A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one's birth.
The text expresses the general principle or doctrine that by the condition of our existence here, if things go right, a conclusion is better than a beginning. It is on the condition of our existence in this world that this principle is founded. That condition is that everything is passing on toward something else in order to, and for the sake of, that something further on, so that its chief importance or value is in that something to be attained further on. And if that ulterior object be attained, and be worth all this preceding course of things, then "the end is better than the beginning." We have to consider the year on the supposition of our living through it. And it is most exceedingly desirable that in the noblest sense "the end" should be "better than the beginning." Consider what state of the case would authorise us at the end of the year to pronounce this sentence upon it.
I. The sentence may be pronounced if at the end of the year we shall be able, after deliberate conscientious reflection, to affirm that the year has been in the most important respects better than the preceding.
II. The sentence will be true if during the progress of the year we shall effectually avail ourselves of the lessons suggested by a review of the preceding year.
III. The text will be a true sentence if then we shall have good evidence that we are become really more devoted to God.
IV. It is but putting the same thing in more general terms to say, The end will be better than the beginning if we shall by then have practically learnt to live more strictly and earnestly for the greatest purposes of life.
V. If we shall have acquired a more effectual sense of the worth of time, the sentence will be true.
VI. It will, again, be true if with regard to fellow-mortals we can conscientiously feel that we have been to them more what Christians ought than in the preceding year.
VII. Another point of superiority we should hope the end may have over the beginning of the year is that of our being in a better state of preparation for all that is to follow.
VIII. It will be a great advantage and advancement to end the year with if we shall then have acquired more of a rational and Christian indifference to life itself.
J. Foster, Lectures; 1st series, p. 1.
References: Ecclesiastes 7:8.—J. Hamilton, The Royal Preacher, p. 165; Spurgeon, Morning by Morning, p. 366.
Ecclesiastes 7:10This text has a natural and deep connection with Solomon and his times. The former days were better than his days; he could not help seeing that they were. He must have feared lest the generation which was springing up should inquire into the reason thereof in a tone which would breed—which actually did breed—discontent and revolution. Therefore it was that Solomon hated all his labour that he had wrought under the sun, for all was vanity and vexation of spirit.
I. Of Christian nations these words are not true. They pronounce the doom of the old world, but the new world has no part in them, unless it copies the sins and follies of the old. And therefore for us it is not only an act of prudence, but a duty—a duty of faith in God, a duty of loyalty to Jesus Christ our Lord—not to ask why the former times were better than these. For they were not better than these. Each age has its own special nobleness, its own special use; but every age has been better than the age which went before it, for the Spirit of God is leading the ages on toward that whereof it is written, "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive, the things which God hath prepared for those that love Him."
II. The inquiry shows disbelief in our Lord's own words that all dominion is given to Him in heaven and earth, and that He is with us always, even to the end of the world. It is a vain inquiry, based on a mistake. When we look back longingly to any past age, we look not at the reality, but at a sentimental and untrue picture of our own imagination. We are neither to regret the past, nor rest satisfied in the present, but, like St. Paul, forgetting those things that are behind us, and reaching onward to those things that are before us, press forward each and all to the prize of our high calling in Jesus Christ.
C. Kingsley, The Water of Life, p. 189.
I. This is the outcry of every age. Certainly it is a great difficulty in the way of the evolution theory as the one explanation of man and of things. That it plays a very important part there can be no question; but looking at it as the one explanation, it is a fact that the past looms brighter in man's memory than either the present or the future: there are always rays of glory trailing down the vistas of time. Every movement for reformation is really, when you look into the springs of it, a lament for restoration; what man prays for always is the restoration of the glittering pageant, the golden saturnine reign. (1) By a wise law of Providence, time destroys all the wreck and waste of the past and saves only the pleasures—destroys the chaff and saves the grain. (2) The worship of the past springs out of man's deep and noble dissatisfaction with the present.
II. We are always looking back with complaint and longing in our own personal lives. Always there is the great fact of childhood in our lives, the careless time, the joyous time, when the mere play of the faculties was a spring of enjoyment. The days of old were better than these. We are always mourning for a lost Eden, but a wilderness is better than Eden, for it is a pathway from Eden up to heaven.
III. Notice the unwisdom of the complaint. In the deepest realities of life, in the work and the purposes of God, the complaint is not true. The former days were not better, for you are now larger, stronger, richer in power, with a far further horizon round you. If something is lost, something more is gained at every step. It is all faithlessness which is at the root of this lamentation of man, which a sight of the realities of life and of Him whose hand is in mercy moving all the progresses of the world would correct. The world mourns the past because it does so little with the present. Faith, hope, and love would soon make a today which would cast all the yesterdays into the shade.
J. Baldwin Brown, Penny Pulpit, No. 925.
References: Ecclesiastes 7:11-29.—R. Buchanan, Ecclesiastes: its Meaning and Lessons, p. 250. Ecclesiastes 7:12.—F. E. Paget, Helps and Hindrances to the Christian Life, vol. ii., p. 240.
Ecclesiastes 7:14The wise Preacher is speaking here of the right use of the changeful phenomena and conditions of man's life on earth. God sets prosperity over against adversity, and He does this that man should find nothing after Him; that is, that the future should remain hid from man, so that he can at no time count upon it, but must ever wait upon God, the supreme Disposer of all things, and trust in Him alone. The principle here involved pervades the Divine administration, and receives numerous exemplifications even within the sphere of our observation.
I. Notice, first, the analogies which subsist between the natural and the spiritual world as a setting on a large scale of one thing over against another. How much the natural world may be employed to illustrate the world within, how much nature may be made in this way the handmaid of religion, and how much the facts of secular life may be transformed into lessons of high moral and spiritual truth, every attentive reader of the Bible must have seen.
II. As a second illustration of the Divine operation suggested in the text may be mentioned the antagonisms by means of which the administration of sublunary affairs is carried on. Experience amply shows us that it is only by the balance of conflicting interests and powers that the social machine can be made to work easily and beneficially to all. It is under the same great law that God has placed the moral discipline of our race, for it is through the antagonism of joy and sorrow, prosperity and adversity, life and death, that the perfection of the individual and of the race is to be reached.
III. A third illustration is furnished by the compensations which we find in the world around us, and in God's dealings with us.
IV. Another set of illustrations is supplied by the relations which God has made us sustain to each other in family and social life. Of these relations the great principle is reciprocity. In all the relations of life God has set one thing over against another; and it is only as this is recognised, and the reciprocal duties thence arising are faithfully discharged, that the arrangement becomes a source of benefit to men.
W. Lindsay Alexander, Sermons, p. 215.
References: Ecclesiastes 7:14.—H. W. Beecher, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xi., p. 20; J. Vaughan, Fifty Sermons, 8th series, pp. 68, 74, and 7th series, p. 96; Preacher's Monthly, vol. ix., p. 302; S. Cox, An Expositor's Notebook, p. 171. Ecclesiastes 7:15-18.—T. C. Finlayson, A Practical Exposition of Ecclesiastes, p. 165.
Ecclesiastes 7:16It is no light argument for the Divine authority of the Bible that so little is to be found in it which can by any sophistry be perverted into an encouragement for sin. Nevertheless it cannot be denied that in two or three places, taken apart from the context or otherwise misquoted, it is just possible for an ignorant man very much in love with his sins to fancy that he finds an excuse for continuing in them. Perhaps no text has suffered more from this kind of perversion than the present one: "Be not righteous overmuch."
I. Consider how far this manner of speaking is justifiable in the persons who use it. It is only the light and superficial in Christian studies and the formalist in Christian practice who show alarm at the thought of being too good. The text is oftener quoted in a mood half sportive, and as a short way of silencing unpleasant discussion, than as a serious ground of argument. But the misery of it is that men act on it quite in earnest. They evidently cannot themselves believe that it will bear the weight they lay upon it, and yet they are not afraid to conduct themselves as if it were the only commandment God had ever given.
II. Consider how far this opinion and the doctrine grounded upon it are consistent with the general tenor of Scripture. (1) This notion of over-righteousness cannot stand with that precious corner-stone of our faith the doctrine of the Atonement. For what need of a Redeemer to one who is already so far advanced in goodness that no more is wanted to bring him to heaven, to one who only requires a check lest in his too forward pursuit of the next world he miss the enjoyments of this? (2) Another test, the application of which will give the same result, is the doctrine of sanctification. God is dishonoured in His Spirit as well as in His Son by this fear of superfluous goodness. All holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works we daily acknowledge to be gifts of God, proceeding from Him through the Holy Ghost, the Comforter; and can we ever have too much of such gifts? (3) Another great doctrine which is utterly inconsistent with the vulgar use of the text is the inequality of the future rewards of the blessed in heaven. We know not exactly how low the least degree of obedience is; but this we are quite sure of: that he who aims no higher will be sure to fall short even of that, and that he who goes farthest beyond it will be most blessed. (4) If neither saint nor martyr, neither prophet nor apostle, though he did all that he was commanded, could do enough to make God his debtor, but had still need to confess himself an unprofitable servant, which of us all can ever be justified in saying, "Here I may stop short; I will not try to amend myself any farther, lest I be over-righteous"?
III. What if it should appear, on considering the text itself, that it was intended as a warning against the very error which it is so often and so unfortunately used to encourage? I would abide by the way of explaining the passage which supposes these two verses to be spoken by the inspired writer not in his own person, but in the person of an irreligious and worldly man, and the verse which follows them to be a caution against that erroneous view of things which they contain and a reference to the only principle which can save us from such a fatal mistake; namely, the fear of God.
J. Keble, Sermons Occasional and Parochial, p. 1.
References: Ecclesiastes 7:16.—J. Budgen, Parochial Sermons, vol. ii., p. 327. Ecclesiastes 7:18.—D. Burns, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xix.,p. 83. Ecclesiastes 7:19-29.—T. C. Finlayson, A Practical Exposition of Ecclesiastes, p. 175.
Koheleth seems to have had a suspicion all the time that his view of life was a low one. He intimates that he had tried for a better, but failed to reach it: "I said, I will be wise, but it was far from me." "Far remaineth" (so Ecclesiastes 7:24 should read)—"Far remaineth what was far, and deep remaineth what was deep."
I. From his lower standpoint he now sets himself to inquire into the origin of evil. "I applied my mind," he says, "to discover the cause of wickedness, and vice, and mad folly." He finds it, as he thinks, in woman. By her fatal gift of beauty she often lures men to a doom more bitter than death; and at the best she has but a shallow, unbalanced nature, capable of doing much mischief, but incapable of doing any good. In these notions Koholeth does not stand alone. The depreciatory estimate of women used to be accepted almost as a truism, and was not unfrequently adopted by women themselves. It is a woman whom Euripides represents as saying that one man is better than a thousand of her sex.
II. To many of us these sentiments will appear almost inexplicable. Surely, we say to ourselves, the women of whom such things were said must have been very different from the women of the present day; and no doubt they were—different through no fault of their own, but by reason of the treatment to which they had been subjected. Contempt for women was at one time universal, and it inevitably had on them a deteriorating effect. As soon as woman received fair play, she proved herself not only equal to man, but superior, lacking, no doubt, some of his best qualities, but possessing others which more than compensated for the deficiency. Scarcely any one in the present day whose opinion deserves a moment's consideration would agree with Koheleth. Instead of his arithmetical calculation about the thousand men and the thousand women, most persons would substitute Oliver Wendell Holmes': that there are at least three saints among women for one among men.
A. W. Momerie, Agnosticism, p. 236.
Ecclesiastes 7:29We may well look back on the garden of Eden as we would on our own childhood. Adam's state in Eden seems to have been like the state of children now: in being simple, inartificial, inexperienced in evil, unreasoning, uncalculating, ignorant of the future, or, as men now speak, unintellectual.
I. Adam and Eve were placed in a garden to cultivate it. How much is implied even in this! If there was a mode of life free from tumult, anxiety, excitement, and fever of mind, it was the care of a garden. If the life of Christ and His servants be any guide to us, certainly it would appear as if the simplicity and the repose of life with which human nature began is an indication of its perfection. And again, does not our infancy teach us the same lesson, which is especially a season when the soul is left to itself, withdrawn from its fellows as effectually as if it were the only human being on earth, like Adam in his enclosed garden, fenced off from the world and visited by angels?
II. Fenced off from the world! Nay, fenced off even from itself, for so it is, and most strange too, that our infant and childish state is hidden from ourselves. We know not what it was, what our thoughts in it were, and what our probation, more than we know Adam's.
III. Another resemblance between the state of Adam in paradise and the state of children is this: that children are saved not by their purpose and habits of obedience, not by faith and works, but by the influence of baptismal grace. And into Adam God "breathed the breath of life, and man became a living soul." What man fallen gains by dint of exercise, working up towards it by religious acts—that Adam had already acted from. He had that light within him which he might make brighter by obedience, but which he had not to create. This gift, which sanctified Adam and saves children, becomes the ruling principle of Christians generally when they advance to perfection. According as habits of holiness are matured, principle, reason, and self-discipline are unnecessary; a moral instinct takes their place in the breast, or rather, to speak more reverently, the Spirit is sovereign there.
IV. What is intellect itself, as exercised in the world, but a fruit of the Fall, not found in paradise or in heaven more than in little children, and at the utmost but tolerated in the Church, and only not incompatible with regenerate mind? Reason is God's gift, but so are the passions. Adam had the gift of reason, but so had he passions; but he did not walk by reason, nor was he led by his passions. He, or at least Eve, was tempted to follow passion and reason instead of her Maker; and she fell. Reason has been as guilty as passion. God made man upright, and grace was his strength; but he has found out many inventions, and his strength is reason.
J. H. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. v., p. 99.
References: Ecclesiastes 7:29.— Homiletic Magazine, vol. ii., p. 36; Clergyman's Magazine, vol. iv., p. 84; J. Bennet, The Wisdom of the King, p. 358. 7— C. Bridges, An Exposition of Ecclesiastes, p. 132; J. H. Cooke, The Preacher's Pilgrimage, p. 101.
Ecclesiastes 7 and Ecclesiastes 8:1-15
I. The endeavour to secure a competence may be not lawful only, but most laudable, since God means us to make the best of the capacities He has given us and the opportunities He sends us. Nevertheless we may pursue this right end from a wrong motive, in a wrong spirit. Both spirit and motive are wrong if we pursue our competence as though it were a good so great that we can know no happy content and rest unless we attain it. For what is it that animates such a pursuit save distrust in the providence of God? Left in His hands, we do not feel that we should be safe; whereas if we had our fortune in our own hands, and were secured against chances and changes by a comfortable investment or two, we should feel safe enough.
II. Our sympathies go with the man who seeks to acquire a good name, to grow wise, to live in the golden mean. But when he proceeds to apply his theory, to deduce practical rules from it, we can only give him a qualified assent, nay must often altogether withhold our assent. The prudent man is likely: (1) to compromise conscience (Ecclesiastes 7:15-20); (2) to be indifferent to censure (Ecclesiastes 7:21-22); (3) to despise women (Ecclesiastes 7:25-29); (4) to be indifferent to public wrong (Ecclesiastes 8:1-13).
III. In the closing verses of the third section of the book, the Preacher lowers his mask, and tells us plainly that we cannot, and must not, rest in the theory he has just expounded; that to follow its counsels will lead us away from the chief good, not towards it. This new theory of life he confesses to be a "vanity" as great and deceptive as any of those he has hitherto tried.
S. Cox, The Quest of the Chief Good, p. 188.
References: Ecclesiastes 8:1.—T. Hammond, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xix., p. 333. Ecclesiastes 8:1-8.—R. Buchanan, Ecclesiastes: its Meaning and Lessons, p. 281. Ecclesiastes 8:4.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxviii., No. 1697, and My Sermon Notes: Ecclesiastes to Malachi, p. 201 Ecclesiastes 8:8.—U. R. Thomas, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xiii., p. 38; A. Mursell, Ibid., vol. xix., p. 297.
It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity.
Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; and a gift destroyeth the heart.
Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools.
Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.
Wisdom is good with an inheritance: and by it there is profit to them that see the sun.
For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it.
Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?
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.
All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness.
Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?
Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?
It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all.
Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten mighty men which are in the city.
For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.
Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken; lest thou hear thy servant curse thee:
For oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others.
All this have I proved by wisdom: I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me.
That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?
I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness:
And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.
Behold, this have I found, saith the preacher, counting one by one, to find out the account:
Which yet my soul seeketh, but I find not: one man among a thousand have I found; but a woman among all those have I not found.
Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions.