A person who has little or no interest in spiritual things may often have difficulty accepting the truths of the Scriptures. One explanation for this can be found in the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians where we're told, "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14 NIV).
However, the book of Ecclesiastes is one Biblical book that just about anyone can identify with. For instance, the book of Ecclesiastes doesn't require someone to be a scholar, an academic, or a theologian to understand it's message. You see, this book provides an open door to spiritual truth that just about anyone can walk through. That's because anyone -even those with very little life experience- can easily identify with the truths behind the Teacher's words as recorded for us here.
The reason for this is simple- everyone can identify with what its like to live a life "under the sun." Remember that the phrase "under the sun" (along with the similar term "under heaven") appears often throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. Theses terms are important because they tell us that our author's viewpoint is limited to our time here on Earth and the circumstances and experiences of our lives. They also serve as a metaphor (1) for a life lived without regard to God or the afterlife.
The term "under the sun" will go on to appear four times in chapter four as our author looks at four important areas:
These issues are things that anyone who has spent time living "under the sun" will quickly recognize...
"Again, I observed all the oppression that takes place under the sun. I saw the tears of the oppressed, with no one to comfort them. The oppressors have great power, and their victims are helpless" (Ecclesiastes 4:1).
It may be easy to move past the opening words or verses of a chapter (as in the passage we read above) in order to get right to the "important" things that follow. But a person who "skims" a Biblical passage in search of Biblical truths may be missing out on some important insights- and we'll look at one example of this from Ecclesiastes chapter four next.
(1) a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in “A mighty fortress is our God.” ("metaphor." Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 07 Nov. 2011. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/metaphor>).
"I looked again and saw people being mistreated everywhere on earth. They were crying, but no one was there to offer comfort, and those who mistreated them were powerful" (Ecclesiastes 4:1 CEV).
In today's fast paced age of technology, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the tremendous volume of available information. To deal with this problem, people often develop strategies to allow them to quickly identify what they need to know.
For instance, a busy student may skim over a long reading assignment to rapidly identify potential test questions. An overworked executive may survey a long list of e-mails in order to separate the important items from the unimportant items. A fast moving traveler will often scan a news item for a bullet point that will provide him or her with a quick summary of important information.
While these strategies may be useful for business or travel in our 21st century age of information, they aren't very good for identifying important Biblical truths- and a person who skims over the opening words of Ecclesiastes chapter four may be missing out on an important insight. For instance, how did Solomon come to the conclusions of this passage? Well, the first three words of this passage provide us with the answer: Again, I observed..." (NLT). Other Biblical translations phrase the opening words of chapter four in this way: "I looked again..." (CEV), "Again I saw..." (ESV), and, "I returned and considered..." (NKJV).
In other words, Solomon took the time to watch and observe what was going on. He wasn't oblivious to his surroundings. He wasn't only concerned with the things that interested him. He wasn't exclusively interested in his friends, his needs, or what was going on in his life. Instead, he took the time to watch what was happening around him and learn from it.
Solomon's example reminds us that people often fail to see because they don't take the time to look- and in the words of baseball great (and sometimes philosopher) Yogi Berra, "You can see a lot just by looking."
So Solomon stepped out of the confines of his personal life to see what was going on in the world around him- and what he found wasn't pretty: "I saw that many people are treated badly. I saw their tears, and I saw that there was no one to comfort them. I saw that cruel people had all the power, and I saw that there was no one to comfort the people they hurt" (Ecclesiastes 4:1 ERV).
We'll look at Solomon's response to this unfortunate truth next.
"Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them" (Ecclesiastes 4:1 ESV).
It's one thing to say that "...there is nothing better for people than to be happy in their work" as Solomon did in Ecclesiastes 3:22. But what happens when this becomes impossible due to the actions of an oppressive person or group? After all, it still may be possible to find happiness and satisfaction in a "job well done" even though a life lived without God will ultimately prove meaningless. But the abusive tyranny of a powerful person or group can make life feel like it's worth not living.
The oppressors mentioned here refer to those who exploit, defraud, or extort others who cannot fight back. (1) Since these oppressors fail to recognize the basic dignity that accompanies every human being made in God's image, such people feel free to act deceitfully against others if given the opportunity do so. From the cruelty of a schoolyard bully to the social injustices of a repressive government, these "oppressions that are done under the sun..." serve to rob others of hope. With no one to help them, these "tears of the oppressed..." go on to become the visible sign of that internal pain.
Now this may seem like a hopeless situation- and for the person whose viewpoint is limited to life here under the sun, it probably is. But a Christian's viewpoint isn't subject to such limitations- and this provides access to an "above the sun" view from God's perspective. For example, here's a little of what the Scriptures have to say about God's attitude towards those who use their ability to exploit the powerless or less fortunate...
"What sorrow awaits you who lie awake at night, thinking up evil plans. You rise at dawn and hurry to carry them out, simply because you have the power to do so. When you want a piece of land,you find a way to seize it. When you want someone’s house,you take it by fraud and violence. You cheat a man of his property, stealing his family’s inheritance.
But this is what the Lord says: 'I will reward your evil with evil; you won’t be able to pull your neck out of the noose. You will no longer walk around proudly,for it will be a terrible time'” (Micah 2:1-3 NLT).
Remember that our influence and authority over others carries great responsibility- and those who misuse that influence or authority will have to answer to God for it.
(1) OT:6231 `ashaq — to press upon, to oppress, to violate, to defraud, to do violence, to get deceitfully, to wrong, to extort (from The Online Bible Thayer's Greek Lexicon and Brown Driver & Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, Copyright © 1993, Woodside Bible Fellowship, Ontario, Canada. Licensed from the Institute for Creation Research.)
As Solomon looked at the terrible pain and oppression of the world around him, he came to the only reasonable conclusion that a person without God can realistically come to...
"So I concluded that the dead are better off than the living. But most fortunate of all are those who are not yet born. For they have not seen all the evil that is done under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 4:2-3).
For Solomon, the idea of a meaningless world where oppressors had the ability to victimize the powerless was so painful and depressing that death or a state of non-existence seemed to be the best option of all. But the painful experiences and hardships of life under the sun wasn't something that was limited to Solomon alone. This reality is something we all experience- and there are times when the problems, trials, and difficulties of life seem so overwhelming that its easy to wonder if it wouldn't have been better to have never been born.
While it's true that people can often avoid a lot of pain and suffering simply by reading God's Word and applying it in their lives, the reality is that a relationship with God doesn't always provide an automatic immunity from things like unfairness, difficulties, or problems. To see an example of this, you don't have to look any further than something that the Apostle Paul wrote to the church that met in the town of Corinth, a letter that we know today as the Biblical book of 2nd Corinthians...
"We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death..." (2 Corinthians 1:8-9a NIV).
So Paul tells us that there was a time when the circumstances and situations of life had become so difficult that he "...despaired even of life." In other words, there was a time in Paul's life when he felt like he wanted to die. And if Solomon could have seen Paul's experience from his perspective under the sun, he certainly would have agreed that Paul may have been better off dead.
But there was a big difference between Solomon and Paul. You see, Paul had God's perspective from "above the sun" and we'll see how that perspective made a difference for Paul next.
"I said to myself, 'The dead are better off than the living. But those who have never been born are better off than anyone else, because they have never seen the terrible things that happen on this earth'" (Ecclesiastes 4:2-3 CEV).
Paul's deeply personal revelation in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 provides us with an insight into challenges we sometimes face in living a life that honors God. So what should we do when the pressures of life start to close in on us? How should we respond in those times when we just feel like giving up? Well, Paul goes on to provide us with the answer in the continuation of this passage from 2 Corinthians...
"...But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many" (2 Corinthians 1:9b-11 NIV).
When God allows us to experience troubles and hardships in life, it helps to remember that He always has good reasons for doing so. For example, God may allow difficult times to enter our lives to strengthen us (2 Corinthians 12:10) and to increase our trust in Him (Psalm 50:14-15). Sometimes God uses difficulties to help us develop patience (Romans 5:3-5) and endurance (Hebrews 10:35-38) or to serve as an example to others to show them the right way to handle trials and problems (2 Thessalonians 1:4). Sometimes God may even allow difficulties in our lives for the purpose of helping others who will one day go through similar trials (2 Corinthians 1:3).
This "above the sun" perspective helped Paul overcome the difficulties of life under the sun and led him to conclude with this...
"That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our inner strength in the Lord is growing every day. These troubles and sufferings of ours are, after all, quite small and won't last very long. Yet this short time of distress will result in God's richest blessing upon us forever and ever! So we do not look at what we can see right now, the troubles all around us, but we look forward to the joys in heaven which we have not yet seen. The troubles will soon be over, but the joys to come will last forever" (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 TLB).
"Then I observed that most people are motivated to success because they envy their neighbors. But this, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind" (Ecclesiastes 4:4).
What drives a person to become the best that he or she can be? What motivates someone to become a person of excellence in life? What inspires you to be successful?
While the answers to these questions may be different for everyone, there are some general motivations that seem to be common for most people. For instance, some are motivated by an internal desire to do the very best they can. Some are motivated by the need to earn the approval of a coach, teacher, or other authority figure. Some are motivated by the thought of what might happen if they don't succeed. Others are motivated by the best reason of all- a love for God and a desire to honor Him with their lives.
However, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes identified another reason to explain why some people are driven to achieve success in life:"I have also learned why people work so hard to succeed: it is because they envy the things their neighbors have" (GNB). From the elementary school pupil who is driven to obtain a better grade than the student who sits at a nearby desk to the corporate executive who is motivated to outdo the accomplishments of a competitor, people are often pushed to achieve by their envy of what others possess.
This motivation to succeed often seems to be generated by an internal desire to obtain superiority over others in different areas of life. You see, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, and the friends we choose can all be influenced by this driving force of envy and jealousy over what others possess or what they have achieved. This kind of attitude was summed up by a former owner of the San Diego Chargers football team who once said of some fellow owners,"I never objected to those people (who tried to win at all costs); the people I didn't care for were those people who tried to win by spending double and triple all costs." (1)
For instance, there's nothing wrong with a strong desire to win an athletic competition. But there are some athletes who are not content to simply win- their idea of success is to see other athletes lose. This is just one way to illustrate how the determination to succeed can grow into something inappropriate and unhealthy.
We'll talk some more about this idea of "success driven by envy" next.
(1) Gene Klein First Down And A Billion pg. 91
"And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind" (Ecclesiastes 4:4 NIV).
Is your desire to achieve success marked by respect for others- even your competitors? Are you humble in success? Are you quick to acknowledge God's blessings, knowing that without them, you could never achieve anything? Is your success motivated by an internal desire to honor God with your abilities or are you pleased to see others fail as a result of your success?
The answers to these questions are important because God not only looks at our actions, He also examines the motives behind our actions as well. For example, our external actions may sometimes mask a hidden agenda. When this happens in a relationship, we may say that people "are playing games with each other." In other areas of life, we may suspect that another person has an "ulterior motive" behind his or her external words or conduct.
While some people may be highly sophisticated in hiding their true motivations, nothing is hidden from God. That's because the New Testament book of Hebrews tells us, "Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account" (Hebrews 4:13 NIV). Knowing this, its good to ask ourselves if we are really driven by a sincere desire to honor God with our talents, skills, and abilities or are there other, not-so-good motivations?
In his classic book The Screwtape Letters, author C.S. Lewis relates a fictional series of letters from a senior devil to his young apprentice. As part of his advice on how to best tempt a human being that has been assigned to him, the senior devil character provides us with some insight into the attitude that God (whom he refers to as "the Enemy") wants us to have in this area...
"The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour's talents."
“'Fools fold their idle hands, leading them to ruin.' And yet, 'Better to have one handful with quietness than two handfuls with hard work and chasing the wind'” (Ecclesiastes 4:5-6).
