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...
Solomon loved beauty. But lately he had been too preoccupied to enjoy the natural beauties that infused even the bleak Judean landscape surrounding Jerusalem. He hadn’t even gone for a walk in his gardens or orchards for months. But tonight, he felt a need to be distracted from his thoughts and he took a moonlit stroll through the palace grounds before going to bed.
It had been a particularly trying day. He had needed to settle a boundary dispute between two important landowners, both of whom were sure that their neighbor had moved the boundaries between their holdings for their own favor. He had been tempted to expropriate the disputed strip, along with a generous addition on each side, and build a road on it, and let them stew. But the road wouldn’t have led anywhere particularly useful, and would have cost a lot of money. So, he swallowed his testiness and sent several of his engineers to survey the strip and divide it in half. Presumably this would just place the boundary back where it had always been, but it would at least ensure that the quarreling stopped.
And then the matron of the woman’s quarters came to him for help in settling an upheaval amongst his wives. The Egyptian princess had decided that she needed some extra servants to give her house its annual cleaning. She had always considered herself to be Solomon’s queen, since she was the first of his wives with royal blood. She descended on the women’s quarters in the form of a one person press-gang intent on conscripting several of Solomon’s concubines for temporary service in her private quarters. Most of the wives were antagonistic to her already, given her superior attitude, and didn’t take kindly to this hostile takeover.
The matron tried to settle everyone down. But the Egyptian princess insisted that she had the right to conscript anyone she wanted. Since she wouldn’t accept the matron’s authority, Solomon ended up going to the quarters himself and settling them down. He pacified the spluttering princess with the promise that she could have several of the palace servants to help her in the morning. He also suggested to her that in the future she might want to take any such requests to his household manager, who could deal with them. He pointedly reminded the rest of the women that the matron was in charge and that it would be in their best interests to listen to her.
He pushed aside his memories of the day’s events and stopped for a while to watch the moon rising over the Mount of Olives. “I should do this more often,” he thought. “This is like a balm for a troubled soul.”
He remembered a song his father had written years ago, and quoted the words softly…“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?”
Solomon did his writing in a little cubicle he would have called his study, had there been such a thing in his time. It was little more than a cell, furnished with a writing table, a chair, and some rudimentary writing materials. His working area was lit by several candles, since he did most of his reading and writing either late at night or early in the morning.
One wall had a window, of sorts, facing west. Mostly it was just a hole in the wall, with shutters that he could close if the breeze was too cold, or the sun too bright. It was big enough that he could see out without needing to stand up.
The door in the side wall opened into his sleeping quarters, and was the only way to enter the room. The room was heated through the door, by the fireplace in the next room.
The other two walls were the most important. They contained his library of scrolls, stored carefully on roughhewn shelves. Some of the scrolls were obviously quite old and fragile. Others were newer, and several were written by Solomon himself. Perhaps the most important scrolls in the collection were the copy of the Pentateuch Solomon had copied painstakingly in his own handwriting during the first years of his reign.
That library would be worth a king’s ransom today if we could recover it somehow. It contained writings of wise men, and scholars, as well as scientists and political gurus of the time. Some were old and some were new — the king’s men had collected them from far and wide. They contained the wisdom of the world at that time
Solomon had just taken a scroll from his library and was looking through it. According to the title at the beginning of the scroll, it was a collection of wise sayings that he had been working on for years. Some of the sayings he had gleaned from his collection of writings. Others were original with him. It contained, in a series of nutshells, an overview of the wisdom of the wisest man who ever lived.
Carefully, Solomon rerolled the scroll and replaced it on the shelf. “I wonder if these writings will survive,” he mused to himself. “Maybe people will read them a thousand years from now and wonder what kind of person wrote them.”
“If only they could also know how hard it is for this ‘wise man’ to live up to his own wisdom…”
Naamah watched through the window as her husband helped the Queen of Sheba descend from her litter. She noted the smiles they exchanged. The Queen didn’t veil her face as Naamah was accustomed to when she was in public. But Solomon seemed more gratified than horrified at the omission.
“I wonder when the last time was that Solomon looked at me like that.” She didn’t say the words out loud, but the wistful look on her face would have clued in anyone watching the scene.
She continued her inner dialog. “I wish he would never have become king. We were so happy when we first married.” She thought back to when her son, Rehoboam was born and the happy times they had as a little family. “I was an outsider, but no one cared back then.”
She shook her head as her thoughts meandered on. “But everything changed when he became king. Suddenly I was the ‘commoner’ and not quite good enough to be the wife of the king. Even Bathsheba, his mother, changed at that point. She, of all people, should have known how I felt. She was an outsider too. But that changed once she was the ‘Queen mother.’”
“I remember when Solomon married that beautiful Egyptian princess. She was the first one, and I didn’t see him very much after that. She was always flirting with him and he forgot all about me, even though he assured me he still loved me, that he only married her for a political alliance.”
She watched Solomon and the Queen walking to the palace. “How many women does he have by now? It must be close to a thousand.” Her eyes narrowed and her lips tightened. “He’s putting on a pretty good front with the Queen, but I know how much he’s changed. Unless I’m really wrong, he’ll rope her into being another one of his wives or concubines before she leaves.”
Legend has it that the Queen bore a son to Solomon when she returned home. He went on to become the Emperor when he grew up.
The king was all alone in his study. Anyone who needed to pass by the little room did so on tiptoe. They knew from experience how Solomon felt about being distracted when he was writing. Not that he was doing very much writing this evening – he was watching the sunset instead. The sunset was worth looking at. The setting sun had painted a flaming panorama of color in the western sky — a fiery scene you could almost warm your hands at. But the king didn’t seem to be enjoying the sight. His face was gloomy, as if he were brooding over some unhappy thought. “The sun rises every morning,” the king said. He didn’t wait for an answer, since no one else was around to hear him. “And it sets again every evening.” “It’s done that about…” He paused and cogitated a moment before finishing, “It’s done that almost 20,000 times since I was born. Why?” The king rose abruptly to his feet, pushing aside his quill pen and the scroll he had been working on. “Everything is like that. The sun, the wind, the rivers — all of them keep on going, doing the same things mindlessly over and over.” He stood for a moment, deep in thought. “It just doesn’t make sense. It seems so meaningless — just an endless, vicious cycle.” He turned to leave the room. Yet he hesitated at the doorway and looked once more at the now fading sunset. The frustration on his face had given way to an expression that was harder to read. A searching look, trying to penetrate the meaning of what he had seen. Almost an imploring look. A sort of God-why-won’t-you-answer-me kind of look. His shoulders sagged as he entered the palace.