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The Pulpit Commentaries The Pulpit Commentaries
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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ tpc/ ecclesiastes-4.html. 1897.
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 4". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
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Section 5. Koheleth proceeds to give further illustrations of man's inability to be the architect of his own happiness. There are many things which interrupt or destroy it.
First of all, he adduces the oppression of man by his fellow-man.
So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun. This is equivalent to, "again I saw," as Ecclesiastes 4:7, with a reference to the wickedness in the place of judgment which he had noticed in Ecclesiastes 3:16. Ashukim, "oppressions," is found in Job 35:9 and Amos 3:9, and, being properly a participle passive, denotes oppressed persons or things, and so abstractedly "oppressions." Τὰς συκοφαντίας; calumnias (Vulgate). The verb is used of high-handed injustice, of offensive selfishness, of the hindrances to his neighbor's well-being caused by a man's careless disregard of aught but his own interests. Beheld the tears of such as were oppressed; τῶν συκοφαντουμένων; innocentium (Vulgate). He notes now not merely the fact of wrong being done, but its effect on the victim, and intimates his own pity for the sorrow. And they had no comforter. A sad refrain, echoed again at the end of the verse with touching pathos. Οὐκ ἔστιν αὐτοῖς παρακαλῶν; they had no earthly friends to visit them in their affliction, and they as yet knew not the soothing of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter (Παράκλητος). There was no one to wipe away their tears (Isaiah 25:8) or to redress their wrongs. The point is the powerlessness of man in the face of these disorders, his inability to right himself, the incompetence of others to aid him. On the side of their oppressors there was power (koach), in a bad sense, like the Greek βία equivalent to "violence." Thus the ungodly say, in the Book of Wisdom Amos 2:11, "Let our strength be the law of justice." Vulgate, Nec posse resistere eorun violentiae, cunctorum auxilio destitutes. It is difficult to suppose that the state of things revealed by this verse existed in the days of King Solomon, or that so powerful a monarch, and one admired for "judgment and justice" (1 Kings 10:9), would be content with complaining of such disorders instead of checking them. There is no token of remorse for past unprofitableness or anguish of heart at the thought of failure in duty. If we take the words as the utterance of the real Solomon, we do violence to history, and must correct the existing chronicles of his reign. The picture here presented is one of later times, and it may be of other countries. Persian rule, or the tyranny of the Ptolemies, might afford an original from which it might be taken.
In view of these patent wrongs Koheleth loses all enjoyment of life. Wherefore (and) I praised the dead which are already dead; or, who died long ago, and thus have escaped the miseries which they would have had to endure. It must, indeed, have been a bitter experience which elicited such an avowal. To die and be forgotten an Oriental would look upon as the most calamitous of destinies. More than the living which are yet alive. For these have before them the prospect of a long endurance of oppression and suffering (comp. Ecclesiastes 7:1; Job 3:13, etc.). The Greek gnome says—
Κρεῖσσον τὸ μὴ ζῇν ἐστὶν ἢ ζῇν ἀθλίως
"Better to die than lead a wretched life."
The Septuagint version is scarcely a rendering of our present text: "Above the living, as many as are living until now."
Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been. Thus we have Job's passionate appeal (Job 3:11), "Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came forth," etc.? And in the Greek poets the sentiment of the text is re-echoed. Thus Theognis, 'Paroen.,' 425—
Πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον
Μηδ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου
Φύντα δ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀΐ́δαο περῆσαι
Καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον
"'Tis best for mortals never to be born,
Nor ever see the swift sun's burning rays;
Next best, when born, to pass the gates of death
Right speedily, and rest beneath the earth."
Cicero, 'Tusc. Disp.,' 1.48, renders some lines from a lost play of Euripides to the same effect—
"Nam nos decebat, caetus celebrantes, domum
Lugere, ubi esset aliquis in lucern editus,
Humanae vitae varia reputantes mala;
At qui labores metre finisset graves,
Hunc omni amicos lauds et laetitia exsequi."
Herodotus (5. 4) relates how some of the Thracians had a custom of bemoaning a birth and rejoicing at a death. In our own Burial Service we thank God for delivering the departed "out of the miseries of this sinful world." Keble alludes to this barbarian custom in his poem on' The Third Sunday after Easter.' Speaking of a Christian mother's joy at a child's birth, he says—
"No need for her to weep
Like Thracian wives of yore,
Save when in rapture still and deep
Her thankful heart runs o'er.
They mourned to trust their treasure on the main,
Sure of the storm, unknowing of their guide:
Welcome to her the peril and the pain,
For well she knows the home where they may safely hide."
, sqq.; 'Gorgias,' p. 512, A.) The Buddhist religion does not recommend suicide as an escape from the evils of life. It indeed regards man as master of his own life; but it considers suicide foolish, as it merely transfers a man's position, the thread of life having to be taken up again under less favorable circumstances. See 'A Buddhist Catechism,' by Subhadra Bhikshu. Who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun. He repeats the words, "under the sun," from verse 1, in order to show that he is speaking of facts that came under his own regard—outward phenomena which any thoughtful observer might notice (so again verse 7).
Secondly, success meets with envy, and produces no lasting good to the worker; yet, however unsatisfactory the result, man must continue to labor, as idleness is ruin.
Again, I considered all travail, and every right work. The word rendered "right" is kishron (see on Ecclesiastes 2:21), and means rather "dexterity," "success." Kohe-leth says that he reflected upon the industry that men exhibit, and the skill and dexterity with which they ply their incessant toil. There is no reference to moral rectitude in the reflection, and the allusion to the ostracism of Aristides for being called "Just" overshoots the mark (see Wordsworth, in loc.). Septuagint, σύμπασαν ἀνρίαν τοῦ ποιήματος, "all manliness of his work." That for this a man is envied of his neighbor. Kinah may mean either "object of envy" or "envious rivalry;" i.e. the clause may be translated as above, or, as in the Revised Version margin, "it cometh of a man's rivalry with his neighbor." The Septuagint is ambiguous, Ὅτι αὐτὸ ζῆλος ἀνδρὸς ἀπὸ τοῦ ἑταίρου αὐτοῦ, "That this is a man's envy from his comrade;" Vulgate, Industrias animadverti patere invidiae proximi, "Lay open to a neighbor's envy." In the first case the thought is that unusual skill and success expose a man to envy and ill will, which rob labor of all enjoyment. In the second case the writer says that this superiority and dexterity arise from a mean motive, an envious desire to outstrip a neighbor, and, based on such low ground, can lead to nothing but vanity and vexation of spirit, a striving after wind. The former explanation seems more in accordance with Koheleth's gloomy view. Success itself is no guarantee of happiness; the malice and ill feeling which it invariably occasions are necessarily a source of pain and distress.
The connection of this verse with the preceding is this: activity, diligence, and skill indeed bring success, but success is accompanied by sad results. Should we, then, sink into apathy, relinquish work, let things slide? Nay, none but the fool (kesil), the insensate, half-brutish man, doth this. The fool foldeth his hands together. The attitude expresses laziness and disinclination for active labor, like that of the sluggard in Proverbs 6:10. And eateth his own flesh. Ginsburg, Plumptre, and others take these words to mean "and yet eats his meat," i.e. gets that enjoyment from his sluggishness which is denied to active diligence. They refer, in proof of this interpretation, to Exodus 16:8; Exodus 21:28; Isaiah 22:13; Ezekiel 39:17, in which passages, however, the phrase is never equivalent to "eating his food." The expression is really equivalent to "destroys himself," "brings ruin upon himself." Thus we have in Psalms 27:2, "Evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh;" and in Micah 3:3, "Who eat the flesh of my people" (comp. Isaiah 49:26). The sluggard is guilty of moral suicide; he takes no trouble to provide for his necessities, and suffers extremities in consequence. Some see in this verse and the following an objection and its answer. There is no occasion for this view, and it is not in keeping with the context; but it contains an intimation of the true exposition, which makes Micah 3:6 a proverbial statement of the sluggard's position. The verbs in the text are participial in form, so that the Vulgate rendering, which supplies a verb, is quite admissible: Stultus complicat manna suas, et comedit carnes suas, dicens: Melior est, etc.
Better is a handful with quietness; literally, better a hand full of rest. Than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit; literally, than two hands full of travail, etc. This verse, which has been variously interpreted, is most simply regarded as the fool's defense of his indolence, either expressed in his own words or fortified by a proverbial saying. One open hand full of quietness and rest is preferable to two closed hands full of toil and vain effort. The verse must not be taken as the writer's warning against sloth, which would be out of place here, but as enunciating a maxim against discontent and that restless activity which is never satisfied with moderate returns.
Thirdly, avarice causes isolation and a sense of insecurity, and brings no satisfaction.
Then I returned. Another reflection serves to confirm the uselessness of human efforts. The vanity under the sun is now avarice, with the evils that accompany it.
There is one alone, and there is not a second; or, without a second—a solitary being, without partner, relation, or friend. Here, he says, is another instance of man's inability to secure his own happiness. Wealth indeed, is supposed to make friends, such as they are; but miserliness and greed separate a man from his fellows, make him suspicious of every one, and drive him to live alone, churlish and unhappy. Yea, he hath neither child nor brother; no one to share his wealth, or for whom to save and amass riches. To apply these words to Solomon himself, who had brothers, and one son, if not more, is manifestly inappropriate. They may possibly refer to some circumstance in the writer's own life; but of that we know nothing. Yet is there no sad of all his labor. In spite of this isolation he plies his weary task, and ceases not to hoard. Neither is his eye satisfied with riches; so that he is content with what he has (comp. Ecclesiastes 2:10; Proverbs 27:20). The insatiable thirst for gold, the dropsy of the mind, is a commonplace theme in classical writers. Thus Horace, 'Caxm.,' 3.16. 17—
"Crescentem sequitur cura pecuniam, Majorumque fames."
And Juvenal, 'Sat.,' 14.138—
"Interea pleno quum turget sacculus ore,
Crescit amor nummi, quantum ipsa pecunia crevit."
Neither, saith he, For whom do I labor, and bereave my soul of good? The original is more dramatic than the Authorized Version or the Vulgate, Nec recogitat, dicens, Cui laboro, etc.? The writer suddenly puts himself in the place of the friendless miser, and exclaims, "And for whom do I labor," etc.? We see something similar in Ecclesiastes 4:15 and Ecclesiastes 2:15. Here we cannot find any definite allusion to the writer's own circumstances. The clause is merely a lively personification expressive of strong sympathy with the situation described (comp. Ecclesiastes 2:18). Good may mean either riches, in which case the denial to the soul refers to the enjoyment which wealth might afford, or happiness and comfort. The Septuagint has ἀγαθωσύνης, "goodness," "kindness "—which gives quite a different and not so suitable an idea. Sore travail; a sad business, a woeful employment.
