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 role 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 the 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 suffer at the hands of others.
Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy. – Proverbs 31:8-9 NLT
As King, 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, as they 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 to suffer anymore. And the only thing more preferable would be to have never lived at all because 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 required the oppression of 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 the following words in the letter that bears his name and they seem to describe the kind of civil cases Solomon was forced to judge.
What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? 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. 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 remains 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? Are hard work and a drive to have more inherently sinful? Well, if you fold your hands and do nothing, you may keep from hurting others, but you’ll ultimately destroy yourself. So, Solomon 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
After 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. The next section of verses seems to be a personal reflection, outlining Solomon’s assessment of his own life. The book of Ecclesiastes was written when Solomon was at the latter stages of his life and reign. He was older and facing the realization that his life was not ending well. His kingdom was full of the idols to false gods that he had erected on behalf of his many pagan wives. Over his life, Solomon had accumulated 700 wives and 300 concubines, all in 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 impacted his life, the book of 1 Kings clears it all up.
Now King Solomon loved many foreign women. Besides Pharaoh’s daughter, he married women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and from among the Hittites. 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. He had 700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines. And in fact, they did turn his heart away from the Lord.
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. Solomon worshiped Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech, the detestable god of the Ammonites. 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 Ecclesiastes 4:7-11 of Ecclesiastes, 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 assessment of his own life. Yes, he was the king of Israel and was surrounded by thousands of servants, slaves, concubines, wives, and administrative personnel. And yet, he couldn’t escape his sense of isolation. He was isolated and understood just how lonely life can be at the top.
Solomon writes in the third person, describing an anonymous individual 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. Despite the crowd of individuals who filled his royal palace, he lacked true companionship. He had no one to walk alongside him and to be there for him when he fell. Even with 700 wives and 300 concubines, he knew the lonely feeling that comes with sleeping alone and unloved. Solomon recognized that friendship and companionship are vital to human flourishing and longed to experience both.
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). At the beginning of his reign, Solomon 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. Everything he possessed had been given to him by his father. Yet he had wisdom. And by the end of his life, he had accumulated wealth beyond measure but lacked the ability to take wise counsel.
Solomon seems to compare his life to that of his father. It was David who had been in “prison” – living as a fugitive, constantly pursued by his predecessor, 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 his father on the throne, and while he ruled over a great land, and enjoyed 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 would one day end. Another generation would rise up who would no longer recognize or remember him as king. With that thought in mind, 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” (Ecclesiastes 4:16 ESV).
Even the man at the top, who has everything going for him, including 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 a life lived under the sun, but without God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
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.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson