Ecclesiastes 4 Commentary: In Ecclesiastes 4 and 5 the Preacher wants to talk to us about the following subjects:
- Enjoying life
And really – what more is there to life? So, in these chapters we get a good cross-section of issues of life and how to approach them.
So, let’s study first of all, what the Preacher has to say about the awful reality of oppression in this world in Ecclesiastes 4:1-3.
The Awful Reality of Oppression
So, first – let’s notice that oppression doesn’t go unnoticed. The Preacher considered it. And God notices it, too. But we need to understand that this is one of those sections where God seems to be out of the picture.
There’s a time when the Preacher can comfort himself that God will make all wrongs right – like we saw with the matter of injustice in the places of judgement. But here in Ecclesiastes 4:1-3, the Preacher doesn’t bring God into the picture.
Now, again, the Preacher wants to lead us through this thought about oppression – not as a king who can actually do something about oppression – but as one who is experiencing it just like anyone else who has no power to change it himself.
And in this case, the Preacher wants to lead us through this scenario as one who isn’t even able to comfort himself with the thought of God’s future judgement. How does a lost man – who’s sensitive to the plight of the oppressed, and yet can’t do anything about it – how does he view this oppression?
Well, the Preacher notices this oppression as I said. He sees the tears of the oppressed. He witnesses the total lack of anyone to comfort the oppressed. And in fact the ones who are doing the oppressing have power on their side. They can force their oppression on others.
The Dead Have It Better
And this is all the Preacher can come to as a hypothetical lost man – the dead are to be praised or considered more fortunate or congratulated. Why? Because they’re not around to see this maddening injustice.
Those Not Born Are Better
And actually – to take it a step further – this situation of oppression is so deeply disturbing to a sensitive but lost man that he’ll conclude that it is better to just never be born into this kind of world where oppression is ubiquitous and unstoppable.
I’m not saying that the Preacher is a lost man. In fact, he can’t be – based on other things he says. But I am saying that the Preacher is leading us through the mindset of a lost man – or at least how a lost man would logically think about this phenomenon of oppression in this world.
And then he just leaves it there for now!
There’s something perhaps a little unsatisfying with that kind of abrupt ending to this consideration. But isn’t that how life is apart from God? It’s unsatisfying. And the Preacher’s abrupt transition to another topic in Ecclesiastes 4:4-6 mirrors how life is without being able to rest in God and his sovereignty.
Finding Balance in the Realities of Work
Well, next, the Preacher turns to consider work. In particular, he leads us through finding balance in the realities of work in Ecclesiastes 4:4-6.
Envy or Rivalry
So, to start, every work and skill that a man has is – depending on how you translate the Hebrew – either:
- The stimulus that causes others to envy him or
- The result of rivalry between that man and others
And either way – the Preacher says that this is vanity. I think I actually prefer the first reading that we have here in the King James Version. Because competition isn’t necessarily – in my mind – meaningless. We benefit from competition. But no one benefits from envy. Envy is truly vain and meaningless and profitless. So, envying the abilities and skills and labor of others is vain.
So, avoid envy.
And while you’re avoiding envy – Ecclesiastes 4:5 – avoid laziness in regard to work. The fool sits back and folds his hands. He doesn’t work. And because he doesn’t work he won’t eat either. And that’s the idea in the second part of Ecclesiastes 4:5. The fool eats his own flesh – or is pictured as doing so – because there’s nothing to eat due to all of his laziness.
So, avoid envy and avoid laziness.
And as you’re avoiding envy and laziness – be happy with a tranquil and quiet life (Ecclesiastes 4:6).
Now, all else being equal, would you rather have one handful of something or two? Like – gold. Would you rather fill one hand with gold or two? You’d want two.
But balance that with the kind of lifestyle that attends your two handfuls of whatever it is. Sometimes it’s better to settle for less compensation or whatever else if it’s a calm and quiet situation – rather than receiving double and doing so through a great amount of labor and vexation.
So – in other words – don’t overcompensate in light of the last warning against laziness and swing totally to the opposite end of the spectrum where you’re working constantly and at a fevered pace simply to accumulate more stuff to yourself. Find a middle ground – I think is what the Preacher is advising us.
So, avoid envy. Avoid laziness. And avoid overworking yourself just to get ahead materially. Find balance in the realities of work.
The Benefits of Companionship
Now, the Preacher moves on to consider the benefits of companionship in Ecclesiastes 4:7-12.
Don’t be a Workaholic
Now, in a sense, Ecclesiastes 4:7-8 are a continuation of the previous section about finding a balance in your work life. The Preacher is still addressing work and an imbalanced view of it. The guy in this new section is working so hard. There’s no end to his work. And yet strangely he’s not satisfied with all that work and what it produces – riches.
But Ecclesiastes 4:7-8 also transition us into considering companionship. The man is “one” and he’s “alone”. He doesn’t have a “second” or a partner. He doesn’t even have a child or sibling. He’s all alone in this world. And he’s laboring so hard – but ultimately, he never asks himself – and he should! – whom he’s actually laboring for, to such an extent that he’s missing out on some good things in life that would be right for him to pursue and enjoy.
So, we find in Ecclesiastes 4:7-8 a combination of:
- A warning to keep work – and life beyond work – balanced and
- The benefits of companionship
And really, we see the negative argument for companionship here. The man doesn’t have anyone else to share his work and its fruit with. He’s not happy with riches and yet he’s not able to improve the life of others with his excessive labor.
Companionship is Important
And then we get into Ecclesiastes 4:9-12. Here, the Preacher keeps some of his earlier emphasis on work – but the emphasis is much heavier on the concept of companionship and its benefits.
Two is better than one. That’s the Preacher’s contention. Why are two better than one?
Well, first of all, generally speaking, two get more done than one. There’s a good reward for their labor.
Further, two people can support each other. If one falls and he’s all alone – there’s no one else there and so there’s no one to help him get back up. But if there’s a second, that person can help the first get back up. And that falling and getting back up can apply to physical falls or even to non-physical emotional or spiritual falls.
Next, two can keep each other warm. Now, of course if you want to keep yourself warm these days, this isn’t the first thing you think of – “oh, let me go get someone to help me keep warm”. We have heat. We have blankets. And you know – they had those things in the Old Testament as well. But do you remember what happened to David – the father of the author of this book? Remember when he was very old and about to die? He was cold. Very cold. And they didn’t just heap more blankets on him. They didn’t put warmer clothing on him. Apparently those things wouldn’t work for him. No, they found a person to lay down with him to keep him warm. It’s that kind of situation that I think the Preacher has in mind here.
Next, there’s strength in numbers. If one prevails against one man, then if another is with the one being attacked, the two will win.
And lastly, a three-fold cord is not quickly broken. Again, this is speaking of strength in numbers. And it might just be saying that a rope that’s made up of three separate cords is much stronger than one that is made of one or two cords. But some see here a reference to the rightful place of God in a life. We’ve been talking about two being better than one. But where did this “three” come from all of a sudden? Perhaps the third character is a reference to God.
And that’s the end of that section – verses 7 through 12.
So, we started chapter 4 dealing with the awful realities of oppression in this life. Then we explored work and finding the right balance in our minds regarding work. That led to a consideration of the benefits of companionship. And now, we jump to another seemingly-unrelated matter. Just like the jump from oppression to work seemed unrelated, now we’re making a similar move from work and companionship to wisdom.
In verses 13 through 16, to end chapter 4, we consider the superiority but ultimate vanity of wisdom. Let’s read.
Superiority but Ultimate Vanity of Wisdom
So, this section begins by asserting that wisdom is the trump card. It is better than anything – in particular, it’s better to have wisdom than to have age on your side or to have power and money on your side. That’s Ecclesiastes 4:13.
13 ¶ Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished.
Poor Child vs. Foolish King
Ecclesiastes 4:14 leads us through that poor and wise child coming out of prison to become king after that old and foolish king. And Ecclesiastes 4:15 tells us that everyone followed that new king who was the formerly poor wise child who came out of prison. So, that’s all so exciting. Who doesn’t love a Cinderella story?
14 For out of prison he [the king – maybe the child] cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor [he was born poor in what would become his kingdom]. 15 I considered all the living which walk under the sun, with [coming to follow] the second child that shall stand up in his stead.
No End to the People
But Ecclesiastes 4:16 brings us back out of fairy tale and into reality. There’s no end to all the people who come and pass off the scene. And because of that, that wise poor child who was formerly in prison and then became king – well, he ends up being forgotten just like anyone else!
16 There is no end of all the people, even of all that have been before them: they also that come after shall not rejoice in him [but even though he was so popular, neither those before nor after the wise young child will remember him]. Surely this also is vanity and vexation of spirit.
But what a remarkable life this child lived! And it was due to his wisdom. So, good for him. But the Preacher wants to remind us that in this life, wisdom is excellent – and yet, the one who has it will still end up being forgotten just like everyone else. And to the Preacher, that is vanity. It’s striving after wind or working so hard just to realize that what you’ve achieved is nothingness and ultimately empty.
And again, in this section, God is left out of the picture. Wisdom is great – but without God it’s useless. It doesn’t matter how wonderful your life is if you don’t have God. Because your life will end and everyone will forget about your remarkable achievements.