What profit has he that works in that wherein he labors?…
Autumn is a time which has its meaning, as well as its appropriate duties. Its deep suggestiveness is written upon the sombre grandeur of its sunsets, upon the awful death with which it smites the foliage and blasts the flowers, is borne in upon us by the dreariness and waste it spreads around. Its duty of ingathering, of estimating results, is written upon its harvests and fruition. "The end of all things is at hand," it seems to say; for it is the time of retribution and reward. The day of autumn is an anticipative day of judgment, its clouds foreshadowing heavier clouds, and bidding us prepare to meet that God of whom it is said, "Clouds and darkness are round about Him," etc.
I. THE DISQUIETING QUESTION OF AUTUMN. Yet, after all these useful thoughts, there comes to us, as to Ecclesiastes in ver. 9, the question asked in every great age, by every great mind — the question which meets us continually in the life and thought of the present age: "What is the good? What is the real purpose of things? What do they matter?" That is pre-eminently the question of autumn — late autumn, not of the falling corn, but of the falling leaf. Full as our lives may be of interest and labour, there comes to us from time to time the inevitable question, "What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?" — since we, too, must fade and fall. The suggestion, however, is not merely that of physical death, but of the death of hope, the defeat of honest purpose, the fruitlessness of unselfish effort. To religious people what is still more unsettling is the failure of religious effort. We witness in our time the decay of certain forms of piety. Among the lumber in the long and dusty gallery of some ancestral hall you come upon an old spinet. You take the quills and strike the keys: the sounds that come forth are unfamiliar, distant; the music is dreamlike, weird; the instrument is spirit-haunted; there is something reproachful in the faint melodiousness of the long untouched wires. So it is with the old hymns, the old forms of piety; for it is never given to one age to reproduce the spirit of another in the self-same forms. "I have seen the travail which God hath given to the sons of men to he exercised therewith," says Ecclesiastes musingly. Is it all useless? Political enthusiasm, religious ardour, the strenuous labour of the world's workers, the lofty ideals and high imaginings of the world's great thinkers, — are they swept down the stream of time like rotten leaves?
II. MUSING ON THE ANSWER. That is the question which the ancient Jewish thinker to whom we owe the Book of Ecclesiastes is turning over in his mind. He does not answer it; he muses upon it, and suggests consoling considerations. Yes, indeed I God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in travail, to be
"inured to pain,
To hardship, grief, and loss."But "He hath made everything beautiful in its time: also He hath set the world in their heart." So, with Ecclesiastes, let us rest for a time in this supreme effort of nature to do us pleasure; in the Stoic thought that the world is a Divine system, a cosmos of order and of beauty, and that, according to the ancient faith of Israel, all things were created "very good." Yet we are not quite satisfied. Man is restless among the beauties of the world because his life is larger, deeper than the world's. God "hath made everything beautiful:... also He hath set the world in their heart." What German writers call the Welt-schmerz — the sorrow of the world — is an ever-present burden to those whose hearts are tenderest and whose characters have reached the highest levels. Hence Wordsworth, who so revelled in the beauties of nature, was ever hearing
"Humanity in fields and groves
Pipe solitary anguish."What Thomas Hardy calls "the general grimness of the human situation" has been rather increased than lessened by the discovery of our time, that man has reached his present level by means of a terrible struggle, lasting through countless millenniums, and is what he is as much by virtue of the pains he has endured as by the perseverance and courage with which he has set himself to overcome the difficulties of his life.
III. THE QUESTION OF AUTUMN ANSWERED. Ecclesiastes can help us no further; for his "I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life," probably means little more than "keep up your heart and do your best." Not even St. Paul, not even Christ Himself, answers all our questions; but Christianity does give us the certainty that all is well with those who trust in God and do right, and the last word of wisdom as well as of faith is, "All things work together for good to them that love God."They also serve who only stand and wait.God is with us as He was with our fathers, and our ways of serving Him are as acceptable as theirs, in our hearts are true and our lives pure and earnest. For the changes which pass over society and the Churches are in reality manifestations of the wisdom of God; the touch of His finger gives to them their meaning and beauty; and the devout observer is as much thrilled by their significance and enthralled by their interest as the artistic soul is enraptured by the tints of autumn. Further, Christianity teaches us to look forward, not backward, for the revelation of the real meaning of God's dealings with us. Christ never despaired of humanity, or of His own cause; and why should we?
(W. Burkitt Dalby.)
Parallel VersesKJV: What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?