Ecc . One event.] An equal chance or happening—the wisest and best having no special destiny (chap. Ecc 2:14-15, and Ecc 3:19). Chance, in this use of the word, is not opposed to Providence, but is a term employed to signify the impotence of all human effort to secure any certain result. He that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath.] The profane and frivolous swearer as well as he who respects the sacredness of an oath.
Ecc . Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy is now perished.] The author keeps before him, for his present purpose, those gloomy views of the state of the dead belonging to the earlier revelation. The souls that are detained in the prison-house of death are regarded as having but a quasi existence, in which all thought and feeling have become so inert as to be scarcely perceptible. A loftier conception of the destiny of the human spirit after death is given in chap Ecc 12:7.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecc
THE SEEMING IMPERFECTION OF GOD'S MORAL GOVERNMENT
By imperfection, as applied to God's Moral Government, we may understand either that it has some fault or fatal defect; or else that it lacks completeness, and is still but rudimentary. It is only in this latter sense that the system of God's dealings with men can be charged with imperfection. This view, however, is not insisted upon here. The writer sets aside, for the moment, the future world. Viewed merely from this life, the action of Providence over human affairs seems to be defective. How does such an idea arise?
I. It is suggested by the fact that the Righteous and the Wicked are Subjected to an Equal Fate. (Ecc .)
1. In regard to the events and experiences of life. Some appear to be the favourites of fortune. But in this distribution of the world's goods we fail to discern, in every case, the rewards of virtue. The richest gifts the world can afford often fall to the lot of the most unworthy. The righteous are sometimes prosperous, but so are the wicked. The pure and holy share the same earthly lot with the defiled. The despisers of religion have quite as good a portion in this life as those who revere God's holy law. The profane are not frowned upon by Providence: those who reverence God are not outwardly distinguished by any special regard. Take the whole variety of human experience—joys and sorrows, prosperity and adversity, success, disappointment, and failure, health and sickness—they come alike to all. The righteous are not distinguished by any special fate. It would seem as if the fortunes of men were assigned to them by a blind chance, or by some reckless Power.
2. In regard to the expectation from life. No man can have any ground to expect that his portion in the time that remains to him will compensate for the evils of the past. Time brings no power to adjust the unequal distribution of good and evil. "No man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before them." No man can assure himself of a prosperous future on the ground of his moral excellence. He does not know in advance whether God will grant him love or hatred; whether his life will be cheered by the one, or vexed and tormented by the other.
3. In regard to the necessity of death. Righteousness does not deliver from death. The quickening of the soul by the infusion of spiritual life does not preserve the body from decay, or purchase exemption from the dishonour of the grave. "The body is dead because of sin" is a stern decree which even the closest union with Christ cannot set aside. There are times when the shadow of this terrible necessity darkens and troubles lives in which immortal hope is strong. The wisest and purest must pay the debt of nature alike with the ungodly and the fool. Death to our human eye, uninformed by a better light, seems to level all moral distinctions and to destroy the hope of righteous reward.
II. This has a Morally Injurious Effect upon Some. (Verse
Ecc .) The apparent disregard of Providence to moral distinctions of character causes some to rush upon courses of evil. This may arise,
1. From the loss of faith in God's rectitude. Those who stumble against appearances in the moral world easily resign themselves to the belief, either that God is altogether absent from this scene of man, or quite indifferent to the conduct of His creatures. A man may brood over the moral difficulties of our present state until God vanishes from his view. Even where the truth of God's existence cannot be wholly erased from the mind, the consciousness of his rectitude is so faintly marked that men indulge in sin without restraint. Goodness can stand any test so long as it retains the conviction that "the Judge of all the earth will do right." When this conviction is gone, what is there left to make virtue worth a sacrifice?
2. From the weakening of the motives of moral conduct. There are some who admit a Providence, and that there is a tendency discoverable in the present state of things towards perfection. This belief, however, is so feeble that it has scarcely any perceptible influence upon the conduct. Practically, they are without faith in God. They hold no belief that is effective as a restraint in the ways of wickedness. The strange folly of their lives is so manifest that it may be charged with madness. The end of this scene is as melancholy as its course was sad and unprofitable. "After that, they go to the dead."
III. In spite of this Imperfection, Men prefer the Present Life to the seeming Extinction of Existence in the Grave. (Ecc .) The dead appear to be at rest. In poetic moods, men may long for the quiet of the grave. But in the calm deliberation of thought they shrink from the idea of oblivion rushing upon their souls. They prefer life with all its disadvantages to that vague uncertainty which belongs to the state of the dead.
1. Life always affords room for hope. (Ecc .) While life remains, men may always look for a better state of things. They derive some satisfaction from resigning the rectification of their fortunes into the hands of time. The sick man hopes for recovery, though hard against the warrant of appearances, and stays himself upon that hope until the end. Mankind have felt that the light of life, even when but glimmering in the socket, lends a ray to hope. This has passed into a proverb. The meanest thing that lives is better than the noblest when dead. The poorest and most forlorn living man has no cause to envy the most wealthy and renowned when he is laid in the grave.
2. The present life has the advantage of certainty. That which is remote from us in space or future time makes but a languid impression. We may contemplate the darkness that rests upon the state of man beyond the grave until the mind is overshadowed with gloom and belief dies. Even the Royal Preacher, for the moment, resigns himself to the dreariest view of the destiny of man. Life has many advantages.
(1.) There is the fact of consciousness. "The living know that they shall die." This is but a melancholy knowledge, yet the consciousness of possessing it yields some satisfaction. Man shrinks from the very idea of his thought and feeling being quenched in eternal midnight. To all outward appearance, the dead are for ever still—stripped of all that distinguishes and adorns life. They know nothing. The consciousness of knowing the facts of life, though some of them are painful, we cherish as a pure enjoyment; and the thought of letting it go disturbs us. While we are alive, it is possible to feel and know that we are dealt with by some Superior Power; but the dead appear to have completely done with a retributive Providence.
(2.) There is the fact of possessing a recognised place among the living. While we are numbered with the inhabitants of this world we have our circle of influence, be it great or small. The most insignificant must occupy some place in the thoughts and feelings of others, and act, and be acted upon, in turns. But the presence of the dead is removed from us, they soon cease to affect us, and at length slip entirely from the remembrance of the living.
(3.) There is the conscious play of the passions and emotions. (Ecc .) Love, hatred, and envy, with the mixture of joy and pain they involve, afford evidence of conscious life. Whether for good or baneful influence, they minister to the luxury of feeling. But, to all appearance, no emotion heaves the bosom of the dead. They seem powerless to awaken any response to love, they are conscious of no affront to stir the rage of hatred, or of rivalry to kindle the fires of envy. They are deaf alike to the voice of censure and of fame.
"Can honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or flattery soothe the dull cold ear of death!"
IV. This Imperfection should not be an Insurmountable Obstacle to Faith. (Ecc .) It may be admitted that, in the scheme of Providence, there is much to try our faith. There are times in the lives of most believers when the darkest doubts take possession of the soul. Witness John the Baptist in prison, who after the clearest evidence of the Messiah's claims, was yet disturbed by doubt, and sent two of his disciples for fresh and surer evidence. (Mat 11:2-6.) Still, though the darkness that lies over the future, and the oppression of life's mystery, try faith severely, yet God granted to men, even in times of imperfect revelation, firm supports for faith to lean upon. "The righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hands of God." Therefore they can afford calmly to wait. He will not disappoint their hope, nor quench in the long silence of the grave their yearnings for eternal life. The strong faith that we are in the hands of God can clear the barriers of the tomb, and find beyond them a sure place whereon to rest for ever. We have our truest refuge in the character of God. If we cherish the belief in His goodness; no difficulties, no evils, nor even the shadow of death, can affright us.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecc . The hand of God is not the symbol of mere power, but of power subdued and controlled by infinite wisdom and goodness. It is a hand that will gather the righteous to the bosom of their Father. When God holds us by His right hand, we may well cherish the blessed confidence that he will "afterwards receive us to glory." (Psa 73:24.)
Not only the works of the righteous, but themselves, are in the hands of God. Much of their work may perish, as being valueless and not able to endure the final test, but they themselves shall abide for ever.
The solemn committal of the spirit into the hands of God is the last pious duty alive.
The fact that we are in the hands of God, as controlled by the Supreme Power, is one thing, but the felt conviction of it is another. When we awake to the consciousness that we have a living Director, we can pass through the most troubled darkness without fear.
Though His Providence does present a mystery to our limited faculties, yet He is not forgetful of those who fear Him. They and their works are neither unknown, nor unregarded: and He will one day make it fully manifest that His whole procedure has perfectly accorded with His character [Wardlaw].
They are kept safe in the hand of God; and that hand which now keepeth them, will at last reach forth a glorious reward unto them [Jermin].
The highest moral excellence cannot assure its possessor of human regard and love. Even the flower of humanity was constrained to say, "They hated me without a cause."
Ecc . The true moral worth of men must not be estimated by the light of their outward fate.
Righteousness can deliver no one from the necessity of enduring the sad variety of human experience.
This life is not the last act in the great drama of human history. It is not here and now that men are receiving the due reward of their deeds. After that curtain shall have fallen that is destined to cover up and close the latest of the shifting scenes of time, it will rise once more to bring into view a vaster, grander, and more awful stage than time ever displayed [Buchanan].
Ecc . Those stern outward conditions in which all men are bound, irrespective of character, furnish a proof of some present disorder, and raise in pious souls the expectation of Divine interference to restore to goodness true place and reward.
A wise man does not hesitate to recognise obvious evils. He feels the oppression of life's strange mystery, as the same has been felt by such saints as Job and Asaph. He is not driven to melancholy and despair, for he is sustained by a better hope. He is not driven to mad rebellion, for he fears God.
The moral mystery of our present life is a trial which God has appointed for man. If we endure it wisely and well, He rewards our faith with plentiful consolation, giving us peace in the depths of our soul. If we fail herein, we are either driven to despair or to the wildest courses of sin.
The heart distributes the power of sin within us, by which it corrupts the life and fills the world with evils.
The moral madness of sinners shows itself in foolish and impossible thoughts of God and His ways, and in foolish contrivances for their own deliverance.
Every act of sin, being an act of rebellion against the infinite God, is an act of madness; of infatuated, and impotent, and self-destroying frenzy. All worldliness of spirit, being a preference in affection and pursuit of temporal to eternal things, is madness; far beyond the derangement of the maniac who throws away gold for stones, and prefers straw to pearls and jewels [Wardlaw].
Repining against God and his Providence, because they cannot longer enjoy their sinful pleasures, they carry their sins with them to the very gates of death [Nisbet].
Ecc . While life remains, for the sinner there is the hope of amendment and restoration—for the exiles of fortunes, the hope of returning. To living man there is no gloom so oppressive but that some ray of hope may struggle through.
Life suggests the idea of liberty, of some large space to move and work in. While it is continued, the range of possibilities for us is wide. We think of death as putting an arrest upon our liberty—in some sense a prison for man.
The meanest living man possesses a superiority over the mightiest dead, in having life itself, and power, and consciousness, and feeling, and enjoyment; which with regard to the dead, viewed in their relation to this world, are all at an end; and equally at an end, whatever their power and eminence while they lived [Wardlaw].
The superior value and importance of life may be regarded either as the justification of a course of self-indulgence and pleasurable sin, or as a motive for diligence in that work which can only be done in this world. There is a mean and also a noble view of man's existence; and as we take one or the other, so the significance of this proverb may be determined.
Ecc . The consciousness of existence is a necessary truth—the surest and most intimate knowledge we possess. This one fact gives importance and value to all others.
Existence, though it implies the knowledge of the saddest facts, is yet a positive good when compared with the total loss of conscious being.
To the eye of sense the dead seem bereft of all thought, feeling, and motion. There are appearances enough—for those who are under the tyranny of them—to justify the darkest scepticism and boldest defiance of future retribution.
As far as the opportunities, duties, and experiences of this life are concerned, the dead are completely severed from us. Even the poetical existence which memory gives them at length fades away.
Limited as is the view here given of the change death makes in the condition of those who have lived and died without God—for it is of them, as the context plainly implies, that Solomon is speaking—it is sufficiently humbling and awful. From the moment they die, their connection with this world is at an end. This world was their all, and they have lost it. They know nothing of it now. Its rewards cannot reach them in the grave. Their very name and memory soon pass away out of the world altogether [Buchanan].
Ecc . They are utterly impotent; they have no power whatever remaining, either to profit or to hurt, and are neither courted for the one, nor feared for the other. Their power to benefit and to injure is alike gone. The objects of their love can derive from it no advantage, nor can the victims of their hatred and envy sustain from them any damage. While they lived, their favour might be courted, and its effects desired; their displeasure deprecated, their hatred and envy dreaded, and the consequences of them anxiously shunned. But their mere names have no charm, either of blessing or of curse. The ashes of the grave can do neither evil nor good.… Their portion of enjoyment is gone for ever. Death is not a temporary absence, but an eternal adieu [Wardlaw].
How little have we to fear from the rage of human passions which, so far as they can affect us, are totally extinguished in the grave.
Man is destined to a continuity of existence, but in his progress through it, as one door is opened before him, another closes behind. Whatever awaits man in the future world, the severance from this world is most complete.
These gloomy views of the state of the dead are modified by the later Revelation—their sadness relieved by Christian hope; yet death, in some sense, does reign over all until the resurrection. When "this mortal puts on immortality," only then is the victory of man over the grave complete.
Ecc . Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment] No literal observance of these circumstances of external appearance is intended; but rather an exhortation to indulge those calm and pure emotions of joy, of which white garments and a face which oil causes to shine are the well-known symbols.
Ecc . For there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave whither thou goest.] This may be compared with the saying of our Lord in Joh 9:4. The grave.] The unseen state to which thou art hastening.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecc
THE UNSATISFACTORY CONDITIONS OF THE PRESENT LIFE IN THEIR BEARING UPON DUTY
The Preacher had shown that the ways of God to man are full of dark mystery. This has been a terrible oppression to many—to some even a fatal one. We must admit that man's present condition is unsatisfactory; for it is rudimentary. It is on the way to perfection. The dark enigma of life, however, should not be a fatal obstacle to duty. Of the unsatisfactory conditions of the present life, we affirm—
I. They do not Forbid a Joyful Acceptance and Use of the Blessings of Providence. (Ecc .) The habit of dwelling exclusively upon the dark side of things is hurtful to the soul. We are either driven to melancholy and despair, or else to the mad pursuit of pleasure by which we seek to drown all anxiety and care. There is a safe middle way between these two extremes, by which we avoid gloom and despair, on the one hand, and a reckless pursuit of pleasure, on the other hand. We should thankfully accept the blessings of Providence, and use them with sobriety. The consciousness that God "accepteth" our "works" should be at once the impulse and the director of our joy (Ecc 9:7). The constant reference to God, and the intention of pleasing Him, will sanctify all life. There are three sources of enjoyment referred to here, which we may soberly and thankfully use.
1. The satisfaction of the appetites. (Ecc .) Our physical wants are a fact of our nature which we must accept. They crave for satisfaction. These natural endowments, as they arise from the appointment of the Creator, are not sinful in themselves. They only become the occasion of sin by unlawful indulgence. The bounty of the Great Giver has furnished means for the satisfaction of our common wants, even ministering to the most delicate perceptions of taste and gladdening the heart of man.
2. The taste for outward beauty. (Ecc .) There are outward forms, the contemplation of which gives an exquisite and refined pleasure. Thus the ornaments of dress minister to the instinct of beauty and harmony. The Creator, in His works, has not only studied utility, but has even prepared those graces and ornaments which wait upon our perception of elegance. He has placed this instinct in the human breast. We may indulge it if we only do so with moderation, remembering that outward beauty has no infinite capacity to please. It is a joy which is bounded, and God alone is the soul's pure and permanent delight.
3. Domestic joys. (Ecc .) The various relations of life, whether we are born to their possession, or enter them by choice, minister to our social enjoyments. They tend to abate the natural selfishness of the human heart and to multiply and exalt our pleasures. These are the gifts of God—they are our "portion" here. They serve for awhile to lift our minds above the overwhelming sense of the vanity of life. We can use such joys if we remember that they too are fleeting, and that the only sure and abiding portion for the soul is God. "The fashion"—the outward form, scheme, or arrangement—"of this world passeth away." (1Co 7:31.)
II. They do not Forbid proper Zeal and Diligence in the Work of Life. (Ecc .) We may dwell upon the dark things of life until we are driven to despair, and despair paralyses effort. Weak hands and feeble knees accompany melancholy. Whatever be the tendencies and issues of things—the ultimate solution of this mystery—we have great practical duties to perform.
1. We should accept the task and duty lying nearest to us. It is in vain to sit still and wait for some congenial task to fall in our way. There are duties enough lying to our hand. No man has need to be idle for lack of a task.
2. We should be earnest in our work. The most exalted natures are distinguished by the highest activity—God, who works in and through all—the angels, who are quick and strong to do His will. Throughout the whole course of nature we observe unwearied activity. Creation preaches to us, saying, be earnest. The illustrious names of history who have won a distinction that will never die exhort us to industry. Such is the price we have to pay for all possessions that are of true and abiding worth.
3. We have a strong motive for such earnestness. Whatever may lie before us in the future, there are certain kinds of work which can only be done in this world. While the work is before us and our faculty is fresh, all is fluent to our hands; but when our life's day is ended, all becomes rigid—fixed in the solemn stillness of eternity! There are forms of work and of knowledge which are only possible here. If we disregard them, there will be no chance afforded us to repair the omission. Even Christ himself, during his earthly sojourn, came under this law. There was a work which even He could do only in this world. (Joh .) He felt that in His mortal day His allotted task must be accomplished. The grave is the dark terminus of our earthly work.
III. They do not Destroy our Hope of Reward. From the appearances of this life we may draw the hasty conclusion that there is no reward for goodness hereafter, no vindication of suffering innocence. It seems as if this troubled drama of human history must repeat itself endlessly throughout the ages. But we have to reflect,
1. That we stand in a present relation to God. If we are good in His sight, He accepts our works now. He receives them as the homage of our gratitude, and pieces out our imperfections with His goodness. We may well hope that that goodness has provided for us the larger gift of immortality. God will not permit us to know Him and work for Him through the brief space of life, and then blot us out of existence for ever.
2. We have reason to hope that we shall stand in a future relation to Him. If we can say with the Psalmist, "O God, Thou art my God" (Psa ), we may well hope that He shall be our portion for ever, that He shall redeem us from the power of the grave. The majesty of God requires that He shall make His servants rich, not only by the bestowal of gifts by which they serve Him, but also in the heritage of eternal life, so that they may serve Him for ever. Therefore, though the way be dark, we can have light enough for duty; and unfading hope to assure us that there is for us a higher service in other worlds.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecc . The mystery of God's moral Government should not render our sight insensible to the impressions of His goodness, the proofs of which are full and manifest.
The Almighty Maker of all things intended that the beauty of His works should make an appeal to mind and heart. In like manner, He intends that the gifts of His hand should awaken in us the emotions of gratitude and joy.
When God accepts our works, the commonest actions of our life become sanctified.
Though faith be sorely tried by appearances, yet God is on the side of the righteous, giving them tokens of acceptance and reserving greater things for them.
We must learn to live before we can live rightly and well. With us, "that which is natural" forces itself upon us as our first care. Afterwards that which is spiritual. Wherefore those ordinary gifts of Providence by which we are constantly delivered from death deserve the instant tribute of our praise and joy.
Moses putting his hand into his bosom took it out leprous, putting it again into his bosom, he took it out clean. The hand is the instrument of working, and the works of man are sometimes leprous and unsound, sometimes healthy and good. If they proceed from a sincere and honest heart, which God approveth, then they are sound and healthy; but if they come from a corrupt heart, and be done for the pleasing of men, then they are leprous and unsound. Now it is a healthy and sound body that is fittest for mirth and freest in mirth, it is a healthy and sound body that eateth and drinketh most cheerfully. Wherefore seeing where God accepteth thy works, there is health and soundness, let there also be freeness of joy and mirth [Jermin].
Ecc . Cheerfulness should be the soul's habit, and joy the prevailing expression of the soul's countenance.
God gives His people the oil of joy to assuage their grief, and fits them for the feast of His pleasures by the garments of praise.
The notion of pleasure seems invariably associated with the practice; and it was aptly indicated by the richness and freshness, and, in many cases, by the aromatic fragrance, of the balsamic unguents. "Let thy head lack no ointment" is equivalent to—Rejoice in the bounty and loving-kindness of the Lord; "let not thy heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." And the expression "let thy garments be always white" is of the same account with the Apostolic exhortation, "Rejoice evermore!" Take the enjoyment of whatever the hand of a kind Providence bestows, with a grateful and cheerful spirit; not with selfishness or extravagance, or thoughtless mirth; but with benevolence and sobriety, and with that true joy which is independent of the possessions of time, which, coming from above, infuses into the things of earth a relish of heaven, and would continue to be the inmate of the pious soul, though they were all removed [Wardlaw].
Christ was anointed with the oil of joy, although he lived under the shadow of a great calamity. All noble souls have a deep and intimate joy which no disasters can dislodge.
Ecc . The disciples of wisdom affect no refinement beyond the ordinances of God.
We should joyfully use those solaces which God's Providence has provided for us as a peaceful retreat from the tumultuous scenes of life.
"Here love his golden shafts employs, here lights
His constant lamp, and waves his purple wings—
Here reigns and revels" [Paradise Lost].
The moral character of nations is determined by the purity and integrity of domestic life. The home is the support, the forerunner, the very material of the State and Church. The righteous man, by beautifying and sanctifying home, is the real safety and hope of his country.
We should look upon the joys of domestic life as the earthly reward of our labour, our measured portion of happiness here, and the gift of God.
The sense of time fast speeding on to eternity hangs over the most endearing scenes of life, and at times touches thoughtful minds with overwhelming emotion.
By the repetition of the last words we are expressly taught that, in the midst of the vanity and travail with which human existence is burdened, we are pressingly summoned not to seal up the sources of enjoyment which still remain open to us [Hengstenberg].
The consideration of the vanity and shortness of their life, and of the miseries incident to it, though it should not provoke them to excess of sensual delights, yet it should incite them to a more cheerful use of these comforts, that, seeing their time is short, they may have the more strength and encouragement to serve the Lord cheerfully. For while Solomon is pressing upon men a cheerful and free use of outward comforts, he minds them twice of the vanity of their life, which, in the midst of these things, they are ready to forget, and makes the same a reason pressing the cheerful use of their allowance [Nisbet].
Ecc . The melancholy and gloom which deep thought awakens is dissipated by the active exertion of our powers in duty.
Whatever is dark and mysterious in man's present state, his work, and the obligation to perform it, are quite clear and evident. It is better to spend his energy upon what is certain than to torment himself with the pain of speculation.
That the opportunity is short is a motive for diligent exertion in our work, but not the strongest motive; which the notion of our state hereafter, depending upon our work here, alone supplies. Therefore this exhortation requires, though it does not formally state, the doctrine of a future life.
Death is truly an unclothing of man, who, though his being is continuous, must put aside what he cannot resume again. There are duties to be performed, talents and powers to be used, which are peculiar to the present state; they must altogether be put off with our mortal life.
Though sustained by immortal hope, it is salutary to reflect upon the physical side of death, and learn from thence diligence in the duty of the moment, or even console ourselves by the melancholy prospect of its long repose. Whatever the state of the dead may be, it is certain that it is night to us, as far as some kinds of work and modes of knowledge are concerned.
Nothing that has been neglected here can be attended to there. If we fail to perform a duty in this life, there will be no opportunity of performing it in the place of the dead. If we have errors to confess, or wrongs to repair—if we have any bad influence to undo, or any good influence to employ—if we have any evil habits to unlearn, or any gracious tendencies to cultivate, now is the time [Buchanan].
Man's characteristic is restlessness; restlessness foretells his immortality; and a sluggard by his apathy seems to destroy the mark, and silence the prophecy. But if confined to other things, indolence may not be absolutely fatal; the indolent man may have wealth which secures him against want; and by the occasional exercise of rare talents he may, in spite of habitual sluggishness, even attain to some measure of distinction. But an indolent Christian—it is a sort of contradiction—Christianity is industry spiritualised [Melvill].
Diligence in our earthly and heavenly callings is the surest way through mystery and darkness up to God.
Ecc . Knoweth not his time.] He knows not the hour of his destruction, when he shall be suddenly snared and taken by death. This solemn crisis in man's destiny is called in Scripture the "day" (Job 18:20), the "hour" (Mar 14:41). As the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare. The net, trap, and snare are symbols of those divine judgments which suddenly overtake men (Eze 12:13; Eze 32:3; Pro 7:23; Luk 21:35).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecc
THE HIGHER WILL IN HUMAN THINGS
I. That Will is Supreme over Human Actions. (Ecc .) The will of man is the force that apparently directs and controls his earthly history. It seems to make him an independent being. He boasts of his freedom, exerts himself to satisfy his ambition, or to minister to his pleasures. Yet man is impotent. There is a Higher Will which through all the changes of human history is being accomplished.
1. There is a Divine disposition of human things altogether beyond our control. "Time and chance happeneth to them all." There are times and seasons in our lives. We have no power to control their order or duration. Each man too has his "chance" which "happeneth" to him. Chance is not used here as opposed to Providence, as if man were the sport of some uncertain and irresponsible dominion, but it is opposed to human effort, whose results are shaped by a Higher Power than the will and energy of man. We spend our little strength and faculty in devising for ourselves; but the ultimate result of our actions, their permanent shape, is devised and finished by the Divine power. Thus God is over all, even in regard to the production and result of those actions in which we consider ourselves most free.
2. Human efforts often fail though ever so fittingly contrived. (Ecc .) "I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, &c." Fortune sometimes gives denial to our expectation founded upon the likelihood or natural tendency of things. It must be admitted that superior powers of running are of prime importance to a racer, and tend to ensure his success; that numbers and strength give a superior advantage in battle; that the gifts of wisdom, understanding, and skill, raise a man to superior eminence, enlarge his authority and influence, and furnish him with the means of securing distinction and competence. But these several gifts and faculties are so complicated with disturbing elements, over which men have no control, that they often fail of success. The most agile racer, and surest of the victor's crown, may stumble, or be seized by bodily faintness, and thus fail of his prize. An army superior in discipline and numbers may be defeated. Some difficulty of climate or of position, or the caprices of some strange accidents, may turn the fortunes of war. How often it has happened that disease has proved more destructive than the sword, and that victories which national vanity has ascribed to courage and skill, were chiefly owing to the accidental advantage of health. The wise man ought to attain to that distinction to which his talents entitle him, but that many such have altogether failed, the sad examples of history show. The wise man may have some unfortunate disposition of mind or of temper that may ruin his prospect of success. Great skill and understanding may be so combined with follies and absurdities that their possessor may fail to secure the proper rewards of them. Adverse circumstances may hinder him from taking his true place, or enjoying his proper reward. He may be hindered from rising by social surroundings, and thus consigned to neglect. Thus events do not always happen according to the natural tendencies of human effort and skill. Let a man have ever so great advantage, yet as to the future he is literally sure of nothing. There are qualities likely to secure success, but whether they will do so in any given case, we cannot know. The issues of all human thoughts and labours are with God, who accomplishes His will, not only in the obedient and fluent elements of the physical universe, but also in the troubled and refractory elements of the moral world.
II. That Will is Supreme over Human Life. We have seen that the dominion of God is supreme over all that life contains. The same also is true of the bounds of life itself.
1. The time of each man's death is hidden from him. (Ecc .) No man knows at what time death will overtake him. The probability that out of a given number of men, now alive, a certain number will die within a fixed period of years, may be calculated. But no refinement of analysis can show whether any given individual will be dead at a stated time. Men may have some vague and melancholy fancy that they will die at a certain time of life, but the fact very rarely justifies the presentiment. The mariner can calculate his distance from the desired haven, as he nears it from day to day, but no man can compute his distance from the shores of eternity. As ignorant as the fishes are of the net, or as the birds are of the snare, so are men of the time of their capture and destruction by the great enemy.
2. The manner of each man's death is hidden from him. There are many ways to death, but each man is ignorant by which of these he shall go down to the silent house of darkness. It may be suddenly, by some unforeseen accident, or delayed through the slow and painful stages of a wasting sickness. He may die at home, or among strangers in a strange land. He may die upon the great highway of the waters, and sink into the vast sepulchre of the sea. The proverb says, "Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird" (Pro ). The bird is ignorant of the design of such a contrivance; so man, though he may see the snares of death preparing, knows not that they are laid with fatal intent for him. Thus, while there is room left for our actions and our skill to work out their issues, our sovereignty over them is limited. They take themselves at length out of our dominion, and become fashioned to the dictates of a higher will.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecc . The best and most skilfully directed efforts may fail to secure the result aimed at, because they may come into collision with events quite beyond our control.
The fortune of war may be determined by a slight circumstance, altogether unknown and unsuspected, and so the stream of events for a nation may suddenly take a new course. Human history is but a resultant of many forces, of which the power and skill of man is but a part. Hence through the complex system of human life, Providence works out those designs which are above and beyond man.
"Time and chance" are necessary in order to ensure success, even for the most skilful and wise. There must be a suitable season, and a favourable concurrence of circumstances, or else the time will be out of joint and nothing will work.
Superior skill and understanding are naturally fitted to secure the best results of success and prosperity. But who can ensure his health, and yet how much depends upon this?
Chance is a term denoting ignorance, not on God's part, but on ours. It has been happily defined, although by a poet, yet without a poet's fiction,—"direction which we cannot see." The blind Goddess of Fortune is but the creation of a foolish and ungodly fancy. Without our Heavenly Father, "a sparrow falleth not to the ground" [Wardlaw].
The wise man by some unfortunate combination of circumstances may be reduced to want. The man of understanding—the man, for example, most conversant with both the materials and the principles of commerce—may never come to wealth. Unforeseen events may derange his plans, and disappoint his calculations. Unpropitious seasons may blight the produce of his fields. Storms may sink his ships in the deep. His confidence may be betrayed and his property wasted by those in whose hands he has placed it. And while this man of large and cultured intellect may come to old age in comparative poverty, some ignorant and illiterate bore, who started in life alongside of him, may have swelled into a millionaire [Buchanan].
The world worships success, which is, after all, an insufficient and uncertain measure of real worth. Wisdom, and things that accompany it are still an invaluable possession, though they seem to fail.
That there is some kind of Power which baffles the most aptly contrived designs of man must be admitted. It may be regarded as blind and unintelligent, as arbitrary Will, or as Infinite Wisdom working towards righteous ends, though in strange and mysterious ways; each of which views may commend itself according to our religious insight. To the Christian, the highest Power in human affairs is the Divine Mercy (Rom ).
Ecc . We know not the time of those disasters which overturn our schemes and disappoint our hopes; nor do we know the time of that great disaster which shall deprive us of all!
How vain the boast of wealth, or pomp of power—of all that lies outside of us—seeing they are held on the uncertain tenure of life!
The preparations for accomplishing his capture and destruction lie before a man, and he knows it not. Our ignorance of the caprices of disaster and doom bring us into companionship with the lowliest forms of life.
Man's ignorance of the time of his death serves,
1. To place him helplessly in the hands of Providence. Rebellion is vain, and nothing remains for him but loving submission or desperate resignation.
2. To promote the good of society. The knowledge of the hour when life's day closes would paralyse effort.
3. To strengthen the motives for godliness. The time is uncertain, and therefore instant provision should be made for the soul. More exalted and enduring things should engage our affections.
He that by a constant holiness secures the present, and makes it useful to his noblest purposes, turns his condition into his best advantage by making his unavoidable fate become his necessary religion [Jeremy Taylor].
Ecc . This wisdom.] The special instance of the power of wisdom related in the next verse.
Ecc . Few men within it.] Not a city with a scanty population, but one possessing only a few fitting men capable of defending it.
Ecc . One sinner destroyeth much good.] One who is gifted with great physical energy, but destitute of wisdom. The coarsest qualities—the fierce attributes of the wild beast—are sufficient for the work of destruction.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecc
THE WORLD'S BENEFACTORS
The Royal Preacher turns to consider a strange anomaly that too often happens in a thoughtless and ungrateful generation. Men who have been the true workers and deliverers of their time have often been despised and forgotten. The world is ignorant, or guilty of neglect, of its true benefactors. How they work, and with what success, is considered here.
I. Their Instrument. Wisdom is the instrument by which they worked. It was a "wise man" who "delivered the city." (Ecc .) Their words heard in quiet among the contemplative few have proved stronger than the edicts of the most potent rulers, yea even stronger than the power of warlike arms. (Ecc 9:17-18.) They have conferred real and permanent benefits upon their fellow men. For such a purpose, we observe,
1. That wisdom is the most fitting instrument. Man, with many natural disadvantages when compared with the lower forms of life beneath him, still holds his place in nature as the crown and head of all things by his superior knowledge. By means of wisdom, that knowledge is made to act in the direction of the greatest advantage. We may say that this instrument has a natural fitness for performing the truest and most lasting work. The highest natures use it, for "The Lord by wisdom hath founded the earth, by understanding hath He established the heavens." (Pro .) All work produced by other means, however loud and long the triumph, must end in confusion and overthrow. However big and imposing the work of fools, they shall at length be buried in the heaps they raise. Wisdom as an instrument may also be said to have a moral fitness. It tends to injure no one; its pure and just conquests are not stained by crime, and ravage, and slaughter. The tears of the widow and the orphan do not trouble its quiet enjoyment of victory. All true wisdom—whether strictly in the sphere of religion or outside of it—is from above; and coming down to earth pure from its native heaven, bears on the front of it the gifts of peace.
2. That it is the most potent instrument. "Wisdom is better than strength—better than weapons of war." (Ecc ; Ecc 9:18.) All work that is truly great and abiding commences in wise thought. The scheme of it is laid in silence in the utmost recesses of the mind until it assumes shape and substance in the palpable and accomplished fact. The material creation which is the standing illustration of the Divine power is but the Divine thought manifested. Brute force has narrow limits, moving with a constrained motion; but the power of wisdom is large, plentiful in resources, and free. Wisdom is the true director of all forces, without which they are wild, irregular, and destructive. It is the force which has urged humanity on in the upward path of high civilization, refinement, and goodness.
II. The Manner of their Working. In her method and manner of working, there is a style and habit appropriate to wisdom. She wields a quiet power, shunning all noise and loud display. "The words of wise men are heard in quiet." This quality for quietness and sobriety is one of the chief characteristics of the deliverances and of the works of wisdom. All who would learn from her and receive her gifts must possess this quality.
1. Quietness promotes those conditions of mind most favourable to the reception of wisdom. All who enter her school must leave behind them the noise and tumult of petty ambition, boisterous self-assertion, and pride. Fools must either put away these things, or quit her courts. The still small voice of wisdom is only heard amidst the quietness of contemplation. We must enter this kingdom as a little child, with the qualities of teachableness and humility, putting away all positiveness and pride, which are ever noisy and demonstrative.
2. All the conquests of wisdom have been quietly won. Other victories have been prompted by ambition and attained by violence. The victories of wisdom, on the other hand, have been accomplished in those clear and lofty heights of contemplation far above the tumult and strife of human passion. Wisdom, with truth for her possession and substance, has been content to wait till the temporary advantages of error have passed away, and then she has quietly gathered in her spoils.
3. Quietness is the attribute of the greatest natures. The great thinkers of the world who have opened up for us new regions of truth, how quietly and silently they worked! We feel their power still across the ages of time. They seem to "rule our spirits from their urns." The victories of religion over superstition and unbelief have been won by the steady witnessing to the truth, and the patience of suffering. He who came to conquer all hearts, and to lay the foundations of an everlasting kingdom, was distinguished by his quiet manner of working and freedom from desire of display. He did not "strive nor cry," nor was "His voice heard in the streets." This quiet demeanour of wisdom is, in Ecc, shown in contrast with the boisterous manner in which folly is wont to display itself. "The ruler among fools" soon becomes the victim of the virulent contagion of folly, and utters injudicious commands with fierce and noisy circumstance.
III. Their Fate. (Ecc .) There are some exceptions, but the example hero related is a description of the fate of many wise and good men.
1. They are sometimes noticed and obeyed under the pressure of circumstances. In some dangerous crisis or great calamity, the wise man may rise to importance and regard. There are junctures of events in which the most careless and unreflecting men must turn to such for deliverance. When the enemy is at the gates, and the valour of mighty heroes is unavailing, he who can devise some wise project which saves the city, gains that approbation and fame so readily yielded to evident success. There are times when the wise man's wisdom must be valued, even by the most thoughtless, as a precious commodity.
2. They are sometimes the victims of contumely and neglect. When the calamity is overpast, society soon learns to forget those who have served it in the crisis of danger. This fault of ingratitude appears in almost every little social circle, and has a constant illustration in the history of every nation and age. The world too willingly lets the names die of those who have blest it most. Those are not always the best and truest workers whose names stand in the front of history. It will be found that the world's most real benefactors are those who took the most subordinate and retired part. Their work is undying in its effects, but their names have perished from all remembrance but that of God. Many a truly wise and great man has lived to be forgotten and despised. This is a base ingratitude, for it deprives such of their earthly reward. The barriers of wealth and social standing have often served to keep wise men from rising into just regard and fame. This wise man delivered the city; but he was poor, and that was quite sufficient to ensure his being despised.
3. Their work is often ruined. The essential good of their work cannot be destroyed, for it is an imperishable seed, which once having taken hold upon the world, leaves it not. But some of the immediate results of their work—fruits of patient toil and endurance—may be destroyed, which exploit only needs the natural endowments of the most thoughtless and wicked fool. (Ecc .) Physical strength—the power of social station—the boisterous impudence of ignorant and foolish men—may prevail over the wise and ruin his work. It requires but little talent to destroy, for it is within the province of any lusty fool to lay in ruins the labour and skill of years, or to obstruct the progress of some good and great work. From this subject, we learn both the power and the vanity of wisdom. The power, in that it is superior to strength, to numbers, to the voice of mere authority, or to the influence of social rank. It is the prime element in the world's progress—the means of its regeneration. The vanity, in that it often fails, or at best has but a partial victory, through the stubborn and ignorant opposition of men.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecc . It had made a strong impression on his mind. The testimony which it bore to the value and efficacy of wisdom appeared to him to be most remarkable. On one side there was a king, backed by a powerful army, and having at his command, for the capture and destruction of the feebly-garrisoned city he had come to assail, all the arts and appliances of war. On the other side was a solitary individual, of no note or name, without wealth or station, or social influence, having no other strength than that which was derived from his own personal worth, and no other resources than those of a God-fearing, sagacious, and thoughtful spirit [Buchanan].
Wisdom without the advantages of wealth or station, yet securing regard and attention to itself, is so rare a spectacle, that the wise themselves, at the sight of it, may well stand amazed. In a perfect state of society, such a triumph would be too common to be wonderful.
Ecc . There is a baseness in oppression which allows no rights to the defenceless and the weak.
The oppressed have often on their side an unknown and unsuspected power which avails for deliverance, and by which the most confident ambition is defeated.
The "little city" of the Church of God has often been besieged, and the enemy has prepared to celebrate the victory over an extinguished Faith. But the tower of God has ever had brave defenders, strong in wisdom and in the might of goodness.
Ecc . A sudden calamity may serve to redeem the wise from neglect.
When the strong fail to deliver, and rank and authority are of no avail, wise men must be sought for. Such alone are the true defence of states.
That is a foolish and ignoble pride which refuses to acknowledge worth because it is not encrusted by wealth. Yet such is the way of the world,—"Slow rises worth by poverty depressed."
What was it that rescued the nations of the ancient world from the universal heathenism in which they were sunk; from the gross superstitions and multiplied abominations of an all-prevailing idolatry? Not the poetry and literature, not the arts and philosophy, of Greece and Rome, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those humble peasants and fishermen, who issued from the upper chamber of some obscure street of Jerusalem, were the poor wise men who delivered the cities of the ancient world [Buchanan].
The pressure of necessity, or the claims of selfishness, may force admiration for the poor man's wisdom, but such admiration expires before it has time to ripen into gratitude, or attain to the sturdy strength of a principle.
How hard is the condition of poverty, when social prejudice can overwhelm a man whose wisdom it has been compelled to own!
Ecc . The triumphs of wisdom over brute force and the terrible powers of nature, all of which it subdues under the sovereignty of man, are among its first fruits. It has also a surpassing excellence in that it imparts the power to discover and appreciate the order and fitness of things in the universe.
Wisdom is the living and intelligent director of all other forces, without which they can serve no useful end. In our investigation of the powers of nature, we cannot rest in the contemplation of forces and effects. We are bound to go on to mind—the greatest of all. Mind is the producer of all other powers, and therefore superior to them. That which is true, in this regard, of the Highest, is true also of man, under the necessary limitations of his position as a creature.
The more that wisdom spreads, the more human strength is saved, and the more is comfort enhanced. The bird who is about to build her nest next month, will toil as long and work as hard as the sparrows and swallows who frequented the temple in the time of Solomon, and the building will be no improvement on the nest of three thousand years ago. But if Solomon's own palace were to be builded anew, modern skill could rear it much faster than Hiram's masonry, and there are few houses in London which do not contain luxuries and accommodations which were lacking in the "house of the forest of Lebanon." Already a pound of coals and a pint of water will do the work of a sturdy man; and with a week's wages, a mechanic may now procure a library more comprehensive and more edifying than that which adorned the Tusculan villa,—nay, such a store of books as the wealth of Solomon could not command [Dr. J. Hamilton].
It requires but little intellectual sagacity to admire that wisdom which leads to some evident practical result. When self-interest is at stake, the meanest souls can assume a virtue. The steady recognition of wisdom, for her own sake, is only found in answering minds.
The poverty of Jesus, the incarnate Wisdom of God, was sufficient to bring upon Him one of the sharpest trials of His humiliation, which was that of being despised and overlooked.
Ecc . Quiet men—men of calm and dispassionate minds—give heed to the words of wisdom, though noisy fools may disregard them. Also, in quiet times, in the hours of retirement and reflection, when the distractions of the world are shut out, the words of wisdom come back into the mind and sink into the heart. How unlike in this respect to the cry of him that ruleth among fools! Even at the moment it is uttered, his cry may fall powerless upon the thoughtless, ignorant, or impatient crowd to whom it is addressed; and this it may do for no other and better reason, than because it does not suit the fancy or the frenzy of the hour. At any rate, and in any case, its influence is but transitory, its power short-lived [Buchanan].
Folly requires the aid of boisterous acclamation to give it the semblance of greatness. Wisdom is content with quiet and retired ways, there to meet her disciples and unfold her treasures. Disdaining the Pharisees device, she sounds no trumpet, but calm as the depths of heaven, speaks to contemplation the everlasting language of truth.
How soon the fame of those who have made the greatest noise and display passes away! It is easily blown up to the bubble reputation, but soon to burst most unprofitably. Time clears away all illusions and lays bare the solidities of truth.
The wise man may speak to an audience fit, though few; but his audience will increase through the ages, and his words receive obedience and recognition.
The mariner who guides his ship upon the trackless ocean with safety and expedition accomplishes this by the aid of principles which were discovered by Grecian geometers ages ago. The words of these quiet thinkers were heard and understood by few, but without them the greatest development of commerce and civilisation would be impossible.
The true rulers of the world, of lasting sovereignty, are those who guide the intellects and souls of men. They have been faithful over a few things, and have thus been made rulers over many cities.
Ecc . War wounds, but wisdom heals. War overturns, but it is wisdom that builds up and restores. War is the hurricane that sinks the ship; wisdom is the favouring breeze that wafts it to the desired haven. War is the torrent that furrows the earth, and sweeps its soil into the sea; wisdom droppeth softly, like the rain or the gentle dew from heaven, to refresh the thirsty ground and to bless the springing thereof. In a word, war and all its weapons belong to the bloody brood of him who was a murderer from the beginning; wisdom is the attribute and gift of Him who came to bring peace on earth, goodwill to men, and glory to God in the highest [Buchanan].
The continued existence of war in the midst of material and intellectual progress is a proof that the world is yet far from wisdom. The reign of force can never knit humanity into a true brotherhood. The Christian religion, which is the highest style of wisdom, is the only strong power, against which all else contends in vain.
The ambition of one man may plunge nations into deadly warfare. The heresies of one man may divide the Church, weaken her influence, and provoke the rage of an irritating controversy. One slanderous tongue can slay many reputations, and work mischiefs which are but ill-repaired by time.
The ways in which one sinner may destroy much good are as numerous as the forms of evil itself. But there is a bad and even a worse eminence in sin. The greater the power abused, the more terrible and far-reaching the consequences. Hence he who writes a book that unsettles the foundations of faith in the soul of man, or robs him of his immortal hope, propagates a mischief far beyond his own working-day in life, and verily keeps his sad account and reckoning with eternity still open.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 9". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany