Ecclesiastes 4
Pulpit 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.
Verses 1-16. - Section 5. Koheleth proceeds to give further illustrations of man's inability to be the architect of his own happiness. There are many things which interrupt or destroy it. Verses 1-3. - First of all, he adduces the oppression of man by his fellow-man. Verse 1. - So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun. This is equivalent to, "again I saw," as ver. 7, with a reference to the wickedness in the place of judgment which he had noticed in Ecclesiastes 3:16. Ashukim, "oppressions," is found in Job 35:9 and Amos 3:9, and, being properly a participle passive, denotes oppressed persons or things, and so abstractedly "oppressions." Τὰς συκοφαντίας (Septuagint); calumnias (Vulgate). The verb is used of high-handed injustice, of offensive selfishness, of the hindrances to his neighbor's well-being caused by a man's careless disregard of aught but his own interests (comp. 1 Samuel 12:4; Hosea 12:8, etc.). Beheld the tears of such as were oppressed; τῶν συκοφαντουμένων (Septuagint); innocentium (Vulgate). He notes now not merely the fact of wrong being done, but its effect on the victim, and intimates his own pity for the sorrow. And they had no comforter. A sad refrain, echoed again at the end of the verse with touching pathos. Οὐκ ἔστιν αὐτοῖς παρακαλῶν (Septuagint); they had no earthly friends to visit them in their affliction, and they as yet knew not the soothing of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter (Παράκλητος). There was no one to wipe away their tears (Isaiah 25:8) or to redress their wrongs. The point is the powerlessness of man in the face of these disorders, his inability to right himself, the incompetence of others to aid him. On the side of their oppressors there was power (koach), in a bad sense, like the Greek βία equivalent to "violence." Thus the ungodly say, in the Book of Wisdom 2:11, "Let our strength be the law of justice." Vulgate, Nec posse resistere eorun violentiae, cunctorum auxilio destitutes. It is difficult to suppose that the state of things revealed by this verse existed in the days of King Solomon, or that so powerful a monarch, and one admired for "judgment and justice" (1 Kings 10:9), would be content with complaining of such disorders instead of checking them. There is no token of remorse for past unprofitableness or anguish of heart at the thought of failure in duty. If we take the words as the utterance of the real Solomon, we do violence to history, and must correct the existing chronicles of his reign. The picture here presented is one of later times, and it may be of other countries. Persian rule, or the tyranny of the Ptolemies, might afford an original from which it might be taken.
Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.
Verse 2. - In view of these patent wrongs Koheleth loses all enjoyment of life. Wherefore (and) I praised the dead which are already dead; or, who died long ago, and thus have escaped the miseries which they would have had to endure. It must, indeed, have been a bitter experience which elicited such an avowal. To die and be forgotten an Oriental would look upon as the most calamitous of destinies. More than the living which are yet alive. For these have before them the prospect of a long endurance of oppression and suffering (comp. Ecclesiastes 7:1; Job 3:13, etc.). The Greek gnome says -

Κρεῖσσον τὸ μὴ ζῇν ἐστὶν η} ζῇν ἀθλίως

"Better to die than lead a wretched life." The Septuagint version is scarcely a rendering of our present text: "Above the living, as many as are living until now."
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.
Verse 3. - Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been. Thus we have Job's passionate appeal (Job 3:11), "Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came forth," etc.? And in the Greek poets the sentiment of the text is re-echoed. Thus Theognis, 'Paroen.,' 425 -

Πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον
Μηδ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου
Φύντα δ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀι'´δαο περῆσαι
Καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον

"'Tis best for mortals never to be born,
Nor ever see the swift sun's burning rays;
Next best, when born, to pass the gates of death
Right speedily, and rest beneath the earth."
(Comp. Soph., '(Ed. Colossians,' 1225-1228.) Cicero, 'Tusc. Disp.,' 1:48, renders some lines from a lost play of Euripides to the same effect -

"Nam nos decebat, caetus celebrantes, domum
Lugere, ubi esset aliquis in lucern editus,
Humanae vitae varia reputantes mala;
At qui labores metre finisset graves,
Hunc omni amicos lauds et laetitia exsequi."
Herodotus (5. 4) relates how some of the Thracians had a custom of bemoaning a birth and rejoicing at a death. In our own Burial Service we thank God for delivering the departed "out of the miseries of this sinful world." Keble alludes to this barbarian custom in his poem on' The Third Sunday after Easter.' Speaking of a Christian mother's joy at a child's birth, he says -

"No need for her to weep
Like Thracian wives of yore,
Save when in rapture still and deep
Her thankful heart runs o'er.
They mourned to trust their treasure on the main,
Sure of the storm, unknowing of their guide:
Welcome to her the peril and the pain,
For well she knows the home where they may safely hide."
(See on Ecclesiastes 7:1; comp. Gray's ode 'On a Prospect of Eton College;' and for the classical notion concerning life and death, see Plato, 'Laches,' p. 195, 1), sqq.; 'Gorgias,' p. 512, A.) The Buddhist religion does not recommend suicide as an escape from the evils of life. It indeed regards man as master of his own life; but it considers suicide foolish, as it merely transfers a man's position, the thread of life having to be taken up again under less favorable circumstances. See 'A Buddhist Catechism,' by Subhadra Bhikshu (London: Redway, 1890). Who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun. He repeats the words, "under the sun," from ver. 1, in order to show that he is speaking of facts that came under his own regard - outward phenomena which any thoughtful observer might notice (so again ver. 7).
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.
Verses 4-6. - Secondly, success meets with envy, and produces no lasting good to the worker; yet, however unsatisfactory the result, man must continue to labor, as idleness is ruin. Verse 4. - Again, I considered all travail, and every right work. The word rendered "right" is kishron (see on Ecclesiastes 2:21), and means rather "dexterity," "success." Kohe-leth says that he reflected upon the industry that men exhibit, and the skill and dexterity with which they ply their incessant toil. There is no reference to moral rectitude in the reflection, and the allusion to the ostracism of Aristides for being called "Just" overshoots the mark (see Wordsworth, in loc.). Septuagint, σύμπασαν ἀνρίαν τοῦ ποιήματος, "all manliness of his work." That for this a man is envied of his neighbor. Kinah may mean either "object of envy" or "envious rivalry;" i.e. the clause may be translated as above, or, as in the Revised Version margin, "it cometh of a man's rivalry with his neighbor." The Septuagint is ambiguous, Ὅτι αὐτὸ ζῆλος ἀνδρὸς ἀπὸ τοῦ ἑταίρου αὐτοῦ, "That this is a man's envy from his comrade;" Vulgate, Industrias animadverti patere invidiae proximi, "Lay open to a neighbor's envy." In the first case the thought is that unusual skill and success expose a man to envy and ill will, which rob labor of all enjoyment. In the second case the writer says that this superiority and dexterity arise from a mean motive, an envious desire to outstrip a neighbor, and, based on such low ground, can lead to nothing but vanity and vexation of spirit, a striving after wind. The former explanation seems more in accordance with Koheleth's gloomy view. Success itself is no guarantee of happiness; the malice and ill feeling which it invariably occasions are necessarily a source of pain and distress.
The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh.
Verse 5. - The connection of this verse with the preceding is this: activity, diligence, and skill indeed bring success, but success is accompanied by sad results. Should we, then, sink into apathy, relinquish work, let things slide? Nay, none but the fool (kesil), the insensate, half-brutish man, doth this. The fool foldeth his hands together. The attitude expresses laziness and disinclination for active labor, like that of the sluggard in Proverbs 6:10. And eateth his own flesh. Ginsburg, Plumptre, and others take these words to mean "and yet eats his meat," i.e. gets that enjoyment from his sluggishness which is denied to active diligence. They refer, in proof of this interpretation, to Exodus 16:8; Exodus 21:28; Isaiah 22:13; Ezekiel 39:17, in which passages, however, the phrase is never equivalent to "eating his food." The expression is really equivalent to "destroys himself," "brings ruin upon himself." Thus we have in Psalm 27:2, "Evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh;" and in Micah 3:3, "Who eat the flesh of my people" (comp. Isaiah 49:26). The sluggard is guilty of moral suicide; he takes no trouble to provide for his necessities, and suffers extremities in consequence. Some see in this verse and the following an objection and its answer. There is no occasion for this view, and it is not in keeping with the context; but it contains an intimation of the true exposition, which makes ver. 6 a proverbial statement of the sluggard's position. The verbs in the text are participial in form, so that the Vulgate rendering, which supplies a verb, is quite admissible: Stultus complicat manna suas, et comedit carnes suas, dicens: Melior est, etc.
Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.
Verse 6. - Better is a handful with quietness; literally, better a hand full of rest. Than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit; literally, than two hands full of travail, etc. This verse, which has been variously interpreted, is most simply regarded as the fool's defense of his indolence, either expressed in his own words or fortified by a proverbial saying. One open hand full of quietness and rest is preferable to two closed hands full of toil and vain effort. The verse must not be taken as the writer's warning against sloth, which would be out of place here, but as enunciating a maxim against discontent and that restless activity which is never satisfied with moderate returns.
Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun.
Verses 7-12. - Thirdly, avarice causes isolation and a sense of insecurity, and brings no satisfaction. Verse 7. - Then I returned. Another reflection serves to confirm the uselessness of human efforts. The vanity under the sun is now avarice, with the evils that accompany it.
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.
Verse 8. - There is one alone, and there is not a second; or, without a second - a solitary being, without partner, relation, or friend. Here, he says, is another instance of man's inability to secure his own happiness. Wealth indeed, is supposed to make friends, such as they are; but miserliness and greed separate a man from his fellows, make him suspicious of every one, and drive him to live alone, churlish and unhappy. Yea, he hath neither child nor brother; no one to share his wealth, or for whom to save and amass riches. To apply these words to Solomon himself, who had brothers, and one son, if not more, is manifestly inappropriate. They may possibly refer to some circumstance in the writer's own life; but of that we know nothing. Yet is there no sad of all his labor. In spite of this isolation he plies his weary task, and ceases not to hoard. Neither is his eye satisfied with riches; so that he is content with what he has (comp. Ecclesiastes 2:10; Proverbs 27:20). The insatiable thirst for gold, the dropsy of the mind, is a commonplace theme in classical writers. Thus Horace, 'Caxm.,' 3:16. 17 -

