“Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh. Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.”- Ecclesiastes 4:4–6
Find the right balance”—that thought has become something of a cliché in the modern West. We are exhorted to find the right balance between work and family, not spending too much time at the former or too little time with the latter. It is important, we are told, to balance our time serving others with time for ourselves. Counselors, doctors, human resources personnel, advertisers, and more all repeat the mantra “find balance.”
“Despite the fact that the idea of “finding the right balance” has become somewhat of a cliché, we do well to recognize that it can reflect an important biblical emphasis, particularly in the Old Testament Wisdom Books. Today’s passage is one text that conveys the importance of balance, or better, contentment. Ecclesiastes 4:4–6 is a unit, and to understand the Preacher’s point, we have to see the literary devices he is using to convey his teaching.
On the one hand, the Preacher sees that “all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor” (v. 4). Essentially, he is claiming that jealousy fuels the drive to have a lifestyle that others have or even to best one’s neighbor economically and socially. We have to note here that the Preacher is using hyperbole in order to set up a contrast that will lead to his final point. He is not saying, literally, that everyone who works hard and strives to labor with excellence is necessarily an envious person. After all, Scripture exhorts people to work heartily unto the Lord (Col. 3:23–24); if all hard work were driven by envy, then God’s Word could not give the command to put forth one’s best effort because it would be commending something that is only possible if we act according to sinful motivations. Nevertheless, we should not forget that as sinners, much of what we do is driven by envy.
Having used hyperbole to set up his teaching, the Preacher next moves to the polar opposite of the one who labors hard—the lazy man. This individual does nothing but fold his hands and sit idly, and he ends up eating his own flesh, that is, destroying himself (Eccl. 4:5). So, having looked at the world, the Preacher has seen on the one hand that hard work driven by envy is not the answer and that on the other hand, idleness is not the answer in this vain or fleeting life. What, then, is the solution to the human predicament in this arena?
Contentment is the answer. Being satisfied with enough (what one hand can hold) and not living one’s life for just a little more (two hands) or prizing idleness above all (folded hands) is the balance that enables human beings to navigate life well (v. 6).
Continually striving after more out of envy for one’s neighbor is a foolish endeavor. To do so, Ecclesiastes 3:6 says, is to strive after wind. After all, we cannot take our possessions with us. They are fleeting and impermanent. We will give them up when we die, or they may otherwise end up in the hands of someone who has not worked for them (Eccl. 2:20–21). The answer is not to throw up one’s hands and give up working; the answer is to pursue contentment in God and His provision.
Passages for Further Study
2 Corinthians 12:10
1 Timothy 6:6–10