“Evil” – Ecclesiastes 4:1-6

November 17th,  2013

Ecclesiastes 4:1-6

“Evil”

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Bible Memory Verse for the Week:  “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  —John 16:33

 

Background Information:

  • Between 4:1 and 10:30 Ecclesiastes resembles the book of Proverbs, with short epigrams dealing with various aspects of life.  Groups of sayings, however, can be seen clustered around particular themes.  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 90)
  • Solomon had a large soul (1 Kgs 9:29) and it appeared by this, among other things, that he had a very tender concern for the miserable part of mankind and took cognizance of the afflictions of the afflicted.  He had taken the oppressors to task (ch. 3:16, 17) and put them in mind of the judgment to come, to be a curb to their insolence; now here he observes the oppressed.  (Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. III, 1001)
  • Compassion for the oppressed is common in the OT.  Oppression of people by a king (Prv 28:16), of a servant by his master (Dt 24:14), of the poor by the affluent (Prv 22:16; Am 4:1), the bureaucratic (Ec 5:8) or even by others who are poor (Prv 28:3), is viewed with indignation.  The temporary resident, the alien, the fatherless and the widow receive especial sympathy (Je 7:6; Ezk 22:7; Zc 7:10).  High interest rates (Ezk 22:12, 29), corrupt weights and measures (Ho 12:7) and oppressive estate agents (Mi 2:2) are among oppressions singled out for rebuke.

It is particularly embittering that oppressors should have power at all.  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 91)

  • (v. 5) The eating of one’s own flesh (NIV ruins himself) is, of course, a metaphor for causing devastating harm to oneself.  (Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books, 359)
  • (v. 5) Such idleness can be ‘soul-destroying,’ our modern idiom for Koheleth’s “eating one’s own flesh.”  (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 28)
  • (v. 6) Let me give you verse 6 in the Tommy Nelson Translation.  Rather than putting two hands in for 80 hours a week, why don’t you put in 40 hours with one hand and with the other eat some Rocky Road?  (Tommy Nelson, A Life Well Lived, 66)
  • The book of Ecclesiastes is an unsettling book because it counters many of our most cherished views; at the same time it is a relaxing one, in that again and again it calls on us to take it a bit easier if we have been working our fingers to the bone to attain things in this world that cannot last.  (Jay E. Adams, Life under the Son, 44)

 

A philosopher, John Stuart Mill, considered the manifest presence in the world of pain, suffering, violence, and wickedness, and he concluded that what we encounter on a daily basis belies any hope of a good and loving God.  In skepticism he said that if God is a God of love yet he allows such pain and suffering, then he is powerless to prevent it and is nothing more than a divine weakling incapable of administering peace and justice.  If, on the other hand, he has the power to prevent evil but chooses not to, standing by and allowing it, then he may be powerful but he is not good or loving.  The complaint Mill raised against historical Christianity is that either God is good but not all powerful, or he is all powerful but not good.  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Romans, 268)

 

The question to be answered is . . . How can I trust in God when there is evil in the world?

 

Answer:  I don’t know why God allowed evil to enter the world.  But, I do know this:  That the minute you recognize that evil exists, then you MUST concede that God exists.  For otherwise, you have no standard by which to recognize evil other than by the presence and standards of God.  And if God exists, then you are a fool to ignore, shun, despise or reject Him.  For now that you exist, God holds all the cards to any future hope, redemption, justice or life.

 

“A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.”  What then must we think of those who are oppressive and cruel to their fellow-men, but that they are utterly void of justice, goodness, and humanity, that they are monsters and not men?  (Joseph S. Exell, The Biblical Illustrator, Vol. V, Ecclesiastes, 124)

 

The Word for the Day is . . . Oppression

 

Oppression almost invariably preys on the helpless, the weak, and the infirm, those who cannot defend themselves.  The Searcher knows this.  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 63)

 

What does Koheleth (the writer of Ecclesiastes) want us to see in Ecclesiastes 4:1-6?:

I.  The oppression, evil, suffering and injustice under the sun can be so offensive that it is natural to think ourselves better off dead rather than alive:  Or better yet, unborn. (Eccl 4:1-3; see also: 1 Kgs 19:1-4; Job 3:11-26; Eccl 6:3; 7:1; Jer 20:18; Jonah 4:3, 8; Mt 27:5; Lk 23:29)

 

If all we had were the misery of this world, we might well conclude with the French philosopher Voltaire, “I wish I had never been born.”  Or, as the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli observed, “Youth is a blunder; manhood, a struggle; old age, a regret.”  Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have come to similar conclusions; the highest good is to attain nirvana, a state of nothingness.  These are the observations of people from all ages and from around the world.

Christians also long to escape this life.  With the Apostle Paul we exclaim, “I desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is better by far” (Phil 1:23).  But we also have a purpose for staying here.  “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)

 

So keen were Solomon’s sensibilities, that, looking at the comparison merely in the light of temporal evil, he considered death, or even non-existence, preferable, as a refuge from this suffering lot.  The patriarch, in his crushing sorrow, looked to the grave as his hope of rest.  “There”–said holy Job–“the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary be at rest.  There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor” (Job 3:17, 18).  (Charles Bridges, The Geneva Series of Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 81)

 

What a drastic solution to the problem–to be dead or unborn was to be preferred to such oppression.  “Praised” is a dramatic word to magnify the benefits of being “dead.”  Most translations paraphrase it to catch its force: “I salute” (JB); “I declared that the dead…are happier” (NIV); “I congratulated” (NASB).  “Never existed” takes us back to “I hated life” (2:17) and marks the low-water line in Koheleth’s appreciation of living.  Even if we modulate the text a bit by allowing for exaggeration or hyperbole, the pathos is powerful and the horror of oppression is clear.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 119-20)

 

Having established his theme, Solomon now turns to unpack his most important lesson: life is nothing to rejoice over if you choose to live it apart from God.  (T. M. Moore, The Christian Worldview Journal, May 23, 2011)

 

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 see this same sentiment expressed in our own day, for example, in young parents who determine not to have children because they “don’t want to bring a child into this hard, evil world.”  Those who commit suicide or turn to euthanasia in one form or another also testify of their belief in what Solomon here asserts.  (T. M. Moore, The Christian Worldview Journal, May 24, 2011)

 

II.  The oppression of this world, with its inherent evil, causes some people to be so discouraged and fed up that they simply quit:  On life and on God. (Eccl 4:4-5)

 

As toil can be all-consuming, so idleness is self-cannibalizing.  (William P. Brown, Ecclesiastes, 50)

 

If you believe this life is all there is, then there is no such thing as injustice.  And yet deep inside you know there is.  On the one hand he says, “Vanity, pointless, meaningless” and on the other hand he says there is evil.  And there is an incredible contradiction in the heart of being a secular person.  The heart of unbelief says this, “I don’t believe really in a god . ..  Because of the injustice”.

But, if there no god then there is no basis for the outrage.

Let me put it to you two ways. . . . If there is a god, evil is a problem.  It is a big problem.  God has reasons for why He is allowing it and we don’t know what they are.

But if evil is a problem for you there must be a god.  Do you see that?

If you are outraged at evil, and yet your own world-view gives you no basis for the outrage then that means that your world-view is wrong.  If you know that there is an injustice, even though if there is no god there shouldn’t be an injustice, you know there is a god.

To put it another way: The presence of Evil  is a problem for belief.  But, it is an even bigger problem for unbelief.

It’s a problem if you believe in God, but it is an even bigger problem if you don’t believe in God, for if you don’t believe in God then the original reason for disbelieving God is gone.  You can’t even define injustice without God.  There is not even a basis for it.

Evil is a problem for belief.  But it is an even bigger problem for unbelief.  So why not believe?  (Tim Keller sermon, “Search for Justice,” 27 minutes into the message)

 

As Louis Dupré writes, “The sheer magnitude of evil that our age has witnessed in death camps, nuclear warfare and internecine tribal or racial conflicts has not raised the question how can God tolerate so much evil, but rather how the more tangible reality of evil still allows the possibility of God’s existence.”  (Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust, 40)

 

The drive to be admired is the true objective of many lives.  But, he says, this too “is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”  It will not give lasting enjoyment.

“Sometimes when people become aware of this they flip over to the opposite extreme.  They drop out of society, they get out of the rat race, they go on relief and let the government support them.  We saw that kind of reaction in California in the 60s.  Young people, particularly, were saying, “We don’t want to be part of the rat race anymore; we don’t want to make money or play games to be admired.  We’ll drop out instead!”  But that is not the answer either, the Searcher says.  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 65)

 

Many young men and women who were part of the counterculture of a decade ago have found this to be true–that when you sit in idleness you devour yourself, your resources disappear, your self-respect vanishes.  They had to learn the painful lesson that the only way to maintain themselves, even physically (let alone psychologically), was to go to work and stop devouring their own flesh.  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 65)

 

The better the work, the more is the man hated by those who have no heart to imitate him.  Thus even godliness becomes a source of evil.  If our godliness “condemn the world,” we must expect to be hated by the world.  (Charles Bridges, The Geneva Series of Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 82-83)

 

As Dr. Barrow asks, when rebuking his idle gentleman–“what title can he have to happiness?  What capacity thereof?  What reward can he claim?  What comfort can he feel?  To what temptations he is exposed!  What guilt will he incur!  Idleness indeed places a man out of God’s order.  It should therefore have no place in God’s fair creation.  Work is at once the substance and the privilege of our service.  A thousand witnesses will rise up against the sluggard’s excuse–“there is a lion without; I shall be slain in the streets.”  (Prv 22:13).  (Charles Bridges, The Geneva Series of Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 85)

 

A life of ease can never be a life of happiness, or the pathway to heaven.  Trifling indulgences greatly enervate the soul.  ‘A despicable indulgence in lying in bed’–writes the heavenly Martyn in his early course–‘gave me such a view of the softness of my character, that I resolved upon my knees to live a life of more self-denial.  The tone and vigor of my mind rose rapidly.  All those duties, from which I usually shrink, seemed recreations.’  (Charles Bridges, The Geneva Series of Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 86)

 

In the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist–in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless–I found that I was forced to assume that one part of reality–namely my idea of justice–was full of sense.  Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple.  If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark.  (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 42)

 

Do you ever get tired of running in the rat race where only the rats win?  Do you ever get weary of keeping up with the proverbial Joneses?

My generation got sick of the affluence of the 1950s.  In the 1960s we bailed out and claimed the title of “flower children.”  Everybody just gave up ambition and the drive for financial success.  We let our hair grow long, quit bathing, and just sat on the grass and hummed.

Solomon sounds like the first flower child.  Why should we do something just to satisfy or impress somebody else?  Some people never enjoy life because they’re always trying to keep up a front.  But Solomon shows us that we can take our denial of status quo too far.  (Tommy Nelson, A Life Well Lived, 65)

 

III.  It would be worth sacrificing much if we could find tranquility, contentment and peace in this world of oppression.   (Eccl 4:6; see also: Prv 14:30; 15:16-17; 16:8; 17:1; Mt 16:24; 2 Tm 2:3)

 

True forgiveness always entails suffering.  (Timothy Keller, King’s Cross, 101)

 

True peace does not come from extreme indifference, nor does it originate from becoming so “spiritual” that you fail to notice the world around you.  Peace is the fruit of being confident in God’s love; it is born of the revelation that, regardless of the battle, “Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4).  You are not self-assured, you are God-assured.   (Francis Frangipane, The Three Battlegrounds, 55)

 

Qualitatively, the contrast lies between the two ways of acquiring what is in the hands: (1) you can get enough with “quietness” (Heb. nāhat), which pictures the calm, quiet strength of the wise teachers (9:17) and the complete freedom from stress or pressure of a stillborn baby (6:5), or (2) you can gain more than twice as much with “toil” (Heb. ‘āmāl; see at 4:4; 1:3), which stresses the backbreaking efforts necessary to acquire excessive amounts of wealth.  Koheleth’s preference is clear: the stress-packed, frenzied labor that envy produces is not a life-style worth comparing with the simple sufficiency to be garnered by composed and moderate efforts.  When the choice is quality over quantity, he will opt for quality every time.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 121-22)

 

Let us by honest industry lay hold on the handful, that we may not want necessaries, but not grasp at both the hands full, which will but create us vexation of spirit.  Moderate pains and moderate gains will do best.  A man nay have but a handful of the world, and yet may enjoy it and himself with a great deal of quietness, with content of mind, peace of conscience, and the love and good-will of his neighbors, while many that have both their hands full, have more than heart could wish, have a great deal of travail and vexation with it.  Those that cannot live on a little, it is to be feared, would not live as they should if they had ever so much.  (Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. III, 1003)

 

CONCLUSION/APPLICATION: How does a life in Christ change everything?:

A-  Jesus empowers us to overcome the oppressive evil that is inherent in this world (and ourselves) by showing us that He can and will make everything beautiful in its time. (Gn 50:20; Eccl 3:1-11; Jn 14:1-6, 27; 16:33; Rom 8:28-37; 1 Tm 6:8; 1 Jn 4:4)

 

You can’t forgive until you have been forgiven and only then can you forgive to the degree that you have been forgiven.

 

Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings, as others, and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.  (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1, 62)

 

Notice, however, that the very idea of forgiveness implies an affirmation of justice.  The Lord’s Prayer makes this plain.  When we pray, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6:12), we imply that we owe God something and that other people owe us something.  What we owe and what is owed to us can be established only by applying the principle of justice.  Hence: no justice, no forgiveness.  (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 122)

 

There is a direct correlation between a lack of forgiveness and a lack of self-knowledge.  When you know yourself, you will forgive.  (Steve Brown, Born Free, 184)

 

“If you want to know the problem in any organization, look for the ego.  There is no forgiveness where there is ego.

 

When a church learns to forgive, they’ll be able to grow.

When a marriage learns to forgive that relationship will be able to grow.

When a team learns to forgive, that team will be able to grow.

When an organization learns to forgive, that organization will be able to grow.  — Steve Brown

 

God will forgive anyone anything except for those who don’t forgive anyone anything.  — Steve Brown

 

Forgiveness is a prerequisite for love.  — Steve Brown

 

A happy marriage is the union of two forgivers. —  Ruth Bell Graham  

 

Bitterness is the most visible symptom of the stronghold of cold love.  To deal with cold love, we must repent and forgive the one who hurt us.  Painful experiences are allowed by God to teach us how to love our enemies.  If we still have unforgiveness toward someone, we have failed this test.  Fortunately, it was just a test, not a final exam.  We actually need to thank God for the opportunity to grow in divine love.  Thank Him that your whole life is not being swallowed up in bitterness and resentment.  Millions of souls are swept off into eternal judgment every day without any hope of escaping from embitterment, but you have been given God’s answer for your pain.  God gives you a way out: love!   (Francis Frangipane, The Three Battlegrounds, 68-69)

 

Every time you refuse to forgive or fail to overlook a weakness in another, your heart not only hardens toward them, it hardens toward God.  You cannot form a negative opinion of someone (even though you think they may deserve it!) and allow that opinion to crystalize into an attitude; for every time you do, an aspect of your heart will cool toward God.  You may still think you are open to God, but the Scriptures are clear:  “The one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20).  You may not like what someone has done, but you do not have an option to stop loving them.  Love is your only choice.   (Francis Frangipane, The Three Battlegrounds, 70)

 

If we do not move in divine forgiveness, we will walk in much deception.  We will presume we have discernment when, in truth, we are seeing through the veil of a critical spirit.  We must know our weaknesses, for if we are blind to our sins, what we assume we discern in men will merely be the reflection of ourselves.  Indeed, if we do not move in love, we will actually become a menace to the body of Christ (Mt 7:1-5).   (Francis Frangipane, The Three Battlegrounds, 75)

 

A good man, how calamitous a condition soever he is in in this world, cannot have cause to wish he had never been born, since he is glorifying the Lord even in the fires, and will be happy at last, for ever happy.  Nor ought any to wish so while they are alive, for while there is life there is hope; a man is never undone till he is in hell.  (Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. III, 1002)

 

B-  Jesus assures us that every oppression or wrong will be made right and that everything sad will come untrue.  (Isa 65:17-25; Mt 7:1-2; 19:28; Jn 5:16-47; 16:7-12; Rom 2:1-3:31; 8:18-25; 14:10-23; 1 Cor 4:1-5; 15; 2 Cor 5:10; Heb 9:27-28; 1 Jn 3:2; Rv 21:5)

 

“God is a god of Justice.  This means He will make anything that is wrong right.”  (Joyce Meyer, “The Character of God” series, tape 6 God is Faithful and True)

 

We need to remind ourselves that throughout the Bible, not least in the Psalms, God’s coming judgment is a good thing, something to be celebrated, longed for, yearned over.  It causes people to shout for joy and the trees of the field to clap their hands.  In a world of systematic injustice, bullying, violence, arrogance, and oppression, the thought that there might come a day when the wicked are firmly put in their place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be.  Faced with a world in rebellion, a world full of exploitation and wickedness, a good God must be a God of judgment.  (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 137)

 

If the God of life does not respond to the culture of death (21st century western civilization – abortion) with judgment, then God is not God.   If God does not honor the blood of hundreds of millions of innocent victims of this culture of death, then the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, the God of Israel, the God of the prophets, is a man-made myth, a fairy tale, a comfortable ideal as substantial as a dream.

But, you may object:  Is not the God of the Bible forgiving?

He is!  But, the unrepentant refuse forgiveness.  Forgiveness being a gift of grace, must be freely given and freely received.  How can it be received by a moral relativist who denies that there is anything to forgive, except unforgiveness; nothing to judge but judgementalism; nothing lacking but self-esteem?  How can a Pharisee or a pop-psychologist be saved?

But, you might object:  Is not the God of the Bible compassionate?

He is!   But, He is not compassionate to Molech and Baal and Ashtoreth, and to the Canaanites who do their work, who cause their children to pass through the fire.  Perhaps your god is compassionate to the work of human sacrifice, the god of your demands, the god of your religious preferences.  But, not the God of the Bible.  Read the Book.  Look at the data. (Peter Kreeft lecture, “Culture War,” 11:17)

 

Our confidence does not lie in a justice system but in the Chief Justice himself, Jesus Christ.  God has promised a day when his Son will judge the righteous and the wicked (Acts 17:30-31).  The time for his work of divine retribution is the Day of Judgment, when he will render his final verdict on all mankind.  “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gn 18:25).  Indeed, the wicked will be punished forever (Mt 25:41-46), and the righteous will be comforted by the Spirit of God, who will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Rv 21:4).  As the Preacher will go on to say at the very end of his book, “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl 12:14).  (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 103)

 

As we read the Bible, we quickly discover that this is a conflict in which God chooses sides.  He is not on the side of injustice but stands against it with all his power.  We see this again and again in the Biblical prophets.  Amos preached against people who “oppress the poor” and “crush the needy” (Amos 4:1; cf. Prv 14:31).  Ezekiel warned about extortion and stealing from foreigners (Ez 22:12).  Zechariah listed the people who were most likely to be oppressed:  widows, orphans, travelers, and the poor (Zec 7:9-10; cf. Ex 22:21-22).  It is not just words and actions that bring oppression but also legislation.  Thus Isaiah pronounced God’s woe against “those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression” (Isa 10:1).  (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 101)

 

There are incommensurable perspectives that stubbornly refuse to be dissolved in a peaceful synthesis; there are evil deeds that cannot be tolerated.  The practice of “judgment” cannot be given up.  There can be no new creation without judgment, without the expulsion of the devil and the beast and the false prophet (Rv 20:10), without the swallowing up of the night by the light and of death by life (Rev 21:4; 22:5).  (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 52)

For if heaven cannot rectify Auschwitz, then the memory of Auschwitz must undo the experience of heaven.  Redemption will be complete only when the creation of “all things new” is coupled with the passage of “all things old” into the double nihil of nonexistence and nonremembrance.  Such redemptive forgetting is implied in a passage in Revelation about the new heavens and the new earth.  “Mourning and crying and pain” will be no more not only because “death will be no more” but also because “the first things have passed away” (21:4)–from experience as well as from memory, as the text in Isaiah from which Revelation quotes explicitly states: “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (65:17; cf. 43:18).  (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 136)

 

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West.  To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered).  Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit.  The topic of the lecture:  a Christian attitude toward violence.  The thesis:  we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love.  Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge.  In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent it will invariably die.  And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.  (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 304)

 

God is a just and righteous Being, and at the judgment-day “He will render to every one according to his works.”  The Lord seeth and remembereth all the oppression that is done under the sun, and He will at length reckon with those who have done it.  (Joseph S. Exell, The Biblical Illustrator, Vol. V, Ecclesiastes, 124)

 

There are times when we thank God for delivering some poor tortured sufferer through death (v. 2).  Anyone who feels deeply, like the Teacher, may wish on occasion that he had never been born into all the sufferings of the world (v. 3).  Observe how Jesus Christ comments on the misusers of power in Mt 18:1-9; it is they, not their victims, who will wish that they had never been born.  (Frank E. Gæbelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, 1166)

 

Since Immanuel has come, everything sad is going to come untrue.

 

I remember driving one day with a man who is a convinced skeptic, a self-confessed atheist.  As we approached an intersection, a car ran a red light and headed toward us.  Only because I had very good brakes was I able to avoid what would have been a serious accident.  My friend started shaking his fist at the other driver, exclaiming, “You’ll get your due someday.  You’ll get yours.”

I told him that he was asserting a very problematic proposition for an atheist.  If an atheist really believes that there is no God and that the universe is simply cruel, unjust, and random, he has to explain how he gets the idea of just and unjust.  If there is no sense of justice or right and wrong, or standard for behavior, no universal judge in the universe, why would you expect wrongdoers to “get their due”?  How would you even know they were wrongdoers?  My friend was asking a God he didn’t believe in to administer what only God can finally supply:  justice.  (Charles Colson, The Good Life, 277)

 

C-  Jesus demonstrates to us that the pain, suffering, injustice and oppression that we face in this world can become powerful motivators to persevere, work hard and endure because of the joy, happiness, liberation, freedom and peace we will one day enjoy by trusting in Christ and His promises.  (Ps 23:4; 86:17; 119:50; Rom 8:18-37; 1 Cor 15:58; 2 Cor 4:7-5:10; Heb 11; 1 Pt 1:3-9)

 

The rightful acknowledgments of most useful services are not to be expected on earth.  How did the world treat Moses, Jeremiah, the apostles, and the Holy Christ?  Yonder, not here, is the reward for truly right labor.  (Joseph S. Exell, The Biblical Illustrator, Vol. V, Ecclesiastes, 127)

 

Let me address the oppressed.  It may perhaps be the case of some of you, and I would endeavor to be your comforter.  Acknowledge the justice of the Lord in what you suffer from the hand of men.  Though they are unrighteous, He is righteous, for you have sinned; and He may choose this method of afflicting you, to lead you to repentance, to exercise your virtues, and make your hearts better.  Let me exhort you to guard against a spirit of malice and revenge.  Remember that their oppressing you will be no excuse for injustice to them.  That “it is no harm to bite the biter” is a very wicked maxim.  It is better to suffer many wrongs than to do one.  Yea, it is our duty to render good for evil.  (Joseph S. Exell, The Biblical Illustrator, Vol. V, Ecclesiastes, 124)

 

We see that the elder brother “became angry.”  All of his words are dripping with resentment.  The first sign you have an elder-brother spirit is that when your life doesn’t go as you want, you aren’t just sorrowful but deeply angry and bitter.  Elder brothers believe that if they live a good life they should get a good life, that God owes them a smooth road if they try very hard to live up to standards.  (Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God, 49-50)

 

By thoroughly disgusting us with the world, and by making us realize its absolute vanity, God means to draw us to himself…Through much tribulation must our hold on earthly things be loosened and ourselves enter into the kingdom of God.  (Ernest Hengstenberg, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes, 126)

 

The longing in the human breast for the eternal judgment when wrongs will be righted, when Rom 8:28 will be fully understood, and when there will be no more such change as is described in verses 1 through 8, lies within the heart of every true believer.  So, all the unknowable, the incomprehensible, the misunderstandable ought to make us long all the more for eternity.  (Jay E. Adams, Life under the Son, 32)

 

Victims need to repent of the fact that all too often they mimic the behavior of the oppressors, let themselves be shaped in the mirror image of the enemy.  They need to repent also of the desire to excuse their own reactive behavior either by claiming that they are not responsible for it or that such reactions are a necessary condition of liberation.  Without repentance for these sins, the full human dignity of victims will not be restored and needed social change will not take place.  (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 117)

 

Those that excel in virtue will always be an eye-sore to those that exceed in vice, which should not discourage us from any right work, but drive us to expect the praise of it, not from men, but from God, and not to count upon satisfaction and happiness in the creature; for, if right works prove vanity and vexation of spirit, no works under the sun can prove otherwise.  But for every right work a man shall be accepted of his God, and then he needs not mind though he be envied of his neighbor, only it may make him love the world the less.  (Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. III, 1002)

 

So how should we respond to the absurdity of life?  The fool will say, “Well, what’s the use?  I’m not gonna exert myself for any purpose or person.”  So he just wastes away, feeding off his own selfish interests and aspiring to nothing greater than whatever is immediately at hand.

On the other hand, the diligent man gets busy with as many projects and activities as he can keep going at once.  He is so busy–“two hands full of toil”–that, while he embodies the idea that life and happiness consist in things and experiences, he has no time to enjoy them, and dies exhausted and defeated.  Solomon slips in a glimpse of life “under the heavens” by the phrase “hand full of quietness (‘rest’).”  In the divine economy men need to work–it is the gift of God–but they also need to rest.

But they can only truly rest when they live toward God rather than toward themselves.  God not only authorizes rest but commands it as vital to full and abundant life.  Solomon’s glance at the fourth commandment here is his way of keeping his primary theme in view.  (T. M. Moore, The Christian Worldview Journal, May 26, 2011)

 

Worship point: When you begin to realize what a hope and future you have because of the promises of God, your trials and challenges actually become an opportunity to worship.  Especially as you look at and consider the utter hopelessness and meaninglessness of a life without God under the sun and how the evil, oppression, pain, suffering and trials of life are pointing you to Jesus and the life under heaven.

 

Doing in harmony with the moment is Ecclesiastes’ key to tranquility.  Solomon has already told us that each moment has its own integrity:  a moment for birth, a moment for death, and so on.  Our challenge is to discern the integrity of the moment and act in sync with it.

We tend to act not in harmony with the moment but in harmony with our own story about the moment–a story arising from our need for coherence and permanence over and above whatever intrinsic value the moment itself may carry.  We project our need for permanence onto the moment and act from that, when what we really need to do is let go of our projections and stories and perceive what the moment calls forth in and of itself.  (Rami Shapiro, The Way of Solomon, 137)

 

Spiritual Challenge:  Look at your life:  Do you trust God at ALL times?  Do you believe God will take the evil, painful, oppressing, challenging and times of suffering and make everything beautiful in its time?  If not, it simply means you do not yet trust in the Lord with all your heart.  You continue to lean on your own understanding.  You need to acknowledge Him in all your ways, so that He can make your path straight and not up and down and right and left as you are doing now.

 

To non-believers, injustice in this world proves one of three things: 1) God is not sovereign, 2) God is not good, or 3) God does not really exist.  When believers experience injustice, they often respond in one of three ways: 1) They question God’s love (“Does God love me?”), 2) They question God’s sovereignty (“Is God really in control?”), or 3) They trust Him by faith, knowing His ways are higher than man’s ways.  (John A. Stewart, Lamplighters Self-Study: Ecclesiastes, 15)

 

I would address those who can appeal to a heart-searching God that they are guiltless of this sin.  I would exhort you to guard against the love of money, which is the chief root of this evil.  To prevent your becoming oppressors, go not to the utmost bounds of things lawful.  Keep on the safe side.  Be not only just, but honorable, generous, and charitable, and “abstain from the very appearance of evil.”  Let me exhort you, likewise, to be comforters of the oppressed.  (Joseph S. Exell, The Biblical Illustrator, Vol. V, Ecclesiastes, 124)

 

. . . sin is a parasite, an uninvited guest that keeps tapping its host for sustenance.  Nothing about sin is its own; all its power, persistence, and plausibility are stolen goods.  Sin is not really an entity but a spoiler of entities, not an organism but a leech on organisms.  Sin does not build shalom; it vandalizes it.  In metaphysical perspective, evil offers no true alternative to good, as if the two were equal and opposite qualities.  “Goodness,” says C. S. Lewis, “is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness.  And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.”  Here Lewis reproduces the old Augustinian idea that evil “has no existence except as a privation of good.”  Good is original, independent, and constructive; evil is derivative, dependent, and destructive.  To be successful, evil needs what it hijacks from goodness.  (Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 89)

 

Evil wants good; in fact, evil needs good to be evil.  Satan himself, as C. S. Lewis explains, is God’s Satan–a creature of God who can be really wicked only because he comes from the shop of a master and is made from his best stuff.

The better stuff a creature is made of–the cleverer and stronger and freer it is–then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong.  A cow cannot be very good or very bad; a dog can be both better and worse; a child better and worse still; an ordinary man, still more so; a man of genius still more so; a superhuman spirit best–or worst–of all.  (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, 53)

 

Much has been said in this book about God’s activity in making and sustaining our world and ourselves.  God has been described as the source of all things.  The first question that leaps to the mind of every thoughtful man or woman is “Why does he allow evil?”  We may be said to have answered that question in showing how man’s freedom to be himself a maker and a chooser left the way open for him to err.  But that does not get to the root of the matter for most people.  They might well protest, “You have explained how God allowed men to choose evil.  But why was evil there to be chosen?  You say God made everything.  Why did he make evil?”

The answer is that evil was never “made.”  Evil does not have the kind of substantial existence that good has.  This does not mean that evil is an “unreal” in the sense of “imaginary” thing that is projected into the universe by the human mind.  It means that, although it is not wrong to picture man standing at a junction with a signpost that points to “Good” in one direction and to “Evil” in another, it is absolutely wrong to imagine that the “Evil” road leads anywhere at all.  The “Good” sign points, we may say, to a solidly constructed city with a highway leading to it.  The “Evil” sign is deceptive in that it points only to a morass; for the road peters out.  It only looks like a valid alternative.  Indeed, if we did not allow ourselves to be deceived, we should recognize that there is only one road.  If you leave it, you wander off into the desert.

God made the city and God made the road.  The appearance of an alternative road is an illusion.  You can stay on the road and get somewhere, or you can leave it and get lost.  That is the choice life offers.

There is no evil that is not goodness corrupted, or goodness perverted.  We can perhaps understand this most easily in relation to material things.  We said that a chair which collapses when you sit on it is for practical purposes not a chair at all.  We call it a “bad” chair, a “defective” chair, a “broken” chair, but there is no evading the fact that the worse it is, the less it is effectively a chair- i.e., something you can sit on.  So all talk about its being a “bad” or “worse” or “defective” chair is simply talk about its not being a chair at all.

Now “chair-ness” is plainly a good thing.  It’s nice and useful to have something to sit on.  But the “badness,” the “defectiveness,” the “broken-ness” of a chair is nothing at all: it is a way of describing the material’s failure to be a chair.  There is “chair-ness” and there is “lack of chair-ness,” and you can make your choice between them.  When we say that a carpenter has made a “bad” chair, because a leg has broken when someone tried to sit on it, we clearly mean that he has failed to make a true chair.  It is not making, but failure of making, that produces defects.

‘When I looked inside the room I saw that they had stripped him naked and lain him on a metal stand, more an ironing-board than a bed.  A harsh light shone down just above his body.  There were four masked figures bending slightly over him.  They looked like members of the Ku Klux Klan.  One was holding a cap over the victim’s face.  It appeared that some chemical was being used to immobilize him.  I saw one of the masked men take a gleaming knife and thrust it into his side.”

Is this the description of a torture-chamber or of an operating theater?  Clearly it might be either.  The one is an evil thing, the other a good thing.  What essentially distinguishes the one from the other is the different human motives behind what is happening.

An interesting thing is that when evil men want to torture to the utmost, they become conscious of this peculiar superficial relationship between evil and good.  Fiction writers often exploit this fact.  The Secret Police at their most vicious and cruel use the vocabulary of goodness and kindness for their torture.  The sinister agents of evil, determined to get their victim to talk, fall back on fake friendliness, fake sincerity, and fake kindness.  “Come now, a little hospital treatment would do you a world of good.  We’ll have you in the. . .er. . .operating theater in a jiffy. . . and you’ll come out a new man, with a totally different outlook.  You’ve no idea how well-disposed you’ll feel to us when our. . . er.. . surgeons and anesthetics have put you through their latest. . . remedial treatment.  I think you’ll come round beautifully afterwards. . . I hope so..  The treatment is a novel one:  it uses all the refinements of modern medical know-how.  And we’ve had a hundred percent success rate with it so far.  Everyone who has been through it has proved grateful afterwards.  They’ve become really trustful, reliable friends, keeping no secrets from us at all.”

When you come up against the worst kind of evil, you recognize that it is essentially parodic.  It is a mock-up travesty of goodness.  The worst kind of hostility turns out to be fake friendliness, the worst kind of falsehood is fake sincerity, the worst kind of cruelty is fake kindness.  All evil desire parodies good desire.  Thieves desire for themselves things that are good in themselves, beautiful possessions; gluttons desire things that are good in themselves, steaks and strawberries; debauchees desire things that are in themselves good, the bodies of beautiful women; even corrupt tyrants often desire what is good in itself, an orderly harmonious society living in prosperity and peace.

The more you search for evil as something in itself substantial, the more elusive it seems.  That is not to question the “reality” of evil.  Evil is real enough—but only by derivation, by parasitism, by parody.  When the little boy kicks the kitten, the action is not physically different from kicking a football.  The leg is a good leg, the movement a good movement, the impulse to exercise himself is healthy.  Evil can be located only in exploiting those good resources and impulses to an unworthy end.  It is not kicking that is evil, but the perversion of a healthy act to a cruel purpose.

One great writer who understood the nature of evil perfectly was John Milton.  He was so sensitive to the parasitical and parodic nature of evil that in Paradise Lost he projected his Satan as a mock-up divinity.  There is nothing done by Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost that does not in some way parody God’s thought and his work.  Satan is a mock-up divinity destroying man in parodic imitation of God’s work in creating and saving man.  So successful was Milton in presenting Satan as a mock-up divinity mouthing the vocabulary of goodness that, as Christian influence decayed, readers and critics began to say, “Satan is really Milton’s hero.”  What they meant (had they understood what they meant) was that, seeing the real God and the mock-up God (who is the Devil) confronting each other, they recognized that their own God was the mock-up one.  Milton’s psychological masterstroke in showing human beings where they really stand has been in that respect the most astonishing literary achievement of Christendom.

Suppose you missed the irony and the parody in our Secret Policeman’s talk to his victim, would you not say, “Here is a kindhearted, well-meaningful official indeed”?

In life, as in literature, it is very easy to mistake the fake for the genuine.  Even Christianity can be turned into a parody of itself.  (It is happening all around us.)

If people ask, “Why did God make evil?” the proper reply is that everything God made is good.  Only unmaking can produce evil.  If the further question is asked, “Why had goodness to be of such a kind that it could be parodied by evil?” the only reply is that it is a mystery.  That is the kind of world we live in.  Just as ours is a world where three-legged men with eyes in their shoulder-blades are inconceivable, so a world where goodness is unpervertable is inconceivable.

The Christian must always be ready to accept that there are unfathomable mysteries.  There are bound to be where there is an unfathomably omnipotent and mysterious God.  St. Augustine tells of a questioner who asked, “What was God about before he made the world?” and was answered, “He was making hell for those who pry into his mysteries.”  (Harry Blamires; On Christian Truth, 77-80)

 

 

 

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.  Hebrews 3:12

 

Christ:

Oppression Conqueror

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