Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker

Ecclesiastes 4

Verses 1-16

A Wise Lesson

Ecclesiastes 4

Cohleleth appears in this, as in other verses, as a sympathetic man. There is the making of a true philosopher in him, in so far as he observes widely and clearly, though he does not always seem to draw the right conclusion from what he sees. It is very beautiful and instructive to notice how broad are his sympathies and how deep is his interest in human life. We seem to determine for ourselves the size of the world in which we live: if we dwell upon our own little case alone the world is very small; if we look upon the lot of others, and consider their burdens, their tears, their labours, and their joys, the world widens under our sympathetic eyes. In Coheleth"s own palace and immediate surroundings there was no want of radiance, of music, or of comforts that satisfy the lowest desires; yet he never feared to look out of his well-draped window, and across his terraces ablaze with glowing flowers, and to sympathise with the distresses of his fellow-men. As a philosopher he could not live within the enclosure of his own walls, and satisfy himself with the odours of his own fragrant gardens. He had great human sympathies, great natural curiosity about events, and great interest in human condition and progress. There are natures that can insulate themselves, and live upon the small island of their own affairs; and there are hearts that have room enough for the distant, the poor, and the sad.

There is no need that we should believe all Coheleth"s conclusions and opinions. We listen to them respectfully, as to any shrewd man"s graphic and vivid talk, but not until we have seen how they compare with the teaching of Jesus Christ are we to commit ourselves to his theories and decisions. There is no full-stop in the Old Testament as to moral teaching and moral responsibility. Forgetfulness of this circumstance has led to the adoption of many narrow conclusions in practical theology. We must go back to the right theory of punctuation, and that will teach us that in the Old Testament there is no full-stop; whatever is there points onward to its completion in the New Testament, and to that New Testament every appeal must be made for final decision. Very often Coheleth talks diamonds, and sometimes he talks plain glass. Now and again, and indeed frequently, there issues from his lips a strain of genuine music, fresh as the south-west wind in which the thrush sings; and sometimes his voice is muffled and hoarse, like a common man"s. We must not stop him either here or there. The testimony must be studied as a whole, so far as any one man can supply such a testimony, and then it must be taken to the court of Jesus Christ for adjustment and final acceptance.

In this first verse Coheleth gives us a good and wise lesson, to the effect that we are to live as citizens of the whole world, and not as tenants of any particular corner of it. Coheleth seems to say: Do not be narrow in your survey, or short in your outlook; do not be Britons only, or Gauls, or Jews—be philanthropists; whatever concerns man should concern all men. The slaves that Livingstone saw in the African woods are our brothers. The big, brawny, strong men, with the Song of Solomon -called slave-taming sticks crippling their limbs and burdening their necks like galling yokes, with the demon-hearted mocking Arab smiting them with a hatchet or threatening them with a musket—these men cry out for help, and shame be on the land which allows their cry to pass over it like a voiceless wind. Brotherhood is not a question of geography. Philanthropy is not bounded by latitude and longitude. We hold our liberty that we may give it to other men who need it; and our strength we hold in trust on behalf of those who cannot lift an arm in their own defence. We mourn our little inconveniences, and magnify the trivialities of our daily life, until we think ourselves ill-used; but if we would look farther and take in a wider horizon of human life we might blush for shame that we murmur over trifles when other men groan under intolerable disasters. Consider all the oppressions that are done under the sun, and behold the tears of such as have no comforter, if you would see the pettiness of your own frets, and the magnificence of your own mercies.

If Coheleth was so benevolent and sympathetic, what ought we to be who live under the inspiration of One greater than Solomon? "When thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind." "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." Old boundaries are thus thrown down; old gates and bars are removed with a mighty hand, and a great tide of Gospel blessing rolls round the whole world, leaving no one spot unfertilised or unblessed. If we would add richest luxury to our own banquet, we must send a portion to the poor, and if we would know how rich we are, and free, and mighty, we should go and exchange places for a time with the oppressed and the sore in heart.

"Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive. 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" ( Ecclesiastes 4:2-3).

Surely we did well to say that we would not commit ourselves to all Coheleth"s theories and decisions. Here is a case in point. In the first verse Coheleth shines as a philanthropist; in the second verse he dwindles into a narrow-minded judge. In the first verse he is a statesman, in the second he is only a politician. Because of the shadow, and the wrinkle, and the pain, and the crookedness, he says that the dead are more to be praised than the living, and the unborn than those who are alive. If this world were all, there are some cases of distress which would go far towards supporting Coheleth"s view. Undoubtedly there are people to whom life is a burden, and who sigh for relief from their pain and weariness. But who would judge the process without waiting for the result? "Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die." Christianity gives the right tone to all thinking about human distress and weakness. "We know that all things work together for good to them that love God." "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." Thus all our little theories are swallowed up in a divine philosophy, and in the midst of our tumult and unbelief we are simply called upon to let patience have her perfect work. The wicked man brings his punishment upon himself; and though there are some whose wickedness is not clearly established who suffer much, they cannot separate themselves from the great social mass of which they are a part, nor can they escape the law which operates impartially alike in its collateral inflictions and blessings. We must not charge God with having made a mistake in creating the world. We do not yet see the whole purpose of his scheme. Nor do we know all the rich compensations by which our life is redeemed from despair. The loneliest heart has its own faint ray of light; the saddest soul knows one flower from which it can extract honey. Even the slave has his broad glad laugh, as if he had thrown away his chain. We know not what angels go to the dungeon, and what sweetness is dropped into cups that seem to be full of wormwood.

"Judge not the Lord by feeble sense."

"Again, I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbour. This is also vanity and vexation of spirit" ( Ecclesiastes 4:4).

Here Coheleth comes upon another difficulty. He says that even where a man does that which is right, and turns life into a success, he only excites the envy and rivalry of the people who are around him. If he succeeds in business he will be called pushing, self-seeking, and boastful; if he gets into high office critics will say it was through audacity, scheming, or favouritism; if he gives large sums of money, people will say that it was through pride and to have his name published. This is the continual law of society. Social criticism has been urged into an exaggerated influence: men have become slaves one of another: the bravest wonders what the next bravest will think of him. This may be denied in words, or may be exploded as a theory, but who has not felt the subtle influence of this temptation upon the heart? A man works with almost desperate energy, he submits to all the agony of self-sacrifice, he turns the night into day that he may prolong his labours; and when he has reached the goal of his ambition there are not wanting people who can describe him as a "fortunate Prayer of Manasseh,"—that is to say, they look upon him as one who is a favourite of Fortune, and do not ascribe his honour or success to an obvious process of toil, and sacrifice, and earnest calculation of causes and effects. Another man folds his arms, dreams away all his possibilities, allows his energies to fall into desuetude, comforts himself with the fool"s philosophy that all things come to him who waits, and when nothing does come to him, he turns round and looks upon the successful man with a jaundiced eye, encounters him with the spite of envy, traduces him to his brethren, or flippantly describes him as a favourite of Fortune. We are to work diligently for the sake of the work itself, and to trust that a good seedtime will bring a good harvest. We cannot follow our labours beyond a given point; having done what we can we may let our tired hands drop by our sides whilst we await the issue in confident patience.

Coheleth now turns to see another side of human life, and this is his account of it:—

"The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh. Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit" ( Ecclesiastes 4:5-6).

The fool does not aim at success, and so he excites nobody"s envy. He lives from hand to mouth; he simply wants to be let alone. A very graphic representation is given of him in the fifth verse:—"The fool... eateth his own flesh," that is to say, he eats his capital, he lives upon the dowry without putting it out to usury. Give him seed for his fields, and he will live upon the seed without sowing it, and in doing so he quotes a proverb, saying, "Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit." This a wise proverb quoted by a foolish person, and therefore robbed of all its deep, rich meaning. So we are quoting proverbs to-day without knowing what we are talking about Song of Solomon, too, we quote texts of Scripture, and misquote them. We forget that the word of God is a two-edged sword, and that in cutting others we bring the back stroke upon ourselves. A sad thing is this, a wise word on the lips of a fool: "A jewel in a swine"s snout"! Sad and even heart-breaking to a great teacher or a deep student to hear ignorant people turning great texts to small meanings; putting up their cattle in the sanctuary, and turning holy places into dens of thieves. Think of a little sectarian eating up all the rich corn of Scripture, and growing neither larger nor fairer by the feast! Think of a dog eating the children"s dinner as if it were common food! It was even so with this fool. He ate his handful and sanctified his suicide by the quotation of a proverb. Scripture misapplied is the worst blasphemy. "If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!" It is well that men who conduct certain processes in life should be called by plain names. When Coheleth saw a man folding his hands together and eating his own flesh he did not hesitate to describe that man as a fool. We can begin our estimate of human character from one of two points: we can watch the process and then attach the right name to it; or we can fix our mind upon an imaginary character and then attach the right issues to the qualities which make up such a personality—that is to say, when we see a man whose watchword Isaiah, "Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep," we may rightly call that man a fool; or, having imagined to ourselves what a fool Isaiah, we can describe him as a man who will say, "Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep." For the want of moral firmness to describe people and processes by their right names, a very important element in the discipline of life has dropped out of human speech. Probably no writer in all the sacred canon has used the word "fool" more freely than the wisest man of all. As for the quotation of wise and weighty sayings, or of proverbs which have been confirmed by general experience, men should be extremely cautious. It is often easier to quote a proverb than to realise its fitness to the occasion which has elicited the quotation. The proverb given in the sixth verse is full of beauty, and is founded upon a deep philosophy, yet even a proverb of this kind may be disastrously perverted. We must take care what the "handful" is: it may be the seed we ought to sow, the capital we ought to use, the beginning of a possibility, and not the end of a process. Even wise proverbs may be unwisely applied.

Now Coheleth turns from the fool to look at the lonely man—the hermit who dwarfed the world into a little cell:—

"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 labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith Hebrews, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail. Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. 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. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him: and a threefold cord is not quickly broken" ( Ecclesiastes 4:8-12).

The lonely man was a miser also: "Neither is his eye satisfied with riches." He thinks he will live by himself and be happy. "O for a lodge in some vast wilderness!" Surely a man will never differ with himself! But Coheleth soon found that loneliness was not happiness. If a lonely man falls down he has nobody to help him up; if he is cold, he has no one to cheer him; if he is attacked, he has no one to defend him. Loneliness is a failure; solitariness is the midway point between life and death. We need each other"s presence for criticism, for discipline, for the culture and strengthening of our best powers. Society is educational by its very constitution. A walk through the crowded thoroughfare is an intellectual tonic. A day on the streets is a lesson with manifold and graphic illustrations. So Coheleth dismisses the fool and the hermit as failures. The protest against solitariness throughout the whole scope of the Bible is an intimation of the great truth of human brotherhood, and of human brotherhood as a special medium through which divine communion is realised. It is perfectly true that a man may have secret fellowship with God; this is livingly and blessedly true; at the same time it is only part of an infinitely larger truth—namely, that humanity is greater than any member of it, in other words, that the whole is greater than the part. "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." "Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together." A man may suppose that he can read the Bible in solitude and profit by it: to a certain extent that also is a most blessed and comforting truth; but as in the former instance it is a fraction, not an integer. There is a public reading of the Word—a reading under circumstances which excite our broadest sympathy and deepest interest, a great general music that ennobles by its very volume, as well as a quiet and private ministry of divine music. We were made for one another, and to break up society into mere individualities is to commit a species of homicide. Every life waits for some other life. It is impossible to enjoy even Nature so much alone as it may be enjoyed in congenial companionship. Every man has his own point of view; all the points of view are brought together, and the beauty of each is realised; so all nature becomes a glorious appeal to the eye of the body, and to the keener eye of the soul. It is precisely so with all religious influences and ministries. The sanctuary is the public home of the saints, and as when children who love one another are gathered together in the family home and minister to each other"s delight, so Christians of every degree and quality gather together into one multitude, and stir one another"s faith and purify each other"s emotion.

Now Coheleth begins to moralise:—

"Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished" ( Ecclesiastes 4:13).

What of the label if the bottle be empty? Sad indeed is it when the man"s name is the greater part of him! A king without kingliness—is there any irony so mocking and tormenting? Better be a good hearer than a bad preacher. Whatever we are let us be that well. A jackdaw has some respectability as such, but not a whit when he steals the peacock"s feathers. "A live dog is better than a dead lion." What disastrous possibilities there are in life! Imagine the possibility of a man being described as "an old and foolish king"! The word "king" represents eternal youthfulness, energy, and influence; the possibility described in the text is that the term "king" may remain when all its kingliness has departed. We are manifestly called to progress in life, so that in old age we should be wiser, purer, and gentler than ever; but there stares us in the face the ghastly possibility that the years may but increase our weakness, and the multitude of days may but make our folly the more apparent. Christianity calls upon us to make our old age into an aspect of youth. There is to be no old age in the sense of spiritual exhaustion, or moral decrepitude, or misanthropic isolation; old age is to be equivalent to increase of kingliness and bounty and holy influence. When Coheleth distinguishes between the poor and wise child and the old and foolish king, the poor and wise child should remember that even he may become old and foolish in the long run. When we lose our childhood we may lose our wisdom. The only guarantee of continual elevation of character and moral progress is in the daily discipline which neglects no detail, however small, and which considers that nothing has been done whilst anything remains unattempted. The most pitiful aspect of the old and foolish king is in the words, "who will no more be admonished"—that is to say, who will receive no more lessons, accept no more expostulations, pay no further attention to human counsel: a man whose obstinacy is complete, and whose self-conceit prevents his feeling self-reproach. A most pitiable wisdom this! Here is a man who excludes himself from all the public influences of his time—in other words, from all the remedial and helpful ministries brought into action by an expanding civilisation; he considers himself complete, he will receive no further instruction,—in very deed he assumes the prerogative of God. All this kind of conduct is persistently rebuked in the Bible. We are called upon to make continual progress, to grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, and never to consider that we have attained or apprehended in fulness. On the last day of our study our watchword is to be "Light, more light!" In the very hour of supposed completeness of character we are to return the congratulations of friends with the assurance, "I count not myself to have apprehended.... I press toward the mark."

All this survey on the part of Coheleth is the best possible preparation for the inquiry—Is there anything better than Coheleth has yet found? Regard Coheleth as one who goes out to find the Holy Grail, and who comes back with his note-book full of instruction and full of disappointment. He has mounted the high hills, and thrown his line into the deep pools; he has watched until his eyes failed through weariness, and tarried until his limbs were numb with cold, and sleep laid hold of his eyelids; but the Holy Grail he has never seen! Enough we have had of the negative side of life; now we want the positive, and for that we must go to a greater than Solomon. Who, then, are blessed, and on whom does the spirit of a sweet content rest like a dove from heaven? Where is the joyful heart, and where the spirit that sings its tender hymn in the cloud and the night and beside the grim grave? Is there any man who is like a tree planted by the rivers of water? Is there any soul that suns itself in the calm of heaven? Yea, surely. Yea, the Lord"s children, whose faces are Zionward, know how to sing the Lord"s song. They have found that joy is not a tinted bubble sailing on the fickle breeze, but is the fruit of the tree of righteousness. If the tree is not good, the fruit cannot be good. "Ye must be born again." The outward cannot be right until the inward is right. "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." Life is not a study of attitudes and colours and momentary impressions; it is a deep reality, it is a secret hidden with God; and not until we are right at the very fount and core of life and motive, can we be right in our external relations to nature and society. We must distinguish between a trick and a philosophy; between a calculated morality and a spiritual righteousness. The children of God have learned that dying things cannot give undying pleasure. That, one would suppose, would be an obvious commonplace; yet we find all men more or less exposed to the temptation of imagining that the things which are perishing around can minister to imperishable delight, or can indeed supply that ineffable and eternal gladness. Some men have to go a long way round to Jesus Christ. They have to suffer daily disappointment in finding their wells filled up, their orchards stripped, their fields blighted, and all their fortune laid in a heap of ruin; and when they have tasted the vanity and the folly of all life which appeals to the eye and charms the mere imagination, they begin to ask solemn questions, and whilst they are asking such questions, answers may be given to them from heaven.

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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://beta.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/ecclesiastes-4.html. 1885-95.