I. IN LIFE THERE IS MYSTERY TO SOLVE. The works and the ways of God are too great for our feeble, finite nature to comprehend. We may learn much, and yet may leave much unlearned and probably unlearnable, at all events in the conditions of this present state of being.
1. There are speculative difficulties regarding the order and constitution of things, which the thoughtful man cannot avoid inquiring into, which yet often baffle and sometimes distress him. "Man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end."
2. There are practical difficulties which every man has to encounter in the conduct of life, fraught as it is with disappointment and sorrow. "What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboreth?"
II. IN LIFE THERE IS BEAUTY TO ADMIRE. The mind that is not absorbed in providing for material wants can scarcely fail to be open to the adaptations and the manifold charms of nature. The language of creation is as harmonious music, which is soothing or inspiring to the ear of the soul. What a revelation is here of the very nature and benevolent purposes of the Almighty Maker! "He hath made everything beautiful in its time." And beauty needs the aesthetic faculty in order to its appreciation and enjoyment. The development of this faculty in advanced states of civilization is familiar to every student of human nature. Standards of beauty vary; but the true standard is that which is offered by the works of God, who "hath made everything beautiful in its time." There is a beauty special to every season of the year, to every hour of the day, to every state of the atmosphere; there is a beauty in every several kind of landscape, a beauty of the sea, a beauty of the heavens; there is a beauty of childhood, another beauty of youth, of healthful manhood and radiant womanhood, and even a certain beauty peculiar to age. The pious observer of the works of God, who rids himself of conventional and traditional prejudices, will not fail to recognize the justice of this remarkable assertion of the Hebrew sage.
III. IN LIFE THERE IS WORK TO DO. Labor and travail are very frequently mentioned in this book, whose author was evidently deeply impressed by the corresponding facts - first, that God is the almighty Worker in the universe; and, secondly, that man is made by the Creator like unto himself, in that he is called upon by his nature and his circumstances to effort and to toil. Forms of labor vary, and the progress of applied science in our own time seems to relieve the toiler of some of the severer, more exhausting kinds of bodily effort. But it must ever remain true that the human frame was not intended for indolence; that work is a condition of welfare, a means of moral discipline and development. It is a factor that cannot be left out of human life; the Christian is bound, like his Master, to finish the work which the Father has given him to do.
IV. IN LIFE THERE IS GOOD TO PARTICIPATE, There is no asceticism in the teaching of this Book of Ecclesiastes. The writer was one who had no doubt that man was constituted to enjoy. He speaks of eating and drinking as not merely necessary in order to maintain life, but as affording gratification. He dwells appreciatingly upon the happiness of married life. He even commends mirth and festivity. In all these he shows himself superior to the pettiness which carps at the pleasures connected with this earthly existence, and which tries to pass for sanctity. Of course, there are lawful and unlawful gratifications; there is a measure of indulgence which ought not to be exceeded. But if Divine intention is traceable in the constitution and condition of man, he was made to partake with gratitude of the bounties of God's providence.
V. ALL THE PROVISIONS WHICH DIVINE WISDOM ATTACHES TO HUMAN LIFE ARE TO BE ACCEPTED WITH GRATITUDE AND USED WITH FAITHFULNESS, AND WITH A CONSTANT SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY. In receiving and enjoying every gift, the devout mind will exclaim, "It is the gift of God." In taking advantage of every opportunity, the Christian will bear in mind that wisdom and goodness arrange human life so that it shall afford repeated occasion for fidelity and diligence. In his daily work he will make it his aim to "serve the Lord Christ."
1. There is much in the provisions and conditions of our earthly life which baffles our endeavors to understand it; and when perplexed by mystery, we-are summoned to submit with all humility and patience to the limitations of our intellect, and to rest assured that God's wisdom will, in the end, be made apparent to all.
2. There is a practical life to be lived, even when speculative difficulties are insurmountable; and it is in the conscientious fulfillment of daily duty, and the moderate use of ordinary enjoyments, that as Christians we may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. - T.
What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?
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.)
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