Ecclesiastes 1:1
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem:
Sermons
The Great DebateJ. M. Gibbon.Ecclesiastes 1:1
The Words of the PreacherJ. Parker, D. D.Ecclesiastes 1:1
The Summary of a Life's ExperienceJ. Willcock Ecclesiastes 1:1-11
Solomon and Job, says Pascal, "had most perfect knowledge of human wretchedness, and have given us the most complete description of it: the one was the most prosperous, the other the most unfortunate, of men; the one knew by experience the vanity of pleasure, the other the reality of sorrow." In such diverse ways does God lead men to the same conclusion - that in human life, apart from him, there is no true satisfaction or lasting happiness, that the immortal spirit cannot find rest in things seen and temporal. The words, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity: what profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun?" (Revised Version), are the key-note of the whole book - the theme which the author maintains by arguments and illustrations drawn from a most varied experience. If Solomon be not the speaker, if we have in Ecclesiastes the composition of a later writer, no more appropriate personage could have been found than the ancient Jewish king to set forth the teaching which the book contains. For he had tasted all the good things human life has to give. On him God had bestowed wisdom and knowledge, riches, wealth, honor, and length of days. All these he had enjoyed to the full, and therefore speaks, or is made to speak, as one from whom nothing had been kept that his soul desired, and who found that nothing results from the mere satisfaction of appetites and desires but satiety and loathing and disappointment. We may contrast with this retrospect of life that given us by One whose aim it was to fulfill the Law of God and secure the well-being of his fellow-men; and we may thus discover the secret of Solomon's failure to win happiness or to reach any lasting result. At the close of his life the Redeemer of mankind summed up the history of his career in the words addressed to God, "I glorified thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which thou hast given me to do" (John 17:4). It may seem to some a dreary task to follow the course of Solomon's morbid thoughts, but it cannot fail to be profitable, if we undertake the task in the earnest desire to discover the causes of his melancholy and disappointment, and learn from the study how to guide our own lives more successfully, and to enter into the peace and contentment of spirit which, after all his efforts, he failed to make his own. In the first eleven verses of this chapter we have revealed to us the despair and weariness which fell upon the soul of him whose splendor and wisdom raised him above all the men of his time, and made him the wonder of all. succeeding ages. Life seemed to him the emptiest and poorest thing possible - "a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." He might have used the words of the modern philosopher Amiel, "To appear and to vanish, - there is the biography of all individuals, whatever may be the length of the cycle of existence which they describe; and the drama of the universe is nothing more. All life is the shadow of a smoke-wreath, a gesture in the empty air, a hieroglyphic traced for an instant in the sand and effaced a moment afterwards by a breath of wind, an air-bubble expanding and vanishing on the surface of the great river of being - an appearance, a vanity, a nothing. But this nothing is, however, the symbol of universal being, and this passing bubble is the epitome of the history of the world." It seemed to him that life yielded no permanent results, that it was insufferably monotonous, and that it was destined to end in utter oblivion. The futility of effort, the monotony of life, and the oblivion that engulfs it at last are the topics of this opening passage of the book. Let us take them up one after the other.

I. THAT LIFE YIELDS NO PERMANENT RESETS. (Vers. 1-3.) We have before us, then, the deliberate judgment of one who had full experience of all that men busy themselves with - "the labor wherein they labor under the sun" - the pursuit of riches, the enjoyment of power, the satisfaction of appetites and desires, and so on, and his conclusion is that there is no profit in it all. And his sentence is confirmed by the words of Christ, "What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" In the case of Solomon, therefore, we have a record of permanent significance and value. We cannot deprive his somber utterances of their weight by saying that he spoke simply as a sated voluptuary, and that others might with more skill or discretion extract from life what he failed to find in it. For, as we shall see, he did not confine himself to mere pursuit of pleasure, but sought satisfaction in intellectual employments and in the accomplishment of great tasks, for which the power and wealth at his disposal were drawn upon to the utmost. His melancholy is not a form of mental disease, but the result of the exhaustion of his energies and powers in the attempt to find satisfaction for the 'soul's cravings. And in melancholy of this kind philosophers have found a proof of the dignity of human nature. "Man's unhappiness," says one of them, "comes of his greatness: it is because there is an infinite in him, which, with all his cunning, he cannot quite bury under the finite He requires, if you consider it, for his permanent satisfaction and saturation, simply this allotment, no more and no less: God's infinite universe altogether to himself, therein to enjoy infinitely, and fill every wish as fast as it rises Try him with half of a universe, of an omnipotence, he sets to quarrelling with the proprietor of the other half, and declares himself the most maltreated of men. Always there is a blackspot in our sunshine; it is even the shadow of ourselves" (Carlyle). The very consciousness of the unprofitableness of life, of failure to attain to perfect satisfaction in the possession of earthly benefits, painful as it is, should convince us of the value of the higher and better inheritance, which may be ours, and in which alone we can find rest; and we should take it as a Divine warning to seek after those things that are eternal and unchangeable. Our dissatisfaction and our sorrows are like those of the exile who pines for the pleasant land from which by a hard fate he is for a time dissevered; like the grief of a king who has been deposed. And it is to those whose hunger and thirst cannot be satisfied by things of earth, who find, like Solomon, that there is "no profit in a man's labor wherein he laboreth under the Sun," that God issues the gracious invitation, "Lo, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labor for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness." The idea of the unprofitableness of human labor expressed by Solomon is calculated, if carried too far, to put an end to all healthy and strenuous effort to use the powers and gifts God has bestowed upon us, and to lead to indifference and despair. If no adequate result can be secured, if all that remains after prolonged exertion is only a sense of weariness and disappointment, why should we labor at all? But such thoughts are dishonoring to God and degrading to ourselves. He has not sent us into the world to spend our labor in vain, to be overcome with the consciousness of our poverty and weakness. There are ways in which we can glorify him and serve our generation; and he has promised to bless our endeavors, and supply that wherein we come short. Every sincere and unselfish effort we make to help the weak, to relieve the suffering, to teach the ignorant, to diminish the misery that meets us on every hand, and to advance the happiness of our fellows, is made fruitful by his blessing. Something positive and of enduring value may be secured in this way, even "treasure laid up in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal? We may so use the goods, the talents, now committed to our charge, as to create for ourselves friends, who will receive us into everlasting habitations when the days of our stewardship are over, and this visible, tangible world fades away from us.

II. The second reflection of the royal Preacher is that HUMAN LIFE IS INSUFFERABLY MONOTONOUS; that under all outward appearances of variety and change there is a dreary sameness (vers. 4-10). Generation succeeds generation, but the stage is the same on which they play their parts, and one performance is very like another. The incessant motion of the sun, traveling from east to west; the shifting of the wind from one point to another, and then back again; the speedy current of the rivers to join the ocean, which yet is not filled by them, but returns them in various ways to water the earth, and to feed the springs, "whence the rivers come;" the commonplace events of human life, are all referred to as examples of endless and monotonous variation. The law of mutability, without progress, seems to the speaker to prevail in heaven and in earth - to rule in the material world, in human society, and in the life of the individual. The lordship over creation, bestowed upon man, appeared to him a vain fancy. Man himself was but a stranger, sojourning here for but a very short time, coming like a wandering bird from the outer darkness into the light and warmth of a festive hall, and soon flitting out back again into the darkness. And, to one in this somber mood, it is not wonderful that all natural phenomena should wear the aspect of instability and change. To the pious mind of the psalmist the sun suggested thoughts of God's glory and power; the majesty of the creature gave him a more exalted idea of the greatness of the Creator, and he expatiated upon the splendor of that light that rules the day. "The heavens were his tabernacle;" morning by morning he was as "a bridegroom coming forth from his chamber, and rejoicing as a strong man to run a race." Our Savior saw in the same phenomenon a proof of God's impartial and bountiful love to the children of men: "He maketh his sun to rise upon the evil and the good." But to the melancholy and brooding mind of our author nothing more was suggested by it than monotonous reiteration, a dreary routine of rising and setting. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose." "He issues forth, clay after day, from the east, mounts up the vault of heaven until he has reached the meridian, and then he descends at once towards the western horizon. He never stops in his course at midday, as though he had attained the end for which he issued forth with the dawn; he never sinks beneath the horizon to enjoy repose. Even throughout the night he is still hastening onward, that, at the appointed hour, he may again reach his eastern starting-place. The wind, great though its changes may be, seems never to have accomplished the purpose for which it puts forth its power. It never subsides into a state of lasting quiescence; it never even finds a station which it can permanently occupy. It, veereth about continually, 'yet it ever bloweth again according to its circuits.' The streams flow onward to the ocean; but the time never comes when the sea, filled to overflowing, refuses to receive their waters. The thirst of the sea is never quenched; the waters of the rivers are lost; and yet, with unavailing constancy, they still pour their contributions into its bosom" (Tyler). And so with regard to all the other things on which the eye rests, or of which the ear hears - weariness clothes everything; an unutterable monotony amid their changes and variations. Human life, too, all through, is characterized by the same unrest and ceaseless, fruitless labor. Sometimes a new discovery seems to be made; the monotony seems to be broken, and fresh and great results are anticipated by those who are ignorant of the world's past history. But the initiated, those whose experience has made them wise, or whose knowledge has made them learned, recognize the new thing as something that was known in times long ago; they can tell how barren it was of results then, how little, therefore, can be expected from it now. There is scarcely anything more discouraging, especially to the young, than this kind of moralizing. We feel, perhaps, that we can carry out some scheme that will be of benefit to the society about us, and are met with lamentable accounts of how similar schemes were once tried and failed disastrously. We feel moved to attack the evils that we meet in the world, and are assured that they are too great and our own strength too puny for us to accomplish anything worth while. And in the mean time our fervor grows cold, our courage oozes away, and we really lose the power for good we might have had. Now, this teaching of Solomon is not meant for the young and hopeful. Indeed, those who collected together the books of the Old Testament were rather doubtful about including Ecclesiastes among the others, and is ran a narrow chance of being omitted from the sacred canon. But it has its place in the Word of God; and those who have known anything of the doubts and speculations contained in it will find it profitable to trace the course of thought that runs through it, until they find the solid and positive teaching which the Preacher at lasts gives. The distressing fact remains, and must be encountered, that to those who have had long experience of the world, and whose horizon is bounded by it, who see only the things that are done "under the sun," in the midst of ever-recurring changes, there seems to be little or no progress, and that which appears to be new is but a repetition of the old. But they should remember that this world is meant as a place of probation for us - a school in which we are to learn great lessons; and that all the changing circumstances of life serve, and are meant to serve, to develop our nature and character. If it were to be our abiding-place, many improvements in it might be suggested. It is not by any means the best of possible worlds; but for purposes of education, discipline, and testing, it is perfectly adapted. "Rest yet remaineth for the people of God;" it is not here, but in a world to come. This truth is admirably stated by the poet Spenser, who perhaps unconsciously reproduces the melancholy thoughts of Solomon, and answers them. He speaks of Mutability seeking to be honored above all the heavenly powers, as being the chief ruler in the universe, and as indeed governing all things. In a synod of the gods, she is silenced by Nature, who combats her claims, and speaks of a time to come when her present apparent power will come to an end-

"But time shall come that all shall changed bee,
And from thenceforth none no more change shall see." And then the poet adds -

"When I bethinke me on that speech whyleare [former]
Of Mutability, and well it way,
Me seemes, that though she all unworthy were
Of the Heav'ns Rule; yet, very sooth to say,
In all things else she bears the greatest sway:
Which makes me loath this state of life so tickle [unsure],
And love of things so vain to cast away;
Whose flow'ring pride, so fading and so fickle,
Short Time shall soon cut down with his consuming sickle.

"Then gin I thinke on that which Nature sayd,
Of that same time when no more Change shall be,
But stedfast rest of all things, firmely stayd
Upon the pillars of Eternity,
That is contrayr to Mutability;
For all that moveth doth in Change delight:
But thence-forth all shall rest eternally
With him that is the God of Sabbaoth hight:
O I that great Sabbaoth God, grant me that Sabbaoth's sight!"

III. LIFE DESTINED TO END IN UTTER OBLIVION. To all these considerations of the resultlessness of life, of changefulness and monotony, is added that of the oblivion that sooner or later overtakes man and all his works (ver. 11). "There is no remembrance of the former generations; neither shall there be any remembrance of the latter generations that are to come, among those that shall come after" (Revised Version). One generation supersedes another; the new come up with fresh interests and schemes of their own, and hustle the old off the stage, and are themselves in their turn forced to give place to those who come up after them. Nations disappear from the earth's surface and are forgotten. The memorials of former civilizations lie buried in the sand, or are defaced and destroyed to make room for something else. On every page of creation we find the sentence written, that there is nothing here that lasts. Almost no means can be devised to carry down to succeeding generations even the names of the greatest conquerors, of men who in their time seemed to have the strength of gods, and to have changed the history of the world. The earth has many secrets in her keeping, and is sometimes forced to yield up a few of them. "The ploughshare strikes against the foundations of buildings which once echoed to human mirth, skeletons of men to whom life once was dear; urns and coins that remind the antiquary of a magnificent empire now long passed away." And so the process goes on. Everything passes. A few years ago and we were not; a hundred years hence, and there may be none who ever heard our names. And a day will come when

"The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And... leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep." Abundant material, then, had the Preacher, the son of David, for somber meditation; abundant material for contemplation does he suggest to us. And if we cannot get much further on in speculation than he did, if since his time very little new light has been cast upon the problems which he discusses, we may still refuse to be depressed by melancholy like his. Granted that all is vanity, that restlessness and monotony mark everything in the world, and that its glories soon pass away and are forgotten; still it is not our home. It may dissolve and leave us no poorer. The tie that binds together soul and body may be loosened, and the place that knows us now may soon know us no more. Our confidence is in him, who has promised to take us to himself, that where he is we may be also. "God is our Refuge and Strength... therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed." In contrast with the Preacher's desponding, despairing words about the fruitlessness of life, its monotony and its brevity, we may set the hopeful, triumphant utterance of Christ's apostle: "The time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." - J.W.







The words of the Preacher.
This book has been called the sphinx of the Bible, a not unapt name, for the book is grave, majestic, mysterious. Whatever its meaning be, it contradicts itself in the most flagrant way, looked at from every standpoint bug one. The book is clearly the record of a debate either between two men — one of them smitten with unbelief and despair, the other filled with conviction and hope; or more probably between two men in some one man — two parts of the same soul. In this great debate three things are discussed.

I. THE VANITY OF HUMAN WISHES. The first speaker, in order that he may illustrate this to the full, takes "Solomon in all his glory" as a chief instance. "Vanity of vanities, saith the debater; all is vanity!" What are the sources that feed this pessimism? The speaker tells us —

1. His experience of life. He was king in Jerusalem, and he resolved to give life a fair trial, to see what it was good for the sons of men to do under the heavens all the days of their life.(1) First he tried wisdom. He set himself to seek and to find the truth that lies at the heart of things — to read the riddle of the world and discover the meaning of God. He studied men and women, all sorts and conditions of men, yet he found nothing.(2) Foiled in that direction he went to the other extreme. He said in his heart, "Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure." A truce to thought! Shut out the mystery, forget all the problems of the world, let us eat and drink and be merry! But alas! he found that somehow he was spoilt for a life of brutal sensualism. He soon sickened of it. "This also was vanity."(3) Next he tried a combination of wisdom and plea-sure — a scholarly, philosophic, refined voluptuousness. He called in the aid of the various arts, architecture, painting, music, horticulture. He gratified every desire, yet wisely, daintily, carefully avoiding all the vulgarities and grossness that breed loathing and disgust. Yet it was all in vain.

2. But perhaps, we say, your experience was exceptionally unhappy, No, he answers, I have looked over the whole of life and find it everywhere the same. There is, for instance, he goes on, a season, a marked fixed time for everything and to every purpose under the heavens, and he enumerates some twenty-eight of these seasons, and the activities for which they are propitious. Looked at from one point of view it is very beautiful, no doubt, but under such a fatalism, in a world where everything is arranged beforehand, what room is there for man to will or act? Fate! Fate! everywhere fate and vanity.

3. Or come again, says this terrible Debater; we may differ as to philosophy, but let us look at the facts of everyday life! In Nature I see a terrible grim order, I see forces that go on their way full of silent contempt for man and his schemes and dreams. I hear a voice that says to him, "Don't fuss and fret, little sir! eat and drink and die — for you can do nothing else." In the world of human nature, on the contrary, I see disorder of a very terrible kind. Here men find thorns on vines and thistles on fig-trees. As I looked I said to myself, he continues (Ecclesiastes 3:16): God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time there — that is in the eternal world, for every purpose and for every work. But alas! is there such a place as there? Who knows? Looking then, he says, at the oppression that men endure under the sun, and seeing no hope of any comfort, seeing no prospect of deliverance anywhere, I praised the dead, they who are out of it all — after life's fever they sleep well — more than the living; yea, better than both did I esteem him who hath not yet lived at all.

4. But surely, some one will say, this man generalizes too much. He paints with too black a brush. All are not oppressed and do not fail. There is such a thing as prosperity in the world, but this dyspeptic debater never seems to have heard of it. Yes, he has heard of it, and taken the measure of it too, and if one thing more than another serves to bring out the littleness and the vanity of his life it is, in his mind, that which men call its prosperity. Let us look, he says, at the successful man. Idleness is of course folly, but is not success also embittered by hatred and envy? Does it not separate a man from his fellows? He gains something, but does he gain anything so good as what he loses — brotherhood and love? Look again at the isolation of the man who loves money. "He hath neither son nor brother, yet there is no end to his labours, neither are his eyes satisfied with riches." There he is alone with his money! Nothing in all the world is so precious, so essential to man as the love and confidence of another man. Success without comradeship is a poor thing — it is vanity; there is nothing in it, and the richest miser is literally miserable for want of that which he might have had for the asking — love. Look for the last time, he says, at the strange vicissitudes that befall even the highest of men. A king on the throne has many flatterers, but no friend. Plots are hatched, disaffection grows to a head, and he is deposed. His young kinsman whom he in his jealousy has kept in prison, is brought out with tumult of applause. All follow the new king! Yes, says this terrible pessimist, but only for a while. They will tire of him also, — "They that come after shall not rejoice in him." He too will be deposed in favour of some other popular idol of the moment. Surely all is vanity and a striving after wind. So far the spokesman of despair.

II. But now in the fifth chapter another speaker — either without or within the man — takes up his parable and champions THE CAUSE OF FAITH AND HOPE. He does not, cannot indeed, solve all the difficulties, or meet all the objections that the other has propounded. Rather he gives utterance to the calm precepts of old experience; he re-affirms with conviction what the good have said in every age. Granting that life is full of mystery and has much that is sad in it, he lays emphasis on the clearness and the urgency of duty. In doing right alone each man shall find refuge from despair; he shall find God and be able to take refuge in God from all the pursuing, harassing mysteries of God's government.

1. "Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God." It may be the temple, or it may be the little rustic synagogue, but it is ever Beth-el, the house of God. Go to it reverently, prayerfully, expectantly, dutifully.

2. Again, study to be quiet. Until God vouchsafe thee a revelation, be thou patient and obedient, for to draw nigh to hear (that is to hear His orders — to obey) is better than to offer the sacrifice.

3. Finally, be sober-minded. Try to see life steadily, and see it whole. One swallow does not make a summer, nor one dead leaf a winter; nor do acts of oppression prove that the whole of human society is rotten. No doubt bad men exist and bad things are done. It is hard to catch a rogue — especially if he be a big rogue, but everywhere there is some sort of government, an organized justice, one official above another right up to the highest, and the highest of all on earth exists for the sake of protecting the lowest. "The king is servant to the field." No doubt it is often very imperfectly administered, nevertheless law exists on earth, and in the main justice is done; and all earthly law and earthly justice are but dim troubled reflections of an eternal heavenly law and a divine justice that rule over all things, and by which in time every oppressed one will be righted, and every oppressor receive his reward.

(J. M. Gibbon.)

It is not often in the Bible that we are challenged to hear the words of a great man, viewed from an earthly standpoint. He is represented as "king in Jerusalem" — a man of the highest social position. We cannot but wonder what he will say, seeing that he has only seen the upper side of life, and can have known nothing of what the poor understand by want, homelessness, and all the degradation of penury and an outcast condition. "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity" (ver. 2). "Vanity," — a light wind, a puff, a breath that passes away instantly. Here we have a judgment in brief. We long to enter into some detail, if not of argument yet of illustration, especially as this is one of the short sentences which a man might speak hastefully rather than critically and experimentally. We must ask the Preacher, therefore, to go somewhat into detail, that we may see upon what premises he has constructed so large a conclusion. He says that life is unprofitable in the sense of being unsatisfying. It comes to nothing. The eye and the ear want more and more. The eye takes in the whole sky at once, and could take in another and another hour by hour, — at least so it seems; and the ear is like an open highway, — all voices pass, no music lingers so as to exclude, the next appeal. In addition to all this, whatever we have in the hand melts. Gold and silver dissolve, and nought of our proud wealth remains. Much wants more, and more brings with it care and pain; so the wheel swings endlessly, always going to bring something next time, but never bringing it. Coheleth says that there is no continuance in life: "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh." You no sooner know a man than he dies. You make your election in the human crowd, saying, My heart shall rest here; and whilst the flush of joy is on your cheek, the loved one is caught away, like the dew of the morning. People enough, and more than enough, — crowds, throngs, whole generations, passing on as shadows pass, until death is greater than life upon the earth. Coheleth says that even nature itself became monotonous through its always being the same thing in the same way, as if incapable of originality and enterprise. The wind was veering, veering, veering, — spending itself in running round and round, but never getting beyond a small circuit; if it was not in the north it was in the south, or wherever it was it could be found in a moment, for it "whirleth about continually." So with the rivers. They could make no impression upon the sea: they galloped, and surged, and foamed, being swollen by a thousand streams from the hills; and yet the sea swallowed them up in its thirst, and waited for them day by day, with room enough and to spare for all their waters. The eye, the ear, the sea, there was no possibility of satisfying,-prodigals and spendthrifts f And the sun was only a repetition, rising and going down evermore. Coheleth further says that there is no real variety in life. "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be," etc. Man longs for variety, and cannot secure it. The same things are done over and over again. Changes are merely accidental, not organic. All things are getting to be regarded as stale and slow. New colours are only new mixtures. New fashions are only old ones modified. In short, there is nothing new under the sun. "Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us." New things are promised in the apocalyptic day. (Revelation 21:1). It will be found in the long run that the only possible newness is m character, in the motive of life and its supreme purpose (2 Corinthians 5:17).

(J. Parker, D. D.)

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