Message # 5 | Ecclesiastes 4:1-16 | August 7, 2016
If God sovereign, all powerful, loving, and good why do bad things happen? Why does he allow evil? That is one of the most challenging questions many of us will face, and likely, many of us just avoid it. I wish I could offer an answer this morning that would satisfy all your intellectual curiosities. I probably won’t but I will offer the answer that Solomon gives us in Ecclesiastes 3 and 4. In chapter 4 of Ecclesiastes, Solomon is going to deal with some challenging realities.
God allows oppression.
God allows me to be manipulated and abused by others.
God allows me to feel and be lonely.
God allows me to be expendable.
All of these realities seem almost unbearable at times and we struggle wondering why a sovereign God would allow them at all. Before we address these realities in chapter 4, Solomon first acknowledges the reality of God’s sovereignty in all the affairs of men. He does this throughout chapter 3.
There is an attitude that pervades the culture in which we live. William Ernest Henley summarized it well when he said, “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” Our culture communicates, “I am my own boss.” We live in an individualistic, independent culture. We want to feel like we are in charge of our own lives. It is natural for us to want to feel like we are in control of our own lives. Solomon assessed this idea of independence and informs us that it is far from reality.
In Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Solomon teaches us that both the positives and negatives of life present themselves to all people at varying times. We have no control over these happenings and it is in this realization that we are confronted with the truth that we are in bondage to time. Not only are we bound to time, we are as well incapable of controlling time. We are given an internal desire but not the inherent ability to understand eternity.
Man’s mortality is seen in his bondage to time (3:9-10). One of those realities is our death. We are going to die. That reality would not be so hard to accept if we knew that what we were doing presently was going to result in some profit. Solomon does not allow even that comfort. Man is on the road to death and when he dies everything he does in life will as well die with him.
Man ought to accept the seasons of life (3:11). “I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.” This statement places the control of the seasons in the hands of God. For all of those who want to control their own lives or even think they are controlling their own lives, Solomon makes them aware of the fact that God is ordering their lives. He is in control of time. While it is possible for a believer to look at this statement in a positive manner, the context seems to not allow for such an interpretation. Man wants to have control. He wants to have a life filled with joy and productivity. Instead man is left with this burning desire to overcome the reality of his mortality. He works hard to accomplish much, only to leave all he has done to others when he dies – and his death is inevitable. Therefore, Solomon concludes that man ought to just be content with what seasons come into his life and accept them. And yet, in the end, man is unable to accept the seasons of life alone.
Man is unable to accept the seasons of life alone (3:11b). The problem is that man cannot be content with the seasons of life. In realizing their mortality and the uselessness of their present work, they want to believe there is more. They acknowledge eternity and their minds want to understand it.
Man is unable to explain or understand eternity (3:11c). God has given them the desire to understand more but has not given them the ability to understand more. They know there is something out there but they are unable to grasp it.
Man is left to resignation (3:12-14). (1) Enjoy the simple pleasures. They resign themselves to stop looking at eternity and simply enjoy the present (Ecc 3:12). If man is unable to understand a greater meaning in eternity, he is left with what he can understand – his present happiness. (2) Simple pleasures are given by God (Ecc 3:13). Man is unable to find satisfaction in eternity because he is unable to understand eternity. Therefore, he resigns himself to the simple pleasures of life. The problem is that even these simple pleasures are given by God. Man cannot in and of himself even enjoy the simple pleasures of life. (3) Man cannot change the above fact (Ecc 3:14a-b). There is not going to come a time where all of a sudden man becomes enlightened and is able to understand eternity and thereby find satisfaction. It is as if Solomon is telling us, “No matter how frustrating God’s world is, people must learn to put up with it.” (4) The desired effect is a fear of God (Ecc 3:14c). We see that a fear of God is the beginning of knowledge or wisdom. Standing in awe of God is the appropriate response of humility that ought to characterize all man, but is this the kind of fear that is being spoken of? It seems difficult to conclude that Solomon is leading us to such a positive conclusion in the midst of such a negative outlook on life.
We realize that God, alone, is sovereign over time and the happenings in our lives. Solomon clearly establishes God as the Sovereign Judge over all men. At a future time mankind will be judged for how they responded to Him.
It is logical to question evil once the sovereignty of God is established. People often either reject God’s sovereignty due to an acceptance of God’s benevolence, or reject God’s benevolence due to their acceptance of God’s sovereignty.
Syllogism # 1: God is all powerful. Evil and injustice exists. Therefore God must not be good or loving.
Syllogism # 2: God is good. But evil and injustice exist. Therefore God must not be all powerful.
Syllogism # 3: God is good. God is a well all powerful. Therefore evil and injustice don’t really exist (evil and pain are figments of the imagination).
Syllogism # 4: God’s goodness is displayed in his creation of free agents. The decisions of a free agent are indeterminable (even their evil actions). Therefore God is not omniscient or sovereign.
Syllogism # 5: God is sovereign, righteous, omnipotent, omniscient and loving. Evil exist. Therefore, evil’s existence is compatible with God’s sovereign, righteous, and loving plan.
