Meditations on the Book of Ecclesiastes
F. C. JENNINGS,
PICKERING & INGLIS, PRINTERS & PUBLISHERS,
The Publishing Office, 73 Bothwell Street.
S. BAGSTER & SONS, LTD., 15 Paternoster Row, E.C
The chief object of a word of preface to the following notes is that the reader may not expect from them more, or other, than is intended. They are the result of meditations—not so much of a critical as a devotional character—on the book, in the regular course of private morning readings of the Scriptures—meditations which were jotted down at the time, and the refreshment and blessing derived from which, I desired to share with my fellow-believers. Some salient point of each chapter has been taken and used as illustrative of what is conceived as the purpose of the book. As month by month passed, however, the subject opened up to such a degree that at the end, one felt as if there were a distinct need entirely to re-write the earlier chapters. It is, however, sent forth in the same shape as originally written; the reader then may accompany the writer, and share with him the delight at the ever-new beauties in the landscape that each turn of the road, as it were, unexpectedly laid out before him.
There is one point, however, that it may be well to look at here a little more closely and carefully than has been done in the body of the book, both on account of its importance and of the strong attack that the ecclesiastical infidelity of the day has made upon it: I refer to its authorship.
To commence with the strongest position of the attack on the Solomon authorship—necessarily the strongest, for it is directly in the field of verbal criticism—it is argued that because a large number of words are found in this book, found elsewhere alone in the post-exilian writers, (as Daniel or Nehemiah,) therefore the author of the book must surely be post-exilian too. It would be unedifying, and is happily unnecessary, to review this in detail—with a literature so very limited as are the Hebrew writings cotemporary with Solomon: these few, dealing with other subjects, other ideas, necessitating therefore another character of words, it takes no scholar to see that any argument derived from this must necessarily be taken with the greatest caution. Nay, like all arguments of infidelity, it is a sword easily turned against the user. As surely as the valleys lie hid in shadow long after the mountain-tops are shining in the morning sun, so surely must we expect evidences of so elevated a personality as the wise king of Israel, to show a fuller acquaintance with the language of his neighbors; and employ, when they best suited him, words from such vocabularies—words which would not come into general use for many a long day; indeed until sorrow, captivity, and shame, had done the same work for the mass, under the chastening Hand of God, as abundant natural gifts had done for our wise and glorious author.
Thus the argument of Zoeckler—"the numerous Aramaisms (words of Syriac origin) in the book are among the surest signs of its post-exile origin"—is really turned against himself. Were such Aramaisms altogether lacking, we might well question whether the writer were indeed that widely-read, eminently literary, gloriously intellectual individual of whom it is said, "his wisdom excelled the children of the East country and all the wisdom of Egypt, for he was wiser than all men." Surely, that Solomon shows he was acquainted with words other than his own Hebrew, and made use of such words when they best suited his purpose, is only what common-sense would naturally look for. There is no proof whatever that the words themselves were of late date. Christian scholars have examined them one by one as carefully, and certainly at least as conscientiously, as their opponents; and show us, in result, that the words, although not familiar in the Hebrew vernacular, were in widely-current use either in the neighboring Persian or in that family of languages—Syriac and Chaldaic—of which Hebrew was but a member.
The verdict of impartiality must certainly be "not proven," if indeed it be not stronger than that, to the attempt to deny to Solomon the authorship of Ecclesiastes based on the words used.
The next method of argument is one in which we shall feel ourselves more at home, inasmuch as it is not so much a question of scholarship, but ordinary intelligent discernment. Time and space forbid that I attempt here a full or detailed exhibit of the sentences, thoughts, ideas in the book itself which are taken as being quite impossible to King Solomon. I will, however, attempt to give a representative few that may stand for all. In the body of the book I have touched, in passing, on the argument deduced from the words in the first chapter, "I was king;" so need only to ask my readers' attention to it there.
That "he says of himself that he was wiser and richer than all before him in Jerusalem points, under enlightened exposition, clearly to an author different to the historical Solomon." Indeed! If my readers can appreciate the force of such an argument, they do more than can I. That the writer should seek that his words should have the full force, his experiences have the full weight that could only attach to one in every way gifted to test all things to their uttermost, is taken as clear proof, "under unbiased exposition," that the only one who was exactly thus gifted was not the author! The claim to freedom from bias is in almost ludicrous harmony with such reasoning.
Again, "that also which is said—chap. vii. 10—of the depravity of the times accords little with the age of Solomon, the most brilliant and prosperous of Israelitish history." Another lovely example of rationalistic "freedom from bias"! For what is this that is said of the "depravity of the times" so inconsistent with the glory of Solomon's reign in chap. vii. 10? "Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? For thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this." And this is proof of the "depravity of the times"!—not proof, mark, of just that very thing that is the heart and soul of the book: the weary, unsatisfied, empty heart of poor man looking backward or forward for the satisfaction that the present always fails to give "under the sun," and which he, who was wiser than all who came before him, Solomon, warns his readers against! Oh, poor blind rationalism! missing all the beauties of God's Word in its own exceeding cleverness, or—folly! How would the present application of such reasoning sound! The Victorian era is certainly one of the most "brilliant and prosperous of" English "history"; hence no one can ever speak now of "the good old times." Such language is simply impossible; we never hear it! So if some astute reasoner of the future comes across such allusion in any writings, it will be clear proof that the author was post-Victorian! Far more so if, as here, such writer rebukes this tendency!
"Altogether unkingly sound the complaints in chap. iii. 17 ('I said in my heart God shall judge the righteous and the wicked; for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work'); iv.; x. 5-7 (let my reader refer for himself to these), concerning unjust judges," etc. "These are all lamentations and complaints natural enough in a suffering and oppressed subject; but not in a monarch called and authorized to abolish evil." It is most difficult to deal seriously with what, if the writer were not so very learned, we should call nonsense unworthy of a child. Look at the verse to which he refers, and which I have quoted in full; and extract from it, if your "biased" judgment will permit, an "unkingly complaint" in any word of it! And it is at such formidable arguments as this that some of us have been trembling, fearing lest the very foundations must give way under the attack! A little familiarity is all that is needed to beget a wholesome contempt.
Here is one more interesting illustration of the "unbiased," "scientific" reasoning of rationalism. The object is, you know, to "determine exactly the epoch and writer of the book;" and this is how it must be done. "According to chaps, v. 1, and ix. 2, the temple worship was assiduously practised, but without a living piety of heart, and in a hypocritical and self-justifying manner; the complaints in this regard remind us vividly of similar ones of the prophet Malachi—chap. i. 6, etc." What then is the basis for all this verbiage about the temple worship? Here it is: "Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil." This sentence shows that it is impossible that Solomon wrote the book: there were no "fools" in his time, who were more ready to give a careless sacrifice than to hearken: all fools only come into existence after the exile, in the days of Malachi! And this is "higher criticism"!
Enough as to this line. We will now ask our learned friends, since Solomon has been so conclusively proved not to have written it, Who did? And when was it written? Ah, now we may listen to a very medley of answers!—for opinions here are almost as numerous as the critics themselves. United in the one assurance that Solomon could not have written it, they are united in nothing else. One is assured it was Hezekiah, another is confident it was Zerubbabel, a third is convinced it was Jesus the son of Joiada—and so on. "All opinions," as Dr. Lewis says, "are held with equal confidence, and yet in every way are opposed to each other. Once set it loose from the Solomon time, and there is no other place where it can be securely anchored."
This brings us then to the positive assertion that from the evident purpose of the book, the divine purpose, no other than Solomon could be its author. He must be of a nation taken out of the darkness and abominations of heathendom;—there was only one such nation,—he must then be an Israelite. He must live at an epoch when that nation is at the summit of its prosperity;—it never regained that epoch,—he must then have lived when Solomon lived. He must, in his own person, by his riches, honor, wisdom, learning, freedom from external political fears, perfect capacity to drink of whatever cup this world can put into his hand to the full—represent the very top-stone of that glorious time; and not one amongst all the sons of men answers to all this but Solomon the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
To Him who is "greater than Solomon"—to Him who is "above the sun"—to Him whom it is the divine purpose of the book to highly exalt above all—would I commit this feeblest effort to show that purpose, and, as His condescending grace permits, further it. F. C. J.
OLD GROANS AND NEW SONGS;
MEDITATIONS ON ECCLESIASTES.
Perhaps there is no book within the whole canon of Scripture so perplexing and anomalous, at first sight, as that entitled "Ecclesiastes." Its terrible hopelessness, its bold expression of those difficulties with which man is surrounded on every side, the apparent fruitlessness of its quest after good, the unsatisfactory character, from a Christian standpoint, of its conclusion: all these points have made it, at one and the same time, an enigma to the superficial student of the Word, and the arsenal whence a far more superficial infidelity has sought to draw weapons for its warfare against clear revelation. And yet here it is, embedded in the very heart of those Scriptures which we are told were "given by inspiration of God, and which are profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." Then with this precious assurance of its "profitableness" deeply fixed in our hearts by a living faith, and in absolute dependence on that blessed One who is the one perfect Teacher, let us consider the book.
First, then, let us seek to get all the light we can from all the exterior marks it bears before seeking to interpret its contents. For our primary care with regard to this, as indeed with regard to every book in the Bible, must be to discover, if possible, what is the object of the book,—from what standpoint does the writer approach his subject.
And first we find it in that group of books through which the voice of man is prominent—Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Canticles. In these is heard the music of man's soul; often—nay, mostly—giving sorrowful and striking evidence of discord, in wail and groan, in tear and sigh; and yet again, in response evidently to the touch of some Master hand, that knows it well,—a tender, gracious, compassionate touch,—rising into a song of sweetest harmony that speaks eloquently of its possibilities, and bears along on its chords the promise and hope of a complete restoration. But we shall search our book in vain for any such expression of joy. No song brightens its pages; no praise is heard amid its exercises. And yet perfectly assured we may be that, listened to aright, it shall speak forth the praise of God's beloved Son; looked at in a right light, it shall set off His beauty. If "He turns the wrath of man to praise Him," surely we may expect no less from man's sorrows and ignorance. This, then, we may take it, is the object of the book, to show forth by its dark background the glory of the Lord, to bring into glorious relief against the black cloud of man's need and ignorance the bright light of a perfect, holy, revelation; to let man tell out, in the person of his greatest and wisest, when he, too, is at the summit of his greatness, with the full advantage of his matured wisdom, the solemn questions of his inmost being; and show that greatness to be of no avail in solving them,—that wisdom foiled in the search for their answers.
This, then, we will conclude, is the purpose of the book and the standpoint from which the writer speaks, and we shall find its contents confirm this in every particular.
It has been well said that as regards each book in holy writ the "key hangs by the door,"—that is, that the first few sentences will give the gist of the whole. And, indeed, pre-eminently is such the case here. The first verse gives us who the writer is; the second, the beginning and ending of his search. And therein lies the key of the whole; for the writer is the son of David, the man exalted by Jehovah to highest earthly glory. Through rejection and flight, through battle and conflict, had the Lord brought David to this excellence of glory and power. All this his "son" entered into in its perfection and at once. For it is that one of his sons who speaks who is king, and in Jerusalem, the city of God's choice, the beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth. Such is the story of verse 1. Nothing could possibly go beyond the glory that is compassed by these few words. For consider them, and you will see that they ascribe "wisdom, and honor, and riches, and power" to him of whom they are spoken; but it is human wisdom and earthly power, all "under the sun." And now listen to the "song" that should surely accompany this ascription; note the joy of a heart fully and completely satisfied now that the pinnacle of human greatness is attained. Here it is: "Vanity of vanities," saith the Preacher, "vanity of vanities; all is vanity!" The word hahvehl is always translated, as here, "vanity." It is sometimes applied to "idols," as Deut. xxxii. 21, and would give the idea of emptiness—nothingness. What a striking contrast! Man has here all that Nature can possibly give; and his poor heart, far from singing, is empty still, and utters its sad bitter groan of disappointment. Now turn and contemplate that other scene, where the true Son of David, only now a "Lamb as it had been slain," is the center of every circle, the object of every heart. Tears are dried at the mention of His name, and song after song bursts forth, till the whole universe of bliss pours forth its joy, relieves its surcharged heart in praise. "Vanity of vanities," saith the Preacher. That is the old groan. "Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof, for Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed to God by Thy blood, out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation, and hast made them kings and priests, and they shall reign over the earth." That is the new song. Oh, blessed contrast! Does it not make Him who Himself has replaced the groan by the song precious? Has it, then, no value?
And this is just the purpose of the whole book, to furnish such striking contrasts whereby the "new" is set off in its glories against the dark background of the "old,"—rest against labor, hope against despair, song against groan; and so the third verse puts this very explicitly,—"What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?"
The wisest and the greatest of men is seeking for an answer to this question. And this verse is too important in its bearing on the whole book to permit our passing it without looking at that significant word "profit" a little closer. And here one feels the advantage of those helps that a gracious God has put into our hands in these days of special attack upon His revelation, whereby even the unlearned may, by a little diligence, arrive at the exact shade of the meaning of a word. The word "profit," then, is, in the Hebrew, yithrohn, and is found in this exact form only in this book, where it is translated "profit," as here, or "excellency," as in chap. ii. 13. The Septuagint translates it into a Greek one, meaning "advantage," or perhaps more literally, "that which remains over and above." In Eph. iii. 20 it is rendered "exceeding abundantly above." Hence we gather that our word intends to convey to us the question, "After life is over, after man has given his labor, his time, his powers, and his talents, what has he received in exchange that shall satisfy him for all that he has lost? Do the pleasures obtained during life fully compensate for what is spent in obtaining them? Do they satisfy? and do they remain to him as "profit" over and above that expenditure? In a word, what "under the sun" can satisfy the longing, thirsting, hungering heart of man, so that he can say, "My heart is filled to overflowing, its restless longings are stilled, I have found a food that satisfies its hunger, a water that quenches its thirst"? A question all-important, surely, and it will be well worth listening to the experience of this seeker, who is fitted far above his fellows for finding this satisfactory good, if it can be found "under the sun."
First, then, the Preacher, like a good workman, takes account of what material he has to work with. "Have I," he says, "any thing that others have not had, or can I hope to find any thing that has not been before?" At once he is struck with that "law of circuit" that is stamped on every thing: generation follows generation; but no new earth, that remains ever the same; the sun wheels ceaselessly in its one course; the winds circle from point to point, but whirl about to their starting-place; the waters, too, follow the same law, and keep up one unbroken circuit. Where can rest be found in such a scene? Whilst there is unceasing change, nothing is new; it is but a repetition of what has been before, and which again soon passes, leaving the heart empty and hungry still. Again, then, let us use this dark background to throw forward another scene. See, even now, "above the sun" Him who is the Head and perfect Exponent of the creation called the new. Is there any law of constant unsatisfying circuit in Him? Nay, indeed, every sight we get of Him is new; each revelation of Himself perfectly satisfies, and yet awakens appetite for further views.
"No pause, no change those pleasures Shall ever seek to know; The draught that lulls our thirsting But wakes that thirst anew."
Or, again, look at that blessed "law of circuit" spoken of in another way by one who has indeed been enlightened by a light "above the sun" in every sense of the word, in 2 Cor. ix. It is not the circling of winds or waters, but of "grace" direct from the blessed God Himself. Mark the perfection stamped upon it both by its being a complete circle—never ending, but returning again to its Source,—and by the numerical stamp of perfection upon it in its seven distinct parts (or movements) as shown by the sevenfold recurrence of the word "all," or "every," both coming from the same Greek word.
1. "God is able to make all grace abound unto you." There is an inexhaustible source. We may come and come and come again, and never find that fountain lowered by all our drafts upon it. Sooner, far sooner, should the ocean be emptied by a teacup than infinite "power" and "love" be impoverished by all that His saints could draw from Him. All grace.
2. "That ye always." There is no moment when this circle of blessing need stop flowing. It is ever available. No moment—by day or night, in the quiet of the closet or in the activities of the day's duties, when in communion with friends or in the company of foes,—when that grace is not available. At all times.
3. "Having all sufficiency"—perfect competence to meet just the present emergency. A sufficiency, let us mark, absolutely independent of Nature's resources,—a sufficiency beautifully illustrated by "unlearned and ignorant" Peter and John in the presence of the learned Sanhedrim. Let us rejoice and praise God as we trace these three glorious links in this endless chain of blessing. All sufficiency.
4. "In all things" (or "in every way"). It is no matter from what side the demand may come, this precious grace is there to meet it. Is it to deal with another troubled anxious soul, where human wisdom avails nothing? Divine wisdom and tact shall be supplied. Courage if danger presents itself, or "all long-suffering with joyfulness" if afflictions tear the heart. In all things.
5. "May abound to every good work." Now filled to the brim, and still connected with an inexhaustible supply, the vessel must overflow, and that on every side. No effort, no toil, no weariness, no drawing by mechanical means from a deep well; but the grace-filled heart, abiding (and that is the only condition) in complete dependence upon its God, naturally overflows on every side—to all good work.
6. "Being enriched in every thing" (we omit the parenthesis, although full of its own divine beauty), (or, "in every way"). This is in some sort a repetition of No. 5, but goes as far beyond it as the word "enriched" is fuller than the word "sufficient." The latter fills the vessel, as we have said, up to the brim; the former adds another drop, and over it flows. In view of these "exceeding great and precious promises," we may say,—
"Oh wherefore should we do ourselves this wrong, Or others, that we are not always strong?"
since we may be enriched in all things.
7. "To all bountifulness." This stream of grace is never to stagnate, or it will lose all its character of blessing, as the manna hoarded for a second day "bred worms, and stank." Thus every single Christian becomes a living channel of blessing to all around, and the circle is now completed, by once more returning to the point whence it started, "Which causeth through us thanksgiving to God," and closes with no weary wail of "All things are full of labor," but joyful songs resound on every side, and at every motion of this circle of blessing ascends "thanksgiving to God." For just exactly the same full measure is seen in the thanksgiving ascending at the end as in the grace descending in the beginning. There it "abounded," filling the vessel full till it overflowed in the same measure, "abounding" in blessings to others who needed, and these forthwith pass on the stream in "abounding" thanksgiving to God. The apostle himself, as if he could not suffer himself to be excluded from the circle of blessing, adds his own note at the close with "Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift." And shall we not, too, dear brother or sister now reading these lines, let our feeble voice be heard in this sweet harmony of praise? Has not this contrast between the new song and the old groan, again we may ask, great value?
Having, then, seen in these first few verses the purpose of the book and the standpoint of the writer, we may accompany him in the details of his search. First he repeats, what is of the greatest importance for us to remember (v. 12), "I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem." He would not have us forget that, should he fail in his search for perfect satisfaction, it will not be because he is not fully qualified both by his abilities and his position to succeed. But Infidelity, and its kinsman Rationalism, raise a joyful shout over this verse; for to disconnect the books of the Bible from the writers whose name they bear is a long step toward overthrowing the authority of those books altogether. If the believer's long-settled confidence can be proved vain in one point, and that so important a point, there is good "hope" of eventually overthrowing it altogether. So, with extravagant protestations of loyalty to the Scriptures, they, Joablike, "kiss" and "stab" simultaneously, wonderfully manifesting in word and work that dual form of the evil one, who, our Lord tells us, was both "liar and murderer from the beginning." And many thousand professing Christians are like Amasa of old, their ear is well pleased with the fair sound of "Art thou in health, my brother?" and they, too, take "no heed to the sword" in the inquirer's hand. Judas, too, in his day, illustrates strongly that same diabolical compound of "deceit and violence," only the enemy finds no unwary Amasa in Jesus the Lord. "Betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss" tears the vail from him at once; and in the same way the feeblest believer who abides in Him, is led of that same spirit; and "good words and fair speeches" do not deceive, nor can betrayal be hidden behind the warmest protestations of affection.
But to return: "How could," cries this sapient infidelity, which today has given itself the modest name of "Higher Criticism,"—"how could Solomon say, 'I was king,' when he never ceased to be that?" Ah! one fears if that same Lord were to speak once more as of old, He would again say, "O fools and blind!" For is it not meet that the writer who is about to give recital of his experiences should first tell us what his position was at the very time of those experiences? That at the very time of all these exercises, disappointments, and groanings, he was still the highest monarch on earth, king over an undivided Israel, in Jerusalem, with all the resources and glories that accompany this high station, pre-eminently fitting him to speak with authority, and compelling us to listen with the profoundest respect and attention.
Yes, this glorious monarch "gives his heart"—that is, applies himself with singleness of purpose "to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven." No path that gives the slightest promise of leading to happiness shall be untrodden; no pleasure shall be denied, no toil be shirked that shall give any hope of satisfaction or rest. "This sore travail hath God given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith." That is, the heart of man hungers and thirsts, and he must search till he does find something to satisfy; and if, alas! he fail to find it in "time," if he only drinks here of waters whereof he "that drinks shall thirst again," eternity shall find him thirsting still, and crying for one drop of water to cool his tongue. But then with what bitter despair Ecclesiastes records all these searchings! "I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit," or rather, "pursuit of the wind." Exactly seven times he uses this term, "pursuit of the wind," expressing perfect, complete, despairing failure in his quest. He finds things all wrong, but he has no power of righting them; "that which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered." But perhaps we may get the secret of his failure in his next words. He takes a companion or counselor in his search. Again exactly seven times he takes counsel with this companion, "his own heart,"—"I communed with my own heart." That is the level of the book; the writer's resources are all within himself; no light from without save that which nature gives; no taking hold on another; no hand clasped by another. He and his heart are alone. Ah! that is dangerous as well as dreary work to take counsel with one's own heart. "Fool" and "lawless one" come to their foolish and wicked conclusions there (Ps. xiv. 1); and what else than "folly" could be expected in hearkening to that which is "deceitful above all things"—what else than lawlessness in taking counsel with that which is "desperately wicked"?
Take not, then, for thy counselor "thine own heart," when divine love has placed infinite wisdom and knowledge at the disposal of lowly faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, "who of God is made unto us wisdom," and "in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."
But does our Preacher find the rest he desires in the path of his own wisdom? Not at all. "For in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." "Grief and sorrow" ever growing, ever increasing, the further he treads that attractive and comparatively elevated path of human wisdom. Nor has Solomon been a lonely traveler along that road. Thousands of the more refined of Adam's sons have chosen it; but none have gone beyond "the king," and none have discovered anything in it, but added "grief and sorrow"—sorrowful groan! But the youngest of God's family has his feet, too, on a path of "knowledge," and he may press along that path without the slightest fear of "grief or sorrow" resulting from added knowledge. Nay, a new song shall be in his mouth, "Grace and peace shall be multiplied through the knowledge of God and Jesus our Lord." (2 Pet. i. 2). Blessed contrast! "Sorrow and grief" multiplied through growth in human wisdom: "Grace and peace" multiplied through growth in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord!
My beloved reader, I pray you meditate a little on this striking and precious contrast. Here is Solomon in all his glory, with a brighter halo of human wisdom round his head than ever had any of the children of men. Turn to 1 Kings iv. 29:—
"And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore.
And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt.
For he was wiser than all men; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol: and his fame was in all nations round about.
And he spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five.
And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes.
And there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all kings of the earth, which had heard of his wisdom."
Is it not a magnificent ascription of abounding wisdom? What field has it not capacity to explore? Philosophy in its depths—poetry in its beauties—botany and zoology in their wonders. Do we envy him? Then listen to what his poor heart was groaning all that time: "In much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow"! Now turn to our portion above the sun—"the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord": infinitely higher, deeper, lovelier, and more wondrous than the fields explored by Solomon, in constant unfoldings of riches of wisdom; and each new unfolding bringing its own sweet measure of "grace and peace." Have not the lines fallen to us in pleasant places? Have we not a goodly heritage? Take the feeblest of the saints of God of today, and had Solomon in all his glory a lot like one of these?
The wise man, having found that wisdom brought with it but increased sorrow, turns to the other side—to all those pleasures that the flesh, as we speak, enjoys. Still, he gives us, as in chap. i., the result of his search before he describes it: "I said in my heart, 'Go to now; I will prove thee [that is, I will see if I cannot satisfy thee,] with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure:' and behold, this also is vanity. I said of laughter, 'it is mad;' and of mirth, 'what doeth it?'" For he now has tried wine, the occupation of laying out of vinyards, gardens, parks, the forming of lakes, and the building of houses, all filled without stint, with every thing that sense could crave, or the soul of man could enjoy. The resources at his command are practically limitless, and so he works on and rejoices in the labor, apparently with the idea that now the craving within can be satisfied, now he is on the road to rest. Soon he will look round on the result of all his work, and be able to say, "All is very good; I can now rest in the full enjoyment of my labor and be satisfied." But when he does reach the end, when every pleasure tried, every beauty of surrounding created, and he expects to eat the fruit of his work, instantly his mouth is filled with rottenness and decay. "Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do; and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit; and there was no profit under the sun." Thus he groans again,—a groan that has been echoed and re-echoed all down the ages from every heart that has tried to fill the same void by the same means.
Ah! wise and glorious Preacher, it is a large place thou art seeking to fill. "Free and boundless its desires." Deeper, wider, broader than the whole world, which is at thy disposal to fill it. And thou mayest well say, "What can the man do that cometh after the king?" for thou hadst the whole world and the glory of it at thy command in thy day, and did it enable thee to fill those "free and boundless desires"? No, indeed. After all is cast into that hungry pit, yawning and empty it is still. Look well on this picture, my soul; ponder it in the secret place of God's presence, and ask Him to write it indelibly on thy heart that thou forget it not. Then turn and listen to this sweet voice: "If any man thirst" (and what man does not?) "let him come unto Me, and drink. He that believeth on Me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water." Thirst not only quenched, but water to spare for other thirsting ones,—the void not only filled, but running over with a constant flow of blessing. Who can express the glories of that contrast?
Pause, beloved reader: turn your eyes from the page, and dwell on it in thy spirit a little. What a difference between "no profit under the sun" and "never thirst"!—a difference entirely due simply to coming to Him—Jesus. Not a coming once and then departing from Him once more to try again the muddy, stagnant pools of this world: no, but to pitch our tents by the palm-trees and the springing wells of Christ's presence, and so to drink and drink and drink again of Him, the Rock that follows His people. But is this possible? Is this not mere imaginative ecstasy, whilst practically such a state is not possible? No, indeed; for see that man, with all the same hungry longings of Solomon or any other child of Adam; having no wealth, outcast, and a wanderer without a home, but who has found something that has enabled him to say, "I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere, and in all things, I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ, who strengtheneth me." (Phil. iv. 11-13.)
What, then, is the necessary logical deduction from two such pictures but this: The Lord Jesus infinitely surpasses all the world in filling the hungry heart of man.
Look, oh my reader, whether thou be sinner or saint, to Him—to Him alone.
This, then, brings us to the twelfth verse of chapter two, which already, thus early in the book, seems to be a summing up of his experiences. "I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly:" that is I looked "full face," or carefully considered, these three things that I had now tested; and whilst each gave me only disappointment and bitterness as to meeting my deepest needs, yet "I saw that there was a profit in wisdom over folly, as light is profitable over darkness." This then is within the power of human reason to determine. The philosophy of the best of the heathen brought them to exactly the same conclusion. Socrates and Solomon, with many another worthy name, are here in perfect accord, and testify together that "the wise man's eyes are in his head, but the fool walketh in darkness." Not that men prefer wisdom to folly; on the contrary; still even human reason gives this judgment: for the wise man walks at least as a man, intelligently; the spirit, the intelligence, having its place. But how much further can reason discern as to the comparative worth of wisdom or folly? The former certainly morally elevates a man now; but here comes an awful shadow across reason's path: "but I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all. Then said I in my heart, as it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me: and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity." Ah! in this book in which poor man at his highest is allowed to give voice to his deepest questions, in which all the chaos, and darkness, the "without form and void" state of his poor, distracted, disjointed being is seen; death is indeed the King of Terrors, upsetting all his reasonings, and bringing the wisdom and folly, between which he had so carefully discriminated, to one level in a moment. But here, death is looked upon in relation to the "works" of which he has been speaking. Wisdom cannot guarantee its possessor the enjoyment of the fruits of his labors. Death comes to him as swiftly and as surely as to the fool, and a common oblivion shall, after a little, swallow the memory of each, with their works. This thought the Preacher dwells upon, and as he regards it on every side, again and again he groans, "This also is vanity." (vv. 19, 21, 23.) "Therefore I hated life, yea, all my labor which I took under the sun," and "therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all my labor which I took under the sun." For what is there in the labor itself? Nothing that satisfies by itself. It is only the anticipation of final satisfaction and enjoyment that can make up for the loss of quiet and ease now; prove that to be a vain hope, and the mere labor and planning night and day are indeed "empty vanity."
Thus much for labor "under the sun," with self for its object, and death for its limit. Now for the contrast again in its refreshing beauty of the "new" as against the "old" "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know your labor is not in vain in the Lord." (1 Cor. xv. 58.) "All my labor vanity" is the "groan" of the old, "for death with its terrors cuts me off from my labor and I leave it to a fool." "No labor in vain" is the song of victory of the new, for resurrection with its glories but introduces me to the precious fruit of those labors, to be enjoyed forever.
Oh my brethren, let us cherish this precious word, "not in vain;" let us be indeed "persuaded" of it, and "embrace" it, not giving up our glorious heritage, and going back, as the Christian world largely is in this day, to the mere human wisdom that Solomon the king possessed above all, and which only led then, as it must now and ever, to the groan of "vanity!" But "not in vain" is ours. No little one refreshed with even a cup of cold water but that soon the fruit of even that little labor of love shall meet its sweetest recompense in the smile, the approval, the praise of our Lord Jesus; and that shall make our hearts full to overflowing with bliss; as we there echo and re-echo our own word: it was indeed, "not in vain."
The chapter closes with the recognition that, apart from God, it is not in the power of man to get any enjoyment from his labor. Our translation of verse 24 seems quite out of harmony with the Preacher's previous experiences, and the verse would better read (as in Dr. Taylor Lewis' metrical version):
"The good is not in man that he should eat and drink And find his soul's enjoyment in his toil; This, too, I saw, is only from the hands of God."
Chapter three may be paraphrased, I think, somewhat in this way: Yes, life itself emphasizes the truth that nothing is at one stay here;—all moves. There is naught abiding, like the winds and waters that he has noted in chapter one; man's life is but a wheel that turns: death follows birth, and all the experiences between are but ever varying shades of good and evil, evil and good. (Let us bear in mind this is not faith's view, but simply that of human wisdom. Faith sings a song amidst the whirl of life:
"With mercy and with judgment, My web of time He wove; And aye the dews of sorrow Were lustred with His love.")
But then if nothing thus rests as it is, it becomes a necessary deduction that, if wisdom has collected, and labored, and built, folly will follow to possess and scatter, what profit then in toiling? For he sees that this constant travail is of God who, in wisdom inscrutable, and not to be penetrated by human reasoning, would have men exercised by these constant changes, whilst their hearts can be really satisfied with no one of these things, beautiful as each may be in its time. So boundless are its desires that he says, "Eternity" has been placed in that heart of man, and naught in all these "time-changes" can fill it. Still he can see nothing better for man, than that he should make the best of the present, for he cannot alter or change what God does or purposes, and everything he sees, speaks of His purpose to a constant "round," a recurrence of that which is past (as verse 15 should probably read.)
But still man's reason can make one more step now, one further deduction from the law of circuit, as soon as God, even though He be known only by nature's light, is introduced; and that is, the present wrong and injustice so evident here, must in some "time" in God's purposes, be righted; God Himself being the Judge. This seems to be a gleam of real light, similar to the conclusion of the whole book. Yes, further, this constant change—is there no reason for it? Has God no purpose in it? Surely to teach men the very lesson of their own mortality: that there is naught abiding—men and beasts are, as far as unaided human wisdom can see, on one level exactly as to that awful exit from this scene. It is true there may be—and there are strong grounds for inferring that there is—a wide difference between the spirit of man, and the spirit of beasts, although the bodies of each are formed of, and return to the dust; but who can tell this absolutely? Who has seen and told what is on the other side of that dread portal? None. So then, again says the wise Preacher, my wisdom sees only good in enjoying the present, for the future is shrouded in an impenetrable cloud, and none can pierce it.
Precious beyond expression becomes the glorious bright beam of divine revelation, as against this dense and awful darkness of man's ignorance on such a question. How deep and terrible the groan here, "For all is vanity." Yet the pitch-dark background shall serve to throw into glorious relief, the glory of that light that is not from reason, or nature; but from Him who is the Father of Lights. Yes, He bids us look on this picture of the wisest of men, tracing man and beast to one end and standing before that awful door through which each has disappeared, confessing his absolute inability to determine if there be any difference between them. Death surely triumphs here. It is true that there may be a possible distinction between the "breath," or vital principle of each; but this uncertainty only adds to the mystery, and increases a thousand fold the agonizing need for light. God be thanked that He has given it. The darkest problem that has faced mankind all through the weary ages, has been triumphantly solved; and the sweetest songs of faith ever resound about the empty tomb of the Lord Jesus—nay rather, about the glorious person of that risen Christ Himself, for He is Himself the leader of the Joy. "In the midst of the congregation will I praise Thee."
So then, in sharp and blessed contrast to the wise man and his groaning, let us lift our eyes up and ever up, past the tombs and graves of earth; yea, past thrones and principalities, and powers in the heavens; up and still up, even to the "throne of the Majesty on High" itself; and look on One sitting even there, a Man—oh mark it well, for He has been of woman born—a Man,—for of that very One it was once said, "Is not this the carpenter?"—now crowned with glory and honor; and listen, for He speaks: "I am He that liveth, and was dead, and behold I am alive for evermore." Consider Him! And whilst we look and listen, how does that word of the Preacher sound, "A man hath no pre-eminence above a beast!" And this is our portion, beloved reader. He might indeed have had all the glory of that place, without the agony of the garden, without the suffering and shame of the cross, had He been content to enjoy it alone. But no—He must have His own with Him; and now death has been abolished as to its terror and power, so that the groan of old is replaced by the triumphant challenge: "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (1 Cor. xv. 55.)
The resurrection of Jesus not only makes possible—not only makes probable—but absolutely assures the glorious triumphant resurrection of His own who have fallen asleep: "Christ the firstfruits, afterward they are Christ's at His coming." But further, is this "falling asleep" of the saint to separate him, for a time, from the conscious enjoyment of his Saviour's love? Is the trysting of the saved one with his Saviour to be interrupted for awhile by death? Is his song
"Not all things else are half so dear As is His blissful presence here"
to be silenced by death? Then were he a strangely conquered foe, and not stingless, if for one hour he could separate us from the enjoyed love of Christ. But no, "blessed be the Victor's name," not for a moment. "Death is ours" and "absent from the body" is only "present with the Lord." So that we may answer the Preacher's word, "A man hath no pre-eminence above a beast," with the challenge, To which of the beasts said He at any time, "This day shalt thou be with Me in paradise"?
Let the Preacher groan, "all is vanity;" the groan is in perfect—if sorrowful—harmony with the darkness and ignorance of human reason; but "singing" alone accords with light; "Joy cometh in the morning," and if we but receive it, we have in "Jesus Risen" light enough for perpetual, unending, song.
But we must follow our Preacher, who can only turn away with bitterness from this closed door of Death, once more to take note of what is "under the sun." And sad and sorrowful it is to him to mark that the world is filled with oppression. He has already, in the previous chapter, noted that "wickedness was there in the place of judgment and iniquity in the place of righteousness," and the natural consequence of this is oppression. Wherever men have power they use it to bring forth tears; therefore far better, cries Solomon, to be out of such a scene altogether; yea, better still, never to have come into it at all. Have we no sympathy with the Preacher here? Does he not give expression to one sad "touch of nature that makes the whole world kin"? Do we not recognize that he, too, was traveling through exactly the same scene as we find ourselves to be in? That tears were raining on this crust of earth in that far-off time, exactly as they are to-day? Yes, indeed, it was a tear-soaked earth he trod, as well as we. But then that other man was also in the same scene exactly, who said, too, that it was certainly "far better" to be out of it; but—precious contrast! that was because of the loveliness and sweet attraction of One known outside of it; whilst the very needs of others in the scene—those "tears," in a way, of which the wise man speaks, and which he knew no way of stopping—alone kept him in it, and made him consent to stay. For Paul had "heard a sweeter story" than Solomon had ever in his wisdom conceived; had "found a truer gain" than all Solomon's wealth could give him; and his most blessed business it was to proclaim a glad tidings that should dry the tears of the oppressed, give them a peace that no oppressor could take away, a liberty outside all the chains of earth—a spring of joy that tyranny was powerless to affect.
Now let us, by the grace and loving kindness of our God, consider this a little closer, my readers. We have concluded that we find this book included in the inspired volume for this very purpose, to exalt all "the new" by its blessed contrast with "the old." We may too, if we will, look around on all the sorrows and tears of this sad earth, and groan "better would it be to be dead and out of it; yea, better never to have been born at all." And a wise groan, according to human wisdom, this would be.
But when such wisdom has attained to its full, it finds itself far short of the very "foolishness of God"; for, on the other hand we may, if we will, praise God with joyful heart that we are at least in the only place in the whole universe, where tears can be dried, and gladness be made to take their place. For is there oppression, and consequent weeping, in heaven? Surely not. Tears there are, in plenty, in hell; for did not He who is Love say, "there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth"? But, alas! those tears can be dried—never. But here Love can have its own way, and mourning ones may learn a secret that shall surely gild their tears with a rainbow glory of light, and the oppressed and distressed, the persecuted and afflicted, may triumphantly sing, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors, through Him that loved us." Ah, is there not, too, a peculiar beauty in those words "more than conquerors"? What can be more than a conqueror? A ship driven out of its course by the tempest, with anchor dragging or cable parted, is no "conqueror" at all, but the reverse. That ship riding out the gale, holding fast to its anchorage, is truly a conqueror; but that is all. But the vessel being driven by the very tempest to the haven where it would be, is better off still, and thus "more than conqueror." So it is with the saint now; the tempest drives him the closer to Him who is indeed his desired haven, and thus he is more than conqueror. Is not, then, this earth a unique place?—this life a wonderful time? A few years (possibly a few hours) more, and we shall be out of the scene of sorrow and evil forever; nor can we then prove the power of the love of Christ to lift above the sorrow either ourselves or others. O my soul, art thou redeeming the time—"ransoming from loss" (as it might literally be worded) the precious opportunities that are around thee on every side, "because the days are evil"? The very fact that the days are evil—that thou art in the place of tears—gives thee the "opportunities." When the days cease to be evil, those special opportunities, whatever may be the service of the redeemed, will be gone forever.
But the Preacher still continues his search "under the sun," and turns from oppression and tears to regard what is, on the surface at least, a comparatively happy lot—"right work," by which a man has attained to prosperity and pre-eminence. But as he looks closer at a case which, at first sight, seems to promise real satisfaction, he sees that there is a bitter sting connected with it,—a sting that at once robs it of all its attraction, and makes void all its promise of true rest,—for "for this a man is envied of his neighbor." His success is only cause of bitter jealousy, and makes him the object not of love, but of envy, to all about him. Success, then, and a position of pre-eminence above one's competitors, gained by skillful toil, is rather to be avoided as vanity and pursuit of the wind,—a grasping at an empty nothingness.
Is the opposite extreme of perfect idleness any better? No; for plainly the idler is a fool who "eateth his own flesh"; that is, necessarily brings ruin upon himself. So human wisdom here closes the meditation with—what human wisdom always does take refuge in—the "golden mean," as it is called, "better a single handful with quiet rest, than both hands filled only by wearying toil and vexation of spirit." And true enough this is, as every man who has tested things at all in this world will confirm. Accumulation brings with it only disappointment and added care,—everything is permeated with a common poison; and here the wisdom of the old is, in one sense, in full harmony with the higher wisdom of the new, which says "godliness, with contentment, is great gain," and "having food and raiment, let us be therewith content."
If we look "above the sun," however, there is a scene where no sting lurks in all that attracts, as here. Where God Himself approves the desires of His people for more of their own, and says to them with gracious encouragement, "covet earnestly the best gifts." Yes; but mark the root-difference between the two: the skillful, or right labor, that appears at first so desirable to the Preacher, is only for the worker's own advantage,—it exalts him above his fellows, where he becomes a mark for their bitter envy; but these "gifts" that are to be coveted are as far removed from this as the poles. In that higher scene, the more a gift exalts "self," the less is that gift. The "best"—those which God calls "best"—are those that awake no envy in others; but bring their happy owner lower and ever lower to the feet of his brethren to serve them, to build them up. The Corinthians themselves had the lesser gifts in the more showy "tongues," and "knowledge"; but one family amongst them had the greater,—"the household of Stephanas," for it had addicted itself to the service of the saints.
But let us not leave this theme till we have sought to set our hearts a-singing by a sight of Him who is, and ever shall be, the source as well as the theme of all our songs. We but recently traced Him in His glorious upward path till we found Him resting on the throne of the Majesty on high. But "he that ascended, what is it but that he also descended?" So, beloved readers, though it may be a happily familiar theme to many, it will be none the less refreshing to look at that "right work" of our blessed Lord Jesus, "who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God." That is the glorious platform—as we might, in our human way of speaking, say—upon which He had abode all through the ages of the past. He looks above—there is none, there is nothing higher. He looks on the same plane as Himself—He is equal with God. There is His blessed, glorious place, at the highest pinnacle of infinite glory, nothing to be desired, nothing to be grasped at.
He moves; and every heart that belongs to that new creation awakens into praise (oh, how different to the "envy" of the old!) as He takes His first step and makes Himself of no reputation. And as in our previous paper we followed Him in His glorious upward path, so here we may trace His no less glorious and most blessed path down and ever lower down, past Godhead to "no reputation"; past authority to service; past angels, who are servants, to men; past all the thrones and dignities of men to the manger at Bethlehem and the lowest walk of poverty, till He who, but now, was indeed rich is become poor; nay, says of Himself that He has not where to lay His head. No "golden mean" of the "handful with quietness" here! Yes, and far lower still, past that portion of the righteous man, endless life,—down, down to the humiliation of death; and then one more step to a death—not of honor, and respect, and the peace, that we are told marks the perfect man and the upright, but the death of lowest shame, the criminal slave's death, the cross! Seven distinct steps of perfect humiliation! Oh, consider Him there, beloved! Mocked of all His foes, forsaken of all His friends! The very refuse of the earth, the thieves that earth says are too vile for her, heaping their indignities upon Him. "Behold the man," spat upon, stricken, and numbered with transgressors; and, as we gaze, let us together listen to that divine voice, "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus," for that is our "right work," and there is no fear of a man being "envied of his neighbor" for right work of that kind.
But time and space would fail us to take up in detail all these precious contrasts. All Solomon's searches "under the sun" tell but one story: There is nought in all the world that can satisfy the heart of man. The next verse furnishes another striking illustration of this. He sees a solitary one, absolutely alone, without kith or kin dependent on him, and yet he toils on, "bereaving his soul of good" as unceasingly as when he first started in life. Every energy is still strained in the race for those riches that satisfy not at all. "Vanity" is the Preacher's commentary on the scene. This naturally leads to the conclusion that solitude, at least, is no blessing; for man was made for companionship and mutual dependence, and in this is safety. (Verses 9 to 12.)
Verses 13 to the end are difficult, as they stand in our authorized version; but they speak, I think, of the striking and extraordinary vicissitudes that are so constant "under the sun." There is no lot abiding. The king on his throne, "old and foolish," changes places with the youth who may even step from the humiliation of prison and chains to the highest dignity: then "better is the poor and wise youth than the old and foolish king." But wider still the Preacher looks, and marks the stately march of the present generation with the next that shall follow it; yea, there is no end of the succession of surging generations, each boastful of itself, and taking no joy in—that is, making little account of—that which has gone before. Each, in its turn, like a broken wave, making way for its successor. Boastful pride, broken in death, but still followed by another equally boastful, or more so, which, in its turn, is humbled also in the silence of the grave. It is the same story of human changes as "the youth" and "the king," only a wider range is taken; but "vanity" is the appropriate groan that accompanies the whole meditation. In this I follow Dr. Lewis's version:—
Better the child, though he be poor, if wise, Than an old and foolish king, who heeds no longer warning; For out of bondage came the one to reign— The other, in a kingdom born, yet suffers poverty. I saw the living all, that walked in pride beneath the sun, I saw the second birth that in their place shall stand. No end to all the people that have gone before; And they who still succeed, in them shall find no joy. This, too, is vanity,—a chasing of the wind.
With the opening of this chapter we come to quite a different theme. Like a fever-tossed patient, Ecclesiastes has turned from side to side for relief and rest; but each new change of posture has only brought him face to face with some other evil "under the sun" that has again and again pressed from him the bitter groan of "Vanity." But now, for a moment, he takes his eyes from the disappointments, the evil workings, and the sorrows, that everywhere prevail in that scene, and lifts them up to see how near his wisdom, or human reason, can bring him to God. Ah, poor bruised and wounded spirit! Everywhere it has met with rebuff; but now, like a caged bird which has long beaten its wings against its bars, at length turns to the open door, so now Ecclesiastes seems at least to have his face in the right direction,—God and approach to Him is his theme,—how far will his natural reason permit his walking in it? Will it carry him on to the highest rest and freedom at last?
This, it strikes me, is just the point of view of these first seven verses. Their meaning is, as a whole, quite clear and simple. "Keep thy foot,"—that is, permit no hasty step telling of slight realization of the majesty of Him who is approached. Nor let spirit be less reverently checked than body. "Be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools." Few be thy words, and none uttered thoughtlessly, for "God is in heaven and thou upon earth," and many words, under such an infinite discrepancy in position, bespeak a fool as surely as a dream bespeaks overcrowded waking hours. Oh fear, then, to utter one syllable thoughtlessly or without meaning, for One listens to whom a vow once uttered must be paid, for not lightly canst thou retract the spoken vow with the excuse "It was unintentional,—it was not seriously meant." His Messenger or Angel is not so deceived; and quickly wilt thou find, in thy wrecked work and purposes astray, that it is God thou hast angered by thy light speech. Then avoid the many words which, as idle dreams, are but vanity; but rather "fear thou God."
After weighing the many conflicting views as to verses 6 and 7, the context has led me to the above as the sense of the words. Nor can there be the slightest question as to the general bearing of the speaker's argument. Its central thought, both in position and importance, is found in "God is in heaven and thou upon earth, therefore let thy words be few,"—its weighty conclusion, "Fear thou God."
Now, my beloved readers, there is a picture here well worth looking at attentively. Regard him: noble in every sense of the word,—with clearest intellect, with the loftiest elevation of thought, with an absolutely true conception of the existence of God. Who amongst men, let thought sweep as wide as it will amongst the children of Adam, can go or has gone, beyond him? What can man's mind conceive, he may ask, as well as man's hand do, that cometh after the King? Yea, let our minds go over all the combined wisdom of all the ages amongst the wise of the world, and where will you find a loftier, purer, truer conception of God, and the becoming attitude of the creature in approaching Him than here? For he is not a heathen, as we speak, this Solomon. He has all that man, as man, could possibly have; and that surely includes the knowledge of the existence of God,—His power eternal, and His Godhead, as Romans i. clearly shows. The heathen themselves have lapsed from that knowledge. "When they knew God" is the intensely significant word of Scripture. This is, indeed, diametrically contrary to the teaching of modern science—that the barbarous and debased tribes of earth are only in a less developed condition—are on the way upward from the lowest forms of life, from the protoplasm whence all sprang, and have already passed in their upward course the ape, whose likeness they still, however, more closely bear! Oh, the folly of earth's wisdom! The pitiful meanness and littleness of the greatest of modern scientific minds that have "come after the King" contrasted even with the grand simple sublimity of the knowledge of Ecclesiastes. For this Preacher would not be a proper representative man were he in debased heathen ignorance. He could not show us faithfully and truly how far even unaided human reason could go in its recognition of, and approach to, God, if he had lost the knowledge of God. Low, indeed, is the level of man's highest, when in this state, as the Greeks show us; for whilst they, as distinct from the Jews, made wisdom the very object of their search, downward ever do they sink in their struggles, like a drowning man, till they reach a foul, impure, diabolical mythology. Their gods are as the stars for multitude. Nor are they able to conceive of these except as influenced by the same passions as themselves. Is there any reverence in approach to such? Not at all. Low, sensual, earthly depravity marked ever that approach. That is the level of the lapsed fallen wisdom of earth's wise. How does it compare with Solomon's? We may almost say as earth to heaven,—hardly that,—rather as hell to earth. Solomon, then, clearly shows us the highest possible conception of the creature's approach to his Creator. This is as far as man could have attained, let him be at the summit of real wisdom. His reason would have given him nothing beyond this. It tells him that man is a creature, and it is but the most simple and necessary consequence of this that his approach to his Creator should be with all the reverence and humility that is alone consistent with such a relationship.
But high indeed as, in one point of view, this is, yet how low in another, for is one heart-throb stilled? One tormenting doubt removed? One fear quieted? One deep question answered? One sin-shackle loosened? Not one. The distance between them is still the distance between earth and heaven. "God is in heaven, and thou upon earth." Nor can the highest, purest, best of human reason, as in this wise and glorious king, bridge over that distance one span! "Fear thou God" is the sweetest comfort he can give,—the clearest counsel he can offer. Consider him again, I say, my brethren, in all his nobility, in all his elevation, in all his bitter disappointment and incompetency.
And now, my heart, prepare for joy, as thou turnest to thy own blessed portion. For how rich, how precious, how closely to be cherished is that which has gone so far beyond all possible human conception,—that wondrous revelation by which this long, long distance 'twixt earth and heaven has been spanned completely. And in whom? JESUS, The Greater than Solomon. We have well considered the less,—let us turn to the Greater. And where is that second Man to be found? Afar off on earth, with God in heaven? No, indeed. "For when He had by Himself purged our sins He sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high"; and "seeing, then, that we have a great high priest, that is passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession." Oh, let us consider Him together, my brethren. In holiest Light our Representative sits. He who but now was weighted with our guilt, and made sin for us, is in that Light ineffable, unapproachable. Where, then, are the sins? Where, then, the sin? Gone for all eternity! Nor does His position vary at all with all the varying states, failings, coldness, worldliness, of His people here. With holy calm, His work that has perfected them forever perfectly finished, He sits, and their position is thus maintained unchanging. Clearly, and without the shadow of the faintest mist to dim, the infinite searching Light of God falls on Him, but sees nought there that is not in completest harmony with Itself. Oh, wondrous conception! Oh, grandeur of thought beyond all the possibility of man's highest mind! No longer can it be said at least to one Man, woman-born though He be, "God is in heaven, and thou upon earth"; for He, of the Seed of Abraham, of the house of David, is Himself in highest heaven.
But one step further with me, my brethren. We are in Him, there; and that is our place, too. The earthward trend of thought—the letting slip our own precious truth—has introduced a "tongue" into Christendom that ought to be foreign to the Saint of heaven. No "place of worship" should the Christian know—nay, can he really know—short of heaven itself. For, listen: "Having, therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which He hath consecrated for us through the vail,—that is to say, His flesh,—and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near," etc. We too, then, beloved, are not upon earth as to our worship, (let it be mixed with faith in us that hear). Israel's "place of worship" was where her high priest stood, and our place of worship is where our great High Priest sits. Jesus our Lord sowed the seed of this precious truth when he answered the poor sinful woman of Samaria, "The hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeketh such to worship Him."
But, then, are not "words to be few"? Good and wise it was for Solomon so to speak; "few words" become the far-off place of the creature on earth before the glorious Majesty of the Creator in heaven. But if infinite wisdom and love have rent the vail and made a new and living way into the Holiest, does He now say "few words"? Better, far better, than that; for with the changed position all is changed, and not too often can His gracious ear "hear the voice of His beloved"; and, lest shrinking unbelief should still hesitate and doubt, He says plainly "In everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God." For He has shown Himself fully, now that vail is down,—all that He is, is revealed to faith; and a Heart we find—with reverence and adoring love be it spoken—filled with tenderest solicitude for His people. Letting them have cares only that they may have His sympathy in a way that would not otherwise be possible; and thus again He invites "casting all your care upon Him, for He careth for you." Nor is there a hint in the holiest, of weariness on God's part in listening to His people, nor once does He say "enough; now cease thy prayers and supplications." How could He so speak who says "Pray without ceasing"? Then if, as assuredly we have seen, Solomon shows us the highest limit of human thought, reason, or conception, if we go even one step beyond, we have exceeded human thought, reason, or conception; (and in these New Testament truths how far beyond have we gone?) And what does that mean but that we are on holy ground indeed, listening to a voice that is distinctly the voice of God,—the God who speaks to us, as He says, in order "that our joy may be full."
But the Preacher continues to give, in verses 8 and 9, such counsel as he can to meet the discordant state of things everywhere apparent. "When thou seest violent oppression exercised by those in authority," he says, "marvel not; think it not strange, as though some strange thing were happening; thou art only looking on a weed-plant that everywhere flourishes 'under the sun,' and still thou mayest remember that these oppressors themselves, high though they be, have superiors above them: yea in the ever-ascending scale of ranks and orders thou mayest have to go to the Highest—God Himself; but the same truth hold good, and He shall yet call powers and governors to answer for the exercise of their authorities. This for thy comfort, if thou lookest up; but, on the other hand, look down, and thou shalt see that which goes far to humble the highest; for even the king himself is as dependent as any on the field whence man's food comes."
True, indeed, all this; but cold is the comfort, small cause for singing it gives. Our own dear apostle seems to have dropped for a moment from his higher vantage-ground to the level of Solomon's wisdom when smarting under "oppression and the violent perverting of judgment," he cried to the high priest, "God [the higher than the highest] shall smite thee, thou whited wall." But we hear no joyful singing from him in connection with that indignant protest. On the contrary, the beloved and faithful servant regrets it the next moment, with "I wist not, brethren." Not so in the silent suffering of "violent oppression" at Philippi. There he and his companion have surely comfort beyond any that Solomon can offer, and the overflowing joy of their hearts comes from no spring that rises in this sad desert scene. Never before had prisoners in that dismal jail heard aught but groans of suffering coming from that inner prison, from the bruised and wounded prisoners whose feet were made fast in the stocks; but the Spirit of God notes, with sweet and simple pathos, "the prisoners heard them"; and oh, how mighty the testimony to that which is "above the sun" was that singing! It came from the Christian's proper portion,—your portion and mine, dear fellow-redeemed one,—for Jesus, our Lord Jesus, our Saviour Jesus, is the alone fountain of a joy that can fill a human heart until it gives forth "songs in the night," even in one of earth's foul abodes of suffering and oppression. He is the portion of the youngest, feeblest believer. Rich treasure! Let us beware lest any spoil us of that treasure, for we can only "sing" as we enjoy it.
But once more let us listen to what the highest, purest attainment of the wisdom of man can give. And now he speaks of wealth and the abundance of earthly prosperity which he, of all men, had so fully tested. "He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver, nor he that loveth abundance, with increase"; and again there is the sorrowful groan, "This is also vanity." "If goods increase," he continues, "the household necessary to care for them increases proportionately, and the owner gets no further satisfaction from them than their sight affords. Nay, he who toils has a distinct advantage over the wealthy, who is denied the quiet repose the former enjoys." Carefully the Preacher has watched the miser heaping up ever, and robbing himself of all natural enjoyment, until some disaster—"evil travail"—sweeps away in a moment his accumulations, and his son is left a pauper. And such, at least, is every man he marks, be he never so wealthy, when the end comes. Inexorable Death is, sooner or later, the "evil travail" that strips him as naked as he came; and then, though he has spent his life in selfish self-denial, filling his dark days with vexation, sickness, and irritation, he is snatched from all, and, poor indeed, departs. Such the sad story of Solomon's experience; but not more sad than true, nor confined by any means to Scripture. World-wide it is. Nor is divine revelation necessary to tell poor man that silver, nor gold, nor abundance of any kind, can satisfy the heart. Hear the very heathen cry "semper avarus eget"—"the miser ever needs"; or "Avarum irritat non satiat pecunia"—"the wealth of the miser satisfies not, but irritates." But more weighty and far-reaching is the word of revelation going far beyond the negation of the king. "They that desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and hurtful lusts, such as drown men in destruction and perdition, for the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, which some reaching after have been led astray from the faith, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows."
But let us pass to the last three verses of the chapter. The Preacher here says, in effect, "Now attend carefully to what I tell thee of the result of all my experience in this way. I have discerned a good that I can really call comely or fair. It is for a man to have the means at his command for enjoyment, and the power to enjoy those means. This combination is distinctly the 'gift of God.' From such an one all the evils that make up life pass off without eating deep into his being. A cheerful spirit takes him off from the present evil as soon as it is past. He does not think on it much; for the joy of heart within, to which God responds, enables him to meet and over-ride those waves of life and forget them."
This is in perfect conformity with the whole scope of our book: and it is surely a mistake that the evangelical doctors and commentators make when they seek to extract truth from Solomon's writings that is never to be attained apart from God's revelation. On the other hand, a large school of German rationalists see here nothing beyond the teaching of the Epicure: "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die." Rather does it show the high-water mark of human reason, wisdom, and experience,—having much in common with the philosophy of the world, but going far beyond it; and then, at its highest, uttering some wail of dissatisfaction and disappointment, whilst the majestic height of divine revelation towers above it into the very heavens, taking him who receives it far above the clouds and mists of earth's speculations and questionings into the clear sunlight of eternal divine truth.
So here Solomon—and let us not forget none have ever gone, or can ever go, beyond him—gives us the result of his searchings along the special line of the power of riches to give enjoyment. His whole experience again and again has contradicted this. Look at the 12th verse of this very chapter. "The sleep of the laboring man is sweet, but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep." No, no. In some way to get joy, he confesses he must have God. He combines in these verses these two ideas—"Joy" and "God." Look at them. See how they recur: four times the name of God, thrice a word for joy. Now this raises Solomon far far above the malarial swamps of mere epicureanism, which excluded God entirely. It shows how perfect the harmony throughout the whole book. It is again, let us recall it, the high-water mark of human reason, intelligence, and experience. He reasons thus: (1) I have proved the vanity and unsatisfactory character of all created things in themselves, and yet can see no good beyond getting enjoyment from them. (2) The power, therefore, for enjoyment cannot be from the things themselves. It must be from God. He must give it. (3) This assumes that there must be some kind of accord between God and the heart, for God is the spring, and not the circumstances without. So far the power of human reason. High it is, indeed; but how unsatisfactory, at its highest. Consider all that it leaves unsaid. Suppose this were where you and I were, my reader, what should we learn of the way of attaining to this "good that is fair"? Shall we ask Ecclesiastes one single question that surely needs clear answer in order to attain it?
I am a sinner: conscience, with more or less power, constantly accuses. How can this awful matter of my guilt in the sight of that God, the confessed and only source of thy "good," be settled? Surely this is absolutely necessary to know ere I can enjoy thy "good that is fair." Nay, more: were a voice to speak from heaven, telling me that all the past were blotted out up to this moment, I am well assured that I could not maintain this condition for the next moment. Sin would well up from the nature within, and leave me as hopeless as ever. I carry it—that awful defiling thing—with me, in me. How is this to be answered, Ecclesiastes?—or what help to its answer dost thou give?...
And there is silence alone for a reply.
Once and only once was such a state possible. Adam, as he walked in his undefiled Eden, eating its fruit, rejoicing in the result of his labor, with no accusing conscience, God visiting him in the cool of the day and responding to all his joy,—there is the picture of Ecclesiastes' "good that is fair." Where else in the old creation, and how long did that last? No; whilst it is refreshing and inspiring to mark the beautiful intelligence and exalted reasoning of Ecclesiastes, recognizing the true place of man in creation, dependent, and consciously dependent, on God for "life and breath and all things," as Paul spoke long afterwards, appealing to that in the heathen Athenians which even they were capable of responding to affirmatively; yet how he leaves us looking at a "good that is fair," but without a word as to how it is to be attained, in view of, and in spite of, sin. That one short word raises an impassable barrier between us and that fair good, and the more fair the good, the more cruel the pain at being so utterly separated from it; but then, too, the more sweet and precious the love that removes the barrier entirely, and introduces us to a good that is as far fairer than Solomon's as Solomon's is above the beasts.
For we, too, my dear readers, have our "good that is fair." Nor need we fear comparison with that of this wisest of men.
Survey with me a fairer scene than any lighted by this old creation sun can show, and harken to God's own voice, in striking contrast to poor Solomon's portraying its lovely and entrancing beauties for our enjoyment.
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ, according as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will to the praise of the glory of His grace wherein He hath made us accepted in the Beloved: in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of His grace."
Dwell a little on this our own fair good; mark its sevenfold perfection; go up and down the land with me. Let us press these grapes of Eshcol, and taste their excellence together.
First: Chosen in Him before the foundation of the world.—A threefold cord, that is, indeed, not soon broken. "Chosen," God's own love and wisdom is the fount and spring whence all flows. And that in blessed connection with the dearest object of His love—"in Him." "Before the foundation of the world." In the stability and changelessness of Eternity,—before that scene that is, and ever was, characterized by change, began,—with its mirth and sorrow, sunshine and shadow, life and death. Blessed solid rock-foundation for all in God and Eternity.
Second: To be Holy.—Separated from all the defilement that should afterwards come in. Thus His electing love is always marked first by separation from all evil. It can never allow its object to be connected with the slightest defilement. The evil was allowed only that He might reveal Himself as Love and Light in dealing with it.
Third: without blame.—So thoroughly is all connected with past defilement met that not a memory of it remains to mar the present joy. The defilement of the old creation with which we were connected has left never a spot nor a stain on the person that could offend infinite holiness. Clean, every whit. Bless the Lord, oh my soul!
Fourth: In love.—Thus separated and cleansed from all defilement not mere complacency regards us. Not merely for his own pleasure, as men make a beautiful garden, and remove everything that would offend their taste, but active love in all its divine warmth encircles us. My reader, do you enjoy this fair good? If you be but the feeblest believer it is your own.
Fifth: Adoption of Children.—Closest kind of love, and that so implanted in the heart as to put that responsive home-cry of "Abba, Father," there, and on our lips. Yet nothing short of this was the "good pleasure of His will.
Sixth.—Taken into favor in the Beloved: the wondrous measure of acceptance "in the Beloved One." Look at Him again. All the glory He had in eternity He has now, and more added to it. Infinite complacency regards him. That, too, is the measure of our acceptance.
Seventh.—But no shirking that awful word,—no overlooking the awful fact of sin's existence. No; the foundation of our enjoyment of our own fair good is well laid "in whom we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins."
Sin, looked at in infinite holy Light,—thoroughly looked at,—and Blood, precious Blood, poured out in atonement for it, and thus put away forever in perfect righteousness.
Now may the Lord grant us to realize more fully, as we progress in our book, the awful hopelessness that weighs on man's sad being, apart from the blessed and infinitely gracious revelation of God.
Remembering how far the writer of our book excels all who have ever come after him, in ability, wisdom, or riches, his groans of disappointment shall have their true weight with us, and act as lighthouse beacons, warning us from danger, or from spending the one short fleeting life we have in treading the same profitless pathway of groaning.
So chapter six opens, still on the same subject of wealth and its power to bless. A sore evil, and one that weighs heavily on man, has Solomon seen: riches, wealth, and honor, clustering thick on the head of one person, and yet God has withheld from him the power of enjoying it all. As our own poet, Browning, writes that apt illustration of King Saul:
"A people is thine, And all gifts, which the world offers singly, on one head combine! High ambition, and deeds which surpass it, fame crowning them all, Brought to blaze on the head of one creature—King Saul."
So sorrowful is this in our preacher's eyes, and so thoroughly does it bespeak a state of affairs under the sun in confusion, that Solomon ventures the strongest possible assertion. Better, he says, an untimely birth, that never saw light, than a thousand years twice told, thus spent in vanity, without real good having been found. How bitter life must show itself to lead to such an estimate! Better never to have been born than pass through life without finding something that can satisfy. But this is not looking at life simply in itself, for life in itself is good, as the same poet sings:
"Oh, our manhood's prime vigor! No spirit feels waste, Not a muscle is stopped in its playing nor sinew unbraced. Oh, the wild joys of living! the leaping from rock up to rock, The strong rending of boughs from the fir-tree, the cool silver shock Of the plunge in a pool's living water! How good is man's life—the mere living! how fit to employ All the heart and the soul and the senses forever in joy!"
It is because man has, of all the creation of God, an awful shadow hanging over him—"death and darkness and the tomb," with the solemn, silent, unknown "beyond" lying before him, robbing him of rest. Angels have present pure delight, with no such shadow possible—they die not. The beast may enjoy his pasture, for no thought of a coming death disturbs him. Life may be full of a kind of enjoyment to such; but man, poor man, when awake to the possibilities of his own being, as it surely becomes man to be (and that is just the point of this book—we are not looking upon man as a mere animal, but as a reasoning creature, and as such he), is robbed of present rest and enjoyment by an inevitable fate to which he is hastening, and from which there is no possible escape. Do not all go to one place?—that vague "Sheol," speaking of the grave, and yet the grave, not as the end, but an indefinite shadowy existence beyond? All, all go there; and with no light on that, better, indeed, "the untimely birth which came in vanity and departs in darkness;" for this, at least, has the more rest. Bitter groan this, indeed!
For the Preacher continues: "Does man's labor satisfy him? Can he get what is really 'good' from it?" No. For never is his appetite filled so that it desires nothing more. The constant return of its thirst demands constant toil; and fool and wise must alike obey its call. This is not confined to bodily food, but covers that bitter hunger and thirst of the heart, as the use of the word soul (margin) shows. The longings of the wise may be for a higher food. He may aim above the mere sensual, and seek to fill his soul with the refined, but he fails, as indeed do all, even "the poor man who knows to walk before the living;" that is, even the poor man who, with all the disadvantages of poverty, has wisdom enough to know how to live so as to command the respect of his fellows. Wise indeed must such be; but he, no more than the fool, has found the "good" that forever satisfies hunger and thirst, and calms to rest the wandering of the soul, which, like the restless swallow, is ever on the wing. Man is made up of desire, and one glimpse with the eyes, something seen, is at least something secured, and it is better than all mere longing, which is vanity and the pursuit of the wind. For everything has long ago been named from its own nature; and in this way its name shows what it is. Thus man, too, (Adam,) is, and ever has been, known from his name, from "adamah," earth; his name so showing his mortality. If thus he has been made by his Creator, how vain for him to hope to escape his fate, for with Him no contention is possible. What use, then, in many words (not things) since they afford no relief as against that end? they only increase vanity. Then the last sad wail of this subject: "Who knoweth what is really good—satisfying for man—during the few fleeting years of his vain life here, which he passes as a shadow; and when he is gone, who can tell him what shall be after him under the sun"?
Let that wail sink down deep into our ears. It is the cry that has been passed, in ever increasing volume, from heart to heart—every empty hollow heart of man echoing and re-echoing, "Who will show us any good?" Now turn and listen to One who came to answer that fully, and in His word to Mary, the sister of Lazarus, He does distinctly, in words, answer it. She had chosen the portion that He could call "good." And was that travail and toil, even in service for Himself? No, that was rather her sister's portion; but a seat—expressive of rest—(consider it), a listening ear, whilst the Lord ministered to her;—and that is all that is needful! What a contrast between this poor rich king, communing with his own heart to find out what is that good portion for man; and the rich poor saint in blessed communion with infinite Love, infinite Wisdom, infinite Power, and resting satisfied! Surely, Solomon in all his glory had no throne to be compared to hers, as she sat lowly "at His feet." And mark carefully, for thy soul's good, that word of tender grace that the Lord said, This is "needful." He who had listened to the groan of man's heart through those long four thousand years, and knew its need fully and exactly, says that this good portion must not be regarded as any high attainment for the few, but as the very breath of life—for all. If He knows that it is needful for thee, then, my soul, fear not but that He will approve thy taking the same place and claiming Mary's portion on the ground of thy need alone.