Ecclesiastes 12
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
The Preacher spoke from a heart taught by long experience. Himself advanced in years, having enjoyed and suffered much, having long observed the growth of human character under diverse principles and influences, he was able to offer to the young counsel based upon extensive knowledge and deliberate reflection.

I. THE DESCRIPTION HERE GIVEN OF THE RELIGIOUS LIFE. Amplifying this terse and impressive language, we may hear the wise man addressing the youthful, and saying, "Remember that thou hast a Creator; that thy Creator ever remembers thee; that he not only deserves, but desires, thy remembrance; that his character should be remembered with reverence, his bounty with gratitude, his Law with obedience and submission, his love with faith and gladness, his promises with prayerfulness and with hope."

II. THE PERIOD HERE RECOMMENDED FOR THE RELIGIOUS LIFE. Religion is indeed adapted to the whole of our existence; and what applies to every age of life, applies with especial force to childhood and youth.

1. Youth has peculiar susceptibilities of feeling, and religion appeals to them.

2. Youth has especially opportunities of acquiring knowledge and undergoing discipline, and religion helps us to use them.

3. Youth has abounding energy, and religion assists us to employ this energy aright.

4. Youth is a time of great and varied temptations, and religion will enable us to overcome them.

5. Youth is introductory to manhood and to age; religion helps us so to live when young that we may be the better fitted for the subsequent stages of life's journey.

6. Youth may be all of life appointed for us; in that case, religion can hallow those few years which constitute the earthly training and probation.


1. It is a tendency of human nature to be so absorbed in what is present to the senses as to overlook unseen and eternal realities.

2. Our own age is peculiarly tempted to forget God, by reason of the prevalence of atheism, agnosticism, and positivism.

3. Youth is especially in danger of forgetting the Divine Creator, because the opening intelligence is naturally interested in the world of outward things, which presents so much to excite attention and to engage inquiry.

IV. THE ADDITIONAL FORCE WHICH CHRISTIANITY IMPARTS TO THIS ADMONITION. The figure of our blessed Lord himself appears to the imagination, and we seem to hear his winning but authoritative voice pleading with the young, and employing the very language of the text. He who said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me," he who, beholding the young inquirer, loved him, draws near to every youthful nature, and commands and beseeches that reverent attention, that willing faith, that affectionate attachment, which shall lead to a life of piety, and to an immortality of blessedness. - T.

I. THE VANITY OF YOUTH. There is an aspect in which it is true that "childhood and youth are vanity."

1. Its thoughts are very simple; they are upon the surface, and there is no depth of truth or wisdom in them.

2. Its judgments are very mixed with error; it has to unlearn a great deal of what it learns; the young will have to find, later on, that the men of whom and the things of which they have made up their minds are different from what they think now; their after-days will bring with them much disillusion, if not serious disappointment. Much that they see is magnified to their view, and the colors, as they see them today, will look otherwise to-morrow.

3. Itself is constantly disappearing. Few things are more constantly disturbing, if not distressing, us than the rapid passage of childhood and youth. Sometimes the young life is taken away altogether - the flower is nipped in the bud. But where life is spared, the peculiar beauty of childhood or of youth - its simplicity, its trustfulness, its docility, its eagerness, its ardor of affection, its unreserved delights, this is perpetually passing and "fading into the light of common day." Yet is there - and it is the truer and deeper thought -

II. THE GLORY OF YOUTH. Whatever may be said of youth in the way of qualification, there is one thing that may be said for it which greatly exalts it - it may be wise with a profound and heavenly wisdom, for it may be spent in the fear and in the love of God (see Proverbs 1:7; Job 28:28). To "remember its Creator," and to order its life according to that remembrance, is the height and the depth of human wisdom. Knowledge, learning, cunning, brilliancy, genius itself, is not so desirable nor so admirable a thing as is this holy and heavenly wisdom. To know God (Jeremiah 9:24), to reverence him in the innermost soul, to love him with all the heart (Mark 12:33), to be obedient to his commandments, to be patiently and cheerfully submissive to his will, to be honoring and serving him continually, to be attaining to his own likeness in spirit and character, - surely this is the glory of the highest created intelligence of the noblest rank in heaven, and surely this is the glory of our human nature in all its ranks. It is the glory of our manhood, and it is the glory of youth. Far more than any order of strength (Proverbs 20:29), or than any kind of beauty (2 Samuel 14:25), or than any measure of acquisition, does the abiding and practical remembrance of its Creator and Savior glorify our youth. That makes it pure, worthy, admirable, inherently excellent, full of hope and promise. We may add, for it belongs to the text as well as to the subject -

III. THE WISDOM OF YOUTH. "While the evil days come not," etc. Let the young live before God while they are young; for:

1. It is a poor and sorry thing to offer to God, to a Divine Redeemer, the dregs of our days. To him who gave himself for us it becomes us to give, not our wasted and worn-out, but our best, our freest and freshest, our purest and strongest self.

2. To leave the consecration of ourselves to Christ to the time when faculty has faded, when the power of discernment and appreciation has declined, when sensitiveness has been dulled with long disuse, when the heavenly voices fall with less charm and interest on the ear of the soul, - this is a most perilous thing. To hearken and to heed, to recognize and to obey, in the days of youth is the one wise thing. - C.

By a natural transition, a striking antithesis, youth suggests to the mind of the Preacher the condition and the solemn lessons of old age. How appropriately does a treatise, dealing so fully with the occupations, the illusions, the trials, and the moral significance of human life, draw to a close by referring expressly to the earlier and the later periods by which that life is bounded!

I. THE BODILY SYMPTOMS OF AGE. These are, indeed, familiar to every observer, and are described with a picturesqueness and poetical beauty which must appeal to every reader of this passage. It is enough to remark that the decay of bodily power, and the gradual enfeeblement of the several senses, are among the usual accompaniments of advancing years.

II. THE MENTAL SYMPTOMS OF AGE. Reference is naturally made especially to the effect of bodily enfeeblement and infirmity upon the human emotions.

1. The emotions of desire and aspiration are dulled.

2. The emotions of apprehension, self-distrust, and fear increase.

III. THE NATURAL TERMINATION OF OLD AGE. There is no doubt that there are old persons of a sanguine temperament who seem unable to realize the fact that they are approaching the end of their earthly course. Yet it does not admit of doubt that the several indications of senility described in these verses are reminders of the end, are premonitions of the dissolution of the body, and of the entering upon a new and altogether different state of being.


1. There is scope for the exercise of patience under growing infirmities.

2. There is a call to the acquisition and display of that wisdom which the experience of long years is particularly fitted to cultivate.

3. The aged are especially bound to offer to the young an example of cheerful obedience, and to encourage them to a life of piety and usefulness.

V. THE CONSOLATIONS OF AGE. Cicero, in a well-known treatise of great beauty, has set forth the peculiar advantages and pleasures which belong to the latest stage of human life. The Christian is at liberty to comfort himself by meditating upon such natural blessings as "accompany old age," but he has far fuller and richer sources of consolation open to him.

1. There is the happy retrospect of a life filled with instances of God's compassion, forbearance, and loving-kindness.

2. And there is the bright anticipation of eternal blessedness. This is his peculiar prerogative. As the outer man perisheth, the inner man is renewed day by day. The earthly tent is gradually but surely taken down, and this process suggests that he should look forward with calm confidence and hope to his speedy occupation of the "house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." - T.

Whatever be the true interpretation of the three preceding verses, there is no doubt at all as to the Preacher's meaning in the text; he has death in his view, and he suggests to us -

I. ITS CERTAINTY. Childhood must pass into youth, and youth into prime, and prime into old age - into the days which are bereaved of pleasure (ver. 1); and old age must end in death. Of all the tableaux which human life presents to us, the last one is that of "the mourners going about the streets." Other evils may be shunned by sedulous care and unusual sagacity, but death is the evil which no man may avoid.

II. ITS MEANING. What does death mean when it comes?

1. It means a shock to those that are left behind. The mourners in the street express in their way the sadness which is afflicting the hearts of those who weep within the walls. Here and there a death occurs which disturbs no peace and troubles no heart. But almost always it comes with a shock and an inward inexpressible pain to those who are bereaved. Even in old age the hearts of near kindred and dear friends are troubled with a keen and real distress.

2. It means separation. Man "goes to his long home." They who are left go to their darkened home, and he who is taken goes to his long home, to dwell apart and alone, to revisit no more the familiar places, and look no more into the faces of his friends. They and he henceforth must dwell apart; the grave is always a very long distance from the old home.

3. It means loss. The loss of the beautiful or the useful, or of both together. "Our life may have been like a golden lamp suspended by silver chains, fit for the palace of a king, and- may have shed a welcome and a cheerful light on every side; but even the durable costly chain will be snapped at last, and the beautiful 'bowl be broken.' Our life may have been like 'the bucket' dropped by village maidens into the village fountain, or like the ' wheel' by which water is drawn from the village well, - it may have conveyed a vital refreshment to many lips; but the day must come when the bucket will be shattered on the marble edge of the fountain, and the timeworn wheel drop into the well" (Cox). The most beautiful life vanishes from our sight; the most useful life is taken away.

4. It means dissolution. "The dust shall return to the earth as it was." Our body, however fair and strong it may be, however trained, clothed, adorned, admired, must return to "dust and ashes," must be resolved into the elements from which it was constructed.

5. It means departure. "The spirit shall return unto God who gave it." This is by far the most solemn view of death. At death we "return to God" (see Psalm 90:3). Not, indeed, that we are ever far from him (see Acts 17:27; Psalm 139:3-5). We stand and live in his very near presence. Yet does there come an hour - the hour of death - when we shall consciously stand before our Divine Judge, and when we shall learn from him "our high estate" or our lasting doom (2 Corinthians 5:10). Death means departure from the sphere of the visible and tangible into the close and conscious presence of the eternal God.

III. ITS MORAL. The one great lesson which stands out from this eloquent description is this: Be the servant of God always; take care to know him and to serve him at the end, by learning of him at the beginning, and serving him throughout your life. Remember your Creater in youth, and he will acknowledge you when old age is lost in death, and death has introduced you to the judgment-scene. Happy is that human soul that has drawn into itself Divine truth with its earliest intelligence, and that has ordered its life by the Divine will from first to last; for then shall the end of earth be full of peace and hope, and the beginning of eternity be full of joy and of glory. - C.

The sentence, "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!" with which the Book of Ecclesiastes opened, is found here at its close. And doubtless to many it will seem disappointing that it should follow so hard upon the expression of belief in immortality. Surely we might say that the nobler view of life reached by the Preacher should have precluded his return to the pessimistic opinions and feelings which we can scarcely avoid associating with the words, "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!" But on second thoughts the words are not contradictory of the hope for the future which ver. 7 expresses. The fact that Christians can use the words as descriptive of the worthlessness of things that are seen and temporal, as compared with those that are unseen and eternal, forbids our concluding that they are necessarily the utterance of a despairing pessimism. A great deal depends upon the tone in which the words are uttered; and the pious tone of the writer's mind, as revealed in the concluding passages of his book, would incline us to believe that the sentence, "all is vanity," is equivalent to that in the Gospel, "What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" No one can deny that the 'De Imitatione Christi' is a noble expression of certain aspects of Christian teaching with regard to life. And yet in the very first chapter of it we have these words of Solomon's quoted and expanded. "Vanity of vanities; and all is vanity beside loving God and serving him alone. It is vanity, therefore, to seek after fiches which must perish, and to trust in them. It is vanity also to lay one's self out for honors, and to raise one's self to a high station. It is vanity to follow the desires of the flesh, and to covet that for which we must afterwards be grievously punished. It is vanity to wish for long life, and to take little care of leading a good life. It is vanity to mind only this present life, and not to look forward to those things which are to come. It is vanity to love that which passes with all speed, and not to hasten thither where ever lasting joy abides." In the opinion of many eminent critics the eighth verse contains the concluding words of the Preacher, and those which follow are an epilogue, consisting of a "commendatory attestation" (vers. 9-12), and a summary of the teaching of the book (vers. 13, 14), which justifies its place in the sacred canon. On the whole, this seems to be the most reasonable explanation of the passage. It seems more likely that the glowing eulogy upon the author was written by some one else than that it came from his own pen; and a somewhat analogous postscript is found in another book of Holy Scripture, the Gospel of St. John (John 21:24). Those who collected the Jewish Scriptures into one, and drew the line between canonical and non-canonical literature, may have considered it advisable to append this paragraph as a testimony in favor of a book which contained so much that was perplexing, and to give a summary (in vers. 13, 14) of what seemed to them its general teaching. The Preacher, they say, was gifted with wisdom over and above his fellows, and taught the people knowledge; and for this pondered and investigated and set in order many proverbs or parables (ver. 9). Like the scribe, "who had been made a disciple to the kingdom of heaven," "he brought forth out of his treasure things new and old" (Matthew 13:52). Knowledge of the wisdom of the past, ability to recognize in it what was most valuable, and to cast it into new forms and zeal in the discharge of his sacred office, were all found in him. He sought to attract men to wisdom by displaying it in its gracious aspect (cf. Luke 4:22), and to influence them by the sincerity of his purpose, and by the actual truth he brought to light (ver. 10). "He aimed to speak at once words that would please and words which were true - words which would be at once goads to the intellect, and yet stakes that would uphold and stay the soul of man, beta coming alike from one shepherd" (ver. 11, Bradley). Some of his sayings were calculated to stimulate men into fresh fields of thought and new paths of duty, others to confirm them in the possession of truths of eternal value and significance. Like the apostle, he was anxious that his readers should no longer be like "children tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, in craftiness, after the wiles of error" (Ephesians 4:14); but should "prove all things, and hold fast that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). How much better to study in the school of such a teacher than to weary and perplex one's self with" science falsely so called;" than to be versed in multitudinous literature, which dissipates mental energy, and in which the soul can find no sure resting-place (ver. 12)! All who set themselves, or who have been called, to be teachers of men, may find in the example of the Preacher guidance as to the motives and aims which will alone give them success in their work. - J.W.

The author of this book was himself a profound thinker and an earnest teacher, and it is evident that his great aim was to use his gifts of observation, meditation, and discourse for the enlightenment and the spiritual profit of all whom his words might reach. Taught in the quiet of his heart by the Spirit of the Eternal, he labored, by the presentation of truth and the inculcation of piety, to promote the religious life among his fellow-men. His aim as he himself conceived it, his methods as practiced by him in his literary productions, are deserving of the attentive consideration and the diligent imitation of those who are called upon to use thought and speech for the spiritual good of their fellow-creatures. Words are the utterance of the convictions and the desires of the inner nature, and when spoken deliberately and in public they involve a peculiar responsibility.

I. THE WORDS OF THE RELIGIOUS TEACHER SHOULD BE THE EXPRESSION OF WISDOM. They should not be thrown off carelessly, but should be the fruit of deep study and meditation. For the most part, they should embody either original thought, or thought which the teacher should have assimilated and made part of his own nature, and tested in his own individual experience. They should be the utterance of knowledge rather than of opinion; and they should be set forth in the order which comes from reflection, and not in an incoherent, desultory, and unconnected form.

II. THE WORDS OF THE RELIGIOUS TEACHER SHOULD BE WORDS OF UPRIGHTNESS. In order to this they must be the utterance of sincere conviction; they must harmonize with moral intuitions; they must be such as consequently appeal to the same conscience in the hearer or reader, which approves them in the speaker or writer. Crafty arguments, specious and sophistical appeals, sentimental absurdities, do not fulfill these conditions, and for them there is no place in the Christian preacher's discourses, in the volumes of the Christian author.

III. THE WORDS OF THE RELIGIOUS TEACHER SHOULD BE WORDS OF PERSUASIVENESS. The author of Ecclesiastes commends "proverbs" and "words of delight." Harshness, coldness, contemptuousness, severity, are unbecoming to the expositor of a religion of compassion and love. A winning manner., a sympathizing spirit, language and illustrations adapted to the intelligence, the habits, the circumstances of auditors, go far to open up a way to their hearts. No doubt there is a side of danger to this requirement; the pleasing word may be the substitute for the truth instead of its vehicle, and the preacher may simply be as one that playeth upon a very pleasant instrument. But the example of our Lord Jesus, "the great Teacher," abundantly shows how winning, gracious, condescending, and touching language is divinely adapted to reach the hearts of men.

IV. THE WORDS OF THE RELIGIOUS TEACHER SHOULD BE CONVINCING AND EFFECTIVE. The goads that pierce, the nails that penetrate and bind, are images of the language of him who beateth not the air. Let the aim be kept steadily before the eye, and the mark will not be missed. Let the blow be delivered strongly and decisively, and the work will be well done. The understanding has to be convinced, the conscience awakened, the heart touched, the evil passions stilled, the endeavor and determination aroused; and the Word is, by the accompanying energy of the Spirit of God, able to effect all this. "Who is sufficient for these things?"

V. THE WORDS OF THE RELIGIOUS TEACHER MAY BE THE MEANS OF RELIGIOUS, SPIRITUAL, IMPERISHABLE BLESSING. If his word be the Word of God, who commissions and strengthens every faithful herald and ambassador, then he may comfort himself with the promise, "My Word shall not return unto me void; it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it." - T.

1. The wise man, because he is wise (ver. 9), teaches. There is no better, no other thing that he can do, both for his own sake and for the sake of his fellow-men. To know and not to speak is a sin and a cruelty, when men are "perishing for lack of knowledge." To know and to speak is an elevated joy and a sacred duty; we cannot but speak the things we have learned of God, the truth as it is in Jesus.

2. The wise man also takes what measures he can to perpetuate the truth he knows; he wants to preserve it, to hand it down to another time; he therefore "writes down the words with truth and uprightness" (ver. 10); or, if he cannot do this, be labors to put his thought into those parabolic or proverbial forms which will not only be preserved in the memory of those to whom he utters them, but can be readily repeated, and will become embedded in the traditions and, ultimately, into the literature of his country (ver. 9).

3. The wise man restrains his literary ardor within due bounds (ver. 12). Otherwise he not only causes a drug in the market, but seriously injures his own health. He knows it is better to do a little and do that thoroughly, than to do much and do it hastily and imperfectly. But what is the teacher's function, his sacred duty, as related to the people of his charge or his acquaintance?

I. To SEARCH DILIGENTLY FOR THE TRUTH. It is for him "to ponder and seek out," or to "compose with care and thought" (Cox's transl.). Divine truth, in its various aspects and applications, is manifold and profound; it demands our most patient study, our most reverent inquiry; we should gain help from all possible sources, more particularly should we seek it from the Spirit and from the Word of God.

II. TO INTEREST AND TO CONSOLE. The Preacher sought to find out "acceptable" or "comfortable" words - "words of delight" (literally). This is not the main duty of the teacher, but it is one to which he should seriously address himself.

1. A teacher may be speaking in the highest strain, and may be uttering the deepest wisdom, but if his words are unintelligible and, therefore, unacceptable, he will make no way and do no good. We must speak in the language of those whom we address. Our thoughts may be far higher than theirs, but our language must be on their level - at any rate, on the level of their understanding.

2. The teacher will do wisely to spend much time and strength in consoling; for in this world of trouble and sorrow no words are more often or more urgently needed than "comfortable words."

III. TO RETAIN. "The words of the 'masters of assemblies' are like stakes (nails) which the shepherds drive into the ground when they pitch their tents;" i.e. they are instruments of fastening or of securing; they act as things which keep the cords in their place, and keep the roof over the head of the traveler. It is one function of the Christian teacher - and a most valuable one - so to speak that men shall retain their hold on the great verities of the faith, on the true and real Fatherhood of God, on the atonement of Jesus Christ, on the openness of the kingdom of heaven to every seeking soul, on the blessedness of self-forgetful love, on the offer of eternal life to all who believe, etc.

IV. TO INSPIRE. At other times the Preacher's words are "as goads" that urge the cattle to other fields. To comfort and to secure is much, but it is not all that they who speak for Christ have to do. They have to illumine and to enlarge men's views, to shed fresh light on the sacred page, to invite those that hear them to accompany them to fields of thought hitherto untrodden, to induce them to think and study for themselves, to unveil the beauties and glories of the wisdom "that remains to be revealed," to inspire them with a yearning desire and with a full purpose of heart to enter upon works of helpfulness and usefulness; he has to "provoke them to love and to good works." - C.

In these closing paragraphs of his treatise the writer reveals his own feelings, and draws upon his own experience. It is interesting to observe how largely study was pursued and literature cultivated at the remote period when this book was written; and it is obvious to remark how far more strikingly these reflections apply to an age like our own, and to a state of society such as that in which we live. The diffusion of education tends to the multiplication of books and to the increase of the learned professions; whilst growing civilization fosters the habit of introspection, and consequently of that melancholy whose earlier and simpler symptoms are observable in the language of this touching passage.

I. STUDY AND LITERATURE ARE A NECESSITY OF EDUCATED HUMAN NATURE. As soon as men begin to reflect, they begin to embody their reflections in a literary form, whether of poetry or of prose. A native impulse to verbal expression of thought and feeling, or the desire of sympathy and applause, or the calculating regard for maintenance, leads to the devotion of ever-growing bodies of men to the literary life. Literature is an unmistakable "note" of human culture.

II. STUDY AND LITERATURE ARE, BROADLY SPEAKING, PROMOTIVE OF THE GENERAL GOOD. The few toil that the many may profit. Knowledge, thought, art, right feeling, liberty, and peace, are all indebted to the great thinkers and authors whose names are held in honor among men. Doubtless there are those who misuse their gifts, who by their writings pander to vice, incite to crime, and encourage irreligion. But the bulk of literature, proceeding from the better class of minds, is rather contributive to the furtherance of goodness and of the best interests of men. Books are among the greatest of human blessings.

III. STUDY AND LITERATURE HAVE BEEN CONSECRATED TO THE SERVICE OF RELIGION. We have but to refer to the Hebrew Scriptures themselves in proof of this. There is nothing more marvelous in history than the production of the Books of Moses, the Psalms, and the prophetic writings, at the epochs from which they date. Lawgivers, seers, psalmists, and sages live yet in their peerless writings; some of them inimitable in literary form, all of them instinct with moral power. The New Testament furnishes a yet more marvelous illustration of the place which literature holds in the religious life of humanity. Men have sneered at the supposition that a book revelation could be possible; but their sneers are answered by the facts. Whatever view we take of inspiration, we are constrained to allow for human gifts of authorship. To make up the sacred volume there are "many books," and every one of them is the fruit of "much study."


1. There is weariness of the flesh arising from the close connection between body and mind. The brain, being the central physical organ of language, is, in a sense, the instrument of thought; and, consequently, brain-weariness, nerve-exhaustion, are familiar symptoms among the ardent students to whom we are all indebted for the discovery, the formulation, and the communication of truth and knowledge.

2. But there is a mental sorrow and distress which deeper thinkers cannot always escape, and by which some among them are oppressed. The vast range of what in itself can be known is such as to strike the mind with dismay. Science, history, philosophy, etc., have made progress so marvelous, that no single finite mind can embrace, in the course of a life of study, however assiduous, more than a minute department, so as to know all of it that may be known; and a highly educated man Is content "to know something of everything, and every thing of-something.

3. Then beyond the realm accessible to human inquiry lies the vaster realm of what cannot be known - what is altogether outside our ken.

4. It must be borne in mind, further, that, whilst man's intellect is limited, his spiritual yearnings are insatiable: no bounds can be set to his aspirations; his nature is akin to that of God himself, Thus it is that sorrow often shades the scholar's brow, and that to the weariness of the flesh there is added the sadness of the spirit, that finds, in the memorable language of Pascal, the larger the circle of the known, the vaster is the circumference of the unknown that stretches beyond. - T.

After all the questionings and discussions, the doubts and perplexities, the counsels and precepts, of this treatise, the author winds up by restating the first, the most elementary, and the most important, principles of true religion. There are, he felt, in this world many things which we cannot fathom, many things which we cannot reconcile with our convictions and hopes; but there are some things concerning which we have no doubts, and these are the things which most nearly concern us personally and practically. Thoughtful men may weary and distress themselves with pondering the great problems of existence; but, after all, they, in common with the plainest and most illiterate, must come back to the essentials of the religious life.

I. THE GREAT SPRING AND CENTER OF RELIGION. This is the fear of God, reverence for the Divine character and attributes, the habit of mind which views everything in relation to him who is eternally holy, wise, just, and good. This Book of Ecclesiastes is, upon this point, at one with the whole of the Bible and with all deeply based religion. We cannot begin with man; we must find an all-sufficient foundation for the religious life in God himself, his nature, and his Law.

II. THE GREAT EXPRESSION OF RELIGION. This is obedience to the Divine commandments.' Our convictions and emotions find their scope when directed towards a holy and merciful God; our will must bend to the moral authority of the eternal Lord. Feelings and professions are in vain unless they are supported by corresponding actions. It is true that mere external compliance is valueless; acts must be the manifestation of spiritual loyalty and love. But, on the other hand, sentiment that evaporates in words, that does not issue in deeds, is disregarded in the court of heaven. Where God is honored, and his will is cheerfully performed, there the whole duty of the Christian man is fulfilled. It is the work of the mediation of the Divine Savior, of the operations of the Divine Spirit, to bring about such a religious and moral life.

III. THE GREAT TEST OF RELIGION. For this we are bidden to look forward to the future. Many things, which are significant as to the religious state of a man, are now hidden. They must be brought to light; secret deeds, alike of holiness and of iniquity, must be made manifest before the throne of judgment. Here, in this world, where men judge by appearances, the wicked sometimes get credit for goodness which does not really belong to them, and the good are often maligned and misunderstood. But, in the general judgment hereafter, the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed, and men shall be judged, not according to what they seem to be, but according to what they actually are. With this solemn warning the Preacher closes his book. And there is no person, in whatsoever state of life, to whom this warning does not apply. Well will it be for us if this earthly life be passed under the perpetual influence of this expectation; if the prospect of the future judgment inspire us to watchfulness, to diligence, and to prayer. - T.

What is the conclusion of this inquiry? What result may be gained from these inconsistencies of thought and variations of feeling? Deeper down than anything else is the fact that there are -


1. Reverence. We are to "fear God." That is certain. But let us not mistake this "fear" for a very different thing with which it may be confounded. It is not a servile dread, such as that which is entertained by ignorant devotees of their deities. Only too often worship rises no higher than that; it is an abject dread of the malignant spiritual power. This is both a falsity and an injury. It is founded on a complete misconception of the Divine, and it reacts most hurtfully upon the mind of the worshipper, demoralizing and degrading. What God asks of us is a well-grounded, holy reverence; the honor which weakness pays to power, which he who receives everything pays to him who gives everything, which intelligence pays to wisdom, which a moral and spiritual nature pays to rectitude, to goodness, to love, to absolute and unspotted worth.

2. Obedience. We must "keep his commandments;" i.e. not only

(1) abstain from those particular transgressions which he has forbidden, and

(2) practice those virtues which he has positively enjoined; but also

(3) carefully study his holy will in regard to all things, and strive earnestly and patiently to do it. This will embrace, not only all outward actions observable by man, but all the inward thoughts of the mind, and all the hidden feelings and purposes of the soul. It includes the bringing of everything of every kind for which we are personally responsible "into obedience to the will of Christ." It requires of us rectitude in every relation that we sustain to others, as well as in all that we owe to ourselves. The text suggests -

II. THE TWO GREAT REASONS FOR OUR RESPONSE. One is that such reverent obedience is:

1. Our supreme obligation. "This is the whole duty of man," or, rather, "This it behooveth all men to do." This is what all men are in sacred duty bound to do. There is no other obligation which is not slight and small in comparison with this. The child owes much to his father, the pupil to his teacher, the beneficiary to his benefactor, the one who has been rescued to his deliverer; but not one of these obligations, nor all added together, expresses anything that approaches the indebtedness under which we rest to God. To him from whom we came, and "in whom we live and move and have our being," who is the one ultimate Source of all our blessings and of all our powers, who has poured out upon us an immeasurable wealth of pure and patient love; to the gracious Father of our spirit; to the gracious Lord of our life; to the holy and the benignant One, - to him it does indeed become all men to render a reverent obedience. The other reason why we should respond is found in:

2. Our supreme wisdom. "For God will bring," etc. God is now bringing all that we are and do under his own 'Divine judgment, and is now approving or disapproving. He is also so governing the world that our thoughts and actions are practically judged, and either rewarded or punished, before we pass the border-line of death. But while this is true, and while there is much more of truth in it than is often supposed, yet much is left to the future in this great matter of judgment. There are "secret things" to be exposed; there are undiscovered crimes to be made known; there are iniquities that have escaped even the eye of the perpetrators, who "knew not what they did," to be revealed. There is a great account to be settled. And because it is true that "we must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ, that every one of us may receive the things done in his body," because "God will judge the secrets of all hearts," because sin in every shape moves toward exposure and penalty, while righteousness in all its forms travels toward its recognition and reward, therefore let the spirit be reverent in presence of its Maker, let the life be filled with purity and worth, with integrity and goodness, let man be the dutiful child of his Father who is in heaven. - C.

In the passage with which the Book of Ecclesiastes concludes, the clue is found which leads the speaker out of the labyrinth of skepticism in which for a time he had gone astray. He at last emerges from the dark forest in which he had long wandered, and finds himself under the stars of heaven, and sees in the eastern sky the promise of the coming day. It is true that from time to time in his earlier meditations he had retained, even if it were with but a faltering grasp, the truth which he now announces confidently and triumphantly. "It had mitigated his pessimism and hallowed his eudemonism" (Ecclesiastes 7:18; Ecclesiastes 8:12; Ecclesiastes 11:9). And it must be taken as canceling much of what he had said about the vanity of human life. Over against his somber thoughts about one fate awaiting both the righteous and the wicked, the wise and the foolish (Ecclesiastes 9:2), and the leveling power of death, that makes no distinction between man and the brute (Ecclesiastes 3:18-22), and shakes one's faith in the dignity and worth of our nature, is set his final verdict. God does distinguish, not only between men and the brutes, but between good men and bad. The efforts we make to obey him, or the indifference towards the claims of righteousness we may have manifested, are not fruitless; they result in the formation of a character that merits and will receive his favor, or of one that will draw down his displeasure. The nearness of God to the individual soul is the great truth upon which our author rests at last, and in his statement of it we have a positive advance upon previous revelations, and an anticipation of the fuller light of the New Testament teaching. God, he would have us believe, does not deal with men as nations or classes, but as individuals. He treats them, whatever may have been their surroundings or national connections, as personally accountable for the disposition and character they have cultivated. His judgment of them lies in the future, and all, without distinction of persons, will be subject to it. In these points, therefore, the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes transcends the teaching of the Old Testament, and approximates to that of Christ and the apostles. The present life, with all its inequalities, the adversity which often besets the righteous, and the prosperity which the wicked often enjoy, is not the whole of existence, but there is a world to come in which the righteous will openly receive the Divine favor, and the wicked the due reward of their deeds. The blessings which were promised to the nation that was faithful to the Divine Law will be enjoyed by each individual who has had the fear of God before his eyes. Judgment will go by character, and not by outward name or profession (Matthew 7:21-23; Revelation 20:12). We have, therefore, here a great exhortation founded on truths which cannot be shaken, and calculated to guide each one who obeys it to that goal of happiness which all desire to reach. "Fear God, and keep his commandments." Both the inward disposition and the outward conduct are covered by the exhortation.

I. In the first place, then, THE PRINCIPLE BY WHICH WE SHOULD BE GOVERNED IS THE "FEAR OF GOD." This is the root from which the goodly leaves and choice fruit of a religious life will spring. If the word "fear" had been used in this passage only, and we had not been at liberty to understand it in any other than its ordinary sense, one would be forced to admit that such a low motive could not be the mainspring of a vigorous and healthy religious life. But all through the Scriptures the phrase, "fear of God," is used as synonymous with a genuine, heartfelt service of him, and as rather indicating a careful observance of the obligations we as creatures owe to him, than a mere dread of his anger at disobedience. It is not to be denied that fear, in the ordinary sense of the word, is reasonably a motive by which sin may be restrained, but it is no stimulus to that kind of service which we owe to God. "I thank God, and with joy I mention it," says Sir Thomas Browne, "I was never afraid of hell, nor ever grew pale at the description of that place. I have so fixed my contemplations on heaven, that I have almost forgot the idea of hell; and am afraid rather to lose the joys of one than endure the misery of the other. To be deprived of them is a perfect hell, and needs methinks no addition to complete our afflictions. That terrible term hath never detained me from sin, nor do I owe any good action to the name thereof. I fear God, yet am not afraid of him; his mercies make me ashamed of my sins, before his judgments afraid thereof. These are the forced and secondary methods of his wisdom, which he useth but as the last remedy, and upon provocation - a course rather to deter the wicked than incite the virtuous to his worship. I can hardly think there was ever any scared into heaven: they go the fairest way to heaven that would serve God without a hell. Other mercenaries, that crouch unto him in fear of hell, though they term themselves the servants, are indeed but the slaves, of the Almighty" ('Rel. Med.,' 1:52). Plainly, therefore, when the fear of God is made equivalent to true religion, it must include many other feelings than that dread which sinners experience at the thought of the laws they have broken, and which may consist with hatred of God and of righteousness. It must be a summary of all the emotions which belong to a religions life - reverence at the thought of God's infinite majesty, holiness, and justice, gratitude for his loving-kindness and tender mercy, confidence in his wisdom, power, and faithfulness, submission to his will, and delight in communion with him. If fear is to be taken as a prominent emotion in such a life, we are not to understand by it the terror of a slave, who would willingly, if he could, break away from his owner, but the loving reverence of a child, who is anxious to avoid everything that would grieve his father's heart. The one kind of fear is the mark of an imperfect obedience (1 John 4:18); the other is the proof of a disposition which calls forth God's favor and blessing (Psalm 103:13).

II. In the second place, THE CONDUCT WE SHOULD MANIFEST IS DESCRIBED: "KEEP HIS COMMANDMENTS." This is the outward manifestation of the disposition of the heart, and supplies a test by which the genuineness of a religious profession may be tried. These two elements are needed to constitute holiness - a God-fearing spirit and a blameless life. If either be wanting the nature is out of balance, and very grave defects will soon appear, by which all of positive good that has been attained will be either overshadowed or nullified. If there be not devotion of the heart to God, no zeal and fidelity in discharging the ordinary duties of life will make up for the loss. The reverence due to him as our Creator - gratitude for his benefits, penitent confession of sins and shortcomings, and faith in his mercy - cannot be willfully omitted by us without a depravation of our whole character. And, on the other side, an acknowledgment of him that does not lead us to "keep his commandments" is equally fatal (Matthew 7:21-23; Luke 13:25-27). The Preacher appends two weighty considerations to induce us to attend to his exhortation to "fear God, and keep his commandments." The first is that this is the source of true happiness. So would we interpret his words, "For this is the whole of man." The word "duty" is suggested by our translators to complete the sense, but it is not comprehensive enough. "To fear God and keep his commandments is not only the whole duty, but the whole honor and interest and happiness of man" (Wardlaw). The quest with which the book has been largely concerned is that for happiness, for the summum bonum, in which alone the soul can find satisfaction, and here it comes to an end. The discovery is made of that which has been so long and so painfully sought after. In a pious and holy life and conversation rest is found; all else is but vanity and vexation of spirit. The second motive to obedience is the certainty of a future judgment (ver. 14). "For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." Nothing will be omitted or forgotten. The Judge will be One who is absolutely just and wise, who will be free from all partiality; and his sentence will be final. If, therefore, we have no such regard for our own happiness in the present life as would move us to secure it by love and service of God, we may still find a check upon self-will and self-indulgence in the thought that we shall have to give an account of our thoughts, words, and deeds to One from whose sentence there is no appeal. - J.W.

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