Oppression, toil, friendlessness
4 Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:
I saw the tears of the oppressed –
and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors –
and they have no comforter.
2 And I declared that the dead,
who had already died,
are happier than the living,
who are still alive.
3 But better than both
is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
that is done under the sun.
The teacher now turns his attention to the injustice of life, oppression, turmoil. It’s all “hevel“. It’s a vapour, a mist, a passing transience. The dead seem better off than the living and those not yet born are better off still but this is a small part of the picture in our eternity.
4 And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
5 Fools fold their hands
and ruin themselves.
6 Better one handful with tranquillity
than two handfuls with toil
and chasing after the wind.
7 Again I saw something meaningless under the sun:
8 there was a man all alone;
he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
‘For whom am I toiling,’ he asked,
‘and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?’
This too is meaningless –
a miserable business!
Work and the pursuit of wealth comes under question in this section. It’s easy to get absorbed in position, influence, career and achievement but at some point it becomes empty and “hevel”. What are you working for? What is it giving you other than slavery? What is it costing you in terms of relationship and quality time with others?
Laziness is also challenged “the fool folds his hands”. Being idle brings it’s own punishment and it easily becomes a rut for depression and an emptiness or lack of purpose.
Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil. I am enjoying my one handful and even I am wishing I could go down to half a handful. I really want Nancy to be able to reduce her hours at some point and maybe that would be a goal for the debt repayment date for Nancy to cut down. It brings up other questions about the value of her pension and so many other variables but it’s not something we need to consider right now.
For now my observation is that one handful and tranquillity is a good place to be.
9 Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labour:
10 if either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
These verses are packed with a lot of additional potency in the light of what I am reading in Larry Crabb’s book “fully alive.”
There are many interpretations of the cord of three strands and probably no one specific intended interpretation but rather a principle of “triad” strength. I read a book some years back called “Transformational Discipleship” and how a group of three will somehow helpfully remove hierarchy or at least minimize the risk of a dominant parent child type relationship developing.
There seems to be something special about 3 people who work together. King David had 3 special soldiers (2 Samuel 23:18). In the *New Testament Jesus had Peter, James and John who were his inner circle. Some writers think that the 3 strands refer to a husband, a wife and a child. The most common interpretation is that God is the third strand in a marriage. The truth is that one alone is vulnerable and potentially weak, two can create a weird dynamic but three is a levelling.
In Genesis 18:2 three persons appear to Abraham
The Bible only mentions the name of three angels (Michael, Gabriel and Lucifer).
The are three elements to time. God is described, in the very beginning of the book of Revelation, as a Being “which is, and which was, and which is to come” (Revelation 1:4).
Shadrach. Meshach and Abednego were three in the fiery furnace.
Only three people were allowed to ask God anything. They were Solomon (1Kings 3:5), Ahaz (Isaiah 7:11) and, of course, Jesus (Psalm 2:9).
Even God himself is a Triad of Father, Son & Spirit.
Advancement is meaningless
13 Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to heed a warning. 14 The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. 15 I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. 16 There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
If Solomon wrote this or the narrative of Ecclesiastes is about Solomon there may be something poignant from his family story that is included here.
In the Israelite mindset age = wisdom. This section of Ecclesiastes tests that “absolute”. The Teacher does not mention anyone’s name. But when King David was old, it appears that his wisdom had left him.
He had ruled for a long time. He had forgotten what his people needed. He did not appoint a successor. Finally, his friend, Nathan, and his wife, Bathsheba, told him that his young son, Adonijah, was trying to usurp the throne. (1 Kings 1:1–27) David still believed in his own wisdom (Proverbs 26:12).
In, Job 32:4-11, Elihu said, ‘It is not only old people who can be wise.’ The Israelites assumption was that ‘young’ meant under 30 years old.
It makes me think about Joseph in prison. Joseph was young. His wisdom allowed him to become an important ruler in Egypt and God’s purpose flowed through the events of his life (Genesis 41:14; 41-43).
Verses 15-16 tell us that at first the new young king was popular with many people. But later he was not popular with many other people. Perhaps it was not his fault. Perhaps he became so familiar to them that the people wanted a change. People can be loyal for a time. Then their children become adults and those new adults want someone different as their leader. All this is “hevel”. Politics, leadership changes, governance, cultural shifts … over thinking this stuff is like chasing after the wind.
I remember a B&Q customer service campaign that was pushed through all the stores as an employee incentive scheme. It was entitled “Who cares wins” One of my staff added some graffiti to the staffroom poster and changed it to “Who cares who wins”. That just about sums it up.
Who’s in charge and what they do and the injustice of it all … to invest too much energy in that is a chasing after the wind. It’s not that we shouldn’t stand up and say something or take a stand. I am sure that we should and we would but to invest too much in a particular outcome is placing myself above God. Human pursuits are “hevel” …a mist. Kingdoms rise and fall only one Kingdom endures and that Kingdom operates on a different plane.