Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. LIFE'S PERIODS (ITS BEGINNING AND CLOSE) ARE APPOINTED BY GOD. The sacredness of birth and death are brought before us, as we are assured that "there is a time to be born, and a time to die." The believer in God cannot doubt that the Divine Omniscience observes, as the Divine Omnipotence virtually effects, the introduction into this world, and the removal from it, of every human being, Men are born, to show that God will use his own instruments for carrying on the manifold work of the world; they die, to show that he is limited by no human agencies. They are born just when they are wanted, and they die just when it is well that their places should be taken by their successors. "Man is immortal till his work is done."
II. LIFE'S OCCUPATIONS ARE DIVINELY ORDERED. The reader of this passage is forcibly reminded of the substantial identity of man's life in the different ages of the world. Thousands of years have passed since these words were penned, yet to how large an extent does this description apply to human existence in our own day! Organic activities, industrial avocations, social services, are common to every age of man's history. If men withdraw themselves from practical work, and from the duties of the family and the state, without sufficient justification, they are violating the ordinances of the Creator. He has given to every man a place to fill, a work to do, a service of helpfulness to render to his fellow-creatures.
III. THE EMOTIONS PROPER TO HUMAN LIFE ARE OF DIVINE APPOINTMENT. These are natural to man. The mere feelings of pleasure and pain, the mere impulses of desire and aversion, man shares with brutes. But those emotions which are man's glory and man's shame are both special to him, and have a great share in giving character to his moral life. Some, like envy, are altogether bad; some, like hatred, are bad. or good according as they are directed; some, like love, are always good. The Preacher of Jerusalem refers to joy and sorrow, when he speaks of "a time to laugh, and a time to weep;" to love and hate, for both of which he declares there is occasion in our human existence. There has been no change in these human experiences with the lapse of time; they are permanent factors in our life. Used aright, they become means of moral development, and aid in forming a noble and pious character.
IV. THE OPERATION OF DIVINE PROVIDENCE IS APPARENT IN THE VARIED FORTUNES OF HUMANITY. This passage tells of accumulation and consequent prosperity, of loss and consequent adversity. The mutability of human affairs, the disparities of the human lot, were as remarkable and as perplexing in the days of the Hebrew sage as in our own. And they were regarded by him, as by rational and religious observers in our own time, as instances of the working of physical and social laws imposed by the Author of nature himself. In the exercise of divinely entrusted powers, men gather together possessions and disperse them abroad. The rich and the poor exist side by side; and the wealthy are every day impoverished, whilst the indigent are raised to opulence. These are the lights and shades upon the landscape of life, the shifting scenes in life's unfolding drama. Variety and change are evidently parts of the Divine intention, and are never absent from the world of our humanity.
V. THE MORAL AND SPIRITUAL ISSUES OF HUMAN LIFE BEAR MARKS OF DIVINE WISDOM AND ORDER. It cannot be the case that all the phases and processes of our human existence are to be apprehended simply in themselves, as if they contained their own meaning, and had no ulterior significance. Life is not a kaleidoscope, but a picture; not the promiscuous sounds heard when the instrumentalists are "tuning up," but an oratorio; not a chronicle, but a history. There is a unity and an aim in life; but this is not merely artistic, it is moral. We do not work and rest, enjoy and suffer, hope and fear, with no purpose to be achieved by the experiences through which we pass. He who has appointed "a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven," designs that we should, by toil and endurance, by fellowship and solitude, by gain and loss, make progress in the course of moral and spiritual discipline, should grow in the favor and in the likeness of God himself. - T.
I. OPPORTUNITY, OR THE WISDOM OF WAITING. Everything comes in its turn; if we weep today, we shall laugh to-morrow; if we have to be silent for the present, we shall have the opportunity of speech further on; if we must strive now, the time of peace will return. Human life is neither unshadowed brightness nor unbroken gloom. "Shadow and shine is life... flower and thorn." Let no man be seriously discouraged, much less hopelessly disheartened: what he is now suffering from will not always remain; it will pass and give place to that which is better. Let us only patiently wait our time, and our turn will come. "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning" - at any rate, and at the furthest,. In the morning of eternity. Only let us wait in patience and in prayerful hope, doing all that we can do in the paths of duty and of service, and the hour of opportunity will arrive... with succeeding turns God tempers all, That man may hope to rise, yet fear to fall."
II. OPPORTUNENESS. The words of the text may suggest to us, though the thought may not have been in the writer's mind, that some things are good or otherwise according to their timeliness. There is a time to speak in the way of rebuking, or of jesting, or of contending, and, when well-timed, such words may be right and wise in a very high degree; but, if ill-timed, they would be wrong and foolish, and much to be condemned. The same thought is applicable to the demonstration of friendliness, or of any strong emotion (vers. 5, 7); to the exercise of severity or of leniency (ver. 3); to the manifestation of sorrow or of joy (ver. 4); to the action of economy or of generosity (ver. 6). Hard-and-fast rules will not cover the infinite particulars of human life. Whether we shall act or be passive, whether we shall speak or be silent, what shall be our demeanor and what the tone we shall take, - this must depend upon particular circumstances and a number of new combinations; and every man must judge for himself, and must remember that there is great virtue in opportuneness.
III. ORDINATION. There is a season, an "appointed time for every undertaking" (Cox). "What profit hath he that worketh," when all this" travail" with which "the sons of men" are exercised results in such fixed and inevitable changes? That is the spirit of the moralist here. We reply:
1. That it is indeed true that much is already appointed for us. We have no power, or but little, over the seasons and the elements of nature, and not very much (individually) over the institutions and customs of the land in which we live; we are compelled to conform our behavior to forces which are superior to our own.
2. But there is a very large remainder of freedom. Within the lines that are laid down by the ordination of Heaven or the "powers that be" on the earth, there is ample scope for free, wise, life-giving choice of action. We are free to choose our own conduct, to form our own character, to determine the complexion and aspect of our life in the sight of God, to decide upon our destiny. - C.
Galatians 4:4), when the Jewish people and the nations of the world were prepared by Divine discipline for his teaching and work (Acts 17:30, 31; Luke 2:30, 31). The purpose of the mission of John the Baptist, calculated as it was to lead men to godly sorrow for sin, was in harmony with the austerity of his life and the sternness of his exhortations. It was a time to mourn (Matthew 11:18). The purpose of Christ's own mission was to reconcile the world to God and to manifest the Father to men, so that joy was becoming in his disciples (Mark 2:18-20). He taught that there was a time to lose, when all possessions that would alienate the heart from him should be parted with (Mark 10:21, 23); and that there would be a time of gain, when in heaven the accumulated treasures would become an abiding possession (Matthew 6:19, 20). "That which the Preacher insists on is the thought that the circumstances and events of life form part of a Divine order, are not things that come at random, and that wisdom, and therefore such a measure of happiness as is attainable, lies in adapting ourselves to the order, and accepting the guidance of events in great things and small, while shame and confusion come from resisting it." But such teaching is applicable, as we have seen, to the conduct of our spiritual as well as of our secular concerns. The fact that there are great changes through which we must pass in order to be duly prepared for the heavenly state, that we may have to forfeit the temporal to secure the eternal, that the new life has new duties for the discernment and fulfillment of which all our powers and faculties need to be called into full exercise - should make us earnestly desire to be filled with this wisdom that prompts to opportune action. "If any of you lack wisdom," says St. James, "let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him" (James 1:5). - J.W.
I. IN LIFE THERE IS MYSTERY TO SOLVE. The works and the ways of God are too great for our feeble, finite nature to comprehend. We may learn much, and yet may leave much unlearned and probably unlearnable, at all events in the conditions of this present state of being.
1. There are speculative difficulties regarding the order and constitution of things, which the thoughtful man cannot avoid inquiring into, which yet often baffle and sometimes distress him. "Man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end."
2. There are practical difficulties which every man has to encounter in the conduct of life, fraught as it is with disappointment and sorrow. "What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboreth?"
II. IN LIFE THERE IS BEAUTY TO ADMIRE. The mind that is not absorbed in providing for material wants can scarcely fail to be open to the adaptations and the manifold charms of nature. The language of creation is as harmonious music, which is soothing or inspiring to the ear of the soul. What a revelation is here of the very nature and benevolent purposes of the Almighty Maker! "He hath made everything beautiful in its time." And beauty needs the aesthetic faculty in order to its appreciation and enjoyment. The development of this faculty in advanced states of civilization is familiar to every student of human nature. Standards of beauty vary; but the true standard is that which is offered by the works of God, who "hath made everything beautiful in its time." There is a beauty special to every season of the year, to every hour of the day, to every state of the atmosphere; there is a beauty in every several kind of landscape, a beauty of the sea, a beauty of the heavens; there is a beauty of childhood, another beauty of youth, of healthful manhood and radiant womanhood, and even a certain beauty peculiar to age. The pious observer of the works of God, who rids himself of conventional and traditional prejudices, will not fail to recognize the justice of this remarkable assertion of the Hebrew sage.
III. IN LIFE THERE IS WORK TO DO. Labor and travail are very frequently mentioned in this book, whose author was evidently deeply impressed by the corresponding facts - first, that God is the almighty Worker in the universe; and, secondly, that man is made by the Creator like unto himself, in that he is called upon by his nature and his circumstances to effort and to toil. Forms of labor vary, and the progress of applied science in our own time seems to relieve the toiler of some of the severer, more exhausting kinds of bodily effort. But it must ever remain true that the human frame was not intended for indolence; that work is a condition of welfare, a means of moral discipline and development. It is a factor that cannot be left out of human life; the Christian is bound, like his Master, to finish the work which the Father has given him to do.
IV. IN LIFE THERE IS GOOD TO PARTICIPATE, There is no asceticism in the teaching of this Book of Ecclesiastes. The writer was one who had no doubt that man was constituted to enjoy. He speaks of eating and drinking as not merely necessary in order to maintain life, but as affording gratification. He dwells appreciatingly upon the happiness of married life. He even commends mirth and festivity. In all these he shows himself superior to the pettiness which carps at the pleasures connected with this earthly existence, and which tries to pass for sanctity. Of course, there are lawful and unlawful gratifications; there is a measure of indulgence which ought not to be exceeded. But if Divine intention is traceable in the constitution and condition of man, he was made to partake with gratitude of the bounties of God's providence.
V. ALL THE PROVISIONS WHICH DIVINE WISDOM ATTACHES TO HUMAN LIFE ARE TO BE ACCEPTED WITH GRATITUDE AND USED WITH FAITHFULNESS, AND WITH A CONSTANT SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY. In receiving and enjoying every gift, the devout mind will exclaim, "It is the gift of God." In taking advantage of every opportunity, the Christian will bear in mind that wisdom and goodness arrange human life so that it shall afford repeated occasion for fidelity and diligence. In his daily work he will make it his aim to "serve the Lord Christ."
1. There is much in the provisions and conditions of our earthly life which baffles our endeavors to understand it; and when perplexed by mystery, we-are summoned to submit with all humility and patience to the limitations of our intellect, and to rest assured that God's wisdom will, in the end, be made apparent to all.
2. There is a practical life to be lived, even when speculative difficulties are insurmountable; and it is in the conscientious fulfillment of daily duty, and the moderate use of ordinary enjoyments, that as Christians we may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. - T.
Matthew 6:25-34). The anxiety which the thought of human weakness in the presence of the immutable laws of nature excites is charmed away by the consolatory teaching of Jesus. But no solution is given of the difficulties that occasioned it. These will always exist as they spring from the limitations of our nature. We are finite creatures, and God is infinite. We endure but for a few years; he is from everlasting to everlasting. Our apprehension of these facts, of infinitude and eternity, prevents our being satisfied with that which is finite and temporal. "God has set eternity" (vide Revised Version margin) "in our hearts." Though we are limited by time, we are related to eternity. "That which is transient yields us no support; it carries us on like a rushing stream, and constrains us to save ourselves by laying hold on eternity" (Delitzsch). We cannot rest satisfied with fragmentary knowledge, but strive to pass on from it to the great worlds of truth yet undiscovered and unknown; we would see the whole of God's work from beginning to end (ver. 1), and find ourselves precluded from accomplishing our desire. From Solomon's point of view, in which the possibility or certainty of a future life is not taken into account, this desiderium aeternitatis is only another of the illusions by which the soul of man is vexed. But we should contradict our better knowledge, and ungratefully neglect the Divine aids to faith which have been given us in the fuller revelation of the New Testament, if we were to cherish the same opinion. Dissatisfaction with the finite and the temporal is not a morbid feeling in those who believe that they have an immortal nature, and that they are yet to come into "an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away" (1 Peter 1:4). - J.W.
I. A WIDE VIEW OF THE WORTH OF PRESENT THINGS. If we look long and far, we shall see that, though many things have an ugly aspect at first sight, God "has made everything beautiful in its time." The light and warmth of summer are good to see and feel; but is not the cold of winter invigorating? and what is more beautiful to the sight than the untrodden snow? The returning life of spring is welcome to all hearts; but are not the brilliant hues of autumn fascinating to every eye? Youth is full of ardor, and manhood of strength; but declining years possess much richness of gathered wisdom, and there is a dignity, a calm, a reverence, m age which is all its own. There is a joy in battle as well as a pleasantness in peace. Wealth has its treasures; but poverty has little to lose, and therefore little cause for anxiety and trouble. Luxury brings many comforts, but hardness gives health and strength. Each climate upon the earth, every condition in life, the various dispositions and temperaments of the human soul, - these have their own particular advantage and compensation. Look on the other side, and you will see something that will please, if it does not satisfy.
II. THE HELP WE GAIN FROM THE GREAT ELEMENT OF FUTURITY. "Also he hath set eternity" (marginal reading, Revised Version) "in their heart." We are made to look far beyond the boundary of the visible and the present. The idea of "the eternal" may help us in two ways.
1. That we are created for the unseen and the eternal accounts for the fact that nothing which is earthly and sensible will satisfy our souls. Nothing of that order ought to do so; and it would put the seal upon our degradation if it did so. Our unsatisfiable spirit is the signature of our manhood and the prophecy of our immortality.
2. The inclusion of the future in our reasoning makes all the difference to our thought. Admit only the passing time, this brief and uncertain life, and much that happens is inexplicable and distressing indeed; but include the future, add "eternity "to the account, and the "crooked is made straight," the perplexity is gone. But, even with this aid, there is -
III. THE MYSTERY WHICH REMAINS, AND WILL REMAIN No man can find out," etc. We do well to remember that what we see is only a very small part indeed of the whole - only a page of the great volume, only a scene in the great drama, only a field of the large landscape - and we may well be silenced, if not convinced. But even that does not cover everything. We need to remember that we are human, and not Divine; that we, who are God's very little children, cannot hope to understand all that is in the mind of our heavenly Father - cannot expect to fathom his holy purpose, to read his unfathomable thoughts. We see enough of Divine wisdom, holiness, and love to believe that, when our understanding is enlarged and our vision cleared, we shall find that "all the paths of the Lord were mercy and truth" - even those which most troubled and bewildered us when we dwelt upon the earth. - C.
I. THE REFUGE OF THE SKEPTIC? They may be such. The epicure who has lost his faith in God says, "Let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we die." There is no sacredness in the present, and no solid hope for the future. What is the use of aiming at a high ideal? Why waste breath and strength on duty, on aspiration, on piety? Why attempt to rise to the pursuit of the eternal and the Divine? Better lose ourselves in that which is at hand, in that which we can grasp as a present certainty. The best thing, the only certain good, is to eat and drink and to labor; is to minister to our senses, and to work upon the material which is visible to our eye and responsive to our touch. So speaks the skeptic; this is his miserable conclusion; thus he owns himself defeated and (we may say) dishonored. For what is human life worth when the element of sacredness is expunged, when piety and hope are left out of it? It is no wonder that the ages of unbelief have been the times when men have bad no regard for other people's dues, and very little for their own. Or shall we rather find here -
II. AN ARTICLE, OF A WISE MAN'S FAITH? It is not certain what was the mood in which the Preacher wrote; but let us prefer to think that behind his words, actuating and inspiring him, was a true spirit of faith in God and in Divine providence; let us take him to mean - what we know to be true - that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, a wise and loyal-hearted man will hold that there is much that is worth pursuing and possessing in the simple pleasures, in the daily duties, and in the ordinary services which are open to us all.
1. Daily God invites us to eat and drink, to partake of the bounties of his hand; let us appreciate his benefits with moderation and gratitude.
2. Daily he bids us go forth to "our work and to our labor until the evening;" let us enter upon it and carry it out in the spirit of conscientiousness and fidelity toward both God and man (Colossians 3:23).
3. Daily God gives us the means of getting good to ourselves and doing good to others; let us eagerly embrace our opportunity, let us gladly avail ourselves of our privilege; so doing we shall make our life peaceful, happy, worthy. In the light that shines into our hearts from the truth of Christ we judge:
1. That these lesser things - pleasure, activity, acquisition - are well in their way and in their measure. "Bodily exercise profiteth a little." But:
2. That human life has possibilities and obligations which immeasurably transcend these things; such, that to put these into the front rank and to fill our life with them is a fatal error. Made subordinate to that which is higher, they take their place and they render their service - a place and a service not to be despised; but made primary and supreme, they are usurpers that do untold injury, and that must be relentlessly dethroned. - C.
Ecclesiastes 2:24) as to the method by which some measure of happiness can be secured by man, but there is a very important addition made to the former declaration. Our author is referring to temporal things, and tells the secret by which the happiness they may procure for us is to be won. It consists of two particulars:
(1) a cheerful enjoyment of the gifts of God, and
(2) a benevolent use of them.
This latter is the addition to which I have referred. It is a distinct advance upon the previous utterance, as it introduces the idea of an unselfish use of the gifts which God has bestowed upon us - an employment of them for the benefit of others less fortunately circumstanced than ourselves. "Over and above the life of honest labor and simple joys which had been recognized as good before, the seeker has learnt that 'doing good' is in some sense the best way of getting good" (Plumptre). It may be that beneficence is only a part of what is meant by" doing good," but in the connection in which the phrase is here employed it must be a large part, because it evidently suggests something more as desirable than a selfish enjoyment of the good things of life. This twofold duty of accepting with gratitude the gifts of God and of applying them to good uses was prescribed by the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 26:1-14); and, to a truly pious mind, the one part of the duty will suggest the other. The thought that God in his bounty has enriched us, who are unworthy of the least of all his mercies, will lead us to be compassionate to those who are in want, and we shall find in relieving their necessities the purest and most exquisite of all joys. We shall in this way discover for ourselves the truth of that saying of our Lord's, "It is mere blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). While those who selfishly keep all they have for themselves fled that, however their goods increase, their satisfaction in them cannot be increased - nay, rather that it rapidly diminishes. Hence it is that the apostle counsels the rich "to do good, to be rich in good works, to be ready to distribute, willing to communicate "(1 Timothy 6:17-19). The general teaching of the Scriptures, therefore, is in. harmony with the results of our own experience, and leads to the same conclusion, that "doing good" is a condition of pure happiness. - J.W.
I. GOD'S WORK IS PERFECT AND UNALTERABLE. "Nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it." This cannot be said to be the general conviction; on the contrary, men are always finding fault with the constitution of things. If they had been consulted in the creation of the universe, and in the management of human affairs, all would have been far better than it is! Now, all depends upon the end in view. The scientific man would make an optical instrument which should serve as both microscope and telescope - a far more marvelous construction than the eye. The pleasure-seeker would eliminate pain and sorrow from human life, and would make it one prolonged rapture of enjoyment. But the Creator had no intention of making an instrument which should supersede human inventions; his aim was the production of a working, everyday, useful organ of vision. The Lord of all never aimed at making life one long series of gratification; he designed life to be a moral discipline, in which suffering, weakness, and distress fulfill their own service of ministering to man's highest welfare. For the purposes intended, God's work needs no apology and admits of no improvement.
II. GOD'S WORK IS ETERNAL. All men's works are both unstable and transitory. Fresh ends are ever being approved and sought by fresh means. The laws of nature know no change; the principles of moral government are the same from age to age. When we learn to distrust our own fickleness, and to weary of human uncertainty and mutability, then we fall back upon the unchanging counsels of him who is from everlasting to everlasting.
III. GOD'S WORK HAS A PURPOSE WITH REFERENCE TO MAN. What God has done in this world he has done for the benefit of his spiritual family. Everything that is may be regarded as the vehicle of communication between the creating and the created mind. The intention of God is "that men should fear before him,"' i.e. venerate and glorify him. Our human probation and education as moral and accountable beings is his aim. Hence the obligation on our part to observe, inquire, and consider, to reverence, serve, and obey, and thus consciously and voluntarily secure the ends for which the Creator designed and fashioned us. - T,
I. HUMAN ACTION UPON THE DIVINE.
1. There is a sense in which man has modified the Divine action according to the Divine purpose. God has given us the material, and he says to us, "Work with it and upon it; mould, fashion, transform, develop it as you will; make all possible use of it for bodily comfort, for mental enlargement, for social enjoyment, for spiritual growth." Man has made large use of this his opportunity, and, with the advance of knowledge and of science, he will make much more in the centuries to come. He cannot indeed "put to" or "take from" the substance with which God supplies him, but he can do much to change its form and to determine the service it shall render.
2. There is a sense in which man has temporarily thwarted the Divine idea. For is not all sin, and are not all the dire consequences of sin, a sad and serious departure from the purpose of the Holy One? Surely infidelity, blasphemy, vice, cruelty, crime; surely poverty, misery, starvation, death;-all this is not what the heavenly Father meant for his human children when he breathed into man's nostrils the breath of life. But the leading idea of the text is -
II. THE PERMANENCY OF THE DIVINE THOUGHT. This truth includes:
1. The fixedness of the Divine purpose. "The counsel of the Lord standeth for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations" (Psalm 33:11). We believe that from the beginning God intended to work out the righteousness and the blessedness of the human race; and whatever has come between him and the realization of his gracious end will be cleared away. Man will one day be all that the Eternal One designed that he should become.
2. The constancy of the Divine Law. The same great moral laws, and the same physical laws also, which governed the action and the destiny of men in primeval times still prevail, and will always abide. Sin has meant suffering and sorrow, righteousness has worked out well-being and joy; diligence has been followed by fruitfulness, and idleness by destitution; generosity has been recompensed with love, and selfishness with leanness of soul, etc. As it was at the beginning, so will it be with the action of all Divine laws, even to the cud.
3. The permanency of the Divine attitude.
(1) What God always felt toward sin he feels today; it is the thing which he hates. In Jesus Christ, as fully and as emphatically as in the Law, his holy intolerance of sin is revealed, his Divine determination to conquer and to destroy it.
(2) What God always felt toward the sinner he feels today - a Divine grief and an infinite compassion; a readiness to forgive and to restore the penitent.
III. THE DIVINE DESIGN. "God doeth it, that men should fear before him." God's one unchanging desire is that his children should live a reverential, holy life before him. All the manifestations of his character that he gives us are intended to lead up to and issue in this. And surely the Divine constancy is calculated to promote this as nothing else would. It is God's desire and his design concerning us, because he knows
(1) that it is the only right relationship for us to sustain; and
(2) that it is the one condition of peace, purity, blessedness, life. - C.
Ecclesiastes 3:14-17Ecclesiastes 3:14-17. An argument in support of the statement that
A present use and enjoyment of the gifts of God is advisable, is found in the fact of the unchangeable character of the Divine purposes and government. He who has given may take away, and none can stay his hand. While, therefore, we are in possession of benefits he has bestowed on us, we should get the good of them, seeing that we know not how long we shall have them. Exception has been taken to this teaching. "The lesson to cheerfulness under such bidding seems a hard one. Men have recited it over the wine-cup in old times and new, in East and West. But the human heart, with such shadows gathering in the background, has recognized its hollowness, and again and again has put back the anodyne from its lips" (Bradley). But though the thought of the Divine unchangeableness may be regarded by some as a stimulus to a reckless enjoyment of the present, it is calculated to have a wholesome influence upon our views of life, and upon our conduct. Acquiescence in one's lot, and reverential fear of God, leading to an avoidance of sin, are naturally suggested by it. The conviction that the will of God is righteous will prevent acquiescence in it becoming that apathetic resignation which characterizes the spirit of those who believe that over all the events of life an iron destiny rules, against which men strive in vain.
I. THE CHARACTER OF THE DIVINE GOVERNMENT. (Ver. 14.) It is eternal and. unalterable. In the phenomena of the natural world, we see it manifested in laws which man cannot control or change; in the providential government of human affairs, the same rule of a higher Power over all the events of life is discernible; and in the revelations of the Divine will, recorded in the Scriptures, we see steady progress to an end foreseen and foretold from the beginning. What God does stands fast; no created power can nullify or change it (Psalm 23:11; Isaiah 46:9, 10; Daniel 4:35).
II. THE EFFECT WHICH THIS UNCHANGEABLENESS SHOULD PRODUCE. (Ver. 14b.) "That men should fear before him." It should fill our heart with reverence. This is, indeed, the purpose for which God has given this revelation of himself, and no other view of the Divine character is calculated to produce the same effect. The thought of God's infinite power would not impress us in like manner if at the same time we believed that his will was variable, that it could be propitiated and changed. But the conviction that his will is righteous and immutable should lead us to "sanctify him in our hearts, and make him our Fear and our Dread" (Isaiah 8:13), and give us hope and confidence in the midst of the vicissitudes of life (Malachi 3:6). In the earlier part of his work (Ecclesiastes 1:9, 10) the Preacher had dwelt upon the uniformity of sequence in nature, as if he were impressed with a sense of monotony, as he watched the course of events happening and recurring in the same order. And now, as he looks upon human history, he sees the same regularity in the order of things. "That which hath been is now, and that which is to be hath already been." But the former feeling of weariness and oppression is modified by the thought of God's perfection, and by the "fear" which it excites. He recognizes the fact of a personal will governing the events of history. It is no mechanical process of revolution that causes the repetition time after time of similar events, the same causes producing the same effects; no wheel of destiny alternately raising and depressing the fortunes of men. It is God who recalls, "who seeks again that which is passed away" (ver. 15b). "The past is thought of as vanishing, put to flight, receding into the dim distance. It might seem to be passing into the abyss of oblivion; but God recalls it, brings back the same order, or an analogous order of events, and so history repeats itself" (Plumptre). And out of this belief in God's wise providence a healthy spirit should gather strength to bear patiently and cheerfully the difficulties and trials of life. The belief that our life is governed by an unalterable law is calculated, as I have said, to lead to a listless, hopeless state of mind, in which one ceases to strive against the inevitable. But that state of mind is very different from the resignation of those who believe that the government of the world is regular and unchangeable, because unerring wisdom guides him who is the Creator and Preserver of all things. Their faith can sustain them in the greatest trials, when God's ways seem most inscrutable; they can hope against hope, and, in spite of all apparent contradictions, believe that "all things work together for good to them that love God." - J.W.
I. THE PREVALENCE OF WICKEDNESS UPON EARTH AND AMONG MEN. The observation of the wise man was naturally directed to the state of society in his own times and in his own and of the neighboring countries. Local and temporal peculiarities do not, however, destroy the applicability of the principle to human life generally. Wickedness was and is discernible wherever man is found. Unconscious nature obeys physical laws, brute nature obeys automatic and instinctive impulse. But man is a member of a rational and spiritual system, whose principles he often violates in the pursuit of lower ends. In the earliest ages "the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." A remedial system has checked and to some extent counteracted these evil tendencies; yet to how large an extent is the same reflection just!
II. WICKEDNESS, IN THE FORM OF INJUSTICE, PREVAILS EVEN WHERE JUSTICE SHOULD BE IMPARTIALLY ADMINISTERED. It is well known that in every age complaints have been made of the venality of Eastern magistrates. In the Old Testament references are frequent to the "gifts," the bribes, by which suitors sought to obtain decisions in their favor. Corruption here is worse than elsewhere, for it is discouraging to uprightness, and lowers the tone of public morals. We may be grateful that, in our own land and in our own day, such corruption is unknown - that our judges are above even temptation to bribery. But the fact has to be faced that injustice, whether from motives of malice or from motives of avarice, has existed widely in human communities.
III. THE UNIVERSAL JUDGMENT OF A RIGHTEOUS GOD. The atheist has no refuge from such observations and reflections as those recorded in ver. 16. But the godly man turns from earth to heaven, and rests in the conviction that there is a Divine and righteous Judge, to whose tribunal all men must come, and by whose just decisions every destiny must be decided.
1. All characters, the righteous and the wicked alike, will be judged by the Lord of all. Has the unjust escaped the penalty due from a human tribunal? He shall not escape the righteous judgment of God. Has the innocent, been unjustly sentenced by an earthly and perhaps corrupt judge? There is for him a court of appeal, and his righteousness shall shine as the noonday.
2. All kinds of works shall meet with retribution; not only the acts of private life, but also acts of a judicial and governmental kind. The unjust judge shall meet with his recompense, and the wronged and persecuted shall not be unavenged. - T.
I. THE COMMUNITY OF MEN WITH BEASTS IN THE ANIMAL NATURE AND LIFE. If we look upon one side of our humanity, it appears that we are to be reckoned among the brutes that perish. The similarity is obvious in:
1. The corporeal, fleshly constitution with which man and brute are alike endowed.
2. The brevity of the earthly life appointed for both without distinction.
3. The resolution of the body into dust.
II. THE SUPERIORITY OF MEN OVER BEASTS IN THE POSSESSION OF A SPIRITUAL AND IMPERISHABLE NATURE AND LIFE. It is difficult for us to treat this subject without; bringing to bear upon it the knowledge which we have derived from the fuller and more glorious revelation of the new covenant. "Christ has abolished death, and has brought life and immortality to light by the gospel." We cannot possibly think of such themes without taking to their consideration the convictions and the hopes which we have derived from the incarnate Son of God. Nor can we forget the sublime speculations of philosophers of both ancient and modern times.
1. In his spiritual nature man is akin to God. Physical life the Creator imparted to the animal Organisms with which the world was peopled. But a life of quite another order was conferred upon man, who participates in the ... Divine reason, who is able? think the thoughts of God himself, and who has intuitions of moral goodness of which the brute creation is for ever incapable. Instead of man's mind being a function of organized matter, as a base sensationalism and empiricism is wont to affirm, the truth is that it is only as an expression and vehicle of thought, of reason, that matter has a dependent existence.
2. In his consequent immortality man is distinguished from the inferior animals. The life possessed by these latter is a life of sensation and of movement; the organism is resolved into its constituents, and there is no reason to believe that the sensation and movement are perpetuated. But "the spirit of man goeth upward;" it has used its instrument, the body, and the time comes - appointed by God's inscrutable providence - when the connection, local and temporary, which the spirit has maintained with earth, is sundered. In what other scenes and pursuits the conscious being is continued, we cannot tell. But there is not the slightest reason for conceiving the spiritual life to be dependent upon the organism which it uses as its instrument. The spiritual life is the life of God; and the life of God is perishable.
"The sun is but a spark of fire,
I. MAN'S UNENLIGHTENED CONCEPTION OF HIMSELF. It is evidently possible that, under certain conditions, men may judge themselves to be of no nobler nature than that of "the beasts that perish." It may be
(1) bodily suffering or weakness; or
(2) untoward and disappointing circumstances; or
(3) bewilderment of mind after vain endeavors to solve great spiritual problems; or
(4) the distracted and unnatural state of the society in which we are placed (see Cox's 'Quest of the Chief Good'); but, owing to some one of many possible causes, men may be driven to take the lowest view of human nature; so much so that they may lose all respect for themselves - may shut the future life entirely out of view, and live in the narrow circle of the present; may confine their ambition and aspiration to bodily enjoyment and the excitements of present occupation; may practically own themselves to be defeated, and go blindly on, 'hoping nothing, believing nothing, and fearing nothing." Such a melancholy conclusion
(1) does us sad dishonor;
(2) has a demoralizing influence on character and life;
(3) yields a wretched harvest of despair and self-destruction. In most happy contrast with this is -
II. THE VIEW OF OUR NATURE WHICH CHRIST HAS GIVEN US. He asks us to think how "much a man is better than a sheep," and reminds us that we are "of more value than many sparrows." He bids us realize that one human soul is worth more than "the whole world," and that there is nothing so costly that it will represent its value. He reveals to us the supreme and most blessed fact that each human spirit is the object of Divine solicitude, and may find a home in the Father's heart of love at once, and in his nearer presence soon. He assures us that there is a glorious future before every man that becomes the subject of his kingdom, and serves faithfully to the end. Under his teaching, instead of seeing that "they themselves are beasts," his disciples find themselves "children of their Father who is in heaven," "kings and priests unto God," "heirs of eternal life." Coming after Christ, and learning of him, we see that we are capable of a noble heritage now, and move toward a still nobler estate a little further on. - C.
I. The first statement is that MEN, LIKE BEASTS, ARE CREATURES OF ACCIDENT. (Ver. 19a.) Not that they are both the results of blind chance; but that, "being conditioned by circumstances over which there can be no control, they are subject, in respect to their whole being, actions, and sufferings, as far as mere human observation can extend, to the law of chance, and are alike destined to undergo the same fate, i.e. death" (Wright). A parallel to the thought of this verse is to be found in the very striking words of Solon to Croesus (Herodotus, 1:32), "Man is altogether a chance;" and in Psalm 49:14, 20, "Like sheep they are laid in the grave Man that is in honor, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish."
II. The second statement is that As IS THE DEATH OF THE ONE, SO IS THE DEATH OF THE OTHER (ver. 19b), for in both is the breath of life, and this departs from them in like manner. So that any superiority on the part of man over the beast is incredible in the face of this fact, that death annuls distinctions between them. One resting-place receives them all at last - the earth from which they sprang (ver. 20). A belief in the immortality of the soul of man would at once have relieved the gloom, and convinced the Preacher that the humiliating comparison he institutes only reaches to a certain point, and is based upon the external accidents of human life, and that the true dignity and value of human nature remain unaffected by the mortality of the corporeal part of our being. "Put aside the belief in the prolongation of existence after death, that what has been begun here may be completed, and what has gone wrong here may be set right, and man is but a more highly organized animal, the 'cunningest of nature's clocks,' and the high words which men speak as to his greatness are found hollow. They too are 'vanity.' He differs from the brutes around him only, or chiefly, in having, what they have not, the burden of unsatisfied desires, the longing after an eternity which after all is denied him" (Plumptre).
III. The third statement is the saddest of all - that of THE UNCERTAINTY OF KNOWLEDGE AS TO WHETHER, AFTER ALL, THERE IS THIS HIGHER ELEMENT IN HUMAN NATURE - "a spirit that at death goeth upward" - or whether the living principles of both man and beast perish when their bodies are laid in the dust (ver. 21). It is quite fruitless to deny that it is a skeptical question that is asked - If the spirit of the beast goeth downward to the earth, who knows that that of man goeth upward? Attempts have been made to obliterate the skepticism of the passage, as may be seen in the Massoretic punctuation followed in the Authorized Version of our English Bible, but departed from in the Revised Version, "Who knoweth the spirit of mall that. goeth upward," etc.? as though an ascent of the spirit to a higher life were affirmed. The rendering of the four principal versions, and of all the best critics, convinces us that it is indeed a skeptical question as to the immortality of the soul that is here asked. A very similar passage is found in the great poem of Lucretius (1. 113-116) -
"We know not what the nature of the soul, IV. The fourth and concluding statement is, strangely enough, that since we know not what will come after death, A CHEERFUL ENJOYMENT OF THE PRESENT is the best course one can take. This is the third time he has given this counsel (Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:12, 13). A calm and happy life, healthy labor, and tranquil enjoyment, are to be valued and token advantage of to the full. It is an Epicureanism of a spiritual cast that he commends, and not the coarse and degraded animalism of those who say, "Let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we die." He recognizes the good gifts of the present as a "portion" given by God, and says - Rejoice in them, though the future be all unknown. The very gloom out of which his words spring give a dignity to them. "We feel that we are in the presence of one who has the germ given him of some courage, equanimity, and calmness, which may grow into other and better things. His spirit is torn by, suffers with, all the pangs that beset the inquiring human heart. He feels for all the woes of humanity; cannot put them by, and fly to the wine-cup and crown himself with garlands. He has hated life, yet he will not lose his courage. 'Be of good cheer,' he says, even in his dark hour; 'work on, and enjoy the fruits of work; it is thy portion. Do not curse God and die'" (Bradley). His words are not, as they might seem. at first, frivolous and heartless. It is a calm and peaceful happiness, a life of honest endeavor and of single-hearted enjoyment of innocent pleasures, that he commends; and, after all, it is only by genuine faith in God that such a life is possible - a faith that enables one to rise above all that is dark and mysterious and perplexing in the world about us. - J.W.
IV. The fourth and concluding statement is, strangely enough, that since we know not what will come after death, A CHEERFUL ENJOYMENT OF THE PRESENT is the best course one can take. This is the third time he has given this counsel (Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:12, 13). A calm and happy life, healthy labor, and tranquil enjoyment, are to be valued and token advantage of to the full. It is an Epicureanism of a spiritual cast that he commends, and not the coarse and degraded animalism of those who say, "Let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we die." He recognizes the good gifts of the present as a "portion" given by God, and says - Rejoice in them, though the future be all unknown. The very gloom out of which his words spring give a dignity to them. "We feel that we are in the presence of one who has the germ given him of some courage, equanimity, and calmness, which may grow into other and better things. His spirit is torn by, suffers with, all the pangs that beset the inquiring human heart. He feels for all the woes of humanity; cannot put them by, and fly to the wine-cup and crown himself with garlands. He has hated life, yet he will not lose his courage. 'Be of good cheer,' he says, even in his dark hour; 'work on, and enjoy the fruits of work; it is thy portion. Do not curse God and die'" (Bradley). His words are not, as they might seem. at first, frivolous and heartless. It is a calm and peaceful happiness, a life of honest endeavor and of single-hearted enjoyment of innocent pleasures, that he commends; and, after all, it is only by genuine faith in God that such a life is possible - a faith that enables one to rise above all that is dark and mysterious and perplexing in the world about us. - J.W.
I. IT IS POSSIBLE TO LIMIT OUR VIEW OF THIS EARTHLY LIFE UNTIL IT LOSES ITS INTEREST FOR US.
1. Man's works, to the observant and reflecting mind, are perishable and poor.
2. Nan's joys are often both superficial and transitory.
3. The future of human existence and progress upon earth is utterly uncertain, and, if it could be foreseen, would probably occasion bitter disappointment.
II. IT IS UNWISE AND UNSATISFACTORY SO TO LIMIT OUR VIEW OF LIFE. There is true wisdom in the wise man's declaration, "There is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his works; for that is his portion." The epicurean is wrong who makes pleasure his one aim. The cynic is wrong who despises pleasure as something beneath the dignity of his nature. Neither work nor enjoyment is the whole of life; for life is not to be understood save in relation to spiritual and disciplinary purposes. Man has for a season a bodily nature; let him use that nature with discretion, and it may prove organic to his moral welfare. Man is for a season stationed upon earth; let him fulfill earth's duties, and taste earth's delights. Earthly experience may be a stage towards heavenly service and bliss. - T.