Today I will return to the series I began in September discussing the book of Ecclesiastes.  In my first sermon in this series I provided background information on Ecclesiastes and in the following three sermons we moved through the first three chapters of this book.  Today, in the fifth sermon in this series, we will continue our examination of Ecclesiastes by directing out attention to chapter four.  Here we see the writer continuing to dwell on the negative dynamics of life.

       Ecclesiastes 4:1:  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.

       This is an observation that practically anyone who has ever lived could make.  From the time of recorded history we see oppression.  We see domination, tyranny, subjugation and cruelty.  Every generation has witnessed the occurrence of racial, ethnic, political, religious, gender, cultural and social oppression.  What does it mean to be oppressed?  Oppression is generally defined as the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner.

       Humans dominating other humans appears virtually intrinsic to human behavior.  Just look at the oppression we have seen in our own lifetime.  The raise of the Third Reich resulted in millions of Jews, gypsies and the weak and disabled oppressed and in many cases simply eliminated. During the reign of Joseph Stalin in Russia, millions of people were sent to Siberian labor camps to live out their lives in forced labor under brutal climate conditions.    

       We see oppression at all levels of human relations.  Husbands oppress wives and wives oppress husbands.  Parents oppress children and children oppress parents. Workers oppress fellow workers and governments oppress entire nations.

       Many people in the world today live lives of quiet and sometimes not so quiet lives of desperation as they struggle to cope with oppression.  Some muster up the strength and will to rise up against oppression and become engaged in revolution which often results in greater oppression.

       The oppression practiced by governmental, political and religious leaders and organizations throughout history is in stark contrast to what Jesus taught as to what leadership is all about. 

       Matthew 20: 25-28:  You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

       Jesus taught that leadership is all about serving your fellow man.  It is all about looking after the needs and welfare of others even at the expense of your own needs and welfare. Jesus came to deal with the greatest of all human needs, that being the need to have the penalty for sin paid for.  In recognizing this need, Jesus performed the ultimate service. He paid the penalty for sin in our stead.

       It is apparent Solomon became depressed and upset at seeing the exercise of authority and power in a burdensome, cruel, and unjust manner.  He saw people living lives of desperation and not able to do much of anything to change their state of being.  He was so distraught about this that he felt it was better for those suffering under such oppression to be dead than alive and even concluded it was better not to be born at all if it meant being oppressed. 

       What is strange about this rhetoric of Solomon’s is that it is apparent while he was king over Israel, he, himself, oppressed the people. This is made evident by what transpired after Solomon’s death.  After his death his son Rehoboam became king and the people came before him with a request. 

       1 Kings 12:4: "Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you."

       From this passage it is apparent Solomon was a hard task master. It is evident from the Scriptures that Solomon undertook many building projects not unlike the Egyptian Pharaoh under which the Israelites suffered for 400 years.  It appears likely, in view of 1 Kings 12:4, that the Israelites labored long hours under the rule of Solomon with little opportunity to do anything else.  

       The fact Solomon expresses great concern over oppression and yet evidently was guilty of the very oppression he speaks out against has led some to believe Solomon could not have authored Ecclesiastes.  However, as we covered in part one of this series, the internal evidence indicates he did.  At any rate, it is apparent Solomon appears to at some point in his life to bemoan oppression even to the point of saying it would be best not to have been born than to have to endure oppression.

       Ecclesiastics 4:2-3:  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.

       It may have been that Solomon was experiencing a real low point in his life when he made this statement.   I am sure many have thought to themselves or expressed to others the notion that it would have been better to not have been born than to experience the sufferings of this life.  When one is suffering with no relief in sight, it can become very difficult to maintain a positive attitude about life. 

       We see this in the musical Les Miserables which is French for “The Miserable’s.” In this musical the character Fantine sings the song “I Dreamed a Dream”  in which she speaks of her dreams of living a happy and rewarding life only to see it all come crashing down and the song ends with her saying that life has killed the dream I dreamed.

       Solomon, in seeing the misery around him concludes it would be better to not have been born than to have to suffer with no relief in sight.  We see this sentiment in the life of Job.

       Job is seen as a very righteous man who walked blamelessly before God.  He seems to have been living a charmed life.  He had great wealth, a large family and was held in high esteem in the community in which he lived.

       Job 1:1-3: In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.

       As the story goes, Satan came before God and accused Job of being loyal to God only because God had placed a hedge around him which protected him from any evil affecting his life or that of his family.  God then allows Satan to bring great evil upon Job. All of Jobs children are killed when a great wind descends on the house where they were feasting and the house clasped on them.  Job’s property is attacked by various enemies who kill all his servants and either slaughter his animals or steal them.

       Job remains stoic through all this and remains faithful to God.  Then God allows Satan to attract Job personally.  Job is struck with painful sores all over his body. Job now begins to react and here is what he says.

       Job 3:1-7: After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.   He said: "May the day of my birth perish, and the night it was said, `A boy is born!' That day--may it turn to darkness; may God above not care about it; may no light shine upon it. May darkness and deep shadow claim it once more; may a cloud settle over it; may blackness overwhelm its light. That night--may thick darkness seize it; may it not be included among the days of the year nor be entered in any of the months. May that night be barren; may no shout of joy be heard in it.  

       So here we see Job cursing the day of his birth which is to say it would have been better if he had not been born.  We can certainly understand Job’s reaction.  He had nearly lost everything.  Now he was suffering great physical pain.  Life truly had become a great burden.  He was probably wishing he would just die and be over with it. 

       I sometimes wonder how people keep their wits about them when everything they have is destroyed in a hurricane, tornado, earthquake or fire.  To recover from such disasters is a real challenge to say the least and I would guess that the process of recovery is very trying and one never really recovers from such tragedy.  Ones life is changed forever.

       Solomon appears to be primarily speaking to the misery of those who are oppressed by others and have no way of escaping such oppression other than dying.  This greatly troubled Solomon.

       In the classic Christmas move “ It’s a Wonderful Life” the banker George Bailey, played by Jimmy Steward, is about to lose his business to a competitor who has been oppressing him for years.  He feels he can’t take it anymore and decides to commit suicide.  He wishes he never was born.  An angel named Clarence prevents George from committing suicide and grants him his wish to not have been born.  He proceeds to show him what life would have been like if he indeed had never been born.  He shows all the bad things that occurred because George wasn’t there to prevent them from happening as he had actually done during his life. 

       The angel shows George’s brother drowning because George wasn’t there to save him as he had actually had done in real life.  George is shown all the people living in run down rental housing owned by his competitor instead of living in homes they bought due to George’s Building and Loan bank providing people the opportunity to buy a house.  Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and how different life in his community of Bedford Falls would be had he never been born.

       This film teaches the importance of looking on the positive things of life and not allowing the negative to dominate ones thoughts.  For the oppressed, however, life can be drudgery.

       Solomon than shifts his outlook on things to conclude that all that man does is generated by envy. 

       Ecclesiastics 4:4: And 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.

       As discussed in some detail earlier in this series, the word translated as “meaningless” here in the NIV is the Hebrew heble.  This word has the basic meaning of breath and is used to describe something that is transitory, fleeting, temporary, and short lived.  The word can also be used to connote nothingness or emptiness.  Some scholars see Solomon using this Hebrew word to signify the transitory, fleeting, temporary and short lived things of this life.  I believe this usage best fits the overall perspective seen in Ecclesiastes and it is this perspective I am taking as we move thought this book.

       Solomon appears to be saying that all that man strives to achieve is motivated by envy of others and like everything else it is all transitory.  The Hebrew word translated “envy” means envy or jealousy and can also mean zeal, rivalry, competition, suffering, animosity, anger, wrath or passion.  The words envy and jealousy are often used interchangeably in common usage.

       However, the words actually stand for two distinct emotions. Jealousy is the result or fear of losing to another person someone or something that one is attached to or possesses.  We see this often in gender relationships where one gender becomes concerned they may loose their mate to someone who is displaying affection toward their mate.  They become jealous in that they want to keep their mate loyal to them and no one else. Envy, on the other hand, is the resentment directed toward another person who has something that one does not have, but desires to have for oneself.

       Context here appears to show Solomon using this word to mean envy as that word is commonly understood.  Is all labor and achievement driven by envy?  Is all labor and achievement the result of resentment caused by another person having something that one does not have, but desires to have for oneself?   Some labor and achievement is driven by envy as people try to keep up with the Jones’.  We need to realize, however, that when we see the words “all” or “everyone” used in Scripture, these words are often used in a hyperbolic manner and don’t mean “all” or “everyone” in a universal sense.  We use the word “all” and “everyone” in a hyperbolic manner often in our daily speech.

       We may say “everyone was at the game last night.”  Obviously not everyone in some universal sense was at the game.  By everyone we mean the game was well attended.  We know that while some labor and achievement is driven by envy, this is not true of all labor and achievement.  There is no reason to believe Solomon is using the word “all” in some universal or all inclusive sense here, 

       Solomon is making the statement about “all labor and all achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbor” within the context of oppressors making life difficult for those they oppress.  He may simply have the oppressors in mind when he speaks of labor and achievement generated by envy.  It is important we always consider context in trying to determine what is being said. 

       Ecclesiastics 4:5:  The fool folds his hands and ruins himself.

       Scholars have determined that Solomon is here using several Hebrew idioms to get a point across.  What is an idiom?  An idiom is an expression that means something other than the literal meanings of its individual words.  We look out at a heavy rain storm and say “It’s raining cats and dogs.”   This is an idiomatic expression.  Obviously it is not raining cats and dogs.  It is simply raining hard.  Sometimes idiomatic expressions have their origin in what are believed to be literal events and then come to be used in an idiomatic manner.  Some believe the expression “it’s raining cats and dogs” developed from literal cats and dogs falling from their perch in thatched roofs during heavy rain storms. However this appears to be more folklore than reality.

       Ecclesiastes 4:5, is usually translated as “The fool folds his hands and does no work, so he has nothing to eat but his own flesh.” Since the Hebrew word translated flash means flesh, this is the more literal translation.  However it simply means that the man who won’t work brings ruin upon himself and is so translated in the NIV.  The phrase “the fool folds his hands” is a Hebrew idiom that means he does not work.  Solomon apparently was very concerned about this problem and twice identifies it in the Proverbs.

       Proverbs 6:10-11: A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.

       Proverbs 24;33: A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest--  and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.

Returning to Ecclesiastes:

       Ecclesiastes 4:6: Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.

       This appears to be a summary statement of what Solomon shows as contrasts in verse 4 and verse 5.  In verse 4 he addresses those who work and strive to stay ahead of their neighbor maybe even at the expense of their neighbors welfare and tranquility.  In verse 5 he addresses those who don’t want to work and end up in ruin.  Now in verse 6 he is simply saying that it is better to be balanced.  Do what you need to do to provide for yourself and those you are responsible for but don’t go overboard and strive for more than is necessary.  There is peace and tranquility in doing what is necessary but going beyond that can bring undue toil. The Hebrew word translated “toil” has the meaning of “wearing effort, worry, misery, pain, and travail.  Solomon appears to continue stating his displeasure with toiling beyond that which is necessary just to increase ones wealth.

       Ecclesiastes 4:7-8: 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!

       We probably all know people who spend their whole life working to increase personal wealth and never stop to smell the roses.  They never seemingly do anything just for fun. The character Scrooge in Charles Dickens famous play “A Christmas Carol” exemplifies this type of person.  Until being scared by the ghost of Jacob Marley into embracing a different viewpoint, he seemed to do nothing but work to increase wealth even to the point of not wanting to give his employees off for Christmas.  

       Solomon appears intent on teaching that life is not all work and no play.  As he says several times in Ecclesiastes, “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.” 

       Solomon now turns to a different matter altogether.  He begins to show the virtues of not being alone. 

       Ecclesiastics 4:9-12: 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.

       This passage is quite self explanatory.  I think we all understand the value of having friends and family.  Having someone to lean on in times of need can often make the difference between rising above a problem or allowing the problem to do us in.   One of the reasons we meet in community of worship, commonly referred to as going to church, is so people can share needs and problems with others and collectively lean on one another for support.  Chapter four ends with the following:

       Ecclesiastics 4:13-16: 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.   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.

       Some believe Solomon may have been talking about himself and his son Rehoboan who succeeded him to the throne over Israel.  However, Rehoboam would not have been poor and as it turns out he wasn’t very wise.  Instead he allowed his young advisers to talk him into oppressing the people more than was true under Solomon.  This led to revolution with ten of the tribes separating themselves from Rehoboam and setting up a separate kingdom in northern Israel under the leadership of Jeroboam. 

       It is more likely that Solomon was simply saying it is better to have a poor but wise young man be king than an old foolish king who doesn’t listen to anyone and consequently fails to make proper decisions.