The world is a competitive place. The Jones’ seem to live in every neighborhood and people are always trying to keep up with them. They have bigger houses, better jobs, better relationships, Everything they have and do seems to be better than what we have and do. Competition drives the economy. It drives politics, and nearly every aspect of our lives. We want to be better. But better than what? Better than the guy next to us.
Churches are not immune, either. How many churches did you drive by on the way here? Plenty, and many of them are probably “better” is some ways. They have more people, more square footage, more programs, more money. Why do you think so many people come to KCBC once, say so many glowing things, and then never come back? Because they liked what they saw here but then they found something “better.”
And why does it seem like the wicked prosper while God’s faithful struggle to get by? The Mormon’s, the Jehovah Witness’, and other church’s that teach false prosperity gospels all seem to be thriving.
What are we to make of that? And how should God’s people work in a society filled with wickedness, oppression, and envy?
In the time Ecclesiastes was written, things weren’t much different than they are now. People were trying to make a buck. People went to synagogue but worship was heavily influenced by idolatry and a desire to make a better life for themselves. People were wicked, oppressed, and envious just as they are today.
So how are we to live in a wicked world?
First of all, lets look at the wicked world as the teacher in Ecclesiastes describes it.
16 I also observed under the sun: there is wickedness at the place of judgment and there is wickedness at the place of righteousness.
Of course there is wickedness everywhere but the place identified here is the “place of judgement” and the “place of righteousness”. These are probably talking about the same place. They are places that you would expect to find righteous judgement, like courts of law, but instead all you find is wickedness. Not so unlike today.
Judges back then, as today, have bias’s. They can be bribed. They make decisions not on what is right but on what suits their own interests or the interests of a small segment of people.
We like to think have been getting progressively worse but things were bad back then too. Isaiah 5:23 describes his day as a time when they “acquit the guilty for a bribe and deprive the innocent of justice.”
That’s today’s headline. Wickedness is so pervasive in politics it’s identified as a necessary evil. I think it was Will Rogers who said an honest politician is a contradiction in terms.
In order to be successful in politics you have to present yourself as self-confident (even if you’re not), able to convince people that your position is better (even if it isn’t), and able to show people your accomplishments (even if you haven’t done anything).
Politics is a profession ripe for dishonesty and wickedness. But it’s really just a reflection of society around us. You’ve heard the saying, “You get the government or politicians you deserve.” This is just another way of saying that our leaders, in a democratic society, are just a reflection of the culture around us. If the culture’s wicked we can expect wicked leaders.
So how should God’s people react to the wicked world especially as it shows reveals its ugly head in government?
Verse 17 gives us one option…
17 I said to myself, “God will judge the righteous and the wicked, since there is a time for every activity and every work.”
We can rest in the fact of future judgement. Ultimately, the wicked are not going to get away with what they do. The wicked will not escape God’s final judgement. God has set the times and there will also be a time for the wicked to be held accountable.
But before we get all “high and mighty, pointing the finger” remember that except for God’s grace we, too, will be judged right along with them.
We kid ourselves if we think we will escape future judgement because of our own righteousness. We are included with the wicked and the only way to escape what the wicked deserve is to trust in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
The teacher is thinking about the pervasiveness of wickedness and the fact that judgement isn’t immediate. It comes at a future time.
18 I said to myself, “This happens so that God may test the children of Adam and they may see for themselves that they are like animals.”
God’s patience isn’t so we will come to see how good we are. It’s a test to help the children of Adam see for themselves just how wicked they are.
Ecclesiastes 8:11 says “Because the sentence against an evil act is not carried out quickly, the heart of people is filled with the desire to commit evil.”
It would be nice if delaying the sentence resulted in thankfulness and a desire to do better next time but apart from God’s intervention people think they’ve got away with something and then go off and commit more evil.
This is the natural, human nature, that all of the children of Adam have. The teacher describes it as animalistic because in a way we are like animals.
History is filled with examples of people acting like animals. Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Ladin, Idi Amin, Kim Jong-un, and the list goes on.
Of course, not all of us are that bad, but at our core we all have the same sinful, wicked, human nature.
Notice how the teacher lumps us all together…
19 For the fate of the children of Adam and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so dies the other; they all have the same breath. People have no advantage over animals since everything is futile.
From a secular, under the sun, without God, point of view, animals and people all share the same fate. We all need breath to live and when God takes it away we all die.
The teacher also lumps us all together because we all go to the same place.
20 All are going to the same place; all come from dust, and all return to dust.
Genesis 3:19 says “we will return to the ground, since we were taken from it. For we are dust, and we will return to dust.”
This is true for all people and all animals. Also…
21 Who knows if the spirits of the children of Adam go upward and the spirits of animals go downward to the earth?
Well, we know because of revelation in the New Testament, but can you tell what has happened to a person’s spirit just by looking at them? No, just looking doesn’t tell us much. So from from a secular, under the sun, without God, point of view we all share the same fate.
The New Testament gives us more information, though.
In John 11:25 Jesus was speaking to Martha about Lazarus who had just died. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live.’”
In John 14:3 Jesus said, “If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also.”
The New Testament informs the Old, not the other way around. But the teacher of Ecclesiastes is still making a very important point.
All of us will die at some point. The wicked, the animals, the righteous, all of us will return to the dust.
So here’s some good advice that he gives…
22 I have seen that there is nothing better than for a person to enjoy his activities because that is his reward. For who can enable him to see what will happen after he dies?
Because, from our human perspective, we don’t know what happens after we die, or when we will die, we should do our best to enjoy our work and the benefits of work.
This echos what we read in 2:24 “There is nothing better for a person than to eat, drink, and enjoy, his work.”
And 3:12 “I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and enjoy the good life.”
This is a wicked world we live in yet God is patient. God desires for people to turn in repentance but unfortunately wickedness continues. As God’s people living in a wicked world, then, we should live thankful lives enjoying the mercy and blessings that God gives.
But we don’t just live in a wicked world we live in one filled with oppression.
4:1 Again, I observed all the acts of oppression being done under the sun. Look at the tears of those who are oppressed; they have no one to comfort them. Power is with those who oppress them; they have no one to comfort them.
Three times he mentions oppression. He’s looked at wickedness, now he’s considering how we should live in light of oppression.
Oppression occurs when someone cheats his neighbor of something that belongs to him
It’s extortion. It’s using intimidation to take what isn’t yours. Governments do it. The rich do it to the poor. Thieves do it to the rich. The oppressed have no power, and there is no one to protect or comfort them so this verse is describing a mostly unseen oppression.
You can imagine what a person living in a constant state of oppression would begin to feel. The teacher says a person in this state might be better off dead and maybe even better off never having been born.
2 So I commended the dead, who have already died, more than the living, who are still alive. 3 But better than either of them is the one who has not yet existed, who has not seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.
Few of us have ever experienced that kind of oppression but some of us have. Those that are bullied feel this way.
According to Mark Finn’s wife (Mark died unexpectedly in Kittredge), Mark left the house because of people in the Kittredge area who were relentless in their negative comments of him and his restaurant. He went for a walk, had a medical emergency, and never made it home. Perhaps if he hadn’t felt oppressed by his neighbors he would have been able to receive the care he needed.
That’s the wicked world we live in. It leaves people wishing they had never been born. It leaves people feeling hopeless.
From a secular point of view the oppressed have no hope. Now, we have hope but perhaps our positive perspective has made us indifferent to the needs of the oppressed?
Do we notice the oppressed? The oppressed are all around us. They are in our schools, at work, and in our churches. They are the ones that become the brunt of jokes. They are the ones that aren’t given the benefit of the doubt for their actions. They are the ones who are prejudged. They are the ones we won’t allow to change. They are the ones that we think we’re better than.
How are we to live as God’s people in a world filled with oppression? The answer is coming, but first some thoughts on envy…
4 I saw that all labor and all skillful work is due to one person’s jealousy of another. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.
As we look around too I think we will admit that so much work is motivated by envy. It’s pointless. The NIV says “And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
Envy is wicked. It breaks the 10th commandment which forbids coveting. Envy also goes against Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself. Envy and greed are wicked wherever they are found.
And they lead to oppression.
It’s easy to see in the corporate world when people climb over each other in a race to get to the top leaving figurative and sometimes literal dead bodies along the way.
But envy has spread beyond the corporate world. The little church wants to be bigger. The bigger church wants to be bigger still. People aren’t content. The old way of doing things was fine until something new comes along. Sometime genuine change is needed but other times change is pushed so we can be like the other, “better” churches…and “dead bodies” are left along the way.
Hard work and improving yourself or your environment are fine but when the motivation is one of envy or greed the teacher tells us it’s a futile effort, a pursuit of the wind.
How do we live in a world like this? How do we live in a wicked world filled with oppression and envy?
The answer in verses 5 and 6 comprise the heart of the passage. We can respond in one of there ways…
5 The fool folds his arms and consumes his own flesh.
6 Better one handful with rest than two handfuls with effort and a pursuit of the wind.
The first way to live in a world like this is to fold our arms. We can close our hands and refuse to participate. We can opt out of the workforce but the teacher calls people who choose this approach fools.
Proverbs 6:10-11 says “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the arms to rest, and your poverty will come like a robber, your need, like a bandit.”
See, without meaningful work and the blessing that comes from earning a living, people consume themselves. They become self-destructive. One reason our welfare system needs overhauled, is because it is helping to create a class of people with no reason to live. Self-destructive habits are pervasive with those who don’t have meaningful work.
The second way to live in a world such as ours is to grab as much as you can with both hands. More is better right? A bigger house is better than a small one. A bigger business is better. A bigger pay check is better than a small one. More people in church is better than less. Right? On and on…
The problem with a two handfuls approach, he says, is that it comes with effort and a pursuit of the wind. All you really end up with is a whole lot of tired and two handfuls of nothing.
The third, and recommended, way to live in this world is to limit yourself to one handful. Be content with having less than you could have. This is the best option because it comes with rest ,or as other translations say, with tranquility, or peace and quiet.
The one handful approach is the best option for God’s people. In view of the wickedness, oppressions, and envy in this world, we shouldn’t slave away in ruthless competition with our neighbors. Neither should we disengage entirely but instead we should enjoy our work and its fruit with contentment.
But is this all we need to be concerned with in this world? No. Other OT passages, and Jesus himself, tells us we need to fight against wickedness, and help the oppressed but that’s not the point of this passage. That’s another sermon.
The point of this passage is to be content and it’s a point Jesus made, too.
In Luke 12:15 Jesus told them, “Watch out and be on guard against all greed, because one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions.”
In Luke 12:21 a man who stored up his treasures so that he could take it easy, eat, drink, and enjoy himself was called a rich fool by Jesus. He was a fool because he had stored up earthly instead of heavenly treasure.
In 1 Timothy 6:6-10 Paul says,
“But godliness with contentment is great gain… If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
In Hebrews the author tells us “Keep your life free from the love of money. Be satisfied with what you have…”
So, the advice from the author of Ecclesiastes is still good advice today.
Be content and as you are you will begin to experience a little bit of what heaven will be like. Heaven will be a place where all of our needs will be met. It will be a place of perfect contentment, free from wickedness, oppression, and envy. We will still have meaningful purpose but we won’t be in competition with each other. Instead we will have rest. Then we will have perfect peace as we continue to trust God to provide our every need.