Addiction to Advancement (4:7-8)

4:7 And again, I saw a (case of) vanity under the sun: 4:8 there is a man who is all alone by himself; he does not even have a son or brother. But there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are not satisfied with riches. "For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?" This also is vanity and a grievous business.

Qoheleth goes on to recount an observation about a man who had more money than he could ever use and had no one to share or inherit his wealth. Yet he kept toiling to the point of depriving himself of pleasure. Note that Qoheleth suddenly introduces a question in the first person: “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?" Some translators add the phrase, “And he never asks,” while others, “And he asks,” before the question. Did he ask that question or did he not? We tend to think that he did not because most people in a similar situation would not stop and ask themselves that question. This is pathetic.

But in general, when a first person discourse suddenly interrupts a third person narration, as is the case here, the assumption is that the character just referred to uttered it. This is how we read a narrative. If the man did indeed stop and ask, but kept on doing what he was doing, it is more pathetic. He was clearly addicted to the pursuit of wealth. Whether he asked or not, “this also is vanity and a grievous business.” In this particular context the idea of vanity carries the added nuance of “meaninglessness.” For this particular case of vanity is so absurd in the eyes of any sane observer that we can imagine Qoheleth actually thinking, “This (case of vanity) is meaningless!” Perhaps, the man did not actually ask the question himself. But he should have, and so Qoheleth puts the question into his mouth to express how absurd it is (cf. Whybray 1989: 86).

Since this man could not spend all his money and there was no one to share or inherit it, was he really pursuing after riches itself? The connective phrase, “And again,” indicates that this passage relates to that preceding it, which is about the drive to work hard and smart out of rivalry. This observation then is an illustration of what can happen when people are driven by the quest for superiority. Since material wealth and the social status that it brings often enable one to get what he wants, when people pursue after riches, it is often socio-economic power that they are really after.

However, like the pursuit of pleasure, this pursuit of power is just another expression of the God-given task of seeking after the meaning of life (1:13; 3:10). Psychiatrist Frankl would agree. Having affirmed that the search for meaning is the primary motivation in humans he said, “That is why I speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle (or, as we could also term it, the will to pleasure) on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centered, as well as in contrast to the will to power on which Adlerian psychology, using the term ‘striving for superiority,’ is focused” (1984: 121). People do pursue after pleasure (so observed Freud) or power (Adler), or both. But they do it to find the meaning of life. They will not succeed. Hence, just as Qoheleth observed, it is not surprising that the man was not satisfied with his wealth (and the socio-economic power that it brought). When what you have does not satisfy your real need, you are not satisfied with what you have, no matter how much you have. So you are driven to pursue after more and more and thus become addicted to it.

Admonition on Cooperation (4:9-12)

4:9 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their toil. 4:10 For if either of them falls, one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls and there is not another to lift him up! 4:11 Also, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 4:12 And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can withstand him--a threefold cord is not easily broken.

Whybray captures the theme of this passage very well: “it is dangerous and unwise for the individual to attempt to face life alone, and simple common sense to seek the co-operation of others in all that one does” (1989: 86). When two people cooperate and work together, their return is better than the sum of each working separately. This is because they can complement, not just supplement, each other’s abilities. Three specific examples are used to illustrate this principle. When one person falls, especially if he injures himself and there is no one to help, it is indeed “woe to him.” In ancient times, one effective way of keeping warm in a cold winter night is to lie together. This is not limited to husband and wife but can also refer to two male travelers. And finally, it is common experience that when we have a companion with us we are less likely to be a victim of crime than when we are all alone. So “two are better than one.”

There is no need to read any significance into the unexpected occurrence of the number “three” (instead of “two”) in the proverbial saying, “a three-fold cord is not easily broken,” as there is probably no such thing as a two-fold cord. The meaning is clear: pluri-unity is strength. This nicely summarizes the theme of cooperation in this passage. It has wide applications. But in this context, it is the antidote to the problem behind the observations of vanity above. The man addicted to the pursuit of wealth is an extreme example of someone working hard and smart, driven by rivalry in pursuit of self-advancement. The drive to compete with others is often fueled by the need to feel superior to them. But Qoheleth admonishes that it is better to cooperate with others so that we could bless them and be blessed in return. We can then prosper together with them. In our capitalistic culture of socio-economic rivalry, we may have to compete even when we are not seeking self-advancement. But we can still cooperate with others, especially those who share our goals.

If one is driven to pursue socio-economic power for self-advancement, he is less likely to use it to bless others. More likely, he will abuse it to oppress others in one way or another. For what is the use of the hard-gained power if you cannot display it? Those who oppress others alienate not just their victims but also some of their friends. And those who still side with them may be doing so only out of fear or greed, or both. So oppressors may not be able to tell who their real friends are, if they still have any. When trouble strikes, they may find themselves very much alone. So they need to fear God and heed Qoheleth’s admonition on cooperation. In light of the uncertainties of life, they will never know when they will lose their wealth, status and power and come face to face with their greatest fear: they lack genuine friends when they desperately need them.

Delusion of Power and Popularity (4:13-16)

4:13 Better is a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to take advice, 4:14 for he went from prison to the throne, even though he had been born poor in his kingdom. 4:15 I saw all the living, those who walk under the sun, with the second youth who replaced him. 4:16 There was no end to all the people, to all those whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a pursuit of wind.

We cannot be certain of the details of this story, but the overall message is clear: the vanity of power and popularity. In light of the foregoing discussion on rivalry and socio-economic advancement, this observation on political power is timely here. The thread of power runs through this chapter, beginning with oppression and the abuse of power, to competition and the pursuit of socio-economic power, and ending here with the delusion of the popularity that comes with political power. Some translators remove the Hebrew word translated “the second” in verse 15 and read the phrase as, “with the youth who replaced him (the old and foolish king).” This would mean there are only two characters and not three in this story. But since the text as it stands makes adequate sense, there is no need to tamper with it. In any case the message remains basically the same.

The focus is on the transitoriness of the popularity of the wise young king who replaced the foolish old one. Being young was not a disadvantage because he was wise. His wisdom was first demonstrated in his ability to rise from prison to the throne even though he was born poor in the land he eventually ruled. So he was better than the former king, who though he had the advantage of age he no longer knew how to take advice (cf. Whybray 1989: 89). This young king was an unlikely candidate to kingship. For in premodern times the social status one was born with usually determined how far one could rise in the social ladder. So he would be admired. And when he also proved to be wise in ruling the people in contrast to his foolish predecessor, he was bound to be very popular. Thus he was a positive example of power and popularity. This aptly concludes this thread of discussion on the pursuit and use of power. For to be king is to be at the pinnacle of social advancement, and the positive example here would show us whether power is worth pursuing. The lesson here applies to all pursuits of self-advancement.

Qoheleth observed that when this shining example of power and popularity was replaced, the people were with the next (youthful) king. The phrase, “to all those whom he led” (verse 16), in the Hebrew text reads, “to all before whom he was (stood).” The idea is that the wise young king was so popular that there was “no end” to the people before whom he stood “to acknowledge their allegiance” (Seow 1997: 185). But when even he, who had such an inspiring success story behind him, was replaced, the people throng to the next king. Not only that. The future generations (“those who come later”) would not remember or celebrate his former greatness (“will not rejoice in him”). Past political leaders would understand what Qoheleth is saying here better than the rest of us.

All power and popularity are transitory. When pursued for the fleeting glory associated with them as a means to find the meaning of life, they will disappoint. Though it is not spelled out in the text, when a king, or anyone in power, heeds Qoheleth's admonition on cooperation, his power and popularity could be used to serve others, and he would then find satisfaction and thus meaning in his work.


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