Rejoice, O young man, in your youth; and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth, and walk in the ways of your heart…
The greater part of the Book of Ecclesiastes is of a somber character. It records the experiences of one who sought on all sides and with passionate eagerness for that which would satisfy the higher wants of his nature - the hunger and thirst of the soul - but who sought in vain. Ordinary coarse, sensual pleasures soon lost their charm for him; for he deliberately tried - a dangerous experiment to see if in self-indulgence any real satisfaction could be found. From this failure he turned to a more promising quarter. He sought in "culture," the pursuit of beauty and magnificence in art, the pathway to the highest good, on the discovery of which his soul was set. He used his great wealth to procure all that could minister to a refined taste. He built palaces, planted vineyards and gardens and orchards; he filled his palaces with all that was beautiful and costly, and cultivated every pleasure which is within the reach of man. "Whatsoever mine eyes desired," he says, "I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on all the labor that I had labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun." From this he turned to the joys and employments of an intellectual life - acquired knowledge and wisdom, studied the works of nature, analyzed human character in all its phases, and applied himself to the solution of all those great problems connected with the moral government of the world and the destiny of the soul of man. Here he was baffled. The discoveries he made were he found, useless for curing any of the evils of life, and at every point he met with mysteries which he could not solve, and his sense of failure and defeat convinced him that though "wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness," it does not satisfy the soul. "What, then, is the result of his inquiries, of his pain and labor in searching after the highest good? Do his withering speculations leave anything untouched which may reasonably be the object of our pursuit, and which may afford us the satisfaction for which he sought in vain in so many quarters? Does he decide that life is, after all, worth living, or is his conclusion that it is not? In the closing sections of his book some answer is given to these questions; something positive comes as a pleasing relief from all the negations with which he had shut up one after another of the paths by which men had sought and still seek to attain to lasting happiness. Two conclusions might have been drawn from the experience through which he had passed. "Since the employments and enjoyments of life are insufficient to give satisfaction to the soul's craving, why engage in them, why not turn away from them in contempt, and fix the thoughts solely on a life to come?" an ascetic might ask. "Since life is so transitory, pleasure so fleeting, why not seize upon every pleasure, and banish every care as far as possible?" an Epicurean might ask. "Let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we die." Neither of these courses finds any favor in the mature judgment of Solomon, or of the writer who draws his teaching from the experience of the Jewish king. "Rejoice," he says, rebuking the ascetic; "know thou that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment," he adds, for the confusion of the Epicurean. He speaks with the authority of one who had fully considered the problems of life, and with the solemnity of one whose earthly career was hastening to its close; and he addresses himself to the young, as more likely to profit by his experience than those over whom habits of life and thought have more power. But of course all, both young and old, men and women, can learn from him if they will, according to the gospel precept, "become as little children," and listen with reverence and simplicity. The counsel which the Preacher has to give is bold and startling. "Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment." What does he mean? Are his words ironical, or spoken in sober earnest? A very long time ago they caused some perplexity to translators and commentators. In the earliest translation of this book into another language, that into Greek, this passage was considerably modified and toned down. The translator put in the word "blameless" after "walk," and the word "not" into the next part of the sentence. "Walk blameless in the ways of thine heart, and not after the sight of thine eyes." But any such tampering with the text was not only profane, but also senseless, for it simply destroyed the whole meaning of the passage. But granting that we have in our English a fair reproduction of the original, can there be any mistake about the interpretation of it? Is it possible that it may mean, "Rejoice if you will, follow your desires, have your fling, go forth on the voyage of life, ' youth at the prow, and pleasure at the helm,' but know that the end of it all are the penal flames"? Some have thought that that is the meaning of the words. But a little consideration of them, and comparison of them with other passages in the book, will show us that it cannot be. Our author on several occasions, after showing us the vanity of earthly pursuits, falls back on the fact that there are many alleviations of our lot in life, which it is true wisdom to make use of - many flowers of pleasure on the side of the hard road which one may innocently pluck. Thus he says (Ecclesiastes 2:24), "There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw that it was from the hand of God." And again (Ecclesiastes 9:7), "Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of thy vanity... for that is thy portion in this life." And the same lesson he repeats there, but in a tone of deeper solemnity, balancing and steadying the inclination to pleasure, which in few of us needs to be stimulated, with the thought that for every one of our actions we shall have to give an account at the judgment-seat of God. Surely this thought is a sufficient corrective to the abuse of the teaching which a perverse mind might make, and a proof that the enjoyments spoken of are such as do not degrade the soul. A gloomy asceticism which would unlawfully diminish human happiness is forbidden; a thankful acceptance of all the blessings God gives us, and a constant remembrance of our responsibility to him, is commended to us. With all the repugnance of a healthy mind, our author recoils from that narrow and self-righteous fanaticism which has done so much to deepen the gloom of life, and to turn religion into an oppressive yoke. He does not, however, go to the other extreme; but while he bids the young to enjoy the morning of life, he at the same time admonishes them in all things to have the fear of God before their eyes. Youth and manhood are vanity; their joys are fleeting, and will soon be past. Must we, therefore, neglect them, and indulge in equally vain and fleeting regrets? No; but rather put away all morose repining, and spare ourselves all unnecessary pain, and cultivate a cheerful contentedness with our lot. If the morning will soon be past, let us enjoy its light while it lasts, mindful of him who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift. The thought of him will not dull any innocent happiness, for he has made us capable of joy, and given us occasions of experiencing it. That no fears need be felt about the application of this teaching to actual life is abundantly proved by the words that follow, in the solemn and stately passage with which the twelfth chapter opens. The idea all through is that piety should be bound up with the whole life - with the buoyancy and gaiety of youth, as well as with the decaying hopes and failing strength of age. That religion is not merely a consolation to which we may betake when all other things fail, but all through the food by which the soul is nourished. The fact is put very strongly. If in youth God is not remembered, it will be difficult in age, when the faculties begin to lose their vigor, to think of him for the first time, and consecrate one's self to him. The mere accumulation of the weaknesses, both physical and mental, which attend the close of life will absorb the attention and Crowd out other thoughts. "Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them." And then he goes on to draw a picture, full of pathos sad solemnity, of the gradual dissolution of human life with the advance of age, of the decay and death into which the strongest fall, even if they endure for many years. One cannot make out all the successive images with equal clearness, but the evident purpose of the whole passage is clear enough. In the evil days the light of the sun, moon, and stars is darkened, and the sky is time after time overcast with returning clouds. The light of youth has fled, and with it the self-confidence and strength by which the life was sustained. Like some household in Egypt when the plague of darkness came down upon it and put an end to all tasks and pleasures, and filled every heart with a paralyzing terror, so is the state of man "perplexed with fear of change." "The keepers of the house tremble, the strong men bow themselves, the terrified servants cease their labor, none look out of the windows, the street doors are shut, the sound of human bustle and activity dies away, the shrill cry of the storm-bird is heard without, and all the daughters of music are hushed and silent." And then, in language still more enigmatical, other of the humiliating characteristics of old age are set forth - its timidity and irresolution, the blanched hair, the failing appetite. These signs accumulate rapidly; for man goes to his long, his eternal home, and the procession of mourners is already moving along the street. "Remember," he says, "thy Creator ere the day of death; ere the silver cord be loosened which lets fall and shivers the golden bowl that feeds with oil the flame of life; ere the pitcher be shattered by the spring, and the fountain of life can no longer be replenished; ere the wheel set up with care to draw up from the depths of earth the cool waters give way and fall itself into the well. Therefore remember thy God, and prepare while here to meet him, before that the dust shall return upon the earth dust as it was; for the spirit shall then return to God who gave it." "It was a gift from him, that spirit. To him it will return. More he says not. Its absorption, the re-entering, of the human unit into the eternal and unknown Spirit, would be a thought, it would seem, alien to a Hebrew. But we must not press his words too far. As just now he spoke of a judgment, but gave us no picture of the sheep on the right hand and the goats on the left, so here he has no more to say, no clear and dogmatic assertion of a conscious and separate future life. 'Into thy hands I commend my spirit,' said the trustful psalmist. 'Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,' said he who bowed his head upon the cross, who tasted death for our sakes. Our Preacher leaves the spirit with its God - that is all, and that is much. 'God will call us to judgment,' he has said, and now he adds, 'The body molders, the split passes back to the God who gave it' (Bradley). Many are the reasons which might be adduced to give weight to the admonition, "Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth. The uncertainty of life, e.g., renders it unwise in any who begin to realize their responsibilities, and to act for themselves, to postpone self-consecration to God. If not done now, when the affections are fresh, when habits are beginning to form, there is risk of its not being done at all. Certainly it is more difficult to make a change, and to enter upon the higher life when the heart is taken up with a love of other things, when the attention and interest are absorbed in other cares. Then, too, love of our Creator and service of him are due from us in the best of our days, in the time of our strength and energy, and not merely when we are weary and worn out with following our own devices, and are anxious merely to escape utter ruin and overthrow. True it is that the repentant prodigal is welcomed when he returns to his Father's house; the worker beginning even at the eleventh hour receives his wages as though he had been the whole day in the vineyard. But their sense of gratitude, Wonder, and awe at the love which has overlooked their faults and shortcomings is the source of a joy far inferior to that of those who have never wandered, who have served faithfully with all the strength and all the day, upon whom the sunshine of God's favor has ever rested. Another and final reason why it is wise to remember our Creator in the days of youth is that this is the secret of a happy life. The happiness which is disturbed by remembrance of God is not worth the name. That alone gives satisfaction - the satisfaction after which the Preacher sought so long and in so many quarters - which springs from communion with God. It alone is intense, it alone is lasting. Arising as it does from the relations of the spirit of man with him who created it, it is raised above all the accidents of time and change. The sooner, therefore, that we begin this life of holy communion and service, the longer period of happiness Shall we know, the surer will be our ground of confidence for the future, when the day comes for leaving the world. "Over against the melancholy circumstances of decay and decline, as the end of life draws on, will be set the bright memories of the past, the consciousness of present help, and the hope of a joyous immortality. Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!' was the sentence of one whose wisdom sprang only from his experience of an earthly life, and upon whose mind the burden lay of human sorrows and cares. But "a greater than Solomon," One whose wisdom is Divine, whose power to remove every burden is daily seen, has an infinitely more hopeful message for us. "Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.... I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also." - J.W.
Parallel VersesKJV: Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.
WEB: Rejoice, young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth, and walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.