Injustice (in Ecclesiastes)
Among the things that frustrate Qohelet is the experience of human-to-human injustice (see the essay “Metaphor, Simile, and Symbol” in Ecclesiastes and the summary of things considered foul). He is frustrated about unfairness (2:18–23; 3:16) and the ongoing reality that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer (4:1–3; 5:8; 8:10–11, 14; 9:1–3). Yet he also insists that God’s judgment will sometime become manifest (3:17; 8:12–13; 11:9).
As for his own audience, Qohelet gives instruction on this topic that is both conservative and radical. It is conservative because it urges a prudent attitude toward those in power in order to avoid unnecessary trouble. It thus echoes the teachings of Torah (Exod 22:28) and anticipates the admonition of Paul: “Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval” (Rom 13:3). In addition, Qohelet is conservative because he refuses to advocate the overthrow of unjust government. He does not counsel revolution and provides a caution to those who would. He particularly recognizes that no individual, however wise and rightly motivated, can resolve the problems of an entire society. This presents a challenge to those concerned with getting “just the right person” into a key power position (4:13–16; see the essay Political Power in Ecclesiastes).
Yet Qohelet’s proposal is also radical because it pursues two root causes of suffering and oppression. On the one hand is the problem of individualism, long recognized as both the vitality and the scourge of the modern West (Eccl 4:4–8). It frames and infuses our outlook on life and our sense of accountability to it. Our dearest goals tend to be individual goals; our sense of evil and responsibility is expressed in terms of the individual; and we conceive of health and wholeness as a matter of what is best for individuals, whether separately or in groups.
Qohelet asks us to consider two instead of one, to think of the whole and of cooperative togetherness (4:9–12). If we do so, we will chart our goals more in terms of group success; we will recognize when distortions are of a systemic nature; and we will ask what is best for “all of us” and not only what is best for me. In this way, Qohelet is in line with God’s call of Abraham to form a people who are a blessing to others (Gen 12:1–3) and with Israel’s prophets who exhort against self-centeredness. Note, for example, the words of Isaiah:
- Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land. (Isa 5:8 RSV)
It is unclear what Qohelet would have to say to the tribalism of our present time—what is best for my group. Although he resents the intrusion of the stranger (6:2), he does not couch his call to community in nationalistic terms.
A second root cause of suffering and oppression is materialism, a focus on acquisition and possession, as is also reflected in the above quotation from Isaiah. Qohelet challenges us to release our grip upon things that we hold in our hands, to relax our tremendous drive to work more in order to have more, and to better distinguish our needs and our wants. He urges contentment with one instead of the desire for two (4:4–6).
If we can make these changes, we will spend our time differently. We will work less and love more; we will support and protect; and we will keep warmer in the bargain (4:9–12). Additional prophets also address these concerns (e.g., Mic 2:1–3). Likewise, the Torah urges to reject coveting (the Decalogue: Exod 20:17; Deut 5:21) and to care for the needy, to reject thievery and to love one’s neighbor rather than to rob or intimidate (Lev 19:13–18; see the essay “Special Terms: Judgment” in Ecclesiastes, adapted from Miller 1999: 171–72).
- Miller, Douglas B. “Power in Wisdom: The Suffering Servant of Ecclesiastes 4.” In Peace and Justice Shall Embrace: Power and Theopolitics in the Bible, fs. Millard Lind. Edited by Ted Grimsrud and Loren L. Johns, 145-73. Telford, PA: Pandora Press U.S., 1999.
|—Douglas B. Miller|