1Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them.
2So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living.
3But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.
There is great evil that occurs on the earth, and often times it seems as though the wicked get away with evil (c.f. Psalm 73:3, 17). The reality is that they will be judged, for God will render to each according to his deeds. Yet in the meantime, oppression, evil, violence, and injustice occur. Those who are oppressed suffer at the hands of their oppressors, and they are without comforters, though they can have comfort in Christ if they know Him (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). If God wasn’t present in our suffering on earth (Colossians 1:24), it would be better off for a person to be dead than alive. In fact, as Solomon says, without God, a person is better off never having lived because of the evil and vanity of life. Life is utterly awful and meaningless if it is lived under the sun and without the Son of God.
4I 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.
Solomon has great insight into the human condition. Not only is there significant evil activity (v. 3), but people live always to impress somebody else. They live measuring themselves against what society says is successful or good, and they live for the approval of man rather than the approval of God. Rather than be content and pursue godliness, mankind without God runs the endless treadmill of trying to please people. Greed drives economies and societies rather than love, truth, and godliness. Solomon makes it plain that it is vanity and a chasing after wind to live constantly trying to impress others and gain their approval. It will never satisfy and never get a person to where they really need to be.
5The fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh.
6One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind.
If a person decides just to sit around, not work, and be lazy, he will hunger and die. Only a fool is lazy while on the earth. So it is no better to sit and do nothing than it is to chase the approval of others. Both are vanity. Yet, all things considered, resting some and working some is a better bet than constantly laboring in vain. Of course, the best thing is to rest some and work some, doing each for the glory of God.
7Then I looked again at vanity under the sun.
8There was a certain man without a dependent, having neither a son nor a brother, yet there was no end to all his labor. Indeed, his eyes were not satisfied with riches and he never asked, "And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?" This too is vanity and it is a grievous task.
Solomon eyes a single individual who lives independently, has no children, and no brothers. He has all the time in the world to himself, and he chooses to spend it laboring, earning up wealth for himself. Solomon sees this as vanity because he was never satisfied with his labor or his money. He never even asked himself what the purpose was to all of his work. He wasn’t doing it for the benefit of others, and he never even bothered to consider this. There are those who keep laboring to stay busy and occupied or to prove something to themselves or to others. Yet they miss out on pleasure, most importantly, the pleasure that comes from knowing God (Psalm 16:11). It is a real trap and grievous task to keep busy working for no purpose and for only selfish gain.
9Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.
10For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.
11Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone?
12And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.
Rather than be selfish and isolated, there is benefit to living life in fellowship with others. This is true in marriage, in church, and in family, even in society. When we live supporting each other, we can help each other in times of need. We can be there to encourage one another and to care for each other. There will be times when we will need help, and it is wise and beneficial to have others whom we can lean upon. It is a dangerous, difficult, and sorrowful place to be when we have only ourselves to rely upon, especially if we don’t rely upon God. Two is better than one because two has more strength, more flexibility, more security, and more comfort. It is easy to break a cord of one strand. Two strands are better because the extra strand makes the first strand stronger and harder to destroy. A cord of three strands is even stronger, and this speaks to the benefit of having others to support us in life. It is good to have one friend or spouse, but it is even greater to have even more than one person whom we can rely on. We can always rely upon God Who is always faithful (Lamentations 3:23).
13A poor yet wise lad is better than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to receive instruction.
14For he has come out of prison to become king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom.
15I have seen all the living under the sun throng to the side of the second lad who replaces him.
16There is no end to all the people, to all who were before them, and even the ones who will come later will not be happy with him, for this too is vanity and striving after wind.
In terms of earthly power and prosperity, generally speaking, the person with wisdom is better off than the person with power who is a fool. The masses will tend to follow the person with wisdom, even if poor or of a humble background, rather than a foolish person of power, status, and wealth. The wise person will show the people that he can be trusted and that he has their best interests in mind, while the foolish person will communicate to the people that he has his own interests in mind. Thus, the people prefer the wise person. The NKJV translates verse 16 as, “There was no end of all the people over whom he was made king; yet those who come afterward will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and grasping for the wind.” Solomon’s point is that people continue to die and be born, and they are fickle. Just because one generation respected a wise king does not mean that the next generation will. So, even though it is generally true that people respect a wise leader, it is not always true, particularly as morals decay in a society. Thus, it makes no sense to put confidence or worth in what others think because their views can change over time. Living for the approval of men is a wasted life, and trusting in the opinion of the masses is not a reliable way to live.