A Crash Course in People: Ecclesiastes 4:4-16
The world is filled with people, and it is tough to figure out which ones you should befriend, allow access to, take advice from, and do life with.
This issue becomes even more pressing when there is a life change such as a move to a new city, entrance to a new school, exit from an old school, transition to a new job, or move to a new church. When you don’t know people well, sorting out relationships can be incredibly difficult.
In his book “Necessary Endings”, Henry Cloud devotes chapter 7 to helping people discern various types of people. He says that there are basically three kinds of people – evil, foolish, and wise. These same three categories of people are also frequently found in the Bible books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, including the section we are examining. The issue is not how intelligent or educated someone is, or even whether or not they commit sins and make bad decisions. The main difference between evil, foolish, and wise people is their heart. Wise people want to know the truth, learn from it, and become more godly. Foolish people want to argue over the truth, not change, and remain stuck. Evil people hate the truth, refuse to change, and cause harm to others. We all have areas of wisdom, folly, and evil in our lives, so there is always something to be working on by God’s grace in our character. It is prudent for us to know which of the three best describes us, and use those categories to help us understand other people. This can give us discernment about who is willing to mutually work on a relationship, and avoid those who are dangerous.
Evil people, Solomon says in 4:4, are motivated to success out of envy. These people find status in possessions and accomplishments as a way to show they are better than others by the car they drive, stuff they own, and people they surround themselves with. Their success is driven by coveting and jealousy of others. They seethe when others accomplish or obtain something that they wanted. Evil people rejoice when others lose their possessions, suffer in their relationships, and fail where they used to win. They find pleasure in the pain of others. In our age of social media, evil people have access to more information than ever, which feeds their jealousy of other people, and allows them to compare, compete, attack, and defeat them. The best way to deal with an evil person is to get distance from them, protect yourself from them, and give them as little personal information as possible so they can’t use it to cause pain and harm.
Foolish people, Solomon says in 4:5, are irresponsible. Foolish people are prone to be lazy. Foolish people refuse to learn, repeat the same bad decisions over and over, and argue with any help you offer. Foolish people want the world and everyone in it to change so that they do not have to change. They are irresponsible yet clever, and know how to push their responsibilities onto responsible people who will enable them by paying their bills, bailing them out, cleaning up their life mess, and enduring all the pain of their folly so that the foolish person never feels it. The best way to deal with a foolish person is consequences. Since arguing with them does nothing, and taking responsibility for them only makes them more foolish, the most loving thing to do is to shift the pain of their foolish life back to where it belongs – on them. In this way, they will get motivated to make changes once life gets painful enough. This is why Proverbs says some guys won’t go to work until they get really hungry.
Wise people, Solomon says in 4:6, live life intentionally and purposefully because they want to grow in godliness and not make the same mistakes over and over. Wise people receive godly instruction and correction, and make adjustments in their life. Wise people are also discerning and don’t just do what evil and foolish people tell them to do. In this way, he says that wise people have a two handed approach to life. They use one hand to work hard and provide for themselves. They use the other hands to reach out and befriend the lonely, give to the needy, and embrace the hurting. The best thing for a wise person is more time, information, and investment because from it they will learn and grow to be more godly.
Where Solomon is driving in this section is to the point of emphasizing the great gift of friends and family. While evil people harm others, and foolish people use others, wise people love others. Wise people do not see other people as a means to their ends of evil or folly, but rather as gifts from God to be treasured, enjoyed, and invested in.
Solomon is writing all of this as a lonely old man who lives in a huge palace with incomparable riches and a thousand women, but no friends or family. His story is 3000 years old, but is timeless as is the case with all wisdom. A recent news story illustrates this point well. Minecraft founder Markus Persson, also known as “Notch,” sold his creation to Microsoft for $2.5 billion. He basically retired, bought a $70 million home with a wall of candy and constant parties. He then sent out a series of Ecclesiastes-esqe Tweets saying,
“The problem with getting everything is you run out of reasons to keep trying, and human interaction becomes impossible due to imbalance.”
“Hanging out in ibiza with a bunch of friends and partying with famous people, able to do whatever I want, and I’ve never felt more isolated.”
“When we sold the company, the biggest effort went into making sure the employees got taken care of, and they all hate me now.”
“Found a great girl, but she’s afraid of me and my life style and went with a normal person instead.”
This incredibly successful man, by every human measure, really wants things that money cannot buy – real family and friends. A wife and a normal life to him sounds like an escape from the prison of lonely success. His findings are the same as Solomon’s, and wise people would be well served to pay attention.
On the theme of friends and family, Solomon who also is lonely, sitting on his pile of money, says there are at least four benefits to having invested our energy into having real relationships with friends and family.
One, friends and family are for sharing, he says in 4:7-8. What good are golf clubs if you are too busy to swing them and don’t have friends to join you? What good is a boat if it rots in the dock while you are busy making more money? What good is a big house if you don’t have kids running around in it and friends coming over? The blessing comes not from getting, but from sharing and giving. This is one reason God is the most joyful – because He’s the most generous. Friends and family are there to enjoy by sharing life with them what God has given to us. Who has shared with you? Who has God asked you to share with?
Two, friends and family are helpful for serving, he says in 4:9-10. Life has wins and losses, ups and downs, good times and bad times. We all stumble and fall, and we need someone there to help pick us up. Sometimes this is emotional, financial, spiritual, or physical. Even in a perfect world God told two perfect people that it was not good to be alone. We need people, and people need us. Sadly, in our world of a service based economy we pay people to do things that family and friends could or should do, and this works until we cannot afford to pay someone and find ourselves down and unable to get back up. Who has picked you up? Who has God asked you to pick up?
Three, friends and family are for comforting, he says in 4:11. Our world is lonely, with people living more years of their life single, alone, and away from family. Technology makes things worse, as it can never replace the ministry of presence. This is why you cannot have a godly 50-year marriage on Skype or parent solely through texting. God understands the ministry of presence, which is why He entered human history as Jesus Christ – to be with and near us. This is also why Jesus promises to never leave or forsake us, and sent the Holy Spirit to be with us always. Innately, we just get this fact, which explains why in a hospital room next to the bed for the sick person is a chair for a friend or family member who loves them and wants to minister through presence. Who has ministered to you through their presence? Who is God asking you to minister to through your presence?
Four, friends and family are there for protecting, he says in 4:12. The world is a dangerous place, as evil people want to harm us and foolish people want to use us. This includes physical, sexual, financial, vocational, and emotional dangers. Solomon uses the analogy of a fight or assault, where one person fighting two people is certain to lose because they cannot cover their back. This is what is meant when friends say, “I got your back” or soldiers say, “I got your 6”. The big idea is that life is safer with two people sticking together and looking out for one another, and even better if their number increases to three. Who has covered your back and protected you? Who has God asked you to cover the back of and protect?
On television, some of my favorite shows are mining shows. I find it fascinating that people will know where and where not to mine for gold, even on the same plot of land. Proverbs 16:16says that wisdom is like gold – it’s precious and hard to find. Solomon tells us about bad dirt that many people wrongly think contains nuggets of wisdom, only to discover it’s fools gold.
- Wisdom does not necessarily come from age. Someone can be older and wiser, but an evil or foolish person can be older and more dangerous or more pathetic. Age alone does not produce wisdom, because some people never learn from their folly.
- Wisdom does not necessarily come from hardship. Solomon speaks about a poor person who served time in prison. While such hardship can produce wisdom, it sadly often does not. A person has to choose to let God teach and change them through the trial, rather than just being frustrated that hardship happened.
- Wisdom does not necessarily come from wealth or poverty. Solomon mentions that whether someone started with nothing and earned their way to the top, or was born into generations of success, it does not guarantee they will be wise or a good friend.
- Wisdom is not found in fame. In our celebrity culture, we have famous people that seem to have “made it” in life. Others seek to emulate them, but some of the most famous people are the most foolish and ungodly. This is especially true with our addiction to youth culture where the youngest and most beautiful people are the most famous and foolish.
The question persists, where can we pan for wisdom? Wisdom comes from at least five places:
- Holy Spirit. To get wisdom from Him takes listening, praying, and a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit.
- Scripture. The Bible exists in part to grow us in wisdom and maturity, so we need to study it and have it study us.
- Wise people. Those who have walked in wisdom and speak from experience are to be treasured as they share their gold with us.
- Watching fools. It is helpful to learn from other peoples’ mistakes as they go through the ups and downs of life.
- Self-reflection. Taking time to look back and learn from our successes and failures is exactly what Solomon is modeling throughout Ecclesiastes. It is in large part a journal from a wise old man who did some foolish and evil things, but learned from them.
Questions For Personal and Group Study Ecclesiastes 4:4-16
- Would you classify yourself mainly as evil, foolish, or wise?
- What areas of your life have you been evil or foolish in?
- Why should we treat evil, foolish, and wise people differently in terms of our relationship with them?
- Of the four benefits of friends and family (sharing, serving, comforting, protecting) which do you appreciate most and why?
- Where have you found the most wisdom for your life?
- Which areas do you need to go looking for more wisdom for your life?