Darker and darker the cloud settles over his spirit; denser and still more dense the fogs of helpless ignorance and perplexity enwrap his intelligence. For, worse still, do men recognize, and live at all reasonably in view of, that common mortality? Alas, madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead; and then all hope for them, as far as can be seen, is over forever. Dead! What does that mean? It means that every faculty, as far as can be seen, is stilled forever. The dead lion, whose majesty and strength, while living, would have even now struck me with awe, is less formidable as it lies there than a living dog. So with the dead among men: their hatred is no more to be feared, for it can harm nothing; their love is no more to be valued, for it can profit nothing; their zeal and energy are no more to be accounted of, for they can effect nothing; yea, all has come to an end forever under the sun. Oh, the awfulness of this darkness! "Then I will give," continues Ecclesiastes, "counsel for this vain life in conformity with the dense gloom of its close. Listen! Go eat with joy thy bread, and merrily drink thy wine; let never shade of sorrow mar thy short-lived pleasure; let no mourning on thy dress be seen, nor to thy head be oil of gladness lacking; merrily live with her whom thy affection has chosen as thy life-companion, and trouble not thyself as to God's acceptance of thy works -- that has been settled long ago; nor let a sensitive conscience disturb thee: whatsoever is in thy power to do, that do, without scruple or question; for soon, but too soon, these days of thy vanity will close, and in the grave, whither thou surely goest, all opportunities for activity, of whatever character, are over, and that -- forever!"
Strange counsel this, for sober and wise Ecclesiastes to give, is it not? Much has it puzzled many a commentator. Luther boldly says it is sober Christian advice, meant even now to be literally accepted, "lest you become like the monks, who would not have one look even at the sun." Hard labor indeed, however, is it to force it thus into harmony with the general tenor of God's word.
But is not the counsel good and reasonable enough under certain conditions? And are not those conditions and premises clearly laid down for us in the context here? It is as if a whirlwind of awful perplexities had swept the writer with irresistible force away from his moorings, -- a black cloud filled with the terrors of darkness and death sweeps over his being, and out of the black and terrible storm he speaks -- "Man has but an hour to enjoy here, and I know nothing as to what comes after, except that death, impenetrable death, ends every generation of men, throws down to the dust the good, the righteous, the sober, as well as the lawless, the false, and the profligate; ends in a moment all thought, knowledge, love, and hatred; -- then since I know nothing beyond this vain life, I can only say, Have thy fling; -- short, short thy life will be, and vain thou wilt find this short life; so get thy fill of pleasure here, for thou goest, and none can help thee, to where all activities cease, and love and hatred end forever."
This, we may say, based on these premises, and excluding all other, is reasonable counsel. Does not our own apostle Paul confirm it? Does he not say, if this life be all, this life of vanity under the sun, then let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die? Yea, we who have turned aside from this path of present pleasures are of all men most miserable, if this vain life be all.
And are we to expect poor unaided human wisdom to face these awful problems of infinite depth without finding the strongest evidence of its utter incapacity and helplessness? Like a feather in the blast, our kingly and wise preacher (beyond whom none can ever go) is whirled, for the time being, from his soberness, and, in sorrow akin to despair, gives counsel that is in itself revolting to all soberness and wisdom. Nothing could so powerfully speak the awful chaos of his soul; and -- mark it well -- in that same awful chaos would you and I be at any moment, my reader, if we thought at all, but for one inestimably precious fact. Black like unto the outer darkness is the storm-cloud we are looking at, and the wild, despairing, yet sad counsel, to "live merrily" is in strict harmony with the wild, awful darkness, like the sea-gull's scream in the tempest.
Let us review a little the path of reasoning that has led our author to where he is; only we will walk it joyfully in the light of God.
"No man knoweth love or hatred by all that is before him." We have looked upon a scene where a holy Victim -- infinitely holy -- bowed His head under the weight of a judgment that could not be measured. It was but a little while, and the very heavens could not contain themselves with delight at His perfect beauty, His perfect obedience; but again, and yet again, were they opened to express the pleasure of the Highest in this lowly Man. Now, not only are they closed in silence, but a horror seems to enwrap all creation. The sun, obscured by no earth-born cloud, gives out no spark nor ray of light; and in that solemn darkness every voice is strangely hushed. From nine till noon the air was filled with revilings and reproaches -- all leveled at the one sinless Sufferer; but now, for three hours, these have been absolutely silent, till at last one cry of agony breaks the stillness; and it is from Him who "was oppressed and afflicted, yet opened not His mouth; was brought as a lamb to the slaughter; and as a sheep before her shearer is dumb, so opened He not His mouth:" -- "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani" -- "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me!"
There, my beloved readers, look there! Let that cross be before us, and then say, "No man knoweth love or hatred by all that is before them." Are not both revealed there as never before? Hatred! What caused the blessed God thus to change His attitude towards the One who so delighted Him that the heavens burst open, as it were, under the weight of that delight? There is but one answer to that question. Sin. Sin was there on that holiest Sufferer -- mine, yours, my reader. And God's great hatred of sin is fully revealed there. I know "hatred" when I see God looking at my sin on His infinitely holy, infinitely precious, infinitely beloved Son. * * * *
Let us meditate upon, without multiplying words over this solemn theme, and turn to the Love that burns, too, so brightly there. Who can measure the infinity of love to us when, in order that that love might have its way unhindered, God forsakes the One who, for all the countless ages of the eternal past, had afforded Him perfect "daily" delight, was ever in His bosom -- the only one in that wide creation who could satisfy or respond, in the communion of equality, to His affections -- and turns away from Him; nay, "it pleased the Lord to bruise Him"; "He hath put Him to grief." Ponder these words; and in view of who that crucified Victim was, and His relationship with God, measure, if you can, the love displayed there, the love in that one short word "so" -- "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son;" -- then, whilst viewing the cross, hear, coming down to us from the lips of the wise king, "No man knoweth love or hatred." Hush! Ecclesiastes, hush! Breathe no such word in such a scene as this. Pardonable it were in that day, when you looked only at the disjointed chaos and tangle under the sun; but looking at that cross, it were the most heinous sin, the most unpardonable disloyalty and treason, to say now, "No man knoweth love." Rather, adoringly, will we say, "In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. And we have known and believed the love that God has to us."
Yea, now let "all things come alike to all:" -- that tender Love shall shed its light over this stormy scene, and enable the one that keeps it before him to walk the troubled waters of this life in quiet assurance and safety. Death still may play sad havoc with the most sensitive of affections; but that Love shall, as we have before seen, permit us to weep tears; but not bitter despairing tears. Further, it sheds over the spirit the glorious light of a coming Day, and we look forward, not to an awful impending gloom, but to a pathway of real light, that pierces into eternity. The Day! We are of the Day! The darkness passes, the true light already shines! Then listen, my fellow-pilgrims, to the Spirit's counsel: "But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep, as do others, but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep, sleep in the night; and they that are drunken, are drunken in the night. But let us who are of the Day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and for an helmet the hope of salvation."
Our poor preacher, in the darkness of the cloud of death, counsels, "merrily drink thy wine." And not amiss, with such an outlook, is such advice. In the perfect Light of Revelation, lighting up present and a future eternity, well may we expect counsel as differing from this as the light in which it is given differs from the darkness. "The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the Day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof." Amen and Amen.
But once again our Preacher turns; and now he sees that it is not assuredly possible for the advice he has given to be followed, and that even in this life neither work, device, knowledge, nor wisdom, are effective in obtaining good or in shielding their possessor from life's vicissitudes. The swift -- does he always win the race? Are there no contingencies that more than counterbalance his swiftness? A slip, a fall, a turned muscle, and -- the race is not to the swift. The strong -- is he necessarily conqueror in the fight? Many an unforeseen and uncontrollable event has turned the tide of battle and surprised the world, till the "fortune of war" has passed into a proverb. The skillful may not be able at all times to secure even the necessaries of life; nor does abundance invariably accompany greater wisdom, whilst no amount of intelligence can secure constant and abiding good.
Time and doom hap alike to all, irrespective of man's purposes or proposings, and no man knows what his hap shall be, since no skill of any kind can avail to guide through the voyage of life without encountering its storms. From the unlooked-for quarter, too, do those storms burst on us. As the fishes suspect no danger till in the net they are taken, and as the birds fear nothing till ensnared, so we poor children of Adam, when our "evil time" comes round, are snared without warning.
Absolutely true this is, if life be regarded solely by such light as human wisdom gives: "Time and doom happen alike to all." The whole scene is like one vast, confused machine, amongst whose intricate wheels, that revolve with an irregularity that defies foresight, poor man is cast at his birth; and ever and anon, when he least expects it, he comes between these wheels; and then he is crushed by some "evil," which may make an end of him altogether or leave him for further sorrows. All things seem to work confusedly for evil, and this caps the climax of Ecclesiastes's misery.
Here is the sequence of his reasoning:
Firstly, There is no righteous allotment upon earth; the righteous suffer here, whilst the unjust escape. Nay,
Secondly, There is an absolute lack of all discrimination in the death that ends all; and,
Thirdly, So complete is that end, bringing all so exactly to one dead level, without the slightest difference; and so impenetrable is the tomb to which all go, that I counsel, in my despair, "Eat, drink, and be merry, irrespective of any future."
Fourthly, But, alas! that, too, is impossible; for no "work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom," can assure freedom from the evil doom that haps, soon or late, to all.
Intensified misery! awful darkness indeed! And our own souls tremble as we stand with Ecclesiastes under its shadow and respond to his groanings. For the same scene still spreads itself before us as before him. Mixed with the mad laughter and song of fools is the continued groan of sorrow, pain, and suffering, that still tells of "time and doom."
A striking instance of this comes to my hand even as I write; and since its pathetic sadness makes it stand out even from the sorrows of this sad world, I would take it as a direct illustration of Ecclesiastes's groan. At Nyack on the Hudson a Christian family retire to rest after the happy services of last Lord's Day, the 21st of October -- an unbroken circle of seven children, with their parents. Early on the following morning, before it is light, a fire is raging in the house, and four of the little children are consumed in the conflagration. The account concludes: "The funeral took place at eleven o'clock to-day." That is, in a little more than twelve hours after retiring to sleep, four of the members of that family circle were in their graves! Here is an "evil time" that has fallen suddenly indeed; and the sad and awful incident enables us to realize just what our writer felt as he penned the words. With one stroke, in one moment, four children, who have had for years their parents' daily thought and care, meet an awful doom, and all that those parents themselves have believed receives a blow whose force it is hard to measure. Now listen, as the heathen cry, "Where is now their God?" Why was not His shield thrown about them? Had he not the power to warn the sleeping household of the impending danger? Is He so bound by some law of His own making as to forbid his interfering with its working? Worse still, was He indifferent to the awful catastrophe that was about to crush the joy out of that family circle? If His was the power, was His love lacking?
Oh, awful questions when no answer can be given to them; -- and nature gives no answer. She is absolutely silent. No human wisdom, even though it be his who was gifted "with a wise and understanding heart, so that none was like him before him, neither after him should any arise like unto him," could give any answer to questions like these. And think you, my reader, that nature does not cry out for comfort, and feel about for light at such a time? Nor that the enemy of our souls is not quick in his malignant activity to suggest all kinds of awful doubt? Every form of darkness and unbelief is alive to seize such incidents, and make them the texts on which they may level their attacks against the Christian's God.
But is there really no eye to pity? -- no heart to love? -- no arm to save? Are men really subject to blind law -- "time and doom"?
Hark, my reader, and turn once more to that sweetest music that ever broke on distracted reason's ear. It comes not to charm with a false hope, but with the full authority of God. None but His Son who had lain so long in His Father's bosom that He knew its blessed heart-beats thoroughly, could speak such words -- "Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings." Here are poor worthless things indeed that may be truly called creatures of chance. "Time and doom" must surely "hap" to these. Indeed no; "not one of them is forgotten before God." Ponder every precious word in simple faith. God's memory bears upon it the lot of every worthless sparrow; it may "fall to the ground," but not without Him. He controls their destiny and is interested in their very flight. If it be so with the sparrow, that may be bought for a single mite, shall the saint, who has been bought at a price infinitely beyond all the treasures of silver and gold in the universe, even at the cost of the precious blood of His dear Son, -- shall he be subject to "time and doom"? Shall his lot not be shaped by infinite love and wisdom? Yes, verily. Even the very hairs of his head are all numbered. No joy, no happiness, no disappointment, no perplexity, no sorrow, so infinitesimally small (let alone the greatest) but that the One who controls all worlds takes the closest interest therein, and turns, in His love, every thing to blessing, forcing "all to work together for good," and making the very storms of life obedient servants to speed His children to their Home.
Faith alone triumphs here; but faith triumphs; and apart from such tests and trials, what opportunity would there be for faith to triumph? May we not bless God, then, (humbly enough, for we know how quickly we fail under trial,) that He does leave opportunity for faith to be in exercise and to get victories?
God first reveals Himself, and then says, as it were, "Now let Me see if you have so learned what I am as to trust Me against all circumstances, against all that you see, feel, or suffer." And what virtue there must be in the Light of God, when so little of it is needed to sustain His child! Even in the dim early twilight of the dawning of divine revelation, Job, suffering under a very similar and fully equal "evil time," could say, "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord:" accents sweet and refreshing to Him who values at an unknown price the confidence of this poor heart of man. And yet what did Job know of God? He had not seen the cross. He had not had anything of the display of tenderest unspeakable love that have we. It was but the dawn, as we may say, of revelation; but it was enough to enable that poor grief-wrung heart to cry, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him." Shall we, who enjoy the very meridian of revelation light; -- shall we, who have seen Him slain for us, say less? Nay, look at the wondrous possibilities of our calling, my reader, -- a song, nothing but a song will do now. Not quiet resignation only; but "strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, unto all patience and long-suffering with joyfulness," -- and that means a song.
How rich, how very rich, is our portion! A goodly heritage is ours. For see what our considerations have brought out: a deep need universally felt; for none escape the sorrows, trials, and afflictions, that belong, in greater or less degree, to this life.
The highest, truest, human wisdom can only recognize the need with a groan, for it finds no remedy for it -- time and doom hap alike to all.
God shows Himself a little, and, lo! quiet, patience, and resignation take the place of groaning. The need is met.
God reveals His whole heart fully, and no wave of sorrow, no billow of suffering, can extinguish the joy of His child who walks with Him. Nay, as thousands upon thousands could testify, the darkest hour of trial is made the sweetest with the sense of His love, and tears with song are mingled.
Oh, for grace to enjoy our rich portion more.
But to return to our book. Its author rarely proceeds far along any one line without meeting with that which compels him to return. So here; for he adds, in verses 13 to the end of the chapter, "And yet I have seen the very reverse of all this, when apparently an inevitable doom, an 'evil time,' was hanging over a small community, whose resources were altogether inadequate to meet the crisis -- when no way of escape from the impending destruction seemed possible -- then, at the moment of despair, a 'poor wise man' steps to the front (such the quality there is in wisdom), delivers the city, comes forth from his obscurity, shines for a moment, and, lo! the danger past, is again forgotten, and sinks to the silence whence he came. But this the incident proved to me, that where strength is vain, there wisdom shows its excellence, even though men as a whole appreciate it so little as to call upon it only as a last resource. For let the fools finish their babbling, and their chief get to the end of his talking; then, in the silence that tells the limit of their powers, the quiet voice of wisdom is heard again, and that to effect. Thus is wisdom better even than weapons of war, although, sensitive quality that it is, a little folly easily taints it."
Can we, my readers, fail to set our seal to the truth of all this? We, too, have known something much akin to that "little city with few men," and one Poor Man, the very embodiment of purest, perfect wisdom, who wrought alone a full deliverance in the crisis -- a deliverance in which wisdom shone divinely bright; and yet the mass of men remember Him not. A few, whose hearts grace has touched, may count Him the chief among ten thousand and the altogether lovely; but the world, though it may call itself by His name, counts other objects more worthy of its attention, and the poor wise man is forgotten "under the sun."
Not so above the sun. There we see the Poor One, the Carpenter's Son, the Nazarene, the Reviled, the Smitten, the Spit-upon, the Crucified, seated, crowned with glory and honor, at the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens; and there, to a feeble few on earth, He sums up all wisdom and all worth, and they journey on in the one hope of seeing Him soon face to face, and being with Him and like Him forever.
 I believe this is distinctly the bearing of these words, and not as in our version.
 There seems lo be an intensive force to these words, constantly and in each phase becoming stronger, in evident antithesis to the "work, device, knowledge, and wisdom," that Ecclesiastes had just counseled to use to the utmost in order to obtain "good" in this life.