Ecclesiastes 4:4-16, “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.”
“Find the right balance”—that thought has become something of a cliché in the modern West. We are urged to find the right balance between work and family, not spending too much time at the former or too little time with the latter. It is important, we are told, to balance our time serving others with time for ourselves. Counselors, doctors, human resources personnel, advertisers, and more all repeat the mantra “find balance.”
Even though the idea of “finding the right balance” has become somewhat of a cliché, we do well to recognize that it can reflect a crucial biblical emphasis, particularly in the Old Testament Wisdom Books. Ecclesiastes 4:4-6 is one text that conveys the importance of balance, or better, contentment. Ecclesiastes 4:4–6 is a unit, and to understand the Preacher’s point, we have to see the literary devices he is using to convey his teaching.
On the one hand, the Preacher sees that “all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor” (v. 4). Essentially, he is claiming that jealousy fuels the drive to have a lifestyle that others have or even to best one’s neighbor economically and socially. We have to note here that the Preacher is using hyperbole to set up a contrast that will lead to his final point. He is not saying, literally, that everyone who works hard and strives to labor with excellence is necessarily an envious person. After all, Scripture exhorts people to work heartily unto the Lord (Col. 3:23–24); if all hard work were driven by envy, then God’s Word could not give the command to put forth one’s best effort because it would be commending something that is only possible if we act according to sinful motivations. Nevertheless, we should not forget that as sinners, much of what we do is driven by envy.
Having used hyperbole to set up his teaching, the Preacher next moves to the polar opposite of the one who labors hard—the lazy man. This individual does nothing but fold his hands and sit idly, and he ends up eating his own flesh, that is, destroying himself (Eccl. 4:5). So, having looked at the world, the Preacher has seen on the one hand that hard work driven by envy is not the answer and that on the other hand, idleness is not the answer in this vain or fleeting life. What, then, is the solution to the human predicament in this arena?
Contentment is the answer. Being satisfied with enough (what one hand can hold) and not living one’s life for just a little more (two hands) or prizing idleness above all (folded hands) is the balance that enables human beings to navigate life well (v. 6).
Continually striving after more out of envy for one’s neighbor is a foolish endeavor. To do so, Ecclesiastes 3:6 says, is to strive after wind. After all, we cannot take our possessions with us. They are fleeting and impermanent. We will give them up when we die, or they may otherwise end up in the hands of someone who has not worked for them (Eccl. 2:20–21). The answer is not to throw up one’s hands and give up working; the answer is to pursue contentment in God and His provision.
Commentators on Genesis 1–2 note that there is a sharp and significant break in the evaluations that God makes of His creation. At each point in the creation story, the Lord steps back and says that what He has made is good, up until He makes human beings. Having made Adam, our Creator steps back and says that something about the first man and his situation is not good: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18). To make things right, God creates Eve and establishes the institution of marriage (vv. 18–25).
The emphasis in the Genesis account is on the complementarity of man and woman and the companionship of marriage, but it also points to the original goodness of human community in general. Even as we look at the world without the spectacles of Scripture, we see that there is something good and necessary about the community. We do not do well when we are alone for a long period of time, and having friends and family alongside us through life’s journey makes the trip more enjoyable and successful. This is a fundamental truth of the world around us that the Preacher speaks of in Ecclesiastes 4:9–12.
Using examples that may be drawn entirely from travel in the ancient world, the Preacher unfolds the truth that “two are better than one” (v. 9). When one traveled, falling into a pit could mean certain death by exposure or by injury if a friend was not there to lift you out (v. 10). Sleeping alone could not keep travelers warm on cold nights in ancient Israel, which is why those on a journey often lay side by side at night (v. 11). There may also be a reference to the marriage bed in v. 11. A man and a woman are warmer if they are married and lie together than if they are single and sleep alone. Finally, bandits and thieves were a constant threat in the ancient world as people journeyed from one place to another. A person traveling alone would be unable to resist a mugging, but those who journeyed together could offer a united defense to resist the thief (v. 12).
Human beings were created to live in community, so we are stronger together than when we are apart. As we build community and fellowship, we all grow stronger and more faithful to God. Matthew Henry comments, “Two are better than one, and more happy jointly than either of them could be separately, more pleased in one another than they could be in themselves only, mutually serviceable to each other’s welfare, and by a united strength more likely to do good to others.”
God saves us as individuals—I cannot count on anyone else’s faith in order to be redeemed. However, the Lord redeems us to put us in the community of faith, the local church. This happens preeminently in the church, where God provides the fellowship that we need to grow and thrive. We cannot be lone rangers and expect that our faith will thrive. Are you seeking to build community in your church? Are you making time regularly to fellowship with the Lord’s servants?
Political power remains an enticing lure for people around the world. Across the globe, one king replaces another king, or entire governmental systems are changed, including their leaders, in political revolutions. Every four years in the United States, billions of dollars are spent by presidential candidates who are vying for the office of chief executive of the nation. The power that high office brings with it is a temptation that many find irresistible.
Yet while we would not want to discount the impact that political leaders have on the world around us, pursuing political power as an end in itself is ultimately done in vain. It is as fleeting as anything else in creation. This is the point of the Preacher in today’s passage. Ecclesiastes 4:13-16 presents to us a succession of rulers. First, a foolish king who is replaced on the throne by a poor but wise youth, which in turn is forgotten by the generations after him once he dies and his successor takes the throne (Eccl. 4:13–16). One may attain great power in this life, but this power does not go with those who hold it when they die. It is passed on to someone else, and the memory of the earlier ruler fades. It is of no lasting value, at least for the one who holds it, for every leader surrenders his authority at his death.
Scripture is filled with stories of foolish kings who believed their position secure and inviolable. Isaiah 36–37 gives us the account of Sennacherib, the king of Assyria when he sent his army to defeat King Hezekiah of Judah and capture Jerusalem. Sennacherib repeatedly boasted of his position and his might versus the God of Israel. In the end, however, he was defeated and finally killed by his sons when he thought himself to be worshiping in the security of his pagan temple. Christ’s parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13–21 also speaks to the point made in today’s passage. The rich man thought himself secure in his wealth and influence, but he finally lost everything, for he was not “rich toward God.”
Of course, it is possible to be godly and rich or godly and politically powerful, so we should not read the above examples as telling us that only evil, godless people attain wealth and influence. However, from the perspective of this world, godly rulers die and give up their power no less than godless kings. It is better, therefore, to be poor and wise than to attain the heights of political power and believe that one’s wealth, understanding, and strength are forever. Such leaders are only fooling themselves (Eccl. 4:13–16).
Over the centuries, understanding the fleeting nature of political power has helped the church to stand firm in the midst of persecution. When one understands that the rulers of this earth have influence and might only temporarily but that God’s reign is eternal, it is much easier to stand firm in God’s truth when this world demands that we deny it. We are citizens of “a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” and our faithfulness in suffering carries with it an eternal reward.