Ecclesiastes 4:4-6 meaning

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Ecclesiastes 4:4
  • Ecclesiastes 4:5
  • Ecclesiastes 4:6

Rivalry in our labor is tempered by working for what we need rather than to impress. A proper balance between striving and resting is better than a futile obsession with work. 

Next in Solomon’s discovery of vanity and striving after the wind, he observes that comparison and competition is the source of every labor and skill done under the sun. Human striving is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. Humans perform with a view to what others do and think. We are naturally competitive with one another.

Like all things which Solomon observes apart from faith, this is also vanity and striving after the wind. We impress someone today, then both they and their accomplishments are gone and forgotten tomorrow. What’s the point?

The two words here, labor and skill, have opposing connotations. The Hebrew word translated as labor is amal, which is troublesome work. Amal is often translated “toil.” The word translated as skill has the connotation of success. Every success and failure, indeed every thing we try to measure, is the result of rivalry. Our definition of winning is made in comparison with others. And this is vanity. I win today, you win tomorrow, then it all decays and is forgotten. Who cares?

On the other hand, we could do nothing. That’s arguably even worse. Striving after wind surely sounds superior to behavior that consumes our own flesh. And that is exactly what transpires from idle laziness. Inactivity is the lifestyle of the fool. The fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh.

So what do we do? It seems the answer is to enjoy our activities. Rather than obsession over one-upping our neighbor, get some balance in life. A life of one hundred percent work is striving after wind. Better to have one hand full of rest and one hand full of labor. That’s better than two fists full of labor. All work and no play is striving after wind.

Idleness is self-destructive. But rest is a part of God’s design. The Sabbath is a principle of resting. We need a healthy balance of rest and work, which is only possible if we avoid being obsessed with rivalry.

An application of Solomon’s observations in this passage is connected to the Bible’s teaching that we ought to work to please God (Col 3:23). When we follow God’s recipe and example for work, we will include an element of Sabbath rest. If the only goal is beating rivals, we won’t allow ourselves any rest. If we become addicted to work, then we will forget to enjoy it. And “there is nothing better than for a man to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good” (Ecclesiastes 2:24).

Biblical Text:
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.

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