The words of the Preacher.
The great debate
This book has been called the sphinx of the Bible, a not unapt name, for the book is grave, majestic, mysterious. Whatever its meaning be, it contradicts itself in the most flagrant way, looked at from every standpoint bug one. The book is clearly the record of a debate either between two men--one of them smitten with unbelief and despair, the other filled with conviction and hope; or more probably between two men in some one man--two parts of the same soul. In this great debate three things are discussed.
I. The vanity of human wishes. The first speaker, in order that he may illustrate this to the full, takes “Solomon in all his glory” as a chief instance. “Vanity of vanities, saith the debater; all is vanity!” What are the sources that feed this pessimism? The speaker tells us--
1. His experience of life. He was king in Jerusalem, and he resolved to give life a fair trial, to see what it was good for the sons of men to do under the heavens all the days of their life.
First he tried wisdom. He set himself to seek and to find the truth that lies at the heart of things--to read the riddle of the world and discover the meaning of God. He studied men and women, all sorts and conditions of men, yet he found nothing.
2. But perhaps, we say, your experience was exceptionally unhappy, No, he answers, I have looked over the whole of life and find it everywhere the same. There is, for instance, he goes on, a season, a marked fixed time for everything and to every purpose under the heavens, and he enumerates some twenty-eight of these seasons, and the activities for which they are propitious. Looked at from one point of view it is very beautiful, no doubt, but under such a fatalism, in a world where everything is arranged beforehand, what room is there for man to will or act? Fate! Fate! everywhere fate and vanity.
3. Or come again, says this terrible Debater; we may differ as to philosophy, but let us look at the facts of everyday life! In Nature I see a terrible grim order, I see forces that go on their way full of silent contempt for man and his schemes and dreams. I hear a voice that says to him, “Don’t fuss and fret, little sir! eat and drink and die--for you can do nothing else.” In the world of human nature, on the contrary, I see disorder of a very terrible kind. Here men find thorns on vines and thistles on fig-trees. As I looked I said to myself, he continues (Ecclesiastes 3:16): God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time there--that is in the eternal world, for every purpose and for every work. But alas! is there such a place as there? Who knows? Looking then, he says, at the oppression that men endure under the sun, and seeing no hope of any comfort, seeing no prospect of deliverance anywhere, I praised the dead, they who are out of it all--after life’s fever they sleep well--more than the living; yea, better than both did I esteem him who hath not yet lived at all.
4. But surely, some one will say, this man generalizes too much. He paints with too black a brush. All are not oppressed and do not fail. There is such a thing as prosperity in the world, but this dyspeptic debater never seems to have heard of it. Yes, he has heard of it, and taken the measure of it too, and if one thing more than another serves to bring out the littleness and the vanity of his life it is, in his mind, that which men call its prosperity. Let us look, he says, at the successful man. Idleness is of course folly, but is not success also embittered by hatred and envy? Does it not separate a man from his fellows? He gains something, but does he gain anything so good as what he loses--brotherhood and love? Look again at the isolation of the man who loves money. “He hath neither son nor brother, yet there is no end to his labours, neither are his eyes satisfied with riches.” There he is alone with his money! Nothing in all the world is so precious, so essential to man as the love and confidence of another man. Success without comradeship is a poor thing--it is vanity; there is nothing in it, and the richest miser is literally miserable for want of that which he might have had for the asking--love. Look for the last time, he says, at the strange vicissitudes that befall even the highest of men. A king on the throne has many flatterers, but no friend. Plots are hatched, disaffection grows to a head, and he is deposed. His young kinsman whom he in his jealousy has kept in prison, is brought out with tumult of applause. All follow the new king! Yes, says this terrible pessimist, but only for a while. They will tire of him also,--“They that come after shall not rejoice in him.” He too will be deposed in favour of some other popular idol of the moment. Surely all is vanity and a striving after wind. So far the spokesman of despair.
II. But now in the fifth chapter another speaker--either without or within the man--takes up his parable and champions the cause of faith and hope. He does not, cannot indeed, solve all the difficulties, or meet all the objections that the other has propounded. Rather he gives utterance to the calm precepts of old experience; he re-affirms with conviction what the good have said in every age. Granting that life is full of mystery and has much that is sad in it, he lays emphasis on the clearness and the urgency of duty. In doing right alone each man shall find refuge from despair; he shall find God and be able to take refuge in God from all the pursuing, harassing mysteries of God’s government.
1. “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God.” It may be the temple, or it may be the little rustic synagogue, but it is ever Beth-el, the house of God. Go to it reverently, prayerfully, expectantly, dutifully.
2. Again, study to be quiet. Until God vouchsafe thee a revelation, be thou patient and obedient, for to draw nigh to hear (that is to hear His orders--to obey) is better than to offer the sacrifice.
3. Finally, be sober-minded. Try to see life steadily, and see it whole. One swallow does not make a summer, nor one dead leaf a winter; nor do acts of oppression prove that the whole of human society is rotten. No doubt bad men exist and bad things are done. It is hard to catch a rogue--especially if he be a big rogue, but everywhere there is some sort of government, an organized justice, one official above another right up to the highest, and the highest of all on earth exists for the sake of protecting the lowest. “The king is servant to the field.” No doubt it is often very imperfectly administered, nevertheless law exists on earth, and in the main justice is done; and all earthly law and earthly justice are but dim troubled reflections of an eternal heavenly law and a divine justice that rule over all things, and by which in time every oppressed one will be righted, and every oppressor receive his reward. (J. M. Gibbon.)
The words of the Preacher
It is not often in the Bible that we are challenged to hear the words of a great man, viewed from an earthly standpoint. He is represented as “king in Jerusalem”--a man of the highest social position. We cannot but wonder what he will say, seeing that he has only seen the upper side of life, and can have known nothing of what the poor understand by want, homelessness, and all the degradation of penury and an outcast condition. “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). “Vanity,”--a light wind, a puff, a breath that passes away instantly. Here we have a judgment in brief. We long to enter into some detail, if not of argument yet of illustration, especially as this is one of the short sentences which a man might speak hastefully rather than critically and experimentally. We must ask the Preacher, therefore, to go somewhat into detail, that we may see upon what premises he has constructed so large a conclusion. He says that life is unprofitable in the sense of being unsatisfying. It comes to nothing. The eye and the ear want more and more. The eye takes in the whole sky at once, and could take in another and another hour by hour,--at least so it seems; and the ear is like an open highway,--all voices pass, no music lingers so as to exclude, the next appeal. In addition to all this, whatever we have in the hand melts. Gold and silver dissolve, and nought of our proud wealth remains. Much wants more, and more brings with it care and pain; so the wheel swings endlessly, always going to bring something next time, but never bringing it. Coheleth says that there is no continuance in life: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh.” You no sooner know a man than he dies. You make your election in the human crowd, saying, My heart shall rest here; and whilst the flush of joy is on your cheek, the loved one is caught away, like the dew of the morning. People enough, and more than enough,--crowds, throngs, whole generations, passing on as shadows pass, until death is greater than life upon the earth. Coheleth says that even nature itself became monotonous through its always being the same thing in the same way, as if incapable of originality and enterprise. The wind was veering, veering, veering,--spending itself in running round and round, but never getting beyond a small circuit; if it was not in the north it was in the south, or wherever it was it could be found in a moment, for it “whirleth about continually.” So with the rivers. They could make no impression upon the sea: they galloped, and surged, and foamed, being swollen by a thousand streams from the hills; and yet the sea swallowed them up in its thirst, and waited for them day by day, with room enough and to spare for all their waters. The eye, the ear, the sea, there was no possibility of satisfying,-prodigals and spendthrifts f And the sun was only a repetition, rising and going down evermore. Coheleth further says that there is no real variety in life. “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be,” etc. Man longs for variety, and cannot secure it. The same things are done over and over again. Changes are merely accidental, not organic. All things are getting to be regarded as stale and slow. New colours are only new mixtures. New fashions are only old ones modified. In short, there is nothing new under the sun. “Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.” New things are promised in the apocalyptic day. (Revelation 21:1). It will be found in the long run that the only possible newness is m character, in the motive of life and its supreme purpose (2 Corinthians 5:17). (J. Parker, D. D.)
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity
The Vanity of the world
Certainly, he, who had riches as plentiful as the stones of the street (1 Kings 10:27), and wisdom as large as the sand of the sea (1 Kings 4:29), could want no advantages, either to try experiments, or draw conclusions from them (Ecclesiastes 1:16-17).
Now this reflection of the same word upon itself is always used to signify the height and greatness of the thing expressed, as King of kings and Lord of lords denotes the highest King and the most absolute Lord. But, though this be expressed in most general and comprehensive terms, yet it must not be taken in the utmost latitude, as if there were nothing at all of solid and real good extant. It is enough, if we understand the words in a sense restrained to the subject matter whereof he here treats. For the wise man himself exempts the fear and service of God (Ecclesiastes 12:13) from that vanity under which he had concluded all other things. When, therefore, he pronounceth all to be vanity, it must be meant of all worldly and earthly things; for he speaks only of these. For these things, though they make a fair and gaudy show, yet it is all but show and appearance. It sparkles with ten thousand glories: not that they are so in themselves; but only they seem so to us through the false light, by which we look upon them. If we come to grasp it, like a thin film, it breaks, and leaves nothing but wind and disappointment in our hands. The subject which I have propounded to discourse of is this vanity of the world, and of all things here below. Whence is it that we are become so degenerate, that we, who have immortal and heaven-born souls, should stake them down to these perishing enjoyments?
I. I shall premise these two or three things:--
1. There is nothing in the world vain in respect of its natural being. Whatsoever God hath made is, in its kind, good (Genesis 1:31). And therefore Solomon must not be here so interpreted, as if he disparaged the works of God in pronouncing them all vanity. If we regard the wonderful artifice and wisdom that shines forth in the frame of nature, we cannot have so unworthy a thought, either of the world itself, or of God who made it.
2. There is nothing vain in respect of God the Creator. He makes His ends out of all; for they all glorify Him according to their several ranks and orders; and to rational and considerate men are most evident demonstrations of His infinite Being, wisdom, and power.
3. All the vanity that is in worldly things is only in respect of the sin and folly of man. For those things are said to be vain which neither do nor can perform what we expect from them. Our great expectation is happiness; and our great folly is, that we think to obtain it by the enjoyments of this world. They are all of them leaky and broken cisterns, and cannot hold this living water. This is it which makes them charged with vanity. There are some things, as St. Austin and the schools from him do well distinguish, which must be only enjoyed, other things that must be only used. To enjoy, is to cleave to an object by love, for its own sake; and this belongs only to God. What we use, we refer to the obtaining of what we desire to enjoy; and this belongs to the creatures. So that we ought to use the creatures that we may arrive at the Creator. We may serve ourselves of them, but we must alone enjoy Him. Now that which makes the whole world become vanity is when we break this order of use and fruition; when we set up any particular created good as our end and happiness, which ought only to be used as a means to attain it.
II. It remains, therefore, to display before you this vanity of the world in some more remarkable particulars.
1. The vanity of the world appears in this, that all its glory and splendour depends merely upon opinion and fancy. What were gold and silver, had not men’s fancy stamped upon them an excellency far beyond their natural usefulness? This great idol of the world was of no value among those barbarous nations, where abundance made it vile. They preferred glass and beads before it; and made that their treasure which we make our scorn. Should the whole world conspire together to depose gold and silver from that sovereignty they have usurped over us, they might for ever lie hid in the bowels of the earth ere their true usefulness would entice any to the pains and hazard of digging them out into the light. Indeed, the whole use of what we so much dote upon is merely fantastical; and, to make ourselves needy, we have invented an artificial kind of riches; which are no more necessary to the service of sober nature than jewels and bracelets were to that plane-tree which Xerxes so ridiculously adorned. These precious trifles, when they are hung about us, make no more either to the warmth or defence of the body than, if they were hung upon a tree, they could make its leaves more verdant, or its shade more refreshing. Doth any man lie the softer because his bed-posts are gilt? Doth his meat and drink relish the better, because served up in gold? Is his house more convenient, because better carved or painted? It is nothing but conceit that makes the difference between the richest and the meanest, if both enjoy necessaries: for what are all their superfluous riches, but a load that men’s covetousness lays upon them? Thy lands, thy houses, and fair estate are but pictures of things. What are gold and silver but diversified earth, hard and shining clay? Think, O worldling! when thou castest thy greedy eyes upon thy riches, think, “Here are bags that only fancy hath filled with treasure, which else were filled with dirt. Here are trifles that only fancy hath called jewels, which else were no better than common pebbles. And shall I lay the foundation of my content and happiness upon a fancy; a thing more light and wavering than the very air?” Nay, consider, that a distempered fancy can easily alter a man’s condition, and put what shape it pleaseth upon it. If a black and sullen melancholy seizeth the spirits, it will make him complain of poverty in the midst of his abundance; of pain and sickness in the midst of his health and strength. Again, if the fancy be more merrily perverted, straight they are nothing less than kings or emperors in their own conceit. A straw is as majestic as a sceptre. If then there be so great a power in fancy, how vain must all those things be which you pursue with eagerness and impatience! since a vain fancy, without them, can give you as much satisfaction as if you enjoyed them all; and a vain fancy can, on the other hand, in the greatest abundance of them, make your lives as wearisome and vexatious as if you enjoyed nothing.
2. The vanity of the world appears in its deceitfulness and treachery. It is not only vanity, but a lying vanity; and betrays both our hopes and our souls.
3. As all things in the world are lying vanities, so are they all vexatious--“uncertain comforts, but most certain crosses.”
4. The vanity of the world appears in this, that a little cross will embitter great comforts. One dead fly is enough to corrupt a whole box of the world’s most fragrant ointment. The least cross accident is enough to discompose all our delights. And, besides, we are apt to slide off from the smoother part of our lives, as flies from glass, and to stick only on the rougher passages.
5. The longer we enjoy any worldly thing, the more flat and insipid doth it grow. We are soon at the bottom, and find nothing but dregs there.
6. All the pleasure of the world is nothing else but a tedious repetition of the same things. Our life consists in a round of actions; and what can be duller than still to be doing the same things over and over again?
7. The vanity of the world appears in this, that it can stand us in no stead then when we have the greatest need of support and comfort. Now in each of these the world shows itself to be exceeding vain and useless.
8. All things in the world are vain, because they are unsuitable. True, indeed, they are suited to the necessities of the body, and serve to feed and clothe that; but he is a beast, or worse, that reckons himself provided for, when only his bodily wants are supplied. Have we not all of us precious and immortal souls capable and desirous of happiness? Do not these crave to be satisfied? There is a threefold unsuitableness between worldly things and the soul.
9. The vanity of the world appears in its inconstancy and fickleness. God’s providence administers all things here below in perpetual vicissitudes. It is in vain, therefore, to expect happiness from what is so uncertain. All the comforts of it are but like fading flowers, that, while we are looking on them and smelling to them, die and wither in our hands. Is it pleasures we seek? These must vary; for where there is not an intermission, it is not pleasure, but a glut and surfeit. And hence it is that they who are used to hardships taste more sweetness in some ordinary pleasures than those, who are accustomed to a voluptuous life, do in all their exquisite and invented delights. Do you pursue honour and applause in the world? This hangs upon the wavering tongues of the multitude. Is it riches you desire? These, too, are uncertain (1 Timothy 6:17). Uncertain they are in getting; and uncertain in keeping, when got. All our treasures are like quicksilver, which strangely slips between our fingers when we think we hold it fastest.
10. The vanity of the world appears in this, that it is altogether unsatisfactory. That must needs be vain which, when we enjoy it in its greatest abundance, can give us no real nor solid content. Such an empty thing is the whole world. Now, the unsatisfactoriness of the world may be clearly evinced by these two things.
III. But, whatever our observations are, the uses we may make of them are these.
1. It should teach us to admire and adore the good providence of God to His children in so ordering it, that the world should be thus vain, and deal so ill with those who serve it. For, if it were not so infamous and deceitful as it is; if it did not frustrate and disappoint our hopes, and pay us with vexation when it promiseth fruition and content, what thinkest thou, O Christian, would be the end of this? would any one think of God, or remember heaven and the life to come?
2. If the vanity of the world be such, and so great; if it be only an empty bubble; if it be thus unsuitable, uncertain, and unsatisfactory, as I have demonstrated to you, what gross folly then are most men guilty of in setting so high a price upon that which is of no worth nor substance? More particularly--
3. If the world be thus vain and empty, why then should we pride ourselves in or prize ourselves by any poor enjoyments of it?
4. If the world and all the enjoyments of it be thus vain, this should fortify us against the fear of death; which can deprive us of nothing but what is both vain and vexatious.
5. If the world be so vain and empty, we may learn to be well contented with our present state and condition, whatsoever it be. (E. Hopkins, D. D.)
Vanity of vanities
This is the key-note of the book. The word “vanity” means a breath of wind, and thus it comes to mean something airy, fictitious, and unsubstantial. As the expression, “holy of holies” conveys the meaning of that which is holy beyond every other thing, so this word in the sense of emptiness beyond comparison is applied by the writer to the course of nature and to the work of man. Again and again he takes excursions into the natural world, and again and again he returns to the old refrain, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” The writer of these words felt that the order of the world was out of joint. But language like this has been more often used by those who have had bitter experience of life. Human nature is wont to turn round upon itself, and when it has drunk out the cup of indulgence will express disgust of gratifications which have ceased to please. “Vanity of vanities” was the speech of the great English cardinal as he lay dying and reflected that he had given the best years of his life for the present without care for the future. This was the temper of the language ascribed to Prince Louis XIV. of France when death was near at hand, and his life of pleasantry was closing. Vanity of vanities! And something like this may be heard in more than one London household at this time of the year at the close of the season. Three or four months of fatigue have been prepared for and submitted to as a military campaign would be prepared for. Time, peace of mind, health, regular hours of prayer, have been sacrificed to the pursuits of some social will-o’-the-wisp. To marry this daughter, to secure this introduction, to achieve more distinction than others, have been the objects before the minds of many. And now, when time and money, health and temper have been sacrificed and nothing achieved, we hear in modern language the words of the text from numbers rushing away by express train to bury their disappointment in country villages. “Vanity of vanities!” This earthly life cannot possibly satisfy a being like man if it be lived apart from God. Apart from God, wisdom leads to disappointment and lands us at death in the sublime despair of philosophy. Apart from God, wealth and all that it can command yields much less satisfaction than intellectual achievement, since it is further removed from the higher and imperishable nature of man. Apart from God, Nature, regarded as matter inter-penetrated by force, presents nothing on which man’s inmost being can rest. Here we have only cycles of laws repeating themselves through the ages with a momentum which mocks our intellects. Vanity, emptiness, and disappointment are traced on Nature, on wealth and thought. As a matter of fact man does not find in either real satisfaction. He finds only a wasting fever of the heart, nothing which makes him strong for life, or in the hour of approaching death. The reason is plain. All that belongs to earth has failure in it, and man’s life has come under this failure as well as Nature. All we may see is not as it should be. The best of men are conscious of this. The telling of circumstance against him, the tendency downwards of which he is conscious, the precautions which he takes against himself in the shape of rule and law--all these things tell, and tell truly, of some big catastrophe from which human life has suffered in its deepest recesses. Nature, too, with its weird mysteries speaks to the same effect. And here the apostle comes to our aid when he tells us that “the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of Him who hath subjected the same in hope.” He also says, “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain until now.” Nature has on it this certificate of failure. Besides this, wealth and Nature are finite, so that they must fail to satisfy a being like man. The human soul, itself finite, is made for the Infinite. The soul cannot comprehend the Infinite, but it can apprehend the Infinite. In the inmost source and heart of man God has placed a vast, unfathomable capacity for understanding Himself. Man can think of a Being who has “neither beginning of days nor end of years,” who “inhabits eternity,” and is Himself eternal. And as man struggles more and more perfectly to apprehend this Being, to reach Him, to enjoy Him, to possess Him, he feels that the counterpart of all that is deepest and most mysterious in himself is the eternal world, and that he can only really be satisfied with that, and with nothing else or less. “Thou hast made us for Thyself,” says Augustine, “and our heaths are restless until they rest in Thee.” Man is like those captives of whom we read who, once having believed a throne to be within their grasp, have never settled down as contented subjects. He is predestined for an unseen magnificence; and therefore when he turns to survey the grandest objects that woo his heart in this earthly life he can exclaim, not indeed in scorn, but in a spirit of religious and strictest accuracy, “Vanity of vanities!” Once more; all that belongs to created life passes quickly away. All around is vanishing. “One generation passeth away and another cometh,” so says the Preacher. “Man fades away like the grass,” so sings the psalmist. “The earthly house of our tabernacle shall be dissolved,” so adds one apostle. “The heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat,” so proclaims another apostle. Yes, all is passing, even the choice furniture of the human mind itself, all but the imperishable. Personality with its moral history in the past survives; all else goes, and is forgotten. And therefore it is because Nature and the outer husks of life do not satisfy that they cannot afford a stay for the imperishable soul of man. “Vanity of vanities!” he exclaims as he discovers their real character. But to this way of regarding the matter there is an objection. Is it a healthy one? Is it calculated to make man do his duty in that state of life in which it has pleased God to call him? Will it help him to do his duty enthusiastically and thoroughly? Is he not likely to fail, and to make life responsible for the failure? To this I say that human effort is only vanity when it is pursued without reference to God. Man’s capacities are given to lead him to God, and all that leads to Him, so far from being vanity, is lasting and substantial. The man who is living for another world is not less alive to his duties here, His heart has followed his treasure; his citizenship is already in heaven; he looks at “the things which are not seen”: he lives as “a stranger and pilgrim”: he is but a soldier on campaign duty. All that comes in his way is precious, as enabling him to conquer the enemy and to reach his home. (Canon Liddon.)
The vanity of earthly things
These are the words of a wise and a bold preacher. He was wise in seeing that which men in general did not see; and he was bold in speaking so plainly that which was contrary to the general opinion.
I. The vanity of earthly things. “All is vanity;” that is, all things are so in themselves, when not used aright, when not employed to God’s glory, or to the benefit of those around us, or in reference to our future and everlasting welfare. We may proceed to a practical illustration and use of this declaration.
1. Let us suppose the case of riches, as being the main object of a man’s desire, and the acquirement of them the great business of his life. Nay, let us suppose him to succeed--to acquire great wealth--to establish his house. But if this man be without religion, what is it all more than vanity? It is possible that all this time he may never have thought about his soul; his soul which is more valuable than all the world. To what purpose will it be when his end shall come? What will his wealth do for him in the day of account? “Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days,” and what is it? It is vanity, a vapour, emptiness! And what is to become of his wealth? He must “leave it unto the man that shall be after him; and who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool?”
2. As to human learning. It is true that learning, and ingenuity, and wit may be made very subservient to many important purposes; but if it be apart from true religion, what doth it profit? Let us suppose a man to be stored with all science, and philosophy, with the knowledge of all history, and of every art. But if he have not the knowledge of Christ; if, withal, he is “sensual not having the spirit,” what matters it? We have seen men endowed with extraordinary talents, great in research, quick in understanding, penetrating in intellect, rich in all the stores of recondite wisdom, versed in history, and as far as we can judge, possessing all knowledge; but where is the meekness of the Christian? where is docility, gentleness, and love?
3. As to the pleasures of life. Let a man have all the pleasure arising from intercourse with polished society, from rational conversation, from good and instructive books, from travelling at home and abroad, from various domestic recreations, according to his own peculiar turn of mind; yet, what does all this profit if he be destitute of true religion; if he be living to himself rather than to God? But we say, what will all this avail, if its votary or possessor be destitute of true religion here, and miserable and undone in another world!
4. We might go on to consider eminence of station, and elevated rank, and reputation, and extensive power, and commanding influence, and all beside that men are accustomed to seek after, and which they make so many sacrifices to obtain; and what are they all apart from true religion? “Vanity of vanities.” Suppose a man to have gained all The reputation and dignity in the world, what will it avail if he be destitute of the “one thing needful,” if he have not Sought the honour that cometh from God?
II. What is our chief good?
1. I would direct your attention to those true riches, the unsearchable riches of Christ.
2. I would recommend to you that heavenly wisdom by which you will be made wise unto salvation, which will teach you to discharge your social duties aright, and which will conduct you in safety through all the difficulties of life.
3. I would allure you to those pleasures which are for evermore.
4. I would lead you to that honour and praise which cometh from God, and which fadeth not away. (J. Maude.)
The trial of vanity
This book begins with, “All is Vanity,” and ends with, “Fear God, and keep His commandments.” From that to this should be every man’s pilgrimage in this world; we begin at vanity, and never know perfectly that we are vain, until we repent with Solomon. “Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” As though he were exceeding glad, that after so many dangers through the route of vanity, yet God let him see the haven of rest. The whole narration doth show that Solomon wrote this book after his fall. When he had the experience of vanities, and seen the folly of the world, what evil comes of pleasure, and what fruit groweth of sin, he was bold to say, “Vanity of vanities,” etc.; which he avoucheth with such a protestation, as though he would justify it against many adversaries; for all the world is in love with that which he calls vanity. To testify his hearty conversion unto Cod, he calls himself a preacher, in the witness of his unfeigned repentance; as if God had said unto him, “Thou being converted, convert thy brethren,” and be a preacher, as thou art a king. So when we are converted, we should become preachers unto others, and show some fruits of our calling, as Solomon left this book for a monument to all ages of his conversion. Thus having found as it were the mine, now let us dig for the treasure, “Vanity of vanities,” etc. This is Solomon’s conclusion: when he had gone through the whole world, and tried all things, like a spy sent into a strange country, as if he were now come home from his pilgrimage, they gather about him to inquire what he hath heard and seen abroad, and what he thinks of the world, and these things which are so loved among men, like a man in admiration of that which he had seen, and not able to express particularly one after another, he contracts his news into a word. You ask me what I have seen, and what I have heard, “Vanity,” saith Solomon. And what else? “Vanity of vanities.” And what else? “All is vanity.” This is the history of my voyage: I have seen nothing but vanity over the world. So the further he did go, the more vanity he did see, and the nearer he looked the greater it seemed, till at last he could see nothing but vanity. So his drift is to show that man’s happiness is not in these things which we count of, but in those which we defer. His reason is, they are all vanity; his proof is because there is no stability in them, nor contentation of mind; his conclusion is therefore, Contemn the world, and look up to heaven from whence ye came, and whither ye shall go. This is the scope which Solomon aims at, as though we did all seek happiness, but we go a wrong way unto it; therefore he sounds a retreat, showing that if we hold on our course, and go forwards as we have begun, we shall not find happiness, but great misery, because we go by vanity. Now Solomon, full of wisdom, and schooled with experience, is licensed to give his sentence of the whole world. This is no reproach to the things, but shame to him which so abused them, that all things should be called vanity for him. If he did not things vainly, nothing should be vain in the world; whereas now, by abuse, we may see sometimes as great vanity in the best things as in the worst. For are not many vain in their knowledge, vain in their policies, vain in their learning, as others are vain in their ignorance? A spiritual eye doth see some vanity or other in everything, as appeareth betwixt Christ and His disciples at Jerusalem (Luke 21:6; Matthew 24:1). They gazed upon the building of the temple as a brave thing, and would have Christ to behold it with them; but He did see that it was but vanity, and therefore said, “Are these the things that ye look upon?” As if He should say, How vain are you to gaze upon this! If Christ thought the beauty of His temple a vain thing, and not worth the sight, which yet was beautified and built by His own prescription, how should Solomon express all the vanity of the world, to which all men have added more and more since the beginning I Therefore when Solomon beheld such a plurality, and tot quot of vanities, like surges coming one upon another in plaits and folds, he spake as though he would show us vanity hatching vanities: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” The first saying doth pass without let; but the last rubs and sinks not into the hearts of men so easily as it is spoken. Methinks I hear some men dispute for Baal, and bid Solomon stay before he comes to “all is vanity.” It may be that sin is vanity, and pleasure is vanity; but shall we condemn all for sin and pleasure? What say you to beauty, which is nature’s dowry, and cheereth the eye, as sweet meat doth the taste? Beauty is like a fair picture; take away the colour, and there is nothing left. Beauty indeed is both a colour and a temptation, the colour fadeth and the temptation snareth. But what say you to riches, which make men lords over the rest, and allow them to go brave, and lie soft, and fare daintily, and have what they list? Riches are like painted grapes, which look as though they would satisfy a man, but do not slake his hunger, nor quench his thirst. Riches indeed do make a man covet more, and get envy, and keep the mind in care. You shall hear them say oftentimes, It is a vain world, a wicked world, a naughty world, yet they will not forsake it, to die; like dastard soldiers, who rail against the enemy, but dare not fight against him. “All is vanity;” but this is “vanity of vanities,” that men will follow that which they condemn. Oh that here were a full end or conclusion of vanities; but.behold a greater vanity is behind; for our religion is vanity, like the Scribes and Pharisees, having a bare show of holiness, and scarce that. What then? “Turn away mine eyes,” and my ears and my heart too, “from vanity.” Try and prove thou no longer, for Solomon hath proved for thee; it is better to believe him than try with him. (H. Smith.)
The folly of Solomon
This is the substance of this great man’s last estimate of life. You read it, and, as you read, you watch the writer trying to fight down the black shadows as they rise. Here and there too, all through his sermon, he will say a noble thing on the right side; as if the old power of piety was strong enough yet to burn through, and force its way to the parchment. But, when the best is said and done, the result is a belief in a God who exacts more than He gives, and punishes more readily than He blesses. And so it is that this woeful estimate of life has made this book by far the most difficult to understand in the whole range of the Scriptures. The statements in it are as positive as any other. Solomon is as clear when he says, “Man has no pre-eminence over a beast,” as John is when he says, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God.” So it comes to pass, that, if you take this book as it stands, and undertake to believe it, the result is very sad. It chills all piety, paralyzes all effort, hushes all prayer. If there is grief in wisdom, had I not better be a fool? It cannot be denied, again, that the book is but the vocal utterance of many a silent sermon in many a lonely heart. It was this, no doubt, that made it the text-book of Voltaire and the bosom friend of Frederick the Great. Its monotones of despair are echoed out of a thousand experiences. When a friend wished a great English statesman a happy new year, “Happy!” he said; “it had need be happier than the last, for in that I never knew one happy day.” When an English lawyer, whose life had seemed to be one long range of success, mounted the last step in his profession, he wrote, “I in a few weeks shall retire to dear Eneombe, as a shore resting-place between vexation and the grave.” When one said to the great Rothschild, “You must be a happy man,” he replied, “I sleep with pistols under my pillow.” The most brilliant man of the world in the eighteenth century said, “I have enjoyed all the pleasures of life, and I do not regret their loss; I have been behind the scenes, and seen the coarse pulleys and ropes and tallow-candles.” And the most brilliant poet of the last generation said, “The lapse of ages changes all but man, who ever has been, and will be, an unlucky rascal.” Now, then, for all this, I have but one answer. I cannot believe it. In the deepest meaning of the truth and the life, this assertion that all is vanity is utterly untrue. God never meant life to be vanity; and life is not vanity. And that we are right and all such men wrong can be proven, I think, outside our own experience, on several different counts.
1. For, first of all, this Solomon is not the right man to testify. When he said this of life, he was in no condition Co tell the truth about it, and he did not tell the truth. Universal testimony makes this sermon the fruit of his old age. If his book was the work of Solomon’s old age, the face of itself supplies the first reason why we have such a sermon; for the man who wrote this sermon, and the youth who offered that noble prayer at the dedication of the temple, are not the same man. The young king knelt down in the bloom of his youth, when the fountains of life were pure and clean; when through and through his soul great floods of power and grace rose to springtide every day; when the processions of nature and providence, the numbers of the poet, the wisdom of the sage, the labours of the reformer, and the sacrifices of the patriot, were steeped for him in their rarest beauty, endowed with their loftiest meaning, and filled with their uttermost power. But that old king in the palace, writing his sermon, is weary and worn; and, worst of all, the clear fountains of his nature are changed to puddles; the fresh, strong life has been squandered away; the delicate, divine perception blunted, clogged, and at last smothered to death. Can we wonder that such a man should write “all is vanity,” when he had come Co be the vanity he wrote? Believe me, we cannot form the true estimate when the life is ruined. What he said when he was his best self, before his ruin, was true; and the estimate he made, when he was a lower man, was as much out of true as the man was.
2. Then there was an error in this man’s method of testing life, that I suspect to be at the root of much of the weariness that is still felt; and that is, the man does not seem to have tried to be happy, in making others happy, in bringing one gleam more of gladness, or one pulse more of life, into any soul save his own. In the sad days recorded here, nature, books, men, women, were worth to him just what they could do for him. He gave up the present sense of God in the soul; the high uses of worship; the inspiration hidden in great books; the deep blessedness of being father, husband, friend, teacher, patriot, and reformer; buried himself in his harem; turned a deaf ear to all the pleadings of his better angel; and, when he had come to this, who can wonder that all was vanity?
3. But now I must state the reason, that to me is greatest of all, why I know all is not vanity. A thousand years after this sad sermon was written, there was born of the same great line another little Child. He had no royal training, no waiting sceptre, no kingly palace, but the tender nurture of a noble mother, and, from the first, a wonderful nearness to God,--and that was all. He grew up in a country town that had become a proverb of worthlessness. The good He knew, and the bad He knew, as I suppose it was never known before. The human heart was laid bare before Him down to its deepest recesses. None ever felt, as He did, the curse of sin, or had such a perfect loyalty and love for holiness. Nature, Providence, Heaven, and Hell were actual presences, solid certainties to His deep, true sight. Listen while I try the ring of a few sentences from each of them. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” cries the first preacher. “Blessed are the poor, blessed are the mourners, blessed are the quiet, blessed are the hungry for the right, blessed are the giving and forgiving, blessed are the pure-hearted, blessed are the peace-makers, and blessed are the sufferers for the right,” cries the second. “Be not righteous overmuch,” cries the first. “Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect,” cries the second. “That which befalleth a beast, befalleth a man,” cries the first. “The very hairs of your head are numbered,” cries the second. “There is no knowledge, nor wisdom, nor device in the grave,” cries the first. “I go to prepare a place for you; and I will come again, and take you to Myself, that where I am there ye may be also,” cries the second. This last preacher tested life also. Whatever can be done to prove all is vanity, was done to Him. Giving out blessing, getting back cursing. Surely, if over man would write “Vanity of vanities” over life, this was the man to do it. God was to Him the Father. The future life was more of a reality than the present. He saw resurgam written over every grave, and could see past sorrow and pain, the perfect end, and say, “Of all that My Father has given Me, I have lost nothing: He will raise it up at the last day.” Then, if I cannot see heaven of myself, let me look at it through His eyes. If earth grows empty and worthless to me, let me believe in what it was to Him, and be sure that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; so, holding fast by faith in Him, I may come at last to a faith in earth, and heaven, and life, and the life to come, and all that is most indispensable to the soul. If I cannot pray because I see no reason, then that bonded figure on Olivet is my reason. If I cannot distinguish between fate and providence, let me rejoice that He can, and that my blindness can make no difference to His blessing. (R. Collyer.)
All is vanity
I. In what sense we are to understand that all is vanity, The Preacher is not speaking of religious practices, or of any actions immediately commanded of God, or directly referred to Him; but of such employments as we pursue by choice, and such works as we perform in hopes of a recompense in the present life; such as flatter the imagination with pleasing scenes, and probable increase of temporal felicity; of this he determines that all is vanity, and every hour confirms his determination. The event of all human endeavours is uncertain. He that plants may gather no fruit; he that sows may reap no harvest. Even the most simple operations are liable to miscarriage, from causes which we cannot foresee; and if we could foresee them, cannot prevents. The rain and the wind he cannot command; the caterpillar he cannot destroy, and the locust he cannot drive away. But these effects, which require only the concurrence of natural causes, though they depend little upon human power, are yet made by Providence regular and certain, in comparison with those extensive and complicated undertakings, which must be brought to pass by the agency of man, and which require the union of many understandings, and the co-operations of many hands. The history of mankind is little else than a narrative of designs which have failed, and hopes that have been disappointed. To find examples of disappointment and uncertainty, we need not raise our thoughts to the interests of nations, nor follow the warrior to the field, or the statesman to the council. The little transactions of private families are entangled with perplexities; and the hourly occurrences of common life are filling the world with discontent and complaint. The labours of man are not only uncertain, but imperfect. If we perform what we designed, we yet do not obtain what we expected.
II. How far the conviction that all is vanity ought to influence the conduct of life. Human actions may be distinguished into various classes. Some are actions of duty, which can never be vain, because God will reward them. Yet these actions, considered as terminating in this world, will often produce vexation. There are likewise actions of necessity; these are often vain and vexatious; but such is the order of the world, that they cannot be omitted. He that will eat bread must plough and sow. What then is the influence which the conviction of this unwelcome truth ought to have upon our conduct? It ought to teach us humility, patience, and diffidence. The consideration of the vanity of all human purposes and projects, deeply impressed upon the mind, necessarily produces that diffidence in all worldly good, which is necessary to the regulation of our passions, and the security of our innocence. He does not rashly treat another with contempt who doubts the duration of his own superiority: he will not refuse assistance to the distressed who supposes that he may quickly need it himself. He will not fix his fond hopes upon things which he knows to be vanity, but will enjoy this world as one who knows that he does not possess it.
III. What consequences the serious and religious mind may draw from the position, that all is vanity. When the present state of man is considered, when an estimate is made of his hopes, his pleasures, and his possessions; when his hopes appear to be deceitful, his labours ineffectual, his pleasures unsatisfactory, and his possessions fugitive, it is natural to wish for an abiding city, for a state more constant and permanent, of which the objects may be more proportioned to our wishes, and the enjoyments to our capacities; and from this wish it is reasonable to infer that such a state is designed for us by that Infinite Wisdom, which, as it does nothing in vain, has not created minds with comprehensions never to be filled. (John Taylor, LL. D.)
Is all vanity
How are we to regard this utterance as to the “vanity” of all things, the “profitless” character of human labour, the wearisome monotony of the world? Must we indorse it, because we find it here in the Bible? Or, must we, on the other hand, condemn it and denounce it, as if it contained no truth whatever? I submit that we need do neither. We may believe that Ecclesiastes had been taught by his own experience some valuable lessons as to the practical conduct of life, and that he was able to give some very wise counsel to those younger than himself; and yet we may also believe that this wisdom was dearly bought, and that his outlook on the world, when he became “a sadder and a wiser man,” was largely coloured by his own past conduct. A man who outgrows his sins and follies may not always outgrow, in this world, all their consequences. A penitent profligate may be able to give us very sound advice; but it does not follow that his estimate of human affairs is altogether accurate and healthful. We are not bound to indorse the view which regards all things “under the sun” as simply presenting the aspect of a vain and wearisome monotony; but we may learn wisdom from the fact that even the outlook of a religious man may be coloured by a long course of previous irreligion and worldliness. Whilst, however, we are not bound to indorse this melancholy estimate of Ecclesiastes, and whilst we may regard it as coloured and exaggerated by the weariness begotten of his former life, we need not denounce or condemn it as if it were simply the utterance of a morose pessimism or a sated worldliness. There is an element of profound truth in this estimate of the things “seen and temporal.” A Christian apostle tells us that “the creature was made subject to vanity,” and to “the bondage of corruption.” Another Christian apostle reminds us that “the world passeth away and the lust thereof”--“the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” Thomas a Kempis, in his “Imitation of Christ,” tells us that “all is vanity, except to love God and to serve Him only.” One of our own novelists, in his “Vanity Fair,” has torn aside the mask which hides from view the hollowness of that glitter and show which are so apt to fascinate the inexperienced. Few thoughtful men reach even middle life--not to speak of old age--without being at times oppressed by the thought of life’s sameness, or without being at times impressed with a sense of the unsubstantial and unsatisfying nature of earthly things. Human life may vary from age to age in some of its details; but, in its great broad features, it is unchanging. Birth, death, work, rest, health, sickness, pain, pleasure, hope, fear, loss, gain, friendship, love, marriage, parenthood, bereavement, virtue, vice, temptation, remorse--these things were all familiar to the generations that have gone before us; they are familiar to us; they will be familiar to those who are coming after us. And, as to the transient, uncertain, perishable, and unsatisfying nature of mere earthly happiness--of happiness due to mere earthly pleasures, pursuits, and consideration this has been the trite theme of all the ages. Looking at human life apart from God and immortality’--looking at the things “seen and temporal” apart from the things “unseen and eternal”--we perceive that there is a profound element of truth in the utterance, “All is vanity.” Lastly here, we must not forget that this book was written at least two thousand years ago. Since Ecclesiastes meditated on the problems of human life, one really “new thing” has been seen. The “Sun of Righteousness” has risen upon the world “with healing in His wings.” (T. C. Finlayson.)
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh.
The law of circularity, or retrogression, an essential element of progress
The circle is the archetype of all forms, physically as well as mathematically. It is the most complete figure, the most stable under violence, the most economical of material; its proportions are the most perfect and harmonious; and therefore it admits of the utmost variety consistent with unity of effect. The universe has apparently been framed according to this type. Nature attains her ends, not in a series of straight lines, but in a series of circles; not in the most direct, but in the most roundabout way. All her objects, organic and inorganic, have a tendency to assume the circular form, and in the attainment of this form consists their highest perfection. The lowly lichen on the wall spreads itself out in a circle; the mushroom in the meadow, with its round cap and stem, grows in fairy rings; the moss-tuft on the tree--the clump of fern in the shady bank--the plot of wild-flowers in the wood--the trees in the forest, alike in their individual and social state, exhibit this form in endless and graceful diversity. The cell, which is the ultimate germ of all life, is round, and every increase which it makes by growth or reproduction, preserves the same shape. The leaf, with all its varied modifications in the different parts of the plant--the stem, the flower, the fruit, the seed--are all more or less circular. So also are the different parts and organs of animals, from the simple primary cell of the animalcule, barely visible under the microscope, up through increasingly complex structures, to the highly-organized and wonderfully-formed head of man--the apex of creation; and though dead, inert minerals may seem to offer an exception to the law, crystallizing, or, in other words, attaining the highest perfection of which they are capable, not in circles but in straight lines, yet, when exposed to the influence of natural agencies, they speedily assume the circular form. The various forces of nature, and the properties of the matter upon which they act, are so arranged and balanced, that they invariably bring out curved lines in the surface of the earth. The winds and the waters produce undulating surfaces wherever they operate. The sea and the lake flow in curving waves and ripples to the shore: the rivers and streams meander in silvery links through the landscape; the clouds float in ever-varying curves of magical loveliness along the sky; the very winds--emblems of fickleness and change--obey fixed laws, and blow over the earth in cyclones and rotatory currents. The same law of circularity may be observed in the alternations of day and night, and in the vicissitudes of the seasons. Each bright blue day of sunshine, with all its work and enjoyment, is folded and shrouded up in its grave of darkness. Night comes, as it were, to undo the work of the day--to reverse the processes and functions of life--to restore the molecules of matter which the sunlight had kept in incessant motion and change to their previous condition, and by this recoil and rest to qualify for greater exertions and further advancement on the morrow; and thus, with alternations of darkness and light, the year progresses to its close. Spring clothes the earth with verdure; summer develops this verdure into its highest beauty and luxuriance, and autumn crowns it with ripeness and fruitfulness; but winter comes with its storms and frosts to mar and destroy the fair fabric which it had taken so many months to perfect. And yet this apparently wanton destruction, this retrograde movement, tends more to advance the progress of nature than if summer were perpetual. The exhausted soil is permitted to rest, in order that it may acquire new elements for increased production, and the forces of vitality are suspended that they may burst forth again with more exuberant energy. Flowers die down to their roots, yet it is no grave into which they have retired, but the hiding-place of power, from whence they shall start into greater beauty and luxuriance when stimulated by the showers and the sunbeams of spring. Life is a ceaseless vortex, a perpetual whirlpool, from the beginning to the ending, and from the ending to the beginning. Every death is a new birth, every grave a cradle. Ascending beyond our earth, to the regions of the astronomer, we find the same law in operation there also. We know nothing of the forms and attributes of extra-terrestrial existence; but we know at least that all the heavenly bodies are more or less circular, and move in more or less circular orbits. The sun, the moon, the planets have this shape: and we know that our earth revolves on its own axis, and moves round the sun; that the solar system advances in space, not in a straight line, but in a series of mighty revolutions round a central sun. Passing from the physical world to the domain of man, we find there also innumerable traces of the law of circularity. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh.” The circulation of blood in the veins, the circulation of matter in the body, the circulation of impressions in the nerves and impulses in the muscles, are all helps and means of physical growth; while the vicissitudes of circumstances, the opposite conditions of prosperity and adversity, health and sickness, joy and sorrow, tend to develop the mental and moral character. Action and reaction is the law of man’s life. A season of misfortune is usually followed by a season of success; and when circumstances are most prosperous, a time of reverses is not far off. Nowhere, either in science or in morals, has a straight line ever been drawn. There is no distinct, definite line of demarcation between pain and pleasure, between joy and sorrow, between relative evil and good. “Thus far and no further,” is said to all moral operative causes, as well as to the waters of the ocean; but the line along the coast is not uniformly straight and unbending; on the contrary, it winds in and out, in gulfs and promontories, in capes and bays, in the most charming and picturesque irregularity. It is a fact of the deepest significance in the philosophy of human progress, that no great step can be taken in the intellectual or moral advancement of our race except by the sacrifice of at least one generation. There is not a single great truth that has influenced mankind but has passed through a process of contempt and injustice before it was established upon a firm and lasting foundation of popular favour; the invention or discovery that one generation despised is turned to profitable account by the next; the scientific creed that is persecuted in one age forms an undoubted and essential part of the faith of the succeeding age. The general progress of the human race has been marked by strange fluctuations. Civilization after civilization advances from the dim horizon, reaches the zenith of its prosperity, blazes for a while with unexampled splendour, then sets in darkest midnight. Such facts as these show us how hopeless is the boasted gospel of natural progress; how vain it is to expect that humanity can develop itself by its own unaided powers; that any race or country is capable of carrying on the process of improvement uninterruptedly and continuously, by the simple motherhood of nature. Man is, indeed, naturally progressive to the fullest extent of his capacities; and whatever he is capable of becoming, the aspirations of his soul are in themselves proofs and pledges, that he will ultimately become. In the progress and revolutions of time he has steadily advanced to a nobler dignity. Each civilization that appeared on the stage of history borrowed from its predecessors materials for a higher range of advancement. The Roman civilization was a propagation of the Greek, and the Greek of the Egyptian and the Hebrew. But this progressive elevation was not attained by a natural process of development, carried on in a uniform, undeviating, straight line. On the contrary, wherever humanity was left to its own unaided powers, unassisted by supernatural means and influences, it has everywhere in the end degenerated and declined, however long and glorious may have been its heroic age. And analogy would lead us to conclude, that as it has been in the past, so it may be in the future, that again and again may be exhibited the solemn-spectacle of civilizations “advancing in charmed circles,” races passing from hardihood to courage, from courage to conquest, from conquest to power, from power to wealth, from wealth to luxury and effeminacy, and from thence to the last stages in the melancholy drama--corruption, decline, and extinction. History is given to repeating itself. The persistency with which forms of faith and aspects of society appear age after age is truly marvellous. Fashions of dress, schools of art and philosophy, theories and speculations of science and theology, seem to have the same kind of periodicity which marks the phenomena of nature. As regularly as the same primroses bloom on the woodland bank spring after spring, and the same roses blush by the wayside summer after summer, so regularly and uniformly do the same modes of thought, and the same types of manners, appear and reappear. Phases of human error and folly are found occurring again and again, after long intervals. In every department of human affairs such instances are easy to find, proving the truth of the trite aphorism, that “there is nothing new under the sun”: that the moral world, as well as the physical, revolves in a circle, and thus necessarily often comes back to the point from which it started. These examples of retrogression appear melancholy and disheartening to those who believe in the uninterrupted development of mankind in straight lines; but, rightly considered, they are far from being perplexing and unintelligible. The law of circularity is also a law of conservation; and every instance of retrogression may be regarded as a brake upon the wheels of the oar of progress, absolutely necessary for its safe and steady motion. The Bible affords so many illustrations of this doctrine, that it is somewhat difficult to make a selection. Almost the first event in the spiritual history of the human race was an act of degradation, a retrograde movement. “God created man upright, but he has sought out many inventions.” And yet, by a wonderful interposition of Divine love, this retrograde step, which issued in so much disaster, has raised man to a higher position than he could have attained, even had he continued pure and sinless as at the first. He is not merely brought forward to the point from which he retrograded: he is advanced greatly beyond it. Schiller boldly says, “the Fall was a giant stride in the history of the human race.” The Deluge affords another illustration of the law we are considering. It was a terrible remedy for a terrible disease. Another retrograde movement, of scarcely less importance, occurred very speedily after this event. The confusion of languages, and the consequent dispersion of mankind, and their separation into distinct nations and races, seems at first sight an unaccountable procedure--hostile to the best interests and wisest processes of civilization; and yet, on the contrary, it has proved eminently helpful in forwarding the progress of the human race by the formation of national feeling, or patriotism, and the full, harmonious development of the “many-sidedness” of human nature. Descending the stream of Scripture narrative, we find that Joseph was sold into slavery as the path to the highest honours of Egypt; and that the latter end of Job, after he had been stripped of everything, was more prosperous than the beginning. When the children of Israel had reached the borders of Canaan, after their long and toilsome wanderings win the wilderness, and the enterprise which had been attended with so much trouble and hardship, and from which they had hoped to reap the richest result, was on the eve of being accomplished, the Divine command was given them to return to the very point in the wilderness from which they started. The immediate cause of this ignominious failure and retreat was, no doubt, their own obstinacy and unbelief. A wise and benevolent purpose lay hid under the apparently harsh and severe judgment, which subsequent events unfolded and explained. The children of Israel, as their conduct too plainly proved, were not as yet in a fit state to occupy the land, and carry out God’s intention of supplanting its wicked and idolatrous tribes by “a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” In the New Testament we also find several striking examples of this law. The salvation of the world is accomplished through treachery, false witness, and a cross. We are told by the evangelists that the disciples, after the resurrection, went back by the express command of Christ to Galilee, to the scenes and pursuits in which they were engaged when first called to follow Him. The same circumstances were repeated, the same miracles performed, as on the first occasion. This retrogression seems to have been wisely ordered as a preparatory discipline for reinstating them in that office from which, by their shameful desertion and denial of Christ, they had fallen at His death. By bringing them back to the old life, to the beginning of their course, He not only gave them a significant symbol of His willingness to overlook and forget all that had occurred during the interval, but also placed them in more favourable circumstances for the fulfilment of their noble mission as Christ’s witnesses and apostles to the world. The careful reader will observe a close similarity between the closing chapters of Revelation and the commencement of Genesis. The first and most prominent doctrine which Christianity teaches is the doctrine of retrogression as an essential element of progress. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” was its watchword when it first raised its voice amid the deserts and mountains of Judea. Repentance is the germinal bud of living Christianity. “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” And the beautiful profound truth hidden under this paradox is that not only are the spirit of childhood and the spirit of manhood not inconsistent with each other, but their union is essential to the highest spiritual culture. The afflictions and trials that bring the Christian low contribute in the end to raise him to a higher condition of heavenly-minded-ness. They may be regarded as a complication of inverse aids and assistances, by a right use of which the force of spiritual character may be more successfully displayed. And lust as the earthquake that fills a wide tract of country with ruins, and the storm that strews our coast with wrecks, or tears down our forests, or destroys life, are links in the chain of the weather which purifies our atmosphere, and supplies the materials of health and vigour to all animated nature, so are suffering and trials the iron links in that golden chain which connects earth with heaven. It is not suffering then glory, but suffering therefore glory. Our light affliction worketh out an exceeding great and eternal weight of glory. Death seems to the eye of sense the saddest and most mysterious of all retrogressions. “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” is the beginning and end, the source and destiny of the material part of our being. Death despoils us of all with which we were invested, terminates all the functions and feelings of life, resolves the body into its original particles, and scatters them over the face of the earth. But though to the eye of sense appearing a great loss, an unaccountable retrogression, it appears to the eye of faith, gifted with a keener and farther-reaching vision, a great, an immeasurable gain. The day of death is better than the day of birth, because death is a higher and nobler birth. Nay, the continuity of the path will not be broken, It is no strange and unknown scene upon which the just are ushered at death. The sacred employments of life will continue without pause or interruption amid circumstances the most favourable and congenial. The river that hides itself for a time in the earth, and breaks forth at a distance with a greater volume and a wider channel, does not sever its connection with the former part of its course. One more vision of retrogression, the sublimest and the most awful, reveals itself in dim outlines to our gaze from the pages of Revelation. When the earth shall have served the purpose for which it was created, as a scene of circumstances and temptations for the education of the immortal spirit, it will be reduced, we are told, to the state of chaos from which it sprung. “The elements shall melt with fervent heat, and the earth, and all the works therein, shall be burnt up.” And yet this sublime retrogression will be necessary to bring in a better world, where sin and sorrow shall be unknown. The scene of probation passing through this terrible ordeal will become the scene of enjoyment; and earth, purified by the baptism of fire, shall be transformed into heaven. (H. Macmillan, D. D.)
The passing of humanity
It is profitable, as well as sometimes pleasant, for a traveller, as he advances, by different stages of his journey, to look back on the scenes through which he has passed. It is pleasant to him to call to his recollection scenes which he formerly enjoyed; there is a pleasure also in remembering the rough and stormy passages of his journey, when he considers how he was helped through, them, how he has been delivered out of danger, and brought thus far on his journey. We are all pilgrims. Some of you have lately set out on your journey; some of you have advanced many stages towards the last. We shall, after a few more stages, all of us arrive at the end of our journey: how near we are to our end is uncertain.
I. Consider the representation the text gives us of the generations of men. For what is here spoken is not concerning one man, or one family of the human race, or one city, or a particular nation, or a certain age. It is true of all nations, of all generations, from the time of Adam and Noah to the present.
1. “One generation passeth away.”
2. As one generation passeth away, another cometh. This implies that it is the design of the great Author of our being that, though death has entered the world by sin, the world shall not be depopulated. What a wonderful idea does this give us of the almighty power and infinite wisdom of God! Of His almighty power.
We admire the wisdom and power of God in the creation. But is the power of the Preserver less than that of the Creator? Think of the creatures that swarm on the face of the earth, going away one generation after another, yet all preserved from the time of Noah until now--millions consumed, yet continually replenished. The wisdom of God, too, is apparent in this. For is it not observable that race has so succeeded race, that the world has never been depopulated. Labourers have never been wanting to till the ground; men endowed with talents of various descriptions have sprung up from time to time to carry on the various purposes of society. So in the Church of Christ. The designs of God have been compared to those of a great builder. One man comes and fells a tree and retires; another attained, even had he continued pure and sinless as at the first. He is not merely brought forward to the point from which he retrograded: he is advanced greatly beyond it. Schiller boldly says, “the Fall was a giant stride in the history of the human race.” The Deluge affords another illustration of the law we are considering. It was a terrible remedy for a terrible disease. Another retrograde movement, of scarcely less importance, occurred very speedily after this event. The confusion of languages, and the consequent dispersion of mankind, and their separation into distinct nations and races, seems at first sight an unaccountable procedure--hostile to the best interests and wisest processes of civilization; and yet, on the contrary, it has proved eminently helpful in forwarding the progress of the human race by the formation of national feeling, or patriotism, and the full, harmonious development of the “many-sidedness” of human nature. Descending the stream of Scripture narrative, we find that Joseph was sold into slavery as the path to the highest honours of Egypt; and that the latter end of Job, after he had been stripped of everything, was more prosperous than the beginning. When the children of Israel had reached the borders of Canaan, after their long and toilsome wanderings in the wilderness, and the enterprise which had been attended with so much trouble and hardship, and from which they had hoped to reap the richest result, was on the eve of being accomplished, the Divine command was given them to return to the very point in the wilderness from which they started. The immediate cause of this ignominious failure and retreat was, no doubt, their own obstinacy and unbelief. A wise and benevolent purpose lay hid under the apparently harsh and severe judgment, which subsequent events unfolded and explained. The children of Israel, as their conduct too plainly proved, were not as yet in a fit state to occupy the land, and carry out God’s intention of supplanting its wicked and idolatrous tribes by “a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” In the New Testament we also find several striking examples of this law. The salvation of the world is accomplished through treachery, false witness, and a cross. We are told by the evangelists that the disciples, after the resurrection, went back by the express command of Christ to Galilee, to the scenes and pursuits in which they were engaged when first called to follow Him. The same circumstances were repeated, the same miracles performed, as on the first occasion. This retrogression seems to have been wisely ordered as a preparatory discipline for reinstating them in that office from which, by their shameful desertion and denial of Christ, they had fallen at His death. By bringing them back to the old life, to the beginning of their course, He not only gave them a significant symbol of His willingness to overlook and forget all that had occurred during the interval, but also placed them in more favourable circumstances for the fulfilment of their noble mission as Christ’s witnesses and apostles to the world. The careful reader will observe a close similarity between the closing chapters of Revelation and the commencement of Genesis. The first and most prominent doctrine which Christianity teaches is the doctrine of retrogression as an essential element of progress. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” was its watchword when it first raised its voice amid the deserts and mountains of Judea. Repentance is the germinal bud of living Christianity. “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” And the beautiful profound truth hidden under this paradox is that not only are the spirit of childhood and the spirit of manhood not inconsistent with each other, but their union is essential to the highest spiritual culture. The afflictions and trials that bring the Christian low contribute in the end to raise him to a higher condition of heavenly-mindedness. They may be regarded as a complication of inverse aids and assistances, by a right use of which the force of spiritual character may be more successfully displayed. And just as the earthquake that fills a wide tract of country with ruins, and the storm that strews our coast with wrecks, or tears down our forests, or destroys life, are links in the chain of the weather which purifies our atmosphere, and supplies the materials of health and vigour to all animated nature, so are suffering and trials the iron links in that golden chain which connects earth with heaven. It is not suffering then glory, but suffering therefore glory. Our light affliction worketh out an exceeding great and eternal weight of glory. Death seems to the eye of sense the saddest and most mysterious of all retrogressions. “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” is the beginning and end, the source and destiny of the material part of our being. Death despoils us of all with which we were invested, terminates all the functions and feelings of life, resolves the body into its original particles, and scatters them over the face of the earth. But though to the eye of sense appearing a great loss, an unaccountable retrogression, it appears to the eye of faith, gifted with a keener and farther-reaching vision, a great, an immeasurable gain. The day of death is better than the day of birth, because death is a higher and nobler birth. Nay, the continuity of the path will not be broken, It is no strange and unknown scene upon which the just are ushered at death. The sacred employments of life will continue without pause or interruption amid circumstances the most favourable and congenial. The river that hides itself for a time in the earth, and breaks forth at a distance with a greater volume and a wider channel, does not sever its connection with the former part of its course. One more vision of retrogression, the sublimest and the most awful, reveals itself in dim outlines to our gaze from the pages of Revelation. When the earth shall have served the purpose for which it was created, as a scene of circumstances and temptations for the education of the immortal spirit, it will be reduced, we are told, to the state of chaos from which it sprung. “The elements shall melt with fervent heat, and the earth, and all the works therein, shall be burnt up.” And yet this sublime retrogression will be necessary to bring in a better world, where sin and sorrow shall be unknown. The scene of probation passing through this terrible ordeal will become the scene of enjoyment; and earth, purified by the baptism of fire, shall be transformed into heaven. (H. Macmillan, D. D.)
The passing of humanity
It is profitable, as well as sometimes pleasant, for a traveller, as he advances, by different stages of his journey, to look back on the scenes through which he has passed. It is pleasant to him to call to his recollection scenes which he formerly enjoyed; there is a pleasure also in remembering the rough and stormy passages of his journey, when he considers how he was helped through them, how he has been delivered out of danger, and brought thus far on his journey. We are all pilgrims. Some of you have lately set out on your journey; some of you have advanced many stages towards the last. We shall, after a few more stages, all of us arrive at the end of our journey: how near we are to our end is uncertain.
I. Consider the representation the text gives us of the generations of men. For what is here spoken is not concerning one man, or one family of the human race, or one city, or a particular nation, or a certain age. It is true of all nations, of all generations, from the time of Adam and Noah to the present.
1. “One generation passeth away.”
2. As one generation passeth away, another cometh. This implies that it is the design of the great Author of our being that, though death has entered the world by sin, the world shall not be depopulated. What a wonderful idea does this give us of the almighty power and infinite wisdom of God! Of His almighty power.--We admire the wisdom and power of God in the creation. But is the power of the Preserver less than that of the Creator? Think of the creatures that swarm on the face of the earth, going away one generation after another, yet all preserved from the time of Noah until now--millions consumed, yet continually replenished. The wisdom of God, too, is apparent in this. For is it not observable that race has so succeeded race, that the world has never been depopulated. Labourers have never been wanting to till the ground; men endowed with talents of various descriptions have sprung up from time to time to carry on the various purposes of society. So in the Church of Christ. The designs of God have been compared to those of a great builder. One man comes and fells a tree and retires; another goes to a pit, and collects a few stones, and he is gone; a third rears some pillars, and you see no more of him; a fourth lays rafters and beams, and goes his way; these men retire one after another; still the building goes on. Is it not evident that some one is at the head of all this, who has formed a plan, and who has skill to contrive?
II. Deduce some inferences from this subject--to promote a personal improvement of the whole.
1. Are all that have been before passed away? and are all that are now present, and all that will be in future, passing? What will be your state if you were to die now?
2. Then let us be concerned to do with diligence the work which God requires of us while in the present world. Now, the first thing which God requires of us is that we believe on the name of the Son of God: without this, nothing else will avail.
3. Then we who are pious, and active, and useful, in the present generation, should be concerned to do what we can that the succeeding generation which is to follow us may be wiser, holier, and better able to do good than we are. It should be our aim as parents in our families, as teachers in Sabbath and other schools, to train children up in the fear of the Lord, that the generation to come may be a seed to serve Him. We have great reason to rejoice that we were born in such a generation as this. We might have lived at the time when our ancestors bowed down to stocks and stones, and practised the most horrid abominations.
4. Has the grave been filling for thousands of years, and will the present and future generations of men descend thither also? What an awful and sublime idea does this give us of the last day!
5. Let us rejoice that there is another state of society in which there will be no such changes and passing away. In passing through this world, let us fix our eyes of faith on that “inheritance which is incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for those who are kept by the power of God, through faith unto salvation.” (S. Hillyard.)
What passes and what abides
(with 1 John 2:17):--The antithesis is not really so complete as it sounds at first hearing, because what the Preacher means by “the earth” that “abideth for ever” is not quite the same as what the apostle means by the “world” that “passes,” and the “generations” that come and go are not the same exactly as the men that “abide for ever,” But still the antithesis is real and impressive. The bitter melancholy of the Preacher saw but the surface; the joyous faith of the apostle went a great deal deeper, and putting the two sets of thoughts and ways of looking at man and his dwelling-place together, we get lessons that may well shape our individual lives.
I. The sad and superficial teaching of the preacher. The Preacher says “All is vanity.” That conviction had been set vibrating in his heart, as it is set vibrating in the heart of every man who does as he did, viz. seeks for” solid good away from God. That is his starting-point. It is not true. All is not vanity, except to some blasé cynic, made cynical by the failure of his voluptuousness, and to whom all things here are out of joint, and everything looks yellow because his own biliary system is out of order. He looks out upon humanity, and sees that in one aspect the world is full of births, and in another full of deaths. Coffins and cradles seem the main furniture, and he hears the tramp! tramp! tramp! of the generations passing over a soil honeycombed with tombs, and, therefore, ringing hollow to their tread. All depends on the point of view. This strange history of humanity is like a piece of sheer silk: hold it at one angle, and you see the dark purple; hold at another, and you see the bright golden tints. Look from one point of view, and it seems a long history of vanishing generations. Look to the rear of the procession, and it seems a buoyant spectacle of eager young faces pressing forwards on the march, and of strong feet treading the new road. But yet the total effect of that endless procession is to impress on the observer the transiency of humanity. Man is the lord of earth, and can mould it to his purpose, but it remains and he passes. He is but a lodger in an old house that has had generations of tenants, each of whom has said for a while, “It is mine,” and then they all have drifted away, and the house stands. “One generation cometh and another goeth,” and the tragedy is made more tragical because the stage stands unaltered, and the earth abides for ever. That is what sense has to say “the foolish senses”--and that is all that sense has to say. Is it all that can be said? If it is, then the Preacher’s bitter conclusion is true, and “all is vanity,” and chasing after wind. He immediately proceeds to draw from this undeniable, but, as I maintain, partial fact, the broad conclusion which cannot be rebutted, if you accept what he has said in my text as being the sufficient and complete account of man and his dwelling-place. There is immense activity, and there is no progress; it is all rotatory motion round and round and round, and the same objects come round duly and punctually, as the wheel revolves, and life is futile. Yes; so it is unless there is something more to be said. If all that you have to say of him is, “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” then life is futile, and God is not vindicated for having produced it. And there is another consequence that follows, if this is all that we have got to say. If the cynical wisdom of Ecclesiastes is the ultimate word, then I do not assert that you destroy morality, because right and wrong are not dependent either upon the belief in a God or the belief in immortality. But I do say that to declare that the fleeting, transient life of earth is all is to strike a staggering blow at all noble ethics. The man whose creed is only “to-morrow we die” will very speedily draw the conclusion “let us eat and drink,” and sensuous delights and the lower side of his nature will become dominant. There is more to be said; the sad, superficial teaching of the Preacher needs to be supplemented.
II. The joyous and profounder teaching of the apostle. The cynic never sees the depths; that is reserved for the mystical eye of the lover, so John says: “No, no; that is not all. Here is the true state of affairs: ‘The world passeth away, and the lust thereof, but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.” And what of the man whose life has been devoted to the things seen and temporal, when he finds himself in a condition of being where none of these have accompanied him? Nothing to slake his lusts, if he be a sensualist! No money-bags, ledgers, or cheque-books, if he be a plutocrat or a capitalist or a miser! No books or dictionaries if he be a mere student. Nothing of his vocations if he lived for “the world”! And yet the appetite is abiding; will that not be a thirst that cannot be slaked? The world is passing, and the lust thereof, and all that is antagonism to God, or separated from Him, is essentially as “a vapour that appeareth for a little time, and then vanishes away,” whereas the man who does the will of God abideth for ever in that he is steadfast in the midst of change. He shall “abide for ever,” in the sense that his work is perpetual. In one very deep and solemn sense, nothing human ever dies, but in another all that is not running in the same direction as, and borne along by the impulse of, the will of God, is destined to be neutralized and brought to nothing at last. There may be a row of figures as long as to reach from here to the fixed stars, but if there is not in front of them the significant digit, which comes from obedience to the will of God, all is but a string of cyphers, and their net result is nothing. And he “abideth for ever,” in the most blessed and profound sense in that through his faith, which has kindled his love, and his love which has set in motion his practical obedience, he becomes participant of the very “eternity of the living God.” This is “eternal life,” not merely “to know,” but to do the will of our Father. Nothing else will last, and nothing else will prosper any more than a bit of drift-wood can stem Niagara. Unite yourself with the will of God, and you abide.
III. The plain practical lessons that come from both these texts. May I say, without seeming to be morbid or unpractical, one lesson is that we should cultivate a sense of the transiency of this outward life? One of our old authors says somewhere, that it is wholesome to smell at a piece of turf from a churchyard. The remembrance of death present in our lives will often lay a cool hand upon a throbbing brow; and, like a bit of ice used by a skilful physician, will bring down the temperature, and stay the too tumultuous beating of the heart. Let me say again, a very plain, practical lesson is to dig deep down for our foundations below the rubbish that has accumulated. If a man wishes to build a house in Rome or in Jerusalem he has to go fifty or sixty feet down, through potsherds and broken tiles and triturated marbles, and the dust of ancient palaces and temples. We have to drive a shaft clear down through all the superficial strata, and to lay the first stones on the Rock of Ages. Do not build on that which quivers and shakes beneath you. Build on God. And the last lesson is, let us see to it that our wills are in harmony with His, and the work of our hands His work. We can do that will in all the secularities of our daily life. The difference between the work that shrivels up and disappears and the work that abides is not so much in its external character or in the materials on which it is expended, as in the motive from which it comes. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
But the earth abideth for ever.--
The abiding earth
We may look at the durability of the earth--
I. As a contrast. It abides in contrast with very much whose only constancy is the constancy of change.
1. The earth abideth in contrast with its own ever-varying appearances. Every year tells of the change of the seasons in which earth changes her raiment, and what does not geology tell of cycles in which the earth has changed her countenance and form beyond all that we can describe.
2. The earth abideth in contrast with human structures. Houses, villages, cities, citadels, where are they? Some utterly swept away: some in ruins: all destined to decay.
3. The earth abideth in contrast with the lives of individual men.
4. The earth abideth in contrast with the existence of nations.
II. As a type. It is a type of much that will outlast itself.
1. Of man. His animal nature may pass; his mental and spiritual being shall continue.
2. Of truth. Here, again, like man’s body, like the moods of the seasons, the forms of truth may change. But truth is eternal.
3. Of God. “They shall perish, but Thou remainest.” (U. R. Thomas.)
The earth permanent, man transitory
Permanence, then, characterizes the material world, while man, viewing him apart from his immortal hopes, lives a mere transitory life. There is, indeed, a sense in which even the material world suffers change. Of all outward things none are so associated with our conceptions of durability as “the everlasting hills.” And yet we know that the hills, in scientific strictness, are not everlasting: that rain and sun and storm are leaving their traces upon the scarred and seamed precipices, and that what the globe is at the present moment is the result of agencies irresistible and unceasing, though carried on through periods of time quite inconceivable. But the writer of Ecclesiastes is not viewing the world from a scientific, but from a practical point of view. Everlasting indeed is the material world in relation to the sixty, seventy, or eighty years allotted to human beings. And what makes the permanence of the material world as compared with the briefness of human life so oppressive is this: that man, thus hemmed in by outward limitations, compelled to do all which his hand finds to do within quite a moment of time, is yet conscious of views, feelings, longings, immeasurably too large for a creature whose life hero is evanescent. There is no imputation upon the lovingkindness of the Creator in the fact that He has created, let us say, a may-fly to be born in the morning and to die in the afternoon. It has no anticipation of a future. There is nothing startling in the fact that to a fly is assigned only the life of a fly. Am I putting contempt on the present life? Far from it. It is good, but yet as connected with another and higher life. It is bright with a light thrown back upon it from immortality. But view it without reference to that life. Withdraw the radiance which everlasting hopes throw around it; think of it as the kindling of ideas which are merely to be quenched; of cravings which are never to be satisfied; of high anticipations which never, never are to be fulfilled; and then must you not allow that this being, so strangely constituted, walking in a vain shadow and disquieting himself in vain, is really worse off than the may-fly, and that his existence is absolutely irreconcilable with faith in a wise and good Creator? I know not what amount of evidence would satisfy me, if I saw a bird of newly-discovered species with powerful wings, that it never was intended to fly and never in fact did fly. That it was capable of flying would be to me conclusive proof that it was intended to do so; and by analogy the existence of faculties and capacities unnecessary for a brief life here, out of proportion with such a life, and demanding eternity for their exercise, would convince me that man was made for immortality, and that his troubled and sin-stained life here was but the prelude to an endless existence, untroubled and unstained, under the eye of Him who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light. I own that I could see no reasonableness in urging the truth contained in my text, if I were unable to supplement it with this latter truth. What call would there be to meditate on the brevity of my life here, if it was not to be followed by another with which it is connected in a very momentous way? The creed of the Epicurean is odious and degrading; but the question is, Is it not the legitimate inference from a denial of man’s immortality? If man’s death is but as the death of an animal, how can his life be anything more than an animal life? But once accept the thought that his existence here is but a brief introduction to a diviner existence, and, while you ennoble this life, you make it a reasonable thing to dwell on its transiency, not to suggest merely lugubrious thoughts, nor to inspire an unpractical dejection of feeling, but because, short as it is, it is the seedtime of immortality, and because into this little space assigned us here below are crowded duties, responsibilities, opportunities, having the most intimate relation to our undying life beyond the grave. “One generation passeth away and another cometh.” There is something within us which makes it difficult to conceive this in its simple truth. Only by thought and training do we lay hold of the fact that the men of tile past were not shadows. I am aware that those who have no trust that we shall live hereafter speak nevertheless of a continuity which belongs to the human race, and remind us truly enough that though the individual passes away, the race continues, and moves forward to a better destiny; and that even if we as individuals are to be blotted out from God’s universe, we ought to work with energy in the faith that posterity will be blessed by our efforts, when we are ourselves forgotten. There is doubtless an element of truth in this, and also an element of disinterestedness which is valuable; but after all we shrink from the thought of being forgotten. Still more, there is surely something unspeakably dreary in the prospect, when we have striven hard for others, of passing into nothingness, and missing the result of our strivings. It is not in human nature to rouse itself to energy under such an absence or feebleness of motive. It is not alone the thought of being forgotten. An unselfish man, though he might be better pleased to be remembered, will bear even being forgotten if he may have some assurance that his labor is not in vain in the Lord; but to work without this assurance were dismal indeed--we may welt say impossible. To work and wait is the lot of the Christian. It is small consolation to us that the material earth abideth for ever, if the things we care for most are daily passing away, and we and they are hurrying to annihilation. Take away the immortality of man, and the continuity of the race is practically an unreality. It is not this poor negation which has done such mighty things in the world. I would dwell on the transiency of this life, not to depress, but to awake you to a profounder conviction of the value of the present moment, of the greatness of the issues which must be determined within this short life, by vast numbers so grievously misemployed, by vast numbers so utterly frittered away. We are to “number our days,” not so as to embitter life by the thought how few they are, but so as to “apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Much indeed that is said about the shortness of life is sadly unpractical. Perhaps it is best to think much more of life than of death, much more of living unto God without a moment’s delay, than of conjuring up anticipations of our last moments. There is comparatively little in the New Testament about death. Life, the new life in Christ, so glorious as to make the dissolution of the body comparatively unimportant--this was the thought which filled the foreground of the Christian prospect. Dwell, then, on the thought of death mainly as a motive to newness of life. The commencement of a year is a memento to us that one generation is passing away and another coming. There are other mementoes which God often sends. He sends the failing health, the waning strength, the disappointment of life’s most cherished hopes, the gathering of clouds round the eventide of life. Thus God often painfully reminds us how time is passing. True religion is not the putting ourselves right by some clever expedient which enables us to combine a worthless life with a Christian’s death. It is the making the life right. It is the regarding our existence here as an anticipation of the rest that remaineth for the people of God. The one condition of a Christian death is a Christian life. (J. A. Jacob, M. A.)
The durability of the earth contrasted with human mortality
This place of our sojourn, this earth, has many things tending to beguile us out of reflection, to lull us into unconcern. But it has some things fitted to awaken us to thought and apprehension. This should, in all reason, be the effect of such circumstances, and facts, as force on our attention the contrast between the duration of the earth itself and that of our abode on it. There are many things to illustrate this comparison, and force our thoughts upon it. History itself;--why is history, but because the generations of men are gone? We want to know something of them, and to converse with them, as a former world of men. And history tells us of one generation, and of another, that has passed away, leaving not a living “rack behind.” It is obviously suggested here, that we have another illustration of the text in places of interment, that have been such for ages. The earliest of the generations that have terminated their earthly existence, are gone beyond memory or tradition. In greater number there are dates of a later generation, still far gone in the past. And so you come down, at last, to the recent grave and tomb. But not only the abodes of the dead,--those of the living also, may yield illustration of the contrast, those of them which were built in a former age; or, take them collectively, in a village, town, or city. How many successions of the inhabitants, since it became a populous city! Would it be an extravagant conjecture that seven or eight times as many persons have died in it, as are at this hour living in it? But think, now, of the whole population having been so many times changed! It requires thought; because the change, being gradual, is at no one time presented in its full magnitude. Were it in the nature of things that there should be, at one grand sweep, the removal of so vast a number, repeated at the average period of an age of man, the event, and the succession of such events, would have an overwhelming awfulness. But what is in effect equal to this takes place, and but feebly excites attention. There may be many things incidentally suggesting themselves to reflecting minds that will strongly enforce the consideration of the brevity of life as contrasted with the permanence of the scene in which it is passed. Reflections of this character may occur under occasional and transient states of feeling,--excited at one time by objects that would not excite them at another. But we should think it must have happened to many, or to most men, to have this reflection excited at the view of some object or other,--“How much longer this has been--or shall be--than I--or any now living man.” There are, as we said, occasional states of feeling in which the reflection, so suggested, comes with vivid impression. And it were well to cultivate that reflective habitude through which the mind should he susceptible of instructive and solemn suggestions and impressions from any and all objects. To a mind so habituated, the transiency of life, the “passing away of the generations,” will be forcibly suggested by the view of such things as mountains, massive rocks, ancient trees, the never-tiring, never-ending, action of the sea, and the solid structures of human labour. Well may such objects make an impression of contrast with man, when we find them in Scripture taken as emblems to represent the unchangeableness and eternity of God. And we may observe, it is the manifest intention of the Divine Spirit, as shown in the sacred writings, that we should be taught to find emblems, in the world we are placed in, to enforce solemn instructions upon us. The reflection may include the ideas of all the various personal qualities--states of mind and character,--and condition altogether, of this unknown long succession. “Depravity has been here, in how many forms! Misery, of how many kinds and degrees! Visions of anticipation--deeply pondered schemes--fluctuations of hope and fear--thoughtlessness and consideration--practical atheism and devout sentiment! All this has passed away--and here is the object still, to which all this was, once, present!” And then to think there is yet to come more of all this, to be present to it--after we shall see it no more. What a train of sinners yet, but also, we trust, of saints, are to reside, or pass and repass, within sight of that pile of rocks. In a solitary and contemplative state of the mind, the permanent objects give the impression as if they rejected and scorned all connection with our transitory existence--as ii we were accounted but as shadows passing over them. They strike the thoughtful beholder with a character of gloomy and sublime dissociation and estrangement from him. It is true that the altering effect of time is visible on many of the objects thus contrasted with us by their permanence. But the extreme slowness of that alteration serves to display again that contrast, and to enforce the instruction. For example, the gradual decay of some mighty, ancient structure,--or of some magnificent cedar or oak,--the working away of the very rocks on the seacoast. The effect has been wrought, but so slowly and imperceptibly that no man can say that he has seen its progress. The man that has looked on the objects in his childhood can hardly, in his most advanced age, say that he perceives any difference. But then let him turn and look at his fellow-mortals, such of them as remain alive! He can recall the image of the childhood of even the oldest of them. The great general instruction from all this is,--how little hold--how little absolute occupancy we have of this world. When all the scene is evidently fixed to remain, we are under the compulsion to go. We have nothing to do with it, but as passing from it. The generation “comes” but to “pass away,” seeing another following it closely under the same destination. Men may strive to cling--to seize a firm possession--to make good their establishment--resolve and vow that the world shall be theirs. But it disowns them,--stands aloof;--it will stay, but they must go. It signifies to us, that equally to all it will yield one matter of permanence--just one, and no more, and that is--a grave. If that enduring possession of the earth will content us, that is secure. In all other senses of possession it will eject us. Men, in their earnest adhesion to it, may raise mighty works of enduring stability--towers, palaces, strongly built houses, as if they absolutely would connect themselves with the world’s own prolonged duration. Well! they may do so; and the earth will retain these, but will expel them. But should not the final lesson be, that the only essential good that can be gained from the world is that which can be carried away from it? Alas! that mere sojourners doom themselves to depart in utter deprivation--when their inquisitive glance over the scene should be after any good that may go with them,--something that is not fixed in the soil, the rocks, or the walls. Let us look on the earth in the spirit of this inquiry, “What has the bounteous Creator placed here?--what has the glorious Redeemer left here, that I may, by His grace, seize and take with me, and find it invaluable in another world?” It will then be delightful to look back, with the reflection, “I could not stay on that earth. I saw but a little while its enduring objects,--its grand solidities,--I saw them but to be admonished that I should remove. I have left them maintaining their unchanging aspects; but in my passage I descried, by the aid of the Divine Spirit, something better than all that they signified to me was no possession for me--I seized the pearl of great price, and have brought it away.” (J. Foster.)
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down.--
Opposite ideas of life: the materialistic and the spiritual
There are at least two very opposite ideas of human life working in men; and these ideas make life to man virtuous and blessed, or vile and miserable. Materialism propounds the one, spiritual Christianity the other. Solomon speaks what material philosophers teach, and what all mere worldly men feel life to be; Christ and His apostles reveal the experience of all genuine disciples of spiritual Christianity.
I. The one idea represents life as a transient appearance, the other as a permanent reality. Solomon says, speaking out the philosophy of Materialism, “One generation passeth away and another generation cometh.” “All is vanity, all is vanity”--a mere pageant, an empty show. Men, what are they? They rise from the dust and to the dust they go. A whole generation is but a troop of pilgrims, pursuing their journey from dust to dust. They soon reach their destination and disappear, but the earth, the old road over which they trod their way, “abideth for ever.” “Let us eat and drink, then, for to-morrow we die.” Ephemerous as we are, let us sport in the sunbeam while we have it; the starless night of eternal extinction will soon spread over us. So say the Materialists; their philosophy has no higher idea of life. In sublime contrast with this is the idea propounded in the New Testament. “He that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.” “He that believeth in Me,” says Christ, “shall never die.”
II. The one idea represents life as an endless routine, the other as constant progress. Solomon saw in nature what modern philosophers call the law of circularity everywhere. He saw the sun, the wind, the rivers, moving in an invariable circle, returning ever to the point whence they Set out. He compares this to human life, a mere endless routine. The motion of all organic life is from dust to dust. This is, says the Materialist, but a figure of man’s moral history; there is no progress,--it is an eternal round. Mankind, in all their efforts to improve themselves, are only like Sisyphus of ancient fable, rolling a heavy stone up a steep hill; the moment the hand is withdrawn it rushes to the valley again. This is a crushing idea of life; it comes over the soul like a black, rayless cloud of ice. There is some truth in it, but thank God it is not the whole truth. The true path of the soul is not a circle,--it is a ladder, like Jacob’s ladder, reaching from earth to the throne of the Eternal. Every golden rundle it climbs, it pierces a new cloud, gets new light; it hears new voices, sees new heavens, and thus passes “from glory to glory.” “It doth not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He does appear we shall see Him as He is.”
III. The one idea represents life as unsatisfying laboriousness, the other as a blessed activity. “All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing,” etc. Voltaire, the brilliant wit, the literary idol of France, expressed his experience of life in one word, “Ennui.” The man who has laboured most, and laboured in the highest departments of labour with a worldly spirit, must ever experience dissatisfaction of soul. Worldly labour can never satisfy the human soul. You may as well endeavour to empty the ocean with your bucket, or quench Etna with your tears, as to get happiness due of any amount or kind of labour wrought in a worldly spirit. The idea of labour, however, propounded by Christianity is the opposite of this. Labour need not be, and ought not to be unsatisfying. A good man is “blessed in his deed.” This idea is the true one. All labour should be inspired with the spirit of love to God, and trust in His paternal care. Such labour will be ever satisfying, ever blessed. The labour of love is the melody of life. Every true deed beats heavenly music into the soul.
IV. The one idea represents life as doomed to oblivion--the other as imperishably rememberable. The past is forgotten, the present will soon be in oblivion. Men and their doings are speedily lost in forgetfulness. Such is the gloomy idea of Materialism--an idea under whose dark and chilling shadow men may well weep and wail. But is it true? “The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.” The good man, “being dead, yet speaketh.” Thank God! Christianity tells us that man will never be forgotten. He will live for ever in the memory of those who love him. The genuine disciple of Christ has his name written in an imperishable book--“the Lamb’s Book of Life.” (Homilist.)
All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full.
The turn of the year
There is a truth underlying the old conceit which pictured the universe as moving in cycles. History repeats itself. Our individual experience--which is only history in its minuter detail--shows us how little of originality there is in any one of us, and how like to one another are the multifarious incidents of our daily life.
I. The year has reached its prime through stages differing little from those of former years. Every now and then some meteorologist, careful day by day to register the markings of his rain-gauges, his thermometers, and such other apparatus as may enable him to compare the weather of to-day with that of yesterday, comes out of his observatory to tell us of extreme heat or cold, of excursiverains or drought, or of some other phenomena which mark the year as exceptional since--well, since some other year, not so very long ago, after all, when he or his predecessors had a like tale to tell, which even then was not new, but old as the hills. Now, how true all this is in relation to human life. Some historians never tire as they tell us of the changes wrought from one age to another. They point out, and very truly, how the age of Victoria differs from that of Elizabeth; and in eloquent periods they describe how the face of society has changed, say, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth. But they forget that the face of society may have changed a very great deal, while the heart of it may have changed but slightly. Shakespeare’s master hand has left us the widest range of human character ever sketched by one pen; and that we so quickly recognize the truthfulness of every picture in that vast gallery of portraits arises from the fact that, being true to nature then, they are true to nature now.
II. But though the year has reached its prime, it has not attained it’s maturity. It is not the midsummer, but the autumn that brings us the season of harvest. It is not when the days are longest, nor when the earth is covered with the brightest flowers, nor when the trees of the forest wear their richest green, that men thrust in the sickle and reap. It is rather when the prime, and, in some sense, the beauty of the year is past. Nor, happily, does human life attain maturity at its meridian. There is a sense, indeed, in which the earlier manhood possesses a freshness and a vigour in which the later years of life must necessarily be wanting, and those who have thrown away the glorious opportunities of youth have lost what can never be recalled. But they who have lived half the allotted span of life, have, humanly speaking, their richest and noblest days still before them. The promises of youth have now to be followed by the ripe performances of manhood. Each season has its appointed work.
III. The turn of the year is indicated by appearances most fitting to the time. Year by year, in spite of human forebodings, the summer comes, and “the earth is satisfied with the fruit of God’s works.” With Him, stability is not dependent upon uniformity; nor is diversity of operation inimical to the unity of His plans. Hence it comes to pass that while the seasons of succeeding years afford us the never-ending variety which ministers to our pleasure at the same time that it excites our admiration, our delight and wonder are not less excited by the unfailing unity which marks all the operations of the Divine hand. So, too, in the still more complex workings of human life. Take, for example, that period of which we have already spoken as the “turn of life,” the age when the last tie that bound us to the days of youth has been snapped, and when, standing on the broad plateau of middle age, we can look forward only to such changes as shall prepare the way slowly but surely for the end. It is at this time we begin to realize most clearly how distinct are the successive generations of mankind. In earlier life there were about us many upon whom, in various ways, we were more or less dependent. But one by one they have gone; and so far at least as the past is concerned, we begin to stand alone. In later life, too, those about us will be found to belong to another generation--a generation younger than we, and destined to take our place when we have passed away. Some of us need, perhaps, to learn more thoroughly how little the world is dependent for its life upon us who dwell in it but for a little time. Creatures of a day, we are so apt to live as if assured of an eternal stay. It is thus we fail to regard the fitness of things, and forget that advancing age demands thoughts and words and deeds more becoming to it than would be those of our earlier life.
IV. The turn of the year reminds us how slow ripening is succeeded by a swift harvest. For months the grain has been growing slowly, and though the midsummer is past, it will yet be long before the fields will be generally “white unto the harvest.” “Behold the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it until he receive the early and the latter rain.” Not less varied and protracted is the discipline by which our Father seeks to produce in us the fruits of His heavenly husbandry. The restraints of childhood, the education of youth, and the cares of manhood are but so many processes by which He would lead us onward towards that perfection which is His ultimate object concerning every one. As the steady warmth of July days will prepare for the harvest the corn-blades produced by the months just past, so may the discipline of a life that has outgrown the inexperience of youth be expected to bring into fuller and more perfect maturity those graces of which but the germs have yet been formed. Anyhow, let us never suppose that, having left behind us the days of youth which were so fittingly emblemed by the changeful shine and shower of the early summer, we have lost our best opportunities for growth. It may be hard to form new habits now; but those we have formed may become more consolidated, and so our after lives, by stability of growth, may go somewhat to compensate for the shortcomings and waywardness of youth.
V. The turn of the year reminds us that nature provides for the fruitfulness of even short-lived growths. Very early in the springtime there were buds and blossoms that were none the less beautiful because their stay with us was short. The snowdrop never drank in the glory of the summer sunshine; yet the world would not have been complete without it. There are other plants that have a lesson for us beside the corn that ripens slowly, and, so to speak, centres upon itself the labours of the year. There is but one standard by which we may infallibly judge of the products of the earth, a standard applicable alike to the plant that blossoms and fades in one summer day and to the aloe blooming but once in its century, and to the oak tree that outlives many generations of men. That standard is the testing question Is its Maker’s purpose served? To live to Him and grow like Him--here is the great end of our being, by the serving or failing which we shall be approved or stand condemned. (F. Wagstaff.)
Views of life; false and true
What outward things are to us, depends very much on what we are ourselves. Take a landscape for instance. What various thoughts it suggests to different people. To the farmer it suggests land for pasture, the sportsman looks at it from another point of view, the artist sees in it the varying lights and shadows. It suggests to the poet great thoughts or feelings, to the devout man the power and love of God, and so forth. The writer of this book from which our text is taken is in one of his bad moods; he is disheartened and weary of life; nature seems to reflect the sadness of his soul Rivers running into the sea, and not accomplishing anything, all seem to proclaim the vanity of life, the emptiness of life. “All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full.” As a statement of fact, it is correct. And what is the sea better for them? They make no visible change in it, they do not even make it less salt; as far as an unthinking person goes, it seems sheer loss. “But the sea is never full.” And so we might think it is with man. Humanity, struggling and suffering, only to pass into the sea of nothingness. Egypt was a great nation at the time of Moses, what remains now? Some pyramids and a few mummies. In our sadder moments we are inclined to cry, “Wherefore hast Thou made all men in vain?” After all, this is not the true lesson of “All the rivers run into the sea.” The joy of mere living is worth the labour and is reward enough. Every little brook expresses gladness, irrespective of the end it accomplishes. Life is worth living and full of joy. In moments of health and activity we feel like that, but this will not always satisfy. Here is where the true lesson of the “Rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full” comes in. Why is the sea not full? The remainder of the verse answers the question. “Unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.” Solomon accepted the explanation of the mystery given in his day. We know the true reason. It is because the water is continually evaporating, the sun drawing the water up into the clouds, descending again, and giving beauty and fertility all around. Thus the rivers fulfil their true end. They lose life to find it again in new and more beautiful forms--not one drop is lost; every brooklet has its share in the beauty of the earth. Nothing is spent in vain in God’s universe; He is a workman who never wastes a particle of force or matter. This thought is comforting and helpful. “Life is a brief span--trivial and vain,” nay; no life is lost--its effect remains. No self-sacrifice, no deed of kindness is ever utterly lost. All goodness--every deed done, adds to the permanent stock on earth. It increases the heritage of truth and right which we hand on to remote ages. Thousands of years ago a man left his home and went, to live among strangers, he gave up his country and his kindred. His life was not lost, he became Abraham, the Father of the Faithful. Yes; the rivers of life run into the sea, but they are not lost. No life lived faithfully is utterly lost. It must be so, for Christ is at once the great explanation and pledge of this truth. His Cross seemed the end of all hope; yet the Cross was the triumph of His life--the beginning of everything. Without it there would have been no Resurrection, no Ascension. God brings gain out of loss. Christ has given us the assurance we shall live for ever; living to-day we shall live on for ever. The little rivers of life run into the sea of eternity, but they are not lost. Towards what sea is the river of our life flowing on unceasingly? In every continent the rivers are flowing on. There is a watershed in life, down either side our life may run. In which direction does our life run? Towards God--or away from Him, into darkness. (J. A. Campbell, M. A.)
Pursuit of happiness
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Now, this view of the monotony of things has a great deal of truth in it. If you look at the matter in one aspect, there is a striking lack of originality displayed in creation. Everything material goes through the same process of birth, maturity, decay and death, whether it be a star or a universe, or the humblest insect that crawls. Our own lives, too, what a sameness there is about them, looked at from this old writer’s point of view, which is very often our own. What a monotony there is about it all--what a lack of originality. We all go through the same programme in the main. We are each of us, as it were, given the main outlines of our little drama, and we are at liberty to fill in the scanty details for ourselves, all the plots are on the same model, and we seldom strike out any original line in the details. But is there not something more to be said on the matter? It is true that all things go through the same process of birth, maturity, decay and death; that in some aspects there is a deadly sameness throughout all creation from top to bottom. But there is also infinite variety, endless difference, nothing is precisely like anything else in the world. Examine as many as you like of any species of plants or animals, and no one will be found to be precisely like any other. Every dawn is different, and no two sunsets are alike; and though day succeeds day in orderly procession, yet no two days are alike in their combination of cold and heat, sunshine and shower, hurricane or sultry calm. Nor are the events they witness ever exactly reduplicated. And so with our daily lives and experiences. It is true that the plots of our little dramas are much alike, that the main outline is sketched in for us, and that we may only fill in the details of our lives. But it is those very details that we are apt to contemptuously pass by, that make our lives what they are, for better or for worse. It is in the details that individuality is shown--not in the main outline. There is no such thing as “mere detail”--detail is everything in this world. No two lives are alike, every existence is different, there is infinite variety in these very things that make our lives what they are. And the assertion that all things are full of weariness, because of their eternal sameness, is without foundation in fact. If the world seems full of weariness, the fault is in you, not in a world of infinite variety. This miserable plaint of the weariness of all things, then, is nothing new, and it is a cry that is still repeated in our ears only too often in the present day. What was the reason of it in the case of this philosophic grumbler of old? What was the reason of this unhappiness, in one who had everything that is commonly supposed to make life worth living--is the moral of the book that riches, power of intellect, artistic taste, refinement, learning, are all without value, and are powerless to give any pleasure to their possessor? By no means. All these things are good in themselves, may confer vast pleasure on those who have them, so long as they are not the end and aim of existence. Happiness is not the one aim and end of existence--it is the result of a well-lived life. If you make the attainment of happiness and pleasure the one object of existence as the Preacher did, then it will always elude you even as it did him. The Preacher was essentially an egoist, a selfish man. “How can I obtain happiness for myself?” was the cry of his soul, and although he tried every method, he never did obtain it. Just compare, for an instant, the life of this writer with its comfort, ease and luxury, to that of Jesus with its hardships, disappointments and sufferings. Both see the misery in the world, but while one sets to work to remedy it, the other sits and looks at it, and wrings his hands over it. Jesus saw the crookedness in life just as plainly as Ecclesiastes did, but instead of crooning a coronach over all human hopes and aspirations and endeavours, He set to work to make the crooked straight, bind up the brokenhearted, preach good tidings to the prisoners in the bonds of sin, and give a gospel of hope and encouragement to all; and in losing Himself in the service of others, He found a joy and peace that never left Him. It has ever been so, and it is so now. It is not from the toilers of earth that the cry of the weariness of all things goes up. It is not those who have to work from morning till night, and who are found day after day drudging away their lives at the same employments--it is not from these, as a rule, that the cry of the Preacher goes up. It is those who have nothing better to do with their time than to sit and brood over their little petty ailments or misfortunes, whose time hangs heavy on their hands, because of want of occupation, who have no conception of there being anything better in life than to pass through it as easily as possible--these are the people who are bored with existence. The men, however, who do the world’s work, who try to right the wrong, straighten the crooked, raise the fallen, and improve the world, are not so; they have no time in which to indulge in the luxury of “the blues.” They always find too much to do in the world, and in doing something for others they find a happiness that nothing else can bestow. (E. S. Hicks, M. A.)
The eye is not satisfied with seeing.
The unsatisfied eye
This fact is selected as an instance of man’s profitless curiosity, as a symbol of the insatiable-ness of the human mind. My remarks will, I think, prove applicable to two cases,--to the dreary doctrine that man is virtually nothing, and all his efforts are unavailing; and also to the Christian’s affirmation, that there is something better and more lasting than the objects of our sensuous vision.
I. I direct your attention to the thing itself which in the text is said not to be satisfied with seeing. Consider what instances of skill we gaze at with admiration, and cross oceans to behold, and yet how imperfect and clumsy they are compared with this little compact organ set in its bony cup, with its lenses and regulators and pulleys and screws, its curtaining iris and its crystal deep, its inner chamber of imagery on which are flung the pictures of the universe,--the aspects of nature, the shapes of art, the symbols of knowledge, the faces of love; this magic glass, both telescope and microscope, filled with the splendours of an insect’s wing, yet taking in the scenery of heaven; this sentinel of the passions; this signal of the conscious soul, kindled by a light within more glorious than the light without, and never satisfied with seeing. Such is the human eye. And from the lowest creatures, whose visual apparatus is a mere nervous speck, up to the most complex organisms, there is nothing that has the range of this organ. In certain specialties of vision man may not be equal to some animals or insects. The shark and the spider, the hawk and the cat, may see better on some particular plane of sight; but in that general power which far transcends any special capacity, in scope, in possibility, in educated faculty, in expressiveness, the human eye excels all others. If, then, superior qualifications are to be taken as proof of superior purpose, this fact of itself is significant as to the dignity and the destiny of man. But in this line of argument nothing seems more suggestive than the very statement of the text: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing.” Now, so far as we can judge, the merely animal eye is satisfied with seeing. The brute does not shift about to get better views of nature. He does not search the landscape for objects of beauty and sublimity. It is man only who finds in the opportunities of vision the inspiration of action, and in all that lies under the sun secures employment for a restless curiosity. He ponders unfathomable problems in the pebble and the weed, and eagerly searches the secrets of the universe. How much of human enterprise is simply the result of a longing for vision,--the desire to see strange lands, and look upon memorable faces, to watch the evolution of facts, and detect hidden causes! No man is satisfied with that which he sees right around him. The child longs to know what lies beyond the hills that bound his familiar valley, into what strange country the sun goes down, and upon what marvellous region the rainbow rests. The eye, however, is not satisfied with its own natural limits, but seeks the aid of instruments. As, in its aspects, it is the most striking of all the organs of sense, so does it transcend them all in its scope, both of space and time. This little orb of observation, turning on its minute axis, sweeps the splendid theatre of suns and systems, comprehending millions of miles in a glance, and visited by rays of light that have been travelling downwards for thousands of years.
II. What is it that is not satisfied with seeing? In no scale of created being,--not even the lowest,--is it the eye itself that sees. It is the instinct, or consciousness, back of the eye. Examine the dead organ in man or animal, and all its wondrous mechanism is there. Lift the fallen lid, and the light of the outward world flickers upon its surface. But the faculty of sight is not there. Whatever that faculty may be in the brute, we have seen that in man it is a peculiar and distinctive faculty. We have seen that to him belongs this desire for vision,--this pushing inquisitiveness that is never satisfied. Such, then, must be the inner and conscious nature of man. Such must be the mysterious power behind the eye,--the thing that really sees. Therefore the eye that is not satisfied with seeing is the spirit within us. The mind of man is the eye of man. And here opens an argument that rebukes materialistic disparagement and confirms Christian hope. It is because of the limitless nature of the human soul, that the eye of man never rests, but perpetually wanders over all the visible world, over all the regions of possible truth and beauty. Surely, if this were merely a mortal and limited nature, this would not be. Man would be satisfied with seeing.
1. In the first place, consider what it is that the physical eye itself implies. An examination of this mechanism alone,--these cups, these tissues, these muscles, these elastic veils,--shows at least that the eye is adjusted to the conditions of the external world, and that there are external things for it to behold. But, this being so, I ask, What is implied by that consciousness which acts behind the physical organ,--that faculty which really sees, and is never satisfied? What does that restless mind itself, with its capacities and instincts, imply? Surely it implies the existence of objects fitted to those capacities and instincts,--the existence of unlimited truth and beauty and goodness, and a field of deathless activity for that faculty which is never satisfied. Back of iris and retina there are other lenses. There is a lens of instinct, a lens of reason, a lens of faith, through which come reflections far beyond the visible veil of earth and heaven, images of ideal majesty and loveliness, and “a light that never was on land or sea.” Are these mere fantasies engendered from within? If so, I ask, What do these interior lenses imply? And why do they exist at all? What can we infer, but that in the wide realm of actual being there are spiritual objects which answer to its function? For the mind, and not the body, being the real eye, the faculty of looking out upon material forms is only one of its functions. This faith-vision, this perception of reason, is just as truly an original faculty, although now its objects may be seen only as “through a glass darkly.” You never really saw the most familiar object. Yet we do not distrust these transmitted images. We live in their light, and rejoice in their communion. Why, then, distrust these other conceptions, though they are but images also, and we may behold them only in that transparent world where the material lens shall be shattered, and we shall see as we never do here,--“face to face”? Why suppose these to be fantasies, any more than the mountains, the stars? This apprehension of God as an inscrutable Essence, yet also a veritable Presence; this impression on the retina of the soul of those who have vanished from our material sight,--are these but mists of fancy, or dreams of mortal sleep? I answer that they are as legitimate as any transcript of the outward world, only more indefinite, as all facts involved with the infinite and the immortal necessarily must be. There are diseased eyes, and there are defective eyes, by which the optic nerve brings false reports, upon which the outward world looks grim and obscure, to which all external things are a blank. So, too, there may be diseased and defective souls, whose images of spiritual things are fantastic and exaggerated, or whose vision is sealed altogether by sad, interior blindness. But these do not impeach the legitimate function of the eye, nor refute the general convictions of men. Moreover, as this faculty of vision that permits no limit to its material discoveries, and looks beyond these sensuous veils, is never satisfied with seeing, I ask, What does this fact itself imply? Surely it suggests boundless opportunities of action. The desire to see is never quenched: nevertheless the mere physical organ of sight grows weary, and gladly retreats under its drowsy lids. The dew of sleep is required for its refreshment, and the periods of darkness indicate a necessary suspension of its work. Age draws over it a filmy curtain. And so comes Death, shutting up the worn-out easements, and bringing on the final night when all this curious mechanism is resolved into its elements. But the actual eye is not yet satisfied with seeing, and the forces that shatter its material instruments do not quench its capacity or its yearning. But no capacity is without its sphere, no instinct is for ever baulked. The unsatisfied eye demonstrates the deathless and ever-unfolding mind.
III. Therefore in perfect consistency with what has been said, I also urge this truth,--that the eye sees more and more, and more and more shows its capacity for seeing, in proportion as it becomes accustomed to worthy objects. There may be diversities of spiritual, as there are diversities of physical faculty. Consider what some men will train their natural eyes to behold,--the sailor at the masthead, the Indian in the woods, the Esquimaux among the snows. And so there are diversities of spiritual sight, some of them perhaps resulting from original differences in power. But the spiritual vision of any man may be educated to still better results. One reason why men have not this spiritual discernment is because they will not see, because they neglect the faculty of seeing. It has been truly said that “the eye sees only that which it brings the power to see.” It does not create the thing to be seen, any more than the microscope creates the pomp of an insect’s wing, or Rosse’s tube the splendours of Orion. But we see just what we exercise the power to see; and no external revelations, however urged upon us, will make up for the lack of spiritual refinement. Educate the physical eye if you would see more of the natural world. But, even then, the mind must be educated, if we would discern the glory and the beauty everywhere, and live in a world of perpetual delight, detecting a rarer loveliness in the daisy, and pictures of wondrous grandeur in the shadows that drift along the mountain. It is not merely far travelling that enlarges and enriches the vision. The observant philosopher discovers a world of wonders in “a tour around his garden.” Let the eye of the soul be educated if you would see the world in new relations, if you would detect the true significance of life, if you would discern the real blessedness of every joy and the right look of every affliction, if you would stand consciously in the presence of God, and gaze upon spiritual things. What we really need is not more things but better eyesight. And is it not this eye of the soul that we must mainly rely upon? How far will physical sight guide us? How long will it last us? How much will it enable us to see? At best it gives us only appearances, and itself fades and grows dim ere long. Think, then, of the desolation of those who have no interior vision. How light, comparatively, has been the affliction of physical blindness to men like Niebuhr, who, when the veil had fallen upon present things, could cheer the darkness of his closing years by retracing in the luminous track of memory the scenes of early travel; or to Milton, who, “with that inner eye which no calamity could darken,” saw “those ethereal virtues flinging down on the jasper pavement their crowns of amaranth and gold.” (E. H. Chapin.)
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be.
Old things in new time
One of the things which strike an observer of human beings is the disposition they perpetually betray to imagine and expect something in the future, different from all that has been in the past. We not only anticipate futurity, but anticipate it as bearing a character, and doing a work, peculiar to itself. This habit is seen in all, and is revealed in nearly every way. Futurity is to do wonders. It is to cure all diseases, to correct all mistakes, to purge from all vices. To realize our conception, it must possess the mysterious powers of magic. The past is not permitted to afford any guidance in our mental wanderings into time to come. It will be affected by no such vulgar laws as have been used to operate. It will have a sphere and dominion of its own. It will present an improved series of life and providence. We speak of it as “doing,” “bringing,” “making” things, often forgetting that it is only the duration in which they are done, and brought, and made, by God and men.
I. The first application we make of the sentiment is to life. Who does not entertain a vague notion that some considerable variety will be introduced into his future life, some great change in the mode and manner of his outward existence? Yet this is a notion which a little reflection and a little memory may serve to rebuke. There is, perhaps, no solid ground on which to hope that in respect to circumstances this year will not be, to you, as the last. There is no reasonable probability, perhaps, that you will go into a different way of business, a different sphere, a different station. And as to more directly personal matters, it is certain that the common processes and ways of life will continue the same. Eating and drinking, sleeping and waking, thinking and speaking, weeping and rejoicing, will continue to be the daily experiences and occupations of all. There is something appalling in all this, when considered alone. This monotony of life is very solemn, and very sad. And it is because men feel it to be so dismal and distressing, that they constantly do violence to all sense and fact in fancying that the future will afford, they know not how, a different kind of being and of occupation. Hope is the safety-valve of tribulation and satiety: but for it, verily there would be more suicides. What are we but, in a figure, drivers over the same ground of life, with little variety but that of a fine or a wet day, a summer or a winter season, good or bad roads? And what is the remedy? As to hoping, that is a poor and an insufficient one. It is rather an excuse than a reason for peace and contentment. When men take no interest in food, what is the cure? We seek to create an appetite, by rectifying the system, giving the powers health and tone. And this must be the cure here. Men are miserable; they complain of the world, of their fellows, of their lot; this dish is bad, that is badly dressed, and so on. The fault is in the men. They want an appetite for life. Let there be that, and however common and plain the provision, there will be no lack of relish. But while that is wanted, the costliest delicacies and nicest preparations will impart but a mean and meagre gratification. A fictitious taste will always be a fickle one. Men tire of that for which they have no strong and healthy craving. Even stimulants lose their power, and to sustain the effect you must increase the consumption. The greater part of men have no serious purpose in life. They are destitute of great and abiding purposes, towards which to direct their energies, and which may give importance and continuity to their existence. Their history is not one united whole, but is made up of scraps; it is not a stream flowing on to one specific point, but so many unconnected pools. They labour not in continuous service, but chance-work. They are not filled with a solemn and spiritual idea, not engrossed by a momentous truth, not moved by an all-absorbing passion. Be assured that nothing can give zest and vivacity to life but a deep interest in the soul, and that nothing can secure that like the minding of the things of the Spirit. The only way to realize the charm, and fulness, and power of your being, is to live yourselves, in the Bible sense of the expression; to live spiritually, to live for Christ, to live toward God. This is the life that you were made for, and redeemed for; and, without it, the end of your being cannot be attained, its large capacity cannot be filled, its rich privilege cannot be enjoyed. Having this, you will not complain of the littleness of events and lots, for everything is great to him who connects it with responsibility, eternity, and God; or of their meanness, for everything is glorious to him who regards it as the occasion and the instrument of a Divine service and a spiritual salvation; or of their staleness, for everything is new to him who brings to it an eager will, a full purpose, and affections renewed and stimulated by the love of Jesus and the love of men. “Newness of life” must be sought for, not in strangeness of condition, but ever-quickened spirituality of soul. And let me, in this connection, press home to you the thought, that you have before you an everlasting future. The provision you have to make is not for time, but for eternity. Even if a skilful management of your materials could infuse something like freshness into your existence here, what is your resource for the endless hereafter? The mistake you ere making now, even did not more solemn considerations interpose, would be a mistake in the world to come. It is a solemn business to provide for the immortal interest of souls like yours, to secure them against the oppressive monotony of changeless being. All external expedients must of necessity fail, and the only hope remains in an intellect ever opening upon some fresh view of the truth of God, and a heart ever growing into a closer likeness to His holiness, and a fuller fellowship in the eternal Spirit.
II. We apply the sentiment to responsibility. Every one who has noticed his own heart or the hearts of others must have perceived how prone is man to rely on time for the production of mental, moral and spiritual changes in himself. They know there are intellectual defects, but they expect them to be supplied; they know there are improper habits, but they expect them to be corrected; they know there are sinful principles, but they expect them to be removed. They do not intend to continue ignorant, or irregular, or ungodly. Now, it is of the first importance to remember and possess, as a practical conviction, that time does nothing, in the ease of any of the changes that take place in men’s minds and hearts and lives, besides the affording a season in which they may be effected. He who expects to be mended merely by time, whatever the nature or measure of his defects, will find himself in as poor a plight as he who should stand by the stream till all the waters have passed along. Time will not change the nature of the seed sown, but only afford opportunity for its growth. Men will never be learned without study; will never be purged of bad habits without self-denial and decision and perseverance; will never become Christians, or, as Christians, abound in grace, without repentance, earnest faith, mortification of the flesh, crucifixion of the members, the entire and unconditional conversion of the heart to God and godliness. Is it not, after all, the moral pains, the effort of will, the self-sacrifice required, that let and hinder you? Is not your case exactly like that of a man who begrudges the toil and trouble of clearing a field that is overrun with weeds, and postpones them, in hope that hereafter the labour needed may be less? We implore you to take counsel of past experience. The hope of this present time was the hope of years ago. As you think or rather dream now, you used to dream. With what result? You have not attained the expected change. Will not holiness and duty involve renewal, a labour, a fight? Will it not always require the utmost unity of heart, and strength of will, and application of power? “Ah,” say you, “but there is the Holy Spirit.” But does He dispense with sorrow for sin, and subjection to Christ, and strenuous exertion? Will He weep for you, repent for you, believe for you, obey for you? Does He work without means and motives? The question then returns, What do you now? No reasonable man can look into the future with any confidence, while he is going on in sin; and he who says, “Time works wonders, I shall be wise, though now a fool, I shall be correct and consistent, though now far from being so, I shall be holy though now cherishing worldliness,” only postpones, but thereby augments, not diminishes, the labour.
III. We apply the sentiment to providence. The term “providence” is used here, of course, in a restricted sense, to denote the course of events taking place upon the globe. All events are under the control and direction of God; and all are connected, directly or indirectly, with the establishment and extension of His spiritual kingdom. We know of no distinction between ecclesiastical and worldly providence. All things are given into the hand of Christ, and He orders and governs all for the sake of His Body, the Church. The principles of spiritual providence will remain the same. Sometimes we fear. The question is suggested, “If the foundations be destroyed, what shall the righteous do?” It is highly probable that we are fast entering upon scenes to try the faith and fortitude even of “the elect.” It would, however, be a grievous error to suppose that, whatever the materials and outward forms of providence may be, its principles and purposes are not abiding and immutable. The laws which govern all physical and spiritual things “change not.” To fulfil the blessed designs of the Gospel is still His end. Christianity is the reason and the rule of all things. Whatever happens is a step towards the final and full attainment of the highest, holiest and most gracious purposes. That which seems to hinder is made to help. The path may be strange, but the Guide will bring them home. The prescription may be in an unknown tongue, but the Physician will complete their cure. God’s dispensations may be hidden, but God is not; and “all things are yours, for ye are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” Are you Christ’s? The scenes and processes of Providence are more alike in every ago than many, at first sight, may suppose. Sometimes the past, especially the ancient ages of the world, seem to have been very different from our own. And, doubtless, in some respects, thank God, they were. But when their spirit is separated from their form, and allowance is made for the fact that they are ancient, that we have, therefore, their great and prominent events and features, without the filling up of things minor and multitudinous, they are not so peculiar after all. What a different earth would ours appear to him who saw nothing but its mountains! God does not work so much by sudden and violent operations as in a gradual and silent way. The most important processes in Nature and in Providence are the most silent. The moral instrument of God’s providence is the same. Whatever change may take place in the human mind, in social customs and relations, in outward and material circumstances, truth will still be the means of advancing the Divine designs respecting our world. Our duty is therefore as plain as it is important, to study, to feel, to speak, to act, to spread the truth; in particular, the living and abiding truth of Christianity. Let us not, then, spend our time and waste our powers in a vain attempt to comprehend or predict events, but let us set about wholesome and unchanging duty. We are not called to be moral astrologers but moral husbandmen, and a miserable thing it would be for us to cast nativities and--die. (A. J. Morris.)
On the resemblance between the future and the past
The prerogative of imagining and looking into the future is one of which men avail themselves with the least moderation. How much time is spent in conjectures! See this illustrated in the flattering expectations of youth; the sad fore-castings of the sorrowful; our conjectures about political complications; the schemings of enthusiasts and partisans; and even in the musings of men who, rising above what is merely pleasant or useful, have the Good in view. This is certainly not the most profitable course. Else, why nothing but a bitter aftertaste left of extravagant expectations when these are disappointed? This is commonly thought to be the language of satiety. If it be regarded as a complaint, springing out of a longing for novelty, and adducing as its grievance that there is none to be found, then such a mental condition must be inferred; for when the mind in its hankering after new impressions fails to gain any, there sensibility must have become wholly dead. But these words stand here without reference to a personal experience, as a deliberate observation, followed by a steady and many-sided contemplation of the world.
I. “Nothing new under the sun” most naturally expresses the aspect of the world to the eye of the man who everywhere in the world seeks the Lord.
1. We must have regard, not at all to the exterior, but to the interior of events, both in the material and in the spiritual world. The exterior is ever varying, the interior is ever the same. What of the ever-changing situations of the heavenly bodies? The same laws have determined them from the beginning. What of the changes that appear in my body, in the plant world? The same powers and their laws are ever at work there to produce essentially the same forms. The Unchangeable is everywhere impressed upon His works!. . . So in what concerns you more closely, into which you may fathom still more deeply--the spiritual world. Why wonder at a fellow-creature who furnishes you with an unusual sight by extraordinary virtues or vices, wisdom or folly, skill in thought and action or unaccountable peculiarity in these? Look into his soul! There are the same faculties as in yourself, and the operations of the same laws. Consider the great mystery how the two worlds to which you belong are united; how mind is ever gaining fresh dominion over matter, and thereby advancing human fellowship, and education, and convenience. See in this nothing novel. They are all but evolutions of the same Divine thoughts, advances toward the same goal of His grace, according to the same plan of His wisdom; in short, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
2. To him who everywhere in the world seeks the Lord, there is no distinction between Great and Little. If the Lard does everything, and is active in everything, then everything must be worthy of Him, and no one thing will rise superior to another, as He is always equal to Himself. With Him in view, therefore, every event will reveal the same power or principle. This may appear strange to those who consider only the outside of things, and judge by the impressions which it produces on their sense and feeling. They overlook the greatness and glory of the Little; hence they deem great events to spring from trifling causes, and see novelty in quick, unexpected revolutions; hence the wondering gaze of folly here, and their stupid blindness before God’s revelation there. They see not the same elements and laws in the desolating storm as in the morning breeze; in the sudden death as in the steadily-maintained warfare of life and death. A new light of truth flames high in some quarter, and errors vanish. Now, what astonishment seizes men, and what congratulations abound! This, because they see not the heralding sparks of that, and the secret decay of these.
II. Such sentiments are connected with this view as belong to the exclusive endowments of the pious.
1. Every one holding this view finds so much the more cause to be contented with the post which God has assigned to him in the world. To him nothing is vain, and every position in the world may be fraught with benefit.
2. With such a view of the world, a man will use even in little and common things far greater diligence than others. Herein we see the humility of the pious man, which is a source of much good both to himself and to the world. Neglecters of the Little are sorry promoters of the good cause, and never come by fair means to the Great.
3. It hence follows that, more than any other, this mode of looking at the world is connected with the assured hope that we shall succeed from time to time in becoming better. This is one of the first characteristics of the future to be perceived. Not so to the man who is waiting for somewhat outwardly great and extraordinary. He is doomed to much anxiety and disappointment. By looking, then, through the surface of earthly things into their inner essence, we see the true connection of the Divine government; are able to greet the future as a friend, of whose thoughts we are sure, however changed his demeanour; and in modesty and humility may calm ourselves with the conviction that we shall receive from our Heavenly Father henceforth nothing different from what His love has already bestowed upon us in the past. (F. D. E. Schleiermacher.)
The helpful past
There are conclusions in science which are inevitable and independent of the student, except so far as his intellect is clear enough to understand them; but the moral conclusions, and the conclusions of the practical conduct which a man shall try from certain data or propositions upon which he or others shall be agreed--those vary with his immediate state of conscience or spirit. Now, with regard to this principle that Solomon found to be a great weariness. The conclusions that a man shall draw from it are very much dependent upon the man himself. There is a desire in man for that which is best. As long as the river ran into an eternity, it seemed to be lovely, but when we find that has got into a circle too, and that the water will come down in rain back again, that becomes a weariness. Man has a passion for something new; fairy tales, and many romances are built upon a desire that there should be something that has not been, and this spirit in a child is no doubt a great element of joy. Now, whether this weariness is yours, I know not; that it has been a passing feeling--judging from myself--I conclude, but as it is the fate to be so, it is the wisest thing to see what good it has, and to rejoice that this year will bring nothing new at all, that it will be the old story again, which will at times be a weariness, but also at times a joy; for remember that human life is based upon this great postulate--“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done, is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Men try many ways to find out something new, but it is in vain. They travel sometimes for a change, and they go to the East, but they find that there are people there the same as elsewhere, and even travelling sometimes gets a weariness. What has been will be. Humanity is the same. Others try visiting. You get new people to come and see you, and you find out the old tune in new mouths. There are no new people scarcely. It is the old story; there is a little difference in the instrument perhaps, but you hear the old tunes, the commonplace talk, the same things over again, and why not? That is the way of life--let a wise man accept it. Now, see why it is the way. We have all to start from the beginning. We have all to build up, not what many of you love to build up--a house made with hands, but the end of life is to build up “a house not made with hands,” to be hereafter “eternal in the heavens.” When a man sees clearly that to build his character is of more consequence than to build his fame and fortune, then he is wise, for instead of he--a poor weakling--having to face the unknown, he knows what is coming, he learns to rejoice that he can consult the fathers, for what happened yesterday is a future precedent, and finding the thing that has been is that which shall be, the elements of uncertainty--fear and terror--are removed. If then I forget for a moment that the building of a character is the only wise thing for which I came into the world, and for which all other things exist, as far as I am concerned, then this glorious repetition, this wonderful monotony, this constant changeableness, is an element of my success. I know pretty much what duties and circumstances life can bring, I know its utmost, I have seen its worst and its best, and I know what I am about; I can go forth to build, knowing the materials I have at my disposal, what the dangers and difficulties I have to encounter, and the issues that will come to pass, and so for to-morrow I am prepared. For remember that of all a man’s possessions, the past is the surest, greatest, and most useful. The past is man’s storehouse, it is his volume to which he goes again and again for advice as to the future. He turns it over, as we turn over the pages of a book of law or a dictionary. He knows where to find each thing he wants. So when to-morrow comes, and brings me a difficulty, I go to yesterday, and, turning the volume over, I look for bodily pain perhaps, and I find that in a certain month of a certain year I suffered bodily pain to a degree to make sleep impossible, and life a despair. But it says at the end--“Got through it, not so bad as I thought.” And so the past is my dictionary, I know the meaning; it is my book of precedents, I know what will happen. Some man speaks evil of you, and, when you are young, it disturbs you much. It is like a scratch on the skin, it does not go deep, but it gives you an amazing pain while it lasts. But one fool saying another is a fool is simply a statement that he is a fool, and ‘thus to the wise man the past is a great hope for the future. It contains balm, consolation and comfort. It is the history of difficulties that turned out not to be so difficult. It is the history of struggles that came to an end. It is the history of long nights that were always followed by morning. Therefore to the wise man it is a joy to say with Solomon: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun.” We have character to build up, and we require the old circumstances, ways, results, the inevitable methods of God, in order that we may surely and safely build. Then as we have to learn things, and follow them for ourselves, it is needful that the same old story be applied to each of us, for were the circumstances of a man’s life greatly to vary, the character that would result must vary too. I am content. I look forward to this year, I confess, with no great enthusiasm, because I have ceased to be an enthusiast, and am simply a workman now. Life will bring me nothing new. Therefore if you expect me to be eager--excuse me--I have seen the show before. But no terror is possible, no cowardice, and no fear. I go forth with a grave heart, and the reason of it is this--“What has been, will be.” Old deliverances are the deliverances of the future. The thing that has been shall be, God who did deliver in the olden time, will deliver now, and the fixity of God, and the uniformity of human experience, then, instead of being (as they were to Solomon) a weariness and vexation, shall become at last a comfort and joy. So that, beginning a new year, we begin it with courage and quiet Confidence: The chances are, not one of us will find the year too much for us, because we have tried “a great many years, and have got the better of them. The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, He will deliver me out of the hands of the Philistine.” Thus then I rejoice, and look forward to the three hundred and sixty-five days with all their monotony--the sun rising and setting at the same time and place, knowing that through the same pane of glass the sun will shine (if it shines at all), with a quiet faith and confidence. For if the sun should rise in a different way I should not be ready for it. If the sea should take to going up-hill, there would be very sad changes with regard to human nature. If the law of gravity should take another change in consequence of the millennium, it would be a very sorry thing for human life. But human life is built up, all churches are erected, all institutions are founded, all coal pits sunk, all candles lighted, all the steps of men move according to one great proposition--what has been shall be. (G. Dawson.)
Imaginary schemes of happiness
There are few people who do not form in their minds agreeable plans of happiness, made up of future flattering prospects, which have no foundation except in their own fancies. This disposition, so general among mankind, is also one of the principal causes of their immoderate desire to live. A child fancies that as soon as he shall arrive at a certain stature, he shall enjoy more pleasure than he hath enjoyed in his childhood, and this is pardonable in a child. The youth persuades himself that men, who are what they call settled in the world, are incomparably more happy than young people can be at his age. Thus we go on from fancy to fancy, and from one chimera to another, till death arrives, subverts all our imaginary projects of happiness, and makes us know by our own experience what the experience of others might have fully taught us long before, that is, that the whole world is vanity. Of this vanity I would endeavour to convince you, and I dedicate this discourse to the destruction of imaginary schemes of happiness. All the past hath been vanity, and all the future will be vanity to the end of the world. The thing that hath been, is that which shall be: and that which is done, is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun.
I. Let us first of all determine the sense of the text, and examine what error the wise man attacks.
1. When the wise man says that which hath been, is that which shall be, he doth not mean to attribute a character of firmness and consistency to such events as concern us. A spectator young in his observations, and distant from the central point, is amazed at the rapid changes, which he beholds suddenly take place like the creation of new worlds; he supposed whole ages must pass in removing those enormous masses, public bodies, and in turning the current of prosperity and victory. But should he penetrate into the spring of events, he would soon find that a very small and inconsiderable point gave motion to that wheel, on which turned public prosperity, and public adversity, and which gave a whole nation a new and different appearance. Sometimes the rare qualities of one single general animate a whole army, and assign to each member of it his proper work, to the prudent a station which requires prudence, to the intrepid a station which requires courage, and even to an idiot a place where folly and absurdity have their use. From these rare qualities a state derives the glory of rapid marches, bold sieges, desperate attacks, complete victories and shouts of triumph. The general finishes his life by his own folly, or is supplanted by a party cabal, or sinks into inaction on the soft down of his own panegyrics, or a fatal bullet, shot at random and without design, penetrates the heart of this noble and generous man. Instantly a new world appears, and that which was is no more; for with this general victory and songs of triumph expired. It would be easy to repeat of individuals what we have affirmed of public bodies, that is, that the world is a theatre in perpetual motion, and always varying; that every day, and in a manner, every moment exhibits some new scene, some change of decoration. It is, then, clear that the proposition in the text ought to be restrained to the nature of the subject spoken of.
2. But these indeterminate words, “that which hath been shall be, and there is no new thing under the sun,” must be explained by the place they occupy. Without quoting other examples, we observe that the words under consideration occur twice in this book, once in the text, and again in the fifteenth verse of the third chapter, where we are told, that which hath been is now, and that which is to be hath already been. However, it is certain that these two sentences, so much alike in sound, have a very different meaning. The design of Solomon in the latter passage is to inform such persons, as tremble at the least temptation, that they were mistaken. But in our text the same words, the thing that hath been is that which shall be, have a different meaning. It is evident by the place in which the wise man put them that he intended to decry the good things of this life, to make the vanity of them appear, and to convince mankind that no revolutions can change the character of vanity essential to their condition. We often declaim on the vanity of the world; but our declamations are not unfrequently more intended to indemnify pride than to express the genuine feelings of a heart disabused. We love to declaim against advantages out of our reach, and we take vengeance on them for not coming within our grasp by exclaiming against them. A man waiting on the coast to go abroad wishes for nothing but a fair wind, and he does not think that he shall find other, and perhaps greater, calamities in another climate than those which compelled him to quit his native soil. This is an image of us all. Our minds are limited, and when an object presents itself to us we consider it only in one point of view, in other lights we are not competent to the examination of it. Hence the interest we take in some events, in the revolutions of states, the phenomena of nature, and the change of seasons; hence that perpetual desire of change. Eyes never satisfied with seeing, and ears never filled with hearing. Poor mortals, will you always run after phantoms! No, it is not any of the revolutions you so earnestly desire can alter the vanity essential to human things: with all the advantages which you so earnestly desire, you would find yourself as void, and as discontented as you are now.
II. Let us endeavour to admit these truths with all their effects. Let us attempt the work, though we have so many reasons to fear a want of success. There are four barriers against imaginary projects; four proofs, or rather four forces of demonstrations in evidence of the truth of the text.
1. Let us first observe the appointment of man, and let us not form schemes opposite to that of our Creator. When He placed us in this world, He did not intend to confine us to it: but when He formed us capable of happiness, He intended we should seek it in an economy different from this. Without this principle man is an inexplicable enigma: his faculties and his wishes, his afflictions and his conscience, his life and his death, everything that concerns man is obscure, and beyond all elucidation. His faculties are enigmatical. Tell us, what is the end and design of the faculties of many Why hath he the faculty of knowing? What, is it only to arrange a few words in his memory? Only to know the sounds or the pictures to which divers nations of the world have associated their ideas? Hath man intelligence only for the purpose of racking his brain, and losing himself in a world of abstractions, in order to disentangle a few questions from metaphysical labyrinths, what is the origin of ideas, what are the properties, and what is the nature of spirit? Glorious object of knowledge for an intelligent being! An object in general more likely to produce scepticism than demonstration of a science properly so called. Let us reason in like manner on the other faculties of mankind. His desires are problematical. What power can eradicate, what power can moderate his desire to extend and perpetuate his duration? The human heart includes in its wish the past, the present, the future--yea, eternity itself. Explain to us what proportion there can be between the desires of man and the wealth which he accumulates, the honours he pursues, the sceptre in his hand, and the crown on his head? His miseries are enigmatical. Who can reconcile the doctrine of a good God with that of a miserable man, with the doubts that divide his mind, with the remorse that gnaws his heart, with the uncertainties that torment him. His life is a mystery. What part, poor man, what part are you acting in this world? Who misplaced you thus? His death is enigmatical. This is the greatest mystery of all enigmas. Lay down the principle, which we have advanced, grant that the great design of the Creator, by placing man amidst the objects of this present world, was to draw out and extend his desires after another world, and then all these clouds vanish, all these veils are drawn aside, all these enigmas explained, nothing is obscure, nothing is problematical in man. His faculties are not enigmatical; the faculty of knowing is not confined to such vain science as he can acquire in this world. He is not placed here to acquire knowledge, but virtue. If he acquire virtue, he will be admitted into another world, where his utmost desire of knowledge will be gratified. His desires are not mysterious. When the laws of order require him to check and control his wishes, let him restrain them. When the profession of religion requires it, let him deny himself agreeable sensations, and let him patiently suffer the cross, tribulations and persecutions. After he shall have thus submitted to the laws of his Creator, he may expect another period, in which his desire to be great will be satisfied. His miseries are no more enigmatical; they exercise his virtue, and will be rewarded with glory. His life ceases to be mysterious. It is a state of probation, a time of trial, a period given him to make choice of an eternity of happiness, or an eternity of misery. His death is no longer a mystery, and it is impossible that either his life or his death should be enigmas, for the one unfolds the other. We conclude, then, that the destination of man is one great barrier against imaginary schemes of happiness. Change the face of society; subvert the order of the world: put despotical government in the place of a democracy; peace in the place of war, plenty in the place of scarcity, and you will alter nothing but the surface of human things, the substance will always continue the same. The thing that hath been, is that which shall be; and that which is done, is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
2. The school of the world opens to us a second source of demonstrations. Enter this school, and you will renounce all vain schemes of felicity. There you will learn that the greatest part of the pleasures of the world, of which you entertain such fine notions, are only phantoms. There you will find that those passions, which men of high rank have the power of fully gratifying, are sources of trouble and remorse, and that all the pleasure of gratification is nothing in comparison of the pain of one regret caused by the remembrance of it. In a word, you will there understand that what may seem the most fortunate events in your favour will contribute very little to your happiness.
3. But if the school of the world is capable of teaching us to renounce our fanciful projects of felicity, Solomon is the man in the world the most learned in this school, and the most able to give us intelligence. Accordingly we have made his declaration the third source of our demonstrations. I know no one more proper to teach us a good course of morality than an old reformed courtier, who chooses to retire after he hath spent the prime of his life in dissipation. On this principle, what an impression ought the declaration of Solomon to make on our minds! Few men are so fascinated with the world as not to know that some things in it are vain and vexatious. Most men say of some particular object, This is vanity: but very few are so rational as to comprehend all the good things of this life in the same class, and to say of each, as Solomon did, This also is vanity. A poor peasant, whose ruinous cottage doth not keep out the weather, will readily say, My cottage is vanity: but he imagines there is a great deal of solidity in the happiness of him who sleeps in a superb palace. Solomon knew all these conditions of life, and it was because be knew them all that he declaimed against them; and had you, like him, known them all by experience, you would form such an idea as he did of the whole.
4. To reflections on the experience of Solomon add your own, and to this purpose recollect the history of your life. Remember the time when sighing and wishing for the condition, in which Providence hath since placed you, you considered it as the centre of felicity, and verily thought could you obtain that state you should wish for nothing more. You have obtained it. Do you think now as you did then?
III. From all these reflections what consequences shall we draw? That all conditions are absolutely equal? That as they, who actually enjoy the most desirable advantages of life, ought to consider them with sovereign contempt, so people, who are deprived of them, ought not to take any pains to acquire them, and to better their condition? No, God forbid we should preach a morality so austere, and so likely to disgrace religion. On the one hand, they, to whom God hath granted the good things of this life, ought to know the value of them, and to observe with gratitude the difference which Providence hath made between them and others. Do you enjoy liberty? Liberty is a great good: feel the pleasure of liberty. Are you rich? Wealth is a great good: enjoy the pleasure of being rich. Behold the man loaded with debts, destitute of friends, pursued by inexorable creditors, having indeed just enough to keep himself alive to-day, but not knowing how he shall support life to-morrow, and bless God you are not in the condition of that man. Do you enjoy your health? Health is a great good: relish the pleasure of being well. Nothing but a fund of stupidity or ingratitude can render us insensible to temporal blessings, when it pleases God to bestow them on us. As they, to whom Providence hath granted the comforts of life, ought to know the value of them, and to enjoy them with gratitude, so it is allow-able--yea, it is the duty of such as are deprived of them to endeavour to acquire them, to meliorate their condition, and to procure in future a condition more happy than that to which they have hitherto been condemned, and which hath caused them so many difficulties and tears. Self-love is the most natural and lawful of all our passions. The more riches you have the more able will you be to assist the indigent. The higher you are elevated in society, the more you will have it in your power to succour the oppressed. Our design, m restraining your projects, is to engage you patiently to bear the inconveniences of your present condition, when you cannot remedy them: because whatever difference there may seem to be between the most happy and the most miserable mortal in this world, there is much less, all things considered, than our misguided passions imagine. Our design, in checking the immoderate inclination we have to contrive fanciful schemes of happiness, is to make you enjoy with tranquillity such blessings as you have. Most men render themselves insensible to their present advantages by an extravagant passion for future acquisitions. Above all, the design, the chief design we have in denouncing a vain and unsatisfactory being in this world, is to engage you to seek after a happy futurity in the presence of God; to engage you to expect from the blessings of a future state what you cannot promise yourself in this. But if all mankind ought to preserve themselves from the disorder of fanciful schemes of future pleasure, they above all are bound to do so, who are arrived at old age, when years accumulated bring us near the infirmities of declining life, or a dying bed. What advantage could I derive from a well-furnished table, I, whose palate hath lost the faculty of tasting and relishing food? What advantage could I derive from a numerous levee, I, to whom company is become a burden, and who am in a manner a burden to myself? In one word, what benefit can I reap from a concurrence of all the advantages of life, I, who am within a few steps of the gates of death? Happy! When my life comes to an end, to be able to incorporate my existence with that of the immortal God! Happy! When I feel this earthly tabernacle sink, to be able to exercise that faith, which is an evidence of things not seen! Happy to ascend to that city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God! (Hebrews 11:1; Hebrews 11:10). (J. Saurin.)
There is no new thing under the sun--
(with 2 Corinthians 5:17):--These words bring before us two opposite standpoints which perhaps may be best described as the world’s standpoint and Christ’s standpoint. The one represents the Old Testament, the other the New. Solomon and Paul are the two types of these two different tendencies which are here brought before us--the world’s standpoint and Christ’s standpoint. Now, on the very threshold of the subject, we are arrested by a mighty paradox. If one had been asked beforehand to decide what would have been the origin of these two passages he should certainly, I think, have said that it would have been exactly the reverse. If there ever was a man in this world who ought to have felt the freshness and the joy and the glow of morning’s dawn, of the thing called existence, that man was Solomon. If there ever was a man who ought to have felt the extreme jadedness, commonplaceness, disjointedness of the thing called life, that man was Paul. And yet, strange and wondrous paradox, Solomon found life to be flat, stale, and unprofitable--a thing with all the glow and glory superseded and washed out. Paul felt life to be absolutely ringing with novelty. If any man be in Christ, he is not only new, but a new creation, “Old things are passed away”: and “behold all things are become new.” Now, which of these views is the true one? They are both true! That is the mystery, that is the problem to be solved to-day--how two such different estimates of men can both at one and the same moment be true. Now, I think, if you look at these passages, you will find that the two passages themselves give two decided hints as to the reason of the paradox--suggest two causes why two such opposite statements are each of them true of the men whom they represent; why the one man found life to be all novelty, and the other man a scene of commonplaceness. Let us consider these, in the first instance, as an explanation of the reason of the difference of these two views, that Solomon was under the delusion that novelty was to be found in things, in outward objects--“There is no new thing under the sun.” Paul, on the other hand, has taken his stand on a totally different principle; he says that novelty lies, and must always lie, not in things, but in men--“If any man be in Christ he is a new creature,” or a new creation: “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” It was no change in the outward creation that made Paul feel the sense of novelty in passing into Christianity. How could it? The mirror cannot reveal anything that is not already in the room. You may put a new glass into the mirror, you may polish the old glass a hundred times, but unless you change the furniture beforehand the impression carried to the eye will be exactly the same. Now, let us take the opposite. Let us say, instead of beginning with polishing the mirror, or putting new glass into the mirror, we shall begin by changing the furniture of the room--in other words, by renewing the man. You find in everyday life, you and I find in this world, that a change in inward experience actually produces an absolutely new picture on a perfectly old mirror. You entered, e.g. some time ago into a picture gallery, your eye rested there incidentally upon something classical, say the battle of Lake Regulus or the Three Hundred that fought at Thermopylae; it rested there, but glanced immediately away. What was Thermopylae to you, with no knowledge of classical history? In five minutes that sight had no more impression on your organism than if it had never existed; you had forgotten its existence. Years pass away: you had begun to study classical studies, without reference to this picture. One day, incidentally, again you entered the same picture gallery: suddenly your eye was fastened, riveted. What a beautiful picture that is! How classical; how it makes the past live and breathe and glow! I never saw anything that expressed to my mind so vividly the old features of the Attic race. And yet that picture is not altered in outward lineament or feature: it is worse than better of the wear. It is the old glass in the mirror, but you have caught the glow of another scene--“Old things have passed away; and, behold, all things have become new.” And now, perhaps, you can understand what it was that gave to this man of Tarsus such a thrill and glow in beholding this aspect of nature and of life. He, too, as much as you on these occasions, had been experiencing the hollowness, the barrenness, the nothingness of human existence. Suddenly, suddenly there flashed before him an ideal, a present, a beauty before which the heavens fled away. There came to him the sight of an ideal perfect beauty, and before that ideal of beauty the world burst anew into bloom; and was not Nature, too, glad in mood that half-hour? In very truth the beauty of that idea filled all things--it put out the sun and moon; it put out the stars; it put out the glory of the landscape; it extinguished the forms of Nature and sat upon them; it occupied the place of all things that had occupied his senses before; it made common things precious; it made little things large and grand; it turned the water into wine; it lightened the long and weary marches in Macedonia, Thessalonica, Attica, Achaia; it lightened the long and weary drudgery of commonplace life--of tent-making, the buying, the selling, the jabbering of everyday talk about things of no interest at all. This round earth everywhere was bound with gold chains about the feet of God. Say--in sight of such a transformation as this, in sight of a transformation that came, not from a new glass in Nature’s mirror, but from a new impulse imparted to the innermost soul--can you wonder that the great Apostle of the Gentiles should have thus prescribed, inscribed, and stereotyped for ever his experience of the source of novelty--“If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new”? I come now to the second of the great principles by which the passage explains its own paradox; the reason why Solomon failed to find that novelty in the things in which Paul expressed himself to have met with what was fresh and new. The second reason I take to be this: Solomon was under a second delusion, he not only thought that novelty lay in things, but he thought that novelty was to be reached by a change of the present, by a doing away with the present. Paul, then, has made the great discovery that in order to get novelty we do not require a change at all: it is the past--“If any man is in Christ he is a new creature,” because “old things are passed away,” therefore “all things are become new.” Solomon had sown his wild oats and passed from the far country into his father’s house, he had become a highly respectable member of society, but he was very much astonished to find that the seeds he had sown in the far country--he had finished the sowing of his wild seeds--were attending him in his father’s house. It was the past that troubled Solomon. There is a saying common in this world, “It will be all the same a hundred years hence.” A more foolish saying, perhaps, never existed. The weight that presses upon you and me is not of the present, but a weight of former years. He must be a poor-minded man, even if he has passed from the far country into his father’s house, even if he has sown the wild oats, and is at what we call a staid and sober period of life--he must, I say, be a poor-minded man that never says to himself: “Have I left no cross on the wayside? I am safe now; I have planted my feet upon a rock, but have I left no record, no cross over which my brother man shall fall?” Is there nothing which can comfort a man under these circumstances--supposing you and I have got this fever of the past, this sense of old things present upon us--is there anything which can be to you and me a source of possible comfort? Yes, there is one. Provided now it were revealed to you and me by faith, revealed in such a way that my faith could accept it, that all this time when I thought I was travelling, leaving crosses by the wayside, there was a Being, a mysterious Power, coming up behind me and taking up every cross that I had planted down and transmuting--not cancelling it, that would be impossible, the past can never be restored--but in the literal sense of the word atoning for it, in the sense of a ladder by which my brother, instead of falling, may rise. If, for example: you saw Joseph, that you put last year into the dungeon, step on to the throne of Egypt, not in spite of that, but by reason of it; for that dungeon which you meant to be his destruction had become the first necessary step to his throne. Say, in such a sense as that, in such a sense of transmuted energy as that, would not the regenerated man feel a sense of freedom which would make life bright, happy, and new? Now, that was the case with this man Paul; he had been regenerated, sown his wild oats in the far country--although different from Solomon’s, they had been very wild seeds indeed--and so he had still remaining the memory of those seeds. His life was very unhappy, for the old things had prevented the new things from appearing new. It was no mere sense of the abstract horror of sins that weighed him down, that made him cry, “O, wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Paul had killed a man--killed a man in his youth; the blood of the martyr Stephen lay upon him. That concrete, that personal thing, that thing which continued to meet him at every turn of life, again and again, with odious, horrid touch, it was that which weighed him down, and it was that against which he prayed time after time that it might be removed. “All the perfumes of Arabia would not cleanse that little hand,” all the freedom from punishment, all the regeneration would not blot cub this dark deed, this murder of Stephen, and he prayed if by any means this cup might pass from him. One day he heard a voice saying to him, “My strength is perfected in your weakness, My strength is perfected in your weakness,” and he looked up and suddenly there met him an awful, nay, a glorious apparition; he seemed to see before him the same form that had stood by him at the last, and now it was carrying his cross, that awful deed of shame, the murder of Stephen; but as he gazed, suddenly the brazen cross became gold, it became lighted to all the rays of sunshine; and suddenly, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, there flashed upon Paul a new thought, revelation--he had unconsciously been making Christ’s kingdom; he had not only made Stephen, but he had made Christianity; he had planted in that blood the first seed of a Church which will never die, and the worn-out man of Tarsus cried, “I am free! I am free! Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (G. Matheson, D. D.)
Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new?
You remember that when Paul visited Athens his attention seems to have been especially attracted by two things: that the city was so full of idols; that the people who dwelt there were so given to change and novelty. “For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.” When we read these words we are ready at first to exclaim, What a remarkable people these ancient Athenians must have been! Surely we have in them man’s desire for novelty exemplified in a strangely exaggerated and quite exceptional form. But who can read these words without feeling that they describe the prevailing habit and attitude of the human mind? Go to those places where men and women “mostly congregate”--where they meet or work, or walk in friendly intercourse, and wheat do we see? Why, the same spectacle which engaged the attention of Paul at Athens--some telling, others hearing, some new thing. Human nature is unchanged by the lapse of centuries; it cherishes the same desires. Anything new, while the charm of novelty remains, will awaken a degree of interest which is quite out of proportion to the intrinsic worth of the thing itself.
I. Man’s hopeless inquiry, “Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new?” This is evidently the inquiry of some one who has long been engaged in a fruitless and unsatisfactory search after some new thing. Of course, there is very much which is circumstantially new--relatively new--new in form--new in use. We have new machinery, new modes of locomotion, new houses, Hew furniture, new methods of preparing food; indeed, in one sense, the world seems filled with novelties. But all this does not seem to touch upon, or noticeably to lessen, what some one has called “the miserable monotony of human life.” There is something very wonderful and very solemn in the sameness of human life, in the fact that there is nothing new; that there is, with all superficial differences, a substantial uniformity and monotony in human character and experience. If we look upon the family of man, in its present condition or in its past history, we are at first almost bewildered by the endless diversity of appearances. We find age differ from age, country from country, race from race, class from class, individual from individual. And yet, if we disregard the accidents of human life, its mere circumstances, and confine our attention to its essentials--to life itself, what do we find? We can distinguish through successive generations, not only the same leading types, but also the minute varieties of human character. The same feelings, motives, desires, principles of action, are operating now as powerfully and distinctly as before the flood; then and now might we see the glow of love, the elation of hope, the outpouring of gratitude. And we find that the ambition, the avarice, the pride, the sensuality of the nineteenth century after Christ, correspond in character and action with those same evil principles as they were displayed in the nineteenth century before Christ. All the cardinal sins are existing as veritably now as in any previous age. There is very little originality in sin. We are called to contend with, and, if may be, vanquish “old foes with new faces.” It is because we are men of like passion with those that have preceded us, that the history of the past is intelligible. We find that the sins which called down the curses of Heaven ages and generations ago are still being perpetrated in our midst. Do you think that Eli’s were the only disobedient children, who have brought their parents to grief? I might easily enlarge on this subject. I will confine myself to one illustration--Man’s vain and fruitless inquiry after some new thing, an inquiry, the prosecution of which, in some form or another, has distinguished man in every age of the world. Take the case of Solomon. In this quest he spent a considerable portion of his life; and he left off with a sigh of disappointment, and with an inquiry expressive of utter hopelessness. Instead of dwelling on the mere fact, I would point out its significance. I would remind you that the fact of your inquiring, with all this feverish anxiety after “something new,” reveals to us in a very clear, though sad and humiliating manner, the hollow, monotonous, unsatisfying nature of your past lives. What is the secret of your desire for something new in the future? Is it not, to a great extent, your dissatisfaction with the pasty Now, without knowing anything about your lives individually, I am able to say something concerning them, the truth of which you will all readily admit--that they do not present to you at this moment a very satisfactory appearance. Let us take the most favourable example we can find. We Speak of youth as a season of happiness. But are we correct in our estimate? There is a certain exemption from the cares of maturity--there is a certain buoyancy and elation of spirit, which we do not, to the full extent, retain. But, my young friends, tell me, Has the world made you happy? The old man is so dissatisfied, that he believes that he must have been more happy in some previous period of life than he is now. The young man, not less dissatisfied, believes that a hitherto undiscovered happiness is waiting for him in the future. What, then, is the fact which demands our attention? It is this. You have always been going on from point to point, inquiring after “something new”: and your inquiry for the new is a confession as to the insufficiency of the old. As you pressed on in your way you have seen fruit hanging in the richest and most tempting clusters. You have plucked and tasted, and they have been as the apples of Sodom. What a spectacle does our world at this moment present! You see men everywhere seeking for happiness and rest, and finding them not. But this unceasing search after “something new,” not merely reveals the unsatisfactory nature of the past,--it ought also to suggest an important caution as to the future. Is it not reasonable that you should pause in your pursuit, and inquire if it is likely that you will find, in the direction in which you have hitherto gone, anything which will really satisfy you? Is it reasonable for a man to go grovelling along, hugging a delusion like this? As long as you continue to indulge the hope of finding happiness and satisfaction in this world, you will never look above or beyond this world for them. Let us admit that in the future everything will turn out as you propose--as you desire. What then? “Why, that the future will be as the past. You are seeking happiness, you are seeking contentment in the wrong way; your faces are set in the wrong direction.” We see, then, where the mistake is. We want some new thing, but it is within, and not without ourselves.
II. God’s gracious and satisfactory reply. To all these dissatisfied searchers after novelty, we can hear God say, “If any man be in Christ he is a new creature; old things are passed away, behold all things are become new.” Yes, this is our great necessity, to become new creatures in Christ Jesus; then shall we find old things pass away, and all things become new. Do you want a new experience? You may have it in communion and fellowship with Christ. Do you, wearied with the familiar and unsatisfying objects of the world, want new sources of enjoyment and new objects of contemplation and pursuit? All these you will realize in a life in Christ. (T. M. Morris.)
Life in the light of Christ
Since Ecclesiastes meditated on the problems of human life, one really “new thing” has been seen. The “Sun of Righteousness” has risen upon the world “with healing in His wings.” The Word of God took flesh, and dwelt among men. The Only-begotten Son has revealed the Eternal Father, and has “brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.” This new manifestation of God--this new and fuller revelation of His redeeming purpose for mankind--has entered as a modifying factor into human experience. The cardinal features of life remain as before; but they take on a new aspect when they are seen in the light of our Father’s love, and of that glorious immortality for which He is seeking to train us. What may be as “vanity,” when it is considered as an end, may be anything but “vain” when it is considered as a means. A scaffolding may be a poor affair; but what if a beautiful and substantial temple is being reared within it? A schoolroom, with its appropriate furniture, might not be a Satisfying home; nevertheless it may well fulfil the purposes of education and discipline. The perishable may minister to the everlasting. The unprofitable may lead to higher gains. The unsatisfying may awaken a craving for that which will truly fill the soul. From this point of view the essential sameness of life through the ages bears its testimony to the persistent purpose of God and the constant needs of humanity. Why should not the schoolroom remain the same, if it has been adapted by Infinite Wisdom for the training and discipline of immortal souls? Human life, viewed in itself, as a brief span of existence bounded by death, may be as “vanity”: but human life viewed in the light of Christ and immortality, is an arena of education by probation--a sphere for the formation of spiritual and enduring character, and for the service of a living and loving Father. (T. C. Finlayson.)
I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven.
The mysteries of human life
Now, there has never been any book which can be compared to this marvellous book of Ecclesiastes. It is the laboratory in which the penitent gathers bitter herbs, the garden in which the wise man gathers sweet flowers. It is the laboratory to which the greatest sage of old times deliberately puts his hand and his head to try experiments, in order to get a little acquaintance with the mysteries of human life. The scale upon which he experimented is as vast as the power of man; as we may see when we consider the discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, the speculations of Priestley, the anatomists among the bones, and the geologists among the stones, as also that most sublime of men, full of animal life, sensual desire, and full of wisdom, who obtained a knowledge of all times. What was the object of his experiments? They were deliberately entered upon to try what life could do for his soul, and he tried it in the most philosophical way. How splendid to read his experiment. “I builded me a house.” How many men thus see if they can satisfy the desires of their souls. I know of one man who built one of the greatest houses of modern times, and when he had finished it he said, “If I could find as much pleasure in pulling it down as I have done in rearing, I would begin to pull it down.” The charm was in the experiment, and not in the thing which was got. So Solomon tried houses; and we know the style in which he built. The very cedars of Lebanon trembled, for there was to be an axe among them; the far-off stones were to be brought, for there was a king building. He tried gardening also--the loveliest of all human pleasures, the sweetest and most innocent, the most lasting, and one from which men get more pure pleasure than anything else. Then he tried society. “I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces.” And then he came to the result of all his experiments: “It is all vanity and vexation of spirit.” Now, it is a subject worth pondering upon, what is meant by this endless search; whether there be a remedy for this perpetual discontent, and where it is to be found. We never do meet with a contented people. The more cultivated they are, the more real will be the discontent. In which country of Europe do you suppose are there the most suicides--the stupidest or the most cultivated? You will say in the former, of course; but you are entirely wrong. The most elevated districts are more disturbed than others. Solomon also tried whether books and study would give him what he sought; and he came down with a great library and among his parchments, but eventually comes to the conclusion that “much study is a weariness to the flesh.” Now, it will be found that there are more suicides in Prussia than in Spain; for these reasons, that in one country, they think, and in the other they drink; in one country they lead, and in the other they are driven. Wherever there is but a little looking into its problems, according to the ability they have for making experiments, there is the same result. I envy the souls that never are weary. Is there anything much more touching than this great desire which is upon me, this impatience of the dull routine of things, this great clement of weariness, of always seeing the same things over and over again I It is so wonderful! Solomon had seen all the wonderful things that were-to be seen, and come to the conclusion that there is nothing new under the sun. Ask a man who is perpetually reading and studying, and he will tell you he gets fearfully weary: he finds the same stereotyped state of things. We toil and fever after wealth, and leave it to somebody, we know not what sort of person he may be--whether a fool or not. We put by a little, and know not what manner of person will have it. We rejoice in building up something beautiful and commanding, and know not what kind of creature will inhabit it. We erect a house, perhaps, to be occupied by beggars; we leave an orchard to be used by fools, gather books to be scattered over the world: or, perhaps, we collect a magnificent gallery of pictures, and leave them to a progeny who cannot understand them. Looking at his own work, and of the labour which his hand had wrought, Solomon said, as he walked through his palaces, “This is a weariness to the flesh.” He was conscious of understanding the infinite forms of human weariness; such was the result of his analysis of the experiments he made in Jerusalem, and he ends by showing that nothing would satisfy him. In the effort to get quit of this fearful discontent, men are always trying to get something new, to get something that will satisfy them. One man says he will retire, and fancies for himself some little island in the sweet Mediterranean Sea, where the scene is ever fair, the sky ever blue--where the women are beautiful and never commonplace, and the men classical in contour, and the children sweet little cherubs, never growing vulgar. He dreams of some sweet paradise, and he goes to find it. But he finds that black care, all haunting care, in the saddle behind the horseman. The man carries himself wheresoever he goes. How touching to read of the humble experiment of poor Charles Lamb, longing for the day when he should have nothing to do, no longer confined to the hateful India House, sitting and working sadly and wearyingly at those ledgers, “The thing that has been will be,” when I have stood at the banks and other places and seen the marble-like figures who have toiled there: such fearful repetition, the manner in which they spend their lives, in adding up the day-books, counting up the figures, with a view to the dividends! What would poor Lamb have given to get out of this condition? What a tragedy that was when he went down to Brighton to enjoy himself, and lay down the burden of his daily routine for a little while; when the coach got half-way and met the one coming in the opposite direction, he got out of the one he was in and stepped into the other! That was vanity and vexation of spirit. What was the secret of Byron, of the strange opinions of that spoiled child of fashion? Now, all this weariness comes very much out of the impatience of the condition by which we are surrounded. Then the majority of people are so fond of the proprieties of life, asking the ordinary questions and receiving the eternal answers. Where have you been? Where are you going? What has happened? So that everything even in friendship gets tiresome. (G. Dawson.)
The pursuit of wisdom and knowledge
1. This wisdom and knowledge, if a man is determined to go far beyond his fellows in the acquisition of it, must be discovered, and examined, and appropriated, by “much study”: and this, as Solomon observes, is “a weariness of the flesh.” The incessant stretch of the mind’s faculties, frequent harassing and anxious perplexity, studious days and sleepless nights, must be his portion, who sets his heart on the attainment of unusual eminence, in science in general, or in any of its various departments.
2. In this pursuit, as in others, there are many disappointments to be expected, to fret, and mortify, and irritate the spirit:--such as, experiments failing, some of them perhaps long-continued, promising, and costly;--facts turning out contradictory, and unsettling or overturning favourite theories;--the means of prosecuting a train of discovery falling short, at the very moment, it may be, when they are most desirable;--trifling and worthless results arising, after much labour, long-tried patience, and sanguine expectation;--the anticipated honour and pleasure of introducing a new and important invention or discovery, the product of the experiments and investigations of years, lost on the very eve of arrival, by the priority of an unknown competitor.
3. There are some parts of knowledge which are, in their very nature, painful and distressing. In a world where sin reigns, many must be the scenes of misery, many the afflicting occurrences and facts, which present themselves to the observant and investigating mind, that is in quest of general and extensive information. They abound both in the past and present history of mankind. They are fitted to fill the heart with “grief” and “sorrow”: and the more a man’s knowledge extends,--the more he reads, and hears, and observes, the more copious will this source of bitterness become.
4. There is to be taken into account the mortification of pride that must be experienced, in consequence of the limited nature o! the human faculties.
5. There is a similar feeling of mortification, arising from the very circumstance, that, with all the knowledge and wisdom that are acquired, there is still a blank,--still a consciousness of want and deficiency, in regard to true happiness.
6. The man of “much wisdom” and “increased knowledge,” generally, if not universally, becomes the marked object of the scorn of some, and the envy of others. Some depreciate his studies and all their results, laugh at them, and hold them up to contempt and ridicule. Others are stung with secret jealousy; which is the odious parent of all the hidden arts of detraction and calumny, and of injurious and unworthy attempts to deprive him of his well-earned honours, and to “cast him down from his excellency.”
7. The man who occupies his powers in the pursuit and acquisition of human wisdom alone, careless of God, and uninfluenced by regard to His authority and to His glory, is leaving eternity a wretched blank; has no solid and satisfactory support in the anticipation of it, when the thought intrudes itself upon his mind; and is treasuring up grief and sorrow for the close of his career. (R. Wardlaw, D. D.)
All is vanity and vexation of spirit.
The vanity of a worldly life
The tone of these words is intensely sad, and perhaps some of us are inclined to think that they embody a morbid conception of human life, for they seem to lack the healthy inspiration of hope. However, we shall understand this declaration by considering it, not as a Divine assertion, but as the expression of a particular human experience. God does not condemn all earthly good as vanity, but man in one of his moods utters this bitter cry,--it is the wail of disappointment. Life is a very different thing to different persons in different positions, just as our view of the landscape changes with our standpoint and the varying state of the elements. The hills and valleys, how different is their appearance when veiled in dim twilight or mantled in thick darkness to what it is when flooded with the glorious sunlight. So is our view of life affected by our fluctuating feelings and changeful circumstances. To the boy life is a promise, a beautiful flower in the bud; to the old man it is a closing day, a solemn sunset; to the man in prosperity it is a quiet lake, with only the gentlest zephyrs rippling its surface; to the man in adverse circumstances it is a stormy sea kept in perpetual disquiet by the rude and boisterous breezes; to the satiated pleasure-seeker, the worn-out sensualist, the disappointed voluptuary, “all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” But while human life has many phases corresponding to the many moods of the soul, each life is developing into something real, and what that something shall be depends upon how the life is lived. In changing circumstances we are forming a permanent character, transitory experiences are creating in us settled dispositions; and we must decide whether our life shall culminate in the joy of satisfaction or the agony of despair.
I. A life spending itself in search of pleasure is a vexatious experience. Here we have the representation of a man seeking everywhere for pleasure; yet, completely baffled in his search, the phantom constantly eludes his grasp. This man was not limited to a very narrow sphere in his endeavours after happiness; he had a kingdom at his command; he made its vast resources subservient to his amusement. He ransacked the treasures of earth to find some new source of delight, and was determined, if possible, to discover pleasurable excitements. He seems almost to have exhausted the science of pleasure, and he sums up the result of his experiments in these words, “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” From this we learn that pleasure sought for itself has no reality; it is a vain imagination, a deceitful fancy. Selfishness defeats and torments itself until it becomes the victim of a perpetual discontent. Or, in other words, to seek happiness for its own sake is not the way to find it; it comes constantly to pure and healthful activity; it dwells ever in the hearts of the good; but it does not reveal itself to the mere devotee of pleasure. This is true of every kind of pleasure of which our nature is capable.
1. The natural and moderate gratification of our appetites yields satisfaction, and so God has ordained that a healthy human life shall be sweet and enjoyable. But when a man makes this sensuous gratification his god, and hopes to find in it an unfailing source of joy, he deceives himself. Even natural indulgence exalted so as to become the chief end of life soon loses its power to please. The sensibilities are dulled, the palate fails to relish luxuries which once ravished it with delight, the eye tires of splendid artificial sights, and the ear grows weary of sound in its most pleasing combinations. The system is thrown out of tune, and that which should produce sweet harmony makes only annoying discord.
2. We are susceptible of still purer and deeper delights through the medium of the intellect. The arts and sciences may contribute largely to our enjoyment if we possess the power to appreciate them. The man who seeks pleasure in philosophy will find more problems to perplex than ideas to amuse; whereas the man who strives after truth will always discern some heavenly thoughts capable of stimulating him amid the uncertainties of his investigation. The man who ransacks the treasures of literature with no higher aim than entertainment will have no continuity of joy, for he will be the victim of inclination, the sport of passion; he will not see the beauties which have charmed men of nobler motive. When we learn that life is not a selfish search, but an unselfish service; not the sacrifice of everything to self, but the subordination of self to God; then we receive a spiritual joy. The man who has spent his life like a butterfly flitting from flower to flower in search of sweets at last whines out the melancholy cry, “All is vanity and vexation of spirit.” But the noble soul who has used himself in the service of God and humanity goes to his heaven exclaiming, “I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand,” etc.
II. An earthly life separated from the future is a perplexing mystery. To the mind of the disappointed pleasure-seeker all is vanity, because the future is left completely out of sight. This view of life is secularistic. It regards only one world, and in this world seeks the highest good, but does not find it. This worldly view of human existence transforms our life into a dark mystery, and shuts out every ray of Divine light. This world is incomplete, it needs another to explain it; this life requires another for its interpretation. The first paradox that meets us is--
1. If this be the only world, earthly enjoyment is the highest good, but the struggle for it brings vexation. Banish the belief in an eternal future, and the first reflection is, “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” Let us regulate our life so as to secure the largest share of earthly good, even though we thus destroy our finer feelings. Being convinced that there is no future life, we must value things by their power to fill up our measure of present gratification. Why should thoughts of morality or retribution be allowed to bridle our inclinations if morality is a delusion, and judgment simply a dream? But this conception of human life is a glaring contradiction. The life which it sets before us leads to sorrow, and ends in pain. Indulgence induces weariness, selfishness creates disquietude, and passionate pleasures bring forth death.
2. When the future is left out of sight the godly life loses one of its most powerful motives. The culture of manhood is at a discount in a world where men are estimated by what they have, and not by what they are. The devout and thoughtful man finds himself in possession of truths which the world is not prepared to receive, the utterance of which will call forth the opposition of prejudice and pride. The honest man must suitor if he will carry his convictions into the realm of daily business life. True, some modern teachers say that we should be strong enough to live a Christly life without the hope of personal immortality, consoling ourselves with the sublime idea that we shall live on in the influences which we transmit to posterity. This doctrine may possess charms for the select few, it is scarcely suited to the multitude of disciples.
III. A life which does not acknowledge God is a hopeless disappointment. This is the root of the matter: man is restless and dissatisfied so long as he puts selfish pleasure in the place of God. It is taught in the Bible, engraven on our constitution, and attested by experience that every attempt to find a substitute for God is vain. We owe our supreme love to Him, and can only be really happy when we render it cheerfully.
1. Faith in God reveals an inexhaustible source of bliss. Of every other fountain Christ has said, “He that drinketh of this water shall thirst again, but he that drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst, but it shall be in him a well of water springing up into eternal life.” Here we have an unfailing spring of joy, a sun always shining.
2. Faith in God exerts its highest influence when earthly joys are fading. In sorrow, when worldly joys are distasteful, faith illumines the darkness and gently dissipates our fear. In pain, when pleasures have fled and human consolations are feeble, God is manifest as the God of all comfort. Oppressed by the thought of having grieved our God, Christ appears as the Pardoner of our sins and the Healer of broken hearts. And at last, when this world is passing from our gaze and we enter the thick gloom of death, we shall hear the Divine Voice saying, “Fear not, for I am with thee.” Then, when we tremble before the portals of the mysterious future, and pass through the last trying storm, inspired by heavenly love, we may cry, not “All is vanity and vexation of spirit!” but “O grave, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (W. G. Jordan, B. A.)
(with Genesis 1:31):--What could be more different than the tempers of mind which uttered sayings like these? Creation and life very good. Creation and life, vanity, delusion, hollowness, and vexation of spirit. Both cannot be right. But statements so diverse are easily enough explained if we remember that in the Bible we are dealing, not with a book, but with a library; not with a literary work, but with a nation’s literature. It is not a pure revelation we have, but the strange eventful history of one. We may expect, therefore, to find in it great variety, and almost hopeless difference of view. The present form of that chapter of Genesis may be regarded roughly as bearing the impress of the eighth or ninth century me., the sanguine stamp of a great prophetic time. The Book of Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, is not earlier than the third century, when the disruption of the two kingdoms, the insecurity of an absolute and semipagan monarchy, the captivity of the nation, the setting up of the hierarchy, and the conquest by both Greek thought and Greek arms had deeply changed and saddened the spirit of Hebrew dream. Our own generation find a special attraction in this Book of Ecclesiastes. We too have fallen on an age when the first free fearless vigour of our Elizabethan time has gone by, when even the John Bull view of England is collapsing, when the condition and prospers of our crowded society are raising questions which only the stupid can face with a light heart, or treat with the old answers. The old pharmacopoeia of politics has no medicine for the new disease. We in England doubt and fear. Abroad they deny and destroy. In this country we are not as yet seriously troubled with the more thoroughgoing forms of pessimism; but I do not think we have escaped it, for the reason that we have not yet come to it. We are as yet only in the Agnostic stage, but we are fairly well through that, and are beginning to get dissatisfied with it. From that stage we must go either up or down. We may go up. A truer philosophy (not even now without a witness) may restore the vigour of a nobler faith. Or we may go down. We may descend to the next level of unbelief, to the lower cycle in the mind’s inferno. The next level is pessimism. To deal with pessimism and to prevent pessimism we must have an ideal which is something more than an idea of ours, something more than an ambition of ours. We must have an ideal which is the fountain head of our ideas and ambitions, one which is working incessantly to bring us to its own image; one in whose presence we feel inspiration and attainment; one last and surely blended; one that is gradually filling up the abyss of pessimism by drawing together its edges and reconciling what we are with what we long to be. We must have a God, in brief, who is at once our Mighty One and our Redeemer. The solution of life is not to be found in grappling with pain, but in the conflict with sin. The strongest soul that ever lived was crushed by sins rather than pains, by sins not His own, not by the pains which were. Here lies the centre and secret of Christianity, not in the miracles of healing, but in the miracles of forgiveness, and in the Cross, the greatest of them all. And here lies the key and reason why Christianity, with all its melancholy, with all its Divine sadness, can never be pessimist. It is not simply and generally that, being a religion of faith and hope, it cannot give way to despair. But it is here, in this principle, viz. that in Christianity we never become aware of the worst till we are in possession of the best. The deepest sense of evil is possible only to a believer in redemption--not a redemption that shall be one day, but that is now going on. How could we bear to see the worst and utmost evil and sorrow, but for the sense and certainty that it has in it the sentence of its own death? How could we, as a race, face death successfully--death, the great ravager of love--except in the loving faith that death itself is wounded unto death? The best, in revealing to us the worst, abolishes it, and the light of God, which maketh all things manifest, brings sin out only that it may die in the great and terrible daylight of the Lord. (P. T. Forsyth, M. A.)
Various explanations have been offered of this strange restlessness and insatisfaction.
1. One set of observers see in this the mainspring of activity, progress, and improvement. If man, say they, found happiness at any point of his life, he would cease to aim at a higher state. The most contented people are ever the most barbarous, and the beast of the field is more contented than the lowest classes of men. With animals and men of the lowest grade there is stagnation. Not until you produce insatisfaction, not, rather, till you give the mind ability to conceive the higher state, and aim at elevation from the lower, will the world be improved. Without insatisfaction the arts would be impossible, and all higher enjoyments unknown.
2. A second and higher view is that which, while admitting that insatisfaction is the mainspring of activity and progress, still further affirms that it is indicative of a nature in man to be satisfied, not with the terrestrial, but with the heavenly,--not with the things of sense, but with the things of faith,--not with the creature, but with God. This is surely the true explanation of that unrest of the soul which still, after each new conquest, whether of truth or means of enioyment, feels unsatisfied. It is the higher nature in us that is still ungratified. We want to know truth and beauty--all truth and beauty; not merely their outward shadows, but themselves.
3. But, further, we have to take into account the fact of depravity and sinfulness. I rather think that this fact, however, is not to be considered as explanatory of our insatisfaction so much as of dissatisfaction. Insatisfaction is right; dissatisfaction is wrong. God intended that the soul should not be satisfied; but He wants that we shall not be dissatisfied. Much light is yours, which Solomon, wise as he was, had not. He probably had glimpses of the depravity of his own heart, and generally of the human heart, yet hardly with the demonstrative clearness with which it comes home to our convictions; and he seems to have been greatly in the dark relative to that future life which hath been brought to light through Christ, to which is reserved the full enjoyment of the soul. He said, All is vanity, because he did not know the all. His eye ranged only over time. Eternity was all darkness.
4. And this summons before us another view explanatory of the insatisfaction of man. We are here preparing, conning our lesson, forming our character--a character which is to last with us for ever. We were not sent here that we might enjoy, but that we might learn, that we might grow up strong men fit to live through the everlasting ages. The Christian life is a race, a battle, a work, a crucifixion. Through the portals of death alone we gain the Elysian fields. (J. Bennet.)
That which is crooked cannot be made straight.
Making the crooked straight
(with Isaiah 40:4):--Both these men gaze upon the affairs of human kind, and are afflicted with the sense of crookedness. It does not require much insight to perceive that much in human nature is marred and crooked, and life is gnarled and twisted. The world is a place of grand plans and poor executions, a realm of broken columns, snapped friendships, strained relationships. It abounds in crooked things. Both men pronounced the things crooked, but one said it in a despondency, the other said it in hope. One man’s heart shrinks up in despair, the other man’s expands in the strength of a great assurance. The two types belong to every age. They rub shoulders in common life. We meet them everywhere, the prophets of melancholy and the cheery bearers of glad tidings of great joy. There are always those who behold the crooked and see no prospect of rectification; and there are always those who see the crooked and also behold its ultimate correction. How do these contradictory conclusions arise? How can we explain the despondent judgment which anticipates no day of renewal? We are always very much inclined to seek our explanation in our natural temperaments. How frequently we hear this word in common life, “I am naturally of a despondent turn of mind.” There is certainly some truth in these explanations, hut when we seek for an excuse in our temperament, we are attended by grave and serious perils. It is possible to regulate our powers, by observing the law of balance. If a man’s constitution has some ingredient in excess, he can restrain and control it by developing another ingredient. It is by the balance and antagonisms of our faculties that we shape our characters. Let us cultivate the opposite to our excesses. Or, let us exercise ourselves in some grace which will act as guardian upon our natural bias. I have said that both men saw the crooked things. Is that quite true? To a certain degree it is true, but the half remains unsaid. To see anything clearly in all its vivid relationships we must believe strongly. The Word of God proclaims that believing is seeing. “Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldst believe, thou shouldst see?. . . Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day.” He saw it through the lens of faith. If we would have clear sight, we must have firm belief. If we desire to see things clearly in their far-reaching relationships, we must come to them with a confident faith. Koheleth had no faith, and therefore his sight was only partial. He beheld the crookedness; he did not see its infinite relationships. Isaiah believed in God, and with his faith-washed eyes he looked at the crookednesses of men with the vision of an optimist. (J. H. Jowett, M. A.)
The crooked things straightened
It is easy enough to straighten some crooked things. Here, for instance, is a piece of paper. I can take it in my hand, and squeeze and crumple it all up till there is not one straight piece in it as big as your little-finger nail. And then I can spread it out on the table, and smooth it down, and make it just as straight again as ever it was. And just so, if I take a tender willow twig, I can wind it round my finger like a thread; then I can unwind it again, and it will come out as straight as ever. But let that willow twig remain crooked while it is growing for five or ten years, and then you may write on it the words of our text; for “that which is crooked cannot be made straight.”
I. We are all born with crooked hearts.
II. Like the tree or the clay, our hearts are having something done to them which will make it much harder to straighten what is crooked in them. With the tree, it is its growth that will make its crookedness hard to straighten. With the clay, it is the baking or burning of it. With ourselves, it is the exercising or practising of what is sinful in our hearts that will make it hard to straighten them. This world is God’s school. All the time spent in it is time spent at school. We are getting educated here for eternity. And when we form a wrong habit of thinking, or feeling, or acting, we are hardening a crooked point and fastening it upon our characters. And when we go out of the school of life,--that is, when we come to die and go into eternity,--then it will be true that “that which is crooked cannot he made straight.” And so it is with the gardener and his trees. While they are young and tender it is very easy to straighten them when they get crooked. But let them only grow crooked, and then what can he do with them?
III. The importance of keeping straight while we are getting educated. Did you ever know a person who had charge of a nursery of young trees? If you did, you might learn some very useful lessons from his example. The great object with him is to keep his trees in proper shape while they are growing. He walks about among them very often, and watches them closely. If he sees one getting crooked, he tries to straighten it. If merely bending it with his hands will not keep it straight, then he puts a stake in the ground, and ties the young tree to it, so as to keep it in a right position all the time it is growing. And if the gardener thinks it worth his while to take so much care and pains with the education of a mere tree, which, after all, will only last a few years, how much more careful should we be in educating our souls, which are to live for ever and ever! Did you ever go to a photographer’s to have your likeness taken? If you did, you remember how very careful he was to have you seated properly before he began to take it. Then, when everything was arranged just to suit him, he said, “There now; keep just so for a little while, and we’ll get a nice picture.” Suppose, now, you had shut one eye just at that moment, and kept it shut for two or three minutes: what then? Why, you would have had the likeness of a one-eyed boy or girl. Or suppose you had twisted your face, or screwed up your mouth: why, you would have had a picture of yourself with a screwed-up mouth or” a twisted face. Nothing in the world could prevent it. New, this world is God’s photograph office; and we are all staying here to have our likeness taken. While we are young the likeness is being taken of what we are to be as men and women. And all the time we are living here the likeness is being taken of what we shall be hereafter for ever.
IV. How can we get straight and keep straight till our likeness is finished? This is the most important question. Remember we are not straight, to begin with. Recollect that we are all born with crooked or sinful hearts. They must be made straight before they can be kept straight. How, then, can a crooked, sinful heart be made straight or good? We must take it to Jesus, and pray for Him to take away all that is wicked in it. Jesus is able to do this. But no one else besides Him can do it for us. But when our hearts are made straight, how are we to keep them straight? Two things are necessary for this:--we must get Jesus to help us, and we must help ourselves. We must get Jesus to help us. Without His help we can do nothing at all in this matter. But how will God help us here? By giving us His grace and His Holy Spirit. These are just the kind of help to us, in trying to keep our hearts straight, that the sun and rain are to the farmer in making his crops grow. But how are we to get this help from God? By earnest prayer. (R. Newton, D. D.)
I communed with mine own heart.
The wisdom, of self-communion
“I communed with mine own heart.” Solomon, by self-communion, by questioning his own consciousness, and by contemplating the facts of his career, guided by the Spirit of his God, evolved a theory of morals concerning the highest good for man. This royal genius, and genius royal, gives us a list of all his experiences undertaken in the search after “What was that good for the sons of men which they should do.” “I communed with mine own heart.” Yes, and he communicated the result of his self-communings for the benefit of mankind. Like all who approach him nearest in genius he was communicative and not secretive. A cunning man would have hidden his experiences as the hypocrite hides his sin; but this man was too wise to be cunning. Solomon’s self-communing was not of the sort of one of your hermit philosophers, who write about a world with which they have little consorted, and whose throbbing life-pulse they have seldom felt; who are busy dissecting the body of its dead past while the living present is dying before them. His self-communing was not the brooding pessimism and acrid egotism of the lonely, self-isolated cynic: his chair of study was the seat of judgment; his college, the thronged courts of royalty; his books, the men and women of his time. He was a philosopher who was a man of affairs and busy, not with theories and truisms alone, but with the political and social commerce of his epoch. He stood in the eye of the world, and the world lay open to his eye; and this man, who with largest outsight could look abroad upon the world, could also look with keenest insight upon the world within himself. These powers of prospection and introspection lifted him, and according to the degree in which we possess them, lift us out of the dust of mere animal existence: they are the motor of our will’s responsibility. Self-introspection, self-communion, is as a mirror, wherein the ego beholds the reflection of itself, and plays the spy upon the secret movements of the soul; it is the keenest detector of furtive faults, and the severest monitor of sly sins. Commune with your own heart frequently, if you would learn to know your own self truly. Commune with your own heart, and you will learn the necessity of its closer communion with Sod, in order that you may gain from Him the wisdom and knowledge necessary to reform and renew its sad estate. Do you ever commune with your own hearts, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate in the kingdom of Jesus Christ;--lo, that kingdom which, if it be not, should be within you? Are you able to say, in the words of the text, “Yea, my heart hath great experience of wisdom and knowledge”--experience of Him who is the Wisdom of God and the First Fruits of knowledge? Have your hearts this experience, this knowledge? If you have, you shall obtain your allotted part in the freehold of a spiritual estate unencumbered by vanity and vexation of spirit, to which you are called to be heirs in the everlasting kingdom of Jesus Christ. (C. R. Panter, LL. D.)
My heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.--
The experience of wisdom and knowledge
In order to realize the goodness or badness of a thing, there is nothing like experience: not simply under favourable circumstances alone, but under unfavourable ones; not now and then, by mere fits and starts, but uniformly so. Now, we do not hesitate to affirm that the general experience of a careless and sinfully-disposed person is, on the whole, one of a most unsatisfactory character: for, while such an individual may appear to the eye of others free from all alarm of danger, and under the most pleasurable excitements, yet, as long as the conscience is not absolutely deadened, and there is any impressive idea of God’s existence and power, and an apprehension of a future retribution, the soul of such an individual cannot be otherwise than restless, and far from peaceful. On the other hand, the upright, honest, sincere, and trustful Christian, although struggling against his own corrupt tendencies, and daily striving to obtain a mastery over himself, experiences within his own heart the unspeakable satisfaction of knowing that he is on the path of duty and of safety. That path, we all know, is sometimes a troubled one: yet, withal, the Christian is more substantially and lastingly happy than the ungodly and reckless, be their outward circumstances ever so flourishing, and their aspect ever so imposing. And this fact is palpably and unmistakably so, when the test of experience is brought to the bar of death.
I. The experimental knowledge of the life which is temporal.
1. With respect to wisdom, the word has various meanings in Scripture. Thus it is put for prudence and discretion, which enables us to perceive what is fit to be done, at the right time, in the right place, and by the right person. The word “wisdom” is taken for the faculty of invention, skill, and ingenuity, as when God told Moses He had filled with wisdom, and understanding, and knowledge, Bezaleel and Aholiab; to invent several sorts of work for completing the tabernacle. Wisdom is used for craft or subtilty--as when Pharaoh said, “Come on, let us deal wisely with the Israelites.” It is also taken for doctrine, learning, and experience. There can be no doubt about the excellency of this wisdom, when judiciously, or rather legitimately employed. We do not blame the artisan for his skill, the man of science for his discoveries, the politician for his conscientious part in legislation, the tradesman for his forethought, industry and skill of management, and the housewife for her careful economy. No; but the evil of worldly wisdom is when it is exercised in the pursuit of worthless objects; when it schemes and plans for the mere gratification of some fleshly passion; when it wraps itself up in disguise, in order to lead astray the innocent, and to entrap wickedly the virtuous; when it plans only for time, without a due reference to eternity: when all its superstructures bear the character of earth, and have written upon their portals, “Ichabod”: their glory vain, perishable, and passing away.
2. And then, with respect to the knowledge of Solomon: he was well acquainted with the various principles, and passions, and objects, and pursuits, and tendencies of human nature. This royal king, gifted with a large and capacious intellect, well versed in the affairs of human life, as they apply to human character and station, raised to a throne in his day among the greatest seats of royal power, fed with every dainty the earth could produce, and constantly encircled with the charms of beauty, and all the enchanting glory of a rich and prosperous princedom, was nevertheless a stranger to the sweet peace of the humble-minded, of the Divinely trustful and obedient--a peace which sometimes passes by the couch of the palace, and rests softly and sweetly upon the hard pillow of the cottage.
II. Consider experience as it applies itself to the wisdom and knowledge of the Christian.
1. Here also is a knowledge which is experimental, that is to say, not a mere thing of hearsay or of theory, but something which is felt; realized as a daily matter-of-fact truth. It is not altogether a knowledge gathered from books, or from intercourse with man, but it is a Divinely communicated knowledge. It is a light from above, revealing new and striking aspects of God, as He stands related to us under the titles of Father, Saviour, Friend.
2. The experimental fact of Christian wisdom is very strikingly illustrated in the conduct of the five wise virgins waiting at midnight for the coming of the bridegroom; and it is practically exemplified in the daily life and character of the man who acts in strict accordance with the laws of God, and with the dictates of conscience. Wisdom, in this instance, is the very opposite of folly. It is not seen to build upon the sand of earthly trust, but upon the rock of Divine faith. It is not seen in the midst of widely built up barns, but in the calm of patience, and in the endurance of hope. (W. D. Horwood.)
And he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
The heritage of knowledge
I. How is the increase of knowledge also an increase of sorrow? The affirmation of the text is not that knowledge is not intended for men, but that the highest intention and the greatest gift carry with them also a corresponding sorrow. Greater the boon, more the sorrow to acquire it; higher the price, greater the difficulties to obtain it. Sorrow is not sin. It may be in some cases that it is the-result of sin; but not in all cases, and not necessarily so in any. It is possible that sorrow accompanies many other things as well as that of knowledge. He that increases friends increases grief, for they turn faithless possibly, or they leave or die, and grief is the result. He who increases in wealth increases also in sorrow, for fear of loss or sense of responsibility, or some other perplexity ever accompanies the acquisition of possession. He who gains a high position increases sorrow, for it brings with it care and responsibility, extra toil and numerous trials. As there are different forms of sorrow, a thing may be accompanied with sorrow in various ways.
1. Knowledge alone, as an intellectual possession, not only satisfies not, but may even increase sorrow. The more persons know, the more dissatisfied they become with their own ignorance; so knowledge can never satisfy the craving of the intellect it feeds. But there is a moral emptiness felt in the heart and conscience which knowledge cannot satisfy. To know the good without enjoying it is an increase of sorrow; to see life without being able to avail ourselves of it is more distressing than if we had known nothing of it. It is not unfrequent that we hear persons attributing this only to speculative knowledge, meaning by it, I suppose, things above sense and the common transactions of every day’s life. It would appear from such view that ordinary knowledge satisfies its possessors, and never gives any sense of pain or sorrow; so in this it is superior, and to be preferred before the speculative. The fact is, the knowledge of things common, as that of sense and experience, does not satisfy more than the other--if anything, it does it in less degree. The limited knowledge of sense or experience surely cannot satisfy; its limit and commonality make it weary. There is something in every object beyond our knowledge, so the most common object is surrounded with mystery, and leads to the speculative. If any kind of knowledge could satisfy, it would appear that the speculative has the advantage in its favour. The speculative is the kind of knowledge that transcends sense, and has God and the invisible, the causes and laws of the universe, and the infinite and absolute as its object-matter, which are more likely to satisfy than the small everyday transactions of earth. Another thing, it cannot satisfy the moral conditions and relations of man’s nature, which makes knowledge as a matter of intellectual apprehension, incomplete to supply all the need of man as a moral being. For these reasons and others, it may, with its increase, be the indirect means of sorrow.
2. Knowledge of evil, in the absence of that of goodness, increases sorrow in the degree it is possessed. A knowledge of the evil of our hearts and actions gives sorrow, and if it were greater I doubt not but our sorrow would be increased by it. The more we know of the evil policy, the treachery, the corruption, and all the moral evil of society in all its forms and relations, the heavier is our sorrow. Such a sorrow is right; it proceeds from our dislike of the bad and the thing which gives pain, and our sympathy with the good and happy.
3. The increase of knowledge without faith is another condition that tends to the increase of sorrow. The knowledge of sin and evil as they are, without faith in God’s order of grace and mercy, assuredly produces anything but happy emotions in our minds; and if our knowledge were more extensive, our sorrow would be enhanced accordingly. The knowledge of the laws and resources of the universe, without faith in God; of wants, sufferings, danger, and afflictions and death, without faith in the great Lord of life as a Friend and Father; the knowledge of sin without faith in a Saviour; the knowledge that we die to-night or to-morrow, without hope of a happier existence beyond--little of such knowledge gives pain, and if it were increased, our sorrow would also increase in the same ratio.
4. Apart from truth, the increase of knowledge is also that of sorrow. When not governed by truth, everything we do increases our guilt, and becomes means of corruption and danger in our hand. Thus the thing which was intended to be a blessing becomes a curse, and knowledge, which is needed and adapted to advance the interests of society, becomes means of sorrow. Knowledge is a blessing, connected with other things; in the hand of a wicked man, it may be a cause of endless sorrow.
5. The increase of knowledge without love is also an increase of sorrow. Love is possible by us towards others, or by others towards ourselves; in the first, we are the agents, in the second, we are the objects. Suppose our knowledge increases of all around us, without love to God or man, would this not be an increase of sorrow to ourselves and others?
6. The increase of knowledge viewed as an end in itself is also an increase of sorrow. A man knowing all relative to all matters of life and godliness, yet doing nothing, gels none the better, none the happier. Would this be an increase of joy, or sorrow?
II. Why an increase of knowledge is also an increase of sorrow.
1. The increase of knowledge of ourselves increases sorrow, because we have become more familiar with the fact of our frailty and sin.
2. It proceeds from the character of the knowledge itself. To know the bad gives sorrow to the good; to know the calamities which happen to our friends and people generally, increases the sorrow of our social feeling.
3. The path to knowledge is not an easy one, it is one of toil and trial, thus the increase of it is also an increase of sorrow. Whether we make reflection, experiment, or reading, the paths of knowledge, none of these can be pursued earnestly without a feeling of weariness, sorrow, or toil; they exhaust and weary both the physical and mental powers when they are pursued long and earnestly.
4. The more knowledge people have the more they deplore their ignorance. Their insight is so keen and their ambition so great, their plans so comprehensive and their thirst so intense, that they almost despise what they possess by reason of the great portion outside their possession. They are awakened to the greatness and grandeur of God and His universe in belief and perception, so that their present store appears but a small star in the vastness of space, or just the beginning of the alphabet of the endless career of truth and knowledge outside and above them. In this sense the increase of knowledge is not the way to immediate happiness, but to sorrow.
5. The increase of knowledge produces in the mind of its possessors an anxious thirst for more. If this desire is cultivated to a high degree, it becomes an intense feeling, almost too much for our nature to bear; and the danger is that it will lead those governed by it too far and intensely on, until they injure themselves.
6. It increases sorrow, because it shows more clearly the unsatisfactory character of all things earthly. In the light of knowledge we become conscious of our imperfection; by its aid we become familiar with sin and deformity everywhere; the more we increase in it, the greater is our reason of sorrow for those deformities everywhere found in life.
7. The character of knowledge is to excite, and not allay. It never satisfies, but always excites its subjects to higher effort, sacrifice, and ambition.
III. The lessons of instruction and application which the subject imparts to all.
1. Sorrow in some way or other is connected with the best and greatest things in this life.
2. It is not the end of life to get free from sorrow. It is not intended that we should be without knowledge, but rather that we should pursue and possess it; but it will entail sorrow upon us; it is not less our duty on that account, indeed it cannot be found without. The end of life is to do the work given us faithfully in the fire and in the midst of sorrow, and make sorrow subordinate to the doing of our work better, and the fitting of us more perfect and complete for our future heaven and home.
3. The more superior we become in anything, the more conscious we become of our own imperfection and that of others in the thing we excel in.
4. Everything true and right has its sacrifice, and no one will exceed, and is a true disciple, except he is prepared to offer what is required in the order of truth and law.
5. Everything, even the highest and the best, denies to us undisturbed rest and unalloyed happiness in this life. Prickly thistles grow among wheat, pointed thorns are found with flowers, dross is mixed with the best gold; there is something to convince us everywhere that there are no objects that can satisfy us all in all; there is a deficiency or something to lead us to seek something higher, purer, nobler, and more comprehensive than we see and know here. Everywhere we are led from the created to some One above the creature; in everything we are reminded that the object of our want is not in the limited and partial, but in some One infinite and all-comprehensive of the good and pure. (T. Hughes.)
Increase of knowledge attended with sorrow
I. Knowledge is the parent of sorrow from its very nature, as being the instrument and means by which the afflicting quality of the object is conveyed to the mind; for as nothing delights, so nothing troubles till it is known. The merchant is not troubled as soon as his ship is cast away, but as soon as he hears it is. The affairs and objects that we converse with have most of them a fitness to afflict and disturb the mind. And as the colours lie dormant, and strike not the eye, till the light actuates them into a visibility, so those afflictive qualities never exert their sting, nor affect the mind, till knowledge displays them, and slides them into the apprehension. It is the empty vessel that makes the merry sound. It is the philosopher that is pensive, that looks downwards in the posture of the mourner. It is the open eye that weeps. Aristotle affirms that there was never a great scholar in the world but had in his temper a dash and mixture of melancholy; and if melancholy be the temper of knowledge, we know that it is also the complexion of sorrow, the scene of mourning and affliction. We are first taught our knowledge with the rod, and with the severities of discipline. We get it with some smart, but improve it with more. The world is full of objects of sorrow, and knowledge enlarges our capacities to take them in. I might now, from the nature of knowledge, pass to the properties of it, and show its uncertainty, its poorness, and utter inability to contribute anything to the solid enjoyments of life. But before I enter upon this, there may be a question started, whether or no there be indeed any such thing as true knowledge in the world? for there want not reasons that seem to insinuate that there is none.
1. As first: because knowledge, if true, is upon that score certain and infallible; but the certainty of the knowledge cannot be greater than the certainty of the faculty, or medium, by which it is acquired: now, all knowledge is conveyed through sense, and sense is subject to fallacy, to err, and to be imposed upon.
2. Knowledge is properly the apprehension of a thing by its cause; but the causes of things are not certainly known: this by most is confessed.
3. To know a thing is to apprehend it as really it is, but we apprehend things only as they appear; so that all our knowledge may properly be defined the apprehension of appearances. And though I will not say that these arguments prove that there is no such thing as knowledge, yet thus much, at least, they seem to prove, that we cannot be assured that there is any such thing. But you will reply that this overthrows the hypothesis of the text, which supposes and takes for granted that there is such a thing as knowledge. I answer, it does not: for the arguments proceed against knowledge, strictly and accurately so taken; but the text speaks of it in a popular way, of that which the world commonly calls and esteems knowledge. And that this is but a poor, worthless thing, and of no efficacy to advance the real concerns of human happiness, might be made most evident. For, first, it is certain that knowledge does not either constitute or alter the condition of things, but only transcribe and represent the face of nature as it finds it; and therefore is but a low ignoble thing, and differs as much from nature itself, as he that only reports great things from him that does them. What is it to me whether the will has a power to determine itself, or is determined by objects from without? when it is certain that those here that hold a different opinion, yet continue in the same course and way of action. Or am I anyways advantaged, whether the soul wills, understands, and performs the rest of its actions, by faculties distinct from itself, or immediately by its own substance? Is it of any moment whether the soul of man comes into the world with carnal notions, or whether it comes bare, and receives all from the after reports of sense? What am I benefited whether the sun moves about the earth, or whether the sun is the centre of the world, and the earth is indeed a planet, and wheels about that? Whether it be one or the other, I see no change in the course of nature. Who in the world finds any change in his affairs whether there be little vacuities and empty spaces in the air; or whether there is no space but what is filled and taken up with body? I could reckon up a hundred more such problems as these, about an inquiry into which men are so laborious, and in a supposed resolution of which they so much boast; which shows that that which passes with the world for knowledge is but a slight trivial thing; and that men’s being so eager and industrious in the quest of it is like sweeping the house, raising the dust, and keeping a great do only to find pins.
II. Knowledge is the cause of sorrow, in respect of the laborious and troublesome acquisition of it. For is there any labour comparable to that of the brain? any toil like a continual digging in the mines of knowledge? any pursuit so dubious and difficult as that of truth? any attempt so sublime as to give a reason of things? The soldier, it is confessed, converses with dangers, and locks death in the face; but then he bleeds with honour, he grows pale gloriously, and dies with the same heat and fervour that gives life to others. But he does not, like the scholar, kill himself in cold blood; sit up and watch when there is no enemy; and, like a silly fly, buzz about his own candle till he has consumed himself. Then again; tile husbandman, who has the toil of sewing end reaping, he has his reward in his very labour; and the same corn that employs, also fills his hand. He who labours in the field indeed wearies, but then he also helps and preserves his body. But study, it is a weariness without exercise, a laborious sitting still, that racks the inward, and destroys the outward man of the body; and, like a stronger blast of lightning, not only melts the sword, but also consumes the scabbard. Nature allows men a great freedom, and never gave an appetite hub to be an instrument of enjoyment; nor made a desire, but in order to the pleasure of its satisfaction. But he that will increase knowledge, must be content not to enjoy; and not only to cut off the extravagancies of luxury, but also to deny the lawful demands of convenience, to forswear delight, and look upon pleasure as his mortal enemy. He must be willing to be weak, sickly, and consumptive; even to forget when he is hungry, and to digest nothing but what he reads. He must read much, and perhaps meet with little; turn over much trash for one grain of truth; study antiquity till he feels the effects of it. We may take a view of all those callings to which learning is necessary, and we shall find that labour and misery attends them all. And first for the study of physic: do not many lose their own health while they are learning to restore it to others? Then for the law: are not many called to the grave, while they are preparing for a call to the bar?
III. knowledge increases sorrow, in respect of its effects and consequents.
1. The first effect of the increase of knowledge is an increase of the desire of knowledge. It is the covetousness of the understanding, the dropsy of the soul, that drinks itself athirst, and grows hungry with surfeit and satisfaction. Now, an endless desire does of necessity vex and torment the person that has it. For misery and vexation is properly nothing else but an eager appetite not satisfied. In fine, happiness is fruition; but there is no fruition where there is a constant desire. For enjoyment swallows up desire, and that which fulfils the expectation also ends it. The bottomless appetite of knowledge will not be satisfied, and then we know that sorrow is the certain result and inseparable companion of dissatisfaction.
2. The second unhappy effect of knowledge is that it rewards its followers with the miseries of poverty, and clothes them with rags. Reading of books consumes the body, and buying of them the estate. The mind of man is a narrow thing, and cannot master several employments. A scholar without a patron is insignificant: he must have something to lean upon: he is like an unhappy cause, always depending. As for instance, he that follows chemistry must have riches to throw away upon the study of it; whatever he gets by it, those furnaces must be fed with gold. In short, I will not say that the study of knowledge always finds men poor, but sure it is that it is seldom or never but it leaves them so.
3. The third fatal effect of knowledge is that it makes the person who has it the butt of envy, the mark of obloquy and contention. How are Galileo and Copernicus persecuted, and Descartes worried by almost every pen! And now, if this be our lot, what remains for us to determine upon? Is there no way to get out of this unhappy dilemma, but that we must needs either dash upon the sorrows of knowledge, or the baseness of ignorance? Why yes, there is a fair escape left us; for God has not placed mankind under a necessity either of sin or misery. And therefore, as to the matter in hand, it is only to continue our labour, but to alter the scene of it; and to make Him, that is the great Author, also the subject of our knowledge. (R. South, D. D.)
The acquisition of knowledge attended with sorrow
It is highly important that we should keep in mind, as well in respect of the declarations of Scripture, as of the maxims of mere temporal and secular concernment, that many things which, in one point of their application, are altogether undeniable, may in another point be contrary to reason and experience. The words of the text may serve as an illustration of this principle. There is wisdom which bringeth no grief; and there is knowledge whose increase implies no increase of sorrow. We shall find in the Bible no plea for ignorance. “That the soul be without knowledge it is not good,” is the declaration of Scripture. Of all the gifts which the Lord has bestowed upon His creatures, none ranks higher, or involves weightier responsibility than the gift of intellect. The talent must be used, not laid by; if must be put out to interest, not hidden in a napkin, nor buried in the earth. It is indeed a high and noble thing to consecrate our minds, with all their best and brightest faculties, to Him who bestowed them for His own service. There is no finer spectacle than that which is presented by the man of science, who searches the records of creation, written in characters which no time can obliterate, and on a page which no changes can efface; and fetches in from them proofs of the character, and illustrations of the dealings, and doings of Deity.
I. Some of the cases in which the application of the text is undeniable. We may say in general terms that the text applies to all the acquisitions of knowledge, which are independent of God, and from which considerations of the soul and of eternity are excluded. The limitation of the sphere of human science must necessarily produce dissatisfaction and disappointment. When it has been urged to its farthest extent, its discoveries are but mean and ignoble in comparison of what remains yet unknown; its acquisitions are little worth, when contrasted with the extent of the field which can never be brought within its grasp and compass. And ii science be applied to trace out the machinery and operations of our own minds, the result is still less satisfactory. One generation of metaphysicians builds up a system, which another generation employs itself to pull down and to destroy. Human knowledge is, moreover, confined within as narrow limits in point of time. The present is that which it can alone claim. The annals of past ages convey falsehoods intermingled with truth; so that the most patient research cannot distinguish between fact and fiction: and infinitely the larger portion of the transactions, which have occupied the millions of mankind, have obtained no record, and have left no memorial. Of the mighty future which lies beyond the boundary of time, of that inconceivably long existence to which the present life forms but the commencement and the vestibule, unassisted reason can make no discovery. But there are circumstances in which sorrow more directly tracks the footprints of that wisdom which is of the earth. The annals of human science, the history of students in human learning, might furnish forth many a heart-rending page. We might read of many an one, who having ardently pursued the object which seemed to promise most of reputation and advancement, has derived from his pursuit only the keenness of disappointment, and the bitterness of a broken heart. You might see the sad spectacle of such an one sinking to an untimely tomb, because he followed his one object too intently and too devotedly. And while he is sacrificing so much for intellectual distinction, he is keenly and painfully sensible of neglect. He feels himself a lonely and forsaken creature. The world is too busy to mark his doings. Human knowledge, while it is unsanctified by grace, tends to lead us away from God. We may become so absorbed in the contemplation of the Creator’s works; in tracing the various processes through which they pass, and the various laws to which they are subject, as to forget the high attributes of the Creator Himself. To be thus turned aside from Him who is the source of present blessing and eternal hope, will sooner or later be felt to be an evil and a bitter thing. It issues not unfrequently in yet more disastrous effects. The mind which has been so deeply engaged in following the discoveries of science and gathering stores of intellectual treasure, in ways which it has shaped out independently of God, may at length, in the uncurbed pride of reason, reject the evidence for the truth of His revealed Word; may deny His providential interference in the transactions of the earth; and plunging yet deeper in the abyss of unbelief, may join the fool of old, in denying His very existence. He will feel, at length, that, in his much wisdom hath been much grief, and in the increase of his knowledge hath been increase of sorrow. He has treasured up evil for the latter day, and has laid upon his own soul the bitterness of anguish, which found him out at the last. And that which is true of individuals is not less true of communities. If it be a dangerous thing for a man to cultivate intellectual accomplishments, at the expense of personal piety; no less is it hazardous that religion should be dissociated from knowledge, in the prevailing schemes for the instruction of a people.
II. Some of the cases in which no application of the text can be made.
1. It cannot be applied to the knowledge of ourselves, and of the condition to which our nature has fallen. No acquisition is mere important, for it lies at the threshold of all spiritual advancement; none more difficult, for the heart is deceitful above all things, as well as desperately wicked. The declaration of the text cannot be applied to the knowledge of God. No subject on which the intellectual faculties can spend themselves is so elevating and ennobling as the character of Him who bestowed them. To know God, as He is revealed in the Gospel record of His love to a ruined world, is to open the inlets of comfort to the soul. But if Scripture knowledge is to produce such effects, it must never be separated from grace. This separation is one of the dangers which specially belong to a period of so much religious profession as the present. There are many persons who pore on the pages of the Bible, and have become familiar with its statements, over whose lives, and conversation, its principles have never exercised any perceptible control. There is no necessary connection between the gifts of the Spirit, and the attainments of human learning; no confinement of the blessings of spiritual knowledge to men whose minds are furnished with other stores. God often hides these things from the wise and prudent, and reveals them unto babes. Such knowledge continually increases. As the believer goes on his way, he gradually discovers more of the will and the dealings of his Father. At first there might have been much of zeal, and less of knowledge; but while the former burns as brightly as when it was first kindled in his bosom, the latter is increased by continual accessions. This knowledge shall not only form the staple of our earthly happiness, but shall outlast the span of our present existence, and reach forward into the outlying region of eternity. And God shall advance His glorified saints, by continual revelations of Himself. Increasing knowledge shall be an element of that blessedness, which for aught we know may increase in the same proportion for ever. (S. Robins.)
Knowledge and sorrow
We will, in the first place, confine our attention to the present life; in the second place, extend it to the future life; and in both cases endeavour to show you with how great truth it may be said, “In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Now, it is a common observation, and one borne out by the experience of all who are qualified to give witness, that it is the property of knowledge to humble a man, and not to puff him up or to make him arrogant. We may take it as a rule that you will seldom find falsified, that where there is conceit there is shallowness, and that the man who has palpably a high opinion of his attainments, and who moves through a circle in all the pride of a presumed intellectual superiority, is indebted to his not being well dissected and well sifted, for the reputation he enjoys and the attention he commands. There is nothing which, however hard of acquisition, shrinks into so small a space as knowledge when acquired. A library would seem an atom when the bookcase is the mind. So that we may lay it down as an ascertained fact that the acquiring of knowledge is a humiliating thing. Each step only shows us that the plain is broader and longer than we had thought, and the further we advance the further off seems the boundary. Thus, self-complacency at our progress is inconsistent with progress; for if it be progress to discover that we are no nearer the end, what cause of exultation can making progress furnish? It is with the sphere of knowledge as it is with the sphere of light; enlarging it you enlarge equally the circumscribing sphere of darkness. But if it be thus certain that the increase of knowledge is accompanied by, if not identical with a growing sense of absolute ignorance, what can be clearer than that “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”? We think, for example, that when the telescope and microscope were first put into the hands of the philosopher, then was increase of knowledge hardly to be measured, but at the same time a consequent increase of sorrow. There was increase of knowledge: distant worlds were brought near, whilst worlds were found in every atom and in every waterdrop; and enlarging the field of contemplation man only learned that the workmanship of God, like God Himself, could never be explored. And if such are the lessons taught man by the telescope, surely the very apparatus which must increase his knowledge must show him his ignorance. He was not only taught how little he knew before, but how little he would be able to know after. Would not then the increase of knowledge be attended by an increase of sorrow? Would not the very boundlessness of creation which he gathered from the disclosures of the telescope, and the fact made known to him by the microscope that in the minutest subdivisions of space there was the furniture and population of the universe--would not these, whilst filling him with admiration for the workings of Omnipotence, have filled him also with regret at the feebleness of his own powers? Would they not have conveyed to him an idea such as he could not have otherwise obtained of the utter vanity of the hope of embracing within the range of his investigation all the marvel and grandeur of nature; and what motto, therefore, could he have felt disposed to grave on an apparatus which amplified indeed vastly the sphere of his contemplation, but which taught him that when amplified the sphere was but a sand grain which, assisting him to be a learner, told him he could never be a proficient--what motto, if not the motto of our text, “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”? And in matter of fact, the earliest and at the same time the most wonderful lesson ever given to this creation was, that he that increased knowledge should increase sorrow. It was the tree of knowledge on which grew the forbidden fruit, by the eating of which our first parents forfeited immortality. It was the hope of an increase of knowledge which moved Eve to the act of disobedience, Satan telling her, “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil,” and the woman perceived “that the tree was to be desired to make one wise”: and thus moved ate of the fruit, and gave to her husband, and he did eat also. The hope was realized; the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew good and evil; but oh, it was a fatal knowledge! There is not a woe in the long, dark catalogue of mortal afflictions, there has not been the tear shed, nor the sigh heaved, nor the shroud woven, nor the grave dug, which must not be referred to the acquisition of knowledge as its producing cause. What, then, is there no exception? None, we believe. It holds good of religious knowledge as well as of worldly knowledge, that to increase it is to increase sorrow. Religious knowledge may be resolved into knowledge of oneself and knowledge of God in Christ. No man knows anything of himself, but the man who is enabled to examine himself by the light of the Holy Scripture; and as self-knowledge increases, must not sorrow also increase? What is this knowledge but the knowledge of our own corruption, the knowledge of the deceitfulness of the heart, the knowledge of one’s own depravity? He who is increasing knowledge of himself, is he not possessed of a growing sense of his own weakness, his own depravity, his own obduracy, his own ingratitude? He will not seem to himself to be growing better. The proof that he grows better is that he seems to himself to grow worse; and day by day the Holy Spirit will show him some new and foul chamber of imagery in the heart; day by day this Celestial Agent will unveil some fresh dormitory and lay bare some cherished and unsuspected evil. And though it be most wholesome and most necessary that we be thus taught ourselves, can it be denied that there is something painful and grievous in the lessons which are furnished? In like manner, with respect to a knowledge of Christ, there will be just that contemporaneous increase which we are setting ourselves to discover. I must know, experimentally know, that Jesus died for me, before I can know anything of the hatefulness of sin; and when a man is enabled to look by faith on the Lamb of God, bearing his sins in His own body on the tree (and this it is to know God in Christ), then alone will he entertain a genuine and heartfelt sorrow for sin. And the more earnestly he gazes, the more he contemplates the dignity and innocence of the Victim, the more he ponders the mystery, that the Being who was One with the Father should have been given up to execration and sacrifice, the more disposed will he be to abhor and reproach himself, and the more will he bewail his own guiltiness, which demanded so awful an expiation. Yea, and will it not continually happen, that as his soul is most elevated with the contemplations of Christ, and he has the fullest assurance of interest in the saving work of the atonement--will it not continually happen, that at moments such as these, when knowledge is at the highest, contrition for sin will be most bitter and deep? And will there not thus be given a proof uttered in sighs and written in tears, that even when knowledge is the knowledge of God in Christ, “in much wisdom is much grief; and be that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”? Now, we may, perhaps, illustrate our text by another kind of knowledge, Just take the knowledge of history. We will suppose a man studying diligently every record of antiquity, thus possessing himself of the events and transactions of which this earth has been the scene. We are clear that he who increases his knowledge of history must have deadened himself to impressions, if he did not thereby increase sorrow. What is history but a record of crime and calamity, a melancholy summary of the woe and the wickedness with which our globe has been burdened? Here and there we have a bright light, some noble instance of the struggle and the triumph of virtue, but on the whole, feuds and wrongs and rivalries, the oppression of the innocent, the struggles of ambition, the earth reeking with blood, polluted with guilt, and bathed with tears; these are ordinarily the features of the historic picture. Who that calls himself a man can gaze on these and not be sorrowful? If it be true that to read history is to read the proofs of human apostasy, and the curse which it entailed--if it be true that the knowledge of what has befallen our race in successive ages is the knowledge of a long series of evidence of the total corruption and the consequent misery of man, then assuredly whatever the pleasure and whatever the profit of storing the mind with the facts, the material of melancholy reflection will be forced on us by every page of the record; and we must either profess ourselves insensible to the sufferings with which guilt has endowed human nature, or we must assent to it as a truth, that when history is concerned, to increase knowledge is to increase sorrow. And even if the increase of knowledge be a knowledge of the character and happiness of the excellent of the earth, it still brings with it the material of sorrow. Who can read the biography of saints without having two feelings excited in his mind: first, the feeling “how imperfect are the best!” and secondly, “how much nearer have others gone to perfection than myself?” The telescope and microscope ministered gladness to the philosopher, and they helped him to explore a thousand before-hidden wonders, though all the while teaching him the dwarfishness of his highest possible attainments; they made him sorrowful by showing him that perfection would be always out of reach. And when the spiritual telescope is put into our hands, and we direct it to the home of the justified, and lovely things, and rich and sparkling cross the field of vision; or when we are equipped with the spiritual microscope, and can look into ourselves and see a world of iniquity in the tiniest motes that float in the mind’s recesses, do we say that it is other than delightful to catch glimpses of the land of promise, or other than profitable to be helped to the scrutiny and anatomy of the hearty Each kind of knowledge is delightful, and each is profitable; at the same time each furnishes material for sorrow. It is delightful to hold the telescope and to see by the lenses of faith the domes and pinnacles of the heavenly city; and it is also profitable thus to have the vision of the saints’ inheritance, for looking on the recompense we shall be animated to the toil. But who ever surveyed the palaces of the faithful without self-reproach at the little influence which things eternal have upon him, when compared with things temporal, and without, a painful consciousness that, though a king and an heir of glory, his deportment is often such as if slavery were his choice and corruption his element? Nothing so shows man his own coldness, his own backwardness, his own insensibility to the high destinies of the redeemed, as a glimpse of heaven. He cannot behold the reserved joys without, feeling that he deserves to lose them for the slight hold which, after all, they have on his affections. The closer the view, the stronger will be this feeling; so that whilst he is enraptured at the disclosures of the telescope, yea, and excited by them to exertion, he will be covered with shame at his own lukewarmness in the pursuit of what is infinitely desirable. And thus it will come repass, that though there is joy, and though there is profit in increasing knowledge, he will increase also sorrow. And if, laying down the telescope, he take up the microscope, and subject his own heart to the magnifying power, then we need not tell you that it is profitable for him to be informed of the depth and extent of the corruption, and we need not tell you that it is delightful for him to be thus informed, seeing that the nature of the instruction proves God’s Spirit to be the Instructor, and any proof that we are taught of the Spirit is too precious to be bartered for the universe. But neither, at the same time, need we tell you that it is a saddening thing to be shown one’s own vileness--vileness resisting all processes of sanctification; and thus, though with the moral microscope, as with the natural, joy and profit are gained from its showings, it remains true of both, that in increasing knowledge, they increase also sorrow. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
Increase of knowledge, increase of sorrow
1. Mere earthly knowledge is unsatisfactory in its nature. Take as an illustration of this the field of creation. The knowledge of facts and laws can employ man’s reason, but it cannot ultimately satisfy it., and still less can it soothe his soul, or meet the longings of his spirit.. Law everywhere cannot, permanently satisfy man without a Lawgiver; order, without a primordial reason; forms of skill and beauty, without a great Thinker, from whom they are emanations, and whom our own thoughts can touch, as they touch kindred souls, till we can say, “How precious are Thy thoughts unto me, O God!”
II. Mere earthly knowledge is painful in its contents. For an illustration of this, we may go from creation to history, from space to time. Take away our hope in God, and history becomes a sea of tumbling billows, dark and shoreless; nations rising only to fall; great souls shooting across the horizon like dying meteors; and all the spiritual longings of the past written down but to tell us of the vanity of our own efforts. History would be a dreary study when it had lost all the higher ends it might serve as a school of training for immortal souls, and as the steps of a Divine Architect through the broken scaffolding and scattered stone-wreck upward to a finished structure. The very glimpse of this is reviving, but to give up at once Architect and end, and see human lives shattered and strewn across weary ages, and human hearts torn and bleeding, with no abiding result, this surely would fill a thoughtful mind with pain. The more of such history, the more of sorrow.
III. Mere earthly knowledge is hopeless in its issue. For an illustration of this we may take the field of abstract thought. The ultimate object of man’s search is to find the centre of knowledge which commands the whole field. The man who begins the search after truth is generally more satisfied with his progress than he who has been long in the course. Those things which, like the stem of a tree, seem simple and easily grasped, spread away beneath into interminable roots, where we can never count them all nor reach the end of any one. Let a man try to master a single subject, and he will find it so. The road becomes longer and the field wider as he proceeds. And if a man should feel impelled to go beyond the surface of things, and to inquire into the origin of being and the end of all things, without accepting a God, doubt and darkness would only gather at every step. With no lamp in the soul there is no light in the world. His own being and end become an increasing perplexity. He grows in unquietness and irresolution, which men do not feel who have not entered on such a search. As he enlarges the circumference of knowledge he enlarges the encircling darkness, and even the knowledge yields no ray of true satisfaction.
IV. Mere earthly knowledge is discouraging in its personal results. We may consider here the moral nature of man. Earthly science can do very much to improve man’s external circumstances. It can occupy his reason, it can refine and gratify his taste; but there are greater wants that remain. If the man seeks something to fill and warm his heart, all the wisdom of this world is only a cold phosphorescence. He pursues its waters like thirsty Tantalus, and they touch his lips and flee from them. He must say with Goethe, “Alas that the yonder is never here!” The tree of knowledge never becomes the tree of life. If the man is desirous to have his own moral nature rise to a noble elevation, he must be equally disappointed with the result of bare knowledge; not merely with what is accomplished by it, for here we may all be sad enough, but with what is promised by it. It may have its negative value in occupying thought and time, which might be devoted to ignoble uses; but it cannot conquer passion, nor renew a nature that has felt the degradation of sin. The great heights of holiness may sometimes rise before such a man, and the sublime form of duty may gleam out and beckon him to the sun-lit summit of perfection; but there is no power, out of God, to help him do it,--“The depth said, It is not in me,” and such an ideal, rising without the power or hope to reach it, can only fill the man with a more profound sadness.
V. Mere earthly knowledge has so brief a duration. Here we may contemplate life as a whole. If the thought of God be admitted, all real knowledge has the stamp of immortality. The happy seeker of truth is he who feels that in gaining it he is taking possession of a perpetual treasure, and beginning a quest which is to be enlarged by a new life in new worlds. But if there be nothing of this, “in one day all man’s thoughts perish,”--“The wise man dieth and the fool also.” The sweeter truth is to the taste, the more bitter must be the thought of leaving the pursuit of it for ever. After all, it is a question which the head cannot answer without inquiring at the heart. It is this, can any progress of earthly science reconcile us to the loss of God and of the hope of immortality? and we feel assured that, with the immense mass of men, when their inner nature is truly consulted, the answer would be found here,--“The increase of knowledge is the increase of sorrow.” Whatever we may come to know, if God be not, and earth be all, “Vanity of vanities” is the epitaph of life. (John Ker, D. D.)
The pursuit of knowledge
Ecclesiastes is here speaking simply of that knowledge of earthly things and human affairs which a man may acquire by intellectual study and observation. And what he says is that the amassing of mere earthly knowledge, as if this were the chief good, is a delusion--that such knowledge is full of disappointments and sorrows, and cannot really satisfy the soul of man. Now, it is indeed true that our minds have been so constituted that the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge, simply as knowledge, is naturally accompanied with pleasure. And to a young and eager student rejoicing in the wider views and the fresh discoveries which his increase of knowledge brings, it may sometimes seem as if a life spent in study and research would give him the fullest satisfaction. But he is apt to forget that a wider view of things is not always a more pleasant view. Knowledge often destroys illusions. Knowledge often makes us more sensible of our ignorance, and more conscious of the limits of our powers. Knowledge often confronts us with problems which cause us perplexing and painful thought, and which had not previously come within the range of our vision. The most learned philosopher or the most brilliant student of natural science often finds that all his knowledge is utterly unavailing in the presence of some practical difficulty--something “crooked” which he cannot straighten, something “wanting” which he cannot supply. How often the very knowledge of a skilful physician gives him a sadder because deeper insight into the malady which he knows to be incurable! And how often we can see a tinge of melancholy in some of the world’s greatest thinkers! This is indeed no argument for indorsing the words of the poet, “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise”: for even the knowledge which brings sorrow may have some advantages over the ignorance which preserves happiness. But it is an argument for the conclusion of Ecclesiastes, that the mere possession of earthly wisdom is not the supreme good of human life, and that the attempt to satisfy one’s soul with such knowledge is a “feeding on wind!” (T. C. Finlayson.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ecclesiastes 1". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
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