The Cutting Room Floor – Ecclesiastes 4 and 5 – Oppression and The Teacher

The focus shifts in these two chapters from more abstract thoughts about times and seasons (and whether or not animals go to heaven) to very practical concerns about work, money, and proper vow-making.  The Teacher is making his way through various aspects of life and how all of it is hebel.  I’m finding myself struggling to pin down exactly what kind of writing Ecclesiastes is – is it “Wisdom Literature”?  There are certainly elements of that.  And certainly chapter 5 is more aphoristic than the previous chapters, reading more like something from Proverbs.  There are some differences from Proverbs – for example, the Teacher in chapter 2 runs an “experiment” and seeks to learn from experience instead of tradition or established wisdom.  This, as far as I can tell, is unique to the Old Testament.  Is the book theological or philosophical speculation?  Perhaps, though through chapter 4 there’s very little talk about God.  The Teacher talks more about God in chapter 5, but it’s not anything particularly distinctive.  There’s not much to point us towards the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  In fact, at this point, the Teacher could be talking about any god.

As a Christian, there are subtle little ‘notes’ here and there that catch my attention: 2:24-26 and 3:13 speaks to me of grace and God’s generosity, 5:1 reminds me of reverence and lessons I learned early on about reverence in the church, 5:2 makes me think of James 3 and Ephesians 4 as it relates to what and how I speak.  However, I’m reading Ecclesiastes through a Christian lens and unapologetically so.  What I’m trying to figure out is the point of view of the Teacher.  Granted, I’m not even halfway through the book, but at this point there is not much at all that connects what the Teacher is saying to the Hebrew tradition.  This does not trouble me – I’m finding that the Teacher is a necessary voice in Scripture.  I have been teaching parts of the Sermon on the Mount to the youth group and it’s been pretty interesting to have Jesus’ teaching in Matthew in conversation with Ecclesiastes (if only in my head).

Chapters 4 and 5 include some thoughts that I find especially relevant for the present moment in American culture.  And it’s here where Ecclesiastes might find room at the table to sit comfortably with some of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus of Nazareth.  Granted, they would be coming from very different perspectives, but if I’m reading chapters 4 and 5 right, the Teacher would be able to offer some good insights about “how the world works”.  The Teacher is not offering any moral guidance in light of this – he is descriptive, not prescriptive (what we should do) or proscriptive (what we shouldn’t do).  Again, this is another indication that Ecclesiastes is an odd fit in Scripture.  Anyways, there are three snippets of chapters 4 and 5 that I want to highlight this week.  This is getting a little long…sorry about that!

  1. 4:1 – “Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun.  Look, the tears of the oppressed – with no one to comfort them!  On the side of their oppressors there was power – with no one to comfort them.”

This is a twisty verse that needs a little unpacking, especially the last sentence.  I’m totally onboard with the second sentence and the truth of what the Teacher is saying.  And there’s a cruel dichotomy here – the oppressors have power, the oppressed have tears.  That’s a powerful image.  But, the Teacher quickly says that there is no one to comfort the oppressor.  Now, there’s a syntax question here: does “them” in that last phrase refer to the oppressors or back to the word “their”.  This would indicate a parallel with the sentence that comes before and it would read like this: “Look, the tears of the oppressed – with no one to comfort them!  On the side of their oppressors, there was power – with no one to comfort the oppressed.”  That makes sense to me and it sounds like a Hebrew poetic construction.

However, and this is something that I’ve wrestled with since my seminary days, if oppression is born out of sin and systemic separation from God, then is there room for compassion and pity for the sinners caught up at all levels in these sinful systems, even those at the top of the pyramid?  Here’s where putting Ecclesiastes in conversation with the Sermon on the Mount gets interesting.  If we naturally consider “oppressors” to be our enemies (and we typically don’t number ourselves among the oppressors), then Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:43-48 is a bit of a pill to swallow.  Ephesians 6:12 peeks its head into this conversation as well.  I find myself having a debate with myself about this.  It goes something like this:

Me #1: Yeah, that’s a nice idea – the whole “room for compassion and pity” thing – but doesn’t that get oppressors off the hook?  Isn’t that just an artful dodge by oppressors around actually being held accountable and answerable for their oppressions?

Me #2: Maybe so, but Jesus’ command to me, and to all disciples for that matter, is to love and pray for our enemies.

Me #1: True, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t and shouldn’t call these people out for their oppressions.  What about Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple?  His teaching in Luke 4 about letting the oppressed go free?  Surely Jesus is not just talking about “spiritual freedom”…

Me #2: Well, what if he is?  Aren’t even oppressors in need of God’s love and the forgiveness offered by Jesus?  Doesn’t Jesus say in the Beatitudes “blessed are the poor in spirit”?

Me #1: That’s pretty convenient, for a couple of reasons.  First, that’s exactly what an oppressor would say to deflect attention from their oppressive behaviors and choices.  It’s an attempt to level the playing field without actually having to make any substantive changes to oppressive systems.  Secondly, if we spiritualize poverty, we do the same with wealth.  This means that the oppressed are told not to focus on their lack of resources or their lack of opportunities or how the system is rigged against them economically, politically, and judicially.  “Don’t worry about it” the powerful say – “you’re rich in love”.  Which may very well be true, but if it’s coming from the mouth of the oppressors, that has a bit of a condescending stench.  It’s the same thing as “don’t worry about the trials of this earthly life – heaven is waiting!”  That might be encouraging coming from somebody in the trenches with you, but coming from the person wearing the boot that’s pushing your face into the mud, so to speak, it’s a bit much…

On and on it goes.  Reading these two chapters is causing me to think about the relationship between the prophetic voice and the pastoral impulse.  This was a tension I felt often during my time in seminary, falling as I did somewhere between those who primarily emphasized social justice and those who primarily emphasized personal piety.  Briding that gap is hard work.

  1. 5:3, 7 – “For dreams come with many cares…with many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words.”

No one would accuse the Teacher of being an idealist, that’s for sure.  I’m assuming that the Teacher is referring to idealistic visions and lofty plans.  And they have attached to them (1) many cares or worries; (2) “vanities”, another use of hebel; and (3) a lot of talking.  I’ve been this person before – young and certain of what I knew and what I would do with that knowledge.  I’m not sure if I had many cares or worries at first, but my presumption created those in good time.  And nothing is quite so fleeting as idealistic dreams.  Also, I have certainly done my share of talking without corresponding action to back it up.  I don’t have much to say about this, but I found it a random little insertion into Ecclesiastes.  For the most part, the Teacher seems to try to be “above the fray” and seems to have no dogs in the fight.  But here, he lets loose with a “get off my lawn” jab at naïve dreamers.

  1. 5:8 – “If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.”

Well, ok.  This certainly is a dramatic departure from the Hebrew prophetic tradition.  There’s only one command here: don’t be surprised when you see oppression and injustice.  What are to do about it, Teacher?  “I dunno.”  The last part of the verse hits me in two ways: (1) I can relate to this and I assume that most people can as well.  Have you ever tried to talk to somebody in charge when you have a complaint about insurance or a bill?  For many of us, this nothing but a minor annoyance, something  we vent about after we finally got the problem solved.  There are people in our world for whom this is a more serious problem.  Working at two churches that minister to/with homeless or impoverished individuals and families has given me a great deal of sympathy for people as they try to navigate beauracracies that are often apathetic or even downright antagonistic to these people and their needs.  There’s always another manager/supervisor who’s willing to tell you that  they can’t help you, but they’re more than happy to put you through to their supervisor’s voice mail.  A beauracracy can be engineered to wear people down and not effectively address the problems created by the beauracracy.  And, of course, now when you call companies/agencies it can be almost impossible to actually talk to a human being, much less one who can actually help you.  So, yeah, I’m a little cynical.  (2) It seems that the Teacher is saying that there’s not much of a point in addressing or speaking prophetically against oppression and injustice.  I disagree.  I’ve been turning one question over in my head the past couple of weeks – was the Teacher writing from a position of privilege and wealth?  My guess is that he was and this helps to explain a lack of urgency.  The Teacher was not in the Hebrew prophetic tradition.  His response to oppression in 5:8 is telling, with the Teacher basically saying, “that’s just how it is.”  This is the point of view not of the active oppressor necessarily but rather of one who might benefit (even unknowingly and unwittingly) from oppression.  I’m sure I’ll be pondering this some more as we make our way through the 2nd half of the book.

Sorry this entry has been so long – I was initially worried about what I was going to write about!  Anyway, be sure to check out audio of our Ecclesiastes study, along with handouts at harrisburgumc.org…

Grace and Peace,

Wes

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