"Crescentem sequitur cura pecuniam, Majorumque fames." And Juvenal, 'Sat.,' 14:138 -

"Interea pleno quum turget sacculus ore,
Crescit amor nummi, quantum ipsa pecunia crevit."
Neither, saith he, For whom do I labor, and bereave my soul of good? The original is more dramatic than the Authorized Version or the Vulgate, Nec recogitat, dicens, Cui laboro, etc.? The writer suddenly puts himself in the place of the friendless miser, and exclaims, "And for whom do I labor," etc.? We see something similar in ver. 15 and Ecclesiastes 2:15. Here we cannot find any definite allusion to the writer's own circumstances. The clause is merely a lively personification expressive of strong sympathy with the situation described (comp. Ecclesiastes 2:18). Good may mean either riches, in which case the denial to the soul refers to the enjoyment which wealth might afford, or happiness and comfort. The Septuagint has ἀγαθωσύνης, "goodness," "kindness " - which gives quite a different and not so suitable an idea. Sore travail; a sad business, a woeful employment.
Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.
Verse 9. - Koheleth dwells upon the evils of isolation, and contrasts with them the comfort of companionship. Two are better than one. Literally, the clause refers to the two and the one mentioned in the preceding verse (Ἀγαθοὶ οἱ δύο ὑπὲρ τόν ἔνα, Septuagint); but the gnome is true in general. "Two heads are better than one," says our proverb. Because (asher here conjunctive, not relative) they have a good reward for their labor. The joint labors of two produce much more effect than the efforts of a solitary worker. Companionship is helpful and profitable. Ginsburg quotes the rabbinical sayings,, Either friendship or death;" and "A man without friends is like a left hand without the right." Thus the Greek gnome -

"Man helps his fellow, city saves."

Ξεὶρ χεῖρα νίπτει δάκτυλός τε δάκτυλον.

"Hand cleanseth hand, and finger cleanseth finger." (Comp. Proverbs 17:17; Proverbs 27:17; Ecclus. 6:14.) So Christ sent out his apostles two and two (Mark 6:7).
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.
Verse 10. - Koheleth illustrates the benefit of association by certain familiar examples. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow. If one or the other fall, the companion will aid him. The idea is that two travelers are making their way over a rough road - an experience that every one must have had in Palestine. Vulgate, Si unus ceciderit. Of course, if both fell at the same time, one could not help the other. Commentators quote Homer, 'Iliad,' 10:220-226, thus rendered by Lord Derby -

"Nestor, that heart is mine;
I dare alone Enter the hostile camp, so close at hand;
Yet were one comrade giv'n me, I should go
With more of comfort, more of confidence.
Where two combine, one before other sees
The better course; and ev'n though one alone
The readiest way discover, yet would be
His judgment slower, his decision less."
Woe to him that is alone. The same interjection of sorrow, אִי, occurs in Ecclesiastes 10:16, but elsewhere only in late Hebrew. The verse may be applied to moral falls as well as to stumbling at natural obstacles. Brother helps brother to resist temptation, while many have failed when tried by isolation who would have manfully withstood if they had had the countenance and support of others.

"Clear before us through the darkness
Gleams and burns the guiding light;
Brother clasps the hand of brother,
Stepping fearless through the night."
Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?
Verse 11. - The first example of the advantage of companionship spoke of the aid and support that are thus given; the present verse tells of the comfort thus brought. If two lie together, then they have heat. The winter nights in Palestine are comparatively cold, and when, as in the case of the poorer inhabitants, the outer garment worn by day was used as the only blanket during sleep (Exodus 22:26, 27), it was a comfort to have the additional warmth of a friend lying under the same coverlet. Solomon could have had no such experience.
And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Verse 12. - The third instance shows the value of the protection afforded by a companion's presence when danger threatens. If one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; better, if a man overpower the solitary one, the two (ver. 9) will withstand him. The idea of the traveler is continued. If he were attacked by robbers, he would be easily overpowered when alone; but two comrades might successfully resist the assault. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken. This is probably a proverbial saying, like our "Union is strength." Hereby the advantage of association is more strongly enforced. If the companionship of two is profitable, much more is this the case when more combine. The cord of three strands was the strongest made. The number three is used as the symbol of completeness and perfection. Funiculus triplex diffcile rumpitur, the Vulgate rendering, has become a trite saying; and the gnome has been constantly applied in a mystical or spiritual sense, with which, originally and humanly speaking, it has no concern. Herein is seen an adumbration of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Eternal Three in One; of the three Christian virtues, faith, hope, and charity, which go to make the Christian life; of the Christian's body, soul, and spirit, which are consecrated as a temple of the Most High.
Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished.
Verses 13-16. - High place offers no assurance of security. A king's popularity is never permanent; he is supplanted by some clever young aspirant for a time, whose influence in turn soon evaporates, and the subject-people reap no benefit from the change. Verse 13. - Better is a poor and wise child than an old and foolish king. The word translated "child" (yeled), is used sometimes of one beyond childhood (see Genesis 30:26; Genesis 37:30; 1 Kings 12:8), so here it may be rendered "youth." Misken, πενὴς (Septuagint), pauper (Vulgate), "poor," is found also at Ecclesiastes 9:15, 16, and nowhere else; but the root, with an analogous signification, occurs at Deuteronomy 8:9 and Isaiah 40:20. The clause says that a youth who is clever and adroit, though sprung from a sordid origin, is better off than a king who has not learned wisdom with his years, and who, it is afterwards implied, is dethroned by this young man. Who will no more be admonished; better, as in the Revised Version, who knoweth not how to receive admonition any more. Age has only fossilized his self-will and obstinacy; and though he was once open to advice and hearkened to reproof, he now bears no contradiction and takes no counsel. Septuagint, Ὅς οὐκ ἔγνω τοῦ προέχειν ἔτι, "Who knows not how to take heed any longer;" which is perhaps similar to the Vulgate, Qui nescit praevidere in posterum, "Who knows not how to look forward to the future." The words will bear this translation, and it accords with one view of the author's meaning (see below); but that given above is more suitable to the interpretation of the paragraph which approves itself to us. The sentence is of general import, and may be illustrated by a passage from the Book of Wisdom (4. 8, 9), "Honorable age is not that which standeth in length of time, nor that is measured by length of years. But wisdom is the grey hair unto men, and an unspotted life is old age." So Cicero, 'De Senect.,' 18:62, "Non cant nee rugae repente auctoritatem arripere possunt, sod honeste acta superior aetas fructus capit aactoritatis extremes." Some have thought that Solomon is here speaking of himself, avowing his folly and expressing his contrition, in view of his knowledge of Jeroboam's delegation to the kingdom - the crafty youth of poor estate (1 Kings 11:26, etc.), whom the Prophet Ahijah had warned of approaching greatness. But there is nothing in the recorded history of Solomon to make probable such expression of self-abasement, and our author could never have so completely misrepresented him. Here, too, is another proof that Ecclesiastes is not written by Solomon himself.
For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor.
Verse 14. - For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor. The ambiguity of the pronouns has induced different interpretations of this verse. It is plain that the paragraph is intended to corroborate the statement of the previous verse, contrasting the fate of the poor, clever youth with that of the old, foolish king. The Authorized Version makes the pronoun in the first clause refer to the youth, and those in the second to the king, with the signification that rich and poor change places - one is abased as the other is exalted. Vulgate, Quod de carcere catenisque interdum quis egrediatnr ad regnum; et alius natus in regno inopia consummatur. The Septuagint is somewhat ambiguous, Ὅτι ἐξ οἴκου τῶν δεσμίων ελξελεύσεται τοῦ βασιλεῦσαι ὅτι καί γε ἐν βασιλείᾳ αὐτοῦ ἐγενήθη πένης, "For from the house of prisoners he shall come forth to reign, because in his kingdom he [who?] was born [or, 'became'] poor." It seems, however, most natural to make the leading pronouns in both clauses refer to the youth, and thus to render: "For out of the house of prisoners goeth he forth to reign, though even in his kingdom he was born poor." Beth hasurim is also rendered "house of fugitives," and Hitzig takes the expression as a description of Egypt, whither Jeroboam fled to escape the vengeance of Solomon. Others see here an allusion to Joseph, who was raised from prison, if not to be king, at least to an exalted position which might thus be designated. In this case the old and foolish king who could not look to the future is Pharaoh, who could not understand the dream which was sent for his admonition. Commentators have wearied themselves with endeavoring to find some other historical basis for the supposed allusion in the passage. But although many of these suggestions (e.g., Saul and David, Joash and Amaziah, Cyrus and Astyages, Herod and Alexander) meet a part of the case, none suit the whole passage (vers. 13-16). It is possible, indeed, that some particular allusion is intended to some circumstance or event with which we are not acquainted. At the same time, it seems to us that, without much straining of language, the reference to Joseph can be made good. If it is objected that it cannot be said that Joseph was born in the kingdom of Egypt, we may reply that the words may be taken to refer to his cruel position in his own country, when he was despoiled and sold, and may be said metaphorically to have "become poor;" or the word nolad may be considered as equivalent to "came," "appeared," and need not be restricted to the sense of "born."
I considered all the living which walk under the sun, with the second child that shall stand up in his stead.
Verse 15. - I considered all the living which walk under the sun; or, I have seen all the population. The expression is hyperbolical, as Eastern monarchs speak of their dominions as if they comprised the whole world (see Daniel 4:1; Daniel 6:25). With the second child that shall stand up in his stead. "With" (עִם) means "in company with," "on the side of;" and the clause should be rendered, as in the Revised Version, That they were with the youth, the second, that stood up in his stead. The youth who is called the second is the one spoken of in the previous verses, who by general acclamation is raised to the highest place in the realm, while the old monarch is dethroned or depreciated. He is named second, as being the successor of the other, either in popular favor or on the throne. It is the old story of worshipping the rising sun. The verse may still be applied to Joseph, who was made second to Pharaoh, and was virtually supreme in Egypt, standing in the king's place (Genesis 41:40-44).
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.
Verse 16. - There is no end of all the people, even of all that have been before them. The paragraph plainly is carrying on the description of the popular enthusiasm for the new favorite. The Authorized Version completely obscures this meaning. It is better to translate, Numberless were the people, all, at whose head he stood. Koheleth places himself in the position of a spectator, and marks how numerous are the adherents who flock around the youthful aspirant. "Nullus finis omni populo, omnibus, quibus praefuit" (Gesenius, Rosenmüller, Volck). Yet his popularity was not lasting and his influence was not permanent. They also that come after shall not rejoice in him. In spite of his cleverness, and notwithstanding the favor with which he is now regarded, those of a later generation shall flout his pretensions and forget his benefits. If we still continue the allusion to Joseph, we may see here in this last clause a reference to the change that supervened when another king arose who knew him not (Exodus 1:8), and who, oblivious of the services of this great benefactor, heavily oppressed the Israelites. This experience leads to the same result; it is all vanity and vexation of spirit.

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