Those who were familiar with the 1980’s may recall an American comedy film called “9 to 5” that starred Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Dabney Coleman. The film was set in the daily work life of three working women who lived out various fantasies of getting even with and eventually disposing of their boss, who they referred to as “a sexist, and an egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot”. I didn’t see the movie and I am not recommending it, because I thought it was a girl movie (and young men didn’t watch girl movies!) At the same time, it was a hit, grossing nearly $4 million in its opening weekend in the United States. It was the 20th highest-grossing comedy film and launched an already known Parton into mainstream popular culture. A television series by the same name followed, as well as a musical version (with some songs written by Parton) opened on Broadway in 2009. Surprisingly (at least to me) 9 to 5 is number 74 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Funniest Movies”- giving it a long-time placement in the ranks of comedy entertainment. The idea of the film was that an abusive boss is taken captive, by three women who change the office policies in his name and inadvertently capture the attention of the higher corporate figures by increasing their productivity. Their boss becomes well thought of because of his innovation – when it wasn’t him at all. Famous or not, I cannot see the movie as something I would like to watch unless I were held captive, but regardless of how the movie was, it does make an observation worth recalling for this lesson: It is very possible that you have learned much about human nature from your work place.
In an essay that became chapter four of Ecclesiastes, Solomon essentially asked: “Can we talk about work for a bit?”
I have to admit that much of what I learned about life came through my work experiences over the years. Watching my father at the Mobil Oil Refinery when I worked as a summer intern for two summers taught be much about my dad’s work ethic, and how other men respected him. Working beside a woman who took her own life at home one day taught me that people hide troubles and you cannot imagine the dragons some are dealing with inside. Many things about people can be learned from watching people at their job site. In fact, people scurry off to their jobs every day by the millions and they offer us some lessons.
Line them up and take a look at them closely. You may observe these seven “characters from the working world” that Solomon highlighted. He left behind a record of observations that remind us of this truth…
Key Principle: Watching people at work can reveal some of the deepest flaws we have come to see as normal in society.
Solomon started “at the top” – a place where we have all seen the self-important and undeserving at some point…
First, there is the problem of BAD BOSSES.
Can we not all agree that some people shouldn’t – under any circumstances – be given power over others? Solomon saw them as he observed people. He wrote:
Ecclesiastes 4:1 Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them. 2 So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. 3 But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.
As a king, Solomon didn’t struggle through the “work a day” world, to be sure. At the same time, his perspective was a unique one. He observed the work of foremen, military leaders and community chieftains. He saw that some who led were servants, but many were simply hard-hearted “haves” who lorded over “have nots.” He concluded that some people work to beat down others in order to feel superior. Look again at his words:
First, he acknowledged that acts of oppression were taking place across a spectrum, and he took as many into account as he could see (4:1). Just as he came to understand there were seasons of life, he came to recognize there was systemic inequity in the world. He saw that inequity playing out to break down relationships. Those who were beat down and lowly cried, but there seemed no one ready and able to help them (4:1b). At the same time, it wasn’t all fun and games for those who had power. They, too, were alone in their position, unable to find the warmth and comfort they sought. It was a grievous state, and I reflected on the hardships of the poor and powerless for some time.
After a time of refection, He looked at the grave yard and thought of those who toiled for years under backbreaking labor, and he commended them for making their way through the difficulty of this laborious and unfair world (4:2). He thought of the heavy weight they carried through life, and compared it to the sufferings of the poor and downcast of his generation. He pondered the many hours of labor on crops that were lost to fire or locusts. He contemplated how tired they were when they dropped onto their small woven mats on the floor of a tiny dwelling. He wondered how many nights they went to bed hungry. His mind filled with images of beggars, lepers, lowly and sickly people – and he thought their life was so bad, so broken, that perhaps the one who died at birth was better off than those children who lived in squalor with distended bellies, sitting in a hopeless dump.
Solomon unfolded three ideas here:
First, power and privilege have their problems too. Even the powerful need love, comfort and acceptance. Alone, they feel just as lonely.
Second, life truly is unfair – and there are people who exploit other people. They bring pain and deprivation to others and muffle the sounds of their crying when they pass them by.
Third, no one seemed to be able to address the unfairness of it all. Hungry children would go on being hungry. Destitute people would try to find a way to make it another day. Powerful people would keep pushing people around and feel entitled, but they would still be unhappy inside.
In the end, Solomon could imagine a pain so great and a powerlessness so complete, that he posited some would have been better never to make an entrance on the planet. His was an observation of a thoroughly wretched kind – leaving little hope.
We must remember there is no one on the earth apart from our Creator who will be a perfect example. Everyone will have at the minimum some blind spots, while some will exhibit such open cruelty that our breath will be taken away at the moment we encounter their brazen acts and arrogant nature. Powerful people aren’t the answer to saving humanity, and they won’t save our country either. They are broken just like the rest of us.
Second, there is the problem of JEALOUS COWORKERS.
Solomon looked around at productive people and their ventures. He noted that much work seemed to be fueled by feuds, jealousy and vicious rivalry. In fact, Solomon noted that some work simply because they envy others. He noted:
Ecclesiastes 4:4 I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.
When you read the words of Solomon, remember they are proverbial in nature. Proverbs express “truisms” and often generalize something. He isn’t saying that everything ever done was completed for a bad reason – he said that his observation is that it was so common, that appeared to be the norm. He made the point that he observed an unhealthy competitive battle that others defined as “progress.”
Anyone who has studied the history of business will readily admit that jealousy and theft are a regular part of the patent and invention process. That isn’t an overstatement.
• The sewing machine is thought by many to be the creation of Isaac Singer (of the Singer Corporation fame). The truth is that inventor Elias Howe patented the design in 1846, and sued Singer in 1849, for stealing the design. When the two settled in court, neither acknowledged that Walter Hunt actually created a sewing machine with a needle eye in 1834, but he chose not to patent it because of his conviction that it would lead to unemployment.
• When I was three years old, Robert Kearns invented the intermittent windshield wiper. Kearns showed his plans to each of the “big three” auto manufacturers and (according to later charges) the design was stolen by three each within one year. Kearns sued Ford in 1978 and Chrysler in 1982, eventually winning almost $30 million in compensation.
• The radio was either the brainchild of Marconi or Tesla.
• When Gordon Gould created the first laser at Columbia University, he had no idea it would take thirty years for the patent office to uphold his fight to get credit for the invention (and get royalties).
On and on it goes. Solomon wasn’t wrong – there is a lot of stealing and creative borrowing in business. The road to human progress is strewn liberally with stolen patents and inventions. Solomon found all the cut-throat business theft depressing.
We need to be careful as believers about the times in which we live. People express that as long as something is “legal” it doesn’t matter if it is moral. Increasingly, even people of faith are caught saying that if it isn’t against the law, it isn’t a problem. The fact is the law doesn’t always strictly track with what is morally right. Theft of another’s labor is fundamentally wrong. Avoiding appropriate responsibility because of a legal loophole is still an immoral decision. Solomon was depressed by the very thing that makes so many people cynical about modern life. He continued with another group he observed…
Third, there were the problematic LAZY LOUNGERS.
Solomon observed that some people just don’t know when to get to work. They seem to misunderstand the nature of society and believe that regardless of their choices, someone should help them when they don’t prepare what is necessary on their own. He wrote:
Ecclesiastes 4:5 “The fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh.”
The idea is this: Foolish people don’t know when to get busy, work hard, and save what they will need for the days ahead. They eat the seed corn instead of planting it. They don’t plan – because their plan is to get someone else’s portion when they don’t have what they need.
Anyone who feels a sense of compassion knows there are some in our society who need a hand at some point along their life journey.
At the same time, the statistics suggest that we may have something else happening in our country as the twenty-first century unfold. The Department of Commerce report currently shows nearly 68,000,000 Americans receiving some form of government assistance NOT including the 70,000,000 on Medicaid. Current employment figures in the US from 2016 show that there are 125 million or so who are working 35 hours or more per week. Think about that. For every two workers, there is someone receiving aid. One fifth of the country gets a Welfare check, with the remaining number receiving some other aid.
Certainly some of the people who receive assistance are supremely worthy of the help. We have handicapped people, hurting people with extraordinary hurdles to overcome, and other special needs citizens. All of us, I believe, want them to have good lives. I know of no one who is indifferent to struggling people. The problem is, there are far too many who simply make more by not working.
Believers were told to be different than the world around them in our value system.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:9, after commanding sexual purity, Paul passed a second command to the believers of Thessalonica – they were to work hard and stay out of other people’s business as part of their testimony (4:9-12). He wrote:
1 Thessalonians 4:9 Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you… 10 …But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, 11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, 12 so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.
It may astound modern Christians to know that Paul intended believers to get a job, work in that job and avoid making other people pay their way. In fact, the Apostle made the point that a believer’s ability to take care of others and live quietly at work was very much a part of their Christian faith. We need not meddle from the pulpit; we have Scripture before us that challenges any who would see a way around work as God’s plan.
It is true that there are disabilities that need to be taken into account – but I suggest this is an extreme much less frequent than claimed – even by believers. We cannot enshrine laziness in some kind of reward system and expect anything less than an increasing number of unproductive people. When there is a true need, a believer is not wrong to access the provision for that need – but we must be very wary here of expecting others to pay our way through life.
Some people seem unsure of a truth: Life is hard. Work is not always fun. Since the expulsion from the garden every job was given its weeds. We must be careful to check any thinking that would argue that everyone has it easier than we do. In many, if not most cases, some of our difficulty was added by our own earlier life choices. To sit and let the world go by expecting someone else to meet our need is foolish. That was Solomon’s point.
Fourth, there was the problem of HYPER HELPERS.
Have you ever been with someone who is “hyperactive” and cannot stop? Some people cannot find contentment. They just don’t know when to take a break. Solomon noticed them when he wrote:
Ecclesiastes 4:6 One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind.
We saw above that we aren’t supposed to be LAZY. At the same time, God nowhere expects us to be always BUSY. Solomon made that point by praising rest. There is a time when we would get further ahead if we stopped working, walked away, and rested for a bit. Have you found that to be true?
A number of years ago I met a man who was retired from a very demanding and responsible position. I thought he was a great friend, and enjoyed his company. When we together, he would always talk about how extremely busy he was, and how it was hard for him to fit everything in his day. After a time, I began to discern the man’s self-worth hung on his busy schedule. He lived such a stress-filled life on the job, he barely found time to think. Now, in retirement, he only felt significant if he was in demand. To do that, he filled his schedule with more that he could possibly do. When he was over his head with commitments, he felt important. Solomon argued that wasn’t the right way to live.
Can I lovingly but pointedly share something with those of you who are hyper workers. You make the rest of us CRAZY. We like to take a break. We don’t always want to be ON. Some of the people I have met in this world are wrapped SO tight, particularly at election time that people get tired just standing next to them. I saw a post the other day that said: “It has gotten to the place at work where I am employed to pay for the prescriptions I now require to cope with working here!” We would like to ask you to settle down a bit. The sun will come up tomorrow or the Son will come in the clouds.
I know this kind of talk is strange. Church is a place where we talk about values and responsibilities, but seldom about rest. For reasons that are still fuzzy to me, Christianity lost a very important Jewish component of rest and celebration. We seem to know how to instruct you to do hard things, but not easy. We can help you be serious and stern – but not to be jubilant and celebratory.
Let me ask you directly: Do you know how to really REST? Do you know how to be quiet, both outside and inside? Are you able to disconnect from the electronic world and stop worrying for a bit? Solomon would tell you to get some rest, and quit thinking you are indispensable. The world will make it for a few days if you step off the treadmill.
Fifth, he observed those with SENSELESS STRESS.
In addition to the hyper, he noticed some people who seem to lead lives of purposeless labor. They don’t stop to ask why they are still pressing so hard when there really isn’t a reason to do it all. Solomon wrote:
Ecclesiastes 4:7 Then I looked again at vanity under the sun. 8 There was a certain man without a dependent, having neither a son nor a brother, yet there was no end to all his labor. Indeed, his eyes were not satisfied with riches and he never asked, “And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?” This too is vanity and it is a grievous task.
Reading these words, several things are unclear about the man he referred to in the verses. Was the man without a dependent and alone in the world because he didn’t make a priority out of people in life? Certainly, there are those in our society that make their life entirely about their job. On closer inspection, it seems to me Solomon is lamenting people who work to reach another goal long after they need to move past setting new work goals. Work is a part of life – but it isn’t all of life.
Just as I am duty-bound to encourage and exhort those who are not working to GET BUSY, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that some of you are overstaying your welcome at work. Go home. Learn to enjoy the people in your life. There was a stage in all our lives where our friends were mainly our co-workers. That is fine for a time. If that is still true decades later, you may want to consider what life looks like after the job!
My children will tell you the difference between the people who know their father well and those who know me in my work life. Some people think I spend all of my time steeped in books and ancient manuscripts thinking about the Bible and the depths of the universe. I admit to being a bit of a geek, nerd or whatever term best expresses my strange fascination with the ancient world. At the same time, I love art. I love history. My life is enriched by beautiful music. I can sit on my porch and watch birds dance in the wind. I can play with a grandchild and be fascinated by their ever-growing view of the world. I love the grace of the ballet, but I can take joy from watching the tractor make straight furrows in the fields. I love the depth of the sound of the cello and the smell of a chocolate smothered dessert. I like to clean and shoot guns and I like to sit in a rocking chair and read books. Museums fascinate me. My kids know I am not always reading the Bible and staring at Heaven thinking theological thoughts… I love my work, but it is a part of my life. God has enriched my life with much more.
OK, enough of me. Here is the point: Not everything is dire and serious. Not every moment needs to be an intense moment sternly gazing as watchmen at the failing world around us. Not every day needs a new attainment goal. Pushing yourself is great. At the same time, the bow always bent is easily broken.
Take some time to assess whether you are working in areas that honor and please the Lord and grow your soul, or whether you are just doing what you have always done. When my soul shrinks, my mouth gets negative, and my heart gets sour. Feed your soul. Solomon advised: Take the time to see the reasons behind your labors, or your labors will be all you have to look forward to in life.
Sixth, he noticed some LONE WOLF WORKERS.
There are many people who don’t really know why the rest of us are here. They don’t see the need to get along and become a part of a group. They relish the lone approach and prefer to accomplish everything alone. Solomon observed:
Ecclesiastes 4:9 Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. 10 For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. 11 Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? 12 And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.
The king made the observation that we can accomplish more on a team then by ourselves. Help is nearer; and fear if farther off. Comfort is swifter, and our strength is greater. It is better to join forces than to stand alone.
Sometimes it takes someone special to understand the value of being together…
A youth minister was attending a Special Olympics where handicapped children competed with tremendous dedication & enthusiasm. One event was the 220 yard dash. Contestants lined up at the starting line, & at the signal, started running as fast as they could. One boy by the name of Andrew quickly took the lead, & was soon about 50 yards ahead of everybody else. As he approached the final turn he looked back & saw that his best friend had fallen & hurt himself on the track. Andrew stopped & looked at the finish line. Then he looked back at his friend. People were hollering, “Run, Andrew, run!” But he didn’t. He went back & got his friend, helped him up, brushed off the cinders. And hand in hand, they crossed the finish line dead last. But as they did, the people cheered, because there are some things more important than finishing first. (Sermon Central Illustrations).
Let me get straight to Solomon’s point: You need people. If you don’t know that, the day will come when you will wish you had someone calling on your phone, but you won’t. Make your life about others, and they will feel a loss when you aren’t with them. If they don’t miss you, it may be that you are making the time you do have with them about YOU and not about THEM. Change it while you can.
Seventh, Solomon saw some POLL LED LEADERS.
You cannot help but smile when you read the end of the passage. Solomon observed: Some work only when they are lauded. They do what the polls tell them will be accepted. They don’t lead – they follow. Solomon said it this way:
Ecclesiastes 4:13 A poor yet wise lad is better than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to receive instruction.
In other words: a “street smart” kid sometimes knows better than a king that stopped being perceptive.
Ecclesiastes 4:14 For he has come out of prison to become king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom.
That ruler who stopped learning above may have started in poverty, but he learned to carefully escape it, and should see better what is happening.
Ecclesiastes 4:15 I have seen all the living under the sun throng to the side of the second lad who replaces him. 16 There is no end to all the people, to all who were before them, and even the ones who will come later will not be happy with him, for this too is vanity and striving after wind.
Solomon continued: If that king opened his eyes, he would see how easily people are discontented and looking for the prince to replace him on the throne after him. He will find it impossible to keep the people happy with him. His ending observation was: “Live to be popular and you will never be able to go beyond the crowd. People who are fixed on what others think cannot lead them well.”
The man was a king. He was supposed to be a leader. He was supposed to take what he learned as he climbed into the position of leadership and use it to better those he led. He should have learned along the path of life this critical lesson: You cannot, cannot, cannot make everyone happy. You just can’t. A fallen world will not be governed into peaceful bliss. The selfishness that permeates our broken state will cause strife. James said: We fight outside because of a war inside us. In the end, as we step into the coming week, we must remember, without God – life means nothing. Governments can’t fix that. Candidates can’t heal what is broken in our world. Let me close with this story I read recently to drive home some of Solomon’s enduring point…
“A little boy is on the beach. On his knees he scoops and packs the sand with plastic shovels into a bright red bucket. Then he upends the bucket on the surface and lifts it. And, to the delight of the little architect, a castle tower is created. “All afternoon he will work. Spooning out the moat. Packing the walls. Bottle tops will be sentries. Popsicle sticks will be bridges. A sandcastle will be built. “Big city. Busy streets. Rumbling traffic. “A man in his office. At his desk he shuffles papers into stacks and delegates assignments. He cradles the phone on his shoulder and punches the keyboard with his fingers. Numbers are juggled and contracts are signed and much to the delight of the man, a profit is made. “All his life he will work. Formulating the plans. Forecasting the future. Annuities will be sentries. Capital gains will be bridges. An empire will be built. “Two builders of two castles. They have much in common.
They shape granules into grandeurs. They see nothing and make something. They are diligent and determined. And for both the tide will rise and the end will come. “Yet that is where the similarities cease.
…For the boy sees the end while the man ignores it. Watch the boy as the dusk approaches. “As the waves near, the wise child jumps to his feet and begins to clap. There is no sorrow. No fear. No regret. He knew this would happen. He is not surprised. And when the great breaker crashes into his castle and his masterpiece is sucked into the sea, he smiles. He smiles, picks up his tools, takes his father’s hand, and goes home.
“The grownup, however, is not so wise. As the wave of years collapses on his castle he is terrified. He hovers over the sandy monument to protect it. He blocks the waves from the walls he has made. Salt-water soaked and shivering he snarls at the incoming tide. “‘It’s my castle,’ he defies. “The ocean need not respond. Both know to whom the sand belongs… “And I don’t know much about sandcastles. But children do. Watch them and learn. Go ahead and build, but build with a child’s heart. When the sun sets and the tides take — applaud. Salute the process of life, take your Father’s hand and go home” (Max Lucado, More Stories for the Heart (Multnomah: Sisters, Oregon, 1997), 224-225. From a sermon by Eric Lenhart, Seasons of Life, 8/16/2010).