Work for Wisdom and Fear God

I. Chapter 4 – In a world so filled with sin, injustice, inequity, and self-centeredness wisdom is not valued and all things soon come to vanity

A. Verses 1-3 – The dominant reality of consciousness in a fallen world is of injustice, unrighteousness, and failures.

  1. Myriads of persons are born into situations where their entire life will be marked by oppression. None of the joys of personal freedom, personal ambition, respect among peers that seem naturally resident in the human soul will be theirs. Their perception of something beyond oppression never is to be realized. Their lot is tears, not joy, and none can lift the burden of unbroken disappointment. While power is on the side of the oppressor, the sense of perfect joy and tranquility that he seeks also escapes him. His position of dominance is not more fulfilling than subordination. Power does not bring peace of soul.
  2. Giving an evaluation, therefore of the state of soul of both oppressed and oppressor, Solomon prefers a departure from this life. Because wickedness dominates the relationships between men, the dead are better off than the living. A fallen world ravaged by fallen people presents scenes of supposed pleasure and fulfillment but has no answer for the ennui that cascades in the soul upon the failure of event after event to settle one in a state of pleasure and satisfaction. The dead don’t have to put up with the continually failing promises of life.
  3. Even better than those who have lived and died is the state of non-existence, of never having had any consciousness, for the permanent mark of sensation in the soul is distress, disappointment, despair. Those that never have been and thus have not experienced the evils and oppression of men are better than both the dead and the living. Solomon grieved to see the dominance taken by the mighty and the rich (“the evil activity”) over those that were dependent on them. As Solomon speaks of things done “under the sun” he has in mind the world of men left to itself, reaping all the fruit of its fallen condition. God is above the sun; He is Creator and nothing escapes his knowledge and his just accounting.

B. Verses 4-6 –

  1. The observation Solomon made in verse 4 is sobering and indicates how thoroughly our fallenness has penetrated all we do. Even in the most altruistic vocations and those tasks that call for the most unselfish laying out of one’s energy, envy and competition make their way in. The inescapability of vanity is seen in that the world of labor and inventiveness and accomplishment is driven by envy and a desire to outstrip others in possessions and recognition;
  2. At the same time, the foolish person who does nothing destroys himself as if he were eating his own flesh. The answer to envious labor is not idleness and refusal to contribute. The latter is more destructive in a world in need of redemption than the former. The answer to bad is not worse.
  3. Given the stress and the increasing jealousy and envy driven by competition, Solomon accepts a “handful of quietness” as worth more than the toil that simply creates vexation of spirit, destruction of relationships, oppressiveness of the weak, and striving after the wind. But both hands must not be occupied by quietness and rest; he says “one hand full of rest.”

C. Verses 7-12 – Sympathetic companionship helps one cope with the cruel emptiness of mere survival. He sees a clear case of “vanity under the sun” (7).

  1. Solomon envisions one whose work is endless and whose wealth grows (8). He finds no joy in this labor, however, for with no other person will it ever be shared. He will accumulate wealth but never enjoy its fruit for the life of solitary unshared material gains gives no sense of meaning.
  2. Under the oppressions of the cruel, one that shares the load and helps with the toil gives relief to the seemingly endless difficulty of life (9-11). A zeal for advancement that no one else shares or an individual goal that no one else values makes for distressing solitude. Companionship gives strength and security; it gives a joy to all situations that would be worthless and drudgery in its absence.
  3. Ah, but if there were three, then the strength would be complete; the approval and agreement of a third to the sentiments and goals shared by two give a completeness and a fellowship that satisfies. Jesus promised not to leave his disciples as orphans, but that he would send another like him, the Comforter. In fact, through his work we have fellowship with the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a threefold cord that is impossible to break.

D. Verses 13-16 – Even well-executed wisdom eventually comes to vanity when made subject to the judgments of mere men in this world.

  1. For sheer goodness and beneficial work in the world, an inherited position of power without teachability is useless. A king who cannot be instructed by wise counsel (13) will bring a plague on his people. Solomon’s own son, Rehoboam, proved the truth of tis observation (2 Chronicles 10).
  2. Solomon tells of the accomplishment of a young man that had very little advantage in his birth or his possessions. By sheer dint of wisdom and successful execution of plans, he gained a large following and brought great benefit to a large number of people. But those that come after him will not recognize the good he did, or the intensity of thought and relentlessness in his pursuit of a course of action that he knew would be successful. They will look to themselves, seek glory for themselves, and refuse to recognize the greatness of one that preceded them. This is “vanity and striving after the wind” (16).



II. Chapter 5 – A heightened awareness of God mocks the vanity of this life and puts it in proper perspective

A. Verse 1-7 – One should know that God is not to be dealt with lightly as an object of religious manipulation by meaningless forms of religion and pious but merely formal language.

  1. Verse 1 – Though God had put in place a sacrificial system, one must realize that it spoke of the necessity of death for sin. It pictured a God that would by no means clear the guilty but would exact the due punishment for transgression (Deuteronomy 34:6, 7). A person, therefore, that brought the required sacrifice in a merely ritualistic way, with no feeling of remorse for sin and with no spirit of awe in the presence of God (Deuteronomy 34:8, 9) would merely multiply his transgression. Before the required sacrifice is offered, one must draw near and listen. He must hear what God says about himself.
  2. verses 2, 3 – Words must be at a minimum in such a holy moment as appearing before God as a sinner in hope of mercy. The simple, “Lord be merciful to me, the sinner” is sufficient. We do not talk our way into favor with God, but we listen to his word; for faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. Another piece of wisdom literature says, “Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. . . . and receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save your souls.” (James 1:19, 21) “The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20).
  3. Verses 4-7 – A type of meaningless words used by fools is the expressions of vows and promises to God. God can not be put off with mere words nor fooled by disingenuous palaver. Fool neither yourself nor give greater reason to God for wrath by meaningless bargains with him. Religion that is merely formal or only a matter of talk, is vain. Don’t talk and chatter before God as he were your chum. There is forgiveness with him that he may be feared. If we grasp the cost of forgiveness through the blood of Christ on the one hand and the cost of unforgiven sin on the other, we will approach God is awe and a deeply respectful, worshipful fear.

B. Verses 8-17 – How passing and frivolous and subject to abuse and evil interlopers are all material possessions.

  1. verses 8, 9 – The tendency to oppression and graft in society calls for authorities and then authorities above authorities. A society is blest if its highest authority—the king in this case—is committed to a productive economy that will provide the necessities for all the land’s inhabitants. Otherwise, bribery and sheer power will rule society and justice and honest production will be rare.
  2. In a fallen world and a parasitic society, those that love money and obtain it will find themselves unsatisfied for their desire for wealth can never be quenched. They also will find themselves surrounded by flatterers, on whom they depend for their sense of accomplishment, and their wealth becomes consumed by the pure vanity of both flatterer and flattered.
  3. But a man who works and enjoys the challenge of labor in itself, because work is good, will sleep well with a sense of fulfillment though he might have little to eat (12a). The full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep because, “The folks with plenty o’ plenty, got a lock on the door. ‘Fraid somebody’s a’goin’ to rob ‘em while they’s out a makin’ more. What for? What for?” (Porgy and Bess)
  4. verses 13-15 – Some in an effort to gain more money quickly, make investments that promise to multiply their principle rapidly. The investment turns bad and the money is lost. His plenty has turned to nothing and his son who could have benefited from a more discreet and discerning father in money matters, now has nothing. The man returns to his original position of having nothing. He came into the world naked and so shall he go out of it. He spent his life in the service of money and it deceived him. “What gain is there to him who toils for the wind?”
  5. Verses 16, 17 – This loss, because it represents the failure of his life, that to which he committed his energy and in which he found his only delight, slipped away in a moment and all he has left is loneliness, vexation, sickness and anger. No wonder Paul told Timothy to charge those that are rich in the things of this present age “not to be haughty, not to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

C. Verses 18-20 – The writer expands his statement on the present enjoyment of temporal blessings as a manifestation of divine providence. In proper perspective, meaningful toil will yield joy; likewise wealth, if seen as a gift of God and used for the advancement of joy will yield the fruit of temporal satisfaction within a godward framework. Again, Solomon the inspired wise observer of the ways of men “under the sun,” reiterates that we should enjoy all that God has given us in the context of its temporality. We use it for the temporal joy it affords, but constantly seek its usefulness for eternal things (Ecc. 2:24-26; Ecc 3:9-13; 5:18-20; 8:15; 10:17; 1 Timothy 4:3, 4; Phil 4:12; Luke 12:13 (rich fool) Luke 16:1-3 : The unjust steward, commended by Jesus, knew that money could be transformed into a sense of personal indebtedness and secure relationships if handled with discretion.) The children of the kingdom must be even more intent on the transformation of money into personal relations of an eternal nature.


Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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