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Meditation Ecclesiastes 4a

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.
And I declared that the dead,
    who had already died,
are happier than the living,
    who are still alive.
But better than both
    is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
    that is done under the sun.

And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Fools fold their hands
    and ruin themselves.
Better one handful with tranquillity
    than two handfuls with toil
    and chasing after the wind.

(Eccl. 4:1-6 NIV)

The preacher now wants to cover a different aspect of our lives. Up until now the preacher has looked at the burning desire we all have to get ahead of creation. Rather than living in harmony with the boundary lines that are set in the world and time we try to find gain. Now in chapter four the preacher looks at the desire that we have to be better than our neighbour.

To shorten our prayers we could pray, ‘Lord bless me and mine. Amen.’ The preacher shows us that the obsession with self is just not healthy, it is corrosive to our soul. The very source of our pain is that we fill our thoughts and plans with ourselves as we navigate the world in such a way to give us meaning and happiness. The preacher wants us to take our eyes of ourselves and focus on others. Not me but we! God has placed others in our pathway, even those that we wish he hadn’t, in order that we might serve them. Tranquillity (4:6) may be found in living for others instead of living for ourselves. Tranquillity is rest, peace of mind and calmness of soul.

The life that we live is a gift from God. Your life is a short loan from God and one day God will call that life back in again. You can say that you are your own person, but you would be wrong, you are God’s person.

A selfish life is a life that oppresses others in order to gain for ourselves. The dictator is the ultimate selfish person, causing pain and tears to others. The suffering of the innocent is unbearable to watch. Such was the suffering of the innocent that the Preacher observed, it made him exclaim that the dead were better off, and even those who were unborn even better. Some commentators want to protect the Preacher saying that this is a view of life without God or this is not what the Preacher really thinks. That is too simplistic and ignores the reality of the words before us. Just because they make us uncomfortable doesn’t mean we can explain them away. Liz and I were watching a movie on TV, based on a true life story. It was about how a man lured his victims to his home and murdered them so that he could rob them. The cold, calculating attitude of the murderer was almost unbearable to watch. He won the confidence of his victims and, with the aid of his helpers whom he managed to keep under his control, he murdered his victims. This carnage went on for years before he was caught. To think of the dozens of families whose loved ones just disappeared without trace. It is that kind of oppression and murder that has made the Preacher exclaim as he did. When we pursue gain thinking that’s all there is to be had, then others are going to get hurt.

And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

(Eccl. 4:4 NIV)

There is a saying, ‘any friend can share your sorrows and failures, but it takes a true friend to share your joys and successes.’

The horribleness of envy and jealousy is captured by the poem by Victor Hugo:

Envy and Avarice

Envy and Avarice, one summer day,
Sauntering abroad
In quest of the abode
Of some poor wretch or fool who lived that way—
You—or myself, perhaps—I cannot say—
Along the road, scarce heeding where it tended,
Their way in sullen, sulky silence wended;

For, though twin sisters, these two charming creatures,
Rivals in hideousness of form and features,
Wasted no love between them as they went.
Pale Avarice,
With gloating eyes,
And back and shoulders almost double bent,
Was hugging close that fatal box
For which she’s ever on the watch
Some glance to catch
Suspiciously directed to its locks;
And Envy, too, no doubt with silent winking
At her green, greedy orbs, no single minute
Withdrawn from it, was hard a-thinking
Of all the shining dollars in it.

The only words that Avarice could utter,
Her constant doom, in a low, frightened mutter,
“There’s not enough, enough, yet in my store!”
While Envy, as she scanned the glittering sight,
Groaned as she gnashed her yellow teeth with spite,
“She’s more than me, more, still forever more!”

Thus, each in her own fashion, as they wandered,
Upon the coffer’s precious contents pondered,
When suddenly, to their surprise,
The god Desire stood before their eyes.
Desire, that courteous deity who grants
All wishes, prayers, and wants;
Said he to the two sisters: “Beauteous ladies,
As I’m a gentleman, my task and trade is
To be the slave of your behest—
Choose therefore at your own sweet will and pleasure,
Honours or treasure!
Or in one word, whatever you’d like best.
But, let us understand each other—she
Who speaks the first, her prayer shall certainly
Receive—the other, the same boon redoubled!”

Imagine how our amiable pair,
At this proposal, all so frank and fair,
Were mutually troubled!
Misers and enviers, of our human race,
Say, what would you have done in such a case?
Each of the sisters murmured, sad and low
“What boots it, oh, Desire, to me to have
Crowns, treasures, all the goods that heart can crave,
Or power divine bestow,
Since still another must have always more?”

So each, lest she should speak before
The other, hesitating slow and long
Till the god lost all patience, held her tongue.
He was enraged, in such a way,
To be kept waiting there all day,
With two such beauties in the public road;
Scarce able to be civil even,
He wished them both—well, not in heaven.

Envy at last the silence broke,
And smiling, with malignant sneer,
Upon her sister dear,
Who stood in expectation by,
Ever implacable and cruel, spoke
“I would be blinded of one eye!”

Victor Hugo

For those whose first language is not English, the meaning of the poem is that the sisters were envious of each other, and when granted a wish they were told that whatever one wished the other would receive double. Out of envy the sister did not choose riches but chose rather to be blinded in one eye. She was driven by how she could deprive her sister rather than what she might gain for herself. The other sister would be blinded in both eyes.

We can behave this way in business, in politics, but the way common to most of us is by our speech. We cast aspersions on others by what we say or leave unsaid. We elevate ourselves by drawing attention to the failures of others. The Preacher wants us to stop this treadmill of self- aggrandisement and learn to live for others. How can I be a giver instead of a getter, a servant of others instead of lord of myself?

In laziness we acquire nothing and therefore have nothing to share, in over busyness we have plenty but no time and perhaps no desire to share.

If I have wounded some poor soul today: (This takes us back to the 1950’s)

Prayer
Lord help us not to oppress others by our words, thoughts or actions. Lord open our eyes to help us to see when we have overindulged in ourselves. Forgive us for overlooking the needs of others. Our Father as our Saviour lived a self-sacrificial life help us to follow His example because we pray in His name. Amen.