The Lectionary, oddly, omits 4:4-16. I’ve included these verses with today’s reading (5:1-7) in the link above, because they’re helpful in thinking about how we read the book.
“Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind” (4:4). All toil and all skill? Hardly. Counterexamples come to mind quickly, whether from our own experience or from Scripture (Bezalel, Oholiab, and others whose skill is a divine gift and whose toil is inspired by the work of constructing the tabernacle; Jacob’s seven years of toil for Rachel, which “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Gen. 29:20). What apparently is true: “Then I saw that…” As Anaïs Nin observed, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.” Is the author here tipping his/her hand, inviting us to wonder not simply about the teacher’s words, but about the teacher’s character?
“Fools fold their hands
and consume their own flesh.
Better is a handful with quiet
than two handfuls with toil,
and a chasing after wind” (4:5-6).
Two sayings, back to back, pointing in opposite directions. We have similar sayings: “A stitch in time saves nine”; “Haste makes waste.” The teacher likes putting such competing sayings back to back, and probably for different reasons. Here, perhaps, a traditional reminder that wisdom consists in recognizing which saying is relevant, whether we’re in the time for this or that (recall 3:1-8). The teacher does not seem to have given up on the hope of being able to recognize these times (see 8:5-6).
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil” (4:9). Equally interesting are the claims the teacher does not pair with a counter-claim (no claim that one is better than two). The teacher could have included a long exhortation on selecting friends, building and maintaining friendships, but opted to let the hearers draw their own conclusions. Strikingly, we know the threefold cord proverb (v.12) from the Gilgamesh Epic, a reminder that wisdom is an international enterprise, and that the teacher is quite happy to pass on selected traditional wisdom.