One outline of the structure of Ecclesiastes is to view chapters 1 to 3 as an initial statement of Solomon’s problem. The conclusions are given upfront in chapter 1. Nothing of lasting value or that is truly satisfying can be found in this world alone. Chapter 2 details the areas of life that Solomon has investigated. Pleasure, possessions, self-indulgence, wisdom and work all produce at best a transient satisfaction – they all fail to produce anything that endures. But why should man desire a permanent memorial to himself, or look for lasting satisfaction? Chapter 3 tells us why. God has placed eternity on our hearts, we long for something that outlasts our short lives. But further to this God has ordered the world around us, which is more evidence of His existence and influence in the world. There is something more than the world around us to know, and that something is the eternal God Himself. Knowing Him fulfils the yearning for eternity set upon our hearts.
Now Solomon reviews in more detail the ground he has covered. He has clearly stated that there is nothing of lasting value in this world, but God has given us transient benefits in this passing world. There is the opportunity of doing good, of working, the blessing of companionship and value of wisdom. Yet what does man do with these benefits? Some he abuses, seeking to twist to his own ends, yet in reality this leads to his own hurt and the hurt of others. Some he enjoys and uses wisely, yet again, even when man does act according to God’s ways (which is to his greatest good) there is no lasting benefit derived from this world.
The question for us all is, “How do we use God’s gifts to us?” Do we use them wisely to our good and the good of others, or foolishly to our hurt? Even if we use them wisely, the temporary benefit gained, the best we can obtain in this life, should point us to the eternal benefit of knowing God.
The Corruption of Doing Good – Oppression Leading to Despair
“Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.” Ecclesiastes 4:1
Solomon saw that man’s greatest good here below could be found in doing good and enjoying God’s gifts (Ecclesiastes 3:12). Yet what he finds is a corruption of God’s purpose for man. The sinful world is full of selfishness – might prevails against right – which leads men, and in particular those oppressed, to hate and to despise life. Twice Solomon alludes to the lack of comforter for the oppressed – there is no one to give relief to soul or body. Such was the depth of cruelty that it ensured no way out for the oppressed.
God’s command is to, “love our neighbours as ourselves” (Matthew 22:39), and this includes loving our enemies (Matthew 5:43). The oppression here described is the very opposite of God’s plan for mankind, and indeed is the fruit of the sinful nature, given free reign, when the relationship with God is ignored. The second part of the 10 commandments (Exodus 20) deal with relating to others (commandments 6 – 10: respect your parents, respect others life, family, possessions, reputation and do not desire what is not yours), but we can only keep them if we love God (Matthew 22:37) and protect our relationship with Him (commandments 1 – 4: Worship God alone, worship Him His way, honour His name and day).
The fact that oppression exists, oppression that can come upon us from individuals powerful enough to remove all earthly hope or comfort, should lead us to trust in God. He is the one who can help us through the trial, and is the one who also has the ability to remove it. Why trust in your own resources when there exist situations here below that can overwhelm them?
Oppression Leading To Despair
“And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.”
When life is viewed in having value only in this present time, death is preferably to prolonged suffering. This may explain the rise in interest in euthanasia in the UK. When all life seems to hold for us is pain and despair why live? The presence of a God who can comfort and support us, teach us and encourage us through the hardship is not considered. The fact that it is God who ultimately gives life and takes it away (Deuteronomy 32:39) is not considered. Indeed Baroness Warnock has also argued that the elderly have an economic duty to volunteer for euthanasia. When God is removed from our thinking, the value and dignity of man, along with the presence and help of God, are quickly removed.
The writer continues in his evaluation of suffering when this world is made the only object of our thinking. The more fortunate individual is the one who has never lived. Death, even if longed for, is viewed as an enemy. The writer judges it better to have never lived than to have suffered (or have witnessed suffering) and died. Believers are not exempt from these feelings (Job 3:12-19, 1 Kings 19:4). Indeed the apparent prosperity of the wicked can cause great distress to the believer, David (Psalm 73:3, 17), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 12:1) and Habakkuk (Habakkuk 1:13) all passed through the same dilemma until they looked beyond death (Psalm 73:17, Habakkuk 2:20; 3:17,18). This world is not everything! Habakkuk’s beautiful declaration of faith, in the face of God’s impending judgement upon Israel, (Habakkuk 3:17 – 19) reminds us to value the future eternal things which are of far great value enjoyment and worth to us than the present things, and that God is our present strength also.
Our birth, perhaps into trouble, is a gateway to everlasting life beyond death – the individual who has never been born and then born again, will not know eternal life. Yet even now partial judgements are given to assure us of the future reality of eternal life. We have the life changing influence of the Holy Spirit and the comfort and encouragement of other believers all reminding us of the future joy to come. If we had never been born, we could never know Christ for all eternity on the new heavens and the new earth. Yet in the meantime we need to show practical action to help the lot of those suffering – Christ not only wept over the lost but also shed His blood for them.
The Corruption of Work – Wrong Motives, Laziness and Workaholics
Solomon now describes three ways how work can harm the individual. Something meant for man’s good, a lawful outlet for his gifts and talents, an honest means of providing for self and others, can be corrupted to his own hurt.
Working From the Wrong Motive – Insatiable Envy
“Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbour. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.“ Ecclesiastes 4:4
A man does a right work, yet his neighbour envies him. There is always someone to envy, someone who is richer than ourselves or has achieved greater success or status. The envy, without God’s help, often can never be removed, it is a form of self torment. The irritation is always there. There can be a natural tendency in our hearts to feed on our own good and upon the other person’s evil. As a result the individual who is striving to “Keep up with the Jones”, to have at least the same status or possessions of those around them, is never satisfied. Either their own work has not achieved enough benefit for them, or what they have does not compare well to those they want to keep up with. It is truly a recipe for constant frustration. Contrast this with God’s guidance of being content with what we have!
Christian’s have to watch out for this danger in the church. It can be expressed as “God’s work must be done and we must be the doers of it” – how can some other have the praise? The temptation is to throw something into the balance and depreciate the other fair name, and to preserve the glory of our dearest idol, which is ourselves. Instead of working out of the motive to please the Lord and to help others, the danger is that we work for our own glory with works provoked out of envy.
Working Too Little – Poverty Through Inaction
“The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.” Ecclesiastes 4:5
When a man sees ill, the tyranny of an oppressor above him, and many on his level begrudging their neighbour’s happiness, he can be tempted to do very little. The fool does nothing because others do ill. But this inactivity leads to his own hurt. Without working we cannot (unless in some very exceptional cases) lawfully provide for our families or others in need. Food on the table, the maintenance of property and activates for the family are seldom free. Yet the lazy man would deny the provision of these things to those around him. We need to cultivate a mind of pleasure in its proper place, after the required work is done, and not to make pleasure the end in itself.
Working Too Much – The Isolated Unsatisfied Workaholic
“Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind. Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, ‘For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure’ This also is vanity and an unhappy business.” Ecclesiastes 4:6-8
“Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind”. The mental tranquillity from honest labour providing what is needed is now contrasted with both laziness that leads to poverty (v 5) and the workaholic that is never satisfied and ruins himself through work, “two hands full of toil and a striving after wind”. Some stress is often good for us, it pushes on to action and helps overcome the natural inertia or tendency to laziness that we may have. Too much stress can damage family and other relationships, hinder our daily time with the Lord, and lead us to actions or behaviour we later regret. To strive after material gain to the exclusion of the relations God has called us too (e.g. knowing Him, being with His people and our families) is truly a “striving after the wind”, as will never find true rest or contentment there.
Sometimes covetousness, the desire for more and more, is the motive of the workaholic. The lazy man sits inactive with folded hands, whereas the covetous individual is often active, seeking to acquire more. In effect the covetous man has chosen money for his god, and honours this god above all else – yet he is never satisfied with what his god delivers, he must always have more. This time the covetous man has wealth (in contrast to the lazy man who does not), yet does not benefit others, or himself, with it. The grasp of wealth on the individual grows with time and habit – in complete contrast to Christ who was rich yet made himself poor for our benefit.
“Frequently the more men have the more they would have; and on this they are so intent, that they get no enjoyment from what they have.” Matthew Henry
“for whom am I toiling”. This man has no heir to bestow his wealth to. He has not realised the uncertainty of riches and that he may be toiling for others who will take his wealth for themselves. Furthermore the picture is one of loneliness; there is no companion who can be a real help and pleasure.
In the end what lasting benefit does the covetous individual have from his wealth when in Hell for all eternity? He has worked to the exclusion of relationships in this life, isolating himself, perhaps enduring stress and burnout, and to the final end of eternal torment.
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” Matthew 16:26
The Benefits of Companionship – From Both A Close Companion and From Friends
The Help of Close Companionship
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?” Ecclesiastes 4:9 – 11
The misery of solitary selfishness, a man so absorbed with covetousness that all interest in his fellow creatures is sacrificed, is now contrasted with pleasures and advantages of social relationships – marriage, friendship and Christian fellowship all confer great blessing. The miser labours for himself, the wise man labours for those he loves. Jealous striving to be first isolates, yet God has called us to give and freely share.
There are great benefits, as well as responsibilities, from companionship. If distress of mind body or soul occurs a human comforter is at hand. Much more can be achieved by co-operative ventures than on our own. If it was not good for man to be alone in paradise (Gen 2:18), how much less so is it good for a man to be alone in the wilderness of this world with all its dangers? Each individual has a responsibility in helping and comforting the other – the benefits are not one way, they flow from a mutual concern and desire to help each other. We are after all, called to help each other as we would like to be helped ourselves (Matthew 7:12).
The Help of Friends
“And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Ecclesiastes 4:12
Our attention is now brought to wider companionship, “a threefold cord”. One possibility is certainly the Christian Church. We should look for opportunities of Christian fellowship. It is better to be in an imperfect, but not heretical, church than in no church at all – untwist the cord and the threefold strands are quickly broken! In a church fellowship we can mutually encourage and help one another continuing steadfastly in Apostle’s doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread and prayers (Act 2:42). By ourselves the temptation of sin can overcome us – with no thought of accountability to God or His human representatives in the church.
Yet there is another interpretation which is equally admitted by scripture. The obedient Christian has a divine friend (John 15:14,15) who sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24). That the Lord should call us friends, who sin against Him and justly deserve His wrath upon our lives, is grace indeed. That this friend should never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5) and be with through every trial, helping and aiding us, is wonderful awe inspiring grace indeed.
The Benefit of Wisdom – Invaluable, But All too quickly Forgotten
The Invaluable Benefit of Wisdom
“Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led.” Ecclesiastes 4:13 – 16a
The benefit of wisdom, and how it can overcome great disadvantages, is now described through a historical example. The writer contrasts the king and the poor individual, the old man and the child, the foolish and the wise. In terms of influence and status the youth is disadvantaged. He had been born poor and even landed in prison, and without great years of experience he surely, it would have been thought, is unfit to govern. Yet while the youth had age and poverty against him, yet he had wisdom.
Wisdom gave the youth real worth, not outward show. It gave him solid usefulness. From the ragged school or wretched hovel rich stores of intellectual and moral worth may be found compared to which a kings crown may be tinsel in comparison. Indeed, in some ways Solomon’s words may have been prophetic concerning the king that followed him, his own son Rehoboam. Solomon’s servant Jeroboam had proved very able (1 Kings 11:28 – 40). As Solomon’s heart turned from the Lord, the Lord promised Jeroboam that he would rule 10 of Israel’s 12 tribes. As a result Jeroboam had to flee from Solomon to Egypt. After Solomon’s death, Jeroboam gained control of the promised tribes through, on a human level, the foolishness of Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:1 – 24).
All Too Quickly Forgotten
“Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 4:16b
How Solomon returns to a recurring theme in the book – what we achieve in our lifetimes is soon forgotten. While the youth’s influence was great and he achieved much, yet he was soon forgotten – a new individual quickly charmed the masses. The people no longer rejoiced, no longer took pleasure in remembrance of the youth, he made no permanent impact on the populace.
Human nature has not changed since Solomon’s day. We will be quickly forgotten by the current generation as well! People have always looked for the something new thing, we may have done great things and great good, but once past our sell by date the crowd will look for something new to inspire them or to entertain them.
Lessons From Chapter 4
God’s Plans Are Corrupted By Man
In the place of God’s plan of doing good to our fellow man, there is often oppression.
In place of diligent work performed using our God given abilities to the benefit of ourselves and others – there is often laziness, selfishness and covetousness which leads to either no gain to share with others or to all the worldly profit being kept by the individual themselves.
Man ignores the witness of God upon his nature (God has placed eternity in our hearts), and the witness of God in the world round about us (an order and time for everything), and corrupts God plans to suit his own ends. These ends can often be hurtful to himself or others.
Yet He has Still Left Us Benefits in This Life
Companionship is a real blessing that God has given to us in this life. While enduring the hardships and trials of this life, we have the companionship of family, friends, other believers and of the Lord Himself. We need to be with the Lord’s people, and seek to help them as we have ability and opportunity.
Wisdom can overcome many disadvantages in this life. True wisdom comes from above, is peaceable and confers many blessings.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” James 1:5
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” James 5:13 – 17
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.