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THE HOUSE OF MOURNING TO BE PREFERRED
Ecclesiastes 7:4. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
IN order to learn what loss we have sustained in our intellectual powers through the introduction of sin into the world, it is not necessary for us to investigate the mysteries of our holy religion, which exceed the comprehension of any finite intelligence: we need only look to the ethics that are revealed to us in God’s blessed word; and we shall see, even in them, that darkness has veiled the human mind, and there is an utter contrariety between the sentiments of fallen man and the plainest declarations of Almighty God. Take, for instance, the declarations which precede my text: “The day of death is better than the day of one’s birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting:” and “sorrow is better than laughter.” Will any one say that these apophthegms are agreeable to the general apprehension of mankind? Is there not, on the contrary, something in them extremely paradoxical, and, at first sight, almost absurd? Yet are these sentiments unquestionably true, as are those also which my text records: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
It shall be my endeavour,
To confirm these different positions—
It is not Solomon’s intention to say, that a wise man can never go to the house of mirth, any more than that a fool may not sometimes go to the house of mourning. The question is not, To which of the places these different characters may occasionally go; but, To which of them their “hearts” are inclined. Let us then inquire,
Where is the heart of the wise!
[We hesitate not to say, that a man who is taught of God, and made wise unto salvation, has “his heart in the house of mourning;” and that for the following reasons:
First, because he there learns the most invaluable lessons. There he sees what is the lot of fallen man; “He is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” He sees, also, what may speedily become his own lot; for “he knows not what a day or an hour may bring forth.” He sees how vain and empty are all earthly things; in that not all the wealth or honour that ever was possessed by man can either avert calamity, or assuage the pain arising from it. Above all, he sees the excellence of true religion, which can apply a balm to every wound, and turn tribulation itself into an occasion for joy [Note: Romans 5:3.].
Next, his heart is in the house of mourning, because there he has scope for the exercise of the finest feelings of his soul. There is compassion excited towards his suffering fellow-creature, and sympathy with him in his afflictions. True, these feelings are in some respects painful: but there is in them something so exquisite and refined, that they afford, if I may so speak, the sublimest pleasure of which the human mind is capable; and assimilate us, in a very eminent degree, to our God and Saviour, who “is touched with the feeling of our infirmities [Note: Hebrews 4:15.],” and “in all our afflictions is himself afflicted [Note: Isaiah 63:9.].” Nor can the sufferings of a fellow-creature be seen without exciting in our bosoms thanksgivings to God, who has been pleased to withhold his chastening rod from us, and to make us his honoured instruments of imparting comfort to our afflicted brethren. This also, though not attended with any ebullition of joy, is a very sublime and delightful feeling; not unlike to that of Joseph, when his bowels yearned upon his brother Benjamin, and a prospect was opened to him of making his own advancement an occasion of benefit to his whole family: “He made haste, and sought where to weep; and entered into his chamber, and wept there [Note: Genesis 43:29-30.].”
A still further reason why his heart is in the house of mourning is, that there he meets, and enjoys, and honours God. God has said, that “he meeteth those who rejoice in working righteousness [Note: Isaiah 64:5.].” And, truly, he fulfils this word in a more especial manner to those who abound in works of mercy, because he considers himself as the object of that love, wherever it be exercised, and in whatsover it be employed [Note: Matthew 25:35-36.]. I will appeal those who have frequented the house of mourning, whether they have not often found God more present with them there, than even in their own chamber. In truth, God is honoured there with more than common tributes of acknowledgment. There is he referred to as the All-wise Disposer of all events, and as the gracious Father that corrects only in love and for his people’s good. There, too, is he set forth in all his glorious perfections, and especially in all the wonders of redeeming love: and there is he invariably set forth as the author of the very good which is at that hour dispensed to the trouble soul; so that the creature, his instrument, is overlooked, and he alone is glorified.
Say then, brethren, whether here be not ample reason for the preference shewn to “the house of mourning:” and whether he be not not truly wise, whose heart has dictacted such a choice as this?
In contrast with this, we ask,]
Where is the heart of the fool?
[It is “in the house of mirth.” And why? One reason is that there he is enabled to forget himself. Men do not like to reflect upon their own state before God: and they account any thing desirable, which can dispel unwelcome thoughts, and furnish a pleasing occupation for their minds. Hence it is that all places of amusement are so thronged: and even the house of God is made to administer to our satisfaction; the irksomeness of prayer being rendered tolerable by the fascinations of music, and the charms of eloquence. Hence, too, every one who can devise a new expedient for preventing time from hanging heavy on our hands, will be sure to gain our patronage, and be welcomed and rewarded as a public benefactor.
Another reason is, that the fool there finds what is most gratifying to his corrupt taste. One has an appetite for conviviality and licentiousness: another affects the more decent gratifications of music, and dancing, and such like: another, more elevated in the scale of being, desires rather the intellectual and refined pleasures of science and philosophy. But each is an epicure in his way: and, though their pursuits be different, each in his own line is as insatiable as the other. He is never weary of his favourite pursuit. He desires to be amused; and makes the gratification of his own particular taste the end of all his studies and pursuits. In a word, he lives only to have his own taste gratified, and to administer to the gratification of those who are like-minded with himself: and wherever he can attain these ends, there his heart is, and there his most select abode,
But there is yet another reason for his preference: and that is, that “in the house of mirth” he finds himself countenanced in his neglect of God. Every man has a secret consciousness that he ought to seek after God in the first place, and to postpone to that every other duty and enjoyment. But when he sees others as remiss in this duty as himself, he comforts himself with the thought, that he is no worse than others: and with the hope, that God will never mark with his displeasure what is so generally regarded as innocent and inoffensive. At all events, he finds nothing to reproach him there. “In a house of mourning” he would see many things repugnant to his habits: for even a fool there puts on, for the time, the semblance of wisdom: and assents to the truth, that the care of the soul is the one thing needful. But “in the house of mirth.” all that he either hears or sees bids him to be of good courage, and not to question for a moment the approbation of his Judge.]
I think that the positions in my text are now made sufficiently clear; so that we may with propriety proceed,
To point out their bearing on the Christian’s life and conversation—
These principles may doubtless he pressed too far: and they are then carried to excess, when they are regarded as prohibiting all friendly intercourse with the ungodly world: for our blessed Saviour himself honoured with his company a wedding feast, and a feast, too, that was provided for him by an ignorant and unhumbled Pharisee. But, taking these different positions with such a latitude as both reason and Scripture will fairly admit, the least that we should learn from them is,
To be on our guard against acquiescing too easily in popular opinions—
[From the positions which we have just considered, the carnal mind revolts. Yet, not only are these positions confirmed by our blessed Lord, but they are expressed by him in for stronger terms than by Solomon himself. “Blessed are ye poor: blessed are ye that hunger now: blessed are ye that weep now: blessed are ye when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake, But woe unto you that are rich: woe unto you that are full: woe unto you that laugh now: woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you [Note: Luke 6:20-26.].” It is obvious that light and darkness are scarcely more opposite than these declarations are to the sentiments and habits of the world at large. But are we therefore to question the truth of them, or to refuse submission to them? No: we are to regard the Scriptures as the only authorized standard of opinion; and to them must our sentiments be conformed. Even if the whole world combine to reprobate what the Scriptures enjoin, we must not be deterred from following what God prescribes; but must boldly say, “Let God be true, but every man a liar [Note: Romans 3:4.].”]
To take eternity into our estimate of present things—
[In the passage just cited from the Sermon on the Mount, we see that every declaration of our blessed Lord is founded on the aspect which our present state has upon the eternal world. And I would ask, What would the Rich Man and Lazarus now think of the condition in which they were severally placed when in this lower world? Would carnal mirth be commended by the one, or temporal distress be deprecated by the other, in such terms us the spectators of their widely different condition were once wont to use respecting them? Methinks the enjoyments and sufferings of time would be deemed by them scarcely worthy of a thought; and eternity would swallow up every other consideration. And so it will be with us, ere long. Indeed, even at this present moment, every man’s conscience bears witness to this truth, however in the habits of his life he may contradict it. I cannot therefore but entreat all to consider what will be their views of present things, when they shall have left this transient scene; and to regulate their judgment now by what they believe to be the uniform tenour of God’s word, and the full conviction of every creature, whether in heaven or in hell.]
To examine well the tendencies and inclinations of our hearts—
[In the prospect of death and judgment, men may be led to adopt sentiments which they do not cordially approve, and to follow a conduct in which they have no delight. I ask not. then, what you either say or do under such circumstances. I ask not whether you put a force upon your inclinations, abstaining from indulgences in which you would be glad to revel, and performing services from which you would gladly be excused: I ask, What are the pursuits which your heart affects? What is your real and predominant taste? and what is the employment in which you chiefly delight? I need not say what would be the taste of an angel, if he were sent to sojourn here: nor need I tell you what was the taste of our blessed Saviour and his holy Apostles: of these things no one of you can entertain a doubt. This, then, I say, Seek now to be, what ere long you will wish you had been: seek to be in heart, what you are bound to be in act. It is by the inward dispositions of your souls that you will be judged in the last day. What if, like Doeg. you were “detained before the Lord.” if yet you had no pleasure in the service of your God? Would your worship be pleasing and acceptable to God? No: “your heart must be right with him.” if you would either please him here, or be accepted of him hereafter. To every one of you, therefore, I say, Inquire not where your bodies are but where your hearts: “for as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he [Note: Proverbs 23:7.],”]
To conform ourselves to the suggestions offered in our text—
[Let not any one think them too strong, or that the conduct which they recommend is too self-denying. I have already shewn, that the same things are spoken by Christ himself; and I must further observe, that the whole tenour of God’s blessed word suggests and enjoins the same. “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world: if any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him: for all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world [Note: 1 John 2:15-16.].” What is there “in the house of mirth” which is not here proscribed? Again: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom of by which the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world [Note: Galatians 6:14.].” Think at how low a rate the world esteems an object that is crucified, and a man. in the very article of death upon a cross, affects all that the world could give him. Surely, if these and other passages of the same tendency be duly weighed, there will be no difficulty in apprehending the true import of my text, nor any doubt upon our minds, which of the two objects before us should be preferred. Let this preference, then, be seen in the whole of of our life and conversation. I say not, that we should never go to “the house of mirth?” but only that, our heart should not be there; and that, if called there by any peculiar occurrence, we should go, not as those that would be at home there, hut as physicians to a hospital, where they desire to do all the good they can, but are glad to come away again, and to breathe a purer atmosphere.
Well do I know that it is not in the power of all to visit the abodes of misery, and to spend their time in administering to the necessities of the poor. But, where these offices can be performed consistently with the duties of our own peculiar sphere, they are most pleasing in the sight of God, and not a little profitable to our own souls [Note: If this were preached in behalf of a Benevolent Society, an appeal might here be made to those engaged in it, whether they have not experienced the truth of Pro 11:25 and Isaiah 57:10-11.] — — — But those who cannot embark to any extent in the office of visiting the afflicted, may yet facilitate the execution of it in others by their liberal contributions [Note: Here, whether the Institution be of a public or private nature, a statement may be of the methods pursued, and of the good done.] — — — And if, from the peculiarity of our engagements, we are so circumstanced, that we cannot personally frequent “the house of mourning,” let us at least shew that our hearts are there; and that we have no occupation more congenial with our minds, than to “rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”]
Ecclesiastes 7:10. Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.
IN the writings of Solomon we find many maxims, which, if uttered by an uninspired man, would be controverted; but to which, as suggested by inspiration from God, we submit without gainsaying. That which is delivered in the passage before us does not, at first sight, carry its own evidence along with it: but the more it is investigated, the more will it appear to be a dictate of sound wisdom, and worthy of universal acceptation. That we may derive from it the full benefit which it is calculated to impart, let us consider,
What is the inquiry which is here discouraged—
It is not every comparison of existing circumstances with the past, that is here reprobated—
[In many situation! we may, with the utmost propriety, institute an inquiry into the reasons of any change which may have taken place. A man, in relation to his own temporal concerns, would be very unwise if he neglected to do so. Suppose, for instance, his business, which was formerly in a very prosperous state, have failed, can we condemn him for inquiring into the occasion of that failure? Should we not think him worthy of severe blame. if he did not labour to find out the cause of this change in his circumstances: in order, if possible, to apply a remedy before it was too late — — — Nor is all inquiry precluded in relation to the concerns of the nation. If there have been a plain and visible decline in the national prosperity, all who are affected by it are entitled, with modesty, to inquire whence that decline has arisen: and to express to those who are in authority their sentiments respecting it; and to point out what they conceive to be the most judicious and effectual means of remedying the existing evils — — — In reference to the concerns of the soul, to neglect such inquiries would be the height of folly and wickedness. Suppose a person to have formerly walked with God, and experienced much of His presence in his soul, and now to have become destitute of all spiritual life and comfort: should not he ask. “Wherefore were the former days better than these?” Yes: to examine into this matter is his bounden duty. The Apostle says. “Let a man examine himself:” and the Lord Jesus counsels the Ephesian Church. “when they had left their first love, to remember from whence they had fallen, and to repent, and do their first works [Note: Revelation 2:5.].” So that it is clear, that the prohibition respecting such inquiries is not universal, but must be limited to such occasions as Solomon had more especially in view.]
The comparisons which are here discouraged, are those which are the mere effusions of discontent—
[In every age, discontented men have been forward to make this inquiry; “What is the cause that the former days were better than these?” They make no endeavour to ascertain the correctness of their sentiments: but, taking for granted that they are right, they demand the reason of so strange a phenomenon. Now it is a curious fact, that this is the habit of discontented men in every age. Those who are now advanced in life, can remember, that, in their early days, the very same clamour was made by discontented men as at this hour: and, if we go back to every preceding generation, we shall find the same complaints respecting the deterioration of the times: but we shall never arrive at that time, when the people confessed themselves to be in that exalted state in which our imaginations place them. Certainly, if ever there was a time and a place that might be specified as that happy ζra when there was no occasion for complaint, it was the state of the Jews in the days of Solomon: for, in respect of peace and prosperity, there never was a nation to be compared with the Jews at that time. Yet, behold, it was at that time, and under those circumstances, that the reproof was given: “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former times were better than these?” Hence, then, we see what is the inquiry which Solomon discourages: it is that which has no just foundation, and which is the offspring of spleen and discontent.]
These distinctions being duly adverted to, we are prepared to see,
Why the making of it is unwise—
I will assign two reasons: it is unwise, because,
It is erroneous in its origin—
[It is not true that former times, on a large and extended scale, were better than these. Improvements may have been made in some respects, and matters may have been deteriorated in others; or particular persons and places may be in less favourable circumstances now than formerly: but times have been much alike in all ages. There is in every situation a mixture of good and evil. To every man this is a chequered scene. There are no people loaded with unqualified goods nor are there any oppressed with unmitigated evil. But men know of former times only by report, and by very partial report too: whereas, existing circumstances they know by actual experience: and they are more observant of one evil, than of a hundred blessings.
In relation to our own times and country, the very reverse of what is here assumed is true. Never did the nation stand higher amidst the nations than at this day [Note: In 1822.]. Never was civil liberty held more sacred, or better regulated for the good of the community. Never did religion flourish in a greater extent. Never was there such a combination of all ranks and orders of men to diffuse religion and happiness over the face of the earth. Never were the wants and necessities of human nature provided for in such a variety of forms. There is not a trouble to which humanity is exposed, but societies are formed to prevent or to alleviate its pressure. Never were the blessings of education so widely diffused. In a word, such is the increase of all that is good amongst us, and such the efforts making to extend it over the face of the whole earth, that, instead of looking to former times as better than our own, we may rather hail the approach of the millennial period, when the Messiah himself shall reign, and diffuse peace and happiness over the face of the whole earth.]
It is pernicious in its tendency—
[What is the tendency of this inquiry, but to hide from our eyes the blessings we enjoy, to magnify in our minds the evils we endure, and to render us dissatisfied even with God himself? It is notorious, that they who are most clamorous about the comparative excellence of former times, pass over all our present mercies as unworthy of notice. Nothing has any attraction for them, but some real or supposed evil. And their aim is, to diffuse the same malignant feeling throughout the whole community. And, though in their own immediate purpose they do not intend to complain of God himself, they do so in effect: for it is his providence that they arraign, and his dispensations that they criminate [Note: Exodus 16:7. Numbers 14:27.]. “There is not evil in the city, any more than good, but God is the doer of it [Note: Amos 3:6.]:” and it were far more likely to be rectified through personal humiliation before him, than by intemperate and factious clamours against his instruments. In the midst of such complaints there is not a word to call forth gratitude to God, or even submission to his holy will. There is no recollection of our ill deserts, no admiration of God’s tender mercies, no encouragement to praise and thanksgiving. Nothing but murmuring is uttered, nothing but discontent is diffused. Whether, therefore, men consider their own happiness, or the happiness of the community, they will do well to abstain from this invidious inquiry; or, if at any time they feel disposed to make it. to ascertain, in the first instance, that the grounds of their inquiry are just.]
A word of advice shall close the present subject—
Instead of complaining of the times, let us all endeavour to make them better—
[Much is in our power, for the improvement of the worst of times. It must be expected, in this distempered world, that troubles of some kind or other will arise; they cannot be wholly averted from individuals, or families, or nations. But. if all ranks of the community would unite, as they might well do, to lighten the burthens of each other, and to contribute, according to their respective abilities, to the happiness of the community, we should have little occasion to complain of present times, and none at all to institute invidious comparisons with former times.]
Let us seek that which will render all times and seasons happy—
[Religion is a cure and antidote to every ill, whether of a public or private nature. Amongst those who were endued with piety in the Apostolic age, you find none who were “murmurers and complainers.” Their habit of mind is better expressed by those words of the Apostle, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere, and in all things, I am instructed, both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need [Note: Philippians 4:11-12.].” Having tasted of redeeming love, they are become comparatively indifferent to every thing else. Whatever they possess, they account on undeserved mercy: whatever they want, they regard as scarcely worthy of a thought. They know that “all things shall eventually work together for their good.” “They are hid, in the secret of their Saviour’s presence, from the strife of tongues: and whilst the minds of others are agitated with violent and malignant passions, theirs are “kept in perfect peace.” This, then, I would earnestly recommend to you: Let your first concern be about your own souls. Seek for reconciliation with your offended God; and endeavour to walk in the light of his countenance. Then, whatever others may do, you may look forward to better times, when all troubles shall have fled away, and your happiness be unalloyed in the bosom of your God.]
THE EXCELLENCY OF SPIRITUAL WISDOM
Ecclesiastes 7:12. Window is a defence, and money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it.
TO have our minds well regulated in reference to religion, is most desirable. There is, in reality, no discordance between the duties which we owe to God and to man; or between our callings as men, and our callings as Christians. The things which relate to this world demand our attention, as well as those which relate to a future state. If, on the one hand, our worldly pursuits ought not to thrust out religion; so neither, on the other hand, should our pursuit of heavenly things lead us to neglect any part of our worldly occupations. God has said, “Six days shalt thou labour; but the seventh day thou shalt keep holy to the Lord.” This shews, that we then only perform our duty aright, when we comprehend in our daily services a well-regulated devotion to the concerns of time, and to the interests of eternity. The two great objects of general pursuit are, “wisdom, and money.” The one is followed only by a select portion of the community; the other is sought by all; but, whichever of the two any man affects, provided he give to heavenly pursuits the chief place, he does right to prosecute it with zeal and diligence: being “not slothful in business, and yet fervent in spirit, serving the Lord [Note: Romans 12:11.].” This combination of duties is spoken of in our text: for the elucidation of which, I will shew,
The excellency of wisdom above riches—
We are here told, that both wisdom and money are good in their place—
[Both the one and the other of these are “a defence,” or, as the word imports. “a shadow.” Now, as a shadow affords to persons a protection from the heat of the solar rays, so do wisdom and money screen him from many of the calamities of life: and afford to him many sources of enjoyment, of which those who are not possessed of them are deprived. Money will enable a person to choose his employment in life, whilst the most menial and painful offices are left for those who are not able to choose for themselves. It provides also many comforts, to which the poor are altogether strangers. In a time of sickness, especially, its use is felt; for, by means of it its possessors often obtain relief, for the want of which their poor neighbours are left to sink. So wisdom also brings with it very extensive benefits, in that it elevates the character, and qualifies a man for stations, to which, from birth, he was not entitled to aspire. It provides, also, good occupation for the mind; so that a man possessed of it is never less alone than when alone. Thus it protects him from that state of degradation to which many, for want of it, are reduced; and from that listlessness which induces persons of an uncultivated mind to betake themselves to some evil employment for the sole purpose of getting rid of time.
True, indeed, neither wisdom nor money can protect us from every evil: disease or accident may assault one person as well as another: nor can they afford entire protection under any circumstances, any more than a shadow can altogether remove the heat of the atmosphere. But, as a shadow, they may screen us from much evil, and alleviate many pains which they cannot entirely ward off.]
But wisdom has an excellency far above money—
[Wisdom is more our own than money, which soon “makes itself wings and flies away.” In many respects, also, has it a tendency to promote our welfare in life, beyond money. Riches rather contract the mind than enlarge it; whereas wisdom expands the mind, and dispels that conceit and insolence which characterize a purse-proud man. Money, too, when not combined with wisdom, leads a man into every species of dissipation and folly, and opens to him temptations to every kind of sensual indulgence. But wisdom provides for his mind such occupations as place him at a distance from temptation, and especially when his facilities for profuse expenditure are on a contracted scale. And thus the man of wisdom moves in a far safer and happier sphere; his pleasures being more refined, and his employments more innocent. I may further observe, that riches render us a prey to designing men; and subject us to many vexations, to which less opulent persons are but little exposed: whereas wisdom holds not forth any such baits to dishonest and designing men; who, if not disposed to join with us in our pursuits, will leave us, without interruption, to prosecute our own. Nor is it the least excellence of wisdom that it induces thoughtful habits, which are favourable to sobriety, to meditation, and to a candid investigation of conflicting interests: whilst money rather tends to dissipate thought, and to fix the mind only on present indulgences. In a word, money, without wisdom, tends to the destruction of life; whereas wisdom, freed from the temptations of wealth, tends rather to the presentation of life, and to the securing of that equanimity which, to a worldly man, is the main source of comfort in the world.]
Whilst we thus acknowledge that both wisdom and money have, though in different degrees, their respective excellencies, we are constrained to maintain,
The excellence of spiritual wisdom above them both—
The benefit ascribed to wisdom in the latter clause of my text necessarily leads our thoughts to a different kind of wisdom from that which is mentioned in the former clause. And we find the same distinction made by the Prophet Jeremiah: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might: let not the rich man glory in his riches: but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord, which exercise loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth [Note: Jeremiah 9:23-24.].” Here is a spiritual wisdom spoken of, which infinitely exceeds all that the wisest or richest of unenlightened men can possess. To make this clear, let it be remembered,
A man may possess all the wisdom and all the riches of the world, and yet be dead: but the smallest measure of spiritual wisdom “giveth life to them that have it”—
[The manna which God gave by Moses to the Israelites in the wilderness supported life, but could not give it: whereas our Lord and Saviour, whom that manna typified, gives life to all who believe on him [Note: John 6:47-51.]. Now spiritual wisdom consists in the knowledge of Christ; as Christ himself has said. “This is life eternal, to know the the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent [Note: John 17:3.]” And if we be but “babes in Christ,” still “have we passed from death unto life,” and “are become new creatures in Christ Jesus [Note: 2 Corinthians 5:17.].”]
Wisdom and riches too frequently lead men to self-confidence and creature-dependence; whereas spiritual wisdom invariably humbles the soul, and leads it to seek its all in Christ—
[A life of faith upon the Son of God is the very essence of all spiritual wisdom [Note: Galatians 2:20.] — — —]
By carnal wisdom, and by wealth, men are often betrayed into a contempt of all religion; whereas spiritual wisdom brings with it such a love to religion as gradually transforms the soul into the divine image—
[Yes, in truth, faith, if genuine, will “purify the heart [Note: Acts 15:9.];” and “he that hath a hope in Christ will purify himself, even as he is pure [Note: 1 John 3:3.]” — — —]
A man possessing wisdom and riches in their utmost extent, may perish; but a man that is wise towards God, is made “wise unto salvation [Note: 2 Timothy 3:15.]”—
[Hence it was that St. Paul, who in his unconverted state possessed a very abundant measure of these earthly talents, “considered them all but as dross and dung, in comparison of the excellency of the knowledge of Christ [Note: Philippians 3:7-8.].” And hence Moses, also, who had attained all the learnings of the Egyptians, and was next in power to the king upon the throne, regarded it all as unworthy of a thought, not only for the crown of Christ, but in comparison of his cross; “esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than all the treasures of Egypt [Note: Hebrews 11:26.].” Yes, spiritual wisdom “has the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come [Note: 1 Timothy 4:8.]:” and fully merits that high encomium which the wisest of men has bestowed upon it [Note: Proverbs 3:13-18.] — — — “Whose findeth it, findeth life, and shall to all eternity obtain favour of the Lord [Note: Proverbs 8:35.].”]
Let us then learn,
To form a correct estimate of all that is before us—
[Earthly things are not to be despised. Religious persons just emerging from darkness unto light, are apt to pour contempt on wealth as if it were good for nothing, and greatly also to undervalue even intellectual attainments. But we should give to every thing its due. Even to money are we indebted for numberless comforts, and to wisdom for much more; because to money enables us to procure. Doubtless, in comparison of spiritual attainments, those which have respect only to the things of time and sense are of but little value. We may say of the moon and stars, that they are of small utility to us in comparison of the sun: but this does not render them of no value in themselves. The heavenly bodies possess great beauty and utility, notwithstanding they are eclipsed by the sun: and the true war to judge of their value to us is, to consider how painful the loss of them would be. So, whilst to heavenly things we ascribe, as we ought to do, a paramount importance, let us remember, that, for the purposes of this life at least, those things which are mainly regarded by the unregenerate, are, in their place, deserving also the attention of th godly. We may say of them, as our blessed Lord does of some other things of subordinate importance, “These things ought ye to do, and not to leave the other undone.”]
To seek every thing according to its real importance—
[When it is said, “Labour not for the meat that perisheth, but for that which endureth unto everlasting life, we are not to take the expressions absolutely, but only comparatively; exactly as when it is said, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.” I say, then, to those who are engaged in worldly business, Follow it diligently: and to those who are prosecuting any department of science, Strive to excel in it: “Whatever your hand findeth to do, do it with all your might [Note: Ecclesiastes 9:10.].” The point on which I would entertain a jealousy is, “the placing of your affections on any thing here below; for they are to be reserved exclusively for things above [Note: Colossians 3:2.],” But I am aware that there is great reason for caution on this head. I well know how easy it is to enter with zeal into earthly pursuits; and how difficult to maintain the same ardour in the prosecution of heavenly things. Let me then remind you, that, whatever importance you may assign to the things of time and sense, they have no real importance, by reason of the superior importance of the things which are spiritual and eternal. These must occupy the whole soul, and engage all its powers. We must “run as in a race;” and “strive as for the mastery;” and “fight” as for our very lives: and we may rest assured, that the crown of victory that shall be awarded to us, will recompense all the labours we have endured, in the prosecution of our duty, and in the service of our God.]
AGAINST AN OVER-RIGHTEOUS SPIRIT
Ecclesiastes 7:16. Be not righteous orermuch.
THIS is the sheet-anchor of ungodly men. They hate to see a zeal for God and therefore endeavour to repress it. From the dlays of Cain to this hour, they who have been born after the flesh, have persecuted those who have been born after the Spirit [Note: Galatians 4:29.]. And when they find that neither contempt nor threat-enings will avail any tiling, they will venture, as Satan before them did [Note: Matthew 4:6.], to draw their weapons from the very armoury of God.
It must be confessed, that the sense of this passage is not obvious at first sight; and it has been variously interpreted by commentators. Some have thought it to be the speech of an infidel recommending Solomon. in reply to his observation in the preceding verse, to avoid an excess either in religion or in vice. But it is evidently a serious admonition given by Solomon himself. In ver. 15. he mentions two things which had appeared strange to him, namely, Many righteous people suffering even unto death for righteousness sake; and, many wicked people, whose lives were justly forfeited, eluding, either through force or fraud, the punishment they deserved. From hence he takes occasion to caution both the righteous and the wicked; the righteous, ver. 16, not to bring trouble on themselves by an injudicious way of manifesting their religion, or to “suffer as evil-doers;” and the wicked, ver. 17, not to presume upon always escaping with impunity; for that justice will sooner or later surely overtake them. He then recommends to both of them to pay strict attention to the advice given them, and to cultivate the true fear of God, ver. 18, as the best preservative against wickedness on the one hand, and indiscretion on the other.
This being the sense of the whole passage, we proceed to the consideration of the text; in illustrating which we shall,
Explain the caution—
The misconstruction put upon the text renders it necessary to explain,
To what the caution does not extend—
[Solomon certainly never intended to caution us against loving God too much; seeing that we are commanded to “love him with all our heart, and mind, and soul, and strength [Note: Mark 12:30.]:” nor against serving the Lord Jesus Christ too much; since he “died for us, that we might live to him [Note: 2 Corinthians 5:15.];” and we should be “willing to be bound or even to die for his sake [Note: Acts 21:13.Luke 14:26; Luke 14:26.]:” nor against too much purity of heart; for we are required to purify ourselves from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit [Note: 2 Corinthians 7:1.], yea, to purify ourselves even as he is pure [Note: 1 John 3:3.] — — — Nor could he mean to caution us against too much deadness to the world; for, provided we conscientiously fulfil the duties of our station, we cannot be too much “crucified to the world [Note: Galatians 6:14.];” we should no more be of the world than Christ himself was [Note: John 17:14; John 17:16.]. Nor, lastly, did he intend to warn us against too much compassion for souls; for, provided our mode of manifesting that compassion be discreet, it would be well if our “head were waters, and our eyes a fountain of tears, to weep for the ungodly day and night [Note: Jeremiah 9:1.].” These indeed are things in which the world does not wish to see us much occupied: they would rather that we should put our light under a bushel. But no inspired writer would ever caution us against excess in such things as these. St. Paul makes the proper distinction between the regard which we should shew to carnal and to spiritual objects: “Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit;” because therein is no possibility of excess [Note: Ephesians 5:18.].]
To what the caution does extend—
[An intemperate seal appears to be the principal thing against which the text is levelled. Too high a conceit of our own wisdom, a hasty persuasion that we are right, and an indiscreet method of fulfilling what we suppose to be our duty, may be found in persons who really mean well. Two apostles, from zeal for their Master, would have called fire from heaven to consume a village that had refused him admission [Note: Luke 9:54.]: and n third defended his Master with a sword, to the endangering of his own life, and to the dishonour of the cause he had espoused [Note: John 18:10.]. Thus do many at this day contend for the truth in private in an unbecoming spirit, and go forth to propagate it in public to the neglect of their proper duty, and the injury of the Christian cause [Note: 1 Corinthians 7:20.]. A blind superstition may also be fitly comprehended in the caution. This obtained in a very great degree among the judaizing Christians: and still prevails over a great part of the Christian world: would to God we could except even Protestants themselves from the charge!. How often do we see a most rigorous regard paid to rites that are of human invention, whilst the true spirit and temper of Christianity is sadly neglected! Alas! what fiery and fatal contentions have arisen from this source! There is a needless scrupulosity also which ought to be avoided. What schisms has this occasioned in the Church. when, on account of one or two things, in which they could not agree, men have rent the seamless robe of Christ into a thousand pieces! What injury have men done to their bodies by penances of man’s device! What trouble and perplexity have they also brought upon their souls by rash vows, and foolish impositions! Such was the spirit against which St. Paul guarded the Christians at Colosse [Note: Colossians 2:18-23.]. And Solomon’s caution against the same will be useful in every age and place. A self-justifying dependence on our own works is nearly allied to the foregoing evils, and is thought by some to be the more immediate object of Solomon’s censure. But if we allow it not the first place, we may very properly mention it as another mistaken method of displaying our righteousness. Every person is prone to it: and the most upright persons need to be cautioned against it, because there is not any thing more destructive in its issue. It deprives us of all the benefit of whatever good we do; yea, it makes even the death of Christ of no effect [Note: Galatians 5:4.]: we can never therefore be too strongly guarded against it. We may have much zeal of this kind: but it is a zeal without knowledge. Nor is there any salvation for us, unless, like the holy Apostle, we renounce it utterly [Note: Philippians 3:9.].]
Having explained at large the import of this caution, we shall,
Subjoin some advice—
We fear that, however great occasion there may be to caution sincere people against erroneous methods of exercising their religion, there is far more occasion to exhort the world in general to pay some attention to their duty. Our first advice therefore is,
Be truly righteous—
[They who are most ready to quote the text, are, for the most part, those who are adverse to the exercise of all religion. And when they exclaim, ‘Be not righteous over-much,’ their meaning is, ‘Be not righteous at all,’ They would be far better pleased to see all walking in the broad road, than to be put to shame by those who are walking in the narrow path. But let no scoffs keep you from the performance of your duty. If the world set themselves against religion, let not that deter any upright soul. Our Lord has taught us to expect that our “greatest foes would be those of our own household.” Let us not be discouraged if we find it so. Let our inquiry be, What is duty? and, having found that, let nothing turn us aside. Let us not be satisfied with the degree of righteousness which the world approves. Let us examine the Scripture to see what God requires. Let us see how the saints of old served God; and let us labour in every thing to “do his will on earth, even as it is done in heaven.” This is a conduct which will tend, not to our destruction, but salvation. To act otherwise will issue in our ruin; since “Whosoever doth not righteousness is not of God [Note: 1 John 3:10.].” But to walk after this rule is to ensure present and everlasting peace.]
Be wisely righteous—
[“It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing;” and to “maintain a conscience void of offence towards both God and man.” But we are far from recommending a wild inconsiderate regard for religion. We ought to exercise a sound judgment in all things. “I Wisdom,” says Solomon, “dwell with Prudence [Note: Proverbs 8:12.].” There is certainly much room for discretion in the performance of our duty even towards God himself. We may so reprove a fault as to harden those whom we endeavour to reclaim, and, by casting pearls before swine, may cause them to turn again and rend us [Note: Matthew 7:6.]. We may exercise our Christian liberty so as to cast a stumbling-block before others, and destroy the souls whose salvation we ought to seek to the uttermost [Note: 1 Corinthians 8:11.]. Many things may be “lawful which are not expedient.” We should therefore consult times, persons, places, things [Note: Ecclesiastes 8:5.]; and “walk in wisdom toward them that are without.” Our determination should be, “I will behave myself wisely in a perfect way [Note: Psalms 101:2.],” And our prayer should be, “O give me understanding in the way of godliness. In every part of our conduct we should be circumspect, that being “blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, we may shine among them as lights in the world.” Thus should we unite “the wisdom of the serpent with the harmlessness of the dove [Note: Matthew 10:16.].” And in so doing we shall both adorn our holy profession, and “put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.”]
Be righteous enough—
[There is more danger of defect than of excess in this pursuit. Indeed whereinsoever you are truly righteous it is not possible to be righteous overmuch. We are to “walk as Christ himself walked,” and to “be perfect even as our Father which is in heaven is perfect. Have you attained much? be thankful for it: but go forward. If you were as holy as St. Paul himself, you must “not think you have already attained, or are already perfect, but, like him, you must forget the things that are behind, and reach forward unto that which is before, and press toward the mark, for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” The higher you are in grace, the richer will you be in glory. Begin then, all of you, to “run the race that is set before you.” The prize is worth all your care. Lose it not for want of due exertion. But “laying aside every weight, and the sin that doth most easily beset you, run with patience your appointed course, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of your faith;” and let your constant motto be, “This one thing I do [Note: Philippians 3:13.]” Endeavour, every step you take, to walk in the fear of God. This is the advice of Solomon himself [Note: ver. 18.]; nor can there be any better preservative against extremes than this. By this you will be kept from the undue bias of fleshly wisdom, and from consulting with flesh and blood: by this you will be enabled to maintain your conversation in the world with “simplicity and godly sincerity.” Cultivate this, and the path of duty will be clear: cultivate this, and you will never lose the promised reward.]
MAN’S ORIGINAL AND PRESENT STATE
Ecclesiastes 7:29. Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions.
THE whole scope of this book is, to shew the vanity of the world, and all things in it. As in the earth itself there is a visible proof that some great convulsion has taken place; so, in every thing that is passing upon the earth, there is the clearest evidence imaginable that some great moral change has been effected: for it cannot possibly be, that the world, which still bears such innumerable traces of wisdom and goodness in its first creation, should have proceeded from its Maker’s hands in such a state as it now appears. In fact, the whole world is out of course. The very elements are, on many occasions, hostile to man; and man, in ten thousand instances, is an enemy to himself, to his species, and to his God. And “what is thus crooked, who can make straight [Note: ver. 13.]?” Who can ward off the effects of all this disorder from his own person or estate? A monarch is the victim of it, no less than the meanest of his subjects; and the saint, no less than the contemner of all true religion. To what, then, or to whom, shall we ascribe this state of things? The wisest philosophers of Greece and Rome were unable to account for it. But the Holy Scriptures inform us, that the whole creation, as originally formed, was perfect; but sin, entering into the world, effected both a natural and a moral change upon it: so that the man who looks into the Holy Scriptures can solve every difficulty at once, by saying, “Lo, this have I found, that God made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions,” and thereby reduced the world, and every thing in it, to the state of disorganization in which it now appears.
In illustration of my text, I shall be led to notice both the primitive and the present state of man, and to shew,
His uprightness, as formed by God—
We are expressly told, that “God created man after his own image [Note: Genesis 1:26-27.].” When, therefore, man came from his Creator’s hands, he was perfect.
In his intellectual faculties—
[His mind was light: and in him was no darkness at all, in reference to any thing which he was concerned to know. He had a clear knowledge of God, and of his perfections, so far as those perfections were stamped upon the visible creation. The wisdom, the goodness, the power of God, were all apprehended by him, and duly appreciated. He was acquainted also with his own nature, and his obligations to God: seeing the full extent of his duty towards him, as well as all the motives and inducements which he had for the performance of it. Moreover, he saw all these things intuitively, and not by long consideration or rational deduction. They were all stamped upon his very soul, and constantly before his eyes: and he had the same consciousness of them as he had of his own existence.]
In his moral dispositions—
[The Law of God was written upon his heart, that he might know it: and, at the same time, the love of it also was engraven there, so that he had not the slightest inclination to violate it in any one particular. It was no difficulty to him to love God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength: it was the very element in which he breathed: the bent of his soul was wholly towards it. Flame did not more naturally ascend in the atmosphere than did his soul, with all its powers, ascend to God. Dear as Eve was to him, she did not rival God in his affections. Every thing was subordinated to his Maker; nor was even a thought entertained in his mind, which had not a direct and immediate tendency to honour him. In a word, he was to God as the impression to the seal: nor was there found one lineament upon his heart which had not been stamped there by God himself.]
Had man continued thus, the whole creation would have retained its original constitution. But man fell; and brought a curse upon the whole world [Note: Genesis 3:17.]: every thing more or less participating in,
His obliquity, as deformed by sin—
Man, through the instigation of Satan, desired to be wise as God himself. Not contented with knowing “good,” he would know “evil” also [Note: Genesis 3:5-6.]; little thinking how impossible it was for light and darkness to exist together. Since that first device, whereby he fell, he has “sought out many inventions;” whereby to remedy, if possible, the first evil which he brought upon himself. Thus his descendants seek,
How to rid themselves of all restraint from God—
[They conceive of God, as resident in heaven; and as so remote from this vain world, as scarcely to take any notice of it, or concern himself about it. Besides, from a pretended regard for his glorious Majesty, they conceive it far beneath him to notice the affairs of men: so that the language of their hearts is, “The Lord shall not see, neither will the Almighty regard it [Note: Psalms 94:7.].” But, as they cannot be certain but that he does inspect their ways, they endeavour to get at as great a distance from him as possible. If at any time, by means of the preached word, or by any remarkable providence, he is brought nigh to them, they endeavour to shut their eyes, and to flee to any thing which may assist them in banishing him from their thoughts. To himself they say in effect, “Depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of thy ways [Note: Job 21:14-15.]:” and to his servants they say, “Make the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us [Note: Isaiah 30:11.].” It was thus that our first parents acted, when they strove to “hide themselves from God in the midst of the garden:” and thus do sinners of the present day act, fleeing to business and pleasure and company, and any thing that may serve to drive the remembrance of him from their minds. And he who could contrive any fresh amusement or employ that should have this effect upon their minds, would be accounted one of the greatest benefactors of the human race. That which is, in fact, their heaviest curse, is sought by them as the richest blessing; namely, “to be without God in the world [Note: Ephesians 2:12.],” and “not to have him in all their thoughts [Note: Psalms 10:4.].”]
How to make to themselves gods more suited to their taste—
[Men feel that they must, of necessity, depend on something without them for their happiness, since they have no perennial source of it within themselves. But Jehovah is not one in whom they can find delight: hence, as the Israelites made a golden calf, and worshipped it, so these make to themselves objects of supreme regard, to which in heart and mind they cleave, as sources of satisfaction to their souls. Some, like the ignorant heathen, bow down to stocks and stones, “and say, Ye are our gods [Note: Hosea 14:3.]:” others, with equal, though less palpable, absurdity, set their affections on the pleasures, riches, and honours of this life, making “a god of their belly [Note: Philippians 3:19.],” or putting their confidence in gold [Note: Colossians 3:5.Job 31:24-25; Job 31:24-25.], or “seeking the honour of man, rather than that which cometh of God only [Note: John 5:44.].” These all, in fact, “forsake the fountain of living waters, and hew out to themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water [Note: Jeremiah 2:13.],” All, indeed, have not the same pursuit: but all have some “idol in their hearts [Note: Ezekiel 14:4.],” which is to them a god: and all “will walk in the name of that god [Note: Micah 4:5.],” looking to it for happiness, and confiding in it for support. This is an “invention,” not peculiar to any age or place: it is “sought out,” and carried into effect, by every child of man; there not being a natural man upon the face of the whole earth who does not, in one shape or other, “worship and serve the creature more than the Creator; who is blessed for evermore [Note: Romans 1:25.].”]
How to hide from themselves their own deformity—
[One would suppose that the impiety of this conduct should appear at once to every man who is capable of the least reflection. But men contrive, by various arts, to hide it from themselves. They, in the first place, determinately “call evil good, and good evil: they put darkness for light, and light for darkness; bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter [Note: Isaiah 5:20.].” Then, not being able to conceal from themselves that they have committed some iniquity, they compare themselves, not with the word of God or with the saints of old, but with persons all around them: of these, however, they will select for the purpose those only whom they think not better than themselves: and thus will they satisfy themselves that they are as good as others. If there be some particular evils, of which their consciences accuse them, they will endeavour to find out some good deeds to put into the opposite scale, and to neutralize the effect of them upon their minds: or, if they cannot easily do this, they will satisfy themselves, that, though their actions have been evil, their intentions have been good: they have injured nobody but themselves; they have good hearts: and what they have done amiss, was not so much their own fault, as the fault of human-nature in general, and of the temptations to which they were exposed, and of the persons who were their associates in iniquity. Thus, as our first parents sought “to hide their nakedness by fig-leaves [Note: Genesis 3:7.],” so do all men by nature strive, by every device they can think of, to hide from themselves, and from each other, their real state.]
How to persuade themselves that all will issue well with them at the last—
[They will not believe that eternal punishment can ever be inflicted on persons for such offences as theirs. God is too merciful to proceed in such a way. And, if he did, what must become of the whole world? All who die, are considered as having gone to their rest; and no one ever once thinks of them as in a state of misery. Why then should not they, when they die, go to their rest? or what reason can they have to apprehend that any misery awaits them? But, supposing that God’s threatenings were true, they intend to repent at some convenient season; and have no doubt but that a gracious God will avert his displeasure from them, in answer to their prayer It is possible, indeed, that they may be called away suddenly (as many are), and not have time to realize their good intentions: but then the suddenness of their removal will plead their excuse, and their purposes be accepted as though they had been performed.
Thus, by means of these inventions which men have sought out, they are kept in a constant state of delusion; wearying themselves in the pursuit of vanities which elude their grasp, and filling with vexation both themselves and all around them.]
We may see from hence,
What is the true intent of the Gospel—
[The Gospel is to remedy all this evil, and to restore man to the state of holiness and happiness from which he is fallen. It is to rectify our views of God, and make us see what a great and holy and gracious God he is. It is to make him known to us in the person of his Son, and to fill our souls with admiring and adoring thoughts of his love. It is to bring us also to the knowledge of ourselves, as lost and utterly undone; and to engage our whole souls in the service of our God, as his rightful property, his purchased possession.
Beloved Brethren, this is an invention of God; sought out by him; planned in his eternal counsels; and carried into effect on Mount Calvary: and, if duly received, it will be effectual to dissipate at once all our “inventions.” It will not indeed remove all the evils that abound in the world: there will yet remain much that is “crooked, and that cannot be made straight;” but it will sanctify those evils, and overrule them for our greater good: its operations, however, will be gradual, especially as far as relates to the restoration of the divine image on our souls. We shall be “renewed in knowledge, after the image of Him that created us [Note: Colossians 3:10.]:” we shall also be “created, after God’s image, in righteousness and true holiness [Note: Ephesians 4:24.]:” but then, in both respects, our light will be progressive, advancing like that of the sun, from its earliest dawn to its meridian height [Note: Proverbs 4:18.]. This is the change which the Gospel has wrought on millions of the human race: and that Gospel shall yet be found, by every true Believer, “the power of God to the salvation of his soul.”]
How we may know whether it has produced its due effect upon us—
[You have heard what it was intended to do; namely, to remove all the obliquity of our fallen nature, and to restore the uprightness in which we were at first created. These are therefore the points for you to inquire into, in order to form a just estimate of your state. Can you say, “I have found this?” And can you further say, that the delusions, by which the devil has formerly led you captive, are now dissipated and dispelled? Can you declare yet further, that the intellectual and moral qualities, which man originally possessed, are forming progressively within your souls? Here are marks which may easily be discerned; and which will with great accuracy determine, not only the truth, but also the measure, of the change that has taken place within you. Alas! alas! on far the greater part of us, it is to be feared, no such change as this has ever taken place at all. The greater part of us still live far from God; still have our affections fixed on things below; still are unhumbled before God; and buoying ourselves up with the vain hopes of future happiness, though there is no one lineament of the divine image formed upon our souls. If this be the case with you, my Brethren, deceive yourselves no longer; but “to-day, while it is called to-day, cease to harden your hearts;” and begin to seek the mercy which God has offered you in the Son of his love — — — If however, after careful self-examination, you have an evidence of a work of grace upon your souls, then press forward for the attainment of more grace, and for a more perfect restoration to the divine image. If you do this in earnest, then even this present world will be less a scene of confusion to you than it was in your unconverted state; and, in the world to come, the glories of Paradise shall be for ever yours. You shall be admitted into the sweetest intercourse with your God; and “be fully like him, because you shall see him as he is [Note: 1 John 3:2.].”]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 7". Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/