Ecclesiastes 4 – Bittersweet Accomplishments
A. The tragedy of oppression.
1. (1) The comfortless oppression of man under the sun.
Then I returned and considered all the oppression that is done under the sun:
And look! The tears of the oppressed,
But they have no comforter—
On the side of their oppressors there is power,
But they have no comforter.
a. I returned and considered all the oppression that is done under the sun: After a brief flirtation with hope, the Preacher once again turned to despair at the end of Ecclesiastes 3 when he considered the problem of injustice. Continuing with that idea, he then considered all the oppression that is done under the sun.
i. “Compassion for the oppressed is common in the Old Testament.” (Eaton)
· Oppression of people by a king (Proverbs 28:16)
· Oppression of a servant by his master (Deuteronomy 24:14)
· Oppression of the poor by the affluent (Proverbs 22:16)
· Oppression of the poor by the bureaucratic (Ecclesiastes 5:8)
· Oppression of the poor by other poor people (Proverbs 28:3)
· Oppression of the alien, the fatherless, and the widow (Jeremiah 7:6; Ezekiel 22:7; Zechariah 7:10)
· Oppression by charging high interest (Ezekiel 22:12, 29)
· Oppression by using false weights and measures (Hosea 12:7)
b. The tears of the oppressed, but they have no comforter: Solomon thought of the painful and tear-filled lives of the oppressed. In an under the sun world – where this life is all there is, men and women give no account for their lives in a world to come – the tears of the oppressed are especially bitter and they have no comforter.
i. “Oh the tears for the oppressed; the tiny children; the terror-stricken fugitives from the Turk, the European trader, and the drunken tyrant of the home! Through all the centuries tears have flowed, enough to float a navy.” (Meyer)
2. (2-3) Because of oppression and sadness, man is better off dead.
Therefore I praised the dead who were already dead,
More than the living who are still alive.
Yet, better than both is he who has never existed,
Who has not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.
a. Therefore I praised the dead who were already dead: The thought of both oppressors and their victims finding no justice in eternity was so bitter to the Preacher that he thought the dead fortunate. In an under the sun world, the dead do not have to think about such painful things.
i. Solomon could only praise the dead this way because at his time he had no certain knowledge of the world to come, and he wrote most of Ecclesiastes with an under the sun premise. If he knew and accepted what happened to the unrighteous dead, he would never say such a thing. “Men, like silly fishes, see one another caught and jerked out of the pond of life but they see not, alas! the fire and the pan into which they are cast that die in their sins.” (Trapp)
ii. The dead who were already dead is an interesting phrase. It implies that there are the dead who are not yet dead – the living dead, so to speak. They walk this earth and have biological life, but their spirit and soul seem dead.
b. Better than both is he who has never existed, who has not seen the evil work that is done under the sun: Solomon took the idea of praising the dead even further, to where he no praised he who has never existed. Even the dead were once alive and had to see the evil work that is done under the sun.
i. “There is nothing sadder in the whole book than the wistful glance in verses 2 and 3 at the dead and the unborn, who are spared the sight of so much anguish.” (Kidner)
ii. Jesus Himself said there was one man for whom it would have been better if he had never been born: Judas (Matthew 26:24).
iii. The Preacher’s great despair over the injustice of oppression in an under the sun premise shows the moral necessity of an afterlife and a coming judgment. Jesus told us that it is those who oppress and misuse their power who will ultimately endure punishment, not their victims (Matthew 18:6-7).
B. Bittersweet accomplishments.
1. (4-6) Success often gains the envy of one’s neighbor.
Again, I saw that for all toil and every skillful work a man is envied by his neighbor. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind.
The fool folds his hands
And consumes his own flesh.
Better a handful with quietness
Than both hands full, together with toil and grasping for the wind.
a. For all toil and every skillful work a man is envied by his neighbor: The Preacher thought of those who gain success through toil and skillful work – and how it simply brought envy and sometimes hatred from others. This common jealousy of success made life seem like vanity and grasping for the wind.
i. “For if a man act uprightly and properly in the world, he soon becomes the object of his neighbour’s envy and calumny too. Therefore the encouragement to do good, to act an upright part, is very little. This constitutes a part of the vain and empty system of human life.” (Clarke)
b. The fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh: Solomon here answered the tendency for those jealous of the success of others to be lazy. Like fools, they fold their hands and do nothing – and so waste away. Yet it wasn’t the success of their neighbor that made them waste away; the foolish, lazy man consumes his own flesh.
i. Consumes his own flesh: “This expression is really equivalent to ‘destroys himself,’ ‘brings ruin upon himself.'” (Deane) A similar thought from a different perspective is found in Psalm 27:2.
c. Better a handful with quietness than both hands full, together with toil and grasping for the wind: The Preacher reflects on the value of contentment. It is better to have less and be content (with quietness) than to have more and constantly be grasping for further success.
i. Solomon weaved some fascinating themes together.
· Hard work and success are good and not to be envied.
· Laziness is wrong and destructive.
· Yet even the one with full hands must learn contentment.
2. (7-8) What good is your success if you can’t pass it on?
Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun:
There is one alone, without companion:
He has neither son nor brother.
Yet there is no end to all his labors,
Nor is his eye satisfied with riches.
But he never asks,
“For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good?”
This also is vanity and a grave misfortune.
a. There is one alone, without companion: Solomon thought of a man alone, without family or close friends.
b. Yet there is no end to all his labors, nor is his eye satisfied with riches: The man in Solomon’s thinking works hard and wants to gain more and more.
c. But he never asks, “For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good?” The Preacher thought this unexamined life of hard work and success – without family and friends to share in it all – is vanity and a grave misfortune.
i. The Preacher was entirely correct from an under the sun perspective. Under that premise, there is no such thing as an eternal accomplishment and one does not even have the potential satisfaction of passing one’s accomplishments on to another.
ii. “This picture of lonely, pointless busyness, equally with that of jealous rivalry in verse 4, checks any excessive claims we might wish to make for the blessings of hard work.” (Kidner)
3. (9-12) Without a friend, accomplishments are vain.
Two are better than one,
Because they have a good reward for their labor.
For if they fall, one will lift up his companion.
But woe to him who is alone when he falls,
For he has no one to help him up.
Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm;
But how can one be warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him.
And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
a. Two are better than one: In the previous section Solomon thought how even in an under the sun world, living alone made life worse. He continues to develop the same idea, noting that two are better than one and will begin to state the reasons why this is true.
i. “Having looked at the poverty of the ‘loner’, whatever his outward success, we now reflect on something better; and better will be a key word here.” (Kidner)
b. Because they have a good reward for their labor: In a good partnership, two can accomplish more than each one individually. The sum will be greater than the parts.
c. If they fall, one will lift us his companion: When two work and live together they can help each other in difficult times – but woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up. The Preacher understood that everybody needs help, and it is a blessing both to give and to receive help.
d. If two lie down together, they will keep warm; but how can one be warm alone? When two work and live together they can bring comfort to the lives of each other.
e. Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him: When two work and live together, they can bring security and safety to each other. To use a familiar phrase, they can “watch the back” of one another.
i. These four verses show us the great value of human relationships, that two are better than one. Living and working together is a great advantage to living and working alone, and adds these four things to life:
· Productivity (they have a good reward for their labor)
· Help in need (If they fall, one will lift up his companion)
· Comfort in life (they will keep warm)
· Safety and security (two can withstand)
f. A threefold cord is not quickly broken: The Preacher gives a fascinating final line to this section dealing with the goodness of companionship. We might have excepted that he would praise the strength of a twofold cord; instead he noted that a threefold is not quickly broken. It is commonly understood that the third cord is God Himself, and that a relationship intertwined with God is a threefold cord that is not quickly broken.
i. “The strength of the three-ply cord was proverbial in the ancient world.” (Eaton)
ii. This is commonly applied – and well applied – to the idea of recognizing and embracing God in the marriage relationship. Yet it is possible that, in the context of marriage and family, Solomon had children in mind with the picture of a threefold cord.
4. (13-16) The vanity of fame and its short life.
Better a poor and wise youth
Than an old and foolish king who will be admonished no more.
For he comes out of prison to be king,
Although he was born poor in his kingdom.
I saw all the living who walk under the sun;
They were with the second youth who stands in his place.
There was no end of all the people over whom he was made king;
Yet those who come afterward will not rejoice in him.
Surely this also is vanity and grasping for the wind.
a. Better a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who will be admonished no more: The Preacher begins this section with a proverb, observing that it is better to be poor and wise (and young!) than to be old, foolish and have great wealth and status.
b. He comes out of prison to be king: Solomon thought of a second young man, who rose out of misfortune and obscurity to achieve great wealth, status, and fame (there was no end of all the people over whom he was made king).
c. Yet those who come afterward will not rejoice in him: As Solomon thought of this young man who achieved much and became famous, he understood that the fame would be short-lived. Even if it lasted his entire lifetime (which would be rare and remarkable), it would not live on much beyond his own life. With his under the sun premise, this thought brought the familiar conclusion to the Preacher: Surely this also is vanity and grasping for the wind.
i. “He has reached a pinnacle of human glory, only to be stranded there. It is yet another of our human anticlimaxes and ultimately empty achievements.” (Kidner)
©2013 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission