I said in my heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them…
In these words our author reaches the very lowest depth of misery and despair. His observation of the facts of human life leads him to the humiliating conclusion that it is almost hopeless to assign to man a higher nature and a more noble destiny than those which belong to the beasts that perish. The moral inequalities of the world, the injustice that goes unpunished, the hopes by which men are deluded, the uncertainty of life, the doubtfulness of immortality, seem to justify the assertion "that a man hath no pre-eminence over a beast." The special point of comparison on which he dwells is the common mortality of both. Man and beast are possessed of bodies composed of the same elements, nourished by the same food, liable to the same accidents, and destined to return to the kindred dust from which they sprang. Both are ignorant of the period of life assigned to them; a moment before the stroke of death falls on them they may be unconscious that evil is at hand, and when they realize the fact they are equally powerless to avert it. What there is in common between them is manifest to all, while the evidence to be . adduced in favor of the superiority of man is, from its very nature, less convincing. The spiritually minded will attach great weight to arguments against which the natural reason may draw up plausible objections. Let us, then, see the case stated at its very worst, and consider if there are any redeeming circumstances which are calculated to relieve the gloom which a cursory reading of the words calls up.
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,
Or born or entering into men at birth,
Or whether with our frame it perisheth,
Or treads the gloom and regions vast of death." It is to be noted, however, about both the question of the Preacher and the words of the heathen poet, that they do not contain a denial of immortality, but a longing after more knowledge resting on sufficient grounds. Sad and depressing as uncertainty on such a point is to a sensitive mind, a denial of immortality would he infinitely worse; it would mean the death of all hope. The very suggestion of a higher life for man, after "this mortal coil has been shuffled off," than for the beast implies that, far from denying the immortality of the soul, the writer seeks fur adequate ground on which to hold it. Arguments in favor of the doctrine of immortality were not wanting to the Preacher. He has just spoken of the desiderium aeternitatis implanted in the heart of man (ver. 11), which, like the instincts of the lower creation, is given by the Creator for our guidance, and not to tantalize and deceive us. The inequalities anti evils of the present life render a final judgment in a world beyond the grave a moral necessity (Ecclesiastes 12:14). But still these are, after all, but indirect arguments, which have not the weight of positive demonstration. It is only faith that can return any certain reply to his doubting question; its weight, thrown into the balance, inclines it to the hopeful side. And this happy conclusion lie reached at last, as he distinctly affirms in Ecclesiastes 12:7, "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and- the spirit shall return unto God. who gave it." That the Preacher should ever have doubted this great truth, and spoken as though no certainty concerning it were within the reach of man, need not surprise us. In the revelation given to the Jewish people, the doctrine of rewards and punishments in a future state was not set forth. The rewards and punishments for obedience to the Law, and for transgressions against it, were all temporal. Almost nothing was communicated touching the existence of the soul after death. In the passage quoted by Christ in the Gospels, for the confutation of the Sadducees, who denied the resurrection, the doctrine of immortality is implied rather than stated (Matthew 22:23-32). And in a matter so far beyond the power of the human intellect to search out, the absence of a word of revelation rendered the darkness doubly obscure. It is, however, utterly monstrous for any of us now who believe in Christ to ask the question, "Who knoweth the spirit of man, whether it goeth upward?" The revelation given us by him is full of light on this point. "He hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Timothy 1:10). His own resurrection from the dead, and ascension to heaven is the proof of a life beyond the grave, and a pledge to all who believe in him of a future and an everlasting life. It was not wonderful that the Preacher, in the then stage of religious knowledge, should have spoken as he does here; but nothing could justify us, to whom so much fresh light has been given, in using his words, as though we were in the same condition with him.
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.
Parallel VersesKJV: I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.