After spending the previous verse talking about the fact that people are often pushed to achieve success by the envy of what others possess, Solomon now turns his attention to another extreme: "The fool won't work and almost starves but feels that it is better to be lazy and barely get by, than to work hard, when in the long run it is all so futile" (TLB).
While the person in our first example was consumed by his jealousy and envy over someone else's success, the lazy person in our second example faces self-destruction through his refusal to work and provide for his needs. Solomon uses the imagery of a pair of folded hands to effectively communicate this thought, a word picture that brings to mind the idea of a person who is inattentive or uninterested.
So is there a balance between these two extremes? Well, this is where the Teacher will start to do a little teaching of his own: "Better is a hand filled with rest than two fists with travail and vexation of spirit" (MKJV).
One of Solomon's favorite teaching methods involved the use of something called a "proverb." A proverb is a short statement that communicates a spiritual truth, important observation, or moral lesson from everyday life. A proverb will often make use of things like comparison, personification, or other, similar literary devices to make its point. One good example of this can be found here in Ecclesiastes 4:6 where "One handful..." is used to represent a small amount while "Two handfuls..." is meant to communicate the idea of taking as much as possible.
The idea behind this illustration is that it's possible to have more with less. The "more" part refers to things like peace and contentment, while the "less" portion refers to the trouble and difficulties that often accompany the envious desire to attain more. Or to put it another way, "...it is better to have only a little, with peace of mind, than be busy all the time with both hands, trying to catch the wind" (ERV).
Of course, the best way to set the right priorities in this area is to follow Jesus' recommendation...
"So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:31-33 NIV).
"I observed yet another example of something meaningless under the sun. This is the case of a man who is all alone, without a child or a brother, yet who works hard to gain as much wealth as he can. But then he asks himself, 'Who am I working for? Why am I giving up so much pleasure now?' It is all so meaningless and depressing" (Ecclesiastes 4:7-8).
If you've been following along in our look at this portion of Ecclesiastes, then you may have noticed a progression in the Teacher's thought process within this chapter. First, he looked the pain and suffering of those who had been treated unjustly. From there, he moved on to the example of a person who is driven by an attitude of envy and jealousy with no rest from the work of keeping up with others. Now, he will turn his attention to another individual who has no rest- the solitary person whose main goal in life is to gain as much financial wealth as possible.
To do this, Solomon introduces us to a character who probably represents someone that he observed through his business relationships: the recluse, loner, or unsocial person who has no interest in relationships or anything other than making money. He says, "For example, some people don't have friends or family. But they are never satisfied with what they own, and they never stop working to get more. They should ask themselves, 'Why am I always working to have more? Who will get what I leave behind?' What a senseless and miserable life!" (CEV).
Perhaps the most obvious literary example of this personality type can be found in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens' classic work, A Christmas Carol. In it, Scrooge is described as follows...
"Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster."
While we may no longer use this kind of archaic language to describe such people, this doesn't necessarily mean that such people no longer exist. You see, Solomon clearly knew of similar personalities during his lifetime and Charles Dickens must have drawn upon his knowledge of actual Scrooge-like people in developing his characterization of Ebenezer Scrooge. The reality is that such people still exist in our 21st century world- and we'll look at one such example next.
"Here is someone who lives alone. He has no son, no brother, yet he is always working, never satisfied with the wealth he has. For whom is he working so hard and denying himself any pleasure? This is useless, too---and a miserable way to live" (Ecclesiastes 4:8 GNB).
Solomon's reign as king of Israel lasted from about 971 B.C. to about 931 B.C. Yet even though Solomon lived almost 3000 years ago, his observations about life and work under the sun still remain true today.
You see, there are many Godly men and women who work long hours to provide for their families today. While these hours may sometimes be difficult and tiring, such people honor God by trusting Him to provide for their needs and by giving Him the priority in their lives. But there are others who labor equally long and hard with a completely different perspective.
For instance, let's take the example of a person who is determined to become wealthy and make it to the top of the business world. When someone makes the decision to place this kind of success at the forefront of his or her life priorities, other things like family, friendships, and a relationship with Christ can often become secondary or non-existent.
Another problem is that a climb up the corporate ladder often never ends. For example, there is always a better office, a more prestigious position, or a greater opportunity available for the person who is willing to sacrifice a little more. As a result, its easy to become more isolated, more focused on "success," and more preoccupied with a career goal to the exclusion of everything else.
In fact, it's possible to become so preoccupied with "success" that we often fail to ask one simple question: "For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?" In looking at this verse, one commentator from the 17th century observed, "Frequently, the more men have, the more they would have; and on this they are so intent, that they get no enjoyment from what they have." (1)
The person who achieves business or financial success at the expense of family, friends, or relationships loses the satisfaction and pleasure that he or she might have gained from these things- and in the words of the Teacher, "This also is vanity and a grave misfortune" (NKJV).
Of course, the Teacher understood that there would be some who might choose to disagree with this conclusion, so he made certain to prepare himself with a defense in the following verses. We'll take a look at that defense next.
(1) Matthew Henry Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible
"Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed" (Ecclesiastes 4:9).
If you've ever spent much time alone, then you know how valuable it can be to have someone to assist you when you need help. One good example is the fact that two people working together can often accomplish more than twice as much as a single person working alone. But there are other, less obvious examples as well. For instance, a single person might not dress, cook, or clean for their own benefit, but a good marriage partner might inspire that person to excel in those areas and improve the quality or his or her life.
The Teacher also has a few other examples too...
"If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble" (Ecclesiastes 4:10).
Travel was often dangerous in Solomon's day. Roads could be hazardous and travelers of that time often had to be alert for the threat of thieves or wild animals along the way. Therefore, it made good sense for people to journey together in groups or at least in pairs. That provided mutual protection and safety for travelers when moving from place to place.
"Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone?" (Ecclesiastes 4:11).
It wasn't always easy to provide warmth on a cold night in the Old Testament period. Severe cold can easily kill a human being and in the ancient world, people were much more exposed to the elements than they often are today. In a poorly constructed home, a shelter, a tent, or out in the open, the ability to stay warm in severe weather could often be a matter of life and death. During these times, people would often deal with the cold by sleeping in their clothes while huddled together for warmth. So this idea of a cold, solitary person was something that an ancient reader could immediately identify and agree with.
"A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two cans stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken" (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
While the idea of a triple braided cord is often used to symbolize the marriage commitment of a husband and wife to each other and to God, Jesus provided us with another good application of this idea in Matthew 18:20 when He said, “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
As we head towards the end of Ecclesiastes chapter four, the Teacher has already provided us with a number of examples to illustrate the truth behind the idea that there is strength in numbers.
For instance, he first reminded us that "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor" (Ecclesiastes 4:9 ASV). In other words, two people working together can often be more productive than two solitary people working alone. Two people together can also provide help for one another in time of need: "If one falls, the other can help his friend get up. But how tragic it is for the one who is all alone when he falls. There is no one to help him get up" (Ecclesiastes 4:10 GW).
Next, Solomon reminded us that a friend can help provide comfort when the world is cold: "Also if two lie together, then they have warmth; but for one, how is he warm?" (Ecclesiastes 4:11 GW). Finally, two or more people can find security together in a group: "An enemy might be able to defeat one person, but two people can stand back-to-back to defend each other. And three people are even stronger. They are like a rope that has three parts wrapped together--it is very hard to break" (Ecclesiastes 4:12 GW).
So having looked at human relationships in connection with labor and possessions, the Teacher will now turn his attention to a subject that he knew all too well: the temporary nature of political power...
"It is better to be a poor but wise youth than an old and foolish king who refuses all advice. Such a youth could rise from poverty and succeed. He might even become king, though he has been in prison" (Ecclesiastes 4:13).
This was a subject that Solomon could speak on from personal experience. You see, one source provides us with the following information regarding the later years of Solomon's reign as king...
"Years before Solomon's death, his heavy taxation of the people brought unrest and rebellion. Surrounding nations began to marshal their forces to free themselves of Israel's tyranny, but the most serious uprising came from within the nation itself. Jeroboam, a young leader who had the support of Egypt, led ten of the twelve tribes out of Israel to the north.
When Solomon's son Rehoboam ascended the throne after his father, Jeroboam returned to lead a successful civil war against him. The result was a division of Solomon's United Kingdom into two separate nations-the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel." (1)
(1) "Solomon" Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers
"A young man who is poor and wise is better than an old, foolish king who won't take advice any longer" (Ecclesiastes 4:13 GW).
In athletics, a coach or manager will often compliment a young player by describing that player as "coachable." This term describes an athlete who is willing to receive instruction and then translate it into improved results on the field, court, or ice. The opposite of a coachable athlete would be the kind of player who refuses to receive any guidance or instruction.
While we don't know much about Solomon's involvement in sports, we do know that he had some knowledge of the political version of a non-coachable athlete because he refers here to a "foolish old king who won't listen to advice" (CEV). The necessity of receiving good counsel was something that Solomon clearly recognized for he once said this in the book of Proverbs...
"My child, hold on to wisdom and good sense. Don't let them out of your sight. They will give you life and beauty like a necklace around your neck. Then you will go your way in safety, and you will not get hurt. When you lie down, you won't be afraid; when you lie down, you will sleep in peace. You won't be afraid of sudden trouble; you won't fear the ruin that comes to the wicked,because the Lord will keep you safe. He will keep you from being trapped. (Proverbs 3:21-26 NCV).
The book of Proverbs also tells us where to find the source of all good counsel and instruction: "How does a man become wise? The first step is to trust and reverence the Lord! Only fools refuse to be taught" (Proverbs 1:7 TLB). You see, it's possible to be smart but not very wise. Even though Solomon was the most brilliant person who ever lived (see 1st Kings 3:11-12) he still recognized that true wisdom comes only from God.
Solomon also wrote quite a bit about the importance of choosing our friends, acquaintances, and advisors carefully...
This may be why the Teacher felt that a "poor youngster with some wisdom is better off than an old but foolish king who doesn't know which end is up" (Ecclesiastes 4:13 MSG).
"It is better to be a poor but wise youth than an old and foolish king who refuses all advice. Such a youth could rise from poverty and succeed. He might even become king, though he has been in prison. But then everyone rushes to the side of yet another youth who replaces him. Endless crowds stand around him, but then another generation grows up and rejects him, too. So it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind" (Ecclesiastes 4:13-16).
In sports, entertainment, and politics, fame and recognition are often temporary, at best. Athletes become too old to play, celebrities fade into obscurity and established political leaders are replaced with new faces with fresh policy ideas. In fact, this reality is so completely ingrained within human culture that we've developed clichéd expressions to help describe it.
For example, how often have you heard statements like, "easy come, easy go," "here today, gone tomorrow," or "come and gone" to describe the short-lived nature of things like money, celebrity, or success? In Solomon's example seen above, he used the temporary nature of political power as a vehicle to illustrate this reality.
While its not certain if the Teacher is providing us with an allegory or a real life example in this passage, the story of a poor young man who rose from prison to become head of state serves to illustrate an important point. For a while, everyone was captivated by this "rags to riches" story. But then another young man (who no doubt had an equally compelling story) emerged and the first youth was soon forgotten.
The idea is that while it may be possible to achieve popularity for a while, it's virtually impossible to maintain it. Because of this, it's useless (GNB), senseless (ERV), and pointless (GW), for someone to center his or her life around the approval and acceptance of others.
For instance, take the example of a Christian whose number one priority is to be popular and well-liked by others within his or her social circle. While being popular and well-liked are good things, we should recognize that it will never be entirely possible to be Godly and popular in a world where most people would really prefer not to think about God at all.
A God-honoring person must sometimes be willing to break from the crowd (and possibly sacrifice some popularity) in order to speak the truth or do what's right. And since long-term popularity isn't achievable anyway, the choice should be easy: "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29 NKJV).