Without Comfort and Alone: The Empty Place in Man’s Life (Ecclesiastes 4:1-12)

So I returned and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun:. . . Ecclesiastes 4:1a.

Oppression of a man by his neighbor is a vast subject with the many different forms of evil done under the sun. Solomon has pointed out that, in the place of judgment, evil is found among men. This works the oppression of the neighbor. He calls to mind all the oppression that he sees in its vari­ous forms, but rather than going into detail, he distills it down to one basic reality when he looks at it. There is the one who is oppressed, and with him are tears–tears of sorrow, grief, frustration, and pain of loss. There are tears in his misery. The oppressor, on the other hand, has power, power over others that is evil and works evil. This distinction between tears and power is not the main thing we must see, however; the real misery of man is more than that. He calls our attention to it—behold: “and behold the tears of such as were op­pressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter” (Eccl. 4:1b).

Both oppressor and oppressed lack a comforter. There is none to console or comfort them, none to stand by them in their life or in their need. They are alone. There is an empty place in man’s life because of this. His sin drives him away from his neighbor. This is a fundamental problem in man’s misery. If we would tie the elements of this section or chapter together, we would find that its unity lies in man’s need for a com­forter and in the fact that, among men under the sun, a comforter is not to be found.

Through the fall into sin man has become by nature estranged from God. As Paul says to the Colossians, “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works . . .” (Col. 1:21). This separation from God bears the fruit that man is also estranged from his neighbor. His very oppression of his neighbor destroys communion and fellowship. There is no comforter and there can be none, because the love of God alone forms the basis for the love of the neighbor. Except man be reconciled to God, there is no true way of reconciliation with the neighbor. The way of reconciliation must be found in Jesus Christ and “the comforter” that He gives, which is His Holy Spirit. Man under the sun, who remembers not his Creator (Eccl. 12:1), who does not have God as his covenant God, has neither God as his shield and comfort nor the basis to walk with his neighbor. Man’s depravity works a comfortless isolation.

So weighty is this misery of man in oppression and travail that Solomon looks at it and says, “Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are alive. Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun” (Eccl. 4:2, 3). So great is the evil of man without God, the world under the sun, of man by nature, that the dead who have passed from this life and its comfortlessness and travail are in a better case. This is not despair nor pessimism but a way of underscoring just how vile are the evil works under the sun and the pain, suffering, and misery they bring in the life of men. The dead endure its suffering under the sun no more. In saying this we must keep in mind the viewpoint of Solomon, which is that which is seen. From that standpoint, one who has not yet been or been born, has not yet seen the evil works under the sun, is in a better state than either the living or the dead. His soul has not yet been vexed by the oppression and evil works of men.

This somber reflection on the state of men fallen and alienated from God underscores the misery of man in its wretchedness. Sin is evil. It works evil, and it leaves in its wake tears and sorrow and misery, which is truly a comfortless misery. Solomon is in a sense underscor­ing what is pointed out in Lord’s Day 1, Q/A 2, that we need to understand “how great my sins and miseries are.” This he would show us from the effect of sin as it works misery in man’s life. Man’s life in sin is without true joy, peace, or comfort, for he is separated from God who is his true life.

Having defined the problem, he turns to a further consideration of the travail of men, in which he points us to the way in which man works his own misery. He considers the causes of misery in the life of men and the folly of sin that leads to it. “Again I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbor. This is also vanity and vexation of spirit” (Eccl. 4:4). We are shown man’s travail, his labor and toil, his industry. He achieves a right work, that is, he is successful in his endeavor. The point is, not “right” in a moral sense but in earthly terms. Under the sun he labors, and his industry is successful. He is an achiever. But “for this he is envied of his neighbor.” This expression is more comprehensive than the idea of other people’s jealousy, though that is included in it. It has the idea of envy or rivalry against the neighbor. That is, it points us to the motives of the achiever as well as the response of those about him. He is the man who gets ahead; he is the one who climbs over obstacles, including his neighbor. He may well be an oppressor. But that struggle and toil leave him isolated and alone, separated from his neighbor through covetousness, both his own and their envy. The result is “vanity,” an empty success, and “vexation of spirit” in all his travail.

By contrast, “The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh” (Eccl. 4:5). The fool is the man of no industry, the man who is slothful. He is described in Proverbs as one who lies upon his bed rolling back and forth like a creaking hinge (Prov. 26:13-16). His fences are decayed and fallen and his field overgrown (Prov. 24:30-34). He does not, and will not, pass his door, because there is a lion in the streets (Prov. 22:13). The reality is that he “eateth his own flesh,” his laziness is such that he devours himself. He too is abhorred of his neighbor, for such is the effect of his indolence.

“Better is an handful with quietness, than both hands full with travail and vexation of spirit” (Eccl. 4:6). While some would apply this verse to the fool, as if it is his excuse for his indolence, it is better to understand it as an interjection of Solomon at this point in the light of the contrast and the dilemma it poses. Solomon consistently uses the word “better,” that which is good, or right and fitting, in God’s design, to introduce his own reflection on the matter before him. The fool has empty hands and is devouring his own hand, the rapa­cious achiever has both hands full and is hated of his neigh­bor. What then is the way of wisdom? The better way is a hand filled with quietness, with rest. That is, to labor with a view to one’s portion for the day in contentment of heart, which as Solomon has pointed out is the gift of God’s grace to His people (Eccl. 2:24). It is bound up with God, our comfort and strength.

In that context Solomon returns to his description of the life of men. “Then I returned and I saw vanity under the sun. There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labor; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labor, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail” (Eccl. 4:7, 8). This is indeed the achiever of this world who has no rest in his hand. Covetous­ness drives him. He is isolated and alone. His riches do not profit him. He has no comforter, neither does he enjoy the fruit of his labor. This is the sinner to whom God, in judgment upon sin, “giveth travail, to heap and gather up” (Eccl. 2:26). In his heaping and gathering, he is unable to be satisfied and content. Enough is never enough, and in it also he has no one with whom to have fellowship in his life, neither God nor man. It is a sore, that is, an evil, travail. He is like a rat on a treadmill go­ing only to destruction. He consumes his strength of life in vanity. He has none of the ordinary bonds of life, neither child nor brother.

There is a severe warning in this to us as God’s people who see this folly in the world about us, to flee covetousness and the lust for earthly riches. What is the better way, the way of wisdom? Again Solomon shows us in his reflection. He uses a figure of human companionship to illustrate his point. “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Eccl. 4:9-12).

The figure of human companionship is a simple yet striking one. It draws to mind a range of relationships from the bond of marriage to human fellowship. Striking it is, however, in that he has shown us that sin destroys such fellowship and leaves man comfortless and alone. In fact, he pronounces woe upon the man without child or brother, who by his own greed and vanity works his own separation in his sin from his neighbor. Men in this world have partners in business and other affairs. They enter into the marriage bond as well. Yet the root of sin corrodes those relationships, and when trouble comes, it becomes “each one for himself.” Marriages break down because of sin. Parents and children are estranged from one another. There is, of course, a semblance of altruism, mutual care for one another, in the activities of men. The human race is an organism, and man can­not ignore his dependence on his fellowman. But the semblance of comfort afforded is outward and external, rooted so often plainly in making oneself feel good and in a works righteousness that has no real foundation. It is so often a using of one another for one’s own self-interest. Such camaraderie quickly becomes in time of trouble enmity, mutual recrimination, and distrust. The effects of sin work through all those relationships under the judgment of God.

True comfort, as has been pointed out above, is only in Christ and in His Spirit, “The Comforter.” In verse 9, Solomon is again showing us the “better.” His descrip­tion echoes Enoch’s walk with God and the friendship of God’s covenant with His people in Christ. That fel­lowship extends to the life of the church, to a spiritual bond of brotherhood, which the world without God does not have. It extends to the bonds of Christian marriage and family in the life of God’s covenant. Then indeed the cord that binds is not a mere human one, and it is not twofold, but it is a “threefold cord.” This is Solomon’s own conclusion in chapter 12 when he calls us to remember our creator in our youth (Eccl. 12:1) and summarizes the whole of what he says: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: fear God and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:14).