Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 38 : The Oppressed
Eccles 4:1 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.
To the shallow thinker, the presence of the oppressed of the world must raise a question about the nature of God. This question we find Habakkuk raising with God: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Hab 1:13) i.e. God, I know you are holy and good, so how can you just stand back and do nothing in the face of all the evil in the world? It is a legitimate question.
For Solomon (who had been a hard taskmaster) it was a valid problem. He looked at what he saw happening in the world and he saw oppression and he saw the tears of the oppressed and he saw that no one was giving them comfort, and he saw that the people with the power were the oppressors. These are the basics of oppression wherever it takes place. Because people are the same throughout history, it is exactly the same today. It may be kings or rulers holding their people in a rod of iron, it may be those dealing in people trafficking, it may be gangs terrorizing neighbourhoods, or it may simply be parents abusing their children or employers exploiting their workers. Whatever it is, it is the same: powerful people oppressing weaker people.
As Solomon looked he didn’t come up with any answers beyond the philosophical: “And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.” (v.2,3) If the world it like this, he concludes, the person who has died is better off now they no longer have to endure the oppression they had been suffering, but of course, the people in the best position are those who have never yet been born because at least they haven’t been through it. That’s a very negative way of viewing it. Perhaps it would be better if we asked two questions: why does this happen and what can we do about it?
First of all, why does this happen. There are two factors that contribute to this. First there is the free will that God has granted to mankind. He has made us so that we choose how we will live, what we will do. Second is the fact of sin in every human being, that tendency to godlessness and self-centredness that leads to unrighteousness. Put these two things together and people oppress people. It is as simple as that. We don’t have to but we choose to – and it is sin and it is evil.
But then this usually raises an even bigger question, the question that Habakkuk raised: why doesn’t God step in to do something about it. The answer here is also twofold and it involves what God can’t do and what He can do.
First of all what God can’t do. It is logically very simple and yet so many people just can’t see it. Ask yourself the question, what would you like God to do? Step in and stop it. How? Er…. MAKE every person good. You’ve just taken away their free will, their ability to choose, that human ‘ingredient’ that makes us who we are. Do that and we have grey robots who are all the boring same and who are incapable of the thing we call love. So tell people to be good! He does, all the time. I am utterly convinced that God speaks to every single human being but many of us are like Pharaoh – hard hearted. We have set our hearts on oppressing those weaker than ourselves and so we refuse to listen to God.
OK then, let’s ask the other part: what can God do? So does God stand back and do nothing? No, He works in the hearts and lives of individuals. A slave can know the wonder of God’s love, even in the face of oppression. But more than that revolution comes when many people rise up against the oppressor. We have seen it a number of times in the last fifty years. Something we have to accept is that God knows that some of these things take time, but that doesn’t mean to say He is doing nothing today. It just means we may have to wait a while to see what He’s been working on!
So let’s ask the second question: what can we do about it? Wherever we see it we should ‘blow the whistle’ on it and shout it from the rooftops. That won’t always have effect, but it will sometimes. Wherever we see it, we should be praying against it and not only ask the Lord to act to stop it, but also ask what part we might play in bringing it to an end. The truth is that the Lord does want to act against oppression, but largely through other people. In a civilised society He has prompted us to create legal systems that seek to deal with criminal activity. Unsaved world government will never get it completely right, but at least we can pray and speak out to encourage governments to speak and act against other governments who oppress their people or allow oppression within their countries. The world is a constantly changing kaleidoscope of changing nations and changing activity. The fact that there is oppression doesn’t mean to say that we have to tolerate it.