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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Ecclesiastes 4

Verses 1-3

2. Labor and divine providence 3:1-4:3

In this section, Solomon expressed his conviction that in view of God’s incomprehensible workings, all human toil is without permanent profit.

A phenomenon that makes it most difficult for us to understand God’s ways, and respond to them properly, is the problem of injustice in this life. Solomon believed God would eventually balance the scales of justice (Ecclesiastes 3:17), and that He uses injustice for His own purposes (Ecclesiastes 3:18). Probably Solomon believed judgment would take place on earth (Proverbs 22:22-23), though he did not say this explicitly. God uses injustice to remind us of our finite bestiality, among other things. We behave as beasts and die like them (Ecclesiastes 3:18-20). "The same place" (Ecclesiastes 3:20) is the grave (cf. Ecclesiastes 6:6), not that man’s future is identical to an animal’s. No one can observe any differences between the future of man and animals, but God has revealed these differences. In view of these things, Solomon repeated his counsel (Ecclesiastes 3:22).

"From unjust decisions a transition is now made to the subject of the haughty, unmerciful cruelty of the wide-extended oppressions inflicted by men." [Note: Delitzsch, p. 273.]

God has, of course, enabled us to see what will occur after we die by giving us additional revelation after Solomon’s time. The alternative response to the one Solomon advocated is despair, which reflecting on unjust oppression causes (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3).

Verses 4-6

Envy of others 4:4-6

"Every labor and every skill" (Ecclesiastes 4:4) undoubtedly means every type of labor and skill, rather than every individual instance of these things. Solomon used hyperbole. Much achievement is the result of a desire to be superior. Ecclesiastes 4:5 seems to be the opposite of Ecclesiastes 4:4.

"We pass from the rat-race with its hectic scramble for status symbols to the drop-out with his total indifference." [Note: Eaton, p. 93.]

"He [the drop-out] is the picture of complacency and unwitting self-destruction, for this comment on him points out a deeper damage than the wasting of his capital. His idleness eats away not only what he has but what he is: eroding his self-control, his grasp of reality, his capacity for care and, in the end, his self-respect." [Note: Kidner, p. 46.]

Ecclesiastes 4:6 is the middle road between the two preceding extremes.

Verses 4-16

3. The motivations of labor 4:4-16

The phrase "vanity and striving after wind" (Ecclesiastes 4:4; Ecclesiastes 4:16) brackets this section. This structure emphasizes the relative vapidity of everything between these statements. The main theme seems to be "the power complex common among humans and ways of reacting to it." [Note: J. S. Wright, "Ecclesiastes," p. 1165.]

Verses 7-12

Greed for self 4:7-12

The reader cannot miss the folly of working just to accumulate more in this powerful description.

"Such a man, even with a wife and children, will have little time for them, convinced that he is toiling for their benefit although his heart is elsewhere, devoted and wedded to his projects." [Note: Ibid., pp. 46-47.]

Solomon commended sharing, rather than hoarding, by calling attention to several advantages that come from cooperating with other people (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).

Verses 13-16

Position and prestige 4:13-16

It is also futile to work to gain advancement and popularity, thinking that these advantages will provide ultimate satisfaction.

"He has reached a pinnacle of human glory, only to be stranded there." [Note: Ibid., p. 52.]

Ecclesiastes 4:14 evidently describes the poor lad in Ecclesiastes 4:13, rather than the king. The second lad of Ecclesiastes 4:15 is the same boy who replaced the former old king. What is in view is a succession of kings, none of whom fully satisfies the populace. The point is that even though a man may rise from the bottom of society-this youth had been in prison-to the top, not everyone will accept or appreciate him. Therefore, since it is impossible to achieve full acceptance, it is foolish to spend one’s life seeking it. It is better to stay poor and wise. We might respond by saying that some acceptance by other people is better than none, but this is an evaluation of short-term advantage. Solomon was thinking and speaking of ultimate long-term significance.

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.