So chapter six opens, still on the same subject of wealth and its power to bless. A sore evil, and one that weighs heavily on man, has Solomon seen: riches, wealth, and honor, clustering thick on the head of one person, and yet God has withheld from him the power of enjoying it all. As our own poet, Browning, writes that apt illustration of King Saul:
"A people is thine,
So sorrowful is this in our preacher's eyes, and so thoroughly does it bespeak a state of affairs under the sun in confusion, that Solomon ventures the strongest possible assertion. Better, he says, an untimely birth, that never saw light, than a thousand years twice told, thus spent in vanity, without real good having been found. How bitter life must show itself to lead to such an estimate! Better never to have been born than pass through life without finding something that can satisfy. But this is not looking at life simply in itself, for life in itself is good, as the same poet sings:
"Oh, our manhood's prime vigor! No spirit feels waste, Not a muscle is stopped in its playing nor sinew unbraced. Oh, the wild joys of living! the leaping from rock up to rock, The strong rending of boughs from the fir-tree, the cool silver shock Of the plunge in a pool's living water!
It is because man has, of all the creation of God, an awful shadow hanging over him -- "death and darkness and the tomb," with the solemn, silent, unknown "beyond" lying before him, robbing him of rest. Angels have present pure delight, with no such shadow possible -- they die not. The beast may enjoy his pasture, for no thought of a coming death disturbs him. Life may be full of a kind of enjoyment to such; but man, poor man, when awake to the possibilities of his own being, as it surely becomes man to be (and that is just the point of this book -- we are not looking upon man as a mere animal, but as a reasoning creature, and as such he), is robbed of present rest and enjoyment by an inevitable fate to which he is hastening, and from which there is no possible escape. Do not all go to one place? -- that vague "Sheol," speaking of the grave, and yet the grave, not as the end, but an indefinite shadowy existence beyond? All, all go there; and with no light on that, better, indeed, "the untimely birth which came in vanity and departs in darkness;" for this, at least, has the more rest. Bitter groan this, indeed!
For the Preacher continues: "Does man's labor satisfy him? Can he get what is really 'good' from it?" No. For never is his appetite filled so that it desires nothing more. The constant return of its thirst demands constant toil; and fool and wise must alike obey its call. This is not confined to bodily food, but covers that bitter hunger and thirst of the heart, as the use of the word soul (margin) shows. The longings of the wise may be for a higher food. He may aim above the mere sensual, and seek to fill his soul with the refined, but he fails, as indeed do all, even "the poor man who knows to walk before the living;" that is, even the poor man who, with all the disadvantages of poverty, has wisdom enough to know how to live so as to command the respect of his fellows. Wise indeed must such be; but he, no more than the fool, has found the "good" that forever satisfies hunger and thirst, and calms to rest the wandering of the soul, which, like the restless swallow, is ever on the wing. Man is made up of desire, and one glimpse with the eyes, something seen, is at least something secured, and it is better than all mere longing, which is vanity and the pursuit of the wind. For everything has long ago been named from its own nature; and in this way its name shows what it is. Thus man, too, (Adam,) is, and ever has been, known from his name, from "adamah," earth; his name so showing his mortality. If thus he has been made by his Creator, how vain for him to hope to escape his fate, for with Him no contention is possible. What use, then, in many words (not things) since they afford no relief as against that end? they only increase vanity. Then the last sad wail of this subject: "Who knoweth what is really good -- satisfying for man -- during the few fleeting years of his vain life here, which he passes as a shadow; and when he is gone, who can tell him what shall be after him under the sun"?
Let that wail sink down deep into our ears. It is the cry that has been passed, in ever increasing volume, from heart to heart -- every empty hollow heart of man echoing and re-echoing, "Who will show us any good?" Now turn and listen to One who came to answer that fully, and in His word to Mary, the sister of Lazarus, He does distinctly, in words, answer it. She had chosen the portion that He could call "good." And was that travail and toil, even in service for Himself? No, that was rather her sister's portion; but a seat -- expressive of rest -- (consider it), a listening ear, whilst the Lord ministered to her; -- and that is all that is needful! What a contrast between this poor rich king, communing with his own heart to find out what is that good portion for man; and the rich poor saint in blessed communion with infinite Love, infinite Wisdom, infinite Power, and resting satisfied! Surely, Solomon in all his glory had no throne to be compared to hers, as she sat lowly "at His feet." And mark carefully, for thy soul's good, that word of tender grace that the Lord said, This is "needful." He who had listened to the groan of man's heart through those long four thousand years, and knew its need fully and exactly, says that this good portion must not be regarded as any high attainment for the few, but as the very breath of life -- for all. If He knows that it is needful for thee, then, my soul, fear not but that He will approve thy taking the same place and claiming Mary's portion on the ground of thy need alone.
Yes, but does this really answer the root cause of the groan in our chapter? Is the shadow of death dispelled by sitting at His feet! Is death no longer the dark unknown? Shall we learn lessons there that shall rob it of all its terrors, and replace the groan with song? Yes, truly, for look at the few significant foot-prints of that dear Mary's walk after this. See her at that supper made for the Lord at Bethany. Here Martha is serving with perfect acceptance -- no word of rebuke to her now; she has learned the lesson of that day spoken of in the tenth of Luke. But Mary still excels her, for, whilst sitting at His feet in that same day of tenth of Luke, she has heard some story that makes her come with precious spikenard to anoint His body for the burial! Strange act! And how could that affectionate heart force itself calmly to anoint the object of its love for burial? Ah! still a far sweeter story must she have heard "at His feet," and a bright light must have pierced the shadow of the tomb. For, look at that little company of devoted women around His cross, and you will find no trace of the no less devoted Mary, the sister of Lazarus, there. The other Marys may come, in tender affection, but in the dark ignorance of unbelief, to search for Him, in His empty tomb on the third day. She, with no less tender affection surely, is not there. Is this silence of Scripture without significance, or are we to see the reason for it in that "good portion" she had chosen "at His feet"? -- and there did she hear, not only the solemn story of His cross leading her to anoint His body for the burial, but the joyful story of His resurrection, so that there was no need for her to seek "the living amongst the dead;" -- she knew that He was risen, and she, as long before, "sat still in the house"! Oh, blessed calm! Oh, holy peace! What is the secret of it? Wouldst thou learn it! Sit, then, too, "at His feet," in simple conscious emptiness and need. Give Him the still more blessed part of ministering to thee. So all shall be in order. Thou shalt have the good portion that shall dispel all clouds of death, and pour over thy being heaven's pure sunlight of resurrection; and, with that Light, song shall displace groan, whilst thy Lord shall have the still better part -- His own surely -- of giving; for "more blessed it is to give than to receive."