A Depressing Look at Death and Oppression (Ecclesiastes 3:19-4:3)

Would you say that Ecclesiastes is a depressing book?  Sometimes it appears that way.  That is because Solomon is showing what life “under the sun,” that is life without God, with no spiritual or eternal focus, is really like.  These things slip in every once in a while, but Solomon seems to be showing us the poverty of materialism, hedonism and nihilism.  Life without God really does look pretty bleak.

In the last portion of Ecclesiastes 3 the Preacher once again brings up the specter of death.  Having compared man to beasts with regard to injustice in vv. 16-18, Solomon shows how both man and beast die.  Thus, v. 18 is a swing verse, completing the discussion on injustice and introducing the discussion about death.  Both injustice and the reality of death make life harsh and hard.

We know that Solomon is reflecting here from an “under the sun” perspective because of his reference to the children of men and to vanity.   But note that God is sovereign even over those who refuse to acknowledge Him.   Why is there injustice in the earth?  God is testing men, in order to show them that, apart from any absolute and eternal reference point, they are no more than beasts.

If men are not made in God’s image, then there can be no other explanation, for our observations of men and beasts reveal that, whatever may be our differences, we are basically the same, and all are consigned to the same fate.   If we do not have God’s Word, telling us that we are His children, rather than merely the offspring of men, then we have no grounds for supposing ourselves superior to the beasts.  Thus God tests men in order to help them see the folly of trying to make sense out of their lives and experiences apart from Him.  (T. M. Moore, The Christian Worldview Journal, May 21, 2011)

Reading vv. 17-22…

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. 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. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.  Who can bring him to see what will be after him?

At first Qoheleth’s comparison to animals may seem un-Biblical, like something an evolutionist would say.  Doesn’t the Bible say that we are only a little lower than the angels, with all of the animals under our dominion (see Psalm 8)?  Didn’t God make us in his own image (see Genesis 1:27), and doesn’t this distinguish us from every other creature in the world?

All this is true.  What Solomon is commenting on its not our origin or nature, but our destiny.

If both man and animals die, then what advantage do we have over animals?  That is the vexing question Solomon is dealing with.  Because God has “set eternity in our hearts” we want to know if this life is the end of it all, or whether something comes after death.

Does something within us survive death?  From the standpoint of life “under the sun” the answer is, “Who knows?”

Again, Solomon, pondering in his heart about injustice, saw that it was a way that God shows us more about ourselves—that sometimes we do act as beasts.

Matthew Henry writes:

It is no easy matter to convince proud men that they are but men (Ps 9:20), much more to convince bad men that they are beasts, that, being destitute of religion, they are as the beasts that perish, as the horse and the mule that have no understanding.  Proud oppressors are as beasts, as roaring lions and ranging bears.  Nay, every man that minds his body only, and not his soul, makes himself no better than a brute, and must wish, at least, to die like one.

But now Qoheleth links man and beast in our mortality.  Although especially created in the image of God, we die just like the animals.  Yet we yearn for immorality.

Brian Bill humorously entitled his sermon on this passage, “Man vs. Mongrel.”

Solomon’s point is that death is inevitable.  For all the differences between man and animals, we share this one thing in common—we all die.

Death is the great equalizer.  We are reminded of our mortality every time we see another friend or family member die, or when we read the obituaries.  Solomon is saying that death notices come when we see a dead animal as well.  A corpse on the road should remind us that we, too, will one day die.

It is possible that Solomon was contradicting the Egyptian concept of life after death, so that they buried powerful people with their possessions, wives and slaves, thinking that they would enjoy them in the afterlife.  However, they are still there in the tombs today.

This earthly life will not last forever.  The day will come when they breathe their last, just like us.  With our parting breath, we will all go to the same place, falling to the earth and returning to dust (see Job 10:9; Psalm 22:15).

This is, by the way, only making reference to our bodies.  They do go into the ground.

By using this language, the Preacher is reminding us of God’s curse against Adam’s sin: dust we are, and to the dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19; cf. Psalm 90:3; 104:29).  “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”  To this extent and in this way, we are no better than animals.  In the words of the Psalmist [Psalm 49],

7 Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, 8 for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, 9 that he should live on forever and never see the pit. 10 For he sees that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others. 11 Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they called lands by their own names. 12 Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish. 13 This is the path of those who have foolish confidence; yet after them people approve of their boasts. Selah 14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning.  Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. 

Yet the Psalmist goes a step beyond the Preacher.  His perspective includes God and an afterlife, for he goes on to say…

15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah.

Thus, we are not entirely like the beasts.  Yes, we die, but after death we can live again.

The Preacher says…

21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? 

The Psalmist says…

15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah.

Both are speaking about the inner person, the immaterial part called the spirit or soul.  The Preacher does not know where the soul goes after death, but the Psalmist believes that God would ransom his soul from the power of Sheol.

Solomon’s “under the sun” conclusion is…

22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.  Who can bring him to see what will be after him?

The best that Solomon can offer, and it is not illegitimate, is to enjoy the moment. Rejoice in the satisfaction of a job well done.  We should accept God’s good gifts in life and give thanks to Him.

But Solomon is still not satisfied with this, and neither should we.  He asks, “Who can bring him to see what will be after him?”

