Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 40 : Learning to be Content (2)
Eccles 4:5-7 The fool folds his hands and ruins himself. Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind. Again I saw something meaningless under the sun:
I never cease to be amazed at the practicality of the Bible’s teaching. Those who deride the Bible for being outdated teaching just haven’t read it or thought about it. Even in the midst of this jaded writing by Solomon in Ecclesiastes there is still wisdom to be meditated upon! The trouble is that sometimes it almost comes to us in shorthand and we need to pause up and think about it for it to really make sense. Take this opening sentence of these verses as an example: “The fool folds his hands and ruins himself.” What a simple picture! This man just sits back and folds his hands. It is a picture of complete inactivity. He does nothing. When you sit there with folded hand or folded arms, it is a sign that you are just looking and watching and doing nothing.
This inactivity, says Solomon, ruins a man. How so? Well first of all he is not working and so he is not earning and so he is drifting towards poverty. But actually constant inactivity is dull, it is boring and it is soul destroying. We need to be doing something purposeful. The person who sits back and does nothing has lost all purpose in life. They have no sense of achievement, no sense of fulfilment. Their mind is inactive and their hands are inactive. They are ruining themselves and not entering into the fullness of who they were designed to be.
This picture of laziness or idleness bringing downfall arises a number of times in Scripture in Solomon’s writings: “If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks,” (Eccles 10:18) and “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest– and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man,” (Prov 6:10,11) and “I went past the field of the sluggard, past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment; thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins.” (Prov 24:30,31) The signs are all there around this person who Solomon calls a fool, meaning someone who lacks moral wisdom.
But then Solomon paints two swift pictures of contrasting lifestyles. Let’s take the second one first: “two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.” This is the person who struggling and striving and working all the hours of the day, chasing after that illusory success. We live in a day when this lifestyle is clearly visible in this world of excessive materialism. The farmer of Jesus’ parable is often seen in those who work in the City: “he said, `This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ‘ “But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” (Lk 12:18-20) We try for bigger and better but in the process lose our soul. One day we’ll be separated from all we have earned and will face God empty handed. How tragic!
Yet he contrasts that lifestyle with one that is described as “one handful with tranquility.” The ‘handfuls’ in the two lives refer to the wealth that has been achieved. One achieved a lot but in reality it was nothing. The first one achieved not much in material terms but yet it was the better lifestyle because it was accompanied with ‘tranquility’. What a lovely word that is! I always like the image of “the Sea of Tranquility” on the Moon. When somewhere is tranquil it lacks stress or upheaval, it is full of peace. When a mind is tranquil it lacks stress and is at peace.
How little tranquility there seems to be in modern lives, in modern minds! What a cost we have paid for our affluence. How few homes know this ‘tranquility’! How often there is bickering and arguing, hostility and upset. Some families I know of, I am convinced, never know the experience of tranquility in their homes; there is an atmosphere of stress and upset that lingers there in the background and people tolerate it because it only bursts to the surface from time to time, but even in the times when it is not outright war, there is no tranquility!
Dare we assess our lives in this modern world against Solomon’s words? Are we working all hours, are both partners working all hours? What sort of people totter in the door in the evening? What is the quality of our times together in the remaining hours of the day? What are our weekends like? Do we fill them with the activity we hadn’t had time for in the week? Is this really ‘life’? Many of us live on the basis of “it will be different next year – when I get a raise, when I get promotion,” but it never is. Are these the lives we really want?