Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator

Ecclesiastes 4

Verse 1

Ecclesiastes 4:1

So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun.

The nature and wickedness of oppression

There is scarce any sin against which more is said in the Word of God, or which is more reproachful to a man and to a Christian, or more mischievous to society, than oppression. Yet I fear it is a sin which more persons are guilty of, and more suffer by, than is generally known.

I. Consider what oppression is, and the most striking instances in which men are guilty of it.

1. It is dealing unjustly or unkindly by a person over whose time, goods, trade, or business the oppressor hath power. It is principally the vice of rich men and superiors, who have power over their workmen, servants, tenants, and other inferiors. But it is not confined to them. The poor often meet with very bad, if not the worst, treatment from those who in station and fortune are very little above them. It is oppression, when men impose what terms they please upon others in commerce and dealings, without regarding what is just and right; when they oblige others to sell their goods under their real value, because they are in necessity; or to give more for a commodity than it is worth, because they cannot do without it. Selling bad and damaged goods to persons who dare not refuse to take them, and yet must lose by them, or not sell them again for a reasonable profit, is another instance of this vice. If a person makes a relation, a neighbour, or dependant, pay dearer for what he buys than his other customers, because he is under particular obligations to buy of him, he is an oppressor. Taking exorbitant interest for money lent, or exchange of bills and cash, on account of men’s necessities, is extortion and oppression. Where a person, or a combination of persons, engross the whole of any commodity which is to be sold, in order to make an excessive gain of it, or to injure other tradesmen in the same way of business, this is oppression. Again, to be rigorous in exacting debts or other rights to the very utmost farthing, where poverty, sickness, losses, dear seasons, or a large family render men incapable of paying what they owe; to allow them no time to satisfy their creditors; or to strip them of their all; this is cruelly oppressive. Obliging persons, over whom men have power, to vote or act against their consciences; persecuting, reviling, or even bantering, men for their religious sentiments and worship, is dreadful oppression. In the black list of oppressors must likewise be ranged parents, masters and mistresses of families and schools, who behave cruelly and severely to their children, servants, and scholars. There is likewise great oppression in a haughty, insolent, overbearing way of speaking to inferiors, which is very grating and hurtful to any sensible mind.

II. The great evil and wickedness of it.

1. It proceeds from a very bad disposition of mind. The principal source of it is covetousness; an inordinate love of the world (Jeremiah 22:17). In some persons the practice of this sin proceeds from pride; to show their authority over others, and to keep them in awe. Hence they treat their inferiors as if they were of a lower species, and not worthy of common justice. This chows a base, ignoble mind (Psalms 63:6-8). In some, it is owing to luxury and extravagance. They are dressed with the spoils of the poor; and their fine houses, equipages, and entertainments are supported by the properties and comforts of others. It is sometimes owing to sloth; because, like drones in the hive, they will not work, they prey upon the labours of the industrious. It is very often owing to resentment, malice, and ill-nature.

2. Oppression is a high ingratitude and affront to the righteous God. It is ingratitude to Him, because He giveth men all their wealth and power over others, and He doth this, not that they may oppress, but protect, relieve, and serve others, and be a blessing to them. It must, therefore, be horrid ingratitude to abuse and pervert these favours to their injury. But what renders it worse is, that He hath bestowed upon men spiritual blessings and Christian privileges, and, therefore, to oppress and injure them must be proportionably wicked. Further, He hath placed men in different circumstances in life; “made both the rich and the poor.” He hath allotted to men such conditions here that they need one another’s assistance. The rich want the labour of the poor, as the poor want the money of the rich; and God expects that they should help one another, and so contribute to the general happiness. To oppress the poor, then, is defeating the wise and kind design of God’s providence.

3. It is detestable inhumanity and cruelty to the oppressed. “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.” What then must we think of those who are oppressive and cruel to their fellow-men, but that they are utterly void of justice, goodness, and humanity, that they are monsters and not men?

4. It is directly contrary to the design of the Gospel; which is to promote righteousness, love, peace, and happiness upon earth, as well as to secure the eternal salvation of mankind.

5. It will sink men into everlasting ruin. God is a just and righteous Being, and at the judgment-day “He will render to every one according to his works.” The Lord seeth and remembereth all the oppression that is done under the sun, and He will at length reckon with those who have done it.

application.

1. I shall address oppressors; those whose consciences tell them, as in the sight of God, that they have been guilty of this sin in the instances above mentioned or any other. I exhort you, sirs, to hearken to the voice of conscience as the voice of God; to submit to its reproofs; and to be humbled deeply before God for your injustice and cruelty to men.

2. Let me address the oppressed. It may perhaps be the ease of some of you, and I would endeavour to be your comforter. Acknowledge the justice of the Lord in what you suffer from the hand of men. Though they are unrighteous, He is righteous, for you have sinned; and He may choose this method of afflicting you, to lead you to repentance, to exercise your virtues, and make your hearts better. Let me exhort you to guard against a spirit of malice and revenge. Remember that their oppressing you will be no excuse for injustice to them. That “it is no harm to bite the biter” is a very wicked maxim. It is better to suffer many wrongs than to do one. Yea, it is our duty to render good for evil.

3. I would address those who can appeal to a heart-searching God that they are guiltless of this sin. I would exhort you to guard against the love of money, which is the chief root of this evil. To prevent your becoming oppressors, go not to the utmost bounds of things lawful. Keep on the safe side. Be not only just, but honourable, generous, and charitable, and “abstain from the very appearance of evil.” Let me exhort you, likewise, to be comforters of the oppressed. (Job Orton, D. D.)

Woman’s work and overwork

It was considered honourable for women to toil in olden times. Alexander the Great stood in his palace showing garments made by his own mother. The finest tapestries at Bayeux were made by the queen of William the Conqueror. Augustus, the Emperor, would not wear any garments except those that were fashioned by some member of his royal family. So let the toilers everywhere be respected! The greatest blessing that could have happened to our first parents was being turned out of Eden after they had done wrong. Ashbel Green, at fourscore years, when asked why he kept on working, said: “I do so to keep out of mischief.” We see that a man who has a large amount of money to start with has no chance. Of the thousand prosperous and honourable men that you know, nine hundred and ninety-nine had to work vigorously at the beginning. But I am now to tell you that industry is just as important for a woman’s safety and happiness. The little girls of our families must be started with that idea. The curse of our American society is that our young women are taught that the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, tenth, fiftieth, thousandth thing in their life is to get somebody to take care of them. Instead of that, the first lesson should be how under God they may take care of themselves. Madame do Stael said: “It is not these writings that I am proud of, but the fact that I have facility in ten occupations, in any one of which I could make a livelihood.” Though you live in an elegant residence and fare sumptuously every day, let your daughters feel it is a disgrace to them not to know how to work. I denounce the idea prevalent in society that though our young women may embroider slippers and crochet and make mats for lamps to stand on without disgrace, the idea of doing anything for a livelihood is dishonourable. It is a shame for a young woman belonging to a large family to be inefficient when the father toils his life away for her support. It is a shame for a daughter to be idle while her mother toils at the wash-tub. No woman, any more than a man, has a right to occupy a place in this world unless she pays a rent for it. Society is to be reconstructed on the subject of woman’s toil. A vast majority of those who would have woman industrious shut her up to a few kinds of work. My judgment in this matter is that a woman has a right to do anything she can do well. There should be no department of merchandise, mechanism, art, or science barred against her. If Miss Hosmer has genius for sculpture, give her a chisel. If Rosa Bonheur has a fondness for delineating animals, let her make “The Horse Fair.” If Miss Mitchell will study astronomy, let her mount the starry ladder. If Lydia will be a merchant, let her sell purple. It is said, if woman is given such opportunities she will occupy places that might be taken by men. I say, if she have more skill and adaptedness for any position than a man has, let her have ill She has as much right to her bread, to her apparel, and to her home as men have. But it is said that her nature is so delicate that she is unfitted for exhausting toil. I ask in the name of all past history what toil on earth is more severe, exhausting, and tremendous than that toil of the needle to which for ages she has been subjected? Oh, the meanness, the despicability, of men who begrudge a woman the right of work anywhere in any honourable calling! I go still further and say that women should have equal compensation with men. By what principle of justice is it that women in many of our cities get only two-thirds as much pay as men and in many cases only half? Here is the gigantic injustice--that for work equally well, if not better, done, women receive far less compensation than men. Years ago one Sabbath night, in the vestibule of this church, after service, a woman fell in convulsions. The doctor said she needed medicine not so much as something to eat. As she began to revive, in her delirium she said, gaspingly: “Eight cents! Eight cents! Eight cents! I wish I could get it done, I am so tired. I wish I could get some sleep, but I must get it done. Eight cents! Eight cents! Eight cents!” We found afterwards that she was making garments for eight cents apiece, and she could make but three of them in a day. Hear it! Three times eight are twenty-four. Hear it, men and women who have comfortable homes. How are these evils to be eradicated? Some say: “Give women the ballot.” What effect such ballot might have on other questions I am not here to discuss; but what would be the effect of female suffrage on women’s wages? I do not believe that women will ever get justice by woman’s ballot. Indeed, women oppress women as much as men do. Do not women, as much as men, beat down to the lowest figure the woman who sews for them? Woman will never get justice done her from woman’s ballot. Neither will she get it from man’s ballot. How then? God will rise up for her. God has more resources than we know of. The flaming sword that hung at Eden’s gate when woman was driven out will cleave with its terrible edge her oppressors. But there is something for women to do. Let young people prepare to excel in spheres of work, and they will be able after a while to get larger wages. If it be shown that a woman can, in a store, sell more goods in a year than a man, she will soon be able not only to ask, but to demand more wages, and to demand them successfully. Unskilled and incompetent labour must take what is given; skilled and competent labour will eventually make its own standard. (T. DeWilt Talmage.)

They had no comforter.

No comforter

It is the glory of the Gospel that it is not only a religion of conversion, but a religion of consolation. It ministers peace, and makes even the human side of life capable of deep and abiding joy. The promise has been fulfilled, and the soul bears witness that He is true who says, “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.”

I. The latent pain. This pain does not leap forth at once. It is a kind of hidden fire: a sort of slumbering force. Students of life should think deeply on this, that pain lies hidden in pleasure. The strangest fact in life is that the measure of joy is often the measure of sorrow. The height of gain is the length of the shadow of loss. The keener our affection, the more bitter our anguish when bereavement comes. The more ardent our pursuit, the more depressing the disappointment in missing the goal. In Jesus Christ our Lord He has offered us a renewed nature and a restful heart. He has given us a Saviour and a Comforter. We need no more. If the latent pain leaps forth, we have an anodyne for sorrow, a perfect absolution for sin, a balm for broken hearts, a brother born for adversity, and beyond the present the glories of immortal life. At our peril we put Christ away. Out in the wide fields of human search we come upon no footprints of another Saviour.

II. The charlatan comforters. Yes! there are comforters. We find that men will put the poppy in the pillow when there is no peace in the heart. They seek comfort. Sometimes in quiet retreats, where the scenes of the city life do not haunt them, Nature’s floral groves and woodland shadows constitute a veil to hide the weird forms of guilt and shame and sorrow to be met with in crowded centres of life. But past life will there come back to memory, and unforgiven sin will there send its sharp dagger to the heart. Or it may be that freedom from necessity brings comfort, and that superfluity has made the old days of care and struggle only a memory! Now at all events there are no sleepless nights, no battles amid daily anxiety for daily bread, and we sit under the restful shadow of trees planted long ago! Then, too, much looks like comfort, which comes from ease of circumstance, when the couch is of down, and no spectre of anxiety crosses the earthly threshold. But even then there are deep necessities of the soul, if we are dead to things divine.

III. The fulness of Christ. I do not mean merely Divine perfectness in the quantity of sympathy, but, if I may say so, in the quality of it. Nothing is more wonderful than the way in which the weary soul finds sympathy in the Saviour. There is a revelation of grace in Christ which makes Him the complement of each man’s nature. Sorrows differ; doubts differ; needs differ; tastes differ; and even the wounds inflicted by bereavement differ. But Christ searches us, and knows us all. And what sweet response comes from hearts that have trusted in Him, as they unite in testifying, “His grace is sufficient for us!” How patiently Christians suffer! How trustfully they rest! How cheerfully they live! How hopefully they die!

IV. The missing good. No comforter! Then who will show us any good? For we cannot unmake ourselves. There is the connection of comfort with conscience. Divine redemption still, as of old, is a necessity of the human heart. Then there is the connection of comfort with character. We are made new creatures in Christ Jesus. We have new motives, new aims, new desires, new sympathies, new relationship to God. Our life is hid with Christ in God--the blessed God: and then peace flows like a river through the heart. This is life eternal. Then there is the connection of comfort with influence. That man has no comforter who realizes that the influence of his life is an infection of evil, an impulse to the lower life. Even if he possess genius, it may be but an added force for harm. But the Christian has this comfort, though no minstrel sings the story of his chivalry, though no sculptured marble tells the tale of his renown--yet he liveth to the Lord, he dieth to the Lord. The world of holy influence will be the richer for his being! (W. M. Statham.)

Verse 2

Ecclesiastes 4:2

Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.

The applause of the dead regulated, vindicated and improved

Scripture itself sets us an example of applauding the virtues of the departed; but I think that in our funeral sermons, in our obituaries and on our sepulchres, there is much which needs to be regulated.

I. It must be qualified.

1. We are not to praise the dead with indiscriminate eulogy; for there is such a thing as confounding moral distinctions, as smiling alike on vice and virtue.

2. We are not to praise the dead with exaggerated panegyric. For it should never be forgotten, that however the grace of God has formed the subject of it to excellence, he was still the possessor of remaining moral infirmities.

3. We are not to praise the dead in a spirit of discontent with life.

4. We are not to praise the dead in the exercise of gratified envy.

5. We ought not to praise the dead in the spirit of relative pride.

6. In one word--we should not praise the dead without a humble and grateful recollection that all their gifts and virtues proceeded from God. Let the survivor not glory in the erudition, in the riches, in the wealth or virtue of the deceased, but let him glory only in the Lord.

II. This eulogy is to be justified. It may be so by a variety of reasons.

1. There is that of Scripture precedent. It speaks, in high terms, of the distinguished faith of Abraham, the patience of Job, the meekness of Moses, the devotion of the man after God’s own heart, the wisdom of a Solomon, the magnanimity of a Daniel, the fortitude of a Stephen, the humanity of a Dorcas.

2. This procedure may also be sanctioned on the ground of utility. How often does the perusal of the memoirs of eminent persons excite desires in the hearts of survivors to imbibe their sentiments, to catch their spirit, and to imitate their example.

3. The principal grounds on which we are justified in praising the pious dead are connected with themselves, as--

For much of this as may have been apparent while they were yet alive, much more is very often discerned after their decease. Then are discerned in their diaries and records what were the sacred principles on which they acted, and how they were constrained by the love of Christ to live not unto themselves, but to Him who died for them and rose again. Not till the crisis of death, too, has much of the usefulness of the Christian minister been made apparent.

III. The sentiment in the text is to be improved. If the question be asked--in what way shall I praise departed ministers? I answer--

1. By repenting of the treatment you often showed them while they were alive.

2. By recalling to serious reflection the important subjects of their ministry.

3. By an imitation of the excellencies with which they were clothed.

4. By meditating on your joint responsibility with them at the bar of God.

5. By a devout application to the great Head of the Church to raise up men of similar and surpassing qualifications to carry on the interests of religion in the Church and in the world. (J. Clayton.)

Praising the dead more than the living

I. It is common. We see it in the political, ecclesiastical, and domestic sphere. So it has become a proverb, that the best men must die ever to have their virtues recognized. Why is this?

1. The dead are no longer competitors.

2. Social love buries their defects. In all, the great Father of Love has put a deep fountain of sympathy. Death unseals it, melts it, and causes it to flow forth in such copious streams as drown all the imperfections of the departed.

II. It is immoral.

1. It is not right. Virtue should be recognized and honoured wherever seen; and more so in the duties and struggles of life than in the reminiscenees of departed worth.

2. It is not generous. That husband is mean and despicable who ignores the virtues of a noble wife while living.

3. It is unreal. To praise virtues in a man when dead, which were ever unnoticed when living, is hypocritical. (Homilist.)

Verses 4-8

Ecclesiastes 4:4-8

Again, I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbour.

An old portrait of modern men

Here is a portrait, drawn by a man who lived thousands of years ago, of three distinct types of character that you find everywhere about you.

I. Here is a man working for the good of society (Ecclesiastes 4:4). Thank God! there have ever been such men--generous, disinterested, broad-hearted, God-inspired men--men who are doing the “right work.” They are the “salt” of the State; remove them, and all is putrescence. How are these men treated by society? Here is the answer. “For this a man is envied of his neighbour.” It has ever been so. Cain envied Abel, Korah envied Moses, Saul envied David, the Sanhedrim envied Christ, the Judaic teachers envied Paul. To see society envying such men is a sore “vexation” to all true hearts. What do the existence and treatment of these men show?

1. The great kindness of Heaven in sending such men into every age. What would become of an age without such men in it? The ignorant would have no schools, the afflicted no hospitals, the indigent no poor-laws and charities, the people no righteous laws and no temples for worship.

2. The rightful acknowledgments of most useful services are not to be expected on earth. How did the world treat Moses, Jeremiah, the apostles, and the Holy Christ? Yonder, not here, is the reward for truly right labour.

3. The moral state of society is both unwise and unrighteous. How unwise to treat men who do the “right work” amongst them with envy I For its own good it should cheer them on in their philanthropic efforts. How unrighteous too! These men have a claim to its gratitude, sympathy, and co-operation.

II. Here is a man utterly worthless in society (verses 5, 6).

1. He exhausts his own property. The indolent man evermore “eats his own flesh”: that is, exhausts his own personal strength, mental, moral, physical, for the want of proper exertion.

2. He wrongly estimates his own happiness. “Better is an handful with quietness than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.” In one sense this is true (Proverbs 15:16). But this is not the sense in which the lazy man regards it. By quietness he meant quiescence, non-exertion, lounging, folding the hands, and sleeping life away. Now, this character abounds in our age and land. These characters are not only a curse to themselves, dying with ennui, but a curse to society; they are clogs upon the wheel of industry; they are social thieves; they eat what others have produced.

III. Here is a man avariciously making use of society (verse 8).

1. The man he sketches worked entirely for himself. Selfgratification, self-aggrandizement, self the centre and circumference of all his activities.

2. The man he sketches worked unremittingly for himself. “Yet is there no end of all his labour.” Always at it--morning, noon, and night; it was the one thing he did.

3. The man he sketches worked insatiably for himself. “Neither is his eye satisfied with riches.” The passion of avarice has been called the great sepulchre of all the passions. Unlike other tombs, however, it is enlarged by repletion and strengthened by age. An avaricious man is like Tantalus, up to the chin in water, yet always thirsty. Avarice seems to me to be the ruling passion of the age. (Homilist.)

Envy

Here Solomon discloses to us one of the most remarkable among the many sources of human misery; remarkable, because it springs not out of failure, but out of success; and so it is one which lies deeper than any of the ills wrought by the uncertainty of life, or by the caprice of fortune. It is a true and striking instance of the vanity of human affairs, when a man spends a lifetime in the pursuit of wealth, and meets only with poverty and ruin; or dies as soon as he has obtained it, and “leaves his riches to other.” The same reflection is forced upon us when the student, who has denied himself everything for years in the pursuit of science, is struck down by death just as he is about to reap the reward of his labours, and all his knowledge rendered useless. But there is one deep aggravation of human misery which does not lie thus upon the surface. With all these failures, a few do succeed, and for these there is a special burden which they must inevitably bear; there is one adversity born of their prosperity; one calamity to which their very happiness subjects them: and that is--Envy. Not only the envy of the world, but the envy of their neighbours, and the alienation of their friends, is often the portion of the successful; and isolation of soul is the doom of the great. This Solomon declares to be the lot of all travail, and justly adds: “This is also vanity and vexation of spirit.” But not only does this venomous principle, one of the blackest traits in our fallen nature, come in to poison the enjoyment of every fortune made, and every position gained among men: there is a more truly Satanic development of the passion than even this: viz. envy at the success of goodness; a malicious displeasure when one who has shown long, unwearied industry in an honourable calling, and lived a life of devotion to the glory of God, and the good of man, obtains the just fruit of his labours; the promise of godliness in the life that now is. “Again, I considered all travail, and every ‘right work,’ that for this a man is envied of his neighbour.” And yet this is what we see in every department of life. We see it, for example, in the venomed spite with which low natures regard a good man, just because he is better than themselves; disliking him because, whenever they are in his presence, they feel their own vileness and worthlessness as they never feel it at any other time. The life of the true Christian is one unflagging reproach to the world. His ingenuous truthfulness and sincerity witnesses against the world’s falsehood and hollowness; the Christian’s noble self-devotedness against its self-love; his steadfast adherence to the cause of righteousness, against the cowardly looseness of the world’s principles; the Christian’s high hopes and lofty aspirations against the worldling’s low desires and grovelling aims. “For every right work,” he is “envied of his neighbour.” No age, nor position, nor character, is exempt from the poisoned shafts of envy. Is there a godly school-boy? Such a one will generally be a mark for the ridicule, and the petty persecution, of the lower-minded of his playmates. They will watch him, as Satan observed Job, for some little fault which they may exaggerate and rejoice over. They will place temptations in his path, and strive, in every way, to bring him down to the same level with themselves. And that is but the prophecy of what awaits him in after life. The godly servant or workman, who regards the interest of his employer as his own, and serves “not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but with singleness of heart, fearing God,” will always be exposed to the envy, the detraction, and the slander of his idle and unprincipled fellows, whose sole aim is, by mutual agreement, to do the smallest possible amount of work for the largest possible amount of pay. And the same evil principle besets the Christian everywhere, extending upwards through all the strata of society. (H. E. Nolloth, B. D.)

How the success of others should affect us

Instead of the success of others being a matter of envy, it should be used as an example of promise to us, inducing us to go and do likewise. The life of the great man teaches us that we also, being brother to him, may become, in a measure, great. There is wealth, too, to be had, without robbing any man of what he has. It is always to be found in economy and work. For long enough this doctrine was hid, even from the wise and prudent. Even yet we try to find it anywhere but in honest labour--in gold mines, or in speculation, or in gambling--and we may chance to find it laid up in some of these; but it has all come from industry originally, and, in most places, it can be got there in a fair measure still. At any rate, it cannot be got in idleness. We may cherish envy of him who has succeeded, and fold our hands till it eats into the very marrow of our bones, but we shall be no nearer the attainment of fortune than when we commenced the operation. (J. Bonnet.)

Verses 4-8

Ecclesiastes 4:4-8

Again, I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbour.

An old portrait of modern men

Here is a portrait, drawn by a man who lived thousands of years ago, of three distinct types of character that you find everywhere about you.

I. Here is a man working for the good of society (Ecclesiastes 4:4). Thank God! there have ever been such men--generous, disinterested, broad-hearted, God-inspired men--men who are doing the “right work.” They are the “salt” of the State; remove them, and all is putrescence. How are these men treated by society? Here is the answer. “For this a man is envied of his neighbour.” It has ever been so. Cain envied Abel, Korah envied Moses, Saul envied David, the Sanhedrim envied Christ, the Judaic teachers envied Paul. To see society envying such men is a sore “vexation” to all true hearts. What do the existence and treatment of these men show?

1. The great kindness of Heaven in sending such men into every age. What would become of an age without such men in it? The ignorant would have no schools, the afflicted no hospitals, the indigent no poor-laws and charities, the people no righteous laws and no temples for worship.

2. The rightful acknowledgments of most useful services are not to be expected on earth. How did the world treat Moses, Jeremiah, the apostles, and the Holy Christ? Yonder, not here, is the reward for truly right labour.

3. The moral state of society is both unwise and unrighteous. How unwise to treat men who do the “right work” amongst them with envy I For its own good it should cheer them on in their philanthropic efforts. How unrighteous too! These men have a claim to its gratitude, sympathy, and co-operation.

II. Here is a man utterly worthless in society (verses 5, 6).

1. He exhausts his own property. The indolent man evermore “eats his own flesh”: that is, exhausts his own personal strength, mental, moral, physical, for the want of proper exertion.

2. He wrongly estimates his own happiness. “Better is an handful with quietness than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.” In one sense this is true (Proverbs 15:16). But this is not the sense in which the lazy man regards it. By quietness he meant quiescence, non-exertion, lounging, folding the hands, and sleeping life away. Now, this character abounds in our age and land. These characters are not only a curse to themselves, dying with ennui, but a curse to society; they are clogs upon the wheel of industry; they are social thieves; they eat what others have produced.

III. Here is a man avariciously making use of society (verse 8).

1. The man he sketches worked entirely for himself. Selfgratification, self-aggrandizement, self the centre and circumference of all his activities.

2. The man he sketches worked unremittingly for himself. “Yet is there no end of all his labour.” Always at it--morning, noon, and night; it was the one thing he did.

3. The man he sketches worked insatiably for himself. “Neither is his eye satisfied with riches.” The passion of avarice has been called the great sepulchre of all the passions. Unlike other tombs, however, it is enlarged by repletion and strengthened by age. An avaricious man is like Tantalus, up to the chin in water, yet always thirsty. Avarice seems to me to be the ruling passion of the age. (Homilist.)

Envy

Here Solomon discloses to us one of the most remarkable among the many sources of human misery; remarkable, because it springs not out of failure, but out of success; and so it is one which lies deeper than any of the ills wrought by the uncertainty of life, or by the caprice of fortune. It is a true and striking instance of the vanity of human affairs, when a man spends a lifetime in the pursuit of wealth, and meets only with poverty and ruin; or dies as soon as he has obtained it, and “leaves his riches to other.” The same reflection is forced upon us when the student, who has denied himself everything for years in the pursuit of science, is struck down by death just as he is about to reap the reward of his labours, and all his knowledge rendered useless. But there is one deep aggravation of human misery which does not lie thus upon the surface. With all these failures, a few do succeed, and for these there is a special burden which they must inevitably bear; there is one adversity born of their prosperity; one calamity to which their very happiness subjects them: and that is--Envy. Not only the envy of the world, but the envy of their neighbours, and the alienation of their friends, is often the portion of the successful; and isolation of soul is the doom of the great. This Solomon declares to be the lot of all travail, and justly adds: “This is also vanity and vexation of spirit.” But not only does this venomous principle, one of the blackest traits in our fallen nature, come in to poison the enjoyment of every fortune made, and every position gained among men: there is a more truly Satanic development of the passion than even this: viz. envy at the success of goodness; a malicious displeasure when one who has shown long, unwearied industry in an honourable calling, and lived a life of devotion to the glory of God, and the good of man, obtains the just fruit of his labours; the promise of godliness in the life that now is. “Again, I considered all travail, and every ‘right work,’ that for this a man is envied of his neighbour.” And yet this is what we see in every department of life. We see it, for example, in the venomed spite with which low natures regard a good man, just because he is better than themselves; disliking him because, whenever they are in his presence, they feel their own vileness and worthlessness as they never feel it at any other time. The life of the true Christian is one unflagging reproach to the world. His ingenuous truthfulness and sincerity witnesses against the world’s falsehood and hollowness; the Christian’s noble self-devotedness against its self-love; his steadfast adherence to the cause of righteousness, against the cowardly looseness of the world’s principles; the Christian’s high hopes and lofty aspirations against the worldling’s low desires and grovelling aims. “For every right work,” he is “envied of his neighbour.” No age, nor position, nor character, is exempt from the poisoned shafts of envy. Is there a godly school-boy? Such a one will generally be a mark for the ridicule, and the petty persecution, of the lower-minded of his playmates. They will watch him, as Satan observed Job, for some little fault which they may exaggerate and rejoice over. They will place temptations in his path, and strive, in every way, to bring him down to the same level with themselves. And that is but the prophecy of what awaits him in after life. The godly servant or workman, who regards the interest of his employer as his own, and serves “not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but with singleness of heart, fearing God,” will always be exposed to the envy, the detraction, and the slander of his idle and unprincipled fellows, whose sole aim is, by mutual agreement, to do the smallest possible amount of work for the largest possible amount of pay. And the same evil principle besets the Christian everywhere, extending upwards through all the strata of society. (H. E. Nolloth, B. D.)

How the success of others should affect us

Instead of the success of others being a matter of envy, it should be used as an example of promise to us, inducing us to go and do likewise. The life of the great man teaches us that we also, being brother to him, may become, in a measure, great. There is wealth, too, to be had, without robbing any man of what he has. It is always to be found in economy and work. For long enough this doctrine was hid, even from the wise and prudent. Even yet we try to find it anywhere but in honest labour--in gold mines, or in speculation, or in gambling--and we may chance to find it laid up in some of these; but it has all come from industry originally, and, in most places, it can be got there in a fair measure still. At any rate, it cannot be got in idleness. We may cherish envy of him who has succeeded, and fold our hands till it eats into the very marrow of our bones, but we shall be no nearer the attainment of fortune than when we commenced the operation. (J. Bonnet.)

Verse 6

Ecclesiastes 4:6

Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.

Quality better than quantity

The “quietness” here spoken of is not the inactivity of sloth, but that restfulness of spirit which an industrious man may enjoy when his industry is pervaded by a cheerful contentment. Now, here is one of those maxims with which Ecclesiastes sought to comfort the hearts and to direct the conduct of his countrymen. Many of them might be disposed to murmur because the times were adverse to their acquisition of wealth. But he wishes them to remember that, even if the times had been more prosperous, they themselves would not necessarily have been more happy. He directs their attention away from quantity to quality of possession. One man may get more real satisfaction out of a little than another man gets out of much. Two handfuls are not necessarily better than one. It depends on what is in the hands. One handful of grain is better than two handfuls of chaff. It depends also on what kind of man has the handful or handfuls. Happiness, in its degree and quality, varies with the man who enjoys, as welt as with the means of enjoyment. Yea, and even the same man may possibly get more satisfaction out of one handful than out of two handfuls of the same thing. It depends on whether the additional handful does not bring with it something else as well. In human life it often happens that a plus involves a minus; a gain in one direction means a loss in another. This, indeed, is no argument for “folding the hands” in sloth or indifference; for there is no weariness like the weariness of idleness, and there is no more prolific source of cares than carelessness. But it is an argument against that spirit of envious rivalry and selfish, restless ambition, which lessens the capacity, in the very act of increasing the means, of enjoyment. This maxim of Ecclesiastes is well worth pondering. It is pitched in the same key as the maxim of the Apostle Paul: “Godliness with contentment is great gain”: and it reminds us of the still more inclusive maxim of our Lord Himself: “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” (T. C. Finlayson.)

Verses 9-12

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labour.

The necessity and benefits of religious society

I. Prove the truth of the wise man’s assertion, that, “two are better than one, and that in reference to society in general, and religious societies in particular.” And how can this be done better than by showing that it is absolutely necessary for the welfare both of the bodies and souls of men? Indeed, if we look upon man as he came out of the hands of his Maker, we imagine him to be perfect, entire, lacking nothing. But God, whose thoughts are not as our thoughts, saw something still wanting to make Adam happy. And what was that? Why, an help meet for him. And if this were the case of man before the fall; if a help was meet for him in a state of perfection; surely since the fall, when we come naked and helpless out of our mother’s womb, when our wants increase with our years, and we can scarcely subsist a day without the mutual assistance of each other, well may we say, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Society, then, we see, is absolutely necessary in respect to our bodily and personal wants. If we carry our view farther, and consider mankind as divided into different cities, countries, and nations, the necessity of it will appear yet more evident. For how can communities be kept up, or commerce carried on, with our society? Many other instances might be given of the necessity of society in reference to our bodily, personal, and national wants. But what are all these when weighed in the balance of the sanctuary, in comparison of the infinite greater need of it with respect to the soul? Let us suppose ourselves in some degree to have tasted the good word of life, and to have felt the powers of the world to come, influencing and moulding our souls into a religious frame; to be fully and heartily convinced that we are soldiers listed under the banner of Christ, and to have proclaimed open war, at our baptism, against the world, the flesh, and the devil; and have, perhaps, frequently renewed our obligations so to do by partaking of the Lord’s Supper; that we are surrounded with millions of foes without, and infested with a legion of enemies within; that we are commanded to shine as lights in the world in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation; that we are travelling to a long eternity, and need all imaginable helps to show, and encourage us in, our way thither. Let us, I say, reflect on all this, and then how shall each of us cry out, “Brethren, what a necessary thing it is to meet together in religious societies!” The primitive Christians were fully sensible of this, and therefore we find them continually keeping up communion with each other (Acts 2:42; Acts 4:23; Acts 9:19; Acts 12:12). And it is reported of the Christians in after ages that they used to assemble together before daylight to sing a psalm to Christ as God. So precious was the communion of saints in those days.

II. Some reasons why “two are better than one,” especially in religious society.

1. As man in his present condition cannot always stand upright, but by reason of the frailty of his nature cannot but fall; one eminent reason why two are better than one, or, in other words, one great advantage of religious society is, “that when they fall, the one will lift up his fellow.”

2. It is an observation no less true than common, that kindled coals if placed asunder soon go out, but if heaped together quicken and enliven each other, and afford a lasting heat. The same will hold good in the case now before us. If Christians kindled by the grace of God unite, they will quicken and enliven each other; but if they separate and keep asunder, no marvel if they soon grow cool or tepid. If two or three meet together in Christ’s name, they will have heat: but how can one be warm alone?

3. Hitherto we have considered the advantages of religious societies as a great preservative against falling into sin and lukewarmness, and that too from our own corruptions. But what says the wise son of Sirach? “My son, when thou goest to serve the Lord, prepare thy soul for temptation;” and that not only from inward, but outward foes; particularly from those two grand adversaries, the world and the devil: for no sooner will thine eye be bent heavenward, but the former will be immediately diverting it another way, telling thee thou needest not be singular in order to be religious; that you may be a Christian without going so much out of the common road. But see here the advantage of religious company; for supposing thou findest thyself thus surrounded on every side, and unable to withstand such horrid (though seemingly friendly) counsels, haste away to thy companions, and they will teach thee a truer and better lesson; they will tell thee that thou must be singular if thou wilt be religious; and that it is as impossible for a Christian, as for a city set upon a hill, to be hidden: that if thou wilt be an almost Christian (and as good be none at all) thou mayest live in the same idle, indifferent manner as thou seest most other people do; but if thou wilt be not only almost, but altogether a Christian, they will inform thee thou must go a great deal farther: that thou must not only faintly seek, but “earnestly strive to enter in at the strait gate”: that there is but one way now to heaven, as formerly, even through the narrow passage of a sound conversion: and that in order to bring about this mighty work, thou must undergo a constant but necessary discipline of fasting, watching, and prayer. And, therefore, the only reason why those friends give thee such advice is, because they are not willing to take so much pains themselves; or, as our Saviour told Peter on a like occasion, because they savour not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men.

III. The several duties incumbent on every member of a religious society as such.

1. Mutual reproof.

2. Mutual exhortation.

3. Mutual assisting and defending each other. (G. Whitefield, M. A.)

Two better than one

An axiom like this needs no discussion. No man is at his best alone. Some powers are dormant and practically useless to the individual. Competition is one form of stimulus. It may act through our selfishness. We desire to surpass another, to do better or acquire more and so meet oppositions and antagonisms with resoluteness. As iron sharpeneth iron, so intellects may be whetted and made keener by mental attrition. The axe does not sharpen itself on itself, but by a stone. So are human minds improved by these emulative endeavours. But love is a better discipline than competition. It is akin to the regenerative power of God. Two friends walk in loving unity and fellowship. They aim to enlarge their faculties of observation. The two see more objects than one pair of eyes could possibly see, perhaps threefold or tenfold, for in the friendly effort, each to excel, their individual faculties are more vigilant than if each were alone. In church life these principles of development constantly obtain. Some come to the place of worship and instruction with the true hunger of the soul. They not only help the preacher, who may represent the original unit by their added sympathy, but enlarge their own spiritual appreciation of truth. Failure to co-operate in church work is crippling. It is like putting the minus sign before a quantity. You cripple not only a finger by removing a joint, but embarrass the whole hand. The entire grip is gone for ever. Paralyze the little muscles that play over a pulley moving the eyelid and the lid drops over the eye. So the weakest member of a church may help or hinder the integrity and efficiency of the whole body of Christ. As indifference is deadening and disheartening, whether in religious or political enterprise, when people are slack, dubious and apathetic, so co-operation stimulates and the heart of the toiler rises with courage and hope. It may be objected that one loses his individuality. But no one is strictly independent. Material forces are adjusted to each other, as the centripetal and centrifugal, day and night, attraction and repulsion, muscular flexion and extension. Souls have their orbits as well as planets. These may be contracted or enlarged according to the influences exerted. No man liveth to himself or is independent of shrinking or quickening influences. If you come statedly and devoutedly to the sanctuary, you secure a blessing to yourself and you help God to convert men. So, too, in the last place, in Christian companionship, two are better than one. For if one fall by the way the other may lift him to his feet. Thus the crosses and losses of life become more tolerable, and the unity and harmony of earthly fellowship become prophetic of the unbroken and perfected felicities of heaven. (C. R. Barnes.)

Verse 12

Ecclesiastes 4:12

A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

A threefold cord

I have read somewhere that the ancient Thebans had in their army a band of men who were pledged to friendship and fellowship with each other. They were therefore almost irresistible; they held together by a union caused by a living principle that suffused and inspired them all, therefore when the enemy came upon them it was like the sea breaking on the unmovable strand. If we as church members and fellow-Christians are thus one in heart, we shall be irresistible. A common Saviour claims our common love. We have been cleansed in the same precious fountain, we have all eaten of the Bread that came down from heaven, and drunk of the Spiritual Rock that follows us. Let us hold more closely together than ever--pastors, officers, people, for “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” “A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Do we not know this from sad experience?

I. It was by such cords as these that we were originally held in bondage. I do not know how many threads were in them, how many strands they contained. Not three, perhaps, but thirty, nay, thirty thousand evil influences were dragging us down and holding us fast. All I do know is that they were not quickly broken. It took God’s dear Son to break them, the Father’s love, and the Spirit’s power, and our own faith and repentance, begotten in our hearts from above. Satan knows the power of unity if we do not. “The world, the flesh, and the devil,” a terrible trio, were in league against us. It was the cords of this triple enemy that held us fast. They were threefold cords, and they were not easily broken. Sin is of various shapes and sorts. There are three words in God’s Book descriptive of sin, and I think I may apply them to the threefold cord. There is iniquity, that which is out of plumb, or off the line, or out of the level. There is sin, the missing of the mark, the going beyond by the arrow, or the falling short of the target. There is also transgression, breaking through God’s settled rules, passing beyond the bounds that He has fixed, making landmarks of our own instead of regarding God’s. Each of these may be regarded as a strand in the cord of sin, and all of us were held thereby. “A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” It took years of straining, and tugging, and pulling by a hand Omnipotent to break these cords in pieces. Thank God! it is done, and that they can never be spliced again, nor ever cast about us as they were originally.

II. It was by such cords as these--cords that are not quickly broken, threefold cords, that we were delivered from the power of sin. The form of the metaphor changes a little as we use it now. We were in a horrible pit by reason of sin. Sin always sinks us, and we were dropping deeper and deeper into it, and into the mire that was at the bottom of it. How have we got up? There was no ladder placed for us to climb; we did not cut notches in the pit-side by our own unaided strength, and so help ourselves up to light and liberty. No; God had pity on us. He, in the person of His Son, came to the pit’s mouth and looked down with the eyes of love upon us. Christ’s love, Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension into heaven--these are as another threefold cord. As soon as our eyes were opened and we saw this rope swinging, as it were, in front of us, God gave us strength to leap to it, and He did the rest; nay, He did that, for we had not believed unless the Spirit had prompted faith. He drew us with the cords of love, and with the bands of a man.

III. It is by such cords as these, threefold cords, cords that are not quickly broken, that we are now held captive. By creation, the claim of which we understand better than ever now; by regeneration, into the mystery of which they and we are being daily further led; by consecration, both on God’s part and our own, we are His and His for ever. These cords bind us to the horns of the altar. “And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” I think this is another threefold cord by which we are bound; bound to one another, bound to the cross of Christ, bound to this blessed book, and bound to heaven. (T. Spurgeon.)

A threefold cord

I. Have a threefold cord in your religion. Religion for young folks as well as old. Is yours twofold or threefold? Let us see. There is God--one. And you--two. Is that all? Explain how some people have no more. This not a nice religion. Can’t get near God. Can’t know Him. Bring in Christ, and you have the threefold cord. Then this cord will stand the strain. That is a strong religion. When temptations come down hard on you, it will hold and save you.

II. Have a threefold cord in your difficulties and dangers. Story of youth at sea. Ordered, during a storm, to go up and put the rigging right. Momentary hesitation of boy, and then darted down to his cabin. Appeared again immediately, ascended mast, put rigging right, and came down. Asked by an officer, “What made you run below? For prayer, sir: father always told me no time was ever lost in prayer.” “And what is that under your jacket?. . . My Bible, sir. My mother gave it to me when leaving home. I thought if I were drowned, I would like to have it with me.” Now here was a nice threefold cord--Prayer, the Bible, and Courage. I wish you had it. You may have, likely will have, many a hard bit in your life. But if you weave these three together into a cord, and hold on by it, you are safe.

III. Have a threefold cord in your friendships. There is an old saying among folks, that “Two are good company, but three are none.” And they expect us to believe that! We want no friendship that is only twofold. Have you any friendship without Jesus? He is the third strand of the cord. If there be anybody who wants you to go roads where Jesus can’t go with you, give up that company at once. We should want no friendship where our Saviour can’t; be one. (J. F. Dempster.)

Verses 13-16

Ecclesiastes 4:13-16

Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished.

On the advantages of Christian knowledge to the lower orders of society

There is no topic on which the Bible maintains a more lucid and entire consistency of sentiment than the superiority of moral over all physical and all external distinctions. One very animating inference to be drawn from our text is, how much may be made of humanity. Did a king come to take up his residence amongst us--did he shed a grandeur over our city by the presence of his court, and give the impulse of his expenditure to the trade of its population--it were not easy to rate the value and the magnitude which such an event would have on the estimation of a common understanding, or the degree of personal importance which would attach to him who stood a lofty object in the eye of admiring townsmen. And yet it is possible, out of the raw and ragged materials of an obscurest lane, to rear an individual of more inherent worth than him who thus draws the gaze of the world upon his person. By the act of training in wisdom’s ways the most tattered and neglected boy who runs upon our pavements do we present the community with that which, in wisdom’s estimation, is of greater price than this gorgeous inhabitant of a palace. Even without looking beyond the confines of our present world, the virtue of humble life will bear to be advantageously contrasted with all the pride and glory of an elevated condition. The man who, though among the poorest of them all, has a wisdom and a weight of character which makes him the oracle of his neighbourhood--the man who, vested with no other authority than the meek authority of worth, carries in his presence a power to shame and to overawe the profligacy that is around him--the venerable father, from whoso lowly tenement the voice of psalms is heard to ascend with the offering up of every evening sacrifice--the Christian sage, who, exercised among life’s severest hardships, looks calmly onward to heaven, and trains the footsteps of his children in the way that leads to it--the eldest of a well-ordered family, bearing their duteous and honourable part in the contest with its difficulties and its trials--all these offer to our notice such elements of moral respectability as do exist among the lowest orders of human society, and elements, too, which admit of being multiplied far beyond the reach of any present calculation. But, to attain a just estimate of the superiority of the poor man who has wisdom, over the rich man who has it not, we must enter into the calculation of eternity--we must look to wisdom in its true essence, as consisting of religion, as having the fear of God for its beginning, and the rule of God for its way, and the favour of God for its full and satisfying termination--we must compute how speedily it is, that, on the wings of time, the season of every paltry distinction between them must at length pass away; how soon death will strip the one of hie rags, and the other of his pageantry, and send them in utter nakedness to the dust; how soon judgment will summon them from their graves, and place them in outward equality before the Great Disposer of their future lot, and their future place, through ages which never end; how in that situation the accidental distinctions of life will be rendered void, and personal distinctions will be all that shall avail them; how, when examined by the secrets of the inner man, and the deeds done in their body, the treasure of heaven shall be adjudged only to him whose heart was set upon it in this world; and how tremendously the account between them will be turned, when it shall be found of the one, that he must perish for lack of knowledge, and of the other, that he has the wisdom which is unto salvation. And let me just state that the great instrument for thus elevating the poor is that Gospel of Jesus Christ, which may be preached unto the poor. It is the doctrine of His Cross finding an easier admission into their hearts than it does through those barriers of human pride and human resistance, which are often reared on the basis of literature. Let the testimony of God be simply taken in, that on His own Son He has laid the iniquities of us all--and from this point does the humble scholar of Christianity pass into light, and enlargement, and progressive holiness. (T. Chalmers, D. D.)

The old king and the youth

It has been thought that Ecclesiastes must here be referring to some well-known event of his own times: but, if this be the case, the event has not yet been identified. Perhaps he is simply presenting an imaginary but possible case, for which there had been quite sufficient basis in many a political revolution. In those old kingdoms and empires it was always possible that even a beggar or prisoner might rise to the throne, whilst the monarch who had been born to the crown might, in his old age, perhaps through his own folly, become a poor man in his own kingdom. Such was the instability of the most exalted of earthly positions. And Ecclesiastes sketches the picture of the young upstart--a usurper wise and skilful enough to make himself the leader of a successful revolution, and to place himself in the stead of the old monarch. So great is the popularity of this usurper that he becomes the idol of the hour: millions flock around his standard, and place him on the throne. But even this popularity is, in turn, an evanescent thing; “those who come after him” (the people of a younger generation) “shall not rejoice in him.” He, too, has only his day. It may be that, even during his lifetime, he loses the popular favour: and, at the best, he soon passes away in death, and is speedily forgotten. Thus the glory and fame even of monarchy itself is also “vanity and feeding on wind.” It would not be difficult to find many a “historical parallel” to this picture. One of the most striking has occurred within the memory of some of us. When Louis Philippe, the aged King of France, who would not be admonished by the signs of the times, had at length to flee from his own kingdom in 1848, Louis Napoleon, who, not long before, had been for five years a prisoner in the fortress of Ham, appeared in Paris, and, throwing himself into the midst of political affairs, gradually became more and more popular, until in due time he became President of the Republic, and ultimately Emperor of France. We know how he was worshipped by the masses of the French people, how there was “no end of all the people” who flocked around him in their enthusiasm. And we know how, after many years of royal splendour, the collapse came suddenly at last, and how, after the defeat at Sedan, the nation, almost as one man, turned round and kicked the idol they had worshipped. Even one of our own poets had hailed him as “Emperor evermore!” But where is all his “glory” now? Surely “vanity of vanities” might well be inscribed on the tomb of Napoleon

III. And, indeed, the career of many a man who has been borne along into high position on the wave of popular enthusiasm furnishes a most salutary lesson as to the real value of mere earthly fame and greatness. (T. C. Finlayson.)
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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ecclesiastes 4". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/ecclesiastes-4.html. 1905-1909. New York.