Our study of Ecclesiastes has led us to the point where Solomon now hopes to teach us from his very own mistakes. It seems obvious to me that the man had regrets and this book (given through inspiration) is a reflection upon wasting life instead of serving God.
Beginning in Ecclesiastes 4, it’s difficult to trace the basic argument of the text.¹ Throughout the remaining chapters, Solomon jumps around, much like Proverbs, from idea to idea that picked his interest and drew his attention. He observed life, found it to be full of vanity, and quite literally, declared it to be complicated.
He started with a discussion about oppresion in 4:1-3. It says:
Then I returned and considered all the oppression that is done under the sun: “And look! The tears of the oppressed, but they have no comforter – on the side of their oppressors there is power, but they have no comforter. Therefore I praised the dead who were already dead, more than the living who are still alive. Yet, better than both is he who has never existed, who has not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.
The reality of oppression in the life of mankind is unfortunate, but inevitable. Solomon’s conclusion is quite pessimistic in 4:3, but should remind us of another wise man’s thoughts in Job 3:3-5 which says:
May the day perish on which I was born,
And the night in which it was said,
“A male child is conceived.”
May that day be darkness;
May God above not seek it,
Nor the light shine upon it.
May darkness and the shadow of death claim it;
May a cloud settle on it;
May the blackness of the day terrify it.
Both of them saw death (or in Job’s cause the lack of existence in the first place) and an enviable position for someone facing the complications of this world.
In 4:4-6, he struggled with the vanity of competition. He compared a person who works hard to a lazy person and concluded that a little bit of both is the most prudent reality. He said in 4:6, “better a handful with quietness than both hands full, together with toil and grasping for the wind.” His next thought is a natural extension of that thought. In 4:7-8, he reflected upon the vanity of hoarding riches (i.e. working for the purpose of wealth). His conclusion is sad and states a man with great wealth is “alone, without son or brother, and unsatisfied with all his wealth.”
After reflecting upon these things, Solomon pivoted and honored something that isn’t vain, friendship. Perhaps he’s recalling some personal moments or merely those observations he gathered from a long life of watching people. No matter the circumstance, the reality of these thoughts is one that should encourage us today. Friendship is not vain, rather, it’s valuable. See 4:8-12 which says:
There is one alone, without companion:
He has neither son nor brother.
Yet there is no end to all his labors,
Nor is his eye satisfied with riches.
But he never asks,
“For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good?”
This also is vanity and a grave misfortune. Two are better than one,
Because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion.
But woe to him who is alone when he falls,
For he has no one to help him up.
Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm;
But how can one be warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him.
And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Notice that the whole sequence of thought shows in a succession of numbers (“one” alone, “two” are better, “three” isn’t broken quickly) a proverbial statement – friends make life easier.²
The final section of chapter 4 (4:13-16) addresses the futility of human thought . It doesn’t attack wisdom itself, merely the lack of using it. The statement in 4:13, “better a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who will be admonished no more,” may be one of the most autobiographical in all of Scripture. Everyone needs advice and instruction, even an old king unwilling to listen. He concluded that even a king who’s loved in his youth will grow old and be replaced. Quite possibly, that sad fate was on his mind if both his life and rule was nearing its end.
5:1-7 shift the focus to worship and how a person should “walk prudently when they go to the house of God.” The importance of proper worship should not be lost on the wise. Surely, he had seen in his life (and the life of others) the vanity of false or insolent worship. Ironic, if you consider 1 Kings 11:4-5 which says:
When Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God, as wasthe heart of his father David. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.
He then advised his readers to avoid being shocked when government officials pervert justice in 5:8-9. His reasoning boiled down to a simple thought – if one official is corrupt, so is another. However, he encouraged them that not all is lost when an earthly government lets you down because a king who provides for his people (even if corruption is allowed) gives “profit to the land.”
The beauty of 5:10-17 is found in the appreciation of wealth. Wealth does very little good when all it brings about is a desire to accumulate more wealth (see 5:10-12), and Wealth as a means to an end is vain because you can’t take it with you and it causes problems. Instead of validating our drive to accumulate, Solomon explored the vulnerability of wealth.³ Wealth is limited as a source of contentment and purpose and the logical conclusion we can draw from this text is simple – as an incredibly wealthy man at the end of his life, he could see the folly in making life about the accumulation of stuff. He was wealthier than any else, yet not happier, more content, or more satisfied with life. Wealth hadn’t kept him from the vanity of the world.
Closing out the chapter, Solomon once again repeated the instruction to “eat, drink, and enjoy the good of your labor” in 5:18. He wasn’t going to run from that sentiment any time soon. It’s the bed he’s made and now lies in. It’s safe to assume he hadn’t enjoyed the good of his labor and wished those of us hearing these words a better life.
I believe it’s reasonable to say Solomon’s life was complicated because he depended too much on stuff, riches, and the wisdom of people. Coincidentally, the message of this book is getting ready to shift towards the path we should take instead of the path he followed. He will encourage us to leave the vanity of our world behind and embrace God’s direction. It’s a shame the Solomon we read about didn’t have a teacher as smart as the one we’re learning from right now. If only he couldve’ seen the mess he was making, what a king he could have been.
Even better, what kind of servant could he have been to the Almighty?
¹ Denny Petrillo, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, 93.
² Robert Alter, Job, Proverbs, & Ecclesiastes, 360.
³ Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O’Dowd, Old Testament Wisdom Literature, 201.
All Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.