Ecclesiastes Chapter 11

 

CHAPTER XI.

We are drawing near the end, and to the highest conclusions of true human wisdom; and full of deepest interest it is to mark the character of these conclusions. Reason speaks; that faculty that is rightly termed divine, for its possession marks those who are "the offspring of God." He is the Father of spirits, and it is in the spirit that Reason has her seat; whilst in our Preacher she is enthroned, and now with authority utters forth her counsels. Here we may listen to just how far she can attain, mark with deepest interest, and indeed admiration, the grand extent of her powers; and at the same time their sorrowful limit,--note their happy harmony up to that limit, with her Creator; and then, when with baffled effort and conscious helplessness, in view of the deepest questions that ever stir the heart, she is able to find no answer to them, and groans her exceeding bitter cry of "Vanity," then to turn and listen to the grace and love of that Creator meeting those needs and answering those questions,--this is inexpressibly precious; and with the light thus given we must let our spirits sing a new song, for we are nigh to God, and it is still true that "none enter the king's gate clothed with sackcloth." Joy and praise have their dwelling ever within those boundaries; for He inhabiteth the praises of His people.

In the first eight verses of our chapter we shall thus find man's Reason running in a beautiful parallel with the divine, and yet in marked contrast with the narrow, selfish, short-sighted policy of the debased wisdom of this world. Their broad teaching is very clear; look forward,--live not for the present; but instead of hoarding or laying up for the evil day, cast thy bread--that staff of life, thy living--boldly upon the waters, it shall not be lost. You have, in so doing, intrusted it to the care of Him who loseth nothing; and the future, though perhaps far off, shall give thee a full harvest for such sowing. But, to be more explicit, give with a free hand without carefully considering a limit to thy gifts ("a portion to seven and also to eight" would seem to have this bearing), for who knows when, in the future, an evil time to thee may make thee the recipient of others' bounty.

Can we but admire the harmony, I say again, between the voice of poor, feeble, limited human wisdom and the perfect, absolute, limitless, divine wisdom of New Testament revelation:

"For I mean not that other men be eased and ye burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want: that there may be equality." This is very closely in the same line. But Solomon continues: Nay, see the lessons that Nature herself would teach (and he is no wise man, but distinctly and scripturally "a fool," who is deaf to her teachings, blind to her symbols). The full clouds find relief by emptying themselves on the parched earth, only to receive those same waters again from the full ocean, after they have fulfilled their benevolent mission; and it is a small matter to which side, north or south, the tree may fall, it is there for the good of whoever may need it there. *

[* The current interpretation of this clause, that it speaks of the future state of man after death, seems hardly in keeping with the context, and certainly not at all in keeping with the character and scope of the book. Ecclesiastes everywhere confesses the strict limitation of his knowledge to the present scene. This is the cause of his deepest groanings that he cannot pierce beyond it; and it would be entirely contrary for him here, in this single instance, to assume to pronounce authoritatively of the nature of that place or state of which he says he knows nothing.]

The accidental direction of the wind determines which way it falls; but either north or south it remains for the good of man. In like manner watch not for favorable winds; dispense on every side, north and south, of thy abundance; nor be too solicitous as to the worthiness of the recipients. He who waits for perfectly favorable conditions will never sow, consequently never reap. Results are with God. It is not thy care in sowing at exactly the right moment that gives the harvest; all that is God's inscrutable work in nature, nor can man tell how those results are attained. Life in its commencements is as completely enshrouded in mystery now as then. No science, no human wisdom has, or--it may be boldly added--ever can throw the slightest glimmer of clear light upon it. Thy part is diligence in sowing, the harvest return is God's care. "In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand" is wisdom's counsel here, just as a higher wisdom teaches "Preach the word: be instant in season and out of season."

Thus human reason and divine wisdom "keep step" together till the former reaches its limit; and very soon, in looking forward, is that limit reached. For listen now to her advice, consequent on the foregoing. Therefore she says, Let not the enjoyment of the present blind thee to the future; for alas there stands that awful mysterious Exit from the scene that has again and again baffled the Preacher throughout the book. And here again no science or human reason ever has or ever can throw the faintest glimmer of clear light beyond it. That time is still, at the end of the book, the "days of darkness." As poor Job in the day of his trial wails: "I go whence I shall not return, even to the land of darkness and the shadow of death; a land of darkness as darkness itself, and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness." So Ecclesiastes says, "let him remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many." Oh sad and gloomy counsel! Is this what life is? Its bright morning ever to be clouded,--its day to be darkened with the thoughts of its end? Oh sorrowful irony to tell us to rejoice in the years of life, and yet ever to bear in mind that those years are surely, irresistibly, carrying us on to the many "days of darkness." Yes, this is where the highest intellect, the acutest reason, the purest wisdom of any man at any time has attained. But

Where Reason fails, with all her powers,
There Faith prevails and Love adores.

Where the darkness by reason's light is deepest, there Love--Infinite and Eternal--has thrown its brightest beam, and far from that time beyond the tomb being "the days of darkness," by New Testament revelation it is the one eternal blessed Day lit up with a Light that never dims; yes, even sun and moon unneeded for "The glory of God enlightens it, and the Lamb is the Light thereof." Think of a Christian with that blessed hope of the coming of his Saviour to take him to that well-lighted Home--His Father's House--with the sweet and holy anticipations of seeing His own blessed Face,--once marred and smitten for him; of never grieving Him more, of sin never again to mar his communion with Him, of happy holy companionship for eternity with kindred hearts and minds all tuned to the one glorious harmony of exalting "Him that sits upon the throne and the Lamb,"--of loving Him perfectly, of serving Him perfectly, of enjoying Him perfectly,--think of such a Christian saying, as He looks forward to this bliss, "All that cometh is vanity,"and we may get some measure of the value of the precious word of God.

But now with a stronger blow our writer strikes the same doleful chord: "Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thy heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment."

One would think that there could be no possible misunderstanding the sorrowful irony of the counsel "to walk in the ways of thy heart, and in the sight of thine eyes,"--expressions invariably used in an evil sense (compare Num. xv. 39; Isa. lvii. 17); and yet, to be consistent with the interpretation to similar counsel in other parts of the book, expounders have sought to give them a Christian meaning, as if they were given in the light of revelation and not in the semi-darkness of nature. But here the concluding sentence, "Know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment," is quite unmistakable.

But here is indeed a startling assertion. Where has our writer learned, with such emphatic certainty, of a judgment to come? Have we mistaken the standpoint whence our book was written? Has the writer, after all, been listening to another Voice that has taught him what is on the other side of the grave? Does Revelation make itself heard here at last? Or may, perhaps, even this be in perfect harmony with all that has gone before, and be one step further--almost the last step--along the path that unaided (but not depraved) human Reason may tread? In a word, does Nature herself give Reason sufficient light to enable her, when in right exercise, to discover a judgment-seat in the shadows of the future?

This is surely a question of deepest--yes, thrilling--interest; and, we are confident, must be answered in the affirmative. It is to this point that our writer has been climbing, step by step. Nature has taught him that the future must be looked at rather than the present; or, rather, the present must be looked at in the light of the future; for that future corresponds in its character to the present, as the crop does to the seed, only exceeds it in intensity as the harvest exceeds the grain sown. Thus bread hoarded gives no harvest; or, in other words, he who lives for the present alone, necessarily, by the simplest and yet strongest law of Nature, must suffer loss: this is Judgment by Nature's law. This, too, is the keynote of every verse--"the future," "the future"; and God, who is clearly discerned by Reason as behind Nature, "which is but the name for an effect whose Cause is God,"--God is clearly recognized as returning a harvest in the future, in strict and accurate accord with the sowing of the present. This is very clear. Then how simple and how certain that if this is God's irrefragable law in Nature, it must have its fulfillment too in the moral nature of man. It has been one of the chief sorrows of the book that neither wrong nor confusion is righted here, and those "days of darkness" to which all life tends are no discriminative judgment, nor is there anything of the kind in a scene where "all things come alike to all." Then surely, most surely, unless indeed man alone sows without reaping,--alone breaks in as an exception to this law,--a thought not consonant with reason,--there must be to him also a harvest of reaping according to what has been sown: in other words a Judgment. Although still, let us mark, our writer does not assume to say anything as to where or when that shall be, or how brought about, this is all uncertain and indefinite: the fact is certain; and more clear will the outline of that judgment-seat stand out, as our writer's eyes become accustomed to the new light in which he is standing,--the fact is already certain.

Solemn, most solemn, is this; and yet how beautiful to see a true reason--but let us emphasize again not depraved, but exercising her royal function of sovereignty over the flesh, not subject to it--drawing such true and sure lessons from that which she sees of the law of God in Nature. It is a reasonable, although in view of sin, a fearful expectation; and with exactness is the word chosen in Acts: Paul reasoned of judgment to come; and reason, with conscience, recognized the force of the appeal, as "Felix trembled."

Thus that solemn double appointment of man: death and judgment has been discerned by Nature's light, and counsel is given in view of each. We said that our writer had reached the climax of his perplexities in view of death in chap. ix. when he counseled us to "merrily drink our wine"; but now judgment discerned, death itself even not necessarily the end, at length soberness prevails; and with an evident solemn sincerity he counsels "Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh, for childhood and youth are vanity."