FROM ECCLESIASTES 4:1-16
This morning, we turn to a section of Ecclesiastes with much practical wisdom, but it’s expressed in a different way than we’ve seen before in our series from this book. Here’s a contemporary example of this kind of wisdom-- “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.” That’s a specific type of proverb that compares two possibilities and then declaring one better than the other. The truth that proverb communicates is-it’s better to hang onto what you know you have, than to risk it on what you think might be available. The wisdom is expressed, NOT by commending what is excellent, but by taking a good thing and underscoring its goodness by comparing it to something that’s not as good or, by taking a bad thing and underscoring how bad it is by comparing it to a good thing. This is wise or good relative to that. This is foolish or bad relative to that.
In our text for today, the author, Qohelet gives four sets of these comparisons. For the first, let’s look at verses one through three. Qohelet says, “1 Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. 2 And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.” This ‘under the sun” qualifier tells us that this is the Preacher’s perception of things without God being factored in—as it appears in this world. The first comparison is: It’s better to remain un-conceived and never live than to live in a world filled with oppression and evil deeds. This sentiment is not unique to Qohelet. Job and Jeremiah each say similar things. Job comments on his many afflictions and says in Job 3:3, “3 “Let the day perish on which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man is conceived.’” Life has become so miserable for Job that he basically curses the day of his birth. He wishes he’d never been conceived. Jeremiah is similar, “18 Why did I come out from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” The Preacher, Job and Jeremiah curse either their conceptions and/or their births and the basic message is—I wish I’d never lived in this world so filled with evil and oppression.
Friday, we were reminded all too powerfully of the evil oppression in this world. A man walks into an elementary school and murders 20 small children and several adults who never had a chance. For most of them, there was no one to comfort them as they lay dying on that classroom floor. That makes a sane person sick to her stomach but in some parts of this world, when this kind of massacre happens, it’s not done by a rogue individual, it’s sponsored by the government or some other significant political power or by a group of people who claim they’re doing the will of God. There are doubtless many people in the third world who see not only this kind of violence, but live with the real possibility of it every day. Many of them have doubtless wondered, “If life is this rotten, then why was I even born?”
In northern Uganda, the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) guerillas have kidnapped 20,000 children over the past 20 years and forced them into service as soldiers or sexual slaves for the army. UNICEF estimates there are 60,000 child prostitutes in the Philippines. The US State Department estimates 600,000 to 820,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders each year, half of whom are minors…” It’s estimated that at least 50,000, perhaps as many as 100,000 people may be confined to labor camps in North Korea for the crime of following Jesus. For people who daily live with those atrocities, it’s easy to see why they would want never to have been born. Not only are those in the text oppressed, they’re also without anyone to comfort them. These suffer in silence and solitude.
He actually makes three comparisons here. First, he says that those who are dead are better than those who live in this oppression-filled world. But, better than either one of those is to never be born. The dead are not witnessing the oppression in death, but they saw and experienced it in life. According to the Preacher, it’s better never to have seen or experienced it at all—to remain un-conceived. Millions of people in our fallen, oppressed world doubtless think that every day.
A second comparison is in verses four to eight. “4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. 5 The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh. 6 Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind. 7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.” The Preacher makes an observation about why certain people work so obsessively. He says—here’s what drives them, envy. They want to have more than their neighbor. It’s that competition rooted in their envy that drives many people to lose themselves in their work. Their life is spent keeping up with the Jones’. That is—keeping up with people you don’t know for things you don’t need with money you don’t have. Again, the author gives three options about how to relate to work. One is to work so obsessively that your life orbits around your job and your reward is—you become well off. A second option is to “fold your hands,” which indicates laziness. You’ve seen the rat race and you’ve dropped out completely--hoping someone else will take care of you. The third option rests in the middle and that is—better to have “one handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after the wind.” His point is: To live a simple, balanced life is better than envy-driven work-aholism or laziness.
The workaholic driven to work in order to attain what others have is living a vain life. The Preacher gives three symptoms of a work-aholic. First, he has no deep, satisfying relationships. “One person who has no other, either son or brother.” That doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t have a biological son or brother. It simply means that on a functional level, he doesn’t have that kind of intimate relationship with anyone. Tim Keller compares our work-obsessed culture with primitive pagan religions. He reminds us that people within pagan cultures, in order to secure prosperity from the gods, people would practice child sacrifice. He says that we do the same thing today. In order to prosper today, the dad (and increasingly, mom) works so long and hard, the kids seldom get to spend any quality time with them. Keller is right when he argues that this is just a bloodless, contemporary form of child sacrifice. They’re sacrificed on the altar of envy and materialism.
Second, as a work-aholic; he is never satisfied with what he has. Verse seven says, “...his eyes are never satisfied with riches.” In the back of his mind he may believe that one day he will have enough money or assets, but the truth is—there’s always another corporate world to conquer, another promotion to be awarded, another expensive “toy” to be purchased. His life is a perpetual violation of the tenth commandment against coveting. He covets money, possessions and/or professional honors and that is what drives him.
Finally, he has forgotten his initial life goals. “he never asks for whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” He’s so caught up in his work that the reasons he began his career are no longer in view. This person probably didn’t begin his career with the goal—“I’m gonna’ sell my soul to the company store.” No, initially he probably just wanted enough money to be financially comfortable and give his wife or kids nice things—maybe even be able to give a lot of money away. Somewhere along the line gradually, insidiously—he allowed his life to get hijacked—caught up in the corporate rat race. At some point, he started looking at the things his co-worker or his boss owned, coveted them and from then on, it was off to the races because his career stopped being about what it once was, and ended up being about something very different. At the end of his career, (if he hasn’t died of a heart attack or stroke) he may be financially secure, very comfortable and—his wife and kids, (if they are still around) may have a warehouse full of nice things, but not have any meaningful relationships. For way too many people, that’s what the American dream turns out to be.
On the other end of the spectrum is the lazy person. This person just doesn’t see the value in working. He folds his hands and works hard at staying as inactive as possible. The Preacher says, “he eats his own flesh.” His lack of initiative and income cannibalize him—his own laziness and the deprivation that comes along with it, consumes everything he has or can get his hands on. In our country, he also eats the flesh of others—so to speak because someone else is taking care of him through tax-funded assistance programs.
The Preacher says that better than being a miser or a slug is the one who lives in contentment. The author describes this as “a handful of quietness than two handfuls of toil.” This is living a balanced life with a balanced perspective on work and leisure. You work hard, but you’re not driven to acquire things based on what others have. At some point, this person learns to be content with what he has and be ok with the fact that he’ll never own a big house or a fancy boat or whatever he may have coveted in his younger days. She’s learned to be grateful for what she has, instead of coveting what she doesn’t have. There is a quietness--a contentment to their life. Money and things don’t drive you—you hold them with an open hand and if an economic downturn takes them away, that doesn’t destroy you.
The comparison the author treats most in-depth is in verses 9-12. The comparison here is: To work in partnership with others is better than to independently strive alone. This is the section of Ecclesiastes that is often read at weddings and although it can be applied to the marriage relationship, that’s not the main point of this section. He begins in verse nine, “9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.” Qohelet is simply saying that two are more productive than one. They can accomplish more. It’s like doing the dishes after a Thanksgiving dinner. If you’re doing them all alone, it can seem like you’ll never get out of the kitchen, but with two, it takes no time and the conversation makes the time go even faster.
The Preacher gives three reasons why working in partnership is better than working alone. The first one is in verse 10. “For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.” Two are better than one because in times of difficulty we need someone to help us. The illustration pictures two people in the wilderness when one falls into a pit. If you’re alone, you might die down there, screaming for help until all your strength is gone. If there’s someone else along, they can pull you out or if they fall with you, one can stand on the other’s shoulders.
This is just common sense but some people have a penchant for wanting to do things or work by themselves. If they are competent, it can work out alright, but if something unexpected happens, they can end up in deep weeds with no one to help them out. He may survive or complete the mission or arrive safely home in the end, but how much needless pain is borne by choosing to go it alone. This desire to do things alone is often a manifestation of pride. “I don’t need anyone else.” “Someone else will just get in my way---they’ll be more harm than good.” That’s the way prideful people think. Proverbs 16:18 says, “18 Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” People who are prideful enough to think they can go it alone in an endeavor best accomplished by two people can be headed for destruction. This is true in all areas--if you’re out in the wilderness, running a business or a managing a family. When the unexpected happens, you’re much more likely to weather it successfully if two are involved. Two sets of eyes will see both potential problems and solutions that one set of eyes won’t. If you’re contemplating taking on a challenge of some sort alone when you could do it with someone else, humble yourself and get a qualified partner.
This is true spiritually as well. We all fall. We all sin, sometimes scandalously. We all get beat up by the devil if we’re living for Jesus. Second Timothy 3:12 says, “12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” It’s not IF any of these things will happen, it’s WHEN and when we fall or are attacked in any significant way, it’s so good to have someone to pick us off the floor by reminding us of our forgiveness and righteousness found in the gospel. If we’re alone, Satan knows we’re much more prone to discouragement and despair because he knows where our blind spots are and he attacks us there. If we fall and have someone else with us who knows our areas of vulnerability--as we begin to believe we are beyond hope or condemn ourselves, he/she can speak the gospel into us. Paul says the church is a body with each part being inter-dependent upon the others. “21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” We all need each other. God didn’t put any spare parts in the body of Christ—all of us are needed by someone and if we don’t understand that truth, our ministries will never be very fruitful because God has wired us to work with others—“it is not good for man to be alone.” That’s not only true of Adam in the garden. When difficulties come, having a partner is of immense value.
A second reason it’s better to work in partnership than to go it alone is in verse 11."11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?” A second reason two are better than one is—when times of coldness come; there is someone to warm us. The original context is two people traveling together. At night it gets cold and if you’re alone, you’ll shiver, maybe die. But if—like King David did when he was very old—you have someone else whose body temperature can keep yours up, the effects of the cold are muted. That’s the physical, material application, but we experience many kinds of coldness that require others to help keep us warm. If you move into a new community that is cold—people are unfriendly and stand-offish, if you just have one other person who will be a friend to you, it makes an otherwise crushing situation, tolerable. Duluth is known as a spiritually cold community—the last I heard, St. Louis County has the smallest percentage of people in church on a given Sunday in the entire state. This is a cold place—it’s extra hard to get things going here, spiritually. There’s a spiritual heaviness here, that—if you’re from here, you may not notice, but those from other places feel it very clearly. It’s very hard to make a spiritual breakthrough in this community and alone, it’s impossible. We aren’t sending Eric to plant a church in West Duluth alone. “Here, take this money and start a church. When you get 40 members, we’ll throw you a party.” No, we’re sending others with him who, in the midst of the spiritual coldness can warm each other, encourage each other, cry together and celebrate together.
This is true on an individual basis as well. A believer who keeps to him/herself is a very unhealthy one. Again, God wired us to need each other for spiritual growth. Not just the people in our family who often have the same blind spots we do—people who are different than us—who come from different kinds of families and who see things in you—both healthy and unhealthy that you or those closest to you simply cannot see on your own. Paul says this is how we grow in Ephesians 4:15, “15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Members of Christ’s body grow for the purpose of building up others in love ONLY WHEN—they are joined and held together with what each properly-working member can contribute. That’s how the church grows spiritually. There are no alternative methods to that. If you try to grow some other way--you will fail. You cannot grow beyond a certain immature place without other believers around you—no exceptions.
If you’re not part of a small group or don’t want to be in a small group of some sort, you probably aren’t growing because you’re depriving yourself of what is essential for you to grow. You cannot be built up in love because you’re not growing—and you’re not growing because you’re not receiving from other parts of the body what they have to give you. If you’re not humbling yourself to make yourself accountable to other believers—confessing your sins and struggles and joys—asking for prayer and encouragement from other believers, you won’t grow. Apart from other believers around us in the body of Christ we’ll grow cold. Like a fire—the embers that separate from the hot coals soon go out. That’s not just true for campfires—it’s also the way it is in the church of Christ.
Another reason two are better than one is in verse 12. “12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” A third reason two are better than one is for–when times of opposition rage against us. The text refers to someone who is physically attacked. If you’re alone—you may end up on the ground lying in your own blood. With two, you stand a better chance of prevailing. There’s strength in numbers—even if the number is two and opposition doesn’t come only in physical manifestations. As believers, we’re constantly in a state of war. Our enemy is incessantly seeking whom he may devour and it’s a lot easier for a wolf like him to pick off a lamb wandering away from the fold, than one safely harbored inside the herd. We all need people in the body who will pray for us when we are under attack. I’m no example, but when I’m under heavy attack and feel overwhelmed by the onslaught, I send up an email flare and plead with certain people in the body to pray for me.
Every genuine believer faces spiritual opposition that is more than they can handle alone—every believer. In those situations, we have two options. We can either reach out for help to those God has provided for us in the body, or we can dismally fail in whatever we were trying to do that drew the enemy’s fire in the first place. There is no third option. God will intentionally put us in situations that are overwhelming to us alone because he wants us to learn how to work together and he’s glorified as we do so. The church is a symphony orchestra, not a group of soloists. We sound the best when we are all working together in harmony. God expects us to reach out to the body of Christ.
That’s often “the way of escape” Paul talks about in First Corinthians 10:13. “13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” One reason why no temptation is strong enough to defeat us is because we often don’t have to face it by ourselves. We can text, Facebook, call, email, tweet (or who knows what else) when we’re in trouble and get prayer cover or encouragement from the body. If we don’t do that, we’ll be overwhelmed and then wonder why God put us in a situation that was so far over our head. It WAS over your head, but it wasn’t over the head of you and your brothers or sisters who were available to help you that you didn’t access. Life is full of difficulties, cold places and fierce opposition. That’s why we must partner with others.
The last comparison is in verses 13-16. “13 Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. 14 For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. 15 I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. 16 There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.” Several questions arise from this text that scholars cannot agree on. Among them is—how many youths are in this story? Some say two and others, one but the point isn’t in the number of youths but in the contrast between a poor, wise youth and a rich, experienced king. Normally, the rich, experienced king would be a much more able ruler, but in this case there’s an important qualifier. The old king “no longer knew how to take advice.” It’s no accident that this is an old king. It’s tragic but sometimes, instead of getting wiser as we get older, we allow our wealth of experience and knowledge to cause us to believe that we know more than anyone else. Or, at least there is no one in my immediate context that can speak into my life. The comparison here is: To be teachable—even if you are young is better than to be un-teachable even if you have much experience.
Some of our character flaws can be managed and still allow us to be effective in our roles, but unteachability is always crippling. You know you’re becoming unteachable when you look at the people you used to admire and respect and now find yourself being increasingly critical of them—perhaps even looking down your nose at them. They probably haven’t gotten stupider. Our pride hardens our heart and closes us off to receiving advice. We resent correction and seek to deflect it rather than receive it. That can be a fatal defect in a believer and we must guard against it at all costs by making sure we’re open to advice from anyone.
As we close, let’s make some application. First, because pride is a factor in many of these comparisons—have you asked those who are around you to point out your areas of pride? The pride can be in wanting to be better or richer than other people. It can be in spurning the help and encouragement others can provide because you don’t think you need them or you’re too proud to ask them. It can be a hesitancy to take advice or correction. Pride is very stealthy and very gradually and subtly creeps into our lives. We need believers in our lives other than our immediate family members (who may share our blind spots) who have the freedom to point out our pride without fear of attack. I would challenge you to find such a person. We need each other and we need each other’s constructive criticism as well.
and very similar--are you utilizing the body of Christ to help you grow in grace? Are
you in a small group where people can encourage you, pray for you and lovingly confront you? That’s how we grow in Christ. We can say
we want to grow until we’re out of breath, but if we’re not exposing ourselves to other members of the body, our
talk is cheap.
that a three-fold cord is not easily broken. Earlier
in the section where partnership is encouraged, the entire treatment considers two people until the final statement
in that section that says, “a
three-fold cord is not easily broken.” The
point seems to be that when we partner together, we are joined in that partnership with another and the traditional
understanding is—the other person is God. When
we’re acting together, God gives us special, added protection from the enemy. Though
the enemy may be viciously trying to pull us away from God and what he wants us to do, if we work together, God
will keep our connection to him intact. During
this last week before Christmas, remember to think about the fact that God sent his Son in the flesh as a man to
join us in this fight
and give us the assurance of victory as we work together.
Page last modified on 2/19//2013
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