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Section 4. In confirmation of the truth that man's happiness depends upon the will of God, Koheleth proceeds to show how Providence arranges even the minutest concerns; that man can alter nothing, must make the best of things as they are, bear with anomalies, bounding his desires by this present life.
The providence of God disposes and arranges every detail of man's life. This proposition is stated first generally, and then worked out in particular by means of antithetical sentences. In Hebrew manuscripts and most printed texts Ecclesiastes 3:2-8 are arranged in two parallel columns, so that one "time" always stands under another. A similar arrangement is found in Joshua 12:9, etc; containing the catalogue of the conquered Canaanite kings; and in Esther 9:7, etc; giving the names of Haman's tensions. In the present passage we have fourteen pairs of contrasts, ranging from external circumstances to the inner affections of man's being.
To every thing there is u season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. . "Season" and "time" are rendered by the LXX. καιρός and χρόνος. The word for "season" (zeman), denotes a fixed, definite portion of time; while eth, "time," signifies rather the beginning of a period, or is used as a general appellation. The two ideas are sometimes concurrent in the New Testament; e.g. Acts 1:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1. So in Wis. 8:8, "wisdom to foreseeth signs and wonders, and the events of seasons and times (ἐκβάσεις καιρῶν καὶ χρόνων)." Every thing refers especially to men's movements and actions, and to what concerns them. Purpose; chephets, originally meaning "delight," "pleasure," in the later Hebrew came to signify "business," "thing," "matter." The proposition is—In human affairs Providence arranges the moment when everything shall happen, the duration of its operation, and the time appropriate thereto. The view of the writer takes in the whole circumstances of men's life from its commencement to its close. But the thought is not, as some have opined, that there is naught but uncertainty, fluctuation, and imperfection in human affairs, nor, as Plumptre conceives, "It is wisdom to do the right thing at the right time, that inopportuneness is the bane of life," for many of the circumstances mentioned, e.g. birth and death, are entirely beyond men's will and control, and the maxim, Καιρὸν γνῶθι, cannot apply to man in such eases. Koheleth is confirming his assertion, made in the last chapter, that wisdom, wealth, success, happiness, etc; are not in man's hands, that his own efforts can secure none of them—they are distributed at the will of God. He establishes this dictum by entering into details, and showing the ordering of Providence and the supremacy of God in all men's concerns, the most trivial as well as the most important. The Vulgate gives a paraphrase, and not a very exact one, Omnia tempus habeat, et suis spatiis transenat universa sub caelo. Koheleth intimates, without attempting to reconcile, the great crux of man's free-will and God's decree.
A time to be born, and a time to die. Throughout the succeeding catalogue marked contrasts are exhibited in pairs, beginning with the entrance and close of life, the rest of the list being occupied with events and circumstances which intervene between those two extremities. The words rendered, "a time to be born," might more naturally mean "a time to bear;" καιρὸς τοῦ τεκεῖν, Septuagint; as the verb is in the infinitive active, which, in this particular verb, is not elsewhere found used in the passive sense, though other verbs are so used sometimes, as in Jeremiah 25:34. In the first case the catalogue commences with the beginning of life; in the second, with the season of full maturity: "Those who at one time give life to others, at another have themselves to yield to the law of death" (Wright). The contrast points to the passive rendering. There is no question of untimely birth or suicide; in the common order of events birth and death have each their appointed season, which comes to pass without man's interference, being directed by a higher law. "It is appointed unto men once to die" (Hebrews 9:27). Koheleth's teaching was perverted by sensualists, as we read in Wis. 2:2, 3, 5. A time to plant. After speaking of human life it is natural to turn to vegetable life, which runs in parallel lines with man's existence. Thus Job, having intimated the shortness of life and the certainty of death, proceeds to speak of the tree, contrasting its revivifying powers with the hopelessness of man's decay (Job 14:5, etc.). And to pluck up that which is planted. This last operation may refer to the transplanting of trees and shrubs, or to the gathering of the fruits of the earth in order to make room for new agricultural works. But having regard to the opposition in all the members of the series, we should rather consider the "plucking up" as equivalent to destroying, if we plant trees, a time comes when we cut them down, and this is their final cause. Some commentators see in this clause an allusion to the settling and uprooting of kingdoms and nations, as Jeremiah 1:10; Jeremiah 18:9. etc. but this could not have been the idea in Koheleth's mind.
A time to kill, and a time to heal. The time to kill might refer to war, only that occurs in Ecclesiastes 3:8. Some endeavor to limit the notion to severe surgical operations performed with a view of saving life; but the verb harag does not admit of the meaning "rewound" or" cut." It most probably refers to the execution of criminals, or to the defense of the oppressed; such emergencies and necessities occur providentially without man's prescience. So sickness is a visitation beyond man's control, while it calls into exercise the art of healing, which is a gift of God (see Ecclesiasticus 10:10; 38:1, etc.). A time to break down, and a time to build up. The removal of decaying or unsuitable buildings is meant, and the substitution of new and improved structures. A recollection of Solomon's own extensive architectural works is here introduced.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh, grouped naturally with a time to mourn, and a time to dance. The funeral and the wedding, the hired mourners and the guests at the marriage-feast, are set against one another. The first clause intimates the spontaneous manifestation of the feelings of the heart; the second, their formal expression in the performances at funerals and weddings and on other solemn occasions. The contrast is found in the Lord's allusion to the sulky children in the market-place, who would not join their companions' play: "We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented" (Matthew 11:17). Dancing sometimes accompanied religious sere-monies, as when David brought up the ark (2 Samuel 6:14, 2 Samuel 6:16).
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together. There is no question about building or demolishing houses, as that has been already mentioned in Ecclesiastes 3:3. Most commentators see an allusion to the practice of marring an enemy's fields by casting stones upon them, as the Israelites did when they invaded Moab (2 Kings 3:19, 2 Kings 3:25). But this must have been a very abnormal proceeding, and could scarcely be cited as a usual occurrence. Nor is the notion more happy that there is an allusion to the custom of flinging stones or earth into the grave at a burial—a Christian, but not an ancient Jewish practice; this, too, leaves the contrasted "gathering" unexplained. Equally inappropriate is the opinion that the punishment of stoning is meant, or some game played with pebbles. It seems most simple to see herein intimated the operation of clearing a vineyard of stones, as mentioned in Isaiah 5:2; and of collecting materials for making fences, wine-press, tower, etc; and repairing roads. A time to embrace. Those who explain the preceding clause of the marring and clearing of fields connect the following one with the other by conceiving that "the loving action of embracing stands beside the hostile, purposely injurious, throwing of stones into a field" (Delitzsch). It is plain that there are times when one may give himself up to the delights of love and friendship, and times when such distractions would be incongruous and unseasonable, as on solemn, penitential occasions (Joel 2:16; Exodus 19:15; 1 Corinthians 7:5); but the congruity of the two clauses of the couplet is not obvious, unless the objectionable position of stones and their advantageous employment are compared with the character of illicit (Proverbs 5:20) and legitimate love.
A time to get (seek), and a time to lose. The verb abad, in piel, is used in the sense of "to destroy" (Ecclesiastes 7:7), and it is only in late Hebrew that it signifies, as here, "to lose." The reference is doubtless to property, and has no connection with the last clause of the preceding verse, as Delitzsch would opine. There is a proper and lawful pursuit of wealth, and there is a wise and prudent submission to its inevitable loss. The loss here is occasioned by events over which the owner has no control, differing from that in the next clause, which is voluntary. The wise man knows when to exert his energy in improving his fortune, and when to hold his hand and take failure without useless struggle. Loss, too, is sometimes gain, as when Christ's departure in the flesh was the prelude and the occasion of the sending of the Comforter (John 16:7); and there are many things of which we know not the real value till they are beyond our grasp. A time to keep, and a time to cast away. Prudence will make fast what it has won, and will endeavor to preserve it unimpaired. But there are occasions when it is wiser to deprive one's self of some things in order to secure more important ends, as when sailors throw a cargo, etc; overboard in order to save their ship (comp. Jonah 1:5; Acts 27:18, Acts 27:19, Acts 27:38). And in higher matters, such as almsgiving, this maxim holds good: "There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth …. The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth shall be watered also himself" (Proverbs 11:24, Proverbs 11:25). Plumptre refers to Christ's so-called paradox," Whosoever would (ὃς ἂν θέλῃ) save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Matthew 16:25).
A time to rend, and a time to sew (καιρὸς τοῦ ῥῆξαι καὶ καιρὸς τοῦ ῥάψαι). This is usually understood of the rending of garments in token of grief (Genesis 37:29, Genesis 37:34, etc.), and the repairing of the rent then made when the season of mourning was ended. The Talmudists laid down careful rules concerning the extent of the ritual tear, and how long it was to remain unmended, both being regulated by the nearness of the relationship of the deceased person. In this interpretation there are these two difficulties: first, it makes the clause a virtual repetition of Ecclesiastes 3:4; and secondly, it is not known for certain that the closing of the rent was a ceremonial custom in the times of Koheleth. Hence Plumptre inclines to take the expression metaphorically of the division of a kingdom by schism, and the restoration of unity, comparing the Prophet Ahijah's communication to Jeroboam (l Kings 11:30, 31). But surely this would be a most unlikely allusion to put into Solomon's mouth; nor can we properly look for such a symbolical representation amid the other realistic examples given in the series. What Koheleth says is this—There are times when it is natural to tear clothes to pieces, whether from grief, or anger, or any other cause, e.g. as being old and worthless, or infected; and there are times when it is equally natural to mend them, and to make them serviceable by timely repairs. Connected with the notion of mourning contributed by this clause, though by no means confined to that notion, it is added, A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. The silence of deep sorrow may be intimated, as when Job's friends sat by him in sympathizing silence (Job 2:13), and the psalmist cried, "I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred" (Psalms 39:2); and Elisha could not bear to hear his master's departure mentioned (2 Kings 2:3, 2 Kings 2:5). There are also occasions when the sorrow of the heart should find utterance, as in David's lament over Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:17, etc.) and over Abner (2 Samuel 3:33, etc.). But the gnome is of more general application. The young should hold their peace in the presence of their elders (Job 32:4, etc.); silence is often golden: "Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: when he shutteth his lips, he is esteemed as prudent" (Proverbs 17:28). On the other hand, wise counsel is of infinite value, and must not be withheld at the right moment, and "a word in due season, how good is it!" (Proverbs 15:23; Proverbs 25:11). "If thou hast understanding, answer thy neighbor; if not, lay thy hand upon thy mouth" (Ecclesiasticus 5:12; see more, Ecclesiasticus 20:5, etc.).
A time to love, and a time to hate. This reminds one of the gloss to which our Lord refers (Matthew 5:43), "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy," the first member being found in the old Law (Leviticus 19:18), the second being a misconception of the spirit which made Israel God's executioner upon the condemned nations. It was the maxim of Bias, quoted by Aristotle, 'Rhet.,' Ecclesiastes 2:13, that we should love as if about some day to hate, and hate as if about to love. And Philo imparts a still more selfish tone to the gnome, when he pronounces, "It was well said by them of old, that we ought to deal out friendship without absolutely renouncing enmity, and practice enmity as possibly to turn to friendship. A time of war, and a time of peace. In the previous couplets the infinitive mood of the verb has been used; in this last hemistich substantives are introduced, as being more concise and better fitted to emphasize the close of the catalogue. The first clause referred specially to the private feelings which one is constrained to entertain towards individuals. The second clause has to do with national concerns, and touches on the statesmanship which discovers the necessity or the opportuneness of war and peace, and acts accordingly. In this and in all the other examples adduced, the lesson intended is this—that man is not independent; that under all circumstances and relations he is in the hand of a power mightier than himself, which frames time and seasons according to its own good pleasure. God holds the threads of human life; in some mysterious way directs and controls events; success and failure are dependent upon his will. There are certain laws which, regulate the issues of actions and events, and man cannot alter these; his free-will can put them in motion, but they become irresistible when in operation. This is not fatalism; it is the mere statement of a fact in experience. Koheleth never denies man's liberty, though he is very earnest in asserting God's sovereignty. The reconciliation of the two is a problem unsolved by him.
If thus man, in all his actions and under all circumstances, depends upon time and seasons which are beyond his control, we return to the same desponding question already asked in Ecclesiastes 1:3. What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboreth? The preceding enumeration leads up to this question, to which the answer is "None." Since time and tide wait for no man, since man cannot know for certain his opportunity, he cannot reckon on reaping any advantage from his labor.
There is a plan and system in all the circumstances of man's life; he feels this instinctively, but he cannot comprehend it. His duty is to make the best of the present, and to recognize the immutability of the law that governs all things.
I have seen the travail which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it; i.e. to busy themselves therewith (Ecclesiastes 1:13). This travail, exercise, or business is the work that has to be done under the conditions prescribed of time and season in face of the difficulty of man's free action and God's ordering. We take infinite pains, we entertain ample desires, and strive restlessly to carry them out, but our efforts are controlled by a higher law, and results occur in the way and at the time arranged by Providence. Human labor, though it is appointed by God and is part of man's heritage imposed upon him by the Fall (Genesis 3:17, etc.), cannot bring contentment or satisfy the spirit's cravings.
He hath made every thing beautiful in his (its) time. "Everything:" (eth hacol) does not refer so much to the original creation which God made very good (Genesis 1:31), as to the travail and business mentioned in Ecclesiastes 3:10. All parts of this have, in God's design, a beauty and a harmony, their own season for appearance and development, their work to do in carrying on the majestic march of Providence. Also he hath set the world in their heart. "The world;" eth-haolam, placed (as hacol above) before the verb, with eth, to emphasize the relation. There is some uncertainty in the translation of this word. The LXX. has, Σύμπαντα τὸν αἰῶνα; Vulgate, Mundum tradidit disputationi eorum. The original meaning is "the hidden," and it is used generally in the Old Testament of the remote past, and sometimes of the future, as Da 3:33, so that the idea conveyed is of unknown duration, whether the glance looks backward or forward, which is equivalent to our word "eternity." It is only in later Hebrew that the word obtained the signification of "age" (αἰών), or "world" in its relation to time. Commentators who have adopted the latter sense here explain the expression as if it meant that man in himself is a microcosm, a little world, or that the love of the world, the love of life, is naturally implanted in him. But taking the term in the signification found throughout the Bible, we are justified in translating it "eternity." The pronoun in "their heart" refers to "the sons of men" in the previous verse. God has put into men's minds a notion of infinity of duration; the beginning and the end of things are alike beyond his grasp; the time to be born and the Lime to die are equally unknown and uncontrollable. Koheleth is not thinking of that hope of immortality which his words unfold to us with our better knowledge; he is speculating on the innate faculty of looking backward and forward which man possesses, but which is insufficient to solve the problems which present themselves every day. This conception of eternity may be the foundation of great hopes and expectations, but as an explanation of the ways of Providence it fails. So that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end; or, without man being able to penetrate; yet so that he cannot, etc. Man sees only minute parts of the great whole; he cannot comprehend all at one view, cannot understand the law that regulates the time and season of every circumstance in the history of man and the world. He feels that, as there has been an infinite past, there will be an infinite future, which may solve anomalies and demonstrate the harmonious unity of God's design, and he must be content to wait and hope. Comparison of the past with the present may help to adumbrate the future, but is inadequate to unravel the complicated thread of the world's history (comp. Ecclesiastes 8:16, Ecclesiastes 8:17, and Ecclesiastes 9:1, where a similar thought is expressed).
I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice; rather, I knew, perceived, that there was no good for them; i.e. for men. From the facts adduced, Koheleth learned this practical result—that man had nothing in his own power (see on Ecclesiastes 2:24) which would conduce to his happiness, but to make the best of life such as he finds it. Vulgate, Cognovi quod non esset melius nisi laetari. To do good in his life; Τοῦ ποιεῖν ἀγαθόν;; Facere bene (Vulgate). This has been taken by many in the sense of "doing one's self good, prospering, enjoying one's self." like the Greek εὖ πράττειν, and therefore nearly equivalent to "rejoice" in the former part of the verse. But the expression is best taken here, as when it occurs elsewhere (e.g. Ecclesiastes 7:20), in a moral sense, and it thus teaches the great truth that virtue is essential to happiness, that to "trust in the Lord … to depart from evil, and to do good" (Psalms 36:3, 27), will bring peace and content (see in the epilogue, Ecclesiastes 12:13, Ecclesiastes 12:14). There is no Epicureanism in this verse; the enjoyment spoken of is not licentiousness, but a happy appreciation of the innocent pleasures which the love of God offers to those who live in accordance with the laws of their higher nature.
And also that every man should eat and drink... it is the gift of God. This enforces and intensifies the statement in the preceding verse; not only the power to "do good," but even to enjoy what comes in his way (see on Ecclesiastes 2:24), man must receive from God. When we pray for our daily bread, we also ask for ability to take, assimilate, and profit by the supports and comforts afforded to us. "It" is better omitted, as "is the gift of God" forms the predicate of the sentence. Ecc 11:1-10 :17, "The gift of the Lord remaineth with the godly, and his favor bringeth prosperity for ever."
I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be forever. A second thing (see Ecclesiastes 3:12) that Koheleth knew, learned from the truths adduced in Ecclesiastes 3:1-9, is that behind man's free action and volition stands the will of God, which orders events with a view to eternity, and that man can alter nothing of this providential arrangement (comp. Isaiah 46:10; Psalms 33:11). Nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it. We cannot hasten or retard God's designs; we cannot add to or curtail his plans. Septuagint, "It is impossible to add (οὐκ ἔστι προσθεῖναι) to it, and it is impossible to Lake away from it." Thus Ecclesiasticus 18:6, "As for the wondrous works of the Lord, it is impossible to lessen or to add to them (οὐκ ἔστιν ἐλαττῶσαι οὐδὲ προσθεῖναι), neither can the ground of them be found out." God doeth it, that men should fear before him. There is a moral purpose in this disposal of events. Men feel this uniformity and unchangeableness in the working of Providence, and thence learn to cherish a reverential awe for the righteous government of which they are the subjects. It was this feeling which led ancient etymologists to derive Θεός and Deus from δέος, "fear" (comp. Revelation 15:3, Revelation 15:4). This is also a ground of hope and confidence. Amid the jarring and fluctuating circumstances of men God holds the threads, and alters not his purpose. "I the Lord change not; therefore ye, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed" (Malachi 3:6). The Vulgate is not very successful: Non possumus eis quid-quam addere, nec auferre, quae fecit Deus ut timeatur, "We cannot add anything unto, or take anything away from, those things which God hath made that he may be feared."
That which hath been is now; so Septuagint; "That which hath been made, the same remaineth" (Vulgate); better, that which hath been, long ago it is; i.e. was in existence long before. The thought is much the same as in Ecclesiastes 1:9, only here it is adduced not to prove the vanity and endless sameness of circumstances, but the orderly and appointed succession of events under the controlling providence of God. That which is to be hath already been. The future will be a reproduction of the past. The laws which regulate things change not; the moral government is exercised by him who "is, and was, and is to come" (Revelation 1:8), and therefore in effect history repeats itself; the same causes produce the same phenomena. God requireth that which is past; literally, God seeketh after that which hath been chased away; Septuagint, "God will seek him who is pursued (τὸν διωκόμενον);" Vulgate, "God reneweth that which is passed (instaurat quod abiit)." The meaning is—God brings back to view, recalls again into being, that which was past and had vanished out of sight and mind. The sentence is an explanation of the preceding clauses, and has nothing to do with the inquisition at the day of judgment. Hengstenberg has followed the Septuagint, Syriac, and Targum, in translating, "God seeks the persecuted," and seeing herein an allusion to the punishment of the Egyptians for pursuing the Israelites to the Red Sea, or a general statement that God succors the oppressed. But this idea is quite alien to the intention of the passage, and injures the coherence.
Acknowledging the providential government of God, which controls events and places man's happiness out of his own power, one is confronted also by the fact that there is much wickedness, much injustice, in the world, which oppose all plans for peaceful enjoyment. Doubtless there shall be a day of retribution for such iniquities; and God allows them now in order to try men and to teach them humility. Meantime man's duty and happiness consist, as before said, in making the best use of the present and improving the opportunities which God gives him.
And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment. Koheleth records his experience of the prevalence of iniquity in high places. The place of judgment (mishat); where justice is administered. The accentuation allows (cf. Genesis 1:1) this to be regarded as the object of the verb. The Revised Version, with Hitzig, Ginsburg, and others, take מְקוֹם as an adverbial expression equivalent to "in the place." The former is the simpler construction. "And moreover," at the commencement of the verse, looks back to Ecclesiastes 3:10," I have seen the travail," etc. That wickedness (resha) was there. On the judicial seat iniquity sat instead of justice. The place of righteousness (tsedek). "Righteousness" is the peculiar characteristic of the judge himself, as "justice" is of his decisions. That iniquity (resha) was there. The word ought to be translated "wickedness" or "iniquity" in both clauses. The Septuagint takes the abstract for the concrete, and at the end has apparently introduced a clerical error, which has been perpetuated in the Arabic and elsewhere, "And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, there was the ungodly (ἀσεβής); and the place of the righteous, there was the godly (εὐσεβής)." The Complutensian Polyglot reads ἀσεβὴς in both places. It is impossible to harmonize these statements of oppression and injustice here and elsewhere (e.g. Ecclesiastes 4:1; Ecclesiastes 5:8; Ecclesiastes 8:9, Ecclesiastes 8:10) with Solomon's authorship of the book. It is contrary to fact that such a corrupt state of things existed in his time, and in writing thus he would be uttering a libel against himself. If he was cognizant of such evils in his kingdom, he had nothing to do but to put them down with a high hand. There is nothing to lead to the belief that he is speaking of other countries and other times; he is stating his own personal experience of what goes on around him. It is true that in Solomon's latter days disaffection secretly prevailed, and the people felt his yoke grievous (1 Kings 12:4); but there is no evidence of the existence of corruption in judicial courts, or of the social and political evils of which he speaks in this book. That he had a prophetical for, sight of the disasters that would accompany the reign of his successor, and endeavors herein to provide consolation for the future sufferers, is a pious opinion without historical basis, and cannot be justly used to support the genuineness of the work.
I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked. In view of the injustice that prevails in earthly tribunals, Koheleth takes comfort in the thought that there is retribution in store for every man. when God shall award sentence according to deserts. God is a righteous Judge strong and patient, and his decisions are infallible. Future judgment is here plainly stated, as it is at the final conclusion (Ecc 11:1-10 :14). They who refuse to credit the writer with belief in this great doctrine resort to the theory of interpolation and alteration in order to account for the language in this and analogous passages. There can be no doubt that the present text has hitherto always been regarded as genuine, and that it does clearly assert future retribution, though not so much as a conclusion firmly established, but rather as a belief which may explain anomalies and afford comfort under trying circumstances. For there is a time there for every purpose and for every work. The adverb rendered "there" (שָׁם, sham) is placed emphatically, at the end of the sentence. Thus the Septuagint, "There is a reason for every action, and for every work there (ἐκεῖ)." Many take it to mean" in the other world," and Plumptre cites Eurip; 'Med.,' 1073—
Ἐνδαιμονοῖτον ἀλλ ἐκεῖ τὰ δ ἐνθάδε
"All good be with you! but it must be there;
Here it is stolen from you by your sire."
But it is unexampled to find the elliptical "there," when no place has been mentioned in the context, and when we are precluded from interpreting the dark word by a significant gesture, as Medea may have pointed downwards in her histrionic despair. Where the words, "that day," are used in the New Testament (e.g. Luke 10:12; 2 Timothy 1:18, etc.), the context shows plainly to what they refer. Some take the adverb here in the sense of "then." Thus the Vulgate, Justum et impium iudicabit Deus, et tempus omnis rei tunc erit." But really no time has been mentioned, unless we conceive the writer to have been guilty of a clumsy tautology, expressing by "then" the same idea as "a time for every purpose," etc. Ewald would understand it of the past; but this is quite arbitrary, and limits the signification of the sentence unnecessarily. It is best, with many modern commentators, to refer the adverb to God, who has just been spoken of in the preceding clause. A similar use is found in Genesis 49:24. With God, spud Deum, in his counsels, there is a time or judgment and retribution for every act of man, when anomalies which have obtained on earth shall be rectified, injustice shall be punished, virtue rewarded. There is no need, with some commentators, to read up, "he appointed;" the usual reading gives a satisfactory sense.
The comfort derived from the thought of the future judgment is clouded by the reflection that man is as powerless as the beast to control his destiny. Concerning the estate of the sons of men; rather, it happens on account of the sons of men. God allows events to take place, disorders to continue, etc; for the ultimate profit of men, though the idea that follows is humiliating and dispiriting. The LXX. has περὶ λαλιᾶς, "concerning the speech of the sons of men." So the Syriac. The word dibrah may indeed bear that meaning, as it is also used for "word" or "matter;" but we cannot conceive that the clause refers solely to words, and the expression in the text signifies merely "for the sake, on account of," as in Ecclesiastes 8:2. That God might manifest them; rather, that God might test them; Ut probaret eos Deus (Vulgate). God allows these things, endures them patiently, and does not at once redress them, for two reasons. The first of these is that they may serve for the probation of men, giving them opportunity of making good or bad use of them. We see the effect of this forbearance on the wicked in Ecclesiastes 8:11; it hardens them in impenitence; while it nourishes the faith of the righteous, and helps them to persevere (see Daniel 11:35 and Revelation 22:11). And that they might see that they themselves are beasts. The pronoun is repeated emphatically, "that they themselves are [like] beasts, they in themselves." This is the second reason. Thus they learn their own powerlessness, if they regard merely their own animal life; apart from their relation to God and hope of the future, they are no better than the lower creatures. Septuagint. "And to show (τοῦ δεῖξαι) that they are beasts." So the Vulgate and Syriac. The Masoretic reading adopted in the Anglican Version seems best.
are best regarded as a parenthesis explanatory of Ecclesiastes 3:16-18, elucidating man's impotence in the presence of the anomalies of life. The conclusion in Ecclesiastes 3:22 is connected with Ecclesiastes 3:16-18. We must acknowledge that there are disorders in the world which we cannot remedy, and which God allows in order to demonstrate our powerlessness; therefore the wisest course is to make the best of present cir-circumstances.
For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; literally, chance are the sons of men, and chance are beasts (see on Ecclesiastes 2:14); Septuagint, "Yea, and to them cometh the event (συνάντηημα) of the sons of men, and the event of the beast." Koheleth explains in what respect man is on a level with the brute creation. Neither are able to rise superior to the law that controls their natural life. So Solon says to Croesus (Herod; 1:32), Πᾶν ἐστι ἄνθρωπος συμφορή, "Man is naught but chance;" and Artabanns reminds Xerxes that chances rule men, not men chances (ibid; 7:49). Even one thing befalleth them. A third time is the ominous word repeated, "One chance is to both of them." Free-thinkers perverted this dictum into the materialistic language quoted in the Book of Wisdom (2. 2): "We are born at haphazard, by chance (αὐτοσχεδιώςLanguage:English}); etc. But Koheleth's contention is, not that there is no law or order in what happens to man, but that neither man nor beast can dispose events at their own will and pleasure; they are conditioned by a force superior to them, which dominates their actions, sufferings, and circumstances of life. As the one dieth, so dieth the other. In the matter of succumbing to the law of death man has no superiority over other creatures. This is an inference drawn from common observation of exterior facts, and touches not any higher question (comp. Ecclesiastes 2:14, Ecclesiastes 2:15; Ecclesiastes 9:2, Ecclesiastes 9:3). Something similar is found in Psalms 49:20, "Man that is in honor, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish." Yea, they have all one breath (ruach). This is the word used in verse 23 for the vital principle, "the breath of life," as it is called in Genesis 6:17, where the same word is found. In the earlier record (Genesis 2:7) the term is nishma. Life in all animals is regarded as the gift of God. Says the psalmist, "Thou sendest forth thy spirit (ruach), they are created" (Psalms 104:30). This lower principle presents the same phenomena in men and in brutes. Man hath no pre-eminence above a beast; i.e. in regard to suffering and death. This is not bare materialism, or a gloomy deduction from Greek teaching, but must be explained from the writer's standpoint, which is to emphasize the impotence of man to effect his own happiness. Taking only a limited and phenomenal view of man's circumstances and destiny, he speaks a general truth which all must acknowledge. Septuagint, "And what hath the man more than the beast? Nothing." For all is vanity. The distinction between man and beast is annulled by death; the former's boasted superiority, his power of conceiving and planning, his greatness, skill, strength. cunning, all come under the category of vanity, as they cannot ward off the inevitable blow.
All go unto one place. All, men and brutes, are buried in the earth (Ecclesiastes 12:7). The author is not thinking of Sheol, the abode of departed spirits, but merely regarding earth as the universal tomb of all creatures. Plumptre quotes Lueretius, 'De Rer. Nat.,' 5.260—
"Omniparens eadem rerum commune sepulchrum."
"The mother and the sepulcher of all."
Thus Bailey, 'Festus'—
"The course of nature seems a course of death;
The prize of life's brief race, to cease to run;
The sole substantial thing, death's nothingness."
All are of the dust (Genesis 3:19; Psalms 104:29; Psalms 146:4). So Ecclesiasticus 41:10, "All things that are of earth shall turn to earth again." This is true of the material part of men and brutes alike; the question of the destiny of the immaterial part is touched in the next verse.
Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? The statement is here too categorically rendered, though, for dogmatical purposes, the Masorites seem to have punctuated the text with a view to such interpretation. But, as Wright and others point out, the analogy of two other passages (Ecclesiastes 2:19 and Ecclesiastes 6:12), where "who knoweth" occurs, intimates that the phrases which follow are interrogative. So the translation should be, "Who knoweth as regards the spirit (ruach) of the sons of men whether it goeth upward, and as regards the spirit (ruach) of the beast whether it goeth downward under the earth?" Vulgate, Quis novit si spiritus, etc.? Septuagint, Τίς εἷδε πνεῦμα υἱῶν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου εἰ ἀναβαίνει αὐτὸ ἄνω; "Who ever saw the spirit of the sons of man, whether it goeth upward?" The Authorized Version, which gives the Masoretic reading, is supposed to harmonize better with the assertion at the end of the book (Ecclesiastes 12:7), that the spirit returns to the God who gave it. But there is no formal denial of the immortality of the soul in the present passage as we render it. The question, indeed, is not touched. The author is confirming his previous assertion that, in one point of view, man is not superior to brute. Now he says, looking at the matter merely externally, and taking not into consideration any higher notion, no one knows the destiny of the living powers, whether God deals differently with the spirit of man and of beast. Phenomenally, the principle of life in both is identical, and its cessation is identical; and what becomes of the spirit in either case neither eye nor mind can discover. The distinction which reason or religion assumes, viz. that man's spirit goes upward and the brute's downward, is incapable of proof, is quite beyond experience. What is meant by "upward" and "downward" may be seen by reference to the gnome in Proverbs 15:24, "To the wise the way of life goeth upward, that he may depart from Sheol beneath." The contrast shows that Sheol is regarded as a place of punishment or annihilation; this is further confirmed by Psalms 49:14, Psalms 49:15, "They are appointed as a flock for Sheol: death shall be their shepherd … their beauty shall be for Sheol to consume But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol; for he shall receive me." Koheleth neither denies nor affirms in this passage the immortality of the soul; that he believed in it we learn from other expressions; but he is not concerned with parading it here. Commentators quote Lucretius' sceptical thought ('De Rer. Nat.,' 1.113-116)—
"Ignoratur enim quae sit natura animal,
Nata sit, an contra nascentibus insinuetur,
Et simul interest nobiscum, morte dimenta,
An tenebras Orci visat vastasque lacunas."
"We know not what the nature of the soul,
Born in the womb, or at the birth infused,
Whether it dies with us, or wings its way
Unto the gloomy pools of Orcus vast."
But Koheleth's inquiry suggests the possibility of a different destiny for the spirits of man and brute, though he does not at this moment make any definite assertion on the subject. Later on he explains the view taken by the believer in Divine revelation (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
After all, the writer arrives at the conclusion intimated in Ecclesiastes 3:12; only here the result is gathered from the acknowledgment of man's impotence (Ecclesiastes 3:16-18), as there from the experience of life. Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, etc.; rather, so, or wherefore I saw that there was nothing, etc. As man is not master of his own lot, cannot order events as he would like, is powerless to control the forces of nature and the providential arrangements of the world, his duty and his happiness consist in enjoying the present, in making the best of life, and availing himself of the bounties which the mercy of God places before him. Thus he will free himself from anxieties and cares, perform present labors, attend to present duties, content himself with the daily round, and not vex his heart with solicitude for the future. There is no Epicureanism here, no recommendation of sensual enjoyment; the author simply advises men to make a thankful use of the blessings which God provides for them. For who shall bring him to see what shall be after him? The Revised Version, by inserting "back"—Who shall bring him back to see?—affixes a meaning to the clause which it need not and does not bear. It is, indeed, commonly interpreted to signify that man knows and can know nothing that happens to him after death—whether he will exist or not, whether he will have cognizance of what passes on earth, or be insensible to all that befalls here. But Koheleth has completed that thought already; his argument now turns to the future in this life. Use the present, for you cannot be sure of the future;—this is his exhortation. So he says (Ecclesiastes 6:12), "Who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?" where the expression, "under the sun," shows that earthly life is meant, not existence after death. Ignorance of the future is a very common topic throughout the book, but it is the terrestrial prospect that is in view. There would be little force in urging the impotence of men's efforts towards their own happiness by the consideration of their ignorance of what may happen when they are no more; but one may reasonably exhort men to cease to torment themselves with hopes and fears, with labors that may be useless and preparations that may never be needed, by the reflection that they cannot foresee the future, and that, for all they know, the pains which they take may be utterly wasted (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:14; Ecclesiastes 9:3). Thus in this section there is neither skepticism nor Epicureanism. In brief, the sentiment is this—There are injustices and anomalies in the life of men and in the course of this world's events which man cannot control or alter; these may be righted and compensated hereafter. Meantime, man's happiness is to make the best of the present, and cheerfully to enjoy what Providence offers, without anxious care for the future.
Times and seasons; or, Heaven's order in man's affairs.
I. THE EVENTS AND PURPOSES OF LIFE.
1. Great in their number. The Preacher's catalogue exhausts not, but only exemplifies, the "occupations and interests," occurrences and experiences, that constitute the warp and woof of mortal existence. Between the cradle and the grave, instances present themselves in which more things happen than are here recorded, and more designs are attempted and fulfilled than are here contemplated. There are also cases in which the sum total of experience is included in the two entries, "born," "died;" but the generality of mortals live long enough to suffer and to do many more things beneath the sun.
2. Manifold in their variety. In one sense and at one time it may seem as if there were "no new thing under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9), either in the history of the race or in the experience of the individual; but at another time and in another sense an almost infinite variety appears in both. The monotony of life, of which complaint is often heard (Ecclesiastes 1:10), exists rather in the mind or heart of the complainant than in the texture of life itself. What more diversified than the events and purposes the Preacher has catalogued? Entering through the gateway of birth upon the mysterious arena of existence, the human being passes through a succession of constantly shifting experiences, till he makes his exit from the scene through the portals of the grave, planting and plucking up, etc.
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."
('As You Like It,' act it. sc. 7.)
3. Antithetic in their relations. Human life, like man himself, may almost be characterized as a mass of contradictions. The incidents and interests, purposes and plans, events and enterprises, that compose it, are not only manifold and various, but also, it would seem, diametric in their opposition. Being born is in due course succeeded by dying; planting by plucking up; and killing—it may be in war, or by administration of justice, or through some perfectly defensible cause—if not by actual raising from death, which lies confessedly beyond the power of man (1 Samuel 2:6; 2 Kings 5:7), at least by healing every malady short of death. Breaking down, whether of material structures (2 Chronicles 23:17) or of intellectual systems, whether of national (Jeremiah 1:10) or religious (Galatians 2:18) institutions, is after an interval followed by the building up of those very things which were destroyed. Weeping endureth only for a night, while joy cometh in the morning (Psalms 30:5). Dancing, on the other hand, gives place to mourning. In short, whatever experience man at any time has, before he terminates his pilgrimage he may almost confidently count on having the opposite; and whatever action he may at any season perform, another season will almost certainly arrive when he will do the reverse. Of every one of the antinomies cited by the Preacher, man's experience on the earth furnishes examples.
4. Fixed in their times. Though appearing to come about without any order or arrangement, the events and 'purposes of mundane existence are by no means left to the guidance, or rather no-guidance, of chance; but rather have their places in the vast world-plan determined, and the times of their appearing fixed. As the hour of each man's entrance into life is decreed; so is that of, his departure from the same (Hebrews 9:27; 2 Timothy 4:6). The date at which he shall step forth upon the active business of life, represented in the Preacher's catalogue by "planting and plucking up," "breaking down and building up," "casting away stones and gathering stones together," "getting and losing;" the period at which he shall marry (Esther 3:4), with the times at which weddings and funerals (Esther 3:4) shall occur in his family circle; the moment when he shall be called upon to stand up valiantly for truth and right amongst his contemporaries (Proverbs 15:23), or to preserve a discreet and prudent silence when talk would be folly (Proverbs 10:8), or even hurtful to the cause he serves; the times when he shall either suffer his affections to flow forth in an uninterrupted stream towards the good, or withhold them from unworthy objects; or, if be a statesman, the occasions what, he shall go to war and return from it, are all predetermined by infinite wisdom.
5. Determined in their durations. How long each individual life shall continue (Psalms 31:15; Acts 17:26), how long each experience shall last, and how long each action shall take to perform, is equally a fixed and ascertained quantity, if not to man's knowledge, certainly to that of the supreme Disposer of events.
II. THE TIMES AND SEASONS OF LIFE.
1. Appointed by and known only to God. As in the material and natural world the Creator hath appointed times and seasons, as, e.g; to the. heavenly bodies for their rising and setting (Psalms 104:19), to plants for their growing and decaying, and to animals for their instinctive actions (Job 39:1, Job 39:2; Jeremiah 8:7), so in the human and spiritual world has he ordained the same (Acts 17:26; Ephesians 1:10; Titus 1:3); and these times and seasons, both in the natural and in the spiritual world, hath God reserved to himself (Acts 1:7).
2. Unavoidable and unalterable by man. As no man can predict the day of his death (Genesis 27:2; Matthew 25:13), any more than know beforehand that of his birth, so neither can he fathom beforehand the incidents that shall happen, or the times when they shall fall out during the course of his life (Proverbs 27:1). Nor by any precontriving can he change by so much as a hair's breadth the place into which each incident is fitted, or the moment when it shall happen.
1. The changefulness of human life, and the duty of preparing wisely to meet it.
2. The Divine order that pervades human life, and the propriety of accepting it with meekness.
3. The difficulty (from a human point of view) of living well, since no man can be quite certain that for anything he does he has found the right season.
4. The wisdom of seeking for one's self the guidance of him in whose hands are times and seasons (Acts 1:7).
All things beautiful; or, God, man, and the world.
I. THE BEAUTIFUL RELATION OF THE WORLD TO GOD. Expressed by four words.
1. Dependence: no such thing as independence, self-subsistence, self-origination, self-regulation, in mundane affairs. The universe, out to its circumference and in to its center, from its mightiest Structure down to its smallest detail, is the handiwork of God. Whatever philosophers may say or think upon the subject, it is simple absurdity to teach that the universe made itself, or that the incidents composing the sum of human life and experience have come to pass of themselves. It will be time enough to believe things are their own makers when effects can be discovered that have no causes. Persons of advanced (?) intelligence and culture may regard the Scriptures as behind the age in respect of philosophic insight and scientific attainment; it is to their credit that their writers never talk such unphilosophic and unscientific nonsense as that mundane things are their own creators. Their common sense—if not permissible to say their inspiration—appears to have been strong and clear enough to save them from being befooled by such vagaries as have led astray many modem savants, and to have taught them that the First Cause of all things is God (Genesis 1:1; Exodus 20:11; Nehemiah 9:6; Job 38:4; Psalms 19:1; Isaiah 40:28; Acts 14:15; Acts 17:24; Romans 11:36; Ephesians 3:9; Hebrews 3:4; Revelation 4:11).
2. Variety no monotony in mundane affairs. Obvious as regards both the universe as a whole and its individual parts. The supreme Artificer of the former had no idea of fashioning all things after one model, however excellent, but sought to introduce variety into the works of his hands; and just this is the principle upon which he has proceeded in arranging the program of man's experiences upon the earth. To this diversity in man's experience the twenty-eight instances of events and purposes given by the Preacher (Esther 3:2-8) allude; and this same diversity is a mark at once of wisdom and of kindness on the part of the Supreme. As the material globe would be monotonous were it all mountain and no valley, so would human life be uninteresting were it an unchanging round of the same few incidents. But it is not. If there are funerals and deaths, there are as well marriages and births; if nights of weeping, days of laughing; if times of war, periods of peace.
3. Order: no chance or accident in mundane affairs. To short-sighted and feeble man, human life is full of accidents or chances; but not so when viewed from the standpoint of God, Not only does no event happen without his permission (Matthew 10:29; Luke 12:6), but each event occurs at the time and falls into the place appointed for it by infinite wisdom. Nor is this true merely of such events as are wholly and exclusively in his power, like births and deaths (Esther 3:2), but of such also as to some extent at least are within man's control, as e.g. the planting of a field and the plucking up of that which is planted (Esther 3:2), killing and healing, breaking down and building up (Esther 3:3), weeping and laughing (Esther 3:4), etc. Men may flatter themselves that of these latter actions they are the sole originators, have both the choosing of their times and the fixing of their forms; but according to the Preacher, God's supremacy is as little to be disputed in them as in the matter of man's coming into or going out from the word. We express this thought by citing the well-known proverb, "Man proposes, but God disposes," or the familiar words of Shakespeare—
"There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will."
('Hamlet,' Acts 5:0. so. 2.)
4. Beauty: no defect or deformity in mundane affairs. This cannot signify that in such events and actions as "killing," "hating," "warring," there is never anything wrong; that God regards them only as good in the making, and generally that sin is a necessary stage in the development of human nature. The Preacher is not pronouncing judgment upon the moral qualities of the actions he enumerates, but merely calling attention to their fitness for the times and seasons to which they have been assigned by God. Going back in thought to the "Very good!" of the Creator when he rested from his labors at the close of the sixth day (Genesis 1:31), the Preacher cannot think of saying less of the work God is still carrying on in evolving the plan and program of his purpose. "God hath made everything beautiful in its time" (cf. Esther 3:11): beautiful in itself, so far as it is a work of his; but beautiful not less in its time, even when the work, as not being entirely his, is not beautiful in itself, or in its inward essence. Cf. Shakespeare's—
"How many things by season seasoned are
To their right praise and true perfection!"
('Merchant of Venice,' Acts 5:0. sc. 1.)
Beautiful in themselves and their times are the seasons of the year, the ages of man, and the changing experiences through which he passes; beautiful, at least in their times, are numerous human actions which God cannot be regarded as approving, but which nevertheless he permits to occur because he sees the hour has struck for their occurring. As it were, the glowing wheels of Divine providence never fail to keep time with the great clock of eternity.
II. THE BEAUTIFUL RELATION OF MAN TO THE WORLD. Also expressed in four words.
1. Weariness: no perfect rest in the midst of mundane affairs. Not only is man tossed about continually by the multitudinous vicissitudes of which he is the subject, but he derives almost no satisfaction from the thought that in all these changes there is a beautiful because divinely appointed harmony, and a beneficent because Heaven-ordained purpose. The order pervading the universe is something outside of and beyond him. The fixing of the right times is a work in which he cannot, even in a small degree, co-operate. As a wise man, he may wish to have every action in which he bears a part performed at the set time marked out for it on the clock of eternity; but the very attempt to find out for each action the right time only aggravates the fatigue of his labor, and increases the sense of weariness under which he groans. "What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboreth?" Not, certainly, "no profit," but not enough to give him rest or even free him from weariness. And this, when viewed from a moral and religious standpoint, is beautiful inasmuch as it prevents (or ought to prevent) man from seeking happiness in mundane affairs.
2. Ignorance: no perfect knowledge of mundane affairs. "No man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end." One more proof of the vanity of human life—that no man, however wise and far-seeing, patient and laborious, can discover the plan of God either in the universe as a whole or in his own life; and what renders this a special sorrow is the fact that God hath set "the world [or.,' eternity'] in his heart." If the "world" be accepted as the true rendering (Jerome, Luther, Ewald), then probably the meaning is that, though each individual carries about within his besom in his own personality an image of the world—is, in fact, a microcosmus in which the macrocosmus or great world is mirrored—nevertheless the problem of the universe eludes his grasp. If, however, the translation "eternity" be adopted (Delitzsch, Wright, Plumptre), then the import of the clause will be that God hath planted in the heart of man "a longing after immortality," given him an idea of the infinite and eternal which lies beyond the veil of outward things, and inspired him with a desire to know that which is above and beyond him, yet he cannot find out the secret of the universe in the sense of discovering its plan. With an infinite behind and. before him, he can grasp neither the beginning of the work of God in its purpose or plan, nor the end of it in its issues and results, whether to the individual or to the whole. What his eye looks upon is the middle portion passing before him here and now—in comparison with the whole but an infinitesimal speck—and so he remains with reference to the whole like a person walking in the dark.
3. Submission: no ground for complaining as to mundane affairs. Rather in the view presented is much to comfort man had the ordering of the universe, or even of his own lot, been left to man, man himself would have been the first to regret it. As Laplace is credited with having said that, if only the Almighty had called him into counsel at the making of the universe, he could have given the Almighty some valuable hints, so are there equally foolish persons who believe they could have drafted for themselves a better life-program than has been done for them by the supreme Disposer of events. A wise man, however, will always feel grateful that the Almighty has retained the ordering of events in his own hand, and will meekly submit to the same, believing that God's times are the best times, and that his ways are ever "mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies" (Psalms 25:10).
4. Fear: no justification for impiety or irreverence in mundane affairs. A proper study of the constitution and course of nature, a due recognition of the order pervading all its parts, with a just consideration both of the perfection and permanence (Esther 3:14) of the Divine working, ought to inspire men with "fear "—of such sort as both to repress within them irreligion and impiety, and to excite within them humility and awe.
Requiring that which is past.
I. IN THE REALM OF NATURE. God seeks after that which is past or has been driven away, in the sense that he recalls or brings again phenomena that have vanished; as e.g. the reappearance of the sun with its light and heat, the various seasons of the year with their respective characteristics, the circling of the winds with other meteorological aspects of the firmament. The thought here is the uniformity of sequence in the physical world (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7).
II. IN THE SPHERE OF INDIVIDUAL EXPERIENCE. God seeks after that which has been driven away in the sense that he reproduces in the life of one individual experiences that have existed in another, or in himself at a former point in his career. The thought is, that by Heaven's decree a large amount of sameness exists in the phases of thought and feeling through which different individuals pass, or the same individuals at successive stages of their development.
III. IN THE DOMAIN OF HISTORY. God seeks after that which has been driven away, in the sense that, on the broad theatre of action which men name "time," or "the world," he frequently, in the evolutions of his providence; seems to recall the past by reproducing "situations" "incidents," "events," "experiences," similar to, if not identical with, those which occurred before. The thought is that history frequently repeats itself.
IV. IN THE PROGRAM OF THE UNIVERSE. God will eventually seek after that which has been driven away, by calling up again out of the past for judgment every individual that has lived upon the globe, with every word that has been spoken and every act that has been done, with every secret thought and imagination, whether it has been good or whether it has been bad. The thought is that the distant past and the distant future will one day meet. The place will be before the great white throne; the time will be the last day.
Verses 16, 18
Wickedness in the place of judgment; or, the mystery of providence.
I. THE PROFOUND PROBLEM. The moral disorder of the universe. "I saw under the sun in the place of judgment that wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness that wickedness was there" (verse 16).
1. The strange spectacle. What fascinated the Preacher's gaze and perplexed the Preacher's heart was not so much the existence as the triumph of sin—the fact that sin existed where and as it did. Had he always beheld sin in its naked deformity, essential loathsomeness, and abject baseness, receiving the due reward of its misdeeds, trembling as a culprit before the bar of providential judgment, and suffering the punishment its criminality merited, the mystery and perplexity would most likely have been reduced by half. What, however, he did witness was iniquity, not trembling but triumphing, not sorrowing but singing, not suffering the due recompense of her own evil deeds but snatching off the rewards and prizes that belonged to virtue. In short, what he perceived was the complete moral disorder of the world—as it were society turned topsy-turvy; the wicked up and the righteous down; bad men exalted and good men despised; vice arrayed in silks and bedizened with jewels, and virtue only half covered with tattered rags.
2. Two particular sights.
(1) Iniquity usurping the place of judgment; thrusting itself into the very council-chambers where right and justice should prevail; now as a judge who deliberately holds the scales uneven because the one litigant is rich and the other poor, anon as an advocate who employs all his ingenuity to defend a prisoner whom he knows to be guilty, and again as a witness who has accepted a bribe and calmly swears to a lie.
(2) Iniquity preoccupying the place of righteousness; i.e. the tribunal, whether secular or ecclesiastical, whose efforts should be all directed to finding out and maintaining the cause of righteousness.
II. THE PERPLEXING MYSTERY. "I said in mine heart" (verse 17). The Preacher was troubled about it, as David (Psalms 37:1, Psalms 37:7), Job (Job 21:7), Asaph (Psalms 73:3), and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 12:1) had been. To him, as to them, it was an enigma. But why should it have been?
1. On one hypothesis it is no enigma. On the supposition that God, duty, and immortality are non-existent, it is not a mystery at all that vice should prevail and virtue have a poor time of it so long as it remains above ground, for (on the hypothesis) fleeing to a better country beyond the skies is out of the question. The mystery would be that it were otherwise.
2. On another hypothesis it is an enigma. What creates the mystery is that these things occur while God is, duty presses, and immortality awaits. Since God is, why does he suffer these things to happen? Why does he not interpose to put matters right? If right and wrong are not empty phrases, how comes it that moral distinctions are so constantly submerged? With "eternity in their hearts," how is it to be explained that men are so regardless of the future?
III. THE PROPOSED SOLUTION. This lay in three things.
1. The certainty of a future judgment. "I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked; for there is a time for every purpose and for every work" (verse 17). Convinced that God, duty, and immortality were no fictions but solemn realities, the Preacher saw that these implied the certainty of a judgment in the future world when all the entanglements of this world would be sorted out, its inequalities evened, and its wrongs righted; and seeing this, he discerned in it a sufficient reason why God should not be in a hurry to east down vice from its undeserved eminence and exalt virtue to its rightful renown.
2. The discrimination of human character. The Preacher saw that God allowed wickedness to triumph and righteousness to suffer, in order that he might thereby "prove them," i.e. sift and distinguish them from one another by the free development of their characters. Were God by external restraints to place a check on the ungodly or by outward helps to recompense the pious, it might come to be doubtful who were the sinful and who the virtuous; but granting free scope to both, each manifests its hidden character by its actions, according to the principle, "Every tree is known by its fruits" (Matthew 7:16-20).
3. The revelation of human depravity. Because a future judgment awaits, it is necessary that the wickedness of the wicked should be revealed. Hence God abstains from interfering prematurely with the world's disorder that men may see to what thorough inherent depravity they have really come; that, oppressing and destroying one another, they are little better than brute beasts who, without consideration or remorse, prey on each other.
Are men no better than beasts?
I. BOTH ALIKE EMANATE FROM THE SOIL. "All are of the dust" (verse 20). This the first argument in support of the monstrous proposition that man hath no pre-eminence above a beast.
1. The measure of truth it contains. In so far as it asserts that man, considered as to his material part, possesses a common origin with the beasts that perish, that both were at first formed from the ground, and are so allied to the soil that, besides emerging from it, they are every day supported by it and will eventually return to it, being both resolved into indistinguishable dust, it accords exactly with the teaching of Scripture (Genesis 1:24; Genesis 2:7), science, and experience. Compare the language of Arnobius, "Wherein do we differ from them? Our bones are of the same materials; our origin is not more noble than theirs" ('Ad Genies,' Esther 2:16).
2. The amount of error it conceals. It overlooks the facts that, again according to Scripture (Genesis 1:27; Genesis 2:7; Genesis 9:6), man was created in the Divine image, which is never said of the lower creatures; was endowed with intelligence far surpassing that of the creatures (Job 32:8); and so far from being placed on a level with the lower animals, was expressly constituted their lord (Genesis 1:28). Read in this connection Shakespeare's "What a piece of work is maul" etc. ('Hamlet,' Acts 2:0. sc. 2). Moreover, it ignores what is patent on every page of Scripture as well as testified by every chapter in human experience, viz. that God deals with man as he does not deal with the beasts, subjecting him as not them to moral discipline, and accepting of him what is never asked of them, the tribute of freely rendered service, inviting him as they are never invited to enter into conscious fellowship with himself, punishing him as never them for disobedience, and making of him an object of love and grace to the extent of devising and completing on his behalf a scheme of salvation, as is never done or proposed to be done for them. Unless, therefore, Scripture be set aside as worthless, it will be impossible to hold that in respect of origin and nature man hath no pre-eminence over the beasts.
II. BOTH ALIKE ARE THE SPORT OF CHANCE. "That which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them;" or, "Chance are the sons of men, chance is the beast, and one chance is to them both" (verse 19).
1. The assertion under limitations may be admitted as correct. Certainly no ground exists for the allegation that the course of providence, whether as it relates to man or as it bears upon the lower animals, is a chance, a peradventure, a haphazard. Yet events, which in the program of the Supreme have their fixed places and appointed times, may seem to man to be fortuitous, as lying altogether beyond his calculation and not within his expectation; and what the present argument amounts to is that man is as helpless before these events as the unthinking creatures of the field are—that they deal with him precisely as with the boasts, sweeping down upon him with resistless force, falling upon him at unexpected moments, and tossing him about with as much indifference as they do them.
2. The assertion, however, must be qualified. It follows not from the above concessions that man is as helpless before unforeseen occurrences as the beasts are. Not only can he to some extent by foresight anticipate their coming, which the lower creatures cannot do, but, unlike them also, he can protect himself against them when they have come. To man belongs a power not (consciously at least) possessed by the animals, of not merely accommodating himself to circumstances—a capability they to some extent share with him—but of rising above circumstances and compelling them to bend to him. If to this be added that if time and chance happen to man as to the beasts he knows it, which they do not, and can extract good from it, which they cannot, it will once more appear that ground exists for disputing the degrading proposition that man hath no pre-eminence over the beasts.
III. BOTH ALIKE ARE THE PREY OF DEATH. "As the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath" (verse 19).
1. Seeming correspondences between the two in the matter of dying.
(1) In both death means the extinction of physical life and the dissolution of the material frame.
(2) In both the mode of dying is frequently the same,
(3) The same grave receives both when the vital spark has departed.
(4) The only difference between the two is that man commonly gets a coffin and a funeral, a mausoleum and a monument, whereas the beast gets none of these luxuries.
2. Obvious discrepancies between the two in respect of dying.
(1) Man living knows that he must die (Ecclesiastes 9:5), which the beast does not.
(2) Man has the choice and power, if he accepts the provisions of grace, of meeting death without a fear.
(3) Even if he does not, there is something nobler in the spectacle of a man going forth with eyes open to the dread conflict with the king of terrors, than in that of a brute expiring in unconscious stupidity.
(4) If one thinks of him dying, as he often does die, like a Christian, it will be seen more absurd than ever to assert that a man hath no pre-eminence over a 'beast.
IV. BOTH, DYING, PASS BEYOND THE SPHERE OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE, "Who knoweth the spirit of man, whether it goeth upward? and the spirit of the beast, whether it goeth downward to the earth?" (verse 21).
1. Admitted so far as scientific knowledge is concerned. The agnostics of the Preacher's day, like those of modern times, could not say what became of a man's spirit, if he had one (of which they were not sure), after it had escaped from his body, any more than they could tell where a beast's—and the beast was as likely to have a spirit as the man—went to after its carcass sank into the soil. Whether it was the man's that went upward and the beast's downward, or vice versa, lay outside their ken. Their scientific apparatus did not enable them to report, as the scientific apparatus of the nineteenth century does not enable it to report, upon the post-mundane career of either beast or man; and so they assumed the position from which the agnostics of to-day have not departed, that it is all one with the man and the beast when the grave hides them, and that a man hath no preeminence over a beast.
2. Denied so far as religious knowledge is concerned. Refusing to hold that the anatomist's scalpel, or chemist's retort, or astronomer's telescope, or analyst's microscope are the ultimate tests of truth, and that nothing is to be credited which cannot be detected by one or other of these instruments, we are not so hopelessly in the dark about man's spirit when it leaves its earthly tabernacle as are agnostics whether ancient or modern. On the high testimony of this Preacher (Ecclesiastes 12:7), on the higher witness of Paul (2 Corinthians 5:1; Philippians 1:23), and on the highest evidence attainable on the subject (2 Timothy 1:10), we know that when the spirit of a child of God forsakes the body it does not disperse into thin air, but passes up into the Father's hand (Luke 23:46), and that when a good man disappears from earth he forthwith appears in heaven (Luke 23:43; Philippians 1:23), amid the spirits of the just made perfect (Hebrews 12:23); so that another time we decline to endorse the sentiment that man hath no pre-eminence over a beast.
V. BOTH ALIKE, PASSING FROM THE EARTH, NEVER MORE RETURN. "Who shall bring him back to see that which shall be after him?" (verse 29). Accepting this as the correct rendering of the words (for other interpretations consult the Exposition):
1. It may be granted that no human power can recall man from the grave any more than it can reanimate the beast; that the realm beyond the tomb, so far as the senses are con-corned, is "an undiscovered country, from whose borne no traveler returns."
2. It is contended that nevertheless there is a power which can and ultimately will despoil the grave of its human victims, and that man will eventually come back to dwell, if not upon the old soil and beneath the old sky, at least beneath a new heavens and upon a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
1. The dignity of man.
2. The solemnity of life.
3. The certainty of death.
HOMILIES BY D. THOMAS
The manifold interests and occupations of life.
There is nothing so interesting to man as human life. The material creation engages the attention and absorbs the inquiring activities of the student of physical science; but unless it is regarded as the expression of the Divine ideas, the vehicle of thought and purpose, its interest is limited and cold. But what men are and think and do is a matter of concern to every observant and reflecting mind. The ordinary observer contemplates human life with curiosity; the politician, with interested motives; the historian, hoping to find the key to the actions of nations and kings and statesmen; the poet, with the aim of finding material and inspiration for his verse; and the religious thinker, that he may trace the operation of God's providence, of Divine wisdom and love. He who looks below the surface will not fail to find, in the events and incidents of human existence, the tokens of the appointments and dispositions of an all-wise Ruler of the world. The manifold interests of our life are not regulated by chance; for "to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven."
I. LIFE'S PERIODS (ITS BEGINNING AND CLOSE) ARE APPOINTED BY GOD. The sacredness of birth and death are brought before us, as we are assured that "there is a time to be born, and a time to die." The believer in God cannot doubt that the Divine Omniscience observes, as the Divine Omnipotence virtually effects, the introduction into this world, and the removal from it, of every human being, Men are born, to show that God will use his own instruments for carrying on the manifold work of the world; they die, to show that he is limited by no human agencies. They are born just when they are wanted, and they die just when it is well that their places should be taken by their successors. "Man is immortal till his work is done."
II. LIFE'S OCCUPATIONS ARE DIVINELY ORDERED. The reader of this passage is forcibly reminded of the substantial identity of man's life in the different ages of the world. Thousands of years have passed since these words were penned, yet to how large an extent does this description apply to human existence in our own day! Organic activities, industrial avocations, social services, are common to every age of man's history. If men withdraw themselves from practical work, and from the duties of the family and the state, without sufficient justification, they are violating the ordinances of the Creator. He has given to every man a place to fill, a work to do, a service of helpfulness to render to his fellow-creatures.
III. THE EMOTIONS PROPER TO HUMAN LIFE ARE OF DIVINE APPOINTMENT. These are natural to man. The mere feelings of pleasure and pain, the mere impulses of desire and aversion, man shares with brutes. But those emotions which are man's glory and man's shame are both special to him, and have a great share in giving character to his moral life. Some, like envy, are altogether bad; some, like hatred, are bad. or good according as they are directed; some, like love, are always good. The Preacher of Jerusalem refers to joy and sorrow, when he speaks of "a time to laugh, and a time to weep;" to love and hate, for both of which he declares there is occasion in our human existence. There has been no change in these human experiences with the lapse of time; they are permanent factors in our life. Used aright, they become means of moral development, and aid in forming a noble and pious character.
IV. THE OPERATION OF DIVINE PROVIDENCE IS APPARENT IN THE VARIED FORTUNES OF HUMANITY. This passage tells of accumulation and consequent prosperity, of loss and consequent adversity. The mutability of human affairs, the disparities of the human lot, were as remarkable and as perplexing in the days of the Hebrew sage as in our own. And they were regarded by him, as by rational and religious observers in our own time, as instances of the working of physical and social laws imposed by the Author of nature himself. In the exercise of divinely entrusted powers, men gather together possessions and disperse them abroad. The rich and the poor exist side by side; and the wealthy are every day impoverished, whilst the indigent are raised to opulence. These are the lights and shades upon the landscape of life, the shifting scenes in life's unfolding drama. Variety and change are evidently parts of the Divine intention, and are never absent from the world of our humanity.
V. THE MORAL AND SPIRITUAL ISSUES OF HUMAN LIFE BEAR MARKS OF DIVINE WISDOM AND ORDER. It cannot be the case that all the phases and processes of our human existence are to be apprehended simply in themselves, as if they contained their own meaning, and had no ulterior significance. Life is not a kaleidoscope, but a picture; not the promiscuous sounds heard when the instrumentalists are "tuning up," but an oratorio; not a chronicle, but a history. There is a unity and an aim in life; but this is not merely artistic, it is moral. We do not work and rest, enjoy and suffer, hope and fear, with no purpose to be achieved by the experiences through which we pass. He who has appointed "a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven," designs that we should, by toil and endurance, by fellowship and solitude, by gain and loss, make progress in the course of moral and spiritual discipline, should grow in the favor and in the likeness of God himself.—T.
The mystery and the meaning of life.
The author of Ecclesiastes was too wise to take what we call a one-sided view of human life. No doubt there are times and moods in which this human existence seems to us to be all made up of either toil or endurance, delight or disappointment. But in the hour of sober reflection we are constrained to admit that the pattern of the web of life is composed of many and diverse colors. Our faculties and capacities are many, our experiences are varied, for the appeals made to us by our environment change from day to day, from hour to hour. "One man in his time plays many parts."
I. IN LIFE THERE IS MYSTERY TO SOLVE. The works and the ways of God are too great for our feeble, finite nature to comprehend. We may learn much, and yet may leave much unlearned and probably unlearnable, at all events in the conditions of this present state of being.
1. There are speculative difficulties regarding the order and constitution of things, which the thoughtful man cannot avoid inquiring into, which yet often baffle and sometimes distress him. "Man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end."
2. There are practical difficulties which every man has to encounter in the conduct of life, fraught as it is with disappointment and sorrow. "What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboreth?"
II. IN LIFE THERE IS BEAUTY TO ADMIRE. The mind that is not absorbed in providing for material wants can scarcely fail to be open to the adaptations and the manifold charms of nature. The language of creation is as harmonious music, which is soothing or inspiring to the ear of the soul. What a revelation is here of the very nature and benevolent purposes of the Almighty Maker! "He hath made everything beautiful in its time." And beauty needs the aesthetic faculty in order to its appreciation and enjoyment. The development of this faculty in advanced states of civilization is familiar to every student of human nature. Standards of beauty vary; but the true standard is that which is offered by the works of God, who "hath made everything beautiful in its time." There is a beauty special to every season of the year, to every hour of the day, to every state of the atmosphere; there is a beauty in every several kind of landscape, a beauty of the sea, a beauty of the heavens; there is a beauty of childhood, another beauty of youth, of healthful manhood and radiant womanhood, and even a certain beauty peculiar to age. The pious observer of the works of God, who rids himself of conventional and traditional prejudices, will not fail to recognize the justice of this remarkable assertion of the Hebrew sage.
III. IN LIFE THERE IS WORK TO DO. Labor and travail are very frequently mentioned in this book, whose author was evidently deeply impressed by the corresponding facts—first, that God is the almighty Worker in the universe; and, secondly, that man is made by the Creator like unto himself, in that he is called upon by his nature and his circumstances to effort and to toil. Forms of labor vary, and the progress of applied science in our own time seems to relieve the toiler of some of the severer, more exhausting kinds of bodily effort. But it must ever remain true that the human frame was not intended for indolence; that work is a condition of welfare, a means of moral discipline and development. It is a factor that cannot be left out of human life; the Christian is bound, like his Master, to finish the work which the Father has given him to do.
IV. IN LIFE THERE IS GOOD TO PARTICIPATE, There is no asceticism in the teaching of this Book of Ecclesiastes. The writer was one who had no doubt that man was constituted to enjoy. He speaks of eating and drinking as not merely necessary in order to maintain life, but as affording gratification. He dwells appreciatingly upon the happiness of married life. He even commends mirth and festivity. In all these he shows himself superior to the pettiness which carps at the pleasures connected with this earthly existence, and which tries to pass for sanctity. Of course, there are lawful and unlawful gratifications; there is a measure of indulgence which ought not to be exceeded. But if Divine intention is traceable in the constitution and condition of man, he was made to partake with gratitude of the bounties of God's providence.
V. ALL THE PROVISIONS WHICH DIVINE WISDOM ATTACHES TO HUMAN LIFE ARE TO BE ACCEPTED WITH GRATITUDE AND USED WITH FAITHFULNESS, AND WITH A CONSTANT SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY. In receiving and enjoying every gift, the devout mind will exclaim, "It is the gift of God." In taking advantage of every opportunity, the Christian will bear in mind that wisdom and goodness arrange human life so that it shall afford repeated occasion for fidelity and diligence. In his daily work he will make it his aim to "serve the Lord Christ."
1. There is much in the provisions and conditions of our earthly life which baffles our endeavors to understand it; and when perplexed by mystery, we-are summoned to submit with all humility and patience to the limitations of our intellect, and to rest assured that God's wisdom will, in the end, be made apparent to all.
2. There is a practical life to be lived, even when speculative difficulties are insurmountable; and it is in the conscientious fulfillment of daily duty, and the moderate use of ordinary enjoyments, that as Christians we may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.—T.
The purposes of Providence.
Different minds, observing and considering the same facts, are often very differently affected by them. The measure of previous experience and culture, the natural disposition, the tone and temper with which men address themselves to what is before them,—all affect the conclusion at which they arrive. The conviction produced in the mind of the Preacher of Jerusalem is certainly deserving of attention; he saw the hand of God in nature and in life, where some see only chance or fate. To see God's hand, to admire his wisdom, to appreciate his love, in our human life,—this is an evidence of sincere and intelligent piety.
I. GOD'S WORK IS PERFECT AND UNALTERABLE. "Nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it." This cannot be said to be the general conviction; on the contrary, men are always finding fault with the constitution of things. If they had been consulted in the creation of the universe, and in the management of human affairs, all would have been far better than it is! Now, all depends upon the end in view. The scientific man would make an optical instrument which should serve as both microscope and telescope—a far more marvelous construction than the eye. The pleasure-seeker would eliminate pain and sorrow from human life, and would make it one prolonged rapture of enjoyment. But the Creator had no intention of making an instrument which should supersede human inventions; his aim was the production of a working, everyday, useful organ of vision. The Lord of all never aimed at making life one long series of gratification; he designed life to be a moral discipline, in which suffering, weakness, and distress fulfill their own service of ministering to man's highest welfare. For the purposes intended, God's work needs no apology and admits of no improvement.
II. GOD'S WORK IS ETERNAL. All men's works are both unstable and transitory. Fresh ends are ever being approved and sought by fresh means. The laws of nature know no change; the principles of moral government are the same from age to age. When we learn to distrust our own fickleness, and to weary of human uncertainty and mutability, then we fall back upon the unchanging counsels of him who is from everlasting to everlasting.
III. GOD'S WORK HAS A PURPOSE WITH REFERENCE TO MAN. What God has done in this world he has done for the benefit of his spiritual family. Everything that is may be regarded as the vehicle of communication between the creating and the created mind. The intention of God is "that men should fear before him,"' i.e. venerate and glorify him. Our human probation and education as moral and accountable beings is his aim. Hence the obligation on our part to observe, inquire, and consider, to reverence, serve, and obey, and thus consciously and voluntarily secure the ends for which the Creator designed and fashioned us.—T,
Verses 16, 17
Man's unrighteousness contrasted with God's righteousness.
Every observant, judicial, and sensitive mind shares this experience. Human society, civil relations, cannot be contemplated without much of disapproval, disappointment, and distress. And who, when so affected by the spectacle which this world presents, can do other than raise his thoughts to that Being, to those relationships that are characterized by a moral excellence which corresponds to our highest ideal, our purest aspirations?
I. THE PREVALENCE OF WICKEDNESS UPON EARTH AND AMONG MEN. The observation of the wise man was naturally directed to the state of society in his own times and in his own and of the neighboring countries. Local and temporal peculiarities do not, however, destroy the applicability of the principle to human life generally. Wickedness was and is discernible wherever man is found. Unconscious nature obeys physical laws, brute nature obeys automatic and instinctive impulse. But man is a member of a rational and spiritual system, whose principles he often violates in the pursuit of lower ends. In the earliest ages "the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." A remedial system has checked and to some extent counteracted these evil tendencies; yet to how large an extent is the same reflection just!
II. WICKEDNESS, IN THE FORM OF INJUSTICE, PREVAILS EVEN WHERE JUSTICE SHOULD BE IMPARTIALLY ADMINISTERED. It is well known that in every age complaints have been made of the venality of Eastern magistrates. In the Old Testament references are frequent to the "gifts," the bribes, by which suitors sought to obtain decisions in their favor. Corruption here is worse than elsewhere, for it is discouraging to uprightness, and lowers the tone of public morals. We may be grateful that, in our own land and in our own day, such corruption is unknown—that our judges are above even temptation to bribery. But the fact has to be faced that injustice, whether from motives of malice or from motives of avarice, has existed widely in human communities.
III. THE UNIVERSAL JUDGMENT OF A RIGHTEOUS GOD. The atheist has no refuge from such observations and reflections as those recorded in verse 16. But the godly man turns from earth to heaven, and rests in the conviction that there is a Divine and righteous Judge, to whose tribunal all men must come, and by whose just decisions every destiny must be decided.
1. All characters, the righteous and the wicked alike, will be judged by the Lord of all. Has the unjust escaped the penalty due from a human tribunal? He shall not escape the righteous judgment of God. Has the innocent, been unjustly sentenced by an earthly and perhaps corrupt judge? There is for him a court of appeal, and his righteousness shall shine as the noonday.
2. All kinds of works shall meet with retribution; not only the acts of private life, but also acts of a judicial and governmental kind. The unjust judge shall meet with his recompense, and the wronged and persecuted shall not be unavenged.—T.
The common destiny of death.
The double nature of man has been recognized by every student of human nature. The sensationalist and materialist lays stress upon the physical side of our humanity, and endeavors to show that the intellect and the moral sentiments are the outgrowth of the bodily life, the nervous structure and its susceptibilities and its powers of movement. But such efforts fail to convince alike the unsophisticated and the philosophic. It is generally admitted that it would be more reasonable to resolve the physical into the psychical than the psychical into the physical. The author of Ecclesiastes was alive to the animal side of man's nature; and if some only of his expressions were considered, he might be claimed as a supporter of the baser philosophy. But he himself supplies the counteractive. The attentive reader of the book is convinced that the author traced the human spirit to its Divine original, and looked forward to its immortality.
I. THE COMMUNITY OF MEN WITH BEASTS IN THE ANIMAL NATURE AND LIFE. If we look upon one side of our humanity, it appears that we are to be reckoned among the brutes that perish. The similarity is obvious in:
1. The corporeal, fleshly constitution with which man and brute are alike endowed.
2. The brevity of the earthly life appointed for both without distinction.
3. The resolution of the body into dust.
II. THE SUPERIORITY OF MEN OVER BEASTS IN THE POSSESSION OF A SPIRITUAL AND IMPERISHABLE NATURE AND LIFE. It is difficult for us to treat this subject without; bringing to bear upon it the knowledge which we have derived from the fuller and more glorious revelation of the new covenant. "Christ has abolished death, and has brought life and immortality to light by the gospel." We cannot possibly think of such themes without taking to their consideration the convictions and the hopes which we have derived from the incarnate Son of God. Nor can we forget the sublime speculations of philosophers of both ancient and modern times.
1. In his spiritual nature man is akin to God. Physical life the Creator imparted to the animal Organisms with which the world was peopled. But a life of quite another order was conferred upon man, who participates in the ...Divine reason, who is able? think the thoughts of God himself, and who has intuitions of moral goodness of which the brute creation is for ever incapable. Instead of man's mind being a function of organized matter, as a base sensationalism and empiricism is wont to affirm, the truth is that it is only as an expression and vehicle of thought, of reason, that matter has a dependent existence.
2. In his consequent immortality man is distinguished from the inferior animals. The life possessed by these latter is a life of sensation and of movement; the organism is resolved into its constituents, and there is no reason to believe that the sensation and movement are perpetuated. But "the spirit of man goeth upward;" it has used its instrument, the body, and the time comes—appointed by God's inscrutable providence—when the connection, local and temporary, which the spirit has maintained with earth, is sundered. In what other scenes and pursuits the conscious being is continued, we cannot tell. But there is not the slightest reason for conceiving the spiritual life to be dependent upon the organism which it uses as its instrument. The spiritual life is the life of God; and the life of God is perishable.
"The sun is but a spark of fire,
A transient meteor in the sky;
The soul, immortal as its Sire,
Can never die.
The earthly portion.
When a man is, perhaps suddenly, awakened to a sense of the transitoriness of life and the vanity of human pursuits, what more natural than that, under the influence of novel conceptions and convictions, he should rush from a career of self-indulgence into the opposite extreme? Life is brief: why concern one's self with its affairs? Sense-experiences are changeable and perishable: why not neglect and despise them? Earth will soon vanish: why endeavor to accommodate ourselves to its conditions? But subsequent reflection convinces us that such practical inferences are unjust. Because this earth and this life are not everything, it does not follow that they are nothing. Because they cannot satisfy us, it does not follow that we should not use them.
I. IT IS POSSIBLE TO LIMIT OUR VIEW OF THIS EARTHLY LIFE UNTIL IT LOSES ITS INTEREST FOR US.
1. Man's works, to the observant and reflecting mind, are perishable and poor.
2. Nan's joys are often both superficial and transitory.
3. The future of human existence and progress upon earth is utterly uncertain, and, if it could be foreseen, would probably occasion bitter disappointment.
II. IT IS UNWISE AND UNSATISFACTORY SO TO LIMIT OUR VIEW OF LIFE. There is true wisdom in the wise man's declaration, "There is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his works; for that is his portion." The epicurean is wrong who makes pleasure his one aim. The cynic is wrong who despises pleasure as something beneath the dignity of his nature. Neither work nor enjoyment is the whole of life; for life is not to be understood save in relation to spiritual and disciplinary purposes. Man has for a season a bodily nature; let him use that nature with discretion, and it may prove organic to his moral welfare. Man is for a season stationed upon earth; let him fulfill earth's duties, and taste earth's delights. Earthly experience may be a stage towards heavenly service and bliss.—T.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Opportunity; opportuneness; ordination.
This view of life embraces—
I. OPPORTUNITY, OR THE WISDOM OF WAITING. Everything comes in its turn; if we weep today, we shall laugh to-morrow; if we have to be silent for the present, we shall have the opportunity of speech further on; if we must strive now, the time of peace will return. Human life is neither unshadowed brightness nor unbroken gloom. "Shadow and shine is life … flower and thorn." Let no man be seriously discouraged, much less hopelessly disheartened: what he is now suffering from will not always remain; it will pass and give place to that which is better. Let us only patiently wait our time, and our turn will come. "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning"—at any rate, and at the furthest,. In the morning of eternity. Only let us wait in patience and in prayerful hope, doing all that we can do in the paths of duty and of service, and the hour of opportunity will arrive... with succeeding turns God tempers all, That man may hope to rise, yet fear to fall."
II. OPPORTUNENESS. The words of the text may suggest to us, though the thought may not have been in the writer's mind, that some things are good or otherwise according to their timeliness. There is a time to speak in the way of rebuking, or of jesting, or of contending, and, when well-timed, such words may be right and wise in a very high degree; but, if ill-timed, they would be wrong and foolish, and much to be condemned. The same thought is applicable to the demonstration of friendliness, or of any strong emotion (Esther 3:5, Esther 3:7); to the exercise of severity or of leniency (Esther 3:3); to the manifestation of sorrow or of joy (Esther 3:4); to the action of economy or of generosity (Esther 3:6). Hard-and-fast rules will not cover the infinite particulars of human life. Whether we shall act or be passive, whether we shall speak or be silent, what shall be our demeanor and what the tone we shall take,—this must depend upon particular circumstances and a number of new combinations; and every man must judge for himself, and must remember that there is great virtue in opportuneness.
III. ORDINATION. There is a season, an "appointed time for every undertaking" (Cox). "What profit hath he that worketh," when all this" travail" with which "the sons of men" are exercised results in such fixed and inevitable changes? That is the spirit of the moralist here. We reply:
1. That it is indeed true that much is already appointed for us. We have no power, or but little, over the seasons and the elements of nature, and not very much (individually) over the institutions and customs of the land in which we live; we are compelled to conform our behavior to forces which are superior to our own.
2. But there is a very large remainder of freedom. Within the lines that are laid down by the ordination of Heaven or the "powers that be" on the earth, there is ample scope for free, wise, life-giving choice of action. We are free to choose our own conduct, to form our own character, to determine the complexion and aspect of our life in the sight of God, to decide upon our destiny.—C.
This unintelligible world.
How shall we solve all those great problems which continually confront us, which baffle and bewilder us, which sometimes drive us to the very verge of distraction or even of unbelief? The solution is partly found in—
I. A WIDE VIEW OF THE WORTH OF PRESENT THINGS. If we look long and far, we shall see that, though many things have an ugly aspect at first sight, God "has made everything beautiful in its time." The light and warmth of summer are good to see and feel; but is not the cold of winter invigorating? and what is more beautiful to the sight than the untrodden snow? The returning life of spring is welcome to all hearts; but are not the brilliant hues of autumn fascinating to every eye? Youth is full of ardor, and manhood of strength; but declining years possess much richness of gathered wisdom, and there is a dignity, a calm, a reverence, m age which is all its own. There is a joy in battle as well as a pleasantness in peace. Wealth has its treasures; but poverty has little to lose, and therefore little cause for anxiety and trouble. Luxury brings many comforts, but hardness gives health and strength. Each climate upon the earth, every condition in life, the various dispositions and temperaments of the human soul,—these have their own particular advantage and compensation. Look on the other side, and you will see something that will please, if it does not satisfy.
II. THE HELP WE GAIN FROM THE GREAT ELEMENT OF FUTURITY. "Also he hath set eternity" (marginal reading, Revised Version) "in their heart." We are made to look far beyond the boundary of the visible and the present. The idea of "the eternal" may help us in two ways.
1. That we are created for the unseen and the eternal accounts for the fact that nothing which is earthly and sensible will satisfy our souls. Nothing of that order ought to do so; and it would put the seal upon our degradation if it did so. Our unsatisfiable spirit is the signature of our manhood and the prophecy of our immortality.
2. The inclusion of the future in our reasoning makes all the difference to our thought. Admit only the passing time, this brief and uncertain life, and much that happens is inexplicable and distressing indeed; but include the future, add "eternity "to the account, and the "crooked is made straight," the perplexity is gone. But, even with this aid, there is—
III. THE MYSTERY WHICH REMAINS, AND WILL REMAIN No man can find out," etc. We do well to remember that what we see is only a very small part indeed of the whole—only a page of the great volume, only a scene in the great drama, only a field of the large landscape—and we may well be silenced, if not convinced. But even that does not cover everything. We need to remember that we are human, and not Divine; that we, who are God's very little children, cannot hope to understand all that is in the mind of our heavenly Father—cannot expect to fathom his holy purpose, to read his unfathomable thoughts. We see enough of Divine wisdom, holiness, and love to believe that, when our understanding is enlarged and our vision cleared, we shall find that "all the paths of the Lord were mercy and truth"—even those which most troubled and bewildered us when we dwelt upon the earth.—C.
Esther 3:12, Esther 3:13, 22 (with Ecclesiastes 2:24)
The conclusion of folly or the faith of the wise?
In what catalogue shall we place these words of the text? On whose lips are they to be found? Are they—
I. THE REFUGE OF THE SKEPTIC? They may be such. The epicure who has lost his faith in God says, "Let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we die." There is no sacredness in the present, and no solid hope for the future. What is the use of aiming at a high ideal? Why waste breath and strength on duty, on aspiration, on piety? Why attempt to rise to the pursuit of the eternal and the Divine? Better lose ourselves in that which is at hand, in that which we can grasp as a present certainty. The best thing, the only certain good, is to eat and drink and to labor; is to minister to our senses, and to work upon the material which is visible to our eye and responsive to our touch. So speaks the skeptic; this is his miserable conclusion; thus he owns himself defeated and dishonored. For what is human life worth when the element of sacredness is expunged, when piety and hope are left out of it? It is no wonder that the ages of unbelief have been the times when men have bad no regard for other people's dues, and very little for their own. Or shall we rather find here—
II. AN ARTICLE, OF A WISE MAN'S FAITH? It is not certain what was the mood in which the Preacher wrote; but let us prefer to think that behind his words, actuating and inspiring him, was a true spirit of faith in God and in Divine providence; let us take him to mean—what we know to be true—that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, a wise and loyal-hearted man will hold that there is much that is worth pursuing and possessing in the simple pleasures, in the daily duties, and in the ordinary services which are open to us all.
1. Daily God invites us to eat and drink, to partake of the bounties of his hand; let us appreciate his benefits with moderation and gratitude.
2. Daily he bids us go forth to "our work and to our labor until the evening;" let us enter upon it and carry it out in the spirit of conscientiousness and fidelity toward both God and man (Colossians 3:23).
3. Daily God gives us the means of getting good to ourselves and doing good to others; let us eagerly embrace our opportunity, let us gladly avail ourselves of our privilege; so doing we shall make our life peaceful, happy, worthy.
In the light that shines into our hearts from the truth of Christ we judge:
1. That these lesser things—pleasure, activity, acquisition—are well in their way and in their measure. "Bodily exercise profiteth a little." But:
2. That human life has possibilities and obligations which immeasurably transcend these things; such, that to put these into the front rank and to fill our life with them is a fatal error. Made subordinate to that which is higher, they take their place and they render their service—a place and a service not to be despised; but made primary and supreme, they are usurpers that do untold injury, and that must be relentlessly dethroned.—C.
Esther 3:14, Esther 3:15
Divine constancy and human piety.
With the outer world of nature and with our human nature and character before us, these words may somewhat surprise us; it is necessary to take a preliminary view of-
I. HUMAN ACTION UPON THE DIVINE.
1. There is a sense in which man has modified the Divine action according to the Divine purpose. God has given us the material, and he says to us, "Work with it and upon it; mould, fashion, transform, develop it as you will; make all possible use of it for bodily comfort, for mental enlargement, for social enjoyment, for spiritual growth." Man has made large use of this his opportunity, and, with the advance of knowledge and of science, he will make much more in the centuries to come. He cannot indeed "put to" or "take from" the substance with which God supplies him, but he can do much to change its form and to determine the service it shall render.
2. There is a sense in which man has temporarily thwarted the Divine idea. For is not all sin, and are not all the dire consequences of sin, a sad and serious departure from the purpose of the Holy One? Surely infidelity, blasphemy, vice, cruelty, crime; surely poverty, misery, starvation, death;-all this is not what the heavenly Father meant for his human children when he breathed into man's nostrils the breath of life. But the leading idea of the text is—
II. THE PERMANENCY OF THE DIVINE THOUGHT. This truth includes:
1. The fixedness of the Divine purpose. "The counsel of the Lord standeth for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations" (Psalms 33:11). We believe that from the beginning God intended to work out the righteousness and the blessedness of the human race; and whatever has come between him and the realization of his gracious end will be cleared away. Man will one day be all that the Eternal One designed that he should become.
2. The constancy of the Divine Law. The same great moral laws, and the same physical laws also, which governed the action and the destiny of men in primeval times still prevail, and will always abide. Sin has meant suffering and sorrow, righteousness has worked out well-being and joy; diligence has been followed by fruitfulness, and idleness by destitution; generosity has been recompensed with love, and selfishness with leanness of soul, etc. As it was at the beginning, so will it be with the action of all Divine laws, even to the cud.
3. The permanency of the Divine attitude.
(1) What God always felt toward sin he feels today; it is the thing which he hates. In Jesus Christ, as fully and as emphatically as in the Law, his holy intolerance of sin is revealed, his Divine determination to conquer and to destroy it.
(2) What God always felt toward the sinner he feels today—a Divine grief and an infinite compassion; a readiness to forgive and to restore the penitent.
III. THE DIVINE DESIGN. "God doeth it, that men should fear before him." God's one unchanging desire is that his children should live a reverential, holy life before him. All the manifestations of his character that he gives us are intended to lead up to and issue in this. And surely the Divine constancy is calculated to promote this as nothing else would. It is God's desire and his design concerning us, because he knows
(1) that it is the only right relationship for us to sustain; and
(2) that it is the one condition of peace, purity, blessedness, life.—C.
Before and after Christ.
These words have a strange sound in our ears; they evidently do not belong to New Testament times. They bring before us—
I. MAN'S UNENLIGHTENED CONCEPTION OF HIMSELF. It is evidently possible that, under certain conditions, men may judge themselves to be of no nobler nature than that of "the beasts that perish." It may be
(1) bodily suffering or weakness; or
(2) untoward and disappointing circumstances; or
(3) bewilderment of mind after vain endeavors to solve great spiritual problems; or
(4) the distracted and unnatural state of the society in which we are placed (see Cox's 'Quest of the Chief Good'); but, owing to some one of many possible causes, men may be driven to take the lowest view of human nature; so much so that they may lose all respect for themselves—may shut the future life entirely out of view, and live in the narrow circle of the present; may confine their ambition and aspiration to bodily enjoyment and the excitements of present occupation; may practically own themselves to be defeated, and go blindly on, 'hoping nothing, believing nothing, and fearing nothing."
Such a melancholy conclusion
(1) does us sad dishonor;
(2) has a demoralizing influence on character and life;
(3) yields a wretched harvest of despair and self-destruction. In most happy contrast with this is—
II. THE VIEW OF OUR NATURE WHICH CHRIST HAS GIVEN US. He asks us to think how "much a man is better than a sheep," and reminds us that we are "of more value than many sparrows." He bids us realize that one human soul is worth more than "the whole world," and that there is nothing so costly that it will represent its value. He reveals to us the supreme and most blessed fact that each human spirit is the object of Divine solicitude, and may find a home in the Father's heart of love at once, and in his nearer presence soon. He assures us that there is a glorious future before every man that becomes the subject of his kingdom, and serves faithfully to the end. Under his teaching, instead of seeing that "they themselves are beasts," his disciples find themselves "children of their Father who is in heaven," "kings and priests unto God," "heirs of eternal life." Coming after Christ, and learning of him, we see that we are capable of a noble heritage now, and move toward a still nobler estate a little further on.—C.
HOMILIES BY J. WILLCOCK
Our author makes a fresh start. He drops the autobiographical style of the first two chapters, and casts his thoughts into the form of aphorisms, based not merely upon the reminiscences of his own life, but upon the experience of all men. He gives a long list of the events, actions, emotions, and feelings which go to make up human life, and asserts of them that they are governed by fixed laws above our knowledge, out of our control. The time of our entrance into the world, the condition of life in which we are placed, are determined for us by a higher will than our own, and the same sovereign power fixes the moment of our departure from life; and in like manner all that is done, enjoyed, and suffered between birth and death is governed by forces which we cannot bend or mould, or even fully understand. That there is a fixed order in the events of life is, to a certain extent, an instinctive belief which we all hold. The thought of an untimely birth or of an untimely death shocks us as something contrary to our sense of that which is fit and becoming, and those crimes by which either is caused are generally regarded as specially repulsive. Yet there is an appointed season for the other incidents of life, though less clearly manifest to us. Our wisdom lies, not in mere acquiescence in the events of life, but in knowing our duty for the time. The circumstances in which we are placed are so fluctuating, and the conditions in the midst of which we find ourselves are so varying, that a large space is left for us to exercise our discretion, to discern that which is opportune, and to do the right thing at the right time. The first class of events alluded to, the time of birth and the time of death, is that of those which are involuntary; they are events with which there can be no interference without the guilt of gross and exceptional wickedness. The actions and emotions that follow are voluntary, they are within our power, though the circumstances that call them forth at a precise time are not. The relations of life which are determined for us by a higher power give us the opportunity for playing our part, and we either succeed or fail according as we take advantage of the time or neglect it. The catalogue given of the events, actions, and emotions which make up life seems to be drawn up without any logical order; the various items are apparently taken capriciously as examples of those things that occupy men's time and thoughts, and at first sight the teaching of our author does not seem to be of a distinctively spiritual character. To a superficial reader it might appear as if we had not in it much more than the commonplace prudence to be found in the maxims and proverbs current in every country: "Take time by the forelock;" "He that will not when he may, when he would he shall have nay;" "Time and tide wait for no man," etc. But we are taught by Christ himself that knowing how to act opportunely is a large part of that wisdom which is needed for our salvation. He himself came to earth in the "fullness of time" (Galatians 4:4), when the Jewish people and the nations of the world were prepared by Divine discipline for his teaching and work (Acts 17:30, Acts 17:31; Luke 2:30, Luke 2:31). The purpose of the mission of John the Baptist, calculated as it was to lead men to godly sorrow for sin, was in harmony with the austerity of his life and the sternness of his exhortations. It was a time to mourn (Matthew 11:18). The purpose of Christ's own mission was to reconcile the world to God and to manifest the Father to men, so that joy was becoming in his disciples (Mark 2:18-20). He taught that there was a time to lose, when all possessions that would alienate the heart from him should be parted with; and that there would be a time of gain, when in heaven the accumulated treasures would become an abiding possession (Matthew 6:19, Matthew 6:20). "That which the Preacher insists on is the thought that the circumstances and events of life form part of a Divine order, are not things that come at random, and that wisdom, and therefore such a measure of happiness as is attainable, lies in adapting ourselves to the order, and accepting the guidance of events in great things and small, while shame and confusion come from resisting it." But such teaching is applicable, as we have seen, to the conduct of our spiritual as well as of our secular concerns. The fact that there are great changes through which we must pass in order to be duly prepared for the heavenly state, that we may have to forfeit the temporal to secure the eternal, that the new life has new duties for the discernment and fulfillment of which all our powers and faculties need to be called into full exercise—should make us earnestly desire to be filled with this wisdom that prompts to opportune action. "If any of you lack wisdom," says St. James, "let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him" (James 1:5).—J.W.
Desiderium ceternitatis .
The thought of there being a fixed order in the events of life, of laws governing the world which man cannot fully understand or control, brings with it no comfort to the mind of this Jewish philosopher. It rather, in his view, increases the difficulty of playing one's part successfully. Who can be sure that he has hit upon the right course to follow, the opportune time at which to act? Do not "the fixed phenomena" and "iron laws of life" render human effort fruitless and disappointing? Another conclusion is drawn from the same facts by a higher Teacher. We cannot by taking thought alter the conditions of our lives, and should, therefore, Christ has taught us, place our trust in our heavenly Father, who governs all things, and whose love for the creatures he has made is seen in his feeding the birds and clothing with beauty the flowers of the field (Matthew 6:25-34). The anxiety which the thought of human weakness in the presence of the immutable laws of nature excites is charmed away by the consolatory teaching of Jesus. But no solution is given of the difficulties that occasioned it. These will always exist as they spring from the limitations of our nature. We are finite creatures, and God is infinite. We endure but for a few years; he is from everlasting to everlasting. Our apprehension of these facts, of infinitude and eternity, prevents our being satisfied with that which is finite and temporal. "God has set eternity" "in our hearts." Though we are limited by time, we are related to eternity. "That which is transient yields us no support; it carries us on like a rushing stream, and constrains us to save ourselves by laying hold on eternity" (Delitzsch). We cannot rest satisfied with fragmentary knowledge, but strive to pass on from it to the great worlds of truth yet undiscovered and unknown; we would see the whole of God's work from beginning to end (Esther 3:1), and find ourselves precluded from accomplishing our desire. From Solomon's point of view, in which the possibility or certainty of a future life is not taken into account, this desiderium aeternitatis is only another of the illusions by which the soul of man is vexed. But we should contradict our better knowledge, and ungratefully neglect the Divine aids to faith which have been given us in the fuller revelation of the New Testament, if we were to cherish the same opinion. Dissatisfaction with the finite and the temporal is not a morbid feeling in those who believe that they have an immortal nature, and that they are yet to come into "an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away" (1 Peter 1:4).—J.W.
Esther 3:12, Esther 3:13
Another condition of pure happiness.
In these words we have a repetition of the conclusion already announced (Ecclesiastes 2:24) as to the method by which some measure of happiness can be secured by man, but there is a very important addition made to the former declaration. Our author is referring to temporal things, and tells the secret by which the happiness they may procure for us is to be won. It consists of two particulars:
(1) a cheerful enjoyment of the gifts of God, and
(2) a benevolent use of them.
This latter is the addition to which I have referred. It is a distinct advance upon the previous utterance, as it introduces the idea of an unselfish use of the gifts which God has bestowed upon us—an employment of them for the benefit of others less fortunately circumstanced than ourselves. "Over and above the life of honest labor and simple joys which had been recognized as good before, the seeker has learnt that 'doing good' is in some sense the best way of getting good" (Plumptre). It may be that beneficence is only a part of what is meant by" doing good," but in the connection in which the phrase is here employed it must be a large part, because it evidently suggests something more as desirable than a selfish enjoyment of the good things of life. This twofold duty of accepting with gratitude the gifts of God and of applying them to good uses was prescribed by the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 26:1-14); and, to a truly pious mind, the one part of the duty will suggest the other. The thought that God in his bounty has enriched us, who are unworthy of the least of all his mercies, will lead us to be compassionate to those who are in want, and we shall find in relieving their necessities the purest and most exquisite of all joys. We shall in this way discover for ourselves the truth of that saying of our Lord's, "It is mere blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). While those who selfishly keep all they have for themselves fled that, however their goods increase, their satisfaction in them cannot be increased—nay, rather that it rapidly diminishes. Hence it is that the apostle counsels the rich "to do good, to be rich in good works, to be ready to distribute, willing to communicate "(1 Timothy 6:17-19). The general teaching of the Scriptures, therefore, is in. harmony with the results of our own experience, and leads to the same conclusion, that "doing good" is a condition of pure happiness.—J.W.
Est 3:14 -17
An argument in support of the statement that
A present use and enjoyment of the gifts of God is advisable
is found in the fact of the unchangeable character of the Divine purposes and government. He who has given may take away, and none can stay his hand. While, therefore, we are in possession of benefits he has bestowed on us, we should get the good of them, seeing that we know not how long we shall have them. Exception has been taken to this teaching. "The lesson to cheerfulness under such bidding seems a hard one. Men have recited it over the wine-cup in old times and new, in East and West. But the human heart, with such shadows gathering in the background, has recognized its hollowness, and again and again has put back the anodyne from its lips" (Bradley). But though the thought of the Divine unchangeableness may be regarded by some as a stimulus to a reckless enjoyment of the present, it is calculated to have a wholesome influence upon our views of life, and upon our conduct. Acquiescence in one's lot, and reverential fear of God, leading to an avoidance of sin, are naturally suggested by it. The conviction that the will of God is righteous will prevent acquiescence in it becoming that apathetic resignation which characterizes the spirit of those who believe that over all the events of life an iron destiny rules, against which men strive in vain.
I. THE CHARACTER OF THE DIVINE GOVERNMENT. (Esther 3:14.) It is eternal and. unalterable. In the phenomena of the natural world, we see it manifested in laws which man cannot control or change; in the providential government of human affairs, the same rule of a higher Power over all the events of life is discernible; and in the revelations of the Divine will, recorded in the Scriptures, we see steady progress to an end foreseen and foretold from the beginning. What God does stands fast; no created power can nullify or change it (Psa 23:1-6 :11; Isaiah 46:9, Isaiah 46:10; Daniel 4:35).
II. THE EFFECT WHICH THIS UNCHANGEABLENESS SHOULD PRODUCE. (Esther 3:14.) "That men should fear before him." It should fill our heart with reverence. This is, indeed, the purpose for which God has given this revelation of himself, and no other view of the Divine character is calculated to produce the same effect. The thought of God's infinite power would not impress us in like manner if at the same time we believed that his will was variable, that it could be propitiated and changed. But the conviction that his will is righteous and immutable should lead us to "sanctify him in our hearts, and make him our Fear and our Dread" (Isaiah 8:13), and give us hope and confidence in the midst of the vicissitudes of life (Ma Esther 3:6). In the earlier part of his work (Ecclesiastes 1:9, Ecclesiastes 1:10) the Preacher had dwelt upon the uniformity of sequence in nature, as if he were impressed with a sense of monotony, as he watched the course of events happening and recurring in the same order. And now, as he looks upon human history, he sees the same regularity in the order of things. "That which hath been is now, and that which is to be hath already been." But the former feeling of weariness and oppression is modified by the thought of God's perfection, and by the "fear" which it excites. He recognizes the fact of a personal will governing the events of history. It is no mechanical process of revolution that causes the repetition time after time of similar events, the same causes producing the same effects; no wheel of destiny alternately raising and depressing the fortunes of men. It is God who recalls, "who seeks again that which is passed away" (Esther 3:15). "The past is thought of as vanishing, put to flight, receding into the dim distance. It might seem to be passing into the abyss of oblivion; but God recalls it, brings back the same order, or an analogous order of events, and so history repeats itself" (Plumptre). And out of this belief in God's wise providence a healthy spirit should gather strength to bear patiently and cheerfully the difficulties and trials of life. The belief that our life is governed by an unalterable law is calculated, as I have said, to lead to a listless, hopeless state of mind, in which one ceases to strive against the inevitable. But that state of mind is very different from the resignation of those who believe that the government of the world is regular and unchangeable, because unerring wisdom guides him who is the Creator and Preserver of all things. Their faith can sustain them in the greatest trials, when God's ways seem most inscrutable; they can hope against hope, and, in spite of all apparent contradictions, believe that "all things work together for good to them that love God."—J.W.
The darkness of the grave.
In these words our author reaches the very lowest depth of misery and despair. His observation of the facts of human life leads him to the humiliating conclusion that it is almost hopeless to assign to man a higher nature and a more noble destiny than those which belong to the beasts that perish. The moral inequalities of the world, the injustice that goes unpunished, the hopes by which men are deluded, the uncertainty of life, the doubtfulness of immortality, seem to justify the assertion "that a man hath no pre-eminence over a beast." The special point of comparison on which he dwells is the common mortality of both. Man and beast are possessed of bodies composed of the same elements, nourished by the same food, liable to the same accidents, and destined to return to the kindred dust from which they sprang. Both are ignorant of the period of life assigned to them; a moment before the stroke of death falls on them they may be unconscious that evil is at hand, and when they realize the fact they are equally powerless to avert it. What there is in common between them is manifest to all, while the evidence to be . adduced in favor of the superiority of man is, from its very nature, less convincing. The spiritually minded will attach great weight to arguments against which the natural reason may draw up plausible objections. Let us, then, see the case stated at its very worst, and consider if there are any redeeming circumstances which are calculated to relieve the gloom which a cursory reading of the words calls up.
I. The first statement is that MEN, LIKE BEASTS, ARE CREATURES OF ACCIDENT. (Verse 19a.) Not that they are both the results of blind chance; but that, "being conditioned by circumstances over which there can be no control, they are subject, in respect to their whole being, actions, and sufferings, as far as mere human observation can extend, to the law of chance, and are alike destined to undergo the same fate, i.e. death" (Wright). A parallel to the thought of this verse is to be found in the very striking words of Solon to Croesus (Herodotus, 1:32), "Man is altogether a chance;" and in Psalms 49:14, Psalms 49:20, "Like sheep they are laid in the grave Man that is in honor, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish."
II. The second statement is that As IS THE DEATH OF THE ONE, SO IS THE DEATH OF THE OTHER (Psalms 49:19), for in both is the breath of life, and this departs from them in like manner. So that any superiority on the part of man over the beast is incredible in the face of this fact, that death annuls distinctions between them. One resting-place receives them all at last—the earth from which they sprang (Psalms 49:20). A belief in the immortality of the soul of man would at once have relieved the gloom, and convinced the Preacher that the humiliating comparison he institutes only reaches to a certain point, and is based upon the external accidents of human life, and that the true dignity and value of human nature remain unaffected by the mortality of the corporeal part of our being. "Put aside the belief in the prolongation of existence after death, that what has been begun here may be completed, and what has gone wrong here may be set right, and man is but a more highly organized animal, the 'cunningest of nature's clocks,' and the high words which men speak as to his greatness are found hollow. They too are 'vanity.' He differs from the brutes around him only, or chiefly, in having, what they have not, the burden of unsatisfied desires, the longing after an eternity which after all is denied him" (Plumptre).
III. The third statement is the saddest of all—that of THE UNCERTAINTY OF KNOWLEDGE AS TO WHETHER, AFTER ALL, THERE IS THIS HIGHER ELEMENT IN HUMAN NATURE—"a spirit that at death goeth upward"—or whether the living principles of both man and beast perish when their bodies are laid in the dust (verse 21). It is quite fruitless to deny that it is a skeptical question that is asked—If the spirit of the beast goeth downward to the earth, who knows that that of man goeth upward? Attempts have been made to obliterate the skepticism of the passage, as may be seen in the Massoretic punctuation followed in the Authorized Version of our English Bible, but departed from in the Revised Version, "Who knoweth the spirit of mall that. goeth upward," etc.? as though an ascent of the spirit to a higher life were affirmed. The rendering of the four principal versions, and of all the best critics, convinces us that it is indeed a skeptical question as to the immortality of the soul that is here asked. A very similar passage is found in the great poem of Lucretius—
"We know not what the nature of the soul,
Or born or entering into men at birth,
Or whether with our frame it perisheth,
Or treads the gloom and regions vast of death."
It is to be noted, however, about both the question of the Preacher and the words of the heathen poet, that they do not contain a denial of immortality, but a longing after more knowledge resting on sufficient grounds. Sad and depressing as uncertainty on such a point is to a sensitive mind, a denial of immortality would he infinitely worse; it would mean the death of all hope. The very suggestion of a higher life for man, after "this mortal coil has been shuffled off," than for the beast implies that, far from denying the immortality of the soul, the writer seeks fur adequate ground on which to hold it. Arguments in favor of the doctrine of immortality were not wanting to the Preacher. He has just spoken of the desiderium aeternitatis implanted in the heart of man (Psalms 49:11), which, like the instincts of the lower creation, is given by the Creator for our guidance, and not to tantalize and deceive us. The inequalities anti evils of the present life render a final judgment in a world beyond the grave a moral necessity (Ecclesiastes 12:14). But still these are, after all, but indirect arguments, which have not the weight of positive demonstration. It is only faith that can return any certain reply to his doubting question; its weight, thrown into the balance, inclines it to the hopeful side. And this happy conclusion lie reached at last, as he distinctly affirms in Ecclesiastes 12:7, "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and- the spirit shall return unto God. who gave it." That the Preacher should ever have doubted this great truth, and spoken as though no certainty concerning it were within the reach of man, need not surprise us. In the revelation given to the Jewish people, the doctrine of rewards and punishments in a future state was not set forth. The rewards and punishments for obedience to the Law, and for transgressions against it, were all temporal. Almost nothing was communicated touching the existence of the soul after death. In the passage quoted by Christ in the Gospels, for the confutation of the Sadducees, who denied the resurrection, the doctrine of immortality is implied rather than stated (Matthew 22:23-32). And in a matter so far beyond the power of the human intellect to search out, the absence of a word of revelation rendered the darkness doubly obscure. It is, however, utterly monstrous for any of us now who believe in Christ to ask the question, "Who knoweth the spirit of man, whether it goeth upward?" The revelation given us by him is full of light on this point. "He hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Timothy 1:10). His own resurrection from the dead, and ascension to heaven is the proof of a life beyond the grave, and a pledge to all who believe in him of a future and an everlasting life. It was not wonderful that the Preacher, in the then stage of religious knowledge, should have spoken as he does here; but nothing could justify us, to whom so much fresh light has been given, in using his words, as though we were in the same condition with him.
IV. The fourth and concluding statement is, strangely enough, that since we know not what will come after death, A CHEERFUL ENJOYMENT OF THE PRESENT is the best course one can take. This is the third time he has given this counsel (Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:12, Ecclesiastes 3:13). A calm and happy life, healthy labor, and tranquil enjoyment, are to be valued and token advantage of to the full. It is an Epicureanism of a spiritual cast that he commends, and not the coarse and degraded animalism of those who say, "Let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we die." He recognizes the good gifts of the present as a "portion" given by God, and says—Rejoice in them, though the future be all unknown. The very gloom out of which his words spring give a dignity to them. "We feel that we are in the presence of one who has the germ given him of some courage, equanimity, and calmness, which may grow into other and better things. His spirit is torn by, suffers with, all the pangs that beset the inquiring human heart. He feels for all the woes of humanity; cannot put them by, and fly to the wine-cup and crown himself with garlands. He has hated life, yet he will not lose his courage. 'Be of good cheer,' he says, even in his dark hour; 'work on, and enjoy the fruits of work; it is thy portion. Do not curse God and die'" (Bradley). His words are not, as they might seem. at first, frivolous and heartless. It is a calm and peaceful happiness, a life of honest endeavor and of single-hearted enjoyment of innocent pleasures, that he commends; and, after all, it is only by genuine faith in God that such a life is possible—a faith that enables one to rise above all that is dark and mysterious and perplexing in the world about us.—J.W.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 3". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent