Adapted from Where Is God, When Life Doesn’t Make Sense?
If you see the extortion of the poor, or the perversion of justice and fairness in the government, do not be astonished by the matter. For the high official is watched by a higher official, and there are higher ones over them! The produce of the land is seized by all of them, even the king is served by the fields. (Ecc 5:8-9, NET)
Solomon looked at this subject from a philosophical perspective, not a human rights perspective. The poor were oppressed by those who were stronger than they were or who had more authority. Those people in turn were oppressed by those above them. The chain of oppression reached all the way to the top and may have even included the king.
The perversion of justice is common. In some countries of the world, a person is better off to accept oppression than to report it or to try to get justice. Solomon wasn’t commenting on the right or wrong of this (it is obviously wrong). Instead, he was describing a basic reality of life along with giving a little lesson on economics.
Solomon used a field as a simple example of economic supply and demand. Many people needed to live from the economic product of the field. The people who planted the field, watered it, and harvested it were the most obvious economic beneficiaries. In Bible times these people didn’t own the field or finance the crop, they were just laborers who were paid for their work. So they needed to get enough of the field’s economic product to live on, probably in the form of wages. The man who owned the field financed the crop and paid the laborers. He too needed to receive a benefit because he also had to eat and probably had a family to support. He may have sold the crop to a miller, who produced flour from it. That man also needed to make some income from the field’s product to feed his family. So he sold the flour to a baker, who baked bread and sold it to a local store. The local store finally sold it to the person who ate it. So the laborers, the farmer, the miller, the baker, and the store all needed to have a share of the economic product of the field to live.
But the process goes beyond that. Some of these people might have borrowed money to finance their operations, so the economic product of the field also paid the interest on their loans. And finally, the government collected taxes from these people. So even the government lived from the field’s economic product.
Now none of this is wrong. But it does give a lot of opportunity for doing wrong. At any link of this economic chain, someone could oppress the person who depended on him for his income. The most obvious point was at the bottom of the ladder. If the farmer was greedy and many people were looking for work in the fields, he could make extra money by paying unfair wages. The laborers had little recourse because they had less money and less authority and fewer powerful friends than the farmer did.
Some people try to take advantage of others by bribing them. Some threaten them by using their authority. And on and on it goes. The king (i.e., the government) was at the top of the ladder and had the most power and authority of all. It is very easy for government to use this power to take advantage of the population.
The process of corruption is prompted by greed, of course. But it is also prompted by the fact that the economic resources of the field are limited. Finally, you can only stretch a natural resource so far. The people in the line for getting a piece of the pie are afraid that the economic profit won’t reach around, and so they fight over it. In cases like this it isn’t the early bird that gets the worm. Rather, the biggest bird gets it, even though he may the last one to reach the table.
People living in democratic countries like to think that these things only happen in third world countries or countries run by dictators or crooked governments. But anyone studying the effects of capitalism, lobbying, and big money in our time will soon realize that these things happen to us as well.
Corruption is one of the realities caused by the love of money. If we depend on money for happiness or meaning in life, we will be disappointed—which, I believe, was Solomon’s point in these verses.
Watch for more excerpts from this book in future blogs...