One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth stays for ever.…
(with 1 John 2:17): — The antithesis is not really so complete as it sounds at first hearing, because what the Preacher means by "the earth" that "abideth for ever" is not quite the same as what the apostle means by the "world" that "passes," and the "generations" that come and go are not the same exactly as the men that "abide for ever," But still the antithesis is real and impressive. The bitter melancholy of the Preacher saw but the surface; the joyous faith of the apostle went a great deal deeper, and putting the two sets of thoughts and ways of looking at man and his dwelling-place together, we get lessons that may well shape our individual lives.
I. THE SAD AND SUPERFICIAL TEACHING OF THE PREACHER. The Preacher says "All is vanity." That conviction had been set vibrating in his heart, as it is set vibrating in the heart of every man who does as he did, viz. seeks for" solid good away from God. That is his starting-point. It is not true. All is not vanity, except to some blase cynic, made cynical by the failure of his voluptuousness, and to whom all things here are out of joint, and everything looks yellow because his own biliary system is out of order. He looks out upon humanity, and sees that in one aspect the world is full of births, and in another full of deaths. Coffins and cradles seem the main furniture, and he hears the tramp! tramp! tramp! of the generations passing over a soil honeycombed with tombs, and, therefore, ringing hollow to their tread. All depends on the point of view. This strange history of humanity is like a piece of sheer silk: hold it at one angle, and you see the dark purple; hold at another, and you see the bright golden tints. Look from one point of view, and it seems a long history of vanishing generations. Look to the rear of the procession, and it seems a buoyant spectacle of eager young faces pressing forwards on the march, and of strong feet treading the new road. But yet the total effect of that endless procession is to impress on the observer the transiency of humanity. Man is the lord of earth, and can mould it to his purpose, but it remains and he passes. He is but a lodger in an old house that has had generations of tenants, each of whom has said for a while, "It is mine," and then they all have drifted away, and the house stands. "One generation cometh and another goeth," and the tragedy is made more tragical because the stage stands unaltered, and the earth abides for ever. That is what sense has to say "the foolish senses" — and that is all that sense has to say. Is it all that can be said? If it is, then the Preacher's bitter conclusion is true, and "all is vanity," and chasing after wind. He immediately proceeds to draw from this undeniable, but, as I maintain, partial fact, the broad conclusion which cannot be rebutted, if you accept what he has said in my text as being the sufficient and complete account of man and his dwelling-place. There is immense activity, and there is no progress; it is all rotatory motion round and round and round, and the same objects come round duly and punctually, as the wheel revolves, and life is futile. Yes; so it is unless there is something more to be said. If all that you have to say of him is, "dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return," then life is futile, and God is not vindicated for having produced it. And there is another consequence that follows, if this is all that we have got to say. If the cynical wisdom of Ecclesiastes is the ultimate word, then I do not assert that you destroy morality, because right and wrong are not dependent either upon the belief in a God or the belief in immortality. But I do say that to declare that the fleeting, transient life of earth is all is to strike a staggering blow at all noble ethics. The man whose creed is only "to-morrow we die" will very speedily draw the conclusion "let us eat and drink," and sensuous delights and the lower side of his nature will become dominant. There is more to be said; the sad, superficial teaching of the Preacher needs to be supplemented.
II. THE JOYOUS AND PROFOUNDER TEACHING OF THE APOSTLE. The cynic never sees the depths; that is reserved for the mystical eye of the lover, so John says: "No, no; that is not all. Here is the true state of affairs: 'The world passeth away, and the lust thereof, but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever." And what of the man whose life has been devoted to the things seen and temporal, when he finds himself in a condition of being where none of these have accompanied him? Nothing to slake his lusts, if he be a sensualist! No money-bags, ledgers, or cheque-books, if he be a plutocrat or a capitalist or a miser! No books or dictionaries if he be a mere student. Nothing of his vocations if he lived for "the world"! And yet the appetite is abiding; will that not be a thirst that cannot be slaked? The world is passing, and the lust thereof, and all that is antagonism to God, or separated from Him, is essentially as "a vapour that appeareth for a little time, and then vanishes away," whereas the man who does the will of God abideth for ever in that he is steadfast in the midst of change. He shall "abide for ever," in the sense that his work is perpetual. In one very deep and solemn sense, nothing human ever dies, but in another all that is not running in the same direction as, and borne along by the impulse of, the will of God, is destined to be neutralized and brought to nothing at last. There may be a row of figures as long as to reach from here to the fixed stars, but if there is not in front of them the significant digit, which comes from obedience to the will of God, all is but a string of cyphers, and their net result is nothing. And he "abideth for ever," in the most blessed and profound sense in that through his faith, which has kindled his love, and his love which has set in motion his practical obedience, he becomes participant of the very "eternity of the living God." This is "eternal life," not merely "to know," but to do the will of our Father. Nothing else will last, and nothing else will prosper any more than a bit of drift-wood can stem Niagara. Unite yourself with the will of God, and you abide.
III. THE PLAIN PRACTICAL LESSONS THAT COME FROM BOTH THESE TEXTS. May I say, without seeming to be morbid or unpractical, one lesson is that we should cultivate a sense of the transiency of this outward life? One of our old authors says some. where, that it is wholesome to smell at a piece of turf from a churchyard. The remembrance of death present in our lives will often lay a cool hand upon a throbbing brow; and, like a bit of ice used by a skilful physician, will bring down the temperature, and stay the too tumultuous beating of the heart. Let me say again, a very plain, practical lesson is to dig deep down for our foundations below the rubbish that has accumulated. If a man wishes to build a house in Rome or in Jerusalem he has to go fifty or sixty feet down, through potsherds and broken tiles and triturated marbles, and the dust of ancient palaces and temples. We have to drive a shaft clear down through all the superficial strata, and to lay the first stones on the Rock of Ages. Do not build on that which quivers and shakes beneath you. Build on God. And the last lesson is, let us see to it that our wills are in harmony with His, and the work of our hands His work. We can do that will in all the secularities of our daily life. The difference between the work that shrivels up and disappears and the work that abides is not so much in its external character or in the materials on which it is expended, as in the motive from which it comes.
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.