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The American Dream – study hard – go to graduate school – kill yourself in med school or business school or law school; scratch and claw to get to the head of the class so that you can get the best possible job and climb the ladder of success.

Solomon is speaking to the movers and shakers – As the King – He sees everything from the top down; he rubs shoulders with the most important people in the world; he knows what makes them tick.

No matter where they are on that ladder to the top … or even if they are king of the hill … they discover that nothing satisfies .. the American Dream is a lie – when viewed under the sun; in trying to keep up with the Joneses … what you fail to understand is that the Joneses are not as happy and content as you might imagine.

Solomon is not advocating that we sit life out on the sidelines with no ambition or dedication to our work.  But he wants to drive home here the harsh reality that awaits those who life is consumed by trying to climb the world’s ladder of success.

Iain Provan: Definition of oppression = accumulation – seeking after profit – without regard to the nature,  needs, and rights of other people.

Illustration from Scripture:

In the Bible, oppression involves cheating one’s neighbor of something (Lev. 6:2–5 associates it with expropriation, stealing, retaining lost property that has been found, and swearing falsely), defrauding him, and robbing him. It involves making an unjust gain, including the profit made from interest on loans (e.g., Ezek. 22:1–29, esp. vv. 12, 29). It is the abuse of power, financial and otherwise, perpetrated on those who are not so powerful and are indeed vulnerable—the poor, the widows, orphans, and strangers (e.g., Ezek. 22:7, 29; Amos 4:1, Mic. 2:1–2). Thus it is often associated with violence and bloodshed in the Old Testament and with the denial of rights and justice (e.g., Jer. 22:17, Ezek. 22:6–7, 12, 29; cf. also Prov. 1:10–19).

Knut Martin Heim: Ecclesiastes 4:1–16, after the first main ‘theological’ section in Ecclesiastes (3:16–22), is deliberately designed to present several case studies of or object lessons from particularly illusory aspects of life, as a counterpoint to the theological passages 3:16–22 and 5:1–7 which frame it. Chapter 4 is another exploration of life under the sun, and while chapter 1 was an observation of the cosmos, chapter 2 a self-observation and chapter 3 another cosmos observation, it seems that chapter 4 presents a series of shorter observations of ‘mundane’ aspects of life.

This chapter and the beginning of the next are composed of four different parts:

(1)  Case Study 4: an inquiry into pervasive exploitation and social injustice (4:1–6);

(2)  Case Study 5: on loneliness despite ‘success’ (4:7–12);

(3)  a first practical interlude: reflections on the illusory nature of youthful wisdom (4:13–16); and

(4)  a second practical interlude: instruction on the proper conduct in worship and the keeping of vows (5:1–7).

Simple Outline


Each will be represented by a common board game or card game we all grew up playing … so should be easy to remember



Game: Object of the game: you get ahead by knocking others off the board and sending them back to home base; you step on others to get to the top; cutthroat — Sorry is a strange name, because you are anything but Sorry when you send someone back to home base — You’re ecstatic!

In the business world we see this type of exploitation of the poor and helpless that’s the way to really make some bucks – look at the advertising of the Credit Card companies aimed at the college students – let’s hook them and get them enslaved; look at the cigarette companies who continue to churn out their cancer sticks; look at the finance companies who failed to caution people against types of mortgages that might get them in over their head.  Let’s look at Solomon’s insights on this area of Oppression

a.  Commentary: Solomon’s Insights on Oppression

  1. Oppression is Everywhere – The Way to the Top is to Put Others Down

Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression

which were being done under the sun.”

Van Parunak: Definition of Oppression — to enrich myself at the expense of the poor and weak. There are two ways to prosper: fill people’s needs, so that they want what I create and pay me for it, and use my power over them to take what they have. A narrow line between the two, but one that Christians must discern.

Solomon can easily observe these activities; not just thoughts of oppression; but the malicious deeds are carried out – openly – visibly – Political corruption especially in view – but applies to other realms as well.

Look at Paul’s command to masters: Col. 4:1  “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.”

We see examples all of the time in the workplace – a boss lording it over those who work for him; being overly demanding and unreasonable – Peter counsels us to submit to such unfair treatment in the book of 1 Peter – that’s how one lives for eternity instead of living just under the sun (probably the best book to balance out the message of Ecclesiastes)


cf. Eccles. 8:9 good definition of lording it over another person = using your authority to the detriment of another

All this I have seen and applied my mind to every deed that has been done under the sun wherein a man has exercised authority over another man to his hurt.”

  1. Oppression Enslaves Both Groups to a Life of Misery = No Comfort

And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to

comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they

had no one to comfort them.”

David Hubbard: The age in which Ecclesiastes lived was far removed from the golden days of Israel’s beginnings. The sense of concern for the poor, the widow, the alien, and the orphan had long since dimmed, outshown by the highly organized commercial structures that had been borrowed from the Phoenicians and others. Apparently this was an age when the rich continued to acquire more, while the poor toiled ever harder to make ends meet. Wages were low, hours were long, rights were few. The oppressed had no ways to express themselves except through tears, and no one to wipe those tears except other oppressed.

Interesting that both groups have the same problem:

a.  easy to see that the oppressed — those characterized by tears — lack comfort

b.  but more surprising to find that the oppressors – those characterized by power

— have the same problem = No one that they can turn to and trust;

They live on an island; someone will come along with more power and knock them off their king-of-the-hill position

we easily see the bankruptcy of the poor, but often we forget the message of Rev. 3:17You say I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing, and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked

  1. Oppression Makes Death or Non Existence Look Better Than Life

So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living

who are still living.  But better off than both of them is the one who has

never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.”

Solomon using hyperbole here – not really advocating suicide.

It would be interesting to study the lives of the CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies who have climbed to the top of the ladder:

(or the lives of successful politicians or judges or those in the field of education or medicine or law):

(or God forbid — even the lives of some successful ministers of the gospel):

  • What type of compromises did they have to make?
  • What type of oppression did they engage in?
  • How did they really make it to the top?
  • What story is told by those whom they trampled on to get to the top?

Certainly it is possible to get to the top by the grace of God promoting you — cf. Joseph and Daniel and Mordecai …

(not apart from hard work, but in conjunction with faithful hard work)

But Solomon’s commentary indicates to me that the fast track of the world has a lot of common ruts that are difficult to avoid.

Jews knew a lot about oppression from their own history

  • Egyptian bondage — slave labor
  • later lamenting by Jeremiah — extreme grief and tears

God has a tender heart for the oppressed; He also has the answer for the troubled conscience of the oppressors.

Allen Ross: This leads him to suggest that the best congratulations are reserved for those who have not yet been born. Seow, 187, perceptively notes, “The alternative of not having lived is not an option that people can choose.” The verse, then, “points to the irony of human existence: what is really ‘better’ in this regard is not within the grasp of mortals. People, by their very existence, have already been assigned their lot.” Thus Qohelet constructs a hierarchy of happiness and contentment: the dead are in the middle, the living are at the bottom, and the unborn are at the top—and none of them gets to choose their position.

Walter Kaiser: The problem of the oppressor and the oppressed in the history of mankind inevitably turned on the struggle of the strong over the weak; the strong who were able to impose their will over others. Even in a democracy there can be the “tyranny of the majority,” if the principles guiding that majority are not taken from the Word of God. Without a God to answer to, humanists and secularists have little or no motivation to act righteously or to abstain from wickedness—especially if by that evil they can get their own way. As a result, the only outlook on life for such materialists is one of cynical resignation (vv. 2-3).

B.  Contrast: Word of Christ: John 14:16

I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Comforter, that He may be

with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you

Whatever the difficulty or grief of the situation, we have God’s help immediately available; as Christ’s bondservants we are not oppressed but enabled.

It’s not that we don’t cry the tears or feel the pain or go thru the suffering, but we have the presence of the Holy Spirit to comfort us and to give us God’s perspective and wisdom to help us in a limited way to understand what is happening to us.

The presence of the Holy Spirit also equips us to comfort others (2 Cor. 1:3ff).

C.  Charge: Our Calling: not to oppress others, but to be a Servant to others — make others glad, make others great, meet the needs of others

  • What can we do to recognize and ease the oppression of others?
  • What can we do to serve other people — especially in our job?

II.  (:4-6) RATRACE RIVALRY     —        GAME: CHESS


Game:  (could have picked a lot of games, but had to include my favorite)

intense struggle to try to outdo the other person; outthink them; out-trick them; etc.

seems like it should be a relaxing, easy-going game — but not when you play in a tournament — emotionally draining — you can never let down your guard;

Like a War of the Minds — Ego involved – extremely competitive

Allen Ross: In these verses Qohelet contrasts two attitudes toward labor and what it achieves, and then he suggests a third, mediating option. First he observes that all work and achievement is motivated by envy, a desire to keep up with—or rather surpass—one’s neighbors in possessions and status. After declaring work so motivated as meaningless, he then provides a contrast in the case of the fool who “folds his hands” (cf. Pr 6:10; 24:33) and “ruins himself.”

As opposed to both of these attitudes, he suggests a middle way in v.6. Skillfully, he repeats from the first example in v.4 the term ʿāmāl (translated by the NIV as “labor” in v.4 and “toil” in v.6) and the phrase “chasing after the wind.” For the second example in v.5, he substitutes two terms, kap and ḥōpen (both translated “handful”), for the word “hand” (yad). In this way he recalls both attitudes and suggests a third that is better, something in between: Strive, but don’t strive too much. One handful is certainly better than none (in which case you die); but one is also better than two, if to get two you never have time to rest.

A.  Commentary: Solomon’s Insights on Rivalry

  1. Man’s Main Motivation is Competition and Rivalry – The Way to the Top is to Beat Out the Other Man

I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result

of rivalry between a man and his neighbor

Most productive efforts (in school, sports, the workplace, etc.) are motivated by a desire to outperform other people and to look better than someone else — get the glory for ourselves.

the motivation = competition out of envy;

instead of love for neighbor, we see a selfish form of competition; dog-eat-dog mentality

David Hubbard: Think of the injustices to which envy may push us. We may be tempted to cheat our neighbors of their rights, to resent their accomplishments, to cut the corners of our own integrity—and all in the name of winning. The fabric of our communities gets torn into small pieces in our jealous competition. And the sense of concern for the welfare of others which is the heart of true justice becomes unraveled in the process. That was why the wise man branded so much of our toil as “vanity,” unfathomable mystery (see 1:2), trying to grasp life’s meaning in ways as futile as a shepherd’s attempt to capture the “wind” and lead it into the sheepfold (see 1:14).

  1. Competition and Rivalry Get you Nowhere

This too is vanity and striving after wind.”

  1. Three Different Case Studies

The fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh.  One hand full of

rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind.”

Since you see that a hard-working man will stir up envy on the part of others, don’t hastily jump to the conclusion that it is better to do nothing:

a.  the sluggard — the fool — he quits the competition

                        “folds his hands

no production; sits out the competition; doesn’t participate;

ends up consuming his own flesh = starves to death

b.  the fast track achiever

                        “2 fists full of labor

hard driving workaholic — admired by society; has many of the outward trappings of success; a good candidate for burnout and a heart attack

c.  the fortunate few who achieve some type of balance

                        “1 hand full of rest

requires saying “No” to some pressures from the workplace

  • Prov. 14:30  “A tranquil heart is life to the body,

But passion is rottenness to the bones

  • Prov. 15:16Better is a little with the fear of the Lord

than great treasure and turmoil with it

Douglas Miller: In verses 4-5 Qohelet has juxtaposed two extremes (obsessive competition and the poverty of slothfulness) in order to present a third and best option, a resolution in verse 6 (cf. 2:12-17) [Yes-Yet Pattern, p. 270]. Better, he says, is the small amount one has in one’s hand with peaceful rest than to have two hands full yet accompanied by exhaustive labor, which amounts to futility. By this means, the Teacher urges his reader to contentment in material things.

Douglas Sean O’Donnell: In Ecclesiastes 4:1–3, we examined the topic of oppression. In verses 4–6, we turn next to the topic of envy. Verse 4 reads, “Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” Why do we work? Here Pastor Solomon claims that the primary motive (although he uses the hyperbole of “all toil and all skill”) is “competitive envy.”  Envy is the ambition for industry! Rather than joy in our God-given labor (3:22) being the “caffeine” that gets us up in the morning, covetous competitiveness oils our engines. Contrary to the law of Leviticus 19:18, which is echoed by our Lord Jesus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself ” (Matt. 22:39), we embrace such mottos as “you gotta look out for number one.” Such cutthroat rivalry, which rots the bones (Prov. 14:30), nevertheless rules the roost. To climb to the top, you step on other people’s heads.

The antithesis to this inferiority-complex, anti-neighbor ambition is illustrated next in Ecclesiastes 4:5–6. One natural response to the reality that envious ambition drives our toil would be to stop working altogether. Wise Solomon answers that attitude with the proverb “The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh” (v. 5). It is hardly a lovely picture. Someone who folds his hands cannot or does not work. . .  Elsewhere, Solomon puts it this way:

How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man. (Prov. 6:9–11)

The fool-headed notion that not working will solve the envy issue fails. A better solution is offered, also in proverbial form, in Ecclesiastes 4:6: “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.” Here, hand-images are paired against each other: a handful of quietness and two handfuls of greed. The pictures are plain enough. The phrase “two hands” depicts someone cupping his hands in order to possess as much as possible. People whose hands are cupped can carry more of the weight of this world. It looks good to carry the big house, the big car, and the big bank account, but it’s heavy. It weighs you down. And it requires overtime all the time—toil, toil, toil.

Everyone has a choice: be the workaholic who has everything but rest and genuine success (in the end, it is all “a striving after wind”), or else be a worker who is content (i.e., the guy with “a handful of quietness”). Envision the imagery! Instead of two greedy hands cupped to gain everything one can, it is simply one hand extended. The hand is full, but not of stuff; it is filled with “quietness.” His work (note: his hand is not folded but unfolded or extended out) is full of joyous contentment. With one hand he works for the glory of God (which brings its own reward), and with the other . . . well, one wonders what he is doing. Perhaps he is helping the oppressed of verses 1–3, as Zacchaeus did when he was saved—half to the poor, half to those he oppressed, and all to Jesus (Luke 19:8). Or maybe he is just relaxing. Either way, he is the poster boy for Paul’s super-slogan, “there is great gain in godliness with contentment” (1 Tim. 6:6; cf. 2 Thess. 3:10–12). Comfort and contentment are the antidotes for oppression and envy.

B.  Contrast: Word of Christ: Matt. 11:28-30

Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  Take

My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy, and My load is light

We don’t want to spin our wheels with rat race activity.

The same Jesus who proved himself Lord over all the forces of Nature when He calmed the raging storm out on the Sea of Galilee can calm our hearts and rescue us from the rat race mentality.

C.  Charge: Our Calling: not to strive to get glory for ourselves by outdoing one another, but to work hard to the Glory of God

Remember: We still need to work hard — otherwise we will be like the sluggard who gives up and folds his hands and says, What’s the use? But our efforts aren’t motivated by rivalry but by a desire to see God glorified and a desire to serve others, not beat them out.



Game: Not enough to have Boardwalk and Park Place in your possession; you have to go and build hotels on the green and the red properties as well and crush your opponent; you can never have enough properties; cf. Empire building

Van Parunak: In view of the dangers of oppression and envy, one might be tempted to think that it is better to be a hermit. Yet this is no better.

  1. Consider a man with no family.
  2. He works hard, and accumulates wealth.
  3. Yet what will happen to it after he dies? KJV “neither” is not in text. He does ask the question, but without any answer.

A.  Commentary: Solomon’s Insights on Greed

  1. Riches Will Never Satisfy – The Way to the Top is to Accumulate the Most Things

Then I looked again at vanity under the sun. 

There was a certain man without a dependent,

having neither a son nor a brother, yet there was no end to all his

labor.  Indeed, his eyes were not satisfied with riches

Examines the Miser Mentality = an irrational drive for more riches — takes the extreme case where there is no potential beneficiary —

no dependent — no one that needs the money — Yet the pursuit remains as relentless as ever — WHY?

Because the riches are desired not to meet needs but to elevate one’s status — Therefore, you never have too much; in fact, you never have enough!

Another million dollars will not change the lifestyle of the millionaire — you can still go where you please and buy what you want.

You don’t have any desire to share the wealth; you are only into empire building in order to climb the world’s ladder of success.

  1. Selfish Motivations Will Consume a Person in Futility

and he never asked, ‘And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?’”

There is a hidden cost associated with this pursuit of greed that is often overlooked:

  • often you are driving yourself so hard that you are having to forego certain pleasures of life — rationalizing that you will slow down later and smell the roses
  • In fact you just keep accelerating the pace until your life burns out — Never comprehending that: — “Simple Pleasures are the best”  — remember that commercial??

David Hubbard: In the long run the real loser is the person who suffers loneliness, loss of identity, and the fatal flaw of leaving no heir to carry on the family continuity and preserve its name. To the Hebrews, the hope for permanence lay not in eternal life or bodily resurrection but in the durability of their name, perpetuated by their sons and their sons’ sons throughout the generations. No amount of wealth could compensate for that loneliness and virtual annihilation. The teacher took pains not only to warn against greed but also to advocate fellowship and its power to combat both greed and loneliness.

  1. What a Sorry Life!

This too is vanity and it is a grievous task.”

B.  Contrast: Word of Christ: (as quoted by example and teaching of Paul)

Acts 20:33-35 “It is more blessed to give than to receive”

You can’t just try to not be Greedy.  You must always put on the positive trait that is the opposite — Here, Generousity

C.  Charge: Our Calling: not to accumulate more and more wealth and possessions for ourselves, but to be content with what God has given us and sacrificially give to help others who are in greater need

IV.  (:9-12) RISKY ISOLATION     —          GAME: SOLITAIRE


Game: once you get this high up the ladder of success, no one will play with you anymore; plus you can’t trust anyone anyway so you prefer to be by yourself –

It’s lonely at the top; we don’t tend to think of corporate executives as being lonely — they are surrounded by so many people, but in terms of intimacy and close friendships they are often very lonely and disillusioned.

Walter Kaiser: There are more problems for theodicy, i.e., justifying the ways of God to mortals. What about the sadness of isolation and solitariness? Escape from competition may be a temporary solution, but then one has to cope with the issue of loneliness. This is a situation in which there is no family left, not even an heir for whom one could work and deprive one’s self of pleasure. Previously we have seen “no comforter” (4:1-3) and “no rest” (4:4-6), but now there is “no companion” (4:7-12): What can be said to this situation?

A.  Commentary: Solomon’s Insights on Isolation

  1. The Top Dog Mentality Only Allows for One King of the Hill – The Way to the Top Isolates from Meaningful Companionship

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.”

Cf. Presidential Campaign – I’m not running for Vice President – not that we are having 2 people work together and pool their unique talents for the good of the country; all about who will end up on top.

Very lonely existence

Not primarily talking about marriage here; not even primarily talking about friendship.

Talking about partnership and cooperation and teamwork in the workplace — in our careers — in our climbing of the ladder of whatever life goal we are pursuing.

You’ve heard it said: “It’s lonely at the top.”

The higher you go, the less you can trust people; the higher are the stakes; the more people would love to take your place.

  • You long for a companion; someone in whom you can confide;

someone who will truly share the workload ;

  • On the other hand you don’t want to share your empire with anyone –

so you are caught in a dilemma

You are especially vulnerable according to Solomon — Uses the illustration of the risks of traveling alone without a companion

  1. Three Vulnerabilities of Isolation

a.  Danger of pits or ravines — error or mishap (:10)

 “For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. 

But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.”

We each have our blind spots; need one another;

Need deliverance when we slip and fall

b.  Danger of cold nights, no warmth — adversity (:11)

 “Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how

can one be warm alone?”

c.  Danger of robbers — open hostility (:12)

 “And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him.

  1. Principle

A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.”

If two are good … then three are even better.  We all need a helping hand

Are we benefiting from the companionship of our wife as we should?  Or are we going it alone??

Are we cultivating close friendships ?  Or are we Going it alone?

Van Parunak: Threefold cord–why all of a sudden introduce a third? Perhaps Qohelet is pointing us toward the need for fellowship with God. A human friendship, reinforced by divine love, is unbreakable.

Application: We need one another in the church. Must cultivate and encourage our friendships with one another, and guard against sins that would sever us one from another.

Chuck Swindoll:

Reasons two are better than one:

  • mutual encouragement when we are weak
  • mutual support when we are vulnerable
  • mutual protection when we are attacked

OT Biblical examples of the value of friendship:

  • Elijah and Elisha
  • Naomi and Ruth
  • David and Jonathan

B.  Contrast: Word of Christ: John 15:12-17

What a Friend we Have in Jesus — But it helps to have some friends with flesh on them as well

C.  Charge: Our Calling: not to go it alone in the Christian life, but to join together in true fellowship in the gospel as friends who genuinely love one another; importance of fellowship in the gospel; importance of the local church



Game: When you think you are finally on top, you have finally made it; the wheel turns and you are crushed

Knut Martin Heim: This interlude is in reality a reflection on the corrupting influence of power, similar to the modern adage “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

A.  Commentary: Solomon’s Insights on Instability

  1. No One Stays at the Top Forever – The Way to the Top Only Begins the Cycle that Ends with Being Replaced by Another

A poor yet wise lad is better than an old and foolish king who no longer

knows how to receive instruction.  For he has come out of prison to

become king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom

a.  Look at Origins vs Endings

Wisdom cycles around to Stubbornness where the leader has outlived his usefulness; Times of transition are very volatile;

What goes around . . . comes around

b.  Look at Cycle of poverty and oppression vs riches and ruling

Ambiguity: Who is the one who has come out of prison??  Doesn’t really matter because the unending cycle is what is in view;

The higher you go on the ladder, the more rickety it gets; your footing is never secure — one false step and you don’t  just get a bruised knee; when you fall from the top, you are

badly hurt.

  1. Public Popularity is Fickle

I have seen all the living under the sun throng to the side of the second

lad who replaces him.  There is no end to all the people, to all who were

before them, and even the ones who will come later will not be happy

with him

Tremper Longman: In short, wisdom may bring a king temporary success, but it cannot guarantee him his greatest wish—a long reign and a hereditary successor.

  1. Cycle of Leadership is a Cycle of Futility

for this too is vanity and striving after wind.”

Look at the progression: the greedier you are the more isolated you get, the more isolated you get, the more unstable;

Finally, you are foolish and not able to cover your back and someone comes along and sends you down the chute;

In no time at all you are forgotten — yesterday’s news.

B.  Contrast: Word of Christ: Matt. 7:24

a wise man who built his house on the rock

Psalm 1 – picture of tall tree and stability

C.  Charge: Our Calling: not to be man-pleasers who are concerned with the fickle popularity of this world, but to only be concerned with doing the will of God — having

our life built on the Rock = Jesus Christ Himself — and enjoying the security of abiding on top forever in union with Christ —

It’s not the world’s ladder of success that we want to try to climb — it’s Jacob’s ladder that reaches up into heaven.


Nothing wrong with climbing the ladder of success — as long as we do it God’s way.

But the climb up the ladder of success and the view at the top is not always what you expect — especially if your climb upward involves one rotten step after another.

* * * * * * * * * *


  2. RATRACE RIVALRY                   
  3. RELENTLESS GREED               
  4. RISKY ISOLATION