Men truly struggle to grasp a God who is benevolent while at the same time being sovereign in an evil world. Solomon communicates these struggles present in men. While still in chapter 3, Solomon discusses evil in the halls of ‘righteousness.’ The question could be posed, “If God is sovereign, why does evil reign in a place where justice ought to rule?” It is in this line of thought that we find ourselves presently. It is in chapter 4 that Solomon delves more deeply into some seemingly inconsistent realities in light of God’s sovereignty.
Be careful about your attitude towards God. At the beginning of chapter 5, Solomon offers a challenge to the reader to ‘guard our steps’ in the area of how we approach God. Let us consider this reminder as we study the seeming contradictions to God’s sovereignty.
Ecclesiastes 5:1–2 (ESV) Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. 2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore, let your words be few.
Ecclesiastes 4:1–3 (ESV) 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.
This is one of the many passages that some hold to substantiate an authorship other than Solomon. It seems clear that Solomon contributed heavily to oppression in the later years of his life (I Kings 11); and that being the case, it seems odd that he would speak of the oppressor in such a negative light if he had abused his power as well. Holding to Solomonic authorship will drive us to see either a sense of repentance in Solomon or a transparency in him. He may well be accurately chronicling his own abuse of power, regardless of whether he repented of it or not.
Death is better than life (4:2). It is not unusual for someone to desire death instead of their present predicament. Both Jonah (4:3) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:4) desired their own deaths as they reflected on the gravity of their situations.
Jonah 4:3 (ESV) Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Nonexistence is better than life or death (4:3). In a similar vein as both Job and Jeremiah, Solomon proposes that non-existence would be better than either life or death. It would in essence be better to have never been born than to be born in a world of oppression.
Job 3:9–22 (ESV) 9 Let the stars of its dawn be dark; let it hope for light, but have none, nor see the eyelids of the morning, 10 because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb, nor hide trouble from my eyes. 11 “Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire? . . . 13 For then I would have lain down and been quiet; I would have slept; then I would have been at rest . . . 17 There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest. 18 There the prisoners are at ease together; they hear not the voice of the taskmaster. 19 The small and the great are there, and the slave is free from his master. 20 “Why is light given to him who is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, 21 who long for death, but it comes not, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures, 22 who rejoice exceedingly and are glad when they find the grave?
Jeremiah 20:14–18 (ESV) 14 Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed! 15 Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, “A son is born to you,” making him very glad. 16 Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity; let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon, 17 because he did not kill me in the womb; so my mother would have been my grave, and her womb forever great. 18 Why did I come out from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?
One may wonder what Solomon’s intent is in these verses. Does he truly think that it would be better for man to have never been born at all than to live in a world of oppression? That seems to be his point in these verses. Is he using sarcasm or rhetoric to prove a point?
Solomon is presenting the often held view of men under oppression. Oppression is constant in this world. We can be broken over it, but we cannot rid ourselves of it. As Solomon looked back throughout his life, regardless of whether or not the oppression was his fault, he realizes that many would have been better off dead or having never been born.
Only a few verses earlier Solomon seems to imply that man does not know if he will ascend or descend after death. For the many people who lived their lives entirely under oppression, if man did not ascend to heaven, it would have been better for them to have never been born. Consider Jesus statement concerning those who betray Him, “It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt 26:24). As you consider Solomon’s perspective remember that he is viewing life under the sun. If life ‘under the sun’ is terrible (and your focus is merely on this life) why would it not follow logically to desire death?
In light of God’s sovereignty, why does God allow life ‘under the sun’ to be so oppressive? This question can be answered by following the same logic that is proposed in chapter 3. God allows all things to come into the life of men. The presence of these things drives us to hunger for eternity. As chapter 3 establishes, the hunger for eternity is only quenched in a relationship with the eternal being. Practically speaking, there are two ways to view oppression. (1) Due to sin, all men continue to suffer the consequences. One of those consequences is the oppression of man by people with power. (2) God desires to drive you to Himself. He often does this by taking away all other things on which you might rely. The oppressed will never find satisfaction in this life separate from a relationship with and reliance on God.
Ecclesiastes 4:4-6 (ESV) 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.
We might title these verses the ‘Corporate Ladder.’ We have seen people climb their way over others to reach the top of their business or field. There are abundant testimonies that will support the fact that those who reach the top of the ladder are still unsatisfied. The thrill is found in climbing the ladder. Once the top is reached there is a disappointment that comes as one realizes that it’s not as great as they thought. (“I climbed the ladder only to find it against the wrong building.”)
Solomon states the obvious. The typical work place is filled with rivalry. Men do not realize that they are hurting themselves as they continue their climb (vs. 5). Wouldn’t it be better for someone to have little with less work than a lot with more work and heartache (vs. 6)?
There are a couple of ways to approach application in these verses. Some have spiritualized this passage a little more than I am comfortable with. They view the “handful of quietness” as a reliance on Christ or God. They might encourage someone to not focus on climbing the corporate ladder but instead focus on resting in God as they do their work. One hand would continue to work while the other rests in God. While this might be true and surely produces an appropriate application, I don’t believe this was Solomon’s intention.
It seems more likely that Solomon is encouraging man to avoid the rivalry in labor by finding a balance between rest and labor. It ought to be acceptable to be average. Find a balance between ‘succeeding’ in the business world and living a full life. A possible ‘dynamic equivalent’ of this passage might be, “there is no point in fighting over a position. You are only destroying yourself. Why don’t you just enjoy life with a little less?”
There is no question that you ought to rest in God. God desires that you rest in Him instead of your own laurels. Work enough to provide your needs, and then go spend some time with family and friends. This seems to be Solomon’s intention since the next few verses speak to the loneliness that mankind often feels in this world.
Ecclesiastes 4:7-12 (ESV) Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8one 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.
Have you ever felt alone and wanted more than just a spiritual relationship? The man in this passage is characterized by four things. It is these characteristics that quickly tell us that it was his choice to be alone. While he may not enjoy his loneliness, he quickly dismisses the fact that he chose work over a life. He wanted money and he deprived himself to get it. Once he had it, he had no one to share it with. As Solomon says, “that is futile.”
The fact that he had no son or brother does not signify that he was an only child. The word ‘brother’ can mean friend, brother, and relative. This statement pictures a man with no family or friends. This man is completely alone. He has no friends and he has no family. He consumes his time with work and is continually driven by a lust for money. Never does he stop and realize that he has no one to leave all his work too and no one to spend his money on or with.
The application is simple for it is clearly stated for us in verses 9-12. The application is as simple as ‘make friends.’ The consequences of loneliness are stated; and to avoid them, one must actively pursue friendships.
Friendship provides help and encouragement (4:9-10). While you shouldn’t form friendships for the sole reason of recruiting help, the reality is that friends are going to assist in many ways. Two people are able to accomplish more than one person. As well, a friend is able to pick up the slack. The reality in life is that you often cannot accomplish things alone and simply need others to help. If you have ostracized everyone, they are not going to be anxious to help you. You very well might fail. That failure, in one sense, would be your own fault.
Friendship provides protection and strength (4:11-12). Solomon offers examples to show that a lonely individual is weak in many ways. Strength is found in numbers. This can apply to the physical as well as the spiritual world. In the same way that a larger army is typically stronger than a smaller army, someone attempting to live their spiritual life alone will soon find themselves swayed or destroyed.
Make friends. Don’t make friends so you can abuse their friendship, but do make friends. This might mean you will have to step out from your comfort zone and pursue someone’s friendship. You may be hurt at times, but the reward is well worth the investment. If you don’t choose to actively pursue friendships, the day will come when you need someone and no one will be there.
Be careful to find the right balance (Prov 18:24). Some have used this verse to instruct someone who might want a friend that they must be friendly. But, the real intent of the verse has a bit more of a pessimistic view. In reality, the verse teaches us that a person can have too many friends.
Proverbs 18:24 (KJV) A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.
Proverbs 18:24 (ESV) A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
Proverbs 18:24 (NAU) A man of too many friends comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
There are expectations that come along with friendships. The more friends one has, the more is going to be required to continue and fulfill the requirements in those friendships. As well, the more friends one has the more likely the quality of friends will be low . . . thus leading to ruin.
Ecclesiastes 4:13-16 (ESV) 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.
Have any of you ever felt irrelevant? Have any of you worked for years and felt successful, and then were replaced by some ‘young kid’? “He is young and vibrant, and he brings new ideas to the table. Thanks for your years of experience and hard work, but you can leave now.” How quickly people are forgotten. It too often doesn’t matter how much you overcame to arrive where you are. What seems to matter is that you’re outdated. Solomon is not so much endorsing this mindset as he is stating its ever present reality. He very well may have been feeling expendable as he wrote.
The truth, that might hurt, is that we are all expendable. In light of the sovereignty of God, how could anyone think that they are indispensable? It is vital that we live our lives striving to be used in the manner that God allows, when he allows. If we are constantly aspiring to our own success, we will find ourselves lonely and useless. In Christ, no one feels worthless or useless. He can truly use anyone He wants at any time, so let us yield ourselves to His sovereign will.
A side note: Solomon seems to be making a point that often the older you become the less relevant and teachable you become. Age seems to be accompanied by inflexibility. Solomon’s point is not so much that the young are wiser than the old as much as wisdom is not based on one’s age. The young may act more wisely than the old if they are characterized by receiving instruction, but the reverse is as well true. It doesn’t matter your age; it matters if you are able to accept instruction. Have you come to the point in your life that you merely assume that you are wise because you are older? If you have become stubborn and entrenched in your understanding, you are not as wise as the teachable youth.
So then, why does a loving and sovereign God allow bad things to happen? Let me offer an oversimplified answer. Bad things happen in our lives due to the fall (Genesis 3). Because man chose to live independently of God, God allowed man to receive the consequences of that choice. Bad things happen throughout creation because it is dying due to sin. People do bad things to one another because we are all sinners.
We are then left to the question, “why did God allow man to sin?” We could delve into the depths of God’s decrees and theorize about why God does what he does. Instead, I want to offer the solution that was provided by God. Christ paid for our sins.
 Ecclesiastes 3:21 (ESV) Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth