Observations in Human Experiences to Sustain Sense of Vanity (4:1-5:17)

Qoheleth began his speech proper with recounting his past experiences to illustrate the reality that “All is vanity,” and to admonish that the most sensible response is to have enjoyment of life (1:12-2:26). His personal experiences do strike a responsive chord in the hearts of his audience. But they may not be able to identify fully with him. For no one was as wise, rich or powerful as he was, let alone had that many wives and concubines. The sharing of his own experiences was crucial to establishing his credibility to address convincingly the subject of vanity and his authority to admonish persuasively how then to respond. But to help his audience better identify with him he had to recount observations of vanity as experienced by the people. This is what he does in 4:1-5:17. Like his previous discussions on the vanity of life under the sun, this extended passage is followed by the admonition to enjoy life (5:18-6:9).

Oppressions in General (4:1-3)

4:1 And again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And look!
The tears of the oppressed--but there is no one to comfort them.
And power from the hand of their oppressors--but there is no one to comfort them.
4:2 So I consider the dead, because they are already dead, more fortunate than the living, because they are still alive. 4:3 But better than both of them is one who has not yet existed and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.

Qoheleth begins his series of observations with oppressions in general. The connective phrase “And again” signals some form of continuity with what precedes. In 4:1-5:17 he is moving beyond discussing the vanity of life as pictured by the poem of 3:1-8. He is going to consider specific observations of vanity. But he is still building on the effects of the poem. For we saw that in 3:16-21 he used injustice in the courts of law, which is oppression through the abuse of judicial power, to reinforce the feeling of the uncertainties of life that the poem evokes. And so by returning to the subject of oppression he is in effect sustaining the sense of vanity built up there. This enables his audience to see more clearly that the profitless pursuits he will soon recount are indeed vanity.

Obviously, when he says, “I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun,” we are not to take it literally. For it is impossible that he could have seen every oppression in this world. The meaning of the hyperbolic expression is that oppressions are prevalent under the sun. This implies the sad reality that the powerful are prone to oppress the powerless. This is widely observed.

When people are oppressed and “there is no one to comfort them,” it is often because no one would help them due to fear, or everyone would side with the oppressor out of greed, or both. Oppressions can occur anywhere. It happens not only in a concentration camp, where victims can expect to be mistreated, but also in a court of law, where justice is expected to be upheld. And people in power may even oppress in the name of religion.

Qoheleth’s interjection, “And look!,” transports us into the world of the oppressed to join him in looking at their plight. The terse descriptions, “tears of the oppressed” and “power from the hands of their oppressors,” together with the sympathetic repetition, “there is no one to comfort them (the oppressed),” impress upon us the evil of oppression. Still immersed in this pathetic world of the most unfortunate, Qoheleth makes a passing comment that the dead, because they have already died and are thus no longer in the clutch of oppression, are more fortunate than those who are still living under it. And better still are those not yet born, because they have not even “seen” or encountered the oppressions. The Hebrew word translated “seen,” just like its English equivalent, can mean “perceived” or “experienced,” or both, which is the case here (cf. Schoors 2004: 62).

When oppression is prevalent among us we can become oblivious to its horror. If we learn to identify with the oppressed, the passing comment can sensitize us to what it is like to be oppressed to the point of tears, and having no one to turn to. Apparently Qoheleth wants us to feel how horrible the experience can be. People actually commit suicide when they can no longer bear with it. So there is no better way for him to evoke that feeling of horror than to make the shocking comment that it is more fortunate to be dead than to remain alive. And better still to have never been born!

So Qoheleth is not saying that just because oppressions exist in this world, it is better to be dead than alive. In fact, in a different context, he says it is definitely better to be alive than dead (9:3-6). He even affirms that it is good to be alive, with the qualification that only if we are able to enjoy life (11:7-8). It is therefore unfair to him to take his passing comment out of context and conclude that he is here expressing a pessimistic view of life. We must remember that he is giving a speech to persuade his audience, and not writing a treatise to present his views. He seeks to move our feeling and change our thinking, and not primarily to inform us of what he believes.

Why then does he want us to see the evil, and feel the horror, of oppression? He is persuading us towards fearing God, and how we treat others is a reliable indication of how much we really fear Him. A common comment about this passage is that Qoheleth only complains about oppression but does nothing about it. If we make the effort to understand him on his terms we can see that not only in this passage, but throughout his speech, he is making a passionate plea to turn away from doing evil, and here he calls oppressions “the evil deeds that are done under the sun.”

Competition for Advancement (4:4-6)

4:4 Then I saw that every toil and every skillful work spring from a man's rivalry with his neighbor. This also is vanity and a pursuit of wind.
4:5 The fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh.
4:6 Better is a handful with rest than two handfuls with toil and a pursuit of wind.

Qoheleth moves on to an observation of vanity which may appear to be totally unrelated to the previous one on oppression. People are driven to work hard (“toil”) and smart (“skillful work”) out of rivalry with their neighbors. This explains why today competition is such a powerful motivating force that causes capitalism to work so well. In fact, so well that it threatens the collapse of capitalism itself. At the heart of the problem is that we do not want to feel inferior to others. Unless tempered by the fear of God, we not only want to feel superior to others, we also want them to feel inferior to us. Given the opportunity, we may even do something to make them feel this way. This partly explains the tendency of people to oppress or mistreat those they have power over, even when there is no obvious personal gain involved. If the basic motivation behind our working hard and smart is to advance in society in terms of temporal things, so that we feel superior to others, it is indeed vanity and a pursuit of wind. For it serves no useful purpose and there is no end to it.

In fact, it would be self-destructive, whether at the individual, national or even global level. According to the foremost sumerologist Samuel N. Kramer, “one of the major motivating forces of Sumerian behavior [was] the drive for superiority and pre-eminence with its great stress on competition and success” (1963: 249). The Sumerian civilization flourished more than 4000 years ago. And just like today, “It is thus fairly obvious that the drive for superiority and prestige deeply colored the Sumerian outlook on life and played an important role in their education, politics and economics.” In the case of Sumeria, “sad to say, the passion for competition and superiority carried within it the seed of self-destruction and helped to trigger the bloody and disastrous wars between the city-states and to impede the unification of the country as a whole, thus exposing Sumer to the external attacks which finally overwhelmed it. All of which provides us with but another historic example of the poignant irony inherent in man and his fate” (267-68).

At the other extreme is one who is not motivated to work at all. Qoheleth calls him “the fool [who] folds his hands,” a proverbial expression symbolizing idleness or laziness (Prov 6:10). As a result, “he consumes his own flesh,” that is, destroys himself through poverty (Prov 6:11). Qoheleth advocates work, with “rest,” that is, without rivalry or strive even if it means getting only “one handful” instead of “two handfuls,” and thus having less than our peers. This expresses the balance between the two extremes of complacency and the drive for supremacy. It is unfortunate that without an adequate fear of God, most people are not motivated to work hard and smart without competition. In light of the admonition to find satisfaction in our labor and the condition that only the God-fearing or the righteous person can have enjoyment, two other proverbs are instructive: “Better is a little with righteousness than a large income with injustice” (Prov 16:8); “Better is little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and turmoil with it” (Prov 15:16).

An extreme example of self-destructive behavior driven by the competitive spirit is seen in the rich man in the next passage (4:7-8). He had no relative whatsoever to share or inherit his wealth. Yet there was no end to his toils. What seems exceptional in Qoheleth’s day is becoming common today.


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