Section 2. Vanity of striving after pleasure and wealth.
Dissatisfied with the result of the pursuit of wisdom, Koheleth embarks on a course of sensual pleasure, if so be this may yield some effect more substantial and permanent. I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth. The heart is addressed as the seat of the emotions and affections. The Vulgate misses the direct address to the heart, which the words, rightly interpreted, imply, translating, Vadam et offluam delieiis. The Septuagint correctly gives, δεῦρο δὴ πειράσω σε ἐν εὐφροσύνῃ. It is like the rich fool's language in Christ's parable, "I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, be merry" (Luke 12:10). Therefore enjoy pleasure; literally, see good (Ecclesiastes 6:6). "To see" is often used figuratively in the sense of "to experience, or enjoy." Wright compares the expressions, "see death" (Luke 2:26), "see life" (John 3:36). We may find the like in Psalms 34:13; Jeremiah 29:32; Obadiah 1:13 (comp. Ecclesiastes 9:9). The king now tries to find the summum bonum in pleasure, in selfish enjoyment without thought of others. Commentators, as they saw Stoicism in the first chapter, so read Epieureanism into this. We shall have occasion to refer to this idea further on (see on Ecclesiastes 3:22). Of this new experiment the result was the same as before. Behold, this also is vanity. This experience is confirmed in the next verse.
I said of laughter, It is mad. Laughter and mirth are personified, hence treated as masculine. He uses the term "mad" in reference to the statement in Ecclesiastes 1:17, "I gave my heart to know madness and folly." Septuagint, "I said to laughter, Error ( περιφοράν);" Vulgate, Risum reputavi errorem. Neither of these is as accurate as the Authorized Version. Of mirth, What doeth it? What does it effect towards real happiness and contentment? How does it help to fill the void, to give lasting satisfaction? So we have in Proverbs 14:13, "Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; and the end of mirth is heaviness;" though the context is different. The Vulgate renders loosely, Quid frustra deeiperis?
I sought in mine heart; literally, I spied out (as Ecclesiastes 1:13) in my heart. Having proved the fruitlessness of some sort of sensual pleasure, he made another experiment in a philosophical spirit. To give myself unto wine; literally, to draw (mashak) my flesh with wine; i.e. to use the attraction of the pleasures of the table. Yet acquainting my heart with wisdom. This is a parenthetical clause, which Wright translates, "While my heart was acting [guiding] with wisdom." That is, while, as it were, experimenting with pleasure, he still retained sufficient control over his passions as not to be wholly given over to vice; he was in the position of one who is being carried down an impetuous stream, yet has the power of stopping his headlong course before it becomes fatal to him. Such control was given by wisdom. Deliberately to enter upon a course of self-indulgence, even with a possibly good intention, must be a most perilous trial, and one which would leave indelible marks upon the soul; and not one person in a hundred would be able to stop short of ruin, The historical Solomon, by his experiment, suffered infinite loss, which nothing could compensate. The Septuagint renders not very successfully, "I examined whether my heart would draw ( ἑλκύσει) my flesh as wine; and my heart guided me in wisdom." The Vulgate gives a sense entirely contrary to the writer's intention; "I thought in my heart to withdraw my flesh from wine, that I might transfer my mind to wisdom." And to lay hold on folly. These words are dependent upon "I sought in my heart," and refer to the sensual pleasures in which he indulged for a certain object. "Dulce est desipere in loco," says Horace ('Canto.,' 4.12. 28); ἐν μὲν μαινομένοις μάλα μαίνομαι. Till I might see. His purpose was to discover if there was in these things any real good which might satisfy men's cravings, and be a worthy object for them to pursue all the days of their life.
This commences a new experience in the pursuit of his object. Leaving this life of self-indulgence, he takes to art and culture, the details being drawn from the accounts of the historical Solomon. I made me great works; literally, I made great my works; Septuagint, ἐμεγάλυνα ποίημά per; Vulgate, Magnificavi opera mea. Among these works the temple, with all its wonderful structural preparations, is not specially mentioned, perhaps because no one could think of Solomon without connecting his name with this magnificent building, and it was superfluous to call attention to it; or else because the religious aspect of his operations is not here in question, but only his taste and pursuit of beauty. But the omission tells strongly against the Solomonic authorship of the book. I builded me houses. Solomon had a passion for erecting magnificent buildings. We have various accounts of his works of this nature in 1 Kings 7:1-51. and 9.; 2 Chronicles 8:1-18. There was the huge palace for himself, which occupied thirteen years in building; there was the "house of the forest of Lebanon," a splendid hall constructed with pillars of cedar; the porch of pillars; the hall of judgment; the harem for the daughter of Pharaoh. Then there were fortresses, store-cities, chariot-towns, national works of great importance; cities in distant lands which he founded, such as Tadmor in the wilderness. I planted me vineyards. David had vineyards and olive yards (1 Chronicles 27:27, 1 Chronicles 27:28), which passed into the possession of his son; and we read in So 2 Chronicles 8:11 of a vineyard that Solomon had in Baal-hamon, which some identify with Belamon (Judith 8:3), a place near Shunem, in the Plain of Esdraelon.
I made me gardens and orchards. Solomon's love of gardens appears throughout the Canticles (So Song of Solomon 6:2, etc.). He had a king's garden on the slope of the hills south of the city (2 Kings 25:4); and Beth-hacchemm, "the House of the Vine," at Ain Karim, about six miles east of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 6:1); and at Baal-hamon another extensive vineyard (So Song of Solomon 8:11). The word rendered "orchard" (parder) occurs also in So Song of Solomon 4:13 and Nehemiah 2:8. It is a Persian word, and passed into the Greek form παράδειος (Xenophon, 'Anab.,' 1.2.7), meaning "a park" planted with forest and fruit trees, and containing herds of animals. It is probably derived from the Zend oairidaeza," an enclosure." (For the trees in such parks, see So Nehemiah 4:13, Nehemiah 4:14; and for an estimate of Solomon's works, Josephus, 'Ant.,' 8.7. 3.)
Pools of water. Great care was exercised by Solomon to provide his capital with water, and vast operations were undertaken for this purpose. "The king's pool," mentioned in Nehemiah 2:14, may have been constructed by him (Josephus, 'Bell. Jud.,' 5.4. 2); but the most celebrated work ascribed to him is the water-supply at Etham, southwest of Bethlehem, and the aqueduct leading from thence to Jerusalem. Most modern travelers have described these pools. They are three in number, and, according to Robinson's measurement, are of immense size. The first, to the east, is 582 feet long, 207 wide, and 50 deep; the second, 432 by 250, and 39 feet deep; the third, 380 by 236, and 25 feet deep. They are all, however, narrower at the upper end, and widen out gradually, flowing one into the other. There is a copious spring led into the uppermost pool from the north-east, but this supply is augmented by other sources now choked and ruined. The water from the pools was conveyed round the ridge on which Bethlehem stands in earthen pipes to Jerusalem. Dr. Thomson says, "Near that city it was carried along the west side of the Valley of Gihon to the north-western end of the lower Pool of Gihon, where it crossed to the east side, and, winding round the southern declivity of Zion below Neby Dâûd, finally entered the south-eastern corner of the temple area, where the water was employed in the various services of the sanctuary." Etham is, with good reason, identified with the beautiful valley of Urtas, which lies southwest of Bethlehem, in the immediate neighborhood of the pools of Solomon. The fountain near the present village watered the gardens and orchards which were planted here, the terraced hills around were covered with vines, figs, and olives, and the prospect must have been delightful and refreshing in that thirsty land. To water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees; Revised Version, to water therefrom the forest where trees were reared; literally, in order to irrigate a wood sprouting forth trees; i.e. a nursery of saplings. So we read how the Garden of Eden was watered (Genesis 2:10; Genesis 13:10)—a most necessary feature in Eastern countries, where streams and pools are not constructed for picturesque reasons, but for material uses.
I got me—I bought, procured—servants and maidens. These are distinct from those mentioned immediately afterwards, servants born in my house; Septuagint, οἰκογενεῖς: called in the Hebrew, "sons of the house" (Genesis 15:3). They were much more esteemed by their masters, and showed a much closer attachment to the family than the bought slaves or the conquered aboriginals, who were often reduced to this state (1 Kings 9:20, 1 Kings 9:21). The number of Solomon's attendants excited the wonder of the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 4:26, etc.; 1 Kings 10:5), and with good reason, if Josephus's account is to be believed. This writer asserts that the king had some thousand or more chariots, and twenty thousand horses. The drivers and riders were young men of comely aspect, tall and well-made; they had long flowing hair, and wore tunics of Tyrian purple, and powdered their hair with gold dust, which glittered in the rays of the sun ('Ant.,' 8.7. 3). Attended by a cavalcade thus arrayed, Solomon used to betake himself to his "paradise" at Etham, to enjoy the refreshing coolness of its trees and pools. Great and small cattle; oxen and sheep. The enormous amount of Solomon's herds and flocks is proved by the extraordinary multitude of the sacrifices at the consecration of the temple (1 Kings 8:63), and the lavish provision made daily for the wants of his table (1 Kings 4:22, 1 Kings 4:23). The cattle of David were very numerous, and required special overlookers (1 Chronicles 27:29-31). Job (Job 1:3) had, before his troubles, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and these items were all doubled at the return of his prosperity. Among Solomon's possessions, horses are not here mentioned, though they formed no inconsiderable portion of his live stock, and added greatly to his magnificence. Koheleth, perhaps, avoided boasting of this extravagance in consideration of the religious sentiment which was strongly opposed to such a feature. That were in Jerusalem before me (so verse 9; see Ecclesiastes 1:16). But the reference here may not necessarily be to kings, but to chieftains and rich men, who were celebrated for the extent of their possessions.
I gathered me also silver and gold. Much is said of the wealth of the historical Solomon, who had all his vessels of gold, armed his body-guard with golden shields, sat on an ivory throne overlaid with gold, received tribute and presents of gold from all quarters, sent his navies to distant lands to import precious metals, and made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones (see 1 Kings 9:28; 1 Kings 10:14-27; 2 Chronicles 1:15; 2 Chronicles 9:20-27). The peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces. The word rendered "the provinces" (hammedinoth), in spite of the article, seems to mean, not the twelve districts into which Solomon divided his kingdom for fiscal and economical purposes (1 Kings 4:7, etc.), but countries generally exterior to Palestine, with which he had commercial or political relations, and which sent to him the productions for which they were each most celebrated. So the districts of the Persian empire were required to furnish the monarch with a certain portion of their chief commodities. His friendship with Hiram of Tyro brought him into connection with the Phoeni-clans, the greatest commercial nation of antiquity, and through them he accumulated riches and stores from distant and various lands beyond the limits of the Mediterranean Sea. The word מְדִינָה (medinah) occurs again in Ecclesiastes 5:7 and in 1 Kings 20:14, etc.; but is found elsewhere only in exilian or post-exilian books (e.g. Lamentations 1:1; Esther 1:1, etc.; Daniel 2:48, etc.). The "kings" may be the tributary monarchs, such as those of Arabia (1 Kings 4:21, 1 Kings 4:24; 1 Kings 10:15); or the expression in the text may imply simply such treasure as only kings, and not private persons, could possess. Men-singers and women-singers. These, of course, are not the choir of the temple, of which women formed no part, bur. musicians introduced at banquets and social festivals, to enhance the pleasures of the scene. They are mentioned in David's days (2 Samuel 19:35) and later (see Isaiah 5:12; Amos 6:5; Ecclesiasticus 35:5; 49:1). The females who took part in these performances were generally of an abandoned class; hence the, warning of Ben-Sira, "Use not much the company of a woman that is a singer, lest thou be taken with her attempts" (Ecclesiasticus 9:4). Such exhibitions were usually accompanied with dancing, the character of which in Eastern countries is well known. The Jews, as time went on, learned to tolerate many customs and practices, imported often from other lands, which tended to lower morality and self-respect. And the delights of the sons of men; the sensual pleasures that men enjoy. The expression is euphemistic (comp. So 1 Kings 7:6). Musical instruments, and that of all sorts (shiddah veshiddoth). The word (given here first in the singular number and then in the plural emphatically to express multitude) occurs nowhere else, and has, therefore, been subjected to various interpretations. The Septuagint gives, οἰνοχόον καὶ οἰνοχόας, "a male cupbearer and female cupbearers;" and so the Syrian and. Vulgate, Scyphos et urceos in ministerio ad vina fundenda—which introduces rather a bathos into the description. After the clause immediately preceding, one might expect mention of Solomon's numerous harem (1 Kings 11:3; So 1 Kings 6:8), and most modern commentators consider the word to mean "concubine," the whole expression denoting multiplicity, "wife and wives." The Authorized Version is not very probable, though somewhat supported by Kimchi, Luther, etc; and the Greek Venetian, which has, δύδτημα καὶ συστήματα, a musical term signifying "combination of tones," or harmony. Other interpretations are "captives," "litters," "coaches," "baths," "treasures," "chests," "demons." Ewald, followed by Motais and others, suggests that the word implies a strong or high degree of a quality, so that, connecting the two clauses together, we should render, "And in a word, all the delights of the sons of men in abundance." This seems a more appropriate termination to the catalogue than any specification of further sources of pleasure; but there is no very strong etymological reason to recommend it; and we can hardly suppose that, in the enumeration of Solomon's prodigalities, his multitudinous seraglio would be omitted. Rather it comes in here naturally as the climax and completion of his pursuit of earthly delight.
So I was great (see on Ecclesiastes 1:16). This refers to the magnificence and extent of his possessions and luxury, as the former passage to the surpassing excellence of his wisdom. We may compare the mention of Abraham (Genesis 26:13), "The man waxed great, and grew more and more until he became very great" (sc. Job 1:3). Also my wisdom remained with me; perseveravit mecum (Vulgate); ἐστάθη μοι. In accordance with the purpose mentioned in Ecclesiastes 2:3, he retained command of himself, studying philosophically the effects and nature of the pleasures of which he partook, and keeping ever in view the object of his pursuit. Voluptuousness was not the end which he sought, but one of the means to obtain the end; and what he calls his wisdom is not pure Divine wisdom that comes from above, but an earthly prudence and self-restraint.
Whatsoever mine eyes desired. The lust of the eyes (1 John 2:16), all that he saw and desired, he took measures to obtain. He denied himself no gratification, however foolish (Ecclesiastes 2:3). For my heart rejoiced in all my labor; i.e. found joy in what my labor procured for it (comp. Proverbs 5:18). This was the reason why he withheld not his heart from any joy; kept it, as it were, ready to taste any pleasure which his exertions might obtain. This was my portion of all my labor. Such joy was that which he won from his labor, he had his reward, such as it was (Matthew 6:2; Luke 16:25). This term "portion" (cheleq) recurs often (e.g. Ecclesiastes 2:21; Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 5:18, etc.; so Wis. 2:9) in the sense of the result obtained by labor or con-duet. And what a meagre and unsatisfying result it was which he gained! Contrast the apostle's teaching, "All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the vain-glory of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever" (1 John 2:16, 1 John 2:17).
Then I looked on—I turned to contemplate—all the works which my hands had wrought. He examined carefully the effects of the conduct and proceedings mentioned in Ecclesiastes 2:1-10, and he now gives his matured judgment concerning them. They had contributed nothing to his anxious inquiry for man's real good. His sorrowful conclusion again is that all was vanity, a hunting of wind; in all the pursuits and labors that men undertake there is no real profit (Ecclesiastes 1:3), no lasting happiness, nothing to satisfy the cravings of the spirit.
Section 3. Vanity of wisdom, in view of the fate that awaits the wise man equally with the fool, and the uncertainty of the future of his labors, especially as man is not master of his own fate.
And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly (Ecclesiastes 1:17). He studied the three in their mutual connection and relation, comparing them in their results and effects on man's nature and life, and deducing thence their real value. On one side he set wisdom, on the other the action, and habits which he rightly terms "madness and folly," and examined them calmly and critically. For what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been already done. Both the Authorized Version and Revised Version render the passage thus, though the latter, in the margin, gives two alternative renderings of the second clause, viz. even him whom they made king long ago, and, as in the Authorized Version margin, in those things which have been already done. The LXX; following a different reading, gives, "For what man is there who will follow after counsel in whatsoever things he employed it?" Vulgate, "What is man, said I, that he should be able to follow the King, his Maker?" Wright, Delitzsch, Nowack, etc; "For what is the man that is to come after the king whom they made so long ago?" i.e. who can have greater experience than Solomon made king in old time amid universal acclamation (1 Chronicles 29:22)? or, who can hope to equal his fame?—which does not seem quite suitable, as it is the abnormal opportunities of investigation given by his unique position which would be the point of the query. The Authorized Version gives a fairly satisfactory (and grammatically unobjectionable) meaning—What can any one effect who tries the same experiment as the king did? He could not do so under more favorable conditions, and will only repeat the same process and reach the same result. But the passage is obscure, and every interpretation has its own difficulty. If the ki with which the second portion of the passage begins ("for what," etc.) assigns the reason or motive of the first portion, shows what was the design of Koheleth in contrasting wisdom and folly, the rendering of the Authorized Version is not inappropriate. Many critics consider that Solomon is here speaking of his successor, asking what kind of man he will be who comes after him—the man whom some have already chosen? And certainly there is some ground for this interpretation in Ecclesiastes 2:18, Ecclesiastes 2:19, where the complaint is that all the king's greatness and glory will be left to an unworthy successor. But this view requires the Solomonic authorship of the book, and makes him to refer to Rehoboam or some illegitimate usurper. The wording of the text is too general to admit of this explanation; nor does it exactly suit the immediate context, or duly connect the two clauses of the verse. It seems best to take the successor, not as one who comes to the kingdom, but as one who pursues similar investigations, repeats Koheleth's experiments.
Then (and) I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness; or, there is profit, advantage to wisdom over folly, as the advantage of light over darkness. This result, at any rate, was obtained—he learned that wisdom had a certain value, that it was as much superior to folly, in its effects on men, as light is more beneficial than darkness. It is a natural metaphor to represent spiritual and intellectual development as light, and mental and moral depravity as darkness (comp. Ephesians 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:5).
The wise man's eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh 'in darkness. This clause is closely connected with the preceding verse, showing how wisdom excelleth folly. The wise man has the eyes of his heart or understanding enlightened (Ephesians 1:18); he looks into the nature of things, fixes his regard on what is most important, sees where to go; while the fool's eyes are in the ends of the earth (Proverbs 17:24); he walks on still in darkness, stumbling as he goes, knowing not whither his road shall take him. And I myself also (I even I) perceived that one event happeneth to them all. "Event" (mikreh); συνάντημα; interitus (Vulgate); not chance, But death, the final event. The word is translated "hap" in Ruth 2:3, and "chance" in 1 Samuel 6:9; but the connection here points to a definite termination; nor would it be consistent with Koheleth's religion to refer this termination to fate or accident. With all his experience, he could only conclude that in one important aspect the observed superiority of wisdom to folly was illusory and vain. He saw with his own eyes, and needed no instructor to teach, that both wise and fool must succumb to death, the universal leveler. Horace, in many passages, sings of this: thus 'Carm.,' 2.3. 21—
"Divesne prisco natus ab Inacho,
Nil interest, an pauper et infima
De gente sub dive moreris,
Victima nil miserantis Orci."
(Comp, ibid, 1.28. 15, etc.; 2.14. 9, etc.) Plato refers to a passage in 'Telephus,' a lost play of 2 Eschylus, which is restored thus—
ἁπλῆ γὰρ οἶμος πάντες εἰς ἅιδου φέρει.
"A single path leads all unto the grave."
Then (and) said I in my heart (Ecclesiastes 1:16), As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me. He applies the general statement of Ecclesiastes 2:14 to his own case. The end that overtakes the fool will ere long overtake him; and he proceeds, Why was I then more wise? "Then" ( אז), may be understood either logically, i.e. in this ease, since such is the fate of wise and foolish; or temporally, at the hour of death regarded as past. He puts the question—To what end, with what design, has he been so excessively wise, or, as it may be, wise overmuch (Ecclesiastes 7:16)? His wisdom has, as it were, recoiled upon himself—it taught him much, but not content; it made him keen-sighted in seeing the emptiness of human things, but it satisfied not his cravings. Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity. This similarity of fate for philosopher and fool makes life vain and worthless; or rather, the meaning may be, if the superiority of wisdom over folly conduces to no other end than this, that superiority is a vanity. The LXX. has glossed the passage, followed herein by the Syriac, "Moreover, I spake in my heart that indeed this is also vanity, because the fool speaks out of his abundance"—Ecclesiastes 2:16 giving the substance of the fool's thoughts. Vulgate, Locutusque cum mente mea, animadverti quod hoc quoque esset vanitas. Our Hebrew text does not confirm this interpretation or addition.
For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool forever; Revised Version, more emphatically, for of the wise man, even as of the fool, there is no remembrance forever. This, of course, is not absolutely true. There are men whose names are history, and will endure as long as the world lasts; but speaking generally, oblivion is the portion of all; posterity soon forgets the wisdom of one and the folly of another. Where the belief in the future life was not a strong and animating motive, posthumous fame exercised a potent attraction for many minds. To be the founder of a long line of descendants, or to leave a record which should be fresh in the minds of future generations, these were objects of intense ambition, and valued as worthy of highest aspirations and best efforts. The words of classical poets will occur to our memory; e.g. Horace, 'Carm.,' 3.30.
"Exegi monumentum aere perennius …
Non omnis metier, multaque pars mei
Ovid, 'Amor.,' 1.15. 4—
"Ergo etiam, cum me supremus adederit ignis,
Vivam, parsquc mei multa supersteserit."
But Koheleth shows the vanity of all such hopes; they are based on sounds which experience proves to be unsubstantial. Though Solomon's own fame gives the lie to the statement received without limitation (comp. Wis. 8:13), yet his reflections might well have taken this turn, and the writer is quite justified in putting the thought into his mouth, as the king could not know how subsequent ages would regard his wisdom and attainments. Seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. The clause has been variously translated. Septuagint, "Forasmuch as the coming days, even all the things, are forgotten;" Vulgate, "And future times shall cover all things equally with oblivion." Modern editors give, "Since in the days that are to come they are all forgotten;" "As in time past, so in days to come, all will be forgotten …. In the days which are coming [it will be said by-and-by], The whole of them are long ago forgotten.'" This is a specimen of the uncertainty of exact interpretation, where the intended meaning is well ascertained. "All" ( הכל) may refer either to wise and foolish, or to the circumstances of their lives. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool. Better taken as one sentence, with an exclamation, How doth the wise man die with (even as) the fool I (For "with" (ira), equivalent to "as," comp. Ecclesiastes 7:11; Job 9:26; Psalms 106:6.) "How" ( אֵידּ) is sarcastic, as Isaiah 14:4, or sorrowful, as 2 Samuel 1:19. The same complaint falls from a psalmist's lips, "He seeth that wise men die; the fool and the brutish together perish" (Psalms 49:10). So David laments the death of the murdered leader, "Should Abner die as a fool dieth?" (2 Samuel 3:33). Plumptre considers that the author of the Book of Wisdom expands this view with the design of exposing its fallacy, and introducing a better hope (Ecclesiastes 2:1-9). But that writer would not have designated Solomon's sentiments as those of "the ungodly" ( ἀσεβεῖς), nor foisted these utterances of sensualists and materialists upon so honored a source. At the same time, it is only as being victims, nil miserantis Opel, the prey of the pitiless and indiscriminating grave, that the wise and foolish are placed in the same category. There is the widest difference between the death-beds of the two, as the experience of any one who has watched them will testify, the one happy with the consciousness of duty done honestly, however imperfectly, and bright with the hope of immortality; the other darkened by vain regrets and shrinking despair, or listless in brutish insensibility.
Therefore I hated life; et idcirce taeduit me vitae meae. Be a man wise or foolish, his life leads only to one end and is soon forgotten; hence life itself is burdensome and hateful. The bitter complaint of Job (Job 3:20, etc.; Job 6:8, Job 6:9) is here echoed, though the words do not point to suicide as the solution of the riddle. It is the ennui and unprofitableness of all life and action in view of the inevitable conclusion, which is here lamented. Because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me; literally, for evil unto me (Esther 3:9) is the work which is done under the sun. The toil and exertions of men pressed upon him like a burden too heavy for him to bear. Symmachus, κακόν μοι ἐφάνη τὸ ἔργον; Septuagint, πονηρὸν ἐπ ἐμὲ τὸ ποίημα κ. τ. λ.. He repeats the expression, "under the sun," as if to show that he was regarding human labor only in its earthly aspect, undertaken and executed for temporal and selfish considerations alone. The apostle teaches a 'better lesson, and the worker who adopts his rule is saved from this crushing disappointment: "Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the recompense of the inheritance: ye serve the Lord Christ" (Colossians 3:23, Colossians 3:24). For all is vanity. He comes back to the same miserable refrain; it is all emptiness, striving after wind.
Such had been his general view of men's actions; he now brings the thought home to his own case, which makes his distress more poignant. Yea (and), I hated all my labor which I had taken under the sun. He is disgusted to reflect upon all the trouble he has taken in life, when he thinks of what will become of the productions of his genius and the treasures which he has amassed. Because I should leave it (my labor, i.e. its results) unto the man that shall be after me. It is impossible that Solomon could thus have spoken of Rehoboam; and to suppose that he wrote thus after Jeroboam's attempt (1 Kings 2:26, etc.), and in contemplation of a possible usurper, is not warranted by any historical statement, the absolute security of the succession being all along expected, and the growing discontent being perfectly unknown to, or contemptuously disregarded by, the king. The sentiment is general, and recurs more than once; e.g. Ecclesiastes 4:8; Ecclesiastes 5:14; Ecclesiastes 6:2. Thus Horace, 'Epist.,' 2.2. 175—
"Sic quia perpetuus nulli datur usus, et heres
Heredem alterius velut unda supervenit undam,
Quid vici prosunt aut horrea?"
Who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? The bitter feeling that he has to leave the fruits of his lifelong labor to another is aggravated by the thought that he knows not the character of this successor, whether he will be worthy or not. As the psalmist says, "He heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them" (Psalms 39:6). Again in the parable, "The things which thou hast prepared, whose shall they be?" (Luke 12:20; comp. Ecclesiasticus 11:18, 19). Yet shall he have rule, etc. Whatever may be his character, he will have free use and control of all that I have gathered by my labor directed by prudence and wisdom. Vulgate, Domina-bitur in laboribus meis quibus desudavi et sollicitus fui.
Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair; ἐπέστρεψα ἐγὼ. "I turned" in order to examine more closely. So in Ecclesiastes 2:12 we had, "I turned myself," though the verbs are not the same in the two passages, and in the former the LXX. has ἐπέβλεψα. I turned from my late course of action to give myself up to despair. I lost all hope in labor; it had no longer any charm or future for me. Septuagint, τοῦ ἀποτάξασθαι τὴν καρδίαν μου ἐν παντὶ μόχθῳ μου κ. τ. λ.
For there is a man whose labor is in wisdom. "In," בְּ, "with," directed and performed with wisdom. The author speaks of himself objectively, as St. Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2) says, "I know a man in Christ," etc. His complaint now is, not that his successor may misuse his inheritance (Ecclesiastes 2:19), but that this person shall have that on which he has bestowed no skill or toil, shall enjoy what modern phraseology terms "unearned increment." This, which was set forth as One of the blessings of the promised land (Deuteronomy 6:10, Deuteronomy 6:11), Koheleth cannot bear to contemplate where it touches himself—not from envy or grudging, but from the feeling of dissatisfaction and want of energy which it generates. In (with) knowledge and in (with) equity. Kishron, translated "equity" in the Authorized Version; ἀνδρεία "manliness," in the Septuagint: and sollicitudine in the Vulgate, seems rather here to signify "skill" or "success." It occurs also in Ecclesiastes 4:4 and Ecclesiastes 5:10, and there only in the Old Testament.
What hath man of all his labor? i.e. what is to be the result to man? γίνεται ἐν τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ;; Quidenim proderit homini? (Vulgate). There is, indeed, the pleasure that accompanies the pursuit of objects, and the successful accomplishment of enterprise; but this is poor and unsubstantial and embittered. And of the vexation of his heart; the striving, the effort of his mind to direct his labor to great ends. What does all this produce? The answer intended is," Nothing." This striving, with all its wisdom and knowledge and skill (Ecclesiastes 2:21), is for the laborer fruitless.
All his days are sorrow, and his travail grief (comp. Ecclesiastes 5:16, Ecclesiastes 5:17). These are the real results of his lifelong efforts. All his days are pains and sorrows, bring trouble with them, and all his labor ends in grief. "Sorrows" and "grief" are pretreated respectively of "days" and "travail." Abstract nouns are often so used. Thus Ecclesiastes 10:12, "The words of a wise man's mouth are grace." The free-thinkers in Wis. 2:1 complain that life is short and tedious ( λυπηρὸς). Yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. He cannot sleep for thinking over his plans and hopes and disappointments. Not for him is the sweet sleep of the laboring man, who does his day's work, earns his repose, and frets not about the future. On the one hand care, on the ether satiety, murder sleep, and make the night torment.
From what has been said, Koheleth concludes that man may indeed enjoy the good things which he has provided, and find a certain happiness therein, but only according to God's will and permission; and to expect to win pleasure at one's own caprice is vain.
There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink. The Vulgate makes the sentence interrogative, which the Hebrew does not sanction, Nonne melius est comedere et bibere? Septuagint οὐκ ἔστιν ἀγαθὸν ἀνθρώπῳ ὃ φάγεται καὶ ὃ πίεται, "There is naught good to a man to eat or drink;" St. Jerome and others insert misi, "except for a man to eat," etc. This and the Authorized Version, which are more or less approved by most critics, make the writer enunciate a kind of modified Epicureanism, quotations in confirmation of which will be found set forth by Plumptre. It is not pretended that the present Hebrew text admits this exposition, and critics have agreed to modify the original in order to express the sense which they give to the passage. As it stands, the sentence runs, "It is not good in ( בָּ) man that he should eat," etc. This is supposed to clash with later statements; e.g. Ecclesiastes 3:12,Ecclesiastes 3:13; Ecclesiastes 8:15; and to condemn all bodily pleasure even in its simplest form. Hence commentators insert מ("than") before שֶׁיּאֹכַל, supposing that the initial mere has dropped out after the terminal of the preceding word, adam (comp. Ecclesiastes 3:22). This solution of a difficulty might be allowed were the Hebrew otherwise incapable of explanation without doing violence to the sentiments elsewhere expressed. But this is not the case. As Metals has seen, the great point lies in the preposition, ב and what is stated is that it does not depend on man, it is not in his power, he is not at liberty to eat and drink and enjoy himself simply at his own will; his power and ability proceed wholly from God. A higher authority than his decides the matter. The phrase, "to eat and drink," is merely a periphrasis for living in comfort, peace, and affluence. St. Gregory, who holds that here and in other places Koheleth seems to contradict himself, makes a remark which is of general application, "He who looks to the text, and does not acquaint himself with the sense of the Holy Word, is not so much furnishing himself with instruction as bewildering himself in uncertainty, in that the literal words sometimes contradict themselves; but whilst by their oppositeness they stand at variance with themselves, they direct the reader to a truth that is to be understood" ('Moral.,' 4.1). They who read Epicureanism into the text fall into the error here denounced. They take the expression, "eat and drink," in the narrowest sense of bodily pleasure, whereas it was by no means so confined in the mind of a Hebrew. To eat bread in the kingdom of God, to take a place at the heavenly banquet, represents the highest bliss of glorified man (Luke 14:15; Revelation 19:9, etc.). In a lower degree it signifies earthly prosperity, as in Jeremiah 22:15, "Did not thy father eat and drink, and do judgment and justice? then it was well with him." So in our passage we find only the humiliating truth that man in himself is powerless to make his life happy or his labors successful. There is no Epicurean-ism, even in a modified form, in the Hebrew text as it has come down to us. With other supposed traces of this philosophy we shall have to deal subsequently (see on Ecclesiastes 3:12; Ecclesiastes 6:2). And that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor; i.e. taste the enjoyment of his labor, get pleasure as the reward of all his exertions, or find it in the actual pursuit. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. This is the point—the power of enjoyment depends on the will of God. The next verse substantiates this assertion.
For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I? This is the translation of the received text. "Eat" means enjoy one's self, as in the preceding verse; "hasten hereunto" implies eager pursuit of pleasure; and Koheleth asks—Who had better opportunity than he for verifying the principle that all depends upon the gift of God? Vulgate, Quis ita devorabit, et deliciis affluet ut ego? The Septuagint had a different reading, which obtains also in the Syriac and Arabic versions, and has been adopted by many modern critics. Instead of מִמֶּנִּי, they read מִמֶּנְּוּ, "without him," i.e. except from God. "For who shall eat or who shall drink without him ( πάρεξ αὐτοῦ)?" This merely repeats the thought of the last verse, in agreement with the saying of St. James (James 1:17), "Every good gift and every perfect boon is from above, coming down from the Father' of lights." But the received reading, if it admits the rendering of the Authorized Version (which is somewhat doubtful), stands in close connection with the personal remark just preceding, "This also I saw," etc; and is a more sensible confirmation thereof than a tautological observation can be. The next verse carries on the thought that substantial enjoyment is entirely the gift of God, and granted by him as the moral Governor of the world.
For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight. The subject "God" is not, in the Hebrew, an omission which is supposed to justify its virtual insertion in Ecclesiastes 2:25. The Vulgate boldly supplies it here, Homini bone in conspectu sue dedit Deus. To the man that finds favor in God's sight (1 Samuel 29:6; Nehemiah 2:5), i.e. who pleases him, ha gives blessings, while he withholds them or takes them away from the man who displeases him. The blessings specified are wisdom, and knowledge, and joy. The only true wisdom which is not grief, the only true knowledge which is not sorrow (Ecclesiastes 1:18), and the only joy in life, are the gifts of God to those whom he regards as good. But to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up. The sinner takes great pains, expends continuous labor, that he may amass wealth, but it passes into other. (more worthy) hands. Horace, 'Carm.,' Ecclesiastes 2:14. 25—
"Absumet heres Caecuba dignior Servata centum clavibus."
The moral government of God is here recognized, as below, Ecclesiastes 3:15, Ecclesiastes 3:17, etc; and a further thought is added on the subject of retribution: That he may give to him that is good before God. This idea is found in Proverbs 28:8, "He that augmenteth his substance by usury and increase, gathereth it for him that hath pity upon the poor;" and Ecclesiastes 13:22, "The wealth of the sinner is laid up for the righteous" (comp. Job 27:16, Job 27:17). So in the parable of the talents, the talent of the unprofitable servant is given unto him who had made best use of his money (Matthew 25:28). This also is vanity. It is a question what is the reference here. Delitzsch considers it to be the striving after pleasure in and from labor (verse 24); Knobel, the arbitrary distribution of the good things of this life; but, put thus baldly, this could hardly be termed a "feeding on wind;" nor could that expression be applied to the "gifts of God" to which Bullock confines the reference. Wright, Hengstenberg, Gratz, and others deem that what is meant is the collecting and heaping up of riches by the sinner, which has already been decided to be vanity (verses 11, 17, 18); and this Would limit the general conclusion to a particular instance. Taking the view contained in verse 24 as the central idea of the passage, we see that Koheleth feels that the restriction upon man's enjoyment of labor imposed by God's moral government makes that toil vain because its issue is not in men's hands, and it is a striving for or a feeding on wind because the result is unsatisfying and vanishes in the grasp.
The vanity of pleasure-an experiment in three stages.
I. THE WAY OF SENSUOUS ENJOYMENT. (Esther 2:1, Esther 2:2.) In this first stage Solomon, whether the real or the personated king, may be viewed as the representative of mankind in general, who, when they cast aside the teachings and restraints of religion, exclude from their minds the thought of a Divine Being, erase from their bosoms all convictions of duty, and refuse to look into the future, commonly addict themselves to pleasure, saying, "Enjoyment, be thou my god;" prescribing to themselves as the foremost task of their lives to minister to their own gratification, and adopting as their creed the well-known maxim, "Let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we die" (1 Corinthians 15:32).
1. The investigation was vigorously conducted. The Preacher was in earnest, not merely thinking in his heart, but addressing it, rather like the rich farmer in the parable (Luke 12:19) than like the singer in the psalm (Psalms 16:2), and stirring it up as the brick makers of Babel did one another: "Go to now!" (Genesis 11:3, Genesis 11:4). That the investigation was so conducted by the real Solomon may be inferred from the preserved details of his history (1 Kings 10:5; 1 Kings 11:1, 1 Kings 11:3); that it has often been so conducted since, not merely in fiction, as by Goethe's 'Faust,' but in actual life, as by 'Abelard and Heloise' in the eleventh century, admits of demonstration; that it is being at present so conducted by many whose principal aim in life is not to obey the soul's noblest impulses, but to hamper the body's lower appetite, is palpable without demonstration.
2. The result has been clearly recorded. The Preacher found the way of pleasure as little fitted to conduct to felicity as that of wisdom; discovered, in fact, that laughter occasioned by indulgence in sensual delights was only a species of insanity, a kind of delirious intoxication which stupefied the reason and overthrew the judgment, if it did not lead to self-destruction, and that no solid happiness ever came out of it, but only vanity and striving after wind. So has every one who has sought his chief good in such enjoyment found. They who live in pleasure are dead while they live (1 Timothy 5:6)—dead to all the soul's higher aspirations; are self-deceived (Titus 3:3); and will in the end have a rude awakening, when they find that their short-lived pleasures (Hebrews 11:25) have only been nourishing them for slaughter (James 5:5).
II. THE WAY OF BANQUETING AND REVELRY. (Esther 2:3.) In this second stage of the experiment, neither Solomon nor the Preacher (if he was different) stood alone. The path on which the ancient investigator now depicts himself as entering had been and still is:
1. Much traveled. The number of those who abandon themselves to wine and wassail, drunkenness and dissipation, chambering and wantonness, may not be so great as that of those who join in the pursuit of pleasure, many of whom would disdain to partake of the intoxicating cup; but still it is sufficiently large to justify the epithet employed.
2. Appallingly fatal. Apart altogether from the rightness or the wrongness of total abstinence, which the Preacher is not commending or even thinking of, this much is evident, that no one need hope to secure true happiness by surrendering himself without restraint to the appetite of intemperance. Nor is the issue different when the experiment is conducted with moderation, i.e. without losing one's self-control, or abandoning the search for wisdom. Solomon and the Preacher found that the result was, as before vanity, and a striving after wind.
3. Perfectly avoidable. One requires not to tread in this way in order to perceive whither it leads. One has only to observe the experiment, as others are unfortunately conducting it, to discern that its goal is not felicity.
III. THE WAY OF CULTURE AND REFINEMENT. (Esther 2:4-11.) In the third stage of this experiment the picture is drawn from the experiences of Solomon—whether by Solomon himself or by the Preacher is immaterial, so far as didactic purposes are concerned. Solomon is introduced as telling his own story.
1. His magnificence had been most resplendent.
2. His misery was most pronounced. Although he had had every gratification that eye could desire, heart wish, or hand procure, he had found to his chagrin that true happiness eluded him like a phantom; that all was vanity and a striving after wind; that, in fact, there was no profit of a lasting kind to be derived from pleasure in its highest any more than in its lowest forms.
1. The way of pleasure, however inviting, is not the way of safety or the way of peace.
2. While it cannot impart happiness to any, it may lead to everlasting misery and shame.
3. The pursuit of pleasure is not only incompatible with religion, but even at the best its sweets are not to be compared with religion's joys.
Wisdom and folly.
I. FOLLY AS GOOD AS WISDOM. Three things seemed to proclaim this,
1. The chances of life. These appeared to be as favorable to the fool as to the wise man. The experiences of both were much alike; the lot of each little different. "I perceived," said he, "that one event happeneth to them all' (Esther 2:14). "As it happeneth to the fool, so will it happen even to me; and why was I then more wise?" (Esther 2:15). This observation apparently had struck him with much force, as he refers to it more than once (Ecclesiastes 8:14; Ecclesiastes 9:2). It was not an original observation, as long before Job had remarked upon the seeming indifference with which providential allotments were made to the righteous and the wicked (Job 9:22; Job 21:7). Nevertheless, it was and is a true observation that, so far as purely external circumstances are concerned, it may be doubtful if the wise man fares better than the fool.
2. The onrush of oblivion. With pitiless maw this devours the wise and the fool alike (verse 16). If the human heart craves after one thing more than another, it is an assurance that name and memory shall not quite perish from the earth when one himself is gone. Such as are indifferent to a personal immortality beyond the grave in a realm of heavenly felicity, are often found to be supremely desirous of this lesser immortality which men call posthumous fame. For this the Egyptian Pharaohs erected pyramids, temples, mausoleums; for this men strive to set themselves on pinnacles of power, fame, wealth, or wisdom before they die; yet the number of those who are remembered many weeks beyond the circle of their immediate friends is small. Even of the so-called great who have flourished upon the earth, how few are rescued from oblivion!
"Their memory and their name are gone,
Alike unknowing and unknown."
Who beyond a few scholars knows anything of the Pharaohs who built the pyramids, or of Assurbanipal, the patron of learning in Assyria, of Homer, of Socrates, or of Plato? If one thinks of it, the amount of remembrance accorded to almost all the leaders of mankind consists in this—that their names will be found in dictionaries.
3. The descent of death. The wise man might have derived consolation from the fact,—had it been a fact—that though after death his fate would be hardly distinguishable from that of the fool, nevertheless before and at death, or in the manner of dying, there would be a wide distinction. But even this poor scrap of comfort is denied him, according to the Preacher. "How doth the wise man die? as the fool!" (verse 16). To appearance, at least, it is so, because in reality a difference wide asunder as the poles separates the dying of him who is driven away in his wickedness, and him who has hope in his death" (Proverbs 14:32). But contemplating death from the outside, as a purely natural phenomenon, it is the same exactly in the experience of the wise man as in that of the fool. In both the process culminates in the loosening of the silver cord and the breaking of the golden bowl (Ecclesiastes 12:6).
II. WISDOM SUPERIOR TO FOLLY. As light excelleth darkness, so wisdom excels folly. Three grounds of superiority.
1. The path of wisdom a way of light; that of folly a way of darkness. That the latter is essentially a way of darkness, and therefore of uncertainty, difficulty, and danger, had been declared by Solomon (Proverbs 2:13; Proverbs 4:19). The Preacher adds an explanation by likening the foolish man to a person walking backwards, or "with his eyes behind;" so that he knows neither whither he is going, nor at what he is stumbling, nor the peril into which he is advancing. Had the Preacher said nothing more than this, he would have been entitled to special thanks. Thousands live in the delusion that the way of pleasure, frivolity, dissipation, extravagance, prodigality, is the way of light, wisdom, safety, felicity—which, it. is not. The traveler who would journey in comfort and security must walk with his eyes to the front, considering the direction in which he moves, pondering the paths of his feet, and turning neither to the right hand nor to the left (Proverbs 4:25-27). In other words, the wise man's eyes must be in his head, exercising at once forethought, circumspection, and attention.
2. The source of wisdom from above; that of folly from beneath. As the light descends from the pure regions of the upper air, so this wisdom of which the Preacher speaks, like that to which Job (Job 28:23), David (Psalms 51:6), Solomon (Proverbs 2:6), Daniel (Daniel 2:23), Paul (1 Corinthians 1:30), and James (James 1:5; James 3:15) allude, comes from God (verse 26). As the darkness may be said to spring from the earth, so folly has its birthplace in the heart. The individual that turns away from the light of wisdom presented to him in the moral intuitions of the heart, the revelations of scripture, or the teachings of nature, bay that act condemns his spirit to dwell in darkness.
3. The end of wisdom, safety; that of folly, destruction. The light of wisdom illuminates the path of duty for the individual; the darkness of folly covers it with gloom. Specially true of heavenly wisdom as contrasted with wickedness and sin. Even with regard to ordinary wisdom, its superiority over folly is not to be denied. The wise man has at least the satisfaction of knowing whither he is going, and of realizing the unsatisfactory character of the course he is pursuing. It may not be a great advantage which the wise man has over the fool, that whereas the fool is a madman and knows it not, the wise man cannot follow after wisdom (in itself and for itself) without discovering that it is vanity; but still it is an advantage—an advantage like that which a man has who walks straight before him, with his eyes in his head and directed to the front, over him who either puts out his eyes, or blindfolds himself, or turns his eyes backward before he begins to travel.
1. Get wisdom, especially the best.
2. Eschew folly, more particularly that which is irreligious.
3. Learn to discriminate between the two; much evil will thereby be avoided.
The vanity of toil.
I. THE SECRET OF HAPPINESS LIES NOT IN BUSINESS. Granting that one applies himself to business, and succeeds through ability, perseverance, and skill in building up a fortune, if he looks for felicity either in his labor or in his riches, he will find himself mistaken. Three things are fatal to a man's chances of finding happiness in the riches that come from business success.
1. Sorrow in the getting of them. Toiling and moiling, laboring and striving, drudging and slaving, planning and plotting, scheming and contriving, rising up early and lying down late, hurrying and worrying—by these means for the most part are fortunes built up. How expressive is the Preacher's language concerning the successful man of business, that "all his days are sorrows, and his travail is grief," or "all his days are pains, and trouble is his occupation," "yea, even in the night his heart taketh no rest" (Esther 2:23)!
2. Sorrow in the keeping of them. A constant anxiety besets the rich man, night and day, lest the riches he has amassed should suddenly take wings and flee away; by day looking out for safe investments, and by night wondering if his ventures will prove good, if the money he has painfully collected may not some day disappear and leave him in the lurch. And even should this not happen, how often is it seen that when a man has made his fortune, he finds there is nothing in it; that success has been too long in coming, and that now, when he has wealth, he wants the power to enjoy it (Esther 2:22; cf. Ecclesiastes 6:2); as the duke says to Claudio in the prison—
"And when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat. affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant."
('Measure for Measure,' act 3. sc. 1.)
3. Sorrow in the parting with them. The results of all his labor he must leave to the man who shall be after him, without knowing whether that successor shall be a wise man or a fool (Esther 2:18, Esther 2:19; cf. Ecclesiastes 5:15); and though this does not greatly trouble the Christian, who knows there is laid up for him a better and more enduring substance in heaven, yet for the worldly or insincerely religious man it is an agitating thought. Mazarin, the cardinal, and first minister of Louis XIV; was accustomed, as he walked through the galleries of his palace, to whisper to himself, "I must quit all this;" and Frederick William IV. of Prussia on one occasion, as he stood upon the Potsdam terrace, turned to Chevalier Bunsen beside him, and remarked, as they looked out together on the garden," This too I must leave behind me" (see Plumptre, in loco).
II. BUSINESS MAY MINISTER TO MAN'S ENJOYMENT. The Preacher does not wish to teach that happiness lies beyond man's reach, but rather that it is attainable, if sought in the right way. He recognizes:
1. That there is nothing wrong in seeking after happiness, or even earthly enjoyment. He admits there is nothing better, more permissible or desirable, among men than that one "should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor" (verse 24). He even allows that this is from the hand of God, which makes it plain that he is not now alluding to sinful indulgence of the bodily appetite, but speaking of that moderate enjoyment of the good things of life God has so richly provided for man's support and entertainment. It is not God's wish, he says, that man should be debarred or should debar himself from all enjoyment. Rather it is his earnest desire that man should eat and drink and enjoy what has been furnished for his entertainment, should not make of himself an ascetic, under pretence of religion denying himself of lawful pleasures and gratifications, but should so use them as to contribute to his highest welfare.
2. That no man can make a good use of life's provisions unless in connection with the thought of God. "Who can eat or have enjoyment, apart from him [i.e. God]?": This corrective thought the Preacher lays before his readers, that while the world's good things cannot impart happiness by themselves and apart from God, they can if enjoyed in conjunction with him, i.e. if recognized as coming from him (1 Chronicles 29:14; 1 Timothy 6:17; James 1:17), and used for his glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). The last passages show that this was the New Testament ideal of life (1 Timothy 4:4).
3. That he who seeks happiness in this way will succeed. "For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight [or, 'that pleaseth him'] wisdom, and knowledge, and joy" (verse 26). So far from pronouncing felicity a dream, an unattainable good, a shadow without a substance, the Preacher believes that if a man will take God and religion with him into the world, and, remembering both the shortness of time and the certainty of a future life, will enjoy the world's good things in moderation and with thankfulness, he will derive therefrom, if not absolute and unmixed happiness, as near an approximation to it as man can expect to reach on earth. God will graciously assist such a man to gather the best fruits of wisdom and knowledge, both human and Divine, and will inspire him with a joy the world can neither give nor take away (Job 22:21; Psalms 16:8, Psalms 16:9; Psalms 112:1, Psalms 112:7, Psalms 112:8; John 16:22). This, if not happiness, is at least a lot immensely superior to that God assigns to the sinner, i.e. to the man who excludes God, religion, and immortality from his life. The lot of such a man is often as the Preacher describes, to toil away in making money, to heap it up till it becomes a pile, and then to die and leave it to be scattered to the winds, enjoyed by he knows not whom, and not infrequently by the good men he has despised (Job 27:16, Job 27:17; Proverbs 13:22; Proverbs 28:8).
1. Be diligent in business (Romans 12:11). "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do," etc. (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
2. But be "fervent in spirit, serving the Lord" (Romans 12:11).
3. Seek happiness in God himself rather than in his gilts (Psalms 4:7; Psalms 9:2; Psalms 40:16; Luke 1:47; Philippians 3:1).
HOMILIES BY D. THOMAS
The vanity of wealth, pleasure, and greatness.
There is certainly a strange reversal here of the order of experience which is usual and expected. Men, disappointed with earthly possessions and satiated with sensual pleasures, sometimes turn to the pursuit of some engrossing study, to the cultivation of intellectual tastes, But the case described in the text is different. Here we have a man, convinced by experience of the futility and disappointing character of scientific and literary pursuits, applying himself to the world, and seeking satisfaction in its pleasures and distractions. Such experience as is here described is possible only to one in a station of eminence; and if Solomon is depicted as disappointed with the result of his experiment, there is no great encouragement for others, less favorably situated, to hope for better results from similar endeavors.
I. THE WORLDLY MAN'S AIM. This is to learn what the human heart and life can derive from the gifts and enjoyments of this world. Man's nature is impulsive, acquisitive, yearning, aspiring. He is ever seeking satisfaction for his wants and desires. He turns now hither and now thither, seeking in every direction that which he never finds in anything earthly, in anything termed "real."
II. THE WORLDLY MAN'S MEANS TO THIS END. How shall satisfaction be found? The world presents itself in answer to this question, and invites its votary to acquisition and appropriation of its gifts. This passage in Ecclesiastes offers a remarkable and exhaustive catalogue of the emoluments and pleasures, the interests and occupations, with which the world pretends to satisfy the yearning spirit of man. There are enumerated:
1. Bodily pleasure, especially the pleasure of abundance of choice wine.
2. Feminine society,
3. Riches, consisting of silver and gold, of flocks and herds.
4. Great works, as palaces, parks, etc.
5. Household magnificence.
6. Treasures of art, and especially musical entertainments.
7. Study and wisdom, associated with all diversions and distractions of every kind.
It seems scarcely credible that one man could be the possessor of so many means of enjoyment, and it is not to be wondered at that "Solomon in all his glory" should be mentioned as the most amazing example of this world's greatness and delights. It needed a many-sided nature to appreciate so vast a variety of possessions and occupations; the largeness of heart which is ascribed to the Hebrew monarch must have found abundant scope in the palaces of Jerusalem. It is instructive that Holy Writ, which presents so just a view of human nature, should record a position so exalted and opulent and a career so splendid as those of Solomon.
III. THE WORLDLY MAN'S FAILURE TO SECURE THE END BY THE USE OF THE MEANS DESCRIBED.
1. All such gratifications as are here enumerated are in themselves insufficient to satisfy man's spiritual nature. There is a disproportion between the soul of man and the pleasures of sense and the gifts of fortune. Even could the wealth and luxury, the delights and splendor, of an Oriental monarch be enjoyed, the result would not be the satisfaction expected. There would still be "the aching void the world can never fill."
2. It must also be remembered that, by a law of our constitution, even pleasure is not best obtained when consciously and deliberately sought. To seek pleasure is to miss it, whilst it often comes unsought in the path of ordinary duty.
3. When regarded as the supreme good, worldly possessions and enjoyments may hide God from the soul. They obscure the shining of the Divine countenance, as the clouds conceal the sun that shines behind them. The works of God's hand sometimes absorb the interest and attention which are due to their Creator; the bounty and beneficence of the Giver are sometimes lost sight of by those who partake of his gifts.
4. The good things of earth may legitimately be accepted and enjoyed when received as God's gifts, and held submissively and gratefully "with a light hand."
5. Earth's enjoyments may be a true blessing if, failing to satisfy the soul, they induce the soul to turn from them to God, in whose favor is life.
The comparison between wisdom and folly.
To the ordinary observer the contrast between men's condition and circumstances is more expressive than that 'between their character. The senses are attracted, the imagination is excited, by the spectacle of wealth side by side with squalid poverty, of grandeur and power side by side with obscurity and helplessness. But to the reflecting and reasonable there is far more interest and instruction in the distinction between the nature and life of the fool, impelled by his passions or by the influence of his associations; and the nature and life of the man who considers, deliberates, and judges, and, as becomes a rational being, acts in accordance with nature and well-weighed convictions. Very noble are the words which the poet puts into the lips of Philip van Artevelde—
"All my life long
Have I beheld with most respect the man
Who knew himself, and knew the ways before him;
And from amongst them chose deliberately,
And with clear foresight, not with blindfold courage;
And having chosen, with a steadfast mind
Pursued his purposes."
I. THE NATURAL CONTRAST BETWEEN WISDOM AND FOLLY.
1. The distinction is one founded in the very nature of things, and is similar to that which, in the physical world, exists between light and darkness. This is as much as to say that God himself is the All-wise, and that reasonable beings, in so far as they participate in his nature and character, are distinguished by true wisdom; whilst, on the other hand, departure from God is the same thing as abandonment to folly.
2. The distinction is brought out by the just exercise or the culpable misuse of human faculty. "The wise man's eyes are in his head," which is a proverbial and figurative way of saying that the wise man uses the powers of observation and judgment with which he is endowed. The position and the endowments of the organs of vision is a plain indication that they were intended to guide the steps; the man who looks before him will not miss his way or fall into danger. Similarly, the faculties of the understanding and reason which are bestowed upon man are intended for the purpose of directing the voluntary actions, which, becoming habitual, constitute man's moral life. The wise man is he who not only possesses such powers, but makes a right use of them, and orders his way aright. The fool, on the contrary, "walketh in darkness;" i.e. he is as one who, having eyes, makes no use of them—shuts his eyes, or walks blindfold. The natural consequence is that he wanders from the path, and probably falls into perils and into destruction.
II. THE APPARENT EQUALITY OF THE LOT OF THE WISE MAN AND THAT OF THE FOOL. The writer of this Book of Ecclesiastes was impressed with the fact that in this world men do not meet with their deserts; that, if there is retribution, it is of a very incomplete character; that the fortune of men is not determined by their moral character. This is a mystery which has oppressed the minds of observant and reflecting men in every age, and has been to some the occasion of falling into skepticism and even atheism.
1. The wise man and the fool in many cases meet with the same fortune here upon earth: "One event happeneth to them all." Wisdom does not always meet with its reward in earthly prosperity, nor does folly always bring down upon the fool the penalty of poverty, suffering, and shame. A man may be ignorant, unthinking, and wicked; yet by the exercise of shrewdness and cunning he may advance himself. A wise man may be indifferent to worldly ends, and may neglect the means by which prosperity may be secured. Moral means secure moral ends; but there may be spiritual prosperity which is not crowned by worldly greatness and wealth.
2. The wise man and the fool are alike forgotten after death. "All shall be forgotten;" "There is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever." All men have some sensitiveness to the reputation which shall survive them: the writer of this book seems to have been particularly sensitive upon this point. He was impressed by the fact that no sooner has a wise and good man departed this life than straightway men proceed to forget him. A few years past, and the memory of the dead itself dies, and good and bad alike are forgotten by a generation interested only in its own affairs. A common oblivion overtakes us all such considerations led the author of this book into distress and disheartenment. He was tempted to hate life; it was grievous unto him, and all was vanity and vexation of spirit. A voice within, plausible and seductive, urges—Why trouble as to the moral principles by which you are guided? Whether you are wise or foolish, will it not soon be all the same? Nay, is it not all the same even now?
III. THE REAL SUPERIORITY OF WISDOM OVER POLLY, If we were to look at some verses of this book only, we might infer that the author's mind was quite unhinged by the spectacle of human-life; that he really doubted the superintendence of Divine providence; that he did not care to make aright for truth, righteousness, and goodness. But although he had doubts, and difficulties, though he passed through moods of a pessimistic character, it appears plain that when he came to state his deliberate and reasoned convictions, he showed himself to be a believer in God, and not in fate; in resolute and self-denying virtue, and not in self-indulgence and cynicism. In this passage are brought together facts which occasion most men perplexity, which bring some men into skepticism. Yet the deliberate conclusion to which the author comes is this: "I saw that wisdom excelleth folly." He had, as we all should have, a better and higher standard of judgment, and a better and higher law of conduct, than the phenomena of this world can supply. It is not by temporal and earthly results that we are to form our judgments upon morality and religion; we have a nobler and a truer standard, even our own reason and conscience, the voice of Heaven to which to listen, the candle of the Lord by which to guide our steps. Judged as God judges, judged by the Law and the Word of God, "wisdom excelleth folly." Let the wise and good man be afflicted in his body, let him be plunged into adversity, let him be deserted by his friends, let him be calumniated or forgotten; still he has chosen the better part, and need not envy the good fortune of the fool. Even the ancient Stoics maintained this. How much more the followers of Christ, who himself incurred the malice and derision of men; who was despised and rejected and crucified, but who, nevertheless, was approved and accepted of God the All-wise, and was exalted to everlasting dominion! Wisdom is justified of her children." The wise man is not to be shaken either by the storms of adversity or by the taunts of the foolish. His is the right path, and ha will persevere in it; and he is not only sustained by the approbation of his conscience, he is satisfied with the fellowship of his Master, Christ.—T.
Concern for posterity.
It is distinctive of man that he is a being that looks before and after; he cannot be satisfied to regard only the present; he investigates the former days, and the ancestry from which he has derived life and circumstances; he speculates as to the days to come, and "all the wonder yet to be." It appeared to the "Preacher" of Jerusalem that too great solicitude regarding our posterity is an element in the "vanity" which is characteristic of this life.
I. IT IS NATURAL THAT MEN SHOULD ANTICIPATE THEIR POSTERITY WITH INTEREST AND SOLICITUDE. Family life is so natural to man that there is nothing strange in the anxiety which most men feel with regard to their children, and even their children's children. Men do not like the prospect of their posterity sinking in the social scale. Prosperous men find a pleasure and satisfaction in "founding a family," in perpetuating their name, preserving their estates and possessions to their descendants, and in the prospect of being remembered with gratitude and pride by generations yet unborn. In the case of kings and nobles such sentiments and anticipations are especially powerful.
II. IT IS A MATTER OF FACT THAT IN MANY INSTANCES MEN'S ANTICIPATIONS REGARDING POSTERITY ARE DISAPPOINTED. The wide and accurate observations of the author of Ecclesiastes convinced him that such is the case.
1. The rich man's descendants scatter the wealth which he has accumulated by means of labor and self-denial. It need not be proved, for the fact is patent to all, that it is the same in this respect in our own days as it was in the Hebrew state. In fact, we have an English proverb, "One generation makes money; the second keeps it; the third spends it."
2. The wise man's descendant proves to be a fool. Notwithstanding what has been maintained to be a law of "hereditary genius," the fact is unquestionable that there are many instances in which the learned, the accomplished, the intellectually great, are succeeded by those bearing their name, but by no means inheriting their ability. And the contrast is one painful to witness, and humiliating to those to whose disadvantage it is drawn.
3. The descendants of the great in many instances fall into obscurity and contempt. History affords us many examples of such descent; tells of the posterity of the noble, titled, and powerful working with their hands for daily bread, etc.
III. THE PROSPECT OF AN UNFORTUNATE POSTERITY OFTEN DISTRESSES AND TROUBLES MEN, ESPECIALLY THE GREAT. The "wise man" knew what it was to brood over such a prospect as opened up to his foreseeing mind. He came to hate his labor, and to cause his heart to despair; all his days were sorrow, and his travail grief; his heart took not rest in the night; and life seemed only vanity to him. Why should I toil, and take heed, and care, and deny myself? is the question which many a man puts to himself in the sessions of silent thought. My children or my children's children may squander my fiches, alienate my estates, sully my reputation; my work may be undone, and my fond hopes may be mocked. What is human life but hollowness, vanity, wind?
IV. THE TRUE CONSOLATION BENEATH THE PRESSURE OF SUCH FOREBODINGS. It is vain to attempt to comfort ourselves by denying facts or by cherishing unfounded and unreasonable hopes. What we have to do is to place all our confidence in a wise and gracious God, and to leave the future to his providential care; and at the same time to do our own duty, not concerning ourselves overmuch as to the conduct of others, of those who shall come after us. It is for us to "rest in the Lord," who has not promised to order and overrule all things for our glory or happiness, but who will surely order and overrule them for the advancement of his kingdom and the honor of his Name.—T.
All good is from God.
Revelation ever presents to man a standard of conduct equally removed from selfish gratification and from proud asceticism. It condemns the habit, too common with the prosperous and fortunate, of seeking all saris-faction in the pleasures and luxuries of the world, in the enjoyments of sense; and it at the same time condemns the tendency to despise the body and the things of time and sense, as if such independence of earth were of necessity the means to spiritual enrichment and blessing. On the one hand, we are invited to partake freely and gladly of the gifts of Divine providence; on the other hand, we are admonished to receive all things as "from the hand of God."
I. GOD'S BOUNTY PROVIDES THE FAVORS BY WHICH MAN'S EARTHLY LIFE IS ENRICHED. Food and drink are mentioned here as examples of the good gifts of the Eternal Father, who "openeth his hand, and supplieth the wants of every living thing." Manifold is the provision of the Divine beneficence. The whole material world is an apparatus by which the bounty of the Creator ministers to the wants of his creatures. And all God's gifts have a meaning and value beyond themselves; they reveal the Divine character, they symbolize the Divine goodness. To despise them is to despise the Giver.
II. GOD'S KINDNESS BESTOWS FACULTIES ADAPTED TO THE ENJOYMENT OF HIS GIFTS. The adaptation is obvious and instructive between the bounties of God's providence, and the bodily constitution in virtue of which man is able to appropriate and enjoy what God bestows. Food and drink presuppose the power to partake of them, and to use them for the continued life, health, and vigor of the body. The correspondence may be traced throughout the whole of our physical nature; between the eye and light, between hearing and sound, between the lungs and the atmosphere—in fact, between the organism and the environment.
III. GOD EXPECTS THAT WE SHOULD USE HIS GIFTS AS HE COMMANDS, AND FOR HIS GLORY. All Divine bestowments are a kind of test and trial for man, who does not of necessity follow appetite, but who can exercise his reason and his will in dealing with the circumstances of his being, with the provisions of God's bounty. All are susceptible of use and of abuse. The Preacher gives us the key to a right use of providential bounties, when he reminds us that all is "from the hand of God." The man who sees the Giver in the gift, who partakes with gratitude of that which is bestowed, recognizing its spiritual significance, and using it as the means to spiritual improvement,—such a man fulfils his probation aright, and does not live the earthly life in vain.
IV. UPON COMPLIANCE WITH OR NEGLECT OF THE DIVINE REQUIREMENT DEPENDS THE EFFECT OF GOD'S GIFTS UPON US, WHETHER THEY SHALL BE A BLESSING OR A CURSE. It would be very easy to read amiss the teaching of this Book of Ecclesiastes. Let a man read it when under the influence of a hedonistic and optimistic temper of mind, and he may be encouraged to abandon himself to the pleasures of life, to the joys of sense, to seek his welfare and satisfaction in what this world can give. Let a man read the book when passing through bitter experience of the ills and woes and disappointments of life, in a pessimistic mood, and he may be encouraged to dejection, despondency, and cynicism. But the true lesson of the book is this: Life is a Divine discipline, and its purpose should never be lost sight of; the gifts of Providence are intended for our enjoyment, our grateful appropriation, but not for the satisfaction of the spiritual nature; Divine wisdom summons us to the reverential service of the Eternal himself; we should then receive with joy what God bestows, and give up without undue mourning what God takes away, for all of life is "from the hand of God."—T.
Here at length the Preacher propounds the doctrine of God's moral government, which in the earlier part of the book has been kept in abeyance. It is one thing to treat of human life, and another thing to treat of theology. The first may, and does to the thoughtful mind, suggest the second; but there are many who never take the step from the one to the other. The author of this book has recorded his experience, with such generalizations and obvious lessons as such experience naturally suggests; he has drawn such conclusions as an observant and reflecting student could scarcely avoid. But hitherto he has refrained from the province of faith, of insight, of revelation. Now, however, he boldly affirms the fact that the world is the scene of Divine retribution; that behind all natural law there is a law which is supernatural; that the Judge of all the earth doeth right.
I. GOD IS INTERESTED IN HUMAN CHARACTER AND LIFE. The ancient Epicurean notions that the gods were above all care for the concerns of men is not extinct; for many even now deem it derogatory to the Deity that he should be considered to interest himself either in the experiences or in the character of men. This passage in Ecclesiastes justly assumes that what men are and what they pass through are matters of real concern to the Creator and Lord of all.
II. GOD ALLOWS IN HUMAN LIFE SCOPE FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF MEN'S MORAL CHARACTER. He endows man with a constitution properly supernatural, with capacities and faculties higher than those which are amenable to physical law. Interesting as is the necessary development of the universe under the control of natural forces, far more interesting is the unfolding of the moral character of men. This, indeed, is for us the most significant and momentous of all things that exist. Man is made not merely to enjoy or to suffer, but to form character, to acquire habits of virtue and piety; to become assimilated, in moral disposition and purpose, to the Divine Author of his being. To this end all circumstances may conduce; for experience shows us that there is no condition of human life, no range of human experience, which may not minister to spiritual improvement and welfare.
III. GOD IS THE RIGHTFUL RULER AND JUDGE OF MEN. All human relationships fail adequately to set forth the character and offices of the Eternal; yet many such relationships serve to afford us some glimpse into the excellences of him who is judicially and morally the Supreme. There is no incompatibility between the representation that God is a Father, and that which attributes to him the functions of a Judge. The human relationships are based upon the Divine, and it is unjust to regard the human as simply figures of the Divine. Having all power, God is able to apportion the lot of the creature; being infinitely righteous, such apportionment on his part must be beyond all criticism and censure. The life of man should be lived under a constant sense of the Divine observation and judgment; for thus the probationer of earth will secure the advantage of the loftiest standard of righteousness, and the motive to rectitude and to progress which the Divine government is fitted to supply. Distributive justice—to use the expression familiar in moral philosophy—is the function of the Supreme.
IV. GOD HIMSELF DETERMINES THE MEASURE IN WHICH RETRIBUTION SHALL BE CARRIED OUT IN THIS EARTHLY LIFE. The passage now under consideration lays stress upon the earthly reward and penalty, though it does not represent these as exhaustive and complete. "God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy." This is something very different from what is termed "poetical justice;" these are gifts which are consistent with adversity and affliction. In fact, the lesson seems to be conveyed that moral goodness meets with moral recompense, as distinct from the doctrine of children's story-books, which teach that "virtue will be rewarded with a coach-and-six"! And the sinner is warned that he will receive the reward of his sin in travail, disappointment, and dissatisfaction. "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." A man must be blind who does not see in the constitution of human nature and human society the traces of a righteous Lawgiver and Administrator; and at the same time, the man must be short-sighted who does not detect indications of incompleteness in these judicial arrangements.
V. GOD GIVES US IN THE PARTIAL RETRIBUTION OF THE PRESENT A SUGGESTION OF A LIFE TO COME, IN WHICH HIS GOVERNMENT SHALL BE COMPLETED AND VINDICATED. That the convictions and expectations of the ancient Hebrews with regard to a future existence were as developed and decisive as those of Christians, none would contend. But this and other books afford indications that the enlightened Jews had an anticipation of judgment to come. If this world were all, vanity and vexation of spirit would have been the only impression produced by the experience and contemplation of human life. But it was seen, even if dimly, that this earthly state requires, in order to its completeness, an immortality which is the scene of Divine judgment and of human retribution.—T.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
The trial of pleasure.
We have to consider—
I. THE CONSTANT QUESTION OF THE HUMAN HEART. In what shall we find the good which will make our life precious to us? What is there that will meet the cravings of the human heart, and cover our whole life with the sunshine of success and of contentment?
II. A VERY NATURAL RESORT. We have recourse to some kind of excitement. It may be that which acts upon the senses (Esther 2:3, Esther 2:8). Or it may be that which gratifies the mind; the sense of possession and of power (Esther 2:7-9). Or it may be found in agreeable and inviting activities (Esther 2:4-6).
III. ITS TEMPORARY SUCCESS. "My heart rejoiced" (Esther 2:10). It would be simply false to contend that there is no delight, no satisfaction, in these sources of good. There is, for a while. There is a space during which they fill the heart as the wine fills the cup into which it is poured. The heart rejoices; it utters its joy in song; it declares itself to be completely happy. It "sits in the sun;" it rolls the sweet morsel between its teeth. It flatters itself that it has found its fortune, while the angels of God weep over its present folly and its coming doom.
IV. ITS ACTUAL AND UTTER INSUFFICIENCY. (Esther 2:11.) Pleasure may be coarse and condemnable; it may go down to fleshly gratifications (Esther 2:3, Esther 2:8); it may be refined and chaste, may expend itself in designs and executions; it may be moderated and regulated with the finest calculation, so as to have the largest measure spread over the longest possible period; it may "guide itself with wisdom" (Esther 2:3). But it will be a failure; it will break down; it will end in a dreary exclamation of "Vanity!" Three things condemn it as a solution of the great quest after human good.
1. Experience. This proves, always and everywhere, that the deliberate and systematic pursuit of pleasure fails to secure its end. Pleasure is not a harvest, to be sedulously sown and reaped; it is a plant that grows, unsought and uncultivated, all along the path of duty and of service. To seek it and to labor for it is to miss it. All human experience shows that it soon palls upon the taste, that it fades fast in the hands of its devotee; that there is no company of men so utterly weary and so wretched as the tired hunters after pleasurable excitement.
2. Philosophy. This teaches us that a being made for something so much higher than pleasure can never be satisfied with anything so low; surely we cannot expect that the heart which is capable of worship, of service, of holy love, of heroic consecration, of spiritual nobility, will be filled and satisfied with "the delights of the sons of men."
3. Religion. For this introduces the sovereign claims of the Supreme One; it places man in the presence of God; it shows a life of frivolity to be a life of culpable selfishness, of sin, of shame. It summons to a purer and a wiser search, to a worthier and a nobler course; it promises the peace which waits on rectitude; it offers the joy which only God can give, and which no man can take away.—C.
Sagacity and stupidity
The "wisdom" and the "folly" of the text are perhaps best represented by the words "sagacity" and "stupidity." The distinction is one of the head rather than of the heart; of the understanding rather than of the entire spirit. We are invited, therefore, to consider—
I. THE WORTH OF SAGACITY.
1. It stands much lower down than heavenly wisdom; that is the direct product of the Spirit of God, and makes men blessed with a good which cannot be taken away. It places them above the reach of adversity, and makes them invulnerable to the darts of death itself (see Esther 2:14).
2. It has its own distinct advantages. "The wise man's eyes are in his head;" he sees whither he is going; he does not delude himself with the idea that he can violate all the laws of his nature with impunity. He knows that the wages of sin is death, that if he sows to the flesh he will reap corruption; he understands that, if he would enjoy the esteem of men and the favor of God, he must subdue his spirit, control his passions, regulate his life according to the standards of truth and virtue. This sagacity of the wise will therefore
II. THE PITIFULNESS OF STUPIDITY. "The fool walketh blindly."
1. He has no eye to see the fair and the beautiful around him, no heart to appreciate the nobility that might be within him or the glories that are above him.
2. He fails to discern the real wretchedness of his present condition—his destitution, his condemnation, his exile.
3. He does not shrink from the evil which impends. He is walking toward the precipice, below which is utter ruin, eternal death. Truly "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and to depart from evil, that is understanding"—C.
Esther 2:18 -24
The complaint of the successful.
The man who labors and who fails to acquire may be pitied, and if he finds his life to have a large measure of vanity he may be excused for complaining; but here is—
I. THE COMPLAINT OF THE SUCCESSFUL. The speaker (of the text) is made (or makes himself) miserable because he has gained much by the expenditure of time and strength, and he has to leave it behind him when he dies; he has to leave it to one who "has not labored" (Esther 2:21), and possibly to a man who is not as wise as himself, bat is "a fool" (Esther 2:19), and he may scatter or misuse it. And the thought of the insecurity of life, together with the certainty of leaving all behind to the man who comes after, whoever or whatever he may be, makes day and night wretched (Esther 2:23).
II. WHEREIN IT IS SOUND. It is quite right that a man should ask himself what will become of his acquisition. To be satisfied with present pleasure is ignoble; to be careless of what is coming after us—"Apres moi le deluge"—is shamefully selfish. It becomes every man to consider what the long results of his labor will be, whether satisfactory or unfruitful.
III. WHEREIN IT IS UNSOUND.
1. There is nothing painful in the thought of parting with our treasure. We inherited much from those who went before us, and we may be well content to hand down all we have to those who come after us. We spent no labor on that which we inherited: why should we be aggrieved because our heirs will have spent none on what they take from us?
2. If we did not hoard our treasures, but distributed them while we lived, putting them into the hands of the wise; or if (again) we chose our heirs according to their spiritual rather than their fleshly affinities, we should be spared the misery of accumulating the substance which a fool will scatter. But let us look at a stilt better aspect of the subject.
IV. THE LEGACY AND THE HOPE OF THE WISE.
1. His best legacy. We may and we should so spend our time and our strength that what we leave behind us is not wealth that can be dissipated or stolen, but worth that cannot fail to bless—Divine truth lodged in many minds, good principles planted in many hearts, a pure and noble character built up in many souls. This is what no fool can divert or destroy; this is that which will live on, and multiply and bless, when we are far from all mortal scenes. Immeasurably better is the legacy of holy influence than that of "uncertain riches;" the former must be a lasting blessing, the latter may be an incalculable curse.
2. His best and purest hope. What if the dying man feels that his grasp on earthly gain is about to be finally relaxed? is he not about to open his hand in a heavenly sphere, where the Divine Father will enrich him with a heavenly heritage, which will make all material treasures seem poor indeed?—C.
(See homily on Ecclesiastes 3:12, Ecclesiastes 3:13, Ecclesiastes 3:22.)—C.
Piety and impiety; recompense and penalty.
We ask and answer the twofold question, viz. what is—
I. OUR EXPECTATION. We should certainly expect two things, judging antecedently.
1. That piety would be richly rewarded; for who would not expect that the bountiful, just, and resourceful Father would give liberally, in many ways, to those who sought his favor, and were "good in his sight"?
2. That impiety would bear plain marks of Divine disapproval; for who would suppose that men would defy their Maker, break his laws, injure his children, spoil his holy and benignant purpose, and not suffer marked and manifold evils as the just penalty of their presumption and their guilt? We naturally look for much happiness and prosperity for the former, much misery and defeat for the latter.
II. OUR EXPERIENCE. What do we find?
1. That God does reward his servants. The Preacher mentions three good gifts of his hand; they are not exhaustive, though they include or suggest much of the righteous man's heritage.
2. That sin is visited with penalty. Do we find that God giveth "to the sinner travail, to gather and to heap up"? We do.
HOMILIES BY J. WILLCOCK
An experiment: riotous mirth.
Solomon had found that wisdom and knowledge are not the means by which the search after happiness is brought to a successful issue. He then resolved to try if indulgence in sensual delights would yield any lasting satisfaction. This, as he saw, was a course on which many entered, who like him desired happiness, and he would discover for himself whether or not they were any nearer the goal than he was. And so he resolved to enjoy pleasure—"to give his heart to wine," and "to lay hold of folly." Like the rich man in the parable, who said to his soul, "Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink and be merry," so did he address his heart, "Come, I will prove thee with mirth." He had tried wisdom, and found it fruitless for his purpose, and now would try folly. He lays aside the character and pursuits of a student, and enters the company of fools, to join in their revelry and mirth. The conviction that his learning was useless, either to satisfy his own cravings or to remedy the evils that exist in the world, made it easy for him to cast away, for a time at any rate, the intellectual employments in which he had engaged, and to live as others do who give themselves up to sensual pleasures. Wearied of the toil of thought, sickened of its illusions and of its fruitlessness, he would find tranquility and health of mind in frivolous gaiety and mirth. This was not an attempt to stifle his cravings after the highest good, for he deliberately determined to analyze his experience at every point, in order to discover whether any permanent gain resulted from his search in this new quarter. "I sought," he says, "in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life." For the sake of others as well as for himself, he would try this pathway and see whither it would lead. But the experiment failed. In a very short time he discovered that vanity was here too. The laughter of fools was, as he says elsewhere (Ecclesiastes 7:6), like the crackling of burning thorns; the blaze lasted but for a moment, and the gloom that followed was but the deeper and more enduring. Where the fire of jovial revelry and boisterous mirth had been, there remained but cold, gray ashes. The mood of reckless enjoyment was followed by that of cynical satiety and bitter disappointment. He said of laughter, "It is mad," and of mirth, "What doeth it?" In his moments of calm reflection, when he communed with his own heart, he recognized the utter folly of his experiment, and felt that from his own dear-bought experience he could emphatically warn all in time to come against seeking satisfaction for the soul in sensual pleasures. Not in this way can the hunger and thirst with which the spirit of man is consumed be allayed. At most, a short period of oblivion can be secured, from which the awakening is all the more terrible. The sense of personal responsibility, the feeling that we are called to seek the highest good and are doomed to unrest and misery until we find it, the conviction that our failures only make ultimate success the more doubtful, is not to be quenched by any such coarse anodyne. Various reasons may be found to explain why this kind of experiment failed and must fail.
I. In the first place, it consisted in AN ABUSE OF NATURAL FACULTIES AND APPETITES. Some measure of joy and pleasure is needed for health of mind and body. Innocent gaiety, enjoyment of the gifts God has bestowed upon us, reasonable satisfaction of the appetites implanted in us, have all a rightful place in our life. But over-indulgence in any one of them violates the harmony of our nature. They were never intended to rule us, but to be under our control and to minister to our happiness, and we cannot allow them to govern us without throwing our whole life into disorder.
II. In the second place, THE PLEASURE EXCITED IS ONLY TRANSITORY. From the very nature of things it cannot be kept up for any long time by mere effort of will; the brain grows weary and the bodily powers become exhausted. A jest-book is proverbially very tiresome reading. At first it may amuse, but the attention soon begins to flag, and after a little the most brilliant specimen of wit can scarcely evoke a smile. The drunkard and the glutton find that they can only carry the pleasures of the table up to a certain point; after that has been reached the bodily organism refuses to be still further stimulated.
III. In the third place, SUCH PLEASURE CAN ONLY BE GRATIFIED BY SELF-DEGRADATION. It is inconsistent with the full exercise of the intellectual faculties which distinguish man from the brute, and destructive of those higher and more spiritual faculties by which God is apprehended, served, and enjoyed. Self-indulgence in the gross pleasures of which we are speaking actually reduces man below the level of the beasts that perish, for they are preserved from such folly by the natural instincts with which they are endowed.
IV. In the fourth place, THE INEVITABLE RESULT OF SUCH AN EXPERIMENT IS A DEEPER AND MORE ENDURING GLOOM. Self-reproach, enfeeblement of mind and body, satiety and disgust, come on when the mad fit is past, and, what is still worse, the apprehension of evils yet to come—the knowledge that the passions excited and indulged will refuse to die down; that they have a life and power of their own, and will stimulate and almost compel their slave to enter again on the evil courses which he first tried of his own free will and with a light heart. The prospect before him is that of bondage to habits which he knows will yield him no lasting pleasure, and very little of the fleeting kind, and must involve the enfeeblement and destruction of all his powers. Mirth and laughter and wine did not banish Solomon's melancholy; but after the feverish excitement they produced had passed away, they left him in a deeper gloom than ever. "Like phosphorus on a dead man's lace, he felt that it was all a trick, a lie; and like the laugh of a hyena among the tombs, he found that the worldling's frolic can never reanimate the joys which guilt has slain and buried." "I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?' The well-known story of the melancholy patient being advised by a doctor to go and see Grimaldi, and answering, "I am Grimaldi," and that of George Fox being recommended by a minister whom he consulted to dispel the anxieties which his spiritual fears and doubts and aspirations had excited within him, by "drinking beer and dancing with the girls" (Carlyle, 'Sartor Resartus,' Esther 3:1), may be used to illustrate the teaching of our text. Some stanzas, too, of Byron's last poem give a pathetic expression to the feelings of satiety and disappointment which are the retribution of sensuality ―
"My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone!
"The fire that on my bosom preys
Is lone as some volcanic isle;
No torch is kindled at its blaze—
A funeral pile.
"The hope, the fear, the jealous care,
The exalted portion of the pain
And power of love I cannot share,
But wear the chain."
Another experiment: refined voluptuousness.
Riotous mirth having failed miserably to give him the settled happiness after which he sought, our author records another and more promising experiment which he made, the search for happiness in a life of culture—"the pursuit of beauty and magnificence in art." More promising it was, because it brought into play higher and purer emotions than those to which ordinary sensuality appeals; it cultivated the side of the nature which adjoins, and almost merges into, the spiritual. The Law of Moses, forbidding as it did the making of images or representations of natural objects or of living creatures for purposes of worship, had prevented much advance being made in sculpture and painting; but there were still extensive fields of artistic development left for cultivation. Architecture and gardening afforded abundant scope for the exhibition and gratification of a refined taste. And so Solomon built splendid palaces, and planted vineyards, and laid out parks and gardens, and filled them with the choicest fruit trees, and dug pools for the irrigation of his plantations in the time of summer drought. Nothing was omitted that could minister to his sense of the beautiful, or that could enhance his splendor and dignity. A large household, great flocks of cattle, heaps of silver and gold, precious treasures from distant lands, the pleasures of music and of the harem are all enumerated as being procured by his wealth and power, and employed for his gratification. All that the eye could rest on with delight, all that the heart could desire, was brought within his reach. And all the time wisdom was with him, guiding him in the pursuit of pleasure, and not abandoning him in the enjoyment of it. Nothing occurred to prevent the experiment being carried through to the very end. The delights he enumerates were in themselves lawful, and therefore were indulged in without any uneasy sensation of transgressing against the Law of God or the dictates of conscience. Nay, the very fact that he had a moral end in view when he began the experiment seemed to give a high sanction to it. He was not interrupted by the intrusion of other thoughts and cares. No foreign enemy disturbed his peace; sickness did not incapacitate him; his wealth was not exhausted by the large demands made upon it for the support of his magnificence and luxury. And so he went to the utmost bounds of refined enjoyment, and found much that for a time amply rewarded him for the efforts he put forth. "My heart," he says, "rejoiced in all my labor" (Esther 2:10). His busy mind was kept occupied; his senses were charmed by the beauty and richness of the treasures he had gathered together, and of the great works which gave such abundant evidence of his taste and wealth. His experiment was not quite fruitless, therefore. Present gratification he found in the course of his labors; but when they were completed, the pleasure they had yielded passed away. The charm of novelty was gone. Possession did not yield the joy and delight which acquisition had done. When the palaces were finished, the gardens planted, the gems and rarities accumulated, the luxurious household established, and nothing left to do but to rest in the happiness that these things had been expected to secure, the sense of defeat and disappointment again fell upon the king. "Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun." He does not try to explain the cause of his failure, but simply records the fact that he did fail. "He does not moralize, still less preach; he just paints the picture of his soul's sad wanderings, of the baffled effort of a human heart, and passes on." But we may find it highly profitable to inquire what were the causes why the life of culture—which, without harshness, may be called a refined voluptuousness—fails to give satisfaction to the human soul.
I. In the first place, IT IS A LIFE OF ISOLATION FROM GOD. As Solomon represents the course he followed, we see that the thought of God was excluded from his mind. The Divine gifts were enjoyed, the love of the beautiful which is implanted in the soul of man was gratified, every exquisite sensation of which we are capable was indulged, but the one thing needed to sanctify the happiness obtained and render it perfect was omitted. "God," says St. Augustine, "has made us for himself, and we cannot rest until we rest in him." Emotions of gratitude, adoration, humility, and self-consecration to His service cannot be suppressed without great loss—the loss even of that security and tranquility of spirit which are essential to true happiness. All the resources upon which Solomon drew may furnish helps to happiness, but none of them, nor all of them together, could, apart from God, secure it. Compare with the failure of Solomon the success of those who have often, in circumstances of extreme discomfort and suffering, enjoyed the peace of God that passeth all understanding. The sixty-third psalm, written by David in the time of exile and hardship, illustrates the truth that in communion with God the soul enjoys a happiness which cannot be found elsewhere. "A man's life does not consist in the abundance of the things which he possesseth." Apart from the favor of God and the service of God, the richest possessions and the most skilful employment of them can secure no lasting satisfaction. For we are so constituted as creatures that our life is not complete if we are dissevered from our Creator.
II. In the second place, IT IS A SELFISH LIFE. All that Solomon describes are his efforts to secure certain durable results for himself; to indulge his love for the beautiful in nature and art, and to surround himself with luxury and splendor. He would have been more successful in his search for happiness if he had endeavored to relieve the wants of others—to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to comfort the afflicted, and to instruct the ignorant. Self-denial and self-sacrifice for the sake of others would have brought him nearer the gem of his desire. The penalty of his selfish pursuit fell heavily upon him. He could not live at a height above mankind, in the enjoyment of his own felicity, for long; "the riddle of the painful earth" filled him with thoughts of self-loathing and despair, which shattered all his happiness. Do what he might, old age, disease, and death were foes he could not conquer, and all about him in human society he could discern moral evils and inequalities which he could not set right nor' even explain. Such selfish isolation as that into which for a time he had withdrawn himself failed to secure the object he had in view, for he could not really dissever his lot from that of his fellows, or escape the evils which afflicted them. The idea of a life of luxurious ease, undisturbed by the sight or thought of the miseries and hardships of life, was a vain dream, from which he soon awoke. In his poem, 'The Palace of Art,' Tennyson has given a most luminous and suggestive commentary upon this portion of the Book of Ecclesiastes. In it he represents the soul as seeking forgiveness for the sin of selfish isolation by penitence, prayer, and self-renunciation, and as anticipating a resumption of all the joys of culture and art in companionship with others. In communion with God, in fellowship with others, all things that are noble and pure and lovely are taken into holy keeping, and form a lasting source of joy and happiness.—J.W.
The value and the futility of wisdom.
Solomon had now made many experiments to try and discover something that was good in itself, that was an end for which one might labor, a goal for which one might make, a resting-place for the soul. The acquisition of knowledge had first of all attracted him, but after a long course of study, in which he traversed the whole field of learning and reached the limits of human thought, the futility of his labors dawned upon him. Then he turned to sensual enjoyments, and gave himself up to them for a time, with the deliberate purpose of seeking to discover if there were in this quarter any permanent gain; if it were possible so to prolong the pleasures of life as to silence, if not to satisfy, the cravings of the soul. The experiment was but a short one; he soon found out that pleasure is short-lived, and that mirth and laughter are followed by weariness and melancholy. His resources were not, however, yet exhausted. A new course was open to him, and one which his richly endowed nature qualified him for trying, and his kingly power and wealth laid open to him. This was the cultivation of those arts by which human life is beautified; the gratification of those tastes that distinguish man from the lower creatures, and that have something in them that is noble and pure. He built stately palaces, planted gardens and forests; he surrounded himself with all the luxury and pageantry of an Oriental court; he accumulated treasures such as kings only could afford to procure; music and song, and whatever could delight a refined taste, and a love of the beautiful were sedulously cultivated. But all in vain; aesthetieism proved as fruitless as the pursuit of knowledge, or the indulgence of the coarser appetites, to give rest to the soul. And now in sober meditation he reviewed all his experience; having come to the end of his resources, he inquires into actual results attained, and pronounces upon them. First of all, he is convinced that he has given a fair trial to all the various means by which men seek for the highest good. He had failed to find that satisfaction, but it was not because he had been ill equipped for carrying on the search. No one that came after him (Esther 2:12) could surpass him by a more complete and thorough investigation. God had given him "a wise and understanding heart," and had endowed him with wealth and power; and in both particulars he excelled all his fellows. Accordingly, he has no hesitation in laying down great general principles drawn from careful observation of the phenomena of human life.
I. THE GREAT ADVANTAGE WHICH WISDOM HAS OVER FOLLY. The wise man walks in light, and has the use of his eyes; the fool is blind, and walks in darkness. The wisdom here praised is not that holy, spiritual faculty which springs from the fear of God and obedience to his will (Job 28:28; Deuteronomy 4:6; Psalms 111:10), and which is so strikingly personified, almost deified, in the Book of Proverbs and in that of Job (Proverbs 8:1-36; Proverbs 9:1-18.; Job 28:12-28); but is ordinary science, knowledge of the laws of nature, and of the powers and limitations of human life. This wisdom can only be acquired by long and painful labor, and though by it we cannot discover God or find out the way of winning and retaining his favor, or provide for the wants of the soul, it has, in its sphere, high value. It gives some pleasure; it affords some guidance and direction to its possessor. It enables him to acquire some good; it teaches him to avoid some evils. Progress in civilization is only possible by the cultivation of this wisdom. Wider acquaintance with the laws of health, for example, has enabled men to stamp out certain forms of disease, or, at any rate, to prevent their frequent recurrence, and to alleviate the sufferings caused by others. Consider the immense benefit to the race the progress of medical science has secured. The inventions that we owe to the cultivation of natural knowledge are beyond number, and by them incalculable benefits have been brought within our reach—better cultivation of the soil, less exhausting labor, discovery of the uses of the metals stored up in the bowels of the earth, more rapid distribution of the productions of nature and of human industry, swifter means of communication between one part of the world and another. "The improvement of natural knowledge," says a great authority, "whatever direction it has taken, and however low the aims of those who may have commenced it, has not only conferred practical benefits on men, but in so doing has effected a revolution in their conceptions of the universe and of themselves, and has profoundly altered their modes of thinking and their views of right and wrong" (Huxley, 'Lay Sermons'). Does not this amply justify Solomon's assertion that "wisdom excels folly, as light darkness; that the wise man hath the use of his eyes, the fool is blind"?
II. THE FUTILITY OF WISDOM. All the delight in the charms of wisdom is quenched by the thought of the leveling power of death, which overwhelms both the wise and the foolish indiscriminately (verses 14b—17). For a brief space there is a distinction between them—the one endowed with priceless gifts, the other ignorant and poor. But what, after all, was the use of the short-lived superiority? Like an extinguished torch, the wisdom of the sage is blown out by death, and the very memory of his attainments and triumphs is buried in oblivion. For a time, perhaps, he is missed, but the gap is soon filled up, the busy world goes on its way, and in a very short time it forgets all about him. Thus even the posthumous fame, after which the purest and noblest minds have longed, to secure which they have been content to endure poverty, hardship, and neglect in their lifetime, is denied to the vast majority, even of those who have richly deserved it. There were wise men before Solomon (1 Kings 4:31), but no memorial survives of them but their names; no illustrations of their wisdom are given to explain their reputation. And how faint is the impression which the wisdom of Solomon himself makes upon the actual life of the present world! Enshrined though it is in the sacred volume, it seems foreign to our modes of thought; its voice is not heard in our schools of philosophy. The fact of death is a certainty both to the wise and to the fool; the manner of it may be similar; the doubts and fears and anxieties concerning the life to come may perplex both. What can we suggest to relieve the sad picture, or to counteract the paralyzing effect which the spectacle of the futility of wisdom and effort is calculated to produce? The conviction that this life is not all, that there is a life beyond the grave, is the great corrective to the gloom in which otherwise every thinking mind would be enwrapped. This present life is a state of infancy, of probation, in which we receive education for eternity. And to ask in melancholy tones what is the use of acquiring wisdom if death is so soon to cut short our career here, is as foolish as to ask what is the use of a sapling growing vigorously in a nursery garden if it is to be afterwards transplanted. The place from which it was taken may soon know it no more. But the loss is slight; the tree itself lives and flourishes still under the eye and care of the almighty Husbandman. No fruitless regrets over the brevity and uncertainty of human fame need interfere with present effort. We may soon be forgotten on earth, but no attainments in wisdom or holiness we have made will have been in vain; they will have qualified us for a higher service and a truer enjoyment of God than we could otherwise have known.—J.W.
Riches, though obtained by much toil, are vanity.
The thought of death, which sweeps away the wise man as well as the fool, and of the eternal oblivion which swallows up the memory of them both, was very depressing; but a new cause for deeper dejection of spirit is round in the reflection that the man who has toiled in the accumulation of wealth must leave it all to another, of whom he knows nothing, and who wilt perhaps dissipate it in a very brief time.
I. The first mortifying thought is—HE BUT GATHERS FOR A SUCCESSOR. (Esther 2:18.) He himself, when the moment of death comes, must leave his possessions and depart into the world of shadows as naked as he was when he entered upon life. The fact that such a reflection should be bitter proves how deeply the soul is corroded by covetous and selfish aggrandizement. The heart is absorbed in the things of the present, and the anticipation of heavenly and spiritual joys grows faint and dies away. To be torn from the wealth and possessions acquired upon earth is regarded as losing everything; to be forced to leave them to another, even to a son, is almost as bad as being plundered of them by a thief. This feeling of bitter regret at having to give up all they possess at the call of death, has often been experienced by those who have found their chief occupation and happiness in life in the acquisition of earthly treasures. "Mazarin walks through the galleries of his palace and says to himself, 'Il taut quitter tout cela.' Frederick William IV. of Prussia turns to his friend Bunsen, as they stand on the terrace at Potsdam, and says as they look out on the garden, 'Das auch, das soil ich lassen' ('This too! must leave behind me')" (Plumptre).
II. The second mortifying thought is—THAT IT IS QUITE UNCERTAIN WHAT CHARACTER THE SUCCESSOR WILL BE OF, AND WHAT USE HE WILL MAKE OF HIS INHERITANCE. (Esther 2:19.) He may be a wise man, or he may be a fool; he may make a prudent use of his inheritance, or he may in a very short time scatter it to the winds. The very change in his circumstances, the novelty of his new situation, may turn his head and lead him into courses of folly which otherwise he might have avoided. Some have thought that the character of the youthful Rehoboam was already so far developed as to suggest this mortifying reflection to Solomon. But this is quite conjectural. The early career of the headstrong, arrogant sovereign whose folly broke up the kingdom of Israel is an illustration of the truth of this general statement, and may have been in the thoughts of the writer, if he were not Solomon but some later sage. The special reference to this one historical example of an inheritance dissipated by an unworthy son need not be pressed. For, unfortunately, in every generation there are only too many instances of a like kind. So frequent are they, indeed, as to suggest very humiliating reflections to every one who has spent his life in acquiring riches or collecting treasures of art. As he sees fortunes squandered and collections of rarities broken up, the thought must recur to his mind whose are to be the things which he has treasured up so carefully (Psalms 39:6; Luke 12:20).
III. The third mortifying thought is—THAT THE CHARACTER OF THE SUCCESSOR MAY NOT BE A MATTER OF DOUBT; he may be a man of a positively foolish and vicious disposition (Esther 2:21). The case presents itself of a man who has labored in wisdom and knowledge and equity having to leave to another who is devoid of these virtues, who has never sought to acquire them, all that his prudence and diligence have enabled him to acquire. There is thus a climax in the thoughts of the writer. First of all, there is some matter for irritation, especially to a selfish mind, in the idea of giving up to another what one has spent years of laborious toil m gathering together. Then there is the torturing doubt as to the possible character of the new owner, and the use he will make of what is left to him. But worst of all is the conviction that he is both foolish and vicious. This is enough to poison all present enjoyment, and to paralyze all further effort. Why should a man spend laborious days and sleepless nights, if this is to be the end of it all? What has he left to show for all his exertions? What but weariness and exhaustion, and the bitter reflection that all has been in vain? Yet a little time after he has been forced by death to part with his possessions, and they will be made to minister to the frivolity and vice of one who has never labored for them, and ultimately will be scattered like chaff before the wind. Thus a final discovery of the vanity of all earthly employments is made. The acquisition of wisdom and knowledge,, the gratification of the pleasures of sense, the cultivation and indulgence of artistic tastes, had all been tried as possible avenues to lasting happiness, and tried in vain. To these must now be added the accumulation by prudent and lawful means, of great wealth. This, too, was discovered to be vanity. It could only be accomplished by years of toil, and brought with it fresh cares; and in the end all that had been gained must be given up to another. Mortifying though the experiments had turned out to be, they had at least been of negative value. Though they had not revealed where happiness was to be found, they had revealed where it was not to be found. The last disappointment, the discovery of the vanity of riches, taught the great truth which might become a clue to lead to the much-desired happiness, that "a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth" (Luke 12:15).—J.W.
The condition of pure enjoyment.
Up to this point the thoughts of our author have been gloomy and despairing. Wisdom is better, he declares, than folly, but death sweeps away both the wise and the foolish. The learning of the sage, the fortune accumulated by the successful worker, represent the labors of a lifetime; but at the end, what are they worth? The results are twofold, partly internal and partly external. The student or worker acquires skill in the use of his faculties, he develops his strength, he becomes, as his life goes on, more proficient in his profession or craft; but death quenches .all these attainments. He leaves to those who are perhaps unworthy of them all the external results of his labors, and perhaps in a very little time it will be difficult to find anything to remind one of him. We who have the light of Christian truth may have much to console us and give us strength, even when we are brought face to face with the dark and dreary facts upon which our author dwells. We may think of this life as a preparation for a new and higher existence in the world to come, and believe that every effort we make to use rightly the faculties God has given us will tend to equip us better for service of him in another state of being. But to our author's mind the thought of a future life is not vivid enough to be the source of consolation and strength. What then? Does he find no escape from the gloomy labyrinth of withering doubt, and decide that happiness is a boon for which one may sigh in vain? No; strangely enough, at the very moment when the depression is deepest, light breaks upon him from an unexpected quarter. Simple joys, moderate hopes, contentment with one's lot, thankful acceptance of the gifts of God, may yield a peace and satisfaction unknown to those who are consumed by ambition, who make riches, state, luxury, the object of their desires. The darkness of night will soon close upon our live. Our tenure of our possessions is precarious in the extreme, but some measure of joy is within the reach of us all. In few but suggestive words the Preacher describes—
I. THE NATURE OF A HAPPY LIFE. (Verse 24,) "There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor." At first one might think the judgment here expressed somewhat poor and gross, and unworthy of the reputation of the wise king to whom it is ascribed, not to say of the Word of God in which we find it. But when we look more closely into is, these impressions disappear. It is not an idle, useless life of self-enjoyment that is here commended to us, but one in which useful labor is seasoned by healthy pleasures. The man eats and drinks, and makes his soul enjoy good in his labor. The enjoyment is not such as to waste and exhaust the energies of the soul, otherwise it would be very short-lived. The risk of abusing the counsel in the first part of the sentence is avoided by attending to the safeguard implied in the concluding words. It is not the decision of the Sensualist, "Let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we die" (1 Corinthians 15:32), but the admonition of one who perceives that a thankful participation of the good things of life is compatible with the sincerest piety. Eating and drinking mean satisfying the natural appetites, and not ministering to artificial and self-created cravings; and overindulgence in so doing is tacitly forbidden. The words suggest to us the simple healthy life and habits of the industrious peasant or workman, who takes pleasure in his daily employment, and finds in the innocent joys which sweeten his lot a happiness which. mere wealth cannot buy.
"The shepherd's homely curds,
His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle,
His wonted sleep under a fresh tree's shade,
All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,
Is far beyond a prince's delicates,
His viands sparkling in a golden cup,
His body couched in a curious bed,
When care, mistrust, and treason wait on him."
('Henry VI.,' Part III; act it. so. 5.)
II. In the second place, our author tells us THE SOURCE OF THIS HAPPINESS—IT IS THE GIFT OF GOD. (Verse 24b.) "This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. For who can eat or who can have enjoyment apart from him?". These words are quite sufficient to convince us that a low Epicureanism is far from the writer's thoughts when he speaks of there being nothing better for a man than "to eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor." One thing is necessary for the accomplishment of this end, and that is the Divine blessing. Saris-faction in work and in pleasure is a gift bestowed by him upon those who deserve it. "What we get here is the recognition of what we have learnt to call the moral government of God in the distribution of happiness. It is found to depend, not on outward but inward condition, and the chief inward condition is the character that God approves. The Preacher practically confesses that the life of the pleasure-seeker, or the ambitious, or the philosopher, seeking wisdom as an end, was not good before God, and therefore failed to bring contentment" (Plumptre). The source, then, of happiness in life is in obedience to the Divine will. To the gifts of his providence God adds the temper in which to enjoy them; from his hand both must be sought. Those who seek to be independent of him find that all they may acquire is insufficient to satisfy them; those who place all their confidence in him are contented with even the hardest lot (Philippians 4:11-13). "Wisdom, knowledge, and joy" are the portion of the good, whether they be poor or non m tins world s wealth; but the sinner has only the fruitless labor from which he can derive no satisfaction (Esther 2:21). And over again the Preacher writes the dreary sentence, "This also is vanity and vexation of spirit," upon the life in which God is not.—J.W.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 2". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany