In chapter 3, Solomon presented God’s universal, good, sovereign decree. In verse 16, Solomon began to address the meaning of evil within that decree. Evil is inescapable on earth, but God will one day bring it all to judgment. No evil ultimately goes unpunished. For now, in the face of inescapable evil, we should be humbled, knowing that we are mere creatures and not God. It is God’s self-assigned duty, not ours, to bring ultimate justice to the world.
In chapter 4, Solomon will continue his analysis of evil within God’s decree. The preacher provides the following three categories of evil: oppression (vv.1-3), selfishness (vv.4-12), fading glory (vv.13-16). Evil in Ecclesiastes can either be an actual sin or a consequence of sin. Something is evil if it belongs to the decay of a fallen world. The Preacher’s aim is not to give a comprehensive view of evil, but to highlight several true evils, in order that we may reflect on their persistence within the decree of God.
The Evil of Oppression (4:1-3)
First, Solomon notes the evil of oppression. “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. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun” (vv.1-3).
The word translated “oppressions” (v.1) is used many times in the Old Testament, usually referring to exploitation and unwarranted burden that one person places on another. Proverbs 28:16 provides a good explanation of what oppression is: “A ruler who lacks understanding is a cruel oppressor, but he who hates unjust gain will prolong his days.” This proverb draws a comparison between oppression and unjust gain. Oppression is not simply using force. Oppression is using force to do something unjust, typically for your benefit.
The wealthy and powerful are noted in Scripture as potential sources of oppression. The poor and powerless in any society are most in danger of being oppressed, because they have little strength to overpower someone who decides to oppress them. However, this does not mean that wealth and power always translate to oppression. A man may be wealthy and powerful without being oppressive. Therefore, it is not enough to look for oppression in who has the largest bank account.
Today, the term “oppression” is often associated with intersectionality. Intersectionality is a construct in which everyone is assigned moral capital (MC) on the basis of how greatly their group(s) has been oppressed. The more groups with which someone identifies (i.e. upon which they intersect), the more MC he possesses. This theory is fraught with theological problems. For example, it abandons the doctrine of original sin, the covenant of life God made with Adam, and the uniqueness of his fall, which is crucial in Paul’s mind for the work of Christ (Romans 5). This is not even to speak of the hyper-collectivist worldview in which it stands, in clear contrast to such texts as Ezekiel 18. “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die. If a man is righteous and does what is just and right… he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God” (vv.4-5, 9).
Identifying as “oppressed” by merit of belonging to an “oppressed class” is fanciful. In contrast, the oppression in Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 is not arbitrary, relativistic oppression. Solomon is speaking of true, actual oppression. This is a band of Roman Catholic crusaders gathering hundreds of Jews into a building and burning them alive. This is the silent cry of millions of babies slaughtered in Planned Parenthood mills, sanctioned by the United States government – cries that peal like bells in the streets of Heaven, demanding justice. There is true oppression in the world, and intersectionality does no good towards bringing it to justice.
Finally, it is crucial to understand these verses in the context of judgment in a fallen world. Death, suffering, pain, and turmoil are consequences of sin – and our sin, at that. That we would be left without a comforter, abandoned by God and man, is a sign of judgment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1; cf. Matthew 27:46; see also Job 6:14; Luke 10:25-37; cf. Daniel 6:10; Acts 6-7). Oppression and suffering on earth are correlated with the judgment of God for sin (Hosea 10:8; Luke 21:23; 23:29-30; Revelation 6:16). Therefore, Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 continues (as the entire chapter does) to develop the theme of lament over a world under the curse of Adam.
The Evil of Selfishness (4:4-12)
Second, Solomon notes the evil of selfishness. “Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh. Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind” (vv.4-6). Some translations say in verse 4 that all toil and work is motivated by envy of one’s neighbor. Either way, the point stands that all of man’s work is in the context of envy. People work and work to reach a certain standard of living that other people have achieved. And while we work to reach that standard, people less fortunate than us envy our lifestyle.
We see envy in capitalism. Corporate decisions are often made based only on profit, instead of righteousness. Sometime the ethical decision isn’t the most profitable decision. We also see envy in socialism. Socialism is chopping the tall man off at the knees. Socialism is just envy nationalized. But envy is envy, even if millions of people vote to do it.
No matter how we structure our society, selfishness will creep up. People are focused on themselves. Black Friday is a deadly affair for store clerks and shoppers alike, who may die by stampede under the shoes of coupon monsters. People buy high demand, essential products (e.g. Germ-x and PPE in a pandemic) and sell them at outrageous costs. Solomon gives an example of such a selfishness:
Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business. Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.vv.7-12
There are some people who consume themselves with accumulating wealth, and they ignore the few, precious people God has placed in their life. They never stop to ask themselves, “For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good?” Selfishness always leads to solitude. If you want to make life about you, then one day you will wake up and find yourself alone. Point the spotlight on yourself and people will get tired of looking at you. So selfishness is a true evil in the world.
The Evil of Fading Glory (4:13-16)
Third, Solomon presents the evil of fading glory. “Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. 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” (vv.13-16). When Solomon describes something as “evil” in Ecclesiastes, he does not necessarily refer to volitional sin. Evil in Ecclesiastes can either be the volitional act of sin or a negative consequence of sin. In these four verses, we have a result of sin.
Solomon tells a short story about a poor and wise youth that becomes a king. He went from extreme poverty to reigning over many people. This is an inspiring story – but Solomon ends with a sobering fact: “Those who come later will not rejoice in him” (v.16). So you can imagine, in whatever kingdom this happens in: a great celebration over the new king who was born a pauper. There is great music and feasting and dancing in a great, beautiful banquet hall. But fast-forward a few hundred years. Now, the music has gone quiet, the feasting is over, and the beautiful banquet hall bears no memory of the great story of this pauper-made-king.
The point is that glorious things have happened in history: good stories of noble achievements. But most of these things have been forgotten. In a fallen world, everything deteriorates and fades away. That is a result of sin and is a great evil, and so Solomon says that trying to make a name for yourself is vanity (v.16). He said the same thing in chapter 1 verse 11, “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.”
The Business of the Church (5:1-7)
In light of these three categories of evil in God’s decree, Solomon instructs God’s church in how to live in light of such evil.
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words. When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.5:1-7
These seven verses are summarized at the beginning: “Walk prudently when you go to the house of God.” The ESVsays, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.” Solomon has a particular error, a specific sin, in mind when he tells us to guard our steps. We are to “draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools” (v.1). This is a contrast: you can come before God to hear or you can come before God to give the sacrifice of fools.
What is the sacrifice of fools? It is the opposite of drawing near to hear. The sacrifice of fools we learn in verse 2 is about being rash with your mouth. It is to let your heart utter things hastily before God. It is to have many words when you come before God. The sacrifice of fools, verse 3, is to come to worship with many dreams and many words.
Solomon is not talking about drawing near to critique God. This is clear from the first verse, where those who make this foolish sacrifice do not know that they do evil. This is someone who thinks he is doing something glorious for God. This is someone who believes he is honoring God. This is someone who has ambitions and ideas, that he is busy explaining and executing in the house of God. The sacrifice of fools is a something a man lays on the altar to be a pleasing aroma to God, but instead of pleasing God it only stirs Him to anger (v.6).
Solomon’s critique applies to anyone who would rather talk than listen when they come before the wisdom of God. However, in context, there is a particular type of chatter, a specific kind of babbling that is pointedly refuted by these seven verses. Solomon has just spent an entire chapter giving us examples of evil in God’s world, and he immediately warns us against coming before God with dreams and many words and bold ambitions. The implication is this: care must be taken when approaching the Lord to complain about evil. Do not bring your creative schemes before God, as if you have a better solution and purpose for wickedness. God has ordained all things and is providentially directing all things. He does not need your advice. Instead, put your hand to work where God has placed you, worship Him in the silence of submission, and leave all else to Him.
The Psalmist teaches this lesson. “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:3). He was discontent over the success of evil men (vv.4-15), until he came before God and conformed his ambitions for justice to His Maker’s. “I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end” (v.17). Habakkuk wrestled with a similar reality. He complained, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do yo idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:13). The Lord answered (2:2f), concluding, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (v.20). Habakkuk responds with no more complaints, but only praise and faith in God’s way of justice (3:1f).
God’s people are on the earth to worship God. Worship is the principle duty, the defining mark, of the church. Worship is the primary responsibility of the church. You will say, “Are we not commanded to do justice?” Indeed, but there is a difference between fighting injustice and posing God a “problem of evil.” We are to fight evil within our realm of responsibility (e.g. loving our spouse, voting in an election, etc.), but we are not to fight God on the reality of evil.
We think it’s a problem for God and for the church that there is evil in the world. We think we have to solve the problem to get God off the hook – “theodicy.” What we need to remember is that the evil we see around us is part of the eternal decree of God, which means it is for a beautiful purpose and one day will all be done away with (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15). What problem of evil? What’s the problem? It will all be judged, God’s people will inherit the world, and no promise of God will return void! What’s the problem?
When we are entranced by a supposed “problem of evil,” our worship becomes irreverent. We come before God with the tendency to talk rather than to listen. This is happening particularly in the social justice movements of evangelicalism. Local churches have re-oriented themselves from worship to theodicy. Being woke is now the defining mark of the church.
These are “dreams,” Solomon says. These are people coming to the house of God with many words. The defining mark of the church must be worship, and worship that is conducted in the fear of God. The American church has forgotten how holy God is. Our duty is Isaiah’s: to gaze anew at the glory of God and refuse our unclean lips permission to question Him (Isaiah 6:1-5). He will take care of the evil. Our business is worship.
Focusing on worship is not a choice to abandon justice. Justice on earth is advanced when the church makes worship a priority, because worship is warfare. Our weapons are not carnal (2 Corinthians 10:4), for God has promised to fight our battles for us (Joshua 1:1-9). Worship in a local church is like the horns and jars of Gideon, when God miraculously delivered the Midianites into Israel’s hand (Judges 7:1-25).
This point works both ways, however. Nations are won by our faithfulness (Matthew 28:18-20), but they are lost by our unfaithfulness. No nation will ascend higher than her local churches. No society will grow holier than her local churches. How do you expect the United States to be repentant if her local churches are not repentant? So the cost of our irreverent worship is grave. We must focus anew upon the holiness of God, that by any means a fear of God may return to our local congregations.
So let this be a lesson for us all. When we see evil in God’s decree, evil in the world God is providentially directing, we should commit ourselves anew to worship. If there are devils in the streets, then let the battle hymns of the church ring out the clearer. If there is corruption in the market, then let the preaching of the Word of God in the assembly of God’s people be ever more bold and ever more faithful. Jesus, not the church, is the Savior of the world. The world needs the church to worship God correctly, to align our worship with God’s Word. Because the world cannot ascend higher than her local churches.