Monday, July 16, 2012

Ecclesiastes 4- Welcome to the Real World !

TEXT: Ecclesiastes  4
THEME:   Welcome to the real world !
DATE: 15/07/2012

There is a dark cloud hanging over Ecclesiastes Chapter 4. Welcome to  the real world  - the world  Solomon   observes  as it is -  without   God, without Jesus, without the gospel.  The translators of the  ESV appropriately entitle  this chapter,  “Evil under the sun”.   

We begin  with a brief overview :
The commentator Michael Eaton observes  that  between 4:1 and 10:20, Ecclesiastes  resembles the book of Proverbs, with short  epigrams dealing with various aspects of life.” [1] So what we see here is  a host of ‘sound-bytes’ , of random  topics  pertaining to life under the sun as it is    examined and observed by Solomon.

In Chapter 4, Solomon considers  4  vanities under the sun. Each one of these is  relevant to our times .
1.       People  oppressed with no one to comfort them (4: 1-3)
2.      People  working  and making money, simply in order to ‘keep up with the Jones’s‘,   but they are still unhappy.  (4: 4 -6)
3.      People with power and influence, but who  are incredibly  lonely (4:7-12)
4.    People rising ‘from rags to riches’, from ‘poverty to political power’, and forgetting   where they have come from, and worse still, who  no longer know how to take advice, and who  leave  their high offices  with no  appreciation from those they ruled (4:13-16).

“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. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.”

Look at the text again. The word  oppress’ occurs three times, indicating that this a major theme of this passage.  Then  look at words such as ‘tears  and ‘no comfort’, and you will realize that this is a deeply emotional matter. The repetition of ‘no one to comfort’ ,emphasizes the hopeless condition of the oppressed individual. Although Solomon  does not seem to have suffered from oppression  himself, he  would have seen it when he  looked around in his pursuit to discover what life has to offer. He would, of course  have known of  the oppressions that  David,  his father had experienced under  king Saul, and also later under  his brother, Absalom. In fact , it seems as if Solomon  himself became an oppressor of his people  ( 1 Ki. 12:4) later in his life, and it was  his  son , Rehoboam,  who even   increased the oppression ( 1 Ki. 12:11) , and thus it was  that Israel had  become a divided kingdom during the  reign of  Rehoboam (1 Kings  12:16ff) .
All this has a very modern ring  about itself ! Think about all the  current  oppressions of people under the sun. There is no nation  where  people groups are  not  and have not  been oppressed, many of them we never hear of!  The language  of  the minority Kurdish people ( 18% ) is not recognized in Turkey. In Syria, the Alawites,   a religious minority group (11 %)[2]  are the ruling elite, who it appears,   are  the reason for the present civil war.  The Tutsi’s  of Rwanda & Burundi  oppressed the Hutu  majority, and this is still at the heart  of much unhappiness in East Africa. Apartheid oppressed black people. Tribalism  still oppresses  many people in Africa. Many tribes in Africa   sold each other,out of envy,  into slavery in the  19th Century. Germans  oppressed and killed many  Jews in the 20th  C.  Communists  oppressed  those who owned property. They also oppressed religious  people. China and North Korea have some of the worst human rights records  in the modern world; Christians are oppressed in all Muslim countries… and on it goes !     
Then  we think   of the many children  on our continent  who  are pressed into becoming child soldiers; we think of young girls in countless civil wars oppressed by   sexual abuse . The ghosts  of Srebenica  (the largest mass murder since WWII in Europe) and  the one responsible  for it , Ratko Mladic (the butcher of Bosnia)  are haunting many families today,  the   bodies  of their sons and fathers have just been exhumed from  the mass graves to  be reburied with dignity. 
This is what happens daily under our sun! This is the world we live in. It is  full of  oppression, pain, sadness and sorrow.  Plenty of injustice . Unfairness . Selfishness.  Solomon is observing  a fallen world without God  in the picture.   
From this  vantage point  (being at the mercy of a  world without God) he can come to only one conclusion: It is better [3] not to be born!  Have you ever had  such a thought? “I wish I had not been born? Quite frankly, Job wished this! (Job 3:1ff). When the world is handed over, and  at the mercy of Satan  and people  who are not restrained, it is indeed  better not to live at all. Thank God then for every society where law and order, freedom  and peace, righteousness and justice, liberty of conscience  and freedom of worship exist!    


“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 fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh. Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.” (vv.  4-6)

Solomon makes three observations  here :

a. I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor(v.4).   People  work for long hours, just to get money in order to keep up with the Jones’s. Solomon clearly sees the motive behind it . It is envy and jealousy and covetousness that drive  so much of  what we do under the sun. This  too  is a  common habit in our own day.
b.      The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh”.  (v5) On the other hand  there is  the man   who does nothing . “ He eats his own flesh  probably refers to the fact that he  is  rotting away in his person. His  hands are  folded . He is idle.  for   folding of hands – cf. Proverbs 6:10; 24:33 – depict a  lazy man). 

c.       In v.6   Solomon  returns to  the man in v. 4 . He has  two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.”   He has both hands full, but what does he ultimately have ?  He has only two full hands, and the  real things in life  –  his joy in the Lord,   and his joy in the relationships that God has given him under the sun-   these are missing!  They have escaped him.  His wife has left him. His children hardly know him. What has happened?  He was climbing the  corporate ladder so that he could feel good about himself. Ambition became  a necessity, and  necessity became a god. This god  drains  him until  he  falls exhausted at his feet. Then  he may  perhaps  ask himself : “What was this all about ? “ So, “better is a handful of quietness  than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.”    I could write a book  about the people who have pierced themselves with grief  on account of their relentless  pursuit  of material gain,  moved by subtle  (and not so subtle)  envy  and jealousy .  Listen to Solomon! The ‘two hands full mentality’ is a  striving after the wind. This  thought will be repeated again in  5:10: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income…  Paul says  that “godliness with contentment is great gain( 1 Tim 6:6).   “ A man’s life doesn’t exist in the abundance of his possessions  (Lk 12:15)

Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 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. Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

You can have all  the wealth of the world and yet have no true friend. Look at  vv 7 &  8 – another   picture of vanity under the sun.   Here is  a man  who  is so busy working  that he doesn’t have time to have friends. In fact, he is so busy that he never asks: “For whom am I actually doing this?”  The World has many  such lonely people.  The British actress  Joan Collins said:  Loneliness is the universal problem of rich people. Albert Einstein said : It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.” [4] Famous  stage  personalities  who have died  ecently, such as Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston  and  Amy Winehouse were essentially  lonely people. I read the story of John Paul Getty, the oil magnate  and one of the  20th century’s first billionaires, who  during the most active years in his business life,  lived alone in a 72-room mansion outside London.  Over a 25-year period, he had married and divorced five women.  “I hate to be a failure” he said.  “I would gladly give all my millions for just one, lasting marital success.  He  admitted to being a lonely man.  He said that people liked him primarily for his money.  According to one of his wives, he spent so much time building a business, that he had no time to build a relationship with his family. John Paul Getty, before his death, said, “I’ve never known love or what it means to have a friend.” That’s sad!  He had everything, and yet  he had nothing. He had two hands full of possessions , and no   handful of quietness.  He was married to money .
Men in particular have the capacity to deceive themselves  when they say  I am doing this for my family “ , but it is really a smoke screen  for  I am doing this for myself”.
Solomon says that  a man  without a friend is lonely. Therefore “two are better than one”, but “three are even better  than two” (v. 12)   -  a threefold cord is not quickly broken”.  By the way, he  isn’t talking about marriage, although the marriage partnership is meant to be  a real source of strength.  The reasons given by Solomon a  worthy to  consider.
Two ( and better three)  keep each other encouraged  when  they are weak ; when they are vulnerable ; when they are attacked. So , don’t  allow yourself to  be robbed of the privilege of  friendship for the sake of chasing the material wind. Thank God especially for your   best friends , and your marriage partner, and never cease to thank God for the church , where  more than  two or three  are gathered together. Learn to draw  upon  the  rich relationships in the church !  There is incredible strength in unity! There is  very little strength  in  in money and possessions . Learn from  the “poor people”  we have just mentioned!

Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king's place. There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Solomon  here tells the story  of a poor young man, who  though he was once in prison, eventually became king  (a rags to riches story)  by replacing an old king who no longer knew how to take advice. Many years later  he  encounters that same problem  when those that enthroned him (in favour of that old foolish king) now would be glad to get rid of him ! (Moral of the story – no  president or king should do more than two terms in office!). How  relevant to our own age. When will political rulers ever learn that   the longer  they  rule  a nation , the more they  become a  liability and not a blessing  to the nation,  and that people  do get tired of them ?  When will we learn  the wisdom of Scripture that  teaches us  that human nature is fallen, and therefore unable to  set up  a righteous kingdom. This must wait for the return of Christ.

Conclusion : 

We have had enough application  in the course of  this exposition. The great lesson  before us is that  the things in life that we so often cherish and pursue are in the end, a chasing after the wind. Once again  Solomon’s sermon  provides us with ”Reality therapy“ and drives us back  to  listening carefully  once more to the wisdom of  the law , the prophets , the apostles – all who find their fulfillment in Jesus . Of Him , God the Father has said : “This is my beloved Son, with whom  I am well pleased: listen to Him !”  (Matthew 17:5)

[1] William Barrick : Ecclesiastes , p. 73
[2] Wikipedia : The religions of Syria
[3] Such ‘ better than’ axioms are found 23 x in Ecclesiastes
[4] . Quotations

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