And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
The fool folds his hands and ruins himself. Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind. Ecclesiastes 4:4-6.
Often times we read these types of statements without connecting them, as if they were unrelated truths or proverbs just haphazardly thrown into the paragraph. Yet if we look closely, we can see the relationship between the two ideas.
I looked up the word used for “fool” in our text just for fun and got an education on its various meanings. The word used here means “self-confident” or someone who is informed on what is right per his/her religious instructions but ignores the wisdom. In the context above it would take on significance by being stated, “The overly self-confident person folds his hands and ruins himself.” People like this chase after wealth with the air of someone who feels they know better. A similar word was used to name David’s nemesis in 1 Samuel 25.
It would be sorta’ like a runner who knew he or she was fast but coasted the last leg of the race because of their over confidence. They would come in second or third, not because they couldn’t do better with more effort but from pride in their own prowess.
I’m gonna’ take this one step further though.
Both those who fold their hands or who chase after the Joneses are fools for they ignore wisdom. Solomon concludes that having one handful with tranquility is by far better than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind, not because achievement or toil are bad but due to the motivation inspiring them. If our goal is to own what others gained, then we will work ourselves into the ground or figure out a way to take it—legally (through loopholes in the law) or illegally. Envy produces covetousness, which if left to fester, will produce something even worse.
There’s also another spin for this part of the passage which strikes me as lethal. Some will give up because two handfuls take far too much anxiety, instead they approach their idea of “tranquility” through the lens of one who is afraid to deal with the added stress of striving. While this is truth even in this context, I don’t think Solomon was making this point, however, since his illustration after this goes the other direction—striving after two handfuls is futility when one will do.
What would it be like if we all forgot about competing to get the best of one another and decided to accomplish great things for the joy of doing them? What would the world be like if our greatest successes were celebrated with parties instead of jealousy or critique? What would our own lives be like if we set out to build, create or be something just because our Creator made it possible for us to do so? What kind of world would we live in if everyone shared the resources and made sure we all had enough—and when someone didn’t have enough, we took from our abundance to make sure they did? What if the leaders of nations or that local book club (or whatever) were excited when someone in their group succeeded beyond their expectations? What would our relationships be like if we decided being top dog meant another way to serve? What if competition really was fun and for the joy of doing it rather than being better than or one-upping (is that even a word?) someone else.
Paul said, Godliness with contentment is great gain. If we struggle to be content, it has to do with our attitude about life rather than what we do or don’t have. I’d love to own a flat screen TV, but I can’t afford one, so I’m content with the one I have. It’s odd that things become more important than our relationships all too often. For years now I worked to have the attitude to be at peace than striving to get somewhere just like or better than someone else. This passage is one of my earliest memories, for Ecclesiastes was probably the fourth or fifth book I read after I gave my life to Jesus and this truth stood out for me. I haven’t always been content or happy with my life, but I gotta’ tell ya, the only time I’ve ever been peaceful has been in this mindset.
The word most misused in the English language has to be “deserve” because people will tell you they deserve things you know they haven’t worked for ever. It’s pretty sad when we put a price tag on our actions above what they warrant. To be blunt, we don’t really know what the rewards of any action should be for the simple reason our standard of sin is that murderer, child-molester, career thief or whoever we hold up as worse than ourselves to feel better about the sin we not only tolerate in our own lives but cherish. The reference of truth for the godly must center on Jesus, the author and completer of our faith. Our wealth, ideals and whatever else we value grows out of what He considers to be worthy pursuits. Envy, jealousy, covetousness and the like step outside of His character and thus outside of our scope, if our spiritual eyes are fixed on Him.