Solomon has thus far spent time discussing the vanity of life under the sun. He has been examining common ways people search for relevance and meaning and finds them fleeting and frustrating. If wisdom, pleasure, and work cannot bring contentment, what can? Solomon next examines relationships. Can our relationships provide happiness and meaning to our lives? The answer is the same as the answer given for wisdom, pleasure, and work: relationships can provide temporary happiness and moments of satisfaction, but it is fleeting and frustrating. Relationships are good, but because sin has distorted relationships they are vanity. You will not find relevance and meaning in relationships.
Man’s Hatred of His Neighbor (1-3)
Relationships are vanity because of man’s oppression of his neighbor. Solomon starts chapter 4 by saying, “I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them!” (1). Robert Burns wrote: “Many and sharp the num’rous ills Inwoven with our frame! More pointed still we make ourselves Regret, remorse, and shame! And man, whose heav’n-erected face The smiles of love adorn, – Man’s inhumanity to man Makes countless thousands mourn!”
Solomon sees the ugliness of man’s inhumanity to man by declaring “I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive” (2). He goes further than this by saying: “but better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun” (3). Solomon laments that those who have not lived in this world are better off than those who have lived in this world because of the oppression and wickedness in this world.
Man’s Envy of His Neighbor (4-6)
Relationships are vanity because of man’s envy of his neighbor. Envy manifests itself when someone is discontent and/or resentful of someone else (their possessions, personality, etc.). Solomon examined the toil and the skill of those around him and he came to the conclusion that it is infested with “man’s envy of his neighbor.” Any good that is done is done not for God’s glory but so that someone can be better than someone else. This is vanity.
In verse 5 Solomon uses a Hebrew idiom “the fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.” This idiom means that a foolish person refuses to work (is lazy and loves to sleep) and therefore wastes away (ruins himself). In Proverbs 6:10-11 we find a similar statement: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber and want like an armed man.” In verse 6, we are told that a handful of quietness is better than two hands of toil. More is not always better. Proverse 15:16 says, “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it.”
Man’s Absence of His Neighbor (7-12)
Relationships are vanity when they are non-existent. How horrible it is when a person does not have a good friend. It is vanity because we were designed for relationships. Solomon gives an example of an overworked person with no one to share life with (7-8). He then speaks of the blessing of good friends who can: 1) help one another when one falls (9-10), 2) keep one another warm (11), 3) protect one another from an enemy (12). God designed humans to be in community and life is vanity without loving, meaningful relationships.
Parable: Wise Youth and Foolish King
Chapter 4 closes with a parable of a poor boy and a foolish king (13-16). Solomon says it is better to be a poor youth who is wise than a rich king who is foolish. Wisdom is better than wealth. Once again, this is supported by the Proverbs. Proverbs 3:13-15, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her.” The king is rich and powerful but foolish because “he no longer knew how to take advice.”
Relationships Require Redemption
Relationships are vanity when hatred, envy, and absence infest them. You cannot find satisfaction and meaning in relationships unless you have been redeemed. Romans 3:24 says that Christians “are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Redemption involves many things including forgiveness of sin (Eph 1:7) and adoption into the family of God (Gal 4:5). Through the Gospel, we are redeemed from sin and given eternal life. The Holy Spirit indwells us (John 14:17) and begins the work of sanctification (1 Cor 6:11) so that we will grow in spiritual maturity and become mature disciples of Christ.
Once we have been redeemed and reconciled to God, we can have meaningful relationships with those around us. Jesus can enable us to be peacemakers. Jesus can enable us to forgive those who have hurt us. Jesus can enable us to humble ourselves so that we can seek forgiveness for those we have hurt. Jesus can replace our hatred with love. Jesus can replace our envy with compassion. Jesus can develop key relationships around us and help us to reach out to those who are in need of a friend. Let us seek God’s wisdom and watch Him redeem our relationships for His glory and our good.