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. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
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.
The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.
Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.
Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 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.
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 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! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. 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 ESV
The issue of community is Solomon’s primary focus within this chapter of Ecclesiastes. Though he will highlight the benefits of being in community, much of this chapter is devoted to how we sabotage community with our selfishness.
THE VANITY OF OPPRESSION // VERSES 1-3
In verse 1, the Preacher notes how community is ruined by recalling the oppression that he has seen. There is a deep hurt that is felt in Solomon’s words. It should remind us of someone who placed their trust in authority, an authority that was supposed to have the people’s best interest at heart, but only saw harm come from them. In a godly community, those with power should be servants, not oppressors. A great evil is committed when those in power abuse those without it.
He says that the situation of the oppressed is only accented by the fact that their oppressors have all of the power. They can do nothing to change their situation. Yet if Solomon was the king of Israel with all of the power and wealth that we have discussed, which oppressors was he describing? With the complete authority of the king, could not he have righted any wrongs that he saw? I believe there are two points to pull from these questions.
First, since we are told that Solomon’s heart was turned from the LORD, it is possible that he has been one of the very oppressors that he describes. Lending validity to this thought is the statement of the people to Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, in 1 Kings. After Solomon’s death, the people assemble before Rehoboam and pleaded, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you” (1 Kings 12:4). Is it not a sad sign that the people’s first reaction following his death was to beg for his son to be a better king? Thus, perhaps this verse is Solomon’s regret of how his reign declined as his heart turned from the LORD.
Or Solomon could be making a statement that, even with all of his power as king, he was still powerless to cease all of the oppression that he saw. This is certainly possible as well. Even the greatest of earthly kings are not omniscient. Policies may, therefore, attempt to limit oppression, but evil men with power will always find ways around the laws that seek to limit them.
Furthermore, notice the language that Solomon uses to build our emotive connection: “tears of the oppressed” and “no one to comfort them.” He mentions the comfort of the oppressed twice in this first verse, but not once does he explicitly mention the combating of oppression. It seems as if the Preacher understands that oppression is an inevitability in this life under the sun and east of Eden. No one can stop the abuse of power. That’s just the reality of life, and he can deal with that. But what seems to truly stir his emotions is the lack of comfort given to those who are oppressed. Abuse by the ungodly is understandable and even expected, but the lack of concern from the godly is truly sorrowful. In a powerfully written article, Matt Walsh argues that our lack of concern for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are being persecuted for the faith stems from our moral cowardice. I’ll cite the first few paragraphs of this article, but it is worth reading in its entirety:
I was recently invited to attend and give a reflection at a prayer vigil for persecuted Christians, hosted by a church in Maryland. The church was hoping that 150 congregants would come. They got about three.
To be fair, there was some bad weather that afternoon. And it was on a Friday night, when most people would rather be relaxing on the couch or going out to a nice dinner with their spouse. There are a million reasons — a few of them even legitimate — why you might not show up to something like this. But it was sad, all the same, to see the bare pews, and to hear a couple of speakers deliver beautiful and impassioned pleas to an empty church. At the end they collected donations for a Christian school in Iraq, but nobody was there to give anything.
Before the vigil, I remember saying to my wife that every church in the country ought to do something like this at least once a month. Now I know why they don’t.
I reflected on this when I read a report that Christian persecution and genocide is worse now than it has ever been in history. Christians in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, North Korea, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Egypt, and many other countries, are regularly imprisoned, tortured, beaten, raped, and martyred. Their churches are destroyed. Their houses burned. They meet and worship in secret, risking their lives in the process. They live every moment in constant danger.
About 215 million Christians face what is called “extreme persecution” for their faith. It’s estimated that around a million have been slaughtered since 2005. There is no way to know exactly how many. What we do know is that Christianity has been dramatically reduced in parts of the world where it had existed for nearly 2,000 years.
Tradition tells us that St. Mark brought Christianity to Egypt in the early part of the first century. Today, the seed he planted has been ripped up. Two churches in the country were attacked and 44 Christians massacred on Palm Sunday last year. In the same year, 28 Christian pilgrims were martyred while en route to a monastery. The Muslim assailants gave them a chance to save themselves if they would recite an Islamic profession of faith. They refused and so they were shot in the head. This sort of thing is a regular occurrence in Egypt and in several other nations across the globe.
But what do we care?
There are other things to worry about here. Hollywood sex scandals. Twitter disputes. Whatever controversial thing Trump said this week. So on and so on. We — myself included — spend far more time, and spill far more ink, on these issues than we ever have on the coordinated genocide of our fellow believers in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Why?
I have come to believe that our disinterest stems not only from the general apathy that defines western society and the western church, but from moral cowardice. To face the plight of our brothers and sisters is to face ourselves. To see these Christians who would rather be shot dead in the desert than renounce their faith is to see our own faith as a shabby, pitiful, hollow imitation. To see Christians who would risk their very lives to go to church and preach the Gospel is to question why we will do neither of those things, even though we are perfectly free and able. We cannot confront these truths of ourselves, so we will not confront the truth of Christian persecution.
Persecution of Christ’s followers is inevitable, just like general oppression. Like Solomon, Walsh understands this. What he cannot fathom is our indifference toward comforting (and praying for) these brothers and sisters.
In light of all the oppression and evil that Solomon sees, he claims in verse 2 that the dead are better off than the living. How could Solomon conclude this? He is, after all, the one that has been encouraging us to find our enjoyment in life through God. For a believer in Jesus Christ, this verse is wholly true. We will see in the first chapter of Philippians that Paul claims that death is far better for him because he will get to be with Christ! For the Christian, there is nothing to fear from death. What shall we fear, the end of oppression, evil, and sorrow? For us, Solomon’s words of seeming cynicism become words of truth that we might proclaim through our hope in Christ.
Solomon’s pessimism seems to hit an all-time low with verse 3. If the dead are better off than the living because of all of the oppression and depravity, then the stillborn must be the most blessed. Why? They do not have the chance to ever experience any of the evil and oppression that Solomon describes. This is a difficult verse with which to wrestle. There is no doubt that having a miscarriage is unspeakable sorrow, but also Solomon says that their seemingly untimely death is actually a mercy of God because they get to avoid seeing the fullness of man’s depravity. How difficult to speak, but how true as well.
HOW TO RUIN COMMUNITY // VERSES 4-6
Solomon’s lens now shifts from society in general to us as individuals. Particularly what we find within these three verses are
Verse 4 reveals the first way that we destroy community is through envy. Are his words not true: “all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy?” We can see this on display in any city or in all of history. Why are we never content with our current iPhone whenever a new version is released? We see someone else with the new iPhone, and we want it because they have it. This very idea of covetousness that Solomon describes is what tech companies base their entire sales around. If we ceased to be envious of our neighbors, would we really want a bigger house? It’s all pointless. We constantly chase after the things that others have, and even if we actually got it all, we would be none the happier for it. Envy both fails to satisfy us and can place a barrier between us and our neighbor.
I admit verse 5 is rather strange, even for Solomon. Is he advocating self-cannibalism? Thankfully, he is not. When Solomon refers to hands, he speaks figuratively of our actions, the things that we do. That being the case, I have found it very difficult to perform most tasks with my hands folded. He is referring here someone that is so lazy that they might as well be eating their own flesh. That is how self-destructive their behavior is. Have you ever known anyone that was miserable, completely and totally miserable and lonely, and yet they were too lazy to do anything about it? Relationships of any kind are not simple, and laziness can be detrimental to their growth.
Approximately thirteen movies are released every year about verse 6. As Driscoll says of this verse, we were created to be two handed people. The thought of using two hands to toil implies that we put our entire being into our work. Movies like Click detail the tragedy of people that live this kind of a life. Everything is about work. Everything is about the next promotion. Everything is about a higher salary. But what point is there? It’s as vain as chasing after the wind, and it will shatter our relationships with family and friends.
However, for this point, Solomon also lists an alternative: have one hand that’s full of quietness. Do not be lazy with folded hands, but don’t place all of yourself into work either. Enjoy life. Be with family and friends. Take a Sabbath. Worship Jesus.
THE BENEFITS OF COMMUNITY // VERSES 7-12
The aging king writes verses 7-8 as a bridge between the ideas of how we ruin community and the benefits of being in community. He achieves this by lamenting on how terrible it is for a person to work, accumulate wealth, and yet have no one to be with. If we allow it, the search for riches can easily take over our lives because we are never satisfied with our riches. We always want more, but when we die, we will leave our riches behind. So what use is it?
Some people keep on toiling although they have no one to work for, and nothing to do with the money they make. They even deny themselves the pleasures of life so they can continue to amass funds. What a sharp example was given to us in the story of the late billionaire Howard Hughes. He did not know what to do with his money. His heirs, who have been impossibly difficult to identify for certain, were left to squabble over it… Such is the folly of toiling for riches out of ambition and ego. (Stedman, 66)
In verse 9, Solomon speaks plainly that “two are better than one” because their reward is better. What kind of reward could he be speaking of? I believe that it is the reward that eluded the hypothetical workaholic in the previous verse: the ability to enjoy the fruit of one’s work with someone else. After I get finish working each day, what I enjoy the most is to simply be with my wife. There is nothing I enjoy more than just sitting on the couch or going for a walk with her and just reminding myself that life is not about how much I work. But this is not speaking only about romantic relationships. When I lived in a house with seven guys, I would spend any amount of free time just hanging out and being in community. Two are better than one.
I believe that the reason that we find this statement to be so true is because God created us to be in community. If we recall back to Genesis 2, why did God create woman? He created her because He said that it wasn’t good for man to be alone. Man’s solitude was the only aspect of pre-fallen creation that God said was not good. We were made to interact, to love and serve one another. This is why the Church is so beautiful because it is intended to be community at its best, which is glorifying Christ.
We see the call for application of verses 10-11 in Galatians. Paul tells the people of Galatia to restore one of the brothers (or sisters) gently when they fall. This is why we have community: to help each other. How beautiful it is when a brother is rescued from traversing a path that leads to death by his friends!
What about verse 11? Is it only referencing marital benefits? No, do not believe so. Instead, I believe that Solomon is referring to the practical benefit of human contact and protection. There is little that can brighten my day like a firm handshake from my father telling me that he is proud of his son. The hug from a good friend can quickly make all the stress of the day vanish away. There is something profoundly impactful about human touch. Of course, you could also interpret this verse as biblical justification for at least one scene in Without a Paddle.
Having a best man and groomsmen at a wedding came from the tradition of the groom’s best friends not only giving their support to the wedding but also being prepared to give physical support to the groom in case the neighboring tribe attacked. They literally stood beside the groom, swords ready, to defend him from anyone trying to stop the wedding. In any sort of situation like that, is it not better to have your friends by your side? This is what Solomon means by verse 12. In any given situation, it is more difficult to overcome three people than one. Community offers us the safety of numbers.
THE VANITY OF DISSATISFACTION // VERSES 13-16
To be honest, it would be nice if Solomon had concluded the chapter with verse 12, since it seems that each commentator has a different slant on what exactly he is saying. Yet they are inspired by the Holy Spirit as well, so let’s tackle them head on.
First, consider the opening words: “better a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king.” One of the scariest things that comes from this verse is the reality that, contrary to popular belief, wisdom does not naturally come with age. Physical aging does not innately mean that you are getting the wisdom of God. Having grey hairs does not equal being a sage. Wisdom must be sought, and it must sought constantly. Wisdom does not come naturally. It comes through fearing the LORD.
Second, I believe the key to understanding the main point of these verses is the phrase “yet those who come later will not rejoice in him.” The story, of course, is of a foolish king that is usurped by a wise and beloved youth, in whom the people delighted. Perhaps David’s rise over Saul was even Solomon’s inspiration for this parable. Or perhaps Solomon was reflecting on his own foolishness and God’s promise to raise up Jeroboam to be king. Either way, the principle is that the young, wise king who was held up as a savior of the people eventually falls out of favor with the people as well. The people will eventually become dissatisfied with him, just as they were with the old, foolish king before.
I believe; therefore, dissatisfaction is a good description of these verses. We see the truth of this principle today in presidential elections. Everyone rallies behind their candidate, proclaiming that he will be the one to change the world, to right the wrongs. Yet their ratings eventually fall as well. Even the men that we would deem the greatest presidents of the United States (men like Washington, FDR, and Lincoln) faced significant criticism during their own days in the White House. It doesn’t matter who is in the office. People cannot save us. Our leaders will one day fail us, and we will be left dissatisfied. And the cycle will only continue to repeat.
THE MIND OF CHRIST // PHILIPPIANS 2:3-11
So where is the hope in all of this? I would argue that each way that we destroy community (oppression, envy, laziness, busyness, and dissatisfaction) are all rooted in one thing: selfishness. Oppressors oppress because they are selfish. Kim Jong Un is willing to let his own people starve to death in order to pretend that he is a god. We envy others, not because we see them as valuable images of God, but because we see them as people who have what we want. We are lazy because we care about our pleasures more than we do the needs of others. We are busy because we want to feel valuable. When fear that if we stop and pause to rest, our worth will diminish. We are dissatisfied because the world is supposed to revolve around our wants and desires. All of these forms of ruining community derive from a selfish heart. Lewis, after all, called pride the great sin, and pride is simply self-aggrandizement.
For our hope, we must lift our eyes beyond the sun. Philippians 2:3-11 will help us do so.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
What we have in verse 3 is a command that I doubt any of us can do very well for more than five minutes at a time. Perhaps not even that long. One problem with fallen humanity is that even when we do good to others we often do so from impure motives. Often, we do good works in order to be seen as being selfless by others. Or sometimes we serve others in an attempt to offset our guilt over having sinned. Paul peels these things away by upholding that good works are not sufficient in and of themselves; we must also do them without any form of selfishness.
How is this even possible? Verse 5 gives us the answer. This mindset of humility can only come from Christ. Notice that he does not say, “have these deeds among yourselves”; instead, he says, “have this mind among yourselves.” Brothers and sisters, even the world loves to talk about being like Jesus, just as they love to speak of imitating Gandhi or Mother Theresa. Yet they know nothing of having the mind of Christ. After all, we see Jesus not only showing compassion to the masses but also telling them to eat His flesh and drink His blood. This Jesus does not simply heal the sick; He also declares Himself to be the way, the truth, and the life. We must by all means serve the poor and alleviate the sick as imitators of Christ, but we are also called to greater things. We must imitate the mind of Christ as well. Serving can be one of the most deadly acts for our souls if we do not have the mind of Christ. After all, if we do not have a mind of humility, our very acts of service can create a superiority complex within us.
We must instead clothe ourselves with the mind of Christ, which Paul says is already ours! How in the world could we already be given the mind of Him who willingly left His cosmic throne in order to submit Himself to the humiliation of death on the cross? We cannot possibly hope to do anything remotely that selfless. To die for a single ant is too small of an analogy for Him dying for us. Yet when we are given the Holy Spirit, Paul declares we are given the mind of Christ.
The answer to how we have true community within a broken, fallen world is not just to do more; we must trust more. We must turn to the One who gave Himself for us. We will never be able to anything ourselves out of an entirely pure motive. Isaiah rightly calls our righteous acts filthy rags before the LORD. This is why Peter says that if we serve, we must serve from the strength that God provides, and if we speak, we must speak the oracles of God. Or to put it another way, whatever we do, even serving others, outside of faith is sin. We, therefore, are in desperate need of grace. We need the Savior whose blood was spilled for us to become His bride and His body. Outside of Him, we can do nothing. Our communities and our lives will never be marked by the sacrificial love of Christ until we turn to Him in everything that we do.
Let us have this mind among ourselves, which is ours in Christ Jesus.
Let us exalt Him whose name is above every other name as we seek to also treat others as better than ourselves.