Ecclesiastes 3:22 declares, “there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.” We Americans bristle at the notion that we have been assigned some lot in life with which we must simply make do. If we do not like our current situation, we change it. Ours is a country of self-made men and women.
And yet, there are some things that no amount of self-making can undo, such as the facts that everything under the sun eventually goes “Poof!” and that we all die. Admittedly, neither life’s ephemerality nor our personal mortality are pleasant to think about, but they are real, and we must learn to live our lives based on reality. According to the Preacher, the first application of reality to our lives is that we learn to rejoice in our work (3:22). Ecclesiastes 4.1–16 offers four additional applications of reality to our lives, using the formula, “better than.” Let us take a look at each one.
First, the Preacher observes “the tears of the oppressed” and their lack of “comfort” (4:1). Seeing this, the Preacher concludes, “better than both [the living and the dead] is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun” (4:3). Now, at first glance, this seems like a counsel of despair, that nonexistence is preferable to existence. And yet, as Choon-Leong Seow points out, the Preacher’s counsel is ironic: “The alternative of not having lived is not an option that people can choose. The [better than]-saying thus points to the irony of human existence: what is really ‘better’ in this regard is not within the grasp of mortals…. What is better, then, is not to somehow be shielded from life’s painful realities but, as he intimates in 3:22, to enjoy oneself whenever it is possible to do so.”
Second, the Preacher tells us, “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind” (4:6). In other words, having less is more, when it comes to material possessions, especially if having more makes you crazy. Why? Because the drive to possess more and more stuff often arises from envy of one’s neighbors, which can never been satisfied. The Joneses cannot be kept up with, and the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. On the other hand, working hard to possess things—as long as it does not make you anxious—is better than the alternative: Only the “fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh” (4:5), a grotesque image of starvation resulting from laziness.
Third, the Preacher counsels us to get friends: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil” (4:9). Few blessings in life are as satisfying as heartfelt companionship. Friends help one another when one falls down, keep one another warm when it is cold, and protect one another when one is attacked. Moreover, friendship provides us a motivation to work, for through friendship, we have someone to share the fruit of our labor with.
Finally, then, the Preacher concludes: “Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice” (4:13). Wisdom, which the Preacher closely associates with teachability, takes a person far in life. It is through wisdom—moral knowledge practically applied—that men and women become successful and achieve prominence. But it is always better to be wise than successful, moral than powerful. Why? Because even leading people is a thing that goes “Poof!” Wisdom, on the other hand, being an attribute of God himself, lasts forever.
So, we have a lot in life that we cannot improve. Under the sun, all is ephemeral and we are mortal. And yet, within the confines of life under the sun, we can improve our condition if we make the best of what God has given us, use our material possessions sanely, get friends, and above all, acquire wisdom.