Three Ways to Live (Ecclesiastes 4:7-16)


I want to introduce you to three type of people you will meet in Liberty Village. Although the passage we’re reading was written at least 2,400 years ago, it accurately describes people that you can go out and meet today right around here. Not only that, but it helps us think about what we want to do with our lives. It’s a choice between three ways of living.

So let’s look at the three people we see in this passage, and all around us today. And let’s consider where we see ourselves in this picture.

First Person: The Hard-Working Professional

Here’s the first picture, found in verses 7 and 8:

Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business. (Ecclesiastes 4:7-8)

This person has a lot going for them:

  • They’re independent. They can live however they please.
  • They have a job, and a demanding one.
  • They have money.

In other words, this is the prototypical Liberty Village professional. Picture someone who has a great job, and who works long hours. Relationships have come and gone. But they’re doing okay. They have the condo. They have some money saved away. They can pretty much buy whatever they want. They’re not rich, but there’s enough money to buy some nice stuff for themselves. It’s a pretty good life overall.

You meet people like this around here every week. In fact, we praise this type of person. They know what they want. They make tough choices to get there. If you’re hiring, you’d gladly have this person working for you.

Yet there are problems with this picture. The Teacher examines this picture and finds two problems. The first is that success comes at a pretty steep price. Verse 8 speaks of a viscous circle: there’s no end to the toil. Why? Because they’re never satisfied. No matter how much they earn, it’s never quite enough. Last year’s bonus was nice, but unless you beat last year’s performance you’re not going to get a bonus this year, so you have to work even harder this year. So you’re caught in this treadmill of never having done quite enough. The carrot on the stick is always just slightly out of reach no matter how fast you run, so you keep running faster, but you never quite catch up.

You see this quite often. The stuff that we think will make us happy ultimately doesn’t. No job, no possession, no pleasure is enough to fulfill the desires of our heart. They work for a while, but Ecclesiastes hits the nail on the head: “his eyes are never satisfied with riches.” No matter what we have, it never fully satisfies our desires.

There’s another problem. This person is successful but solitary. Verse eight says that they have “no other, either son nor brother.” It doesn’t really bother them most of the time, but it’s only because they try to avoid thinking about it. Verse 8 says that they never ask, “Why am I doing this? Who is it all for?” The Teacher concludes with these words: “This also is vanity and an unhappy business.”

This is a big help. The Teacher is warning us not to do this with our lives. Don’t become a successful, solitary person, he’s saying. It’s just not worth it. You’ll end up enslaved to your work, never really satisfied, and you’ll have no-one to share it with.

Let’s pause here and take a minute to reflect. We live in a world in which we have to make choices. You can’t have it all. Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Perpetual devotion to what man calls his business is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” I know that some of you are facing pressures at work and you’re making difficult choices. If you don’t keep up, there are others who will gladly take your place.

The Teacher is holding up a picture and asking, “Is this what you want?” Are you sacrificing your relationships for the sake of a career that will leave you successful but solitary? I like how Tim Keller puts it:

Sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us. Sin is primarily idolatry…
If you center your life and identity on your work and career, you will be a driven workaholic and a boring, shallow person. At worst you will lose family and friends and, if your career goes poorly, develop deep depression.
If you center your life and identity on money and possessions, you’ll be eaten up by worry or jealousy about money. You’ll be willing to do unethical things to maintain your lifestyle, which will eventually blow up your life.

This is the first type of person. It’s actually the default mode in our culture. And yet Ecclesiastes says that there’s a problem living this way. You can be a success and attain all your dreams, and it still won’t be enough. In fact, you’ll be enslaved, because success is an idol that always wants more.

So let’s look at the third person that we see in this passage.

I want to look now at the third person that the Teacher gives us, before we go back and look at the second. The first picture is of a successful, solitary person. The third picture is of a politically successful but solitary individual. It’s a little hard to untangle, but let’s see if we can understand the picture that he gives us in verses 13 to 16:

Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:13-16)

There’s some debate about the details of this picture. Here is, as best as I can see, what it means. There’s an old and foolish king who’s lost touch and who won’t take advice. For the sake of argument, let’s call him Stephen. Perhaps he’s fired his advisors. I can think of a number of politicians who have done this. Once they reach the top they stop listening, and eventually they drift towards irrelevance. Everyone’s glad when they’re gone.

But then someone new and better comes along. He comes from nowhere. He was born poor. He captures the imagination of the people and inspires them to hope again. For the sake of argument, let’s call him Justin. He’s immensely popular. “There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led.” Again, I can think of many examples of new leaders who have come to power and have inspired hope. Their popularity levels have been off the charts. It actually reads like the Canadian newspapers these past couple of weeks.

But the Teacher shows us where this leads. “Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him.” People are fickle. This new and better king will become yesterday’s news before very long. The Teacher is showing us that the life guided by wisdom, who rises from obscurity to the pinnacles of achievement, and who receives the adulation of millions – that life is also futile and useless in the end. The Teacher says it’s “also is vanity and a striving after wind.”

It’s like what the actor Jim Carrey said: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” The Teacher would agree with that. You can attain the respect and admiration of the crowds, but in the end be left alone because your friends are not true friends. They’re just fans who will eventually move on to the next new thing.

Do you realize that the Teacher has just put the spotlight on two of the things that we value most: career success, and fame and popularity? George Harrison – one of the Beatles – said:

At first we all thought we wanted the fame. After a bit we realized that fame wasn’t really what we were after at all, just the fruits of it. After the initial excitement and thrill had worn off, I, for one, became depressed. Is this all we have to look forward to in life? Being chased around by a crowd of hooting lunatics from one crappy hotel room to the next?

Maybe on a more personal level, the Teacher would caution us about building surface relationships that aren’t really true friendships. You can have a lot of Facebook friends without really having intimate connections. Don’t live to become a successful, solitary person, the Teacher tells us. And don’t live to become someone who lives for the acclaim of the people, because you’ll die as alone as the solitary person in the first picture. Neither one is really the destination you want to choose for your life.

So if success and popularity won’t satisfy, what will?

Second Person: The Person in Genuine Community

How, then, should we live? In the middle of these two negative pictures, the Teacher gives us a positive one. Read verses 9 to 12:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

In contrast to the successful and solitary person, or the person who achieves temporary fame and acclaim, the Teacher offers us a picture of someone who is in genuine community. It’s the only one of the three pictures that doesn’t end with a pronouncement of vanity. This, the Teacher says, is what we should aim for. Genuine community is better than solitary success or popularity. It’s what we need in our lives.

The Teacher tells us four benefits of genuine community.

First, we’ll have a larger profit. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.” Two people working together often produce more than twice what they’d produce alone. Not only that, but it’s a lot more fulfilling to share the rewards of hard work with another.

Second, we’ll find help in times of need. “For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” When you used to go swimming as a kid, you were probably told to use the buddy system. When they blow the whistle, you need to make sure that your buddy is okay. You can’t be responsible for everyone in the pool, but you can be responsible for your buddy. We need the same thing in life. We need others who have our back.

Third, we’ll have more comfort. “Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?” This one sounds strange to us. It’s not talking about a married couple. It’s probably speaking of the travel that took place on dangerous roads in the ancient Middle East. They would sleep outdoors at night. On cold nights, a single cloak would not be enough. You may not be comfortable with the thought of huddling under a pair of cloaks on the side of the road, and that’s okay. But you too have found comfort in community. You’ve experienced the warmth of friendship. You know what he’s talking about.

Finally, you have greater protection. “And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” When you’re alone, you’re vulnerable. When you’re in community, you have greater protection. Spurgeon said, “Communion is strength; solitude is weakness. Alone, the free old beech yields to the blast and lies prone on the meadow. In the forest, supporting each other, the trees laugh at the hurricane. The sheep of Jesus flock together. The social element is the genius of Christianity.”

Genuine community is better than solitary success or popularity. It’s what we need in our lives.

This Fall we’ve spent some time talking about our strategy as a church. As a church we want to do only three things, but we want to do them really well. One of those three things that we want to do is to build community. We want — we need — genuine community. Today’s passage has explained to us why this is so important. Success and popularity is nice, but genuine community is even more important. We need to know and be known.

Many of us are scared by this. Maybe you can relate to what one person said: “I was willing to trust Christ, but I was not ready to trust the body of Christ” (Nate Larkin).

I want to ask you honestly to answer four questions from this text:

  • Do you have someone in your life who is helping you be more productive spiritually?
  • Do you have a buddy who knows you’re down, who will notice when you’re in trouble, and who will pick you up when you fall?
  • Do you know what it’s like to find comfort in the friendships you have with other believers?
  • Do you have the protection that comes from being in this together rather than going at it alone?

There’s a limit to what you can do in life alone. It’s futile! Jesus invites us into community characterized by love. I never get tired of reading what Jesus said right before he offered his life for us:

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:15-17)

Here’s an example of someone who did this:

One of the most important moments of my spiritual life was when I sat down with a longtime friend and said, “I don’t want to have any secrets anymore.”
I told him everything I was most ashamed of. I told him about my jealousies, my cowardice, how I hurt my wife with my anger. I told him about my history with money and my history with sex. I told him about deceit and regrets that keep me up at night. I felt vulnerable because I was afraid that I was going to lose connection with him. Much to my surprise, he did not even look away.
I will never forget his next words. “John,” he said. “I have never loved you more than I love you right now.” The very truth about me that I thought would drive him away became a bond that drew us closer together. He then went on to speak with me about secrets he had been carrying.
If I keep part of my life secret from you, you may tell me you love me. But inside I think that you would not love me if you knew the whole truth about me. I can only receive love from you to the extent that I am known by you. (John Ortberg)

I don’t want us to think that church is just this – sitting in pews and then leaving. Church is community. It’s loving. It’s costly love. We can get started by taking relational risks and just beginning to build strong connections with others in this room. It’s time to break through.

Here’s what you can do. You can become someone who pushes toward genuine community. If enough of us do this, it won’t take long before we infect this whole church with a taste of what it’s like. It begins with committing to more than attending services. It means getting plugged in to a small group. We were built for relationships like this in which we can drop the mask and find the community that we really need.

Choose your goals carefully. Don’t become a solitary, successful person. Don’t become someone who lives for popularity. Develop genuine community. Let’s begin by seeing Jesus who called us friends, and who called us to become friends who love one another.

Father, we want to be known. We want to drop the masks and stop pretending. But we’re scared. So I pray that you would help us today.

I thank you that the gospel frees us from pretending and brings us into community with you. I pray that you would help us enter into the relationship that you has provided for us through Jesus Christ, in which we can stop hiding from you. We can be fully known and accepted through the gospel, through what Jesus has done for us. We want this, and we long for this today. Thank you for Jesus, who have his life for us, who accepted us when we were at our worst, and who invites us into intimacy with you. I pray that all of us would receive that today.

And then I pray that you would help us enter into community here. It’s what we need more than success or popularity. We’re scared of it, and yet we need it. I pray that every person here would enter the freedom of dropping masks and finding safety and friendship with others. And I pray that this invitation would extend into our community. I pray this all in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada