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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes 4

Dunagan's Commentary on the BibleDunagan's Commentary

Verse 1

4:1 "Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them."

"I looked again" -Solomon once again returns to the subject of evil men prospering (3:16). "Next I observed all the oppression and sadness throughout the earth" (Tay). Oppression here refers to high-handed injustice, offensive selfishness, tyranny under which people cry out for deliverance. Again, we find that a certain kind of "knowledge" has only brought Solomon more pain (1:18).

"I saw the tears of the oppressed" -Not merely was wrong being done, but innocent people were suffering. We might ask, "How could injustice exist under Solomon's reign?" But the truth of the matter is that even the best king or president can't eliminate evil in a country or even in his own administration. Kidner notes, "We may think this attitude defeatist, for there is always much that can be done for sufferers, given the will to do it….Qoheleth is surveying the scene as a whole, and he might well retort that after every conceivable intervention there would still remain innumerable pockets of oppression" (p. 43).

"and that they had no one to comfort them" -this must have been very frustrating for Solomon, seeing that he could do so much on one hand (2:1ff) and so little on the other. With all his wisdom, wealth, and the resources of a nation at his disposal, he couldn't even put a dent in the amount of suffering that happens in this life due to the abuse of power and position.

"and on the side of their oppressors was power" -To this day some very evil individuals have great wealth, power and influence. This is nothing new. "He could add that there is no coincidence in the fact that power is found on the side of the oppressor, since it is power that most quickly breeds the habit of oppression. Paradoxically it limits the possibility of reform itself, because the more control the reformer wields, the more it tends to tyranny" (Kidner p. 44). And even Solomon, the king couldn't break this power. Solomon, like many reformers found his hands bound by red tape, litigation, the courts, etc…as he tried to get evil men out of high places.

"but they had no one to comfort them" -That is, under the sun. The believer knows that God will comfort the righteous who suffer (Romans 8:18). And that God will eventually judge the wicked (3:17; 8:12-13; Proverbs 17:15; 28:8; James 5:1-6).

Point To Note:

But some people say, "Something can always be done". But Solomon disagrees. Here we are slapped in the face by reality. All the good intentions, good causes, and all the money in the world can't stop oppression! No, we can't fix everything here.

Verse 2

4:2 "So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living."

Verse 3

4:3 "But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun."

Points To Note:

1 If this life is all there is, then it would be better not to be born, then to experience the pain and suffering that this life has to offer. 2. Note, the person who hasn't been born, has never existed. Hence, the soul doesn't have a pre-existence (as taught by Mormonism). 3. If there is no life beyond this life, then the living have only the prospect of looking forward to seeing and experiencing suffering.

Verse 4

4:4 "And I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind."

"is done is the result of rivalry" -"that the basic motive for success is the driving force of envy and jealousy" (Tay).

Points To Note:

1 Unusual skill, talent and success seem only to expose a man to envy and ill will from his neighbor. Which naturally rob labor and talent of lasting enjoyment. 2. "First, the competitive urge….We may quibble if we will, and remind him (Solomon) of such people as solitary castaways or needy peasants, who toil simply to keep alive, or those artists who really love perfection for its own sake; but the fact remains that all too much of our hard work and high endeavor is mixed with the craving to outshine or not to be outshone. Even in friendly rivalry this may play a larger part than we think----for we can bear to be outclassed for some of the time and by some people, but not too regularly or too profoundly" (Kidner p. 45). 3. I believe that many of us have experienced the above. We buy a new car, home, etc…, only to find someone trying to find fault with our choice. I just seems that whenever we get something really nice, someone tries to shoot us down or find a flaw in our selection. 4. In addition, how many of us have inherently linked our personal worth with our economic worth?

Verse 5

4:5 "The fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh."

If hard work and diligence bring success, but with negative side effects, then should we sink into apathy and let things slide? "folds his hands" (Prov. 6:10; 24:33-34). That is, places his hands upon his chest, instead of using them for work. "consumes his own flesh"-brings ruin upon himself. "the drop-out. He disdains these frantic rivalries. But he is given his real name, the fool….He is the picture of complacency and unwitting self-destruction, for this comment on him points out deeper damage than the wasting of his capital. His idleness eats away not only what he has but what he is: eroding his self-control, his grasp of reality, his capacity for care and, in the end, his self-respect" (Kidner p. 46).

Carefully note, while God condemns the greedy, God also condemns the person who represents the opposite extreme, i.e. carelessness, indolence, laziness, and indifference. God isn't impressed by the person who is living off of society. Note that the bum or the drop out has a moral problem.

Verse 6

4:6 "One hand full or rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind".

"One hand full of rest" -"Better is a handful with rest, than both fists full of toil and chasing after wind" (Ber). "The beautiful expression, a handful of quietness , manages to convey the twofold thought of modest demands and inward peace: and attitude as far removed from the fool's selfish indolence as from the thruster's scramble for pre-eminence" (Kidner p. 46). I believe that the same idea is found in 1 Timothy 6:6 "when accompanied by contentment", and Proverbs 17:1 "Better is a dry morsel and quietness with it than a house full of feasting with strife". It is better to be happy with a little, than unhappy with much. Many of us need to learn this lesson, to be grateful and appreciative for the handful that we do have and realize that the price of two handfuls might be less time with our mate, less time with our children and less time for God.

Verse 7

4:7 "Then I looked again at vanity under the sun."

Verse 8

4:8 "There was a certain man without a dependent, having neither a son nor a brother, yet there was no end to all his labor. Indeed, his eyes were not satisfied with riches and he never asked, 'And for whom I am laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?' This too is vanity and it is a grievous task."

"a certain man without a dependent" -Long before Charles Dickens and the Christmas Carol, Solomon had seen "Scrooge".

Points To Note:

1 "But if anything can be more tyrannous than envy, that thing is habit, when habit has turned into fixation. Verses 7 and 8 picture the compulsive money-maker as someone virtually dehumanized, for he has surrendered to a mere craving and to the endless process of feeding it….Although it is for the sake of clarity that we are looking at a man with no family, we may well feel that his loneliness is no accident and that he will have no friends either…. Such a man, even with a wife and children will have little time for them, convinced that he is toiling for their benefit although he heart is elsewhere, devoted and wedded to his projects. 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 pp. 46-47).

"without a dependent" -a solitary being, without partner, friend or relation.

"yet there was no end to all his labor" -"He was not gathering a fortune with a view to the security of an heir or companion, not working to provide for a family or share with friends…his sole purpose…'get more'" (Kidwell p. 99).

"his eyes were not satisfied with riches" -(Prov. 27:20; Ecc. 5:10).

"and he never asked, 'And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?'" -This man has been so caught up in the pursuit of material possessions that he never stopped and realized what his greed had actually cost him. Here is a man blinded by the world's view of success. This question never crossed his mind, he thinks that his fortune will bring him happiness, rather, the truth is that he has actually sacrificed a lot of happiness to gain his fortune. Here we see one of the deceitful aspects of wealth (Matthew 13:22). This man had a lot of stuff, but he also had loneliness, jealousy, frustration, worry and distrust.

"This too is vanity" -This man had sacrificed so much to gain what didn't even satisfy him. Truly, the above miser is very poor in the most important aspects of living. And his whole quest had been vain!

Point To Note:

In contrast to the downtrodden and oppressed, most people would consider the man in 4:8 to be a winner or survivor. Kidner notes, "To all appearance they have come to terms with life; but have they won a prize that they can keep? And does their way of winning it bear inspection? Our modern term, the rat-race, sums up the burden of these verses: a frantic rivalry at one extreme, a disastrous opting-out at the other; and for the successful few, a life devoted to acquiring prize after pointless prize." (p. 48)

Verse 9

4:9 "Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor."

"better" -There is something 'better' then the poverty of the loner. All too often friendships and real companionship, and a good marriage is sacrificed by those frantically wanting to get to the top. Whatever the outward success of the man in 4:8, companionship, friendship, or a good marriage is wealth that is far greater.

"they have a good return for their labor" -The good return or reward seems to be explained in the following verses. In addition, what is the use of having wealth or nice things, if you can't share it with anyone.

Point To Note:

But be impressed that friendship has a price tag! "The thoughts are simple and direct; they apply to many forms of partnership, not least (though not explicitly) to marriage. With graceful brevity they depict the profit, resilience, comfort and strength bestowed by a true alliance; and these are worth setting against the demands it may make of us. Such demands are not explicit here, but there would hardly be the need to set out the benefits of partnership if it involved no cost. Its obvious price is a person's independence: henceforth he must consult another's interest and convenience, listen to another's reasoning, adjust to another's pace and style, keep faith with another's trust" (Kidner p. 50). In other words, the price of real and true companionship is unselfishness! Proverbs 18:24.

Verse 10

4:10 "For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up."

The person who can't trust anyone or is suspect towards those trying to reach out to him, will find that his wealth is a poor comforter. Money and things cannot provide some of the most important and essential things that human beings need, i.e. emotional, mental, and spiritual strength and encouragement. All too often we see that the truly wealthy are emotional and mental basket cases. How many celebrities are either constantly in therapy or constantly trying to get over their latest addiction? Someone might claim, "But money can buy the best psychological help available". But therapy is no substitute for friendship and companionship! A good marriage will give you greater emotional support, and greater mental stability than all the alternatives that money could buy.

Verse 11

4:11 "Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone?"

But it is obvious that the miser could buy all the blankets he needed. But there is a warmth that money can't buy. The warmth of another human being is real, and not artificial. In addition, this verse could be more of the inner warmth that comes because of close friendship.

Verse 12

4:12 "And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart."

Companionship also brings with it protection and security. "While numbers, wrongly related, can be divisive or disastrous….in their right form they can not only add to the benefits of union but multiply them" (Kidner p. 51). The cord of three strands was one of the strongest made. Various ideas could be found in the above illustration: 1. If one genuine friend is of greater value than riches, how much more two genuine friends? 2. To a strong marriage, children born of that relationship only add increased strength to the family (Psalm 127:4 "Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one's youth"). 3. In any relationship, God should be the third partner (Malachi 2:14).

Verse 13

4:13 "A poor, yet wise lad is better than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to receive instruction."

Points To Note:

1 In addition to wealth, high place and fame doesn't offer any real security either. Popularity is never permanent. 2. The "wisdom" of the young man appears to be in his willingness to listen to advice, hence the country would be better served under his leadership. "it portrays something familiar enough in public life: the short-lived popularity of the great. It shows the faults on both sides, beginning with the stubbornness of the man who has been too long in the saddle-who is out of touch and out of sympathy with the times" (Kidner p. 51).

"who no longer knows how to receive instruction" -(Prov. 26:12). "Who no longer knows how to take advice" (Ber). It is not that he doesn't get advice, he does, but he refuses it. He has forgotten and lost the ability to admit that someone else might have a better idea, to admit his own mistakes or to look at new ideas. "Wisdom" is demonstrated and acquired by being willing to listen to wise advice (Prov. 1:7; 9:9; 18:2; 22:17; 23:12; James 1:19,21).

Fame can be just as addictive as wealth. And while some sacrifice everything (4:8) to hold on to wealth, others are willing to sacrifice principle, ethics and their own character to hold on to a position of power.

Verse 14

4:14 "For he has come out of prison to become king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom."

"he" -There is some disagreement as to whether the individual here is the old and foolish king or the youth who replaced him. 1. The youth may have been imprisoned because the old king feared him as a political foe. 2. The king in this verse became king the old fashioned way, i.e. he earned it. In the same land in which he now rules, he was born into poverty. 3. Some see Solomon speaking about himself, he had played the part of the foolish king, and the youthful supplanter is Jeroboam, who was exiled to Egypt (1 Kings 11:26-40). "To realize that one can rise from unlikely circumstances (from the lowest of circumstances) to become king, to supplant one who already has control, demonstrates the lack of security of life even in the highest office in the land, even in the days of absolute rulers" (Kidwell p. 106).

But the youth of this verse could have been the king who was know old and foolish. The old king could have been a national hero, one with whom all the common people could identify. One not born into royalty, but rather, a man who had worked his way up through the ranks. One who had become king, not by inheritance, but through his own strength, courage, bravery and skill. But power, ease, and wealth had corrupted this young and idealistic man, and know he found himself arrogant, foolish and unpopular!

Verse 15

4:15 "I have seen all the living under the sun throng to the side of the second lad who replaces him."

The second lad is the young lad mentioned in 4:13. "Solomon places himself in the position of a spectator, and marks how numerous are the adherents who flock around the youthful king" (P.P. Comm. p. 91). All the world loves this new king.

Verse 16

4:16 "There is no end to all the people, to all who were before them, and even the ones who will come later will not be happy with him, for this too is vanity and striving after wind."

"the ones who will come later will not be happy with him" -What a contrast! "In one short breath one reads of the multitude thronging to his side, singing his praises and leading him to believe that he is indeed their redeemer. In the same short verse, however, the scene has changed completely and we picture the very next generation asking, 'Who is he?'" (Kidwell p. 106). Here we see the fickleness of the crowd, and the fleeting nature of human popularity. "Yet he too will go the way of the old king, not necessarily for his faults, but simply as time and familiarity , and the restlessness of men, make him no longer interesting. 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 p. 52).

Point To Note:

Here is the rat-race and losing battle that confronts everyone who has reached celebrity status. The constant battle to remain on top, the "who's in and who's out list", the struggle to repackage yourself, the fear of becoming over-exposed or too popular, too soon. And while one generation may absolutely love you, that same truth may cause the next generation to despise you and everything associated with you. Solomon had learned that popularity only meant that eventually you could become very unpopular. The more that people idolize you only means the more people who can become disgusted with you, and eventually, "boo" you.

Bibliographical Information
Dunagan, Mark. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4". "Dunagan's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dun/ecclesiastes-4.html. 1999-2014.
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