Ecclesiastes 4 begins with the teacher describing yet another meaningless situation. He says, “I saw oppression, and the tears of the oppressed. The oppressors have great power, and the victims are helpless.” He responds to such sadness by saying, “So I concluded it is better to dead.” (My paraphrase of Ecc. 4:1-2)
He observes the pain and injustice of oppression, and the sad helplessness of suffering and concludes that the only response is to wait for death. Death is the solution to oppression and suffering. The dead can’t be hurt, nor will they have to endure suffering.
Most folks familiar enough with biblical literature know that by this point Solomon had polluted his mind and heart by indulging in debauchery and was pontificating from a poisoned point of view. We don’t generally accept his position that life is meaningless as reliable let alone inspiring.
However, I find some similarities in some Christian thought / teaching with the sentiment expressed here. We see oppression. We see the tears of the oppressed. We see the sick, the hurting, the tormented and the persecuted. Their tears stain our prayer altars and clinic counters. Other’s tears are well-hidden, their pain or addiction or personal torment is obfuscated behind affluence or well-managed-appearance. Most often they are offered means of coping with their problems. They are supported; they are pitied, they are accommodated. They may be offered the best tools available for managing their pain or controlling their addiction. Some of the best-hearted people on the planet are doing everything they can to help relieve some of the symptoms of the suffering.
But here’s the rub. No real hope is offered for a solution, no real means of dealing with the oppressor (the cause of oppression) seems possible. It is good and kind and appropriate for us to console the tearful, but we fall short unless we confront the tyranny behind those tears. Ultimately the hurting (or sick, or oppressed) are too often told to hold out until heaven. They are, essentially, “encouraged” that they will be better off dead.
On a larger scale, there is popular sentiment that this whole world is so bad and getting so much worse, and therefore “we just can’t wait for the first bus out of here.” Swing low, sweet chariot! I am glad for heaven; I rejoice that there is more Life than this life; I am grateful that death is not final. But death is not our hope, and managing suffering is not our mission.
Compare the Teacher’s (Ecc. 4:1-2) resignation against Christ’s compassion. In Matthew 9:35-38 the reader finds Jesus fully engaged in powerful, compassionate confrontation of suffering. “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” Jesus came as a liberator, a deliverer, a healer—with a specific message and mission to the oppressed and their oppressor (Luke 4:18-19, Acts 10:38, 1 John 3:8). Jesus saw the tears of the oppressed, and He (like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes) saw that the oppressor was strong and the oppressed were helpless; “he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Harassed and helpless. The language here implies a third party – an aggressor, an harasser. Someone is harassing the multitude, and they are helpless against their oppressor. Jesus, in contrast to the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, responds with resolve. His solution was NOT to console the hurting with the hope of death, but to enjoin His followers to join Him in being carriers of hope and help.
Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” What was the harvest? The harvest was the mandate from heaven to powerfully, compassionately confront suffering. Jesus saw the oppressed and hurting as a harvest. Meaning, he saw bound people as potentially free people, and the sick as well, and the broken as whole. This is harvest. So, Jesus implores, pray! Ask Heaven to intervene because only Heaven can deal with hell. Specifically, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into the harvest. In other words, Heaven is going to deal with suffering by sending you to do something about it.
And right away the reader finds that Jesus sends His disciples out to confront suffering exactly the way he did: He gathered His disciples together and “gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (Matt. 10:1). Notice the exact same depiction of Jesus’ ministry in Matt. 4:23-25 and 9:35. Their commission included the mission and means to drive out the evil spirits while delivering healing for hurting people. Christ commands them, “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give’” (10:7-8). Christians have the mission of Christ (vv. 7-8) and the means of Christ (10:1).
God hates suffering. He has given us resources and responsibility to powerfully, compassionately, comfort the oppressed and confront their oppressor. It’s worthwhile to explore how we go about this, what this looks like in our life-settings, and even how to start. However, because the harvest is great, let the workers start working, even if we must learn on the job. But of first importance is that we embrace fully the belief that the suffering are not better of dead. They are the harvest.