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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes 4

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & PsalmsHengstenberg's Commentary


The link of connection between the different parts of this chapter is the common reference to the misery under whose yoke the people lay groaning.

According to Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 the earth is not a place where righteousness dwells, but a scene of injustice and violence. This was a knowledge at which the Church of God arrived with peculiar ease, and which was impressed on it with peculiar force, at the time when it was itself under the tyrannical rule of worldly power. The chapter now under notice suggests that the book was composed during that period. Some have, in this connection also, spoken of the “bitterness of Koheleth’s view of the world,” and have found in these verses the “expression of the complaints of a bitter and desperate spirit.” But this is quite incorrect. Koheleth does not complain: he considers (“I saw all the oppressed”), and simply sets before us, facts. To know and present these in their naked truth is a privilege of the wisdom which dwells in the midst of the people of God; whilst on the contrary the world is compelled in many cases to close its eye against them and to surrender itself to illusions, unless it be prepared to become the prey of despair. The wretched state of things here depicted could only justify complaints against God if there had been no fall, if man were still in the condition in which he was when he came forth from the creative hand of God. Since the day spoken of in Genesis 3 the best world is that of which it has been said, “The world is but a vale of tears, and everywhere need, trouble, fears.” Such a state of things, however, can only breed despair in the minds of those who have fixed their eyes on the earth, and who, by their own guilty conduct, have sealed up the fountains of consolation, to which the writer directed attention in Ecclesiastes 3, and to which he will again point in the following chapters. From these fountains our misfortunes and troubles should drive us to draw.

Verse 1

Ecclesiastes 4:1. That שוב is not to be taken in the sense of “to turn oneself,” but in that of “to return,” is clear from the parallel passage, Zechariah 5:1, “And I returned and lifted up mine eyes and behold a flying roll:” as compared with Zechariah 4:1: “and the angel that talked with me came again (returned) and waked me, as a man that is wakened out of his sleep.” It might be supposed that the words—“I returned and saw,”—indicate that the present subject had been already brought under consideration; (compare Ecclesiastes 3:16 f.) The words however rather imply that the author’s meditations are taking a new turn, as is clear not only from Zechariah 5:1, but also from the parallel passage, Ecclesiastes 9:11, where the phrase—“I returned and saw,”—manifestly introduces a new thought. In Ecclesiastes 4:7 also, the expression.—“I returned and saw,”—indicates that the meditation which had been interrupted is taken up again, and is turned to a new subject, שבתי points out in general, that a train of thought is taken up again after a pause during which it had been dropped: Vulgate, “verti me ad alia.” And then the fresh subject is described. All oppressed who are made. That the author, in referring to the oppressed, had especially in view the people of Israel which was trodden under the foot of the powers of this world, is clear from Ecclesiastes 3, but especially from Jeremiah 50:33,—“thus saith the Lord of Hosts, the children of Israel and the children of Judah are oppressed together, and all that took them captives held them fast and would not let them go.” עשוקים never signifies “oppression,” always “oppressed.” The עשוקים of Amos 3:9, stand to the ֹ?ע‍?‍?שְ?ּ?ׁ?קִ?וֹ?ת of Ecclesiastes 4:1, evidently in the relation of patiens to agens. The עשוקים of the former passage are the דלים and the אביונים of the latter. Job 35:9 is to be explained—“by reason of the multitude of the oppressed they cry:” that is complaint is raised that there are on earth so many who art unrighteously oppressed. There is the more reason for retaining this meaning in this clause, as the word is undeniably employed in a like sense immediately afterwards in the course of the same verse. נעשים suits this meaning very well. The oppressed are made such by their oppressors.

Verse 2

Ecclesiastes 4:2. On this verse Luther remarks—“when one attentively regards the innumerable sorrows of the heart, miseries, great evils and troubles on earth, and the awful wickedness there is in the world which is the devil’s kingdom, one must surely be of the mind that it were better to be dead than to see so much wretchedness.” The thought expressed in this verse occurs also frequently under Christianity, notwithstanding the abundant sources of consolation opened to us by its doctrines and promises. There are seasons in the life of nations, and of individuals when this thought presses itself on the mind with peculiar force. It has full truth, though of course of a one-sided character. In view of the severe sufferings to which our life is exposed, it can scarcely appear, considered in reference to that which is usually described as the happiness of life, to be a desirable good In this aspect of the matter the dead are more to be envied than the living. In other aspects, however, life appears as a high and noble possession. And even in the general human aspect that saying holds true, “a living dog is better than a dead lion,” ( Ecclesiastes 9:4) and that other one,—“Light is sweet, and a pleasant thing is it for the eyes to see the sun,” ( Ecclesiastes 11:7). On the believer, moreover, as he walks in the darkness of this earthly life, there shines a bright light, ( Job 35:10), so that he can say—“my flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the rock of my heart and my portion for ever.” ( Psalms 73:26): he takes delight in fearing God and keeping His commands, ( Ecclesiastes 12:13) he is able, with a heart that rests and is satisfied in God, to enjoy the blessings which the present never fails to offer even when public affairs are in the most wretched condition; he hopes in the retributive righteousness of God which will bring the perversions and wickedness of the world to an end, ( Ecclesiastes 3:16) and, finally, in the momentary perversion of justice he recognises a wholesome means of divine chastisement, ( Ecclesiastes 3:18). שבה is the infin. absol. which with an emphatic brevity, appropriate to the excitement here felt, is employed for the verb fin it. (compare Ecclesiastes 9:11; Ewald 351c.) It is not the Particip. in Piel with rejected מ ,—an aphaeresis which scarcely occurs in the Piel form,—for קשבה in Nehemiah 1:6-11, is an adjective, feminine of קַ?שָ?ּ?ׁ?ב , and there is no ground for regarding מהר in Zephaniah 1:14, as a participle, since it is often used as an infinitive with the signification “hastily.” That כבר does not mean “long ago,” but “already,” and serves to define the preterite more strictly, is very clear in this passage. It forms the contrast to עדנה , contracted from עד הנה , “still.”

Verse 3

Ecclesiastes 4:3. With increased force of expression the author here says that it is better not to have been born at all than to live. Parallel with this is the passage (Ecclesiastes 3) where Job, who had no peace nor repose, and who was disturbed ever afresh, wishes for himself the lot of “an hidden untimely birth,” and curses the day of his birth, or where in Ecclesiastes 3:20 of the same chapter he asks—“Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul?” So also when Jeremiah in Jeremiah 20 curses the day of his birth, and in Jeremiah 20:18 complains, “Wherefore came I forth out of the womb to see labour and sorrow, that my days should be consumed with shame?” In regard to such expressions, however, we must remark that so far as they occur in Scripture they contain only one side of the truth. In proof of which the same Jeremiah, in a passage immediately preceding the one just quoted, says: “Sing unto the Lord, praise ye the Lord, for he delivers the soul of the needy from the hand of the evil doers.” Such a feeling of human misery is not only natural, but is intended by God “who brings us into circumstances which call it forth. By thoroughly disgusting us with the world, and by making us realize its absolute vanity, God means to draw us to himself. Only in this way can Jahveh, the true and absolute Being, become to us what he really is. Through much tribulation must our hold on earthly things be loosened and ourselves enter into the kingdom of God.

