Proverbs 3:13-18; Proverbs 4:13; Proverbs 8:32-36; John 6:63; John 17:3; 2 Corinthians 3:6). - J.W.
Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these?
1. "I am not so happy as I once was," is a lament from Christian lips with which we are almost distressingly familiar. We look back to our conversion, to the glittering joy which welled up in our soul in those days, and the memory moves us to tears. Then "all things were apparelled in celestial light, the glory and the freshness of a dream." Then we turn to consider the present phases of our experience, and conclude sadly that we are not so happy now as then — all the gold has changed to grey. Now, is this really so? We fully allow that it may be so. Through unfaithfulness we may have lost the joy and power of the days when first we knew the Lord. But may not the mournful inference be mistaken, and what we regard as a diminished happiness be really a profounder blessedness? The essence of religion is submission to the will of God, and that grave tranquillity of mind which follows upon deeper self-renunciation, the chastened cheerfulness which survives the strain and strife of years, is a real, although not perhaps seeming, gain upon the first sparkling experiences of our devout life.
2. "I am not so holy as I once was," is another note of self-depreciation with which we are unhappily familiar, and with which, perhaps, we are sometimes disposed to sympathize. When we first realized forgiveness, we felt that there was "no condemnation" if the Spirit of God seemed to hallow our whole nature; our heart was cleansed, and strangely glowed. But it is not so now. We have not done all we meant to do, not been all we meant to be, and have a consciousness of imperfection more vivid than ever. With the lapse of years we have grown more dissatisfied with ourselves; and this more acute sense of worldliness leads us to the conclusion that we have lest the rarer purity of other days. Once more we admit that this may be the case. There may be a very real depreciation in our life; we may have allowed our raiment to be soiled by the world and the flesh. But may not this growing sense of imperfection be a sign of the perfecting of our spirit? It may be that we are not less pure than formerly, only the Spirit of God has been opening our eyes, heightening our sensibility, and faults once latent are now discovered; the clearer vision detects deformities, the finer ear discords, the pure taste admixtures which were once unsuspected. It is possible to be growing in moral strength and grace, in everything that constitutes perfection of character and life, when appearances are decidedly to the contrary. Watch the sculptor and note how many of his strokes seem to mar the image on which he works, rendering the marble more unshapely than it seemed the moment before, and yet in the end a glorious statue rises under his hand; so the blows of God, bringing us into glorious grace, often seem as if they were marring what little symmetry belonged to us, often as if knocking us out of shape altogether.
3. "I do not love God as I once did," is another sorrowful confession of the soul. How glowing was that first level Your whole soul went out after the Beloved! But it is not so now. The temperature of your soul seems to have fallen, your love to your God and Saviour does not glow as in those memorable hours when first it was kindled "by the spirit of burning." Once again, it may be so. The Church at Ephesus had "left" its "first love," and we may not cherish the same fervid affection for God which once filled and purified our heart. But may we not misconceive the love we bear to God? Our more dispassionate affection may be equally genuine and positively stronger. Our love to God may not be so gushing, so florid in expression as it once was, but in this it only bears the sober hue of all ripened things.(1) The test of love is sacrifice. We love those for whose sake we are prepared to suffer. Will our love to God to-day bear this test? Would we for His sake endure hardship, death? Many sorrowing souls know they are ready to die for Him whom they cannot love as they feel He ought to be loved.(2) The test of love is obedience. We love those to. whom we pay ungrudging service. "If ye keep My commandments, ye shall abide in My love; even as I have kept My Father's commandments, and abide in His love Ye are My friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you." Here, once more, are we sure of ourselves? We "have not wickedly departed from" our God. Is it not the supreme purpose of our heart to bring life into entire harmony with the will of God?(3) The test of love is confidence. We love those whom we trust. Do we not feel, then, that God has our confidence so thoroughly that even if He "slay" us, yet will we trust in Him? "Red-hot religion" has its place and value, but white-hot religion, the silent, intense force which acts without sparks, smoke or noise, is a diviner thing. Is it thus with our love to God? Has that passion simply changed from red to white? Has the sentiment become a principle, the ecstasy a habit, the passion a law? If so, the former days were not better than these.
4. "I do not make the rapid progress I once did," is another familiar regret. Once we had the pleasing sense of swift and perpetual progress. Each day we went from strength to strength, each night knew our "moving tent a day's march nearer home." But we have not that sense of progress now, and this fact is to us, perhaps, a great grief. Our grief may be well founded; for those who "did run well" are sometimes "hindered" and fall into slowest pace. Yet impatience with our rate of progress is capable of another construction. Our first experiences of the Christian life are in such direct and striking contradistinction to the earthly life that our sense of progress is most vivid and delightful; but as we climb heaven, get nearer God, traverse the infinite depths of love and righteousness sown with all the stars of light, the sense of progress may well be less definite than when we had just left the world behind. And in considering our rate of progress, we must not forget that the sense of progress is regulated by the desire for progress.
(W. L. Watkinson.)
1. And first, it ought to be carefully observed in regard of human nature that it did not grow corrupt by degrees, but became all at once as bad as it was ever to be. The being who had been formed in the very image of his Maker became instantly capable of the most heinous of crimes; and so far was human nature from requiring long familiarity with wickedness, in order to the learning to commit it in its most atrocious shapes, that well nigh its first essay after apostatizing from God was one which still fills us with horror, notwithstanding our daily acquaintance with a thousand foul deeds. Sin was never an infant; it was a giant in the very birth; and forasmuch as we should have had precisely the same evil nature whensoever we had lived, it would be very hard to show that any former period would have been better for us than the present. You may fix on a time when there was apparently less of open wickedness, but this would not necessarily have been a better time for individual piety. The religion of the heart, perhaps, flourishes most when there is most to move to zeal for the insulted law of God. Or you may fix upon a time when there was apparently less of misery; but we need not say that this would not necessarily have been a better time for growth in Christian holiness, seeing that confessedly it is amidst the deepest sorrows that the strongest virtues are produced. So that if a man regard himself as a candidate for immortality, we can defy him to put his finger on an age of the past, in which, as compared with the present, it would necessarily have been more advantageous for him to live.
2. Now, we are quite aware that this general statement does not exactly meet the several points which will suggest themselves to an inquiring mind; but we propose to examine next certain of the reasons which might be likely to lead men to a different conclusion from that which seems stated in our text. And here again we must narrow the field of inquiry, and confine ourselves to points in which, as Christians, we have an especial interest. Would any former days have been better days for us, estimating the superiority by the superior facilities for believing the Christian religion, and acquiring the Christian character? In answering such a question, we must take separately the evidences and the truths of our holy religion. And first, as to the evidences. There is a very common and a very natural feeling with regard to the evidences of Christianity, that they must have been much stronger and much clearer, as presented to those who lived in the times of our Lord and of His apostles, than as handed down to ourselves through a long succession of witnesses. Many are disposed to imagine that if with their own eyes they could see miracles wrought, they should have a proof on the side of Christianity far more convincing than any which they actually have, and that there would be no room whatever for a lingering doubt if they stood by a professed teacher from God, whilst he stilled the tempest, or raised the dead. Why should such superior power be supposed to reside in the seeing a miracle? The only thing to be sure about is, that the miracle has been wrought. There are two ways of gaining this assurance: the one is by the testimony of the senses, the other is by the testimony of competent witnesses. The first, the testimony of the senses, is granted to the spectator of a miracle; only the second, the testimony of witnesses, to those who are not present at the performance. But shall it be said that the latter must necessarily be less satisfactory than the former? Shall it be said that those who have not visited Constantinople cannot be as certain that there is such a city as others who have? The testimony of witnesses may be every jot as conclusive as the testimony of your own senses. Though, even if we were forced to concede that the spectator of a miracle has necessarily a superiority over those to whom the miracle travels down in the annals of well-attested history, we should be far enough from allowing that there is less evidence now on the side of Christianity than was granted to the men of some preceding age. Let it be, that the evidence of miracle is not so clear and powerful as it was; what is to be said of the evidence of prophecy? Who will venture to deny, that as century has rolled away after century, fresh witness has been given to the Bible by the' accomplishment of the predictions recorded in its pages? The stream of evidence has been like that beheld in mystic vision by Ezekiel, when waters issued out from the eastern gate of the temple. Yes, the Christian religion now appeals to mightier proofs than when it first engaged in combat with the superstitions of the world. Its own protracted existence, its own majestic triumphs, witness for it with a voice far more commanding than that which was heard when its first preachers called to the dead, and were answered by their starting into life. Away, then, with the thought that it would have been better for those who are dissatisfied with the evidences of Christianity, had they lived when Christianity was first promulgated on earth.
(H. Melvill, B. D.)
1. That it is ridiculous to ask why former times are better than the present, if really they are not better, and so the very supposition itself proves false; this is too apparently manifest to be matter of dispute: and that it is false we shall endeavour to prove.(1) By reason: because there were the same objects to work upon men, and the same dispositions and inclinations in men to be wrought upon, before, that there are now. All the affairs of the world are the births and issue of men's actions; and all actions come from the meeting and collision of faculties with suitable objects. There were then the same incentives of desire on the one side, the same attractiveness in riches, the same relish in sovereignty, the same temptation in beauty, the same delicacy in meats and taste in wines; and, on the other side, there were the same appetites of covetousness and ambition, the same fuel of lust and intemperance.(2) The same may be proved by history, and the records of antiquity; and he who would give it the utmost proof that it is capable of from this topic must speak volumes, and preach libraries, bring a century within a line, and an age into every period. Is the wickedness of the old world forgot, that we do so aggravate the tempest of this? In those clays there were giants in sin, at well as sinners of the first magnitude, and of the largest size and proportion. And to take the world in a lower epochs, what after-age could exceed the lust of the Sodomites, the idolatry and tyranny of the Egyptians, the fickle levity of the Grecians? and that monstrous mixture of all baseness in the Roman Nerds, Caligulas, and Domitians, emperors of the world, and slaves to their vice? I conceive the state of the Christian Church also may come within the compass of our present discourse. Take it in its infancy, and with the properties of infancy, it was weak and naked, vexed with poverty, torn with persecution, and infested with heresy. It began the breach with Simon Magus, continued it with Arius, Nestorius, Eutyches, Aerius, some rending her doctrine, some her discipline; and what are the heresies that now trouble it, but new editions of the old with further gloss and enlargement?
2. I shall now take it in a lower respect; as a case disputable, whether the preceding or succeeding generations are to be preferred; and here I shall dispute the matter on both sides.(1) And first for antiquity, and the former ages, we may plead thus. Certainly everything is purest in the fountain and most untainted in the original. The dregs are still the most likely to settle in the bottom, and to sink into the last ages. The world cannot but be the worse for wearing; and it must needs have contracted much dross, when at the last it cannot be purged but by a universal fire.(2) But secondly, for the pre-eminence of the succeeding ages above the former, it may be disputed thus: If the honour be due to antiquity, then certainly the present age must claim it, for the world is now oldest, and therefore upon the very right of seniority may challenge the precedency; for certainly, the longer the world lasts, the older it grows. And if wisdom ought to be respected, we know that it is the offspring of experience, and experience the child of age and continuance. In every thing and action it is not the beginning, but the end that is regarded: it is still the issue that crowns the work, and the Amen that seals the petition: the plaudite is given to the last act: and Christ reserved the best wine to conclude the feast; nay, a fair beginner would be but the aggravation of a bad end. And if we plead original, we know that sin is strongest in its original; and we are taught whence to date that. The lightest things float at the top of time, but if there be such a thing as a golden age, its mass and weight must needs sink it to the bottom and concluding ages of the world. In sum, it was the fulness of time which brought Christ into the world; Christianity was a reserve for the last: and it was the beginning of time which was infamous for man's fall and ruin; so, in Scripture, they are called the "last days" and the "ends of the world," which are ennobled with his redemption. But lastly, if the following ages were not the best, whence is it that the older men grow the more still they desire to live? Now such things as these may be disputed in favour of the latter times beyond the former.
3. That admitting this supposition as true, that the former ages are really the best, and to be preferred: yet still this querulous reflection upon the evil of the present times, stands obnoxious to the same charge of folly: and, if it be condemned also upon this supposition, I see not where it can take sanctuary. Now that it ought to be so, I demonstrate by these reasons.(1) Because such complaints have no efficacy to alter or remove the cause of them: thoughts and words alter not the state of things. The rage and expostulations of discontent are like a thunder without a thunderbolt, they vanish and expire into noise and nothing; and, like a woman, are only loud and weak.(2) Such complaints of the evil of the times are irrational, because they only quicken the smart, and add to the pressure. Such querulous invectives against a standing government are like a stone flung at a marble pillar, which not only makes no impression upon that, but rebounds and hits the flinger in the face.(3) These censorious complaints of the evil of the times are irrational, because the just cause of them is resolvable into ourselves. It is not the times that debauch men, but men that derive and rob a contagion upon the time: and it is still the liquor that first taints and infects the vessel.
(R. South, D. D.)
(J. Carmichael, D. D.)
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