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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes 4

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-16

B. The Impediments to Earthly Happiness, proceeding partly from personal misfortune of various kinds, and partly from the evils of social and civil life

Ecclesiastes 4:1-16.

1. The personal misfortune of many men

(Ecclesiastes 4:1-6)

1So I returned and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun; and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter. 2Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive. 3Yea, better is he than both they, which had not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun. 4Again, I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbor. This is also vanity and vexation of spirit. 5The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own 6flesh. Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.

2. The evils of social life

(Ecclesiastes 4:7-12)

7, Then I returned and saw vanity under the sun. 8There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labour, neither is his eye satisfied with riches: neither saith he, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail. 9Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour 10For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but wo to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. 11Again, if two lie together. then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? 12And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

3. The evils of civil life

(Ecclesiastes 4:13-16)

13Better is a poor and a wise child, than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished. 14For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor. 15I considered all the living which walk under the 16sun, with the second child that shall stand up in his stead. There is no end of all the people, even of all that have been before them: they also that come after shall not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and vexation of spirit.

[Ecclesiastes 4:1. וְשַׁבְתּי אֲנִי וָאֶרְאֶח: I turned and saw, or I returned and saw, I looked again—שַׁכְתִּי used adverb ally, to denote repetition.—T. L.]

Ecclesiastes 4:2. וְשַׁבֵּחַ אֲנִי the participle piel with מ omitted, מְשַּׁבֵּחַ. The examples Zöckler brings in support being the infinitive, do not bear him out. Comp. מַהֵר for מְמַ Zephaniah 1:14, in like manner the Pual participle without מ, asלֻקָח 2 Kings 2:10, for יוּלָּד ,מְלֻקָּח for מְיֻלָּד Judges 13:8, and יוּקָשִׁים Ecclesiastes 9:12, for מְיוּקָּשִׁים.

[Ecclesiastes 4:5. כִּשְׁרוֹן. See remarks, p. 53.—T. L.]

[Ecclesiastes 4:8. וּלְמִי. “and for whom.” The apparent conjunction ו, here, seems rather to have the force of an interjection, as in וֹאְֵיךְ Ecclesiastes 2:16 (see remarks on it, p. 58). Alas! how is it; so here, Ah me! for whom. Our conjunction has sometimes a similar emphatic instead of a mere copulative force. Or, it may be doubted whether, in such cases, instead of being copulative at all, it is any thing more than the exclamation وَا in Arabic, which is, in like manner, joined to other words, as waika, vae tbin, or wa laka, eheu tibi, and sometimes to exclamatory phrases, as wa-sawa ta hu, in one word, proh dolr; O what a calamity! The abrupt exclamation is much more impressive and significant than the filling up of our English Version, “ neither does he say.” This is, moreover, false, since the writer does mean to represent the solitary rich man as thus saying. It is pressed out of him by a sudden sense of his folly. Dr. Van Dyke, in his late Arabic translation, makes it thus abruptly follow, which is the more easily done, since his Arabic word so nearly resembles the Hebrew, whilst the conjunction ف instead of و gives it more of subjective connection. In such cases as this the Hebrew particle was doubtless pronounced wu, instead of the mere vowel sound u. In like manner, wa is ua, or oua, like the French oui. Compare Greek οὐά, Mark 15:29 (also found in classical Greek), and the more frequent οὐαι also the Hebrew וֹי ,אוֹי woi, or ou-oi. Even as a conjuction it has an emotional power: “and O, for whom, etc.”—T. L.]

[Ecclesiastes 4:14. הָסוּרים evidently a contraction for הָאֲוּרים. It is written according to the sound,—the אֲ with its light shewa, becoming a quiescent and disappearing, as in אֲשֶׁר when it becomes שׁ. This writing words according to the sound may mark an earlier period, when some changes had taken place, but attention had not been much drawn to the radical orthography as in later times. It is, however, very unsafe to draw any inference from it as to dates, either way. In Jeremiah 37:15, we have בֵּית הָאֵסוּר, the singular of the word written in full, and used as synonymous with בֵּית הַכֶּלֶא, house of restraint.—T. L.]


The plan of this section is extremely simple and clear. Each of the three divisions or strophes, as given above, is again divided into two smaller parts or half strophes, with which, each time, new turns of thought commence. The complete scheme is as follows: First strophe: The personal misfortune of men: Ecclesiastes 4:1-6; first half strophe: Ecclesiastes 4:1-3; second half strophe: Ecclesiastes 4:4-6. Second strophe: The evils of social life: Ecclesiastes 4:7-12; first half strophe: Ecclesiastes 4:7-8; second half strophe: Ecclesiastes 4:9-12. Third strophe: The evils of civil life: Ecclesiastes 4:13-16; first half strophe: Ecclesiastes 4:13-14; second half strophe: Ecclesiastes 4:15-16.—Comp. Vaihinger, Comment., p. 32 f., and also the Doctrinal and Ethical portion of this section.

2. First strophe: Ecclesiastes 4:1-6. It is not the really unfortunate men that alone suffer sorrows, oppressions, and violence of the most various nature (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3); the fortunate also find the joy of their life embittered by envy and want of true repose of soul (Ecclesiastes 4:4-6).—So I returned—namely, from the previous course of my reflections (which, according to chap. 3, had dwelt upon the foundation and nature of the earthly happiness of men). Hengstenberg justly claims for this passage, as well as for Ecclesiastes 4:7 and Ecclesiastes 9:11 (and also for Zechariah 5:1), the acceptance of וְשַׁבְתּי אֲנִי וָאֶרְאֶה in the sense of: “And I turned back and saw,” which is the same as: “And again I saw” (Ewald), and indicates the transition, to a new object of reflection, not the repetition of a reflection already made, as Hahn contends. Luther, Elster, Vaihinger, etc., are not correct in saying: “And I turned,” etc.; for שׁוּב expresses a sense different from פָּנָה or סָבַב (Ecclesiastes 2:12; Ecclesiastes 2:20, etc.).—And considered all the oppressions.—As in Amos 3:9, עֲשֻׁקִים must here also be taken in an abstract sense: “oppressions,” “violence;” for נַעֲשִׂים does not harmonize with the concrete sense, “oppressed,” whilst in the following clause the concrete sense “oppressed” appears from the context.—And behold the tears of such as were oppressed.—In the original, tear of the oppressed (דִּמְעָה a collective). The description presents a vivid reality, and does not magnify the actual conditions in a fantastic or sentimental manner, or from a bitter and peevish misanthropy, but simply reports facts; and facts such as the author had frequently experienced in consequence of the civilly dependent and depressed condition of his people.—And on the side of their oppressors there was power.—כֹּחַ here is equal to חָזְקָה (1 Samuel 2:16; Ezekiel 34:4) violence. The repetition of the expression, “but they had no comforter,” realizes, with striking emphasis, the hopeless and desperate condition of those who suffer. Comp. the similar repetitions of the same tragic turn in Isaiah 9:11; Isaiah 9:16; Isaiah 9:20; Isaiah 10:4; Mark 9:44; Mark 9:46; Mark 9:48.

