Again, I observed all the acts of oppression being done under the sun. Look at the tears of those who are oppressed; they have no one to comfort them. Power is with those who oppress them; they have no one to comfort them. So I admired the dead, who have already died, more than the living, who are still alive. But better than either of them is the one who has not yet existed, who has not seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.
I saw that all labor and all skillful work is due to a man’s jealousy of his friend. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.
The fool folds his arms
and consumes his own flesh.
Better one handful with rest
than two handfuls with effort and a pursuit of the wind.
Again, I saw futility under the sun: There is a person without a companion, without even a son or brother, and though there is no end to all his struggles, his eyes are still not content with riches. “So who am I struggling for,” he asks, “and depriving myself from good?” This too is futile and a miserable task.
Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts. For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up. Also, if two lie down together, they can keep warm; but how can one person alone keep warm? And if someone overpowers one person, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.
Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer pays attention to warnings. For he came from prison to be king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom. I saw all the living, who move about under the sun, follow a second youth who succeeds him. There is no limit to all the people who were before them, yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind. (Ecclesiastes 4, Holman Standard Bible)
In this chapter, the preacher widens the list of stuff that is vanity (or futile, depending on the translation you're reading). He adds to it: oppression, power, living, hard work, excess, loneliness, self-sufficiency, and building a legacy to accompany your name.
Wow. That's quite a list, and I'm willing to bet that you'd find several of those on the how-to books with lists teaching you how to succeed in business, life, and other endeavors. In fact, I'm sure it's not uncommon to think of about half of them as virtues -- not vices.
And out of all the world who does he find to admire? Dead people. No, not zombies, you nut jobs. Honest to God corpses. And even better than them, folks who were never born. Because they never had to feel all this emptiness and vanity and futility, never had to feel the existential tug of war between wanting to matter and ultimately not mattering in and of themselves, never had to experience that search for significance in the eyes of themselves, their neighbors, their bosses, their families, etc. only to find the brick wall we all eventually run up against.
The outcome? Take it easy. Don't stress so much about it. It's better to rest with one handful than be exhausted and have two handfuls. It's almost like THE MOVIE POTHEAD'S GUIDE TO LIFE. It certainly fits the stereotype of the '80s flick stoner, doesn't it?
Don't rock the boat. Enjoy yourself as best you can in spite of the pain and emptiness.
Doesn't sound like the "God has a wonderful plan for you" tract that we often hear about. Not at all.
Luckily he switches topic before we all slit our wrists.
Since we're stuck here, he continues, you know what's really bad? Not having anyone to help you out. Being lonely. Sure, we all need solitude from time to time, but all-out loneliness is something far different. Nobody to hang out with, get to know and be known by, to struggle with through all the questions and hard work -- no one to do things for (kind of flies in the face of our me-focused lifestyles, huh).
A person with a companion, a friend is like a rope made from two interwoven cords, is like a body that can keep warm in spite of the cold, is like someone who can help defend and be defended by another. And adding a third strand to that pair... well, that makes it even that much better.
But hold on. What's he talking about here and where did that other person suddenly come from? I could be way off here because people during the Old Testament years didn't get all up close and personal with a holy God and kept their faith personal but still at an arm's distance. (God was, after all, a dangerous entity who might smite you dead for something like accidentally touching the Ark of the Covenant. It wasn't until the New Testament that Jesus blew religious and irreligious minds with his crazy talk about actually being friends with God through the Holy Spirit.) Regardless, I think the writer (preacher) has subtly introduced the ultimate end-game of his essay into this part. I think he's hinting at something to come without making it too obvious yet. But what is it?
When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were inside Babylon's fiery furnace, one plus one plus one didn't add up to three. It added up to four. There was a fourth man in the flames.
I think that's what the preacher is hinting at here to. Not only do we need each other, but we need something, nay, Someone even stronger. We need God. And with Him woven into that three-stranded rope, things begin to take on a different, less empty, less vain, less futile glow.
It's good to be wise, and perhaps feeling the existential twitch IS the beginning of wisdom. After all, we have to know we're missing something before we ever begin to search for it, or even to look as listen as it searches for us.
Perhaps this existential ouch is our Gandalf that sets us off on the quest to destroy the ring. Maybe. We'll see.