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Previous article in this series: May 1, 2012, p. 343

“Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished.” Ecclesiastes 4:13

The contrast in the text is introduced by the word “better.” This is an indication that Solomon is drawing another conclusion from what he has seen under the sun and drawing also from his own life and experience. He is giving expression to this “better,” not as a mere human opinion, but as the testimony of God’s Word. It is important that we keep this in mind.

In this latter section of chapter 4, Solomon draws an­other picture from the life of men in the kingdoms of this world. In that sense, he is speaking in general terms. He has spoken of man’s lack of comfort, which is the fruit of sin. The point of connection with the preceding portion, in this section, is with the foolishness of the old king who will not receive counsel because of his stubbornness, and the passing vanity of the acclaim of the multitude. He has directed us to the subject of “man without comfort” in the preceding part of the chapter from an individual point of view. Man, personally, because of his own sinful flesh, destroys the foundation of communion and fellowship with his neighbor. Here he approaches a similar subject from an organic viewpoint, from the perspective of the life of men in positions of power and in the life of nations and kingdoms.

In considering this, we must also keep in mind this perspective: that behind what happens under the sun is the counsel and providence of God. These are not merely enclosed natural phenomena; they come by the hand of God who ordains the times and seasons in the life of men. There is “a time to break down and a time to build up,” there is “a time to rend and a time to sew” (Eccl. 3:3, 7). God is a God of judgment, who judges the wickedness and folly of men in His wrath and also chastens His people according to His own counsel and wisdom, who says to the young man, “. . . But know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment” (Eccl. 11:9).

While the description, then, is a general one of the life of this world, there is also a personal element in it. Solomon does not, in Ecclesiastes, confess his sin directly, but the testimony of that confession or recognition of his sin is there. Solomon was once, in his own eyes, a poor child, not in wealth, but poor in spirit, who humbled himself before God and sought the Lord. When God asked him, “What shall I give thee?” (I Kings 3:5), Solomon prayed, after reviewing God’s dealings with his father David, “And now, O Lord my God, thou hast made thy servant king instead of David my father: and I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in, and thy servant is in the midst of thy people which thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered nor counted for multi­tude. Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?” (I Kings 3:7-9). In answer to that prayer, God gave unto Solomon wisdom to rule and judge, as well as riches and long life. In that wisdom Solomon also said, “I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards” (Eccl. 2:4).

But Solomon also married many heathen wives, con­trary to God’s word. Many of these marriages were po­litical alliances that involved also an increasing resting in his own strength and power. His wives turned his heart to build idol temples outside Jerusalem, sowing the seeds of idol worship in Judah. In the sad history of I Kings 11, Solomon is also admonished of the Lord for his sin: the kingdom would be rent because of it and his enemies stirred against him. The wise child that Solomon had been became in his sinful weakness an old and foolish king in his government. The grace and gifts of God and wisdom also to see his own weakness remained, but in his rule of Israel he had become “an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished” (Eccl. 4:13). The root of the matter? The old and foolish king is stubborn in pride. The effect of these sins was that the glory of the kingdom also began to depart.

Against the background of his own sinful weakness, Solomon draws out the contrast. The youth, poor in himself and in the things of the world, but with wisdom, is better than an old and foolish king. To make the contrast sharper, the child is set forth as coming out of prison, from the lowest place, unto honor and glory. But because the old and foolish king walks in pride, his kingdom declines. Its citizens become poor. This is the contrast between the child and the old king, “For out of prison he [the child] cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom [the old and foolish king] becometh poor” (Eccl. 4:14).

This is not, however, an isolated case, for Solomon looks at the world about him, at the rise and fall of kings and those in authority and power. He looks at the life of men, and he sees a pattern here. “I considered all the liv­ing which walk under the sun, with the second child that shall stand up in his stead” (Eccl. 4:15). He looks at the child, the second, that is, the succeeding or following king, standing in the place of the former foolish king—what of him? What is the pattern among men? “There is no end of all the people, even of all that have been before them: they also that come after shall not rejoice in him” (Eccl. 4:16).

The pattern is a simple one. The people once rejoiced in the king who, when he was young, was their hope and expectation. He became old and foolish. Their expecta­tion failed. In the way of his pride he was lifted up, and his rule became the rule of one who is arrogant and stub­born, filled with his own importance; and the citizens of his kingdom become poor.

Now a successor, a child, comes to reign in his stead. The multitudes acclaim him. He will set the kingdom in order. He will be to them a savior. He is the answer. Popularity and hope abound. But this new king too becomes old, and pride lives in his flesh also, for he is man. What then happens? The acclaim turns to disappoint­ment. The expectation of men again fails. The popularity of the new ruler begins to wane. He is, after all, a man. The rejoicing of the one generation leads to the rejection of the next. “They also that come after shall not rejoice over him” (Eccl. 4:16).

In time the one who is lifted up may well become the oppressor who has power (Eccl. 4:1). He may manifest himself as an unjust judge (Eccl. 3:16). The reality of life under the sun is that man is flesh: he is fallen and given by nature to sinful pride. Exalt him in power and, left to himself, his heart will be lifted up in arrogance and stubbornness to have his own way in willful­ness, because he is the ruler, the magistrate, the king. The text is not a diatribe against human government. God sets men in positions of power and authority. Our calling is to show due honor to all such. But the text does describe the reality of sinful men in power.

It also describes the waning glory and honor such men have. The multitudes that seek them, put their confidence in them, and praise them today are the same in every generation, and they that come after “shall not rejoice in him.” They fail, and the expectation of men, their hope, is brought to emptiness, to nothing. It is vanity. Therefore Solomon adds, “Surely this also is vanity and vexation of spirit” (Eccl. 4:16b)—not just vanity, but “surely” this is also vanity. In the end, this too, in the life of the “living which walk under the sun,” is vanity. Man’s life under the sun is in constant change, and nothing genuinely new under the sun arises from man, not even in the rule of men and governments of the earth.

This time it is not truly different, for it is vanity. In the expectations of men and their rulers is to be found only “vexation of spirit,” not an abiding rejoicing. The world seeks its comfort in earthly rulers, but it is a comfort that shall fail. Earthly rulers, in their pride, exalt them­selves as if they were God to determine good and evil of themselves. Such arrogance in pride God will destroy. For note, earthly rulers and governments come to vanity, because God makes it so. He judges among men. The Word of God testifies, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help; whose hope is in the Lord his God” (Ps. 146:3-5). To the rulers and judges of the world, who are as gods, the Living God says, “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes” (Ps. 82:6, 7). Man is dust and he shall fail. Though created in the image of God, yet fallen in sin, he shall also fall from his place of power and die. Man who is dust returns to “his earth” (Ps. 146:4).

There is only one answer to this vanity and vexation of spirit, and that lies in God and in the King who is Himself the eternal Son of God come in our flesh and blood, even Jesus Christ. To this need, Solomon also points us by implication. For in Christ is a King who does not become old and foolish. He governs in righteousness and grace. He gives righteousness and eternal life. His kingdom does not fade, for it is founded in His cross, by which He has overcome sin and death. Its glory does not pass away. Its life is resurrection life from above, eternal and blessed forever. That King we would seek for. In Him is truly a hope that endures and a rejoicing that does not end. Solomon’s kingdom was a fading but prophetic shadow of the kingdom that is to come in Christ.