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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator

Ecclesiastes 3

Verses 1-8

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

To everything there is a season.

Times and seasons in the Church

The principle which Solomon asserts, and which is of extreme importance in all matters connected with our practical life in this world, is also of equal importance in religious matters. It is true of religion as of all other things, that in it too there is a time for all things, a time to be merry and a time to be sad; and moreover that true wisdom consists in regulating these times, not in leaving them to take their chance (so to speak), but in fixing seasons and periods as aids to the various religious feelings. Let me then bring under your notice a few points illustrative of the method which the Church adopts, a method which is the carrying into religion the principle of the text, cutting out our time, allotting to each portion its proper work, and so economizing the whole and guarding against waste and misuse. The first instance I shall take will be that of our observance of the Sunday. I ask myself--why is this day set apart as it is? and looking upon it not merely as a day of animal rest, but as a day of religious service, the reply is ready, that although men ought to serve God every day, yet they are more likely to remember their duty if a special day be set apart for the purpose; the Sunday, in fact, is a great practical call to worship God; the most thoughtless person cannot fail to have the duty of worship brought before him; no man can by possibility live in this country, and not know that prayer and praise are a duty; few men can have failed to have heard of Christ’s Sacraments, however much they may have neglected them. The great truth also of the resurrection of the Lord, the great truth upon which all our own hopes of a resurrection depend, how completely and powerfully is that preached by this same institution! for Sunday is emphatically the feast of Christ’s Resurrection. It is in strict accordance with this principle that the Church has attached a peculiar solemnity to the Friday. As Easter Day throws a light of joy upon all the Sundays in the year, so is it deemed right that the awful event of Good Friday should throw a shade of sadness upon all other Fridays; accordingly you will find the Friday marked in the Prayer-book as a day of fasting and abstinence. Is this a vain rule, a relic of Popery, a remnant of the Dark Ages? I think that sober, thoughtful Christians will not say so; for indeed there is nothing which will tend so much to Christianize the mind, if I may so speak, as to meditate upon the Passion of the Lord Christ. On the same principle we have certain days set apart for the commemoration of saints. The first founders of the kingdom of Christ, those to whose zeal and faithfulness we owe the preservation of the precious deposit of faith, are men to be kept ever in our minds as the great champions of God’s noble army, whose faith we may well follow. It may be said that every Christian will have a grateful sense of the debt he owes to the apostles and martyrs of Christ; yea, but the question is whether the debt will not be discharged more punctually and more completely, if the work be arranged upon system, if a day be set apart for consideration of the character and works of this apostle, and another for that; in fact, if a person throws himself into the Church system and follows her mode of commemorating the saints, is it not to be expected that he will take a more complete view of the various characters and excellences of the apostles, than a man who acknowledged their excellence in general, but does not thus study them in detail? Take the Ember weeks as another example of the same principle. It is desirable that God’s blessing should be invoked by the Church at large upon those who are ordained to the ministry, and upon whose faith and pure conversation so much of the prosperity of the Church depends; how can this great end be best secured? by appointing to the work its proper time. Once more, take the round of great festivals, which, beginning with Advent, terminate in Trinity Sunday. You cannot have failed to observe the manner in which the round of feasts brings before us all the great Christian doctrines; how the Church, preparing at first for the advent of Christ, exhibits Him to us as a babe in swaddling-clothes, then carries us up to His betrayal and death, His burial, His rising again, His ascension into heaven, the coming of the Holy Ghost, and then exhibits to us the full mystery of Godhead, the incomprehensible Three Persons in One God. Lastly, I will take as an example of the Church system the season of Lent. Its meaning may be briefly stated thus, it is the season of penitence. Season of penitence? a person may say, ought not all seasons to be seasons of penitence? Truly; but as there is a time for all things, so has penitence its special time; and the Church requires of us that for forty days before the Passion of Christ, we should meditate upon and grieve over the sins which caused His death. I think I need not say much to convince you of the wisdom of this appointment; if you were perfect, like the angels, you would not require such a season; there is no change of season in heaven, because the blessed spirits around God’s throne have but one occupation, and that is to sing His praise; but in like manner “there is no night there,” because, being freed from the burden of the flesh, there is to them no weariness; and just as in this world night is necessary for us, which has no existence in heaven, so on earth we may find help to our souls from those aids to our infirmity, which the Church on earth requires, but which the Church triumphant knows not. (Bp. Harvey Goodwin.)

The realities of life

(with Ecclesiastes 3:10):--There are many falsehoods written over the ashes of the dead; but none more flagrant and profane than that inscribed on the monument erected in Westminster Abbey, by the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry, to the memory of the poet Gay. It was written by Gay himself, and reads thus--

“Life is a jest, and all things show it;

I thought so once, but now I know it.”

What a miserable estimate of the grand existence of man on earth! What a gross misrepresentation of the lessons taught by God’s works and ways! What a libel on the momentous revelations of the future world! What a noble answer to Gay’s wretched falsehood Longfellow supplies in his “Psalm of Life”! How many souls have been stirred to action by its trumpet-call! How many true and brave lives have been lived in response to its appeal!

I. The realities of life surround us all. There are the realities of your calling; the duties connected with it, which you feel must be discharged in the most efficient manner possible; the responsibilities attaching to it, which perhaps in several ways are heavy; the temptations to swerve from the line of rectitude, and practise that which is mean and sinful; the worry and anxiety arising out of the keenness of competition, the sharp dealing and fraud of your fellow-men, and the uncertainties of all secular life. We are not to be slothful in our secular pursuits; if we are, we may as well give them up altogether; yet, at the same time, we should see that we have them all in subordination to our spiritual interests, and the life to come. Often the realities of life thicken around men while they are destitute of all preparation. They have failed to exercise forethought-neglected to make provision for the future. All previous periods of life have seen them unfaithful to themselves, to their opportunities, to their calling. You can never redeem what you have lost; but you may avoid losing more. It is of no use bemoaning the past. “Let the dead past bury its dead!” At once embrace the opportunities of the “living present.” Forget the things which are behind, and reach towards the things which are before.

II. Hearken to the word of counsel, as to the way is which you should meet the realities of life and turn them to good account. Cultivate earnestness of character. History furnishes us with some rare instances of earnest” purpose and endeavour--vigorous grappling with the realities of life, that should inspire us with enthusiasm. “I am doing a great work,” said Nehemiah, while rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, “so that I cannot come down.” “This one thing I do,” exclaims the Apostle Paul. Minutius Aldus, a famous printer at Venice in the sixteenth century, had this significant inscription placed over the door of his office--“Whoever thou art, Aldus entreats thee again and again, if thou hast business with him, to conclude it briefly, and hasten thy departure: unless, like Hercules to the weary Atlas, thou come to put thy shoulder to the work, then will there ever he sufficient occupation for thee and all others who may come. In the diary of Dr. Chalmers, under the date of March 12th, 1812, there occurs this entry--“I am reading the life of Dr. Doddridge, and am greatly struck with the quantity of business which he put through his hands. O God, impress upon me the value of time, and give regulation to all my thoughts and to all my movements. May I be strong in faith, instant in prayer, high in my sense of duty, and vigorous in the occupation of it! When I detect myself in unprofitable reverie, let me make an instant transition from dreaming to doing.” I think it was Sir James Mackintosh who said that whenever he died, he should die with a host of unaccomplished purposes and unfinished plans in his brain. So every earnest man will leave behind him many a half-finished, and even many an unattempted work. Nevertheless, with a true and earnest heart we may complete some things--we may weave the threads of life into a fabric of varied use and beauty--and, like David of old, serve our generation by the will of God before we fall on sleep, and are laid among our fathers. Once more, nothing will so help you to deal with the realities of life as true religion. Do you possess it, and are you living under its influence? (W. Walters.)

The fall of the leaf

At no period of the year are the sunsets so varied and beautiful as in autumn. The many-coloured woods of the year’s eventide correspond to the many-coloured clouds of the sunset sky; and as the heavens burst into their brightest hues, and exhibit their loveliest transfigurations when the daylight is fading into the gloom of night, so the year unfolds its richest tints and its fairest charms when it is about to sink into the darkness and desolation of winter. The beauty of the autumnal tints is commonly supposed to be confined to the fading foliage of the trees. This is indeed the most obvious feature of the season--that which appeals to every eye, and reads its lesson to every heart. But nature here, as everywhere else, loves to reproduce in her smallest things the peculiarities of her greatest. It was a beautiful myth, created by the glowing imagination of the Greek poets, that the great god Pan, the impersonation of nature, wedded the nymph Echo; so that every note which he blew from his pipe of reeds awakened a harmonious response in her tender bosom. Most truly does this bright fancy represent the real design of nature, according to which we hear on every hand some curious reverberation of some familiar sound, and see all things delighting to wear each other’s robes. The fading frees pipe their many-coloured music aloft on the calm blue October air--for the chromatic scale is the harmonious counterpart of the musical--and the lowly plants that grow beneath their shadow dance to the music. The weeds by the wayside are gifted with a beauty in the decline of life equal to that of the proudest oaks and beeches. Each season partakes to some extent of the characteristics of all the other seasons, and shares in all the varied beauties of the year. Thus we find an autumn in each spring in the death of the primroses and lilies, and a harvest in each summer in the ripe hay-fields; and every one has noticed that the sky of September possesses much of the fickleness of spring in the rapid change of its clouds and the variableness of its weather. Very strikingly is this mutual repetition by the seasons of each other’s characteristic features seen in the resemblance between the tints of the woods in spring and in autumn. The first leaves of the oak expand from the bud in a pale tender crimson; the young leaves of the maple tree, and all the leaves that appear on a maple stump, are of a remarkable copper colour; the immature foliage of the hazel and alder is marked by a dark purple tinge, singularly rich and velvety-looking. Not more varied is the tinting of the autumnal woods than that of the spring woods. And it may be remarked that the colour into which any tree fades in autumn is the same as it wears when it bursts the cerements of spring, and unfolds to the sunny air. Its birth is a prophecy of its death, and its death of its birth. Nature’s cradles have not more of beginning in them than of ending; and nature’s graves have not more of ending in them than of beginning. No one can take a walk in the melancholy woodland in the calm October days without being deeply impressed by the thought of the great waste of beauty and creative skill seen in the faded leaves which rustle beneath his feet. Take up and examine one of these leaves attentively, and you are astonished at, the wealth of ingenuity displayed in it. It is a miracle of design, elaborately formed and richly coloured--in reality more precious than any jewel; and yet it is dropped off the bough as if it had no value, and rots away unheeded in the depths of the forest. Myriads of similar gems are heaped beneath the leafless trees, to moulder away in the rains of November. It saddens us to think of this continual lavish production and careless discarding of forms of beauty and wonder, which we see everywhere throughout nature. Could not the foliage be so contrived as to remain permanently on the trees, and only suffer such a periodical change as the evergreen ivy undergoes? Must the web of nature’s fairest embroidery be taken down every year, and every year woven back again to its old completeness and beauty? Is nature waiting for some great compensation, as Penelope of old waited for her absent husband, when she unravelled each evening the work of each day, and thus deluded her eager lovers with vain promises? Yes! she weaves and unweaves her web of loveliness each season--not in order to mock us with delusive hopes, but to wean us from all false loves, and teach us to wait and prepare for the true love of our souls, which is found, not in the passing things of earth, but in the abiding realities of heaven. This is the secret of all her lavish wastefulness. For this she perpetually sacrifices and perpetually renews her beauty; for this she counts all her most precious things but as dross. By the pathos of her autumn loveliness she is appealing to all that is deepest and truest in our spiritual nature; and through her fading flowers and her withering grass, and all her fleeting glories, she is speaking to us words of eternal life, whereby our souls may be enriched and beautified for ever. (H. Macmillan, D. D.)

The clock of destiny

“Destiny!” What a word! Orthographically it is composed of seven parts, as if, in the use of the sacred number, “seven,” it was intended, by its very structure, to express, to all ages, its profound significance--viz, sufficiency, fulness, completion, perfection! Such, indeed, is the sweeping import of the word “destiny.” It means a state of things that is complete, perfect. It signifies that this world--with its empires that rise and fall--its marvellous incidents that are enacted by human wisdom, courage, strife and ambition--its generations that are born, that live and die--its joys and sorrows--its shifting seasons and rolling years: this earth, as it now exists, is under a management that is sufficient, perfect!--a management of which it can be said: “A sparrow cannot fall to the ground without notice”--that is, without permission and purpose! Destiny has a “Clock”--“a huge timepiece” which measures off the events in this fixed order of things. On its dial-plate is inscribed this world-wide truth: “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” By what “Hand” is this “Clock of Destiny” wound up and managed in all its complicated machinery? In other words: What is the superintending power of this fixed order of things? One answer says: “Fatalism makes the pendulum oscillate, fitting cog to cog and wheel to wheel, controlling all the movements of the dial-gnomon.” God is here given the go-by, while absolute necessity and fixed, cold, unconscious law are delegated with all power. Fatalism annihilates intelligence and free-will in the world’s government. It declares that “Everything from a star to a thought; from the growth of a tree to a spasm of sorrow; from the coronation of a king to the falling of a sparrow is connected with and under the positive control of molecular force.” In short, destiny’s timepiece is wound up and kept in running order by a “hand” tuner divine! The third chapter of Ecclesiastes was written in the interest of the Divine Hand managing the “Clock of Destiny”--in other words, to teach the glorious doctrine of special providence. O ye priests “of science falsely so called,” ye prophets of the “Unknowable,” ye “wise men” who make law supreme and deify force--let the Hebrew sage teach you a better creed! Yea, ye, doubters, ye of unbelief, as to the doctrine of special providence in things great and small--listen to this: “God doeth!” not fate. His acts “shall be for ever,” not of short duration but of eternal import. He is independent of all contingency--the wicked cannot frustrate the Almighty’s purposes: “Nothing can be put to it and nothing can be taken from it.” His government is for man’s highest good--by each swing of the pendulum the Divine Father would move the race nearer to Himself: “And God doeth it that they should fear before Him.” He is never surprised--nothing is new to Him, nothing old. He acts in the eternal Now. All things--past, present, future--are ever under His all-seeing eye: “That which hath been is now, and that which is to be hath already been.” It is, however, impossible for us now to understand all about the management of this “huge timepiece,” which measures off the events great and small, in the fixed course of things. So says the author of my text in verse 11: “No man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.” But this shortsightedness, on our part, is no reason why we should question the wisdom of what is being done, or, in any way, withhold our confidence and love from God as a Father--who is ever doing for us “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” And, now, in view of the fact that “the Lord reigneth”--that the “Clock of Destiny” is God’s machine, ever running in the interest of man’s highest good--what should be our daily conduct and highest ambition? Let this third chapter of Ecclesiastes give us, in closing, an exhortation, as it has already imparted to us profound instruction. In verse 12 let us read that it is our mission here “to do good”--in verse 13, “to enjoy the good of all our labour,” seeing that this is “the gift of God”--in verses 16, 17, not to fret ourselves because of evil-doers, “for God shall judge the righteous and the wicked”--in verses 18-21, not to be disheartened or over-mournful because of death, for though “that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts”--all coming from and going to the same place--“dust”: yet “there is a spirit in man that goeth upwards.” He is immortal, and hence can say: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Finally, verses 22, “Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in all his works.” Do good and rejoice in that good--this is man’s duty! Scatter sunbeams to expel darkness--build up blazing fires to warm and cheer the cold, weary and worn! Be kind--be charitable--save your neighbour from tears, groans, heartaches! Swell the refrain of merry Christmas carols! Ring out the bells of New Year greeting! “Rejoice ever-morel” (A. H. Moment, D. D.)

Verses 1-8

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

To everything there is a season.

Times and seasons in the Church

The principle which Solomon asserts, and which is of extreme importance in all matters connected with our practical life in this world, is also of equal importance in religious matters. It is true of religion as of all other things, that in it too there is a time for all things, a time to be merry and a time to be sad; and moreover that true wisdom consists in regulating these times, not in leaving them to take their chance (so to speak), but in fixing seasons and periods as aids to the various religious feelings. Let me then bring under your notice a few points illustrative of the method which the Church adopts, a method which is the carrying into religion the principle of the text, cutting out our time, allotting to each portion its proper work, and so economizing the whole and guarding against waste and misuse. The first instance I shall take will be that of our observance of the Sunday. I ask myself--why is this day set apart as it is? and looking upon it not merely as a day of animal rest, but as a day of religious service, the reply is ready, that although men ought to serve God every day, yet they are more likely to remember their duty if a special day be set apart for the purpose; the Sunday, in fact, is a great practical call to worship God; the most thoughtless person cannot fail to have the duty of worship brought before him; no man can by possibility live in this country, and not know that prayer and praise are a duty; few men can have failed to have heard of Christ’s Sacraments, however much they may have neglected them. The great truth also of the resurrection of the Lord, the great truth upon which all our own hopes of a resurrection depend, how completely and powerfully is that preached by this same institution! for Sunday is emphatically the feast of Christ’s Resurrection. It is in strict accordance with this principle that the Church has attached a peculiar solemnity to the Friday. As Easter Day throws a light of joy upon all the Sundays in the year, so is it deemed right that the awful event of Good Friday should throw a shade of sadness upon all other Fridays; accordingly you will find the Friday marked in the Prayer-book as a day of fasting and abstinence. Is this a vain rule, a relic of Popery, a remnant of the Dark Ages? I think that sober, thoughtful Christians will not say so; for indeed there is nothing which will tend so much to Christianize the mind, if I may so speak, as to meditate upon the Passion of the Lord Christ. On the same principle we have certain days set apart for the commemoration of saints. The first founders of the kingdom of Christ, those to whose zeal and faithfulness we owe the preservation of the precious deposit of faith, are men to be kept ever in our minds as the great champions of God’s noble army, whose faith we may well follow. It may be said that every Christian will have a grateful sense of the debt he owes to the apostles and martyrs of Christ; yea, but the question is whether the debt will not be discharged more punctually and more completely, if the work be arranged upon system, if a day be set apart for consideration of the character and works of this apostle, and another for that; in fact, if a person throws himself into the Church system and follows her mode of commemorating the saints, is it not to be expected that he will take a more complete view of the various characters and excellences of the apostles, than a man who acknowledged their excellence in general, but does not thus study them in detail? Take the Ember weeks as another example of the same principle. It is desirable that God’s blessing should be invoked by the Church at large upon those who are ordained to the ministry, and upon whose faith and pure conversation so much of the prosperity of the Church depends; how can this great end be best secured? by appointing to the work its proper time. Once more, take the round of great festivals, which, beginning with Advent, terminate in Trinity Sunday. You cannot have failed to observe the manner in which the round of feasts brings before us all the great Christian doctrines; how the Church, preparing at first for the advent of Christ, exhibits Him to us as a babe in swaddling-clothes, then carries us up to His betrayal and death, His burial, His rising again, His ascension into heaven, the coming of the Holy Ghost, and then exhibits to us the full mystery of Godhead, the incomprehensible Three Persons in One God. Lastly, I will take as an example of the Church system the season of Lent. Its meaning may be briefly stated thus, it is the season of penitence. Season of penitence? a person may say, ought not all seasons to be seasons of penitence? Truly; but as there is a time for all things, so has penitence its special time; and the Church requires of us that for forty days before the Passion of Christ, we should meditate upon and grieve over the sins which caused His death. I think I need not say much to convince you of the wisdom of this appointment; if you were perfect, like the angels, you would not require such a season; there is no change of season in heaven, because the blessed spirits around God’s throne have but one occupation, and that is to sing His praise; but in like manner “there is no night there,” because, being freed from the burden of the flesh, there is to them no weariness; and just as in this world night is necessary for us, which has no existence in heaven, so on earth we may find help to our souls from those aids to our infirmity, which the Church on earth requires, but which the Church triumphant knows not. (Bp. Harvey Goodwin.)

The realities of life

(with Ecclesiastes 3:10):--There are many falsehoods written over the ashes of the dead; but none more flagrant and profane than that inscribed on the monument erected in Westminster Abbey, by the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry, to the memory of the poet Gay. It was written by Gay himself, and reads thus--

“Life is a jest, and all things show it;

I thought so once, but now I know it.”

What a miserable estimate of the grand existence of man on earth! What a gross misrepresentation of the lessons taught by God’s works and ways! What a libel on the momentous revelations of the future world! What a noble answer to Gay’s wretched falsehood Longfellow supplies in his “Psalm of Life”! How many souls have been stirred to action by its trumpet-call! How many true and brave lives have been lived in response to its appeal!

I. The realities of life surround us all. There are the realities of your calling; the duties connected with it, which you feel must be discharged in the most efficient manner possible; the responsibilities attaching to it, which perhaps in several ways are heavy; the temptations to swerve from the line of rectitude, and practise that which is mean and sinful; the worry and anxiety arising out of the keenness of competition, the sharp dealing and fraud of your fellow-men, and the uncertainties of all secular life. We are not to be slothful in our secular pursuits; if we are, we may as well give them up altogether; yet, at the same time, we should see that we have them all in subordination to our spiritual interests, and the life to come. Often the realities of life thicken around men while they are destitute of all preparation. They have failed to exercise forethought-neglected to make provision for the future. All previous periods of life have seen them unfaithful to themselves, to their opportunities, to their calling. You can never redeem what you have lost; but you may avoid losing more. It is of no use bemoaning the past. “Let the dead past bury its dead!” At once embrace the opportunities of the “living present.” Forget the things which are behind, and reach towards the things which are before.

II. Hearken to the word of counsel, as to the way is which you should meet the realities of life and turn them to good account. Cultivate earnestness of character. History furnishes us with some rare instances of earnest” purpose and endeavour--vigorous grappling with the realities of life, that should inspire us with enthusiasm. “I am doing a great work,” said Nehemiah, while rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, “so that I cannot come down.” “This one thing I do,” exclaims the Apostle Paul. Minutius Aldus, a famous printer at Venice in the sixteenth century, had this significant inscription placed over the door of his office--“Whoever thou art, Aldus entreats thee again and again, if thou hast business with him, to conclude it briefly, and hasten thy departure: unless, like Hercules to the weary Atlas, thou come to put thy shoulder to the work, then will there ever he sufficient occupation for thee and all others who may come. In the diary of Dr. Chalmers, under the date of March 12th, 1812, there occurs this entry--“I am reading the life of Dr. Doddridge, and am greatly struck with the quantity of business which he put through his hands. O God, impress upon me the value of time, and give regulation to all my thoughts and to all my movements. May I be strong in faith, instant in prayer, high in my sense of duty, and vigorous in the occupation of it! When I detect myself in unprofitable reverie, let me make an instant transition from dreaming to doing.” I think it was Sir James Mackintosh who said that whenever he died, he should die with a host of unaccomplished purposes and unfinished plans in his brain. So every earnest man will leave behind him many a half-finished, and even many an unattempted work. Nevertheless, with a true and earnest heart we may complete some things--we may weave the threads of life into a fabric of varied use and beauty--and, like David of old, serve our generation by the will of God before we fall on sleep, and are laid among our fathers. Once more, nothing will so help you to deal with the realities of life as true religion. Do you possess it, and are you living under its influence? (W. Walters.)

The fall of the leaf

At no period of the year are the sunsets so varied and beautiful as in autumn. The many-coloured woods of the year’s eventide correspond to the many-coloured clouds of the sunset sky; and as the heavens burst into their brightest hues, and exhibit their loveliest transfigurations when the daylight is fading into the gloom of night, so the year unfolds its richest tints and its fairest charms when it is about to sink into the darkness and desolation of winter. The beauty of the autumnal tints is commonly supposed to be confined to the fading foliage of the trees. This is indeed the most obvious feature of the season--that which appeals to every eye, and reads its lesson to every heart. But nature here, as everywhere else, loves to reproduce in her smallest things the peculiarities of her greatest. It was a beautiful myth, created by the glowing imagination of the Greek poets, that the great god Pan, the impersonation of nature, wedded the nymph Echo; so that every note which he blew from his pipe of reeds awakened a harmonious response in her tender bosom. Most truly does this bright fancy represent the real design of nature, according to which we hear on every hand some curious reverberation of some familiar sound, and see all things delighting to wear each other’s robes. The fading frees pipe their many-coloured music aloft on the calm blue October air--for the chromatic scale is the harmonious counterpart of the musical--and the lowly plants that grow beneath their shadow dance to the music. The weeds by the wayside are gifted with a beauty in the decline of life equal to that of the proudest oaks and beeches. Each season partakes to some extent of the characteristics of all the other seasons, and shares in all the varied beauties of the year. Thus we find an autumn in each spring in the death of the primroses and lilies, and a harvest in each summer in the ripe hay-fields; and every one has noticed that the sky of September possesses much of the fickleness of spring in the rapid change of its clouds and the variableness of its weather. Very strikingly is this mutual repetition by the seasons of each other’s characteristic features seen in the resemblance between the tints of the woods in spring and in autumn. The first leaves of the oak expand from the bud in a pale tender crimson; the young leaves of the maple tree, and all the leaves that appear on a maple stump, are of a remarkable copper colour; the immature foliage of the hazel and alder is marked by a dark purple tinge, singularly rich and velvety-looking. Not more varied is the tinting of the autumnal woods than that of the spring woods. And it may be remarked that the colour into which any tree fades in autumn is the same as it wears when it bursts the cerements of spring, and unfolds to the sunny air. Its birth is a prophecy of its death, and its death of its birth. Nature’s cradles have not more of beginning in them than of ending; and nature’s graves have not more of ending in them than of beginning. No one can take a walk in the melancholy woodland in the calm October days without being deeply impressed by the thought of the great waste of beauty and creative skill seen in the faded leaves which rustle beneath his feet. Take up and examine one of these leaves attentively, and you are astonished at, the wealth of ingenuity displayed in it. It is a miracle of design, elaborately formed and richly coloured--in reality more precious than any jewel; and yet it is dropped off the bough as if it had no value, and rots away unheeded in the depths of the forest. Myriads of similar gems are heaped beneath the leafless trees, to moulder away in the rains of November. It saddens us to think of this continual lavish production and careless discarding of forms of beauty and wonder, which we see everywhere throughout nature. Could not the foliage be so contrived as to remain permanently on the trees, and only suffer such a periodical change as the evergreen ivy undergoes? Must the web of nature’s fairest embroidery be taken down every year, and every year woven back again to its old completeness and beauty? Is nature waiting for some great compensation, as Penelope of old waited for her absent husband, when she unravelled each evening the work of each day, and thus deluded her eager lovers with vain promises? Yes! she weaves and unweaves her web of loveliness each season--not in order to mock us with delusive hopes, but to wean us from all false loves, and teach us to wait and prepare for the true love of our souls, which is found, not in the passing things of earth, but in the abiding realities of heaven. This is the secret of all her lavish wastefulness. For this she perpetually sacrifices and perpetually renews her beauty; for this she counts all her most precious things but as dross. By the pathos of her autumn loveliness she is appealing to all that is deepest and truest in our spiritual nature; and through her fading flowers and her withering grass, and all her fleeting glories, she is speaking to us words of eternal life, whereby our souls may be enriched and beautified for ever. (H. Macmillan, D. D.)

The clock of destiny

“Destiny!” What a word! Orthographically it is composed of seven parts, as if, in the use of the sacred number, “seven,” it was intended, by its very structure, to express, to all ages, its profound significance--viz, sufficiency, fulness, completion, perfection! Such, indeed, is the sweeping import of the word “destiny.” It means a state of things that is complete, perfect. It signifies that this world--with its empires that rise and fall--its marvellous incidents that are enacted by human wisdom, courage, strife and ambition--its generations that are born, that live and die--its joys and sorrows--its shifting seasons and rolling years: this earth, as it now exists, is under a management that is sufficient, perfect!--a management of which it can be said: “A sparrow cannot fall to the ground without notice”--that is, without permission and purpose! Destiny has a “Clock”--“a huge timepiece” which measures off the events in this fixed order of things. On its dial-plate is inscribed this world-wide truth: “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” By what “Hand” is this “Clock of Destiny” wound up and managed in all its complicated machinery? In other words: What is the superintending power of this fixed order of things? One answer says: “Fatalism makes the pendulum oscillate, fitting cog to cog and wheel to wheel, controlling all the movements of the dial-gnomon.” God is here given the go-by, while absolute necessity and fixed, cold, unconscious law are delegated with all power. Fatalism annihilates intelligence and free-will in the world’s government. It declares that “Everything from a star to a thought; from the growth of a tree to a spasm of sorrow; from the coronation of a king to the falling of a sparrow is connected with and under the positive control of molecular force.” In short, destiny’s timepiece is wound up and kept in running order by a “hand” tuner divine! The third chapter of Ecclesiastes was written in the interest of the Divine Hand managing the “Clock of Destiny”--in other words, to teach the glorious doctrine of special providence. O ye priests “of science falsely so called,” ye prophets of the “Unknowable,” ye “wise men” who make law supreme and deify force--let the Hebrew sage teach you a better creed! Yea, ye, doubters, ye of unbelief, as to the doctrine of special providence in things great and small--listen to this: “God doeth!” not fate. His acts “shall be for ever,” not of short duration but of eternal import. He is independent of all contingency--the wicked cannot frustrate the Almighty’s purposes: “Nothing can be put to it and nothing can be taken from it.” His government is for man’s highest good--by each swing of the pendulum the Divine Father would move the race nearer to Himself: “And God doeth it that they should fear before Him.” He is never surprised--nothing is new to Him, nothing old. He acts in the eternal Now. All things--past, present, future--are ever under His all-seeing eye: “That which hath been is now, and that which is to be hath already been.” It is, however, impossible for us now to understand all about the management of this “huge timepiece,” which measures off the events great and small, in the fixed course of things. So says the author of my text in verse 11: “No man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.” But this shortsightedness, on our part, is no reason why we should question the wisdom of what is being done, or, in any way, withhold our confidence and love from God as a Father--who is ever doing for us “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” And, now, in view of the fact that “the Lord reigneth”--that the “Clock of Destiny” is God’s machine, ever running in the interest of man’s highest good--what should be our daily conduct and highest ambition? Let this third chapter of Ecclesiastes give us, in closing, an exhortation, as it has already imparted to us profound instruction. In verse 12 let us read that it is our mission here “to do good”--in verse 13, “to enjoy the good of all our labour,” seeing that this is “the gift of God”--in verses 16, 17, not to fret ourselves because of evil-doers, “for God shall judge the righteous and the wicked”--in verses 18-21, not to be disheartened or over-mournful because of death, for though “that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts”--all coming from and going to the same place--“dust”: yet “there is a spirit in man that goeth upwards.” He is immortal, and hence can say: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Finally, verses 22, “Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in all his works.” Do good and rejoice in that good--this is man’s duty! Scatter sunbeams to expel darkness--build up blazing fires to warm and cheer the cold, weary and worn! Be kind--be charitable--save your neighbour from tears, groans, heartaches! Swell the refrain of merry Christmas carols! Ring out the bells of New Year greeting! “Rejoice ever-morel” (A. H. Moment, D. D.)

Verse 2

Ecclesiastes 3:2

A time to be born, and a time to die.

How to make the most of life

(with Ecclesiastes 7:17):--The verse has two parts: “There is a time to be born; and a time to die”: and it seems as if man had as little control over the one as over the other--over the day of his death as over the day of his birth. These are the two milestones between which is included the whole of man’s life on earth. Here is no place for free-will. All is blind, remorseless destiny. And yet the correlative text, “Why shouldest thou die before thy time?” seems to imply that life and death are in a man’s own power. And in a plain sense this also is true, so that the two are only the opposite poles of one great truth, which in its completeness embraces a whole philosophy of life. That philosophy is summed up in this: That life is a gift of God--a sacred gift--to be wisely used and soberly enjoyed, and not to be trifled with, nor thrown away. But life on earth is not immortal: “There is a time to die.” Nor is this a harsh decree. If only the end for which life was given be attained, man may surrender it, at the last, not only without regret, but in perfect peace. The only thing he has to fear is that he be called out of life before his time, with all his plans unfulfilled, his hopes disappointed, and his great destiny unattained. The latter half of our text, “Why shouldest thou die before thy time?” teaches us this practical lesson: That we are to make the most of life by a prudent economy of it--not a petty economy of money (which is often but the smallest element in the total of influences which make up the being that we are), but an economy of life itself, of all the vital forces, of health and reason and the elements of happiness. All this is embraced in the one great word, Life. This is the prize which the Creator offers to every being to whom He gives a living body and a reasonable soul. “Why shouldest thou die before thy time?” In one sense no man can die before his time, for is not the day of death fixed? Hath not God appointed His bound that he cannot pass? Yet, in another sense, it is quite possible to cut short the term of life’ That is the evident meaning here. By a man’s “time” is meant the natural limit to which one of his vitality and strength, living a sober, temperate life, might attain. Anything short of that may be ascribed to his own folly or guilt. Thus, all will admit that a man dies before his time who takes his own life, which he has no more right to take than that of his neighbour. Even though the existence that is left to him have to be endured rather than enjoyed a man must stand like a sentinel at his post, keeping watch through the long night hours, and waiting for the breaking of the day. But the wretched suicide is not the only man who is guilty of taking his own life. There are other ways of ending one’s existence than by violence. The drunkard. The number of those who thus untimely perish is beyond all counting. Vice has slain its thousands, and drunkenness its ten thousands. And now turn and look at another picture. If it be a shame so to die, on the other hand what a glorious thing it is to live--to enjoy a rational, intelligent, and moral existence! Even as a matter of selfish calculation, the purely intellectual enjoyment of a man of science far transcends the vulgar delights of a life of pleasure. What a life must have been that of Kepler or Galileo! Who would throw away an existence that contains such possibilities of knowledge? Make it, then, your resolve to live a life of the strictest temperance and purity and virtue, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God giveth you. But this is only half the truth of my text. “Why shouldest thou die before thy time?” But at the last “there is a time to die.” O God, I thank Thee for that word! “There is a time to die!” And religion, while it condemns the reckless throwing away of life, equally condemns the cowardly clinging to life when duty requires it to be sacrificed. Dear as life is, there are things which are a thousand times dearer--truth, honour, justice, and liberty, one’s country and religion; and it may become a duty to sacrifice the lesser interest to the greater. It does not follow that a man dies before his time because he dies young. “That life is long which answers life’s great end;” and though one may finish his course on the very threshold of manhood, that end may be gloriously fulfilled. (H. M. Field, D. D.)

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.

The periodicities of the religious world

The seasons succeed each other, and each has its own use and purpose. The spring with its fresh loveliness comes first on the stage, and then, after a due interval, follows autumn with its sad decay. The sower takes possession of the field in the bright days of April, and he is the most appropriate figure in the landscape, while he is scattering the seeds of promise over the bare, brown furrows. He departs, and his place is taken by the reapers, who form a pleasant company on the golden harvest field, and gather in the sheaves under the bright smile of the blue September day. The time of planting is associated with all that is fresh and animated and hopeful. But the time of plucking up that which was planted is associated with failure and disappointment, with vanity and death. And Nature makes her work of decay particularly unsightly, in order to force its moral lesson more emphatically upon our notice. We cannot help feeling how disconsolate the apple-tree looks after its rosy-white petals have fallen and when the small green fruit is setting, how dim the much fine gold of the laburnum tresses become in fading, and how the hawthorn blossoms in their withering leave a dirty-brown stain upon the country hedges like the parched bed of a belated snow-wreath that has melted away beneath the summer sun. While we are thus impressively reminded of the periodicity of Nature, the ebb and flow of her seasons and productions, we can apply the lesson to our human affairs. There are periods in human history that are analogous to the season of spring when we sow and plant with a bright enthusiasm and a large hopefulness. Our minds are ardent and vigorous. Everything is fresh and full of interest. It seems as if we had only newly awakened to the beauty and glory of the world. Looking but upon the past we can recall ages of creative genius when man conceived and executed great things in art and literature, when every work had on it the hallmark of original inspiration. Such an age was that of Pericles in Greece, and of Queen Elizabeth in England. Such periods were times of planting, and they had all the glory and freshness of spring. But they were followed by ages in which a woeful reaction of weariness and decay took place. Rules and precedents were followed instead of the fresh insight, freedom and spontaneity of nature; criticism assumed the function of inspiration; and everywhere might be seen the slavish conventionality of exhausted capacity. They were ages in which whatever intellectual energies men had left to them were expended in plucking up that which nobler ages had planted. The commencement of the Victorian epoch was a period of remarkable creative power, a springtime of exuberant mental fertility. But the close of it seems to be characterized by a kind of listless decay. Like the fruit-tree that has one season been too productive, and must rest till it recover and accumulate fresh stores of vitality, so this age seems to be suffering from the reaction of over-production. The largest proportion of our literature is given up to criticism or imitation. It is a time to pluck up that which was planted. And the same periodicity that distinguishes the intellectual also characterizes the religious world. It has its ages of faith and its ages of doubt; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which was planted. We seem to have reached at the present day a period of listlessness and analytical indifference in regard to religious things. On every side we see, instead of a noble enthusiasm in the highest of all studies, a carping finical criticism on the most sacred subjects. However much we may deplore this state of things, we cannot say that it is absolutely evil. It has, indeed, a good purpose to serve. Winter periods are necessary in the spiritual world as testing times, to find out what is merely superficial and transient, and what is substantial and has in it the elements of endurance. It is a winter desolation to make ready for a spring of revival; and many of its evils are caused by the quickening of new life. The best thing, therefore, to do during the disquietude of a time of plucking up in the religious world is to dwell much in thought upon the ages of faith when men lived heroic lives and died blessed deaths in the heartfelt belief of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The criticism and analysis of the present time can best be counteracted by the synthesis and construction of a nobler time when men created instead of destroyed, built up instead of east down, planted instead of plucked up the springtime of divine grace. And this synthesis is practically always possible to the meek in spirit to whom God will teach His way. (H. Macmillan, D. D.)

Verses 3-4

Ecclesiastes 3:3-4

A time to kill, and a time to heal

Spiritual times and seasons

The work of grace upon the soul may be divided into two distinct operations of the Spirit of God upon the heart; the one is to break down the creature into nothingness and self-abasement before God; the other is to exalt the crucified Jesus as “God over all, blessed for ever” upon the wreck and ruin of the creature.
And these two lessons the blessed Spirit writes with power upon every quickened vessel of mercy.

1. There is, then, “a time to kill”--that is, there is an appointed season in God’s eternal counsels when the sentence of death is to be known and felt in the consciences of all His elect. That time cannot be hurried, or delayed. The hands of that clock, of which the will of God is the spring, and His decrees the pendulum, are beyond the reach of human fingers to move on or put back. The killing precedes the healing, and the breaking down goes before the building up; the elect weep before they laugh, and mourn before they dance. In this track does the Holy Spirit move; in this channel do His blessed waters flow. The first “time,” then, of which the text speaks is that season when the Holy Ghost takes them in hand in order to kill them. And how does He kill them? By applying with power to their consciences the spirituality of God’s holy law, and thus bringing the sentence of death into their souls--the Spirit of God employing the law as a ministration of condemnation to cut up all creature-righteousness.

2. But it is not all killing work. If God kills His people, it is to make them alive (1 Samuel 2:6); if He wounds them, it is that He may heal; if He brings down, it is that He may lift up. There is, then, “a time to heal.” And how is that healing effected? By some sweet discovery of mercy to the soul, by the eyes of the understanding being enlightened to see Jesus, and by the Holy Ghost raising up a measure of faith in the heart whereby Christ is laid hold of, embraced in the affections, testified to by the Spirit, and enthroned within, as “the hope of glory.”

3. But we pass on to another time--“a time to break down.” This implies that there is a building to be overthrown. What building is this? It is that proud edifice which Satan and the flesh have combined to erect in opposition to God, the Babel which is built up with bricks and lime to reach the topmost heaven. But there is a time in God’s hand to break down this Babel which has been set up by the combined efforts of Satan and our own hearts.

4. There is “a time to build up.” This building up is wholly and solely in Christ, under the blessed Spirit’s operations. But what building up can there be in Christ, except the creature is laid low? What has Jesus as an all-sufficient Saviour to do with one who can stand in his own strength and his own righteousness?

5. But there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” Does a man only weep once in his life? Does not the time of weeping run, more or less, through a Christian’s life? Does not mourning run parallel with his existence in this tabernacle of clay? for “man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards.” Then “a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up,” must run parallel with a Christian’s life, just as much as “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” But these times and seasons are in the Father’s hand; and, “what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” Never talk of healing till you can talk of killing; never think of being built up, until you have been broken down; never expect to laugh, until you have been taught to weep; and never hope to dance, until you have learned to mourn. Such only as are taught of God can enter into the real experience of these things; and into them, sooner or later, each according to his measure, does God the Holy Spirit lead all the ransomed family of Zion. (J. C. Philpot.)

A time to weep, and a time to laugh.--

Amusements

The play impulse is, I verily believe, as sacred in the Divine intention as the work impulse. Indeed, Dr. Bushnell has undertaken to show how what he calls the state of play is the ultimate state of redeemed and regenerated humanity, up to which it climbs through previous discipline in the working state; and though in his argument he has not actually done so, yet I presume he would regard that prophetic picture of the new heavens and the new earth wherein Zechariah declares that “the streets of Jerusalem shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof” as only a poetic description of the heavenly employments of children of a larger growth. For, when we come to look a little deeper than the surface, what do we mean by play? Coming home at the end of the day, weary and worn and fretted, you open the door upon your little one roiling and tumbling upon the floor with a kitten. It is certainly not a very classical nor a very dignified scene, and yet, somehow, your heart straightway softens to it, and you sit down and watch the romp with a sense of sympathy and refreshment that you have not had through all the dull and plodding day. Why is it? Why, but because after all that is life without effort or care or burden, joy without labour or rivalry or tedium, bounding motion and bubbling glee without anxiety and without remorse! And what is such a life, disengaged from its animal characteristics and ennobled by a spiritual insight, but the true idea of heaven, where, if there be activity, there will be no effort, but where all that we do and are will be the free spontaneous outburst of the overflowing joy and gladness that are in us.

I. Mere amusement ought not to be, and cannot healthily be, the end of any life. We speak of child-life as the play period of a human existence. And yet, have you never noticed that even the child cannot play, unless he has climbed up into the sphere of play through the toilsome vestibule of work? We see him careering over the ground in the wild joy of his young freedom, climbing the trees, scaling the hillsides, racing through the fields, or gambolling on the grass, and we say, “what glad surrender to pure impulse!” But do we remember how he has come to that free command of himself, his limbs and lungs and muscles; how he has tottered first of all on his tiny feet, and fallen, and risen, only to fall again; how by slow gradations he has taught his muscles to obey his will, and his feet to do the bidding of his thought, and his hands to grasp and hold the things he reaches after? Not without effort, surely, has he come into that larger freedom of the first play state; and not without work, as his best qualification for the really sacred privilege of amusement, has God meant that any one of us should come to our playing moments!

II. What are the principles that ought to regulate our amusements? Those principles are threefold. Our amusements ought to be genuine, innocent and moderate.

1. Let me explain what I mean by a genuine amusement. If amusement has, as we have seen, a definite and recognizable place in every healthful and well-ordered life, then we must at least require of it that it shall honestly serve its purpose--that it shall really and veritably recreate, re-create us. Now, viewed in this light, I did not, e.g. call a ball a genuine amusement. Our amusements ought to leave us fresher and brighter than they found us, net jaded and irritable and lack-lustre-eyed when the next day’s duties roll back upon us. And therefore, I do not wonder that a great many young persons especially, who seek their amusements (Heaven save the mark!) in such channels, are constrained to “key themselves up” to work by the artificial means of unhealthy stimulants.

2. If amusement is not something outside but inside the sanctions of an earnest and Christian life, then our amusements ought also to be innocent. The concern of one who is deciding the question between amusements that are innocent and those that are not innocent, is with the drama as he actually and ordinarily finds it; and this includes the drama whether classic or tragic or comic, or seminude and spectacular; and if any complain that the Church of God frowns upon innocent amusements, and if it utters no downright condemnation, at least withholds its approval from innocent forms of amusement, let them remember that it is because ordinarily those who have once crossed a certain line in this matter, no matter what may be their professions of decorum or religion, are far too commonly wont to cast all restrictions utterly and absolutely behind them. For there is in fact almost absolutely no pretence of discrimination in these things, and persons of pure lives and unspotted name are seen, in our day, gazing upon spectacles or hearkening to dialogue, which, whether spoken or sung, ought to bring a blush of shame to any decent cheek.

3. But, let us also remember, amusement may be thoroughly innocent in its nature, and yet very easily be excessive or immoderate in its measure. (Bp. H. C. Potter.)

A Christian view of recreation

Human life is made up of summers and winters--it may be, in most cases, with a larger proportion of winters than summers, but seldom, indeed, without some days of bright sunshine and joyous hope. Each season, too, ought, in the very nature of things, to meet with a fitting response in the experiences of the soul. When the darkness is round about our path, circumstances all adverse, when sorrow saddens the heart, or death impoverishes the life, then is a “time to weep.” But when the cloud is lifted, and the brightness of the sunshine once more inspires us with hope and fills us with joy; when our enterprises prosper, and our homes are scenes of love and peaceful happiness; when present success not only yields pleasure, but gives the earnest of a still richer blessing, then is the “time to laugh.” Both of these seasons are of God. As He has ordained summer and winter for the earth, so has He ordained that human life should have these alternating experiences, and in both alike we are to remember that we are His, and even in our lighter hours do all to the glory of God. There are some to be found who think recreation, even of the most harmless character, a waste of time which, if not positively sinful, is, at all events, a sign of spiritual weakness. Reasons in favour of such a course are not difficult to seek. There is the solemn responsibility with which life is invested in virtue of the great work to be done, and the hindrances in face of which it has to be prosecuted. Here, it may be argued, is the battle between good and evil, prosecuted under conditions so unequal that the servants of God must be bound to give all diligence in order to maintain His cause. With temptations so subtle, so numerous, so widespread, and so skilfully adapted to all varieties of taste and circumstance; with such mighty forces all actively engaged for the dishonour of God and ruin of human souls, there cannot be any opening for mere enjoyment. Nay, the very feeling is out of harmony with all the circumstances of the conflict. While souls are perishing, how can we have the heart to be glad, or find the time to enter even into the most refined and elevating pleasures of social life? The first answer to this must surely be that the theory breaks down under the weight of its own conclusions. It is an impossible standard of duty which it endeavours to set up, and it collapses under its own extravagance. Hero and there a man may really detach himself from these human interests, and there may be circumstances which mark him out for a special position in which he is absorbed by the one thought of the deliverance of human souls. It may be even that there are exceptional times in which like the prophet Jeremiah the servant of the Lord is ready to cry, “Oh, that mine head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” But this cannot be the normal experience even of the most earnest Christians. All are not prophets; all prophets are not Jeremiah; Jeremiah was not always in a state of mind like this; in short, men must have a different nature before they can attain to this complete suppression of human sympathies and interests. But the moment it ceases to be real and becomes a mere piece of assumed Christian devotion, that moment it loses, not only its power, but everything which gives it a religious quality at all. But there is this further objection to it. It is not proved to be the best method of securing the particular object in view. In the struggle against evil a wise man will surely look round and study the defences by which it is sustained. In the attack on a strong citadel the attention of the skilful strategist is first directed to the outlying forts which guard its approaches. The same law applies to our Christian work. Individual souls are affected by the society to which they belong, and the influence of society must depend largely upon the institutions--including even those which have to do with the amusements of life--which exist in its midst. The perversions which mislead the minds of men have to be got rid of before the truth can reach them. In this work, even in a land which calls itself Christian, there is need for the ploughshare before the ground can be made ready for the scattering of the seed of the kingdom. The argument, then, is twofold. We have to assert the rule of Christ over all the scenes of human life, seeking so to purify its pleasures that they shall not be hindrances to the spiritual life. But we have also to give a true representation of the Christian spirit, and we fail in this if we convey the impression that in our religion there is no time for recreation. Has not our Father given us the capacity for joy, and does He not mean us to profit by it? (J. G. Rogers, B. A.)

Verse 5

Ecclesiastes 3:5

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together.

Decision and perseverance needed by the Christian

Perhaps the primary meaning may refer to the method in which an Eastern husbandman prepares to till his vineyard. These vineyards were often cultivated on the steep sides of the vales, and the traveller wonders to see under what difficult circumstances he toils, gathering up the stones which lie thickly on the ground, and carrying up soil and building up terraces in which to plant the vines. Hero the husbandman finds a season wherein he must cast away stones and pebbles, and clear the soil, and another time when it is needful to use these stones in raising up the walls and terraces of his vineyard.

1. If we regard our souls as possible vineyards and gardens, wherein may be grown “the fruits of a good life,” to the glory of God, how must we begin? We must cast away every obstacle, we must clear away anything which stands in the way and hinders us from truly serving God. One great obstacle which lies in the way of many is indolence in religious matters. The old fable described the vampire bat, in tropical countries, as hovering above its victims, and drinking their life-blood, whilst it soothes them to sleep on, by fanning them with its wings all the while. So the devil soothes souls into a fatal sleep. Again, another terrible obstacle is when there exists some favourite sin, some evil habit. We would give up much, but this one thing we cannot bear to part with. Our soul is like a captive bird, fastened by a string--it flies a little way, and then it is pulled back. But the Christian must summon up his courage, and with a strong effort break the chain float binds him down. Paint to yourself a prisoner seeking to escape from a gloomy dungeon. He has climbed up to the window of his cell. If only one bar was removed from the grated aperture, he could escape. Oh, with what determination he would grasp that rusty bar, how he would exert his utmost strength. Freedom, liberty, hopes, all before him, and but one bar between. And so with many a soul--one strong effort, and we might cut away that which holds us back.

2. A different picture now rises before our mind’s eye; as we before painted to ourselves the busy peasants casting away the stones to form the good ground for their vineyard, now we think of them “gathering stones”--how they pile them up in terraces, build them up with busy hands. Perhaps it is the surrounding walls, or the foundations of the wine-vat, or the “tower” of those that watch the vineyard, that is being raised. But whatever be the object of those “that gather stones together,” to build a wall, or erect a pier, or form a road, there is implied toil and patience. He who “gathers stones” must stoop, and stoop often. He who would grow in the Christian life must be humble, and as he who “gathers stones.” Habits of piety, humility, and patient well-doing take much watchfulness and constant prayer ere they can be formed. How slow is the process of “gathering together stones!” Yet it is only by constant daily efforts that we can build up the fabric of the Christian life, stone by stone, effort by effort. (J. W. Hardman, LL. D.)

Verse 7

Ecclesiastes 3:7

A time to keep silence.

Silence

There is a proverb which says, Speech is silvern, silence is golden. Like all proverbs, this admits of qualification. There is a silence that means cowardice, sulkiness, and stupidity; and there is a speech that is more precious than any gold, triumphant over error and wrong, quickening and beneficent as the sunbeam. Notice two or three kinds of silences.

I. There is the silence of emotional fulness. It is a physiological fact that great emotions choke the utterance.

1. Great painful emotions do this (Matthew 22:12). Will not all the wicked who stand at the bar of their Maker at the last day be struck with this silence? Emotions of surprise, remorse, despair, will rush with such tumultuousness upon them as to paralyze all articulating power.

2. Great joyous emotions do this. When the father embraced his prodigal son, his heart was so full of joyous feelings that he could not speak. It has been said that superficial emotions chatter, deep emotions are mute: there are joys that are unutterable.

II. There is the silence of Pious resignation. It is said that Aaron held his peace, and the psalmist said, “I was dumb and opened not my mouth because Thou didst it.” This indeed is a golden silence: it implies unbounded confidence in the character and procedure of our Heavenly Father. It is a loving, loyal acquiescence in the will of Him who is all-loving, all-wise, and all-good. This silence reveals--

1. The highest reason. Is there a sublimer philosophy than this?

2. The highest faith. Faith in the immutable realities of love and right.

III. There is the silence of holy self-respect. This was the silence which Christ displayed before His judges. He seemed to feel that to speak to such virulently prejudiced creatures would be a degradation. The man who can stand and listen to the language of stolid ignorance, venomous bigotry, and personal insult addressed to him in an offensive spirit, and offer no reply, exerts a far greater power upon the minds of his assailants than he could by words, however forceful. His silence reflects a moral majesty, before which the heart of his assailants will scarcely fail to cower. (Homilist.)

A time of war, and a time of peace.--

The Christian view of war

There are those, among the most conscientious of men, who maintain that war is never permissible, that it has always the nature of sin. Among Englishmen the Quakers have clung to the doctrine of non-resistance as one of their most distinctive tenets; among modern thinkers Count Tolstoi has restated it with considerable force. They have based their argument not so much upon the general tenor of Christ’s teaching as upon misinterpretations of isolated texts--e.g. “Resist not evil,” “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” It is to their honour that they have been consistent in their interpretation of such passages, often to their own loss, and have applied them both to individual and to national conduct. Yet it is strange that they have not seen how far their argument carries them, and how by exaggerating one counsel of the Gospel they have made other of its precepts of none effect. Toleration of personal injury, to the point of self-effacement, is indeed enjoined upon Christians, but only so far as it does not conflict with other laws of justice and the like. Non-resistance, tolerance of evil and injustice from an individual, may often be most dangerous to society, as an encouragement to crime; and to let an offender go free may be to do him no kindness, but the cruelest of injuries. As with individuals, so with nations. National injustice, greed, insolence, is to be resisted as a danger to humanity. And those who make their appeal to isolated passages of Holy Scripture may be answered by other considerations. To take one only, it may justly be argued that if it were unlawful to wage war, as they assert, it would be unlawful for the Christian to bear arms, and that the soldier’s calling would be reprobated in the New Testament. But the exact opposite is the case. The soldier’s calling is treated as of equal honour with others, a vocation in which God may be well and truly served. The Christian life is itself compared to a warfare, in which the soldier of Christ is exhorted to fidelity by the example of the Roman soldier. The soldiers who inquire their duty of St. John the Baptist are not told to forsake their calling, but to exercise it with justice and mercy. And from Cornelius, the devout man whose prayers and alms were accepted of God, to St. Martin and General Gordon, a long line of soldier-saints bears eloquent witness to the fact that the grace of God may be looked for, and will bear fruit, in that vocation as in others. We may even go further, and say that war and the military vocation undoubtedly develop in nations and in individuals certain of the simpler virtues. It is often through war, as Mr. Ruskin has told us, that “truth of word and strength of thought” are learnt by nations. “Peace and the vices of civil life only flourish together. We talk of peace and learning, and of peace and plenty, and of peace and civilization; but I found that these were not the words which the muse of history coupled together: and that on her lips the words were--peace, and sensuality--peace, and selfishness--peace, and death.” No less marked are its bracing effects upon the individual. “On the whole, the habit of living lightly hearted in daily presence of death, always has had, and always must have, power both in the making and testing of honest men.” Many a man by losing himself has found himself, and through the stern discipline of the soldier’s life has gained the self-control which otherwise he would have lost. In war men have the opportunity of rising to higher levels of virtue than they would have thought possible of attainment. From Sir Philip Sidney, dying in agony on the field of Zutphen, and refusing the water which another seemed to need more, to the trooper in Matabeleland who gave his horse--and with it his life--for a wounded comrade, there are countless instances of noble unselfishness developed under the stress of sudden decision, sometimes in the most unexpected characters. Nor, if we be wise, shall we complain that the cost is too great. We cannot know that those who have died nobly would have lived nobly. And so we cannot refuse the conclusion that warfare is not necessarily wrong in itself; that it is lawful “for Christian men, at the command of the magistrate, to wear weapons and to serve in the wars”: that war is even in some cases a gain in that it tends to the development of national and individual virtues. But of course when this is conceded we are still very far from admitting that it is ever to be undertaken “with a light heart,” as the French declared war upon Prussia. The amount of direct and indirect suffering which it causes, immeasurable as that is, is not the greatest of the evils which war brings inevitably in its train. The racial hatreds which it engenders often linger on for scores of years, smouldering fires which a chance gust of passion may easily fan again into flame. Nor can we regard it in any sense as an appeal to the Divine justice, as our forefathers regarded it. War is infinitely the most wasteful, crudest, and least just way of settling international quarrels. And above all, for all its indirect gains, it is to be avoided by Christian nations to the very limits of forbearance, because it hinders the progress of mankind towards the ideals of peace and brotherhood which the Incarnation revealed. War, however just, is an acknowledgment that Christian methods and Christian love have so far failed to be effective. We inquire, lastly, on what conditions warfare may be pronounced justifiable. St. Thomas Aquinas defines the conditions as three in number--the command of the prince, a just cause, and a good intention. The Christian will not hesitate to justify wars morally safeguarded by regard to these conditions. And yet for all that may be said in justification of warfare, war will ever remain a thing grievous to the Christian, ranking with the famine and the pestilence as scourges of God. Upon all Christians there is laid the supreme duty of striving continually for peace, and in these days of democracy no one is without his share of responsibility for national acts. Christians will not shrink from just wars; at the same time they will denounce wars of aggression for material gain. They will endeavour to emphasize the overwhelming responsibility of those in whose power it is t,o declare war, and of those who may influence their decision. They will lose no opportunity of dissociating themselves from those who wantonly disturb the peace of nations, by fostering race-hatreds, magnifying disagreements, offering petty insults, whether in the columns of an intemperate Press, or in any other way. They will promote the principles of arbitration; for though the arbitrators between nations are not backed by force, and cannot compel submission to their decisions, and though long centuries may pass before arbitration can supersede war, yet there is among nations a growing desire to settle differences by that method--an increasing disposition to submit to arbitration, because the justice of the principle is acknowledged. Above all, they will not be ashamed to assert their belief in the efficacy of prayer to the Lord mighty in battle, who is also the Prince of peace, that He would direct aright the counsels of the nations, and would give peace in our time. Who can doubt that wars, in Christendom at least, would soon become rare if all Christians were continually to pray from their inmost heart that God would give to all nations unity, peace, and concord? (E. H. Day, M. A.)

Verses 9-11

Ecclesiastes 3:9-11

What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?

Autumn musings

Autumn is a time which has its meaning, as well as its appropriate duties. Its deep suggestiveness is written upon the sombre grandeur of its sunsets, upon the awful death with which it smites the foliage and blasts the flowers, is borne in upon us by the dreariness and waste it spreads around. Its duty of ingathering, of estimating results, is written upon its harvests and fruition. “The end of all things is at hand,” it seems to say; for it is the time of retribution and reward. The day of autumn is an anticipative day of judgment, its clouds foreshadowing heavier clouds, and bidding us prepare to meet that God of whom it is said, “Clouds and darkness are round about Him,” etc.

I. The disquieting question of autumn. Yet, after all these useful thoughts, there comes to us, as to Ecclesiastes in verse 9, the question asked in every great age, by every great mind--the question which meets us continually in the life and thought of the present age: “What is the good? What is the real purpose of things? What do they matter?” That is pre-eminently the question of autumn--late autumn, not of the falling corn, but of the falling leaf. Full as our lives may be of interest and labour, there comes to us from time to time the inevitable question, “What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?”--since we, too, must fade and fall. The suggestion, however, is not merely that of physical death, but of the death of hope, the defeat of honest purpose, the fruitlessness of unselfish effort. To religious people what is still more unsettling is the failure of religious effort. We witness in our time the decay of certain forms of piety. Among the lumber in the long and dusty gallery of some ancestral hall you come upon an old spinet. You take the quills and strike the keys: the sounds that come forth are unfamiliar, distant; the music is dreamlike, weird; the instrument is spirit-haunted; there is something reproachful in the faint melodiousness of the long untouched wires. So it is with the old hymns, the old forms of piety; for it is never given to one age to reproduce the spirit of another in the self-same forms. “I have seen the travail which God hath given to the sons of men to he exercised therewith,” says Ecclesiastes musingly. Is it all useless? Political enthusiasm, religious ardour, the strenuous labour of the world’s workers, the lofty ideals and high imaginings of the world’s great thinkers,--are they swept down the stream of time like rotten leaves?

II. Musing on the answer. That is the question which the ancient Jewish thinker to whom we owe the Book of Ecclesiastes is turning over in his mind. He does not answer it; he muses upon it, and suggests consoling considerations. Yes, indeed I God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in travail, to be

“inured to pain,

To hardship, grief, and loss.”

But “He hath made everything beautiful in its time: also He hath set the world in their heart.” So, with Ecclesiastes, let us rest for a time in this supreme effort of nature to do us pleasure; in the Stoic thought that the world is a Divine system, a cosmos of order and of beauty, and that, according to the ancient faith of Israel, all things were created “very good.” Yet we are not quite satisfied. Man is restless among the beauties of the world because his life is larger, deeper than the world’s. God “hath made everything beautiful:. . . also He hath set the world in their heart.” What German writers call the Welt-schmerz--the sorrow of the world--is an ever-present burden to those whose hearts are tenderest and whose characters have reached the highest levels. Hence Wordsworth, who so revelled in the beauties of nature, was ever hearing

“Humanity in fields and groves

Pipe solitary anguish.”

What Thomas Hardy calls “the general grimness of the human situation” has been rather increased than lessened by the discovery of our time, that man has reached his present level by means of a terrible struggle, lasting through countless millenniums, and is what he is as much by virtue of the pains he has endured as by the perseverance and courage with which he has set himself to overcome the difficulties of his life.

III. The question of autumn answered. Ecclesiastes can help us no further; for his “I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life,” probably means little more than “keep up your heart and do your best.” Not even St. Paul, not even Christ Himself, answers all our questions; but Christianity does give us the certainty that all is well with those who trust in God and do right, and the last word of wisdom as well as of faith is, “All things work together for good to them that love God.”

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”

God is with us as He was with our fathers, and our ways of serving Him are as acceptable as theirs, in our hearts are true and our lives pure and earnest. For the changes which pass over society and the Churches are in reality manifestations of the wisdom of God; the touch of His finger gives to them their meaning and beauty; and the devout observer is as much thrilled by their significance and enthralled by their interest as the artistic soul is enraptured by the tints of autumn. Further, Christianity teaches us to look forward, not backward, for the revelation of the real meaning of God’s dealings with us. Christ never despaired of humanity, or of His own cause; and why should we? (W. Burkitt Dalby.)

Verse 11

Ecclesiastes 3:11

He hath made everything beautiful in His time.

Beauty

How rich are the traits and manifestations of man’s creative genius! Think of the vast number and diversity of gorgeous and attractive forms, with which descriptive and imaginative talent has enriched the literature of all ages. And the fruits of mental toil in all times, from the rude lyric of the savage to the rounded and polished productions of the most advanced culture, how redolent of beauty,--how thickly studded with gems of the purest lustre and transcending magnificence! Art, too, how endlessly varied in its embodiments of all that is fair, and grand, and glorious! How numberless, also, are the combinations of blended or interchanging majesty and beauty which rise and are yet to rise in the simple and the complex, the lowly and the lofty forms of architecture--in column, tower, and dome--in cottage, temple, and cathedral! But whence this power in man? What are his creations but copies of the thoughts of God? That they are nothing else is implied in the fundamental canons of literature, art, and taste. Truth to nature is the sole test of beauty. Do we admire the partial copies that man has made? Do we bow down to the genius that can see and hear a little portion of the Divine idea? Shall not, then, our thoughts go up with unspeakably loftier reverence and more fervent adoration to Him who “has made everything beautiful”? Reflect for a moment on beauty as an attribute of the Supreme Intelligence. Reflect on God as the Originator of all that delights the eye and charms the fancy. What an inconceivable wealth of beauty must reside in the mind, which, without a copy, first called forth these numberless hues and shades that relieve each other and melt into each other in the vast whole of nature,--which devised these countless forms of vegetable life, from the wayside flower that blooms to-day and withers to-morrow, to the forest giant that outlasts the rise and fall of nations and of empires,--which meted out the heavens, measured the courses and arranged the harmonies of the stars, spread the ocean, poured the river, torrent, and waterfall! What an infinity of resources do we behold in the alternate phases of the outward universe, each of which seems too beautiful to be replaced by one of equal loveliness, and yet yields at once its fancied pre-eminence to its successor! The depths of the Divine Intelligence we indeed cannot fathom; but there are some views of practical interest to be derived from these thoughts.

1. First, they suggest one mode of worship, which must always make us better,--that of the devout contemplation of the visible works of God. “To enjoy is to adore.” There can be no full and true enjoyment of nature, except by those who see the hand and hear the voice of the Eternal in His works. To enter into the heart of nature is to talk face to face with its Author.

2. The thoughts which I have suggested lend, also, a motive to our conversance with the monuments of human art, taste, and genius. The genuine poet or artist stands between us and God’s world of beauty, in the same relation in which the seer or the evangelist stands between us and his realm of truth. But most of all does the devout mind love to commune with truth and beauty in those forms of literature, in which they have been blended by Divine inspiration. It finds no poetry so sublime as that of psalmist, prophet, and apostle,--that which connects the image of the heavenly Shepherd with the green pastures and still waters, draws lessons of a paternal Providence from the courses of Orion and Arcturus, names for the rain and for the drops of dew their Father, and resorts to every kingdom of nature, and gathers in materials from every portion of the visible universe, to portray the New Jerusalem, the golden city of our God, the gates within which the sun goes not down, for “the glory of God doth lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.”

3. Again, beauty, though distinct from love, is the minister of love. Its every ray is edged and fringed with mercy. Its every form bears the inscription, “God is love.” When it beams upon us from the heavens, it reveals His benignity. When it glows on the earth, or gleams from the ocean, it reflects His smile. When it stretches its many-coloured bow on the cloud or the waterfall, it utters His thoughts of peace. Have not all these scenes a voice of tender sympathy and consolation for the grief-stricken? In a world thus full of beauty, thus suffused by the smile of the Universal Father, there can be no sorrow sent as sorrow. It can be only those whom God loves that he chastens. Not to blight the harvest of human hope and joy, but to bring forth in fresh luxuriance every plant of our Heavenly Father’s planting, do the rains descend and the floods come upon the afflicted heart. Not to destroy or hopelessly bow down the soul, but to dispel the suffocating mist of worldliness, to open a clearer, higher range of vision for the inward eye, to make the upper heavens look serene and beautiful, falls the bolt that sends alarm and agony to our homes and hearts. Let us, then, in our sorrows, welcome the revelation of Divine love, with which the heavens are dropping and the earth teeming, which day utters to day and night rehearses to night. (A. P. Peabody.)

Everything beautiful

The Creator, when He formed the world, had the loveliness of things before Him as an end and object, as well as the usefulness of things. And so, wherever we walk, we see reflected the love of beauty in the Divine mind. And the more minutely we examine the works of God, the more exquisite is their beauty. How unlike the works of man! Take a finely polished needle, and place it under a powerful microscope, and it becomes a huge, rough bar of steel, with miniature caverns and ravines of black “clinker.” Take again some common insect, a wasp, for instance; and under the same microscope it grows into a miracle of sheeny scales of semi-transparent gauze of gold, each scale geometrically perfect. Or take that buttercup and look down into its heart, and you will look into an enchanted fairy chamber of flashing lights that shames all the extravagances of the “Arabian Nights.” God loves to have things beautiful: and it is wise for us to foster in ourselves the love of beauty. No doubt business rivalries are so intense and keen that men are obliged to consider chiefly utility. What can I make or get out of it? is the primary question. Bread, not beauty, is their principal concern. Trade is “sowing cities like shells along the shore”: and the things of the mart and the street are in danger of crowding nature and God out of men’s minds and freezing their hearts. But let us hope that the fight for the front places in all the callings which is the prevailing ambition at present will never become so severe as to absorb all thought and time, and destroy all care for the cultivation of this joyous side of life. Indeed, the fiercer the struggle for life becomes, the greater the need for the sweet alleviations which admiration of nature brings. Nor can we doubt that when the Creator lavished, and still lavishes so much beauty in the natural world, He had and has in view the highest usefulness; for surely it is as serviceable a thing to give refreshment and tone and elevation to the soul, as to provide wheat for bread, or wool for clothing. Let us lift our thoughts from the loveliness of nature to Him, who is the Rose of Sharon all glowing with the wealth of heavenly love, and the Lily of the Valley, “holy, harmless, undefiled,” and the True Vine laden with ripe clusters for the famishing souls of men--yes, to Him, who is unique in His splendour of “very” Godhead and perfect manhood. One of the most patent wants of our Churches to-day is that of spiritual beauty of character; beauty of spiritual character. Not the surface beauty of morality unvitalized by personal love to the Saviour. This is but the crystal, symmetrical, clean-cut in exactness of outline, cold as the snow, dead as the stone. Our want is the beauty of the living soul, of the holy life. Not any mimicry of it, however successful, however unconscious; not any simulation of its life; not painted blooms and waxen fruit. But actual conformity to the image of “the man Christ Jesus”: a life of prayer and self-renouncing faith, of surrender to the yule of our King, and leal-hearted service. This is the beauty of holiness of which all fair things beneath the sun are faint pictures; and by which Christ is made manifest to men. (R. C. Cowell)

The beauty of the world

I. The beauty of life’s outward scenes and circumstances. We need not linger to determine what is the philosophy of beauty; how far it depends on the things we behold, how far on the eyes which behold them, or rather on the soul of intelligence and emotion which looks through the eyes. The beautiful is beautiful in the measure of our discernment; that is true. Still, beauty is not determined exclusively by our perception; that also is true. Beyond what any single individual has seen or has power to see lie a myriad things, the fruit of the Creator’s wonderful and multitudinous thoughts. Treasures of beauty fill the depths of the sea, and there are unvisited nooks and corners of the earth thronged with lovely forms. Not only in the broad effects, but in the minute detail, of nature there is to be found beauty. Men need not go into strange lands to learn that “the Lord hath made all things beautiful in His time.” Pleasure in the beauty of the world may become a mere lust of the eye, rather than the glow of the soul. An aesthetic taste is not a sanctifying faith. Discerning the beauty crowding earth and heaven, we are to remember that the Lord hath made it. We are to think of Him; see everywhere the signs of His wisdom, the images of His loveliness and tenderness, the outgoing of His glory, the suggestions of His infinity.

II. The orderliness of this beauty. Everything is beautiful in its appointed time. The fulness and harmony of things is largely an element of beauty. The order, the perfect sequence, of nature’s law is as wonderful as the varied beauty of her forms. “Every winter turns to spring.” The seed, the blade, the ear, the full corn in the ear, each has its beauty. There are here in the world’s order and beauty familiar analogies of spiritual things. The complex beauty of a perfected character is not wrought except by preparations and processes. Men come to perfectness in their season. The great Worker works most surely in unbroken order, in grand, calm patience, and brings His work to its perfect issue at the appointed time.

III. The transitoriness of the world’s beauty. All the beauty of outward scene and circumstance is but for a time. This fair world, though it holds us sometimes with the spell of its enchantment, is not our rest; its beauties are flowers upon a pilgrim’s path. We pluck fair flowers, but in a little while, such a little while, the soft petals are worn and crumpled and ready to die[ The worlds and the treasures that are in them God carries in His hand; but those that love Him He carries in His heart--the dear children of His love; and that love is round about them, a light from heaven, fairer and surer than the beauty of the morning. (W. S. Davis.)

Religion and the beautiful

I. There is an essential unity in all forms of the beautiful. It will not do to object to art, to embellishment of dress and furniture, and yet to say that in speech and in manners and in moral elements the beautiful is right. For the beautiful is an element that is meant to go out in every part of the mind, and to lend its light and peculiar influence in every direction in which the mind develops itself. Now it is admitted, the world over, by those who object to art in dress, in furniture, or in the embellishment of grounds, that beauty of speech, and manners, and social and moral elements, is right. Now, why is beauty consistent with self-denial and the example of Christ in these things, and inconsistent with self-denial and the example of Christ in those other things?

II. There is a moral function belonging to the beautiful, which redeems it from the objections which men raise against it. It is true that beauty is employed to build up vice. Did you ever stop to analyze that statement, and see what it meant? The moral function of the beautiful is used to lead men to sin; but this fact reveals the power that is in the beautiful to raise the enjoyment of any faculty on which it is employed from lower to higher forms. Beauty always tends upward. If you introduce it to the thinking power, it draws the intellect upward; if you introduce it to the conscience, it draws the conscience upward; if you introduce it into morals, it elevates those morals; if you introduce it into dress, it refines and lifts it up.

III. If, then, there is a moral function in the beautiful, its full benefit cannot be expected until it develops itself harmoniously in all parts of the mind. It must be applied to the understanding, to the moral faculties, to the social elements, to the animal instincts, and to all the relations of physical life in the family and in society. It is not the beautiful in too great a measure that leads to excess of mischief and selfishness. It is because it is cultivated but partially, or only on one side of the mind, that it produces mischiefs. With this statement of the moral function of the beautiful, I proceed to apply it more particularly to the individual and the household. How can a man consent to indulge in the beautiful while the world is lying in wickedness? I say, the world being in wickedness, I am going to educate myself in beauty, that I may be the better fitted to elevate it out of that wickedness. The beautiful is one of the elements with which I am to familiarize myself, in order that I may the more successfully engage in this work. God educates men for labouring in His kingdom on earth by spreading Out before them the beauties which He has created in the natural world. The beautiful, therefore, may be made a moral instructor, and it may make the soul of man powerful; so that indulgence in it, instead of being selfish, is a part of one’s lawful education. The same argument is applicable to the household. The question arises in the minds of many persons, “How much time ought I to expend for my family, and how much for God?” You split your ship on a rock at the outset, b v putting God in one balance and your family in the other. Your family must never be separated from God. Your idea of religion and of consecration must be such that you shall consider everything that is given to your cradle or to your family as being given to God. Now, how much may a man give to build up a family, and make it powerful for God? If it is necessary that a man’s children should have shoes and clothes, and he gives them to them, he gives them to God. If it is necessary that they should have intelligence, and he sends them to costly schools, he sends them for God’s sake. But remember that you must carry such a heart into this work that every child shall feel that every picture and every book has a moral purpose in it, and realize that there is a life to come, and understand the relations of God’s kingdom on earth to immortality. And then every flower that blossoms will have a meaning. But it is said, “How can you reconcile these indulgences with the example of our Saviour? He did not indulge in the beautiful.” Our Saviour set the example to us of moral qualities, but not of social conditions. He had not a place to lay His head: do you seriously think that it would be best for every man to be a vagabond? Do you think it would be best for civilization that the family should be broken up, and that men should have no property and no regular occupation, in order that they might follow Christ? Still further, it is asked, “How can we imitate Christ in the self-denial which He practised, and yet indulge in the beautiful?” Nowhere else in the world can a man be more self-denying than in taking a nature thoroughly refined and cultured, and with that nature going to the poor and needy. Christ laid aside the glory that He had before the world was, and came upon earth, and lived without it, and ascended, and retook it; and now, having taken it again, He lives to legislate with all this plenitude; and He is self-denying still, making His life a perpetual living for others. If, then, God has endowed any man with wealth, let him use it for himself, for his children, and for his friends, and so use it for the world. If God has given a man power to read literature in every language, let him read it, that he may be the better able to defend the ignorant and instruct them. If God has given a man the element of beauty, let him employ it, not for the sake of self-indulgence, but that he may lift up, and refine, and civilize those that are low, and rude, and gross. In the hands of all who follow these directions, the elements of the beautiful are entirely in consonance with the Divine will. (H. W. Beecher.)

The mission of beauty

Beauty is a term of varied and extensive import. Whatever excites the emotion, be it a statue fresh from the chisel of the sculptor, a flower by the wayside, chronicling some old buried memory, or a glorious sunset among the hills, a speech, a poem, a virtue, a deed or a song, that is beautiful.

I. Beauty and its mission as seen in nature. There is affluence of beauty in the broad, blue heavens and on the green earth; in the stars that look so gently and kindly upon us; in the orchards, groves and forest trees; in the plumage and song of birds; in the modest flower that blooms in the hedge; in the sturdy oak which has wrestled with the storms and the winds of a thousand years; in the tall and stately cedar of Lebanon, in the pendent branches of the willow, sighing like a mourner by the silent stream. There is beauty in the morning dew, shining like diamond points all over field and meadow; in drops of water as they hang like costly pearls on trees and telegraph wires after a refreshing shower. There is beauty in the little rill which bursts away from some sequestered nook in the hillside, like a truant child, and runs--now glancing out in the light and then hiding itself in entangled shrubbery till it seems to find its playfellows in the babbling brook. There is beauty in the majestic river as it rolls, strengthened by innumerable tributaries, proudly into the broad sea. There is beauty in the alternations of day and night, in the still evening, when the shadows deepen over the plain and the veil of mist rises slowly over the valley, and the sombre woods which skirt the distant horizon grow more indistinct, and the sun sinks to rest, leaving the clouds above all aglow with his setting radiance. There is beauty in the seasons; in the spring arrayed in verdure; in the summer teeming with luxuriance; in autumn loaded with golden harvests. And winter, too, has its charms, covering the earth with its robe of purity and adorning the forests with gems of dazzling and enchanting brilliancy. It is no wonder that Solomon, in his wisdom, should have said, “God hath made everything beautiful in His time,” because everything is adapted to some end or use. Nothing is made in vain. Whatever is beautiful in nature has its use, to secure harmony in the great orchestra of all created things, or reflect the superlative glory of the uncreated God.

II. Artificial beauty, or those forms of beauty which may be regarded as copies of nature--the creations of genius and art. These, too, may exalt our conceptions of the Divine Being, as all the beautiful forms from the chisel of the sculptor, from the pencil of the artist, exist as types or models in the great gallery of Nature, of which God is the Author. Art is the shadow of Nature, the photograph of external beauty, the pictured diagrams of a higher and more exalted finish. Art may be the handmaid of religion, an auxiliary to worship. The old Hebrew temple, in its form and finish, in its utensils of gold, in its altars of ivory, in its outer and inner courts, was the very perfection of art, and all was designed as an aid to worship and an emblem of heaven. The magnificent cathedrals of the Old World and the costly pictures with which they are adorned have a higher purpose than simply to attract the vulgar eye or awaken a temporary admiration. They are designed as helps, acting through the senses to lead the worshippers on to a proper conception of that uncreated beauty that dwelleth not in temples built with hands.

III. Intellectual beauty. We speak of the canvas or the sculptured marble as uttering “thoughts that breathe and words that burn”: but when we thus figuratively speak, we speak in praise of the creative mind of the artist and the sculptor. These are only the outward and visible expression of the ideal beauty that was in his own thought. Knowledge, genius, wisdom, taste, whenever, wherever perceived are beautiful. Mind is the measure not only, but the chief attraction either of woman or man. A well-stored, a highly-educated mind is to me the most attractive thing in the universe; and to see such a mind at work solving the problems of science, analyzing the most difficult subjects, charming by its eloquence or song, raising the heavy burdens from the groaning heart of humanity, cannot fail to awaken the highest emotions of admiration and of beauty. God, whose intellect is infinite, and always devising for the good of His creatures, must ever be regarded, when properly perceived, as the most beautiful Being in the universe, shedding His light and beauty over all the works of His hands; and we can offer no more appropriate prayer and join with the psalmist and say, “Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.”

IV. Moral beauty and its mission. Right is always beautiful; truth, honour, integrity are beautiful; magnanimity, justice and benevolence are as really beautiful as the most lovely of material forms. If we contemplate the act of the Good Samaritan dismounting from his beast at the risk of his own life and affording the needed aid to a wounded Jew, we feel in our inmost soul that compassion is beautiful. There is beauty in purity. If the lily bending on its stem is beautiful to the eye, so is purity, of which the lily is a favourite and impressive emblem. In an age of general licentiousness, to see a youthful captive break away from the solicitations of his royal mistress is a spectacle that commands admiration of every mind not absolutely brutalized by lust. Illustrations of moral beauty are not wanting in our age and time. The family united in a loving fellowship, where heart responds in cordial sympathy to heart, is certainly one of the most beautiful sights on earth, and the most impressive type of heaven. Thus the Church, as the Bride of Christ, all-glorious within and without, humble yet active, conservative yet aggressive, clad in the seamless robe of a Redeemer’s righteousness, adorned with all the graces of the Spirit, and charity crowning the whole, is the very climax of beauty, more gorgeous to behold than all the glory and riches of Solomon. Remember the words of our text, “Everything is beautiful in His time”--beautiful, because useful and answering fully the end of its being; and nothing can be more beautiful than woman intellectually and morally educated and working in her sphere for the benefit of her race. This is the highest type and style of beauty, outliving the physical, surpassing that of art, over which death and the grave have no power. Arrayed in this imperishable robe, the spirit only grows younger as the body decays; and when released from the tenement of clay shall ascend to mingle with forms celestial on a mission still, through endless years of beauty and of love. (S. D. Burchard, D. D.)

The Author of beauty

I have no very definite conception of what these words mean. I do not intend to use them for purposes of instruction, but for purposes of suggestion and inspiration. This is poetry. The aim of poetry is to exalt the feelings, to kindle the imagination. A statement not sharply defined to thought may yet by suggestion carry and inspire one more energetically and penetratingly than any clearly defined proposition. This text contains several intimations which may prove valuable to us. “He hath made everything beautiful in its time.” Here is a distinct announcement that beauty is a prime object in this world, and that beauty is very extensively sought by the Creator. He has not only made beautiful objects, but has made everything beautiful in its own time and manner. We must bear in mind that beauty is a distinct appeal to us over and above all the utilities and economies. A world that met all the needs of its creatures and nothing more would be standing proof that those creatures were simply in the animal order. When you build a stall for a horse, you plan for nothing beyond animal needs--warmth, ventilation, food, cleanliness, rest. Any touch of beauty beyond these is for your own eye. If you added beauty for the eye of your horse, you would thereby recognize in him an aesthetic nature like your own. So a world devoted to grey and angular utilities would be proof positive that we were a race of creatures which needed good housing and feeding and nothing more. But what shall we say of that knot of blue violets in the grass? They do not catch the eye of the grazing ox. The dog leaps over them in pursuit of game, or in wanton play. But when you, the Divine child, come, this utterance from the heart of your Father stops you as imperatively as a command. You drop on your knees beside the exquisite token from the heavens, and with full heart and suffused eyes read His loving thought as from an illuminated missal. Something has been said to you from on high that no other eye or ear on earth can interpret. And when you lift up your eyes upon the green and spacious earth, with its endlessly varied beauties of tint and form and grouping, and over all the deep and wide heavens with their unbearable glory of light and their flying cloud-forms or spaces of fadeless blue, the voice that speaks in your heart of hearts is from the depths within to the deeps of God without--deep calling unto deep: “This is my Father’s house, my home, the very gate of heaven.” Beauty in our world--“Everything made beautiful in its season”--is the divine, omnipresent witness that we are something more than physical beings, fit only for a world of stark utilities and necessities; we are the children of the supreme Intelligence and Imagination and Love. We follow Him with clear eye and responsive heart through the heights and depths of His creative work. Not a curve is added to leaf or petal, not a point of gold-dust on an insect’s wing, but is there for your eye and mine, and has answered its purpose when we lift our hearts in grateful recognition “to Him” who is “the eternal fountain and source, of beauty.” Our text declares that “also He hath set the world in their hearts.” I do not care much what the poet’s precise thought is here. I get this impression: We are so vitally joined to the world that it somehow gets immense power over us. It somehow gets in there to some central depths of us, with its overshadowing truths and great, overmastering moods. This is why I believe that it is salutary, actually medicinal, for us to get away from our artificial life as often as possible, and to be alone with the ancient, unperverted powers of the world. I, for one, can testify that no chapters of judgment, no penitential psalms, have ever searched and winnowed my soul like the living, awful presence of the primeval forest. The purity of the vast deep life there, stretched in unaffected sincerity to the heavens; the majesty of the great brotherhood of trees, the tranquillity, the chaste beauty, the solemnity, have enwrapped the soul and penetrated it, till one could only cover the face, as in the Divine presence, and cry, “Unclean, unclean! God be merciful to me, a sinner!” Oh, the awful purity of this great life about us! Crimes and degradation multiply just in proportion as men crowd together and forget the unstained life of the physical world, which, in normal conditions, holds such purifying uplifting influence over us as the life of a mother. The power of Nature has likewise a salutary ministry for us. Have you never felt that it is good for you to have the personal equation reduced to zero?--to have your individuality stripped of all the little conceits, all the factious importance, which by degrees attach to us in our relations to men? You have doubtless felt this wholesome reduction to your original quantity in presence of the power of Nature as nowhere else. We may also well consider how the stability and unchangeableness of Nature hold us to truth. The same great truths from age to age are reiterated in precisely the same terms, until our slow hearts are compelled to learn. When we see men so careful and fearful respecting their little theories and notions one can hardly repress a smile of pity. As if the heavens and the earth were not keeping faith with God, their Creator, and would, sooner or later, bring all our little systems to terms! We make a little scheme of the heavenly bodies, and build a queer little religious doctrine respecting the earth, and read our Bibles and say our prayers accordingly, and fight among ourselves over our petty theory. But the stars hold on their courses; the earth swings in its orbit, turns on its axis. The truth is beaten in and in, age after age, until we get something like a rational astronomy. Then we have to begin to retranslate our Bibles, reconstruct our theologies, and adjust our thinking to the illimitable universe, and enlarge our thoughts of God by the same great measure. The last suggestion of our poet is mystery. “Man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning, even unto the end.” And we praise Him for it! For what could equal the misery of living even for a year in an exhausted world I It would be to mind and soul a strait-jacket and a darkened cell. (J. H. Ecob, D. D.)

All thirsts beautiful in their season

The sentiment of the beautiful is universal. We lavish money, we expend strength, we incur dangers, we submit to inconveniences to gratify it. Now, what is the significance of this? What are the part and power of beauty in human life? Of course, the beautiful--like any other gift of life, like genius or wealth--may be used unspiritually, perverted so as even to minister to sensuousness and sin. In its art-forms no people ever worshipped the beautiful like the Greeks, and few peoples developed greater sensuousness. Every gift is a possibility of corresponding evil; no lights lead astray like lights from heaven. The real question is, whether in the right and purposed use of it, whether as interpreted and used by religious feeling, the beautiful has not a high and potent ministry in life; and whether, therefore, it is not a religious obligation so to use it, to nurture the sense of it, to seek gratifications for it, and to make it a minister of devout thought and feeling. The beautiful is much more than a mere gratification of the senses; although even this were not an unworthy ministry. One of the materialistic theories of our day is, that uses and fitnesses of things are not the result of creative design, but of natural selection, or of practical necessity. Nature produces the eye because man needs to see, and teeth because he needs to eat. But what is the causation of beauty? What principle of natural selection, what necessity of use, produces the plumage of the bird, the pencilling of the leaf? Is not beauty the absolute creation of God, and has it not a special religious ministry? Beauty, if I may reverently say so, is God’s taste, God’s art, God’s manner of workmanship. Beauty is the necessary conception of the Creator’s thought, the necessary product of His hand; variety in beauty is the necessary expression of His infinite mind. It is part of the perfection of God’s works, part of the perfection of God Himself; like truth, like holiness, like beneficence, like graciousness. We infer, therefore, that beauty is part of our human perfection also; that unbeautiful things are defective things. Beauty is not intended to minister to a mere idle sentiment. It is a minister to our moral nature. It is part of our religious culture and responsibility; so far as we can control them, we are as responsible for ideas and things of beauty as for ideas and things of truth and purity. In corroboration of all this we might adduce the recognitions and inculcations of the beautiful which we find in Scripture. Even in the physical beauty of nature the writers of the Bible have a rejoicing appreciation which we find in no other ancient literature. It is not difference of race that accounts for it, it is difference of culture. It is the deeper, more pervading sense of God; it is the religious sentiment of the soul. Unlovely passions, morbid tempers, hard goodness, ascetic forms of religious life, are repugnant to the sentiment of the Bible. In everything it inculcates beauty and joy; so that beauty has a moral basis, moral elements enter into it. How, then, does it minister to goodness in practical life? May not we say that there is a natural congruity between beauty and moral goodness? All sin, all wrong, are unbeautiful, even to the instinctive sense. It is vain to ask why. God has so made us. And because we are so made, vice, wrong, moral pollution, can never be made beautiful, can never satisfy our feeling, produce in us complacency and rest. On the other hand, we are equally constrained to deem all good things beautiful. We may not do them; we may not like them; our evil passion may disparage them; but we are compelled to admire them. The truth of things is too strong for even evil passion. Moral feeling will admire what passion dislikes; the most vicious never call goodness hideous. In this way, then, through the constitution that God has given us, through the moral order that He has established, the beautiful is a minister to goodness; the wrong thing that we do does violence to our sense of the beautiful. And the nearer to perfection men get, the more they are affected by the beautiful. In nature, in art, in poetry, in music, in social surroundings, the man of largest culture has the keenest sense of the beautiful; the man whose sense of God is deepest, whose holiness is highest, whose spiritual sensibilities are keenest, has the greatest appreciation of both physical and moral beauty. Nothing excites so much admiration as noble character, and the virtues that constitute it. It follows that the highest attainment of beauty is possible only to the good. What influence character has upon personal beauty! Mere features do not constitute the beauty of a face. An unbeautiful soul will make the finest face repellent. Beautiful expression irradiates the plainest features, so that the sense of plainness shall be altogether lost. Some faces charm you like a picture, hold you spellbound like a talisman. It is the beautiful soul that irradiates them--the purity, the unselfishness, the nobleness, the love. The artistic sense is overpowered by the instinctive moral admiration. The ministries of beauty are manifold. It ministers to goodness. I could not, I think, so love God if His works were repellent by their ugliness, instead of attractive by their beauty. To how much in both mind and heart they appeal! I yearn for a greater knowledge, a closer communion with Him, who adorns with so much beauty even His lowliest works. The religiousness of the Bible is more to us because of its eloquence and imaginative beauty, its glorious Psalms, its exciting and pathetic histories, its sublime prophecies. How the New Jerusalem fascinates and wins us by its pictured glories! Beauty ministers to love. When I look upon the countenance of wife or child, of friend or even stranger, inspired and made beautiful by some noble sentiment of virtue, piety, personal affection, patriotism, philanthropy, self-sacrifice, how easy it is to excite level Thus beauty is one of the ministries--ordained by God--of religion, virtue, affection, amiability. Beauty, therefore, is to be cultured; as gentleness is, as tenderness is, as unselfishness is. It is a vital part of our being, and cannot be neglected without injury to the rest. Social life is to be filled with amenities; family life is to be made gentle and graceful by courteous manners, by warm sympathies, by varied culture of literature and art, by bright and gladdening pleasures, as well as by rudimentary virtues and pieties. Church life is to be made gracious and joyous, by refined modes of fellowship and service, by culture of worship, and by gentle, loving, helpful charities of feeling and speech. In all relations personal goodness is to be adorned by gracious feeling and by divining love, by “things that are lovely and of good report,” by “the gentleness of Christ”, by “the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit,” by the crowning graces of the beatitudes. In every possible enumeration and array of the beatitudes of a holy life, “the greatest of these is charity.” (H. Allen, D. D.)

The beauty of change and glory of permanence

I prefer the reading of the margin of the R.V.: “He hath made everything beautiful in its time; also He hath set eternity in their heart.”

1. That the world as God has made it, and life as He has ordained it, have the charm of variety. “He hath made everything beautiful in its time.” It is a part of the Divine order of things that there should be seasons; for instance, that there should be seasons of the year. “God made summer,” said the inspired writer, but he also said that “God made winter.” Apart from the latter assurance, some men might have doubted it. Everybody can accept that. God made light. But it required an inspired assurance to convince men that He also “made darkness, and it was night.” Each of these is beautiful in its time; but out of its time it would lose its beauty. You men who go to London find that out in November. You go up in the morning, and at midday you have a night coming on. I have never yet seen a man who has said that anything that brings on night when there should be day is beautiful. In all that there is a sense of incongruity. If there be darkness, let it come at the proper hour: it will then bring soothing and restfulness beneath its sable wings. This teaches us a collateral truth which perhaps we are too apt to overlook. The curse of the world and of life is in its dislocation. Above all, man has lost his position. Now it is wonderful what mischief a little thing can do when it is out of its place. The other day I saw that a beautiful block had been battered. What was the matter? Oh, a little piece of type had been sucked up by the rollers in printing, and drawn to the surface of the block, and the cylinder passed over it, and thus marred its delicate beauty. That bit of type was beautiful in its place. It had a distinct meaning and mission of its own; but once out of its place, it not only lost its own beauty, but marred the beauty of something nobler than itself. If our organist were to play a wrong note, we should all feel it: a cold shudder would go through us. Why? It is true that even that note is in the organ; it has its place in there: but it was not meant to come in just where he in such a case put it; and that would make all the difference between harmony and discord. All the other notes would share its ignominy, and become apparently discordant with it; and even men like myself, who know little or nothing about music, would feel a cold shudder, when we should have felt the glow of response if that note had not come in at the wrong place. Further, the secret of the world’s discords is in its sin. When man sinned, he lost his position; he no longer occupied the place God intended him to occupy; and when he fell from his position, the whole creation fell with him. “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain until now.” What is it waiting for? “For the manifestation of the sons of God.” When man is brought back into his proper place, harmony shall be restored, not before. You see, therefore, the folly of visiting God with rebukes because of the miseries that abound on every hand. God never made these miseries. Everything was beautiful in its time according to the Divine order; but man has leapt out of his place, and when the greatest creature on God’s earth has lost his position, what must follow? Astronomers tell us that if one of those worlds that rush along their orbits were to lose its course, it would go on blundering through space and bringing discord with it wherever it went. Supposing such a world had the volition that man has, and wittingly and persistently departed from the course that God intended for it, and brought discord with it, would you find a difficulty in bringing home to the right quarter the responsibility of that discord?

2. That in the midst of life’s changes God has endued man with eternal attributes and longings. “He hath set eternity in their heart.” When men tell me that man is not immortal by nature, my own nature protests against it. I know that I am to live for ever, for good or ill. There are immortal yearnings in me which tell of powerful affinities for eternity which God has implanted there. It is this consciousness of eternity in man that is the compensating grace for all that would otherwise be distracting and discouraging in change and transiency. But there is also another aspect of this truth.

3. God, in putting eternal yearnings into men’s hearts, has made it impossible for them to satisfy themselves with the joys which this world can supply. (D. Davies.)

He hath set the world in their heart.--

Eternity in man

God has set eternity in the heart of man. This explains--

I. Its sense of the emptiness of all mundane things. No more can the world satisfy what is in man than a dewdrop can quench the burning thirst of a lion. Its unbroken and unsilenceable cry after it has received all the world can give, is, “More, more.”

II. Its consciousness of the unstability of all things connected with our earthly life. The sense of mutation rests constantly and heavily on the soul. But this sense could not exist if there was not something in us that is unchanged and unchanging. As that rock, which lifts its majestic head above the ocean, and alone remains unmoved amidst the restless waves, and the passing fleets, is the only measure to the voyager of all that moves on the great world of waters, so the sense of the immutable, which Heaven has planted in our souls, is the standard by which alone we become conscious of the mutation of our earthly life.

III. Its yearning to look into the invisible. Inquiry into the reason of things is a deep and resistless instinct. In the child it is called curiosity, in the man, the philosophic spirit. But the reason of things is behind this sense, it is in the region of the invisible, and the invisible is the eternal. I see not my soul, and that is eternal, and its inquiries are after the eternal.

IV. Its constant anticipations of the future. Its past is gone, however long and eventful it might have been. Gone as a vision of the night. To the future it looks, onward is its anxious glance. It “never is, but always to be blessed.”

V. Its inexhaustibility by its productions. The more the fruitful tree produces, the less it will produce in the future, and it will at last exhaust itself by its productions. Not so with the soul. The more fruit it yields, the more fecundant it becomes. The more a man thinks, the more capable he is of thinking; the more he loves, the deeper becomes the fountains of affection within him.

VI. Its universal yearning for a God. “Man as a race,” says Liddon, “is like those captains of whom we read, more than once, in history, that once having believed a throne to be within their grasp, they never could settle down again quietly as contented subjects. Man as man has a profound, an ineradicable instinct of his splendid destiny. He knows that the objects which meet his eye, that the average words which fall upon his ear, that the common thoughts and purposes and passions which haunt his heart and his brain, are very far indeed from being adequate to his real capacity.” He wants God, nothing less than God Himself.

VII. Its abiding sense of personal identity. The old man who has passed through a long life of great changes, and whose bodily frame, too, has been several times exchanged, has, notwithstanding, an ineradicable belief that he is the same person as when a boy at school. He has no doubt of it. Bodies may be lost in bodies, but souls never lost in souls. Why this? It is because there is eternity in us. (Homilies.)

Eternity in the heart

“He hath set eternity in their heart.” Then perhaps if we look carefully we may find it. I look into the primitive heart of man, into the childlike and unsophisticated heart. What do I find? Do I find any traces of eternity? I find an instinct, which, being interpreted, seems to say: “I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home.” “Here we have no continuing city; we seek one to come.” “I nightly pitch my moving tent a day’s march nearer home.” In the heart of man, in Christendom and in savagedom, there is an instinct that time is not our home, that here we are only in tents, that here we sojourn, but do not abide, and the instinct is not born of fear nor of selfishness: the explanation is in my text, “God hath set eternity” in our hearts. Have we any further evidences of this implanting of eternity within us? When I go into my heart and listen, I hear a voice saying to me: “This thou must do; this thou must not do.” The voice does not speak in mere suggestion, offering friendly counsel. It speaks like a monarch in tones of command. It tells me that all things are not of one moral colour. Some things are morally black and some morally white, and I have to observe the distinction. Of the black, the voice says: “Thou must not.” Of the white, which it calls the right, the voice says: “Thou must!” I ask my fellow-man if he hears the same voice, and he answers: “Yes, it speaks to me.” I find that the voice speaks in every life. What is the voice? We call it conscience. But conscience has no birth in time. All the temporal explanations which have been attempted are painfully inadequate and futile. “The voice of the Great Eternal speaks in that mighty tone.” That secret voice which speaks to us of the eternal distinction between right and wrong finds its explanation in my text: “God hath set eternity in their hearts.” Can we find any further evidence? Look again into the heart of man. May we not say that in every heart there is a strange feeling after God? I know it may be numbed and blunted, but I don’t think it can be altogether destroyed. Let me try to illustrate this. You know that hydrogen gas is considerably lighter than the atmosphere that is round about us. When you fill a substance with the gas, say the silk that forms a balloon, it seeks to rise above the heavier atmosphere around, just as a cork rises through water and rests upon its surface. The lighter element tugs and tugs, and seeks to get away into the finer and rarer regions above. Well, it seems as though our God had put into the make-up of a human being ethereal elements, spiritual longings and hungers, which seek to rise above the grossness of flesh and Lime, to find their home in purer regions beyond. A light gas must reach an atmosphere of its own rarity before it can be at rest. And these ethereal, spiritual elements within us, these implanted feelings, must rise into their own appropriate atmosphere, into communion with the great Spirit, before they can be at rest. Meanwhile, they tug at us, and we have all felt their tuggings! We have felt some good impulse tugging at us, tugging in the direction of God. When we have been walking with open eyes into gross and deliberate sin, we have felt the tugging of the lighter element within us, the spiritual feeling, seeking to lift us out of our grossness nearer to God. Call it by what name you will, there is something in every heart which makes for God, and will never be satisfied until it gets there. God has put a mouth in our hearts, a spiritual hunger, that He may draw us to seek satisfaction and rest where alone it can be found, in the presence and communion of the Eternal Spirit. “He has put eternity in their heart.” Now what are the consequences of this implanting? If eternity has been set within us as part of our very being, what must surely follow? The Eternal within us seeks the Eternal, and nothing but the Eternal will feed it. That mouth in the heart, that hunger of the spirit, can only be fed with one kind of bread, and that the Bread of Life. Now, what kind of efforts are men making to satisfy the eternity in their heart? Along what particular lines are they searching for bread? There was a book published some three or four years ago of extraordinary literary brilliancy and power. It speedily passed into many editions, it was “most favourably reviewed, and appeared to make a great impression upon all who read it. I want to read you two or three lines from the preface, in which the author sums up the whole burden of the counsel which he desires to give to his countrymen: “Stick to your work, and when your day is done, amuse and refresh yourselves.” And he adds in the next sentence that “this is wholesome doctrine.” Wholesome doctrine! What are its ingredients? Two things--labour and pleasure. Follow those two and you are all right. But what about the eternity in my heart? I am not unmindful that labour is a glorious means of grace. A man can get rid of many a vicious humour by applying himself to work. But work may be altogether atheistic or temporal, and work that is atheistic or altogether temporal will leave a man full of hunger; it will not feed the eternity that God has set in his heart. If our work is to feed the eternity within us, the thought of the Eternal must be in our work. As it is with work so it is with pleasure. Pleasure of itself cannot feed the soul, but gaiety often goes hand in hand with spiritual leanness. If you take a low thought with you, then the pleasure which gratifies your body will starve your soul. But if you take into your pleasure the thought of the Eternal, then your pleasure is transformed into a soul-feeding joy. The thought of the Eternal in your pleasure feeds the eternity in your heart, but without that thought a life of gaiety is a life of emptiness, and will leave you at last with “leanness for your soul,” and with the mouth in your heart still hungering for the bread which has been so long denied. (J. H. Jowett, M. A.)

The world in the soul

I. The world is in every man’s heart as a mental image. The men of the world whom we have known; the villages, towns, cities, which we have visited; the landscapes we have observed--in truth, all outside of us that have ever come under our notice have stamped their image on the heart. The photographs of all are within. Thus we carry within us all those parts and phases of the world that have ever come within the sweep of our observation.

II. The world is in every man’s heart as a necessary influence. So many and so close are the ties with which the Creator has bound us to this world, that it comes into us as a mighty and constantly acting force. There are many affections planted in the heart that must bring the world into it as an active power. There is self-preservation. Our very subsistence so depends upon the cultivation of the fields, the exploration of the minerals, the navigating of the seas, the transactions of the market, and in working, in some way or other, in the outward world, that it necessarily absorbs such an amount of our attention, as to bring it into us as a most powerful force of action. There is social affection. There are boys and girls, men and women, on whom our affections are set--brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, father, mother, friends who are so near to our sympathies, that, without figure, we bring them into us. They live in us, and exert no small amount of influence upon the activities of our life. Had we the philanthropy of Christ, we should bear, as He did, the whole human world upon our hearts. There is the love of beauty. Man’s instinct for the beautiful is deep and strong. This instinct not only brings the world near to him, but into him. The craving of the soul for the beautiful in form and colour and the grand in aspect gives this world, which abounds with the beautiful and sublime, a mighty power in the soul.

III. The world is in every man’s heart as a great reality. The world is to every man according to the state of his soul; great or small, according to his conceptions; overspread with sadness or radiant with joy, according to his feelings; a scene of temptation to contaminate, or of discipline to refine, according to the ruling principles of the heart.

1. The character of the material world is to a man what he makes it. The world of the untutored rustic is very different from that of the man of science. What has made the difference--the difference in the state of intellect? The man of science has read and thought and investigated; and as he has done so, the world has grown in magnitude--m splendour, and in interest. Moreover, what a difference there is between the world of a cheerful and that of a gloomy man!

2. The character of the human world is to man what he makes of it. To the selfish all men are selfish; to the dishonest all men are dishonest; to the false all men are false; to the generous all men are generous.

3. The character of the God of the world is to man what he makes it. Polytheism is not confined to heathen lands where idols are made and worshipped. There is a certain kind of polytheism everywhere. The God the man worships is the God he has imaged to himself, and men have different images, according to the state of their own hearts. Hence, even in Christian theology, what different views we have of God! All go to the New Testament for arguments to support their views, and they succeed in getting them, for we can get from that Holy Book what we bring to it. Thus, even the God of the world is according to our hearts. “To the pure Thou wilt show Thyself pure; and with the froward Thou wilt show Thyself froward.”

Lessons:--

1. The greatness of the human soul. It has the capacity to receive, retain, reflect all outward things.

2. The duty of mental modesty. No man has absolute truths in him. All that he has are opinions formed by himself concerning those truths.

3. The necessity of soul culture. If you want a bright and lovely world--a world that you will enjoy as a paradise, you must endeavour to make the heart right.

4. The nature of the millennial glory. Change the world’s heart, fill it with truth, and love, and God, and it will have a new heaven and new earth--a new universe to live in.

5. The need of Divine influence. Who shall make these hearts right? Who shall repair and clean this beclouded mirror? Ah, who? We cannot do it ourselves. Nor can our fellow-men do it for us. This is God’s work. It is He who gives a new heart and a new spirit, and with that a new universe. (Homilist.)

Eternity

The difference between the splendid world of vegetation, with its myriad colours and its ever-changing life; between the animal world, with its studied gradations of form and of development--and man, is this: God hath set eternity in our hearts. All creation around us is satisfied with its sustenance, we alone have a thirst and a hunger for which the circumstances of our life have no meat and drink. In the burning noonday of life’s labour man sits--as the Son of Man once sat--by well-sides weary, and while others can slake their thirst with that, he needs a living water; while others go into cities to buy meat, he has need of and finds a sustenance that they know net of. Is not the strange, sad contrast, which is brought out before us here, true? Is not man a striking anomaly? He dwells amid the finite; he longs for the infinite. All the rest of creation can find enough to satisfy its wants--he cannot. He is like the bird that wings its way over the surging waters, seeking rest, and finding none, while the coarser thing can satisfy itself on the floating garbage. The truer and the nobler man is, the more certainly he feels all this, the more keenly he realizes eternity in his heart. There is none of us, however, who do not feel it sometimes. As you gaze on some setting sun, and its burning rays of gold seem to you like the very light of heaven across the glowing binges of her closing doors--as you stand amid some mountain solitude that rises like heaven’s ramparts against the sounds and strifes of earth--as some note of music seems “to come from the soul of the organ and enter into thine”--as some deep sorrow, or some deeper joy falls upon your life--in these, or other kindred experiences, the eternity which God has set in your heart will assert itself; you will feel in your soul the thirst of a life which cannot be satisfied, and which cannot end here. And why? Because God hath set eternity in our hearts. He has given us a hunger which can he satisfied only with the Bread of Life, a thirst which can be quenched only by the living water from the Rock of Ages. Well, granting the universal desire; granting the universal capacity; granting the almost universal conviction that there is such a life, may we not be deceived? That is the triumphant answer of some philosophers. Deceived! By whom? It is God who hath set eternity in our hearts. Do you mean we have been deceived by Him? Are, we, then, to believe that God sent the noblest, purest, best Teacher that ever visited this earth, and gave Him the moral illumination and power to dispel a thousand errors, and explode a hundred fallacies which ignorance had invented or superstition had nurtured, but left Him so ignorant upon this point--the one universal error--that it was the supreme sustenance of His own life and the very lever by which He did raise the world? Can you believe that? All that is best, truest, noblest in your souls rebels against the thought. O God, we trust Thee! We bow our heads before Thee in reverence for even daring to speak of it. We trust the word of Thy Incarnate Son! O Christ, we know Thy words were true when Thou saidst:--“If it were not so I would have told you.” Thou didst not tell us, and it is true! God hath set eternity in our hearts. Are we living worthy of it? Are we living as if we really believed it? The only way of doing so is by clinging close to Him, by dying with Him to all that He died to save us from, and living worthy of that life and immortality which He hath brought from out of the mists of speculation into the light of truth by His Gospel. Instead of the “perhaps” of philosophic speculation, we have, thank God, the “Credo” of Christianity. (T. T. Shore, M. A.)

The hope of immortality

1. Let us first take this text as it is given in our old Bible--“He hath set the world in their heart.” That is, the Creator hath set the world in the hearts of the children of men. This correspondence between the world without and the mind within is one of the most striking evidences of wisdom and the beneficence of the Creator. You see it in those outworks of the mind--those five senses. Between them and the qualities of the world outside there is a correspondence on which all the activity and movement of life depend. All the senses are inlets by which the forms and the glory of the world pass inwards to be set in the heart of man. But it is when you go a little further into the mind itself that you fully see the beneficence of the Creator. Take, for instance, what seems to be referred to in this verse--the sense of beauty in the mind. Beauty exists in the world in a thousand forms--in the lines of light, in the currents of the wind, in the circle of the moon and of the sun, in the forms of leaves and plants; and so on. But what would it all be if there were not in the mind a sense of beauty corresponding to it? Do you remember that ancient fancy of Plato that all knowledge is reminiscence--i.e. when the shapes of things present themselves to the senses they do not so much convey knowledge into the mind as wake up knowledge that is dormant in the mind. Have you not noticed when you looked for the first time on some glorious landscape that you felt as if you had known it all your life? So when you have met for the first time a fine specimen of human nature you had the impression that you had always been waiting for it. Why was it that Shakespeare, without any classical culture, was able with his Roman play to enter into the very spirit of the ancient world and in all his works to anticipate forms of society and describe how all possible forms of character would act in all possible circumstances? Was it not because, as another great poet has said, “when he came into the world he brought all the world with him”? Or, to put it in other words, God has set the world in his heart.

2. Secondly, let us take this text as it occurs in the margin of the R.V.

“He hath set eternity in their heart.” What is the meaning of that? Perhaps the meaning is suggested by the words which immediately follow--“Man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end.” Great as is the satisfaction which the beautiful world gives to the mind of man, it is not a complete satisfaction; the questions of the mind are never all answered; the desires of the heart are never all satisfied. It is vaguely the Divine--something above the world, which you would fain be at. Many as are the things in the mind which find their corresponding satisfaction in the world, there is in the mind something deeper which reacheth forth to something above the world--to the Divine, the Infinite, and the Eternal. The whole Book of Ecclesiastes, from which this text is taken, may be said to consist of variations on this theme. It is a description of a splendid nature determined to find out all that the world contains for it, and to tear out of it its secret. From every one of his quests Solomon returned with the same verdict on his lips--“All is vanity and vexation of spirit.” And that, in every age, has been the verdict of every living soul that has sought its satisfaction in earthly things. It was the verdict of St. Francis that spring morning when he stood at the gate of Assisi, and looked down upon the smiling plain of Umbria, and yet felt in his own heart nothing but dust and ashes. It was the verdict of St. Augustine when, having lost a dearly-loved friend, he wept, and thought he would “give up the ghost,” and could no longer live in the town from which his friend had been taken away. He had tried friendship, learning, ambition, and honour; he had tried sensual gratification, and yet his heart was sick, unsatisfied, and broken. Yes, but the deep, searching mind of St. Augustine found out exactly what was the reason of his dissatisfaction, and expressed it in that immortal sentence which occurs in the first paragraph of his “Confessions,” “Thou hast made each heart for Thyself, and it finds no rest until it rests in Thee.” Blessed are they that discover that this is the reason of their disappointment and dissatisfaction.

3. Thirdly, there is one meaning that may be put on the words, “He hath set eternity in their heart”: and it is a very natural meaning--that the Creator has set in the human heart the hope and the desire of immortality. The Creator has put into us a conscience by which we judge the world round about us, but this conscience is very little satisfied with the world as it sees it. The conscience anticipates that in the world the righteous will always be prosperous and the unrighteous confounded. But how little that is the aspect of the world as at present constituted,--on every road the righteous man is bearing his cross amidst persecution and contempt, and the unrighteous lifts high his head while others bend before him. Therefore, the conscience anticipates another state of things where these difficulties will be redressed, where the righteous will be exalted, and where the unrighteous will be humbled. But this is only one of the pathways by which the mind arises to the idea of immortality. There are many others; in short, the Creator has set in the heart of man the desire and hope of immortality, and He has set it very deep. Now it can surely be shown that at a certain state of development the hope of immortality appears; and not only so, but that where this hope appears there sets in a new axis of development. When man realizes that he has before him not one life, but two, that he is not only the child of time, but the heir of eternity, he shoots up in moral stature, and a new dignity overspreads his existence. On the other hand, when, after being there, the hope of immortality perishes, it is as if there were extracted from the atmosphere a health-giving element, so that man becomes small and miserable. The late Professor Romanes, even before he became a Christian, confessed that the disappearance in his mind of the hope of immortality was like the disappearance of the sun from the firmament. It may be argued, indeed, that neither the universality of this belief, nor even of its exalting character, is any conclusive evidence that there actually is a future world corresponding to our desires; and that is quite proved if you take an atheistic view of the world. But if you take a theistic view of the world, I think the existence of the desire is evidence that it will be satisfied. God will not deceive His creatures. When the bird of passage, obeying the instinct which God has set in its heart, spreads its wings for the South, its Creator does not deceive it; there are sunny landscapes awaiting it where it goes. And do you think that, when the human spirit, rising out of selfishness and passion, spreads its wings for an immortal home, there is no paradise there to receive it? (J. Stalker, D. D.)

Eternity in man’s heart

I. We cannot persuade ourselves that this present state of things is all with which we have to do, for God hath set eternity in our heart. We are lost in the thought of the duration, the magnitude, the grandeur of the material universe. Surely one might say: “We have enough here to occupy and satisfy us”: and yet something within us declares, “This is not all. This is but the outward form; we want the real substance of which all this is but the shadow or the picture. This universe is passing and transient; we seek the permanent and eternal. These things, all of them, are but effects; our mind must, by the very law of its being, press on and up, and cannot rest content till a sufficient cause is found to account for them all.” The eternal past and the eternal future are written deeply on the heart. We look back on the past, and we try to trace the long chain of events up to an eternal Creator. The soul looks on to the future, and, at that great Creator’s side, it sees itself passing unhurt through “The wreck of ages and the crash of worlds,” immortal as its Sire. One of the most valuable manuscripts of the New Testament, known to scholars as MS.C., is a palimpsest. The writing of the sacred text had grown dim or been carelessly washed away, and over it--for parchments were precious in those days--the works of some Syrian saint had been written. The old letters, however, had not been utterly obliterated; they began to peep through, and, by some chemical process, they were again made legible, and have been carefully deciphered. Eternity is written on our hearts by the finger of God; we cannot blot it utterly out. We try to cover it up; but the old writing ever and anon peeps through and takes us by surprise. I hold in my hand the thread with which to weave my life and destiny; but that thread comes to me out of the past and reaches far beyond me into the future. My life is short; but all eternity has been preparing for it, and it is meant to be a preparation for eternity to come. I am the lord of the world, and yet I feel there is One over me, a great eternal Person, from whom I come and to whom I go. Thus, in the midst of the order and beauty of the universe, man stands expectant, as some one puts it, like Elijah at Horeb, waiting for the still, small voice which will reveal the unseen and eternal. Conscience, reason, and heart are all athirst for God, the living God.

II. We cannot rest content with this world, for god has set eternity in our hearts, You tried to fill your heart and gain content by thinking of the money you had saved, of the pleasures with which your path of life was strewn, of your happy home and loving friends; but it was not satisfied. Doubts, fears, anxious questionings rose up ever and anon, and cast their dark shadow over you. You knew that all these things were transient and uncertain; and even while they lasted they did not fit into your desires and cravings at every point; they gave you much enjoyment, but not a settled peace. When you dared to think you looked forward with dread to loneliness and death and judgment. Eternity was in your heart, and time could not satisfy you. But there came a change. God had mercy on you. He wakened you thoroughly; He brought you to your right mind. Into the sanctuary of your spirit, where eternity is written, you entered reverently, and God was there. He spoke to you by His Word--that Word you had often read so carelessly; and you answered Him in prayer, in confession of sin, in supplication for mercy. Pardon was granted you in Jesus Christ; God’s favour was assured you; the earnest of the spirit was given you--eternal life was yours. As you passed out into the common walks and work of life all things seemed new. The world was brighter than it used to be, and yet smaller and more insignificant. Peace was yours, and sweet content. A fountain of joy and hope was welling up within you, which no loss or trial could dry up.

III. We need not despair about humanity, since God has set eternity in man’s heart. Human nature is no sphinx; it is not a deception and a snare. The eye is made for light; and as it opens, lo! the light surrounds it. The appetite craves appropriate food, and, lo! corn appears on the world with man, and will grow wherever he can live. We seek companionship and love; we cannot help it; and, behold! the first thing the little child sees, as it begins to notice, is the lamp of love, held up to lighten his path through a dark and dangerous world. This longing after God and eternity--is there nothing provided to correspond to it? Surely God has not put eternity in man’s heart simply to make him unhappy. Whence have I come? Why am I here? Whither am I going? Who is above me? How can I please Him? These questions press upon me. Surely an answer will be provided to them by that God whose I am, and by whom eternity has been set in my heart. At every point the revelation of God answers these desires and questionings. We feel there must be, behind the seen and temporal, another more enduring world; and as we turn to St. John

1. we hear that a Visitor has come from it, His mission authenticated by miracles, to bring us the very knowledge that we seek. “The life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness.” “This, then, is the message that we have heard of Him, and declare unto you--that God is light.” “And these things write we unto you that your joy may be full.” We feel the world is not eternal; there must be some one, eternal and almighty, somewhere, to account for its existence; and the same apostle points to this very Being who came to teach and help us, and declares that “all things were made by Him.” He is the Son of God, Divine, eternal, “the effulgence of God’s glory and the very image of His substance” (Hebrews 1:3). We want to look into the eternal future, and to know what is in store for us, and, lo! each path of life is seen running to the judgment-seat; but, at that point, the paths divide--some pass downwards into the abode of darkness and woe eternal, where sin, and the misery sin brings, reign supreme; and others pass upwards to the sweet and holy heaven, where 144,000, clad in white robes, follow the Lamb, and serve God day and night for evermore. The most practical question comes last, and is not left unanswered: “How am I to prepare for eternity, so as to escape the woe and share the glory?” It is to answer that question, more than any other, the revelation of God is given. Christ, the Son of God, the Maker of the worlds, took up His people’s burden, and bore it to the death; through His sacrifice, which God has accepted, there is life and peace for me. Christ stands out, and says: “I am the Way.” He unbinds our chains; He gives pardon, purity, and peace. I have only to come to Him, to trust Him, to follow Him, and in Him eternal life is mine. (W. Park, M. A.)

Eternity in the heart

What meaning, what dignity, what surpassing hope and fear should lie in this--that God hath set eternity in your heart!

I. It ought to calm you. Recall the days of the past week--its toils, anxieties and cares, vexations and disappointments--how did you bear yourself with them? Were you despondent, did you lose self-control, did your blood boil to fever-heat, and were you rebellious? Do you think that such would have been the manner of your lille if you had turned your eyes inwardly, and quietly faced that Guest with the unfathomable eyes and awe-inspiring grace--Eternity? Get more intercourse with that awful yet august Guest in your soul--Eternity--it will keep you calm in hours when you would be otherwise grasping at the bolts of Jove.

II. It ought to inspire you. What an impression it should make on mind and heart, when we express in words the destiny which belongs to us all, “I am to live for ever!” The realization of this tremendous thought should give amplitude, probity, strength, and gentleness to our lives--liberate them from ascendancy of petty aims and the discomposedness of trifling worries--expose the immeasurable folly of letting ourselves drift under impulses of irresponsible opinion and unregulated passion; relax the destructive pressure of materialistic thought and secularistic care, and fasten us indissolubly to Him, whose fortress shall survive the crash of worlds, and whose glory shall be the inconceivable felicity of the faithful and triumphant.

III. It ought to ennoble you. Man is, let us say, made up of body and spirit. But there are persons who live in the body only; they do not live in the spirit, and, according to the Bible, that is not living, it is death. Man cannot live with any nobleness unless those high energies are at work whose impetus is originated by the presence in his heart of eternity. (D. B. Williams.)

Noble discontent

I. The reason of man’s discontent. Discontent is an unnatural, strange thing, in a world full to overflowing, as this earth is, of wonders, beauties, and all good things, and with natures fitted as ours are, to our condition in such marvellous wise. Yet has there ever lived a man without deep, serious, frequent discontent? The sensual and frivolous are, probably, supremely satisfied so long as they can turn at their will from one excitement to another; but it is otherwise with all who think, and inquire, and feel the mysteries in which all their questionings end. All allow that the pleasures of mind and soul are loftier and nobler than the pleasures of sense; yet, in the degree in which a man shares them he shares discontent, hankers after something he cannot find: he knows too much for his peace. It is not mere eternity which thoughtful man desires, not even the perpetuity of things as they are; but eternal life worthy of the noble name, and in harmony with his highest nature, in which the good he aspires after shall be attained, and the evil he deplores be removed, and the unseen God be beheld with joy, and served with undecaying energies.

II. The mercy of man’s discontent. Is it a paradox to say that we are better for having these unsatisfied cravings? that to be without them would be to sink in the level of creation? Picture some tropical forest, where vegetable and animal life luxuriate to the full, and where the swarms exuberant with life know no discontent. Would you give up your high though unsatisfied yearnings for bright but unreasoning life like theirs? Or, when, in spring, you wander through the fields, burdened with cares, and doubts, and fears about the future, while the birds, in utter freedom from care, are filling the air with song, would you change with them, and part with your hopes of an endless life, your longings for the Father in heaven? Or, if, with unsatisfied desires of this noble kind, you meet with one who cares for nothing higher than the worldly wealth, and ease, and pleasure he enjoys, would you change your noble discontent for his ignoble content with “what perishes in the using”? Remember two things. Our discontent should be of this noble sort--aspiration after worthier, divine life, truth, purity, goodness, God; not, as often, base craving for money, ease, repute; and our longings, being a mercy, a dignity, should be cherished and cultivated. We must let the eternity we crave have its due, and live by faith in the unseen.

III. The remedy for man’s discontent. We cannot get rid of it till we reach eternity; but it need not remain a painful mystery. Christ has come, and shown us God and immortality; He bids us move cheerfully towards the Father’s house, and pursue “the crown of life.” And looking on the things unseen and eternal, and pursuing them with faith, and hope, and patience, and courage, our discontent will be forgotten, first in effort, then in victory. (T. M. Herbert, M. A.)

Eternity in the heart

I. Eternity is set in every human heart. The expression may be either a declaration of the actual immortality of the soul, or it may mean, an I rather suppose it to do, the consciousness of eternity which is part of human nature. The former idea is no doubt closely connected with the latter, and would here yield an appropriate sense. “In our embers is something that doth live.” Whatsoever befalls the hairs that get grey and thin, and the hands that become wrinkled and palsied, and the heart that is worn out by much beating, and the blood that clogs and clots at last, and the filmy eye, and all the corruptible frame; yet, as the heathen said, “I shall not all die,” but deep within this transient clay-house, that must crack and fall and be resolved into the elements out of which it was built up, there dwells an immortal guest, an undying personal self. In the heart, the inmost spiritual being of every man, eternity, in this sense of the word, does dwell. But, probably, the other interpretation of these words is the truer,--that the Preacher is here asserting, not that the heart or spirit is immortal, but that, whether it is or no, in the heart is planted the thought, the consciousness of eternity--and the longing after it. The little child taught by some grandmother Lois, in a cottage, knows what she means when she tells him “you will live for ever,” though both scholar and teacher would be puzzled to put it into other words. When we say eternity flows round this bank and shoal of time--men know what we mean. Heart answers to heart--and in each heart lies that solemn thought--for ever! That eternity which is set in our hearts is not merely the thought of ever-during Being, or of an everlasting order of things to which we are in some way related. But there are connected with it other ideas besides those of mere duration. Men know what perfection means. They understand the meaning of perfect goodness; they have the notion of infinite wisdom and boundless love. These thoughts are the material of all poetry, the thread from which the imagination creates all her wondrous tapestries. By the make of our Spirits, by the possibilities that dawn dim before us, by the thoughts “whose very sweetness yieldeth proof that they were born for immortality,”--by all these and a thousand other signs and facts in every human life we say--“God has set eternity in their hearts!”

II. The disproportionate between this our nature and the world in which we dwell. Every other creature presents the most accurate correspondence between nature and circumstances, powers and occupations. Man alone is like some poor land-bird blown out to sea and floating half-drowned with clinging plumage on an ocean where the dove “finds no rest for the sole of her foot,” or like some creature that loves to glance in the sunlight but is plunged into the deepest recesses of a dark mine. In the midst of a universe marked by the nicest adaptations of creatures to their habitation, man alone, the head of them all, presents the unheard-of anomaly that he is surrounded by conditions which do not fit his whole nature, which are not adequate for all his powers, on which he cannot feed and nurture his whole being. Is this present life enough for you? Sometimes you fancy it is. “This world not enough for me!” you say--“yes! it is, only let me get a little more of it, and keep what I get, and I shall be all right.” So then--“a little more” is wanted, is it? And that “little more” will always be wanted, and besides it, the guarantee of permanence will always be wanted, and failing these, there will ever be a hunger that nothing can fill which belongs to earth. A great botanist made what he called “a floral clock” to mark the hour of the day by the opening and closing of flowers. It was a graceful and yet a pathetic thought. One after another they spread their petals, and their varying colours glow in the light. But one after another they wearily shut their cups, and the night falls, and the latest of them folds itself together and all are hidden away in the dark. So our joys and treasures--were they sufficient did they last, cannot last. After a summer’s day comes a summer’s night, and after a brief space of them comes winter, when all are killed and the leafless trees stand silent.

III. The possible satisfying of our souls. The Preacher in his day learned that it was possible to satisfy the hunger for eternity which had once seemed to him a questionable blessing. Standing at the centre, he saw order instead of chaos, and when he bad come back, after all his search, to the old simple faith of peasants and children in Judah, to fear God and keep His commandments, he understood why God had set eternity in man’s heart, and then flung him out, as if in mockery, amidst the stormy waves of the changeful ocean of time. And we, who have a further word from God, may have a fuller and yet more blessed conviction, built upon our own happy experience, if we choose, that it is possible for us to have that deep thirst slaked, that longing appeased. We have Christ to trust to and to love. As in mysterious and transcendent union the Divine takes into itself the human in that person of Jesus, and Eternity is blended with Time; we, trusting Him and yielding our hearts to Him, receive into our poor lives an incorruptible seed, and for us the soul-satisfying realities that abide for ever mingle with and are reached through the shadows that pass away. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)

The child of eternity

Here, indeed, is a bit of revelation. This man sees, at this instant, the real reason of the unrest of humanity, the real reason of the endless strife, the unquenchable thirst, the unsatisfied endeavours of himself and his fellow-men. “Do you know,” says the great French preacher Lamennais, “what it is that makes man the most suffering of creatures? It is that he has one foot in the finite and the other in the infinite, and that he is torn asunder, not by four horses, as in the terrible old times, but between two worlds.” If the Infinite God, the Creator, is a Personality, His children, who derive their personality from Him, must be sharers of His infinite attributes, and must, therefore, have wants, wishes, hopes, aspirations, needs which are limitless. If man possesses such a nature as this, whose capacities are simply boundless, if God hath set eternity in his heart, his conduct here on the earth will give some indication of this momentous fact. Perhaps the great phenomenon of human progress is one sign of it. The race appears to be always going forward. The further the race goes in the path of spiritual and moral attainment, the larger is the prospect and the promise of future growth. To the other animals no such progress seems to be possible. The writer of Ecclesiastes argues that man is no better than the beasts; he could scarcely have noted the capacity for progress which man possesses in such a marked degree, and which the beasts do not possess. Here is a sign of that divine endowment which we are considering. Viewed on its intellectual and spiritual side, the human race gives no hint of a term of existence. If anything is clear in the study of moral forces it is that the life of the spirit is steadily progressive. Stagnation and decay may indeed overtake tribes and peoples, but only when they forsake the ideals of humanity and turn aside to the worship of that which is beneath them. And the destruction visited upon these will show at length to the blundering generations the way of life. The race profits by the retributions of nations and people who persist in disobeying the organic law of humanity. It is a costly kind of tuition, but it seems to be the only effectual kind. Under its instruction the race seems to be slowly learning the way of life. And the evidence is strong that that way is an upward way. The case is clearer when we study the development of the individual soul. Here there is no sign of a term. In knowledge, for example, in mental power, is there any such thing as a fixed limit? Is not every advance in knowledge accompanied, not only by an increase in the power of knowing, but also by an increase in the desire to know? Even more obvious is man’s kinship with the infinite when we consider his moral and spiritual nature. Here, surely, are possibilities that are boundless. The ideals which present themselves to human thought are not subject to quantitative measurement. Limit there is none; to think of one would be immoral. “Be ye, therefore, perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” That is the lowest standard that any man can fix. He will fall far short of it, but he can aim at nothing lower. And not only is this divine endowment seen in the boundless possibilities of good which open before the heroic and aspiring soul, it is seen not less in the perversions of character with which we are too familiar. Ponder the story of human ambition as it is outlined in such a life as that of Xerxes, or Alexander, or Napoleon, as it is displayed in such stupendous monuments of egoism as Babylon or Nineveh must have been, as the Pyramids of Egypt exhibit to us until this day. It is not toward royal palaces or mortuary piles that the insatiable spirit of man is directed in this age so much as toward bank accounts and accumulations of capital. The growth of a plutocracy in this democratic age--what a spectacle it is! How do you explain this towering greed which heaps millions on millions, which compasses land and sea to add to accumulations that can never be used? A friend of mine who is prospering, so far as this world’s goods are concerned, but who is freely using his gains in what he esteems to be humane and helpful ministries, and who is fully resolved not to die a rich man, told me not long ago that for several months he had lost no opportunity of inquiring of men whom he met who were getting rich rapidly why they were doing it. “What is your reason for heaping up money?” he asks them. “What do you want so much for?” “And I tell you the truth,” he said to me, “when I say that not one of them gave me an answer that was really intelligible; not one gave an explanation that I could feel satisfied his own reason. Most of them had something to say about their families; but when I pushed the question whether they thought it really a good thing for children to leave them large amounts of wealth, they could never answer confidently. It was perfectly evident to me, in every case, that these men were driven on by an unreasoning craving, a kind of craze, that they wanted it, mainly, just for the sake of having it. And I found it very difficult to make most of them think that anybody could be actuated by any other motive. When I said to them, ‘I am not in business simply or mainly for the sake of making money; if there was nothing in it but just piling one dollar on top of another it would have no interest for me,’ they looked at me in blank amazement.” To my mind we have here an appalling example of the perversions of the highest powers. What makes men capable of this limitless ambition and greed is the endowment which they have received as the children of God. It is because “He hath set eternity in their hearts” that they have the power to compass the world in their insatiable desires. And yet how manifestly this is a case of perversion! It is the direction of infinite powers to finite ends. And the restlessness and misery of the world are largely due to this one fact: that men into whose hearts God has set eternity are striving to fill themselves with the gains of time. For this immortal hunger there is a satisfying portion even here. For God is in His world, my friends; He is always here; He is the one ever-present, inescapable Fact, the foundation of every reality with which we deal. How does He reveal Himself? One may find many answers, all inadequate, for He whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain cannot be expressed in any phrase that we can fashion. But we may say that we know Him in this world as Truth and Beauty and Love. And the soul that delights in truth, that rejoices in beauty, that lives for love, has entered into life. For the eternity that is in our hearts this is the provision. These are the elements of that knowledge of God with which Jesus seeks to lead those who will follow Him. This is what He is pointing to when He says, “He that drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst, but it shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (W. Gladden, D. D.)

No man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.--

The Divine Worker and the human student

I. God is ever working.

1. In nature. That same power which created our world with all its variety of life and phenomena is constantly exerted in sustaining and governing the same; that same hand which first marshalled the hosts of heaven is ever engaged preserving the regularity of their movements in their vast orbits.

2. In providence. In the raising up and the removal of the wise and great, in the rise and fall of empires, we see His agency originating, or guiding, or overruling events.

3. In redemption. “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.” By His Holy Spirit, and by various Christian ministries, He is ever working for the salvation of men from sin.

II. Man is engaged in endeavouring to understand the work of god. He seeks to “find out the work that God maketh.” Man is inquisitive as to God’s work in the physical creation; the astronomer, the geologist, the naturalist, the physiologist, and others endeavour to penetrate into the mystery of the Divine work in the material realms. The psychologist seeks to “understand the work that God maketh” in the realm of mind and heart. Man also scrutinizes the work of God in providence and in redemption. This is right. Reverently prosecuted, this study, of “the work that God maketh” is most quickening, inspiring, and saving m its influence on the student.

III. Man is unable to understand fully the work of god.

1. Man can understand the work of God in part. He can “find out”--

2. Man cannot understand the work of God fully. This is true as regards the material realm Every part of nature still has her mysteries to man. Nor are we able to understand fully God’s work in providence. There are chapters in the history of the human race which are inscrutable enigmas to us when we consider them in relation to His control of human affairs. Even in our own lives there are painful mysteries, e.g. privations, bereavements, afflictions, etc. Our very being is a mystery to us. We cannot understand much; we are speedily bewildered with difficulties, and troubled with what are to us dark and sad anomalies; but let us rejoice in the fact that God “maketh everything beautiful in its time”: the deformity, and sin, and sorrow are not of His making. Let us rejoice, too, that He will work on until order is developed out of the moral chaos of this world, and the sin-cursed earth blossoms into an Eden of unfading beauty. (W. Jones.)

Verse 11

Ecclesiastes 3:11

He hath made everything beautiful in His time.

Beauty

How rich are the traits and manifestations of man’s creative genius! Think of the vast number and diversity of gorgeous and attractive forms, with which descriptive and imaginative talent has enriched the literature of all ages. And the fruits of mental toil in all times, from the rude lyric of the savage to the rounded and polished productions of the most advanced culture, how redolent of beauty,--how thickly studded with gems of the purest lustre and transcending magnificence! Art, too, how endlessly varied in its embodiments of all that is fair, and grand, and glorious! How numberless, also, are the combinations of blended or interchanging majesty and beauty which rise and are yet to rise in the simple and the complex, the lowly and the lofty forms of architecture--in column, tower, and dome--in cottage, temple, and cathedral! But whence this power in man? What are his creations but copies of the thoughts of God? That they are nothing else is implied in the fundamental canons of literature, art, and taste. Truth to nature is the sole test of beauty. Do we admire the partial copies that man has made? Do we bow down to the genius that can see and hear a little portion of the Divine idea? Shall not, then, our thoughts go up with unspeakably loftier reverence and more fervent adoration to Him who “has made everything beautiful”? Reflect for a moment on beauty as an attribute of the Supreme Intelligence. Reflect on God as the Originator of all that delights the eye and charms the fancy. What an inconceivable wealth of beauty must reside in the mind, which, without a copy, first called forth these numberless hues and shades that relieve each other and melt into each other in the vast whole of nature,--which devised these countless forms of vegetable life, from the wayside flower that blooms to-day and withers to-morrow, to the forest giant that outlasts the rise and fall of nations and of empires,--which meted out the heavens, measured the courses and arranged the harmonies of the stars, spread the ocean, poured the river, torrent, and waterfall! What an infinity of resources do we behold in the alternate phases of the outward universe, each of which seems too beautiful to be replaced by one of equal loveliness, and yet yields at once its fancied pre-eminence to its successor! The depths of the Divine Intelligence we indeed cannot fathom; but there are some views of practical interest to be derived from these thoughts.

1. First, they suggest one mode of worship, which must always make us better,--that of the devout contemplation of the visible works of God. “To enjoy is to adore.” There can be no full and true enjoyment of nature, except by those who see the hand and hear the voice of the Eternal in His works. To enter into the heart of nature is to talk face to face with its Author.

2. The thoughts which I have suggested lend, also, a motive to our conversance with the monuments of human art, taste, and genius. The genuine poet or artist stands between us and God’s world of beauty, in the same relation in which the seer or the evangelist stands between us and his realm of truth. But most of all does the devout mind love to commune with truth and beauty in those forms of literature, in which they have been blended by Divine inspiration. It finds no poetry so sublime as that of psalmist, prophet, and apostle,--that which connects the image of the heavenly Shepherd with the green pastures and still waters, draws lessons of a paternal Providence from the courses of Orion and Arcturus, names for the rain and for the drops of dew their Father, and resorts to every kingdom of nature, and gathers in materials from every portion of the visible universe, to portray the New Jerusalem, the golden city of our God, the gates within which the sun goes not down, for “the glory of God doth lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.”

3. Again, beauty, though distinct from love, is the minister of love. Its every ray is edged and fringed with mercy. Its every form bears the inscription, “God is love.” When it beams upon us from the heavens, it reveals His benignity. When it glows on the earth, or gleams from the ocean, it reflects His smile. When it stretches its many-coloured bow on the cloud or the waterfall, it utters His thoughts of peace. Have not all these scenes a voice of tender sympathy and consolation for the grief-stricken? In a world thus full of beauty, thus suffused by the smile of the Universal Father, there can be no sorrow sent as sorrow. It can be only those whom God loves that he chastens. Not to blight the harvest of human hope and joy, but to bring forth in fresh luxuriance every plant of our Heavenly Father’s planting, do the rains descend and the floods come upon the afflicted heart. Not to destroy or hopelessly bow down the soul, but to dispel the suffocating mist of worldliness, to open a clearer, higher range of vision for the inward eye, to make the upper heavens look serene and beautiful, falls the bolt that sends alarm and agony to our homes and hearts. Let us, then, in our sorrows, welcome the revelation of Divine love, with which the heavens are dropping and the earth teeming, which day utters to day and night rehearses to night. (A. P. Peabody.)

Everything beautiful

The Creator, when He formed the world, had the loveliness of things before Him as an end and object, as well as the usefulness of things. And so, wherever we walk, we see reflected the love of beauty in the Divine mind. And the more minutely we examine the works of God, the more exquisite is their beauty. How unlike the works of man! Take a finely polished needle, and place it under a powerful microscope, and it becomes a huge, rough bar of steel, with miniature caverns and ravines of black “clinker.” Take again some common insect, a wasp, for instance; and under the same microscope it grows into a miracle of sheeny scales of semi-transparent gauze of gold, each scale geometrically perfect. Or take that buttercup and look down into its heart, and you will look into an enchanted fairy chamber of flashing lights that shames all the extravagances of the “Arabian Nights.” God loves to have things beautiful: and it is wise for us to foster in ourselves the love of beauty. No doubt business rivalries are so intense and keen that men are obliged to consider chiefly utility. What can I make or get out of it? is the primary question. Bread, not beauty, is their principal concern. Trade is “sowing cities like shells along the shore”: and the things of the mart and the street are in danger of crowding nature and God out of men’s minds and freezing their hearts. But let us hope that the fight for the front places in all the callings which is the prevailing ambition at present will never become so severe as to absorb all thought and time, and destroy all care for the cultivation of this joyous side of life. Indeed, the fiercer the struggle for life becomes, the greater the need for the sweet alleviations which admiration of nature brings. Nor can we doubt that when the Creator lavished, and still lavishes so much beauty in the natural world, He had and has in view the highest usefulness; for surely it is as serviceable a thing to give refreshment and tone and elevation to the soul, as to provide wheat for bread, or wool for clothing. Let us lift our thoughts from the loveliness of nature to Him, who is the Rose of Sharon all glowing with the wealth of heavenly love, and the Lily of the Valley, “holy, harmless, undefiled,” and the True Vine laden with ripe clusters for the famishing souls of men--yes, to Him, who is unique in His splendour of “very” Godhead and perfect manhood. One of the most patent wants of our Churches to-day is that of spiritual beauty of character; beauty of spiritual character. Not the surface beauty of morality unvitalized by personal love to the Saviour. This is but the crystal, symmetrical, clean-cut in exactness of outline, cold as the snow, dead as the stone. Our want is the beauty of the living soul, of the holy life. Not any mimicry of it, however successful, however unconscious; not any simulation of its life; not painted blooms and waxen fruit. But actual conformity to the image of “the man Christ Jesus”: a life of prayer and self-renouncing faith, of surrender to the yule of our King, and leal-hearted service. This is the beauty of holiness of which all fair things beneath the sun are faint pictures; and by which Christ is made manifest to men. (R. C. Cowell)

The beauty of the world

I. The beauty of life’s outward scenes and circumstances. We need not linger to determine what is the philosophy of beauty; how far it depends on the things we behold, how far on the eyes which behold them, or rather on the soul of intelligence and emotion which looks through the eyes. The beautiful is beautiful in the measure of our discernment; that is true. Still, beauty is not determined exclusively by our perception; that also is true. Beyond what any single individual has seen or has power to see lie a myriad things, the fruit of the Creator’s wonderful and multitudinous thoughts. Treasures of beauty fill the depths of the sea, and there are unvisited nooks and corners of the earth thronged with lovely forms. Not only in the broad effects, but in the minute detail, of nature there is to be found beauty. Men need not go into strange lands to learn that “the Lord hath made all things beautiful in His time.” Pleasure in the beauty of the world may become a mere lust of the eye, rather than the glow of the soul. An aesthetic taste is not a sanctifying faith. Discerning the beauty crowding earth and heaven, we are to remember that the Lord hath made it. We are to think of Him; see everywhere the signs of His wisdom, the images of His loveliness and tenderness, the outgoing of His glory, the suggestions of His infinity.

II. The orderliness of this beauty. Everything is beautiful in its appointed time. The fulness and harmony of things is largely an element of beauty. The order, the perfect sequence, of nature’s law is as wonderful as the varied beauty of her forms. “Every winter turns to spring.” The seed, the blade, the ear, the full corn in the ear, each has its beauty. There are here in the world’s order and beauty familiar analogies of spiritual things. The complex beauty of a perfected character is not wrought except by preparations and processes. Men come to perfectness in their season. The great Worker works most surely in unbroken order, in grand, calm patience, and brings His work to its perfect issue at the appointed time.

III. The transitoriness of the world’s beauty. All the beauty of outward scene and circumstance is but for a time. This fair world, though it holds us sometimes with the spell of its enchantment, is not our rest; its beauties are flowers upon a pilgrim’s path. We pluck fair flowers, but in a little while, such a little while, the soft petals are worn and crumpled and ready to die[ The worlds and the treasures that are in them God carries in His hand; but those that love Him He carries in His heart--the dear children of His love; and that love is round about them, a light from heaven, fairer and surer than the beauty of the morning. (W. S. Davis.)

Religion and the beautiful

I. There is an essential unity in all forms of the beautiful. It will not do to object to art, to embellishment of dress and furniture, and yet to say that in speech and in manners and in moral elements the beautiful is right. For the beautiful is an element that is meant to go out in every part of the mind, and to lend its light and peculiar influence in every direction in which the mind develops itself. Now it is admitted, the world over, by those who object to art in dress, in furniture, or in the embellishment of grounds, that beauty of speech, and manners, and social and moral elements, is right. Now, why is beauty consistent with self-denial and the example of Christ in these things, and inconsistent with self-denial and the example of Christ in those other things?

II. There is a moral function belonging to the beautiful, which redeems it from the objections which men raise against it. It is true that beauty is employed to build up vice. Did you ever stop to analyze that statement, and see what it meant? The moral function of the beautiful is used to lead men to sin; but this fact reveals the power that is in the beautiful to raise the enjoyment of any faculty on which it is employed from lower to higher forms. Beauty always tends upward. If you introduce it to the thinking power, it draws the intellect upward; if you introduce it to the conscience, it draws the conscience upward; if you introduce it into morals, it elevates those morals; if you introduce it into dress, it refines and lifts it up.

III. If, then, there is a moral function in the beautiful, its full benefit cannot be expected until it develops itself harmoniously in all parts of the mind. It must be applied to the understanding, to the moral faculties, to the social elements, to the animal instincts, and to all the relations of physical life in the family and in society. It is not the beautiful in too great a measure that leads to excess of mischief and selfishness. It is because it is cultivated but partially, or only on one side of the mind, that it produces mischiefs. With this statement of the moral function of the beautiful, I proceed to apply it more particularly to the individual and the household. How can a man consent to indulge in the beautiful while the world is lying in wickedness? I say, the world being in wickedness, I am going to educate myself in beauty, that I may be the better fitted to elevate it out of that wickedness. The beautiful is one of the elements with which I am to familiarize myself, in order that I may the more successfully engage in this work. God educates men for labouring in His kingdom on earth by spreading Out before them the beauties which He has created in the natural world. The beautiful, therefore, may be made a moral instructor, and it may make the soul of man powerful; so that indulgence in it, instead of being selfish, is a part of one’s lawful education. The same argument is applicable to the household. The question arises in the minds of many persons, “How much time ought I to expend for my family, and how much for God?” You split your ship on a rock at the outset, b v putting God in one balance and your family in the other. Your family must never be separated from God. Your idea of religion and of consecration must be such that you shall consider everything that is given to your cradle or to your family as being given to God. Now, how much may a man give to build up a family, and make it powerful for God? If it is necessary that a man’s children should have shoes and clothes, and he gives them to them, he gives them to God. If it is necessary that they should have intelligence, and he sends them to costly schools, he sends them for God’s sake. But remember that you must carry such a heart into this work that every child shall feel that every picture and every book has a moral purpose in it, and realize that there is a life to come, and understand the relations of God’s kingdom on earth to immortality. And then every flower that blossoms will have a meaning. But it is said, “How can you reconcile these indulgences with the example of our Saviour? He did not indulge in the beautiful.” Our Saviour set the example to us of moral qualities, but not of social conditions. He had not a place to lay His head: do you seriously think that it would be best for every man to be a vagabond? Do you think it would be best for civilization that the family should be broken up, and that men should have no property and no regular occupation, in order that they might follow Christ? Still further, it is asked, “How can we imitate Christ in the self-denial which He practised, and yet indulge in the beautiful?” Nowhere else in the world can a man be more self-denying than in taking a nature thoroughly refined and cultured, and with that nature going to the poor and needy. Christ laid aside the glory that He had before the world was, and came upon earth, and lived without it, and ascended, and retook it; and now, having taken it again, He lives to legislate with all this plenitude; and He is self-denying still, making His life a perpetual living for others. If, then, God has endowed any man with wealth, let him use it for himself, for his children, and for his friends, and so use it for the world. If God has given a man power to read literature in every language, let him read it, that he may be the better able to defend the ignorant and instruct them. If God has given a man the element of beauty, let him employ it, not for the sake of self-indulgence, but that he may lift up, and refine, and civilize those that are low, and rude, and gross. In the hands of all who follow these directions, the elements of the beautiful are entirely in consonance with the Divine will. (H. W. Beecher.)

The mission of beauty

Beauty is a term of varied and extensive import. Whatever excites the emotion, be it a statue fresh from the chisel of the sculptor, a flower by the wayside, chronicling some old buried memory, or a glorious sunset among the hills, a speech, a poem, a virtue, a deed or a song, that is beautiful.

I. Beauty and its mission as seen in nature. There is affluence of beauty in the broad, blue heavens and on the green earth; in the stars that look so gently and kindly upon us; in the orchards, groves and forest trees; in the plumage and song of birds; in the modest flower that blooms in the hedge; in the sturdy oak which has wrestled with the storms and the winds of a thousand years; in the tall and stately cedar of Lebanon, in the pendent branches of the willow, sighing like a mourner by the silent stream. There is beauty in the morning dew, shining like diamond points all over field and meadow; in drops of water as they hang like costly pearls on trees and telegraph wires after a refreshing shower. There is beauty in the little rill which bursts away from some sequestered nook in the hillside, like a truant child, and runs--now glancing out in the light and then hiding itself in entangled shrubbery till it seems to find its playfellows in the babbling brook. There is beauty in the majestic river as it rolls, strengthened by innumerable tributaries, proudly into the broad sea. There is beauty in the alternations of day and night, in the still evening, when the shadows deepen over the plain and the veil of mist rises slowly over the valley, and the sombre woods which skirt the distant horizon grow more indistinct, and the sun sinks to rest, leaving the clouds above all aglow with his setting radiance. There is beauty in the seasons; in the spring arrayed in verdure; in the summer teeming with luxuriance; in autumn loaded with golden harvests. And winter, too, has its charms, covering the earth with its robe of purity and adorning the forests with gems of dazzling and enchanting brilliancy. It is no wonder that Solomon, in his wisdom, should have said, “God hath made everything beautiful in His time,” because everything is adapted to some end or use. Nothing is made in vain. Whatever is beautiful in nature has its use, to secure harmony in the great orchestra of all created things, or reflect the superlative glory of the uncreated God.

II. Artificial beauty, or those forms of beauty which may be regarded as copies of nature--the creations of genius and art. These, too, may exalt our conceptions of the Divine Being, as all the beautiful forms from the chisel of the sculptor, from the pencil of the artist, exist as types or models in the great gallery of Nature, of which God is the Author. Art is the shadow of Nature, the photograph of external beauty, the pictured diagrams of a higher and more exalted finish. Art may be the handmaid of religion, an auxiliary to worship. The old Hebrew temple, in its form and finish, in its utensils of gold, in its altars of ivory, in its outer and inner courts, was the very perfection of art, and all was designed as an aid to worship and an emblem of heaven. The magnificent cathedrals of the Old World and the costly pictures with which they are adorned have a higher purpose than simply to attract the vulgar eye or awaken a temporary admiration. They are designed as helps, acting through the senses to lead the worshippers on to a proper conception of that uncreated beauty that dwelleth not in temples built with hands.

III. Intellectual beauty. We speak of the canvas or the sculptured marble as uttering “thoughts that breathe and words that burn”: but when we thus figuratively speak, we speak in praise of the creative mind of the artist and the sculptor. These are only the outward and visible expression of the ideal beauty that was in his own thought. Knowledge, genius, wisdom, taste, whenever, wherever perceived are beautiful. Mind is the measure not only, but the chief attraction either of woman or man. A well-stored, a highly-educated mind is to me the most attractive thing in the universe; and to see such a mind at work solving the problems of science, analyzing the most difficult subjects, charming by its eloquence or song, raising the heavy burdens from the groaning heart of humanity, cannot fail to awaken the highest emotions of admiration and of beauty. God, whose intellect is infinite, and always devising for the good of His creatures, must ever be regarded, when properly perceived, as the most beautiful Being in the universe, shedding His light and beauty over all the works of His hands; and we can offer no more appropriate prayer and join with the psalmist and say, “Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.”

IV. Moral beauty and its mission. Right is always beautiful; truth, honour, integrity are beautiful; magnanimity, justice and benevolence are as really beautiful as the most lovely of material forms. If we contemplate the act of the Good Samaritan dismounting from his beast at the risk of his own life and affording the needed aid to a wounded Jew, we feel in our inmost soul that compassion is beautiful. There is beauty in purity. If the lily bending on its stem is beautiful to the eye, so is purity, of which the lily is a favourite and impressive emblem. In an age of general licentiousness, to see a youthful captive break away from the solicitations of his royal mistress is a spectacle that commands admiration of every mind not absolutely brutalized by lust. Illustrations of moral beauty are not wanting in our age and time. The family united in a loving fellowship, where heart responds in cordial sympathy to heart, is certainly one of the most beautiful sights on earth, and the most impressive type of heaven. Thus the Church, as the Bride of Christ, all-glorious within and without, humble yet active, conservative yet aggressive, clad in the seamless robe of a Redeemer’s righteousness, adorned with all the graces of the Spirit, and charity crowning the whole, is the very climax of beauty, more gorgeous to behold than all the glory and riches of Solomon. Remember the words of our text, “Everything is beautiful in His time”--beautiful, because useful and answering fully the end of its being; and nothing can be more beautiful than woman intellectually and morally educated and working in her sphere for the benefit of her race. This is the highest type and style of beauty, outliving the physical, surpassing that of art, over which death and the grave have no power. Arrayed in this imperishable robe, the spirit only grows younger as the body decays; and when released from the tenement of clay shall ascend to mingle with forms celestial on a mission still, through endless years of beauty and of love. (S. D. Burchard, D. D.)

The Author of beauty

I have no very definite conception of what these words mean. I do not intend to use them for purposes of instruction, but for purposes of suggestion and inspiration. This is poetry. The aim of poetry is to exalt the feelings, to kindle the imagination. A statement not sharply defined to thought may yet by suggestion carry and inspire one more energetically and penetratingly than any clearly defined proposition. This text contains several intimations which may prove valuable to us. “He hath made everything beautiful in its time.” Here is a distinct announcement that beauty is a prime object in this world, and that beauty is very extensively sought by the Creator. He has not only made beautiful objects, but has made everything beautiful in its own time and manner. We must bear in mind that beauty is a distinct appeal to us over and above all the utilities and economies. A world that met all the needs of its creatures and nothing more would be standing proof that those creatures were simply in the animal order. When you build a stall for a horse, you plan for nothing beyond animal needs--warmth, ventilation, food, cleanliness, rest. Any touch of beauty beyond these is for your own eye. If you added beauty for the eye of your horse, you would thereby recognize in him an aesthetic nature like your own. So a world devoted to grey and angular utilities would be proof positive that we were a race of creatures which needed good housing and feeding and nothing more. But what shall we say of that knot of blue violets in the grass? They do not catch the eye of the grazing ox. The dog leaps over them in pursuit of game, or in wanton play. But when you, the Divine child, come, this utterance from the heart of your Father stops you as imperatively as a command. You drop on your knees beside the exquisite token from the heavens, and with full heart and suffused eyes read His loving thought as from an illuminated missal. Something has been said to you from on high that no other eye or ear on earth can interpret. And when you lift up your eyes upon the green and spacious earth, with its endlessly varied beauties of tint and form and grouping, and over all the deep and wide heavens with their unbearable glory of light and their flying cloud-forms or spaces of fadeless blue, the voice that speaks in your heart of hearts is from the depths within to the deeps of God without--deep calling unto deep: “This is my Father’s house, my home, the very gate of heaven.” Beauty in our world--“Everything made beautiful in its season”--is the divine, omnipresent witness that we are something more than physical beings, fit only for a world of stark utilities and necessities; we are the children of the supreme Intelligence and Imagination and Love. We follow Him with clear eye and responsive heart through the heights and depths of His creative work. Not a curve is added to leaf or petal, not a point of gold-dust on an insect’s wing, but is there for your eye and mine, and has answered its purpose when we lift our hearts in grateful recognition “to Him” who is “the eternal fountain and source, of beauty.” Our text declares that “also He hath set the world in their hearts.” I do not care much what the poet’s precise thought is here. I get this impression: We are so vitally joined to the world that it somehow gets immense power over us. It somehow gets in there to some central depths of us, with its overshadowing truths and great, overmastering moods. This is why I believe that it is salutary, actually medicinal, for us to get away from our artificial life as often as possible, and to be alone with the ancient, unperverted powers of the world. I, for one, can testify that no chapters of judgment, no penitential psalms, have ever searched and winnowed my soul like the living, awful presence of the primeval forest. The purity of the vast deep life there, stretched in unaffected sincerity to the heavens; the majesty of the great brotherhood of trees, the tranquillity, the chaste beauty, the solemnity, have enwrapped the soul and penetrated it, till one could only cover the face, as in the Divine presence, and cry, “Unclean, unclean! God be merciful to me, a sinner!” Oh, the awful purity of this great life about us! Crimes and degradation multiply just in proportion as men crowd together and forget the unstained life of the physical world, which, in normal conditions, holds such purifying uplifting influence over us as the life of a mother. The power of Nature has likewise a salutary ministry for us. Have you never felt that it is good for you to have the personal equation reduced to zero?--to have your individuality stripped of all the little conceits, all the factious importance, which by degrees attach to us in our relations to men? You have doubtless felt this wholesome reduction to your original quantity in presence of the power of Nature as nowhere else. We may also well consider how the stability and unchangeableness of Nature hold us to truth. The same great truths from age to age are reiterated in precisely the same terms, until our slow hearts are compelled to learn. When we see men so careful and fearful respecting their little theories and notions one can hardly repress a smile of pity. As if the heavens and the earth were not keeping faith with God, their Creator, and would, sooner or later, bring all our little systems to terms! We make a little scheme of the heavenly bodies, and build a queer little religious doctrine respecting the earth, and read our Bibles and say our prayers accordingly, and fight among ourselves over our petty theory. But the stars hold on their courses; the earth swings in its orbit, turns on its axis. The truth is beaten in and in, age after age, until we get something like a rational astronomy. Then we have to begin to retranslate our Bibles, reconstruct our theologies, and adjust our thinking to the illimitable universe, and enlarge our thoughts of God by the same great measure. The last suggestion of our poet is mystery. “Man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning, even unto the end.” And we praise Him for it! For what could equal the misery of living even for a year in an exhausted world I It would be to mind and soul a strait-jacket and a darkened cell. (J. H. Ecob, D. D.)

All thirsts beautiful in their season

The sentiment of the beautiful is universal. We lavish money, we expend strength, we incur dangers, we submit to inconveniences to gratify it. Now, what is the significance of this? What are the part and power of beauty in human life? Of course, the beautiful--like any other gift of life, like genius or wealth--may be used unspiritually, perverted so as even to minister to sensuousness and sin. In its art-forms no people ever worshipped the beautiful like the Greeks, and few peoples developed greater sensuousness. Every gift is a possibility of corresponding evil; no lights lead astray like lights from heaven. The real question is, whether in the right and purposed use of it, whether as interpreted and used by religious feeling, the beautiful has not a high and potent ministry in life; and whether, therefore, it is not a religious obligation so to use it, to nurture the sense of it, to seek gratifications for it, and to make it a minister of devout thought and feeling. The beautiful is much more than a mere gratification of the senses; although even this were not an unworthy ministry. One of the materialistic theories of our day is, that uses and fitnesses of things are not the result of creative design, but of natural selection, or of practical necessity. Nature produces the eye because man needs to see, and teeth because he needs to eat. But what is the causation of beauty? What principle of natural selection, what necessity of use, produces the plumage of the bird, the pencilling of the leaf? Is not beauty the absolute creation of God, and has it not a special religious ministry? Beauty, if I may reverently say so, is God’s taste, God’s art, God’s manner of workmanship. Beauty is the necessary conception of the Creator’s thought, the necessary product of His hand; variety in beauty is the necessary expression of His infinite mind. It is part of the perfection of God’s works, part of the perfection of God Himself; like truth, like holiness, like beneficence, like graciousness. We infer, therefore, that beauty is part of our human perfection also; that unbeautiful things are defective things. Beauty is not intended to minister to a mere idle sentiment. It is a minister to our moral nature. It is part of our religious culture and responsibility; so far as we can control them, we are as responsible for ideas and things of beauty as for ideas and things of truth and purity. In corroboration of all this we might adduce the recognitions and inculcations of the beautiful which we find in Scripture. Even in the physical beauty of nature the writers of the Bible have a rejoicing appreciation which we find in no other ancient literature. It is not difference of race that accounts for it, it is difference of culture. It is the deeper, more pervading sense of God; it is the religious sentiment of the soul. Unlovely passions, morbid tempers, hard goodness, ascetic forms of religious life, are repugnant to the sentiment of the Bible. In everything it inculcates beauty and joy; so that beauty has a moral basis, moral elements enter into it. How, then, does it minister to goodness in practical life? May not we say that there is a natural congruity between beauty and moral goodness? All sin, all wrong, are unbeautiful, even to the instinctive sense. It is vain to ask why. God has so made us. And because we are so made, vice, wrong, moral pollution, can never be made beautiful, can never satisfy our feeling, produce in us complacency and rest. On the other hand, we are equally constrained to deem all good things beautiful. We may not do them; we may not like them; our evil passion may disparage them; but we are compelled to admire them. The truth of things is too strong for even evil passion. Moral feeling will admire what passion dislikes; the most vicious never call goodness hideous. In this way, then, through the constitution that God has given us, through the moral order that He has established, the beautiful is a minister to goodness; the wrong thing that we do does violence to our sense of the beautiful. And the nearer to perfection men get, the more they are affected by the beautiful. In nature, in art, in poetry, in music, in social surroundings, the man of largest culture has the keenest sense of the beautiful; the man whose sense of God is deepest, whose holiness is highest, whose spiritual sensibilities are keenest, has the greatest appreciation of both physical and moral beauty. Nothing excites so much admiration as noble character, and the virtues that constitute it. It follows that the highest attainment of beauty is possible only to the good. What influence character has upon personal beauty! Mere features do not constitute the beauty of a face. An unbeautiful soul will make the finest face repellent. Beautiful expression irradiates the plainest features, so that the sense of plainness shall be altogether lost. Some faces charm you like a picture, hold you spellbound like a talisman. It is the beautiful soul that irradiates them--the purity, the unselfishness, the nobleness, the love. The artistic sense is overpowered by the instinctive moral admiration. The ministries of beauty are manifold. It ministers to goodness. I could not, I think, so love God if His works were repellent by their ugliness, instead of attractive by their beauty. To how much in both mind and heart they appeal! I yearn for a greater knowledge, a closer communion with Him, who adorns with so much beauty even His lowliest works. The religiousness of the Bible is more to us because of its eloquence and imaginative beauty, its glorious Psalms, its exciting and pathetic histories, its sublime prophecies. How the New Jerusalem fascinates and wins us by its pictured glories! Beauty ministers to love. When I look upon the countenance of wife or child, of friend or even stranger, inspired and made beautiful by some noble sentiment of virtue, piety, personal affection, patriotism, philanthropy, self-sacrifice, how easy it is to excite level Thus beauty is one of the ministries--ordained by God--of religion, virtue, affection, amiability. Beauty, therefore, is to be cultured; as gentleness is, as tenderness is, as unselfishness is. It is a vital part of our being, and cannot be neglected without injury to the rest. Social life is to be filled with amenities; family life is to be made gentle and graceful by courteous manners, by warm sympathies, by varied culture of literature and art, by bright and gladdening pleasures, as well as by rudimentary virtues and pieties. Church life is to be made gracious and joyous, by refined modes of fellowship and service, by culture of worship, and by gentle, loving, helpful charities of feeling and speech. In all relations personal goodness is to be adorned by gracious feeling and by divining love, by “things that are lovely and of good report,” by “the gentleness of Christ”, by “the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit,” by the crowning graces of the beatitudes. In every possible enumeration and array of the beatitudes of a holy life, “the greatest of these is charity.” (H. Allen, D. D.)

The beauty of change and glory of permanence

I prefer the reading of the margin of the R.V.: “He hath made everything beautiful in its time; also He hath set eternity in their heart.”

1. That the world as God has made it, and life as He has ordained it, have the charm of variety. “He hath made everything beautiful in its time.” It is a part of the Divine order of things that there should be seasons; for instance, that there should be seasons of the year. “God made summer,” said the inspired writer, but he also said that “God made winter.” Apart from the latter assurance, some men might have doubted it. Everybody can accept that. God made light. But it required an inspired assurance to convince men that He also “made darkness, and it was night.” Each of these is beautiful in its time; but out of its time it would lose its beauty. You men who go to London find that out in November. You go up in the morning, and at midday you have a night coming on. I have never yet seen a man who has said that anything that brings on night when there should be day is beautiful. In all that there is a sense of incongruity. If there be darkness, let it come at the proper hour: it will then bring soothing and restfulness beneath its sable wings. This teaches us a collateral truth which perhaps we are too apt to overlook. The curse of the world and of life is in its dislocation. Above all, man has lost his position. Now it is wonderful what mischief a little thing can do when it is out of its place. The other day I saw that a beautiful block had been battered. What was the matter? Oh, a little piece of type had been sucked up by the rollers in printing, and drawn to the surface of the block, and the cylinder passed over it, and thus marred its delicate beauty. That bit of type was beautiful in its place. It had a distinct meaning and mission of its own; but once out of its place, it not only lost its own beauty, but marred the beauty of something nobler than itself. If our organist were to play a wrong note, we should all feel it: a cold shudder would go through us. Why? It is true that even that note is in the organ; it has its place in there: but it was not meant to come in just where he in such a case put it; and that would make all the difference between harmony and discord. All the other notes would share its ignominy, and become apparently discordant with it; and even men like myself, who know little or nothing about music, would feel a cold shudder, when we should have felt the glow of response if that note had not come in at the wrong place. Further, the secret of the world’s discords is in its sin. When man sinned, he lost his position; he no longer occupied the place God intended him to occupy; and when he fell from his position, the whole creation fell with him. “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain until now.” What is it waiting for? “For the manifestation of the sons of God.” When man is brought back into his proper place, harmony shall be restored, not before. You see, therefore, the folly of visiting God with rebukes because of the miseries that abound on every hand. God never made these miseries. Everything was beautiful in its time according to the Divine order; but man has leapt out of his place, and when the greatest creature on God’s earth has lost his position, what must follow? Astronomers tell us that if one of those worlds that rush along their orbits were to lose its course, it would go on blundering through space and bringing discord with it wherever it went. Supposing such a world had the volition that man has, and wittingly and persistently departed from the course that God intended for it, and brought discord with it, would you find a difficulty in bringing home to the right quarter the responsibility of that discord?

2. That in the midst of life’s changes God has endued man with eternal attributes and longings. “He hath set eternity in their heart.” When men tell me that man is not immortal by nature, my own nature protests against it. I know that I am to live for ever, for good or ill. There are immortal yearnings in me which tell of powerful affinities for eternity which God has implanted there. It is this consciousness of eternity in man that is the compensating grace for all that would otherwise be distracting and discouraging in change and transiency. But there is also another aspect of this truth.

3. God, in putting eternal yearnings into men’s hearts, has made it impossible for them to satisfy themselves with the joys which this world can supply. (D. Davies.)

He hath set the world in their heart.--

Eternity in man

God has set eternity in the heart of man. This explains--

I. Its sense of the emptiness of all mundane things. No more can the world satisfy what is in man than a dewdrop can quench the burning thirst of a lion. Its unbroken and unsilenceable cry after it has received all the world can give, is, “More, more.”

II. Its consciousness of the unstability of all things connected with our earthly life. The sense of mutation rests constantly and heavily on the soul. But this sense could not exist if there was not something in us that is unchanged and unchanging. As that rock, which lifts its majestic head above the ocean, and alone remains unmoved amidst the restless waves, and the passing fleets, is the only measure to the voyager of all that moves on the great world of waters, so the sense of the immutable, which Heaven has planted in our souls, is the standard by which alone we become conscious of the mutation of our earthly life.

III. Its yearning to look into the invisible. Inquiry into the reason of things is a deep and resistless instinct. In the child it is called curiosity, in the man, the philosophic spirit. But the reason of things is behind this sense, it is in the region of the invisible, and the invisible is the eternal. I see not my soul, and that is eternal, and its inquiries are after the eternal.

IV. Its constant anticipations of the future. Its past is gone, however long and eventful it might have been. Gone as a vision of the night. To the future it looks, onward is its anxious glance. It “never is, but always to be blessed.”

V. Its inexhaustibility by its productions. The more the fruitful tree produces, the less it will produce in the future, and it will at last exhaust itself by its productions. Not so with the soul. The more fruit it yields, the more fecundant it becomes. The more a man thinks, the more capable he is of thinking; the more he loves, the deeper becomes the fountains of affection within him.

VI. Its universal yearning for a God. “Man as a race,” says Liddon, “is like those captains of whom we read, more than once, in history, that once having believed a throne to be within their grasp, they never could settle down again quietly as contented subjects. Man as man has a profound, an ineradicable instinct of his splendid destiny. He knows that the objects which meet his eye, that the average words which fall upon his ear, that the common thoughts and purposes and passions which haunt his heart and his brain, are very far indeed from being adequate to his real capacity.” He wants God, nothing less than God Himself.

VII. Its abiding sense of personal identity. The old man who has passed through a long life of great changes, and whose bodily frame, too, has been several times exchanged, has, notwithstanding, an ineradicable belief that he is the same person as when a boy at school. He has no doubt of it. Bodies may be lost in bodies, but souls never lost in souls. Why this? It is because there is eternity in us. (Homilies.)

Eternity in the heart

“He hath set eternity in their heart.” Then perhaps if we look carefully we may find it. I look into the primitive heart of man, into the childlike and unsophisticated heart. What do I find? Do I find any traces of eternity? I find an instinct, which, being interpreted, seems to say: “I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home.” “Here we have no continuing city; we seek one to come.” “I nightly pitch my moving tent a day’s march nearer home.” In the heart of man, in Christendom and in savagedom, there is an instinct that time is not our home, that here we are only in tents, that here we sojourn, but do not abide, and the instinct is not born of fear nor of selfishness: the explanation is in my text, “God hath set eternity” in our hearts. Have we any further evidences of this implanting of eternity within us? When I go into my heart and listen, I hear a voice saying to me: “This thou must do; this thou must not do.” The voice does not speak in mere suggestion, offering friendly counsel. It speaks like a monarch in tones of command. It tells me that all things are not of one moral colour. Some things are morally black and some morally white, and I have to observe the distinction. Of the black, the voice says: “Thou must not.” Of the white, which it calls the right, the voice says: “Thou must!” I ask my fellow-man if he hears the same voice, and he answers: “Yes, it speaks to me.” I find that the voice speaks in every life. What is the voice? We call it conscience. But conscience has no birth in time. All the temporal explanations which have been attempted are painfully inadequate and futile. “The voice of the Great Eternal speaks in that mighty tone.” That secret voice which speaks to us of the eternal distinction between right and wrong finds its explanation in my text: “God hath set eternity in their hearts.” Can we find any further evidence? Look again into the heart of man. May we not say that in every heart there is a strange feeling after God? I know it may be numbed and blunted, but I don’t think it can be altogether destroyed. Let me try to illustrate this. You know that hydrogen gas is considerably lighter than the atmosphere that is round about us. When you fill a substance with the gas, say the silk that forms a balloon, it seeks to rise above the heavier atmosphere around, just as a cork rises through water and rests upon its surface. The lighter element tugs and tugs, and seeks to get away into the finer and rarer regions above. Well, it seems as though our God had put into the make-up of a human being ethereal elements, spiritual longings and hungers, which seek to rise above the grossness of flesh and Lime, to find their home in purer regions beyond. A light gas must reach an atmosphere of its own rarity before it can be at rest. And these ethereal, spiritual elements within us, these implanted feelings, must rise into their own appropriate atmosphere, into communion with the great Spirit, before they can be at rest. Meanwhile, they tug at us, and we have all felt their tuggings! We have felt some good impulse tugging at us, tugging in the direction of God. When we have been walking with open eyes into gross and deliberate sin, we have felt the tugging of the lighter element within us, the spiritual feeling, seeking to lift us out of our grossness nearer to God. Call it by what name you will, there is something in every heart which makes for God, and will never be satisfied until it gets there. God has put a mouth in our hearts, a spiritual hunger, that He may draw us to seek satisfaction and rest where alone it can be found, in the presence and communion of the Eternal Spirit. “He has put eternity in their heart.” Now what are the consequences of this implanting? If eternity has been set within us as part of our very being, what must surely follow? The Eternal within us seeks the Eternal, and nothing but the Eternal will feed it. That mouth in the heart, that hunger of the spirit, can only be fed with one kind of bread, and that the Bread of Life. Now, what kind of efforts are men making to satisfy the eternity in their heart? Along what particular lines are they searching for bread? There was a book published some three or four years ago of extraordinary literary brilliancy and power. It speedily passed into many editions, it was “most favourably reviewed, and appeared to make a great impression upon all who read it. I want to read you two or three lines from the preface, in which the author sums up the whole burden of the counsel which he desires to give to his countrymen: “Stick to your work, and when your day is done, amuse and refresh yourselves.” And he adds in the next sentence that “this is wholesome doctrine.” Wholesome doctrine! What are its ingredients? Two things--labour and pleasure. Follow those two and you are all right. But what about the eternity in my heart? I am not unmindful that labour is a glorious means of grace. A man can get rid of many a vicious humour by applying himself to work. But work may be altogether atheistic or temporal, and work that is atheistic or altogether temporal will leave a man full of hunger; it will not feed the eternity that God has set in his heart. If our work is to feed the eternity within us, the thought of the Eternal must be in our work. As it is with work so it is with pleasure. Pleasure of itself cannot feed the soul, but gaiety often goes hand in hand with spiritual leanness. If you take a low thought with you, then the pleasure which gratifies your body will starve your soul. But if you take into your pleasure the thought of the Eternal, then your pleasure is transformed into a soul-feeding joy. The thought of the Eternal in your pleasure feeds the eternity in your heart, but without that thought a life of gaiety is a life of emptiness, and will leave you at last with “leanness for your soul,” and with the mouth in your heart still hungering for the bread which has been so long denied. (J. H. Jowett, M. A.)

The world in the soul

I. The world is in every man’s heart as a mental image. The men of the world whom we have known; the villages, towns, cities, which we have visited; the landscapes we have observed--in truth, all outside of us that have ever come under our notice have stamped their image on the heart. The photographs of all are within. Thus we carry within us all those parts and phases of the world that have ever come within the sweep of our observation.

II. The world is in every man’s heart as a necessary influence. So many and so close are the ties with which the Creator has bound us to this world, that it comes into us as a mighty and constantly acting force. There are many affections planted in the heart that must bring the world into it as an active power. There is self-preservation. Our very subsistence so depends upon the cultivation of the fields, the exploration of the minerals, the navigating of the seas, the transactions of the market, and in working, in some way or other, in the outward world, that it necessarily absorbs such an amount of our attention, as to bring it into us as a most powerful force of action. There is social affection. There are boys and girls, men and women, on whom our affections are set--brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, father, mother, friends who are so near to our sympathies, that, without figure, we bring them into us. They live in us, and exert no small amount of influence upon the activities of our life. Had we the philanthropy of Christ, we should bear, as He did, the whole human world upon our hearts. There is the love of beauty. Man’s instinct for the beautiful is deep and strong. This instinct not only brings the world near to him, but into him. The craving of the soul for the beautiful in form and colour and the grand in aspect gives this world, which abounds with the beautiful and sublime, a mighty power in the soul.

III. The world is in every man’s heart as a great reality. The world is to every man according to the state of his soul; great or small, according to his conceptions; overspread with sadness or radiant with joy, according to his feelings; a scene of temptation to contaminate, or of discipline to refine, according to the ruling principles of the heart.

1. The character of the material world is to a man what he makes it. The world of the untutored rustic is very different from that of the man of science. What has made the difference--the difference in the state of intellect? The man of science has read and thought and investigated; and as he has done so, the world has grown in magnitude--m splendour, and in interest. Moreover, what a difference there is between the world of a cheerful and that of a gloomy man!

2. The character of the human world is to man what he makes of it. To the selfish all men are selfish; to the dishonest all men are dishonest; to the false all men are false; to the generous all men are generous.

3. The character of the God of the world is to man what he makes it. Polytheism is not confined to heathen lands where idols are made and worshipped. There is a certain kind of polytheism everywhere. The God the man worships is the God he has imaged to himself, and men have different images, according to the state of their own hearts. Hence, even in Christian theology, what different views we have of God! All go to the New Testament for arguments to support their views, and they succeed in getting them, for we can get from that Holy Book what we bring to it. Thus, even the God of the world is according to our hearts. “To the pure Thou wilt show Thyself pure; and with the froward Thou wilt show Thyself froward.”

Lessons:--

1. The greatness of the human soul. It has the capacity to receive, retain, reflect all outward things.

2. The duty of mental modesty. No man has absolute truths in him. All that he has are opinions formed by himself concerning those truths.

3. The necessity of soul culture. If you want a bright and lovely world--a world that you will enjoy as a paradise, you must endeavour to make the heart right.

4. The nature of the millennial glory. Change the world’s heart, fill it with truth, and love, and God, and it will have a new heaven and new earth--a new universe to live in.

5. The need of Divine influence. Who shall make these hearts right? Who shall repair and clean this beclouded mirror? Ah, who? We cannot do it ourselves. Nor can our fellow-men do it for us. This is God’s work. It is He who gives a new heart and a new spirit, and with that a new universe. (Homilist.)

Eternity

The difference between the splendid world of vegetation, with its myriad colours and its ever-changing life; between the animal world, with its studied gradations of form and of development--and man, is this: God hath set eternity in our hearts. All creation around us is satisfied with its sustenance, we alone have a thirst and a hunger for which the circumstances of our life have no meat and drink. In the burning noonday of life’s labour man sits--as the Son of Man once sat--by well-sides weary, and while others can slake their thirst with that, he needs a living water; while others go into cities to buy meat, he has need of and finds a sustenance that they know net of. Is not the strange, sad contrast, which is brought out before us here, true? Is not man a striking anomaly? He dwells amid the finite; he longs for the infinite. All the rest of creation can find enough to satisfy its wants--he cannot. He is like the bird that wings its way over the surging waters, seeking rest, and finding none, while the coarser thing can satisfy itself on the floating garbage. The truer and the nobler man is, the more certainly he feels all this, the more keenly he realizes eternity in his heart. There is none of us, however, who do not feel it sometimes. As you gaze on some setting sun, and its burning rays of gold seem to you like the very light of heaven across the glowing binges of her closing doors--as you stand amid some mountain solitude that rises like heaven’s ramparts against the sounds and strifes of earth--as some note of music seems “to come from the soul of the organ and enter into thine”--as some deep sorrow, or some deeper joy falls upon your life--in these, or other kindred experiences, the eternity which God has set in your heart will assert itself; you will feel in your soul the thirst of a life which cannot be satisfied, and which cannot end here. And why? Because God hath set eternity in our hearts. He has given us a hunger which can he satisfied only with the Bread of Life, a thirst which can be quenched only by the living water from the Rock of Ages. Well, granting the universal desire; granting the universal capacity; granting the almost universal conviction that there is such a life, may we not be deceived? That is the triumphant answer of some philosophers. Deceived! By whom? It is God who hath set eternity in our hearts. Do you mean we have been deceived by Him? Are, we, then, to believe that God sent the noblest, purest, best Teacher that ever visited this earth, and gave Him the moral illumination and power to dispel a thousand errors, and explode a hundred fallacies which ignorance had invented or superstition had nurtured, but left Him so ignorant upon this point--the one universal error--that it was the supreme sustenance of His own life and the very lever by which He did raise the world? Can you believe that? All that is best, truest, noblest in your souls rebels against the thought. O God, we trust Thee! We bow our heads before Thee in reverence for even daring to speak of it. We trust the word of Thy Incarnate Son! O Christ, we know Thy words were true when Thou saidst:--“If it were not so I would have told you.” Thou didst not tell us, and it is true! God hath set eternity in our hearts. Are we living worthy of it? Are we living as if we really believed it? The only way of doing so is by clinging close to Him, by dying with Him to all that He died to save us from, and living worthy of that life and immortality which He hath brought from out of the mists of speculation into the light of truth by His Gospel. Instead of the “perhaps” of philosophic speculation, we have, thank God, the “Credo” of Christianity. (T. T. Shore, M. A.)

The hope of immortality

1. Let us first take this text as it is given in our old Bible--“He hath set the world in their heart.” That is, the Creator hath set the world in the hearts of the children of men. This correspondence between the world without and the mind within is one of the most striking evidences of wisdom and the beneficence of the Creator. You see it in those outworks of the mind--those five senses. Between them and the qualities of the world outside there is a correspondence on which all the activity and movement of life depend. All the senses are inlets by which the forms and the glory of the world pass inwards to be set in the heart of man. But it is when you go a little further into the mind itself that you fully see the beneficence of the Creator. Take, for instance, what seems to be referred to in this verse--the sense of beauty in the mind. Beauty exists in the world in a thousand forms--in the lines of light, in the currents of the wind, in the circle of the moon and of the sun, in the forms of leaves and plants; and so on. But what would it all be if there were not in the mind a sense of beauty corresponding to it? Do you remember that ancient fancy of Plato that all knowledge is reminiscence--i.e. when the shapes of things present themselves to the senses they do not so much convey knowledge into the mind as wake up knowledge that is dormant in the mind. Have you not noticed when you looked for the first time on some glorious landscape that you felt as if you had known it all your life? So when you have met for the first time a fine specimen of human nature you had the impression that you had always been waiting for it. Why was it that Shakespeare, without any classical culture, was able with his Roman play to enter into the very spirit of the ancient world and in all his works to anticipate forms of society and describe how all possible forms of character would act in all possible circumstances? Was it not because, as another great poet has said, “when he came into the world he brought all the world with him”? Or, to put it in other words, God has set the world in his heart.

2. Secondly, let us take this text as it occurs in the margin of the R.V.

“He hath set eternity in their heart.” What is the meaning of that? Perhaps the meaning is suggested by the words which immediately follow--“Man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end.” Great as is the satisfaction which the beautiful world gives to the mind of man, it is not a complete satisfaction; the questions of the mind are never all answered; the desires of the heart are never all satisfied. It is vaguely the Divine--something above the world, which you would fain be at. Many as are the things in the mind which find their corresponding satisfaction in the world, there is in the mind something deeper which reacheth forth to something above the world--to the Divine, the Infinite, and the Eternal. The whole Book of Ecclesiastes, from which this text is taken, may be said to consist of variations on this theme. It is a description of a splendid nature determined to find out all that the world contains for it, and to tear out of it its secret. From every one of his quests Solomon returned with the same verdict on his lips--“All is vanity and vexation of spirit.” And that, in every age, has been the verdict of every living soul that has sought its satisfaction in earthly things. It was the verdict of St. Francis that spring morning when he stood at the gate of Assisi, and looked down upon the smiling plain of Umbria, and yet felt in his own heart nothing but dust and ashes. It was the verdict of St. Augustine when, having lost a dearly-loved friend, he wept, and thought he would “give up the ghost,” and could no longer live in the town from which his friend had been taken away. He had tried friendship, learning, ambition, and honour; he had tried sensual gratification, and yet his heart was sick, unsatisfied, and broken. Yes, but the deep, searching mind of St. Augustine found out exactly what was the reason of his dissatisfaction, and expressed it in that immortal sentence which occurs in the first paragraph of his “Confessions,” “Thou hast made each heart for Thyself, and it finds no rest until it rests in Thee.” Blessed are they that discover that this is the reason of their disappointment and dissatisfaction.

3. Thirdly, there is one meaning that may be put on the words, “He hath set eternity in their heart”: and it is a very natural meaning--that the Creator has set in the human heart the hope and the desire of immortality. The Creator has put into us a conscience by which we judge the world round about us, but this conscience is very little satisfied with the world as it sees it. The conscience anticipates that in the world the righteous will always be prosperous and the unrighteous confounded. But how little that is the aspect of the world as at present constituted,--on every road the righteous man is bearing his cross amidst persecution and contempt, and the unrighteous lifts high his head while others bend before him. Therefore, the conscience anticipates another state of things where these difficulties will be redressed, where the righteous will be exalted, and where the unrighteous will be humbled. But this is only one of the pathways by which the mind arises to the idea of immortality. There are many others; in short, the Creator has set in the heart of man the desire and hope of immortality, and He has set it very deep. Now it can surely be shown that at a certain state of development the hope of immortality appears; and not only so, but that where this hope appears there sets in a new axis of development. When man realizes that he has before him not one life, but two, that he is not only the child of time, but the heir of eternity, he shoots up in moral stature, and a new dignity overspreads his existence. On the other hand, when, after being there, the hope of immortality perishes, it is as if there were extracted from the atmosphere a health-giving element, so that man becomes small and miserable. The late Professor Romanes, even before he became a Christian, confessed that the disappearance in his mind of the hope of immortality was like the disappearance of the sun from the firmament. It may be argued, indeed, that neither the universality of this belief, nor even of its exalting character, is any conclusive evidence that there actually is a future world corresponding to our desires; and that is quite proved if you take an atheistic view of the world. But if you take a theistic view of the world, I think the existence of the desire is evidence that it will be satisfied. God will not deceive His creatures. When the bird of passage, obeying the instinct which God has set in its heart, spreads its wings for the South, its Creator does not deceive it; there are sunny landscapes awaiting it where it goes. And do you think that, when the human spirit, rising out of selfishness and passion, spreads its wings for an immortal home, there is no paradise there to receive it? (J. Stalker, D. D.)

Eternity in man’s heart

I. We cannot persuade ourselves that this present state of things is all with which we have to do, for God hath set eternity in our heart. We are lost in the thought of the duration, the magnitude, the grandeur of the material universe. Surely one might say: “We have enough here to occupy and satisfy us”: and yet something within us declares, “This is not all. This is but the outward form; we want the real substance of which all this is but the shadow or the picture. This universe is passing and transient; we seek the permanent and eternal. These things, all of them, are but effects; our mind must, by the very law of its being, press on and up, and cannot rest content till a sufficient cause is found to account for them all.” The eternal past and the eternal future are written deeply on the heart. We look back on the past, and we try to trace the long chain of events up to an eternal Creator. The soul looks on to the future, and, at that great Creator’s side, it sees itself passing unhurt through “The wreck of ages and the crash of worlds,” immortal as its Sire. One of the most valuable manuscripts of the New Testament, known to scholars as MS.C., is a palimpsest. The writing of the sacred text had grown dim or been carelessly washed away, and over it--for parchments were precious in those days--the works of some Syrian saint had been written. The old letters, however, had not been utterly obliterated; they began to peep through, and, by some chemical process, they were again made legible, and have been carefully deciphered. Eternity is written on our hearts by the finger of God; we cannot blot it utterly out. We try to cover it up; but the old writing ever and anon peeps through and takes us by surprise. I hold in my hand the thread with which to weave my life and destiny; but that thread comes to me out of the past and reaches far beyond me into the future. My life is short; but all eternity has been preparing for it, and it is meant to be a preparation for eternity to come. I am the lord of the world, and yet I feel there is One over me, a great eternal Person, from whom I come and to whom I go. Thus, in the midst of the order and beauty of the universe, man stands expectant, as some one puts it, like Elijah at Horeb, waiting for the still, small voice which will reveal the unseen and eternal. Conscience, reason, and heart are all athirst for God, the living God.

II. We cannot rest content with this world, for god has set eternity in our hearts, You tried to fill your heart and gain content by thinking of the money you had saved, of the pleasures with which your path of life was strewn, of your happy home and loving friends; but it was not satisfied. Doubts, fears, anxious questionings rose up ever and anon, and cast their dark shadow over you. You knew that all these things were transient and uncertain; and even while they lasted they did not fit into your desires and cravings at every point; they gave you much enjoyment, but not a settled peace. When you dared to think you looked forward with dread to loneliness and death and judgment. Eternity was in your heart, and time could not satisfy you. But there came a change. God had mercy on you. He wakened you thoroughly; He brought you to your right mind. Into the sanctuary of your spirit, where eternity is written, you entered reverently, and God was there. He spoke to you by His Word--that Word you had often read so carelessly; and you answered Him in prayer, in confession of sin, in supplication for mercy. Pardon was granted you in Jesus Christ; God’s favour was assured you; the earnest of the spirit was given you--eternal life was yours. As you passed out into the common walks and work of life all things seemed new. The world was brighter than it used to be, and yet smaller and more insignificant. Peace was yours, and sweet content. A fountain of joy and hope was welling up within you, which no loss or trial could dry up.

III. We need not despair about humanity, since God has set eternity in man’s heart. Human nature is no sphinx; it is not a deception and a snare. The eye is made for light; and as it opens, lo! the light surrounds it. The appetite craves appropriate food, and, lo! corn appears on the world with man, and will grow wherever he can live. We seek companionship and love; we cannot help it; and, behold! the first thing the little child sees, as it begins to notice, is the lamp of love, held up to lighten his path through a dark and dangerous world. This longing after God and eternity--is there nothing provided to correspond to it? Surely God has not put eternity in man’s heart simply to make him unhappy. Whence have I come? Why am I here? Whither am I going? Who is above me? How can I please Him? These questions press upon me. Surely an answer will be provided to them by that God whose I am, and by whom eternity has been set in my heart. At every point the revelation of God answers these desires and questionings. We feel there must be, behind the seen and temporal, another more enduring world; and as we turn to St. John

1. we hear that a Visitor has come from it, His mission authenticated by miracles, to bring us the very knowledge that we seek. “The life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness.” “This, then, is the message that we have heard of Him, and declare unto you--that God is light.” “And these things write we unto you that your joy may be full.” We feel the world is not eternal; there must be some one, eternal and almighty, somewhere, to account for its existence; and the same apostle points to this very Being who came to teach and help us, and declares that “all things were made by Him.” He is the Son of God, Divine, eternal, “the effulgence of God’s glory and the very image of His substance” (Hebrews 1:3). We want to look into the eternal future, and to know what is in store for us, and, lo! each path of life is seen running to the judgment-seat; but, at that point, the paths divide--some pass downwards into the abode of darkness and woe eternal, where sin, and the misery sin brings, reign supreme; and others pass upwards to the sweet and holy heaven, where 144,000, clad in white robes, follow the Lamb, and serve God day and night for evermore. The most practical question comes last, and is not left unanswered: “How am I to prepare for eternity, so as to escape the woe and share the glory?” It is to answer that question, more than any other, the revelation of God is given. Christ, the Son of God, the Maker of the worlds, took up His people’s burden, and bore it to the death; through His sacrifice, which God has accepted, there is life and peace for me. Christ stands out, and says: “I am the Way.” He unbinds our chains; He gives pardon, purity, and peace. I have only to come to Him, to trust Him, to follow Him, and in Him eternal life is mine. (W. Park, M. A.)

Eternity in the heart

What meaning, what dignity, what surpassing hope and fear should lie in this--that God hath set eternity in your heart!

I. It ought to calm you. Recall the days of the past week--its toils, anxieties and cares, vexations and disappointments--how did you bear yourself with them? Were you despondent, did you lose self-control, did your blood boil to fever-heat, and were you rebellious? Do you think that such would have been the manner of your lille if you had turned your eyes inwardly, and quietly faced that Guest with the unfathomable eyes and awe-inspiring grace--Eternity? Get more intercourse with that awful yet august Guest in your soul--Eternity--it will keep you calm in hours when you would be otherwise grasping at the bolts of Jove.

II. It ought to inspire you. What an impression it should make on mind and heart, when we express in words the destiny which belongs to us all, “I am to live for ever!” The realization of this tremendous thought should give amplitude, probity, strength, and gentleness to our lives--liberate them from ascendancy of petty aims and the discomposedness of trifling worries--expose the immeasurable folly of letting ourselves drift under impulses of irresponsible opinion and unregulated passion; relax the destructive pressure of materialistic thought and secularistic care, and fasten us indissolubly to Him, whose fortress shall survive the crash of worlds, and whose glory shall be the inconceivable felicity of the faithful and triumphant.

III. It ought to ennoble you. Man is, let us say, made up of body and spirit. But there are persons who live in the body only; they do not live in the spirit, and, according to the Bible, that is not living, it is death. Man cannot live with any nobleness unless those high energies are at work whose impetus is originated by the presence in his heart of eternity. (D. B. Williams.)

Noble discontent

I. The reason of man’s discontent. Discontent is an unnatural, strange thing, in a world full to overflowing, as this earth is, of wonders, beauties, and all good things, and with natures fitted as ours are, to our condition in such marvellous wise. Yet has there ever lived a man without deep, serious, frequent discontent? The sensual and frivolous are, probably, supremely satisfied so long as they can turn at their will from one excitement to another; but it is otherwise with all who think, and inquire, and feel the mysteries in which all their questionings end. All allow that the pleasures of mind and soul are loftier and nobler than the pleasures of sense; yet, in the degree in which a man shares them he shares discontent, hankers after something he cannot find: he knows too much for his peace. It is not mere eternity which thoughtful man desires, not even the perpetuity of things as they are; but eternal life worthy of the noble name, and in harmony with his highest nature, in which the good he aspires after shall be attained, and the evil he deplores be removed, and the unseen God be beheld with joy, and served with undecaying energies.

II. The mercy of man’s discontent. Is it a paradox to say that we are better for having these unsatisfied cravings? that to be without them would be to sink in the level of creation? Picture some tropical forest, where vegetable and animal life luxuriate to the full, and where the swarms exuberant with life know no discontent. Would you give up your high though unsatisfied yearnings for bright but unreasoning life like theirs? Or, when, in spring, you wander through the fields, burdened with cares, and doubts, and fears about the future, while the birds, in utter freedom from care, are filling the air with song, would you change with them, and part with your hopes of an endless life, your longings for the Father in heaven? Or, if, with unsatisfied desires of this noble kind, you meet with one who cares for nothing higher than the worldly wealth, and ease, and pleasure he enjoys, would you change your noble discontent for his ignoble content with “what perishes in the using”? Remember two things. Our discontent should be of this noble sort--aspiration after worthier, divine life, truth, purity, goodness, God; not, as often, base craving for money, ease, repute; and our longings, being a mercy, a dignity, should be cherished and cultivated. We must let the eternity we crave have its due, and live by faith in the unseen.

III. The remedy for man’s discontent. We cannot get rid of it till we reach eternity; but it need not remain a painful mystery. Christ has come, and shown us God and immortality; He bids us move cheerfully towards the Father’s house, and pursue “the crown of life.” And looking on the things unseen and eternal, and pursuing them with faith, and hope, and patience, and courage, our discontent will be forgotten, first in effort, then in victory. (T. M. Herbert, M. A.)

Eternity in the heart

I. Eternity is set in every human heart. The expression may be either a declaration of the actual immortality of the soul, or it may mean, an I rather suppose it to do, the consciousness of eternity which is part of human nature. The former idea is no doubt closely connected with the latter, and would here yield an appropriate sense. “In our embers is something that doth live.” Whatsoever befalls the hairs that get grey and thin, and the hands that become wrinkled and palsied, and the heart that is worn out by much beating, and the blood that clogs and clots at last, and the filmy eye, and all the corruptible frame; yet, as the heathen said, “I shall not all die,” but deep within this transient clay-house, that must crack and fall and be resolved into the elements out of which it was built up, there dwells an immortal guest, an undying personal self. In the heart, the inmost spiritual being of every man, eternity, in this sense of the word, does dwell. But, probably, the other interpretation of these words is the truer,--that the Preacher is here asserting, not that the heart or spirit is immortal, but that, whether it is or no, in the heart is planted the thought, the consciousness of eternity--and the longing after it. The little child taught by some grandmother Lois, in a cottage, knows what she means when she tells him “you will live for ever,” though both scholar and teacher would be puzzled to put it into other words. When we say eternity flows round this bank and shoal of time--men know what we mean. Heart answers to heart--and in each heart lies that solemn thought--for ever! That eternity which is set in our hearts is not merely the thought of ever-during Being, or of an everlasting order of things to which we are in some way related. But there are connected with it other ideas besides those of mere duration. Men know what perfection means. They understand the meaning of perfect goodness; they have the notion of infinite wisdom and boundless love. These thoughts are the material of all poetry, the thread from which the imagination creates all her wondrous tapestries. By the make of our Spirits, by the possibilities that dawn dim before us, by the thoughts “whose very sweetness yieldeth proof that they were born for immortality,”--by all these and a thousand other signs and facts in every human life we say--“God has set eternity in their hearts!”

II. The disproportionate between this our nature and the world in which we dwell. Every other creature presents the most accurate correspondence between nature and circumstances, powers and occupations. Man alone is like some poor land-bird blown out to sea and floating half-drowned with clinging plumage on an ocean where the dove “finds no rest for the sole of her foot,” or like some creature that loves to glance in the sunlight but is plunged into the deepest recesses of a dark mine. In the midst of a universe marked by the nicest adaptations of creatures to their habitation, man alone, the head of them all, presents the unheard-of anomaly that he is surrounded by conditions which do not fit his whole nature, which are not adequate for all his powers, on which he cannot feed and nurture his whole being. Is this present life enough for you? Sometimes you fancy it is. “This world not enough for me!” you say--“yes! it is, only let me get a little more of it, and keep what I get, and I shall be all right.” So then--“a little more” is wanted, is it? And that “little more” will always be wanted, and besides it, the guarantee of permanence will always be wanted, and failing these, there will ever be a hunger that nothing can fill which belongs to earth. A great botanist made what he called “a floral clock” to mark the hour of the day by the opening and closing of flowers. It was a graceful and yet a pathetic thought. One after another they spread their petals, and their varying colours glow in the light. But one after another they wearily shut their cups, and the night falls, and the latest of them folds itself together and all are hidden away in the dark. So our joys and treasures--were they sufficient did they last, cannot last. After a summer’s day comes a summer’s night, and after a brief space of them comes winter, when all are killed and the leafless trees stand silent.

III. The possible satisfying of our souls. The Preacher in his day learned that it was possible to satisfy the hunger for eternity which had once seemed to him a questionable blessing. Standing at the centre, he saw order instead of chaos, and when he bad come back, after all his search, to the old simple faith of peasants and children in Judah, to fear God and keep His commandments, he understood why God had set eternity in man’s heart, and then flung him out, as if in mockery, amidst the stormy waves of the changeful ocean of time. And we, who have a further word from God, may have a fuller and yet more blessed conviction, built upon our own happy experience, if we choose, that it is possible for us to have that deep thirst slaked, that longing appeased. We have Christ to trust to and to love. As in mysterious and transcendent union the Divine takes into itself the human in that person of Jesus, and Eternity is blended with Time; we, trusting Him and yielding our hearts to Him, receive into our poor lives an incorruptible seed, and for us the soul-satisfying realities that abide for ever mingle with and are reached through the shadows that pass away. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)

The child of eternity

Here, indeed, is a bit of revelation. This man sees, at this instant, the real reason of the unrest of humanity, the real reason of the endless strife, the unquenchable thirst, the unsatisfied endeavours of himself and his fellow-men. “Do you know,” says the great French preacher Lamennais, “what it is that makes man the most suffering of creatures? It is that he has one foot in the finite and the other in the infinite, and that he is torn asunder, not by four horses, as in the terrible old times, but between two worlds.” If the Infinite God, the Creator, is a Personality, His children, who derive their personality from Him, must be sharers of His infinite attributes, and must, therefore, have wants, wishes, hopes, aspirations, needs which are limitless. If man possesses such a nature as this, whose capacities are simply boundless, if God hath set eternity in his heart, his conduct here on the earth will give some indication of this momentous fact. Perhaps the great phenomenon of human progress is one sign of it. The race appears to be always going forward. The further the race goes in the path of spiritual and moral attainment, the larger is the prospect and the promise of future growth. To the other animals no such progress seems to be possible. The writer of Ecclesiastes argues that man is no better than the beasts; he could scarcely have noted the capacity for progress which man possesses in such a marked degree, and which the beasts do not possess. Here is a sign of that divine endowment which we are considering. Viewed on its intellectual and spiritual side, the human race gives no hint of a term of existence. If anything is clear in the study of moral forces it is that the life of the spirit is steadily progressive. Stagnation and decay may indeed overtake tribes and peoples, but only when they forsake the ideals of humanity and turn aside to the worship of that which is beneath them. And the destruction visited upon these will show at length to the blundering generations the way of life. The race profits by the retributions of nations and people who persist in disobeying the organic law of humanity. It is a costly kind of tuition, but it seems to be the only effectual kind. Under its instruction the race seems to be slowly learning the way of life. And the evidence is strong that that way is an upward way. The case is clearer when we study the development of the individual soul. Here there is no sign of a term. In knowledge, for example, in mental power, is there any such thing as a fixed limit? Is not every advance in knowledge accompanied, not only by an increase in the power of knowing, but also by an increase in the desire to know? Even more obvious is man’s kinship with the infinite when we consider his moral and spiritual nature. Here, surely, are possibilities that are boundless. The ideals which present themselves to human thought are not subject to quantitative measurement. Limit there is none; to think of one would be immoral. “Be ye, therefore, perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” That is the lowest standard that any man can fix. He will fall far short of it, but he can aim at nothing lower. And not only is this divine endowment seen in the boundless possibilities of good which open before the heroic and aspiring soul, it is seen not less in the perversions of character with which we are too familiar. Ponder the story of human ambition as it is outlined in such a life as that of Xerxes, or Alexander, or Napoleon, as it is displayed in such stupendous monuments of egoism as Babylon or Nineveh must have been, as the Pyramids of Egypt exhibit to us until this day. It is not toward royal palaces or mortuary piles that the insatiable spirit of man is directed in this age so much as toward bank accounts and accumulations of capital. The growth of a plutocracy in this democratic age--what a spectacle it is! How do you explain this towering greed which heaps millions on millions, which compasses land and sea to add to accumulations that can never be used? A friend of mine who is prospering, so far as this world’s goods are concerned, but who is freely using his gains in what he esteems to be humane and helpful ministries, and who is fully resolved not to die a rich man, told me not long ago that for several months he had lost no opportunity of inquiring of men whom he met who were getting rich rapidly why they were doing it. “What is your reason for heaping up money?” he asks them. “What do you want so much for?” “And I tell you the truth,” he said to me, “when I say that not one of them gave me an answer that was really intelligible; not one gave an explanation that I could feel satisfied his own reason. Most of them had something to say about their families; but when I pushed the question whether they thought it really a good thing for children to leave them large amounts of wealth, they could never answer confidently. It was perfectly evident to me, in every case, that these men were driven on by an unreasoning craving, a kind of craze, that they wanted it, mainly, just for the sake of having it. And I found it very difficult to make most of them think that anybody could be actuated by any other motive. When I said to them, ‘I am not in business simply or mainly for the sake of making money; if there was nothing in it but just piling one dollar on top of another it would have no interest for me,’ they looked at me in blank amazement.” To my mind we have here an appalling example of the perversions of the highest powers. What makes men capable of this limitless ambition and greed is the endowment which they have received as the children of God. It is because “He hath set eternity in their hearts” that they have the power to compass the world in their insatiable desires. And yet how manifestly this is a case of perversion! It is the direction of infinite powers to finite ends. And the restlessness and misery of the world are largely due to this one fact: that men into whose hearts God has set eternity are striving to fill themselves with the gains of time. For this immortal hunger there is a satisfying portion even here. For God is in His world, my friends; He is always here; He is the one ever-present, inescapable Fact, the foundation of every reality with which we deal. How does He reveal Himself? One may find many answers, all inadequate, for He whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain cannot be expressed in any phrase that we can fashion. But we may say that we know Him in this world as Truth and Beauty and Love. And the soul that delights in truth, that rejoices in beauty, that lives for love, has entered into life. For the eternity that is in our hearts this is the provision. These are the elements of that knowledge of God with which Jesus seeks to lead those who will follow Him. This is what He is pointing to when He says, “He that drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst, but it shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (W. Gladden, D. D.)

No man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.--

The Divine Worker and the human student

I. God is ever working.

1. In nature. That same power which created our world with all its variety of life and phenomena is constantly exerted in sustaining and governing the same; that same hand which first marshalled the hosts of heaven is ever engaged preserving the regularity of their movements in their vast orbits.

2. In providence. In the raising up and the removal of the wise and great, in the rise and fall of empires, we see His agency originating, or guiding, or overruling events.

3. In redemption. “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.” By His Holy Spirit, and by various Christian ministries, He is ever working for the salvation of men from sin.

II. Man is engaged in endeavouring to understand the work of god. He seeks to “find out the work that God maketh.” Man is inquisitive as to God’s work in the physical creation; the astronomer, the geologist, the naturalist, the physiologist, and others endeavour to penetrate into the mystery of the Divine work in the material realms. The psychologist seeks to “understand the work that God maketh” in the realm of mind and heart. Man also scrutinizes the work of God in providence and in redemption. This is right. Reverently prosecuted, this study, of “the work that God maketh” is most quickening, inspiring, and saving m its influence on the student.

III. Man is unable to understand fully the work of god.

1. Man can understand the work of God in part. He can “find out”--

2. Man cannot understand the work of God fully. This is true as regards the material realm Every part of nature still has her mysteries to man. Nor are we able to understand fully God’s work in providence. There are chapters in the history of the human race which are inscrutable enigmas to us when we consider them in relation to His control of human affairs. Even in our own lives there are painful mysteries, e.g. privations, bereavements, afflictions, etc. Our very being is a mystery to us. We cannot understand much; we are speedily bewildered with difficulties, and troubled with what are to us dark and sad anomalies; but let us rejoice in the fact that God “maketh everything beautiful in its time”: the deformity, and sin, and sorrow are not of His making. Let us rejoice, too, that He will work on until order is developed out of the moral chaos of this world, and the sin-cursed earth blossoms into an Eden of unfading beauty. (W. Jones.)

Verse 12

Ecclesiastes 3:12

I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life.

Doing good and rejoicing

Solomon proposes two things to our practice, if we intend to live happily and comfortably in this world. First, that we do good; and, secondly, that we rejoice. I must invert the order in which the words stand in the text, because doing good is the reason why we rejoice; and to be sure there can be no true joy or comfort in possessing or using any worldly blessings, unless we can satisfy ourselves that we have done good with them. Doing good is a work of that known excellency in itself, yielding such sweetness and complacency in the practice of it, is so agreeable to the consent and opinion of all mankind in general, and so well pleasing and acceptable with God Himself, the grand Exemplar of doing good, that they must entirely have lost the principles of good nature, of improved reason, and revealed religion, who take care for none but themselves, regard not how it fares with others, so they may live in ease and plenty. Doing good is a public benefit, a great advantage to the world, and to the common state of mankind. Doing good, lastly, is a work of so large and comprehensive an extent, that high and low, rich and poor, learned or unlearned, may improve those talents God hath been pleased to entrust them with to His honour, and to the good of others; so that for me to go about to tell you what it is to do good, and wherein it consists, would be an endless task. However, superseding the most common acceptation of the phrase, of doing good by charity, and giving of alms, I shall reduce it to doing good to the benefit and advantage of the public; a subject no way unseasonable at all times, but more especially in these.

1. Men may do good by being diligent and industrious in their proper callings and particular employments, thereby rendering themselves very profitable members of a commonwealth. If we consult history, we shall find that the best men have all along been the most industrious in their respective places and offices; the worthy patriarchs, the holy prophets, the blessed apostles have been very exemplary and eminent in their doings for the service of God, and the benefit of mankind; nay, the angels are ever on the wing, in a readiness to receive and go upon God’s commands.

2. Men in public authority may do good by being careful, diligent and conscientious in the faithful discharge of those trusts and offices unto which they are called. That man who has a heart to act according to his duty is a public blessing, a man of great courage and resolution, aiming at nothing more than the glory of God and the public good; being always disposed in all his dealings to have a principal regard to the rules of his duty, and the dictates of his conscience, without being swayed by any appetite or passion, by any sinister respect to his own private interest, to the commission of any unworthy or base action, but acteth from good principles, and aims at good ends, without partiality, or distinguishing between public or private; can satisfy himself in his own conscience, and justify to all the world that his designs are truly good, and that whatever he doth, he doth all to the glory of God, and to the benefit of those over whom he presides. This is a reason why our Heavenly Father in His dispensations entrusts some with greater outward advantages than others, that they may have fairer opportunities of doing good. They are set up in the world as burning lights and visible examples to others, to recommend goodness to the minds and consciences of men by their own practice and conversation. I come now to the consequence of doing good, “for a man to rejoice.” By rejoicing, here we mean a constant habit of joy and cheerfulness, being always contented and well pleased, always free from those anxieties and uncomfortable reflections which render the life of man miserable and uneasy; virtue and innocence, a behaving ourselves so in the world that our consciences shall not reproach us. It is in vain to think of any true joy or peace without doing good. How pleasant and comfortable is it to us while we live, that sensible impression of delight which accompanies the duty at present, is proportionable to the necessity and strict injunction laid upon us to perform it; there is a sweet complacency in doing good, and being kind to those that want, for if even the bare wishes and desires of doing good, when out of our power, afford the well-wisher some degree of peace and content, and we can satisfy ourselves with the sincerity of our designs and purposes, then certainly when we can bring those wishes and desires to good effect, there cannot but be a spring of joy and pleasure arising in the soul, such an overflowing of the spirits as is not to be expressed in terms or words, and no one can fully understand it, but they that have been ravished with it. Our Saviour, we may observe throughout the Gospel, went about doing good; He coveted to spend His beams, rejoiced to spread His healing wings over every place He came to. And what delight do we find when we imitate Him! What inward peace and serenity of mind doth it raise, when love fills the heart, and stretches out the hand, when we carry about us the mercies of the Lord, are sent from the mercy-seat with comfort and relief to them that want both. How are we ourselves filled with joy and gladness, having had the honour and privilege of being in God’s stead to our brother at time of need; neither is this joy and satisfaction peculiar only to charity and relieving the poor and needy, but to all other actions and designs of doing good, upon what account soever, especially to those which are done for the public, for the honour and prosperity of Church and State. It is a favour that God gives us opportunities as well as abilities of doing good, and He hath allowed us to reap the profit and pleasure which redound from such good actions as long as we live; He seldom fails in this world amply to repay what good we do by outward blessings in the ordinary dispensations of His providence either one way or other, or it may be to our children after us. But it ends not here; this world lasts but a while, and we have souls that must live for ever. If, therefore, men have any kindness for them, if they mean not to undo them to all eternity, it is absolutely necessary that they should do good; let us then be all persuaded to labour and study to do good; let us be daily giving evidences to the public of our good dispositions towards it. (W. Baldwin, M. A.)

Life enjoyed and improved

All our temporal possessions are only valuable as they are expended upon ourselves or others; either as they aid our own comfort or advance the welfare of our fellow-creatures. Let me then call upon you--

I. To rejoice in them.

1. Let me begin with two cautions.

2. After having cautioned you, allow me to admonish. If you would rejoice in the good things which God gives you under the sun--

II. To do good.

1. What good can these things enable us to do?--It is of three kinds.

2. In what manner are we to do it?

3. Why we should be concerned to accomplish it.

Verse 14

Ecclesiastes 3:14

I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever.

The eternity and perfection of the Divine purposes and doings

Most important and consolatory truth is contained in these words. In it the Preacher seems to find refuge from the perplexity and uncertainty of human things; on it he seems to rest that conclusion of practical wisdom which he draws from the consideration of the vanities of human life; that it is the duty, and for the happiness of man, thankfully and confidingly to enjoy the good which he possesses, as bestowed at once, and secured by the merciful and unfailing providence of God. In this truth he seems to have found a rock, on which he might set his feet securely, being delivered by the light of Divine wisdom out of the unsteady and intricate paths of human short-sightedness and folly.

I. The very nature of man is transient and imperfect, much more the works in which he is engaged. Frail are they, and fugitive, mutable and perishable, uncertain and insecure, never continuing in one stay. This is the very property of a dependent and finite creature, who cannot set up a will of his own, or execute a work in opposition to the will, and exempt from the control of that Supreme Power who gave him his being, and to whom he is necessarily subject. But beside this essential insufficiency in man as a mere creature, sin has marred his limited powers, and induced corruptness, as well as imperfectness into all his works.

II. Consider, in opposition to this picture of man, the nature and works of god; more particularly as they have relation to, and affect mankind.

1. “Whatsoever God doeth it shall be for ever.”

2. But the purposes and works of God in relation to man are also perfect. They are entire, complete, and of finished excellence.

3. But especially, whatsoever He doeth in the covenant of His mercy, and in the salvation provided for man in His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ “shall be for ever; nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it.”

III. The end and motive which God hath in his doings, eternal and perfect as they are, is, that men may fear Him. Oh! what a holy and heavenly blending of gracious influences and sweet emotions is included in this godly fear; humble and awful reverence, bowing before the supreme greatness and goodness of the Lord God omnipotent; meek, and confiding trust, resting on His power and mercy, pledged, and engaged, and manifestly operating in behalf of fallen man; lively gratitude for surpassing grace, and redemption at once free and unfailing; pure and true love to infinite excellence of omnipotence and benevolence. This is sanctified, this is acceptable fear; this is that fear in which holiness must be perfected. (J. O. Parr, M. A.)

Verse 15

Ecclesiastes 3:15

That which hath been is now.

The impotency of time; or, the eternally permanent amidst the constantly fluctuating

“Impotency of time!” Why, time is anything but impotent! Is not its history a record of stupendous achievements? Are not the whole scene of our observation and sphere of our knowledge covered with tokens of its power? “Time impotent,” indeed! Its hand is on all things, and all things yield to its touch; it is the mighty sea that bears all things to our shore; and, anon, bears all away. Albeit, contrary though it may seem to our common ideas and feeling, a little thinking on the subject will convince us that the power of time is seeming, rather than real; and that there are high and practical senses in which it may be regarded as impotent. Time has not done much, notwithstanding all; “for that which hath been is now.” This language will apply--

I. To all the elements of material existence. The forms of the material world are constantly changing. Whole islands emerge from the ocean, whilst broad acres, once tilled by busy man, are entombed beneath its waves. The herbs, and flowers, and trees of the plantal realm, and the million tribes of air, and earth, and sea, belonging to the animal dominion, have changed many a thousand times since the days of Noah, and are changing every hour. But the elements of which the first types of all were formed are the same. Time, through all its mighty revolutions, cannot destroy an atom. The language of the text applies--

II. To all the spirits of mankind. Argument, we think, is not wanting to prove that all the human souls that ever have “been, are now.” On what do I base the conviction, that all the souls that ever have lived, are living still, and will live for ever? Purely on the testimony of Christ and His apostles. In the nature of the case there is but one way of knowing how long may creature is to live, and that is, by ascertaining what is the will of the necessary existing one in relation to Him. If He has willed that man shall live a year--however constitutionally strong--he shall live a year and no more; or if He has willed that he shall live for ever--however constitutionally weak--he shall live for ever. To know the limits of any being’s existence, I must know the will of God respecting it. All depends on His will. But has He revealed this in relation to human existence? He has. Christ comes forth to testify of this will; and He tells us, in language most unmistakable, that God has willed that man’s existence shall have no termination (Matthew 10:28; Luke 16:19, etc.; 20:38; John 5:24; John 8:51; John 12:24-28; John 14:2; John 14:8; 2 Corinthians 5:1-10; 2 Timothy 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:18; Philippians 1:23; 1 Peter 4:6).

III. To all the general types of human character. The same types reappear in all times. Your herods and hamans, your Athenians and Pharisees--indeed, every character in the Bible, and every character in history, seem to be living again in every age

IV. To all the principles of the Divine government. The forms of God’s dealings with humanity have passed through various changes. There was once simple Patriarchalism; then came gorgeous Judaism; and now we have spiritual Christianity; but the same principles are seen in each and all. Because of this un-alterableness, the physical philosopher can prophesy of things to come centuries hence; he can tell to the hour when an eclipse shall take place, when the tide shalt overflow its boundary, and when another comet shall sweep the horizon; and because of this, the moral philosopher, too, can predict with an unerring certainty, that if minds continue under the influence of certain principles of depravity, most terrible storms of anguish await them; but if under the influence of holy truth, their path shall be as the shining light, “that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.” And because of this, moreover, the good people who rightly appreciate the influences of the last economy, can appreciate in full the heart-language of the good people who rightly appreciated the influences of the first. Asaph can express his feelings in the language of Job, and Paul in the language of David, and the good of this age in the language of either or all.

V. To the grand design of all things. What is the great design of all things? On the assumption that the author of all is moral mind--distinguished by rectitude and love, and that all intelligent beings are His offspring--is it not lawful to conclude that the grand design in all must be the holy development of creature minds in gratitude, reverence, love, and assimilation to Himself? What we might thus, a priori, infer, all the facts of nature, history, consciousness, and the Bible contribute to establish.

VI. To the recollections of the human memory. Every sentence and every verse of providential history are written on the disembodied souls of the generations that are gone. The history of man is recorded, not in books, but in souls; and will be seen and studied in the great eternity.

VII. To all the conditions of man’s well-being. Look at the condition of man’s physical well-being. Is it not true that on wholesome food, fresh air, and proper exercise the health of the human body has ever depended? Look at man’s intellectual well-being. Is it not true that on observation, comparison, research, and reflection the progress of the human mind has ever been suspended? Look at his spiritual well-being. Have not repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ been always the necessary condition of human salvation? In relation to all these things we may say, with the greatest truth, that “that which-hath been is now.” It has ever been thus, that the man who violated the physical laws of his being has lost his health and sunk to the grave; it has always been, that he who neglected the conditions of intellectual improvement has never risen beyond the level of the brute; and it has always been, that he who did not “repent” has perished; and that he who did not believe has been damned. (Homilist.)

Stability amidst change

This apothegm is not to be taken without some limitation. It intends not to assert that there is absolutely no change, no variety, no progress or improvement in any direction, from time to time; but it sententiously expresses the truth, or truths, that over all change there presides a law of permanence; that amidst all variety there exists a standard of uniformity; that much which seems to be new is in fact old; that the main features of the past are reproduced in the present, and will be again reproduced in the future; that the great principles of human nature and of the Divine government remain the same in all ages. In this view of the text, it gravely opposes its wisdom to those manifestations, now of Vanity, and now of discontent, which are evinced in the disparagement and rejection of what has hitherto been received, cherished and reverenced. We often hear that the world has outgrown such and such opinions, habits or modes of action. Occasionally the assertion is made considerately, and is true. It is made concerning cruelties, superstitions, and puerilities which the world ought to outgrow, and which a part of the world has partly outgrown, as any observer may see. But the trouble and annoyance is that the same assertion is used by half-sighted and confident men to signify the supposed triumph of their own fancies, and with regard to things which the world ought not to outgrow, and has not in reality outgrown, because they are good and durable in themselves. No sooner do a few individuals learn to neglect and despise certain religious forms, than they declare that the world has outgrown them. We do not outgrow a thing, in the true sense of becoming too wise for it, simply because we neglect and forget it in a season of indifference, or cast it away from us in a time of strife and excitement. The whole French nation once thought that they had outgrown religion, when in fact they had only renounced it, and renounced a great good; and they never acted so madly as during that period of delusion. We are often told that the world is outgrowing, or has outgrown, forms. How far is this true? Only to a limited extent. All life and all nature and all art are full of forms, are hardly anything but forms. In every form there is a spirit, which is its life. Sometimes the spirit departs from it, and then it dies. Sometimes the form which envelops the spirit is made too cumbrous by superfluous foldings, and then the form must be reduced, in order that the spirit may have breath. But the spirit survives, in the same form renewed, or in some other. In some instances the spirit may act without a form, or in a form so reserved as to be imperceptible to common eyes. Masses for the dead are not outwardly celebrated by ourselves, But the spirit of that form is the desire springing from irrepressible affection to do something by the way of intercession for the departed souls of those whom we have loved. It may be our doctrine that the state of those souls is now fixed and unchangeable, but it is our feeling that something may yet be done for them by earnest supplication; and there must be many a one who, though he would not think of asking for a requiem from the Church, yet puts up his own prayers for his own dead in the silent church of his own bosom. It is evident that there are forms which, by their spirit, are so connected with our eternal affections that, however they may be varied, they can never be outgrown. Meanwhile, let us be satisfied that the essential things remain, and will remain, and that the world cannot outgrow them. Religion remains; for the nature of man requires it. Faith in Christ remains; for He is the Mediator between God and man, revealing the will of God, and manifesting the glory of the Father; and man must go to Him for the words of eternal life. The Bible remains; for it is spread through the world, and guarded by its own sanctity and man’s gratitude. Prayer remains, for man must speak to his Maker, and the language of his communion is prayer. And things which appear to some less essential and permanent than these, will still remain. Not only will religion remain in spirit, but in external form; for man has senses as well as a soul. Forms may be modified, but form will remain. Ordinances will remain; for religion demands manifestation; and especially will those two ordinances remain, which the Saviour enjoined, and which the Church from the very first has continued. Music will accompany worship, and elevate piety, while man has an ear for harmony. Churches will be reared with the best graces of architecture, while man has an eye for fitness, proportion, and beauty. Let us not fear the occasional outcries of destructiveness, or be troubled by the whispered fears of timidity. The things which we love and have reason to love, and which have helped us and made our solace, will not be outgrown. If they have engaged love, true and pure love, they are worthy and lasting. If they have touched and opened the inmost fountains of feeling, they are real and durable. Let us not fear for them nor distrust them, but be true to them, and they will be true to us. (F. W. P. Greenwood, D. D.)

God requireth that which is past.--

Life an organic unity

We may render the clause more literally and intelligently: “God taketh account, maketh inquisition, for that which has fled away.” No part of life is isolated, but each period is connected with what has gone before and with what comes after; all are combined to make a vital, organic whole, so that in judging of the present we are really judging the past, as in the day of final adjudication the acts of the bygone years will come up for approval or condemnation before the Judge of all the earth. We are to-day what we are by means of the past, and the future is conditioned on the present. Life evolves itself out of the present; as the stream at the mouth bears a constant relation to all the streams that have watered the hills, so age is related to youth. As the crest of foliage lifted by the trees bears its relation to the root, so does life’s flower and fruitage stand related to early years of culture and of growth. We know this. When we are censured or reproved we know that it is not the present alone that is judged, but the past. Knowledge is not extemporaneous. It is not a sudden acquisition, any more than a ship, or palace, or a city with its splendid mansions, spacious avenues or extended commerce, are extemporized by nations. We sometimes listen to one in conversation and are tempted to credit him with intuitive sagacity, with native wisdom, whereas his rich and ready speech pours its golden opulence only as molten metal gushes out from the open furnace when it has felt the purifying fires within. Research and experiment, successes and failures, have wrought together to make his knowledge accurate, compact, available. So in art, the painter is not what he is by mere spontaneous, involuntary impulse. Study, practice, patient and protracted toil have given him skill. So the poet, the musician, the advocate, the physician or the orator is what he is to-day only by virtue of the past. The past has been the arena of toilful struggles, and it is that which is judged. Sometimes it has been too brief for adequate preparation, and failure follows. Again, in the customs by which our life is governed or inspired or limited we see the same principle at work. By resistance or by yielding to various influences brought to bear upon us we come to be what we are, strong against temptation or weak before its alluring power. Paul’s retirement in Arabia was a part of his training. Every contest and conquest taught him. As he bore the chain on his hand he learned patience. As he looked on the soldiers that guarded him, or on the household of the emperor, or as he contemplated the crown which he himself would wear in heaven, he learned more of himself and his Saviour. The fanaticism of Pharisee, the scepticism of philosopher, and the bigotry of the Jew all taught him. In that one moment when he lifted up his last prayer before he suffered was reflected a lifetime of noble consecration and self-discipline. In the special states of mind which control our judgment the same fact reappears. One person is habitually gloomy, another gay and frivolous. Thus life comes out of the past. Its habits and states of feeling to-day reflect the habits of other years. Here is the philosophy of history. It is not a series of isolated events, a concatenation of unprophesied occurrences, but a continuous unity. The theme teaches us the solemnity of life. (R. S. Storrs, D. D.)

Review of life

I. A review of past means and privileges. By these, I mean your having been born in a land of vision where the Saviour of the world is known. I mean, your having had the Word of life, not only to read, hut also to hear. I mean, your having had ministers to call you to repentance, to warn you of your danger, to beseech you in Christ’s stead to be reconciled unto God. I mean, the various ordinances of the sanctuary, and all the helps to seriousness and devotion which the goodness of God has afforded you. What influence have all these had upon your minds? Are you crucified to the world? Are you denying yourselves, and taking up your cross, and following the Saviour? Are your affections more spiritual, your principles more powerful, your minds more enlightened?

II. A review of past mercies. How many times has He lulled you to sleep in His arms; fed you at His table; clothed you from His wardrobe! How often has He supplied your wants, and wiped away tears from your eyes! When brought low, has lie not helped you? When in jeopardy, has He not defended you? When sickness has alarmed your fears, has He not led you back from the gates of the grave? When accidents have been ready to destroy, have not “all your bones said, who is a God like unto Thee?” If we had indulged a person year after year all through life, should we not require him to think of it; to be sensible of our kindness, and to behave towards us in a manner becoming his obligations? There is nothing perhaps we feel more painfully than the ungrateful reception of the favours we bestow: and a very few instances of unthankfulness are sufficient to induce us to discontinue our benefits. What, then, does God think of us?

III. A review of our past sorrows and distresses. It is an awful thing to come out of trouble; for iii always leaves us better or worse than it finds us. We should therefore ask with peculiar concern--“What benefit have I derived from such a visitation of Divine Providence? The rod spoke--did I hear its message? The physician has been employed--is my distemper even beyond the reach of medicine? I have lost the life of my friend--and have I lost his death too? My relation has entered the joy of his Lord--I have one reason for loving earth less, and do I love it more? one reason for loving heaven more, and do I love it less?”

IV. A review of past sins. Many of these have grown out of our privileges, our mercies, and our trials. They have been attended with singular aggravations. They are more in number than the hairs of our head. In many things we offend all, This review is painful--but it is useful, it is necessary. It will lead us to admire the longsuffering of God, in bearing with us year after year. It will be a call to repentance. It will humble us. It will promote charity. We shall be tender towards others, in proportion as we deal honestly and severely with ourselves. It will be a spur to diligence. You have much lost time to redeem, and much lost ground to recover. (W. Jay.)

Past years returning

We say in popular language of a departed year, that it is gone. But in truth it is not gone. Nothing in it is lost--lost to itself, to the universe, or to any who have lived through it. “God requireth that which is past.”

I. The law of memory shows that God requires the past. All that ever hath been, so far as humanity is concerned, is now living in the memory of all the individual men that ever lived. Memory has now its resurrections. Scarcely an hour departs, in which some grave does not open, and the ghost of some long-buried event does not start up to life. As ocean prints her undulations on the shore, memory prints our actions and events on the soul--a tablet, this, not, however, like sand; but like eternal adamant.

II. The law of moral causation shows that God requires the past. There is nothing living on which you can fix your eyes that is not to-day the effect of all the causes and influences that have been operating on it from the beginning of its existence. This is true of the globe itself. Its condition to-day is the result of all the forces that have been acting upon it through the most distant periods of geological calculation. This is true of the intellect. The state of my intellect at this hour is the result of all the thoughts that have over coursed their way through my soul. This law holds true in relation to character, Nothing that man does ever dies: no act terminates in itself, it makes an everlasting impression, it becomes an element in the moral existence of its author, it sends its vibrations along the lines of the endless future.

III. The law of conscience shows that God requires the past. Conscience, both in the savage and the sage, foreshadows the scene of coming retribution. It had heard the trumpet blast; it has seen the Judge enthroned, the prisoner arraigned, the books opened, the witnesses examined; has heard the sentence pronounced and marked the final delivery of the culprit into the everlasting custody of justice. The structure of the human eye does not more clearly imply the existence of light, than the forebodings of a guilty conscience the existence of future retribution. (Homilist.)

God requireth that which is past

In what senses does God require the past?

I. God requires that which is past in the way of natural law.

1. The matter of the past God requires to-day. The mighty primeval forests which reared their lofty heads and waved their huge branches, and the earth’s elements which rolled in fiery flood ages before the human era, God requireth now in this age of advanced civilization, and they answer the requirement, the one by furnishing coal, the other by supplying granite and metals for the use of man. And as of the remote past, so of the nearer. The leaves which a day or two back we saw chased hither and thither by the spirit of the wind will contribute their due portion to the vegetation of the coming year.

2. What is thus true of nature is true also of society. The year has been what it has because of what it has received from the past, and in turn it will hand down to the coming years its vast inheritance of the past increased with its own individual contribution.

3. As also by natural law God requires the evil and the good that are past. You see a nation as Greece, or as Spain, once so great, now without physical energy or moral vigour; it is the judgment exacted or required by natural law for the vices and follies of the fathers and forefathers. You see certain weakly or diseased children; the wickedness of the generation before them is therein required of them. The excesses of the youth by natural law God will sooner or later require in the man’s disordered physical system, or in his undermined constitution succumbing to some disease. But it is more true of the good than of the evil that God requireth the past. Has Abraham’s faith perished? Has Jacob’s wrestling prayer died? Have David’s psalms and prophets’ word, and, above all, have the truth and grace of the good Lord Himself wrought so long ago perished? Our mighty dead are with us in the saintlier lives, in the freer thought, in the ampler work of the Church go-day. No; the past is not gone. Time does not triumph over us. By natural laws God preserves the past. God requireth that which is past. In requiring, however, the past through natural law, there is no appeal to the human will.

II. We pass now to the sphere of will, and say that a second chief way in which God requireth that which is past is by means of the moral law. Here God appeals go man to render somewhat suitable to his past. Here, ere the requirement of God can be met, man must consent and co-operate.

1. In this sphere God requireth that which is past by requiring thankfulness for past mercies. No state of heart is so happy as that of thankfulness, as no state is so conducive go the right use of God’s gifts. Be ye thankful.

2. But while we have received mercies many, who, as he looks over this year, is not conscious of sin? and for the sin which is past God requireth penitence.

3. But God has given us time and place here, and has so constituted our life that it puts us through a wise discipline; and for this discipline of the past God requireth character and service. Have we fashioned the limbs of the moral man--honesty, sincerity, justice, honourableness--into greater strength and beauty? Have we produced any of the finer lines of gentleness, lowliness, meekness, devoutness, which are so glorious in our Divine model?

III. God requires the past in the way of future judgment. God, at the judgment, will require that. The modern mode of conceiving of past time differs from the ancient mode. We think of past time as something left behind us; the ancients thought of past time as something gone before them. Tempus fugit (time flies) was the common expression of classic thought; the notion being that time was ever moving forward, requiring therefore prompt action to use it, and suggesting that when past it had fled not behind but before us. In like manner in Arabic philosophy, and in the Koran, authorities inform us that past deeds are conceived of not as left behind but as gone on before, waiting in yonder great future go confront their doers. It is this conception of past time that the original of our text presents. And this view is just. The moral feeling of all races anticipates judgment to come. Though pride and unbelief will beat down the feeling, yet, naturally, the bad man instinctively dreads the future, and the good man instinctively hopes. There is a judgment-hall within us where conscience sits; her judgments, however, are often slighted, drowned sometimes in the clamour of a rabble of worldly considerations; in such circumstances she anticipates and appeals go the future judgment to confirm and enforce her despised judgment. The unrepented evil will be known and declared. That undiscovered lie, that secret immorality, that unknown fraud, that godlessness of the heart, that enmity of the mind, that unbelief of the spirit; all will stand clearly revealed, anal judgment just will be passed. We cannot deceive Him the Omniscient, nor elude Him the Omnipresent. There is no escape from that supreme judgment. From the sentence of that judgment what vast issues will flow! Eternal life or the second death! Heaven or Gehenna! Let us, then, prepare for that judgment by requiring from ourselves our past. (A. Goodrich, D. D.)

The indelibility of the past

I. The fact that there is a sense in which the past is never done away with, will appear at once, from many considerations, to any one who reflects upon the subject. There is nothing which we are more likely to forget than the truth which St. Paul expressed when he said, “A man cannot live unto himself.” To go no farther, every man must have some influence upon his immediate relatives. The parent has some influence upon his children. But it is not only as regard others--important and awful though that be--that “that which hath been is now.”

II. Even if all the injury we may have done to others by a course of which we have now repented, still the past will leave its marks upon ourselves; marks which no repentance will blot out. Just as there are dangerous wounds which, long after they have been healed, leave a tenderness in the part which they affected, or, at all events, leave a sear which never can be removed; just as there are diseases which leave behind them a delicacy, or of which, even after they are thoroughly eradicated, there remain in the robust frame the everlasting marks; so a course of sin, even when it does not--and I believe this is the exception--even when it does not cause a permanent delicacy, still leaves behind it the marks of its once putrefying wounds and bruises and sores, long after they have been healed by the Great Physician. We have been saved from death, but great and unceasing care is henceforth absolutely necessary. Our sickness is over, but our countenance is changed. Mortification has been checked by the timely amputation of a limb; we are in full health, but we never get the limb back again. There are, no doubt, those who, by God’s grace, attain, as nearly as possible, to the character of those who had never yielded themselves deliberately to courses of sin or carelessness. There are prodigals who are not only forgiven and received with readiness and joy, but in whom tile traces of wantonness and degradation or selfishness have become almost, if not altogether, imperceptible; between whorl and the son who had “ever been with his father” no man can observe the difference. Still, even to such, the past is not a blank. It cannot but be that the gloomy recollection will often cross his mind of those who have passed away now from his influence, and whom he once influenced for evil; and who will say that as such a memory blends with the anticipation of the time when they shall meet again, and suggests, as it will suggest, the judgment of the Great Day--who will say that the past of the pardoned and accepted penitent is not painfully required of him? (J. C. Coghlan, D. D.)

The permanence of the past

In God’s great universe there is no absolute past. Time and space are the same. They have no true reality, but are mere modes of contemplation--conditions by which objects are rendered perceptible to us. Before God, endowed with the powers which we lack, the whole history of the universe appears immediately and at once. The extension of time and the extension of space cannot be distinguished from one another. The relations of past and future disappear; they form one magnificent whole. He fills at once the boundless infinitude of His being. He is the Alpha at the same time that He is the Omega. With Him beginning and ending coalesce and enclose everything intermediate.

I. God requireth the past throughout the universe. What are our sciences but memories of the pasty Astronomy is the memory of the universe; geology is the memory of the earth; history is the memory of the human race. There is nothing forgotten or left behind. The past is brought forward into the present, and out of the past the future grows. Each material form bears in itself the record of its past history; each ray of light carries the picture of that from which it has come. Owing to the wonderful improvement that has taken place in the construction and study of the spectroscope, we are learning more and more to read the secrets, not only of the present, but also of the past history of the stars. The astronomer can not only calculate their future movements, but also recall their former phenomena. Then what a faithful testimony has our own earth kept of the changes through which it has passed! The geologist, from the unmistakable signs which he sees in the rocks, can reconstruct in imagination the seas and shores that vanished untold ages ago. Memory is not a faculty peculiar to mind, it exists in each nerve-centre, whether of sensation or motion, as is proved by the fact that each nerve-centre can be educated to respond to impressions. It is a property of every tissue of the body. The scar of a wound is the recollection by the tissue of the injury which it has received; and the marks of the small-pox are an evidence that the whole system remembers the attack of the disease. There is such a thing, too, as ancestral memory; and the hereditary traits and peculiarities which successive generations exhibit testify to its permanence. Many of the strange instincts, mysterious associations, and shadowy recollections for whose origin in our own experience we cannot account, and which Wordsworth in his famous “Ode” alludes to as intimations of a Divine home recently left, may be traces in us of the memory of our forefathers which we have inherited. What are the phenomena of rejuvenescence in plants but a reminding--a grasping anew amid the old withered decaying forms of life of the ideal or type--a going back to the first fair condition! Nature never forgets. Nothing perishes without leaving a record of it behind. The past history of the universe is not only preserved in the memory of God, but is also inscribed upon its own tablets.

II. God requireth the past for our present consolation. He takes up all we have left behind in the plenitude of His existence. The friends who have gone from us live in Him; the days that are no more are revived in Him. He is intimately acquainted, not only with our present thoughts, but also with the whole of our past experience. The images of the past that haunt our own minds are ineffaceably impressed upon His also. In converse with Him, in whom thus all our life is hid, upon whose mind the whole picture of our existence is mirrored, we feel that, though lonely, we are not alone--though the perishing creatures of a day, we are living even now in eternity.

III. God requireth the past for its restoration. As the context indicates, it is a law of the Divine manifestation, a mode of the Divine working in every department, that the past should be brought forward into the present, the old reproduced in the new. In nature and religion the progressive and the conservative elements are combined. Each new stratum of rock is formed out of the ruin of the previous strata. In man himself the characteristics of each age are carried along with him through every advancing stage of life, and the child-heart may be retained in extreme old age. In the history of nations the past overshadows and forms the present, and the modifications which existing institutions undergo are based upon the solid advantages of old institutions; while “freedom broadens slowly down from precedent to precedent.” In like manner in Scripture every advancing event is marked by new powers and destined for higher ends; but with these are always essentially recapitulated all things that have been previously employed. The system of truth contained in the successive dispensations of religion is one and the same. God, in His house not made with hands, is not doing as we do when our household goods are old and worn out and we replace them by things altogether new. He is not continually refurnishing the earth. He is causing the same flowers and trees and streams to appear season after season. He never wearies of repeating the old familiar things. He keeps age after age, generation after generation, year after year, the same old home-feeling in His earth for us. And is not this a strong argument that lie will keep the old home-feeling for us in heaven; that we shall find ourselves beyond the river of death in the midst of all the former familiar things of our life, just as when we get out of the winter gloom and desolation of any year, we find ourselves in the midst of all that made the former springs and summers so sweet and precious to us? I love to think of heaven as a recollection, and to believe that the kingdom of God in its highest sense is the restitution of all things. Wasted, toiling humanity, after the great circumnavigation of human history is over, will return to its early purity and glory. The tree of life will bloom again, and the river of life will flow through the paradise regained. The New Jerusalem will descend from God out of heaven, “not in the unearthly splendours of an unknown apocalypse, but as a lark descends from the skies to the nest she had dwelt and loved in.”

IV. But closely connected with the brightness of such thoughts as these is the shadow of the solemn one that God requireth the past for judgment. The stars of heaven witness and retain the scenes and events of our earth. The pictures of all secret deeds that have ever been done really and actually exist, glancing by the vibration of light farther and farther in the universe. We are continually endowing the inanimate earth with our own consciousness, impressing our own moral history upon the objects around us; and these objects react upon us in recalling that history. The sky and the earth are thus books of remembrance that witness against us, and God will open them on the great day. “He shall call to the heavens from above and to the earth beneath, that He may judge His people.” In ourselves, too, there are indelible records of our former history. The whole past of our lives is with us in the present, and accompanies us into the future; and whatever we have done or suffered or been has entered into our deeper being, and we have only to go there to find it. Memory is indestructible. We cannot undo the past and begin afresh. We have to take the past as the starting-point and determining element of the future. We are what the past has made us; and the memory of former things is indelible. But the Gospel reminds us that what cannot be obliterated may be transmuted by Divine grace. In Christ Jesus we may become new creatures; and in the eternal life that we begin, in union with Him, all old things, so far as there is any condemning power in them, pass away, and all things in the transfiguring light of heavenly love become new. (H. Macmillan, D. D.)

Overhauling the past

There is in law what they call a release. If you have an incumbrance upon your property, by the payment of a certain sum of money on your part the person to whom you are obligated gives you a document freeing your property from any incumbrance. That is a release. Well, when a man becomes a Christian, for and in consideration of what Christ has paid in his behalf, God grants him a full release, and all his old sins go down into the very depths of the ocean, never to be brought up again, neither in the crises of this world nor in the Day of Judgment; but until that arrangement is made, “God requireth that which is past.” There are in our lives, however insignificant, a multitude of events for which we must give account.

1. In the first place, God will require of us all our past unrecognized blessings. Oh, God has been very good to you. Have you been good to God? “God requireth that which is past.” More than Chat, He saw you dying, and sent an angel to redeem you. Did He? No. He sent His only Son. Why? To heal your wounds, and to wipe away your tears, and to carry your burdens, and to die your death, and to save your soul; and for these last ten or twenty years He has been asking of you one little thing, and that is that you would let Him just stand inside the door of your heart. Oh, have you done it?

2. Again, God will require of you, and does require of you, the warnings that were unheeded all your life. Did any of you have narrow escapes? He has made a record of them, and “He requires that which is past.” So God will require of you all the warnings that came to you through sickness. So, also, God will require of you all those warnings that came to you through the sudden decease of your friends. I suppose that there have been thirty or forty startling providences in your life, when you were impressed with the fact--more or less impressed with it--that life was uncertain, and that at any moment eternity might move in upon your soul. How did you feel about it? Did you put the warnings that God gave you to any practical application, or has it been proved that there is no power in God’s providences to move and arouse and arrest your soul? There are three points at which “God requires that which is past.”

The past

It is by no means an uncustomary thing for a traveller passing through a certain country to make his pauses and to reflect upon the path he has already travelled, and to map out before him the path he has to travel, and to decide in his own mind upon the course he shall take most calculated to bring him with safety to his journey’s end. He doubtless recalls some of the scenes he has passed through, whether of stirring interest or otherwise. And while doing this he is impressed with a consciousness of enlarged experience; and if he is not a fool he will make this experience serve him for his advantage in the future. Even so with the Christian traveller, he has his pauses in the journey of life. He brings before his mind the memory of the past when he comes to the close of an old year, and looks onward to the beginning of a new one. It becomes us all to examine ourselves, to trace back our past lives, and to look forward to the future, for the very reason assigned to us by the words of Solomon, “God requireth that which is past.”

1. We find the text borne out according to the requirements of the natural world around us. Nothing of the past is absolutely lost, but, in some form or other, ever connected with the passing present.

2. We often speak of forgetting a thing, as ii by its banishment from the memory it were lost, gone, and perished. But there is nothing forgotten: for “God requireth that which is past.” “The winds travel on their course, and seem to sweep past us, but they do a work which never perishes. The waves flow high, and seem to steal away, but each wave contributes a donation to the business of creation which never perishes. The sun rises, and shines, and sinks away again, but leaves behind him an alms-offering to the charities of fruition and of sustenance which never perishes. Men are born, and live, and toil, and die, and are by men forgotten; but their work never perishes.”

3. Consider these words as they refer to our individual influence upon others.

4. The text reminds us all of the impossibility of escaping from our responsibilities.

5. The text, while thus binding the past, present and future together in Deity, acts as an excellent monition for our future guidance. It tells us that the past can be improved upon, and, while gone beyond our reach and never to return to us again, we can nevertheless seize the passing moment, and so, from its warning, enter with renewed courage and with renewed hope upon the scenes of life lying before us, untravelled and unknown. (W. D. Horwood.)

Verse 17

Ecclesiastes 3:17

God shall judge the righteous and the wicked.

The reasonableness and equity of a future judgment

I. It is reasonable and equal that there should be a future judgment.

1. Seeing all men come hither without any knowledge or choice, having their life, as it were, obtruded on them; and seeing ordinarily (according to the general complaints of men) the pains of this life do overbalance its pleasures; so that it seemeth, in regard to what men find here, a punishment to be born; it seemeth also thence equal that men should he put into a capacity, on their good behaviour in this troublesome state, of a better state hereafter, in compensation for what they endure here; otherwise God might seem not to have dealt fairly with His creatures.

2. Seeing man is endued with a free choice and power over his actions, and thence by a good or bad use thereof is capable of deserving well or ill, it is just that a respective difference be made, according to due estimation; and that men answerably should be proceeded with either here or hereafter, reaping the fruits of what they voluntarily did sow.

3. Seeing there is a natural subordination of man to God, as of a creature to his Maker, as of a subject or servant to his lord, as of a client or dependant to his patron, protector, and benefactor, whence correspondent obligations do result; it is just that men should be accountable for the performance, and for the violation or neglect of them.

4. Seeing also there are natural relations of men to one another, and frequent transactions between them, founding several duties of humanity and justice; the which may be observed or transgressed; so that some men shall do, and others suffer much injury, without any possible redress from otherwhere, it is fit that a reference of such cases should be made to the common Patron of right, and that by Him they should be so decided, that due amends should he made to one party, and fit correction inflicted on the other.

5. Whereas also there are many secret good actions, many inward good dispositions, good wishes, and good purposes, unto which here no honour, no profit, no pleasure, no sort of benefit is annexed, or indeed well can be (they being indiscernible to men), there are likewise many bad practices and designs concealed or disguised, so as necessarily to pass away without any check, any disgrace, any damage or chastisement here, it is most equal that hereafter both these kinds should be disclosed, and obtain answerable recompense.

6. There are also persons whom, although committing grievous wrong, oppression, and other heinous misdemeanours, offensive to God and man, yet, by reason of the inviolable sacredness of their authority, or because of their uncontrollable power, no justice hero can reach, nor punishment can touch; who therefore should be reserved to the impartial and irresistible judgment of God.

7. On these and the like accounts, equity requireth that a judgment should pass on the deeds of men; and thereto the common opinions of men and the private dictates of each man’s conscience do attest.

8. Every man also having committed any notable misdemeanour (repugnant to piety, justice, or sobriety), doth naturally accuse himself for it, doth in his heart sentence himself to deserve punishment, and doth stand possessed with a dread thereof; so, even unwillingly, avouching the equity of a judgment, and by a forcible instinct presaging it to come.

II. It is further, on divers accounts, requisite and needful that men should have an apprehension concerning such a judgment appointed by God, and consequently that such an one should really be.

1. It is needful to engage men on the practice of any virtue, and to restrain them from any vice; for that indeed without it, no consideration of reason, no provision of law here, can he much available to those purposes.

2. The same supposition is also needful for the welfare of human society; the which, without the practice of justice, fidelity, and other virtues, can hardly subsist; without which practice indeed a body of men would be worse than a company of wolves or foxes; and vain it were to think that it can anywhere stand without conscience; and conscience, without fear checking, or hope spurring it on, can be no more than a name: all societies, therefore, we may see, have been fain to call in the notion of a future judgment to the aid of justice and support of fidelity; obliging men to bind their testimonies by oaths, and plight their truth by sacraments; implying a dread of that Divine judgment to which they solemnly do then appeal and make themselves accountable.

3. But, further, the persuasion concerning a future judgment is, on peculiar accounts, most requisite to the support of religion and defence of piety. It is certain that no authority, on whatever reason or equity grounded, if it do not present competent encouragements to obedient subjects, if it do not hold forth an armed hand, menacing chastisement to the refractory, will signify anything, or be able to sustain the respect due to it; so it is generally; and so it is even in regard to God, the sovereign King and Governor of the world, as piety doth suppose Him: His authority will never be maintained, His laws will never be obeyed, the duties towards Him will never be minded, without influence on the hopes and fears of men; they will not yield to Him any reverence, they will nowise regard His commands, if they may not from their respect and obedience expect good benefit, if they dread not a sore vengeance for their rebellion or neglect; nothing to them will seem more fond than to serve Him who doth not well requite for the performance, than to revere Him, who doth not soundly punish for the neglect of His service. Forasmuch also as piety doth require duties somewhat high and hard, as much crossing the natural inclinations and desires of men, it peculiarly, for the overruling such aversion, doth need answerably great encouragements to the practice, and determents from the transgression of what it requireth; on which score it may also further appear that temporal judgments and recompenses here are not sufficient to procure a due obedience to the laws of piety; for how indeed can he, that for the sake of piety doth undergo disgrace, loss, or pain, expect to be satisfied here? What other benefits can he presume on beside those which he doth presently forfeit? (Isaac Barrow, D. D.)

Verses 19-21

Ecclesiastes 3:19-21

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts.

Man and beast

It is difficult to determine the exact object of Ecclesiastes in instituting this comparison: partly because the Hebrew is capable, in one or two places, of different translations; and partly because it is possible to take very different views of the connection between the two things which Ecclesiastes had “said in his heart.” One view which may be taken of this connection is that Ecclesiastes, having recorded his conviction that the righteous God will yet judge between the righteous and the wicked, goes on to record how he had speculated as to the reason why God does not always execute this judgment here and now. It had occurred to him that the reason of this might be to “prove” or “test” men, and to show them that, in and of “themselves,” they were liable to degenerate into a mere animal life. There is for man both probation and self-revelation in the fact that God does not visit all wickedness with immediate and manifest punishment. If a man thrusts his hand into the fire it is at once burnt: the suffering follows immediately on the action, and the man is not likely to do the same thing again. Now, if all violations of the moral law were followed likewise by such immediate and manifest consequences, there might be a test of human prudence, but there would scarcely be any test of human virtue. If, for example, every man who should commit an act of dishonesty were--at once and without fail--to be stricken with paralysis, there would be no more virtue in honesty than there is now in keeping one’s hand out of the fire. But the fact that God often postpones the manifest punishment of iniquity, and allows wicked men sometimes even to trample upon the righteous with apparent impunity, affords a test of moral character, and leaves room for the exercise of virtues which are the result, not of mere prudence, but of an actual allegiance to God and righteousness. And this kind of probation, to which men are subjected, becomes an instrument of self-revelation. Men see how much of the animal there is in their nature. The spirit of man, indeed, “goeth upward” at death; and the spirit of the beast “goeth downward to the earth”: but “who knoweth” the exact difference between the two? The difference of destination does not make itself manifest to the senses. To all outward appearance the dissolution of the man and of the beast is exactly the same kind of thing; the human being does not appear to have any pre-eminence in this respect over the mere animal. Now, all these circumstances and appearances put men to the proof; they test men as to whether they will allow themselves to sink down into a mare animal, selfish life, or whether they will follow those Divine inspirations which link them to God, beckon them to righteousness, and point them to immortality. But there is another and very different view which may be taken of the passage. According to this view, Ecclesiastes is here recording a mood of materialistic scepticism through which he had passed. The two things which he had “said in his heart” were like the “two voices” of Tennyson’s poem--voices conflicting with one another for the mastery, and plunging the soul for a time into doubt and perplexity (verse 21, R.V.). Supposing this, then, to be the real drift of the passage before us, we surely need not be surprised that Ecclesiastes, in presence of the problems of life, should have passed through some such mood of materialistic scepticism. But it would seem that Ecclesiastes did not remain permanently in this sceptical attitude. We may regard him as here telling his readers what he had “said in his heart” about man and beast: he is not necessarily endorsing it at the time when he writes this book. On the contrary, it would appear from other passages that he was now clinging to the assurance that God would yet judge between righteous and wicked men, and that the spirit of man does not perish at death. Now, if Ecclesiastes could thus, with the light he had, arrive at the final conviction that the human spirit survives the dissolution of the body, surely we, in the fuller light of the Christian revelation, may well overcome the chilling doubts which may sometimes creep in upon our souls. Events, indeed, sometimes occur in the providence of God, which utterly baffle our understanding, and which seem almost to deal with men as if they were mere animals. Catastrophes happen, in which men seem to be taken as if they were “fishes of the sea.” The most brilliant thinker suddenly meets with a blow on the head which robs him, for a time, of all power of thought. Such things as these may stagger us. But we recover faith when we look to Jesus Christ as the Light of the World, and the Revealer of the Father. He who gave His Son to die for us, and who has led us to trust in His own fatherly love will not let us go down into nothingness. He who “died for us and rose again” has shown Himself to be the conqueror of death; and, “because He lives, we shall live also.” Glorying in His character and cross, and receiving into our hearts somewhat of His own spirit, we become conscious of thoughts, motives, and aspirations which raise us above our mere animal nature and contain within themselves the earnest of immortality. (T. C. Finlayson.)

Verse 22

Ecclesiastes 3:22

There is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his own works.

Worldliness: the Epicurean gospel

These words seem to mean that a man had better get all he can, and then enjoy what he has gathered, for that is his share of the world’s good things, and as life is short it is best to spend it as pleasantly as possible. The advice has been often given; it will, I expect, be often given again. We are familiar with it in many forms. Seize the passing day and make it a day of enjoyment. Beauty and brightness, wine and song--make the most of them while you can, for neither you nor they will be long here. This is the sum of many men’s idea of life. Whether gross or refined in its outward forms, the idea remains essentially the same. We sometimes speak of it as an Epicurean view, naming it from the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Not that it originated with him, for it is older far; as old, in fact, as human nature. But Epicurus reduced it to a system, gave it form and logical consistency, so as to make it a philosophy. He, too, presented it under its least repulsive features, for he seems to have been personally an estimable man. But nothing, not even genius, can redeem such a mode of thought from reproach, for it is altogether earthly and of the senses. It makes much of the animal element in our nature; ii lives intoxicated with the outward and visible. Yet, for this very reason it has always been popular both in theory and practice, especially in practice. Great numbers have an intense love for the pleasures of sense, though they would shrink from confessing oven to themselves how great a part of their lives these pleasures occupy. But if men have any touch of cultivation, they cannot be content to live the life of unmixed animalism. A sense of dignity, always awakened by thought, protests and rebels. They must take their pleasure with something to qualify its grossness. I know no better type of the class of which I am thinking than King Charles II. No one can compliment the purity of the pleasures in which he indulged. And yet the man of cultivation and refinement flashes out from the very midst of those scenes of revelry. There is an urbanity, a kindliness, a moderation even, which are not without their charms, tie never went to the extremes which injure health and inspire disgust. He was a lover, too, of art and science. If the king spent the evening in banqueting, as he did, he passed the earlier parts of the day in chemical experiments, and other forms of scientific research. Easy in temper, good-natured, self-indulgent, indolent; such is the man. The type of character is common, and it is common partly because it is so popular. Men of such nature are considered “good fellows,” and treated with boundless indulgence. But these light-hearted men, who seem not so much to sin as to be unconscious of responsibility, are really the poison of social life. They are corrupt and corrupting to others. Of them it is by emphasis true, “One sinner destroyeth much good.” King Charles lulled the nation into a lazy, voluptuous sleep, the ruin of liberty and progress. And those who, in more private life, repeat his character, will shrink into the shame and remorse of perdition when they are brought face to face with the generous impulses they have blighted, the aspirations they have chocked, and the opening faith and love they have destroyed. Worldliness, however, is a larger fact, and one more widely spread than the conscious pursuit of pleasure. There are men whose lives are most “respectable,” men at any rate laborious and earnest, whose course is guided at bottom by the Epicurean theory of action. They have a god and a worship whose rites and ceremonies are most exacting. Their deity is money. They worship the power of gold. They hold with Napoleon, that not only every thing but every man has his price, and that there is no door which will not open to a golden key. No doubt there are many facts which suggest such a view and seem to give it support. Money will do many things. It will bring houses, and land, and luxuries. It will secure almost unbounded social influence. And yet there is a limit to its potency. Money is not almighty. Its powers are hedged about by strict limitations. It cannot greatly alter you. The essential self of every man is beyond its sway. Neither can money alter the permanent conditions of well-being. That vice leads to sickness and death, to feebleness of thought and deadened petrifaction of feeling, is a fact which no money can touch. There is a form of worldliness which is even more strange than the love of money. It shows itself in an eager desire for what is called social position. Social display and pretensions are starving bodies and souls, and often plunging men into the vortex of fraudulent crime. Position in society is a good thing, no doubt, but it is not worth having at the price of honour and self-respect. These are different forms assumed by the gospel of worldliness. In a very intelligible sense it is “good news,” a veritable gospel to the outward or sensuous man; it has the promise of the life that now is. And we need not deny that the promise is redeemed. Give yourself to the world, and the world will probably give itself to you. You may, if you go heartily for it, have pleasure, or wealth, or social honour. Will you, then, accept this gospel of the worldly life? I do not know. Many of you, I am afraid, will. But to me it seems open to the gravest objections. My intellect and my feelings rise in protest against it. Shall I try and tell you why? First, it is a selfish good which is offered to us after all. Worldliness must be selfish, for it is clear that the pursuit of pleasure only becomes possible when we centre our thoughts on self. How will this affect me? is the one question which every event suggests to thought. Accordingly in its more vulgar forms the worldly life disgusts us by a selfishness which is “naked and not ashamed.” It recommends us coarsely, to “take care of number one,” as though “number one” were not, as it is, about the most worthless thing in the universe of being. Or it sings most untunefully about “a little pelf to provide for yourself,” with a mean-spirited glorying in its purblind limitation of view. The same spirit, in its more refined forms, speaks with contempt of the “herd,” and wraps itself in a mantle of supercilious pride. Yet a selfish life is essentially a life of misery. By one of those moral paradoxes which are so strange, and yet so beautiful, the only way to happiness is to give up seeking for it and to seek for something better and higher. “Go teach the orphan boy to read, or teach the orphan girl to sew;” forget your narrow, restless self; let your heart flow out in sympathy with others, and you have taken one step toward inward peace. He who has no love for others will one day cry in vain for others to love him. For love is life, and those who live without it are dead while they live. I object, further, to the gospel of worldliness that it fails to bring satisfaction to those who follow its rules. This is singularly true. The most discontented, unresting class of men in the world are those who give themselves to the pursuit of pleasure on system. As they grow older, they almost always become cynics, as we say--that is, they sneer and snarl at everything and everybody. The emptiness, the vanity, the sham is in the worldling’s heart, and he sees other things through the mist of his own thoughts. Depend upon it there is no satisfaction to be had for men in mere pleasure-hunting. And I will tell you why. There is that in our souls which is related to the Infinite and Eternal. We are thirsting after the water of life, though we know it not. The aching void in the worldling’s heart is an indirect testimony to the nobleness of his nature. The prodigal would fain have stayed his hunger with the husks that the swine did eat, but a man cannot live on swine’s food, and that precisely because he is a man. Oh, sirs, there standeth One among you whom ye know not. His face is so marred more than any man, and His form than the sons of men. And yet, oh, blessed Lord, to whom shall we go but unto Thee? Thou, Thou only, hast the words of eternal life. I object, finally, to the gospel of the world as being irreligious. Religion, or the sense of a boundless destiny, is a fact in the nature of man. It is the mightiest fact in his history also. It has built temples, woven creeds, invented ceremonies, animated heroisms, and written itself in a thousand ways upon all human things. You may try to put it down, but it will be too strong for you. What happens when a power or faculty of our nature is forcibly suppressed? I will tell you; men go mad. The oppressed tendency, like the volcanic fires of the earth, smoulders underground till it gathers ungovernable force, and then bursts forth scattering devastation and death. So it is with man’s religious nature. Every attempt to keep it down, however it may succeed for a time, only brings it out in the long run in violent and perverted forms. Men try to live on this world and cannot, and then they Lake to revolution and bloodshed, with the worship of some abstraction of liberty or equality, or else they descend into spiritual idiotcy, and finish by turning tables, and finding mighty revelations in raps upon the floor. The superstition of the day is in near relation to its worldliness. I know only one deliverance from either, and that, thank God, is a deliverance from both. It is found in rational spiritual religion, or, as the apostle expresses it, “repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (J. F. Stevenson, LL. B.)
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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ecclesiastes 3". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/ecclesiastes-3.html. 1905-1909. New York.