Koheleth dwells upon the evils of isolation, and contrasts with them the comfort of companionship. Two are better than one. Literally, the clause refers to the two and the one mentioned in the preceding verse; but the gnome is true in general. "Two heads are better than one," says our proverb. Because (asher here conjunctive, not relative) they have a good reward for their labor. The joint labors of two produce much more effect than the efforts of a solitary worker. Companionship is helpful and profitable. Ginsburg quotes the rabbinical sayings,, Either friendship or death;" and "A man without friends is like a left hand without the right." Thus the Greek gnome—
"Man helps his fellow, city saves."
Χεὶρ χεῖρα νίπτει δάκτυλός τε δάκτυλον.
"Hand cleanseth hand, and finger cleanseth finger."
(Comp. Proverbs 17:17; Proverbs 27:17; Ecclesiasticus 6:14.) So Christ sent out his apostles two and two (Mark 6:7).
Koheleth illustrates the benefit of association by certain familiar examples. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow. If one or the other fall, the companion will aid him. The idea is that two travelers are making their way over a rough road—an experience that every one must have had in Palestine. Vulgate, Si unus ceciderit. Of course, if both fell at the same time, one could not help the other. Commentators quote Homer, 'Iliad,' 10.220-226, thus rendered by Lord Derby—
"Nestor, that heart is mine;
I dare alone Enter the hostile camp, so close at hand;
Yet were one comrade giv'n me, I should go
With more of comfort, more of confidence.
Where two combine, one before other sees
The better course; and ev'n though one alone
The readiest way discover, yet would be
His judgment slower, his decision less."
Woe to him that is alone. The same interjection of sorrow, אִי, occurs in Ecclesiastes 10:16, but elsewhere only in late Hebrew. The verse may be applied to moral falls as well as to stumbling at natural obstacles. Brother helps brother to resist temptation, while many have failed when tried by isolation who would have manfully withstood if they had had the countenance and support of others.
"Clear before us through the darkness
Gleams and burns the guiding light;
Brother clasps the hand of brother,
Stepping fearless through the night."
The first example of the advantage of companionship spoke of the aid and support that are thus given; the present verse tells of the comfort thus brought. If two lie together, then they have heat. The winter nights in Palestine are comparatively cold, and when, as in the case of the poorer inhabitants, the outer garment worn by day was used as the only blanket during sleep (Exodus 22:26, Exodus 22:27), it was a comfort to have the additional warmth of a friend lying under the same coverlet. Solomon could have had no such experience.
The third instance shows the value of the protection afforded by a companion's presence when danger threatens. If one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; better, if a man overpower the solitary one, the two (Ecclesiastes 4:9) will withstand him. The idea of the traveler is continued. If he were attacked by robbers, he would be easily overpowered when alone; but two comrades might successfully resist the assault. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken. This is probably a proverbial saying, like our "Union is strength." Hereby the advantage of association is more strongly enforced. If the companionship of two is profitable, much more is this the case when more combine. The cord of three strands was the strongest made. The number three is used as the symbol of completeness and perfection. Funiculus triplex diffcile rumpitur, the Vulgate rendering, has become a trite saying; and the gnome has been constantly applied in a mystical or spiritual sense, with which, originally and humanly speaking, it has no concern. Herein is seen an adumbration of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Eternal Three in One; of the three Christian virtues, faith, hope, and charity, which go to make the Christian life; of the Christian's body, soul, and spirit, which are consecrated as a temple of the Most High.
High place offers no assurance of security. A king's popularity is never permanent; he is supplanted by some clever young aspirant for a time, whose influence in turn soon evaporates, and the subject-people reap no benefit from the change.
Better is a poor and wise child than an old and foolish king. The word translated "child" (yeled), is used sometimes of one beyond childhood (see Genesis 30:26; Genesis 37:30; 1 Kings 12:8), so here it may be rendered "youth." Misken, πενὴς, pauper (Vulgate), "poor," is found also at Ecclesiastes 9:15, Ecclesiastes 9:16, and nowhere else; but the root, with an analogous signification, occurs at Deuteronomy 8:9 and Isaiah 40:20. The clause says that a youth who is clever and adroit, though sprung from a sordid origin, is better off than a king who has not learned wisdom with his years, and who, it is afterwards implied, is dethroned by this young man. Who will no more be admonished; better, as in the Revised Version, who knoweth not how to receive admonition any more. Age has only fossilized his self-will and obstinacy; and though he was once open to advice and hearkened to reproof, he now bears no contradiction and takes no counsel. Septuagint, Ὅς οὐκ ἔγνω τοῦ προέχειν ἔτι, "Who knows not how to take heed any longer;" which is perhaps similar to the Vulgate, Qui nescit praevidere in posterum, "Who knows not how to look forward to the future." The words will bear this translation, and it accords with one view of the author's meaning (see below); but that given above is more suitable to the interpretation of the paragraph which approves itself to us. The sentence is of general import, and may be illustrated by a passage from the Book of Wisdom (Wis. 4:8, 9), "Honorable age is not that which standeth in length of time, nor that is measured by length of years. But wisdom is the grey hair unto men, and an unspotted life is old age." So Cicero, 'De Senect.,' 18.62, "Non cant nee rugae repente auctoritatem arripere possunt, sod honeste acta superior aetas fructus capit aactoritatis extremes." Some have thought that Solomon is here speaking of himself, avowing his folly and expressing his contrition, in view of his knowledge of Jeroboam's delegation to the kingdom—the crafty youth of poor estate (1 Kings 11:26, etc.), whom the Prophet Ahijah had warned of approaching greatness. But there is nothing in the recorded history of Solomon to make probable such expression of self-abasement, and our author could never have so completely misrepresented him. Here, too, is another proof that Ecclesiastes is not written by Solomon himself.
For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor. The ambiguity of the pronouns has induced different interpretations of this verse. It is plain that the paragraph is intended to corroborate the statement of the previous verse, contrasting the fate of the poor, clever youth with that of the old, foolish king. The Authorized Version makes the pronoun in the first clause refer to the youth, and those in the second to the king, with the signification that rich and poor change places—one is abased as the other is exalted. Vulgate, Quod de carcere catenisque interdum quis egrediatnr ad regnum; et alius natus in regno inopia consummatur. The Septuagint is somewhat ambiguous, Ὅτι ἐξ οἴκου τῶν δεσμίων ελξελεύσεται τοῦ βασιλεῦσαι ὅτι καί γε ἐν βασιλείᾳ αὐτοῦ ἐγενήθη πένης, "For from the house of prisoners he shall come forth to reign, because in his kingdom he [who?] was born [or, 'became'] poor." It seems, however, most natural to make the leading pronouns in both clauses refer to the youth, and thus to render: "For out of the house of prisoners goeth he forth to reign, though even in his kingdom he was born poor." Beth hasurim is also rendered "house of fugitives," and Hitzig takes the expression as a description of Egypt, whither Jeroboam fled to escape the vengeance of Solomon. Others see here an allusion to Joseph, who was raised from prison, if not to be king, at least to an exalted position which might thus be designated. In this case the old and foolish king who could not look to the future is Pharaoh, who could not understand the dream which was sent for his admonition. Commentators have wearied themselves with endeavoring to find some other historical basis for the supposed allusion in the passage. But although many of these suggestions (e.g. Saul and David, Joash and Amaziah, Cyrus and Astyages, Herod and Alexander) meet a part of the case, none suit the whole passage (Ecclesiastes 4:13-16). It is possible, indeed, that some particular allusion is intended to some circumstance or event with which we are not acquainted. At the same time, it seems to us that, without much straining of language, the reference to Joseph can be made good. If it is objected that it cannot be said that Joseph was born in the kingdom of Egypt, we may reply that the words may be taken to refer to his cruel position in his own country, when he was despoiled and sold, and may be said metaphorically to have "become poor;" or the word nolad may be considered as equivalent to "came," "appeared," and need not be restricted to the sense of "born."
I considered all the living which walk under the sun; or, I have seen all the population. The expression is hyperbolical, as Eastern monarchs speak of their dominions as if they comprised the whole world (see Daniel 4:1; Daniel 6:25). With the second child that shall stand up in his stead. "With" (עִם) means "in company with," "on the side of;" and the clause should be rendered, as in the Revised Version, That they were with the youth, the second, that stood up in his stead. The youth who is called the second is the one spoken of in the previous verses, who by general acclamation is raised to the highest place in the realm, while the old monarch is dethroned or depreciated. He is named second, as being the successor of the other, either in popular favor or on the throne. It is the old story of worshipping the rising sun. The verse may still be applied to Joseph, who was made second to Pharaoh, and was virtually supreme in Egypt, standing in the king's place (Genesis 41:40-44).
There is no end of all the people, even of all that have been before them. The paragraph plainly is carrying on the description of the popular enthusiasm for the new favorite. The Authorized Version completely obscures this meaning. It is better to translate, Numberless were the people, all, at whose head he stood. Koheleth places himself in the position of a spectator, and marks how numerous are the adherents who flock around the youthful aspirant. "Nullus finis omni populo, omnibus, quibus praefuit" (Gesenius, Rosenmüller, Volck). Yet his popularity was not lasting and his influence was not permanent. They also that come after shall not rejoice in him. In spite of his cleverness, and notwithstanding the favor with which he is now regarded, those of a later generation shall flout his pretensions and forget his benefits. If we still continue the allusion to Joseph, we may see here in this last clause a reference to the change that supervened when another king arose who knew him not (Exodus 1:8), and who, oblivious of the services of this great benefactor, heavily oppressed the Israelites. This experience leads to the same result; it is all vanity and vexation of spirit.
Two pessimistic fallacies; or, the glory of being born.
I. THE FIRST FALLACY. That the dead are happier than the living.
1. Even on the assumption of no hereafter, this is not evident. The already dead are not praised because they enjoyed better times on earth than the now living have. But
(1) if they had better times when living, they have these no more, having ceased to be; while
(2) if their times on earth were not superior to those of their successors, they have still only escaped these by subsiding into cold annihilation, and it has yet to be proved that "a living dog" is not "better than a dead lion" (Ecclesiastes 9:4). Besides,
(3) it is not certain there is no hereafter, which makes them pause and hesitate to jump the life to come. When they discuss with themselves the question—
"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?"
they generally come to Hamlet's conclusion, that it is better to
"Bear the ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of."
2. On the assumption that there is a hereafter, it is less certain that the dead are more to be praised than the living. It depends on who the dead are, and what the kind of existence is into which they have departed.
(1) If they have lived unrighteously on earth, it will not be safe, even on grounds of natural reason, to conclude that their condition in the unseen land into which they have vanished is better than that of the living who are yet alive, even should these also be wicked; since for these there are still time and place for repentance, which cannot be affirmed of the ungodly dead.
(2) If their lives on earth have been pious—e.g; if as Christians they have fallen asleep in Jesus—it need hardly be doubted that their condition is better even than that of the godly living, who are still dwellers in this vale of tears, subject to imperfections, exposed to temptations, and liable to sin.
II. THE SECOND FALLACY. That better than both the living and the dead are the not yet born.
1. On the assumption that this life is all, it is not universally true that not to have been born would have been a preferable lot to having been born and being dead. No doubt it is sad that one born into this world is sure, while on his pilgrimage to the tomb, to witness spectacles of oppression such as the Preacher describes; and sadder that many before they die will be the victims of such oppressions; while of all things, perhaps the saddest is that a man may even live to become the perpetrator of such cruelties; yet no one can truly affirm that human life generally contains nothing but oppression on the one side and tears upon the other, or that in any individual's life naught exists but wretchedness and woe, or that in the experiences of most the joys do not nearly counterbalance, if not actually outweigh, the griefs, while in that of not a few the pleasures far exceed the pains.
2. On the assumption of a hereafter, only one case or class of cases can be pointed to in which it would have been decidedly better not to have been born, viz. that in which one who has been born, on departing from this world, passes into an undone eternity. Christ instanced one such case (Matthew 26:24); and if there be truth in the representations given by Christ and his apostles of the ultimate doom of those who die in unbelief and sin (Matthew 11:22; Matthew 13:41, Matthew 13:42; Matthew 22:13; Matthew 24:51; Joh 5:29; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Revelation 21:8), it will not be difficult to see that in their case also the words of the Preacher will be true.
3. In every other instance, but chiefly in that of the good, who does not see how immeasurably more blessed it is to have been born? For consider what this means. It means to have been made in the Divine image, endowed with an intellect and a heart capable of holding fellowship with and serving God. And if it also signifies to have been born into a state of sin and misery in consequence of our first parents' fall, it should not be forgotten that it signifies, in addition, to have been born into a sphere and condition of existence in which God's grace has been before one, and is waiting to lift one up, completely and for ever, out of that sin and misery if one will. No one accepting that grace will ever afterwards deem it a misfortune that he was born. Thomas Halyburton, the Scottish theologian, did not so regard his introduction to this lower world, with all its vicissitudes and woes. "Oh, blessed be God that I was born!" were his dying words. "I have a father and a mother, and ten brothers and sisters, in heaven, and I shall be the eleventh. Oh, blessed be the day that ever I was born!"
1. The existence of sin and suffering no proof that life is an evil thing.
2. The wickedness of undervaluing existence under the sun.
3. The folly of over-praising the dead and underrating the living.
4. A worse thing than seeing "evil work" beneath the sun is doing it.
Three sketches from life.
I. THE INDUSTRIOUS WORKER.
1. The success that attends his toil. Every enterprise to which he puts his hand prospers, and in this sense is a "right" work. Never an undertaking started by him fails. Whatever he touches turns into gold. He is one of those children of fortune upon whom the sun always shines—a man of large capacity and untiring energy, who keeps plodding on, doing the right thing to pay, and doing it at the right time, and so building up for himself a vast store of wealth.
2. The drawbacks that wait on his success. The Preacher does not hint that his work has been wrong; only that success such as his has its drawbacks.
(1) It can only be attained by hard work. By Heaven's decree it is the fruit of toil; and sometimes he who finds it must sweat and labor for it, tugging away at the oar of industry like a very galley-slave, depriving his soul of good, and condemning his body to the meanest drudgery.
(2) It often springs from unworthy motives in the worker, as e.g. from ambition, or a desire to outstrip his competitors in the race for wealth; from covetousness, or a hungry longing for other people's gold; or from avarice, which means a sordid thirst for possession.
(3) It commonly leads to envy in beholders, especially in those to whom success has been denied. That it ought not to do so may be conceded; that it will not do so in those who consider that success, like every other thing, comes from God (Psalms 75:6, Psalms 75:7), and that a man can receive nothing except it be given him from above (John 3:27) is certain; that it does so, nevertheless, is apparent. In every department of life success incites some who witness it to depreciation, censoriousness, and even to backbiting and slander. "Envy spies out blemishes, that she may lower another by defeat," and when she cannot find, seldom wants the wit to invent them. Detraction is the shadow that waits upon the sun of prosperity.
(4) It is usually attended by anxiety. The man to whom success is given is often one to whom success can be of small account, being "one that is alone and hath not a second," without wife or child, brother or friend, to whom to leave his wealth, so that as this increases his perplexity augments as to what he shall do with it.
II. THE HABITUAL IDLER.
1. The folly he exhibits. Not indisposed to partake of the successful man's wealth, he is yet disinclined to the labor by which alone wealth can be secured, lie is one on whom the spirit of indolence has seized. Averse to exertion, like the sluggard, he is slumberous and slothful (Proverbs 6:10; Proverbs 24:33); and when he does awake, finds that other men's day is half through. If one must not depreciate the value of sleep, which God gives to his beloved (Psalms 127:2), or pronounce all fools who have evinced a capacity for the same, since according to Thomson ('Castle of Indolence')—
"Great men have ever loved repose,"
one may recognize the folly of expecting to succeed in life while devoting one's day to indolence or slumber.
2. The wretchedness that springs from his folly. That the habitual idler should "eat his own flesh"—not have a pleasant time of it, in spite of his indolence, attain to the fruition of his desires without work (Ginsburg, Plumptre), but reduce himself to poverty and starvation, and consume himself with envy and vexation (Delitzsch, Hengstenberg, Wright)—is according to the fitness of things, as well as the teachings of Scripture (Proverbs 13:4; Proverbs 23:21; Ecclesiastes 10:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:10). "Idleness is the bane of body and mind, the nurse of naughtiness, the chief author of all misery, one of the seven deadly sins, the cushion upon which the devil chiefly reposes, and a great cause not only of melancholy, but of many other diseases" (Burton).
III. THE SAGACIOUS MORALIZER.
1. His character defined. Neither of the two former, he is a happy mean between both. If he toils not like him who always succeeds, he loafs not about like the fool who never works. If he amasses not wealth, he equally escapes poverty. He works in moderation, and is contented with a competence.
2. His wisdom extolled. If he attains not to riches, he avoids the sore travail requisite to procure riches, and the vexation of spirit, or "feeding upon wind," which riches bring. If he succeeds in gathering only one fistful of the goods of earth, he has at least the priceless pearl of quietness, including ease of mind as well as comfort of body.
1. Industry and contentment two Christian virtues (Romans 12:11; Ephesians 4:28; 1 Timothy 6:8; Hebrews 13:5).
2. Idleness and sloth two destructive sins (Proverbs 12:24; Ecclesiastes 10:8).
Two better than one; or, companionship versus isolation.
I. THE DISADVANTAGES OF ISOLATION.
1. Its causes. Either natural or moral, providentially imposed or deliberately chosen.
(1) Examples of the former: the individual who has no wife or friend, son or brother, because these have been removed by death (Psalms 88:18); the traveler who journeys alone through some uninhabited waste (Job 38:26; Jeremiah 2:6) or voiceless solitude; a stranger who lands on a foreign shore, with whose inhabitants he can hold no converse, because of not understanding their speech, and who lacks the assistance of a friendly interpreter.
(2) Instances of the latter: the younger son, who forsakes the parental roof, leaving behind him parents, brothers, and sisters, as well as friends and companions, acquaintances and neighbors, and departs into a far country alone to see life and make a fortune; the elder brother, who, when the old people have died, and the younger branches of the family have removed, remains unmarried, because he chooses to live entirely for himself; the busy merchant, self-contained and prosperous, who stands apart from his employees, and, without either colleague or counselor, partner or assistant, takes upon his own broad shoulders the whole weight and responsibility of a large "concern;" the student, who loves his books better than his fellows, and, eschewing intercourse with these, broods in solitude over problems too deep for his unaided intellect, that might be solved in a few hours' talk with a friend; the selfish soul, who has heart to give to no thing or person outside of self, and who fears lest his own stock of happiness should be diminished were he in an inadvertent moment to augment that of others.
2. Its miseries. Manifold and richly deserved—at least where the isolation springs from causes moral and self-chosen. Amongst the lonely man's woes may be enumerated these:
(1) the absence of those advantages and felicities that arise from companionship—a theme treated of in the next main division of this homily;
(2) the intellectual and moral deterioration that inevitably ensues on the suppression of the soul's social instincts, and the attempt to educate one's manhood apart from the family, the community, the race, of which it forms a part;
(3) the inward wretchedness that by the just decree of Heaven attends the crime (where the isolation spoken of assumes this form) of living entirely for self; and,
(4) aside from ideas of crime and guilt, the insatiable greed of self, which makes even larger demands upon one's labor, and deeper inroads upon one's peace, than all the claims of ethers would were the soul to honor these, and which, like an unpitying taskmaster, impels the soul to unceasing toil, and fills it with unending care (Esther 4:8; cf. Ecclesiastes 2:23).
II. THE BENEFITS OF COMPANIONSHIP. The "good reward" for their labor which two receive in preference to one points to the advantages that flow from union. These are four.
1. Reciprocal assistance. The picture sketched by "the great orator" is that of two wayfaring men upon a dark and dangerous road, who are helpful to each other in turn as each stumbles in the path, rendered difficult to tread by gloom overhead or uneven places underfoot. Whereas each one by himself might deem it hazardous to pursue his journey, knowing that if he fell when alone he might be quite unable to rise, and might even lose his life through exposure to the inclemencies of the night or the perils of the place, each accompanied by the other pushes on with quiet confidence, realizing that, should a moment come when he has need of a second to help him up, that second will be beside him in the person of his friend.
"When two together go, each for the other
Is first to think what best will help his brother;
But one who walks alone, the' wise in mind,
Of purpose slow and counsel weak we find."
(Homer, 'Iliad,' 10.224-226.)
The application of this principle of mutual helpfulness to almost every department of life, to the home and to the city, to the state and to the Church, to the workshop and to the playground, to the school and to the university, is obvious.
2. Mutual stimulus. Illustrated from the case of two travelers, who on a cold night lie under one blanket (Exodus 23:6), and keep each other warm; whereas, should they sleep apart, they would each shiver the whole night through in miserable discomfort. The counterpart of this, again, may be found in every circle of life, but more especially in the home and the Church, in both of which the inmates are enjoined and expected to be helpers and comforters of each other, considering one another to provoke unto love and good works (Hebrews 10:24).
3. Efficient protection. The writer notes the peril of the pilgrim whom, if alone, a robber may overpower, but whom, if accompanied by a comrade, the highwayman would not venture to attack. So multitudes of dangers assail the individual, against which he cannot protect himself by his own unaided strength, but which the friendly assistance of another may aid him to repel. As illustrations will at once present themselves, cases of sickness, temptations to sin, assaults upon the youthful believer's faith. In ordinary life men know the value of co-operation as a means of defense against invasions of what are deemed their natural rights; might the Christian Church not derive from this a lesson as to how she can best meet and cope with the assaults to which she is subjected by infidelity on the one hand, and immorality on the other?
4. Increased strength. As surely as division and isolation mean loss of power, with consequent weakness, so surely do union and co-operation signify augmented might and multiplied efficiency. The Preacher expresses this by saying, "The threefold cord will not quickly be broken." As the thickest rope may be snapped if first untwisted and taken strand by strand, so may the most formidable army be defeated, if only it can be dealt with in detached battalions, and the strongest Church may be laid in ruins if its members can be overthrown one by one. But then the converse of this is likewise true. As every strand twisted into a cable imparts to it additional strength, so every grace added to the Christian character makes it stronger to repel evil, and gives it larger ability for Christian service; while every additional believer incorporated into the body of Christ renders it the more impregnable by sin, and the more capable of furthering the progress ()f the truth.
1. The sinfulness of isolation.
2. The duty of union.
3. The value of a good companion.
The vicissitudes of royalty; or, the experience of a king.
I. WELCOMED IN YOUTH. The picture sketched that of a political revolution. "An old and foolish king, no longer understanding how to be warned," who has fallen out of touch with the times, and neither himself discerns the governmental changes demanded by the exigencies of the hour, nor is willing to be guided by his state councilors, is deposed in favor of a youthful hero who has caught the popular imagination, perceived the necessities of the situation, learnt how to humor the fickle crowd, contrived to install himself in their affections, and succeeded in promoting himself to be their ruler.
1. Climbing the ladder. Originally a poor man's son, he had raised himself to be a leader of his countrymen, perhaps as Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, did in the days of Rehoboam (1 Kings 11:26-28), interesting himself in the social and political condition of his fellow-subjects, sympathizing with their grievances, probably acting as their spokesman in laying these before the aged sovereign; and, when their demands were unheeded, possibly fanning their discontent, and even helping them to plot insurrection—for which, having been detected, he was cast into prison. Nevertheless, neither his humble birth nor his forcible incarceration had been sufficient to degrade him in the people's eyes.
2. Standing on the summit. Accordingly, when the tide of discontent had risen so high that they could no longer tolerate their senile and imbecile monarch, and their courage had waxed so valiant as to enable them successfully to carry through his deposition, they bethought themselves of the imprisoned hero who had espoused and was then suffering for their cause, and having fetched him forth from confinement, proceeded with him to the then deserted palace, where they placed upon his head the crown, amid shouts of jubilant enthusiasm, crying, "God save the king!" It is doubtless an ideal picture, which in its several details has often been realized; as, e.g; when Joseph was fetched from the round house of Heliopolis, and seated on the second throne of Egypt (Genesis 41:14, Genesis 41:40); as when David was crowned at Hebron on Saul's death by the men of Judah (2 Samuel 2:4), and Jeroboam at Shechem by the tribes of Israel (1 Kings 12:20); as when Athaliah was deposed, and the boy Joash made king in her stead (2 Kings 11:12).
3. Surveying his fortune. So far as the new-made king was concerned, the commencement of his reign was auspicious. It doubtless never occurred to him that the sun of his royal person would ever know decline, or that he would ever experience the fate of his predecessor. It was with him the dawn of rosy-fingered morn; how the day would develop was not foreseen, least of all was it discerned how the night should fall!
II. HONORED IN MANHOOD.
1. Extending his renown. Seated on his throne, he wields the scepter of irresponsible authority for a long series of years. As the drama of his life unfolds, he grows in the affections of his people. With every revolution of the sun his popularity increases. The affairs of his kingdom prosper. The extent of his dominions widens. All the kingdoms of the earth come to place themselves beneath his rule. Like another Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Xerxes, Alexander, Caesar, he is a world-governing autocrat. "All the living who walk under the sun" are on the side of the man who had been born poor, and had once languished in a prison; neither is there any end to all the people at whose head he is.
2. Enjoying his felicity. One would say, as perhaps in the heyday of his prosperity he said to himself, the cup of his soul's happiness was full. He had obtained all the world could bestow of earthly glory, power the most exalted, influence the most extended, riches the most abundant, fame the most renowned, popularity the most secure! What could he wish else? The sun of his royal highness was shining in meridian splendor, and prostrate nations were adoring him as a god. No one surely would venture to suggest that the orb of his majestical divinity might one day suffer an eclipse. We shall see! Strange things have happened on this much-agitated planet.
III. DESPISED IN AGE.
1. The shadows gathering. The brightest earthly glory is liable to fade. One who has reached the topmost pinnacle of tame, and is the object of admiration to millions of his fellows, may yet sink so low that men shall say of him, as Mark Antony said of the fallen Caesar—
"Now lies he there,
And none so poor to do him reverence."
The idol of one age may become an object of execration to the next. As in ancient Egypt another king arose who knew not Joseph, so in the picture of the Preacher grew to manhood another generation which knew not the poor wise youth who had been his country's deliverer. He of whom it had once been said—
"All tongues speak of him, and the bleared sights
Are spectacled to see him … and such a pother [made about him],
As if that whatsoever God who leads him
Were slyly crept into his human powers,
And gave him graceful posture"—
('Coriolanus,' 2 Samuel 1:0; 2 Samuel 1:0.)
lived to be an object of derision to his subjects.
2. The night descending. In the irony of history, the same (or a similar) fate overtook him as had devoured his predecessor. As the men and women of a past age had counted his predecessor an imbecile and a fool, so were the men and women of the present age disposed to look on him. If they did not depose him, they did not "rejoice in him," as their fathers had done when they hailed him as their country's savior; they simply suffered him to drop into ignominious contempt, and perhaps well-merited oblivion. Such spectacles of the vanity of kingly state had been witnessed before the Preacher's day, and have been not unknown since. So fared it with the boy-prince Joash (2 Kings 11:12; 2 Chronicles 24:25), and with Richard II; whose subjects cried "All hail!" to him in the day of his popularity, but to whom, when he put off his regal dignity,
"No man cried, 'God save him!'
No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home,
But dust was thrown upon his sacred head."
('King Richard II.,' Acts 5:0. sc. 2.)
1. The vanity of earthly glory.
2. The fickleness of popular renown.
3. The ingratitude of men.
HOMILIES BY D. THOMAS
The oppressed and the oppressor.
Liberty has ever been the object of human desire and aspiration. Yet how seldom and how partially has this boon been secured during the long period of human history! Especially in the East freedom has been but little known. Despotism has been and is very general, and there have seldom been states of society in which there has been no room for reflections such as those recorded in this verse.
I. THE TYRANNY OF THE OPPRESSOR.
1. This implies power, which may arise from physical strength, from hereditary authority, from rank and wealth, or from civil and political position and dignity. Power will always exist in human society; drive it out at one door, and it will re-enter by another. It may be checked and restrained; but it is inseparable from our nature and state.
2. It implies the misuse of power. It may be good to have a giant's strength, but "tyrannous to use it like a giant." The great and powerful use their strength and influence aright when they protect and care for those who are beneath them. But our experience of human nature leads us to believe that where there is power there is likely to be abuse. Delight in the exercise of power is too generally found to lead to the contempt of the rights of others; hence the prevalence of oppression.
II. THE SORROWFUL LOT OF THE OPPRESSED.
1. The sense of oppression creates grief and distress, depicted in the tears of those suffering from wrong. Pain is one thing; wrong is another and a bitterer thing. A man will endure patiently the ills which nature or his own conduct brings upon him, whilst he frets or even rages under the evil wrought by his neighbor's injustice.
2. The absence of consolation adds to the trouble. Twice it is said of the oppressed, "They had no comforter." The oppressors are indisposed, and fellow-sufferers are unable, to succor and relieve them.
3. The consequence is the slow formation of the habit of dejection, which may deepen into despondency.
III. THE REFLECTIONS SUGGESTED BY SUCH SPECTACLES.
1. No right-minded person can look upon instances of oppression without discerning the prevalence and lamenting the pernicious effects of sin. 'To oppress a fellow-man is to do despite to the image of God himself.
2. The mind is often perplexed when it looks, and looks in vain, for the interposition of the just Governor of all, who defers to intervene for the rectification of human wrongs. "How long, O Lord!" is the exclamation of many a pious believer in Divine providence, who looks upon the injustice of the haughty and contemptuous, and upon the woes of the helpless who are smitten and afflicted.
3. Yet there is reason patiently to wait for the great deliverance. He who has effected a glorious salvation on man's behalf, who has "visited and redeemed his people," will in due time humble the selfish tyrant, break the bonds of the captive, and let the oppressed go free.—T.
Esther 4:2, Esther 4:3
It would be a mistake to regard this language as expressing the deliberate and final conviction of the author of Ecclesiastes. It represents a mood of his mind, and indeed of many a mind, oppressed by the sorrows, the wrongs, and the perplexities of human life. Pessimism is at the root a philosophy; but its manifestation is in a habit or tendency of the mind, such as may be recognized in many who are altogether strange to speculative thinking. The pessimism of the East anticipated that of modern Europe. Though there is no reason for connecting the morbid state of mind recorded in this Book of Ecclesiastes with the Buddhism of India, both alike bear witness to the despondency which is naturally produced in the mental habit of not a few who are perplexed and discouraged by the untoward circumstances of human life.
I. THE UNQUESTIONABLE FACTS UPON WHICH PESSIMISM IS BASED.
1. The unsatisfying nature of the pleasures of life. Men set their hearts upon the attainment of enjoyments, wealth, greatness, etc. When they gain what they seek, the satisfaction expected does not follow. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing. Disappointed and unhappy, the votary of pleasure is "soured" with life itself, and asks, "Who will show us any good?"
2. The brevity, uncertainty, and transitoriness of life. Men find that there is no time for the acquirements, the pursuits, the aims, which seem to them essential to their earthly well-being. In many cases life is cut short; but even when it is prolonged, it passes like the swift ships. It excites visions and hopes which in the nature of things cannot be realized.
3. The actual disappointment of plans and the failure of efforts. Men learn the limitations of their powers; they find circumstances too strong for them; all that seemed desirable proves to be beyond their reach.
II. THE HABIT OF MIND IN WHICH PESSIMIST CONSISTS.
1. It comes to be a steady conviction that life is not worth living. Is life a boon at ally why should it be prolonged, when it is ever proving itself insufficient for human wants, unsatisfying to human aspirations? The young and hopeful may take a different view, but their illusions will speedily be dispelled. There is nothing so unworthy of appreciation and desire as life.
2. The dead are regarded as more fortunate than the living; and, indeed, it is a misfortune to be born, to come into this earthly life at all. "The sooner it's over, the sooner asleep." Consciousness is grief and misery; they only are blest who are at rest in the painless Nirvana of eternity.
III. THE ERRORS INVOLVED IN THE PESSIMISTIC INFERENCE AND CONCLUSION.
1. It is assumed that pleasure is the chief good. A great living philosopher deliberately takes it for granted that the question—Is life worth living? is to be decided by the question—Does life yield a surplus of agreeable feeling? This being so, it is natural that the disappointed and unhappy should drift into pessimism. But, as a matter of fact, the test is one altogether unjust, and can only be justified, upon the supposition that man is merely a creature that feels. It is the hedonist who is disappointed that becomes the pessimist.
2. There is a higher end for man than pleasure, viz. spiritual cultivation and progress. It is better to grow in the elements of a noble character than to be filled with all manner of delights. Man was made in the likeness of God, and his discipline on earth is to recover and to perfect that likeness. 3. This higher end may in some cases be attained by the hard process of distress and disappointment. This seems to have been lost sight of in the mood which found expression in the language of these verses. Yet experience and reflection alike concur to assure us that it may be good for us to be afflicted. It not infrequently happens that
Gives up a part to take to it the whole."
APPLICATION. As there are times and circumstances in all persons lives which are naturally conducive to pessimistic habits, it behooves us to be, at such times and in such circumstances, especially upon our guard lest we half consciously fall into habits so destructive of real spiritual well-being and usefulness. The conviction that Infinite Wisdom and Righteousness are at the heart of the universe, and not blind unconscious fate and force, is the one preservative; and to this it is the Christian's privilege to add an affectionate faith in God as the Father of the spirits of all flesh, and the benevolent Author of life and immortal salvation to all who receive his gospel and confide in the mediation of his blessed Son.—T.
There is no vice more vulgar and despicable, none which affords more painful evidence of the depravity of human nature, than envy. It is a vice which Christianity has done much to discourage and repress; but in unchristian communities its power is mighty and disastrous.
I. THE FACTS FROM WHICH ENVY STRINGS.
1. Generally, the inequality of the human lot is the occasion of envious feelings, which would not arise were all men possessed of an equal and a satisfying portion of earthly good.
2. Particularly, the disposition, on the part of one who is not possessed of some good, some desirable quality or property, to grasp at what is possessed by another.
II. THE FEELINGS AND DESIRES IN WHICH ENVY CONSISTS. We do not say that a man is envious who, seeing another strong or healthy, prosperous or powerful, wishes that he enjoyed the same advantages. Emulation is not envy. The envious man desires to take another's possessions from him—desires that the other may be impoverished in order that he may be enriched, or depressed in order that he may be exalted, or rendered miserable in order that he may be happy.
III. THE MISCHIEF TO WHICH ENVY LEADS.
1. It may lead to unjust and malevolent action, in order that it may secure its gratification.
2. It produces unhappiness in the breast of him who cherishes it; it gnaws and corrodes the heart.
3. It is destructive of confidence and cordiality in society.
IV. THE TRUE CORRECTIVE TO ENVY.
1. It should be considered that whatever men acquire and enjoy is attributable to the Divine favor and loving-kindness.
2. And that all men have blessings far beyond their deserts.
3. It becomes us to think less of what we do not or do possess, and more of what we do.
4. And to cultivate the spirit of Christ—the spirit of self-sacrifice and benevolence.—T.
The handful with quietness.
The lesson here imparted is proverbial. Every language has its own way of conveying and emphasizing this practical truth. Yet it is a belief more readily professed than actually made the basis of human conduct.
I. ABUNDANT MATERIAL WEALTH ATTRACTS ATTENTION AND EXCITES DESIRE.
II. THE DISPOSITION AND HABIT OF MIND WITH WHICH OUR POSSESSIONS ARE ENJOYED IS OF MORE IMPORTANCE THAN THEIR AMOUNT.
1. This appears from a consideration of human nature. "A man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesses."
2. And experience of human life enforces this lesson; for every observer of his fellow-men has remarked the unhappiness and pitiable moral state of some wealthy neighbors, and has known cases where narrow means have not hindered real well-being and felicity.
III. IT IS HENCE INFERRED THAT A QUIET MIND WITH POVERTY IS TO BE PREFERRED TO WEALTH WITH VEXATION. So it seemed even to Solomon in all his glory, and similar testimony has been borne by not a few of the great of this world, Nor, on the other hand, is it uncommon to find the healthy, happy, and pious among the poor rejoicing in their lot, and cherishing gratitude to God for the station to which they were born, and for the work to which they are called.
1. The comparison made by the wise man in this passage is a rebuke to envy. Who can tell what, if his two hands were filled with earthly good, he might, in consequence of his wealth, be called upon to endure of sorrow and of care?
2. On the other hand, this comparison is an encouragement to contentment. A handful is sufficient; and a quiet heart, grateful to God and at peace with men, can make what others might deem poverty not only endurable but welcome. It is God's blessing which maketh rich; and with it he addeth no sorrow.—T.
The pain of loneliness.
The picture here drawn is one of pathetic interest. It cannot have originated in personal experience, but must have been suggested by incidents in the author's wide and varied observation. A lonely man without a brother to share his sorrows and joys, without a son to succeed to his name and possessions, is represented as toiling on through the years of his life, and as accumulating a fortune, and then as awaking to a sense of his solitary state, and asking himself for whom he thus labors and endures? It is vanity, and a sore travail!
I. THE COMPANIONSHIP OF DOMESTIC AND SOCIAL LIFE IS THE ORDER OF NATURE AND THE APPOINTMENT OF GOD'S PROVIDENCE. There are cases in which men are called upon to deny themselves such companionship, and there are cases in which they have been, by no action of their own, but by the decree of God, deprived of it. But the constitution of the individual's nature and of human society are evidence that the declaration regarding our first father holds good of his posterity—that is, in normal circumstances—"It is not good for the man to be alone."
II. SUCH COMPANIONSHIP SUPPLIES A MOTIVE AND A RECOMPENSE FOR TOIL. A man can work better, more efficiently, perseveringly, and happily, when he works for others than when he works only for himself. Many a man owes his habits of industry and self-denial, his social advancement and his moral maturity, to the necessity of laboring for his family. He may be called upon to maintain aged parents, to provide for the comfort of a sickly wife, to secure the education of his sons, to save a brother from destitution. And such a call may awaken a willing and cheerful response, and may, under God, account for a good work in life.
III. THE ABSENCE OF SUCH COMPANIONSHIP MAY BE A SORE AFFLICTION, AND MAY BE THE OCCASION OF UNWISE AND BLAMABLE DISSATISFACTION AND MURMURING. Under the pressure of loneliness, a man may relax his efforts, or he may fall into a discontented, desponding, and cynical frame of mind. He may lose his interest in life and in human affairs generally. He may even become misanthropic and skeptical.
IV. THE TRUE CORRECTIVE OF SUCH UNHAPPY TENDENCIES IS TO BE FOUND IN THE CULTIVATION OF SPIRITUAL FELLOWSHIP WITH CHRIST, AND IN A WIDE CIRCLE OF SYMPATHY AND BENEVOLENCE. No one need be lonely who can call his Savior his Friend; and Christ's friendship is open to every believer. And all Christ's disciples and brethren are of the spiritual kindred of him who trusts and loves the Redeemer. Where kindred "according to the flesh" are wanting, there need be no lack of spiritual relatives and associates. All around the lonely man are those who need succor, kindly aid, education, guardianship, and the heart purifies and refines as it takes in new objects of pity, interest, and Christian affection. And the day shall come when the Divine Savior and Judge shall say to those who have responded to his appeal, "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me."—T.
The advantages of fellowship.
There is a sense in which we have no choice but to be members of society. We are born into a social life, trained in it, and in it we must live. "None of us liveth unto himself." But there is a sense in which it rests with us to cultivate fellowship with our kind. And such voluntary association, we are taught in this passage, is productive of the highest benefits.
I. FELLOWSHIP MAKES LABOR EFFECTIVE. "Two have a good reward for their labor." If this was so in the day of the writer of Ecclesiastes, how much more strikingly and obviously is it so today! Division of labor and co-operation in labor are the two great principles which account for the success of industrial enterprise in our own time. There is scope for such united efforts in the Church of Christ—for unity and brotherly kindness, for mutual help, consideration, and endeavor.
II. FELLOWSHIP PROVIDES SUCCOR IN CALAMITY. When two are together, he who falls may be lifted up, when if alone he might be left to perish. This is a commonplace truth with reference to travelers in a strange land, with reference to comrades in war, etc. Our Lord Jesus sent forth his apostles two and. two, that one might supply his neighbor's deficiencies; that the healthy might uphold the sick; and the brave might cheer the timid. The history of Christ's Church is a long record of mutual succor and consolation. To raise the fallen, to cherish the weakly, to relieve the needy, to assist the widow and fatherless,—this is true religion. Here is the sphere for the manifestation of Christian fellowship.
III. FELLOWSHIP IS PROMOTIVE OF COMFORT, WELL-BEING, AND HAPPINESS. "How can one be warm alone?" asks the Preacher. Every household, every congregation, every Christian society, is a proof that there is a spirit of mutual dependence wherever the will of the great Father and Savior of mankind is honored and obeyed. The more there is of brotherly love within the Church, the more effective will be the Church's work of benevolence and missionary aggression upon the ignorance and sin of the world.
IV. FELLOWSHIP IMPARTS STRENGTH, STABILITY, AND POWER OF RESISTANCE. TWO, placing themselves shoulder to shoulder, can withstand an onset before which one alone would fall. "The threefold cord is not quickly broken." It must be remembered that the work of religious men in this world is no child's play; there are forces of evil to resist, there is a warfare to be maintained. And in order to succeed, two things are needful: first, dependence upon God; and secondly, brotherhood with our comrades and fellow-soldiers in the holy war.—T.
Esther 4:13, Esther 4:14
Folly a worse evil than poverty.
This is no doubt a paradox. For one man who seeks to become wise, there are a hundred who desire and strive for riches. For one man who desires the friendship of the thoughtful and prudent, there are ten who cultivate the intimacy of the prosperous and luxurious. Still, men's judgment is fallible and often erroneous; and it is so in this particular.
I. WISDOM ENNOBLES YOUTH AND POVERTY. Age does not always bring wisdom, which is the gift of God, sometimes—as in the case of Solomon—conferred in early life. True excellence and honor are not attached to age and station. Wisdom, modesty, and trustworthiness may be found in lowly abodes and in youthful years. Character is the supreme test of what is admirable and good. A young man may be wise in the conduct of his own life, in the use of his own gifts and opportunities, in the choice of his own friends; he may be wise in his counsel offered to others, in the influence he exerts over others. And his wisdom may be shown in his contented acquiescence in the poverty of his condition and the obscurity of his station. He will not forget that the Lord of all, for our sakes, became poor, dwelt in a lowly home, wrought at a manual occupation, enjoyed few advantages of human education or of companionship with the great.
II. FOLLY DEGRADES AGE AND ROYALTY. In the natural order of things, knowledge and prudence should accompany advancing age. It is "years that bring the philosophic mind." In the natural order of thins, high station should call out the exercise of statesmanship, thoughtful wisdom, mature and weighty counsel. Where all these are absent, there may be outward greatness, splendor, luxury, empire, but true kingship there is not. There is no fool so conspicuously and pitiably foolish as the aged monarch who can neither give counsel himself nor accept it from the experienced and trustworthy. And the case is worse when his folly is apparent in the mismanagement of his own life. It may be questioned whether Solomon, in his youth, receiving in answer to prayer the gift of wisdom, and using it with serious sobriety, was not more to be admired than when, as a splendid but disappointed voluptuary, he enjoyed the revenues of provinces, dwelt in sumptuous palaces, and received the homage of distant potentates, but yet was corrupted by his own weaknesses into connivance at idolatry, and was unfaithful to the Lord to whose bounty he was indebted for all he possessed.
APPLICATION. This is a word of encouragement to thoughtful, pure-minded, and religious youth. The judgment of inspiration commends those who, in the flower of their age, by God's grace rise above the temptations to which they are exposed, and cherish that reverence toward the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom.—T.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Pessimism and Christian life.
It is a very significant fact that this pessimistic note (of the text) should be as much heard as it is in this land and in this age;—in this land, where the hard and heavy oppressions of which the writer of Ecclesiastes had to complain are comparatively unknown; in this age, when Christian truth is familiar to the highest and the lowest, is taught in every sanctuary and may Be read in every home. There are to be found
(1) not only many who, without the courage of the suicide, wish themselves in their grave; but
(2) also many more who believe that human life is worth nothing at all, even less than nothing; who Would say with the Preacher, "better than both is he who hath not been;" who would respond to the English poet of this century in his lament—
"Count o'er the joys thy life has seen,
Count o'er thy days from sorrow free;
But know, whatever thou hast been,
'Tis something better not to be."
There is an unfailing remedy for this wretched pessimism, and that is found in an earnest Christian life. No man who heartily and practically appropriates all that Christina truth offers him, and who lives a sincere and genuine Christian life, could cherish such a sentiment or employ such language as this. For the disciple of Jesus Christ who really loves and follows his Divine Master has—
I. COMFORT IN HIS SORROWS. He never has reason to complain that there is "no comforter." Even if human friends and earthly consolations be lacking, there is One who fulfils his word, "I will not leave you comfortless;" "I will come to you;" "I will send you another Comforter, even the Spirit of truth." Whether suffering from oppression, or from loss, or bereavement, or bodily distress, there are the "consolations which are in Jesus Christ;" there is the "God of all comfort" always near.
II. REST IN HIS HEART. That peace of mind, that rest of soul which is of simply incalculable worth (Matthew 11:28; Romans 5:1); a sacred, spiritual calm, which the world "cannot take away."
III. RESOURCES WHICH ARE UNFAILING. In the fellowship he has with God, in the elevated enjoyments of devotion, in the intercourse he has with holy and earnest souls like-minded with himself, he has sources of sacred joy, "springs that do not fail."
IV. THE SECRET OF HAPPINESS IN ALL HIS HUMBLEST LABOR. He does everything, even though he be a servant or even a slave, as "unto Christ the Lord;" and all drudgery is gone; life is filled with interest, and toil is crowned with dignity and nobleness.
V. JOY IN UNSELFISH SERVICE OF HIS KIND.
VI. HOPE IN DEATH.—C.
Practical wisdom in the conduct of life.
What shall we pursue—distinction or happiness? Shall we aim to be markedly successful, or to be quietly content? What shall be the goal we set before us?
I. THE FASCINATION OF SUCCESS. A great many men resolve to attain distinction in their sphere. They put forth "labor, skilful labor," inspired by feelings of rivalry; they are animated by the hope of surpassing their fellows, of rising above them in the reputation they achieve, in the style in which they live, in the income they earn, etc. There is very little that is profitable here.
1. It must necessarily be attended with a large amount of failure: where many run, "but one receiveth the prize."
2. The satisfaction of success is short-lived; it soon loses its keen relish, and becomes of small account.
3. It is a satisfaction of a very low order.
II. THE TEMPTATION TO INDOLENCE. Many men are content to go through life moving along a much lower level than their natural capacities, their educational advantages, and their social introductions fit them and entitle them to maintain. They crave quietude; they want to be free from the bustle, the worry, the burden of the strife of life; they prefer to have a very small share of worldly wealth, and to fill a very little space in the regard of their neighbors, if only they can be well left alone. "The sluggard foldeth his hands; yea, he eateth his meat" (Cox). There is a measure of sense in this; much is thereby avoided which it is desirable to shun. But, on the other hand, such a choice is ignoble; it is to decline the opportunity; it is to retreat from the battle; it is to leave the powers of our nature and the opportunities of our life idle and unemployed.
III. THE WISDOM OF THE WISE. This is:
1. To be contented with our lot; not to be dissatisfied because there are others above us in the trade or the profession in which we are engaged; not to be envious of those more successful than ourselves; to recognize the goodness of our Divine Father in making us what we are and giving us what we have.
2. To let our labors be inspired by high and elevating motives; to work with all our strength, because
(1) God loves faithfulness;
(2) we cannot respect ourselves nor earn the esteem of the upright if we are indolent or faulty;
(3) diligence and devotedness conduct to an honorable success, and enable us to render greater service both to Christ and to mankind.—C.
There is a measure of separateness, and even of loneliness, which is inseparable from human life. There are times and occasions when a man must determine for himself what choice he will make, what course he wilt pursue. Each human soul must "bear its own burden" in deciding what shall be its final attitude toward revealed truth; what shall be its abiding relation to God; whether it will accept or decline the crown of eternal life. Nevertheless, we thank God for human companionship; we rejoice greatly that he has so "fashioned our hearts alike," and so interwoven our human lives, that we can be much to one another, and do much for one another, as we go on our way. "Two are better than one." The union of hearts and lives means—
I. SHARING SUCCESS. "They have a good reward for their labor." If two men work apart, and succeed in their labor, each has his own separate satisfaction. But if they confide their hopes, and tell their triumphs, and share their joys together, each man has much more "reward for his labor" than if he strove apart. It is one of the blessings of earlier life that its victories are so much enhanced by their being shared with others; it is one of the detractions from later life that its successes are confined to so small a sphere.
II. RESTORATION. (Esther 4:10.) The falling of the solitary traveler in the unfrequented and dangerous path is a picture of the more serious and often fatal falling of the pilgrim in the path of life. To fall into disgrace, or (what is worse) into sin and evil habitude, and to have no true and loyal friend to stand by and to hold out the uplifting hand, to cover the shame with the mantle of his unspotted reputation, to lead back the erring soul with his strength and rectitude into the way of wisdom, into the kingdom of God—to such a man, in such necessity, the "woe" of the preacher may well be uttered.
III. ANIMATION. (Esther 4:11.) "In Syria the nights are often keen and frosty, and the heat of the day makes men more susceptible to the nightly cold. The sleeping-chambers, moreover, have only unglazed lattices, which let in the frosty air …. And therefore the natives huddle together for the sake of warmth. To lie alone was to lie shivering in the chill night air." Moreover, it may be said that to sleep in the cold is, in certain temperatures, to be in danger of losing life, while the warmth given by contact with life would preserve vitality. To be "alone" is to live a cold, cheerless, inanimate existence; to be warmed by human friendship, to be animated by contact with living men, is to have a measure, a fullness, of life not otherwise enjoyed.
IV. DEFENSE. (Esther 4:12.) "Our two travelers (see above), lying snug and warm on their common mat, buried in slumber, were very likely to be disturbed by thieves who had dug a hole into the barn or crept under the tent …. If one was thus aroused, he would call on his comrade for help" (Cox). It is not only the prowling thief against whom a man may defend his companion. By timely warning, by wise suggestion, by sound instruction, by faithful entreaty, by practical sympathy, we may so stand by one another, that we may save from the worst attacks of our most deadly spiritual enemies; thus we may save one another from falling into error, into unbelief, into vice, into shame and sorrow, "into the pit." We conclude, therefore:
1. That we should prize human friendship most highly, as that which furnishes us with the opportunity of highest service (see Isaiah 32:2).
2. That we should so choose our companions that we shall have from them the help we need in the trying hour.
3. That we should gain for ourselves the strength and succor of the Divine Friend.—C.
Esther 4:12 (latter part)
The threefold cord.
Many bonds of many kinds bind us in many ways. Of these some are hard and cruel, and these we have to break as best we can; the worst of them may be snapped when we strive with the help that comes from Heaven. But there are others which are neither hard nor cruel, but kind and beneficent, and these we should not shun, but gladly welcome. Such is the threefold cord which binds us to our God and to his service. It is composed of—
I. DUTY. To know, to reverence, to love, to serve God, is our supreme obligation, For we came forth from him; we are indebted to him for all that makes us what we are, owing all our faculties of every kind to his creative power. We have been sustained in being every moment by his Divine visitation; we have been enriched by him with everything we possess, our hearts and our lives owing to his generous kindness all their joys and all their blessings; it is in him that we live and move and have our being; we sum up all obligations, we touch the height and depth of exalted duty, when we say that "he is our God." Moreover, all this natural obligation is enhanced and multiplied manifold by all that he has done for us, and all that he has endured for in the salvation which is in Jesus Christ, his Son;
II. INTEREST. To know, to love, to serve God,—this is our highest and truest interest.
1. It means the possession of his Divine favor; and that surely is much, not to say everything, to us.
2. It constitutes our real, because our spiritual, well-being; it causes us thereby and therein to realize the ideal of our humanity; we are at our very best imaginable when we are in fellowship with God and are possessing his likeness.
3. It secures to us a happy life below, filled with hallowed contentment, and charged with sacred joy, while it conducts to a future which will be crowned with immortal glory.
III. AFFECTION. To live in the service of Jesus Christ is to act as our human relationships demand that we should act. It is to give the deepest and purest satisfaction to those from whom we have received the most self-denying love; it is also to lead those for whom we have the strongest affection in the way of wisdom, in the paths of honor, joy, eternal life.—C.
Circumstance and character.
This very obscure passage is thus rendered by Cox ('The Quest of the Chief Good'): "Happier is a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king, who even yet has not learned to be admonished. For a prisoner may go from a prison to a throne, whilst a king may become a beggar in his own kingdom. I see all the living who walk under the sun flocking to the sociable youth who standeth up in his place; there is no end to the multitude of the people over whom he ruleth. Nevertheless, those who live after him will not rejoice in him; for even this is vanity and vexation of spirit." Thus read, we have a very clear meaning, and we are reminded of a very valuable lesson. We may learn—
I. THE VANITY OF TRUSTING IN CIRCUMSTANCE APART FROM CHARACTER. It is well enough to bear a royal name, to have a royal retinue, to move among royal surroundings. Old age may forget its infirmities in the midst of its rank, its honors, its luxuries. But when royalty is dissevered from wisdom, when it has not learned by experience, but has grown downwards rather than upwards, the outlook is poor enough. The foolish king is likely enough to be dethroned, and to "become a beggar in his own kingdom." An exalted position makes a man's follies seem larger than they are; and as they injuriously affect every one, they are likely to lead to universal condemnation and to painful penalty. It is of little use to be enjoying an enviable position if we have not character to maintain and ability to adorn it. The wheel of fortune will soon take to the bottom the man who is now rejoicing on the top of it.
II. THE NEEDLESSNESS OF DESPAIR IN THE DEPTH OF MISFORTUNE. Whilst the old and foolish king may decline and fall, the wise youth, who has been disregarded, will move on and up to honor and to power, and even the condemned prisoner may mount the throne. The history of men and of nations proves that nothing is impossible in the way of recovery and elevation. Man may "hope to rise" from the bottom, as he should "fear to fall' from the top of the scale. Let those who are honestly and conscientiously striving, though it may be with small recognition or recompense, hope to attain to the honor and the reward which are their due. Let those who have suffered saddest disappointment and defeat remember that men may rise from the very lowest estate even to the highest.
III. THE ONE UNFAILING SOURCE OF SATISFACTION. The old and foolish king may deserve to be dethroned, but he may retain his position until he dies; the wise youth may fail to reach the honors to which he is entitled; the innocent prisoner may languish in his dungeon even until death opens the door and releases him. There is no certainty in this world, where fortune is so fickle, and circumstance cannot be counted upon even by the most sagacious. But there is one thing on which we may reckon, and in which we may take refuge. To be upright in our heart, to be sound in our character, to be true and faithful in life—this is to be what is good; it is to enjoy that which is best—the favor of God and our own self-respect; it is to move toward that which is blessed—a heavily future.—C.
HOMILIES BY J. WILLCOCK
Oppression of man by his fellows.
Many different phases of human misery are depicted in this book, many different moods of depression recorded; some springing from the disquietude of the writer's mind, others from the disorders he witnessed in the world about him. Sensuous pleasure he had declared (Ecclesiastes 3:12, Ecclesiastes 3:13, Ecclesiastes 3:22) to be the only good for man, but now he finds that even that is not always to be secured. There are evils and miseries that afflict his fellows, against which he cannot shut his eyes. A vulgar sensualist might drown sorrow in the wine-cup, but he cannot, "His merriment is spoiled by the thought of the misery of others, and he can find nothing 'under the sun 'but violence and oppression. In utter despair, he pronounces the dead happier than the living" (Cheyne). If he does not actually deny the immortality of the soul, and is therefore without the consolation of believing that in a life to come the evils of the present may be reversed and compensated for, he ignores it as something of which we cannot be sure. We may see in this passage the germ of a higher character than is to be formed by the most elaborate self-culture; the spontaneous and deep compassion for the sufferings of others which the writer manifests tells us that a nobler emotion than the desire of personal enjoyment fills his mind. He tells us what he saw in his survey of society, and the feelings which were excited within him by the sight.
I. THE WIDESPREAD MISERY CAUSED BY INJUSTICE AND CRUELTY. (Esther 4:1.) His description has been only too frequently verified in one generation after another of the world's history.
"Man's inhumanity to man
Hakes countless thousands mourn."
The barbarities of savage life, the wars and crusades carried on in the name of religion, the cruelties perpetrated by despotic rulers to secure their thrones, the hardships of the slave, the pariah, and the down-trodden, fill out the picture suggested by the words, "I considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun." They all spring from the abuse of power (Esther 4:1), which might and should have been used for the protection and comfort of men. The husband and father, the king, the priest, the magistrate, are all invested with rights and authority of a greater or less extent over others, and the abuse of this power leads to hardships and suffering on the part of those subject to them which it is almost impossible to remedy. For many of the evils that may afflict a community a revolution may seem the only way of deliverance; and yet that in the vast majority of cases means, in the first instance, multiplying disorders and inflicting fresh sufferings. Anarchy is a worse evil than bad government, and the fact that this is so, is calculated to make the most ardent patriot hesitate before attempting to set wrong right with a strong hand.
II. THE FEELINGS EXCITED BY A CONTEMPLATION OF HUMAN MISERY. (Esther 4:2, Esther 4:3.) One good point in the character of the speaker we have already noticed, and that is that he cannot banish the thought of the distresses of others by attending to his own ease and self-enjoyment. He is not like the rich man in the parable, who fared sumptuously every day, and took no notice of the hungry, naked beggar covered with sores that lay at his gate (Luke 16:19-21). On the contrary, a deep compassion fills his heart at the thought of the oppressed who have no comforter, and the fact that he cannot deliver them or ameliorate their lot does not lead him to consider it unnecessary for him to distress himself about them; it rather tends to deepen the despondency he feels, and to make him think those happy who have done with life, and rest in the place where "the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary be at rest" (Job 3:17). Yea, better, he thinks, never to have been than to see the evil work that is done under the sun (Esther 4:3). The distress which the sight of the sufferings of the oppressed produces is unrelieved by any consolatory thought. The writer does not, as I have said, anticipate a future life in which the righteous are happy, and the wicked receive the due reward of their deeds; he does not invoke the Divine interposition on behalf of the oppressed in the present life, or speak of the salutary discipline of sufferings meekly borne. In short, we do not find here any light cast upon the problem of evil in a world governed by a God of infinite power, wisdom, and love, such as is given in other passages of Holy Scripture (Job, passim; Psalms 73:1-28.; Hebrews 12:5-11). But we may freely admit that the depth and intensity of feeling with which our author speaks of human misery is infinitely preferable to a superficial optimism founded, not upon Christian faith, but upon an imperfect appreciation of moral an-d spiritual truth, and generally accompanied by a selfish indifference to the welfare of others. A striking parallel to the thought in this passage is to be found in the teaching of Buddhism. The spectacle of miseries of old age, disease, and death, drove the Indian prince, Cakya Mouni, to find in Nirvana (annihilation, or unconscious existence) a solution of the great problem. But both are superseded by the teaching of Christ, who gives us to understand that "not to have been born" is not a blessing which the more spiritually minded might covet, but a state better only than that exceptional misery which is the doom of exceptional guilt (Matthew 26:24).—J.W.
Ambition and indolence.
The Preacher turns from the great, and to him insoluble, problems connected with the misery and suffering in which so many of the children of men are sunk. "His mood is still bitter; but it is no longer on the oppressions and cruelty of life that he fixes his eye, but on its littleness, its mutual jealousies, its greed, its strange reverses, its shams and hollowness. He puts on the garb of the satirist, and lashes the pettiness and the follies and the vain hurry of mankind" (Bradley). As it were, he turns from the evils which no foresight or effort could ward off, to those which spring from preventable causes.
I. RESTLESS AMBITION. (Esther 4:4.) Revised Version, "Then I saw all labor and every skilful work, that it cometh of a man's rivalry with his neighbor" (margin). The Preacher does not deny that labor and toil may be crowned with some measure of success, but he notices that the inspiring motive is in most cases an envious desire on the part of the worker to surpass his fellows. Hence he asserts that in general no lasting good is secured by the individual worker (Wright). The general community may benefit largely by the results achieved, the progress of civilization may be advanced by the competition of artist with artist, but without a moral gain being attained by those who have put forth all their strength and exerted to the utmost all their skill. They may still feel that their ideal is higher than their achievements; they may see with jealous resentment that their best work is surpassed by others. The poet Hesiod, in his 'Works and Days,' distinguishes between two kinds of rivalry—the one beneficent and provocative of honest enterprise, the other pernicious and provocative of discord. The former is like that alluded to here by the Preacher, and is the parent of healthy competition.
"Beneficent this better envy burns—
Thus emulous his wheel the potter turns,
The smith his anvil beats, the beggar throng
Industrious ply, the bards contend in song."
But our author, looking at the motive rather than the result of the work, brands as injurious the selfish ambition from which it may have sprung.
II. INDOLENCE. (Esther 4:5.) "The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh;' While there are some who fret and wear themselves out in endeavors to surpass their neighbors, others rust out in ignoble sloth. The hands of the busy artist are deftly used to shape and fashion the materials in which he works, and to embody the ideas or fancies conceived in his mind; the indolent fold their hands together, and make no attempt either to excel others or to provide a living for themselves. The one may, after all his toil, be doomed to failure and disappointment; the other most certainly dooms himself to want and misery. "He feeds upon his own flesh," and destroys himself. The sinfulness of indolence, and the punishment which it brings down upon itself, are plainly indicated in many parts of Holy Scripture (Proverbs 6:10, Proverbs 6:11; Proverbs 13:4; Proverbs 20:4; Matthew 25:26; 2 Thessalonians 3:10). But the special point of the reference to the vice here seems to be the contrast which it affords to that of feverish ambition. The two dispositions depicted are opposed to each other; both are blameworthy. It is foolish to seek to escape the evils of the one by incurring: those of the other. A middle way between them is the path of wisdom. This is taught us in Esther 4:6. Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit." The rivalry that consumes the strength, and leads almost inevitably to disappointment and vexation of spirit, is deprecated; so also, by implication, is the inactivity of the indolent. The "quietness "which refreshes the soul, and gives it contentment with a moderate competence, is not idleness, or the rest of sloth. It is rest after labor, which the ambitious will not allow themselves to take. The indolent do not enjoy it, their strength wastes away from want of exercise while those of moderate, chastened desires can both be diligent in business and mindful of their higher interests; they can labor assiduously without losing that tranquility of spirit and peace of mind which are essential to happiness in life.—J.W.
Friendship a gain in life.
A new thought dawns upon our author. In his observation of the different phases of human life, he notes much that is disappointing and unsatisfactory but he also perceives some alleviations of the evils by which man is harassed and disturbed. Amidst all his depreciation of the conditions under which we live, he admits positive blessings which it is our wisdom to discern and make the most of. Amongst these latter he counts friendship. It is a positive gain, by which the difficulties of life are diminished and its enjoyments increased. In Esther 4:8-12 he describes an isolated life wasted in fruitless, selfish toil, and dilates with something like enthusiasm upon the advantages of companionship. In order, I suppose, to make the contrast between the two states more vivid, he chooses a very pronounced case of solitariness—not that of a man merely isolated from his fellows, say living by himself on a desert island, but that of one utterly separate in spirit, a miser intent only on his own interests. We may call the passage a description of the evils of a solitary life and the value of friendship.
I. THE EVILS OF A SOLITARY LIFE. (Esther 4:7, Esther 4:8.) The picture is drawn with a very few touches, but it is remarkably distinct and vivid. It represents a "solitary, friendless money-maker—a Shylock without even a Jessica; an Isaac of York with his faithful Rebecca." He is alone, he has no companion, no relative or friend, he knows not who will succeed him in the possession of his heaped-up treasures; and yet he toils on with unremitting anxiety, from early in the morning till late at night, unwilling to lose a moment from his work as long as he can add anything to his gains. "There is no end of all his labor." The assiduity with which he at first applied himself to the task of accumulating riches distinguishes him to the end of life. At first, perhaps, he had to force himself to cultivate habits of industry and application, but now he cannot tear himself away from business. His habits rule him, and take away from him both the ability and the inclination to relax his labors and to enjoy the fruit of them. Have we not often seen instances of this folly in our own experience? Those who have lived a laborious life, and have been successful in their undertakings, toiling on to the very last, afflicted with an insatiable avarice, never satisfied with their riches, and only enjoying the mere consciousness of possessing them? Have we not noticed how such a man gets to be penurious and fretful and utterly unfeeling? He gathers in eagerly, and often unscrupulously, and gives out reluctantly and sparingly. He starves himself in the midst of abundance, grudges the most necessary expenses, and denies himself and those dependent upon him the commonest comforts. The misery he inflicts upon himself does not open his eyes to the folly of his conduct; he grows gradually callous to discomforts, and finds in the sordid gains which his parsimony secures an abundant compensation for all inconveniences. And not only does he doom himself to material discomfort and to intellectual impoverishment by setting his desires solely upon riches, but he degrades his moral and spiritual character. If he must keep all he has to himself, he must often ignore the just claims of others upon him; he must steel his heart against the appeals of the poor and needy, and. he must look with scorn and contempt upon all those who are generous and liberal in helping their fellows. And so we find such men gradually growing harsher and more unsympathetic, until it seems at last as if they regarded every one about them with suspicion, as seeking to wrest from their hands their hard-earned gains. And what is the pleasure of such a life? How is it such men do not say within themselves, "For whom do I labor, and bereave my- soul of good?" The folly of their conduct springs from two causes.
1. They forget that unremitting, fruitless toil is a curse. As a means to an end, toil is good, as an end in itself it is evil. It was never contemplated, even when man was innocent, that he should be idle. He was placed in the garden of Eden to dress and to keep it. But it is either his fault or his misfortune if he is all his life a slavish drudge. It may be that he is forced by the necessities of his position to labor incessantly and to the very end, to make a livelihood for himself and for those dependent upon him, but his condition is not an ideal one. If he could secure a little leisure and relaxation, it would be all the better for him in every sense of the word. And therefore for the miser to toil like a mere slave, when he might save himself the trouble, is an evidence of how blinded he is by the vice to which Be is addicted.
2. A second cause of the miser's folly is his ignoring the fact that riches have only value when made use of. The mere accumulation of them is not enough; they must be employed if they are to be of service. No real, healthy enjoyment of them is to be obtained by merely contemplating them and reckoning them up. Used in that way they only feed an unnatural and morbid appetite.
II. Over against the miseries of a selfish, solitary life, our author sets THE loyalties OF COMPANIONSHIP. (Esther 4:9-12.) Friendship affords considerable mitigation of the evils by which life is beset, and a positive gain is secured by those who cultivate it. Three very homely figures are used to describe these advantages. The thought which connects them all together is that of life as a journey, or pilgrimage, like that which Bunyan describes in his wonderful book. If a man is alone in the journey of life, he is liable to accidents and discomforts and dangers which the presence of a friend would have averted or mitigated. He may fall on the road, and none be by to help him; he may at night lie shivering in the cold, if he has no companion to cherish him with kindly warmth; he may meet with robbers, whom his unaided strength is insufficient to beat off. All these figures illustrate the general principle that in union there is mutual helpfulness, comfort, and strength, verification of which we find in all departments of life—in the family, in the intercourse of friends, and in the Church. The benefits of such fellowships are undeniable. "It affords to the parties mutual counsel and direction, especially in seasons of perplexity and embarrassment; mutual sympathy, consolation, and care in the hour of calamity and distress; mutual encouragement in anxiety and depression; mutual aid by the joint application of bodily or mental energy to difficult and laborious tasks; mutual relief amidst the fluctuations of worldly circumstances, the abundance of the one reciprocally supplying the deficiencies of the other; mutual defense and vindication when the character of either is injuriously attacked and defamed; and mutual reproof and affectionate expostulation when either has, through the power of temptation, fallen into sin. 'Woe to him that is alone when he so falleth-and hath not another to help him up!'—no one to care for his soul, and restore him to the paths of righteousness" (Wardiaw). So far as the application of the principle to the case of ordinary friendship is concerned, the wisdom of our author is instinctively approved of by all. The writings of moralists in all countries and times teem with maxims similar to his. Some have thought that this virtue of friendship is too secular in its character to receive much encouragement in the teaching of Christianity; that it is somewhat overshadowed, if not relegated to comparative insignificance, by the obligations which a highly spiritual religion imposes. The fact that the salvation of his soul is the one great duty of the individual might have been expected to lead to a new development of selfishness, and the fact that devotion to the Savior is to take precedence of all other forms of affection might have been expected to diminish the intensity of love which is the source of friendship. And not only have such ideas existed in a speculative form, but they have led, in many cases, to actual attempts to realize them. The ancient hermits sought to cultivate the highest form of Christian life by complete isolation from their fellows; they fled from society, dissevered themselves from all the ties of blood and friendship, and shunned all association with their kind as something contaminating. And in our own time, among many to whom the monastical life is specially repulsive, the very same delusion which lay at the root of it is still cherished. They think that love of husband, wife, child, or friend conflicts with love of God and Christ; that if the human love is too intense it becomes a form of sin. And along with this is generally found a cruel and dishonoring conception of the Divine character. God is thought of as jealous of those who take his place in the affections, and the loss of those loved is spoken of as a removal by him of the "idols" who had usurped his rights. That such teaching is a perversion of Christianity is very evident. The New Testament takes all the forms of natural human love as types of the Divine. As the father loves his children, so does God love us. As Christ loved the Church ought a husband to love his wife, ought his followers to love one another. No bounds can be set to affection; he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God." The one great check, that our love for another should not be allowed to lead us to do wrong or condone wrong, is not upon the intensity, but upon the perversion of affection, and leads to a purer, holier, and more satisfying exercise of affection. That Christ, whose love was universal, did not discourage friendship is evident from the fact that he chose twelve disciples, and admitted them to a closer intimacy with himself than others enjoyed, and that even among them there was one whom he specially loved. It was seen, too, in the affection which he manifested to the family in Bethany—Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus. In the time of his agony in Gethsemane he chose three of the disciples to watch with him, seeking for some solace and support in the fact of their presence and sympathy. The truth of Solomon's statement that "two are better than one" was confirmed by Christ's sending out his disciples "two and two together" (Luke 10:1), and by the Divine direction given by the Holy Ghost when Barnabas and Saul were set apart to go together on their first great missionary enterprise (Acts 13:2). But over and above these instances of Christ's example in cultivating friendship, and of the advantages of mutual co-operation in Christian work, the peat principle remains that true religion cannot come to any strength in an isolated life. We cannot worship God aright if we "forsake the assembling of ourselves together;" we cannot cultivate the virtues of which holiness consists—justice, compassion, forbearance, purity, and love—if we isolate ourselves; for all these virtues imply our conducting ourselves in certain ways in all our relations with others. We lose the opportunity of helping the weak, of cheering the disheartened, and of co-operating with those who are striving to overcome the evils by which the world is burdened, if we withdraw into ourselves and ignore others. So far, then, from the wisdom of Solomon in this matter being, in comparison with the fuller revelation through Christ, of an inferior and almost pagan character, it is of permanent and undiminished value. Our acquaintance with Christian teaching is calculated to lead us to form quite as decided a judgment as Solomon did as to the evils of a solitary life, and the advantages of friendship.—J.W.
Mortifications of royalty.
Yet another set of instances of folly and disappointment occurs to our author's mind; they are drawn from the history of the strange vicissitudes through which many of those who have sat upon thrones have passed. His references are vague and general, and no success has attended the attempts of those who have endeavored to find historical examples answering exactly to the circumstances he here describes. But the truthfulness of his generalizations can be abundantly illustrated out of the records of history, both sacred and profane. The reason why he adds these instances of failure and misfortune to his list is pretty evident. He would have us understand that no condition of human life is exempt from the common lot; that though kings are raised above their fellows, and are apparently able to control circumstances rather than to be controlled by them, as a matter of fact as surprising examples of mutability are to be found in their history as in that of the humbler ranks of men. He sets before us—
I. The image of "AN OLD AND FOOLISH KING, WHO WILL NO MORE BE ADMONISHED;" who, though "born in his kingdom, becometh poor." He is debauched by long tenure of power, and scorns good advice and warning. "We see him driven from his throne, stripped of his riches, and becoming in his old age a beggar." His want of wisdom undermines the stability of his position. Though he has in the regular course inherited his kingdom, and has an indefeasible right to the crown he wears—though for many years his people have patiently endured his misgovernment—his tenure of office becomes more and more uncertain. A time comes when it is a question whether the nation is to be ruined, or a wiser and more trustworthy ruler put in his place. He is compelled to abdicate, or is forcibly deposed or driven from his kingdom by an invader, whose power he is unable to resist. His noble birth, his legal fights as a sovereign, his gray hairs, the amiability of his private character, do not avail to secure for him the loyal support of a people whom his folly has alienated from him. The same idea of folly vitiating, the dignity of old age is found in Wisd 4:8, 9, "Honorable age is not that which standeth in length of time, nor that is measured by number of years. But wisdom is the grey hair unto men, and unspotted life is old age." The biographies of Charles I. and James II. of England, and of Napoleon III; furnish examples of kings who learned nothing from experience, and scorned all warnings brought upon themselves misery like that hinted at by Solomon. The first of them met his death at the hands of his exasperated subjects, and the other two, after deep humiliations, died in exile.
II. The second instance of strange vicissitude is that of ONE WHO STEPS FROM A DUNGEON TO A THRONE. It is by his wisdom that he raises himself to the place of ruler over the neglected community. From obscurity he attains in a moment to the height of popular favor; thousands flock to do him homage (verses 15, 16a, "I saw all the living which walk under the sun, that they were with the youth, the second, that stood up in his stead. There was no end of all the people, even of all them over whom he was," Revised Version). The scene depicted of the ignominy into which the worthless old king falls, and the enthusiasm with which the new one is greeted, reminds one of Carlyle's vivid description of the death of Louis XV. and the accession of his grandson. The courtiers wait with impatience for the passing away of the king whose life had been so corrupt and vile; he dies unpitied upon his loathsome sick-bed. "In the remote apartments, dauphin and dauphiness stand road-ready … waiting for some signal to escape the house of pestilence. And, hark! across the (Eil-de-Boeuf, what sound is that—sound' terrible and absolutely like thunder'? It is the rush of the whole court, rushing as in wager, to salute the new sovereigns: 'Hail to your Majesties!'" The body of the dead king is unceremoniously committed to the grave. "Him they crush down and huddle underground; him and his era of sin and tyranny and shame; for behold! a New Era is come; the future all the brighter that the past was base" ('French Revolution,' vol. 1.Ecclesiastes 4:1-16.). The same kind of picture has been drawn by Shakespeare, in 'Richard II.,' Acts 5:0. sc. 2, where he describes the popularity of Bolingbroke, and the contempt into which the king he displaced had sunk. Yet, according to the Preacher, the breeze of popular favor soon dies away, and the hero is soon forgotten. "They also that come after him shall not rejoice in him." The dark cloud of oblivion comes down and envelops in its shade both those who deserve to be remembered, and those who have been unworthy of even the brief popularity they enjoyed in their lifetime. "Who knows," says Sir Thos. Browne, "whether the best of men be known, or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot than any that stand remembered on the known account of time?" ('Urn-burial').
The fickle and short-lived character of all earthly fame should convince us of the futility of making the desire of the applause of men the ruling motive of our lives; it should lead us to do that which is good because it is good, and not in order "to be seen of men," and because we are responsible to God, in whose book all our deeds are written, whether they be good or whether they be evil. The sense of disappointment at the vanity of human fame should dispose our hearts to find satisfaction in the favor of God, by whom all our good deeds will be remembered and rewarded (Psalms 37:5, Psalms 37:6; Galatians 6:9; Matthew 25:21).—J.W.