Ecclesiastes 4
Expositor's Bible Commentary
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.
 22And by Human Injustice and Perversity.

Ecclesiastes 3:16-22; Ecclesiastes 4:1-3But not only are our endeavours to find the "good" of our labours thwarted by the gracious, inflexible laws of the just God; they are often baffled by the injustice of ungracious men. In the days of Coheleth, iniquity sat in the seat of justice, wresting all rules of equity to its base private ends (Ecclesiastes 3:16). Unjust judges and rapacious satraps put the fair rewards of labour and skill and integrity in jeopardy, insomuch that if a man by industry and thrift, by a wise observance of Divine laws and by taking occasions as they rose, had acquired affluence, he was too often, in the expressive Eastern phrase, but as a sponge which any petty despot might squeeze. The frightful oppressions of the time were a heavy burden to the Hebrew Preacher. He brooded over them, seeking for aids to faith and comfortable words wherewith to solace the oppressed. For a moment he thought he had lit on the true comfort, "Well, well," he said within himself, "God will judge the righteous and the wicked; for there is a time for every thing and for every deed with Him" (Ecclesiastes 3:17). Could he have rested in this thought, it would have been "a sovereign balm" to him, or indeed to any other Hebrew; although to us, who have learned to desire the redemption rather than the punishment of the wicked, their redemption through their inevitable punishments, the true comfort would still have been wanting. But he could not rest in it, could not hold it fast, and confesses that he could not. He lays his heart bare before us. We are permitted to trace the fluctuating thoughts and emotions which swept across it. No sooner has he whispered to his heart that God, who is at leisure from Himself and has endless time at his command, will visit the oppressors and avenge the oppressed, than his thoughts take a new turn, and he adds: "And yet God may have sifted the children of men only to shew them that they are no better than the beasts" (Ecclesiastes 3:18): this may be his aim in all the wrongs by which they are tried. Repugnant as the thought is, it nevertheless fascinates him for the instant, and he yields to its wasting and degrading magic. He not only fears, suspects, thinks that man is no better than a beast; he is quite sure of it, and proceeds to argue it out. His argument is very sweeping, very sombre. "A mere chance is man, and the beast a mere chance." Both spring from a mere accident, no one can tell how, and have a blind hazard for a creator; and "both are subject to the same chance," or mischance, throughout their lives, all the decisions of their intelligence and will being overruled by the decrees of an inscrutable fate. Both perish under the same power of death, suffer the same pangs of dissolution, are taken at unawares by the same invisible yet resistless force. The bodies of both spring from the same dust, and moulder back into dust. Nay, "both have the same spirit"; and though vain man sometimes boasts that at death his spirit goeth upward, while that of the beast goeth downward, yet who can prove it? For himself, and in his present mood, Coheleth doubts, and even denies it. He is absolutely convinced that in origin and life and death, in body and spirit and final fate, man is as the beast is, and hath no advantage over the beast (Ecclesiastes 3:19-21). And therefore he falls back on his old conclusion, though now with a sadder heart than ever, that man will do wisely, that, being so blind and having so dark a prospect, he cannot do more wisely than to take what pleasure and enjoy what good he can amid his labours. If he is a beast, as he is a beast, let him at least learn of the beasts that simple, tranquil enjoyment of the good of the passing moment, untroubled by any vexing presage of what is to come, in which it must be allowed that they are greater proficients than he (Ecclesiastes 3:22).

Thus, after rising in the first fifteen verses of this Third Chapter, to an almost Christian height of patience, and resignation, and holy trust in the providence of God, Coheleth is smitten by the injustice and oppressions of man into the depths of a pessimistic materialism.

But now a new question arises. The Preacher’s survey of human life has shaken his faith even in the conclusion which he has announced from the first, viz., that there is nothing better for a man than a quiet content, a busy cheerfulness, a tranquil enjoyment of the fruit of his toils. This at least he has supposed to be possible: but is it? All the activities, industries, tranquillities of life are jeopardised, now by the inflexible ordinances of Heaven, and again by the capricious tyranny of man. To this tyranny his fellow countrymen are now exposed. They groan under its heaviest oppressions. As he turns and once more reflects {Ecclesiastes 4:1} on their unalleviated and unfriended misery, he doubts whether content, or even resignation, can be expected of them. With a tender sympathy that lingers on the details of their unhappy lot, and deepens into a passionate and despairing melancholy, he witnesses their sufferings and "counts the tears" of the oppressed. With the emphasis of a Hebrew and an Oriental, he marks and emphasises the fact that "they had no comforter," that though "their oppressors were violent, yet they had no comforter." For throughout the East, and among the Jews to this day, the manifestation of sympathy with those who suffer is far more common and ceremonious than it is with us. Neighbours and acquaintances are expected to pay long visits of condolence; friends and kinsfolk will travel long distances to pay them. Their respective places and duties in the house of mourning, their dress, words, bearing, precedence, are regulated by an ancient and elaborate etiquette. And, strange as it may seem to us, these visits are regarded not only as gratifying tokens of respect to the dead, but as a singular relief and comfort to the living. To the Preacher and his fellow captives, therefore, it would be a bitter aggravation of their grief that, while suffering under the most cruel oppressions of misfortune, they were compelled to forego the solace of these customary tokens of respect and sympathy. As be pondered their sad and unfriended condition, Coheleth-like Job, when his comforters failed him-is moved to curse his day. The dead, he affirms, are happier than the living, -even the dead who died so long ago that the fate most dreaded in the East had befallen them, and the very memory of them had perished from the earth: while happier than either the dead, who have had to suffer in their time, or than the living, whose doom had still to be borne, were those who had never seen the light, never been born into a world all disordered and out of course (Ecclesiastes 4:2-3).


In the Wrongs which He permits Men to inflict upon us

Ecclesiastes 3:16-22; Ecclesiastes 4:1-3Because we will not be obsequious to the ordinances of His wisdom, He permits us to meet a new check in the caprice and injustice of man-making even these to praise Him by subserving our good. If we do not suffer the violent oppressions which drew tears from the Preacher’s fellow captives, we nevertheless stand very much at the mercy of our neighbours in so far as our outward haps are concerned. Unwise human laws or an unjust administration of them, or the selfish rapacity of individual men-brokers who rig the market; bankers whose long prayers are a pretence under cloak of which they rob widows and orphans, and sometimes make them; bankrupts for whose wounds the Gazette has a singular power of healing, since they come out of it "sounder" men than they went in: these are only some of the instruments by which the labours of the diligent are shorn of their due reward. And we are to take these checks as correctives, to find in the losses which men inflict the gifts of a gracious God. He permits us to suffer these and the like disasters lest our hearts should be overmuch set on getting gain. He graciously permits us to suffer them that, seeing how often the wicked thrive (in a way and for a time) on the decay of the upright, we may learn that there is something better than wealth, more enduring, more satisfying, and may seek that higher good.


The Quest Of The Chief Good In Devotion To The Affairs Of Business

Ecclesiastes 3:1 - Ecclesiastes 5:20I. IF the true Good is not to be found in the School where Wisdom utters her voice, nor in the Garden in which Pleasure spreads her lures: may it not be found in the Market, in devotion to Business and Public Affairs? The Preacher will try this experiment also. He gives himself to study and consider it. But at the very outset he discovers that he is in the iron grip of immutable Divine ordinances, by which "seasons" are appointed for every undertaking under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1), ordinances which derange man’s best-laid schemes, and "shape his ends, rough hew them how he will," that no one can do anything to purpose "apart from God," except by conforming to the ordinances, or laws, in which He has expressed His will. {comp. Ecclesiastes 2:24-26}

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.
Devotion to Business springs from Jealous Competition:

Ecclesiastes 4:4(a) Let us glance once more at the several symptoms we have already heard him discuss, and consider whether or not they accord with the results of our own observation and experience, is it true, then-or, rather, is it not true-that our devotion to business is becoming excessive and exhausting, and that this devotion springs mainly from our jealous rivalry and competition with each other? If, some two or three and twenty centuries ago, the Jews were bent every man on outdoing and outselling his neighbour; if his main ambition was to amass greater wealth or to secure a larger business than his competitors, or to make a handsomer show before the world; if in the urgent pursuit of this ambition he held his neighbours not as neighbours, but as unscrupulous rivals, keen for gain at his expense and to rise by his fall; if, to reach his end, he was willing to get up early and go late to rest, to force all his energies into an injurious activity and strain them close to the snapping point: if this were what a Jew of that time was like, might you not easily take it for a portrait of many an English merchant, manufacturer, lawyer, or politician? Is it not as accurate a delineation of our life as it could be of any ancient form of life? If it be, as I think it is, we have grave need to take the Preacher’s warning. We gravely need to remember that the stream cannot rise above its source, nor the fruit be better than the root from which it grows; that the business ardour which has its origin in a base and selfish motive can only be a base and selfish ardour. When men gather grapes from thorns and figs from thistles, then, but not before, we may look to find a satisfying good in "all the toil and all the dexterity in toil" which spring from this "jealous rivalry of the one with the other."

It is rendered hopeless by the base origin of Human Industries.

Ecclesiastes 4:4-8This stinging sense of the miserable estate of his race has, however, diverted the Preacher from the conduct of the main argument he had in hand: to that he now returns (Ecclesiastes 4:4). And now he argues: You cannot hope to get good fruit from a bad root. But the several industries in which you are tempted to seek "the chief good and market of your time" have a most base and evil origin; they "spring from man’s jealous rivalry with his neighbour" Every man tries to outdo and to outsell his neighbours; to secure a larger business, to surround himself with a more profuse luxury, or to amass an ampler hoard of gold. This business life of yours is utterly selfish, and therefore utterly base. You are not content with a sufficient provision for simple wants. You do not seek your neighbour’s good. You have no noble or patriotic aim. Your ruling intention is to enrich yourselves at the expense of neighbours who, in their turn, are your rivals rather than your neighbours, and who try to get the better of you just as you try to get the better of them. Can you hope to find the true Good in a life whose aims are so sordid, whose motives so selfish? The very sluggard who folds his hands in indolence so long as he has bread to eat is a wiser man than you; for he has at least his "handful of quiet," and knows some little enjoyment of life; while you, driven on by jealous competition and the eager cravings of insatiate desire, have neither leisure nor appetite for enjoyment: both your hands are full, indeed, but there is no quiet in them, only labour, labour, labour, with vexation of spirit (Ecclesiastes 4:5-6).

So intense and selfish was this rivalry, increase of appetite growing by what it fed upon, so keen grew the desire to amass, that the Preacher paints a portrait, for which no doubt many a Hebrew might have sat, of a man-nay, rather, of a miser-who, though solitary and kinless, with not even a son or a brother to inherit his wealth, nevertheless hoards up riches to the close of his life; there is no end to his labours; he never can be rich enough to allow himself any enjoyment of his gains (Ecclesiastes 4:7-8).

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.
It tends to form a covetous Temper

Ecclesiastes 4:8(b) Nor, in the face of facts patent to the most cursory observer, can we deny that this eager successful conduct of business and excessive devotion to it tends to produce a grasping, covetous temper which, however much it has gained, is forever seeking more. It is not only true that the stream cannot rise above its source; it is also true that the stream will run downward, and must inevitably contract many pollutions from the lower levels on which it declines. The ardour which impels men to devote themselves with eager intensity to the labours of the market may often have an origin as pure as that of the stream which bubbles up on the hills, amid grass and ferns, and runs tinkling along its clear and rocky channels, setting its labours to a happy music, singing its low sweet song to the sweet listening air. But as it runs on, if it swell in volume and power, it also sinks and grows foul. Bent at first on acquiring the means to support a widowed mother, or to justify him in taking a wife, or to provide for his children, or to win an honourable place in his neighbours’ eyes, or to achieve the chance of self-culture and self-development, or to serve some public and worthy end, the man of business and affairs too often suffers himself to become more and more absorbed in his pursuits. He conceives larger schemes, is drawn into more perilous enterprises, and advances through these to fresh openings and opportunities, until at last, long after his original ends are compassed and forgotten, he finds himself possessed by the mere craving to extend his labours, resources, influence, if not by the mere craving to amass-a craving which often "teareth" and "tormenteth" him, but which can only be exorcised by an exertion of spiritual force which would leave him half dead. "He has no one with him, not even a son or a brother": the dear mother or wife is long since dead; his children, to use his own detestable phrase, are "off his hands": the public good has slipped from his memory and aims: but still "there is no end to all his labours, neither are his eyes satisfied with riches." Coheleth speaks of one such man: alas, of how many such might we speak!

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.
Yet these are capable of a nobler Motive and Mode.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-16Now a jealous rivalry culminating in mere avarice, -that surely is not the wisest or noblest spirit of which those are capable who devote themselves to affairs. Even "the idols of the market" may have a purer cult. Business, like wisdom or mirth, may neither be, nor contain, the supreme Good: still, like them, it is not in itself and of necessity an evil. There must be a better mode of devotion to it than this selfish and greedy one; and such a mode Coheleth, before he pursues his argument to a close, pauses to point out. As if anticipating a modern theory which grows in favour with the wiser sort of mercantile men, he suggests that cooperation-of course I use the word in its etymological rather than in its technical sense-should be substituted for competition. "Two are better than one," he argues; "union is better than isolation; conjoint labour brings the larger reward" (Ecclesiastes 4:9). To bring his suggestion home to the business bosom of men, he uses five illustrations, four of which have a strong Oriental colouring. The first is that of two pedestrians (Ecclesiastes 4:10); if one should fall-and, such an accident, owing to the bad roads and long cumbrous robes common in the East, was by no means infrequent-the other is ready to set him on his feet; while, if he is alone, the least that can befall him is that his robe will be trampled and bemired before he can gather himself up again. In the second illustration (Ecclesiastes 4:11), our two travellers, wearied by their journey, sleep together at its close. Now in Syria the nights are often keen and frosty, and the heat of the day makes men more susceptible to the cold. The sleeping chambers, moreover, have only unglazed lattices which let in the frosty air as well as the welcome light; the bed is commonly a simple mat, the bedclothes only the garments worn through the day. And therefore the natives huddle together for the sake of warmth. To lie alone was to lie shivering in the chill night air. The third illustration (Ecclesiastes 4:12) is also taken from the East. Our two travellers, lying snug and warm on their common mat, buried in slumber, that "dear repose for limbs with travel tired," were very likely to be disturbed by thieves who had dug a hole through the clay walls of the house, or crept under the tent, to carry off what they could. These thieves, always on the alert for travellers, are marvellously supple, rapid, and silent in their movements; but as the traveller, aware of his danger, commonly puts his "bag of needments" or valuables under his head, it does sometimes happen that the deftest thief will rouse him by withdrawing it. If one of our two wayfarers was thus aroused, he would call on his comrade for help, and between them the thief would stand a poor chance; but the solitary traveller, suddenly roused from sleep, with no helper at hand, might very easily stand a worse chance. than the thief. The fourth illustration (Ecclesiastes 4:12) is that of the threefold cord-three strands twisted into one, which, as we all know, English no less than Hebrew, is much more than three times as strong as any one of the separate strands.

But in the fifth and most elaborate illustration (Ecclesiastes 4:13-14), we are once more carried back to the East. The slightest acquaintance with Oriental history will teach us how uncertain is the tenure of royal power; how often it has happened that a prisoner has been led from a dungeon to a throne, and a prince suddenly deposed and reduced to impotence and penury. Coheleth supposes such a case. On the one hand, we have a king old, but not venerable, since, long as he has lived, he has not "even yet learned to accept admonition"; he has led a solitary selfish, suspicious life, secluded himself in his harem, surrounded himself with a troop of flattering courtiers and slaves. On the other hand, we have the poor but wise young man, "the affable youth," who has lived with all sorts and conditions of men, acquainted himself with their habits and wants and desires, and conciliated their regard. His growing popularity alarms the old despot and his minions. He is cast into prison. His wrongs and sufferings endear him to the wronged and suffering people. By a sudden outbreak of popular wrath, by a revolution such as often sweeps through Eastern states, he is set free, and led from the orison to the throne, although he was once so poor that none would do him reverence. This is the picture in the mind’s eye of the Preacher; and, as he contemplates it, he rises into a kind of prophetic rapture, and cries, "I see-I see all the living who walk under the sun flocking to the youth who stands up in the old king’s stead; there is no end to the multitude of the people over whom he ruleth!" (Ecclesiastes 4:15).

By these graphic illustrations Coheleth sets forth the superiority of the sociable over the solitary and selfish temper, of union over isolation, of the neighbourly goodwill which leads men to combine for common ends over the jealous rivalry which prompts them to take advantage of each other, and to labour each for himself alone.

But even as he urges this better, happier temper on men occupied with business and public affairs, even as he contemplates its brightest illustration in the youthful prisoner whose winning and sociable qualities have lifted him to a throne, the old mood of melancholy comes back on him; there is the familiar pathetic break in his voice as he concludes (Ecclesiastes 4:16), that even this wise youth, who wins all hearts for a time, will soon be forgotten; that "even this," for all so hopeful as it looks, "is vanity and vexation of spirit."

A profound gloom rests on the second act of this Drama. It has already taught us that we are helpless in the grip of laws which we had no voice in making; that we often lie at the mercy of men whose mercy is but a caprice; that in our origin and end, in body and spirit, in faculty and prospect, in our lives and pleasures, we are no better than the beasts which perish: that the avocations into which we plunge, and amid which we seek to forget our sad estate, spring from our jealousy the one of the other, and tend to a lonely miserliness without use or charm. The Preacher’s familiar conclusion -"Be tranquil, be content, enjoy as much as you can"-has grown doubtful to him. He has seen the brightest promise come to nought. In a new and profounder sense, "all is vanity and vexation of spirit."

But, though passing through a great darkness, he sees, and reflects, some little light. Even when facts seem to contradict it, he holds fast to the conclusion that wisdom is better than folly, and kindness better than selfishness, and to do good, even though you lose by it, better than to do evil and gain by it. His faith wavers only for a moment; it never wholly loosens its hold. And, in the fifth chapter, the light grows, though even here the darkness does not altogether disappear. We are sensible that the twilight in which we stand is not that of evening, which will deepen into night, but that of morning, which will shine more and more until the day dawn, and the daystar arise in the calm heaven of patient tranquil hearts.

Practical Maxims deduced from this View of the Business life.

(b) A noble philosophy this, and pregnant with practical counsels of great value. For if, as we close our study of this Section of the Book, we ask, "What good advice does the Preacher offer that we can take and act upon?" we shall find that he gives us at least three serviceable maxims.

A Maxim on Cooperation. Ecclesiastes 4:9-16To all men of business conscious of their special dangers and anxious to avoid them, he says, first: Replace the competition which springs from your jealous and selfish rivalry, with the cooperation which is born of sympathy and breeds goodwill. "Two are better than one. Union is better than isolation. Conjoint labour has the greater reward." Instead of seeking to take advantage of your neighbours, try to help them. Instead of standing alone, associate with your fellows. Instead of aiming at purely selfish ends, pursue your ends in common. Indeed the wise Hebrew Preacher anticipates the Golden Rule to a remarkable extent, and, in effect, bids us love our neighbour as our self, look on his things as well as our own, and do to all men as we would that they should do to us.

A Maxim on Worship. Ecclesiastes 5:1-7His second maxim is: Replace the formality of your worship with a reverent and steadfast sincerity. Keep your foot when you go to the House of God. Put obedience before sacrifice. Do not hurry on your mouth to the utterance of words which transcend the desires of your heart. Be not one of those who

"Words for virtue take,

As though mere wood a shrine would make."

Do not come into the Temple with a preoccupied spirit, a spirit distracted with thoughts that travel different ways. Realise the presence of the Great King, and speak to Him with the reverence due to a King. Keep the vows you have made in His house after you have left it. Seek and serve Him with all your hearts, and ye shall find rest to your souls.

A Maxim on Trust in God Ecclesiastes 5:8-17And his last maxim is: Replace your grasping self-sufficiency with a constant trust in the fatherly providence of God. If you see oppression or suffer wrong, if your schemes are thwarted and your enterprises fail, you need not therefore lose the quiet repose and settled peace which spring from a sense of duty discharged and the undisturbed possession of the main good of life. God is over all, and rules all the undertakings of man, giving each its season and place, and causing all to work together for the good of the loving and trustful heart. Trust in Him, and you shall feel, even though you cannot prove,

"That every cloud that spreads above,

And veileth love, itself is love."

Trust in Him and you shall find that

"The slow sweet hours that bring us all things good,

The slow sad hours that bring us all things ill

And all good things from evil,"

as they strike on the great horologe of Time, are set to a growing music by the hand of God; a music which rises and falls as we listen, but which nevertheless swells through all its saddest cadences and dying falls toward that harmonious close, that "undisturbed concent," in which all discords will be drowned.

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