Better Never to Have Been? (Ecclesiastes 4)

I hope you’ve been having a good day so far, because today we get to talk about how work is pointless and frustrating, how the world is evil and backwards, and how being lonely kinda sucks.

Welcome to Ecclesiastes chapter 4.

Going off of last chapter’s theme of the “times” under the sun – God’s set-aside times for us to be happy or sad, loving or mad, and everything in between – and Solomon’s subsequent conclusion that, as in previous chapters, it is best for people to “enjoy their work” (3:22), our teacher returns in chapter 4 by deciding to, once again, take a step back to look at the world from a zoomed-out point of view, a tactic that has worked out quite well thus far, giving us plenty to chew on and ponder during our time spent away from the book itself. But here Solomon notices something new when he takes a step back, something he’s barely addressed thus far: he sees the injustice in the world (something slightly addressed in 3:16). As Solomon notes, the oppressed have no comforter and the oppressors are the ones who receive power. In other words, Solomon is taking away my punchline by proclaiming, “NOW LET’S BE HONEST…life ain’t fair!” He doesn’t waste any time in getting to this first point. He starts sounding a lot like Job when he declares that it is perhaps better to have never been born (a la Job 3:16-17), reflecting on how dark his present view of existence truly is. The oppression – the pain, suffering, and abuse – we face in this life is perhaps so great that it makes death more appealing to us, something that every human being, in the end, can relate to. (Note that this thought is not suicidal, but merely dark; he is not considering ending his life, but pondering on if not living would have been the better option purely because he who has not lived has not had to endure suffering.) This is further reinforced by the fact that, in our present day and age, people are wanting to have children and less and less in order to save them from the evil of the world (see David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence).

But that’s just the first three verses. In the next three (v.4-6), Solomon notes that, in a particularly sudden shift, life is like one big competition of one person trying to best another or simply growing envious of another’s deeds or possessions. We are so miserable in our own lives that we continually look to other people and assume that they have it better, that to be in their shoes or like them would gain us some sort of profit. Not only do we recognize that life isn’t fair, but we constantly remind ourselves of this fact, living in self-pity and self-degradation as we live in constant comparison with those around us. Our lives are like auditions, going about day-to-day hoping to impress people with what we have or what we can do, yet no level of glory will ever satisfy us. We are competitive with one another as a part of our fallen nature, but “this too is meaningless,” Solomon notes. “A chasing after the wind” (v.4). It’s all for naught.

Next we see that even fools living in idleness (v.5) succumb to self-torment and will never be satisfied, but it is likewise better to live tranquilly than to pursue meaning through a life of works by striving to achieve some satisfaction that can never truly arise. All of this is futile – vapor – yet we strive for it nevertheless.

In the next set of verses (v.7-12), Solomon transitions to an entirely new subject by addressing the meaningless of being alone (as we read in chapter 1, everything is meaningless, so he still has plenty of meaningless things to individually bring up). You see, at least in companionship there is a reason for you to toil – you can work to provide, please, or care for – but when you are alone, the toil seems fruitless in the end because it is all simply for your own selfish game, something that will never satisfy you. You have no reason to refrain from folly when you place only yourself at risk, and the lack of any companions therefore means the lack of any [wise] counsel. Thus loneliness leads to misery and all you do will seem fruitless and just as miserable as the work itself (self-satisfaction only goes so far).

But that’s not all we have to hear about loneliness. Next we are pointed out to the fact that two are better than one (v.9): it’s more efficient and allows for accountability, letting people make wiser and more profitable choices so they see more as a result of their labor/work/toil. And here we see three things that relationships (whether platonic or romantic) provide us with:

  1. ENCOURAGEMENT /// “If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” (v.10) /// If one person fails, the other can help them up – this is the truth in platonic and romantic relationships alike, “iron sharpening iron,” as Solomon says in Proverbs 27:17. This failure can be physical, mental, sexual, spiritual, etc., so it is best to have a good companion to encourage you through it all, to help life you and keep you on track even when your motivation seems lost. But how sad is it for the person who falls – succumbing to sin, harboring a broken heart, hurting themselves, etc. – yet has no one to help them up! They will likely keep on falling, further and further into a pit of despair, misery, and self-loathing. In the end we see that without accountability it is far too easy to stray from the allotted path and keep going down a path we shouldn’t follow.
  2. COMFORT /// "Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?” (v.11) /// While this verse may sound like it refers specifically to a romantic relationship, it is likewise applicable to a relationship grounded on a platonic framework. We need to surround ourselves by those people out there who will “keep us warm” – providing for us that security which we cannot attain on our own – and this represents those friends who are there to listen to us and offer advice, lend a helping hand while doing their best to be there for us during our times of need. Relationships exist so that one person can be there for another, so that when one person cannot do something alone, there is another to aid them and make their friend’s life easier even if it costs them some extra effort.
  3. PROTECTION /// “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” (v.12) /// We see that the final purpose of companionship is to protect one another. In matters both physical and mental, a supportive ally is always a sure way to increase the odds of victory. The more people you can get on your side the better, and just as solid groups of friends there to support and protect you not only helps you in the literal and obvious sense, it also helps you grow as a more secure and happy person. Groups of friends, when together, can protect you by being there for you when you are weak, but also by building you up so that you can one day be strong, a truth that is applicable in all senses of weakness and strength.

In the end, we see that there is much to be gained from companionship and much to be lost in friendlessness, a true and interesting fact to acknowledge (though it goes without saying that this very truth is engrained in our very DNA, hence why even babies in their youth long for companionship). You must recognize that the Enemy wants to isolate you – knowing that strength is found in numbers – but we, as Christians, are called for camaraderie so that we will not succumb to his ways, especially with men and woman of similar faith there to encourage us along the way. Companionship is essential in the Christian walk, something Solomon is really drilling home here. (Don’t get me wrong, there are benefits to being by oneself and we see in places such as 1 Corinthians 7:35 that singleness in many instances can be a gift from God, yet on a long-term aspect we see from the very beginning of time that “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18).)

And thus we have reached the final four verses of the chapter (v.13-16). Solomon reverts to the style of the first two chapters to remind us of another truth: Advancement is Meaningless.

(Yep, we’re back to the meaninglessness of life, but did we ever doubt for a moment that we would get back to it eventually? This is Ecclesiastes, after all.)

This is Solomon’s final point: the oh-so-cherished popularity of making a name for oneself is unwarranted and short-lived, yet another temporal pleasure in this non-eternal frame of mind that we so frequently succumb to. We live our lives hoping to make a name for ourselves, but all for what? It’s better to be wise and have no money at all than to have all the pleasures of the world yet be stubborn, obstinate, and foolish, so why do we worry about the things we own and wear rather than the inner workings of our heart and soul? (I see a particular parallel with a teaching of Jesus in Matthew 6:24 when He reminds us that “You can’t serve both God and mammon” and then reminds us that, just as the Father cares for the birds of the air, He will care for us to an even greater extent and thus we have no reason to worry.) Whether you live a life in poverty or you work your way from poverty to royalty, what difference does it make? All of it will pass in the end, as is demonstrated by Solomon’s analogy of the king and the poor youth. As is inherent to human nature, people will simply look to the next person for guidance as they try to become more and more than what they currently are; nothing they do or strive to do or achieve or strive to achieve will ever—ever—satisfy them. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

…under the sun.

As Solomon concludes this chapter, he makes the strange decision to end it on a sour note, something he hasn’t done thus far (Perhaps this is to remind us that what he is saying is super important, a problem so detrimental to our society that we really need to take a step back and think about the problem itself rather than moving beyond the problem in search of the silver lining that will give us some lasting hope). With these final statements we are left with the sad reminder that nobody will be fully satisfied with what this earth has to offer, so whether your goal in achieving power is for personal gain or something else under the sun– selfish gain or self renown – both are equally meaningless, a pointless endeavor that will gain you nothing.

So yeah, it ends on that note – not the happiest ending to a chapter, but something that leaves us pensive nonetheless. The ultimate question we should be left asking ourselves is this: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world yet forfeit his soul?” (Matt 16:26) The answer – obvious in theory yet not so palpable in application – is nothing.

As a final remark, I want you to keep a happy heart, because as sad as this chapter might be – pointing out flaw after flaw within our own lives – there will be a much happier message coming soon. Thing will turn around, something we will see right off the bat in the very next chapter, so stay tuned! We will get some sort of uplifting comment from Solomon, something that will begin to change the game plan and affect the remainder of Ecclesiastes overarching plot! Things will look up for us, I promise.

Until then, stay gold. See you with chapter 5.