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Vanity is increased unto men by oppression, by envy, by idleness, by covetousness, by solitariness, by wilfulness.
Ecclesiastes 4:1. So I returned, and considered, &c.— I considered again, and I observed. See on on chap. Ecclesiastes 2:11.
Ecclesiastes 4:3. Yea, better is he than both they— Nay, I say, he is happier than either, who is not yet come to life, who hath not seen the misery that prevaileth under the sun. Desvoeux.
Ecclesiastes 4:4. Again, I considered all travail— I observed again all the labour, nay, all the most successful work, that for this, &c.
Ecclesiastes 4:5-6. The fool foldeth his hands, &c.— The fool, folding his hands together, and eating his own flesh, saith, Better is the palm of one hand full of rest, than both the hands full of work, and that which goes with the wind. Desvoeux; who observes, that metaphors derived from images which are not familiar to us, and which on that account may at first appear almost unintelligible, are sometimes easily understood, when you compare therewith the context: thus the expression, eating his own flesh, does not immediately raise in the mind the distinct idea of any particular passion; but when you see envy mentioned just before, and consider the thread of the argument, there can scarcely remain any doubt but that Solomon intended to describe an envious and idle man. So Iliad, i. ver. 243. Agamemnon is represented as tearing his own heart on account of a fault in which he is still resolved to persevere. So Ovid, describing Envy, says, Suppliciumque suum est, "She is her own torment;" and in some lines ascribed to Virgil it is said of her, that "She drinks up the whole blood while devouring the limbs;" totum bibit artubus cruorem; which he explains afterwards, by saying, that the more envy a man has in his heart, the greater torment he is to himself: Sibi poena semper ipse est.
Ecclesiastes 4:8. There is one alone, and there is not a second— Here is a man who hath no second, neither son nor brother; yet he puts no end to his labour: neither, &c.
Ecclesiastes 4:9. Because they have a good reward— Because they have a better reward for their common labour.
Ecclesiastes 4:12. And if one prevail against him, &c.— And though one should be strong, the two will make a stand against him; for a three-stringed cord shall not quickly be broken. Desvoeux. Houbigant renders it, But if one should be circumvented, and they two be present [to assist him] then the three-fold cord will not easily be broken.
Ecclesiastes 4:13. Better is a poor and a wise child, &c.— Better is the experienced and wise son, than the old, &c. Desvoeux; who has shewn, that the word מסכן misken, from the root סכן saken, properly signifies experienced; and by this interpretation the passage appears with new beauties; for what can be more striking than the title which the wise son, the young prince here spoken of, has to the preference given him above his father, when he is represented as possessed in his youth of those very qualifications, experience and wisdom, which are generally looked upon as the properties of old age? And what could make his worth more conspicuous than the opposition of the old king's faults in those very respects? See chap. Ecclesiastes 10:6; Ecclesiastes 7:16-17.
Ecclesiastes 4:14. For out of prison he cometh to reign— Desvoeux connects this with the preceding verse thus; Because he came from among the slaves to be a king, and because he was born poor in the kingdom which became his. Bishop Warburton is of opinion, that these verses allude to some fact out of Judea, which is unknown to us.
Ecclesiastes 4:15-16. I considered all the living— I saw all the living eager to walk under the sun, with the second son who should succeed him.—Ver. 16. No end of all the people! of all that resorted to them! Yet they who shall come after will have no reason to be glad of that successor. I do not find, says Desvoeux, that the interpreters have taken any notice of the phrase, walking under the sun with a man in power, as of a figurative expression. Nay, our version turns it so as to make it a mere repetition of all the living; yet this expression is the more remarkable here, as it is followed in the next verse by another, which, from a comparison between Genesis 5:22; Genesis 5:24; Gen 17:1 appears to be synonimous to it, in a metaphorical sense; I mean to be before the face, לפני lipnei, which I have rendered resorted. From the context, the idea must be paying one's court, or something to that purpose; and the image alluded to, is that of a man who does not value the inconvenience, great as it was in the climate of Judea, of walking in a place exposed to the scorching heat of the sun, provided he may by so doing testify his regard for the person whom he attends. This notion may be confirmed by the known signification of the phrase, walking with God, (see Gen. as above,) which the LXX very properly have rendered ευαρεστησε . This chapter contains the fourth and last proof, brought to support the first general proposition, which is taken from the wrong use which men, considered with respect to the duties and particular circumstances of social life, make of opportunities which might be turned to their private advantage, or to that of the public; whether it be owing to their wickedness, folly, or supineness. The particular instances are these: I. The great and powerful, instead of relieving those who suffer wrong, support one another in their oppressive schemes; so that the oppressed have no one to wipe off their tears; Ecclesiastes 4:1.—II. A man who is industrious, and applieth his labour well, is sure to attract the envy of those whose interest should rather prompt them to encourage him, and to improve by his example; Ecclesiastes 4:4.—III. The idler envies the prosperity and plenty enjoyed by the industrious, while his aversion to trouble and labour makes him choose poverty rather than abundance; whereas he ought to rest satisfied in that state which is the natural consequence of the way of life that he chooses; Ecclesiastes 4:5-6.—IV. As the character of the idler was opposed to that of the industrious man, so another character is now introduced in opposition to that of the idler; viz. the character of an indefatigable covetous man, who, having nobody to share his fortune with, cannot resolve to leave off heaping up riches, and quietly to enjoy what he has already acquired, or take some one in partnership with him. He is fully convinced of the advantages resulting from a social life, and of the inconveniences to which the lonesome life that he leads is unavoidably subject. Yet he will not avail himself of those advantages, or avoid these dreadful inconveniences, at the expence of admitting another into a share of that plenty which he himself does not enjoy, although he possesses it: Ecclesiastes 4:7-12.—V. The next instance is, that of the regard which is generally paid to dignities and places, rather than to real worth and merit; whereby virtue and public spirit lie under great discouragement.
REFLECTIONS.—1st, He had before considered the case of proud oppressors, and foreseen their judgment: here he turns his eyes to the oppressed, and bewails their misery.
1. Their condition is deplorable, and often helpless; for, here, might often overcomes right. The tears of the poor, the orphan, the persecuted, cry out against their severe and covetous masters, their treacherous guardians, and tyrannical governors; and they have no comforter, few caring to expose themselves in the cause of injured innocence, especially where the power in the hands of oppressors makes it dangerous to oppose the iniquitous proceedings, or even to shew compassion to those who suffer under their wickedness.
2. The judgment which he formed concerning this state of oppression is, that death itself were preferable to such a continued scene of misery; and never to have had a being, more desirable, than merely to come thus into the world, to see the evil that is done under the sun, and suffer. And this is spoken as the conclusion of sense without respect to a future state; for else, as it is a great truth that they who in Christ have finished their warfare, are in a much more desirable state than those militant saints, who still bear the burden and heat of the day; so to have a being, however miserable upon earth, can never make a good man wish he had never been born, since God is glorified in his sufferings, and an eternity of happiness is before him. Nor ought any man to quarrel with his being, because of the evil that he sees or feels; it is his own fault, if the issue be not for his good.
2nd, The more he considers, the more the conviction is evident, that all beneath the sun is vanity and vexation of spirit.
1. Is a man industrious, ingenious, and successful? immediately he is the butt of envy. Though with hard travail he laboured in the school of learning, or in the business of life, and all the steps he took were unexceptionably upright; yet, such is the vile nature of fallen man, that, instead of rendering the deserved praise, and rejoicing in his neighbour's prosperity and honour, his evil eye is upon him, and his malignant tongue too often ready to traduce his merit. Even his good works shall frequently draw upon him the bitterest hatred, 1 John 3:12. But, though men make us so ungrateful a return, we must not be discouraged: we shall have praise of God, and that will overbalance the world's envy and hatred.
2. The opposite conduct is yet attended with greater vexation. Instead of being industrious, and to avoid being envied, the fool, the slothful man, foldeth his hands together; and the consequence of such idleness is, that he eateth his own flesh, emaciated through hunger and famished for want, or wasting the substance that his family should inherit; and suggests, in vindication of himself, that a little with ease, and without labour, is better than abundance which must be hardly earned; as if sloth were quietness, diligent industry intolerable toil, and indolence contentment. Or the words may express the wise man's judgment, directing us to the golden mean between reproachful indolence and restless labour and anxiety; for the moderate gains of honest industry, enjoyed with contentment, are an infinitely more satisfactory portion, than the exorbitant wealth which is gotten with hard labour, kept with anxiety, and embittered in the using.
3rdly, He that walks about under the sun, will ever be observing more and more of the vanity of the creature; a fresh instance of which is produced,
1. In the character of the miser, who, though he has none but himself to provide for, and neither child nor brother to whom he may bequeath the riches that he has amassed, yet is indefatigable in his labours, insatiable in his desires of wealth, shuns the joys of society, nay, grudges the necessaries that his own body requires, because of the expence; and never once considers, (so wretchedly is he infatuated.) for whom do I labour? neither for the glory of God, my own comfort, nor the good of others; perhaps, for those who will never thank me, and will squander in extravagance and thoughtless dissipation the fruits of so much toil and care. This is indeed a vanity and sore travail, the folly as great as the sin.
2. The wise man shews how much preferable society and the enjoyment of our labours is, to this unnatural solitude and niggardliness. The comforts and advantages of marriage and friendship amply overpay us for all they cost. Two are better than one; more happy than they could be separate; because they have a good reward for their labour; enjoy mutual assistance and counsel, and communicate mutual pleasure. If one falls as they travel, the other is ready to lend his helping hand; if into errors of sin, a faithful friend will seek to restore such a one in the spirit of meekness; if into sorrow, he will be near to comfort him: But woe to him that is alone when he falleth: where he lies, he is in danger of being lost. Again, If two lie together, they have heat; which is true spiritually, for nothing warms the heart more than Christian fellowship, as the disciples going to Emmaus experienced; while solitude, instead of raising our affections, as secluded monks and hermits boast, removes us from one of the most effectual means of heavenly-mindedness. As useful will society be in time of danger: the robber will attack a single traveller, who dares not attempt it when he has company. Satan thus beset Eve, and false teachers thus single out their prey; but a faithful friend is a guard against temptation, which, even by the communication of it, is sometimes overcome; and a threefold cord, where Christians unite in society, and Christ is in the midst of them, is not quickly broken; for they have their great High-Priest and their King for their protector.
4thly, Crowns seem the most substantial goods, yet they are held by a precarious tenure, and cumbered with much vanity and vexation of spirit.
1. If they be on the heads of the foolish, they totter; for, though inherited by descent, and worn to old age, yet, if the king, whose age should add veneration and weight to his dignity, be foolish, unable to manage the reins of government, and perverse and conceited withal, who will not bear to be admonished, nor advise with the counsellors of wisdom; he becometh poor, ruins his subjects, or is conquered by invaders. So that even a child, though poor and low in the world, yet, if wise, is a more respectable personage, and may rise from the dunghill, as Joseph from the dungeon to the highest honours; while the other is perhaps hurled from the summit of dignity and affluence to the depths of infamy and want.
2. The very fickleness of the people will sometimes be enough to bring about revolutions in the state. Solomon observed in his researches, that the rising sun was usually adored; and the successor more caressed than the reigning monarch. They are in haste to see his child stand up in his stead, and think to alter their condition for the better in transferring the crown from the father to the son. Thus without end are they restlessly given to change, as those who went before them were, and those who come after them will be; dissatisfied quickly with their new king, and willing to pull him down today, whom they set up yesterday. And it cannot but afford much grief to a prince to see this inconstancy in his subjects, and to hear those hiss him in contempt, who late received him with huzzas and shouts of praise. It is well when this teaches him to seek a richer and more enduring crown than that of gold, even a crown of glory, which fadeth not away.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30