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The Whole Duty of Man
Now we come upon the exhortation which Coheleth addresses to the young man, and we have seen how high is his title to assume the office of teacher of youth. We are not about to listen to a preacher who has had no experience of the world. We cannot taunt this man, saying, "If you knew more, you would say less." Here is a "man who knows the whole round of pleasure, a man who has drained every goblet of offered joy, and who comes to us from the market-place, from gardens of delight, from palaces of royalty, and gives us his exhortation. Let us listen to it, and be wise.
"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" ( Ecc 12:1 ).
You say you can remember things that took place forty or fifty years ago better than you can recollect what happened last week. There is a whole philosophy in that word. The memory is quick in youth. It seems made to take hold of things, and to keep them in firm grasp. What is it to the young mind to commit poetry to memory, to store the recollection with figures, words, terms, formularies? That which is impossible to age is comparatively easy to youth. In this particular we may be said to enjoy in old age what we gather in early life. So we come to the strange fact that youth is not only a seedtime but a harvest-time, wherein we cut down many golden crops, and store them in the granary of a faithful recollection, that we may have quiet and rich enjoyment in the time of old age and retirement; then come up the youthful songs, then we drink over again the dew of the morning, and again and again we pluck and bind the sweet flowers of life's spring-time, and think there is none like them in all the gardens of old age. It is a pleasant illusion, but thus we are cheered and soothed and tempted down to the grave by easy but sure approaches. Amid all the recollections of our youth, the wise man would put first and foremost the Creator, not to make youth old, but to make old age young. In this case, if the last be made first, the first shall be made last; and the evening hour will glow with warmth and be radiant with light; the little child shall reappear in the old man not to enfeeble and humble him, but to save his decay from gloom and despair. Remember now thy Creator, recognise his existence, set him at the front of thy thinking, connect the great scheme of life with his person and government; do not start life under the impression that things make themselves, rule themselves, shape themselves, and that he who is strongest will get uppermost, without any regard to right. Observe what the word is. It is "Remember." It is not, Fear; it is not, Tremble before; it is not, Run away from; it is sweet remembrance, vivid recollection, keeping God steadfastly before the vision of hope and imagination. Then remembrance is urged for what may be called cautionary reasons "while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them." Thus we are taught to look upon life as a whole, and to know the right time for doing anything. If a husbandman did not see the whole year, he would not know what to do with any part of it. If a builder did not know the climate of his country for a whole year, he would not know how to put up his edifice. It is one thing to build for a calm summer day, and another to build for a year that has in it winter as well as summer. The builder really puts up his building for the one day of storm that is to be in the year. Wherever the beam is solid, the iron is thick, and the roof is guarded at every point, we may be sure that the builder has foreseen the evil days days of tempest and of danger. Who has not seen travellers proposing to undertake a certain journey, and forecasting the incidents of the way and the nature of the way itself? For miles the road is known to be smooth and easy, but for other miles it is also known to be rough, stony, and dangerous. For which part of the road does the traveller most carefully qualify himself? If these things are done upon the low levels of consideration and arrangement, what should be done in the higher ranges of religious preparation and spiritual forecast? Men who do not remember their Creator in the days of their youth may seek to remember him when memory has failed. You believe there is a Creator; you would not deny the existence of a Creator on any consideration whatever; therefore let me preach to you the solemn and awful doctrine that if you do not remember this Creator you will be judges against yourselves; for in theory you were religious, but in practice you were profane. Oh! be wise: may I not say? be decent, be just, be fair, in your dealings with your Creator. He deserves all, he demands all, and only in giving him all we are and have do we realise the full possibilities of life, physically, socially, religiously, and in view of the solemn and endless future.
Coheleth now gives a beautiful picture of the decay of manhood, beautiful indeed, yet it may bring pain and tears to those who think what they are coming to:
"While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain" ( Ecc 12:2 ).
All the great comforts contract and withdraw. Once your house had large well-kept windows through which the light streamed; but they are now dusty, weather-stained, and the morning is blurred and dimmed when it tries to get at you through so defective a medium. Is there a more pitiable object anywhere than the sun struggling with a thick, murky fog? It looks so white, as if it were weary with long watching and strife; so round and bare, like a king who has lost his robes and his crown, and of whom his subjects are ashamed. A white, watery, forsaken-looking thing, half wheel, half eye, trying to see and yet afraid to look, peeping behind the thick curtain with an eye without eyelids, a bleary and forlorn object altogether. Yet is there any change in the sun itself? No: the change is wholly in the medium. So life is as strong, as joyous, as songful as ever, but the days through which it shines are murky, fog-laden, and shrunken to a mere span. Coheleth warns us to be ready against the time when life itself will be shorn of its power to give enjoyment and satisfaction. Many different interpretations have been given of this picture, but happily it is a picture which every man may interpret for himself, and apply to himself, without running any danger of opposing the spirit of its deepest meaning. Say that it applies to the body, say that it is a picture of old age, say that it depicts certain realities that must occur in every full-grown life, the moral comes to this, that there is in front of us a time of impoverishment, enfeeblement: a time when we are no longer our own selves, enjoying our full strength, exerting our complete energy; we are but part of ourselves, the rest we have buried in the long past. Coheleth would have us ready for that time of self-shrinking. His way of getting ready for that time is to think well of the Creator in early days, to be familiar with the principles of his government, with the objects of his rule, with the meaning of his providence, and with the infinite gospel embodied in the saving Cross. Why do we put off religious considerations until the last? Is this wise? Is this worthy of us? Need I do more than ask the questions? Do they not instantly bring with them their own answer an answer of conviction and accusation to many, and an answer of thankfulness and consolation to not a few?
"Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil" ( Ecc 12:13-14 ).
The Preacher had found all outward things to be vanity. Now, is it true that the world is vanity? or did Coheleth simply utter a sentiment heedlessly or in the spirit of revenge, because of his own personal disappointments? The world is vanity to the man who is morally wrong. Immorality spoils everything. The man's spirit is wrong, and therefore he takes a wrong view of everything he looks upon. There is a sense in which we bring everything into our own quality: to the mean man all things are mean; to the narrow-minded man all things are narrow; to the good man all things are beautiful or hopeful, or if he must admit the existence of evil he delights rather to magnify points of excellence which his own vivid imagination may suppose itself to have discovered. "To the pure all things are pure," is a doctrine which applies not only to spiritual relations and ministries, but to everything which constitutes part of the world. The pure man could hear language which to an impure man would contain all manner of baleful suggestion; and yet the pure man could listen without a blush. The man who uses the world merely for the sake of gratifying his appetites will find it to be but vanity, simply because all lower appetites burn themselves out, and give up the quest of good, because they are satiated, and the very power of enjoyment is destroyed. An exhausted appetite thus passes judgment upon the world, and that judgment is unjust: if the world had been properly used, under intelligent discipline, it would have yielded very different results, but because it has been abused, the appetite which is exhausted by satiety turns round upon the world, and writes upon it a vengeful criticism.
But there is a sense in which the world is truly vanity. What is that sense? It turns altogether upon the conception which is formed of man. It is the greatness of man that dwarfs the world. The cradle is adapted to the child of days, but it has no relation whatever to the man who has come to maturity. If a man should persist in carrying his cradle about with him, and contending that it is sufficient, that it once measured his necessities and therefore must continue to measure them, he would be condemned as insane. So the world was once enough for us; we were delighted with its beauty, we were satisfied with its abundance, we sunned ourselves in the light which made it warm, and said, How truly joyous is the present sphere of existence. For the time being that judgment was right, because it exactly expressed the measure of our capacity; but we have grown, we have become conscious of new powers, we have seen in the far distance outlines of realities which tempt our imagination, and lure us onward by a singularly fascinating power, so that now the things that are round about us appear to be small and unworthy, not that they have changed their nature or uses, but because we ourselves have outgrown them. That which was useful to the child is useless to the man. That which satisfied us in our infancy is mere vanity now, and we cannot stoop to it, or for a moment tolerate it. So, then, a distinction must be made between the world and the men inhabiting it. For a time, the world was large enough, yea, too large, but little by little we conquered it, saw all its surface, understood all its meaning, exhausted all its uses, and now to offer us that world in satisfaction of new aspirations is simply to mock our growing manhood.
What is it that will put everything right? Coheleth tells us in the thirteenth verse: "Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man." When you are right, the earth is right. "Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee.... Then shall the earth yield her increase; and God, even our own God, shall bless us." "Fear God" not in any servile sense, as a slave might fear a master, but fear him filially, reverentially, with all the joy of purest love; then the mind shall be uplifted in nobler elevation, and the whole outlook of life shall be brightened. We know that we fear God when we keep his commandments; that is, we look out for the things that are written for our guidance and instruction; we study them; we do not try to pervert them, but to extract their obvious and deepest spiritual meaning, and then our holy endeavour is day by day to exemplify them in simplicity of motive and pureness of action. The whole operation is not to end in merely intellectual homage: a man might lift up his eyes to heaven, and his tongue might utter loud words of adoration, and the man might claim thereby to be "fearing" God, yea, to be so fearing him as to pay no attention to discipline or to the detail of duty. If this is not hypocrisy, it is certainly sentimentalism or superstition of the most mischievous kind. Our awe of God ought to lead us to a deeper study of his word and commandment, that we may balance our homage by our obedience, and thus realise a complete and acceptable worship. If God has given commandments, where are they to be found? Here we are thrown back upon our old and well-established doctrine that we are not called upon to invent commandments for ourselves, but to obey those which have been laid down for us. We may begin with them as commandments, feeling all their hardness, and difficulty, and seeming impracticableness, but we are to comment upon them by endeavouring to carry them out; our exposition is to be in practical behaviour, not in daintily-chosen words or in felicitous phrases of commendation. Are we not to live under command that is to say, under the authority and order of the living God? When we come to know ourselves really, we shall find that it is simply impossible that we should invent our own commandments. That God himself is required to issue commandments for the guidance of human life is, when properly apprehended, a tribute to the greatness of that life: how intricate must be the machinery which only God himself can keep in order; how invaluable the life which he has created when only himself can sustain it! The commandments of God are indeed at the first grievous, because we have either lost the power, or the desire, or both, to do them; but after we have been inspired by the Holy Ghost, and trained in the uses of life, we begin to see that only in law is there true liberty, and only in obedience is there true harmony or rest. That which at the first seems to be arbitrary or mechanical is proved at the last to be moral and spiritual. We may begin under military drill, but we end in childlike obedience and love. It has been well said, "The Book of Ecclesiastes begins with 'All is vanity,' and ends with 'Fear God, and keep his commandments.'" We begin at vanity, and never know perfectly that we are vain until we come to fear God and keep his commandments.
"For this is the whole duty of man," otherwise, "this is the duty of all men," which is considered to be the only possible rendering of the Hebrew; the difference between the Authorised Version and this rendering being that the latter leaves nothing further to be done, whereas this literal rendering calls upon all men to do the same thing namely, to fear God, and keep his commandments. I cannot recognise any vital difference between the two ways of putting the truth. It may be supposed that there is nothing evangelical in the exhortation to fear God and keep his commandments, but let any man try to carry out that exhortation, and he will soon feel his need of evangelical direction and support. We cannot know God except through evangelical methods, nor can we find our way into the secret meaning of his commandments but by the leading of the Holy Spirit. True, we may begin by a general conception of God's creatorship, and may be religious in a deistic sense, but God is a larger term than any one word which can be used in its definition: though God is one, yet there is also a sense in which God is many, that is to say, many in his aspects and many in his attributes; and it is not given to every man to comprehend the total unity of God, and regard him under one term or figure. We speak of God as Creator, Sovereign, Father, Shepherd, Redeemer, Judge; all this God is, and yet infinitely more; but some men can only begin at one term, and pass gradually from the one to the other, until their spiritual education is completed. When we ask what it is to fear God, we begin to ask what God himself is, and to that inquiry there is no sufficient answer but that which has been returned by the Son of God, who dwelt in the bosom of the Father.
What is our great hope in view of all the strife, vanity, disappointment, tumult, and apparent failure of this world? What of its injustice, its tyranny, its selfishness, its policy of might against right? The answer is, "God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." That is not a terror, it is a hope. Whilst bad men may read the words and tremble under them, good men should repeat them and take heart again. Men can deal only with actions, and can pronounce opinions only upon that which is superficial and obvious. God will deal with motives, with operations of the mind which are hidden from observation, with the secret thoughts and intents of the heart, and his judgment shall thus be complete in its justice. Let those who are conscious of being right maintain their confidence, however much appearances may be against them, and however much for the time being they may appear to be the sport of circumstances or the victims of oppression. The true judgment does not lie between points of conduct, but between qualities of motive. He who maintains a right cause, at what cost soever of time, money, strength, and reputation, shall in the long run be vindicated. Terrible beyond all imaginable disaster would it be if this world's history were to close without divine judgment. Assure the tyrant that there is no judgment beyond, and then he will strike more terribly and swiftly than ever he struck before. Tell the man of might that he may do what he pleases, and that he will never be called to account; and then say what measures may be set to his evil purpose. But it is the business of the Bible to declare that every work and every thought shall be brought into judgment, and that every man shall receive for the deeds done in the body, whether they be good or bad. We shall all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ. There is a day of reckoning coming, and on that day the first may be last, and the last be first; but whatever the order may be it will be established in righteousness, it will be determined by divine judgment of human conduct. What a reversal of position and fate will then take place! How applause will be turned into denunciation, and how denunciation will be turned into applause! All we can do in the meantime is to fear God and keep his commandments, study the law of God night and day, make it the man of our counsel, and the guide of our heart, and pursue all its injunctions to whatsoever issue they may lead. "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; for it is written, Vengeance is mine, and I will repay, saith the Lord." The Christian man ought to have no desire to take the law into his own hands; his one object should be to live in God, to obey God, to love and serve God, and then to leave all consequences under God's disposal. Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him: he shall bring forth thy judgment as the morning, and make thy righteousness clear as noonday. God will vindicate the honest man. Let us leave our cause quietly and lovingly in his hands, for he will do more and better for us than we can do for ourselves.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 12". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent