Vanity of Toil. 1Again I saw all the oppressions that take place under the sun: the tears of the victims with none to comfort* them! From the hand of their oppressors comes violence, and there is none to comfort them!a 2And those now dead, I declared more fortunate in death than are the living to be still alive.b 3And better off than both is the yet unborn, who has not seen the wicked work that is done under the sun. 4Then I saw that all toil and skillful work is the rivalry of one person with another. This also is vanity and a chase after wind.
5“Fools fold their arms
and consume their own flesh”—*
6Better is one handful with tranquility
than two with toil and a chase after wind!
Companions and Successors. 7Again I saw this vanity under the sun: 8those all alone with no companion, with neither child nor sibling—with no end to all their toil, and no satisfaction from riches. For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good things? This also is vanity and a bad business. 9Two are better than one: They get a good wage for their toil. 10If the one falls, the other will help the fallen one. But woe to the solitary person! If that one should fall, there is no other to help. 11So also, if two sleep together, they keep each other warm. How can one alone keep warm? 12Where one alone may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord* is not easily broken.
13* Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows caution; 14for from a prison house he came forth to reign; despite his kingship he was born poor. 15I saw all the living, those who move about under the sun, with the second youth who will succeed him.* 16There is no end to all this people, to all who were before them; yet the later generations will not have joy in him. This also is vanity and a chase after wind.
* [4:1] Oppressions…victims…none to comfort: the author obviously feels deeply about the plight of the oppressed, but he seems to feel powerless to do anything. The repetition of “none to comfort” is purposeful, and emphatic.
* [4:5] Consume their own flesh: an enigmatic statement. In the context of vv. 4 and 6 it seems to warn that those who refuse to work for the necessities of life will suffer hunger and impair their bodily health. But the verse could also be intended for the industrious: Even the lazy may manage to have “their own flesh,” that is, have sufficient food to eat.
* [4:12] A three-ply cord: an ancient proverb known centuries before biblical times. The progression (“two together…three-ply”) seems to imply, “If two are good, three are even better.”
* [4:15] The king is no sooner dead than the people transfer their allegiance to his successor.
* [4:17] The house of God: the Temple in Jerusalem. Obedience…sacrifice: the Temple was the place not only for sacrifice but also for instruction in the Law. Sacrifice without obedience was unacceptable; cf. 1 Sm 15:22; Hos 6:6.