Matthew Poole's 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.The vanity of oppression, by reason of which the dead and the unborn are better than the living, Ecclesiastes 4:1-3. Of envy, sloth, quarrel, Ecclesiastes 4:4-6. Of covetousness and selfishness, Ecclesiastes 4:7,8. The advantage of society and friendship, Ecclesiastes 4:9-12. The poor better than foolish kings, Ecclesiastes 4:13. He is advanced, whilst one born king is made poor, Ecclesiastes 4:14. The people never contented, but rejoicing in changes, Ecclesiastes 4:15,16.
I considered again more seriously
all the oppressions that are done under the sun, whether by supreme magistrates or judges, of which he spake Ecclesiastes 3:16, or by any other potent persons.
They had no comforter; none afforded them either pity or succour, either out of a selfish and barbarous disposition, or for fear of exposing themselves thereby to the same injuries.
There was power, both in themselves, and because most men were ready to join with the strongest and safest side. So they were utterly unable to deliver themselves, and, as it follows, none else could or would do it.
They had no comforter; which is repeated as an argument both of the great inhumanity of men towards others in calamity, and of the extreme misery of oppressed persons.
Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.I praised; I judged them more happy, or less miserable; which he seems to deliver not only as the judgment of the flesh, or of the sense, or of men in misery, as this is commonly understood, but as his own judgment. For this is most true and certain, that setting aside the advantage which this life gives him for the concerns of the future life, which Solomon doth not meddle with in the present debate, and considering the uncertainty, and vanity, and manifold vexations of mind, and outward calamities of the present life, a wise man would not account it worth his while to live, and would choose death rather than life. The dead which are already dead; those which are quite dead; who possibly are here opposed to them that, in respect of their deplorable and desperate condition, are even whilst they live called dead men, Isaiah 26:19, and said to die daily, 1 Corinthians 15:31.
The living which are yet alive; which languish under their pressures, of whom we can only say, as we use to speak of dying men, They are alive, and that is all.
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.Which hath not yet been; who was never born. How this is true, see on the foregoing verse.
Not seen, i.e. not felt; for as seeing good is put for enjoying it, Ecclesiastes 2:24, so seeing evil is put for suffering it, as hath been more than once observed.
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; all the worthy designs and complete works of wise and virtuous men.
Is envied of his neighbour; instead of that honour and recompence 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.Foldeth his hands together; is careless and idle, which is the signification of this gesture, Proverbs 6:10 19:24 26:15. Perceiving that diligence is attended with envy, Ecclesiastes 4:4, he, like a fool, runs into the other extreme.
Eateth his own flesh; wasteth his substance, and bringeth himself to poverty, whereby his very flesh pineth away for want of bread, and he is reduced to skin and bone; and if he have any flesh left, he is ready to eat it through extremity of hunger.
Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.These are the words, either,
1. Of the sluggard making this apology for his idleness, that his little with ease, is better than great riches got with much trouble. Or,
2. Of Solomon, who elsewhere speaks to the same purpose, as Proverbs 15:16,17 17:1, and here proposeth it as a good antidote against the vanity of immoderate cares and labours for worldly goods, against which he industriously directs his speeches in divers places of this book; and particularly as a seasonable precaution against the sin of covetousness, of which he speaks in the following passage.
Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun.No text from Poole on this verse.
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.One alone; either,
1. Who lives by himself, as grudging that any ether should partake of his provisions. Or rather,
2. Who hath none but himself to care and labour for, as the next words explain it.
He hath neither child nor brother, to whom he may leave his vast estate.
Yet is there no end of all his labour; he lives in perpetual restlessness and excessive toils.
His eye, i.e. his covetous mind or desire, fitly expressed by the eye, partly because that is the incentive of this sin, Joshua 7:21; and partly because he hath no good by his riches, saving the beholding of them with his eyes, as it is affirmed, Ecclesiastes 5:11, compared with Ecclesiastes 2:10 1Jo 2:16. Neither saith he, within himself; he considers nothing but how he may get more and more. For whom do I labour? having no posterity nor kindred to enjoy it, as was now said. Shall I take all this pains for a stranger, possibly for an enemy, who will reap the fruit of all my labours? Bereave my soul of good; deity myself those comforts and conveniencies which God hath allowed unto me.
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.Two, who live together in any kind of society, and join their powers together in any enterprises; which he opposeth to that humour of the covetous man, who desired to live alone, as was now said.
A good reward for their labour; both have great benefit by such combinations and conjunctions of their counsels and abilities, whereby they do exceedingly support, and encourage, and strengthen one another, and effect many things which neither of them alone could do.
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.They; one of them, the plural being put for the singular, as Jonah 1:5 Matthew 21:7 1 Timothy 2:15. Or both of them successively.
Fall, in any kind, into any mistakes and errors, or sins, or dangers and distresses.
Will lift up his fellow; hold him up if he be falling, or raise him up if he be fallen.
Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?They have heat; they will be sooner warm in a cold bed and cold season.
How can one be warm alone? not so soon nor so thoroughly.
And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.Against him; against either of them.
A threefold cord is not quickly broken; if a man have not only one, but two or more friends, he is so much the safer and the happier.
Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished.Better; more happy. Now he proceeds to another vanity, even that of honour and power, and of the highest places.
A poor child; who is doubly contemptible, both for his age, and for his poverty.
An old king; venerable both for his age and gravity, and for his royal dignity. So that the comparison is made with the greatest disadvantage that may be.
Who will no more be admonished; who hath neither wisdom to govern himself, nor to receive the counsels or admonitions of wiser men, but is foolish, and wilful, and incorrigible.
For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor.Out of prison, into which he was cast for his poverty and debt, 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 of Joseph, and Mordecai, and many others.
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.
I considered all the living which walk under the sun, with the second child that shall stand up in his stead.I considered all the living; the general disposition or humour of common people in all kingdoms, that they are fickle and inconstant, weary of their old governors, and desirous of changes.
Which walk under the sun: this is a periphrasis, or description of living and mortal men, like that Ecclesiastes 7:11, that see the sun.
With the second child: these words may be joined either,
1. With those which walk, or, that they walk under the sun, (i.e. upon the earth,) with the second child, i.e. follow, and favour, and worship him as the rising sun, upon whom the eyes and hopes of most people are fixed. Or,
2. With the first words,
I considered all the living which walk under the sun, i.e. the temper of all subjects or people, together
with the condition of the second child; which may be understood either,
1. In general, of a king’s child, or son and heir, who is called second, in respect of his father, whose successor he is to be. Or,
2. That wise and poor child mentioned Ecclesiastes 4:13, who is said to come to reign, Ecclesiastes 4:14, and may well be called the second to the old and foolish king who became poor, Ecclesiastes 4:15, being deposed from his kingdom, whom he succeeds, being put in his place either by the humour of the people, or by some higher power.
Stand up, i.e. arise to reign, as that phrase signifies, Daniel 8:22,23 11:2,3,7,20,21.
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 no end of all the people: the sense is either,
1. The people which have this humour are without end, or innumerable, as this phrase signifies, Job 22:5 Isaiah 2:7 9:7. Or,
2. This humour of the common people hath no end, but passeth 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 seem to favour.
Before them; either,
1. Before the two kings above mentioned, the father and the son, or the predecessor and successor. All those who stood or desired to stand in their presence, and waited upon them, as this phrase is used, 2 Samuel 16:19 1 Kings 10:8. Or rather,
2. Before the present generation of subjects, who earnestly desired and promoted the change of government here expressed; for these are evidently opposed to them that come after, which all interpreters understand of the people, not of the kings. And so here are three generations of people noted, the authors of the present change, and their parents, and their children, and all are observed to have the same inclinations in these matters.
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; the reason whereof is partly from that itch of novelty and curiosity which is natural and common to mankind, and partly from their vain and foolish hopes of advantage from such changes.