“If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.” Ecclesiastes 5:8-9
Due to some obscurities in the Hebrew text some commentators believe this is the most difficult passage in Ecclesiastes. It appears to describe a typical government bureaucracy in which layers of officials take care of each other and look the other way when corruption occurs. Solomon seems most interested by those at the bottom and the top. When you see the poor oppressed, don’t be surprised, he says. This is the way of the world and things never change. The people with power rip off the powerless—thus it has been, thus it shall ever be. As with many other statements in Ecclesiastes, this is not a moral judgment, just a statement of reality. This is life “under the sun.”
At the other end of the spectrum the king profits from the fields. That is, the poor pay exorbitant taxes and the money filters upward as each official takes his cut. And the king gets the biggest cut. In this system everyone makes out pretty well except the poor fellow at the bottom of the heap. He starts out poor and stays that way.
Is Solomon asking us to accept this state of affairs? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we live in a fallen world and should not be shocked that people in authority abuse their trust to line their own pockets. On the other hand, if we lose our sense of moral outrage we become complacent and actually begin to accept as normal that which is morally wrong. The fact that sin reigns in the human heart means that we’ll never be rid of corrupt leaders, but that’s no excuse for tolerating official misconduct. Proverbs 24:10-12 reminds us that we will judged for what we have done to rescue those who are abused by others. The fact that we can’t help everyone doesn’t mean we can’t help anyone. There is a time to speak out, a time to protest, a time to write letters, a time to make phone calls, a time to hold a press conference, and a time sign petitions. God may even call you to run for office so that you can make a difference in high places. If you can’t change the world, do what you can where you are and let God take care of what you can’t do.
Lord, I pray for the strength to do right when those around me are doing wrong. Amen.
Ray Pritchard pastored in Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago. Married to Marlene for 38 years, he enjoys being a husband, a father and a grandfather, riding his bike, and playing with Dudley and Gary, beloved basset hounds.