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Ecclesiastes 1:1. The Preacher.] The word properly signifies “The Assembler.” Solomon collected the people together for the purpose of addressing them as a public speaker. A difficulty has been felt in applying this term to him, because in Hebrew this word has a feminine form; but we may regard Solomon as an impersonation of Wisdom, the word for which in Hebrew is also feminine.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 1:1
THE NECESSARY QUALITIES OF THE TRUE PREACHER
I. He has the True Public Spirit. Solomon gave his invitation to all, as in Prov: “Unto you, O men, I call.” The words of the Sacred writer of Israel have a popular character, as distinguished from the writings of heathen nations, which were addressed only to minds capable of lofty speculation. The wisdom of the world despises and spurns away the ignorant. It is addressed to classes—the heritage of the favoured few. But, the true preacher is a public benefactor in the widest sense. He who seeks the highest and most lasting good for man is the genuine lover of the race. His benevolent designs are not circumscribed by sect, country, social position, or mental culture—they are wide as the wants of the soul, which are seen beneath all appearances and disguises.
1. This public spirit is opposed to all selfish ends. The true preacher does not seek wealth—his own glory—has no desire of display. His aim is to proclaim the only remedy for the world’s disease. He is lost in the supreme glory of his theme.
2. It is opposed to all lesser forms of benevolence. Solomon had acquired skill to increase the nation’s wealth, to adorn and beautify cities, palaces, etc. Yet he does not exhort men to attain this power, but rather to seek the Chief Good. The work of the true preacher promotes man’s temporal welfare, sharpens the spur of progress, spreads civilization, purifies and elevates literature. The collateral effects of Christianity are not to be despised. But the great end of the preacher is to convey lasting spiritual good. The good, of which he is the channel, has the stamp of immortality.
II. He has the impulse to utter the Great Verities of Religion. Solomon could not keep his knowledge of Divine truth and fervour of piety in the seclusion of his own mind and heart. He must let it forth for the good of all. The true preacher has an irresistible impulse to utter the message God has given him. Why?
1. Because he has true views of man—his position before God, and his destiny. He has his eye on the four last things. This gives him earnestness, and singleness of purpose.
2. Because he has a Divine call. No mere culture or training can fit a man to be a successful messenger of Divine truth. The true preacher is the creation of the grace of God. The Divine fire, hot within him, will be resplendent without. Every true preacher will be both a burning and a shining light.
3. Because the nature of his message must fill him with compassion, and this has the property of loving to spend itself. The messenger of mercy must catch the inspiration of true charity.
III. He has a Soul-History. Solomon had an eventful history of spiritual conflict with sin, sorrow, doubt, and disappointment. He had attained to peace through a terrible struggle. Woe to that man who has nothing but an outward history—no stirrings of an inner life. It may not be necessary for the true preacher to fight over again all the soul-battles of Solomon, but he must know what moral conflict is—the crisis of victory must have taken place in his life. Without such a history,
1. The symbols of Divine truth will be mere words, having no life or spirit.
2. His utterance of truth will be only professional.
3. He, at best, can only promote the religion of habit, taste, or culture, instead of true spiritual feeling.
IV. He has True Regal Power. Solomon was a Royal Preacher, and every preacher can be royal in his influence over souls. As mental power is superior to physical, so is spiritual to either. The men of literature are monarchs of the empire of mind. But the men who place spiritual principles deep in the heart of humanity have attained the greatest sovereignty beneath the Supreme Majesty. To gain a soul is to enhance the glory of our royal diadem. He who bears witness to the truth is a king. To possess Divine wisdom, and the power to utter it, invests a man with true kinghood. The Apostles still rule the Church by their words.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSE
Ecclesiastes 1:1. The methods God employs in the conveyance of His truth to man are not peculiar to religion. Men seek by spoken and written words to impress their thoughts on other minds. All who would affect public assemblies by speech must use the expedient of preaching. The great masters of knowledge, in every age, were, in their several ways, preachers.
Solomon was the inspired teacher of the people. His words of wisdom were not only uttered by the voice, but they were also made permanent in sacred literature, and so their influence is perpetual. But though the Christian preacher may not commit his words to the immortal custody of the press, they are engraven on human minds and hearts. That which is written on the soul lasts longer than inscriptions on brass or marble, than the still more enduring works of genius, or even than the Bible itself. The writing which God’s truth traces upon the spirit of man will outlast all the imperfect appliances of human learning. If a preacher is inspired by the Spirit, he can write books which will furnish the library of heaven.
Words become ennobled when they are used to convey spiritual ideas. The cross was once suggestive of disgrace and contempt; it now brings to our mind the dear remembrance of the deed of infinite love.
The common expressions of our daily life have deep spiritual significations. Hunger, thirst, truth, freedom, life, death—these words, as the preacher uses them, have meanings of sublime importance. The Holy Ghost can turn the common elements of human language into a celestial dialect. There is a better and a more enduring substance in language than the literature of the world can express.
The words of the true preacher.
3. Gain the affections.
4. Unite true souls here.
5. Prepare souls for the great assembly on high.
Solomon taught the people knowledge. Paul was “preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:31). The preaching that does not teach is worthless.
Talent, logic, learning, words, manner, voice, action, all are required for the perfection of the preacher: but “one thing is necessary,”—an intense perception and appreciation of the end for which he preaches, and that is, to be the minister of some definite spiritual good to those who hear him [J. H. Newman].
Words are the garments with which thoughts clothe themselves. The mind cannot rest in what is vague or diffused: it can only apprehend ideas which have a definite expression. This law of our mental constitution makes the superior revelation of the Gospel a necessity. God has given us an expression of Himself.
1. By the Incarnate Word. Thought itself is invisible. We cannot follow the silent excursions of another’s mind. But speech is thought enbodied. The Invisible God has been manifested forth in His Son—the Divine Word. Logos signifies in Greek, both the word which expresses the thought outwardly, and also the inward thought, or the reason itself. The Eternal Word reveals the Eternal Reason. Christ is the power of God, and the Wisdom of God.
2. By His works. These are the thoughts of God as manifested by material things. Physical science is but the intelligent reading of those ideas of God which have taken form and shape in the universe of matter. Here are the Divine thoughts on beauty, force, mechanism, and contrivance to compass special ends for the welfare of His great family. Nature is a volume whose meaning is ever unfolding, and enhancing our conceptions of the Infinite Mind. “The invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.”
3. By the Scriptures. These are the thoughts of God concerning us men and our salvation. They reveal
(1.) His thoughts on our natural condition.
(2.) His thoughts on the means of our recovery.
(3.) His thoughts on the conditions of our welfare in the great future.
The Church can only be maintained by keeping spiritual thought alive by means of fitting words. The disciples were commanded to “teach all nations.”
A king does not lower his dignity by undertaking the office of a preacher. That sacred calling is honourable, because it is occupied with what is of infinite value and importance—the soul of man. The words of secular speakers are only concerned with the fleeting things of time, but the words of the preacher are concerned with man’s interest beyond the grave.
The statesman deals with the concerns of empires; but empires, though they flourish through a life of centuries, yet ultimately share in the mortality of their founders. The advocate vindicates the claims of individuals whose earthly existence is still more transient; but to the preacher alone is appropriated the assertion of a subject whose extent is infinite, whose duration is eternal. To him alone it is given to consider man in the one aspect in which he is unchangeably sublime. With every other view of his nature the low and the ludicrous may mingle; for in every other view he is a compound of the wondrous and the worthless; but in the contemplation of a being whose birth is the first hour of an unending existence, no artifice can weaken the impression of awful admiration which is the great element of sublimity [Archer Butler].
The Church, by the voice of her teachers, possesses a power to gather men together, and to unite them by the surest bonds. The society thus held together by the ties of a common heritage of truth, experience, and hope, has no elements of decay. Outside the Church, we find disunion and desolation. “We have turned every one to his own way.” Men can never be truly united into one family until they bear the same gracious and loving relations to our Heavenly Father. Success in preaching serves to expand the Parental Empire of God.
Christ is the true Solomon—the true collector of assemblies. He said to Jerusalem, “How often would I have gathered thee!” He will, in the end, collect all His people into one great assembly, and unfold to them the riches of His mind. He has yet many things to say unto us, but we cannot bear them now.
Human language cannot fully reveal the riches of infinite truth. The substance of Divine truth in the Bible is superior to the forms of language by which it is conveyed. The preacher’s best words fall short of the sublime verities of which they are the vehicle.
The garment of man’s speech must be narrower than the body of God’s truth, which by one means or another has to be clothed with it [Trench].
The preacher should be careful in the choice of words, for their right use and ordering is not merely an accomplishment, but is bound up with the interests of truth itself.
The mixture of those things by speech, which by nature are divided, is the mother of all error [Hooker].
The preacher must avoid the danger of accepting the words of religion instead of the things which they represent. There is behind the words a life-giving Spirit, without which they are vain. The advice of Bacon is to the point: ipsis consuescere rebus—to accustom ourselves to the things themselves.
The preacher’s words are a debt due to the Church.
The sun does not monopolize its beams, and engross its light; but scatters them abroad, gilds the whole world with them. It shines more for others than itself; it is a public light. Look on a fountain; it does not bind its streams, seal up itself, and enclose its waters, but spends itself with a continual bubbling forth. It streams forth in a fluent, liberal, and communicative manner; it is a public spring [Culverwell].
Ecclesiastes 1:2. Vanity.] The Hebrew word is Hebel (Abel) the name given to one of the sons of Adam. The subjection of the whole creation to vanity was soon observed and felt.
Ecclesiastes 1:5. And hasteth.] The verb signifies to hanker after, to be eager for. There is a joyous eagerness appearing in the daily course of the sun. The expression corresponds to Psalms 19:5 : “He rejoiceth as a strong man (a hero) to run a race.”
Ecclesiastes 1:13. To seek and search out.] In the sense of to try, or thoroughly to test. The Preacher sought that knowledge which is attained by investigation, as distinguished from that which is arrived at by preconceived opinion, or taken upon trust. By Wisdom.] In the Book of Proverbs, this word is equivalent to piety; but in Ecclesiastes it signifies science or sagacity.
Ecclesiastes 1:15. Made straight.] The exact force of the Hebrew verb is to come into position. The meaning is, there is a seeming imperfection in the world; man cannot bend the stubborn system of things to what he regards as his own idea of the best.
Ecclesiastes 1:17. To know madness and folly.] His aim was to discover the worth of wisdom by its deviation from folly. For this purpose it was necessary to have a knowledge of both. Hieronymus says, contrariis contraria intelliguntur, opposite things are understood by opposite.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 1:2-11
THE LOWEST POSSIBLE ESTIMATE OF HUMAN LIFE A RESULT OF THE DENIAL OF THE SOUL’S SUPREME HOPE
Apart from God and immortality, human life, in all its departments and issues, must be regarded as a failure. “All is vanity.” We have:
I. The failure of all Human Labours. “What profit hath a man of all his labour?” It cannot be denied that work and industry have their uses and rewards—they are necessary to the very existence of society. But they yield no lasting profit for man—they do not put him in possession of the chief good. Why do they fail to secure this result?—
1. Because they do not employ the whole capacity of man. In many departments of industry, work is but a dull and weary round. The same course of things goes on from day to day, without variation. After the first difficulty of learning his task is over, a man works mechanically. Even in those labours requiring great intellectual skill and culture, some of the higher powers of the soul are left unemployed and unsatisfied. The Reason which apprehends eternal truth, and the Conscience which is sensitive to eternal law, may be dormant in the midst of great mental activity. A man may be engaged in the highest earthly work, and yet the sublimest powers of his nature may lie unused.
2. They are only accepted as a sad necessity of his position. Man does not labour because he delights in it; but because he is forced to join in the struggle for subsistence. Human labour is weariness and toil. Even the nobler exertions of the intellect exhaust the powers. The necessity for labour is a bitter draught for man.
3. They yield no lasting good. Some kinds of labour are for the supply of necessities, and some for ornaments to beautify and adorn life. The necessities recur again, and a fresh demand is made. The glories of this life soon clog the sense—they cease to please—there is no felt satisfaction. The fairest scenes soon fade and languish in our eye. All earthly pleasures lack the quality of permanence. The darkness of the shadow of death takes the fairest colours out of life.
II. The failure of the Individual Life. “One generation passeth away,” &c. If we deny man’s supreme hope of being with his God for ever, the highest account we can give of life is—that the race is immortal, but the individual perishes. Humanity survives, but the separate souls which have composed it, which have lived and worked here, are gone for ever. They have come from forgetfulness, and sink thither again. The only constant remainders of all this glory and activity are the earth and man—the type preserved, the individual lost. This rapid extinction of the individual life, as compared with the permanence of the scene on which it is manifested, appears:—
1. From the uses of History. For what purpose is history, but to give us an account of past generations? It is necessary because they are gone. Their voices are hushed, and their thoughts and deeds can only reach us through literature, which embalms the past. History is written that the deeds of men may not altogether fail of renown.
2. From our own observation of Human Life. We see the world around us in fixed and constant outline, and the busy multitudes upon it. But the separate individuals composing these drop away, one by one, out of our sight. “He changes their countenance, and sends them away.” Compared with the ever-during world, the life of man here is but a sudden flash in the darkness of eternal night. This is a melancholy view of life.
(1.) It makes the final cause of man’s existence an inscrutable mystery. If this life be all, we ask—why was such a creature made with capacities which the world itself cannot satisfy? Why should man be endowed with marvellous powers which have no room for expansion here? If there be no immortality, surely man was made in vain.
(2.) Abates the value of every fact in the universe. Our own existence is the fact of the greatest importance to us. What is it to us that even God Himself exists, and that His works will ever furnish a sublime theme for contemplation, if we ourselves sink into eternal oblivion?
(3.) That dead matter has a longer range of existence than human life, is a crushing humiliation for the soul.
III. The failure of Man’s Hope of Progress. If God and the prospect of a future life be shut out, all hope for any real progress for the race is but a delusion.
1. Nature does not indicate such progress. There is everywhere movement, activity and change; but no tendency of things to a higher state. All move in one regular, unvarying round. There is no onward march to the distant goal of perfection. Thus, water appears as vapour in the clouds, as liquid in the river; then it runs into the sea, and is raised to vapour again. It is driven in this endless round from age to age. The winds are lashed around their fixed circles. Even every separate particle of air performs its little journey, to and fro, by an invariable law. Even where there is apparent progress, there is no real advance. Life itself only passes from growth to decay.
2. Our experience of Human Life does not indicate it. The same classes of events constantly recur. History repeats itself. Given the facts of sin—evil propensities, and the forces of temptation, and it is not difficult to predict human conduct. As the underlying facts of depravity are pretty constant, it follows that one age is but the repetition of another. There is nothing absolutely new, even in mental effort. The grandest utterances of genius are but the expression of the inarticulate aspirations, or dumb agonies felt by myriads of minds and hearts long before.
3. There is no real progress, notwithstanding the activity of human invention and discovery. The mind of man will exert itself to fight with his hard conditions. But all his power does not avail to rend the iron bonds of his destiny. Thus, progress in medical science may restore health for a time, but cannot finally turn aside the common fate of death. The dominion of man over nature may be enlarged by his inventions, and his enjoyments multiplied; but the sad and severe facts of our existence still remain. Man by his genius has done much to conquer the wild forces of nature, yet by these he is often vanquished. He has assayed to conquer the winds and the ocean, but tempests and shipwrecks remind him that his sovereignty over nature is not complete. No human power or talent can banish the curse, and restore Paradise.
IV. The Failure of Man’s Hope for Fame. “There is no remembrance of former things,” &c. It is natural to cherish a desire to be remembered. We cannot resign ourselves to the thought that our names and deeds shall quickly be lost in forgetfulness. Hence the restless pursuit of fame. But even this poor consolation is denied us. If we have no hope of living with God hereafter, there is no earthly immortality of any kind for us.
1. The best men are soon forgotten. The wise, the good, and the great of past ages pleased and blessed their generation, and lived for awhile in the memory of posterity; but in the course of revolving years, they have entirely faded out of remembrance. No skill or goodness can preserve the majority of mankind from oblivion.
2. The world’s greatest benefactors are unknown. This is true of the inventors of the most useful arts—of those who have devised principles of action which have changed the currents of a nation’s history—their names are unknown. Those are not the greatest names that survive in history. The men whose thoughts were the deep foundations for changes and events are hidden in forgetfulness. Even the names of the authors of several of the sacred books are unknown.
3. The roll of fame cannot be practically enlarged. The human memory is not infinite. As new names are added to the roll of fame, other names must vanish from it. We can have no consolation from any hope of fame. Let us seek to be dear to the remembrance of God.
OPPOSITE IDEAS OF LIFE: THE MATERIALISTIC AND THE SPIRITUAL. Ecclesiastes 1:2-11, contrasted with 1 John 2:17, John 1:51, James 1:25, Hebrews 11:4.
There are two very opposite ideas of human life—Materialism propounds the one, Spiritual Christianity the other. Let us contrast these two ideas.
I. The one idea represents life as a transient appearance, the other as a permanent reality. Solomon says, speaking out the philosophy of Materialism, “One generation passeth away,” &c. “All is Vanity”—a mere pageant, an empty show. A whole generation is but a troop of pilgrims pursuing their journey from dust to dust. They soon reach their destination and disappear: but the earth, the old road over which they trod their way, “abideth for ever.” To-day I walk through the bustling thoroughfare of a commercial city. Merchants, artizans, the rich, the poor, &c., rush by me. Thirty years hence, a greater throng, it may be, will rush through these streets; but they are not the same men, women, boys and girls. In the view of the Materialist—
“Life’s but a walking shadow—a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more.”
In sublime contrast with this is the teaching of the New Testament: “He that doeth the will of God, abideth for ever.” “He that believeth on Me shall never die.” It is true that the earth is a thoroughfare for generations; but it is not the whole journey of man. All who have ever trod this earth are living, thinking, conscious still.
II. The one idea represents life as an Endless Routine, the other as Constant Progress. “The sun also ariseth,” &c. Solomon saw the sun, the wind, the rivers moving in an invariable circle, returning ever to the point whence they set out. He compares this to human life—a mere endless routine. It is true that nature moves in a circle—that the motion of all organic life is from dust to dust. This is, says the Materialist, but a figure of man’s moral history; there is no progress, it is an eternal round. Place against this the idea of Spiritual Christianity: “Hereafter ye shall see heaven open,” &c. Souls do not revolve in such fixed cycles. Their destiny is not to roll, but to rise. The true path of the soul is like Jacob’s ladder, “from glory to glory.”
III. The one idea represents life as Unsatisfying Labouriousness, the other as Blessed Activity. “All things are full of labour.” In every part of nature, hard work is going on. It is especially so in human life. There is labour of the brain as well as of the muscle. Materialists say that this labour is necessarily unsatisfying. This is true to him. Labour, if not inspired by the right spirit, fails to yield true satisfaction. On the other hand, Christianity teaches that labour need not be unsatisfying. A good man is “blessed in his deed.” Labour inspired with the spirit of love to God will be eversatisfying.
IV. The one idea represents life as Doomed to Oblivion, the other as Imperishably Remarkable. “There is no remembrance of former things” &c. Men and their doings are speedily lost in forgetfulness. Time wipes out the names of famous men from the most durable marble—moulders the metal, stone, parchment and paper on which they were inscribed. Such is the gloomy idea of Materialism, and it is partly true. Posterity soon forgets the greatest of its ancestors. Yet they are remembered by their friends, and their God. No soul can be forgotten. The good man “being dead, yet speaketh.”
Christianity teaches that man will ever live in the memory of those who love him. The genuine disciple of Christ has his name written in an imperishable book—“the Lamb’s Book of Life” [Homilist].
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 1:2. The duty of teaching, in the imperishable pages of Revelation, the emptiness of earthly glory was not laid upon one who had never tasted it, and who would naturally feel a sense of disgust at what he could not reach. It was Israel’s most magnificent king, whose name was the equivalent for earthly grandeur and state, who was commissioned to preach this lesson to the Church.
This description cannot be applied to God, for He is self-existent, and of infinite glory; nor can it be applied to the whole existence of those who are partakers of the Divine nature. All that is not God—not with Him—not like Him—is vanity.
That the word vanity should most properly describe the state of the world is no reflection on the Creator. Sin has invested the whole scene of man with this terrible property. “The creature was made subject to vanity.”
We have two opposite conditions described in the Bible, “God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.” “All is vanity.” But the fall of man has intervened. The fall of the highest involved a corresponding reduction all along the scale of nature.
The present state of things is not eternal—it is only one of transition. It was not the beginning, and will not be the end of God’s ways. The Gospel has for its object the “regeneration” of Society. The second head of humanity will make all things new. Death, the master-stroke and crowning power of vanity, will be destroyed; the children of God will be delivered from the burden and vanity of earthly existence. This is the hope in which we are saved. (Romans 8:24.)
We must feel our emptiness before we can partake of the Divine fulness. To dwell in our true home—which is God—is the soul’s refuge from the vanity of life.
The soul’s true good springs from another order of things than the present. It can only be secured to us by the kingdom of heaven.
A true sense of the vanity of life shows us our need of God and immortality.
1. It saves us from the false pursuit of happiness.
2. It reconciles us to the loss of the world.
3. It teaches us to prepare for a higher destiny. There is a “better and an enduring substance.” Men are taught by the vanity of life their need of heaven.
There are different ways of meeting this painful fact of human life:—
1. The Stoical. We may harden our hearts, and look down upon the ills of life with the lofty bearing of a severe philosophy.
2. The Epicurean. We may strive to drown all painful feeling in a reckless devotion to pleasure. “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.”
3. The Christian. He projects the Divine glory within him upon the outward world, and regards this life as but one step in the path of eternal progress.
The thinkers of all ages, whether within or without the area of revealed truth, have felt the present disordered condition of the world. This feeling has sometimes led to atheism, and sometimes to some desperate or vague hope. Lucretius could see no hand of Eternal Wisdom in the plan of creation—nothing but a disordered and confused mixture. Man has always felt that Paradise is not here.
Christ will restore Paradise, and usher in a new creation in which will be nothing vain. He will be mindful of that world where He was entertained so long, and which was the nurse of His humanity.
What the Spirit of God meaneth by vanity, the Spirit of God can best tell us; who doth Himself explain it, when the Prophet Jeremiah acknowledgeth, “Surely our fathers have inherited lies, vanity, and things wherein there is no profit” (Jeremiah 16:19). The vanity, then, whereof the preacher speaketh, is the lying promises of contentment which worldly things make, and the no profit which is made of them. “Vanity of vanities,” that is, the vanity of them is even more than vanity: and as if he would say more, but could not, he saith the same again: and lest he should not have said all, yet he addeth, “All is vanity” [Jermin].
This verse, if they who are great in this world were wise, they would write on all their walls and garments, in their common meeting places, in their private houses, on their doors, in their entries, and above all in their consciences, so that they might always see it before their eyes, always consider it in their minds [St. Chrysostom].
Ecclesiastes 1:3. Human labour has some present profit and advantage, it trains the physical, and intellectual powers, gives sustenance, comfort and adornment of life. It prevents man from being vanquished by the powers of nature. But without a divine principle in the soul, and a high aim, the profit it brings vanishes with the departing breath. It wants the stamps of immortality. Life’s labour will not be in vain for those who live for ever in God’s sight.
The curse inflicted upon us signifies something more than the necessity for work. It is labour—all that is painful and distressing in work. In the future world, there will be work in the sense of the highest activity; but, “They rest from their labours.”
If a man has no hope of heaven, where is the profit of all his earthly labour?
1. In any true satisfaction with it. In looking back upon all his labour, a man must discover that it is far from being perfect. He has to lament mistakes, and movements foolish and unprofitable.
2. In true enjoyment. Man, even in the most favourable conditions, has but few days of rapture—painful thought and anxiety damp his pleasures.
3. In the issues of it. When all is done, and he looks into the future, nothing remains but a dreary blank.
He alone has lasting gain who works for a world higher than this.
He who does not find God loses all the labour of his life.
This fruitlessness of man’s labour he doth restrict only to things under the sun, that is, of an earthly and temporary concernment, on which man spends his time and pains which should be employed about things above the sun, or of a heavenly and eternal concernment, which are of a higher rise and nature, and so are expressed by “things above.” … Nothing can be esteemed the true profit of a man’s labour of body and spirit, but that only which will abide, and continue with him; and therefore, his profit cannot in reason be thought to consist in earthly pleasures which are momentary (Job 20:5), nor in “riches which take wings” (Proverbs 23:5), nor in worldly glory which “descends not after him” (Psalms 49:17), but is only to be found in fellowship with Christ, which may be in some measure continued with him along the course of his pilgrimage here, and shall never be interrupted hereafter [Nisbet].
The sun is the master-workman of the world, labouring continually, and labouring under his great Master, God, to minister unto the inferior creatures of the world, as the Hebrew name of it (Shamesh, i.e. to minister or serve), doth notify unto us. Under this master-workman are all other labourers; he calls them up to their labour; he oversees their labour; he appoints unto them their time of ceasing from labour. But although we labour under him, yet unless the end of our labour be for something above him, it will not profit us; unless as he calls us to labour, so we call upon God for a blessing on our labour, we shall have no comfort in it [Jermin].
This speech of Solomon’s is the speech of every soul, when being spoiled of those things which are here, she goeth to that life which is hoped for [Gregory Nyssenus].
Ecclesiastes 1:4. Every object in the material world, by its persistence, preaches to us the brevity of our life. We stand upon our own monuments; the earth is the great tomb of man.
Generations entering life bring with them powers and capabilities; going hence they take away with them character.
How little possession we have of the present world! We cannot carry hence its wealth or glory. But we can bear away the “pearl of great price.”
God does not give to man an earthly immortality. The individual man passes away, and the wastes of death are repaired by fresh life. This arrangement serves:—
1. To abate human pride. No man can glory, or boast himself against God, when he remembers that he has no power over his own life.
2. To curtail human experience and knowledge. There is not time to learn all the lessons of the ages, and to search out all what could be known here.
3. To cast the soul upon God. He remains when generations pass away.
The whole company of men and women upon the face of the earth are in a continual motion towards death and eternity: whatever they be doing, their course that way is never interrupted. And therefore as every man in particular should look upon himself as being shortly to bid farewell to all his earthly contentments, never to meet with them again, that thereby his heart may be weaned from delighting in them as his portion, that he may be moved to seek after that which will abide with him when he is gone out of the world. He may thus have true comfort, considering that neither his sufferings in the world can be long, nor his combat with his spiritual enemies, nor shall he be long holden from the possession of his blessedness [Nisbet].
The earth the Time-Residence of Man.
1. It is ready furnished. God has prepared it by His power and wisdom. The generations of the past have prepared it by their genius and skill. We enter into the heritage of those who have gone before, are rich with the spoils of time.
2. It is a place of moral education. We are here to be trained for a superior life.
3. It may be made the first stage in eternal progress. God always begins with the lower, and imperfect stages—darkness before light,—chaos before order,—“First that which is natural, and afterwards that which is spiritual.”
The passing away of generations does not interfere with their relations to God. He is God of nature, but much more of man. He will not suffer His own image to be effaced by death. The generations who pass away still live before Him. Thus the dominion of God over intelligent creatures is ever enlarging.
The earth remains:—
1. As the scene of moral trial for successive generations.
2. As the scene of depravity, and of redemptive power.
3. As the scene of restored Paradise.
The melancholy sadness which touches the heart, when reflecting upon the rapid flight of the generations of men, appears in the earlier poetry. Thus Homer:—
The race of man is like the race of leaves:
Of leaves, one generation by the wind
Is scattered on the earth; another soon,
In spring’s luxuriant verdure, bursts to light.
So with our race; these flourish, those decay.
[LORD DERBY’S TRANSLATION.]
Ecclesiastes 1:5. The sun cannot break away from the line of his course in the heavens, nor can man by all his boasted skill get rid of his sad inheritance of sin, want, weakness, and death. All human beings are driven through this sad and weary round.
The course of the sun an emblem of human life.
1. The rising sun is an emblem of the freshness and eagerness of youth. The youth is longing to enter into the serious business of life—“Eager to run the race his fathers ran.”
2. The sun’s course in the heavens is an emblem of the untried day for man. Whether the day will be clear or dark is uncertain. What will he become? is a question we may ask tremblingly of every child.
3. The setting sun is an emblem of the manner of our departure from the world. We may sink down in the terrible gloom of sin, or our evening sky may be pure.
This frailty of man is illustrated by the sun, who keeps a constant, orderly, and swift motion toward the place of his rising and setting; and he is said to “haste toward” (or “pant after,” as the word signifies) the Orient, or place of his rising, because, however, his motion be no less swift toward the Occident, or place of his setting; yet his rising is most desired and remarked by men. But as for man, when he has once gone down to death, he shall rise no more to the enjoyment of his earthly contentments, and therefore these are not to be sought after as his chief happiness [Nisbet].
The reign of law is a theme for grateful and admiring contemplation; yet, it must be confessed, that this endless uniformity of nature has a depressing influence on the human heart. Nature preaches no doctrine of a sublime progress—she seems to forbid the soul to rise into a freer element.
Ecclesiastes 1:6. The wind appears to be a wild and irregular power, yet it is under the control of law. The most furious storms run their cycles in obedience to the eternal conditions laid upon them by the Creator. So human history may seem to be but a succession of events without order or plan, but there is a Supreme Governor over all.
Our eye cannot trace or follow the wandering courses of the wind,—nor can we trace the ways of God through human history.
We have here the vanity of man compared to the wind; and though that may be conceived to be of all things most vain, most light; yet here man’s vanity is shown to be greater. And whereas Job saith, “O, remember that my life is wind”; the Preacher saith, that it is more vain than wind. For though the wind pass on speedily, and pass away quickly, though most inconstantly it pass from place to place, and every way turneth itself, which our translation hath “whirleth about continually,” yet it returneth still, and going from the world, it cometh back to the earth again. But it is not so with man; and that which Job speaketh of himself, is true of every man, “when a few years are come, I shall go the way whence I shall not return.”—The passing breath of man’s life hath no return. But though man being gone from his natural life cannot return, yet being gone from his spiritual life, he may and should return. And like the wind, having wandered here and there, and whirled about continually in the giddy mazes of iniquity, it were good that he would return according to his circuits, and go back to God by the contrary courses of amendment. We are to return:—
1. From a foolish mirth.
2. From an unprofitable sadness.
3. From a vain ostentation.
4. From a hidden pride. For these being the vanities of the world, from these we must return in order that we might go to God, and come to happiness [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 1:7. The river, as it runs into the sea, is an illustration of human life. It rises in obscurity, and after a longer or shorter course, falls into the great ocean. Some rivers are insignificant, others run through many countries, and give names to towns along their banks. But all have one common destiny. Such is the life of man—obscure in its beginning, of greater or less renown in its progress, and in its close disappearing in the great ocean of eternity.
When a river is kept within its banks, it carries life and fertility far and wide: but when it overflows its banks, spreads destruction. So human life, when it leaves the channels of truth and right, only spreads evil and sorrow.
God preserves the balance of the powers of nature, appointing all things by weight and measure. Shall He not be as careful and exact in His moral government of man?
The rivers run toward the sea, and yet the sea is never full, because the waters are drawn up thence into vapours and clouds to distil down upon the earth, to water it, and fill the rivers again. But as for frail man, he is carried away as with a flood, and never returns again to the enjoyment of his earthly pleasures [Nisbet].
Saint Gregory in a moral sense applieth this verse unto preachers, who having studied and meditated of heavenly things, do then send them forth for the watering of the Lord’s fields; and when they have done so, do then return to study and meditation again. Because unless they do this, “an inward ignorance will dry up the outward words of their preaching” [Jermin].
Let us comprehend that we can only then be happy and make others happy, when, as nature unconsciously obeys natural laws, we obey with clear consciousness the commands of virtue and the laws of nature for the spirit-world [Wohlfarth].
Ecclesiastes 1:8. There is no pause in the battle of life. Man must wage a continual warfare against want and death, or else be vanquished.
There is a sense of languor and weariness in all human effort. Nothing goes on with lively vigour, but everywhere the spurand the whip are required. The earth will not yield her fruit to man with ease and profusion—it must be wrested by hard labour.
Labour is not an unmixed evil. The good Providence of God has mitigated the curse, and made it full of blessing. Labour has stimulated invention, and developed the powers of man. Nature offers opposition to him; hence the plough and the ship. He is born ignorant; hence the school, where he labours to conquer that condition. Labour has served to modify the virulence of depravity. How much worse would human nature be, were the necessity for labour done away with? The bonds of toil have done much to restrain the fierce passions of men.
To the pious soul, labour only tends to sweeten the prospect of heaven. Rest will be delightful after toil.
Language breaks down under the task of representing the greatness and extent of the labours of men. No one mind can understand every department of human industry. Words fail fully to represent the present world—how much more the activity and glory of the invisible kingdom!
The abundance of phenomena which presses on eye, ear, and the remaining senses, is endless; there are always objects which the eye must see, does see, and brings to him who would gladly close his labours [Hitzig].
The issues of men’s labours are unsatisfactory. When the utmost is done, the eye and ear desire more. The void, produced in the soul by the fall, cannot be filled up by wealth, worldly glory, or even by the superior treasures of the intellect. No mere idea, or vague sense of some mysterious power, but the Living God alone is the satisfying portion. A nature capable of being filled with all the fulness of God must be discontented with any other portion.
The soul’s powers of inner vision and hearing are satisfied when God appears.
Such is the curse which the Lord hath put upon all earthly things sought after as man’s best portion, that his unsatisfaction after attainment of them is no less than it was in the pursuit; but rather still growing, as thirst doth in some distempered persons, by drinking. Till lost man close with God, reconciling Himself to him in Christ, and hear the joyful sound of His Spirit speaking pardon and peace through the promises, had he never so great plenty of sensible delights (in themselves never so ravishing), this may still be truly said of him, “the eye is not satisfied,” &c. [Nisbet].
It is a great mercy, always to receive for the supplying of our want, and never to want the need of receiving [Jermin].
The immortal essence of the soul can by no means repose in the empty creature; it seeks ever farther, and will ever have more; it is a fire that burns without ceasing, and would gladly seize all things [Berleb. Bible].
Ecclesiastes 1:9. If we understand these words of the things themselves, and of the works of God, they would not be true. For God is every day doing what is new; but we do nothing new, because the old Adam is in all. Our ancestors abused things just as we abuse them Alexander and Cæsar had the same disposition; so had all Kaisars and Kings; so have we. As they could never be satisfied, so never can we; they were wicked; so are we [Luther].
The study of history affords no hope that man, by any power of his own, can rise above the vanity of his condition. Human life of to-day contains no element which past generations did not possess—there is nothing fresh. As the old was bad, it is an evil that there is nothing new.
With advanced civilization there is a multiplying of the enjoyments of life, and a refinement of pleasure. But this does not bring us nearer to complete satisfaction—to the chief good. New appliances for comfort only generate new wants, and what was at first a luxury, becomes a necessity. We may add new links to the golden chain of pleasure, but only to increase the power of it to bind us faster.
We cannot be altered from below, but only from above. “Behold I make all things new,” is the regenerating word for man. The new creation begins where vanity begun—with man. When he is created anew in Christ, all things will be new.
The delights of novelty are only prepared for man in Christ. He alone can give us material for new songs. Our life here is a weary round—a depressing sameness, but heaven is eternal progression in light and love.
Our longing for something new is a proof that religion is necessary to bring true rest to our soul. Man expresses the voice of nature, which seems to be restless and uneasy in its present bonds, and to yearn for perfection.
Even in the things of the material world which surrounds us, there is an element of life, a yearning of what is bound, which, like that of the Memnon statue, unconsciously sends forth symphony, when the ray touches it from above [Schubert].
1. There is no new earthly delight to be found out by men, besides one of these three idols, pleasure, profit, and honour, which the men of this world have always, since the beginning, been worshipping.
2. Nor is any new course to be found out for attaining these, the like whereof for substance, and no less effectual for the end, hath not been essayed before.
3. Nor any new success of these courses to be expected, but the same disappointment and vexation their fathers had found to deter their children from idolatrous courses (Jeremiah 16:19) [Nisbet].
In order to the solid satisfaction of man’s soul, there must be a newness, either of the kind of the delights which he enjoys, or of the relish and sweetness he finds in them; which is only to be had in things spiritual and heavenly, in fellowship with God, and tasting how gracious He is; which is no less fresh, sweet, and new, even after many tastes of it, than it was at first. Yea, the oftener any taste spiritual comforts, the sweeter and newer they are; but the most desirable of earthly delights, the more they are enjoyed, the more they are loathed. So that they become old in a moment, and sooner than they can be called new [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 1:10. Men suddenly rejoice in some boasted discovery for healing the hurt of humanity. See, this is new! But the old wounds still remain. The true Healer of man is Divine, and comes from above.
Panting after this illusion of novelty is a sign of secret dissatisfaction. It robs us of that quietness which is the only solace of our life.
Politicians trace the evils of society to bad laws, and by reforming legislation endeavour to increase social happiness. But no alteration of outward circumstances can restore the soul to true happiness and peace. When the light of life shines within, all things become transfigured by that light.
To be acquainted with the history of past events, especially that which is recorded in Scripture, is of singular use to the people of God to guard them against offence, fretting, or being discouraged at the apprehended newness of their trials, or temptations; and to draw their hearts from following those sinful courses, which others have in their experience proved to end in so much vexation. And while we are taken up with any earthly delight as new, we prove ourselves to be unacquainted with things that have been before, and like children brought from the country to some great city, and there ravished with every trifle as new, which experienced persons are not affected with [Nisbet.]
Ecclesiastes 1:11. The vast mass of human deeds are buried in oblivion. History gives but a scanty outline of what has been. “One Cæsar lives, a thousand are forgot.”
Even literature fails to preserve some from forgetfulness and neglect. Libraries are often the cemeteries of departed reputation. The books which are never disturbed in their dusty beds speak eloquently of the failure of many to secure a lasting fame, though they were above the average of humanity.
The world soon forgets even those who have blest it with good words and deeds. Nothing can save us from the fate of oblivion but a place in the infinite memory of God. The good, in whatever world, are in God’s sight—ever in His remembrance. “Nevertheless, I am continually with thee.”
It is some kind of preservation of things that are not, that they are not forgotten; and because this might seem to mitigate the vanity of worldly things the Preacher showeth that there is “no remembrance” of things, neither of “former things,” nor of things present when they shall be gone, neither of things which shall be. So that as Hugo de Sancto Victore speaketh: “Not only their presence by perishing is taken away, but their memory also by oblivion is blotted out. Wherefore let this check the great minds of some, who think to do some great thing by which they will be remembered, and let it make them to seek after righteousness; for it is the memory of the righteous that is blessed” [Jermin].
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH. Ecclesiastes 1:12-18
SPECULATIVE WISDOM APPLIED TO THE FACTS OF EXISTENCE
I. The exercise of it is Divinely appointed for all. “God hath given this sore travail to the sons of men.” We are not left to choose whether or not we will think upon the mysteries of nature, of human life, and destiny. We are bound to exercise thought and investigation.
1. By the nature of the powers of the human mind. We cannot be content with a passive, indifferent gaze upon the world around us, and the scene of man. We are constituted by our Creator speculative beings. In the pauses of the world’s labour, a sense of the harmony of nature is forced upon us, we feel ourselves in the presence of some mysterious Power. Man is conscious of wants and cravings which belong not to the body. He has pains and pleasures in which the physical part of his nature does not share. The mind is ever groping for some solvent idea that will adjust the discrepancies that appear in this life. Man cannot rest in merely seeking the satisfaction of his bodily wants, and in studying the system of nature only as it affects these. He must speculate upon nature, himself, society.
2. By the necessities of our present position. Man must maintain his sovereignty over nature, must bear undisputed sway over the wildest animals, and win spoils and tribute from the mine, the forest, the ocean, and the air. Without thought and the power of contrivance, he must soon cease to be lord of this lower world; for in all other respects, the brute creation would be his superiors. Man holds his position by the power of reason. He is forced to reflect upon the facts of his mysterious existence, as it touches, at one extremity, all that is vile and base; and on the other, all that is noble and divine. Hence the religious instinct in man, which no culture, or refinement, or boasted supremacy of reason, can ever destroy.
3. No superiority of outward condition can discharge us from the necessity of this exercise. “I was king.” High social position, and profusion of earthly splendour cannot shut out thought and reflection on the system of nature, and the painful mystery of life. Pleasure, and a lofty feeling of importance cannot wholly occupy the mind. Pale and anxious thought can break through the charmed circle of kingly dignity.
II. The Issues of it are Unsatisfactory. Mere human knowledge and speculation upon the mysteries of life, yield no results of permanent value.
1. They do not satisfy the intellect. However wide the empire of science may expand, the mind will pant after the undiscovered regions beyond. The vain pursuit, without the help of revelation, of the ultimate truth concerning nature, man, and God, must ever keep the mind unsatisfied.
2. They do not satisfy the heart. The heart has infinite longings beyond the power of expression, and a faculty of vague prophecy of some glory beyond the experience of this life. It cannot be satisfied by human speculation or science; it must meet the loving heart above. It longs to know of a love which is powerful, and a power which is kind. The investigation of matter, force, of the vast machinery of nature, were we conscious of no loving heart above, would be painful. Knowledge and speculation, which must end with death, have poor comfort and hopeless issue. We can have no true consolation unless we feel that there is life above and on before.
3. They are powerless to improve the condition of which we complain. The vanity to which creation is subject cannot be removed by our wisdom, ingenuity of contrivance, or of speculation.
(1.) Man cannot alter the system of things in accordance with his own ideal of the best. “That which is crooked cannot be made straight,” i.e., brought into position. In the arrangements of the world there are, apparently, imperfections. We can imagine a kinder, less destructive, and more peaceful system of things. While pain, suffering, death, and decay remain, this life cannot be the ideal best. But we have no power to alter the frame and disposition of nature, nor the hard conditions of our life. There are mysteries, anomalies, and crooked things in human life; but we cannot bring them to an ideal perfection.
(2.) Man cannot supply fatal defects. “That which is wanting,” &c. Mere human wisdom sighs in vain for that which would restore the lost harmonies of creation, but it will not be supplied. The lost and forgotten spell of power is only supplied to the new man in Christ, who lives in a new creation.
III. The Divine Purpose in it has a moral significance for Man. “To be exercised therewith.” The intention of God hereby is to afflict man’s mind, and to humble him.
1. His pride of power is humbled, so that he might feel his need of redemption. When a man feels that his own strength is of no avail, then he has a motive for depending on the strength of God. He wants a strong deliverer. The boast of power is but empty and vain when a man feels that there is no one to save him from death.
2. His vain presumption of wisdom is humbled. God allows man to try the strength and capacity of his mind in the application of his speculative wisdom to life; gives him difficult problems, as a severe discipline, so that his reason might be humbled. This exercise is a pain and a perplexity. Pain and suffering have a tendency to throw the mind back upon itself, and to force us to seek relief in another.
IV. The Difficulty is only increased by Superior Powers of Investigation. “In much wisdom is much grief,” &c. An increase of human knowledge and power of speculation does not banish the painful impression the scene of life makes upon the mind.
1. Some subjects of investigation are painful in themselves. History is chiefly a record of oppression—wrong—cruelty—war. The history of the conflict of opinion reveals base passions—pride of intellect—great mental labour, ending at last in some pitiful and controverted conclusion. We feel that, after all, human wisdom has done little to settle the great questions—the mystery of life, and the ultimate destiny of man. Even Ecclesiastical History is a fearful record of ambition, strife, and corruption of the truth. The more knowledge of this kind, the more material for melancholy reflection.
2. The results of our investigations fail to satisfy the whole of our nature. Science only gives us facts and laws, not a personal God. The study of mankind intensifies our pity—our suspicion; or awakens envy—aspirations in us that will never be satisfied. Our studies of nature and of man, as far as they are guided by human wisdom alone, only tend to make us sad. They leave the deepest yearnings of the soul unsatisfied—we still cry out for the “Living God.”
3. There is an oppressive sense of imperfection when we have done our best. The increase of knowledge only convinces us of our hopeless ignorance; the infinite unknown rises up before us to humble our pride. The more deep and extensive our study, the more it is seen how one subject is closely related to another, till we are forced to despair of surveying the whole scene of truth, even from the loftiest elevation of the mind. If there be not an Infinite Intelligence, the whole universe cannot be comprehended by any one mind. The little knowledge, which is all the wisest can attain to, is humbling—a sorrowful portion.
4. Mere human knowledge, as far as the individual is concerned, is of brief duration. “Art is long; life is short.” If this life be all, our own wisdom must soon perish. Why trouble ourselves, if life is so soon to end for ever, to gather stores of knowledge, only to increase the tenderness of our nature to all painful impression?
“Who would put forth one billow from the shore,
If the great sea be—Death?”
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 1:12. The Royal Preacher had full opportunity for a practical acquaintance with the theme of his discourse. He tried the world at its best; and if it had any solid joys, he could have discovered them.
High social position, and the activities of public life, are favourable to large and correct views of human things. A practical man is able to form juster views than a recluse. Theories of human nature, shaped by lonely meditation, away from the busy activities and strifes of men, are often dispersed by the stern facts of life. The true instructor of the Church mingles with men.
“In Jerusalem”—the home of Divine Revelation. Solomon had the advantage of studying the inspired records. He possessed a national history in which the hand of God could be plainly traced. He was the representative of God in a political system where Divine laws ruled national life—the first outline of that Kingdom of God which a greater than Solomon came to establish.
The true preacher arises from the midst of the Church. He has Divine facts. He enters into the possession of the rich heritage of the past.
He had not yet put off his royal robes, he had not yet laid aside his crown; and yet, considering the vain uncertainty, and speedy passing away of worldly greatness, he rather affirmeth himself to have been than to be. “I was King” [Jermin].
The eminency of a man’s place and employment, whether ecclesiastical or civil, as also the dignity and privileges of the people over whom he hath charge, should be so far from making him slack and negligent in pains for bettering his gifts—as if his measure of these were sufficient already, seeing he is so employed—that on the contrary, the consideration thereof should stir him up to the greater pains and diligence, that he may grow in abilities for the more faithful and successful discharge of his employment; for the consideration of Solomon’s office in the Church and State of Israel may be looked upon, as here mentioned by him, as a special motive to that exceeding great diligence afterwards described [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 1:13. In all real study, the heart must be engaged as well as the head—there must be desire as well as power.
Love is always ready to explore its object.
We must not be content simply with a knowledge of the facts of human history. We should study the principles underlying them, and their tendencies—their bearing upon the purposes of God here, and hereafter.
The most precious things of truth lie not on the surface, before the careless eye. They are hidden in the depths, and greatly embedded, and can only be gained by laborious toil. The best teachers can but tell us where to dig for the precious ore: the labour which puts us in possession of it must be our own.
God is educating the human race by forcing upon everyone the painful problems of life—by the discipline of sorrow and humility—also, by means of punishment.
Even the inspired teachers of the Church had necessity for laborious study and thought. The Church should value the products of long and careful meditation.
“To search out … concerning all things that are done under heaven.” This involves—
1. The study of moral helplessness. The facts of evil, in human conduct, must be admitted. Unaided by a Divine power, man cannot lift his own burden—he must lie crushed by the load. 2 The study of a severe moral conflict. The grace of God is in the world opposing sin, and modifying the facts of depravity. As a resultant of these forces, this world is neither a Paradise nor a Hell.
3. The study of great possibilities for the future. The consequences of human conduct are projected beyond the world. The great harvests of thought and action only ripen in eternity. Man, in his degradation, still has powers capable of God, and of all the improvements of eternity.
He who came to us from above the sun can alone redeem us from all the evils under it.
There is nothing which God hath made, or doth, neither anything which He ordereth, or permitteth to be done, but it deserveth man’s serious thoughts, as that from whence he may learn something for his profit. The study of the creatures will proclaim to him the glorious properties of his Maker. The study of human affairs may teach him what is for the advantage of his worldly estate, yea, even the greatest miscarriages in the world may afford him either matter of caution to beware of the like, or of praise that men are restrained from miscarrying further, or of comfort that God is bringing good out of it. The children of God may lay out their wit sometimes in considering what happiness the creatures and human endeavours about them can yield, still putting the same in the balance with what is to be had in communion with the Lord, so that comparing Christ, the true Apple-tree, with the trees of the wood, “His fruit may be the sweeter to their taste;” and comparing the excellent knowledge of Him with what may be known and enjoyed of other things, these other things may become dross and dung in their esteem [Nisbet].
Behold here the royal student, and see the matter, the method, the manner, the diligence of his studying.
1. The matter is “all things that are done under heaven,” as the ethics of the manners of men, the civil histories of the deeds of men, the natural history of the works of God.
2. The method of his study we have, in that it is said, “by wisdom,” for that is the only right method of well seeking anything. Method is the wise part of study, but an unwise method is a methodical folly.
3. The manner of his studying we have in that “he sought and searched.” He sought things unknown, and searched deep things.
4. The diligence of his studying we have in that he gave his heart unto it. He went about it not only with a willingness, but with a love which locked him up, and held him hard unto it [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 1:14. If men had only disappointment of their hopes to look for, while they neglect the new and living way to felicity, and seek happiness in vain and sinful courses, their misery were the less. But besides this, they shall find the issue of their course to be an eating up and gnawing away of their spirit, and that they have been feeding upon the wind, while delighting in things earthly as their best portion. Such is the signification of the original words “All is Vanity and Vexation” or gnawing away of the spirit, or feeding upon the wind [Nisbet].
The most diligent study of human life only reaches the miserable conclusion, that “All is Vanity.” Yet, an exercise yielding no satisfactory results in the looked-for direction, may be salutary. God often educates the human race by failure. Amidst the wreck of our earthly hopes, we are ready to grasp the hand stretched out to save, and to draw us to the shores of life.
Worldly things do not feed our souls, but rather the hunger of our souls [St. Bernard].
The “Vanity,” etc., may be referred unto his seeing and knowing, the knowledge of man being such as is full of vanity and unquietness,—unquiet in the getting; unquiet being gotten, lest forgetfulness should lose it again; and vain where it is greatest, because it is far from the perfect discovery of anything. For this world, and the things in it, are a book of that largeness and greatness, that none is able to read it over [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 1:15. Mere earthly wisdom and skill fail to bend the perverse direction of human things into the true position. Sin has produced this deformity. In the world above, there is nothing crooked: all is exact—regular—beautiful.
Men have tried several expedients to lessen the evils of life, and to perfect society,—the dominion of arms—wise government—education—the supremacy of the church—the assertion of the social principle. But none of these can bring about a state of things in which all will go on smoothly. In the best ordered conditions of society, there must be imperfections which man can never remedy. Our only hope for the world is the answer to the prayer, “Thy Kingdom come.”
Even when our souls are renewed by grace, the evils of life remain. Grace does not straighten the natural crookedness of things. “The body is dead, because of sin.” All the world’s glory leads to the grave, and death is the sum of all vanity.
Whatever is wanting to make the world and man perfect, we cannot supply from hence. The true remedy for our fatal defects is not a philosophy, but a revelation.
When the perfect world is displayed to the inner vision, we are reconciled to the irregularites of the present.
With man in this life, the quid est is far below the quid opostet.
The present state is a discipline in Christian toleration. We must acknowledge imperfection, and be content to endure, and to wait for the glory of the perfect world.
1. Before men get grace to choose Christ for their portion, and so to be made new creatures, there is nothing but crookedness, and contrariety in their nature and actions to what is truly good and right in the sight of God.
(1.) Their understanding is crooked, so that it cannot discern things spiritual; and hath upon it strong impressions contrary to the truth.
(2.) Their will is crooked in regard of its averseness both from passive and active obedience to their Maker.
(3.) Their affections are crooked in so far as they loathe and weary of what God approves and commands. They love and delight in what He abhors; whence it is that every step of their walk is a turning aside to their crooked ways.
2. There are not a few things wanting to fallen man considered in his natural estate. He is spiritually destitute. He wants life—health—food—raiment—a sight and feeling of his wants, and the desire to have them supplied. Yea, he wants the art of numbering out his wants to Him that can supply them.
3. The rectifying of this crookedness of man’s nature and actions, and the supplying of his spiritual wants, is a work that surpasseth the power of the creatures, and requireth a creating, infinite power for the doing of it. Only the infinite virtue of Christ’s death can crucify the old man, and make the sinner a new creature; which is to make straight that which is crooked. Only he whose understanding is infinite, who numbers the stars, and hath in Himself all fulness, knows the number of our wants, and can supply them all [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 1:16. It is salutary, at times, to enter the secret chambers of our own heart, to speak freely there, and thus be our own audience. We should know what lies within ourselves—what is the extent of our power. If we would avoid the ruin of our spiritual fortunes, we must learn to take reckoning with ourselves.
The more we commune with our own hearts, the more cause have we for humility; for the best discover imperfections. Yet, as we discover in ourselves powers and capabilities which make religion possible, this duty should serve to inspire hope. The Divine hand has something to lay hold of in man.
The very names of the early kings, who had been before Solomon in Jerusalem (such as Melchizedek), show that they had higher purposes and aims than the other kings of the earth.
Each one should enlarge his original capacity. The gifts of God must be improved by our own industry, or their energy and value will grow less.
A great estate without wisdom does not add to the true dignity of the owner. Wisdom and knowledge are necessary even to extend the uses of riches, and to increase the enjoyments of life. Riches without culture and study only increase the temptation to coarse pleasures.
The experience of wisdom and knowledge is better than wisdom itself, for the habits and principles acquired by long and careful meditation are of greater value than the mere facts of knowledge.
The treasures of the mind become the more endeared by long possession.
The Lord’s people should not satisfy themselves with the simple notional knowledge of the truth, unless they have also the experimental knowledge thereof, which consists in our discerning evidently the things we know in the causes thereof, and by their effects upon ourselves or others.… The more outward advantages and accommodations men have for acquiring knowledge, and the greater inward qualifications, the more should their heart be set upon enriching themselves therewith; otherwise the Lord will challenge them sadly for abusing His gifts contrary to the end for which He gave them [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 1:17. To attain a true knowledge of man, it is necessary to study all the facts of his nature and condition, and not to make a selection of the most pleasant and favourable. Goodness and truth are not only to be investigated in themselves, but also in their counterparts, evil—error—and confusion.
Man does not originate the objects which his science investigates. The specimens are selected by nature. We must accept the facts of human life, however painful the study of them may be.
The knowledge of the world’s madness and folly teaches a man to value true wisdom. The knowledge of disease is necessary to discover the means for the preservation of health.
A close examination of human effort will discover that many actions reputed wise must be charged with folly.
We must study the madness and folly of the world only in order that we might hate and avoid them. Men survey, and lay down in the map, the features of barren and inhospitable countries where they never intend to dwell. They construct charts, which, though they mark the positions of safe anchorage and secure havens, yet, for the most part, indicate the dangers which are to be avoided by the mariner. The rocks and shoals, and sandbanks of life must be studied.
And that he might the better know wisdom, he laboured not only to know it in itself, but to know it also by conparing it with madness and folly, that the foulness of the one might set out the beauty and clearness of the other. And first he sought to know wisdom, that knowing madness and folly, he might as well hate, as know them [Jermin].
Astronomers determine the distance of a heavenly body by observing the different directions it bears when viewed from two positions widely apart. So the observation of man from the extremes of moral conduct (wisdom and folly) is necessary to our complete understanding of his real position in the moral universe.
Ecclesiastes 1:18. This is true.
1. Of the knowledge of nature. As we increase our knowledge of the facts and laws of the universe, our ignorance becomes more and more apparent. There is an ever-deepening sense that the mystery of the ultimate facts of nature retires into closer seclusion, and becomes altogether unsearchable by us. As the sphere of light enlarges, so does the circumscribing sphere of darkness.
2. Of our knowledge of mankind. One result of an extensive study of human nature is, that we have less faith in it as we grow older. Our suspicion increases. The sins and follies of men fill the righteous soul with grief.
3. Of the knowledge of ourselves. The study of our own heart and life gives us reasons for humility and grief. The stronger the light by which we observe ourselves, the more will evils and deformities be revealed.
4. Of our knowledge of the Heavenly World. The more we learn of the nature of that world, the more we have reason to blame ourselves that it has so little effect upon us.
The increase of human knowledge renders the soul more sensitive to influences—increases the power of feeling pain and distress—complicates grief.
Wisdom reveals defects, dispels illusions, and destroys the contentment and fancied security of ignorance. The laughter of fools is loud, for wisdom would chastise the fervour of their joy. The failure of our highest faculties to give us true happiness casts us at the feet of God, “in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life.”
Every increase of the Godly sorrow of the righteous has comfort in the bosom of it, and always joy at the back of it [Nisbet].
All human wisdom labours, and has care and sorrow for its reward; the further wisdom looks, the greater is the labyrinth in which it loses itself. It is with reason as to the eyes with a magnifying glass, when the most delicate skin becomes disgusting, the most luscious dish a mess of worms, and the finest work of art a mere botch. We see the impossibility of removing all inequalities of human society, and we see in it an overwhelming number of faults and failings; yea, the weakness of our senses and judgment leads us to find faults in beauties, because we examine all things only fragmentarily [Harman].
In respect of the contemplation of truth, knowledge causeth delight; but in respect of the things known, it causeth sorrow. Now if they be good things which are known, then the sorrow is from the great labour which a man must take to attain the knowledge of them; and from the little perfection of knowledge to which his great pains hath brought him. If they be evil things which are known, then his sorrow is that he is subject to them [Jermin].
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29