A View from the Top
In our last several chapters we have explored the various lifestyles that Solomon pursued in his quest for satisfaction and joy. These were pleasure, wisdom, folly, different views of work and the seasons of a person's life.
One final area that Solomon commented on was the pursuit and exercise of power and wealth. He begins the exploration of this area in chapter 4:1-8 by stating the idea that, "What you see is not necessarily what you get." Charles Swindoll summarizes this passage in his book, "Living on the Ragged Edge," by saying:
The Lonely Whine of the Top Dog.
We have been inundated with books, seminars, courses, and speeches on the subject of top-level management and success-oriented leadership. The hype has never been greater nor the lure more effective. Indeed, we have largely been convinced that the achievement of an impressive position brings lasting satisfaction and a liberating sense of pleasure. But for the executive, the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not what it appears to be. More often than not, managers have head-on collisions with intense pressure, political rivalry, economic anxiety, and inescapable loneliness. Centuries ago, King Solomon addressed the emptiness of those who make it to the top of their profession. His words live on today. They can make a difference in our lives if we will hear them well and heed their cry.
Solomon lived in the real world of politics, power and wealth. He observed military and political rivalries as well as the pursuit of great wealth and power by those around him.
Solomon's own rise to power was full of intrigue as his brothers jockeyed for position while David, Solomon's father, grew old and feeble. It was only after his mother, Bathsheba, and Nathan, the prophet, planned to save Solomon's life by having him installed as king before the other brothers were anointed and could mount a power base (I Kings 1:1ff).
Solomon got rid of his enemies and increased his wealth and influence through government control and heavy taxation. He was no stranger to the fierce competition that takes place at the top, and in his journal he gives us an idea of what the view is like from there.
From his perch, he sees three things:
1. Oppression - 4:1-3
1Then 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.
He does not describe this in detail but makes a general reference to the oppression taking place in his day.
- The word oppression means to "press against."
- To treat with unjust harshness, tyranny.
- To cause mental and physical hardship.
Oppression is often seen in rulers thirsty for power and landowners greedy for wealth. Solomon makes an interesting observation concerning the oppressors and the oppressed:
- Those who are oppressed suffer and have no one to rescue or comfort them. The injustice they suffer is unbearable because they are powerless.
- Those who are doing the oppressing have power (power to change things if they wanted to) but, like the oppressed, have no one to comfort them either.
The idea is that both die and neither can escape or be comforted through this injustice.
2So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living.
If this be true (there is no comfort), then one is better off dead because at least in death neither the pain of oppression nor the fear of death exists.
3But 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 an afterthought Solomon expresses the idea that since the world is filled with this kind of evil it is better to not even be born, this way one never sees the evil that exists. Many have used this same argument to defend their decision not to have children, believing that this present world is the worst of places and our times the most dangerous. This is an example of horizontal thinking (without reference to God) that has remained with us for over 2700 years!
Another thing Solomon sees from the top:
2. Envy - vs. 4-6
You would think that success, power and climbing the ladder would produce contentment, but much of the time it only creates envy.
4I 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.
Solomon explains that much of the time success kindles envy in others, and rivalries occur when those who strive for power and wealth do so in order to overtake others or not to be surpassed themselves. In other words, the primary motive for the striving that some do for success is not so they can right injustices or have influence to balance the inequalities of the more unfortunate, it is to feed egos, to protect fragile self-images and to insulate self from the suffering of others. This striving and pushing for the top is vain and often provokes others to jealousy. The end result is profitless for everyone at the top and at the bottom as well.
5The fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh.
Solomon now contrasts the person with selfish ambition to the one who does not strive for anything. The lazy man (folding of hands is a reference to sleep) wastes his life (consumes his own flesh). The lazy man wastes his life away by not caring about anything.
6One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind.
The balanced person is the one who is content (one handful) with what he has. If a man is satisfied with what he has, he will have quietness (peace, satisfaction, freedom from envy of another's position and success). What good is having a lot or being at the top if you are not at peace with yourself?
Speaking of contentment, here are a few simple rules about being satisfied with what you have and how to achieve this state.
Keep your eyes on your own stuff!
- Exodus 20:17 - "Thou shall not covet…"
- Keep your attention focused on your life, family, work and possessions.
- This does not mean you cannot admire or like what others have, but keep your focus on what you have, not what you do not have or what others have.
Give thanks for what you have.
- Before you ask for anything, make a careful inventory of what you already have big and small (e.g. You've never had cancer or a heart attack, the fact that your nose works and you can walk, you have indoor plumbing, access to schools and hospitals etc.).
- You will be amazed at how well off you are. The giving of thanks is a healthy spiritual exercise that is an enjoyable experience and one that pleases God.
Ask for what you need instead of complaining about what you do not have.
- Discouragement, envy, rivalry etc. take place when we feel we are not getting our fair share of the blessings.
- We ask, "Why him and not me?"
1What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? 2You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.
- James 4:1-3
Do not ask while comparing yourself to others (i.e. I want what he has - this is asking God to satisfy your lust). Ask for the things you need. The secret to the abundant and successful life is finding out what you really need, not simply what you desire. When you truly discover this, God will grant it to your joy and satisfaction. For example, many times we ask for more money when what we need is more self-control. We ask for an end to suffering when what we need is to find a closer relationship to God through suffering.
One final thing Solomon sees from the top:
3. Disillusionment – vs. 7-8
7Then I looked again at vanity under the sun. 8There 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.
Here, Solomon shares a reflective moment that such a "top dog" might have - questioning the reason why he fights so hard to get to and stay on top when there is no real purpose for it since when he dies no one will benefit from his hard work. The sad thing about this is that most people in this position rarely have this insight and when they do there is no recourse but to keep "playing the game." (e.g. When compulsive gamblers play, even when they know that the game is rigged, because what they love is the thrill of gambling and not the winning).
Solomon's view from the top is rather bleak:
- "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" - someone said, and Solomon sees oppression as something that is simply part of the game at the top.
- Success is often bred by envy, and creates jealously and rivalry. The best success, however, is contentment.
- Life at the top is often lonely and full of disillusionment. It is never what it was promised to be, but if it is all you know, you will die trying to protect your top spot.
We live in a fast-paced society with a competitive spirit. Competition is not wrong when it is used as a tool to produce excellence. Power is not wrong when it is used to bless the powerless. Wealth is not wrong when it is seen as a stewardship from God for His service. It is natural for us as human beings to aim and strive for certain goals in life. Here, therefore, are some goals to aim for in order to avoid loneliness and disillusionment if you make it to the top:
- Aim for contentment each day, not increased production.
- Strive to be useful wherever you are, not to be #1.
- Work at being faithful (to God, spouse, friends, work etc.) not faultless or perfect.
Do these and whether you are at the top or bottom, you will be fine.