The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one's birth.Some Striking Views of Human Nature
We are still in Coheleth's memorandum-book. There is little or no connection between these scattered sentences. To read them is like stepping upon stones that have been laid in a brook, rather than crossing a well-built bridge.
There is a mournful tone in this seventh chapter. It is full of dyspeptic and disagreeable remarks. Cypress shadows lie over it, with hardly a breeze to disturb them and to let the light twinkle and sparkle between the dark bars. Coheleth is in a bilious mood to-day; his curtains are drawn, his lamp is lit early, all relish has gone out of his mouth, and he listens with a kind of grim joy, as if he heard Death clambering up the stair with a Fieri-facias in his hand from the court of Fate. No young heart can read this chapter with any sympathy. It is sprinkled thickly with sentences that an exhausted roué might have written in a mood of semi-bilious penitence. Death is better than birth; mourning is better than feasting; sorrow is better than laughter; the end is better than the beginning; and things generally are odd and stiff, with plenty of disappointment and mockery in them.
It ought not to be true that death is better than life, and that sorrow is better than laughter. This is unnatural, unreasonable, and discreditable. It is like saying that failure is better than success. The purpose of God certainly went out in the direction of joy, light, satisfaction, and rest, when he made man in his own image and likeness. As he himself is God blessed for evermore, so he would that all his loving ones should be as he is, full of joy and full of peace. God has no delight in tears, and a moan is a poor substitute for a hymn. If you set real sorrow against real joy I do not hesitate to teach that joy is better; the fact that sorrow is often far more real than joy, and by its very genuineness it is so much better, is because it moves the very springs of life, it stirs and rouses the soul, it makes men think deeply and long. But what is joy as popularly understood? It is not joy at all; it is a momentary titillation of the nerves; it is a movement of the facial muscles; it is a weird grin—a flash—a bubble—a dream—a lie!
For this reason, too, it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting. In the house of mourning our best faculties are touched and our deepest sympathies are called into activity, and we get a truer measure of the scope of life. Feasting is physical; it perishes in the using, and the finest wine is ruined by exposure to the air. If the feast were a feast of reason, and of the fat things set upon the table of God, Coheleth would be wrong; it is but a banquet of froth, spread on a table of cloud, and anything that touches the quick of the heart is better than the moth-like wit that scorches and kills itself in the flame of inordinate wine. We ought to see quite as far through the medium of joy as through the medium of sorrow. The look of joy is through the windows of morning, through the gates of the rosy dawn, or through the arch of the perfect noon. The look of sorrow is through the avenues of the clouds, with a star here and there feebly struggling with the blackness of night. Sorrow is a look through tears; joy is a great glad expectancy. Sorrow goes out towards rest, quietness, peace, cessation of trouble; joy goes out on strong and flashing pinions towards higher gladness, purer light, vaster love. It ought not, then, to be true that sorrow is better than laughter.
Yet there is a sense in which Christianity will say that the day of one's death is better than the day of one's birth. We are born into the temporary, the disciplinary, the imperfect, but if we are in Christ we die into the eternal, the completed, the restful. Many of the Old Testament expressions have to be completed by New Testament interpretations. When the worldling says the day of one's death is better than the day of one's birth, he utters the moan of disappointment and bitterness of soul; but when the Christian uses the selfsame words he seems to open a great golden gate, which swings back upon the infinite land of liberty and summer—the glorious heaven of God. A very needful thing it is to remember that the same words have different meanings as used by different men. It is the part of Christianity to take up the mottoes and the maxims of the world, and to set them in a right relation to things eternal; a setting which will sometimes destroy them, and at other times lift them up into new and glowing significance.
A thing wonderful beyond all others is this death-birth. The moment after death! When absent from the body are we present with the Lord? Do we at once throw off all weakness, and stand amongst the angels, strong as they, beautiful in holiness, and complete in satisfaction? Do we bid an eternal farewell to pain—the pain which has haunted us like a cruel ghost through the hours of childhood? Do we for ever cease to blunder and stumble? and do our feet take fast hold of the golden streets, never to totter or slip any more? Is the last tear gone, the last sigh spent, the last sin shut out from the purified and ennobled heart? If it be so, who can wonder that the day of death is better than the day of birth, and that the greatest of secrets will reveal the greatest of joys?
So far this chapter has been dark enough. We have walked through it up to this point as through a dark and gruesome night. But the chapter is not all gloom. We get glints of spring light even here, and above all this cold night wind we may hear a note or two of bands and choristers far away, yet quite accessible. As water is valued more in the desert than in the land of pools and streams, so we may set higher store on what we find here in the way of sure and immediate joy than if we had found it in any one of David's triumphant psalms. "In the day of prosperity be joyful.... God also hath set the one over against the other.... He that feareth God shall come forth of them all.... The excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it." It seems needless to say that we are to rejoice in the day of prosperity; yet it is not needless: we are not to take our prosperity as we would take medicine; we are not to issue our wedding invitations on black-edged paper. There is little enough true prosperity in life; therefore make the most of it. Men are not to take their brief holidays in a serious light. Sometimes pleasures are very leaden-footed; they are owls that like the night, rather than larks that hail the day with early gladness. Then to help us to make the best of life Coheleth says God hath set the one over against the other. A wonderful piece of mosaic is life! the lights and shadows are marvellously distributed. If your tiled hearth was laid by a cunning hand, was the mosaic of life arranged by chance? You are poor in money, but how rich you are in health! Or you are feeble in health, but how comfortable in circumstances! Or you are poor both in health and circumstance, but see what marvellous spirits you have! You live in a small house, then you have few anxieties; your pleasures are limited, then your account is proportionately small. Truly God hath set the one over against the other. If we take the bright side there is always something to make us humble, and keep us within proper limits. You have magnificent health, but you may suffer from depression of spirits; you have a well-laden table, but you have no appetite; you have boundless information, but no gift of expression: so God hath set the one over against the other. There is a rent in every panoply. There is a crook in every lot. Why? Coheleth answers, "To the end that man should find nothing after him;" literally, to the end that man should have no power over the future. God will not entrust the future with any man. The future is so near, yet so far! What we would give if we knew exactly what would happen to-morrow, or what would be the detailed result of our schemes, or what would be the answer to letters involving our peace, fortune, joy! The future is the very next thing we shall come upon, and yet it spreads out over all the spaces of eternity; it is an hour, yet it is an everlasting duration; it is measurable as a human span, yet it is as illimitable as infinitude! The future is the riddle which vexes us beyond all others, because we feel as if we ought to know an answer which must be simple and easy. Yet how much we owe, both in the way of stimulus and in the way of education, to the mysteriousness of the future! What poetry is there in a straight line? What enjoyment is there on a road which is never bent into curves or broken into undulations? It is expectancy—call it hope or fear—that gives life a rare interest; hope itself sometimes brings with it a sting of pain, and fear now and again brings with it even something of a weird pleasure. Hope turns the future into a banqueting-house. Ambition forecasts the future with great plans of attack and defence. Fear anticipates the future so as to get from the outlook restraint and discipline. Life that has no future would be but a flat surface, a stiff, awkward monotony, a world without a firmament, a boundless cemetery; but with a future it is a hope, an inspiration, a sweet, gracious promise; it is, too, a terror, for we know not what is behind the cloud, nor can we say what foe or friend will face us at the next corner. We live a good deal in our to-morrows, and thus we spend money which does not fairly belong to us; yet how poor should we be if we could not turn our imagination to some account, and mint our fancies into some little gold to chink in our hands, that we may scare our immediate poverty away! What beautiful drives we have had in the carriage which we are going to buy in a year or two! How often we have laid out the garden which is going to be ours in years to come! We once set up fine houses with broken earthenware, and before we outgrew our jackets and pinafores we had made eternal friendships, and set our proud feet on a conquered and humbled world! And yet the future is always in front of us, a shy but persistent coquette, vouchsafing a smile, but throwing a frown over it; telling us to come on, yet leaving us to topple over an unseen stone, and to fall into an invisible pit, which we could never have discovered had it not first thrown us! The past has become a confused, dull, troubled noise, as of people hastening to and fro in the night-time; but the future is a still small voice, having marvellous whispering power, with a strange mastery over the will, soothing us like a benediction, and anon chilling us like a sigh in a graveyard. The past is a worn road; the future is a world in which all the ways have yet to be made. I would bind you, then, to a high general estimate of the future, as being by the very fact of its being future a high educational influence; an influence that holds you back like a bit in your foaming lips; an influence that sends you forward with the hunger of a great hope, relieved by satisfactions which do but whet the desire they cannot appease. Thank God that there is a future; that there are days far off; that there are clouds floating in the distance, beautiful enough to be the vesture of angels, yet solemn enough to be the sheaths of lightning. So again we come upon Christian interpretations of non-spiritual words. Whilst Coheleth, for the moment representing the thoughtless crowd, dreads the future, and flees away from it as from an enemy, the Christian looks forward to it with a high expectation, and longs for the disclosure of all its beneficent mysteries.
In these chapters Coheleth gives striking views of human nature. He does not speak merely about a man here and there, but about all men. It will be interesting, therefore, to know how so shrewd and frank a man regarded human nature from his standpoint. Some of his sentences sound like divine judgments. Take chapter Ecclesiastes 7:20—
"For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not."
There is a black thread in the whitest soul. How far does this judgment agree with what we know about ourselves? Are we all gold through and through without one speck of alloy? Are we pure like snow newly fallen on untrodden mountain-tops? We have not been slow to say that there is undoubtedly a great deal of good in man. We are very possibly generous, hopeful, pleasant, neighbourly, well-disposed, but what is there under all that—a long way under it? Go into the solemn place where motives are—that far-in engine-house, where the subtle power is that moves the whole life, and say whether the devil is not often in that house, stirring up the fire and setting the wheels in motion. Let the holiest man amongst us force this inquiry to decisive issue. You, for example, are a minister of Jesus Christ, and by your very profession you are not unnaturally assumed to be a peculiarly holy man; at least in all your uppermost wishes you cannot but be pure and noble. Now consider that immediately in your neighbourhood there is a rival minister who is supposed to be more popular than you are, to attract a larger share of public attention, and to be carried onward as by a breeze of popular favour to high and substantial success. Now in the sight and fear of God how do you regard such a man? Do you in your very soul rejoice in his honour, and pray secretly that it may be continued and increased? and are you the more prayerful in this direction, and the more earnest in proportion as your own popularity suffers by the fame of your neighbour? Can you bear to see the public turning away from your own church and hastening towards his as if he rather than yourself had a direct message from heaven? Is there no disposition, hardly known to yourself, to mitigate somewhat the blaze of his renown, to suggest that though he is showy he is weak; to point out that although undoubtedly he has some talents he is lamentably deficient in others? These are questions which pierce us all like sharp swords, and they are not to be turned aside as if they were flippant and useless in a great spiritual inquiry. Coheleth allows that there are just men, but he says there is not a single just man that sinneth not; that is to say, his justice is impaired by certain flaws and drawbacks; it is by no means a complete justice; it is a broken, infirm thing, which draws upon itself disapproving criticism, and exposes itself sometimes even to contempt. Now what is it that can reach down to that far depth of evil? It is at this point that we need a voice other than our own, and a revelation which human genius would never have conceived or projected. It is when we are in hell that we most feel our need of heaven. Listen not to the superficial moralists who will tell you that character is an affair of rearrangement, colour, and attitude; but listen with profoundest interest to the evangelical preacher, who assures you that you must be born again, otherwise the kingdom of heaven is an impossibility in your experience.
Here we have another view of human nature:—
"Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions" (Ecclesiastes 7:29).
That is to say, man has lost his perpendicularity, and he has taken out many patents for its restoration. You have seen a wall falling out of square, and have observed how carefully the wall has been shored up lest it should quite fall down. If we could only see the great human heart as God sees it we should see that it has lost its uprightness, and that it is being shored up by inventors and schemers of every name and kind to prevent an utter and final collapse. Human life is a struggle to get back to the moral square, and truly there are many inventions. One form of religion says: Trust everything to me: I will do everything for you: I am the priest of heaven, and in my hands are the keys of the kingdom: confess your sins to me, put yourselves absolutely under my control, do not attempt to form any judgments of your own, and I will see to it that you are properly prepared for heaven. Another form of religion says: Distrust the speaker who has just delivered himself: he is a papist and an impostor, antichrist, the man of sin, the very emissary of Babylon; he seeks men's souls to destroy them; he would extinguish the right of private judgment, he would depose individual conscience, and substitute priestly counsel and direction: the right way is for every man to think for himself, to make debate a religion, and to fight his way to sound intellectual convictions. Another invention says: Never mind any of the religious speakers who address you: they are all the victims of ghostly superstition; they are wanting in practical sagacity and in thorough grasp of time and space and the whole world of sense: look carefully about you and see how things lie; turn all circumstances to your own advantage as far as you possibly can; cultivate a masterful spirit, overrule and overdrive everything, let the weakest go to the wall, and in all circumstances, night and day, summer and winter, do the best for yourself: that is my common-sense religion, that is my practical philosophy: I am no ghost or spectre, or foolish chattering voice in the dark: I claim to be a messenger of practical common sense, and I tell you to find in the earth all the heaven any man can need. Then what social schemes we have for the amelioration of human affairs: what a tax upon sanitary arrangements, physical conditions; what endeavours to instruct the ignorant, rearrange the relations of capital and labour; and what efforts there are to turn political economy into a species of religion! What is the meaning of all this but an attempt to get back to the moral square? Many inventions! clever enough, cheap enough, dear enough, plentiful enough, but Failure written upon every one of them, for they that use them are as a bowing wall and a tottering fence. No happier term could be applied to them than the term "inventions," clever little schemes, pet little notions, patents newly turned out, small mechanisms, anything that indicates a debased ingenuity, a paltry and self-defeating cleverness.
But with all his inventions and scheming there are two things which man cannot do. First, he cannot tell what shall be:—
"For he knoweth not that which shall be: for who can tell him when it shall be?" (Ecclesiastes 8:7).
Here the pride of man comes under daily rebuke. Though he may be able to see many years behind him, he cannot see one hour in front of him. When he vapours about his power, and sends forth his ambition on its broadest wings, he cannot tell but what in the evening he may be dead and almost forgotten. When he lifts his puny fist in the air he knows not whether he may ever bring it down. Be careful, O loud boaster and flippant swaggerer! That gabbling tongue of thine talks riotously without sense or dignity, and it will bring thee into peril and misery and sharp pain! You have invented a field-glass, a telescope, a microscope; you can see fifty yards ahead, or can get a view of shining points far away, or catch some little traveller trotting in vast excursions over the unexplored Africa of a grass blade. Now invent a glass that will look into Tomorrow, or even a glass that will look farther than we can now see—where is the prodigal that ran away a year ago, and of whom his mother has never heard; or the ship that ought to have been in port a month since; or the explorer in the wild forest? tell us these things, and then we shall know something of human might and grandeur. "He knoweth not that which shall be!" Yet such is the fascination of the future that man is always thinking about it. The very fact that he does not know what it will be seems to awaken within him a speculative genius, a spirit that will make all his calculations turn upon the possibilities of Tomorrow; mathematics will be made into an instrument of speculation; the most careful reckoning will be gone through in order if possible to anticipate the shape and tone and manner of the future. Yet there lies the dead secret; nothing can charm it into speech, the cleverest man cannot tempt it to give up its mystery. Man may look far behind him, and study the fully-written page of history, but he cannot turn over the leaves of the Future; those leaves can only be turned over by the invisible hand of God.
The next thing man cannot do is to retain the spirit in the day of death:—
"There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death: and there is no discharge in that war" (Ecclesiastes 8:8).
Man has fought some little battles and won some little victories, but here is a fight in which his banners must be dragged in the dust, and he himself must fall. His brazen shield is of no use. He knows not where the enemy may strike—in the spine, in the forehead, in the heart, in the foot, in the lungs, but when he does strike he cleaves right through to the startled and quivering life. Oh, poor are our barricades against this great foe! We have gone into the chamber where the battle has been fought and lost, and with a grim and mournful humour have set in array the weapons of the poor human fighter—the mixture, the pills, the thirsty leech, the sharp blister, the instrument keenly edged; the appointed hours for attention to medical direction, the cooling draughts, the soothing appliances, the narcotics, the stimulants, all the various instruments and weapons of medical skill—there—all there—waiting to be used, willing to conquer, anxious to succeed. Look at them! Laugh at them! Black Death was too cunning and mighty for all their subtlety and strength. So he has borne away his prey, and none can recall him, and make him deliver that which he has wrested from the hand of love.
Now all this being the case, we want a higher power than man's to trust in. We have had enough of human invention, human consolation, and human flattery; all these have but vexed and mortified us; we trusted in them, and they brought us nothing but disappointment; we cannot in justice to our own spiritual dignity listen to them any longer. Oh that we knew the place of the Eternal! Oh that we could find the living One, and plead our cause before him, asking him to pity our infirmity, and to make our very littleness and weakness the ground of his coming to us, in all the pathos and helpfulness of his condescending love. Whilst we are uttering these aspirations, and are thus sighing away our little strength, we are told that there is One who has come who is mighty to save—none other than the Son of man, the Son of God, to whom all power in heaven and on earth is given, who will answer our questions, soothe our agitations, wash away our sins, sanctify us wholly by the mighty power of his Spirit. The answer of the Gospel to human necessity is a grand answer, and by so much as it is notable for moral sublimity it should be considered as the most probable of all the solutions which have ever been offered to the problem of human life and the mystery of human destiny.
"And so I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of the holy, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done: this is also vanity" (Ecclesiastes 8:10).
A very graphic and truthful picture. The wicked buried and forgotten. The candle of the wicked shall be put out. The name of the wicked shall rot. The wicked man may have a very boisterous day, and may create great uneasiness by his violence, but he will go out like a dying candle, and no man will mourn his loss. "I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree. Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found." No wonder that the wicked man dreads the Bible, as the leper might fear the mirror which reveals to him all his loathsomeness, for the Bible haunts him, smites him, and visits him with the most appalling humiliations. "The triumphing of the wicked is short." "Though his excellency mount up to the heavens, and his head reach unto the clouds; yet he shall perish for ever like his own dung." They who have seen him shall say, Where is he? He shall fly away as a dream, and shall not be found; yea, he shall be chased away as a vision of the night. To see the rage of the wicked, and hear their oaths and asseverations, one would say, Surely they will pluck up the foundations and overthrow the throne, and they will carry out their will to its uttermost purpose and desire. Yet, lo, they are covered with darkness, and their boasting tongues are sealed in silence everlasting. They hold up their heads as if the sky were too low a roof for their proud stature, and, lo! they stumble into a pit, and no hand plants a sweet flower on their grave. They sleep on an unblessed pillow, and rot away in a prison whose doors open only towards penalty and shame. "My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not," for their way is towards darkness, and their victories are full of stings and pains.
"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" (Ecclesiastes 8:11).
Thus the patience of God is misunderstood and abused. We are all tempted to wonder why God should allow the wicked to live even for a day. There is one world amid the stars which reeks with foulness and corruption; up from that unholy place there goes a continual smoke of abomination; it fills the air with pestilence, and its voices of sinful utterance almost throw into discord the sweet harmonies of the upper spheres. Why does the Almighty allow that mean world to smoulder, and to fill the higher air with vapours offensive and deadly? Why not crush it, and destroy it, and cause its name to be blotted out from the list of fair stars that have never sinned? These are questions which philosophy may ask, but which philosophy can never answer. Let the parent reply who spends many a sleepless night over the prodigal whose name he can never forget! It is only love that can make any answer amid these solemn moral mysteries. See how the divine patience is misunderstood and abused! Imagine another system of discipline: God standing over us with a rod of iron, and instantly that any man sinned that man should be struck dead! Such is not God's government. He is longsuffering and pitiful and kind and hopeful. But it is exactly this which is misunderstood. Because he does not do it men think he cannot do it. Who can understand patience? We admire violence, we call it high spirit; we applaud instancy of penal visitation, thinking that it shows how just we are; but who can understand mercy, or see in forbearance the highest aspect of righteousness? "Despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?" God does not shut the door hastily; he comes out and watches, and hopes and waits. He is determined not to begin the festival until the very last guest has at least had an opportunity of arriving. He would seem to be more deeply moved by the absence of some than by the presence of many. Who can understand the heartache of God's love? He does not hesitate to describe himself as grieved and disappointed, as sorrowful and as full of pain, because the children whom he has nourished and brought up have rebelled against him. But let us clearly understand that though God is forbearing, there will come a time when even He will no longer strive with men. "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." At the same time he has said, "My Spirit shall not always strive with man." "He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy."
"Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him: but it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow; because he feareth not before God" (Ecclesiastes 8:12-13).
The forbearance that is shown to the wicked is not shown at the expense of the righteous; that is to say, it is not something subtracted from the heritage of the good man. Nor is it a sign of forgetfulness on the part of God as to the deserts of the wicked. God will not hastily strike the ground from under the feet of the bad man; rather he allows that ground to crumble away little by little, showing him the consequences of what he is doing, and calling him all the while to the rock everlasting. The bad man seems to have a long lease, but what is it but a shadow? The time is only long in appearance whilst it lasts, but as soon as it has fled away how poor a thing it seems to be! Where are now the men who have lifted their mouths against the heavens, and sent forth their defiances as against the eternal arm? what is the life of man but a handful of years at the most? and if he has made no provision for a blissful eternity he has been dying whilst he lived.
Divine forbearance has always been more or less misunderstood. This is made clear by Ecclesiastes 8:14 :—
"There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity."
This was the impression produced on the public mind by the apparent good fortune of the wicked. "Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the Lord of hosts?" And they called the proud happy, and set up them that worked wickedness—"They say unto God, depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of thy ways. What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? and what profit should we have, if we pray unto him?" It was questioning and rebellion like this that led the Almighty to reply: "I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil." Let us allow that appearances are sometimes in favour of this theory. It does appear as if the wicked had in many instances a lot preferable to that of the righteous, at all events quite equal to it. But consider the duration of the lot of the wicked: "Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things." Then consider the compensation which righteousness never fails to realise in an approving conscience and in a bright hope concerning the future of retribution and adjustment; add to this the consideration that the Christian has a sure and certain hope of a glorious immortality. He says, "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." His words are full of triumph: "We know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." The apostle was not slow to confess that if in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most miserable. Asaph confessed that the wicked were "not in trouble as other men; their eyes stand out with fatness: they have more than heart could wish." The apostle makes out a list of his personal sufferings, and whilst we read it we wonder that God should have dealt out such severity towards those who are uppermost and foremost in his holy service. But the apostle himself gave the right interpretation of all sorrows, losses, distresses; he says,"Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal." The point of view has been changed. The standard of valuation has been altered. Looked at within the limits of time, religion as Christians understand it may seem to be followed by many a disaster; but looked at in the light of eternity, Christians are enabled to "glory in tribulations also," and to be exceeding joyful, even in the midst of multiplied distresses. This is a miracle which cannot be explained in words. It is the living and perpetual miracle of Christian experience.
In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him.Contrastive Days In Life
The wise man is speaking of two different days: the one he calls the day of prosperity, the other he calls the day of adversity. Looking upon both the days he says, "God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him." The wise man gives a direction for the one day in these terms: "In the day of prosperity be joyful"—wisely merry; "in the day of adversity," he continues, be sad-hearted, frown with disappointment and displeasure and mortification. It is not so written in the text: "In the day of adversity, consider"—think, reflect, wonder how it all comes to be as it is. Consideration is not despair; consideration is not atheism: consideration may be the very basis of piety. There is therefore here nothing that is pessimistic, nothing that is of the nature of despair or reproach against God; there is but a summons to consideration. Our point, therefore, is that the economy of the world as we know it is so arranged and conducted that there is running through the whole a principle of balance and counterpoise and equalisation. Account for it as we may, an ample, nay a very partial, induction of facts will show that things do not all go on one side or on the other, that there is a mastery or domination balancing things, now calling up the right, now calling up the left, now driving clean abreast; but still a master principle or invisible sovereignty. We may chafe, inquire, deny, but the world is its own Bible upon this point. Both days are needed. What should we do if it were always sunshine? Is there anything more monotonous than midday? We can do with a little sunshine, but not with very much; we want the cool shadow. The shadow has as much to do with the picture as has the light. Do not speak of shadows as if they were useless, or as if they were of the nature of punishment or reprobation; they help to express the meaning of the artist It is so in our lives: we never should have seen ourselves as we are but for the uplifting, defining, and softening shadow. The garden would never have been half so precious but for the graves which are dug there. What should we do, on the other hand, if it were always a day of adversity; no singing bird, no rift in the cloud, no voice from afar, no sweet gospel falling upon our hearts' hearing at unexpected times; no music at home, no light in the fire, no joy underlying all the tragedy of this tumultuous experience? But "God also hath set the one over against the other." And we never can tell what a day may bring forth. Tomorrow may be the brightest day we ever had in our lives: cheer thee! The heart says, I will—I will hope in the living God! Tomorrow may be the blackest day that ever darkened upon our little life: think! Blessed are they who say, We will—we will consider this matter well; if the storm is rising, if the thunders are gathering, we will look out and prepare and arrange: to be forewarned is to be forearmed: thank God for this degree of forecast; it is not presumption, it is but another aspect of divinest, simplest trust.
Not only are both needed, but both are educational. We get more in the school of adversity than we ever could get in the school of prosperity. There is very little learned in times that are close upon the vacation. It is not the holiday that takes the people's attention, it is the three weeks before the holiday, when they are getting ready for it; they may not enjoy it when it does come, but they do enjoy the anticipation of it; business is partially suspended, things that were done with painstaking are now done off-handedly because the holiday is coming. It is in adversity that men think and study and pray, and begin that process of wonder which often ends in holy reverence. You have been taught something by prosperity; you have been taught that there is nothing in it. You have scores of gold cups upon your sideboard; put another score on: when you get beyond a certain point everything tends towards disgust, satiety, contempt. Up to a certain point you count your thousands, and can handle them in a somewhat masterful way; they are your servants, you can put them down and take them up, and rearrange their relations one to another, but when it gets beyond that point it gets into nothingness. Everything that is of the nature of time and space ends in ruin: the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, the elements shall melt with fervent heat, and the whole sky shall be rolled together like a scroll and vanish like a wraith. It is not in time to be eternal; it is not in space to be infinite: men exhaust all time, and fall out of space into God's infinity. You have learned a good deal in adversity, you have learned who your friends are; you thought they were six in number, and, lo, they are not one. You reckoned that when the day of adversity came there would be many doors open to receive you; and there would have been, but that the occupants of the houses were unfortunately away at the time you called; they were in the day before, and they will be at home to-morrow, but just when your knock fell upon the plain deal they were out. Adversity is a dear school to attend, but the teacher is a skilled monitor; he knows how to write his lessons, often mournful, always useful, on the tablets of the heart. When I was in adversity, saith the soul, I found but one invitation; it read sweetly; I wrote it in my diary; I made an appointment of it; the words of the invitation ran thus: "In the day of trouble call upon me, and I will answer thee,"—the only invitation I had for that day. These are the words that lift the gospel so infinitely above the height of all other theories and philosophies of religion.
We have seen this principle of compensation or balance illustrated personally. We ourselves are illustrations of the action of this economy. You are poor; that may be so from a monetary point of view, but money poverty is the very simplest and easiest of all kinds of poverty. He is poor who has no soul, no dream, no vision, no poetry, no sentiment, no outlook beyond the field of death. But take it even financially. You are poor: but look what a constitution you have, what health is yours. You are all red blood and iron sinew, and if you are down for a moment it is but for a moment, for you spring up again with an invincible elasticity: how can you, therefore, call yourself poor? You have much hardship to endure;—so you have, but look what spirits you have! your spirits are worth untold wealth: you cannot have a long face for more than a second, the very spirit of laughter is in you; that spirit allows you sometimes to wrinkle your poor old skin as if it were going to settle down into furrows of melancholy, and then when you have got it all neatly arranged that spirit leaps up within, and rolls off the incubus and says, You have no business to be in this low mood: stand up! "God also hath set the one over against the other."
Look what wealth this man has! He made thirty thousand pounds by one contract, all the while telling the people that he was making little or nothing out of it, and he never knew the times so bad as they are just now. He was talking of course in a kind of, shall we say, half-dream, half-nightmare; he was not writing an affidavit, he was only telling another kind of story. What wealth he has, what piles of gold! True; and yet how fretful he is, how peevish; nobody can live with him; how snappish his temper, how cruel his tongue, how dissatisfied his whole spirit! He has no joy in any green field he owns; the pauper that leans over the stone wall and looks at it owns it more than ever he did. No matter who has the title-deeds, he has the land who has the landscape.
We have seen this principle illustrated not only personally, but nationally. The climate is very bad, but look what hardy men are reared under its cloudy skies, and are blown upon by its cold winds. The climate is splendid: yes, but look what listless creatures they are who inhabit the land shone upon by such fair suns; they have no pith, no sinew, no adventure; they never go from home; they have learned to smoke the pipe of ease, and look upon its warm clouds as if they contained all heaven; they have never discovered an island nor explored a continent: they suffer the disadvantages as well as enjoy the advantages of their splendid climate. "God also hath set the one over against the other." Look at the division in political instinct. Is it not marvellous that there should always be a race for office between two parties having distinctly opposite policies? Why does not the one party die off? "God also hath set the one over against the other." Why are we not all sound Tories? Why are we not all ardent Liberals? Because the world would go to pieces, so far as our nation is concerned, if God did not "set the one over against the other." It is marvellous how thus even in statesmanship and national governance and policy there is a principle of equalisation and balance proceeding. That would be so if there were no Bible. We are not now talking book-theology, something that we have learned from penmen; we are simply giving voice to patent, absolute, visible facts, and gathering these up so as to get out of them an argument and an appeal. How are all the lines of industry maintained? How can you account for these continual accessions to the diverse ranks of industry upon any principle of atheism? Do you suppose that any man would ever be a chimney-sweep if he were not born to it? How are the chimney-sweeps kept up? That may seem to be a grotesque question, but it is a deeply spiritual and metaphysical inquiry. How are the ranks of shoeblacks recruited? You would not be a shoeblack; but what would you do if there were no shoeblacks to be had for love or money? then you would have to be one. This has an aspect of practical comedy, but behind that there lies the great fact of sovereignty, purpose, government. Shoeblacks are born, not made, as well as poets. God makes everything there is. We think of God making the great heaven-soaring eagle—but he made the little titmouse as well; and one is as great a mystery as the other; and it required all the Godhead to make the simplest pulse that ticks within the rudest skin. Do not shut God out of his universe. He is Maker, Manager, Sovereign, Judge.
See what a distribution of talents there is! And the talents never did agree. It is a mistake to suppose that all the opposition or emulation is to be found amongst the very lowest classes of citizenship: even high up in the hierarchy of talents there is continual debate, continual assertion of claim against claim, and even up there plaintiff and defendant are common terms. All men are not born mathematicians; all men are not born poets. All men are not born so that they can take care of their own affairs. There are some men who ought not to have any affairs to take care of. There are some of you who could not live a month if you had not somebody behind you or near you to see that your life was not sacrificed. That guiding angel may not always be seen, may not always come to the front, and say, I am the spirit that guides and defends thee; but the angel is there: are they not all the servants of men? We cannot tell what is proceeding. I have seen curious things in the air. By closing my eyes I have seen host after host coming to me, hovering around me, and sometimes I have all but heard what they said. There is a language of the dumb; there are schools in which not a sound is heard, but continual communication is taking place: the pupils and the teachers can read the language of the lip; without a sound messages can be exchanged, affections can be pledged, and schemes can be arranged; and have I not sometimes seen, as it were, the lips of the upper ones shaping themselves in forms that did not admit of two constructions, meaning love, hope, ultimate triumph, eternal joy? Let the soul deny this that has never seen it! Here, then, we have an account given of contrastive days—the day of prosperity and the day of adversity. We see this process of equipoise developing before our eyes. Life is an economy. Here are facts to be accounted for, and the Christian expositor claims for this particular method of account four merits; he says, it is invested with the highest degree of probability; it occupies, secondly, the strongest position in reason; it offers, thirdly, the largest range of beneficence; and it produces, fourthly, the completest evidence of utility. Of course there is a disposition to get rid of the supernatural, but we cannot get rid of it if we read the unwritten Bible of our own history. It is no interest of ours to maintain the supernatural. There can be no particular delight in simply maintaining a metaphysical position of any kind; what delight there is in the maintenance of a metaphysical position can only be shared by a few ardent psychologists; but here is a life, and here are contrary days in the life, and here is an evident system of balancing and counterbalancing,—what are we to make of this? We could call it chance, but does that make us philosophers? then to be a philosopher were an easy acquisition. "Chance"—what does it mean? Is chance itself a child of its own? Is chance the parent of chance, or chance the child of chance? It requires more faith to believe in this Chance than in any god I ever heard of. Here is this manifold, interpenetrating, self-rectifying economy; how did it begin? We could say it began without a beginning. Then there is no greater mystery in the Bible: the unbeginning beginning is but another aspect of the mystery which attaches to the existence of God. But say that the whole is presided over by a wise, loving, gentle Father, severe in righteousness, redeeming in love; say that the very hairs of our head are all numbered, and that everything is measured by scale, weighed in balances and directed to an issue, and that at the last the great audit will be held and the accounts will be signed; then you talk cold reason; that is good; you make life solemn, you give a value to every deed, you impart into every word a new and wide suggestiveness. This is the position occupied by the Christian preacher. We need such a man amongst us at all times, to correct, not a theoretical atheism, but a practical godlessness.
Who could preach an evangelical discourse from these words? Every man could. All texts lead to the Cross. If ever there is a text that has no relation to the Cross, then it is a text torn out of its proper place; read in its context, it points to the Cross. All the verses in the Bible, in their right places, combine to point an index-finger to a place called Calvary. You have murdered your text if you have not exhibited it in that relation. Let us see how this verse easily lends itself to evangelical uses. What temptation is this that tears men? what is this law in my members warring against the law of my spirit and against the whole law of light and love and progress? What is this devil? He tears me, he binds me, he throws me in the water, he plucks me from the pool that he may dash me into the fire. Can I live? No, but for the voice which says, "It is written"—"God also hath set the one over against the other." By temptation he drives us to church; by temptation he invites us to himself; by temptation—cruel, biting, tremendous temptation—he bids us pray. What is this sin that is in the world, this black-faced, fiery-eyed, foul-mouthed sin? What is this image wholly given to death and hell, every finger an instrument of torture, of mischief, of wrongdoing: every look a blasphemy, every breath a malediction,—what is this gaunt, grim, tremendous enemy? It is conquering all things; it is desolating all minds, blighting all gardens, silencing all music, drying up all the crystal pools and sparkling fountains. No—see: what is this fair face that comes, what is this gentle voice that sounds like silver bells, what is this hidden strength in womanlike weakness? Thy name? Grace. What canst thou do? Everything. Canst thou fight this black image? I can kill that image. But he has conquered all the world? No: where sin abounds grace shall much more abound—"God also hath set the one over against the other"—and Grace alone vanquisheth sin. What is this iron cruel law, this great wheel that grinds and grinds, and comes upon my poor life to crush every pulse of hope? What is this law that will not be bribed, seduced, tempted, set aside? What is this law that ignores importunity? How cold, how passionless, how resolute! It will have everything its own way. Hear the voice on the other side. What is this fair creature, fair as the sun? Her name is Mercy. Can Mercy do what Law cannot accomplish? That is the very function and design of mercy. God can be merciful to a sinner—Law cannot. If there were one touch of mercy in mere law, it would cease to be mere law. The mercy is external, foreign in a sense, and yet coming from God it can so affect law as to take away all its sting and terror, all its bitterness and sure ruin. "God also hath set the one over against the other." And this poor, little, dead, cold earth—there is not room enough in it to live in, there is only scope to die in—is this earth all? is the whole universe under my feet? Is there nothing to invite appeals, aspirations, and anticipations? Is all above me a radiant cloud? Then we are of all men most miserable. Oh, Loving One, Economist, Sovereign, what hast thou to set over against earth? Nothing but—Heaven. "God also hath set the one over against the other." To grasp this truth in Christ is immortality.
Almighty God, thy praise shall never cease, because thy mercy endureth for ever: mercy shall excite praise; thy goodness shall inspire our thankfulness: thus the song shall rise from earth to heaven day by day until time shall be no more. Thou dost love thy people; thou hast set a seal upon their heart and a seal upon their arm, and the foundation of the Lord standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. Thou dost ask in return that we love thee, that our life be one of perpetual affection towards heaven, and that our affection shall express itself in daily industry and sacrifice. Thus, whilst thy love is poured down from on high and ours rises to thee in grateful answer, the heaven and the earth shall be filled with divine affection. We pray thee to receive all our thanksgivings for thy tender care; thou hast been mindful of us with infinite love; nothing has been wanting on thy part to complete our life with strength and beauty. Blessed Saviour of the world, thou didst wash our hearts with thy most precious blood, and cleanse us from every stain of sin by the ministry of thine own sacrifice. Thy purpose is to make thy Church a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing—fit bride for thyself, thou Lamb of God. Enable us to realise our relation to one another and to thee, and may we know that the purpose of heaven is even our purification: every promise is a call to holiness; having therefore these promises, we say to one another, Dearly beloved, let us purify ourselves, that the wine of God's love may be in vessels of gold, and that all thy care for us may be answered by our growth in grace and pureness. Thou knowest what we need to make our life really glad. Save us from pursuing false courses; deliver us from all the fallacies and sophisms of a narrow outlook, of a mental imprisonment which shuts out half the light of God: may we know that there is no prosperity, real and enduring, that is not founded in righteousness; may our cry be unto the living God, that being right with him we may be right with all nature, and may be received as children into the great family of the universe, and be no more strangers and foreigners, prodigals and aliens, but children adopted into thy family, secured in our adoption by all the omnipotence of thy grace: then shall our lives grow up before thee, strong and beautiful; within their shadow shall men rest as in a sanctuary, and in the branches thereof shall birds sing like angels. Dry our tears; give us rest awhile; give us a place in thy sanctuary; give us a little reviving in our day, and save us from the darkness which means despair and the despair which may end in ruin. And to thee, God most high, most holy, most tender, shall every hymn be sung in Christ's own sweet name. Amen.