Companionship, Humility, and Oblivion
Two people are better than one, because they can reap more benefit from their labor. For if they fall, one will help his companion up, but pity the person who falls down and has no one to help him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together, they can keep each other warm, but how can one person keep warm by himself? Although an assailant may overpower one person, two can withstand him. Moreover, a three-stranded cord is not quickly broken.
A poor but wise youth is better than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to receive advice. For he came out of prison to become king, even though he had been born poor in what would become his kingdom.
I considered all the living who walk on earth, as well as the successor who would arise in his place. There is no end to all the people nor to the past generations, yet future generations will not rejoice in him. This also is profitless and like chasing the wind (Ecclesiastes 4:9-16).
Not everything about life under the sun is ruinously depressing; humans can support each other and use wisdom well. Yet the Preacher still saw how it all ends in futility.
The Preacher’s main themes involved everything as hevel: vain, futile, even absurd, and all human pursuits as ultimately chasing after wind, attempting to grasp ahold of things which can never be reached or held (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14). He recognized history as cyclical: things come and go, and there is really nothing new on the earth (Ecclesiastes 1:3-10). Despite our protestations we and all we have done will be forgotten on the earth (Ecclesiastes 1:11). The Preacher considered pleasure, wisdom, and labor, and saw the futile end of all of them; none of them could provide humans with ultimate meaning (Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26). There is a time and season for everything under heaven: the things we enjoy as well as the things we would assiduously avoid (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). God made man to perceive things greater than himself, yet he is part of the creation, and subject to its limitations and corruption (Ecclesiastes 3:9-22).
Throughout Ecclesiastes 4:1-16 the Preacher would make observations regarding life “under the sun” which also connect and flow from premises and principles he has previously adumbrated. In Ecclesiastes 4:1-8 the Preacher lamented the continual oppression and futility of labor “under the sun.” Let us consider his observations on companionship, humility, and oblivion in Ecclesiastes 4:9-16.
In Ecclesiastes 4:8 the Preacher lamented the man who works but has no descendant to inherit the fruit of the labor; he then commended companionship in labor in Ecclesiastes 4:9-10: two people gain more from their labor together, since they can help each other if they fall. Two people can help keep each other warm; one person cannot do that on his or her own (Ecclesiastes 4:11). A would-be attacker will have a much more difficult time with two people than one; a three stranded rope is not easily broken, thus commending a group of three (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
The Preacher’s wisdom remains consistent with the way God has created people. Humans are made in God’s image; God is One in Three and Three in One, one in relational unity (Genesis 1:26-27, Deuteronomy 6:4-6, John 17:20-23). It is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18); modern science also bears witness, since study after study demonstrates how important association and joint participation proves to human welfare. Despite modernist assumptions to the contrary, man is not made to be alone, and a human being is not sufficient or “self-made” in and of him or herself. Humans have not developed “civilization” as a bunch of individual autonomous units; any level of comfort humans enjoy derives from the efforts of joint participation and mutual care and concern. People work best with other people. How many forms of labor require the active participation of others in order to be accomplished? How many remain alive because of acts of care and/or medical treatment provided by others? Neither labor nor life exist unto themselves; we can only thrive when we labor and live together.
The Preacher then made observations about humility and oblivion. The Preacher saw how a poor yet wise youth was better than an old and foolish king who did not take wise counsel (Ecclesiastes 4:13). What exactly the Preacher is attempting to say in Ecclesiastes 4:14 is challenging: he may be speaking of the wise youth, and thus spoke of how he came from bonds, perhaps prison, to become king, even though he had been previously poor; or he may be speaking of the old and foolish king, which would turn the story into a morality tale, for he had himself come from similar humble means but had forgotten them. The Preacher imagined the people would have been with the successor of the king, perhaps this wise youth (Ecclesiastes 4:15); people have come, people have gone, but later generations would not rejoice in this successor/youth, and the Preacher saw how this was without profit and chasing after wind (Ecclesiastes 4:16).
Thus in Ecclesiastes 4:13-16 the Preacher either imagined how a poor, wise youth might be elevated to the throne over an old, foolish king, the people would love him, and yet he would still be forgotten in future generations; or the Preacher lamented how a king who had been elevated out of a humble station could still prove foolish in his old age, not heeding good counsel, and his kingdom would yearn for his successor. Nevertheless, neither he nor his successor would be particularly appreciated in future generations.
We can appreciate what the Preacher is saying regardless of how we understand exactly how he is proclaiming it in Ecclesiastes 4:13-16. Arrogance and presumption remain significant temptations for people with greater age and life experience, and all the more so when a person has great power and influence. One can be deluded into thinking one no longer needs to hear the counsel of others, particularly those who might be younger and have less experience; one might think one has gained one’s position based on one’s own skill, strength, and wisdom. Such a person can always find sycophants who will tell him what he wants to hear. It would be better to be younger and poor, having less access to experience, knowledge, insight, strength, and understand the wisdom which might come with such humility!
And yet no matter how wise or foolish a king might prove to be, no matter how beloved or hated, or anything else, future generations will not rejoice in them. As with Ecclesiastes 1:11, so with Ecclesiastes 4:16: we are tempted to want to find exceptions to this rule, especially as it relates to kings. We know the names and some of the stories of kings extending back thousands of years. We use the Preacher himself, Solomon, as a warning about not heeding wisdom and succumbing to folly (cf. 1 Kings 11:1-43). In so doing we miss the Preacher’s point. Have any of these stories or morality tales hindered kings from proving foolish and not heeding good counsel? Do we not see the same patterns develop time and time again? Are not kings and their ilk uniquely tempted to pursue the desires of the flesh, not heed good counsel, and exploit and oppress? The story repeated itself time and time again, from Egypt to Britain to China. And the descendants of the subjects of those kings rarely remember any of them fondly. They will tend to remember their own experiences and how they lived, and that colors their view of things. Americans can understand this with their Presidents; whether they are remembered well or poorly has much more to do with later ideological purposes than anything they actually said or did. In a way the Preacher anticipates the practice of history: what will be remembered is serving the purposes of those alive in the present.
Companionship is good; wisdom is good; but it all ends in oblivion, at least “under the sun.” What will be remembered is what future generations want to remember. Thanks be to God that He has reconciled us together in Him through Jesus His Son, and allows us to hope in Him so we might share in relational unity with God and His people forever. May we participate in God’s Reign in Christ and persevere in life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry