A Crash Course in People Skills

The Meaning of Life Series

  • What happens when we seek ultimate meaning outside of relationship with the Creator God? What happens when we're desperate for the answers to life but can't seem to find any? What happens when our souls get wearied from the constant pursuit of pleasure and possessions? These are enormous questions of life and meaning that Ecclesiastes grapples with in the timeless complexity and messiness of reality. In the end, the ancient philosopher recalibrates our hearts, minds, and lives to pursue meaning in the Ultimate God because God alone holds the key to the meaning of life.
5. A Crash Course in People Skills (Ecclesiastes 4:1-16)
  • Can we find meaning in life even though getting ahead?
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
  • The human drive to be in power, the best, and always on top, derives from pride, and envy, and leads to oppression and meaningless toil. (Ecclesiastes 4:1, 4)
  • The pursuit of accumulation and advancement to the exclusion of personal relationships is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 4:4, 8, 16)
  • There is goodness in personal relationships. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
  • What are your motivations in what you do? Do you find you always want to be in charge, in power, on top?
  • Why do you work and accumulate? Does your singular focus on work and accumulating shut out personal relationships?
  • How do you find two to be better than one? Three to be better than two?
Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
  • Why is there oppression?
  • What is the result of oppression?
  • Why might the oppressor need comfort, and why is there none?
  • What is the relationship between labor and achievement to envy?
  • Why is there no meaning in labor and achievement if it derives from envy of others?
  • What is wrong and meaningless about seeking after riches with a singular focus that shuts out everything else?
  • What are the good things about having a companion, partner, helper, whether it's one or even two?
  • What is vanity about leaders as time passes by?
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
  • Am I in some way an oppressor of others? If yes, who are you oppressing and why? If yes, why should you cease oppressing? If not you, do you know anyone who is an oppressor and what his or her motivation is?
  • Are you oppressed by another person or persons? If yes, what is the basis of that oppression? If not you, do you know anyone who is oppressed and why?
  • What things do you seek after, that is, seek to achieve? Why?
  • Do you find that you envy your “neighbor” in any way, and that such envy is a basis for your working to achieve?
  • What meaning in your life might you be seeking in your achievements? In your leadership advancement?
  • Are you in any way leaving people out of your life as a result of a singular focus on work and advancement? If yes, what should you do about it?
  • How important are others to you? Do you see them as helpers, sharers of burdens, protectors? What is good about those relationships?
Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
  • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
In verse 22 of chapter 3, the Preacher left us with a suggested course to follow in the face of meaninglessness, namely to enjoy the good things of life given by God, including good deeds, creative work, food and rejoicing. But as quickly as the thought of verse 22 was offered, the Preacher moves on to find more vanity in the context of human relationships (Ecclesiastes 4, 6, 8, 16).

First, the Preacher comments on injustice (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:16 & 17), and notes that in human relationships one finds oppression; that is, situations where one group of people (the oppressors) “lord it over” another group (the oppressed). This is a situation common among human beings which derives from the thirst for power and control exercised over others. The thinking goes that I lift myself up at the expense of others. The oppressed can only cry, and in their tears find no one to comfort them (Ecclesiastes 4:1b). The oppressors have the power and no tears; yet they, too, find no comfort in their position as it is never enough (Ecclesiastes 4:1b). The Preacher’s conclusion: the oppressed would be better off dead than alive (Ecclesiastes 4:2), or better yet, not ever having been born (Ecclesiastes 4:3). What an awful conclusion; it is no answer or solution to oppression, it's just meaninglessness, and certainly points to there being no meaning in relationships between oppressed and compressor.

Second, the Preacher comments on the drive to achieve and accumulate, and notes that such derives from one’s envy of others and the desire to “one up” one's neighbor, to be superior to or better than the neighbor, rather than finding meaning in the work itself (Ecclesiastes 4:4). Again, there is just meaninglessness and no meaning in relationships, only the lifting of one essentially at the expense of the other. The two proverbs of verses 5 and 6 give us two pictures of the implications of verse 4. Verse 5 speaks of the foolishness of the one who does nothing, who does the opposite of the one who works to accumulate and get ahead of others. His end is starvation. Verse 6 speaks of the necessary balance of rest and work, a balance which is not present in the person of either verse 4 or verse 5. But the Preacher goes on in verses 7 and 8 to point to the life of the one who labors to accumulate but does so in a relationship vacuum, without friends or family, and says that, too, is vanity. In short, it is vanity to achieve and accumulate when one is alone; the riches are hollow and end up going to no one known to the accumulator. All that work and accumulation is for nothing and is meaningless. Thus, the singular drive to achieve and accumulate leads to loneliness and emptiness, to a separation from others and relationships, and to the inability to live, as Ecclesiastes 3:22 suggested one do, in happiness in one’s work. Thus, it is “vanity and an unhappy business.” (Ecclesiastes 4:8b)

In contrast to the emptiness of verses 4 through 8, the Preacher goes on to point out the benefit of human relationships. How much better it is that one at least have a partner, another person with which to share the workload, to provide assistance, help and protection, not to mention creature comforts such as warmth. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-11) And for that matter, says the Preacher, three are better still (Ecclesiastes 4:12). While not stating it as such, the Preacher implies that in relationships there is meaning, irrespective of accumulation or power or achievement. And behind this implication is the fact that relationships are just as much gifts from the hand of God as are work, good food and enjoyment, and thus they are worthwhile in the living of life.

Even in the realm of politics, relationships, and wisdom in relationships, are important. The wise leader, as exemplified by the king in Verse 13, will continue to receive input and instruction as opposed to becoming foolishly dependent on himself alone and grasping to maintain power. (Ecclesiastes 4:13) Such a one is worse off than a poor young person who is wise though with no power, but who achieves a position of leadership (the throne), presumably by wise relationships with people including those he leads. (Ecclesiastes 4:14) Yet even that once wise young person must not forget how fickle people are and succumb to what one commentator referred to as the “revolutionary” who would seek to question and even usurp another's position (Ecclesiastes 4:15). Then again, the people will yet turn in their affections and become unhappy with that revolutionary. All of it, and all these relationships, are meaningless, so concludes the preacher, and a striving after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:16).

So the Preacher has found yet more meaninglessness, and has underscored the baseness of mankind without God, found in oppression, and envy and efforts at superiority. None of it leads to meaning or happiness. And in the midst of these things, human relationships are cast aside, victim to the foregoing baseness and selfishness. But as we've already seen, the Preacher still finds that relationships are worthwhile, and that they help all the individuals involved. Although the Preacher does not say they are God's gift, that implication is present, and the truth of verses 9-12 therefore stand out against the backdrop of the negativity of the surrounding verses. So then, even though there is vanity and striving after the wind in these things; yet the Preacher finds there seems to be some good available and it is in strong, mutually supportive relationships. In the end, even in the face of seeming meaninglessness, All is not lost!