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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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ECCLESIASTES 4

OPPRESSION AND THE OPPRESSED

Verses 1-3
Then I returned and saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and, behold, the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter. Wherefore I praised the dead that have been long dead more than the living that are yet alive; yea, better than them both [did I esteem] him that hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.

On the side of the oppressors there was power
(Ecclesiastes 4:1). The point here is not merely that there is power, but that power corrupts.F1 On the basis of what is said here, we may conclude that there was at least some degree of sympathy on Solomon's part for the oppressed; yet he himself had oppressed hundreds of thousands of the residual Canaanites, making slaves of them. Here he views all the suffering; and, Although he might have had some feeling for them, he did not move a muscle to change their lot.F2 He just stood by, a picture of indifference and unconcern. How different is this attitude from that of the great prophets who so vigorously and effectively shouted the anathemas of God against the oppressors; and indeed what a contrast there is here with the Christ who had compassion on the multitudes, fed them when they were hungry, healed all their diseases and thundered the message, Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven (Luke 6:20). Behold a Greater than Solomon! (Matthew 12:42); and incredibly pathetic is the blind folly of Israel who rejected Christ because he was not another Solomon!


THE WORTHLESSNESS OF LABOR

Verses 4-6
Then I saw all labor and every skilful work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh. Better is a handful, with quietness, than two handfuls with labor and striving after wind.

For this a man is envied of his neighbor
(Ecclesiastes 4:4). Some understand the meaning of this verse as a description of work which is the effect of rivalry with a neighbor.F3 This rendition carries that implication: I saw that all a man's toil and skill is expended through the desire to surpass his neighbor; this, too, is an empty thing and a clutching at the wind.F4

In this paragraph the author returns to the question that he asked in Eccl. 1:3, "What does man have to show for all his trouble"? In all such statements as this, Solomon's viewpoint is centered absolutely upon the present world, taking into account no thought whatever of God.

Waddey's comment on this paragraph: "In a godless world, sinners envy and resent another's success, rather than rejoicing in it; and in contrast he mentions the lazy fool who, rather than work, `foldeth his hands together' in rest, and `eateth his own flesh,' i.e., he consumes his inheritance."F5 Another view of the fool mentioned here is that he represents the envious man. "The envious man is here exhibited in the attitude of the sluggard (Proverbs 6:10)."F6 In this understanding of it, the fool's eating his own flesh would mean the same as the common saying that, "He was eating his heart out with envy."

Better is a handful with quietness
(Ecclesiastes 4:6). Here again we find thoughts that are identifiable with Solomon, as in Prov. 15:16-17; 17:1 and in Prov. 16:8:


ANOTHER WORD ON THE WORTHLESSNESS OF LABOR

"These two paragraphs on labor view it from different perspectives; first, from the perspective of envy, and secondly, from the perspective of solitariness."F7 Also in this second paragraph, a number of illustrations are given to illuminate the real point.

Verses 7-12
Then I returned and saw vanity under the sun. There is one that is alone, and he hath not a second; yea, he hath neither son nor brother; yet is there no end of all his labor, neither are his eyes satisfied with riches. For whom then, [saith he], do I labor, and deprive my soul of good? This also is vanity, yea, it is a sore travail. Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, and hath not another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have warmth; but how can one be warm [alone]? And if a man prevail against him that is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Barton gave only one subject to this whole chapter, calling it, "Man's Inhumanity, namely, (1) man's inhumanity to men (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3), (2) the inhumanity caused by rivalry and envy (Ecclesiastes 4:4-6), and (3) man's inhumanity to himself."F8

No end of all his labor, neither is his eye satisfied with riches
(Ecclesiastes 4:8). This denounces avarice, especially that of the miser, who having neither partner nor heir, nevertheless pursues money as if he were starving to death. The avaricious soul is never satisfied.F9 The picture here is that of the workaholic, the man with whom constant work has become a disease. It is strange indeed that. A man without companion or family, will act as though there was someone to live for.F10

Two are better than one
(Ecclesiastes 4:9). This is evidently an old proverb, similar to the modern cliche that, two heads are better than one.

If two lie together, then they have warmth
(Ecclesiastes 4:11). The reference here is not to husband and wife, but to travelers. Nights in Palestine are cold, especially in winter; and a lone traveler will sleep close to his donkey for warmth.F11 Here may be one of the secrets why Christ sent out his apostles in pairs. Nothing is any more pitiful than a completely isolated human being.

A threefold cord is not quickly broken
(Ecclesiastes 4:12). This paragraph stresses the value of companionship. If companionship of two is valuable, much more then is the value if others are added.F12


DANGERS OF SELF-SUFFICIENCY AND ISOLATION

Verses 13-16
Better is a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king, who knoweth not how to receive admonition any more. For out of prison he came forth to be king; yea, even in his kingdom he was born poor. I saw all the living that walk under the sun, that they were with the youth, the second, that stood up in his stead. There was no end of all the people, even of all them over whom he was: yet they that come after shall not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Some have tried to find the Biblical story of Joseph in this, but without success. "It is probably a parable, of a poor youth who through wisdom rose to be king."F13

They that come after
(Ecclesiastes 4:16). This refers to those of a later generation who were not present when the youth became king.F14

We find it difficult to understand what is meant here. Kidner's interpretation appears to be the best available. "The paragraph has its obscurities; but it portrays something common in public life, the short-lived popularity of the great. First there was the stubbornness of the old man who had been king too long."F15 There are elements in this which suggest both the rise of Joseph to kingly dignity, and that of David whose second half of the kingship so vividly contrasted with the first half; but nearly all scholars agree that, "The passage was not designed to be historical."F16

The big points in the paragraph are (a) the bad example of the foolish old king too stubborn to take advice, who, of course, lost his throne, and (b) the fickleness of the public who afterward hated the wise youth who succeeded the old king.

Sir Walter Scott, whom I quoted in my first commentary (Matthew), and whom I'm glad to quote also in this my last one, paid his respects to the fickleness of public opinion in these words:

"Who o'er the herd would wish to reign?
Fantastic, fickle, fierce, and vain,
Vain as a leaf upon the stream,
And fickle as a changeful dream,
Fantastic as a woman's mood,
And fierce as frenzy's fevered blood;
Thou many headed monster thing,
O, who would wish to be thy king"?F17


Footnotes for Ecclesiastes 4
1: J. A. Loader, Ecclesiastes, p. 47.
2: Ibid.
3: Barnes' Notes on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, a 1989 reprint of the 1878 edition), Ecclesiastes, p. 98.
4: The Anchor Bible Commentary (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1972), p. 24.
5: James Waddey, p. 28.
6: Barnes' Notes on the Old Testament, op. cit., p. 98.
7: J. A. Loader, Ecclesiastes, p. 49.
8: International Critical Commentary, Vol. 18, p. 113.
9: Ibid.
10: The Tyndale Commentaries, Vol. 16, p. 93.
11: International Critical Commentary, Vol. 18, p. 115.
12: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 9b, p. 90.
13: The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 5, p. 55
14: Ibid., p. 56.
15: The Bible Speaks Today, p. 31.
16: Ibid.
17: Sir Walter Scott, The Lady of the Lake, Canto V. stanza 30.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=ec&chapter=004>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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