Ecclesiastes 4
Barnes' Notes
Having arrived Ecclesiastes 3:22 at a partial answer to his question Ecclesiastes 1:3; namely, that there is positive good (a portion) in that satisfaction which is found in working, Solomon now turns to the case of such happiness being interrupted and reduced to vanity by various contingencies - by oppression Ecclesiastes 4:1-3; by envy Ecclesiastes 4:4-6; by loneliness Ecclesiastes 4:7-12; and by decay of working power Ecclesiastes 4:13-16. The first two instances seem taken from the lower ranks of life, and the last two derived from the higher ranks of life.

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.
So I returned, and considered - Rather, And I returned and saw. He turns to look upon other phenomena, and to test his previous conclusion by them.

Oppressed - See the introduction to Ecclesiastes.

Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.
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.
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.
Every right work - Rather, every success in work.

For this ... - i. e., "This successful work makes the worker an object of envy." Some understand the meaning to be, "this work is the effect of the rivalry of man with his neighbor."

The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh.
Foldeth his hands - The envious man is here exhibited in the attitude of the sluggard (marginal references).

Eateth his own flesh - i. e., "Destroys himself:" compare a similar expression in Isaiah 49:26; Psalm 27:2; Micah 3:3.

Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.
Either the fool's sarcasm on his successful but restless neighbor; or the comment of Solomon recommending contentment with a moderate competence. The former meaning seems preferable.

Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun.
The spectacle of a prosperous man whose condition is rendered vain by his brotherless, childless isolation.

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.
A second - Any one associated or connected with him.

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.
Compare a saying from the Talmud: "A man without companions is like the left hand without the right."

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.
Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?
And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished.
These verses set forth the vanity of earthly prosperity even on a throne. Opinion as to their application is chiefly divided between considering them a parable or fiction like that of the childless man in Ecclesiastes 4:8 : or as setting forth first the vicissitudes of royal life in two proverbial sayings Ecclesiastes 4:13-14, and then Ecclesiastes 4:15-16, the vicissitudes or procession of the whole human race, one generation giving place to another, Which in its turn will be forgotten by its successor. On the whole, the first appears to have the better claim.

Ecclesiastes 4:13

Child - Rather, young man.

For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor.
Rather: For out of the house of bondage he goes forth to be a king; although he was born poor in his kingdom, i. e., in the country over which he became king.

I considered all the living which walk under the sun, with the second child that shall stand up in his stead.
I considered ... - literally, I saw "all the population of the young man's kingdom."

The second child - This second youth is generally understood to be identical with the one mentioned in Ecclesiastes 4:13.

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.
There is - Rather: There was.

That have been before them - Rather, before whom he was, i. e., at the head of whom the young king was. Compare Micah 2:13.

They also that ... him - i. e., The next generation shall forget this chosen king.

Notes on the Bible by Albert Barnes [1834].
Text Courtesy of Internet Sacred Texts Archive.

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