Click to donate today!
Ecclesiastes 12:8.—Division II. DEDUCTIONS FROM THE ABOVE-MENTIONED EXPERIENCES IN THE WAY OF WARNINGS AND RULES OF LIFE.
Section 1. Though no man knows for certain what is best, yet there are some practical rules for the conduct of life which wisdom gives. Some of these Koheleth sets forward in the proverbial form, recommending a serious, earnest life in preference to one of gaiety and frivolity.
A good name is better than precious ointment. The paronomasia here is to be remarked, tob ahem mishemen tob. There is a similar assonance in So Ecclesiastes 1:3, which the German translator reproduces by the sentence, "Besser gut Gerucht als Wohlgeruch," or," gute Geruche," and which may perhaps be rendered in English, "Better is good favor than good flavor." It is a proverbial saying, running literally, Better is a name than good oil. Shem, "name," is sometimes used unqualified to signify a celebrated name, good name, reputation (comp. Genesis 11:4; Proverbs 22:1). Septuagint, Ἀγαθὸν ὄνομα ὑπὲρ ἔλαιον ἀγαθόν. Vulgate, Melius eat nomen bonum quam unguenta pretiosa. Odorous unguents were very precious in the mind of an Oriental, and formed one of the luxuries lavished at feasts and costly entertainments, or social visits (see Ecclesiastes 9:8; Ruth 3:3; Psalms 45:8; Amos 6:6; Wis. 2:7; Luke 7:37, Luke 7:46). It was a man's most cherished ambition to leave a good reputation, and to hand down an honorable remembrance to distant posterity, and this all the more as the hope of the life beyond the grave was dim and vague (see on Ecclesiastes 2:16, and comp. Ecclesiastes 9:5). The complaint of the sensualists in Wis. 2:4 is embittered by the thought," Our name shall be forgotten in time, and no man shall have our works in remembrance." We employ a metaphor like that in the clause when we speak of a man's reputation having a good or ill odor; and the Hebrews said of ill fame that it stank in the nostrils (Genesis 34:30; Exodus 5:21; see, on the opposite side, Ecclesiasticus 24:15; 2 Corinthians 2:15). And the day of death than the day of one's birth. The thought in this clause is closely connected with the preceding. If a man's life is such that he leaves a good name behind him, then the day of his departure is better than that of his birth, because in the latter he had nothing before him but labor, and trouble, and fear, and uncertainty; and in the former all these anxieties are past, the storms are successfully battled with, the haven is won (see on Ecclesiastes 4:3). According to Solon's well-known maxim, no one can be called happy till he has crowned a prosperous life by a peaceful death; as the Greek gnome runs—
Μήπω μέγαν εἴπῃς πρὶν τελευτήσαντ ἴδῃς
"Call no man great till thou hast seen him dead."
So Ben-Sira, "Judge none blessed (μὴ μακάριζε μηδένα) before his death; for a man shall be known in his children" (Ecclesiasticus 11:28).
It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting. The thought in the last verse leads to the recollection of the circumstances which accompany the two events therein mentioned—birth and death, feasting and joy, in the first case; sorrow and mourning in the second. In recommending the sober, earnest life, Koheleth teaches that wiser, more enduring lessons are to be learned where grief reigns than in the empty and momentary excitement of mirth and joyousness. The house in question is mourning for a death; and what a long and harrowing business this was is well known (see Deuteronomy 24:8; Ecclesiasticus 22:10; Jeremiah 22:18; Matthew 9:23, etc.). Visits of condolence and periodical pilgrimages to groves of departed relatives were considered duties (John 11:19, John 11:31), and conduced to the growth in the mind of sympathy, seriousness, and the need of preparation for death. The opposite side, the house of carousal, where all that is serious is put away, leading to such scenes as Isaiah denounces (Isaiah 5:11), offers no wise teaching, and produces only selfishness, heartlessness, thoughtlessness. What is said here is no contradiction to what was said in Ecclesiastes 2:24, that there was nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and enjoy himself. For Koheleth was not speaking of unrestrained sensualism—the surrender of the mind to the pleasures of the body—but of the moderate enjoyment of the good things of life conditioned by the fear of God and love of one's neighbor. This statement is quite compatible with the view that sees a higher purpose and training in the sympathy with sorrow than in participation in reckless frivolity. For that is the end of all men viz. that they will some day be mourned, that their house will be turned into a house of mourning. Vulgate, In illa (dome) enim finis cunctorum admonetur hominum, which is not the sense of the Hebrew. The living will lay it to his heart. He who has witnessed this scene will consider it seriously (Ecclesiastes 9:1), and draw from it profitable conclusions concerning the brevity of life and the proper use to make thereof. We recall the words of Christ, "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted;" and "Woe unto you that laugh now for ye shall mourn and weep" (Matthew 5:4; Luke 6:25). Schultens gives an Arab proverb which says, "Hearest thou lamentation for the dead, hasten to the spot; art thou called to a banquet, cross not the threshold." The Septuagint thus translates the last clause, Καὶ ὁ ζῶν δώσει ἀγαθὸν εἰς καρδίαν αὐτοῦ "The living will put good into his heart;" the Vulgate paraphrases fairly, Et vivens cogitat quid futurum sit," The living thinks what is to come." "So teach us to number our days," prays the psalmist, "that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" (Psalms 90:12).
Sorrow is better than laughter. This is a further expansion of the previous maxim, כַּעַס (kaas), as contrasted with שְׂהוֹק, is rightly rendered "sorrow," "melancholy," or, as Ginsburg contends, "thoughtful sadness." The Septuagint has θυμός, the Vulgate ira; but auger is not the feeling produced by a visit to the house of mourning. Such a scene produces saddening reflection, which is in itself a moral training, and is more wholesome and elevating than thoughtless mirth. For by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The feeling which shows itself by the look of sadness (comp. Genesis 40:7; Nehemiah 2:2) has a purifying effect on the heart, gives a moral tone to the character. Professor Tayler Lewis renders the clause, "For in the sad. ness of the face the heart becometh fair;" i.e. sorrow beautifies the soul, producing, as it were, comeliness, spiritual beauty, and, in the end, serener happiness. The Vulgate translates the passage thus: Melter eat ira risu; quia per tristitiam vultus corrigitur animus deliquentis, "Better is anger than laughter, because through sadness of countenance the mind of the offender is corrected." The anger is that either of God or of good men which reproves sin; the laughter is that of sinners who thus show their connivance at or approval of evil. There can be no doubt that this is not the sense of the passage. For the general sentiment concerning the moral influence of grief and suffering, we may compare the Greek sayings, Τὰ παθήματα μαθήματα, and Τί μαθών τί παθών; which are almost equivalent in meaning. The Latins would say, "Quaenocent, docent," and we, "Pain is gain."
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning. This is the natural conclusion from what was said in Ecclesiastes 7:2, Ecclesiastes 7:3. The man who recognizes the serious side of life, and knows where to learn lessons of high moral meaning, will be found conversant with scenes of sorrow and suffering, and reflecting upon them. But the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. The fool, who thinks of nothing but present enjoyment, and how to make life pass pleasantly, turns away from mournful scenes, and goes only there where he may drown care and be thoughtless and merry.
It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise. Gearah, "rebuke," is the word used in Proverbs for the grave admonition which heals and strengthens while it wounds (see Proverbs 13:1; Proverbs 17:10). The silent lessons which a man learns from the contemplation of others' sorrow are rightly supplemented by the salutary correction of the wise man's tongue. Than for a man to hear the song of fools. Shir, "song," is a general term used of sacred or profane song; the connection here with the second clause of verse 4, etc; leads one to think of the hoister-cue, reckless, often immodest, singing heard in the house of revelry, such as Amos (Amos 6:5) calls "idle songs to the sound of the viol" Koheleth might have heard these in his own country, without drawing his experience from the license of Greek practice or the impurity of Greek lyrics. The Vulgate renders the clause, Quum stultorum adulatione decipi, Than to be deceived by the flattery of tools." This is a paraphrase; the correctness is negatived by the explanation given in the following verse.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot. There is a play of words in the Hebrew, "The crackling of sirim under a sir," which Wright expresses by translating, "Like the noise of the nettles under the kettles." In the East, and where wood is scarce, thorns, hay, and stubble are used for fuel (Psalms 58:9; Psalms 120:4; Matthew 6:30). Such materials are quickly kindled, blaze up for a time with much noise, and soon die away (Psalms 118:12). So is the laughter of the fool. The point of comparison is the loud crackling and the short duration of the fire with small results. So the fool's mirth is boisterous and noisy, but comes to a speedy end, and is spent to no good purpose. So in Job (Job 20:5) we have, "The triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the godless but for a moment." All this profitless mirth is again nothing but vanity.
The verse begins with ki, which usually introduces a reason for what has preceded; but the difficulty in finding the connection has led to various explanations and evasions. The Authorized Version boldly separates the verse from what has gone before, and makes a new paragraph beginning with "surely:" Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad. Delitzsch supposes that something has been lost between Ecclesiastes 7:6 and Ecclesiastes 7:7, and he supplies the gap by a clause borrowed from Proverbs 16:8, "Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues without right;" and then the sentence proceeds naturally, "For oppression," etc. But this is scarcely satisfactory, as it is mere conjecture wholly unsupported by external evidence. The Vulgate leaves ki untranslated; the Septuagint has ὅτι. Looking at the various paragraphs, all beginning with tob, rendered "better," viz. Proverbs 16:1, Proverbs 16:2, Proverbs 16:3, Proverbs 16:5, Proverbs 16:8, we must regard the present verse as connected with what precedes, a new subject being introduced at Proverbs 16:8. Putting Proverbs 16:6 in a parenthesis as merely presenting an illustration of the talk of fools, we may see in Proverbs 16:7 a confirmation of the first part of Proverbs 16:5. The rebuke of the wise is useful even in the case of rulers who are tempted -to excess and injustice. The "oppression" in the text is the exercise of irresponsible power, that which a man inflicts, not what he suffers; this makes him "mad," even though he be in other respects and under other circumstances wise; he ceases to be directed by reason and principle, and needs the correction of faithful rebuke. The Septuagint and Vulgate, rendering respectively συκοφαντία and calumnia, imply that the evil which distracts the wise man is false accusation. And a gift destroyeth the heart. The admission of bribery is likewise an evil that calls for wise rebuke. So Proverbs 15:27, "He that is greedy of gain troubleth his own house; but he that hateth gifts shall live." The phrase, "destroys the heart," means corrupts the understanding, deprives a man of wisdom, makes him no better than a fool (comp. Hosea 4:11, where the same effect is attributed to whoredom and drunkenness). The Septuagint has, ἀπόλλυσι τὴν καρδίαν εὐγενείας αὐτοῦ, "destroys the heart of his nobility;" the Vulgate, perdet robur cordis illius, "will destroy the strength of his heart." The interpretation given above seems to be the most reasonable way of dealing with the existing text; but Nowack and Volck adopt Delitzsch's emendation.
Section 2. Here follow some recommendations to patience and resignation under the ordering of God's providence. Such conduct is shown to be true wisdom.
Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof. This is not a repetition of the assertion in verse. I concealing the day of death and the day of birth, but states a truth in a certain sense generally true. The end is better because we then can form a right judgment about a matter; we see what was its purpose; we know whether it has been advantageous and prosperous or not. Christ's maxim, often repeated (see Matthew 10:22; Matthew 24:13; Romans 2:7; Hebrews 3:6, etc.), is, "He that shall endure unto the end shall be saved." No one living can be said to be so absolutely safe as that he can look to the great day without trembling. Death puts the seal to the good life, and, obviates the danger of falling away. Of course, if a thing is in itself evil, the gnome is not true (comp. Proverbs 5:3, Proverbs 5:4; Proverbs 16:25, etc.); but applied to things indifferent at the outset, it is as correct as generalizations can be. The lesson of patience is here taught. A man should not be precipitate in his judgments, but wait for the issue. From the ambiguity in the expression dabar (see on Ecclesiastes 6:11), many render it "word "in this passage. Thus the Vulgate, Melior est finis orationis, quam principium; and the Septuagint, Ἀγαθὴ ἐσχάτη λόγων ὑπὲρ ἀρχὴν αὐτοῦ, where φωνή, or some such word, must be supplied. If this interpretation be preferred, we must either take the maxim as stating generally that few words are better than many, and that the sooner one concludes a speech, so much the better for speaker and hearer; or we must consider that the word intended is a well-merited rebuke, which, however severe and at first disliked, proves in the end wholesome and profitable. And the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. "Patient" is literally "long of spirit," as the phrase, "short of spirit," is used in Proverbs 14:29 and Job 21:4 to denote one who loses his temper and is impatient. To wait calmly for the result of an action, not to be hasty in arraigning Providence, is the part of a patient man; while the proud, inflated, conceited man, who thinks all must be arranged according to his notions, is never resigned or content, but rebels against the ordained course of events. "In your patience ye shall win your souls," said Christ (Luke 21:19); and a Scotch proverb declares wisely, "He that weel bides, weel betides."
Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry. A further warning against the arrogance which murmurs at Providence and revolts against the checks of the Divine arrangement. The injunction in Ecclesiastes 5:2 might be taken in this sense. It is not a general admonition against unrighteous anger, but is leveled at the haughty indignation which a proud man feels when things do not go as he wishes, and he deems that he could have managed matters more satisfactorily. For anger resteth in the bosom of fools. Such unreasonable displeasure is the mark of a foolish or skeptical mind, and if it rests (Proverbs 14:33), is fostered and cherished there, may develop into misanthropy and atheism. If we adopt the rendering" word" in Ecclesiastes 5:8, we may see in this injunction a warning against being quick to take offence at a rebuke, as it is only the fool who will not look to the object of the censure and see that it ought to be patiently submitted to. On the subject of anger St. Gregory writes, "As often as we restrain the turbulent motions of the mind under the virtue of mildness, we are essaying to return to the likeness of our Creator. For when the peace of mind is lashed with anger, torn and rent, as it were, it is thrown into confusion, so that it is not in harmony with itself, and loses the force of the inward likeness. By anger wisdom is parted with, so that we are left wholly in ignorance what to do; as it is written, 'Anger resteth in the bosom of a fool,' in this way, that it withdraws the light of understanding, while by agitating it troubles the mind" ('Moral.,' 5.78).
The same impatience leads a man to disparage the present in comparison with a past age. What is the cause that the former days were better than these? He does not know from any adequate information that preceding times were in any respect superior to present, but in his moody discontent he looks on what is around him with a jaundiced eye, and sees the past through a rose-tinted atmosphere, as an age of heroism, faith, and righteousness. Horace finds such a character in the morose old man, whom he describes in 'De Arte Poet.,' 173—
"Difficilis, querulus, laudater temporis acti
Se puero, castigator censorque minornm."
"Morose and querulous, praising former days
When he was boy, now ever blaming youth."
And 'Epist.,' 2.1.22—
"... et nisi quae terris semota suisque
Temporibus defuncta videt, fastidit et odit."
"All that is not most distant and removed
From his own time and place, he loathes and scorns."
For thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this. In asking such a question you show that you have not reflected wisely on the matter. Every age has its light and dark side; the past was not wholly light, the present is not wholly dark. And it may well be questioned whether much of the glamour shed over antiquity is not false and unreal. The days of "Good Queen Bess" were anything but halcyon; the "merrie England" of old time was full of disorder, distress, discomfort. In yearning again for the flesh-pots of Egypt, the Israelites forgot the bondage and misery which were the accompaniments of those sensual pleasures.
Such hasty judgment is incompatible with true wisdom and sagacity. Wisdom is good with an inheritance; Septuagint, Ἀγαθὴ σοφία μετὰ κληρονομίας. Vulgate, Utilior eat sapientia cam divitiis. The sentence thus rendered seems to mean that wealth lends a prestige to wisdom, that the man is happy who possesses both. The inheritance spoken of is an hereditary one; the man who is "rich with ancestral wealth" is enabled to employ his wisdom to good purpose, his position adding weight to his words and actions, and relieving him from the low pursuit of money-making. To this effect Wright quotes Menander—
Μακάριος ὅστις οὐσίαν καὶ νοῦν ἕχει
Χρῆται γὰρ οὗτος εἰς ἂ δεῖ ταύτῃ καλῶς.
"Blest is the man who wealth and wisdom hath,
For he can use his riches as he ought."
(Comp. Proverbs 14:24.) Many commentators, thinking such a sentiment alien front the context, render the particle עִם not "with," but "as" Wisdom is [as] good as an inheritance" (see on Ecclesiastes 2:16). This is putting wisdom on rather a low platform, and one would have expected to read some such aphorism as "Wisdom is better than rubies" (Proverbs 8:11), if Koheleth had intended to make any such comparison. It appears then most expedient to take im in the sense of "moreover," "as well as," "and" of a fair countenance"). "Wisdom is good, and an inheritance is good; 'both are good, but the advantages of the former, as 1 Samuel 17:12 intimates, far outweigh those of the latter. And by it there is profit to them that see the sun; rather, and an advantage for those that see the, sun. However useful wealth may be, wisdom is that which is really beneficial to all who live and rejoice in the light of day. In Homer the phrase, ὁρᾶν φάος ἠελίοιο, "to see the light of the sun" ('Iliad,' 18.61), signifies merely "to live;" Plumptre considers it to be used here and in Ecclesiastes 19:7 in order to convey the thought that, after all, life has its bright side. Cox would take it to mean to live much in the sun, i.e. to lead an active life—which is an imported modern notion.
For wisdom is a defense, and money is a defense; literally, in the shade is wisdom, in the shade is money; Septuagint, Ὅτι ἐν σκιᾷ αὐτῆς ἡ σοφία ὡς σκιὰ ἀργυρίου, "For in its shadow wisdom is as the shadow of money." Symmachus has, Σκέπει σοφία ὡς σκέπει τὸ ἀργύριον, "Wisdom shelters as money shelters." The Vulgate explains the obscure text by paraphrasing, Sieur enirn protegit sapientia, sic protegit petunia. Shadow, in Oriental phrase, is equivalent to protection (see Numbers 14:9; Psalms 17:5; Lamentations 4:20). Wisdom as well as money is a shield and defense to men. As it is said in one passage (Proverbs 13:8) that riches are the ransom of a man's life, so in another (Ecclesiastes 9:15) we are told how wisdom delivered a city from destruction. The literal translation given above implies that he who has wisdom and he who has money rest under a safe protection, are secure from material evil. In this respect they are alike, and have analogous claims to man's regard. But the excellency—profit, or advantage—of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it. "Knowledge" (daath) and "wisdom" (chokmah) are practically here identical, the terms being varied for the sake of poetic parallelism. The Revised Version, following Delitzsch and others, renders, Wisdom preserveth the life of him that hath it; i.e. secures him from passions and excesses which tend to shorten life. This seems to be scarcely an adequate ground for the noteworthy advantage which wisdom is said to possess. The Septuagint gives, Καὶ περίσσεια γνώσεως τῆς σοφίας ζωοποιήσει τόν παρ αὐτῆς "And the excellence of the knowledge of wisdom will quicken him that hath it." Something more than the mere animal life is signified, a climax to the "defense" mentioned in the preceding clause—the higher, spiritual life which man has from God. Wisdom in the highest sense, that is, practical piety and religion, is "a tree of life to them that lay hold of her, and happy is every one that retaineth her" (Proverbs 3:18), where it is implied that wisdom restores to man the gift which he lost at the Fall (camp. also Proverbs 8:35). The Septuagint expression ζωοποιήσει recalls the words of Christ, "As the Father raiseth the dead and quickeneth (ζωοποιεῖ) them, even so the Son also quickeneth whom he will;" "It is the Spirit that quickeneth (τὸ ζωοποιοῦν)" (John 5:21; John 6:63). Koheleth attributes that power to wisdom which the more definite teaching of Christianity assigns to the influence of the Holy Spirit. Some would explain, "fortifies or vivifies the heart," i.e. imparts new life and strength to meet every fortune. The Vulgate rendering is far astray from the text, and does not accurately convey the sense of the passage, running thus: Hoe autem plus habet eruditio et sapientia: quod vitam tribuunt possessori sue, "But this more have learning and wisdom, that they give life to the possessor of them."
Consider the work of God. Here is another reason against murmuring and hasty judgment. True wisdom is shown by submission to the inevitable. In all that happens one ought to recognize God's work and God's ordering, and man's impotence. For who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked? The things which God hath made crooked are the anomalies, the crosses, the difficulties, which meet us in life. Some would include bodily deformities, which seems to be a piece of unnecessary literalism. Thus the Septuagint, Τίς δυνήσεται κοσμῆσαι ὃν ἂν ὁ Θεὸς διαστρέψῃ αὐτόν; "Who will be able to straighten him whom God has distorted?" and the Vulgate, Nemo possit corrigere quem ille despexerit, "No one can amend him whom he hath despised." The thought goes back to what was said in Ecclesiastes 1:15, "That which is crooked cannot be made straight;" and in Ecclesiastes 6:10, man "cannot contend with him that is mightier than he." "As for the wondrous works of the Lord," says Ben-Sira," there may be nothing taken from them, neither may anything be put unto them, neither can the ground of them be found out" (Ecclesiasticus 18:6). We cannot arrange events according to our wishes or expectations; therefore not only is placid acquiescence a necessary duty, but the wise man will endeavor to accommodate himself to existing circumstances
In the day of prosperity be joyful; literally, in the day of good be in good i.e. when things go well with you, be cheerful (Ecclesiastes 9:7; Esther 8:17); accept the situation and enjoy it. The advice is the same as that which runs through the book, viz. to make the best of the present. So Ben-Sira says, "Defraud not thyself of the good day, and let not a share in a good desire pass thee by" (Ecclesiasticus 14:14). Septuagint Ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ἀγαθωσύνης ζῆθι ἐν αγαθῷ, "In a day of good live in (an atmosphere of) good;" Vulgate, in die bona fruere bonis, "In a good day enjoy your good things." But in the day of adversity consider; in the evil day look well. The writer could not conclude this clause so as to make it parallel with the other, or he would have had to say, "In the ill day take it ill," which would be far from his meaning; so he introduces a thought which may help to make one resigned to adversity. The reflection follows. Septuagint, Καὶ ἴδε ἐν ἡμέρᾳ κακίας ἴδε κ.τ.λ..; Vulgate, Et malam diem praecave, "Beware of the evil day." But, doubtless, the object of the verb is the following clause. God also hath set the one over against the other; or, God hath made the one corresponding to the other; i.e. he hath made the day of evil as well as the day of good. The light and shade in man's life are equally under God's ordering and permission. "What?" cries Job (Job 2:10), "shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?" Corn. Lapide quotes a saying of Plutarch to this effect: the harp gives forth sounds acute and grave, and both combine to form the melody; so in man's life the mingling of prosperity and adversity yields a well-adjusted harmony. God strikes all the strings of our life's harp, and we ought, not only patiently, but cheerfully, to listen to the chords produced by this Divine Performer. To the end that man should find nothing after him. This clause gives Koheleth's view of God's object in the admixture of good and evil; but the reason has been variously interpreted, the explanation depending on the sense assigned to the term "after him" (אַתַרָיו). The Septuagint gives ὀπίσω αὐτοῦ, which is vague; the Vulgate, contra eum, meaning that man may have no occasion to complain against God. Cheyne ('Job and Solomon') considers that Koheleth here implies that death closes the scene, and that there is then nothing more to fear, rendering the clause, "On the ground that man is to experience nothing at all hereafter." They who believe that the writer held the doctrine of a future life cannot acquiesce in this view. The interpretation of Delitzsch is this—God lets man pass through the whole discipline of good and evil, that when lie dies there may be nothing which he has not experienced. Hitzig and Nowack explain the text to mean that, as God designs that man after his death shall have done with all things, he sends upon him evil as well as good, that he may not have to punish him hereafter—a doctrine opposed to the teaching of a future judgment. Wright deems the idea to be that man may be kept in ignorance of what shall happen to him beyond the grave, that the present life may afford no clue to the future. One does not see why this should be a comfort, nor how it is compatible with God's known counsel of making the condition of the future life dependent upon the conduct of this. Other explanations being more or less unsatisfactory, many modem commentators see in the passage an assertion that God intermingle8 good and evil in men's lives according to laws with which they are unacquainted, in order that they may not disquiet themselves by forecasting the future, whether in this life or after their death, but may be wholly dependent upon God, casting all their care upon him, knowing that he careth for them (1 Peter 5:7). We may safely adopt this explanation (comp. Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 6:12). The paragraph then con-rains the same teaching as Horace's oft-quoted ode-
"Prudens futuri temporis exitum," etc.
('Carm.,' 3.29. 29.)
Πρήγματος ἀπρήκτου χαλεπώτατόν ἐστι τελεντὴν
Γνῶναι ὅπως μέλλει τοῦτο Θεὸς τελέσαι
Ορφνη γὰρ τέταται πρὸ δὲ τοῦ μέλλοντος ἔσεσθαι
Οὐ ξυνετὰ θνητοῖς πείρατ ἀμηχανίης,
"The issue of an action incomplete,
'Tis hard to forecast how God may dispose it;
For it is veiled in darkest night, and man
In present hour can never comprehend
His helpless efforts."
Plumptre quotes the lines in Cleanthes's hymn to Zeus, verses 18-21—
Ἀλλὰ σὺ καὶ τὰ περισσά κ.τ.λ..
"Thou alone knowest how to change the odd
To even, and to make the crooked straight;
And things discordant find accent in thee.
Thus in one whole thou blendest ill with good,
So that one law works on for evermore."
Ben-Sira has evidently borrowed the idea in Ecclesiasticus 33:13-15 (36.) from our passage; after speaking of man being like clay under the potter's hand, he proceeds, "Good is set over against evil, and life over against death; so is the godly against the sinner, and the sinner against the godly. So look upon all the works of the Mast High: there are two and two, one against the ether."
Section 3. Warnings against excesses, and praise of the golden mean, which is practical wisdom and the art of living happily.
All things have I seen in the days of my vanity. Koheleth gives his own experience of an anomalous condition which often obtains in human affairs. "All," being here defined by the article, must refer to the cases which he has mentioned or proceeds to mention. "The days of vanity" mean merely "fleeting, vain days" (comp. Ecclesiastes 6:12). The expression denotes the writer's view of the emptiness and transitoriness of life (Ecclesiastes 1:2), and it may also have special reference to his own vain efforts to solve the problems of existence. There is a just (righteous) man that perisheth in his righteousness. Here is a difficulty about the dispensation of good and evil, which has always perplexed the thoughtful. It finds expression in Psalms 73:1-28; though the singer propounds a solution (Psalms 73:17) which Koheleth misses. The meaning of the preposition (בְּ) before "righteousness" is disputed. Delitzsch, Wright, and others take it as equivalent to "in spite of," as in Deuteronomy 1:32, where "in this thing" means "notwithstanding," "for all this thing." Righteousness has the promise of long life and prosperity; it is an anomaly that it should meet with disaster and early death. We cannot argue from this that the author did not believe in temporal rewards and punishments; he states merely certain of his own experiences, which may be abnormal and capable of explanation. For his special purpose this was sufficient. Others take the preposition to mean "through," "in consequence of." Good men have always been persecuted for righteousness' sake (Matthew 5:10, Matthew 5:11; John 17:14; 2 Timothy 3:12), and so far the interpretation is quite admissible, and is perhaps supported by Deuteronomy 1:16, which makes a certain sort of righteousness the cause of disaster. But looking to the second clause of the present verse, where we can hardly suppose that the wicked man is said to attain to long life in consequence of his wickedness, we are safe in adopting the rendering, "in spite of." There is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in (in spite of) his wickedness. The verb arak, "to make long," "to prolong," is used both with and without the accusative "days" (see Ecclesiastes 8:12, Ecclesiastes 8:13; Deuteronomy 5:33; Proverbs 28:2). Septuagint, Ἐστὶν ἀσεβῆς μένων ἐν κακίᾳ αὐτοῦ, There is an ungodly man remaining in his wickedness," which does not convey the sense of the original. According to the moral government of God experienced by the Hebrews in their history, the sinner was to suffer calamity and to be cut off prematurely. This is the contention of Job's friends, against which he argues so warmly. The writer of the Book of Wisdom has learned to look for the correction of such anomalies in another life. He sees that length of days is not always a blessing, and that retribution awaits the evil beyond the grave (Wis. 1:9; 3:4, 10; 4:8, 19, etc.). Abel perished in early youth; Cain had his days prolonged. This apparent inversion of moral order leads to another reflection concerning the danger of exaggerations.
Be not righteous over much. The exhortation has been variously interpreted to warn against too scrupulous observance of ritual and ceremonial religion, or the mistaken piety which neglects all mundane affairs, or the Pharisaical spirit which is bitter in condemning others who fall short of one's own standard. Cox will have it that the advice signifies that a prudent man will not be very righteous, since he will gain nothing by it, nor very wicked, as he will certainly shorten his life by such conduct. But really Koheleth is condemning the tendency to immoderate asceticism which had begun to show itself in his day—a rigorous, prejudiced, indiscreet manner of life and conduct which made piety offensive, and afforded no real aid to the cause of religion. This arrogant system virtually dictated the laws by which Providence should be governed, and found fault with divinely ordered circumstances if they did not coincide with its professors' preconceived opinions. Such religionism might well be called being "righteous over much." Neither make thyself over wise; Septuagint, Μηδὲ σοφίζου περισσά; Vulgate, Neque plus sapias quam necesse est; better, show not thyself too wise; i.e. do not indulge in speculations about God's dealings, estimating them according to your own predilections, questioning the wisdom of his moral government. Against such perverse speculation St. Paul argues (Romans 9:19, etc.). "Thou wilt say unto me, Why doth he still find fault? For who withstandeth his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why didst thou make me thus?" A good principle carried to excess may bring evil results. Summum jus, summa injuria. The maxim, Μηδὲν ἀγάν, Ne quid nimis, "Moderation in all things," is taught here; and Aristotle's theory of virtue being the mean between the two extremes of excess and defect is adumbrated ('Ethic. Nicom.,' 2.6. 15, 16): though we do not see that the writer is "reproducing current Greek thought" (Plumptre), or that independent reflection and observation could not have landed him at the implied conclusion without plagiarism. Why shouldest thou destroy thyself? Septuagint, Μή ποτὲ ἐκπλαγῇς, "Lest perchance thou be confounded;" Vulgate, Ne obstupescas, "Lest thou be stupefied." This is the primary meaning of the special form of the verb here used (hithp. of שׁמם), and Plumptre supposes that the author intends thereby to express the spiritual pride which accompanies fancied excellence in knowledge and conduct, and by which the possessor is puffed up (1 Timothy 3:6). But plainly it is not a mental, internal effect that is contemplated, but something that affects comfort, position, or life, like the corresponding clause in the following verse. Hitzig and Ginsburg explain the word, "Make thyself forsaken," "Isolate thyself," which can scarcely be the meaning. The Authorized Version is correct. A man who professes to be wiser than others, and. indeed, wiser than Providence, incurs the envy and animosity of his fellow-men, and will certainly be punished by God for his arrogance and presumption.
Be not over much wicked neither be thou foolish. These two injunctions are parallel and correlative to those in Ecclesiastes 7:16 concerning over-righteousness and over-wisdom. But the present verse cannot be meant, as at first sight it seems to do, to sanction a certain amount of wickedness provided it does not exceed due measure. To surmount this difficulty some have undefined to modify the term "wicked" (rasha), taking it to mean "engaged in worldly matters," or "not subject to rule," "lax," or again "restless," as some translate the word in Job 3:17. But the word seems not to be used in any such senses, and bears uniformly the uncompromising signification assigned to it, "to be wicked, unrighteous, guilty." The difficulty is not overcome by Plumptre's suggestion of the introduction of a little "playful irony learned from Greek teachers," as if Koheleth meant, "I have warned you, my friends, against over-righteousness, but do not jump at the conclusion that license is allowable. That was very far from my meaning." The connection of thought is this: in the previous verse Koheleth had denounced the Pharisaical spirit which virtually condemned the Divine ordering of circumstances, because vice was not at once and visibly punished, and virtue at once rewarded; and now he proceeds to warn against the deliberate and abominable wickedness which infers from God's long-suffering his absolute neglect and non-interference in mortal matters, and on this view plunges audaciously into vice and immorality, saying to itself, "God hath forgotten: he hideth his face; he will never see it" (Psalms 10:11). Such conduct may well be called "foolish;" it is that of "the food who says in his heart, There is no God" (Psalms 14:1). The actual wording of the injunction sounds to us somewhat strange; but its form is determined by the requirements of parallelism, and the aphorism must not be pressed beyond its general intention, "Be not righteous nor wise to excess; be not wicked nor foolish to excess." Septuagint, "Be not very wicked, and be not stubborn (σκληρός)." Why shouldest thou die before thy time? literally, not in thy time; prematurely, tempting God to punish thee by retributive judgment, or shortening thy days by vicious excesses. The Syriac contains a clause not given in any other version, "that thou mayest not be hated." As is often the case, both in this book and in Proverbs, a general statement in one place is reduced by a contrariant or modified opinion in another. Thus the prolongation of the life of the wicked, noticed in verse 15, is here shown to be abnormal, impiety in the usual course of events having a tendency to shorten life. In this way hasty generalization is corrected, and the Divine arrangement is vindicated.
It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand. The pronouns refer to the two warnings in Ecclesiastes 7:16 and Ecclesiastes 7:17 against over-righteousness and over-wickedness. Koheleth does not advise a man to make trial of opposite lines of conduct, to taste the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that from a wide experience lie may, like a man of the world, pursue a safe course; this would be poor morality, and unmeet for the stage at which his argument has arrived. Rather he advises him to lay to heart fire cautions above given, and learn from them to avoid all extremes. As Horace says ('Epist.,' 1.18. 9)—
"Virtus est medium vitiorum et utrinque reductum."
"Folly, as usual, in extremes is seen,
While virtue nicely hits the happy mean."
The Vulgate has interpolated a word, and taken the pronoun as masculine, to the sacrifice of the sense and connection: Bonum est te sustentare justum, sed el ab illo ne subtrahas manum tuam, "It is good that thou shouldst support the just man, nay, from him withdraw not thy hand." For he that feareth God shall come forth of them all; shall escape both extremes together with their evil re-suits. The fear of God will keep a man from all excesses. The intransitive verb yatsa, "to go forth," is here used with an accusative (comp. Genesis 44:4, which, however, is not quite analogous), as in Latin ingrediurbem (Livy, 1:29). Vulgate, Qui timet Deum nihil negligit. So Hitzig and Ginsburg, "Goes, makes his way with both," knows how to avail himself of piety and wickedness, which, as we have seen, is not the meaning. St. Gregory, indeed, who uses the Latin Version, notes that to fear God is never to pass over any good thing that ought to be aerie ('Moral.,' 1.3); but he is not professing to comment on the whole passage. Wright, after Delitzsch, takes the term "come out of" as equivalent to "fulfill," so that the meaning would be, "He who fears God performs all the duties mentioned above, and avoids extremes," as Matthew 23:23, "These ought ye to have done, and not to have left the other undone." But this is confessedly a Talmudic use of the verb; and the Authorized Version may be safely adopted. The Septuagint gives, "For to them that fear God all things shall come forth well."
Wisdom strengtheneth the wise. The moderation enjoined is the only true wisdom, which, indeed, is the most powerful incentive and support. "Wisdom proves itself stronger" (as the verb is put intransitively) "to the wise man." Septuagint, βοηθήσει," will help;" Vulgate, confortuvit, "hath strengthened." The spiritual and moral force of the wisdom grounded upon the fear of God is here signified, and is all the more insisted upon to counteract any erroneous impression conveyed by the caution against over-wisdom in Ecclesiastes 7:16 (see note on Ecclesiastes 7:17, at the end). More than ten mighty men which are in the city. The number ten indicates completeness, containing in itself the whole arithmetical system, and used representatively for an indefinite multitude. Thus Job (Job 19:3) complains that his friends have reproached him ten times, and Elkanah asks his murmuring wife, "Am I not better to thee than ten sons?" (1 Samuel 1:8). Delitzsch thinks that some definite political arrangement is referred to, e.g. the dynasties placed by Persian kings over conquered countries; and Tyler notes that in the Mishna a city is defined to be a place containing ten men of leisure; and we know that ten men were required for the establishment of a synagogue in any locality. The same idea was present in the Angle-Saxon arrangement of tything and hundred. The number, however, is probably used indefinitely here as seven in the parallel passage of Ecclesiasticus (37:14), "A man's mind is sometime wont to tell him more than seven watchmen that sit above in a high tower." The sentence may be compared with Proverbs 10:15; Proverbs 21:22; Proverbs 24:5. The word rendered "mighty men" (shallitim) is not necessarily a military designation; it is translated "ruler" in Ecclesiastes 10:5, and "governor" in Genesis 42:6. The Septuagint here has Ἐξουσιάζοντας τοὺς ὄντας ἐν τῇ πόλει; the Vulgate, principes civitatis. The persons intended are not primarily men of valor in war, like David's heroes, but rulers of sagacity, prudent statesmen, whose moral force is far greater and more efficacious than any merely physical excellence (comp. Ecclesiastes 9:16).
The wisdom above signified is, indeed, absolutely necessary, if one would escape the consequences of that frailty of nature which leads to transgression. Wisdom shows the sinner a way out of the evil course in which he is walking, and puts him back in that fear of God which is his only safety. For there is not a just man upon earth. The verse confirms Ecclesiastes 7:19. Even the just man sinneth, and therefore needs wisdom. That doeth good, and sinneth not. This reminds us of the words in Solomon's prayer (1 Kings 8:46; Proverbs 20:9). So St. James (James 3:2) says, "In many things we all offend;" and St. John, "It' we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). A Greek gnome runs—Ἁμαρτάνει τι καὶ σοφοῦ σοφώτερος. "Erreth at times the very wisest man."
Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken; literally, give not thy heart, as Ecclesiastes 1:13, etc. Here is another matter in which .wisdom will lead to right conduct. You will not pay serious attention to evil reports either about yourself or others, nor regulate your views and actions according to such distortions of the truth. To be always hankering to know what people say of us is to set up a false standard, which will assuredly lead us astray; and, at the same time, we shall expose ourselves to the keen-eat mortification when we find, as we probably shall find, that they do not take us at our own valuation, but have thoroughly marked our weaknesses, and are ready enough to censure them. We have an instance of patience under unmerited reproof in the case of David when cursed by Shimei (2 Samuel 16:11), as he, or one like minded, says (Psalms 38:13), "I, as a deaf man, hear not; and I am as a dumb man that openeth not his mouth. Yea, I am as a man that heareth not, and in whose mouth are no reproofs." Corn. a Lapide comments in words to which no translation would do justice, "Verbaenim non aunt verbera; aerem feriunt non hominem, nisi qui its attendit mordetur, sauciatur." Lest thou hear thy servant curse thee. The servant is introduced as an example of a gossip or calumniator, because he, if any one, would be acquainted with his master's faults, and be most likely to disseminate his knowledge, and blame from such a quarter would be most intolerable. Commentators appositely quote Bacon's remarks on this passage in his 'Advancement of Learning,' 8.2, where he notes the prudence of Pompey, who burned all the papers of Sertorius reread, containing, as they did, information which would fatally have compromised many leading men in Rome.
Oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others. The appeal to a man's own conscience follows. The fact that we often speak ill of others should make us less open to take offence at what is said of ourselves, and prepared to expect unfavorable comments. The Lord has said, "Judge not, that ye be not judged; for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you" (Matthew 7:1, Matthew 7:2). This is a universal law. "Who is he," asks Ben-Sira, "that hath not offended with his tongue?" (Ecclesiasticus 19:16). Septuagint, Ὅτι πλειστάκις πονηρεύσεταί σε καὶ καθόδους πολλὰς κακώσει καρδίαν σου ὄτι ὡς καίγε σὺ κατηράσω ἑτέρους, "For many times he [thy servant] shall act ill to thee, and in many ways shall afflict thine heart, for even thou also hast cursed others." This seems to be a combination of two renderings of the passage. "It is the praise of perfect greatness to meet hostile treatment, without bravely and within mercifully some things are more quickly dismissed from our hearts if we know our own misdemeanors against our neighbors. For whilst we reflect what we have been towards others, we are the less concerned that others should have proved such persons towards ourselves, be cause the injustice of another avenges in us what our conscience justly accuses in itself" (St. Gregory, 'Moral.,' 22.26).
Section 4. Further in sight into essential wisdom was not obtain able; but Koheleth learned some other practical lessons, viz. that wickedness was folly and madness; that woman was the most evil thing in the world; that man had perverted his nature, which was made originally good.
All this have I proved by wisdom; i.e. wisdom was the means by which he arrived at the practical conclusions given above (Ecclesiastes 7:1-22). Would wisdom solve deeper questions? And if so, could he ever hope to attain it? I said, I will be wise. This was his strong resolve. He desired to grow in wisdom, to use it in order to unfold mysteries and explain anomalies. Hitherto he had been content to watch the course of men's lives, and find by experience what was good and what was evil for them; now he craves for an insight into the secret laws that regulate those external circumstances: he wants a philosophy or theosophy. His desire is expressed by his imitator in the Book of Wisdom (9.), "O God of my fathers,… give me Wisdom, that sitteth by thy throne …. O send her out of thy holy heavens, and from the throne of thy glory, that being present she may labor with me." But it was far from me. It remained in the far distance, out of reach. Job's experience (28.) was his. Practical rules of life he might gain, and had mastered, but essential, absolute wisdom was beyond mortal grasp. Man's knowledge and capacity are limited.
That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out? The broken, interjectional style of the original in this passage, as Professor Taylor Lewis terms it, is better brought out by translating, "Far off is that which is, and deep, deep: who can find it out?" Professor Lewis renders, "Far off! the past, what is it? Deep—a deep—oh, who can find?" and explains "the past" to mean, not merely the earthly past historically unknown, but the great past before the creation of the universe, the kingdom of all eternities with its ages of ages, its worlds of worlds, its mighty evolutions, its infinite variety. We prefer to retain the rendering, "that which is," and to refer the expression to the phenomenal world. It is not the essence of wisdom that is spoken of, but the facts of man's life and the circumstances in which he finds himself, the course of the world, the phenomena of nature, etc. These things—their causes, connection, interdependence—we cannot explain satisfactorily (comp. Ecclesiastes 3:11; Ecclesiastes 8:17). In the Book of Wisdom (Ecclesiastes 7:17-21) Solomon is supposed to have arrived at this abstruse knowledge, "for," he says, "God hath given me certain knowledge of the things that are (τῶν ὄντων γνῶσιν ἀψευδῆ)," and he proceeds to enumerate the various departments which this "universitas literarum" has opened to him. The Septuagint (and virtually the Vulgate) connects this verse with the preceding, thus: . 'I said, I will be wise, and it (αὔτη) was far from me, far beyond what was (μακρὰν ὑπὲρ ὃ ἦν), and deep depth: who shall find it out?" (For the epithet "deep" applied to what is recondite or what is beyond human comprehension, comp. Proverbs 20:5; Job 11:8.)
I applied mine heart to know; more literally, I turned myself, and my heart was [set] to know. We have the expression, "tamed myself," referring to a new investigation in Ecclesiastes 2:20 and elsewhere; but the distinguishing the heart or soul from the man himself is not common in Scripture (see on Ecclesiastes 11:9), though the soul is sometimes apostrophized, as in Luke 12:19 (comp. Psalms 103:1; Psalms 146:1). The writer here implies that he gave up himself with all earnestness to the investigation. Unsatisfactory as his quest had been hitherto. He did not relinquish the pursuit, but rather turned it in another direction, where he could hope to meet with useful results. The Septuagint has, "I and my heart traveled round (ἐκύκλωσα) to know;" the Vulgate, Lustravi universa animo meo ut scirem. And to search, and to seek out wisdom. The accumulation of synonymous verbs is meant to emphasize the author's devotion to his self-imposed task and his return from profitless theoretical investigation to practical inquiry. And the reason of things. Cheshbon (Luke 12:27; Ecclesiastes 9:10) is rather "account," "reckoning," than "reason "—the summing-up of all the facts and circumstances rather than the elucidation of their causes. Vulgate, rationem; Septuagint, ψῆφον. The next clause ought to be rendered, And to know wickedness as (or, to be) folly, and foolishness as (to be) madness. His investigation led him to this conclusion, that all infringement of God's laws is a misjudging aberration—a willful desertion of the requirements of right reason—and that mental and moral obtuseness is a physical malady which may be called madness (comp. Ecclesiastes 1:17; Ecclesiastes 2:12; Ecclesiastes 10:13).
One practical result of his quest Koheleth cannot avoid mentioning, though it comes with a suddenness which is somewhat startling. And I find more bitter than death the woman. Tracing men's folly and madness to their source, he finds that they arise generally from the seductions of the female sex. Beginning with Adam, woman has continued to work mischief in the world. "Of the woman came the beginning of sin," says Siracides, "and through her we all die" (Ecclesiasticus 25:24); it was owing to her that the punishment of death was inflicted on the human race. If Solomon himself were speaking, he had indeed a bitter experience of the sin and misery into which women lead their victims (see 1 Kings 11:1, 1 Kings 11:4, 1 Kings 11:11). It may be thought that Koheleth refers here especially to "the strange woman" of Proverbs 2:16, etc.; Proverbs 5:3, etc.; but in verse 28 he speaks of the whole sex without qualification; so that we must conclude that he had a very low opinion of them. It is no ideal personage whom he is introducing; it is not a personification of vice or folly; but woman in her totality, such as he knew her to be in Oriental courts and homes, denied her proper position, degraded, uneducated, all natural affections crushed or undeveloped, the plaything of her lord, to be flung aside at any moment. It is not surprising that Koheleth's impression of the female sex should be unfavorable. He is not singular in such an opinion. One might fill a large page with proverbs and gnomes uttered in disparagement of woman by men of all ages and countries. Men, having the making of such apothegms, have used their license unmercifully; if the maligned sex had equal liberty, the tables might have been reversed. But, really, in this as in other cases the mean is the safest; and practically those who have given the darkest picture of women have not been slow to recognize the brighter side. If. for instance, the Book of Proverbs paints the adulteress and the harlot in the soberest, most appalling colors, the same book affords us such a sketch of the virtuous matron as is unequalled for vigor, truth, and high appreciation. And if, as in our present chapter, Koheleth shows a bitter feeling against the evil side of woman's nature, he knows how to value the comfort of married life (Ecclesiastes 4:8), and to look upon a good wife as one who makes a man's home happy (Ecclesiastes 9:9). Since the incarnation of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ, "the Seed of the woman," we have learned to regard woman in her true light, and to assign her that position to which she is entitled, giving honor unto her as the weaker vessel, and, at the same time, heir with us of the glorious hope and destiny of our renewed nature (1 Peter 3:7). Whose heart is snares and nets; more accurately, who is snares, and nets in her heart; Septuagint, "The woman who is a snare, and her heart nets;" Vulgate, Quae laqueus venatorum est, et sagena cot ejus. The imagery is obvious (comp. Proverbs 5:4, Proverbs 5:22 : Proverbs 7:22; Proverbs 22:14; Habakkuk 1:15); the thoughts of the evil woman's heart are nets, occupied in meditating how she may entrap and retain victims; and her outward look and words are snares that captivate the foolish, Μὴ ὑπάντα γυναικὶ ἑταιριζομένη, says the Son of Sirach, "Lest thou fall 'into her snares" (Ecclesiasticus 9:3). Plautus, 'Asin.,' 1.3. 67—
"Auceps sum ego;
Esca est meretrix; lectus illex est; amatores aves.
"The fowler I;
My bait the courtesan; her bed the lure;
The birds the lovers."
So ancient critics, stronger m morals than in etymology, derive Venus from venari, "to hunt," and mulier from mollire, "to soften," or malleus, "a hammer," because the devil uses women to mould and fashion men to his will. And her hands as bands, Asurim, "bands" or "fetters," is found in Judges 15:14, where it is used of the chains with which the men of Judah bound Samson; it refers here to the wicked woman's voluptuous embraces. Whoso pleaseth God (more literally, he who is good before God) shall escape from her. He whom God regards as good (Ecclesiastes 2:26, where see note) shall have grace to avoid these seductions. But the sinner shall be taken by her; בָּהּ, "in her," in the snare which is herself. In some manuscripts of Ecclesiasticus (26:23) are these words; "A wicked woman is given as a portion to a wicked man; but a godly woman is given to him that feareth the Lord."
Behold, this have I found. The result of his search, thus forcibly introduced, follows in Ecclesiastes 7:28. He has carefully examined the character and conduct of both sexes, and he is constrained to make the unsatisfactory remark which he there puts forth. Saith the preacher. Koheleth is here treated as a feminine noun, being joined with the feminine form of the verb, though elsewhere it is grammatically regarded as masculine (see on Ecclesiastes 1:1). Many have thought that, after speaking so disparagingly of woman, it would be singularly inappropriate to introduce the official preacher as a female; they have therefore adopted a slight alteration in the text, viz. אָמַר חַקֹּחֶלֶת instead of אָמְרָה קֹהֶלֶת, which is simply the transference of he from the end of one word to the beginning of the next, thus adding the article, as in Ecclesiastes 12:8, and making the term accord with the Syriac and Arabic, and the Septuagint, εἶπεν ὁ Ἐκκλησιαστής. The writer here introduces his own designation in order to call special attention to what is coming. Counting one by one. The phrase is elliptical, and signifies, adding one thing to another, or weighing one thing after another, putting together various facts or marks. To find out the account; to arrive at the reckoning, the desired result.
Which yet my soul seeketh, but I find not; or, which my soul hath still sought, but I have not found. The conclusion at which he did arrive was something utterly different from what he had hoped to achieve. The soul and the ego are separately regarded (comp. Ecclesiastes 7:25); the whole intellectual faculties were absorbed in the search, and the composite individual gives his consequent experience. One man (Adam) among a thousand have I found. He found only one man among a thousand that reached his standard of excellence—the ideal that he had formed for himself, who could be rightly called by the noble name of man. The phrase, "one of a thousand," occurs in Job 9:3; Job 33:23; Ecclesiasticus 6:6. Adam, the generic term, is used here instead of ish, the individual, to emphasize the antithetical ishah, "woman," in the following clause, or to lead the thought to the original perfection of man's nature. So in Greek ἄνθρωπος is sometimes used for ἀνήρ, though generally the distinction between the two is sufficiently marked, as we find in Herodotus, 7:210, Ὅτι πολλοὶ μὲν ἄνθρωποι εἶεν ὀλίγοι δὲ ἄνδρες. But a woman among all those have I not found; i.e. not one woman in a thousand who was what a woman ought to be. Says the Son of Sirach, "All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman; let the portion of a sinner fall upon her" (Ecclesiasticus 25:19). So the Greek gnome—
Θάλασσα καὶ πῦρ καὶ γυνὴ κακὰ τρία.
"Three evils are there—sea, fire, and woman."
Solomon had a thousand wives and concubines, and his experience might well have been that mentioned in this passage.
Lo, this only (or, only see! this) have I found. Universal corruption was that which met his wide investigations, but of one thing he was sure, which he proceeds to specify—he has learned to trace the degradation to its source, not in God's agency, but in man's perverse will. That God hath made man upright. Koheleth believes that man's original constitution was yasbar, "straight," "right," "morally good," and possessed of ability to choose and follow what was just and right (Genesis 1:26, etc.). Thus in the Book of Wisdom (Wis. 2:23) we read, "God created man to be immortal, and made him an imago of his own nature (ἰιότητος). Nevertheless, through envy of the devil, came death into the world, and they that are his portion tempt it." But they (men) have sought out many inventions (chishshebonoth); 2 Chronicles 26:15, where the term implies works of invention, and is translated "engines," i.e. devices, ways of going astray and deviating from original righteousness. Man has thus abased his free-will, and employed the inventive faculty with which he was endowed in excoriating evil (Genesis 6:5). How this state of things came about, how the originally good man became thus wicked, the writer does not tell. He knows from revelation that God made him upright; he knows from experience that he is now evil; and he leaves the matter there. Plumptre quotes, as illustrating our text, a passage from the 'Antigone' of Sophocles, verses 332, 365, 366, which he renders—
"Many the things that strange and wondrous are,
None stranger and mere wonderful than man …
And lo, with all this skill,
Wise and inventive still,
Beyond hope's dream,
He now to good inclines,
And now to ill."
We may add AEschylus, 'Choeph.,' verses 585, etc.—
Πολλὰ μέν γᾶ τρέφει
δεινὰ δειμάτων ἄχη …
ἀνδρὸς φόνημα τίς λέγοι;
"Many fearful plagues
Earth nourishes …
But man's audacious spirit
Who can tell?"
Horace, 'Carm.,' 1.3. 25—
"Audax omnia perpeti
Gens humans ruit per vetitum nefas."
"The race of man, bold all things to endure,
Hurries undaunted to forbidden crime."
Vulgate, Et ipse se infinitis miscuerit quaestionibus, "And he entangled himself in multitudinous questions." This refers to unhallowed curiosity and speculation; but, as we have seen, the passage is concerned with man's moral declension, declaring how his "devices" lead him away from "uprightness."
A good name better than precious ointment.
I. MORE DIFFICULT OF ACQUISITION. Money will buy the "good nard," but the cost of a "good name" is beyond rubies. This which cannot be gotten for gold, neither shall silver be weighed for the price thereof, can be secured only by laborious personal exercise in goodness, always smiled on by Heaven's favor and assisted by Heaven's grace. It is the flower, fruit, and fragrance of a soul long practiced in well-living and good-doing. If, therefore, things are valuable in proportion to the cost of obtaining them, the above proverbial utterance bears the stamp of truth.
II. MORE HONORABLE IN POSSESSION. It is:
1. An article of greater value in itself. Precious ointment is, after all, only a production of the earth; whereas a good name is a spiritual aroma proceeding from the soul.
2. An index of truer wealth. Precious ointment at the best is material riches; a good name proclaims one possessed of fiches which are spiritual.
3. A mark of higher dignity. Costly unguent a sign of social rank among the children of men; a good name attests that one has qualities of soul, of mind, heart, and disposition, proclaiming him a son of God and a peer of heaven.
III. MORE SATISFYING IN ENJOYMENT. Perfumed oil may yield a pleasant fragrance which gratifies the sense of smell and revives the body's vigor; the spiritual aroma of a good name not only diffuses happiness amongst those who come to hear of it, but imparts a sweet joy, holy and refreshing, to him who bears it.
IV. MORE DIFFUSIVE IN INFLUENCE. The odor of precious ointment extends to those in its immediate vicinity; the savor of a good name goes far and wide, often pervades the community in which the owner of it lives; sometimes, as in the instance of Mary of Bethany (Mark 14:9), spreads itself abroad through the whole world.
V. MORE ENDURING IN CONTINUANCE. The fragrance of the unguent ultimately ceases. Becoming feebler the longer it is exposed to the air and the wider it diffuses itself, it ultimately dies away. The savor of a good name never perishes (Psalms 112:6). It passes on from age to age, being handed down by affectionate tradition to succeeding, frequently to latest, generations. Witness the names of Noah, the preacher of righteousness; Abraham, the father of the faithful; Moses, the law-giver of Israel; David, the sweet singer of the Hebrew Church; John, the beloved disciple; Peter, the man of rock; Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles; with names like those of Polycarp, Cyprian, Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Chrysostom, Luther, Calvin, Knox, etc.
VI. MORE BLESSED IN ITS ISSUE. Precious ointment can only secure for one entrance into earthly circles of rank and fashion; a good name will procure for him who bears it admission into the society of Heaven's peerage.
1. Seek this good name.
2. Cherish it above all earthly distinctions.
3. Guard it from getting tarnished.
4. Walk worthy of it.
The day of death and the day of birth.
I. The latter begins a life at the longest brief (Psalms 90:10); the former a life which shall never end (Luke 20:36).
II. The latter ushers into a field of toil (Psalms 104:23); the former into a home of rest (Revelation 14:13).
III. The latter admits into a scene of suffering (Job 5:7; Job 14:1); the former into a realm of felicity (Revelation 7:16).
IV. The latter introduces a life of sin (Genesis 8:21; Job 14:4; Psalm It. 5; Psalms 58:3; Romans 5:12); the former an existence of holiness (Jude 1:24; Revelation 21:27).
V. The latter opens a state of condemnation (Romans 5:18); the former a state of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).
1. The secret of living well—keeping an eye on the day of one's death (Deuteronomy 32:29; Psalms 90:12).
2. The secret of dying happily—living in the fear of God (Acts 13:36; Philippians 1:21).
The house of mourning and the house of feasting.
I. THE HOUSE OF MOURNING A DIVINE INSTITUTION; THE HOUSE OF FEASTING AN ERECTION OF MAN.
1. The house of mourning a Divine institution. Though not true that "man was made to mourn "(Burns) in the sense that the Creator originally intended human experience on the earth to be one prolonged wail of sorrow, it is nevertheless certain that days of mourning, equally with days of death—and, indeed, just because of these—come to all by Heaven's decree. As no one of woman born can elude bereavement in some shape or form, so must every one in turn make acquaintance with the house of mourning. Hence mourning for departed relatives (Genesis 23:2; Genesis 27:41; Genesis 50:4; Numbers 20:29; Deuteronomy 34:8; 2 Samuel 11:27) has not only been a universal custom among mankind, but has commended itself to men's judgments as in perfect accordance with the divinely implanted instincts of human nature. To mourn for the dead in becoming manner is something more than to array one's self in "customary suits of solemn black," to affect the "windy suspiration of forced breath," with "the fruitful river in the eye," or to lout on "the dejected behavior of the visage, together with all forms, modes, shapes of grief," which are at best only the outward "trappings and suits of woe' (Shakespeare, 'Hamlet,' Acts 1:0. sc. 2); it is more even than to utter selfish lamentations over one's own loss in being deprived of the society of the departed, sighing like the psalmist, "Lover and friend hast thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness" (Psalms 88:18); it is to bewail their abstraction from the light of heaven and the love of friends, saying, "Alas, my brother!" (1 Kings 13:30; the grief of Constance for her son: cf. 'King John,' Acts 3:0. sc. 4), though sorrow on this account is greatly tempered by the consolations of the gospel in respect of Christians (2 Thessalonians 4:13); it is to express the heart's affection for those who have been removed from its embrace, like Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted because they were not (Matthew 2:18); it is even to pay a tribute of gratitude to God for the temporary loan of the precious gift he has withdrawn, as Job did when he lamented his dead sons and daughters (Job 1:21)—to record appreciation of its worth, and seek, if not its immediate return, its safe keeping till a future day, when they who have been severed here shall be reunited in immortal love. Hence it is easy to perceive how the house of mourning may be fitly spoken of as a house of Divine appointment.
2. The house of feasting a purely human institution. Not that feasting and dancing, considered in themselves, are sinful, or that there are not times and seasons when both may be indulged in without sin. Many such occasions may be found in actual life, as e.g. in connection with birthdays (Genesis 40:20), marriages (Genesis 29:22; John 2:1), and funerals (Deuteronomy 26:14; Job 42:11; Jeremiah 16:7; Ezekiel 24:17; Hosea 9:4), with family rejoicings of other sorts and for other reasons. But the "house of feasting," contrasted with the abode of sorrow, is the tent of carousal, in which wine and wassail, song and dance, mirth and revelry, prevail without moderation, and with no other end in view than the gratification of sinful appetite. Such-like gatherings, having no sanction from Heaven, may be spoken of as instituted by man rather than as appointed by God.
II. THE HOUSE OF MOURNING FREQUENTED BY THE WISE; THE HOUSE OF FEASTING ATTENDED BY FOOLS.
1. The heart of the wise in the house of mourning. The wise are the good, serious, devout, religious, as distinguished from the wicked, frivolous, profane, and irreligious. The hearts of the wise are in the house of mourning, "even when their bodies are absent;" "they are constantly or very frequently meditating upon sad and serious things' (Poole); ". they are much conversant with mournful subjects" (Henry); and as often as occasion offers and duty calls, they repair to the scene of sorrow and chamber of bereavement to sympathize with and comfort its inmates, as Job's friends did with him (Job 2:11), and Mary's with her (John 11:19), recognizing it to be their duty to "weep with them that weep," as well as to "rejoice with them that do rejoice" (Romans 12:15); and even on their own accounts to learn the wisdom which such a scene is fitted to impart.
2. The heart of fools in the house of mirth. To this they are attracted on the principle that "like draws to like "—the same principle that constrains the wise to repair to the house of mourning, and by the gratification there found for their folly, in the laughter which there provokes their mirth, and the revelry which there slakes their longing for self-indulgence.
III. THE HOUSE OF MOURNING A SCHOOL OF WISDOM; THE HOUSE OF FEASTING A SCHOOL OF FOLLY.
1. The lessons taught by the house of mourning.
(1) The certainty of death for the wise man himself and for all others. What he sees in the chamber of bereavement is "the end of all men," the end to which all the bravery and glory of all men must eventually come (2 Samuel 14:14; Psalms 89:48; Isaiah 40:7; Hebrews 9:27), the final scene also in his own swiftly fleeting life (Psalms 39:4); and so while he lives he lays it to heart, considers his end, numbers his days, and applies his soul unto wisdom (Deuteronomy 32:29; Psalms 90:12).
(2) The vanity of all earthly things, and especially of pleasure and frivolity. The "song of fools," whether the bacchanalian carol, the obscene ballad, the comic ditty, or the amorous sonnet, grates with harshness and pain upon his ear, while the laughter it evokes is like the crackling of thorns under a pot, or of nettles under kettles, noisy, short-lived, evanescent, and profitless, leaving nothing behind but ashes (Isaiah 44:20), a bad taste in the mouth, a pain in the ear, a taint upon the conscience, a wound in the heart.
(3) The duty and sweetness of sympathy—duty for him and sweetness for the bereaved. Weeping with them that weep (Romans 12:15), he learns how to bear another's burdens (Galatians 6:2), appreciates the inward satisfaction which flows from the exercise of sympathy (Proverbs 11:17), sees the sustaining strength it yields to the weak and disconsolate (Proverbs 17:17), and thus has his own soul confirmed and enlarged in goodness. "Sorrow," says Detitszch, "penetrates the heart, draws the thought upward, purifies, transforms;" and thus, as the Preacher observes, "by the sorrow of the countenance the heart is made better."
(4) The value of serious talk. The discourse that prevails in the rebukes upon one's spirit, these are felt to be better from a moral and spiritual point of view than the low and groveling, frequently prurient and obscene, songs that in the Preacher's day were heard, as in our day they are not unknown, in a pothouse.
2. The proficiency acquired in the house of feasting. By no means in wisdom, either human or Divine. One will hardly assert that a person will become shrewder in business or brighter in intelligence by indulging in chambering and wantonness; it is certain he will not grow either holier or more spiritually minded. Whatever apologies may be offered for frequenting carousals—innocent feasting requires none—this cannot be urged, that it tends to make one purer in heart or devouter in spirit, incites one to holy living, or prepares one for happy dying. Rather, the instruction received in such haunts of dissipation is for the most part instruction in vice, or at the best in frivolity—a poor accomplishment for a man with a soul.
Counsels for evil times.
I. THE WRONG WAY OF BEHAVIOR UNDER OPPRESSION.
1. Allowing it to unsettle one's judgment. "Surely oppression," or extortion, "maketh a wise man mad," or foolish; i.e. driveth him to foolish actions through indignation and vexation, through the misery he endures, the hardship he suffers, the sense of injustice he feels, the rising doubts of which he is conscious. A soul thus driven to the wall and set at bay through the woes inflicted by imperious and pitiless tyranny, is prone to be unsettled in its judgments, fierce and even reckless in its actions. Of course, no amount of oppression or extortion should have this effect on any; but it sometimes has.
2. Attempting to remove it by bribery. "And a gift destroyeth the understanding." Equally of him that gives and him that receives a bribe is the saying true, that it perverts the judgment, disturbs the soul's perceptions of right and wrong, and leaves a blot upon the conscience. To seek the removal of oppression by currying favor with the oppressor through presentation of gifts, is to seek a right thing in a wrong way, and is to that extent to be condemned.
3. Indulging in anger on account of it. "Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry." Whether this anger be directed against the oppressor or against the oppression, or against God's providence, who has suffered both to come together and co-operate against the wise man, to give way to it is to part with one's wisdom, since "anger resteth in the bosom of fools," if it is not also (in the last case it is) to sin against God. It is always difficult to be angry and sin not; hence Christians are exhorted not to be soon angry (Titus 1:7), indeed, to put off (Colossians 3:8) and put away (Ephesians 4:31) anger, as one of the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:20).
4. Giving way to despair because of it. Saying in one's heart that "the former days were better than these," and that all things are going to the bad. The Preacher pretty plainly hints that such a sentiment is an error, and yet it is one widely entertained by the ignorant and prone to be adopted by the unfortunate.
II. THE BIGHT WAY OF BEHAVING UNDER OPPRESSION.
1. Permitting the evil to avenge itself on its perpetrator. This it will do, if the propositions be correct that oppression practiced even by a wise man will make him mad, and that a bribe accepted by a good man will corrupt his heart and destroy his understanding. "The oppressive exercise of power is so demoralizing that even the wise man, skilled in statecraft, loses his wisdom. There comes upon him, as the history of crime so often shows, something like a mania of tyrannous cruelty. And the same effect follows on the practice of corruption" (Plumptre).
2. Reflecting that the evil will not continue forever. It will run its course, have its day, and come to an end as other evil things have done before it; and "better will its end be than its beginning." In the course of history this has often been observed, that seasons of oppression and periods of persecution have not been suffered to continue for ever, and have often been terminated by some sudden turn in providence, by the death of the oppressor, or by a change of purpose in the persecuted sooner than the victims expected.
3. Exercising patience while the evil day continues. "Better is the patient in spirit than the proud in spirit," better in respect of moral character and religious profiting. Philosophy and religion both teach that the way to rise superior to injustice and oppression, to extract the largest amount of profiting from it, and to bring it most speedily to an end, is to meekly endure it. Patience disarms the oppressor of his strongest weapon, and imparts to his victim double advantage over his foe. Without patience tribulation cannot work out the soul's good (Romans 5:3; James 1:4).
4. Cherishing a hopeful spirit in the darkest times. Not despairing of the future either for one's self or for the world, but believing that all things work together for good to them that love God, and that through evil times as welt as good times the world is slowly but surely moving on towards a better day.
1. Never oppress.
2. Cultivate meekness.
3. Be hopeful.
The end better than the beginning.
I. THE IMPORT OF THE PROVERB STATED. Not always true that the end of a thing is better than the beginning. Whether it is so depends largely on what the thing is, upon the character of its beginning and the nature of its end.
1. Cases in which the maxim will not apply.
(1) Evil projects which reach their consummation; as e.g. the temptation of Eve by Satan (Genesis 3:1, etc.), the wrath of Cain against Abel (Genesis 4:8), the design of David against Uriah and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2-24), the murder of Naboth by Jezebel (1 Kings 21:14), the seduction of a youth by the strange woman (Proverbs 4:3, Proverbs 4:4).
(2) Undertakings which, though good, nevertheless fail to succeed; as e.g. the journey of Jacob and his sons to Egypt, which commenced in gladness and ended in bondage and oppression (Genesis 46:5, Genesis 46:6; Exodus 1:13); the voyage of the corn-ship of Alexandria which carried Paul, and which, though it left the Fair Havens with a soft south wind, was not long after caught by a tempestuous Euroclydon and wrecked on the island of Malta (Acts 27:13, Acts 27:14).
(3) Works and lives which appear promising at the outset, but terminate in disappointment and disaster; as e.g. the kingship of Saul (1 Samuel 10:24; 1 Samuel 31:6), the apostleship of Judas (Matthew 10:4; Matthew 26:14-16), the adventure of the prodigal (Luke 15:11-16), the ministry of Demas (2 Timothy 4:10).
2. Cases in which the maxim will apply.
(1) Evil projects when they are defeated; as e.g. that of Satan to ruin man, which was counter-worked by Christ's mission to effect man's salvation (Hebrews 2:14, Hebrews 2:15); or that of the same adversary to overthrow Job's faith and allegiance, which was overcome by Job's constancy and trust (Job 42:12); that of Haman to exterminate the Jews, which the skillfulness of Mordecai and Esther (Esther 8:7, Esther 8:8) thwarted; and. that of the Jews to assassinate Paul, which the tact of his sister's son (Acts 23:16-31) enabled him to escape; that of the Spanish Armada to overthrow the Protestantism of England, and that of St. Bartholomew's Day to crush the Huguenots in France.
(2) Good undertakings when successfully completed; as e.g. the building of Noah's ark to save himself and family from the Flood (Genesis 6:22); and of Solomon's temple for the worship of Jehovah (1 Kings 6:37, 1 Kings 6:38); the emancipation of Israel from Egypt under the leadership of Moses (Exodus 12:51; Exodus 14:31); and afterwards from Babylon under that of Zerubbabel (Ezra 1:11); the work of human redemption which Christ completed on the cross (John 19:30), and the life of a good man who dies in the faith (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
II. THE TRUTH OF THE PROVERB JUSTIFIED. Of things to which the maxim will apply.
1. The beginnings are attended with anxieties and fears as to ultimate success; while from all such the endings are delivered. As no man can foretell what a day may bring forth, or provide against all possible contingencies, no one can calculate with absolute certainty that any scheme of his contriving will attain to success. Man proposes, but God disposes. When, however, success has been attained there is manifestly no further ground or room for apprehension.
2. The beginnings have periods of labor before them; while the endings have all such periods behind them. Not that labor is a bad thing, but that labor accomplished is better to contemplate than labor not yet attempted. In the former case failure is impossible; in the latter case it is still possible. In the latter, energy, thought, care, have still to be expended; in the former these are no more demanded. Instead of toil, there is repose; instead of peril, safety; instead of anxiety, peace.
3. The beginnings are times of preparation, of effort, and of laying out, while the endings are seasons of fulfillment, of reward, and of gathering in. Examples will be found in the reaping of a harvest in autumn as contrasted with its sowing in spring, the completion of a house as distinguished from its foundation-laying, the collection of profits from a fortunate speculation or investment in business, the gaining of distinction in learning after a long course of diligent study, the attainment of the "exceeding, even an eternal, weight of glory" at the close of a life of faith.
1. A stimulus to diligence.
2. An argument for patience.
3. A caution against rashness.
The good old times-a popular delusion.
I. THE DELUSION STATED. "That the former days were better than these." The proposition may be understood as applying:
1. To individual experience, in which case it will signify that the former days of the speaker's life were better than those in which he then was. Or:
2. To mundane history, in which case the sense will be that the earlier periods of the world's history were better than the later, or that the times which preceded the speaker's day were better than those in which he was living.
II. THE DELUSION EXEMPLIFIED.
1. From sacred history.
(1) As to individual experience. Job was neither the first nor the last who cried, "Oh that I were as in months past!" (Job 29:2). Probably Jacob was in a similar mood of mind when he heard of Simeon's detention in Egypt, and of Judah's proposal to take Benjamin (Genesis 42:36; Genesis 43:14). The old men who wept at the foundation of the second temple certainly believed that the days when as yet the first temple stood were incomparably more resplendent than those in which they then lived (Ezra 3:12).
(2) As to world-epochs. To many of the Sethites, no doubt, in the antediluvian era," the days of old," when man lived in innocence in Eden, were regarded as better than those in which their lot had fallen when all flesh had corrupted its way (Genesis 6:12). To not a few in the days of the judges and of the kings it seemed as if" the years of ancient times," and "of the right hand of the Most High," when he brought forth the bondmen of Pharaoh from Egypt, were the glorious days of Israel as a nation (Psalms 77:5, Psalms 77:10). To the exiles who had returned from Babylon, the golden age of their country was behind them in the days of David and Solomon, not before them in the era of Persian domination.
2. From profane history. "Illustrations crowd upon one's memory. Greeks looking back to the age of those who fought at Marathon; Romans under the empire recalling the vanished greatness of the republic; Frenchmen mourning over the ancient regime; or Englishmen over the good old days of the Tudors, are all examples of this unwisdom" (Plumptre). Old men regretting the vanished days of their boyhood, or once rich but now poor men lamenting the disappearance of wealth which was theirs, or fallen great men sighing for the times when they were called "My lord!" are individual instances of this same delusion.
III. THE DELUSION EXPLAINED. Two things account for this widespread delusion as to the relative values of the past and present.
1. An instinctive idealization of the past.
(1) The good things of the past, which one has either never known at all or counted only moderately good when he did know them, he now esteems as supremely excellent, on the principle that "distance lends enchantment to the view."
(2) The bad things of the past, which he complained of when he endured them, he has now through lapse of time largely forgotten; while if the bad things of the past were such as he never himself experienced but has only heard or read of, these are not likely to press him down so heavily as the lesser present evils under which he groans.
2. An equally instinctive depreciation of the present.
(1) Its good things are never so sweet as some other good things which we have not, or which other people had. As the possession of pleasure is seldom so intoxicating as its pursuit, so is that which one has never so valuable as that which one once had or may yet have.
(2) Its evil things being present always appear worse, i.e. heavier, than they really are. They are felt more acutely and oppress more severely than either the ills of other people one has never felt, or one's own ills in the past which have been forgotten.
IV. THE DELUSION DISPROVED. The false judgment rests upon two foundations.
1. A mistaken standard. If "better" only means in the case of the individual "more free from anxiety, pain, or difficulty," or in the case of communities or nations "more free from wars, troubles, revolutions, or social disturbances, the proposition complained of may be easily established; but if "better" signify more advantageous m the highest sense, i.e. more helpful to and beneficial for moral and spiritual good it will frequently be found that the proposition is false, and that for individuals, for instance, times of present trouble and seasons of present affliction may be better than past times of quiet and seasons of prosperity, and for communities and nations periods of social upheaval and foreign war better than antecedent days of stagnation and civil death.
2. An incomplete comparison. It is commonly forgotten that each age has a dark as well as bright side, and that in estimating the worth of two different periods in the experience of an individual or the history of a nation, it will not do to contrast the dark side of the present with the bright side of the past, but the dark and bright sides of both must be brought into view.
1. The duty of man in evil times, submission rather than complaining.
2. The wisdom of trying to make the best of the present instead of dreaming about the past.
3. The certainty that the most careful calculations concerning the relative values of past and present are tainted with error.
Verses 11, 12
Wisdom and wealth.
I. THE GREAT POWER OF WEALTH.
1. What it cannot do.
(1) Purchase salvation for the soul (Psalms 49:6, Psalms 49:7).
(2) Impart happiness to the mind (Luke 12:15).
(3) Secure health for the body (2 Kings 5:1; Luke 16:22).
2. What it can do.
(1) Defend the body against want and disease, at least partially.
(2) Protect the mind against ignorance and error, also again to a limited extent.
(3) Shield the heart, once more in a measure, from such anxieties as spring from material causes.
II. THE GREATER POWER OF WISDOM.
1. It can do things that wealth can. Nay, without it wealth can effect little.
(1) It can often do much without wealth to avert want and disease from the body.
(2) It can effectually dispel from the mind the clouds of ignorance and error.
(3) It can help to keep anxiety altogether from the heart, to sustain the heart in bearing it when it does come, and to direct the heart how most speedily and effectually to get rid of Esther 2:2. It can do things that wealth cannot.
It—in its highest form, the fear of the Lord (Ecclesiastes 12:13; Psalms 111:10; Job 28:28), the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 2:7), the wisdom which is from above (James 3:17), the wisdom which consists in believing on Christ, loving God, living in the Spirit, walking in love, and following holiness—can "preserve the life of him that hath it:"
(1) the soul's life, by imparting to it the gift of God, which is eternal life;
(2) the mind's life, by flooding it with the light of truth; and
(3) the body's life, by communicating to it here on earth length of days (the first rule of health being to fear God and keep his commandments), and by restoring it at the resurrection to a condition of immortality.
1. The superiority of wisdom.
2. The duty of preferring it to wealth.
Verses 13, 14
Crooked things and straight.
I. COMPOSE THE TEXTURE OF HUMAN LIFE.
1. Crooked things. Such experiences, events, and dispensations as run counter or lie cross to the inclinations, as e.g. afflictions, disappointments, and trials of all sorts. Few lives, if any, are exempt from crosses; few estates are so good as to have no drawbacks. Examples: Abraham (Genesis 15:2, Genesis 15:3), Naaman (2 Kings 5:1), Haman (Esther 5:13), Paul (2 Corinthians 12:7).
2. Straight things. Such experiences as harmonize with the soul's wishes, as e.g. seasons of prosperity, dispensations of good, and enjoyments of every kind; and, as nobody's lot on earth is entirely straight, so on the other hand no one's lot is wholly crooked—"there are always some straight and even parts in it." "Indeed, when men's passions, having got up, have cast a mist over their minds, they are ready to say all is wrong with them and nothing right; yet is that never true in this world, since (always) it is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed (Lamentations 3:22)" (Boston).
II. PROCEED FROM THE HAND OF GOD. Neither come by accident or from second causes, but from him "of whom, to whom, and through whom are all things" (Romans 11:36; 2 Corinthians 5:18; Hebrews 2:10).
1. True of straight things. "Every good gift and every perfect is from above" (James 1:17). Saint and sinner alike depend on the providential bounty of God (Psalms 136:25), who appointeth to all men the bounds of their habitation (Acts 17:26) and measureth out their lots (Isaiah 34:17; Jeremiah 13:25). So elementary is this truth that it needs no demonstration; yet is it so familiar as to be frequently forgotten.
2. No less correct of crooked things. These also are from God (2 Kings 6:33; Amos 3:6; Micah 1:12). It is he who lays affliction on the loins of men (Psalms 66:11), distributes sorrows in his anger (Job 21:17), shows great and sore troubles (Psalms 71:20), lifts up and casts down (Psalms 102:10), wounds and heals, kills and makes alive '(Deuteronomy 32:39). The Preacher recognizes God's hand in introducing crooked things into men's lots; in this all should follow his example.
III. DEMAND DIVERSE TREATMENT FROM THE INDIVIDUAL.
1. Straight things call for cheerfulness. "In the day of prosperity be joyful," "be in good spirits," be thankfully happy and happily thankful.
(1) Gratitude, an element in that treatment God's goodness calls for (Psalms 103:1, Psalms 103:2). Every creature of God is good if it be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4).
(2) Use, another ingredient in a proper return for God's gifts. These are not to be despised and shunned, but valued and enjoyed. Asceticism, or voluntary abstinence from meats and drinks, as if these were sinful, harmonizes not with the spirit of either the Old (Ecclesiastes 9:7) or the New Testament (Colossians 2:20-23) religion. If permissible under the latter as a means of spiritual discipline (1 Corinthians 9:27), or as an expedient for preventing sin in others (Romans 14:21), it should not be forgotten that God "giveth us all things richly to enjoy" (1 Timothy 6:17).
2. Crooked things demand consideration. "In the day of adversity consider:"
(1) Whence adversity comes, viz. from God (Lamentations 3:32; Job 2:10). Hence should it be accepted with submission (1 Samuel 3:18; Job 2:10; Psalms 39:9).
(2) How adversity comes. Not as a strange thing, i.e. allotted in an exceptional way to the individual (1 Peter 4:12), but rather as an experience common among men (1 Corinthians 10:13; 1 Peter 5:9). Not as an isolated thing, unmixed with good or untempered with mercy (Psalms 101:1). Not as a constant thing, as if life were a perpetual calamity (Job 22:18). Not as an arbitrary thing, as if the sovereign Disposer of events acted without reason in sending troubles upon men (Lamentations 3:33; Hebrews 12:10). Certainly not as a malignant thing, as if the Almighty took pleasure in the sufferings and miseries of his creatures (Lamentations 3:33; Hebrews 12:10).
(3) Why adversity comes; because of man's sinfulness, though not always in each instance connected with some particular offence.
(4) Wherefore adversity comes; to fulfill the Divine purpose concerning man, which is not one but manifold (Job 33:29).
IV. COMBINE TO SERVE A LOFTY PURPOSE. "God hath even made the one side by side with the other, to the end that man should not find out anything that shall be after him." The Almighty's design variously explained.
1. Unlikely interpretations.
(1) That God, willing man to be rid of all things at death instead of punishing him hereafter, puts evil into his existence here, and allows it to alternate with good (Hitzig). This does not harmonize with the Preacher's doctrine of a future judgment (Ecclesiastes 9:9; Ecclesiastes 12:14), and is ruled out of court by the general scope of the New Testament.
(2) That man might find nothing which he, dying, might take with him into the unseen world (Ewald). But this end is secured by death (Ecclesiastes 5:15), and if more were needed would have been more effectually attained by making man's lot on earth all adversity and no prosperity, rather than a commingling of the two; while if the proposed interpretation explains the presence of evil alongside of good, it leaves unaccounted for the existence of good alongside of evil in man's lot.
(3) That man might pass through the whole school of life, so that on departing from this scene nothing might remain outstanding (in arrears) which he had not experienced (Delitzsch). This seems equivalent to saying that God commingles joy and sorrow in man's experience that man might have a taste of both—which sounds like a truism—or that his discipline might be complete by being subjected to both, so that nothing more should be possible to or required by him in a future state to render him responsible—which, though true, indicates a clearness and fullness of theological conception manifestly beyond the Preacher.
(4) That no one coming after God by way of review should be able to find anything of blame to cast on his procedure (Mercator, Poole, Fausset); which, though undeniable, is not warranted by a just translation of the Hebrew.
2. Likely interpretations.
(1) That the alternation of prosperous and adverse dispensations was designed to prevent man from finding out the course of future events; in other words, that man should never be able certainly to predict his own future, or even what should be on the morrow (Zockler, Hengstenberg), and therefore should be disposed to trust in God and calmly wait the development of events; with which teaching may be compared Christ's about taking no thought for the morrow (Matthew 6:34), and that of Horace ('Odes,' 3.29. 29-38).
"God in his wisdom hides from sight,
Yelled in impenetrable night,
The future chance and change;
And smiles when mortals' anxious fears,
Forecasting ills of coming years,
Beyond their limit range."
(Plumptre, in loco.)
The continuity of human experience is not so unbroken that mortal sagacity, at its highest, can forecast the incidents of even the nearest day.
(2) That no man should be able to tell precisely what might come to pass on earth after he had left it (Plumptre), a thought already expressed (Ecclesiastes 6:12), of which the practical outcome is the same as that just stated, viz. that as the Divine Being desired to keep the times and seasons in his own hand, he mingled crooked things and straight in man's experience, that man should not be able to guess with certainty at what was coming, and might accordingly be impelled to lead a life of sobriety and watchfulness (Proverbs 4:23, Proverbs 4:25, Proverbs 4:26; Matthew 25:13; Luke 12:15, Luke 12:35-40).
(3) That man might not be able by all his cogitations on the present scene to find out the lot either of himself or of mankind generally in a future state (Wright); and unquestionably this is true that without the gospel the whole subject of a future state for man would be, if not an insoluble enigma, at least a darkly veiled mystery. A consideration of man's experiences on earth would so little guide to accurate knowledge of what his experiences beyond the grave should be, that to thoughtful minds they might rather seem to have been constructed for the very purpose of baffling curiosity on that alluring theme.
1. That crooked things may sometimes be better than straight.
2. That men should not always ask the crooked things in their lot to be straightened.
3. That straight things alone might often prove hurtful.
Nothing in excess; or, a caution against extremes.
I. IN INTERPRETING THE WAYS OF PROVIDENCE.
1. As to the perishing of a just man in his righteousness. Because, though it may sometimes happen that a just or good man loses his life in his righteousness, it does not follow
(1) that all just or good men must necessarily lose their lives—which, considering the natural infirmity of the human heart, would certainly prove a check to the progress of righteousness. Or
(2) that though good men perish in their righteousness, they also perish because of their righteousness—which would be asserting that God loved iniquity and hated righteousness, the exact reverse of the truth (Deuteronomy 32:4; Job 34:10; Psalms 11:7). Or
(3) that therefore being just is not a wise, or doing righteousness a good, thing—which would be constituting temporal success or material prosperity the standard of moral right, and adversity the test of moral wrong. Or
(4) that just men should not persevere in their righteousness, even though they should perish temporally, since he that loseth his life for righteousness' sake shall find it unto life eternal (Matthew 16:25). Or
(5) that the just man may not sometimes be to blame for his own perishing by proceeding to excess in the performance of things in themselves righteous (see below).
2. As to the prolonging of a wicked man's life in (or in spite of) his evil doing. From this it must not be inferred either
(1) that under the moral government of God wickedness has a greater tendency to prolong life than virtue, because the opposite of this is the case (Psalms 34:12-14; Psalms 55:23). Or
(2) that wickedness is not therefore an evil because it occasionally, or even frequently, appears to be rewarded with long life; because no amount or degree of prosperity can ever render sin the same as holiness, or make it less the abominable thing which God hates. Or
(3) that wicked men have the best of life because they do not perish prematurely, but rather often live long and become old and mighty in power (Job 21:7); because through their wickedness they are separated even here from him who is the Source of all true felicity (Isaiah 59:2). Or
(4) that wicked men will not one day be recompensed for their wickedness, although God may permit them through a long life to sin with impunity; because it is written that "destruction shall be to the workers of iniquity" (Proverbs 10:29). In either of these directions it is possible for one, by not observing the limits of just judgment, to go astray in interpreting the ways of God.
II. IN REGULATING THE CONDUCT OF LIFE.
1. In respect of righteousness. "Be not righteous overmuch; neither make thyself overwise" (verse 16).
(1) The Preacher cannot be supposed to teach that one may be too holy or too ardent in pursuit of righteousness. That seems inadmissible in the case of one whose standpoint was that of the Old Testament,—that religion signified the worship of a holy God (Leviticus 19:2), and righteousness a keeping of that holy God's commandments. Hence if this righteousness could always receive from man a pure expression, it would be simply inconceivable that it should ever be too much in the estimation of Heaven—though it might be too much for the safety of the individual performing or expressing it, and through exciting the world's hostility might lead to his destruction. But man's expression of righteousness is never absolutely perfect, but always tainted with defect, and often one-sided, if not insincere and formal. Hence
(2) the Preacher may have meant it was possible to push to excess the doing of purely external righteousness simply as an opus operatum, and, in doing so under the impression that such was the way to happiness and salvation, to exercise wisdom beyond measure; because no amount of such righteousness and wisdom could (in his estimation) conduct a soul to peace and felicity; but rather the more a soul pushed these to excess, the more inwardly torpid, lifeless, benumbed, and disordered would it become, till eventually it should land the soul in spiritual, if not the body also in temporal, ruin.
2. In respect of wickedness. "Be not overmuch wicked, neither be thou foolish" (verse 17). Here, again, it cannot be supposed the Preacher teaches the permissibility, of a moderate indulgence in sin, but merely that if excessive righteousness is no sign of superior wisdom or perfect guarantee of attaining to felicity, but rather an evidence of mistaken judgment and a precursor of inward moral and spiritual deterioration, much more is excessive wickedness a proof of absolute and unredeemed folly, and a sure as well as short road to ruin (1 Timothy 6:9; 2 Peter 2:12).
1. Fear God instead of murmuring at his dark providences.
2. Serve God with intelligent reason and prudence instead of rushing into extravagances either on one side or on another.
3. Perish in righteousness rather than prosper in wickedness.
The dangers and defenses of a city.
I. A CITY'S DANGERS.
1. Either external or internal. Either attacking it from without or assailing it from within.
2. Either personal or impersonal. Arising from individuals, as e.g. from embattled hosts marching against the city, or from designing traitors proving unfaithful to the city; or proceeding from material causes, as e.g. from such physical conditions and surroundings as endanger the city's safety or the health of its inhabitants.
3. Either temporal or spiritual. Such as threaten its prosperity in trade and commerce, or such as menace its civil order, social well-being, and political stability.
4. Either few or many. Either one or two of the above-named perils happening at one time, or all of them together confronting the city.
II. A CITY'S DEFENSES.
1. The prowess of its soldiers. The ten mighty men or rulers may be regarded as chiefs or generals, or viewed as civil governors like the Roman decemvirs, or perhaps taken simply as persons of wealth and influence, like the ten men of leisure whom the Mishna ('Megillah' 1.3) declares to have been necessary to constitute a great city with a synagogue. Either way, they may represent the first or outer line of defense to which a city usually resorts in times of danger, viz. that of physical force, expressed for the most part in armies and garrisons. The Preacher says not that such wall of defense is worthless, but merely that there are defenses better and more efficient than it. And though battalions and bullets, regiments and fleets, constitute not the highest instruments of safety to which a city or a nation can trust, yet they have their uses in averting, as well as their dangers in inviting, war (Luke 11:21).
2. The wisdom of its rulers. These the wise men are now supposed to be; and the meaning is that a city's safety depends more upon the mental sagacity of those who guide its affairs than upon the extent and depth of its material resources; that "wise statesmen," for instance, "may do more" for it "than able generals" (Plumptre), and skilful inventors than Herculean laborers (cf. Ecclesiastes 9:16, Ecclesiastes 9:18); and if more upon the mental sagacity of its governors, much more upon their moral earnestness. The wisdom to which the Preacher alludes is unquestionably that which fears God, keeps his commandments, and gives life to all that have it. Hence even more indispensable for a city's safety is it that her dignitaries should be good than that they should be great.
3. The piety of its people. This a legitimate deduction from the statement that "there is not a just man upon the earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not" (verse 20). In introducing this sentiment, suggested probably by the utterance of Solomon (2Ki 8:1-29 :46), the Preacher may have wished to call up the thought that once upon a time ten righteous men, could they only have been found (which they were not), would have saved a city (Genesis 18:32), and to point to the fact that no such expectation as that of saving a city by means of its righteous men need be cherished now as a reason for resorting to the next best defense—that of moral wisdom instead of brute force. Yet the truth remains that righteousness, holiness, piety, could it only be attained, would be a far more endurable and impregnable wall of protection to a people than either mighty armies or wise statesmen.
1. Righteousness or wisdom the highest civil good.
2. The permanence of a state determined by the number of its good men.
3. The power of moral goodness in both individuals and empires.
4. The universal corruption of mankind.
A great quest, and its sorrowful result.
I. THE GREAT QUEST.
1. The person of the seeker. The Preacher (see on Ecclesiastes 1:1). The frequency with which he draws attention to himself shows that he regarded himself as one possessed of ample and perhaps well-known qualifications for the search upon which he had engaged.
2. The object of his search. To be wise—to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the reason of things; and in particular to know the wickedness of folly, and that foolishness is madness. In other words, he desired to reach that wisdom in its fullness which would enable him to solve the problem of the universe.
3. The spirit in which he entered on his quest.
(1) Calm resolution. He said to himself, "I will be wise."
(2) Genuine humility. He understood that wisdom in its ideal vastness and elevation was beyond his reach.
(3) Earnest application. He applied his heart, or turned himself and his heart, to the business he had undertaken.
(4) Patient perseverance. His soul kept on seeking, laying one thing to another to find out the account. These qualities should distinguish all seekers after wisdom.
II. THE SORROWFUL FINDING.
1. Concerning the strange woman. Not "heathenish folly" (Hengstenberg), but the flesh-and-blood harlot of Proverbs (Proverbs 2:16-19; Proverbs 5:3-13). With respect to her the Preacher calls attention—speaking, no doubt, from personal experience, and recording the results of his own observation—to:
(1) Her seductive arts. "Her heart is snares and nets," luring with her false beauty, bewitching voice, and voluptuous person, numerous unthinking and inexperienced persons, chiefly young men devoid of understanding (Proverbs 7:7), into her embrace.
(2) Her deceptive gifts. While promising her lovers liberty, she only leads them into slavery" Her hands are as bands;" and while flattering them with promises of hidden sweets, what she gives them is an experience "more bitter than death," i.e. an inward wretchedness more intolerable to the soul than even darkness and the grave. "Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death" (Proverbs 7:27).
(3) Her powerless charms—in some eases. Fascinating to the natural heart, and especially to sensual dispositions, her attractions have no influence upon pure minds and religious souls. "Whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her;" either never be captivated by her spells, or be recovered from them before it is too late.
(4) Her miserable victims. Those she leads off as prey are "sinners," in whose hearts sin rules as a dominating principle; who are carnally minded, and delight to make provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof (Romans 8:1; Romans 13:14); lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God (2 Timothy 3:4); foolish and disobedient souls, who serve divers lusts and pleasures (Titus 3:3).
2. Concerning womankind.
(1) The Preacher's finding was incorrect if designed as a universal negative, in the sense that, while in a thousand men taken at random one might be found good, in a thousand women similarly taken not one could be found entitled to be so characterized. The best refutation of such woman-hating utterances is to point to" the numerous examples of noble women mentioned in Old Testament Writ, and of the devoted heroines of New Testament days, "whose names stand forth conspicuously, side by side with those of men, in the muster-roll of the 'noble army of martyrs'" (Wright).
(2) The Preacher's finding may have been correct if accepted only as the record of his own individual experience. In this case, either his lot must have fallen in very evil times in respect of moral corruption, rivaling the days that were before the Flood (Genesis 6:11; Genesis 7:1), or he himself must have mixed with extremely questionable characters and limited his investigations to the lowest strata of society. It is doubtful if in any age, at least since the Flood, the condition of mankind has been so deplorably degenerate as the Preacher's language implies.
(3) The Preacher's finding may be endorsed if it only means (as is probably the case) that woman less frequently attains to her ideal than man does to his—which, however, need not argue deeper depravity in woman than in man, but may point either to the loftier character of woman's ideal than of man's, or to the greater difficulties that stand in the way of woman realizing her ideal than hinder man from reaching his.
3. Concerning the human race.
(1) Their original condition had been one of uprightness. This one of two conclusions to which the Preacher had been conducted, viz. that whatever of evil was now perceptible in man's nature had not proceeded from the hand of God.
(2) Their present condition was one of "inventive refined degeneracy" (Delitzsch). A second result to which the Preacher had been led. Man had lapsed from his primitive condition of moral simplicity and had become an ingenious inventor; not always of things indifferent, but frequently of things immoral in themselves, and leading to immorality and sin as their results.
1. The value of wisdom as a human pursuit.
2. The worth of experience as a teacher.
3. The danger of sensuality.
4. The excellence of piety as a protection against impurity.
5. The inestimable worth of a good woman.
6. The rarity of noble men.
7. The certainty that man is not what God made him.
HOMILIES BY D. THOMAS
The connection between the two clauses of this verse is not at first sight apparent. But it may well be intended to draw attention to the fact that it is in the case of the man who has justly gained a good name that the day of death is better than that of birth.
I. THERE IS A SENSE IN WHICH REPUTATION AMONG MEN IS WORTHLESS, AND IN WHICH SOLICITUDE FOR REPUTATION IS FOLLY. If the reality of fact points one way, and the world's opinion points in an opposite direction, that opinion is valueless. It is better to be good than to seem and to be deemed good; and it is worse to be bad than unjustly to be reputed bad. Many influences affect the estimation in which a man is held among his fellows. Through the world's injustice and prejudice, a good man may be evil spoken of. On the other hand, a bad man may be reputed better than he is, when he humors the world's caprices, and falls in with the world's tastes and fashions. He who aims at conforming to the popular standard, at winning the world's applause, will scarcely make a straight course through life.
II. YET THERE IS A RIGHTEOUS REPUTATION WHICH OUGHT NOT TO BE DESPISED. Such good qualities and habits as justice, integrity and truthfulness as bravery sympathy, and liberality, must needs, in the course of a lifetime, make some favorable impression upon neighbors, and perhaps upon the public; and in many cases a man distinguished by such virtues will have the credit of being what he is. A good name, when deserved, and when obtained by no mean artifices, is a thing to be desired, though not in the highest degree. It may console amidst trials and difficulties, it is gratifying to friends, and it may serve to rouse the young to emulation. A man who is in good repute possesses and exercises in virtue of that very fact an extended influence for good.
III. IT IS ONLY WHEN LIFE IS COMPLETED THAT A REPUTATION IS FULLY AND FINALLY MADE UP. "Call no man happy before his death" is an ancient adage, not without its justification. There are those who have only become famous in advanced life, and there are those who have enjoyed a temporary celebrity which they have long outlived, and who have died in unnoticed obscurity. It is after a man's career has come to an end that his character and his work are fairly estimated; the career is considered as a whole, and then the judgment is formed accordingly.
IV. THE APPROVAL OF THE DIVINE JUDGE AND AWARDER IS OF SUPREME CONSEQUENCE. A good name amongst one's fellow-creatures, as fallible as one's self, is of small account. Who does not admire the noble assertion of the Apostle Paul, "It is a small thing for me to be judged by man's judgment"? They who are calumniated for their fidelity to truth, who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, who are execrated by the unbelieving and the worldly whose vices and sins they have opposed, shall be recognized and rewarded by him whose judgment is just, and who suffers none of his faithful servants to be for ever unappreciated. But they may wait for appreciation until "the day of death." The clouds of misrepresentation and of malice shall then be rolled away, and they shall shine like stars in the firmament. "Then shall every man have praise of God."—T.
A Divine paradox.
To many readers these statements appear startling and incredible. The young are scarcely likely to receive them with favor, and to the pleasure-seeking and the frivolous they are naturally repugnant. Yet they are the embodiment of true wisdom; and are in harmony with the experience of the thoughtful and benevolent.
I. FEASTING, LAUGHTER AND MIRTH ARE TOO GENERALLY REGARDED BY THE FOOLISH AS THE BEST PORTION AND THE ONLY JOY OF HUMAN LIFE.
1. It is not denied that there is a side of human nature to which merriment and festivity are congenial, or that there are occasions when they may be lawfully, innocently, and suitably indulged in.
2. But these experiences are not to be regarded by reasonable and immortal beings as the choicest and most desirable experiences of life.
3. If they are unduly prized and sought, they will certainly bring disappointment, and involve regret and distress of mind.
4. Constant indulgence of the kind described will tend to the deterioration of the character, and to unfitness for the serious and weighty business of human existence.
II. INTERCOURSE WITH THE SORROWFUL AND THE BEREAVED YIELDS MORE TRUE PROFIT THAN SELFISH AND FRIVOLOUS INDULGENCE.
1. Such familiarity with the house of mourning reminds of the common lot of men, which is also our own. In a career of amusement and dissipation there is much which is altogether artificial. The gay and dissolute endeavor, and often for a time with success, to lose sight of some of the greatest and most solemn realities of this earthly existence. Pain, weakness, and sorrow come, sooner or later, to every member of the human race, and it is inexcusable folly to ignore that with which every reflective mind must be familiar.
2. The house of mourning is peculiarly fitted to furnish themes of most profitable meditation. The uncertainty of prosperity, the brevity of life, the rapid approach of death, the urgency of sacred duties, the responsibility of enjoying advantages and opportunities only to be used aright during health and activity,—such are some of the lessons which are too often unheeded by the frivolous. Yet not to have learned these lessons is to have lived in vain.
3. The house of mourning is fitted to bring home to the mind the preciousness of true religion. Whilst Christianity is concerned with all the scenes and circumstances of our existence, and is as able to hallow our joys as to relieve our sorrows, it is evident that, inasmuch as it deals with us as immortal beings, it has a special service to render to those who realize that this earthly life is but a portion of our existence, and that it is a discipline and preparation for the life to come. Many have been indebted, under God, to impressions received in times of bereavement for the impulse which has animated them to seek a heavenly portion and inheritance.
4. Familiarity with scenes of sorrow, and with the sources of consolation which religion opens up to the afflicted, tends to promote serenity and purity of disposition. The restlessness and superficiality which are distinctive of the worldly and pleasure-seeking may, through the influences here described, be exchanged for the calm confidence, the acquiescence in the Divine will, the cheerful hope, which are the precious possession of the true children of God, who know whom they have believed, and are persuaded that he is able to keep that which they have committed to him against that day.—T.
The mischief of oppression and bribery.
There is some uncertainty as to the interpretation of this verse: the reference may be to the effect of injustice upon him who inflicts it; it may be to its effect upon him who suffers it. It is usual to regard the observation as descriptive of the result of oppression and bribery in the feelings of irritation and despondency they produce upon the minds of those who are wronged, and upon society generally.
I. JUSTICE IS THE ONLY SOLID FOUNDATION FOR SOCIETY. There is moral law, upon which alone civil law can be wisely and securely based. When those who are in power are guided in their administration of political affairs by a reverent regard for righteousness, tranquility, and contentment, order and harmony may be expected to prevail.
II. OPPRESSION, EXTORTION, AND VENALITY ON THE PART OF RULERS ARE INCOMPATIBLE WITH JUSTICE AND WITH THE PUBLIC GOOD. Unjust rulers sometimes use the power which they have acquired, or with which they have been entrusted, for selfish ends, and in the pursuit of such ends are unscrupulous as to the means they employ. Such wrongdoing is peculiar to no form of civil government. It is to some extent checked by the prevalence of liberty and of publicity, and yet more by an elevated standard of morality, and by the influence of pure religion. But in the East corruption and bribery have been too general on the part of those in power.
III. THE SPECIAL RESULT OF CORRUPTION AND OPPRESSION IS THE FURTHERANCE AND PREVALENCE OF FOLLY AND UNREASON. To the writer of Ecclesiastes, who regarded wisdom as "the principal thing," it was natural to discern in mischievous principles of government the cause of general unwisdom and foolishness.
1. The governor himself, although he may be credited with craft and cunning, is morally injured and degraded, sinks to a lower level, loses self-respect, and forfeits the esteem of his subjects.
2. The governed are goaded to madness by the impossibility of obtaining their rights, by the curtailment of their liberties, and by the loss of their property. Hence arise murmurings, discontent, and resentment, which may, and often do, lead to conspiracy, insurrection, and revolution.
IV. THE DUTY OF ALL UPRIGHT MEN TO SET THEIR FACES AGAINST SUCH EVIL PRACTICES. A good man must not ask—Can I profit by the prevalence of injustice? Will my party or my friends be strengthened by it? He must, on the contrary, turn away from the question of consequences; he must witness against venality and oppression; he must use all lawful means to expose and to put an end to such practices. And this he is bound to do from the highest motives. Government is of Divine authority, and is to be upon Divine principles. Of God we know that "righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne." They are unworthy to rule who employ their power for base and selfish ends.—T.
The end better than the beginning.
There are many persons, especially among the young and ardent, who adopt and act upon a principle diametrically opposed to this. Every beginning has for them the charm of novelty; when this charm lades, the work, the enterprise, the relationship, have no longer any interest, and they turn away with disgust from the end as from something "weary, stale, fiat, and unprofitable." But the language of this verse embodies the conviction of the wise and reflecting observer of human affairs.
I. THE REASON OF THIS PRINCIPLE. The beginning is undertaken with a view to the end, and apart from that it would not be. The end is the completion and justification of the beginning. The time-order of events is the expression of their rational order; thus we speak of means and end. Aristotle commences his great work on 'Ethics' by showing that the end is naturally superior to the means, and that the highest end must be that which is not a means to anything beyond itself.
II. THE APPLICATION OF THIS PRINCIPLE.
1. To human works. It is well that the foundation of a house should be laid, but it is better that the top-stone should be placed with rejoicing. So with seed-time and harvest; with a journey and its destination; with a road and its completion, etc.
2. To human life. The beginning may, in the view of men, be neutral; but, in the view of the religious man, the birth of a child is an occasion for gratitude. Yet, if that progress be made which corresponds with the Divine ideal of humanity, if character be matured, and a good life-work be wrought, then the day of death, the end, is better than the day of birth, in which this earthly existence commenced.
3. To the Christian calling. The history of the individual Christian is a progressive history; knowledge, virtue, piety, usefulness, are all developed by degrees, and are brought to perfection by the discipline and culture of the Holy Spirit. The end must therefore be better than the beginning, as the fruit excels the blossoms of the spring.
4. To the Church of Christ. As recorded in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the beginning of the Church was beautiful, marked by power and promise. But the kingdom of God, the dispensation of the Spirit, has a purpose—high, holy, and glorious. When ignorance, error, and superstition, vice, crime, and sin, are vanquished by the Divine energy accompanying the Church of the living God—when the end cometh, and the kingdom shall be delivered unto the Father—it will be seen that the end is better than the beginning, that the Church was not born in vain, was not launched in vain upon the stormy waters of time.
III. THE LESSONS OF THIS PRINCIPLE.
1. When at the beginning of a good work, look on to the end, that hope may animate and inspire endeavor.
2. During the course of a good work look behind and before; for it is not possible to judge aright without taking a comprehensive and consistent view of things. We may trace the hand of God, and find reason alike for thanksgiving and for trust.
3. Seek that a Divine unity may characterize your work on earth and your life itself. If the end crown not the beginning, then it were better that the beginning had never been made.—T.
Esther 7:8, Esther 7:9
The folly of pride, hastiness, and anger.
The Scriptures are more pronounced and decisive with regard to these dispositions than for the most part are heathen moralists. Yet the student of human character and life is at no loss to adduce facts in abundance to justify the condemnation of habits which philosophy and religion alike condemn.
I. THESE DISPOSITIONS AND HABITS HAVE THEIR SOURCE IN THE CONSTITUTION OF HUMAN NATURE.
II. CIRCUMSTANCES IN HUMAN LIFE OCCASION THEIR EXERCISE AND GROWTH.
III. TO YIELD TO SUCH PASSIONS AND TO ALLOW THEM TO RULE THE LIFE IS THE PART OF FOLLY.
IV. THE SPIRIT AND CONDUCT OF THE DIVINE SAVIOR EXEMPLIFY THE BEAUTY OF HUMILITY, PATIENCE, AND MEEKNESS.
V. THE SUBJUGATION OF PASSION AND THE IMITATION OF CHRIST CONTRIBUTE TO THE WELFARE OF THE INDIVIDUAL AND OF SOCIETY.
VI. THERE ARE MEANS BY THE CONSTANT AND PRAYERFUL USE OF WHICH EVIL HABITS MAY BE CONQUERED, AND SELF-CONTROL MAY BE ATTAINED.—T.
Laudator temporis acti.
It appears from this passage that a tendency of mind with which we are familiar—a tendency to paint the past in glowing colors—is of ancient date, and indeed it is probably a consequence of human nature itself.
I. THE QUESTIONABLE ASSERTION. We often heat' it affirmed, as the author of this book had heard it affirmed, that the former days were better than these. There are politicians in whose opinion the country was formerly more happy and prosperous than now; farmers who fancy that crops were larger, and merchants who believe that trade was more profitable, in former days; students who prefer ancient literature to modern; Christian men who place the age of faith and piety in some bygone period of history. It has ever been so, and is likely to be so in the future. Others who will come after us will regard our age as we regard the ages that have passed away.
II. THE GROUND UPON WHICH THE QUESTIONABLE ASSERTION IS MADE.
1. Dissatisfaction with the present. It is in times of pain, loss, adversity, disappointment, that men are most given to extol the past, and to forget its disadvantages as well as the privileges and immunities of the present.
2. The illusiveness of the imagination. The aged are not only conscious of their feebleness and their pains; they recall the days of their youth, and paint the scenes and experiences of bygone times in colors supplied by a fond, deceptive fancy. The imaginative represent to themselves a state of the world, a condition of society, a phase of the Church, which never had real existence. By feigning all prosperity and happiness to have belonged to a past age, they remove their fancies from the range of contradiction. All things to their vision become lustrous and fair with "the light that never was on land or sea."
III. THE UNWISDOM OF INQUIRING FOE AN EXPLANATION OF A BELIEF WHICH IS PROBABLY UNFOUNDED. Experience teaches us that, before asking for the cause, it is well to assure ourselves of the fact. Why a thing is presumes that the thing is. Now, in the case before us, the fact is so questionable, and certainty with regard to it is so difficult, if not unattainable, that it would be a waste of time to enter upon the inquiry here supposed.
APPLICATION. Vain regrets as to the past are as unprofitable as are complaints as to the present. What concerns us is the right use of circumstances appointed for us by a wise Providence. Whether or not the former times were better than these, the times upon which we have fallen are good enough for us to use to our own moral and spiritual improvement, and at the same time they are bad enough to call for all our consecrated powers to do what in us lies—little as that may be—to mend them.—T.
The perplexities of life.
The Book of Ecclesiastes raises questions which it very inadequately answers, and problems which it scarcely attempts to solve. Some of the difficulties observable in this world, in human society, and in individual experience appear to be insoluble by reason, though to some extent they may be overcome by faith. And certainly the fuller revelation which we enjoy as Christians is capable of assisting us in our endeavor not to be overborne by the forces of doubt and perplexity of which every thoughtful man is in some measure conscious.
I. A SPECULATIVE DIFFICULTY: THE COEXISTENCE OF CROOKED THINGS WITH STRAIGHT. The philosophical student encounters this difficulty in a more definite form than ordinary thinkers, and is best acquainted with the apparent anomalies of existence. It may suffice to refer to the coexistence of sense and spirit, nature and reason, law and freedom, good and evil, death and immortality.
II. A PRACTICAL DIFFICULTY; THE JUXTAPOSITION AND INTERCHANGE OF PROSPERITY AND ADVERSITY. "God hath even made the one side by side with the other." The inequality of the human lot has, from the time of Job, been the occasion of much questioning, dissatisfaction, and skepticism. Opinions differ as to the effect upon this inequality of the advance of civilization. Riches and poverty, splendor and squalor, refinement and brutishness, exist side by side. And the observation of every one has remarked the startling transitions in the condition and fortunes alike of the wealthy and the poor; these are exalted, and those depressed. At first sight all this seems inconsistent with the sway of a just and benignant Providence.
III. A MORAL DIFFICULTY: THE EVIDENT ABSENCE OF A JUST AND PERFECT RETRIBUTION N THIS LIFE. The righteous perish, and the wicked live on in their evil-doing unchecked and unpunished. There are those who would acquiesce in inequality of condition, were such inequality proportioned to disparities of moral character, but who are dismayed by the spectacle of prosperous crime and triumphant vice, side by side with integrity and benevolence doomed to want and suffering.
IV. THE DUTY OF CONSIDERATION AND PATIENCE IN THE PRESENCE OF SUCH PERPLEXING ANOMALIES. The first and most obvious attitude of the wise man, when encountering difficulties such as those described in this passage, is to avoid hasty conclusions and immature, unconsidered, and partial judgments. It is plain that we are confronted with what we cannot comprehend. Our observation is limited; our penetration is at fault; our reason is baffled. We are not, therefore, to shut our eyes to the facts of life, or to deny what our intelligence forces upon us. But we must think, and we must wait.
V. THE PURPOSE OF SUCH DIFFICULTIES, AS FAR AS WE ARE CONCERNED, IS TO TEST AND TO ELICIT FAITH IN GOD. There is sufficient reason for every thoughtful man to believe in the wisdom and righteousness of the eternal Ruler. And the Christian has special grounds for his assurance that all things are ordained by his Father and Redeemer, and that the Judge of all the earth will do right.—T.
Verses 16, 17
This language must be interpreted in accordance with the rules of rhetoric; it is intended to convey a certain impression, to produce a certain effect; and this it doer The Preacher aims at inculcating moderation, at cautioning the reader against what a modern poet has termed "the falsehood of extremes." In interpreting this very effective language we must not analyze it as a scientific statement, but receive the impression which it was designed to convey.
I. HUMAN NATURE IS PRONE TO EXTREMES. In how many instances may it be observed that a person is no sooner convinced that a certain object is desirable, a certain course is to be approved, than he will hear and think of nothing else! Is liberty good? Then away with all restraints! Is self-denial good? Then away with all pleasures! Is the Bible the best of books? Then let no other volume be opened! Is our own country to be preferred to all beside? Then let no credit be allowed to foreigners for anything they may do!
II. THIS TENDENCY TO EXTREMES IS OWING TO THE DOMINANCE OF FEELING. Calm reason would check such a tendency; but the voice of reason is silenced by passion or prejudice. Impulsive natures are hurried into unreasoning and extravagant opinions and habits of conduct. The momentum of a powerful emotion is very great; it may urge men onwards to an extent unexpected and dangerous. Whilst under the guidance of sober reason, feeling may be the motive power to virtue and usefulness; but when uncontrolled it may hurry into folly and disaster.
III. YIELDING TO THIS TENDENCY OCCASIONS THE LOSS OF SELF-RESPECT AND OF SOCIAL INFLUENCE. The man of extremes must, in his cooler moments of reflection, admit to himself that he has acted the part of an irrational being. And he certainly gains among his acquaintances the reputation of a fanatic; and even when he has sound and sober counsel to give, little heed is taken of his judgment.
IV. MODERATION IS USUALLY THE WISEST AND JUSTEST PRINCIPLE OF HUMAN CONDUCT. A great moralist taught the ancient Greeks that the ethical virtues lie between extremes, and adduced many very striking instances of his law. Bravery lies between foolhardiness and cowardice; liberality between profusion and niggardliness, etc. That a very insufficient theory of morals was provided by this doctrine of "the mean" would universally be admitted. Yet no account of virtue can be satisfactory which does not point out the importance of guarding against those extremes of conduct into which men are liable to be hurried by the gusts of passion that sweep over their nature. Who has not learned by experience that broad, unqualified assertions are usually false, and that violent, one-sided courses of action are in most cases harmful and regrettable? There is wisdom in the old adage which boys learn in their Latin grammar, In medio tutissimus ibis.—T.
Verses 20, 29
Perfection is not on earth.
It would be a mistake to attribute these statements to anything peculiar in the experience and circumstances of the author of this book. The most attentive and candid observers of human nature will attest the truth of these very decided judgments. Christians are sometimes accused of exaggerating human sinfulness, in order to prepare for the reception of the special doctrines of Christianity; but they are not so accused by observers whose opportunities have been wide and varied, and who have the sagacity to interpret human conduct.
I. THE NATURE OF SIN. It is deflection from a Divine standard, departure from the Divine way, abuse of Divine provision, renunciation of Divine purpose.
II. THE UNIVERSALITY OF SIN. This is both the teaching of Scripture and the lesson of all experience in every land and in every age.
III. THE EXCEPTION TO SIN. The Divine Man, Jesus Christ, alone among the sons of men, was faultless and perfect.
IV. THE SPIRITUAL LESSONS TAUGHT BY THE PREVALENCE OF SIN.
1. The duty of humility, contrition, and repentance.
2. The value of the redemption and salvation which in the gospel Divine wisdom and compassion have provided as the one universal remedy for the one universal evil that afflicts mankind.—T.
Bad women a curse to society.
It is generally considered that in this language we have the conclusion reached by Solomon, End that his polygamy was largely the explanation of the very unfavorable opinion which he formed of the other sex. A monarch who takes to himself hundreds of wives and concubines is scarcely likely to see much of the best side of woman's nature and life. And if marriage is divinely intended to draw out the unselfish, affectionate, and devoted qualities of feminine nature, such a purpose could not be more effectually frustrated than by an arrangement which assigns to a so-called wife an infinitesimal portion of a husband's time, attention, interest, and love. For this reason it is not fair to take the sweeping statement of this passage as expressing a universal End unquestionable truth. What is said of the bitterness of the wicked woman, and of the mischief she does in society, remains for ever true; but there are states of society in which good women are as numerous as are good men, and in which their influence is equally beneficial.
I. THE INJURIOUSNESS OF BAD WOMEN EXEMPLIFIES THE PRINCIPLE THAT THE ABUSE AND CORRUPTION OF GOOD THINGS IS OFTEN THE CAUSE OF THE WORST OF ILLS.
II. THE WICKEDNESS OF BAD WOMEN DISPLAYS ITSELF IN THEIR HABIT OF ENSNARING THE FOOLISH; FOR THEY WILL NOT AND CANNOT SIN ALONE.
III. THE PRESENCE OF BAD WOMEN IN SOCIETY IS THE GREAT TEMPTATION TO WHICH MEN ARE LIABLE, AND THE GREAT TEST BY WHICH THEY ARE TRIED.
IV. THE BITTERNESS OF BAD WOMEN MAY BY CONTRAST SUGGEST THE EXCELLENCE OF THE VIRTUOUS AND THE PIOUS, AND MAY PROMPT TO A GRATEFUL RECOGNITION OF THE INDEBTEDNESS OF SOCIETY TO HOLY AND KINDLY FEMININE INFLUENCES.—T.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
There is much both of exalted enjoyment and of valuable influence in a man's reputation. It is said of the great explorer and philanthropist, David Livingstone, that he used to live in a village in Africa until his "good name" for benevolence had been established and had gone on before him: following his reputation, he was perfectly safe. A good reputation is—
I. THE AROMA WHICH OUR LIFE SHEDS AROUND US. We are always judging one another; every act of every kind is appraised, though often quite unconsciously, and we stand better or worse in the estimation of our neighbors for all we do and are. Our professions, our principles, our deeds, our words, even our manners and methods,—all these leave impressions on the mind concerning ourselves. What men think of us is the sum-total of these impressions, 'and constitutes our "name," our reputation. The character of a good man is constantly creating an atmosphere about him in which he will be able to walk freely and happily. It is indeed true that some good men seriously injure their reputation by some follies, or even foibles, which might easily be corrected and which ought to be avoided; but, as a rule, the life of the pure and holy, of the just and kind, is surrounded by a radiance of good estimation, as advantageous to himself as it is valuable to his neighbors.
II. THE BEST LEGACY WE LEAVE BEHIND US. At "the day of one's birth" there is rejoicing, because "a man is born into the world." And what may he not become? what may he not achieve? what may he not enjoy? But that is a question indeed. That infant may become a reprobate, an outcast; he may do incalculable, deplorable mischief in the world; he may grow up to suffer the worst things in body or in mind. None but the Omniscient can tell that. But when a good man dies, having lived an honorable and useful life, and having built up a noble and steadfast character, he has won his victory, he has gained his crown; and he leaves behind him memories, pure and sweet, that will live in many hearts and hallow them, that will shine on many lives and brighten them. At birth there is a possibility of good, at death there is a certainty of blessedness and blessing.
1. Reputation is not the very best thing of all. Character stands first. It is of vital consequence that we be right in the sight of God, and tried by Divine wisdom. The first and best thing is not to seem but to be right and wise. But then:
2. Reputation is of very great value.
(1) It is worth much to ourselves; for it is an elevated and ennobling joy to be glad in the well-earned esteem of the wise.
(2) It is of great value to our kindred and our friends. How dear to us is the good name of our parents, of our children, of our intimate friends!
(3) It is a source of much influence for good with our neighbors. How much weightier are the words of the man who has been growing in honor all his days, than are those of either the inexperienced and unknown man, or the man whose reputation has been tarnished!—C.
The evil, the unprofitable, and the blessed flying.
I. THE POSITIVELY EVIL THING. "The laughter of fools," or "the song of fools," may be pleasant enough at the moment, but it is evil; for
(1) it proceeds from folly, and
(2) it tends to folly. Of the many things which are here implicitly condemned, there may be mentioned:
1. The irreverent or the impure jest or song.
2. The immoderate feast—particularly indulgence in the tempting cup.
3. The society of the ungodly, sought in the way of friendship and enjoyment, as distinguished from the way of duty or of benevolence.
4. The voice of flattery.
II. THE COMPARATIVELY UNPROFITABLE THING. TWO things are mentioned in Scripture as being lawful, but as being of comparatively slight value—bodily indulgence and bodily exercise (see 1 Corinthians 6:13; 1 Timothy 4:8). "The house of feasting" (Esther 7:2) is a right place to be found in, as is also the gymnasium, or the recreation-ground, or the place of entertainment. But it is very easy to think of some place that is worthier. As those that desire to attain to heavenly wisdom, to a Christ-like character, to the approval of God, let us see that we only indulge in the comparatively unprofitable within the limits that become us. To go beyond the bound of moderation is to err, and even to sin. Fun may grow into folly, pleasure pass into dissipation, the training of the body become an extravagant athleticism, in the midst of which the culture of the spirit is neglected, and the service of Christ forsaken. It behooves us to "keep under" that which is secondary, to forbid it the first place or the front rank, whether in our esteem or in our practice.
III. THE DISGUISED BLESSING. It is not difficult to reach the heart of these paradoxes (Esther 7:2-5). There is pain of heart in visiting the house where death has come to the door, as there is in receiving the rebuke of a true friend; but what are the issues of it? What is to be gained thereby? What hidden blessing does it not contain? How true it is that it is
"Better to have a quiet grief
Than a tumultuous joy"!
That the hollow laughter of folly is a very poor and sorry thing indeed compared with the wisdom-laden sorrow, when all things are weighed in the balances. To have a chastened spirit, to have the heart which has been taught of God great spiritual realities, to have had an enlarging and elevating vision of the things which are unseen and eternal, to have been impressed with the transiency of earthly good and with the excellency of "the consolations which are in Christ Jesus," to be lifted up, if but one degree, toward the spirit and character of the self-sacrificing Lord we serve, to have had some fellowship with the sufferings of Christ,—surely this is incomparably preferable to the most delicious feast or the most hilarious laughter. To go down to the home that is darkened by bereavement or saddened by some crushing disappointment, and to pour upon the troubled hearts there the oil of true and genuine sympathy, to bring such spirits up from the depths of utter hopelessness or overwhelming grief into the light of Divine truth and heavenly promise,—thus "to do good and to communicate" is not only to offer acceptable sacrifice unto God, but it is also to be truly enriched in our own soul.—C.
Patience and pride.
Patience is to be distinguished from a dull indiscriminateness and from insensibility, to which one treatment is much the same as another; it is the calm endurance, the quiet, hopeful waiting on the part of the intelligent and sensitive spirit. Pride is to be distinguished from self-respect; it is an overweening estimate indulged by a man respecting himself—of his power, or of his position, or of his character. Thus understood, these two qualities stand in striking contrast to one another.
I. PATIENCE IS A DIVINELY COMMENDED AND PRIDE A FORBIDDEN THING.
Patience (Luke 21:19; 2 Thessalonians 1:4; Hebrews 10:36; 2 Peter 1:6; James 5:7, James 5:8, James 5:11; Revelation 2:2).
II. PATIENCE IS THE SEAT OF SAFETY, PRIDE THE PLACE OF PERIL. The man that is willing to wait in patience for the good which God will grant him, accepting what he gives him with quiet contentment, is likely to walk in wisdom, and to abide in the fear and favor of the Lord; but the man who over-estimates his strength is standing in a very "slippery place"—he is almost sure to fall. No words of the wise man are more frequently fulfilled than those concerning pride and a haughty spirit (Proverbs 16:18). The proud heart is the mark for many adversaries.
III. PATIENCE IS A BECOMING GRACE, PRIDE AN UGLY EVIL, Few things are morn spiritually beautiful than patience. When under long-continued bodily pain or weakness, or under grievous ill-treatment, or through long years of deferred hope and disappointment, the chastened spirit lives on in cheerful resignation, the Christian workman toils on in unwavering faith, there is a spectacle which we can well believe that the angels of God look upon with delight. Certainly it is the object of our admiring regard. On the other hand, pride is an offensive thing in the eyes of man, as we know it is in the sight of God (Proverbs 8:13). Whether a man shows himself elated about his personal appearance, or his riches, or his learning, or his strength (of any kind), we begin by being amused and end by being annoyed and repelled; we turn away as from an ugly picture or from an offensive odor.
IV. PATIENCE CONDUCTS INTO, PRIDE EXCLUDES FROM, THE KINGDOM OF GOD.
1. Patient inquiry will bring a man into the sunshine of full discipleship to Jesus Christ, but pride will keep him away, and leave him to be lighted by the poor sparks of his own wisdom.
2. Patient steadfastness in the faith will conduct to the gates of the celestial city.
3. Patient continuance in well-doing will end in the commendation of Christ and in his bountiful reward.—C.
Foolish comparison and complaint.
This querulous comparison, preferring former days to present ones, is unwise, inasmuch as it is—
I. BASED UPON IGNORANCE. We know but little of the actual conditions of things in past times. Chroniclers usually tell little more than what was upon the surface. We probably exaggerate and overlook to a very large extent. The good that is gone from us was probably attended with evils of which we have no idea; while the evils that remain we magnify because we experience them in our own person and suffer from them.
II. MARKED BY FORGETFULNESS. Often, though not always so. Often the change for the worse is not in a man's surroundings, but in himself. Leaving his youth and his prime behind him, he has left his vigor, his buoyancy, his power of mastery and of enjoyment. The "times" are well enough, but he himself is failing, and he sees everything through eyes that are dim with years.
III. INDICATIVE OF A SPIRIT OF DISCONTENT. It is the querulous spirit that thinks ill of his companions and his circumstances. He would come to the same conclusion if these were much better than they are. A sense of our own unworthiness and a consciousness of God's patience with us and goodness toward us, filling our souls with humility and gratitude, would dissipate these clouds and put another song into our mouth.
IV. WANTING IN MANLY RESOLUTENESS. If we are possessed of a right spirit, instead of sitting down and lamenting the inferiority of present things we shall gird ourselves to do what has to be done, to improve that which is capable of reform, to abolish that which should disappear, to plant that which should be thriving.
V. LACKING IN TRUSTFULNESS AND HOPEFULNESS. What if things are not all they should be with us; what if we ourselves are going down the hill and shall soon be at the bottom;—is there not a God above us? and is there not a future before us? Let us look up and let us look on. Above us is a Power that can regenerate and transform; before us is a period, an age, nay, an eternity, wherein all lost joys and honors will be "swallowed up of life."—C.
Verses 13, 14
Before we apply the main principle of the text, we may gather two lessons by the way.
I. THE WISDOM OF APPROPRIATING—of appropriating to ourselves and enjoying what God gives us without hesitation. In the day of our prosperity let us be joyful. We need not be draping our path with gloomy thoughts; we need not send the skeleton round at the feast; we should, indeed, partake moderately of everything, and in everything give thanks, showing gratitude to the Divine Giver; and we should also have the open heart which does not fail to show liberality to those in need. If our success be hallowed by these three virtues, it will be well with us.
II. THE RIGHTNESS OF RECTIFYING—of making straight all the crooked things which can be straightened. We are not to give up great moral problems as insoluble until we are absolutely convinced that they are beyond our reach. Poverty, ignorance, intemperance, irreligion,—these are very "crooked" things; but God did not make them what they are. Man has done that. His sin is the great and sad perverting force in the world, bending all things out of their course and turning them in wrong directions. And though they may seem to be too rigid and fixed to be amenable to our treatment, yet, hoping in God and seeking his aid, we must address ourselves courageously and intelligently to these crooked things until they are made straight. There is nothing that so strongly appeals to, and that will so richly reward, our aspiration, our ingenuity, our energy, our patience.
III. THE DUTY OF SUBMITTING. There are some things in regard to which we have to acknowledge that the evil thing is a "work of God," something he has "made crooked." This is to be accepted as the ordering of his holy will, as something that is balanced and overbalanced by the good things which are on the other side. It may be slenderness of means, lowliness of position, feebleness of intelligence, exclusion from society in which we should like to mingle, incapacity to visit scenes we long to look upon, the inaccessibility of a sphere for which we think ourselves peculiarly fitted, the advance of fatal disease, the reduction of resources or the decline of power, the breaking up of the old home and the scattering of near relatives, the loosening of old ties with the formation of new ones, etc. Such things as these are to be calmly and contentedly accepted.
1. To strive against the inevitable or irremediable is
(1) to strive against God and be guilty;
(2) to court failure and be miserable;
(3) to waste energy that might be happily and fruitfully spent in other ways.
2. To submit to the will of God, after considering his work, is
(1) to please him;
(2) to have the heart filled with pure and elevating contentment;
(3) to be free to do a good if not a great work "while it is day."—C.
The lower and the higher standard.
The Preacher is not now in his noblest mood; he offers us a morality to which he himself at other times rises superior, and which cannot be pronounced worthy by those who have heard the great Teacher and learnt of him. We will look at—
I. THE LOWER STANDARD HERE HELD UP.
1. His view of sin. And here we find three things with which we are dissatisfied.
(1) Sin is not represented to us as in itself an intolerable thing (verse 17). We are allowed to think of it as something that would be allowable if indulged within certain limits; and if it did no serious injury to our life or to our health. But we know that, apart from its fatal consequences, all wickedness is "an abominable thing which God hates," an essentially evil thing.
(2) The invariable penalty of sin is overlooked. We are not reminded that wickedness always makes us suffer, in spirit if not in health, in soul if not in circumstance.
(3) We are likened to one another rather than with the Holy One (verses 20-22). The strain is this: we need not be much troubled by the presence of some sin in our hearts and lives; all men are guilty, and we are only like our fellows; if there be those who are reproaching us, we are censuring them in return; we are standing on the same level, though it may be a common condemnation.
2. His view of righteousness. The Preacher sees two unsatisfactory features in righteousness.
(1) It does not always prolong life and secure success (verse 15).
(2) It leads the best men into a painful loneliness. "Why shouldest thou be desolate?"; i.e. why be so honest and so pure and so true that thou canst not associate with the unscrupulous, whose standard is lower than thine own? Be content with that measure of righteousness which comes up to the common standard. Such is the Preacher's counsel in this mood of his. But we who have learnt of a Greater and Wiser than he, of him who was not only the wisest of men but "the Wisdom of God," cannot be satisfied with this; we aspire to something loftier and worthier; we must rise to—
II. THE HIGHER STANDARD. Taught of Jesus Christ, we:
1. Have a truer view of sin. We regard it as a thing which is only and utterly evil, offensive to God, constantly and profoundly injurious to ourselves, to be hated and shunned in every sphere, to be cleansed from heart and life.
2. Have a truer conception of righteousness. We look upon it as
(1) that which is in itself precious beyond all price;
(2) that which allies us to God in nature and character;
(3) that which is to be cherished and pursued at all costs whatever;
(4) that which makes our present life beautiful and noble, and leads on to fax greater excellence and far deeper joy hereafter.—C.
Degradation and elevation.
The words of the Preacher painfully remind us of the familiar story of Diogenes and his lantern. Whether we are to ascribe this pitiful conclusion respecting woman to his own infirmity or to the actual condition of Oriental society, we do not know. But there was, no doubt, so much of realism about the picture that we may learn a very practical lesson therefrom. It is twofold.
I. THE AWFUL POSSIBILITIES OF DEGRADATION. That woman, created by God to be a helpmeet for man, and so admirably fitted, as she is at her best, to comfort his heart and to enrich and bless his life—that woman should be spoken of in such terms as these, is sad and strange indeed. It would be unaccountable but for one thing. The explanation is that man, in his physical strength and in his spiritual weakness, has systematically degraded woman; has made a mere tool and instrument of her whom he should have treated as his trusted companion and truest friend. And if you once degrade any being (or any animal) from his or her true and right position, you send that being down an incline, you open the gates to a long and sad descent. You take away self-respect, and in so doing you undermine the foundation of all virtue, of all moral worth. Dishonor any one, man or woman, lad or child, in his (her) own eyes, and you inflict a deadly injury. A very vile woman is probably worse than a very bad man, more inherently foul and more lamentably mischievous; it is the miserable consequence of man's folly in wishing to displace her from the position God meant her to hold, and in making her take a far lower position than she has the faculty to fill. To degrade is to ruin, and to ruin utterly.
II. THE NOBLE POSSIBILITIES OF ELEVATION. How excellent is the impossibility of seriously writing such a sentence as that contained in the twenty-eighth verse, in this age and in this land of ours! Now and here it certainly is not more difficult to find a woman worthy of our admiration than to find such a man. In the Churches of Jesus Christ, in the homes of our country, are women, young and old and in the prime of Their powers, whose character is sound to the center, whose spirit is gracious, whose lives are lovely, whose influence is wholly beneficent, who are the sweetness and strength of the present generation, as they are the hope and promise of the next. And this elevation of woman all comes of treating her as that which God meant her to be—giving to her her rightful position, inviting and enabling her to fill her sphere, to cultivate her powers, to do her work, to take her heritage.
1. It is easy as it is foolish and sinful to degrade; assume the absence of what God has given and deny the opportunity which should be offered, and the work is speedily done.
2. It is quite possible as it is most blessed to elevate; treat men and women, wherever found and at whatever stage in worth or unworthiness they may be taken, as those God meant to be his children, and they will rise to the dignity and partake the inheritance of "the sons and daughters of the living God."—C.
HOMILIES BY J. WILLCOCK
The charm of goodness.
When our author wrote these words he had, for a time at any rate, passed into a purer atmosphere; some gleams of light, if not the full dawn of day, had begun to shine upon him. Up to this he has been analyzing the evil conditions of human life, and has depicted all the moods of depression and sorrow and indignation they excited in him. Now he tells us of some things which he had found good, and which had cheered and strengthened him in his long agony. They were not, indeed, efficient to remove all his distress or to outweigh all the evils he had encountered in his protracted examination of the phenomena of human life; but to a certain extent they had great value and power. The first of these compensations of human misery is the beauty and attractiveness and lasting worth of a good character. The name won by one of honorable and unblemished character, who has striven against vice and followed after virtue, who has been pure and unselfish and zealous in the service of God and man, "is better than precious ointment." It is not unwarrantable thus-to expand the sentence; for though the epithet "good" is not in the original, but supplied by our translators (Revised Version), it is undoubtedly understood, and also it is taken for granted that the renown so highly praised is fully deserved by its possessor. "Dear," he says, "to the human senses "—speaking, remember, to an Eastern world—"is the odor of costly unguents, of sweet frankincense and fragrant spikenard; but dearer still, more precious still, an honored name, whose odor attracts the love, and penetrates and fills for a while the whole heart and memory of our friends" (Bradley). There is in the original a play upon words (shem, a name; shemen, ointment) which harmonizes with the brightness of the thought, and, gives a touch of gaiety to the sentence so strangely concluded with the reflection that for the owner of the good name the day of his death is better than the day of his birth. An exquisite illustration of the justness of our author's admiration for a good name is to be found in that incident in the Gospels of the deed of devotion to Christ, on the part of the woman who poured upon his head the precious ointment. Her name, Mary of Bethany (John 12:3), is now known throughout the whole world, and is associated with the ideas of pure affection and generous self-sacrifice. The second part of the verse, which at first sounds so out of harmony with what precedes it, is yet closely connected with it. The good name is thought of as not finally secured until death has removed the possibility of failure and shame. So many begin well and attain high fame in their earlier life which is sadly belied by their conduct and fate in the close. The words recall those of Solon to Croesus, if indeed they are not a reminiscence of them, "Call no man happy until he has closed his life happily" (Herod; 1:32); and are to the same effect as those in Esther 7:8, "Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof." It is not to be denied that there is, however, more in the words than a prudential warning against prematurely counting upon having secured the "good name" which is better than ointment. They betray an almost heathenish distaste for life, which is utterly out of harmony with the revelation both of the Old Testament and of the New; and are more appropriate in the mouth of one of that Thracian tribe mentioned by Herodotus, who actually celebrated their birthdays as days of sadness, and the day of death as a day of rejoicing, than of one who had any faith in God. The only parallel to them in Scripture is what is said of Judas by our Lord, "It had been good for that man if he had not been born" (Matthew 26:24). Ingenuity may devise explanations of the sentiment which bring it into harmony with religious sentiments. Thus it may be said, at death the box of precious ointment is broken and its odors spread abroad; prejudices that assailed the man of noble character during his lifetime are mitigated, envy and jealousy and detraction are subdued, and his title to fair fame acknowledged on all hands. It may be said life is a state of probation, death the beginning of a higher and happier existence. Life is a struggle, a contest, a voyage, a pilgrimage; and when victory has been won, the goal reached, the reward of labor is attained. We may borrow the words and. infuse a brighter significance into them; but no trace of any such inspiring, cheering thoughts are in the page before us. "The angel of death is there; no angel of resurrection sits within the sepulcher."—J.W.
Compensations of misery.
Although in the Book of Ecclesiastes there is much that seems to be contradictory of our ordinary judgments of life, much that is at first apparently calculated to prevent our taking an interest in its business and pleasures—which are all asserted to be vanity and vexation of spirit—there are yet to be found in it sober and well-grounded exhortations, which we can only neglect at our peril. Out of his large experience the writer brings some lessons of great value. It is sometimes the case, indeed, that he speaks in such a way that we feel it is reasonable in us to discount his judgment pretty heavily. When he speaks as a sated voluptuary, as one who had tried every kind of sensuous pleasure, who had gratified to the utmost every desire, who had enjoyed all the luxuries which his great wealth could procure, and found all his efforts to secure happiness vain—I say, when he speaks in this way, and asks us to believe that none of these things are worth the pains, we are not inclined to believe him implicitly. We are inclined rather to resent being lectured in such a way by such a man. The satiety, the weariness, the ennui, which result from over-indulgence, do not qualify a man for setting up as a moral and spiritual guide; they rather disqualify him for exercising such an office. In answer to the austere and sweeping condemnation which he is inclined to pass upon the sources from which we think may be drawn a reasonable amount of pleasure, we may say, "Oh yes! it is all very well for you to speak in that way. You have worn out your strength and blunted your taste by over-indulgence; and it comes with a bad grace from you to recommend an abstentious and severe mood of life which you have never tried yourself. The exhortations which befit the lips of a John the Baptist, nurtured from early life in the desert, lose their power when spoken by a jaded epicure." The answer would be perfectly just. And if Solomon's reflections were all of the type described, we should he justified in placing less value upon them than he did. It is true that more than once he speaks with a bitterness and disgust of all the occupations and pleasures of life, which we cannot, with our experience, fairly endorse. But, as a rule, his moralizing is not of the ascetic type. He recommends, on the whole, a cheerful and grateful enjoyment of all the innocent pleasures of life, with a constant remembrance that the judgment draws ever nearer and nearer. While he has no hesitation in declaring that no earthly employments or pleasures can completely satisfy the soul and give it a resting-place, he does not, like the ancient hermits, approve of dressing in sackcloth, of feeding on bread and water only, and of retiring altogether from the society of our fellows. His teaching, indeed, contains a great deal more of true Christianity than has often been found in the writings and sermons of professedly Christian moralists and preachers. All the more weight, therefore, is to be attached to his words from this very fact, that he does not pose as an ascetic. We could not listen to him if he did; and accordingly we must be all the more careful not to lessen the value and weight of the words he speaks to which we should attend, by depreciating him as an authority. It is only of some of his judgments that we can say they are such as a healthy mind could scarcely endorse. This, in the passage before us, is certainly not one of them. It certainly runs counter to our ordinary sentiments and practices, like many of the sayings of Christ, but is not on that account to be hastily rejected; we are not justified either in seeking to diminish its weight or explain it away. It is not, indeed, a matter of surprise that the thoughts and feelings of beings under the influence of sinful habits, which enslave both mind and heart, should require to undergo a change before their teaching coincides with the mind of the Holy Spirit. In this section of the book we have teaching very much in the spirit of the New Testament. Compare with the second verse the sentences spoken by Christ: "Woe unto you that are full] for ye shall hunger; woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep" (Luke 6:25). And notice that the visits paid to the afflicted to console them, from which the Preacher declares he had gained moral and spiritual benefits, are recommended to us by the apostle as Christian duties (James 1:27). From even the saddest experiences, therefore, a thoughtful mind will derive some gain; some compensations there are to the deepest miseries. The house of mourning is that in which there is sorrow on account of death. According to Jewish customs, the expression of grief for the dead was very much more demonstrative and elaborate than with us. The time of mourning was for seven days (Ecclesiasticus 22:10), sometimes in special cases for thirty days (Numbers 9:1-29; Deuteronomy 24:8). The presence of sympathizing friends (John 11:19), of hired mourners and minstrels, the solemn meals of the bread and wine of affliction (Jeremiah 16:7; Hosea 9:4), made the scene very impressive. Over against the picture he suggests of lamentation and woe, he sets that of a house of feasting, filled with joyous guests, and he asserts that it is better to go to the former than to the latter. He contradicts the more natural and obvious inclination which we all have to joy rather than to sorrow. But a moment's consideration will convince us that he is in the right, whether we choose the better part or not. Joy at the best is harmless—it relieves an overstrain on the mind or spirit; but when it has passed away it leaves no positive gain behind. Sorrow rightly borne is able to draw the thoughts upward, to purify and transform the soul. Its office is like that attributed to tragedy by Aristotle: "to cleanse the mind from evil passions by pity and terror—pity at the sight of another's misfortune, and terror at the resemblance between the sufferer and ourselves" ('Poetics'). Contradictory of ordinary feelings and opinions though this teaching of Solomon's is, there are three ways in which a visit to the house of mourning is better than to the house of feasting.
I. IT AFFORDS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR SHOWING SYMPATHY WITH THE AFFLICTED. Among our best-spent hours are those in which we have sought to lighten and share the burden of the bereaved and distressed. We may not have been able to open sources of consolation which otherwise would have remained hidden and sealed; but the mere expression of our commiseration may be helpful and soothing. Sometimes we may be able to suggest consolatory thoughts, to impart serviceable advice, or to give needful relief. But in all cases we feel that we have received more than we have given—that in seeking to comfort the sorrowful we come into closer communion with that Savior who came from heaven to earth to bear the burden of sin and suffering, who was a welcome Guest on occasions of innocent festivity (John 2:2; Luke 7:36), but whose presence was still more eagerly desired in the homes of the afflicted.
II. IT ENABLES US TO FORM TRUER ESTIMATES OF LIFE. It gives us a more trustworthy standard of judging the relative importance of those things that engage our attention and employ our faculties. It checks unworthy ambitions, flattering hopes, and sinful desires. We learn to realize that only some of the aims we have cherished have been worthy of us, only some of the pursuits in which we have been engaged are calculated to yield us lasting satisfaction when we come in the light of eternity to review the past of our lives. The sight of blighted hopes admonishes us not to run undue risk of disappointment by neglecting to take into account the transitory and changeful conditions in which we live. The spectacle of great sorrows patiently borne rebukes the fretfulness and impatience which we often manifest under the minor discomforts and troubles which we may be called to endure.
III. IT REMINDS US OF THE POSSIBLE NEARNESS OF OUR OWN END. (Verse 2.) "It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart." Though the brevity of life is a fact with which we are all acquainted from the very first moment when we are able to see and know what is going on about us, it is a fact which it is very difficult for us to realize in our own case. "We think all are mortal but ourselves." No feelings of astonishment are excited in us by the sight of the aged and weakly sinking down into the grave, but we can scarcely believe that we are to follow them. The very aged still lay their plans as though death were far off; the dying can hardly be convinced till perhaps the very last moment that their great change is at hand. But a visit to the house of mourning gives us hard, palpable evidence, which must, though but for an instant, convince us that mortality is a universal law; that in a short time our end will come. The effect of such a thought need not be depressing; it need not poison all our enjoyments and paralyze all our efforts. It should lead us to resolve
(1) to make good use of every moment, since life is so brief; and
(2) to live as they should do who know that they have to give account of themselves to God. A practical benefit is thus to be drawn from even the saddest experiences, for by them "the heart is made better" (verse 3). The foolish will seek out something which he calls enjoyment, in order to deliver his mind from gloomy thoughts; but the short-lived distraction of attention which he secures is not to be compared with the calm wisdom which piety can extract even from sorrow (verse 4). Painful though some of the lessons taught us may be, they wound but to impart a permanent cure; while the mirth which drowns reflection soon passes away, and is succeeded by a deeper gloom (verses 5, 6). One circumstance renders the teaching of this passage all the more impressible, and that is the absence from it of the ascetic spirit. This perhaps is, you will think, a paradoxical statement, when the whole tone of the utterance is of a somber, not to say gloomy, character. But you will notice that the author does not lay a ban upon all pleasure; he does not denounce all innocent enjoyments as wicked. He does not say it is sinful to go to the house of feasting, to indulge in laughter, to sing secular songs. There have been and are those who make these sweeping statements. But he says that a wise, serious-minded man will not find these things satisfying all his desires; that he will, on the contrary, often find it greatly for his advantage to familiarize himself with very different scenes and employments. In other words, there are two sides to life—the temporal and the eternal. The soul, like the head of Janus, looks both on the present, with all its varied and transitory events, and on the future, in which there are so many new and solemn experiences in store for us. The epicurean, the worldling, looks to the present alone; the ascetic looks to the future alone. The wise have true appreciation of them both; know what conduct duty prescribes as appropriate in regard to them both, The examples of Christ and his apostles show us that we may partake both in the business and innocent pleasures of life without being untrue to our higher calling. He, though "holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners," wrought with his own hands, and thus sanctified all honest labor; he graced a marriage-feast with his presence, and supplied by a miracle the means of convivial cheerfulness. The sights and sounds of city and country life, the mirth of happy homes, the splendor of palaces, the pageantry of courts, the sports of children, were not frowned upon by him as in themselves unworthy of attracting the attention of immortal natures; they were employed by him to illustrate eternal truths. And all through the writings and exhortations of his apostles the same spirit is manifest; the same counsel is virtually given to use the present world without abusing it—to receive with thankfulness every good creature of God. And at the same time, no one can deny that great stress is laid. by them also upon the things that are spiritual and eternal; greater even than on the others. For we are in greater risk of forgetting the eternal than of neglecting the temporal. Far too often is it true in the poet's words—
"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."
Therefore it is all the more necessary for startling admonitions like these of Solomon's to be given, which recall us with a jerk to attend to things that concern our higher welfare. The fact that there are dangers against which we must guard, dangers springing not merely from our own sinful perversity, but from the conditions of our lives, the danger especially of being too much taken up with the present, is calculated to arouse us to serious thought and effort. Very much easier would it have been for us if a code of rules for external conduct had been given us, so that at any time we might have made sure about being on the right way; but very much poorer and more barren would the life thus developed have been. We are called, as in this passage before us, to weigh matters carefully; to make our choice of worthy employments; to decide for ourselves when to enjoy that which is earthly and temporal, and when to sacrifice it for the sake of that which is spiritual and eternal. And we may be sure that that goodness which springs from an habitually wise choice is infinitely preferable to the narrow, rigid formalism which results from conformity with a Puritanic rule. It is not a sour, killjoy spirit that should drive us to prefer the house of mourning to the house of feasting; but the sober, intelligent conviction that at times we may find there help to order our lives aright, and have an opportunity of lightening by our sympathy the heavy burden of sorrow which God may see fit to lay upon our brethren.—J.W.
Patience under provocation.
In these words our author seems to commend the virtues of patience and contentment in trying circumstances, by pointing out that certain evils against which we may chafe bring their own punishment, and so in a measure work their own cure, that others spring from or are largely aggravated by faults in our own temperament, and that others exist to a very great extent in our own imagination rather than in actual fact. And accordingly the sequence of thought in the chapter is perfectly clear. We have here, too, some "compensations of misery," as in Esther 7:2-6. The enumeration of the various kinds of evil that provoke our dissatisfaction supplies us with a convenient division of the passage.
I. EVILS THAT BRING THEIR OWN PUNISHMENT AND WORK THEIR OWN CURE. "Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; and a gift destroyeth the heart. Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof" (Esther 7:7, Esther 7:8). It is the oppressor and not the oppressed who is driven mad. The unjust use of power demoralizes its possessor, deprives him of his wisdom, and drives him into actions of the grossest folly. The receiver of bribes, i.e. the judge who allows gifts to warp his judgments, loses the power of moral discernment, and becomes utterly disqualified for discharging his sacred functions. And this view of the meaning of the words makes them an echo of those passages in the Law of Moses which prescribe the duties of magistrates and rulers. "Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons, neither shalt thou take a gift: for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous" (Deuteronomy 16:19; cf. Exodus 23:8). The firm conviction which any extended experience of life is sure to confirm abundantly, that such moral perverseness as is implied in the exercise of tyranny, in extortion and bribery, brings with it its own punishment, is calculated to inspire patience under the endurance of even very gross wrongs. The tyrant may excite an indignation and detestation that will lead to his own destruction; the clamor against an unjust judge may become so great as to necessitate his removal from office, even if the government that employs him be ordinarily very indifferent to moral considerations. In any case, "the man who can quietly endure oppression is sure to come off best in the end" (cf. Matthew 5:38-41).
II. EVILS THAT SPRING LARGELY FROM OUR OWN TEMPERAMENT. "The patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools" (Esther 7:8, Esther 7:9). That the disposition here reprobated is a very general and fruitful source of misery cannot be doubted. The proud spirit that refuses to submit to wrongs, either real or fancied, that is on the outlook for offence, that strives to redress on the instant the injury received, is rarely long without cause of irritation. If unprovoked by real and serious evils, it will find abundant material for disquietude in the minor crosses and irritations of daily life. While the patient spirit, that schools itself to submission, and yet waits in hope that in the providence of God the cause of pain and provocation will be removed, enjoys peace even in very trying circumstances. It is not that our author commends insensibility of feeling, and deprecates the sensitiveness of a generous nature, which is swift to resent cruelty and injustice. It is rather the ill-advised and morbid state of mind in which there is an unhealthy sensitiveness to affronts and a fruitless chafing against them that he reproves. That anger is in some circumstances a lawful passion no reasonable person can deny; but the Preacher points out two forms of it that are in themselves evil. The first is when anger is "hasty," not calm and deliberate, as the lawful expression of moral indignation, but the outcome of wounded self-love; and the second when it is detained too long, when it "rests" in the besom. As a momentary, instinctive feeling excited by the sight of wickedness, it is lawful; but when it has a home in the heart it changes its character, and becomes malignant hatred or settled scornfulness. "Be ye angry, and sin not," says St. Paul; "let not the sun go down upon your wrath" (Ephesians 4:26, Ephesians 4:27). "Wherefore, my beloved brethren," says St. James, "let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God" (James 1:19, James 1:20).
III. EVILS THAT ARE LARGELY IMAGINARY. "Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this" (verse 10). Discontentment with the present time and conditions is reproved in these words. It is often a weakness of age, as Horace has described it—
"Difficilis, querulus, laudator temporis acti
Se puero, censor castigatorque minorum."
But it is not by any means confined to the old. There are many who cast longing glances back upon the past, and think with admiration of the age of heroes or of the age of faith, in comparison with which the present is ignoble and worthless. It would be a somewhat harmless folly if it did not lead, as it generally does, to apathetic discontent with the present and despondency concerning the future. "Every age has its peculiar difficulties, and a man inclined to take a dark view of things will always be able to compare unfavorably the present with the past. But a readiness to make comparisons of that kind is no sign of real wisdom. There is light as well as darkness in every age. The young men that shouted for joy at the rebuilding of the temple acted more wisely than the old men who wept with a loud voice" (Ezra 3:12, Ezra 3:13). And the question may still be asked—Were the old times really better than the present? Is it not a delusion to imagine they were? Are not we the heirs of the ages, to whom the experience of the past and all its attainments in knowledge and all its bright examples of virtue have descended as an endowment and an inspiration? The disposition, therefore, that makes the best of things as they are, instead of grumbling that they are not better, that bears patiently even with very great annoyances, and that is characterized by self-control, is sure to escape a great deal of the misery which falls to the lot of a passionate, irritable, and discontented man (cf. Psalms 37:1-40.).—J.W.
Verses 11, 12
Wisdom and riches.
The precise meaning of verse 11 is rather difficult to catch. The Hebrew words can be translated either as, "Wisdom is good with an inheritance" (Authorized Version), or, "Wisdom is good as an inheritance" (Revised Version); and it is instructive to notice that the earlier English version has in the margin the translation which the Revisers have put in the text, and that the Revisers have put in the margin the earlier rendering, as possibly correct. Both companies of translators are equally in doubt in the matter. It is a case, therefore, in which one must use one's individual judgment, and decide as to which rendering is to be preferred from the general sense of the whole passage. Our author, then, is speaking of two things which are profitable in life—"for them that see the sun" (verse 11)—wisdom and riches; and as he gives the preference to the former in verse 12—"the excellency of knowledge is that wisdom preserveth the life of him that hath it"—we are inclined to think that that is his view all through. And, therefore, though in themselves the translations given of the first clause in the passage are about equally balanced, this consideration is in our opinion weighty enough to turn the scale in favor of that in the Revised Version. Two things, therefore, there are which in different ways provide means of security against some of the ills of life, which afford some "compensation for the misery" of our condition—wisdom and riches. By wisdom a man may to some extent forecast the future, anticipate the coming storm, and take measures for shielding himself against some or all of the evils it brings in its train. Like the unjust steward who acted "wisely," he can win friends who will receive him in the hour of need. By riches, too, he can stave off many of the hardships which the poor man is compelled to endure; he can secure many benefits which will alleviate the sufferings he cannot avert. But of the two wisdom is the more excellent; "it giveth life" (or "bestoweth life," Revised Version) "to them that have it." "It can quicken a life within; it can give salt and savor to that which wealth may only deaden and make insipid" (Bradley). And surely by "wisdom" here we are not to understand mere prudence, but rather that Heaven-born faculty, that control of man's spirit by a higher power, which leads him to make the fear of God the guide of his conduct. And in order to understand wherein it consists, and what are the benefits it secures, we may identify the quality here praised with "that wisdom that cometh from above," which all through the Word of God is described as the source of all excellence, the fountain of all happiness (Proverbs 3:13-18; Proverbs 4:13; Proverbs 8:32-36; John 6:63; John 17:3; 2 Corinthians 3:6).—J.W.
Verses 13, 14
Resignation to Providence.
Already in the tenth verse the Preacher has counseled his readers not to chafe against the conditions in which they find themselves. "Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these?" It is part of the true wisdom which he has praised "to consider the work of God," to accept the outward events of life, and believe that, whether they be pleasant or the contrary, they are determined by a will or power which we cannot control or change. It is wise to submit. The crooked we cannot make straight (Ecclesiastes 1:15); the cross which is laid upon us we cannot shake off, and had best bear without repining (cf. Job 8:3; Job 34:12; Psalms 146:9). A mingled draught is in the cup of life—prosperity and adversity, the sweet and the bitter. Remember that it is commended to your lips by a higher hand, which it is folly to resist; accept the portion which may be assigned to you. In the time of prosperity be in good spirits (verse 14), let not forebodings of future evil damp the present enjoyment; in the time of adversity consider that it is God who has appointed the evil day as well as the good. The thought is the same as that in the Book of Job, "What? shall we receive good at the hands of God, and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10). The reason why both good and evil are appointed us is given by the Preacher, though his words are somewhat obscure: "God also hath even made the one side by side with the other, to the end that man should not find out anything that shall be after him" (verse 14b, Revised Version). The obscurity is in the thought rather than in the phrases used. The commonest explanation of the words is that they simply assert that to know the future is forbidden us. But the phrase, "after him," is always used to mean that which follows upon the present world (Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 6:12; Job 21:21). Hitzig explains the words as implying, "that because God wills it that man shall be rid of all things after his death, he puts evil into the period of his life, and lets it alternate with good, instead of visiting him therewith after his death,' This explanation would make the passage equivalent to, Idcirco ut non inveniat homo post se quidquam, sell. quod non expertus est. But probably the best explanation of these words is that given by Delitzsch, who accepts this of Hitzig's with some modification: "What is meant is much rather this, that God causes man to experience good and evil, that he may pass through the whole school of life, and when he departs hence that nothing may be outstanding which he has not experienced." This interpretation of the various events of life, joyous and somber, as forming a complete disciplinary course, through which it is an advantage for us to pass, is the most worthy of the explanations of the words that they have received. And if we accept it as truly representing the author's thoughts, we may say that our author's researches were not so fruitless as he himself seems sometimes to assert. This recognition of a Divine purpose running through all the events of life is calculated to sanctify our enjoyment of the blessings we receive, and to comfort and sustain us in the day of sorrow and adversity.—J.W.
Righteousness and wickedness.
This section is one of the most difficult in the whole Book of Ecclesiastes, though there are no various readings in it to perplex us, and no difficulty in translating it. Neither the Authorized Version nor the Revised Version has alternative renderings of any part of it in the margin. The difficulty lies in the uncertainty in which we are as to the writer's standpoint in making out what form of religious life or what phase of thought or conduct he refers to when he says, "Be not righteous overmuch." It is equally humiliating to attempt to explain his words away—to read into them a higher meaning than they evidently bear, or to confess regretfully that we have here a cynical and low-toned depreciation of that which is in itself holy and good. Both courses have been followed by commentators, and both do dishonor to the sacred text.
I. In the first place, the Preacher states in plain terms THE GREAT AND PERPLEXING PROBLEM WHICH SO OFTEN TROUBLED THE HEBREW MIND—that of the adversity of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked. In his experience of life, in the days of his vanity, in the course or' his troubled pilgrimage, he had seen this sight: "There is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness"—in spite of his righteousness; "and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness"—in spite of his wickedness (verse 15). It is the same problem of which varying solutions are attempted in the Book of Job and in the thirty-seventh and seventy-third psalms. The old theory, that the good find their reward and the wicked their punishment in this life, was not borne out by his experience, tie had seen it violated so often that he could not hold it as even an approximate statement of the facts of the ease. What, then, is his inference from his own experience? Does he say, "Cleave to righteousness in spite of the misfortunes which often attend it?" or, "Believe that somehow and somewhere the apparent inequalities of the present will ultimately be redressed, and both righteousness and wickedness will meet with the rewards and punishments they merit"? No; whether he might acquiesce in one or other of these inferences or not, we cannot tell. Other thoughts are in his mind. A third inference he draws, which would not naturally have occurred to us, but which is as legitimate as ours.
II. FROM HIS EXPERIENCE HE DEDUCES THE LESSON; "Be not righteous overmuch; neither make thyself overwise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself? Be not overmuch wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?" Neither the righteous nor the wicked being able to count upon reward for goodness or punishment for evil in this life as certain, both are exposed to certain risks—the one is tempted to adopt an exaggerated and feverish form of religious life, the other to enter on a course of unbridled wickedness. That there is a tendency to exaggeration in matters of religion is abundantly proved by the history of asceticism, which has made its appearance in every religion, true or spurious. The ascetic is the man who is "righteous overmuch." He denies himself all pleasures through the fear of sin; he separates himself, not merely from vicious indulgences, but from occupations and amusements which he admits are innocent enough and lawful enough for those who have not, the end in view he has set before himself. He is not content with the good works commanded by the Law of God; he must have his works of supererogation. The Pharisee in the parable (Luke 18:9-14) is a typical person of this class. He claimed merit for going beyond the requirements of the Law. Moses appointed but one fast-day in the year, the great Day of Atonement; he boasted that he fasted twice in the week. The Law commanded only to tithe the fruits of the fiend and increase of the cattle; but he no doubt tithed mint and cummin, all that came into his possession, down to the veriest trifles. And the aim is in all cases the same—the accumulation of a store of merit which will compel a reward if God is not to show himself unjust; an attempt to force from his hand a benediction which others cannot claim who have not adopted the same course. The folly and impiety of such conduct must be apparent to any well-balanced mind. The blessing of Heaven is not to be extorted by any attempt we may make; it may, so far at any rate as outward appearances go, be bestowed capriciously: "The just man may perish in his righteousness, the wicked man may prolong his life in his wickedness." On the other hand, the fact that punishment for sin is not inevitably and invariably visited immediately upon the evil-doer is undoubtedly the source of danger to those who are inclined to vice. The fact that justice is slow and lame tempts the sinner to an unbridled course of evil; it removes one great restraint upon his conduct. He trusts to the lightness of his heels to escape from punishment until he runs into the arms of death. Some have been as shocked at the counsel, "Be not overmuch wicked," as at that "Be not righteous overmuch," as though the writer allowed that a certain moderate degree of wickedness were permissible. They should, if they are logical, be equally horrified at the admonition of St. James, "Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness" (James 1:21). It is in both cases a prohibition of a headlong pursuit of sin, without regard to the fearful consequences it entails. The Preacher has in view the consequences in the present life of being "righteous overmuch." The result in both instances is pretty much the same. To the one he says, "Why shouldest thou destroy thyself?"—to the other, "Why shouldest thou die before thy time?" Both classes lose the pleasure of living, the bright, innocent joys which spring from a grateful acceptance and temperate use of the blessings which God bestows upon men. The ascetic who makes it his aim to torture himself to the very limit of human endurance, and the debauchee who gives himself up to self-indulgence without restraint, each receive, though in different ways, the penalty due for violating the conditions of life in which God has set us. Another warning is given in the same passage against intellectual errors. "Neither make thyself overwise; neither be thou foolish." Wisdom, too, has limits within which it should be confined. There is a region of the unknowable into which it is presumptuous for it to attempt to intrude. "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."
III. The Preacher, in conclusion, points out that A MIDDLE COURSE IS THAT OF DUTY AND OF SAFETY. There are dangers on the right hand and on the left, of over-rigorous austerity and of undue laxity. But the God-fearing are able to walk in the narrow path, and emerge at last unscathed from all the temptations with which life is surrounded. "It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from that withdraw not thine hand, for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all." The words "this" and. "that" refer to the two different precepts he has given. "Lay thine hand it is good to do so," he says, "on the one precept, 'Be not righteous overmuch; 'but do not lose sight of the other, 'Be not overmuch wicked.' I; is he that feareth God that shall steer his way between both."
Without, therefore, distorting the words of the Preacher to give them a more spiritual meaning or higher tone than they actually possess, we find in them teaching which is worthy of him and of the Word of God. It is remarkable indeed, how, even in his most desponding moods, the fear of God bulks largely in his thoughts as incumbent on men, and as opening up the path of duty, however much else remains dark and unknown. "In his coldest, grayest hour this sense of the fear of God still smolders, as it were, within his soul; not, indeed, the quickening love of God, but something that inspires reverence; something that saves him from utter shipwreck amidst the crossing and. eddying currents of the sunless sea of hopeless pessimism" (Bradley).—J.W.
Wisdom a protection.
The connection between these words and those that precede them seems somewhat loose. But the Preacher has just been speaking of "the fear of God," and some one of those passages of Scripture, which assert that in it is true wisdom (Proverbs 1:7; Psalms 111:10; Job 28:28), may have been in his mind. He now speaks of the protection and strength which wisdom gives, and of the sort of conduct becoming those who possess it (verse 19). "Wisdom strengtheneth the wise man more than ten mighty men which are in the city." Why ten mighty men are spoken of is a question difficult to answer. It may be that "ten" is meant to suggest "a full number" (cf. Genesis 31:7; Job 19:3), or perhaps we have here an allusion to some political or other arrangements of the time now unknown to us. But the evident meaning of the verse is that the wisdom that fears God is better than material force, that in it there is a ground of confidence better than weapons of war (cf. Proverbs 24:5, "A wise man is strong"). In the words that follow we have man's fallibility strongly insisted on in words quoted from the prayer of Solomon at the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8:46), "For there is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not," and the inference seems to be that "the wisest at times commit mistakes, but their wisdom enables them to get the better of their mistakes, and protects them against the evil consequences which happen in such cases to the unwise." This thought leads on to the teaching of verses 21, 22. The wise man who remembers his own mistakes and offences will judge leniently of others, and not punish them as offenders for their occasional hasty words. Indifference to idle praise or idle blame becomes the possessor of true wisdom. For him, to use St. Paul's words, "It is a very small thing to be judged of man's judgment" (1 Corinthians 4:3). An idle curiosity to know what others think of us or say of us is the source of constant mortification. We expect praise, and forget that others are as frivolous and hasty in their criticism of us as we have been in our criticism of them. The servant who waits on us, and from whom we expect special reverence, would probably, if we could hear him without his knowledge, say much about us that would surprise and mortify us. Let us therefore not be too eager to hear our character analyzed and discussed.
"Where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise."
Some excuse may be found for the motto of the old Scottish family which expresses this indifference to the opinion of others in the most pointed form: "They say. What say they? Let them say."—J.W.
The limitations of human knowledge are nowhere more plainly indicated than in the opening verse of the present section. The Preacher points out that after his utmost endeavors to obtain wisdom with the view of solving the perplexing questions connected with mankind, their actions and their relation to God, he found all such knowledge to be far beyond mortal ken (Wright). "For that which is," that which exists, the world of things in its essence and with its causes, "is far off," far removed from the sight of man, "and it is deep, deep; who can discover it?" (verses 23, 24). Essential wisdom appeared to him as to Job (28.), quite out of reach. But all his efforts after it had not been in vain. In the course of his researches he had discovered some truth of great value. Though the problems of the universe proved to be insoluble, some lessons had been learned of practical value in the conduct of life. Some rules for present guidance he had discovered, though much remained hidden from him. So is it in every age. The sagest philosophers, the profoundest thinkers, are baffled in their endeavors to explain the mysteries of life, but are able to lay down rules for present conduct which approve themselves to the consciences of all. And happy is it for us that it should be so; that while clouds hang over many regions into which the intellect of man would fain penetrate, the way of duty is plain for all. One great truth he learned, that wickedness was folly, that foolishness was madness, that men who lived in the pursuit of folly were beside themselves and were mad (verse 25). This thought is very closely akin to the teaching of the Stoics, that the wickedness of men is a kind of mental aberration, and that knowledge is but another name for righteousness. One great source of wickedness he introduces in verse 26—the fatal fascination of so many by scheming and voluptuous women. The picture he draws is like those in Proverbs 2:1-22. and 7; and, but for the more sweeping condemnation in the verses that follow, might be thought to express reprobation of a certain degraded class rather than a cynical estimate of the whole of womankind. One man, he says, he had found among a thousand, one only what a man ought to be; but not one woman among the same number who corresponded to the ideal of womanhood, who reminded him of the innocence and goodness of Eve as God created her (verse 29). The race, both men and women, had been created upright, but had become almost utterly corrupt by the devices they had invented by which to gratify their inclinations toward evil. What are we to make of his words? Is the case really as bad as be represents it? The answer to the question is not far to seek. The Preacher is recording his own experience, and if we take his words as a truthful report, we can only say that he was specially unfortunate in his experience. There is no doubt that in some countries and in some ages of the world, corruption is very widespread and deep, and in the land and time in which our author lived matters may have been as bad as he represents them. But the experience of a single life does not afford sufficient ground for broad generalizations concerning human nature. The words may be an expression of that terrible feeling of satiety and loathing which is the curse following upon gross sensuality such as that of the historical Solomon, with his three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines. No sensible person would take the moralizings of the satiated debauchee without very considerable deductions. Those of a chaste, temperate, God-fearing man are much more likely to hit the truth. We may grant that search had been made, and not one woman among the thousand whose dispositions and characters had been passed in review approved herself worthy of praise as like what a true woman should be, and still doubt whether the thousand were fair representatives of their sex. Did he search in the right quarter? or were the women the population of his seraglio? If they were, we cannot wonder that, in an institution which is itself an outrage upon human nature, all its inhabitants were found corrupt. For a very different estimate of the female character as exemplified in some of its representatives, we have only to read the praises of the Shulamite in the Song of Songs, and of the virtuous women described in Proverbs 5:18, Proverbs 5:19; Proverbs 31:10-31. And Scripture itself is rich in the histories of good women. There are those of patriarchal times whose tender grace gives such an idyllic charm to so many incidents of that early age. The names of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel call up ideas of purity, innocence, piety, and steadfast love, as a rich inheritance they have left to the race. Miriam, Hannah, Ruth, and Esther, too, suggest a world of goodness and holiness which was quite unknown to the experience of the writer of these dark and somber words in Ecclesiastes. Then in the New Testament we have the luminous figures of the Virgin-mother, the Prophetess Anna, the devout women who ministered to Christ and stood by his cross, and were early in the morning at his sepulcher, and were the first to believe in him as their risen Lord. There are those in the long list recorded in the Epistles of St. Paul, who were zealous fellow-laborers with him in all good works, who, by their deeds of hospitality, their kindly ministrations to the poor and sick and. bereaved, reproved the wickedness of the world in which they lived, and gave promise of the rich harvest of goodness which would spring from the holy teaching and example of the Redeemer. And in no Christian country have abundant examples been wanting of the pure and devoted love by which mothers and wives and sisters have enriched and blessed the lives of those connected with them, and redeemed their sex from the stigma cast upon it by gross-minded and corrupt men. No persecutions have ever wasted any section of the Christian Church without finding among women as true and steadfast witnesses for the cause of Christ as among men.
"A noble army—men and boys,
The matron and the maid,
Around the Savior's throne rejoice,
In robes of light array'd.
They climb'd the steep ascent of heaven
Through peril, toil, and pain;
O God, to us may grace be given
To follow in their train!"
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 7". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13