreland left, he unplugged the student’s stereo and started out the door with it. The student protested: “Hey, what are you doing? … You can’t do that.” Moreland replied, “You’re not going to force on me the belief that it is wrong to steal your stereo, are you?” He then went on to point out to the student that, when it’s convenient, people say they don’t care about sexual morality or cheating on exams. But they become moral absolutists in a hurry when someone steals their things or violates their rights. That is, they are selective moral relativists.
God allows these injustices to demonstrate to us how beastly we act, so that we might fear him: 18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. In clear terms, Solomon reveals to us that the takeaway we are supposed to get from observing the horrible things mankind does to one another, it that in our turning from God, we have fallen to the level of beast. We live like beasts, treat each other like beasts, and die like beasts: 19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. The allusion to fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden is very direct, “All are from the dust, and to dust all return” is a direct allusion to Genesis 3:19. God’s word proved correct when he said, “In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die”, for although we did not immediately die on that die, our human nature was marred so that death will surely come to us as it does the beast of verse 21: Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? Whereas many English translation set this phrase as a sincere question, suggesting that no one really knows whats happens to us after we die, Walter Kaiser points out that the Hebrew is not actually a question, but making a statement, better understood this way: “There are not many who take to heart as they ought to the fact that the spirit of man goeth upward and that the spirit of the beast goeth downward to the earth.” (Kaiser Jr., Walter C. Coping with Change - Ecclesiastes).
How about you? Do you take this into account? Blaise Pascal, “It is certain that the mortality or immortality of the soul must make an entire difference to morality.” Solomon does ask a question at the end of verse 22: Who can bring him to see what will be after him? That’s a good question, how can we bring those around us to see that after you die you should will meet God?
God provides death as an escape from the injustice of life: In regards to the problem of oppression, Solomon acknowledges that the comfort of God’s judgement and the treat that all the soul’s of men will raise to heaven to stand before their God does not eradicate injustice at this time. Sometimes the injustice and oppressions of life will be overwhelming and there will be no justice or relief. And Solomon is realistic here: 2 And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
Setting this is the context of scriptures, this is obviously not a justification for suicide, murder, infanticide or abortion. This is not prescriptive - there are prohibitions in scripture against the taking of life, all life. It is however a recognition, that for those who are oppressed, the fleeting habel -ness of life is actually a blessing, for this life of suffering will soon be over, and those who have made God their refuge on earth will ultimately be at rest. [How can death bring relief? Jesus]
Work, and Live For More Than Work: Eccl. 4:5 The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh. 6 Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind. The answer to economic inequality is neither wealth redistribution that encourages laziness and leads to more entrenched poverty, nor is it in doubling down on toil with both hands, reducing the value of a life to what one produces, but to live out an appropriate balance of work and rest, content in your labour. That is the picture Solomon paints - rather than striving with to hands in your toil, grasp quietness, “rest” in one hand while you work with the other. Neither laziness nor toil. This first meditation seems to be directed toward self - understanding that the purpose in work is not to neglect it nor to be consumed by it, but to be set in balance of life.
Love Thy Neighbour: If we can’t trust justice systems to protect us, and our economic systems divide us, it can be easy to get cynical and give up on one another. However, Solomon actually suggests to us that we should take the other course of action. In the midst of all this oppression and injustice and competition, there are still moments of beauty and cooperation, that stem from our working together with and for our neighbours:
This is how we find beauty in every moment - by fearing God and loving brother.