Ecclesiastes Chapter 5

 

CHAPTER V.

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 worshipers 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 holds 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 tomorrow 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 above the malarial swamps of mere epicureans, 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.