Summary: Chapter 4 focuses on two burdens, injustice and alienation, that aptly describe the distress of living without God. Without spiritual resources, life is pretty tough. Our options are to trust God or trust nothing.
Overcoming Futility—a sermon series on Ecclesiastes
“Better Off Dead?” chapter 4 -Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
Chapter 4 focuses on two burdens, injustice and alienation, that aptly describe the distress of living without God. Without spiritual resources, life is pretty tough. We need the support of faith and of faithful friends.
Solomon looked around and saw “the tears of the oppressed” (vs 1). Several years I received training from NOVA, the National Organization for Victim Assistance. NOVA is a victims’ rights advocacy group, and they have a low opinion of the criminal justice system. Solomon states in verse 1, "power is on the side of the oppressors." Criminals seem to get more protection under the law than their victims. I think courts are more concerned with what is legal, than what is morally just. Those who cheat and exploit others to gain wealth are only concerned with what works for them, not with matters of right or wrong. A despicable example is people defrauding relief agencies during natural disasters, pretending to be victims. We wonder, "How could anyone stoop so low? How can they live with themselves?" Little surprises us these days.
We often interpret Jesus’ overthrowing of the moneychangers’ tables as His offense over commerce taking place in a holy place, turning a sanctuary into a store...but there’s another element--the moneychangers were making an unfair profit, forcing poor people to pay an excessive lending/exchange fee. How do we respond to injustice in the world?
The very concept of justice informs us that we live in a world fashioned by God, where there are absolute values, moral principles...and it matters how we live. An advertisement for Hebrew National kosher hotdogs states, "We answer to a Higher Standard." When faith factors in, we’re not just concerned with what’s legal, but what is right.
Solomon indicates in verses 2-3 that many people without God wish they’d never been born, or that they’d be better off dead. Despair can lead people to thoughts of suicide, to escape the pain of life. A soldier who often came to my office for counseling got depressed one night and said in the orderly room that he wished he was dead...his First Sergeant heard this, and the next thing the soldier knew he was up on the psych ward of the Army hospital. I visited him just prior to his release, and I asked him about his experience. He reflected that his few days there made him realize he wasn’t "the only troubled person in the world.” Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. There are always other options, but alienated people often have tunnel vision, and are so absorbed with self that they don’t see how their death will affect others. Solomon is hoping his readers move from hopelessness to trust in God. But in order to guide them to faith, he has to first let them see the utter desolation of life apart from God.
Some people try to escape reality by engaging in things that burn up their lives. Verse five observes, "The fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh" (NASB). This describes people sitting in idleness and devouring their resources. “Thank God it’s Friday” is a cry of those who see no divine calling in labor. We also consume ourselves by substitutes for God and responsible living, things that will never satisfy the longings of our hearts. Relief comes, not with substances or activities that can enslave us, but by turning our lives over to the One who says “Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest.”
In verse 8 Solomon describes busy people alone in the world, working for fleeting, materialistic goals in life. There are two ways to become wealthy; one is to acquire more and more money and things...the other is to be content with what we have. Driven people work themselves to death, and for what? It’s a futile and miserable way to live. “Contentment is realizing that God has already given us everything we need for our happiness” (Bill Gothard).
Solomon goes on to describe what it’s like to feel isolated, friendless and alone, verses 9-12. "Two are better than one." Companionship is a blessing, yet we all know of lonely people living an empty existence. Loneliness keeps poets busy. In days past, travelers and soldiers used to bundle up close together at night for warmth. Companionship provides us security as well; there’s “safety in numbers”. The ties that bind provide strength--"a threefold rope isn’t easily broken.” Fellowship offers us spiritual connectedness, a closeness that enriches our lives. I get together once a month with a group of area ministers at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. We share ideas and pray for one another; I look forward to our meetings. Some people pretend they need no one, but no one is an island. We need others to encourage us.