Read the Passage: Ecclesiastes 4
Oppression and Envy (4:1–6)
In his investigation into labor in Eccl. 2:18–6:12, Solomon occasionally veers off into other related subjects. Eccl. 4:1–3 is one such occasion as here Solomon considers oppression. The connection between labor and oppression is often cited in Scripture, especially in exhortations not to oppress laborers by withholding their wages. For example, Moses writes, “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you all night until the morning” (Lev. 19:13; cf. Deut. 26:7; Prov. 22:16; Mal. 3:5; Jas. 5:4). In Eccl 4:1–3 Solomon observes the injustice of oppression, as by definition, those who are oppressed have no power or recourse for help. This leads Solomon to conclude that the dead and the unborn are often better off than the oppressed, for they do not have to witness “the evil work that is done under the sun” (Eccl. 4:3).
Returning to his discussion about toil, in Eccl. 4:4 Solomon notes that the unsatisfying nature of labor leads some to envy the work of others, perhaps supposing that others have an easier life than themselves. This is true among believers and unbelievers alike (cf. 1 Cor. 12:15–19). Indeed, envy and jealousy are a problem both for the one who believes they have been slighted, as well as for the one who is envied for engaging in “skillful work” (Eccl. 4:4; cf. Jas. 3:14–16). However, idleness is not more fulfilling than labor, as “the fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh” (Eccl. 4:5). In an insightful verse, Solomon observes that if neither labor nor idleness are fulfilling, then the key to life must be contentment, or as he describes it, “a handful with quietness” (Eccl. 4:6). Note that earlier Solomon had written at length about contentment (cf. Prov. 15:16; 16:8; 28:6, 20, 25; 30:8–9).
Friendship and Labor (4:7–12)
In Eccl. 4:7–12 Solomon furthers his discussion about the vanity of labor by considering the value of companionship and friendship. In the past, many of Solomon’s readers may have experienced the vanity of labor that he describes; yet, they may assert that the value in labor is in providing for one’s family. However, in Eccl. 4:7–8 Solomon observes that even those without companions—that is, those without family and friends—are compelled to labor. A man may only be laboring for himself, “Yet, there is no end to all his labors, nor is his eye satisfied with riches” (Eccl. 4:8). Solomon’s goal here is not to deny the practical benefits of labor, for it is through work that we can provide for ourselves, our families, and our friends. Rather, Solomon’s observation here is that even the real benefits of labor are not enough to make toil under the sun thoroughly enjoyable and inherently satisfying.
Eccl. 4:9–12 is one of the greatest passages in the Bible about friendship. In contrast to the one who has no companions and is not satisfied (cf. Eccl. 4:8), in Eccl. 4:9–12 Solomon extols the benefits of friendship. These include increased productivity in labor (cf. Eccl. 4:9), aid in a time of need (cf. Eccl. 4:10), warmth in the home (cf. Eccl. 4:11), and added defense when under attack (cf. Eccl. 4:12). It is interesting that Solomon does not classify attempts at friendship as vanity, in spite of the dangers of betrayal, abandonment, or other forms of relational breakdown. While he does not address friendship elsewhere in this book, it seems likely that part of Solomon’s conclusion is that enjoyment of friendship is one of the things that gives meaning to life. Indeed, Solomon had written earlier at length about friendship and its benefits in the book of Proverbs (cf. Prov. 17:17; 18:24; 22:11, 24; 27:6, 9–10).
Popularity and Vanity (4:13–16)
In Eccl. 4:13–16 Solomon gives a short narrative about the vanity of ruling, power, and kingly ascension. On account of the lack of details here, this story may seem cryptic and can be confusing. In this narrative it is clear that Solomon is contrasting wisdom and foolishness, as well as youth and age. What is unclear is how the characters in the story interact with one another. The characters are as follows: a poor wise youth, an old foolish king, and a second unnamed youth. What transpires in this passage is that a poor wise youth ascends to the throne after the death of an old foolish king. Since the poor youth had been in prison, it is his wisdom that explains his ascension. However, the people eventually depose the poor wise youth and install the second unnamed youth as king, who is likely the old foolish king’s heir and is foolish himself. This moves Solomon to observe that the fleeting nature of popularity “is vanity” (Eccl. 4:16).
- In his search for meaning and purpose in life, why do you think Solomon spends almost five chapters focusing on labor and work-related topics?
- In what contexts do we see others oppressed? How can we work to remedy oppression in our spheres of influence?
- What types of things do you envy in others? What steps can we take to protect our hearts against the temptations of envy and jealousy?
- How many truly close friends do you have? What prevents us from cultivating more numerous and more intimate friendships?
- Given that youth, fame, and beauty are all passing experiences or attributes, why is the world consumed with pursuing them?