Charles Simeon's Devotional Commentaries
The Vanity of the Creature
Ecclesiastes 1:2, "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "vanity of vanities; all is vanity!"
If experience entitles a man to credit, and gives weight to his testimony, we derive great advantage as to the credibility of the inspired writings. For respecting much of which the Prophets and Apostles wrote, they could say, "What my eyes have seen, my ears have heard, and my hands have handled of the word of life, that I declare unto you." And if this is an advantage in reference to the excellency of religion, it may well be regarded as of some importance in reference also to the vanity of all earthly pursuits.
That there should have been a man possessed of such abundant means of gratification as Solomon was, and so ardent in the pursuit of it in every possible line, and at the same time so faithful in declaring his own experience in relation to it all, must be considered as an advantage to all subsequent generations who would hear and receive his testimony respecting the things which he had so fully tried, and so invariably proved to be vanity itself. The words before us express a conviction that admitted not of doubt, and a decision that left no room for controversy. "The Preacher" who uttered them was inspired of God, at the same time that he recorded what, from personal knowledge, he was qualified to declare.
I. In considering Solomon's testimony, I shall CONFIRM it—
The things of which he spoke were, all that the world contains; its grosser and more common pursuits of pleasure, riches, and honor, as also its more refined attainments of wisdom and knowledge.
1. All things, without exception, are vanity in their ACQUISITION.
It is not without great labor and toil that earthly distinctions are obtained. The merchant, the warrior, the philosopher will bear record, that in their respective pursuits they have endured much fatigue and many disappointments; insomuch that to one whose taste was different from theirs, they would appear to have paid too dear a price for all that they have gained.
2. All things, without exception, are vanity in their USE.
Suppose that the labors of any person have been crowned with success; What, after all, has he gained? He thought he was following something substantial—but, to his mortification, he finds that he has grasped a shadow. He has "hewn out cisterns" for himself, indeed, with great labor; but he finds, after all, that they are "broken cisterns, which can hold no water."
At the first moment, while the charm of novelty is upon them, the various objects we have attained afford a pleasing gratification to the mind: but scarcely have they been enjoyed a few days, before they lose their sweetness, and descend into the common routine of earthly comforts. The man who rolls in wealth, and he who is dignified with high-sounding titles, is soon brought to a level with his inferiors in point of actual enjoyment; and even he who has acquired knowledge, finds, that, "in having increased knowledge, he has also increased sorrow" [verse 18] because of the envy which his eminence has excited, and the uncertainty of much which he thinks he has attained.
3. All things, without exception, are vanity in their CONTINUANCE.
What is there of which a man may not be stripped? Pleasure may, in a very little time, be turned into pain. Honor may speedily be blasted by some unforeseen event. "Riches make themselves wings, and fly away!" And through disease or accident, even reason itself, with all its highest attainments, may sink into more than infantile weakness and infirmity. But grant to these things all that the most optimistic imagination can impute, how soon do they vanish away! Even life itself is but as a hand-breadth, or as a shadow that declines. The moment that death comes, "all our thoughts perish," and we "go out of the world as naked and as destitute as we came into it."
4. All things, without exception, are vanity in their OUTCOME.
Here it is that the vanity of earthly things pre-eminently appears. For in what respect can they advance our eternal happiness? Would to God that they did not so generally and so fatally obstruct it! Truly, "neither riches nor honors can profit us in the day of wrath." With our holy and heavenly Judge "there is no respect of persons." The rich and the poor will be dealt with according to one equal law—only the rich, and the great, and the learned, will be called to a more severe account in proportion to the influence they possessed, and the advantages they neglected to improve.
II. But as Solomon's testimony is unquestionably strong, I shall QUALIFY it.
Beyond all doubt, the Scriptures generally contain the same language: "Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie; to be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity" [Psalm 62:9.] But stronger still is the language of the Psalmist in another place, where he says, "Truly every man at his best estate, is altogether vanity" [Psalm 39:5.] Consider how strong and how unqualified these expressions are, and you will not expect me to say much in mitigation of them. Yet I must say that:
1. The vanity of the creature, though the same in itself, is differently felt, according to our mode of acting in reference to it.
If we give ourselves up to creature comforts, we shall be dreadfully disappointed. But if we enjoy them in subservience to God, and in subordination to higher pursuits, we shall not find them so empty as may be imagined. For God has "given to his people all things richly to enjoy" and provided only we enjoy God in them, they are both a legitimate and an abundant spring of pure delight. For, while we derive from them the happiness which they are calculated to impart, we taste not the bitterness which is infused into the cup of the mere worldling. Our enjoyments are elevated and sanctified. Our pains are moderated and changed into an occasion of praise and thanksgiving. Only let them be sought in their proper place, and they are comforts in the way to Heaven, though they can never stand to us in the place of Heaven.
2. The vanity of the creature, though the same in itself, is differently felt, according to the degree in which we blend religion with it.
True religion raises us above the creature altogether. If we have much of this world, we shall have a high enjoyment of it, because we shall make it the means of benefitting our fellow-creatures, and of honoring our God. If, on the other hand, we have little of this world, we shall still be happy, because, in having God for our portion, we can lack nothing.
There are but two lessons for the Christian to learn:
the one is, to enjoy God in everything;
the other is, to enjoy everything in God.
The one ennobles the rich; the other elevates the poor. All who have learned these lessons are, and must be, happy.
While, therefore, I grant the general position, that the creature is vanity—I must say, that the experience of its vanity, depends altogether on our undue pursuit of it and expectations from it. Let us only take it in the manner that God approves, and for the ends for which he has sent it, and we shall still find it, like Jacob's ladder—unsubstantial indeed it itself, but still a medium of communication between Heaven and earth; a medium of God's descent to us, and of our ascent to him.
III. In our consideration of Solomon's testimony, let us further IMPROVE it.
Much, very much, may it teach us!
1. We may learn from the vanity of the creature, to be moderate in our expectations.
If we will foolishly look for that in the creature which God never designed to be put into it, we may well expect disappointment. Even in Paradise it was not intended to stand in the place of God, or to be to us any source of solid satisfaction; how much less, then, can it be so, when sin has infused a curse into it, agreeably to what is written, "Cursed is the ground for your sake."
Let us estimate it aright, and expect from it no more than God has ordained it to impart—and we shall prove but little of its emptiness, while we have a rich and becoming enjoyment of it.
The direction of Paul is that which comes immediately to the point, and exactly suits the present occasion: "The time is short. It remains that both those who have wives be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they wept not; and those who rejoice, as though they rejoice not; and those who buy, as though they possessed not; and those who use this world, as not abusing it. For the fashion of this world is passing away" [1 Corinthians 7:29-31.] Only use the creature in this way, and you will find it no injury to your souls.
2. We may learn from the vanity of the creature, to be patient in our trials.
Trials of different kinds must come, for "the whole creation has, through the sin of man, become subject to vanity." But, in our present state, this is in reality a benefit; for, if it were not so, we would be ready to take up our rest in this world, instead of seeking "that which remains for us" in the world to come. Troubles serve to bring us near to God for the supports and consolations which we stand in need of. And shall we complain of that which brings us near to him, and proves an occasion of richer communications from him? No, truly, we should taste love, and love only, in our diversified afflictions; and look to God as sending them "for our profit, that by means of them we may be made partakers of his holiness," and fit for his glory.
3. We may learn from the vanity of the creature, to be diligent in our pursuit of better things.
In heavenly things there are no drawbacks, except those which are caused by our own defects in seeking after them. There is no vanity in love to God, or love to man—and the more we labor after them, and delight ourselves in them, the happier we shall be. Could we but give ourselves wholly to these things, we would find in them a very Heaven upon earth. To every one of you, then, I would recommend that prayer of David, "Turn away my eyes from beholding vanity, and quicken me in your way!" [Psalm 119:37.]
The Creature Is Vanity and Vexation
Ecclesiastes 1:14-15, "I have seen all the works which are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. That which is crooked cannot be made straight; and that which is lacking, cannot be numbered."
The Book of Ecclesiastes is generally supposed to have been written by Solomon after he had repented of his manifold transgressions; and it is pleasing to view it in this light: for, if it be not so, we have no record whatever of his penitence. But in this view its declarations are doubly interesting: as inspired by God, they are of Divine authority; and, as resulting from actual experience, they carry a much deeper conviction with them to our minds. Had one of the fishermen of Galilee spoken so strongly respecting the vanity of the world, we might have said that he had never had any opportunity of knowing experimentally what attractions the world possessed.
But Solomon had an ampler range for enjoyment than any other human being. As a king, he had the wealth of a nation at his command. As endued with a greater measure of wisdom than all other men, he could combine all kinds of intellectual pleasure with that which was merely sensual. As having a peaceful reign, he was free from all the alarms and disquietudes of war, and able to prosecute pleasure as the one object of his life. Every species of gratification being thus easily within his reach, he was amply qualified to judge of what the world could give; and yet, after having made the experiment, and "seen all the works that are done under the sun," he pronounced them all to be "vanity and vexation of spirit!"
Two things in our text are to be noticed:
I. The general assertion:"I have seen all the works which are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit."
Never was any truth more capable of demonstration than this, that:
1. The world, and everything in it, is VANITY.
If we view the creature in itself, what a poor worthless thing is it! Take gold, for instance: much as it is in request, it has in itself no value—the value put on it is merely arbitrary, arising not so much from its usefulness to us, as from the scarcity of it. Iron is of infinitely greater service to mankind than gold, and would be more valued by us, if it did not happen that it is to be found in much larger quantities than gold.
So it is with jewels: the value of them is quite exalted; in themselves they are of no more use than common pebbles. He who possesses them in the greatest abundance, is in reality no richer than if he possessed so much gravel out of the pit.
Nor is anything that wealth can purchase, or anything that is associated with it, worthy of any better name than vanity.
What are high-sounding titles, but a mere sound that has its value only in the estimation of men.
We may ask the same in reference to pleasure. What is it? Let but a very small change take place in the circumstances of the person, and the pleasure shall become a pain. Or let it be enjoyed in all its fullness; whom did it ever satisfy? To whom did it ever impart any permanent delight? The more exquisite it is, the sooner does it cloy; insomuch that we are soon forced to flee from it through very lassitude and disgust. A recurrence to the same sources of gratification is far from producing the same emotions in the soul—by use and habit we become indifferent to the very things which once we most ardently affected; so poor, so empty, so transient is all that passes under the semblance and the name of pleasure.
We may say therefore of "all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life," that it is not only vain, but "vanity" in the abstract! "Vanity of vanities, says the preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity!" [verse 2.]
2. The world, and everything in it, is VEXATION OF SPIRIT.
So far is the creature from affording any real happiness, that it is an occasion of constant vexation to the mind. The pursuit of earthly things is attended with much labor, and with much uncertainty also as to the attainment of them. When attained, they excite nothing but envy in others, and disquietude in ourselves. By reason of the casualties to which the possession of them exposes us, we are filled with care; insomuch, that those who only behold our acquisitions, often derive more pleasure from them than we who are the owners of them!
Besides, the more we have attained, the more our desires are enlarged after something unpossessed; so that our labors are never at an end; and the pain issuing from a single disappointment frequently outweighs the pleasure arising from manifold successes.
Indeed, the things from which we promise ourselves most pleasure, generally become, by some means or other, the sources of our keenest anguish. Our most optimistic expectations usually terminate in the bitterest disappointment. Yes, it not infrequently happens, that after having attained the object of our wishes, we welcome the period of our separation from it, and bless ourselves more in the loss of it, than ever we did in the acquisition.
Say then whether Solomon's testimony is not strictly true. Young people, when they hear such a sentiment avowed, are ready to think it melancholy temperament, and a libel on the whole creation. But this testimony is the very truth of God, and shall sooner or later be found true in the experience of every living man. The world, and everything in it, is a broken cistern, that disappoints the hopes of the thirsty traveler, and becomes to him, not only vanity, but "vexation of spirit." He who has most sought to satisfy himself with it, finds after all his labors, that he has only "filled his belly with the east wind" [Job 15:2.]
Such is the import of the general assertion. We now proceed to notice,
II. The particular confirmation of it."That which is crooked cannot be made straight; and that which is lacking, cannot be numbered."
Two things are here specified by Solomon, as strongly illustrating the foregoing truth. Namely, that:
However much we may exert ourselves,
1. However much we may exert ourselves, we cannot alter that which is unfavorable. "That which is crooked cannot be made straight."
Every man, by the very constitution of his nature, is dependent on his fellow-man for the greater portion of his happiness. The welfare of a whole empire depends on the wisdom and prudence of the prince—as the prince's prosperity and comfort do on the industry, the fortitude, the loyalty of his people. So it is through all ranks and orders of society—all are deeply affected by the conduct of those around them.
In the domestic circle, how impossible is it for the husband or wife, the parent or child, to be happy, if those with whom he is more immediately connected be perverse and obstinate in an evil way!
Yet all come more or less in contact with unreasonable men; and, however much they may strive to rectify the views, or reform the habits, of such people, they find it altogether beyond their power—they can as easily change the leopard's spots or the Ethiopian's complexion, as they can prevail on people to change those habits which are productive of so much uneasiness to their minds.
Hence, though they form the wisest and most benevolent plans, they cannot carry them into execution, because of the blindness and perverseness of those whose concurrence is necessary for the accomplishment of them.
In like manner, there is often an untowardness in events as well as in men. The seasons will not consult us, nor will the elements obey us. Accidents utterly unforeseen will occur, and cannot be prevented by human foresight. Hence uncertainty attends our best concerted plans, and failure often disappoints our most laborious exertions. But these are "crooked things which no man can make straight"—no human wisdom or power can control them.
We have a large and abundant harvest in prospect; but, behold, storms and tempests, or blasting and mildew, or insects of some kind, destroy the whole crop! We have gathered the harvest into our granaries, and a fire consumes it; or an enemy overruns the land, and devours it.
We have attained the greatest felicity of which we suppose ourselves capable, by a connection the most desirable, or by the acquisition of a first-born son—but how soon does death invade our dwelling, and blast all our promised joys! These are but a few of the evils to which we are exposed in this vain world, and they stamp "vanity and vexation" upon all that we possess.
2. However much we may exert ourselves, we cannot supply that which is defective. "That which is lacking, cannot be numbered."
The rich, the poor, the old, the young, the learned, the unlearned, all without exception, find that there is much lacking to render them completely happy. Of those who possess most of this world's good, it must be said, "In the fullness of their sufficiency they are in straits" [Job 20:22.]
Solomon is a remarkable example of this. He had formed, if not a wise, yet an honorable connection with Pharaoh's daughter. Not satisfied, he sought happiness in a plurality of wives. Still not having attained happiness, he multiplied his wives and concubines to the number of one thousand—and found himself, after all, as far from happiness as ever. Every other thing which he thought could contribute to his happiness he sought with insatiable avidity. But, after he had attained all his objects, he found, that "the things which were lacking could not be numbered."
And so shall we find it to the last hour of our lives. We may fancy that this or that will make us happy; but, when we have gained it, we have only followed a shadow that eludes our grasp. The truth is, that God never designed the creature to be a satisfying portion to man. Not even Paradise itself could satisfy Adam—no, nor could the partner which he gave him. He must taste the forbidden fruit. He could not be content without an accession of wisdom, which God did not ever intend him to possess. Thus, even in man's state of innocence, nothing but God could satisfy his soul. Nor can anything, short of God himself, ever be a satisfying portion to any child of man.
1. Set not your affections on things below.
How happy would it be for us, if we could be content to receive the foregoing truths on the testimony of Solomon, instead of determining to learn them by our own experience! How much vexation and misery should we avoid! But, in spite of the united acknowledgments of all who have gone before us, we still think that we shall find something besides God to make us happy. This however we cannot do, even though we should possess all that Solomon ever enjoyed. We may continue our pursuit as long as we will; but we must come at last to the same conclusion as he, and give the same testimony as to the result of our experience.
Be persuaded, brethren, to credit the Divine testimony, and to spare yourselves all the pain and disappointment which, you must otherwise encounter. We mean not that you should renounce the pursuit of earthly things; for you cannot do that without abandoning the duties which you owe to your families and to society at large. But the expectation of happiness from them you may, and must, renounce. You must never forget:
that the creature without God is nothing;
and that happiness is to be found in God alone.
2. Seek the Lord Jesus Christ with your whole hearts.
He is a portion in which you will never find any lack. In him is a fullness sufficient to fill all the capacities, and satisfy all the desires of the whole universe. Millions and millions of immortal souls may go to that fountain, and never diminish his exhaustless store! To the possession of him, no disappointment can attach; nor from the enjoyment of him, can any vexation ensue. In him all "crooked things are made straight." Where he is, no want can possibly exist.
If you ask of the creature . . .
to heal the wounds of sin,
to give peace to a guilty conscience,
to subdue in us our corruptions, or
to cheer us with hopes of immortality
—it cannot do any one of these things. No, not even for the body can the creature do anything to heal its sickness, to assuage its anguish, or to prolong its existence. But the Lord Jesus Christ can do everything, both for the body and the soul, both for time and for eternity!
Seek him, then, beloved! Seek him with your whole hearts. In seeking him, your exertions cannot be too earnest, nor can your expectations be too enlarged. If he gives you his flesh to eat, and his blood to drink—you will never hunger, never thirst again, either in this world or in the world to come. Only be able to say, "My Beloved is mine, and I am His"—and then all in Heaven as in earth, is yours. According as it is written, "All things are yours—and you are in Christ's—and Christ is God's."
The Emptiness of Worldly Mirth
Ecclesiastes 2:2, "I said of laughter: It is mad!
And of mirth: What does it accomplish?"
Who is it that has ventured to speak thus respecting that which constitutes, in the world's estimation, the great happiness of life?
Was he an ignorant man?
Or was he one who from envy decried a thing which he was not able to attain?
Or was he an inexperienced man, who had no just means of forming a judgment?
Or was he an irritated man, who vented thus his spleen against an object that had disappointed him?
Or was he one whose authority in this matter we are at liberty to question!
No! it was the wisest of the human race, who had more ample means of judging than any other man, and had tried the matter to the uttermost. It was Solomon himself, under the influence of the Spirit of God, recording this, not only as the result of his own experience, but as the declaration of Jehovah, by him, for the instruction of the world in all future ages.
He had been left by God to try the vain experiment, whether happiness was to be found in anything but God.
He tried it, first, in the pursuit of knowledge; which, to a person of his enlarged mind, certainly promised most fair to yield him the satisfaction which he sought. But partly from the labor requisite for the attainment of knowledge; partly from discovering how little could be known by people of our finite capacity; partly also from the insufficiency of knowledge to satisfy the innumerable wants of man; and partly from the disgust which had been created in his mind by the insight which his wisdom gave him into the ignorance and folly of the rest of mankind—he left it upon record, as his deliberate judgment, that "in much wisdom is much grief; and that he who increases knowledge, increases sorrow" [Ecclesiastes 1:18.]
He then turned to pleasure, as the most probable source of happiness: "I said in my heart, Go now, I will prove you with mirth: therefore enjoy pleasure." But being equally disappointed in that, he adds, "Behold, this also is vanity."
Then, in the words of my text, he further adds, "I said of laughter: It is mad! And of mirth: What does it accomplish?" [verse 1.]
In discoursing on this subject, I shall,
1. Show what that is which Solomon here pronounces to be "vanity".
It befits us, in considering such weighty declarations us that before us, to attain the most precise and accurate views of the terms employed; neither attenuating the import of them on the one hand, nor exaggerating it on the other.
We are not, then, to understand the text as decrying all cheerfulness. The Christian, above all people upon earth, has reason to be cheerful. True religion in no way tends to destroy the gaiety of the human mind, but only to direct it towards proper objects, and to restrain it within proper bounds. The ways of religion are represented as "ways of pleasantness and peace." "The fruits of the Spirit are, love, joy, peace, etc." all of which suppose a measure of cheerfulness, and the innocence of that cheerfulness, when arising from a fitting source, and kept within the limits of sobriety and sound wisdom.
Doubtless that tumultuous kind of joy which is generally denominated mirth, and which vents itself in immoderate laughter, is altogether vain and bad. But a tranquility of mind, exercising itself in a way of brotherly love and of cheerful benevolence, can never be censured as unprofitable, much less can it be condemned as verging towards foolishness.
Neither, on the other hand, are we to restrict the text to licentious and profane mirth. That needed not to be stigmatized in so peculiar a manner, because the fully of such mirth carries its own evidence along with it. We need only to see it in others, and if we ourselves are not partakers of it, we shall not hesitate to characterize it by some opprobrious or contemptuous name. We need neither the wisdom of Solomon, nor his experience, to pass upon it the judgment it deserves.
The conduct reprobated in our text is, the seeking of our happiness in carnal mirth. Solomon particularly specifies this: "I said in my heart. Go now, I will prove you with mirth." I will see whether that will afford me the happiness which I am in pursuit of. And we may suppose, that, in the prosecution of this object, he summoned around him all that was mirthful and lively in his court, and all that could contribute towards the attainment of it.
We may take a survey of the state of society in what may be called the fashionable world, and see how the votaries of pleasure spend their time. They go from one vanity to another, hoping that in a succession of amusements they shall find a satisfaction which nothing else can impart. Plays, balls, concerts, parties, the pleasures of the theater, of the race-course, of the card-table—form a certain round of employment, which those who travel in it expect to find productive of happiness, of such happiness at least as they affect. And this, I conceive, is what Solomon intended particularly to reprobate as fully and madness.
Of course, we must include also in the same description the more vulgar amusements to which the lower classes resort. All, according to their taste, or the means afforded them for enjoyment, while they pursue the same object—are obnoxious to the same censure. The degree of refinement which may be in their pursuits makes no difference in this matter. Whatever it be which calls forth their mirth and laughter, it is equally unprofitable and equally foolish. So Solomon judged.
We now proceed—
2. To confirm Solomon's testimony.
Let us take a candid view of this matter—let us consider pleasure in its true light—let us consider its aspect on us:
1. As MEN. As men, we possess faculties of a very high order, which we ought to cultivate, and which, when duly improved, exalt and dignify our nature.
But behold the votaries of pleasure; how low do they sink themselves by the depravity of their taste, and the emptiness of their pleasures! A man devoid of wisdom may abound in mirth and laughter, as well as a cultivated man. There will be found very little difference in their feelings; except, as the more enlarged men's capacities are for higher objects, the keener sense will they have of the emptiness of their vain pursuits. In truth, we may appeal even to themselves in confirmation of what Solomon has said; for there are no people more convinced of the unsatisfying nature of such pursuits, than those who follow them with the greatest avidity.
But let Scripture speak: "She that lives in pleasure is dead while she lives" [1 Timothy 5:6.] It is the fool alone that can say, "Let us eat, drink, and be merry" [Luke 12:19.]
2. As SINNERS. As sinners we have a great work to do; even to call to mind, and to mourn over, the sins of our whole lives, and to seek reconciliation with our offended God. The time, too, which is afforded us for this is very short and very uncertain. And, oh! what an outcome awaits our present exertions: even Heaven with all its glory—or Hell with all its inconceivable and everlasting terrors! Have people so circumstanced, any time for mirth, or any disposition to waste their precious hours in foolishness? Is it not much more suitable to them to be engaged according to the direction of James, "Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep; let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness; humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up" [James 4:9-10.]
3. As the REDEEMED of the Lord.
What redeemed soul can contemplate the price paid for his redemption, and laugh? Go, my brother, to Gethsemane, and see your Savior bathed in a bloody sweat. Go to Calvary, and behold him stretched upon the cruel cross. Hear his heart-rending cry, "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?" See the sun himself veiling his face in darkness, and the Lord of glory bowing his head in death. And then tell me, whether you feel much disposition for mirth and laughter—or whether such a state of mind would befit you?
Methinks, I need add no more. Your own consciences will attest the justice of Solomon's remarks. But if there be an advocate for mirth yet unconvinced, then I put it to him to answer that significant question in my text, "What does it accomplish?"
1. Are any disposed to complain that I make religion gloomy?
Remember, it is of carnal mirth that I have spoken; and of that, not in its occasional sallies, from a buoyancy of spirit, and in combination with love-but of its being regarded as a source of happiness, and of its constituting, as it were, a portion of our daily employment. And if I wrest this carnal mirth from you, do I leave you a prey to melancholy? Go to true religion, and see whether that does not furnish you with mirth and laughter of a purer kind—with mirth that is not unprofitable, with laughter that is not mad. The very end of the Gospel is, to "give you beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness." If you believe in Christ, it is not merely your privilege, but your duty to rejoice in him, yes, to "rejoice in him with joy unspeakable and full of glory."
If the Church, on account of temporal deliverances, could say, "Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing" [Psalm 126:1-2] then much more may you rejoice, on account of the salvation which has been given to you. Only, therefore, let the grounds of your joy be right, and we consent that "your mourning be turned into dancing, and that to the last hour of your lives you put off your sackcloth and gird yourself with gladness" [Psalm 30:11.] Instead of pronouncing such mirth madness, we will declare it to be your truest wisdom.
2. Are there any among you who accord with Solomon?
Remember, then, to seek those as your associates who are like-minded with you in this respect. Affect not the company of those who delight in carnal laughter and mirth; for they will only draw you from God, and rob you of the happiness which you might otherwise enjoy. If they appear happy, remember that "their mirth is like the crackling of thorns under a pot" [Ecclesiastes 7:6.] It may make a blaze for a moment, but it soon expires in disappointment and melancholy.
Be careful, too, to live near to God, and in sweet communion with your Lord and Savior; for if you draw back from God in secret, you will, in respect of happiness, be in a worse condition than the world themselves. For while you deny yourselves the pleasure which you might have in carnal things, you will have no real pleasure in spiritual exercises. But be true to your principles, and you never need envy the poor worldlings their vain enjoyments. They drink of a polluted cistern, that contains nothing but what is insipid and injurious, and will prove fatal to their souls. You draw from the fountain of living waters, which whoever drinks of, shall live forever.
The Excellence of Wisdom
Ecclesiastes 2:13, "Then I saw that wisdom excels folly, as far as light excels darkness."
The more exact is our scrutiny into the things of this world, the more decided will be our judgment respecting them. If people ever think highly of the vanities of this poor world, it is because they have never set down seriously to examine their true character, or labored to form a right estimate respecting them. Solomon possessed means of ascertaining their real value beyond any other person that ever existed; for, possessing wisdom above any other man, he had a greater capacity to extract all the sweetness that was in them. And, being a monarch, he could command all things through the whole range of nature, to present to him their tribute of gratification according to their respective abilities.
But, after a minute examination of everything, he was constrained to give this, at last, as the result of his experience: "Then I saw that wisdom excels folly, as far as light excels darkness."
Now this, I conceive, refers in part to human wisdom, as occupied in intellectual pursuits. For it is certain, that among objects that relate only to this present life, there is nothing to be compared with this. Intellect is that which distinguishes man from the brute creation; and the enlargement of it with arts and sciences is that which elevates man above his fellows. The cultivation of it is more suited to the dignity of man than the gratification of his sensual appetites; in all of which the beasts have as large a capacity of enjoyment as he.
The pleasures arising from intellectual pursuits are also less apt to cloy, and will endure, when a taste for sensual enjoyments has passed away. Intellectual pursuits will gratify, also, when it is not the object of immediate pursuit; because it will supply in reflection much of what it conferred in the actual acquisition. It is also of great use, and qualifies a man for conferring extensive benefits on the world; at the same time that it opens to him a thousand channels of pleasure which are utterly unknown to the unfurnished mind.
A person habituated only to bodily exertion has no conception what a fund of satisfaction the exercises of the mind supply, or what delight attaches to the investigation of science and the discovery of truth. Sensual indulgences, indeed, strike more strongly upon the senses; and therefore, to a carnal mind, seem to furnish a greater measure of delight. But the more eagerly they are sought, the less pleasure they afford; and they bring with them, for the most part, many painful consequences.
So that, in comparison of intellectual pursuits, they deserve the name of "folly;" while the prosecution of the other may properly be called "wisdom." Yet it must be confessed, that there is much truth in that observation of Solomon, "In much wisdom is much grief; and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow [Ecclesiastes 1:18.] For "much study is undoubtedly a weariness to the flesh [Ecclesiastes 12:12] and it is often followed by painful disappointment, I conceive, therefore, that we are by no means to limit the import of our text to human wisdom; but must extend it to that which is divine wisdom; in reference to which we may say, without any limitation or exception, "It excels folly, as far as light excels darkness."
Of this spiritual wisdom, I will now proceed to speak; and its transcendent excellence I will point out in reference to,
I. The proper character of spiritual wisdom.
"Wisdom" is another word for piety.
Piety in the Scriptures is frequently called by this name. Job says, "The fear of the Lord that is wisdom [Job 28:28.] And Moses prays, "So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom [Psalm 90:12.]
But, not to rest in a mere general definition of the term, I shall consider it as embracing these two points:
1. the receiving of the Gospel, as sinners;
2. the adorning of it, as saints.
The very first part of wisdom is to receive the Gospel of salvation into our hearts. We all need it; nor can any human being be saved without it; and God offers to us all the blessings of it, freely, without money and without price. Were we under a sentence of death from a human tribunal, and were offered mercy by the Prince, it would be accounted wisdom to accept the offer, and folly to reject it. How much more is it our wisdom to accept a deliverance from eternal death, together with all the glory and felicity of Heaven! This must commend itself to every man who reflects but for a moment; and to despise these offered benefits must, of necessity, be regarded as folly, bordering upon madness!
The next part of wisdom must be, to adorn that Gospel by a holy life and conduct; since it cannot otherwise be ultimately of any avail for our acceptance with God. The very intent of the Gospel is to transform man into the Divine image, and thereby to prepare him for the enjoyment of his God. And if this be not attained, Heaven itself would be no place of happiness to him. Indeed, if a man professes to embrace the Gospel, and yet continue to walk unworthy of it, he dishonors God far more than he could do while he made no such profession; for he "tramples under foot the Son of God, and counts the blood of the covenant an unholy thing, and does despite unto the Spirit of Grace" [Hebrews 10:29.] Yes, he crucifies the Son of God afresh, and puts him to an open shame [Hebrews 6:6.] I think, therefore, that the pursuit of holiness in all its branches, with an uniform endeavor to glorify our God, must commend itself to every considerate mind, as true "wisdom."
All this far excels "folly".
I will not go into particulars to characterize "folly"; it shall suffice to take the most lenient view of it that can be imagined. I will comprehend under it no positive vice, nothing that can render it odious in the eyes of men. I will take it only in a negative view, as importing a neglect of the two foregoing dictates of sound wisdom. And now I will ask, Who does not see the superiority of wisdom—and that "it excels folly as far as light excels darkness?"
"Darkness" has nothing whatever to commend it—it is utterly destitute of every good quality. Whereas "light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun" [Ecclesiastes 11:7.] And precisely thus does piety approve itself to every beholder; while a neglect of God presents nothing but gloom, the end of which no human imagination can reach.
II. The influence of spiritual wisdom on this present life.
There is not a moment of our lives over which it does not cast a benignant influence.
In bringing us to the foot of the Cross, spiritual wisdom is the means of effecting our reconciliation with, God, and of filling the soul with peace and joy. In stirring us up to mortify our corruptions, spiritual wisdom keeps us from innumerable snares to which others are exposed, and from troubles in which others are involved.
This seems to have been particularly in Solomon's mind, when he penned the words of my text; for he adds immediately, "The wise man's eyes are in his head; but the fool walks in darkness" [verse 14.]
Spiritual wisdom conduces also most essentially to the benefit of all around us. It tends to check vice and wickedness in the world, and to promote virtue in every possible way. It calls forth all the acts and offices of love, both in the professor himself, and in all who come within the sphere of its influence. Spiritual wisdom greatly honors God too, and tends to the advancement of his kingdom upon earth. There is no end to the benefits of true wisdom; for, so far as it prevails and operates, it repairs the ruins of the Fall; and changes this wretched, miserable world into a very Paradise.
In this respect, how widely different is "folly!"
See the world as it is, and then you will see what "folly" has done. Enter into the bosoms of men, and see how full they are of all hateful tempers and dispositions, and how utterly destitute of everything like solid peace. See what troubles it has introduced into society, insomuch that there is scarcely to be found a single family which is not more or less torn with disputes and disagreements. See what evils it diffuses on every side—and then say in what light it appears as compared with wisdom. I boldly ask, Does not wisdom excel it "as far as light excels darkness?" Darkness is suited to nothing but the deeds of darkness, and the gory excursions of beasts of prey. Whereas light administers to the welfare of all, and enables every member of society to execute his functions for the good of the whole. So that in this respect, also, the comparison is fitly made.
But let us trace "wisdom" yet further,
III. The effects of spiritual wisdom upon the eternal world.
It is here that the great excellence of wisdom will be chiefly found. If there were no future state, folly might, with some semblance of truth, compete with wisdom, because its gratifications are so strong to the organs of sense. But, when we view the aspect of wisdom upon eternity, and reflect that every one of its dictates has a direct tendency to fit the soul for Heaven and to augment its eternal bliss; while the operations of folly have a directly opposite bearing—all competition between them vanishes; since Heaven and Hell might as well bear a comparison as they.
In truth, the light of Heaven and its glory afford a just illustration of the one; while "the blackness of darkness" in the regions of Hell gives but too just a portrait of the other. The one brings us to the divine image; the other reduces us to the likeness of beasts and devils. The one ensures to us the everlasting fruition of our God; the other entails upon us his everlasting displeasure. In requiring you, therefore, to receive the declaration of my text, that "Wisdom excels folly as far as light excels darkness," I do nothing but what every conscience must assent to, and every judgment approve.
Permit me, then, in conclusion to ask:
1. What is the judgment you have already formed?
I know that in theory you will all accede to this statement. But what has been your practical judgment? If we look at your lives, what will they attest to have been your views of this subject? Has wisdom there shone, and folly been put to shame? Have you really been living with a view to the eternal world, embracing the Gospel thankfully as sinners, and adorning it as saints. I ask not what "you have said" with your lips, but what "you have said" in your lives. It is not by your professions, but by your practice, that God will judge you; and therefore it is by that standard that you must judge yourselves.
2. What is the conduct you intend hereafter to pursue?
The world, I acknowledge, gives its voice in direct opposition to the foregoing statement. It represents religion as folly, and the prosecution of carnal enjoyments as wisdom. But its "calling good evil, and evil good," will not change their respective natures. Nor, if the whole world should unite in putting darkness for light, or light for darkness, will either of them lose its own qualities, and assume those of the other. "Sweet" will be sweet, and "bitter" will be bitter, whether men will believe it or not [Isaiah 5:20.]
Will you then go contrary to the convictions of your own minds, in compliment to an ungodly world? Or will you, for fear of offending them, sacrifice the interests of your immortal souls? I call upon you to seek "wisdom, which is more to be chosen than fine gold" [Proverbs 16:16.] Let your whole life declare its value, and be a standing testimony against the folly of the ungodly. So shall you have in this world a sweet experience of my text, and enjoy an ample confirmation of it in the world above.
The Different Portions of the Righteous and Wicked
Ecclesiastes 2:26, "God gives to a man that is good in his sight, wisdom, and knowledge, and joy; but to the sinner he gives travail."
In relation to earthly things, men run into two opposite extremes: some seeking their happiness altogether in the enjoyment of them; and others denying themselves the proper and legitimate use of them, in order that they may amass wealth for some future possessor. But both of these classes are unwise—the former, in that they look for that in the creature which is not to be found in it; and the latter, in that, without any adequate reason, they deprive themselves of comforts which God has designed them to enjoy.
A temperate use of the good things of this life is nowhere forbidden. On the contrary, "there is," as Solomon informs us, "nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor." Doubtless this concession must be taken with certain restrictions; for we are not to spend all our substance on ourselves, but to be doing good with it to others. Nor are we to suppose that our life consists in the abundance of the things that we possess, but to be seeking our happiness in God. That which alone will impart solid happiness, is true religion; for to the good man God gives what shall render him truly blessed; namely, "wisdom, and knowledge, and joy; but to the sinner he gives travail."
From these words I shall take occasion to show you,
I. The different portions of the righteous and the wicked.
The world may be divided into two denominations—the righteous and the wicked.
"To the righteous, God gives wisdom, and knowledge, and joy."
As to carnal wisdom, I am not sure that the wicked have not in general the advantage; as it is said, "The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light" [Luke 16:18.] But the godly have a discernment of earthly things, or, as my text expresses it, a "wisdom and knowledge" in relation to them, which no ungodly man has ever attained.
The godly see the true use of worldly things; and how they may be rendered conducive to the honor of God, and the good of the soul. As instruments for advancing the welfare of mankind, they may be desired and employed to good effect; and in this mode of using them God will confer real and abiding "joy." Even the portion of them which is consumed upon ourselves will be relished with a richer zest; for "God has given us all things richly to enjoy." The thought of honoring God with them, and benefitting mankind, will give to them a kind of sanctified enjoyment, of such as was received from the harvest of which the first-fruits had been duly consecrated to the Lord [Luke 11:41.]
The good man does not merely enjoy the things themselves—he enjoys God in them; and, in so doing, has the "testimony of his own conscience that he pleases God." Nor is he unconscious that he is laying up treasure in Heaven, even "bags which never wear out, and a treasure which never fails [Luke 12:33-34, 1 Timothy 6:19.]
"To the sinner," on the other hand, "he gives travail".
A man who neglects his God, can find no happiness in earthly things. In his pursuit of them, he is filled with care, which robs him of all real comfort [See verse 22, 23.] In his enjoyment of them, they prove empty and cloying, "his very laughter being only as the crackling of thorns under a pot." And, his mind being alienated from God, he has no source of peace from religion. Truly "the way of transgressors is hard" [Proverbs 13:15] or rather I must say, as the Scripture does, "Destruction and misery are in their ways [Romans 3:16-17.] Remarkable is that declaration of Zophar, "In the midst of his plenty, distress will overtake him; the full force of misery will come upon him!" [Job 20:22.] And if this be their state in the midst of life and health—then what must it be in a time of sickness and death? Most true is that declaration of Solomon: "What profit has he, who has labored for the wind? All his days he eats in darkness, and he has much sorrow and wrath with his sickness" [Ecclesiastes 5:16-17.]
Thus, while the blessing of the Lord is upon the righteous, seeing that, whatever he bestow, "he adds no sorrow with it" [Proverbs 10:22] he mixes gall and wormwood with the sinner's cup, and infuses a curse into his choicest blessings!
Let us now notice,
II. The hand of God, as displayed in the different portions of the righteous and the wicked.
It is said in relation to both the righteous and the wicked, that "God gives to them" their respective portions: both the one and the other are "from the hand of God [verse 24.] In them we see,
1. The true nature of God's moral government—
Even now is there far more of equity in the dispensations of God than a superficial observer would imagine. Doubtless there is a great difference in the states of different men; but the rich and great have troubles of which the poor and destitute have very little conception. The very state of mind fostered by their distinctions is by no means favorable to their happiness; and the habits of the poor so inure them to privations, that they feel much less trouble from them than one would imagine. But let piety enter into any soul; and we hesitate not to declare, that though he were a Lazarus at the Rich Man's gate, he were far happier than the man of opulence by whose crumbs he was fed. Peace of mind, arising from a sense of reconciliation with God, and a hope of final acceptance with him, is sufficient to weigh down all that an ungodly man ever did or could, possess. And "the poorest man, if rich in faith and an heir of God's kingdom," is more to be envied than the greatest monarch upon earth, who possesses not real piety.
But with equity, goodness also is observable in all the dispensations of Providence. That God is good to the great and opulent, will be readily acknowledged; but God is so to the sinner, whom he leaves to experience the most painful disappointments. If a mother embitters to her child the breast on which he would fondly live, it is that he may learn to affect a more substantial diet. Just so, if God, after all the labor which men put forth to render the creature a source of comfort, causes it to become to them only as "a broken cistern that can hold no water," it is only that they may the more readily turn to him, and seek him, as "the fountain of living waters."
2. The certain outcome of God's future judgment—
Is there, even in this world, a difference is put between him who serves God, and him who serves him not? Much more shall that be found in the judgment day which is especially set apart for the display of God's righteous judgments. The Prophet Isaiah, as God's herald, received this awful commission: "Say to the righteous, that it shall be well with him—for they shall eat the fruit of their doings. But woe unto the wicked! it shall be ill with him—for the reward of his deeds shall be given him [Isaiah 3:10-11.]
For the righteous is reserved a state of unutterable joy; but for the wicked, a state of utter exclusion from the realms of bliss, "in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone," "where is weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth." If the present inequalities of his dispensations lead us to expect this, much more does that previous distribution of good and evil which is even now accorded to men in correspondence with their moral habits. What is at this moment felt in the minds of the different characters, may well teach us what to expect in the day of judgment: even a separation of the righteous and the wicked; the one to everlasting fire; and the other to everlasting life, and blessedness, and glory.
Let me now, from this subject, RECOMMEND,
1. Religion in general—
It is this which makes the chief difference between different men. The prince on his throne, and the beggar on the dunghill, are but little apart in comparison of "the saint" and "the sinner." Piety sets men asunder, as far as light from darkness, Heaven from Hell. Let those then among you, who would he happy either here or hereafter, give yourselves up to God, and approve yourselves to him. Only believe and repent" and happiness will be yours, both in time and in eternity.
2. A due improvement of all that you possess—
To squander your possessions away in self-indulgence, or to hoard them for some future possessor, will be alike foolish and vain. Neither of these modes of employing wealth can ever make you happy. The serving of God, and the benefitting of your fellow-creatures, will, on the contrary, bring peace and joy into the soul: for "the work of righteousness is peace, and the effect of righteousness is quietness and assurance forever." Not that any liberality of yours can ever form a ground of hope before God in a way of merit—all that you have is the Lord's and it is only of his own that you give him. But if you are seeking righteousness and salvation by Christ alone, then will your works be accepted for Christ's sake: and whatever you dispose of for the advancement of his glory, he will acknowledge it as "lent to him, and he will repay you." The talents that are improved for him, shall receive, in due proportion, a recompense at his hands.
Duty of Paying Our Vows
Ecclesiastes 5:4-5, "When you vow a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he has no pleasure in fools; pay that which you have vowed. Better is it that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay."
The offering of vows was extremely common under the Mosaic dispensation; and many laws were instituted in relation to them. By them people bound themselves to the performance of certain things which were not specifically appointed of God. Some were conditional, and depended on some mercy which should be previously bestowed by God [Genesis 28:20-22. 1 Samuel 1:11.] Others were absolute, and to be performed by the people at all events. Respecting vows made by people who were under the government of others, especial provision was made, under what circumstances, and to what extent, they should be binding [Numbers 30:3-15.] In cases where the vows themselves were not lawful, the person sinned, whether he performed them or not [verse 6.]; and in some cases at least, the violation of them was less criminal than the observance [Matthew 14:6-10. Acts 23:12.] But where they were not in themselves contrary to any command of God, there they were to be punctually fulfilled, and without delay.
We propose, on the present occasion, to consider the duties which are binding upon us independently of any vows which we may make respecting them.
They arise from our very relation to God as his creatures, and more especially as his redeemed people. The potter is undoubtedly entitled to the use of the vessels which his own hands have formed. Even if our services were ever so painful, we should have no right to complain: "the thing formed could not, under any circumstances, presume to say to him that formed it, Why have you made me thus?" [Romans 9:20.] But, as we have before observed, the whole of what we have taken upon ourselves is a truly reasonable service; and therefore it would be the height of impiety to hesitate for a moment in giving up ourselves unreservedly to God.
But God has redeemed us also, and that too by the blood of his only dear Son, "We are not our own; we are bought with a price; and therefore we are bound from this consideration also to glorify God with our bodies and our spirits, which are his." It is not optional with us, whether we will surrender to him what he has so dearly purchased. We cannot withhold it; whether we make any vow respecting it, or not, we are equally bound to employ all our faculties for God.
To bind ourselves to these things by solemn vows is a truly and properly evangelical duty.
Some would imagine this to be a legal act—and if we were to engage in it with a view to establish a righteousness of our own, or with an idea of performing our duties in our own strength, it would then indeed be legal. But if, in humble dependence on divine aid, we devote ourselves to God, it is no other act than that which God himself has specified as characterizing his people under the Gospel dispensation [Isaiah 19:21.] The very manner in which this act shall be performed is also specified; and it is particularly foretold, that all who are duly influenced by Gospel principles shall animate one another to the performance of it [Jeremiah 50:4-5.]
Such then are the vows which we have made: they are comprehensive indeed, but highly reasonable, and relating only to things which are in themselves necessary.
We now proceed to notice the importance of performing our vows.
But how shall this be painted in any adequate terms? In it is bound up,
1. Our comfort in LIFE—
Many foolishly imagine that a life devoted unto God must be one continued scene of melancholy. But is not the very reverse declared in Scripture? "The work of righteousness is peace," says the prophet;, and "the effect of righteousness is quietness and assurance forever." Yes, "Godliness has the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come." We will venture to appeal to the consciences of all, whether even the greatest despisers of religion do not think that truly pious people are happier than they? In the very nature of things it must be, that those who are delivered from the tyranny of their lusts are happier than those who are yet slaves of sin and Satan. Their minds must be more tranquil, and their consciences more serene.
But if we take into the account, that God "will manifest himself to his faithful servants as he does not unto the world," and "shed abroad his love in their hearts," and "fill them with a peace that passes understanding, and joy that is unspeakable," we can have no doubt but that religion's ways are ways of pleasantness, and that "in keeping God's commandments there is great reward." In proof of this, we need only see with what delight David contemplated the paying of his vows to God [Psalm 22:25; Psalm 66:13-14.] The more we resemble him in the ardor of his piety, the more shall we resemble him also in the sublimity of his joys.
2. Our hope in DEATH—
What must be the prospects of an ungodly man in his dying hour? When he looks back upon all his duties neglected, and his eternal interests sacrificed to the things of time and sense—what must he think of the state to which he is hastening? He may try to comfort himself with his own vain delusions; but he will feel a secret consciousness that he is building on the sand. Hence it is, that those who will not give themselves up to God, are so averse to hear of death and judgment. They know that, if the Scriptures are true, and God is such a God as he is there represented, then they have nothing to expect but wrath and fiery indignation. It is the godly alone who can feel composed and happy in the near approach of death. They, when the time of their departure is at hand, can look forward with joy to "that crown of glory which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give to them." "Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright; for the end of that man is peace."
3. Our welfare in ETERNITY—
"God will surely put a difference between those who served him here, and those who served him not." Hear what Solomon says to us in the text: "When you vow a vow unto God, defer not to pay it—for God has no pleasure in fools." No indeed; God can have no pleasure in those who never delighted themselves in him. How is it possible that he should receive to his bosom those who spent their whole lives in rebellion against him? He shows his abhorrence of them by the very name whereby he designates them in the words before us—He calls them "fools," and will leave them to reap the bitter fruits of their folly.
We may see how indignant God was against Zedekiah for violating a covenant whereby he had engaged to hold the kingdom of Judah as tributary to the king of Babylon [Ezekiel 17:11-21.] What indignation then must He feel against those who have violated all their engagements with him! If the neglect of vows made by compulsion to an oppressive enemy be so criminal—then what must be the neglect of vows voluntarily made to the Most High God! But we need not collect this in a way of inference; for God himself has expressly told us, that we must pay our vows to him; that we must do it without delay; that if we defer to pay them, it will be imputed to us as a most heinous sin; and that he will surely require it at our hands [Deuteronomy 23:21-23.]
The House of Mourning to Be Preferred
Ecclesiastes 7:4, "The day of death is better than the day of one's birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting."
In order to learn what loss we have sustained in our intellectual powers through the introduction of sin into the world, it is not necessary for us to investigate the mysteries of our holy religion, which exceed the comprehension of any finite intelligence. We need only look to the ethics that are revealed to us in God's blessed word; and we shall see, even in them, that darkness has veiled the human mind, and there is an utter contrariety between the sentiments of fallen man and the plainest declarations of Almighty God.
Take, for instance, the declarations which precede my text: "The day of death is better than the day of one's birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting" and "sorrow is better than laughter." Will anyone say that these aphorisms are agreeable to the general apprehension of mankind? Is there not, on the contrary, something in them extremely paradoxical, and, at first sight, almost absurd? Yet are these sentiments unquestionably true, as are those also which my text records: "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth."
It shall be my endeavor,
I. To confirm these different positions—
It is not Solomon's intention to say that a wise man can never go to the house of mirth, any more than that a fool may not sometimes go to the house of mourning. The question is not, To which of the places these different characters may occasionally go; but, To which of them their "hearts" are inclined. Let us then inquire,
1. Where is the heart of the wise?
We hesitate not to say that a man who is taught of God, and made wise unto salvation, has "his heart in the house of mourning;" and that for the following reasons:
First, his heart is in the house of mourning, because he there learns the most invaluable lessons. There he sees what the lot of fallen man is, "He is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward." He sees, also, what may speedily become his own lot, for "he knows not what a day or an hour may bring forth." He sees how vain and empty are all earthly things; in that not all the wealth or honor that ever was possessed by man can either avert calamity, or assuage the pain arising from it. Above all, he sees the excellence of true religion, which can apply a balm to every wound, and turn tribulation itself into an occasion for joy! [Romans 5:3.]
Next, his heart is in the house of mourning, because there he has scope for the exercise of the holiest feelings of his soul. There is compassion excited towards his suffering fellow-creature, and sympathy with him in his afflictions. True, these feelings are in some respects painful: but there is in them something so exquisite and refined, that they afford, if I may so speak, the sublimest pleasure of which the human mind is capable. These feelings assimilate us, in a very eminent degree, to our God and Savior, who "is touched with the feeling of our infirmities" [Hebrews 4:15]," and "in all our afflictions is himself afflicted" [Isaiah 63:9.]
Nor can the sufferings of a fellow-creature be seen without exciting in our bosoms thanksgivings to God, who has been pleased to withhold his chastening rod from us, and to make us his honored instruments of imparting comfort to our afflicted brethren. This also, though not attended with any ebullition of joy, is a very sublime and delightful feeling; not unlike to that of Joseph, when his affections yearned for his brother Benjamin, and a prospect was opened to him of making his own advancement an occasion of benefit to his whole family: "He made haste, and sought where to weep; and entered into his chamber, and wept there" [Genesis 43:29-30.]
A still further reason why his heart is in the house of mourning is, that there he meets, and enjoys, and honors God. God has said, that "he meets those who rejoice in working righteousness" [Isaiah 64:5.] And, truly, he fulfills this word in a more especial manner to those who abound in works of mercy, because he considers himself as the object of that love, wherever it is exercised, and in whatever it is employed [Matthew 25:35-36.]
I will appeal those who have frequented the house of mourning, whether they have not often found God more present with them there, than even in their own chamber. In truth, God is honored there with more than common tributes of acknowledgment. There he is referred to as the All-wise Disposer of all events, and as the gracious Father who corrects only in love and for his people's good. There, too, he is set forth in all his glorious perfections, and especially in all the wonders of redeeming love. There he is invariably set forth as the author of the very good which is at that hour dispensed to the troubled soul; so that the creature, his instrument, is overlooked, and he alone is glorified.
Say then, brethren, whether here is not ample reason for the preference shown to "the house of mourning," and whether he is not truly wise, whose heart has dictated such a choice as this?
In contrast with this, we ask,
2. Where is the heart of the fool?
It is "in the house of mirth." And why?
One reason is that there he is enabled to forget himself. Men do not like to reflect upon their own state before God, and they account anything desirable which can dispel unwelcome thoughts, and furnish a pleasing occupation for their minds. Hence it is that all places of amusement are so thronged.
Hence it is that even the house of God is made to administer to our satisfaction; the irksomeness of prayer being rendered tolerable by the fascinations of music, and the charms of eloquence. Hence, too, everyone who can devise a new expedient for preventing time from hanging heavy on our hands, will be sure to gain our patronage, and be welcomed and rewarded as a public benefactor.
Another reason is, that the fool there finds what is most gratifying to his corrupt taste. One has an appetite for conviviality and licentiousness. Another desires the more decent gratifications of music, and dancing, and such like. Another, more elevated in the scale of being, desires rather the intellectual and refined pleasures of science and philosophy. But each is an epicure in his way; and, though their pursuits are different, each in his own line is as insatiable as the other. He is never weary of his favorite pursuit. He desires to be amused; and makes the gratification of his own particular taste the end of all his studies and pursuits. In a word, he lives only to have his own taste gratified, and to administer to the gratification of those who are like-minded with himself. Wherever he can attain these ends, there his heart is, and there his most select abode.
But there is yet another reason for his preference of "the house of mirth"—he finds himself countenanced in his neglect of God. Every man has a secret consciousness that he ought to seek after God in the first place, and to postpone every other duty and enjoyment to that. But when he sees others as remiss in this duty as himself, he comforts himself with the thought that he is no worse than others. He has the hope that God will never mark with his displeasure what is so generally regarded as innocent and inoffensive.
At all events, he finds nothing to reproach him there. "In a house of mourning" he would see many things repugnant to his desires and habits. For even a fool there puts on, for the time, the semblance of wisdom; and assents to the truth, that the care of the soul is the one thing needful. But "in the house of mirth" all that he either hears or sees bids him to be of good courage, and not to question for a moment the approbation of his Judge.
I think that the positions in my text are now made sufficiently clear; so that we may with propriety proceed,
II. To point out their bearing on the Christian's life and conduct—
These principles may doubtless he pressed too far, and they are then carried to excess, when they are regarded as prohibiting all friendly fellowship with the ungodly world; for our blessed Savior himself honored with his company a wedding feast, and a feast, too, that was provided for him by an ignorant and unhumbled Pharisee. But, taking these different positions with such a latitude as both reason and Scripture will fairly admit, the least that we should learn from them is,
1. We should learn to be on our guard against acquiescing too easily in popular opinions—
From the positions which we have just considered, the carnal mind revolts. Yet, not only are these positions confirmed by our blessed Lord, but they are expressed by him in for stronger terms than by Solomon himself. "Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are those who weep now; blessed are you when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man's sake. But woe unto you who are rich; woe unto you who are full; woe unto you who laugh now; woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you."
It is obvious that light and darkness are scarcely more opposite than these declarations are to the sentiments and habits of the world at large. But are we therefore to question the truth of them, or to refuse submission to them? No, we are to regard the Scriptures as the only authorized standard of opinion; and to them must our sentiments be conformed. Even if the whole world combines to reprobate what the Scriptures enjoin, we must not be deterred from following what God prescribes; but must boldly say, "Let God be true, but every man a liar" [Romans 3:4.]
2. We should learn to take eternity into our estimate of present things—
In the passage just cited from the Sermon on the Mount, we see that every declaration of our blessed Lord is founded on the aspect which our present state has upon the eternal world. And I would ask, What would the Rich Man and Lazarus now think of the condition in which they were each placed when in this lower world? Would carnal mirth be commended by the one, or temporal distress be deprecated by the other, in such terms as the spectators of their widely different condition were once accustomed to use respecting them? Methinks the enjoyments and sufferings of time would be deemed by them scarcely worthy of a thought; and eternity would swallow up every other consideration.
And so it will be with us, before long. Indeed, even at this present moment, every man's conscience bears witness to this truth, however in the habits of his life he may contradict it. I cannot therefore but entreat all to consider what will be their views of present things, when they shall have left this transient scene; and to regulate their judgment now by what they believe to be the uniform tenor of God's word, and the full conviction of every creature, whether in Heaven or in Hell.
3. We should learn to examine well the tendencies and inclinations of our hearts—
In the prospect of death and judgment, men may be led to adopt sentiments which they do not cordially approve, and to follow a conduct in which they have no delight. I ask not. then, what you either say or do under such circumstances. I ask not whether you put a force upon your inclinations, abstaining from indulgences in which you would be glad to revel, and performing services from which you would gladly be excused: I ask, What are the pursuits which your heart affects? What is your real and predominant taste? and what is the employment in which you chiefly delight? I need not say what would be the taste of an angel, if he were sent to sojourn here: nor need I tell you what was the taste of our blessed Savior and his holy Apostles: of these things no one of you can entertain a doubt. This, then, I say, Seek now to be, what before long you will wish you had been: seek to be in heart, what you are bound to be in act. It is by the inward dispositions of your souls that you will be judged in the last day. What if, like Doeg. you were "detained before the Lord." if yet you had no pleasure in the service of your God? Would your worship be pleasing and acceptable to God? No: "your heart must be right with him." if you would either please him here, or be accepted of him hereafter. To every one of you, therefore, I say, Inquire not where your bodies are but where your hearts: "for as a man thinks in his heart, so is he" [Proverbs 23:7.],"
4. We should learn to conform ourselves to the suggestions offered in our text—
Let not anyone think them too strong, or that the conduct which they recommend is too self-denying. I have already shown that the same things are spoken by Christ himself; and I must further observe, that the whole tenor of God's blessed word suggests and enjoins the same. "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world: if any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him: for all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world" [1 John 2:15-16.] What is there "in the house of mirth" which is not here proscribed?
Again, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom of by which the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world" [Galatians 6:14.] Think at how low a rate the world esteems an object that is crucified—a man in the very article of death upon a cross. Surely, if these and other passages of the same tendency be duly weighed, there will be no difficulty in apprehending the true import of my text, nor any doubt upon our minds, which of the two objects before us should be preferred.
Let this preference, then, be seen in the whole of of our life and conduct. I say not, that we should never go to "the house of mirth," but only that, our heart should not be there; and that, if called there by any peculiar occurrence, we should go, not as those that would be at home there, but as physicians to a hospital, where they desire to do all the good they can, but are glad to come away again, and to breathe a purer atmosphere.
Well do I know that it is not in the power of all to visit the abodes of misery, and to spend their time in administering to the necessities of the poor. But, where these offices can be performed consistently with the duties of our own peculiar sphere, they are most pleasing in the sight of God, and greatly profitable to our own souls. But those who cannot embark to any extent in the office of visiting the afflicted, may yet facilitate the execution of it in others by their liberal contributions. And if, from the peculiarity of our engagements, we are so circumstanced, that we cannot personally frequent "the house of mourning," let us at least show that our hearts are there; and that we have no occupation more congenial with our minds, than to "rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep."
Ecclesiastes 7:10, "Do not say: 'Why were the old days better than these?' For it is not wise to ask such questions."
In the writings of Solomon we find many maxims, which, if uttered by an uninspired man, would be controverted; but to which, as suggested by inspiration from God, we submit to without gainsaying. That which is delivered in the passage before us does not, at first sight, carry its own evidence along with it. But the more it is investigated, the more will it appear to be a dictate of sound wisdom, and worthy of universal acceptance. That we may derive from it the full benefit which it is calculated to impart, let us consider,
I. What is the inquiry which is here discouraged?"Do not say: 'Why were the old days better than these?' For it is not wise to ask such questions."
It is not every comparison of existing circumstances with the past, that is here reprobated—
In many situations we may, with the utmost propriety, institute an inquiry into the reasons of any change which may have taken place.
A man, in relation to his own temporal concerns, would be very unwise if he neglected to do so. Suppose, for instance, his business, which was formerly in a very prosperous state, has failed—can we condemn him for inquiring into the occasion of that failure? Would we not think him worthy of severe blame if he did not labor to find out the cause of this change in his circumstances, in order, if possible, to apply a remedy before it was too late?
Nor is all inquiry precluded in relation to the concerns of the nation. If there has been a plain and visible decline in the national prosperity, all who are affected by it are entitled, with modesty, to inquire whence that decline has arisen; and to express to those who are in authority their sentiments respecting it; and to point out what they conceive to be the most judicious and effectual means of remedying the existing evils.
In reference to the concerns of the soul, to neglect such inquiries would be the height of folly and wickedness. Suppose a person to have formerly walked with God, and experienced much of His presence in his soul, and now to have become destitute of all spiritual life and comfort—should not he ask, "Why were the former days better than these?" Yes, to examine into this matter is his bounden duty. The Apostle says, "Let a man examine himself." The Lord Jesus counsels the Ephesian Church, when they had left their first love, to "remember from whence they had fallen, and to repent, and do their first works" [Revelation 2:5.]
So that it is clear, that the prohibition respecting such inquiries is not universal, but must be limited to such occasions as Solomon had more especially in view.
The comparisons which are here discouraged, are those which are the mere effusions of discontent.
In every age, discontented men have been forward to make this inquiry, "What is the cause that the former days were better than these?" They make no endeavor to ascertain the correctness of their sentiments; but, taking for granted that they are right, they demand the reason of so strange a phenomenon. Now it is a curious fact, that this is the habit of discontented men in every age. Those who are now advanced in life, can remember, that, in their early days, the very same clamor was made by discontented men as at this hour. And, if we go back to every preceding generation, we shall find the same complaints respecting the deterioration of the times. But we shall never arrive at that time, when the people confessed themselves to be in that exalted state in which our imaginations place them.
Certainly, if ever there was a time and a place that might be specified as that happy era when there was no occasion for complaint, it was the state of the Jews in the days of Solomon; for, in respect of peace and prosperity, there never was a nation to be compared with the Jews at that time. Yet, behold, it was at that time, and under those circumstances, that the reproof was given: "Do not say: 'Why were the old days better than these?' For it is not wise to ask such questions."
Hence, then, we see what is the inquiry which Solomon discourages: it is that which has no just foundation, and which is the offspring of spleen and discontent.
These distinctions being duly adverted to, we are prepared to see,
II. Why the making of the inquiry is unwise.
I will assign two reasons:
1. It is an unwise inquiry, because it is erroneous in its origin.
It is not true that former times, on a large and extended scale, were better than these. Improvements may have been made in some respects, and matters may have been deteriorated in others; or particular people and places may be in less favorable circumstances now than formerly. Yet times have been much alike in all ages. There is in every time a mixture of good and evil. To every man this is a chequered scene. There are no people loaded with unqualified good, nor are there any oppressed with unmitigated evil. But men know of former times only by report, and by very partial report too. Whereas, existing circumstances they know by actual experience. Moreover, they are more observant of one evil, than of a hundred blessings.
In relation to our own times and country, the very reverse of what is here assumed is true. Never did the nation stand higher amidst the nations than at this day [1822.] Never was civil liberty held more sacred, or better regulated for the good of the community. Never did religion flourish in a greater extent. Never was there such a combination of all ranks and orders of men to diffuse religion and happiness over the face of the earth. Never were the wants and necessities of human nature provided for in such a variety of forms. There is not a trouble to which humanity is exposed, but societies are formed to prevent or to alleviate its pressure. Never were the blessings of education so widely diffused. In a word, such is the increase of all that is good among us, and such the efforts making to extend it over the face of the whole earth, that, instead of looking to former times as better than our own, we may rather hail the approach of the millennial period, when the Messiah himself shall reign, and diffuse peace and happiness over the face of the whole earth!
2. It is an unwise inquiry, because it is pernicious in its tendency.
What is the tendency of this inquiry, but to hide from our eyes the blessings we enjoy, and to magnify in our minds the evils we endure, and to render us dissatisfied even with God himself? It is notorious, that those who are most clamorous about the comparative excellence of former times, pass over all our present mercies as unworthy of notice! Nothing has any attraction for them, but some real or supposed evil. Their aim is to diffuse the same malignant feeling throughout the whole community. And, though in their own immediate purpose they do not intend to complain of God himself, they do so in effect—for it is his providence that they arraign, and his dispensations that they incriminate [Exodus 16:7, Numbers 14:27.] "There is not evil in the city, any more than good, but God is the doer of it" [Amos 3:6.]" And it were far more likely to be rectified through personal humiliation before him, than by intemperate and factious clamors against his instruments.
In the midst of such complaints there is not a word to call forth gratitude to God, or even submission to his holy will. There is . . .
no recollection of our ill deserts,
no admiration of God's tender mercies,
no encouragement to praise and thanksgiving.
Nothing but murmuring is uttered, and nothing but discontent is diffused. Whether, therefore, men consider their own happiness, or the happiness of the community, they will do well to abstain from this invidious inquiry. If at any time they feel disposed to make it, to ascertain, in the first instance, that the grounds of their inquiry are just.
III. A word of ADVICE shall close the present subject.
1. Instead of complaining of the times, let us all endeavor to make them better.
Much is in our power for the improvement of the worst of times. It must be expected, in this distempered world, that troubles of some kind or other will arise—they cannot be wholly averted from individuals, or families, or nations. "Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows" [John 16:33.] But if all ranks of the community would unite, as they might well do, to lighten the burdens of each other, and to contribute, according to their respective abilities, to the happiness of the community—we would have little occasion to complain of present times, and none at all to institute invidious comparisons with former times.
2. Let us seek that which will render all times and seasons happy.
True religion is a cure and antidote to every ill, whether of a public or private nature. Among those who were endued with piety in the Apostolic age, you find none who were murmurers and complainers. Their habit of mind is better expressed by those words of the Apostle, "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. " [Philippians 4:11-13.]
Having tasted of redeeming love, they had become comparatively indifferent to everything else. Whatever they possess, they account on undeserved mercy. Whatever they lack, they regard as scarcely worthy of a thought. They know that "all things shall eventually work together for their good." They are hidden in the secret of their Savior's presence; and while the minds of others are agitated with violent and malignant passions, theirs are "kept in perfect peace."
This, then, I would earnestly recommend to you: Let your first concern be about your own souls. Seek for reconciliation with your offended God; and endeavor to walk in the light of his countenance. Then, whatever others may do, you may look forward to better times, when all troubles shall have fled away, and your happiness be unalloyed in the bosom of your God!
The Excellence of Spiritual Wisdom
Ecclesiastes 7:12, "Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: that wisdom preserves the life of its possessor."
To have our minds well regulated in reference to religion is most desirable. There is, in reality, no discordance between the duties which we owe to God and to man; or between our callings as men, and our callings as Christians. The things which relate to this world demand our attention, as well as those which relate to a future state. If, on the one hand, our worldly pursuits ought not to thrust out religion; so neither, on the other hand, should our pursuit of heavenly things lead us to neglect any part of our worldly occupations.
God has said, "Six days shall you labor; but the seventh day you shall keep holy to the Lord." This shows, that we then only perform our duty aright, when we comprehend in our daily services a well-regulated devotion to the concerns of time, and to the interests of eternity.
The two great objects of general pursuit are "wisdom, and money." The one is followed only by a select portion of the community; the other is sought by all; but, whichever of the two any man affects, provided he give to heavenly pursuits the chief place, he does right to prosecute it with zeal and diligence: being "not slothful in business, and yet fervent in spirit, serving the Lord" [Romans 12:11.] This combination of duties is spoken of in our text: for the elucidation of which, I will show,
I. The excellency of wisdom above riches.
We are here told, that both wisdom and money are good in their place.
Both the one and the other of these are "a defense," or, as the word imports. "a shadow." Now, as a shadow affords to people a protection from the heat of the solar rays, so do wisdom and money screen him from many of the calamities of life, and afford to him many sources of enjoyment, of which those who are not possessed of them are deprived.
Money will enable a person to choose his employment in life, while the most menial and painful offices are left for those who are not able to choose for themselves. It provides also many comforts, to which the poor are altogether strangers. In a time of sickness, especially, its use is felt; for, by means of it its possessors often obtain relief, for the want of which their poor neighbors are left to sink.
Just so, wisdom also brings with it very extensive benefits, in that it elevates the character, and qualifies a man for stations, to which, from birth, he was not entitled to aspire. It provides, also, good occupation for the mind. Thus it protects him from that state of degradation to which many, for want of it, are reduced; and from that listlessness which induces people of an uncultivated mind to betake themselves to some evil employment for the sole purpose of getting rid of time.
True, indeed, neither wisdom nor money can protect us from every evil: disease or accident may assault one person as well as another: nor can they afford entire protection under any circumstances, any more than a shadow can altogether remove the heat of the atmosphere. But, as a shadow, they may screen us from much evil, and alleviate many pains which they cannot entirely ward off.
Wisdom has an excellency far above money.
Wisdom is more our own than money, which soon "makes itself wings and flies away." In many respects, also, has it a tendency to promote our welfare in life, beyond money. Riches rather contract the mind than enlarge it; whereas wisdom expands the mind, and dispels that conceit and insolence which characterize a purse-proud man. Money, too, when not combined with wisdom, leads a man into every species of dissipation and folly, and opens to him temptations to every kind of sensual indulgence. But wisdom provides for his mind such occupations as place him at a distance from temptation, and especially when his facilities for profuse expenditure are on a contracted scale. And thus the man of wisdom moves in a far safer and happier sphere; his pleasures being more refined, and his employments more innocent.
I may further observe, that riches render us a prey to designing men; and subject us to many vexations, to which less opulent people are but little exposed; whereas wisdom holds not forth any such baits to dishonest and designing men; who, if not disposed to join with us in our pursuits, will leave us, without interruption, to prosecute our own. Nor is it the least excellence of wisdom that it induces thoughtful habits, which are favorable to sobriety, to meditation, and to a candid investigation of conflicting interests: while money rather tends to dissipate thought, and to fix the mind only on present indulgences.
In a word, money, without wisdom, tends to the destruction of life; whereas wisdom, freed from the temptations of wealth, tends rather to the presentation of life, and to the securing of that equanimity which, to a worldly man, is the main source of comfort in the world.
While we thus acknowledge that both wisdom and money have, though in different degrees, their respective excellencies, we are constrained to maintain,
II. The excellence of spiritual wisdom above them both.
The benefit ascribed to wisdom in the latter clause of my text necessarily leads our thoughts to a different kind of wisdom from that which is mentioned in the former clause. And we find the same distinction made by the Prophet Jeremiah: "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might: let not the rich man glory in his riches: but let him that glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercise loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth" [Jeremiah 9:23-24.] Here is a spiritual wisdom spoken of, which infinitely exceeds all that the wisest or richest of unenlightened men can possess. To make this clear, let it be remembered,
1. A man may possess all the wisdom and all the riches of the world, and yet be spiritually dead; but the smallest measure of spiritual wisdom "gives life to them that have it".
The manna which God gave by Moses to the Israelites in the wilderness supported life, but could not give it: whereas our Lord and Savior, whom that manna typified, gives life to all who believe on him [John 6:47-51.] Now spiritual wisdom consists in the knowledge of Christ; as Christ himself has said, "This is life eternal, to know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" [John 17:3.] And if we be but "babes in Christ," still "have we passed from death unto life," and "have become new creatures in Christ Jesus" [2 Corinthians 5:17.]
2. Wisdom and riches too frequently lead men to self-confidence and creature-dependence; whereas spiritual wisdom invariably humbles the soul, and leads it to seek its all in Christ.
A life of faith in the Son of God is the very essence of all spiritual wisdom [Galatians 2:20.]
3. By carnal wisdom, and by wealth, men are often betrayed into a contempt of all religion; whereas spiritual wisdom brings with it such a love to religion as gradually transforms the soul into the divine image.
Yes, in truth, faith, if genuine, will "purify the heart" [Acts 15:9.];" and "he who has a hope in Christ will purify himself, even as he is pure" [1 John 3:3.]
4. A man possessing wisdom and riches in their utmost extent, may perish; but a man that is wise towards God, is made "wise unto salvation" [2 Timothy 3:15.]"
Hence it was that Paul, who in his unconverted state possessed a very abundant measure of these earthly talents, "considered them all but as dross and dung, in comparison of the excellency of the knowledge of Christ" [Philippians 3:7-8.]
And hence Moses, also, who had attained all the learnings of the Egyptians, and was next in power to the king upon the throne, regarded it all as unworthy of a thought, not only for the crown of Christ, but in comparison to his cross; "esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than all the treasures of Egypt" [Hebrews 11:26.] Yes, spiritual wisdom "has the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come" [1 Timothy 4:8,]" and fully merits that high encomium which the wisest of men has bestowed upon it [Proverbs 3:13-18.] "Whoever finds it, finds life, and shall to all eternity obtain favor of the Lord" [Proverbs 8:35.]
Let us then learn,
1. To form a correct estimate of all that is before us.
Earthly things are not to be despised. Religious people just emerging from darkness unto light, are apt to pour contempt on wealth as if it were good for nothing, and greatly also to undervalue even intellectual attainments. But we should give to everything its due. Even to money are we indebted for numberless comforts, and to wisdom for much more; because money enables us to procure. Doubtless, in comparison of spiritual attainments, those which have respect only to the things of time and sense are of but little value. We may say of the moon and stars, that they are of small utility to us in comparison to the sun: but this does not render them of no value in themselves. The heavenly bodies possess great beauty and utility, notwithstanding they are eclipsed by the sun: and the true way to judge of their value to us is, to consider how painful the loss of them would be. So, while to heavenly things we ascribe, as we ought to do, a paramount importance; let us remember, that, for the purposes of this life at least, those things which are mainly regarded by the unregenerate, are, in their place, deserving also the attention of th godly. We may say of them, as our blessed Lord does of some other things of subordinate importance, "These things ought you to do, and not to leave the other undone."
2. To seek everything according to its real importance.
When it is said, "Labor not for the food that perishes, but for that which endures unto everlasting life"—we are not to take the expressions absolutely, but only comparatively; exactly as when it is said, "I will have mercy, and not sacrifice." I say, then, to those who are engaged in worldly business, Follow it diligently: and to those who are prosecuting any department of science, Strive to excel in it. "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might" [Ecclesiastes 9:10.] The point on which I would entertain a jealousy is, "the placing of your affections on anything here below; for they are to be reserved exclusively for things above" [Colossians 3:2.]
But I am aware that there is great reason for caution on this head. I well know how easy it is to enter with zeal into earthly pursuits; and how difficult to maintain the same ardor in the prosecution of heavenly things. Let me then remind you, that, whatever importance you may assign to the things of time and sense, they have no real importance, by reason of the superior importance of the things which are spiritual and eternal. These must occupy the whole soul, and engage all its powers. We must "run as in a race;" and "strive as for the mastery;" and fight as for our very lives: and we may rest assured, that the crown of victory that shall be awarded to us, will recompense all the labors we have endured in the prosecution of our duty, and in the service of our God.
Against an Over-righteous Spirit
Ecclesiastes 7:16, "Be not righteous overmuch."
This is the sheet-anchor of ungodly men. They hate to see a zeal for God and therefore endeavor to repress it. From the days of Cain to this hour, those who have been born after the flesh have persecuted those who have been born after the Spirit [Galatians 4:29.] And when they find that neither contempt nor threatenings will avail anything, they will venture, as Satan before them did [Matthew 4:6.], to draw their weapons from the very armory of God.
It must be confessed, that the sense of this passage is not obvious at first sight; and it has been variously interpreted by commentators. Some have thought it to be the speech of an infidel recommending Solomon. in reply to his observation in the preceding verse, to avoid an excess either in religion or in vice. But it is evidently a serious admonition given by Solomon himself. In verse 15 he mentions two things which had appeared strange to him, namely, Many righteous people suffering even unto death for righteousness sake; and, many wicked people, whose lives were justly forfeited, eluding, either through force or fraud, the punishment they deserved.
From hence he takes occasion to caution both the righteous and the wicked; the righteous, verse 16, not to bring trouble on themselves by an injudicious way of manifesting their religion, or to "suffer as evil-doers;" and the wicked, verse 17, not to presume upon always escaping with impunity; for that justice will sooner or later surely overtake them. He then recommends to both of them to pay strict attention to the advice given them, and to cultivate the true fear of God, verse 18, as the best preservative against wickedness on the one hand, and indiscretion on the other.
This being the sense of the whole passage, we proceed to the consideration of the text; in illustrating which we shall,
I. Explain the caution—
The misconstruction put upon the text renders it necessary to explain,
1. To what the caution does not extend—
Solomon certainly never intended to caution us against loving God too much; seeing that we are commanded to "love him with all our heart, and mind, and soul, and strength" [Mark 12:30.] Nor against serving the Lord Jesus Christ too much; since he "died for us, that we might live to him" [2 Corinthians 5:15.];" and we should be "willing to be bound or even to die for his sake" [Acts 21:13, Luke 14:26.]. Nor against too much purity of heart; for we are required to purify ourselves from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit [2 Corinthians 7:1.], yes, to purify ourselves even as he is pure [1 John 3:3.] Nor could he mean to caution us against too much deadness to the world; for, provided we conscientiously fulfill the duties of our station, we cannot be too much "crucified to the world" [Galatians 6:14.] We should no more be of the world than Christ himself was [John 17:14; John 17:16.] Nor, lastly, did he intend to warn us against too much compassion for souls; for, provided our mode of manifesting that compassion be discreet, it would be well if our "head were waters, and our eyes a fountain of tears, to weep for the ungodly day and night" [Jeremiah 9:1.]
These indeed are things in which the world does not wish to see us much occupied: they would rather that we should put our light under a bushel. But no inspired writer would ever caution us against excess in such things as these. Paul makes the proper distinction between the regard which we should show to carnal and to spiritual objects: "Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit;" because therein is no possibility of excess [Ephesians 5:18.]
2. To what the caution does extend—
An intemperate seal appears to be the principal thing against which the text is leveled. Too high a conceit of our own wisdom, a hasty persuasion that we are right, and an indiscreet method of fulfilling what we suppose to be our duty, may be found in people who really mean well. Two apostles, from zeal for their Master, would have called fire from Heaven to consume a village that had refused him admission [Luke 9:54.] A third apostle defended his Master with a sword, to the endangering of his own life, and to the dishonor of the cause he had espoused [John 18:10.] Thus do many at this day contend for the truth in private in an unfitting spirit, and go forth to propagate it in public to the neglect of their proper duty, and the injury of the Christian cause [1 Corinthians 7:20.]
A blind superstition may also be fitly comprehended in the caution. This obtained in a very great degree among the judaizing Christians: and still prevails over a great part of the Christian world: would to God we could except even Protestants themselves from the charge! How often do we see a most rigorous regard paid to rites that are of human invention, while the true spirit and temper of Christianity is sadly neglected! Alas! what fiery and fatal contentions have arisen from this source! There is a needless scrupulosity also which ought to be avoided. What schisms has this occasioned in the Church when, on account of one or two things, in which they could not agree, men have rent the seamless robe of Christ into a thousand pieces! What injury have men done to their bodies by penances of man's device! What trouble and perplexity have they also brought upon their souls by rash vows, and foolish impositions! Such was the spirit against which Paul guarded the Christians at Colosse [Colossians 2:18-23.] And Solomon's caution against the same will be useful in every age and place.
A self-justifying dependence on our own works is nearly allied to the foregoing evils, and is thought by some to be the more immediate object of Solomon's censure. But if we allow it not the first place, we may very properly mention it as another mistaken method of displaying our righteousness. Every person is prone to it: and the most upright people need to be cautioned against it, because there is not anything more destructive in its outcome. It deprives us of all the benefit of whatever good we do; yes, it makes even the death of Christ of no effect to us [Galatians 5:4.] We can never therefore be too strongly guarded against it. We may have much zeal of this kind: but it is a zeal without knowledge. Nor is there any salvation for us, unless, like the holy Apostle, we renounce it utterly [Philippians 3:9.]
Having explained at large the import of this caution, we shall,
II. Subjoin some advice—
We fear that, however great occasion there may be to caution sincere people against erroneous methods of exercising their religion, there is far more occasion to exhort the world in general to pay some attention to their duty. Our first advice therefore is,
1. Be truly righteous—
They who are most ready to quote the text, are, for the most part, those who are adverse to the exercise of all religion. And when they exclaim, 'Be not righteous over-much,' their meaning is, 'Be not righteous at all.' They would be far better pleased to see all walking in the broad road, than to be put to shame by those who are walking in the narrow path. But let no scoffs keep you from the performance of your duty. If the world set themselves against religion, let not that deter any upright soul. Our Lord has taught us to expect that our "greatest foes would be those of our own household." Let us not be discouraged if we find it so.
Let our inquiry be, What is duty? and, having found that, let nothing turn us aside. Let us not be satisfied with the degree of righteousness which the world approves. Let us examine the Scripture to see what God requires. Let us see how the saints of old served God; and let us labor in everything to "do his will on earth, even as it is done in Heaven." This is a conduct which will tend, not to our destruction, but salvation. To act otherwise will issue in our ruin; since "Whoever does not righteousness is not of God" [1 John 3:10.] But to walk after this rule is to ensure present and everlasting peace.
2. Be wisely righteous—
"It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing;" and to "maintain a conscience void of offence towards both God and man." But we are far from recommending a wild inconsiderate regard for religion. We ought to exercise a sound judgment in all things. "I Wisdom," says Solomon, "dwell with Prudence" [Proverbs 8:12.] There is certainly much room for discretion in the performance of our duty even towards God himself. We may so reprove a fault as to harden those whom we endeavor to reclaim, and, by casting pearls before swine, may cause them to turn again and rend us [Matthew 7:6.] We may exercise our Christian liberty so as to cast a stumbling-block before others, and destroy the souls whose salvation we ought to seek to the uttermost [1 Corinthians 8:11.]
Many things may be "lawful which are not expedient." We should therefore consult times, people, places, things [Ecclesiastes 8:5]; and "walk in wisdom toward those who are outside." Our determination should be, "I will behave myself wisely in a perfect way" [Psalm 101:2.]," And our prayer should be, "O give me understanding in the way of godliness. In every part of our conduct we should be circumspect, that being "blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, we may shine among them as lights in the world."
Thus should we unite "the wisdom of the serpent with the harmlessness of the dove" [Matthew 10:16.] And in so doing we shall both adorn our holy profession, and "put to silence the ignorance of foolish men."
3. Be righteous enough—
There is more danger of defect, than of excess in this pursuit. Indeed wherever you are truly righteous, it is not possible to be righteous overmuch. We are to "walk as Christ himself walked," and to "be perfect even as our Father who is in Heaven is perfect." Have you attained much? be thankful for it, but go forward. If you were as holy as Paul himself, you must "not think you have already attained, or are already perfect—but, like him, you must forget the things that are behind, and reach forward unto that which is before, and press toward the mark, for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." The higher you are in grace, the richer will you be in glory.
Begin then, all of you, to "run the race that is set before you." The prize is worth all your care. Lose it not for want of due exertion. But "laying aside every weight, and the sin that does most easily beset you, run with patience your appointed course, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of your faith," and let your constant motto be, "This one thing I do" [Philippians 3:13.]
Endeavor, every step you take, to walk in the fear of God. This is the advice of Solomon himself [verse 18]; nor can there be any better preservative against extremes than this. By this you will be kept from the undue bias of fleshly wisdom, and from consulting with flesh and blood: by this you will be enabled to maintain your conduct in the world with "simplicity and godly sincerity." Cultivate this, and the path of duty will be clear: cultivate this, and you will never lose the promised reward.
Man's Original and Present State
Ecclesiastes 7:29, "Lo, this only have I found, that God has made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions."
The whole scope of this book is to show the vanity of the world, and all things in it. As in the earth itself there is a visible proof that some great convulsion has taken place; so, in everything that is passing upon the earth, there is the clearest evidence imaginable that some great moral change has been effected. It cannot possibly be, that the world, which still bears such innumerable traces of wisdom and goodness in its first creation, should have proceeded from its Maker's hands in such a state as it now appears.
In fact, the whole world is out of course. The very elements are, on many occasions, hostile to man; and man, in ten thousand instances, is an enemy to himself, to his species, and to his God. And "what is thus crooked, who can make straight?" [verse 13] Who can ward off the effects of all this disorder from his own person or estate? A monarch is the victim of it, no less than the lowest of his subjects; and the saint, no less than the despiser of all true religion.
To what, then, or to whom, shall we ascribe this state of things? The wisest philosophers of Greece and Rome were unable to account for it. But the Holy Scriptures inform us, that the whole creation, as originally formed, was perfect; but sin, entering into the world, effected both a natural and a moral change upon it: so that the man who looks into the Holy Scriptures can solve every difficulty at once, by saying, "Lo, this have I found, that God made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions," and thereby reduced the world, and everything in it, to the state of disorganization in which it now appears.
In illustration of my text, I shall be led to notice both the primitive and the present state of man, and to show,
I. His uprightness, as formed by God—
We are expressly told, that "God created man after his own image" [Genesis 1:26-27.] When, therefore, man came from his Creator's hands, he was perfect:
1. In his intellectual faculties—
His mind was light: and in him was no darkness at all, in reference to anything which he was concerned to know. He had a clear knowledge of God, and of his perfections, so far as those perfections were stamped upon the visible creation. The wisdom, the goodness, the power of God, were all apprehended by him, and duly appreciated. He was acquainted also with his own nature, and his obligations to God: seeing the full extent of his duty towards him, as well as all the motives and inducements which he had for the performance of it. Moreover, he saw all these things intuitively, and not by long consideration or rational deduction. They were all stamped upon his very soul, and constantly before his eyes: and he had the same consciousness of them as he had of his own existence.
2. In his moral dispositions—
The Law of God was written upon his heart, that he might know it: and, at the same time, the love of it also was engraved there, so that he had not the slightest inclination to violate it in any one particular. It was no difficulty to him to love God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength: it was the very element in which he breathed: the bent of his soul was wholly towards it. Flame did not more naturally ascend in the atmosphere than did his soul, with all its powers, ascend to God. As dear as Eve was to him, she did not rival God in his affections. Everything was subordinated to his Maker; nor was even a thought entertained in his mind, which had not a direct and immediate tendency to honor him. In a word, he was to God as the impression to the seal: nor was there found one lineament upon his heart which had not been stamped there by God himself.
Had man continued thus, the whole creation would have retained its original constitution. But man fell; and brought a curse upon the whole world [Genesis 3:17]: everything more or less participating in,
II. His obliquity, as deformed by sin—
Man, through the instigation of Satan, desired to be wise as God himself. Not contented with knowing "good," he would know "evil" also [Genesis 3:5-6.]; little thinking how impossible it was for light and darkness to exist together. Since that first device, whereby he fell, he has "sought out many inventions;" whereby to remedy, if possible, the first evil which he brought upon himself. Thus his descendants seek,
1. How to rid themselves of all restraint from God—
They conceive of God, as resident in Heaven; and as so remote from this vain world, as scarcely to take any notice of it, or concern himself about it. Besides, from a pretended regard for his glorious Majesty, they conceive it far beneath him to notice the affairs of men, so that the language of their hearts is, "The Lord shall not see, neither will the Almighty regard it" [Psalm 94:7.]
But, as they cannot be certain but that he does inspect their ways, they endeavor to get at as great a distance from him as possible. If at any time, by means of the preached word, or by any remarkable providence, he is brought near to them, they endeavor to shut their eyes, and to flee to anything which may assist them in banishing him from their thoughts. To himself they say in effect, "Depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of your ways" [Job 21:14-15.] And to his servants they say, "Make the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us" [Isaiah 30:11.] It was thus that our first parents acted, when they strove to "hide themselves from God in the midst of the garden," and thus do sinners of the present day act, fleeing to business and pleasure and company, and anything that may serve to drive the remembrance of him from their minds. And he who could contrive any fresh amusement or employment that should have this effect upon their minds, would be accounted one of the greatest benefactors of the human race. That which is, in fact, their heaviest curse, is sought by them as the richest blessing; namely, "to be without God in the world" [Ephesians 2:12,] and "not to have him in all their thoughts" [Psalm 10:4.]
2. How to make to themselves gods more suited to their taste—
Men feel that they must, of necessity, depend on something outside of themselves for their happiness, since they have no perennial source of it within themselves. But Jehovah is not one in whom they can find delight: hence, as the Israelites made a golden calf, and worshiped it, so these make to themselves objects of supreme regard, to which in heart and mind they cleave, as sources of satisfaction to their souls. Some, like the ignorant heathen, bow down to stocks and stones, and say, "You are our gods" [Hosea 14:3.] Others, with equal, though less palpable, absurdity, set their affections on the pleasures, riches, and honors of this life, making "a God of their belly [Philippians 3:19], or putting their confidence in gold [Colossians 3:5, Job 31:24-25], or "seeking the honor of man, rather than that which comes from God alone" [John 5:44.]
These all, in fact, "forsake the fountain of living waters, and hew out to themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water" [Jeremiah 2:13.]
All, indeed, have not the same pursuit: but all have some "idol in their hearts" [Ezekiel 14:4], which is to them a God: and all "will walk in the name of that God" [Micah 4:5], looking to it for happiness, and confiding in it for support. This is an "invention," not peculiar to any age or place: it is "sought out," and carried into effect, by every child of man; there not being a natural man upon the face of the whole earth who does not, in one shape or other, "worship and serve the creature more than the Creator; who is blessed for evermore" [Romans 1:25.]
3. How to hide from themselves their own deformity—
One would suppose that the impiety of this conduct should appear at once to every man who is capable of the least reflection. But men contrive, by various arts, to hide it from themselves. They, in the first place, determinately "call evil good, and good evil: they put darkness for light, and light for darkness; bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter" [Isaiah 5:20.] Then, not being able to conceal from themselves that they have committed some iniquity, they compare themselves, not with the word of God or with the saints of old, but with people all around them: of these, however, they will select for the purpose those only whom they think not better than themselves: and thus will they satisfy themselves that they are as good as others.
If there are some particular evils, of which their consciences accuse them, they will endeavor to find out some good deeds to put into the opposite scale, and to neutralize the effect of them upon their minds: or, if they cannot easily do this, they will satisfy themselves, that, though their actions have been evil, their intentions have been good: they have injured nobody but themselves; they have good hearts: and what they have done amiss, was not so much their own fault, as the fault of human-nature in general, and of the temptations to which they were exposed, and of the people who were their associates in iniquity.
Thus, as our first parents sought "to hide their nakedness by fig-leaves" [Genesis 3:7], so do all men by nature strive, by every device they can think of, to hide from themselves, and from each other, their real state.
4. How to persuade themselves that all will end well with them at the last—
They will not believe that eternal punishment can ever be inflicted on people for such offences as theirs. They think that God is too merciful to proceed in such a way. And, if he did, what must become of the whole world? All who die, are considered as having gone to their rest; and no one ever once thinks of them as in a state of misery.
Why then should not they, when they die, go to their rest? or what reason can they have to apprehend that any misery awaits them? But, supposing that God's threatenings were true, they intend to repent at some convenient season; and have no doubt but that a gracious God will avert his displeasure from them, in answer to their prayer. It is possible, indeed, that they may be called away suddenly (as many are), and not have time to realize their good intentions: but then the suddenness of their removal will plead their excuse, and their purposes be accepted as though they had been performed.
Thus, by means of these inventions which men have sought out, they are kept in a constant state of delusion; wearying themselves in the pursuit of vanities which elude their grasp, and filling with vexation both themselves and all around them.
We may see from hence,
1. What is the true intent of the Gospel—
The Gospel is to remedy all this evil, and to restore man to the state of holiness and happiness from which he has fallen. It is to rectify our views of God, and make us see what a great and holy and gracious God he is. It is to make him known to us in the person of his Son, and to fill our souls with admiring and adoring thoughts of his love. It is to bring us also to the knowledge of ourselves, as lost and utterly undone; and to engage our whole souls in the service of our God, as his rightful property, his purchased possession.
Beloved Brethren, this is an invention of God; planned in his eternal counsels; and carried into effect on Mount Calvary: and, if duly received, it will be effectual to dissipate at once all our "inventions." It will not indeed remove all the evils that abound in the world: there will yet remain much that is "crooked, and that cannot be made straight;" but it will sanctify those evils, and overrule them for our greater good: its operations, however, will be gradual, especially as far as relates to the restoration of the divine image on our souls. We shall be "renewed in knowledge, after the image of Him who created us" [Colossians 3:10.] We shall also be "created, after God's image, in righteousness and true holiness" [Ephesians 4:24.] But then, in both respects, our light will be progressive, advancing like that of the sun, from its earliest dawn to its meridian height [Proverbs 4:18.] This is the change which the Gospel has wrought on millions of the human race: and that Gospel shall yet be found, by every true Believer to be "the power of God to the salvation of his soul."
2. How we may know whether it has produced its due effect upon us—
You have heard what it was intended to do; namely, to remove all the obliquity of our fallen nature, and to restore the uprightness in which we were at first created. These are therefore the points for you to inquire into, in order to form a just estimate of your state. Can you say, "I have found this?" And can you further say, that the delusions by which the devil has formerly led you captive, are now dissipated and dispelled? Can you declare yet further, that the intellectual and moral qualities, which man originally possessed, are progressively forming within your souls? Here are marks which may easily be discerned; and which will with great accuracy determine, not only the truth, but also the measure, of the change that has taken place within you.
Alas! alas! on far the greater part of us, it is to be feared, no such change as this has ever taken place at all. The greater part of us still live far from God; still have our affections fixed on things below; still are unhumbled before God; and buoying ourselves up with the vain hopes of future happiness, though there is no one lineament of the divine image formed upon our souls. If this be the case with you, my Brethren, deceive yourselves no longer; but "today, while it is called today, cease to harden your hearts;" and begin to seek the mercy which God has offered you in the Son of his love.
If however, after careful self-examination, you have an evidence of a work of grace upon your souls, then press forward for the attainment of more grace, and for a more perfect restoration to the divine image. If you do this in earnest, then even this present world will be less a scene of confusion to you than it was in your unconverted state; and, in the world to come, the glories of Paradise shall be forever yours. You shall be admitted into the sweetest fellowship with your God; and "be fully like him, because you shall see him as he is" [1 John 3:2.]
Man's Abuse of God's Patience
Ecclesiastes 8:11, "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil."
Sin is in itself an evil of a crimson dye; nevertheless its malignity may be greatly increased by the aggravations with which it is attended. One can scarcely conceive anything that can enhance its guilt so much, as the committing of it in hopes that God's mercy will pardon it. Yet this is the very ground on which the world indulge themselves in the commission of it."Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil."
I. The extent of man's wickedness—
That sin exists in the world is visible to all; but the degree in which it prevails is very little known. In what way men sin, we may judge from the exceeding depth of coloring which there is in the picture before us.
1. They sin HABITUALLY—
All are not equally wicked in their lives, but all forget God, and neglect their own souls. Successive years serve only to confirm this habit. We may all adopt the confession of the church of old: "Let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us. For we have sinned against the LORD our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even to this day, and we have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God." Jeremiah 3:25
2. They sin DELIBERATELY—
It were well if we never sinned, but through ignorance or inadvertence; but what schemes have we formed for the accomplishment of sinful purposes! How often have we seen the sinfulness of our desires, and yet gratified them! [Romans 1:32] The very bent and inclination of our souls has been towards wickedness! [Job 15:16.]
3. They sin WITHOUT RESTRAINT—
A regard to our reputation or interests may impose some restraint. A fear of Hell may also prevent the gratification of some desires. But few are kept from evil, like Joseph, by the fear of God [Genesis 39:9.] that is the only restraint which proves uniformly effectual [James 2:11.]
4. They sin WITHOUT REMORSE—
We must at times have felt some convictions of conscience, but we, for the most part, stifle them by company, amusements, etc. Many attain to dreadful hardness of heart and impenitence [1 Timothy 4:2.] The prophet's description may well be applied to each of us [Jeremiah 8:5-6.]
Thus are "men's hearts fully set in them to do evil"—
They walk after the imagination of their own hearts: neither mercies nor judgments can prevail with them to do otherwise.
If their sins were followed by a visible and immediate punishment, men would not dare to live in this manner; but God defers the execution of his judgments.
II. The OCCASION of man's wickedness—
God is not an unconcerned spectator of sin. He has appointed a day for the revelation of his righteous judgment. At present he forbears to inflict vengeance. This very forbearance emboldens men to sin, "because," "therefore." From the delay of punishment men think,
1. That there is but little "evil" in sin—
God indeed calls sin "an evil work," but his forbearance towards sinners is thought to indicate indifference. This however is a fatal delusion. He has marked the evil of sin in many awful instances [2 Peter 2:4-6;] he will soon undeceive this blind infatuated world [Ephesians 5:6.]
2. That there is no "sentence" gone forth against it—
Men would gladly persuade themselves that they have no cause to fear. The temptation whereby the serpent beguiled Eve is cherished by them [Genesis 3:4.] But the wrath of God is indeed denounced against sin [Romans 2:8-9.] Every species and degree of sin renders us obnoxious to his displeasure [Romans 1:18.]
3. That the sentence (if there is any) will never be "executed"—
Since God defers punishing, it seems possible that he may decline it altogether. The apparent disproportion between the offence and the punishment, seems to countenance this idea. To confirm our hope we are apt to compare God with ourselves [Psalm 50:21.] But, however long God delays, he will surely strike at last [Ecclesiastes 8:12-13.]
Thus it is that men act in every age—
David mentions this effect as arising from it in his day [Psalm 55:19.] Peter foretells the prevalence of this iniquity in the last days [2 Peter 3:3-4.] Experience proves how universally it prevails at this hour.
1. How great the folly, as well as wickedness, of unregenerate men!
If there were only a bare possibility of eternal punishment, how mad would it be to continue in sin! But God has pledged himself that he will inflict it on the impenitent [Matthew 25:46.] Every moment's continuance in sin increases the condemnation [Romans 2:4-5.] What extreme folly then is it so to abuse the forbearance of God! May we be ashamed of ourselves, and repent in dust and ashes.
2. What need have we to be cleansed by the blood and Spirit of Christ!
What but the blood of Christ can ever expiate the guilt we have contracted? Who but the Spirit of Christ can ever deliver us from such habits? That we can never renew our own souls is certain [Jeremiah 13:23.] Let us therefore wash in the fountain opened for us [Zechariah 13:1.]; and let us apply to God for his almighty aid [Lamentations 5:21.]
3. How dreadful must be the state of those who continue impenitent!
There is a certain measure of iniquity which sinners are left to fill up [Genesis 15:16.] When this is full, nothing can avert the divine vengeance [1 Thessalonians 2:16.] Already are the arrows of divine justice pointed at them! [Psalm 7:11-13.] Eternity itself will be the duration of the punishment [Mark 9:43-48.] The time is coming when Jerusalem's state will be ours [Luke 19:42.] Let us then tremble lest we exhaust the divine patience [Zephaniah 2:2-3.] Let us diligently improve this day of salvation [2 Corinthians 6:2.]
The Blessedness of Fearing God
Ecclesiastes 8:12, "Surely I know that it shall be well with those who fear God."
Nothing certain can be determined respecting God's favor, from the outward dispensations of his providence [Ecclesiastes 9:1.] The wicked seem on the whole to prosper more than others [Psalm 73:5; Psalm 73:12.] Nevertheless the godly are by far the happier people [Psalm 73:15.] It is of them alone that the assertion in the text can be made.
We propose to show,
I. Who they are that fear God—
This, we may suppose, would be a point easy to be determined; but, through self-love and Satan's devices, many mistake respecting it. The characters described in the text may be distinguished by the following marks:
1. They stand in awe of God's judgments—
Once they disregarded the displeasure of the Almighty [Psalm 10:5.] They would not believe that his threatenings would be executed. But now they have learned to tremble at his word [Isaiah 66:2.] Awakened by his Spirit, they exclaim with the prophet [Isaiah 33:14.] The Scriptures uniformly represent them in this light [Acts 16:29 and Psalm 119:120.]
2. They embrace the salvation offered them—
In their natural state they felt no need of a physician [Revelation 3:17.] They saw no suitableness in the remedy which the Gospel offered them [1 Corinthians 1:23.] Their pride would not allow them to submit to its humiliating terms [Romans 10:3.] But now they gladly embrace Christ as their only Savior. They flee to him, as the murderers did to a city of refuge. This is the description given of them in the inspired volume [Hebrews 6:18].
3. They endeavor to keep all the commandments—
If ever they obeyed God at all, they served him only to the extent the world would approve. Where the lax habits of mankind forbad their compliance with the divine command, they were afraid to be singular. But they dare not any longer halt between God and Baal: they have determined, through grace, to follow the Lord fully. The language of their hearts is like that of David [Psalm 119:5-6.] This was the very ground on which God concluded that Abraham feared him [Genesis 22:12.]
These marks clearly distinguish those who fear God from all others—
The formal Pharisee has never felt his desert of condemnation [Luke 18:11.]
The merely awakened sinner has never truly embraced the Gospel [Acts 24:25; Acts 26:28.]
The hypocritical professor has never mortified his besetting sin [Acts 8:23.]
It is the person alone, who fears God, that unites in his experience a dread of God's wrath, an affiance in Christ, and a love to the commandments.
Such people, notwithstanding appearances, are truly blessed.
II. In what respects it shall be well with them—
They are not exempt from the common afflictions of life. They have in addition to them, many trials peculiar to themselves; yet it goes well with them,
1. In respect of TEMPORAL good—
They have a peculiar enjoyment of prosperity. The ungodly find an emptiness in all their possessions [Job 20:22.] But the godly have not such gall mixed with their comforts [Proverbs 10:22, 1 Timothy 6:17.] They have also peculiar supports in a season of adversity. The wicked are for the most part miserable in their affliction [Ecclesiastes 5:17.] If they are kept from murmuring, it is the summit of their attainments: but the righteous are enabled to glory in tribulation [Romans 5:3.], and cordially to approve of God's dispensations towards them [2 Kings 20:19.]
2. In respect of SPIRITUAL good—
They possess a peace that passes all understanding. They are filled with a joy utterly unknown to others [Proverbs 14:10.] The work of sanctification is gradually carried on within them [2 Corinthians 4:16.] As they approach towards death they grow in a fitness for Heaven, and are serene and happy in the near prospect of eternity [Psalm 37:37.]
3. In respect to eternal good—
Who can set forth their felicity in the eternal world? Who can even conceive the weight of glory preparing for them? How will their faith be lost in sight, and their hope in enjoyment! Then indeed will that truth be seen and felt by them [Psalm 144:15.]
These things are far from being "cunningly devised fables."
III. What assurance we have that it shall be thus well with them—
No truth whatever is capable of clearer demonstration. The topics from whence it might be proved are innumerable; we shall however confine ourselves to three:
1. The fitness of things requires it—
No man can seriously think that there is one and the same portion to the righteous and the wicked. There is no well-ordered government on earth where this is the case: much less can we suppose it possible in the divine government. To imagine such a thing, is to strip the Deity of all regard to his own honor. We may be sure that there shall be a distinction made in favor of his servants [Malachi 3:18.]
2. The promises of God insure it—
All temporal good is expressly promised to those "who fear God [Psalm 34:9.]" All spiritual good is also given them as their portion [Psalm 25:12-13.] Yes, all eternal good is laid up for them as their unalienable inheritance [Psalm 103:17.] All the promises are made over to them in one word [1 Timothy 4:8.] Can anyone doubt a truth so fully established?
3. The experience of all who have ever feared God attests it—
Who ever found it unprofitable to serve the Lord? [Jeremiah 2:31.] What truly devoted soul was ever forsaken by him? [Isaiah 49:15.] Who ever complained that the means by which he was brought to fear God, were too severe. Who ever complained that any affliction that increased and confirmed that fear, was too heavy? David indeed did at one time question the position in the text: but on recollection he condemned himself for his rashness and ignorance, and acknowledged that his vile suspicions contradicted the experience of God's children in all ages [Psalm 73:12-15; Psalm 73:22.]
On these grounds we "assuredly know" the truth declared in the text—
We do not surmise it as a thing possible.
We do not hope it as a thing probable.
We absolutely know it as infallibly certain.
We are not surer of our existence than we are of this truth. Without hesitation therefore we deliver our message [Isaiah 3:10-11.] O that the word may sink deep into all our hearts! And that we might from experience unite our testimony to Solomon's [Proverbs 28:14.]
We beg permission to ask, whether those who do not fear God have any such assurance in their favor?
We are aware that they will entertain presumptuous hopes; and that, in opposition to God's word, they will expect happiness. But does the boldest sinner dare affirm that he knows it shall be well with him? His conscience would instantly revolt at such falsehood and blasphemy. Let those then who do not fear God, stand self-condemned. Let them flee unto their God and Savior with penitence and faith. Let them so live us to preserve the testimony of a good conscience. And then, however enlarged their expectations of good may be, they shall never be disappointed [Isaiah 45:17.]
The Wickedness, Madness, and Misery of Unregenerate Men
Ecclesiastes 9:3, "The hearts of men are full of evil, and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead."
If we look only on the surface of things, we shall think that all things come alike to all, since all are subject to the same afflictions, and go down to the grave in their appointed season. But the righteous, however afflicted, "are in the hands of God" [verse 1.] who orders and overrules everything for their good. Whereas the wicked, however prosperous, are left to run their career of sin, until they fall into the pit of everlasting destruction. The state and end of unregenerated men are awfully declared in the words before us; wherein is depicted,
I. Their wickedness—
"The hearts of unregenerate men are full of evil." Every species of filthiness, whether fleshly or spiritual [2 Corinthians 7:1.], abounds within them [Romans 1:29-31.] They have not a faculty either of body or soul that is not defiled with sin [Romans 3:10-18.] So full of iniquity are they, that there is no good within them [Genesis 6:5. Romans 7:18.] And this is the state, not of a few only, but of every child of man, until he has been renewed by the Holy Spirit [John 3:6. Titus 3:3 Jeremiah 17:9.]
II. Their madness—
It may well be expected that creatures so depraved should manifest their depravity in the whole of their conduct. And in truth they do so: for they are even mad. They pour contempt upon the greatest good. Can anything be compared with the salvation of the soul? And do they not disregard this! And is not such conduct madness?
They also disregard the greatest of all evils, the wrath of God. And would not this be madness—if there were only a bare possibility of their falling under his everlasting displeasure? How much more then, when it is as certain, as that there is a God! Moreover, they continue in this state, for the most part, "as long as they live." If they acted only through ignorance, or were drawn aside for a little time by temptation, or if they turned from this way, as soon as they came to the full exercise of their reason—yes, if they rectified their conduct as soon as their own consciences condemned it, they would have some shadow of an excuse. But when they persist against light and knowledge, against warnings and judgments—yes, against their own vows and resolutions, what is it but madness itself! Let a man act in such a way with respect to the things of this world, and no one will hesitate a moment to pronounce him mad [Luke 15:17.]
III. Their misery—
However pleasant the ways of ungodly men appear, they will soon terminate in death and damnation [Job 20:5-9.] But the righteous also must go the grave: no doubt therefore it is another death that is here spoken of, even "the second death in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone." This is affirmed by God in the strongest manner [1 Corinthians 6:9. Psalm 9:17.] However disbelieved by those whom it most concerns, it shall assuredly be found true at the last. Yes, we have even now the consciences of men attesting this solemn truth: and if we should say, that the ungodly, after such a life, should go to Heaven, instead of to "the dead," though they might be wicked enough to wish it—they would not be mad enough to believe it. They have a presentiment, in spite of all their reasonings to the contrary, that "their end shall be according to their works [2 Corinthians 11:15.]
1. How necessary is it to deal faithfully with the souls of men!
Should we "prophesy smooth things" unto people who are perishing in their sins, and who before another Sabbath may be gone to death and damnation? Should we, if we beheld a stranded vessel, seek to amuse the sailors, instead of affording them direction and assistance? How much less then if we ourselves were embarked with them, and were partners of their danger? Surely then every time we preach, we should bear in mind that both our hearers and ourselves are dying creatures, and that, if we forbear to warn them, we ruin ourselves forever [Ezekiel 33:8.]
2. How earnestly should every one seek to be born again!
Does the notion of regeneration appear absurd? [John 3:7; John 3:9.] Let all hear and understand the grounds of that doctrine. What must we think of God, if he should fill Heaven with sinners incorrigibly wicked, and incurably mad? Or what happiness could such sinners find in Heaven, even if they were admitted there? There must be a fitness for the heavenly state [Colossians 1:12.] That fitness can be obtained only by means of the new birth [John 3:5-6.] A new heart must be given us, [Ezekiel 36:25-26] and we must be made "new creatures in Christ Jesus [2 Corinthians 5:17.] Let all then seek this renewal of their hearts [Ephesians 4:22-24.] For, unless they be born again, they shall never enter into God's kingdom [John 3:3.]
3. How greatly are all regenerate people indebted to the Lord Jesus Christ!
They were once as evil as others: if there was any difference, it was only in their acts, and not in their hearts [Ephesians 2:3.] But they are delivered from their sins [Romans 6:14; Romans 8:2], endued with soundness of mind [2 Timothy 1:7], and made heirs of everlasting life [John 5:24.] All this they have received through the atoning blood and prevailing intercession of the Lord Jesus. What a Benefactor then is he! And how should the hearts of all be knit to him in love! O "let them give thanks whom the Lord has redeemed!" [Psalm 107:1-2.] And let all seek these blessings at the hands of a gracious and almighty Savior.
Earnestness in Religion Recommended
Ecclesiastes 9:10, "Whatever your hand finds to do—do it with all your might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave where you are going."
The greater part of mankind imagine that a continued round of worldliness and pleasure is consistent with true religion. But their opinion is contradicted by the whole tenor of Scripture, which uniformly enjoins deadness to the world and devotedness to God. There are however, some who err on the other side—and who make religion to consist in penances, and pilgrimages, and mortifications, and a total abstinence from all indulgences, however innocent, not excepting even the comforts and endearments of domestic life.
In direct opposition to these are the words of Solomon in all the preceding context. He contends that neither a cheerful use of the bounties of Providence, nor a prudent participation of the elegancies of life, nor a free enjoyment of conjugal affection—will at all interfere with our "acceptance with God," provided our ardor in the pursuit of heavenly things is not diminished by them [verse 7–10.] With this Paul also agrees: for he says, that "God has given us all things richly to enjoy;" and, that "godliness is profitable unto all things, having the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come."
It is not our intention, however, to enter into this general question; but rather to confine ourselves to the direction of Solomon in the text, in which we notice,
I. His advice—
Industry in temporal concerns is doubtless an important duty; and we may certainly understand the words before us as inculcating, and enforcing this duty. But the advice must relate also to spiritual concerns, in transacting which more especially, the utmost zeal is necessary.
Every man has a work to do for his soul—
The unconverted have to get a sense of their guilt and danger, to turn unto their God with the deepest penitence and contrition, and to have their souls renewed after the divine image.
The penitent have also a great work to do. They have only just set out upon their race, and have as yet all the ground before them, over which they are to run. They have to obtain the knowledge of Christ, and get their souls washed in his blood; and, in conformity to his example, to serve God in newness of heart and life.
The converted too, whatever attainments they may have made, have still much which their "hand finds to do." They have . . .
many lusts to mortify,
many temptations to withstand,
many conflicts to sustain,
many graces to exercise,
many duties to perform.
To their last hour they will be required to "glorify God with their bodies and their spirits, which are his."
This work must be "done with all our might"—
It must be done speedily, without delay. None of us have any time to lose. Whatever our state at present is, we know not how long our lives may be continued. The young and healthy are mortal, as well as the old and diseased. The sturdy oak may be blown down—while the bending rush survives. We should therefore imitate David, who says, "I made haste, and delayed not to keep your commandments."
It must be done heartily, without remissness. It is not sufficient to enter upon this work with indifference, and to prosecute it in a cold lifeless manner. We must "give all diligence to make our calling and election sure," and "to be found of Christ in peace." We must "strive to enter in at the strait gate, since we may seek, and not be able." Even "the righteous are scarcely saved," and with great difficulty. If any dream of salvation as a matter easily to be accomplished, they will "perish in their own delusions."
It must be done perseveringly, without weariness. There is no period when we are at liberty to relax our endeavors. While we are in the world, we are still on the field of battle, and surrounded with enemies that are ever ready to take advantage of us. It is not until death that we can "put off the harness," "until then, there is no discharge in this warfare." We must "not faint, or be weary in well-doing, if ever we would reap;" but must "be steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord."
To impress this beneficial advice upon our minds, let us proceed to consider,
II. The argument with which it is enforced—
We all are dying creatures, and continually hastening to the grave. Whether we are going to our business, or our pleasure, or our rest, wherever we are, and whatever we are doing, we are "going to our grave." The precise distance of our grave is hid from us. Some arrive at it almost as soon as they set out on their journey. Multitudes, when thinking of nothing less, drop into it suddenly, and are seen no more. Those who have walked towards it for a considerable time, have stronger and stronger intimations of their approach towards it. Many are seen with one foot already in it—and all, sooner or later, make it their long home.
From hence arise two very powerful arguments for enforcing diligence in the concerns of the soul.
1. There is "no work" to be done in the grave—
This life is the time for work: the next life is the time for recompense. The works needful to be done are, to "repent and believe the Gospel:" but in the eternal world there is no opportunity for performing either.
We cannot repent in the grave. A kind of repentance indeed there will be among those who have perished in their sins—they will "weep, and wail, and gnash their teeth" with anguish. They will be sorry, not that they sinned, but that they subjected themselves to misery. Sin will appear formidable to them on account of its consequences, but not hateful on account of its malignity. If they were restored to another state of probation, they would in a little time resume their former courses.
As now on a bed of sickness they promise to amend their lives, but, when restored to health, they become as careless as ever. So it would be with them if they returned even from Hell itself—their hearts are unrenewed, and consequently their deposition to "wallow in the mire" of sin would infallibly lead them into their former habits of worldliness and sensuality. They must forever remain the same obdurate sinners, because the Spirit of God will never descend into their hearts to renew them unto repentance.
We cannot believe in Christ in the grave. Those who have perished will, it is true, believe many things which now they disbelieve. They will believe that Christ is a Savior, and that he is the only Savior of sinful men: but they will never believe in him for salvation, because he will never again be offered to them as a Savior. No tidings of redemption will ever be heard in those dreary mansions. Never will they hear such words as those, "Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden." No promise of acceptance is given them; and therefore there can be no scope for the exercise of faith. Nor, if there were an opportunity to believe, would they be able to embrace it; because "faith is the gift of God;" and those who reject his offers of it in this world, will never have it offered to them in the world to come.
This argument cannot but have the greatest weight with every considerate mind; and the rather, because it is urged by our Lord himself: "Work while it is day; for the night comes wherein no man can work [John 9:4.]
2. There is no remedy to be devised—
While we are in this world, our "knowledge and wisdom" may be applied with effect. There is a "device" for the restoration of God's banished people [Compare 2 Samuel 14:14 with Job 33:24]; and, if we are wise enough to adopt it, we cannot fail of obtaining mercy at the last day. But if we neglect to use the remedy which is now afforded us, then no other will remain for us; nothing can ever be devised whereby we may alter, or avoid, or mitigate, or shorten our doom.
We cannot ALTER our doom. When once the Judge has said, "Go, you who are cursed," we can never prevail on him to reverse the sentence, and say, "Come, you who are blessed." Now, though "we are under condemnation, and the wrath of God abides on us" [John 3:18; John 3:36,] yet we may obtain reconciliation through the blood of Jesus, and be made heirs of a heavenly inheritance. But no such change can be effected in the eternal world: "As the tree falls, so it will lie forever."
We cannot AVOID our doom. We may "call upon the rocks to fall upon us, and the mountains to cover us from the wrath of the Lamb," but they cannot perform the friendly office. "If we should go up to Heaven, or make our bed in Hell, or take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea—even there would God seize us, and thence would he bring us" by his irresistible power, in order that we might suffer the just penalty of our deeds.
We cannot MITIGATE our doom. Here men may flee to business or pleasure; they may drown care in intoxication, and obtain some relief from it in sleep; they may shake it off in a measure by infidelity. But in the eternal world they will find no jovial companions to associate with, nothing to divert their thoughts, nothing to alleviate their pains: "wrath will have come upon them to the uttermost," and their misery will be complete.
We cannot SHORTEN our doom. Men in this world have one method (as they think) of terminating their miseries—namely, by suicide. A poor and fatal device indeed! Yet such as it is, they resort to it for relief. But in the future world even this refuge will fail them: "they shall seek death, but shall not find it; and shall desire to die, but death shall flee from them [Revelation 9:6.] Eternity will be the duration of their woe: "the smoke of their torment will ascend up forever and ever!"
How forcible then is this argument! If any "device" remained for them, and their "knowledge and wisdom" could be effectual for their relief, then they might be the more indifferent about the improvement of their day of grace. But since "this is the only accepted time, the only day of salvation," then surely they should "work out their salvation instantly with fear and trembling," and seek "the things belonging to their peace, before they are forever hid from their eyes."
1. Those who are postponing their work—
Like those who neglected the rebuilding of the temple, we are apt to say, "The time for this work is not yet come." Youth look forward to adult age; and they who are grown to manhood think that a more advanced period of life will be more favorable for the exercises of religion; and even the aged put off the work from day to day, hoping for some "more convenient season." But how many thousands perish by deferring that work which they acknowledge to be necessary! Sickness and death find them in an unconverted state, and hurry them unprepared into the presence of God. O that all of us, whether old or young, would guard against these fatal consequences, and turn to God "this day, while it is called Today."
2. Those who are trifling with their work—
There are many who would be offended, if they were thought regardless of religion, who yet by their listlessness and formality show that they have no real delight in it. They are exact in their attendance on ordinances; but they engage in them with a lukewarm Laodicean spirit: they have "the form of godliness, but not the power."
But what can such people think of the representations which the Scripture gives us of the Christian life? It is there described as a race, a wrestling, a combat—all of which imply the strongest possible exertions. Would to God that this matter were duly considered; and that we called upon "our souls, and all that is within us," to prosecute this great concern. To everything that might divert our attention from it, we should answer with Nehemiah, "I am doing a great work, and cannot come down!" [Nehemiah 6:3-4.] It is in this way only that we shall ever be enabled to adopt the words of our dying Lord, "Father, I have glorified you on earth. I have finished the work which you gave me to do."
3. Those who are heartily engaged in their work—
While the greater part of mankind make their worldly duties an excuse for neglecting religion, there are some who run into a contrary extreme, and make their religious duties an excuse for neglecting their worldly concerns. But this will bring great dishonor on religion. We are placed in the world as social beings, and have civil and social, as well as religious, duties to perform. These must be made to harmonize, and all must be attended to in their order. We must "not be slothful in business, though we must be fervent in spirit; for in both we may serve the Lord."
Indeed our relative duties are, in fact, sacred; because they are enjoined by God, and may be performed as unto God: nor are they less acceptable unto him in their place than the more spiritual services of prayer and praise. While therefore we would exhort all to an immediate, earnest, diligent, patient, unremitted attention to the concerns of their souls, and encourage them to disregard all the persecutions which they may endure for righteousness sake—we would entreat them also to "walk wisely in a perfect way;" and to show by their conduct that religion is as conducive to the interests of society, as it is to the welfare of the soul.
Wisdom Notionally Approved, but Practically Disregarded
Ecclesiastes 9:14-16, "There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siegeworks against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, 'Wisdom is better than strength.' But the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded."
Whether the account here given us was an actual occurrence, or only a parabolic representation, we will not undertake to determine. But certainly the event described may easily be supposed to have taken place, and to have come to the knowledge of Solomon. In fact, a precisely similar event had taken place within the memory of Solomon; the only difference being, that the city was saved by "a wise woman," instead of "a poor wise man." After the rebellion of Absalom had been suppressed, a man of Belial, whose name was Sheba, caused the defection of all the tribes of Israel. David therefore sent an army to pursue Sheba, and to besiege any city in which he could have taken refuge. Joab finding that Sheba was shut up in a city called Abel, went and "battered the wall of the city, to throw it down." Then "a wise woman" called to Joab, and remonstrated with him on the subject of the assault which he was making; and undertook, that, if he would suspend his assault, the object of his indignation would be sacrificed, and his head be cast over the wall. She then "went to all the people, in her wisdom," and prevailed on them to execute her project; and thus effected by her wisdom the deliverance of the city, and the preservation of all its inhabitants [2 Samuel 20:1-2; 2 Samuel 20:6; 2 Samuel 20:15-22.]
The minute resemblance which there is between this history and the event mentioned in the text, renders it highly probable that the passage before us is a parable, founded upon the very fact which is here recorded.
But, whether it is a fact, or a parable, with what view is it mentioned? Some think that it is intended to represent the work of redemption by our Lord Jesus Christ, and the sad neglect with which he is treated, notwithstanding the benefits he has conferred. According to these people, the interpretation is this: The little city, with a small garrison, is the Church, which confessedly consists of but "a little flock." The great king who comes against it, and besieges it, is Satan, with all his hosts, even all the principalities and powers of Hell. The poor wise man is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the counsels of eternal wisdom, has devised a way for the deliverance of his people; yet after the deliverance he has wrought out for them, is by the generality most grievously neglected.
Now though there are parts of this which do not exactly accord with such an interpretation, yet we would not have altogether disapproved of the interpretation, provided Solomon himself had not given us any clew whereby to discover his real meaning: for it is not necessary that a parable should be applicable in all its parts: it is sufficient if in its main scope it be fitted to illustrate the point which it is intended to shadow forth.
But we are precluded from affixing to this passage the sense which we have now suggested, because Solomon's own reflection upon the supposed event determines beyond all controversy its precise meaning. Solomon intended to commend wisdom, as he frequently does in other parts of this book: in one place, he exalts wisdom above folly [Ecclesiastes 2:13.]; in another place, he exalts wisdom above wealth [Ecclesiastes 7:12.]; in another place, he exalts wisdom above soldiers [Ecclesiastes 7:19.], and weapons of war [verse 18.] Thus in our text he exalts wisdom above strength, "Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength." Hence the subject for our consideration is two-fold:
I. The excellency of wisdom—
Wisdom is practical understanding, or knowledge regulated by sound judgment. Now wisdom is greatly superior to physical force, in every point of view:
1. In relation to temporal concerns—
The particular instance here adduced, the deliverance of a city by some extraordinary devices, will lead us to notice the operations of wisdom in the different departments of civilized life.
In war and politics wisdom prevails far beyond mere bodily strength, however great. It is from superior skill in arms that we, who are so few in number, have been enabled to conquer an immense extent of territory, and by a very small army to keep in subjection eighty million people, who have scarcely one feeling, or one sentiment, in common with ourselves. And it is from the wisdom of our Constitution, and of our Governors, that we, under God, have rode out the storm which overwhelmed the rest of Europe, and have been enabled to rescue from their bondage the prostrate nations all around us. Had there been less wisdom at our helm, we, and all the nations of Europe, would probably at this moment have been sunk in the lowest state of degradation and misery.
In arts and manufacturing the excellency of wisdom also most eminently appears. See the machinery that is used in every branch of trade! A few children are enabled to effect in a month, what thousands of grown people could not by mere manual labor accomplish in a year.
Nor is the excellency of wisdom less visible in science and philosophy. Who can calculate the benefits that have arisen from the study of astronomy, and the invention of the compass? How light is all human strength when placed in the balance against these products of intellectual research!
In truth, it is wisdom which most elevates us above the beasts; and draws as broad a line of distinction between man and man, as light and darkness do in the material world.
2. In relation to spiritual affairs—
Here wisdom is all. See what mere human efforts can effect in heathen lands: what penances, what pilgrimages, what sufferings of different kinds, will men have recourse to, in order to obtain peace in their own souls! yet they can never obtain it. They may weary themselves even unto death, yet they can never secure to themselves any spiritual benefit whatever.
But let a man attend to the councils of wisdom given him by our blessed Lord, and all that he can desire is attained at once. Peace will flow into his soul, as soon as ever his conscience is sprinkled with the blood of Christ. His spiritual powers are invigorated with supernatural strength, the moment he by faith apprehends the Lord Jesus. From being so weak as not to be able to do anything, he becomes instantly so strong as to be "able to do all things." [John 15:2. Philippians 4:13.]. A new set of energies are developed, and such as Satan is not able to withstand. That enemy, who with assured confidence of success besieged the soul, is constrained, like Sennacherib, to flee with precipitation and disgrace [James 4:7.] In a word, the simple device of a "life of faith upon the Son of God" effects everything, liberating the soul from all its bondage, and making it victorious over all its enemies.
But from daily observation, we are constrained to lament,
II. The disregard shown to religion, notwithstanding its acknowledged worth.
By how few are its dictates attended to as they ought to be! Alas! they are neglected and despised by the great mass of mankind.
1. By the mirthful and thoughtless—
They have no ear for the counsels of Wisdom. They will commend her in general terms; but will have as little as possible to do with her instructions. Let the parent labor ever so much to instill wisdom into the minds of his children, he will find, to his grief, that the enchantments of folly baffle all his efforts. It should seem no difficult task to prevail on them to think before they act, and to regulate their conduct by sound principles: but though he gives "line upon line, and precept upon precept," he will have reason to bless himself, if, after all his endeavors, his family do not embitter his days by their faults and follies.
The word of God too, may be acknowledged by them as good: but not a precept in it is allowed to have an ascendant over their mind. Sabbath after Sabbath divine instructions are poured into their ears; but none are allowed to descend into the heart. In fact, they are despised; and if obtruded upon the mind as principles of action, they are rejected with scorn and contempt.
2. By the formal and self-righteous—
Wisdom's sublimest dictates are by these, regarded as the reveries of a heated imagination. The whole life of faith is foolishness in the eyes of a self-righteous Pharisee. He sees no suitableness in it to the end proposed. He thinks that an attendance on ordinances, and a performance of some moral duties, are quite sufficient. Why should he mourn and weep over his sins? What is there in faith that can benefit his soul? Why may not his works find acceptance with God? In vain is he told that the Gospel is "the wisdom of God in a mystery;" and that the very angels in Heaven are made wiser by the revelation of it to the Church [Ephesians 3:10.]
In vain is he told what the Lord Jesus Christ, that "Wonderful Counselor," has done for the redemption of a ruined world, and will do in all who believe in him. No sense of obligation abides upon his mind; no expressions of gratitude flow from his lips: the Benefactor is forgotten, and the benefit despised—and he chooses rather to seek his resources within himself, than to depend for them on the bounty of another.
3. The backsliding professor—
The man who has once "professed godliness," has given his testimony to the excellence of wisdom. But when he declines from the way of godliness, he revokes his testimony, and becomes an open advocate for folly. He proclaims to all, that the ways of wisdom are incapable of affording him any solid comfort; or, at all events, that there is more happiness to be found in the vanities of time and sense, than in the service of the living God. Yes, backslider, you "exalt folly, and praise the wicked" [Proverbs 28:4.] And, if you condemn, as you must, the inhabitants of the city that left their benefactor to pine away in poverty and contempt, then much more must you condemn yourself, who have, by your declensions, "crucified the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame."
Let me now improve the subject, by recommending to your adoption,
1. A life of consideration and thoughtfulness—
The man who has begun to think and to consider, has already got more than half way to Heaven. It is lack of consideration that ruins the whole world. Would men but inquire from day to day, What have I done? Has it been consonant with the dictates of sound wisdom? Have I proposed to myself the best ends, and have I pursued them by the fittest means? how much evil would they avoid, and how much misery would they escape! O that I might prevail upon you to enter on such a course as this!
Admirable is that advice of Solomon, "Finish your outdoor work and get your fields ready; after that, build your house." [Proverbs 24:27.] This is what any prudent builder will do, though he is only constructing a temporary habitation for the body. How much more should we do it, who are building for the immortal soul! Adopt this plan then: think what you have to do for God: think by what means you may best advance the interest of your souls; and redeem, as it were, every hour in preparation for eternity. "Walk, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil."
2. A life of real piety—
Nothing but sincere piety will inspire true wisdom—nothing but sincere piety will enable us to counteract with effect the assaults of our great adversary. Let us seek from above "a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and of might"—then, whether we are poor or rich, we shall assuredly be victorious.
Indeed the poor are for the most part more highly favored than the rich. The rich are too apt to be self-confident and self-sufficient; while the poor thankfully accept the offered aids of the Gospel. Hence "the things which are hid from the wise and prudent, are frequently revealed to babes;" and hence, while the rich are vanquished, the poor are crowned with victory.
Let it not be forgotten, that "in the Lord alone we have either righteousness or strength." "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty!" Yes, by the Spirit of the living God revealing the Savior to us, and communicating strength out of his fullness—we shall be "enabled to withstand in the evil day," and shall have that joyful song put into our mouths, "Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!"
The Destructive Influence of Sinners
Ecclesiastes 9:18, "One sinner destroys much good."
The influence of every man in his sphere is considerable. Solomon had seen a remarkable instance of a poor man delivering by his wisdom a small and ill-garrisoned city from the besieging army of a very powerful monarch. From hence he was led to consider the superiority of wisdom above wealth or power.
On the other hand, he saw that, as a wise and good man might be extremely useful, so a foolish and wicked man might do a great deal of injury, to those around him. Hence, contrasting the two, he observed, "Wisdom is better than weapons of war; but one sinner destroys much good."
In illustrating the latter member of the sentence, we shall point out the truth of it,
I. One sinner destroys much good in NATIONS—
Men of all classes in the community may greatly affect the state to which they belong.
A proud and ambitious monarch, how soon may he involve his people in war, and reduce them to the very brink of ruin! Such was Solomon's only son, who, in the space of a few weeks, goaded ten tribes out of the twelve that he ruled over, to revolt from him, and to establish a separate and independent kingdom [1 Kings 12:16.]
An aspiring subject also may, by exaggerating the people's grievances, and promising them effectual redress, stir up multitudes to insurrection, and involve a nation in all the horrors of civil war. Thus did Absalom [2 Samuel 15:2-6; 2 Samuel 15:10-14.] And thus have demagogues in every age, in every state.
What immense evil too may not a cruel persecutor effect! How may such an one waste the Church of God and destroy it! One Jezebel could murder a whole host of prophets [1 Kings 18:13.]; and one Saul depopulate the Christian Church [Acts 9:1-2.] And, in this nation as well as others, time was, when one cruel bigot, Bloody Mary, kindled fires in every part of the country, to extirpate, if possible, those who would not return to the justly reprobated errors of her religion.
If a great man is conspicuous for impiety and profaneness, his conduct will be attended with a most baneful influence. Soon will sycophants imitate his example, until irreligion becomes the fashion of the day, and everything sacred is trampled under foot. What an awful instance of such success have we in Jeroboam; who, the more effectually to detach from Judah the ten revolted tribes, erected idols in Dan and Bethel, which from that hour became, and ever afterwards remained, the objects of worship through the whole kingdom [Hosea 5:11.] In this verse is mentioned not his success only, but the evil it brought upon them!] Hence he is continually stigmatized with the name of "him who made Israel to sin!" [1 Kings 22:52.]
But indeed any enormous sinner, of whatever class, does much to destroy the peace and prosperity of his country. What is it that arms God against a nation, and provokes him to visit it with war, pestilence, and famine? Is it not sin? Every sinner therefore, in proportion as he increases the nation's guilt, contributes also to its punishment. In many instances we know, that the whole kingdom of Israel suffered for the offence of one; not for that of David only, who was the monarch [2 Samuel 24:10; 2 Samuel 24:15.]; but for that also of Achan, an obscure individual [Joshua 22:20.] Nor until the last day will it appear what injury this nation has sustained by means of every one here present.
II. One sinner destroys much good in FAMILIES—
What strife is brought into any house by an imperious husband, a contentious wife, or an undutiful, stubborn child! Instead of love and harmony, there is little else than brawling and quarreling; so that the very sight of each other, which ought to call forth all the tender emotions of their hearts excites nothing but enmity and disgust.
A man addicted to lewdness, gaming, intemperance, evil company, or idleness—to what wretchedness may he soon reduce his family! God has put a price into the hand of such an one to make his dependents happy, but he knows not how to use it [Proverbs 17:16.] He might support them in ease and comfort, but brings them to poverty and desperation. How many instances of this are found in every town and village!
Nor can we easily estimate the good which a whisperer and a tale-bearer may destroy. Behold, he comes into a house where friends or relatives are cemented in the strictest bonds of union and amity; but he creates suspicion, and alienates their minds, and kindles feuds, and fills with animosity the bosoms that once glowed with mutual affection [Proverbs 16:28.]
But what shall we say of the vile seducer, who under the mask of friendship enters the house of his unsuspecting neighbor, and avails himself of the opportunity to seduce his daughter, or to defile his wife? Alas! what incalculable misery does such a man create! For the sake of a momentary gratification, how many hearts does he pierce with the deepest and most lasting sorrow! What disgrace does he bring upon the whole family, involving the innocent with the guilty in irremediable shame, and bowing them down with grief that hurries them to the grave! Would to God that, if such a character exists in this assembly, he might be smitten with remorse, and wounded to his inmost soul!
III. One sinner destroys much good in the CHURCH of God—
On whom shall we fix our eyes, as hostile to the Church's welfare, so soon as on the self-serving minister? To him God has committed the improvement of the ordinances, and of the sacred oracles. To him he has given souls to be nurtured and disciplined for Heaven. But the deceiver is intent only on his own gains or pleasures. He performs his weekly task, not caring whether any are edified or not. He wastes the precious opportunities that can never be recalled; and, in the course of his ministry, he leads thousands to eternal perdition. Yes, as far as his influence extends, he makes null and void all the purposes of God's grace, and all the wonders of redeeming love.
When, humanly speaking, he might have been a blessing to the world, and an ornament to his profession, he brings his sacred function into reproach, scattering the flock whom he should have gathered, and destroying whom he should have saved. Such a one is Satan's best friend, and the greatest enemy of God and man.
Much good also may be destroyed, especially where men are awake to the concerns of religion, by a proud disputatious sectary. I speak not here of those who dissent from the Established Church, but of those who create divisions within the Church by unduly insisting on matters of minor importance, and of doubtful disputation. Though the sentiments of such a one are not fundamentally erroneous, yet if he is laying an undue stress on matters that are comparatively indifferent, and forming parties in the church, he distracts the minds of the simple; he puffs up many with pride; he loosens the bonds of brotherly affection; he weakens the hands of a pious minister, and he causes many to relapse into formality and indifference [Romans 16:17-18.] Of such a character were Hymeneus [2 Timothy 2:16-18; 2 Timothy 2:23; 2 Timothy 3:6; 2 Timothy 3:13.], and Alexander [2 Timothy 4:14-15.] One such root of bitterness will trouble and defile many [Hebrews 12:15. See also 1 Corinthians 5:2; 1 Corinthians 5:6 and Galatians 5:7; Galatians 5:9.] On which account we should be as studious as possible to stop their growth [Titus 1:13-14; Titus 3:9-11.]
There is scarcely anyone in the universe who does greater injury to the Church, than the professor who walks dishonorably. One act of his brings disgrace upon the whole Church of God, and makes religion a stench in the very nostrils of those around him [Genesis 34:30.] Instantly do the ungodly begin to triumph [Psalm 35:19; Psalm 35:25], to arraign all the people of God as hypocrites, and to represent religion itself as a mask for everything that is vile [2 Peter 2:2.] Thus . . .
the wicked are hardened,
the weak are offended,
the saints are dishonored, and
the very name of God is blasphemed in the world [1 Timothy 6:1.]
How does God himself complain of this in the case of David [2 Samuel 12:14.]! and how incalculable must the evil be, when multitudes are thus offended, and set against the very means of salvation!
There is yet one more character that we shall mention, whose conduct indeed is less extensively destructive, but not less injurious to those within his sphere, we mean, the scoffer. He brings no disgrace upon religion, because he makes no profession of it. Nor can he greatly impede its progress in the world, because he is not invested with authority or influence. But perhaps there is some relation, some friend, whom he can discourage by sneers and ridicule, if not also by menaces and actual unkindness. Suppose then that, in one single instance, he succeeds in breaking the bruised reed and quenching the smoking flax; who shall appreciate the good he has destroyed? to ruin one for whom Christ died; and who, but for such an obstacle, would have got safe to Heaven [Romans 14:15.] If the whole world be of no value in comparison of a soul [Matthew 16:26.], then, in that single act, the scoffer has done more harm than the whole world can recompense.
1. Let us guard against receiving evil from others—
It was a heathen poet who said, "Bad company corrupts good character" and from him the Apostle quotes it, for the edification of the Church of Christ [1 Corinthians 15:33.] Behold then what reason itself, as well as Scripture, teaches us in reference to the subject before us. One person infected with the plague may do us more injury than a hundred healthy people can do us good. I would earnestly entreat all, therefore, and young people especially, not to admit to their friendship so much as one associate, whose ways are evil. For who can tell to what an extent the principles and conduct of such a man may prevail to efface the good impressions that have been made upon his mind, and to induce habits that may prove fatal to his soul? If I regarded nothing but your temporal prosperity, I would give this advice: but when I take eternity into the account, I cannot but urge it upon every one here present, and say with the Apostle, "Come out from among such people altogether, and be separate from them, and do not so much as touch the unclean thing" or person that may contaminate your soul.
2. Let us to the utmost of our power repair the evil which we ourselves have done—
Suppose us ever so free from the more flagrant instances that have been mentioned, there is not one among us who has not done much evil by means of his example. We have all lived, like the world around us, in a neglect of God and of our own souls: and, in so doing, have countenanced the same conduct in others. Thus, whether we intended it or not, we have confirmed many in their ungodly ways, and have contributed to their eternal ruin. Let us go now, and undo what we have done: alas! we cannot find one half of them: many are not known by us: many are gone to distant parts: many are already in the eternal world: and, if we should attempt to convert those to whom we can get access, they would laugh at us as fools, or despise us as hypocrites.
Besides, all of them in their respective spheres have diffused the contagion which they received from us: and thus have put it beyond the reach of man to trace, or even to conceive, the evil we have done. And does not all this call for penitence? Yes, if our "head were a fountain of tears to run down incessantly" to the last hour of our lives, it would be no more than the occasion calls for. But with our penitence we must unite our utmost efforts to repair the evil we have done.
To repair it with respect to God, is the work of Christ only. He alone can render satisfaction for our sins; his blood alone can cleanse us from the guilt we have contracted by them.
But with respect to man we may do something, though we cannot do all that we could wish. Let us begin with our example: this speaks the most forcibly, and the most extensively. Let us, by giving up ourselves to God, show others what they ought to do: and let our light so shine before men, that they may be constrained to glorify God, and to take shame to themselves.
Next, let us use our influence: be it small or great, let us not neglect to exert it, that by every means in our power we may counteract our past evils, and stir up others to flee from the wrath to come.
Finally, let us be fervent in our intercessions at the throne of grace, that God may take to him his great power, and establish his kingdom upon earth. Let us particularly pray for those, whom, in any respect, we may have allured from the path of duty. Thus, like the great Apostle, we shall make some compensation to the world for all the injuries it has sustained by our means, and show, that, if one sinner can destroy much good, one saint can effect much which shall be a ground of joy and gratitude to all eternity.
Ecclesiastes 11:1, "Cast your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days."
While, in the purity of its precepts, the inspired volume exceeds all other books upon the face of the earth—it excels all other compositions in the variety and richness of the images under which it exhibits our duty and urges the performance of it.
The image under which liberality is here inculcated is well understood in countries where the heat of the climate, uniting with periodical inundations, enables the gardener to proceed in a mode of agriculture unknown to us in the colder regions of the globe. In Egypt, for instance, where the Nile overflows the country periodically to a vast extent, it is common for men to cast their seed, their rice especially, upon the waters, while yet they are at a considerable depth. This might seem to be folly in the extreme, but experience proves, that, instead of losing their seed, they find it again, after many days, rising into an abundant crop.
Such shall be the return which we also shall find to our efforts, if we exert ourselves,
I. For the relief of men's bodily needs—
Liberality to the poor is strongly insisted on in the Holy Scriptures. It is inculcated,
1. Liberality is inculcated in the way of PRECEPT—
Exceedingly clear and strong were the injunctions which God gave on this subject to his people of old [See Deuteronomy 15:7-11.] So, under the New Testament dispensation, we are enjoined to "labor with our own hands." And "On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up," for the purpose of relieving others [Ephesians 4:28. 1 Corinthians 16:2.] Nay, so obvious is this duty, that the man who lives not in the practice of it must be an utter stranger to the love of God in his soul [1 John 3:17.] For "if he loves not his brother whom he has seen, then how can he love God whom he has not seen? [1 John 4:20.]
2. Liberality is inculcated in the way of EXAMPLE—
The good Samaritan shows us how we ought to exercise generosity, even towards those who, by reason of particular differences and distinctions, may appear to be most remote from us [Luke 10:33-37.]
The widow, in giving her mite, which was all that she possessed, might be thought to have acted an extravagant part, especially when she gave it for a purpose to which it could bear no proportion, namely, the repairing of the temple. Yet is that commended to us, by our Lord himself, as an example highly to be admired, and universally to be followed [Mark 12:42-43.]
As for the Macedonians, who were proposed as an example to the Corinthians, their generosity exceeded all belief: for when in great affliction, and in a state of deep poverty, they abounded unto the riches of liberality, and of their own selves, without any solicitation on the part of the Apostle, besought him with much entreaty to take upon him the distribution of their alms [2 Corinthians 8:1-4.] Nothing can give us a higher idea of the excellence of charity than this.
3. Liberality is inculcated in the way of ENCOURAGEMENT—
God assures us, that "whatever we give to the poor, we lend unto the Lord; and that he will, in one way or another, repay us [Proverbs 19:17.] He will repay us, even in a way of temporal prosperity: for the giving of the first-fruits of all our increase to the poor is the way, not to empty our barns, but to fill them with plenty, and to make our presses burst out with new wine [Proverbs 3:9-10.]
Still more will he repay us in a way of spiritual prosperity; since, "if we draw out our soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul, he will satisfy our souls in drought, and make fat our bones, and make us like a watered garden, or like a spring of water, whose waters fail not [Isaiah 58:10-11.]
Even with eternal rewards will he repay us, "recompensing, at the resurrection of the just," the smallest services we have rendered his people [Luke 14:14], and not allowing "even a cup of cold water to be left without its appropriate reward [Matthew 10:42.]
I say then, with assured confidence in reference to this matter, "Cast your seed upon the waters; and you shall find it after many days."
But we may understand our text as encouraging our exertions also,
II. For the advancement of men's MENTAL improvement—
To this the same image is applied by the prophet Isaiah; who gives us this additional information, that people, previous to their casting of their seed upon the waters, send forth their oxen and their donkeys to tread the ground with their feet, in order the better to prepare the earth for its reception: "Blessed are you who sow beside all waters, that send forth thither the feet of the ox and the donkey [Isaiah 32:20.]
Now this refers to the publication of the Gospel in every place, however untoward the circumstances, or hopeless the appearance. And we can bear witness to the truth of the prophet's observation: for in many places, and on many hearts, where there has been as little prospect of success as could well be conceived, God has given efficacy to the word of his grace; and the handful of corn sown upon the top of the mountains has sprung up, so that the fruit thereof has shaken like the woods of Lebanon; and those of the city where it has been cast have flourished like the piles of grass upon the earth [Psalm 72:16.]
To "child care and training for the poor", for the promotion of which I now more immediately address you, the text is peculiarly applicable; since nothing can be supposed more hopeless than any attempt to benefit the rising generation, from the ages of two to five or six. But I must say, that, if you cast your seed upon these waters, you shall find it again, in very abundant benefits conferred on all the poorer classes of society.
What a relief is it to the mother to have her infants duly attended to through the day; while she, instead of having her hands tied by the care of them, is enabled to earn bread for their support! What a benefit, too, is it to her elder daughter; who would otherwise have her time occupied in attending upon her younger brothers and sisters, and be thereby deprived of education for herself, while she was discharging that important office! This is of immense importance, because it secures to all the children of the poor the same advantages; the elder and the younger being alike partakers of the benefits thus freely accorded to them.
But to the children themselves the benefits are incalculably great. We cannot but have seen, times without number, what depraved habits are contracted by the children of the poor when playing about the streets or lanes of a town without control. At home, for the most part, they see nothing but evil; and abroad, they practice it in every way with sad proficiency, lying, swearing, quarreling, the very pests of the neighborhood wherein they dwell. As for anything good, they learn it not; having no good principles instilled into them, and no good examples set before them.
But by being brought into a school at the early age of two or three years, they are kept from all those temptations to which they would otherwise be exposed; and have . . .
their conduct watched over,
their tempers corrected,
their habits restrained,
their principles improved,
their whole deportment brought into subjection to good instruction and to well-ordered authority. They are insensibly taught, by the example of others, what could not have been infused into them by mere abstract precept; and they acquire, by imitation, habits of order and docility, which they could not by any other method have obtained.
Now, then, who shall estimate the value of this to the children themselves? Or who shall say, What benefit shall, in a course of years, arise to the whole community from such institutions as these, if they be generally established and well supported?
I have not spoken respecting religious advantages accruing to the children, because it may be supposed that they are not at that early age capable of religious instruction. But is it nothing, to prevent the soil being overrun with briars and thorns, and to have it improved by the infusion of moral principles? In fact, a child's religion consists chiefly in the fear of God, and in a habitual regard to his all-seeing eye. This is implanted in their minds to vast advantage, by the entire system of discipline to which they are subjected, as well as by the distinct instructions which are given them. And though it is but too probable that they may afterwards lose the impressions which are then made upon their minds, yet they can never forget the general idea, that it was well with them when they were so disciplined and so instructed.
Nor is the influence which they may carry home a trifling matter: for when their parents hear them giving an account of the lessons they have learned—lessons of meekness and patience, of truth and honesty, of purity and love—they may themselves be put to shame, and acquire very important hints for their own improvement.
I beg permission, then, to recommend to your support this important institution—
I would recommend it,
First, for the sake of the rising generation, on whom it will confer so great a benefit.
Next, for the sake of those who have set on foot this benevolent plan. None but people of very enlarged minds could ever have devised such means of benefitting the poor. To instruct such infants would, to any common understanding, have appeared as hopeless a task as that of "casting bread upon the waters." Yet experience has proved its vast utility; and shown, that if such institutions were to prevail in every town, a most extensive benefit would be conferred on the whole community!
Shall, then, people capable of adorning and instructing the highest ranks in society not meet with support, when they employ their talents in contriving means for benefitting the poor? Surely every person ought to bear testimony to the worth and excellence of such designs; and to give them, the beat tribute of applause, their active concurrence, and their most liberal support.
Lastly, for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, I would urge upon you the support of this beneficent institution: for he counted not little children beneath his notice; but took them up in his arms, and put his hands upon them and blessed them, and declared that every attention that was paid to such infants would be regarded by him as paid to himself [Matthew 18:2; Matthew 18:5.]
If, then, you have any love to the Savior, who himself assumed a state of infancy for you—yes, and died upon the cross for you—then show it by your liberality on this occasion. Let all endeavor to cultivate the ground. Let him that has an ox, "send forth his ox;" and let him that has a donkey, "send forth his donkey." Let every one, according to his ability, contribute to help forward this good work, without intermission and without despondency. To everyone among you I would say, "Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well." Ecclesiastes 11:6
Youth Warned of the Future Judgment
Ecclesiastes 11:9, "Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment!"
Earthly pleasure is doubtless gratifying to flesh and blood: hence it is more or less an object of desire to all. But there are two considerations which may well abate our ardor in the pursuit, namely, that its gratifications will soon come to an end; and that there is an approaching judgment, at which we must give an account of all that we have ever done in the body, and receive from God's mouth a sentence corresponding with the tenor of our past life.
In the verses preceding our text, the former consideration is urged; and we are told, that, however protracted our pleasures may be, they are but like a winter's sun, which will soon set in darkness, and be followed by a long and dreary night. Such a night is not far off, even from those who are in the very morning of life. It may be hastened prematurely, as it were, by sickness, and toil, and unavoidable misfortunes; and it must come at last through the infirmities of old age, which, if our life be prolonged, will make it but "labor and sorrow." The latter consideration is suggested in the text, which contains two things:
I. A keen remonstrance.
The address here made to youth, though it appears like a concession, is not really so—
It has been thought by some to be a concession, recommending youth to enjoy themselves in the world—only to do it in such a way as not to endanger their happiness in the future life. And it is certain that there are in this book many concessions to that effect [Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:12-13; Ecclesiastes 5:18-19.]
Such passages as these may indeed be easily pressed too far: but, on the other hand, they are not in general understood by the religious world.
Religious people are apt to imagine that Christianity requires an utter abandonment of those things which the carnal mind affects; and that a pious person who possesses any considerable measure of earthly comforts, is necessarily inconsistent in his conduct. But this is a mistake, and a mistake which greatly needs to be rectified; because it occasions many unjust censures, and uncharitable reflections. "God has given us all things richly to enjoy [1 Timothy 6:17.] And, provided we do not spend an undue portion of our substance on earthly indulgences, or set our affections upon them—there is nothing in Christianity which prohibits a reasonable use, and a temperate enjoyment of them. If only we sit loose to them in our hearts, and enjoy God in them, they are perfectly lawful; yes, "they are sanctified to us by the word of God and prayer" [1 Timothy 4:4-5.]
But it is not in this sense that the address before us is to be understood:
It is, on the contrary, a just and severe remonstrance—
The terms here used are such as cannot well be taken in a good sense. To "walk in the ways of our own heart, and in the sight of our own eyes," is equivalent to walking in the ways of criminal self-indulgence. This is the import of these expressions in other passages of Scripture [Numbers 15:39. Deuteronomy 29:19.] And so they must be taken here; as is evident from the awful judgments with which such indulgences are threatened in out text. The text is, in fact, an ironical remonstrance, similar to that which Elijah uttered, when he condemned the worshipers of Baal, "Cry aloud; for he is a God [1 Kings 18:27.] And that by which Micaiah reproved the impolicy of Ahab; "Go up to Ramoth-Gilead, and prosper" [1 Kings 22:15.]
By this kind of irony Solomon intended to convey an idea, that young men are bent on such indulgences; that they promise themselves security in the midst of them; and that they will not be prevailed on by more temperate reproof. In this view, his words may be thus paraphrased: "You will, notwithstanding all that I can say to dissuade you from it, go on in the ways of sin, persuading yourselves that nothing but happiness awaits you. Therefore go on, and follow the bent of your own inclinations—but know, that in the end you will find yourselves grievously disappointed!"
Severe as such a remonstrance is, it is perfectly just; for, who that considers what the great end of our being is, can doubt the wickedness of living to the world and to the flesh? Or who that sees how contrary such conduct is to that of Christ and his apostles, can doubt what the issue of such a life shall be? Truly, "if we mind earthly things, we are enemies to the cross of Christ, and our end will be destruction!" [Philippians 3:18-19.] For, whatever may be said or thought to the contrary, "to be carnally-minded is death" [Romans 8:6.]
To this is annexed,
II. A solemn warning—
There is a day of judgment fast approaching—
God will most assuredly "judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he has ordained, even by his Son, Jesus Christ." Before his tribunal we must all appear. The young, as well as the old, shall then give up their account to him. The things which we did in the earlier part of life shall be brought forth for judgment, as well as those which were done at a more advanced age. The book of God's remembrance shall be opened; and everything that was recorded in it, from the first moment of our existence to the last breath we drew, shall be adduced as illustrative of our true character, and as the ground of God's final sentence.
Then shall the things which are now done receive their proper reward—
The judgment of God will not then be regulated by our views, but by his own unerring wisdom. We may excuse a life of vanity and worldliness now; but he will view it as indeed it is—a life of rebellion against him. It argues a total alienation of heart from him. It shows that we lived to please ourselves rather than him, and that we were in reality a God unto ourselves.
He had told us plainly, "If you live after the flesh, you shall die," but we would not believe it. He had told us, that "the broad road, in which the many are walking, leads to destruction; and that the narrow way alone leads unto life." But we would not be persuaded that such an awful declaration should ever be verified. Nevertheless so it will be found in the last day. Of this we may be perfectly assured: for it stands on the word of God, which is as immutable as God himself: "Know that for all these things, God will call you into judgment."
1. Those who seek their happiness in earthly things—
Do not say that you commit no gross sin, and therefore have no cause to fear. The question simply is, "Do you walk after the way of your own heart?" If you do, it matters little what path you choose, whether it is that of open sin, or secret sin—you are equally living without God in the world, and are equally obnoxious to his holy displeasure. I mean not by this to say that all sins are alike, or that gross immoralities will not augment your guilt and condemnation in the last day. But this is an undoubted truth, that he alone who gives up himself to God in this world, can ever dwell with him in the world to come. For "if we sow to the flesh, we shall of the flesh reap corruption: and it is only from sowing to the Spirit, that we can hope to reap life everlasting."
Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we would persuade you, while yet we may avert from you the impending storm. We would persuade you in particular, O young man, that you may not any longer deceive your soul, and dream of happiness in the eternal world, when you are only "treasuring up wrath against the day of wrath."
2. Those who are seeking happiness in the ways of God—
Say whether you have not found more solid joy in the ways of God, than ever you found in the vanities of the world? Say whether you have not found it better to "mortify your members upon earth," than to indulge them; and to live to God, rather than to live unto yourself?
The joy you now have is legitimate: it is such as prophets and apostles had before you; and such as God has freely conceded to you, to the utmost extent of all your wishes, "Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King." Indeed your present joys are the gift of God to your soul. Go on then "rejoicing in the Lord always," yes, rejoice, if so it may be, "with a joy that is unspeakable and glorified." These joys will never make the future judgment formidable; on the contrary, they will help to prepare you for it, inasmuch as they are themselves a pledge of your everlasting inheritance.
Remembering God in Our Youth
Ecclesiastes 12:1, "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say: I find no pleasure in them."
Instruction may profitably be given in a variety of ways. Indeed, in order to be effectual, it must be accommodated in some measure to the dispositions and habits of the people addressed. To one who is wayward and self-willed, the pungency of irony may be well applied. While with the tractable and docile, the more simple and direct way of affectionate exhortation may be of more avail. Both of these methods are adopted by Solomon in the passage before us. In the verses immediately preceding our text, he addresses a young man whom he supposes to be bent on the prosecution of his evil ways: "Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment!"
Then, after a serious admonition to avoid the evils which ungovernable passions will certainly bring upon him, he affectionately exhorts him to devote his early life to the exercises of true piety.
I. What is implied in "remembering our Creator"—
Of course, it cannot be supposed that it is a mere act of the memory which is here recommended, but such a remembrance as befits the relation in which we stand to him as his creatures. We should remember then,
1. His AUTHORITY over us—
As the work of his hands, we have received from him all our abilities, whether of mind or body. It is of his bounty alone that we have been endowed with the faculty of reason, which elevates us above all the rest of this lower world, and brings us into a near conformity with that higher order of created intelligences, the holy angels. For what purpose has he thus distinguished us, but that we might render him services worthy both of our present state, and our future destinies. "He has formed us for himself, that we might show forth his praise." This is the end for which we are to live: nor is anything on earth to divert us from the course which he has marked out for us. Obedience, it is true, is due to our parents, and to all others whom the providence of God has placed over us. But the authority of the creature must always be regarded as subordinate to that of our Creator; and, if at any time the will of man stands opposed to the will of God, we must then reply, "Whether it be right to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge you."
Whatever solicitations we may have from without or from within to violate any part of God's revealed will, we must withstand them manfully, and resist them even unto death. Knowing that "we are not our own, but God's; we must glorify him with our bodies and our spirits, which are his."
2. The COMMANDS he has given us—
We will not here enter into the different commandments of the law, but draw your attention rather to that great commandment of the Gospel to believe in Christ: "This is his commandment," says John, "that you believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ [1 John 3:23.] This command should be had in constant remembrance. It is addressed to every child of man. There is no one so innocent, as not to need a Savior; nor any one so guilty, but that he may, through penitence and faith, obtain a saving interest in that Savior, whom God has provided for a ruined world.
Do not imagine, my young friends, that you are not concerned in this, or that it will be time enough for you to attend to it, when you shall feel a greater need of mercy. You all are sinners. You all have a consciousness within yourselves that you have done many things which you ought not, and left undone many things which you ought to have done. You therefore have in your own bosoms a witness that you need a Savior. As in the presence of the Most High God, I declare unto you, that there is no mercy for the young, any more than for the old, but in the name, and through the mediation, of Jesus Christ, "there is no other name under Heaven given among men whereby we can be saved, but the name of Jesus Christ."
Go then to this Savior, and implore mercy at his hands. Look to him as dying for your sins, and "as reconciling you to God by the blood of his cross." Let every one of you from day to day wash in the fountain of his blood, and clothe yourselves with the robe of his unspotted righteousness, and live altogether upon his fullness, receiving out of it continual supplies of all needful grace.
3. His CONTINUAL PRESENCE with us—
"God is in every place, beholding the evil and the good," and wherever you are, you should see, as it were, this inscription written, "You see me, O God!" [Genesis 16:13.] This is a point which you should never forget for one single moment: for it is only by bearing this in mind that you will be kept from the indulgence of secret sins. When no human eye is upon us, we are apt to think that we may give a greater latitude to our conduct. But we should remember that the darkness is no darkness with God, but the night and the day to him are both alike. "There is no darkness nor shadow of death where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves."
Oh, if you bear this in remembrance, you will never do what you know to be wrong, nor utter what you know to be false. You will act in all things as in the immediate presence of your God, and will do nothing but what you believe to be good and acceptable in his sight.
4. His determination to JUDGE us in the last day—
God "has appointed a day wherein he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he has ordained, even by his Son Jesus Christ." In that day all shall be summoned to his judgment-seat, the old and the young, the rich and the poor. Not one that has ever been born into the world shall then be absent—the child that died at birth, as well as the man of a hundred years old, shall be summoned to receive his everlasting doom, according to what they have done in the body, whether it be good or evil. To those who have lived to your age, judgment or mercy will be dispensed according as you have remembered or forgotten God.
Most solemn is that declaration of the Psalmist, "The wicked shall be turned into Hell, and all the nations that forget God [Psalm 9:17.] If you have forgotten his authority over you, and especially his command to believe in his Son Jesus Christ; if you have forgotten that his eye was always upon you, inspecting your most secret thoughts, and noting them down in order to his future judgment; and if you have lived without any concern about the irreversible sentence that shall then be passed upon you; it will indeed be an awful day to you, a commencement of such misery as no words can describe, nor any imagination conceive. Remember then that God marks down in the book of his remembrance your every act, and every word, and every thought; and that it is your wisdom so to live, that, whether called at an earlier or later period of life, you may give up your account to him with joy, and not with grief.
Such is the duty of all without exception, but the text requires me more particularly to show,
II. WHY we should thus remember him in early life—
It were easy to accumulate reasons on so plain a point: but we shall content ourselves with assigning a few of the most obvious;
1. This is the most FAVORABLE time—
It is of the nature of sin to harden the heart and to sear the conscience. Therefore the less we have been habituated to sin, the more hope there is that a good impression may be made upon our minds. We cannot agree with those who represent the hearts of youth as a sheet of white paper, on which you may write either good or evil. For, alas! there is evil, not merely written, but inscribed there in a most abundant measure, and in characters that are almost indelible. Yet we cordially accede to this truth, that the young are as yet only like plants sprouting from the earth—pliable and easy to be trained; while at a more advanced age they become like trees, which retain their form, unyielding, and unmoved.
From the very employments too of men in more advanced life, there arise many disadvantages: being drawn to a more vigorous pursuit of earthly things, they are frequently, so oppressed with "the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lust of other things, that the good seed which has been sown in them, cannot grow up unto perfection."
But from these things young people are comparatively free. Besides, at this season they have an express promise from God, which they cannot plead in future life [Proverbs 8:17,] and therefore in a variety of views they may well consider this as "the most convenient season" for piety that can ever occur.
2. It may, for anything we know, be the ONLY time that shall be allotted us—
The youngest and the healthiest among us may be speedily removed. Let any one survey the grave-stones that surround him, and he will see that multitudes have been cut off at his age, though once they appeared as likely to live as any who have survived him. And what if disease or accident arrests you before you have truly devoted yourselves to God? Will you have any opportunity to repair your error in the grave? "Is there any work or device there," by which you can accomplish what here was left undone? No! "As the tree falls, so it lies:" and as you die, in a converted or unconverted state, so you must remain forever! "Today then, while it is called today," harden not your hearts," as the generality, alas! are but too prone to do.
3. No other thing in the universe can so contribute to our present happiness—
It is a great mistake and folly, to imagine that happiness can be found in the vanities of time and sense. From infallible authority we can declare that everything under the sun is mere "vanity and vexation of spirit." But in the service of God there is real joy. His ways are all, without exception, "ways of pleasantness and peace," and "in keeping his commandments there is great reward."
Ask anyone whether he ever regretted that he had given himself up to God too soon? We have heard of men, even of good men, as Job and Jeremiah, cursing the day of their birth—but who ever cursed the day of his new birth? At every period of life this is a subject that will bear reflection and impart delight—and in proportion as we grow in piety will our joy in God be increased.
4. There will certainly come a time when we shall wish we had sought the Lord in early life—
The text speaks of "evil days as coming"—and sooner or later they are coming to all.
There is a time of sickness or old age coming, "wherein we shall have no pleasure" in earthly things: and shall we not then wish, that we had sought the Lord in our youth? Shall we then look back with pleasure on the sins that we have committed, or on the vanities that have kept us from God? Nothing but the consolations of God will then be of any avail to make us happy amidst the evils, which, from pain or debility, we shall have to sustain.
But there is a time of death also which we must meet—and what will be our thoughts at that period? Then it will be of little moment to us what joys or sorrows we have met with in our former life. All our concern will be about our eternal state. Oh! with what force will that question press upon the mind, "Am I ready? Am I prepared to meet God?"
How different will our feelings then be, according as we have given up ourselves to God in our early youth, or put off the work of our souls to a dying hour! and what an unfit season will that be to begin that work!
Go one step farther: follow the soul into the eternal world, and view it standing at the judgment-seat of Christ. What will be its feelings at that day? I need not say—your own consciences will tell you. At this moment, even though you choose not to live the life of the righteous, you are saying inwardly in your hearts, "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his."
Then, as these times must come, let us work while it is day, knowing assuredly, that the night is coming when no man can work, and when we shall bitterly lament, that ever we lost this day of our visitation, and neglected the things belonging to our everlasting peace.
1. The younger part of our audience—
"Now" therefore more particularly "remember God." Remember, that he sees the way in which you perform this duty. He sees whether you endeavor truly to approve yourselves to him, or whether you only mock him by a thoughtless compliance with an established form. Go to him, and surrender up yourselves wholly to him, as "the first-fruits of his creatures," and you will have reason to bless God to all eternity, that ever you were called to perform this solemn service.
But, if you go without any sincere desire to devote yourselves to him, you will only harden your own hearts, and increase the guilt you have already contracted. "Let me however hope better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak." Yes, dearly Beloved, we will hope, respecting some of you at least, that we "have not bestowed upon you labor in vain."
2. To those who have grown to manhood—
Every argument used with the young, presses with additional weight on you, and says, with greatly augmented force, "Remember NOW your Creator." If in your earlier days you were led to comply with this advice, I will venture to ask, Do you repent of having done so? Is not the chief matter of your regret, that you did not give yourselves up to him at a yet earlier period, and that you have not adhered more steadfastly to the engagements you entered into? If you have, on the contrary, advanced in the Divine life, and grown from babes to young men, or from young men to fathers—does not that afford you matter of very exalted joy?
Go on then, "forgetting what is behind, and reaching forward to that which is ahead," and know that, "when the days arrive in which you shall say, you have no pleasure in them," you shall experience "a joy with which the stranger intermeddles not;" which this world can neither give nor take away; and which shall be to you a pledge and earnest of everlasting felicity in the bosom of your God.
The Sum of All True Religion
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil."
In this book of Ecclesiastes are many things difficult to be understood, and capable of being perverted by any one who desires to justify himself in an undue attachment to the world. But a reference to the condition of the author will enable us to explain the whole in a satisfactory and consistent manner. Solomon was possessed of all that this world could afford; and he rendered every object, and every employment, subservient to his own comfort. In all this he sinned not. It was not in the use of God's creatures that he sinned, but in the abuse of them. And we also may both possess and enjoy all that God in his providence has allotted to us, if only we enjoy God in the creature, and have earth subordinated to Heaven. What the real drift of all his observations was, is told to us in the words which we have just read, and which give us a clew to all that he has before spoken. In them we see,
I. The sum of all moral and religious instructions—
Many things we have to say both on the subject of morals and of religion, but they are all comprehended in this one saying, "Fear God, and keep his commandments."
In this is contained the whole substance of religion—
By the fear of God we understand, not a slavish dread of him, but a holy filial regard, arising from a sense of his relation to us as a reconciled God and Father.
And in "keeping his commandments" we include a due attention to that great commandment of the Gospel, the believing in our Lord Jesus Christ for salvation [1 John 3:23.] We must distinguish carefully between a legal and an evangelical interpretation of these terms, lest we confound the Gospel with the Law. We must guard especially against a reliance on our obedience, as if it could in any way, or in any degree, purchase salvation for us. But, if we are duly jealous on these points, we need never be afraid of asserting, that all true religion is comprehended in the duties inculcated in our text. Everything else is subservient to these things: the most important principles are of little use, except as they conduce to this end. It was for this that the Lord Jesus Christ undertook and executed the whole work of redemption, "To this end Christ both died and rose and revived, that he might be the Lord both of the dead and living," [Romans 14:9] and "purify unto himself a peculiar people zealous of good works" [Titus 2:14.] All the promises of the Gospel are given to us for this end, to "make us partakers of the Divine nature," [2 Peter 1:4] that we may, under their gracious influence, "cleanse ourselves from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit, and perfect holiness in the fear of God" [2 Corinthians 7:1.] In a word, it is this which is the scope and end of all our ministrations; we are sent "to turn men from darkness unto light, and from the power of Satan unto God [Acts 26:18.]
In this all is contained that deserves the attention of a rational being—
It is of very small consequence whether we have more or less of this world—its pleasures, riches, honors, are but for a moment. What enjoyment has the Rich Man now of all his sumptuous fare? What sense has Lazarus of all his former wants? All is passed away; and nothing remains of all the good or evil that befell them in this world, but a responsibility for the use they made of it.
The period allotted for the enjoyment of earthly things is but a day, an hour, a moment. What does it signify to a man acting a play, whether he performs the part of a king or a beggar? Whatever his real character is, that he assumes, and that he retains, as soon as the last scene has ended. So the only thing that is of importance to us is, "What is that character which we shall sustain to all eternity? Have we been rebellious and disobedient? or have we feared God and wrought righteousness?" Those are the points that will determine our future destinies; and therefore they are the only points deserving of any serious regard.
But this leads us more particularly to notice,
II. The consideration that gives to it all its weight and importance—
This will be the one point of inquiry at the last day—
God will come to judge the world; and, when examining the state of every individual, he will not ask, What sect we were of; or, What our sentiments and professions were; but, What our practice was, and What the habit of our minds towards him? I may even say, that that which passes under the name of Christian experience, will be of no account, as distinct from the duties inculcated in our text. It is radical and universal holiness alone, that God values: and, if that be right in its principle and end, it is the only thing which will be regarded in God's estimate of our character. In a word, it is "the whole of man;" it is his whole duty, and his whole happiness. His whole duty, as comprehending universal holiness; and his whole happiness, as being really a foretaste of Heaven itself.
According to this will our eternal state be fixed—
Some of this will appear in our external conduct, but some will be found only in the internal habit of the mind; because there is very rarely scope for discovering in outward act, all that the grace of God will discover from in the heart. "Every secret thing" therefore, every secret desire, purpose, inclination, appetite, affection, will go to the forming of God's estimate, and the determining the measure of our future recompense. If these have been evil, the best acts will have lost their value. But if these have been good, the smallest acts that can possibly have been performed, the widow's mite, or a cup of cold water given to a disciple, will be ranked among the most acceptable services, and be acknowledged as such by God himself. If we have really had "the fear of God in our hearts," and "walked in his fear all the day long," and, under the influence of that principle, labored to approve ourselves to him in all things—then we shall assuredly hear him say to us in that day, "Well done, good and faithful servants, enter into the joy of your Lord!"
This subject will be of the greatest use,
1. To correct the errors of those who affect superior light—
Many there are who leave out all practical godliness from their system, They can think of nothing but God's eternal decrees, and of the finished work of Christ for us; forgetting that there still remains a work for him to accomplish in us. They would account all such views as have been presented to you, legal, and unfit to be offered to a Christian auditory. What Solomon accounted "the conclusion of the whole matter," and "the whole of man," they account as nothing. But not so did Peter, who says that "in every nation, he who fears God and works righteousness, is accepted of him [Acts 10:35.] Nor was Paul of their opinion; for he has declared (and in the very epistle where he most enlarges on the decrees of God), that it is "by patient continuance in well-doing we must attain to glory and honor and immortality [Romans 2:7, with 2 Corinthians 5:10-11.]
We do not hesitate to say, that if an angel from Heaven were to be sent to preach the Gospel, the statements before given would constitute a very principal part of his ministrations. John in his visions saw an angel flying through the whole world, to carry the everlasting Gospel to people of all nations and tongues: and the words in which he addressed the whole human race were like those of our text, "Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come!" [Revelation 14:6-7.]
Here is the very exhortation of Solomon, enforced with the identical consideration which he urges; and it is expressly called, "The everlasting Gospel." Let those who affect a higher and superior tone be convinced of their mistake. Let them bring forward all the sublimest truths of Christianity in their place; but let "this be the conclusion of the whole matter;" for, whether they will believe it or not, this is "the one thing needful," and "the whole duty of man."
2. To dispel the fears of those whose knowledge is yet dim—
As there are many who delight in nothing but the deepest mysteries of our religion, so there are many who make those mysteries an occasion of continual disquietude. The doctrines of predestination and election are ever present with their minds, as grounds of terror and despondency. They cannot see that they are of the number of God's elect; and therefore they imagine that all exertions on their part are in vain. But the fears of this people are such as ought no longer to be indulged: for there is no man in the universe who is authorized to consider himself as one of God's elect, any farther than he has "the spot of God's children" upon him. It is by his fear of God, and his obedience to God's commandments, that he must judge of his state before God. To judge of his election by any other standard, is only to deceive his own soul. If then those who distress themselves about the doctrines of election would dismiss those subjects from their minds, and contemplate only what is more within the sphere of their comprehension, they would do well.
Let me recommend this plan to all. Look not at God's decrees, which you can never explore, but at the visible effects of his grace upon your souls. If you can find "the works of faith, and labors of love, and patience of hope" evidenced in your conduct, you may from thence assuredly infer "your election of God" [1 Thessalonians 1:3-4.] since those are indisputably the fruits of his grace: and his grace has been communicated according to his purpose, which "he purposed in Christ Jesus before the world began" [2 Timothy 1:9. Jeremiah 31:3.]
3. To regulate the conduct of those whose views are scriptural and just—
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" [Psalm 111:10.] and to get this in a more uniform and abiding exercise, is to be the one object of our lives. It is the beginning and "the conclusion of the whole matter." O that this were better understood among us!
An old writer observes, that religion consists not in Notions, but Motions. The observation, though quaint, is true. The difference is not always visible at first sight, and the one if often mistaken for the other; but, if separated, they are as wide asunder as Heaven and Hell. Let it never be forgotten, that holiness of heart and life is that which constitutes our fitness for Heaven; and that it is only by growth in that, that we can ever honor God on earth, or secure the enjoyment of him in the eternal world.