God has, of course, enabled us to see what will occur after we die by giving us additional revelation after Solomon’s time.  In his under the sun thinking, Solomon has an answer for the question, “What will happen after him?”  The answer is, nothing – because death ends it all, and therefore ultimately his life has no more significance or meaning than the life of an animal.

We know that when we die, we will be with Christ, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:8 where Paul says, “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” and Philippians 1:23, where again Paul says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”  And as Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

We can contrast the view of the unbeliever, who in Solomon’s words is perceiving life “under the sun” to the view of the believer.

View of the unbelieverView of the Believer
Man will die and cease to exist just like the beastMan will die just like the beast in the sense that he will turn to dust, but will be raised for eternal death or life.
No one can know if man will ascend upward.Man will ascend upward for judgment.

For Solomon, in this state of mind, the future was uncertain, so enjoy the present.

While there may be some present joy in sin, the fact that God has placed eternity in the hearts of man seems to leave man incapable of enjoying life without Him.  If a man realizes (even suspects) that he is going to be eternally judged for his actions, little joy can be found in wickedness.  There would always be the question, “Am I going to be held accountable for what I am doing?”

Based on his “under the sun” view of death, the response to the one Solomon advocated is despair, which reflecting on unjust oppression causes (4:1-3).

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. 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. 

Christopher Cone says,

“These three verses contain some of the harshest language in Ecclesiastes, and certainly one of the strongest conclusions: if for no other reason than oppression, life is not worth living.  This conclusion is more hopeless than even suicidal nihilism” (p. 251)

In this passage Solomon is saying that, with all the oppression, evil, suffering and injustice in the world, it would be quite natural, given an “under the sun” mentality, to think ourselves as better off dead or maybe never having been born.

It is instructive that when Paul expressed his own longing to leave this life, it wasn’t to escape present sufferings, but to enjoy the “better by far” benefits of being with Christ.  He went on to say, “I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith” (Phil 1:25).  Unlike the unbeliever, we have a wonderful place to go when we leave this vale of tears.  And unlike him we have something worth sharing while we live on earth–the love of Christ.  (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 42)

This bit of hyperbole should not be taken literally; after all, Solomon wants to hold out the hope that even those trapped in an “under the sun” existence can find their way back to God, just as he had.  But his point is clear: life under the sun, from a merely “secular” perspective, is filled with pain and sorrow, so much so that one is better off dead or never having been born.  (T. M. Moore, The Christian Worldview Journal, May 24, 2011)

We noticed last week that this picks up again the theme of injustice and that we hear a lot today about oppressors and the oppressed.  A lot of this emphasis today comes from Karl Marx.

Larry Taunton has an interesting article called “Karl Marx vs Charles Spurgeon: An Epic Struggle for the Souls of Men in 19th-Century London.”  He writes…

“It is extraordinary to me that both Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) lived and worked in the same city at the same time.  Both were, in a sense, evangelists contending for the souls of men with their competing visions of humanity.  Moreover, each was at the height of his powers at the same time as the other.  While Marx was preaching salvation through bloody revolution, Spurgeon, on the other side of the city, was preaching salvation through the blood and grace of Jesus Christ.”

Britain at this time was the center of world governance and economics, but it was also “convulsed with the problems endemic to massive social change.”  Marx divided the populace into the Oppressors, the Haves, those in charge; and the Oppressed, the Have Nots.  He believed that the key problems in society did not lie in the hearts of individual people, but in the societal structures, in the institutions.  Thus he not only attacked capitalism, but also the church and the family. 

Spurgeon, of course, knew that the real source of oppression lay in the heart of individuals.  He knew, as Solzhenitsyn said,

“If only it were all so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds [read The Oppressors, the Capitalists, or the Christians], and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

In reality, and in line with the Bible itself, oppression in the world happens because of sinful, selfish hearts.  Instead of regarding, honoring and helping others, it’s “every man for himself.”

Solomon had already taken up this sad spectacle in vv. 16-18, now he returns to it.

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. 

Notice here that Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, wept for both groups—for the oppressed and the oppressors.  Instead of taking sides he sympathized with both.  He sought comfort for both because both are negatively affected by oppression.

Compassion for the oppressed is common (even in the Bible) and quite natural, whereas compassion for the oppressor, the criminal, requires a higher work of grace in our own hearts.

To escape these evil deeds, Solomon thought that death or even not being born would be preferable…

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. 

That phrase “the dead who are already dead” probably does not mean people who are alive but walk around as if they were dead (spiritually dead while physically alive), but rather just emphasizing that these people have already reached the state where they are relieved of these evils.

These verses express the despair of living in a world with so much evil and suffering and oppression.  It is not the “good” creation God made, but the fallen world convulsing in sin in every way and every age.

We won’t escape suffering and trouble in this life.  Fortunately, because we can have an “above the sun,” or heavenly perspective based on further revelation, we know what Joseph knew, that God even works evil for good.  And we know that, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

While we have a better hope, we still need to do what we can to relieve pain, to show compassion to those who suffer, and to offer mercy to oppressors as well.  And we know that ultimately God will right every wrong.  Because the Judge of all the earth will do what is right.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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