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Three Cords

Ecclesiastes 4

Lesson audioSolomon now descends to his depths:  is it possible that it’s better never to be born than to be born anything but into the upper, oppressor class?

Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 NASB  (1)  Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them.  (2)  So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living.  (3)  But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.


It is an ironic observation which must be made about this passage:  Solomon is an advocate of the “sociological viewpoint.”  That viewpoint, so common in modern academia, says that one must NEVER make a moral judgment on a situation; only report on its effects.  All cultures are equally valid, you know.[1]  Of course, it seldom is used to expose the perils of modern humanism.  After all, that wouldn’t be impartial.

Solomon has a similar view here:  remember – he’s the king.  He is the chief of the oppressors.  His system of creating public works, for example, relied on two things:

  • Forced labor – people were drafted to do the backbreaking work.  Remember, no power equipment in those days.
  • Bullwhip management – no thought given to the feelings or presumed rights of the laborers other than the necessity of the bullwhip.  After all, they certainly weren’t going to volunteer for this.
The facts

For most Americans it seems that Solomon must have been exaggerating a bit.  But the truth is simply this:

  • There is a lot of oppression on this planet.  It seems to be the first instinct of rulers to quash any dissent or disagreement, and one of the finest ways to do this is to round up the dissidents and put them to hard labor and starvation.
  • Despite artwork to the contrary, the oppressed are not happy peasants, glowing joyfully.
  • For such people, there is in their minds no hope for the future and no comfort in the present.

We are the exceptions, folks.  Most of the rest of the world expects dictatorship by those who are lining their pockets at the expense of the oppressed.

Solomon’s conclusion

It is almost comic:  while Solomon no doubt enjoys his life of luxury, vain though he knows it to be, he sees nothing for the oppressed.  In fact, his conclusion is rather startling:  it’s better to be dead than to be one of the oppressed.  Best of all is to never have been born in the first place.

This is the low point of Solomon’s search – and it is a Death Valley indeed.

Rat Race

Ecclesiastes 4:4-6 NASB  (4)  I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.  (5)  The fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh.  (6)  One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind.

The sin of envy

What’s Solomon talking about here?  It’s envy – or, to use an older word, covetousness.  Today it goes by a much more respectable name:  competition.  Amongst Republicans, it’s a virtue.  Amongst liberals, it’s just the human version of Darwinian struggle.  Both agree:  it’s inevitable.  And that’s a good thing, too. 

You think not?  Let me share with you the experience of my daughter.  She earns a living as a copy editor, often correcting student papers for grammar and for logic.  A professor at a local university, who teaches a course in Business Ethics, has sent a lot of business her way.  The professor seems to have some sense of ethics as Christians might understand ethics.  Her students almost uniformly do not.  When my daughter finally gets it through their heads that ethics implies a moral imperative, their universal response is that the moral imperative they follow is making more money for the company.  Anything that accomplishes that is, by definition, good.

What can we do about it?

Solomon saw this problem too:  we envy, we want, we compete.  What can be done about this yearning?

  • Like the business student, we can give in and make competition our top priority. 
  • Like the fool we can decline to participate at all – just quit, and in Solomon’s day starve.  Or beg.  Or go on welfare.
  • Or we can work, and enjoy the little we have. 
Unchallenged assumptions

May I point out why this is so common?  We have made assumptions in our society – some not new to us – which cause this.  In particular:

  • “More” is better.  A bigger house is better, a faster car, a larger TV – on and on it goes.
  • “I am what I buy.”  The modern American is defined by his possessions.[2]
  • I am better than you are – and pride is a virtue.


Ecclesiastes 4:7-12 NASB  (7)  Then I looked again at vanity under the sun.  (8)  There was a certain man without a dependent, having neither a son nor a brother, yet there was no end to all his labor. Indeed, his eyes were not satisfied with riches and he never asked, "And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?" This too is vanity and it is a grievous task.  (9)  Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.  (10)  For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.  (11)  Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone?  (12)  And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.

Solomon now gives us an example.  May I give you a personal counterpart?  My wife’s father is (at this writing) 95 years old.  He has disinherited his kids.  He is very rich, arrogant – and profoundly lonely.  He goes to his office six days a week; if he doesn’t, he will die for lack of purpose.

And for what? 


Why is this such a lonely life?  Because it is based on pride and competitiveness.  Everyone else around him must be treated as an inferior so that his pride may be maintained.  Solomon points out the obvious advantages of cooperation instead:

  • If you personally do all the thinking because you personally have all the brains, you just missed an awful lot of brain power.  Two people working together are more productive, physically and mentally, than twice one.
  • Can you really “handle it”  by yourself?  Is it really true that you have no need for family, friends, church or the society around you? 

What does this attitude say for our society?  In particular:

  • Is competition always a blessing?  For example, should automobile manufacturers be allowed to cooperate in developing safer cars?  (It’s a violation of antitrust statutes – competition is always good.)
  • Is competition always morally right?  And would you feel that way if you’re the one being laid off, with your job going to India?

The Man Who Has It Made

Ecclesiastes 4:13-16 NASB  (13)  A poor yet wise lad is better than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to receive instruction.  (14)  For he has come out of prison to become king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom.  (15)  I have seen all the living under the sun throng to the side of the second lad who replaces him.  (16)  There is no end to all the people, to all who were before them, and even the ones who will come later will not be happy with him, for this too is vanity and striving after wind.

So far we’ve been talking about the peons – the poor, the oppressed, the laid off.  But what about the guy who has it made?  In their world, what about the king?  Being king is good, right?

Solomon points out here that just because you’re king doesn’t mean that you’re not a victim of your own success.  “I got to the top because of my drive and intelligence – and the lessons I learned along the way are going to keep me here.  I don’t listen to anybody.”  In short, I don’t need to change.  I’m on top.  Everybody else should change to please me.

Better to be the new kid

Perhaps Solomon was thinking about his father, David.  But the point remains the same:  it’s better to be the new kid, because wisdom is better than foolishness.  Eventually, that kid will replace the king – and it feels so good to him when he does.  Being the new winner is great – or is it?

The next new kid

Just remember, new kid, that there’s another new kid waiting in the wings.  He will take your place.  And just as the people tired of you, they will tire of him.  And just as your works will be forgotten, so will his.  Future generations won’t care.

You think not?  As of this writing, the state of North Carolina is revising its high school curriculum in U.S. history.  History now starts in 1877 – right after reconstruction.  Pilgrims, colonies, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln – all are now just unimportant.  And forgotten. 

See why I said this chapter is the low point?

[1] Including the Aztecs who practiced human sacrifice.  As did many ancient civilizations.

[2] Ask me about the $100 hoodie sometime.








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