Thank you for joining me again in our study of the Old Testament wisdom book of Ecclesiastes. Here, Solomon is presenting to us what life is like “under the sun,” that is, perceived from a perspective that is materialistic, hedonistic and that leaves God out of the picture. Even, as we saw last week, we can leave God out of our worship services. When we go merely to give our own opinions and spout our own “truth,” we may be in the house of God but we’re not treating God with the honor of listening to Him. Remember, He is in heaven; we are on earth. Fear Him.
Now Solomon turns his attention back to injustice in society (vv. 8-9) and the vanity of money (vv. 10-17). Then Solomon returns to the familiar theme of enjoying the simple pleasures of life (vv. 18-20).
Solomon’s admonition moves smoothly from false views of religion to false views of power and influence to false views about wealth. Each of these things is good in themselves–Solomon will get around to saying this at the end of chapter 5. However, as ends in themselves, they are deceitful, destructive, and even diabolical.
Our own age has been described as an age of materialism, relativism, narcissism, and superficiality. The manifest lack of happiness and peace, evident in so many ways, serves to confirm the wisdom in Solomon’s warnings to his son, and makes Ecclesiastes all that much more an important and timely book for our day. (T. M. Moore, The Christian Worldview Journal, June 3, 2011)
8 If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. 9 But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields. 10 He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. 11 When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? 12 Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep. 13 There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. 15 As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. 16 This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? 17 Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger. 18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil–this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.
Our text begins with something we hear in our society today, the reality that injustice occurs through some of the sinful structures of society. Sometimes we may place too much blame on sinful structures, when we need to look at our own hearts. There is where sin resides.
Here Solomon deals with government’s role in perpetuating injustice. This is not the first time Solomon addresses this issue. Back in Ecclesiastes 3:16 he had said…
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.
The “place of justice” and the “place of righteousness” surely refer to the court system. Here the issue is that where one expects to find justice and righteousness, in the legal system, one does not.
In Ecclesiastes 4:13-16 Solomon had said:
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. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Here the problem is a king who “no longer knew how to take advice” and thus became foolish as he aged. Even good kings come and go.
Both passages, indeed the whole book, encourage us not to depend upon human systems for our ultimate help. Only God can be trusted. He is the righteous and only trustworthy judge (3:17; 11:9; 12:14).
In our current passage there are two things which exacerbate the profusion of injustice we see throughout history: the presence of money and the multiplicity of government leaders.
An abundance of money frequently brings its possessors a greater degree of power and prestige. And this often leads to their gaining control of more money, land, and enterprises. Many times, wealth will even help place individuals in political offices where they can establish laws that favor their own economic advancement. In situations like this, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 54)
The Preacher sees something that we all see — oppression and injustice at every level of society. We see it in communism, where the state seizes control of the means of production. But we also see it in capitalism whenever profit is pursued without regard for the well-being of other persons. Somehow poor people always seem to get the worst end of the bargain.
Ecclesiastes tells us not to be surprised by the vanity of all this injustice. This is not to excuse unrighteousness; it is simply being realistic about life in our fallen world. The reality is, where man is involved, there will be selfishness and injustice.
The point of these verses seems to be that the fruits of one’s work can far too easily disappear as a result of taxes and unfair oppression by political rulers. A hierarchy of officials is in view, possibly the frustration of bureaucracies. By legal and illegal means, rulers squeeze money out of the populace.
In the words of one scholar, this verse is about “the frustrations of oppressive bureaucracy with its endless delays and excuses, while the poor cannot afford to wait, and justice is lost between the tiers of the hierarchy” (Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary , Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), p. 101).
Koheleth shrugs his shoulders and says, “Don’t be surprised: it is the system and you can’t beat the system.” It is the price you pay for bureaucracy. The official you meet may be sympathetic, but he has got a higher official sitting on his shoulder. He must be consulted and satisfied. And there is a top man keeping an eye on them all. Not only does the buck get passed up the line, but in many societies, ancient and modern, at each stage someone is out to line his own pocket. (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 37)
Or perhaps the point is that each level of government takes something from the level below. We should not be surprised when people in authority abuse their power. Eventually injustice reaches all the way down to the poor, who would probably oppress someone else if they could, but they can’t because they are at the bottom. On this interpretation, the problem is not bureaucracy but tyranny.
Too often the struggle for power brings suffering for the underdog. Each shows servility toward the man above and waits to take his place while lording it over those below him. The Teacher does not say that this always happens. On the whole he sees an advantage in a supreme ruler truly concerned for the welfare of the land. One hopes for a wise person at the head of the country or a business or an institution–one who has both ability and humility. (Frank E. Gæbelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, 1169-70)
The right way to interpret the verse partly depends on the meaning of the word for “watched” (shomer). Occasionally this word has a negative connotation. So it might refer to the way that different branches of government tend to be suspicious of one another. To “watch” in this sense is to keep people under surveillance, looking for a way to take advantage of them.
But “watch” can also be taken more positively, in which case it would imply that people in government are watching out for one another, protecting each other. This kind of cronyism creates a political machine that leaves poor and ordinary people on the outside looking in.
As David Hubbard says…
The “perversion of justice” takes place not in spite of the government officials but because of them. They are supposed to be checking on each other to make sure that the law is upheld and the rights of the citizens guarded. Instead, they are protecting each other, covering up for each other, which is what “watches” seems to mean here. “Do not marvel” suggests that this was a pattern so endemic in Jewish society under foreign domination that it could virtually be taken for granted. (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 136-37)
We are not exactly sure which is meant here. There are so many kinds of injustice in society that we should never be surprised by corruption in many ways. Unless there is “some Solomon to exhort and console him,” said Martin Luther, “government crushes the man, extinguishes him, and utterly destroys him” (Martin Luther, “Notes on Ecclesiastes,” in Luther’s Works , trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, 56 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), 15:5).
Even so, it is better to have government than not have it (cf. Rom. 13:1-7).
Verse 9 seems to offer at least a partial solution to this perennial problem. The Preacher says, “But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields” (Ecclesiastes 5:9).
This is another difficult verse to translate. The way the English Standard Version has it, the best defense against government corruption is a godly king. Society needs a ruler with wisdom like Solomon, someone who values economic freedom, who encourages his people to prosper by cultivating their own fields.
Many scholars read this verse more negatively, however, and translate as follows: “The profit of the land is taken by all; even the king benefits from the field” (Tremper Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes , p. 15). On this reading, the king is not part of the solution but another part of the problem.
Matthew Henry writes:
There is profit to be got out of the earth, and it is for all; all need it; it is appointed for all; there is enough for all. It is not only for all men, but for all the inferior creatures; the same ground brings grass for the cattle that brings herbs for the service of men. (Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. III, 1009)
However, the context seems to indicate that in this case the prosperity of the land merely serves to further the prosperity and power of the king.
Certainly this is the way most rulers operated in the ancient world, and in most centuries since: they claimed the profits of the land for themselves. They take rather than give; they hoard rather than share.
Our experiences with injustice and corruption in this fallen world might lead us to expect it at every level of government, from the bottom to the top. They may start out with pure motives, but power eventually corrupts.
The best governments assume from the outset that people are sinners and that therefore they need checks and balances to restrain unrighteousness. That is the way the U. S. government was set up—with the three branches of government ideally providing checks and balances so that no one person or group of persons could rule without any accountability.
But even the best governments are far from perfect. As long as we live on this earth, we will see people buying their way to power, using public position for personal gain, and manipulating the system for their own advantage.
David Jeremiah notes:
The failings of governments are nothing more than the failings of men. Why should we expect government to be any different from other segments of society since all are populated and overseen by sinners? Anyone who puts his hope in the government is surely bound to be disappointed. That doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the righteous things government does. It just means that our ultimate hope for protection and salvation is in a God who never disappoints. (David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 118)
But there will be no real justice until the true King comes to earth, Jesus Christ. Only under His rule will true justice be present.
Isaiah gave his people this promise:
6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
And fortunately, although the highest government official may stand against us, the ultimate Authority of the universe is for us.
There is an appeal to a higher court. All will be set right there. If the oppressor be high, the Higher than the highest regards us. (Ps. 10:11–14; 12:5; Prov. 22:12, 13.) He does not look on as an unconcerned spectator. If he “keeps silence,” his forbearance does not mean forgetfulness. He is only waiting—as in his dealings with the chosen nation or with His beloved child—his own best and fittest time for their deliverance. (Exod. 3:7–9.)
When the Roman Christians were being dragged before the courts and charged with sedition against the empire (for claiming Jesus as Lord) or charged with cannibalism (for eating Christ’s flesh), they could know that no earthly judge could ultimately condemn them. In Romans 8 Paul says…
33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
Can man bring charges? Yes. But the greater judge, God Himself, declares us “not guilty.” There is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). And even if we be condemned, Jesus stands with us and prays for us.
34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
Until Christ returns to rule and reign in righteousness and justice here on earth, we can know that He sits at the right hand of God interceding for us now.
Solomon is encouraging to come out of God’s house and take a look at the world around us. We are not to be surprised that evil and injustice are happening. We are to have empathy towards those who are suffering under injustice.
But we are also to recognize that the ultimate answer to injustice is not a revolution against societal structures and leaders, but an appeal to the ultimate Judge of the universe.
Let me end today with David’s words in Psalm 37, when he saw the wicked prospering:
1 Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! 2 For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. 3 Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. 4 Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. 5 Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. 6 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. 7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! 8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. 9 For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land. 10 In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. 11 But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.
God will work all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. You can bank on it.