Ecclesiastes 4:2. Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead.—שַׁבֵּחַ is not a participle with D omitted, but an infinitive absolute, which here contains the finite verb, as in Ecclesiastes 9:11, and in 1 Chronicles 5:20 (comp. Berth, on this passage, and also Ewald, § 851 c).—More than the living which are yet alive.—עַדֶנָּה contracted from עַד הֵן ,עַד־הֵנָּה adhuc, yet. For the sentence comp. Ecclesiastes 7:1 f.; also Herodotus 1:31: ἄμεινον�, as also Ecclesiastes 4:6 of Menander: Ζωῆς πονηρᾶς θάνατος αἰρετώτερος.

Ecclesiastes 4:3. Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not been.—For this intensifying of the previous thought, comp. Ecclesiastes 6:3-5; Ecclesiastes 7:1; Job 3:13 ff.; Jeremiah 20:18, and Theognis, Gnom., v. 425 ss.:

Πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον,

Μηδ’ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἡελίου,

Φύντα δ’, ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας ’Αϊδαο περῆσαι,

Καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.

Other parallels will be found in the classic authors, as Sophocles (Œd. Col., 1143 s.), Euritides. (Cresphontes fragm.13) Chalcidamus, Posidipp., Philemon, Val. Maxim. Ecclesiastes 2:6; Solinus (polyhist, e. 10), etc. Examine also Knobel on this passage, and Hengstenberg, p. 160 f. The difference between such complaints in heathen authors, and the same in the mouth of our own, is found in the fact that the latter, like Job and Jeremiah, does not stop at the gloomy reflections expressed in the lamentation, but, by proceeding to expressions of a more cheerful nature,1 announces that the truth found in them is incomplete, and only partial.

Ecclesiastes 4:4. Again—I considered all travail and every right work.—כִּשְׁרוֹן, as in Ecclesiastes 2:21, not of the successful result of work, but of its excellence in kind and manner; the Septuagint is correct: ἀνδρεία, and mainly so the Vulgate: industriee. But it is clear that the author is thinking mainly of such excellent and industrious people whose exertions are crowned with success, so that they can become objects of envy or jealousy. He is therefore now no longer regarding simply the unhappy and the suffering, as in Ecclesiastes 4:1-3, but also the relatively happy.—That for this a man is envied of his neighbor.—קִנְאַת אִישׁ מֵרֵעֵהוּ] i.e., jealous endeavor to anticipate another in available effort and corresponding success; consequently envious disposition and action, invidia (comp. Ecclesiastes 9:6, where קִנְאָה has the same meaning, and also Isaiah 11:13, etc.).—This is also vanity.—Because in the uncertainty of all earthly circumstances, it is of no true profit to surpass one’s neighbor in diligence and skill.

Ecclesiastes 4:5. The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh.—Probably a proverb of like tendency with those of Proverbs 6:10; Proverbs 24:33, i. e., directed against idleness; it is therefore not the expression of the author, but a quotation of au envious person who endeavors to defend his zealous effort to surpass his neighbor in excellence, but which is immediately refuted in Ecclesiastes 4:6. Hitzig is correct in this view (comp. also the Int., § 1, Obs. 2), whilst Luther, Geier, Oetinger, Bauer, Vaihinger, etc., see rather the jealous man designated as a fool, who folds his hands in vexation and despair, and consumes his own flesh in wild passion, and Ewald, Hengstenberg, Elster, etc., think that the author is contrasting idleness with envy as its opposite extreme, in order to warn against the former; this were manifestly to presuppose a very abrupt and obscure mode of presentation. Concerning the phrase “foldeth his hands” as a Biblical expression for idleness, comp. Proverbs 6:10. “Eateth his own flesh” is to exhaust one’s strength, to use one’s fortune, to ruin one’s self, as occurs on the part of the idle; comp. Isaiah 49:26; Psalms 27:2; Micah 3:3; Numbers 12:12.—

Ecclesiastes 4:6. Better is a handful with quietness, than both hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.—This is plainly 2 the answer which a defender of a contented, quiet spirit, void of envy, would give to that feverish jealousy which in Ecclesiastes 4:5 he had rebuked as foolish indolence, the disposition not to rival one’s neighbor in skill and diligence.—מְלֹא כַף, lit., “to be filled, to be full of hand.” It means “a little,” as taken in contrast with מִלֹא חָפְנַיִם “both hands full,” i. e., superfluity of any thing, great abundance. “Quiet” (נַחַת) and so also עָמָל “travail,” do naturally present, not only the respective dispositions and demeanors, but, at the same time, the casual circumstances connected with them, and forming their background; at one time a modest portion of worldly goods, at another a great fortune, collected with much exertion, but bringing only care and sorrow.

3. Second strophe. Ecclesiastes 4:7-12. By avarice, the nearest relative and affiliated vice of the envy just described, man brings himself into sad isolation and abandonment of friends, which is the greatest misfortune in social life, as it not only embitters all enjoyment of the amenities of this life, but robs us of all protection against men of hostile intent. For Ecclesiastes 4:7 compare what is said above of Ecclesiastes 4:1.

