So I again considered all the oppression that continually occurs on earth. This is what I saw: The oppressed were in tears, but no one was comforting them; no one delivers them from the power of their oppressors. So I considered those who are dead and gone more fortunate than those who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has not been born and has not seen the evil things that are done on earth.
Then I considered all the skillful work that is done: Surely it is nothing more than competition between one person and another. This also is profitless – like chasing the wind. The fool folds his hands and does no work, so he has nothing to eat but his own flesh. Better is one handful with some rest than two hands full of toil and chasing the wind.
So I again considered another futile thing on earth: A man who is all alone with no companion, he has no children nor siblings; yet there is no end to all his toil, and he is never satisfied with riches. He laments, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is futile and a burdensome task! (Ecclesiastes 4:1-8)
The Preacher looked upon the ways people work and treat one another in the world. What he saw was not good.
The Preacher’s main themes involved everything as hevel: vain, futile, even absurd, and all human pursuits as ultimately chasing after wind, attempting to grasp ahold of things which can never be reached or held (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14). He recognized history as cyclical: things come and go, and there is really nothing new on the earth (Ecclesiastes 1:3-10). Despite our protestations we and all we have done will be forgotten on the earth (Ecclesiastes 1:11). The Preacher considered pleasure, wisdom, and labor, and saw the futile end of all of them; none of them could provide humans with ultimate meaning (Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26). There is a time and season for everything under heaven: the things we enjoy as well as the things we would assiduously avoid (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). God made man to perceive things greater than himself, yet he is part of the creation, and subject to its limitations and corruption (Ecclesiastes 3:9-22).
Throughout Ecclesiastes 4:1-16 the Preacher would make observations regarding life “under the sun” which also connect and flow from premises and principles he has previously adumbrated. Let us consider his observations about oppression and work in Ecclesiastes 4:1-8.
In Ecclesiastes 3:16 the Preacher observed wickedness where there should have been justice and fairness. The Preacher again considered such continual oppression in Ecclesiastes 4:1: the oppressed cry out and lament in tears, yet no one liberates them from their oppressors.
Oppression and liberation have become very popular and salient themes in modern discourse. Many consider such discussion as inevitably Marxist; perhaps analyses of power differentials and the way power is leveraged in societies often prove Marxist because the rest of the schools of thought and disciplines would rather deny, ignore, or suppress concerns about power differential. Generally those who have time and space to consider such things have benefitted from relative advantage; the Preacher would exemplify such a person, as king in Jerusalem. When power differentials and the benefits gained from such power differentials are considered, one quickly perceives one’s complicity in such oppression. To work for liberation for others would thus come at one’s own expense; and not merely oneself, but also one’s associates, family, and others. Such is why it has always been easier to want to pretend power differentials do not exist, are rooted in other people’s bad or unhealthy behaviors, or to change the subject.
Yet, as the Preacher noted, “under the sun,” oppression continually exists, whether we want to admit it or not. Even when we are willing to see it, and want to do something about it, we find ourselves stymied by entrenched interests, the work of the powers and principalities. We would like to imagine liberation will not prove a zero-sum game: we want to find the “tide” that will “lift all boats.” Such proves a mirage; for others to be liberated, those with advantage and benefit will at least see the deterioration of their advantage and benefit over others. Equality looks like oppression to those who are accustomed to benefit from previous oppression. Such reinforces the wisdom of the Preacher’s observation: he perceived continual oppression almost 3,000 years ago. In the intervening period we have seen many oppressors rise and fall; we have seen oppressed groups obtain liberation only to oppress other groups. In the modern age we would imagine ourselves to be “civilized” and “enlightened,” and we might want to trumpet how well we have lifted many out of grinding poverty and how many more people enjoy a greater level of autonomy than in previous generations. Yet oppression still remains; our prosperity has been obtained at the expense of the creation, the exhaustion of its resources, and the pollution of its environment. Almost two hundred years of Marxist analysis has not led to the widespread liberation of the proletariat; Marxism has been used as a tool of oppression as much as a tool of liberation, if not more so.
Oppressors thus have every reason to keep oppressing in this world. We recoil at the injustice of it all; whereas we want to deny it and pretend we can do otherwise, the Preacher immersed himself in lament. He thought the dead were better off than the living; they are no longer oppressors or oppressed (Ecclesiastes 4:2). Like Job in his suffering, the Preacher thought it best to have never been born so one would not see the pain and suffering of life under the sun (Ecclesiastes 4:3).
The Preacher considered work again: he saw labor performed in terms of competition between people, as one envying another, and saw how such competition was ultimately without profit and chasing the wind (Ecclesiastes 4:4). The Preacher did criticize the fool who did not do any work and thus could only consume his own flesh (Ecclesiastes 4:5); but the Preacher also criticized the workaholic, since it was better to have one handful and some rest rather than two hands full of labor chasing the wind (Ecclesiastes 4:6).
If the Marxist would despair at the Preacher’s expectation of continual oppression, the capitalist would resist the Preacher’s judgment on competition. Our modern economic system is predicated on a positive assessment of competition; many imagine the ideal economy to involve entirely unregulated markets allowing competition to determine the best price for labor, goods, and services. In this economic system the worst possible people are those who would not work and compete in the marketplace yet expect some level of quality of life; the system has every incentive to promote work and discourage rest. Yes, indeed; the Preacher saw all labor in terms of competition long before capitalism was ever imagined. But the Preacher also saw how futile it ultimately would prove. For good reason we have the modern adage, “no one on their deathbed wishes they spent more time in the office.” Harry Chapin’s song “Cat’s in the Cradle” remains a potent lament and warning regarding being consumed with work and effort and missing out on relationships with children. We should enjoy people, food and drink, and find joy in our labor; such are the gifts God has given us (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13); while people should find enjoyment in their labor, they must not allow their labor to define their lives, since it is ultimately profitless.
Previously the Preacher had considered labor, how his descendants would inherit the fruit of all he did, and it would ultimately be wasted (Ecclesiastes 2:18-24); but in such a scenario the Preacher had descendants who could inherit such benefits. In Ecclesiastes 4:8 he considered the man who worked hard yet had no such family who would enjoy those benefits. Such a man would lament, wondering why he worked so hard. It would be a futile and burdensome task.
Unsolved Mysteries was a popular television series in the late 20th century. Occasionally it would profile unknown inheritance cases. These stories would generally feature a man who was profoundly shaped by his experience in poverty, often during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Such a man would not have any known family, would live alone, and would seem to be a miser without much money. Yet after he would die it would be discovered they had saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, quite a princely sum at the time. Their cases were profiled at the behest of state governments looking for some remote descendant to be able to claim the inheritance.
Such stories exemplify the Preacher’s lament in Ecclesiastes 4:8: these types of men spent their whole lives consumed in the pursuit of labor and toil. They denied themselves almost every worldly enjoyment and additional luxury in order to store up wealth in case another economic crisis arose. When they died, what testimony did they bear? What came of it all? A government agency had to appeal to a wider public audience to try to find someone, anyone – a person with whom the deceased had no relationship – to obtain the estate. How terribly sad!
Life under the sun was and remains harsh, cruel, nasty, brutish, and short. Oppression is a given; labor ultimately proves futile. But we can find some enjoyment in people, our work, and the little things, and we should absolutely do so. Thanks be to God for the hope of liberation from such futility and oppression in Christ and the resurrection of life; may we put our trust in God in Christ so we may overcome futility in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry