Great Texts of the Bible
Do it Well and Do it Now
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.—Ecclesiastes 9:10I.
“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it.”
Action is the end of existence. We are living only whilst we are doing. We have not strayed into a fool’s paradise where we may dream out our lives in inglorious idleness; but we have been sent into a vineyard where we have to dig the soil and sow the seed from which we are to reap an eternal harvest. No one of us is exempt from this responsibility. No man is born into the world whose work is not born with him. There is work for all, and tools to work with for those who will.
1. Work is the great condition of our physical and mental well-being. The world is accustomed to look upon it as a curse. But with Selkirk we are inclined to say—
Blest work! if thou be curse of God,
What must His blessings be?
Work was ordained before the Fall, and, this being so, it must be a necessity of life, for in those happy days there was no superfluity. The man who is for ever absorbing and never spending in work must either cease to live or live viciously. When Alexander conquered the Persians he said he learnt among other things that there was “nothing so servile as idleness, nothing so noble and princely as labour.” Labour gives a wonderful satisfaction to man, and there are few forms of human satisfaction more enjoyable than the completion of toil. Whatever be the form of our labour, the satisfaction produced by the completion of an allotted task is difficult to parallel. In itself, apart from its final results, work satisfies a great need of human nature, so that there are few men more thoroughly miserable than those who will not work. Life is worth living in any case, from its abundant interests, but life is tenfold more enjoyable when it is largely spent in strenuous labour.
“Every good that is worth possessing,” says Professor James, “must be paid for in strokes of daily effort.” And so, as one of his practical maxims about life and habits, he offers this: “Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day.”1 [Note: C. G. Montefiore, Truth in Religion, 138.]
He would have fully accepted the doctrine upon which Mr. Herbert Spencer has insisted, that it is a duty to be happy. Moreover, the way to be happy was to work. Work, I might almost say, was his religion. “Be strong and of a good courage,” was the ultimate moral which he drew from doubts and difficulties. Everything round you may be in a hideous mess and jumble. That cannot be helped: take hold of your tools manfully; set to work upon the job that lies next to your hand, and so long as you are working well and vigorously, you will not be troubled with the vapours. Be content with being yourself, and leave the results to fate. Sometimes with his odd facility for turning outwards the ugliest side of his opinions, he would call this selfishness. It is a kind of selfishness which, if everyone practised it, would not be such a bad thing.2 [Note: Leslie Stephen, The Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, 453.]
2. What is true of the body and mind is no less true of the spirit. The care of the soul is the “one thing needful,” and, if our souls be neglected, our hands are doing nothing as they ought. The wonder is that people do not see the necessity of work in religion. They will work for the world, but not for God; they will labour to enter in at the gate of success, but not at the gate of Heaven. They will toil hard in the world’s vineyard, and stand idle in God’s. They will lay up treasure for the body, and leave the soul to starve. They will rise early and so late take rest for the sake of a short life, and neglect eternity altogether.
Mary Fletcher could not be content to walk with Christ in white and spend her widowhood in a life of contemplation and of hope. She could not be contented even in a life of Christian culture. Hers was an eminently practical and sympathetic nature. Her piety must find expression in loving ministries of deed and word. When tempted to desire release from toil and suffering, longing to depart and be with Christ, the words rang in her ears, “Would a Christian be in the meridian of glory? Would he have his robes shine bright? Let him stay here and do service.” This fine old Puritan advice bore precious fruit in Mrs. Fletcher’s later years. With unflagging zeal and constant assiduity, she devoted herself to the service of the people who, with her, had been so bitterly bereaved. “It is this part of her life and labours,” says Mr. Macdonald, “by which she is chiefly remembered. There are, indeed, few pictures, in modern Christian history at least, more impressive than that in which she is the central figure, a saintly woman of great and varied gifts, in whom Quaker-like calmness and self-control were joined with Methodist fervour, for a whole generation a preacher of the gospel and a witness for Christ among the people of Madeley and the neighbourhood.”1 [Note: T. A. Seed, John and Mary Fletcher, 108.]
3. This is the world of service. This is the world of probation and of preparation for eternity. We are here upon business. And what is our business? We are to do whatsoever “our hand findeth”—whatsoever is the duty allotted to us daily by Him whose we are. Opportunity must direct and quicken our duty. That is to be done which our hand findeth to do, that which occasion calls for. Every moment brings its own responsibilities. We are all members of one vast body; and the Lord has set us, as so many different agents, in that body, as it hath pleased Him.
As you grow older you will find more and more how full the world and our life are of opportunity, and how impossible it is that, unless by our own fault, they should seem to present a blank. The real discouragement of life is in our insufficiency for the duties that crowd in on every side, and are still crying out, as it were, that they remain undone. But the consoling and powerful remedy is that nothing is asked of us beyond our power, and that, if more is offered than we can do, it is by way of gracious help to exercise our energies, and so to raise them to the best and highest state of which they are capable.2 [Note: Letters on Church and Religion of William Ewart Gladstone, ii. 164.]
With thy Might
“Do it with thy might.”
1. “Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well,” is a homely proverb of the practical man. The most successful workers in the world are ever the most earnest. Search the history of those men of name immortal who have spoken so eloquently to mankind through their paintings, tuned the soul to melody by their music, and fired its latent energies with their poetry—men who have shone as suns in their day and generation, whose peerless minds have enabled them to soar to heights as far above their grovelling fellows as those in which the majestic eagle sweeps and circles above the distant earth. They were all men who worked with their might. Despite the fact that some people are more highly gifted with brain and skill than others, still in most cases the difference between first-rate and second-rate work is due (at least to a large extent) to the greater pains and time bestowed upon the first-class work.
One of Mrs. Gaskell’s favourite texts was: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, that do with all thy might.” “Just try for a day to think of all the odd jobs, as to be done well and truly in God’s sight—not just slurred over anyhow—and you’ll go through them twice as cheerfully, and have no thought to spare for sighing or crying,” was her practical way of explaining this text.1 [Note: Mrs. E. H. Chadwick, Mrs. Gaskell: Haunts, Homes, and Stories, 172.]
My father’s mental characteristics, if I may venture on such ground, were clearness and vigour, intensity, fervour, concentration, penetration, and perseverance. This earnestness of nature pervaded all his exercises. A man of great capacity and culture, with a head like Benjamin Franklin’s, an avowed unbeliever in Christianity, came every Sunday afternoon, for many years, to hear him. I remember his look well, as if interested, but not impressed. He was often asked by his friends why he went when he didn’t believe one word of what he heard. “Neither I do, but I like to hear and to see a man earnest once a week about anything.” It is related of David Hume, that having heard my great-grandfather preach, he said, “That’s the man for me, he means what he says; he speaks as if Jesus Christ was at his elbow.”1 [Note: Dr. John Brown, Horæ Subsecivœ, ii. 60.]
2. So highly do we reckon the excellence of strength and effort that there is a sense in which, by way of paradox, we assert that from the strenuous sinner there is more to be hoped for than from the flabby and feeble man of virtue, as if all the glorious potentialities of human nature were directly associated with and conditioned by effort and eagerness and strength. If we do not force ourselves to remember that a man may be zealous in evil as well as in good, we should be inclined off-hand to allow that strenuousness was one of the most obvious, as well as one of the most essential, of human virtues. Whether the good angel is strenuous may be argued; that the good man is strenuous admits of no doubt. It is a fact of experience that slackness almost changes virtue into vice, while strenuousness almost changes vice into virtue.
The Hon. Charles Howard, M.P. for East Cumberland, says of him: “It always seemed to me that Mr. Moore was the most thorough man I knew in all that he undertook; and whatever was the object, whether it was business, fox-hunting, canvassing at elections, acts of charity, or services of devotion, his heart was always in his work. He was never satisfied until he had accomplished all that he had proposed to do. I have no doubt that this quality of earnest perseverance and shrewdness of character accounted for George Moore’s success in life; but they would not have gained for him the love and affection that all felt for him, were it not for his warm heart and his genial nature.”2 [Note: S. Smiles, George Moore, Merchant and Philanthropist, 505.]
3. Again, the words of the text might be taken as a motto for the Christian life. We do not want to be like the man whose son was asked whether his father was a Christian. “Yes,” said he, “he is a Christian, but he hasn’t been doing much at it lately.” Christian service demands the strenuous and constant application of hand, head, and heart. The people who throw themselves thus into their labours belong to the class termed enthusiasts; but we may be reminded, for our encouragement, of Emerson’s remark that “every step in the progress of the past has been a triumph of enthusiasm.” It is one of the secrets for bringing heaven near us, for feeling the Infinite with us and within us, to be whole-hearted in the present task. Thinkers have often noted this strange fact: that great enthusiasms tend to become religious. Let a man be mastered by any great idea, and sooner or later he will find the shadow of God on it. But that is true not of great enthusiasms alone; it holds of whole-heartedness in every sphere. When Luther said, “Laborare est orare”—“to labour is to pray”—you may be sure that that great soul did not mean that work could ever take the place of prayer. He knew too well the value of devotion, and the blessed uplifting of the quiet hour with God, ever to think that toil could take its place. But just as in earnest prayer the heavens are opened to us, and we are led into the presence and glory of the King, so in our earnest and whole-hearted toil, clouds scatter, the mists of feelings and passions are dispelled, and we are led into a peace and strength and sweet detachment without which no man shall see the Lord. It is in that sense that to labour is to pray. To be whole-hearted is to be facing heavenward. And the great loss of all half-hearted men and women is this, that above the dust and the stress and strain of life, above the fret and weariness of things, they catch no glimpse of the eternal purpose, nor of the love, nor of the joy of God.
Olive Schreiner, in one of her weird “Dreams,” tells the parable of an artist who painted a beautiful picture. On it there was a wonderful glow which won the admiration of all compeers, but which none could imitate. The other painters said, “Where does he get his colours from?” They sought rare and rich pigments in far-off Eastern lands, but when these touched the canvas their richness died. So the secret of the great artist remained undiscovered. But one day they found him dead beside his picture, and when they came to strip him for his shroud they found a wound beneath his heart. It dawned upon them then that he had painted his picture with his heart’s blood. If you would do your task of teaching the children, of helping the helpless, feeding the hungry—if you would have this work to live—then put your heart into it. Paint your picture with your heart’s blood, for only such will find a place in heaven’s Eternal Gallery. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.”1 [Note: G. H. Morgan, Modern Knights-Errant, 190.]
During the Crimean War, Stanley [who was then Canon of Canterbury] was walking in Hyde Park with Thomas Carlyle, who, in bitter mood, was railing against the institutions of the country. In answer to his twice-repeated question, “What is the advice which you would give to a Canon of Canterbury?” came a reply that began in jest and ended in earnest: “Dearly beloved Roger,” said Carlyle, “whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.” And with all his might he strove to find and to do the right work. He knew that his gifts lay in other directions than that of business details. His special work consisted in using to the utmost his powers and opportunities as a preacher; in arousing his fellow-citizens to a keen appreciation of their privilege of living beneath the shadow of a great historic building; in guarding, restoring, and preserving the monuments of the illustrious dead who lay buried within its precincts; in imparting to its cold stones the living warmth of human interests; in transforming its bare walls into glowing pages of national history. It was in these directions that he strove to realize to himself the thought which he so often expressed, that “Every position in life, great or small, can be made almost as great, or as little, as we desire to make it.”1 [Note: R. E. Prothero, The Life and Correspondence of Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, i. 430.]
Is this the End?
“For there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave whither thou goest.”
The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes—that wonderful book, which depicts to us the history of a soul groping in at least half darkness, without any clear light of God—speaks as one who knows only the present world and the present life, to whom beyond the grave all is dark, blank, lifeless. To him the business of every day is simply what our hands “find to do”—he asks not how—by chance, or choice, or overruling law.
1. The reason he gives for his present counsel is a double-edged one. If this short life be all that we know or can be sure to grasp, it may be, indeed, reasonably contended that we must make the most of it for ourselves and for others, throw all our energies into it, content if our work remains for good, when we ourselves are gone. But it may also (in a more ignoble spirit) be urged that a life so short and precarious is hardly worth living, and that we had better take it as easily as we may, and “eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” All the irreligious philosophies of the present day, as of the past, draw one or other of these two inferences. Each has plausible reasons to give for itself in those discussions of the two voices of which modern thought is full. But the deep, practical instinct of common sense and right feeling will always grasp the nobler alternative, the one suggested in the text.
The consciousness of living under a Divine authority and providence leads us to regard our life as a vocation, a call from God. We can no longer regard our abilities, our opportunities, our circumstances, as fortuitously concurrent, accidental things. Taken in their combination they indicate God’s will for us; they point out the particular work that God would have us to do. Our faculties and opportunities are gifts from God, to be used in His service, and for whose right use we are responsible, and must one day give account. No relative insignificance of the gift will be accepted as an excuse for its misuse. We are as accountable for one talent as for ten; for the use of the eleventh hour, as much as for the burden and heat of the day.1 [Note: J. R. Illingworth, Divine Transcendence, 205.]
2. The motive set forth by the Old Testament thinker was frequently urged with great solemnity by our Lord Himself; “No work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave, whither thou goest.” This is a fact well fitted to take hold of us; and, rightly grasped, so far from paralysing energy, it stimulates work. Death puts an end to all plans and work, and death for every one is inevitable. From none, indeed, it standeth very far off. We see that wise men die, likewise the fool and the brutish person perish, and leave their wealth to others. The wind passeth over them, and they are gone. Their place knows them no more. They were full of schemes and projects, hopes and fears, envies and rivalries—and they are gone. They have broken every tie. The silver cord has been loosed. They are no longer seen in the assembly of the congregation, in the concourse of the people. Their place at home is vacant, and the world, like the “grim reaper” who never sits down to rest, holds on its way. We see it. We know it. We are sure that this will happen to ourselves. We stand as if upon precipitous ground, slipping away. And this brief, uncertain life is all the time we have to sow the good seeds of eternity. It was upon this that the Jewish writer fixed his mind. It seemed to him but reasonable that, in the presence of death, which in other passages he pictures as so uncertain in its advent, men should cease trifling with time. It was this truth of natural religion that made him hopeful that they would be persuaded to put their whole strength into what they did, realizing that they might never have the chance to do it again in this life, and that after death there was neither work nor device. And surely with this solemn thought do the years speak as they roll on to eternity; and he into whose heart their voice enters, and who does not silence it, he it is who will be found giving to worthy work his best strength and his unconquerable patience.
Life to the pessimist is but a series of pains to be experienced. To the giddy, thoughtless pleasure-seeker it is so much or so little opportunity for the gratification of selfish desires. To some it is more than this. It is a series of opportunities for doing good, and we must make haste to use them all, because our time will soon be up, and we must away to see whether we have carried out God’s programme. Remember this; think upon it; not with morbid feelings of fear, but because the time is so short, let us live while we live. Let us work while it is yet day, for when the day has completed its course, work unaccomplished must remain undone.1 [Note: G. H. Morgan, Modern Knights-Errant, 191.]
Barry (A.), Sermons Preached at Westminster Abbey, 35.
Bellew (J. C. M.), Sermons, iii. 34.
Clayton (C.), Sermons Preached in the Parish Church of Stanhope, 36.
Eames (J.), The Shattered Temple, 108.
Finlayson (T. C.), The Meditations and Maxims of Koheleth, 208.
Kempthorne (J.), Brief Words on School Life, 84.
Leader (G. C.), Wanted—a Boy, 88.
Learmount (J.), Fifty-two Sundays with the Children, 127.
Little (W. J. K.), The Outlook of the Soul, 37.
Macpherson (D.), Last Words, 18.
Montefiore (C. G.), Truth in Religion, 133.
Moor (C.), The Plain Man’s Life, 16.
Morgan (G. H.), Modern Knights-Errant, 179.
Morrison (G. H.), Sun-rise, 230.
Snell (H. H.), Through Study Windows, 17.
Spurgeon (C. H.), New Park Street Pulpit, v. (1859), No. 259.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xix. (1873), No. 1119.
Talmage (T. de W.), Fifty Sermons, ii. 322.
Troup (G. E.), Words to Young Christians, 165.
Voysey (C.), Sermons, ii. (1879), No. 6; xii. (1889), No. 18; xvii. (1894), No. 7; xxix. (1906), No. 1.
Wilmot-Buxton (H. J.), Day by Day Duty, 207.
Christian World Pulpit, xi. 5 (H. W. Beecher); xxxvi. 67 (J. Le Huray); lxxx. 357 (J. S. Maver).
Church of England Pulpit, lxi. 388 (E. Warre).
Churchman’s Pulpit: The Old and New Year, ii. 443 (J. H. Newman).