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Combined with a steadfast Faith in the Life to come.
Ecclesiastes 10:9 - Ecclesiastes 12:7
But, soft; is not our man of men becoming a mere man of pleasure? No; for he recognises the claims of duty and of charity. These keep his pleasures sweet and wholesome, prevent them from usurping the whole man, and landing him in the satiety and weariness of dissipation. But lest even these safeguards should prove insufficient, he has also this: he knows that "God will bring him into judgment"; that all his works, whether of charity or duty or recreation, will be weighed in the pure and even balance of Divine Justice (Ecclesiastes 11:9). This is the secret of the pure heart-the heart that is kept pure amid all labours and cares and joys. But the intention of the Preacher in thus adverting to the Divine Judgment has been gravely misconstrued, wrested even to its very opposite. We too much forget what that judgment must have seemed to the enslaved Jews; -how weighty a consolation, how bright a hope! They were captive exiles, oppressed by profligate despotic lords. Cleaving to the Divine Law with a passionate loyalty such as they had never felt in happier days, they were nevertheless exposed to the most dire and constant misfortunes. All the blessings which the Law pronounced on the obedient seemed withheld from them, all its promises of good and peace to be falsified; the wicked triumphed over them, and prospered in their wickedness. Now to a people whose convictions and hopes had suffered this miserable defeat, what truth would be more welcome than that of a life to come, in which all wrongs should be both righted and avenged, and all the promises in which they had hoped should receive a large fulfilment that would beggar hope? what prospect could be more cheerful and consolatory than that of a day of retribution on which their oppressors would be put to shame, and they would be recompensed for their fidelity to the law of God? This hope would be sweeter to them than any pleasure; it would lend a new zest to every pleasure, and make them more zealous in good works.
Nay, we know, from the Psalms composed during the Captivity, that the judgment of God was an incentive to hope and joy; that, instead of fearing it, the pious Jews looked forward to. it with rapture and exultation. What, for example, can be more riant and joyful than the concluding strophe of Psalms 96:1-13?
Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad:
Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof:
Let the field exult and all that therein is:
And let all the trees of the wood sing for joy
Before Jehovah: for He cometh,
For He cometh to judge the earth,
To judge the world with righteousness
And the peoples with his truth:
or than the third strophe of Psalms 98:1-9?
Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof:
The world, and they that dwell therein:
Let the floods clap their hands,
And let the hills sing for joy together
Before Jehovah: for he cometh to judge the earth:
With righteousness shall he judge the world,
And the peoples with equity.
It is impossible to read these verses, and such verses as these, without feeling that the Jews of the captivity anticipated the divine judgment, not with fear and dread, but with a hope and joy so deep and keen as that they summoned the whole round of nature to share it and reflect it.
If we remembered this, we should not so readily agree with the Preachers and Commentators who assume Coheleth to be speaking ironically in this verse, and as though he would defy his readers to enjoy their pleasures with the thought of God and his judgment of them in their minds. We should rather understand that he was making life more cheerful to them; that he was removing the blight of despair which had fallen on it; that he was kindling in their dreary prospect a light which would shine even into their darkened present with gracious and healing rays. All wrongs would be easier to bear, all duties would be faced with better heart, all alleviating pleasures would grow more welcome, if once they were fully persuaded that there was a life beyond death, a life in which the good would be "comforted" and the evil "tormented." It is on the express ground that there is a judgment that the Preacher, in the last verse of this chapter, bids them banish "care" and "sadness," or, as the words perhaps mean, "moroseness" and "trouble"; though he also adds another reason which no longer afflicts him much, viz., that "youth and manhood are vanity," soon gone, never to be recalled, and never enjoyed if the brief occasion is suffered to pass.
Mark how quickly the force of this great hope has reversed his position. Only in Ecclesiastes 11:8, the very instant before he discloses his hope, he urges men to enjoy the present "because all that is coming is vanity," because there were so many dark days, days of infirm querulous age and silent dreary death before them. But here, in Ecclesiastes 11:10, the very moment he has disclosed his hope, he urges them to enjoy the present, not because the future is vanity, but because the present is vanity, because youth and manhood soon pass and the pleasures proper to them will be out of reach. Why should they any longer be fretted with care and anxiety when the lamp of revelation shone so brightly on the future? Why should they not be cheerful when so happy a prospect lay before them? Why should they sit brooding over their wrongs when their wrongs were so soon to be righted, and they were to enter on so ample a recompense of reward? Why should they not travel toward a future so welcome and inviting with hearts attuned to mirth and responsive to every touch of pleasure?
But is the thought of judgment to be no check on our pleasures? Well, it is certainly used here as an incentive to pleasure, to cheerfulness. We are to be happy because we are to stand at the bar of God, because in the judgment He will adjust and compensate all the wrongs and afflictions of time. But it is not every one who can take to himself the full comfort of this argument. Only he can do that who makes it his ruling aim to do his duty and help his neighbour. And no doubt even he will find the hope of judgment-for with him it is a hope rather than a fear-a valuable check, not on his pleasures, but on those base counterfeits which often pass for pleasures, and which betray men, through voluptuousness, into satiety, disgust, remorse. Because he hopes to meet God, and has to give account of himself to God, he will resist the evil lusts which pollute and degrade the soul: and thus the prospect of Judgment will become a safeguard and a defence.
But he has a safeguard of even a more sovereign potency than this. For he not only looks forward to a future judgment, he is conscious of a present and constant judgment. God is with him wherever he goes. From "the days of his youth he has remembered his Creator". [Ecclesiastes 12:1] He has remembered Him and given to the poor and needy. He has remembered Him, and doing all things as to Him, duty has grown light. He has remembered Him, and his pleasures have grown the sweeter because they were gifts from heaven, and because he has taken them, in a thankful spirit, for a temperate enjoyment. Of all safeguards to a life of virtue, this is the noblest and the best. We can afford, indeed, to part with none of them, for we are strangely weak, often where we least suspect it, and need all the helps we can get: but least of all can we afford to part with this. We need to remember that every sin is punished here and now, inwardly if not outwardly, and that these inward punishments are the most severe. We need to remember that we must all appear before the judgment seat of God. to render an account of the deeds done in the body. But above all-if love, and not fear, is to be the animating motive of our life-we need to remember that God is always with us, observing what we do; and that, not that He may spy upon us and accumulate heavy charges against us, but that He may help us to do well; not to frown upon our pleasures, but to hallow, deepen, and prolong them, and to be Himself our Chief Good and our Supreme Delight.
"‘Live while you live,’ the Epicure would say,
‘And seize the pleasure of the present day.’
‘Live while you live,’ the Sacred Preacher cries,
‘And give to God each moment as it flies.’
Lord, in nay view let both united be:
I live in pleasure while l live in Thee."
Finally, the Preacher enforces this early and habitual reference of the soul to the Divine Presence and Will by a brief allusion to the impotence and weariness of a godless old age, and by a very striking description of the terrors of the death in which it culminates.
While "the dew of youth" is still fresh upon us we are to "remember our Creator" and his constant judgment of us lest, forgetting Him, we should waste our powers in sensual excess; lest temperate mirth should degenerate into an extravagant and wanton devotion to pleasure; lest the lust of mere physical enjoyment should outlive the power to enjoy, and, groaning under the penalties our unbridled indulgence has provoked, we should find "days of evil" rise on us in long succession, and draw out into "years" of fruitless desire, self-disgust, and despair (Ecclesiastes 12:1). "Before the evil days come," and that they may not come; before "the years arrive of which we shall say, I have no pleasure in them," and that they may not arrive, we are to bethink us of the Pure and Awful Presence in which we daily stand. God is with us that we may not sin; with us in youth, that "the angel of his Presence" may save us from the sins to which youth is prone; with us, to save us from "the noted slips of youth and liberty," that our closing years may have the cheerful serenity of a happy old age.
To this admonition drawn from the miseries of godless age, the Preacher appends a description of the terrors of approaching death (Ecclesiastes 12:2-5), -description which has suffered many strange torments at the hands of critics and commentators. It has commonly been read as an allegorical, but singularly accurate, diagnosis of "the disease men call death," as setting forth in graphic figures the gradual decay of sense after sense, faculty after faculty. Learned physicians have written treatises upon it, and have been lost in admiration of the force and beauty of the metaphors in which it conveys the results of their special science, although they differ in their interpretation of almost every sentence, and are driven at times to the most gross and absurd conjectures in order to sustain their several theories. I need not give any detailed account of these speculations, for the simple reason that they are based, as I believe, on an entire misconception of the Sacred Text. Instead of being, as has been assumed, a figurative description of the dissolution of the body, it sets forth the threatening approach of death under the image of a tempest which, gathering over an Eastern city during the day, breaks upon it toward evening: so, at least, I, with many more, take it. And I do not know how we can better arrive at it than by considering what would be the incidents which would strike us if we were to stroll through the narrow tortuous streets of such a city as the day was closing in.
As we passed along we should find small rows of houses and shops, broken here and there by a wide stretch of blank wall, behind which were the mansions, harems, courtyards of its wealthier inhabitants. Round and within the low marrow gates which gave access to these mansions, we should see armed men lounging whose duty it is to guard the premises against robbers and intruders; these are "the keepers of the house," over whom, as over the whole household, are placed superior officials-members of the family often-or "men of power." Going through the gates and glancing up at the latticed windows, we might catch glimpses of the veiled faces of the ladies of the house who, not being permitted to stir abroad except on rare occasions and under jealous guardianship, are accustomed to amuse their dreary leisure, and to learn a little of what is going on around them, by "looking out of the windows." Within the house, the gentlemen of the family would be enjoying the chief meal of the day, provoking appetite with delicacies such as "the locust," or condiments such as "the caperberry," or with choice fruit such as "the almond." Above all the shrill cries and noises of the city you would hear a loud humming sound rising on every side, for which you would be sorely puzzled to account if you were a stranger to Eastern habits. It is the sound of the cornmills which, towards evening, are at work in every house. A cornmill was indispensable to every Eastern family, since there were no public mills or bakers except the King’s. The heat of the climate makes it necessary that corn should be ground and baked every day. And as the task of grinding at the mill was very irksome, only the most menial class of women, often slaves or captives, were employed upon it. Of course the noise caused by the revolution of the upper upon the nether millstone was very great when the mills were simultaneously at work in, every house in the city. No sound is more familiar in the East; and, if it were suddenly stopped, the effect would be as striking as the sudden stoppage of all the wheels of traffic in an English town. So familiar was the sound, indeed, and of such good omen, that in Holy Writ it is used as a symbol of a happy, active, well-provided people; while the cessation of it is employed to denote want, and desolation, and despair. To an Oriental ear no threat would be more doleful and pathetic than that in Jeremiah 25:10, "I will take from them the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the sound of the millstones, and the light of the candle."
Now suppose the day on which we rambled through the city had been boisterous and lowering; that heavy rain had fallen, obscuring all the lights of heaven; and that, as the evening drew on, the thick clouds, instead of dispersing, had "returned after the rain," so that setting sun and rising moon, and the growing light of stars, were all blotted from view. [Ecclesiastes 12:2] The tempest, long in gathering, breaks on the city; the lightnings flash through the darkness, making it more hideous; the thunder crashes and rolls above the roofs; the tearing rain beats at all lattices and floods all roads. If we cared to abide the pelting of the storm, we should have before us the very scene which the Preacher depicts. "The keepers of the house," the guards and porters would quake. "The men of power," the lords or owners of the house, or the officials who most closely attended on them, would crouch and tremble with apprehension. The maids at the mill would "stop" because one or other of the two women-two at least-whom it took to work the heavy millstone had been frightened from her task by the gleaming lightning and the pealing thunder. The ladies, looking out of their lattices, would be driven back into the darkest corners of the inner rooms of the harem. Every door would be closed and barred lest robbers, availing themselves of the darkness and its terrors, should creep in. [Ecclesiastes 12:3] "The noise of the mills" would grow faint or utterly cease, because the threatening tumult had terrified many, if not all, the grinding maids from their work. The strong-winged "swallow," lover of wind and tempest, would flit to and fro with shrieks of joy; while the delicate "songbirds" would drop, silent and alarmed, into their nests. The gentlemen of the house would soon loose all gust for their delicate cates and fruits; "the almond" would be pushed aside, "the locust loathed," and even the stimulating "caperberry provoke no appetite," fear being a singularly unwelcome and disappetising guest at a feast. In short, the whole people, stunned and confused by the awful and stupendous majesty of a tropical storm, would be affrighted at the terrors which come flaming; from "the height" of heaven, to confront them on every highway (Ecclesiastes 12:4-5).
Such and so terrible is the tempest that at times sweeps over an Eastern city. Such and so terrible, adds the Preacher, is death to the godless and sensual. They are carried away as by a storm; the wind riseth and snatcheth them out of their place. For if we ask, "Why, O Preacher, has your pencil laboured to depict the terrors of a tempest?" he replies, "Because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners pace up and down the street" (Ecclesiastes 12:5). He leaves us in no doubt as to the moral of the fable, the theme and motive of his picture. While painting it, while adding touch to touch, he has been thinking of "the long home"-or, as the Hebrew has it, "the house of eternity"; a phrase still used by the Jews as a synonym for "the grave"-which is appointed for all living, and of the mercenary professional mourners who loiter under the windows of the dying man in the hope that they may be hired to lament him. To the expiring sinner death is simply dreadful. It puts an end to all his activities and enjoyments, just as the tempest brings all the labours and recreations of a city to a pause. He has nothing before him but the grave, and none to mourn him but the harpies who already pace the street, longing for the moment when he will be gone, and who value their fee far above his life. If we would have death shorn of its terrors for us, we must "remember our Creator" before death comes; we must seek by charity, by a faithful discharge of duty, by a wise use and a wise enjoyment of the life that now is, to prepare ourselves for the life which is to come.
Death itself, as Coheleth proceeds to remind us (Ecclesiastes 12:6), cannot be escaped. Some day the cord will break and the lamp fall; some day the jar or pitcher must be broken, and the wheel, shattered, fall into the well. Death is the common event. It befalls not only the sinful and injurious, but also the useful and the good. Our life may have been like a "golden" lamp suspended by a silver chain, fit for the palace of a king, and may have shed a welcome and cheerful light on every side and held out every promise of endurance; but, none the less, the costly durable chain will be snapped at last, and the fair costly bowl be broken. Or our life may have been like the "pitcher" dipped, by village maidens, into the village fountain; or, again, like "the wheel" by which water is drawn, by a thousand hands, from the city well: it may have conveyed a vital refreshment to the few or to the many around us: but, none the less, the day must come when the pitcher will be shattered on the edge of the fountain, and the time-worn wheel fall from its rotten supports. There is no escape from death. And, therefore, as we must all die, let us all live as cheerfully and helpfully as we can; let us all prepare for the better life beyond the grave, by serving our Creator before "the body is cast into the earth from whence it came, and the spirit returns to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
This, then, according to the Hebrew Preacher, is the ideal man, the man who achieves the quest of the Chief Good:-charitable, dutiful, cheerful, he prepares for death by a useful and happy life, for future judgment by a constant reference to the present judgment, for meeting God hereafter by walking with Him here.
Has he not achieved the quest? Can we hope to find a more solid and enduring good? What to him are the shocks of change, the blows of circumstance, the mutations of time, the fluctuations of fortune? These cannot touch the good which he holds to be chief. If they bring trouble, he can bear trouble and profit by it: if they bring prosperity, success, mirth, he can bear even these, and neither value them beyond their worth nor abuse them to his hurt; for his good, and therefore his peace and blessedness, are founded on a rock over which the changeful waves may wash, but against which they cannot prevail. Let the sun shine never so hotly, let the storm beat never so furiously, the rock stands firm, and the house which he has built for himself upon the rock. Whatever may befall, he can be doing his main work, enjoying his supreme satisfaction, since he can meet all changes with a dutiful and loving heart; since, through all, he may be forming a noble character and helping his neighbours to form a character as noble as his own. Because he has a gracious God always with him, and because a bright future stretches before him in endless and widening vistas of hope, he can carry to all the wrongs and afflictions of time a cheerful spirit which shines through them with transfiguring rays, -a spirit before which even the thick darkness of death will grow light, and the solemnities of the Judgment be turned into holiday festivity and triumph. Ah, foolish and miserable that we are who, with so noble a life, and so bright a prospect, and a good so enduring open to us-and with such helps to them in the gospel of Christ as Coheleth could not know-nevertheless creep about the earth the slaves of every accident, the very fools of time!
In Which The Problem Of The Book Is Conclusively Solved
"STUDENTS," says the Talmud, "are of four kinds; they are like a sponge, a funnel, a strainer, and a sieve: like a sponge that sucketh all up; like a funnel which receiveth at one end and dischargeth at the other; like a strainer which letteth the wine pass but retaineth the lees; and like a sieve which dischargeth the bran but retaineth the corn." Coheleth is like the sieve. He is the good student who has sifted all the schemes and ways and aims of men, separating the wheat from the bran, teaching us to know the bran as bran, the wheat as wheat. It is a true "corn of heaven" which he offers us, and not any of the husks to obtain which reckless and prodigal man has often wasted his whole living-husks which, though they have the form and hue of wheat, have not its nutriment, and cannot therefore satisfy the keen hunger of the soul.
We have now followed the sifting process to its close; much bran lies about our feet, but a little corn is in our hands, and from this little there may grow "a harvest unto life." Starting in quest of that Chief Good in which, when once it is attained, we can rest with an unbroken and measureless content, we have learned that it is not to be found in wisdom, in pleasure, in devotion to business or public affairs, in a modest competence or in boundless wealth. We have learned that only he achieves this supreme quest who is "charitable, dutiful, cheerful"; only he who "by a wise use and a wise enjoyment of the present life prepares himself for the life which is to come." We have learned that the best incentive to this life of virtue, and its best safeguards, are a constant remembrance of our Creator and of His perpetual presence with us, and a constant hope of that future judgment in which all the wrongs of time are to be redressed. And here we might think our task was ended. We might suppose that the Preacher would dismiss us from the school in which he has so long held us by his sage maxims, his vivid illustrations, his gracious warnings and encouragements. But even yet he will not suffer us to depart. He has still "words to utter for God," words which it will be well for us to ponder. As in the Prologue he had stated the problem he was about to take in hand, so now he subjoins an Epilogue in which he re-states the solution of it at which he has arrived. His last words are, as we should expect them to be, heavily weighted with thought. So closely packed are his thoughts and allusions, indeed, as to give a disconnected and illogical tone to his words. Every saying seems to stand alone, complete in itself; and hence our main difficulty in dealing with this Epilogue is to trace the links of sequence which bind saying to saying and thought to thought, and so to get "the best part" of his work. Every verse supplies a text for patient meditation, or a theme which needs to be illustrated by historic facts that lie beyond the general reach; and the danger is lest, while dwelling on these separate themes and texts, we should fail to collect their connected meaning, and to grasp the large conclusion to which they all conduct.
Coheleth commences (Ecclesiastes 12:8) by once more striking the keynote to which all his work is set: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity!" We are not, however, to take these words as announcing his deliberate verdict on the sum of human endeavours and affairs; for he has now discovered the true abiding good which underlies all the vanities of earth and time. His repetition of this familiar phrase is simply a touch of art by which the poet reminds us of what the main theme of his poem has been, of the pain and weariness and disappointment which have attended his long quest. As it falls once more, and for the last time, on our ear, we cannot but remember how often, and in what connections, we have heard it before. Memory and imagination are set to work. The whole course of the sacred drama passes swiftly before us, with its mournful pauses of defeated hope, as we listen to this echo of the despair with which the baffled Preacher has so often returned from seeking the true good in this or that province of human life in which it was not to be found.
Having thus reminded us of the several stages of his quest, and of the verdict which he had been compelled to pronounce at the close of each but the last, Coheleth proceeds (Ecclesiastes 12:9) to set forth his qualifications for undertaking this sore task: "Not only was the Preacher a wise man, he also taught the people wisdom, and composed, collected, and arranged many proverbs" or parables, the proverb being a condensed parable and the parable an expanded proverb. His claims are that he is a sage, and a public teacher, who has both made many proverbs of his own, collected the wise sayings of other sages, and has so arranged them as to convey a connected and definite teaching to his disciples; and his motive in setting forth these claims is, no doubt, that he may the more deeply impress upon us the conclusion to which he has come, and which it has cost him so much to reach.
Now during the captivity there was a singular outbreak of literary activity in the Hebrew race. Even yet this crisis in their history is little studied and understood; but we shall only follow the Preacher’s meaning through Ecclesiastes 12:9-12, as we read them in the light of this striking event. That a change of the most radical and extraordinary kind passed upon the Hebrews of this period, that they were by some means drawn to a study of their Sacred Writings much more thorough and intense than any which went before it, we know; but of the causes of this change we are not so well informed. A great, and perhaps the greatest, authority on this subject writes:
"One of the most mysterious and momentous periods in the history of humanity is that brief space of the exile. What were the influences brought to bear on the captives during that time, we know not. But this we know, that from a reckless, lawless, godless populace, they returned transformed into a band of puritans. The religion of Zerdusht (Zoroaster), though it has left its traces in Judaism, fails to account for that change. Yet the change is there, palpable, unmistakable-a change which we may regard as almost miraculous. Scarcely aware before of their glorious national literature, the people now began to press round these brands plucked from the fire-the scanty records of their faith and history with a fierce and passionate love, a love stronger even than that of wife and child. These same documents, as they were gradually formed into a canon, became the immediate centre of their lives, their actions, their thoughts, their very dreams. From that time forth, with scarcely any intermission, the keenest as well as the most poetical minds of the nation remained fixed upon them."
The more we think of this change, the more the wonder grows. Good kings and inspired prophets had desired to see the nation devoted to the Word of the Lord, had spent their lives in vain endeavours to recall the thought and affection of their race to the Sacred Records in which the will of God was revealed. But what they failed to do was done when the inspiration of the Almighty was withdrawn and the voice of prophecy had grown mute. In their captivity, under the strange wrongs and miseries of their exile, the Jews remembered God their Maker, Giver of songs in the night. They betook themselves to the study of the Sacred Oracles. They began to acquaint themselves with all wisdom that they might define and illustrate whatever was obscure in the Scriptures of their fathers. They commenced that elaborate systematic commentary of which many noble fragments are still extant. They drew new truths from the old letter, or from the collocation of scattered passages, -as, for instance, the truths of the immortality of the soul and of the resurrection of the body. They laid the hidden foundations of the Synagogues and schools which afterwards covered the land. Ezra and Nehemiah, who, by grace of the Persian conquerors, led them back from Babylonia to Jerusalem, are still claimed as the founders of the Great Synagogue, i.e., as the leaders of that great race of jurists, sages, authors, whose utterances are still a law in Israel, and of whom the lawyers and the scribes of the New Testament were the modern successors. Before the captivity there was not a term for "school" in their language; there were at least a dozen in common use within two or three centuries after the accession of Cyrus. Education had become compulsory. Its immense value in the popular estimation is marked in innumerable sayings such as these:
"Jerusalem was destroyed because the education of the young was neglected";
"Even for the rebuilding of the Temple the schools must not be interrupted";
"Study is more meritorious than sacrifice; A scholar is greater than a prophet";
"You should revere the teacher even more than your father; the latter only brought you into this world, the former shews you the way into the next."
To meet the national craving indicated in these and similar proverbs, innumerable copies of the Sacred Books, of commentaries, traditions, and the gnomic utterances, of the wise, were written and circulated, of which, in the canon, in some of the Apocryphal Scriptures, in the works of Philo, and in the legal and legendary sections of the Talmud, many specimens have come down to us. In fine, whatever was the cause of this marvellous outburst, there can be no doubt that the whole Rabbinical period was characterised by devotion to learning, a mental and literary activity, much more general and vital than it is easy for us to conceive.
In such an age the words of a professed and acknowledged sage would carry great weight. If, besides being "a wise man," he was a recognised "teacher," a man whose wisdom was stamped by public and official approval, whatever fell from his lips would command public attention: for these teachers, or rabbis, were the real rulers of the time, and not the Pharisees or the priests, or even the politicians. They might be, they often were, "tentmakers, sandal makers, weavers, carpenters, tanners, bakers, cooks"; for it is among their highest claims to our respect that these learned rabbis reverenced labour, however menial or toilsome, that they held mere scholarship and piety of little worth unless conjoined with regular and healthy physical exertion. But, however toilsome their lives or humble their circumstances, these wise men were "masters of the law." It was their special function to interpret the Law of Moses-which, remember, was the law of the land-to explain its bearing on this case or that, if not, as many modern critics maintain, to add to its precepts and codes; and, as members of the local courts, or the metropolitan Sanhedrin, to administer the law they expounded. An immense power, therefore, was in their hands. To obey the Law was to be at once loyal and religious, happy here and hereafter. Hence the rabbis, whose business it was to apply the law to all the details of life, and whose decisions were authoritative and final, could not fail to command universal deference and respect. They were lawyers, judges, schoolmasters, heads of colleges, public orators and lecturers, statesmen and preachers, all in one or all in turn, and therefore consecrated in themselves the esteem which we distribute on many offices and many men.
Such a rabbi was Coheleth. He was of "the Wise"; he was a "master of the law." And, in addition to these claims, he was also a teacher and an author who, besides "composing," had "collected and arranged many proverbs." Than this latter he could hardly have any higher claim to the regard, and even the affection, of the Hebrew public. The passionate fondness of Oriental races for proverbs, fables, stories of any kind, is well known. And the Jews for whom Coheleth wrote took, as was natural at such a time, an extraordinary delight, extraordinary even for the East, in listening to and repeating the wise or witty sayings, the parables and poems, of their national authors. Some of these are still in our hands: as we read them, we cease to. wonder at the intense enjoyment with which they were welcomed by a generation not cloyed, as we are, with books. They are not only charming as works of art: they have also this charm, that they convey lofty ethical instruction. Take a few of these pictorial proverbs, not included in the Canonical Scriptures.
"The house that does not open to the poor will open to the physician."
"Commit a sin twice, and you will begin to think it quite allowable."
"The reward of good works is like dates-sweet, but ripening late."
"Even when the gates of prayer are shut in heaven, the gate of tears is open."
"When the righteous dies, it is the earth that loses; the lost jewel is still a jewel, but he who has lost it-well may he weep."
"Who is wise? He who is willing to learn from all men. Who is strong? He who subdues his passions. Who is rich? He that is satisfied with his lot."
These are surely happy expressions of profound moral truths. But the rabbis are capable of putting a keener edge on their words; they can utter witty epigrams as incisive as those of any of our modern satirists, and yet use their wit in the service of good sense and morality. It would not be easy to. match, it would be very hard to beat, such sayings as these:-
"The sun will go down without your help."
"When the ox is down, many are the butchers."
"The soldiers fight, and kings are the heroes."
"The camel wanted horns and they took away his ears."
"The cock and the owl both wait for morning: the light brings joy to me, says the cock, but what are you waiting for? When the pitcher falls on the stone, woe to the pitcher; when the stone falls on the pitcher, woe to the pitcher: whatever happens, woe to the pitcher."
"Look not at the flask, but at that which is in it: for there are new flasks full of old wine, and old flasks which have not even new wine in them";
ah, of how many of those "old flasks" have some of us had to drink, or seem to drink! When the rabbis draw out their moral at greater length, when they tell a story, their skill does not desert them. Here is one of the briefest, which can hardly fail to remind us of more than one of the parables uttered by the Great Teacher Himself.
"There was once a king who bade all his servants to a great repast, but did not name the hour. Some went home and put on their best garments, and came and stood at the door of the palace. Others said, ‘There is time enough, the king will let us know beforehand.’ But the king summoned them of a sudden; and those that came in their best garments were well received, but the foolish ones, who came in their slovenliness, were turned away in disgrace. Repent ye today, lest ye be summoned tomorrow."
Is it any wonder that the Jews, even in the sorrows of their captivity, liked to hear such proverbs and parables as these? that they had an immense and grateful admiration for the men who spent much thought and care on the composition and arrangement of these wise, beautiful sayings? Should not we ourselves be thankful to hear them when the day’s work was done, or even while it was doing? If, then, such a one as Coheleth-a sage, a rabbi, a composer and collector of proverbs and parables, -came to them and said, "My children, I have sought what you are all seeking; I have been in quest of that Chief Good which you still pursue; and I will tell you the story of the quest in the parables and proverbs which you are so fond of hearing";-we can surely understand that they would be charmed to listen, that they would hang upon his words, that they would be predisposed to accept his conclusions. As they listened, and found that he was telling them their own story no less than his, that he was trying to lead them away from the vanities which they themselves felt to be vanities, toward an abiding good in which he had found rest; as they heard him enforce the duties of charity, industry, hilarity-duties which all their rabbis urged upon them, and invite them to that wise use and wise enjoyment of the present life which their own consciences approved: above all, as he unfolded before them the bright hope of a future judgment in which all wrongs should be redressed and all acts of duty receive a great recompense of reward, -would they not hail him as the wisest of their teachers, as the great rabbi who had achieved the supreme quest? Assuredly few books were, or are, more popular than the book Ecclesiastes. Its presence and influence may be traced on every subsequent age and department of Hebrew literature; it has entered into our English literature hardly less deeply. Many of its verses are familiar to us as household words, are household words. Brief as the book is, I am disposed to think it is better known among us than any other of the Old Testament books, except Genesis, the Psalter, and the prophesies of Isaiah. Job is an incomparably finer, as it is a much longer poem; but I doubt whether most of us could not quote at least two verses from the shorter for every one that we could repeat from the longer ‘Scripture. We can very easily understand, therefore, that the wise Preacher, as he himself assures us (Ecclesiastes 12:10), bestowed on this work much care and thought; that he had made diligent search for "words of comfort" by which he might solace and strengthen the hearts of his oppressed brethren; and that having found words of comfort and of truth, he wrote them down with a frank sincerity and uprightness.
From this description of the motives which had impelled him to publish the results of his thought and experience, and of the spirit in which he had composed his work, Coheleth passes, in Ecclesiastes 12:11, to a description of the twofold function of the teacher which is really a marvellous little poem in itself, a pastoral cut on a gem. That function is, on the one hand, progressive, and, on the other hand, conservative. At times the teacher’s words are like "goads" with which the herdsmen prick on their cattle to new pastures, correcting them when they loiter or stray; at other times they are like the "spikes" which the shepherds drive into the ground when they pitch their tents on pastures where they intend to linger: "The words of the wise are like goads," he says; and "the wise" was a technical term for the sages who interpreted and administered the law; while "those of the masters of the assemblies are like spikes driven home," "Masters of Assemblies" being a technical name for the heads of the colleges and schools which, during the Rabbinical period, were to be found in every town, and almost in every hamlet, of Judea. The same man might, and commonly did, wear both titles; and, probably, Coheleth was himself both a wise man and a master. So much as this, indeed, seems implied in the very name by which he introduces himself in the Prologue. For Coheleth means, as we have seen, "one who calls an assembly together and addresses them," i.e., precisely such a wise man as was reckoned the "master of an assembly" among the Jews.
What did these masters teach? Everything almost-at least everything then known. It is true that their main function was to interpret and enforce the law of Moses; but this function demanded all science for its adequate fulfilment. Take a simple illustration. The Law said, "Thou shalt not kill." Here, if ever, is a plain and simple statute, with no ambiguities, no qualifications, capable neither of misconstruction nor evasion. Anybody may remember it, and know what it means. May they? I am not so sure of that. The Law says I am not to kill. What, not in self-defence! not to save honour from outrage! not in a patriotic war! not to save my homestead from the freebooter or my house from the midnight thief! not when my kinsman is slain before my eyes and in my defence! Many similar cases might be mooted, and were mooted, by the Jews. The master had to consider such cases as these, to study the recorded and traditional verdicts of previous judges, the glosses and comments of other masters; he had to lay down rules and to apply rules to particular and exceptional cases, just as our English Judges have to define the common law or to interpret a parliamentary statute. The growing wants of the Commonwealth, the increasing complexity of the relations of life as the people of Israel came into contact with foreign races, or were carried into captivity in strange lands, necessitated new laws, new rules of conduct. And as there was no recognised authority to issue a decree, no Parliament to pass an act, the wise masters, learned in the law of God, were compelled to lay down these rules, to extend and qualify the ancient statutes till they covered modern cases and wants. Thus in this very book, Coheleth gives the rules which should govern a wise and pious Jew in the new relations of traffic, [Ecclesiastes 4:4-16] and in the service of foreign despots. [Ecclesiastes 10:1-20] For such contingencies as these the Law made no provision; and hence the rabbis, who sat in Moses’ chair, made provision for them by legislating in the spirit of the Law.
Even in the application of known and definite laws there was need for care, and science, and thought. "The Mosaic code," says Deutsch, "has injunctions about the Sabbatical journey; the distance had to be measured and calculated, and mathematics were called into play. Seeds, plants, and animals had to be studied in connection with many precepts regarding them, and natural history had to be appealed to. Then there were the purely hygienic paragraphs, which necessitated for their precision a knowledge of all the medical science of the time. The ‘seasons’ and the feast days were regulated by the phases of the moon; and astronomy, if only in its elements, had to be studied." As the Hebrews came successively into contact with Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, the political and religious systems of these foreign races could not fail to leave some impressions on their minds, and that these impressions might not be erroneous and misleading, it became the master to acquaint himself with the results of foreign thought. Nay, "not only was science, in its widest sense, required of him, but even an acquaintance with its fantastic shadows, such as astrology, magic, and the rest, in order that, both as lawgiver and judge, he might be able to enter into the popular feeling about these arts," and wisely control it.
The proofs that this varied knowledge was acquired and patiently applied to the study of the Law by these "masters in Israel" are still with us in many learned sayings and essays of that period; and in all these the conservative element or temper is sufficiently prominent. Their leading aim was, obviously, to honour the law of Moses; to preserve its spirit even in the new rules or codes which the changed circumstances of the time imperatively required; to fix their stakes and pitch their tents in the old fields of thought. So obvious is this aim even in the familiar pages of the New Testament, that I need not illustrate it.
But on the other hand, the signs of progress are no less decisive, though we may be less familiar with them. Through all this mass of learned and deferential comment on the Mosaic Code, there perpetually crop up sayings which savour of the Gospel rather than of the Law-sayings that denote a great advance in thought. "Study is better than sacrifice, " for example, must have been a very surprising proverb to the backward-looking Jew. It is only one of many Rabbinical sayings conceived in the same spirit: but would not the whole Levitical family listen to it with the wry, clouded face of grave suspicion? So, when Rabbi Hillel, anticipating the golden rule, said, "Do not unto another what thou wouldst not have another do unto thee; this is the whole law, the rest is mere commentary, " the lawyers, with all who had trusted in ordinances and observances, could hardly fail to be shocked and alarmed. So, too, when Rabbi Antigonus said, "Be not as men who serve their master for the sake of reward, but be like men who serve not looking for reward"; or when Rabbi Gamaliel said, "Do God’s will as if it were thy will, that He may accomplish thy will as if it were His, " there would be many, no doubt, who would feel that these venerable rabbis were bringing in very novel, and possibly very dangerous, doctrine. Nor could they fail to see what new fields of thought were being thrown open to them when Coheleth affirmed the future judgment and the future life of men. Such "words" as these were in very deed "goads," correcting the errors of previous thought, and urging men on to new pastures of truth and godliness.
Sometimes, as I have said, the progressive sage and the conservative master would be united in the same person; for there are those, though there are not too many of them, who can "stand on the old ways" and yet "look for the new." But, often, no doubt, the two would be divided and opposed, then as now. For in thought, as in politics, there are always two great parties; the one, looking back with affectionate reverence and regret on the past, and set to "keep invention in a noted weed"; the other, looking forward with eager hope and desire to the future, and attached to "newfound methods and to compounds strange"; the one, bent on conserving as much as possible of the large heritage which our fathers have bequeathed us; the other, bent on leaving a larger and less encumbered inheritance to those that shall be after them. The danger of the conservative thinker is that he may hold the debts on the estate as part of the estate, that he may set himself against all liquidations, all better methods of management, against improvement in every form. The danger of the progressive thinker is that, in his generous ambition to improve and enlarge the estate, he may break violently from the past, and east away many heirlooms and hoarded treasures that would add largely to our wealth. The one is too apt to pitch his tents in familiar fields long after they are barren; the other is too apt to drive men on from old pastures to new before the old are exhausted or the new ripe. And, surely, there never was a larger or a more tolerant heart than that of the Preacher who has taught us that both these classes of men and teachers, both the conservative thinker and the progressive thinker, are of God and have each a useful function to discharge; that both the shepherd who loves his tent and the herdsman who wields the goad, both the sage who urges us forward and the sage who holds us back, are servants of the one Great Pastor, and owe whether goad or tent spike to Him. Simply to entertain the conception widens and raises our minds; to have conceived it and thrown it into this perfect form proves the Sacred Preacher to have been all he claims and more-not only sage, teacher, master, author, but also a true poet and a true man of God.
It is to be observed, however, that our accomplished sage limits the field of mental activity on either hand (Ecclesiastes 12:12). His children, his disciples-"my son" was the rabbi’s customary term for his pupils, as "rabbi," i.e., "my father," was the title by which the pupil addressed his master-are to beware both of the "many books" of the making of which there was even then "no end," and of that over-addiction to study which was a "weariness to the flesh." The latter caution, the warning against "much study," was a logical result of that sense of the sanitary value of physical labour by which, as we have seen, the masters in Israel were profoundly impressed. They held bodily exercise to be good for the soul as well as for the body, a safeguard against the dreamy, abstract moods and the vague fruitless reveries which relax rather than brace the intellectual fibre, and which tend to a moral languor all the more perilous because its approaches are masked under the semblance of mental occupation. They knew that those who attempt or affect to be "creatures too bright and good for human nature’s daily food" are apt to sink below the common level rather than to rise above it. They did not want their disciples to resemble many of the young men who lounged through the philosophical schools of Greece and Rome, and who, though always ready to discuss the "first true, first perfect, first fair," did nothing to raise the tone of common life whether by their example or their words; young men, as Epictetus bitterly remarked of some of his disciples, whose philosophy lay in their cloaks and their beards rather than in any wise conduct of their daily lives or any endeavour to better the world. It was their aim to develop the whole man-body, soul, and spirit; to train up useful citizens as well as accomplished scholars, to spread the love and pursuit of wisdom through the whole nation rather than to produce a separate and learned class. And, in the prosecution of this aim, they enjoyed neither the exercises of the ancient palaestra, nor athletic sports like those in vogue at our English seats of learning, which are often a mere waste of good muscle, but useful and productive toils. With Ruskin, they believed, not in "the gospel of the cricket bat," or of the gymnasium, but in the gospel of the plough and the spade, the saw and the axe, the hammer and the trowel; and saved their disciples from the weariness of overtaxed brains by requiring them to become skilled artisans, and to labour heartily in their vocations.
Nor is the caution against "many books," at which some critics have taken grave offence, the illiberal sentiment it has often been pronounced. For, no doubt, Coheleth, like other wise Hebrews, was fully prepared to study whatever science would throw light on the Divine Law, or teach men how to live. Mathematics, astronomy, natural history, medicine, casuistry, the ethical and religious systems of the East and the West, -some knowledge of all these various branches of learning was necessary, as has been shown, to those who had to interpret and administer the statutes of the Mosaic code, and to supplement them with rules appropriate to the new conditions of the time. In these and kindred studies the rabbis were "masters"; and what they knew they taught. That which distinguished them from other men of equal learning was that they did not "love knowledge for its own sake" merely, but for its bearing on practice, on conduct. Like Socrates, they were not content with a purely intellectual culture, but sought a wisdom that would mingle with the blood of men and mend their ways, a wisdom that would hold their baser passions in check, infuse new energy into the higher moods and attitudes of the soul, and make duty their supreme aim and delight. To secure this great end, they knew no method so likely to prove effectual as an earnest, or even an exclusive, study of the Sacred Scriptures in which they thought they had "eternal life," i.e., the true life of man, the life which is independent of the chances and changes of time. Whatever studies would illuminate and illustrate these Scriptures they pursued and encouraged; whatever might divert attention from them, they discouraged and condemned. Many of them, as we learn from the Talmud, refused to write down the discourses they delivered in school or Synagogue lest, by making books of their own, they should withdraw attention from the Inspired Writings. It was better, they thought, to read the Scriptures than any commentary on the Scriptures, and hence they confined themselves to oral instruction: even their profoundest and most characteristic sayings would have perished if "fond tradition" had not "babbled" of them for many an age to come.
If the sentiment which dictated this course was in part a mistaken sentiment, it sprang from a noble motive. For no ordinance could be more self-denying to a learned and literary class than one which forbade them to put on record the results of their researches, the conclusions of their wisdom, and thus to win name and fame and use in after generations. But was their course, after all, one which calls for censure? Has the world ever produced a literature so noble, so pure, so lofty and heroic in its animating spirit, as that of the Hebrew historians and poets? "The world is forwarded by having its attention fixed on the best things," says Matthew Arnold in his Preface to his selection of Wordsworth’s poems, and proceeds to define the best things as those works of the great masters of song which have won the approval "of the whole group of civilised nations." But even those whom the civilised world has acclaimed as its highest and best have confessed that in the Bible, viewed simply as literature, their noblest work is far excelled: and what sane man will deny that "Faust," for example, would cut a sorry figure if compared with "Job," which our own greatest living poet has pronounced "the finest poem whether of ancient or of modern times," or Wordsworth himself if placed side by side with Isaiah? Who can doubt, then, that the world would have been "forwarded" if its attention had been fixed on this "best"? Who can doubt that it would be infinitely sweeter and better than it is if these ancient Scriptures had been studied before and above all other writings, if they had been brooded over and wrought into the minds of men till "the life" in them had been assimilated and reproduced? The man who has had a classical or scientific education, and profited by it, must be an ingrate indeed, unless he be the slave of some dominant crotchet, if he do not hold in grateful reverence the great masters at whose feet he has sat; but the man who has really found "life" in the Scriptures must be worse than an ingrate if he does not feel that a merely mental culture is a small good when compared with the treasures of an eternal life, if he does not admit that the main object of all education should be to conduct men through a course of intellectual training which shall culminate in a moral and spiritual discipline. To be wise is much; but how much more is it to be good! Better be a child in the kingdom of heaven than a philosopher or a poet hanging vaguely about its outskirts.
If any of us still suspect the Preacher’s words of illiberality, and say. "There was no need to oppose the one book to the many, and to depreciate these in order to magnify that," we have only to consider the historical circumstances in which he wrote in order to acquit him of the charge. For generations the Holy Scriptures had been neglected by the Jews; copies had grown scarce, and were hidden away in obscure nooks in which they were hard to find; some of the inspired writings had been lost, and have not been recovered to this day. The people were ignorant of their own history, and law, and hope. Suddenly they were awakened from the slumber of indifference, to find themselves in a night of ignorance. During the miseries of the captivity a longing for the Divine Word was quickened within them. They were eager to acquaint themselves with the revelation which they had neglected and forgotten. And their teachers, the few men who knew and loved the Word, set themselves to deepen and to satisfy the craving. They multiplied copies of the Scriptures, circulated them, explained them in the schools, exhorted from them in the Synagogues. And, till the people were familiar with the Scriptures, the wiser rabbis would not write books of their own, and looked with a jealous eye on the "many books" bred by the literary activity of the time. It was the very feeling which preceded and accompanied the English Reformation. Then the newly-discovered Bible threw all other books into the shade. The people thirsted for the pure Word of God; and the leaders of the reformation were very well content that they should read nothing else till they had read that; that they should leave all other fountains to drink of "the river of life." The translation and circulation of the Scripture were the one work, almost the exclusive work, to which they bent their energies. Like the Jewish rabbis, Tyndale and his fellow labourers did not care to write books themselves, nor wish the people to read the books they were compelled to write in self-defence. There is a remarkable passage in Fryth’s "Scripture Doctrine of the Sacrament," in which replying to Sir Thomas More, the reformer says: "This hath been offered you, is offered, and shall be offered. Grant that the Word of God, I mean the text of Scripture, may go abroad in our English tongue and my brother Tyndale and I have done, and will promise you to write no more. If you will not grant this condition, then will we be doing while we have breath, and show in few words that the Scripture doth in many, and so at the least save some." The Hebrew reformers of the school of Coheleth were animated by precisely the same lofty and generous spirit. They were content to be nothing, that the Word of God might be all in all. "The Bible, and the Bible only," they conceived to be the want of their age and race; and hence they were content to forego the honours of authorship, and the study of many branches of learning which under other conditions they would have been glad to pursue, and besought their disciples to concentrate all their thoughts on the one book which was able to make them wise unto salvation. Learned themselves, and often profoundly learned, it was no contempt for learning which actuated them, but a devout godliness and the fervours of a most self-denying piety.
So far the Epilogue may seem a mere digression, not without interest and value indeed, but having no vital connection with the main theme of the poem. It tells us that the Preacher was a sage, a recognised official teacher, the master of an assembly, a doctor of laws, an author who had expended much labour on many proverbs, a conservative shepherd pitching his tent on familiar fields of thought, a progressive herdsman goading men on to new pastures-not Solomon therefore, by the way, for who would have described him in such terms as these? If we are glad to know so much of him, we cannot but ask, What has all this to do with the quest of the Chief Good? It has this to do with it. Coheleth has achieved the quest; he has solved his problem, and has given us his solution of it. He is about to repeat that solution. To give emphasis and force to the repetition, that he may carry his readers more fully with him, he dwells on his claims to their respect, their confidence, their affection. He is all that they most admire; he carries the very authority to which they most willingly defer. If they know this-and, scattered as they were through many cities and provinces, how should they know it unless he told them?-they cannot refuse him a hearing; they will be predisposed to accept his conclusion; they will be sure not to reject it without consideration. It is not out of any personal conceit, therefore, nor any pride of learning, nor even that he may grant himself the relief of lifting his mask from his face for a moment, that he recounts his titles to their regard. He is simply gathering force from the willing respect and deference of his readers, in order that he may plant his final conclusion more strongly and more deeply in their hearts.
And what is the conclusion which he is at such pains to enforce? "The conclusion of the matter is this; that God taketh cognisance of all things: fear Him, therefore, and keep his commandments, for this it behoveth every man to do; since God will bring every deed to the judgment appointed for every secret thing, whether it be good or whether it be bad" (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
Now that this "conclusion" is simply a repetition, in part expanded and in part condensed, of that with which the Preacher closes the previous section, is obvious. There he incites men to a life of virtue with two leading motives: first, by the fact of the present constant judgment of God; and, secondly, by the prospect of a future, a more searching and decisive, judgment. Here he appeals to precisely the same motives, though now instead of implying a present judgment under the injunction "Remember thy Creator," he broadly affirms that "God takes note of all things"; and, instead of simply reminding the young that God will bring "the ways of their heart" into judgment, he defines that future judgment at once more largely and more exactly as "appointed for every secret thing" and extending to "every deed," both good and bad. In dealing with the motives of a virtuous life, therefore, he goes a little beyond his former lines of thought, gives them a wider scope, makes them more sharp and definite. On the other hand, in speaking of the forms which the virtuous or ideal life assumes, he is very curt and brief. All he has to say on that point now is, "Fear God and keep his commandments"; whereas, in His previous treatment of it, he had much to say, bidding us, for instance, "cast our bread upon the waters," and "give a portion to seven, and even to eight"; bidding us "sow our seed morning and evening," though "the clouds" should be "full of rain," and whatever "the course of the wind"; bidding us "rejoice" in all our labours, and carry to all our self-denials the merry heart that physics pain. As we studied the meaning of the beautiful metaphors of chapter 11, sought to gather up their several meanings into an orderly connection, and to express them in a more literal logical form-to translate them, in short, from the Eastern to the Western mode-we found that the main virtues enjoined by the Preacher were charity, industry, cheerfulness; the charity which does good hoping for nothing again, the industry which bends itself to the present duty in scorn of omen or consequence; and the cheerfulness which springs from a consciousness of the Divine presence, from the conviction that, however men may misjudge us, God knows us altogether and will do us justice. This was our summary of the Preacher’s argument, of his solution of the supreme moral problem of human life. Here, in the Epilogue, he gives us his own summary in the words, "Fear God, and keep his commandments."
If we compare these two summaries, there seems at first rather difference than resemblance between them: the one appears, if more indefinite, much more comprehensive, than the other. Yet there is one point of resemblance which soon strikes us. For we know by this time that on the Preacher’s lips "Fear God" does not mean "Be afraid of God"; that it indicates and demands just that reverent sense of the Divine Presence, that strong inward conviction of the constant judgment He passes on all our ways and motives and thoughts, which Coheleth has already affirmed to be a prime safeguard of virtue. It is the phrase "and keep his commandments" that sounds so much larger than anything we have heard from him before, so much more comprehensive. For the commandments of God are many and very broad. He reveals his will in the natural universe and the laws which govern it; laws which, as we are part of the universe, we need to know and to obey. He reveals his will in the social and political forces which govern the history and development of the various races of mankind, which therefore meet and affect us at every turn. He reveals his will in the ethical intuitions and codes which govern the formation of character, which enter into and give shape to all in us that is most spiritual, profound, and enduring. To keep all the commandments revealed in these immense fields of divine activity with an intelligent and invariable obedience is simply impossible to us; it is the perfection which flows round our imperfection, and towards which it is our one great task to be ever reaching forth. Is it as inciting us to this impossible perfection that the Preacher bids us "fear God and keep his commandments"?
Yes and No. It is not as having this large perfect ideal distinctly before his mind that he utters the injunction, although in the course of this book he has glanced at every element of it; nor even as having so much of it in his mind as is expressed in the law that came by Moses, although that too includes precepts for the physical and the political as well as for the moral and religious provinces of human life. What he meant by bidding us "keep the commandments" was, I apprehend, that we should take the counsels he has already given us, and follow after charity, industry, cheerfulness. Every other phrase in this final "conclusion" is, as we have seen, a repetition of the truths announced at the close of the previous section, and therefore we may fairly assume this phrase to contain a truth-the truth of duty-which he there illustrates. Throughout the whole book there is not a single technical allusion, no allusion to the temple, to the feasts, to the sacrifices, rites, ceremonies of the Law; and therefore we can hardly take this reference to the "commandments" as an allusion to the Mosaic table. By the rules of fair interpretation we are bound to take these commandments as previously defined by the Preacher himself, to understand him as once more enforcing the virtues which, for him, comprised the whole duty of man.
Do we thus limit and degrade the moral ideal, or represent him as degrading and limiting it? By no means: for to love our neighbour, to discharge the present duty whatever rain may fall and whatever storm may blow, to carry a bright hopeful spirit through all our toils and charities; to do this in the fear of God, as in his Presence, because He is judging and will judge us-this, surely, includes all that is essential even in the loftiest ideal of moral duty and perfection. For how are we to be cheerful and dutiful and kind except as we obey the commandments of God in whatever form they may have been revealed? The diseases which result from a violation of sanitary laws, as also the ignorance or the wilfulness or the impotence which lead us to violate social or ethical laws, of necessity and by natural consequence impair our cheerfulness, our strength for laborious duties, our neighbourly serviceableness and goodwill. To live the life which the Preacher enjoins, on the inspiration of the motives which he supplies, is therefore, in the largest and broadest sense, to keep the commandments of God.
What advantage, then, is there in saying, "Be kind, be dutiful, be cheerful," over saying, "Obey the laws of God"? There is this great practical advantage that, while in the last resort the one rule of life is as comprehensive as the other, and just as difficult, it is more definite, more portable, and does not sound so difficult. It is the very advantage which our Lord’s memorable summary, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbour as thyself," has over the Law and the Prophets. Bid a man keep the whole Mosaic code as interpreted by the prophets of a thousand years, and you set him a task so heavy, so hopeless, that he may well decline it; only to understand the bearing and harmony of the Mosaic statutes, and to gather the sense in which the prophets-to say nothing of the rabbis-interpreted them, is the labour of a lifetime, a labour for which even the whole life of a trained scholar is insufficient. But bid him "love God and man," and you give him a principle which his own conscience at once accepts and confirms, a golden rule or principle which, if he be of a good heart and a willing mind, he will be able to apply to the details and problems of life as they arise. In like manner if you say: "The true ideal of life is to be reached only by the man who comprehends and obeys all the laws of God revealed in the physical universe, in the history of humanity, in the moral intuitions and discoveries of the race," you set men a task so stupendous as that no man ever has or will be able to accomplish it. Say, on the other hand, "Do the duty of every hour as it passes, without fretting about future issues; help your neighbour to do his duty or to bear his burden, even though he may never have helped you; be blithe and cheerful even when your work is hard and your neighbour is ungrateful or unkind," and you speak straight to a man’s heart, to his sense of what is right and good; you summon every noble and generous instinct of his nature to his aid. He can begin to practise this rule of life without preliminary and exhausting study of its meaning; and if he finds it work, as assuredly he will, he will be encouraged to make it his rule. He will soon discover, indeed, that it means more than he thought, that it is not so easy to apply to the complexities of human affairs, that it is very much harder to keep than he supposed: but its depth and difficulty will open on him gradually, as he is able to bear them. If his heart now and then faint, if hand and foot falter, still God is with him, with him to help and reward as well as to judge; and that conviction once in his mind is there forever, a constant spur to thought, to obedience, to patience.
In nothing, indeed, does the wisdom of the Hebrew sages show its superiority over that of the other sages of antiquity more decisively than in its adaptation to the practical needs of men busied in the common affairs of life, and with no learning and no leisure for the study of large intricate problems. It comes straight down into the beaten ways of men. If you read Confucius, for example, and still more if you read Plato, you cannot fail to be struck with their immense grasp of thought, or their profound learning, or even their moral enthusiasm; as you read, you will often meet with wise rules of life expressed in beautiful forms. And yet your main feeling will be that they give you, and men like you, if at least you be of the common build, as most of us are, little help; that unless you had their rare endowments, or could give yourself largely and long to the study of their works, you could hardly hope to learn what they have to teach, or order your life by their plan. And that this feeling is just is proved by the histories of China and Greece, different as they are. In China only students, only literati, are so much as supposed to understand the Confucian system of thought and ethics; the great bulk of the people have to be content with a few rules and forms and rites which are imposed on them by authority. In ancient Greece, the wisdom to which her great masters attained was only taught in the Schools to men addicted to philosophical studies; even the natural and moral truths on which the popular mythology was based were hidden in "mysteries" open only to the initiated few; while the great mass of the people were amused with fables which they misapprehended, and with rites which they soon degraded into licentious orgies. No man cared for their souls; their errors were not corrected, their license was not rebuked. Their wise men made no effort to lift them to a height from which they might see that the whole of morality lay in the love of God and man, in charity, diligent devotion to duty, cheerfulness. But it was far otherwise with the Hebrews and their sages. Men such as the Preacher confined themselves to no school or class, but carried their wisdom to the synagogue, to the marketplace, to the popular assemblies. They invented no "mysteries," but brought down the mysteries of Heaven to the understanding of the simple. Instead of engaging in lofty abstract speculations in which only the learned could follow them, they compressed the loftiest wisdom into plain moral rules which the unlettered could apprehend, and urged them to obedience by motives and promises which went home to the popular heart. And they had their reward. The truths they taught became familiar to all sorts and conditions of Hebrew men; they became a factor, and the most influential factor, in the national life. Fishermen, carpenters, tentmakers, sandal makers, shepherds, husbandmen, grew studious of the Divine Will and learned the secrets of righteousness and peace. During the wonderful revival of literary and religious activity which followed the exile in Babylon-a revival mainly owing to these sages-every child was compelled to attend a common school in which the sacred Scriptures were taught by the ablest and most learned rabbis; in which, as we learn from the Talmud, the duty of leading a religious life in all outward conditions, even to the poorest, was impressed upon them, and the virtues of charity, industry, and cheerfulness were enforced as the very soul of religion. Here, for example, is a legend from the Talmud, and it is only one of many, which illustrates and confirms all that has just been said.
"A sage, while walking in a crowded marketplace suddenly encountered the prophet Elijah, and asked him who, out of that vast multitude, would be saved. Whereupon the Prophet first pointed out a weird-looking creature, a turnkey, ‘because he was merciful to his prisoners,’ and next two common-looking tradesmen who were walking through the crowd, pleasantly chatting together. The sage instantly rushed after them, and asked them what were their saving works. But they, much puzzled, replied: ‘We are but poor working men who live by our trade. All that can be said for us is that we are always cheerful and good natured. When we meet anybody who seems sad, we join him, and we talk to him and cheer him up, that he may forget his grief. And if we know of two people who have quarrelled, we talk to them, and persuade them till we have made them friends again. This is our whole life.’"
It is impossible that such a legend should have sprung up on any but Hebrew soil. Had Confucius been asked to point out the man whom Heaven most approved, he would probably have replied, "The superior man is catholic, not sectarian; he is observant of the rules of propriety and decorum; and he does not do to others what he would not have done to himself": and he would certainly have looked for him in some state official distinguished by his wise administration. Had any of the Greek sages been asked the same question, they would have found their perfect man in the philosopher who, raised above the common passions and aims of men, gave himself to the pursuit of an abstract and speculative wisdom. Only a Hebrew would have looked for him in that low estate in which the one truly Perfect Man dwelt among us. And yet how that Hebrew legend charms and touches and satisfies us! What a hope for humanity there is in the thought that the poor weird-looking jailer who was merciful to his prisoners, and the kindly, industrious, cheerful workingmen, living by their craft, and incapable of regarding their diligence and good nature as "saving works," stood higher than priest or rabbi, ruler or philosopher! How welcome and ennobling is the conviction that there are last who yet are first-last with men, first with God; that turnkeys and artisans, publicans and sinners even, may draw nearer to heaven than sophist or flamen, sage or prince! Who so poor but that he has a little "bread" to cast on the thankless unreturning waters? who so faint of heart but that he may sow a little "seed" even when the winds rave and the sky is full of clouds? who so solitary and forlorn but that he may say a word of comfort to a weeping neighbour, or seek to make "two people who have quarrelled friends again"? And this is all that the Preacher, all that God through the Preacher, asks of us.
All-yet even this is much; even for this we shall need the pressure of constant and weighty motives: for it is not only occasional acts which are required of us, but settled tempers and habits of goodwill, industry, and cheerfulness; and to love all men, to rejoice always, to do our duty in all weathers and all moods, is very hard work to our feeble, selfish, and easily-dejected natures. Does the Preacher supply us with such motives as we need? He offers us two motives; one in the present judgment, another in the future judgment of God. "God is with you," he says, "taking cognisance of all you do; and you will soon be with God, to give Him an account of every secret and every deed." But that is an appeal to fear-is it not? It is, rather, an appeal to love and hope. He has no thought of frightening us into obedience-for the obedience of fear is not worth having, is not obedience in the true sense; but he is trying to win and allure us to obedience. For whatever terrors God’s judgment or the future world may have for us, it is very certain that these terrors were in large measure unknown to the Jews. The Talmud knows nothing of "hell," nothing of an everlasting torture. Even the "Sheol" of the Old Testament is simply the "underworld" in which the Jews believed the spirits of both good men and bad to be gathered after death. And, to the Jews for whom Coheleth wrote, the judgment of God, whether here or hereafter, would have singular and powerful attractions. They were in captivity to merciless and capricious despots who took no pains to understand their character or to deal with them according to their works, who had no sense of justice, no kindness, no truth for slaves. For men thus oppressed and hopeless there would be an infinite comfort in the thought that God, the Great Ruler and Disposer, knew them altogether, saw all their struggles to maintain his worship and to acquaint themselves with his will, took note of every wrong they suffered, "was afflicted in all their afflictions," and would one day call both them and their oppressors to the bar at which all wrongs are at once righted and avenged. Would it affright them to hear that "God taketh cognisance of all things," and has "appointed a judgment for every secret and every deed"? Would not this be, rather, their strongest consolation, their brightest hope? Would they not do their duty with better heart if they knew that God saw how hard it was to do? Would they not show a more constant kindness to their neighbours, if they knew that God would openly reward every alms done in secret? Would they not carry a blither and more patient spirit to all their labours and afflictions if they knew that a day of recompenses was at hand? The Preacher thought they would; and hence he bids them "rejoice" bids them "banish care and sadness," because God will bring them into judgment, and incites them to "keep the commandments" because God’s eye is upon them, and because, in the judgment, He will not forget the work of their obedience, the labour of their love.
This, to some of us, may be a novel view whether of the present or of the future judgment of God. For the most part, I fear, we speak of the Divine judgments as terrible and well-nigh unendurable. We would escape them even here, if we could; but, above all, we dread them when we shall stand before the bar at which the secrets of all hearts will be disclosed. Now we need not, and we must not, lose aught of the awe and reverence for Him who is our God and Father which, so far from impairing, deepens our love. But we need to remember that fear is base, that it is the enemy of love; that so long as we anticipate the Divine judgments only or mainly with dread, we are far from the love which gives value and charm to obedience; and that, if we are to be good and at peace, we must "shut out fear with all the strength of hope." What is it that we fear? Suffering! But why should we fear that, if it will make us perfect? Death! But why should we fear that if will take us home to our Father? God’s anger! But God is not angry with us if we love Him and try to do his will; He loves us even when we sin against Him, and shows his love in making the way of sin so hard to us that we are constrained to leave it. Ought we, then, to dread, ought we not rather to desire, the judgments by which we are corrected, purified, saved?
"But the future judgment-that is so dreadful!" Is it? God knows us as we are already: is it so very much worse that we should know ourselves, and that our neighbours should know us? If among our "secrets" there be many things evil, are there not at least some that are good? Do we not find ourselves perpetually thwarted or hindered in our endeavours to give form and scope to our purest emotions, our tenderest sympathies, our loftiest resolves? Do we not perpetually complain that, when we would do good, even if evil is not present to overcome the good, it is present to mar it, to make our goodness poor, scanty, ungraceful? Well, these obstructed purposes and intentions and resolves, all the good in us that has been frustrated or deformed, or limited, by our social conditions, by our lack of power, culture, expression, by the clogging flesh or the flagging brain, -all these are among "the secret things" which God will bring to light; and we may be sure that He will not think less of these, his own work in us, than of the manifold sins by which we have marred his work. We are in some danger of regarding "the judgment" as a revelation of our trespasses only, instead of every deed, and every secret, whether good or bad. Once conceive of it aright, as the revelation of the whole man, as the unveiling of all that is in us, and mere honesty might lead us to desire rather than to dread it. One of the finest and most devout spirits of modern France has said: "It seems to me intolerable to appear to men other than we appear to God. My worst torture at this moment is the over-estimate which generous friends form of me. We are told that at the last judgment the secret of all consciences will be laid bare to the universe: would that mine were so this day, and that every passer-by could read me as I am!" To seem what we are, to be known for what we are, to be treated as we are, this is the judgment of God. And, though this judgment must bring even the best of us much shame and much sorrow, who that sincerely loves God and truth will not rejoice to have done at last with all masks and veils, to wear his natural colours, and to take his true place, even though it be the lowest?
"In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ‘tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but ‘tis not so above:
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In its true nature, and we ourselves compell’d
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults
To give in evidence."
To have got out of "the corrupted currents" of which audacious and strong injustice so often avails itself to our hurt; to be quit of all the shuffling equivocations by which we often pervert the true character of our actions, and persuade ourselves that we are other and better than we are; to be compelled to look our faults straight and fairly in the face; to have all the latent goodness of our natures developed, and their fettered and obstructed virtue liberated from every bond; to see our every "secret" good as well as bad, and our every "deed" good as well as bad, exposed in their true colours: is there no hope, no comfort for us, in such a prospect as this? It is a prospect full of comfort, full of hope, if at least we have any real trust in the grace and goodness of God; and if, through his grace, we have set ourselves to do our duty, to love our neighbour, and to bear the changes and burdens of life with a patient cheerful heart.
Now that we have once more heard the Preacher’s final conclusion, we shall have no difficulty in fitting into its place, or valuing at its worth, the partial and provisional conclusion to which he rises at the close of the previous sections of the book. In the First Section he describes his quest of the Chief Good in Wisdom and in Mirth; he declares that, though both wisdom and mirth are good, neither of them is the supreme good of life, nor both combined; and, in despair of reaching any higher mark, he closes with the admission [Ecclesiastes 2:24-26] that even for the man who is both wise and good "there is nothing better than to eat and to drink, and to let his soul take pleasure in all his labour." In the Second Section he pursues his quest in Devotion to Business and to Public Affairs, only to find his former conclusion confirmed: [Ecclesiastes 5:18-20] "Behold, that which I have said holds good; it is well for a man to eat and to drink, and to enjoy all the good of his labour through the brief day of his life; this is his portion; and he should take his portion and rejoice in his labour, remembering that the days of his life are not many, and that God meant him to work for the enjoyment of his heart." In the Third Section, his quest in Wealth and in the Golden Mean conducts him by another road to the same bright resting-place which, however, for all so bright as it looks, he seems to enter every time with a more rueful and dejected gait: [Ecclesiastes 8:15] more and more sadly he "commends mirth, because there is nothing better for man than to eat and to drink and to rejoice, and because this will go with him to his work through the days of his life which God giveth him under the sun." To my mind there is a strange pathos in the mournful tones in which the Preacher commends mirth, in the plaintive minors of a voice from which we should naturally expect the clear ringing majors of joy. As we listen to these recurring notes, we feel that he has been baffled in his quest; that, starting every day in a fresh direction and travelling till he is weary and spent, he finds himself night after night at the very spot he had left in the morning, and can only alleviate the unwelcome surprise of finding himself no farther and no higher by muttering, "As well here perhaps as elsewhere!" No votary of mirth and jollity surely ever wore such a woe-begone countenance, or sang their praises with more trembling and uncertain lips. What can be more hopeless than his "there is nothing better, so you must even be content with this," or than the way in which he harps on the brevity of life! You feel that the man has been passionately seeking for something better, for a good which would be a good not only through the brief hours of time but forever; that it is with a heart saddened by the sense of wasted endeavour and cravings unsatisfied that he falls back on pleasures as brief as his day, as wearisome as his toils. Yet all the while he feels, and makes you feel, that there is a certain measure of truth in his conclusion; that mirth is a great good, though not the greatest; that if he could but find that "something better" of which he is in quest, he would learn the secret of a deeper mirth than that which springs from eating and drinking and sensuous delights, a mirth which would not set with the setting sun of his brief day.
This feeling is justified by the issue. Now that the Preacher has completed his circle of thought, we can see that it is well for a man to rejoice and take pleasure in his labours, that God did mean him to work for the enjoyment of his heart, that there is a mirth purer and more enduring than that which springs from knowledge, or from the gratification of the senses, or from success in affairs, or from the possession of much goods, -a mirth for this life which expands and deepens into an everlasting joy. Throughout his quest he has held fast to the conviction that "it is a comely fashion to be glad," though he could allege no better reason for his conviction than the transitoriness of life and the impossibility of reaching any higher good. Before he could justify this conviction, he must achieve his quest. It is only when he has learned to regard our life-
"as a harp,
A gracious instrument on whose fair strings
We learn those airs we shall be set to play
When mortal hours are ended,"
that his plaintive minors pass into the frank, jocund tones appropriate to a sincere and well-grounded mirth. Now he can cease to "trouble heaven with his bootless cries" on the indiscrimination of death and the vanity of life. He can now say to his soul,
"What hast thou to do with sorrow
Or the injuries of tomorrow?"
for he has discovered that no morrow can any more injure him, no sorrow rob him of his true joy. God is with him, observing all the postures and moods of his soul, and adapting all his circumstances to the correction of what is evil in him or the cultivation of what is good. There is no dark impassable gulf between this world and the next; life does not cease at death, but grows more intense and full; death is but a second birth into a second and better life, a life of ampler and happier conditions, and yet a life which is the continuation and consummation of that we now live in the flesh. All that he has to do, therefore, is to "fear God and keep His commandments," leaving the issues of his labour in the Hands which bend all things to a final goal of good. What though the clouds drop rain or the winds blow bitterly, what though his diligence and charity meet no present recognition or reward? All that is no business of his. He has only to do the duty of the passing hour, and to help his neighbors do their duty. So long as he can do this, why should he not be bright and gay? In this lies his Chief Good: why should he not enjoy that, even though other and lesser goods be taken from him for a time-be lent to the Lord that they may hereafter be repaid with usury? He is no longer "a pipe for fortune’s finger to sound what stop she please": he has a tune of his own, "a cheerful tune," to play, and will play it, let fortune be in what mood she please. He is not "passion’s slave," but the servant and friend of God; and because God is with him and for him, and because he will soon be with God, he is
"As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,"
and can take "fortune’s buffets and rewards with equal thanks." His cheerful content does not lie at the mercy of accident; the winds and waves of vicissitude cannot prevail against it: for he has two broad and solid foundations; one on earth, and the other in heaven. On the one hand, it springs from a faithful discharge of personal duty and the neighbourly charity which hopeth all things and endureth all things; on the other hand, it springs from the conviction that God takes note of all things, and will bring every secret and every deed into a judgment perfectly just and perfectly kind. The fair structure which rises on these sure foundations is not to be shaken by aught that does not sap the foundations on which it rests. Convince him that God is not with him, or that God does not so care for him as to judge and correct him; or convict him of gross and constant failures in duty and in charity; and then, indeed, you touch, you endanger, his peace. But no external loss, no breath of change, no cloud in the sky of his fortunes, no loss, no infirmity that does not impede him in the discharge of duty, can do more than cast a passing shadow on his heart. Whatever happens, into whatever new conditions or new worlds he may pass, his chief good, and therefore his supreme joy, is with him.
"This man is freed from servile bands
Of hope to rise or fear to fall:
Lord of himself, though not of lands,
And, having nothing, yet hath all."
Now, too, without fear or favour, without any prejudice for or against his conclusion because we find it in Holy Writ, we may ask ourselves, Has the Preacher satisfactorily solved the problem which he took in hand? has he really achieved his quest and attained the Chief Good? One thing is quite clear; he has not lost himself in speculations foreign to our experience and remote from it; he has dealt with the common facts of life such as they were in his time, such as they remain in ours: for now, as then, men are restless and craving, and seek the satisfactions of rest in science or in pleasure, in successful public careers or in the fortunate conduct of affairs, by securing wealth or by laying up a modest provision for present and future wants. Now, as then,
"The common problem, yours, mine, everyone’s.
Is not to fancy what were fair in life
Providing it could be, -but, finding first
What may be, then find how to make it fair
Up to our means-a very different thing."
That the Preacher should have attacked this common problem, and should have handled it with the practical good sense which characterises his poem is a point, and a large point, in his favour.
Nor is the conclusion at which he arrives, in its substance, peculiar to him, or even to the Scriptures. He says: The perfect man, the ideal man, is he who addresses himself to the present duty untroubled by adverse clouds and currents, who so loves his neighbour that he can do good even to the evil and the unthankful, and who carries a brave cheerful temper to the unrewarded toils and sacrifices of his life. because God is with him, taking note of all he does, and because there is a future life for which this course of duty, charity, and magnanimity, is the best preparative. He affirms that the man who has risen to the discovery and practice of this ideal has attained the Chief Good, that he has found a duty from which no accident can divert him, a pure and tranquil joy which will sustain him under all change and loss. And, on his behalf, I am bold to assert that, allowing for inevitable differences of conception and utterance, his conclusion is the conclusion of all the great teachers of morality. Take any of the ancient systems of morality and religion-Hindu, Egyptian, Persian, Chinese, Greek, or Latin; select those elements of it in virtue of which it has lived and ruled over myriads of men; reduce those elements to their simplest forms, express them m the plainest words; and, as I believe, you will find that in every, case they are only different and modified versions of the final conclusion of the Preacher. "Do your duty patiently; Be kind and helpful one to another; Shew a cheerful content with your lot; Heaven is with you and will judge you":-these brief maxims seem to be the ethical epitome of all the creeds and systems that have had their day, as also of those which have not ceased to be. It is very true that the motive to obedience which Coheleth draws from the future life of man has been of a varying force and influence, rising perhaps to its greatest clearness among the Egyptians and the Persians, sinking to its dimmest among the Greeks and Romans, although we cannot say it did not shine even upon these; for, though the secret of their "mysteries" has been kept with a rare fidelity, yet the general impression of antiquity concerning them was that, besides disclosing to the initiated the natural and moral truths on which the popular mythology was based, they "opened to man a comforting prospect of a future state." I am not careful to show how the Word of Inspiration surpasses all other "scriptures" in the precision with which it enunciates the elementary truths of all morality, in its freedom from admixture with baser matter, in its application of those truths to all sorts and conditions of men, and the power of the motives by which it enforces them. That is no part of my present duty. The one point to which I ask attention is this: With what an enormous weight of authority, drawn from all creeds and systems, from the whole ethical experience of humanity, the conclusion of the Preacher is clothed; how we stand rebuked by the wisdom of all past ages if, after duly testing it, we have not adopted his solution of the master problem of life, and are not working it out. Out of every land, in all the different languages of the divided earth, from the lips of all the ancient sages whom we reverence for their excellence or for their wisdom no less than from the mouths of prophet and psalmist, preacher and apostle, there come to us voices which with one consent bid us "fear God and keep His commandments";-a sacred chorus which paces down the long-drawn aisles of time, chanting the praise of the man who does his duty even though he lose by it, who loves his neighbour even though he win no love in return, who breasts the blows of circumstance with a tranquil heart, who by a wise use and a wise enjoyment of the life that now is qualifies himself for the better life that is to be.
This, then, is the Hebrew solution of "the common problem." It is also the Christian solution. For when "the Fellow of the Lord of hosts," instead of "clutching at His equality with God," humbled Himself and took on Him the form of a servant, the very ideal of perfect manhood became incarnate in this "man from heaven." Does the Hebrew Preacher, backed by the consentient voices of the great sages of antiquity, demand that the ideal man, moved thereto by his sense of a constant Divine Presence and the hope of God’s future judgment, should cast the bread of his charity on the thankless waters of neighbourly ingratitude, give himself with all diligence to the discharge of duty whatever clouds may darken his sky, whatever unkindly wind may nip his harvest, and maintain a calm and cheerful temper in all weathers, and through all the changing scenes and seasons of life? His demand is met, and surpassed, by the Man Christ Jesus. He loved all men with a love which the many waters of their hostility and unthankfulness could not quench. Always about His Father’s business, when He laid aside the glory He had with the Father before the world was, He put off the robes of a king to don the weeds of the husbandman, and went forth to sow in all weathers, beside all waters, undaunted by any wind of opposition or any threatening cloud. In all the shock of hostile circumstance, in the abiding agony and passion of a life "short in years indeed, but in sorrows above all measure long," He carried Himself with a cheerful patience and serenity which never wavered, for the joy set before Him enduring, and even despising, the bitter cross. In fine, the very virtues inculcated by the Preacher were the very substance of "the highest, holiest manhood." And, if we ask, What were the motives which inspired this life of consummate and unparalleled excellence? we find among them the very motives suggested by Coheleth. The strong Son of Man and of God was never alone, because the Father was with Him, as truly with Him while He was on earth as when He was in the heaven from which He "came down." He never bated heart nor hope because He knew that He would soon be with God once more, to be judged of Him and recompensed according to the deeds done in the body of his humiliation. Men might misjudge Him, but the Judge of all the earth would do Him right. Men might award Him only a crown of thorns; but God would touch the thorns and, at His quickening touch, they would flower into a garland of immortal beauty and honour.
Nor did the Lord Jesus help us in our quest of the Chief Good only by becoming a pattern of all virtue and excellence. The work of His Redemption is a still more sovereign help. By the sacrifice of the cross, He took away the sins which had rendered the pursuit of excellence a wellnigh hopeless task. By the impartation of His Spirit, no less than by the inspiration of His Example, He seeks to win us to the love of our neighbour, to fidelity in the discharge of our daily duty, and to that cheerful and constant trust in the providence of God by which we are redeemed from the bondage of care and fear. He the Immanuel, by taking our flesh and dwelling among us, has proved that "God is with us," that He will in very deed dwell with men upon the earth. He, the Victor over death, by His resurrection from the grave, has proved the truth of a future life and a future judgment with arguments of a force and quality unknown to our Hebrew fathers. So that now, as of old, now even more demonstrably than of old, the conclusion of the whole matter is that we "fear God and keep His commandments." This is still the one solution of "the common problem" and "the whole duty of man." He who accepts this solution and discharges this duty has achieved the Supreme quest; to him it has been given to find the Chief Good.
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 12". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/