“There is an evil that I see under the sun, like an unintentional sin coming from the presence of one who rules: the fool is made high and great and the rich dwell in a lowly state. I have seen slaves on horses and ambassadors walking.”
There are two ways in which one can read this text. The first is perhaps the more obvious manner of Solomon’s witnessing how oftentimes the affairs of life reverse the roles that people ought to find themselves playing in culture. And, our temptation might be to think that this is just an illustration of ironic justice, but more often than not, when employed, it becomes a dangerous thing.
One of the dystopian novels that George Orwell is best known for is Animal Farm. This story is meant to illustrate the dangers and changes of fortune that took place during the communist revolution in Russia, but it illustrates Solomon’s point as well. Here there are the pigs, lowly and wallowing in the mud, leading the animal’s rebellion against Farmer Jones. Yet, by the end of the story, it would be the pigs who dressed as men, but this time, abusing the rest of the animals on the farm. Essentially, the slaves were riding horses and making the ambassadors of kings walk beside them.
In my own country, a whole new generation of people are advocating for forms of socialized government due to the problems and corruptions that our own government contains. Now, there is no doubt that our government needs reform, but socialism is not the way to accomplish that aim. Historically, it is the bloodiest and most corrupt form of governmental control that has been known to man…and what is more, it creates contexts like this, where the poor fools are honored and those who have built businesses wisely are torn down and treated as fools. He who shouts the loudest gains and audience with the masses and before long, the pigs are in power, turning the whole farm into a sty.
There is a second way of looking at this that embraces more of a spiritual reading of the text, for if we define the fool and the rich man not in terms of worldly wealth or success, but interpret that in the context of the wisdom that comes from the Scriptures, then once again we see Solomon lamenting how those who are foolish spiritually are often exalted and those who are spiritually wise are often in poor places. And again, we see that this evil is just as prominent today as it was in Solomon’s day.
In our day, it is the rich and famous that we celebrate as a society — actors, musicians, athletes, etc… not those who bring wisdom to the people: pastors, teachers, counselors, etc… The first group is exalted more, is paid better, and is given tremendous grace for the antics they pull. The latter group often is treated as expendable — bring them on board, use them until they are spent, and then replace them with the next guy. This is a more recent phenomenon in our American culture. There was a time in which old pastors and old teachers were valued, honored, and sought after. There was a time when what pastors were expected to do most was to study the scriptures…now that is often the thing that is least valued of the things they do.
And, as a result, the spirituality of our broader culture in America is collapsing. The fools are celebrated and the spiritually wise are largely ignored. The loudest voice continues to attract the attention of the crowd. And with Solomon, I too would pronounce it as evil.