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1. The writer now looks upon the suffering which arises from “man’s inhumanity to man.” The royal writer, if such he be, does not confine his survey of the oppressions practiced by men to his own kingdom alone. He surveys all the oppressions under the sun, whether in his own kingdom, in neighboring nations, or in universal history. He states not merely what he saw but what he considered. I returned, and considered, is equivalent to, again I saw, implying merely a new line or object of observation. In the Hebrew the same word occurs twice. Our version renders it, oppressions and oppressed. Better, oppressed, each time: all the oppressed who are made such under the sun; the latter part serving to hold the attention longer. The down-trodden classes, like the French peasantry until the Revolution, the English agricultural labourers, the former American slaves, and very many other examples, illustrate this observation.
2. I praised the dead The style of this verse shows that the writer was an eyewitness of much that he names, and felt a most lively emotion in view of it. “There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest.” Job 3:17.
3. Better… not yet been The dead have suffered; the living now suffer. The abortion that perishes unborn, as infants which never saw light, escapes all suffering. “They have slept, they have been at rest.” Very wretched must he be to whom cold and dark non-existence seems better than the warm experiences of life and action. Yet it has many times been expressed, if not felt.
“Not to be born, never to see the sun,
No worldly blessing is a greater one.” Theognis.
4. A man is envied Jealousy is here a more fitting term than envy, for envy relates to what is now in possession, jealousy to what is now in process of acquirement. But the remark here is of activity and skill now at work, so that jealousy is the true word. Assuming, as Koheleth does in this discussion, from Ecclesiastes 3:22, that there is no future life, he is prepared to suggest that jealousy of one another is the main cause of men’s efforts in life. The margin gives here the true sense, or at least the better, This springs from a man’s jealousy towards his neighbour.
5. The fool… eateth his own flesh The activity of the jealous is here contrasted with the quiet of the stupid, to the advantage of the latter: The stupid foldeth his hands, yet hath meat to eat. This can be said of him, that he enjoys the common blessings of life with small care or anxiety. Fool as he is, he shows something of philosophic calm and content.
6. Better is a handful, etc. This verse confirms what has been said to the credit of the lazy man, and really assigns a reason for the statement of Ecclesiastes 4:5. It would be better to use of in place of “with,” and Hebrew usage would demand it “handful of quietness,” “both the hands full of travail.”
7. I returned, and I saw That is, again I saw. A case of avarice is now considered; a man giving up all enjoyment of the present, and struggling against the inevitable order of affairs, under the desire of accumulating money “accursed hunger for gold.”
8. One… not a second Neither saith he, is not found in the Hebrew, but is inserted to guide to the sense. Yet it is livelier rhetoric to add nothing, but to take the simple personification of the original.
For whom do I labour In this verse Koheleth for the moment puts himself in the place of the lonely miser. This man, so solitary, struggles to amass riches for the mere love of possessing them. “If I were in his place, for whom should I be doing all this?”
9. Better than one That is, happier. If the avaricious man would ally himself to a friend, his enjoyment would be increased.
10. For if they fall Better, “For if one fall.” The illustration is drawn from travelling, but it may be applied to any of the numerous mishaps of life. “God never made an independent man.” Each depends on another.
11. How can one be warm The ordinary people of Palestine to this time, as did all the ancients, lie down at night in the usual clothing of the day. The country has hot days and cold nights, and a traveller is annoyed at the complaints of his men arising from insufficient protection. The frost consumes them by night, and they crowd together for warmth. The houses formerly had open lattice instead of glass windows, so that the cold night air was felt within, and the sleepers on mats and carpets suffered from the chill. There is no allusion here to husband and wife. Night-dresses, distinct from the clothing worn by day, were first introduced by the French, and in quite modern times.
12. And if one prevail “One” is here the object of the verb, and it should read, “If an assailant prevail against one man, two can resist him.” A threefold cord is a lively emblem of a close alliance. That “union is strength,” is the theme of many a fable and proverb. To this day travellers in the East are too much exposed to marauders to allow of journeying singly. This discourse on friendship reminds one of the manly and tender attachment of David and Jonathan.
13. Better is… a wise child This would be better rendered youth, as the word is often used even of those near manhood.
An old and foolish king Age and royalty have always been objects of veneration in the East; but an aged “king” who has been so foolish as to alienate all his counsellors, and come to later years without their support, is here put as inferior to a poor youth who is still teachable.
14. Out of prison… reign The possibilities of the “youth” are stated as a reason for the declaration of the preceding verse. He may go from prison to a throne, while a born king, managing foolishly, may become a poor outcast. The bright example of Joseph was ever recurring to Jewish writers. Also, that of Jeroboam the “industrious,” who, after the death of Solomon, returned from exile in Egypt and became king of Israel.
15. The second child The word here rendered “second” is, in Ecclesiastes 4:8; Ecclesiastes 4:10, used in the sense of an ally or associate, and so it should be here, for the contrast is between him and the lonely, repulsive king. It means that the youth makes himself a fellow and companion to others, gaining in return their favour. It might be rendered “the popular youth.” In his stead, means in the place of the old king, as his rival. Koheleth marks the effect of his ways upon the living, so different from those of his rival.
16. Of all that have been before them Really, Of all before whom he was, that is, whose leader he was. His popularity was boundless. Everybody seemed to follow him.
Also Better, yet. They who come after him may find that a brilliant reign has been really disastrous to the land. Or, it may be that his beneficent career was brief, and followed by some one who so spoiled all, that it left no more lasting impression
“Than smoke in air, or on the water, foam.”
Therefore, this career of this man, however successful, was also vanity and a grasping after wind.
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28