Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
Have you ever shared in a joint venture? Have you experienced the companionship, the planning, the compromises, and the need to take others' views seriously, which are part of such ventures? Today's section is about the blessing of human companionship. In contrast to the misery to which envy and lonely striving can lead (Ecclesiastes 4:7-8), the Teacher proposes a better way: co-operation with others. ″Two are better than one″ (v. 9).
A joint venture pools resources and talents for a common purpose; no energy is wasted on needless competition. There is greater protection against injustice (v. 12): it's less easy to oppress a group than an individual. And your business partners may also be your friends. Business can become a pleasure!
This is a partial answer to the issue of systemic injustice (3:16; 4:1). The system may not change quickly, but you and your friends can at least co-operate, supporting and protecting each other. Others may take note and follow your lead. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 is in its own way a revolutionary text, seeking to transform society by changing people's behaviour towards each other. The next section tells a brief story about a wise but poor youth and an old king who has lost touch and no longer listens to advice (vv. 13-16). This youth has humble origins, but he replaces the king. Perhaps he has high ideals, but he finds taking responsibility for so many a hard task: ″there was no end to all those people whom he led″ (v. 16 NRSV). His task is also a thankless one: those who come later will not remember him with gratitude (v. 16).
How does this passage fit in its context? The underlying idea in 4:13-16 should be familiar by now: recognise the limits of what you can accomplish. The Teacher considers the situation of someone who is so discontented with the state of society that he seeks power, with the aim of bringing transformation. The Teacher asks such a person: are you sure you want to do that? You may do some good, but be prepared to be unpopular because you cannot meet the expectations of all those you govern! Be prepared to be maligned by those who succeed you! Even the king must face his limitations; even the most dedicated social reformers must be realists before they are anything else.7
Most of us will have no desire to seek political power, but all of us face the question: what goals will we pursue? If we are faced with the choice between relative poverty, wisdom, and justice on the one hand and wealth, folly, and injustice on the other (the two options described in 4:13-16), which will we take?
7For a somewhat similar interpretation of Ecclesiastes 4:13-16, see Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 147.
What do you think is the appropriate balance between spending time working with others and spending time alone (either working or reflecting by yourself or taking time to be quiet in God's presence)?
In some parts of the English-speaking world, ″politician″ is a term of abuse. Take time to reflect on the pressures faced by your political representatives and leaders, and pray that God may guide them into the ways of peace and justice (see 1 Timothy 2:1-4).