1Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed--and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors--and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the 2living, who are still alive. 3But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.
At the end of the previous chapter, Solomon had just concluded: "So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?" (Eccl. 3:22). Here in this chapter, Solomon begins to look at some of the details and difficulties that man faces in attempting to "enjoy his work". First, Solomon observed oppression: "Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed-and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors-and they have no comforter" (vs. 1). It is a sad, but true, fact of life, that many who have power, take advantage of their power to oppress those without power. The nation of Israel, of course, had an adequate judicial system, based on the Law of God, which should have prevented such oppression, had godly men administered it faithfully. But, sadly, oppression still occurred.
Solomon emphasizes the bitterest aspect of the oppression: "...and they have no comforter; ...and they have no comforter." They not only were oppressed, but there was no one who took up their case and gave them comfort. We who are in Christ will never be without a comforter. One of Jesus' most precious promises to His disciples was: "And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever" (John 14:16, KJV). The "Comforter" promised to us is the Holy Spirit (see John 14:26). The Holy Spirit is with us, leading us, guiding us through any adversity that we may face in this fallen world.
To Solomon, to live through such oppression with no comforter, or to even witness such oppression, was worse than death: "And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun" (vss. 2-3). To those without a comforter, this may well be true. In Solomon's time, the gift of our Comforter, the Holy Spirit, had not yet been given to the people, and so, indeed, the evil that men perpetrated upon other men could be unbearable. And also, for those in the world today without the gift of the Holy Spirit (who is given to all God's children), the oppression of men can be unbearable. The onus is upon us, who have the Comforter, to ourselves be comforters to the oppressed who do not have the Comforter. May the comfort of the Holy Spirit overflow out of our lives upon those who need His comfort: that they, through the comfort we give, may find life bearable; that they themselves may seek the comfort of the Holy Spirit by turning to the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior.
4And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
5The fool folds his hands and ruins himself. 6Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.
7Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: 8There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. "For whom am I toiling," he asked, "and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?" This too is meaningless--a miserable business!
The first obstacle to man "enjoying his work" that Solomon noted was the oppression by other men. The second obstacle, which Solomon notes here, concerns the motives for men working: "And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind" (vs. 4). Man's motivation for work, as witnessed by Solomon, springs not from his desire to improve society, but from his envy of his neighbor. With such an evil motivation, how could man, with a clear conscience, "enjoy his work" (3:22). With such a motivation for work, Solomon realized that a man could never find peace and tranquility in his life. The envy of one's neighbor can never be satiated. One can never win the game of "keeping-up-with-the-Joneses". Such a motive makes one's work "meaningless, a chasing after the wind" (vs. 4).
This is not to say that we should not work, for, as Solomon points out, "a fool folds his hands and ruins himself" (vs. 5). We must work, of course. To not work, to "fold [one's] hands", is to "ruin [oneself]". The King James Version gives a more literal translation of this verse: "The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh." Laziness is self-destructive, a form of self-cannibalism.
Solomon recommends moderation in work as a way to tranquility in life: "Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind" (vs. 6). Tranquility comes from contentment with "one handful"; it is the chasing after "two handfuls" that costs tranquility. Solomon gives an example of a workaholic, chasing after "two handfuls", with no other goal: "Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. 'For whom am I toiling,' he asked, 'and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?' This too is meaningless-a miserable business" (vs. 7-8). The key to this man's misery was that "his eyes were not content with his wealth." "He hath enough for his back, his calling, the decency of his state and condition; but he hath not enough for his eye." The key to tranquility is to be content with what you have, with the lot God has given you. And the key to contentment is to stifle the insatiable desire of the eyes.
Father, help us by Your Spirit to be content with all the great blessings You have given us, to be content with the things that You know are good for us. Guide us as we work. May all that we do be done to Your glory, and to the glory of Your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray these things, Amen.