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Ecclesiastes 4:1. So I returned.] Passing from the reflections of the last chapter to a new subject of contemplation. They had no comforter. The repetition of this phrase is intended to make the thought emphatic.
Ecclesiastes 4:4. Every right work.] Every work marked by excellence and skill. But the writer has chiefly in view that successful work which excites the envy of others.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 4:1-3
THE TYRANNY OF FORCE AGAINST RIGHT
I. Such tyranny is an immense evil.
1. It is an old evil. From the days of Cain, who did the first murder, there have been tyrants who have used their power to oppress the innocent. Brute force, without the government of the reason and conscience, employed to crush the defenceless, is one of the earliest forms of human iniquity.
2. It is an inveterate evil. Since Abel’s murder, the oppressors and the oppressed have been the chief actors in history. In every age, might has prevailed over right. No nation can show a clear page, purged from this blot. Humanity has become so indoctrinated with the claims of mere power that armies are still called “forces.” Even now, society is not advanced enough to render supreme homage to reason and moral right. Still the ultimate appeal of nations is to force.
II. Such tyranny gives rise to extreme suffering. The innocent may be strong in the sense of right, and in the defence of conscience; still human nature must feel.
1. These sufferings open the fountains of sorrow. When courage, goodness, and skill are of no avail against a vicious power; when the innocent are trampled under by the iron heel of tyranny, no wonder that the eye fills, and the heart is overwhelmed with emotion.
2. These sufferings are sometimes aggravated by the circumstance that they have no earthly comforter. The good have often been alone in the sorrows inflicted by the oppressor, and have looked around in vain for a sympathetic heart. With no eye to pity, and no heart to cheer, the load of misery comes with crushing weight.
III. Such tyranny causes existence to seem but a questionable benefit. The long record of human agony produced by the tyranny of the powerful; the cruel persecutions of some of the brightest ornaments of human nature—these things are a sore trial to our faith in the goodness of the Supreme Power. It seems as if God were indifferent to the most grievous wrongs of men. The existence of such evils in the world tempts a man to indulge in the most extravagant and desperate language.
1. He affirms that the dead are better off than the living. (Ecclesiastes 4:2.) The thought of the wrongs which man inflicts on man so sickens the heart that we are plunged into that gloomy mood in which we are ready to hail the condition of the dead, and welcome the long sleep and the safe shelter of the grave. There are deeds so horrible that the contemplation of them is enough to make us loathe life.
2. That the gift of existence is itself an evil. (Ecclesiastes 4:3.) There are seasons when the contemplation of the darker side of history so occupies the mind that we are tempted to regard the gift of life itself as a doubtful blessing. We almost wish as if our eye had never opened to the light of day, and that we had never been called from that dark negation which we once were. A state of non-existence appears to us preferable to a state of ill-existence.
3. There are times when this melancholy thought presses itself with peculiar force upon the mind. Times in the individual life—times in the life of nations. The state of mind, however, here described, does not and cannot last. Though the soul may have to pass through this shadow, she emerges into the light of a better hope. Elsewhere the Royal Preacher praises life as a Divine gift. Our feeling regarding the wrongs of time is thus modified by the higher truths, and the belief in eternal justice.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 4:1. Grace, while fortifying the soul against the violence of trouble, does not seal up the fountains of nature.
A tear is often the only tribute that the oppressed can give to misery.
The tears of the oppressed are—
1. A dumb protest against the cruel might of wrong.
2. An appeal to the justice of Heaven.
3. A revelation of an eternal future.
The pious, in the fiercest trial, though all men may forsake them, have yet a Comforter at their side.
Society has not yet reached that stage of progress wherein the convictions of reason and conscience bear supreme rule. Notwithstanding the advance of knowledge, and the presence of the Christian Religion for so many ages, humanity is still far from this ideal perfection.
A mechanical force is of no service to man unless he can guide and direct it to certain ends. There are some forces of nature of great potentiality, but they are like wild beasts that cannot be tamed. Power needs the direction of goodness to make it venerable, and worthy of praise.
The world has not yet got beyond the illusion of military glory—a proof that the worship of force has not yet disappeared from amongst us.
The Lord has a bottle, and into that bottle he puts His people’s tears, and the tears of all who are oppressed. When Joseph wept at Dothan, and the Jews at Babylon, it was not the sand of the desert, nor the stream of Euphrates, which intercepted the tear, but God’s bottle.… And whether it be the scalding tear of the Southern Slave, or that which freezes in the Siberian exile’s eye, God’s bottle has received them all; and when the measure is full, the tears of the oppressed burst in vials of vengeance on the head of the oppressor [Dr. J. Hamilton].
The power of the oppressor is, after all, a mere shadow—a vanishing thing. The power most to be dreaded is that which is on the side of the oppressed. He who has taken refuge in the citadel of God is the most terrible foe.
Ecclesiastes 4:2. When one attentively regards the innumerable sorrows of the heart, miseries, great evils, and troubles on earth, and the awful wickedness there is in the world, which is the devil’s kingdom, one must surely be of the mind that it were better to be dead than to see so much wretchedness [Luther].
There are such sights of misery on earth, that in the confusion of his feeling, the spectator finds a momentary relief in thinking upon the dread repose and secure refuge of the dark house.
The dead are clean escaped from the hands of the tyrant. The door of the sepulchre for ever bars the entrance of revenge.
Ecclesiastes 4:3. In certain frames of the feeling, it is natural to wish for the condition of non-existence. Extreme sorrow has plunged some of the best men into this trial—Job—Jeremiah.
When life seems so poor a heritage, the true and Absolute Being becomes all to us.
The tribulation through which we must enter into the Kingdom of Heaven may consist of temptations to indulge the most extravagant and vain wishes.
There are times when we seem to snatch a consolation from the dreariest of all philosophies.
Ecclesiastes 4:5. Eateth his own flesh.] Accomplishes his own ruin by indolence, exhausts his fortune, preys upon himself like one mad with hunger.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH. Ecclesiastes 4:4-6
THE PENALTIES OF SUCCESS
We have hero the case of a man who has escaped many ills and disasters of life. His work has led to a successful issue. Such a man may be regarded as comparatively happy, yet society fixes certain penalties upon his condition.
I. The successful man is often a mark for the envy of others. (Ecclesiastes 4:4.) The world idolizes success, and gives credit to the man who has achieved it for deep contrivance and many virtues. Yet success has some drawbacks and disadvantages. It often draws upon itself the envy of others. But 1—This envy is unjust. Society should bow cheerfully to the condition by which a man enjoys the fruit of his labour. The success of another should not be a huge object casting a dark shadow upon our own portion. Yet the language of Haman is that of most men (Esther 5:13).
2. This envy brings many evils in its train. The envious man may be tempted to ruin the successful, to attack his reputation, or to depreciate his work. Hence arise various forms of low cunning and deceit. The first murder had its bitter root in envy.
3. This envy is worthless. “This also is vanity,” ending in no good result for those who indulge it—a consuming fire in the breast.
4. This envy is unwise. In the proper ordering of human society, the wise and the good should rule, and come to place and power. Even in the present disorder, it often happens that talent and virtue are rewarded with success. But envy has prevented many a man from occupying his proper place, and thus the progress of society is retarded.
II. The successful man has no unmixed enjoyment. He is above the reach of many evils, and has much to make him happy. Yet his lot is not pure and unmixed joy. He has much to chafe his affections—to worry and distract his mind. “Vexation of spirit” is also his portion. This may arise from the fact—
1. That the skill he has shown meets with such an ungrateful return. He has been remarkable for industry and wisdom, and, it may be, has exerted himself for the public good; yet, for all his pains, he is only made the mark of envy. Ingratitude has often been the sad and vexatious heritage of some of the bravest and best workers.
2. That the evil affections of mankind are so far beyond the reach of remedy. All the efforts and reforms of the wisest can never eliminate the feeling of envy from mankind. Men are ever prone to envy that successful work in which they have taken no part.
III. The work of the successful man is often depreciated by the indolent. The slothful man is described as working his own ruin. (Ecclesiastes 4:5.) He cannot endure to witness the success of men of greater talents and energy than himself. Hence he assumes the features of wisdom, and counsels moderation. (Ecclesiastes 4:6.) Why all this labour for so little result? It is better to manage life with sobriety than to gain success at the expense of proper repose.
1. This counsel is given by men who are the least ready to do any good work themselves. The idle man folds his hands, and calls that work useless which he cannot imitate, either from natural or moral unfitness. He waits for miracles, and expects the end without the means.
2. This counsel possesses an element of wisdom. It is not altogether foolish and vain advice, but has in it some features of truth. It is better to secure a little, and to enjoy it, than to aim at too much; and thus to purchase success by the loss of happiness and quiet. To cultivate contentment, and to cool the fever of ambition, should be the aim of every wise man.
3. This counsel is wrong in its extreme form. Men must have large aims if they would perform great and lasting works. A low and mean ideal cripples the energies of the soul. Every true man must have a purpose wider than himself.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 4:4. Envy is opposed to that expansive charity which rejoices in the success of another. Like love, it is not an intermittent, but a constant passion; thus it frets and consumes the possessor.
The trail of the serpent Envy is traced across every earthly paradise.
“Envied of his neighbour,” nay of his father-in-law; for did not this make Saul to envy David, so that David flying to Achish had rather be under an enemy than under envy; nay, of his brother, when there was but one brother in the world [Jermin].
No man so secure in the peaceful results of his honest labour and skill as to be beyond the reach of the archers of envy.
Even he who gains the applause of men obtains a tribute often impaired by envy.
When a statue had been erected by his fellow-citizens of Thasos to Theagenes, a celebrated victor in the public games of Greece, we are told that it excited so strongly the envious hatred of one of his rivals, that he went to it every night, and endeavoured to throw it down by repeated blows, till at last, unfortunately successful, he was able to move it from its pedestal, and was crushed to death beneath it on its fall. This, if we consider the self-consuming misery of envy, is truly what happens to every envious man. He may perhaps throw down his rival’s glory; but he is crushed in his whole soul beneath the glory which he overturns [Dr. T. Brown].
Ecclesiastes 4:5. Idleness makes a desert of the mind; multiplies the snares of temptation; and ends in self-destruction.
He who does not keep his powers in a state of healthy activity will find that they waste away. This is true of the physical, moral, and spiritual.
The difficulty of accomplishing successful work, and the envy it raises in others, should not cause us to fold our hands in indolence.
The purest pleasures are those which are won by exertion—the sweet rewards of toil. He who folds his hands tastes not the honey of life, but consumes himself with long regrets and imaginary fears.
Ecclesiastes 4:6. We may conceive that, as in the verse before, Solomon showeth his misery in his wasted estate; so here he showeth his misery in a plentiful estate. He who laboureth and getteth but a little, yet by labour hath a quiet mind free from a burdensome tediousness, is to be preferred before him [Jermin].
There is in human life a certain golden mean in which the greatest happiness can be enjoyed.
A competence with quietness is to be preferred to abundance with all its necessary train of anxieties and cares.
This speech can be put into the mouth either of a fool or of a wise man, for it has elements which suit both characters. As uttered by a fool, it springs from envy. It is the affectation of wisdom, used to despise the work of another. But as spoken by a wise man, it is a sober counsel to hit the happy medium between absolute indolence and that restless activity which pushes enjoyment out of life.
Ecclesiastes 4:10. If they fall.] Not both together, but if one or the other falls.
Ecclesiastes 4:12. A threefold cord.] Two cords would only suggest plurality, but three give the idea of strength.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 4:7-12
PORTRAIT OF A MAMMON WORSHIPPER
Instead of using the gifts of fortune wisely, and gaining favour with mankind, some only increase their misery by depriving life of its proper happiness. Here is the picture of a man who is possessed by the spirit of avarice—a worshipper of Mammon. Of such an one we may say:—
I. That his conduct is unreasonable. (Ecclesiastes 4:8.) He has no “child,” nor “brother;” no relation to care for, and yet he toils after money with restless anxiety, as if life itself depended upon it. This conduct is unreasonable.
1. It surpasses the proper bounds of prudence. Prudence ought to govern all conduct. A man should be diligent in work, striving to build for himself a defence against the storms of adversity. But when this passes to the extreme of greediness and grasping, so that a man forgets his own happiness to serve a base passion, his conduct is unreasonable.
2. The folly of it is sometimes apparent to himself. There are times when the voice of awakened reason within the avaricious man proclaims his folly. A better spirit possesses him for awhile, and he asks, “For whom do I labour?” &c. He feels, during this momentary fit of wisdom, that his conduct is utterly without useful purpose. He cannot spend all upon himself. He has no relations, and has made no friends. He wilfully deprives himself of happiness.
3. It is conduct which does violence to calm conviction, and to the tenderest feelings of nature. It is the nature of avarice to increase in fearful proportion, growing by what it feeds on. The more a man has, the more he covets. Avarice leads a man to trample rudely upon the charities of life; his whole heart withers, all his affections are resolved into one base passion. To love wealth for the sake of the power it gives, is capable of some defence from reason; but to love it for its own sake is the height of folly.
II. That he is condemned to suffer the distress of a cold and cheerless isolation. He has no relatives, but he might have made friends. He has not a “Second,” but is left all alone. His supreme selfishness has repelled all hearts.
1. This comes from the retribution of society. He who does not love cannot be beloved. Society, in the matter of the affections of love or hatred, gives measure for measure.
2. It is self inflicted. There is no necessity that it should be thus. A man can make himself friends by means of his wealth. Good deeds secure the gratitude of others—they bind heart to heart. The avaricious man may command men by his wealth, but he is obeyed without love. To live to self, is to die to all that is dear and precious in life. It is moral suicide.
III. That he is deprived of the true enjoyment of life. Social life has pleasures which are sought for in vain in selfish solitude.
1. The participation of others in our joy serves to increase it. (Ecclesiastes 4:11.) Superior joys are not impoverished by giving. The communication of knowledge to another does not decrease our own store; and in pleasing others, we lose nothing ourselves. He who will not share his joy with other breasts, must be content to see his own joy dwindle away.
2. Neglect of the social principle can only produce unhappiness. We were made for society, and there only can our happiness reach to any tolerable development. Beasts may herd together, but only men can live together. Selfishness is a breach of the natural laws of society, and the penalty is a blank and gloomy solitude.
IV. That he is deprived of proper protection. He who by his selfishness brings himself into a condition of barbarous solitude, suffers many disadvantages. If he has made a friend, he has the joy and satisfaction of a mutual reward of labour. (Ecclesiastes 4:9.) But in a state of isolation, he loses this, with all other advantages that are derived from companionship.
1. He is deprived of the protection of wise counsel. There are events in life which greatly perplex the judgment, and the mind of the exercised man is so confused by the circumstances in which it is placed, that it fails to be a safe guide. Hence the importance of wise counsel. Another mind coming fresh to the subject is able to suggest some wise directing ideas, and to place the difficulty in a more hopeful light.
2. He is deprived of timely aid in danger. He who has a companion when he falls, has one to help him. A man may fall, tripped by some snare of temptation, or overwhelmed by sudden calamity; and his state is desolate indeed if he has made no friend who can give him timely aid, and lift him up again.
3. He is deprived of the protection of sympathy in joy and sorrow. When men can feel together both on the joyful and mournful occasions of life, the gladness is intensified, and the force of the sorrow abated. There is a genial warmth in sympathy which secures a large comfort, and preserves a man from perishing in the severe season of trial. (Ecclesiastes 4:11.)
4. He is deprived of the defence of a large and compact friendship. (Ecclesiastes 4:12.) If he has two, or more to help him in the hour of need, so much the better. With a large fellowship, his defence is made stronger, and the enemy overawed and confounded. To despise the social compact is unnatural; it is unwise, and ends in unmitigated misery. The heart’s affections of the mammon worshipper are so completely given to the idol he adores, that he has nothing left in him responsive to the kind charities of life.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 4:7. As the vain and sinful courses which men take for happiness in this earth are so many and various that, let a diligent observer turn himself never so often to what hand he will, he shall always see more and more of them—so those who would promote the work of mortification in their own hearts ought to search them all out, and study the variety of them one after another [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 4:8. This is the first thing which a covetous man desireth, to have nobody near him, nobody that may either borrow, or beg, or get anything from him. Wherefore, St. Chrysostom calleth a covetous man the common enemy of all men [Jermin].
The ties of kindred are forced upon us by nature, but those of friendship are within our own power. A loving and kindly disposition will gain friends. It is a man’s own fault if he has no part in the kindred of souls.
The most selfish man has some connection with society, for he too is bound by the system of mutual dependence. Yet it is only a mechanical, and not a vital connection. Selfishness cuts the roots of social life.
Every virtue lies near some dangerous extreme. Activity in our worldly calling is commendable up to a certain point; but beyond this, wanting sufficient reason, it deserves the imputation of folly.
There is a diseased appetite for gain which only grows the more it is indulged.
The selfish soul can enjoy no true happiness, and is therefore driven to the unhealthy stimulus of onesordid thought.
The Mammon Man.—In his very nature he becomes as little human as that which he adores. Where his gold is buried, his affections too are buried. The figure which Salvian uses in speaking of him is scarcely too bold,—that his soul assimilates itself to his treasure, and is transmuted, as it were, into a mere earthly mass [Dr. T. Brown].
Even diligence must be restrained by rules. It should not degenerate into an unreasonable passion.
Ecclesiastes 4:9. He who deprives himself of the advantages of society by a mistaken devotion, or his own selfishness, has but an impaired heritage of life.
Man has no such resources in himself so that he can find a sufficient defence in loneliness. He must lean upon another. The strength of a man’s belief is more than doubled when he finds that his doctrine is received by another mind. Society is necessary for the very life of faith and action.
Society makes the Church possible. It is “where two or three are gathered together” that the Church is to be found.
Society lightens the tasks of labour, and exalts the enjoyment of its rewards.
God alone is self-sufficient—Man can only come to his true heritage of strength and enjoyment in society.
A single drop of water is insignificant, but united with the rest, in the ocean, it becomes an immense power. Society makes man sublime.
The improving of Christian Society for our furtherance in duty hath a special reward, not only after time, but even in this life. Hereby His people may expect to be sharpened, and have an edge put upon them in their duty—to have encouragements from others against difficulties—and fresh supplies of the Spirit drawn from heaven to each other by their mutual prayers; and so both their work is furthered, and their future reward ensured [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 4:10. The fellowship of love will always render help in danger.
The true man never deserts his friend when he falls. The first impulse of love is to give succour. Love does not wait to investigate. Danger, sorrow, and necessity are sufficient arguments.
In the best state of society, there must of necessity be many falls into sin, danger, and sorrow.
That is the only religion for man which can show him a true helper.
The Christian, even though deserted by all, yet, like his Master, is never really alone.
A sense of loneliness and desertion plunges the soul into the most oppressive gloom of sorrow. Society, friendship, and love assuage our sharpest grief, and pierce the thickest gloom with a kindly ray.
To be a helper to the fallen is one of the noblest uses of society—it is the joyful sound which fallen humanity hears in the Gospel.
In Christian society, mutual help has the highest motive, and the most splendid reward.
Ecclesiastes 4:11. If two lie together in the cold night of sorrow and sadness, they have the heat of comfort, which mutually they yield one to the other, even by striking together the hard flints of their misery, by easing their hearts while their tongues talk of their distress, by supporting each other under their burdens who cannot bear his own, by doubling the light of counsel which may the better show them the way of getting out. If two lie together in the prison of affliction, society gives heat to their cold irons, softens the hardness of them, and though it cannot break them off, yet makes them to be borne with the more contentment [Jermin].
The fervent glow of zeal for the truth, the fire of devotion and love, can only be maintained by the close communion of mind with mind, and heart with heart.
True sympathy cannot be generated by proxy; the close contact of hearts is necessary to melt them into the tenderness of love.
The live coals of a furnace soon expire when isolated from the rest.
A heartless solitude chills the affections. Love delights in presence—seeks the companionship of one who is ever near.
The soul may sooner leave off to subsist, than to love; and like the vine, it withers and dies if it has nothing to embrace [South].
Ecclesiastes 4:12. Love, by seeking companionship, provides a defence against the enemy.
It is the duty of the good to use their strength for the defence of one another.
As the union of the children of the Lord should be so strict, as their adversaries may lose hopes of breaking one of them, except they break all; so when the Lord doth unite them, it will be no easy matter for their most powerful enemies to prevail against them [Nisbet].
If we make friends by means of whatever wealth of mind, goodness, or estate we may have, we provide ourselves with a strong defence here, and with a welcome for us on the other shores of life.
The good man feels that though his native strength is small, yet, because he has communion with the Highest, and with all who are noble and true, his feeble power is multiplied by an infinite factor.
Mere doctrines, institutions, and laws can never give the Church power to vanquish her enemies. The Church can only be strong as a nation of brothers.
Unity in the Church gives strength to faith, increases charity, strikes awe into the enemy, and is the pledge of final victory.
Ecclesiastes 4:13. Better is a poor and a wise child.] Not in the moral point of view, but happier—better off.
Ecclesiastes 4:14. For out of prison he cometh to reign.] Reference is made to the youth mentioned in the previous verse. The writer may have had the history of Joseph in his mind. Born in his kingdom becometh poor. Came to the possession of his kingly dignity by birth. His dethronement is the condition of the sudden elevation of this youth.
Ecclesiastes 4:15. All the living which walk under the sun, with the second child.] The great number of the adherents of this upstart who has seized the throne.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 4:13-16
THE INSTABILITY OF THE HIGHEST DIGNITIES
I. They are subject to the saddest reverses. The most favoured pets of fortune are not spared the common burden of human sorrow. Placed on a lofty eminence, there is below them a depth into which they might, at any time, fall: The pen of history has often described how the mighty have been pushed down from their seats. Here we have the picture of a dethroned king. (Ecclesiastes 4:14.) We cannot expect otherwise than that such reverses will occur in the course of human affairs.
1. Great principles must be vindicated against the mere assertion of rank and authority. When the king is foolish, and will no more be admonished (Ecclesiastes 4:13), he cannot wonder that his subjects will endure him no longer. The patience of nations is not infinite. Long oppression exhausts it. The time arrives when great principles must be upheld as of superior importance to rank and authority.
2. It is often necessary to secure the public good even at any cost to individuals. The great and the powerful have often been robbed of their dignity in order to save the state. The public good must be secured against the selfishness and tyranny of Kings.
3. The season comes when it is expedient to render worth and wisdom a well-deserved honour. (Ecclesiastes 4:14.) There are men, now living in obscurity, who by their talents and wisdom are fitted to govern empires. The hour comes when these royal minds must have a true place and honour. Hence many born to the kingdom have been thrust down from their thrones to give place to those to whom nature has given greater fitness for empire and command.
4. Kings may be the victims of popular fury. They may come upon an evil time, and, through no fault of their own, be the victims of conspiracy and rebellion.
II. The most fortunate have often but a brief triumph. The able and deserving man, when the world acknowledges his merit, and the time is ripe, sometimes rises from a humble sphere to sit upon a throne. Such extraordinary changes of condition are not unknown to history. He who attains to this splendid gift of fortune, awakens the enthusiasm of the multitude, who are ever prone to idolize success. Such a case is described. (Ecclesiastes 4:16.)
1. He has a crowd of adherents. Such men are endowed with great power to influence and command others. Multitudes give a momentum to feeling—followers increase. Mankind are easily led in droves. His dominion is very wide. (Ecclesiastes 4:15.)
2. He is exposed to the most disastrous changes of popular feeling and opinion. The time comes when the favourite is rejected. The people no longer rejoice in him. (Ecclesiastes 4:16.) Popular feeling is not to be trusted. The hero of to-day may be the victim of to-morrow. He who has risen to the throne by real merit, may become corrupted by success, and give way to deeds of folly and misrule. The injured feeling of the nation at length recoils upon him with terrible retribution.
III. Earthly Dignities, in their changes, furnish a picture of human life. Kings in their brief reign, and uncertain tenure of state and grandeur, are but a picture of the life of humanity through the ages.
1. Each generation witnesses great changes. The outward conditions of life are changed—new inventions multiply comforts, and give man a more complete dominion over nature. Nations frame new laws, and repeal old ones. The mechanism of Government is remodelled till the old order passes away.
2. Each generation has a marked character. Each is informed by the reigning spirit of society. The one idea which occupies the mind of the individual man, and fires his passion, is but a picture of the prevailing spirit of the age. Generations have a distinct character. In one the spirit of belief prevails; in another, doubt and scepticism. Now, there is almost an idolatrous reverence for authority; and, again, we fall upon an age of self-will and lawlessness. Every age has its own fashion of thought and feeling.
3. Each generation appears upon the scene of life but for a short time. Thrones have many succeeding occupants, and in “the hollow crown, that rounds the mortal temples of a King, death holds his court.” So generations, who have wielded a power through their little day, are soon gone. Nothing continues at one stay—“there is no end of all the people.”
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 4:13. Neither length of days nor exalted station can, of necessity, confer wisdom. A man may continue a fool with all the appliances of knowledge about him, and all the lessons of time spread before him.
The occupants of thrones do not always possess regal minds. Illustrious station only serves to make great faults the more conspicuous.
The greatness of life depends upon what we put into it, and not upon age, or outward conditions. A poor youth with the spirit of wisdom may have more real nobility than an old king.
Wisdom can irradiate poverty, and reveal the emptiness of mere earthly glory.
Rejecting admonition is often the forerunner to certain ruin.
To refuse admonition is in none a greater folly than in a king, because in none it is more pernicious, to none more dangerous; but to be grown old in wilful stubbornness, and self-conceited perverseness, as well as in years, and not only not to follow admonition, but not to hear it; as it is the extremity of folly, so it is the shame of honour, and maketh a poor wise child better worthy of it [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 4:14. Providence sometimes asserts the right of the wise alone to bear the rule.
We may well take Joseph to be this poor wise child; for that he was a wise child his father’s love shewed, who therein may seem not so much as a father to have preferred his son before his other brethren, as a prophet rather to have preferred a mystery, in respect of that to which he foresaw the wisdom of his son would bring himself. But that he was also a poor child, the malice of his brethren who sold him for a captive made to be true. The rest God performed for him, and out of prison brought him to be the next in greatness in the kingdom. Yea, while he was in prison, what was he but even then a king? [Jermin].
There is no height of worldly grandeur so great but that Providence can fetch a man down from thence.
Through oppression, regal minds have sometimes languished in a prison. Some few have stepped from thence to a throne. Providence thus shows, that in the future kingdom, the wise shall bear the rule.
Even the glory of birth and station fails to lend a lustre to folly, or to save the foolish from a degrading fall.
Ecclesiastes 4:15. While men in power and authority have the people flocking about them, honouring and acknowledging them, they should be taken up with the thought of a change, and consider the people as walking with the man that shall come up in their stead, courting him; and themselves as shortly to fall one way or other [Nisbet].
The power of the future overshadows the present.
As the powerful, the aged, and the wise pass away, Providence raises up others to take their place.
How soon the splendour of the mighty grows pale. New candidates for popular applause arise, and the once-renowned hero finds to his sorrow that he survives his fame.
The future has an element of oppression as well as the past. These two gulfs overwhelm the mind. We can only find peace by commending our soul to that Infinite love which reigns over all.
Ecclesiastes 4:16. The most ardent worldly ambition must, sooner or later, receive a check from the hard facts of life.
The temper of future generations is but a reflection of that of the past. The facts of human nature remaining, the future can only repeat the old story of life, with all its changes, uncertainties, and reverses. Thus mankind is driven from age to age in the horse-mill round of vanity.
He who assumes the constancy of popular favour may have long leisure to repent his folly.
Every man advanced to eminency, power, or esteem among men, should look upon himself as standing upon a very slippery foundation, and particularly upon worldly applause, as a flower that will soon wither and become unsavoury. They should resolve to see their own applause die before themselves [Nisbet].
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29