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Bible Commentaries

John Trapp Complete Commentary
Ecclesiastes 4

 

 

Verse 1

Ecclesiastes 4:1 So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of [such as were] oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors [there was] power; but they had no comforter.

Ver. 1. So I returned, and considered.] Here is a second instance of corruption in civil state, added to that of Ecclesiastes 3:16, to fill up the nest of vanities.

And behold the tears of such, &c.] Heb., Tear; as if they had wept their utmost, et vix unicam lachrymulam extorquere possent, and could hardly squeeze out one poor tear more for their own ease. For as "hinds by calving," so men by weeping "cast out their sorrows." [Job 39:3] (a) Now tears are of many sorts: Lachrymas angustiae exprimit crux; lachrymas poenitentiae, peccatum; lachrymas sympathiae, affectus; lachrymas letitiae, excellentia gaudii; denique lachrymas nequitiae, vel hypocrisis, vel vindictae, cupiditas. (b) Oppression draws tears of grief; sin, tears of repentance; affection, tears of compassion; good success, tears of joy; hypocrisy or spite, tears of wickedness.

And they had no comforter.] This was Job’s doleful case, and David’s, [Psalms 69:21] and the Church’s in the Lamentations. [Lamentations 1:2] Affert solarium lugentibus suspiriorum societas, saith Basil Pity allays misery; but incompassionateness of others increaseth it. This was one of Sodom’s sins, [Ezekiel 16:49] and of those epicures in Amos. [Amos 6:6] The king and Haman sat drinking in the gate; but the whole city of Shushan was in heaviness. [Esther 3:15]

And on the side of their oppressors, &c.] The oppressed Romans sighed out to Pompey, Nostra miseria tu es magnus. You, our misery, is great. The world hath almost as many wild beasts and monsters as it hath landlords in various places. It is a woeful thing, surely, to see how great ones quaff the tears of the oppressed, and to hear them make music of shrieks.


Verse 2

Ecclesiastes 4:2 Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.

Ver. 2. Wherefore I praised the dead.] Because they are out of the reach of wrong doers; and if dead in the Lord, they have "entered into peace, they do rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness." [Isaiah 57:2] But if otherwise, men had better do anything, suffer anything here than die; since by death, as by a trap door, they enter into those terrors and torments that shall never either mend or end. Men, like silly fishes, see one another caught and jerked out of the pond of life but they see not, alas! the fire and pan into the which they are cast that die in their sins. Oh it had been better, surely, for such if they had never been born, as Christ said of Judas, than thus to be "brought forth to the murderer" [Hosea 9:14] - to the old manslayer - to be hurled into hell, there to suffer such things as they shall never be able to avoid or abide.


Verse 3

Ecclesiastes 4:3 Yea, better [is he] than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.

Ver. 3. Yea, better is he than both they.] The heathen could say, Optimum non nasci: proximum mori. Life is certainly a blessing of God, though never so calamitous. Why is living man sorrowful? saith the prophet: [Lamentations 3:39] and it is as if he should say, Man, if alive, hath some cause of comfort amidst all his miseries; if he may escape though but "with the skin of his teeth," [Job 19:20] and have his life for a prey, he should see matter of thankfulness, and say, "It is the Lord’s mercy that I am not consumed" [Lamentations 3:22] - that I am yet on this side hell. But those that have set their hearts upon earthly things, if ever they lose them, they are filled almost with unmedicineable sorrows; so as they will praise the dead above the living, and wish they had never been born. These are they whom Solomon in this sentence is by some thought to personate.


Verse 4

Ecclesiastes 4:4 Again, I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbour. This [is] also vanity and vexation of spirit.

Ver. 4. That for this a man is envied of his neighbour.] This is another piece of life’s vanity; that, as greater men will lie heavy upon you and oppress you, so meaner men will be envying at you and oppose you: as Cain did Abel, Saul’s courtiers did David; the peers of Persia, Daniel; the Scribes and Pharisees, our Saviour. Every Zopyrus shall be sure to have his Zoilus. The garment of righteousness, parti-coloured with all variety of graces, is a great eyesore to the wicked, and makes the saints maligned. See Proverbs 27:4. {See Trapp on "Proverbs 27:4"}


Verse 5

Ecclesiastes 4:5 The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh.

Ver. 5. The fool foldeth his hands together.] A graphical and lively description of a sluggard, fitly called a fool ( φαυλος), a naughty person. "Thou idle and evil servant." [Matthew 25:26] God puts no difference between nequaquam and nequam, a drone and a naughty pack, seem he never so "wise in his own eyes," [Proverbs 26:16] and have he never so much reason to allege for himself - as in the verse here next following; a fool he is, and so he will soon prove himself; for "he folds up his hands and hides them in his own bosom." [Proverbs 26:15] A great many chares he is likely to do the while: {See Trapp on "Proverbs 19:24"} And as ( Neque mola, neque farina - nothing do, nothing have) "he eateth his own flesh" - he maketh many a hungry meal, he hath a dog’s life, as we say. "Ease slayeth this fool"; [Proverbs 1:32, marg.} poverty comes upon him as an armed man; grief also slays him; {Proverbs 21:25] envy consumes his flesh, and he is vexed at the plenty of painful persons, and, because he cannot come at, or rather pull out their hearts, he feeds upon his own.


Verse 6

Ecclesiastes 4:6 Better [is] an handful [with] quietness, than both the hands full [with] travail and vexation of spirit.

Ver. 6. Better is an handful with quietness.] This is the sluggard’s plea, whereby he bolstereth himself up in his wickedness, and would make you believe that he did, non sine ratione insanire, not play the madman without good reason. To what end, saith he, should a man toil and tire out himself with hard labour to compass commodity - making a drudge and a beast of himself for a little pelf, since he knows not who shall have the spending of it, and he is sure to be either squeezed by his superiors, {as Ecclesiastes 4:1} or else envied by his neighbours? {as Ecclesiastes 4:4} Is not a little with ease better? a penny by begging better than twopence by true labour? It is well observed by an interpreter, that this sentence uttered by the sluggard, is, in its true meaning, not much different from that of the wise man in Proverbs 17:1, but ill applied by him. Good words are not always to be trusted, from ill men especially.


Verse 7

Ecclesiastes 4:7 Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun.

Ver. 7. Then I returned, and saw vanity, &c., ] i.e., Another extreme of vanity, visible wherever the sun is seen. Dum vitant stulti vitium in contraria currant: Fools while they shun the sands rush upon the rocks, - as Herod would needs prevent perjury by murder. The sluggard here, seeing those that do best to be envied of others, resolves to do just nothing. Again, the covetous miser, seeing the sluggard lie under so much infamy for doing nothing, se laboribus conficit, undoes himself with over doing. Sed nemo ita perplexus tenetur inter duo vitia, quin exitus pateat absque tertio, saith an ancient; but no man is so held hampered between two vices but that he may well get off without falling into a third. What need Eutyches fall into the other extreme of Nestorius? or Stancarus, of Osiander? or Illyricus, of Strigelius? but that they were for their pride justly given up to a spirit of giddiness.


Verse 8

Ecclesiastes 4:8 There is one [alone], and [there is] not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet [is there] no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither [saith he], For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good? This [is] also vanity, yea, it [is] a sore travail.

Ver. 8. There is one alone, and there is not a second.] A matchless miser, a fellow that hardly hath a fellow; a solivagant, or solitary vagrant, that dare not marry for fear of a numerous offspring. Child he hath none to succeed him, nor brother to share with him, and yet "there is no end of all his labour"; he takes incessant pains and works like a horse, "neither is his eye satisfied with riches"; that lust of the eye - as St John calls covetousness [1 John 2:16] - is as a bottomless gulf, as an unquenchable fire, as leviathan that wanteth room in the main ocean, or as behemoth, that "trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth." [Job 40:23]

Neither saith he, For whom do I labour and bereave my soul of good?] Si haec duo tecum verba reputasses, Quid ago? respirasset cupiditas et avaritia paululum, saith Cicero to Nevius. (a) If thou wouldst but take up those two words, and say to thyself, What do I? thy lust and covetousness would be somewhat rebated thereby. But lust is inconsiderate and headlong; neither is anything more irrational than irreligion. The rich glutton bethought himself of his store, and resolved to take part of it, [Luke 12:17] so did Nabal; but this wretch here hath not a second, he "plants a vineyard and eats not of the fruit thereof." [1 Corinthians 9:7]

And bereave my soul of good,] i.e., Deprive myself of necessary conveniences and comforts, and defraud my genius of that which God hath given me richly to enjoy; [1 Timothy 6:17] or, bereave my soul of good, of God, of grace, of heaven, never thinking of eternity, of "laying up for myself a good foundation," that I may "lay hold upon eternal life"; [1 Timothy 6:19] but by low ends, even in religious duties, making earth my throne and heaven my footstool. "This is vanity" in the abstract; "this is a sore travail," because, Nulla emolumenta laborum, No good to be gotten by it - no pay for a man’s pains; but, as the bird that sitteth on the serpent’s eggs, by breaking and hatching them brings forth a perilous brood, to her own destruction, so do those that sit abrood on the world’s vanities.


Verse 9

Ecclesiastes 4:9 Two [are] better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.

Ver. 9. Two are better than one.] Friendly society is far beyond that wretched "aloneness" of the covetous wretch; [Ecclesiastes 4:8] he "joins house to house and land to land, that he may live alone in the midst of the earth." [Isaiah 5:8]

“Quin sine rivali, seque et sua solus amato.” - Horat.

Let him enjoy his moping solitariness, if he can. "It is not good for man to be alone," saith God; [Genesis 2:18] and he that loves to be alone is either a beast or a god, saith the philosopher (a) Man is ζωον πολιτικον, a sociable creature - he is "nature’s good fellow," and holds this for a rule, Optimum solarium sodalitium. There is great comfort in good company: next to communion with God is the communion of saints. Christ sent out his apostles by two and two. [Mark 6:7] He himself came from heaven to converse with us; and shall we, like stoics, stye up ourselves, and not daily run into good company? The evil spirit is for solitariness, God is for society. (b) He dwells in the "assembly of his saints"; yea, there he hath a delight to dwell, calling the Church his Hephzibah, [Isaiah 62:4] and the saints were David’s Hephzibam, "his delight." [Psalms 16:3] Neither doth God nor good men take pleasure in a stern, froward austerity, or wild retiredness, but in a mild affableness and amiable conversation.


Verse 10

Ecclesiastes 4:10 For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him [that is] alone when he falleth; for [he hath] not another to help him up.

Ver. 10. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow.] Provided that they hold together and be both of a mind. That which is stronger shoreth up that which is weaker. While Latimer and Rid ley lived, they kept up Cranmer, by intercourse of letters and otherwise, from entertaining counsels of revolt. Bishop Ridley, being prisoner in the Tower, had the liberty of the same, to prove, belike, whether he would go to mass or not, which once he did. And Mr Bradford, being there prisoner, and hearing thereof, wrote an effectual letter to persuade him from the same, which did Mr Ridley no little good, for he repented, &c. (a) Bishop Farrar also being in the King’s Bench prisoner, was travailed with by the Papists at the end of Lent to receive the sacrament at Easter in one kind, who, after much persuading, yielded to them, and promised so to do. But, by God’s good providence, the Easter evening, the day before he should have done it, was Bradford brought to the same prison, where, the Lord making him his instrument, Bradford only was the means that the said bishop revoked his promise, and would never after yield to be spotted with that Papistical pitch. (b) Dr Taylor for like cause rejoiced that ever he came into prison, there to be acquainted with that angel of God, John Bradford: so he called him, for the good he received from him. (c) One man may be an angel to another in regard of counsel and comfort; nay, a God to another, as Moses was to Aaron. "Though he fall, he shall arise," for the Lord puts under his hand. [Psalms 37:24]

But woe to him that is alone.] Because Satan is readiest to assault when none is by to assist. Solitariness, therefore, is not to be affected, because it is "the hour of temptation."

For he hath not a second to help him up.] As Elizabeth Cowper, the martyr, in Queen Mary’s days had, who, being condemned, and at the stake with Simon Miller, when the fire came unto her she a little shrank thereat, crying once, Ah! When Simon heard the same, he put his hand behind him toward her, and willed her to be strong and of good cheer; for, ‘Good sister,’ said he, ‘we shall soon have a joyful and sweet supper. It is but winking a little, and you are in heaven.’ With these and the like speeches, she, being strengthened, stood still and quiet, as one most glad to finish that good work. (d) It was therefore a devilish policy in Julian and other heathen persecutors to banish Christians into far countries one from another, and to confine them to isles and mines, where they could not have access one to another.


Verse 11

Ecclesiastes 4:11 Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm [alone]?

Ver. 11. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat.] Heat of zeal and good affection. "Did not our hearts burn within us," said those two disciples, when Christ once made the third with them, and by holy conference kindled them. [Luke 24:32] So when Silas and Timotheus came from Macedonia, Paul was "pressed in spirit." [Acts 18:5] Warm he was before, but now all of a light fire, as it were. Those dull daughters of Jerusalem, by hearing the spouse describe her beloved, as she doth from tip to toe, were fired up with desire to join with her in seeking after him whom her soul loved. The lying together of the dead body of one with the bones of Elisha, gave life to it. So doth good company give life to those that are dead in sin. Let two cold flints be smitten together, and fire will come forth. So let two dull Christians confer and communicate their soul secrets, and it shall not repent them; they shall find the benefit of it. "Canst thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades?" saith God to Job. [Job 38:31] These Pleiades be the seven stars, that have all one name, because they all help one another in their work, which is to bring the spring, and, like seven sisters, so are they joined together in one constellation, and in one company. We see that God will have the sweetest works in nature to be performed with mutual help. The best time of the year, the sweetest warmth cometh with these Pleiades, and the best time of our life cometh when we lie together in true love and fellowship, No sooner had the Philippians received the gospel, but they were in "fellowship" to a "day." [Philippians 1:5] They knew, that as sincerity is the life of religion, so is society the life of sincerity.


Verse 12

Ecclesiastes 4:12 And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Ver. 12. And if one prevail against him, &c.] Vis unita fortior. God bade Gideon to go down to the camp of the Midianites, and if he feared to go, then to take with him his servant Phurah. Jonathan will not go without his armourbearer - David without Abishai. [1 Samuel 26:6] Christ, when to begin his passion in the garden, took Peter, James, and John with him, for the benefit of their prayers and company, though they served him but sorrily. "My dove is but one." [Song of Solomon 6:9] "Jerusalem is a city compact together." [Psalms 122:3] The Church is "terrible as an army with banners"; [Song of Solomon 6:4] "the gates of hell cannot prevail against her." [Matthew 16:18] Unity hath victory, but division breeds dissolution, as it did once in this island when Caesar first entered it. Dum singuli pugnant universi vincuntur, saith Tacitus of the ancient Britons. The Turks pray daily that the differences among us Christians may be heightened, for that will soonest undo us, and one of their emperors, when his council dissuaded him from a war against the Germans, because of their multitude, said that he feared them not, because sooner would his fingers be all of one length than their princes all of one mind. (a)

And a threefold cord is not easily broken.] A proverbial confirmation well interpreted by Lyra: Quanto plures et boni in amicitia coniuncti sunt, tanto status eorum melioratur, - The more they are that unite, so they be good, the better it is with them. See 2 Samuel 10:9-12. We lose much of our strength in the loss of friends; our cable is as it were untwisted. Hence David so bemoans the loss of Jonathan, and made him an epitaph. [2 Samuel 1:17-27] Hence St Paul counted it a special mercy to him that Epaphroditus recovered. [Philippians 1:27]


Verse 13

Ecclesiastes 4:13 Better [is] a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished.

Ver. 13. Better is a poor and wise child.] Such as was Joseph, David, Daniel, and his three comrades, &c.; apt to learn, ready to receive instruction, and as careful to follow it. And well doth the Preacher join poverty with wisdom, for, Nescio quomodo bonae mentis soror est paupertas, saith he in Petronius; and, Paupertas est philosophiae vernacula, - Poverty is the proper language of philosophy, and wisdom is undervalued little and set by. Those wisest of the Greeks were very poor - Aristides, Phocion, Pelopidas, Epaminondas, Socrates, Ephialtes. (a) So were those worthies "of whom the world was not worthy; they wandered about in sheep skins and goat skins, being destitute." [Hebrews 11:38] Sweet smelling Smyrna was the poorest of all the seven churches, yet hath the richest price set upon it. [Revelation 2:8-11] Lactantius died miserably poor; so did Theodorus Gaza, that learned Greek. Of Archimedes thus sings Silius, -

“Nudus opum, sed cui coelum terraeque patebant.” (b)

But I am fully of Aeneas Sylvius’s judgment, that popular men should esteem wisdom as silver, noblemen as gold, princes as pearls. Of Queen Elizabeth (that peerless princess) it is said that she hated, no less than did Mithridates, such as despised virtue forsaken of fortune. (c)

Than an old and foolish king.] Brabanli quo magis senescunt, eo magis stultescunt. (d) So do many men of quality, monarchs and others, weak, and yet wilful, short witted, and yet self-conceited; such as were Saul, Rehoboam, Jehoiakim, Nebuchadnezzar, our Henry III, called Regni dilapidator, destroyer of kingdoms, and that James that reigned in Scotland in our Edward IV’s time, of whom as the story is told that he was so much wedded to his own opinion, that he could not endure any man’s advice (how good soever) that he fancied not. He would seldom ask counsel, but never follow any. (e) Xerxes, in his expedition against Greece, is reported to have called his princes together, and thus to have spoken to them: Lest I should seem to follow mine own counsel, I have assembled you; and now do you remember, that it becomes you rather to obey than to advise. (f)


Verse 14

Ecclesiastes 4:14 For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also [he that is] born in his kingdom becometh poor.

Ver. 14. For out of prison he cometh to reign.] As Valentinian the emperor; Sultan Mustapha the great Turk, A.D. 1622; our Henry IV, who was crowned the very same day that, the year before, he had been banished the realm. (a) As, on the other side, Henry VI was sent again prisoner to the Tower the same day that he had been carried through the city, as it were, in triumph, and had heard the shouts of the commons in every street, crying, God save King Henry. Lo! he that had been the most potent monarch for dominions, saith the chronicler, (b) that ever England had, was not now the master of a molehill, nor owner of his own liberty. So that in him it appeared that mortality was but the stage of mutability, when a man born in his kingdom, yea, born to a kingdom, became thus miserably poor. Furthermore, Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, grandchild to John of Gaunt, may serve as a fit instance and example to all how uncertain Adam’s sons are of any continuing greatness. For, saith Philip Commines, I once saw him run on foot bare legged after the Duke of Burgundy’s train, begging (c) his bread for God’s sake; but he uttered not his name, he being the nearest of the house of Lancaster, and brother-in-law unto King Edward IV, from whom he fled; and being known who he was, Burgundy gave him a small pension to maintain his estate. (d)


Verse 15

Ecclesiastes 4:15 I considered all the living which walk under the sun, with the second child that shall stand up in his stead.

Ver. 15. I considered all the living, &c.] He means the multitude, that shallow brained, but great and many headed beast, making defection from their old prince, though never so prudent, and setting up his own son against him, as they dealt by David more than once, merely out of an itch of instability and affectation of novelty. Now, as this is to others, so to kings also a vexation, to see already the common aspect of their people bent upon another object before the time; to behold them worshipping the rising sun, (a) as the proverb is, and themselves laid aside, in a manner, as broken vessels out of request in comparison. (b) Crowns have their cares and crosses, and high seats are never but uneasy. O vilis pannus! O base clout! said one king concerning his diadem, were it but known how many molestations and miseries do attend thee, Nemo foret qui te tollere vellet humo, no man would deign to take thee up lying at his feet. Antoninus the philosopher said often that the empire was malorum oceanus, an ocean of mischiefs; and another caused it to be written upon his tomb, Felix si non imperitassem, Happy had I been if I had never reigned. It is seldom seen, as before hath been observed, that God allows unto the greatest darlings of the world a perfect contentment, be they never so well deserving. Something they must have to complain of, that shall give an unsavoury verdure to their sweetest morsels, and make their very felicity miserable.


Verse 16

Ecclesiastes 4:16 [There is] no end of all the people, [even] of all that have been before them: they also that come after shall not rejoice in him. Surely this also [is] vanity and vexation of spirit.

Ver. 16. There is no end of all the people,] i.e., They are infinitely discontented and restless in their desires after a new and another governor. Aει γαρ το παρον βαρυ, as Thucydides long since observed, The present government, be it never so good, is always grievous. "O that I were made judge in the land," said Absalom. [2 Samuel 15:4] Oh that thou wert, said the people, who yet soon had enough of him. And so had they of their new king, Saul, whom contra gentes, they would needlessly have, after the manner of all other nations. [1 Samuel 8:6-7] How soon did the Baptist grow stale to the Jews, that had lately "heard him gladly," [Mark 6:20] and was no more set by than "a reed shaken with the wind!" [Matthew 11:7] How suddenly did they change their note concerning Christ from "Hosanna" to Crucify him! The common people are like to children, saith an interpreter, that rest not contented with any schoolmaster, and like to servants that love to change every year their masters. People are desirous to hear new preachers, as feasters to hear new songs and new instruments. [Ezekiel 33:32]

 


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Bibliography Information
Trapp, John. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4:4". John Trapp Complete Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jtc/ecclesiastes-4.html. 1865-1868.

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