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Ecclesiastes 7:2. For that is the end of all men] Not the house of mourning itself, but the fact that every house must, in turn, become such.
Ecclesiastes 7:3. Sorrow] Not that passionate and unavailing sorrow of the children of this world, but that salutary grief for our own sinfulness—the godly sorrow of 2 Corinthians 7:10. Laughter] The boisterous merriment of the children of light enjoyment, as distinguished from that recreation of reason—that spiritual joy in which it is proper for the righteous to indulge.
Ecclesiastes 7:7. Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad] The meaning is, not that the wise man by oppression is driven to the verge of madness, but that the oppressor himself (who but for his own fault might have been a wise man) suffers intellectual and moral injury by repeated acts of unkindness and wrong. His higher intelligence becomes deadened, and he falls into the wretched condition of those in whom the lamp of reason is extinguished. A gift destroyeth the heart] A bribe accepted by men in power corrupts the moral nature. This kind of corruption was common amongst Oriental nations. All could be procured for presents.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 7:1-7
THE TRANSFORMING POWER OF GOODNESS
I. It makes Life Real and Earnest. Goodness in the soul expresses itself outwardly in actions of moral beauty—deeds of kindness and love. These win the admiration of society. Hence arises a good reputation. Goodness in character possesses an immense power, transforming human life into a solemn reality, and filling it with earnest endeavour. It does this,
1. By supplying the noblest impulse of life. (Ecclesiastes 7:1.) A man of high spiritual character cherishes an increasing passion for goodness. He desires one excellence above all others—that he may be right and true himself, and secure a good reputation amongst men. This is the noble ambition of the pure and holy. They aim to be good—to be like God; and so have a definite and lofty purpose in life. With such, life is an earnest and real thing. The constant striving after goodness imparts increased faculty to the powers of the soul.
2. By redeeming life from all that is frivolous and vain. Goodness in man must have in it an element of admiration for a goodness higher than his own. When the soul is enamoured of God’s holiness, life becomes a serious thing. It is seen with sober eyes, and felt to be the place for the discharge of loving duty, not for vain, trifling, and thoughtless frivolity. Good men have the aspirations, feelings, and refinements of true greatness, representing amongst their fellows the style and circumstances of a nobler citizenship. They have higher pleasures than feasting, a more exquisite joy than the thoughtless mirth of the children of this world, and more solid entertainment than the songs of fools. (Ecclesiastes 7:3-5.)
II. It Preserves the Soul from Great Dangers. There are forms of sin which have the most disastrous consequences, even in this life. They deprave every faculty of the soul. Two of these forms are introduced here as having elements of special danger—acts of tyranny and oppression, and corruption of the heart by receiving bribes. (Ecclesiastes 7:7.) Here we have two great dangers, from which the love of goodness and the desire of a fair reputation save us.
1. The injury of the rational faculty. He who indulges in repeated acts of tyranny and oppression becomes at length a monster, and hateful in the eyes of men. All his higher powers suffer injury. He loses his rational understanding; and when this is gone, destruction is near at hand. Sinners of this class madly pull down ruin upon themselves.
2. The injury of the moral faculty. When those in power and station take bribes, their moral faculties become weakened. They lose the sense of fine and delicate perception in things relating to conduct. In the strong language of Scripture, their whole moral nature becomes “corrupt,” i.e., broken together—unfitted for performing its proper functions. It is only by obedience and love that the delicacy of the moral sense can be preserved.
III. It Changes the Complexion of Earthly Sorrows. The sorrows of human life wear a forbidding aspect. The children of this world strive to forget them in the dissipation of pleasure, or they are driven by them into sullen despair. But goodness in the soul, appearing in the moral beauties of character, transforms sorrow—yea, transfigures it into the bright and heavenly. Sorrow, instead of being an unmixed evil, consuming and fretting the spirit of man, becomes the channel of precious benefits.
1. Death becomes a great teacher. (Ecclesiastes 7:2.) When men die, their houses are filled with friends who mourn their loss. It is but nature to weep then, in the presence of the greatest sorrow that can fall upon any home. But good men though they feel the common distresses of humanity, and shrink instinctively from the terrors of death, yet learn to make them the occasion of spiritual benefit. Death becomes a great teacher, giving them solemn lessons which they lay to heart. From what appears to be the terminus of life’s journey, good men can discern the lights of another and better country. Death himself holds the torch which shows them the path of life.
2. Human sorrow becomes a moral renovator. (Ecclesiastes 7:3.) The same afflictions which sink some men into despair, or drive them into the mazes of unreal and unwholesome pleasures, only refine the nature of the good man. They purify his affections from every mean and base element. “The heart is made better” by the pure and heavenly objects which it loves—by the increased fervour of its devotion. It is often in the seclusion of sorrow that the noblest purposes are framed, and strength is gathered for the greatest moral victories.
3. The pain of righteous reproof becomes more grateful than the loudest joys of the world. (Ecclesiastes 7:5.) “The rebuke of the wise” may be painful to a good man who has committed a fault, or has been betrayed into folly; but he accepts it with thankfulness, and learns the lessons it imparts. If the righteous thus smite him, he shall deem it a kindness; for they but imitate the action of the Merciful God who wounds only to heal. When the smart of reproof is over, they feel a greater joy than in listening to the thoughtless and empty merriment of fools.
IV. It makes Death itself to be Gain. (Ecclesiastes 7:1.) To our merely human apprehension, all the circumstances of death are clothed with terror. Levity turns pale at the contemplation of the last enemy, and the hardiest frame shudders as with a mortal chill. But the death of a good man is for him but a step in the path of progress; and for others a precious example, and a support of faith and hope. Let us consider the death of the good
(1) As a gain to society. There are certain elements of loss to society when the good pass away for ever. Yet death serves to set the virtues and graces of their character in a fairer and more enduring light. Whilst in this work-day world, they are not fully known; but death sets them on high, where they “shine as the stars for ever and ever.” Death opens the way to fame, and when their presence is no longer with us, they bless us with the scented fragrance of their ended life. How have the Apostles of our Lord gained by death, in the estimation of mankind, and in an ever-expanding influence! St. Paul and St. John are more fully known and revered at this day than they were in their own times.
2. As a gain to the individual. The day of a good man’s death is better to him than the day of his birth. It is an introduction to a sublimer state of existence—the day of his better nativity. It is in death that his soul seizes the infinite, and enters upon the wealth of all her mysterious nature. Death loosens the righteous from care, temptation, and sorrow. It is to him the greatest of liberties.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 7:1. At this point, the Royal Preacher enters upon a new stage of enquiry. He had laid open the sins, sorrows, and perplexities of humanity; now he seeks a remedy. If men would be happy and secure amidst all the storms of evil fortune, they must be good. They must learn to interpret the lessons of affliction, to control passion, to exercise wisdom and knowledge in conduct, and must seek to regain that uprightness which was the property of human nature as it came fresh from the hands of its Creator.
Whatever perplexities may arise in the contemplation of our existence and condition here, there are certain things that must be right. It must be right to cultivate goodness, to have confidence (notwithstanding appearances) in the rectitude of God, and to put ourselves in harmony with those Divine laws which are the charter and the pledge of liberty.
A good reputation springs from inherent goodness in the soul. The spiritual life within must work itself outwards. The savour of our good name cannot be confined; but like a precious ointment, it fills the whole sphere of our influence.
The richest perfumes, like every luxury of sensation, exhaust themselves, but the aroma of a good name is for ever fresh, and unhurt by the wrongs of time.
The awe and veneration which a good name inspires is the homage which society pays to virtue.
Just as a box of spikenard is not only valuable to its possessor, but preeminently precious in its diffusion; so, when a name is really good, it is of unspeakable service to all who are capable of feeling its exquisite inspiration; and should the Spirit of God so replenish with His gifts and graces, so as to render his name thus wholesome, better than the day of his birth will be the day of his death; for at death the box is broken, and the sweet savour spreads abroad. There is an end of the envy, and sectarianism, and jealousy, the detraction and the calumny, which often environ goodness when living; and now that the stopper of prejudice is removed, the world fills with the odour of the ointment, and thousands grow stronger and more lifesome for the good name of one [Dr. J. Hamilton].
Birth introduces the good upon the stage of a severe probation, full of risk and danger; but death fixes their goodness, placing it beyond the reach of injury. The monster, created by natural fears, is for the righteous but a friend who removes the load of earthly endurance, thus giving liberty to the soul to recover her strength, and to try her unencumbered powers.
In life, the righteous are but outdoor servants of the King of kings. In death, they are admitted to His palace, where they serve with increased dignity and comfort.
Ecclesiastes 7:2. A good man possesses the heavenly secret of distilling sweetness from sorrow.
The contemplation of suffering and death, with the practical recognition of the teaching they impart, best prepare us for that land where sorrow is unknown, and where life endures to immortality.
He who is spiritually wise discovers that the afflictions of our mortal state have their bitter root in sin. He penetrates beneath the surface, and contemplates that moral evil from which all natural evil grows. He therefore boldly faces the solemn fact which will restore for him the lost harmonies of creation, for it makes a “new earth” as well as “new heavens.”
The coarse mirth of the world ends in disgust and weariness, having no element of permanent consolation and hope. But the discipline of sorrow refines the character, imparts a serious and thoughtful attitude to the soul, and gladdens it by a hope beyond the grave.
In the place where they mourn for the dead, a man is reminded that to this also he must come. When a few years, at most, are gone, his own house will be turned into a house of mourning.
It is better to lay to heart the most painful facts of life, and to learn their solemn lessons, than to indulge in the forced merriment of foolish men.
The winds and the waves are terrible powers, but man, by the exercise of his reason and invention, forces them to render him obedient service, and to carry him whither he would be. So heavenly wisdom and goodness in the soul turn the sorrows of life into the means of spiritual improvement. The forces that destroy the foolish are elements in the triumph of the wise.
God saith unto the Prophet Jeremiah, “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to hear My words” (Jeremiah 18:2). The “potter’s house” is the house of mourning wherein is the earthen vessel broken, the earthen vessel of man’s body, broken by death. And if we shall go down thither, that will make us willing to hear the words of God, whereby to keep our souls from the infection of sin. The very temper of sadness is a friend to virtue [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 7:3. Godly sorrow, leading on, as it does, to endurance and experience, thus becomes one of the ancestry of hope. The laughter of the world is changed to sorrow which at length degenerates into remorse.
Worldly joy gleams on the surface, but leaves the heart within unchanged, still evil and unprofitable. The sorrows of the righteous may leave a sadness on the countenance, but peace and joy reign within.
The design of Providence, by the discipline of sorrow, is improvement.
By affliction the heart is made tender, and thus prepared for the impressions which the love of God can make upon it.
The affections of the soul are often trained in the school of adversity. The first lessons may be a wearisome bitterness and pain; but they impart superior moral culture, lead to the sweets of victory, and to bliss without alloy.
Strangers to godly sorrow must needs be strangers to their own blessedness [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 7:4. A wise man will choose to go where he can learn most of the nature of those great realities with which he is concerned. In the house of mourning, he learns to see—
1. The rebuke of pride and vanity.
2. The evil of sin. It surrounds our removal to another state with such awful circumstances.
3. The importance of goodness as a defence against the unknown and untried. Whatever the great future may reveal, if we have attained to the Divine image, we cannot fail.
It is with no sorrowful acceptance, but with glad heart that the righteous take up the cross. They follow that Divine Leader, who, though He may conduct them through barren and unpromising regions, will at length bring them to the heights of immortality.
The fool has no far-reaching sight, no power of penetration into the dread realities around him. Hence he is pleased with what glitters before his eyes, and only seeks the satisfaction of the present.
Let the heart of the wise go to the house of such an one as may reprove him when he offends, that he may bring him to tears, and make him to lament his own sins; and let him not go to the house of mirth where the teacher flatters and deceives; where he seeks, not the conversion of his hearers, but his own applause and praise [St. Jerome].
The moral nature of the inner man is determined by the objects of the heart’s satisfaction.
Ecclesiastes 7:5. The rebuke of the wise is but the sharp incision of a cunning hand that wounds only to heal. It is the rod of gentle and loving reproof, not the fist of wickedness.
The rebuke of the wise, though it may occasion a smart, leads to moral improvement; but the songs of fools, though they may afford some passing entertainment, are without any worthy aim.
There is in rebuke a jarring and harsh music, because it opposeth the fault that is committed, it disagreeth with the mind of him that hath committed it: but yet it is better music than the melodious songs of flattering parasites, who, leading on in wickedness, do bring on to destruction [Jermin].
The rough-hewn marble gives but the promise of a statue. Many a stroke and finishing touch must be given before it attains perfection. So the spiritual character requires those frequent touches of wise reproof which gradually shape it into symmetry and beauty.
It is better to follow the course of duty, though it may seem commonplace and the conditions of it severe, than to be lured to destruction by the siren songs of sinful pleasure.
Ecclesiastes 7:6. The joy of fools seems as if it would last for ever, and does indeed blaze up, but it is nothing. They have their consolation for a moment, then comes misfortune, that casts them down; then all their joy lies in the ashes.… Pleasure, and vain consolation of the flesh, do not last long, and all such pleasures turn into sorrow, and have an evil end [Luther].
In the mirth of the children of this world there lies no deep moral worth. It is but a sudden blaze of the fancy, or the passing joy of a tickled appetite.
This world’s mirth may be loud and imposing, but the sound of it quickly dies away, and the heated passion which inspired it subsides into melancholy and regret. Nothing remains but the ashes of disappointment.
The mouth of the righteous shall then be filled with laughter, when, the tears of their pilgrimage being dried up, their hearts shall be satisfied with exultation of joy. When the servants of God, being filled with joy of a manifest beholding of Him, shall, as it were, break forth into a cheerfulness of laughing, in the mouth of their understanding. Then their laughter shall not be as the crackling of thorns under a pot, but as the singing together of the morning stars, and as the shouting for joy of all the sons of God Jermin].
The mirth of sinners is noisy and short-lived, but the joy of the righteous is like the everlasting lights that shine in the calm depths of heaven.
Ecclesiastes 7:7. The health of the mind, which is wisdom, can no more be trifled with than the health of the body. Acts of cruelty and oppression harden the heart, dull the moral sensibilities, and gradually steal away every attainment of virtue. When the sound mind is lost, a man becomes a prey to every delusion and foolish temptation.
That a wise man may be changed into a monster of cruelty is an illustration of the terrible power of sin. It can destroy the tender charities of nature, and impart to the conduct that wild recklessness which amounts to fury, and which calls for the restraints of Divine judgment.
Acts of cruelty and oppression tend, more than any other forms of human sin, to efface the image of God in the soul They cause a man to approach to the likeness of the Evil One, who is both the Destroyer and the Adversary.
To ruin the promise of wisdom by entering upon the most dangerous courses of folly, is moral madness. Covetousness destroys the heart of them that are under the power of it; blinds their understanding that they cannot see the evil of anything that makes for their gain; sways their heart to receive bribes, which being received, they think themselves obliged to gratify the giver by perverting justice in his favour [Nisbet].
It is dangerous to weaken our moral sensibility by yielding to the lust of gain. When the heart is destroyed, there is taken away from a man the very capacity for religion.
Ecclesiastes 7:11. Wisdom is good with an inheritance] Wisdom, though good in itself, yet when joined with ample means imparts a power of doing good to others.
Ecclesiastes 7:12. Wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence] Lit., in the shadow of wisdom, etc. In countries where the heat was oppressive, a shadow would be the natural symbol of protection. The excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it] Both wisdom and money give a man superior advantage in the battle of life. But wisdom is life itself—the principle of the soul’s animation and vigour.
Ecclesiastes 7:14. In the day of adversity consider] The last word belongs to the next statement, as if the Preacher said—Consider the adaptation of one part to another in the system of Divine Providence. God also hath set the one over against the other] Even things evil in themselves are employed to bring about the purposes of God. The consideration of this is a source of comfort in adversity. To the end that a man should find nothing after him] God so acts in His government of the world that man cannot fathom the future.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 7:8-14
THE COUNSELS OF A RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHER
Human life, duty, and destiny are here contemplated from their philosophic side. We have moral and prudential maxims from one whose philosophy does not lose itself in vain speculations, but mixes with men, and exerts itself in the humbler but more useful task of contributing towards right practice. Counsels such as these tend to mitigate the evils of our condition, and to inspire us with a better hope.
I. Be Patient under Trial. (Ecclesiastes 7:8.) The patient man is he who meekly endures, who bears present evils and troubles with resignation, and who is free from that unreasoning and passionate haste which is the bane of impetuous natures. He is here contrasted with the “proud in spirit,” because that blindness to reality, that wilfulness, that fierce vindication of self-love, all of which are pressed into the service of pride, are alien to that patience which sees clearly our true position, accepts the will of the Highest, and refuses the aid of passion to support a fictitious glory. Pride and patience are mutually exclusive. The patient man is superior to the proud, because,
1. He recognises the uses of discipline, and a purpose wider than himself. However dark and perplexing his present trial, he knows that God has some worthy end in view, that His will is being accomplished in the improvement and perfection of all who piously and meekly endure. He is satisfied that the righteous are safe, though they pass through much tribulation into the kingdom of God. He whose character is stamped with such convictions, bears the imprint of such lofty thoughts and purposes, has a wider horizon and a sublimer idea of life than the wretch who is concentred all in self. Breadth of view, that nobility of mind which despises the mean, and small, and selfish, is the mark and quality of true greatness.
2. He is more easily moulded for goodness. Wilfulness lies at the root of pride. He whose aim is to glorify himself scorns the yoke of obedience. There is a kind of rigidity in such which refuses to be shaped into the form and excellence of goodness. They refuse the dictation and control of the will of the Highest, setting themselves against it in stubbornness and rebellion. But the will of the patient man is tamed and subdued; he learns easily the lessons of duty—of faith and hope. He resigns himself into the hands of that Divine Artificer who can mould him into His own image. Our steps cannot be directed in the paths of peace and goodness unless we “acknowledge Him in all our ways.” But this involves the forsaking of our own will, and of that pride which refuses to submit.
3. He is content to wait for the end. Patience signifies something more than meek endurance. It is often opposed to that disposition which cannot wait. The proud man is in haste to secure the short-lived triumphs of the hour. He rushes on to his purpose, not heeding, not caring, what human and Divine rights he may trample upon. He is completely under the tyranny of the present. This contracts his view, and seals up his affections within himself, so that he wildly reaches out to the glittering things that lie near, unmindful of the holy and the high. But the patient man feels that, though the present trial may be grievous, and the way dark, the “end” will be “better than the beginning,” and so he waits in hope. To be able thus to take in a large view imparts nobility to the character.
II. Subdue the Violence of Passion. (Ecclesiastes 7:9.) A wise man learns to control passion, to keep it from bursting out into the intemperate heats of anger. It is the triumph of religion thus to subdue the wildness of nature, and so to tame the passions that they easily submit to the yoke, and thus become the servants of virtue. Anger rests only “in the bosom of fools,” i.e., with the irreligious. Of such passions it may be affirmed—
1. That they indicate a nature uninfluenced by great moral convictions. The practice of goodness in the quiet paths of duty, and constant meditation on those great truths which concern our relations to God and eternity, tend to keep down the violence and fury of the passions. Righteousness (which is the result of great moral convictions) brings peace, and peace finds a congenial home with contemplative souls. Anger is the vice of the thoughtless, but it is far from minds accustomed to regard the solemn aspects of life, duty, and destiny.
2. They indicate a mischievous employment of useful powers. It is not the purpose of religion to destroy the passions of human nature, but rather to give them a right direction. No original endowment of our nature is either mischievous or useless. Nothing is made in vain, either in the material or moral world. The organs of the body, though they may become the seat of disease, yet in their healthy state serve beneficial ends. There is a pious use of anger. When it is directed against sin, oppression, and wrong, it strengthens the just in their righteous cause. Those noble champions who have sought to redeem their fellow-men from the tyranny of ages, have found their weakness turned into strength and impenetrable defence by the stimulus of a holy indignation. When anger is kindled upon the altar of God, it is just and good; but as an unreasoning passion, raised suddenly upon the slightest provocation, in our daily intercourse with men, it is but the offering of a “strange fire.” That anger which is quite disproportioned to the offence, and fails to weigh the circumstances of it with accuracy, is a weakness and baseness of nature—an abuse of powers capable of nobler employment.
3. They are hurtful to others. Anger has been a fruitful source of oppression and wrong. The history of religious persecution bears ample testimony to the sad fact that the innocent and the meek have suffered from the fury and rage of this base passion. Even in the narrower circle of domestic life, how much evil arises from hence—what deep and lasting wounds! Anger may proceed no further than words; yet even these become sharp instruments of torture, and memory renews the pain. When passion slips from the control of reason and righteousness, it can only spread disaster and misery. Anger is native to the bosom of fools, who are naturally careless, and serve their own selfish ends at any cost to the feelings and rights of others.
III. Do not Magnify the Past at the Expense of the Present. (Ecclesiastes 7:10.) It is a common fault with men of peevish and fretful dispositions to praise past ages, and to mourn over the degeneracy of the times in which they have the misfortune to live. This is often the vice of age; for the old man is proverbially a praiser of the times when he was a boy, and a severe censor of youth—of all that is new and fresh. This disposition to magnify the past can also be observed in some of those arguments brought from antiquity, wherein the authority that is hoary with time is made to overrule the most convincing evidence. In the history of human thought, there have been times of intellectual tyranny when it was treason to teach contrary to the doctrines of Aristotle. This tendency to the undue glorification of past times can only be corrected by study and reflection, by the cultivation of a contented mind, and by that sobriety of judgment which frees a man from the slavery of the unreal. This disposition arises—
1. From dissatisfaction with the present. Men despise all what is near and about them as things common and familiar. That which is hidden from their observation is invested with peculiar sanctity. The past possesses a vague sublimity which often serves to charm away the fancied evils of the hour.
2. From the illusion of distance. As distance in space tempts the imagination to indulge in gay fancies which lend enchantment to the view, so distance in time entertains the mind with a pleasing illusion. Antiquity, instead of being rated by the sober judgment of historical facts, becomes a mere sentiment. Poetry is made to take the place of logic. To act thus is not to “enquire wisely” concerning these things. It is not the part of the religious philosopher to forsake the sure ground of facts in order to follow fancies. There must be something faulty in our moral nature as well, when we fail gratefully to acknowledge the good that marks our own times, and seek an ineffectual relief in the fictitious glory of the past. This fault is the indication of a nature dissatisfied with itself, and spreading the gloom of its own discontent upon all around. It is a revelation of moral character.
IV. Consider wherein Man’s Real Strength lies. (Ecclesiastes 7:12.) Wisdom—that intellectual and moral sagacity which imparts sobriety to the judgment, and steadiness to the walk in the paths of duty, has also this excellence, that it is the defence—yea, the highest defence of man. A feeble image of its power to protect, and to give assurance, may be seen in the social estimate of the potency of riches. They, too, in their way, are a defence; they give a sense of security, ward off many evils, and endow men with power and influence. These properties raise the consciousness of strength. They are regarded as a material defence against calamity, and in unspiritual minds the protection they afford is sufficiently magnified. So far, the analogy between wisdom and money, as a source of defence, holds good. But beyond this point they part company, diverging into widely different issues. Wisdom has this superiority, that it “giveth life to them that have it.” Consider how wisdom contributes to this result, and affords the only reliable protection against real evils.
1. There are some evils from which neither wisdom nor money can save us. Our sagacity and prudence sometimes fail to ensure what is called success in life. The highest qualities of goodness do not suffice to ward off disaster. They grant no title of exemption from taking our sorrowful portion in the community of suffering and woe. In this regard, wisdom stands on a level with riches, as a defence. Riches cannot prevent the invasion of sickness, calamity, and death. And wisdom is equally powerless to deliver us from these evils.
2. Wisdom has superior consolations. In the great troubles of life, the comfort gained by wealth is but limited and insufficient. When man is fairly within the grasp of the last enemy, his wealth can give him no assurance or joy. But to the good man, journeying through the dreariest desert of life, wisdom is a spring to refresh him, a tree to give him shade. And when time is setting with him, and the last struggle approaches, conscience gives him strength and assurance. In the kindly light of faith and hope, he humbly awaits what God has laid up for him.
3. Wisdom is the only essential and permanent defence. All other defences are temporary, quite unavailing in the severest trials, and the greatness of man can afford to dispense with them. Wisdom gives life, and from hence springs the consciousness of strength, that robust courage, which is confident of victory. Life is the sphere wherein man’s highest hope rests and expatiates. To him who is assured of life, what is death itself but the dark and painful struggle into his second birth? Life, in its deep spiritual significance, is perpetual existence under the smile of God. This is the greatest power—the strongest defence of man. All else are shadows; this the only enduring substance.
V. Be Resigned to the Established Order of Providence. (Ecclesiastes 7:13.) Resignation—that habit of humble submission to the Divine will—is man’s true wisdom, the garment and proper adornments of piety. Hereby is patience kept alive, and grows strong for her perfect work. There are two considerations which should prevent men from murmuring at the established order of Providence.
1. Such conduct is useless in itself. We cannot withstand God, or alter His determination. We are able to collect the facts and discern the laws of Providence, as we do those of the solar system, but we are powerless to effect any change in either of these spheres of the Divine operation. God has not taken us into His counsel. His wisdom is not so weak and fallible that it should call to us for aid. In the laws of Nature and Providence, there is no help nor happiness for us but by submission. It is vain to contend with infinite wisdom and power. For man, in his ignorance and bold defiance, to lay his puny hand upon the revolving wheel of nature is destruction.
2. Such conduct is impious towards God. Most men in the time of adversity fail rightly to “consider the work of God.” If we see no presiding will behind the present system of things, we become fretful, disobedient, full of despair; and in the vain attempt to help ourselves, find only bitter disappointment. But if we see God in all these things, we learn self-control, and submit with pious resignation. “I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because Thou didst it,” says the Psalmist (Psalms 39:9). Ours should not be the submission of despair, or of sad reconcilement to the inevitable, but rather that joyful submission which has all to hope for from a Father’s hand. As God is wise, and good, and loving, He can do nothing arbitrary. If we are good and true, we can afford to wait, even through present obscurity and discomfort, till God shall manifest Himself, and bring with Him full reward and consolation.
VI. Do not Force the Spirit into Unnatural Moods. (Ecclesiastes 7:14.) A wise man is marked by that simplicity of character which avoids all affectation and insincerity. In the various moods of feeling through which he is called to pass, he is (in the best sense of the word) natural. We should use no devices to disguise or falsify our feelings, but let them have full expression and fitting exercise, according to their nature.
1. Give proper expression to joyful feelings. Prosperity comes from God, and should be a cause for devout thankfulness and joy. Love to Him who sends the blessing should dispose us to this; for what is joy, but the recreation of love? It is love taking exercise, casting off for a while the weight of care and sorrow, and sporting itself in the sunshine of prosperity. “Is any merry? let him sing psalms,” (James 5:13). We should allow our feelings to flow in their proper channels and not repress them by an unnatural asceticism. We have this element in the Book of Psalms, wherein the most lofty expressions of joy are used, and nature herself is made responsive to the gladness of the soul.
1. Give proper expression to the feelings of sadness and gloom. While adversity should not drive us to despair, to doubt the goodness of God, or to insane endeavours to extricate ourselves; yet, at the same time, it should not tempt us to assume a stoical indifference. Not to feel the rod of the cross, the chastisement of God, is a great evil. The Prophet complains, “Thou hast stricken them, but they have not grieved.” (Jeremiah 5:3.) Job refused this wretched consolation of hardness of feeling, and scorn of affliction’s rod. “Is my strength the strength of stones? or is my flesh of brass?” (Job 6:12.)
3. Learn the lessons both of prosperity and adversity. In prosperity we should learn gratitude, a sense of our unworthiness, and discern herein a prophecy of a better and more enduring world. In adversity, we are told to “consider” the moral aspects of the affliction. These duties are not rigidly exclusive. We are not taught that prosperity should be thoughtless, and adversity joyless. But the consideration of the solemn facts of our moral probation is specially appropriate to the season of adversity.
(1) Consider that the same God appoints both conditions. In our human view, they are very diverse; but in the Divine idea and purpose of them, they are but alternations of treatment necessary to our soul’s health. They both come from His hand whose will is that the end should be blessed, though we proceed through part of our journey in pain.
(2) Consider that human helplessness and ignorance are a necessary discipline. The purpose of these diverse ways of Providence is, that “man should find nothing after him.” He is thus rendered incapable of piercing into the future, and, therefore, of managing it to serve his own purposes. Convinced thus of his own helplessness and ignorance, he is cast upon God that he may learn the lessons of humble dependence and of faith.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 7:8. This is a strange statement, and thoroughly false when applied to some things.
1. It is false when applied to sin. Sin to man, in its first stage, is a comparatively pleasant thing. The fruit to Eve was delicious; the thirty pieces of silver in the hands of Judas, at first, were prized; but the end—how sad! Sin begins in pleasure, but ends in pain; begins in music, but ends in groans.
2. It is false when applied to unwise enterprises. The first stages of a mercantile or a national enterprise, to the projector, are pleasant. But if the methods of action are unwise, the enterprise will soon prove to be a house built upon the sand.
3. It will not apply to partial reformations. When reformation has not been effected on right principles, there comes an apostacy. Certain devils, in the form of habits, have been expelled, but the mind is left empty. The evil spirit at length returns, bringing with him seven more devils; “and the last state of that man is worse than the first.” But there are some things to which these words will apply.
1. They will apply to an honest and persevering search after truth. At the outset of all investigations, the mind is often harassed with doubt, and perplexed with difficulties; but as it proceeds, things appear more reasonable, obstacles are removed, and the mist gradually rolls off the scene.
2. They will apply to the history of Christianity. It came from despised Nazareth, its founder was the son of a carpenter, who died a malefactor. Systems, institutions, kings, and peoples were against it. But its end will be better. It is fast moving on to universal dominion.
3. They will apply to true friendships. Most true friendships at their outset have trials. But as it proceeds, mutual knowledge, mutual excellence, mutual love increase, and the twain become one.
4. They will apply to the life of a good man. This may be illustrated by three remarks:—
I. At the End of his Life he is Introduced into a Better State.
1. He begins his life amidst impurity. Tainted with sin, at the beginning; but at the end, he is introduced to purity—saints—angels—Christ—God!
2. He begins his life on trial. It is a moral battle; shall he conquer? It is a voyage; shall he reach the haven? The end determines all.
3. He begins his life amidst suffering. “In this tabernacle we groan, earnestly,” &c.
II. At the End of his Life he is Introduced into Better Occupations. Our occupations here are threefold—physical, intellectual, moral. All these are of a painful kind. Toiling for bread—grappling in the dark with the mere rudiments of knowledge—mortifying the flesh. But death introduces us to those which will be congenial to the tastes, and honouring to God.
III. At the End of his Life he is Introduced into Better Society. Society here is frequently insincere, non-intelligent, unaffectionate. But how delightful the society into which death will introduce us! We shall mingle with enlightened, genuine, warm-hearted souls, rising grade above grade up to the Eternal God Himself [Homilist].
However severe the afflictions of the righteous may be, the end is always in their favour. The end is their proper inheritance, of which no calamity can deprive them.
The end, for the righteous, will be the verification of those great truths which are here but dimly seen by faith.
If we are faithful, the darkest events of Providence will approve themselves to us in the end, which will be a revelation of the righteous ways of God.
It is only at the end that we can sum up fairly, and weigh the value of all things.
A patient spirit comes in aid of the decisions which wisdom is disposed to pronounce. It takes time to reflect, instead of giving way to the first headlong impulse. Pride lends fuel to feed the flame of passion and violence. Patience keeps down the fire and quells the tumult, and thus secures for wisdom the leisure and the calmness which, in such circumstances, it so especially needs, in order to judge righteous judgment [Buchanan].
Pride has a short-lived triumph, patience an eternal reward.
The gate is low through which we pass into the distinctions and honours of the kingdom of God.
Ecclesiastes 7:9. Righteous anger, which alone is lawful for us, is slowly raised; is conformable to the measures of reason and truth, and endures no longer than justice requires. It expires with the reformation of the offender. It is rounded by pity and love, which, like a circle of fire, increases towards the central space until the anger itself is consumed.
Frail man, who has so many faults of his own, and stands in need, on every side, of favourable interpretation, should be very cautious how he indulges himself in the dangerous passion of anger. A wise man herein will observe a legal calmness and sobriety.
Cases are not only supposable, but of no unfrequent occurrence, in which the emotions of anger may be fairly justified. Yet it is one of those passions for which a person feels afraid to plead, because it requires, instead of encouragement and fostering, constant and careful restraint; and the propensity in every bosom to its indulgence is ever ready to avail itself of an argument for its abstract lawfulness, to justify what all but the subject of it will condemn, as its careless exercise, or its criminal excess.… To retain and foster it is a mark of a weak mind, as well as of an unsanctified heart [Wardlaw].
It is one of the gracious and encouraging testimonies which Scripture has given us concerning God, that “He is slow to anger” (Nehemiah 9:17), and that “Neither will He keep His anger for ever (Psalms 103:9). And yet what infinitely greater cause God has for being angry, and for retaining His anger against us, than we can ever have in the case even of our most offending fellow-men! Did His wrath burn and break forth against the sinner as suddenly and vehemently as does the sinner’s wrath against his offending brother, there is not a day nor an hour in which the sinner might not be consumed [Buchanan].
With the wise man, anger is a strange and suspicious guest, ready to be cast out upon the first confirmation of his evil intent. But with the fool anger has a congenial home.
Where anger is indulged it will lead all the other passions to mutiny, and render any wise self-government impossible.
Ecclesiastes 7:10. The dreamy admiration of antiquity is the refuge of weak minds, the futile justification of their discontent. They despise actual life around them and the ways of duty as too prosaic, thus injuring their moral force by the excesses of the imagination.
If we follow the fancied superiority of past ages with a sober and impartial eye, we shall find that it retires into the region of mist and fable.
Some Christians mourn over the lack of spirituality and earnest purpose in the Church of the present. They sigh for the ideal perfection which marked primitive times. But a closer examination would soon dispel this illusion. Even in the times of the Apostles, the passions of human nature, and the infirmities of the human mind, both disfigured the life of the Church, and corrupted the truth.
The golden age for our race lies in front of us, and not behind. Humanity is ever toiling up the heights of progress—from evil to greater good.
Those who unduly praise past ages, fix their attention upon a few illustrious names, and challenge the present times for the production of their like. They forget that those famous men do not represent the average of their contemporaries, but stood at their head and top. Those moral heroes are but brilliant points of light scattered sparingly through the long dark vista of the past.
“Thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.”
1. Thou art inquiring for the cause of what thou shouldst first ascertain with certainty to be a fact; of what possibly has no existence but in thine own distempered imagination, or partially unformed judgment. There has been no golden age in this world but the short period of paradisaical innocence and bliss enjoyed by the first progenitors of our since accursed race.
2. Consider that thou knowest the evils of former times only by report; whereas of present ills thou thyself feelest the pressure. By this feeling thy judgment is liable to be perverted. The sight of the eye is more impressive than the hearing of the ear.
3. In uttering thy complaints, thou art unwise: for thou arraignest in so doing the All-wise Providence of the Most High, who assigns to every successive age its portion of evil and of good. The complaints of a petted spirit are ungodly; and the inquiries of such a spirit are equally unwise in their principle, and delusive in their results [Wardlaw].
Ecclesiastes 7:11. Wisdom can stand upon its own merits, and derives no additional glory from wealth. Yet by means of wealth, wisdom is commended to the minds of many.
Wisdom can do without wealth better than wealth can do without wisdom.
Ample possessions do but minister to the lusts of their foolish owner, and feed his self-importance.
Wisdom, as far as it can make use of wealth, is a “profit to them that see the sun,” i.e., to those who are free, and have the power to enjoy. But when the darkness of adversity comes, wisdom has reserves of strength, and riches of consolation hidden till then.
In the vocabulary of a very large class of men, wealth and wisdom mean pretty nearly the same thing. The wise man who knows everything but the art of making money they regard as a fool; while the millionaire who, with a lamentable deficiency of higher gifts, has continued to amass a fortune, receives all the deference due to the man who is pre-eminently wise. It can need no argument to prove that Solomon could never mean to lend any countenance to so gross a method of estimating the worth of things [Buchanan].
Ecclesiastes 7:12. Wisdom is so conscious of her superior dignity and worth that she can afford to estimate, at their full value, all beneath her.
Wealth affords but a mechanical defence against adversity, giving way under the pressure of the greatest calamities. But wisdom changes the nature of the afflictions themselves, and altogether neutralises them.
Wisdom is a wall of defence, and money is a hedge. The thorns in the Gospel, which sprang up and choked the good seed, are by our Saviour expounded of the deceitfulness of riches; but that is when the thorns do grow among the corn, when the love of riches hath placed them in the heart, where the seed of spiritual grace ought to grow. Let them be kept out of the heart, be esteemed of as they are, outward things; then they are, as it were, a fence, a hedge unto a man whereby he is preserved from hurt. So they were to Job, by God’s Providence over them (Job 1:10) [Jermin].
True spiritual wisdom not only ministers to the comfort and dignity of life; it is life itself. That which is true in a lower sense of human knowledge has its highest illustration in that knowledge which is eternal life (1 John 5:11-12).
Of what avail are the splendours of wealth when the soul passes, bereft of all, into eternity? The riches a man leaves behind him raise the admiration of others; but the deep, solemn, essential question is, did they give him life? If not, they cannot be placed in comparison with the unfailing virtues of heavenly wisdom.
Money may defend its owner from a certain class of physical evils, but it can do nothing to shield him from those far more formidable moral evils, which bring ruin upon the immortal soul. It cannot protect him from the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life.… But heavenly wisdom arms him against all these foes, and teaches him, as its first great lesson, what he must do to be saved; and it disposes him to choose that good part which shall not be taken away; and in so doing it enables him, humbly and calmly, to bid defiance to the devil, the flesh, and the world. In acquainting him with God, it gives him a peace which the world’s greatest prosperity cannot confer, and of which its direst adversity cannot deprive him [Buchanan].
Ecclesiastes 7:13. The conviction that the work is God’s is enough for the pious soul.
The spiritual instincts of the righteous discern behind the dread forces of nature not only a personal will, but also a heart. He feels this, and is satisfied.
Our wisdom is baffled by the system of Providence, as well as our power. As we cannot resist the decrees of it, so we can find no principle to harmonise its apparent discrepancies. Our safety lies not in rebellion, but in patience, faith, and hope.
So terrible are the restrictions of human destiny, that man can have no perfect liberty here. The seeming disorders of life sorely chafe him. We must be born into another life before we can have complete emancipation and “glorious liberty” (Romans 8:21).
Solomon does not mean, in so saying, to teach or countenance the revolting doctrine of fatalism; he does not mean that we are to regard ourselves as being in the iron grasp of a remorseless power, in regard to which we have no resources but passively to leave ourselves in its hands.… It is His will—the will of the only Wise, Just, and Holy Jehovah, and not that of His ignorant, erring, and fallen creature, that is to decide what shall be. Let man, therefore, humbly and reverently acquiesce in what the Lord is pleased to ordain as to his earthly estate. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” [Buchanan].
When we are at home with God, in the “secret place of the Most High,” our painful perplexity subsides in the presence of His love and comfort. The darkness of our sojourn here is but the shadow of His wings.
Ecclesiastes 7:14. Our joy in prosperity should not be the selfish glorying in success, or the transports of gratified ambition. It should be an act of worship, a glad recompense paid to heaven.
It is wisest, as well as most natural, to allow our feelings full play while they last. We cannot take in the idea of life as a whole; else the burden of duty and suffering would appal us.
1. The Author of your trials. Whatever be their nature, and whatever the instrument of their infliction, they are the appointment of Providence; they come from the hand of a wise and merciful God—who, in all His ways, is entitled to your thoughtful regard. “Consider”
2. The cause of all suffering. Sin is the bitter fountain of every bitter stream that flows in this wilderness. “Consider”
3. The great general design of adversity; excite to self-examination, repentance of sin, and renewed vigilance, to promote the increase of faith, love, and hope, and spirituality of mind, and general holiness of heart and life [Wardlaw].
The alternation of joys and sorrows in human life is necessary to our soul’s health. Our nature is too weak to bear an unvarying experience without being hardened or corrupted. We need to be startled into sudden surprises in order to keep our attention awake.
God so tempers His dealings with us as to make our probation a stern and serious thing. He thus keeps men in His own hands, so that they can find nothing where He has not willed it, or where His light does not show the way.
Ecclesiastes 7:16. Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself overwise] This is not intended to inculcate carelessness in moral conduct, nor as a beatitude upon ignorance. The meaning is, that we are not to serutinise too narrowly the ways of God. We are to avoid that boldness which dares to say what would be just or unjust for Him to do, as though we could manage the world better. We are also to avoid rash speculation, full as it is of danger, tending to the destruction of true spiritual life.
Ecclesiastes 7:17. Be not over much wicked] Though all men are sinful by nature, yet some sin maliciously, and of set purpose. Even the righteous sin through weakness, but they set a watch over the ways of moral conduct. Therefore, beware of crossing the border-line, lest you sin with consciousness of evil.
Ecclesiastes 7:18. That thou shouldest take hold of this; yea also from this withdraw not thine hand] Avoid the two extremes, of a false righteousness on the one hand, and a life of carelessness and sin on the other.
Ecclesiastes 7:19. Ten mighty men which are in the city] Ten heroes, or commanders, at the head of their forces, to whom the defence of the city is entrusted.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH. Ecclesiastes 7:15-22
THE CAUTIONS OF A RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHER
I. Against Judging the Moral Worth of Men by their Outward Conditions. (Ecclesiastes 7:15.) There are perplexing appearances in the moral government of God—a seeming confusion of right and wrong, as if the Supreme Ruler was indifferent to human conduct, and had no complacency in goodness.
1. Moral excellence is sometimes associated with misfortune. The just man perishes, notwithstanding his righteousness. He therefore is made to suffer all lesser evils beneath this extreme calamity. How often have the good been betrayed and persecuted, or condemned to obscurity and neglect! Some of the noblest souls on this planet are overwhelmed by adversity, and altogether unknown to the world.
2. That wickedness is sometimes associated with prosperity. The basest of men have occupied the highest places, and have been preserved to old age surrounded by all the appliances of luxury and pride.
3. These moral discrepancies must be viewed in the light of religion. The righteous man will perceive that, even through all these apparent irregularities, the great purpose of God is being accomplished. He will reflect that, after all, these disorders are of little significance to him. Even they are but “vanity;” they will soon be past, as far as he is concerned. Like his own life here, they are but a “vapour,” and that even an appearance for a little time. These evils must be endured; but what does it matter, since life is so short? They are but a momentary speck upon the clear glory of eternity. The humble and enlightened soul will consider the bitter root of all these evils.
1. He will look to the past. In the history of human nature, there is an evil somewhere—some primal transgression corrupting the origin of the human race. The burden of vanity is laid upon us on account of sin; and even the righteous, in many sorrows and in the painful necessity of dying, must pay the penalty.
2. He will look to the future. There is a higher revelation awaiting man. “That which is perfect” will come, and there will be a clear justification of all the ways of God. No evil will offend those pure and holy souls who live in His sight.
II. Against a Rash Estimate of the Divine Dealings with Man. (Ecclesiastes 7:16.) This is not a caution against aiming at the highest excellence in goodness or wisdom, for these are the proper objects of a righteous ambition. It is rather a caution against the conduct of those who presume to find fault with the methods of God’s dealings with men, as if they could devise and conduct a more satisfactory scheme. This is the most daring form of human arrogance.
1. It is the result of a proud righteousness. There is a dangerous refinement of rectitude and wisdom which is bold enough to venture a criticism on the moral government of God. Vain man has assumed an over-nice delicacy of moral principle, leading him to indulge the suspicion that he could surpass his Maker in righteous and wise administration. We have here the germ of that Pharisaism which appeared in the days of our Lord. The same error underlies both the earlier and the latter stages of this religious vice—the want of humility. We are warned against the temptation
(1) To re-judge the Divine justice. We may imagine that things would be better in our hands, that there would be a more equitable distribution of good and evil. But our weakness and ignorance sufficiently stamp this as impiety.
(2) To question the Divine wisdom. We may, in our foolish fancy, build imaginary systems in which no imperfection appears, nor any risk or chance of failure. Such pride needs the rebuke, “Shall mortal man be more just than God?” (Job 4:17.) Our knowledge is too limited for such a bold exercise as this. We have no basis of facts sufficiently broad, nor any experience of them sufficiently long and intimate, to warrant us in such an adventure. We are “but of yesterday,” and, as a consequence, “we know nothing.” Besides, there is our moral disqualification. Such impiety as this tends to ruin; “why shouldest thou destroy thyself?” Men who meddle with matters too high for them will receive some humiliating check, or suffer moral degradation and injury. But,
2. The dread of this fault must not drive us into the opposite extreme. (Ecclesiastes 7:17.) It is not hereby intended to teach moderation in sinful actions. We have rather a precept which takes into account the sad fact of our sinfulness; and, regarding absolute perfection as unattainable (Ecclesiastes 7:20), counsels us not to cross the border-line which separates the good man—still subject to weakness and infirmity—from the open sinner.
(1) Such conduct would be destructive. Vice, in considerable measure, brings its own punishment, by shortening human life and making it miserable.
(2) To avoid such extremes is the highest attainable excellence. (Ecclesiastes 7:18.) This is the “good” we should reach after, the only one possible to us. It is well if we can hit that happy medium which avoids the affectation of righteousness, on the one hand, and carelessness as to our moral conduct, on the other.
(3) Such excellence is only attainable by true piety. “He that feareth God shall come forth of them all.” He alone shall be saved from false righteousness and reckless immorality. A Divine hand alone can lead us in the safe way between these dangerous extremes.
III. Against Building upon an Impossible Ideal of Humanity. (Ecclesiastes 7:20.) Man might have some ground for boasting, and presuming upon his own wisdom, were he pure, and open to no impeachment of his goodness, or imputation of folly. But even the best are imperfect. Therefore,
1. We need some defence against the Divine Justice. Man has offended the justice of God, and must either receive the full force of the penalty, or provide a sufficient defence against it. We must accept the facts of our condition, painful though they be, and receive protection from the evils we deserve, as a gift of Divine mercy.
2. Heavenly wisdom supplies the needful defence. (Ecclesiastes 7:19.) By “wisdom” is signified the pious fear and love of God. This is the only sure defence. We cannot avert or mislead Divine justice. However we contrive, we must come face to face with it at last. Man can build fortified cities, and brave heroes may defend them with valour and skill, and maintain a successful resistance against the enemy. But no ingenuity of device, or bravery of resistance, can defend us from the inflictions of Divine Justice, if we are found without that wisdom which is godly and pure.
IV. Against an Over-sensitiveness in regard to the Judgments of Others. (Ecclesiastes 7:21.) Contrive how we may, men will think about us, and form some estimate of our character.
1. We must pay some attention to such judgments. The text refers both to praise and blame. We cannot be purely indifferent to either. Praise is the crown that society places upon the head of the good, the reward of brave and consistent virtue. Blame is often the index, pointing to some fault or defect in us; and a wise man will not neglect such indications. But,
2. Such judgments must not excite in us any undue anxiety.
(1) As to blame. If we are right and pure in motive, aim, and purpose, we can afford to despise adverse judgments. We consider that such are compounded of ignorance, malice, and rage.
(2) As to praise. It is often insincere; at best, fickle and inconstant. A wise man will receive it with moderation of desire and estimate. If we are too anxious to catch every breath of praise, we expose ourselves to the grief of bitter disappointment. A man may hear his own servant “cursing” him, while he is listening for the much-coveted praise.
3. We should remember our own failings. (Ecclesiastes 7:22.) We ourselves are not faultless. We may have the painful consciousness of some defects of disposition, or of wrong inflicted upon others, which may provoke just censure, or retaliation. We may possibly have come slowly and late to the possession of heavenly wisdom, and in our days of folly, may have inflicted injuries whese effects still remain. We are candidates for a mercy to come, and must, therefore, be merciful to others. The censure we overheard, when we expected a word of praise, may have been uttered in a moment of passion; and though the sharp agony of the sting remains with us, the hasty word may have been soon forgotten by him who uttered it. We must make allowance for the imperfections of our fellow men, and cherish the spirit of moderation and forgiveness. Unless protected by the shadow of a mercy which must cover many faults (even in the best), we have much to fear from the judgment of God. The vision of that awful trial which awaits humanity, and from which there is no escape, should make us more reserved in our censures, and more merciful in our estimation of human conduct. Our sin is at the bottom of all the evils we suffer here, the moral disorders of the world, and of all the trials and vexations which accompany us throughout our probation. Given faultless men, and there would be a faultless world; the very face of nature and of life would be changed. Righteousness would work itself outwardly in a “new heaven and a new earth.”
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 7:15. If we estimate the moral worth of men by their surroundings, we should greatly mistake. Dives and Lazarus, in their environment here, presented the contrasted pictures of happiness and ease with want and misery. If with perverted eye, we see in the outcast of earth the outcast of heaven; or in the favourite of fortune the favourite of heaven; how soon is the illusion dispelled when death strips both of all their time-vestments to the bare essence of their souls, and to the simple attributes of character!
How often has it happened that the just man, who has laboured to promote some social regeneration, or to give the world a purer faith, has perished, the victim of intolerance! The thankless world has often rewarded its best teachers with the prison, the cross, and the stake.
He who is unscrupulous may rise to prosperity and undisturbed enjoyment, while the righteous perishes because he will not forego high principle. It is only in the “days of our vanity” that we can see the apparent failure of the righteous, and the prosperity of the wicked. A far different sight will be presented to us in the stern realities of eternity!
Men who adopt a higher standard of duty than the rest of the world may have to suffer for it. The noble army of martyrs bears witness to this. He who adopts common views and principles may find life easy enough.
Ecclesiastes 7:16. Those rulers are over just who search everything too closely; and the theologians are over-wise who in matters of faith wish to direct everything according to their own reason [Cramer].
The boldest forms of impiety have assumed the garb of righteousness, in which men have dared to “snatch from His hand the balance and the rod.”
Unless goodness is sufficiently guarded by humility, we are exposed to the danger of intellectual and moral pride.
There must be some fatal fault in any refinement of justice or wisdom which leads a man to entertain a suspicion of God.
The attempt to oppose the justice and wisdom of God by our vain imagination leads to destruction. “The words of Job are ended,” says the inspired historian. All words spoken against God must sooner or later come to an end. Either grace forgives the folly of the speech—as in the case of Job—or God closes the impious mouth with violence.
The impiety here condemned has also an illustration in the government of human affairs, where it is often seen that, Summum jus summa injuria. Luther says, “He who would most rigidly regulate and rectify everything, whether in the State or in the household, will have much labour, little or no fruit.”
Ecclesiastes 7:17. As you would not be over-righteous, see to it that you be not over-wicked,—that is, that you do not contemn and neglect all government committed to you, thus letting everything fall into evil. It may be well to overlook some things, but not to neglect everything [Luther].
As there is a moral and intellectual activity which degenerates into impious speculation, so there is an inertness of conscience and of mind which issues in wickedness and folly.
As there are hazards attending high pretentions to wisdom, so there are risks peculiar to folly. The absolute fool becomes the object of contempt. His life is hardly thought worth an effort, far less a sacrifice, for its preservation. The fool is easily made the tool and the dupe of a party; exposing himself to be the prey of virulent enemies, or of selfish pretended friends. Folly leads a man into innumerable scrapes. It may induce him heedlessly to mix with wicked associates, and may thus occasion his suffering for crimes, in the perpetration of which he had no active hand, and which, fool as he is, he would shrink from committing. And in numberless ways he may come, by his folly, to “die before his time” [Wardlaw].
Ecclesiastes 7:18. By the fear of God we escape, on the one hand, the danger of Pharisaism, because, firstly, it awakens in the heart a dread of all attempts to deceive God by the trappings of a heartless show of piety, and because further, an energetic knowledge of sin is inseparably bound up with a true fear of God (Isaiah 6:5). We escape, also, on the other hand, the danger of a life of sin, because we cannot really fear God without also having a keen dread of offending Him by our sins, and a lively wish to walk in the ways of His commands [Hengstenberg].
The safe way of duty lies between dangerous extremes. Nothing but the fear of God can keep us from wandering to the utmost edge of hazard.
The fear of God springs from faith, and leads to that hope which expects all good from Him. If we believe in the character of God, as revealed in Scripture, we have everything to hope for. Fear is but the attitude of that caution which dreads to lose God, and by so doing, to lose all.
Our true safety lies not in dwelling exclusively upon the moral dangers to which we are exposed, but rather in “Setting the Lord always before us.” Herein is the only condition of stability for our righteousness.
Ecclesiastes 7:19. It is due to this inherent and immense superiority of intelligence and forethought, over mere numbers of animal energy, that the few in all ages have controlled the many—that a handful of cultivated and civilised men have triumphed over whole nations of barbarians. It is wisdom, in the sense of knowledge and intellectual skill, that has subdued the material world, and made it tributary to the convenience and comfort of mankind.… It is not human science, however great its achievements may be, that he intends to celebrate.… But more than these “mighty men,” with all their skill and energies combined, could do for such a city, can wisdom do to strengthen its possessor against the devil, the flesh, and the world [Buchanan].
Our goodness is besieged on all sides. We can only hold out against the enemy by the might of a wisdom and courage which is stronger than that of the world.
The true heroes of our race are spiritual men, who have felt and dared to utter great truths. Other heroes have conquered enemies, yet have themselves been vanquished by deadlier foes! Spiritual men alone have conquered all. “The good fight of faith,” is the only one that leads to any satisfactory and permanent result.
Ecclesiastes 7:20. There is not even a just man—a justified man—upon earth, that doeth good and sinneth not; that doeth good so exclusively and so perfectly as to be without sin. The law of sin which is in his members still wars against the higher law of his regenerated mind, and more or less at times prevails. But there is this grand and fundamental distinction between him and the impenitent and unbelieving, that the germ of a new and Divine life has been implanted in his soul [Buchanan].
The highest attainments in goodness come far short of absolute perfection. The best can only say with the Apostle, “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect” (Philippians 3:12).
The boast of sinlessness can only arise from deplorable self-ignorance or spiritual pride.
The purest souls feel that they need some defence against the justice of God. Nature and Providence teach no doctrine of forgiveness; they often chastise without warning, and pay no heed to the excuse of ignorance. But spiritual wisdom is gifted with that insight into the character of God which beholds in Him infinite mercy and compassion. This is our only hope.
Ecclesiastes 7:21. The wisest and best run the risk of being misrepresented and misunderstood. They often suffer exquisite pain through the malice and envy of others, and the proneness of mankind to indulge in careless talk. But he who follows conscience has no need to lay this seriously to heart. All the “wood, hay, and stubble” of human speech will be burnt up.
Consistent goodness will, in the end, triumph over suspicion and unfavourable judgments. The clouds that accompany the sun on his journey, hiding his bright head, often form at his setting a cushion of vermillion and gold on which he sinks down to rest. Enough for us if our evening sky be pure and lovely; we can afford to despise the passing shadows of our course.
Even wise and good men are often unduly fretted and disquieted by the harsh and uncharitable things that may be said of them in this censorious and envious world. They err in giving way to such angry or disappointed feelings. They forget that even the best of men have still many failings—that there is no perfection among our fallen race; and while this fact should remind them that they themselves are not infallible, and that they may really have given some cause for the accusations of which they complain, it should also teach them not to form unreasonable expectations as to the conduct of others.… There is much point as well as truth in the familiar saying that eavesdroppers seldom hear good of themselves. They do not deserve to hear it. It is well that their craving curiosity and morbid vanity should be thus rebuked and humbled [Buchanan].
Extreme sensitiveness is one of the evils of ill-health. A robust strength and integrity of character will preserve us from many annoyances.
Ecclesiastes 7:22. As we can boast of no absolute purity, we cannot take too high ground with humanity.
Those who crowd around the gates of mercy, as suppliants, have little need to recriminate one another.
Your own consciousness will prevent you from thinking it impossible that you should hear any evil of yourself; and it will, at the same time, teach you to make allowance for the passions and hasty speeches of other men [Wardlaw].
Expect injuries, for men are weak, and thou thyself doest such too often [Richter].
Ecclesiastes 7:27. Counting one by one, to find out the account] Collecting the results of many observations—thus forming an opinion carefully and slowly.
Ecclesiastes 7:29. Many inventions] Refers not so much to the devices of wickedness, but rather to evil arts, perverse thinkings, foolish and adventurous speculations.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 7:23-29
THE CONFESSIONS OF A RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHER
The Royal Preacher, approaching religion from its speculative or philosophic side, has some sad confessions to make.
I. That the Search for Wisdom is Difficult. (Ecclesiastes 7:23-24.) His search is represented as most complete, marked by earnestness, the Royal thinker urging himself to it by a strong effort of the will. “I said I will be wise.” The plan of procedure was most complete and exhaustive. It was no surface inspection—no mercenary work. He “applied” his “heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom.” He tried to discover what lay behind all appearances, “the reason of things”—that deep insight which would reveal to him perfect order and harmony. In his speculations, he used variety of method, approaching the subject from different sides. Virtues were contemplated in their opposites. With a painful revulsion of feeling, knowledge was obtained from the morbid anatomy of sin. “Wickedness” and “folly,” “foolishness” and “madness,” are not inviting subjects, but they are facts of human life, and must be investigated by all who would speculate upon the state of man. Here is a search after wisdom most energetic and complete. Whence does the difficulty arise? In general, it arises from the vast dimensions of the subject of investigation. But these dimensions are here contemplated in two directions.
1. In their surface. The knowledge of man—his duty and destiny, and of the mysteries of religion—forms a subject extending far beyond our mental sight. We see and explore our narrow circle all around, but it is bounded by darkness, clouds, and shadows. If we adventure far, and the scene opens out before us, yet it closes behind us! We cannot chase the darkness away. The surface which we are permitted to explore is painfully limited. Like the end of the rainbow, where fancy has placed a golden cup, the prize of absolute wisdom is unattainable by man. The most successful explorer must make the confession, “It was far from me.”
2. In their depth. “Exceeding deep, who can find it out?” Even that which is before our eyes, when we attempt to fathom it, proves too deep to be sounded by our plummet. Great secrets lie there hidden from mortal sight. Even the commonest objects are mysterious, and lie on dark foundations, quite inaccessible by us; and therefore how remote from our reach must be the ultimate mystery of God and man!
II. That the Results of the Search are Humiliating. They are but poor, scanty, and unsatisfactory. And this,
1. In a speculative view. The gains of our search after wisdom, regarded as an intellectual effort, are but small. We meet with some success, and obtain considerable insight into man’s life and destiny. But the goal of absolute wisdom is as far off as ever. We can only express the little that we know in broken accents. Cur different movements of thought come into frequent collision. Partial wisdom—mere fragments of knowledge—are all that we have—crumbs from the table.
2. In a practical view. In this direction, our search after wisdom is more plentiful in results. We gather more facts and principles. But how sad and humiliating are these! We have been investigating evil, disorder, the force and terrible complications of temptation—all the melancholy facts of human nature under the influence of violent passions and unworthy motives. We have here a recital of some of these sad facts.
(1) That there are some special dangers to virtue. (Ecclesiastes 7:26.) There are temptations in life which have elements of special danger. They deceive by treacherous arts, and the unsuspecting sinner, at first pleased with the siren song, delays, yields to the enchantment, and is lured to his destruction. That book of practical and prudential wisdom, the Proverbs of Solomon, is full of warnings against the seductive arts of women. Their lascivious looks and foul embrace are here described as “snares,” “nets,” and “bands.” An easy virtue is soon entrapped and overwhelmed. The Serpent first approached man through his weak side, and she who was first deceived more easily deceives others (1 Timothy 2:14). This portion of humanity, when loosened from the restraints of social morality and religion, presents the most pitiable forms of degradation, and one of the chief dangers to virtue. Special help from God is needed to escape these dangers. “Whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her.”
(2) That the highest moral excellence is rare. (Ecclesiastes 7:28.) The Royal Preacher professes an extensive knowledge of human nature. He is satisfied with no hasty glance, obeys not the impulse of first impressions, but acquires his knowledge by slow and painful steps. He searches out his facts “one by one,” summing them up with a cool and severe judgment. (Ecclesiastes 7:27.) As a standard of comparison, he takes man as he came pure from the hands of his Maker, before his glory had fallen—God’s idea of humanity. He confesses that no one reaches this absolute standard of sinless purity and perfection. Among men, he had found “one of a thousand,” in some sense, worthy of the name—one who approached the Divine idea within some computable distance. But among women, he had not found one worthy of the name, in the primeval ideal. “That he never found such a one, consequently that he considered the whole female sex as vicious, and highly corrupt, cannot possibly be his opinion, as appears from Ecclesiastes 7:29, as also in Chap. Ecclesiastes 9:9. But that moral excellence, taken as a whole, is much more rarely found than among men, that sin reigns more uncontrolled among the former than the latter, and in the forms of moral weakness and proneness to temptation, as well as in the inclination to seduce, to deceive, and ensnare—such is clearly the sense of this passage” [Lange].
3. That man must sigh in vain for a lost Paradise. (Ecclesiastes 7:29.) That perfect uprightness, that moral integrity of man in his primeval state, is but a splendid fact of the past, a sad remembrance of what once was, but is now no longer. There will, indeed, be a restored Paradise for man, but it will not be the same as that which was lost. Fallen man may attain a better estate than that which he forfeited, yet his final honours and distinctions will be those of one whose fortunes have been repaired, and not of one who has preserved his inheritance as he received it from the beginning. The dispensation of mercy itself cannot obliterate the sad facts of sin. Surrounded and penetrated by evils, our spirit can only sigh for the past, “God hath made man upright.”
4. That man makes the evils which trouble him. “They have sought out many inventions.” The sad moral calamity of our race has not destroyed human activity. The powers of our nature still exert themselves with restless effort, but they have taken a wrong direction. They are fruitful in those “inventions” which, though marked by fertility of device and skill, are yet hurtful, and are but great powers altogether misused. The Religious Philosopher does not dwell here upon external actions, but goes rather to their spring in the perverse thinkings of the mind. The devices of natural reason—useless or impious speculations—have often corrupted and confused the truth. Instead of receiving Divine wisdom with the simple instinct and faith of childhood, man follows his own dazzling speculations, and the higher knowledge is hidden from him. (Matthew 11:25.) These perverse thinkings are the seed from which the evil of the world springs, for sin works from within outwardly, from thought to act. The assumed superiority in moral strength and excellence, which man may have over the woman, is but a short-lived and unseemly boast in the presence of that sinfulness which belongs to all the race.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 7:23. The true teacher must be a constant learner. He can only impart what he has gained by trial and exercise.
Though the effort is beset with tremendous difficulties, yet the resolve to be wise, at all hazards, is noble and praiseworthy.
Our study of the mysteries of God, man, and nature, is not altogether barren of results. We are able to “know in part.” We gather a few facts, and by a kind of prophetic insight, frame those portable and convenient statements of them called hypotheses and laws. But even the wisest must confess that the ultimate mystery is as far off as ever.
There are some fixed stars whose distance is so great, that when observed from the extremes of the diameter of the earth’s orbit, they show no change of direction; thus affording no data for the calculation of their distances. If we could get nearer to them, then we should discover how far off they are. He who has approached the nearest to the great secrets of God and this universe, is most of all conscious how distant he is from absolute wisdom.
The goal of intellectual wisdom lies so far off that the hope of attaining it can impart no solid satisfaction. But there is a Divine word which is ever nigh unto man; yea, in his heart, and ready to break forth from his mouth. We need not seek for it in the height of heaven or in the abyss (Romans 10:6-8).
He had said, indeed, “I will be wise.” He had set his heart on understanding all mysteries and all knowledge. In that vain confidence to which at one time he had given way, he had imagined himself to be equal to the task of unlocking every secret, whether of nature or of Providence, and of leaving no difficulty unexplained. Time and the trial had undeceived him, and had taught him to form a humbler and juster estimate of the powers that are given to man.… The dark problems which he had thought to solve remained, many of them as far from solution as ever. Such was the experience of Solomon, and such will, and must, be the experience of every finite mind [Buchanan].
Ecclesiastes 7:24. Neither the wide range of subjects with which the intellect can grapple, nor its power of penetrating their depths, can put us into the possession of those secret things which God has reserved for Himself.
The infinite superiority of God renders it necessary that many things be concealed from man. Such mystery and reserve are the life of adoration.
Though Revelation is clear on all matters of practical duty, yet it presents truths whose mysterious depths it does not illumine. Such are the eternity and immensity of God—the mystery of creation—the existence of evil under a holy and righteous government—the dealings of God with men in Providence and in grace.
We can have no true happiness if we wait for perfect satisfaction of the intellect. We can only comprehend God through love. Neither height nor depth can vanquish or distress him who has the love of God in his heart (Romans 8:39).
Wisdom is so far off that it is not known from whence it cometh, nor where the place of it is (Job 28:20). It is so deep that the depth saith it is not in me, and the sea saith it is not with me. It is so far, that the weakness of man’s understanding is over-wearied before it can come unto it; so exceeding deep that the eyes of man’s understanding is dazzled to look into it, and man’s wit is endangered by venturing into it. It is deep and deep, as the original expresses it—deep to men, deep to angels [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 7:25. Wisdom does not yield her treasures to the indolent, but only to minds accustomed to earnest and patient toil.
Truth is so often mixed with error, so completely confused and disguised by that which has gathered around it, that it is only traced out with difficulty and cleared from the entanglement.
We must not be satisfied with the simple observation of facts; we should try to discover their causes, or the principles they illustrate. It is the glory of the human intellect that it can contemplate laws, and does not depend upon the limited information gained from passive impressions.
However painful the task may be, the great teachers of mankind must investigate the causes of the chief dangers to virtue.
There are some forms of human evil so bold, full of wild passion, and irrational, that they stand out like mountains on the scene of the world’s guilt.
That which is truly good is more clearly seen when we consider the evil that is contrary to it. The beauty of holiness, and excellency of saving knowledge, is illustrated, and best seen, when the deformity of sin, the madness and unreasonableness of those courses which natural men take to come at their imaginary happiness, are compared therewith [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 7:26. To know the wickedness of folly, the wickedness and foolishness of madness, seems equivalent to knowing the worst species of it.… In his own wild career he had come in contact with folly, and he had himself wrought folly of many sorts. And now, comparing all these one with another, so as to ascertain to which of them the pre-eminence of evil should be assigned, this was the conclusion at which he had arrived. These terribly significant words point plainly to the same seducer of whose base and destructive arts so startling a picture is given in Chap. 7 of the Book of Proverbs [Buchanan].
How strong the expression—“whose heart is snares and nets!” signifying the multitude of her devices of temptation, and the consummate skill, the secrecy, the address, the guile, with which she uses them for the accomplishment of her purposes. Her very “heart is snares and nets,” in whose intricate and entangling meshes the fascinated and deluded soul is taken captive to its destruction. “And her hands as bands.” Her powers of detention are equal to her powers of allurement. Her heart is a net, to entangle the unwary; her hands as bands, to hold him fast when her wiles have proved successful. So irresistible is the power, operating like the spell of enchantment, by which she retains under her influence the hapless victim of her charms [Wardlaw].
The most pleasant fountains of sin turn, in the end, into the bitterness of long regret.
Education and culture—the restraints of human prudence, may do much to preserve the maintenance of the highest virtue, in the face of the most insidious allurements. But religion furnishes the highest motives, the most powerful restraints. The noble ambition to stand well in the sight of God is the only trustworthy sentinel of virtue.
By “the sinner” is meant one who is thoroughly vicious—with whom the practice of evil is habitual. With such the power to resist temptation grows less, and they become an easy prey to every pleasurable sin.
Ecclesiastes 7:27. Sin cannot be treated by vague generalities, the forms of it are so many and diversified. We must descend to particulars in order to make a deep impression.
Even the most patent facts should not be treated as known upon a mere surface inspection. The real knowledge of them can only be gained by minute investigation.
Knowledge comes not to man by sudden irradiations, but by slow degrees—by adding, arranging, and reflecting.
Ecclesiastes 7:28. Much is gained by the diligent seeker after wisdom—many facts, principles, lessons, and warnings; but the full possession of wisdom is not permitted to man.
Men of the highest qualities of mind and soul, powerful in word and influence, are but rarely found. There are but few stars of the first magnitude.
The strong expression of a truth brought home to the soul by sore experience, may easily wear the appearance of harshness and exaggeration.
The Preacher may refer to woman in regard to her attainments in Divine wisdom. The superior delicacy of her natural sensibilities often give her the advantage of an immediate and vivid perception of truth, to which man attains chiefly by the slow and laboured processes of the mind. Yet this power, when directed into wrong channels, shows a faculty just as strong in embracing error and superstition. It must be confessed that the natural weakness of woman has contributed, in no small measure, to the spread of these evils. They have too often been the natural home of frivolities both in life and religion. Though the Bible records the praise of many noble women, yet the fact remains that an inspired Apostle thought it necessary to warn the Church against dangers arising from this source (1 Timothy 2:12. 1 Corinthians 14:34). They are the easy dupes of false teachers (2 Timothy 3:6).
Never, perhaps, has there been any period in the history of the visible Church of God, and certainly never in these more modern times, concerning which we are best informed, in which the majority of those who lived in the fear and love of God were not women. Solomon is here evidently speaking, and that as a humbled penitent, of his own particular case. He had loved “many strange women,” outdoing, in this respect, the laxity and the luxury of the heathen monarchs around him.… Is it any wonder that in such a household, even among the thousand he had gathered into it, one solitary example of real goodness could not be found? Among his male attendants and courtiers, gay and dissolute as the society of the palace had become, one might now and then be met with who had not forgotten the piety and integrity of other and better days [Buchanan].
Ecclesiastes 7:29. The present evils of man are not to be charged upon his Maker.
However rude and vague the commencement the Creator may have given to inanimate matter, as the God of souls He must needs produce His own image in fit perfection.
1. As to his mind. It was a plain mirror wherein the images of truth were reflected without distortion. The knowledge he possessed was, in its kind, perfect and pure, unmixed with baser matter.
2. As to his affections. They were fixed on God. He was pleased and attracted only by what was noble and good.
3. As to his conscience. As an indicator, it was in a condition of perfect adjustment and delicacy. As an instrument of moral control, it had both the right and the power to rule.
4. As to his will. It had no perversity, no element of rebellion; but was easily determined to that which was right and good.
The hurtful inventions—the evil arts and devices of the human intellect, are marked by endless complexity, variety, and skill. This is power ill-directed and misapplied; but still a power, great in its perversion and ruin.
The first Paradise will never return; for the past never returns to us, bringing the same features as those long since vanished. But by that Divine mercy which triumphs over all difficulties, and through them educes a greater good, there will be for man a better Paradise than the first.
We read that in the future Paradise there will be a “tree of life,” but no “tree of knowledge.” “The glory of the Lord did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.” The mind will then allow God’s light to shine upon it instead of working out its own devices.
The actual existence of moral evil is too notorious to admit of a moment’s question. The Bible account of its origin did not cause it; it existed independently of the revelation which informs us how it began; and the rejection of that revelation neither removes nor mitigates it, nor disencumbers it, in the slightest degree, of its embarrassing difficulties. On the contrary, revelation alone, whilst it assumes and proceeds upon the mournful fact, provides a remedy; all other systems, finding human nature in ruins, leave it as they find it. Revelation rears out of the ruins a magnificent and holy Temple to the God of purity and love [Wardlaw].
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 7". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13