'Life is… nasty, brutish and short' or to give it it's full rendering; 'Life is… solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'. So said the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, do you agree? I think the writer of Ecclesiastes, The Preacher, might well have done or at least that life is.. 'unjust, restless, lonely and fleeting'. If that isn't enough to get you hooked for the next 25mins I don't know what will!
Turn to Ecclesiastes 4.1
1. Unjust verse 1-3
The Preacher looks at the world around him and all that he sees is injustice, verse 1:
"Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed"
The world is full of injustice and those who suffer cry out. We see the same today. In the Middle East; chemical warfare, ISIS training child soldiers, those fleeing suffering again.
Christians are persecuted. A couple of weeks ago I went to see the film 'Silence', it's a difficult watch. In it we follow Father Rodrigues, a Portuguese, Jesuit priest who travels to 16th Century Japan with the Gospel. There he finds that those who follow Christ face being burnt alive, crucified on the shoreline and then being left to drown. He asks Why do these villagers have to suffer so much? Why did God choose them?
It's not just historical either, a recent report estimated that in 2016 90,000 Christians were martyred. In the west though we do not face such violence we do see increasing marginalisation and pressure to give up on biblical beliefs.
And in this torment there seems to The Preacher to be no relief, verse 1b:
and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors--and they have no comforter.
Leading him to the chilling conclusion in verse 2 and 3 that those who are already dead are better off than those who are alive and that most fortunate of all are those who have not yet been born and so have not seen verse 3
'the evil deeds done under the sun'.
This is reflecting on Solomon's reign - high point of peace and prosperity for Israel and yet even here there is injustice. How much more now in the world we live in may we be tempted to draw the same conclusion that it would, at least for some, have been better never to have been born at all. Point 1 Life is… unjust.
2. Restless verse 4-6
Life is… restless. We labour, we toil, we strive, we work but we are not satisfied with the results. In v4 The Preacher observes work and sees that;
all labour and all achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbour.
That is that so often our labour is motivated not by the desire to provide or to do good work but rather by the desire to, well we have a phrase for it, to 'keep up with the Jones''. Sometimes that's obvious and explicit; we see our colleague or neighbor's new car, or their new kitchen, or their sun soaked and exotic holiday snaps and we wish for that promotion just a little harder. Sometimes it's subtler we just expect to maintain a lifestyle that looks something similar to those around us or we just desire a job title that when the next time someone asks; 'So what do you do…' you won't be ashamed of admitting. We have to pay the bills, the mortgage, get the kids into the right catchment area and soon rather than working to live, we work so that we do not drown. We know this; we call it 'the rat race' we call them; 'wage slaves' and yet how easily we enslave ourselves.
There is another option, The preacher observes though, we may choose not to work at all. That's the fool in v5 who folds his hands, who will not labour, who will not toil and so 'ruins himself'. In the ESV 'eats his own flesh'. Work then either consumes us or we are forced to consume ourselves in poverty through the lack of it. Each of which are the very opposite of a satisfying life which The Preacher described back in 2:24 like this:
"A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work."
Life is... restless, thirdly Life is… lonely.
3. Lonely Verse 7-12
Again The Preacher sees something meaningless, something unfruitful and unsatisfying he sees loneliness.
After finishing secondary school I worked as a shelf stacker in Tesco. My boss was a guy called Mike. He took his work and his role as 'head of dairy' very seriously but he worked hard alongside us too and when 7am rolled around each morning our department was a vision of neatly arranged milk bottles and yoghurts. Sometimes you would see Mike having quiet word with staff from other departments. Mike was always good for a loan if you were short at the end of the month. The reason Mike was good for a loan was that in the time that I worked their 9 months I can't recall him ever taking a day off. He would work seven days a week, always earning and very rarely having any time to spend it.
He was the man described in verse 8;
'There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil yet his eyes were not content with his wealth'.
There is no end to his toil but he is, in the end alone. There is labour and achievement, he is perhaps successful in keeping up with the Jones', his neighbours perhaps envy him and his lifestyle and yet there is no one to share it with and so this too, in the end, is meaningless.
Loneliness and broken relationships are all around us, so often though they are hidden. Perhaps it is the training that many of us have received from social media that makes us so good at keeping up appearances. We recently encountered a mum from the school yard whose life appeared perfect, whose life I admit we had sometimes, through the lens of facebook, envied. She was walking through the metro centre laden with bags from high end shops stuffed with christmas presents. But it was nearly 10pm and her two very young kids dragged behind her, husband nowhere to be seen, permanently we would later discover.
That's just one example but we know, do we not, that so often outward respectability and even seeming success is masking loneliness and discontentment.
There is though, finally, a glimpse of how life ought to be here in verse 9-12. It is, as Genesis 2 states and as v8 has illustrated clearly for us, not good for man to be alone. Better than one are two who v9 get a good return for their work, who can help the other if they fall, who may lie together for warmth and may defend one another. Better still is when that relationship grows from two to three strands which verse 12 when bound together are not easily broken. Pitied though is to be the man v10 who if he falls has no one to pick him up.
Life is … unjust, restless, lonely and finally; life is… fleeting.
4. Fleeting verse 13-16
In these final four verses we have the tale of a king. He is an unlikely king one who has risen perhaps from prison or from poverty. A real rags to riches story, a peasant has become a prince. You can almost hear the hollywood script writers beating a path to the door can't you!
And yet, and yet The Preacher says that this king was better off when he was a poor youth than now as a king who cannot heed a warning. For another youth, the king's successor v15 says is waiting at the door and all who live and walk under the sun now follow him. The youth who became a king will be dethroned by another youth just like him and yet even he is not safe for in v16 the crowds turn again and those who came later were not pleased with the king's successor.
Life is fickle, even the most remarkable of achievements, of success can be undone, seemingly, in a moment. Compaq, Enron, Woolworths, Pan Am, DeLorean… how many great companies are now struggling for survival? How many great empires are now less than great? Leo Tolstoy the great Russian writer put it like this;
'Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn't be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?'
And so there we have it. Life is… unjust, restless, lonely and fleeting.
How as Christians do we respond to this? To a world that which is 'unjust, restless, lonely and fleeting'. How do we reckon with this world which is not just out there but is in here too, which is our lived experience?
Thomas Hobbes response was to first, write a very long book about government and then to attempt to restrain the worst of humanities impulses through the rule of law.
First we must recognise that the world is like this. Take note of how many time The Preacher 'looks' or 'sees' the world around him. The Preacher is nothing if not observant, he makes careful enquiry of the world around him.
But he does so critically, the preacher is reflecting on King Solomon's life and reign and yet we see here even under the reign of the wisest man to have ever lived, even when a person with almost unlimited resources and abilities attempts to live without total dependence on God he observes injustice, restlessness, loneliness and only fleeting achievement if any at all. We must recognise that even the best of human wisdom, achievement and labour has it's limits.
b) Live Differently
Secondly, we must live differently because we do not just live under the sun or even under the reign of king Solomon but rather under the reign of God's Son; Jesus. In response to the brokenness of this world we should run to our heavenly father and live in the light of the world to come.
That's what Jesus instructed his disciples to do regarding money in our NT reading. In Matthew 6:29 Jesus tells his disciples not to invest in earthly treasure which is vulnerable to moth, rust and theft. Instead they are to invest in heavenly treasure which does not perish or fade and which cannot be taken from them.
The Preacher's observations in Ecclesiastes 4 show that life, even lived at it's best humanly speaking, is vulnerable. So what might it look like to live differently. How might we live under the reign of Jesus when life is so often; unjust, restless, lonely and fleeting. Let me offer some brief thoughts on each.
1. Life is Unjust
Life is according to The Preacher unjust and without comfort. But for a believer though we may experience injustice and oppression, in fact we may even choose them, they are only temporary. I mentioned earlier the film 'Silence'. Those same Japanese Christians who suffered the most terrible oppression, when faced with torture and death, looked forward to a place where there would be no more torture, death or taxes! Their solace is prayer, seeking their heavenly Father who hears their prayers and their screams.
We will always live with injustice, with violence whether we live under the wisdom of Solomon or the ignorance of Trump there will always be wars and rumours of war and the poor will always be with us. Does that mean that Christians should just accept the status quo? No, we ought to work and vote for and pursue justice, we ought to care for the widow and speak for the fatherless but we do so knowing that justice will only come when Christ returns and that certainly he is coming soon. Or as the last few words of Ecclesiastes put it;
Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
2. Life is Restless
Work either consumes us or we are consumed by poverty without it. We are either lazy or envious and one or the other will motivate our work. Christians fight against these defaults by remembering that everything we have is God's and that we have been appointed as stewards over his creation. Our work is to guard and cultivate the generous gifts he has given us whether this is time or talents. We use these things not to accrue wealth or prestige but to provide for those God has entrusted to us doing all things to the glory of God. This is what gives life meaning; working for God's glory when we choose this rather than our stomachs or the envious glances of our neighbours our work becomes meaningful and freed from it's tyranny we are able to rest from it.
3. Life is Lonely
The man who is alone has no one to enjoy the fruits of his labour with and is vulnerable. But christians are never alone, whatever their personal circumstances God is by his Spirit continually present with us. And God has not saved us in isolation, he has made us a people, he has invited us into a family; his church.
Even if we feel lonely and we do, the reality is that we are never truly alone. What's more the church provides opportunities for us to work together for a good return, to help the other up when we fall, to come together to ward off attacks from without. Our church family can be a place where we share the fruit of our work; financially yes but in a hundred other ways too.
4. Life is fleeting
Finally, all that we build apart from God is vulnerable to decay, it is fleeting. Whether it is status or influence or power or empire all may be destroyed by death. So as believers we stop running after those things and instead follow the one who has gone through death. It is only the kingdom of the risen Lord Jesus that it is truly lasting. So we invest in it, looking to the day when Christ will return and take to our eternal home.
So then life is… unjust, restless, lonely and fleeting we must recognise the limits of even the best of human reigns. As we do so we live differently under the reign of king Jesus and begin a life of justice, satisfaction and fellowship which will last into eternity. Let's pray…
Heavenly Father thank your word, thank you for these observations that help us to see the world as it truly is. Lord so often the world around us does seem full of injustice, restlessness, loneliness and is so fleeting. We recognise that these are the effects of sin, our sin and that so often we live just as the world around us lives. We ask that instead we would look to King Jesus and would live as his citizens living now in light of the world to come.