As we learned in the last chapter, the Preacher is attacking the desire to build a social order that is not in submission to God. This society is still under the “curse,” it’s morally bent in nature, and has not sought the Messiah — Christ — to straighten its crookedness (Ecclesiastes 1:15). They reject God’s statutes as the standard of justice and see themselves as the source of ethics.
Wickedness is present where justice should prevail (Ecclesiastes 3:16), and this will be judged (Ecclesiastes 3:17). Autonomous humanity is as limited in establishing justice as animals in doing the same (Ecclesiastes 3:18-20). All people will meet the judgment they deserve for unrepented injustice, and those who are in Christ and oppressed will be liberated (Ecclesiastes 3:21). The best thing for those in God’s covenant is to be obediently fruitful and productive with a heart full of joy (Ecclesiastes 3:22).
The Preacher maintains his task of dismantling the endeavor to build a social order that rejects God’s justice outlined in the Ten Commandments and case-laws.
When the balm is gone
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. 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.
- Ecclesiastes 4:1-3
There have been many attempts to plan societies. The intention is usually good. The desire is to have fairness, prosperity, justice, opportunity, liberty, and a whole host of lofty goals. However, because of neglecting the root issue, a wrench is always thrown into the gears. The “curse” of God, humanity’s morally bent nature that labors (vain, useless, ‘âmâl) to make themselves Lord on the earth. Ultimately, it creates an order of them-and-us. Eventually, duality arises in the social order — oppressed and oppressors.
A history of oppression
If we consider only ideals, many will say history is awash with heroes! If we think about outcomes, however, heroes, often enough, either become tyrants or the facilitators thereof. The philosophers of times past tried to put their best systems forward to rectify the inevitable flow of societies towards tyranny.
For example, Homer, set forward a world of humanism, of heroes rising above and conquering even the plans of the gods. Plato, and later Aristotle (though disagreeing with Plato’s formulation), critiqued Homer because he wasn’t humanist enough. There was too much leniency given to the gods, and not enough control granted to man. So they rationalized the gods into limiting principles, mainly using them for theoretical starting-places origin and order in a causal system. Their central conviction was that man, with rational thinking, could order the world into a just society. Yet, throughout the history of Rome, many tyrants arose in its various political structures. The problem has always been — man cannot remove the curse of God.
The Roman Empire’s humanistic injustice is visible in the treatment of the elderly and sick:
In the second century BC, as in our own day, many people began moving from the countryside to the city in search of jobs and amenities. Once in the cities, however, migrants found themselves living in tenement buildings lacking basic sanitary facilities. The support of family and village now gone, they eked out an often lonely urban existence. In the face of daily alienation or in times of trouble, they could expect no social support beyond occasional free grain and entertainment such as gladiatorial games (“bread and circuses”).
Worse still, should they sicken, no clinics or hospitals existed to provide healing or even basic nursing care. True, one could find physicians. But their fees were too steep for most. Some towns did hire a public physician, but institutional health care was unheard of. So hoi polloi (commoners) were left to rely on folk healers and sellers of herbs, amulets, and quack remedies.
In a world of gods not renowned for their compassion, Roman culture simply did not encourage a felt responsibility to assist the destitute, sick, or dying. Individuals were expected to care for their own health in any way they could. Many lacked even the safety net of family—discharged soldiers, peasants who had come into the city seeking work, or slaves who had been recently freed. Without a family, you simply had no support system: no one to take care of you when you were sick, no one to help with food or rent when you couldn’t work, no one to bury you when you died.
Destitute families lacking any resources to help sometimes even abandoned the chronically ill to die. In Rome, sick or elderly slaves were routinely left to waste away on Tiber Island. Unwanted children were often left to die of exposure. If a father decided that the family couldn’t afford to feed another child, that child would be abandoned on the steps of a temple or in the public square. Almost without exception defective newborns were exposed in this way.
Female infants were exposed much more often than males because a girl not only added another mouth to feed, but she also couldn’t (according to Roman social customs) work to support the family. Besides, the father knew he would eventually have to bear the added burden of furnishing a dowry for each daughter’s marriage.
The classical world possessed no religious or philosophical basis for the concept of the divine dignity of human persons, and without such support, the right to live was granted or withheld by family or society almost at a whim. As a result, the chronically ill could be seen everywhere in the streets, baths, and forums—many of them homeless and begging.
- Gary B. Ferngren, Professor of History at Oregon State University
Rome’s religious and ethical systems were humanistic to the core. The result was the oppression of those who couldn’t live up to the ideal human. This wicked backdrop was the fertile soil in which the new humanity – created in Jesus Christ – would grow. Those sick and abandoned became new sons and daughters by word-and-deed evangelism, something that never arose from societies built by autonomous man.
Humanistic Fear: Italian city-state’s protectionism
Michael W. Kelley writes,
Amid the turbulence of the eleventh and twelfth centuries important social changes were taking place. There was rapid growth in the birth rate, and the sudden surge in population caused scarce land for the small and mid-sized peasant to become even scarcer. To live off the land became increasingly difficult, since Italy was not a region with large stretches of arable land. Steady movement to the cities swelled urban populations. Major land values soared. However, the productivity of agriculture rose rapidly as well, and trade and manufacture mushroomed, absorbing the influx populations from the land into the growing craft industries and trades. This change increased the influence of the cities in the politics of the region, and shifted the balance of power from the land to the commercial centers.
The effect of this social change was to raise the demand by cities for self-government, and a system of communes, government by locally chosen nobles and respected citizens, emerged. However, the local nature of government fostered intense attitudes of self-interest, and cities became bitter rivals for the control of local advantage. Implacable conflicts over tolls, customs, riverways, seaways and the traffic of commerce and trade became endemic. Each city viewed its neighbors with jealous suspicion. Each commune claimed monopoly over certain manufactured items and deeply resented competition from other communes. Instead of developing commercial ties, they fought fiercely with one another for control of territories and exclusive rights to economic resources.
Even more threatening to social order than the feuds which cities carried on with their neighbors were the disturbances suffered as competing factions within the city fought for control of communal affairs. Mercantile interests grew up around prominent families which vied with one another over the direction of policy, especially as policy chiefly concerned the need constantly to raise taxes in order to wage the necessary warfare with the neighboring community. These families and their many dependents often gained control of a district where they exercised a monopoly of power. The leaders formed consorteria and went through the streets with armed retainers for their own protection and to intimidate rival families. The streets became battlegrounds. Each family, to secure greater control of its neighborhood, erected towers from which to keep watch on enemies, and to gain advantage in attack or to protect against one.
Against this background of civil turmoil merchants and craftsmen formed into guilds to protect themselves in the environment of fractious communes. It became impossible to carry on any trade or occupation without joining one of these organizations. Economic privileges and success were dependent upon political power. In the words of professor Martines: “Guilds were not just casual and friendly occupational organizations….They burst upon the scene to satisfy urgent needs. Many turned themselves into armed groups. They sought the control of their craft and product, but the route often lay through politics and some form of violence.”
The result of this experiment in self-government followed the usual historical pattern. The breakdown of order seemed to demand more centralized power. To check the fractious rivalries, communal government in the thirteenth century gave way to centralized government – the podesta – a council with a strong executive. This change occurred in typical historical fashion, as an urgent demand of the people. Workers, artisans, small manufacturers combined with the petty nobility and ruling elites to put an end to neighborhood divisions. Some prominent families, out of a sense of rank, privilege, and self-esteem tried in vain to resist including the populo in the counsels of government. However, the people, to succeed, had to rely on the paid services of some powerful man or group of men. The effect nearly everywhere was the defeat of popular government and the creation of government by the strongman, forerunner of the condottiere. This was the signoria, government by a powerful nobleman with the backing of rich merchants, bankers, and money men. In some cases – Florence being the most noteworthy – government remained in the hands of a strong bourgeois assembly with a limited executive power. The same might be said of Venice despite its oligarchical character. Elsewhere power fell into the hands of strong individuals. This was especially true in Lombardy where the increased power of the Visconti of Milan eventually led to Milanese domination of the region.
- Michael W. Kelley, The Impulse of Power: Formative Ideas of Western Civilization, pp 199-202.
No solution in man
A look at history and the sweeping view of systems present today (Sultanate, Communism, Socialism, Democratic-Socialism, Democracy) shows that there is no hope outside of God’s covenant. Only Christ can make straight the heart of man, provide an ethical system of justice, and provide the necessity of individuals to carry out charity and voluntary social funding through the tithes, alms, and freewill offerings.
Outside of the covenant, history provides no hope for humanity to find redemption, either individually or cosmically. There is no ultimate authority who has revealed absolute truth — a truth that requires justice and will intervene with judgment if justice is neglected. There is no comforter for them (v.1). From the view of the oppressed man outside of God’s covenant — “unborn” is a much better status than “living” (vv.2-3).
Rotten from the roots up
Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.
Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.
- Ecclesiastes 4:4-6
A large monitor displays beautiful images and videos 5k, but that visual is composed of many pixels. When a batch of them goes to spoil, the total picture is compromised. Verses 4-6 look at this composition of the organic whole — unjust society primarily consists of individuals sharing the same quality. Even if a society’s highest ideal is good, it cannot actualize them if the citizenry and rulers are slaves to sin.
A lousy heart spoils the harvest
The leaven of “envy” permeates fallen man’s efforts in building a social order. Justice, righteousness, and equity are not the chief goal. When people build on a foundation of lust, the bones of neighbors make up the ladder of progress. All men have inherited the need to craft culture from Adam, but they also inherited his fallen nature. As groups of people come together, outside of God’s covenant, to build a culture, what you get is a social order created for the wrong goal (autonomy from God), with the wrong motives (envy), by the wrong means (injustice).
Any advancement will be ripped apart by envy. This point is present in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. He writes,
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
- 1 Timothy 6:10
The context here is that Paul is attacking the fruit of false teaching. Fruits such as:
- evil suspicions,
- lack of truth,
- “following” God as a means to profit.
Paul says that the “love of money” is the source from which multiple “evils” come. The word κακός is fascinating, especially when looking at the etymology surrounding the word. κακός, historically, is understood to connotate moral evil, harmfulness, uselessness, a terrible fate, and poop. The Apostle Paul teaches Timothy that if men serve their lustful ends, and the antidote of God’s revelation for their salvation and sanctification ignored, ‘shit’ hits the fan.
This warning ties in with what we have learned so far from the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. Outside of God’s covenant, without His grace straightening our crooked nature, our labors to create meaning is useless (Ecclesiastes 1:3). Social orders will promote injustice in the very places righteousness should reign (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3).
What we get in envy’s social-order doesn’t allow for enduring legacy. First, the wealthy are an enemy to neighbors, seeking to destroy any intruders on their channels of wealth. They seek out political fences to keep out “new blood” from entering without first expending critical operating capital just to compete.
Second, the poor become an enemy of wealth. Just by the social status in which they find themselves, the envious rich sees those in poverty as leeches who only seek to drain their coffers, and put hooks into their accounts. Their hearts harden against them, and so resist voluntary (alms), and commanded (poor-tithe), poverty relief.
Third, many poor are envious themselves, which only adds to the suspicion of the envious rich. The envious poor see all others as responsible for funding their living. We will discuss this in the next section.
Fourth, politics become self-aggrandizing, showboating, focusing on platforms rather than principled-actions. The preservation of liberty under God and justice in the courts fall away to the grasping of political power.
Fifth, R.J. Rushdoony writes, when commenting on 1 Timothy 6:9-10,
Very bluntly, Paul says the love of money, not money itself, but the love (and hence the people possessed by such a love) of money is the source of all shit in a social order.
It warps society from production to consumption; it produces inflation; and it dirties the whole of civilization with evil, kakos. It gives us the politics of kakos, and the politicians thereof, who reflect what the people themselves love and are. The ironic fact, however, is that a society which prizes and lusts after monetary wealth quickly destroys wealth, because it liquidates productive wealth in favor of negotiable and consumer-oriented wealth, money. It sells out the future in favor of the present.
- R.J. Rushdoony, Larceny in the Heart, pp 58.
Not only does a culture of envy consume wealth and productivity for satisfaction, but also neighbors. The labor to build a social-order under God’s curse is vanity.
A society disobedient to God’s covenant self-destructs. People stagnate and become lazy, looking for the easy way out of work, not creating greater efficiency for work imputed, but lessening work without care for losses. To throw away work, productive expenditure, is to deny one of the key components of being made in the image of God. The practitioner of laziness, creationally speaking, “eats his own flesh” (v.5). The self-directed cannibalism of the lazy-poor is often sustained by bureaucratic welfare agencies who do not seek to lift one from poverty to productivity but extend “survival” in that vicious state. Indeed, the mercy of the wicked is cruel (Proverbs 12:10).
The partner of envy, the need for more and more, is torture to rebellious man. The picture here is the inability to be satisfied in the harvest God provided for your labor. If we look at it quantitatively, it is not about having a little or nothing, but between having a limited amount or more. Qualitatively, the contrast is peace, or contentment, and a lack of satisfaction (v.6).
Sticks in sand or firm foundation
Any community that has not sought Christ for the removal of the curse, and whose constituents will not submit to God’s covenant, are building on a shifty foundation. Christ, after teaching multiple lessons on the ethics of His Kingdom, says that those who do not listen to what He teaches is a house”…built…on sand” (Matthew 7:26). “The fool” and “his house” will be swept away (Matthew 7:27). Autonomous man’s labor cannot weather the reality of God’s covenantal-world.
All of humanity is related, covenantally, to God. The covenantal bond is through Adam, which means God’s curse – the burden of humanistic man. The only way for a society to establish justice and righteousness is through the people being self-governed by God, covenanted to Him both individually and societally. The culture-building instinct of humanity can’t succeed without the fruits of the Spirit:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
- Galatians 5:22:26
Remember the context of Paul’s statement, all of these evil consequences stem from the leaven of lust, and its false teaching. Truth, God’s revelation, provides our transformation through the person and work of Christ, in whom we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17-18). The ethics of His Kingdom laid out in His Law provide the blueprints for justice. Rather than envying a neighbor’s success and seeking to destroy it through actions fueled by covetousness, the Holy Spirit sanctifies His people allows for neighbors to root for the success of one another.
Building in vain
The moral-social order built with the wisdom of man cannot stand under the weight of God’s curse. In the next post, the Preacher covers the isolation of riches, the dissolution of unity, and the revolutionary-and-messianic political hope that stunts the societal efforts of humanistic man.