The words of the Preacher, the son of David, King in Jerusalem; Septuagint, "King of Israel in Jerusalem" (comp. Ecclesiastes 1:12). The word rendered "Preacher" is Koheleth, a feminine noun formed from a verb kalal, "to call" (see Introduction, § 1), and perhaps better rendered" Convener" or "Debater." It is found nowhere else but in this book, where it occurs three times in this chapter (Ecclesiastes 1:1, Ecclesiastes 1:2, Ecclesiastes 1:12), three times in Ecclesiastes 12:8, Ecclesiastes 12:9, Ecclesiastes 12:10, and once in Ecclesiastes 7:27. In all but one instance (viz. Ecclesiastes 12:8) it is used without the article, as a proper name. Jerome, in his commentary, translates it, 'Continuator,' in his version 'Ecclesiastes.' It would seem to denote one who gathered around him a congregation in order to instruct them in Divine lore. The feminine form is explained in various ways. Either it is used abstractedly, as the designation of an office, which it seems not to be; or it is formed as some other words which are found with a feminine termination, though denoting the names of men, indicating, as Gesenius notes, a high degree of activity in the possessor of the particular quality signified by the stem; e.g. Alemeth, Azmaveth (1 Chronicles 8:36; 1 Chronicles 9:42), Pochereth (Ezra 2:57), Sophereth (Nehemiah 7:57); or, as is most probable, the writer desired to identify Koheleth with Wisdom, though it must be observed that the personality of the author often appears, as in Ecclesiastes 1:16-18; Ecclesiastes 7:23, etc.; the role of Wisdom being for the nonce forgotten. The word "king" in the title is shown by the accentuation to be in apposition to "Koheleth" not to "David;" and there can be no doubt that the description is intended to denote Solomon, though his name is nowhere actually given, as it is in the two other works ascribed to him (Proverbs 1:1; So Proverbs 1:1). Other intimations of the assumption of Solomon's personality are found in Ecclesiastes 1:12, "I Koheleth was king," etc.; so in describing his consummate wisdom, and in his being the author of many proverbs—accomplishments which are not noted in the case of any other of David's descendants. Also the picture of luxury and magnificence presented in Ecclesiastes 2:1-26. suits no Jewish monarch but Solomon. The origin of the name applied to him may probably be traced to the historical fact mentioned in 1 Kings 8:55, etc; where Solomon gathers all Israel together to the dedication of the temple, and utters the remarkable prayer which contained blessing and teaching and exhortation. As we have shown in the Introduction (§ 2), the assumption of the name is a mere literary device to give weight and importance to the treatise to which it appertains. The term, "King in Jerusalem," or, as in 1 Kings 8:12, "King over Israel in Jerusalem," is unique, and occurs nowhere else in Scripture. David is said to have reigned in Jerusalem, when this seat of government is spoken of in contrast with that at Hebron (2 Samuel 5:5), and the same expression is used of Solomon, Rehoboam, and others (1 Kings 11:42; 1 Kings 14:21; 1 Kings 15:2, 1 Kings 15:10); and the phrase probably denotes a time when the government had become divided, and Israel had a different capital from Judah.
PROLOGUE. The vanity of all human and mundane things, and the oppressive monotony of their continued recurrence.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity (comp. Ecclesiastes 12:8). "Vanity" is hebel, which means "breath," and is used metaphorically of anything transitory, frail, unsatisfying. We have it in the proper name Abel, an appropriate designation of the youth whose life was cut short by a brother's murderous hand. "Vanity of vanities," like "heaven of heavens" (1 Kings 8:27), "song of songs" (So Ecclesiastes 1:1), etc; is equivalent to a superlative, "most utterly vain." It is here an exclamation, and is to be regarded as the key-note of the whole subsequent treatise, which is merely the development of this text. Septuagint, ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων; other Greek translators, ἀτμὶς ἀτμίδων, "vapor of vapors." For "saith" the Vulgate gives dixit; the Septuagint, εἶπεν; but as there is no reference to any previous utterance of the Preacher, the present is more suitable here. In affirming that "all is vanity," the writer is referring to human and mundane things, and directs not his view beyond such phenomena. Such reflection is common in sacred and profane writings alike; such experience is universal (comp. Genesis 47:9; Psalms 39:5-7; Psalms 90:3-10; James 3:14). "Pulvis et umbra sumus," says Horace ('Carm.,' 4.7. 16. "O curas hominum! O quantum est in rebus inane!" (Persius, 'Sat.,' 1.1). If Dean Plumptre is correct in contending that the Book of Wisdom was written to rectify the deductions which might be drawn from Koheleth, we may contrast the caution of the apocryphal writer, who predicates vanity, not of all things, but only of the hope of the ungodly, which he likens to dust, froth, and smoke (see Wis. 2:1, etc.; 5:14). St. Paul (Romans 8:20) seems to have had Ecclesiastes in mind when he spoke of the creation being subjected to vanity ( τῇ ματαιότητι), as a consequence of the fall of man, not to be remedied till the final restitution of all things. "But a man will say, If all things are vain and vanity, wherefore were they made? If they are God's works, how are they vain? But it is not the works of God which he calls vain. God forbid! The heaven is not vain; the earth is not vain: God forbid! Nor the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars, nor our own body. No; all these are very good. But what is vain? Man's works, pomp, and vain-glory. These came not from the hand of God, but are of our own creating. And they are vain because they have no useful end That is called vain which is expected indeed to possess value, yet possesses it not; that which men call empty, as when they speak of 'empty hopes,' and that which is fruitless. And generally that is called vain which is of no use. Let us see, then, whether all human things are not of this sort" (St. Chrysostom, 'Hem. 12. in Ephes.').
What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? Here begins the elucidation of the fruitlessness of man's ceaseless activity. The word rendered "profit" (yithron) is found only in this book, where it occurs frequently. It means "that which remains over, advantage," περισσεία, as the LXX. translates it. As the verb and the substantive are cognate in the following words, they are better rendered, in all his labor wherein he laboreth. So Euripides has, τί μόχον μοχθεῖς, and ('And. Fragm.,' 7.4), τοῖς μοχθοῦσι μόχθους εὐτυχῶς συνεκπόνει. Man is Adam, the natural man, unenlightened by the grace of God. Under the sun is an expression peculiar to this book (comp. Ecclesiastes 1:9, Ecclesiastes 1:14; Ecclesiastes 2:11, Ecclesiastes 2:17, etc.), but is not intended to contrast this present with a future life; it merely refers to what we call sublunary matters. The phrase is often tact with in the Greek poets. Eurip; 'Alcest.,' 151—
γυνή τ ἀρίστη τῶν ὑφ ἡλίῳ μακρῷ
"By far the best of all beneath the sun."
Homer, 'Iliad,' 4:44—
αἳ γὰρ ὑπ ἠελίῳ τε καὶ οὐρανῷ ἀστερόεντι
ναιετάουσι πόληες ἐπιχθονίων ἀνθρώπων.
"Of all the cities occupied by man
Beneath the sun and starry cope of heaven."
Theognis, 'Parcem.,' 167—
ἀνθρώπων ὁπόσους ἠέλιος καθορᾷ.
"No mortal man
On whom the sun looks down is wholly blest."
In an analogous sense we find in other passages of Scripture the terms "under heaven" (Ecclesiastes 1:13; Ecclesiastes 2:3; Exodus 17:14; Luke 17:24) and "upon the earth" (Ecclesiastes 8:14, Ecclesiastes 8:16; Genesis 8:17). The interrogative form of the verse conveys a strong negative (comp. Ecclesiastes 6:8), like the Lord's word in Matthew 16:26, "What shall a man be profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?" The epilogue (Ecclesiastes 12:13) furnishes a reply to the desponding inquiry.
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh. The translation rather weakens the force of the original, which is, a generation goeth, and a generation cometh. Man is only a pilgrim on earth; he soon passes away, and his place is occupied by others. Parallelisms of this sentiment will occur to every reader. Thus Ben-Sira, "All flesh waxeth old as a garment: for the covenant from the beginning is, Thou shalt die the death. As of the green leaves on a thick tree, some fall and some grow; so is the generation of flesh and blood, one cometh to an end, and another is born. Every work rotteth and consumeth away, and the worker thereof shall go withal" (Ecclesiasticus 14:17, etc.; comp. Job 10:21; Psalms 39:13). The famous passage in Homer, 'Iliad,' 6.146, etc; is thus rendered by Lord Derby—
"The race of man is as the race of leaves:
Of leaves, one generation by the wind
Is scattered on the earth; another soon
In spring's luxuriant verdure bursts to light.
So with our race: these flourish, those decay."
(Comp. ibid; 21.464, etc.; Horace, 'Ars Poet.,' 60.) But (and) the earth abideth forever. While the constant succession of generations of men goes on, the earth remains unchanged and immovable. If men were as permanent as is their dwelling-place, their labors might profit; but as things are, the painful contrast between the two makes itself felt. The term, "for ever," like the Greek εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, does not necessarily imply eternity, but often denotes limited or conditioned duration, as when the slave is engaged to serve his master "for ever" (Exodus 21:6), or the hills are called "everlasting" (Genesis 49:26). This verse gives one instance of growth and decay in contrast with insensate continuance. The following verses give further examples.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down. The sun is another instance of ever-recurring change in the face of an enduring sameness, rising and setting day-by-day, and resting never. The legendary 'Life of Abram' relates how, having been hidden for some years in a cave in order to escape the search of Nimrod, when he emerged from his concealment, and for the first time beheld heaven and earth, he began to inquire who was the Creator of the wonders around him. When the sun arose and flooded the scene with its glorious light, he at once concluded that that bright orb must be the creative Deity, and offered his prayers to it all day long. But when it sank in darkness, he repented of his illusion, being persuaded that the sun could not have made the world and be itself subject to extinction. And hasteth to his place where he arose; literally, and panteth (equivalent to hasteth, longeth to go) to its place arising there; i.e. the sun, sinking in the west, eagerly during the night returns to the east, duly to rise there in the morning. The "place" is the region of reappearance. The Septuagint gives, "The sun arises, and the sun sets, and draws ( ἕλκει) unto its place;" and then carries the idea into the following verse: "Arising there, it proceedeth southward," etc. The Vulgate supports the rendering; but there is no doubt that the Authorized Version gives substantially the sense of the Hebrew text as accentuated. The verb שׁאף (shaaph), as Delitzsch shows, implies "punting," not from fatigue, but in eager pursuit of something; and all notions of panting steeds or morning exhalations are quite foreign from the conception of the passage. The notion which Koheleth desires to convey is that the sun makes no real progress; its eager punting merely brings it to the old place, there to recommence its monotonous routine. Rosenmüller quotes Catullus, 'Carm.,' Ecclesiastes 5:4-6, on which, Doering cites Lotich; 'Eleg.,' 3.7. 23—
"Ergo ubi permensus coelum sol occidit, idem
Purpureo vestit lumine rursus humum;
Nos, ubi decidimus, defuncti muncre vitae,
Urget perpetua hmina nocte sopor."
But our passage does not contrast the revival of the sun every morning with man's eternal sleep in death.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; literally, going towards the south, and circling towards the north. These words, as we have seen above, are referred to the sun by the Septuagint, Vulgate, and Syriac; but it is best to make this verse refer only to the wind—a fresh example of motion continually repeated with no real progress to an end. Thus each verse comprises one subject and idea, Ecclesiastes 1:4 being concerned with the earth, Ecclesiastes 1:5 with the sun, Ecclesiastes 1:6 with the wind, and Ecclesiastes 1:7 with the waters. There seems to be no particular force in the naming of north and south, unless it be in contrast to the sun's motion from east to west, mentioned in the preceding verse. The words following show that these two directions are not alone intended. Thus the four quarters are virtually included. It whirleth about continually. The original is more forcible, giving by its very form the idea of weary monotony. The subject is delayed till the last, thus: Going towards the south … circling, circling, goeth the wind; i.e. it blows from all quarters at its own caprice. And the wind returneth again according to his circuits. And on its circlings returneth the wind; it comes back to the point whence it started. The wind, seemingly the freest of all created things, is bound by the same law of immutable changeableness, insensate repetition.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full. Here is another instance of unvarying operation producing no tangible result. The phenomenon mentioned is often the subject of remark and speculation in classical authors. Commentators cite Aristophanes, 'Clouds,' 1293—
αὕτη μὲν (sc. ἡ θάλαττα) οὐδὲν γίγνεται
ἐπιῤῥεόντων τῶν ποταμῶν πλείων,
"The sea, though all the rivers flow therein,
Waxeth no greater."
Lucretius attempts to account for the fact, De Rer. Nat.,' 6:608—
"Nunc ratio reddunda, augmen quin nesciat sequor.
Principio mare mirantur non reddere majus
Naturam, quo sit tantus decursus aquarum,
Omnia quo veniant ex omni fiumina parte."
This Dr. Busby thus versifies—
"Now in due order, Muse, proceed to show
Why the deep seas no augmentation know,
In ocean that such numerous streams discharge
Their waters, yet that ocean ne'er enlarge," etc.
No particular sea is intended, though some have fancied that the peculiarities of the Dead Sea gave occasion to the thought in the text. Doubtless the idea is general, and such as would strike every observer, however little he might trouble himself with the reason of the circumstance (comp. Ecclesiasticus 40:11). Unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again; rather, unto the place whither the rivers go, thither they go again. As Wright and Delitzsch observe, שָׁם after verbs of motion has often the signification of שָׁמָּה; and the idea is that the streams continue to make their way into the sea with ceaseless iteration. The other rendering, which is supported by the Vulgate undo, seems rather to favor the Epicurean poet's solution of the phenomenon. Lucretius, in the passage cited above, explains that the amount of water contributed by rivers is a mere drop in the ocean; that a vast quantity rises in exhalations and is spread far and wide over the earth; and that another large portion finds its way back through the pores of the ground to the bed of the sea. Plumptre considers that this theory was known to Koheleth, and was introduced by him here. The rendering which we have given above would make this opinion untenable; it likewise excludes the idea of the clouds being produced by the sea and feeding the springs. Thus Ecclesiasticus 40:11, "All things that are of the earth do turn to the earth again; and that which is of the waters doth return into the sea."
All things are full of labor. Taking the word dabar in the sense of "ward" (compare the Greek ῥῆμα), the LXX. translates, "All words are wearisome;" i.e. to go through the whole catalogue of such things as those mentioned in the preceding verses would be a laborious and unprofitable task. The Targum and many modern expositors approve this rendering. But besides that, the word yaged implies suffering, not causing, weariness (Deuteronomy 25:18; Job 3:17); the run of the sentence is unnecessarily interrupted by such an assertion, when one is expecting a conclusion from the instances given above. The Vulgate has, cunetse res difficiles. The idea, as Motais has seen, is this—Man's life is constrained by the same law as his surroundings; he goes on his course subject to influences which he cannot control; in spite of his efforts, he can never be independent. This conclusion is developed in succeeding verses. In the present verse the proposition with which it starts is explained by what follows. All things have been the object of much labor; men have elaborately examined everything; yet the result is most unsatisfactory, the end is not reached; words cannot express it, neither eye nor ear can apprehend it. This is the view of St. Jerome, who writes, "Non solum do physicis, sed de ethicis quoque scirc difficile est. Nec sermo valet explicare causas natu-rasque rerum, nec oculus, ut rei poscit dignitas, intueri, nec auris, instituente doctore, ad summam scientiam pervenirc. Si enim nunc 'per speculum videmus in aenigmate; et ex parte cognoscimus, et ex parte prophetamus,' consequenter nec sermo potest explicate quod nescit; nec oculus in quo caecutit, aspiecre; nec auris, de quo dubitat, impleri." Delitzsch, Nowack, Wright, and others render, "All things are in restless activity;" i.e. constant movement pervades the whole world, and yet no visible conclusion is attained. This, however true, does not seem to be the point insisted on by the author, whose intention is, as we have said, to show that man, like nature, is confined to a circle from which he cannot free himself; and though he uses all the powers with, which he is endowed to penetrate the enigma of life and to rise superior to his environments, he is wholly unable to effect anything in these matters. Man cannot utter it. He cannot explain all things. Koheleth does not affirm that man can know nothing, that he can attain to no certitude, that reason will not teach him to apprehend any truth; his contention is that the inner cause and meaning elude his faculties, that his knowledge is concerned only with accidents and externals, and that there is still some depth which his powers cannot fathom. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. Use his eight as he may, listen to the sounds around him, attend to the instructions of professed teachers, man makes no real advance in knowledge of the mysteries in which he is involved; the paradox is inexplicable. We have, in Proverbs 27:20, "Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied; and the eyes of man are never satisfied." Plumptre quotes Lucretins's expression," Fessus satiate videndi." "Remember," says Thomas a Kempis ('De Imitat.,' 1.1.5), "the proverb, that the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing. Eudeavour, therefore, to withdraw thy heart from the love of visible things, and to transfer thyself to the invisible. For they that follow their sensuality do stain their conscience and lose the grace of God."
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be. The LXX. and the Vulgate render the first clauses of the two parts of the verse in both cases interrogatively, thus: "What is that which hath been? The very thing which shall be. And what is that which hath been done? The very thing which shall be done." What has been affirmed of phenomena in the material world is now affirmed of the events of man's life. They move in an analogous circle, whether they are concerned with actions or morals. Plumptre sees here an anticipation or a reproduction of the Stoic doctrine of a recurring cycle of events, such as Viral mentions in his fourth 'Eclogue'—
"Magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo," etc.
But Koheleth is speaking merely from experience, and is indulging in no philosophical speculations. There is no new thing under the sun. The Vulgate transfers this clause to the next verso, which, indeed, supports the assertion. From classical authors commentators have culled examples of the same thought. Thus Tacitus, 'Annal.,' 3.55, "Nisi forte rebus cunctis inest quidam velut orbis, ut quem ad modum temporum vices, ita morum vertantur." Seneca, 'Epist.,' 24; "Nullius rei finis est, sod in orbem nexa sunt omnia; fugiunt ac sequuntur Omnia transeunt ut revertantur, nihil novi video, nihil novi facio. Fit ali-quando et hujus rei nausea." M. Aurelius, 'Medit.,' 6.37, "He that sees the present has seen all things, both that which has Been from everlasting and that which shall Be in the future. All things are of one birth and one form." Again, Ecclesiastes 7:1, "There is nothing new; all things are common and quickly over;" 12:26, "Everything that comes to pass was always so coming to pass, and will take place again." Justin Martyr, 'Apol.,' 1.57, has, perhaps, a reminiscence of this passage when he writes, οὐ γὰρ δεοίκαμεν θάνατον τοῦ πάντως ἀποθανεῖν
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? The writer conceives that objection may be taken to his statement at the end of the preceding verse, so he proceeds to reiterate it in stronger terms. "Thing" is dabar (see on Ecclesiastes 1:8). Septuagint, "He who shall speak and say, Behold, this is new," seil. Where is he? Vulgate, "Nothing is new under the sun, nor is any one able to say, Lo! this is fresh." The apparent exceptions to the rule are mistaken inferences. It hath been already of old time, which was before us. In the vast aeons of the past, recorded or unrecorded, the seeming novelty has already been known. The discoveries of earlier time are forgotten, and seem quite new when revived; but closer investigation proves their previous existence.
There is no remembrance of former things; rather, of former men—per-sons who lived in former times. As things are considered novel only because they had been forgotten, so we men ourselves shall pass away, and be no more remembered. Bailey, 'Festus '—
"Adversity, prosperity, the grave,
Play a round game with friends. On some the world
Hath shot its evil eye, and they are passel
From honor and remembrance; and stare
Is all the mention of their names receives;
And people know no more of them than they know
The shapes of clouds at midnight a year hence."
Neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after; rather, and even of later generations that shall be there will be no remembrance of them with those that shall be in the after-time. Wright quotes Marcus Aurelius, who has much to say on this subject. Thus: cap. 2.17, "Posthumous fame is oblivion;" cap. 3.10, "Every man's life lies all within the present; for the past is spent and done with, and the future is uncertain;" cap. 4.33, "Those words which were formerly current and proper are now become obsolete and barbarous. Alas l this is not all: fame tarnishes in time, too, and men grow out of fashion as well as language. Those celebrated names of ancient story am antiquated; those of later date have the same fortune; and those of present celebrity must follow. I speak this of those who have been the wonder of their age, and shined with unusual luster; but as for the rest, they are no sooner dead than forgotten" (comp. Wis. 2:4). (On the keen desire to live in the memory of posterity, see Ecclesiasticus 37:26; 44:7, etc.)
Ecclesiastes 6:12.—Division. I. PROOF OF THE VANITY OF EARTHLY THINGS FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE AND GENERAL OBSERVATION.
Section 1. Vanity of striving for wisdom and knowledge.
I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. Koheleth relates his own experience as king, in accordance with his assumption of the person of Solomon. The use of the past tense in this verse is regarded by many as strong evidence against the Solomonic authorship of the book. "I have been king" (not "I have become king," as Gratz would translate) is a statement introducing the supposed speaker, not as a reigning monarch, but as one who, in time past, exercised sovereignty. Solomon is represented as speaking from the grave, and recalling the past for the instruction of his auditors. In a similar manner, the author of the Book of Wisdom (Esther 8:1-13) speaks in his impersonation of Solomon. That king himself, who reigned without interruption to his death, could not have spoken of himself in the terms used here. He lost neither his throne nor his power; and, therefore, the expression cannot be paralleled (as Mr. Bullock suggests) by the complaint of Louis XIV; unsuccessful in war and weary of rule, "When I was king." Solomon redivivus is introduced to give weight to the succeeding experiences. Here is one who had every and the most favorable opportunity of seeing the best side of things; and yet his testimony is that all is vanity. In the acquisition of wisdom, the contrast between the advantage of learned leisure and the interruptions of a laborious life is set forth in Ecclesiasticus 38:24, etc. King over Israel. The expression indicates a time before the division of the kingdom. We have it in 1 Samuel 15:26, and occasionally elsewhere. The usual phrase is "King of Israel." (For in Jerusalem, see on 1 Samuel 15:1.)
I gave my heart (Ecclesiastes 1:17; Ecclesiastes 7:25; Daniel 10:12). The heart, in the Hebrew conception, was the seat, not of the affections only, but of the understanding and intellectual faculties generally. So the expression here is equivalent to "I applied my mind." To seek and search out. The two words are not synonymous. The former verb ( דָּרַשׁ, darash) implies penetrating into the depth of an object before one; the other word ( תּוּר, tur) taking a comprehensive survey of matters further away; so that two methods and scopes of investigation are signified. By wisdom; ἐν τῇ σοφίᾳ. Wisdom was the means or instrument by which he carried on his researches, which were directed, not merely to the collecting of facts, but to investigating the causes and conditions of things. Concerning all things that are done under heaven; i.e. men's actions and conduct, political, social, and private life. We have "under the sun" in Ecclesiastes 1:9, and again in Ecclesiastes 1:14. Here there is no question of physical matters, the phenomena of the material world, but only of human circumstances and interests. This sore travail (rather, this is a sore travail that) God hath given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. The word rendered "travail" ( עִנְיָן, inyan) occurs often in this book (e.g. Ecclesiastes 2:23, Ecclesiastes 2:26, etc.), and nowhere else in the Old Testament. The same root is found in the word translated "exercised;" hence Wright has, "It is a woeful exercise which God has given to the sons of men wherewith to exercise themselves." If we keep to the word "travail," we may render, "to travail therein." It implies distracting business, engrossing occupation. Septuagint, περισπασμόν; Vulgate, occupationem. Man feels himself constrained to make this laborious investigation, yet the result is most unsatisfactory, as the next verse shows. "God" is here Elohim, and so throughout the book, the name Jehovah (the God of the covenant, the God of Israel) never once occurring. Those who regard Solomon as the author of the book account for this on the plea that the king, in his latest years, reflecting sadly on his backsliding and fall, shrank from uttering with his polluted lips the adorable Name once so often used with filial reverence and beloved. But the true reason is found in the design of Koheleth, which was to set forth, not so much Israel's position under the covenant, as the condition of man in the face of the God of nature. The idiosyncrasies and peculiar features of the chosen people are not the subject of his essay; he deals with a wider sphere; his theme is man in his relation to Divine providence; and for this power he uses that name, common alike to the true and false religions, Elohim, applied to the Supreme Being by believers and idolaters.
Here is the result of this examination of human actions. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun. In his varied experience nothing had escaped his notice. And behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit; reuth ruach; afflictio spiritus (Vulgate); προαίρεσις πνεύματος, "choice of spirit," or, "wind"; νομὴ ἀνέμου (Aquila and Theodotion); βοσκήσις ἀνέμου, "feeding on wind" (Symmachus). This last translation, or "striving after wind," seems to be most agreeable to the etymology of the word רְעוּת, which, except in this book (Ecclesiastes 2:11, Ecclesiastes 2:17, Ecclesiastes 2:26, etc.), occurs elsewhere only in the Chaldee portion of Ezra (Ezra 5:17; Ezra 7:18). Whichever sense is taken, the import is much the same. What is implied is the unsubstantial and unsatisfying nature of human labors and endeavors. Many compare Hosea 12:2, "Ephraim feedeth on wind," and Isaiah 44:20, "He feedeth on ashes." In contrast, perhaps, to this constantly recurring complaint, the author of the Book of Wisdom teaches that murmuring is unprofitable and blasphemous (Wis. 1:11). Bailey, in 'Festus,' sings—
"Of all life's aims, what's worth the thought we waste on't?
How mean, how miserable, seems every care!
How doubtful, too, the system of the mind!
And then the ceaseless, changeless, hopeless round
Of weariness, dud heartlessness, and woe,
And vice, and vanity! Yet these make life—
The life, at least, I witness, if not feel
No matter, we are immortal."
That which is crooked cannot be made straight. This is intended as a confirmation of Ecclesiastes 1:14. By the utmost exercise of his powers and faculties man cannot change the course of events; he is constantly met by anomalies which he can neither explain nor rectify (comp. Ecclesiastes 7:13). The above is probably a proverbial saying. Knobel quotes Suidas: ξύλον ἀγκύλον οὐδέποτ ὀρθόν. The Vulgate takes the whole maxim as applying only to morals: "Perverse men are hardly corrected, and the number of tools is infinite." So too the Syriac and Targum. The Septuagint rightly as the Authorized Version. The writer is not referring merely to man's sins and delinquencies, but to the perplexities in which he finds himself involved, and extrication from which is impracticable. That which is wanting cannot be numbered. The word חֶסְדוֹן, "loss, defect," is ἅπαξ λεγόμενον in the Old Testament. We cannot reckon where there is nothing to count; no skill in arithmetic will avail to make up for a substantial deficit. So nothing man can do is able to remedy the anomalies by which he is surrounded, or to supply the defects which are pressed upon his notice.
Koheleth now arrives at his first conclusion, that wisdom is vanity. I communed with mine own heart. The expression suggests, as it were, an internal dialogue, as the Greek Venetian puts it, διείλεγμαι ἐγὼ ξὺν τῇ καρδίᾳ μου (comp. Ecclesiastes 2:1, Ecclesiastes 2:15). Lo, I am come to great estate. If this be taken by itself, it makes Koheleth speak of his power and majesty first, and of his progress in wisdom afterwards; but it is best to connect it with what follows, and to confine the clause to one idea; thus: "I have obtained great and ever greater wisdom"—I have continually added to my stores of knowledge and experience. Than all they (above all) that have been before me in (over) Jerusalem. Who are the rulers alluded to? Solomon himself was only the second of the Israelite kings who reigned there; of the Canaanite princes who may have made that their capital, we have no knowledge, nor is R likely that Solomon would compare himself with them. The Targum has altered the approved reading, and gives, "Above all the wise men that were in Jerusalem before me." The reading, "in [instead of 'over'] Jerusalem," has indeed some manuscript authority, and is confirmed by the Septuagint, Vulgate, and Syriac, but it is evidently a correction of the text by critics who saw the difficulty of the authorized wording. Motais and others assert that the preposition in the Masoretic text, עַל (all, often means "in," as well as "over," when the reference is to an elevated spot; e.g. Isaiah 38:20; Hosea 11:11. But even granting this, we are still uncertain who are the persons meant. Commentators point to Melchizedek, Adonizedek, and Araunah among rulers, and to Ethan, Heman, Chalcol, and Darda (1 Kings 4:31) among sages. But we know nothing of the wisdom of the former, and there is no tangible reason why the latter should be designated "before me in Jerusalem." Doubtless the words point to a succession of kings who had reigned in Jerusalem, and the writer, involuntarily, perhaps, betrays his assumed character, in relying an excusable anachronism, while giving to the personated monarch a position which could not belong to the historical Solomon. Yea, my heart had great experience of (hath seen abundantly, κατὰ πολύ Venetian) wisdom and knowledge, הַרְבֵה used adverbially qualifies the word before it, "hath seen." The heart, as we have observed (verse 13), is considered the seat of the intellectual life. In saying that the heart hath seen wisdom, the writer means that his mind has taken it in, apprehended and appropriated it (comp. Ecclesiastes 8:16; Job 4:8). Wisdom and knowledge; chokmah and daath; σοφίαν καὶ γνῶσιν, the former regarding the ethical and practical side, the latter the speculative, which leads to the other (comp. Isaiah 33:6; Romans 11:33).
And I gave my heart. He reiterates the expression in order to emphasize his earnestness and energy in the pursuit of wisdom. And knowing, as St. Jerome says, that "contrariis contraria inteiliguntur," he studies the opposite of wisdom, and learns the truth by contrasting it with error. And to know madness and folly (Ecclesiastes 2:12). The former word, holeloth (intensive plural), by its etymology points to a confusion of thought, i.e. an unwisdom which deranges all ideas of order and propriety; and folly (here sikluth), throughout the sapiential books, is identified with vice and wickedness, the contradictory of practical godliness. The LXX. has παραβολὰς καὶ ἐπιστήμην, "parables and knowledge," and some editors have altered the Hebrew text in accordance with this version, which they consider more suitable to the context. But Koheleth's standpoint is quite consistent. To use the words of St. Jerome in his 'Commentary,' "AEqualis studii fuit Salomoni, scire sapientiam et scientiam, et e regione errores et stultitiam, ut in aliis appetendis et aliis declinandis vera ejus sapientia probaretur." On the other hand, Den-Sirs gives a much-needed warning against touching pitch (Ecclesiasticus 13:1), and argues expressly that "the knowledge of wickedness is not wisdom" (Ecclesiasticus 19:22). Plumptre unnecessarily sees in the use of the term" madness 'an echo of the teaching of the Stoics, who regarded men's weaknesses as forms of insanity. The moralist had no need to travel beyond his own experience in order to learn that sin was the acme of unwisdom, a declension from reason which might well be called madness. The subject is handled by Cicero, 'Tusc. Disput.,' 3.4, 5. We are reminded of Horace's expression ('Carm.,' 2.7. 27)—
"Recepto Dulce mihi furere est amico."
And Anacreon's (31.), θέλω θέλω μανῆναι. Thus far we have had Koheleth's secret thoughts—what he communed with his own heart (Ecclesiastes 1:16). The result of his studies was most unsatisfying I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit; or, a striving after wind, as Ecclesiastes 1:14 Though the word is somewhat different. As such labor is wasted, for man cannot control issues.
For in much wisdom is much grief. The more one knows of men's lives, the deeper insight one obtains of their actions and circumstances, the greater is the cause of grief at the incomplete and unsatisfactory nature of all human affairs. He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow; not in others, but in himself. With added experience and more minute examination, the wise man becomes more conscious of his own ignorance and impotence, of the unsympathizing and uncontrollable course of nature, of the gigantic evils which he is powerless to remedy; this causes his sorrowful confession (Ecclesiastes 1:17). St. Gregory, taking the religious view of the passage, comments, "The more a man begins to know what he has lost the more he begins to bewail the sentence of his corruption, which he has met with" ('Moral.,' 18.65); and, "He that already knows the high state which he does not as yet enjoy is the more grieved for the low condition in which he is yet held" (ibid; 1.34). The statement in our text is paralleled in Ecclesiasticus 21:12, "There is a wisdom which multiplieth bitterness," and contrasted in Wis. 8:16 with the comfort and pleasure which true wisdom brings.
Esther 1:1, Esther 1:12
Koheleth, the Preacher.
I. THE PREACHER'S NAME. Koheleth, signifying:
1. The Assembler, or Collector (Delitzsch, Bleek, Keil), not of sentences (Grotius), but of people. Hence:
2. The Preacher (Delitzsch, Wright), since the object for which he calls or convenes the assembly is to address it with words of wisdom (Ecclesiastes 12:9).
3. The Debater (Plumptre), since "the Ecclesiastes was not one who called the ecclesia or assembly together, or addressed it in a tone of didactic authority; but rather an ordinary member of such assembly (the political unit of every Greek state) who took part in its discussions" (ibid.).
II. THE PREACHER'S PERSON.
1. Solomon. In support of this, the traditional view, may be urged:
2. A late writer, belonging to the Persian period (Delitzsch, Bleek, Keil, Plumptre, Hengstenberg, Wright, Cox). Arguments in support of this view are:
III. THE PREACHER'S CHARACTER.
1. Not an atheist. Since besides making frequent (thirty-seven times) mention of the name of God, he expressly recognizes God as the true God, exalted above the world (Ecclesiastes 5:8), the Object of man's fear (Ecclesiastes 5:7; Ecclesiastes 12:13) and worship (Ecclesiastes 5:1, Ecclesiastes 5:2), and the Disposer and Governor of all (Ecclesiastes 7:13); acknowledges the existence in man of a spirit (Ecclesiastes 12:7), and of such things as truth and error, right and wrong, holiness and sin (Ecclesiastes 5:4 6; Ecclesiastes 7:15, Ecclesiastes 7:16; Ecclesiastes 9:2, Ecclesiastes 9:3); places the sum of duty as well as the secret of happiness in fearing God and keeping his commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13); and hints his belief in the coming of a day when God will bring the secrets of all into judgment (Ecclesiastes 11:9).
2. Not a pantheist. The God he believes in is a personal Divinity, distinguished from the works he has made (Ecclesiastes 3:11) and the man he has created (Ecclesiastes 12:1); who issues commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13), and can be worshipped by prayer, sacrifice, and vows (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7); who should be feared (Ecclesiastes 5:7), and who can accept the service of his intelligent creatures (Ecclesiastes 9:7).
3. Not a pessimist. Though at times seeming to indulge in gloomy views of life, to imagine that all things on earth are going to the bad, that the sum of human happiness is more than counterbalanced by that of human misery, that life is not worth living, and that the best a wise man can do is to escape from it in the easiest and most comfortable way he can; yet that these were not his deliberate opinions may be gathered from the frequency with which he exhorts men to cultivate a cheerful mind, and to enjoy the good of all their labor which God giveth them under the sun (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; Ecclesiastes 3:12; Ecclesiastes 9:7; Ecclesiastes 11:9), and from the emphatic manner in which he repudiates morose conclusions concerning the degeneracy of the times (Ecclesiastes 7:10).
4. Not a libertine. This notion (Plumptre) may appear to derive countenance from what the preacher says of himself (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3); but his language hardly warrants the conclusion that the author of this book had in his lifetime been a person of dissolute morals and profligate manners. If he was, before he penned this work he must have seen the error of his way.
5. But a deeply thinking and religious man. When he looked upon the mystery of life he felt perplexed. He saw that, apart from God and religion, life was an emptiness and vanity. Yet was he not thereby driven to despair, or impelled to renounce life as an unmixed evil; but rather offered it as his opinion that man's highest duty was to fear God and keep his commandments, to accept whatever good Providence might pour into his cup, bear with equanimity and submission whatever trials might be mingled in his lot, and prepare himself for the moment when he should pass into the unseen to render an account for the things done in the body (2 Corinthians 5:10).
IV. THE PREACHER'S AIM. Neither:
1. To expound the doctrines of pessimism—to show "that the past has been like the present," and "the present like that which is to come," that "the present is bad," that "the past has not been better," and "that the future will not be preferable" (Renan). Nor:
2. To furnish an autobiographical confession (ideal, but based on personal experiences) of the progress of a Jewish youth from skepticism through sensuality to faith (Plumptre). But possibly:
3. To comfort God's people, the Hebrew Church, under oppression—that of Persian rule, e.g; supposing the book to be a late composition, by showing them the vanity of earthly things, and exhorting them "to seek elsewhere their happiness; to draw it from those inexhaustible eternal fountains, which even at that time were open to all who chose to come" (Hengstenberg). And certainly:
4. To exhibit the true secret of felicity in the midst of life's vanities, which consisted, as above explained, in fearing God and keeping his commandments.
1. The inspiration of a Scripture not dependent on a knowledge of its date or author.
2. The value of the Bible as a key to the problem of the universe.
3. The succession of Heaven-sent preachers that have appeared all down the centuries.
Vanity of vanities.
I. THE UNPROFITABLE CHARACTER OF ALL HUMAN LABOR. (Esther 1:3.) Passing over the pathetic picture these words instinctively call up of human life as a ceaseless round of toil—a picture which modern civilization, with all its appliances and refinements, has not obliterated, but rather, in the experience of many, painted in still more lurid colors; a picture which has always possessed for poetic minds, sacred (Job 7:1, Job 7:2) no less than profane (Thomas Hood, 'Song of the Shirt'), a peculiar fascination—readers may note the melancholy truth to which the Preacher here adverts, viz. that the solid outcome of human labor, in the shape of permanent advantage to either society at large or the individual, is comparatively small.
1. This cannot mean that labor is wholly useless (Ecclesiastes 5:19), since without labor man cannot find that bread which is needful for his bodily sustenance (Genesis 3:19). It would be misconceiving the Preacher to suppose he disapproved of all that has been effected by human industry and genius to enrich, enlighten, and civilize the race, or desired to teach that men had better times of it on earth when they lived like savages upon the spontaneous fruits of the earth.
2. Nor is it likely that he designed to glance at what has been a sore evil under the sun ever since men began to divide themselves into laborers and capitalists, viz. the small portion of labor's fruits which usually fall to the former, without whom there would be little or no fruits at all.
3. It is rather probable that the writer was thinking, not of laborers so called, to the exclusion of other workers, but of all toilers without distinction, when he said that the outcome of man's activity, so far at least as attaining to felicity was concerned, was practically nothing.
II. THE UNCEASING CHANGE TO WHICH ALL MUNDANE THINGS ARE SUBJECT. (Esther 1:4-7.)
1. Illustrated in four particulars.
2. Explained by four clauses. It is as if he said, "Look around and behold! All things of earth are perpetually on the move—the sun in the sky, the winds in the firmament, the clouds in the air, the waters in the ocean, the rivers on the meadow, man himself upon the surface of the globe. Nothing bears the stamper finality. Everything is shilling. Nothing remains long in one stay. 'All things are full of labor and weariness; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear filled with hearing'" (Esther 1:8)—by which he means that the changeful condition is never done; there never comes a time when the eye says, "Enough!" or the ear repeats, "Behold! I am full." This view of life had occurred to many before the Preacher's day (Genesis 47:9; 1 Chronicles 29:15; Job 4:19, Job 4:20; Job 7:6; Job 8:9), as it has occurred to some since—to the Greek philosophers who described nature as in a state of perpetual flux, to modem poets such as Shakespeare, and to sacred writers like John (1 John 2:17) and Paul (1 Corinthians 7:31.)
III. THE WEARISOME MONOTONY OF LIFE. (Verses 9, 10.)
1. What the Preacher could not have meant. That no new occurrence ever happens on the earth, that no new contrivance ever is devised, that no new experience ever emerges. Because since the Preacher's day multitudes of new discoveries and inventions have been made in all departments of science; while in the sphere of religion at least one new thing has taken place, viz. the Incarnation (Jeremiah 31:22), and another will take place (Isaiah 65:17).
2. What the Preacher did mean. That the general impression made by life upon beholders is that of sameness. Going back to the above illustrations, he would have said, "See how it is in nature. No doubt one new day succeeds another, one gale of wind follows another, and one body of waters hastens after another. But every day and always it is the same thing over again; the same old sun which reappears in the east; and the same gusts of wind to which we are accustomed that blow from the north to the south, and whirl about continually to all points of the compass; and the same stream that keeps on filling up its fountains and sending forth its waters to the sea. And if you will look at the world of humanity it is the same. A new generation appears on the globe every thirty years, and every hour of every day new individuals are being born; but they are substantially the same old men and women that were here before. 'Fed by the same food, hurt by the same weapons, warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter' as those who preceded them, they go through the same experiences their fathers and mothers went through before them." This feeling of monotony is even more emphasized when attention is fixed on the individual. Try to think of how monotonous and wearisome an ordinary human life is! An attempt to realize this will awaken surprise.
IV. THE UNIVERSAL OBLIVION INTO WHICH MEN AND THINGS MUST EVENTUALLY SINK. (Verse 11.) So obvious is this that it scarcely needs illustration. Consider what a small portion of the earth's incidents during the past six thousand years have survived in history, and bow few of the world's great ones have left behind them more than their names. The memory has been preserved of a Flood, but what about the ordinary words and actions that make up everyday life during the years between the Creation and the Deluge? A few particulars have been preserved of the histories of an Abraham and a David, a Sennacherib and a Nebuchadnezzar, an Alexander and a Caesar; but what about the myriads that formed their contemporaries? How much has been transmitted to posterity of the history of these islands? How few of the events of last year have been recorded? How many of those who then died are still remembered? This is, no doubt, all as it should be; but still it is a proof of the vanity of things below, if these be regarded simply in themselves.
CONCLUSION. This view of life should not be possible to a Christian who enjoys the fuller and clearer light of the New Testament revelation, and views all things in their relations to God, duty, and immortality.
Concerning crooked things and things wanting.
I. IRREGULARITIES AND DEFECTS EXIST IN THE WORLD'S PROGRAM. This the teaching of the two proverbs, that crooked things cannot be straightened, i.e. by man, or wanting things numbered. To the seeker after wisdom, who surveys all the works that are done under the sun, and gives his heart to search into and to seek out by wisdom with regard to these what is their end and issue, there appear in the physical, mental, and moral worlds anomalies, irregularities, excrescences, deviations from the straight line of natural order, as well as defects, wants, imperfections, gaps, cleavages, interruptions, failures to reach completeness, which arrest attention and excite astonishment.
1. Of irregularities or crooked things, such phenomena as these may be cited:
2. Of things wanting or defects, may be reckoned these:
II. SUCH IRREGULARITIES AND DEFECTS ARE BEYOND THE POWER OF MAN TO REMOVE OR REMEDY. This, at least, is the doctrine of the above two proverbial sayings.
1. The doctrine, however, is not absolutely and universally true. In the physical, mental, and moral worlds, man can do something to straighten what is crooked and supply what is lacking. For instance, by skill and foresight he can guard himself to some extent against the virulence of disease, the violence of storms and tempests, the destructiveness of unexpected calamities; by education he can protect himself and others against the perils arising from defective knowledge and erroneous judgments; by personal cultivation of virtue he can at least diminish the quantity of its opposite, vice, in the world. If he cannot straighten out all the crooks, he can even some; if he cannot remedy every defect, he can remove a few.
2. Yet the doctrine is true in the sense intended by the Preacher. This is, that after man has done his utmost there will remain anomalies that baffle him to explain, a sense of incompleteness which nothing he can attempt will remove. Let him prosecute his investigations ever so widely and vigorously, there always will be "more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy"—enigmas he cannot solve, antinomies he cannot reconcile, defects he cannot fill up.
III. THE EXISTENCE OF SUCH IRREGULARITIES AND DEFECTS SUGGESTS SOME IMPORTANT LESSONS. AS:
1. That the present system of things is not final. Nothing that is imperfect can be final. The crooked things that want straightening and the lacking things that need supplying contain a dim prophecy of a future and better order, in which the crooked things will be straightened and the defective things supplied.
2. That man's power of apprehending things is incomplete. From this probably arises not a little of that sense of disorder and incompleteness in the outer world of which he complains.
3. That things impossible to man may be possible to God. Though man's faculties are limited, it does not follow that God's power is. The crooked things that man cannot straighten, God can straighten if it seem good to his wisdom.
4. That man's duty meanwhile is to submit and wait. Instead of fretting at what he cannot rectify, he should aim at extracting from it that moral discipline which, doubtless, it is intended to impart; and instead of rushing to hasty conclusions from what he only imperfectly apprehends, he ought in a spirit of hopefulness to wait for further light.
Increase of knowledge, increase of sorrow.
I. BECAUSE NOT WITHOUT LABOR AND PAIN, OFTENTIMES PROTRACTED AND ACUTE, CAN KNOWLEDGE OF ANY KIND BE INCREASED. No royal road to wisdom any more than to wealth. He who would acquire knowledge must dig for it as for hidden treasures (Proverbs 2:4). Those who have attained to greatest distinction, as philosophers, poets, astronomers, etc; have all been hard workers. The information that renders them so wise and their society so agreeable has been slowly and painfully collected by diligent and unremitting effort, sustained through years, often amid hardships, and by means of serf-denials which would have caused them to abandon their enterprises had they been common men, sometimes at the expense of restless days and sleepless nights, and in the midst of bodily infirmities not soothed but aggravated by close and severe study. No doubt, to one inspired with a love of knowledge, such labors and anxieties are more than compensated by the knowledge so acquired; but the proposition of the Preacher is that the largest amount of wisdom one may gather is an insufficient requital for all this toil and anxiety, if the knowledge be only earthly and secular—i.e. has no connection with God, duty, or immortality—and one cannot help asking if the Preacher is not right.
II. BECAUSE, AS THE CIRCLE OF KNOWLEDGE WIDENS, THE SPHERE OF IGNORANCE APPEARS TO ENLARGE. One is prone to imagine that, as the circle of information widens, that of ignorance contracts—which it does in the sense that, the more one knows, the sum of what remains to be known diminishes; but in another and important sense the amount of what remains to be known increases. As in mountain-climbing, the higher one ascends he sometimes discovers heights beyond of which previously he had no suspicion, so in footing it up the steep and difficult slopes of Parnassus, one actually comes to see that the more extensive the boundaries of this knowledge become, the vaster grow the regions beyond into which he has not yet penetrated. A child, for instance, looking up for the first time into the evening sky, imagines he has understood it all at a glance; but afterwards, when he has learnt the elementary truths of astronomy, there rushes on him the conviction that what he knows is but a small part of a very large whole; and as he prosecutes his search into the wonders of star-land, he realizes that the more he knows of it the more there remains to be known, till he feels that with respect to this, at least," he that increases knowledge increases sorrow." Nor is this experience confined to one department of knowledge, but in every department it is the same; the larger and clearer one's acquaintance becomes with it, it only seems to open up untrodden realms beyond, the bare contemplation of which exercises on the mind a strangely depressing influence.
III. BECAUSE AS ONE EXTENDS HIS KNOWLEDGE HIS DIFFICULTIES SEEM TO MULTIPLY. Especially in dealing with the problem of existence. Contrast the states of childhood and manhood, of ignorance and learning, of savage peoples and of civilized nations. The child is unconscious of anxieties that oppress the parental bosom. The peasant, innocent of geology, biology, astronomy, and history, is not troubled with mental, moral, and religious difficulties such as perplex those acquainted with these themes. The heathen, with crude and ill-defined ideas of God, duty, and immortality, are incapable of appreciating those questionings concerning the future life that proceed in Christian minds. Not that it is not better to increase in knowledge, even should such increase awaken and foster doubts; only to increase in knowledge does not necessarily bring peace to the heart or happiness to the soul. It enables one to discern dark problems where none were discerned before; it pushes one on to inquire after solutions for those problems which, nevertheless, constantly elude the grasp. In the region of morals and religion especially it burdens one with a sense of weariness and pain, because of the endless questionings it raises and cannot answer. One who has never been launched upon this sea of doubt can hardly appreciate the wretchedness of those who have been tossed by its raging billows. Those who can hold on by ideas of God, duty, and immortality for the most part escape these perplexities; the man who tries to solve the problem of the universe without these fundamental and regulative conceptions does not, but becomes entangled in a labyrinth of difficulties, and commonly ends by finding himself "in wandering mazes lost."
IV. BECAUSE AS ONE EXTENDS HIS KNOWLEDGE, HE EXTENDS AT THE SAME TIME HIS ACQUAINTANCE WITH THE WORLD'S SORROW. Often said, "One half of the world knows not how the other half lives." How much, e.g; does the civilized Briton know of the degradation of "darkest Africa;" or the religiously educated youth or maiden of the sin that runs rampant in modern society; or the well-fed, well-clothed, and well-housed citizen of the aching hearts and miserable lives of the houseless and breadless poor who herd in great cities? Because these things are not known, the Christians of Great Britain are comparatively indifferent to the sad and sorrowful condition of the poor and criminal classes at home, and of the heathen abroad. Did they properly consider these things, they would be filled with sorrow. Should this be adduced as a reason why one should not trouble himself with such disagreeable subjects, the answer is that if God, duty, and immortality are fictions, it is perhaps better to let the world stew in its own wretchedness and profligacy, and to guard one's felicity from being invaded by such disquieting influences; but if God, duty, and immortality are realities, it may be perilous to exhibit such indifference towards the world's wretchedness and sin.
V. BECAUSE INCREASE OF KNOWLEDGE AUGMENTS MAN'S POWER BOTH OF CAUSING AND OF FEELING SORROW. Knowledge is power. Insight into nature's laws enables one to apply these to mechanical uses which, in the absence of such insight, would be impossible. A person of large intelligence and mature experience can do things transcending the capacity of youth. Yet this increased efficiency, which springs from increased knowledge, does not always augment the sum of happiness. If it helps man to multiply instruments for good, it also enlarges his ability to perpetrate evil. It was once believed that crime and misery would disappear from society with the general diffusion of education. No one believes that now. Mere knowledge has no tendency to make men good. (Milton's Satan was not a fool.) It will help such as are good to means and opportunities for doing good; but just as certainly it will aid the wicked in their wickedness, and add to their power of causing misery. Then, in so far as knowledge or education has a tendency to refine the nature, intensify the feelings, quicken the susceptibilities, to that extent it augments the sum of human sorrow.
1. Not to glorify ignorance or despise knowledge, but to seek first that wisdom which cometh from above (James 1:5; James 3:17).
2. To seek other knowledge, not so much for their own sakes, as for the purpose of using them in God's service and for his glory.
HOMILIES BY D. THOMAS
All is vanity.
If we regard this book as Solomon's own record and statement of his remarkable experience of human life, it must be deemed by us a most valuable lesson as to the hollowness and emptiness of worldly greatness and renown. If, on the other hand, we regard the book as the production of a later writer, who lived during the troubled and depressed period of Jewish history which followed the Captivity, it must be recognized as casting light upon the providentially appointed consequences of national sin, apostasy, and rebellion. In the former case the moral and religious significance of Ecclesiastes is more personal, in the latter case more political. In either case, the treatise, as inspired by Divine wisdom, demands to be received and studied with reverential attention. Whether its lessons be congenial or unwelcome, they deserve the consideration of those of every age, and of every station in society. Some readers will resent the opening words of the treatise as gloomy and morbid; others will hail them as the expression of reason and wisdom. But the truth they contain is independent of human moods and temperaments, and is only to be fully appreciated by those whose observation is extensive and whose reflection is profound. The wise man makes a broad and unqualified statement, that all things earthly and human are but vanity.
I. THIS MAY BE A STATEMENT OF A MERE MOOD OF FEELING OWING TO INDIVIDUAL EXPERIENCE. There are times when every man who lives is distressed and disappointed, when his plans come to naught, when his hopes are blasted, when his friends fail him, when his prospects are clouded, when his heart sinks within him. It is the common lot, from which none can expect to be exempt. In some instances the stormy sky clears and brightens, whilst in other instances the gloom thickens and settles. But it may be confidently asserted that, at some period and in some circumstances, every human being, whose experience of life is large and varied, has felt as though he has been living in a scene of illusion, the vanity of which has been perhaps suddenly made apparent to him, and then the language of the writer of Ecclesiastes has risen to his lips, and he has exclaimed in bitterness of soul, "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!"
II. THIS MAY BE A STATEMENT OF PAINFUL EXPERIENCE, DEPENDENT UPON THE SPECIAL TIMES—POLITICAL AND ECCLESIASTICAL—IN WHICH THE LOT IS CAST. Such is the mutability of human affairs, that every nation, every Church, passes through epochs of prosperity, confidence, energy, and hope; and again through epochs of adversity, discouragement, depression, and paralysis. The Israelites had their times of conquest and of progress, and they had also their times of defeat, of captivity, of subjection, of humiliation. So has it been with every people, every state. Nor have the Churches into which Christian communities have been formed, escaped the operation of the same law. So far as they have been human organizations, they have been affected by the laws to which all things human are subject. In times when a nation is feeble at home and despised abroad, when faction and ambition have reduced its power and crippled its enterprise, there is proneness, on the part of the reflecting and sensitive among the citizens and subjects, to lament over the unprofitableness and vanity of civil life. Similarly, when a Church experiences declension from the Divine standard of faith, purity, and consecration, how natural is it that the enlightened and spiritual members of that Church should, in their grief over the general deadness of the religious community, give way to feelings of discouragement and foreboding, which find a fitting expression in the cry, "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!"
III. THIS MAY BE A STATEMENT OF PHILOSOPHICAL REFLECTION UPON THE FACTS OF NATURE AND OF HUMAN LIFE. It would be a mistake to suppose that the cry of "Vanity!" is always the evidence of a merely transitory though powerful mood of morbid feeling. On the contrary, there have been nations, ages, states of society, with which it has been a settled conviction that hollowness and emptiness characterize all human and earthly affairs. Pessimism may be a philosophical creed, as with the ancient Buddhists and some of the modern Germans; it may be a conclusion reached by reflection upon the facts of life. To some minds unreason is at the heart of the universe, and in this case there is no ground for hope. To other minds, not speculative, the survey of human affairs is suggestive of aimlessness in the world, and occasions despondency in the observant and reflective mind. Thus even some who enjoy health and prosperity, and in whose constitution and circumstances there is nothing to justify discouragement and hopelessness, are nevertheless found, without any serious satisfaction in existence, ready to sum up their conclusions, derived from a perhaps prolonged and extensive survey of human life, in the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes, "All is vanity!"
IV. THIS MAY BE A STATEMENT OF RELIGIOUS CONVICTION, BOTH SPRINGING FROM AND LEADING TO THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE ETERNAL AND GLORIOUS GOD. The student of physical science looks at facts; it is his duty to observe and to classify facts; their arrangement under certain relations, as of likeness and of sequence, is his business, in the discharge of which he renders a great service to mankind. But thought is as necessary as observation. A higher explanation than physical science can give is imperatively required by human nature. We are constrained, not only to observe that a thing is, but also to ask why it is. Here metaphysics and theology come in to complete the work which science has begun. Human life is composed not only of movements, which can be scientifically accounted for, but of actions, of which the explanation is hyperphysical, is spiritual. Similarly with the world at large, and with human life and history. The facts are open to observation; knowledge accumulates from age to age; as experience widens, grander classifications are made. Still there is a craving for explanation. Why, we ask, are things as they are? It is the answer to this question which distinguishes the Pessimist from the theist. The wise, the enlightened, the religious, seek a spiritual and moral significance in the universe—material and psychical. In their view, if things, as they are and have been, be regarded by themselves, apart from a Divine reason working in and through them, they are emptiness and vanity. On the other hand, if they be regarded in the light of that Divine reason, which is order, righteousness, and love, they are suggestive of what is very different indeed from vanity To the thoughtful and reverent mind, apart from God, all is vanity; seen in the light of God, nothing is vanity. Both these seeming contradictions are true, and they are reconciled in a higher affirmation and unity. Look at the world in the light of sentience and the logical understanding, and it is vanity. Look at it in the light of reason, and it is the expression of Divine wisdom and Divine goodness.
APPLICATION. It is well to see and feel that all is vanity, if we are thus led to turn from the phenomenal to the real, the abiding, the Divine. But it will be to our hurt if we dwell upon the vanity of all things, so that pessimism be fostered, so that we fail to recognize Infinite Reason at the heart of all things, so that we regard this as the worst of all worlds, so that for us the future has no brightness.—T.
Esther 1:3, Esther 1:4
The vanity of man's life.
At the very outset of his treatise, the wise man gives his readers to understand that the vanity which is ascribed to all things that are, is distinctive in an especial and obvious manner of human life. This is the most interesting of all things to observe and study, as it is the most precious to possess. And there is some danger lest, if the study of it lead to despondency, the possession of it should cease to be valued.
I. THE FACTS UPON WHICH THE CONVICTION OF THE VANITY OF LIFE IS FOUNDED.
1. The unsatisfying character of human toil. Labor is the destiny of man, and is in most cases the indispensable condition of not only life itself, but of those things for the sake of which many men value life—wealth, comfort, pleasure, and fame. Yet in how many cases does toil fail to secure the objects for the sake of which it is undertaken! Men labor, but reap no harvest of their painful, wearying efforts. And when the result is obtained, how commonly does it yield little or nothing of the satisfaction desired! Men toil for years, and when they attain that upon which their hearts were set, disappointment and dissatisfaction take possession of their nature.
2. The brevity of human life, and the rapid succession of the generations. The reflection of the wise man is a reflection which must have been current among men from the earliest ages No sooner has a laborious and successful man reached the summit of his ambition, grasped the object of his desire, than he is taken away from the enjoyment of that for the sake of which he was content to "scorn delights, and live laborious days." The next generation renews the quest, only to repeat the experience of disappointment. Changes and improvements take place in many details of our life; but life itself remains throughout the ages, subject to the same limitations and the same calamities, to the same uncertainties and the same close.
3. The contrast between the transitoriness of human life and the stability of the unconscious earth. It appears strange and inexplicable that man, with the great possibilities of his nature, should be so short-lived, and that the earth should outlast generation after generation of mankind. The writer of Ecclesiastes felt, as every reflecting observer must feel, the sadness of this contrast between the perpetuity of the dwelling-place and the brief sojourn of its successive inhabitants.
4. The impossibility of any generation reaping the harvest for which it has sown. The toil, the genius, the enterprise of a generation may indeed bear fruit, but it is the generation which follows that enjoys that fruit. All men labor more for posterity than for themselves. "This also is vanity."
II. THE CHARACTER OF THE INFERENCE FROM THESE FACTS, VIZ. THAT LIFE IS PROFITLESS AND VAIN.
1. It is attributable to the reflecting and aspiring nature of man. A being less endowed with susceptibilities and imagination, with moral capacities and far-reaching aims and hopes, would be incapable of such emotions and such conclusions as this book expresses. The brute is content to eat and drink, to sleep, and to follow its several instincts and impulses. But of man we may say that nothing that he can be and do can give him perfect rest and satisfaction. It is owing to an innate and noble dissatisfaction that he is ever aiming at something better and higher, and that the narrow range and brief scope of human life cannot content him, cannot furnish him with all the opportunity he desires in order to acquire and to achieve.
2. It is attributable to the very nature of earthly things, which, because they are finite, are incapable of satisfying such a nature as that described. They may and do answer a high purpose when their true import is discerned—when they are recognized as symbolical and significant of what is greater than themselves. But no material good, no terrestrial distinctions, can serve as "profit" of labor. If so regarded, their vanity must sooner or later be apparent. There is a divinely ordained disproportion between the spirit of man and the scenes and occupations and emoluments of earth.
1. There is in human life a continuity only discerned by the reflecting and the pious. The obvious and striking fact is the disconnection of the generations. But as evolution reveals a physical continuity, philosophy finds an intellectual and moral continuity in our race.
2. The purpose of God is unfolded to successive generations of men. The modern study of the philosophy of history has brought this fact prominently and effectively before the attention of the scholarly and thoughtful. We see this continuity and progress in the order of revelation; but all history is, in a sacred sense, a revelation of the Eternal and Unchanging.
3. It is well that what we do we should do deliberately and seriously, not for our own good merely, but for mankind, and in the truest sense for God. This will lend "profit" to the unprofitable.
4. This state is not all. Life explains school; summer explains spring; and so eternity shall explain the disappointments, perplexities, and anomalies of time.—T.
The cycles of nature.
This is not to be taken as the language of one who makes complaints of nature, wishing that the great forces of the world were ordered otherwise than they actually are. It is the language of one who observes nature, and is baffled by its mysteries; who asks what all means, and why everything is as it is. Even at that distant time it was recognized that the processes of nature are cyclic. The stars accomplish their revolutions, and the seasons return in their appointed order. There is unity in diversity, and changes succeed one another with remarkable regularity. These observations seem to have suggested to the writer of Ecclesiastes the inquiry—Is man's life and destiny in this respect similar to the order of nature? Is our human experience as cyclic as are the processes of the material universe? Is there no real advance for man? and is he destined to pass through changes which in the end will only leave him where he was?
I. NATURE PRESENTS A SPECTACLE OF CONSTANT CHANGE AND RESTLESSNESS. The three examples given in these passages are such as must strike every attentive observer of this earth and the phenomena accessible to the view of its inhabitants. The sun runs his daily course through the heavens, to return on the next morning to fulfill the same circuit. The wind veers about from one quarter to another, and quits one direction only in a few hours, or a few days, or at most a few weeks, to resume it. The rivers flow on in an unceasing current, and find their way into the sea, which (as is now known) yields in evaporation its tribute to the clouds, whence the water-springs are in due time replenished. Modern science has vastly enlarged our view of similar processes throughout all of the universe which is accessible to our observation. "Nothing continueth in one stay." There is in the world nothing immovable and unchangeable. It is believed that not an atom is at rest.
II. NATURE SEEMS TO EFFECT NO PROGRESS BY ALL THE CHANGES EXHIBITED. Not only is there a want, an absence, of stability, of rest; there is no apparent advance and improvement. Things move from their places only to return to them; their motion is rather in a circle than in a straight line. It was this cyclic tendency in natural processes which arrested the attention and perplexed the inquiring mind of the wise man. And modern science does not in this matter effect a radical change in our beliefs. Evolutionists teach us teat rhythm is the ultimate law of the universe. Evolution is followed by involution, or dissipation. A planet or a system evolves until it reaches its climax, and thenceforward its course is reversed, until it is resolved into the elements of which it was primevally composed. In the presence of such speculations the intellect reels, dizzy and powerless.
III. REFLECTION MAY, HOWEVER, SUGGEST TO US THAT THERE IS UNITY IN DIVERSITY, STABILITY IN CHANGE; THAT THERE IS A DIVINE PURPOSE IN NATURE. If there be evidence of reason in the universe, if nature is the expression of mind, the vehicle by which the Creator-Spirit communicates with the created spirits he has fashioned in his own likeness, then there is at least the suggestion of what is deeper and more significant than the cycles of phenomena. There is rest for the intelligence in such a conviction as that of the theist, who rises above the utterances to the Being who utters forth his mind and will in the world which he has made, and which he rules by laws that are the expression of his own reason. He looks behind and above the mechanical cycles of nature, and discovers the Divine mind, into whose purposes he can only very partially penetrate, but in whose presence and control he finds repose.
IV. ANALOGY POINTS OUT THAT IN AND BENEATH THE MUTABILITY OF THE HUMAN LOT AND LIFE THERE IS DIVINE PURPOSE OF INSTRUCTION AND BLESSING. If, as it seems, it occurred to the mind of the wise man that, as in nature, so in human existence, all things are cyclic and unprogressive, such an inference was not unnatural. Yet it is not a conclusion in which the reasonable mind can rest. The fuller revelation with which we have been favored enlightens us with respect to the intentions of Eternal Wisdom and Love. Our Savior has founded upon earth a kingdom which cannot be moved. And the figures which he himself has employed to set forth its progress are an assurance that it is not bounded by time or space; that it shall grow until its dimensions and beneficence exceed all human expectations, and satisfy the heart of the Divine Redeemer himself. Each faithful Christian, however feeble and however lowly, may work in his Master's cause with the assurance that his service shall be not only acceptable, but effective. Better shall be the end than the beginning. The seed shall give rise to a tree of whose fruit all nations shall taste, and beneath whose shadow humanity itself shall find both shelter and repose.—T.
The insatiability of sense.
Man is on one side akin to the brutes, whilst he is on the other side akin to God. Sense he shares with the inferior animals; but the intellect and conscience by which he may use his senses in the acquisition of knowledge, and his physical powers in the fulfillment of a moral ideal, these are peculiar to himself. On this account it is impossible for man to be satisfied with mere sensibility; if he makes the attempt, he fails. To say this is not to disparage sense—a great and wonderful gift of God. It is simply to put the senses in their proper place, as the auxiliaries and ministers of reason. Through the exercise of sense man may, by Divine aid, rise to great spiritual possessions, achievements, and enjoyments.
I. AN INFINITE VARIETY OF OBJECTS APPEAL TO THE SENSES OF SIGHT AND HEARING. These are chosen as the two noblest of the senses—those by whose means we learn most of nature, and most of the thoughts and purposes of our fellow-men and of our God. Around, beneath, and above us are objects to be seen, sounds and voices to be heard. The variety is as marvelous as the multiplicity.
II. WONDERFUL IS THE ADAPTATION OF THE SENSES TO RECEIVE THE VARIED IMPRESSIONS PRODUCED BY NATURE. The susceptibility of the nerves of the eye to the undulations of ether, of the ear to atmospheric vibrations, has only been fully explained in recent times. There is no more marvelous instance of design than the mutual adaptations of the voice, the atmosphere, and the auditory nerve; of the molecular structure of colored body, the ether, and the retinal structure of the optic nerve. And these are only some of the arrangements between nature and sense which meet us at every turn and at every moment of our conscious existence.
III. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE THAT THE MERE EXERCISE OF SENSE SHOULD AFFORD A FULL SATISFACTION TO THE NATURE OF MAN. It is not to be supposed that any reasonable being should seek his gratification merely in the enjoyment of the impressions upon the senses. But even curiosity fails to find satisfaction, and those who crave such satisfaction make it manifest that their craving is in vain. The restlessness of the sight-seer is proverbial. When the impressions of sense are used as the material for high intellectual and spiritual ends, the case is otherwise. But it remains true as in the days of Koheleth, "The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing."
IV. IT WOULD BE AN ERROR TO REGARD THIS FACT AS A PROOF OF THE INHERENT BADNESS OF THE SENSES. Such an inference has sometimes been drawn by enthusiastic minds; and mystics have inculcated abstinence from the exercise of the senses as essential in order to intellectual and spiritual illumination. The error here lies in overlooking the distinction between making ourselves the slaves of our senses, and using the senses as our helpers and servants.
V. BUT IT IS JUST TO REGARD THIS FACT AS AN INDICATION THAT MEN SHOULD SEEK THEIR SATISFACTION IN WHAT IS HIGHER THAN SENSE. When the eyes are opened to the works of God, when we look upon the form of the Son of God, when we hear the Divine Word speaking in conscience and speaking in Christ, our senses then become, directly or indirectly, the instrumentality by means of which our higher nature is called into exercise and finds abundant scope. Our reason may thus find rest in truth; our sympathies may thus respond to the revealed love of the Eternal Father known by his blessed Son; our whole heart may rise into fellowship with him from whom all our faculties and capacities are derived, and in whom alone his spiritual children can find a perfect satisfaction and an unshaken repose.—T.
Esther 1:9, Esther 1:10
If, in the ancient days in which this book was written, men were already experiencing the weariness which comes from their familiarity with the scenes of earth and the incidents of life, how much more must this be the case at the present time! It is, indeed, ever characteristic of the favorites of fortune, that they "run through" the possibilities of excitement and of pleasure before their capacity for enjoyment is exhausted, and cry for new forms of amusement and distraction. It is remarkable how soon such persons are reduced to the painful conviction that there is nothing new under the sun.
I. THE LOVE AND QUEST OF NOVELTY ARE NATURAL TO MAN. When we examine human nature, we find there a deep-seated interest in change. What is called "relativity," the passage from one experience to another, is indeed an essential condition of mental life. And transition from one mode of excitement to another is a constituent of a pleasurable life. Thus, in the case of the intellectual man, the aim is to know and to study ever new things; whilst in the case of the man of energy and activity, the impulse is to view new scenes, to undertake new enterprises. It is this principle in our nature which accounts for the efforts men put forth, and for the sacrifices to which men willingly submit.
II. THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF REAL NOVELTY IN THE NATURAL WORLD AND IN HUMAN AFFAIRS. A little reflection will convince us that continuous novelty is unattainable. The laws of nature remain the same, and their sameness produces effects which with familiarity produce the effect of monotony. The conditions of human life do not materially vary from year to year, from age to age. And human nature possesses certain constant factors, in virtue of which men's employments and pleasures, hopes, sufferings, and fears remain substantially as they were in former times. The chief exception to this rule arises from the fact that what is old to one generation is for a while new to its successor. But it must not be forgotten that the individual, if favor-ably circumstanced, soon exhausts the variety of human experience. The voluptuary offers a reward to him who can invent a new pleasure. The hero weeps for want of a new world to conquer. The child of fortune experiences in the satisfaction of his wants, and even his caprices, the ennui which is a proof that he has followed the round of occupations and pleasures until all have been exhausted. Thus the most favored are in some cases the least happy, and the most ready to join in the complaint, "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!"
III. IT IS THE SPIRITUAL REALM WHICH IS ESPECIALLY CHARACTERIZED BY NEWNESS. If it is impossible that the Book of Ecclesiastes should be written over again in the Christian ages, the reason is that the fuller and sublime revelations made by the Son of God incarnate have enriched human thought and life beyond all calculation. There is no comparison between the comparative poverty of knowledge and of life, even under the Mosaic economy in ancient times, and "the unsearchable riches of Christ." None can exhaust the treasures of knowledge and wisdom, the possibilities of consecrated service and spiritual progress, distinctive of the Christian dispensation. Christianity is emphatically a religion of newness. It is itself the new covenant; its choicest gift to man is the new heart; it summons the disciples of the Redeemer to newness of life; it puts in their mouth a new song; whilst it opens up in the future the glorious prospect of new heavens and a new earth. God comes in the Person of his Son to this sin-stricken humanity, and his assurance and promise is this: "Behold, I make all things new." And in fulfillment of this assurance, the Church of Christ rejoices in the experience expressed in the declaration, "Old things have passed away; behold, all things are become new."—T.
The vanity of human wisdom.
Solomon was one of the great, magnificent, and famous kings of the East, and was eminent both for possessions and abilities. The splendor of his court and capital may have impressed the popular mind more profoundly than anything else attaching to him. But his wisdom was his most distinctive and honorable peculiarity. At the beginning of his reign he had sought this from God as his supreme gift, and the gift had been bestowed upon him and continued to him. Its evidences were striking and universally acknowledged. As a king, a judge, an administrator, a writer, a religious teacher, Solomon was pre-eminently wise. It must be admitted that he did not always make the best use of the marvelous talents entrusted to him. But he was well able to speak from his own experience of the gift of wisdom; and none was ever better able to speak of its vanity.
I. THE POSSESSION AND EXERCISE OF WISDOM.
1. This implies natural ability, as a foundation; and, if this be absent, eminence is impossible.
2. It implies also good opportunities. There are doubtless many endowed with native powers, to whom are denied the means of calling forth and training those powers, which accordingly lie dormant throughout the whole of life.
3. It implies the diligent cultivation of natural powers, and the diligent use of precious opportunities.
4. It implies prolonged experience—"years that bring the philosophic mind."
II. THE LIMITATION OF HUMAN WISDOM. To the view of the uncultivated and inexperienced, the knowledge of the accomplished student seems boundless, and the wisdom of the sage almost Divine. But the wise man knows himself too well to be thus deluded. The wisest man is aware that there are
On every side he is reminded how limited are his speculative and his practical powers. He is often all but helpless in the presence of questions that baffle his ingenuity, of difficulties that defy his endeavors and his patience.
III. THE DISAPPOINTMENT AND DISTRESS OF WISDOM.
1. One erroneous inference from the considerations adduced must be carefully guarded against, viz. the inference that folly is better than wisdom. The wise man may not always come to a just conclusion as to belief and practice, but the fool will usually he misled by his folly.
2. The wise man is gradually disillusioned regarding himself. He may start in life with the persuasion of his power and commanding superiority; but his confidence is perhaps by slow degrees undermined, and he may end by forming a habit of self-distrust.
3. At the same time, the wise man becomes painfully conscious that he does not deserve the reputation which he enjoys among his fellow-men.
4. But, above all, he feels that his wisdom is folly in the presence of the all-wise God, to whose omniscience all things are clear, and from whose judgment there is no appeal.
5. Hence the wise man acquires the most valuable lesson of modesty and humility—qualities which give a crowning grace to true wisdom. The wise man assuredly would not exchange with the fool, but he would fain be wiser than he is; and he cherishes the conviction that whatever light illumines him is but a ray from the central and eternal Sun.—T.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Esther 1:2, Esther 1:3
Human life and human labor.
What is the worth of our human life? This is an old and ever-recurring question; the answer to it depends far less on what surrounds us than on what is within us, far less upon our circumstances than upon our spirit. But it must be acknowledged—
I. THAT THE WORTH OF OUR LIFE DEPENDS LARGELY UPON ITS ACTIVITIES. We have to ask—How are we related to our fellows? What is the number and what the nature of the objects that minister to our comforts? What opportunities are there for leisure, for repose, for recreation? But the largest of all questions is this: What is the character of our activities? Are these congenial or uninviting, burdensome or moderate, tedious or interesting, fruitful or barren, passing or permanent in their effects?
II. THAT HUMAN ACTIVITY HAS ITS DEPRESSING ASPECTS. SO depressing were they to "the Preacher," that he pours forth his dejection of spirit in the strong exclamation of the text. The valuelessness of all human labor made life itself seem to him to be vain. Three things there are that dwarf it.
1. Its slightness. A few men accomplish that which is observable, remarkable, worthy of being chronicled and remembered, making its mark on the page of history or of poetry; but how few they are! The great majority of mankind spend all their strength in doing that which is of small account, which produces no calculable effect upon their times, of which no man thinks it worth while to sneak or sins
2. Its dependence on others. There are but very few indeed whose labor can be said to be original, independent, or creative. Almost every man is so working that if any of those who are co-operating with him were to withdraw their labor, his would be of no avail; his work would be quite unprofitable but for their countenance and support.
3. Its insecurity. This is the main thought of the text. What is the use of a man building up that which his neighbor may come and pull down; of gathering laboriously together that which the thief may take away; of expending toilful days and exhausting energies on something which may be taken from our grasp in the compass of an hour, at the bidding of one strong human will; of making long and weary preparation for later life, when the tie that binds us to the present sphere may be snapped in a moment? Insecurity, arising from one of a number of sources—the elemental forces of nature, the malice and treachery of men, despotism in government, the chances and changes of trade and commerce, failure of health and strength, sudden death, etc.—marks all the products of human activity with its own stamp, and brings down their value, who shall estimate how much? The Preacher says to nothing. But let it be remembered—
III. THAT HUMAN ACTIVITY HAS ITS REDEEMING QUALITIES. This is only one view of it. Another and a healthier view may be taken of the subject.
1. All honest and faithful labor is worthy in the sight of the wise man and of the Wise One (Proverbs 14:23).
2. All conscientious labor provides a sphere for the active service of God; by its honorable and faithful discharge, as in his sight, we can serve and please our Lord.
3. All such labor has a happy reflex influence on ourselves, strengthening us in body, in mind, in character.
4. All earnest work is really constructive of the kingdom of Christ. Although we see not its issues and cannot estimate its worth, we may be sure that "the day will declare it," and that it will be found at last that every true stroke we struck did tell and count for truth and righteousness, for the cause of humanity and of Christ.—C.
The stability of nature.
The Preacher was struck with the strong contrast between the permanence of nature and the transiency of human life; and the thought oppressed and pained him. We may take his view of the subject—and our own. We look at the stability of nature—
I. AS IT APPEALS TO OUR SENSES. To the outward eye things do continue as they were—
"Changeless march the stars above,
Changeless morn succeeds to even,
And the everlasting hills,
Changeless, watch the changeless heaven."
The hills, "rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun;" the "unchanging, everlasting sea;" the rivers that flow down the centuries as well as through the lands; the plains that stretch for long ages beneath the skies;—these aspects of nature are impressive enough to the simplest imagination; they make this earth which is our home to be charged with deepest interest and clothed with truest grandeur. No man, who has an eye to see and a heart to feel, can fail to be affected by them.
II. AS IT APPEALS TO OUR REASON. The stability of all things about and above us:
1. Gives us time to study the nature and the causes of things, and enables one generation to hand down the results of its researches to another, so that we are constantly accumulating knowledge.
2. Gives us proof of the unity of God.
3. Assures us of the mighty power of the great Author of nature, who is seen to be strong to sustain and preserve and renew.
III. AS IT AFFECTS OUR LIFE. For what would happen if everything were inconstant and uncertain? What would be the effect on human labor and on human life if there were no dependence to be placed on the continuance, as they are, of land and sea, of earth and sky, of hill and plain? How does the security of all the great objects and systems of the world add incentive to our industry! how does it multiply our achievements! how does it enlarge and enrich our life! That we shall be able to complete what we have begun, and that we have a good hope of handing down our work to our successors,—is not this a large factor, a powerful inspiration, among us?
IV. AS IT DWARFS OUR INDIVIDUAL CAREER. The Preacher seemed to feel this acutely. What a small, slight, evanescent thing is a human life when compared with the long ranges of time that the ancient earth and the more ancient heavens have known! A generation comes and goes, while a river hardly changes its course by a single curve; many generations pass, while the face of the rocks is not visibly affected by all the waves that beat upon its surface night and day; all the generations of men, from the time that a human face was first turned up to heaven, have been looked down upon by those silent stars! Why make so much of so transient a thing as a human life? Ay, but look at it—
V. IN THE LIGHT OF THE SPIRITUAL AND THE ETERNAL.
1. The worth of spiritual life is not determined by its duration. The life of a human spirit—if that be the life of purity, holiness, reverence, love, generosity, aspiration—is of more account in the estimate of Divine wisdom, even though it be extended over a mere decade of years, than the existence which knows nothing of these nobilities, even though it should be extended over many thousands of years.
2. Moreover, holy human life on earth leads on and up to the life which is eternal. So that we, whose course upon the earth is so short, who are but of yesterday and with whom to-morrow may not be, do yet begin upon the earth a life which will abound in all that is beautiful and blessed, in all that is great and noble, when the "everlasting hills" have crumbled into dust.—C.
Esther 1:7, Esther 1:8
Weariness and rest.
We have here—
I. THE COMPLAINT OF THE UNSATISFIED. "All things are full of weariness" (Revised Version).
1. There are many obvious sources of satisfaction. Life has many pleasures, and many happy activities, and much coveted treasure. Human affection, congenial employment, the pursuit of knowledge, "the joys of contest," the excitements of the field of sport, the attainment of ambition, etc.
2. All of them together fail to satisfy the heart. The eye is act satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing, nor the tongue with tasting, nor the hand with handling, nor the mind with investigating and discovering. All the streams of temporal and worldly pleasure run into the sea of the human soul, but they do not fill it. The heart, on whatsoever it feeds, is still a-hungered, is still athirst. It may seem surprising that when so much that was craved has been possessed and enjoyed, that when so many things have ministered to the mind, there should still be heart-ache, unrest, spiritual disquietude, the painful question—Who will show us any good? Is life worth having? The profundity, the commonness and constancy of this complaint, is a very baffling and perplexing problem. We surely ought to be satisfied, but we are not. The unillumined mind cannot explain it, the uninspired tongue "cannot utter it." What is the solution?
II. ITS EXPLANATION. Its solution is not far to seek; it is found in the truth so finely uttered by Augustine, "O God, thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart findeth no rest until it resteth in thee." The human spirit, created in God's image, constituted to possess his own spiritual likeness, formed for truth and righteousness, intended to spend its noble and ever-unfolding powers in the high service of the Divine,—is it likely that such a one as this, that can be so much, that can know so much, that can love the best and highest, that can aspire to the loftiest and purest well-being, can be satisfied with the love that is human, with the knowledge that is earthly, with the treasure that is material and transient? The marvel is, and the pity is, that man, with such powers within him and with such a destiny before him, can sometimes sink so low as to be filled and satisfied with the husks of earth, unfilled with the bread of heaven.
III. ITS REMEDY. To us, to whom Jesus Christ has spoken, there is a plain and open way of escape from this profound disquietude. We hear the Master say, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you … and ye shall find rest unto your souls."
Esther 1:9, Esther 1:10
The changing and the abiding.
We are not to take the Preacher's words in too absolute a sense. There is that which has been but which is not now. We are sometimes powerfully affected by—
I. THE CHANGING. Of those things which bear the marks of time, we may mention:
1. The face of nature.
2. The handiwork of man. We look on prostrate palaces, fallen temples, buried cities, disused and decaying harbors, etc.
3. Historical characters. We have been familiar with the faces and forms of men that have played a great part in their country's history or created an epoch in philosophy, or poetry, or science; but where are they now?
4. Human science. Whether medical or surgical, whether geographical, geological, philosophical, theological, or of any other order, human science is changing continually. The top-stone of yesterday is the stepping-stone of today.
5. The Character of philanthropic work. This was once represented by almsgiving, but to-day we feel that almsgiving is as much of an evil as a good, and that we want to do that for men which will remove for ever all "charity" on the one side and all dependence on the other. But look at—
II. THE ABIDING. Many things remain and will remain; among these are:
1. The main features of human life. Labor, sorrow, care, struggle, death; love, pleasure, success, honor.
2. Typical human characters. We still have with us the false, the licentious, the cruel, the servile, the ambitious, etc.; and we still have the meek, the grateful, the generous, the pure-hearted, the devout, etc.
3. The spiritual element. Men have not done, and they never will have done, with the mysterious, the supernatural, the Divine. They still ask—Whence came we? By whose power are we sustained? To whom are we responsible? Whither do we go? How can we know and serve and please God?
4. The truth of Jesus Christ. Heaven and earth may pass away, but his words "will not pass away." They are with us still, and they will remain, amid all wreckage, to enlighten our ignorance, to cheer our sorrow, to accompany our loneliness, to conquer our sin, to light up our departure, to bless and to enrich us, ourselves, with the blessings and the treasures that are not of earth but of heaven.—C.
Oblivion and its consolations.
We have here:
I. A NATURAL HUMAN ASPIRATION. We do not like to think that the time is coming when we shall be wholly forgotten; we should like to live on in the memory of men, especially in the memory of the wise and good. We shrink from the idea of being entirely forgotten; we do not care to think that the hour will come when the mention of our name will not awaken the slightest interest in any human circle. There is something exceedingly attractive in the thought of fame, and repelling in that of oblivion. There is that within us which responds to the fine line of Horace, in which he tells us that he has built for himself a monument more enduring than brass; and to the aspiration of our own Milton, that he might prove to have written something which "the world would not willingly let die."
II. ITS INEVITABLE DISAPPOINTMENT.
1. It is indeed true that "the memory of the just is blessed," and that they who have lived well, loved faithfully, wrought nobly, suffered meekly, striven bravely, will be remembered and honored after death; they may be long, even very long, remembered and revered.
2. There are just a few men whose names and histories will go down the long stream of time, of whom the very last generation will speak and learn.
3. But the vast majority of men will soon be forgotten. Their names may be inscribed on memorial-stones, but in a very few years none will care to read them; the eye that lights upon them will glance from them with indifference; there will be "no remembrance" of them. The world will take its way; will do its work and find its pleasure, regardless altogether of the fact that these men once trod its surface and now lie beneath it.
III. THE TRUE CONSOLATION. This is certainly not found in the commonness of our lot. It is no consolation to me that my neighbor is as ill off as myself; that ought to be an aggravation of my trouble. It is, in fact, twofold.
1. We may be always living in the deathless influence our faithful lives exerted and handed down. For good influences do never die; they are scattered and lost sight of, but they are not extinguished; they live on in human hearts and lives from generation to generation.
2. We shall be loved and honored otherwhere. What if we be forgotten here upon the earth? Are there not other parts of the kingdom of God? And is there not one where God will have found for us a sphere, and in the minds and hearts of those who will be our friends and fellow-laborers there we shall hold our place, honoring and honored, loving and beloved?—C.
Knowledge and sorrow.
This is one of those utterances which contain much truth and leave much to be supplied. "In much wisdom is much grief," but there is much beside grief to be found in it. So we look at—
I. THE TRUTH WHICH IT CONTAINS. Of the wisdom or the knowledge which brings sadness to the heart we have to reckon the following.
1. Our deeper insight into ourselves. As we go on we find ourselves capable of worse things than we once supposed we were—selfish aims, evil thoughts, unhallowed passions, etc. Neither David nor Peter supposed himself capable of doing the deed to which he fell.
2. Childhood's corrected estimate of the good. We begin by thinking all good men and women perfect; then, as experience enlarges, we have reluctantly and sorrowfully to acknowledge to ourselves that there are flaws even in the life and character of the best. And disillusion is a very painful process.
3. Maturity's acquaintance with evil. We may go some way into life before we know one-half of the evil which is in the world? Indeed, it is the wisdom and the duty of many—of even a large proportion of the race—not to know much that might be revealed. But as a widening knowledge unveils the magnitude and heinousness of moral evil, there is sorrow indeed to the pure and sympathetic soul. The more we know of the sins and the sorrows of our race—of its cruelties on the one hand and its sufferings on the other, of its enormities and its privations, of its toils and troubles, of its degradation and its death in life—the more we are distressed in spirit; "in much wisdom is much grief."
II. ITS LARGE QUALIFICATIONS. There is much truth belonging to the subject which lies outside this statement, qualifying though not contradicting it.
1. There is much pleasure in the act of acquisition. The study of one of the sciences, the reading of history, the careful observation of nature and mastery of its secrets, the investigation of the nature of man, etc.,—there is a pure and invigorating delight in all this.
2. Knowledge is power; and it is power to acquire that which will surround us with comfort, with freedom, with friendship, with intellectual enlargement.
3. The knowledge which is heavenly wisdom is, in itself, a source of elevation and of deep spiritual thankfulness and happiness.
4. The knowledge of God, as he is known to us in Jesus Christ, is the one unfailing source of unfading joy.—C.
HOMILIES BY J. WILLCOCK
The summary of a life's experience.
"Solomon and Job," says Pascal, "had most perfect knowledge of human wretchedness, and have given us the most complete description of it: the one was the most prosperous, the other the most unfortunate, of men; the one knew by experience the vanity of pleasure, the other the reality of sorrow." In such diverse ways does God lead men to the same conclusion—that in human life, apart from him, there is no true satisfaction or lasting happiness, that the immortal spirit cannot find rest in things seen and temporal. The words, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity: what profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun?" (Revised Version), are the key-note of the whole book—the theme which the author maintains by arguments and illustrations drawn from a most varied experience. If Solomon be not the speaker, if we have in Ecclesiastes the composition of a later writer, no more appropriate personage could have been found than the ancient Jewish king to set forth the teaching which the book contains. For he had tasted all the good things human life has to give. On him God had bestowed wisdom and knowledge, riches, wealth, honor, and length of days. All these he had enjoyed to the full, and therefore speaks, or is made to speak, as one from whom nothing had been kept that his soul desired, and who found that nothing results from the mere satisfaction of appetites and desires but satiety and loathing and disappointment. We may contrast with this retrospect of life that given us by One whose aim it was to fulfill the Law of God and secure the well-being of his fellow-men; and we may thus discover the secret of Solomon's failure to win happiness or to reach any lasting result. At the close of his life the Redeemer of mankind summed up the history of his career in the words addressed to God, "I glorified thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which thou hast given me to do" (John 17:4). It may seem to some a dreary task to follow the course of Solomon's morbid thoughts, but it cannot fail to be profitable, if we undertake the task in the earnest desire to discover the causes of his melancholy and disappointment, and learn from the study how to guide our own lives more successfully, and to enter into the peace and contentment of spirit which, after all his efforts, he failed to make his own. In the first eleven verses of this chapter we have revealed to us the despair and weariness which fell upon the soul of him whose splendor and wisdom raised him above all the men of his time, and made him the wonder of all. succeeding ages. Life seemed to him the emptiest and poorest thing possible—"a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." He might have used the words of the modern philosopher Amiel, "To appear and to vanish,—there is the biography of all individuals, whatever may be the length of the cycle of existence which they describe; and the drama of the universe is nothing more. All life is the shadow of a smoke-wreath, a gesture in the empty air, a hieroglyphic traced for an instant in the sand and effaced a moment afterwards by a breath of wind, an air-bubble expanding and vanishing on the surface of the great river of being—an appearance, a vanity, a nothing. But this nothing is, however, the symbol of universal being, and this passing bubble is the epitome of the history of the world." It seemed to him that life yielded no permanent results, that it was insufferably monotonous, and that it was destined to end in utter oblivion. The futility of effort, the monotony of life, and the oblivion that engulfs it at last are the topics of this opening passage of the book. Let us take them up one after the other.
I. THAT LIFE YIELDS NO PERMANENT RESETS. (Verses 1-3.) We have before us, then, the deliberate judgment of one who had full experience of all that men busy themselves with—"the labor wherein they labor under the sun"—the pursuit of riches, the enjoyment of power, the satisfaction of appetites and desires, and so on, and his conclusion is that there is no profit in it all. And his sentence is confirmed by the words of Christ, "What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" In the case of Solomon, therefore, we have a record of permanent significance and value. We cannot deprive his somber utterances of their weight by saying that he spoke simply as a sated voluptuary, and that others might with more skill or discretion extract from life what he failed to find in it. For, as we shall see, he did not confine himself to mere pursuit of pleasure, but sought satisfaction in intellectual employments and in the accomplishment of great tasks, for which the power and wealth at his disposal were drawn upon to the utmost. His melancholy is not a form of mental disease, but the result of the exhaustion of his energies and powers in the attempt to find satisfaction for the 'soul's cravings. And in melancholy of this kind philosophers have found a proof of the dignity of human nature. "Man's unhappiness," says one of them, "comes of his greatness: it is because there is an infinite in him, which, with all his cunning, he cannot quite bury under the finite He requires, if you consider it, for his permanent satisfaction and saturation, simply this allotment, no more and no less: God's infinite universe altogether to himself, therein to enjoy infinitely, and fill every wish as fast as it rises Try him with half of a universe, of an omnipotence, he sets to quarrelling with the proprietor of the other half, and declares himself the most maltreated of men. Always there is a blackspot in our sunshine; it is even the shadow of ourselves" (Carlyle). The very consciousness of the unprofitableness of life, of failure to attain to perfect satisfaction in the possession of earthly benefits, painful as it is, should convince us of the value of the higher and better inheritance, which may be ours, and in which alone we can find rest; and we should take it as a Divine warning to seek after those things that are eternal and unchangeable. Our dissatisfaction and our sorrows are like those of the exile who pines for the pleasant land from which by a hard fate he is for a time dissevered; like the grief of a king who has been deposed. And it is to those whose hunger and thirst cannot be satisfied by things of earth, who find, like Solomon, that there is "no profit in a man's labor wherein he laboreth under the Sun," that God issues the gracious invitation, "Lo, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labor for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness." The idea of the unprofitableness of human labor expressed by Solomon is calculated, if carried too far, to put an end to all healthy and strenuous effort to use the powers and gifts God has bestowed upon us, and to lead to indifference and despair. If no adequate result can be secured, if all that remains after prolonged exertion is only a sense of weariness and disappointment, why should we labor at all? But such thoughts are dishonoring to God and degrading to ourselves. He has not sent us into the world to spend our labor in vain, to be overcome with the consciousness of our poverty and weakness. There are ways in which we can glorify him and serve our generation; and he has promised to bless our endeavors, and supply that wherein we come short. Every sincere and unselfish effort we make to help the weak, to relieve the suffering, to teach the ignorant, to diminish the misery that meets us on every hand, and to advance the happiness of our fellows, is made fruitful by his blessing. Something positive and of enduring value may be secured in this way, even "treasure laid up in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal? We may so use the goods, the talents, now committed to our charge, as to create for ourselves friends, who will receive us into everlasting habitations when the days of our stewardship are over, and this visible, tangible world fades away from us.
II. The second reflection of the royal Preacher is that HUMAN LIFE IS INSUFFERABLY MONOTONOUS; that under all outward appearances of variety and change there is a dreary sameness (verses 4-10). Generation succeeds generation, but the stage is the same on which they play their parts, and one performance is very like another. The incessant motion of the sun, traveling from east to west; the shifting of the wind from one point to another, and then back again; the speedy current of the rivers to join the ocean, which yet is not filled by them, but returns them in various ways to water the earth, and to feed the springs, "whence the rivers come;" the commonplace events of human life, are all referred to as examples of endless and monotonous variation. The law of mutability, without progress, seems to the speaker to prevail in heaven and in earth—to rule in the material world, in human society, and in the life of the individual. The lordship over creation, bestowed upon man, appeared to him a vain fancy. Man himself was but a stranger, sojourning here for but a very short time, coming like a wandering bird from the outer darkness into the light and warmth of a festive hall, and soon flitting out back again into the darkness. And, to one in this somber mood, it is not wonderful that all natural phenomena should wear the aspect of instability and change. To the pious mind of the psalmist the sun suggested thoughts of God's glory and power; the majesty of the creature gave him a more exalted idea of the greatness of the Creator, and he expatiated upon the splendor of that light that rules the day. "The heavens were his tabernacle;" morning by morning he was as "a bridegroom coming forth from his chamber, and rejoicing as a strong man to run a race." Our Savior saw in the same phenomenon a proof of God's impartial and bountiful love to the children of men: "He maketh his sun to rise upon the evil and the good." But to the melancholy and brooding mind of our author nothing more was suggested by it than monotonous reiteration, a dreary routine of rising and setting. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose." "He issues forth, clay after day, from the east, mounts up the vault of heaven until he has reached the meridian, and then he descends at once towards the western horizon. He never stops in his course at midday, as though he had attained the end for which he issued forth with the dawn; he never sinks beneath the horizon to enjoy repose. Even throughout the night he is still hastening onward, that, at the appointed hour, he may again reach his eastern starting-place. The wind, great though its changes may be, seems never to have accomplished the purpose for which it puts forth its power. It never subsides into a state of lasting quiescence; it never even finds a station which it can permanently occupy. It, veereth about continually, 'yet it ever bloweth again according to its circuits.' The streams flow onward to the ocean; but the time never comes when the sea, filled to overflowing, refuses to receive their waters. The thirst of the sea is never quenched; the waters of the rivers are lost; and yet, with unavailing constancy, they still pour their contributions into its bosom" (Tyler). And so with regard to all the other things on which the eye rests, or of which the ear hears—weariness clothes everything; an unutterable monotony amid their changes and variations. Human life, too, all through, is characterized by the same unrest and ceaseless, fruitless labor. Sometimes a new discovery seems to be made; the monotony seems to be broken, and fresh and great results are anticipated by those who are ignorant of the world's past history. But the initiated, those whose experience has made them wise, or whose knowledge has made them learned, recognize the new thing as something that was known in times long ago; they can tell how barren it was of results then, how little, therefore, can be expected from it now. There is scarcely anything more discouraging, especially to the young, than this kind of moralizing. We feel, perhaps, that we can carry out some scheme that will be of benefit to the society about us, and are met with lamentable accounts of how similar schemes were once tried and failed disastrously. We feel moved to attack the evils that we meet in the world, and are assured that they are too great and our own strength too puny for us to accomplish anything worth while. And in the mean time our fervor grows cold, our courage oozes away, and we really lose the power for good we might have had. Now, this teaching of Solomon is not meant for the young and hopeful. Indeed, those who collected together the books of the Old Testament were rather doubtful about including Ecclesiastes among the others, and is ran a narrow chance of being omitted from the sacred canon. But it has its place in the Word of God; and those who have known anything of the doubts and speculations contained in it will find it profitable to trace the course of thought that runs through it, until they find the solid and positive teaching which the Preacher at lasts gives. The distressing fact remains, and must be encountered, that to those who have had long experience of the world, and whose horizon is bounded by it, who see only the things that are done "under the sun," in the midst of ever-recurring changes, there seems to be little or no progress, and that which appears to be new is but a repetition of the old. But they should remember that this world is meant as a place of probation for us—a school in which we are to learn great lessons; and that all the changing circumstances of life serve, and are meant to serve, to develop our nature and character. If it were to be our abiding-place, many improvements in it might be suggested. It is not by any means the best of possible worlds; but for purposes of education, discipline, and testing, it is perfectly adapted. "Rest yet remaineth for the people of God;" it is not here, but in a world to come. This truth is admirably stated by the poet Spenser, who perhaps unconsciously reproduces the melancholy thoughts of Solomon, and answers them. He speaks of Mutability seeking to be honored above all the heavenly powers, as being the chief ruler in the universe, and as indeed governing all things. In a synod of the gods, she is silenced by Nature, who combats her claims, and speaks of a time to come when her present apparent power will come to an end-
"But time shall come that all shall changed bee,
And from thenceforth none no more change shall see."
And then the poet adds—
"When I bethinke me on that speech whyleare [former]
Of Mutability, and well it way,
Me seemes, that though she all unworthy were
Of the Heav'ns Rule; yet, very sooth to say,
In all things else she bears the greatest sway:
Which makes me loath this state of life so tickle [unsure],
And love of things so vain to cast away;
Whose flow'ring pride, so fading and so fickle,
Short Time shall soon cut down with his consuming sickle.
"Then gin I thinke on that which Nature sayd,
Of that same time when no more Change shall be,
But stedfast rest of all things, firmely stayd
Upon the pillars of Eternity,
That is contrayr to Mutability;
For all that moveth doth in Change delight:
But thence-forth all shall rest eternally
With him that is the God of Sabbaoth hight:
O! that great Sabbaoth God, grant me that Sabbaoth's sight!"
III. LIFE DESTINED TO END IN UTTER OBLIVION. To all these considerations of the resultlessness of life, of changefulness and monotony, is added that of the oblivion that sooner or later overtakes man and all his works (verse 11). "There is no remembrance of the former generations; neither shall there be any remembrance of the latter generations that are to come, among those that shall come after" (Revised Version). One generation supersedes another; the new come up with fresh interests and schemes of their own, and hustle the old off the stage, and are themselves in their turn forced to give place to those who come up after them. Nations disappear from the earth's surface and are forgotten. The memorials of former civilizations lie buried in the sand, or are defaced and destroyed to make room for something else. On every page of creation we find the sentence written, that there is nothing here that lasts. Almost no means can be devised to carry down to succeeding generations even the names of the greatest conquerors, of men who in their time seemed to have the strength of gods, and to have changed the history of the world. The earth has many secrets in her keeping, and is sometimes forced to yield up a few of them. "The ploughshare strikes against the foundations of buildings which once echoed to human mirth, skeletons of men to whom life once was dear; urns and coins that remind the antiquary of a magnificent empire now long passed away." And so the process goes on. Everything passes. A few years ago and we were not; a hundred years hence, and there may be none who ever heard our names. And a day will come when
"The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And … leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."
Abundant material, then, had the Preacher, the son of David, for somber meditation; abundant material for contemplation does he suggest to us. And if we cannot get much further on in speculation than he did, if since his time very little new light has been cast upon the problems which he discusses, we may still refuse to be depressed by melancholy like his. Granted that all is vanity, that restlessness and monotony mark everything in the world, and that its glories soon pass away and are forgotten; still it is not our home. It may dissolve and leave us no poorer. The tie that binds together soul and body may be loosened, and the place that knows us now may soon know us no more. Our confidence is in him, who has promised to take us to himself, that where he is we may be also. "God is our Refuge and Strength... therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed." In contrast with the Preacher's desponding, despairing words about the fruitlessness of life, its monotony and its brevity, we may set the hopeful, triumphant utterance of Christ's apostle: "The time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing."—J.W.
Speculative study of the world.
Solomon has made serious allegations concerning human life, and he now proceeds to substantiate them. He has declared that it yields no permanent results, that it is tedious beyond expression, and that it is soon overtaken by oblivion. "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!" The monotony of things in the natural world—the permanence of the earth in contrast with the changes in human life, the mechanical routine of sunrise and sunset, the ceaseless agitation of the atmosphere, the constant course of rivers to the sea, and so on—had not been the sole ground for his conclusions. He had considered also "all the works that are done under the sun," the whole range of human action, and found in them evidence justifying his allegations. Both in natural phenomena and in human efforts and attainments he found that all was vanity and vexation of spirit. He had, he tells us (Esther 1:12), all the resources of a great monarch at his command—riches, authority, capacity, and leisure; and he applied himself,—he gave his heart to discover, by the aid of wisdom, the nature of earthly pursuits, and found that they were fruitless. He concentrated all his mental energy upon the course of investigation, and continued in it until the conclusion was forced upon him that "in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." So different is the estimate of wisdom and knowledge formed by the Jewish king from that held by other great philosophers and sages, that it is worth while to inquire into the cause of the difference. The explanation is to be found in Esther 1:15, "That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered." It was a practical end that Solomon had in view—to remedy evils and to supply deficiencies. He did not engage in the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge for the sake of the pleasure yielded by intellectual activity. In the case of ordinary philosophers and scientists the aim is a different one. "A truth, once known, falls into comparative insignificance. It is now prized, less on its own account than as opening up new ways to new activity, new suspense, new hopes, new discoveries, new self-gratulation—it is not knowledge, it is not truth, that the votary of science principally seeks; he seeks the exercise of his faculties and feelings. Absolute certainty and absolute completion would be the paralysis of any study; and the last worst calamity that could befall man, as he is at present constituted, would be that full and final possession of speculative truth which he now vainly anticipates as the consummation of his intellectual happiness. And what is true of science is true, indeed, of all human activity. It is ever the contest that pleases us, and not the victory. Thus it is in play; thus it is in hunting; thus it is in the search of truth; thus it is in life. The past does not interest, the present does not satisfy; the future alone is the object which engages us. 'It is not the goal, but the course, that makes us happy,' says Richter" (Hamilton, 'Metaphysics'). But in the case before us we find that the pleasure afforded by intellectual activity is not regarded by the Preacher as an end sufficient in itself to engage his energies. It is a practical end he has in view; and when he finds that earthly pursuits cannot alter destinies, cannot change the conditions under which we live, cannot set right that which is wrong, or supply that which is wanting for human happiness, he loathes them altogether. The very wisdom and knowledge which he had acquired in his investigations seem to him useless lumber. He wanted to find in life an adequate aim and end, something in which man could find repose. He found it not. "The light which the wisdom he had learned cast on human destiny only exhibited to him the illusions of life, but did not show him one perfect object on which he might rest as a final aim of existence. And therefore he says that 'he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow,' since he only thus perceives more and more illusions, whilst nothing is the result, and nihilism is only sorrow of heart". The Preacher then says about the pursuit of wisdom, that though it is implanted by God in the heart of man (Esther 1:13), it is
I. In the first place, then, HE DESCRIBES THE PURSUIT OF WISDOM AS A SEVERE AND LABORIOUS TASK. He looks back upon the course of inquiry he had followed, and declares that it has been a rugged, thorny road. "This sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith." And it is quite in harmony with the spirit of the book that the name of God, which occurs here for the first time, should be coupled with the thought of his laying heavy burdens upon men, since it was by him that this profitless search had been appointed. He remembers all the labors of the way by which he had come—the weariness of brain, the laborious days, the sleepless nights, the frustrated hopes, the disappointments he had experienced; and he counts the pursuit of wisdom but another of the vanities of life. The common run of men, who have no high aims, no desires after a wisdom more than that needed for procuring a livelihood, who are undisturbed by the great problems of life, are spared this painful discipline. It is those who rise above their fellows, that are called to spend their strength and resources, to deny themselves pleasures, and to separate themselves from much of that in which mankind delight and find solace, only to find keener sorrows than those known to their fellows. They do indeed hear and obey the voice of God, but it calls them to suffering and to self-sacrifice. In these days, when the sciences open up before men vast fields for research, there must be many who can verify from their own experience what Solomon says about the laboriousness of the methods used. The infinite patience needed, the observation and cataloguing of multitudinous facts, the inventing of fresh mechanical appliances for facilitating research, the varied experiments, the careful examination of evidence, and the construction and testing of new theories and hypotheses, are the "sore travail" here spoken of.
II. In the second place, THE WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE SO LABORIOUSLY GAINED ONLY MEAN INCREASE OF GRIEG AND SORROW. (Esther 1:18.) There is abundant evidence of the truth of this statement in the experience of those who have made great attainments in intellectual wisdom. For progress in knowledge only convinces man of the little he knows, as compared with the vast universe of being that lies undiscovered. He is convinced of the weakness of his powers, the shortness of the time at his disposal, and the infinite extent of the field, which he desires, but can never hope to take possession of. This thought is expressed in the well-known words of Sir Isaac Newton: "I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then with a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me." With increase of intellectual knowledge, with enlarged acquaintance with the thoughts of men, and the various theories of the universe that have been held, and the various solutions of difficulties that have been given, there often comes, too, unwillingess or inability to rest content with any theory or any solution. Doubts, which frequently settle down into definite agnosticism, beset the man who is given to great intellectual activity. And then, too, the fact remains that we cannot by sheer reasoning come to any definite conclusions as to any of the great questions which most concern our happiness. No one can by searching find out God—reach definite knowledge concerning him, his existence, nature, and character; or be assured of the fact of there being an overruling Providence, of the efficacy of prayer, of a life beyond the grave, or of the immortality of the soul. Probable or plausible opinions may be formed, but certainty comes only by revelation and faith. Hence it is that Milton describes some of the fallen angels as wandering hopelessly through these labyrinths of thought and conjecture, and finding in so doing intellectual occupation, but neither solace nor rest.
"Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reason'd high
Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and late;
Fix'd fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.
Of good and evil much they argued then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and apathy, and glory and shame,
Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy."
And it has been said that one of the attractions which this Book of Ecclesiastes has for the present age is in its skeptical questioning, and restless, fluctuating uncertainty. The age can adopt as its own its somber declarations. "Science beasts vaingloriously of her progress, yet mocks us with her grand discovery of progress through pain, telling of small advantages for the few purchased by enormous waste of life, by internecine conflict and competition, and by a deadly struggle with Nature herself, 'red in tooth and claw with ravin,' greedy to feed on the offspring of her own redundant fertility. The revelations of geology and astronomy deepen our depression. The littleness of our lives and the insignificance of our concerns become more conspicuous in comparison with the long and slow procession of the aeons which have gone before, and with the vast ocean of being around us, driven and tossed by enormous, complicated, and unresting forces. A new significance is thus given to the words, 'In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow'" (Tyler). In his celebrated engraving of 'Melaucolia,' Albert Direr has with wonderful skill depicted this mood of intellectual depression. He represents a winged figure, that of a woman seated by the seashore and looking intently into the distance, with bent brows and proud, pensive demeanor. Her thoughts are absorbed in somber meditation, and her wings are folded. A closed book is in her lap. Near her stands a dial-plate, and above it a bell, that strikes the hours as they pass. The sun is rapidly nearing the horizon-line, and darkness will soon enshroud the earth. In her right hand she holds a compass and a circle, emblematic of that infinity of time and space upon which she is meditating. Around her are scattered the various implements of art, and the numerous appliances of science. They have served her purpose, and she now casts them aside, and listlessly ponders on the vanity of all human calculations. Above her is an hour-glass, in which the sands are running low, emblematic of the shortness of the time yet left for fresh schemes and efforts. In like manner the Preacher found that on the moral side increase of knowledge meant increase of sorrow. Knowledge of the true ideal only made him the more conscious of the distance we are from it, and of the hopelessness of our efforts to reach it. The further the research is carried, the more abundant is the evidence discoverable of our moral nature being in a condition of disorder. We find that conscience too often reigns without governing, that natural appetites and desires refuse to submit to her rule, that often motives and feelings which she distinctly condemns, such as pride, envy, selfishness, and cruelty, direct and animate our conduct. All schools of philosophy have recognized the fact of moral disorder in our nature. It is, indeed, unfortunately too evident to be denied or explained away. Aristotle says, "We are more naturally disposed towards those things which are wrong, and more easily carried away to excess than to propriety of conduct." And Hume, "We naturally desire what is forbidden, and often take a pleasure in performing actions merely because they are unlawful. The notion of duty when opposite to the passions is not always able to overcome them; and when it fails of that effect, is apt rather to increase and irritate them, by producing an opposition in our motives and principles." But it is not necessary to multiply Testimony to a fact so generally acknowledged. How this moral disorder originated in human nature is a problem which philosophy is unable to solve, just as it is lacking in ability to correct it. It can discern the symptoms and character of the disease, and describe the course it takes, but cannot cure it. And so the existence of disturbing and lawless forces in our moral nature, the power of evil habit, the social inequalities and disorders which result from the perversity of the individuals of whom society is made up, and the varying codes of morals which exist in the world, are all calculated to distress and perplex him who seeks to make that straight which is crooked, and to supplement that which is defective. Increase of knowledge brings increase of sorrow.—J.W.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Easter