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Bible Commentaries

Sermon Bible Commentary

Ecclesiastes 9

Verse 1

Ecclesiastes 9:1

This is the sober second thought of a wise man who has been sorely troubled in his mind by dwelling on the mysteries of Providence. His first hasty conclusion is one which is too often drawn from such observations; viz., that, inasmuch as Providence shows no special favour to the works of the righteous, it is scarcely worth one's while to trouble one's self about them. What is the use of flying so high and missing everything, when one might at least take life easy while it lasts, and enjoy its pleasures while he may? But though a doubter and sorely perplexed for the moment, he is no infidel. So long as he believes in God there is hope for him. The dark thoughts he has been thinking have all been connected with man and his work in time, the very best of which seems so often to come to such a lamentable end. But the darkness begins to disappear as soon as he allows his mind to rest on the thought of God and of His work in eternity, the end of which no man can see. Thus is the way prepared for that calm confidence expressed in the words before us.

I. The first thought suggested is the negative one that "the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God," and therefore withdrawn from the sight of men. It is of great importance for our peace of mind firmly to grasp the thought that we cannot at all infer what God thinks or intends concerning any person or his works from the outward circumstances we observe.

II. But there is a positive truth also in the words of the text—"The righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God"—not only in the sense that they are withdrawn from the sight of men, but in this far better sense: that they are safe. Being in the hand of God, they are in the best hand. The Lord knoweth them that are His; and is not that enough, though the onlooker from this side knoweth not?

III. Are you and your works in the hand of God? We know on the best authority that a man may belong to the righteous and not to the wise; he may himself be saved and yet his work be lost. Our work, as well as ourselves, must be built on Christ.

J. Monro Gibson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xx., p. 211

References: Ecclesiastes 9:1-10.—R. Buchanan, Ecclesiastes: its Meaning and Lessons, p. 322; T. C. Finlayson, A Practical Exposition of Ecclesiastes, p. 199. Ecclesiastes 9:3.—G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 64.

Verse 4

Ecclesiastes 9:4

The lesson of the Preacher is an old one. While there is life there is hope, and only while there is life. Let us be up and doing, for the night cometh, in which no man can work. Our actual opportunities, small and trifling though they may seem, are, simply because they are still in our power, infinitely more valuable than even the greatest and noblest when once these have slipped from our grasp for ever. Consider the truth that in all things admitting of the distinction, things that can be said to be living and to be dead, it is life which gives the value, it is the earnestness and truth which underlie all real vital power that alone give significance and redeem from worthlessness; and that unless the angel be there to stir the waters, even the pool of Bethesda is but a stagnant pool, powerless and disappointing. It is thus both in nature and also in man, in the outer world which attracts and engages the senses and in the inner world of soul and spirit. It is the fresh life in both that we value, and justly.

I. The acquisition of knowledge—who that has not learnt it by experience can conceive its seductive charm for the student? Those misers of knowledge who have so devoted themselves to acquire that they have never learnt how to impart, nor even to arrange their own treasures for use, are but as children in comparison with those who in the cultivation of their intellect have never forgotten that, as living men, they must cultivate also the power of communicating their living thought to others. The fresh life is there, and men acknowledge its value.

II. Even so is it with preaching. If a man will speak to my heart, he must not content himself with old forms of thought, however sacred, and the repetition of familiar, uncontested truths, however solemn. Let the preacher bring forth from his treasure-house things new as well as old.

III. So, too, is it, remarkably, with prayer. What the stricken heart requires is not merely the general prayer, however noble and solemn in itself, but that the soul of him that prays shall come forth to meet its own, shall throw itself into its feelings, and with fresh prayer—prayer fresh from the living fountain of the heart—shall ascend in few but earnest words to the throne of all grace.

IV. Is it not thus also in the world of thought and of opinion? If the tree of knowledge is to live, must we not expect that in time what is dead must be pushed off by living growth? Let us cling to that which is living and true, though only so long as its life and truth continue.

T. H. Steel, Sermons in Harrow Chapel, p. 144.

References: Ecclesiastes 9:4.—A. J. Bray, Christian World Pulpit, vol. iv., p. 17; F. Hastings, Ibid., vol. xxx., p. 107. Ecclesiastes 9:7.—Contemporary Pulpit, vol. v., p. 312.

Verses 7-8

Ecclesiastes 9:7-8

I. This is one of those passages, so remarkable in the writings of Solomon, in which the words of sinful men in the world are taken up by the Holy Ghost, to be applied in a Christian sense. As they stand in Ecclesiastes, it seems very plain that they are intended to represent the sayings and thoughts of sensual, careless people, indulging themselves in their profane ways, their utter neglect of God and goodness, with the notion that this world is all. But see the ever-watchful goodness and mercy of God. The words which the dissolute, wild-hearted sinner uses to encourage himself in his evil, inconsiderate ways He teaches us to take up, and use them in a very different sense: to express the inward joy and comfort which God's people may find in obeying Him. They are God's gracious word of permission to those who fear Him, encouraging them to enjoy with innocence, moderation, and thankfulness the daily comforts and reliefs with which He so plentifully supplies them even in this imperfect world.

II. If Christians were at all such as they ought to be, these words might be well and profitably understood with a particular reference to this sacred season of Whitsuntide. This time is the last of the holy seasons; it represents to us the full completion of God's unspeakable plan for the salvation of the world. Supposing, then, any humble, faithful Christian to have rightly kept the former holy seasons, may we not without presumption imagine him to hear the voice of his approving conscience, the certain yet silent whispers of the Holy Comforter in his heart, "Go thy way now; receive the fulness of the blessing of these sacred days, which thou hast so dutifully tried to observe "?

III. "Let thy garments be always white, and let thy head lack no ointment." (1) This would be felt by the Christians of ancient times as peculiarly suitable to the holy season of Whitsuntide. For that was one of the solemn times of baptizing, and the newly-baptized were always clothed in white. To say, therefore, to Christians at Whitsuntide, "Let thy garments be always white," was the same as saying, "Take care that at no time you stain or sully the bright and clear robe of your Saviour's righteousness." (2) Oil is in Scripture the constant token of the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit. Therefore to say, "Let thy head lack no ointment," would mean, "Take care that thou stir up, cherish, and improve the unspeakable gift of which thou art now made partaker. Use diligently all the means of grace which Christ has provided for thee in His kingdom, whereof thou art now come to be an inheritor."

Plain Sermons by Contributors to "Tracts for the Times," vol. vi., p. 117.

References: Ecclesiastes 9:7, Ecclesiastes 9:8.—J. Keble, Sermons from Ascension Day to Trinity Sunday, p. 315. Ecclesiastes 9:8.—Outline Sermons to Children, p. 85.

Verse 10

Ecclesiastes 9:10

What, then, is the work which we are placed here to do? Our work is to prepare for eternity. This brief, busy, passing life is the time of our probation, our trial whether we will be God's or not, and consequently whether we are to dwell with Him or be separated from Him for ever. The great work we have to do is to serve God, which is, at the same time, to obtain the most real and stable enjoyment of which we are capable here and secure everlasting happiness hereafter. In one word, our great work is religion—our duty to God and man.

I. Take the duty of prayer, without which the life of religion droops and dies. Every day we have this to do. Do we do it with our might? Let us remember how important the duty is, and that they who are going to the grave, where there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, cannot afford to waste one day—it may be their last—the privilege of seeking the pardon and the grace without which their soul must die.

II. And so, too, of reading and hearing God's word. What a listless, spiritless thing is the study of the Bible to many of us! We open it unwillingly, as a task, not a privilege; we would rather read other books. Let us read and hear the Scriptures as the voice of God speaking to us and teaching us His will and the way of our salvation. The Bible can never be a dull book to those who, whatever their hand findeth to do, do it with their might.

III. Consider the life within—the contest that is going on in every Christian's breast with the remains of his corrupt nature. How have you been waging this contest? We must fight the good fight, or we cannot receive the crown. We must take up the daily cross of the inner man, or we cannot be Christ's disciples. And therefore let us do it with our might.

IV. Let us ask whether we have done good to others as we ought. How very few ever take any trouble, make any sacrifice, use any personal exertion, for the temporal or spiritual good of others! "Whatsoever our hand findeth to do, let us do it with our might."

J. Jackson, Penny Pulpit, No. 692.

What the text bids us carry into life is, in one word, animation. Do all things with animation. As the old poet sang, "Let not your own kingdoms drowse in leaden dulness."

I. We hear it said sometimes that even wrong things done with energy give more hope of a character than goodness pursued without interest. This is of course not true; we can do no harm, however slight, without corrupting ourselves more than by the feeblest goodness. But that the thought should ever be expressed, and occur to one, as it sometimes will, when we pity the wretchedness of life without passion, is a witness of the unbounded power of animation within us and in the sphere of our action.

II. If ever you see the spirit of the world incarnate in one man, that man will tell you enthusiasm is a mistake. He would sum up for you the experiences of his life by telling you to dismiss zeal. It is the way to reach unscrupulous eminence for the individual, and it is the way to lay society in ashes. Not the evildoer himself does so much to destroy the relief, and the relative value, and the natural colouring of truth and of knowledge.

III. It you own the power of animation in other things, carry it energetically into the highest of all human acts: endeavour to be earnest and animated in your prayers to God. Let us try to be animated in prayer, and we shall be animated in life, and other lives will be the better for it. We cannot tell how, we cannot see the mystery, but we know that the life of God would flow down into us, and then from us, and would inspire and fill the life of man.

Archbishop Benson, Boy Life: Sundays in Wellington College, p. 103.

I. Consider in what the danger consists against which we are here put on our guard. It appears upon the calmest consideration that the business of this world, even that which is most important and most necessary, considered only in itself and as belonging to this world, is in fact of small consequence, perhaps one might say, of none at all. Why, then, it may be asked, do people trouble themselves so much as they do about this world's goods, of which they must be of necessity soon deprived? The answer must be, Because, however sure it may be that they must be so soon deprived of these things, yet they do not think it sure; the hour of death, always uncertain, may be distant: and because it may be distant, we take for granted it must be. The best of us surely will confess that they have by no means done their duty "with all their might," but faintly, imperfectly, and indolently, as if they should have an opportunity for work, and device, and knowledge, and wisdom in the grave, whither they are going.

II. "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.' Does not this plainly imply that we are expected to be very exact and particular about our behaviour hour after hour; in other words, that we are to be careful not merely to be doing right, but to be doing it with zeal, heartiness, and sincerity, and not as if we thought that God cared not how we served Him?

III. In the control and management of our tempers, especially under trying circumstances, the sacred word is addressed to us.

IV. Carelessness about religious truth is a sign of want of love for God. No person can be indifferent about such a subject without great danger. To this also the heavenly warning seems to be especially applicable. Think no labour or cost too great by which you may find out where the truth lies, and by what means you may be preserved in it steadfast to the end.

Plain Sermons by Contributors to the "Tracts for the Times," vol. i, p. 53.

The text divides itself into three heads:—

I. What we are to do. The Preacher says, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it." No one will be excused for remaining idle through life, for there are some things which our hand "findeth to do" in every stage of life. Unity of purpose and design is a great secret of success. Another, scarcely of less importance, is patience. If we are to imitate our Lord in His activity when once entered upon His ministry, we are bound no less to imitate Him in His repose, in that calm attitude which belongs to conscious strength, and to avoid that restless, bustling activity which seeks to do work which our hand does not find, which labours at the wrong time, and therefore without effect. There is no true greatness in man where this patience is wanting.

II. How we are to do it. The text says, "Do it with thy might." Whatever may be our powers, be they great or small, they are to be exerted to the full. All labour is useless wherein the hand alone works. Every work needs attention. It may call for the exercise of very few faculties of the mind, but these cannot be dispensed with.

III. Consider the reason. Why are we to do it? "For there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest." Succeeding periods are the graves of the past. You use your time or you waste it; you come out of a trial stronger or feebler; habits of industry or indolence are strengthened according as you do the work your hand finds to do or neglect it.

G. Butler, Sermons in Cheltenham College Chapel, p. 103.

(with Colossians 3:23)

Today I would speak of our daily business; and I have chosen two texts because in them we see, compared and contrasted, the teachings on this subject, first, of the philosophy which, for the moment at any rate, is confined to this life, and, next, of the Gospel of Him who holds the keys of this world and of the next. How infinite is the contrast between the cheerful and hopeful spirit of the second text and the earnest sadness of the book of Ecclesiastes.

I. The business of life is not regarded as that which our hand simply "finds to do" by chance or by choice. It is that in which we "serve the Lord"—that which He has set us to do, and for which He will give us the reward. St. Paul elsewhere speaks of men as being "fellow-workers with God" in carrying out the eternal law of that dispensation which He has been pleased to ordain in relation to His creatures. All of us, whether we know it or not, in some sense whether we will or not, "serve the Lord."

II. When we speak of the Lord here, we evidently mean the Lord Jesus Christ, not merely God, but God made man, Himself at once the Lord of lords and the chief of servants. The Lord whom we serve is not One who says simply, "Believe in Me and obey Me," but One who says, "Follow Me." There is a peculiar instructiveness and beauty in the very fact that for many years of His earthly life, in humble preparation for His higher ministry, our Lord Himself was pleased to have an occupation or business, and help, we must suppose, to win the bread of the carpenter's home in Nazareth.

III. Christianity neither forbids nor discourages business. But what it must do is to give to it greater purity, greater energy, greater peace, greater harmony with the growth in us of a true humanity.

Bishop Barry, Sermons at Westminster Abbey, p. 35.

I. "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do." The warning is not addressed to utter idlers, to that "sluggard" who is so often the object of the wise king's almost contemptuous admonition. It assumes that men have found something to do, some real interest. It urges them to carry out this in good earnest, to throw themselves into it, to put their heart into it.

II. The temptation for us all, young or old, is not to throw our heart into our work, not to do it "with our might." (1) There is the temptation to think that it does not after all very much matter; that, do what we will, all will be much the same as it has hitherto continued. Solomon felt these benumbing influences with a force which a smaller nature could not have felt, and yet he could deliberately urge as the result of his experience, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." (2) We think that we are not well fitted for that work which our hand has been compelled to find to do. All that God requires is that we should do our best. He does not need our works; but He does need—let us reverently say it—that we should do our best in every work with which our hands are busied. (3) If we ask ourselves why it is that we are in general so little in earnest in our work, conscience at once replies that it is because we allow some trifle to distract our thoughts.

III. Think what would be the case if we did with our might whatever our hand found to do. The might of the weakest is so marvellously strong. It is the sustained, hearty effort which leads to great results.

IV. The maxim of Solomon is based upon a melancholy motive. The Christian has a happier motive for exertion; but from one motive or another, exertion, sustained and hearty, must be forthcoming. (1) With thy might, because the time is short, because the night cometh, when no man can work. (2) With thy might, because the Lord Jesus is looking on, and smiling approval on, every earnest, humble effort. (3) With thy might, because the harvest is infinite, and the labourers are miserably few. (4) With thy might, because the Lord of the harvest condescends to expect much even from thee.

H. M. Butler, Harrow Sermons, p. 398.

The substance of these texts is the duty of earnest and hearty working, the duty of doing with all our might and with all our heart whatever work God lays to our hand. It has to do with:—

I. School-work. There is no way of being a scholar but by working for it. It is harder for some than for others, but in every case it is work. In the case of young people it is peculiarly the work which "their hand findeth to do"—the work which God gives them, as His work as well as theirs. Regarding this school-work, the command is, "Do it with thy might."

II. Home-work. This runs alongside of the other. The home-work is an important part of the training for after-life. Here, too, the right-hearted will recognise the duty, "Do it heartily, as unto the Lord."

III. Business-work. When school-days are over, we are in the habit of speaking of "beginning to work." Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well; and however humble the work is, it is each one's duty to do it as well as it can be done. It is often when people are busy at their work that the Lord comes to them in the way of blessing.

IV. Soul-work. This is rather a work to be wrought for us than by us. But then we must be in earnest about it. Here again the Lord says, "Do it with thy might."

V. Christian work. What is required of us is just that we should do what we can. The question whether that be little or much need not concern us.

J. H. Wilson, The Gospel and its Fruits, p. 289.

References: Ecclesiastes 9:10.—Plain Sermons by Contributors to "Tracts for the Times" vol. i., p. 62, and vol. v., p. 1; Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. v., No. 259, and vol. xix., No. 1119; Ibid., Morning by Morning, p. 331; J. H. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. vii., p. 1; H. Thompson, Concionalia: Outlines of Sermons for Parochial Use, 2nd series, p. 192; H. W. Beecher, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xi., p. 5, and vol. xxiii., p. 4; J. Kelly, Ibid., vol. xviii., p. 6; J. B. Heard, Ibid., vol. xix., p. 120; Canon Barry, Ibid., vol. xx., p. 216.

Verse 11

Ecclesiastes 9:11

I. Life reigns in all the worlds, however powerful the hindrances to life at times may be. The real work of the world is not done by the swift or the strong, but by the multitudinous, universal push of humble, irrepressible life. Light and sunbeams, and rain and dews, call gently to the hidden life; and life, shy and tender, peeps forth at the call, and comes out conquering and irresistible, clothing with grass a thousand hills, making hill and plain alike to live. "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong."

II. And is this truth less true in the world of men? That world also has its armies, its philosophies, its powers that shake and destroy, great to hear and great to see. But the violent passions, the famous outbreaks, the upheavals—what do they do? They shatter the nations; they break in fragments, it may be, half a world; a fear comes on mankind, and many fall down and worship. But wait a little, wait, and all is still: and ruined homes, and graves, and barren lands are all that is left of the glory and the noise, till by degrees life comes back, now here, now there, a little tentative shoot, as it were, a stir, a movement; a delicate tendril of loving work revives; a patch begins to be cultivated; and by degrees a new creation rises, a subtle web of woven life veils and covers the rents, and ruins, and sharpnesses, and sorrows, and crimes that witness to destroying force, and life is lord of all again, for "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong."

III. This parable leads us step by step to Him the King of life, Christ Jesus. His life alone was the one only almightiness which by living and being sacrificed re-created a lost world. For "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong." In the midst of conquering armies, imperial pomp, wealth, majesty, kings, and throngs of men, a little Infant in a manger is life. Life, conquering, supreme, Divine, was on earth as a Babe, as a Child, as a lonely Man. And we have a sure faith that nothing living, truly living, ever dies. We know in Christ that there is a life here which is of Christ and will not die.

E. Thring, Uppingham Sermons, vol. i., p. 138:

References: Ecclesiastes 9:11-18.—R. Buchanan, Ecclesiastes: its Meaning and Lessons, p. 344; T. C. Finlayson, A Practical Exposition of Ecclesiastes, p. 213.

Verse 12

Ecclesiastes 9:12

I. There are many cases in which to our weak eyes the love of God is apparently most questionable, in which men and women seem absolutely abandoned to tyrannous circumstances, to the wicked wills of others, to their own weakness, without a grain of help being afforded them. This is one of the torturing religious problems; and though I believe there is an answer to it, I do not say that we have found it yet. Some light may be thrown on the matter when we think of a Divine Father of men, revealed as the Redeemer in Jesus Christ of the whole race from evil. Only we must add to the ordinary theological conception the assertion that the fate of no one is decided in this world, that our short space of thirty or sixty years is but a moment in the long education which God is giving to every soul, and that the end of that education is inevitable good, never inevitable evil. If that be true, we can look with some hope upon the problem of these victims.

II. But on the whole the cases in which we can clearly say men and women are victims are exceptional ones, and the wisest thing to do is never in practical life to assume that any are victims. That they exist is plain; but we have no right to say to any one till his death that he cannot get rid of weakness, much less to assume that we cannot do so ourselves. Our tendency, indeed, is to give way, to throw the reins on the neck of our fancies, our passions, and our appetites, and let them carry us where they will; but the very definition of a man is one who is born to subdue the tendency to give way to every impulse, and to make his qualities tend towards right and noble things. Not to strive to fulfil this is to cease to be a man. Our true life is found in resistance in its pain, and afterwards in its sublime and victorious joy.

S. A. Brooke, Sermons, 2nd series, p. 178.

Reference: Ecclesiastes 9:13-18.—J. Hamilton, The Royal Preacher, p. 181.

Verses 14-18

Ecclesiastes 9:14-18

I. The little city. At first sight it may seem rather paradoxical to compare this great world of ours, with its almost innumerable inhabitants, its vast area, its enormous resources, to the little city with few men within it. But do we not, comparatively speaking, take too exalted a view of this little world? For relatively little it is after all, but an insignificant fraction of God's great universe. We know nothing of the circumstances to which the little city owed its danger—it may or may not have been its own fault—but we do know the cause of the peril in which the human family has been involved, and that the blame lies entirely with ourselves. We have forced God into the position of a foe, although He is in His heart our best and truest Friend.

II. The great king. Whom are we to see represented by the great king—an angry God about to inflict judgment or a malignant spirit of evil assailing the human heart with his temptations? The sad and terrible truth is that we need not be at any pains to answer this question, for in one point God and Satan are at one, and that is in the recognition of the demands of justice against the sinner. Satan, from this point of view, is but the executioner of the Divine decree, and obtains his power over us in virtue of the sanctions of the broken Law. Satan is only to be feared when his assaults are backed by the law of God.

III. The poor wise man. Our Wise Man, Himself the innocent, offered Himself, with a wisdom which was the child of love, that the guilt of our city might first be imputed to Him the innocent, and that His innocence might be imputed to our city, so that by His voluntary self-sacrifice one man might die for the city, and the city itself might be safe.

W. Hay Aitken, Newness of Life, p. 72.

References: Ecclesiastes 9:14, Ecclesiastes 9:15.—S. Baring-Gould, One Hundred Sermon Sketches, p. 95. Ecclesiastes 9:18.—Homiletic Quarterly, vol. ii., p. 538; New Manual of Sunday-school Addresses, p. 47. 9—C. Bridges, An Exposition of Ecclesiastes, p. 211. Ecclesiastes 10:1.—S. Baring-Gould, One Hundred Sermon Sketches, p. 10; J. Hamilton, The Royal Preacher, p. 169. Ecclesiastes 10:1-20.—R. Buchanan, Ecclesiastes: its Meaning and Lessons, p. 363. Ecclesiastes 10:7.—Spurgeon, Morning by Morning, p. 140. Ecclesiastes 10:8.—G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 345; H. Wonnacott, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xxvii., p. 90. Ecclesiastes 10:9.—Spurgeon, Evening by Evening, p. 324.

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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 9". "Sermon Bible Commentary".