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v. 1. So I returned and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun, turning his reflections from the vanity of human life to the violence practiced by many men; and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter, no one to dry their tears by healing their injuries; and on the side of their oppressors there was power, that being the way of tyrants everywhere, but they had no comforter, the repetition of this phrase emphasizing the desperate and hopeless condition of the poor and downtrodden.
v. 2. Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead, and thus beyond the reach of tyranny and oppression, more than the living which are yet alive, and therefore always in danger of becoming victims of violence.
v. 3. Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun, for, not having been born, he has been spared the pain of witnessing the many evidences of oppression and tyranny which are always found in the world. This is not an expression of unbelieving pessimism, but a statement of fact which will cause the believers to turn all the more eagerly to the comforts of the Christian religion.
v. 4. Again, I considered all travail and every right work, the prosperity coveted by men, the source and motive of so much of the oppression found in the world, that for this, namely, for his apparent success, a man is envied of his neighbor, this also resulting in a condition of misfortune. This is also vanity and vexation of spirit, for such emulation and striving is bound to result in misfortune to men.
v. 5. The fool foldeth his hands together, too lazy to exert himself, and eateth his own flesh, using up his fortune and ruining himself by his idleness, having no one but himself to blame for his misfortune.
v. 6. Better is an handful, a small amount of this world's goods, with quietness, to be enjoyed in peace, than both the hands full, a large measure of riches, with travail and vexation of spirit, for riches, if obtained only by anxious labor and retained only with care and sorrow, are a misfortune and cannot be conducive to happiness.
Evils of Social and Civil Life
v. 7. Then I returned, fixing his attention upon another point that needed explanation, and I saw vanity under the sun.
v. 8. There is one alone, and there is not a second, the reference being to a man without relatives or friends; yea, he hath neither child nor brother, no one bound to him by natural ties, the necessity being laid upon him, therefore, to gain friends by other means; yet is there no end of all his labor; neither is his eye satisfied with riches, he continues to crave new treasures, although there is no object in it for him; neither saith he, For whom do I labor, and bereave my soul of good? He never stops to think that his heaping up of treasures is pure folly. This is also vanity, an empty and useless performance, yea, it is a sore travail.
v. 9. Two are better than one, for friendship, marriage, association in religious communion will tend to oppose selfishness; because they have a good reward for their labor, the advantage resulting from such associating with others being shown in the next. verses.
v. 10. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow, a second one always being present to aid the one stumbling; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up, he lacks the friendly sympathy and assistance enjoyed by one who is united with others by the ties of friendship or a common cause.
v. 11. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat, the reference being to traveling companions obliged to pass the night out in the open air, the chilliness of the Palestinian nights being proverbial; but how can one be warm alone? A poorer traveler particularly, with only his over-garment as a cover, would probably suffer severely. The expression brings out the benefits of warm sympathy derived from social ties.
v. 12. And if one prevail against him, if an individual person finds himself obliged to submit to the attacks of some criminal, two shall withstand him, their combined strength overcoming the assailant; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken. In union is strength, but such union must be based upon unity.
v. 13. Better is a poor and a wise child, one which, although in the depths of poverty, yet uses proper knowledge and circumspection and is willing to be guided by proper counsel, than an old and foolish king, one presumably with great wealth at his command, who will no more be admonished, believing himself beyond good advice of every kind.
v. 14. For out of prison he cometh to reign, that is, some person in the very lowest station is elevated to the highest position of authority in the land; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom, a prince by birth, becometh poor. Joseph becomes ruler of Egypt, Jehoahaz is led away to Egypt in shame and disgrace.
v. 15. I considered all the living which walk under the sun, observing the great number of adherents which the poor person elevated to power in the country had gained, with the second child that shall stand up in his stead, taking the place of the old and foolish king who was dethroned for his refusal to take advice.
v. 16. There is no end of all the people, even of all that have been before them, the entire mass of subjects hail the usurper with joy and expect great things from him; they also that come after shall not rejoice in him, he may disappoint the expectations which are placed in him, or his popularity may suddenly wane. Whether Solomon had a certain instance in mind or not, the truth of his observation has often been shown in history, as Luther and other commentators point out. Surely this also is vanity and vexation of spirit, coming under the heading of the many things in life which give no lasting satisfaction and happiness.
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Kretzmann, Paul E. Ph. D., D. D. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4". "Kretzmann's Popular Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany