For who knows what is good for a man during the few days he passes through his fleeting life like a shadow? Who can tell a man what will come after him under the sun?
I. A NATURAL QUESTION, AND ONE BOTH LEGITIMATE AND NECESSARY. "There be many that say, Who will show us any good?" Sometimes the inquiry arises upon the suggestion of daily occupation; sometimes as the result of prolonged philosophical reflection. The good of man is certainly not obvious, or there would not be so many and varying replies to the question presented. A lower nature, not being self-conscious, could not consider such a question as the surnmum bonum; being what he is, a rational and moral creation, man cannot avoid it.
II. A QUESTION TO WHICH SO SATISFACTORY REPLY CAN BE GIVEN UPON THE BASIS OF EXPERIENCE.
1. The occupations and enjoyments of the present are proved to be productive of vanity. "Many things increase vanity." Man "spendeth his vain life as a shadow." The several objects of human pursuit agree only in their failure to afford the satisfaction that is desired and sought. Yet the path which one has abandoned another follows, only to be misled like those who have gone before, only to be put further than ever from the destination desired. The objects which excite human ambition or cupidity remain the same from age to age; and they have no more power to give satisfaction than in former periods of human history.
2. The future is felt to be clouded by uncertainty. "Who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?" This element of uncertainty occasioned perplexity and distress in former times, as now. What shall be a man's reputation after his decease? Who shall inherit his estates? and what use shall be made of possessions accumulated with toil and difficulty? These and similar inquiries, made but not satisfactorily answered, disheartened even the energetic and the prosperous, and took the interest and joy out of their daily life. The present is unsatisfactory, and the future uncertain; where, then, shall we look for the true, the real good?
III. A QUESTION WHICH IS SOLVED ONLY BY FAITH. As long as we confine our attention to what can be apprehended by the senses, we cannot determine what is the real good in life. For that, in the case of rational and immortal natures, lies outside of the province in which supreme good must be sought. Good for man is not bodily or temporal good; it is something which appeals to his higher nature. The enjoyment of God's favor and the fulfillment of God's service - this is the good of man. This renders men independent of the prosperity upon which multitudes set their hearts. "Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us:" such is the desire and prayer of those who are emancipated from the bondage to time and sense, who see all things as in the light of Heaven, and whose thoughts and affections are not called away from the Giver of life and happiness by the gifts of his bounty, by the shadow of the substance that endures for ever. "Thy loving-kindness is better than life." - T.
For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?I. OUR LIFE WHICH WE DO KNOW.
1. We do know something about our present life, and what we do know about it should humble us in the presence Of God, for, first, it is very short. Solomon here says nothing about the "years" of our life, he only counts it by "days." The older a man grows, the shorter his life seems to be; and it was because Jacob was so old, and had seen so many days, that he called them "few and evil." Children and youths appear to have lived a long while; men seem to have lived only a short time; older men an even shorter period; but the oldest man reckons his days the shortest of all. The calculations about time are very singular, for length seems to turn to shortness. Well, then, since I am such an ephemeral creature, the insect of an hour, an aphis creeping on the bay leaf of existence, how dare I think of contending with Thee, my God, who wast long before the mountains were brought forth, and who wilt be when mountains are gone for ever?
2. Our life, besides being very short, is singularly uncertain. Do not let us forget this fact, for if the thought be unpleasant to us, it is because there is something wrong within. The child of God, when he is right with his Father, forgets the uncertainty, and remembers that all things are certain in the eternal purpose of God, and that all changes are wisely ordained, and therefore the uncertainty causes him no distress. Yet should this truth make us live with much caution, and tenderness, and watchfulness.
3. Yet again, our life is not only short and uncertain, but, while we have it, it is singularly unsubstantial. Many things which we gain for ourselves with much care are very unsatisfying. Have you never heard the rich man confess that it is so? Have you never heard the scholar, who has won many degrees, and stood at the head of his profession, declare that the more he knew the less he felt that he knew? "Verily, every man at his best state is altogether vanity." Now, look ye; it ill becomes us, whose lives are so uncertain, and whose lives at the best are so unsubstantial, to begin to contend with Him in whose hand our breath is, and whose are all our ways. It were better far for us at once to submit ourselves to Him, and to learn that in Him we live, and move, and have our being. It were well for us also to give the Lord all this poor life, be it what it may, to be used in His service, and to be spent for His glory.
II. WHAT IS BEST FOR US IS NOT KNOWN TO US. Suppose we ask the question, "Which is the better for a man in this life — wealth or poverty?" — what will be the answer? Wealth — the eye is dazzled with it; it brings many comforts and luxuries; yet there is a passage of Scripture as true now as when the Master first uttered it, "How hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God." Who knows, then, that wealth is a good thing? Do any choose poverty? There is as much to be said concerning the evils and the disadvantages of poverty as there is to be said on the other side. He that lacks bread is often tempted to envy, and to many other sins which he might not have committed if he had not been in that state. It is not for you or for me to be able to balance the answer to this question, "Who knoweth what is good for man in this life, — wealth or poverty?" There was a wise man who said, "Give me neither poverty nor riches," and he seemed to have hit the golden mean. Now, take another question, — that of health or sickness: "What is good for man in this life?" It seems at first that it must be good for a man to enjoy the best of health, and the most sprightly vigour, does it not? We all wish for it, and we are allowed to do so. Nobody thinks that sickness and disease can really be in themselves a blessing. Yet have I seen some gentle, holy, devout, matured spirits that could not have come from any garden but that which was walled around with disease, and grief, and woe. The graver's best art has been spent upon them, the graving tool has been very sharp, and the hammer has smitten them very terribly. They had never been such marvels of the Master's grace if it had not been for their sorrows. Yet I doubt not that there are other spirits who have been brought nearer to God in their gladsomeness, saints who, for very gratitude to God for their overflowing delights, and the mercies of this life, and the health of their bodies, have been drawn and bound more closely to their God. So is it with regard to publicity or obscurity. There are some persons whose graces are best seen in public, and they minister for the good of others; they have to be thankful that God has placed them in a position where they are seen, for it has led them to watchfulness and carefulness. The vows of God have been upon them, and they have been helped in their way to heaven by the very responsibilities of their public position. But, sometimes, I have wished that I might be a violet, that I might shed my perfume in some lowly spot hidden by leaves. Yet I do not doubt that obscurity has its ills as well, and that many a man would fain escape from it. "Who knoweth what is good for man in this life?" All depends upon your being where God puts you. Any man is safe if he is where God would have him to be, and if he trembles for his own safety, and clings to the Strong for strength; but those who think that their position gives them immunity from danger are in peril already from their fancied security. I believe that the same question might be asked concerning Christian experience: "Who knoweth what is good for man in this life?" It must be good to be full of high joys, — to rise to the loftiest heights of holiness and blessedness, must it not? Yes, yes, but it may be good to go down into the very deeps, and to know the plague of your own heart, and to feel the scourging of your Father's rod. "Who knoweth what is good for man in this life?" A mixed experience may be better than one uniform level either of height or depth.
III. The text mentions another form of our ignorance, and it is this, WHAT SHALL BE AFTER US IS NOT KNOWN TO US: "for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?"
1. The question may mean, "Who can tell a man what he will yet go through in this life?" He is now well-to-do, he is prosperous, he is healthy; but who can tell him what is yet to come to him? No one; therefore, let not the rich man glory in the wealth which may take to itself wings and fly away. Let not the man who is honoured by his fellows reckon that the applause of men is any more substantial than a vapour.
2. But I think that the text has its main bearing on what will happen after death. That we must leave in the Lord's hands; it is not for us to know what will be done when we are called away from the earth.
( C. H. Spurgeon.)
I. To EXPERIENCE RECONCILIATION TO GOD. The prodigal could not be happy while away from his father, while at variance with him; and man cannot be happy away from God, while at variance with Him. Enmity in the heart is a disturber of joy; and for a man to have enmity in his heart against God cannot be good, cannot conduce to joy. It is good for a man to surrender himself, and be on the Lord's side; then, instead of discord, there will be harmony in his heart; instead of conflict, there will be peace in his mind.
II. TO EXERCISE RESIGNATION TO GOD. A man cannot have a happy life who denies God, or who harbours doubt about His goodness and wisdom, whose will runs counter to the Divine will. This is the mind that was in Christ; He surrendered to the will of His Father constantly and entirely.
III. TO EXPECT RESTITUTION FROM GOD. We shall only find rest and joy by believing in the final triumph of goodness, in the ultimate reconciliation of all the apparent discrepancies of the now. These things comprise the good for man in this life, and will make human existence not only tolerable, but happy.
(F. W. Brown.)
I. ILLUSTRATE THE DOCTRINE OF THE TEXT. When we review the course of human affairs, one of the first objects which everywhere attracts our notice is the mistaken judgment of men concerning their own interest. The sore evil which Solomon long ago remarked with respect to riches, of their being kept by the owners thereof to their hurt, takes place equally with respect to dominion and power, and all the splendid objects and high stations of life. We every day behold men climbing, by painful steps, to that dangerous height which, in the end, renders their fall more severe, and their ruin more conspicuous. But it is not to high stations that the doctrine of the text is limited. Around us, we everywhere behold a busy multitude. Restless and uneasy in their present situation, they are incessantly employed in accomplishing a change of it; and as soon as their wish is fulfilled, we discern, by their behaviour, that they are as dissatisfied as they were before. Where they expected to have found a paradise, they find a desert. The man of business pines for leisure. The leisure for which he had longed proves an irksome gloom; and, through want of employment, he languishes, sickens, and dies. The man of retirement fancies no state to be so happy as that of active life. But he has not engaged long in the tumults and contests of the world, until he finds cause to look back with regret on the calm hours of his former privacy and retreat. Beauty, wit, eloquence, and fame, are eagerly desired by persons in every rank of life. They are the parent's fondest wish for his child; the ambition of the young, and the admiration of the old. And yet in what numberless instances have they proved, to those who possessed them, no other than shining snares; seductions to vice, instigations to folly, and, in the end, sources of misery?
II. The fact then being undoubtedly certain that it is common for men to be deceived in their prospects of happiness, let us next INQUIRE INTO THE CAUSES OF THAT DECEPTION. Let us attend to those peculiar circumstances in our state, which render us such incompetent judges of future good or evil in this life.
1. We are not sufficiently acquainted with ourselves to foresee our future feelings. Our minds, like our bodies, undergo great alteration, from the situations into which they are thrown, and the progressive stages of life through which they pass. Hence, concerning any condition which is yet untried, we conjecture with much uncertainty.
2. But next, supposing our knowledge of ourselves sufficient to direct us in the choice of happiness, yet still we are liable to err, from our ignorance of the connections which subsist between our own condition and that of others.
3. Farther, as we are ignorant of the events which will arise from the combination of our circumstances with those of others, so we are equally ignorant of the influence which the present transactions of our life may have upon those which are future.
4. Supposing every other incapacity to be removed, our ignorance of the dangers to which our spiritual state is exposed would disqualify us for judging soundly concerning our true happiness. Can you esteem him prosperous who is raised to a situation which flatters his passions, but which corrupts his principles, disorders his temper, and, finally, oversets his virtue? In the ardour of pursuit, how little are these effects foreseen! And yet how often are they accomplished by a change of condition! Latent corruptions are called forth; seeds of guilt are quickened into life; a growth of crimes arises, which, had it not been for the fatal culture of prosperity, would never have seen the light.
III. Instead of only lamenting this ignorance, let us CONSIDER HOW IT OUGHT TO BE IMPROVED; what duties it suggests, and what wise ends it was intended by Providence to promote.
1. Let this doctrine teach us to proceed with caution and circumspection through a world where evil so frequently lurks under the form of good.
2. Let our ignorance of what is good or evil correct anxiety about worldly success.
3. Let our ignorance of good and evil determine us to follow Providence, and to resign ourselves to God. Study to acquire an interest in the Divine favour; and you may safely surrender yourselves to the Divine administration.
4. Let our ignorance of what is good for us in this life prevent our taking any unlawful step in order to compass our most favourite designs.
5. Let our imperfect knowledge of what is good or evil attach us the more to those few things concerning which there can be no doubt of their being truly good.
6. Let our ignorance of what is good or evil here below lead our thoughts and desires to a better world.
(H. Blair, D. D.)
(G A. Bartol.).
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