All sorts of things happen to all people…
A couple of lessons ago we studied how both the positives and negatives of life present themselves to all people at varying times. We have no control over these happenings and it is in this realization that we are confronted with the truth that we are in bondage to time. Not only are we bound to time, we are as well incapable of controlling time. We are given an internal desire but not the inherent ability to understand eternity.
God is sovereign over all those happenings…
We realize that God, alone, is sovereign over time and the happenings in our lives. Solomon clearly establishes God as the Sovereign Judge over all men. At a future time mankind will be judged for how they responded to Him.
If God is sovereign why does he allow evil to continue . . .
It is logical to question evil once the sovereignty of God is established. People often either reject God’s sovereignty due to an acceptance of God’s benevolence, or reject God’s benevolence due to their acceptance of God’s sovereignty. Men truly struggle to grasp a God who is benevolent while at the same time being sovereign in an evil world. Solomon communicates these struggles present in men. While still in chapter 3, Solomon discusses evil in the halls of ‘righteousness.’ The question could be posed, “If God is sovereign, why does evil reign in a place where justice ought to rule?”
It is in this line of thought that we find ourselves presently. It is in chapter 4 that Solomon delves more deeply into some seemingly inconsistent realities in light of God’s sovereignty.
Be careful about your attitude towards God.
At the beginning of chapter 5, we will be challenged to ‘guard our steps’ in the area of how we approach God. Let us consider this reminder as we study the seeming contradictions to God’s sovereignty.
Ecc 4:1 So I again considered all the oppression that continually occurs on earth. This is what I saw: The oppressed were in tears, but no one was comforting them; no one delivers them from the power of their oppressors. 4:2 So I considered those who are dead and gone more fortunate than those who are still alive. 4:3 But better than both is the one who has not been born and has not seen the evil things that are done on earth.
“If God is sovereign why does He allow me to be oppressed?”
This is one of the many passages that some hold to substantiate an authorship other than Solomon. It seems clear that Solomon contributed heavily to oppression in the later years of his life (I Kings 11); and that being the case, it seems odd that he would speak of the oppressor in such a negative light if he had abused his power as well. Holding to Solomonic authorship will drive us to see either a sense of repentance in Solomon or a transparency in him. He may well be accurately chronicling his own abuse of power, regardless of whether he repented of it or not.
Death is better than life (vs. 2). It is not unusual for someone to desire death instead of their present predicament. Both Jonah (4:3) and Elijah (I Kings 19:4) desired their own deaths as they reflected on the gravity of their situations.
Non existence is better than life or death (vs. 3). In a similar vein as both Job and Jeremiah, Solomon proposes that non-existence would be better than either life or death. It would in essence be better to have never been born than to be born in a world of oppression.
Job 3:9 Let its morning stars be darkened; let it wait for daylight but find none, nor let it see the first rays of dawn, 3:10 because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb on me, nor did it hide trouble from my eyes! 3:11 “Why did I not die at birth, and why did I not expire as I came out of the womb? . . . 3:13 For now I would be lying down and would be quiet, I would be asleep and then at peace . . . 3:17 There the wicked cease from turmoil, and there the weary are at rest. 3:18 There the prisoners relax together; they do not hear the voice of the oppressor. 3:19 Small and great are there, and the slave is free from his master. 3:20 “Why does God give light to one who is in misery, and life to those whose soul is bitter, 3:21 to those who wait for death that does not come, and search for it more than for hidden treasures, 3:22 who rejoice even to jubilation, and are exultant when they find the grave?
Jer 20:14 Cursed be the day I was born! May that day not be blessed when my mother gave birth to me. 20:15 Cursed be the man who made my father very glad when he brought him the news that a baby boy had been born to him! 20:16 May that man be like the cities that the
One may wonder what Solomon’s intent is in these verses. Does he truly think that it would be better for man to have never been born at all than to live in a world of oppression? That seems to be his point in these verses. Is he using sarcasm or rhetoric to prove a point?
Some interpret these verses in the following way . . . If it is only after death that true justice is experienced, wouldn’t it be better to die than to live under unrighteousness and injustice? While this question is logical it does not seem to take into consideration verse 3 which states that it would be better to not have been born at all.
It seems more likely that Solomon is merely presenting the often held view of men under oppression. Oppression is constant in this world. We can be broken over it, but we cannot rid ourselves of it. As Solomon looked back throughout his life, regardless of whether or not the oppression was his fault, he realizes that many would have been better off dead or having never been born. Only a few verses earlier does Solomon seem to imply that man does not know if he will ascend or descend after death.
Ecc 3:21 Who really knows if the human spirit ascends upward, and the animal’s spirit descends into the earth?
For the many people who lived their lives entirely under oppression, if man did not ascend to heaven, it would have been better for them to have never been born. Consider Jesus statement concerning those who betray Him, “It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt 26:24). As you consider Solomon’s perspective remember that he is viewing life under the sun. If life ‘under the sun’ is terrible (and your focus is merely on this life) why would it not follow logically to desire death?
In light of God’s sovereignty, why does God allow life ‘under the sun’ to be so oppressive? This question can be answered by following the same logic that is proposed in chapter 3. God allows all things to come into the life of men. The presence of these things drives us to hunger for eternity. As chapter 3 establishes, the hunger for eternity is only quenched in a relationship with the eternal being. Practically speaking, there are two ways to view oppression. (1) Due to sin, all men continue to suffer the consequences. One of those consequences is the oppression of man by people with power. (2) God desires to drive you to Himself. He often does this by taking away all other things on which you might rely. The oppressed will never find satisfaction in this life separate from a relationship with and reliance on God.
Ecc 4:4 Then I considered all the skillful work that is done: Surely it is nothing more than competition between one person and another. This also is profitless – like chasing the wind. 4:5 The fool folds his hands and does no work, so he has nothing to eat but his own flesh. 4:6 Better is one handful with some rest than two hands full of toil and chasing the wind.
“If God is sovereign why does he allow people to manipulate and abuse me to get their way?”
We might title these verses the ‘Corporate Ladder.’ We have seen many people climb their way over many people to reach the top of their business or field.
There are abundant testimonies that will support the fact that those who reach the top of the ladder are still unsatisfied. The thrill is found in climbing the ladder. Once the top is reached there is a disappointment that comes as one realizes that it’s not as great as they thought. (“I climbed the ladder only to find it against the wrong building.”)
Solomon states the obvious. The typical work place is filled with rivalry. Men do not realize that they are hurting themselves as they continue their climb (vs. 5). Wouldn’t it be better for someone to have little with less work than a lot with more work and heartache (vs. 6)?
There are a couple of ways to approach application in these verses. Some have spiritualized this passage a little more than I am comfortable with. They view the ‘one hand full of rest’ as a reliance on Christ/God. They might encourage someone to not focus on climbing the corporate ladder but instead focus on resting in God as they do their work. One hand would continue to work while the other rests in God. While this might be true and surely produces an appropriate application, I don’t believe this was Solomon’s intention.
It seems more likely that Solomon is encouraging man to avoid the rivalry in labor by finding a balance between rest and labor. It ought to be acceptable to be average. Find a balance between ‘succeeding’ in the business world and living a full life. A possible ‘dynamic equivalent’ of this passage might be . . .
“There is no point in fighting over a position. You are only destroying yourself. Why don’t you just enjoy life with a little less?”
There is no question that you ought to rest in God. God desires that you rest in Him instead of your own laurels. Work enough to provide your needs, and then go spend some time with family and friends. This seems to be his intention since the next few verses speak to the loneliness that mankind often feels in this world.
Ecc 4:7 So I again considered another futile thing on earth: 4:8 A man who is all alone with no companion, he has no children nor siblings; yet there is no end to all his toil, and he is never satisfied with riches. He laments, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is futile and a burdensome task! 4:9 Two people are better than one, because they can reap more benefit from their labor. 4:10 For if they fall, one will help his companion up, but pity the person who falls down and has no one to help him up. 4:11 Furthermore, if two lie down together, they can keep each other warm, but how can one person keep warm by himself? 4:12 Although an assailant may overpower one person, two can withstand him. Moreover, a three-stranded cord is not quickly broken.
“If God is sovereign why am I alone?”
Have you ever felt alone and wanted more than just a spiritual relationship? The man in this passage is characterized by four things. It is these characteristics that quickly tell us that it was his choice to be alone. While he may not enjoy his loneliness, he quickly dismisses the fact that he chose work over a life. He wanted money and he deprived himself to get it. Once he had it, he had no one to share it with. As Solomon says, “that is futile.”
The fact that he had no son or brother does not signify that he was an only child. This fact simply pictures a man with no family or friends. The word ‘brother’ can mean friend, brother, and relative. This man is completely alone. He has no friends and he has no family. He consumes his time with work and is continually driven by a lust for money. Never does he stop and realize that he has no one to leave all his work too and no one to spend his money on or with.
The application is simple for it is clearly stated for us in verses 9-12. The application is as simple as ‘make friends.’ The consequences of loneliness are stated; and to avoid them, one must actively pursue friendships.
While you shouldn’t form friendships for the sole reason of recruiting help, the reality is that friends are going to assist in many ways. Two people are able to accomplish more than one person. As well, a friend is able to pick up the slack. The reality in life is that you often cannot accomplish things alone and simply need others to help. If you have ostracized everyone, they are not going to be anxious to help you. You very well might fail. That failure, in one sense, would absolutely be your own fault.
Solomon offers examples to show that a lonely individual is weak in many ways. Your strength is found in your numbers. This can apply to the physical as well as the spiritual world. In the same way that a larger army is typically stronger than a smaller army, someone attempting to live their spiritual life alone will soon find themselves swayed or destroyed.
Make friends. Don’t make friends so you can abuse their friendship, but do make friends. This might mean you will have to step out from your comfort zone and pursue someone’s friendship. You may be hurt at times, but the reward is well worth the investment. If you don’t choose to actively pursue friendships, the day will come when you need someone and no one will be there. At that point, the fault lies with you.
NET Prov 18:24 A person who has friends may be harmed by them, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
NAU Prov 18:24 A man of too many friends comes to ruin, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
ESVProv 18:24 A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
KJVProv 18:24 A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.
Some have used this verse to instruct someone who might want a friend that they must be friendly. But, the real intent of the verse has a bit more of a pessimistic view. In reality, the verse teaches us that a person can have too many friends.
There are expectations that come along with friendships. The more friends one has, the more is going to be required to continue and fulfill the requirements in those friendships. As well, the more friends one has the more likely the quality of friends will be low . . . thus leading to ruin.
Ecc 4:13 A poor but wise youth is better than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to receive advice. 4:14 For he came out of prison to become king, even though he had been born poor in what would become his kingdom. 4:15 I considered all the living who walk on earth, as well as the successor who would arise in his place. 4:16 There is no end to all the people nor to the past generations, yet future generations will not rejoice in him. This also is profitless and like chasing the wind.
“If God is sovereign and He loves me, why do I feel so expendable?”
Have any of you ever felt irrelevant? Have any of you worked for years and felt successful, and then were replaced by some ‘young kid’? “He is young and vibrant, and he brings new ideas to the table. Thanks for your years of experience and hard work, but you can leave now.”
How quickly people are forgotten. It too often doesn’t matter how much you overcame to arrive where you are. What seems to matter is that you’re outdated.
Solomon is not so much endorsing this mindset as he is stating its ever present reality. He very well may have been feeling expendable as he wrote.
The truth, that might hurt, is that we are all expendable. In light of the sovereignty of God, how could anyone think that they are indispensable? It is vital that we live our lives striving to be used in the manner that God allows, when he allows. If we are constantly aspiring to our own success, we will find ourselves lonely and useless. In Christ, no one feels worthless or useless. He can truly use anyone He wants at any time, so let us yield ourselves to His sovereign will.
A secondary note . . . Solomon seems to be making a point that often the older you become the less relevant and teachable you become. Age seems to be accompanied by inflexibility. Solomon’s point is not so much that the young are wiser than the old as much as wisdom is not based on one’s age. The young may act more wisely than the old if they are characterized by receiving instruction, but the reverse is as well true. It doesn’t matter your age; it matters if you are able to accept instruction. Have you come to the point in your life that you merely assume that you are wise because you are older? If you have become stubborn and entrenched in your understanding, you are not as wise as the teachable youth.