“And I returned to see all of the oppression which is done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed and there is none to comfort them. In the hand of their oppressors there is power but there is none to comfort them. And I praised the dead who are already dead over the living who are yet alive, and better than either are those who had not yet been born, who have not seen the work of evil which is done under the sun.”
For a king who was quick to employ forced labor (1 Kings 5:13; 9:15), this may seem to be an odd matter to muse upon. Yet, it doesn’t seem that this is the kind of oppression on which Solomon is dwelling. Instead of that which was done under his authority as king, it seems that he is looking back toward 3:16 and the language of justice and wickedness — those people who pervert justice and who use their own power for their own gain, oppressing the people under their power to achieve their ends. This is the true oppression of the wicked.
At face value, though, Solomon’s response to this oppression may seem a little bit odd — rejoicing in those who are dead and no longer facing oppression and saying that those not yet born are in an even better place than those who are living. Is this indeed Solomon’s sad conclusion? Could we be wrong about Solomon’s book and is perhaps he throwing in the towel to some sort of nihilism? Certainly, we should know better than that by now.
As we have already noted, Solomon is looking around the world at some of the tragedies that take place in the world around him, while at the same time recognizing God’s sovereignty over these events as well. So, for the moment (as he says in the previous passage), because you do not know what is going after you, work and labor and leave a legacy of integrity and faithfulness to God behind you.
First of all, though it is a horrid and sad thing to suffer under the hands of men, there is yet dignity in human suffering. Did not our Lord enter into this world as a suffering servant? While his suffering climaxed on the cross, was not his life marked by suffering as a sinless man amongst sinful men? How often indeed, is God the Father said to be grieved by the works of men as we read through our scriptures? Oppression even by the most vile and wicked in history is a tool that God uses to refine his church. But is it just through our suffering under oppression that the church is refined? No. The church is also refined when she takes a stand for what is right and just and is persecuted for Jesus’ namesake. I think of the Barmen Declaration and those brave Christians who resisted Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany. I think of those Christians who suffer to protect the oppressed in many of the nations where Christianity is illegal. I think of the countless times through history where Christians have stood up to powers and principalities in this world because they were simply being faithful to God’s call that they do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God (Micah 6:8).
Thus, the key to understanding this passage seems to be Solomon’s repetition of the idea that none to comfort the people. In other words, how sad and sorrowful it is when God’s people do not rise up and stand against the wicked and protect the widow and the orphan from their oppressors. Indeed, when there is no one to stand up for the oppressed, indeed, in observing matters from the perspective of being “under the sun,” it may indeed be better had they never been born.