Ecclesiastes 3-4

Ecclesiastes 3‑4  •  9 min. read  •  grade level: 6
THE next division of the book embraces chaps 3, and 4. Whatever be the misery of man as such, and no creature under the heavens is so exposed or so sensitive to sorrow, with the awful dawning on his guilty conscience of what may and must be after death, he cannot but also perceive that he is under a system that orders providentially all that affects most nearly the changing life that now is. This is drawn out in what follows, comprehensively and clearly.
“To all is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace” (vers. 1-8).
Man's anxious toil can alter none of the facts. God's hand arranges; man's place is to bow. Cain rebelled and gained nothing but bitter loss; and many another has taken the way of Cain with the same issue invariably, no doubt. Man likes to rule, and none the less since he is fallen, sinful, and willful; but as creatures, none can rule aright, who does not serve One Who is over him, over all persons and all things. To fear Him is the beginning of wisdom; to forget and above all to deny Him is folly, ruinous now and evermore.
Hence the question asked in ver. 9, and negatived in what follows.
“What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth? I have seen the travail which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith. He hath made everything beautiful in its time: also he hath set the world in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice, and to do good so long as they live; and also, that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy good in all his labor, is the gift of God. I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be forever: nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it; and God hath done it, that men should fear before Him. That which is hath been already; and that which is to be hath already been; and God seeketh again that which is passed away” (vers. 9-15).
It is wholesome for man to feel how little he can find out from the beginning to the end the working that God works. Of Himself we can only receive what God reveals; but this is not the question here discussed. The Preacher accordingly speaks his conviction that there is nothing better for them—nothing good in them—but to rejoice and to do good; as He had shown in His work (whatever man or Satan had done to the contrary) only what is excellent and appropriate. Man should in Him confide, endowed as he is, yet in a scene altogether beyond him; and then what must the Maker be? As man, he is to receive what his nature needs, provided ungrudgingly for him to see or enjoy good in all his labor. What could man's toil have availed, unless it were God's gift? Then he enlarges beautifully on “whatsoever God doeth.” How indeed could it be otherwise? As our Savior said, “There is one good, even God “, nor would He be called good by one who did not confess Him to be God: if not God, not good in the real absolute sense of the word; yet became He man in the fullest dependence on God, as He calls us to be.
From ver. 16 the Preacher shows that God's judgment is the key to all the present confusion. So it is for man, till the Son of God came and brought in grace and truth which gives the light of God fully.
“And moreover I saw under the sun, that in the place of judgment wickedness was there; and in the place of righteousness wickedness was there. I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time for every purpose and every work. I said in mine heart, It is because of the sons of men that God may prove them, and that they may see that they themselves are but as beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; and man hath no preeminence above the beasts: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man whether it goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast whether it goeth downward to the earth? Wherefore I saw that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him back to see what shall be after him?” (vers. 15-22).
How vivid the picture revelation even then drew, when only the first man stands before us, not as now the Second man in Christ risen and glorified! The world was not so old in wickedness when the wise king reigned and preached; nor was it of heathen only he spoke, but of the favored people too. Alas! Christendom has only brought in more subtlety in impiety and unrighteousness for all professors who are not born anew. Outwardly, and this is what he speaks of here, the same end of death awaits men and beasts. It is avowedly but what is under the sun. The veil is not removed. Yet he takes care to raise the question: who knoweth the spirit of the sons of men that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? If man knows not with certainty, and hence is prone to vain discussion, God not only knows but has revealed fully by and in our Lord Jesus, Who brought life and incorruption to light through the gospel. If man is bad, and he surely is, God is good beyond all creature measure; and as this was always true, so it is now proved perfectly in Christ.
Chap. 4.
Here the Preacher turns, from unjust judgments, where there was most guilt, to the sufferers under them often without succor or sympathy: a state apt to provoke reprisals and revolution, only increasing yet more the disorder of sin.
“Then I returned and saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun: 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. Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive; yea, better than them both did I esteem him which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.
“Then I saw all labor and every skilful work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh. Better is an handful with quietness, than two handfuls with labor and striving after wind” (vers. 1-6).
Till Christ return, there is no adequate correction or redress. The Preacher, who only speaks here of things present, could but praise the dead who had passed away, or the unborn who saw nothing. Such is man, that success only excites envy in the neighbor, and bitter self-mortification in the fool. The quiet thankful soul here, as before, alone is wise.
Then the vanity of selfishness is portrayed from ver. 7, and the value of fellowship from ver. 9, from which the king is not exempt, especially as he may be foolish and the people fickle (vers. 13-16). Vanity and vexation reign everywhere.
“Then I returned and saw vanity untie: the sun. There is one [that is alone], and he hath not a second; yea, he hath neither son nor brother; yet is there no end of all his labor, neither is his eye satisfied with riches. For whom then, do I labor, and deprive my soul of good? This also is vanity, yea, it is a sore travail. 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 faileth, and hath not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, then they have warmth: but how can one be warm alone? And if a man prevail against him that is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
“Better is a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king, who knoweth not how to receive admonition any more. For out of prison he came forth to be the king; yea, even in his kingdom he was born poor. I saw all the living which walk under the sun, that they were with the child, the second, that stood up in his stead. [There was] no end of all the people, of all them over whom he was: yet they that come after shall not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind” (vers. 7-16).
Never will the state of man and the world be a joy to the glory of God, till He come again and come in power to reign, Who first came to glorify God in obedience and suffering for sin, and thus to lay the foundation for blessing in righteousness evermore.