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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes 4

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Ecclesiastes 4:0


The Evils of OppressionInjustice Seems to Prevail(Ecclesiastes 3:16-3)Life's Oppressions and InequalitiesInjustice in the World(Ecclesiastes 3:16-16)Society(Ecclesiastes 4:1-8)
Ecclesiastes 4:1-3Ecclesiastes 4:1-3Ecclesiastes 4:1-3Ecclesiastes 4:1-3Ecclesiastes 4:1-4
The Vanity of Selfish Toil
Ecclesiastes 4:4-6Ecclesiastes 4:4-6Ecclesiastes 4:4-6Ecclesiastes 4:4-6
(vv. Ecclesiastes 4:4)
(vv. Ecclesiastes 4:5-6) Ecclesiastes 4:5
The Value of A Friend Ecclesiastes 4:6
Ecclesiastes 4:7-8Ecclesiastes 4:7-8Ecclesiastes 4:7-8Ecclesiastes 4:7-8Ecclesiastes 4:7-8
The Value of A Friend
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12Ecclesiastes 4:9-12Ecclesiastes 4:9-12Ecclesiastes 4:9-12Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
Popularity Passes AwayThe Impermanence of Fame
Ecclesiastes 4:13-16Ecclesiastes 4:13-16Ecclesiastes 4:13-16Ecclesiastes 4:13-16Ecclesiastes 4:13-14
Ecclesiastes 4:15-16
4:17 [Ecclesiastes 5:1]

READING CYCLE THREE (see “Guide to Good Bible Reading”)


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.


A. If it is true that the vanity of all life is balanced by Qoheleth's admonition to enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life, then chapters 4 and 5 form a literary unit.

B. The recurrent theme of enjoying daily life is found in

1. Ecclesiastes 2:24-26

2. Ecclesiastes 3:12, Ecclesiastes 3:13, Ecclesiastes 3:22

3. Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

4. Ecclesiastes 9:7-9

C. The recurrent theme of “advantage” (“gain,” BDB 452) is found in

1. Ecclesiastes 2:15

2. Ecclesiastes 6:8, Ecclesiastes 6:11

3. Ecclesiastes 7:11, Ecclesiastes 7:16

4. Ecclesiastes 12:9, Ecclesiastes 12:12

There is no lasting advantage in this life without faith in God and His eternal plans.

D. The issue of prose versus poetry returns again. It is so difficult to know how to structure wisdom literature.

Notice how the different modern translations handle chapters 4 and 5:

NASB NKJV NRSV TEV NJB REB JPSOA NIV Ecclesiastes 4:0 & 5Ecclesiastes 4:4; Ecclesiastes 5:1, Ecclesiastes 5:6-7, Ecclesiastes 5:8-9, Ecclesiastes 5:10-20; Ecclesiastes 4:0 & 5Ecclesiastes 4:0 & 5Ecclesiastes 4:1-4, Ecclesiastes 4:7-8, Ecclesiastes 4:9, Ecclesiastes 4:12,15-17;Ecclesiastes 5:1, Ecclesiastes 5:3-5, Ecclesiastes 5:7-8, Ecclesiastes 5:10-20; Ecclesiastes 4:0 & 5 Ecclesiastes 4:1, Ecclesiastes 4:4, Ecclesiastes 4:13-16; Ecclesiastes 5:1, Ecclesiastes 5:4-7, Ecclesiastes 5:8-9, Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 Ecclesiastes 4:1-3; Ecclesiastes 4:5-16; 5:25; 6:10-19 Ecclesiastes 4:5-6, Ecclesiastes 4:13-14; Ecclesiastes 5:2, Ecclesiastes 5:6, Ecclesiastes 5:9 Ecclesiastes 4:5-6; Ecclesiastes 4:2-3, Ecclesiastes 4:5-12; Ecclesiastes 5:2-3, Ecclesiastes 5:10, Ecclesiastes 5:11-17

This shows the uncertainty!

Verses 1-3

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 1Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them. 2So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. 3But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 4:1 “the acts of oppression” This first verse of chapter 4 clearly shows that Solomon is not the author. He had the power to confront and correct injustice (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:16; Ecclesiastes 5:8), but our author sees it and is helpless.

“under the sun” See note at Ecclesiastes 1:3. Life apart from God is “dog-eat-dog”; “me-at-any-cost”; “power-makes-right” humanity! If fallen humanity is left to itself, it will corrupt everything!

Notice the key terms

1. “oppress”

a. NOUN, BDB 799

b. VERB, BDB 798, KB 897



2. “no one to comfort,” BDB 636, KB 688, Piel, ACTIVE PARTICIPLE (twice)

3. “power,” BDB 470

“they had no one to comfort them This is speaking (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:16; Ecclesiastes 5:8) from the governmental perspective.

Ecclesiastes 4:2-3 This is

1. a hyperbole

2. a view of pre-existence (cf. Job 3:11-19; Psalms 139:13-16)

The pain and frustration of physical life without God, without hope, without help screams out! This is not the world that God intended it to be!!!

Ecclesiastes 4:3 “better” This ADJECTIVE (BDB 373 II) is used in a comparative sense throughout the book, but translated (NASB) in different ways:

1. “enjoy yourself” (lit. “consider with goodness”), Ecclesiastes 2:1

2. “good,” Ecclesiastes 2:3, Ecclesiastes 2:26 (twice); Ecclesiastes 3:12, Ecclesiastes 3:13; Ecclesiastes 4:9; Ecclesiastes 5:18; Ecclesiastes 6:12; Ecclesiastes 7:1, Ecclesiastes 7:11, Ecclesiastes 7:18, Ecclesiastes 7:20; Ecclesiastes 8:15; Ecclesiastes 9:2 (twice); Ecclesiastes 11:6, Ecclesiastes 11:7; Ecclesiastes 12:14

3. “better,” Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:12, Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 4:3, Ecclesiastes 4:6, Ecclesiastes 4:9, Ecclesiastes 4:13; Ecclesiastes 5:5; Ecclesiastes 6:3, Ecclesiastes 6:9; Ecclesiastes 7:1, Ecclesiastes 7:2, Ecclesiastes 7:3, Ecclesiastes 7:5, Ecclesiastes 7:8 (twice), Ecclesiastes 4:10; Ecclesiastes 9:4, Ecclesiastes 9:16, Ecclesiastes 9:18

4. “be happy,” Ecclesiastes 7:14

5. “pleasing,” Ecclesiastes 7:26

6. “well,” Ecclesiastes 8:12, Ecclesiastes 8:13

7. “cheerful,” Ecclesiastes 9:7

Qoheleth's thought is a comparison on two levels:

1. life here on earth

2. the physical compared to the spiritual

Each occurrence of this ADJECTIVE must be interpreted in its context.

Verses 4-6

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Ecclesiastes 4:4-6 4I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind. 5The fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh. 6One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:4 Life is a competition for food, for shelter, for work, for possessions, for honor, for control! This is the philosophy of atheistic humanism. Power makes right! This is human ego run amuck! Without God the only motive is “me”! This is where laissez faire capitalism is a human curse! This is where communism failed! Every human is envious, every human takes advantage. Every human exploits his fellow human. Life without God is a “dog-eat-dog” life of competition and unsatisfied lust for more-and-more-for-me at any cost.

This is a recurrent phrase (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:6, Ecclesiastes 1:14, Ecclesiastes 1:17; Ecclesiastes 2:11, Ecclesiastes 2:17, Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 4:4, Ecclesiastes 4:6, Ecclesiastes 4:16; Ecclesiastes 6:9).

“striving after the wind” This is a recurrent phrase (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:6, Ecclesiastes 1:14, Ecclesiastes 1:17; Ecclesiastes 2:11, Ecclesiastes 2:17, Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 4:4, Ecclesiastes 4:6, Ecclesiastes 4:16; Ecclesiastes 6:9). See note at Ecclesiastes 1:6. See Special Topic following.


Ecclesiastes 4:5 “fool” This verse is possibly a proverb or a quote. This kind of mindless self destruction is also seen in Isaiah 9:20. Lack of effort leads to destruction, but effort itself has no lasting benefit!

Ecclesiastes 4:6 This verse is possibly another proverb (e.g., Proverbs 15:16, Proverbs 15:17; Proverbs 16:8) or quote. It is meant to highlight the futility of human effort apart from God. It is possible that “rest” here represents Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; Ecclesiastes 3:12, Ecclesiastes 3:13, Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 5:18; Ecclesiastes 9:7-9. It so, then the workaholic and the sluggard are contrasted.

Verses 7-8

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Ecclesiastes 4:7-8 7Then I looked again at vanity under the sun. 8There was a certain man without a dependent, having neither a son nor a brother, yet there was no end to all his labor. Indeed, his eyes were not satisfied with riches and he never asked, “And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?” This too is vanity and it is a grievous task.

Ecclesiastes 4:7 This is a recurrent and theologically significant theme. See note at Ecclesiastes 1:3.

Ecclesiastes 4:8

NASB“dependent” NKJV, JPSOA“companion” NRSV----- TEV----- NJB“child” LXX“a second” REV”a friend”

The Hebrew has “a second” (BDB 1041), which is simply the numeral. It can refer to almost anything. Context becomes crucial. You can see by the translations the different relationships possible.

This verse describes a “workaholic.” They work for the fun of the work. Work becomes their goal and purpose in life! Work becomes their god!

“his eyes were not satisfied with riches” In many ways (without God) wealth is a curse. Before long it controls us! Those who are wealthy in earthly things never seem to have enough of them. Life is consumed with more and more; then every effort is made to protect what is accumulated! A good modern example of this strange truth is the disaster of winning a lot of money in the lottery. Statistics show that winning destroys the winners! We need more than wealth and possessions to find true happiness and lasting gain. We need God. We were created by Him and for Him. Apart from Him there is no purpose or lasting joy!

Verses 9-12

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 9Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. 10For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. 11Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? 12And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 This paragraph speaks of the advantage of companionship. This is the same Hebrew term “a second” (BDB 1040) from Ecclesiastes 4:8 used in Ecclesiastes 4:9, Ecclesiastes 4:10, Ecclesiastes 4:11, Ecclesiastes 4:12. Two are always better than one (BDB 25) and three better than two (cf. Ecclesiastes 4:12b).

Another human being changes the equation. Now self is not the only issue. Now the focus and effect of the Fall are reduced. Companionship and community trump isolation and self.

Verses 13-16

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Ecclesiastes 4:13-16 13A poor yet wise lad is better than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to receive instruction. 14For he has come out of prison to become king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom. 15I have seen all the living under the sun throng to the side of the second lad who replaces him. 16There is no end to all the people, to all who were before them, and even the ones who will come later will not be happy with him, for this too is vanity and striving after wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:13-16 This is so specific. It must refer to a historical incident (possibly [1] Joseph and Pharaoh] or [2] Saul and David). However, the point of the whole paragraph is the fickleness of the populace. No lasting help can come from politics. Fallen humanity cannot be governed into blessings and peace. Selfishness, corruption, and greed will permeate all!

Ecclesiastes 4:13 “poor” This Hebrew term (BDB 587) is found only four times in Ecclesiastes (cf. Ecclesiastes 4:13; Ecclesiastes 9:15[twice],16) and means “a poor man.”


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. List the areas of life the Qoheleth says is vanity.

2. What is the meaning of Ecclesiastes 4:2-3?

3. Are Ecclesiastes 4:5 and Ecclesiastes 4:6 contradictory?

4. What kind of man is described in Ecclesiastes 4:8?

5. Does the king in Ecclesiastes 4:13 represent all places of leadership or is he a real king?

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/ecclesiastes-4.html. 2021.
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