The Word Made Fresh
1Then I saw all the ways in which people are oppressed under the sun. I saw the tears of the oppressed. I saw they have no comforter, and that power was on the side of their oppressors. 2I thought those who had already died were more fortunate than the living; 3but even better than both is the one who has not yet been born and has not seen the evil things that are done under the sun.
4I saw that toil and skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This is also vanity and chasing after the wind.
5Fools fold their hands and bring ruin on themselves. 6Isn’t a handful with peace better than two with hard work and chasing after the wind?
7I saw vain displays under the sun. 8I saw solitary people with no sons or brothers. But there seems to be no end of their work and their eyes are constantly drawn toward riches. “Who am I working for?” they ask. “For whom am I toiling away and depriving myself of any pleasure?” This, too, is a vain and unhappy business.
9Two are better than one because they are rewarded for the work they do. 10If one of them falls, the other will lift him up. But if one is alone and falls and doesn’t have another to help, that is too bad. 11If two sleep together they will stay warm. Too bad, though, for one who is alone. 12One might be able to defeat another, but two will overcome one, and a cord of three strands is not easily broken.
13It is better to be a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer will take any advice. 14Of course, someone may come out of jail to reign, even though born among the poorest families in the kingdom. 15I saw those who live under the sun follow that youth who became king, 16and there was no end to the number of people whom he led, but those who come later will not accept him. Is this not also no more than a vain pursuit of the wind?
1-3: This sentiment — that the dead and the unborn are better off than the living — is reminiscent of Job. The author’s perspective is too narrow, though. Oppressed people may suffer for a time, but Israel’s own history provides evidence that God hears the cries of the oppressed and will come to their aid even though in human terms deliverance may seem painfully delayed.
4: To say that all toil and skill result from envy is a sweeping indictment of humankind that goes a bit too far, I think, although it is often true.
5-6: Verse 5 echoes several verses in Proverbs that point out the poverty caused by laziness. However, it is allowed in verse 6 that too much hard work may not be all that desirable, either.
7-12: Another meaningless human condition, according to the author, is the case of a man with no family, an only child who never marries. That condition is compared to companionship in which each helps the other, and a league of three companions is even stronger.
13-16: Here is another similar comparison, that between a poor but wise young man (David?) and a foolish king who won’t listen to reason (Saul?). Verse 14 seems to hearken all the way back to Joseph, a prisoner who became Prime Minister of Egypt. In spite of his remarkable success story, though, even Joseph was forgotten by later generations.
The author goes down a list of situations – from the dead and unborn to the only child who never marries, then to the rewards of friendship. Poor but wise is better than powerful but foolish.