Ecclesiastes Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV.

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 today? 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' 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.