Ecclesiastes 4:1-61 Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed-- and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors-- and they have no comforter. 2 And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun. 4 And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 5 The fool folds his hands and ruins himself. 6 Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.
There is a way that Solomon talks about the tears and fears of the oppressed that put into words a nameless gnawing that has chewed away at my own heart. The power being on the side of the oppressors and the longing for a comforter that never comes can cause a cave-in on days.
Take back that thing I was saying about Solomon turning a corner...we're back in the abyss.
This is an abyss I can't so easily dismiss. I can fight against his feelings of meaninglessness when he's slamming stuff that is easily defended, but it's hard to miss the fact that life crushes people along the way. It has a way of crushing the ones who are weak and vulnerable and impoverished the most and it's a double damnation when you see the oppressors smiling with the power found on their side. (that phrase in the text about makes my blood boil.)
So when he speaks of being dead as a coveted luxury to the living, there's something to say for that flight of fancy. Paul doesn't say for me to live is Christ and to die is gain for nothin'. John does say, "Lord Jesus, come quickly" because his life is too good to be true. And here's a couple other green apples to chew on...right now millions of people on this planet are praying for the Lord's return because they are starving, being raped, being persecuted, being beaten, being imprisoned and living with the imminent danger of death all around them. We as Americans can think it strange someone would want to die rather than face another day, but even in our country the oppression that hovers like an ominous cloud over some people's lives is unbearable and unbelievable.
The author goes even further in his diatribe against life when he says the only thing better than the happiness of death being better than the vexation of life is to have never been born in the first place. Man, we're on a slippery slope of suicidal thinking that is almost dangerous to entertain. I feel that as a pastor I almost don't want people to read this stuff for fear that is will confirm their suspicions and push them over the edge they are already so close to throwing themselves off of to begin with.
But Solomon does move from that thought into something worth wondering about. He claims that man's hard work and achievement is often motivated by his or her envy of their neighbor. Before rushing past that wonderment, I have to sit with that a second. Without much thought and self-examination, I would have to agree that even in my own life, a great deal of my success has been driven by my desire to be like or better than someone else. Even in ministry I will witness someone else's glossy growth and it will drive me to be better, do more, get going or make things happen. You don't want to be left in the dust or outmoded, so you strive...or as the author refers to it "chase".
Your life is chasing, chasing, chasing. Like greyhounds chasing the mechanical bunny around the track, your life is constant motion and movement while the thing you're after keeps evading your clutches. Always chasing, never catching. It's exhausting and a good deal of the chasing comes from keeping up with someone else. I hate how much of my past success is nothing but the wood, hay, and stubble of envious drivenness borne out of jealousy.
He at least ends this section with a powerful acknowledgement: "Better one handful with tranquility then two handfuls with told." I couldn't agree more. Is there anything more desirable than perfect peace. What I wouldn't give or give up to have my heart at rest, enjoying the calm of quiet contentment. Chasing and striving and struggling eclipsed by tranquility. This is the author drawing conclusions about what is truly satisfactory when a day is done. If you have gained the world and yet lost your soul...what does it profit a man? If you have achieved great exploits but are racked with anxiety, what's the use? Come to think of it, I've met oppressed people in third world countries that are happier than their oppressors because they have come to terms with what's really important. They smile with a handful while I cringe with two. What is wrong with that picture? What is right with that picture?
All I know is that I believe that life is not found in what we think it is. The tranquility that we seek is not found in power or prestige, popularity or possessions...it's hard to believe but peace--real peace--is found in the ability to be happy with less. To relish the one handful. To take great joy in the one car and the one house, the one spouse and the one family, the one vacation and the one hobby.
Really, it comes down to being ok with having one God.