Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:
I saw the tears of the oppressed –
and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors –
and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead,
who had already died,
are happier than the living,
who are still alive.
But better than both
is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
that is done under the sun.
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,
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.
Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to heed a warning. The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.(Eccl. 4:1-16 NIV)
In the first three verses of this chapter the Preacher looked at loneliness that is imposed by oppression. We may feel that because we live in a Western democracy that everyone is free from oppression. But many people live in abusive relationships unable to escape the loneliness and oppression. Others are trapped in jobs and roles that they cannot escape from and the tyranny of a ruthless gang boss leaves many feeling lonely and helpless.
But there is a loneliness to which the Preacher turns his attention that is self-inflicted. That is the loneliness that arises from competitiveness. There is a healthy side to competitiveness. Melanie Phillips, now a Times columnist warned of the dangers of removing competitiveness from the school curriculum in her book, ‘All Must Have Prizes.’
The competitive spirit can help to stretch and form good character in a person, but it soon can deteriorate into something ugly and unwholesome and a self-centred nastiness can develop towards our fellow competitors.
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.(Eccl. 4:4 NIV)
Our work is a very important part of our lives. When we think of how long we spend at work then we should ensure that our attitude to, and relationship with, work is balanced. An unbalanced approach to work can be spiritually debilitating. Survival in the workplace for many can mean unhealthy competition. When we value so much our progress in work we can be investing in things which are quite worthless for eternity.
We all find ourselves embedded in the commitment to a growth economy. If your day to day work does not feel like that, it doesn’t mean you have escaped. Everyone who has invested in a personal pension is depending upon the growth economy to grow their pension pot. We may hold a low opinion of investment managers and hedge fund gurus, but as they compete and succeed the more our pension fund grows. So, in some way many are caught up in this competitive world of commerce.
As we live in this world the Preacher wants to make us aware that living in a selfish competitive way has both personal and social consequences. Personally, it leaves us spiritually undernourished. Socially, we become estranged from our neighbours and friends. We have no time to nurture friendships.
Once aware of the dangers the temptation is to overreact. We get out of the race. The Preacher does not advocate that approach. We cannot live as a recluse in this world. People who opt out of the system still depend upon the system that they condemn.
Either extreme leads to loneliness.
Not all loneliness is self-imposed. Some are isolated because of force of circumstances. The Preacher considers a man who has no son or brother. As a result he buries himself in his work to escape the loneliness. However, this exacerbates his problem because there is no-one to share his wealth with. Work and wealth are no substitutes for love and companionship. The Preacher shows that companionship is important. To have someone to share things with, to have someone to lift you when you fall is commended by the Preacher. Two together is better than one alone, and three is better than two.
In 4:13-16 the Preacher shows us the picture of a powerful king who has isolated himself from his people. He has grown stubborn and independent that he will no longer listen to advice. His loneliness was aggravated by the arrival of a young pretender. From a life of poverty, he rose to a position of power, but this too was hebel because he too was beguiled by power and became isolated and lonely. The Preacher shows that the scenario of power is a great anti-climax.
Henry David Thoreau said that ‘most men live lives of quiet desperation and die with their songs still inside them.’ The Preacher has a solution to the desperation of loneliness and he provides it in 4:9- 13. He advocates nurturing of companionship and embracing wisdom.
It is a blessed thing to have a companion to share the day with. When I was in business I used to travel widely in Europe and America. I stayed in the most amazing hotels and ate in the best restaurants. But almost always alone unless I was entertaining a client. I found myself sending photographs back to Liz and wishing she was with me to share the surroundings and the food. The opulence of the surroundings often seemed grey because it wasn’t an experience that was shared.
Companionship is a wonderful thing. John Milton said in Paradise Lost that the first thing that God pronounced ‘not good’ was the loneliness of man. Marriage is the closest companionship that you can have, but married couples should still seek companionship with others.
In 4:13 the Preacher points to the advantage that the youth has over the old king. The youth has wisdom. Wisdom here is offered as a way to overcome loneliness. Wisdom prevents us from falling into the traps that lead to loneliness.
Ultimately wisdom will lead us to fear the Lord (Prov 9:10). As we are adopted by God into His family we find we have brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us make the most of that family and develop and cultivate companionship with God’s people.
Lord we are never alone when we know that You are our Shepherd. Help us to see that as Shepherd You gather us into the flock of Your people. Help us to have friends by showing ourselves friendly. Lord these days we live in make it difficult to cultivate friendships as we can’t meet together. Lord as we are prevented from being together, help us when lock down is over to make the most of companionship, because we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.