Ecclesiastes 4:1-16

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During the course of his investigation of human affairs, Koheleth initially appears to have given only passing notice to oppression. Later, however, as he said, “And I returned and saw all the oppression [literally, oppressions, suggesting many deeds and kinds of oppression] committed under the sun.” Upon returning to, fixing his attention on, or reconsidering what seemingly had been the object of brief reflection, Koheleth saw or observed more closely the deeds of oppression taking place in the earthly realm beneath the sun. This careful reconsideration impressed on him just how widespread and distressing man’s inhumanity to man really was. (4:1)

He continued, “And behold the tears of the oppressed, and they had no comforter. And their oppressors [had the] power, but they had no comforter.” The oppressed shed many tears on account of their suffering. There was no relief for their deep inner pain. No one extended even a sympathetic word of comfort to them. Because the oppressors had the power or authority, the afflicted ones were at their mercy. The repetition of the thought that the oppressed had no comforter emphasizes their sad lot in life. (4:1)

In view of the sorrowful plight of the oppressed, Koheleth “pronounced” the dead “more fortunate” than the living. The Hebrew term shavách signifies to “pronounce fortunate,” “praise,” “commend,” or “congratulate.” Because the dead had entered the state where they could no longer suffer from oppression, Koheleth “congratulated” them, concluding that they were better off than the living. Only the living were still subject to oppression and its hurtful effects. (4:2)

From the standpoint of experiencing oppression, Koheleth reasoned that the one who is not yet in existence is better off than the living and than those who had lived in the past. This is because the one who is unborn has not “seen,” witnessed or experienced “the evil work that is done under the sun.” This “evil work” evidently refers to the bad deeds, including oppression, that may be observed in the realm of human affairs. (4:3)

Koheleth “saw” or took note of all the “labor” (exhausting or wearying toil) and all the “success of work” (the achievement from work, or the skill with which it is accomplished). In the Septuagint, the expression for “success of work” is “manliness [andreía] of work,” which could mean work done with a manly spirit or with fortitude. Based on his observation, Koheleth concluded that “it is the envy of a man toward his fellow.” This may signify that the “labor” and the “achievement” from or the “skillfulness” in work are (1) either prompted by or (2) make one the object of jealousy or envy. Both meanings of Koheleth’s words are found in translations. (4:4) “I have also noted that all labor and skillful enterprise come from men’s envy of each other.” (Tanakh) “I considered all toil and all achievement and saw that it springs from rivalry between one person and another.” (REB) “Then I saw all labor and every skilful work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbor.” (ASV) “And I have seen all the labour, and all the benefit of the work, because for it a man is the envy of his neighbor.” (Young)

Often the prime focus in working and doing a good job is not just a matter of getting the task performed. Workers may try to prove that they are better than others. They may call attention to themselves as being more efficient, faster, and able to perform work of superior quality. Consequently, competition and rivalry intensify, ill will develops, and severe judgments may be passed on others without any consideration being given to their limitations because of health, age, or level of experience. The joy that comes from mutual cooperation and a pleasant working relationship is lost. A job that formerly may have brought a measure of satisfaction becomes a source of daily irritation and frustration. (4:4)

Rightly, Koheleth said of this negative aspect associated with “labor” and “accomplishment” or skill, “This also [is] vanity” (emptiness, purposelessness, nothingness, or meaninglessness) and a “striving after wind,” a pursuit of something having no substance. (4:4; see the Notes section regarding verses 4, 6, and 16.)

Koheleth next focused on the opposite of diligent laboring when referring to the conduct of the “fool,” the person with a moral defect who has no desire to work. Instead of using his hands to accomplish something meaningful, he “folds his hands” in idle repose. If such a one can avoid doing what needs to be accomplished, he will. The fool’s laziness, however, exacts a high price. Regarding the indolent fool, Koheleth said, he “eats his own flesh.” The inactivity is injurious to his physical and mental well-being. Because of his laziness, the fool does not have the means to procure nutritional food and other necessities. This leads to a breakdown in health and eventually to a premature death. Thus the lazy one consumes his own flesh, reducing his organism to an emaciated condition and, in time, to a lifeless corpse. (4:5)

Koheleth highlighted the right view of work. “Better is a palm [kaph] filled with rest than two fists [the dual form of chóphen] filled with labor and striving after wind.” (4:6; see the Notes section.)

The open hand or palm can hold more than one that is closed. Accordingly, a “palm filled with rest” suggests a fullness of rest. Such “rest” denotes one’s being able to enjoy the fruit of one’s work — food, drink, and various wholesome diversions. The implication is that the other hand is occupied in laboring, and so there is a balance between “toil” and “rest.” There is time for pleasurable activities that provide refreshment from the ordinary routine of working. A person having “a palm filled with rest” is content, free from the relentless, self-induced pressure to accumulate more and the worry that what is amassed will not be enough. Such a one also finds great happiness in assisting those in real need. (4:6)

An individual having “a palm filled with rest” is certainly much better off than one having two hands so completely occupied in toiling that there is no time for anything else. The reference to the fists being filled appears to indicate that the person is completely consumed by “laboring,” exhausting or wearying toil. As if tightly gripping the toil, the hands are unable to do anything else. Though driven by the inordinate desire to amass more and more, the individual who is totally consumed by his toiling gains nothing of lasting value. He has no time to enjoy anything and may shorten his life considerably by neglecting to care for his personal needs. In the end, he must leave all that he has accumulated behind. So, the hands were filled with labor and a struggling, grasping, or striving for what had no substance — wind. (4:6; see the Notes section regarding verses 4, 6, and 16.)

Koheleth then said, “And I returned and saw vanity under the sun.” As other vanities had already been enumerated, this was still another “vanity,” one that related to the pathetic situation of the miser. Earlier, Koheleth may have noticed the continual striving of the miser but later returned to what he had observed to make a more thorough investigation. He then saw or recognized that the miser’s activity “under the sun” (in the earthly realm beneath the sun) was “vanity,” emptiness, nothingness, futility, or purposelessness. It accomplished nothing of lasting value and really benefited no one. (4:7)

Describing the miser, Koheleth says, “There is one and not a second one,” that is, the individual is alone, having neither a friend nor a companion. Despite being without a family (having “no son or brother”), “there is no end to all his labor,” his hard, exhausting, or wearisome toil. Although there is no one with whom to share what he acquires from his laboring, he is not satisfied with the riches he accumulates. Because of his insatiable greed, his “eyes” want to behold more than what he possesses. (4:8)

Koheleth then represented this one as raising the question, “And for whom do I labor and deprive my soul from good?” The implied answer is, “No one.” Not even the miser is able to benefit from the fruit of his hard, exhausting, or wearisome toil. He deprives his “soul” (himself) from enjoying food, drink, and various wholesome diversions. He greedily clings to everything he has amassed, even begrudging to part with what he absolutely must in order to obtain life’s bare necessities. (4:8)

Koheleth concluded, “This also ― vanity and an evil task.” The incessant striving of the miser is indeed “vanity,” emptiness, nothingness, purposelessness, or meaninglessness. It is an “evil,” a calamitous or a miserable “task,” business, or occupation. The miser’s life is one of perpetual gloom, as he finds it impossible to bring himself to use even a small part of what he has accumulated for personal enjoyment or to help those in genuine need. (4:8)

Against the backdrop of the miser’s miserable lot, Koheleth’s next words can be better appreciated, “Better two than one, because they have a good reward for their labor.” The good reward from laboring as a team is mutual assistance and protection. (4:9)

Koheleth continued, “For if they fall” (not at the same time but either one of them on different occasions), the companion is there to help the one who has fallen to get up. Whatever the nature of the fall might be (whether a literal fall while traveling over treacherous terrain or a disastrous plunge on account of unfavorable circumstances or poor judgment), a loyal companion will do what he can to aid his partner in distress. (4:10)

It is quite different with the person who labors alone, with no one to help him when he falls. Koheleth pronounced “woe” or calamity for the loner. Without a companion, the individual would have to deal with his misfortune without the aid, encouragement, or comfort that a companion could provide. He would experience the full brunt of the painful effects resulting from the fall. The situation could prove to be so serious that he would not be able to get up on his own, as would be the case when a severe injury resulted from a fall in treacherous terrain. (4:10)

Koheleth presented another example illustrating the value of having a companion. When traveling, individuals customarily slept outdoors during the night. Their outer garments served as blankets. A lone traveler would face the discomfort of the cold nights with very little to protect him. Therefore, Koheleth said, “If two lie down together,” they would be able to stay warm, benefiting from one another’s body heat. “But how can one be warm?” (4:11)

Similarly, a solitary traveler would be more vulnerable to attacks by robbers. (Compare Luke 10:30.) Faced with a robber, the unaccompanied traveler might easily be overpowered and left to die in a comparatively deserted area. As Koheleth observed, however, “two” would be able to withstand the assailant. (4:12)

Summing up the benefit of one’s having a companion, Koheleth appears to have quoted a proverbial saying, “A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” This illustrates that, when individuals have a common interest or objective, there is strength and benefit in numbers. A cord consisting of three strands may have been the strongest one made. A threefold cord would be much harder to tear apart than a cord consisting of one or two strands. (4:12)

Youth (when synonymous with inexperience) and poverty impose serious limitations. One’s having wisdom can offset these limitations. On the other hand, the benefits of age, experience, wealth and authority can be nullified by folly, the reckless disregard of what is right. Koheleth observed that a poor but wise “young man” is better off than an old but foolish king who no longer has the good sense to heed warnings or sound counsel, or who becomes so isolated that he does not even hear things to which he should be giving attention. (4:13)

Because of possessing wisdom, the poor youth may succeed in attaining what the old king is in danger of losing. By refusing to pay attention to sound advice (or not even hearing it), the old king could place the prosperity and security of the realm in jeopardy. As a result, he may perish in war, be removed from his position by a conqueror, die at the hand of an assassin, or be forced to abdicate by his own subjects. (4:13)

Regarding the wise youth, Koheleth continued, “For from the prison house, he goes forth to be king, although in his kingdom he had been born poor.” The mention of confinement might suggest that the old king came to view the youth as a threat and ordered his imprisonment. Something similar happened in the case of Solomon’s father David. Because King Saul began to regard him with suspicion, David eventually was forced to flee for his life and to live as an outlaw. (4:14; 1 Samuel 18:15, 25, 29; 19:2, 9-12; 20:30, 31; 22:8)

The wise youth, upon being released from prison, attains the kingship. This occurs despite his having been born a pauper in the kingdom where he begins to reign (or in the realm of the old monarch). “He had been born poor in the kingdom and had even gone to prison before becoming king.” (NCV) Based on a meaning other than “although” for the Hebrew conjunction ki, poverty and imprisonment have been represented as two different situations from which a successor might rise to the throne. “The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom.” (TNIV) The case of Joseph is a historical example of an elevation from prisoner to the second highest ruling position in Egypt. (4:14) Recognizing Joseph’s wisdom, Pharaoh declared: “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my court, and by your command shall all my people be directed; only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you.” (Genesis 41:39, 40, Tanakh )

Departing from the usual rendering of numerous modern translations, the Tanakh represents the Hebrew word for “poor” (rush) as a verb, “to become poor,” and makes the initial part of the verse apply to the youth and the concluding portion to the old king. This translation reads, “For the former can emerge from a dungeon to become king; while the latter, even if born to kingship, can become a pauper.” (4:14)

Koheleth continued, “I saw all the living who walk about under the sun with the second youth who will stand up in his place.” This observation applies to the living who conduct their daily affairs in the earthly realm beneath the sun. “All” probably refers to those giving their support to the “second youth” or “second young man.” The word “all” indicates that this successor enjoys popular backing. (4:15)

The expression “second youth” may mean second from the standpoint of being a replacement of the first, that is, of the old king. This is the meaning conveyed in the translation by James Moffatt: “I have seen all the living on earth side with such a youth, who was destined to reign instead of the old king.” It may be, however, that the “second young man” designates yet another successor. Besides adopting the application to another successor, The Revised English Bible represents the reference to “all the living” as a general statement of what Koheleth studiously observed among people on earth. “But I have studied all life here under the sun, and I saw his place taken by yet another young man.” (4:15)

Both the Hebrew text and the Septuagint, though, link “all the living” to the “second youth” by using a preposition meaning “with.” So it appears better to regard the verse as indicative of the popular support from contemporaries for either the immediate successor of the old king or yet another young man. If viewed as denoting another young man, the reference would point to the people’s disenchantment with the old king and then also with his immediate successor. (4:15)

Koheleth continued, “No end to all the people, to all who were before them.” The words “no end to all the people” are commonly understood as meaning “multitudes” or “unlimited numbers” of people. “Before them” (literally, “before their faces”) could mean that multitudes preceded the old king and his successor (or successors) and, therefore, had no knowledge of them. Another possibility is that the pronoun “them” designates the generations that lived before “all the people” of the then-existing generation. Later, in this verse, the reference is to “him,” the successor to the throne. (4:16) A number of translators have rendered the text to apply to the successor only. “There was no end to all those people whom he led. (NRSV) “He takes his place at the head of innumerable subjects.” (NJB)

Koheleth added that those who would be coming later would not “rejoice in him.” Initially, the young man is highly favored, enjoying the backing of the masses. Eventually this ends, as someone else captures the fancy of the people who later dominate the earthly scene. There is no further pleasure or delight in the gifted youth whose reign had been hailed with great enthusiasm. This development could be viewed as occurring either during the ruler’s lifetime or afterward. Later generations would, of course, have no pleasure in the gifted youth who is unknown to them. (4:16)

Accordingly, even the topmost position procures no lasting benefit for the one attaining it. Fame and popularity are fleeting. Koheleth concluded that this is indeed “vanity and a striving after wind.” In view of the temporary nature of the honor enjoyed, kingship is emptiness, nothingness, or meaninglessness, and a pursuit of wind, something lacking real substance. (4:16; see the Notes section.)


The Hebrew word rúach and its Greek equivalent pneúma can mean either “wind” or “spirit.” Instead of “striving after wind” or a similar expression (in verses 4, 6, 16), a number of translations read “vexation of spirit” (KJV, Young). In its rendering of the Septuagint, a new English translation (NETS) uses the expression “preference of spirit,” whereas The Orthodox Study Bible says “choice of one’s spirit.” A German translation of the Septuagint (Septuaginta Deutsch), however, reads “striving after wind” (Streben nach Wind). The Greek term rendered “preference,” “choice,” or “striving” is proaíresis and can also signify “commitment.” Persons who have committed themselves to, chosen, or preferred something that is mere wind could be spoken of as striving after wind.

In verse 6, the Hebrew word kaph refers to the flat of the hand or the palm, and the term chóphen can designate the hollow of the hand and so could apply to the hand when formed into a fist in order to keep hold of something. “Fists” (Fäuste) is the rendering found in the revised German Elberfelder Bibel and Schlachter’s German translation. In the Septuagint, the word dráx, (the open hand or palm) translates both Hebrew words.

Verse 17 in numerous Bible translations is verse 1 of chapter 5 in others. In this commentary, the verse will be considered in the next chapter.