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Bible Commentaries

Kingcomments on the Whole Bible

Ecclesiastes 4

Verses 1-3

Introduction

From this chapter onwards, it is all about the coexistence of people, while the previous chapters focus more on people’s personal experiences. The portion of Ecclesiastes 4:1-10:20 resembles the book of Proverbs with regular sayings or sections about different aspects of life. Ecclesiastes 4 deals with various relationships in which a person stands, forced or voluntary, or from which a person consciously refrains.

Oppression Without a Comforter

The subject of Ecclesiastes 4:1 relates to Ecclesiastes 3:16 (Ecclesiastes 3:16). The Preacher looks “again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun”, to which he now adds an aspect. Not only is there a lot of injustice, but there is also a lot of sorrow because of that much injustice. In addition, there is no improvement to be made or expected in that situation. This also creates frustration, a feeling of total powerlessness.

If you could congratulate yourself if you managed liberating even one person out of the hand of his oppressors, then there are still countless situations in which this is not possible. The power always lies with the oppressors. Power is a breeding ground of oppression. Power corrupts. This appears to be the case when reformers take over power. They turn into tyrants.

Exploitation also takes place in the business world. All over the world countless poor people, children and helpless people work from early in the morning until late in the evening in factories for a pittance and under inhumane conditions. They have to, otherwise they have nothing at all. Sometimes a factory is discovered and people are freed, but how many are still where this happens? And what about families where the father rages like a tyrant and nobody has the courage to tell anything about it to others, so that no comfort can be sought? Just think of the refugees who are hunted by terrorist groups. How many tears have been and are being shed in all of those conditions.

That is the world we live in. The Preacher gives an eyewitness report of a kind of injustice that dominates life as a whole. He sees it in his days and anyone who looks with the eyes of the Preacher sees the same thing today. This iniquity is not carried stoically, but makes tears flow (Psalms 119:136; John 11:35; Acts 8:2). Normally, tears arouse pity and comfort, but this is not the case with oppressors. They lack any sense of humanity and mercy.

The Preacher speaks twice about the lack of comforters. The absence of comforters greatly increases the suffering. You are completely left to yourself and dependent on yourself. There is no one who looks after you, no one who cares about you at all (Psalms 142:4). The Lord Jesus complains: “And I looked for sympathy, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none” (Psalms 69:20).

The dead are better off than the living (Ecclesiastes 4:2). This is said without thinking about the afterlife, but only from an earthly perspective. The dead have nothing to do with oppressors anymore (Job 3:17-:). The living are the people who are oppressed. For them it looks gloomy. They are without hope and without comfort.

Wicked sorrow, often as a result of disappointment in enjoyment as a life goal (hedonism), leads to the desire to commit suicide. The idea is that it is all over with death. However, man is not a beast. A beast ceases to exist when it dies. Once a human has been born, there will be no situation of ‘not being there anymore’. He will exist forever, either in hell or in heaven, depending on faith in the Savior Jesus Christ. He who knows Him can say: “This is my comfort in my affliction, That Your word has revived me” (Psalms 119:50).

The stillborn and aborted children are better off than those who have experienced anything of the life under the sun (Ecclesiastes 4:3). They do not know the evil activity of the oppressors, nor the grief of the oppressed. This kind of desire to be like them, can arise at the sight of the great misery in which men find themselves. In the case of the believer, seeing this misery arouses at the same time the desire to be with God.

The injustice we see will make us abhor the world and that God will draw us to Himself. In this way God can become for us what He really is: the resting place for our hearts. With Him we see no injustice, for with Him “there is no unrighteousness, no partiality, and the taking of bribes” (2 Chronicles 19:7), and with Him, in His presence, we are not afraid of the unrighteousness that we perceive everywhere.

Verses 4-6

Labor, Laziness and One Hand Full of Rest

A special form of oppression or unrighteousness which the Preacher has seen in observing people and what they do is rivalry or jealousy (Ecclesiastes 4:4). The double use of the word “every” indicates that any kind of labor and skill is involved. The point is that labor and skill are often the result of the desire to master others. We constantly live in a state of competition.

It has been said that nine out of ten office workers suffer from ‘professional rivalry’ of colleagues who, in their opinion, shine more or are better paid than they are. This drives many people to climb the ladder of success: they want to surpass others. Many want to be more successful than their colleagues or neighbors or friends. They want to be seen and recognized, to be admired with the admiration others get and what they envy. Rivalry is a strong force in man.

People who are envious are suppressed by their own wrong feelings and motives, because they control them. Hard work and high goals all too often stem from the desire to be the best, not to be inferior to others. Rivalry and competition lead to making great efforts and hating one another. We see this in sports, in politics, in business, and it also happens in the church of God.

Anyone who feels like a loser will discover in his heart this kind of jealousy of which the Preacher speaks here. He is oppressed by rivalry, rivalry controls him. Instead of liberating himself from it by being content, he allows himself to be dominated by it. This jealousy is a breeding ground for bitterness and resentment. The only result that anyone can reap from his labor and the skill he shows is that others envy him for it.

The tribute he receives for his performance is often disguised jealousy. What use is it to him? For a moment, he is in the spotlight, but people get tired of all his efforts, they are “vanity”. What is the net result of his performance? Nothing more than what the “striving after wind” brings. He does not keep anything of it nor has he got anything left of it what gives inner peace and satisfaction.

Look at the Olympic Games, for example. People are adored for winning a medal. But how long does this admiration last? And the honor that is earned is always at the expense of another person who was one hundredth of a second slower. The people who have trained just as long and just as hard, but are just a little short to win a medal, can go home with a ‘loser flight’. The winners can take a ‘winner’s flight’ home and will be praised on arrival at the airport and later in their hometown. It is hard up!

Ecclesiastes 4:5 is the opposite of Ecclesiastes 4:4, while there is also a clear similarity. The fool does not want to have anything to do with this fanatical competition and is characterized by total indifference. He folds his hands together, not to pray, but to make it clear that he does not intend to use his hands (Proverbs 6:9-2 Samuel :; Proverbs 24:33). His laziness is as wrong as the rush of the fanatic.

A lazy fool consumes not only what he owns, but also what he is. He commits ‘self-cannibalism’. He loses control over reality and his ability to support himself. The latter is the resemblance with someone who is consumed by rivalry, for such a person has also lost control over reality.

In contrast to the two previous wrong ways – being driven by jealousy and laziness – Ecclesiastes 4:6 gives the only good alternative: Do not let yourself be rushed. A busy agenda may be impressive, but it also destroys you. You get ahead of yourself, you get a heart attack and you die. Do not be lazy either, because then you won’t make a living and you will die as well. There has to be balance in a person’s life.

This balance is present in people who, just like the Preacher, looks at life soberly. Those who are satisfied with “one hand full of rest” do not take part in the strife to be the best neither in total passivity. Everyone just needs a bit of rest and recreation at the right time. This is of more use than just non-stop hard labor. One hand full of rest expresses two thoughts: that of modest desires and of inner peace.

This attitude is as far away from the fool with his selfish laziness as it is from the perfectionist who always strives for the best and highest. How foolish it is to have “two fists full of labor”, for the pursuit of results is the same as the “striving after wind”: you cannot hold anything of it.

Verses 7-12

Two Are Better Than One

The Preacher saw something else under the sun that is vanity (Ecclesiastes 4:7). This is that there are so many lonely people on earth who work hard and earn a lot, but have no one to share their lives and possessions with (Ecclesiastes 4:8). He describes the emptiness of loneliness and therefore the fruitlessness of everything that is obtained through hard work.

The lonely egoist is worse than the go-getter and the sloth of Ecclesiastes 4:4-Deuteronomy :. We see here a compulsive money lover, one whose eye is not satisfied with riches. He walks with the dollar sign in his eyes, he only sees money, and is therefore ‘dehumanized’. He has no family, he does not want to have any relationship, and friendships he desires least of all. He is always at work, without any moment of pleasure and enjoyment of what he has earned. He always wants more, but never will he share anything with anyone else.

He has a big company, but no possible followers. He has an abundance of food, but no one to share his meals with. He does not want that either, because it costs time and money. There is no place for a “second person” in his life. There is only one ‘first person’, who is at the same time the ‘only one’, because there is no second one. The first and only one is he himself.

If he had a wife or children, he’d hardly have time for them. Maybe he thinks he is working hard for them, but in reality he lives for his business and therewith he is married. His eye is focused on his wealth. And since his eye is not satisfied with riches, he just plods on. There is no end to his hard toil (Ecclesiastes 5:10).

He has more than he can ever make up for himself, but for whom does he do it? He deprives himself of any pleasure, but why? Slogging in solitude is indeed “vanity” and “a grievous task”. Peace and rest are sacrificed for his desires. He labors on and on. He does not think about God. He is rich, but not in God. If his heart stops beating, for whom will everything be for which he has worked so ceaselessly (Luke 12:18-Ecclesiastes :; Luke 16:25)? Someone has described money as ‘an article that can be used as a universal passport to go everywhere except to heaven, and as a universal provision for everything except for happiness.’

I have read in a commentary a current description of the lonely, hard worker the Preacher presents to us here:

‘This man believes in the value of hard work and finds satisfaction in it. He is probably married and has at least three children whose picture he has in his wallet. He loves his wife and thinks about her more often than she knows. Certainly, he makes long days; he often leaves the house before six o’clock in the morning and only returns home after seven o’clock in the evening. The pressure of his work is so great that it takes him an hour or two to come to rest, so that he cannot spend much time talking. He is so tired that reading the newspaper and watching a bit of television is all he can do, after which he goes to bed tired.

His blood pressure is too high, he knows he needs to move more. His diet is not very good, and sometimes he is irritable and growls at his family, which he later regrets. It is true that he works seventy hours a week, but he does not think he is a workaholic. He just loves his job, and he is good at it. And luckily, he can take home a nice salary and provide his family with good things.

One day he plans to slow down, because it is not going well …, but not yet today. He leaves the house before his family knows he is gone.

One evening he comes home and his family is not there. While he was at work, the children grew up, his wife went back to university and started her own career, his children moved, and now the house is empty. He cannot believe it. The Board of Directors has just appointed him director and now there is no one to share the good news with. He has reached the top … alone.

Even if we do not want to become a director, many people suffer from the ‘hurry-syndrome’. There are so many busy people. They are so busy that they forget the people who are closest to them. How many fathers and mothers have failed their children for €10,000 or €20,000 extra per year?’ [End of description]

After the ‘lone wolf’, the man who does everything alone and lives only for himself, the Preacher describes in Ecclesiastes 4:9 the advantage of a companion. This companion can be found in all kinds of relationships and especially in the marriage relationship. Individualism, which increasingly governs the world today, creates enormous divisions. The disintegration into groups is already a disaster, the disintegration of a society by individualism is one of an unprecedented size.

Each person is a group for himself, stands alone and fights for his own interests. Just look at the one-man groups in politics or the sectarian leader with only one or two followers. They only make the misery worse, while they imagine themselves working on sustainable solutions to problems.

Fellowship is a gift from the Creator, a benefit, intended to improve the quality of life. Through a sense of community, the burden of life is better distributed and more bearable. Man is also made in such a way that he needs others and that others need him. God said this at the time of man’s creation: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Man is a social being. However, many people choose loneliness and many others suffer from loneliness. Many people, much loneliness. Those who prefer loneliness to friendship feel elevated above human nature or have lowered himself below human nature.

Collaboration offers all kinds of advantages that the lonely plodder lacks. The obligations of doing something together do not outweigh the benefits. The price is to give up independence. You have to listen to and take into account the arguments of the other person, you have to adapt to his pace and lifestyle and you have to rely on his word. The benefit is also shared. There is no question of one exploiting the other. Certainly not in marriage, because in marriage you want to take account of each other and share everything with each other in absolute loyalty. You are always there for each other and together you are there for the Lord.

There is a reward for working together: being busy together on a common project and the success you achieve together. You go for something together, you commit yourself to it, together with the other. What you achieve, you share together. The satisfaction you find in this cannot be expressed in terms of money.

There is another advantage to having a companion: helping and supporting each other. When one of them falls, the other one can lift the other one up (Ecclesiastes 4:10). The companion’s help and support can be practically experienced in accidents along the way, such as tripping or falling in a ravine or in a well or ditch (Genesis 14:10; Luke 6:39). Someone who falls into it and is alone will perish, but if someone else is there, they can help him out.

We can also apply it to having a hard time in a spiritual sense, being desperate. The other person can help him out of his depression by encouraging him and helping him to bear the burden. A companion does not make accusations, but puts his back into it and helps. In a marriage, there is a danger of stumbling and falling by making wrong decisions or even falling into sin. How valuable it is, then, to be lifted up by the other person.

A third advantage of having a companion is the warmth that companions give each other during the cold of the night (Ecclesiastes 4:11). It is about dealing with each other in love in every day’s life. The warmth of love, which does not demand, but gives. The world is cold because there is no love, i.e. no Divine love. In the atmosphere of Divine love, children will grow up spiritually healthy. Someone who is alone does not know the fervent warmth of brotherly love (1 Peter 1:22). The result is that he becomes lukewarm in his affections and finally he becomes cold and hard.

A fourth advantage of having a companion is that you are stronger together against enemies (Ecclesiastes 4:12). A companion provides security and protection by majority. A tight marriage is difficult to fight. The same goes for a local church where the ranks are closed. Eve could be deceived because she was alone (Genesis 3:1-Joshua :). If there is internal division, the power is gone and it is easy for the enemy to penetrate.

Two are already better than one, but when a third one is added, it is all the way a reinforcement. A cord of three strands is stronger than a cord of two strands. If we apply this to marriage, we can see husband, wife and God in the cord of three strands.

Everything shows that one is better off with another person or with two other persons than being alone. In the midst of all vanity, it still gives some satisfaction, help, warmth and strength to life. You are there for someone else and someone else is there for you. In this way you can make something of life together.

Verses 13-16

Relativity of Popularity

In these verses it is also about the relationship between people, but especially between a ruler and the people, and about the honor that goes with the position of ruler. By whom do people want to be ruled? The Preacher has also made some observations about this matter. It is better, he says, to be ruled by “a poor yet wise lad” than by “an old and foolish king” (Ecclesiastes 4:13). The young man is better because he is wise. The foolishness of the old king is shown by the fact that he “no longer knows [how] to receive instruction”.

In general, wisdom is with the elder people (Job 12:20), but we should not close our eyes to the fact that young people are sometimes wiser than the older people (Psalms 119:110; Job 32:4-1 Samuel :). The danger of an old man is that he may become wise in his own eyes (Romans 12:16), that he may become pedantic and stubborn. A man who has been ruling for too long, is in danger of living in an unreal world because he no longer knows what is really going on. He has forgotten what it is like to be young and energetic and does not listen to reprimands. The crowd will get tired of him and choose the lad. The fact that the lad is poor and wise only makes him more attractive.

The lad had everything against him, he was restricted in his freedom of movement, he had no possibilities to develop himself, but his wisdom helps him to take the throne (Ecclesiastes 4:14). The new leader is young and dynamic, eloquent and intelligent (Ecclesiastes 4:15). He has charisma. Everything he was and what he is makes everyone admire him.

The popularity of the new, young, dynamic king is enormous (Ecclesiastes 4:16). He is welcomed with enthusiasm. An immense crowd follows him. He is the fresh wind that everyone was longing for after being used to the musty smell that was hanging around the old foolish king. The old man has brought no lasting improvement. The next generation has other ideas, is enthusiastic about other proposals, it wants to have new challenges. The lad is the symbol of this. He will bring what the new generation wants. He is authentic and honest, that is what he is praised for.

However, when he is in government for some time, he begins to show the same traits as his predecessor. People have seen enough of him. They are sick of him. A new generation comes, with new desires. That is how it has always been and that is how it will be with this rising star. At a certain point, this – now still – young man, will have to make room and has to go the way of the old king, because the people are finished with him. They are too restless to keep on finding him interesting. They are not any longer happy with him. If he is come to the pinnacle of his fame, it is only to get stranded there. People need a new star.

According to the Preacher, popularity “is vanity”, and those who strive after it are busy with “striving after wind”. As a ruler, it is impossible to stay in the favor of the people forever. Once he will surely fall from his pedestal. People who were so fond of him at first, are shouting now that he must leave. Popularity is as changeable as the weather. After the ‘hosanna’ often follows the ‘crucify him’ or as it is said: after ‘hail him’ often follows ‘nail him’.

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Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Ecclesiastes 4". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/ecclesiastes-4.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.