Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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.IV.
(1) Having dwelt on the instability of human happiness, the Preacher now turns to contemplate the actual misery of which the world is full.
No comforter.—If Solomon were the writer, one asks, What was the king about? Could he do nothing but express helpless despair?
Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.(2) I praised the dead.—Job 3:11; Exodus 32:32; 1Kings 19:4; Jeremiah 20:14; Jonah 4:3. The word which is translated “yet” in this verse belongs to later Hebrew, and does not occur elsewhere in the Old Testament,
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) Right work.—Rather, skilful. (See Note on Ecclesiastes 2:21.)
The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh.(5) Eateth his own flesh.—Interpreters have usually taken these words metaphorically, as in Psalm 27:2; Isaiah 49:26; Micah 3:3, and understood them as a condemnation of the sluggard’s conduct as suicidal. But it has been proposed, taking the verse in connection with that which precedes and those which follow, to understand them literally, “eats his meat;” the sense being that, considering the emulation and envy involved in all successful exertion, one is tempted to say that the sluggard does better who eats his meat in quiet. There is, however, no exact parallel to the phrase “eats his flesh;” and I think that if the latter were the meaning intended, it would have been formally introduced in some such way as, “Wherefore I praised the sluggard.” Adopting, then, the ancient interpretation, we understand the course of conduct recommended to be the golden mean between the ruinous sloth of the fool and the vexatious toil of the ambitious man.
Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun.(7) Then I returned.—The vanity of toil is especially apparent in the case of a solitary man. It is possible, as has been suggested (see Ecclesiastes 2:18), that this may have been the writer’s own case. The following verses, which speak of the advantages of friendship and unity, are of a more cheerful tone than the rest of the book.
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.(10) Woe.—The word occurs only here and in Ecclesiastes 10:16, but is common in post-Biblical Hebrew.
Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?(11) They have heat.—The nights in Palestine were often very cold, and it would seem (Exodus 22:26) that it was common to sleep without any cover but the ordinary day garment; though see Isaiah 28:20.
Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished.(13) The section commencing here presents great difficulties of interpretation, in overcoming which we have little help from the context, on account of the abruptness with which, in this verse, a new subject is introduced.
Poor.—The word occurs again in this book (Ecclesiastes 9:15-16), but not elsewhere in the Old Testament: kindred words occur in Deuteronomy 8:9; Isaiah 40:20. No confidence can be placed in the attempts made to find a definite historical reference in this verse and the next.
For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor.(14) Becometh.—Instead of this translation, it is better to render, in his kingdom he was even poor; but there is ambiguity in the Hebrew, as in the English, whether the antecedent of the “his” and the “he” is the old king or the new one.
I considered all the living which walk under the sun, with the second child that shall stand up in his stead.(15) I considered.—Heb., I saw. Most modern interpreters regard the “second child” as identical with the “young man” of Ecclesiastes 4:13, and understand the passage, “I saw him at the head of all his people; yet his great popularity was but temporary, and the next generation took no pleasure in him.” It seems to me that by no stretch of rhetoric can “all the living which walk under the sun” be taken for the subjects of the sovereign in question. I am inclined to think that the Preacher reverts to the general topic, and considered all the living with the “second youth,” i.e., the second generation which shall succeed them. He saw the old generation hardened in its ways, and incapable of being admonished, and then displaced by a new generation, with which the next will feel equal dissatisfaction.