Solomon is using his life mixed with God's wisdom as an experiment in search of some meaning he has lost since he has walked away from worshipping God alone. He'll contemplate some portion of life left hollow in his earth pursuits and then briefly come back to the understanding that life lived with God does have meaning and purpose. We just completed the famous chapter three in which he contemplates the events in life under heaven.
The Oppressed and Oppressors
Wow. Solomon starts this chapter off with a bang.
In verse 1 he contemplates the oppressed and claims they have no comforter. And in the same verse he contemplates the oppressors and their power and then laments that he perceives that they also have no comforter.
Really. He said that.
I looked it up in three translations in case there was some punctuation or phrasing that made it sound bad. But no. It's really where Solomon is in life.
First, in keeping with his own brand, he can see that some are oppressed and some are oppressors and he knows he is firmly in the oppressor camp. He is forcing his own people (against instructions from God) to be his forced labor. He's giving away land (by trading cities away in deals with foreigners) that belongs to God. He's bragging about the slaves he bought and those born on his land...he's an oppressor.
So he gives equal burden to the oppressor with some weird caveat that's supposed to exonerate him? They have power but no comforter? What narcissistic gall.
And then, the whole conclusion that neither group have a comforter. This man is suppose to be wise. He is supposed to have read the holy scriptures. But he doesn't seem to know who God really is. He doesn't know God's names. He doesn't seem to know that the oppressed do have a Comforter, an Advocate, a Creator. And even though he himself is an oppressor, he too has the same comforter. But to connect with that comforter would mean possibly risking the comforts under the sun. So it's easier to erase God from the landscape and lament his fictional situation.
It's hard to read his words knowing what we know about him. It's almost easier for me to think of the author as the post-exile writer, inspired by God, to write this as if he were Solomon. Because when I think of this man writing this, again still inspired by God either way, but genuinely dismissing God in his personal laments...it makes it hard not to judge him.
Which means it's time for...if you're judging...I bet you do it too! My least favorite part of this blog. But required by God in Matthew 7. I'm going plank diving.
If I were to take the same view as Solomon, to me the oppressed are those living in horrible third-world countries and being starved by corrupt governments. So I would be exempt from being an oppressor. But is it that simple? I know there are concentration camps in China filled with Muslims. Some of those are forced labor camps and, even more horrifying than that is that the Chinese extract organs from living and involuntary donors for transplant to their people. So they are murdering these people for their organs. Again, not only am I not doing the oppressing; but I'm horrifyingly opposed to it.
I still buy products made in China. Or more specifically, I don't know where my products are made and I don't usually look- preferring to think everything comes from well paid and not-murdered U.S. citizens.
I think I am inching closer to being part of the problems...making me, to some degree, an oppressor.
I know that capitalism has pulled the world from abject poverty and increased the quality of living for most-except the most backward countries. However, that was God using the forcing on this earth. The U.S. is declining and that force will likely decline with it as we see God circling the Temple and slowly removing His grace. I wonder if the invisible hand of the market will still pull towards the best results when that grace is gone.
This is my point, I don't boycott very much. And when I do it's usually because of a narrow incident that annoys me. Partially because I truly believe that the market does a net good; but partially out of laziness and personal comfort.
So even though I am going to great lengths wo white-wash my culpability, my U.S.-born, over-fed, under-exercised, soft, comfortable self should be more careful about throwing rocks at Solomon. He had many things I could never have and wouldn't want; but I have several things that would make him shudder in jealousy- just by modern innovation and technology.
Ok, that was just verses 1-3, I should move on.
Solomon's View on Work
In verse 4 he posits that every labor and skill is born from a rivalry with man and his neighbor. That is such a sad outlook and runs contrary to what we can read in Genesis. We were always suppose to work. And men can be motivated by things much more noble than jealousy. Again, he's placing his wicked, selfish heart on all man.
My Ryrie Study Bible footnotes say that this is Solomon showing the extremes of workaholics in verse 4 verses a lazy person who starves in verse 5 with a balance in verse 6. As I often clarify, I haven't been to any sort of formal biblical training; but that's not what I get out of those verses.
If that's what he's trying to say, he should have been less "Proverbs" about it. Verse 4 reads to me like Solomon is looking down from his spoiled, pampered life and putting his rotten intentions on all men. Verse 5 and 6 read like poetic proverbs. I see where Ryrie gets the "no works equals starving" from Ryrie, but only by accepting his interpretation. Holding his hands could mean a lot of things. And verse 6 seems like we're back to saying rest is better than work, not a balance but a "better than".
It's Holy Scripture, so I'm going to try and avoid my normal overly-critical tone. But this section just reflects poorly on Solomon and explains why he is so depressed. Men who aren't doing the purpose God has for them can feel like they have no purpose and that's what I see here. Someone sneering at the laborers of the world.
Verses 7 and 8 go on to prove my point. He sneers at a man who works hard instead of seeking pleasure; but because he has no family or business partner, Solomon doesn't understand who he is working for. He just has no insight into the common man, despite the enormous amount of wisdom granted to him by God. And sadly, that's how he got that wisdom, because he wanted to be able to be a good king over his people.
Maybe the man didn't have a family because his work was so important to him. Is Solomon saying family men should be the ones to be away working all the time? I see that Solomon attributes the man's work to his being unsatisfied with any amount of wealth; but he provers in verse 4 he's not that good at determining regular men's motives.
A Cord of Three Strands
Verse 9 seems to be contrasting the man who worked just for himself with a better suggestion that he work with a partner.
Two is better than one because they have a good return for their labor.Ecclesiastes 4:1
He goes on to explain that they can lift one another up (verse 10); keep one another warm (verse 11); and offer one another protection from attack (verse 12).
Then he ends verse 12 with the popular:
A chord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.Ecclesiastes 4:12b
It does seem more like the proverbs here. Random bits of wisdom smashed together. I know we have added the chapter and verse numbers, so maybe that adds to the disconnected feel of these topics. And maybe with some formal training this would look like a more coherent discussion than it appears to me. To me, it adds to the feel that this man is the recipient of all of that wisdom; but because he's wandered from the Lord, it gets short-circuited with words that are not wise; but "under the sun" and very worldly. And often petulant and childish. Like a mean, drunk uncle who happens to be very smart. So some of what he says is wise and much is garbage.
All of that to say, I really like verses 9-12. It's one of the more widely known verses, even if people don't know that the Bible is the source. But it is so out-of-place among his discussion about work being chasing after the wind. Drunk Uncle Solomon.
Solomon and His Daddy Issues
He takes another hard turn into an incoherent story about politics. As close as I can tell, a poor kids goes to prison, but comes out and becomes king- only to forget himself and become an old fool who won't listen, so the people back a new young king.
He changes subjects again in Chapter Five. So these four verses are all there is on this subject. We know for sure this little mini-rant isn't about himself as king, because he was never poor and never in prison. And he brings it up immediately following his nice, sentimental block on how friends hold one another up, which followed his judgement on those who work hard. Then it hit me who he might be railing against in this little political story...dear old dad.
I have previously noticed that things in Solomon's life make me wonder about how he saw his father. There's a verse that describes Solomon's palace. I think it might be when the Queen of Sheba visited. It says that every thing in the palace, down to every spoon, was made of gold.
Just as a practical question of a wise man, what would be the reason a man couldn't have anything but gold. Seems like he's compensating for something or proving something.
At the time, I theorized that this spoiled boy probably had issues with his poor, backwoods daddy, who started out as a young shepherd- a job that was despised because of the smell and dirty reality of living outside with animals. Then he spent 10 years living in caves and such on the run from Saul. And then he became King. But when he got old, he "no longer knows how to take instruction", so he got undermined by another young man who was able to win the masses to his side (Absalom).
The facts, taken in the most negative light to David, fit the life of David perfectly. It reads like Drunk Uncle Solomon was ranting about the oppressed and then remembers he's one of the oppressors; which makes him start feeling sorry for himself. So he starts ranting about people who work hard, briefly becoming sentimental (as drunk ranters are wont to do), so he waxes poetic about friends and how important they are. Which seem to remind him of his Father and all of his Father's friends. So he goes on to deride this ex-felon King with humble roots who then gets run over by another up-and-comer.
But that's just a theory...a Bible theory. (Pop-culture reference to YouTuber Matt Patrick)
Ok...enough of that. I'll go see what actual Bible scholars think.
Wiersbe says that Solomon starts Ecclesiastes as a theory about life being meaningless; but now he is going out into the world to look at the common man to confirm his theory and finds that life isn't so simple.
For this chapter he has come down from his ivory tower and observes four people in four different situations.
The first observation, in verses 1-3, according to Wiersbe is specific to a court hearing and corrupt government dealings, leading the powerless in court to be oppressed.
He then says, even though Solomon is King, he couldn't do anything about all of the corruption because he would just find more corruption.
That's exactly what someone as powerful as Solomon could have done if he focused on his people and their needs instead of all of the works he did for himself. Imagine if that energy had been put toward the spiritual cleansing of his government and not gardens and ponds and palaces for his foreign wives?
And shame on Warren Wiersbe for, once again, letting a major biblical figure off of the hook. I had to read his soft-pedalling for David through the whole Bathsheba event and now we're back. Poor, poor Solomon...what could he possibly do about this corruption in his government? Really?
Uggh, he even gives a quote that this kind of corruption is to be expected as part and parcel of constitutional liberty.
King Solomon was...a KING. Kings, particularly ancient kings who had walked away from God...did not offer constitutional liberty to their people.
What does constitutional liberty have to do with this passage AT ALL? You have a giant blind spot, Warren Wiersbe. You have a truly awful take on these three verses.
Wiersbe writes this next section as if Solomon had said man was good and went looking for evidence to support it. But he said life is meaningless and went looking for evidence to support that. So, again, it's tough to trust Wiersbe's conclusions when he has such a bright and cheerful heart for Solomon.
Not surprisingly, Wiersbe and I do not see verse 4-7 in the same light. He does, generally, agree with Ryrie, so I know I'm probably wrong; but it takes leaps in logic to come to their conclusion. It is not in the text directly.
- They both assume that Solomon is correct about the motives of ALL men. In verse 4, Solomon doesn't attribute it to some men, but all. And since Solomon's core premise is untrue and anti-God, I'm disinclined to believe him here.
- The both assume that folding your hands in laziness. This one makes the most sense to me; but is not obvious in the text. And it doesn't explain why Solomon is jumping around in his observations. Wiersbe says he's out watching people- but it seems like Solomon would say as much if that were the case.
- They both say verse 6 shows a balanced man, but the verse weighs a person with 2 hands of work to a man with one hand of rest. Maybe. But only if you assume the second man also has a hand of work. It's not explicit in the text.
- In verse 7- Wiersbe overtly agrees with Solomon that the man without a family was laboring in vain. What truth is that conclusion based in? We have our value in whether we have family or not? Our work and wealth only has value if we have someone to pass it to? Didn't Solomon complain about passing wealth to those who didn't earn it? What is the ratio of number of family members to amount of hard work we should do?
The rest of this section in the Wiersbe commentary jumps around as much as Solomon but Wiersbe does his best to make Solomon sound coherent and positive, even though I don't think the text supports his conclusions.
I originally felt like I was making fun of the Bible and I felt like that was wrong, so I kept trying to shoe-horn in a positive spin to it as well; but I realized that Solomon was fallen. We talk about all men being flawed and even our greatest Bible figures making mistakes; but Solomon was beyond that. He was actively supporting the "gods" of his wives and doing things that were against Israel's best interest and God's commands for Israel's kings from Deuteronomy.
All of that to say, we don't have to assume that just because it is the inerrant word of God that everything the author say is correct. Solomon was fallen. And God did use him to compare the fallen life under the sun with the perfect creation of God under the heavens.
So it would make sense that Solomon's fallen logic doesn't always hold up to the true wisdom granted to him by God. The whole point of the book is to show the fruitlessness of pursuing the world. It would make sense that some of Solomon's conclusions would reflect his fallen, worldly state.
It sort of seems like Wiersbe (an to a much lesser extent, Ryrie) made the same mistake. Trying to make every word of this book God's truth under the heavens; instead of remembering that part of it is supposed to be fallen worldly logic, under the sun.
I hear how arrogant it sounds to disagree with great modern Bible scholars and to think I am the one who is correct. I fully accept that there may be Hebrew words or other cultural references that prove them correct over me; but going by what I read in the text, not everything Solomon is saying is truth, including the biggest theme of the book- life is meaningless.
But that's just a theory...a Bible theory.