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Bible Commentaries

Simeon's Horae Homileticae

Ecclesiastes 1

Verse 2

DISCOURSE: 827
THE VANITY OF THE CREATURE

Ecclesiastes 1:2. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

IF experience entitles a man to credit, and gives weight to his testimony, we derive great advantage as to the credibility of the inspired writings: for respecting much of which the Prophets and Apostles wrote, they could say, “What mine eyes have seen, mine ears have heard, and my hands have handled of the word of life, that same declare I unto you.” And if this be an advantage in reference to the excellency of religion, it may well be regarded as of some importance in reference also to the vanity of all earthly pursuits. That there should have been a man possessed of such abundant means of gratification as Solomon was, and so ardent in the pursuit of it in every possible line, and at the same time so faithful in declaring his own experience in relation to it all, must be considered as an advantage to all subsequent generations, who should hear and receive his testimony respecting the things which he had so fully tried, and so invariably proved to be vanity itself. The words before us express a conviction that admitted not of doubt, and a decision that left no room for controversy. “The Preacher” who uttered them was inspired of God, at the same time that he recorded what, from personal knowledge, he was qualified to declare. And in considering his testimony, I shall,

I.

Confirm it—

The things of which he spake were, all that the world contains; its grosser and more common pursuits of pleasure, riches, and honour, as also its more refined attainments of wisdom and knowledge. And all of them, without exception, are vanity;

1.

In their acquisition—

[It is not without great labour and toil that earthly distinctions are obtained. The merchant, the warrior, the philosopher will bear record, that in their respective pursuits they have endured much fatigue, and many disappointments; insomuch that to one whose taste was different from theirs, they would appear to have paid too dear a price for all that they have gained.]

2.

In their use—

[Suppose that the labours of any person have been crowned with success; What, after all, has he gained? He thought he was following something substantial: but, to his mortification, he finds that he has grasped a shadow. He has “hewn out cisterns” for himself, indeed, with great labour; but he finds, after all, that they are “broken cisterns, which can hold no water.” At the first moment, whilst the charm of novelty is upon them, the various objects we have attained afford a pleasing gratification to the mind: but scarcely have they been enjoyed a few days, before they lose their sweetness, and descend into the common routine of earthly comforts. The man who rolls in wealth, and he who is dignified with high-sounding titles, is soon brought to a level with his inferiors in point of actual enjoyment: and even he who has acquired knowledge, finds, that, “in having increased knowledge, he has also increased sorrow [Note: ver. 18.];” because of the envy which his eminence has excited, and the uncertainty of much which he thinks he has attained.]

3.

In their continuance—

[What is there of which a man may not be despoiled? Pleasure may, in a very little time, be turned into pain: honour may speedily be blasted by some unforeseen event: “riches make themselves wings, and fly away:” and through disease or accident, even reason itself, with all its highest attainments, may sink into more than infantine weakness and infirmity. But grant to these things all that the most sanguine imagination can impute, how soon do they vanish away! Even life itself is but as a hand-breadth, or as a shadow that declineth: and the moment that death comes, “all our thoughts perish,” and we “go out of the world as naked and as destitute as we came into it.”]

4.

In their issue—

[Here it is that the vanity of earthly things pre-eminently appears. For in what respect can they advance our eternal happiness? Would to God that they did not so generally and so fatally obstruct it! Truly, “neither riches nor honours can profit us in the day of wrath.” With our holy and heavenly Judge “there is no respect of persons.” The rich and the poor will be dealt with according to one equal law: only the rich, and the great, and the learned, will be called to a more severe account in proportion to the influence they possessed, and the advantages they neglected to improve.]
But as the testimony is unquestionably strong, I shall,

II.

Qualify it—

Beyond all doubt, the Scriptures generally contain the same language: “Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: to be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity [Note: Psalms 62:9.].” But stronger still is the language of the Psalmist in another place, where he says, “Verily every man, at his best estate, is altogether vanity [Note: Psalms 39:5.].” Consider how strong and how unqualified these expressions are, and you will not expect me to say much in mitigation of them. Yet I must say, that the vanity of the creature, though the same in itself, is differently felt,

1.

According to our mode of acting in reference to it—

[If we give ourselves up to creature comforts, we shall be dreadfully disappointed — — — But if we enjoy them in subserviency to God, and in subordination to higher pursuits, we shall not find them so empty as may be imagined. For God has “given to his people all things richly to enjoy:” and provided only we enjoy God in them, they are both a legitimate and an abundant spring of pure delight. For, whilst we derive from them the happiness which they are calculated to impart, we taste not the bitterness which is infused into the cup of the mere worldling. Our enjoyments are elevated and sanctified; our pains, moderated and changed into an occasion of praise and thanksgiving. Only let them be sought in their proper place, and they are comforts in the way to heaven, though they can never stand to us in the place of heaven.]

2.

According to the degree in which we blend religion with it—

[Religion raises us above the creature altogether. If we have much of this world, we shall have a high enjoyment of it, because we shall make it the means of benefiting our fellow-creatures, and of honouring our God. If, on the other hand, we have little of this world, we shall still be happy: because, in having God for our portion, we can lack nothing. There are but two lessons for the Christian to learn: the one is, to enjoy God in every thing; the other is, to enjoy every thing in God. The one ennobles the rich; the other elevates the poor: and all who have learned these lessons are, and must be, happy.
Whilst, therefore, I grant the general position, that the creature is vanity, I must say, that the experience of its vanity, depends altogether on our undue pursuit of it and expectations from it. Let us only take it in the manner that God approves, and for the ends for which he has sent it, and we shall still find it, like Jacob’s ladder, unsubstantial indeed it itself, but still a medium of communication between heaven and earth; a medium of God’s descent to us, and of our ascent to him.]
But, in our consideration of this testimony, let us further,

III.

Improve it—

Much, very much, may it teach us. We may learn from it to be,

1.

Moderate in our expectations—

[If we will foolishly look for that in the creature which God never designed to be put into it, we may well expect disappointment. Even in Paradise it was not intended to stand in the place of God, or to be to us any source of solid satisfaction: how much less, then, can it be so, when sin has infused a curse into it: agreeably to what is written, “Cursed is the ground for thy sake.” Let us estimate it aright, and expect from it no more than God has ordained it to impart: and we shall prove but little of its emptiness, whilst we have a rich and becoming enjoyment of it. The direction of St. Paul is that which comes immediately to the point, and exactly suits the present occasion: “The time is short. It remaineth that both they that have wives be as though they had none: and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoice not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as not abusing it. For the fashion of this world passeth away [Note: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31.].” Only use the creature in this way, and you will find it no injury to your souls.]

2.

Patient in our trials—

[Trials of different kinds must come: for “the whole creation has, through the sin of man, become subject to vanity.” But, in our present state, this is in reality a benefit; for, if it were not so, we should be ready to take up our rest in this world, instead of seeking “that which remaineth for us” in the world to come. Troubles serve to bring us nigh to God for the supports and consolations which we stand in need of. And shall we complain of that which brings us near to him, and proves an occasion of richer communications from him? No, verily: we should taste love, and love only, in our diversified afflictions; and look to God as sending them “for our profit, that by means of them we may be made partakers of his holiness,” and meet for his glory.]

3.

Diligent in our pursuit of better things—

[In heavenly things there are no drawbacks, except those which are caused by our own defects in seeking after them. There is no vanity in love to God, or love to man: and the more we labour after them, and delight ourselves in them, the happier we shall be. Could we but give ourselves wholly to these things, we should find in them a very heaven upon earth. To every one of you, then, I would recommend that prayer of David, “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity, and quicken thou me in thy way [Note: Psalms 119:37.].”]


Verses 14-15

DISCOURSE: 828
THE CREATURE IS VANITY AND VEXATION

Ecclesiastes 1:14-15. I have seen all the works which are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. That which is crooked cannot be made straight; and that which is wanting, cannot be numbered.

THE Book of Ecclesiastes is generally supposed to have been written by Solomon, after he had repented of his manifold transgressions: and it is pleasing to view it in this light: for, if it be not so, we have no record whatever of his penitence. But in this view its declarations are doubly interesting: as inspired by God, they are of Divine authority; and, as resulting from actual experience, they carry a much deeper conviction with them to our minds. Had one of the fishermen of Galilee spoken so strongly respecting the vanity of the world, we might have said that he had never had any opportunity of knowing experimentally what attractions the world possessed: but Solomon had an ampler range for enjoyment than any other human being. As a king, he had the wealth of a nation at his command. As endued with a greater measure of wisdom than all other men, he could combine all kinds of intellectual pleasure with that which was merely sensual. As having a peaceful reign, he was free from all the alarms and disquietudes of war, and able to prosecute pleasure as the one object of his life. Every species of gratification being thus easily within his reach, he was amply qualified to judge of what the world could give: and yet, after having made the experiment, and “seen all the works that are done under the sun,” he pronounced them all to be “vanity and vexation of spirit.”
Two things in our text are to be noticed;

I.

The general assertion—

Never was any truth more capable of demonstration than this, that the world, and every thing in it, is,

1.

Vanity—

[If we view the creature in itself, what a poor worthless thing is it! Take gold, for instance: much as it is in request, it has in itself no value: the value put on it is merely arbitrary, arising not so much from its usefulness to us, as from the scarcity of it. Iron is of infinitely greater service to mankind than gold: and would be more valued by us, if it did not happen that it is to be found in much larger quantities than gold. So it is with jewels: the value of them is quite ideal: in themselves they are of no more use than common pebbles: and he who possesses them in the greatest abundance, is in reality no richer than if he possessed so much gravel out of the pit.
Nor is any thing that wealth can purchase, or any thing that is associated with it, worthy of any better name than vanity. What are high-sounding titles, but a mere sound that has its value only in the estimation of men; and that, by a change of its acceptation (such as not uncommonly takes place in language, as, for instance, in the term Despot), may convey the most painful feelings, instead of such as are agreeable to the mind? We may ask the same in reference to pleasure: What is it? Let but a very small change take place in the circumstances of the person, and the pleasure shall become a pain. Or let it be enjoyed in all its fulness; whom did it ever satisfy? To whom did it ever impart any permanent delight? The more exquisite it is, the sooner does it cloy; insomuch that we are soon forced to flee from it through very lassitude and disgust, And a recurrence to the same sources of gratification is far from producing the same emotions in the soul: by use and habit we become indifferent to the very things which once we most ardently affected; so poor, so empty, so transient is all that passes under the semblance and the name of pleasure.
We may say therefore of “all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life,” that it is not only vain, but “vanity” in the abstract: “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity [Note: ver. 2.].”]

2.

Vexation of spirit—

[So far is the creature from affording any real happiness, that it is an occasion of constant vexation to the mind. The pursuit of earthly things is attended with much labour, and with much uncertainty also as to the attainment of them. When attained, they excite nothing but envy in others, and disquietude in ourselves. By reason of the casualties to which the possession of them exposes us, we are filled with care; insomuch, that those who only behold our acquisitions, often derive more pleasure from them than we who are the owners of them. Besides, the more we have attained, the more our desires are enlarged after something unpossessed; so that our labours are never at an end: and the pain issuing from a single disappointment frequently outweighs the pleasure arising from manifold successes. Indeed, the things from which we promise ourselves most pleasure, generally become, by some means or other, the sources of our keenest anguish; and our most sanguine expectations usually terminate in the bitterest disappointment: yea, it not unfrequently happens, that after having attained the object of our wishes, we welcome the period of our separation from it, and bless ourselves more in the loss of it, than ever we did in the acquisition.
Say then whether Solomon’s testimony be not strictly true. Young people, when they hear such a sentiment avowed, are ready to think it an effusion of spleen, and a libel on the whole creation: but this testimony is the very truth of God, and shall sooner or later be found true in the experience of every living man: the world, and every thing in it, is a broken cistern, that disappoints the hopes of the thirsty traveller, and becomes to him, not only vanity, but “vexation of spirit:” and he that has most sought to satisfy himself with it, finds after all his labours, that he has only “filled his belly with the east wind [Note: Job 15:2.].”]

Such is the import of the general assertion. We now proceed to notice,

II.

The particular confirmation of it—

Two things are here specified by Solomon, as strongly illustrating the foregoing truth: namely, that, however much we may exert ourselves,

1.

We cannot alter that which is unfavourable—

[Every man, by the very constitution of his nature, is dependent on his fellow-man for the greater portion of his happiness. The welfare of a whole empire depends on the wisdom and prudence of the prince: as the prince’s prosperity and comfort do on the industry, the fortitude, the loyalty of his people. So it is through all ranks and orders of society; all are deeply affected by the conduct of those around them. In the domestic circle, how impossible is it for the husband or wife, the parent or child, the master or servant, to be happy, if those with whom he is more immediately connected be peverse and obstinate in an evil way! Yet all come more or less in contact with unreasonable men: and, however much they may strive to rectify the views, or reform the habits, of such people, they find it altogether beyond their power: they can as easily change the leopard’s spots or the Ethiopian’s complexion, as they can prevail on persons to change those habits which are productive of so much uneasiness to their minds. Hence, though they form the wisest and most benevolent plans, they cannot carry them into execution, because of the blindness and perverseness of those whose concurrence is necessary for the accomplishment of them [Note: This may be noticed especially in the opposition made to the diffusion of the Scriptures, which persons of benevolence and piety labour to circulate through the world.].

In like manner, there is often an untowardness in events as well as in men. The seasons will not consult us: nor will the elements obey us. Accidents utterly unforeseen will occur, and cannot be prevented by human foresight. Hence uncertainty attends our best concerted plans, and failure often disappoints our most labourious exertions. But these are “crooked things which no man can make straight:” no human wisdom or power can control them. We have a large and abundant harvest in prospect: but, behold, storms and tempests, or blasting and mildew, or insects of some kind, destroy the whole crop. We have gathered the harvest into our granaries, and a fire consumes it: or an enemy overruns the land, and devours it. We have attained the greatest felicity of which we suppose ourselves capable, by a connexion the most desirable, or by the acquisition of a first-born son: but how soon does death invade our dwelling, and blast all our promised joys! These are but a few of the evils to which we are exposed in this vain world: and they stamp “vanity and vexation” upon all that we possess.]

2.

We cannot supply that which is defective—

[The rich, the poor, the old, the young, the learned, the unlearned, all without exception, find that there is much lacking, to render them completely happy. Of those who possess most of this world’s good, it must be said, “In the fulness of their sufficiency they are in straits [Note: Job 20:22.].” Solomon is a remarkable example of this. He had formed, if not a wise, yet an honourable, connexion with Pharaoh’s daughter. Not satisfied, he sought happiness in a plurality of wives. Still not having attained happiness, he multiplied his wives and concubines to the number of one thousand; and found himself, after all, as far from happiness as ever. Every other thing which he thought could contribute to his happiness he sought with insatiable avidity: but, after he had attained all his objects, he found, that “the things which were wanting could not be numbered.” And so shall we find it to the latest hour of our lives. We may fancy that this or that will make us happy; but, when we have gained it, we have only followed a shadow that eludes our grasp. The truth is, that God never designed the creature to be a satisfying portion to man: not even Paradise itself could satisfy Adam: no, nor could the partner which he gave him: he must taste the forbidden fruit: he could not be content without an accession of wisdom, which God did not ever intend him to possess. Thus, even in man’s state of innocence, nothing but God could satisfy his soul: nor can any thing, short of God himself, ever be a satisfying portion to any child of man.]

Address—
1.

Set not your affections on things below—

[How happy would it be for us, if we could be content to receive the foregoing truths on the testimony of Solomon, instead of determining to learn them by our own experience! How much vexation and misery should we avoid! But, in spite of the united acknowledgments of all that have gone before us, we still think that we shall find something besides God to make us happy. This however we cannot do, even though we should possess all that Solomon ever enjoyed. We may continue our pursuit as long as we will; but we must come at last to the same conclusion as he, and give the same testimony as to the result of our experience. Be persuaded, Brethren, to credit the Divine testimony, and to spare yourselves all the pain and disappointment which, you must otherwise encounter. We mean not that you should renounce the pursuit of earthly things; for you cannot do that without abandoning the duties which you owe to your families and to society at large; but the expectation of happiness from them you may, and must, renounce. You must never forget, that the creature without God is nothing; and that happiness is to be found in God alone.]

2.

Seek the Lord Jesus Christ with your whole hearts—

[He is a portion in which you will never find any lack: in him is a fulness sufficient to fill all the capacities, and satisfy all the desires of the whole universe. Millions and millions of immortal souls may go to that fountain, and never diminish his exhaustless store. To the possession of him too no disappointment can attach, nor from the enjoyment of him can any vexation ensue. In him all “crooked things are made straight:” and where he is, no want can possibly exist. If you ask of the creature to heal the wounds of sin, to give peace to a guilty conscience, to subdue in us our corruptions, or to cheer us with hopes of immortality, it cannot do any one of these things: no, not even for the body can the creature do any thing to heal its sickness, to assuage its anguish, or to prolong its existence. But the Lord Jesus Christ can do every thing, both for the body and the soul, both for time and for eternity, Seek him, then, Beloved: and seek him with your whole hearts. In seeking him, your exertions cannot be too earnest, nor can your expectations be too enlarged. If he give you his flesh to eat, and his blood to drink, you will never hunger, never thirst again, either in this world or in the world to come. Only be able to say, “My Beloved is mine, and I am his,” and then all, as well on heaven as in earth, is yours: according as it is written, “All things are yours: and ye are in Christ’s: and Christ is God’s.”]


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Bibliographical Information
Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/shh/ecclesiastes-1.html. 1832.