The Dreadfulness of Oppression (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3).
Having been faced up to the injustice in the world, and especially the injustice in its courts of justice, the Preacher now turns to consider oppression in general and is dismayed at the unfairness of it all.
‘Then I returned and saw 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.’
The next thing that he considers, which increases his pessimism, is the oppression of men by those in authority or who have power (compare Ecclesiastes 3:16-17; Job 35:9; Amos 3:9). He sees a world full of such oppression, and the tears of the oppressed, and the fact that they are without someone to assist them. This latter fact so moves him that he repeats it twice, firstly as a sad fact, and then in contrast with the oppressors. The oppressors have authority and power, the oppressed have no comforter.
But in contrast to Ecclesiastes 3:16-17, where such behaviour led to judgment for the oppressors and justice for the oppressed, here he is concerned only with the earthly situation of the oppressed. Indeed it is clear that he does not feel that the oppressed are going to obtain justice in this life. The dead are better off than they. So this directly contrasts with Ecclesiastes 3:17 if we see that as referring to this life. This might serve to confirm that Ecclesiastes 12:14 sees judgment as taking place after death. Otherwise this does not make sense.
‘Wherefore I congratulated the dead, who are already dead, more than the living. Yes better than both, is him who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.’
What he saw so upset him that he congratulated those who had already died and so escaped the oppression. It was better for such to be dead rather than alive. But then he takes it a step further. It was even better for the one who has not been born and therefore has not had to experience the oppression at all, and has not had to observe it. Perhaps he was also thinking temporarily that it would in fact have been better for him not to have been born at all, a further reason for recognising the meaninglessness of life.
Chapter 4 The Dreadfulness of Oppression. Guidance on Living.
This chapter begins with considering the dreadfulness of oppression and then continues with thoughts on living, giving both good and bad examples. At this point the fact that he is ‘a wise man’ comes out. It finishes with a parable or illustration about wisdom and folly.
Sundry Observations On Life (Ecclesiastes 4:4-12).
Having all to briefly considered the oppression that was in the world, which has left him feeling that it was better if they had never been born, he now turns his thoughts back to the thought of man’s constant toil. This too was meaningless.
The first three verses in this section contrast three differing lifestyles. The first results either in envy or overwork, the second in total laziness, and the third in contentment. This is followed by considering the folly of one who overworks himself without even having anyone to leave it to, and in contrast the advantages in having someone to work alongside as friend and helpmeet. So his pessimism lead him to at least try to solve some of the problems of this life. He is not just a theoretical philosopher.
‘Then I saw all exertions and every pleasing work, that for this a man is envied by his neighbour. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.’
Something that saddened The Preacher was the jealousy he found among those who achieved nothing, jealousy against the achievers. Someone who by great effort and skill produces something pleasing and admired is likely to discover that his neighbours, instead of appreciating it, will simply be filled with envy and react accordingly. A man is without honour among his neighbours. Thus there would seem little point in the effort. This too emphasised the meaninglessness of things, for the man’s efforts were a searching after something unattainable, an achievement which would be appreciated, but this was appreciation which would not be forthcoming.
Alternately some see this as indicating response to competition, and translate, ‘I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbour.’ The result being that the man possibly works himself too hard and at least partially wrecks his life. This even more brings out the meaninglessness of it all, being spurred on by competition to the vain effort to achieve the impossible.
‘The fool folds his hands together and eats his own flesh.’
In contrast with the man who exerts himself and produces skilful work is the fool who simply folds his hands and does nothing because he is lazy. Instead of achieving something to be proud of he does the opposite. He lives off his relatives (‘eats his own flesh’) and impoverishes them, or impoverishes himself until he looks like a skeleton. He becomes a down and out.
‘Eats his own flesh’ could signify living off relatives, or the bringing about of his own undoing. It may signify that he so impoverishes himself that he leaves himself with nothing to eat but his own flesh, or has so little to eat that he becomes a skeleton. In extremity it signifies death (Ezekiel 39:18; Micah 3:3; Isaiah 49:26).
‘Better is a handful with quietness, than two handfuls with hard exertion and striving after wind.’
This is the middle way, (which is quietly slipped in), that of being satisfied with a handful and achieving quiet content, rather than striving over-hard, and striving after the impossible, in order to have a large amount, or doing nothing and having nothing. This is the wise man coming out, and has in mind the godly man of Ecclesiastes 2:24-26.
It must be recognised that the writer is dealing with extremes, not discouraging hard work. The standards of level of work in those days was far higher than today. What we see as especially hard work they would have seen as normal exertion.
‘Then I returned and saw folly (what is vain) under the sun. There is one who is alone and does not have a relative (literally ‘a second’). Yes, he has neither son nor brother. Yet there is no end of all his labour, nor are his eye satisfied with riches. “For whom then do I labour” says he, “and deprive myself of good?” This also is folly (i.e. what is vain), yes it is a sore overexertion.’
This example of further folly is of a man who has no relative to leave his possessions to, yet he kills himself with work amassing more and more possessions, with no real end in view. This is clearly folly, but although he considers it, and recognises the fact, he still carries on. He is a workaholic.
‘Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall the one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, and has no other to lift him up. Again if two lie together then they have warmth. But how can one who is alone keep warm? And if a man prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him, and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.’
Here the Preacher praises the idea of working together. Then men are more sure of their reward. If one is ill or collapses the other can assist him and help with his work, whereas the person working alone has no one to help him if he collapses. If they have to sleep outside on a cold night then the two can give each other warmth, sharing each other’s body heat, while one by himself has no one to assist him to keep warm. If they are attacked by thieves who would be too much for one, two can assist each other and drive them off. Three is even better, for quantity adds strength. The threefold interwoven cord has more strength than a single cord. So in the midst of bringing out the folly of men he continues to slip in good advice about sensible work practises.
The Young Men And The Foolish King.
We are now provided with a further example of folly, the folly of seeking a position of power and authority which will only in the end result in disappointment. (Better far to simply receive from God’s hand what He provides).
‘Better is a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king, who does not know how to receive admonition any more. For out of prison he came forth to be king. Yes, even in his kingdom he was born poor. I saw all the living who walk under the sun, that they were with the youth, the second, who stood up in his stead. There was no end of the all the people, even all those over whom he was. Yet those who come after him will not enthuse about him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.’
The description here is a little complicated. Probably only two people are in mind, the poor and wise youth and the king. ‘The second’ probably means the second in the sense that the young man followed the first king to the throne as the second king. ‘Who stood up in his stead’ probably means that the young man stood up in the stead of the old king. However, some see it as referring to a line of kings. Whichever way we see it, the significance is the same. They are all soon forgotten.
The first lesson is that although the young man was poor, and an ex-prisoner, and had been born poor, he would make a better king because he was wise and was willing to learn. Whereas the old king, unwilling to take advice or be quietly rebuked, would be a tyrant. And indeed this was recognised, for the young man had full support from the people. All the living who walked under the sun supported him. They were so many that there was no end of them. And he was over them all. He was a huge success.
But the second and main lesson is that he was soon forgotten. For all his success, once he was replaced nobody enthused about him any more. Thus his whole success was in the long run simply meaningless. His aim to be remembered as a huge success came to nothing. It was a striving after the unobtainable. It was not lasting. (This is even more evidenced by the fact that today we have no idea who he was, or whether he was just a parabolic figure).
We must remind ourselves again that The Preacher is not thinking in terms of present usefulness and benefit, but of ultimate meaning. In the long run the reign of this successful young man was irrelevant, as everything before has been irrelevant.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany