When God spoke to Adam in the Garden of Eden, He warned him that disobedience would bring death. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 5 that sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin. Because of Adam’s sin, God subjected the world to all kinds of misery. While the Preacher mentions death throughout Ecclesiastes, he also explores other difficulties that have touched our lives as a result of Adam’s sin, our own sin, and the sins of others.
Because of transgression, the good gifts of God are often used in evil ways. Governing authorities are meant to be a blessing from God, yet in every generation people of power misuse their position in order to oppress the weak. Oppression is like a living death, a hell on earth. In the worst cases, abused victims may feel completely alone with no one to rescue them, no one to comfort them with sympathy and friendship. Even those who first pretend to care may themselves be secret abusers. This trouble is so bitter that death may seem like a relief. Those who face oppression may wonder whether it would have been better if they had never been born.
This is not the only form of misery under the sun. Envy can reside within a man’s heart, tearing him apart from the inside. A desire to have the recognition and success that belongs to one’s neighbor can be a powerful force in a man’s life, even spurring him on to great achievements. But where does all of it lead when a man’s trophies cannot be taken with him when he dies? Not that the Preacher is recommending a passive forsaking of all ambition and diligence; that would only yield poverty and bigger trials. The best course would seem to be a quiet life with modest goals, hard work, and the enjoyment of the present gifts of God. As often as the Preacher returns to this recommendation, we know that it is not the answer to life’s deepest problems.
Another misery to consider is loneliness. If a man is alone, what is the point of his work? What is the reason for his existence and his toil? Some might be plagued with the question of the meaning and worth of a solitary life. Others just continue working and do not seem to confront the absurdity of grinding out a lonely existence in the world. Which situation is more pitiful? All of it is an unhappy business. But to have a partner, what a blessing! To have another friend as well as a companion in all the toil of life, this is truly a great gift! Yet death comes to all, and it mocks every partial joy with its ultimate threat.
Some miseries in this life are very obvious, while others are more deceptive. The poor and the oppressed, the abused and the lonely – these people know that they are not in charge of this world and that their lot in life is a difficult one. But a wealthy king with a long reign may easily fool himself into thinking that he runs the world. He mistakes power for wisdom, supposing that people follow him because they are confident that he knows the right way to go, rather than simply out of fear. He schools his heart in arrogance until he is utterly self-deceived. He learns to listen to no one but himself.
Such a man will soon lose everything he has. If disease does not find him first, a smart young usurper will see his vulnerability. His people neither love him nor respect him. They are more than ready to listen to the voice of a young rebel, hoping that life will be better with a new man in charge. The old king may die in prison, tortured by the thought of the boy ruling in his place. But the young man who has won the kingdom may soon be the next old fool. Give him thirty years of service, and he may find that absolute power calcifies his heart.
All of these observations display the brokenness of this mortal life. The Preacher does not solve our sadness with these insights. He does give us a picture of how we can live wisely within the limits of this present futility, but surely God must have a better solution than all of this.
One point that we should not miss is that the man who lives for this life only, however well he conducts his affairs and however great may be his blessings of home and family, is greatly to be pitied. He will die, return to dust, and his purposes on this earth will be over and soon forgotten.
This is life on the earth. Is there a solution for us from heaven? Even Adam, through whom sin and death entered the world, heard the true word of comfort from God Himself long ago. There would come One who would solve the problems of sin and death, One who would bring heaven and earth together again. This Seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent, though in the process of that great victory, He would suffer and die. Because Jesus has fought and won that battle, our eternal existence need not be filled with oppression, loneliness, envy, and misery.
Prayer from A Book of Prayers
O Father, the troubles of this world are not small. Some face oppression every day. Even strong men and women may despair of life. Help us to enjoy a handful of quietness whenever we are able. Thank You for the blessing of fellowship in Your church. A three-fold cord is not easily broken. We are not alone. Grant us unity in the Spirit as we walk through these days under the sun. All the kings of the earth and their impressive kingdoms reach their appointed limits. Great leaders may have wisdom, but they also have some folly and arrogance, and even the best of them make some measure of trouble for themselves and others. Our King is in the heavens, and He does whatever pleases Him. Yes, our Lord does all things well.