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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes 4

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-3


In the Wrongs which He permits Men to inflict upon us;

Ecclesiastes 3:16-22; Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

Because we will not be obsequious to the ordinances of His wisdom, He permits us to meet a new check in the caprice and injustice of man-making even these to praise Him by subserving our good. If we do not suffer the violent oppressions which drew tears from the Preacher’s fellow captives, we nevertheless stand very much at the mercy of our neighbours in so far as our outward haps are concerned. Unwise human laws or an unjust administration of them, or the selfish rapacity of individual men-brokers who rig the market; bankers whose long prayers are a pretence under cloak of which they rob widows and orphans, and sometimes make them; bankrupts for whose wounds the Gazette has a singular power of healing, since they come out of it "sounder" men than they went in: these are only some of the instruments by which the labours of the diligent are shorn of their due reward. And we are to take these checks as correctives, to find in the losses which men inflict the gifts of a gracious God. He permits us to suffer these and the like disasters lest our hearts should be overmuch set on getting gain. He graciously permits us to suffer them that, seeing how often the wicked thrive (in a way and for a time) on the decay of the upright, we may learn that there is something better than wealth, more enduring, more satisfying, and may seek that higher good.

Verses 1-16


The Quest Of The Chief Good In Devotion To The Affairs Of Business

Ecclesiastes 3:1 - Ecclesiastes 5:20

I. IF the true Good is not to be found in the School where Wisdom utters her voice, nor in the Garden in which Pleasure spreads her lures: may it not be found in the Market, in devotion to Business and Public Affairs? The Preacher will try this experiment also. He gives himself to study and consider it. But at the very outset he discovers that he is in the iron grip of immutable Divine ordinances, by which "seasons" are appointed for every undertaking under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1), ordinances which derange man’s best-laid schemes, and "shape his ends, rough hew them how he will," that no one can do anything to purpose "apart from God," except by conforming to the ordinances, or laws, in which He has expressed His will. {comp. Ecclesiastes 2:24-26}

Verse 4

Devotion to Business springs from Jealous Competition:

Ecclesiastes 4:4

(a) Let us glance once more at the several symptoms we have already heard him discuss, and consider whether or not they accord with the results of our own observation and experience, is it true, then-or, rather, is it not true-that our devotion to business is becoming excessive and exhausting, and that this devotion springs mainly from our jealous rivalry and competition with each other? If, some two or three and twenty centuries ago, the Jews were bent every man on outdoing and outselling his neighbour; if his main ambition was to amass greater wealth or to secure a larger business than his competitors, or to make a handsomer show before the world; if in the urgent pursuit of this ambition he held his neighbours not as neighbours, but as unscrupulous rivals, keen for gain at his expense and to rise by his fall; if, to reach his end, he was willing to get up early and go late to rest, to force all his energies into an injurious activity and strain them close to the snapping point: if this were what a Jew of that time was like, might you not easily take it for a portrait of many an English merchant, manufacturer, lawyer, or politician? Is it not as accurate a delineation of our life as it could be of any ancient form of life? If it be, as I think it is, we have grave need to take the Preacher’s warning. We gravely need to remember that the stream cannot rise above its source, nor the fruit be better than the root from which it grows; that the business ardour which has its origin in a base and selfish motive can only be a base and selfish ardour. When men gather grapes from thorns and figs from thistles, then, but not before, we may look to find a satisfying good in "all the toil and all the dexterity in toil" which spring from this "jealous rivalry of the one with the other."

Verses 4-8

It is rendered hopeless by the base origin of Human Industries.

Ecclesiastes 4:4-8

This stinging sense of the miserable estate of his race has, however, diverted the Preacher from the conduct of the main argument he had in hand: to that he now returns (Ecclesiastes 4:4). And now he argues: You cannot hope to get good fruit from a bad root. But the several industries in which you are tempted to seek "the chief good and market of your time" have a most base and evil origin; they "spring from man’s jealous rivalry with his neighbour" Every man tries to outdo and to outsell his neighbours; to secure a larger business, to surround himself with a more profuse luxury, or to amass an ampler hoard of gold. This business life of yours is utterly selfish, and therefore utterly base. You are not content with a sufficient provision for simple wants. You do not seek your neighbour’s good. You have no noble or patriotic aim. Your ruling intention is to enrich yourselves at the expense of neighbours who, in their turn, are your rivals rather than your neighbours, and who try to get the better of you just as you try to get the better of them. Can you hope to find the true Good in a life whose aims are so sordid, whose motives so selfish? The very sluggard who folds his hands in indolence so long as he has bread to eat is a wiser man than you; for he has at least his "handful of quiet," and knows some little enjoyment of life; while you, driven on by jealous competition and the eager cravings of insatiate desire, have neither leisure nor appetite for enjoyment: both your hands are full, indeed, but there is no quiet in them, only labour, labour, labour, with vexation of spirit (Ecclesiastes 4:5-6).

So intense and selfish was this rivalry, increase of appetite growing by what it fed upon, so keen grew the desire to amass, that the Preacher paints a portrait, for which no doubt many a Hebrew might have sat, of a man-nay, rather, of a miser-who, though solitary and kinless, with not even a son or a brother to inherit his wealth, nevertheless hoards up riches to the close of his life; there is no end to his labours; he never can be rich enough to allow himself any enjoyment of his gains (Ecclesiastes 4:7-8).

Verse 8

It tends to form a covetous Temper

Ecclesiastes 4:8

(b) Nor, in the face of facts patent to the most cursory observer, can we deny that this eager successful conduct of business and excessive devotion to it tends to produce a grasping, covetous temper which, however much it has gained, is forever seeking more. It is not only true that the stream cannot rise above its source; it is also true that the stream will run downward, and must inevitably contract many pollutions from the lower levels on which it declines. The ardour which impels men to devote themselves with eager intensity to the labours of the market may often have an origin as pure as that of the stream which bubbles up on the hills, amid grass and ferns, and runs tinkling along its clear and rocky channels, setting its labours to a happy music, singing its low sweet song to the sweet listening air. But as it runs on, if it swell in volume and power, it also sinks and grows foul. Bent at first on acquiring the means to support a widowed mother, or to justify him in taking a wife, or to provide for his children, or to win an honourable place in his neighbours’ eyes, or to achieve the chance of self-culture and self-development, or to serve some public and worthy end, the man of business and affairs too often suffers himself to become more and more absorbed in his pursuits. He conceives larger schemes, is drawn into more perilous enterprises, and advances through these to fresh openings and opportunities, until at last, long after his original ends are compassed and forgotten, he finds himself possessed by the mere craving to extend his labours, resources, influence, if not by the mere craving to amass-a craving which often "teareth" and "tormenteth" him, but which can only be exorcised by an exertion of spiritual force which would leave him half dead. "He has no one with him, not even a son or a brother": the dear mother or wife is long since dead; his children, to use his own detestable phrase, are "off his hands": the public good has slipped from his memory and aims: but still "there is no end to all his labours, neither are his eyes satisfied with riches." Coheleth speaks of one such man: alas, of how many such might we speak!

Verses 9-16

Practical Maxims deduced from this View of the Business life.

(b) A noble philosophy this, and pregnant with practical counsels of great value. For if, as we close our study of this Section of the Book, we ask, "What good advice does the Preacher offer that we can take and act upon?" we shall find that he gives us at least three serviceable maxims.

A Maxim on Cooperation. Ecclesiastes 4:9-16

To all men of business conscious of their special dangers and anxious to avoid them, he says, first: Replace the competition which springs from your jealous and selfish rivalry, with the cooperation which is born of sympathy and breeds goodwill. "Two are better than one. Union is better than isolation. Conjoint labour has the greater reward." Instead of seeking to take advantage of your neighbours, try to help them. Instead of standing alone, associate with your fellows. Instead of aiming at purely selfish ends, pursue your ends in common. Indeed the wise Hebrew Preacher anticipates the Golden Rule to a remarkable extent, and, in effect, bids us love our neighbour as our self, look on his things as well as our own, and do to all men as we would that they should do to us.

A Maxim on Worship. Ecclesiastes 5:1-7

His second maxim is: Replace the formality of your worship with a reverent and steadfast sincerity. Keep your foot when you go to the House of God. Put obedience before sacrifice. Do not hurry on your mouth to the utterance of words which transcend the desires of your heart. Be not one of those who

"Words for virtue take,

As though mere wood a shrine would make."

Do not come into the Temple with a preoccupied spirit, a spirit distracted with thoughts that travel different ways. Realise the presence of the Great King, and speak to Him with the reverence due to a King. Keep the vows you have made in His house after you have left it. Seek and serve Him with all your hearts, and ye shall find rest to your souls.

A Maxim on Trust in God Ecclesiastes 5:8-17

And his last maxim is: Replace your grasping self-sufficiency with a constant trust in the fatherly providence of God. If you see oppression or suffer wrong, if your schemes are thwarted and your enterprises fail, you need not therefore lose the quiet repose and settled peace which spring from a sense of duty discharged and the undisturbed possession of the main good of life. God is over all, and rules all the undertakings of man, giving each its season and place, and causing all to work together for the good of the loving and trustful heart. Trust in Him, and you shall feel, even though you cannot prove,

"That every cloud that spreads above,

And veileth love, itself is love."

Trust in Him and you shall find that

"The slow sweet hours that bring us all things good,

The slow sad hours that bring us all things ill

And all good things from evil,"

as they strike on the great horologe of Time, are set to a growing music by the hand of God; a music which rises and falls as we listen, but which nevertheless swells through all its saddest cadences and dying falls toward that harmonious close, that "undisturbed concent," in which all discords will be drowned.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/ecclesiastes-4.html.
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