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Ecclesiastes 2:1. I said in mine heart.] The pronoun is emphatic and denotes the importance of the person who is speaking. There are instances of such addresses to the soul in the Psalms. Enjoy pleasure, literally “behold good”—linger with it so as to enjoy it. Here is the germ of the parable of the Rich Fool—Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 2:1-21.2.2
A WISE MAN’S TRIAL OF SENSUAL ENJOYMENTS
We may look upon the troubles and painful mystery of life and be sad; or we may strive to laugh them away. There is a serious, and also a merry mood of treating the dark enigma of our present state. Here we have a wise man making a trial of worldly pleasure, if haply he might find therein relief and satisfaction for his jaded mind. “Therefore enjoy pleasure,” look upon and feed thy desire with every sensual enjoyment. Such a course is not true wisdom.
I. It is a dangerous Moral Experiment. Solomon’s trial of the resources of human wisdom ended in the grief of failure. Now he plunges into pleasure to determine if that will fill his soul, and drown the anxiety of painful thought. But such an experiment is dangerous.
1. Because there is a secret misgiving as to the success of the result. “Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth.” A word of entreaty is used, as if he said to his heart, “O let me try thee again!” All his real convictions were against the hope of success in this trial. He had to rouse himself up to this endeavour—to press his heart to it, as if it had been too slow in the pursuit. Worldly men feel in their heart of hearts that sensual pleasures do not satisfy—that they leave a sting behind, and fret and wear the mind with long regrets. It is dangerous to submit ourselves to what we must confess, in moments of calm reflection, is a delusion.
2. The pursuit of pleasure as an end is a forgetfulness of the great work appointed us here. All pleasure and amusement are not forbidden. But if we make these the end of life, and abandon ourselves to their treacherous illusions, we forget the claims of duty. Whatever lies in the path of the Commandments is ours to enjoy, but we must not stray from that path in search of tempting pleasures. Duty and service claim our first regard. We were not sent into this world by our Maker, like the Leviathan into the sea, merely that we might “play therein.” It is dangerous to run the risk of forgetting the claims of duty, and the high destiny of the spiritual part of our nature.
3. The undue pursuit of pleasure injures every faculty of the soul. The health of the soul is impaired, and the symmetry of it destroyed, by draining off it vital force in one direction, just as the body is deformed and its strength consumed by malignant tumours.
(1.) The understanding is impaired. He who is devoted to pleasure has need only of those mental efforts necessary to devise new modes of enjoyment. The higher powers of the mind remain unemployed. He who would reach intellectual eminence must learn to “scorn delights, and live laborious days.”
(2.) The affections are blunted. The indulgence in worldly pleasures, both coarse and refined, tends to make the life artificial. Beneath apparent gentleness and goodwill, the heart is often hard and cold. The children of soft indulgence can weep over the elegant distress of fiction, but are often unmoved by the real sorrows of life.
(3.) The will is enfeebled. The seductions of pleasure bring it into captivity. The elastic power of it is injured, as steel springs by long compression. The syrens of pleasure paralyze the will.
(4.) The sensibility of the conscience is injured. When we are given up to pleasure and forsake duty, the delicacy and tenderness of our conscience are impaired.
II. It is Moral Insanity. “I said of laughter, it is mad.” In the wild excitement of pleasure, a man loses his claim to rationality—it is but the infatuation of madness. To forsake duty, and allow the senses to run riot, is to dethrone reason. The symptoms of the mental and moral diseases are similar.
1. There is delusion. The insane mind lives in a false and unreal world. The true proportion of things are disturbed. The man of pleasure is not governed by truth and reality: he lives in a delusion.
2. The supremacy of wild passions. The insane man is the subject of uncontrollable impulses. Reason being no longer his guide, he is driven about by the storms of passion; and, like a ship without a rudder, has no power of self-direction. He who lives for this world’s pleasure alone, give up the high command of himself, and becomes the sport of untamed and destructive passions. The world’s loud laughter—which has no reality of deep and abiding joy in it—is but the wild merriment of the maniac.
3. There is an entire perversion of the faculties. The will, instinct, and emotions are all perverted in mental disease. The man who forsakes God, and lives for pleasure, uses none of his powers aright. Such a condition is:—
(1.) Pitiable. We have sympathy with the sick and suffering, but the madman deserves our pity. The votaries of pleasure awake the pity of every righteous soul.
(2.) Beneath the true dignity of man. When reason deserts her throne, the man falls below his true dignity. His sovereign power is gone, the sceptre is wrested from his hand. The image of God becomes fearfully disguised. So the man of worldly pleasure is a slave in the “far country” of evil, when he might be a ruler at home with his God.
(3.) Remediable. By judicious treatment, mental disease may be cured. The sobriety of reason may come again to the distracted man. The disorder of the faculties may give place to perfect soundness of mind. So the prodigal, who has rioted in ungodly pleasures, may “come to himself” by coming to his father. The spirit of a “sound mind” is the gift of God.
III. It ends with Disgust of its own Device. “Of mirth, what doeth it?” The pleasures of the world promise much, but they deceive at last. He who seeks in this way to drown the sense of the sad facts of life becomes at last disgusted with his own device. He first suspects, and then discovers himself befooled.
1. He is deceived as to their depth and intensity. They promise to entrance the soul, and to shut out all painful thought and anxiety. But they cannot accomplish this,—“Even in laughter, the heart is sad.”
2. He is deceived as to their constancy. They promise to entertain the soul all life’s journey through. But they soon clog the senses, and wear out the energy. Even the power of enjoying the world often passes away before the world itself. Pleasure casts her votaries off when they have toyed with her for a season, and the brief delight is turned into loathing and disgust. The soul sorrowfully asks the question which needs and expects no answer.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 2:1. The joy of the world is so constituted that it entails repentance, mortification, and grief; but the pleasure that the faithful find in God is spiritual, constant, satisfying, and inexpressible [Starke].
It is in vain that reason and conscience point out to us one path when the affections urge us in another. If the heart inclines to worldly pleasures, the mind soon becomes a willing captive.
A man’s moral position is determined by what he says in his heart.
The heart must have some object to fasten on; the pleasures of the world, or the joy which God gives.
Language bears witness to the vanity of earthly pleasures. We call them diversions, for they divert the attention from our real miseries. They only serve to make us forget that we are unhappy.
It is dangerous to entice our hearts to such courses as are forbidden by reason and duty. The Children of Israel were warned by the voice of God not to “seek after their own heart and eyes,” that is, they must not make any moral experiments.
If we trust to the pleasures of the world, they will serve us like Absalom’s mule, and slip from under us when we need them most [Morning Exercises].
The Lord hath given this pre-eminence to man above all other creatures in the world, that he can reflect upon his past temper and actions, and commune with his own heart for the future. He should make use of this for restraining himself from sin; for reclaiming himself therefrom when he is fallen into it; for encouraging his heart in duty, especially to trusting in God, and to praise Him. In which, and the like places, are the holy soliloquies of a Christian with himself. When the Lord is provoked to withdraw His gracious presence, man can do nothing but abuse this privilege, to the blowing up of his own corruptions, and encouraging his heart to courses destructive of his own peace and comfort, and which will prove a bitterness to him in the latter end [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 2:2. The laughter of the votaries of pleasure, like that of distracted men, arises from the want of knowing and feeling their true situation—from the want of thought. Calm reflection upon the dark foundations upon which this mysterious life of ours reposes, and the awful truths lying around it, would fill the soul with emotion, and turn the loud rejoicing into the silence of a great sorrow.
In the midst of sinful pleasures, it is well if men have sufficient moral strength remaining to question them, and to suspect their delusive charms.
Worldly mirth ends in vexation, remorse, and disgust; but spiritual joy yields a profit of infinite satisfaction.
In the world, feasting comes first and fasting afterwards; men first glut themselves, and then loathe their excesses; they take their fill of good, and then suffer; they are rich that they may be poor; they laugh that they may weep; they rise that they may fall. But in the Church of God it is reversed; the poor shall be rich, the lowly shall be exalted, those that sow in tears shall reap in joy, those that mourn shall be comforted, those that suffer with Christ shall reign with Him [J. H. Newman].
Even as Christ went not up to joy, but first He suffered pain. He entered not into His glory before He was crucified. So truly our way to eternal joy is to suffer here with Christ [Liturgy, Visitation of the sick].
Mirth effeminateth the virtue of nature, it enfeebleth the strength of the mind, it weakeneth the forces of the soul, it bringeth destruction to reason, it casteth the mist of darkness upon the purity of serene thoughts [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 2:3. I sought in mine heart.] The word has the meaning not of thinking or reflecting, but to prove or assay—to make a moral experiment.
Ecclesiastes 2:8. The peculiar treasure of Kings.] The treasure forced from vanquished heathen rulers, and the voluntary gifts of friendly rulers such as the Queen of Sheba. The delights of the Sons of Men. An obvious reference to Solomon’s excessive animal indulgence.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 2:3-21.2.11
THE WORTH OF THIS WORLD’S PLEASURES FAIRLY TESTED
The experiment to ascertain whether the pleasures of this life have any abiding value for man, was conducted, in this instance, with perfect fairness.
I. It was tried on a sufficient number and variety of cases. Solomon had ample opportunity of tasting every pleasure the age could afford. He did not, like one from some obscure retreat, despise those glories he could not share. He tried them all.
1. He tried coarse pleasures. “I sought in my heart to give myself unto wine.” The excessive indulgence of the lower appetites—such as the intoxication of the senses with wine—promises us a brief happiness. We forget the miseries and painful aspects of life, and enjoy a temporary elevation of soul. The feelings become intense, the mind seems half inspired, life appears as if lighted up with a sudden glare. The graces of intellect and feeling, and even of religious rapture, are imitated in the condition produced by wine. “Be not drunk with wine, but filled with the Spirit,” implies as much. The indulgence of animal instincts was also tried. “The delights of the children of men.” Solomon was a melancholy example of a great soul debased by a wild indulgence of animal passion.
2. He tried those pleasures which feed the desire of display. There is a feeling of pride in human nature which has a natural outlet in parade and show. We court admiration, and the distinction of being an object of envy. Solomon had great riches, tribute from foreign kings, numerous servants, houses, and gardens—all that could support splendour and magnificence. The homage paid to great estate and grandeur increases the outward happiness of this life. Men make wealth and display the standard of honour.
3. He tried those pleasures which minister to a sense of refinement. There are pleasures more exalted than the indulgence of our lower instincts—more worthy of the dignity of our nature. The royal sage employed himself in works of constructive skill—noble architecture, vineyards, gardens, pools of water, groves. He enjoyed the delights of music. Such pleasures engage some of the noblest powers of the mind, they lend a grace and elegance to life, they assuage the troubles of the heart, and they fill up the pauses of sensual pleasures which so soon tire the power of enjoyment. They are more congenial to our better nature. They take us beyond the mere things themselves, and are not unworthy to represent spiritual delights. They furnish a parable of Divine joys. Worldly refinement is a close imitation of religion. They yield but a temporary joy. “For my heart rejoiced in all my labour.” Misery can exist beneath them all, and as they vanish with life they cannot be our chief good. God permits some men to run through the entire scale of human happiness to show others that the best of this world cannot fill the soul.
II. It was tried under the Restraints and Control of Wisdom. “Yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom.” “Wisdom remained with me.” He did not rush headlong into sensual enjoyments, but tested them with calm reflection and composure. He did not allow himself to be blindly led by passion, but was under the guidance of a mind regulated by prudence.
1. Such a course is distinguished from that of the mere voluptuary. Such plunge into pleasure and do not allow the control of the higher faculties. Wisdom is left behind. The man is a slave to passion. Unless the mind retains its supremacy and dignity, our trial of wordly pleasure cannot even merit the poor name of an experiment.
2. Such a course may be expected to yield a hopeful result.
(1.) It saves the soul from utter debasement. When the voice of reason is hushed, and a man is abandoned entirely to sensuality, there is but little prospect that he will escape the snare.
(2.) Conscience is on the side of reason and right; and is effectual when reason is released from the control of passion.
(3.) A man is not condemned to hopeless slavery while his mind is free. He preserves an instrument which can help him to recover his liberty.
III. It was tried with an Honest Endeavour to discover what was the Chief Good of Man. “Till I might see what was good for the sons of men,” &c. It was not the love of pleasure for its own sake that prompted him. The experiment was made in all honesty to find out what, on the whole, was best for the sons of men. We must expect that like experiments will be made in such a world as this.
1. It is not always evident, at first, what is best. A life devoted to wisdom has superior advantages over one of pleasure, yet, for aught we know, the enjoyment of the world’s pleasure may be better for us than a cold and severe wisdom, which only serves to increase our pains and anxieties. The mystery and uncertainty of human things is some justification for making a trial of this kind
2. Practical wisdom can only be gained by experience. This requires repeated trials. We can only be said really to know that of human life which we have ascertained by trial. It is well when life’s solemn lessons are quickly learned, and we become truly wise before worldly pleasure completely injures our moral force, and claims us for her own.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 2:3. He who indulges in the coarse mirth excited by wine, with the hope that a superior wisdom will preserve him from moral danger, runs the risk of being shorn of his strength in the lap of luxury.
He who gives the reins to pleasure may never recover his command.
Human life is so short and uncertain that we should come to an early decision concerning our Chief Good.
How much use of wit and reason soever men may have in the pursuance of earthly delights, yet while they are seeking in their hearts to give themselves away to these things, they are but taking hold of folly. And though the foolish sinner does not look upon his way while he is pursuing his idols, yet when God awakes him, whether in wrath or mercy, he will see and be forced to say that he hath been doing nothing but taking hold on folly [Nisbet].
The original goes thus, “in the number of the days of their life,” as showing the fewness of man’s days, so that they may be numbered. For as the Poet speaketh, Pauperis est numerare pecus. It is a sign of a poor man to number his cattle; so it is a proof of the scantiness of man’s days that number doth so easily measure them [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 2:4. In producing works of utility and adornment, man enjoys a pleasure beyond the value of the things themselves.
Some kind of activity is necessary for the happiness of those whose lot does not require them to toil for subsistence. No one can be happy in a life of soft enjoyment—passively receiving the gifts of pleasure. There must be some means of employing the active powers of the mind.
The power of constructing great works is part of the likeness of the Divine Nature. The beginning of all these things is laid in the thought of man’s mind. All the devices of human industry and skill have been developed from ideas. And what is creation, but the Divine thought taking form and expression in eternal things? It is God-like to possess the power to devise and produce great works.
For how much the magnificence is greater in the structure of houses, either in respect of their multitude or cost, by so much the shame is greater, that the soul is not adorned. Let that be built up carefully; let humility be the pavement of it, let hope be the roof of it, let faith be the pillars of it; on this side let justice be towards men, on that side devotion towards God. And let love, an excellent artificer, neatly join all these together, and then there will be a house for wisdom to dwell in [Jermin].
We may use our means of living to administer to our necessity, and the culture of our mind and taste; or to feed the desire of display and vain show.
A Greek Father says, that Solomon’s confession of the planting of vineyards contains a catalogue of his vain affections, that “Wine immoderately taken is the nourishment of intemperancy, the bane of youth, the reproach of old age, the shame of women, the prison of madness.”
Ecclesiastes 2:5. Man still finds his delight in what is but the degenerate imitation of Paradise. Buildings and palaces would soon cease to please. He must have the pleasures of the open air, the sweet refreshments of gardens.
Let those to whom God hath afforded these delights have in their gardens, as Joseph had, a sepulchre—that is, let them in their pleasures remember their death. And as Joesph’s sepulchre in his garden was made the sepulchre of Christ, so it were good also that such in their gardens—that is, in their delights—would think of the misery which He suffered for them [Jermin].
The church is the true garden of God, enclosed from the wilderness of the world, and tended with special care. All possible varieties are compelled to grow in the garden, so the church includes every variety of mind, temper, and disposition; affording special encouragements and means of spiritual growth for each. Yet God has some garden plants in the wilderness; the fruits of the Spirit may be brought forth outside the domain of Christendom.
Ecclesiastes 2:6. Large pools were necessary for watering the gardens and orchards. The Church of God needs her fountains near.
Nature, though free with her bountiful blessings, leaves much for man to do. Water is provided, but human contrivance is necessary to conduct it to every place where it is required. We have our part to do in preparing our souls to be proper receptacles of the plentiful grace of God.
But that from these pools of water, we may draw something that shall be wholesome for us; let us make our eyes pools of water, that so a sorrow for our sins may wash them away with the watering of it, and cleanse us from them by the current of amendment in the course of our life. Or else let us make pools of charity, therewith to water the decayed trees of misery; therewith to moisten the dry ground of want and necessity. Charity is Rehoboth, the well of breadth, a name given by Isaac to a well which his servants digged; for charity doth spread abroad her waters wheresoever is need of them [Jermin].
Let us make us pools by digging into the depths of heavenly knowledge. There is nothing better than this Divine fountain, by which the dryness and barrenness of our souls is made wet and moistened, by which virtues do spring up in us, so that even a grove of good desires and works doth sprout forth in our lives [Gregory Nyssenus].
Ecclesiastes 2:7. The vanity of man is fed by that display of grandeur which raises the admiration of others.
Servants born in the house would be endowed with natural fidelity. Men make use of natural laws to serve their own ambition.
It is not the lot of all to be attended by numerous trains of servants, but if we are the sons of the heavenly king, the angels wait upon us. The heirs of salvation have, even under the disadvantages of the present state, some signs of royal dignity.
In the heavenly household, the greatest, waits upon the least. Man is greatest, not when exacting, but when performing service.
Ecclesiastes 2:8. The love of gold and silver tends to burden the heart more than the love of large possessions in cattle, &c. A man is more likely to worship the image of wealth than wealth itself.
The homage paid to wealth is a strong temptation to indulge the illusion of superiority.
Gifts persuade even the gods, and gold is more potent with men than a thousand arguments [Plato].
Wealth honours wealth; income pays respect to income; but it is wont to cherish in its secret heart an unmeasured contempt for poverty. It is the possession of wealth, and of the social power which is conferred by wealth, which constitutes the title to honour. To believe that a man with £60 a year is just as much deserving of respect as a man with £6000, you must be seriously a Christian. A philosophical estimate of men and things is not really proof against the inroads of the sentiment which makes the possession of mere income the standard of honour [Liddon].
The most obvious danger which worldly possessions present to our spiritual welfare is, that they become practically a substitute in our hearts for that One Object to which our supreme devotion is due. They are present; God is unseen. They are means at hand of effecting what we want: whether God will hear our petitions for those wants is uncertain; or rather, I may say, certain in the negative. Thus they promise and are able to be gods to us, and such gods too as require no service, but, like dumb idols, exalt the worshipper, impressing him with a notion of his own power and security. Religious men are able to repress, nay extirpate, sinful desires; but as to wealth, they cannot easily rid themselves of a secret feeling that it gives them a footing to stand upon—an importance, a superiority; and in consequence they get attached to the world, lose sight of the duty of bearing the Cross, become dull and dim-sighted, and lose their delicacy and precision of touch, are numbed (so to say) in their fingers’ ends, as regards religious interests and prospects [J. H. Newman].
Music is a kind of language, and has a voice independent of the forms of speech. It has an universal eloquence, a power to withdraw even the dull and the sensual for awhile from their grosser existence. It is a luxury to feel strongly, and to allow the soul to be dissolved in harmony. But whatever exalts the feelings without leading to right practice inflicts moral injury.
We may understand “the delights of the sons of men” of music generally, great being the power which the delight of music hath upon men. Of which King Theodoric writing to Boetius in Cassiodore saith—“When she cometh from the secret of nature, as it were the Queen of the senses, adorned with her musical figures; other thoughts skip away, and she causeth all things to be cast out, that there may be a delight only of hearing her. She sweeteneth grief, mollifieth rage, mitigateth cruelty, quickeneth laziness, giveth rest to the watchful, maketh her chaste who hath been defiled with unclean love, and that which is a most blessed kind of curing, by most sweet pleasures driveth away the passions of the mind, and by the subjection of things that are insensible obtaineth command over the senses.” But though this be “the delight of the sons of men,” let the delight of the sons of God be the music and harmony of their lives unto God’s commandments [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 2:9. Solomon compares his greatness as a worldly-wise man, not with private characters, but with official. He was great, yet it was only “more than they that were before him in Jerusalem,” not more than they that were in virtue and holiness before him. Worldly greatness is not to be compared with spiritual.
Men imagine that the greatness of their works and possessions is transferred to themselves, that their magnificence can be determined by measures of surface. The Rich Fool thought that the enlarging of his barns would make the foundations of his life surer and more lasting.
The most exalted human wisdom cannot save us from becoming a prey to vanity. We may by means of it conquer sensuality, and yet end in the worship of ourselves.
While the outward man revels in pleasure, the inward man may be yearning for a higher life.
There is some hope for a man who has made even a foolish experiment upon principles of reason. He who leaves wisdom behind him, when he plunges into worldly pleasures, destroys the bridge by which alone he can return.
Solomon could not have come to the conclusion that “all was vanity,” unless he discovered that there was something in himself which was not vanity—thus, “wisdom remained with him.” Hugh of S. Victor says, “He was able to speak that against vanity not vainly.”
So prone are men enjoying plenty of outward delights to lose even the exercise of common prudence and reason, and to give themselves up as beasts to the leading of their sensual appetites, that it is a mercy much to be marked and acknowledged for a man to have any measure of the exercise thereof continued in that case. For Solomon speaks of this as a remarkable thing, which hardly would be expected by many, that he having “all the delights of the sons of men,” being so great and increased more than all that had been before him, might yet truly say this, “Also my wisdom remaineth with me” [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 2:10. The heart is often led by the eye, the seat of moral power becomes subject to the senses.
The eye, the guardian of our safety, may be allured by a false light that “leads to bewilder, and dazzles to blind,”—by false philosophies, pleasures, religions.
Man received the first wounds of sin through the eye. The very sentinel placed aloft by heaven to guard us must be defended by God’s especial grace.
Let us remember how unhappily their eyes were opened unto them that were in Paradise, which were enlightened so long as they had them shut unto sin. Where we read “the eye is the light of the body,” the Greek is, the lamp, the candle of the body: for as a lamp burneth very well, and giveth good light so long as it is shut up and kept close within some room; but if it be set in the open air, is soon blown out by the wind; so the eye, if it be kept shut from vanity by a watchful carefulness, then it giveth the best light to the body. But if it be wantonly and negligently opened, then the good light of it is soon put out [Jermin].
There is some earthly recompense for human labours; but, at best, man is never truly rewarded here for all his pains. A transitory joy is but a poor compensation to set over against the infinite sadness of life, and the terrible forebodings of the heart.
The eye, the most far-reaching of all our powers, cannot give us lasting joy. It may range freely over every delight, but the spirit of man will remain in bondage till it is delivered by the coming of the Holy Ghost.
Labour there was in the seeking of it, labour in the possession of it, and yet this is the All which man seeketh of all his labour. This is the portion which the Preacher saith he had; there being no sickness, no enemy, no other cross either in mind or body, at home or abroad, to deprive him of it. So that we have here under the law, the Prodigal under the Gospel, asking his portion of his father, which is divided to him, and spent by him in the far country of this world upon worldly delights [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 2:11. “All the works.”
1. In collecting riches.
2. In increasing the magnificence of the State.
3. In multiplying the means of social enjoyment.
It is well that we should look upon the works we have wrought in the world, till we discover that, apart from God, they are labour, weariness; and pain upon every remembrance of them. To think upon our ways, to survey our position, is the first step towards obtaining our true good.
The pangs of spiritual famine—the want of God, may be felt by one whose lot it is to live in the midst of a profusion of this world’s plenty and pleasure.
Our works in the world often outlast our joy. The Royal Moralist did not look upon his joy, but upon his labours.
Vanity has two ingredients—hollowness and aimlessness. Without God, all things are unsubstantial; they have no solid and lasting worth. Human labour, when not inspired by the Divine idea, reaches no worthy goal. God had His witnesses for this truth in the old heathen world. Thus, in the poem of Lucretius, we read—“Therefore the race of men labours always fruitlessly, and in vain; and life is consumed in empty cares.”
The wisdom which is concerned with what is under the sun can only give us negative conclusions; can only say of true happiness—It is not here. Religion has a positive truth to set over against this—“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.”
That is vain which is empty, when there is a name, but not anything at all. A name of riches, but not the thing; a name of glory, but without the thing; a name of power, but the name only is to be found. Who is therefore so senseless as to seek after names which have not the things, and to follow after empty things which should be shunned [St. Chrysostom].
The Fortunate Islands, which anyone may talk of, are but mere dreams, not lying anywhere under the sun’s light [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 2:12. What can the man do that cometh after the King?] What will my successor do? He will probably, like the rest of the world, follow the well-worn path of sin and folly—even that which hath been already done—fulfilled in Rehoboam.
Ecclesiastes 2:16. And how dieth the wise man? As the fool!] This is an inexpressible burst of feeling—a deep regret that it should be so. It is a question painfully asked of the Supreme Wisdom, not in anger but in grief.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 2:12-21.2.16
The Royal Preacher had exercised his wisdom on speculative subjects: he now applies it to the practical matters of human life. Of such wisdom, or philosophical prudence, we learn—
I. That it possesses high Absolute Value. Of all earthly treasures, wisdom has the greatest worth. This is a truth at once evident to every reflecting mind. The perception of it is quick as vision. “Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly,” &c. Such wisdom may be compared to the light.
1. Like light, wisdom is a revealing power. Without light, our knowledge of nature would be scanty. We could only have knowledge of near objects. The distant glories of the universe are completely veiled to the blind. But light reveals them—makes all things manifest. So wisdom reveals to man the true state of things around him—his position in the world—the conditions of earthly happiness. He is thus able to form the most sagacious plans, and to use expedients for the maintenance of his life, for avoiding dangers, and varying his pleasures. In physical endowments, man is inferior to the lower animals, but he obtains supremacy over them by that wisdom which reveals to him more of that world in which he lives.
2. Like light, wisdom is a guiding power. “The wise man’s eyes are in his head.” The eyes of the wise man are where they ought to be—the lofty windows of the palace of the soul, through which she takes a large survey of the outward world, and the scene of man. The eyes of the mind, like those of the body, serve both to inform and direct. Every truth of nature or of man, that we discover, becomes for us a rule of action or duty. The facts revealed to the understanding guide us in our way through the world. He who walks in darkness runs the risk of stumbling. All nature is against the fool.
3. Like light, wisdom is a vitalising power. Light is absolutely necessary to the growth and preservation of all kinds of life. The light of the day not only warms, but fertilises. The sun is a source of energy, performing all the work of this lower world. So practical wisdom is the real strength of man’s life here. Folly is darkness—a dull negation—unproductive of vitality or beauty—generates fear. The ignorant are the victims of unnecessary fears, as we see from the history of superstition. Wisdom is a light to quicken all things necessary for man as an inhabitant of this world. It supplies that vital energy by which we do our work. By the life-giving power of wisdom, man conquers nature, by directing her forces to serve his own uses. The dull existence of the fool is not worthy of the name of life. We learn of this practical wisdom—
II. That it is complicated with certain facts giving rise to painful doubts and questionings. The superiority of wisdom to folly is beyond dispute. It is at once apparent. Like the light, this truth is its own evidence. But there are attendant facts which lead to painful doubts and questionings as to whether wisdom, on the whole, has such a superior advantage; or whether, in the upshot of things, the wise man is better off than the fool.
1. We are not sure that posterity will preserve the fruits of our work and wisdom. Men labour that they may increase their earthly joys, amass wealth, and accomplish some wise designs; but how often are the fruits of their anxious toil spoiled and wasted by those who come after! As the custom of the world is folly, the Royal Preacher could only expect that his successor would be a foolish man—according to the general type. Every worker upon merely human principles, no matter how accomplished, must say at last, “I have laboured in vain, and spent my strength for nought.” The fact, that what we have gathered with such labour and pains may thus be wasted and dissipated by others, is enough to make the wisest serious and sad. The speech acquires a painful hue of reflectiveness, and the contemplation of life becomes a distress.
2. All our diligence and wisdom cannot avail to save us from oblivion. “There is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever.” It is not intended to deny all posthumous fame. Some names will live through the whole range of time, names like Moses—the earliest in literature, and sounding through the endless songs of heaven. But the great bulk of mankind are not remembered by posterity—the wise and the fool alike are soon forgotten: “One Cæsar lives, a thousand are forgot.” Even if we live in fame ever so long, and are at last forgotten; when compared with eternity, this is equivalent to oblivion.
3. All our wisdom cannot save us from the common doom of the race. “One event happeneth to all.” Our wisdom and skill cannot save us from accidents, pains, and from that sum of all fears and distresses—death. The terrible necessity of death awaits alike the foolish and the wise. We take pains to gather knowledge, and the maxims of wisdom; death comes, and our fancied superiority over others vanishes. If there be no future, the most sagacious of men may mournfully ask at the close of life, “Why was I then more wise?” The wise and foolish appear to go out of life in the same manner. All differences are lost in the darkness of the tomb. Let us learn—that heavenly wisdom is complicated with no painful facts to fill us with doubts and misgivings. Nothing can arise to dull the pure splendour of this Divine gift. The glory of it only increases as all that is precious in life is fading away. We can only be saved from the fate of oblivion when we seek the “honour that cometh from God only,” when we are “confessed before the angels,” and our names inscribed in the Book of Life. All who are truly wise shall be fixed in the regions of immortality—shall “shine as the stars for ever and ever.”
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 2:12. Whatever we desire to understand, it is necessary that we should not only look upon it, but behold it—there must be a prolonged look. The object must not only be seen, but seen through. All men are bound to see what lies in their way, but few see with the eye of intelligent observation. The wealth of the mind comes not as a sudden gift of fortune: it is gathered slowly.
He who contemplates human nature must be prepared to find it a mixed scene of wisdom, madness, and folly. There are wise men who govern their conduct by reason, and maxims gained from experience and observation. There are others who have some intellectual power, but it is rashly applied. There is no sufficient guiding principle—their conduct is madness—power wasted in an irregular manner, without order or plan. There are simple men who are easily led, and become the willing dupes of cunning craft.
The evils of the world are incurable by human means. We can only expect that the future will be as the past. The dream of human perfection is not realised. The paths of sin and folly are old and well worn. Generations to come will be content to travel in them.
Posterity may forget our wisdom, and destroy the fruits of our labours. But he who works with eternity in view will find the grave a place of restitution.
How vain are those possessions which the most foolish of mankind can disperse as chaff before the wind!
It is well noted by Hugo, that first he looked upon wisdom as thereby coming to behold madness and folly. For as he speaketh—“No one goeth to darkness that he may see darkness; but he cometh to the light, that by the light he may see, not only light, but light and darkness also. First therefore the Preacher saith he beheld wisdom, so that he might behold in wisdom itself what itself is, and by itself madness and folly, which wisdom itself is not” [Jermin].
The utmost comfort that creatures can yield, when happiness is sought in them, may soon be attained. It is no such depth but that it may be sounded by those who will put it to the trial. One man may in a short time find out so much thereof as that he may defy others after him to find more. Whence appears a manifest difference between heavenly and earthly consolations, the heavenly being still upon the growing hand, and incomprehensible by any of the saints till in heaven they be filled with all the fulness of God. For here Solomon professeth himself to have been at the bottom of earthly delights, so as none after him could go deeper. “What can the man do who cometh after the king?” [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 2:13. There are endowments of human nature, and improvements in character, which, though not distinctly spiritual, have high absolute value. Moral virtue and practical wisdom may beautify and adorn the character so as to win Divine commendation. The young man in the Gospel fell short of the highest excellence, yet “Jesus beholding him, loved him.”
There is great variety in the courses which natural men take in the pursuit of happiness. Some employ the highest prudence and caution, others are abandoned to the most reckless folly. There is all the difference between darkness and light in human conduct, even when it comes short of the highest requirements.
Let us not despise the natural beauties and graces of character. All light should be welcomed. The Gospel has an attraction for all that is pure and lovely in human nature.
It is the property of good things that they do not need an external praiser, but themselves when they are seen do testify their grace. It is a greater excellency which is approved by sight, than that which is commended by speech [St. Ambrose].
It is of human wisdom whereof I conceive him to speak, which therefore, though he could not be free from vanity, yet doth he prefer before folly, as much as light before darkness. Now light hath God himself for the praiser of it, and it is the first thing that God praised. “Let there be light,” is the first word that God ever spoke; and that “God saw the light to be good,” is the first praise that God ever gave. As soon as God made the light, He divided the darkness from it, as if he would not have the excellency thereof to be dishonoured by the company of it. Let it therefore be our care also to divide wisdom from folly. The society of the one doth much shame the other, and indeed most unworthy is folly, so much as to be joined in comparison with wisdom [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 2:14. Sensual pleasures dim the light of reason, and weaken man’s power to direct his way.
When the animal in man surmounts the rational, the eyes which should be the light of the body, are degraded to the dust, and blinded.
The superior light, which the wise man of this world holds aloft to illuminate his path in life, does not prevent him from taking his last step into the darkness of the grave. The light that comes from beyond the sun can alone pierce that darkness.
A fool hath not his eyes in his head, but in his heels. For when the comtemplative power of the soul is busied in worldly things, the nature of the eyes passeth to the heels, which the serpent pursueth and biteth with his teeth [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 2:15. Thoughts on the dread humility of dying will betimes oppress the most favoured and exalted of men.
The terrible realities of our troubled life must sooner or later come home to the individual,—“So it happeneth even to me.”
In the voyage of life, our fellow passengers are marked by a great variety. There are rich and poor, obscure and noble, wise and foolish, good and evil. But one fate awaits us all—total shipwreck. We must all sink into the gulf of death. Our only consolation lies in the hope that we shall be supplied with Divine strength to climb up the other bank of life.
To the wise man of the world, there is humiliation in the thought of the disgraceful necessity of death. But Jesus has passed through the tomb and sanctified it, so that for the Christian, death becomes the gate of life. No one who has learned the knowledge of the holy will have mournfully to ask when his last hour draws near—“Why was I then more wise?” For such a man, the tree of knowledge becomes the tree of life.
A man is placed in a high situation, receives an expensive education at school or college, and a still more expensive one of time and experience. And then, just when we think all this ripe wisdom, garnered up from so many fields, shall find its fullest use, we hear that all is over, he has passed from among us, and the question, hideous in its suggestiveness, arises—“Why was he then more wise?” Asked from this world’s stand-point—if there is no life beyond the grave, then the mighty work of God is all to end in nothingness. But if this is only a state of infancy, only the education for eternity, then to ask why such a mind is taken from us is just as absurd as to question why the tree of the forest has its first training in the nursery garden. This is but the nursery ground, from whence we are to be transplanted into the great forest of God’s eternal universe. There is an absence of all distinction between the death of one man and another. The wise man dies as the fool with respect to circumstances [Robertson].
The Preacher objecteth, that although the wise man seeth so far into the nature and condition of things, yet that one event happeneth to them all. And, as to this objection.
1. He granteth it, “Then said I in my heart,” I said that it was so, and in my heart confessed it to be true.
2. He applieth it, “As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me.” I cannot deny it in myself, of whom it cannot be denied that my wisdom is the greatest of any.
3. He repineth at it in these words, “And why was I then more wise?” Why did I so carefully search into the nature and condition of things, forecast the events of things?
4. He delivereth his sentence, “Then I said in my heart that this also is vanity.” Then I concluded of it, and said so in my heart when I had considered of it [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 2:16. It is always a startling thing to see the rapidity with which the wisest and the best are forgotten. We plough our lives in water, leaving no furrow; two little waves break upon the shore, but no further vestige of our existence is left [Robertson].
The footprints we leave on the sands of time are soon washed away by the advancing tide.
The words, “And how dieth the wise man?” in the original are an exclamation—“But O, how is it that the wise man dieth as the fool!” This is not the conclusion of a cold and severe logic, but the expression of deep emotion. Beneath all the glory of this life, there is an unutterable sorrow. There are truths too deep for words. They are only to be uttered with a gasp and a sigh.
Faith alone can cure the terrible melancholy with which this view of life afflicts the soul. The intellect, the throne of human wisdom, is part of the Divine image, and God will not suffer it to die in imperfect rudiments. Man has in him some resemblances of the Eternal God, who will not leave His image in the grave, nor suffer this spark of Him to see corruption.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 2:17-21.2.23
THE CONFESSIONS OF A PLEASURE-SEEKER
I. That his life’s promise has failed. The pleasure-seeker begins life with high hopes. The intoxication of mirth exalts his imagination, and he lives, for a brief space, in the transports of joy. He looks forward to many years of merriment, free from every invasion of sorrow. But as time passes, and he learns the lessons of experience, and awakens to a sense of the solemn realities around him, life’s fair promise is discovered to be a delusion. He has lived for pleasure, and trusted in the hopes it inspired; but these have failed.
1. It promised that life would be bliss, but now he deplores the very fact of existence. (Ecclesiastes 2:17.) The pleasures of the world, by their agreeable variety and adaptation to our lower nature, promise to fill up every moment of life, and drive away all care and repining; but they soon clog the senses, the power of enjoyment is blunted, and life itself regarded with disgust.
2. It promised that life would still be unfolding new scenes of pleasure, but now it has led him to blank despair. (Ecclesiastes 2:20.) He had hoped much from his high capacity for pleasure, from his wealth, from his skill in those great public works which would promote his magnificence, and draw attention to his genius. But now his ingenuity is exhausted, his spirits spent, and all is flat and weary—the world has no more to offer. The night of despair has come, and the bright and gaudy colours of life have faded away into confusion.
II. That he is tormented by some ever-recurring thought. (Ecclesiastes 2:18; Ecclesiastes 2:21.) The Royal Preacher had dwelt upon the idea before, that his wealth and all the products of his labour and skill must be left to some unworthy successor. This is with him a standing grief. Here the same thought rises again. What he had gathered with care, and produced by great labour of contrivance, would be laid waste by some foolish man. Amidst all the pleasures of his life, thin terrible thought would come to the surface. Men of pleasure find that painful and anxious thoughts are ever arising to disturb their enjoyment. The reflection is forced upon them that time is fast passing away that their glory will soon descend into the grave, that all their earthly joy will fade in the last sickness and before the tomb, and that in the distant future even their very children will forget them in their own merry laugh and joy. Some deep thought is ever coming uppermost before which pleasure grows pale.
III. That he enjoys no true repose. (Ecclesiastes 2:23.) He has no rest during the progress of his work, nor even when his task is done. The night, which invites repose, is invaded by care and trouble. His wealth can procure luxury; but the heart is unquiet, and sleep is not to be had at any price. This shows us—
1. That there is a majesty in our nature which disdains to be satisfied with mere worldly pleasure.
2. That a sense of the solemn facts of our nature and destiny cannot be banished from the mind by mirth.
3. That the God of our soul can alone satisfy it.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 2:17. If God has disappeared from the efforts of men, a disgust of life appears sooner or later [Gerlach].
There is a contempt of the world which is not genuine religion. Pleasure may heartlessly spurn away those with whom she has played; they may become weary of the world, and yet be without the consolations of God. The disgust of life may lead to remorse instead of true repentance, and a stoical resignation to inflexible fate may closely imitate the calm anticipation of the joys of heaven.
The disorder of the mind darkens the whole scene of life. The brightest glory of the world may be clouded by the gloom of our own hearts.
To hate life is to destroy the foundations of all happiness, for without existence no happiness could be possible. The gift of salvation can turn existence into a blessing. Our creation is a pledge of guardianship. It is to us a sure sign and token that “God will not forsake the work of His own hands.”
The original expresseth itself more fully, “I hated lives,” not only this kind of life, or that kind of life; nor only this time of life, or that time of life; not only the life of this man, or of that man; but the lives of all men, of all kinds, of all times. I hated mine own life, “because the work that is done under the sun is grievous unto me;” the life of others, because “All is vanity and vexation of spirit” [Jermin].
The things of this life have true bitterness, false contentment, certain grief, uncertain pleasure, hard labour, fearful rest, matter full of misery, hope empty of happiness [Augustine].
Ecclesiastes 2:18. It is only the result of our labours that we pass on to posterity. The toil is ours, and theirs the fruit. The effects of our labour and skill remain after we are gone. They endure for others, but not for us.
We are only the conveyers of the things of this life to others, not the possessors of them.
As a thief comes in one night, and bears away the fruits of many toilsome days, so a man may leave his possessions to some one unworthy and unprofitable.
Man is but a tenant under the great Lord of all. He has no lease of life; but is liable to be turned out at a moment’s notice. He occupies his little holding for a brief space, and then departs, leaving all he has gathered and wrought to those who come after.
We cannot be truly said to possess that which can be severed from us, leaving us poor indeed. God is the only portion of the soul for ever.
Ecclesiastes 2:19. He who has gathered spiritual treasure is rich in the wealth of immortality, and will be for ever master of all his possessions. In the future kingdom only the wise shall rule.
The works of faithful souls shall follow them beyond the world. They shall not be left behind to run the chance of being wasted or spoiled by others.
Man has but a brief sovereignty over his earthly labours. A fool, from motives of mischief, or from some vain notion of improvement, may spoil the work of the wisest man.
It is one of the vanities of wealth that a man knows not to what use it will be put by his successor.
Ecclesiastes 2:20. Here we have set down the two causes of despair—vanity and vexation. Vanity is a great cause of despair, for when men have laboured hard, and find no success, that makes them despair of any success [Jermin].
Even the utmost depths of despair cannot overwhelm the cry of the soul.
The darkest hour of the night is before the dawn. The darkest hour of the soul may be the prelude to a cheerful and prosperous day.
Some will not seek the highest resource until all that is earthly has failed. They must be driven to feed upon the husks of despair before they will think upon the bread which is in their Father’s house.
Ecclesiastes 2:21. An excess of carefulness for posterity may prove a hindrance in the duty that lies before us.
We enter into the labours of others, build upon their foundation, and come into the easy possession of what they have won by careful thought and labour. If we are true spiritual workers, we have a wealthy heritage. Let us strive to use it well.
Even the best men must be content to accept the failure of much of the results of their works and wisdom. In every mental and moral effort for the good of others, there is some waste of power. The real effective force of our life is small—both in regard to the present generation, and in regard to posterity.
The Lord in His wise Providence sees it fit that great things of the world should fall for a portion to men who have neither wit nor experience for purchasing or improving them, that all may be convinced that these things are not infallible signs of His love; and that men who get them may be allured to their duty by them, or the more severely punished when he reckons with them [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 2:22. The pleasures of the world depart one by one, and leave men the sad heritage of weariness and vexation.
There is nothing here that is an adequate recompense for our anxiety of thought, and wasting labour. If this life be all, even our supremacy in the empire of mind is but a poor consolation, seeing our stay is so short and death strikes the sceptre from our hand.
It is well to pause in the midst of our labours, and ask ourselves to what profit do they tend? This is the attitude in which the soul hears the voice of God, bidding her return to enduring pleasures and works of lasting profit.
For when it is asked what hath a man of all his labour, perhaps some one may answer—Behold I fill up my sacks, my walls do hardly hold that which I get, my gains do flow out every way, and money runs like a stream into my purse. Yet this is no answer; for that thy sack may be filled, thy soul fevereth with cares; that thy gold may increase, thine honesty is diminished; that thou mayest be richly clothed without, thou art spoiled and left naked within [Augustine].
Ecclesiastes 2:23. The joys of the children of this world are but the illusions of a dream. There is a deep sorrow running through life which men strive in vain to hide.
Much of the work of the world is pursued beyond what is simply necessary for the sustenance and ornament of life. Men try to avoid being left alone with themselves. They contrive to draw off the attention from their own misery. Yet the grief of life remains, and, like a fatal distemper, cleaves to the soul.
Sleep is the gift of God, who secures it to the contented mind and clear conscience.
God has access to our spirit at all times, and when at night we rest from labours and strive to shut out care, He can trouble us with unknown terrors.
There is only one pillow on which the heart can rest—the bosom of the Infinite Father.
The magnetic needle has one position of rest—when it trembles to the pole. In all other positions it is under constraint, and tends to swing itself to rest. So the soul can have no true repose until the affections rest in God.
Ecclesiastes 2:24. There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink] Not in the Epicurean sense, worshipping the triad of sensual life—eat, drink, and be merry; but in the sense of a rational and righteous enjoyment. In his labour. Thus it was not the luxurious enjoyment of the idle.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 2:24-21.2.26
THE WISEST USE OF THE PRESENT WORLD
I. A proper enjoyment of the blessings of life. The good things of this world can never bring us true and lasting happiness if we live for them alone. But we must not despair of finding external happiness even in these, if we use them aright. There must be some lawful means of enjoying the world’s good. The Creator, in His works, has provided both for ornament and delight. We must not be as sulky children, refusing to enjoy ourselves when He invites us. To condemn all that the world offers to cheer the spirit of man, without showing how it may be properly enjoyed, or substituting some other pleasures, would either drive the soul to despair, or plunge it more deeply into unlawful pleasures. The state of our souls determines what is good or bad in pleasure. We project our nature upon the external world. “To the pure, all things are pure.” How are we to enjoy the blessings of this life?
1. They should be subordinated to our higher wants. As long as we remember that they only minister to our lower wants, we preserve the true dignity of our soul. He who has the highest good can rightly and well enjoy the lowest. When pleasure is made the end of life, the soul becomes debased, and unfit for the vision of God. The pure light of heaven in the soul can transfigure all things in life. Christ used the world, but He had superior meat, drink, and joy than He could find here. To Him, the world was a place of duty and trial; but He tasted the world’s pleasures as a “Brook by the way.”
2. They should be used with moderation of desire. “Enjoy good in his labour.” There is a happiness naturally arising out of the things of life. What we force out of them beyond their natural yield will only prove a bitter portion. The path of the wise is ever traced between dangerous extremes.
3. Superior power and facility of enjoyment must not tempt us to abuse them. (Ecclesiastes 2:25.) Solomon had riches and position—means to procure enjoyments. He had the skill to devise exquisite pleasures, and to secure an agreeable variety. But he found that all must be under the control of some exalted purpose. The best gifts of heaven may be abused; but while reason and conscience govern, we are safe.
II. A recognition of the Divine source of the blessings of life. (Ecclesiastes 2:24.)
1. The blessings of this life are the gift of God. They are His provisions for the creature whom He has made. A remembrance of the great source of all our good makes life sacred. To abuse this present world is to take an unfair advantage of infinite kindness. To worship God’s gifts instead of Himself is idolatry. We must use God’s creatures for the same end for which He made them—His glory.
2. The power to enjoy them comes from God. If we can enjoy His gifts with contentment and cheerfulness, this power comes from Him. How soon God may destroy our happiness, by either removing His gifts, or depriving us of the power of enjoying them!
3. Their true value and use can only be known by Divine teaching. If we can taste with grateful cheerfulness what is provided for us here on our way to our superior home, the idea is divinely imparted to us. When we realize the true idea of life, we can best enjoy the world. The repose of mind, and peace of conscience thence arising, are favourable to the truest enjoyment.
III. A conviction that there are Divine provisions for the good. There is an apparent indifference on the part of God to moral distinctious in the human character. Yet there are, even in this life, indications of retributive justice. God will make abundant provision for the man who is “good in His sight.”
1. He will be supplied with the true guiding principle of life. “Wisdom and knowledge.” For lack of these, many leave the best pleasures of life untasted. They are the dupes of imagination and fancy. When our earthly enjoyments are not held in check by a superior guiding power, they turn to vexation and misery. A careful observance of the facts of life, and the wisdom to employ them for the highest ends, will secure for us the purest enjoyments.
2. He will have the rational comforts of life. To him “joy” shall be given; and this depends upon the state of the heart. “A man’s life” (not the sustenance of his life, but the life by which he lives) “consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” Existence is the gift of God’s goodness to all men, but the life of life, the joy and real soul of it, is a mark of His favour.
IV. A conviction that the impious use of the Creator’s gifts is rainous. (Ecclesiastes 2:26.) The sinner, as he riots in pleasure, may appear to have the best of the world, but he is only laying up a store of misery. The justice of heaven is not a wild passion of revenge, but is caim and dignified; and though the sword of God is not in haste to smite, yet, if not averted by repentance, it will descend with fearful destruction upon the sinner. A wrong use of this world must end in utter ruin.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 2:24. True piety is opposed to asceticism. Revealed Religion does not destroy the plain truths and duties of nature.
Piety obliges no man to be dull [South].
The common actions of life may be sanctified by a general purpose of consecration to God.
The Creator not only sends us gifts which minister to our use and delight, but even the power to enjoy is also His gift.
Christianity has ennobled many words which once served the uses of superstition by making them the representatives of nobler thoughts. In like manner, the worldly man’s triad—to eat, drink, and be merry—may be ennobled by an abiding intention of pleasing God in all that we do.
Christians may have earthly joy. Let there be no half-remorseful sensations as though they were stolen joys. Christ had no sympathy with that tone of mind which scowls on human happiness. His first manifestation of power was at a marriage feast. Who would check the swallows’ flight, or silence the gush of happy melody which the thrush pours forth in spring? [Robertson.]
Ecclesiastes 2:25. He can best lay down the law of life who is qualified by experience.
I take the original word here used to signify to call or cry aloud, and so should render the verse according to this sense: “Who can call for more freely, who can enjoy more speedily, the good of this life than I can?” And, therefore, who should also be believed rather than I, who deny the enjoying of the good of this life to be the good of man? From hence we may take this lesson, that no one do promise to himself, or take upon himself, those things which those who have been far more able than himself have not been able to perform. And for an instance: let not those promise to themselves heaven who live carelessly in religion, when it is hard for them who are very careful to attain thither [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 2:26. True goodness is that which can endure in the sight of God.
Here we have:
1. A satisfaction for the intellect—“Wisdom and knowledge.”
2. A satisfaction for the affections—“Joy.”
3. A satisfaction for the conscience—“Good in His sight.”
Man, in the present world, is under the moral government of God, even in his pleasures. No part of his conduct is indifferent, for it has some relation to the formation of character, and therefore to our future destiny.
All the vanity, all the toilings of men after wisdom, happiness and rest, which in so many ways lead men to the grave, where ceases all the distinction which they strive to obtain on earth, are not allotted to the pious man by God; they are a curse which sin has laid upon man, but which God will make a blessing to His chosen ones. For these busy, restless creatures gather and heap up for those who are good in God’s eyes. And these latter shall gratuitously receive by the sinner’s labour what he seeks and finds not, what he labours for and cannot enjoy: wisdom, knowledge, joy. What is the Divine word, and whence are taken this wisdom, knowledge, and joy that in it exist? Are they not honey made by bees in the slain beasts? What are the stories that they tell us but examples of sinner’s toil, of the vanity and folly into which men have fallen? [Hamann.]
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 2". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany