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Lowell Brueckner

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Ecclesiastes 4


Chapter 4

1.  Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. 
2.  And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. 
3.  But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. 
4.  Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. 
5.  The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh. 
6.  Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind. 
7.  Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 
8.  one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, "For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?" This also is vanity and an unhappy business. 
9.  Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 
10.  For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 
11.  Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 
12.  And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. 
13.  Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. 
14.  For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. 
15.  I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king's place. 
16.  There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind. 

 A news crew, complete with a cameraman and interviewer, crowded the room of an old man on his bed. He said repeatedly, “Go away, get away!” Yet he was cordial and kind to his visitors, prompting the interviewer to ask, “Who do you want to go away?” It is clear to me that he was accosting unseen beings, who had accompanied him for decades and were now claiming his soul. Charles Templeton was the mentor of a young preacher by the name of Billy Graham. 

After two indescribably horrible world wars, and a plague of influenza between the two that killed, world-wide, between 30 and 50 million people, this famous pastor was overcome by war’s injustice and the plight of suffering children. These dilemmas twisted his heart, confused his mind, and turned him away from God. Hell’s expert fiends of spiritual destruction added doubts and questions, concerning Bible miracles and the deity of Christ. He concluded that men wrote the Bible, in an attempt to answer the great questions of life, but it was not divinely inspired. He announced to his church in Toronto that he no longer accepted many biblical tenets, resigned his pastorate and went to teach at Princeton University.

Billy Graham was shaken to the core of his being. He went alone into the woods, and there cried out, “Where are you God? If You didn’t call me to preach the gospel, why did you cause me to believe in the first place? Let me hear your voice! Do something God! Anything!”  Then, he remembered the promise of the evangelist Mordecai Ham on the night of Billy’s conversion, “If you follow Him, He will never leave you, nor forsake you!” Other words, spoken to him in the past, flooded his mind, until he confessed, “I hear You, Lord, I hear You again. By faith, I accept your Book as Your infallible Word!” The one word of authority that he preached to hundreds of thousands around the world was, “The Bible says!”

The Bible is not the word of men. When we receive an official letter, we do not look down at the bottom to the name of the secretary, who typed it, and think that the letter is her word. The word was dictated by her boss and are his words, not hers. The Bible is from God, laced with hundreds of fulfilled prophecies. “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 P.1:21). It was given supernaturally. I was impressed the other day by John Wesley’s words, concerning David in the 22nd Psalm: “No circumstance of David’s life bore any resemblance to this. So that in this scripture, the prophet seems to have been thrown into a preternatural ecstasy, wherein, personating the Messiah, he spoke barely (nothing besides) what the Spirit dictated, without any regard to himself.”

As Charles Templeton, Solomon battled oppression under the sun. He was profoundly moved by the tears of the oppressed and the fact that there was no comfort for them. They seemed abandoned, indefensibly, to powers far stronger than themselves (v.1). It plagued the king to the extent that he thought that the dead were better than the living (v.2). Beyond that, he considered those, who had never lived, better than both, since they had never seen and experienced the evil under the sun (v.3). He saw something even of less worth than vanity, something worse than nothing. We need to be deeply moved by the conditions in the world, but need to be careful not to lose trust in the sovereign Lord over all.

Behind the oppressors, the motivation was envy. Not only was this true among the oppressors, but it was a general rule among his subjects, as the king observed them from his throne. Envy was the driving force that pushed them to acquire skills and to work hard. I haven’t heard the expression for some time, ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, but that accurately describes society’s ambitions. There is nothing commendable or virtuous in envy, so Solomon includes it in his theme… vanity. Study this truth closely and I think you will be able to see that another term for envy is competition (v.4).

Some discern this motivation and refuse to be part of it, so they lean back in idleness. However the preacher sees no wisdom in them, either. He calls them fools, who eat their own flesh. They are self-destructive, winding up penniless and poverty-stricken (v.5). In verse 6, Solomon may be describing the sarcastic philosophy of the fool, which seems more probable, or it may be one of his proverbs, recommending contentment with little, rather than striving after much. Both are worth considering.

The term workaholic did not exist in the vocabulary of the king, but that is who he describes in verse 8. This kind is not driven to provide for a family heir, or any near relative, and he doesn’t have any particular monetary goal. He never bothers to think about purpose or even bring up the question. He doesn’t need pleasure or free time. Obviously, the preacher sees no happiness in this lifestyle, which is little better than that of a beast of burden. He is addicted to work and he lives to work. He might become suicidal after retirement, when he can work no more.

Next, we have a short lesson in the vanity of loneliness under the sun, and the strength that comes with numbers, expressed in several ways. 1) A reward is better appreciated when shared with another, rather than storing it away only for personal enjoyment. 2) Team effort provides security, even in the simple event of an accident. There are others, who are observing and can lend a hand. There are many stories about those, who fell, fainted or became ill, while alone, and they were not discovered until after death. 3) Numbers also provide warmth and comfort. 4) An assault is less likely to take place, when we are in a company, than when we walk alone. 5) There is multiplied strength in standing together, like a three-stranded rope. I don’t recall the author of the famous saying, “We must hang together, or we will all hang (literally) separately” (v.7-12).

I cannot improve on A. W. Tozer’s treatise on the old, foolish king of verses 13-16. He wrote: “It is not hard to understand why an old king, especially if he were a foolish one, would feel that he was beyond admonition. After he had for years given orders he might easily build a self-confident psychology that simply could not entertain the notion that he should take advice from others. His word had long been law, and to him right had become synonymous with his will, and wrong had come to mean anything that ran contrary to his wishes. Soon the idea that there was anyone wise enough or good enough to reprove him would not so much as enter his mind… God had left him to his fatal conceit. And soon he would die physically too, and he would die as a fool dies…

Success itself becomes the cause of later failure. The leaders come to accept themselves as the very chosen of God. They are special objects of the divine favor; their success is proof enough that this is so. They must therefore be right, and anyone who tries to call them to account is instantly written off as an unauthorized meddler who should be ashamed to dare to reprove his betters.

If anyone imagines that we are merely playing with words, let him approach at random any religious leader and call attention to the weaknesses and sins in his organization. Such a one will be sure to get the quick brush-off, and if he dares to persist, he will be confronted with reports and statistics to prove that he is dead wrong and completely out of order.”

A subject in the kingdom was a poor, but wise, youth. He was born poor and somehow came to be thrown into prison. One example of such a youth was Joseph and another was Daniel. Not so well known, is the story of Shebna and Eliakim in Isaiah 22:15-25. Though we would leave the literal youthfulness and poverty of the man in Solomon’s example, we might consider the wise Jew, Mordecai, in the Persian capital, who was despised by foolish, arrogant Haman. I suppose, we could mention many other good examples of people in unlikely situations, who God raised to replace the foolish ones, who were in power.

However, we are still learning the lessons of the people, who move about in life under the sun. The kingdom that the youth led, it appears, was a great kingdom, but his success was short-lived. A new generation arose and his generation came to an end, and promptly his success was forgotten. The following population became concerned with the affairs of life in their day, and so, Solomon raises the question… What was the value of this man’s success? All the effort and sacrifice is only chasing the wind. What is the meaning of wisdom and success, if it all ends in a generation cycle? All is vanity… that is the sad lesson of life under the sun. Only the grace of God gives us entrance into a world of significance and true joy.  


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