Saturday, December 14, 2019

Time and Chance (14)

There is a certain apparent randomness to hurricanes, cancer and car accidents. There is nothing at all random about oppression. Oppression is something one human being deliberately inflicts on another, and for which the oppressor will one day give an account.

A hurricane does not have to explain itself, or pay some future price for the havoc and misery it has produced. An oppressor certainly will.

Ecclesiastes 4:1 — Oppressions without Comfort

Yet Another Source of Frustration

We are back in Ecclesiastes, as the Preacher addresses yet another source of earthly frustration:
“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.”
Here the problem is not just oppression, but oppression without any mental or emotional relief. The Preacher refers to “all the oppressions that are done under the son.” John Gill lists a few: “subjects by their prince; the stranger, widow, and fatherless, by unjust judges; the poor by the rich; servants and labourers by their masters; and the like.” There are plenty more. I think we can probably leave out professional athletes who have foolishly contracted for half a million less than the going rate, as well as the mostly-mythical wage gap between the sexes. If we are going to talk about the oppressed, let’s stick with those who are genuinely afflicted. The oppressed are generally without options, or are forced to choose between bad and worse.

Pain with no Explanation

In the absence of revelation, there is no explanation for the pain human beings cause one another, and no way for the victims to think about their suffering that enables them to accept it and move on. Yes, of course it would be nice if the pain would stop. That would be ideal. But it is amazing how much misery we can tolerate on a daily basis if we can find a way to frame it that makes sense to us, and some reason to hold onto the hope that at some future point, justice will eventually be done.

This is the hope Job clung to in his own time of torment: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” Believe that relief is coming, and you can get through pretty much anything. Job did.

Two Readings

There are two claims here: one about the oppressed and one about the oppressors. It is possible to read the second statement either of two ways. Either the phrase “there was no one to comfort them” refers to the oppressors, or else it simply restates what was said earlier about the oppressed.

Most modern translators assume the latter to be the case, and they are probably right, though of course it is not all fun and games oppressing others. For most people, inflicting misery comes with at least a twinge of guilt. That has to be dealt with, usually through rationalization or substance abuse. More often, people who are oppressing others are themselves oppressed by those higher up in the food chain. They inflict pain because if they don’t do their jobs as they have been instructed, they will surely lose them, and end up like those they are oppressing.

So yes, I have no doubt that some oppressors would indeed like to be comforted themselves, but that is probably not what the Preacher is saying.

No One to Comfort

Either way, the pressing need is for someone to comfort those who are grieving their lot in life. This is precisely the role played by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. He is, as the Lord Jesus put it, “another comforter”. It is the counsel of the Spirit of God that enables the believer to “rejoice in our sufferings ... because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

How can we be sure of God’s love? Revelation. He has declared it. It is a next-to-impossible task to distinguish between the comfort God’s Spirit gives to us and the words he has used to console us. Our peace comes from accepting and believing revealed truth. It is not just a feeling, but a feeling produced by words we believe from a Person we trust.

Under the sun, the Preacher says, there is all sorts of oppression. That is the lot of most people during most periods of history. You and I know that one day all oppression will end, but in the meantime, the Spirit of God provides comfort to the oppressed through his word. The Preacher can provide no such comfort.

Once again, the Preacher is drawing attention to the pressing need for revelation, even if only negatively, by telling us what the world looks like to him in its absence.

Ecclesiastes 4:2-3  The Dead and the Unborn

More Fortunate than the Living

So how bad is it? Pretty bad:
“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.”
In Hebrew, the word used for “fortunate” means “congratulated” or “commended”. Literally, it is “I congratulated the dead more than the living.” The Preacher is not referring to the luck of the draw. Natural disasters, disease and accidents appear to happen at random, but oppression requires a will and a target. It involves choice and accountability.

If it seems a little bleak to say to the oppressed, “You’d be better off dead, and better still if you had never been born,” bear in mind that the Preacher is looking at the world naturalistically. He is not backhandedly promoting suicide. He is definitely not speaking to Christians, who have been shown ways of dealing with suffering that Solomon could not possibly have imagined.

Good Things About Being Oppressed

Suffering produces endurance and character and hope in men and women who know Christ and are indwelt by his Spirit. Suffering equips us to comfort the afflicted. Sufferings achieve for us eternal glory. Sufferings cannot separate us from the love of Christ. Sufferings confirm we are done with sin. Affliction is a way of having fellowship with Christ.

How do we know these things? Because we have been expressly told them. Oppression can only produce these “goods” in those who have heard and believed. These things are not part of the Preacher’s world, and if there is indeed no prospect for relief, why would anyone want to go on living? Why would anyone wish to be born into such a situation in the first place? To encounter nothing but more of the same?

Of course the difficulty even for the unsaved is that no one can know whether the oppression one is currently experiencing will one day come to an end. Perhaps it will. Perhaps it will not. One can hope, but for those who do not know Christ, it is hope without evidence.

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