The Land of Shadows
In this chapter we have a number of loose and disconnected notes about human life. The writer seems to have jotted down things as they came into his mind. His book is rather a heap of stones than an orderly building. Perhaps it is hardly just to regard the Book of Ecclesiastes as a piece of elaborate and continuous logic; it ought to be taken rather as a series of notes or memoranda which the writer himself could have expounded, and which readers can only use as hints pointing out certain directions of practical thought. It would be possible so to use the Book of Ecclesiastes as to make it almost contribute to an argument for atheism, but this would be manifestly unjust; yet in proportion as it yields itself to such a use does it seem to suggest that it is rather a gathering of miscellaneous remarks than an attempt to establish a process of final and authoritative reasoning. Sometimes Coheleth becomes religious, as in the first verse of this chapter. He has made many attempts to get God out of the way altogether, but somehow the holy Presence returns to the line of life and shines upon it, or darkens it with judgment, or so uses it as to startle the man who is most peculiarly interested in its course.
"For all this I considered in my heart even to declare all this, that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God: no man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before them" ( Ecclesiastes 9:1).
Thus life is seen in a great thick maze, now and then broken in upon by startling radiance. Sometimes wisdom is supreme, and sometimes folly; now it seems as if wisdom would carry everything its own way, and presently it seems as if folly had been but waiting for an opportunity to overthrow Wisdom of Solomon, and show that life is after all either an elaborate joke or an elaborate failure. At the very moment when the wise man has seen the superiority of Wisdom of Solomon, and declared it, a voice says to him: "Let not the wise man glory in his Wisdom of Solomon, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches." Even when wisdom has been used for the best purposes, and when might has been enlisted on the side of right, and when wealth has been pledged to the cause of justice, all boasting on the part of Wisdom of Solomon, might, and wealth has been resolutely forbidden. There is to be but one object of glory: "Let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord." The picture of mental confusion which is presented in verse i is familiar to us all. Finality of judgment is not granted to man. It appears as if he must live continually in the process which is full of disappointment, and yet which is so urgent that it cannot be permanently resisted by the skill or the perversity of man. We know all this to be absolutely true. We have made the surest calculations, and our conclusions have been simply overturned by facts which never came within our view in making our elaborate reckoning. We have said that yesterday being such and such would inevitably make to-morrow of a certain quality, and yet God seems to have taken a new point of departure, and to have turned to-morrow into a revelation such as we had never dreamed of. We walk, therefore, in the midst of shadows; we are surrounded by uncertainties; we are never permitted to approach the point of personal infallibility; we live in a course of self-correction, and we grow wise to-morrow by amending the errors of yesterday. On the whole, this would seem to be the wisest method of education. At first sight other methods appear to have the advantage, but considering what we are, to what temptations we are exposed, and to what issues we are tending, experience confirms the course which providence adopts.
"All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath" ( Ecclesiastes 9:2).
Coheleth is here lost at the point where the two great lines of bad and good seem to meet and to become one current. To his great wonder he sees death seize both the righteous and the wicked; he sees them both going down the hill together, and as he looks from the hill-top, he says, I expected the one to go upward, and the other to go downward, but there seems to be but a common lot for all, so that moral distinctions really amount to nothing. Coheleth undoubtedly had appearances upon his side in this reason. There is not the broad distinction between the good and the bad at the last which one might have expected to find. That death should happen to all men is simply a surprise to those who have observed the character of goodness, and who have felt themselves impressed by the immortality of virtue. It would seem as if at the point of death there should be a distinctly visible difference between good men and bad men; that is to say, good men should rather ascend and disappear in the welcoming heavens, and bad men should descend and find their place in the sullen earth. Instead of this we find both good men and bad men dying, sometimes the good man as if under a cloud of depression, and the bad man in a mood almost heroic. All this is perplexing to the religious conscience and the religious imagination. Sure, we say, there might be some broader distinction at the point of death than we have yet discovered; if that distinction could only be established, it would at once substantiate the Christian argument, and destroy the standing-ground of every man who ventured to doubt the reality of Christian revelation. In all ages the prosperity of the wicked has been a perplexity to spiritual minds. "Wherefore do the wicked live, become old, yea, are mighty in power? Their seed is established in their sight with them, and their offspring before their eyes. Their houses are safe from fear, neither is the rod of God upon them. They take the timbrel and harp, and rejoice at the sound of the organ. They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment go down to the grave. Therefore they say unto God, Depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of thy ways" ( Job 21:7-9, Job 21:12-14). It is in vain to make light of a testimony of this kind, for it is indeed the occasion of a sore perplexity to the religious conscience. If there is any truth at all in the doctrine of rewards and punishments, why should not the rewards be now given, and the punishments be now and visibly inflicted? It would seem from many statements in holy Scripture as if the discrimination between good and bad were postponed until the day of judgment, and as if in the meantime men had to do the best they could for themselves, the wicked often having an advantage over the righteous. On the other hand, we must not neglect the counter-testimony which is also found in the pages of revelation. In Job again ( Job 21:17-18) we find such words as these: "How oft is the candle of the wicked put out! and how oft cometh their destruction upon them! God distributeth sorrows in his anger. They are as stubble before the wind, and as chaff that the storm carrieth away." But even this counter-testimony often gives way in force as compared with the testimony on the other side, which is so broad and emphatic. The wicked themselves have built an argument upon these very appearances which so distressed the soul of Asaph; for example ( Malachi 3:14-15): "Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up; yea, they that tempt God are even delivered." It Isaiah, however,- not to the disadvantage of the Bible that all these testimonies are found in its own pages. We must insist upon that as a valuable consideration in the discussion of the whole argument. It is the Bible itself that actually supplies the very evidence which men so eagerly turn against its own inspiration and its own doctrine of a superintending providence. Apart from the emphatic statements which are made in the Bible, where would evidence be found to support the theory that the wicked are as much favoured as the righteous? We might have broad declarations upon the subject, as based upon this man"s observation or that man"s collection of facts; on the other hand, we should have both the experience and the facts hotly disputed by others who had happened to see more vividly the other side of life. We should thus be plunged into a controversy which would rage around personal authority and personal opportunities of observation; whereas in the Bible itself we find the most distinct statement of the perplexities arising from an apparent moral confusion in the world, as if sometimes God had actually mistaken the bad man for the good Prayer of Manasseh, and had sent down his punishments indiscriminately, often causing the good more pain and loss than were inflicted upon the evil. It is well, therefore, to have in the book itself a distinct statement that such moral confusion does exist, at least upon the surface, because this imposes upon the book the responsibility in some measure either of modifying its statement or contravening it; otherwise the reader would be forced to the conclusion that the policy of evil is stronger than the policy of good, and must ultimately extinguish it.
"This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead" ( Ecclesiastes 9:3).
Coheleth. thinks this has a bad effect upon society. He thinks that a sharp distinction between the fate of the good and the bad would have been better. It is very wonderful to think in how many points we suppose ourselves able to do things better than God has done them. We want to see more. Both the good and the bad plunge into the common darkness of the grave. That seems wrong, as we have said. If we could hear the moaning of the bad man as the scourge of judgment falls upon him, and if we could see the good soul mounting up with wings strong and flashing to join a host of immortal worthies gathering within the field of the sun, it would seem to be better altogether; but the good and the bad are sucked into a common whirlpool, over which the darkness of night is spread. The argument of Coheleth would seem to point to the thought that God actually encourages evil by not sufficiently punishing it, and strongly discourages good by apparently handing all his rewards to those who are bad. Coheleth would seem to trace the madness of men to the looseness of Providence. The sons of men say, Seeing that one event happeneth unto all, what does it matter how we live? Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die; seize the immediate pleasure; make sure of the things that are round about us, and leave to-morrow to develop its own uncertainties as it may. We cannot live under theories of good, and philosophies of happiness, and ideals of peace; all these may be well enough, and may afford great enjoyment to the philosophers who set them up, and spend their days in their wordy defence, but we, say the sons of men, want wine and festival, dance and joy, liberty and enthusiasm, and we must have these immediately, and facts enable us to have them; so why do we theorise, and speculate, and idealise? Let us instantly be up and doing, and serve the first god that offers us his bribe. This is the loose talk of loose-minded men. They do not take in the whole case in its yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow; they see but the immediate glittering point of time; in other words, they live in time and not in eternity: hence we have all this selfish contemplation, and all this superficial reasoning, leading to all this immoral action. "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil." There again we see exactly the point at which man so often fails. He must have things done "speedily"; if the sword of judgment fell upon the criminal in the very act of his transgression, superficial thinkers would at once be cleared of all doubts as to the reality of a superintending and judicial Providence. But they make no room for mercy; they do not see how divine patience may be equal to divine righteousness; they think the punishment of the sinner a greater deed than his possible salvation. Punishment might be instantaneous, but salvation requires long processes for its accomplishment. How noble is the mercy of God as compared with the fitful wrath of man! God indeed does pronounce judgment upon evil, and show himself hotly angry against it in all its varieties and moods; at the same time he is faithful to himself; he promised that the seed of the woman should bruise the head of the serpent, and he associates even wickedness itself with the vast scheme of remedy, amelioration, and redemption, for the full working out of which immeasurable time may be required. The Apostle Paul reasons upon this matter in a more rational and comprehensive manner: "What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death" ( Romans 6:21). It may be reverently said that God himself was surprised by the license which man allowed his imagination when he saw how wickedness was often spared, as if God had some hope of even yet converting the sinner from the error of his ways. "God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" ( Genesis 6:5). The very greatness of man was developed in the greatness of his sin. It was evident that a man formed in the image and likeness of God, if he did take to evil ways would work mightily and terribly, and would show by the very inversion of his faculties how sublime was the destiny intended for him by his gracious Creator. It is because we can pray so nobly that we can curse so bitterly. It is because we are so much like God that we can debase ourselves almost into the likeness of devils. Our greatness is the opportunity for our wickedness. "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." In our very highest moods, when we seem to be but just outside heaven, we are in greatest danger, if so be we cease to pray and to hold on to the hand of the Almighty with growing determination and hopefulness.
"For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun" ( Ecclesiastes 9:4-6).
Coheleth did not care for death in any aspect. He would rather live with the dog than die with the lion. The words "death" and "hope" seem never to have come together in Coheleth"s thinking. And surely if one shall arise in the ages who shall attempt to connect hope with death, to bring together things so separate, he will have a soul capable of magnificent conceptions. Life and hope have always gone together as brother and sister, well matched for strength and beauty, and suffused with a common loveliness. But death and despair have always been companions; their groan has troubled the world"s feasting, and their shadow has thrown a spectral haze over the birth of the firstborn and over the joy of the wedding festival. How, then, can hope be joined to death? And how can the grim beast of prey be made to lie down harmlessly with the gentle lamb? Sweetly, like a friend"s voice in loneliness, there comes upon us a prophecy that death need not kill, that death may be a disguised messenger of God, and may be but the narrow line over which we pass into immortality. "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, for they rest from their labours; and their works do follow them." "They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more;... for the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes." "This is the Lord"s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes."
We get a very humbling picture in the sixth verse. Here again we are brought into the land of shadows, and into the region of winds that blow without leaving behind them any trace either of wrath or blessing. Is it possible that a life so constructed can charge the responsibility of its existence upon a loving Creator? The contrary is evidently the case. If men can come and go without leaving any impression; if their love is but for a moment and then forgotten; if their wrath is but a splutter followed by eternal silence and oblivion; if all their thought and pain, all their scheming, invention, and enterprise shall end in nothingness and vanity, who then is responsible for a creation so destitute of coherence, and so utterly worthless in its whole issue? The very emptiness of the conclusion should lead us to doubt its validity. Rather let us reason that, because such great agents are employed, and such little results are apparent, the time of measuring up results has not yet fully come, that we are living in an intermediate period of time, and that presently, perhaps to-day or to-morrow, a great light will shine upon the mystery of life, and show us its real meaning, and force us to answer its high responsibilities. The answer to all the difficulties of outside life must ever be within the man himself. Puzzled by contradictions, perplexed by want of discrimination on the part of Providence, confounded by the evident success of wickedness, man should look within himself, and there he will find in his own religious consciousness the true answer to all that bewilders him when he contemplates the outside alone. In so far man will be as a god unto himself. He will have the full consent of reason and conscience in saying, Surely all this can be but for a moment; I do not see the complete state of the case, nor do I understand the reality of the events that are passing around me. I must patiently wait, for conscience tells me that judgment must follow wickedness and that heaven must be the portion of virtue. I am aware that appearances are bewildering and perplexing, and if the question were an external one altogether I should say but little against the argument of irreligious opponents. My safety is in waiting; my assurance is founded upon the eternal principle that what is wrong must eventually bring judgment upon itself, and perish in its own corruption.
"Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun" ( Ecclesiastes 9:9).
Here Coheleth himself becomes a kind of moralising pagan. God is allowed to drop out of sight; life is limited by the horizon, and he who dances most and drinks most is the wisest. Thus Coheleth seemed to play at hide-and-seek with eternity: he is in, he is out; he is grand, he is mean; he is now on the hill-top, and now he is lost in the windings of the valley. This is just our own life. Sometimes we give up prayer, and say we will now betake ourselves to sensual enjoyments. We turn away from religion as from an altar on which we have never found anything that can really satisfy the soul. A great temptation seizes the mind, and hurries us on to all kinds of immediate enjoyment. We say, After all, what does it amount to? we had better eat the fruit which is already within reach than wait for some other tree to grow us some other fruit. Then we achieve, as it were, our majority in wickedness, we become men in evildoing. A kind of rough joy, too, follows immediately upon our decision, for the earth is ready with its store, and the evil spirits seem but to have been awaiting a signal to enter into our souls, and make a banqueting-house of them. Music is expelled by noise. Philosophy is deposed by sophism. The grave loses its terrors because it is covered with plucked flowers. Thus life has its seasons of madness, its times of outburst and vain enjoyment, even its seasons of tempestuous delight in which we forget everything but the gratification of the moment. We know, however, how all such satisfactions exhaust themselves. They are keen for the moment, but they perish in the using. Before we seize them we are assured that they will bring heaven into the soul; they look so enticing, and they promise so abundantly, but it is the universal experience of man that no sooner are such pleasures realised than they cease to please; not only do they cease to please, but they leave behind them a mortal sting, and the soul which they promised to make glad for ever burns with disappointment and hangs down its head in shame. Here the Christian teacher is not afraid to make his appeal to experience. There is no form of fleshly enjoyment which does not immediately upon its indulgence turn itself into an enemy; yet how luring is the temptation, how eloquent is the promise, how almost irresistible is the appeal; but the victim is led away like a lamb to the slaughter, an arrow pierces through his liver, his teeth are broken as with gravel-stone, and he who ran out to enjoy the liberty of sin is sent back to endure the bondage of compunction.
"Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor Wisdom of Solomon, in the grave, whither thou goest" ( Ecclesiastes 9:10).
This verse contains good advice if we take it wisely. We must first be sure that the work which our hand finds to do is worthy of our best powers. This exhortation has undoubtedly been misapplied. There is a better proverb, "Whatsoever is worth doing is worth doing well." But it does not follow that everything is worth doing. Jesus Christ said, "I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work." We must be sure that we are doing God"s work if we are to do it with our might. Following upon the ninth verse the exhortation of the tenth may actually be an encouragement in a wrong direction. In the ninth verse we have been enjoined to "live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity"—in other words, to. enjoy all the pleasures the world can give; and then we are told, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." The one caution which must be regarded is the caution that whatever we do is itself to be of the right quality, to be worth doing, to be good in itself, and to be beneficent in its relation to other people. These points being assured, then let both hands be called into activity, and the whole soul burn with devotion to the great object of its accomplishment.
"I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but, time and chance happeneth to them all" ( Ecclesiastes 9:11).
Now we come to a higher order of talk. Coheleth looks at life as a whole, and sees something in it which surprises him. It seems as if the race ought to be to the swift, and the battle to the strong, and as if the wise should never lack bread, or the men of understanding be short of riches. Yet men of skill are allowed to go without favour, and time and chance happeneth to all men alike. When we see likelihood set aside we ought to ask ourselves some serious questions. We say that the law of cause and effect must operate, that it is supreme and all-determining; yet this mechanical law is overthrown every day in actual life, showing as plainly as light that life is something higher than mechanics. Who would not instantly insist that swiftness must win the race, strength must determine the battle, and skill must settle the competition? Yet these things are contradicted by every day"s experience. The very law of gravitation may itself be temporarily suspended. He who drops a stone obeys that law, but he who lifts a hand defies it. The tiniest life is greater than the greatest mechanical law. Seeing, therefore, that probability, or likelihood, or the Song of Solomon -called law of cause and effect, may actually go for nothing in the arrangement and balancing of life, we ought to ask, What is behind all this? what is the meaning of this secret? what is the explanation of this most palpable and bewildering contradiction? Now we may see in Coheleth"s words a greater meaning than he himself saw. We say, What can be stronger than the great gravitation law? and the answer Isaiah, Life may be stronger. We ask, What can outspeed the lightning? and we answer, Thought can more quickly fly, and love has a stronger wing. Coheleth saw in the little incident which comes next a complete upset of the law of probability. A little quality may upset a great quantity. The least in the kingdom of heaven may be greater than the greatest out of it. It is the little wisdom that is in the world that saves all its cities. In point of bulk wisdom may be less than folly, but in point of force wisdom will prove itself to be omnipotent. This is the lesson of the incident which Coheleth gives in the following verses:—
"There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it: now there was found in it a poor wise Prayer of Manasseh, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man" ( Ecclesiastes 9:14-15).
The incident is but small as compared with what has already been said regarding the pomp and boast of wickedness; yet the smallness of the incident is the smallness of its seed, not the smallness of a pebble. "The kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed;" so is this incident. "By the blessing of the upright the city is exalted." Ten righteous men would have saved the cities of the plain. It is surely discouraging that the poor man was not remembered, though he delivered the little city when a great king came against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it. Nevertheless the wise man will not give up his Wisdom of Solomon, for he finds a secret delight in its enjoyment, "Wisdom strengthened the wise more than ten mighty men which are in the city." It was the wisdom of Jesus Christ that astounded his contemporaries, and made them marvel concerning his origin and his resources. From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this that is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? It is important to notice that the poor man"s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard. As this is true in the common walks of life, we are prepared to believe it true in those higher relations which Jesus Christ sustained to the world. He was despised and rejected of men. We are prone to say, Show true Wisdom of Solomon, and the world will instantly recognise it and obey its behests. History gives a flat contradiction to this supposition. The world has not known wisdom when it has seen it, nor answered the voice of eloquence when it has heard it, nor bowed before the presence of beauty when it has been most openly revealed. Yet the wise man must not be discouraged, for his time is yet to come. It is still true that wisdom is better than weapons of war. All that the wise man can do is to hold on, and hope on, and toil on. The greatest surprise that can occur to him is that other people do not observe and acknowledge the value of wisdom. This must be a pain to his inmost heart, and a source of discouragement, which can only be dried up by considerations which lie beyond the line of time. Who could bear to teach constantly a school of dunces? Who would not shrink from being called upon constantly to sing to men who are deaf? Who could stand the wear and tear of attempting to teach blind men the beauty and the charm of colour? Yet this is what Jesus Christ has undertaken to do in the proclamation of his gospel and the revelation of his kingdom. Verily it is hard work; upon all sides there arise the questions, "Is not this the carpenter"s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?"
All this is true; yet wisdom is its own inspiration. The wise Prayer of Manasseh, like the good Prayer of Manasseh, is satisfied from himself, and in storm and calm, by night and by day, he pursues his way, quite sure that the end will justify his forecast and reward his patience.
Almighty God, thou art always calling us to larger life and larger liberty and deeper joy. Thou dost call upon us to advance, to grow, to ascend; thy whole speech to us is one of welcome and invitation to higher and securer places. We bless thee for this animating call, because it saves us from despair, and slothfulness, and neglect. May we hear thy voice, and obey it with all the eagerness of love; then shall we grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. We bless thee for the unsearchable riches of thy Son: who can discover them, or estimate them, or set a value upon such wealth? May we know that we are rich in Christ, and can never be poor any more, because all his resources are placed at our disposal. He was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, that we through his poverty might be made rich. May we be rich in faith and love and all grace, and show our confidence in thee by daily trusting thee more and more, under all the burdens and in all the exigencies of life, with its poverty and its pain. Call us nearer to thyself, and hearing the call may we answer it joyfully; may all our cry be, Nearer, my God, to thee! We cannot be too near the Fountain of life, the Spring of all joy. Enable us, therefore, to feel the restlessness of spiritual discontent with all our present attainments, in order that we may be urged onward to the rest which comes through perfect sympathy with the Son of God. We pray that our sins may daily be forgiven through the blood of the everlasting covenant, through all the priesthood which that blood represents. Through Christ has been preached unto us the forgiveness of sins; we have heard of his spiritual release, and we are filled with hope and gladness: may we enter into the blessed experience of this liberty, and thus have a joy unspeakable and full of glory. We have wandered far: call us home again;—we have left the city and lived the desert life: may we return from the desolation of the wilderness, and find home and security in God"s Jerusalem. Amen.
Personality In Evil
We have often taken occasion to point out how easy it is to destroy. The illustrations which instantly crowd around the subject are as obvious as they are innumerable. One touch may damage what it would require hours to repair. A child can pluck a flower, but no angel can put it in its place again. A frightful illustration that of some of the great moral processes which men may accomplish! To pluck the soul out of God really means to destroy the soul; because it is then cut off from the currents of vitality, and dispossessed of all that sustenance which is essential to the maintenance of the spiritual life. No man can put himself back again into God, so to say; nor can any angel do this work of reunion: but in the gospel of Christ it is distinctly declared that by the power of grace dead men may live, and even those who have committed spiritual suicide may rise again in the power of God. We need not hesitate to describe this as a miracle, for we gain nothing by lowering our terms, or robbing them of all their highest meanings, merely to please the carnal reason; regeneration must be regarded as the supreme miracle of God, and spoken of as such with thankfulness and reverence. We all know how true is the doctrine of the text in material things. It is the same in all social relations. For example, ask about a man"s commercial standing in a doubtful tone, and that very doubtfulness has fastened a stigma upon the reputation in question; not a word may have been spoken which if put into print could be regarded as otherwise than respectful and even reasonable, but the whole meaning was twisted by the suggestive tone in which the inquiry was put. For this reason we can never understand any mere report of proceedings; we must ourselves have been present and noticed the spirit and attitude and tone of every speaker. This is the great advantage of examination and cross-examination in a court of law. Judge and jury see the witnesses, form an opinion of their appearance, hear the tone in which questions are asked and answered, and thus are able to bring living evidence to bear upon that which is merely verbal. The soul is the man. Bring an accusation against any one, and the charge may be remembered when the defence is forgotten; years after an enemy may feel himself entitled to ask whether once a very serious accusation was not brought against this or that man. This he may pretend to do with the utmost innocence; he may find it convenient to forget the reply which was made, it being enough for his malign purpose to suggest the existence of the accusation, though at the time it was overwhelmed and destroyed. Say that a man is "not sound in the faith"; nay, it is unnecessary to go so far as to make a positive assertion,—inquire whether a man is not sound in the faith, and irreparable injury is inflicted upon that man"s reputation. The accuser has always a great advantage over the vindicator. The human heart, explain it as we may, is predisposed to believe evil. We seem to like to hear evil of one another: it touches our love of gossip; it excites our curiosity; it appeals to our imagination; it slakes the thirst of our depravity. You will find it to be true in human life that a wicked report is more freely circulated than a good one. Send about the report that such and such a friend is a good Prayer of Manasseh, and the report may be listened to inattentively, and circulated with extreme reluctance, if circulated at all. The information that a man is good often goes in at one ear and passes out at the other. On the other hand, circulate a report that the very same person is far from what he ought to be in point of moral character, and the report will seem to take the wings of the wind, and to fly in every direction; again and again it will come up against the man like a hot blast; questions will be asked, attitudes will be assumed, inferences will be drawn from the most unsuggestive circumstances, and around the man an atmosphere will be created in which he can hardly breathe.
A fact so melancholy as this ought to teach us something. A fact so malignantly influential ought not to be lost, especially upon those of us who profess to follow Christ. Such a fact should supply us with a test by which to judge evil reports. We shall know ourselves to be in Christ, and to be breathing his spirit, when we encounter all evil reports with severe suspicion. We should never present a listening ear to the man who has evil to speak of his neighbour; simply because we know that evil exaggerates itself, and is exaggerated by its reporters, and that cruel and even murderous words are easily spoken, and are often lightly remembered by the man who speaks them. It is an excellent rule in social life instantly to believe every good thing that is said of any man; set it down, magnify it, illuminate it, repeat it everywhere; for it is certain to be true, otherwise it could hardly have been conceived by one man of another. Never let a good action, as done by some other Prayer of Manasseh, perish for want of reputation. On the other hand, distrust every statement against a man"s character; give the reporter to feel that he is doing what to you is a most disagreeable business; when he tells you that he was obliged to hear the report, instantly assure him that he was not obliged to repeat it. Do not be a thoroughfare through which all evil may circulate freely; never consent to be the common sewer of the society in which you live and move; let every talebearer feel that in you he certainly will not have an attentive listener, but rather an adverse and determined critic.
This fact should also diminish the influence of the mischief-maker. He must always be treated as a destructionist. Is it after all so very clever a thing to throw stones at a window? Is he to be petted and fawned upon as a genius of remarkable capacity and energy who scratches with a needle-point the silvered mirror? Is he to be listened to with respect, as a seer and a prophet, who tries by foul breath to dim the fine gold of a great character? Again and again let us teach that there should be no place in decent society for any man who disparages his fellow-men; he should not be listened to; he should be made to feel that tale-bearing is immoral, and that to take away a character is to take away a life. That is really the point to be fixed upon with moral intensity. What is life without character? The character is the man. Many a critic who would hesitate to injure a man"s flesh, is almost eager to impair a man"s reputation. The morality of the Church must undergo a thorough change in all these matters. To whisper that a man is not what he ought to be is really to put a knife to the man"s throat. Let us, therefore, no longer hesitate to call the talebearer an assassin, an Iscariot, a murderer. At all events, we should insist upon having day and date down to the very moment of time at which certain things reported against the man are said to have occurred; living witnesses should be called for; every reference should be verified; and in this way the newsmonger would be made to feel that he cannot be permitted to go through and through society, scattering seeds of evil, but that everywhere he will be encountered with suspicion, judgment, and contempt. Good men should be stimulated to do their difficult part with more zealous diligence. It is easy to remove the bloom from a peach, but it is impossible to restore it. The great cathe-dial which is the work of centuries may be reduced to ashes in a night. How hard it is to build it! How easy to pull it down! As Christians, we have the difficult work to do. How difficult to reclaim a man from an evil habit! How earnestly he is to be persuaded, how carefully watched, how dearly defended! You must neither fear him nor hinder him; you must study his varying moods, and address yourself to his varying circumstances; you must watch for his soul as they who must give an account. Beasts trample down, man must build up; winter desolates, summer renews; war destroys, peace reconstructs: one day of war can overturn the civilisation of a millennium. How hard it is to do good! How difficult to save a soul! We have heard of the white ant which works such havoc in the woodwork of some lands. It is never known what mischief the little insect is doing until its work is completed. Take the door of a house for example: it looks in perfect order; not a single trace can be found in any part of the surface of any mischief having been done; but attempt to open that door, and instantly it will be found that there is nothing but a skin of paint; the white ant has eaten out all the wood, and left nothing which it could destroy. So it may be in our moral relations. Our social standing may appear to be just the same it ever was; not a solitary change may be traceable upon all the surface of our lives; so far as appearances are concerned there may be completeness and attractiveness in our position; but a deadlier enemy than the white ant may have eaten out our character, destroyed our best motives and ambitions, utterly wrecked everything that constituted our noblest manhood, and at a given signal a touch may reveal the real state of affairs, and prove us to have been but painted nothingness. Never forget how easy it is to destroy. Take the most beautiful painting ever executed by human hands, and one daub of paint drawn across it by a ruthless hand destroys all beauty and value. It would appear as if in proportion to the ease of doing harm is the temptation to do it. In this, as in all other things, as we have seen, there is but a step between man and death. To have the power to destroy, and yet not to exert that power, is a terrible temptation to some natures. We have heard of instances in which men could not reason themselves out of a temptation to commit suicide; they seemed to realise with a new and strange delight of consciousness that their lives were in their own power; theoretically they would always have admitted this and treated it as the simplest of commonplaces; but in some particular moment there has rushed upon them the consciousness that they could actually take away their own lives, and the temptation has been suddenly carried to the point of irresistible-ness. We are always within one step of suicide. There is but a word between us and utter destruction. One action of the pen, and our whole character is destroyed for ever. Whilst this is true with regard to the individual Prayer of Manasseh, it may be said to be true in a peculiar sense with regard to social Prayer of Manasseh, and to come upon us in that aspect with strong temptations and seductions; for whilst many men would hesitate to commit suicide, they almost feel delight in committing murder. Yes, we murder men, let me say it again, when we take away their character. Fear not them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do; but hold in deadliest fear the men who would throw a slur upon your character, or in any way filch from you your good name.
The text brings before us the figure of the sinner. Truly he is an old character in human history! We ought to be familiar with his aspect by this time. But our familiarity with him may have bred disregard of his influence. Our efforts are not to be directed against the sinner so much as against the sin. Herein it is that Jesus Christ comes before us as no other reformer ever appeared. He will not merely reason with the sinner, pointing out to him the consequences of his actions, and showing him the better way even from a political point of view; no; he will go further than this; he will address himself to the very springs of life. What he wants may be described not so much as good works as a good worker; therefore he proposes to regenerate the heart, to renew the innermost springs of vitality, and to make man "a new creature": "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things have passed away; behold all things are become new." It is useless to reason with the sinner unless, behind our reasoning, there is the assurance that we can, by the grace of God, bring him to feel that he cannot heal or restore himself, but must be redeemed with an unspeakable price, and regenerated by the mighty energy of the Holy Ghost.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 9". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany