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Ecclesiastes 4:1–3 (ESV)

1 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. 2 And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. 3 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 (BHS/WHM 4.2)

1וְשַׁ֣בְתִּֽי אֲנִ֗י וָאֶרְאֶה֙ אֶת־כָּל־הָ֣עֲשֻׁקִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר נַעֲשִׂ֖ים תַּ֣חַת הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ וְהִנֵּ֣ה׀ דִּמְעַ֣ת הָעֲשֻׁקִ֗ים וְאֵ֤ין לָהֶם֙ מְנַחֵ֔ם וּמִיַּ֤ד עֹֽשְׁקֵיהֶם֙ כֹּ֔חַ וְאֵ֥ין לָהֶ֖ם מְנַחֵֽם׃2וְשַׁבֵּ֧חַ אֲנִ֛י אֶת־הַמֵּתִ֖ים שֶׁכְּבָ֣ר מֵ֑תוּ מִן־הַ֣חַיִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֛ר הֵ֥מָּה חַיִּ֖ים עֲדֶֽנָה׃3וְטוֹב֙ מִשְּׁנֵיהֶ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־עֲדֶ֖ן לֹ֣א הָיָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־רָאָה֙ אֶת־הַמַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה הָרָ֔ע אֲשֶׁ֥ר נַעֲשָׂ֖ה תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃

The commentators take a couple of positions with this passage. The predominate one is Qoheleth as sad observer, almost as if he slowed his limousine down, cracked the window and cried at the poor on the corner as he drove past. As Barton writes on Ecclesiastes 4:1, “The deep emotion which the tears of the oppressed exicted in Qoheleth is evidence of his profound sympathies with the lower classes.”

For those who reconcile this passage with the entire Bible, a rather different picture arises (Barrick, Winter, and Hengstenberg).

Interestingly, little is done concerning the overall structure of the book and its final statement that God will bring all things into judgment.  As review of all the passages concerning in the OT concerning oppression (the verb and noun used in this passage), this is a matter which God rejects and for which God will judge. Thus, the position of Ecclesiastes on oppression is consonant with the entirety of the witness: (1) it is wicked and causes much human misery; (2) it causes sorrow to see it in others (and thus can become a basis for our response); and (3) it is a matter which God will judge.

Gordis, Ecclesiastes (pp. 158-159):

The spectacle of wickedness in the seats of justice and the fruitless tears of the oppressed fill Kohelth’s heart with despair. Nor can he find consolation in the shadowy doctrine of retribution in another world, which he dismisses with a shrug of the shoulders. Only the pursuit of personal happiness is a sensible goal of men.

Seow, Ecclesiastes (p. 187):

The point is that the living still have to witness the injustices of life, whereas the dead have already done that and no longer have to do so. This point is underscored in the tob-saying in v 3, into existence at all and not to have seen the injustices of the world. But that is, in fact, not an option for the humans, inasmuch as they already are living  and having lived they have already been witnessing life’s inevitable tragedies[1]. The alternative of not having lived is not an option that people can choose. The tob-saying thus points to the irony of human existence: what is really “better” in this regard is not within the grasp of mortals. People by their very existence, have already been assigned their lot. Life is just so to Qohelet. For him, to be is to see these tragic things that happen in life. What is better, then, is not to somehow be shielded from life’s painful realities, but, as he intimates in 3:22, to enjoy oneself whenever it is possible to do so.

Longman, Ecclesiastes:

Qoheleth’s observation on oppression leads to his, by this time not surprising, conclusion tha though we may lament the existence of oppression, we cannot do anything about (132).

Qoheleth neither acts to alleviate their suffering nor asks others to do so. Michael Fox points out that this is true of all the pasagtes in which he treats oppression (3:16, 8:9, 10): “He is just sorry that we must see these things” (134)

Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 306:

The Teacher grieves for the oppressed, but he offers no hope for a solution to oppression. To the contrary, he confesses that a person is better off dead or, better still, never having been born than to be alive and see this heartbreaking reality. The candor of his words should not be taken as the musings of a cynic or a suicide. He is describing, albeit in hyperbole, the pain this situation gives him (cf. Job 3; Jer 20:14–18).

Roland Murphy, Ecclesiastes (37-38):

4:1 The subject of Qoheleth’s observation is human oppression (the root עשׁק, “oppress,” occurs three times). He simply registers the fact without condemnation. This is not to deny that he feels deeply about it; the repetition concerning the absence of consolation suggests the contrary. The point of view is broader than 3:16, which focused on the administration of justice. The repetition (“no one to give comfort”) is deliberate and not to be deleted; it foreshadows the description of the plight of the solitary person in vv 7–12.

2–3 Qoheleth does not simply conclude “better off dead than alive.” But death is preferable to oppression; it frees one from trouble:

  O death, how welcome is your sentence

  to one who is needy and failing in strength,

  worn down by age and anxious about everything;

  to one who is contrary, and has lost all patience! (Sir 41:2, NRSV)

His judgment is at odds with the typical wisdom emphasis on life, but it is in agreement with one who “loathes life” (2:17). Paradoxically, this judgment is rooted in a high appreciation of life. Because life is not what it should be—in the face of human oppression, he can praise the dead and the unborn. In this case “praise” has an ironic edge, since death is not normally preferable. Similar irony is apparent in 9:4–5 (see the see Comment and cf. also 11:7–8), where he pursues a different tack: it seems better to be alive. From one point of view it is better not to experience the evil turns of life (4:3); on the other hand, it is better to know something (9:5) even if this is (ironically) only that one must die! The thought of 4:2–3 is close in spirit to Job 3 and Jer 20:14–18.

Barrick, Ecclesiastes, 74-75:

Although Solomon does not seem to have suffered from oppression himself, he must have been aware of his father’s history under Saul. The declares that he observes the “tears of the oppressed,” revealing his sympathy for them.  He also noted that oppressed persons feel helpless and hopeless, because they have ‘no one to comfort them’ (stated twice for emphasis). He realized his descendents will face oppression following the division of the kingdom (1 Kings 11).[2]

Similar declarations occur in Job (16:2, 12:34, 30:28) and five times in Lamentations 1 (vv. 2, 9, 16, 17, 21) as well as Psalm 69:20, Isaiah 54;11, and Zechariah 10:2 …..The repetition sets up the later discussion of loneliness and companionship (vv. 7-12).  Reads fo the New Testament cannot help but be reminded that God’s people receive comfort from all three persons of the Godhead (Acts 9:31; 2 Cor. 1:3-7). God champions the oppressed (Pss. 9:9, 10:17-18, 103:6, 146:7).

Winter, Opening Up Ecclesiastes (60-61):

These seem to be the words of a helpless bystander observing the exploitation of the weak by the powerful. Yet Solomon is a man who is in a position to do something about oppression and exploitation within his own kingdom but, as he turns to other gods, he abandons the sacred trust that God has given him as king of Israel (1 Kings 11). Yet God has declared his desire for justice for the exploited: ‘ “For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now I will arise”, says the LORD; “I will set him in the safety for which he yearns”, (cf. Ps. 12:5). Wherever there is power there is the temptation for its misuse. This can operate on a national scale, as in the case of rulers (Prov. 28:16); at a local level (Eccles. 5:8; Jer. 7:6)); and even in the church (1 Peter 5:1–3)!

Some of us have visited and worked in countries ruled by oppressive regimes and have encountered the chain of exploitation and oppression as it has filtered down through the army, police and petty bureaucrats, and on to the streets of the cities, towns and villages. For many, in the Third World, this seems to be their only way to survival. In such circumstances the Christian citizen is faced with a dilemma. Not only is he exploited, and in many cases oppressed because of his faith, he will often find himself in a position where he, too, is tempted to become part of the system.

For those of us living in a democracy, exploitation becomes more subtle and personal—but just as hurtful. Children encounter bullying at school and some are even driven to suicide! Such behaviour does not end with our childhood; it simply becomes subtler as it enters the workplace and even the home. Inevitably we see another kind of chain in operation—the bullied can look for someone weaker to bully—the abused becomes the abuser. Satan, the arch-exploiter, takes man’s fallen human nature and distorts the image of a God of justice in whose likeness we are created. The poignant cry of the Preacher is repeated, ‘they have no comforter’—and it comes from the heart of a man who is aware of his own exploitative nature.

Hengstenberg, Ecclesiates (1869; page 126):

Such a feeling of human misery is not only natural, but is intended by God who brings us into circumstances which call it forth. By thoroughly disgusting us with the world, and by making us realize its absolute vanity, God means to draw us to himself. Only in this way can Jahveh, the true and absolute Being, become to us what he really is. Through much tribulation must our hold on early things be loosened and ourselves enter into the kingdom of God.

Finally, William Pemble’s commentary provides a very picturesque comment on this passage. Pemble does see the book as quite orthodox, although he does not develop that point here (Pemble’s entire commentary not republished since the 17th century is available in full on this site. Check the category for “Pemble”):

            Take a review of the nature of oppression, with some more particulars hereon depending.  Here then we have to be considered an aggravation of the miserable vexation of poor oppressed people under cruel and tyranical governors, verse 1.

            This point is amplified by the greatness of the oppression: They were oppressed not only to grief and complaining, but also to tears28.  The fact of oppression is further demonstrated in the helpless estate of regard of: (a) Others who were incompassionate.  (b) Their oppressors, which had power and might on their side to crush them and keep them under, but no pity to relieve and support they, or, yet no comforter; though helpless and weak, most inhumane, seeing we naturally pity a lark in a kite’s claw, or a silly lamb in a lion’s mouth.

28  Is. 59:16; Jer. 26:27.

[1] Barton on Ecclesiastes 4:2-3, “The oppressions which men suffer make Qoheleth feel that the only happy men are those who are dead. This was, however, not his settled opinion (9:9). It was rather a transient mood, though intense in feeling while it lasted. The thought of Qoh. here surges onward to the assertion that better even than the dead are those who have never been born. For similar sentiments, see Ch. 6:3-5, Job 3:13-16, Jer. 20:18 ….

[2] Dr. John Street has stated in lecture that one purpose of Ecclesiastes is to prepare Israel for the demise of the kingdom following Solomon.