1 Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. 2 And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
5 The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.
6 Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.
7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
13 Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. 14 For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. 15 I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. 16 There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 4:1-16 ESV
As the king of Israel, Solomon had the God-given responsibility to perform the function of a judge on behalf of his people. That required him to take his place each day at the gate of the city of Jerusalem, where he would hear and try the cases brought before him. This would have exposed him to all kinds of unethical, immoral and unjust actions, perpetrated by one human being against another. And it is likely that Solomon witnessed many examples of injustice, as the poor and oppressed brought their cases to him, hoping for some form of protection and righteous representation.
In his Book of Proverbs, Solomon recorded the words of the mother of King Lemuel, reminding her son of his God-given responsibility to defend the defenseless and to protect the rights of those who who suffered at the hands of others.
8 Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
9 Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy. – Proverbs 31:8-9 NLT
But Solomon must have seen his fair share of abuses and injustices. And no matter how many times he might have judged rightly and justly, the next day would reveal yet another case of the powerful taking advantage of the powerless. He had seen it all, which is what led him to say, “I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 4:1 ESV). He had a front-row seat to the feature-film that is human life. He had watched the tears of the oppressed, who stood before him helpless and hopeless, with no one to plead their case or protect their lives from the powerful and ruthless. The oppressors had money and authority on their side. It was a mismatch, with the oppressed usually getting the short end of the stick. And for Solomon, it boiled down to a simple, yet sad conclusion: The poor are better off dead, because then they no longer have suffer anymore. And better yet, it would be preferable to have never lived at all. That way you would never have to experience the pain and suffering that comes with life under the sun.
It seems that Solomon, in his daily dealings with the injustices of life, saw a pattern. The oppressors were people who were motivated by greed and a desire for wealth. They were addicted to acquiring and retaining, and would do anything to get what they wanted, even if it meant oppressing others. And, as far as Solomon could tell, the driving force behind their actions was nothing but normal, run-of-the-mill envy.
I observed that most people are motivated to success because they envy their neighbors.– Ecclesiastes 4:4 NLT
James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote some powerful words in the letter that bears his name, where he seems to describe the kind of civil cases Solomon was forced to judge.
1 What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? 2 You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. 3 And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. – James 4:1-3 NLT
And for Solomon, it all added up to yet another example of the futility of life. “But this, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:4 NLT). The poor get taken advantage of by the rich and powerful, and end up with nothing to show for it but tears and greater poverty. The rich get richer, but their lives end up empty and their lust for more, unquenched. Enough is never enough. More never satisfies. It’s a dead-end street with no outlet. So, what should be the proper response? Is accumulating wrong? Is hard work and a drive to attain sinful? Well, if you fold your hands and do nothing, you may keep from hurting others, but you’ll ultimately destroy yourself. He seems to conclude that the answer is somewhere in the middle. You have to make a compromise. Do something, but be willing to be content with less.
“Better to have one handful with quietness
than two handfuls with hard work
and chasing the wind.” – Ecclesiastes 4:6 NLT
From sharing his objective observations regarding the suffering of others, Solomon seems to turn his focus inward. He takes a look at his own life as judge and king. This next section of verses seems to be a personal reflection, outlining Solomon’s assessment of his own life. Remember, he is at the latter stages of his life and reign. He is older and facing the realization that his life is not ending well. His kingdom is full of idols to false gods, erected by Solomon on behalf of his many pagan wives, 700 to be exact. And the very fact that he had so many wives was a direct violation of the law of God.
The king must not take many wives for himself, because they will turn his heart away from the LORD. – Deuteronomy 17:17 NLT
And if there’s any doubt whether Solomon’s disobedience had an impact on his life, the book of 1 Kings clears it all up.
1 Now King Solomon loved many foreign women. Besides Pharaoh’s daughter, he married women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and from among the Hittites. 2 The Lord had clearly instructed the people of Israel, “You must not marry them, because they will turn your hearts to their gods.” Yet Solomon insisted on loving them anyway. 3 He had 700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines. And in fact, they did turn his heart away from the Lord.
4 In Solomon’s old age, they turned his heart to worship other gods instead of being completely faithful to the Lord his God, as his father, David, had been. 5 Solomon worshiped Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech, the detestable god of the Ammonites. 6 In this way, Solomon did what was evil in the Lord’s sight; he refused to follow the Lord completely, as his father, David, had done. – 1 Kings 11:1-5 NLT
In verses 7-11 of Ecclesiastes chapter four, Solomon paints the picture of a man lacking companionship. He describes this individual as “one person who has no other, either son or brother” (Ecclesiastes 4:8 ESV). He is alone and lonely. And this is likely Solomon’s own description of himself. Yes, he was the king of Israel, and surrounded by thousands of servants, slaves, concubines, wives and administrative personnel. But he was alone. He was isolated and understood just how lonely it can be at the top. Solomon describes this unnamed individual as someone who “works hard to gain as much wealth as he can. But then he asks himself, ‘Who am I working for? Why am I giving up so much pleasure now?’” (Ecclesiastes 4:8 NLT). And Solomon’s own personal experience requires him to conclude: “It is all so meaningless and depressing.”
Solomon knew what it felt like to be alone, without someone to walk alongside him, to pick him up when he fell. Even with 700 wives and 300 concubines, he knew the lonely feeling that comes with sleeping alone and unloved. Friendship and companionship is vital to human flourishing, and Solomon recognized it and longed for it.
The final four verses of this chapter appear to be blatantly autobiographical. In them, Solomon describes himself as “a foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice”, and compares himself to “a poor and wise youth” (Ecclesiastes 4:13 ESV). That was Solomon at the beginning of his reign. He was young and had yet to accomplish anything. He was poor in the sense that he had not accomplished or accumulated anything on his own. It had been given to him by his father. But he had wisdom. Yet, at the end of his life, Solomon had all the money in the world, but lacked the ability to take wise counsel.
Solomon seems to compare his life to that of his father, David. It was David who had been in “prison” – living as a fugitive, constantly pursued by King Saul. But David had moved from prison to the palace, from living in caves to sitting on the throne. And Solomon would become the “youth who was to stand in the king’s place” (Ecclesiastes 4:15 ESV). Solomon succeeded to the throne of his father, David, and while he ruled over a great land, enjoying the subjection and adoration of the people, he sadly concludes that “those who come later will not rejoice in him” (Ecclesiastes 4:16 ESV). In other words, his 15-minutes of fame will one day end. Another generation will rise up who refuse to accept him as king. And Solomon can’t help but come to the same pessimistic conclusion he has reached before: “Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.” Even the man at the top, who has everything going for him, who has money, power and influence, will one day find himself rejected and replaced. He is no better off than the poor person seeking justice at the gate or the lonely person desperately in need of companionship. It is lonely at the top, and there is no position or any amount of power or possessions that can remove the futility of life lived under the sun, but without God.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.