Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. THE WORLDLY MAN'S AIM. This is to learn what the human heart and life can derive from the gifts and enjoyments of this world. Man's nature is impulsive, acquisitive, yearning, aspiring. He is ever seeking satisfaction for his wants and desires. He turns now hither and now thither, seeking in every direction that which he never finds in anything earthly, in anything termed "real."
II. THE WORLDLY MAN'S MEANS TO THIS END. How shall satisfaction be found? The world presents itself in answer to this question, and invites its votary to acquisition and appropriation of its gifts. This passage in Ecclesiastes offers a remarkable and exhaustive catalogue of the emoluments and pleasures, the interests and occupations, with which the world pretends to satisfy the yearning spirit of man. There are enumerated:
1. Bodily pleasure, especially the pleasure of abundance of choice wine.
2. Feminine society,
3. Riches, consisting of silver and gold, of flocks and herds.
4. Great works, as palaces, parks, etc.
5. Household magnificence.
6. Treasures of art, and especially musical entertainments.
7. Study and wisdom, associated with all diversions and distractions of every kind.
It seems scarcely credible that one man could be the possessor of so many means of enjoyment, and it is not to be wondered at that "Solomon in all his glory" should be mentioned as the most amazing example of this world's greatness and delights. It needed a many-sided nature to appreciate so vast a variety of possessions and occupations; the largeness of heart which is ascribed to the Hebrew monarch must have found abundant scope in the palaces of Jerusalem. It is instructive that Holy Writ, which presents so just a view of human nature, should record a position so exalted and opulent and a career so splendid as those of Solomon.
III. THE WORLDLY MAN'S FAILURE TO SECURE THE END BY THE USE OF THE MEANS DESCRIBED.
1. All such gratifications as are here enumerated are in themselves insufficient to satisfy man's spiritual nature. There is a disproportion between the soul of man and the pleasures of sense and the gifts of fortune. Even could the wealth and luxury, the delights and splendor, of an Oriental monarch be enjoyed, the result would not be the satisfaction expected. There would still be "the aching void the world can never fill."
2. It must also be remembered that, by a law of our constitution, even pleasure is not best obtained when consciously and deliberately sought. To seek pleasure is to miss it, whilst it often comes unsought in the path of ordinary duty.
3. When regarded as the supreme good, worldly possessions and enjoyments may hide God from the soul. They obscure the shining of the Divine countenance, as the clouds conceal the sun that shines behind them. The works of God's hand sometimes absorb the interest and attention which are due to their Creator; the bounty and beneficence of the Giver are sometimes lost sight of by those who partake of his gifts.
4. The good things of earth may legitimately be accepted and enjoyed when received as God's gifts, and held submissively and gratefully "with a light hand."
5. Earth's enjoyments may be a true blessing if, failing to satisfy the soul, they induce the soul to turn from them to God, in whose favor is life.
I. THE CONSTANT QUESTION OF THE HUMAN HEART. In what shall we find the good which will make our life precious to us? What is there that will meet the cravings of the human heart, and cover our whole life with the sunshine of success and of contentment?
II. A VERY NATURAL RESORT. We have recourse to some kind of excitement. It may be that which acts upon the senses (vers. 3, 8). Or it may be that which gratifies the mind; the sense of possession and of power (vers. 7-9). Or it may be found in agreeable and inviting activities (vers. 4-6).
III. ITS TEMPORARY SUCCESS. "My heart rejoiced" (ver. 10). It would be simply false to contend that there is no delight, no satisfaction, in these sources of good. There is, for a while. There is a space during which they fill the heart as the wine fills the cup into which it is poured. The heart rejoices; it utters its joy in song; it declares itself to be completely happy. It "sits in the sun;" it rolls the sweet morsel between its teeth. It flatters itself that it has found its fortune, while the angels of God weep over its present folly and its coming doom.
IV. ITS ACTUAL AND UTTER INSUFFICIENCY. (Ver. 11.) Pleasure may be coarse and condemnable; it may go down to fleshly gratifications (vers. 3, 8); it may be refined and chaste, may expend itself in designs and executions; it may be moderated and regulated with the finest calculation, so as to have the largest measure spread over the longest possible period; it may "guide itself with wisdom" (ver. 3). But it will be a failure; it will break down; it will end in a dreary exclamation of "Vanity!" Three things condemn it as a solution of the great quest after human good.
1. Experience. This proves, always and everywhere, that the deliberate and systematic pursuit of pleasure fails to secure its end. Pleasure is not a harvest, to be sedulously sown and reaped; it is a plant that grows, unsought and uncultivated, all along the path of duty and of service. To seek it and to labor for it is to miss it. All human experience shows that it soon palls upon the taste, that it fades fast in the hands of its devotee; that there is no company of men so utterly weary and so wretched as the tired hunters after pleasurable excitement.
2. Philosophy. This teaches us that a being made for something so much higher than pleasure can never be satisfied with anything so low; surely we cannot expect that the heart which is capable of worship, of service, of holy love, of heroic consecration, of spiritual nobility, will be filled and satisfied with "the delights of the sons of men."
3. Religion. For this introduces the sovereign claims of the Supreme One; it places man in the presence of God; it shows a life of frivolity to be a life of culpable selfishness, of sin, of shame. It summons to a purer and a wiser search, to a worthier and a nobler course; it promises the peace which waits on rectitude; it offers the joy which only God can give, and which no man can take away. - C.
Ecclesiastes 7:6), like the crackling of burning thorns; the blaze lasted but for a moment, and the gloom that followed was but the deeper and more enduring. Where the fire of jovial revelry and boisterous mirth had been, there remained but cold, gray ashes. The mood of reckless enjoyment was followed by that of cynical satiety and bitter disappointment. He said of laughter, "It is mad," and of mirth, "What doeth it?" In his moments of calm reflection, when he communed with his own heart, he recognized the utter folly of his experiment, and felt that from his own dear-bought experience he could emphatically warn all in time to come against seeking satisfaction for the soul in sensual pleasures. Not in this way can the hunger and thirst with which the spirit of man is consumed be allayed. At most, a short period of oblivion can be secured, from which the awakening is all the more terrible. The sense of personal responsibility, the feeling that we are called to seek the highest good and are doomed to unrest and misery until we find it, the conviction that our failures only make ultimate success the more doubtful, is not to be quenched by any such coarse anodyne. Various reasons may be found to explain why this kind of experiment failed and must fail.
I. In the first place, it consisted in AN ABUSE OF NATURAL FACULTIES AND APPETITES. Some measure of joy and pleasure is needed for health of mind and body. Innocent gaiety, enjoyment of the gifts God has bestowed upon us, reasonable satisfaction of the appetites implanted in us, have all a rightful place in our life. But over-indulgence in any one of them violates the harmony of our nature. They were never intended to rule us, but to be under our control and to minister to our happiness, and we cannot allow them to govern us without throwing our whole life into disorder.
II. In the second place, THE PLEASURE EXCITED IS ONLY TRANSITORY. From the very nature of things it cannot be kept up for any long time by mere effort of will; the brain grows weary and the bodily powers become exhausted. A jest-book is proverbially very tiresome reading. At first it may amuse, but the attention soon begins to flag, and after a little the most brilliant specimen of wit can scarcely evoke a smile. The drunkard and the glutton find that they can only carry the pleasures of the table up to a certain point; after that has been reached the bodily organism refuses to be still further stimulated.
III. In the third place, SUCH PLEASURE CAN ONLY BE GRATIFIED BY SELF-DEGRADATION. It is inconsistent with the full exercise of the intellectual faculties which distinguish man from the brute, and destructive of those higher and more spiritual faculties by which God is apprehended, served, and enjoyed. Self-indulgence in the gross pleasures of which we are speaking actually reduces man below the level of the beasts that perish, for they are preserved from such folly by the natural instincts with which they are endowed.
IV. In the fourth place, THE INEVITABLE RESULT OF SUCH AN EXPERIMENT IS A DEEPER AND MORE ENDURING GLOOM. Self-reproach, enfeeblement of mind and body, satiety and disgust, come on when the mad fit is past, and, what is still worse, the apprehension of evils yet to come - the knowledge that the passions excited and indulged will refuse to die down; that they have a life and power of their own, and will stimulate and almost compel their slave to enter again on the evil courses which he first tried of his own free will and with a light heart. The prospect before him is that of bondage to habits which he knows will yield him no lasting pleasure, and very little of the fleeting kind, and must involve the enfeeblement and destruction of all his powers. Mirth and laughter and wine did not banish Solomon's melancholy; but after the feverish excitement they produced had passed away, they left him in a deeper gloom than ever. "Like phosphorus on a dead man's lace, he felt that it was all a trick, a lie; and like the laugh of a hyena among the tombs, he found that the worldling's frolic can never reanimate the joys which guilt has slain and buried." "I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?' The well-known story of the melancholy patient being advised by a doctor to go and see Grimaldi, and answering, "I am Grimaldi," and that of George Fox being recommended by a minister whom he consulted to dispel the anxieties which his spiritual fears and doubts and aspirations had excited within him, by "drinking beer and dancing with the girls" (Carlyle, 'Sartor Resartus,' 3:1), may be used to illustrate the teaching of our text. Some stanzas, too, of Byron's last poem give a pathetic expression to the feelings of satiety and disappointment which are the retribution of sensuality ?
"My days are in the yellow leaf; "The fire that on my bosom preys "The hope, the fear, the jealous care,
"The fire that on my bosom preys "The hope, the fear, the jealous care,
"The hope, the fear, the jealous care,
Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun." He does not try to explain the cause of his failure, but simply records the fact that he did fail. "He does not moralize, still less preach; he just paints the picture of his soul's sad wanderings, of the baffled effort of a human heart, and passes on." But we may find it highly profitable to inquire what were the causes why the life of culture - which, without harshness, may be called a refined voluptuousness - fails to give satisfaction to the human soul.
I. In the first place, IT IS A LIFE OF ISOLATION FROM GOD. As Solomon represents the course he followed, we see that the thought of God was excluded from his mind. The Divine gifts were enjoyed, the love of the beautiful which is implanted in the soul of man was gratified, every exquisite sensation of which we are capable was indulged, but the one thing needed to sanctify the happiness obtained and render it perfect was omitted. "God," says St. Augustine, "has made us for himself, and we cannot rest until we rest in him." Emotions of gratitude, adoration, humility, and self-consecration to His service cannot be suppressed without great loss - the loss even of that security and tranquility of spirit which are essential to true happiness. All the resources upon which Solomon drew may furnish helps to happiness, but none of them, nor all of them together, could, apart from God, secure it. Compare with the failure of Solomon the success of those who have often, in circumstances of extreme discomfort and suffering, enjoyed the peace of God that passeth all understanding. The sixty-third psalm, written by David in the time of exile and hardship, illustrates the truth that in communion with God the soul enjoys a happiness which cannot be found elsewhere. "A man's life does not consist in the abundance of the things which he possesseth." Apart from the favor of God and the service of God, the richest possessions and the most skilful employment of them can secure no lasting satisfaction. For we are so constituted as creatures that our life is not complete if we are dissevered from our Creator.
II. In the second place, IT IS A SELFISH LIFE. All that Solomon describes are his efforts to secure certain durable results for himself; to indulge his love for the beautiful in nature and art, and to surround himself with luxury and splendor. He would have been more successful in his search for happiness if he had endeavored to relieve the wants of others - to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to comfort the afflicted, and to instruct the ignorant. Self-denial and self-sacrifice for the sake of others would have brought him nearer the gem of his desire. The penalty of his selfish pursuit fell heavily upon him. He could not live at a height above mankind, in the enjoyment of his own felicity, for long; "the riddle of the painful earth" filled him with thoughts of self-loathing and despair, which shattered all his happiness. Do what he might, old age, disease, and death were foes he could not conquer, and all about him in human society he could discern moral evils and inequalities which he could not set right nor' even explain. Such selfish isolation as that into which for a time he had withdrawn himself failed to secure the object he had in view, for he could not really dissever his lot from that of his fellows, or escape the evils which afflicted them. The idea of a life of luxurious ease, undisturbed by the sight or thought of the miseries and hardships of life, was a vain dream, from which he soon awoke. In his poem, 'The Palace of Art,' Tennyson has given a most luminous and suggestive commentary upon this portion of the Book of Ecclesiastes. In it he represents the soul as seeking forgiveness for the sin of selfish isolation by penitence, prayer, and self-renunciation, and as anticipating a resumption of all the joys of culture and art in companionship with others. In communion with God, in fellowship with others, all things that are noble and pure and lovely are taken into holy keeping, and form a lasting source of joy and happiness. - J.W.
"All my life long I. THE NATURAL CONTRAST BETWEEN WISDOM AND FOLLY. 1. The distinction is one founded in the very nature of things, and is similar to that which, in the physical world, exists between light and darkness. This is as much as to say that God himself is the All-wise, and that reasonable beings, in so far as they participate in his nature and character, are distinguished by true wisdom; whilst, on the other hand, departure from God is the same thing as abandonment to folly. 2. The distinction is brought out by the just exercise or the culpable misuse of human faculty. "The wise man's eyes are in his head," which is a proverbial and figurative way of saying that the wise man uses the powers of observation and judgment with which he is endowed. The position and the endowments of the organs of vision is a plain indication that they were intended to guide the steps; the man who looks before him will not miss his way or fall into danger. Similarly, the faculties of the understanding and reason which are bestowed upon man are intended for the purpose of directing the voluntary actions, which, becoming habitual, constitute man's moral life. The wise man is he who not only possesses such powers, but makes a right use of them, and orders his way aright. The fool, on the contrary, "walketh in darkness;" i.e. he is as one who, having eyes, makes no use of them - shuts his eyes, or walks blindfold. The natural consequence is that he wanders from the path, and probably falls into perils and into destruction. II. THE APPARENT EQUALITY OF THE LOT OF THE WISE MAN AND THAT OF THE FOOL. The writer of this Book of Ecclesiastes was impressed with the fact that in this world men do not meet with their deserts; that, if there is retribution, it is of a very incomplete character; that the fortune of men is not determined by their moral character. This is a mystery which has oppressed the minds of observant and reflecting men in every age, and has been to some the occasion of falling into skepticism and even atheism. 1. The wise man and the fool in many cases meet with the same fortune here upon earth: "One event happeneth to them all." Wisdom does not always meet with its reward in earthly prosperity, nor does folly always bring down upon the fool the penalty of poverty, suffering, and shame. A man may be ignorant, unthinking, and wicked; yet by the exercise of shrewdness and cunning he may advance himself. A wise man may be indifferent to worldly ends, and may neglect the means by which prosperity may be secured. Moral means secure moral ends; but there may be spiritual prosperity which is not crowned by worldly greatness and wealth. 2. The wise man and the fool are alike forgotten after death. "All shall be forgotten;" "There is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever." All men have some sensitiveness to the reputation which shall survive them: the writer of this book seems to have been particularly sensitive upon this point. He was impressed by the fact that no sooner has a wise and good man departed this life than straightway men proceed to forget him. A few years past, and the memory of the dead itself dies, and good and bad alike are forgotten by a generation interested only in its own affairs. A common oblivion overtakes us all such considerations led the author of this book into distress and disheartenment. He was tempted to hate life; it was grievous unto him, and all was vanity and vexation of spirit. A voice within, plausible and seductive, urges - Why trouble as to the moral principles by which you are guided? Whether you are wise or foolish, will it not soon be all the same? Nay, is it not all the same even now? III. THE REAL SUPERIORITY OF WISDOM OVER POLLY, If we were to look at some verses of this book only, we might infer that the author's mind was quite unhinged by the spectacle of human-life; that he really doubted the superintendence of Divine providence; that he did not care to make aright for truth, righteousness, and goodness. But although he had doubts, and difficulties, though he passed through moods of a pessimistic character, it appears plain that when he came to state his deliberate and reasoned convictions, he showed himself to be a believer in God, and not in fate; in resolute and self-denying virtue, and not in self-indulgence and cynicism. In this passage are brought together facts which occasion most men perplexity, which bring some men into skepticism. Yet the deliberate conclusion to which the author comes is this: "I saw that wisdom excelleth folly." He had, as we all should have, a better and higher standard of judgment, and a better and higher law of conduct, than the phenomena of this world can supply. It is not by temporal and earthly results that we are to form our judgments upon morality and religion; we have a nobler and a truer standard, even our own reason and conscience, the voice of Heaven to which to listen, the candle of the Lord by which to guide our steps. Judged as God judges, judged by the Law and the Word of God, "wisdom excelleth folly." Let the wise and good man be afflicted in his body, let him be plunged into adversity, let him be deserted by his friends, let him be calumniated or forgotten; still he has chosen the better part, and need not envy the good fortune of the fool. Even the ancient Stoics maintained this. How much more the followers of Christ, who himself incurred the malice and derision of men; who was despised and rejected and crucified, but who, nevertheless, was approved and accepted of God the All-wise, and was exalted to everlasting dominion! Wisdom is justified of her children." The wise man is not to be shaken either by the storms of adversity or by the taunts of the foolish. His is the right path, and ha will persevere in it; and he is not only sustained by the approbation of his conscience, he is satisfied with the fellowship of his Master, Christ. - T.
I. THE NATURAL CONTRAST BETWEEN WISDOM AND FOLLY.
1. The distinction is one founded in the very nature of things, and is similar to that which, in the physical world, exists between light and darkness. This is as much as to say that God himself is the All-wise, and that reasonable beings, in so far as they participate in his nature and character, are distinguished by true wisdom; whilst, on the other hand, departure from God is the same thing as abandonment to folly.
2. The distinction is brought out by the just exercise or the culpable misuse of human faculty. "The wise man's eyes are in his head," which is a proverbial and figurative way of saying that the wise man uses the powers of observation and judgment with which he is endowed. The position and the endowments of the organs of vision is a plain indication that they were intended to guide the steps; the man who looks before him will not miss his way or fall into danger. Similarly, the faculties of the understanding and reason which are bestowed upon man are intended for the purpose of directing the voluntary actions, which, becoming habitual, constitute man's moral life. The wise man is he who not only possesses such powers, but makes a right use of them, and orders his way aright. The fool, on the contrary, "walketh in darkness;" i.e. he is as one who, having eyes, makes no use of them - shuts his eyes, or walks blindfold. The natural consequence is that he wanders from the path, and probably falls into perils and into destruction.
II. THE APPARENT EQUALITY OF THE LOT OF THE WISE MAN AND THAT OF THE FOOL. The writer of this Book of Ecclesiastes was impressed with the fact that in this world men do not meet with their deserts; that, if there is retribution, it is of a very incomplete character; that the fortune of men is not determined by their moral character. This is a mystery which has oppressed the minds of observant and reflecting men in every age, and has been to some the occasion of falling into skepticism and even atheism.
1. The wise man and the fool in many cases meet with the same fortune here upon earth: "One event happeneth to them all." Wisdom does not always meet with its reward in earthly prosperity, nor does folly always bring down upon the fool the penalty of poverty, suffering, and shame. A man may be ignorant, unthinking, and wicked; yet by the exercise of shrewdness and cunning he may advance himself. A wise man may be indifferent to worldly ends, and may neglect the means by which prosperity may be secured. Moral means secure moral ends; but there may be spiritual prosperity which is not crowned by worldly greatness and wealth.
2. The wise man and the fool are alike forgotten after death. "All shall be forgotten;" "There is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever." All men have some sensitiveness to the reputation which shall survive them: the writer of this book seems to have been particularly sensitive upon this point. He was impressed by the fact that no sooner has a wise and good man departed this life than straightway men proceed to forget him. A few years past, and the memory of the dead itself dies, and good and bad alike are forgotten by a generation interested only in its own affairs. A common oblivion overtakes us all such considerations led the author of this book into distress and disheartenment. He was tempted to hate life; it was grievous unto him, and all was vanity and vexation of spirit. A voice within, plausible and seductive, urges - Why trouble as to the moral principles by which you are guided? Whether you are wise or foolish, will it not soon be all the same? Nay, is it not all the same even now?
III. THE REAL SUPERIORITY OF WISDOM OVER POLLY, If we were to look at some verses of this book only, we might infer that the author's mind was quite unhinged by the spectacle of human-life; that he really doubted the superintendence of Divine providence; that he did not care to make aright for truth, righteousness, and goodness. But although he had doubts, and difficulties, though he passed through moods of a pessimistic character, it appears plain that when he came to state his deliberate and reasoned convictions, he showed himself to be a believer in God, and not in fate; in resolute and self-denying virtue, and not in self-indulgence and cynicism. In this passage are brought together facts which occasion most men perplexity, which bring some men into skepticism. Yet the deliberate conclusion to which the author comes is this: "I saw that wisdom excelleth folly." He had, as we all should have, a better and higher standard of judgment, and a better and higher law of conduct, than the phenomena of this world can supply. It is not by temporal and earthly results that we are to form our judgments upon morality and religion; we have a nobler and a truer standard, even our own reason and conscience, the voice of Heaven to which to listen, the candle of the Lord by which to guide our steps. Judged as God judges, judged by the Law and the Word of God, "wisdom excelleth folly." Let the wise and good man be afflicted in his body, let him be plunged into adversity, let him be deserted by his friends, let him be calumniated or forgotten; still he has chosen the better part, and need not envy the good fortune of the fool. Even the ancient Stoics maintained this. How much more the followers of Christ, who himself incurred the malice and derision of men; who was despised and rejected and crucified, but who, nevertheless, was approved and accepted of God the All-wise, and was exalted to everlasting dominion! Wisdom is justified of her children." The wise man is not to be shaken either by the storms of adversity or by the taunts of the foolish. His is the right path, and ha will persevere in it; and he is not only sustained by the approbation of his conscience, he is satisfied with the fellowship of his Master, Christ. - T.
I. THE WORTH OF SAGACITY.
1. It stands much lower down than heavenly wisdom; that is the direct product of the Spirit of God, and makes men blessed with a good which cannot be taken away. It places them above the reach of adversity, and makes them invulnerable to the darts of death itself (see ver. 14).
2. It has its own distinct advantages. "The wise man's eyes are in his head;" he sees whither he is going; he does not delude himself with the idea that he can violate all the laws of his nature with impunity. He knows that the wages of sin is death, that if he sows to the flesh he will reap corruption; he understands that, if he would enjoy the esteem of men and the favor of God, he must subdue his spirit, control his passions, regulate his life according to the standards of truth and virtue. This sagacity of the wise will therefore
(1) save him from some of the most egregious and fatal blunders;
(2) keep him sufficiently near to the path of virtue to be saved from the darker excesses and more crushing sorrows of life;
(3) secure for himself and his family some measure of comfort and respect, and place some of the purer pleasures within his reach;
(4) keep him within hearing of the truth of God, where he is more likely to find his way into the kingdom of God.
II. THE PITIFULNESS OF STUPIDITY. "The fool walketh blindly."
1. He has no eye to see the fair and the beautiful around him, no heart to appreciate the nobility that might be within him or the glories that are above him.
2. He fails to discern the real wretchedness of his present condition - his destitution, his condemnation, his exile.
3. He does not shrink from the evil which impends. He is walking toward the precipice, below which is utter ruin, eternal death. Truly "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and to depart from evil, that is understanding" - C.
I. THE GREAT ADVANTAGE WHICH WISDOM HAS OVER FOLLY. The wise man walks in light, and has the use of his eyes; the fool is blind, and walks in darkness. The wisdom here praised is not that holy, spiritual faculty which springs from the fear of God and obedience to his will (Job 28:28; Deuteronomy 4:6; Psalm 111:10), and which is so strikingly personified, almost deified, in the Book of Proverbs and in that of Job (Proverbs 8., 9.; Job 28:12-28); but is ordinary science, knowledge of the laws of nature, and of the powers and limitations of human life. This wisdom can only be acquired by long and painful labor, and though by it we cannot discover God or find out the way of winning and retaining his favor, or provide for the wants of the soul, it has, in its sphere, high value. It gives some pleasure; it affords some guidance and direction to its possessor. It enables him to acquire some good; it teaches him to avoid some evils. Progress in civilization is only possible by the cultivation of this wisdom. Wider acquaintance with the laws of health, for example, has enabled men to stamp out certain forms of disease, or, at any rate, to prevent their frequent recurrence, and to alleviate the sufferings caused by others. Consider the immense benefit to the race the progress of medical science has secured. The inventions that we owe to the cultivation of natural knowledge are beyond number, and by them incalculable benefits have been brought within our reach - better cultivation of the soil, less exhausting labor, discovery of the uses of the metals stored up in the bowels of the earth, more rapid distribution of the productions of nature and of human industry, swifter means of communication between one part of the world and another. "The improvement of natural knowledge," says a great authority, "whatever direction it has taken, and however low the aims of those who may have commenced it, has not only conferred practical benefits on men, but in so doing has effected a revolution in their conceptions of the universe and of themselves, and has profoundly altered their modes of thinking and their views of right and wrong" (Huxley, 'Lay Sermons'). Does not this amply justify Solomon's assertion that "wisdom excels folly, as light darkness; that the wise man hath the use of his eyes, the fool is blind"?
II. THE FUTILITY OF WISDOM. All the delight in the charms of wisdom is quenched by the thought of the leveling power of death, which overwhelms both the wise and the foolish indiscriminately (vers. 14b - 17). For a brief space there is a distinction between them - the one endowed with priceless gifts, the other ignorant and poor. But what, after all, was the use of the short-lived superiority? Like an extinguished torch, the wisdom of the sage is blown out by death, and the very memory of his attainments and triumphs is buried in oblivion. For a time, perhaps, he is missed, but the gap is soon filled up, the busy world goes on its way, and in a very short time it forgets all about him. Thus even the posthumous fame, after which the purest and noblest minds have longed, to secure which they have been content to endure poverty, hardship, and neglect in their lifetime, is denied to the vast majority, even of those who have richly deserved it. There were wise men before Solomon (1 Kings 4:31), but no memorial survives of them but their names; no illustrations of their wisdom are given to explain their reputation. And how faint is the impression which the wisdom of Solomon himself makes upon the actual life of the present world! Enshrined though it is in the sacred volume, it seems foreign to our modes of thought; its voice is not heard in our schools of philosophy. The fact of death is a certainty both to the wise and to the fool; the manner of it may be similar; the doubts and fears and anxieties concerning the life to come may perplex both. What can we suggest to relieve the sad picture, or to counteract the paralyzing effect which the spectacle of the futility of wisdom and effort is calculated to produce? The conviction that this life is not all, that there is a life beyond the grave, is the great corrective to the gloom in which otherwise every thinking mind would be enwrapped. This present life is a state of infancy, of probation, in which we receive education for eternity. And to ask in melancholy tones what is the use of acquiring wisdom if death is so soon to cut short our career here, is as foolish as to ask what is the use of a sapling growing vigorously in a nursery garden if it is to be afterwards transplanted. The place from which it was taken may soon know it no more. But the loss is slight; the tree itself lives and flourishes still under the eye and care of the almighty Husbandman. No fruitless regrets over the brevity and uncertainty of human fame need interfere with present effort. We may soon be forgotten on earth, but no attainments in wisdom or holiness we have made will have been in vain; they will have qualified us for a higher service and a truer enjoyment of God than we could otherwise have known. - J.W.
vanity which is characteristic of this life.
I. IT IS NATURAL THAT MEN SHOULD ANTICIPATE THEIR POSTERITY WITH INTEREST AND SOLICITUDE. Family life is so natural to man that there is nothing strange in the anxiety which most men feel with regard to their children, and even their children's children. Men do not like the prospect of their posterity sinking in the social scale. Prosperous men find a pleasure and satisfaction in founding a family," in perpetuating their name, preserving their estates and possessions to their descendants, and in the prospect of being remembered with gratitude and pride by generations yet unborn. In the case of kings and nobles such sentiments and anticipations are especially powerful.
II. IT IS A MATTER OF FACT THAT IN MANY INSTANCES MEN'S ANTICIPATIONS REGARDING POSTERITY ARE DISAPPOINTED. The wide and accurate observations of the author of Ecclesiastes convinced him that such is the case.
1. The rich man's descendants scatter the wealth which he has accumulated by means of labor and self-denial. It need not be proved, for the fact is patent to all, that it is the same in this respect in our own days as it was in the Hebrew state. In fact, we have an English proverb, "One generation makes money; the second keeps it; the third spends it."
2. The wise man's descendant proves to be a fool. Notwithstanding what has been maintained to be a law of "hereditary genius," the fact is unquestionable that there are many instances in which the learned, the accomplished, the intellectually great, are succeeded by those bearing their name, but by no means inheriting their ability. And the contrast is one painful to witness, and humiliating to those to whose disadvantage it is drawn.
3. The descendants of the great in many instances fall into obscurity and contempt. History affords us many examples of such descent; tells of the posterity of the noble, titled, and powerful working with their hands for daily bread, etc.
III. THE PROSPECT OF AN UNFORTUNATE POSTERITY OFTEN DISTRESSES AND TROUBLES MEN, ESPECIALLY THE GREAT. The "wise man" knew what it was to brood over such a prospect as opened up to his foreseeing mind. He came to hate his labor, and to cause his heart to despair; all his days were sorrow, and his travail grief; his heart took not rest in the night; and life seemed only vanity to him. Why should I toil, and take heed, and care, and deny myself? is the question which many a man puts to himself in the sessions of silent thought. My children or my children's children may squander my fiches, alienate my estates, sully my reputation; my work may be undone, and my fond hopes may be mocked. What is human life but hollowness, vanity, wind?
IV. THE TRUE CONSOLATION BENEATH THE PRESSURE OF SUCH FOREBODINGS. It is vain to attempt to comfort ourselves by denying facts or by cherishing unfounded and unreasonable hopes. What we have to do is to place all our confidence in a wise and gracious God, and to leave the future to his providential care; and at the same time to do our own duty, not concerning ourselves overmuch as to the conduct of others, of those who shall come after us. It is for us to "rest in the Lord," who has not promised to order and overrule all things for our glory or happiness, but who will surely order and overrule them for the advancement of his kingdom and the honor of his Name. - T.
I. THE COMPLAINT OF THE SUCCESSFUL. The speaker (of the text) is made (or makes himself) miserable because he has gained much by the expenditure of time and strength, and he has to leave it behind him when he dies; he has to leave it to one who "has not labored" (ver. 21), and possibly to a man who is not as wise as himself, but is "a fool" (ver. 19), and he may scatter or misuse it. And the thought of the insecurity of life, together with the certainty of leaving all behind to the man who comes after, whoever or whatever he may be, makes day and night wretched (ver. 23).
II. WHEREIN IT IS SOUND. It is quite right that a man should ask himself what will become of his acquisition. To be satisfied with present pleasure is ignoble; to be careless of what is coming after us - "Apres moi le deluge" - is shamefully selfish. It becomes every man to consider what the long results of his labor will be, whether satisfactory or unfruitful.
III. WHEREIN IT IS UNSOUND.
1. There is nothing painful in the thought of parting with our treasure. We inherited much from those who went before us, and we may be well content to hand down all we have to those who come after us. We spent no labor on that which we inherited: why should we be aggrieved because our heirs will have spent none on what they take from us?
2. If we did not hoard our treasures, but distributed them while we lived, putting them into the hands of the wise; or if (again) we chose our heirs according to their spiritual rather than their fleshly affinities, we should be spared the misery of accumulating the substance which a fool will scatter. But let us look at a stilt better aspect of the subject.
IV. THE LEGACY AND THE HOPE OF THE WISE.
1. His best legacy. We may and we should so spend our time and our strength that what we leave behind us is not wealth that can be dissipated or stolen, but worth that cannot fail to bless - Divine truth lodged in many minds, good principles planted in many hearts, a pure and noble character built up in many souls. This is what no fool can divert or destroy; this is that which will live on, and multiply and bless, when we are far from all mortal scenes. Immeasurably better is the legacy of holy influence than that of "uncertain riches;" the former must be a lasting blessing, the latter may be an incalculable curse.
2. His best and purest hope. What if the dying man feels that his grasp on earthly gain is about to be finally relaxed? is he not about to open his hand in a heavenly sphere, where the Divine Father will enrich him with a heavenly heritage, which will make all material treasures seem poor indeed? - C.
I. The first mortifying thought is - HE BUT GATHERS FOR A SUCCESSOR. (Ver. 18.) He himself, when the moment of death comes, must leave his possessions and depart into the world of shadows as naked as he was when he entered upon life. The fact that such a reflection should be bitter proves how deeply the soul is corroded by covetous and selfish aggrandizement. The heart is absorbed in the things of the present, and the anticipation of heavenly and spiritual joys grows faint and dies away. To be torn from the wealth and possessions acquired upon earth is regarded as losing everything; to be forced to leave them to another, even to a son, is almost as bad as being plundered of them by a thief. This feeling of bitter regret at having to give up all they possess at the call of death, has often been experienced by those who have found their chief occupation and happiness in life in the acquisition of earthly treasures. "Mazarin walks through the galleries of his palace and says to himself, 'Il taut quitter tout cela.' Frederick William IV. of Prussia turns to his friend Bunsen, as they stand on the terrace at Potsdam, and says as they look out on the garden, 'Das auch, das soil ich lassen' ('This too! must leave behind me')" (Plumptre).
II. The second mortifying thought is - THAT IT IS QUITE UNCERTAIN WHAT CHARACTER THE SUCCESSOR WILL BE OF, AND WHAT USE HE WILL MAKE OF HIS INHERITANCE. (Ver. 19.) He may be a wise man, or he may be a fool; he may make a prudent use of his inheritance, or he may in a very short time scatter it to the winds. The very change in his circumstances, the novelty of his new situation, may turn his head and lead him into courses of folly which otherwise he might have avoided. Some have thought that the character of the youthful Rehoboam was already so far developed as to suggest this mortifying reflection to Solomon. But this is quite conjectural. The early career of the headstrong, arrogant sovereign whose folly broke up the kingdom of Israel is an illustration of the truth of this general statement, and may have been in the thoughts of the writer, if he were not Solomon but some later sage. The special reference to this one historical example of an inheritance dissipated by an unworthy son need not be pressed. For, unfortunately, in every generation there are only too many instances of a like kind. So frequent are they, indeed, as to suggest very humiliating reflections to every one who has spent his life in acquiring riches or collecting treasures of art. As he sees fortunes squandered and collections of rarities broken up, the thought must recur to his mind whose are to be the things which he has treasured up so carefully (Psalm 39:6; Luke 12:20).
III. The third mortifying thought is - THAT THE CHARACTER OF THE SUCCESSOR MAY NOT BE A MATTER OF DOUBT; he may be a man of a positively foolish and vicious disposition (ver. 21). The case presents itself of a man who has labored in wisdom and knowledge and equity having to leave to another who is devoid of these virtues, who has never sought to acquire them, all that his prudence and diligence have enabled him to acquire. There is thus a climax in the thoughts of the writer. First of all, there is some matter for irritation, especially to a selfish mind, in the idea of giving up to another what one has spent years of laborious toil m gathering together. Then there is the torturing doubt as to the possible character of the new owner, and the use he will make of what is left to him. But worst of all is the conviction that he is both foolish and vicious. This is enough to poison all present enjoyment, and to paralyze all further effort. Why should a man spend laborious days and sleepless nights, if this is to be the end of it all? What has he left to show for all his exertions? What but weariness and exhaustion, and the bitter reflection that all has been in vain? Yet a little time after he has been forced by death to part with his possessions, and they will be made to minister to the frivolity and vice of one who has never labored for them, and ultimately will be scattered like chaff before the wind. Thus a final discovery of the vanity of all earthly employments is made. The acquisition of wisdom and knowledge,, the gratification of the pleasures of sense, the cultivation and indulgence of artistic tastes, had all been tried as possible avenues to lasting happiness, and tried in vain. To these must now be added the accumulation by prudent and lawful means, of great wealth. This, too, was discovered to be vanity. It could only be accomplished by years of toil, and brought with it fresh cares; and in the end all that had been gained must be given up to another. Mortifying though the experiments had turned out to be, they had at least been of negative value. Though they had not revealed where happiness was to be found, they had revealed where it was not to be found. The last disappointment, the discovery of the vanity of riches, taught the great truth which might become a clue to lead to the much-desired happiness, that "a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth" (Luke 12:15). - J.W.
I. GOD'S BOUNTY PROVIDES THE FAVORS BY WHICH MAN'S EARTHLY LIFE IS ENRICHED. Food and drink are mentioned here as examples of the good gifts of the Eternal Father, who "openeth his hand, and supplieth the wants of every living thing." Manifold is the provision of the Divine beneficence. The whole material world is an apparatus by which the bounty of the Creator ministers to the wants of his creatures. And all God's gifts have a meaning and value beyond themselves; they reveal the Divine character, they symbolize the Divine goodness. To despise them is to despise the Giver.
II. GOD'S KINDNESS BESTOWS FACULTIES ADAPTED TO THE ENJOYMENT OF HIS GIFTS. The adaptation is obvious and instructive between the bounties of God's providence, and the bodily constitution in virtue of which man is able to appropriate and enjoy what God bestows. Food and drink presuppose the power to partake of them, and to use them for the continued life, health, and vigor of the body. The correspondence may be traced throughout the whole of our physical nature; between the eye and light, between hearing and sound, between the lungs and the atmosphere - in fact, between the organism and the environment.
III. GOD EXPECTS THAT WE SHOULD USE HIS GIFTS AS HE COMMANDS, AND FOR HIS GLORY. All Divine bestowments are a kind of test and trial for man, who does not of necessity follow appetite, but who can exercise his reason and his will in dealing with the circumstances of his being, with the provisions of God's bounty. All are susceptible of use and of abuse. The Preacher gives us the key to a right use of providential bounties, when he reminds us that all is "from the hand of God." The man who sees the Giver in the gift, who partakes with gratitude of that which is bestowed, recognizing its spiritual significance, and using it as the means to spiritual improvement, - such a man fulfils his probation aright, and does not live the earthly life in vain.
IV. UPON COMPLIANCE WITH OR NEGLECT OF THE DIVINE REQUIREMENT DEPENDS THE EFFECT OF GOD'S GIFTS UPON US, WHETHER THEY SHALL BE A BLESSING OR A CURSE. It would be very easy to read amiss the teaching of this Book of Ecclesiastes. Let a man read it when under the influence of a hedonistic and optimistic temper of mind, and he may be encouraged to abandon himself to the pleasures of life, to the joys of sense, to seek his welfare and satisfaction in what this world can give. Let a man read the book when passing through bitter experience of the ills and woes and disappointments of life, in a pessimistic mood, and he may be encouraged to dejection, despondency, and cynicism. But the true lesson of the book is this: Life is a Divine discipline, and its purpose should never be lost sight of; the gifts of Providence are intended for our enjoyment, our grateful appropriation, but not for the satisfaction of the spiritual nature; Divine wisdom summons us to the reverential service of the Eternal himself; we should then receive with joy what God bestows, and give up without undue mourning what God takes away, for all of life is "from the hand of God." - T.
I. THE NATURE OF A HAPPY LIFE. (Ver. 24,) "There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor." At first one might think the judgment here expressed somewhat poor and gross, and unworthy of the reputation of the wise king to whom it is ascribed, not to say of the Word of God in which we find it. But when we look more closely into is, these impressions disappear. It is not an idle, useless life of self-enjoyment that is here commended to us, but one in which useful labor is seasoned by healthy pleasures. The man eats and drinks, and makes his soul enjoy good in his labor. The enjoyment is not such as to waste and exhaust the energies of the soul, otherwise it would be very short-lived. The risk of abusing the counsel in the first part of the sentence is avoided by attending to the safeguard implied in the concluding words. It is not the decision of the Sensualist, "Let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we die" (1 Corinthians 15:32), but the admonition of one who perceives that a thankful participation of the good things of life is compatible with the sincerest piety. Eating and drinking mean satisfying the natural appetites, and not ministering to artificial and self-created cravings; and overindulgence in so doing is tacitly forbidden. The words suggest to us the simple healthy life and habits of the industrious peasant or workman, who takes pleasure in his daily employment, and finds in the innocent joys which sweeten his lot a happiness which. mere wealth cannot buy.
"The shepherd's homely curds,
II. In the second place, our author tells us THE SOURCE OF THIS HAPPINESS - IT IS THE GIFT OF GOD. (Ver. 24b.) "This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. For who can eat or who can have enjoyment apart from him?" (Revised Version margin). These words are quite sufficient to convince us that a low Epicureanism is far from the writer's thoughts when he speaks of there being nothing better for a man than "to eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor." One thing is necessary for the accomplishment of this end, and that is the Divine blessing. Saris-faction in work and in pleasure is a gift bestowed by him upon those who deserve it. "What we get here is the recognition of what we have learnt to call the moral government of God in the distribution of happiness. It is found to depend, not on outward but inward condition, and the chief inward condition is the character that God approves. The Preacher practically confesses that the life of the pleasure-seeker, or the ambitious, or the philosopher, seeking wisdom as an end, was not good before God, and therefore failed to bring contentment" (Plumptre). The source, then, of happiness in life is in obedience to the Divine will. To the gifts of his providence God adds the temper in which to enjoy them; from his hand both must be sought. Those who seek to be independent of him find that all they may acquire is insufficient to satisfy them; those who place all their confidence in him are contented with even the hardest lot (Philippians 4:11-13). "Wisdom, knowledge, and joy" are the portion of the good, whether they be poor or non m tins world's wealth; but the sinner has only the fruitless labor from which he can derive no satisfaction (ver. 21). And over again the Preacher writes the dreary sentence, "This also is vanity and vexation of spirit," upon the life in which God is not. - J.W.
I. GOD IS INTERESTED IN HUMAN CHARACTER AND LIFE. The ancient Epicurean notions that the gods were above all care for the concerns of men is not extinct; for many even now deem it derogatory to the Deity that he should be considered to interest himself either in the experiences or in the character of men. This passage in Ecclesiastes justly assumes that what men are and what they pass through are matters of real concern to the Creator and Lord of all.
II. GOD ALLOWS IN HUMAN LIFE SCOPE FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF MEN'S MORAL CHARACTER. He endows man with a constitution properly supernatural, with capacities and faculties higher than those which are amenable to physical law. Interesting as is the necessary development of the universe under the control of natural forces, far more interesting is the unfolding of the moral character of men. This, indeed, is for us the most significant and momentous of all things that exist. Man is made not merely to enjoy or to suffer, but to form character, to acquire habits of virtue and piety; to become assimilated, in moral disposition and purpose, to the Divine Author of his being. To this end all circumstances may conduce; for experience shows us that there is no condition of human life, no range of human experience, which may not minister to spiritual improvement and welfare.
III. GOD IS THE RIGHTFUL RULER AND JUDGE OF MEN. All human relationships fail adequately to set forth the character and offices of the Eternal; yet many such relationships serve to afford us some glimpse into the excellences of him who is judicially and morally the Supreme. There is no incompatibility between the representation that God is a Father, and that which attributes to him the functions of a Judge. The human relationships are based upon the Divine, and it is unjust to regard the human as simply figures of the Divine. Having all power, God is able to apportion the lot of the creature; being infinitely righteous, such apportionment on his part must be beyond all criticism and censure. The life of man should be lived under a constant sense of the Divine observation and judgment; for thus the probationer of earth will secure the advantage of the loftiest standard of righteousness, and the motive to rectitude and to progress which the Divine government is fitted to supply. Distributive justice - to use the expression familiar in moral philosophy - is the function of the Supreme.
IV. GOD HIMSELF DETERMINES THE MEASURE IN WHICH RETRIBUTION SHALL BE CARRIED OUT IN THIS EARTHLY LIFE. The passage now under consideration lays stress upon the earthly reward and penalty, though it does not represent these as exhaustive and complete. "God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy." This is something very different from what is termed "poetical justice;" these are gifts which are consistent with adversity and affliction. In fact, the lesson seems to be conveyed that moral goodness meets with moral recompense, as distinct from the doctrine of children's story-books, which teach that "virtue will be rewarded with a coach-and-six"! And the sinner is warned that he will receive the reward of his sin in travail, disappointment, and dissatisfaction. "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." A man must be blind who does not see in the constitution of human nature and human society the traces of a righteous Lawgiver and Administrator; and at the same time, the man must be short-sighted who does not detect indications of incompleteness in these judicial arrangements.
V. GOD GIVES US IN THE PARTIAL RETRIBUTION OF THE PRESENT A SUGGESTION OF A LIFE TO COME, IN WHICH HIS GOVERNMENT SHALL BE COMPLETED AND VINDICATED. That the convictions and expectations of the ancient Hebrews with regard to a future existence were as developed and decisive as those of Christians, none would contend. But this and other books afford indications that the enlightened Jews had an anticipation of judgment to come. If this world were all, vanity and vexation of spirit would have been the only impression produced by the experience and contemplation of human life. But it was seen, even if dimly, that this earthly state requires, in order to its completeness, an immortality which is the scene of Divine judgment and of human retribution. - T.
I. OUR EXPECTATION. We should certainly expect two things, judging antecedently.
1. That piety would be richly rewarded; for who would not expect that the bountiful, just, and resourceful Father would give liberally, in many ways, to those who sought his favor, and were "good in his sight"?
2. That impiety would bear plain marks of Divine disapproval; for who would suppose that men would defy their Maker, break his laws, injure his children, spoil his holy and benignant purpose, and not suffer marked and manifold evils as the just penalty of their presumption and their guilt? We naturally look for much happiness and prosperity for the former, much misery and defeat for the latter.
II. OUR EXPERIENCE. What do we find?
1. That God does reward his servants. The Preacher mentions three good gifts of his hand; they are not exhaustive, though they include or suggest much of the righteous man's heritage.
(1) Knowledge. Most of all and best of all, the knowledge of God himself; and to know God is the very essence and substance of true human life. Beside this, the knowledge of man. It is, in truth, only the good man who understands human nature. Vice, iniquity, flatters itself that it has this knowledge. But it is mistaken; its conception of mankind is distorted, erroneous, fatally mistaken. It does not know what it is in man to be and to do and to become. "Only the good discern the good," and only they have a knowledge of our race which is profoundly true.
(2) Wisdom. An enlightened conception of human life, so that its beauty and its blessedness are appreciated and pursued, so that, on the other hand, its ugliness and its evil are recognized and shunned. The wisdom of the wise includes also that practical good sense which keeps its disciples from the mistakes and entanglements that lead to destitution, which also leads its possessors to heights of honor and well-being.
(3) Joy. In the worship of Christ, in the service of man, in the culture of our own character, in walking along the path of sacred duty and holy usefulness, is abounding and abiding joy.
2. That sin is visited with penalty. Do we find that God giveth "to the sinner travail, to gather and to heap up"? We do.
(1) Sin necessitates the worst of all bad labors - that of deliberately and persistently breaking down the walls of conscience, of breaking through the fences which the God of righteousness and love has put up to guard his children from moral evil.
(2) Sin includes much hurtful and damaging struggle against the will and against the laws of the wise and good. Bad men have to encounter and to contest the opposition of the upright.
(3) Sin frequently means low and degrading toil. The "sinner" is brought down so low that he is fain to "go into the fields to feed swine;" to do that from which he would once have indignantly recoiled.
(4) Sin constantly condemns the toiler to labor on in utter discontent, if not positive wretchedness of soul. Life without the light of heavenly truth and the song of sacred service proves an intolerable burden. - C.
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