Section 9. Koheleth proceeds to illustrate the fact which he stated at the end of the last chapter, viz. that the possession and enjoyment of wealth are alike the free gift of God. We may see men possessed of all the gifts of fortune, yet denied the faculty of enjoying them. Hence we again conclude that wealth cannot secure happiness.
There is an evil which I have seen under the sun. The writer presents his personal experience, that which has fallen under his own observation (comp. Ecclesiastes 5:13; Ecclesiastes 10:5). And it is common among men. Rab, Translated "common," like πολὺς in Greek, is used of number and of degree; hence there is some doubt about its meaning here. The Septuagint has πολλή, the Vulgate frequens. Taking into account the fact that the circumstance stated is not one of general experience, we must receive the adjective in its tropical signification, and render, And it is great [lies heavily] upon men. Comp. Ecclesiastes 8:6, where the same word is used, and the preposition עַל is rather "upon" than "among" (Isaiah 24:20).
A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honor. This is the evil to which reference is made. Two of the words hero given, "riches" and "honor," are those used by God in blessing Solomon in the vision at Gibeon (1 Kings 3:13); but all three are employed in the parallel passage (2 Chronicles 1:11). So that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth. "His soul" is the man himself, his personality, as Psalms 49:19. So in the parable (Luke 12:19) the rich fool says to his soul, "Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years." In the supposed case the man is able to procure for himself everything which he wants; has no occasion to deny himself the gratification of any rising desire. All this comes from God's bounty; but something more is wanted to bring happiness. Yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof. "To eat" is used in a metaphorical sense for "to enjoy," take advantage of, make due use of (see on Ecclesiastes 2:24). The ability to enjoy all these good things is wanting, either from discontent, or moroseness, or sickness, or as a punishment for secret sin. But a stranger eateth it. The "stranger" is not the legal heir, but an alien to the possessor's blood, neither relation nor even necessarily a friend. For a childless Oriental to adopt an heir is a common custom at the present day. The wish to continue a family, to leave a name and inheritance to children's children, was very strong among the Hebrews—all the stronger as the life beyond the grave was dimly apprehended. Abraham expressed this feeling when he sadly cried, "I go childless, and he that shall be possessor of my house is Dammesek Eliezer" (Genesis 15:2). The evils are two—that this great fortune brings no happiness to its possessor, and that it passes to one who is nothing to him. An evil disease; αῤῥωστία πονηρά, Septuagint, an evil as bad as the diseases spoken of in Deuteronomy 28:27, Deuteronomy 28:28.
If a man beget an hundred children. Another case is supposed, differing from,the preceding one, where the rich man dies childless. Septuagint, ἐὰν γεννήσῃ ἀνὴρ, ἑκατόν. "Sons,' or "children," must be supplied. To have a large family was regarded as a great blessing. The "hundred" is a round number, though we read of some fathers who had nearly this number of children; thus Ahab had seventy sons (2 Kings 10:1), Rehoboam eighty-eight children (2 Chronicles 11:21). Plumptre follows some commentators in seeing here an allusion to Artaxerxes Mnemon, who is said to have had a hundred and fifteen children, and died of grief at the age of ninety-four at the suicide of one son and the murder of another. Wordsworth opines that Solomon, in the previous verse, was thinking of Jeroboam, who, it was revealed unto him, should, stranger as he was, seize and enjoy his inheritance. But these historical references are the merest guesswork, and rest upon no substantial basis. Plainly the author's statement is general, and there is no need to ransack history to find its parallel. And live many years, so that the days of his years be many; Et vixerit multos annos, et plures dies aetatis habuerit (Vulgate). These versions seem to be simply tautological. The second clause is climacteric, as Ginsburg renders, "Yea, numerous as may be the days of his years." The whole extent of years is summed up in days. So Psalms 90:10, "The days of our years are three score years and ten," etc. Long life, again, was deemed a special blessing, as we see in the commandment with promise (Exodus 20:12). And (yet if) his soul not filled with good; i.e. he does not satisfy himself with the enjoyment of all the good things which he possesses. Septuagint, καὶ ψυχὴ αὐτοῦ οὐ πλησθήσεται ἀπὸ τῆς ἀγαθωσύνης "And his soul shall not be satisfied with his good." And also that he have no burial. This is the climax of the evil that befalls him. Some critics, not entering into Koheleth's view of the severity of this calamity, translate, "and even if the grave did not wait for him," i.e. "if he were never to die," if he were immortal. But there is no parallel to show that the clause can have this meaning; and we know, without having recourse to Greek precedents, that the want of burial was reckoned a grievous loss and dishonor. Hence comes the common allusion to dead carcasses being left to be devoured by beasts and birds, instead of meeting with honorable burial in the ancestral graves (1 Kings 13:22; Isaiah 14:18-20). Thus David says to his giant foe, "I will give the carcasses of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth" (1 Samuel 17:46); and about Jehoiakim it was denounced that he should not be lamented when he died: "He shall be buried with the burial of an ass, drawn and cast forth beyond the gates of Jerusalem" (Jeremiah 22:18, Jeremiah 22:19). The lot of the rich man in question is proclaimed with ever-increasing misery. Ha cannot enjoy his possessions; he has none to whom to leave them; his memory perishes; he has no honored burial. I say, that an untimely birth is better than he (comp. Ecclesiastes 4:3). The abortion or still-born child is preferable to one whose destiny is so miserable (see Job 3:16; Psalms 58:8). It is preferable because, although it has missed all the pleasures of life, it has at least escaped all suffering. The next two verses illustrate this position.
For he cometh in with vanity; rather, for it came into nothingness. The reference is to the fetus, or still-born child, not to the rich man, as is implied by the Authorized Version. This, when it appeared, had no independent life or being, was a mere nothing. And departeth in darkness; and goeth into the darkness. It is taken away and put out of sight. And his (its) name shall be covered with darkness. It is a nameless thing, unrecorded, unremembered.
It has seen nothing of the world, known nothing of life, its joys and its sufferings, and is speedily forgotten. To" see the sun" is a metaphor for to "live," as Ecclesiastes 7:11; Ecclesiastes 11:7; Job 3:16, and implies activity and work, the contrary of rest. This hath more rest than the other; literally, there is rest to this more than to that. The rest that belongs to the abortion is better than that which belongs to the rich man. Others take the clause to say simply, "It is better with this than the other." So the Revised Version margin and Delitzsch, the idea of "rest" being thus generalized, and taken to sights a preferable choice. Septuagint, καὶ οὐκ ἔγνω ἀναπαύσεις τούτῳ ὑπὲρ τοῦτον, "And hath not known rest for this more than that"—which reproduces the difficulty of the Hebrew; Vulgate, Neque cognovit distantiam boni et malt, which is a paraphrase unsupported by the present accentuation of the text. Rest, in the conception of an Oriental, is the most desirable or' all things; compared with the busy, careworn life of the rich man, whose very moments of leisure and sleep are troubled and disturbed, the dreamless nothingness of the still-born child is happiness. This may be a rhetorical exaggeration, but we have its parallel in Job's lamentable cry in Ecclesiastes 3:1-22. when he "cursed his day."
Yea, though he live a thousand years twice told, yet hath he seen no good. What has been said would still be true even if the man lived two thousand years. The second clause is not the apodosis (as the Authorized Version makes it), but the continuation of the protasis: if he lived the longest life, "and saw not good;" the conclusion is given in the form of a question. The "good" is the enjoyment of life spoken of in Ecclesiastes 6:3 (see on Ecclesiastes 2:1). The specified time seems to refer to the age of the patriarchs, none of whom, from Adam to Noah, reached half the limit assigned. Do not all go to one place? viz. to Sheol, the grave (Ecclesiastes 3:20). If a long life were spent in calm enjoyment, it might be preferable to a short one; but when it is passed amid care and annoyance and discontent, it is no better than that which begins and ends in nothingness. The grave receives both, and there is nothing to choose between them, at least in this point of view. Of life as in itself a blessing, a discipline, a school, Koheleth says nothing here; he puts himself in the place of the discontented rich man, and appraises life with his eyes. On the common destiny that awaits peer and peasant, rich and poor, happy and sorrow-laden, we can all remember utterances old and new. Thus Horace, 'Carm.,' 2.3. 20—
"Divesne prisco natus ab Inacho,
Nil interest, an pauper et infima
De gente sub dive moreris,
Victima nil miserantis Orci.
"Omnes eodem cogimur."
Ovid, 'Met.,' 10.33—
"Omnia debentur vobis, paullumque morati
Serius aut citius sedem properamus ad unam.
Tendimus huc omnes, haec est domus ultima."
"Fate is the lord of all things; soon or late
To one abode we speed, thither we all
Pursue our way, this is our final home."
Section 10. Desire is insatiable; men are always striving after enjoyment, but they never gain their wish completely—which fortifies the old conclusion that man's happiness is not in his own power.
All the labor of man is for his mouth; i.e. for self-preservation and enjoyment, eating and drinking being taken as a type of the proper use of earthly blessings (comp; Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:13, etc.; Psalms 128:2). The sentiment is general, and does not refer specially to the particular person described above, though it carries on the idea of the unsatisfactory result of wealth. Luther translates strangely and erroneously, "To every man is work allotted according to his measure. Such an idea is entirely foreign to the context. And yet the appetite is not filled. The word rendered "appetite" is nephesh, "soul," and Zockler contends that "' mouth 'and 'soul' stand in contrast to each other as representatives of the purely sensual and therefore transitory enjoyment (comp. Job 12:11; Proverbs 16:26) as compared with the deeper, more spiritual, and therefore more lasting kind of joy." But no such contrast is intended; the writer would never have uttered such a truism as that deep, spiritual joy is not to be obtained by sensual pleasure; and, as Delitzsch points out, in some passages (e.g. Proverbs 16:26; Isaiah 5:14; Isaiah 29:8) "mouth" in one sentence corresponds to "soul" in another. The soul is considered as the seat of the appetitive faculty—emotions, desires, etc. This is never satisfied (Ecclesiastes 1:8) with what it has, but is always craving for more. So Horace affirms that a man rightly obtains the appellation of king, "avidum domando spiritum," by subduing his spirit's cravings ('Carm.,' Ecclesiastes 2:2. 9).
For what hath the wise more fire than the fool? i.e. What advantage hath the wise man over the fool? This verse confirms the previous one by an interrogative argument. The same labor for support, the same unsatisfied desires, belong to all, wise or foolish; in this respect intellectual gifts have no superiority. (For a similar interrogation implying an emphatic denial, see Ecclesiastes 1:1-18 :30) What hath the poor, that knoweth to walk before the living? The Septuagint gives the verse thus: ὅτι τίς περίσσεια (A, C, ) א τῷ σοφῷ ὑπὲρ τὸν ἄφρονα; διότι ὁ πένης οἰδε πορευθῆναι κατέναντι τῆς ζωῆς, "For what advantage hath the wise man over the fool? since the poor man knows how to walk before life?" Vulgate, Quid habet amplius sapiens a stulto? et quid pauper, nisi ut pergat illuc, ubi est vita? "And what hath the poor man except that he go thither where is life?" Both these versions regard הַחַיִּים as used in the sense of "life," and that the life beyond the grave; but this idea is foreign to the context; and the expression must be rendered, as in the Authorized Version, "the living." The interpretation of the clause has much exercised critics. Plumptre adheres to that of Bernstein and others, "What advantage hath the poor over him who knows how to walk before the living?' (i.e. the man of high birth or station, who lives in public, with the eyes of men upon him). The poor has his cares and unsatisfied desires as much as the man of culture and position. Poverty offers no protection against such assaults, But the expression, to know how to walk before the living, means to understand and to follow the correct path of life; to know how to behave properly and uprightly in the intercourse with one's fellow-men; to have what the French call savoir vivre. (So Volok.) The question must be completed thus: "What advantage has the discreet and properly conducted poor man over the fool?" None, at least in this respect. The poor man, even though he be well vetoed in the rule of life, has insatiable desires which he has to check or conceal, and so is no better off than the fool, who equally is unable to gratify them. The two 'extremities of the social scale are taken—the rich wise man, and the prudent poor man—and both are shown to fail in enjoying life; and what is true of these must be also true of all that come between these two limits, "the appetite is not filled" (Ecclesiastes 6:7).
Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire (nephesh, "the soul," Ecclesiastes 6:7). This is a further confirmation of the misery and unrest that accompany immoderate desires. "The sight of the eyes" means the enjoyment of the present, that which lies before one, in contrast to the restless craving for what is distant, uncertain, and out of reach. The lesson taught is to make the best of existing circumstances, to enjoy the present, to control the roaming of fancy, and to narrow the vast field of appetency. We have a striking expression in Wis. 4:12, ῥεμβασμὸς ἐπιθυμίας by which is denoted the giddiness, the reeling intoxication, caused by unrestrained passion. The Roman satirist lashed the sin of unscrupulous greed-
"Seal quae reverentia legum,
Quis rectus aut pudor eat unquam properantis avari?"
(Juven; 'Sat.,' 14:177.)
"Nor law, nor checks of conscience will he hear,
When in hot scent of gain and full career."
Zockler quotes Horace, 'Epist.,' 1.18. 96, sqq—
"Inter cuncta leges et percontabere doctos,
Qua ratione queas traducere leniter aevum;
Num te semper inops agitet vexetque cupido,
Num paver et return mediocriter utilium spes."
"To sum up all—
Consult and con the wise
In what the art of true contentment lies:
How fear and hope, that rack the human will,
Are but vain dreams of things nor good nor ill."
(Howes.) Marc. Aurel; 'Meditat.,' 4.26,
"Has any advantage happened to you? It is the bounty of fate. It was all preordained you by the universal cause. Upon the whole, life is but short, therefore be just and prudent, and make your most of it; and when you divert yourself, be always on your guard' (J. Collier). Well is it added that this insatiability of the soul, which never leads to contentment, is vanity and vexation of spirit, a feeding on wind, empty, unsatisfying. Commentators refer in illustration to the fable of the dog and the shadow, and the proverb, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."
Section 11. All things are foreknown and foreordained by God; it is useless to murmur against or to discuss this great fact; and as the future is beyond our knowledge and control, it is wise to make the best of the present.
That which hath been is named already; better, whatsoever hath been, long ago hath its name been given. The word rendered "already," kebar (Ecclesiastes 1:10; Ecclesiastes 2:12; Ecclesiastes 3:15; Ecclesiastes 4:2), "long ago," though used elsewhere in this book of events in human history, may appropriately be applied to the Divine decrees which predetermine the circumstances of man's life. This is its significance in the present passage, which asserts that everything which happens has been known and fixed beforehand, and therefore that man cannot shape his own life. No attempt is here made to reconcile this doctrine with man's free-will and consequent responsibility. The idea has already been presented in Ecclesiastes 3:1, etc. It comes forth in Isaiah 45:9, "Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?" (comp. Romans 9:20); Acts 15:18 (according to the Textus Receptus), "Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world." The same idea is brought out more fully in the following clauses. Septuagint, "If anything ever was, already hath its name been called," which gives the correct sense of the passage. The Vulgate is not so happy, Qui futurus est, jam vocatum est nomen ejus, being rather opposed to the grammar. And it is known that it is man. What is meant by the Authorized Version is doubtful. If the first clause had been translated, as in the margin of the Revised Version, "Whatsoever he be, his name was given him long ago," the conclusion would come naturally, "and it is known that he is man" (Adam), and we should see an allusion to man's name and to the ground (adamah) from which he was taken (Genesis 2:7), as if his very name betokened his weakness. But the present version is very obscure. Cox gives, "It is very certain that even the greatest is but a man, and cannot contend with him," etc. But the Hebrew will not admit this rendering. The clause really amplifies the previous statement of man's predetermined destiny, and it should be rendered, "And it is known what a man shall be." Every individual comes under God's prescient superintendence. Septuagint, ἐγνώσθη ὅ ἐστω ἄνθρωπος, "It is known what man is;" Vulgate, Et scitur quod homo sit. But it is not the nature of man that is in question, but his conditioned state. Neither may he contend with him that is mightier than he. The mightier One is God, in accordance with the passages quoted above from Isaiah, Acts, and Romans. Some consider that death is intended, and that the author is referring to the shortness of man's life. They say that the word taqqiph, "mighty" (which occurs only in Ezra and Daniel), is never used of God. But is it used of death? And is it not used of God in Daniel 4:3 (3:33, Hebrew), where Nebuchadnezzar says, "How mighty are his wonders"? To bring death into consideration is to introduce a new thought having no connection with the context, which is not speaking of the termination of man's life, but of its course, the circumstances of which are arranged by a higher Power. Septuagint, καὶ οὐ δυνήσεται κριθῆναι μετὰ τοῦ ἰσχυροτέρου ὑπὲρ αὐτὸν. With this we may compare 1 Corinthians 10:22, "Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? are we stronger than he? ( μὴ ἰσχυρότεροι αὐτοῦ ἐσμέν;)."
Seeing there be many things that increase vanity. The noun rendered"things" (dabar) may equally mean "words;" and it is a question which signification is most appropriate here. The Septuagint has λόγοι πολλοί, "many words." So the Vulgate, verba sunt plurima. If we take the rendering of the Authorized Version, we must understand the passage to mean that the distractions of business, the cares of life, the constant disappointments, make men feel the hollowness and unsatisfactory nature of labor and wealth and earthly goods, and their absolute dependence upon Providence. But in view of the previous context, and especially of Ecclesiastes 6:10, which speaks of contending (din) with God, it is most suitable to translate debarim "words," and to understand them of the expressions of impatience, doubt, and unbelief to which men give utterance when arraigning the acts or endeavoring to explain the decrees of God. Such profitless words only increase the perplexity in which men are involved. It is very possible that reference is here made to the discussions on the chief good, free-will, predestination, and the like subjects, which, as we know from Josephus, had begun to be mooted in Jewish schools, as they had long been rife in those of Greece. In these disputes Pharisees and Sadducees took opposite sides. The former maintained that some things, but not all, were the subject of fate ( τῆς εἱμαρμένης), and that certain things were in our own power to do or not to do; that is, while they attribute all that happens to fate, or God's decree, they hold that man has the power of assent, supposing that God tempers all in such sort, that by his ordinance and man's will all things are performed, good or evil. The Sadducees eliminated fate altogether from human actions, and asserted that men are in all things governed, not by any external force, but by their own will alone; that their success and happiness depended upon themselves, and that ill fortune was the consequence of their own folly or stupidity. A third school, the Essenes, held that fate was supreme, and that nothing could happen to mankind beyond or in contravention of its decree ('Joseph. Ant.,' 13.5. 9; 18.1.3, 4; 'Bell. Jud.,' 2.8. 14). Such speculative discussions may have been in Koheleth's mind when he wrote this sentence. Whatever may be the difficulties of the position, we Christians know and feel that in matters of religion and morality we are absolutely free, have an unfettered choice, and that from this fact arises our responsibility. What is man the better? What profit has man from such speculations or words of skepticism?
This verse in the Greek and Latin versions, as in some copies of the Hebrew, is divorced from its natural place, as the conclusion of the paragraph, Ecclesiastes 6:10, Ecclesiastes 6:11, and is arranged as the commencement of Ecclesiastes 7:1-29. Plainly, the Divine prescience of Ecclesiastes 7:10, Ecclesiastes 7:11 is closely connected with the question of man's ultimate good and his ignorance of the future, enunciated in this verse. For who knoweth what is good for man in this life? Such discussions are profitless, for man knows not what is his real good—whether pleasure, apathy, or virtue, as philosophers would put it. To decide such questions he must be able to foresee results, which is denied him. The interrogative "Who knows?" is equivalent to an emphatic negative, as Ecclesiastes 3:21, and is a common rhetorical form which surely need not be attributed to Pyrrhonism (Plumptre). All the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow. These words amplify and explain the term "in life" of the preceding clause. They may be rendered literally, During the number of the days of the life (Ecclesiastes 5:18) of his vanity, and he passeth them as a shadow. A life of vanity is one that yields no good result, full of empty aims, unsatisfied wishes, unfulfilled purposes. It is the man who is here compared to the shadow, not his life. So Job 14:2, "He fleeth as a shadow, and continueth not," He soon passes away, and leaves no trace behind him. The thought is common. "Ye [Revised Version] are a vapor," says St. James (James 4:14), "that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." Plumptre well quotes Soph; 'Ajax,' 125—
ὁρῶ γὰρ ἡμᾶς οὐδὲν ὄντας ἄλλο πλὴν
εἴδωλ ὅσοιπερ ζῶμεν ἢ κούφην σκιάν
"In this I see that we, all we that live,
Are but vain shadows, unsubstantial dreams."
To which we may add Pind; 'Pyth.,' 8.95—
ἐπάμεροι τί δέ τις τίδ οὔ τις σκιᾶς ὄναρ ἄνθρωπος.
"Ye creatures of a day!
What is the great man what the poor?
Naught but a shadowy dream."
The comparison of man's life to a shadow or vapor is equally general (comp. Ecclesiastes 8:13; 1 Chronicles 29:15; Psalms 102:11; Psalms 144:4; Wis. 2:5; James 4:14). The verb used for "spendeth" is asah, "to do or make," which recalls the Greek phrase, χρόνον ποιεῖν, and the Latin, dies facere (Cic; 'Ad Attic.,' 5.20. 1); but we need not trace Greek influence in the employment of the expression here. For who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun? This does not refer to the life beyond the grave, but to the future in the present world, as the words, "under the sun," imply (comp. Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 7:14). To know what is best for him, to arrange his present life according to his own wishes and plans, to be able to depend upon his own counsel for all the actions and designs which he undertakes, man should know what is to be after him, what result his labors will have, who and what kind of heir will inherit his property, whether he will leave children to carry on his name, and other facts of the like nature; but as this is all hidden from him, his duty and his happiness is to acquiesce in the Divine government, to enjoy with moderation the goods of life, and to be content with the modified satisfaction which is accorded to him by Divine beneficence.
Sore evils beneath the sun; or, the misfortunes of a rich man.
I. A RICH MAN WITHOUT THE CAPACITY OF ENJOYMENT.
1. A frequent occurrence. The picture that of one who has attained to great wealth, power, and honor, who has been conscious of large ambitions and has realized them, who has been filled with insatiable desires and possessed the means of gratifying them, and yet has been unable to extract from all his possessions, pleasures, and pursuits any grain of real and solid happiness.
2. A sorrowful experience. The Preacher characterizes it as an evil which lies heavy upon men. Upon the individual himself, whose hopes are disappointed and plans frustrated, whose riches, wealth, and honors thus become mocking decorations rather than real ornaments, and Whose pleasures and. gratifications turn into apples of Sodom rather than prove, as he expected they would do, grapes of Eshcol.
3. An instructive lesson. The valuable truth that the soul's happiness is not, and cannot be, found in any creatures, however excellent, but only in God (Psalms 37:4), is thus forcibly pressed home upon the hearts and consciences of rich men themselves, and of such as observe the experiences through which they pass.
II. A RICH MAN WITHOUT AN HEIR TO HIS WEALTH. A great diminution to the rich man's happiness, who, in having no son or child, lacks:
1. That which is dearer to the heart of man than wealth, power, or fame. Unless the instincts of human nature have been utterly perverted by avarice, covetousness, and ambition, the hearts of rich no less than of poor men cling to their offspring, and, rather than lose these by death, would willingly surrender all their wealth (2 Samuel 18:33).
2. That without which wealth and honor lose the greater part of their attractions. Abraham felt it a considerable detraction from the sweetness of Jehovah's promise that he had no heir, and that all his possessions would ultimately pass into the hands of his steward, Eliezer of Damascus (Genesis 15:1-3).
3. That which gives to wealth-gathering and power-seeking their best justification. It is not certain that anything will justify these when inordinate; if anything will excuse a man for heaping up wealth in an honest and legitimate way, and for endeavoring to acquire power and influence amongst his fellows, it is the fact of his doing so with a view to promote the happiness of those God has made dependent on him, and bound to him by the ties of natural affection.
III. A RICH MAN WITHOUT A TOMB FOR HIS CORPSE. (For a different rendering of this clause, "And moreover he have no' burial," see the Exposition.)
1. The case supposed. That of a rich man surrounded by many (an hundred) children, who lives long, but has no true enjoyment of his good fortune, and when he dies is denied the glory of a funeral such as Dives doubtless had (Luke 16:22), and the shelter of a grave such as was not withheld even from Lazarus. How he should come at last to have no burial, though not explained, may be supposed to happen either through the meanness of his relatives or their hatred of him, or through his perishing in such a way (e.g. in war, at sea, through accident, by violence) as to render burial by his children impossible. Commentators cite as an illustration of the case supposed the murder by Bagoas of Artaxerxes Ochus, whose body was thrown to the cats. Another may be that of Jehoiakim, of whom it was predicted (Jeremiah 22:19), "He shall be buried with the burial of an ass, drawn and cast forth beyond the gates of Jerusalem."
2. The judgment pronounced. That such a case is not to be compared in respect of felicity with that of "an untimely birth," which "cometh in vanity, and departeth in darkness, and the name thereof is covered with darkness;" i.e. which enters on a lifeless existence when born, and "is carried away in all quietness, without noise or ceremony," having received no name, and becoming forgotten as if it had never been (Delitzsch). The grounds on which the Preacher rests his judgment are three:
3. The correction needed. This pessimistic view of life may be thus admirably qualified. The allegation here made "contains a thought to which it is not easy to reconcile one's self. For supposing that life were not in itself, as over against non-existence, a good, there is yet scarcely any life that is absolutely joyless; and a man who has become the father of a hundred children has, as it appears, sought the enjoyment of life principally in sexual love, and then also has found it richly. But also, if we consider his life less as relating to sense, his children, though not all, yet partly, will have been a joy to him; and has a family life so lengthened and rich in blessings only thorns, and no roses at all? And, moreover, how can anything be said of the rest of an untimely birth, which has been without motion and without life, as of a rest excelling the termination of the life of him who has lived long, since rest without a subjective reflection, a rest not felt, certainly does not fall under the point of view of more or less good or evil? The saying of the author on no side bears the probe of exact thinking" (Delitzsch).
IV. A RICH MAN WITHOUT A BETTER LOT THAN HIS NEIGHBORS. "Do not all go to one place?" In the grave rich and poor differ not. The dusts of the patrician and of the plebeian, freely intermingled, no human chemistry can distinguish. A tremendous humiliation, no doubt, to human pride, that Solomon and the harlot's child, Caesar and his slave, Dives and Lazarus, must ultimately lie together in the same narrow house—that rich and poor, wise and unwise, powerful and powerless, honored and abject, kings and subjects, princes and peasants, masters and servants, must ultimately sleep side by side on the same couch; but so it is. And this, also, in the eyes of worldlings, but not of good men, is a vanity, and a sore evil beneath the sun.
1. Riches are not the chief good.
2. Temporal evils may be sources of spiritual good.
The insatiableness of desire.
I. IT CONSUMES THE LABOR OF ALL. "All the labor of man is for his mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled" (Esther 6:7). The appetite, as an imperious master, urges on the soul to labor with all its powers and energies to furnish food for its delectation; and yet the utmost man can provide is insufficient to fill its capacious maw. However varied man's works may be, they have all this end in common, to appease the hunger of the sensuous nature; and all alike fail in reaching it. The appetite grows by what it feeds on, and hence never cries, "Enough!"
II. IT AFFECTS THE CHARACTERS OF ALL. "What advantage hath the wise more than the fool? or what [advantage] hath the poor man, who knows to walk before the living, over the fool?" (Esther 6:8).
1. Intellectual gifts do not argue the absence of desire. The philosopher, no less than the peasant, is under its dominion. The former may attempt to control, and may even to some extent succeed in controlling, his bodily appetites; but the appetite is there, impelling him to labor equally with the fool.
2. Material poverty does not guarantee the absence of desire. The poor man who knows how to walk before the living, i.e. who understands the art of living, is no more exempt from its sway than is the rich man, though a fool. The poor man may have learned how to put restraints upon himself, because of inability to gratify his desire, but the appetite is as much felt by him as by his rich neighbor.
III. IT DISAPPOINTS THE HOPES OF ALL. "Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire" (Esther 6:9). Just because desire is never satisfied, it wanders on in pursuit of other objects which are often visionary, and almost always illusory; as a consequence, like the dog which snapped at his shadow and lost the meat he carried in his mouth, desire frequently misses such enjoyments as are within its reach through striving after those that are beyond its power.
1. The danger of self-indulgence.
2. The difficulty of keeping the lower nature in subjection.
3. The propriety of preferring present and possible to future and perhaps impossible enjoyments.
Four aspects of human life.
I. MAN AS A CREATURE OF DESTINY. "Whatsoever hath been, the name thereof was given long ago, and it is known that it is man" (Esther 6:10); or, "Whatsoever he be, his name was given him long ago, and it is known that he is man"; or, "That which hath been, its name hath long ago been named; and it is determined what a man shall be" (Delitzsch, Wright). These different readings suggest three thoughts.
1. That man's appearance upon the earth had been long ago foreseen. The sentiment holds good of man collectively or individually, i.e. of the race, or of the unit in the race. Neither did "man" originally spring into being by a happy accident, without the direct or indirect cognizance of God, nor does the "individual" so arrive upon the scene of time; but both the hour and the manner of man's arrival upon the globe, and of each individual's birth, were prearranged from eternity by him who "made the earth, and created man upon it" (Isaiah 45:12), and who "giveth to all life and breath and all things" (Acts 17:25).
2. That man's character as a creature had been long ago foreknown. In this respect, indeed, he had in no way differed from other creatures. Known unto God had been all his works from the beginning of the world (Acts 15:18). Human character is not in any instance an accidental product of blind forces, but is determined by fixed laws, moral and spiritual, which have been prearranged and instituted by the supreme moral Governor. Hence, within limits, it is possible for man to predict what himself or another shall become. "He that doeth righteousness" not only "is righteous" in the sense of already possessing the fundamental and essential principle of righteousness, viz. faith in, love of, and submission to God, but his righteousness shall eventually become within him the all-pervading and permanent quality of his being; and similarly "he that doeth unrighteousness" not only is potentially, but shall become permanently, unrighteous. Moral character in all men tends to fixity, whether of good or evil. Hence the greater possibility, amounting to certainty, that the Divine Mind, whose creation the laws are under which these results are wrought out, can, ab initio, foresee the issue to which, in every separate instance, they lead.
3. That man's destiny as an individual had been long ago determined, The doctrine of Divine predestination, however hard to harmonize with that of human freedom, is clearly revealed in Scripture (Exodus 9:16; 2 Chronicles 6:6; Psalms 135:4; Isaiah 44:1-7; Jeremiah 1:5 . Matthew 11:25, Matthew 11:26; John 6:37; Romans 8:29; Romans 9:11), and is supported by the plain testimony of experience, which shows that
"There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will."
Or, in the words of Caesar, that nothing
"Can be avoided
Whose end is purposed by the mighty gods."
II. MAN AS THE POSSESSOR OF FREE-WILL. "Neither may [or, 'can'] he contend with him that is mightier than he" (Esther 6:10); in which are contained the following thoughts:
1. That mighty as man is (in virtue of his free-will), there is a mightier than he. That mightier is not death (Plumptre), but God (Delitzsch), who also is a Being possessed of free-will, which must still less be interfered with by man's choices and intentions, than man's free-win must be impaired by God's purposes and plans. This thought frequently forgotten, that if man, in virtue of his free-will, must be able to carry out his volitions, much more must God be able to carry out the free decisions of his infinite mind. In this concession the whole doctrine of predestination, or election, is involved.
2. That if in any instance man's purposes and God's come into collision, these of man must give way. One has only to put the question, whether it is of greater moment that God's purposes with regard to the universe and the individual should be carried out, or that man's with regard to himself should, to perceive the absurdity of limiting the Divine sovereignty in order to avoid the appearance of restricting human freedom, rather than seeming to impair human freedom in order to preserve intact the absolute and entire supremacy of God.
3. That God's determinations, when accomplished, will not be impeachable by man. The veil of mystery now shrouding the Divine procedure will in the end be in great measure, perhaps wholly, uplifted, and man himself constrained to acknowledge that the supreme Ruler hath done all things well (Mark 7:37).
III. MAN AS A VICTIM OF IGNORANCE. "Seeing there be many things [or, "words that increase vanity,"] what is man the better? For who knoweth," etc.? and "who can tell?" (Esther 6:11, Esther 6:12).
1. The fact of his ignorance. Elsewhere in Scripture explicitly asserted (Deuteronomy 32:28; Psalms 14:4; Proverbs 19:3; John 1:5; Ephesians 4:18), and abundantly confirmed by experience.
2. The extent of his ignorance. Restricting attention to the Preacher's words, two subjects may be noted concerning which man—apart, i.e; from God and religion—is comparatively unenlightened:
3. The strangeness of his ignorance. Considering that man is a being possessed of high natural endowments, and is often much and earnestly engaged in searching after knowledge. That with all his lofty capacity, and devotion to intellectual pursuits, he should, it' left to himself, be unable to tell either what is good for man in this life (all his discussions upon this subject having been little else than words, words, words), or how the course of events shall shape itself when he has passed from this earthly scene, is a surprising phenomenon which calls for examination.
4. The explanation of his ignorance lies in two things:
IV. MAN AS A DENIZEN OF EARTH.
1. His continuance is not permanent. He and his generation shall pass on, that those coming after may enter in and take possession (Ecclesiastes 1:4).
2. His days are not many. His life he spendeth like a shadow, which has no substance, and abides not in one stay. "Man that is born of a woman is of few days," etc. (Job 14:1, Job 14:2).
3. His life is not good. Apart from God and religion it is "vain," i.e. empty of real happiness, and. destitute of solid worth.
1. The sovereignty of God.
2. The weakness of man.
3. The duty of submission to the Supreme.
4. The inability of earthly things to make man better.
5. The chief good for man on earth is God.
Who can tell? a sermon on human ignorance.
I. THINGS THAT LIE BEYOND THE SCOPE OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE.
1. The nature of the duty. "Can thou by searching find out God," etc.? (Job 11:7). To define God as Spirit (John 4:24), to characterize him as Love (1 John 4:8, 1 John 4:16) or as Light (1 John 1:5), to ascribe to him attributes of omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, etc; is not so much to explain his essence as to declare it to be something that lies beyond the bounds of our finite understanding (Psalms 139:6).
2. The mystery of the Incarnation. "Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh" (1 Timothy 3:16). To show that Jesus Christ must have been "Emmanuel, God with us" (Matthew 1:23), may not surpass the powers of man; to give an adequate exhibition of the way in which in Christ the human and Divine natures were and are united does. The best proof of this lies in the number of the theories of the Incarnation.
3. The contents of the atonement. That Christ, as a matter of fact, bore the sins of men so as to expiate their guilt and destroy their power, one can tell from the general tenor of Scripture declarations on the subject (Matthew 26:28; Romans 3:24; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Timothy 2:6; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 2:2); but what it was in Christ's "obedience unto death" that constituted the propitiation is one of those "secret things" that belong to God.
4. The movements of the Spirit. "Thou canst not tell whence it [the wind] cometh, or whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). That the Holy Spirit is the Author of regeneration and of inspiration is perfectly patent to the understanding of the Christian. The theory that shall adequately explain how the Spirit renews or inspires the soul has not yet been elaborated.
5. The events of the future. "Who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?" or even what shall be on the morrow (Proverbs 27:1)?
II. THINGS THAT LIE WITHIN THE SCOPE OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE.
1. The character of God. The Ninevites could not tell whether Jehovah would be gracious to them (Jonah 3:9); we can tell from the revelation of Scripture, and especially from the teaching of Christ, that God is Love, and willeth not the death of any.
2. The Divinity of Christ. Human reason is perfectly competent to decide upon the question whether Jesus of Nazareth belonged to the category of common men, or whether he was a new order of man broken in upon the ordinary line of the race. The evidence for such a decision has been provided, and any one who seriously wishes can arrive at a just conclusion.
3. The work of the Savior. This also has been fully discovered in the Scripture. Christ came to reveal the Father (John 14:9), to atone for sin (Matt, 20:28), to exemplify holiness (1 Peter 2:21), and to establish the kingdom of heaven upon earth (Revelation 1:6).
4. The fruits of the Spirit. If a man cannot always judge whether the Spirit is in his own or another's heart, he should be at no loss to tell whether the Spirit's fruits, which are love, joy, peace, etc. (Galatians 5:22), are discernible in his or his neighbor's life.
5. The goals of the future. If the separate incidents that shall hereafter occur in any individual's life be concealed from view, the two termini, towards one or other of which every individual is moving—heaven or hell—have been clearly revealed.
HOMILIES BY D. THOMAS
Esther 6:1, Esther 6:2
The unsatisfactoriness and transitoriness of earthly good.
Men are prone to be guided, in the conclusions they form regarding human life, by their own personal experience, and by the observations they make in their own immediate circle of acquaintance. So judging, they are prone to be one-sided in their estimate, and to take a view either too gloomy or too roseate. The author of Ecclesiastes was a man who had very large and varied opportunities of studying mankind, and who was in the habit of forming impartial conclusions. This accounts for what may perhaps seem to some readers opposed and inconsistent representations of the nature of man's life on earth. In fact, a more definite and decisive representation would have been less correct and fair.
I. MEN LOOKING UPON THEIR FELLOW-MEN ARE PRONE TO GIVE TOO LARGE A MEASURE OF ATTENTION TO THEIR OUTWARD CIRCUMSTANCES. The first question that occurs to many minds, upon forming a new acquaintance, is—What has he? i.e. what property? or—What is he? i.e. what is his rank in society? A man to whom God has given riches, wealth, and honor, who lacks nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, is counted fortunate. He is held in esteem; his friendship and favor are cultivated.
II. REFLECTING OBSERVERS BEAR IN MIND THAT THERE ARE OTHER ELEMENTS IN HUMAN WELFARE. For instance, it cannot be questioned that health of body and a sound and vigorous mind are of far more importance than wealth. And there may be family trouble, which mars the happiness of the most prosperous. The wise man had observed cases in which there was no power to enjoy the gifts of Providence; and other cases in which there were no children to succeed to the possession of accumulated wealth, so that it came into the hands of strangers. Bodily affliction and domestic disappointment may cast a shadow over the lot which seems the fairest and most desirable. "This is vanity, and it is an evil disease."
III. THESE IMPERFECTIONS IN THE HUMAN LOT OFTEN GIVE RISE TO MELANCHOLY REFLECTIONS AND DISTRESSING DOUBTS. Those who not only remark what happens around them, but reflect upon what they witness, draw inferences which have a certain semblance of validity. If we judge only by the facts which come under our cognizance, we may be led to conclusions inconsistent with true religion Men come to doubt the rule of a benevolent Governor of the universe, simply because they cannot reconcile certain facts with such convictions as Christianity encourages. Skepticism and pessimism often follow upon bitter experiences and upon frequent contact with the calamities of this mundane state.
IV. WISDOM SUGGESTS A REMEDY FOR SUCH DIFFICULTIES AND DOUBTS.
1. It should be remembered that what any individual observes is but an infinitesimal part of the varied and protracted drama of human life and history.
2. It should not be lost sight of that there are moral and spiritual purposes in our earthly existence. It is a discipline, a proving, an education. Its end is not—as men too often suppose that it should be—enjoyment and pleasure; but character—conformity to the Divine character, and submission to the Divine will. The highest benevolence aims at the highest ends, and to secure these it seems in many cases necessary that lower ends should be sacrificed. If temporal prosperity be marred by what seems misfortune, this may be in order that spiritual prosperity may be promoted. It may not be well for the individual that he should be encouraged to seek perfect satisfaction in the things of this world. It may not be well for society that great and powerful families should be built up, to gratify human pride and ambition. God's ways are not as our ways, but they are wiser and better than ours.—T.
The gloom of disappointment.
The case supposed in these verses is far more painful than that dealt with in the preceding passage. It is now presumed that a man not only lives to an advanced age—"a thousand years twice told"—but that he begets "a hundred children." Yet he is unsatisfied with the experience of life, and dies without being regretted and honorably buried. And in such a case it is affirmed that the issue of life is vanity, and that it would have been better for such a one not to have been born. It must be borne in mind, when considering this melancholy conclusion, that it is based entirely upon what is earthly, visible, and sensible.
I. HERE IS AN EXAGGERATION OF THE IMPORTANCE OF OUTWARD PROSPERITY AND OF WORLDLY PLEASURE. The standard of the world may be a real one, but it is far from being the highest. Wealth, long life, important family connections, are good things; but they are not the best. Much of human unhappiness arises from first overestimating external advantages, and then, as a natural consequence, when these are lost, attaching undue importance to the privation. If men did not exaggerate the value of earthly good, they would not be so bitterly disappointed, so grievously depressed, upon losing it.
II. HERS IS AN UNWARRANTABLE EXPECTATION OF SATISFACTION WITH WHAT EARTH CAN GIVE. Of the person imagined it is assumed "that his soul be not filled with good." The fact is that men seek satisfaction where it is not to be found, and in so doing prove their own folly and short-sightedness. God has given to man a nature which is not to be satisfied with the enjoyments of sense, with the provision made for bodily appetite, with the splendor, luxury, and renown, upon which men are so prone to set the desires of their hearts. If what this world can give be accepted with gratitude, whilst no more is expected from it than reason and Scripture justify us in asking, then disappointment will not ensue. But the divinely fashioned and immortal spirit of man cannot rest in what is simply intended to still the cravings of the body, and to render life tranquil and enjoyable.
III. HERE IS MOROSE DISSATISFACTION RESULTING FROM FAILURE TO SOLVE AN INSOLUBLE PROBLEM. Apply the hedonistic test, and then it may be disputed whether the sum of pain and disappointment is not in excess of the sum of pleasure and satisfaction; if it is, then the "untimely birth" is better than the prosperous voluptuary who fails to fill his soul with good, who feels the utter failure of the endeavor upon which he has staked his all. But the test is a wrong one, however hard it may be to convince men that this is so. The question—Is life worth living? does not depend upon the question—Does life yield a surplus of agreeable feeling? Life may be filled with delights, and the lot of the prosperous may excite envy. Yet it may be nothing but vanity, and a striving after wind. On the other hand, a man may be doomed to adversity; poverty and neglect and contempt may be his portion; whilst he may fulfill the purpose of his being—may form a character and may live a life which shall be acceptable and approved above.—T.
Satisfaction better than desire.
It has sometimes been represented that the quest of good is better than its attainment. The truth and justice of this representation lies in the unquestionable fact that it would not be for our good to possess without effort, without perseverance, without self-denial. Yet the end is superior to the means, however excellently adapted those means may be to the discipline of the character, to the calling out of the best moral qualities.
I. MAN'S NATURE IS CHARACTERIZED BY STRIVING, DESIRE, APPETITE, ASPIRATION. Man's is a yearning, impulsive, acquisitive constitution. His natural instincts urge him to courses of action which secure the continuance of his own being and of that of the race. His restless, eager desires account for the activity and energy which distinguish his movements. His intellectual impulses urge him to the pursuit of knowledge, to scientific and literary achievement. His moral aspirations are the explanation of heroism in the individual, and of true progress in social life.
II. OF HUMAN DESIRES, NONE CAN EVER BE FULLY SATISFIED, MANY CANNOT BE SATISFIED AT ALL. The testimony of these who have gone before us is uniform upon this point.
"We look before and after,
We pine for what is not;
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught:
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought."
Thus it becomes proverbial that man is made to desire rather than to enjoy. Of our aspirations some can never be gratified on earth. The lower animals have desires for which satisfaction is provided; but whilst their life is thus thoroughly adapted to their constitution, this cannot be said of man, who has capacities which cannot be filled, aspirations which cannot be satisfied, faculties for which no sufficient scope is attainable here on earth. His, as the poet tells us, is
"The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow;
The longing for something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow."
III. EVEN WISDOM DOES BUT ENLARGE THE RANGE OF MAN'S INSATIABLE DESIRES. It is not only upon the lower grade of life that we observe a discordance between what is sought and what is attained. For the philosopher, as for the uncultured child of nature, there is an ideal as well as an actual. Prudence may enjoin the limitation and repression of our requirements. But thought ever looks out from the windows of the high towers, and gazes upon the distant stars.
"Who that has gazed upon them shining
Can turn to earth without repining,
Nor wish for wings to flee away,
And mix with their eternal day?"
IV. THESE CONSIDERATIONS TEND TO INCREASE THE UNHAPPINESS OF THE WORLDLY, WHILST THEY OPEN UP TO THE SPIRITUAL AND PIOUS MIND A GLORIOUS AND IMMORTAL PROSPECT. They to whom the bodily life and the material universe are everything, or even anything regarded by themselves, may well give way to dissatisfaction and despondency when they learn by experience "the vanity of human wishes." On the other hand, such reflections may well prompt the spiritual to gratitude, for they cannot believe the universe to have been fashioned in vain; they cannot but see in the illusions of earth suggestions of the heavenly realities. The storms of life are not to be hated if they toss the navigator of earth's sea into the haven of God's breast. The wandering of the desire may end in the sight of the eyes, when the pure in heart shall see God. "In his presence is fullness of joy, and at his right hand am pleasure forevermore."—T.
Contending against power.
The limitation which is characteristic of the human life and lot is observable, not only in man's inability to attain the happiness he conceives and desires, but also in his inability to execute the purposes he forms. Conscious of powers which are yet undeveloped, inspired by an ambition that knows so bounds, he puts forth effort in many directions, at first with strong confidence and high hope. Experience alone convinces him of the truth expressed by the wise man in the assertion, "Neither can he contend with him that is mightier than he."
I. THE WAY OF RESISTANCE. The will may be strong, and naturally prone to self-assertion, to energetic volition, and to contention with any resisting force.
1. God is, as the providential Ruler of the world, the Lord and Controller of all circumstances, mightier than man. Men fret against the conditions and limitations of their lot; they would fain possess greater strength and health, a longer life, enjoyments more varied and unmixed, etc. They resent the imposition of laws in the determination of which they had no voice. They are even disposed to believe that the world has been ordered, not by a benevolent Intelligence, but by a hard and cruel fate.
2. God is, as the moral Administrator and Judge, mightier than man. In their selfishness and prejudice, men may and do question the sway of reason in the universe; they assign all things to chance; they deny any laws superior to such as are physical and political; they deem man the measure of all things; they ridicule responsibility. All this they may do; but it is of no avail. God is mightier than they. They may violate his laws, but they cannot escape from their action; they may spurn his authority, but that authority is all the same maintained and exercised. The time comes when the insurgent and the rebel are constrained to admit that they are powerless, and that the Almighty is, and that he works and rules, and effects his righteous purposes.
II. THE WAY OF SUBMISSION. It is the province of religion to point out to men that there is a Power in the universe which is above all, and to summon men to yield to this Power a cheerful subjection.
1. Submission is a just requirement on the part of God, and an honorable attitude on the part of man. He is no tyrant, capricious and unjust, who claims our loyalty and service; but the Being who is himself infinitely righteous. To do him homage is to bow, not before irresistible power merely, but before moral perfection. Resistance here is slavery; subjection is freedom.
2. Submission is the one only condition of efficient work and solid happiness. Whilst we resist God, we can do nothing satisfactory and good; when we accept his will and receive our commands from him, we become fellow-workers with God. Just as the secret of the mechanician's success is in obeying the laws of nature, i.e. the laws of God in the physical realm, so the secret of the success of the thinker and the philanthropist lies in the apprehension and acknowledgment of Divine law in the intellectual and moral kingdoms. Man may do great things when he labors under God and with God. And in such a course of life there is true peace as well as true success. "If God be for us, who can be against us?"—T.
Esther 6:11, Esther 6:12
What is man's good?
The author of this book constantly reverts to this inquiry, from which tendency we cannot fail to see how deep an impression the inquiry made upon his mind. In this he is not peculiar; the theme is one that grows not old with the lapse of centuries.
I. A NATURAL QUESTION, AND ONE BOTH LEGITIMATE AND NECESSARY. "There be many that say, Who will show us any good?" Sometimes the inquiry arises upon the suggestion of daily occupation; sometimes as the result of prolonged philosophical reflection. The good of man is certainly not obvious, or there would not be so many and varying replies to the question presented. A lower nature, not being self-conscious, could not consider such a question as the surnmum bonum; being what he is, a rational and moral creation, man cannot avoid it.
II. A QUESTION TO WHICH SO SATISFACTORY REPLY CAN BE GIVEN UPON THE BASIS OF EXPERIENCE.
1. The occupations and enjoyments of the present are proved to be productive of vanity. "Many things increase vanity." Man "spendeth his vain life as a shadow." The several objects of human pursuit agree only in their failure to afford the satisfaction that is desired and sought. Yet the path which one has abandoned another follows, only to be misled like those who have gone before, only to be put further than ever from the destination desired. The objects which excite human ambition or cupidity remain the same from age to age; and they have no more power to give satisfaction than in former periods of human history.
2. The future is felt to be clouded by uncertainty. "Who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?" This element of uncertainty occasioned perplexity and distress in former times, as now. What shall be a man's reputation after his decease? Who shall inherit his estates? and what use shall be made of possessions accumulated with toil and difficulty? These and similar inquiries, made but not satisfactorily answered, disheartened even the energetic and the prosperous, and took the interest and joy out of their daily life. The present is unsatisfactory, and the future uncertain; where, then, shall we look for the true, the real good?
III. A QUESTION WHICH IS SOLVED ONLY BY FAITH. As long as we confine our attention to what can be apprehended by the senses, we cannot determine what is the real good in life. For that, in the case of rational and immortal natures, lies outside of the province in which supreme good must be sought. Good for man is not bodily or temporal good; it is something which appeals to his higher nature. The enjoyment of God's favor and the fulfillment of God's service—this is the good of man. This renders men independent of the prosperity upon which multitudes set their hearts. "Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us:" such is the desire and prayer of those who are emancipated from the bondage to time and sense, who see all things as in the light of Heaven, and whose thoughts and affections are not called away from the Giver of life and happiness by the gifts of his bounty, by the shadow of the substance that endures for ever. "Thy loving-kindness is better than life."—T.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
The insufficiency of circumstance.
The Preacher recurs to the same strain as that in which he spoke before (see Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). We have to face the same thoughts again.
I. AN IMAGINARY ENRICHMENT. Let a man have, by supposition:
1. All the money that he can spend.
2. All the honor that waits on wealth.
3. All the luxuries that wealth can buy of every kind, material and mental (Esther 6:2).
4. Let him have an unusual measure of domestic enrichment and affection; let him be the recipient of all possible filial affection and obedience (Esther 6:3).
5. Let his life be indefinitely prolonged (Esther 6:6), so that it extends over many ordinary human lives. Give to a man not only what God does give to many, but give him that which, as things are, is not granted to the most favored of our race; and what then? What is—
II. THE PROBABLE RESULT. It will very likely end in simple and utter dissatisfaction. "God giveth him not the power to eat thereof;" "His soul is not filled with good;" he gets so little enjoyment out of all that he has at command, that "an untimely birth is better than he;" he feels that it would have been positively better for him if he had never been born. Subtract the evil from the good in his life, and you have nothing left but "a negative quantity." This is quite in accord with human experience. As much of profound discontent is found within the walls of the palace as under the cottage roof. The suicide is quite as likely to be found to be a "well-dressed man," belonging to "good society," as to be a man clad in rags and penniless.
III. ITS EXPLANATION. The explanation of it is found in the fact that God has made us for himself, that he has "set eternity in our hearts" (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and that we are not capable of being satisfied with the sensible and the transient. Only the love and service of God can fill the heart that is made for the eternal and the Divine (see homily on Ecclesiastes 1:7, Ecclesiastes 1:8).
IV. ITS CHRISTIAN CORRECTION. There need never live a man who has known Jesus Christ of whom so sad a statement as this has to be made. For a Christian life:
1. Even when spent in poverty and obscurity, is filled with a holy contentment; it includes high and sacred joys; it is relieved by very precious consolations.
2. Contains and transmits a valuable influence on others.
3. Constitutes an excellency which God approves, and the angels of God admire.
4. Moves on to a glorious future. It does not end in the grave.—C.
Heroism; infatuation; wisdom.
Translating the latter part of this passage thus, "And it is very certain that even the greatest is but man, and cannot contend with him who is mightier than he" (Cox), we have our attention directed to three things.
I. REAL HEROISM. This is found in opposing ourselves to the strong on behalf of the weak, even though the odds against us are very great, and apparently overwhelming. Wonderful triumphs have been achieved, even though the agents have "been but men," when they have courageously and devoutly addressed themselves to the work before them. They have triumphed over
(a) their country,
(c) Jesus Christ.
II. PITIFUL INFATUATION. This is seen in those who are foolish enough to measure their poor strength (or their weakness) with the power of God, with "him who is mightier than they." And this they do when they:
1. Act as if he did not regard them; when they say, "How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the Most High?" (Psalms 73:11).
2. Imagine they can outwit him; when they think they will sin and be forgiven; will corrupt their lives and waste their powers, and yet find entrance at the last hour into his kingdom. But "God is not mocked; whatsoever a man sows, that does he reap." Sin always carries its penalty at one time and in some form, if not in another.
3. Live in simple defiance of his rule; go on in conscious wrong-doing, in the vague and senseless hope that somehow they will "escape the judgment of God."
III. TRUE WISDOM. This is realized in:
1. Submitting to his will; in acknowledging his supreme claims, as Father and Savior of our spirit, upon our worship and trust, our love, our service, and in yielding ourselves unreservedly to him.
2. Enlisting his Divine strength on our side. For if we are reconciled to him, and become his true and trusted children—"his disciples indeed "—then is God on our side; there is no need to speak of "contending" with him that is mightier than we; there is no further contest or variance. Surely "God is with us," bestowing upon us his fatherly favor, admitting us to his intimate friendship, accepting us as his fellow-laborers (1 Corinthians 3:9), overruling all adverse (or apparently adverse) forces and making them work our true and lasting good (Romans 8:28), guarding us from every evil thing, leading us on to a peaceful end and out to a glorious future.—C.
HOMILIES BY J. WILLCOCK
Life without enjoyment valueless.
The problem which occupies the Preacher (Esther 6:1, Esther 6:2) is virtually the same as that in Ecclesiastes 4:7, Ecclesiastes 4:8. It is not that which is discussed in the Book of Job, and the thirty-seventh and seventy-third psalms, viz. why the wicked often prosper, and the righteous often suffer adversity. It is that of men blessed with riches, with children, and with long life, and debarred all enjoyment of these blessings. In the Law of Moses these had been the rewards promised for obedience to God (Deuteronomy 28:1-14), but the Preacher sees that something more is needed for happiness than the mere possession of them. There is another "gift of God" needed in order that one may enjoy the good of any one of them.
I. The first picture (verses 1, 2) is that of A RICH MAN, able to gratify every desire, but incapable of making his wealth yield him any pleasure or satisfaction. He may be a miser, afraid to make use of his riches; he may be in ill health, and find that his wealth cannot procure for him any alleviation of his pains; his domestic circumstances may be so unhappy as to cast a cloud over his prosperity. From various causes, such as these, the evil upon which our author remarks is common enough in human society—great wealth failing to procure for its possessor any enjoyment he can relish, and perhaps passing at last, on his death, into the hands of a stranger, for want of an heir to whom he might have had some satisfaction in leaving it.
II. A second case of a different kind is suggested in verses 3-6. The rich man is NOT CHILDLESS, but has a numerous family, and lives out all his days; but he, too, often has no happiness in his life, and perhaps even fails to find honorable burial when he dies. His fate is worse than that of the stillborn child that has never tasted of life. "The abortion has the advantage in not having known anything; for it is better to know nothing at all than to know nothing but trouble. It is laid in the grave without having tasted the miseries of human life; in the grave, where, amid the silence and solitude of death, the cares and disappointments, the disquietudes and mortifications and distresses of this world are neither felt nor dreamed of" (Wardlaw). However gloomy these reflections of our author's may seem at first sight, when we examine them a little more closely we find that they are not so somber in their character as many of the utterances of pessimistic philosophy. He does not contrast being with not-being, and declare that the latter is preferable, but he declares a joyless life to be inferior to that which has been "cut off from the womb." His teaching that the value of existence is to be measured by the amount of good that has been enjoyed in it, is so far from being the utterance of a despairing pessimism that most sober-minded persons would accept it as reasonable and true. Specimens of utterances which, to a superficial reader, might appear to be closely akin to his, but which really are the expression of a very much darker mood than his, might easily be given. Thus we have in Theognis (425-428)—
"Best lot for man is never to be born,
Nor ever see the bright rays of the morn:
Next best, when born, to haste with quickest tread
Where Hades' gates are open for the dead,
And rest with much earth gathered for our bed?
And in Sophocles—
"Never to be at all
Excels all fame;
Quickly, next best, to pass
From whence we came."
And according to the teaching of Schopenhauer, the non-existence of the world is to be preferred to its existence. The world is cursed with four great evils—birth, disease, old age, and death. "Existence is only a punishment," and the feeling of misery which often accompanies it is "repentance" for the great crime of having come into the world by yielding to the "will to live". Such despairing utterances, when found in the writings of those who have not known God, move us to compassion, but we can scarcely avoid the feeling of indignation when we find them on the lips of those who have known God, but have not "retained him in their knowledge." And we must beware of concluding, after a hasty and superficial reading of the Book of Ecclesiastes, that its author, even in his darkest mood, sank to the depth of atheism and despair which they reveal.—J.W.
The insatiability of desire.
In these words the Preacher lays stress upon the little advantage which one man has over another in regard to the attainment of happiness and satisfaction in life. All are tormented by desires and longings which can never be adequately satisfied. His reference is principally, if not entirely, to the cravings of natural appetites to which all are subject, and which cannot by any gratification or exercise of will be wholly silenced. The instinct of self-preservation, the necessity of sustaining the body with food, inspire labor, and yet no amount of labor is sufficient to put an end, once and for all, to the gnawings of desire. The sensuous element in man's nature is insatiable, and the appetites of which it consists grow in strength as they are indulged. Though the pressure of appetite differs in different cases, none are free from it. The wise as well as the foolish, the man of simple tastes and chastened temper, as well as he who gives free rein to all his impulses, feel it. Gifts of intellect, acquirements in culture, make no difference in this matter. Some little obscurity seems at first to hang over Esther 6:8, but a little examination of the words disperses it. The whole verse runs (Revised Version), "For what advantage hath the wise man more than the fool? or what [advantage] hath the poor man [more than the fool], that knoweth to walk before the living?' "To know to walk before the living is, as is haw generally acknowledged, to understand the right rule of life, to possess the savoir vivre, to be experienced in the right art of living, (Delitzsch). The question accordingly is—What advantage has the wise over the fool? and what the poor, who, although poor, knows how to maintain his social position? The matter treated of is the insatiable nature of sensual desire. The wise seeks to control his desire; he who is spoken of as poor knows how to conceal it, for he lays restraints upon himself, that he may make a good appearance and maintain his reputation. But desire is present in both, and they have in this nothing above the fool, who follows the bent of his desire, and lives for the passing hour. In other words, "The idea of the passage seems to be, the desire of man is insatiable, he is never really satisfied; the wise man, however, seeks to keep his desires within bounds, and to keep them to himself, but the fool utters all his mind (Proverbs 29:11). Even the poor man, who knows how to conduct himself in life, and understands the right art of living, though he keeps his secret to himself, feels within himself the stirrings of that longing which is destined never to be satisfied on earth" (Wright). The reference here to the poor man may possibly be made because the Preacher has already praised the lot of the laboring man (Ecclesiastes 5:12) in comparison with that of the rich, whose abundance will not suffer him to sleep. If so, he virtually says here, half-humorously, "Don't imagine that poverty is the secret of contentment and happiness. Poverty covers cares and anxieties as well as riches. Both rich and poor are pretty much on the same level." A very simple and practical conclusion is drawn from the fact of the insatiability of desire, and that is the advisability of enjoying the present good that is within our reach (Esther 6:9). That which the eyes see and recognize as good and beautiful should not be forfeited because the thoughts are wandering after something which may be forever unattainable by us. So far the teaching is not above that of the fable of the dog who lost the piece of flesh he had in his mouth, because he snapped at the reflection of it he saw on the surface of the water. And if this be thought but a poor, cold scrap of morality to offer to men for their guidance in life, the answer may be given that multitudes spend their life in fruitless endeavors after what is far above their reach, and bereave their souls of present good, from an insatiable greed which this fable rebukes. Constituted as we are, placed as we are amid many temptations, we need not despise any small scraps of moral teaching which may be even in threadbare fables, and homely, familiar proverbs. To say that the words, "Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire," is about equivalent to the proverb, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," may seem irreverent to some, who would fain read into the text more than it contains. But instead of imagining that the Word of God is degraded by the comparison, let them recognize the good sense and prudent advice which lie in the proverb which corresponds so closely to the sense of the Preacher's words.—J.W.
Before considering these words of the Preacher, we need to obtain a clear and precise idea of the statements he makes. A considerable measure of obscurity hangs over the passage, and renders it all the more difficult to catch the writer's meaning. This is apparent from the alternative renderings of several clauses in it which we have in the margin of the Revised Version. The general idea of the passage seems to be—Man's powerlessness and short-sightedness with respect to destiny. "Whatsoever hath been, the name thereof was given long ago, and it is known that it is man: neither can he contend with him that is mightier than he" (Esther 6:10). The difficult phrase is that thus translated—"it is known that it is man," But if we take the Hebrew phrase, as several eminent critics (Delitzsch, Wright) do, to be equal to scitur id quod homo sit—"it is known that which a man is"—an intelligible and appropriate meaning of the passage is obtained. It seems to point to the fact that man has been placed in certain unalterable conditions by the will of God, and to urge the advisability of submitting to the inevitable. Both as to time and place, the conditions have been fixed from of old, and no human effort can change them. The same thought occurs in St. Paul's address to the Athenians: "He made of one every nation of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation" (Acts 17:26, Revised Version). It is to be found also in Isaiah's saying, "Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! a potsherd among the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?" And this passage in Ecclcsiastes seems to have been in the mind of the Apostle Paul quite as certainly as that just quoted from Isaiah, when he wrote the famous paragraph in the Epistle to the Romans on the potter and the clay (Romans 9:20, et seq.). That God has predetermined the conditions of our lives, and that it is useless to strive against his power, seems, therefore, the teaching of verse 10. The obscurity in verse 11 is caused by the translation, both in our Authorized Version and Revised Version, of the Hebrew דברים as "things" instead of "words." In the Revised Version "words" is given in the margin, but assuredly should be in the text, as in the ancient versions (LXX; Vulgate, Syriac): "Seeing there be many words that increase vanity, what is man the better?" (verse 11). Most probably the reference is to discussions concerning man's freedom and God's decrees, that were coming into rogue among the Jews. The nascent school of the Pharisees maintained fatalistic views concerning human conduct, that of the Sadducees denied the existence of fate (Josephus, 'Ant.,' 13.5. 9; 18.1.3, 4; 'Bell. Jud.,' 2.8. 14). The uselessness of all such discussions is also asserted later in Ecclesiastes 12:12, and is pathetically reiterated in the famous passage of Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' in which some of the fallen angels are described as discussing
"Fixed fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute;
Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy."
The twelfth verse is clear enough. After all discussion as to the true course of life, who can give a decided answer? Life is a shadow; the future is unknown to us. "For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life, which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?" No one can read the words without being struck with the dark, despairing Pyrrhonism of their tone. "A cloud of irrepressible, inexpressible melancholy hangs around the writer, a leaden weight is on the spring of his spirit." And it is only when we consider that the spiritual education of the world by God has been gradual, that we can tolerate the words as expressing the thoughts of a mind not yet privileged to see truth in its fullness. If we believe that the light of truth is, like the light of the sun, increasing from the first faint rays that begin to dispel the darkness of midnight to the splendor of noonday, we shall not be surprised at the words of the Preacher. They would be highly inappropriate in one to whom the revelation of God in Christ had been given; as used by him, they would necessarily imply a gross unbelief, which would excite our indignation rather than our sympathy. Christianity puts the facts which the Preacher regarded as so somber in a fresh light, and strips them of all their terror. Let us take them in order.
I. THAT WHICH HE CALLED FATE WE CALL PROVIDENCE. "Since fate bears sway, and everything must be as it is, why dost thou strive against it?" said the Stoic, Marcus Aurelius (Ecclesiastes 12:13), and his words seem exactly similar to those before us. The idea of a fixed order in human life, a Divine will governing all things, does not necessarily fill us with the same gloomy thoughts, or summon us to a proud and scornful resignation to that which we cannot change or modify. In the teaching of Christ we have the fact of a preordination of things by God frequently alluded to, in such sentences as "Mine hour is not yet come;" "The hairs of your head are all numbered;" "Many be called, but few chosen;" "No man can come to me except the Father draw him;" "For the elect's sake whom he hath chosen God hath shortened the days." This is not a dark, inexorable fate governing all things, but the wise and gracious will of a Father, in which his children may trust with confidence and joy. The thought, I say, of all things being predetermined by the Divine will is prominent in the teaching of Christ, but it is set in such a light as to be a source of inspiration and strength. It prompts such comfortable assurances as, "Fear not, little flock; it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."
II. THE PREACHER WAS HUMILIATED AT THE THOUGHT OF HUMAN' WEAKNESS. "Neither may he contend with one that is mightier than he." But we know more clearly than he did of the Divine compassion for the poor and feeble and helpless—a compassion that prompted God to send forth his Son for our redemption. We know that the Son of God took on him our nature, submitted to the toils, trials, privations, and temptations of a mortal lot, and overcame the worst foes by whom we are assailed—sin and death. If, as some think, "the mightier" one here referred to is death, we believe that Christ took away his power, and that in his triumphant resurrection we have the pledge of everlasting life. And the one great lesson taught by the Church's history is that God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the strong.
III. ANOTHER CAUSE OF GRIEF WAS THE FLEETING CHARACTER OF LIFE. Vain life which man spendeth as a shadow." But this does not afflict us, who know that the grave is not the end of all things, but the door of a better life. The present existence acquires new value and solemnity when we consider it as the prelude to eternity, the time and place given us in which to prepare ourselves for the world to come. We have his words, "I am the Resurrection and the Life:… whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." The sorrows and trials of the present dwindle into insignificance as compared with the reward we anticipate as in store for us if we are faithful to God. "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:17, 2 Corinthians 4:18).
IV. A FINAL CAUSE OF GRIEF WAS THAT THE FUTURE WAS DARK AND UNKNOWN. "Who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?" This is still true in many departments of life. The mightiest potentate cannot tell how long the dynasty he has founded, or of which he may be the brightest ornament, will last. The conqueror may be distressed by the thought that the power, to obtain which he has squandered myriads of lives and countless treasures, may soon fade away, and in a short time after his death vanish "like the baseless fabric of a vision." The poet does not know that even the most brilliant of his works will be kept alive in the memories of men, and treasured among the things they will not willingly let die, within a generation or two after he has passed away. The successful merchant, who has built up a colossal fortune by the labors of a lifetime, cannot guard against its being dissipated in a very short time by those to whom he leaves it. But the Christian is in no such uncertainty. The cause of his Master he knows will prosper and grow to far vaster proportions in the time to come. The good work he has done will aid in the advancement of the kingdom of God, and no blight of failure will fall upon his efforts; the plans of God in which during his earthly life he co-operated will not be frustrated, and his own personal happiness is for ever secured. All the various causes of despondency by which the Preacher's mind was harassed and perplexed vanish before the brighter revelation of God's will given us in the mission and work of Christ. And it is only because we keep in mind that the truth vouchsafed to us was withheld from him, that we can read his words without being depressed by the burden by which his spirit was borne down and saddened. It would only be by our deliberately sinning against the light we enjoy that we could ever adopt his words as expressing our views of life.—J.W.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 6". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Easter