Ecclesiastes 4


 In this chapter Koheleth proceeds to give further illustrations of mans inability to

be the architect of his own happiness. There are many things which interrupt or

destroy it.  First of all (vs. 1-3), he adduces the oppression of man by his fellowman.


1 "So I returned, and considered 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.” So I returned, and considered all

 the oppressions that are done under the sun. This is equivalent to, “again I saw,”

as v. 7, with a reference to the wickedness in the place of judgment which he had

noticed in ch.3:16. Ashukim, “oppressions,” is found in Job 35:9 and Amos 3:9,

and, being properly a participle passive, denotes oppressed persons or things, and

so abstractedly “oppressions.Τὰς συκοφαντίας  - tas sukophantias - (Septuagint);

calumnias (Vulgate). The verb is used:


  • of high-handed injustice,
  • of offensive selfishness,
  • of the hindrances to his neighbor’s well-being caused by a man’s careless

disregard of  aught but his own interests (compare I  Samuel 12:4; Hosea 12:8).


Beheld the tears of such as were oppressed; τῶν συκοφαντουμένων  – ton

 sukophantoumenon –-  of those that were oppressed; defraud; accuse

falsely; take by false accusation  - Septuagint); innocentium (Vulgate). He notes

now not merely the fact of wrong being done, but its effect on the victim, and intimates

his own pity for the sorrow. And they had no comforter. A sad refrain, echoed again

at the end of the verse with touching pathos. Οὐκ ἔστιν αὐτοῖς παρακαλῶν 

 ouk estin autois parakalonthey  had no comforter - (Septuagint); they had no

earthly friends to visit them in their affliction, and they as yet knew not the soothing

of THE HOLY GHOST, THE COMFORTER -  (ΠαράκλητοςParaklaetos

 of the New Covenant). There was no one to wipe away their tears (Isaiah

25:8) or to redress their wrongs. The point is the powerlessness of man in

the face of these disorders, his inability to right himself, the incompetence

of others to aid him. On the side of their oppressors there was power

(koach), in a bad sense, like the Greek βίαbia -  equivalent to “violence.” Thus

the ungodly say, in the Book of Wisdom 2:11, “Let our strength be the law

of justice.” Vulgate, Nec posse resistere eorun violentiae, cunctorum

auxilio destitutes. It is difficult to suppose that the state of things revealed

by this verse existed in the days of King Solomon, or that so powerful a

monarch, and one admired for “judgment and justice” (I Kings 10:9),

would be content with complaining of such disorders instead of checking

them. There is no token of remorse for past unprofitableness or anguish of

heart at the thought of failure in duty. If we take the words as the utterance

of the real Solomon, we do violence to history, and must correct the

existing chronicles of his reign. The picture here presented is one of later

times, and it may be of other countries. Persian rule, or the tyranny of the

Ptolemies, might afford an original from which it might be taken.



The Oppressed and the 0ppressor (v. 1)


Liberty has ever been the object of human desire and aspiration. Yet how

seldom and how partially has this boon been secured during the long period

of human history! Especially in the East freedom has been but little known.

Despotism has been and is very general, and there have seldom been states

of society in which there has been no room for reflections such as those

recorded in this verse.




Ø      This implies power, which may arise from physical strength, from

hereditary authority, from rank and wealth, or from civil and political

position and dignity. Power will always exist in human society; drive

it out at one door, and it will re-enter by another. It may be checked

and restrained; but it is inseparable from our nature and state.


Ø      It implies the misuse of power. It may be good to have a giant’s

strength, but “tyrannous to use it like a giant.” The great and powerful

use their strength and influence aright when they protect and care for

those who are beneath them. (Thus how wonderful that God loves,

cares for, and protects those under Him!  - CY – 2013).  But our

experience of human nature leads us to believe that where there is

power there is likely to be abuse. Delight in the exercise of power is

too generally found to lead to the contempt of the rights of others;

hence the prevalence of oppression.




Ø      The sense of oppression creates grief and distress, depicted in the tears

of those suffering from wrong. Pain is one thing; wrong is another and a

bitterer thing. A man will endure patiently the ills which nature or his

own conduct brings upon him, whilst he frets or even rages under the evil

wrought by his neighbor’s injustice.


Ø      The absence of consolation adds to the trouble. Twice it is said of the

oppressed, “They had no comforter.” The oppressors are indisposed,

and fellow-sufferers are unable, to succor and relieve them.


Ø      The consequence is the slow formation of the habit of dejection, which

may deepen into despondency.




Ø      No right-minded person can look upon instances of oppression without

discerning the prevalence and lamenting the pernicious effects of sin. ‘To

oppress a fellow-man is to do despite to the image of God Himself.


Ø      The mind is often perplexed when it looks, and looks in vain, for the

interposition of the just Governor of all, who defers to intervene for the

rectification of human wrongs. “How long, O Lord!” (Revelation 6:10)

is the exclamation of many a pious believer in Divine providence, who

looks upon the injustice of the haughty and contemptuous, and upon the

woes of the helpless who are smitten and afflicted.


Ø      Yet there is reason patiently to wait for the great deliverance. He who

has effected a glorious salvation on man’s behalf, who has visited and

redeemed His people” (Luke 1:68), will in due time humble the selfish

tyrant, break the bonds of the captive, and let the oppressed go free.


2 “Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the

living which are yet alive.” In view of these patent wrongs Koheleth loses all

enjoyment of life. Wherefore (and) I praised the dead which are already dead;

or, who died long ago, and thus have escaped the miseries which they would

have had to endure. It must, indeed, have been a bitter experience which

elicited such an avowal. To die and be forgotten an Oriental would look

upon as the most calamitous of destinies. More than the living which are

yet alive. For these have before them the prospect of a long endurance of

oppression and suffering (compare ch. 7:1; Job 3:13, etc.). The Greek gnome

says :


Κρεῖσσον τὸ μὴ ζῇν ἐστὶν η} ζῇν ἀθλίως


Kreisson to mae zaen estin hae zaen athlios


“Better to die than lead a wretched life.”


3 “Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath

not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.” Yea, better is he than

 both they, which hath not yet been.  Thus we have Job’s passionate appeal

(Job 3:11), “Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost

when I came forth,” etc.? And in the Greek poets the sentiment of the text is

reechoed. Thus Theognis, Paroen.,’ 425 —


Πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον
            Μηδ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου
            Φύντα δ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀι'´δαο περῆσαι
            Καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον

Panton men mae phunai epichthonioisin Ariston

Maed esidein augas oxeos aeeliou

Phunta d hopos okista pulas Aidao peraesai

Kai keisthai pollaen gaen epamaesamenon


“‘Tis best for mortals never to be born,

Nor ever see the swift sun’s burning rays;

Next best, when born, to pass the gates of death

Right speedily, and rest beneath the earth.”


(Comp. Soph., ‘(Ed. Colossians,’ 1225-1228.) Cicero, ‘Tusc. Disp.,’ 1:48,

renders some lines from a lost play of Euripides to the same effect —


“Nam nos decebat, caetus celebrantes, domum

Lugere, ubi esset aliquis in lucern editus,

Humanae vitae varia reputantes mala;

At qui labores metre finisset graves,

Hunc omni amicos lauds et laetitia exsequi.”


Herodotus (5. 4) relates how some of the Thracians had a custom of

bemoaning a birth and rejoicing at a death. In our own Burial Service we

thank God for delivering the departed “out of the miseries of this sinful

world.” Keble alludes to this barbarian custom in his poem on’ The Third

Sunday after Easter.’ Speaking of a Christian mother’s joy at a child’s

birth, he says —


“No need for her to weep

Like Thracian wives of yore,

Save when in rapture still and deep

Her thankful heart runs o’er.

They mourned to trust their treasure on the main,

Sure of the storm, unknowing of their guide:

Welcome to her the peril and the pain,

For well she knows the home where they may safely hide.”


(See on ch.7:1; compare Gray’s ode ‘On a Distant Prospect of Eton

College;’ and for the classical notion concerning life and death, see Plato,

Laches,’ p. 195, 1), sqq.; ‘Gorgias,’ p. 512, A.) The Buddhist religion

does not recommend suicide as an escape from the evils of life. It indeed

regards man as master of his own life; but it considers suicide foolish, as it

merely transfers a man’s position, the thread of life having to be taken up

again under less favorable circumstances. See ‘A Buddhist Catechism,’ by

Subhadra Bhikshu (London: Redway, 1890). Who hath not seen the evil

work that is done under the sun. He repeats the words, “under the sun,”

from v. 1, in order to show that he is speaking of facts that came under

his own regard — outward phenomena which any thoughtful observer

might notice (so again v. 7).



                        Two Pessimistic Fallacies


                        The Glory of Being Born

                                      (vs. 1-3)


  • THE FIRST FALLACY. That the dead are happier than the living.


Ø      Even on the assumption of no hereafter, this is not evident.

The already dead are not praised because they enjoyed better times

on earth than the now living have. But”


o       if they had better times when living, they have these no more,

having ceased to be; while

o       if their times on earth were not superior to those of their

successors, they have still only escaped these by subsiding into

cold annihilation, and it has yet to be proved that “a living dog”

is not “better than a dead lion”  (ch.9:4). Besides,

o       it is not certain there is no hereafter, which makes them pause and

hesitate to jump the life to come. When they discuss with themselves

the question —


“Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?”


     they generally come to Hamlet’s conclusion, that it is better to


“Bear the ills we have,

Than fly to others that we know not of.”


Ø      On the assumption that there is a hereafter, it is less certain that the

dead are more to be praised than the living. It depends on who the dead

are, and what the kind of existence is into which they have departed.


o       If they have lived unrighteously on earth, it will not be safe, even on

grounds of natural reason, to conclude that their condition in the

unseen land into which they have vanished is better than that of the

living who are yet alive, even should these also be wicked; since for

these there are still time and place for repentance, which cannot

be affirmed of the ungodly dead.

o       If their lives on earth have been pious — e.g., if as Christians they

have fallen asleep in Jesus — it need hardly be doubted that

their condition is better even than that of the godly living, who are

still dwellers in this vale of tears, subject to imperfections, exposed

to temptations, and liable to sin.


  • THE SECOND FALLACY. That better than both the living and the

dead are the not yet born.  (This is a lie that abortionists, those who have

had abortions and the proponents of “abortion on demand” will have

to deal with!  I cannot imagine the hellish consequences, I cannot fathom

THE DEPTH OF DEPRAVITY  to which these have fallen, THOSE

WHO deny life to the unborn.  Personally, I have never experienced

anything that can compare with LIFE, LIGHT, and LOVE, all which

come from “THE FATHER OF LIGHTS, with whom is no

variableness, neither shadow of turning!”  - James 1:17 – CY – 2013)


Ø      On the assumption that this life is all, it is not universally true

 that not to have been born would have been a preferable lot to

having been born and being dead. No doubt it is sad that one born

into this world is sure, while on his pilgrimage to the tomb,


“my heart like a muffled drum,

   is beating funeral marches.

                        (Charles Baudelaire)


to witness spectacles of oppression such as the Preacher describes;

and sadder that many before they die will be the victims of such

oppressions; while of all things, perhaps the saddest is that a man

may even live to become the perpetrator of such cruelties; yet

no one can truly affirm that human life generally contains nothing but

oppression on the one side and tears upon the other, or that in any

individual’s life naught exists but wretchedness and woe, or that in the

experiences of most the joys do not nearly counterbalance, if not

actually outweigh, the griefs, while in that of not a few the pleasures

far exceed the pains.


Ø      On the assumption of a hereafter, only one case or class of cases

can be pointed to in which it would have been decidedly better

not to have been born, viz. that in which one who has been born,

on departing from this world, passes into AN UNDONE

ETERNITY!   Christ instanced one such case (Matthew 26:24);

and if there be truth in the representations given by Christ and His


DIE IN UNBELIEF AND SIN!   (Matthew 11:22; 13:41-42;

22:13; 24:51; John 5:29; II Thessalonians 1:9; Revelation 21:8),

it will not be difficult to see that in their case also the words of the

Preacher will be true.


Ø      In every other instance, but chiefly in that of the good, who

 does not see how immeasurably more blessed it is to have

 been born? For consider what this means. It means:


o       to have been made in the Divine image,

o       endowed with an intellect,  and

o       a heart capable of holding fellowship with and

serving God.


And if it also signifies to have been born into a state of

sin and misery in consequence of our first parents’ fall, it should

not be forgotten that it signifies, in addition, to have been born into

a sphere and condition of existence in which GOD’S

GRACE HAS BEEN BEFORE ONE and is waiting to lift

one up, completely and for ever, OUT OF SIN AND

MISERY,  if one will.  (“Whosoever shall call upon the

name of the Lord will be saved”  (Romans 10:13).

“And the Spirit and the bride say, Come.  And let him

that heareth say, Come.  And let him that is athirst

come.  And whosoever will, let him take the water of

life freely”  (Revelation 22:17).  NO ONE accepting that grace

will ever afterwards deem it A MISFORTUNE THAT HE

WAS BORN!   Thomas Halyburton, the Scottish theologian

(A.D. 1674-1712), did not so regard his introduction to this lower

world, with all its vicissitudes and woes. “Oh, blessed be God

that I was born!” were his dying words. “I have a father and a

mother, and ten brothers and sisters, in heaven, and I shall be the

eleventh. Oh, blessed be the day that ever I was born!”




  • The existence of sin and suffering no proof that life is an evil thing.
  • The wickedness of undervaluing existence under the sun.
  • The folly of over-praising the dead and underrating the living.
  • A worse thing than seeing “evil work” beneath the sun is

doing it yourself!




                        Pessimism and Christian Life (vs. 1-3)


It is a very significant fact that this pessimistic note (of the text) should be

as much heard as it is in this land and in this age;  in this land, where the

hard and heavy oppressions of which the writer of Ecclesiastes had to

complain are comparatively unknown; in this age, when Christian truth is

familiar to the highest and the lowest, is taught in every sanctuary and may

Be read in every home. There are to be found:


(1) not only many who, without the courage of the suicide, wish

themselves in their grave; but


(2) also many more who believe that human life is worth nothing at all,

even less than nothing; who would say with the Preacher, “better than both

is he who hath not been;” who would respond to the English poet of this

century in his lament —


“Count o’er the joys thy life has seen,

Count o’er thy days from sorrow free;

But know, whatever thou hast been,

Tis something better not to be.”


There is an unfailing remedy for this wretched pessimism, and that is found

in an earnest Christian life. No man who heartily and practically

appropriates all that Christina truth offers him, and who lives a sincere and

genuine Christian life, could cherish such a sentiment or employ such

language as this. For the disciple of Jesus Christ who really loves and

follows his Divine Master has:


·         COMFORT IN HIS SORROWS. He never has reason to complain that

there is “no comforter.” Even if human friends and earthly consolations be

lacking, there is One who fulfils His word, “I will not leave you

comfortless;” “I will come to you” (John 14:18); “I will send you another

Comforter, even the Spirit of truth.” (ibid. v. 16) Whether suffering from

oppression, or from loss, or bereavement, or bodily distress, there are the

“consolations which are in Jesus Christ;” there is the “God of all comfort”

(II Corinthians 1:3) ALWAYS NEAR!


·         REST IN HIS HEART. That peace of mind, that rest of soul which is

of simply incalculable worth (Matthew 11:28; Romans 5:1); a sacred,

spiritual calm, which the world “cannot take away.”


·         RESOURCES WHICH ARE UNFAILING. In the fellowship he has

with God, in the elevated enjoyments of devotion, in the fellowship he has

with holy and earnest souls like-minded with himself, he has sources of

sacred joy, “springs that do not fail.”



He does everything, even though he be a servant or even a slave, as “unto

Christ the Lord;” and all drudgery is gone; life is filled with interest, and

toil is crowned with dignity and nobleness.




·         HOPE IN DEATH.




                        Oppression of Man by His Fellows (vs. 1-3)


Many different phases of human misery are depicted in this book, many

different moods of depression recorded; some springing from the

disquietude of the writer’s mind, others from the disorders he witnessed in

the world about him. Sensuous pleasure he had declared (ch. 3:12, 13, 22)

to be the only good for man, but now he finds that even that

is not always to be secured. There are evils and miseries that afflict his

fellows, against which he cannot shut his eyes. A vulgar sensualist might

drown sorrow in the wine-cup, but he cannot, “His merriment is spoiled by

the thought of the misery of others, and he can find nothing ‘under the sun

‘but violence and oppression. In utter despair, he pronounces the dead

happier than the living” (Cheyne). If he does not actually deny the

immortality of the soul, and is therefore without the consolation of

believing that in a life to come the evils of the present may be reversed and

compensated for, he ignores it as something of which we cannot be sure.

We may see in this passage the germ of a higher character than is to be

formed by the most elaborate self-culture; the spontaneous and deep

compassion for the sufferings of others which the writer manifests tells us

that a nobler emotion than the desire of personal enjoyment fills his mind.

He tells us what he saw in his survey of society, and the feelings which

were excited within him by the sight.



CRUELTY. (v. 1.) His description has been only too frequently verified

in one generation after another of the world’s history.


“Man’s inhumanity to man

Makes countless thousands mourn.”


The barbarities of savage life, the wars and crusades carried on in the name

of religion, the cruelties perpetrated by despotic rulers to secure their

thrones, the hardships of the slave, the pariah, and the down-trodden, fill

out the picture suggested by the words, “I considered all the oppressions

that are done under the sun.” They all spring from the abuse of power (v. 1),

which might and should have been used for the protection and comfort

of men. The husband and father, the king, the priest, the magistrate, are all

invested with rights and authority of a greater or less extent over others,

and the abuse of this power leads to hardships and suffering on the part of

those subject to them which it is almost impossible to remedy. For many of

the evils that may afflict a community a revolution may seem the only way

of deliverance; and yet that in the vast majority of cases means, in the first

instance, multiplying disorders and inflicting fresh sufferings. Anarchy is a

worse evil than bad government, and the fact that this is so, is calculated to

make the most ardent patriot hesitate before attempting to set wrong right

with a strong hand.



MISERY. (vs. 2-3.) One good point in the character of the speaker we

have already noticed, and that is that he cannot banish the thought of the

distresses of others by attending to his own ease and self-enjoyment. He is

not like the rich man in the parable, who fared sumptuously every day, and

took no notice of the hungry, naked beggar covered with sores that lay at

his gate (Luke 16:19-21). On the contrary, a deep compassion fills his

heart at the thought of the oppressed who have no comforter, and the fact

that he cannot deliver them or ameliorate their lot does not lead him to

consider it unnecessary for him to distress himself about them; it rather

tends to deepen the despondency he feels, and to make him think those

happy who have done with life, and rest in the place where “the wicked

cease from troubling, and the weary be at rest” (Job 3:17). Yea, better,

he thinks, never to have been than to see the evil work that is done under

the sun (v. 3). The distress which the sight of the sufferings of the

oppressed produces is unrelieved by any consolatory thought. The writer

does not, as I have said, anticipate a future life in which the righteous are

happy, and the wicked receive the due reward of their deeds; he does not

invoke the Divine interposition on behalf of the oppressed in the present

life, or speak of the salutary discipline of sufferings meekly borne. In short,

we do not find here any light cast upon the problem of evil in a world

governed by a God of infinite power, wisdom, and love, such as is given in

other passages of Holy Scripture (Job, passim; Psalm 73.; Hebrews

12:5-11). But we may freely admit that the depth and intensity of feeling

with which our author speaks of human misery is infinitely preferable to a

superficial optimism founded, not upon Christian faith, but upon an

imperfect appreciation of moral and spiritual truth, and generally

accompanied by a selfish indifference to the welfare of others. A striking

parallel to the thought in this passage is to be found in the teaching of

Buddhism. The spectacle of miseries of old age, disease, and death, drove

the Indian prince, Cakya Mouni, to find in Nirvana (annihilation, or

unconscious existence) a solution of the great problem. But both are

superseded by the teaching of Christ, who gives us to understand that “not

to have been born” is not a blessing which the more spiritually minded

might covet, but a state better only than that exceptional misery which is

the doom of exceptional guilt (Matthew 26:24).





Pessimism (vs. 2-3)


It would be a mistake to regard this language as expressing the deliberate

and final conviction of the author of Ecclesiastes. It represents a mood of

his mind, and indeed of many a mind, oppressed by the sorrows, the

wrongs, and the perplexities of human life. Pessimism is at the root a

philosophy; but its manifestation is in a habit or tendency of the mind, such

as may be recognized in many who are altogether strange to speculative

thinking. The pessimism of the East anticipated that of modern Europe.

Though there is no reason for connecting the morbid state of mind

recorded in this Book of Ecclesiastes with the Buddhism of India, both

alike bear witness to the despondency which is naturally produced in the

mental habit of not a few who are perplexed and discouraged by the

untoward circumstances of human life.





Ø      The unsatisfying nature of the pleasures of life. Men set their hearts

upon the attainment of enjoyments, wealth, greatness, etc. When they

gain what they seek, the satisfaction expected does not follow. (I best

understand it as “Human nature wants what it can’t get, and then

when it is obtained, it is not what is wanted after all!” – CY –

2013)    The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with

 hearing  (ch. 1:8).  Disappointed and unhappy, the votary of pleasure

is “soured” with life itself (Is this not the bane of many a drug addict

and alcoholic? – CY – 2013), and asks, “Who will show us any

good?”  (Psalm 4:6)


Ø      The brevity, uncertainty, and transitoriness of life. Men find

that there is no time for the acquirements, the pursuits, the aims,

which seem to them essential to their earthly well-being. In many

cases life is cut short; but even when it is prolonged, it passes like

the swift ships (Job  9:26). It excites visions and hopes which in the

nature of things cannot be realized.


Ø      The actual disappointment of plans and the failure of efforts.

Men learn the limitations of their powers; they find circumstances too

strong for them; all that seemed desirable proves to be beyond their





Ø      It comes to be a steady conviction that life is not worth living. Is life a

boon at all?  Why should it be prolonged, when it is ever proving itself

insufficient for human wants, unsatisfying to human aspirations? The

young and hopeful may take a different view, but their illusions will

speedily be dispelled. There is nothing so unworthy of appreciation

and desire as life.


Ø      The dead are regarded as more fortunate than the living; and, indeed,

it is a misfortune to be born, to come into this earthly life at all. “The

sooner it’s over, the sooner asleep.” Consciousness is grief and misery;

they only are blest who are at rest in the painless Nirvana of eternity.





Ø      It is assumed that pleasure is the chief good. A great living philosopher

deliberately takes it for granted that the question — Is life worth living?

Is to be decided by the question — Does life yield a surplus of agreeable

feeling? This being so, it is natural that the disappointed and unhappy

should drift into pessimism. But, as a matter of fact, the test is one

altogether unjust, and can only be justified, upon the supposition that

man is merely a creature that feels. It is the hedonist who is

disappointed that becomes the pessimist.


Ø      There is a higher end for man than pleasure, viz. spiritual cultivation and

progress. It is better to grow in the elements of a noble character than

to be filled with all manner of delights. Man was made in the likeness

of God, and His discipline on earth is to recover and to perfect that



Ø      This higher end may in some cases be attained by the hard process of

distress and disappointment. This seems to have been lost sight of in the

mood which found expression in the language of these verses. Yet

experience and reflection alike concur to assure us that it may be good

for us to be afflicted.  The psalmist said:  “It is good for me to be

afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes.”  (Psalm 119:71).  It not

infrequently happens that

“The soul

                                          Gives up a part to take to it the whole.”


As there are times and circumstances in all persons lives which are naturally conducive

to pessimistic habits, it behooves us to be, at such times and in such circumstances,

especially upon our guard lest we half consciously fall into habits so destructive

of real spiritual well-being and usefulness. The conviction that Infinite Wisdom

and Righteousness are at the heart of the universe, and not blind unconscious

fate and force, is the one preservative; and to this it is the Christian’s privilege to add

an affectionate faith in God as the Father of the spirits of all flesh, and the benevolent

Author of life and immortal salvation to all who receive His gospel and confide in the

mediation of His blessed Son.  (Numbers 16:22; 27:16; Hebrews 12:2, 9; I Timothy 2:5).



In vs. 4-6, success meets with envy, and produces no lasting good to the worker;

yet, however unsatisfactory the result, man must continue to labor, as idleness is ruin.


4 “Again, I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a

man is envied of his neighbor. This is also vanity and vexation of

spirit.”  Again, I considered all travail, and every right work. The

word rendered “right” is kishron (see on ch.2:21), and means

rather “dexterity,” “success.” Koheleth says that he reflected upon the

industry that men exhibit, and the skill and dexterity with which they ply

their incessant toil. There is no reference to moral rectitude in the

reflection.  That for this a man is envied of his neighbor. Kinah may mean

either “object of envy” or “envious rivalry;” i.e. the clause may be translated as

above, or, as in the Revised Version margin, “it cometh of a man’s rivalry with

his neighbor.” The Septuagint is ambiguous Ὅτι αὐτὸ ζῆλος ἀνδρὸς ἀπὸ τοῦ

ἑταίρου αὐτοῦ, - Hoti auto zaelos Andros apo tou etairou autou

 that is the envy of a man’s neighbor;  that this is a man’s envy from his

 comrade; Vulgate, Industrias animadverti patere invidiae proximi, “Lay

open to a neighbor’s envy.” In the first case the thought is that unusual skill and

success expose a man to envy and ill will, which rob labor of all enjoyment.

In the second case the writer says that this superiority and dexterity arise

from a mean motive, an envious desire to outstrip a neighbor, and, based

on such low ground, can lead to nothing but vanity and vexation of

spirit, a striving after wind. The former explanation seems more in

accordance with Koheleth’s gloomy view. Success itself is no guarantee of

happiness; the malice and ill feeling which it invariably occasions are

necessarily a source of pain and distress.



Envy (v. 4)


There is no vice more vulgar and despicable, none which affords more painful evidence

of the depravity of human nature, than envy.  (An old English proverbs says “Envy

shoots at others but wounds herself” – CY – 2013).   It is a vice which Christianity

has done much to discourage and repress; but in unchristian communities its power is

mighty and disastrous.




Ø      Generally, the inequality of the human lot is the occasion of envious

feelings, which would not arise were all men possessed of an equal

and a satisfying portion of earthly good.

Ø      Particularly, the disposition, on the part of one who is not possessed of

some good, some desirable quality or property, to grasp at what is

possessed by another.



We do not say that a man is envious who, seeing another strong or healthy,

prosperous or powerful, wishes that he enjoyed the same advantages.

Emulation is not envy. The envious man desires to take another’s

possessions from him — desires that the other may be impoverished in

order that he may be enriched, or depressed in order that he may be

exalted, or rendered miserable in order that he may be happy.

(There seems to be a lot of malice in envy  – CY – 2013).




Ø      It may lead to unjust and malevolent action, in order that it may secure

its gratification.

Ø      It produces unhappiness in the breast of him who cherishes it; it gnaws

and corrodes the heart.

Ø      It is destructive of confidence and cordiality in society.




Ø      It should be considered that whatever men acquire and enjoy is

attributable to the Divine favor and loving-kindness.

Ø      And that all men have blessings far beyond their deserts.

Ø      It becomes us to think less of what we do not or do possess,

and more of what we do.

Ø      And to cultivate the spirit of Christ — the spirit of

self-sacrifice and benevolence.


5 “The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh.”

The connection of this verse with the preceding is this: activity, diligence, and

skill indeed bring success, but success is accompanied by sad results. Should we,

then, sink into apathy, relinquish work, let things slide? Nay, none but the fool (kesil),

the insensate, half-brutish man, doth this. The fool foldeth his hands together.

The attitude expresses laziness and disinclination for active labor, like that

of the sluggard in Proverbs 6:10-11. And eateth his own flesh. Ginsburg, Plumptre,

and others take these words to mean “and yet eats his meat,” i.e. gets that

enjoyment from his sluggishness which is denied to active diligence. They refer,

in proof of this interpretation, to Exodus 16:8; 21:28; Isaiah 22:13; Ezekiel 39:17,

in which passages, however, the phrase is never equivalent to “eating his food.”

The expression is really equivalent to “destroys himself,” “brings ruin upon

 himself.” Thus we have in Psalm 27:2, “Evildoers came upon me to eat up my

flesh;” and in Micah 3:3, “Who eat the flesh of my people” (compare Isaiah 49:26).

The sluggard is guilty of moral suicide; he takes no trouble to provide for his necessities,

and suffers extremities in consequence. Some see in this verse and the following an

objection and its answer. There is no occasion for this view, and it is not in

keeping with the context; but it contains an intimation of the true

exposition, which makes v. 6 a proverbial statement of the sluggard’s

position. The verbs in the text are participial in form, so that the Vulgate

rendering, which supplies a verb, is quite admissible: Stultus complicat

manna suas, et comedit carnes suas, dicens: Melior est, etc.


“Idleness is the bane of body and mind, the nurse of naughtiness, the

chief author of all misery, one of the seven deadly sins, the cushion upon

which the devil chiefly reposes, and a great cause not only of melancholy,

but of many other diseases, for the mind is naturally active; and if it be

not occupied about some honest business, it rushes into mischief or

sinks into melancholy.”   (Richard E. Burton – 1861-1940?)

This reinforces the old maxim:  “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”

6 “Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with

travail and vexation of spirit.”  Better is a handful with quietness; literally,

better a hand full of rest. Than both the hands full with travail and vexation

of spirit; literally, than two hands full of travail, etc. This verse, which has been

variously interpreted, is most simply regarded as the fool’s defense of his

indolence, either expressed in his own words or fortified by a proverbial

saying. One open hand full of quietness and rest is preferable to two closed

hands full of toil and vain effort. The verse must not be taken as the

writer’s warning against sloth, which would be out of place here, but as

enunciating a maxim against discontent and that restless activity which is

never satisfied with moderate returns.




                                    Ambition and Indolence (vs. 4-6)


The Preacher turns from the great, and to him insoluble, problems

connected with the misery and suffering in which so many of the children

of men are sunk. “His mood is still bitter; but it is no longer on the

oppressions and cruelty of life that he fixes his eye, but on its littleness, its

mutual jealousies, its greed, its strange reverses, its shams and hollowness.

He puts on the garb of the satirist, and lashes the pettiness and the follies

and the vain hurry of mankind” (Bradley). As it were, he turns from the

evils which no foresight or effort could ward off, to those which spring

from preventable causes.


·         RESTLESS AMBITION. (v. 4.) Revised Version, “Then I saw all

labor and every skilful work, that it cometh of a man’s rivalry with his

neighbor” (margin). The Preacher does not deny that labor and toil may be

crowned with some measure of success, but he notices that the inspiring

motive is in most cases an envious desire on the part of the worker to

surpass his fellows. Hence he asserts that in general no lasting good is

secured by the individual worker (Wright). The general community may

benefit largely by the results achieved, the progress of civilization may be

advanced by the competition of artist with artist, but without a moral gain

being attained by those who have put forth all their strength and exerted to

the utmost all their skill. They may still feel that their ideal is higher than

their achievements; they may see with jealous resentment that their best

work is surpassed by others. The poet Hesiod, in his ‘Works and Days,’

distinguishes between two kinds of rivalry — the one beneficent and

provocative of honest enterprise, the other pernicious and provocative of

discord. The former is like that alluded to here by the Preacher, and is the

parent of healthy competition.


“Beneficent this better envy burns —

Thus emulous his wheel the potter turns,

The smith his anvil beats, the beggar throng

Industrious ply, the bards contend in song.”


But our author, looking at the motive rather than the result of the work,

brands as injurious the selfish ambition from which it may have sprung.


·         INDOLENCE. (v. 5.) “The fool foldeth his hands together, and

eateth his own flesh;’ While there are some who fret and wear themselves

out in endeavors to surpass their neighbors, others rust out in ignoble sloth.

The hands of the busy artist are deftly used to shape and fashion the

materials in which he works, and to embody the ideas or fancies conceived

in his mind; the indolent fold their hands together, and make no attempt

either to excel others or to provide a living for themselves. The one may,

after all his toil, be doomed to failure and disappointment; the other most

certainly dooms himself to want and misery. “He feeds upon his own

flesh,” and destroys himself. The sinfulness of indolence, and the

punishment which it brings down upon itself, are plainly indicated in many

parts of Holy Scripture (Proverbs 6:10-11; 13:4; 20:4; Matthew 25:26;

II Thessalonians 3:10). But the special point of the reference to

the vice here seems to be the contrast which it affords to that of feverish

ambition. The two dispositions depicted are opposed to each other; both

are blameworthy. It is foolish to seek to escape the evils of the one by

incurring: those of the other. A middle way between them is the path of

wisdom. This is taught us in v. 6. “Better is an handful with quietness,

than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.” The rivalry that

consumes the strength, and leads almost inevitably to disappointment and

vexation of spirit, is deprecated; so also, by implication, is the inactivity of

the indolent. The “quietness “which refreshes the soul, and gives it

contentment with a moderate competence, is not idleness, or the rest of

sloth. It is rest after labor, which the ambitious will not allow themselves to

take. The indolent do not enjoy it, their strength wastes away from want of

exercise while those of moderate, chastened desires can both be diligent in

business and mindful of their higher interests; they can labor assiduously

without losing that tranquility of spirit and peace of mind which are

            essential to happiness in life.





                        The Handful with Quietness (v. 6)


The lesson here imparted is proverbial. Every language has its own way of

conveying and emphasizing this practical truth. Yet it is a belief more

readily professed than actually made the basis of human conduct.









Ø      This appears from a consideration of human nature. “A man’s life

consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he

possesses.”  (Luke 12:15)


·         And experience of human life enforces this lesson; for every observer

of his fellow-men has remarked the unhappiness and pitiable moral

state of some wealthy neighbors, and has known cases where narrow

means have not hindered real well-being and felicity. 




VEXATION.  So it seemed even to Solomon in all his glory, and

similar testimony has been borne by not a few of the great of this

world, Nor, on the other hand, is it uncommon to find the healthy,

happy, and pious among the poor rejoicing in their lot AND


which they were born, and for the work to which they are called.


·         APPLICATION.


1. The comparison made by the wise man in this passage is a rebuke to

    envy. Who can tell what, if his two hands were filled with earthly good, he

    might, in consequence of his wealth, be called upon to endure of sorrow

    and of care?


2. On the other hand, this comparison is an encouragement to contentment.

    A handful is sufficient; and a quiet heart, grateful to God and at peace with

    men, can make what others might deem poverty not only endurable but

    welcome. It is God’s blessing which maketh rich; and with it he addeth no



(The bottom line is :  “The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich,

and He addeth no sorrow with it.” – Proverbs 10:22 – CY – 2013)



Vs. 7-12 describe how avarice causes isolation and a sense of insecurity,

and brings no satisfaction.


7 “Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun.”  Then I returned.

Another reflection serves to confirm the uselessness of human efforts. The

vanity under the sun is now avarice, with the evils that accompany it.


8 “There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither

child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labor; neither is his

eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labor, and

bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore

travail.” There is one alone, and there is not a second; or, without a

second — a solitary being, without partner, relation, or friend. Here, he

says, is another instance of man’s inability to secure his own happiness.

Wealth indeed, is supposed to make friends, such as they are; but

miserliness and greed separate a man from his fellows, make him suspicious

of every one, and drive him to live alone, churlish and unhappy. Yea, he

hath neither child nor brother; no one to share his wealth, or for whom

to save and amass riches. To apply these words to Solomon himself, who

had brothers, and one son, if not more, is manifestly inappropriate. They

may possibly refer to some circumstance in the writer’s own life; but of

that we know nothing. Yet is there no end of all his labor. In spite of this

isolation he plies his weary task, and ceases not to hoard. Neither is his

eye satisfied with riches; so that he is content with what he has (compare

ch.2:10; Proverbs 27:20). The insatiable thirst for gold, the dropsy of the mind,

is a commonplace theme in classical writers. Thus Horace, ‘Caxm.,’ 3:16. 17 —


Crescentem sequitur cura pecuniam, Majorumque fames.”


And Juvenal, ‘Sat.,’ 14:138 —

Interea pleno quum turget sacculus ore,

Crescit amor nummi, quantum ipsa pecunia crevit.”


Neither, saith he, For whom do I labor, and bereave my soul of good?

The original is more dramatic than the Authorized Version or the Vulgate,

Nec recogitat, dicens, Cui laboro, etc.? The writer suddenly puts himself in

the place of the friendless miser, and exclaims, “And for whom do I labor,”

etc.? We see something similar in v. 15 and ch.2:15. Here we cannot find any

definite allusion to the writer’s own circumstances. The clause is merely a lively

personification expressive of strong sympathy with the situation described

(compare ch. 2:18). Good may mean either riches, in which case the denial to

the soul refers to the enjoyment which wealth might afford, or happiness and

comfort. The Septuagint has ἀγαθωσύνηςagathosunaesgoodness;

kindness — which gives quite a different and not so suitable an idea. Sore travail;

a sad business, a woeful employment.





                        Practical Wisdom in the Conduct of Life

                                                (vs. 4-6)


What shall we pursue — distinction or happiness? Shall we aim to be

markedly successful, or to be quietly content? What shall be the goal we

set before us?


·         THE FASCINATION OF SUCCESS. A great many men resolve to

attain distinction in their sphere. They put forth “labor, skilful labor,”

inspired by feelings of rivalry; they are animated by the hope of surpassing

their fellows, of rising above them in the reputation they achieve, in the

style in which they live, in the income they earn, etc. There is very little

that is profitable here.


Ø      It must necessarily be attended with a large amount of failure: where

many run, “but one receiveth the prize.”


Ø      The satisfaction of success is short-lived; it soon loses its keen relish,

and becomes of small account.


Ø      It is a satisfaction of a very low order.


·         THE TEMPTATION TO INDOLENCE. Many men are content to go

through life moving along a much lower level than their natural capacities,

their educational advantages, and their social introductions fit them and

entitle them to maintain. They crave quietude; they want to be free from

the bustle, the worry, the burden of the strife of life; they prefer to have a

very small share of worldly wealth, and to fill a very little space in the

regard of their neighbors, if only they can be well left alone. “The sluggard

foldeth his hands; yea, he eateth his meat” (Cox). There is a measure of

sense in this; much is thereby avoided which it is desirable to shun. But, on

the other hand, such a choice is ignoble; it is to:


Ø      decline the opportunity;

Ø      retreat from the battle;

Ø      leave the powers of our nature and the

            opportunities of our life idle and unemployed.


·         THE WISDOM OF THE WISE. This is:


Ø      To be contented with our lot; not to be dissatisfied because there are

others above us in the trade or the profession in which we are engaged;

not to be envious of those more successful than ourselves; to recognize

the goodness of our Divine Father in making us what we are and giving

us what we have.


Ø      To let our labors be inspired by high and elevating motives; to work

with all our strength, because


o       God loves faithfulness;

o       we cannot respect ourselves nor earn the esteem of the upright

if we are indolent or faulty;

o       diligence and devotedness conduct to an honorable success, and

enable us to render greater service both to Christ and to mankind.




                                    Three Sketches from Life (vs. 4-8)




Ø      The success that attends his toil. Every enterprise to which he puts his

hand prospers, and in this sense is a “right” work. Never an undertaking

started by him fails. Whatever he touches turns into gold. He is one of

those children of fortune upon whom the sun always shines — a man of

large capacity and untiring energy, who keeps plodding on, doing the

right thing to pay, and doing it at the right time, and so building up for

himself a vast store of wealth.


Ø      The drawbacks that wait on his success. The Preacher does not hint that

his work has been wrong; only that success such as his has its drawbacks.


o        It can only be attained by hard work. By Heaven’s decree it is the fruit

of toil; and sometimes he who finds it must sweat and labor for it,

tugging away at the oar of industry like a very galley-slave, depriving

his soul of good, and condemning his body to the meanest drudgery.


o        It often springs from unworthy motives in the worker, as e.g. from

ambition, or a desire to outstrip his competitors in the race for wealth;

from covetousness, or a hungry longing for other people’s gold; or

from avarice, which means a sordid thirst for possession.


o        It commonly leads to envy in beholders, especially in those to whom

success has been denied. That it ought not to do so may be conceded;

that it will not do so in those who consider that success, like every

other thing, comes from God (Psalm 75:6-7), and that a man can

receive nothing except it be given him from above (John 3:27) is

certain; that it does so, nevertheless, is apparent. In every department

of life success incites some who witness it to depreciation,

censoriousness, and even to backbiting and slander. “Envy spies out

blemishes, that she may lower another by defeat,” and when she

cannot find, seldom wants the wit to invent them. Detraction is the

shadow that waits upon the sun of prosperity.


o        It is usually attended by anxiety. The man to whom success is given is

often one to whom success can be of small account, being “one that is

alone and hath not a second,” without wife or child, brother or friend, to

whom to leave his wealth, so that as this increases his perplexity

augments as to what he shall do with it.




Ø      The folly he exhibits. Not indisposed to partake of the successful man’s

wealth, he is yet disinclined to the labor by which alone wealth can be

secured, lie is one on whom the spirit of indolence has seized. Averse to

exertion, like the sluggard, he is slumberous and slothful (Proverbs

6:10; 24:33); and when he does awake, finds that other men’s day is half

through. If one must not depreciate the value of sleep, which God gives

to his beloved (Psalm 127:2), or pronounce all fools who have evinced a

capacity for the same, since according to Thomson (‘Castle of Indolence’)

“Great men have ever loved repose,”


one may recognize the folly of expecting to succeed in life while

devoting one’s day to indolence or slumber.


Ø      The wretchedness that springs from his folly. That the habitual idler

should “eat his own flesh “ — not have a pleasant time of it, in spite of

his indolence, attain to the fruition of his desires without work (Ginsburg,

Plumptre), but reduce himself to poverty and starvation, and consume

himself with envy and vexation (Delitzsch, Hengstenberg, Wright) — is

according to the fitness of things, as well as the teachings of Scripture

(Proverbs 13:4; 23:21; here ch.10:18; II Thessalonians 3:10). “Idleness

is the bane of body and mind, the nurse of naughtiness, the

chief author of all misery, one of the seven deadly sins, the cushion upon

which the devil chiefly reposes, and a great cause not only of melancholy,

but of many other diseases” (Burton).




Ø      His character defined. Neither of the two former, he is a happy mean

between both. If he toils not like him who always succeeds, he loafs not

about like the fool who never works. If he amasses not wealth, he equally

escapes poverty. He works in moderation, and is contented with a



Ø      His wisdom extolled. If he attains not to riches, he avoids the sore travail

requisite to procure riches, and the vexation of spirit, or “feeding upon

wind,” which riches bring. If he succeeds in gathering only one fistful of

the goods of earth, he has at least the priceless pearl of quietness,

including ease of mind as well as comfort of body.


·         LESSONS.


1. Industry and contentment two Christian virtues (Romans 12:11;

    Ephesians 4:28; 1 Timothy 6:8; Hebrews 13:5).


2. Idleness and sloth two destructive sins (Proverbs 12:24;

                                (here ch. 10:8).




The Pain of Loneliness (v. 8)


The picture here drawn is one of pathetic interest. It cannot have originated

in personal experience, but must have been suggested by incidents in the

author’s wide and varied observation. A lonely man without a brother to

share his sorrows and joys, without a son to succeed to his name and

possessions, is represented as toiling on through the years of his life, and as

accumulating a fortune, and then as awaking to a sense of his solitary state,

and asking himself for whom he thus labors and endures? It is vanity, and a

sore travail!




PROVIDENCE. There are cases in which men are called upon to deny

themselves such companionship, and there are cases in which they have

been, by no action of their own, but by the decree of God, deprived of it.

But the constitution of the individual’s nature and of human society are

evidence that the declaration regarding our first father holds good of his

posterity — that is, in normal circumstances — “It is not good for the man

to be alone.”  (Genesis 2:18)



RECOMPENSE FOR TOIL. A man can work better, more efficiently,

perseveringly, and happily, when he works for others than when he works

only for himself. Many a man owes his habits of industry and self-denial,

his social advancement and his moral maturity, to the necessity of laboring

for his family. He may be called upon to maintain aged parents, to provide

for the comfort of a sickly wife, to secure the education of his sons, to save

a brother from destitution. And such a call may awaken a willing and

cheerful response, and may, under God, account for a good work in life.





pressure of loneliness, a man may relax his efforts, or he may fall into a

discontented, desponding, and cynical frame of mind. He may lose his

interest in life and in human affairs generally. He may even become

misanthropic and skeptical.





SYMPATHY AND BENEVOLENCE. No one need be lonely who can

call his Savior his Friend; and Christ’s friendship is open to every

believer.  And all Christ’s disciples and brethren are of the spiritual kindred of

him who trusts and loves the Redeemer. Where kindred “according to the

flesh” are wanting, there need be no lack of spiritual relatives and

associates. All around the lonely man are those who need succor, kindly

aid, education, guardianship, and the heart purifies and refines as it takes in

new objects of pity, interest, and Christian affection. And the day shall

come when the Divine Savior and Judge shall say to those who have

responded to His appeal, “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the

 least of these my brethren, YE DID IT UNTO ME.”


9 “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their

labor.”  Koheleth dwells upon the evils of isolation, and contrasts with

them the comfort of companionship. Two are better than one. Literally,

the clause refers to the two and the one mentioned in the preceding verse

(Ἀγαθοὶ οἱ δύο ὑπὲρ τόν ἔνα - Agathoi hoi duo huper ton ena  -

two are better than one - Septuagint); but the gnome is true in

general. “Two heads are better than one,” says our proverb. Because

(asher here conjunctive, not relative) they have a good reward for their

labor. The joint labors of two produce much more effect than the efforts of

a solitary worker. Companionship is helpful and profitable. Ginsburg

quotes the rabbinical sayings,, Either friendship or death;” and “A man

without friends is like a left hand without the right.” Thus the Greek gnome

“Man helps his fellow, city saves.”


Ξεὶρ χεῖρα νίπτει δάκτυλός τε δάκτυλον.

Cheir cheira niptei daktulos te daktulon

“Hand cleanseth hand, and finger cleanseth finger.”


(Compare Proverbs 17:17; 27:17)  - So Christ sent out His apostles two and two

(Mark 6:7).


10 “For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that

is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.”

Koheleth illustrates the benefit of association by certain familiar examples.

For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow. If one or the other fall, the

companion will aid him. The idea is that two travelers are making their way over

a rough road — an experience that every one must have had in Palestine.

Vulgate, Si unus ceciderit. Of course, if both fell at the same time, one could

not help the other. Commentators quote Homer, ‘Iliad,’ 10:220-226, thus

rendered by Lord Derby —


“Nestor, that heart is mine;

I dare alone Enter the hostile camp, so close at hand;

Yet were one comrade giv’n me, I should go

With more of comfort, more of confidence.

Where two combine, one before other sees

The better course; and ev’n though one alone

The readiest way discover, yet would be

His judgment slower, his decision less.”


Woe to him that is alone. The same interjection of sorrow, yai, occurs in

ch.10:16, but elsewhere only in late Hebrew. The verse may be applied to

 moral  falls as well as to stumbling at natural obstacles. Brother helps

brother to resist temptation, while many have failed when tried by isolation

who would have manfully withstood if they had had the countenance

and support of others.


“Clear before us through the darkness

Gleams and burns the guiding light;

Brother clasps the hand of brother,

Stepping fearless through the night.”


11 “Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be

warm alone?”  The first example of the advantage of companionship spoke of

the aid and support that are thus given; the present verse tells of the

comfort thus brought. If two lie together, then they have heat. The

winter nights in Palestine are comparatively cold, and when, as in the case

of the poorer inhabitants, the outer garment worn by day was used as the

only blanket during sleep (Exodus 22:26-27), it was a comfort to have

the additional warmth of a friend lying under the same coverlet. Solomon

could have had no such experience.


12 “And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold

cord is not quickly broken.”  The third instance shows the value of the protection

afforded by a companion’s presence when danger threatens. If one prevail against

him, two shall withstand him; better, if a man overpower the solitary

one, the two (v. 9) will withstand him. The idea of the traveler is

continued. If he were attacked by robbers, he would be easily overpowered

when alone; but two comrades might successfully resist the assault. And a

threefold cord is not quickly broken. This is probably a proverbial

saying, like our “Union is strength.” Hereby the advantage of association is

more strongly enforced. If the companionship of two is profitable, much

more is this the case when more combine. The cord of three strands was

the strongest made. The number three is used as the symbol of

completeness and perfection. Funiculus triplex diffcile rumpitur, the

Vulgate rendering, has become a trite saying; and the gnome has been

constantly applied in a mystical or spiritual sense, with which, originally

and humanly speaking, it has no concern. Herein is seen an adumbration of


ONE,  of the three Christian virtues, faith, hope, and charity, which go

 to make the Christian life; of the Christian’s body, soul, and spirit, which

 are consecrated as a temple of the Most High.





                        Friendship a Gain in Life (vs. 7-12)


A new thought dawns upon our author. In his observation of the different

phases of human life, he notes much that is disappointing and

unsatisfactory but he also perceives some alleviations of the evils by which

man is harassed and disturbed. Amidst all his depreciation of the conditions

under which we live, he admits positive blessings which it is our wisdom to

discern and make the most of. Amongst these latter he counts friendship. It

is a positive gain, by which the difficulties of life are diminished and its

enjoyments increased. In vs. 8-12 he describes an isolated life wasted in

fruitless, selfish toil, and dilates with something like enthusiasm upon the

advantages of companionship. In order, I suppose, to make the contrast

between the two states more vivid, he chooses a very pronounced case of

solitariness — not that of a man merely isolated from his fellows, say living

by himself on a desert island, but that of one utterly separate in spirit, a

miser intent only on his own interests. We may call the passage a

description of the evils of a solitary life and the value of friendship.


·         THE EVILS OF A SOLITARY LIFE. (vs. 7-8.) The picture is drawn

with a very few touches, but it is remarkably distinct and vivid. It

represents a “solitary, friendless money-maker — a Shylock without even a

Jessica; an Isaac of York with his faithful Rebecca.” He is alone, he has no

companion, no relative or friend, he knows not who will succeed him in the

possession of his heaped-up treasures; and yet he toils on with unremitting

anxiety, from early in the morning till late at night, unwilling to lose a

moment from his work as long as he can add anything to his gains. “There

is no end of all his labor.” The assiduity with which he at first applied

himself to the task of accumulating riches distinguishes him to the end of

life. At first, perhaps, he had to force himself to cultivate habits of industry

and application, but now he cannot tear himself away from business. His

habits rule him, and take away from him both the ability and the inclination

to relax his labors and to enjoy the fruit of them. Have we not often seen

instances of this folly in our own experience? Those who have lived a

laborious life, and have been successful in their undertakings, toiling on to

the very last, afflicted with an insatiable avarice, never satisfied with their

riches, and only enjoying the mere consciousness of possessing them? Have

we not noticed how such a man gets to be penurious and fretful and utterly

unfeeling? He gathers in eagerly, and often unscrupulously, and gives out

reluctantly and sparingly. He starves himself in the midst of abundance,

grudges the most necessary expenses, and denies himself and those

dependent upon him the commonest comforts. The misery he inflicts upon

himself does not open his eyes to the folly of his conduct; he grows

gradually callous to discomforts, and finds in the sordid gains which his

parsimony secures an abundant compensation for all inconveniences. And

not only does he doom himself to material discomfort and to intellectual

impoverishment by setting his desires solely upon riches, but he degrades

his moral and spiritual character. If he must keep all he has to himself, he

must often ignore the just claims of others upon him; he must steel his

heart against the appeals of the poor and needy, and. he must look with

scorn and contempt upon all those who are generous and liberal in helping

their fellows. And so we find such men gradually growing harsher and

more unsympathetic, until it seems at last as if they regarded every one

about them with suspicion, as seeking to wrest from their hands their hard-

earned gains. And what is the pleasure of such a life? How is it such men

do not say within themselves, “For whom do I labor, and bereave my soul

of good?” The folly of their conduct springs from two causes.


Ø      They forget that unremitting, fruitless toil is a curse. As a means to an

end, toil is good, as an end in itself it is evil. It was never contemplated,

even when man was innocent, that he should be idle. He was placed in the

garden of Eden to dress and to keep it. But it is either his fault or his

misfortune if he is all his life a slavish drudge. It may be that he is forced

by the necessities of his position to labor incessantly and to the very end,

to make a livelihood for himself and for those dependent upon him, but

his condition is not an ideal one. If he could secure a little leisure and

relaxation, it would be all the better for him in every sense of the word.

And therefore for the miser to toil like a mere slave, when he might save

himself the trouble, is an evidence of how blinded he is by the vice to

 which he is addicted.


Ø      A second cause of the miser’s folly is his ignoring the fact that riches

have only value when made use of. The mere accumulation of them is

not enough; they must be employed if they are to be of service. No real,

healthy enjoyment of them is to be obtained by merely contemplating

them and reckoning them up. (“When goods increase, they are

increased that eat them:  and what good is there to the owners

thereof, saving the beholding of them with their eyes?”  ch. 5:11)

Used in that way they only feed an unnatural and morbid appetite.


·         Over against the miseries of a selfish, solitary life, our author sets THE

LOYALTIES  OF COMPANIONSHIP. (vs. 9-12.) Friendship affords

considerable mitigation of the evils by which life is beset, and a positive

gain is secured by those who cultivate it. Three very homely figures are

used to describe these advantages. The thought which connects them all

together is that of life as a journey, or pilgrimage, like that which Bunyan

describes in his wonderful book. (Pilgrim’s Progress)  If a man is alone in

the journey of life, he is liable to accidents and discomforts and dangers which

the presence of a friend would have averted or mitigated. He may fall on the road,

and none be by to help him; he may at night lie shivering in the cold, if he has no

companion to cherish him with kindly warmth; he may meet with robbers,

whom his unaided strength is insufficient to beat off. All these figures

illustrate the general principle that in union there is mutual helpfulness,

comfort, and strength, verification of which we find in all departments of

life — in the family, in the company of friends, and in the Church. The

benefits of such fellowships are undeniable. “It affords to the parties mutual

counsel and direction, especially in seasons of perplexity and

embarrassment; mutual sympathy, consolation, and care in the hour of

calamity and distress; mutual encouragement in anxiety and depression;

mutual aid by the joint application of bodily or mental energy to difficult

and laborious tasks; mutual relief amidst the fluctuations of worldly

circumstances, the abundance of the one reciprocally supplying the

deficiencies of the other; mutual defense and vindication when the

character of either is injuriously attacked and defamed; and mutual reproof

and affectionate expostulation when either has, through the power of

temptation, fallen into sin. ‘Woe to him that is alone when he so falleth-and

hath not another to help him up!’ — no one to care for his soul, and

restore him to the paths of righteousness” (Wardiaw). So far as the

application of the principle to the case of ordinary friendship is concerned,

the wisdom of our author is instinctively approved of by all. The writings

of moralists in all countries and times teem with maxims similar to his.

Some have thought that this virtue of friendship is too secular in its

character to receive much encouragement in the teaching of Christianity;

that it is somewhat overshadowed, if not relegated to comparative

insignificance, by the obligations which a highly spiritual religion imposes.

The fact that the salvation of his soul is the one great duty of the individual

might have been expected to lead to a new development of selfishness, and

the fact that devotion to the Savior is to take precedence of all other forms

of affection might have been expected to diminish the intensity of love

which is the source of friendship. And not only have such ideas existed in a

speculative form, but they have led, in many cases, to actual attempts to

realize them. The ancient hermits sought to cultivate the highest form of

Christian life by complete isolation from their fellows; they fled from

society, dissevered themselves from all the ties of blood and friendship, and

shunned all association with their kind as something contaminating. And in

our own time, among many to whom the monastical life is specially

repulsive, the very same delusion which lay at the root of it is still

cherished. They think that love of husband, wife, child, or friend conflicts

with love of God and Christ; that if the human love is too intense it

becomes a form of sin. And along with this is generally found a cruel and

dishonoring conception of the Divine character. God is thought of as

jealous of those who take His place in the affections, and the loss of those

loved is spoken of as a removal by Him of the “idols” who had usurped His

rights. That such teaching is a perversion of Christianity is very evident.

The New Testament takes all the forms of natural human love as TYPES

OF THE DIVINE. As the father loves his children, so does God love us. As

Christ loved the Church ought a husband to love his wife, ought His followers to

love one another. No bounds can be set to affection; he that dwelleth in

love dwelleth in God.” The one great check, that our love for another

should not be allowed to lead us to do wrong or condone wrong, is not

upon the intensity, but upon the perversion of affection, and leads to a

purer, holier, and more satisfying exercise of affection. That Christ, whose

love was universal, did not discourage friendship is evident from the fact

that He chose twelve disciples, and admitted them to a closer intimacy with

Himself than others enjoyed, and that even among them there was one

whom He specially loved. It was seen, too, in the affection which He

manifested to the family in Bethany — Martha and Mary and their brother

Lazarus. In the time of His agony in Gethsemane He chose three of the

disciples to watch with Him, seeking for some solace and support in the

fact of their presence and sympathy. The truth of Solomon’s statement that

“two are better than one” was confirmed by Christ’s sending out His

disciples “two and two together” (Luke 10:1), and by the Divine

direction given by the Holy Ghost when Barnabas and Saul were set apart

to go together on their first great missionary enterprise (Acts 13:2).

But over and above these instances of Christ’s example in cultivating

friendship, and of the advantages of mutual cooperation in Christian work,

the peat principle remains that true religion cannot come to any strength in

an isolated life. We cannot worship God aright if we “forsake the

assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25); we cannot cultivate the

virtues of which holiness consists — justice, compassion, forbearance, purity,

and love — if we isolate ourselves; for all these virtues imply our conducting

ourselves in certain ways in all our relations with others. We lose the opportunity

of helping the weak, of cheering the disheartened, and of co-operating with

those who are striving to overcome the evils by which the world is

burdened, if we withdraw into ourselves and ignore others. So far, then,

from the wisdom of Solomon in this matter being, in comparison with the

fuller revelation through Christ, of an inferior and almost pagan character,

it is of permanent and undiminished value. Our acquaintance with Christian

teaching is calculated to lead us to form quite as decided a judgment as

Solomon did as to the evils of a solitary life, and the advantages of






                        Two Better than One; or, Companionship Versus Isolation

                                                            (vs. 9-12)




Ø      Its causes. Either natural or moral, providentially imposed or

deliberately chosen.


o        Examples of the former: the individual who has no wife or friend, son

or brother, because these have been removed by death (Psalm 88:18);

the traveler who journeys alone through some uninhabited waste (Job

38:26; Jeremiah 2:6) or voiceless solitude; a stranger who lands on a

foreign shore, with whose inhabitants he can hold no converse, because

of not understanding their speech, and who lacks the assistance of a

friendly interpreter.


o        Instances of the latter: the younger son, who forsakes the parental roof,

leaving behind him parents, brothers, and sisters, as well as friends and

companions, acquaintances and neighbors, and departs into a far country

alone to see life and make a fortune; the elder brother, who, when the

old people have died, and the younger branches of the family have

removed, remains unmarried, because he chooses to live entirely for

himself; the busy merchant, self-contained and prosperous, who stands

apart from his employees, and, without either colleague or counselor,

partner or assistant, takes upon his own broad shoulders the whole

weight and responsibility of a large “concern;” the student, who loves

his books better than his fellows, and, eschewing the society of these,

broods in solitude over problems too deep for his unaided intellect, that

might be solved in a few hours’ talk with a friend; the selfish soul, who

has heart to give to no thing or person outside of self, and who fears

lest his own stock of happiness should be diminished were he in an

inadvertent moment to augment that of others.


Ø      Its miseries. Manifold and richly deserved — at least where the isolation

springs from causes moral and self-chosen. Amongst the lonely man’s

woes may be enumerated these:


o        the absence of those advantages and felicities that arise from

companionship — a theme treated of in the next main division of this



o        the intellectual and moral deterioration that inevitably ensues on the

suppression of the soul’s social instincts, and the attempt to educate

one’s manhood apart from the family, the community, the race, of

which it forms a part;


o        the inward wretchedness that by the just decree of Heaven attends the

crime (where the isolation spoken of assumes this form) of living

entirely for self; and,


o        aside from ideas of crime and guilt, the insatiable greed of self, which

makes even larger demands upon one’s labor, and deeper inroads upon

one’s peace, than all the claims of others would were the soul to honor

these, and which, like an unpitying taskmaster, impels the soul to

unceasing toil, and fills it with unending care (v. 8; compare ch. 2:23)


·         THE BENEFITS OF COMPANIONSHIP. The “good reward” for

their labor which two receive in preference to one points to the advantages

that flow from union. These are four.


Ø      Reciprocal assistance. The picture sketched by “the great orator” is that

of two wayfaring men upon a dark and dangerous road, who are helpful to

each other in turn as each stumbles in the path, rendered difficult to tread

by gloom overhead or uneven places underfoot. Whereas each one by

himself might deem it hazardous to pursue his journey, knowing that if he

fell when alone he might be quite unable to rise, and might even lose his

life through exposure to the inclemency of the night or the perils of the

place, each accompanied by the other pushes on with quiet confidence,

realizing that, should a moment come when he has need of a second to

help him up, that second will be beside him in the person of his friend.


“When two together go, each for the other

Is first to think what best will help his brother;

But one who walks alone, the’ wise in mind,

Of purpose slow and counsel weak we find.”

(Homer, ‘Iliad,’ 10:224-226.)


The application of this principle of mutual helpfulness to almost every

department of life, to the home and to the city, to the state and to the

Church, to the workshop and to the playground, to the school and to the

university, is obvious.


Ø      Mutual stimulus. Illustrated from the case of two travelers, who on a

cold night lie under one blanket (Exodus 23:6), and keep each other

warm; whereas, should they sleep apart, they would each shiver the whole

night through in miserable discomfort. The counterpart of this, again, may

be found in every circle of life, but more especially in the home and the

Church, in both of which the inmates are enjoined and expected to be

helpers and comforters of each other, considering one another to provoke

unto love and good works (Hebrews 10:24).


Ø      Efficient protection. The writer notes the peril of the pilgrim whom, if

alone, a robber may overpower, but whom, if accompanied by a comrade,

the highwayman would not venture to attack. So multitudes of dangers

assail the individual, against which he cannot protect himself by his own

unaided strength, but which the friendly assistance of another may aid him

to repel. As illustrations will at once present themselves, cases of sickness,

temptations to sin, assaults upon the youthful believer’s faith. In ordinary

life men know the value of co-operation as a means of defense against

invasions of what are deemed their natural rights; might the Christian

Church not derive from this a lesson as to how she can best meet and cope

with the assaults to which she is subjected by infidelity on the one hand,

and immorality on the other?


Ø      Increased strength. As surely as division and isolation mean loss of

power, with consequent weakness, so surely do union and cooperation

signify augmented might and multiplied efficiency. The Preacher

expresses this by saying, “The threefold cord will not quickly be broken.”

As the thickest rope may be snapped if first untwisted and taken strand by

strand, so may the most formidable army be defeated, if only it can be

dealt with in detached battalions, and the strongest Church may be laid

in ruins if its members can be overthrown one by one. But then the

converse of this is likewise true. As every strand twisted into a cable

imparts to it additional strength, so every grace added to the Christian

character makes it stronger to repel evil, and gives it larger ability for

Christian service; while every additional believer incorporated into the

body of Christ renders it the more impregnable by sin, and the more

capable of furthering the progress ()f the truth.


·         LESSONS.


1. The sinfulness of isolation.

2. The duty of union.

3. The value of a good companion.





A Threefold Cord (v. 12)


Many bonds of many kinds bind us in many ways. Of these some are hard

and cruel, and these we have to break as best we can; the worst of them

may be snapped when we strive with the help that comes from Heaven. But

there are others which are neither hard nor cruel, but kind and beneficent,

and these we should not shun, but gladly welcome. Such is the threefold

cord which binds us to our God and to his service. It is composed of:


  • DUTY. To know, to reverence, to love, to serve God, is our supreme

obligation, For we came forth from Him; we are indebted to Him for all that

makes us what we are, owing all our faculties of every kind to His creative

power. We have been sustained in being every moment by His Divine

visitation; we have been enriched by Him with everything we possess, our

hearts and our lives owing to His generous kindness all their joys and all

their blessings; it is in Him that we live and move and have our being

(Acts 17:28); we sum up all obligations, we touch the height and depth of

exalted duty, when we say that “He is our God.” Moreover, all this natural

obligation is enhanced and multiplied manifold by all that He has done for us,

and all that He has endured for us  in the salvation which is in Jesus

Christ, His Only Begotten Son.,


  • OUR BEST INTEREST. To know, to love, to serve God, this is our

highest and truest interest.


Ø      It means the possession of His Divine favor; and that surely is much,



Ø      It constitutes our real, because our spiritual, well-being; it causes us

thereby and therein to realize the ideal of our humanity; we are at our very

best imaginable when we are in fellowship with God and are

possessing His likeness.


Ø      It secures to us a happy life below, FILLED WITH CONTENTMENT

and charged with sacred joy, while it conducts to a future which will be

crowned with IMMORTAL GLORY!


  • AFFECTION. To live in the service of Jesus Christ is to act as our

human relationships demand that we should act. It is to give the deepest

and purest satisfaction to those from whom we have received the most

self-denying love; it is also to lead those for whom we have the strongest

affection in the way of wisdom, in the paths of honor, joy, eternal life!



The Advantages of Fellowship (vs. 9-12)


There is a sense in which we have no choice but to be members of society.

We are born into a social life, trained in it, and in it we must live. “None of

us liveth unto himself”  (Romans 14:7).  But there is a sense in which it rests

with us to cultivate fellowship with our kind. And such voluntary association,

we are taught in this passage, is productive of the highest benefits.



reward for their labor.” If this was so in the day of the writer of

Ecclesiastes, how much more strikingly and obviously is it so today!

Division of labor and cooperation in labor are the two great principles

which account for the success of industrial enterprise in our own time.

There is scope for such united efforts in the Church of Christ — for

unity and brotherly kindness, for mutual help, consideration, and




are together, he who falls may be lifted up, when if alone he might be left

to perish. This is a commonplace truth with reference to travelers in a

strange land, with reference to comrades in war, etc. Our Lord Jesus sent

forth His apostles two and. two, that one might supply his neighbor’s

deficiencies; that the healthy might uphold the sick; and the brave might

cheer the timid. The history of Christ’s Church is a long record of

mutual succor and consolation. To raise the fallen, to cherish the weakly,

to relieve the needy, to assist the widow and fatherless, — this is true religion

(James 1:27).  Here is the sphere for the manifestation of Christian




AND HAPPINESS. “How can one be warm alone?” asks the Preacher.

Every household, every congregation, every Christian society, is a proof

that there is a spirit of mutual dependence wherever the will of the great

Father and Savior of mankind is honored and obeyed. The more there

is of brotherly love within the Church, the more effective will be the Church’s

work of benevolence and missionary aggression upon the ignorance and sin

of the world.



POWER OF RESISTANCE. Two, placing themselves shoulder to

shoulder, can withstand an onset before which one alone would fall. “The

threefold cord is not quickly broken.” It must be remembered that the work

of religious men in this world is no child’s play; there are forces of evil to

resist, there is a warfare to be maintained. And in order to succeed, two

things are needful: first:


Ø      dependence upon God; and

Ø      secondly, brotherhood with our comrades and fellow-soldiers

in the holy war.




                                    Mutual Service (vs. 9-12)


There is a measure of separateness, and even of loneliness, which is

inseparable from human life. There are times and occasions when a man

must determine for himself what choice he will make, what course he wilt

pursue. Each human soul must “bear its own burden” in deciding what shall

be its final attitude toward revealed truth; what shall be its abiding relation

to God; whether it will accept or decline the crown of eternal life.

Nevertheless, we thank God for human companionship; we rejoice greatly

that He has so “fashioned our hearts alike,” and so interwoven our human

lives, that we can be much to one another, and do much for one another, as

we go on our way. “Two are better than one.” The union of hearts and

lives means:


·         SHARING SUCCESS. “They have a good reward for their labor.” If

two men work apart, and succeed in their labor, each has his own separate

satisfaction. But if they confide their hopes, and tell their triumphs, and

share their joys together, each man has much more “reward for his labor”

than if he strove apart. It is one of the blessings of earlier life that its

victories are so much enhanced by their being shared with others; it is one

of the detractions from later life that its successes are confined to so small

a sphere.


·         RESTORATION. (v. 10.) The falling of the solitary traveler in the

unfrequented and dangerous path is a picture of the more serious and often

fatal falling of the pilgrim in the path of life. To fall into disgrace, or (what

is worse) into sin and evil habitude, and to have no true and loyal friend to

stand by and to hold out the uplifting hand, to cover the shame with the

mantle of his unspotted reputation, to lead back the erring soul with his

strength and rectitude into the way of wisdom, into the kingdom of God

to such a man, in such necessity, the “woe” of the preacher may well be



·         ANIMATION. (v. 11.) “In Syria the nights are often keen and

frosty, and the heat of the day makes men more susceptible to the nightly

cold. The sleeping-chambers, moreover, have only unglazed lattices, which

let in the frosty air.... And therefore the natives huddle together for the

sake of warmth. To lie alone was to lie shivering in the chill night air.”

Moreover, it may be said that to sleep in the cold is, in certain

temperatures, to be in danger of losing life, while the warmth given by

contact with life would preserve vitality. To be “alone” is to live a cold,

cheerless, inanimate existence; to be warmed by human friendship, to be

animated by contact with living men, is to have a measure, a fullness, of life

not otherwise enjoyed.


·         DEFENSE. (v. 12.) “Our two travelers (see above), lying snug and

warm on their common mat, buried in slumber, were very likely to be

disturbed by thieves who had dug a hole into the barn or crept under the

tent.... If one was thus aroused, he would call on his comrade for help”

(Cox). It is not only the prowling thief against whom a man may defend his

companion. By timely warning, by wise suggestion, by sound instruction,

by faithful entreaty, by practical sympathy, we may so stand by one

another, that we may save from the worst attacks of our most deadly

spiritual enemies; thus we may save one another from falling into error,

into unbelief, into vice, into shame and sorrow, “into the pit.” We

conclude, therefore:


1. That we should prize human friendship most highly, as that which

    furnishes us with the opportunity of highest service (see Isaiah 32:2).


2. That we should so choose our companions that we shall have from them

    the help we need in the trying hour.


3. That we should gain for ourselves the strength and succor of the Divine



Vs. 13-16 emphasizes that high place offers no assurance of security. A king’s

popularity is never permanent; he is supplanted by some clever young

aspirant for a time, whose influence in turn soon evaporates, and the

subject-people reap no benefit from the change.


13 “Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who

will no more be admonished.”  Better is a poor and wise child than an

old and foolish king. The word translated “child” (yeled), is used sometimes

of one beyond childhood (see Genesis 30:26; 37:30; I Kings 12:8), so here

it may be rendered “youth.” Misken, πενὴς penaespauper -  (Septuagint),

(Vulgate), “poor,” is found also at ch.9:15-16, and nowhere else; but the root,

with an analogous signification, occurs at Deuteronomy 8:9 and Isaiah 40:20. The

clause says that a youth who is clever and adroit, though sprung from a sordid origin,

is better off than a king who has not learned wisdom with his years, and who, it is

afterwards implied, is dethroned by this young man. Who will no more be

admonished; better, as in the Revised Version, who knoweth not how to

receive admonition any more. Age has only fossilized his self-will and

obstinacy; and though he was once open to advice and hearkened to

reproof, he now bears no contradiction and takes no counsel. Septuagint,

Ὅς οὐκ ἔγνω τοῦ προέχειν ἔτιHos ouk egno tou proechein eti -  Who

 knows not how to take heed any longer;” which is perhaps similar to the

Vulgate, Qui nescit praevidere in posterum, “Who knows not how to look

forward to the future.” The words will bear this translation, and it accords with

one view of the author’s meaning (see below); but that given above is more suitable

to the interpretation of the paragraph which approves itself to us. The sentence is

of general import, and may be illustrated by a passage from the Book of

Wisdom of Solomon (4:8-9), “Honorable age is not that which standeth in length of

time, nor that is measured by length of years. But wisdom is the grey hair

unto men, and an unspotted life is old age.” So Cicero, ‘De Senect.,’

18:62, “Non cant nee rugae repente auctoritatem arripere possunt, sod

honeste acta superior aetas fructus capit aactoritatis extremes.” Some have

thought that Solomon is here speaking of himself, avowing his folly and

expressing his contrition, in view of his knowledge of Jeroboam’s

delegation to the kingdom — the crafty youth of poor estate (I Kings

11:26, etc.), whom the Prophet Ahijah had warned of approaching

greatness. But there is nothing in the recorded history of Solomon to make

probable such expression of self-abasement, and our author could never

have so completely misrepresented him. Here, too, is another proof that

Ecclesiastes is not written by Solomon himself.


14 “For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born

in his kingdom becometh poor.”  The ambiguity of the pronouns

has induced different interpretations of this verse. It is plain that the

paragraph is intended to corroborate the statement of the previous verse,

contrasting the fate of the poor, clever youth with that of the old, foolish

king. The Authorized Version makes the pronoun in the first clause refer to

the youth, and those in the second to the king, with the signification that

rich and poor change places — one is abased as the other is exalted.

Vulgate, Quod de carcere catenisque interdum quis egrediatnr ad regnum;

et alius natus in regno inopia consummatur. The Septuagint is somewhat



            Ὅτι ἐξ οἴκου τῶν δεσμίων ελξελεύσεται τοῦ βασιλεῦσαι

            ὅτι καί γε ἐν βασιλείᾳ αὐτοῦ ἐγενήθη πένης


            Hoti ex oikou ton desmion elxeleusetai tou

            Basileusai hoti kaige en basileia autou egenaethae penaes.


            “For from the house of prisoners he shall come forth to reign,

            because in his kingdom he [who?] was born [or, ‘became’] poor.”


It seems, however, most natural to make the leading pronouns in both clauses

refer to the youth, and thus to render: “For out of the house of prisoners goeth

he forth to reign, though even in his kingdom he was born poor.” Beth hasurim

 is also rendered “house of fugitives,” and Hitzig takes the expression as a

description of Egypt, whither Jeroboam fled to escape the vengeance of

Solomon. Others see here an allusion to Joseph, who was raised from

prison, if not to be king, at least to an exalted position which might thus be

designated. In this case the old and foolish king who could not look to the

future is Pharaoh, who could not understand the dream which was sent for

his admonition. Commentators have wearied themselves with endeavoring

to find some other historical basis for the supposed allusion in the passage.

But although many of these suggestions (e.g. Saul and David, Joash and

Amaziah, Cyrus and Astyages, Herod and Alexander) meet a part of the

case, none suit the whole passage (vs. 13-16). It is possible, indeed, that

some particular allusion is intended to some circumstance or event with

which we are not acquainted. At the same time, it seems to us that, without

much straining of language, the reference to Joseph can be made good. If it

is objected that it cannot be said that Joseph was born in the kingdom of

Egypt, we may reply that the words may be taken to refer to his cruel

position in his own country, when he was despoiled and sold, and may be

said metaphorically to have “become poor;” or the word nolad may be

considered as equivalent to “came,” “appeared,” and need not be restricted

to the sense of “born.”



Folly a Worse Evil than Poverty (vs. 13-14)


This is no doubt a paradox. For one man who seeks to become wise, there are a

hundred who desire and strive for riches. For one man who desires the friendship

of the thoughtful and prudent, there are ten who cultivate the intimacy of the prosperous

and luxurious. Still, men’s judgment is fallible and often erroneous; and it is so in this

particular situation.



always bring wisdom, which is the gift of God, sometimes — as in the case

of Solomon — conferred in early life. True excellence and honor are not

attached to age and station. Wisdom, modesty, and trustworthiness may be

found in lowly abodes and in youthful years. Character is the supreme test

of what is admirable and good. A young man may be wise in the conduct

of his own life, in the use of his own gifts and opportunities, in the choice

of his own friends; he may be wise in his counsel offered to others, in the

influence he exerts over others. And his wisdom may be shown in his

contented acquiescence in the poverty of his condition and the obscurity of

his station. He will not forget that the Lord of all, for our sakes, became

poor, dwelt in a lowly home, wrought at a manual occupation, enjoyed few

advantages of human education or of companionship with the great.

(II Corinthians 8:9)


  • FOLLY DEGRADES AGE AND ROYALTY. In the natural order of

things, knowledge and prudence should accompany advancing age. It is

“years that bring the philosophic mind.” In the natural order of things, high

station should call out the exercise of statesmanship, thoughtful wisdom,

mature and weighty counsel. Where all these are absent, there may be

outward greatness, splendor, luxury, empire, but true kingship there is not.

There is no fool so conspicuously and pitiably foolish as the aged monarch

who can neither give counsel himself nor accept it from the experienced

and trustworthy. And the case is worse when his folly is apparent in the

mismanagement of his own life. It may be questioned whether Solomon, in

his youth, receiving in answer to prayer the gift of wisdom, and using it

with serious sobriety, was not more to be admired than when, as a splendid

but disappointed voluptuary, he enjoyed the revenues of provinces, dwelt

in sumptuous palaces, and received the homage of distant potentates, but

yet was corrupted by his own weaknesses into connivance at idolatry, and

was unfaithful to the Lord to whose bounty he was indebted for all he



This is a word of encouragement to thoughtful, pure minded, and religious youth.

The judgment of inspiration commends those who, in the flower of their age, by God’s

grace rise above the temptations to which they are exposed, and cherish that

reverence toward the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom.  (Proverbs 1:7)


15 “I considered all the living which walk under the sun, with the

second child that shall stand up in his stead.”  I considered all the

 living which walk under the sun; or, I have seen all the population.

The expression is hyperbolical, as Eastern monarchs speak of their dominions

as if they comprised the whole world (see Daniel 4:1; 6:25). With the second

child that shall stand up in his stead. “With” (μ[i) means “in company with,”

“on the side of;” and the clause should be rendered, as in the Revised Version,

That they were with the youth, the second, that stood up in his stead. The

youth who is called the second is the one spoken of in the previous verses, who

by general acclamation is raised to the highest place in the realm, while the old

monarch is dethroned or depreciated. He is named second, as being the

successor of the other, either in popular favor or on the throne. It is the old

story of worshipping the rising sun. The verse may still be applied to

Joseph, who was made second to Pharaoh, and was virtually supreme in

Egypt, standing in the king’s place (Genesis 41:40-44).


16 “There is no end of all the people, even of all that have been before

them: they also that come after shall not rejoice in him. Surely this

also is vanity and vexation of spirit.”  There is no end of all the people,

even of all that have been before them. The paragraph plainly is carrying on

the description of the popular enthusiasm for the new favorite. The Authorized

Version completely obscures this meaning. It is better to translate, Numberless

were the people, all, at whose head he stood. Koheleth places himself in the

position of a spectator, and marks how numerous are the adherents who

flock around the youthful aspirant. “Nullus finis omni populo, omnibus,

quibus praefuit” (Gesenius, Rosenmüller, Volck). Yet his popularity was

not lasting and his influence was not permanent. They also that come

after shall not rejoice in him. In spite of his cleverness, and

notwithstanding the favor with which he is now regarded, those of a later

generation shall flout his pretensions and forget his benefits.


            “like a name engraved with the point of a pin

              on the tender rind of a young oak;

            The wound will enlarge with the tree, and

              posterity read it in full grown characters.”

                                    (Thomas Paine, Common Sense)


If we still continue the allusion to Joseph, we may see here in this last clause

a reference to the change that supervened when another king arose who

knew him not (Exodus 1:8), and who, oblivious of the services of this

great benefactor, heavily oppressed the Israelites. This experience leads

to the same result; it is all vanity and vexation of spirit.





                                                The Vicissitudes of Royalty;


                                                the Experience of a King

                                                                  (vs. 13-16)


·         WELCOMED IN YOUTH. The picture sketched that of a political

revolution. “An old and foolish king, no longer understanding how to be

warned,” who has fallen out of touch with the times, and neither himself

discerns the governmental changes demanded by the exigencies of the

hour, nor is willing to be guided by his state councilors, is deposed in favor

of a youthful hero who has caught the popular imagination, perceived the

necessities of the situation, learned how to humor the fickle crowd,

contrived to install himself in their affections, and succeeded in promoting

himself to be their ruler.


Ø      Climbing the ladder. Originally a poor man’s son, he had raised himself

to be a leader of his countrymen, perhaps as Jeroboam, the son of Nebat,

did in the days of Rehoboam (1 Kings 11:26-28), interesting himself in

the social and political condition of his fellow-subjects, sympathizing

with their grievances, probably acting as their spokesman in laying these

before the aged sovereign; and, when their demands were unheeded,

possibly fanning their discontent, and even helping them to plot

insurrection — for which, having been detected, he was cast into prison.

Nevertheless, neither his humble birth nor his forcible incarceration had

been sufficient to degrade him in the people’s eyes.


Ø      Standing on the summit. Accordingly, when the tide of discontent had

risen so high that they could no longer tolerate their senile and imbecile

monarch, and their courage had waxed so valiant as to enable them

successfully to carry through his deposition, they bethought themselves of

the imprisoned hero who had espoused and was then suffering for their

cause, and having fetched him forth from confinement, proceeded with

him to the then deserted palace, where they placed upon his head the

crown, amid shouts of jubilant enthusiasm, crying, “God save the king!”

It is doubtless an ideal picture, which in its several details has often been

realized; as, e.g., when Joseph was fetched from the round house of

Heliopolis, and seated on the second throne of Egypt (Genesis 41:14,

40); as when David was crowned at Hebron on Saul’s death by the men

of Judah (II Samuel 2:4), and Jeroboam at Shechem by the tribes of

Israel (1 Kings 12:20); as when Athaliah was deposed, and the boy

Joash made king in her stead (II Kings 11:12).


Ø      Surveying his fortune. So far as the new-made king was concerned, the

commencement of his reign was auspicious. It doubtless never occurred to

him that the sun of his royal person would ever know decline, or that he

would ever experience the fate of his predecessor. It was with him the

dawn of rosy-fingered morn; how the day would develop was not

foreseen, least of all was it discerned how the night should fall!




Ø      Extending his renown. Seated on his throne, he wields the scepter of

irresponsible authority for a long series of years. As the drama of his life

unfolds, he grows in the affections of his people. With every revolution of

the sun his popularity increases. The affairs of his kingdom prosper. The

extent of his dominions widens. All the kingdoms of the earth come to

place themselves beneath his rule. Like another Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus,

Xerxes, Alexander, Caesar, he is a world-governing autocrat. “All the

living who walk under the sun” are on the side of the man who had been

born poor, and had once languished in a prison; neither is there any end to

all the people at whose head he is.


Ø      Enjoying his felicity. One would say, as perhaps in the heyday of his

prosperity he said to himself, the cup of his soul’s happiness was full. He

had obtained all the world could bestow of earthly glory, power the most

exalted, influence the most extended, riches the most abundant, fame the

most renowned, popularity the most secure! What could he wish else?

The sun of his royal highness was shining in meridian splendor, and

prostrate nations were adoring him as a god. No one surely would

venture to suggest that the orb of his majestical divinity might one day

suffer an eclipse. We shall see! Strange things have happened on this

much-agitated planet.


·         DESPISED IN AGE.


Ø      The shadows gathering. The brightest earthly glory is liable to fade. One

who has reached the topmost pinnacle of fame, and is the object of

admiration to millions of his fellows, may yet sink so low that men shall

say of him, as Mark Antony said of the fallen Caesar —


                        “Now lies he there,

And none so poor to do him reverence.”


The idol of one age may become an object of execration to the next. As in

ancient Egypt another king arose who knew not Joseph, so in the picture

of the Preacher grew to manhood another generation which knew not the

poor wise youth who had been his country’s deliverer. He of whom it had

once been said —


                  “All tongues speak of him, and the bleared sights

Are spectacled to see himand such a pother [made about him],

As if that whatsoever God who leads him

Were slyly crept into his human powers,

And gave him graceful posture” —

                        (Coriolanus,’ act 2. se. 1.)


lived to be an object of derision to his subjects.


Ø      The night descending. In the irony of history, the same (or a similar) fate

overtook him as had devoured his predecessor. As the men and women of

a past age had counted his predecessor an imbecile and a fool, so were the

men and women of the present age disposed to look on him. If they did not

depose him, they did not “rejoice in him,” as their fathers had done when

they hailed him as their country’s savior; they simply suffered him to drop

into ignominious contempt, and perhaps well-merited oblivion. Such

spectacles of the vanity of kingly state had been witnessed before the

Preacher’s day, and have been not unknown since. So fared it with the boy

prince Joash (II Kings 11:12; II Chronicles 24:25), and with Richard

II., whose subjects cried “All hail!” to him in the day of his popularity, but

to whom, when he put off his regal dignity,


            “No man cried, ‘God save him!’

No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home,

But dust was thrown upon his sacred head.”

                                (‘King Richard II.,’ act 5. sc. 2.)


·         LEARN:


1. The vanity of earthly glory.

2. The fickleness of popular renown.

3. The ingratitude of men.





                                    Mortifications of Royalty (vs. 13-16)


Yet another set of instances of folly and disappointment occurs to our

author’s mind; they are drawn from the history of the strange vicissitudes

through which many of those who have sat upon thrones have passed. His

references are vague and general, and no success has attended the attempts

of those who have endeavored to find historical examples answering

exactly to the circumstances he here describes. But the truthfulness of his

generalizations can be abundantly illustrated out of the records of history,

both sacred and profane. The reason why he adds these instances of failure

and misfortune to his list is pretty evident. He would have us understand

that no condition of human life is exempt from the common lot; that

though kings are raised above their fellows, and are apparently able to

control circumstances rather than to be controlled by them, as a matter of

fact as surprising examples of mutability are to be found in their history as

in that of the humbler ranks of men. He sets before us:


·         The image of “AN OLD AND FOOLISH KING, WHO WILL NO

MORE BE ADMONISHED;” who, though “born in his kingdom,

becometh poor.” He is debauched by long tenure of power, and scorns

good advice and warning. “We see him driven from his throne, stripped of

his riches, and becoming in his old age a beggar.” His want of wisdom

undermines the stability of his position. Though he has in the regular

course inherited his kingdom, and has an indefeasible right to the crown he

wears — though for many years his people have patiently endured his

misgovernment — his tenure of office becomes more and more uncertain.

A time comes when it is a question whether the nation is to be ruined, or a

wiser and more trustworthy ruler put in his place. He is compelled to

abdicate, or is forcibly deposed or driven from his kingdom by an invader,

whose power he is unable to resist. His noble birth, his legal rights as a

sovereign, his gray hairs, the amiability of his private character, do not

avail to secure for him the loyal support of a people whom his folly has

alienated from him. The same idea of folly vitiating, the dignity of old age

is found in Wisdom of Solomon 4:8-9, “Honorable age is not that which

standeth in length of time, nor that is measured by number of years. But

wisdom is the grey hair unto men, and unspotted life is old age.” The

biographies of Charles I. and James II. of England, and of Napoleon III.,

furnish examples of kings who learned nothing from experience, and

scorned all warnings brought upon themselves misery like that hinted at

by Solomon. The first of them met his death at the hands of his exasperated

subjects, and the other two, after deep humiliations, died in exile.


·         The second instance of strange vicissitude is that of ONE WHO

STEPS FROM A DUNGEON TO A THRONE. It is by his wisdom that he

raises himself to the place of ruler over the neglected community. From

obscurity he attains in a moment to the height of popular favor; thousands

flock to do him homage (vs. 15-16a, “I saw all the living which 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,” Revised Version). The scene depicted of the ignominy into which

the worthless old king falls, and the enthusiasm with which the new one is

greeted, reminds one of Carlyle’s vivid description of the death of Louis

XV. and the accession of his grandson. The courtiers wait with impatience

for the passing away of the king whose life had been so corrupt and vile; he

dies unpitied upon his loathsome sick-bed. “In the remote apartments,

dauphin and dauphiness stand road-ready… waiting for some signal to

escape the house of pestilence. And, hark! across the (Eil-de-Boeuf, what

sound is that — sound’ terrible and absolutely like thunder’? It is the rush

of the whole court, rushing as in wager, to salute the new sovereigns: ‘Hail

to your Majesties!’” The body of the dead king is unceremoniously

committed to the grave. “Him they crush down and huddle underground;

him and his era of sin and tyranny and shame; for behold! a New Era is

come; the future all the brighter that the past was base” (‘French

Revolution,’ vol. 1. Ecclesiastes 4.). The same kind of picture has been

drawn by Shakespeare, in ‘Richard II.,’ act 5. sc. 2, where he describes the

popularity of Bolingbroke, and the contempt into which the king he

displaced had sunk. Yet, according to the Preacher, the breeze of popular

favor soon dies away, and the hero is soon forgotten. “They also that come

after him shall not rejoice in him.” The dark cloud of oblivion comes down

and envelops in its shade both those who deserve to be remembered, and

those who have been unworthy of even the brief popularity they enjoyed in

their lifetime. “Who knows,” says Sir Thos. Browne, “whether the best of

men be known, or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot

than any that stand remembered on the known account of time?”

(‘Urnburial’). The fickle and short-lived character of all earthly fame should

convince us of the futility of making the desire of the applause of men the

ruling motive of our lives; it should lead us to do that which is good because

it is good, and not in order “to be seen of men,” and because we are responsible

to God, in whose book all our deeds are written, whether they be good or

whether they be evil. The sense of disappointment at the vanity of human

fame should dispose our hearts to find satisfaction in the favor of God, by

whom all our good deeds will be remembered and rewarded (Psalm

37:5-6; Galatians 6:9; Matthew 25:21).




                        Circumstance and Character (vs. 13-16)


This very obscure passage is thus rendered by Cox (‘The Quest of the

Chief Good’): “Happier is a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish

king, who even yet has not learned to be admonished. For a prisoner may

go from a prison to a throne, whilst a king may become a beggar in his

own kingdom. I see all the living who walk under the sun flocking to the

sociable youth who standeth up in his place; there is no end to the

multitude of the people over whom he ruleth. Nevertheless, those who live

after him will not rejoice in him; for even this is vanity and vexation of

spirit.” Thus read, we have a very clear meaning, and we are reminded of a

very valuable lesson. We may learn:



CHARACTER. It is well enough to bear a royal name, to have a royal

retinue, to move among royal surroundings. Old age may forget its

infirmities in the midst of its rank, its honors, its luxuries. But when royalty

is dissevered from wisdom, when it has not learned by experience, but has

grown downwards rather than upwards, the outlook is poor enough. The

foolish king is likely enough to be dethroned, and to “become a beggar in

his own kingdom.” An exalted position makes a man’s follies seem larger

than they are; and as they injuriously affect every one, they are likely to

lead to universal condemnation and to painful penalty. It is of little use to

be enjoying an enviable position if we have not character to maintain and

ability to adorn it. The wheel of fortune will soon take to the bottom the

man who is now rejoicing on the top of it.



MISFORTUNE. Whilst the old and foolish king may decline and fall, the

wise youth, who has been disregarded, will move on and up to honor and

to power, and even the condemned prisoner may mount the throne. The

history of men and of nations proves that nothing is impossible in the way

of recovery and elevation. Man may “hope to rise” from the bottom, as he

should “fear to fall’ from the top of the scale. Let those who are honestly

and conscientiously striving, though it may be with small recognition or

recompense, hope to attain to the honor and the reward which are their

due. Let those who have suffered saddest disappointment and defeat

remember that men may rise from the very lowest estate even to the




and foolish king may deserve to be dethroned, but he may retain his

position until he dies; the wise youth may fail to reach the honors to which

he is entitled; the innocent prisoner may languish in his dungeon even until

death opens the door and releases him. There is no certainty in this world,

where fortune is so fickle, and circumstance cannot be counted upon even

by the most sagacious. But there is one thing on which we may reckon, and

in which we may take refuge. To be upright in our heart, to be sound in

our character, to be true and faithful in life — this is to be what is good; it

is to enjoy that which is best the favor of God and our own self-respect;

it is to move toward that which is blessed a heavenly future.




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