Ecclesiastes: Oppression, Part 3
Published July 19, 2023
“If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.” Ecclesiastes 5:8-9
In the classic Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Clint Eastwood, with effortless swagger, tells Eli Wallach, “You see, in this world, there’s two kinds of people, my friend: those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.” There is buried treasure that needs digging up. Eastwood holds the loaded pistol, and Wallach is forced to dig. This wry expression illustrates a broader truth about the human condition: those with power will always oppress those without. The intellectual elite of our day mistakenly believe that this oppression can be eliminated through systemic upheaval, but they fail to recognize the true nature of the problem. Oppression is not rooted in any particular socioeconomic system, but in sin. This brings us to the third theological truth about oppression that every Christian should know: Because of sin, oppression exists in every governmental structure, so we should not be surprised by it.
The exhortation in Ecclesiastes 5:8 is fairly straightforward: when you see oppression, “do not be amazed at the matter.” The reason for the exhortation is a little less straightforward: “For the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.” This can be (and has been taken) in a couple ways. The “watching” of one official by another can mean that leaders watch each other’s backs so that each one is able to oppress others freely and get away with it. In my lifetime, I have seen countless news stories where a pattern of abuse has persisted in an institution because those in power protect the abuser. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of institution, be it schools, churches, non-profits, corporations, governments, etc., that is immune. Another way of reading the verse is that the complex structure of one official watching another results in issues slipping through the cracks, or as the NLT puts it, “matters of justice get lost in red tape and bureaucracy.” Either reading of the verse leads to the same conclusion, that injustice and oppression are endemic to human government. Of course, systems of government that minimize oppression through checks and balances are preferable, but oppression occurs even under good forms of governments, ours included.
The Hebrew text of verse 9 has some ambiguities that lead to multiple interpretations, which can be seen in the various ways this verse has been translated into English. The two most plausible options continue the train of thought from the previous verse. Option 1: The systemic oppression seen in governmental structures should not be surprising because the evil goes all the way to the top—even the king plunders the land (this interpretation comes across most clearly in the NIV and NLT). Option 2: Despite the systemic oppression seen in governmental structures, government is still necessary because “a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land” (NASB95; the ESV and LSB take similar approaches). In other words, government is still preferable to anarchy, because having a king ensures that there is agriculture, which was the backbone of ancient civilizations. I favor option 2. Lest anyone think that the solution to corrupt government is to eliminate all government altogether, we need only to look at the example of Israel in the book of judges, where “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Some of the darkest moments in Israel’s history happened during this period. Government wasn’t man’s idea, it was God’s. He instituted government as a means to punish evil and thereby restrain sin (Gen 9:6, Rom 13:1-6). The problem with human government is not government, but humans. Sin will exist in human government until Christ returns and sets up the only perfect government.
Solomon: The Perfect Imperfect Example
Some have used this passage as evidence that Solomon couldn’t have written Ecclesiastes. “Since Solomon was king,” the arguments goes, “he would have had the power to stop the oppression he wrote about.” What this argument fails to recognize is that even when the ruler of a land is righteous, this does not guarantee that every government official under his authority will be. Only so much can be done from the top. This argument also fails to account for the fact that Solomon wasn’t perfect, and in fact, the oppressive burdens he put on the people sowed seeds of discord that grew into the rebellion of the northern ten tribes of Israel during the reign of his son Rehoboam (1 Kings 12). Government is necessary to stop unchecked oppression, but even the best forms of government bring oppression of their own.
At this point we can take a moment to marvel at the sheer breadth of truth that Ecclesiastes is able to cover on the topic of oppression in only three passages, comprised of a mere seven verses! In the first post in this three part series, we saw in Ecclesiastes 3:16-17 that Christ’s return will usher in a day of judgment that will end all oppression. This truth puts oppression into proper perspective, namely as something temporary. Yet, we saw in the second post on Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 that even though oppression is temporary, the suffering it causes should stir our hearts with sorrow and compassion. A Christian outlook on oppression looks not only upward with hope, but outward with compassion. In this final post on Ecclesiastes 5:8-9, we have seen that because of sin, oppression exists in every governmental structure, so we should not be surprised by it. The implications of this truth are that we should not place our hope in government as our savior from oppression, yet we should not eliminate government either. Rather, we should seek to minimize oppression by holding our leaders accountable and forming governmental structures with checks and balances.
In just three passages, we have covered oppression from several angles. The first passage puts oppression into the context of redemptive history and gives us hope of deliverance from it. The second passage reminds us how to treat those who are experiencing oppression. The third passage guards us from being shocked when we hear about oppression in our institutions and from deluding ourselves into thinking we can create a society free from sin. This is not all that the Bible has to say about this topic, but the scope is quite remarkable for just seven verses.