This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Most Relevant Book of the Bible: Ecclesiastes". See series.
The great English author, C.S. Lewis, is one of my intellectual and spiritual mentors and not too long ago I was re-reading one of my favorite books by him, Mere Christianity. Early on in that book he argues that God made us for himself; he's the fuel that we need to do life and any attempt to do so apart from him always ends in failure. Then Lewis goes on to make the observation that humanity's unwillingness to serve God and live for him is the key to understanding history. As he says:
Tremendous energy is expended great civilizations are built up, excellent institutions are devised. But each time something goes wrong, some fatal flaws always bring selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin.
I don't like to read stuff like that because I love my country and I want it to thrive, not destroy itself. I don't want to see our civilization unravel and grind to a halt; I want us to extend peace and liberty to the world. But if Solomon were here he'd ascend the pulpit and preach to me. He'd say, "Scott, you've read a lot of history; what did you expect? You've read my book, Ecclesiastes, and you know that I'm telling you the truth about reality."
Friends, the Teacher would say the same thing to you so let's hear him speak and then see how that applies to our lives.
Here in chapter four he specifically dials in on the problem of oppression. This is a result of the fallen nature of life on earth where the strong have power over the weak. Where the poor are under the control of the rich. Where the dictators imprison, torture, and kill their own people.
Saddam Hussein and his family were among the worst oppressors in the latter half of the 20th century. One of my students, who was part of the initial invasion force into Iraq, said that his unit regularly came across rooms in Bagdad that had visibly been used to torture and kill people. This started with the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as recorded for us in Genesis three and we see the rapid growth of sin become oppression in the horrible murder Abel by Cain in Genesis four. That is quickly followed by the introduction of a man named Lamech who declared that he killed a man for wounding him and if anyone hurt him, he would repay him 70 times over. No wonder that here, in Ecclesiastes four, Solomon argues that this problem is so horrible that those who are dead are happier than those who are alive and that those who haven't yet been born are better off than both.
A favorite commentator of mine, Derek Kidner, labels this "The Rat Race" because Solomon is arguing that our work is driven by envy. This has a twofold result: The first is the fool who folds his hands—the picture of laziness or idleness—and he goes on to ruin himself. I highly doubt if this describes anyone here but if we could put this in contemporary terms, it's the mentality of the Welfare state. - Believe me I've seen the impact of this in my own extended family; it's not good.
The second is the workaholic—the one who has two handfuls of toil and is chasing after the wind because he's driven. This is the person who works 70 to 80 hours or more a week and some of us have done exactly that. This imbalance between being lazy and being driven is due to the corruption of our work. In Genesis two, Adam was in the Garden tending it but doing so in view that even the Lord himself rested on the Sabbath. He worked and worked hard but it wasn't a burden and he rested because there was balance. But in Genesis three, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God cursed the ground:
Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.
My first job was working for an excavation company 50 hours a week in the hot sun of summer. One night I came home and I was complaining about how hard work was. My dad, who grew up on a ranch in Northeast Colorado during the depression said, "Son, when you've strung barbed wire across miles of fencepost with your bare hands for hours on end out in the middle of a heat and dust storm, then you can complain." I quit complaining, but I cursed Adam!
The first problem that Solomon addresses was oppression, the second was corruption, and now he comes to the third one: Isolation.
By design we're created for community because we're made in God's image. God is triune in the essence of his nature; he is one God who eternally manifests himself in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is perfect harmony and perfect community in the Trinity. After the Fall of Adam and Eve, the community we were designed for was broken. God told Eve in Genesis 3:16 "Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you."
There is a great deal of debate amongst bible scholars and Old Testament commentators as to exactly what that verse means. But one thing is crystal clear: the communion that Adam and Eve had with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation in Genesis two was now gone, and resulted in the problem of isolation. In some ways, contemporary Americans personify this problem more than any other people group on planet earth.
In the book Bowling Alone by sociologist Robert Putnam he argues that Americans have lost their sense of community and after going to great lengths to make the point, he says that more Americans are bowling now than ever before but they're not doing that in leagues or with friends or with families. They're bowling alone. As we survey Ecclesiastes four we see an aged king in the last years of his life, giving us an overview of reality and arguing that it's filled with all kinds of problems because of the fallen state of humanity.
This is one of the reasons why people avoid studying and teaching this book. They argue that it's too negative, too depressing, and too melancholy. To some degree they have a point. But Solomon does not leave us hopeless. I've read this book a lot and following every section where he addresses something negative, he always follows with something positive. That is true here.
Let's pay close attention to what Solomon does in this section. In place of loneliness and isolation, he puts togetherness. In place of the corruption of our work, he says those two will have a good return for their labor. In place of oppression and injustice he says that although one might be overpowered two can defend themselves.
Solomon is using the idea of community—two or more people working together, living together, serving together, even fighting together—as a counter-weight to all the problems that he just described. He's telling us that there is something exponentially powerful in the nature of community, that what appears to be just two is actually more than that!
There's a synergism of the two that is far more powerful than just them and it's symbolized by "that cord of three strands that is not easily broken." The idea that one individual person comes up with a high degree of creativity or the ability to invent new technologies or the ability to excel in a sport is not really true. There are always other people around them who stimulate, help, and encourage them in their achievements.
Throughout Scripture, all the way from Genesis to Revelation we see a tremendous amount of emphasis on the power and importance of community. Some of it is centered in teaching on marriage and family relationships. Some of it is oriented towards those we work with and are neighbors with. In the Old Testament this emphasis on community is primarily centered on the creation of Israel as the people of God. In the New Testament it is focused the nature and function of the church as the people of God.
Let's look at Luke's description of the early church in Acts 2:42-47:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread & to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe & many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Friends, in a world gone mad, in a culture that is unraveling, the one institution that can make a long term, positive impact is the church. When she's filled with God's Spirit, the church is the answer to many of the problems of life in a fallen, broken world. She's the New Testament example of Solomon's emphasis on the power of community in Ecclesiastes four.
The enormous potential of Christ's church
The church carries the promise of justice in a world filled with oppression. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, and stood up for the oppressed. He calls his people—the church—to do the exact same thing.
In the movie 42, Branch Rickey is looking to put Jackie Robinson, on the Dodgers roster and he says to one of his assistants, "I'm a Methodist, he's a Methodist and God's a Methodist, let's go get him."
But later on, when Robinson is playing for the Dodgers, the Philadelphia Phillies decide to boycott a game because of Robinson. So Branch Rickey calls Herb, the owner of the Philadelphia Phillies, and he says:
"Herb, do you think God likes baseball?" "Well, you're going to meet him someday and when he asks you why you forfeited that game to the Dodgers, the fact that you didn't want to play because Jackie Robinson was black will be viewed as a very inadequate response."
Branch Rickey was one person but in that context he was the voice of the church arguing for justice in the face of oppression. That's what the church has done and will do until the return of Christ. She seeks to overcome racism, help the hurting, house the homeless, feed the poor and bind up the wounds of those who have been oppressed.
The church carries the proclamation of redemption in a world filled with corruption. The church is the steward of the gospel. The last thing Jesus told the disciples was "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and to the ends of the earth." They would witness with their lips and their lives and the world would be changed forever because they preached the gospel and the gospel is redemptive—it transforms people. As Paul later wrote, "the gospel is the power of salvation to everyone believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."
In all honesty, I cannot imagine where I would be without Jesus and I'd guess that most of you cannot either. I'm not the man I want to be, but because Jesus is redeeming me, I'm far better than I was and I know he's not done. He has come into our lives and, by the power of his church and the presence of his Spirit, he is shaping us and making us to be people after his heart. Whether it was a parent, a pastor, a professor, or another person, there was an individual who told you and told me about Jesus. They were functioning as the church—the hands and feet and eyes and ears of our Lord—to extend the message of redemption.
The church carries the power of community in a culture filled with isolation. I don't want to romanticize this because I've seen churches where there was little, if any, sense of community. But I also know that many churches, if not most churches, do provide a strong sense of community. I need community and you need community and each city needs community because when there's a strong sense of community, everyone wins.
Oh, I know the church has problems; after all, I'm a pastor and I've been in local church ministry for over 35 years. But I also know that there is nothing like the church when she's working right and functioning as a life-giving community where everyone helps everyone else and we all stomp together.
From his perspective as the king of Israel, Solomon is showing us the power of community in a world gone mad. From the perspective of the New Testament, we see that a Spirit-filled church is the answer to the problems of the world because she stands for justice and redemption and—when she's working right—she exemplifies community.
I want to encourage all of us to see the church—as our community of faith—and make sure that we're all on board with our time, our talents and our treasure to see her become all that the Lord Jesus has called her to be. When she's filled with the Spirit of our Lord, the church will be a big part of the solution to the problems of our lives and the problems that impact our community and our world. There is almost nothing more rewarding than being part of a church like that!
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Straightening the Altars.