In Ecclesiastes 3:16 we began a new literary unit in the book wherein in Qoheleth, the book’s author, is looking at the wickedness of this world. This is an important text, as it frames our understanding for the rest of the book. Knowing that we live in a wicked world provides the necessary background to aid our understanding of the purpose, outlook, and theme of the entire book.
As Qoheleth perceives life “under the sun” with realistic eyes, he makes four observations which support his assessment of the wickedness of the world. We discussed the first two last time: 1) that wickedness is found in the very place where one would expect to find justice (3:16-22); and 2) that those in authority use their power to oppress those who are often left without anyone to comfort them (4:1-3). This Sunday we will look at the last two observations: 3) that the source of the toil and skill in one’s labor is often found in inappropriate competition and envy (4:4-6); and 4) many people work hard merely for their own gain, not caring to share it with anyone (4:7-12). It is useful to recall that Qoheleth’s original audience was most likely composed of young, upwardly mobile professionals, seeking to climb the ladder of success in an increasingly individualist urban society that was very different from the tribal, clan-based, villages of their ancestors. As they made this move, the sins of envy, greed and individualism were increasingly infecting the lives of God’s people as they assimilated into the wicked world around them. As such, this text is very relevant to our culture today, where we often find wickedness in the work place characterized by cutthroat competition for jobs, and an unparalleled, selfish individualistic mindset in our culture coming into the church environment.
Many seek a remedy for the world’s wickedness, in man – perhaps in some sort of political savior. Some believe that the answer to unrighteousness is to replace bad leaders with righteous ones. Many think that if only oppressive regimes changed, then oppression will cease. But reality is that even if a righteous person reigned for a season, he will soon be replaced and his good deeds forgotten as one generation passes to the next. So even a life that reaches the pinnacle of successful human achievement, one that is exalted an adored by millions, is, in the end, futile, unsubstantial, and “a chasing after wind.” This is illustrated in chapter 4 verses 13-16 which describes a young wise man who replaces an old foolish king.
Overall, this text teaches us that in this wicked world, man’s quest for power and authority usually requires injustice, abuse, competition, and unaccountability. The text warns us against going it alone, and it teaches us that success requires that we cooperate with others in this life. It warns God’s people that we ought to check our motives when it comes to seeking power and authority whether in the world or in the church, especially if it means not loving our neighbor as ourselves along the way. But, at the end of the day, this text teaches us that we really ought not expect to find long-lasting justice, kindness, compassion, and liberality, even with the best of men. This reality ought to keep us dependent upon Christ, who is the only truly just King, and who alone holds the authority and power to usher in lasting righteousness.