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The Vanity of Riches
We now come to some rough notes put down hurriedly in Coheleth's memorandum-book. They might be heads of discourses, or words overheard in society, or points set down for discussion; at all events, there is no apparent connection between them, and no literary art in their distribution. We have to deal with separate thoughts rather than with a connected and cumulative argument, and as the expositor is bound by his author we have no option but to look at these rough notes in the order in which they are put down by a very baffled and bewildered man.
"There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men: a man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease" ( Ecc 6:1-2 ).
This is an English picture, appallingly vivid in colouring, to be seen before the Royal Academy opens and after the Royal Academy closes, and to be viewed without money and without price. It is the picture of a man with plenty to eat but with no appetite! with innumerable horses but without any wish to go out! with golden goblets on which Gout is written in letters fiery in their redness! It is the picture of a man who has got all he wants but cannot use it. Riches are not uncompounded joys, nor is greatness, nor is fame; the sting, the thorn, the poison-drop are everywhere. What is it that accompanies the most sumptuous chariot on the brightest day on which it can roll forth amid the gayest scenes? who can name it? who has not seen it? It is a something imponderable, intangible, yet inevitable and continual: the brighter the day the surer the accompaniment; yet it is useless; it cannot be bought, it cannot be sold, it cannot be got rid of! that accompaniment is the chariot's own shadow. What is true thus, in a merely physical and literal sense, is true in the highest moral relations. Everywhere there is a signature of disappointment or dissatisfaction. There is a tomb in every garden.
"If a man beget an hundred children, and live many years, so that the days of his years be many, and his soul be not filled with good, and also that he have no burial; I say, that an untimely birth is better than he. For he cometh in with vanity, and departeth in darkness, and his name shall be covered with darkness. Moreover he hath not seen the sun, nor known any thing: this hath more rest than the other" ( Ecc 6:3-5 ).
Coheleth now gives another picture a man with a hundred children living many years, so many that he seems to have no burial, so far is death from the sunny scene; but this man's soul is practically dead; so much so that Coheleth says that an untimely birth is better than he. The thing that is wanting is appetite, desire, relish, power of appreciation; the things are all beautiful, but the man does not care for them; he has lost all interest in the merriment of children, in the schemes of youth and the battles of manhood, and his palate has been sated with luxury and wine. The result of that satiety is tastelessness, so that all things come alike to his exhausted palate. Rinse the mouth with alum do not spare the alum; use it again and again, and once more; and then drink the richest wine of the richest vintage, and it is but so much ditch-water in the mouth. It is even so when desire faileth or the power of appreciation is gone; then the hundred children are a hundred burdens, and music is an irritating noise.
We are to understand, then, that desire dies, that appetite languishes and perishes, and consequently the things that please us now will some day have no charm for us. The woman of fancy was the liveliest girl of her day, a lover of all beauty, and brightest queen of the summer, the chief of singers, glad of the merry dance, and quick at humorous repartee; but the ploughshare has gone deep into her heart, and to-day her laugh is but a sigh of sadness, and the old springs of life that sparkled and flashed have been dried up by the hot sun. "So we ripe, and ripe; so we rot, and rot."
But suppose a man should live a thousand years instead of a hundred? Well, let him live a thousand years twice told; this is a question which is not affected by time. Is there any use in watering a dead tree? Can any man make wine out of painted grapes? Can the cleverest man fill a sieve with water? Our digestion perishes; the faculty by which we lay hold of life with a view to life's enjoyment decays, so that at last we have eyes but see not, ears but hear not, faculties unimpaired in form but utterly useless.
Now Coheleth asks a startling question:
"For what hath the wise more than the fool? what hath the poor, that knoweth to walk before the living?" ( Ecc 6:8 ).
It would certainly appear from the outside of things that the fool is as well off as the wise man. The fool can eat four meals a day can the wise man eat more? And in trial of character what hath the wise man more than the fool? It is as easy to assail the one character as the other. Nay, the impeachment brought against a wise man might in some quarters be more readily credited than if the same impeachment were brought against a fool. It is always thought possible by some minds that the greater the man the more surely must he have committed himself in some direction. Persons who would not pause to consider an accusation against a fool would constitute themselves into a jury to consider a case directed against a wise man. The wise man has more enemies than it is possible for the fool to have. The wise man is a continual rebuke to the ignorant, the narrow-minded, and the miscalculating. Society, in many of its departments, would not be sorry to get rid of the wise man, for his is an eye of criticism, and his a word of judgment. The man who can please is often more popular than the man who can instruct. The fancy that flashes is often more sought after than the understanding which can weigh and determine. This, of course, is a superficial view, and is not to be taken as Coheleth's final summary of human life. He is simply reading appearances, and quickly annotating the daily pages of life as they are turned over by the hand of Time. He is giving us a photograph of the spirit of his day. This is a kind of news column. He himself was a wise man, and therefore would be the last to be content to be ranked with fools. The wise man has what the fool can never have: intellectual companionship, spiritual sympathy, speculations that call off the mind from parochial affairs, aspirations that would shake off all the dust and noise of a chaotic world, citizenship in spheres high and fair, where the light is pure, and the time is music, and every waft of air comes straight from the fountains of immortality. The wise man is never solitary. He sits in quietness, yet roams the field with the bold hunter, or dares the sea with the brave mariner. He makes his way through the crowd, his mind the while picking its more delicate way through mazes of divine philosophy, or up the winding steeps of knowledge, difficult of access. The fool is a hollow drum, tempting the rude staff of every grinning swain; the wise man is an oracle for consultation in perplexity and in grief. Do not, therefore, understand Coheleth as putting the wise man and the fool upon the same level. Coheleth means what he says when he exhorts his readers in these terms: "With all thy gettings, get understanding"; "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom." By bringing these passages together we are enabled to see the purport of Coheleth's criticism in this verse. He is rather relating the opinions of other men than giving his own judgment.
"Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this is also vanity and vexation of spirit" ( Ecc 6:9 ).
Better is the seen than the invisible: "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." Why not make yourself contented with a present earth without aspiring to an uncertain heaven? To this inquiry we might reply that the earth first becomes an intolerable monotony, and then it becomes an incurable pain. When men ask, Why not be content with a present earth? they might as well say to a bird, Why not cut off your wings, and be satisfied to walk upon common ground? Here the mystery of instinct opens up its wide philosophy. We feel that there is more within us than can be satisfied with all that is grown upon the earth; and it is in response to this feeling that we utter great prayers, though sometimes we only designate them by the intellectual name of inspirations. God has set eternity in the soul. Man wants to have that eternity here, and he finds it impossible. We are drawn forward by eternity. It is a magnet which draws us by subtle and uncontrollable energy. Christ, however, teaches that eternity is the continuation of time, and that we are to be in the next world what we are already in this, only with enlarged faculty and purified desire.
Almighty God, the morning is thine, and all the light, and the great Book, and the glory which burns in it. Thine is the house, and our song is in thy name, and our cry is unto thy mercy, and our eyes are turned towards the hills whence cometh our help. Behold the sacred occasion, and thou wilt not be wanting on thy part to make the fire glow, the flame ascend heaven-high, and our hearts to burn with new love, and our minds to rejoice in the light of newly-perceived truth. Thy part is never wanting; thou dost wait to be gracious; thou art more ready to give than we are to ask. If we are straitened, we are straitened in ourselves and not in God. We have not because we ask not, or because we ask amiss. We acquit the Holy One of Israel; we may not complain of our Father. Our sins have kept good things from us; our iniquities have gathered like a cloud between us and God, so that we do not see the light, or hear the song, or enter into the mystery of the higher fellowship. This is our doing, not thine; the separation is our sin, not thy decree of disregard for the human race. If we take our sins to ourselves, the burden is more than we can bear: but by penitence and broken-heartedness and hope in God, we are enabled to take the burden to the Cross, and there to lay it down, never to be resumed, a burden destroyed and cast into everlasting forget fulness. This is the triumph of the Cross; this is the success of the pierced hand in which there still lingers almightiness to save. Give us sweet consciousness of these facts; touch our minds with their wondrous mysteries; subdue our hearts by their marvellous pathos. Surround our lives with that sense of redeeming care which receives its highest, sublimest expression in the Cross of thine only Son. Let thy blessing come down upon us like showers that water the earth; let it steal in upon us with all gentleness and peacefulness, so that we know not that the door is opened to let it in until our hearts are conscious of its marvellous presence and benediction. Let the busy man remember that the kingdom of heaven is not in the dust; let the man who trifles with his time be assured of its brevity and uncertainty; let the hard heart that has never offered hospitality to the God that made it be broken but not with the tremendous hammer of thy righteousness, rather by the entreaty and the persuasion of thine unspeakable love. Now gather us, embrace us, draw us nearer to thy fatherly heart, make us at home in the wilderness, and give us great happiness in desert places; and at the last bring us every one, no wanderer lost, into the green paradise, the beautiful garden, the land of cloudless summer, washed in the blood of the Lamb, sanctified by the mighty energy of God the Holy Ghost, made fit for heaven's light, and heaven's sweet society. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 6". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13