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Ecclesiastes 3:1. Season-time.] Season signifies a certain period or term; time denotes a division of time in general.
Ecclesiastes 3:2. A time to plant, &c.] Used in O. T. as a metaphor to describe the founding and destruction of cities.
Ecclesiastes 3:7. A time to rend and a time sew.] The rending of garments on hearing sad tidings, and sewing them when the season of grief is past.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
THE SUPREMACY OF THE DIVINE CONTROL
Man forms designs for his own happiness, gives free scope to his powers, and traces out the course of his life. Yet there is over him a higher system of things, a stern and terrible Power by which he is overmastered and subdued. He is made, after all, to fulfil the designs of heaven. The Divine control over every domain of creation is supreme over all other sovereignties. This is evident from the following facts:
I. The Divine Control is exerted throughout all time. Human history is inserted between the two eternities. In the infinite solitudes of the past, before the birth of time, the mind has not whereon to rest, nor can the eye pierce beyond the present order of things into the immense future. Between these there is a range of time, forming the platform upon which human history is erected. Here the mind can rest, and survey the rule of the Supreme.
1. God made time for us by giving a peculiar direction to His power. Before time was, or ever any creature was made, He dwelt in that eternity which knows no periods. No voice could be heard in that vast solitude but His own. Yet He was not content to remain thus solitary, but surrounded Himself with those intelligencies upon whom He might pour the illustrations of His wisdom and benevolence. Thus the Divine power directed by goodness has created time for us wherein all the circumstances and issues of all creatures are displayed.
2. God rules over the whole course of time which He has made. Origination gives a natural title to possession. God has exerted His power and wisdom both in time and space, and therefore has an undisputed claim to reign supreme over each realm.
3. God’s Supreme Control is to be observed chiefly in the events of time. Events take place at certain seasons, and a season is a portion cut off from time. They are its joints, or articulations—critical periods of time. What has been ripening slowly through long years comes to the birth at a moment in the grand decisive events of history. Thus the Deluge, the giving of the Law, the establishment of Judaism, the founding of Christianity, the invention of Printing, the Reformation, are some of the great births of time. They are seasons when it is most of all observed that there is a wise and Infinite Power above, directing the great issues of time. These are the joints that connect and strengthen the whole frame of human history. The smooth course of affairs often fails to excite attention, but great events startle men into surprise, and invite contemplation. The thoughtless world is thus roused to behold the mighty hand of the great Ruler of all.
II. The Divine control is marked by an unchangeable order. The times and seasons in which every purpose comes to full ripeness are predetermined by God. With Him there is no disordered mixture of things—no wild confusion. Infinite wisdom cannot be taken by surprise, or plunged of a sudden into perplexity. All the events of time arise from a fixed order of things. They are determined by a plan, dimly seen by us, but traced in stern and clear lines by a steady hand, and with the precision and confidence of infinite skill. We call this regular order of things law, for so it is as seen from our point of view; but on God’s side it is the exercise of will; not indeed of an uncertain and capricious nature, but following method—the will of the Father of Lights—a clear and illumined will. This is unchangeable by us, or by any other power.
1. Infinite wisdom and power lead to such a result. God has no need to make experiments to try some doubtful issue. He has no mistakes to repair, nor can any reason arise to oblige Him to retouch and modify His plan. In His vast design no element, however small, is omitted or overlooked. He has power to carry all His purposes into effect; hence such a Being has no cause or reason to oblige Him to depart from a fixed order.
2. The study of nature teaches us that there must be such an order in human events. There is such a fixed order in the physical world, in the great orbs that roll above us. The laws of nature are regular, severe, exact. We can depend upon them in their inflexible constancy. All things in the universe are ordered by number, weight, and measure. Are we to suppose that the regular plan of the Divine government is only concerned with lifeless matter, and does not also extend with equal accuracy and completeness to souls? Is man alone to be made the sport of blind chance, when all movements and changes of created things are governed by a rigid law? Man, with all the events of time that concern him, reveals an infinite complication, yet surely the boundless wisdom of God is equal to the task of governing him according to a regular plan? The most slippery elements of human affairs are held by the Divine hand.
3. The Bible is full of this doctrine. What reason teaches us to expect, the Bible reveals as a fact. The added light of Revelation enlarges our prospect, and strengthens our sight of the wide realms over which God rules. What is the Gospel itself but the kingdom of God, implying authority, law, and order? The more we look into God’s latest Revelation, the more are we persuaded that there is nothing that concerns human nature which is left out by the Divine plan. The teaching of the Bible is that man, as an inhabitant of this world, and as a candidate for immortality, is completely under the control of the Supreme.
III. The Divine control is illustrated by the whole course of human affairs. The hand of God in history can be clearly perceived by every one whose attention is at all awake. The proudest is brought, sooner or later, to confess that God has “beset him, behind and before.” The kings of the earth who have” taken counsel together against the Lord and His Anointed “have either been tamed to submission, or in mad rebellion have broken themselves against the bars of destiny. History is but a revelation of the fixed principles of Providence. A survey of this scene of man will give abundant illustration of the completeness of the Divine control throughout the whole extent of human history.
1. It is illustrated in the individual life.
(1.) The boundaries of that life are determined. Birth and death are the extreme limits between which each single life receives a manifestation. Life is purely a gift. We sought it not: it was thrust upon us. Though flowing to us through human channels, it rises from the Fountain of Life. We were summoned into His presence. The time of our public appearance here was appointed by Providence, and we must accept it for good or evil. We are here, called from the abyss of nothing by the Almighty power. The time of our departure hence is also determined. Though that time is to us unknown, yet where our journey of life shall end is known fully to the Great Disposer of all things. He has already drawn the circle which we must fill, nor can we by all our skill and care enlarge it, nor enclose a greater area from the territory of life allotted to us.
(2.) The discipline of that life is determined. We pass through various changes of fortune, and these are employed by Divine Providence as a means of spiritual education. We are planted, and again plucked up—we enter upon new modes of life, and old scenes pass away from us, never to return. Structures which we had raised in confidence and hope are broken down, and with a sadder heart and dearly-bought experience we build again as best we may. We are stunned by disease, as if killed by the terrible blow; and then healed again to receive what awaits us in life. In the merchandise of life, we experience the excitement of loss and gain; and what we have secured by energy and kept with care we may be obliged, in the emergencies of fortune, to cast away.
(3.) The emotions of our life are determined. We have no command over our joys or our sorrows. They arise from the constitution of our nature, acted upon by the various changes in the world around us. There are times when sorrow lifts the sluices of our tears, and we cannot intercept their flow; again the season of joy comes and shakes our countenance into ripples of laughter. There are times too of excessive emotion, when to mourn or to dance seems to be the only fit expression of the great force with which both grief and pleasure possess our frame.
(4.) The seasons of special duty are also determined. War and peace, silence and speech, are here selected as the type of many. In a world of conflicting interests and passions, there are times when even the most peaceful disposition is dragged into a contest, and then the season comes when the conditions of peace ought to be cheerfully accepted. There are times when silence is the highest duty, lest we should pluck the unripe fruit of wisdom, or speak words out of season to some heavy heart. Then the moment comes when we should hold no longer from speaking, but give utterance to the thought within us to instruct, to comfort, and to bless. The seasons both of silence and speech are forced upon us, when the most sullen is compelled to utterance, and the most noisy tongue is silenced.
2. It is illustrated in the life of nations. The history of nations is analogous to that of individuals, but it is drawn to a larger scale. It is developed through greater measures of time. Nations, like individuals, have peculiarities of character, and special elements of strength and weakness. As the moral determinations of a man’s early life change the whole course of his subsequent history, so it is with nations. By great moral crises they rise to superior influence and grandeur, or date from them the first symptoms of decline. History shows that the Divine control over the life of nations is complete.
(1.) They have their allotted span of life. For them, too, there is a “time to be born and a time to die.” They rise, flourish, and decay, and run through a strange and eventful course between the cradle and the grave. One nation after another has passed away. We have but the poor remains of their glory embalmed in history. Rome and Carthage, and mighty Babylon—where are they? The mighty past is full of the graves of empires. Divine Providence calls a people to be a nation, and when their course is run they go down into the dust of time. They were “planted” and then “plucked up,” they were gathered and then dispersed by weakness, and completely undone.
(2.) They have times of severe Providential visitations. They are wounded as by the thrusts and stabs of some terrible fortune; they are healed again, recover strength, and live to complete their history.
(3.) They pass through the varied changes of public feeling. In times of great public calamity they are constrained to weep and mourn; and in some great national excitement of joy they assume the proper circumstances of mirth and rapture.
(4.) They have the alternations both of prosperity and adversity. They have their times “to get,” and “to lose,” “to gather,” and to “cast away.”
(5.) They have times of special duty. Now, by the pressure of circumstances, or by a sense of propriety, they are forced to silence; and again, the time comes for self assertion. Hence, love and hatred, peace and war.
3. It is illustrated in the life of Churches. The life of the Church itself, as the Kingdom of God, survives the destruction of States and all the changes of the world; the seed of the Kingdom is imperishable. But separate Churches have histories as strange and eventful as those of the individual.
(1.) They have a fixed period of existence. They are founded, endowed with spiritual life; and after flourishing, it may be through centuries, they die out. They are “planted” and “plucked up;” gathered as stones for a building, and, like the Temple at Jerusalem, they are scattered. Where are the Seven Churches of Asia now? Where those flourishing African Churches of the early centuries? Infidelity and superstition grow rank over the ruins of once famous Churches. Ecclesiastical systems change; they have no natural immortality. Each system will have its day. There is no miracle wrought to preserve the garments of religious thought and Church order from waxing old, and decaying through the wilderness of history.
(2.) They have seasons of manifest Divine Visitation. There are times when God, in His dealings with His Church, compels attention. There are manifest visitations of God to His people both of anger and love. By the corruption of doctrine, and the influence of the world, by neglecting her true mission, and by prosperity, the Church is corrupted, and Divine judgments threaten, and at length fall upon her. Then is the season to weep and mourn and to rend the garments. Providence often resorts to terrible means, as if the Lord would slay His people. Then there are times of blessed visitation, when the Church is increased and prosperous; the sharp wound is healed, the season of joy and exultation has come.
(3.) They have seasons of special duty. There are times when Churches can afford to be silent and regard the cavils and opposition of others with a lofty indifference. It is often best to maintain peace, and to allow the fury without to spend its own violence and utterly exhaust itself. But the fit time for self-assertion arrives, and the Church must carry the war into the enemies’ camp. The Christian Religion itself has been the occasion of terrible conflicts, and men have kindled the flame of fierce passions upon the altar of God. The temper of the world towards the Churches of different periods varies. It is fickle and inconstant like human affection. There is for the Church, in regard to her relations with the world, a “time to love, and a time to hate.” For the Church of every age there are “times and seasons which the Father hath put into His own power.” They are all a portion of the eternal plan.
THE CLOCK OF DESTINY
MORTALITY is a huge time-piece wound up by the Almighty Maker; and after he has set it a-going nothing can stop it till the Angel swears that time shall be no longer. But here it ever vibrates and ever advances—ticking one child of Adam into existence, and ticking another out. Now it gives the whirr of warning, and the world may look out for some great event; and presently it fulfils its warning, and rings in a noisy revolution. But there! as its index travels on so resolute and tranquil, what tears and raptures attend its progress! It was only another wag of the sleepless pendulum: but it was fraught with destiny, and a fortune was made—a heart was broken—an empire fell. We cannot read the writing on the mystic cogs as they are coming slowly up; but each of them is coming on God’s errand, and carries in its graven brass a Divine decree. Now, however—now, that the moment is past, we know; and in the fulfilment we can read the flat. This instant was to say to Solomon, “Be born!” this other was to say to Solomon in all his glory, “Die!” That instant was to “plant” Israel in Palestine; that other was to “pluck him up.” And thus inevitable, inexorable, the great clock of human destiny moves on, till a mighty hand shall grasp its heart and hush for ever its pulse of iron [Dr. J. Hamilton].
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 3:1. In all the afflictions of the good, it is an element of consolation that the severe season will have an end, and in the great future a brighter one will arise. It is the highest prudence to await in patience God’s time.
The fact that there is a Divine plan to be observed amidst all the seeming disorder of human things, is the charter of our liberty, the very foundation of our hope. Under the dominion of a wild and reckless chance, we could not walk sure-footedly in this life, nor cherish a deathless hope of better things awaiting us in the life to come.
There are atmospheres that support, and others that extinguish flame. There are beliefs that have a like effect upon the soul. Without the recognition of a superior power controlling all things, the torch of hope cannot burn.
The plan of God must be distinguished from fate and destiny. Some ancient philosophers taught that God Himself was subjected to an iron necessity, that the resistless walls of fate constrained even the Highest. We know that God is above His plan; that it is framed by Infinite Wisdom, maintained by Infinite Power, and pervaded by the Spirit of Infinite Love.
The plan of God results not from mere will, supported by a terrible and uncertain power. His will is not wilfulness, or caprice. We know what we are to expect from one who is wise and good.
The view of the machinery of the Divine Government, constructed with such infinite skill, and moved on by a terrible power, would of itself oppress and overwhelm our soul. Human nature must languish even under the contemplation of the highest regularity and order. But there is an infinite tenderness above all, and within the awful circles of wisdom and power there is a Divine bosom on which weary souls can repose, and where they are safe from fear.
Even Christ Himself became subject to the plan of God. He waited for His “baptism” and His “hour.” His greatest enemies could not prevail against Him till the appointed season had come.
1. Consolation for the righteous in the day of trouble. They know that there will be a period to their sorrow, and that comfort and rest await them.
2. Assurance of the triumph of truth and right. He who has formed the plan of nature’s vast year is the Holy One, and in the upshot of all things He will vindicate His own character. He will make the cause of the right and the true to triumph.
3. The condemnation of the false and wrong. The most rebellious will be forced at last to submission; and he who has enjoyed his fancied liberty, because judgment appeared to linger, will find that he is overtaken at last.
There is no wandering out of the reach of God’s perfect knowledge, no slipping through the hands of Omnipotence. God’s hand is as steady as His eye; and certainly thus to reduce contingencies to method, instability and chance itself to an unfailing rule and order, argues such a mind as is fit to govern the world [South].
Nothing can come from the most carefully constructed of human schemes till the pre-determined hour has struck, even if all men on earth were to put forth the most violent efforts. God will not suffer the hands of His great clock to be pointed by the kings and princes and lords of the earth [Luther].
The things “under heaven” have but a time—a brief season. There is awaiting the good and the true the calm and untroubled flow of the ages of eternity.
Ecclesiastes 3:2. There is “a time to be born,” and however much a man may dislike the era on which his existence is cast, he cannot help himself: that time is his, and he must make the most of it. Milton need not complain that his lot is fallen on evil days; for these are his days, and he can have no other. Roger Bacon and Galileo need not grudge their precocious being, that they have been prematurely launched into the age of inquisitors and knowledge-quenching monks—for this age was made to make them. And so with the time to die. Voltaire need not offer half his fortune to buy six weeks’ reprieve; for if the appointed moment has arrived it cannot pass into eternity without taking the sceptic with it. And even good Hezekiah—his tears and prayers would not have turned the shadow backward, had that moment of threatened death been the moment of God’s intention [Dr. J. Hamilton].
How immense is the difference between the circumstances of one human being and another!—and yet this is made by, what seems to us, the mere accident of birth. “This babe to be hail’d and woo’d as a Lord, and that to be shunn’d like a leper!” Thus the Supreme Power determines the “bounds of our habitation” by appointing the time and place where we shall make our entrance upon life.
Each human soul born into the world is an entirely new product. It never existed before. Matter continues the same through all changes and evolutions, but souls are strictly new. The observation of this common fact prepares the mind to accept the great mystery of creation.
To be born is—
1. To enter upon scenes of life already prepared for us. The world was made ready for our habitation, and the circumstances of society were prepared for us long before we came.
2. To incur the obligation of duty. The fact that we are created by a higher Power implies a certain relation to that Power, and therefore corresponding duties.
3. To take our part in the system of Providence. We become, at birth, a part of the established order of things; we must take our place and accept our condition.
4. To enter upon a state of probation. There is another great event awaiting us, determined by the Divine decree—death. Life is the season in which the character is to be fitted for the next scene of things to which God shall call us.
The gift of Life.—
1. It is a Divine gift. God alone can impart it. The breathing marble is but a figure of speech. The Spirit of God, the primal force of the universe, is “sent forth, and they are created.”
2. It is a blessed gift. Our creation is the foundation of all the blessings that we can enjoy in any world. All the riches and advancement belonging to thought and feeling from hence take their rise.
3. It is an awful gift. Existence is a terrible responsibility, for we may make it an evil and a curse.
Believers and Christians know that no tyrant’s sword can kill or destroy them, and that before their hour comes no creature whatever can harm them. Hence they do not trouble and worry themselves much about death, but when it comes they die unto the will of God as He pleases, like lambs and young children [Luther].
The busiest of mortals must find a time to die. Death has been described as “the land without any order,” and, as it seems to us, without any order the King of Terrors carries off his victims. But Providence observes a fixed order. There is for every mortal course a fixed hour to close.
The time and manner of our death are to us unknown. This uncertainty is beneficial—
1. On social grounds. Man, by this provision, does not end his labours till the last moment in which he can be useful to society.
2. On religious grounds. The motives for seeking God are strengthened by the uncertainty of life.
But above all, believe it, the sweetest Canticle is Nunc dimittis. where a man hath obtained worthy ends and expectations. Death hath this also, that it openeth the gate to good fame, and extinguisheth envy [Bacon].
The time of death is one—
1. Of parting from all the associations of life. Those scenes of nature and of man which had become endeared to us are rudely torn from our heart. There is a complete loss of the world.
2. Of an oppressive sense of loneliness. There is no human breast on which the parting soul can rely. The dread journey must be attempted alone, as far as human supports are concerned.
3. Of the dread of the unknown and untried. The unknown is ever the terrible.
And so there is “a time to plant.” The impulse comes upon a man of fortune, and he lays out his spacious lawn, and studs it with massive trees; and he plants his garden, and in the soil imbeds the richest and rarest flowers. And that impulse fades away, and in the fickleness of sated opulence the whole is rooted up, and converted into a wilderness again. Or by his own or a successor’s fall, the region is doomed to destruction; and when strangling nettles have choked the geraniums and the lilies, and, crowded into atrophy, the lean plantations grow tall and branchless, the axe of an enterprising purchaser clears away the dark thickets, and his plough-share turns up the weedy parterre [Dr. J. Hamilton].
God has often plucked up the heathen and planted His own people. The Church is a cleared enclosure in the midst of the wilderness of the world.
The Heavenly Husbandman will pluck up every plant that is unfit for His garden.
The growths of sin and error can only flourish for a time. No advantage of situation can give them a title to continuance. The season for plucking up will come, for God must remove them out of His sight.
Ecclesiastes 3:3. God often resorts to terrible means in order to purify His Church.
Affliction is sometimes sharp, and seems to be the prelude to death; but it is not in itself an end. God only ordains death as a passage to life. He is the Heavenly Physician who wounds but to heal.
The hurt comes before the healing, and affliction before the fruition of blessedness.
The miracles of healing performed by Our Lord contain a prophecy of what He will do as the Restorer of Paradise. He will heal all the wounds of His people, and give them life to enjoy in its best condition.
Times of healing, whether of bleeding and sick nations, of rent and distempered Churches, or wounded spirits, are in God’s hand; and, till His time come, all essays of other physicians for healing are in vain; and therefore He is to be humbly employed and depended upon for that end, considering that however times of healing be fixed with Him, yet the importunity of penitents is ordinarily a comfortable forerunner of their being healed [Nisbet].
The most famous and enduring of works have been destroyed, and the glories of each succeeding age are often built upon the ruins of the past.
No worldly fortune so great but God can break it down, as He will for every man at death. All the works of man are doomed. Those structures alone shall abide that are raised upon the everlasting foundations.
When this life is past, there will be, for the good, an end of the succession of breaking down and building up. For them there is prepared the city which shall never be spoiled by the invader.
God builds again the walls of the Church when He grants great spiritual prosperity and increase.
In the Church’s lowest condition the faithful few need not despair; the “time to build up” will come.
The progress of all human things is towards final and complete ruin. But upon these ruins God will raise everlasting habitations.
In the midst of failure and destruction, the wise may hope and take courage. Their ruined structures shall be built again. We must fail here; but if we are one with God, we shall find all re-constructed for us on a larger plan, and with more refined elegance.
Ecclesiastes 3:4. We cannot fix the seasons of sorrow or of joy; they are forced upon us by the decrees of Providence.
With the good, joy always comes last. Their history is a transcript of the history of Christ. He suffered first, and then entered into His glory.
The weeping of the world is but tears shed over the grave of hope; it is the anguish of despair. But the righteous weep with a sadness which takes comfort. Their darkest prospect is rounded by the glory of unfading hope.
There are seasons when the Church must hang her harp upon the willows and weep the tears of memory and long regrets; but the night of weeping shall be followed by the morning of joy.
It is best to yield to the feeling of the time, for this is the design of Providence. The children of this world try to force themselves to laughter when they ought to weep—there is a deep misery underlying their loudest joy.
Tears are, as it were, the blood of the wounds of the soul, which manifest the greatness of them; and so the light skipping of the body in dancing is but the shadow of the light and lofty flying of the mind in joy [Jermin].
The Lord hath His own times fixed wherein He will fill the mouths of His people with laughter, and turn their mourning into dancing by making them see the performance of those promises which they could hardly believe, healing their spiritual distempers, guarding their hearts against the vexation of affliction, giving them such sweet foretastes of their future happiness that they cannot but skip for joy, even in the midst of the worst that men can do to them. And when His time for making His people laugh and dance cometh, the world cannot hinder it [Nisbet].
No one can fix a date and say, I shall spend that day merrily, or I must spend it mournfully. The day fixed for the wedding may prove the day for the funeral; and the ship which was to bring back the absent brother, may only bring his coffin. On the other hand, the day we had destined for mourning, God may turn to dancing, and may gird it with irresistible gladness [Dr. J. Hamilton].
There are extremes of joy and sorrow which must receive a corresponding expression. From their very nature, they must be of brief duration. There is an average healthy pulse for the spiritual as well as for the natural man. The soul must not be dissolved in rapture so as to give no heed to the claims of duty.
The extreme forms of human emotion show that this world is not our place of rest. Ours is not that calm and untroubled joy which the righteous look for beyond life. The Fountain of Life above is no intermittent spring.
Ecclesiastes 3:5. Destruction and re-building—These words describe all history.—
1. The history of material and social progress. This is mainly a breaking-up of institutions which have been proved a failure—no longer able to accompany the soul into higher latitudes; or it is the substitution of new methods because they are better and more potent than the old—as in skilful inventions and contrivances.
2. The history of thought. Old fashions of thinking have passed away, and new systems have been built up. And so it will be to the end, as long as the constitution of the mind is unchanged.
Human monuments cannot endure for ever. They are broken down, to be replaced by other works of taste and skill. The material progress of man requires such renewal. A like necessity exists in intellectual progress. Each age requires a new embodiment of the truth. Hence the necessity of current literature.
Christ said to the Jews, “Behold your house is left unto you desolate.” It was God’s house no longer. When the Church has reached this stage of corruption, the time for scattering her stones is not far off. But God cherishes the purpose of building in the midst of this work of undoing. The glorious Christian Temple was raised upon the ruins of Judaism.
“There is a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.” There is a time when the fondness of friendship bestows its caresses, and receives them in return with reciprocal sincerity and delight: and a time when the ardour cools; when professions fail; when the friend of our bosom’s love proves false and hollow-hearted, and the sight of him produces only the sigh and tear of bitter recollection. We refrain from embracing because our embrace is not returned [Wardlaw].
The love of God to His Church is unchangeable, but the special expressions of His love—i.e., His favour, varies. The souls of the righteous are sometimes cast down as if God did not permit them always to enjoy His closest and most retired affection.
Providence has ordained it that not even in religion itself shall we have a constant rapture of delight. In the most entrancing music of the soul, there must be pauses of silence.
Ecclesiastes 3:6. There is a time when every enterprise succeeds; when, as if he were a Midas, whatsoever the prosperous merchant touches is instantly gold. Then comes a time when all is adverse—when flotillas sink, when ports are closed, and each fine opening only proves another and a tantalising failure. And so there is “a time to keep and a time to cast away.” There is a time when in the cutting blast the traveller is fain to wrap his cloak more closely around him; a time when in the torrid beam he is thankful to be rid of it. There is a time when we cannot keep too carefully the scrip or satchel which contains the provision for our journey; a time when, to outrun the pursuing assassin, or to bribe the red-armed robber, we fling it down without a scruple. It was a time to keep when the sea was smooth, and Rome’s ready market was waiting for the corn of Egypt; but it was a time to cast the wheat into the sea when the angry ocean clamoured for the lives of thrice a hundred passengers [Dr. J. Hamilton].
We have here—
1. A recognition of the duty of industry. There is “a time to get.” Providence calls men to active diligence in the sober pursuit of this world’s good.
2. The vicissitudes of fortune. No human power can contrive that our fortunes shall be constant and unbroken. They may be undermined by the merest accident; or we may be deprived of the power to enjoy them.
3. The prudence proper in extremity. It is right carefully to preserve the results of our labour, but there are emergencies when, to serve some higher purpose, we must part with our most cherished earthly good.
That which is subject to such violent changes, and which we must be prepared to lose, cannot be our chief good. It is no part of our real selves, no lasting inheritance of the soul.
Even our life, the dearest treasure we possess, must be rendered up at the high demands of duty.
The treasures of the mind and soul are alone exempt from this inexorable law. Capricious fortune cannot force us to resign immortal wealth.
We must not attach our hearts to that which we may lose so soon.
Ecclesiastes 3:7. There is a time when calamity threatens or grief has come, and we feel constrained to rend our apparel and betoken our inward woe; a time when the peril has withdrawn, or the fast is succeeded by a festival, when it is equally congruous to remove the symbols of sorrow. There is “a time to keep silence”—a time when we see that our neighbour’s grief is great, and we will not sing songs to a heavy heart; a time when, in the abatement of anguish, a word of sympathy may prove a word in season; a time when to remonstrate with the transgressor would be to reprove a madman, or, like the pouring of vinegar on nitre, would be to excite a fiery explosion; but a time will come when, in the dawn of repentance, or the sobering down of passion, he will feel that faithful are the wounds of a friend [Dr. J. Hamilton].
Providence has ordained that great and violent griefs shall not be perpetual. The rents of sorrow are healed by time; wherefore time has been called “the comforter.”
There are seasons when man must pay his tribute to nature, and assume the proper circumstances of woe. Again the season arrives when it is seemly to remove the ensigns of sorrow.
Silence should go before speech, for only in the silence of meditation can speech be wisely framed.
Silence is the proper attitude of the soul.—
1. Before a great sorrow. The small griefs of men are noisy and demonstrative, but the greatest griefs are silent. They choke the utterance.
2. Before a great mystery. When words fail to give to the vast and infinite shape and outline, we can only stand and wonder and adore. In the inner shrine of religious thought we must cover our faces.
O the strong buckler of a circumspect defence, silence! O the most faithful foundation of stability! For many being well settled with a stable heart, yet unawares have fallen by the error of a wandering tongue [St. Ambrose].
There are some seasons wherein the Lord’s people are to refrain from speaking even that which is in itself good, and might prove so to others. As
1. When we are called to learn from others (Job 32:7);
2. When men turn brutish, and declare themselves incapable of profiting, and the more they are spoken to are the more enraged in their wickedness (Matthew 7:6), and so incorrigible that others can neither have access to deal with them, nor with God for them (Amos 5:13); and,
3. When the truth hath been often before sufficiently asserted and cleared even to their conviction (Matthew 27:14) [Nisbet].
God broke the long silence which reigned before the world was made by saying, “Let there be light.” We should only break silence to speak words of quiet power, rich in the purity of truth and goodness, and tending to diffuse peace and joy.
The resulting force of one body acting upon another depends upon the angle at which it is struck. Words spoken in proper season strike the mind directly with full effective force, while those which are ill-timed can only strike with diminished power.
Seasons for speaking.
1. To give testimony for the truth.
2. To rebuke sin.
3. To comfort the afflicted.
4. To vindicate the innocent.
5. To instruct.
Providence has supreme control over those actions which seem to lie most within our own power. The most refractory under Heaven’s government must accept the seasons of silence and speech with the same helpless resignation as they must accept the natural seasons of the year.
Ecclesiastes 3:8. We have no complete command over our love and hatred, for they depend upon causes beyond ourselves. They are the opposite poles of human emotion, and, like the magnetic needle, they obey the forces of attraction and repulsion.
There is a period when, from identity of pursuit, or from the spell of some peculiar attraction, a friend is our all in all, and our idolatrous spirits live and move and have their being in him; but with riper years or changing character, the spell dissolves, and we marvel at ourselves that we could ever find zest in insipidity, or fascination in vulgarity. And just as individuals cannot control their hatred and their love, so nations cannot regulate their pacifications and their conflicts. But just at the moment when they are pledging a perpetual alliance, an apple of discord is thrown in, and to avenge an insulted flag, or settle a disputed boundary, or maintain the tottering balance of power, wager of battle is forthwith joined [Dr. J. Hamilton].
God has both the mild and the stormy passions of human nature entirely under His command.
The changes of our hearts’ emotion are determined by Providence working slowly through time.
The system of Divine Providence is made up of antagonistic elements, of which each one in turn will have its brief season. If we accept the facts of human nature as they are, we cannot expect otherwise than that wars and commotions will arise. History is but the development of the possibilities latent in man.
In the recital of the chief examples of the Divine Control, the series is concluded by the mention of peace, for this is the goal and Sabbath of all God’s ways with man. The end of all the strife and agitation of this troubled year of existence is to secure eternal peace.
Ecclesiastes 3:11. In His time.] This is the emphatic part of the sentence. The fitting time is one of the chief elements in the ways of Providence, which raises in us the thought of an Infinite Wisdom. Also He hath set the world in their heart. The world here should be rendered eternity—i.e., the universe considered as duration—as that which is extended in time. It is because man has eternity in his heart that he is able, from the observation of Creation, to form an idea of “His eternal power and Godhead.” So that no man can find out the work that God maketh. Men have an idea of God and His immense dominion; but the details of the method and circumstances of His Sovereign rule are but imperfectly known.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 3:9-11
SOLACE FOR THE TROUBLED MIND
The mind is perplexed by the difficulties of Providence—the seeming disorder of the world. Hence the heart is troubled with care—that tenacious, wasting disease of human nature. We can only seek solace in well-assured, immoveable truths.
I. That all human care must be unavailing. (Ecclesiastes 3:9.) Where are the results of all the cares, labours, and anxieties of men? When the final reckoning is made, where is the profit? The widest observation of the scene of man reveals the uselessness of care, and of the trouble of the mind at the contemplation of the antagonistic elements composing the scheme of Providence. (Ecclesiastes 3:10.) Why is it that our care and anxiety are of no avail?
1. Because we cannot lift the burden of vanity from man’s life here. There is a fatal disorder in the system of things in which we play so important a part. All our care cannot remove it.
2. Because we cannot force the seasons of Providence. We are as powerless to change these as we are to change the natural seasons of the year. We cannot be joyful when the hour for mourning arrives. All the gradual and violent changes in human things will take place despite all our care. We should, therefore, seek the solace of the inevitable, and the shelter of a love which, whatever happens, shall never fail the righteous. Weakness, ignorance, and imperfection must fall helpless into the arms of the Infinite.
II. The exquisite skill of adaptation to be observed in the Divine Plan. (Ecclesiastes 3:11.) The infinite wisdom of Providence is most to be observed in bringing forth His purpose at the fitting season. All the movements of the Supreme Governor are timed with accuracy.
1. There is a fixed method. There is an established order for everything which God has made, and all His purposes are exquisitely fitted to the times in which they are produced. God needs no system as we understand it, for this is only the refuge of imperfect minds. We need system to classify our ideas, and to make them portable for the memory. Infinite wisdom is above the necessity of this device, and can only use method.
2. There is a fixed aim. There is nothing purposeless in Providence, no movements at random. All is sure, steady, and accurate. Every purpose moves with sure aim to its proper end. Evil itself is made to further the good purposes of God. The well-timed order of the system of Divine Providence should be to us a comforting portion, sufficient to allay our anxiety and to assuage our sorrow. Confusion and disorder would only generate despair, for they could not conserve the good that might by chance arise; but we have everything to hope for from wise method, and fixedness of purpose and aim. If we are true and good, our deepest aspirations will have their proper season, and be brought forth in a light which will lend them a beauty and a glory.
III. The inability of the human mind to compass the whole designs of Providence. (Ecclesiastes 3:11.) No man can trace the work of God all through its mazy course. A little portion of it is before us, but the extremes of it are lost in the immensity of the past and future.
1. We are ignorant of the whole plan of Providence. We may indeed know a part of it. This much St. Paul teaches us is within our grasp; and from what we know, we may form a dim prophecy of what we may expect. Yet to adventure to explore the plan of God, as a whole, would take us beyond the depth of our understanding. We only see the work of God in the course of its progress, but we cannot see the plan of it, nor the glory of the finished purpose.
2. We are ignorant of the several ends contemplated by Providence. We know in general that the true, the right, and the good, will be brought forth into the light and vindicated; but what other ends group themselves around these, and are intimately interwoven with the whole scheme, we know not. There must lie outside the region of our knowledge quite an infinity of possibilities of which we cannot form even the first draft, or rude outline of an idea.
3. We are ignorant of the reasons of God’s dealings. The long dominion of evil, the afflictions of the good, the disordered mixture in the life of humanity, must be accepted as an impenetrable mystery, notwithstanding all our efforts to find a sufficient reason. God does not always answer the question of His people. “Show me wherefore Thou contendest with me?”
4. We are ignorant of the future. We cannot tell where any purpose or work shall have its end. We cannot enter the secret chambers of heaven, and steal from thence the unpublished volumes of the Book of Providence. Men of science cannot tell the destination of the material universe in space; and where this present system of things shall end, and how it shall be disposed of in the final crash of doom, we are alike ignorant. Yet our little knowledge ought to be consolatory, and it will be so if we are only careful to assure ourselves that it is but a little. God reserves for Himself enough to keep our souls for ever in the attitude of adoration. We can only have peace and hope in the worship of the Highest.
IV. The hopefulness inspired by a sense of the true grandeur of man. (Ecclesiastes 3:11.) “God hath set eternity in their heart.” He has placed within the soul of man a power capable of infinite expansion. These God-like properties constitute the true grandeur of man. Such a distinction conferred upon us should inspire hope, and allay anxiety. This gift comprises:
1. The power to contemplate the Divine nature. We cannot comprehend fully the nature of God and His dealings. They still wear the robe of mystery. Yet, because we have this great gift of eternity within us, as a disguised or pent-up force, we are able to know something of God. We could not entertain the idea of God unless He had first made us God-like by such an immense gift as this. It is our privilege to be “partakers of the Divine nature,” and to partake of that nature is to know it to that degree.
2. The pledge of immortality. Man’s destiny in the future is thus bound up with the eternity of God. The destination of spirit is to run parallel with the existence of the Supreme. The desire to live eternally is a portion of the Divine image. Only for this infinity within us, religion would be impossible, for it deals with eternal life.
3. The capacity for unlimited improvement. The investment of the heart with eternity is a kind of force given in elastic measure. It has reserves of power which will be developed throughout eternity. It is the property of a creature with this endowment to make progression towards a limit placed at an infinite remove. God will keep that limit still ahead of us. The soul’s eye will never be permitted to approach too near to the intolerable light. We should console ourselves with reflections upon our true grandeur. However mean and obscure our present condition, we may hope for distinction and honour when we are advanced to the light of God. The heritage of the noble and the good, however obscured here by poverty and neglect, is divine in glory and duration. He who can realise that he is the heir of immortality carries with him through life’s saddest journey the balm of sorrow and the ease of care.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 3:9. Nothing is to be reckoned the true profit or advantage of a man’s work but that which is permanent, and will abide with him as nothing earthly can do. Only the graces of God’s Spirit abide in the exercise of them with the saints in death, and their good works abide with them through all eternity in the gracious reward of them [Nisbet].
All labour that does not increase the riches of the soul must prove profitless in the end.
Ecclesiastes 3:10. God hath appointed the changes of time that man may be exercised in them, either wisely and willingly to His praise, or else unwillingly and foolishly to his torment and vexation [Jermin].
Before the hour comes, thought and labour are lost. But we are nevertheless to labour, each in his sphere and with diligence. God commands this; if we hit the hour, things prosper; if we do not, nothing comes of it, and thus no human thought avails. They, therefore, who would anticipate God’s hour, struggle, and have nothing but care and sorrow [Luther].
It is often expedient for the teacher to allow his pupil himself to grapple with the difficulties of knowledge, for thus his mental devices are stimulated, and the true foundations of science are laid. So God gives severe exercises to man, that he may know his true position, and learn the ways of wisdom.
God does not teach us by imparting knowledge which we have but passively to receive. He sets humanity some hard exercises, which they have painfully to work out by the experience of this rough world.
No worldly position, however exalted or outwardly happy, can exempt a man from exercising his mind upon the painful problems of existence.
The path of spiritual knowledge is traced with difficulty through uncleared and tangled regions. God has laid down no “royal road.”
The long processes of Divine teaching, through so many seasons of time, have their special purposes in the education of humanity.
Ecclesiastes 3:11. Not only has God made everything, but there is a beauty in this arrangement where all is fortuitous to us, but all is fixed by Him. That season must be beautiful which to infinite love and wisdom seems the best [Dr. J. Hamilton].
Not only the works of Creation have a lustre and beauty in them, but even those works of Providence which seem blackest unto men have a great deal of ravishing beauty. Joseph’s being sold, Job spoiled and plagued, Daniel in the lion’s den, Christ betrayed and nailed upon the Cross—these and the like, although, being looked upon as in the hands of instruments, they seem to have nothing but deformity in them; yet, being looked upon as God’s works, and according to His intent, and the result of them, they have a ravishing beauty in them, and many of His fair attributes written upon them [Nisbet].
The works of Providence have the prime elements of beauty—fitness and adaptation.
To know a life, we must partake of it in some degree. Unless our Creator had set “eternity in our heart,” we could entertain no idea of “His eternal power and Godhead.”
We have the power to discern the eternal behind this transitory scene.
Man here exists but in a mean condition. He has powers which eternity alone can unfold. The human soul is like a seed wherein unborn forests sleep.
Man findeth not out to what end all those things are done, until himself come to his end. Then he shall understand it, for either the mercy or the justice of God will show it unto him [Jermin].
We only see the system of Providence in the making, and not as a completed whole. Therefore we can only discern the mere rudiments of what shall be; no complete or extensive knowledge being possible to us. “The house that is a-building looks not as the house that is built,” says the proverb.
We can only see, at a time, but an inconsiderable part of the ocean, so that we can never take a view of it as one great whole. In like manner the ways of God can only be seen in small portions. Their vastness overtasks our powers.
Eternity casts upon the whole course of time the shadow of mystery. We have enough light to work by, but not enough for complete revelation.
The creature of a day cannot be expected to grasp those vast designs stretching from creation to the final destiny of all things.
Ecclesiastes 3:12. For who knoweth the Spirit of man that goeth upward.] Man has no distinct and certain knowledge of his own future destiny, or of that of other forms of life. The subject is altogether beyond the range of human experience. Like God Himself, the future state is unseen and unknown by us. We can indeed apprehend both these truths by faith; yet, from the mere human standpoint, we may reason with equal plausibility, so far as outward appearances are concerned, for or against immortality.
Ecclesiastes 3:14. It shall be forever.] God’s order is fixed—His law is eternal.
Ecclesiastes 3:15. God requireth that which is past.] Literally, God seeketh that which was crowded out. Thus God seeks out again what the revolutions of history have pushed back into the past, as if it were entirely done with. The meaning is—that the past ages of wrong and unjust suffering shall be called up again. God will investigate the case of those who have been persecuted.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 3:12-15
THE WAY TO FRONT OUR DESTINY
I.—By a cheerful acceptance of our Providential lot. We should wisely use the gifts of God, and rejoice in them. (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13.) This will give to life the smoothness of contentment, and the comfort of resignation. Such is the greatest good that we can extract from life. Whatever our lot may be, let us accept it with cheerfulness, and receive whatever good it offers. This is the wisest course for man.
1. To fret and worry ourselves is useless. We cannot contend with the inevitable, nor rectify the apparent perversity of things. It will be best to allow God to arrange all for us.
2. A rebellious temper hinders the course of true happiness. If we murmur against the appointments of God, we are only adding an unnecessary burden to life, and sending the iron of affliction deeper into the soul. Unless we have sympathy with the Supreme Ruler, all must be unpleasant to us. A sour, complaining disposition would make true happiness impossible.
3. The power to enjoy the good of this life is the gift of God. There may be even a refined enjoyment of life, which is not godly. But the sober and joyful use of the provisions of Providence, while keeping in mind the higher aims of existence, is a special gift of heaven.
II.—By a practical recognition of the high claims of duty. “To do good in his life.” (Ecclesiastes 3:12.) This will make the appointments of Providence grateful and delightful to us. We can make even our trials and vexations the occasions of cheerful and devoted service—the school wherein our graces are refined and perfected. Thus we can maintain an heroic bearing against the hardest fate.
1. Doing good brings a man into sympathy with the Supreme Disposer of all things. We are thus imitating God Himself, and, in any case, this must put us into the best position. To do good is to enjoy some of the pleasures of the Highest.
2. Whatever else may be mysterious, our present duty is always clear. The reasons of God’s dealings are obscure, and the ways of Providence seem altogether a tangled maze: but our duty is written in clear outline, quite obvious and familiar. To follow therefore what is clearly known is the surest means to lead us to further knowledge, and solution of mystery. If we are faithful to the light we have, a superior light will be granted us, in which all things will be transfigured.
3. The faithful discharge of duty is the only lasting foundation for solid joy. There is a joy of the world which glitters, but it is not lasting. It is like the sparkle of shallow streams as the water flows over the pebbles, or like the dispersion of it in foam. But the joy that God gives is powerful and deep. The reason is, that the only lasting joy is that which arises from a good conscience. Righteousness gives peace, and peace is the true home of joy.
III.—By an acknowledgment of the inflexible rule of the Divine Government. (Ecclesiastes 3:14.) God’s ways in the government of the world are not by the method of trial and failure, by added light from experience. They are all fixed from the beginning.
1. God’s counsels are for ever. They are sure from eternity, and cannot be set aside. This seems an iron rule only to the rebellious. The good have nothing to fear from the wise ordering of Him who is perfect in knowledge, and infinite in mercy. Such are ready with joy to front their destiny.
2. God’s counsels are so certain that they are not complicated with our human distinctions of time. (Ecclesiastes 3:15.) We speak of time—past, present, and future. Our weak faculties need such a device as this. But to the Infinite Intelligence “an eternal now does ever last.” All things are eternally present to Him, and with one quick glance He sees from the beginning to the end. The past lives now—the future is already here.
IV.—By recognising the righteous ends contemplated by the Divine Government. (Ecclesiastes 3:14-15, latter part.) There are certain ends which the Supreme Ruler proposes to Himself in His administration. These are of a practical nature; they relate to human conduct, and as such are revealed. The methods of the Divine Government are designed—
1. To tame and subdue the heart of man. Men are “to fear before Him.” This want of mastery over the future tends to bring man to submission. He is convicted of ignorance, and the pride of knowledge is abated. He can never presume to be the God of God when his rebellion is proved to be a vain and hopeless attempt, and the future is kept in terrible reserve. The only sane result of the contemplation of the ways of Providence is resignation, humility, and the fear of God. It is madness for a man to dash his head against the iron walls of destiny. The course of Providence in the world is the great tamer of the human breast.
2. To vindicate the wrongs of His people. That which has fled away, and seemed to have escaped altogether, God will summon to His presence again. He will cause the great gulf of time to deliver up all that is in it. The past ages of wrong shall be called up again—reviewed and judged. Men think when they have persecuted the righteous that all is done with. They have silenced the testimony of truth. They have triumphed over the meek. But the end will come, and a day of reckoning, when the wrongs and oppressions of the past shall utter their voice, emphatic, decisive, and terrible. The Christian knows that his “Vindicator” liveth—that the time must come when all wrongs shall be adjusted, and all precedency set right.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 3:12. There is no lasting good in the things of this life; yet a joyful heart lends a beauty and grace to those fading and vanishing delights.
Doing good should always go hand in hand with joy; because good deeds spring from love, and joy is but the recreation of love.
Duty is the watchword of humanity, the herald of progress, the pledge of final emancipation. In the confusion and general uproar of things that amaze our ears, the voice of duty is clearly heard, and calls us to the skies.
When good actions become pleasant to us, then joy is the very sinews of duty.
Active goodness and joy are Godlike properties, for He is the unwearied worker of good, and the Blessed One.
They whose hearts are cheered by the proofs of the Lord’s bounty in His dealing with them, and do express that cheerfulness by their activity in duties that may honour Him; they have found that true good which is attainable in this life [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 3:13. The purest earthly joys are those which are won by toil. What we passively receive stirs up only a languid feeling. The idle and luxurious blunt the edge of joy.
It requires peculiar skill to use creature comforts wisely and well. This power is the gift of God.
The means of our common sustenance are turned into manna by a joyful spirit, and the remembrance of the giver.
When the gifts of God are not cheerfully acknowledged and enjoyed, our table becomes a snare.
Ecclesiastes 3:14. As the omnipotency of God is without defect, so the counsel of God is without change. For how can there be any change in Him to whom nothing is past, or to come, but all things are present? [Jermin.]
Men form opinions which change in the different situations of the mind through the course of time. It has been said that opinion is but knowledge in the making. It is but provisional where absolute certainty cannot be attained. But the thoughts of God stand “to all generations.”
The whole scheme of an Oriental court, and eminently that of the Great King, was laid out on the idea that it was the visible representation of the court of heaven, and the king himself a visible incarnation of the highest God. The sense of this speaks out in every arrangement, in the least, as in the greatest, and is the key to them all. Thus, the laws of that kingdom, when once uttered, could not be reversed or changed (Daniel 6:8), because the king who gave them was the incarnation of God, and God cannot repent, or alter the thing which has gone out from His lips [Trench].
The thought of the perfection of God’s plan raises our admiration, but, at the same time, inspires a wholesome fear. There is behind all a mysterious and terrible power which we may well fear to offend.
Fear should be the instrument of caution, and the sentinel of loving obedience.
The works of God are so perfect that no improvement can be made, and, left to themselves, they will be perpetual. How true is this regarding God’s greatest work—redemption! What more could He have done to make it a great salvation than what He has already done? Or what feature of the glorious plan could we afford to want? And now that He has Himself pronounced it a “finished” work, what is there that man can put to it? What is there that he dare take from it? And in doing it He has done it “for ever” [Dr. J. Hamilton].
Ecclesiastes 3:15. In all the seeming irregularities of Divine Providence, there are fixed principles which are never departed from. And thus it is that a science of history is possible. So certain is God’s method of procedure, that though we know not the special events of the future, we can predict the results of great principles.
The future will be but a repetition of the past. Thus the course of humanity through time may be likened to the movements of the solar system. The planets run their fixed cycles, and go over the same paths again. Yet there is with all these movements another by which the whole system is itself travelling in space. So human history, though revealing a perfect sameness from age to age, may yet be travelling towards some certain goal.
The deeds of oppression, cruelty, and wrong have not passed away for ever. God will seek them out again, and measure their deserts. The persecutors of the righteous cannot hide themselves even in the abyss of time.
THE IMPOTENCE OF TIME
Time has not done much, notwithstanding all; “for that which hath been is now.” This language will apply—
I. To all the elements of material existence. The forms of the material world are constantly changing, but the elements, of which the first types of all were formed, are the same. The raw materials, out of which the principle of life constructs its organs, and weaves its garments from age to age, are always here. Time, through all its mighty revolutions, cannot destroy an atom.
II. To all the spirits of mankind. All human souls that ever have been are now. Not one of the mighty millions who spent his short and misty day of life under these heavens is lost. All are thinking, feeling, acting, still. Their bodies are dust, but their bodies were theirs, not they; their instruments, not themselves.
“Distinct as is the swimmer from the flood,
The lyrist from his lyre.”
III. To all the general types of human character. All the varieties of human character may be traced to five or six different regal sympathies. There is the inordinate love of pleasure, the undue love of gain, the vain love of show, the mere love of inquiry, the inordinate love of power, the false love of religion, the holy love of God. All these great types of character have been here almost from the earliest dawn of history. Herods and Hamans, Athenians and Pharisees, seem to be living again in every age.
IV. To all the principles of the Divine Government. All the principles by which both the physical and moral provinces have been controlled from the beginning are the same now as ever. Harmony with God’s laws is the creature’s highest de stiny. Rebellion against them is his inevitable ruin. They neither pause nor change, either for angels or men.
V. To the grand design of all things. This must ever be the holy development of creature-minds in gratitude, reverence, love, and assimilation to Himself.
VI. To the recollections of the human memory. Memory gathers up every fragment of all “that hath been,” so that none may be lost. The history of man is recorded, not in books, but in souls.
VII. To all the conditions of man’s well-being. Physical, intellectual, spiritual [Homilist].
Ecclesiastes 3:18. That God might manifest them.] The disorders of the present are permitted to the end that God might test, or prove, men. That they themselves are beasts. Not in regard to moral character, but to the common fate of dissolution, awaiting alike both men and beasts. They themselves—i.e., apart from Him who alone hath immortality, and in whose sole right is the gift of it—men, like the beasts, are all included in one sad fate. This thought is expanded in the next verse.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 3:16-18
CORRUPTION IN THE SEAT OF JUSTICE
I. It is a manifest and daring iniquity. History gives a sad recital of deeds of oppression and wrong done in the sacred name of justice. Power and place have been abused to serve the basest passions of human nature. This is a manifest and daring form of impiety.
1. Rulers and judges are in the place of God. Human law has for its chief object the preservation of order, the securing of the best conditions of national prosperity, and the guardianship of public morality. Those who administer the law stand in the place of God, who is the fountain of all law and authority. When these abuse their position, a Divine idea is perverted and dishonoured. A lofty principle of the Divine Government is subjected to a degrading parody. Such a sin is a daring insult to the majesty of Heaven.
2. When they are corrupt, the worst evils follow. The streams of social life are poisoned, the innocent are without defence, and the restraints of wickedness are slackened or broken. But one great evil that follows is the oppression of the righteous. The Church has often come into conflict with the civil power, and the good have been persecuted in the name of law and justice.
II. It is a source of discipline for the righteous. Like other evils, this is overruled by Providence, and made to serve the purposes of discipline.
1. It serves to develop spiritual character. (Ecclesiastes 3:18.) It manifests what is in men. It marks off the brutish part of mankind from those who are moved by high principle and noble aspirations. The good, under every oppression and injury, have the support of conscience—they are strong in integrity. Affliction does but fetch out the hidden lustre of their graces.
2. It serves to cure radical evils in the Church of God. Times of outward ease and prosperity for the Church have some special dangers, the chief of which is pride—a vice easily forced into bloom by the warmth of prosperity; but soon nipped by the keen blasts of adversity.
3. It serves to show to what baseness human nature may come, apart from Divine influence. (Ecclesiastes 3:18.) “They themselves.” Having quenched the Divine light within them, and all better hopes and feelings, some men have become monsters of injustice, and degraded themselves to the level of beasts. In times of persecution, when deeds of cruelty and slaughter have their sanction from the seat of justice, it is difficult to believe that men capable of such fierce brutality have immortal souls. It seems easier to believe that men are but beasts, after all, to be tamed for pleasure, or destroyed for sport.
III. It tends to ripen the world for Divine Retribution. God cannot allow the misuse of the most sacred gifts to go on for ever. Judgment may be delayed, but it will come at last.
1. Our spiritual instincts call for such an interference. There is something within every righteous soul which is prophetic of the time when all the present moral confusion and disorder shall have an end. Christ is the hope of all the oppressed ones—Himself their chief in affliction. The world once looked upon the picture of Herod in purple on the throne, and the purest and loveliest of humanity crucified between two thieves; but the day is coming when the universe shall look upon another picture, wherein shall be a sad reversal.
2. The character of God teaches us to expect it. He is wise, just, and holy, and (though the process to us seems slow) He will maintain the honour of His name. He must make a separation between the righteous and the wicked—thus He will judge both. (Ecclesiastes 3:17.)
3. The appeal of the oppressed from earth to heaven will be heard. (Ecclesiastes 3:17.) “A time there.” The Royal Preacher, as it were, points from the seat of unrighteousness with his lifted finger to heaven—the home of justice. “There”—such is the answer of the persecuted, and the only answer which many souls in their dumb agony could give.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 3:16. The advancement of men to places of power and trust in the world, who abuse the same to the oppression of piety and equity, and the promoting of ungodliness and injustice, is a dispensation that, of any other, the Lord’s people had most need to be guarded against stumbling at, and taught how to judge aright of; seeing Satan takes occasion from thence to tempt to corruption of the best to Atheism, or denial of a Providence (Isaiah 40:27), and to join with such men in their sinful ways (Psalms 73:10; Psalms 73:13) [Nisbet].
Wickedness is too obvious and manifest—too weak by itself to succeed. It has to assume the forms of goodness. Hence under the pretence of justice the vilest wrongs have been inflicted.
Corruption in the seat of justice tends—
1. To confuse all moral distinctions.
2. To put to sore trial minds of wavering principle and unstable virtue.
3. To disorganise the frame of society.
4. To retard social progress.
The wisest and best of mankind have suffered fearful evils under the mockery of a trial. Even Christ Himself went from a human judgment-seat to His Cross.
Place and authority do not ensure the integrity of those who possess them. Some of the worst names in history have held the most exalted positions.
The throne which Solomon made was overlaid with the most pure gold; and what did this signify but the esteem and price in which God would have justice to be held, as also how pure the judgments should be that from thence are given? But too often where the seat is gold, he that sits on it is brass; where the place is the place of judgment and righteousness, wickedness and iniquity are found [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 3:17. The world has a terrible account of injustice and wrong to answer for. God will yet have a reckoning with the children of men.
God is just, though by the impenetrable clouds of Providence that justice may for awhile be hidden. He will clear the scene in the end, and spurn from His presence every form of evil.
The true and good who have been wronged here shall take their case before a higher court.
With two worlds in which to outwork the retribution, and with a whole eternity to overtake the arrears of time, oh! how tyrants should fear for God’s judgments!—and that match which themselves have kindled, and which is slowly creeping round to explode their own subjacent mine, in what floods of repentance, if wise, would they drench it! [Dr. J. Hamilton.]
The vindication of the righteous is as much a proper work of judgment as the condemnation of the sinner. The Avenger is afoot, and will yet overtake all oppressors.
The judgment of God will yet repair all the wrongs of time.
At the sight of the worst oppressions and wrongs, our soul instinctively fastens upon the idea of the judgment, and points to the lofty throne of eternal justice.
As there is a time for every purpose and work, so there will be a time when all things shall be ripe for Divine judgment.
Ecclesiastes 3:18. For a moment the Royal Preacher felt relief in recalling the future judgment. But what care they for the judgment? So brutish are they that they neither look forward nor look up, but are content with their daily ravin. Yes, beasts, I half believe you. Your grossness almost converts me to your own materialism. I wish that God would manifest you to yourselves, and show you how brutish you are living, and how brute-like you will die [Dr. J. Hamilton].
Times of misrule and injustice manifest character by affording scope for human malignity, or by giving opportunity for the integrity of high principle to assert itself.
In human nature, how often the animal has surmounted the rational! Men have made themselves beasts by indulgence in animal pleasures, by their cruelty and rage, and by extinguishing the sense of immortality.
The evil of some is disguised and restrained by circumstances. It wants only a fit opportunity for their vices to attain a maturity of corruption.
Wicked men may see that the dispensations of God, even the most grievous, may contribute much for their good, if they make a right use thereof; for while He is manifesting them to the world, they ought to think that it is done “that they may see themselves to be beasts,” and so may loathe themselves, and thank Him that they are not destroyed, but preserved that they may seek mercy, and a change of their nature [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 3:22. For who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?] Man cannot tell what God will do in the future with all his earthly circumstances—how far, in the great future, they will be modified or destroyed. Hence riches, &c., must have many elements of uncertainty. Therefore enjoy the present.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 3:19-22
THE DOUBT OF IMMORTALITY
There are times when the most assured truths are questioned. The Royal Preacher assumes the sceptic, and allows the appearances of things to cast on him the dismal shadow of doubt.
I. This doubt may arise from the identity of the outward conditions both of man and the lower animals. In the features of their physical existence, they are so much alike that one may be tempted to predict for them a common fate—total extinction at death.
1. They appear to be both alike under the dominion of chance. (Ecclesiastes 3:19.) “Befalleth”—i.e., they are mere chance, in the sense of being subject to it. They have not the free determination of their own lot. We apply the term chance to describe those occurrences whose causes are obscure. Those things upon which life mostly depends are wholly out of the power alike of men and beasts. They both appear to be the sport of innumerable chances.
2. Both are informed by the same principle of life. (Ecclesiastes 3:19.) “One breath.” In the essential qualities of physical life, our nature can boast no pre-eminence. The beasts, like ourselves, are supported by the products of the earth, and draw the vital air. They follow the same analogy of physical construction. They are liable to disease, danger, and accident.
3. They have both the same origin and destiny. As far as outward appearance is concerned, no difference can be detected in the two extremes of their existence. They all come from the dust, and return to the dust again.
II. This doubt is strengthened by our complete ignorance of a future life. (Ecclesiastes 3:21.) We may, indeed, speak of the spirit of man going “upward,” and the spirit of the beast going “downward,” yet the difference is too subtle to be easily discerned. “Who knoweth?” In the absence of any certain information, who can make a positive assertion?
1. We have no experience of a superior life for man. Knowledge does increase through ages, but humanity has gathered no experience of any life beyond this world. No one has returned from the other shores of life to tell the mysterious secret. The eternal silence of the grave strengthens doubt.
2. Human reason is powerless to give us any assurance of such a life. Reason may give us probable grounds for believing that there may be such a destiny for man, but it cannot give us a certainty. We may reason ourselves, almost with equal facility, into a belief for or against immortality. And in the similarity of the fates both of men and beasts, it is hard to discover the difference. There are times when the sense of immortality is not strong.
3. Some have accepted materialism as a doctrine. The blank ignorance of man upon the subject, together with appearances, have led them to adopt the dismal creed of hopeless extinction in the grave. Consider the wail of despair which marks some of the ancient poetry. St. Paul tells us the heathen had “no hope.” The very existence of doubt implies that there is some evidence on the other side of the question.
III. This doubt ought not to interfere with the enjoyment of the present. In the darkest seasons of doubt, there are some manifest duties. Whatever be our fate when life is ended, some clear path lies before us now. Man can enjoy his portion.
1. The present life affords scope for such enjoyment. No one thought, however tremendous or awful it may be, can ever be present to the mind. The short tenure of existence here, the dread certainty of death, does not prevent mankind from enjoying the present world.
2. No other arrangement will be made for man in this life. (Ecclesiastes 3:22.) “That is his portion;” when he has once departed from life, he cannot enjoy it again. Each life is a measured portion once for all.
3. We are unable either to command or to look into the future. A man cannot tell what shall be after him, even in his own immediate circle. He cannot shape the future according to his own views or wishes. It is vain for a man to trouble himself much regarding that over which he can have no command, and which is hopelessly concealed from him.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 3:19. If one questioned the eyes and judgment without listening to the Word of God, human life would appear to be governed by mere chance to such an extent that men would seem to be, as it were, like a great ant-hill, and like ants to be crushed. But the revelation of the Divine Word must be placed in contrast with this appearance [Melanchthon].
In building up the science of material things we learn to correct appearances—the reports of sense—by the convictions of reason. So the dark and melancholy appearances of life around us must be corrected by the light of faith.
On this, the human side of life, all is seeming confusion, as if chance and accident held dominion. He who looks no further has sufficient occasion for doubt and denial. We cannot see life clearly unless we see it in God’s light.
The anatomist can only examine the structure of the organs of physical life. The immortal creature cannot be investigated by the scalpel.
The sense discovers, both in man and beast, the same wave of life beating to and fro. He who only regards the physical part of our nature may believe, without difficulty, that the same dark fate is reserved for both.
Ecclesiastes 3:20. The lowly origin and destiny of the material part of our nature should be—a motive for humility—a rebuke to arrogance—a reason for seeking the imperishable.
It is but one place, there be no upper and lower places in death; but how different soever the places of men may be while they lived, when they die, they are all in the same place; yea, beasts are in the same place with the wisest, the richest, and the greatest men. And there indeed is their journey’s end [Jermin].
All that live are borne onwards by an irresistible decree, from dust to dust.
The degradation to which our physical nature must come when life is ended is a sore trial to faith. It seems as if we lose existence then. Faith, in seeking to grasp eternal life, has, after all, to leap a precipice.
Ecclesiastes 3:21. Man’s superior destiny in the great future, is a truth not unattainable, yet still difficult to be known. It has been hid from many, and by others has been obscured by sensuality, and devotion to this present world.
The common eye cannot trace human existence beyond the last scene of all. The image of God’s immortality stamped upon man cannot be discerned on this side of life, yet faith gets a glimpse thereof as reflected in the mirror of God’s word.
The philosophers were much turmoiled and very busy in seeking after the nature of the soul. Tertullian describes them as in a wood, wherein if they saw any light of truth, it is only glimpses of it through the thick trees of ignorance and errors; and wherein if any shall seek for the truth, he shall seek it in a wood. Surely there is no better manifester of the soul than He who is the Maker of it, and that is God Himself [Jermin].
Can anything be more marvellous or startling, unless we were used to it, than that we should have a race of beings about us whom we do but see, and as little know their state, or can describe their interests or their destiny, as we can tell the inhabitants of the sun and moon? We have more real knowledge about the angels than about the brutes. They have apparently passions, habits, and a certain accountableness, but all is mystery about them. We do not know whether they can sin or not, whether they are under punishment, whether they are to live after this life … Is it not plain to our senses that there is a world inferior to us in the scale of beings, with which we are connected without understanding what it is? [J. H. Newman.]
Ecclesiastes 3:22. Only the moment that we live in life is our possession. Every hour lived sinks irrevocably into the sea of the past; the future is uncertain. Therefore is he a fool who lets the present slip by unused, wastes it in vain amusement, or grieves with useless lamentations [Wohlfarth].
It is our duty to do the best with that which lies to hand, and not consume ourselves with vain longings after an ideal state. We must accept the conditions of our earthly existence as a fact, and we ought to lighten their burden by the spirit of joy.
With a firm conviction of the duty which the present demands, the tasks of life, though in themselves grievous, may be set to the music of the soul.
No second lease of life will be granted us. We should therefore act well in the present, so that we might await with confidence the mysterious crown of eternity.
The future is all uncertain. We cannot forecast history; or, to come closer home, that smaller portion of it interwoven with our own life and labours. Yet we may be assured that if we are good and true, the future hides nothing in it that can vanquish or distress us.
Within the vague and solemn mystery which rounds our little life here, there is yet some room for cheerfulness, contentment, and hope.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 3". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent