Ecclesiastes: Oppression, Part 2
Published July 5, 2023
“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.” Ecclesiastes 4:1-3
Tears are powerful. They are an outward expression of inner anguish. They make concrete what is otherwise abstract. Oppression as a concept may not move our hearts, but when we see someone crying, all but the most hard-hearted can’t help but feel affected. In Ecclesiastes 4:1-3, the preacher evokes the tears of the oppressed to impress upon the reader the anguish that oppression causes.
In the first part of this three part series on oppression, we saw the first theological truth about oppression in Ecclesiastes: Christ’s return will usher in a day of judgment that will end all oppression. This profound truth necessarily changes the way we think about oppression by stripping it of its power. However, if we hold to this theological truth in isolation from the full counsel of God on this topic, we run the risk of minimizing the devastating effect of oppression on the oppressed. Therefore, Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 gives us the second theological truth about oppression that every Christian should know: Even though oppression is temporary, the suffering it causes should stir our hearts with sorrow and compassion.
A Hopeless Situation
Every detail of this passage seems like it is designed to illustrate the misery caused by oppression. The tears of the oppressed (v1), as noted above, vivifies their sadness. The repetition of the phrase “no one to comfort them” in verse 1 highlights both their helplessness and hopelessness. Modern conventions for adding emphasis, such as bold, italics, and even punctuation, did not exist, so the repetition of words and phrases are one of the primary ways that the Biblical authors add emphasis.
The hopelessness of the oppressed is further highlighted by the source of their oppression, namely, their oppressors. The situation is hopeless because the oppressors have power (v1), while the victims are powerless. In the next post, we’ll further explore the source of oppression, but for now, it is worth saying that oppression is a moral evil, not a natural one. In non-theological terms, this simply means that oppression is always perpetrated by human beings, as opposed to natural disasters like tornados, hurricanes, etc. Oppression does not exist without an oppressor.
A Shocking Assessment
The abject misery of oppression described in verse 1 leads to an utterly shocking assessment in verses 2-3: The dead are better off than the living (v2), and those who have never been born are better off than both (v3). Interpreters have long wrestled over these verses, which are among the most difficult in the book. Taken at face value, Solomon almost seems to be saying that life is not worth living. How do reckon with such a statement?
It is helpful to keep in mind the genre of Ecclesiastes, which is wisdom literature. The sages of the Ancient Near East often spoke in generalities and used figures of speech such as overstatement. We shouldn’t press the language in this difficult passage too far or read it in isolation from the rest of Ecclesiastes or from the Bible as a whole. Elsewhere, the preacher affirms that life is preferable to death (9:4). When we recover from the initial shock of the wording—and shock value is one of the preacher’s favorite tools—we can appreciate the main point, which is that we should not minimize the misery caused by oppression.
Christ’s return will set everything right, but oppression causes real pain that is felt by real people. The underlying assumption in this passage is that for the oppressed, their lot in life is firmly fixed, and the only escape is death. As modern readers, we take for granted the tremendous upward mobility we have in America. Throughout most of history, there was little opportunity to change one’s economic status. Those born into poverty typically died in poverty. Only when we put ourselves in the shoes of someone who was born into poverty, has been oppressed by greedy individuals, and has no hope of escaping their circumstances, can we truly understand the point the preacher is making. Death, or even to have never existed in the first place, seems preferable to such a miserable existence. Such is the reality of life in a fallen world. Vanity of vanities.
I believe then that the preacher’s purpose in making these statements about life and death is the same as his purpose for mentioning the sufferer’s tears, which is to impress upon the reader the seriousness of oppression and to stir up sorrow and compassion for the oppressed. Even as we look forward to Christ’s return and the end of all oppression, we should never trivialize the pain others experience in this life. Our hearts should fill with compassion, leading us to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), to help the sufferer and the oppressed (James 1:27, Mic. 6:8, etc.), and most obviously to pray. We pray for God to meets the needs of others, to comfort them, and to soften our hearts during times when we do not feel the compassion that we ought. Even though oppression is temporary, the suffering it causes should stir our hearts with sorrow and compassion.