The Book of Ecclesiastes
James J. Barker
PROBLEMS IN LIFE
- When I was
in Bible college, we had chapel services every day. One song we often sang in chapel was
Tempted and tried, we’re oft made to
Why it should be thus all the day long,
While there are others
living about us,
Never molested, though in the wrong.
Farther along we’ll know all about it,
Farther along we’ll understand
Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine,
We’ll understand it all by and by. (J.R.Baxter and
- This theme
is often dealt with in the Bible.
The Psalmist wrote, “For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the
prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:3).
- He goes on
to say, “For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men;
neither are they plagued like other men. Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them
as a garment. Their eyes
stand out with fatness: they have more than heart could wish. They are corrupt,
and speak wickedly concerning oppression: they speak loftily. They set their mouth against the
heavens, and their tongue walketh through the earth. Therefore his people return
hither: and waters of a full cup are wrung out to them. And they say, How doth God know? and is
there knowledge in the most High? Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in
riches” (Psalm 73:4-12).
bothered the Psalmist, but then down at verse 17, he says, “Until I went into
the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end. Surely thou didst set them in slippery
places: thou castedst them down into destruction. How are they brought into
desolation, as in a moment! they are utterly consumed with terrors. As a dream when one awaketh; so, O Lord,
when thou awakest, thou shalt despise their image” (Ps. 73:17-20).
- Life often
seems unfair, and this unfairness is dealt with in the book of
Ecclesiastes. King Solomon
“considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the
tears of such as were oppressed” (4:1).
- The poet
James Russell Lowell wrote:
“Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on
- I have often
heard that line quoted, but Lowell went on to write, “Yet that scaffold sways
the future, and, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping
watch above his own.”
- Yes, God is
“keeping watch above His own.” But
we cannot see this “under the sun” (cf. 4:1, 3, 7, 15).
THE PROBLEM OF OPPRESSION (4:1-6).
- In verse 1, King Solomon speaks of “oppressions,”
the “oppressed,” and “their oppressors” (4:1).
- The oppressed cried and King Solomon beheld their tears (4:1).
The oppressors had all the power. The oppressed were powerless.
- The oppressed had no comforter (4:1).
The history of mankind is the sad story of the poor suffering while the
rich live luxuriantly.
- Our Lord
said, “There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen,
and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named
Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be
fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs
came and licked his sores” (Luke 16:19-21).
- Our Lord was
not looking at this scenario from “under the sun.” He was looking at it from heaven’s
perspective. He saw that the beggar
died and went to paradise. And he saw that the rich man also died, but he went to hell.
- But king
Solomon is limiting his observation to things seen “under the sun” (4:1). In chapter 3, and elsewhere, Solomon
speaks of future judgment (cf. 3:17). But in chapter 4, he is considering “all the oppressions that are done
under the sun” (4:1).
- As King
Solomon observed this problem of oppression, he concluded that poor men were
better off dead than alive (4:2).
- When Jonah
was backslidden, he prayed, “Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my
life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah
- The LORD
rebuked the backslidden prophet, and said, “Doest thou well to be angry?” (Jonah
- Even the great prophet Elijah became discouraged and said to God, “It is
enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my
fathers” (I Kings 19:4).
- Job cursed his day, and said, “Let the day perish wherein I was born, and
the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived” (Job
- Many scholars believe Job to be the
oldest book in the Bible, so we can see that this is not a new problem.
- Many unbelievers think death will provide a welcome escape from all of
life’s vexing problems. But they soon discover that the troubles of life are nothing compared to the horrors of
- The other day, an NYU student from California committed suicide. He left behind a suicide note, and in
this note he referred to rock singer Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
- Suicide is not the solution, but the devil deceives those who are
oppressed and depressed “under the sun.”
THE PROBLEM OF SELFISH AMBITION (4:4).
- Solomon also
refers to envy and competitiveness in the business world. He concludes, “This is also vanity and
vexation of spirit” (4:4).
- This is part
of sinful human nature. Cain
resented Abel and killed him. Joseph’s brothers envied him and sold him into
slavery. They would have killed
him, had it not been for Reuben’s intervention. Saul was jealous of David and
tried to kill him.
ambition and competitiveness and envy are “vanity and vexation of spirit”
(4:4b), but on the other hand, laziness and foolishness is not right either
- The foolish
slacker, “foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh” (4:5), i.e., he
destroys himself by his laziness and sloth.
- King Solomon
describes quiet contentment as the right balance in verse 6 – “Better is an
handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and
vexation of spirit.”
emanating from labor that is free from the spirit of rivalry is the happy medium
between ruinous indolence on one hand (vs. 5) and competitive acquisitions of
wealth on the other” (Merrill Unger, Unger’s Commentary on the
- King Solomon
said in Proverbs 15:16, 17, “Better is little with the fear of the LORD than
great treasure and trouble therewith. Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred
- This is the message of the Bible. First Timothy
6:6 says, “But godliness with contentment is great gain.”
THE PROBLEM OF LONELINESS (4:7-12).
- In verse 1, the problem was
no comforter. In verse 4, it is no rest. Then in verse 7, it is no
- There are certain wealthy
individuals, who work tirelessly because they are lonely (4:7, 8). There is a certain type of miser (like
Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge) who has no wife, no children, and no brother. He has no one to enjoy his wealth with,
and no one to leave it with.
- Solomon concluded, “This is
also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail” (4:8b).
- The solution is found in
verses 9 – 12 — “Two are better than
one; because they have a good reward for their
THE PROBLEM WITH POPULARITY (4:13-16).
- The problem
with popularity is that it often fleeting and temporary. One day, our Lord rode into Jerusalem on
a borrowed ass. The people cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the
Lord; Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:9).
- But in just a few short
days, these same people cried out, “Crucify Him” (Mark 15:13).
- One of my favorite
Shakespeare plays is Julius Caesar. When Brutus entered the pulpit, someone yelled out, “The noble Brutus is
ascended: silence!” When Brutus concluded his speech, the crowd yelled, “Live, Brutus! live, live!”
- Then a citizen cried out,
“Bring him with triumph home unto his house.” Another followed that with, “Give him a
statue with his ancestors.” A third
citizen yelled, “Let him be Caesar.” A fourth cried out, “Caesar's better parts shall be crown’d in
- Then the first citizen spoke
up again and said, “We'll bring him to his house with shouts and
- But Mark Antony spoke next,
and he roused the mob against Brutus and his fellow conspirators. Within a few minutes, the same fickle
mob that had been praising Brutus now wanted to kill him. The same Roman citizen who wanted to
give Brutus a triumphant escort to his house with shouts and clamors, now
shouted out, “We’ll burn the house of
- William Shakespeare
understood that popularity was fleeting and so did King Solomon (4:13-16). He describes here the constant ups and
downs of life.
- King Solomon refers to a
“poor and a wise child” and “an old and foolish king” (4:13). Interestingly, Solomon was both – he was
a wise child and later on he became an old and foolish
- Verse 16 describes how
fickle people are and how popularity is often fleeting. Those who come along later will not be
happy with the new king, just as those before were unhappy with his predecessor.
- Once again
we are reminded that all that man accomplishes in this life is vain if God is
not in it.
success in this life has no lasting value, so we should concentrate our efforts
on the next life – eternal life.