Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;Ecclesiastes 12:1
Samuel Rutherford, in some letters addressed to young Scotchmen, often enlarges on this idea. 'A young man is often a dressed lodging for the devil to dwell in.' 'I know that missive letters go between the devil and young blood. Satan hath a friend at court in the heart of youth; and there pride, luxury, lust, revenge, forgetfulness of God, are hired agents.' 'Youth ordinarily is a fast and ready servant for Satan to run errands.' 'Believe it, my lord,'—this in a letter to a young Scottish nobleman—'it is hardly credible what a nest of dangerous temptations youth is; how inconsiderate, foolish, proud, vain, heady, rash, profane, and careless of God, this piece of your life is.... For then affections are on horseback, lofty and stirring, and therefore, oh, what a sweet couple, what a glorious yoke are youth and grace, Christ and a young man! This is a meeting not to be found in every town.'
Kingsley, in North Devon, describing the wreck of a ship on the Hartland Cliffs, tells of the sad records found in her log-book. 'Notice after notice, "on this day such an one died," "on this day such an one was washed away "—the log kept up to the last, even when there was only that to tell, by the stern, business-like merchant skipper, whoever he was; and how at last, when there was neither food nor water, the strong man's heart seemed to have quailed, or, perhaps, risen with a prayer, jotted down in the log, "The Lord have mercy on us!"—and then a blank of several pages, and, scribbled with a famine-shaken hand, "Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth "—and so the log and the ship were left to the rats, which covered the deck when our men boarded her.'
I have made a sketch of a golden twelve-rayed sun with the clock in the centre. The rays correspond to the hours, and in each of the golden points a word is painted in Gothic letters. Here they are as they stand in succession: I. we begin, II. we want, HI. we learn, IIII. we obey, V. we love, VI. we hope, VII. we search, VIII. we suffer, IX. we wait, X. we forgive, XL we resign, XII. we end. The advancing handle marks the hour and its word, and there is many a one we should like to pass quickly by, so as to tarry longer at others—but we must accept all the hours, the good and the bad ones, as they follow each other on life's inexorable great clock.
—The Letters Which Never Reached Him, p. 206.
See Jowett's College Sermons, pp. 1 f.
References.—XII. 1.—W. Brock, Midsummer Morning Sermons, p. 68. XII. 1, 2.—W. H. Simcox, The Cessation of Prophecy, p. 201. XII. 1, 6, 7.—J. M. C. Bellew, Sermons, vol. ii. p. 289. XII. 1-7, 13, 14.—A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—Ecclesiastes, p. 402.
Things are alive, and the life at the heart of them, that keeps them going, is the great, beautiful God. So the sun returns for ever after the clouds. A doubting man, like him who wrote Ecclesiastes, puts the evil last, and says the clouds return after the rain; but the Christian knows that One has mastery who makes the joy the last in every song.
After the water-skins a pair of mill-stones is the most necessary husbandry in an Arabian household. To grind their corn is the housewives' labour; and the dull rumour of the running mill-stones is as it were a comfortable voice of food in an Arabian village, when in the long sunny hours there is often none other human sound. The drone of mill-stones may be heard before the daylight in the nomad menzils.
—Doughty's Arabia Deserta, II. p. 180.
Solomon saith, Man goeth to his long home. Short preparation will not fit so long a journey. O let me not put it off till the last, to have my oil to buy, when I am to burn it, but let me so dispose of myself, that when I am to die I may have nothing to do but to die.
References.—XII. 5.—E. A. Askew, Sermons Preached in Greystoke Church, p. 156. D. Swing, American Pulpit of Today, vol. i. p. 205. J. M. Neale, Sermons for Some Feast Days in the Christian Year, p. 177.
The Individuality of the Soul
Survey some populous town: crowds are pouring through the streets; some on foot, some in carriages; while the shops are full, and the houses too, could we see into them. Every part of it is full of life. Hence we gain a general idea of splendour, magnificence, opulence, and energy. But what is the truth? why, that every being in that great concourse is his own centre and all things about him are but shades, but a 'vain shadow,' in which he 'walketh and dis-quieteth himself in vain'. He has his own hopes and fears, desires, judgments, and aims; he is everything to himself, and no one else is really anything. No one outside of him can really touch him, can touch his soul, his immortality; he must live with himself for ever. He has a depth within him unfathomable, an infinite abyss of existence; and the scene in which he bears part for the moment is but like a gleam of sunshine upon its surface. When we read history, we meet with accounts of great slaughters and massacres, great pestilences, famines, conflagrations, and so on; and here again we are accustomed in an especial way to regard collections of people as if individual units. We cannot understand that a multitude is a collection of immortal souls. I say immortal souls: each of those multitudes, not only had while He was upon earth, but has a soul, which did in its own time but return to God who gave it, and not perish, and which now lives unto Him. All those millions upon millions of human beings who ever trod the earth and saw the sun successively, are at this very moment in existence all together.... We may recollect when children, perhaps, once seeing a certain person, and it is almost like a dream to us now that we did. It seems like an accident which goes and is all over, like some creature of the moment, which has no existence beyond it The rain falls, and the wind blows; and showers and storms have no existence beyond the time when we felt them; they are nothing in themselves. But if we have but once seen any child of Adam, we have seen an immortal soul. It has not passed away as a breeze or sunshine, but it lives; it lives at this moment in one of those many places, whether of bliss or misery, in which all souls are reserved until the end.
—J. H. Newman.
The Two Returns
The book of Ecclesiastes has been described as the 'confession of a man of wide experience, looking back upon his past life, and looking out upon the disorders and calamities which surround him'.
The subject of the paragraph is the wisdom of remembering God in youth. A lively picture is drawn of the infirmities and incapacities of old age, as the best of reasons why the great 'remembering' should not be deferred till that part of life. Let us consider the great end which is before each of us—an end in which each must be alone—an end which is also a beginning. The fact of death, the corporeal fact, is full of significance, and should never be frowned away. If this fact were pondered over, if it even were rehearsed to ourselves morning by morning, it would cause some alterations in the habits which we allow, and in the lives which we live. It is, however, the other half of the text which gives the chief solemnity even to this. If the whole of dying were just the getting rid of the mortal then there would be no positive 'sting' in death. But 'the spirit must return unto God who gave it'. It is commonly said that the Old Testament has no revelation of immortality. What can we say of the text? Is it consistent with the dream of extinction, of absorption, of annihilation? Why not say then at once, dust and spirit together shall return to earth as they were? This we say—that no saint of God from first days till latest was ever left destitute of the instinct of immortality.
I. The spirit. It is one half of us. It contains the 'willing' of which the body does the 'running'. This spirit is God's gift. Angel, I must be, or else devil, in virtue of this gift.
II. The return. The spirit has to go back to its Giver. It was not for Solomon to enter into niceties and subtleties such as those of the intermediate state, the Hades, between death and resurrection. Enough for him to see the 'return'.
III. The receiver. 'To God Who gave it' That spirit as it came from God's hand was not necessitated to evil. In what state, of what colour does it return? Oh, to think of carrying all this filth into heaven! to think of going back to the Father of Spirits with that lie, with that lust black and hideous upon thee! It is this which frightens and confounds us. The Gospel of our Lord does not leave us in despair: 'Come unto Me,' I will save, My rod and staff shall support.
—C. J. Vaughan, The Clerical Library, vol. II. p. 165.
References.—XII. 7.—W. H. Hutchings, Sermon-Sketches, p. 319. J. C. M. Bellew, Sermons, vol. iii. p. 81.
The Pessimistic and Optimistic Views of Life
Ecclesiastes 12:8, John 10:10
These two texts, one of the Old Testament and one of the New, mark very pointedly the eternal contrast between the two ways of life possible to man, the one way darkened with the riddle of an inscrutable mystery, the other brightened with the Gospel message of a coming King.
I. 'What is the plan of life,' men ask its purpose, its aim? And to that riddle of the Sphinx there are always two answers. 'There is no plan,' cries the old Jewish sceptic. 'Life itself, human life, is but a, grim game of chance played by a silent angel who seems to play with loaded dice.' In the end the dust is laid upon us; we go down into the darkness of the tomb and all is soundless and silent And on the other hand, there is the Gospel answer of joy and hope and victory. Christ has come that we might have life, and might have it more abundantly. God has a plan for the world in Christ, a great educational plan by which both the perfection of the individual and the perfection of the race is to be accomplished. To the dark riddle of life, which is the true answer?
II. There are few more tragic books in all sacred literature than the book of Ecclesiastes, in which the old Jewish sage preaches to mankind his sad and mournful sermon. We know how, in his later life, he had fallen from his great estate, and to gratify his passion and pride had outraged the most sacred ordinances, neglected the most sacred duties that can cluster round life. It is at that time, when the bloom of purity and grace had gone out of him, when his sin had made him blind to his blessings of nature, and home, and God, and his bad life had drawn bad men towards him and driven good men away, when his relation to women is such as to drive him from the presence of such pure and noble women as, thank God, never failed out of the world—it is then that Solomon is represented as writing his cynical estimate of God and nature, life and death, men and women. Some centuries after this first sad sermon upon the meaning of life was written, there came to that same land and people another teacher born, it was said, after the flesh of the same royal line as the first, and upon Him as upon His earthly ancestor long before it was laid to preach upon the same mighty theme. That sermon as you know is handed down to us, and the distance between the two sermons bridges the whole distance between the two great estimates of life taught on this side by Jesus and on that by Solomon. Take the kernel of each in a representative sentence. 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,' cries the first preacher. 'Blessed are the poor, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the frank and open-hearted, blessed are the hungry for justice, blessed are the forgiving, blessed are the pure, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the sufferers for right,' says the second.
III. It is possible of course to regard the teaching of Jesus under very many different aspects, but if you are studying it as a way of life and are putting it into comparison with some such philosophy as that to be found in the book of Ecclesiastes, there are two principles which by and by you will find fundamental in Christ's teaching, and which have absolutely no place in the scheme of the old Jewish sceptic and his modern representatives. Those principles are these: first God has a plan for the world, a great educational plan, by which both the perfection of the individual and the perfection of the race is to be accomplished; secondly God means man to co-operate with him in the working out of the plan.
—C. W. Stubbs, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxxii. 1907, p. 113.
Reference.—XII. 8-14.—T. C. Finlayson, A Practical Exposition of Ecclesiastes, p. 267.
That which the droning world, chained to appearances, will not allow the realist to say in his own words, it will suffer him to say in proverbs without contradiction. And this law of laws (i.e. Nemesis) which the pulpit, the senate, and the college deny, is hourly preached in all markets and workshops by flight of proverbs, whose teaching is as true and as omnipresent as that of birds and flies.
References.—XII. 9, 10.—R. Buchanan, Ecclesiastes: its Meaning and Lessons, p. 422. J. H. Jowett, Contemporary Pulpit, vol. vi. p. 204.
Requirements and Difficulties of the Preacher
The preacher's work is a serious business for three reasons:—
I. Because it is his duty to speak for God. He is an apostle, a man with a message. He preaches not in his own name. He is one who is sent to declare the counsel of the Most High God. A man may philosophize as much as he pleases, but when he preaches he must speak for God and keep within the horizon of that which is clearly revealed. He is an ambassador. With what fidelity and with what searching of heart, and communion with the Holy Spirit, he should declare in the words of man the counsel of God.
II. Preaching is a serious business, because it is speaking about the interests of the soul. That is a liberal definition of the objects of preaching. The preacher's duty is to convince men of sin and lead them to salvation from sin; and sin of whatever origin ends, unless it is cured, in death, and salvation, where-ever it begins to work, brings the gift of God through Jesus Christ, which is eternal life. The preacher must serve His Master rationally, freely, carefully, speaking the truth in love upon every subject that has a bearing upon the welfare of the soul.
III. There are certain difficulties which ought to be remembered. For one thing, preaching has been going on in the world for a long time, and that is a fact which makes absolute originality difficult, if not impossible. And yet there are people who demand originality as if it were more important than the truth. Another difficulty that the preacher has to face is the intense competition of other claims upon the interests of the people. The real thing is the advance, the forward movement, and if it can be done with the joy and courage and inspiration and happiness within you, so much the better, so much the surer.
H. Van Dyke, Homiletic Review, vol. lii. 1906, p. 461.
Bentham used to declare that his own thoughts were mainly excited by favourite aphorisms and proverbs, such as those of Bacon. These furnished the foundation for his arguments and the stimulus of his ideas and opinions.
See Walton's description of Andrew Melville as 'master of a great wit; a wit full of knots and clenches'.
'Give me,' says Thomas Fuller, 'such solid reasons whereon I may rest and rely. Solomon saith, The words of the wise are like nails, fastened by the masters of the assembly. A nail is firm, and will hold driving in, and will hold driven in. Send me such arguments.
Thomas Lower also came to visit us, and offered us money, which we refused; accepting his love nevertheless. He asked us many questions concerning our denying the Scriptures to be the Word of God; and concerning the sacraments, and such like; to all which he received satisfaction. I spoke particularly to him, and he afterwards said my words were as a flash of lightning, they ran so through him. He said he never met with such men in his life, for they knew the thoughts of his heart, and were as wise as the master-builders of the assemblies, that fastened their words like nails. He came to be convinced of the truth and remains a Friend to this day.
—George Fox's Journal, 1656.
A collection of anecdotes and maxims is of the highest value to the man of the world, if he knows how to introduce the one clearly into his conversation at the proper moment, and to recall the other when occasion arises.
The Words of the Wise
The lesson we learn from our text is that God's words are meant to stimulate men and spur them on. In all circumstances of an outward kind men need to be excited into spiritual alacrity. In prosperity a man is apt to say, 'My mountain is strong; I shall not be moved,' as the flocks and herds would linger amid tufts of grass. In adversity, too, men need spiritual stimulus. Adversity is a powerful instrument in God's hands for the spiritual good of man; but in itself it only depresses and unnerves. God in His Providence often steps in and helps men in an outward way, bringing them down from prosperity on the one hand, raising them out of adversity on the other. But His chosen way is rather to spur them on in the midst of untoward circumstances than to remove these. God's favourite work is done in man's soul, and not on his outward path. His words are as goads.
I. Even in regard to intellectual activity, God's words act as goads. The very form of the Bible stirs men out of mental slumber. It speaks in history, prophecy, parable, paradox. It often needs great labour to understand it, to square it with known facts, to harmonize its own utterances. Men rail at this; but, meanwhile, the work intended is done. They are forced to think; and, as is admitted on all hands, the knowledge of the Bible and mental activity are at the present day co-terminous. And in anything like a true revival of religion, one which sends men to their Bibles, intense mental activity ensues.
II. God's words act on men's hopes and fears. They will not let men rest in the present. 'This is not your rest.' Earth is only a wilderness, with the Promised Land at the farther side, a race-course with the goal at the end, a warfare with victory or defeat as the issue. Will ye not be goaded on? This is the short spring in which we must sow. What a man soweth he shall reap. What will be in the end thereof?
III. God's words stir up men by witnessing to their corruptions. We are morally diseased. As the chambers in Ezekiel's vision showed greater and yet greater abominations, so do God's searching words lead us to ever-new and humiliating discoveries in our own heart.
IV. God's words goad on by providing a remedy for our corruptions. It needs the voice of the Deliverer to rouse a people from the base contentment to which despair has brought them. Christ's call is, 'Flee to the stronghold, ye prisoners of hope'. Rise, He calleth thee, He Whose voice the very grave obeys. 'Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light'
V. God's words give rest to the soul. 'I will give you rest'—rest from fear; rest in Christ's finished work; rest in God's promises; rest here and for ever.
Ecclesiastes 12:12Of making many books there is no end, complained the preacher; and did not perceive how highly he was praising letters as an occupation. There is no end, indeed, to making books or experiments, or to travel, or to gathering wealth. Problem gives rise to problem. We may study for ever, and we are never as learned as we would.... In the infinite universe there is room for our swiftest diligence, and to spare. It is not like the works of Carlyle, which can be read to an end. Even in a corner of it, in a private park, or in the neighbourhood of a single hamlet, the weather and the seasons keep so deftly changing that although we walk there for a lifetime there will be always something new to startle and delight us.
—R. L. Stevenson, El Dorado.
Solomon informs us that much reading is a weariness to the flesh; but neither he, nor other inspired author, tells us that such and such reading is unlawful; yet certainly had God thought good to limit us therein, it had been much more expedient to have told us what was unlawful than what was wearisome.
—From Milton's Areopagitica.
Much reading deprives the mind of all elasticity; it is like keeping a spring perpetually under pressure.
Compare Religio Medici, I. sec. xxiv.
I have never cared much for books, except in so far as they might help to quicken our sense of the reality of life, and enable us to enter into its right and wrong.
—F. J. A. Hort.
More than thirty years ago I remember meeting on the Surrey downs a remarkable-looking man: one who has been thought to be, as perhaps he was, a great teacher of this and a former generation. Shall I tell you his name? It was Thomas Carlyle. He said to me, 'I am wearied out with the burden of writing, and I am just come to spend a day or two in walking about among the hills'.
—Jowett (in 1885).
It is an uneasy lot, at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy; to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small, hungry, shivering self—never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.
See Emerson's The American Scholar, II.
See Butler's Sermons, No. xv., at the close, and the last paragraph of Sterne's sermon on Psalm 4:6, with his sermon (No. 39.) on this very text.
I have too strong a sense of the value of religion myself not to wish that my children should have so much of it (I speak of feeling, not of creed) as is compatible with reason. I have no ambition for them, and can only further say in the dying words of Julie, n'en faites point de savans—faites-en des hommes bienfaisants et justes.
—W. Rathbone Greg.
'Gil Blas,' says Kingsley in his Lectures on the Ancien Régime, 'is a collection of diseased specimens. No man or woman in the book, lay or clerical, gentle or simple, as far as I can remember, do their duty in any wise, even if they recollect that they have any duty to do. Greed, chicane, hypocrisy, uselessness, are the ruling laws of human society. A new book of Ecclesiastes, crying, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," the "conclusion of the whole matter" being left out, and the new Ecclesiast rendered thereby diabolic, instead of like that old one, Divine. For, instead of "Fear God, and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man," Le Sage sends forth the new conclusion, "Take care of thyself and feed on thy neighbours, for that is the whole duty of man". And very faithfully was his advice—easy enough to obey at all times—obeyed for nearly a century after Gil Blas appeared.'
The Religious Life
I. The Attributes of the Religious Life.
a. Holy fear.—'God,' says the Psalmist, 'is greatly to be feared.' This is not a slavish fear, such, for example, as Felix had (Acts 24:25), but a holy affection or gracious habit wrought in the soul by the Spirit of God on its conversion to God. Faith and love strengthen it, and it soon becomes the cardinal passion of the soul. There is no air of misery about it; it so reverences God that it would not displease Him, and hence He looks upon it with approval and delight.
b. Constant obedience.—Though the soul be free from all condemnation, the moment faith is exercised in Christ, yet from that very moment the believer is bound by the strongest obligations to constant obedience. In fact, he has been freed from the bondage of sin that he might keep God's commandments. And when faith works by love, the duty of obedience is refined into a grace, and the Divine behests are exalted into privileges. Hence they are willingly obeyed; and this is according to God's mind.
II. The Importance of the Religious Life.
a. Honour and happiness are secured by it.—A good man is 'the highest style of man'; he is one of 'the excellent of the earth,' one of 'a chosen generation,' one of 'a royal priesthood,' one of 'a holy nation,' one of 'a peculiar people'; nay, he is 'an heir of God, a joint-heir with Jesus Christ'. There is no honour equal to this in any world! And the good man is the happiest style of man also. True, he has days of cloud and sadness; but ofttimes, when living in holy obedience, springtides of joy—'unspeakable and full of glory'—sweep over his soul, and he shares in the bliss of the skies.
b. This life demands the entire being.—It is indeed 'the whole of man,' all his business on earth; and therefore he gives his full attention to it, consecrating body, soul, and spirit to its interests. It matters little or nothing to him whether he is rich or poor, high or low; but it is a point of transcendent moment with him to 'fear God, and keep His commandments'. This is his Alpha and Omega—his life and his all.
References.—XII. 13.—H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, The Master's Message, p. 125. G. Salmon, Sermons in Trinity College, Dublin, p. 148. J. Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. i. p. 10. J. Thain Davidson, Talks with Young Men, p. 275.
'This is the day,' writes Sir Thomas Browne, 'that must make good that great attribute of God, His justice; that must reconcile those unanswerable doubts that torment the wisest understandings; and reduce those seeming inequalities and respective distributions in this world to an equality and recompensive justice in the next... This is the day whose memory hath, only, power to make us honest in the dark, and to be virtuous without a witness.'
Reference.—XII. 14.—J. E. Vaux, Sermon Notes (1st Series), p. 4.
While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:
In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:
Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.
And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs.
The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth.
The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.
And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.