Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
Gradually the connections in the Teacher's discourse become clear. Today's passage links what he has said about injustice and about human toil, and suggests why so many find toil burdensome.
The Teacher takes up the theme of injustice from Ecclesiastes 3:16: ″I saw the tears of the oppressed″ (Ecclesiastes 4:1). We are reminded of examples like Ahab's illegal confiscation of Naboth's vineyard (1 Kings 21), of Amos' attacks on the rich who trample down the poor (Amos 2:7), and also of societies today where officials expect bribes and governments wield power without a sense of responsibility towards the citizens. When he sees such things, the Teacher feels sick at heart (Ecclesiastes 4:2-3).
What are the roots of such injustice? Ecclesiastes 4:4 suggests an answer: people are driven by envy. We see ourselves as in competition, struggling against our fellow humans, in order to possess this world's goods. In this struggle, we are tempted to cut corners, to trample on others, or to use others as pawns in our plans.
But envy doesn't go away when it is fed; rather, it becomes yet more insatiable. The antidote lies elsewhere. We have to start telling ourselves: ″I have enough. I'm not going to seek more. Above all, I won't do wrong in order to get more.″
Of course, you can't give up altogether. Complete idleness is not the answer. That is the point of 4:5. If you are idle, you will harm yourself. You must be responsible; you must provide for yourself and your family. But 4:6 balances 4:5: you cannot be idle, but when you have enough, rest content with your ″one handful [of] tranquillity″. You may miss out on much by ignoring envy's voice, but you will also spare yourself much misery.
This is the point of 4:7-8 and its thumbnail sketch of a lonely ″striver″. Envy and greed have consumed this person. He doesn't enjoy what he has because he is always looking for more. He senses that this is pointless, that he is only making himself miserable. But, like many modern over-achievers, he has been toiling for so long that he doesn't know how to stop; indeed, he is driven by a fear of what he will miss out on if he relaxes his efforts. What he does not see is that beyond a certain point, more is less.
The Teacher terms this futile striving a ″miserable business″ (v. 8), the same Hebrew phrase found in 1:13 (where NIV translates ″heavy burden″). Ecclesiastes 4:8 thus casts light back on 1:13: often humans end up embroiled in an ″unhappy business″ through their own bad choices, not because God has arbitrarily intervened and engineered a bad outcome. Yes, our choices do have consequences-that is how God has made the world-but when we don't like the consequences we should repent, rather than blame God.
Examine your own motives in the light of today's text: how much of what you do, both in your place of work and in your involvement in church, is driven by envy of others?
How much is ″enough″? If you think that you have ″enough″, or more than ″enough″, what should your response be, in the light of Ecclesiastes 4:5-6? (See also 1 Timothy 6:6-10).