Ecclesiastes 4:8. There is one alone, and there is not a secondi. e., one standing entirely alone, without friends and companions, also without near blood relations (according to the following clause), consequently so much the more isolated and obliged to make friends by the free use of his riches, but which he does not do.—Neither is his eye satisfied with riches, i. e., he does not cease to cravo new treasures; comp. Ecclesiastes 2:10. The עֵינָיו must be retained, and need not be exchanged for עֵינו. Comp. 1 Samuel 4:15; 1 Kings 14:6; 1 Kings 14:12; Psalms 37:31.—For whom do I labor and bereave my soul of good?—Lit., “let my soul fail of the good,” a pregnant construction like that in Psalms 10:18; Psalms 18:19. This question is put into the mouth of the covetous, but as one finally arriving at reflection, and perceiving the folly of his thus collecting treasures; comp. Ecclesiastes 2:18-21; Luke 12:16-21. But it does not follow from this sudden revulsion from foolish to sensible views, without further explanation, that Koheleth means himself (as above Ecclesiastes 2:18 ff.) in the person here described (as Hitzig contends).

Ecclesiastes 4:9. Two are better than one..—That is, it is better, in general, to be associated than isolated, comp. Genesis 2:18, and the saying of the Talmud: “A man -without companions is like the left without the right hand” (Pirke Aboth; f. 30, 2).—Because they have a good reward for their labor.—Lit., who have a good reward for their labor. What this good reward consists of, the three subsequent verses show by three examples, which point out, in a similar manner, the pleasure as well as the profit and protection afforded by socially living and cordially co-operating with one’s fellows.

Ecclesiastes 4:10. For if they fall, i. e., the one or the other. We cannot think of both falling at the same time, because they then would both need aid.—But woe to him that is alone when he falleth.—אי לו “woe to him” comp.אִי רָךְ Ecclesiastes 10:16, and also the kindred הִי Ezekiel 2:10.

Ecclesiastes 4:11. If two lie together, then they have heat.—The conjugal lying together of man and wife is certainly not intended, but rather that of two travelling: companions who are obliged to pass the night in the open air. The necessity of this in Palestine,3 on account of the prevalence of cold nights there, can easily cause great embarrassment, especially as poorer travellers have no other covering with them than their over-garment; comp. Exodus 22:26; Song of Solomon 5:3

Ecclesiastes 4:12. And if one prevail against him.—תקף means to overcome (comp. the adjective תַּקִּיף powerful, Ecclesiastes 6:10), not to attack (Knobel, Elster), or fall upon (Ewald). יִתְקְפוֹ is an indefinite singular with an object presupposed in the suffix: “if one overwhelmed him, the one;” comp. 2 Samuel 14:6; Proverbs 13:24; and Ecclesiastes 2:21, which passages satisfactorily show that Ewald’s proposition to read יִתְקְפוּ is unnecessary.—(Comp. Ewald, Lehrbuch, § 309 c).—Two shall withstand him.—Of course not the one mentioned in the first part, but rather his opponent, who forms the unnamed subject in יִתְקְפוֹ. Comp. similar cases in Ecclesiastes 5:18; Ecclesiastes 6:12; Ecclesiastes 8:10; as well as the phrase עָמַד נֶגֶד “to oppose somebody,” to resist one; 2 Kings 10:4; Daniel 8:7. Ewald and Elster are not so correct in saying: “thus stand two before him,” namely, the attacked one himself and his companion—which clearly affords too weak a thought.—And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.—That is, if three of them, instead of two, hold together, then so much the better. The symbol is taken from the fact that a cord of three strands holds more firmly than one consisting of a simple strand, or of two only. Comp. the well-known fable of a bundle of arrows, and the German proverb: “Strong alone, but stronger with others.” There is no allusion to the sacredness of the number three, and still less to the Trinity, which a few older commentators thought to find herein. Moreover, the title of several books of devotion is derived from this passage, e. g., the celebrated book of the Priest of Rostock, Nikolaus Russ, about the year Ecc 1500: de triplici funi:ulo, in which faith, hope and love are described is the three cords of which there must be made the rope that is to rescue man from the abyss of ruin. And so of later works, as (Lilienthal) “A Threefold Cord,” a book of proverbs for every day in the year (for every day a saying containing a promise and a prayer.)—New. Ed., Hamburg, Sigmund. A threefold cord, woven out of the three books of St. Augustine: Manuale, Soliloquia, et Meditationes, 1863. 4.Third strophe.

Ecclesiastes 4:3-16. That fortune often shows itself deceptive and unreliable enough in civil life, and in the highest spheres of human society, is illustrated by the double example of an old incapable king whom a younger person pushes aside, and that of his successor, an aspirant from a lower class, who, in spite of his transitory popularity, nevertheless falls into forgetfulness, like so many others. Like the fact alluded to in Ecclesiastes 9:13-16, this example seems to be taken from the immediate contemporary experiences of the author, but can only, with great difficulty, be more nearly defined on its historical basis. Only the first clause of 4:18 suits the history of Joseph, and, at most, Ecclesiastes 4:13 contains an allusion to David as the successor of Saul; Ecclesiastes 4:15 may allude to Rehoboam as successor of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes 4:14 perhaps to Jeroboam. But other features again destroy these partial resemblances every time, and demonstrate the impossibility of discovering any one of these persons in the “poor but wise youth.” Thus, too, the remaining hypotheses that have been presented concerning the enigmatical fact (e.g., the references to Amaziah and Joash, and to Nimrod and Abraham), can only be sustained by the most arbitrary applications. This is especially true of Hitzig’s supposition that the old and foolish king is the Onias mentioned by Josephus (Antiquities Ecclesiastes 12:4) as High Priest and προστάτης τοῦ λαοῦ, and that the youth supplanting him was his sister’s son, Joseph, who, if he did not succeed in robbing him of the priestly office (which his son Simon inherited) [see Sir 50:1 ff.], at least wrested from him the προστασία i.e., the lucrative office of a farmer of the Syrian revenues that he had then exercised twenty-two years, not indeed to the satisfaction of the people, but in a very selfish and tyrannical manner. This hypothesis does all honor to the learned acumen of its originator, but has so many weak points as to forbid its acceptance. For in the first place the ruler of a realm is portrayed in Ecclesiastes 4:15-16, and not a rich Judaic-Syrian revenue collector; secondly Onias was high-priest and not king, and lost only a part of his functions and power by that Joseph; thirdly, the assumption that the author exaggerates petty circumstances and occurrences in a manner not historical, is destitute of the necessary proof; fourthly, the supposition forming the base of the entire hypothesis of an authorship of Koheleth towards the end of the third century B.C. is quite as arbitrary and bare of proof; comp. Int., § 4, Obs, 3. We must, therefore, refrain from specially defining the event to which these verses allude; in which case the two following suppositions remain possible: either the author feigns an example, or, in other words, has presented the contents of Ecclesiastes 4:13-16 as a possible ease (thus think Elster, Hengstenberg, Vaihinger, el al.), or he refers to an event in the history of the nation or State, at his period, not sufficiently known to us (the- opinion of Umbreit, Ewald, Bleek, etc.). In the latter case, we could hardly think of a change of succession in the series of Persian monarchs; for the history of the rise of the eunuch Bagoas about the year 339 B.C. harmonizes too little with the present description to be identified with it, but we would sooner think of such a change in some one of the States subject to Persia, as Phenicia or Egypt.—Better is a poor and wise child, etc.—Clearly a general sentence for the introduction of the following illustration: “better” not here said of moral excellence, but “happier,” “better off,” just as טוֹב in Ecclesiastes 4:3; Ecclesiastes 4:9.“Wise” here is equivalent, to “adroit, cunning,” comp. Job 5:13; 2 Samuel 13:3.—Who will no more be admonished.—יָדַע לְ with the infinitive, as Ecclesiastes 5:1; Ecclesiastes 6:8; Ecclesiastes 10:16; Exodus 17:16.

Ecclesiastes 4:14. For out of prison he cometh to reign.—בֵּית הָסוּרִים contracted from בֵּית הָאֲסוּרִים (comp. similar contractions in 2 Chronicles 22:5; Ezekiel 20:30), also synonymous with בֵּית אֲסִירִים, Judges 16:21; Judges 16:25 (comp. Genesis 39:20). Or else this reading הָסוּרים must owe its origin to the opinion that Joseph’s elevation from the prison to the throne (Genesis 41:0 :) is here alluded to, in which case we should read בֵּית הַסּוּרים, and explain this either by “house of the outcast” “of the degraded” (Ewald, comparing Isaiah 49:21), or “by house of the fugitives” (Hitzig, comparing Judges 4:18; 2 Samuel 3:36). But these varied meanings would produce very little difference in the sense,—Whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor.—כִּי גַם, after the כִּי of the preceding clause, introduces not so much a verification of it, as an intensification, by which is expressed that the prisoner (or fugitive) has not merely transiently fallen into adversity, but that he was born in poor and lowly circumstances; and this בְּמַלְכוּתוֹ “in his kingdom,” i. e., in the same land that ho should afterwards rule as king (Hitzig, Elster, Vaihinger and Ewald, who are mainly correct). Rosenmueller, Knobel and Hahn translate: “although he was born poor in his kingdom;” Hengstenberg: “for although born in his kingdom, he becomes poor nevertheless”—both of them less suitable meanings, of which the latter should be rejected as too artificial and contrary to the accentuation.

Ecclesiastes 4:15. I considered all the living which walk under the sun, with the second child, etc.—A somewhat in-Sated description of the dominion and adherents which that youth (or child) had acquired. For the same child is doubtless meant as that named in Ecclesiastes 4:13-14, as the repetition of the expression יֶלֶד shows, as well as the words אֲשֶׁר יַעֲמֹד תַּחְתָּיו at the end, which indicate clearly enough the prospective introduction of the child into the place of the old and foolish king. The imperfect יַעֲמִד marks the future in the past—comp. 2 Kings 3:27; Psalms 78:6; and עָמַד in the same sense, as e. g., (Daniel 11:2-3). Hahn, in connection with some older writers, considers the יֶלֶד הַשֵּׁנִי different from the יֶלֶד in Ecclesiastes 4:13, and identifies it with the Messiah child or the Christ child of Isaiah 9:5; Isaiah 11:1 ff.; Micah 5:1; but the contents of the following verse, which characterizes the splendor of the child most clearly as transitory and vain, are very decidedly against this position as something that would never be in accordance with the rule of the Messiah.—And moreover, from the expression: “All the living which walk under the sun,” it is by no means necessary to deduce that the author had in his eye one of the great Asiatic empires, as Hengstenberg supposes with reference to Daniel 4:7 ff.; but the language here, as in the following verse, is largely hyperbolical, and is intended -merely to give an idea of the numberless masses adhering to the usurper; comp. similar hyperboles in the Song of Solomon 6:8; Joshua 11:4; Judges 6:5; Judges 7:12; Exodus 10:4 ff.—There is no end of all the people, even of all that have been before them.—הָיָה לִפְנֵי denotes here, as in 1 Samuel 13:16;2 Chronicles 1:10, the headship or leadership (comp. also Micah 2:13). [Zöckler says this to support his translation, an deren Spitze er stand, “all at whose head he stood,” notwithstanding all the connections of the passage show that priority in time is meant here by לִפְנֵיהֶם, and not priority of position. The references he makes to 1 Samuel 18:16, etc., do not, at all, sustain him, since; in every one of them, there are other words (such as “going in and out before them”), which wholly change the case.—T. L.]. Ewald, following the Sept., Vulg., and Luther, translate: “all that have been before them,” and indicate an antagonism between these earlier ones and those immediately after called אַחֲרוֹנִים but he thereby violates the connection, which clearly shows that the generations later, not those earlier than the king in question, were compared with him. It is said of them לֹא יִשְׂמְחוּ־בוֹ not בָּם—They also that come after shall not rejoice in him.—That is, they have no pleasant experiences of him whom they once greeted with joyful hopes, either that he deceived the just hopes of his people by later misrule, or that the fickle breeze of popularity became untrue to him without his fault. In either case, Koheleth could and must find a confirmation of his favorite expression concerning the vanity of earthly things. This clause is therefore again composed of the strain with which he closes his reflections.

[Alleged Historical Allusions in Koheleth.—See the general remarks on the passages here-alluded to, in the Appendix to the Introduction, p. 30. The older commentators who were firm in respect to the Solomonic origin, first began this kind of speculation. The Jewish Rabbis were excessively absurd in some of their midrashin. And so the older Christian interpreters were very fond of treating such passages as describing real historical events. They referred them to Rehoboam, Jeroboam, Joseph, Abraham, or any body else, because they thought it for the honor of the book, or of the Scriptures generally; as, in this way, one part confirmed another. The attempts to verify such hypotheses, however, only led to confusion, and tended rather to discredit than to increase confidence in the production. What was still worse, the Rationalists, whose interest it was bring the book down to a very late date, began, in like manner, to use these supposed references for their own purposes. The result has been a still greater confusion; and the great difficulty of making any thing clear out of them, ought to satisfy every sober mind of the falsity of the entire historical theory. Regarded as general illustrations, they are in perfect harmony with the authorship of Solomon; whilst the attempts of another kind show the insuperable difficulty of settling upon any other date than the one claimed in the book itself. The most extravagant hypothesis is that of Hitzig, as is shown by Zöckler and Stuart. A priest has to be turned into a king, and when even that fails, the taking away of a very subordinate office is to be treated as a dethronement. “What an outcry would be made by Ewald and his school, should they find similar wrenchings of language and history in commentators called orthodox ! As presented by Hitzig and others, it becomes all a mass of rationalistic confusion. Even if the author was of so late a date, he certainly means to personate the old king of Israel. He must, therefore, himself have been “old and foolish,” or consistency would have kept him from using as an illustration an incident so evidently anachronistic, as compared with any historical example likely to be given by Solomon. A writer assuming to personate some one in the days of Queen Elizabeth, and then using an illustration, insignificant in itself, and savoring wholly of the time of Gladstone, Bright, and Queen Victoria, would not have acted more absurdly.

The confusion and difficulty which such a mode of treatment (whether by Orthodox or Rationalist) has made in the interpretation of Ecclesiastes 4:13, have been greatly increased by a wrong translation of Ecclesiastes 4:14 th. It has been most commonly held that the, pronoun in מַלְכוּתוֹ (his kingdom) refers to the young man, and נוֹלָד, to some one, or to the subjects generally, born under his usurped power. This certainly destroys the contrast which the arrangement and the particles of the two verses seem to intend. Again, נוֹלָד (as a participle), or נוֹלַד, has been taken as referring to the young man himself, born in his, that is, the old man’s, kingdom—said young usurper himself afterwards becoming poor. Such seems to be Zöckler’s view partially. All sorts of twists are resorted to by others to make this applicable to Jeroboam, or Hitzig’s “young man” Joseph, or to somebody else. Our E.V. is ambiguous as to which is meant, and leaves the sense in total darkness. There is a striking contrast intended here, as is shown by the order of the words, and the particles כִּיֹ גַם. There is meant to be the most direct antithesis, as best illustrating such a vicissitude of fortune. The one born to a throne and becoming poor, is put in strongest contrast with the one born in obscurity and rising to power: “For out of prison (out of servitude or some condition of restraint, it may be actual imprisonment) the one comes forth to reign, whilst the other, though born in his kingdom (in his royal state), becomes a pauper. “The particle גַּם has an emotional force; it expresses astonishment at such a case: yea, more—what is stranger still—“the royally born becomes poor.” There is good authority for such a view, although most of the commentators wander after something else. The Vulgate renders it most clearly and literally: De carcere et catenis quis egrediatur inlerdum ad regnum, et alius, natus in regno, inopia consumatur: “From prison and from chains one may sometimes come forth to a kingdom, whilst another born in a kingdom may be reduced to want.” It is clear, from the mode of expression, that the Latin translator looked upon it as a general illustration of the changes in human fortune. A still better authority is the old Greek Version of Symmachus, the best of the Greek interpreters: ‘O MEN γὰρ ἐκ φυλακῆςͅ ἐξῆλθε βασιλεῦσαι, ‘Ο ΔΕ, καίπερ βασιλεὺς γεννηθέις, ἐστιν ἐνδεής: “The one comes from prison to reign, the other, born a king, becomes needy. This is confirmed by the Syriac translation of Origen’s Hexapla, which follows the Greek of Symmachus, word for word. See it, as given in the Syriac marginal translations to Middledorpf’s edition of the Codex Syriaco-hexaplaris.

Ecclesiastes 4:15. “I beheld all the living walking beneath the sun,” etc. Zöckler may well call this “a somewhat inflated description of the dominion which that youth had acquired.” It is indeed uberschwanglich, high-flown, most extravagant, as thus applied; and the thought should have shown him that there must be something false in the application. It is barely suggested by what was said before (Ecclesiastes 4:14) about the vicissitudes of the individual life, but has no other connection with it. It is a rising of the view to a higher scale, so as to take in the world, or race at large, and its olamic vicissitudes, as they might be called. ראיתי, I saw, I surveyed, or contemplated. It is presented as a picture of the mind taking in not single events, but all the living, כָּל הַחַיִּים. No where else in the Bible is this most sweeping language applied to such narrow uses as are here supposed. Where it is not used abstractly for life, as the plural חיים often is, it is never found in any less sense than the human race, or of the living as opposed to the dead. Comp. Job 28:12; Isaiah 8:20, “Land of the living,” Psalms 142:6, “Light of the living,” similar expressions, Psalms 116:9; also Ecclesiastes 6:8; Ecclesiastes 9:5, and other places. Here כל joined with it (and it is the only place where it is so joined) makes it still more difficult to restrict it to such a narrow sense. The language rises beyond this: “I surveyed, I contemplated, all the living, as they walked beneath the sun,” cunctos viventes ambulantes sub sole. These are certainly very lofty words to apply to a crowd running after Jeroboam, or Hitzig’s ambitious youth, or any other personage of that kind. No artificial rule of criticism, de universalibus restrinfendis, etc., can justify the use of such language, in such a case. The true idea, moreover, is intensified by the participle מְהַלְּכִים, in piel, marching, stately stepping, denoting a bold and proud movement, as in Ecclesiastes 11:9 הַלֵּךְ “march on in the ways of thine heart.” The piel does, indeed, seem, sometimes, to be used like the kal, but here every thing calls for its intensive or frequentative force. Comp. מְהַלֵּךְ, the bold invader, Proverbs 6:11, in parallelism with אִישׁ מָגֵן “man of the shield.” In this intensive sense of marching it would seem to picture the grand procession of the race, moving on, squadron after squadron, the countless multitude that has already passed, עִם הַיֶּלֶד השֵׁנִי, together “with the second generation,” as we do not hesitate to render it, that shall stand in its place,—the עִם here simply denoting the connection between the different parts of the picture or survey. The old procession that he thus saw walking beneath the sun (a term every where else used for the theatre of the human race), or the old part of it, is disappearing, whilst a younger world is now coming upon the stage and continuing the same ceaseless movement. As this rises before the mental vision of the seer [הָרֹאֶה], he cries out, אֵין קֵץ לְכָל הָעָם “ there is no end to all the people,”—there is no numbering the ranks of this vast host, as they ever come and go. As applied to Jeroboam, such language as this would not be a mere hyperbole, but a transcendental bombast, unworthy of the author and his most serious book. It calls to mind that sublime picture which Addison presents in his Vision of Mirza, the countless multitudes on the broken bridge of life, as they are ever coming out of the dark cloud on the one side, and passing away with the great flood of eternity on the other. It is this evident pictorial element in the verse, when rightly rendered, that strongly opposes the idea of any such comparatively petty historical references, and forces us to regard it as a representation of the great human movement through time into eternity. “No end to all that were before; yea, these that come after shall not rejoice in it [בּוֹ] that is, the עָם the people, the all, that were before it, now regarded collectively as the past in whom there is no more delight,—each generation satisfied with itself, and boasting of itself, as ours does, deeming itself, as it were, the all on earth; for what are all the ages past to this nineteenth century ! Now the pronoun in תָּהְתָּיו though singular in form, may have a collective antecedent, a case too common in the Hebrew language to require citations. The only antecedent of this kind, or of any kind, in the verse, is the אֶת־כָּל־הַחַיִּים the all of the living, and which the makkephs, and the accents, show to be taken as one: “all the living, etc., with the second generation that shall arise in its stead.” The evident parallelism favors this choice of the singular pronoun; but if we are to overlook all this for the purpose of maintaining a historical reference, then we must go back two verses, and find the antecedent in “ the old and foolish king,” in whose place this second child, with “all the living beneath the sun, and the people without end,” marching with him, is to stand! The common sense of the reader must judge in this matter. If, then, the pronoun in תַּחְתָּיו has for its antecedent the אֶת־כָּל־הַחַיִּים, grammatical consistency would demand, as the antecedent of the pronoun in בּוֹ (in it, instead of in him), the כֹּל אֲשֶׁר just before, especially as joined with the singular substantive verb הָיָה. Besides the desire to find historic allusions, two verbal peculiarities here seem to have had much influence upon translators. One is the use of this singular pronoun which has just been explained, and which the parallelism of the picture so strongly demands. The other is the somewhat peculiar use of the word יֶלֶד in Ecclesiastes 4:15, and its contiguity to יֶלֶד in Ecclesiastes 4:13, leading to the false inference that they must be used in precisely the same manner. Now though the use of יֶלֶד for generation is not found elsewhere in the Bible Hebrew, yet it is perfectly natural and in harmony with the frequent generic use of בּן. It is, too, highly poetical, thus to regard one generation as the offspring, the child, of the preceding. It is only using יֶלֶד for the cognate תּוֹלְדָה from the same root, and the unusual expression may have been suggested by the יֶלֶד in Ecclesiastes 4:13, giving such a turn to the thought and the language. The order of ideas would be this: as the “young man” succeeds the old, so does the young race succeed its progenitor. So the primary sense of γένος in Greek is child, offspring, and from this comes its use for race, generation. Whilst, then, it may be said that the word, etymologically, fits the thought, nothing could be more graphic than, the mode of representation.

Agreeing with this is an interpretation given by that acute Jewish critic, Aben-Ezra, except that it takes the pronoun in בּוֹ as referring to the עוֹלָם or world, so frequently mentioned. After stating the other view, he proceeds to say: “There are those who interpret הַיֶּלֶד הַשֵּׁנִי the second child, as denoting the generation that comes after another (הדור הבא אחריו) and the meaning as being, that he saw the living as they walked beneath the sun, and they, with their heirs that shall stand in their place, are like those who went before them, and these, as well as those, shall have no joy (בּוֹ) in it, that is, בעולם in the world.” It is the same procession so curtly, yet so graphically, described eh. Ecclesiastes 1:4 : “generation comes, and generation goes,” לעולם Rashi regards ילד as meaning generation, but strangely refers it to the generation of Noah, and the אחרנים or “they who come after,” to that of Peleg.

The Hebrew preposition עם like the Latin cum and the English with when used for and, may denote a connection in thought, or in succession, as prmterea, besides, as well as, like the Arabic مَعًا “I saw all the living walking, etc., and together with, or along with them, or besides this, I saw the second generation." This is a well established use of the preposition. Comp. 1Sa 17:4; 1 Samuel 16:12 : אדמוני עם יפה מראה “ruddy as well as fair,” and in this book, Ecclesiastes 2:16, חכם עם הכםיל “the wise man as well as the fool,” 1 Chronicles 25:8, מבין עם תלמיד “teacher (with) as well as the disciple,” Psalms 106:6, “we with our fathers,” we and our fathers, or we as well as our fathers; also Nehemiah 3:12; Psalms 115:13; Daniel 11:8; Psalms 104:25, “the great as well as the small,” and other places. The great difficulty in the way of the common view is the word הַשֵּׁנִי “The second child,” “the child the second,” must denote one of two or more. A concordance shows that there is no exception to this. To take it in the sense of successor to something of a different kind (a second one) is without an example to support it. No mention is made of any other “child,” or “young man.” The difficulty has led some to give השּׁני the sense חבר, companion, for which they seek a warrant in the 10th verse; and then they refer it to a son of Hiram, who was Solomon’s friend or companion: “I saw the child (the son) of my friend.” See Notes to Noldius Heb. Part. No.1023. This is very absurd; and yet the one who defends it denounces the absurdity of the more common reference to Jeroboam. Whoever wishes to see “confusion on confusion heaped,” in the treatment of these passages, and in the attempt to restrict the extent of this language, may consult De Dieu, Crit. Sac., p. 183. Take these verses, however, as general reflections on the vicissitudes of the individual and of the race, and all this confusion immediately gives place to harmony.—T. L.]


(With Homiletical Hints.)

Among the examples in proof of the imperfection and inconstancy of earthly happiness, which the Preacher communicates in the above section from the rich treasures of his own experience, we find the relation of an ascending grade from lower to higher and more brilliant conditions of happiness. From the sad lot of victims innocently suffering from tyrannical persecution and oppression (1–3), the description proceeds directly to the more lucky but not more innocent condition of persons consumed with envy, dissatisfaction and jealousy, and who with toilsome efforts chase after the treasures of this earth, looking with jealous envy on the successful rivals of their struggles, and with scorn on those less fortunate, who are contented with a more modest lot (4–6). Then follow reflections regarding the happiness of such persons as have risen through the abundance of their goods to a distinguished and influential position in human society, but who, in consequence of this very wealth, run the risk of falling into a helpless, joyless, and isolated condition, destitute of friends and adherents (Ecclesiastes 7:12). The illustration hereby induced of the value of closer social connection of men, and harmonious co-operation of their powers to one end (9–12) leads to the closing reflection; this is devoted to the distress and disaster of the highest circles of human society, acknowledging the fate even of the most favored pets of fortune, such as the occupants of princely or kingly thrones, to be uncertain and liable to a reverse, and thus showing that the sentence against the vanity of all earthly things necessarily extends even to the greatest and most powerful of earth (13–16).

There is no complete and lasting happiness here below, neither among the lofty nor the lowly,” or: “Every thing is vanity on earth, the life of the poor as of the rich, of the slave as of the lord, of the subject as of the king;”—this would be about the formula of a theme for a comprehensive consideration of this section. The effort of Hengstenberg to restrict the historical references of this section to the sufferings of the children of Israel mourning under the yoke of Persian dominion, is quite as unnecessary as the corresponding position in the preceding chapter; yet still the most of the concrete examples for the truth of the descriptions given, may be drawn from the history of post-exile Israel, which are therefore thus to be chosen and arranged in the homiletical treatment.


Ecclesiastes 4:1-3. Brenz:—The word of God teaches us that crosses and sufferings pave the way to eternal bliss, and that the Lord grants to the wicked in this world a free hand for the exercise of their crimes and violence, with the view of sinking them ever deeper in their lusts; but it teaches also that the faith of the pious is to be maintained through suffering, and to be finally brought to light in the judgment of the last day, in the great decision of all things.

Starke:—Thou miserable one, who sighest and weepest at violence and wrong, know that the Lord sees and counts thy tears (Psalms 56:9). Beware of impatience, distrust, and self-revenge against thy persecutors (Romans 12:19)!

Hengstenberg:—Such an experience of human misery (as is here depicted, and also in Jer. chap. 20.) is not only natural, but it lies in the purpose of God, who brings about the circumstances that call it forth. God wishes to draw us to Him, by making this world thoroughly distasteful, and nothing but vanity to us. We must be liberated from earthly things through many trials, and thus enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Ecclesiastes 4:4-6. Brenz:—The world greatly errs in always demanding for its satisfaction a superfluity of goods and treasures, and in regarding modest possession as deprivation and misery. And yet one can live contented and satisfied just as well with a little as with rich superfluity, if one only aims, in a proper manner, after contentment, or in such a way that one lets God the Lord be his treasure and highest good.

Geier:—One should not consider a rich man happier than a poor man, because of his many possessions. He who has much, has also much unrest and care, and is moreover greatly envied by others.

Wohlfarth:—With true wisdom, Solomon warns us just as much against a passionate and excessive effort after a lofty aim, as against that indolence which folds its hands in its lap and waits for miracles. He admonishes us rather to a sober and well-ordered labor in our vocation, and thus, in every respect, recommends the just medium in our activity.

Ecclesiastes 4:7-12. Melanchthon:—Solomon here shows how necessary for human life is the social combination of men for the advancement of the arts, industries, and duties of life. All classes need such mutual aid and assistance, and each individual must prosecute his labor for the welfare of the whole, must advance their interest, and make every effort to prevent division and separation.

Cramer (Ecclesiastes 4:7-8):—The slaves of mammon are blinded, and are their own tyrants. They do not leave themselves space enough to enjoy their blessings; therefore the rust of their gold and silver is a testimony against them. (James 5:3).

Zeyss (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12):—If a community of the body is so useful a thing, how much more useful must be a community of spirit, when pious Christians with united strength of spirit withstand the realms of Satan.

Wohlfarth:—It is not merely a sacred desire that draws men to men, brings together souls of like inclination, and binds kindred hearts. We can neither rejoice in our happiness, nor finally bear the trials that meet us, nor joyfully advance in the way of piety and virtue, if we have not true friends. Oh how sacred, therefore, is the union of wedlock, of parents and children, of relatives and friends!

Von Gerlach:—Joy shared is two-fold joy; grief shared loses half its pain.

Ecclesiastes 4:13-16. Brenz:—Faith has here a good probationary school, in which it can learn and try its powers. For when God elevates the lowly, faith can cherish hope, but when He bends and overthrows the proud necks of the rich, it learns to fear. God presents such examples to the eyes of His chosen, that they may increase and be exercised both in the fear of His holy wrath, and in hope of heavenly glory.

Weimar Bible:—We should never depend on large possessions and great power, and much less seek true happiness therein, Psalms 75:5-6.

Starke:—It is a clear indication of Divine Providence, that in no place, and at no epoch, is there a failure of children and posterity to fill the places of the aged as they disappear.


[1] [There is a still more striking contrast, a double antithesis, it may be said, between the classical and the Scriptural poets. In their descriptions of nature and of human life we often find the former class of writers beginning in the joyful or major mood, and ending in the minor. It may be called the melancholy of Epicureanism. Thus it is with Anacreon, though he lived before the time of the sensual philosopher. How often does he begin with “flowers, and love, and rosy wine ”—

Επὶ μυρσίναις τερείναις
Επὶ λωτίναις τε ποίαις κ. τ. λ.

On beds of softest fragrance laid,
Soft beds of lote and myrtle shade.
And so goes on the joyful strain—but not far before the modulation changes into the mournful key—into a wail of despair, as it would almost seem:

βιότος τρέχει κυλισθεὶς,

ὀλίγη δὲ κεισόμεσθα

So swiftly runs the wheel of life,
And we shall lie—a little dust

A heap of mouldering bones.
See also how similar jovial strains are closed by his sad picture of old age, and the still darker one of the dreadful Hades:

Ἀἴδέω γὰρ ἐστὶ δεινὸς

For dreadful is that gloomy vale;
And then the dark descent so deep,
That none can reascend the steep.
This peculiarity is no less striking in Horace. Thus, in the 4th ode of the 1st Book, there is a most charming picture of spring, continuing for some distance, till it closes with the exulting strain—

Nunc decet aut viridi nitidum caput impedire myrto;
Aut flore terræ quam ferunt solutæ.

And then, without any warning prelude, there comes the mournful minor:

Pallida mors æquo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas,

Regumque turres.

Pale Death, with equal step, at kingly tower,
And at the poor man’s cottage, knocks.
Again, Ode 7th, Lib. iv., commencing with—

Diffugere nives, redeunt jam gramina campis.

The snows are fled, the flowers again return.
Then the picture of the dancing Graces, when immediately a different voice seems to meet our ears:

Immortalia ne speres,———
Damna tamen celeres reparant cœlestia lunæ—
Nos ubi decidimus

Pulvis et umbra sumus:

Hope not for immortality———
The waning moons again their waste repair;
But we, when once to death gone down,
Are nought but dust and shadow.

In contrast with this, how joyfully rings out the prophetic strain, Isaiah 26:19 :

Awake and sing, ye dwellers in the dust.
How different, too, in these respects, from Horace and Anacreon, are the lyrics of the Psalmist. The most mournful descriptions of the frailty and transitory state of man on earth are so frequently succeeded by assurances of some future blessedness, which, although not clearly defined, and containing little or no direct allusions to an after life, do ever seem to imply it as the ground of confidence in the Divine goodness. “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” Thus in the 103 Psalm, Ecclesiastes 4:15, etc.:

Frail man—like grass his days;
As the flower of the field, so he flourishes.
For the wind passes over, and it is gone;
Its place knoweth it no more.
Immediately hope rises:
But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting—
Even unto everlasting, upon those who fear him;
His righteousness to children’s children.

Again,—encouragement in the contemplation of human weakness is derived from the thought of the Divine permanence and eternity, Psalms 102:1 :

My days are like a shadow that declineth;
I am withered like grass;
But thou, Jehovah, dost endure forever.
Thy remembrance unto all generations.

Again, Psalms 115:17 :

The dead praise not the Lord———
and immediately the language of hope, implying something more than that mere selfish thought of survivorship, which the rationalist would give it:
But we will bless the Lord,

From henceforth and forever—hallelujah.

A similar transition, Psalms 73:26 :

My flesh and heart do fail:

Body and soul both suffer from their connection with a fallen spiritual state, and a degenerate nature.
But God is the rock of my soul;
He is my portion for ever.
Similar illustrations of these affecting contrasts might be derived from Job, as in chapters 14 and 19, especially the latter, where the triumphant strain, “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” follows so soon after what might Seem almost a piteous cry of despair. In Koheleth there are no such vivid bursts of joy and hope, but there is to be found in him a species of transition similar, and equally striking. It is when be rises from the seemingly doubting mood, to a firm faith in the ultimate Divine justice, and to a most confident expression of his belief that somehow, and somewhere, and at some time , every wrong shall be righted. conceding to him this, we are led, irresistibly, to infer something else which is necessary to give meaning to the announcement,—namely, that there shall be a real forensic manifestation with a conscious knowledge of it on the part of every intelligent subject, or object, of such righteousness.—T. L.]

[2] [This is not so clear, although Zöckler has with him most of the commentators. There is good reason for regarding it as the language of the idle envier, who would justify his sloth by making a pretended virtue of it. “why all this labor? Better take the world easy.” It has something of the look of the “sour grapes” fable; or it may be compared to the bacchanalian song of the shiftless idler, assuming to despise what he has not the talent nor the diligence to acquire:

“Why are we fond of toil and care?”
The view taken by Zöckler and others seems very confused it is not easy to discover any true connection in it. The perplexity, we think, comes from assuming that ver.5 is a quoted proverb, and not the very languages of the author, setting the idle envious fool and his words (in ver.6) in contrast with the diligent and prosperous laborer whom the fool envies but cannot imitate. This is the view presented in the Metrical Translation:

The fool [in envy] folds his hands, and his own flesh devours. For better [saith he] is the one hand filled with quietness, Than both hands full of toil, and windy vain desire.
It seems to make a clearer connection.—T. L.]

[3][One of the best illustrations of the is to be found in captain Kane’s Journal of his Arctic Voyage, Vol. II., p. 144. He describes his camping out on the snow, in company with the Esquimaux chief, Kalatunah, and the agreeable warmth arising from the close contact of their bodies, at a time when the thermometer showed a most intense degree of cold. The comfort of the position overbalanced all the repulsiveness that, under other circumstances, he should have felt towards his squalid companion.—T. L.]

Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/ecclesiastes-4.html. 1857-84.
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