Verse 4

Ecclesiastes 4:4. The word כשרין , which occurs only in Koheleth, is rendered by the LXX. here and in Ecclesiastes 2:21 by ἀ?νδρέα , virtus. Derived from כשר , “rectus fuit,” it is used partly of “skill, ability in action,” and partly of the “fortunate results “thereof. In the latter signification, namely, “advantage, gain,” it occurs in Ecclesiastes 5:10; in the former we find it used in Ecclesiastes 2:21, in conjunction with wisdom and knowledge: “a man whose work is in. wisdom and knowledge and Kishron. There follow after, the words: “and to a man who has not laboured therein must he give it.” According to the contrast here drawn pips must refer to the labour, the activity itself, and not to the result. The matter of complaint is that the skill developed in labour has no higher prerogative. כשרון is employed in the sense of “skill, ability,” here also.—That this is the envy of a man from his neighbour:—the end of the whole matter is that a man is envied by his neighbour; Vulgate, “eum patere invidae proximi.” Following the example of the Decalogue מרעהו draws attention to the baseness of the fact that the friend, of God and right, grudges him the successful results of his skilful labour. It is of course better to be envied than pitied, but still envy with all the hostile and pernicious acts flowing therefrom, and which frequently bring about the ruin of their object, is a great evil, and it is no small consolation for a man who, like Israel at the time, finds himself in an unenviable position, to know that he is not exposed to this torment. Several interpreters think that hero all distinctions are traced back to the principle of rivalry. That would be an incorrect thought: whereas it is a demonstrated truth that “men envy the happy.” In Isaiah 11:13, קנאת אפרים is the jealousy felt by Ephraim of Judah, who was preferred: in Ecclesiastes 9:6, of this book, envy is conjoined with hatred. The verb also is frequently used to denote envy or jealousy of advantages. It is hard that a man’s zeal should be interpreted by his neighbour to be an envious desire to surpass, to outstrip him. Then further, the connection with Ecclesiastes 4:5-6 is decisive against this view. “Vanity and empty effort” are not usually predicated of labours winch are morally worthless, but of such as bring no advantage (compare Ecclesiastes 2:17). Ecclesiastes 4:5. In order to avoid envy we may not throw ourselves into the arms of inactivity. The only effect of that would be to ruin ourselves. To lay or fold the hands together is a gesture of laziness. To devour one’s own flesh is to work one’s own ruin (compare Isaiah 49:20). The principal passage is Proverbs 6:9-11: “How long wilt thou lie, O sluggard? When wilt thou arise out of sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep. So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.”

Verses 4-6

The emptiness of earthly happiness betrays itself clearly in the fact that it is accompanied by envy ( Ecclesiastes 4:4): “when any man has good fortune and good days, then envy is sure to rave and rage.” “We must not, however. suffer this sad experience to mislead us into inactivity ( Ecclesiastes 4:5). Still, in view of such a fact, we shall do well not to mix ourselves up too much with distracting affairs, and, on the contrary, rejoicing when they are not forced upon us, (like Israel at that time), be content with a humble lot in life ( Ecclesiastes 4:6).

Verse 6

Ecclesiastes 4:6. Men are warned, however. by the bitter experience mentioned in Ecclesiastes 4:4, to do well, and not to go beyond that which is strictly necessary. Taught by such an experience they will be satisfied with a humble and limited lot. עמל and רעות רוח point back to Ecclesiastes 4:4. “Both fists full of, etc,” is as much as “both fists full of good,” which more carefully looked into, is after all only travail and empty effort. Israel then had the hand full of rest: the heathen power, both fists full of travail. To make Israel content with its lot by laying bare the vanity of that which it was destitute of, but which the world possessed, is the usually misunderstood main drift of Ecclesiastes 4:4-6.

Verse 7

Ecclesiastes 4:7. The words—“I returned and saw vanity,”—indicate that a new species of vanity is now brought under consideration.—How far the possession of earthly wealth is from being in itself a good, the- author shows in Ecclesiastes 4:8 ff, by sketching before us in a picturesque manner a scene from life which illustrates this truth in a most palpable manner. It is an entire mistake to assume, as Rambach and others do, that the author’s controversy is with celibacy, or with the “fuga vitae sociae.” Luther’s remarks are substantially accurate; “Greedy bellies are to be found yet, who hunt after money and property night and day and still do not want it.” Ecclesiastes 4:8. There is one and not a second, he hath neither son nor brother. The second here mentioned is different from the son and from the brother. According to what follows there is one whom he might have, but has not through his own guilt. He has isolated himself by his own selfish avarice, has driven all companions away, and stands alone in the world. The words, “he hath neither son nor brother,” are meant to bring clearly to light, on the one hand, the folly of blind passion—he stands alone in the world, has no one to care for, and consequently has no apparent reason for his avarice—and on the other hand the wretchedness of his position. He ought the more eagerly to seek to make to himself friends, seeing that he has no relatives of his own.

