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.Ecclesiastes 4:1. So I returned, and considered — I considered again more seriously; all the oppressions — under the sun — Whether by princes, magistrates, or other potent persons; and the tears of such as were oppressed — Their grievous sufferings, sighs, and groans. And they had no comforter — None afforded them either pity or succour. For such was the greatness and power of their oppressors, that, as they could not defend themselves against them, so none else durst express their compassion toward them, much less plead for them, for fear of being made to suffer in the same way themselves.
Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.Ecclesiastes 4:2-3. Wherefore I praised the dead, &c. — I judged them less miserable. For this is certain, that setting aside the future life, which Solomon doth not meddle with in the present debate, and considering the uncertainty, and vanity, and manifold calamities of the present life, a wise man would not account it worth his while to live. Yea, better is he than both they — “Much more desirable than either of these is it not to have come into the world at all; and so to have had no sense of the miseries which the dead have formerly felt, and which the living now undergo.”
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.Ecclesiastes 4:4. Again I considered all travail — Hebrew כל עמל, all the labour, toil, or trouble, which men undertake or undergo; and every right work — All the worthy designs of virtuous men; that for this a man is envied of his neighbour — Instead of that honour and recompense which he deserves, he meets with nothing but envy, and obloquy, and many evil fruits thereof.
The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh.Ecclesiastes 4:5. The fool foldeth his hands, &c. — Is careless and idle: perceiving that diligence is attended with envy, he runs into the other extreme. And eateth his own flesh — Wastes his substance, and brings himself to poverty, whereby his very flesh pines away for want of bread.
Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.Ecclesiastes 4:6. Better is a handful with quietness, &c. — These are the words, either, 1st, Of the sluggard, making this apology for his idleness, that his little, with ease, is better than great riches got with much trouble; or, 2d, of Solomon, who elsewhere speaks to the same purpose, and here proposes this antidote against the vanity of immoderate cares and labours for worldly goods, against which he industriously directs his speech in divers places of this book, and particularly in the following passage.
Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun.
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.Ecclesiastes 4:8. There is one alone — Who has none but himself to care for. Yea, he hath neither child nor brother — To whom he may leave his vast estate; yet is there no end of his labours — He lives in perpetual restlessness and toil. Neither is his eye satisfied — His covetous mind or desire, fitly expressed by the eye, both because the eye is frequently the incentive to this sin of covetousness, (Joshua 7:21,) and because the covetous man hath no good by his riches, save the beholding them with his eyes, as is affirmed, Ecclesiastes 5:11. Neither saith he — Within himself: for he considers nothing but how he may get more and more: For whom do I labour? — Having no posterity or kindred to enjoy it; and bereave my soul of good? — Deny myself those comforts and conveniences which God has allowed me? Shall I take all this pains, and endure all these toils and hardships for a stranger, possibly for an enemy, who will reap the fruit of all my cares and labours? This is also vanity, yea, a sore travail — A dreadful judgment and misery, as well as a great sin.
Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.Ecclesiastes 4:9. Two — Or more, who live together in any kind of society, and join their powers together in pursuit of any important object; are better than one — Act more cheerfully, and accomplish their designs more readily, than any of them could do in a solitary state; because they have a good reward for their labour — Have great benefit by such combinations and conjunctions of their counsels and abilities, whereby they exceedingly support, encourage, and strengthen each other, and effect many things which none of them could have effected alone. Gregory Thaumaturgus, says Bishop Patrick, understands Solomon as speaking here of κοινωνια βιου, living in communion, or fellowship together, which he shows to be profitable, both to procure us greater happiness, which is the subject of the ninth verse, and to preserve us in the enjoyment of it when we have attained it, which is the subject of the three following verses.
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.Ecclesiastes 4:10-12. For, if they fall — If one or more of them fall in any way; as into any mistakes, and errors, or sins, dangers, or distresses. The one will lift up his fellow — Will hold him up, if he be falling, or raise him up, if he be fallen. If two lie together, then they have heat — They will be sooner warm in a cold bed and a cold season. So virtuous and gracious affections are excited by good society; and Christians warm one another, by provoking one another to love and good works. But how can one be warm alone? — How can the warmth and fervency of true Christian love and zeal be retained by him who stands aloof from, and has no intercourse with, his fellow-Christians? If one prevail against him — If an enemy, visible or invisible, might easily prevail against either or any of them, if not associated with others, two or more, uniting their counsels and efforts, will be able to withstand him; and a three-fold cord is not quickly broken — If a man have not only one, but two or more friends to assist him, he is so much the more secure against all assaults, and therefore the more happy. Thus, in our spiritual warfare, we may be helpful to each other as well as in our spiritual work. And next to the comfort of communion with God, is that of the communion of saints. For they that dwell in love dwell in God, and God in them.
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.Ecclesiastes 4:13-14. He now proceeds to another vanity, even that of honour and power, and the highest places. Better — More happy; is a poor and wise child — Who is doubly contemptible, both for his age and for his poverty; than an old and foolish king, who, though venerable for his age, and gravity, and royal dignity, yet hath neither wisdom to govern himself, nor to receive the counsels or admonitions of wiser men, but is foolish, rash, and incorrigible. For out of prison he — The poor and wise child; cometh to reign — Is ofttimes advanced by his wisdom to the highest power and dignity; which was the case with Joseph, Mordecai, and many others; whereas he that is born in his kingdom — That old king, who was born of the royal race, and had possessed his kingdom for a long time; becometh poor — Is deprived of his kingdom, either by the rebellion of his subjects, provoked by his folly, or by the power of some other and wiser prince.
For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor.
I considered all the living which walk under the sun, with the second child that shall stand up in his stead.Ecclesiastes 4:15. I considered all the living — The general disposition of common people in all kingdoms, that they are fickle and inconstant, weary of their old governors, and desirous of changes; with the second child that shall stand up — That shall arise to reign. This may be understood of the king’s child, or son and heir, called second in respect to his father, whose successor he is. Some join this clause with the preceding, thus: I considered all the living which walk — Or, that they walk; under the sun — That is, upon earth; with the second child — That is, that they follow, favour, and worship him, as the rising sun, upon which the eyes and hopes of most people are fixed. Probably Solomon observed this disposition in his own people, who were growing weary of his government, and beginning to desire a change, and to turn their eyes to Rehoboam his successor. At least he remembered the rebellion that had been raised against his father David in favour of Absalom, and might have reason to think the same leaven was still working in his kingdom. The verse is thus paraphrased by Bishop Patrick: “Such is the infelicity of princes, that I have seen a king left with nothing but the bare title, and the outward state of royalty; the hearts and affections of all, nobles, gentry, and common people, from one end of the kingdom to the other, inclining to his son (or next heir) that is to succeed him; unto whom they do obeisance, as if he were already upon the throne; but neglect his old father, who sees himself robbed of those honours in which he placed his happiness.”
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.Ecclesiastes 4:16. There is no end of the people — The sense seems to be, either, 1st, The people who have this humour are without end, or innumerable: or, 2d, This humour of the common people hath no end, but passes from one generation to another: they ever were, and are, and will be, unstable and restless, and given to change: which sense the following words favour: Even of all that have been before them — Before the present generation of subjects, who earnestly desired and promoted the change of government here expressed. And so, here are three generations of people mentioned; the authors of the present change, and their parents, and their children; and all are observed to have the same inclinations in these matters. They also that come after shall not rejoice in him — They shall be as weary of the successor, though a wise and worthy prince, as their parents were of his foolish predecessor. Surely, this also is vanity — From all this it appears, that happiness is not to be found in honour and power; no, not in the very highest pitch of it: for there also is not only dissatisfaction to be found, but many dangers, troubles, and vexatious cares, which much disturb and perplex the minds of those that possess it. See Bishop Patrick.