As we delve into the fourth chapter of Ecclesiastes tonight, remember that one of the main themes of Ecclesiastes is the vanity of life on earth. The wisdom of this book can often come across as hopeless or fatalist, but at its heart, it is always pointing us to the great worth to be attained through a life serving God. Remember the phrase “under the sun.” Each time we read this phrase, it should be framed in our minds as anything that can occur (effort, work, play, pleasure) on earth. It is meant to stand in contrast to those spiritual activities (prayer, worship, obedience, righteousness) that will avail us of eternal rewards.
Chapter 4 can be divided into four small and tidy sections, each with its own valuable lesson.
Verses 1-3: Better Dead than Oppressed
Why would there be such a proclamation in the Word of God? Remember our frame….the words in these verses lament the lives of the oppressed and the living. The oppressed have no comforter (for now) and no power. Because of this, they lead a miserable existence. Those who have died are better off than the living because they are no longer living in the vain toil of life under the sun.
If we remember the concept of hyperbole, we will not get lost in the hopelessness of this discourse. Yes, Solomon is saying that it would be better to have never existed than to live oppressed on the earth. But he is not saying that to not exist is better than living for God. On the contrary, the implication of these seemingly hopeless statements is that a life lived without God, only with and for those things we find on the earth, is meaningless. As a reminder by way of concluding the idea, here are the last two verses of Ecclesiastes: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. for God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
So we must remember that as we live for Almighty God, we must take care to obey his every command.
Verses 4-8: Contentment is the Goal
People are living unfulfilled lives because they are seeking fulfillment and happiness on earth. The work that we do can bring us money, esteem, power and influence, but it is always wasting away and diminishing, every last bit of it. Remember back to a time when you had great abundance. Is it still with you? Where is it now? Why should we work for great things on this earth when it will always vanish and deteriorate as we spend and live? Rather the wisdom of this verse offers up the alternative that we ought to work well enough to be content, and that will satisfy our hearts sufficiently until our time on earth is done.
Especially hopeless is the case of the one who works for great riches all alone. Not only does he not labor for that which has no everlasting value, but he also has no one with which to share it.
Verses 9-12: Three is Better Than Two is Better Than One
The value of a true friend is invaluable. They help, they support, they advise and perhaps most important of all, they provide companionship. A true friend will be there to assist you in every way, and even more valuable is the strength to be found in a bond of three. May each of us find the blessing of invaluable friendships. We can and should seek the help of a friend in getting through all of the vanity of this worldly life – especially a friend that reminds us of the importance of seeking God and putting Him first.
Verses 13-16: The Poor King
Look at the picture painted by these four verses. There is a poor but wise youth. There is also an old and foolish king. The poor and wise youth eventually becomes king and is worshipped and admonished all throughout the land. But at the end, when the king’s life is over and all is but forgotten, this same king will also be forgotten.
Where is the value given? Someone that is poor in this world is not given over to the comforts and temptations that great wealth brings. Wisdom and humility are of greater value than worldly wealth and esteem. Verse 14 shows us how one, although poor and humble, can become a king. But, despite this great success, he will still be forgotten as time goes on.
Even though some things in this life are worth more than others, the point is that ALL things on the earth are useless and worthless as compared to serving and obeying Almighty God!