Verses 7-12

How little the life of a man depends on many possessions, the author shows in a picturesque description of the example of a rich man who has so completely isolated himself by his selfishness and avarice, that he stands alone and deserted, without enjoyment and without protection in life.

The author repeatedly recurs to the subject of avarice and earnestly combats it. We may conclude therefore that it was one of the principal diseases of the time. It comes before us as such, also, in the other literary monuments of that period. “Ye run every man to his own house,” says Haggai in Ecclesiastes 1:9. Malachi complains in Ecclesiastes 1 that the worst offerings are presented to the Lord, and in Ecclesiastes 3:7-12, of dishonesty in the bringing of tithes and offerings. Nehemiah, also, according to Ecclesiastes 5, was compelled to resort to stringent measures against the usurous practices then in vogue. The temptation to avarice lay in the unsatisfactory nature of the general circumstances, which exposed men to the danger of centering all their interest in their own private affairs: but then also further in the distress of the times, and in the exactions of the heathen authorities by which they were misled into clinging the more tenaciously to that which they already possessed.

The description has however two sides. It is directed not only against avarice, but also at the same time against envy of the riches of the world, of their heathen tyrants. One ought not to vex oneself about “a handful of vanity;” one should not allow oneself to be beguiled into discontent with the leadings of divine providence, into murmurings against God, for such a cause. The aim both of the preceding and following observations is to lead Israel to a just estimate of that which the heathen possessed, and which they themselves lacked; and taking both together, we may say that the passage has a predominant reference to that side of the description last mentioned. Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 exhibits the misery of the covenant people: Ecclesiastes 4:4-16 opens up points of view from which their condition appears in a more favourable light.

Verse 9

Ecclesiastes 4:9. The two in this verse form a contrast to the one without second in Ecclesiastes 4:8. Wherein the reward consists is detailed in Ecclesiastes 4:10 ff. They afford each other protection and help, and mutually render life agreeable. The isolated man on the contrary must work in vain, since he is destitute of enjoyment in life, and without protection in danger.

Verse 10

Ecclesiastes 4:10. When they fall, that is, either the one or the other, אי , “woe,” occurs only here and in Ecclesiastes 10:16; the cognate word הי in Ezekiel 2:10: Elsewhere אוי and הוי are employed.

Verse 11

Ecclesiastes 4:11. Several commentators fancy that they find here a reference to the wife: but inappropriately. A wife the rich miser might have, and be a prey to the feeling of desertion which invariably accompanies an avaricious and selfish disposition. It is sure to have its revenge. Lovelessness always finds its echo.

Verse 12

Ecclesiastes 4:12. The subject alluded to here is the enemy which must be supplied from the tone and circumstances of what is said, (Ewald § 294 b.) תקף always means “to prevail against, to overpower,” never “to attack;” compare the adjective תקיף “powerful” in Ecclesiastes 6:10. “Him, the one,” is as much as to say, him, in his isolation, or because of his isolation. The image of a “threefold cord,”—in making a firm, strong cord, three threads were usually used,—is the more appropriate here, as the number two in general only represents plurality. The author must not be considered as arguing from the point of view of mere prudence. The moral abominableness of isolating selfishness and heartless mammon worship are brought clearly to light by the unhappy positions in which they set men.

Verse 13

Ecclesiastes 4:13. “Better is a youth,” not in a moral point of view, but because, notwithstanding his temporarily low position, he gains the kingdom which the other loses, and so is better off. So also טובים in Ecclesiastes 4:9, תוב in Ecclesiastes 4:3.

Verses 13-16

In the preceding part of the chapter, the writer has laid bare the vanity of possessions; now he proceeds to show the vanity of rulers, in order to console his fellow countrymen men in bondage, who could not forget their own loss of dominion.

“Ah! how vain and fleeting are the honours of men! Today we are compelled courteously to kiss the hand of the mail whom tomorrow we tread under our feet in the grave.” An illustration of these words is given here in the portrait drawn of the old king who is displaced by another; and then in that of the upstart who is first extolled and courted, and at last loses the favour which exalted him to the throne. At his ascension, millions of voices cried, “Long live the King;” words which contain the “Pereat” of him who is deposed. But the scales are again turned He becomes in the end as unpopular as his predecessor, “This rounded earth can afford no rest, for what it at one moment raises up, at the next it casts down.” Because of the loss of such vanity we ought not to fall into inconsolable sadness. Every attempt at an historical exposition of this section is useless. That which appears to imply such a reference, is but minute and special portraiture, and not otherwise to be judged: it is like the picture given from life in Ecclesiastes 4:8, where the general thought is not barely advanced, but clothed with flesh and blood.

Verse 14

Ecclesiastes 4:14. The first half of Ecclesiastes 4:14, gives the reason of the expression “better:”—“For out of prison he cometh to reign,”—namely, “that youth.” That הסורים is a contraction of האסרים , (Ewald § 80 b.) is plain from Judges 16:21: “and he, (Samson) groaned בבית אסירים ( Judges 16:25): also Genesis 39:20, where בית הסהר is explained by—“the place where the king’s prisoners were bound.” The author appears to have borrowed this feature, that the youth rises to power out of prison, from the history of Joseph; only, however, this one feature, for as to the other circumstances there is no resemblance. Whereas impoverished is he that was born in his kingdom. The abasement of the governing king is the condition of the rise of the youth. This sentence thus assigns the motive for that which is advanced in the preceding one. The catchword is למלך . The Hebrew word rendered “whereas, although” means literally “also:” it is used however in the sense given. See Proverbs 14:20, Ewald § 362 b. Born in his kingdom: i.e., one who came to the possession of the kingdom, of his dignity as ruler, by birth: like the kings of the Philistines, who being hereditary, bore the title Abimelech, that is, king’s father, and might therefore quite as well have been styled king’s sons. רש is not a participle, but the preterite from רוש , and contains an allusion to Psalms 34:11: “lions are impoverished and suffer hunger.” It is evident from the whole connection that in רש the old king is to be taken as the subject. Symmachus rightly expresses this: ὁ? δὲ? καίπερ βαισεὺ?ς γεννηθεὶ?ς ἠ?πορήθη .

Verse 15

Ecclesiastes 4:15. This verse, according to which “all the living which walk under the sun” fall to the share of the upstart, shows that the circumstances on which the description is founded, are not those of any petty state, but of the great universal monarchies of Asia, which took particular pleasure in identifying themselves with the entire orbis terrarum. Compare Daniel 4, where the tree, which signifies the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar, stands “in the midst of the earth,” and spreads itself out “to the end of all the earth,” “all flesh” was nourished from it, and where Daniel in giving to Nebuchadnezzar the explanation of the vision says—“thy dominion reacheth to the end of the earth.”

Verse 16

Ecclesiastes 4:16. All whom, he precedes, that is, all who do homage to him as their monarch ( Micah 2:13). The word גם here corresponds to גם in Ecclesiastes 4:14, and directs attention to an addition of a singular kind, which falls quite as much to the lot of the second king as the first. Whether the change is brought about by the fault of the king, who was not able to bear his good fortune, and failed to display the wisdom in his conduct as actual ruler, which he showed in the attainment of power; or whether by the changeableness of the people we are not told, and simply because it did not lie within the aim of the author to speak of the causes, but only of the fact, of the change itself Luther observes: “and so we find in histories that at first many rejoiced and hoped in Nero, and looked for a fine able ruler in him. The first five years of his reign were hopeful and were commended: but afterwards he was tyrannical, and that in the most aggravating way. So likewise of Heliogabalus and Commodus were good hopes entertained, that they would turn out praiseworthy princes and rulers: but the hope failed. The one, Heliogabalus, was a vile wretch, who gave himself up to all manner of profligacy and debauchery, and was a thorough beast. The other ought to have been styled, not Commodus but Incommodus that is, a curse to the land.” “This also is vanity,” to wit worldly greatness. The practical conclusion for Israel is—“Why vexest thou thyself about a handful of vanity, when God bestows on thee unchanging treasures? If the pound is thine surely thou mayst let the farthing go.”

Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/ecclesiastes-4.html.
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