Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:16

You are here

Bible Commentary

Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:16

Login or Create an Account

With a account you will be able to save items to read and study later!

Sign In | Sign Up


“Concerning the Condition of the Sons of Men”

Continuing in the book’s second major section, Solomon now turns in its middle subsection (Ecclesiastes 3:16– 4:16) to elements of human life under the sun that might seem to contradict what he has stated thus far. He deals with four areas that constitute major obstacles to contentment—factors that could lead some to think there is no divine plan being worked out here on earth (as they might ask, “If there is a God who cares about man, how could He allow this?”). Each of the four issues is introduced with some form of the phrase “I saw” (Ecclesiastes 3:16; Ecclesiastes 4:1; Ecclesiastes 4:4; Ecclesiastes 4:7).

The first issue here is injustice (Ecclesiastes 3:16-22). “This unit makes an observation (v. 16), passes two comments (17, 18-21) and reaches a conclusion (22) (I saw…I said…I said…So I saw [or perceived])” (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Eaton, note on verses 16-22). The problem here is quite egregious. If there is anywhere in society that people would expect some evidence of divine direction, it is in the matter of rendering justice, as God would seem to be intimately concerned with this. And indeed He is, as Solomon is quick to point out in verse 17. Injustice today is proof only of the failure of man’s self-rule. It is not proof that God has no control over life. He permits unrighteousness in the halls of justice for the present time, but He will set matters right in a future period of judgment. As the Preaching the Word commentary notes: “Our confidence does not lie in a justice system but in the Chief Justice himself, Jesus Christ. God has promised a day when his Son will judge the righteous and the wicked (Acts 17:30-31)…. when he will render his final verdict on all mankind” (Ryken, p. 103). Indeed, Solomon uses the language of his earlier poem about proper times for various purposes to here affirm that all is proceeding according to God’s overall plan. Verse 17 of Ecclesiastes 3 also demonstrates that the need to live righteously, avoiding wickedness, is a key message in the book.

Solomon’s next comments, comparing people with animals (verses 18-21), are seen by some as constituting a new issue. Yet he is more likely commenting on the human condition in general—initially in response to the problem he just mentioned but applicable to the other problems he raises as well. For the time being, God withholds the judgment of verse 17 so that people can come to see what they need to see about themselves. “Our present existence is a proving ground. It is a test, not simply in the sense of something we pass or fail, but also in the sense of something that demonstrates our true character. One of the purposes of life is to examine and ultimately reveal our place in the universe and our true relationship to God. This test is…for our benefit, so that we learn to recognize our mortality. Will we see ourselves for who we really are?” (PTW, p. 103).

Solomon points out that what people are to come to see is that they “by themselves” (as verse 18 can properly be rendered) are as beasts (see Green’s Literal Translation). They live under the “law of the jungle,” as it were. And within this system, all people, no matter what their behavior, meet the same end as beasts—death (verses 19-20)—the apparent height of injustice. Of themselves people have no advantage over animals, with both breathing air to sustain life until life ceases. Neither people nor animals can escape death and deterioration, returning to dust (compare Genesis 2:7; Genesis 3:19). Some think this passage in Ecclesiastes 3 is claiming that this life is all there is for human beings—that there is no life after death. But the book of Ecclesiastes continually points to a time of future reward and judgment for all people—and states that the human spirit returns to God at death (Ecclesiastes 12:7). The key to Ecclesiastes 3:18-20 is evidently the “by themselves” or “of themselves” in verse 18. It is apart from God’s intervention that people share the same end as animals. God wants people to see their dire need for Him—and life’s problems, especially death looming at the end of life, help accomplish this.

Verse 21 about the spirit of men going up (to heaven) and that of animals going down to the earth is apparently translated correctly in the NKJV. Some versions, following the Greek Septuagint, translate the verse to ask who knows whether the human spirit goes up and that of the beast goes down—implying that no one knows if this happens. Again, though, Ecclesiastes 12:7 clearly states that the human spirit returns to God at death—so Ecclesiastes 3:21 could not mean that no one knows this. The key again seems to be the “by (or of) themselves” in verse 18. Apart from God’s involvement, who would know about or give serious thought to any divergence in the paths of human and animal spirits at death? Indeed, “the generality of men cannot appreciate the difference in ultimate destiny and live as though there were no difference” (Tyndale, note on verse 21). Yet as they approach death, they are forced to think about such things.

Verse 22 is an instance of the book’s refrain, here presenting the conclusion of this unit addressing injustice: “If God is sovereign in his disposal of earthly events (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15), has a purpose even in allowing human injustices (Ecclesiastes 3:16-20), and holds our ultimate destiny in his hands (21), then the attitude of the wise should be joyful confidence in the pursuit of earthly responsibilities and the pleasures they bring” (note on verse 22). Where this is elsewhere shown to be God’s gift to man, it is here referred to as a person’s portion, lot or heritage—one’s share in God’s blessings to mankind (the same wording used in the refrain at the end of the present major section in Ecclesiastes 5:18). The end of the last sentence of Ecclesiastes 3:22, translated “after him” in many versions, probably “ought to be rendered ‘afterwards’” (The New American Commentary, note on verses 19-22; compare JPS Tanakh). So the sentence would not necessarily be asking how a person could know what will happen after his death—merely after the present. The point in context would seem to be that we should use the time we have as best we can—not fixating on injustices, as we don’t know how God is going to work everything out. Of course, this implies trust in God’s oversight.

The second problem Solomon mentions is oppression (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3), a consequence of the problem of injustice. Man’s mistreatment of fellow man, the strong abusing the weak, is horrible—and made worse by the twice-mentioned absence of a comforter, one who could ease their pain (verse 1). This does not seem to refer to having no human companion, another problem mentioned later in the current subsection, since oppressed people may well have friends, particularly among those who are oppressed along with them. Considering that the observance is of the plight of humanity, the likely problem here is that they do not have the comforter who could truly help them—Almighty God. Some might take this fact as an indictment of God—or as proof that He is not working out some plan since He obviously does not care. But God is not to blame. He cares deeply and desires to be man’s comforter, but man has rejected Him. As a consequence, all the world suffers oppression at the hands of fellow man and evil spirit forces led by Satan the devil. This, however, does not mean God has no plan at work to rescue humanity. (We might also note that those who do not have God do not typically have the kind of companions who know Scripture and God’s plan and who could therefore give the most comforting words.)

In the meantime, so bad is the suffering of mankind that Solomon came to state that it’s better to be already dead than to go on seeing and experiencing this (verse 2). In fact, he goes further in stating that it would be better to have not existed than to live and see man’s oppression (verse 3). How are we to understand these remarks? First we should note that they evidently represent his past thoughts in contemplating the matter prior to writing this book. They don’t necessarily reflect his current outlook. Indeed, Solomon later states that it’s better to be alive than dead, as there is hope in life (Ecclesiastes 9:4). That would seem to contradict the thoughts here. Some see the sentiments of Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 as having come in a time of deep despair over man’s abusive treatment of fellow man, with possible use of hyperbole or exaggeration to express deep woe. Yet Solomon at the time of writing is apparently not gripped by overwhelming despair, as we may ascertain from the fact that he tells us in Ecclesiastes 5:8 not to marvel at seeing oppression and injustice. So it seems his perspective has shifted.

Yet since Solomon does not immediately deny or qualify what he has stated in Ecclesiastes 4:2-3, his remarks leave many with the impression that he remains utterly pessimistic and hopeless. Indeed, while verse 2 can more easily be read as a past conclusion, verse 3 seems to read as a present determination—though this could well be part of what he earlier thought in verse 2 and not necessarily what he thinks now (especially as verse 1a concerning past consideration seems to introduce verses 1b-3 as part of that—note the NJKV indenting of these verses under the verse 1a header). While it may be that Solomon’s remarks in verses 2-3 represent rashly drawn, false conclusions to which he no longer adheres, we should consider the possibility that his sentiments here are valid to a certain extent. Solomon’s thought in verse 2 that it’s better to be already dead is true in some contexts (see also Ecclesiastes 7:1). In death, a person’s suffering or witness of suffering is over and he or she will be resurrected at the time of God’s intervention to set the world straight. But what about the idea in Ecclesiastes 4:3 that it would be better to have not existed in the first place? If understood to mean that non-existence is preferable to life that, dark though it may be, could end in eternal happiness, the notion is clearly false. But the statement could be true if referring to the timing of people’s existence, not whether they ever exist or not. The NIV translates this verse, “But better than both is he who has not yet been…” After the present evil age of human misrule under Satan, God will in the future free the world from oppression, leading mankind to righteousness and peace. For the vast majority of people, who are not called to God’s way and salvation during the present age, it would be preferable in a certain sense to not exist until God sets the world straight. Thus, if Solomon meant for us to take his statement in verse 3 as true (and not merely as his former despair), this is what he could have meant.

Another possibility here is that verses 2 and 3 are to be read in light of the dilemma of verse 1— having no comforter to relieve the oppression. In this case the thought would be that it’s better to be dead or to never have existed as long as man has no comforter. This is also true. Yet the condition of being without a comforter is not permanent. That brings us to an important point here.

It is often thought that the message in this unit is a completely hopeless one—grieving for the oppressed but giving no solution to dealing with the problem. But the solution is in part implicit in the repeated statement in verse 1 that there is no comforter. What we desperately need in coping with the problem of oppression is a comforter—and the ultimate Comforter is available if we will turn our lives over to His guidance and care. Eventually, humanity as a whole will experience His intervention and help. And even now, the individual who turns to God receives His help in the present to endure. Indeed, we are evidently meant to reflect on the conclusion just given in Ecclesiastes 3:22 as we proceed through the problems presented in this subsection. This will be further affirmed and expanded on in the major section conclusion in Ecclesiastes 5:18-20.

The next issue considered by Solomon as an obstacle to contentment and trusting that God has a plan for mankind is human rivalry in the working world born out of envy (Ecclesiastes 4:4-6). He laments the dog-eat-dog competition that gets people nowhere—“the scramble for wealth, leadership, power or status” (Tyndale, note on verse 4). In response he offers two proverbs. They can seem contradictory, but that is because they apply to opposing circumstances. For those who might be tempted to just withdraw from the hectic rat race altogether, the point of the first proverb (verse 5) is that we have to work. A person who foolishly refuses to work comes to poverty and self-destruction, as various proverbs of Solomon also show. Later in Ecclesiastes he encourages industriousness and productivity and further denounces laziness and idleness (see Ecclesiastes 9:10; Ecclesiastes 10:18). On the other hand, the second proverb here in Ecclesiastes 4 (verse 6) is for those who go overboard in work for the great payoff it will bring. It says “that it is better to have a few things (one handful) and yet be satisfied and happy than to have many things (two handfuls) and yet be consumed with work and worries. The Teacher steers away from both idleness and slavery to work” (NAC, note on verses 5-6). Quietness in the second proverb means peaceful and composed—content “rather than always striving for more…. The quiet person has found the right balance. His hands are not folded, like the fool. He is working hard enough to have a decent handful of what he needs in life. But that is enough for him. He does not keep demanding more and more but accepts what God has given” (PTW, p. 111).

Solomon next addresses the problem of human isolation (verses 7-16). Having just cautioned against overworking for material reward, he starts with someone engaged in this pursuit who sadly has no one with whom to share (verse 8). The NKJV’s italicized phrase “But he never asks,” similar to that in the KJV and RSV, is not actually written in the original Hebrew here except for possibly the first word. Only a vav or waw (signifying “and” or “but” or another conjunction) precedes “for whom.” Other translations, including the NRSV and NIV, consider that the person does ask about whom he expends himself for. Either way, there is no one else there—friend or relative. It is probably not mere coincidence that he has no one close to him and no progeny. More likely, it is his drive for personal accumulation that has led him to become isolated from others. And for what? Despite his gains, the person is not satisfied. His pursuit of gain has actually deprived him of good. A major good he has missed out on is companionship. Indeed, we see in all this that relationships are far above material things.

Solomon goes on to show the seriousness of this matter by highlighting the value of companionship (verses 9-12). Two can achieve more together than one. And they support and comfort one another through hard times. Verse 12, with its “one…two…threefold” advancement, may be a proverb—or at least the third line is. “The strength of the three-ply cord was proverbial in the ancient world, as seen in Sumerian and Akkadian texts” (Tyndale, note on verse 12). The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible gives further detail in its note on the verse: “This has a remarkable parallel in the Gilgamesh Epic, in which Gilgamesh encourages his friend Enkidu about the value of friendship: ‘Two men will not die; the towed boat will not sink, / a towrope of three strands cannot be cut.’ Both texts speak of the security that two can offer one another and then use the analogy of a three-stranded rope.” Recall that Solomon gathered wisdom from many sources, including sifting valuable concepts from ancient texts riddled with problems. And this particular idea may have become more generally proverbial so that Gilgamesh need not have been the source. Solomon was of course quite capable of coining such ideas, but the fact that this one was already around makes it likely that he was passing it on, though now in the framework of all scriptural wisdom.

In context the step up to three in verse 12 is evidently a general indication that having more friends than one is even better. This verse is sometimes used to point out the strength of marriage—the union being between not just two (husband and wife) but three (including God). Though not the specific intent of the verse here (and clearly this was not in mind in the foreign parallel), the application is valid— though God is not a mere additional companion but the most needed of all. In any case, Solomon’s presentation of the value of companionship implies of course that we should seek it to avoid isolation. Verses 13-16 are deemed by some to present a new problem, but these verses continue “to underlie the folly of self-sufficiency and growing isolation” (note on verse 13). Solomon gives the story of “a king who grows too self-confident and feels he needs no advisers. He falls from favour and a new regime takes over. Despite his humble origins, the crowd flocks to the side of the newcomer who too will grow old and be abandoned in turn to his own isolation” (note on verse 16). The phrase “the second youth” in verse 15 is better rendered “the second, the youth” (note on verse 15)—as there is only one young newcomer in the story.

We should first notice that “of all the contrasts between the two kings—youth versus age, poverty versus wealth, wisdom versus folly—the most important is their attitude toward advice.... This tragedy has been repeated many times in the history of nations.... [It also] stands as a warning to older Christians. We usually think that gray hair brings wisdom, and often it does. But whether they are young or old, the wisest Christians are the ones who listen to counsel and, if necessary, accept correction” (PTW, p. 113).

Some take the story here to be a made-up example, which is possible. Solomon saying he “saw” the throngs supporting the new king (verse 15) might seem to counter that, but this could perhaps mean he merely visualized a mental picture. On the other hand, he may have actually witnessed what he describes. The situation could refer to a regime change in a neighboring kingdom, Solomon having been present at the coronation ceremony. Alternatively, some propose that the old and foolish king was Saul and that the newcomer was David, Solomon’s father. Though David did not actually come out of prison, he did in a figurative sense, having been in hiding from Saul, who pursued him as a rebel outlaw. While in hiding, David even prayed to God, “Bring my soul out of prison” (Psalm 142:7). Of course, David’s coronation occurred before Solomon was born, yet Solomon no doubt saw great throngs supporting his father early on but later forsaking him during the revolts of Absalom and Sheba. Then again, others maintain that the old and foolish king was Solomon himself—and that the one coming out of prison to be king refers to Jeroboam, who was prophesied to be king over the northern tribes following Solomon’s death (as punishment for Solomon’s grievous sins). Solomon had tried to have Jeroboam killed, so he fled to Egypt (possibly qualifying as a figurative imprisonment). Perhaps Solomon was envisioning his eventual return and coronation. The Bible devotional series Geneva Bible Notes applies this illustration to Joseph, who was called out of prison to be as a king, really a vizier or prime minister, under the Egyptian pharaoh but was later forgotten under a new pharaoh (see Exodus 1:8).

Whatever is intended, however, the specific case is not actually important. What matters here is, first, the need to remain teachable. It is the meek who will ultimately inherit the earth (Psalm 37:11; Matthew 5:5). The other thing to recognize here is that this situation is typical—with the same thing ultimately befalling the younger ruler. People may think that attaining high station will ensure the love and support of many. But it won’t. Power corrupts, so that those in high office often fail to remain humble and teachable. Or they end up listening to the wrong advisors. Moreover, the crowds are fickle. They support whatever they perceive as new—or change for the sake of change—until the new gets old and something supposedly newer comes along. This is not the friendship that will stave off isolation. It is but one more example of the vanity of the human condition, pursuing nothingness.

Yet here is something else to consider. There was one wise young man, the wisest and meekest who ever lived, who was born poor in his kingdom and later came out of the prison of the grave to take over from the ruler of this world as our King, whom many rejected yet whom, in the end, all the living will follow for eternity. If we are wise and live accordingly, we will follow His example and reign with Him for eternity.

In the face of the obstacles to faith and happiness covered in this subsection—injustice, oppression, the rat race and isolation—we are implicitly told with each problem how to cope: live righteously (with future judgment in mind) and derive joy from daily work and accomplishment; seek comfort from God; work to meet needs without becoming a slave to work for a big payoff; and seek the companionship of true friends and wise counsel with a teachable spirit. In the next subsection ending in the major section conclusion (Ecclesiastes 5:1-20), Solomon will go further in helping us to maintain a right perspective and live properly despite the obstacles.