We have been reading the journal of a wise man who had the resources to see if the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. We often like to think that our lives would be better if we only had more success, more power, more wealth, or more time. Now the Teacher is going to turn his attention toward success.
Acts of Oppression (4:1-3)
How often do we look at the world and consider the future, believing the future is grim? It seems that every generation looks to the future and has concern for their grandchildren and great grandchildren. These are also the thoughts of the Teacher as he observes all of the acts of oppression that takes place on the earth. Consider the tears of the oppressed and how there is no comfort for them on the earth. Power is not with the oppressed, but with the oppressors. Here again is the futility of this world. We try to ignore and not think about how oppressive and evil the world is. In fact, the Teacher points out that with God, it would be better off to be dead than it would be to try to understand oppression and power in this world. How can someone be so evil as Saddam Hussein who killed his own people that he ruled over? How can there be someone so powerful and use it for such evil like Adolf Hitler? How could people be so evil to plan to use airplanes to crash into buildings, killing thousands? How could people strap bombs on their backs, walk into a public facility, and blow themselves up along with everyone else? You see that these are things we try not to think about because these things are depressing and nonsensical.
The Teacher is giving us a reality check. The world is evil in its acts. If the onslaught of evil was not so great in this world, we would not have needed to command to put on the whole armor of God to be able to withstand such evil (Ephesians 6). If the onslaught of evil was not so great in this world, then Satan would not be called the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:2). Unfortunately, power often leads to oppression rather than alleviating oppression.
We must remind ourselves that we have been charged to fight oppression, to help the innocent, and assist the downtrodden. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27; ESV)
Labor or Lazy- A Proper Balance (4:4-6)
The Teacher has already told us not to be workaholics. He pointed out the futility of overworking- all our earnings are left who did not work hard and may be a fool. Further, overworking causes a person to not enjoy the fruit of one’s labor. There is no rest as the workaholic is always thinking about more work that needs to be done. In verse 4 the Teacher points out why we have the tendency to overwork: “a man’s envy of his neighbor” (ESV). What an accurate assessment! Our excessive work comes from rivalry.
We want to keep up with the Joneses. We work harder because we see other people with things that we want. We see their success and we want to have the same success, or more. No one is happy for another’s success. We our a society built on envy and greed. We want to outdo our neighbor, not just keep up with them. We are not happy for what another has. We complain about what they have because we should have it too. But the Teacher tells us that this also is futility and chasing the wind. Such thinking is just plain foolish. Why? Why would this be chasing the wind? The reason is because you can never stay ahead. There is always going to be someone who has something you do not have. There will also be a newer, nicer possession that someone has that you do not have or cannot afford to have.
Further, why care? Who cares if someone has something you do not have? It does not have any meaning or any bearing on your value as a human being! Why are we so interested in the things that other people have? Why not be glad that they are able to enjoy the fruit of their labors? We should simply be excited that others are able to have things. For some reason we act like we would be happy only if our neighbor or friend was destitute.
Should we quit working because being a workaholic is futile? Verse 5 answers the thought that a fool folds his arms and consumes his own flesh. Rather than working, the fool draws his hands in and does nothing. Laziness brings poverty. Refusing to work is not the answer. But verse 6 draws out the first point.
Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind. (4:6; ESV)
The good life is about balance. It is better to have one hand full of quietness that to have two hands full of toil and chasing the wind. Rather trying to keep up with the Joneses, simply enjoy what you have. Why over work? Two handfuls of toil will not bring lasting satisfaction or joy. By implication, two handfuls of quietness is not the answer for lasting satisfaction. One hand working, one hand with quietness, and one has the balanced life. Work what you need and enjoy the fruit of your labor. Stop looking at what others have and enjoy what you have.
Excessive Work Leads To Being Alone (4:7-8)
The Teacher is going to expand upon this concept of living a balanced life of work and quietness.
Again, I saw futility under the sun: There is a person without a companion, without even a 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 too is futile and a miserable task. (4:7-8; HCSB/ESV)
Here is a person who works and works and works. There is no end to all his struggles. Even with all the work that he does, he is still not content. This is the problem with placing our life purpose in work. We will never be content. Riches do not bring lasting satisfaction. We will always want more. But there is a great sacrifice that is made by seeking after wealth and being a workaholic. Notice that this person is alone. He has no companion, not even a family. He has no friends. You cannot be friends with a workaholic because they never have any time for you. You can’t spend time together because the person is always working. Work excessively and you will have no friends and you will have no family. Your family will not care about you because you have not cared about them.
The most foolish decision people make is believing that they will over work now so that they can spend time with their family later. The problem is that the family will not be there later. They have been neglected. Even if you do not end in divorce, you will not have a good relationship with your spouse, your children, your parents, or any other relatives. The worst part is the workaholic never stops and asks why he or she is doing this. Why are you working so hard? Your family does not want money, but time with you. You will have friends when you are available to spend time with others. There is no end to your struggles and toil and you have nothing to show for it. You are not content with what you have and you have no one with whom to share your life.
Better To Have Companions (4:9-12)
The Teacher concludes by pointing out that people are better companions than wealth. There is no joy in living alone because your bad life decisions. Solomon says to pity the person who falls down but has no one to lift them up. Two are better than one. We want to think that the good life is about being self-sufficient. But this is simply another lie fed to us by the world. Self-sufficiency is not the ultimate life goal. It is better to have companions, friends, and family and be dependent upon them. Life is better with more people. Do not isolate yourself by throwing yourself into work. Do not be a workaholic. Work what is necessary, enjoy quietness, and spend time enjoy life with others.
Jesus told a parable about a rich fool who was a workaholic, consumed with building bigger barns for all his possessions. Note Jesus’ warning: “He then told them, “Watch out and be on guard against all greed because one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15; HCSB). The sorrow of success is great. Have a proper balance in life, recognizing that life is not about stuff. The one who dies with the most toys does not win. The one who dies with the most toys still dies. He dies alone, with a life full of toil. Do not make the same mistake.