Ecclesiastes 4
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
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.
1. So I returned, and considered] The thought that follows is the same in substance as that of chap. Ecclesiastes 3:16, but, in the speaker’s wanderings of thought he passes once again, after the manner of the ἐποχὴ, or “suspense” of Pyrrho, he looks at the same facts, the “oppressions” and disorders of the world as from another stand-point, and that standpoint is the negation of immortality, or, at least, the impossibility of being sure of it. It may be noted that the tone is that of a deeper compassion than before. He sees the tears of the oppressed and sighs at their hopelessness: “Oh, the pity of it! the pity of it!” We can see in this new element of despair, that which was the beginning of a better life. The man was passing, to use modern terms, from egoism to altruism, thinking more of the misery of others than of his own enjoyment.

they had no comforter] The iteration rings like a knell of doom. The words have sometimes been taken as if they meant “they had no advocate, none to plead their cause,” but there is no sufficient reason for abandoning the more natural meaning. It was the bitterest drop in their cup, that men met with no sympathy, no visits of consolation such as Job’s friends paid him. They found none to pity or to comfort them. So the absence of comforters is the crown of sorrow in Psalm 69:20; Lamentations 1:2; Jeremiah 16:7, as its presence was one of the consolations of the bereaved household of Bethany (John 11:19). It may be noted, that, as far as it goes, this picture of the social state in which the Debater found himself is in favour of a later date than that of Solomon. The picture of that king’s reign was, like that of the days of “good Queen Bess” in our own history, one of almost proverbial prosperity; the people “eating, drinking and making merry” (1 Kings 4:20), and his administration, as far as his own subjects were concerned, one of “judgment and justice” (1 Kings 10:9). It was probably equally true of the Persian kings and of the Ptolemies that their rule was cruel and oppressive. The picture which Justin gives of the state of Egypt under Ptolemy Philopator (xxix. 1) and Ptolemy Epiphanes exactly corresponds with that drawn by Koheleth.

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.
3. Yea, better is he than both they] As the utterance of a personal feeling of despair we have a parallel in the words of Job (Ecclesiastes 3:11-16). As expressing a more generalised view of life we have multiform echoes of the thought in the Greek writers, of whose influence, direct or indirect, the book presents so many traces. Thus we have in Theognis:

Πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον,

μηδʼ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου

φύντα δʼ ὄπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περῆσαι,

καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.

“Best lot for men is never to be born,

Nor ever see the bright rays of the morn:

Next best, when born, to haste with quickest tread

Where Hades’ gates are open for the dead,

And rest with much earth gathered for our bed.”


Or in Sophocles:

μὴ φῦναι τὸν ἄπαντα νικᾷ λόγοντὸ δʼ, ἐπεὶ φανῇ,

βῆναι κεῖθεν ὄθεν περ ἤκει,

πολὺ δεύτερον, ὡς τάχιστα.

“Never to be at all

Excels all fame;

Quickly, next best, to pass

From whence we came.”

Oed. Col. 1225.

More remote but of yet deeper significance is the fact that the same feeling lies at the root of Buddhism and its search after Nirvana (annihilation or unconsciousness) as the one refuge from the burden of existence. Terrible as the depression thus indicated is, it is one step higher than the hatred of life which appeared in chs. Ecclesiastes 1:14, Ecclesiastes 2:17-18. That was simply the weariness of a selfish satiety; this, like the feeling of Çakya Mouni when he saw the miseries of old age and disease and death, and of the Greek Chorus just quoted, rose from the contemplation of the sorrows of humanity at large. It was better not to be than to see the evil work that was done under the sun. In marked contrast with this dark view of life we have the words: “Good were it for that man not to have been born” in Matthew 26:24, as marking out an altogether exceptional instance of guilt and therefore of misery.

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.
4. I considered all travail, and every right work] The “right work,” as in ch. Ecclesiastes 2:21, is that which is dexterous and successful, without any marked reference to its moral character. Men exult in such work at the time, but they find it has the drawback of drawing on them the envy and ill-will of their less successful neighbours, and this therefore is also vanity and feeding on wind.

The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh.
5. The fool foldeth his hands together] Simple as the words seem they have received very different interpretations: (1) The fool (the word is the same as in ch. Ecclesiastes 2:14-16, and is that, the prominence of which in both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes serve as a connecting link between the two Books), the man without aim or insight, leading a half brutish life, “folds his hands” in the attitude of indolence (Proverbs 6:10; Proverbs 24:33), and yet even he, with his limited desires, attains to the fruition of those desires, “eats his meat” and rejoices more than the wise and far-sighted who finds his dexterous and successful work empty and unsatisfying. (So Ginsburg.) For this sense of the words “eateth his flesh,” we have the usage of Exodus 16:8; Exodus 21:28; Isaiah 22:13; Ezekiel 39:17. So taken, this thought coheres with the context, and expresses the sense of contrast between the failure of aspiring activity and skill to attain the happiness they aim at, and the fact that those who do not even work for enjoyment get as full a share of it—perhaps, even a fuller—as those who do. (2) The last clause has been interpreted, as in the A.V., as meaning literally that the slothful man “consumes his own flesh,” i.e. reduces himself literally to the poverty and starvation which culminates in horrors such as this, as in Isaiah 9:20; Jeremiah 19:9, or, figuratively, pines away under the corroding canker of envy and discontent. For the latter meaning, however, we have no authority in the language of the Old Testament, and so taken, the passage becomes only a warning, after the manner of the Proverbs, against the sin of sloth, and as such, is not in harmony with the dominant despondency of this stage of the writer’s experience. The view which sees in Ecclesiastes 4:5, the writer’s condemnation of sloth, and in Ecclesiastes 4:6 the answer of the slothful, seems out of keeping with the context.

Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.
6. Better is a handful with quietness] The preposition is in both clauses an interpolation, and we should read “a handful of repose, … two handfuls of travail and feeding on wind.” In form the saying presents a parallel to Proverbs 15:17, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith;” but the thought is obviously of a less ethical character. The feeling expressed in Ecclesiastes 4:5-6 (the latter confirming the interpretation just given of the former) is such as we may think of as rising in the mind of an ambitious statesman or artist striving after fame, as he looks on the dolce far niente of a lazzarone at Naples, half-naked, basking in the sun, and revelling in the enjoyment of his water-melon. The one would at such a time, almost change places with the other, but that something after all forbids. The words have almost a verbal parallelism in our common English proverb “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

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.
8. There is one alone, and there is not a second] The gaze of the seeker now falls on another picture. That which strikes him as another example of the vanity of human efforts is the frequent loneliness of the worshipper of wealth. He is one, and he has no companion, no partner or friend, often none bound to him by ties of blood, child or brother, yet he labours on, as though he meant to be the founder of a dynasty. “He heapeth up riches and knoweth not who shall gather them” Psalm 39:6.

neither is his eye satisfied with riches] The words paint vividly the special characteristic of the insatiability of avarice,

“Crescit amor nummi quantum ipsa pecunia crescit.”

“So grows our love of wealth as grows the wealth itself.”

neither saith he, For whom do I labour] The words in italics “saith he” express the meaning of the original but deprive it of its dramatic boldness. The speaker imagines himself in the place of the miser and this is the question which in that case he would ask. The picture is, as it were, a replica of that already drawn in chap. Ecclesiastes 2:18-19.

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.
9. Two are better than one] The strain of moralising which follows indicates at least the revived capacity for a better feeling. As the Debater had turned from the restless strivings of the seeker after wealth to the simple enjoyment of the labouring man or even the sensuous pleasure of the indolent, so now he turns from the isolation of the avaricious to the blessings of companionship. Here at least, in that which carries a man out of himself, there is a real good, a point scored as “gain.” Here also, over and above his own experience the Seeker may have been helped by the current thought of his Greek teachers, the κοινά τὰ φίλων of the proverb, or the lines of Homer,

Σύν τε δύʼ ἐρχομένω, καὶ τε πρὸ ὃ τοῦ ἐνόησεν

Ὅππως κέρδος ἔῃμοῦνος δʼ εἴπερ τε νοήσῃ,

Ἀλλά τε οἱ βράσσων τε νόυς λεπτὴ δέ τε μῆτις.

“When two together go, each for the other

Is first to think what best will help his brother;

But one who walks alone, though wise in mind,

Of purpose slow and counsel weak we find.”

Iliad, x. 224–6.

So the Greek proverb ran as to friends

χεὶρ χεῖρα νίπτει, δακτυλός τε δάκτυλον.

“Hand cleanseth hand, and finger finger helps.”

The “good reward” is more than the mere money result of partnership, and implies the joy of

“United thoughts and counsels, equal hope

And hazard.”

The literature of well-nigh all ages and races abound in expressions of the same thought. Aristotle dedicates two whole books (viii. ix.) of his Ethics to the subject of Friendship, and Cicero made it the theme of one of his most finished essays. Commonly, however, men rested it, as the writer does here, mainly on the basis of utility. “The wise man,” says Seneca (Epist. ix. 8) from his higher Stoic standpoint, “needs a friend, not as Epicurus taught, that he may have one to sit by his bed when he is ill, or to help him when he is poor or in prison, but that he may have one by whose bed he may sit, whom he may rescue when he is attacked by foes.” We may point also to Proverbs 17:17; Proverbs 27:17, and the Jewish proverb “a man without friends is like a left hand without the right” (Pirke Aboth, f. 30. 2) as utterances of a like nature. It is, however to be noted, in connexion with the line of thought that has been hitherto followed in these notes as to the date and authorship of the book, that the preciousness of friendship as one of the joys of life was specially characteristic of the school of Epicurus (Zeller, Stoics and Epicureans, c. xx.). It was with them the highest of human goods, and the wise would value it as the chief element of security (Diog. Laert. x. 1. 148). The principle thus asserted finds, it may be added, its highest sanction in the wisdom of Him who sent out His disciples “two and two together” (Luke 10:1).

if they fall] The special illustration appears to be drawn from the experience of two travellers. If one slip or stumble on a steep or rocky path the other is at hand to raise him, while, if left to himself, he might have perished.

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?
11. if two lie together] Here again the experience of travel comes before us. Sleeping on a cold and stormy night, under the same coverlet, or in Eastern houses, with their unglazed windows and many draughts, two friends kept each other warm, while one resting by himself would have shivered in discomfort. Commonly as in Exodus 22:6, the mantle of the day served also as the blanket of the night. So, of course, it would be with those who travelled according to the rule of Matthew 10:10.

And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
12. if one prevail against him] Better, If a man overpowers him that is alone, yet two shall withstand. Another incident of travel is brought before us. The robber may lie in ambush. Against one his attack would be successful; the two friends defend each other and are saved.

a threefold cord is not quickly broken] Perhaps no words in Ecclesiastes are better known than this as a proverbial expression for the strength of unity. It differs from the previous illustration in suggesting the thought of a friendship in which more than two persons are joined. “Threefold” is chosen as an epithet, partly as carrying on the thought from two to three, as in Proverbs 30:15; Proverbs 30:18; Proverbs 30:21, from three to four, partly because “three” was for the Israelite the typical number for completeness, probably also because the rope of three strands was the strongest cord in use. The proverbial form has naturally led to manifold application of the maxim, and the devout imagination of the interpreters has seen in it a reference to the doctrine of the Three Persons in the unity of the Godhead, to the union of Faith, Hope and Charity in the Christian life, and so on. These, it need scarcely be said, lie altogether outside the range of the thoughts of the Debater.

Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished.
13. Better is a poor and a wise child] Better, young man. The words are general enough but the ingenuity of commentators has sought for examples in history, which the writer, according to the varying theories as to his date, may have had in his thoughts. Such, e.g. as Abraham and Nimrod, Joseph and Pharaoh, David and Saul (all these are named in the Midrash Koheleth, see Introduction, ch. vi.), Joash and Amaziah, Cyrus and Astyages, the high priest Onias and his nephew Joseph (circ. b.c. 246–221, see Joseph. Ant. xii. 4, and Note on next verse), or Herod and his son Alexander. None of these identifications are altogether satisfactory, and it is quite possible that the writer may simply have uttered a general statement or may have had in view some events of which we have no record. In Wis 4:8-9 we have a more eloquent utterance of the same thought, “Honourable age is not that which standeth in length of time or that is measured by number of years, but wisdom is the grey hair unto men and unspotted life is old age.” The word for “child” is used of Joseph at the age of 17 (Genesis 37:30; Genesis 42:20) and even of the companions of Rehoboam when the latter was over 40 (1 Kings 12:8).

For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor.
14. For out of prison he cometh to reign] The pronouns are ambiguous in the Hebrew as in English, and the clauses have consequently been taken in very different ways, as referring to one and the same person, or to the two who had been named in the preceding verse (1) “For one cometh out of prison to reign, though he (the young successor) was born poor in his kingdom” (that of the old king, or that which was afterwards to be his own); or (2) “For one cometh out of prison to reign, while a king becomes a beggar in his kingdom.” Here also a reference has been found to the history of Onias under Ptolemy Euergetes. Josephus describes him (Ant. xii. 4) as “of a little soul and a great lover of money” while his nephew Joseph “young in age” was “of great reputation for gravity, wisdom and justice,” and obtained from the king permission to farm the revenues of Cœlesyria, Phœnicia, Samaria and Judæa. It can scarcely be said however that the case thus narrated is parallel with what we find in the verse before us. There is no king old or young, coming out of prison, or reduced to poverty. On the whole, unless the words refer to some unrecorded incident, some vague reminiscence of Cyrus and Astyages seems more likely to have been before the writer’s mind. According to one version of that history Cyrus had been brought up in poverty (Herod. i. 112), and was so strictly guarded that Harpagus had recourse to stratagem to convey a letter into his hands (Herod. i. 123).

I considered all the living which walk under the sun, with the second child that shall stand up in his stead.
15. with the second child that shall stand up in his stead] If we take the word “second” in its natural meaning, the clause may point either to the wise young ruler of the previous verse, as succeeding (i.e. coming second to) the old and foolish king, or possibly to his successor, and points in either case to what we have learnt to call the “worship of the rising Sun.” All gather round him, and their name is legion. There is “no end of all the people.”

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.
16. There is no end of all the people] The words continue the picture of the crowds who follow the young king.

even of all that have been before them] The last words are not of time but position. The people are before their king, or rather, he is before them all, going in and out before them (1 Samuel 18:16; 2 Chronicles 1:10), ruling and guiding. The reference of the words to the Messianic child of Isaiah 7:14; Isaiah 9:6, falls under the same category as the interpretation which finds the doctrine of the Trinity in the “threefold cord” of Ecclesiastes 4:12. It is true of both that they may be devout applications of the words, but are in no sense explanatory of their meaning.

they also that come after] This is added as the crowning stroke of the irony of history. The reign which begins so brightly shares the inevitable doom, and ends in darkness, and murmuring and failure. “Il n’y a pas d’homme necessaire,” and the popular hero of the hour finds himself slighted even in life, and is forgotten by the next generation. The glory of the most popular and successful king shares the common doom and is but as a feeding upon wind. Here again the statement is so wide in its generalization that it is not easy to fix on any historical identification. David, Solomon himself, Jeroboam, Cyrus, Antiochus the Great, Herod have been suggested by the ingenuity of commentators.

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