Yet, better than both is he who has never existed, Who has not seen the evil work that is done under the sun. Ecclesiastes 4:3
Oppression, Toil and Friendlessness
Human suffering and ambition also give evidence of meaninglessness. While two are better than one, relationships with other beings as transient as we ourselves cannot provide life with any ultimate sense of meaning or purpose.
The blessed dead? (4:2-3) Solomon’s reasonings have driven him to despair. Self-consciousness is a curse, for the reasonable man realizes that his life is meaningless. Rather than be burdened with that grim knowledge, a person is better off dead, but best off never being born. How terrible depression and despair are.
“Envy of his neighbor” (4:4-8). Here the Teacher argues that man’s passion for success and wealth is motivated by a desire to surpass others and thus validate one’s own importance. But even a successful quest for wealth and position brings no meaning, and the person at last realizes the futility of toil.
Status too is meaningless (4:13-16). Just wait till the next poll. Your popularity will be down!
4 1 Then I returned and considered all the oppression that is done under the sun: And look! The tears of the oppressed, But they have no comforter– On the side of their oppressors there is power, But they have no comforter.
4:1 Here is another complaint that threatens the plan of God. So much pain can come to the downtrodden that they may even despair of life. Only when the oppressed go into the house of God will they gain perspective for possible recovery. They have no comforter: The absence of anyone to offer comfort only increases the pain and frustration.
2 Therefore I praised the dead who were already dead, More than the living who are still alive. 3 Yet, better than both is he who has never existed, Who has not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.
4:3 he who has never existed: So powerfully wrong and so lonely is the suffering of the oppressed, that Solomon, with a good deal of poetic license similar to Job 3:3-10, argues that nonexistence could be preferred over existence.
4 Again, I saw that for all toil and every skillful work a man is envied by his neighbor. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind.
4:4 a man is envied by his neighbor: To the previous obstacles to accepting that God’s plan encompasses everything is now added a fourth: the envy and cruel competition found in the world.
5 The fool folds his hands And consumes his own flesh. 6 Better a handful with quietness Than both hands full, together with toil and grasping for the wind.
7 Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun: 8 There is one alone, without companion: He has neither son nor brother. Yet there is no end to all his labors, Nor is his eye satisfied with riches. But he never asks, “For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good?” This also is vanity and a grave misfortune.
4:7, 8 The problem of sadness and loneliness is another obstacle to accepting the fact that God has a plan that embraces everything. Consider the person who has no family, not even an heir to whom he can leave all for which he has worked so hard. In 4:1 there is no “comforter.” In 4:4-6 there is no rest. In 4:8 there is no companion.
9 Two are better than one, Because they have a good reward for their labor. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, For he has no one to help him up. 11 Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; But how can one be warm alone? 12 Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
4:9-12 Throughout this section there is an emphasis on the obvious benefits of companions. The intimacy and sharing of life brings relief for the problem of isolation and loneliness. A companion can offer assistance, comfort, and defense. Threefold cord: The Preacher uses this proverbial saying to clinch his case about the value of friends.
13 Better a poor and wise youth Than an old and foolish king who will be admonished no more. 14 For he comes out of prison to be king, Although he was born poor in his kingdom. 15 I saw all the living who walk under the sun; They were with the second youth who stands in his place. 16 There was no end of all the people over whom he was made king; Yet those who come afterward will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and grasping for the wind.
** Labor is enjoyable if its reward is waiting for us. When we are done with a certain task, it gives us a sense of accomplishment. Like a piece of art that I have created with my own my hands, the outcomes of our hard work become precious to us. We don’t want them to be stolen from us. If we know in advance that the end result of our work will be taken away from us, then we wouldn’t want to work on it. What’s the point? There seems to be only one type of work that gives us meaning, purpose and lasting rewards.