And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Fools fold their hands
and ruin themselves.
Better one handful with tranquillity
than two handfuls with toil
and chasing after the wind.
Again I saw something meaningless under the sun:
there was a man all alone;
he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
‘For whom am I toiling,’ he asked,
‘and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?’
This too is meaningless –
a miserable business!
Two are better than one,(Eccl. 4:4-12 NIV)
because they have a good return for their labour:
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.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
God would have us avoid extremes. The extreme of laziness where we have nothing to offer others or the extreme of powerfully oppressing our neighbour in our desire to make progress.
The story of these verses is in the use of hands. There is the laziness of folded hands, the greediness of two hands, and the satisfaction of one handful.
Henry Elliot Button (1861-1925) wrote the children’s hymn.
O what can little hands do
To please the King of Heaven?
The little hands some work may try,
To help the poor in misery:
Such grace to mine be given.
The Preacher is not against ambition and industry but he has a problem with those who grasp with two hands everything before them at the expense of others. To have more than the other person is the envy that is the engine of what the world regards as success. ‘Two handfuls’ come with toil and represent the grasping obsession with ever-growing affluence. When ambition becomes a necessity, then necessity becomes a god and both hands are into possessions. This person is driven by envy of his neighbour.
To abandon all this and become idle with two hands folded is not the solution to the rat race. This no doubt is a quiet life, but it destroys the person, physically, emotionally and spiritually. In its own way it too is selfish, because there is no possibility of helping others.
The better way is the one handful with tranquillity. This is the middle way between two-fisted grasping and hand-folding laziness. This is a description of a modest and contented life.
John Donne, an English poet from the late 16th and early 17th century famously wrote, ‘No man is an Island.’ The Preacher had already said as much as he opined the sadness of a man all alone. The Preacher here advocates companionship. Men and women were made in the image of a Triune God. God did not need to create humanity in order to have someone to love. Love and relationship were complete in the fellowship of the Trinity. One of the important aspects of being made in the image of God is that we were designed to be social beings, we were designed to have fellowship with others. So, the person who ploughs the lonely furrow is greatly to be pitied. Who does not long for Dicken’s Scrooge to share his wealth and break the cycle of a lonely and miserable existence?
The Preacher teaches us that the value of life is not in what we earn, but in the body of friends that we have. The Preacher tells us that two are better than one, and three are better than two. Life lived in community and mutual interdependence is better, and this is how God designed us to be. As we fulfil God’s design so we can better flourish in life.
Lord help us to examine our lives before You to ensure that our ambition is balanced. Help us to avoid the extremes of laziness and greediness. Help us to be mindful of our neighbours. Help us to be willing to share our wealth, our time and our emotional energy with others. Help us to follow the example of our Saviour who had compassion for the people – He saw them a sheep without a shepherd and instructed the disciples to feed them. Lord hear our prayer for Christ the Saviour’s sake, in whose name we pray. Amen.