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Monday, July 22nd, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes 2

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-26

Ecclesiastes 2:1-26

Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth.

The threefold view of human life

Three views of human life are given in this remarkable chapter.

The theatrical view of life (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). The writer seeks to prove his heart with mirth and laughter; he treats his flesh with wine; he gathers peculiar treasure; he is enamoured of greatness, magnificence, and abundance; he delights in architecture, scenery, literature, music, song. Everything is spectacular, dazzling, wonderful. This is a very misleading idea of the world in which we find ourselves.

1. It is partial. Nothing whatever is said here of the problems which challenge us--of duty, enterprise, discipline, work, sacrifice, suffering; nothing about character or conduct. It really leaves out two-thirds of life, and the noblest two-thirds.

2. It is exaggerated. It contemplates great works, great possessions, and great fame. Life is largely made up of commonplace tasks, homely faces, uneventful days, monotonous experiences.

3. It is selfish. You see throughout how prominent the individual is. It is all “I.” The writer never thinks of other people except as they may enhance his pleasure, or be spectators of his glory.

4. It is superficial. There is not a word about conscience, righteousness, responsibility. Now beware of the theatrical view of life--of the great, the gaudy, the glistering. True life, as a rule, is simple, sober, and severe. Beware of companions who would represent life to you in a gay and voluptuous light. Beware also of your reading, and see that it does not give a false and delusive idea of the life that awaits you. The world is not a theatre, not a magician’s cave, not a carnival; it is a temple where all things are serious and sacred.

The sepulchral view of life (Ecclesiastes 2:12-23). Men usually start with the rosy ideal of life, and then finding its falsity--that there are tears as well as laughter--they sink into vexation and despair, and paint all things black as night. But the world is not emptiness; it is a cup deep and large, delightful and overflowing. Fulness, not emptiness, is the sign of the world. There is the fulness of nature--of intellectual life--of society--of practical life--the manifold and enduring unfolding of the interests and movements and fortunes of humanity. There is the fulness of religious life. A true man never feels the world to be limited, meagre, shallow. God is no mockery, and He will not mock us.

The religious view of life (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26).

1. The purification and strengthening of the soul will secure to us all the brightness and sweetness of life.

2. And as the Spirit of Christ leads to the realization of the bright side of the world, so shall it fortify you against the dark side. Carry the Spirit of Christ into this dark side, and you shall rejoice in tribulation also. In one of the illustrated magazines I noticed a picture of the flower-market of Madrid in a snowstorm. The golden and purple glories were mixed with the winter’s snow. And in a true Christian life sorrow is strangely mingled with joy. Winter in Siberia is one thing, winter in the flower-market of the South is another thing; and so the power of sorrow is broken and softened in the Christian life by great convictions, consolations, and hopes. Do not accept the theatrical view of life; life is not all beer and ski[ties, operas, banquets, galas, and burlesques. Do not accept the sepulchral theory of life; it is absolutely false. Toequeville said to Sumner, “Life is neither a pain nor a pleasure, but serious business, which it is our duty to carry through and conclude with honour.” This is a true and noble conception of life, and it can be fulfilled only as Christ renews and strengthens us. (W. L. Watkinson.)

The pleasures of sin and the pleasures of Christ’s service contrasted

What are the pleasures of sin?

1. They are present pleasures; now and here; not in the dim distance; not in the next world, but in this.

2. They are varied and many: adapted to every taste, capacity, age, condition.

3. They fall in with the desires and cravings of our carnal nature.

4. They possess the power to excite in a wonderful degree,--the fancy, the mind, the passions,--ambition, lust, pride, etc.

What are the pleasures or rewards of Christ’s service?

1. They are real and substantial, not fictitious and imaginary or deceptive.

(1) A good conscience.

(2) A contented mind.

(3) Rational enjoyment and satisfaction.

(4) Elevation of being.

(5) A quiet, growing consciousness of God’s approval.

(6) A sweet sense of living and breathing in a sphere of sanctified thought and life, illumined by the sunlight of Heaven, and vocal with the joys and harmonies which proceed from Calvary.

2. They are not all in the future. No small part of them are here, and enjoyed day by day. Heaven is the ultimate state of blessedness, the final reward in Christ’s service. But heaven is begun in every reconciled, sanctified soul at once and progresses to the consummation.

3. Christ’s service is soul-satisfying. It touches, elevates, expands, gives dignity to, and harmonizes and gladdens man’s highest nature.

4. The pleasure, the reward of Christ’s service is enduring. It fears no death, knows no end. It is perpetual, everlasting, ever augmenting. (J. M. Sherwood, D. D.)

A strange experiment

He now resolves to abandon the “studious cloisters.” For their quiet he will substitute the excitement of feverish pleasure. But this tremendous reaction from the joys of the philosopher to coarser animal pleasure is not easy. He has to goad his mind before it is ready for this new and low direction. He has to say to his heart, “Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth.” What a fall is here, from the contemplation of high themes of truth, the works of God and man, to merely sensual pleasure! But the experiment is brief. It would be. For a man of wisdom could not be long in discovering the utter worthlessness of sensual gratification; sharp and swift comes the conclusion: “I said of laughter, It is mad, and of mirth, What doeth it?” It has sometimes been the question of thoughtful people how the wise man could bring himself to try this second experiment, the effort to find happiness in “the lust of the flesh” and “the lust of the eye.” This, it is usually thought, is the delight of fools. But that a man who could say he “had seen the works that are done under the sun,” whose philosophy had ranged over new things until they were seen to be the old things recurrent, who could truly say that he had “gotten more wisdom than all they that had been before him in Jerusalem,”--for such an one to fly from philosophy to pleasure, from meditation to mirth, is accounted phenomenally strange. But it is not. Across just such extremes does the restless spirit fly that has not yet learned that happiness is not the creature of circumstance, but the outgrowth of the life. And how it magnifies this inner character of happiness to reflect that even wisdom pursued for its own sake may be seen to be so hollow that the soul will fly to the farthest distance from it, inferring that even sensual folly may be a relief from the emptiness of knowledge! (C. L. Thompson, D. D.)

Verse 2

Ecclesiastes 2:2

I said of laughter, It is mad.

The wit and the madman

If you were asked who had sat for the portrait of a madman, you would be disposed to look out for some monster, some scourge of our race, in whom vast powers had been at the disposal of ungoverned passions, and who had covered a country with weeping and with desolate families; and at first we might be readily tempted to conclude that Solomon employed somewhat exaggerated terms when he identified laughter with madness. Neither need we suppose that all laughter is indiscriminately condemned; as though gloom marked a sane person, and cheerfulness an insane. “Rejoice evermore” is a scriptural direction, and blithe-heartedness ought to be both felt and displayed by those who know that they have God for their Guardian, and Christ for their Surety. But it is the laughter of the world which the wise man calls madness; and there will be no difficulty in showing you, in two or three instances, how close is the parallel between the maniac and the man by whom this laughter is excited. We would first point out to you how that conflict, of which this creation is the scene, and the leading antagonists in which are Satan and God, is a conflict between falsehood and truth. The entrance of evil was effected through a lie; and when Christ promised the descent of the Holy Ghost, whose special office it was to be to regenerate human kind, to restore their lost purity, and therewith their lost happiness, He promised it under the character of the Spirit of truth; as though truth were all that was needed to the making of this earth once more a paradise. And it is in accordance with this representation of that great struggle, which fixes the regards of higher orders of intelligence, as being a struggle between falsehood and truth, that so much criminality is everywhere in Scripture attached to a lie, and that those on whom a lie may be charged, are represented as thereby more especially obnoxious to the anger of God. “A lying tongue,” says the wise man, “is but for a moment”: as though sudden vengeance might be expected to descend upon the liar, and sweep him away ere he could reiterate the falsehood. And if there be thus, as it were, a kind of awful majesty in truth, so that the swerving from it is emphatically treason against God and the soul, it follows that whatever is calculated to diminish reverence for truth, or to palliate falsehood, is likely to work as wide mischief as may well be imagined. You are all ready without hesitation to admit that nothing would go further towards loosening the bonds of society than the destroying the shame which now attaches to a lie; and accordingly you would rise up as by one common impulse to withstand any man or any authority which should propose to shield the liar, or to make his offence comparatively unimportant. But whilst the bold and direct falsehood thus gains for itself the general execration, mainly perhaps because felt to militate against the general interest, there is a ready indulgence in the more sportive falsehood, which is rather the playing with truth than the making a lie. Here it is that we shall find laughter which is madness, and identify with a madman him by whom the laughter is raised. There is very frequently a departure from truth in that mirthful discourse to which Solomon refers. In amusing a table, and causing light-heartedness and gaiety to go round the company, men may be teaching others to view with less abhorrence a lie, or diminishing in them that sanctity of truth which is at once an admirable virtue and essential to the existence of any other. I do not fear the influence of one whom the world denounces as a liar; but I do of one whom it applauds as a wit. I fear it in regard of reverence for truth--a reverence which, if it do not of itself make a great character, must be strong wheresoever the character is great. The man who passes off a clever fiction, or amusingly distorts an occurrence, or dextrously misrepresents a fact, may say that he only means to be amusing, and that nothing is further from his thoughts than the doing an injury; but nevertheless, forasmuch as it can hardly fail but that he will lower the majesty of truth in the eyes of his neighbour, there may be equally ample reason for assenting to the wise man’s decision--“I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?” But we have not yet given the worst case of that laughter which may be identified with madness. It is very true, that whatever tends to diminish men’s abhorrence of a lie, tends equally to the spreading confusion and wretchedness, and may therefore be justly classed amongst things which resemble the actings of a maniac. It is also true that this tendency exists in much of that admired conversation whose excellence virtually lies in its falseness; so that the correspondence is clear between the wit and the madman. But it is not perhaps till the laughter is turned upon sacred things that we have before us the madness in all its wildness and in all its injuriousness. The man who in any way exercises his wit upon the Bible conveys undoubtedly an impression, whether he intend it or not, that he is not a believer in the inspiration of the Bible; for it is altogether insupposable that a man who really recognized in the Bible the Word of the living God, who felt that its pages had been traced by the very hand which spread out the firmament, should select from it passages to parody, or expressions which might be thrown into a ludicrous form. It may be true that he does this only in joke, and with no evil design; he never meant, he may tell you, when he introduced Scripture ridiculously, or amused his companions by sarcastic allusions to the peculiarities of the pious--he never meant to recommend a contempt for religion, or to insinuate a disbelief in the Bible, and perhaps he never did; but nevertheless, even if you acquit him of harmful intention, and suppose him utterly unconscious that he is working a moral injury, he who frames jokes on sacred things, or points his wit with scriptural allusions, may do far more mischief to the souls of his fellow-men than if he engaged openly in assaulting the great truths of Christianity. If you have heard a text quoted in a ridiculous sense, or applied to some laughable occurrence, you will hardly be able to separate the text from that occurrence; the association will be permanent; and when you hear the text again, though it may be in the house of God, or under circumstances which make you wish for the most thorough concentration of thought on the most awful things, yet will there come back upon you- all the joke and all the parody, so that the mind will be dissipated and the very sanctuary profaned. And hence the justice of identifying with madness the laughter excited by reference to sacred things. Now, the upshot of the whole matter is, that we ought to set a watch upon our tongues, to pray God to keep the door of our lips. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Of all the gifts with which we have been entrusted, the gift of speech is perhaps that through which we may work most of evil or of good, and nevertheless it is that of whose right exercise we seem to make least account. It appears to us a hard saying, that for every idle word which they speak men shall give an account at the last, and we scarcely discern any proportion between a few syllables uttered without thought and those retributive judgments which must be looked for hereafter; but if you observe how we have been able to vindicate the correctness of the assertion of our text, though it be only the idle talker whose laughter is declared to be madness, effecting the same results, and producing the same evils as the fury of the uncontrolled maniac, you will see that a word may be no insignificant thing--that its consequences may be widely disastrous, and certainly the speaker is answerable for the consequences which may possibly ensue, however God may prevent their actual occurrence. The fiction may not make a liar, and the jest may not make an infidel, but since it is the tendency of the fiction to make liars, and the tendency of the jest to make infidels, he who invents the one, or utters the other, is as criminal as though the result had been the same as the tendency. (H. Melvill, B. D.)

Verse 11

Ecclesiastes 2:11

I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do.

The review

Our Lord pronounced the children of this world “wise in their generation”: and who can doubt that thousands who are lost would, with God’s blessing, be saved, did they bring the same prudence, and diligence, and energy to their eternal, as they do to their temporal interests? Some years ago a man was called to decide between preserving his life, and parting with the gains of his lifetime. A gold-digger, he stood on the deck of a ship that, coming from Australian shores, had--as some all but reach heaven--all but reached her harbour in safety. But, as the proverb runs, there is much between the cup and the lip. Night came lowering down; and with the night a storm that wrecked ship, and hopes, and fortunes, all together. The dawning light but revealed a scene of horror--death staring them in the face. The sea, lashed into fury, ran mountains high; no boat could live in her. One chance still remained. Pale women, weeping children, feeble and timid men, must die; but a stout, brave swimmer, with trust in God, and disencumbered of all impediment, s, might reach the shore, where hundreds stood ready to dash into the boiling surf, and, seizing, save him. One man was observed to go below. He bound around his waist a heavy belt, filled with gold, the hard gains of his life; and returned to the deck. One after another, he saw his fellow-passengers leap overboard. After a brief but terrible struggle, head after head went down--sunk by the gold they had fought hard to gain, and were loath to lose. Slowly he was seen to unbuckle his belt. If he parts with it, he is a beggar; but then if he keeps it, he dies. He poised it in his hand; balanced it for a while; took a long, sad look at it; and then with one strong, desperate effort, flung it far out into the roaring sea. Wise man! It sinks with a sullen plunge; and now he follows it--not to sink, but, disencumbered of its weight, to swim; to beat the billows manfully; and, riding on the foaming surge, to reach the shore. Well done, brave gold-digger! Aye, well done, and well chosen; but if “a man will give all that he hath for his life,” how much more should he give all he hath for his soul! Better to part with gold than with God; to bear the heaviest cross than miss a heavenly crown.

Inquire what we have done for god. We have had many, daily, innumerable, opportunities of serving Him, speaking for Him, working for Him, not sparing ourselves for Him who spared not His own Son for us. Yet, how little have we attempted; and how much less have we done in the spirit of our Saviour’s words, “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” There is no moor in our country so barren as our hearts. They drink up God’s blessings as the sands of the Sahara heaven’s rain.

Inquire what we have done for ourselves. No profit? Do you reply, I have made large profits--my business has paid me, and yielded large returns--I have added acres to my lands. But, let me say that that, perhaps, is not all you have added. What if by every day you have lived without God and for the world, you have added difficulties to your salvation; shackles to your limbs; bars to your prison; guilt to your soul; sins to your debt; thorns to your dying pillow? Let no man be cast down; give way to despair! Years are lost; but the soul is not yet lost. There is still time to be saved. Haste, then, and away.

Inquire what we have done for others. Suppose that our blessed Lord, sitting down on Olivet to review the years of His busy life, had looked on all the works which His hands had wrought,--what a crowd, a long procession of miracles and mercies had passed before Him! I believe there were more good works crowded into one single day of Christ’s life than you will find spread over the lifelong history of any Christian. Trying our piety by this test, what testimony does our past life bear to its character? The tree is known by its fruits. In conclusion--

1. This review, God’s Spirit blessing it, should awaken careless sinners.

2. This review should stir up God’s people. (T. Guthrie, D. D.)

Love not the world

The habit of men in pursuing worldly objects.

1. By worldly objects we mean those which terminate entirely on the earth, and which occupy human thought and pursuit without any connection with spiritual and eternal things.

2. The cause to which the pursuit of worldly objects is to be ascribed it is of course of immense importance to assign and to remember; and that cause is to be found only in the moral corruption or depravity of human nature.

(1) Men from their depravity are prone to indulge in inordinate attachment to immediate and visible things.

(2) Men from their depravity are apt to indulge an entire and practical disbelief in the existence of eternal realities.

The evils by which the pursuit of worldly objects is invariably attended.

1. The pursuit of worldly objects is associated with much disappointment and sorrow in the present state.

(1) Notice the dissatisfaction and sorrow connected with the attainment of worldly objects. When the imagined good is grasped, it leaves “an aching void,” a still unsatiated craving, revealing itself at the last but as a detected imposture, which only excited that it might exhaust, which only promised that it might betray, and which only attracted that it might sting.

(2) Observe the disappointment and sorrow connected with the actual or threatened loss of worldly objects. How often has it been, that what man has painfully and laboriously acquired, has been torn suddenly and rapidly away! The fountains of pleasure, honour, and power are dried up and exhaled, like the dew-drop before the sunbeam; and those who have had them are left at last in disgrace, beggary, and penury emphatically as being the very bankrupts and paupers of the world. And then, while worldly objects are actually held within the grasp, how much of anxiety arises from the thought that they may be lost, from the complicated contingency to which human affairs are liable; and especially from the reflection that they must at last be lost, by the arrival of death!

(3) Again: we remind you of the disappointment and sorrow connected with the remembrance of sins committed for the sake of worldly objects. Take especially the cases which have occurred in the pursuit, for instance, of wealth, pleasure, or power. There has been the flagrant violation of moral principle, the perpetration of fraud in the pursuit of wealth, the perpetration of lewdness in the pursuit of pleasure, the perpetration of oppression and cruelty in the pursuit of power.

2. The pursuit of worldly objects places in jeopardy the final and immortal happiness of the soul.

The vast importance of turning our attention from worldly objects, and of seeking the attainment of far higher blessings.

1. As we are devoted to religion, in the present world we obtain solid satisfaction and peace. There is no disappointment in religion; all that it confers is solid and lasting; nor is there one who under Divine grace has been led to yield his heart to its power, who does not at once, according to its legitimate operation, find the storms and tempests of the spirit subside into one placid and beautiful calm.

2. As we are devoted to religion, we secure, beyond the present state, the salvation and immortal happiness of the soul. (J. Parsons.)

The failure of pleasures

The pleasures of great and good men may be vanity and vexation of spirit. Solomon was great, and he was good. This is the inspired judgment of him (Nehemiah 13:26). But he had for the time declined from greatness, swerved from goodness, and it was in this search for pleasure. Here we see how degraded a man of high rank, splendid genius, rich character, may become. Truly “the pinnacle overhangs the precipice.”

The pleasures of skill and toil may become vanity and vexation of spirit. Those that Solomon found so utterly dissatisfying were not alone pleasures of appetite and of indulgence. There were thought, contrivance, taste, effort involved. So pleasures along the lines even of art, and science, and literature may, as Dundas, and David Scott, and Chesterfield all prove, become vanity and vexation of spirit.

Pleasures in themselves fitted to delight may become vanity and vexation of spirit. The abundance of life, the hues of the flowers, the fragrance and melodies and shade, all make “gardens” sources of exquisite delight, and it may be of innocent and high delight, for God planted a garden for unfallen man. Yet these gardens gave no satisfaction to Solomon; and similarly many real pleasures give no joy to men. So it has with many become an adage, that “Life would be very tolerable if it were not for its amusements.”

In all these cases the selfish search for pleasure has made it vanity and vexation of spirit. It was thus with Solomon: it will be thus with all. Selfishness is the cankerworm in the flower of such pleasures, the alloy that the laboratory of such experiences as Solomon discovers in such would-be delights. (R. Thomas.)

The vanity of worldly happiness

There is no man living can ever expect to be in more happy outward circumstances than Solomon was, or to enjoy more of this world’s good than Solomon did. And if he, after all, found nothing but labour and trouble, and dissatisfaction and emptiness, no real profit, no advantage in any worldly thing, what must we expect to find? Certainly no better fortune than he did. And if this be the case of mankind, how unaccountable is it that any of us should fix our thoughts and designs, our comforts and expectancies upon anything under the sun. It is just the same folly that those men are guilty of, that being tossed up and down at sea, yet nevertheless desire to be still there, and cannot endure to think of coming to a port. It is the madness of those, that being condemned to dig in the mines, are so much in love with toil and labour, with chains and darkness, that they despise a life above ground, a life of light and liberty. In a word, it is the fantastic punishment of Tantalus in the poets that these men wish for themselves: they desire to spend their time for ever in gaping after those lovely pleasant fruits which (they fancy) seem almost to touch their mouths. Yet all their labour is in vain; and as they never did, so they never shall be able to come at them.

1. Let us consider the continual toil and labour that mankind in this world are exposed to. The despatching of one business is but the making room for some other, and possibly more troublesome one, that is presently to follow after. We toil till we are weary, and have exhausted our strength and spirits, and then we think to refresh and recruit ourselves; but, alas! that refreshment is only to prepare and enable us for the bearing the next hour’s burthen, which will inevitably come upon us.

2. But this is not all: we might, possibly, find some comfort in that pains and labour we take in this world, at least they would be much more supportable if we were sure our designs would always succeed; if we were sure to attain that which we labour for; but, alas! it is oftentimes quite otherwise. We meet with frequent disappointments in our endeavours; nay, we cannot say beforehand of anything we undertake that it shall certainly come to pass as we would have it. And this is a matter that renders the world a place of still more restlessness and disquiet.

3. Supposing, after several disappointments, and with much difficulty, we do attain our ends, and get what our souls desired, yet doth the thing answer our expectation? Do we find that it is fit, and good, and convenient for us? If so, then we seem to have laboured to some purpose. But if not, then we are but still where we were; nay, we had better never have troubled our heads about it. In all our labours we either hit, or miss; we either succeed, or are disappointed. If we be disappointed, we are certainly troubled; and if we do succeed, for anything we know, that very success may prove our greatest unhappiness.

4. But let us suppose that we have brought no inconvenience upon ourselves by our choice. Let us suppose our designs were reasonable, and they rightly succeeded, and the circumstances of our condition are every way fit and proper for us; yet, is this sufficient to procure us content? Alas! there is too much reason to fear the contrary; for such is the constitution of this world, that let us be in what circumstances we will, yet we shall meet with many troubles and inconveniencies that do necessarily flow from the nature of that condition which we are in, though otherwise it may be the fittest for us of all others. There is no sincere unmingled good to be met with. Every state of life, as it hath something of good in it, so the best hath some evil displeasing appendages inseparable adhering to it. Nay, perhaps, in true speaking, the worldly happiness of any man’s condition is not to be measured by the multitude of goods he enjoyeth in it, but rather by the fewness of the evils it brings upon him.

5. But let us suppose we find no inconvenience in the circumstances of our lives: we will suppose we are possessed of many goods from the enjoyment of which we may promise to ourselves solid contentment and satisfaction. These are our present thoughts. But are we sure we shall always continue in the same mind? Are we sure that that which is now very grateful and agreeable, and affects us with a sensible pleasure and delight, will continue always to do so? On the contrary, have we not much reason to fear, that, in a little time, it will grow dull and unaffecting; nay, possibly, very irksome and displeasing?

6. To all these things let us add the numberless daily troubles and discomposures of mind, not peculiar to any condition, as those I spoke of before, but common to all, arising from men’s minds and tempers, and the things and persons they converse with in the world. It is a melancholy consideration; but I believe the experience of mankind will make it good, that there is scarce a day in our lives that we pass in perfect uninterrupted peace and content, but something or other every day happens that gives us trouble, and makes us uneasy to ourselves.

7. But what must we say of the many sad accidents and more grievous and weighty afflictions that do frequently exercise the patience of mankind? If in the best condition of human life men are not happy, but everything is able to ruffle and disorder them; O how miserable are they in the worst! So long as we have mortal bodies exposed to sickness and diseases, to sad accidents and casualties; so long as we have a frail nature that betrays us to a thousand follies and sins; so long as we have dear friends and relations, or children, that we may be deprived of; so long as we may prove unfortunate in our marriage, or in our posterity, or in the condition of life we have chosen; so long as there are men to slander us, or to rob us, or to undermine us; so long as there are storms at sea, or fire upon land; so long as there are enemies abroad, or tumults, seditions, and turns of state at home: I say, so long as we are exposed to these things, we must, every one of us, expect, in some degree or other, to bear a share in the miseries of the world. And now, all these things considered, judge ye whether this world doth look like a place of rest; whether it is not rather a stage of calamities and sad events. Judge ye whether the best of human things be not “vanity”: but the worst of them intolerable “vexation of spirit.”

8. Which will still appear the more evident if we add this, that though all we have hitherto said did go for nothing; though we could be supposed to be exempted from all those inconveniencies and mischiefs I have mentioned; though we could be supposed to be capable of an uninterrupted enjoyment of the good things of this life as long as we live; yet even this would not satisfy much to the making our state in this world easy and happy; for there is one thing still would spoil all such hopes and pretences, and that is, the fear of death, which hath made mankind all their lifetime subject to bondage (Hebrews 2:15). O what a dismal reflection must this needs be to a man who bath set up his rest in this world, and dreams of no other happiness but what he hath here! To think that in a few years at the farthest, but possibly in a few months or days, he shall lie down in the dust, and then all that he hath here possessed and enjoyed is lost and gone, irrecoverably gone! O that we would seriously think upon these things! We should certainly have this advantage by it, that we should not any longer be cheated with the gaudy appearances of this world, but look after something more solid, more substantial, than anything we find here to live for, to set our hearts and affections upon. (Abp. Sharp.)

The vanity of life

Consider the vanity of the present state of being, considered as our only state. Suppose, first, that a decree were to go forth perpetuating your present condition--pronouncing that you should remain eternally just as you are now. How would you receive such a decree? Is there one of you who would be willing to stop the wheel of fortune now and for ever? If you will look into your own hearts you will find that you are living more in the future than in the present, more in your plans than in your possessions,.
that you depend more on what you think that you are laying up for time to come than on any means of enjoyment actually in hand. But what will this future on which you are building bring to you? Incompleteness, vexation, disappointment, bereavement, sorrow. Few of your blossoms will ripen into fruit; few of your plans will be realized; very little of what you now clearly see in the future will shape itself as you see it. The farther you go on in life, the more blighted hopes will lie behind you, the more vacant places will there be in the circle of your kindred and friendship, the more will there be in your outward condition to make you feel that there is no rest or home for you on this side of the grave. Again, if you would look into your hearts, in the gayest and most gladsome moments of earthly enjoyment, you will perceive much of this same emptiness and vanity. Who has not at such times been conscious, as it were, of a double self, of an uneasiness in the midst of gratification, of a restless feeling in the very fulness of seeming joy, of a voice that whispers, “Up and be doing,” while many voices bid us stay, and drown all other thoughts in the scene before ha? But though at these seasons such thoughts will come over us, we crowd them out. There are, however, times when they are forced upon us, and we cannot expel them. There are times of sudden and overwhelming grief, when calamity breaks in upon us like a swift flood, and seems to wash away the very ground on which we stand--that earth’s fairest mansions are but whited sepulchres, her choicest fruit but dust and ashes. We are then conscious of the frailty of what remains to us, no less than of what has been taken from us, and can say from the heart that there is nothing here below on which we can place the least dependence,--nothing which we dare to love as we have loved, or to trust as we have trusted. Then, were it not for the words of eternal life, we could say in intense anguish,--“All is vanity and vexation of spirit, and there is no profit under the sun.” But after all, though we walk in a vain show, there is enjoyment in life,--in our mere earthly life. Yet from what does it flow? Not from the ever-changing scene, not from the winter-frozen and summer-dried fountains around us, but from the unchanging love of God, the bow of whose promise remains fixed over the stream of time and the waves of unceasing vicissitude. He who gives the ravens their food feeds also His human children, and by filling all things with His love makes us happy. And, blessed be God, there is that in life which is not vanity or vexation. The outer man may perish, the desire of eyes and the pride of life may fail; but the signature of God’s spirit on the inner man time cannot efface, or the waves of death wash away. The soul, character, virtue, piety, remain, amidst the reverses of fortune, the desolation of our households, the wasting of disease, and the thunder-blast of death. (A. P. Peabody.)

Verse 14

Ecclesiastes 2:14

The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness.

The advantage of wisdom over folly

Wisdom possesses the same advantage over folly that sight does over blindness. The man of wisdom, having all his wits about him, in the full possession and the appropriate exercise of all his faculties, “guides his affairs with discretion,” looks before him, thinks maturely of what he is doing, and by his knowledge of men and things, is directed to the adoption of plans which promise to be profitable, and to the prudent and successful prosecution of them. He “foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself.” He aims at worthy ends, and employs suitable means for their accomplishment. But the fool--the ignorant, and inconsiderate, and improvident man--is continually in danger of stumbling, or of going astray, like a person overtaken by darkness, who “knoweth not whither he goeth.” He is ever prone to run blindly and heedlessly into absurd and injurious projects, or to destroy such as are in themselves good, by blundering in the execution of them. The fool’s eyes, it is elsewhere said, are “in the ends of the earth,” roaming vainly and idly abroad, without serving his present and needful purposes; gazing, as the organs of a vacant mind, on far-off objects, and allowing him to stumble over what is immediately in his way. Without foresight to anticipate probable evils, without even sagacity to avoid such as are present, the fool is in perpetual hazard of iniuring and ruining both himself and all who are so unfortunate as to stand connected with him, or to be exposed to his influence. (R. Wardlaw, D. D.)

The wisdom of the eye

To understand this proverb, notice, first, the contrasts which it suggests. One of these is expressed in the context; the other is to be readily and clearly inferred.

1. First, there is a contrast between persons. We have before us the believer in God and the unbeliever, the child of light and the child of darkness, the converted and the unconverted, the spiritual and the natural. Whatever may be their relative state of knowledge or ignorance, of wealth or poverty, in the sense of the Bible of truth, and in the judgment of the God of truth, the one is wise and the other a fool.

2. Secondly, there is a contrast implied: “The wise man’s eyes are in his head, but the fool walketh in darkness.” And why is his path in darkness? Because, unlike the wise man, his eyes are not in his head; if they had been there, he would have walked in light, surely, safely. But they are in his heart, and so he walks foolishly, erringly, darkly. The eye in the head--the wise man’s eye, sees under the direction of reason, and faith, and of right understanding. The eye in the heart--the fool’s eye, sees under the direction of the affections, the disposition and the feelings. And so, while the one man walks in light, the other man walks in darkness.

But now let me more pointedly and practically set out the meaning of this verse. Let us take by itself each part of this proverb and consider it.

1. First, then, it is implied that the fool’s eyes are in his heart. He sees all things through the medium of his own wishes and inclinations; his reason and conscience do not control, but they are possessed by his inclinations.

(1) Hence I believe, because the eye of many is in the heart, the scepticism which obtains in our day, especially the scepticism which obtains in the minds of young men. No man, I believe, ever became an infidel against his will. Inclination, not evidence, has been deficient to the man. The evil heart of unbelief is at the root of scepticism.

(2) Hence I believe the prejudice with which many professed Christians turn away from the doctrines of evangelical religion. They do not question their reality, but they just dislike their practical consequences.

(3) A fool’s eyes are in his heart, because his bondage is to things present and temporal, and he is indifferent to thinks unseen and eternal. The Bible, though not a fable, is as another book to him, and nothing more. Truth, if not a fiction, is not a fact. Earth is a loved present, possessed; heaven is a forgotten, distant future.

2. But “the wise man’s eyes are in his head.” The light of a holy knowledge shines upon them, and in this light the eye of reason and of faith, the eye, not of blind inclination, but of Christian consciousness and confidence, sees light.

(1) Hence a Christian man feels the right and the responsibility of private judgment on the truth and the service of God. The authority of Christ is supreme authority unto him. He will allow no interference with it; he will allow no usurper to take its place.

(2) Hence the Christian man prays for the light of Divine teaching, The possession of truth has taught him the possibility and the peril of error. He would be found never trusting in man, but he would always pray--“That which I know not, Lord, teach Thou me!”

(3) Hence the impression which he receives of the things around him and before him. The rule of duty, read by the eyes in his head, is just this--his Father’s will. The measure of goodness, admired by the eye in his head, is just this--his Saviour’s image.

(4) Lastly, when our eyes are in our head, under the government of an enlightened reason and a Christian faith, they will always be doing a holy and a godly service to our souls--never an injurious one. They will not, then, wander lustfully where they should not even steal a glance; they will be turned away from all vanities. Looking ever, will they be found, unto Jesus; ever, will they be found, setting the Lord before them; single will they ever be, full of light, turning the whole body into light also. (J. Eyre, M. A.)

One event happeneth to them all.--

Wisdom and folly compared

Looking simply at knowledge as such, and looking merely at the brief span of our existence “under the sun,” we must confess that the wise man is sometimes as powerless as the fool. Two men take their seats in a railway train. The one man is an accomplished scholar, or mathematician, or philosopher. He has disciplined his mental powers, and has amassed large stores of knowledge. He has even acquired, it may be a certain reputation as a man of learning, or as a leader of the thoughts of others. The man who is sitting beside him cares nothing for intellectual culture. Animal enjoyment is his ideal. Give him a good dinner, and you may keep your books to yourself! He could never see any good in racking his brains over hard problems. There sit these two men in the railway carriage, side by side: the one, perhaps, reading the latest book of science; the other, perhaps, glancing through some “Sporting Gazette.” Suddenly, in a moment, there comes the collision which it was utterly impossible for either of them to foresee: the train is a wreck; and these two lie together, crushed, mangled, and dead! “One event, one chance, has happened to them both!” Now, shut out the thought of God, and the thought of immortality, and what “advantage” has the one man over the other? The student has had his intellectual enjoyments: the votary of pleasure has had his enjoyments also. The scholar, along with his enjoyment, has had much fatiguing toil, and, it may be, painful thought; the pleasure-seeker also has doubtless, on his part experienced some of the penalties of self-indulgence. The lover of knowledge has, indeed, had this advantage, that his “eyes” have been “in his head”: he has had a wider and clearer vision; and he has lived a higher kind of life. But to what purpose? Where is the permanent advantage? These two men have lived their short span: and here has come Death, as the great leveller! For a few years, perhaps, the scholar may be spoken of; his name may even get into some “biographical dictionary” but, unless he is one of a very select few, it will be little more than a name, and, in the ages to come, he will be altogether forgotten. To what purpose, then, has he “scorned delights, and lived laborious days”? Can he be said to have made the best use of human life, if he has simply spent it in acquiring a “wisdom” which leaves him, in the end, indistinguishable from the fool? Thus, then, we seem to be driven to the same conclusion as Ecclesiastes. Whatever advantages earthly wisdom has, it cannot be regarded as the chief good for man. The amassing of knowledge as the one supreme object of human existence is a vain delusion: it is a “feeding on wind”: it fails to satisfy the deepest cravings of the human soul. (T. C. Finlayson.)

Verse 17

Ecclesiastes 2:17

Therefore I hated life.

Is life worth living

“Is life worth living?” is a question that is continually coming before the public mind in one form or another. When Mr. Maddock’s book appeared, as many of you may remember, there was an attempt to make light of it by the pun contained in the supposed doctor’s answer, “It depends on the liver.” This has been capped by “Punch’s” clergyman, who replies, “It depends on the living.” One must, however, approach the matter with the utmost seriousness, as it touches upon the deep basal truths and principles of existence, and is too solemn a subject to admit of any flippancy in our treatment of it. The problem would be met by an unqualified affirmative wherever life is young, healthy, and active, and the environment favourable to a rich, varied, and exuberant form of existence. In some respects, therefore, the doctor is right; it does depend upon the state of the health and the physical condition. I wonder what a happy schoolboy, rushing out with the football under his arm, would say if he were asked, “Is life worth living?” His expression would be a curious study as he gave his reply, and would itself convey deep significance. What a happy thing it would be if that schoolboy aspect of life were only exchanged for a deeper conviction of its fuller value and noble possibilities, and that it should never occur to us to ask whether this breath of life might not as well cease, and that perhaps the whole had been a hideous mistake! The words of the Koheleth express the sentiment of those who thus pass an adverse sentence upon the value of life, condemning both the career of the wise man and the fool, and who have come to hate life, for “all is vanity and vexation of spirit” or “a striving after wind.” The grand old Greeks, with their highly-refined conditions of life, and life itself full of richness and variety, end ennobled by the splendid idealism of the fine arts, now and then fell into this sad vein. Even the ancient poet, the “sunny-brewed” Homer, sang--

“For there is nothing whatever more wretched than man

Of all things that breathe and that move o’er the earth.”

We have, further, in Theognis, “It would be best for the children of the earth not to be born . . . next best for them, when born, to pass through the gates of Hades as soon as possible.” Can anything be more touching than the words of Cassandra in “Agamemnon” by AEschylus: “Alas for the conditions of mortals! When prosperous, a shadow may overturn them; if, however, they be in adversity, a moistened sponge blots out the picture.” Then we find Seneca, one of the best of the Roman Stoics, whose maxims came so near to many of the sayings of St. Paul, praising death as the “best invention of nature,” and Marcus Aurelius, “a seeker after God,” expressing his disgust at human life, with the apostrophe, “O death, delay not thy coming.” There is much the same in the literature of Persia, and in the sphere of the religion of “the light.” The pure-souled and seraphic Buddha considers that “True wisdom is a desire to be nothing, to be blown out, to enter into Nirvana, i.e. extinction.” Coming to modern times we find in French literature of the Pompadour period the same strain of melancholy. Diderot wrote, “To be, amid pain and weeping, the plaything of uncertainty, of error, of want, of sickness, and of passions--every step, from the moment when we learn to lisp, to the time of departure, when our voice falters--this is called the most important gift of our parents and of nature--life.” This is more than equalled by the words of Sehelling, “The death’s head never fails behind the ogling mask, and life is only the cap and bells which the nonentity has donned just to make a jingle, and afterwards to tear it to pieces and east it away.” These instances will suffice to indicate the strongly marked pessimistic tendency amongst some of the finest thinkers, and would lead those who are predisposed to this kind of philosophizing to the inevitable conviction that, on the whole, life is not worth living.

1. The value of life, if judged from the point of view of happiness, depends upon the sum of its functional activities and interests. Our pessimistic views concerning life are largely the result of our mistaken ideas of happiness. We are apt to imagine that health, leisure, and a splendid income are absolutely necessary to our happiness; and when there is a prospect of losing these permanently, life is no longer desirable. No man is really unhappy who realizes that he has work to do and sets himself in earnest to do it. The utmost of pain and sorrow can be borne if only one has an object in life. Men who throw up all for lost are those who have abandoned, if they ever had it, their object in life. Let a person once set his mind upon some worthy aim, and allow his interest to centre in that, and let it absorb his energies, and never will he think of laying violent hands upon himself. When the Christians assembled in the catacombs we discover none of those traces of pessimism that are so characteristic of the poems of Horace. Their interest was centred in their Lord and Master, and His royal will. We can understand, then, how a truly Christian man, following in the experiences of the Apostle Paul, would apprehend Christ to be the true object of existence. “To live is Christ,” to learn about Christ, to live for Christ, to gain Christ, and to realize the life and character of Christ within oneself, so that the very principle of the within, is Christ. Such realization gives life its value.

2. The value of life further depends upon its extrinsic utilities in the service of our fellows. We owe a debt of gratitude to the past, which can only be paid to the future, for this, and it is a point of honour, that every man should acknowledge, to make his life valuable to others to those who shall come after him. It would be ignoble to slight that which has cost so much to develop, and especially since every life is capable of being made useful in a greater or less degree.

3. If we are men of faith we shall value life for the sake of its higher development beyond the grave. Even though this life were spent in a purgatory of torture, or a hell of pain, which life need never be, no one who believes in the Christ can deny that the great hereafter will more than obliterate the traces of this sorrowful world in the glorious activities of the heavenly state and all its grand developments. Cheer up, brothers, and brace yourselves for manly effort. There are no sorrows or difficulties that a brave-hearted man, who trusts in Cod, need fear to encounter. Whatever straits one may find oneself in, there is no lot so painful, so bitter, or so trying that it may not be sweetened and ennobled by effort--and that effort will be our joy. (J. G. James, B. A.)

Pessimism and optimism

(with Psalms 27:1):--We all of us are by turns followers of the laughing philosopher and of the weeping philosopher. Life sometimes appears full of joy, at other times full of sorrow. Hence the folly of labelling the souls of our fellow-men is manifest, of calling one man an optimist and another a pessimist. Deep souls are both at different periods of their development. We are all pilgrims; and so we pass through many widely different countries during our journey. And it is much to be wished that men would not be so precipitate in guessing at the goal or terminus, to which the spirits of their brethren are going. To all of us that really think, there has been given a new commandment: and it is this, Thou shalt not label thy brother’s soul. Pessimism is often like the moulting of birds, a thing not pleasing in itself, but still a necessary process. A moulting eagle is grander far than a well-conditioned sparrow. Pessimism is often only a sort of prolonged moulting of the divine eagle wings of the most soaring faith and the noblest compassion and love.

1. Christianity has obviously very much in common with pessimism. It has nothing in common with the fantastic optimism of Emerson, which deliberately chooses to ignore the darker side of human life. It plainly teaches that the present condition of the world is abnormal, and in many respects evil. Our religion fully recognizes the fact that we are pilgrims and strangers here, and that our life is essentially a warfare. It does not require us to be always in a triumphant mood. It knows that many of the very greatest of the elect are destined to pass long years in the dark valley of the shadow of death. It blesses those that mourn.

2. Christianity nowhere teaches that pleasure, or even happiness, is the end or object of life. On the contrary, our religion teaches that progress through suffering is the real end and object of our life. The doctrine of the Cross, with its divine amplitude of meaning is to use a precious rock-hewn path of safety between the deceptive quagmire of a flimsy Emersonian optimism and the hideous abysses of a despairing pessimism. The very fact that God has brought the human race so far in its spiritual pilgrimage forbids any reasonable despair. The old, sacred, guiding fire of the Eternal still leads us on. The burning and unearthly splendours of the mighty Ideal from time to time disperse the thick clouds of the actual. The far-off goal of the human race gleams fitfully on our worn eyes; even amidst the heartbreaking sorrow of prolonged moral failure, an angel of the Divine pity sometimes “carries us away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shows us that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.” There, in God’s nearer presence, the ailing soul knows that it shall one day grow well and strong. (A. Crawford, M. A.)

Tired of life

What are the causes of suicide? The general impression is, insanity: this is for the most part the verdict of juries over the corpse of the self-slain man. But insanity is not always the cause. In most cases of suicide there have been displayed on the part of the perpetrator forethought, deliberation, plan. What then can prompt a man who is not actually mad to this terrible deed?

Severe trials. The feeling that Solomon had, rushes into the soul of not a few at times. The children of Israel in the wilderness had it when they said, “Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt.” Elijah had it when he said, “It is enough now, O Lord! take away my life.” Job had it when he said, “I loathe it: I would not live alway.”

Sickening satiety. The men of leisure and affluence, who are freed from tile necessity of work, enterprise, and business, who fare sumptuously every day, and run the round of fashionable life and sensuous enjoyment, have always shown the greatest susceptibility to this disgust with life. Over-indulgence in worldly pleasures seldom fails to produce a moral nausea. There is what the French call the ennui that comes out of it, “that awful yawn,” says Byron, “that sleep cannot abate.” As a proof of this, in the countries where luxuries most abound, suicides are the most numerous. Whilst in Sweden there is only one suicide to every ninety-two thousand people, in Paris there is one to every three thousand.

Spiritual disgust. Men whose moral susceptibilities are exquisitely tender, whose intellectual eye is keen and strong enough to penetrate into the motives that govern society, and whose sympathies run strongly with the right, the true, and the divine, often experience such an inexpressible revulsion at certain popular developments of character and phases of society, as to lead them to say with Solomon, “I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me.”

Temperamental melancholy. So oppressive does the dark atmosphere of their irritable tempers become, that they are ready to seize the rope or the razor, or to plunge into the river.

Inordinate emotionality. There are those whose emotional natures seem stronger than their intellectual force. The winds and the waves of passion are too strong for the helmsman. Their emotional nature is like a deep and tumultuous sea, whose billows are ever breaking over the walls of their understanding. Sometimes, for example, revenge is a passion that prompts the deed. Samson was an example of this. Sometimes humiliation prompts the deed. Something occurs which overwhelms the man with shame. Ahithophel is an example of this. Sometimes desperation prompts the deed. Sometimes fear overwhelms the man, and prompts the deed. It was thus with the Philippian jailor. Sometimes remorse prompts the self-destroying deed. No passion that can seize the soul is so unbearable as this; “A wounded spirit, who can bear?” Thus Judas, when he saw that Christ, whom he had betrayed, was condemned to death, his guilty conscience made life so intolerable that he went out and hanged himself. Other passions may be mentioned, such as jealousy, which perhaps is the most prolific parent of suicides of all the passions. I learn from this subject--

1. That the poor need not envy the condition of the rich.

2. That all men have not an equal love of life.

3. That confidence in the redemptive Providence that is over us is the only security for a happy life.

The voice of Providence to every man is, not only “Do thyself no harm”: but free thyself from all anxious cares, and trust in the love and guidance of the great Father King. (Homilist.)

Disgust with life

The connection of our text with preceding and following verses, and its perfect harmony with the design of the wise man, which was to decry the world and its pleasures, and by his own experience to undeceive such as made idols of them, authorize us to consider the words as proceeding from the mouth of Solomon himself, expressive of his own sentiments and not those of others, and what he thought after his reconversion, and not what his opinion was during his dissipation.

On this principle we will first rid the text of several false meanings, which it may seem at first sight to countenance; for as there is a disgust with the world, and a contempt of life, which wisdom inspires, so there is a hatred of the world, that ariseth from evil dispositions.

1. We may hate life because we are melancholy. Only he whose ideas are disconcerted by a dark and gloomy temper can say fully and without qualification, “I hate life.” To attribute such a disposition to the wise man is to insult the Holy Spirit who animated him.

2. Some are disgusted with life from a principle of misanthropy. What is a misanthrope, or a hater of mankind? lie is a man who avoids society only to free himself from the trouble of being useful to it. He is a man who considers his neighbours only on the side of their defects, not knowing the art of combining their virtues with their vices, and of rendering the imperfections of other people tolerable by reflecting on his own. What a society would that be which should be composed of people without charity, without patience, without condescension! My text doth not inculcate such sentiments as these. The wise man had met with a great many disagreeable events in society which had given him a great deal of pain, but, far from being driven out of it, he continued to reside in the world, and to amend and improve it by his wise counsel and good example.

3. Sometimes a spirit of discontent produces disgust with the world, and contempt of life. To hear the people I mean, one would think it was impossible that this world should be governed by a wise being, because, forsooth, they are doomed with the rest of mankind to live in a valley of trouble. But who art thou, thou miserable man, to conceive ideas so false, and to form opinions so rash!

4. We are sometimes disgusted with the world through an excess of fondness for the world, and hate life through an over-valuation of it. Man enters the world as an enchanted place. While the charm lasts, the man I speak of is in raptures, and thinks he hath found the supreme good. He imagines that riches have no wings, that splendid fortune hath no reverse, that the great have no caprice, that friends have no levity, that health and youth are eternal; but as it is not long before he recovers his senses, he becomes disgusted with the world in the same proportion as he had been infatuated with it, and his hatred of life is exactly as extravagant as his love of it had been.

5. It is not in any of these senses that the wise man saith, “I hated life.” He would have us understand that the earth hath more thorns than flowers--that our condition here, though incomparably better than we deserve, is, however, inadequate to our just and constitutional desires--that our inconveniences in this life would seem intolerable unless we were wise enough to direct them to the same end that God proposed by exposing us to suffer them--in a word, that nothing but hope in a future state formed on another plan can render the disorders of this world tolerable. So much may serve to explain the meaning of the wise man.

Let us now proceed to justify the sense given. The phantoms that seduced Solomon during his dissipation may be reduced to two classes. The first suppose in the dissipated man very little knowledge, and very little taste; and it is astonishing that a man so eminently endowed with knowledge could set his heart upon them. The second may more easily impose on an enlightened and generous mind. I put these into three classes. In the first I put the advantages of science--in the second the pleasures of friendship--in the third the privileges, I mean the temporal privileges, of virtue and heroism. I will endeavour to unmask these three figures, and to prove that the very dispositions which should contribute most to the pleasure of life, mental abilities, tenderness of heart, rectitude and delicacy of conscience, are actually dispositions which contribute most of all to embitter life.

1. If ever possessions could make man happy, Solomon must certainly have been the happiest of mankind. Imagine the most proper and the most effectual means of acquiring knowledge, joined to an avidity to obtain it, both were united in the person of this prince. Now what saith this great man concerning science? He acknowledgeth indeed that it was preferable to ignorance, the wise man’s eyes, saith he, are in his head, that is, a man of education is in possession of some prudential maxims to regulate his life, whereas an illiterate man walketh in darkness; but yet saith he, “it happeneth even to me, as it happeneth to the fool, and why was I then wise?”

(1) Observe first, the little progress made in science by those who pursue it to the highest pitch. As they advance in this immense field they discover, shall I say new extents, or new abysses, which they can never fathom. The more they nourish themselves with this rich pasture, the more keen do their appetites become.

(2) Remark next the little justice done in the world to such as excel most in science.

2. The second disposition, which seems as if it would contribute much to the pleasure of life, but which often embitters it, is tenderness of heart. It is clear by the writings of Solomon, and more so by the history of his life, that his heart was very accessible to this kind of pleasure. How often doth he write encomiums on faithful friends (Proverbs 17:17; Proverbs 18:24). But where is this friend who sticketh closer than a brother? Where is this friend who loveth at all times? What an airy phantom is human friendship!

3. If anything seem capable to render life agreeable, and if anything in general render it disagreeable, it is rectitude, and delicacy of conscience. I know Solomon seems here to contradict himself, and the author of the Book of Proverbs seems to refute the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes. The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes informs us that virtue is generally useless and sometimes hurtful in this world; but according to the author of the Book of Proverbs virtue is most useful in this world. How shall we reconcile these things? To say, as some do, that the author of Proverbs speaks of the spiritual rewards of virtue, and the author of Ecclesiastes of the temporal state of it, is to cut the knot instead of untying it. Of many solutions there is one that bids fair to remove the difficulty; that is, that when the author of the Book of Proverbs makes temporal advantages of the rewards of virtue, he speaks of some rare periods of society, whereas the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes describes the common general state of things. Perhaps the former refers to the happy time in which the example of the piety of David being yet recent, and the prosperity of his successor not having then infected either the heart of the king or the morals of his subjects, reputation, riches and honours were bestowed on good men; but the second, probably, speaks of what came to pass soon after. In the first period life was amiable, and living in the world delicious; but of the second the wise man saith, “I hated life because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me.” To which of the two periods doth the age in which we live belong? Judge by the description given by the Preacher, as he calls himself. Then mankind were ungrateful, the public did not remember the benefits conferred on them by individuals, and their services were unrewarded (Ecclesiastes 9:14-15). Then courtiers mean and ungrateful basely forsook their old master, and paid their court to the heir apparent (Ecclesiastes 4:15). Then the strong oppressed the weak (Ecclesiastes 4:1). Then the courts of justice were corrupt (Ecclesiastes 3:16). Such is the idea the wise man gives us of the world. Yet these vain and precarious objects, this world so proper to inspire a rational mind with disgust, this life so proper to excite hatred in such as know what is worthy of esteem, this is that` which hath always fascinated, and which yet continues to fascinate the bulk of mankind. (J. Saurin.)

Life with and without God

Contrast this verdict of the Preacher with that calm, clear, victorious utterance of the great apostle, ringing like a clarion, as he urges the words, “Lay hold on the life that is life indeed,” and you will have the subject of my sermon--life without God, and life with God--the misery and disappointment of the one, the fulness and satisfaction of the other; the one vanity and vexation of spirit, the other life which is life indeed.

Let us look at life without God. Let me frankly acknowledge that there are some things in life even without God which are pleasant, and delightful and beautiful. First of all we begin life as “little children, and to children the next` pleasure is quite enough to make life worth living; their little hearts are not troubled with the deep problems of life, and God forbid they should be. And then I do not deny that there is some real satisfaction and pleasure, as every one knows, in all healthy activity. Then, too, no one can doubt that there is very much that is very beautiful in human love. Some young people in the golden days of their early married life, when love is very beautiful, and real, and fresh, bright as a spring morning, may be tempted to think that is enough. “We want no other life, this satisfies us.” Now, I admit of this freely and frankly; but oh, it does not settle the question. The question comes back, “Does it satisfy?” There are very many indications in this present day that the world is finding out what this old preacher found out, that life without God is vanity and vexation of the spirit. Let me just give you one of them. Have you ever noticed the very remarkable fact that much of our higher poetry is unutterably sad? Take, for example, the poems of Matthew Arnold: they are Greek in perfection of form and in their faultless beauty, but how sad they are! That deep sadness that lay over the world of which he so pathetically sings broods like a cloud over his own poetry. And when you come to examine the reason why he so depresses you, the answer is because there is no living personal God in it--it is the loss of God which explains it all. Do not misunderstand me. I am not imagining that life is to be lived solely with religious aims and religious objects. I do not take a narrow view, I trust, of human life. God has given us various and ample powers, and each one of them has to find its own appropriate satisfaction. I do not condemn any of the generous ambitions of youth. I would not oven forbid the loss noble ambitions of life so long as they are kept subordinate to the will of God. Let a man earn knowledge or fame, or distinction, or wealth, or influence, and if he earn them honestly, well; but I do desire to impress upon you this one lesson--that it does not matter what the end you set before yourselves in life may be, whether it be pleasure, or intellectual eminence, or wealth, if you leave God out it will so disappoint you, miserably disappoint you, and you will have a time, in your own experience, when you will turn from it with the muttered curse, “All is vanity and vexation of spirit.”

Let us ask what life with God means. “Lay hold on the life which is life indeed.” Shall I tell you what it is? “This is life eternal to know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent.” Those are the words of Jesus: that is Christ’s own definition of the life indeed--to know God, the true God, and Jesus Christ, whom He hath sent. No man requires demonstration that this is life indeed. It needs none: the mere statement of the truth is its proof. If there be an eternal and infinite God on whom I depend for all things, if He has created me and loves me with unspeakable love, if He has spent all the riches of His love to redeem me from sin, if I am to live with Him through eternity a life removed from all the conditions of time and space--then, of all the self-evident propositions you can put into words, this is the most self-evident and certain, that I am created and redeemed solely to find my life in God, I am too great to find my life in anything less than God. Ah, “He that hath the Son hath life, he that hath not the Son hath not life.” This is the life indeed. And now you see the meaning of what we are so apt to call the mystery of sorrow, the mystery of pain. The other day I was reading the diary of a life which in many respects is most instructive and pathetic. It was the story of a man who had had unusual prosperity, and in looking through this diary I came across these words: “God has broken silence with me.” Great crushing sorrow had fallen on him, and that man who had lived many years in the sunshine of prosperity without God, without ever speaking of God or hearing God speaking to him, suddenly in the darkness awoke to the fact that God was near to him, and that God had come to him in the great trouble of his life; and then he wrote these words, “God has broken silence with me.” Ah, life indeed! That is its designation. I do not say it will not have its troubles, its disappointments, perhaps even its failures; but the troubles and disappointments of that life as little affect it as the storms that sweep across the Atlantic touch the deep Calm of the ocean beneath. It is life indeed! Nothing disturbs its central peace, for it is founded upon God. And then, when the end comes--as it will come to us all--and friends stand round the bed, and the last farewells are spoken, and the eyes are closed in death, and we make the last journey to that “bourne from which no traveller returns,” and our feet touch the waters of the cold river--in that supreme and awful hour will the life indeed fill us then? Listen! The man who wrote these words, “Lay hold of the life which is life indeed,” tells us what he felt on the verge of eternity: “I am now ready to be offered.” (G. S. Barrett, D. D.)

Verses 18-19

Ecclesiastes 2:18-19

Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me.

The dirge of the dead hand

Solomon’s life was complete from the naturalistic standpoint. He sought pleasure with a zest we should condemn as licence nowadays, but which the spirit of those times was accustomed to count lawful, at least for kings. And more than that, he gave himself to great and imposing enterprises, diligently seeking the welfare of his people as well as his own personal and family aggrandizement. And yet work upon an unspiritual plane of ideas could not altogether satisfy him. He had an unhappy forecast of pending changes, for Rehoboam was not an ideal youth. He already seems to be hearing the cry, “The king is dead: long live the king!” And how sick at heart he feels as all the signs seem to show that the new king will be an iconoclast, a reactionary, a fool, or at least a man who does not think in the same groove as his predecessor! But this heartsick pessimism, like the same temper everywhere, was misjudging. That which was ignoble in his work perished, and deserved to perish. His heart-ache, as he thought of how much in the schemes he had tried to carry out would be altered by his successors, was relevant only to the lower ranges of his work. But the royal preacher was thinking not so much of his work as of himself. He wanted to invest his own dead hand with perpetual power; but that is not permitted to the best of the children of men in this lament we can find traces of self-idolatry, and self-idolatry is allied with contempt of our fellows and disbelief of the living God.

This temper represents the mood of one who is doing much of his work under the unwholesome stimulus of pride and ambition. Why should even Solomon flatter himself that all his works were so perfect that they were beyond the need of modification and readjustment? There were wise men before him, and wise men were destined to come after him, and he had contemporaries who, if not equalling him in the range of his knowledge, had at least kept themselves from plunging into the same abysses of folly and self-indulgence; and yet the great king was under the impression that he was probably the last of the sages, and that the distinguished race would vanish at his own funeral. We know now how groundless his assumption was; for in every age the world has had in it men whose gifts, acquisitions, and practical sagacity have far outmatched those of this much-bepraised king, who was sybarite as well as sage, and who, through untempered success, over-deep draughts of intoxicating flattery, and polygamistic animalism, was spoiled into an ignoble old age. The man who looks upon life from Solomon’s standpoint has obviously set his heart upon achieving what will be an enduring monument of his own reputation, and, like the Pyramids, which defend nothing, shelter nothing, protect nothing, teach nothing, will immortalize, in an indestructible edifice of colossal barrenness, the faded empire of a royal mummy. The vain man wants to do something that will be sacred from the hands of the would-be reformer, or it will be no true tribute to his infallibility. Why should posterity, out of mere respect for us, refrain from trying to improve upon our work? Men are sent into the world in ever fresh tides of young hope and vitality to help the common good of the race, and not to be our minions and satellites. Others may succeed in cultivating finer blooms to put into our gardens, trees of nobler stature to adorn our parks, herbs of more medicinal virtue to plant in our fields: in substituting rarer and more translucent stones for the crude add unwrought material with which we reared temples and palaces.

This utterance implied an ungracious disdain of the men who were shortly to step into power. Of all men in the world Solomon ought not to have been hard upon the fools. He had not uniformly set the wisest example in his own person, and the luxurious harems he had acclimatized upon Jewish soil were not likely to be schools of the sublimest philosophy and breeding-places of the most stalwart virtue. And in a lukewarm and unspiritual state of society an evil prophecy of this sort always tends to fulfil itself. Not to trust those who are around us, and who expect to take up our work, is just the way to corrupt and demoralize them. The effect is the same as that produced by the suspicious head of a household who keeps every cheap trifle under lock and key. The mistrust of posterity is, perhaps, a meaner and a more wicked thing than the mistrust of our contemporaries, for posterity cannot speak for itself and lift up its voice in protest against this unjust and wholesale condemnation. We do our utmost to imperil our own work, when we assume that no one will be fit to carry it on after the sceptre has fallen from our lifeless grasp.

This temper of soul implies a gloomy view of the future of the human race. The wise man lacked faith in humanity and its unknown possibilities, lacked that faith which it was the specific intention of the promise made to his forefathers to produce. To his own complacent estimate it seemed that the race had touched the high-water mark of intelligence and character in himself, and that now the inevitable decline must begin. How lure, riot in faith to Samuel, and Elijah, and Elisha, who nurtured schools for the future prophets, and who, in spite of the stern work they had to do, turned an undespairing outlook upon the future. Jesus and His apostles expected unbroken files of sowers and reapers to co-operate with each other and to carry on the victorious work of the kingdom to the end of time. The Church could not fail, although the gates of hell might send forth red-hot torrents of rage and opposition; and the lineage of godly and discerning workers would never be cut off root and branch, like the house of Eli. If we think, and speak, and act as though future workers would spring up and worthily carry on our modest beginnings, unborn and ungrown generations will respond to our confidence, and we shall not lack men to stand before the Lord in our room for ever. The man is both an atheist and a hater of his kind who asserts that the world is moving backward into the abyss of barbarism and folly.

This temper indicates a deep and ominous lack of religious faith. He who speaks in any such strain has for the time being lost faith in the providential sovereignty of God. There is a touch of Manichaeism in this heartsick pessimism. It sees a mere Puck installed over the universe and clothed with infinite attributes, satisfying his soul with mischief, and encouraging the fools who make havoc with the achievements of the wise. All such vapourings show that there is a heathen or an infidel half in our personalities, sadly needing to be exorcised so that we may become sane, and useful, and happy men. Faith in God is one with the gift of prophecy; and if this royal preacher had always stirred up the gift which was in him, he would have felt how all that was best in his work would be preserved through apparent decline and reaction, till at last one wiser and greater than Solomon had appeared, to gather up into His plans all the true and unselfish work of the past, and to fulfil the fair and holy dreams of the world’s ardent youth.

This unhappy, corrosive temper may eat into our hearts, not so much because we repudiate the doctrine of God’s providential sovereignty, but because we are not living and working in high harmony with His counsels. In catering so lavishly for his own lusts and luxuries, this king was doing his own will and work, rather than God’s, and it may have been the appointed penalty of his ornate selfishness that fools should make havoc of his accomplished dreams just as soon as he had passed away. He speaks of parks, pleasure gardens, fountains, artificial lakes, palace orchestras, fortune making, personal enrichment, material aggression. It is true there was a point at which he became patriotic, and sought his people’s prosperity; but that seems to have been his second thought rather than his first. And this policy of self-aggrandize-ment was identified with foreign marriages and heathen coalitions, which had such a demoralizing effect upon his own successors and the nation at large, and which prepared the way for the schisms and tragic apostasies of the coming times. If we cherish no higher views of life, we cannot fairly count upon the good offices of Divine Providence in protecting our enterprise from the pranks of fools. What right has that man to look for the enduring blessing of God who chooses his tasks in selfishness and pride? Let our work be holy, unselfish, spiritual, and God will accept it as a sacrifice for Himself, and preserve it in the unknown future from violation; for the sons of light, seen by the seer of Patmos, who compass the divine altar in heaven, hover in their strong ministries about every altar upon earth where lies the accepted oblation of unselfish toil. (Thomas G. Selby.)

Verses 24-26

Ecclesiastes 2:24-26

There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour.

The simple joys of Godly industry

We are not to regard these words as at all akin to the utterance of the baser Epieureanism, “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die!” We are not to suppose that the Jewish philosopher, looking around him, and finding all to be “vanity and feeding on wind,” concludes that the best thing a man can do, under the circumstances, is to give himself up to a life of sensuous enjoyment. This cannot possibly be his meaning here; for he has already shown the emptiness of a life of sensuous gratification, and he has also recorded it as his conviction that “wisdom is better than folly.” Moreover, the words themselves do not point to mere idle self-indulgence; for they speak of a man’s “enjoying good in his labour.” Ecclesiastes seems to have before his mind a life in which hearty and honest toil is blended with a contented enjoyment of the fruits of toil. In the maxim, “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die,” eating and drinking stand for all kinds of sensuous gratification, and even of sensual excess. But here, to “eat and drink” seems to stand rather for the simpler forms of living, as contrasted with luxurious and excessive self-indulgence. That this is the meaning of Ecclesiastes here is further evident from the manner in which he goes on to speak of the conditions of this contented and cheerful enjoyment of life. “This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God.” This introduction of the thought of God is itself sufficient to show that Ecclesiastes is not here speaking as a sensualist, or as a mere pleasure-seeker. Amidst the many anomalies of life, Ecclesiastes clings to the assurance that there is a moral government of God in this world. There are indeed perplexing problems in relation to this moral government, which he felt he could not solve, and which led him to look forward to a world beyond death where the dealings of God with men would be completed and vindicated. But still, looking at the broad facts of human life, and excluding cases apparently exceptional and perplexing, he saw that God does make a distinction, even here and now, between the “sinner” and the “man who pleaseth Him.” The virtuous and godly man has an advantage, even in this world, over the wicked. He receives from God a “wisdom and knowledge” which are associated with “joy.” He finds a pleasure in his work, and is contented to eat the simple fruits of his toil. He may be a poor man, labouring for daily bread; and yet he may receive from God this gift of thankful enjoyment. Whereas, on the other hand, Ecclesiastes saw that the “sinner”--the man who has no thought of God’s commandments--may “gather together” and “heap up” riches, and yet have no heart to enjoy his own wealth. Now, the lesson which Ecclesiastes here sets before us is one of which we all need to be continually reminded. Patent as the fact may be to us that the higher happiness of life is far more closely associated with unanxious labour, simple habits, and cheerful contentment, than with wealth or luxury, we are all more or less apt to live in forgetfulness of it. The social atmosphere which we breathe is too feverish and restless. We are apt to lose the blessings of to-day through over-anxiety about the morrow. We are apt to miss the enjoyment which God has put for us into the simple, common blessings of life, through our eager pursuit of something more which may not really be anything better. It might be a desirable thing for some men who are spoiling their lives through selfish ambition or sordid Mammonism, to sit for a little while even at the feet of Epicurus! But far better for all of us to sit at the feet of Christ. All that was really true and valuable in the higher Epieureanism is to be found, in a more exalted form, in Christianity. It does not bid us proudly trample on either pleasure or pain; but it bids us cultivate an inner peace and strength which shall prevent us from becoming the mere victims and slaves of circumstance. Without despising any “creature of God,” it nevertheless teaches us to estimate things according to their relative importance. And if only our hearts were set more steadfastly on higher things, if only we were more bent on “pleasing God,” we would be the better able to “eat and drink and enjoy good in our labour”--to enjoy with a more serene and contented spirit the simple, ordinary blessings which are common to humanity. (T. C. Finlaysen.)

Verse 26

Ecclesiastes 2:26

For God giveth to a man that is good in His sight.

True goodness

He who is good before God is good.

1. A man may be good in his own esteem, and yet not be really so. The way in which we sometimes mistake ourselves is altogether pitiable.

2. A man may be good in the estimate of society, and yet not be really so. Dr. Bushnell relates how he was much struck by the remark of an elderly gentleman touching hero-worship: “From the moment of my leaving college to this present hour I have been gradually losing my respect for great names.”

3. A man may be accepted as good by the Church, and yet not be really so. The diamond fields of South Africa produce large numbers of diamonds whose yellow colour lessens immensely the value of the gem, and rogues have hit on an ingenious method for the falsification of these jewels; they are put into some chemical solution, and for a while after the bath the yellow diamond appears perfectly white, deceiving the very elect. Character also is capable of falsification; we may appear to ourselves and to others brighter and costlier than we intrinsically are.

4. But they who are good before God are good. He who has the testimony that he pleases God needs no more.

Who is thus good before God? Who is this man, this woman, this child? The goodness that is good before God is the goodness that God inspires, and that He maintains in our heart and life by His Holy Spirit. Whatever is truly good is made so by its motive, its principle, its aim; and he who is truly good acts from the purest motive, obeys the loftiest rule, aspires to the supremest end. Well then, the purest motive is the love of God; the loftiest rule is the will of God; the supremest end is the glory of God. In a word, the essence of goodness is godliness; and where there is no godliness there is no goodness in the deep scriptural signification of that word. But the goodness that comes from God, that lives through Him, that gives, acts, suffers, hopes for His name’s sake--that is goodness indeed. (W. L. Watkinson.)

Wisdom, and knowledge, and joy.--

Joy in religion

I wish to call your attention to the last gift here mentioned--joy. To have goodness is by many supposed to inherit grief in proportion. The bestowment of wisdom and knowledge is considered to carry with it the addition of many troubles. The text tells us that God gives to those who have found favour in His sight “wisdom and knowledge”--“joy,” or the sense of enjoyment, the pleasant appreciation of the delights of true wisdom and knowledge, is added to counteract and enliven the weariness and depression which ever accompany the possession of great learning. Joy comes after, not before, wisdom and knowledge--as we have it in the text. It is the rapturous outcome of acquired wisdom--the balance given, the beauty bestowed, the relish awarded to dissipate the despondent gloom which is too often the result of mental activity. Now, what is true in secular things is clearly and even more true in spiritual matters. When Christ is made to us wisdom and true knowledge He gives the soul joy--His joy; and the real Christian not only rejoices in the Lord, but he will rejoice in every good thing which the Lord his God hath given unto him. He will have a joyous, buoyant, glad nature, exulting in God’s favour, and opening his mouth to sing and laugh and be merry; and in this and other ways he will strive to show forth his Lord’s praises before the world. There are some who are wont to urge that the Christian believer must necessarily, from the condition of things, be a shrinking, grave, and even melancholy being; that in bearing, and cast of countenance, and conduct he must be the very reverse of a joyous, light-hearted, laughter-loving creature of the world. With his own sins, past and present, to mourn over, the ever-recurring shortcomings of duty, the never-ending slips of temper, the coldness of feeling and the too slow approach of the new life to the fixed standard of that perfection which is the Father’s in heaven, how can that man, it is often asked, be otherwise than tearful in word and look? Truly this is all wrong, producing results of a most painful kind, and life runs with slow, unvaried, saddening sound, till all presented to the eye or ear fills the lone soul with misery, and grief, and fear. I believe that this is a true picture of some who, being morbidly and ghastly grief-struck by some deep and immedieable wound, are ever looking with melancholy eyes upon the night side of things until the sense of present evils never ceases to annoy them. Fretful, feverish, gloomy, excusing nothing and accusing every one, the tired brain never gets relief from the heavy heart. Now this ought not so to be in the Christian character, and when they exist the most strenuous exertions ought to be made, the most determined efforts of the will, to get rid of them. He who made us made us capable of joy. It is a holy necessity of man’s nature. If God had meant us to be always grave, and serious, and down-looking, lie might have constituted us so that we could have been nothing else: lie would not have chosen as the emblem and image of His chiefest blessing, even the blessing of redeeming love, the glad symbol of the festive scene, that His Son would give us “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” The truly Christian mind, filled with the love of the Saviour, will sanctify everything lawful by the presence of a holy, kindly feeling, and will derive benefit from such allowance, consciously or unconsciously. But the indulgence of our susceptibilities to pleasurable impressions is itself an end which, in due mode and measure, Christian men may seek and the happy God of love not disapprove. God giveth joy. He not only re-bestows the gift in Christ, but He made us originally susceptible of the keenest enjoyment. The gift is to be cherished; the susceptibility is to be encouraged and strengthened; but it is most important that a cheerful and chastened exercise of the gift should vindicate the joyfulness of saints, and present a safe and suitable example to the world. One of the strongest prejudices felt against religion is because of its supposed gloomy character. Those who are destitute of a religious spirit can find little or no enjoyment in religious occupation, and are naturally disposed to think that others must be like themselves. It has been too often the fault or the misfortune of Christians to confirm this erroneous impression; and it behoves them, by every lawful method, to endeavour to remove it. If we are Christ’s, let us pray and strive that our religion may be one of sunshine--a religion of happiness, a rejoicing religion. (G. H. Conner, M. A.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ecclesiastes 2". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/ecclesiastes-2.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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