The Folly of Ambition
Jeremiah 45:5
And seek you great things for yourself? seek them not: for, behold, I will bring evil on all flesh, said the LORD…

I. The first reason for not seeking the great things of earth and time is, that THEY WILL NOT BE ATTAINED. We do not deny that the energy and perseverance of an ambitious man will accomplish great results, but we affirm confidently that he will never attain what he desires. For his desires are continually running ahead of his attainments, so that the more he gets the more he wants. He never acquires the "great thing" which he is seeking in such a way as to sit down quietly and enjoy contentment of heart. Alexander, we are told, having conquered all the then known world, wept in disappointment because there were no more worlds for him to overrun and subdue. In this way, it is apparent that he who is seeking great things here upon earth will never obtain them. He is chasing his horizon. He is trying to jump off his own shadow. As fast as he advances, the horizon recedes from him; the further he leaps, the further his shadow falls. His estimate of what a " great thing" is continually changes, so that though relatively to other men he has accumulated wealth, or obtained earthly power and fame, yet absolutely, he is no nearer the desire of his heart — no nearer to a satisfying good — than he was at the beginning of his career. Nay, it is the testimony of many a man, that the first few gains that were made at the beginning of life came nearer to filling the desires of the mind, and were accompanied with more of actual contentment, than the thousands and millions that succeeded them.

II. IF THEY COULD BE ATTAINED THEY WOULD RUIN THE SOUL. It is fearful to observe the rapidity with which a man's character deteriorates as he secures the object of his desire, when the object is a merely earthly one, and the desire is a purely selfish one. Take, for illustration, the career of Napoleon Bonaparte. He aimed at a universal empire in Europe. And just in proportion as he approached the object of his aspirations, did he recede from that state of mind and heart which ought to characterise a dependent creature of God. We always associate him with those pagan demi-gods, those heaven-storming Titans, who like the Lucifer of Scripture are the very impersonation of pride and ambition But such a spirit as this is the worst species of human character. It is the most intense form of idolatry — that of egotism and self-worship. It is the most arrogant and defiant form of pride. It would scale the heavens. It would dethrone the Eternal. The same effect of mere worldly success is seen also in the walks of everyday life. Cast your eye over the circle in which you move, and select out those who are the most greedy of earthly good, and are the most successful in obtaining it, and are they not the most selfish persons that you know? It is here that we see the moral benefit of failures and disappointments. Were men uniformly successful in their search after "great things"; did every man. who seeks wealth obtain wealth, and every man who grasps after power obtain power, and every man who lusts after fame become renowned, the world would be a pandemonium, and human character and happiness would be ruined. Swollen by constant victory, and a sense of superiority, successful men would turn their hands against one another, as in the wars of the giants before the flood. There would be no self-restraint, no regard for the welfare of others, no moderate and just estimate of this world, and no attention to the future life.

III. "GREAT THINGS," so far as they are attained at all in this world, ARE COMMONLY ATTAINED INDIRECTLY. Saul, the son of Kish, was sent out by his father to find the asses that had strayed, but he found a kingdom instead. Look into literary history, and see how this is exemplified. The most successful creations of the human reason and imagination have rarely been the intentional and foreseen products of the person. The great authors have been surprised at their success; if, indeed, success came to them during their lifetime. But more commonly their fame has been posthumous, and their ears never heard a single note of the paean that went up from the subsequent generations that were enchanted with their genius. Shakespeare and Milton never read a single criticism upon their own works; and to-day they neither know anything of nor care for the fame that attends them upon this little planet. Look, again, into the circles of trade and commerce, and observe how often great and lasting success comes incidentally, rather than as the consequence of preconceived purposes and plans. The person simply endeavoured to provide for the present and prospective wants of those dependent upon him, with prudence and moderation. He obtained, however, far more than he calculated upon. Wealth came in upon him with rapidity, and that which he did not greedily seek, and which he never in the least gloated upon with a miser's feeling, was the actual result of his career in the world. Seekest thou, then, great things for thyself? seek them not. They will not come by this method. Seek first of all the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and then all these minor things, which the world and the deluded will be likely to attain even by the most engrossing and violent efforts devoted to the sole purpose of obtaining them.

IV. GREAT SORROW SPRINGS FROM GREAT ASPIRATIONS, WHEN THOSE ASPIRATIONS ARE UNATTAINED. There is only one species of aspiration that does not weary and wear the soul, and that is, the craving and cry of the soul after God. Humboldt, who had surveyed the cosmos, and who had devoted a long existence to placid contemplation of the processes of nature, and had kept aloof from the exciting and passionate provinces of human literature, said in his eightieth year, "I live without hope, because so little of what I have undertaken yields a satisfactory result." This is the penalty which ambitious minds pay for seeking "great things." There is an infinite aspiration, and an infinitesimal performance. The hour of death, and the failing shadows of an everlasting existence, and an everlasting destiny, bring the aspiration and the performance into terrible contrast. Go down, once more, into the sphere of active life, and see the same sorrow from the same cause. Look at that man of trade and commerce who has spent his life in gigantic, and, we will suppose, successful enterprises, and who now draws near the grave. Ask him how the aspiration compares with the performance. He has generally accomplished, we will assume, what he undertook. The results of his energy and capacity are known, and visible to all in his circle and way of life. His associates have praised him, and still praise him; for he has done well for himself, and for all connected with him. But he writes vanity upon it all. When he thinks of all the heat and fever of his life, all his anxious calculation and toil by day and night, all his sacrifice of physical comfort and of mental and moral improvement, and then thinks of the actual results of it all — the few millions of treasure, the few thousands of acres, or the few hundreds of houses — he bewails his infatuation, and curses his folly.

1. In the light of this subject and its discussion, we perceive the sinfulness of ambition.

2. We see in the light of this subject, the complete and perfect blessedness of those who are free from all ambitious aims and selfish purposes; who can say, "Whom have I in heaven but Thee?" &c.

(G. T. Shedd, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not: for, behold, I will bring evil upon all flesh, saith the LORD: but thy life will I give unto thee for a prey in all places whither thou goest.

WEB: Do you seek great things for yourself? Don't seek them; for, behold, I will bring evil on all flesh, says Yahweh; but your life will I give to you for a prey in all places where you go.

Self-Seeking Vetoed
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