Ecclesiastes 4:13-16 – Letter 17: Popularity and High Office

Usually, it is not necessary to retranslate a passage of Scripture to understand it. The Word of God is clear and understandable for the aver­age Christian who will but take the time to study it and who approaches the study by faith in prayer.

Some passages, however, do demand study of the original languages to be understood. There can be words or phrases which are difficult to translate, that allow several translations, and that demand comparison of the various original manuscripts, as well as the early translations, to discern the best translation and the true mean­ing of the text.

The four verses we study today, ECCLESI­ASTES 4.13-16, are an example of such difficult translation. The commentary which this time seems best to me and which gives the transla­tion I’m using is by H. Leupold. (I don’t always agree with Leupold; in fact, I disagree on some major points like authorship and setting… but he is valuable enough that I always read him!) So, for today’s study, I will be partially using Leupold’s alternate translation as we study the passage.

Remember that this is the fourth and last illustration of the futility of laboring to please people. This illustration shows the futility of seeking meaning in labor (or life) through attain­ing high office and popularity.

One more thing before we really get into it. Notice that Solomon is again observing the cycli­cal nature of things. This time the cycle is that of popularity and loss of popularity. One person rises to popularity and power; his popularity wanes and someone else takes his place in popu­larity and power; and then this person has the same thing happen to him. This pattern happens over and over in history, especially when power and popularity go “to a person’s head” so that he begins to think he is really somebody.

Let’s look now at these four verses one by one.

(4:13) “Better is a poor and a wise youth than an old and foolish king who will no more be admonished.”

Notice immediately that the contrast is not between any poor youth versus any old king. Rather, the contrast is between a wise youth who happens also to be poor and an old king who has also become foolish.

The wisdom and foolishness spoken of here are not the spiritual wisdom and foolishness of which we usually think. Rather, this illustration is still “under the sun” apart from God and so this illustration is of earthly wisdom versus earthly foolishness. Earthly wisdom is the ability to know what one wants on earth and then to go about getting it. Earthly foolishness is any con­duct or speech which will make one lose the things one seeks on this earth.

The king illustrated here was possibly also once wise in earthly wisdom. He, too, had been popular and had become king. But his kingship had gone to his head and made him proud so that now he had lost the good qualities he once had. He would “no more” be admonished, that is, he would no more take advice from other people. As a result, he made mistake after mistake, too proud to correct his errors. He had lost the respect of the people as well as the ability to function well in his office.

(4:14) “For out of prison the youth cometh to reign, even though he was born poor in the king­dom of the other man.”

Various attempts have been made to identify this poor man in the story. Is it Joseph? Is it Jer­oboam? Myself, I can see both of these people fit­ting the illustration but feel that the illustration is actually general, not particular. This sort of thing happens often, Solomon is saying, although it may be rare that the youth who rises to power actually comes out of prison and then to power.

But the idea is clear. Within the kingdom of the once-popular but now foolish king, there is a very poor youth. Not only is he poor but even in prison, most likely due to adverse circum­stances, perhaps his very poverty putting him there or perhaps circumstances which he could not control. But this youth has earthly wisdom and is able to think things out, to speak well, to gain friends and to take advantage of every opportunity. Due to his earthly abilities, he gains in popularity until he actually manages to usurp the throne of the old and foolish king.

(4:15) “I considered all the living which walk under the sun, that they were with the second youth that arose in the old king’s stead.”

The old king had figured his position was secure because he had once been popular with scores of friends. But Solomon now observes how fickle people are, easily changing their alle­giance from one person to another. The old king had not one friend left! Apart from Godliness, “all the living” quickly change alliance from someone who is unpopular at the moment to someone else who is popular, if it is to their advantage to do this. People are fickle!

As Christians, we must be reminded that there is a two-fold principle of Godliness here. First, we are called to be in subjection to whichever authority God places over us (the fourth commandment). However unpopular the authority may be, it is always there not by chance but by God’s Providence, and He calls us to submission (cf. Romans 13). Second, God nonetheless uses the sinful rebellion of men to change this authority when He so chooses. Though we may not join in the rebellion which overthrows the authority, yet we must once again submit to the new authority.

(4:16) “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. Surely this also is vanity and vexation of spirit.”

The thing that is so vexing in this illustra­tion, says Solomon, is the realization that this rise and wane in popularity has been repeated so often in history and that it is so final. Person after person has had this happen to him. Fur­ther, once the popularity is gone, every person finds no one who speaks well of him and who will tell of his former greatness. All the years of his glory are forgotten once his ignominy comes.

In response, once again we see that our call­ing is not to labor at all for this earth. We do not labor for people and prestige but for God and eternity. Everything we say and do must be said and done in the reverence of God. While we must love people and seek their welfare, our goal is not their approval (which may be gone tomorrow) but the approval of our Father which is in heav­en.


1.How does this example fit into ECCLESI­ASTES as a whole?

2.Compare earthly wisdom and earthly fool­ishness.

a. In your own words, describe the old king.

b. Describe the youth.

4. How does verse 15 show the vanity of pop­ularity?

5. How should we respond to this story? What lessons are there in it for us?