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In Which The Problem Of The Book Is Indirectly Stated
THE search for the summum bonum, the quest of the Chief Good, is the theme of the book Ecclesiastes. Naturally we look to find this theme, this problem, this "riddle of the painful earth," distinctly stated in the opening verses of the Book. It is stated, but not distinctly. For the Book is an autobiographical poem, the journal of the Preacher’s inward life set forth in a dramatic form. "A man of ripe wisdom and mature experience, he takes us into his confidence. He unclasps the secret volume, and invites us to read it with him. He lays before us what he has been, what he has thought and done, what he has seen and felt and suffered; and then he asks us to listen to the judgment which he has deliberately formed on a review of the whole." But that he may the more unreservedly lay bare his heart to us, he uses the poet’s privilege, and presents himself to us under a mask and wrapped in Solomon’s ample mantle. And a dramatic poet conveys his conceptions of human character and circumstance and action, not by direct picturesque descriptions, but, placing men before us "in their habit as they lived," he makes them speak to us, and leaves us to infer their character and condition from their words.
In accordance with the rules of his art, the dramatic preacher brings himself on the stage of his poem, permits us to hear his most penetrating and characteristic utterances, confesses his own most secret and inward experiences, and thus enables us to conceive and to judge him. He is true to his artistic canons from the outset. His prologue, unlike that of the Book of Job, is cast in the dramatic form. Instead of giving us a clear statement of the moral problem he is about to discuss, he opens with the characteristic utterances of the man who, wearied with many futile endeavours, gathers up his remaining strength to recount the experiments he has tried and the conclusion he has reached. Like Browning, one of the most dramatic of modern poets, he plunges abruptly into his theme, and speaks to us from the first through "feigned lips." Just as in reading the Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister, or the Epistle of Karshish, the Arab Physician, or a score other of Browning’s poems, we have first to glance through it in order to collect the scattered hints which indicate the speaker and the time, and then laboriously to think ourselves back, by their help, into the time and conditions of the speaker, so also with this Hebrew poem. It opens abruptly with "words of the Preacher," who is at once the author and the hero of the drama. "Who is he," we ask, "and what?" "When did he live, and what place did he fill?" And at present we can only reply, He is the voice of one crying in the wilderness of Oriental antiquity, and saying, "Vanity of vanities! all is vanity!" For what intent, then, does his voice break the long silence? Of what ethical mood is this pathetic note the expression? What prompts his despairing cry?
It is the old contrast -old as literature, old as man -between the ordered steadfastness of nature and the disorder and brevity of human life. The Preacher gazes on the universe above and around him. The ancient earth is firm and strong beneath his feet. The sun runs his race with joy, sinks exhausted into its ocean bed, but rises on the morrow, like a giant refreshed with old wine, to renew its course. The variable and inconstant wind, which bloweth where it listeth, blows from the same quarters, runs through the very circuit which was its haunt in the time of the world’s grey fathers. The streams ebb and flow, which go and come, run along time-worn beds and are fed from their ancient source. But man, "to one point constant never," shifts from change to change. As compared with the calm uniformity of nature, his life is a mere phantasy, passing forever through a tedious and limited range of forms, each of which is as unsubstantial as the fabric of a vision, many of which are as base and sordid as they are unreal, and all of which forever in a flux, elude the grasp of those who pursue them, or disappoint those who hold them in their hands. "All is vanity; for man has no profit," no adequate and enduring reward, "for all his labour;" literally, "no balance, no surplus, on the balance-sheet of life:" Less happy, because less stable, than the earth on which he dwells, he comes and goes, while the earth goes on forever (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4).
This painful contrast between the ordered stability of nature and the changeful and profitless disorder of human life is emphasized by a detailed reference to the large natural forces which rule the world, and which abide unchanged, although to us they seem the very types of change. The figure of verse 5 (Ecclesiastes 1:5) is, of course, that of the racer. the sun rises every morning to run its course, pursues it through the day, "pants," as one well-nigh breathless, toward its goal, and sinks at night into its subterraneous bed in the sea; but, though exhausted and breathless at night, it rises on the morrow refreshed, and eager, like a strong, swift man, to renew its daily race. In verse 6 (Ecclesiastes 1:6) the wind is represented as having a regular law and circuit, though it now blows South, and now veers round to the North. The East and West are not mentioned, probably because they are tacitly referred to in the rising and setting sun of the previous verse: all the four quarters are included between the two. In verse 7 (Ecclesiastes 1:7) the streams are described as returning on their sources; but there is no allusion here, as we might suppose, to the tides, -and indeed tidal rivers are comparatively rare, -or to the rain which brings back the water evaporated from the surface of the streams and of the sea. The reference is, rather, to an ancient conception of the physical order of nature held by the Hebrew as by other races, according to which the ocean, fed by the streams, sent back a constant supply through subterraneous passages and channels, in which the salt was filtered out of it; through these they supposed the rivers to return to the place whence they came. The ruling sentiment of these verses is that, while all the natural elements and forces, even the most variable and inconstant, renew their strength and return upon their course, for frail man there is no return; permanence and uniformity characterize them, while transitoriness and instability mark him for their own. They seem to vanish and disappear; the sun sinks, the winds lull, the streams run dry; but they all come back again: for him there is no coming back; once gone, he is gone forever.
But it is vain to talk of these or other instances of the weary yet restless activity of the universe; "man cannot utter it." For, besides these elemental illustrations, the world is crowded with illustrations of incessant change, which yet move within narrow bounds and do nothing to relieve its sameliness. So numerous are they, so innumerable, that the curious eye and inquisitive ear of man would be worn out before they had completed the tale of them: and if eye and ear could never be satisfied with hearing and seeing, how much less the slower tongue with speaking (Ecclesiastes 1:8)? All through the universe what hath been still is and will be; what was done is done still and always will be done; the sun still running the same race, the winds still blowing from the same points, the streams still flowing between the same banks and returning by the same channels. If any man suppose that he has discovered new phenomena, any natural fact which has not been repeating itself from the beginning, it is only because he is ignorant of that which has been from of old (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10). Yet, while in nature all things return on their course and abide forever, man’s day is soon spent, his force soon exhausted. He does not return; nay, he is not so much as remembered by those who come after him. Just as we have forgotten those who were before us, so those who live after us will forget us (Ecclesiastes 1:11). The burden of all this unintelligible world lies heavily on the Preacher’s soul. He is weary of the world’s "everlasting sameness." The miseries and confusions of the human lot baffle and oppress his thoughts. Above all, the contrast between Nature and Man, between its massive and stately permanence and the frailty and brevity of our existence, breeds in him the despairing mood of which we have the keynote in his cry, "vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities, all is vanity!"
Yet this is not the only, not the inevitable, mood of the mind as it ponders that great contrast. We have learned to look upon it with other, perhaps with wider, eyes. We say, How grand, how soothing, how hopeful is the spectacle of nature’s uniformity! How it lifts us above the fluctuations of inward thought, and gladdens us with a sense of stability and repose! As we see the ancient inviolable laws working out into the same gracious and beautiful results day after day and year by year, and reflect that "what has been will be," we are redeemed from our bondage to vanity and corruption; we look up with composed and reverent trust to Him who is our God and Father, and onward to the stable and glorious immortality we are to spend with Him; we argue with Habakkuk (Habakkuk 1:12), "Art not Thou from everlasting, O Lord our God, our Holy One? We shall not die," but live.
But if we did not know the Ruler of the universe to be our God and Father; if our thoughts had still to "jump the life to come" or to leap at it with a mere guess; if we had to cross the gulf of death on no more solid bridge than a peradventure: if, in short, our life were infinitely more troubled and uncertain than it is, and the true good of life and its bright sustaining hope were still to seek, how would it be with us then? Then, like the Preacher, we might feel the steadfastness and uniformity of nature as an affront to our vanity and weakness. In place of drinking in hope and composure from the fair visage and unbroken order of the universe, we might deem its face to be darkened with a frown or its eye to be glancing on us with bitter irony. Instead of finding in its inevitable order and permanence a hopeful prophecy of our recovery into an unbroken order and an enduring peace, we might passionately demand why, on an abiding earth and under an unchanging heaven, we should die and be forgotten; why, more inconstant than the variable wind, more evanescent than the parching stream, one generation should go never to return, and another generation come to enjoy the gains of those who were before them, and to blot their memory from the earth.
This, indeed, has been the impassioned protest and outcry of every age. Literature is full of it. The contrast between the tranquil unchanging sky, with its myriads of pure lustrous stars, which are always there and always in a happy concert, and the frailty of man rushing blindly through his brief and perturbed course has lent its ground tones to the poetry of every race. We meet it everywhere. It is the oldest of old songs. In all the many languages of the divided earth we hear how the generations of men pass swiftly and stormfully across its bosom, "searching the serene heavens with the inquest of their beseeching looks," but winning no response; asking always, and always in vain, "Why are we thus? why are we thus? frail as the moth, and of few days like the flower?" It is this contrast between the serenity and the stability of nature and the frailty and turbulence of man which afflicts Coheleth and drives him to conclusions of despair. Here is man, "so noble in reason, so infinite in faculty, in apprehension so like a god," longing with an ardent intensity for the peace which results from the equipoise and happy occupation of his various powers; and yet his whole life is wasted in labours and tumults, in perplexity and strife; he goes to his grave with his cravings unsatisfied, his powers untrained, unharmonised, knowing no rest till he lies in the narrow bed from which is no uprising! What wonder if to such a one as he "this goodly frame, the earth, seems but a sterile promontory" stretching out a little space into the dark, infinite void; "this most excellent canopy, the air this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire," nothing but "a foul, pestilential congregation of vapours"? What wonder if, for him, the very beauty of nature should turn into a repulsive hideousness, and its steadfast, unchanging order be held a satire on the disorder and vanity of his life?
Solomon, moreover, -and Solomon in his premature old age, sated and weary, is the mask under which the Preacher conceals his natural face, -had had a large experience of life, had tried its ambitions, its lusts, its pursuits and pleasures; he had tested every promise of good which it held forth, and found them all illusory; he had drunk of every stream, and found no pure living water with which he could slake his thirst. And men such as he, sated but not satisfied, jaded with voluptuous delights and without the peace of faith, commonly look out on the world with haggard eyes. They feed their despair on the natural order and purity which they feel to be a rebuke to the impurity of their own restless and perturbed hearts. Many of us have, no doubt, stood on Richmond Hill, and looked with softening eyes on the rich pastures dotted with cattle, and broken with clumps of trees through which shoot up village spires, while the full, placid Thames winds in many a curve through pasture and wood. It is not a grand or romantic scene; but on a quiet evening, in the long level rays of the setting sun, it is a scene to inspire content and thankful, peaceful thoughts. Wilberforce tells us that he once stood in the balcony of a villa looking down on this scene. Beside him stood the owner of the villa, a duke notorious for his profligacy in a profligate age; and as they looked across the stream, the duke cried out, "O that river! there it runs, on and on, and I am so weary of it!" And there you have the very mood of this Prologue; the mood for which the fair, smiling heavens and the gracious, bountiful earth carry no benediction of peace, because they are reflected from a heart all tossed into crossing and impure waves.
All things depend on the heart we bring to them. This very contrast between Nature and Man has no despair in it, breeds no dispeace or anger in the heart at leisure from itself and at peace with God. Tennyson, for instance, makes a merry musical brook sing to us on this very theme.
"I come from haunts of coot and hern,
I make a sudden sally
And sparkle out among the fern,
To bicker down a valley."
"I chatter over stony ways
In little sharps and trebles,
I bubble into eddying bays,
I babble on the pebbles."
"I chatter, chatter as I flow"
To join the brimming river:
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on forever.
I steal by lawns and grassy plots,
I slide by hazel covers:
I move the sweet forget-me-nots
That grow for happy lovers.
I slip, I slide, I gloom, I glance
Among my skimming swallows:
I make the netted sunbeams dance
Against my sanded shallows.
I murmur under moon and stars
In brambly wildernesses:
I linger by my shingly bars:
I loiter round my cresses,
And out again I curve and flow
To join the brimming river:
"For men may come and men may go
But I go on forever."
It is the very plaint of the Preacher set to sweet music. He murmurs, "One generation passeth, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever"; while the refrain of the Brook is, -
"For men may come and men may go,
But I go on forever."
Yet we do not feel that the Song of the Brook should feed any mood of grief and despair. The tune that it sings to the sleeping woods all night is "a cheerful tune." By some subtle process we are made to share its bright, tender hilarity, though we too are of the men that come and go. Into what a fume would the Hebrew Preacher have been thrown had any little "babbling brook" dared to sing this saucy song to him. He would have felt it as an insult, and have assumed that the merry, innocent creature was "crowing" over the swiftly passing generations of men. But, for the Christian Poet, the Brook sings a song whose blithe dulcet strain attunes the heart to the quiet harmonies of peace and goodwill.
Again I say all depends on the heart we turn to Nature. It was because his heart was heavy with the memory of many sins and many failures, because too the lofty Christian hopes were beyond his reach, that this "son of David" grew mournful and bitter in her presence.
This, then, is the mood in which the Preacher commences his quest of the Chief Good. He is driven to it by the need of finding that in which he can rest. As a rule. it is only on the most stringent compulsions that we any of us undertake this high Quest. Of their profound need of a Chief Good most men are but seldom and faintly conscious; but to the favoured few, who are to lead and mould the public thought, it comes with a force they cannot resist. It was thus with Coheleth. He could not endure to think that those who have "all things put under their feet" should lie at the mercy of accidents from which their realm is exempt; that they should be the mere fools of change, while that abides unchanged forever. And, therefore, he set out to discover the conditions on which they might become partakers of the order and stability and peace of nature; the conditions on which, raised above all the tides and storms of change, they might sit calm and serene even though the heavens should be folded as a scroll and the earth be shaken from its foundations. This, and only this, will he recognise as the Chief Good, the Good appropriate to the nature of man, because capable of satisfying all his cravings and supplying all his wants.
The Quest Of The Chief Good In Wisdom And In Pleasure
OPPRESSED by his profound sense of the vanity of the life which man lives amid the play of permanent natural forces, Coheleth sets out on the search for that true and supreme Good which it will be well for the sons of men to pursue through their brief day; the good which will sustain them under all their toils, and be "a portion" so large, and enduring as to satisfy even their vast desires.
1. And, as was natural in so wise a man, he turns first to Wisdom. He gives himself diligently to inquire into all the actions and toils of men. He will ascertain whether a larger acquaintance with their conditions, a deeper insight into the facts, a more just and complete estimate of their lot, will remove the depression which weighs upon his heart. He devotes himself earnestly to this Quest, and acquires a "greater wisdom than all who were before him."
This wisdom, however, is not a scientific knowledge of facts or of social and political laws, nor is it the result of philosophical speculations on "the first good or the first fair," or on the nature and constitution of man. It is the wisdom that is born of wide and varied experience, not of abstract study. He acquaints himself with the facts of human life, with the circumstances, thoughts, feelings, hopes, and aims of all sorts and conditions of men. He is fain to know "all that men do under the sun," "all that is done under heaven." Like the Arabian Caliph, "the good Haroun Alraschid," we may suppose that Coheleth goes forth in disguise to visit all quarters of the city; to talk with barbers, druggists, calenders, porters, with merchants and mariners, husbandmen and tradesmen, mechanics and artisans; to try conclusions with travellers and with the blunt wits of home keeping men. He will look with his own eyes and learn for himself what their lives are like, how they conceive of the human lot, and what, if any, are the mysteries which sadden and perplex them. He will ascertain whether they have any key that will unlock his perplexities, any wisdom that will solve his problems or help him to bear his burden with a more cheerful heart. Because his depression was fed by every fresh contemplation of the order of the universe, he turns from nature to "the proper study of mankind."
But this also he finds a heavy and disappointing task. After a wide and dispassionate scrutiny, when he has "seen much wisdom and knowledge," he concludes that man has no fair reward "for all his labour that he laboureth under the sun," that no wisdom avails to set straight that which is crooked in human affairs, or to supply that which is lacking in them. The sense of vanity bred by his contemplation of the steadfast round of nature only grows more profound and more painful as he reflects on the numberless and manifold disorders which afflict humanity. And hence, before he ventures on a new experiment, he makes a pathetic appeal to the heart which he had so earnestly applied to the search, and in which he had stored up so large and various a knowledge, and confesses that "even this is vexation of spirit," that "in much wisdom is much sadness," and that "to multiply knowledge is to multiply sorrow."
And whether we consider the nature of the case or the conditions of the time in which this Book was written, we shall not be surprised at the mournful conclusion to which he comes. For the time was full of cruel oppressions and wrongs. Life was insecure. To acquire property was to court extortion. The Hebrews, and even the conquering race which ruled them, were slaves to the caprice of satraps and magistrates whose days were wasted in revelry and in the unbridled indulgence of their lusts. And to go among the various conditions of men groaning under a despotism like that of the Turk, whose foot strikes with barrenness every spot on which it treads; to see all the fair rewards of honest toil withheld, the noble degraded and the foolish exalted, the righteous trodden down by the feet of the wicked; all this was not likely to quicken cheerful thoughts in a wise man’s heart: instead of solving, it could but complicate and darken the problems over which he was already brooding in despair.
And, apart from the special wrongs and oppressions of the time, it is inevitable that the thoughtful student of men and manners should become a sadder as he becomes a wiser man. To multiply knowledge, at least of this kind, is to multiply sorrow. We need not be cynics and leave our tub only to reflect on the dishonesty of our neighbours, we need only go through the world with open and observant eyes in order to learn that "in much wisdom is much sadness." Recall the wisest of modern times, those who have had the most intimate acquaintance with man and men, Goethe and Carlyle for example; are they not all touched with a profound sadness? Do they not look with some scorn on the common life of the mass of men, with its base passions and pleasures, struggles and rewards? and, in proportion as they have the spirit of Christ, is not their very scorn kindly, springing from a pity which lies deeper than itself? Did not even the Master Himself, though full of truth and grace, share their feeling as He saw publicans growing rich by extortion, hypocrites mounting to Moses’ chair, subtle, cruel foxes couched on thrones, scribes hiding the key of knowledge, and the blind multitude following their blind leaders into the ditch?
Nay, if we look out on the world of today, can we say that even the majority of men are wise and pure? Is it always the swift who win the race, and the strong who carry off the honours of the battle? Do none of our "intelligent lack bread," nor any of the learned favour? Are there no fools lifted to high places to show with how little wisdom the world is governed, and no brave and noble breasts dinted by the blows of hostile circumstances or wounded by "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune"? Are all our workmen diligent, and all our masters fair? Are no false measures and balances known in our markets, and no frauds on our exchanges? Are none of our homes dungeons, with fathers and husbands for jailors? Do we never hear, as we stand without, the sound of cruel blows and the shrieks of tortured captives? Are there no hypocrites in our churches "that with devotion’s visage sugar o’er" a corrupt heart? And do the best men always gain the highest place and honour? Are there none in our midst who have to bear-
"The whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes"?
Alas, if we think to find the true good in a wide and varied knowledge of the conditions of men, their hopes and fears, their struggles and successes, their loves and hates, their rights and wrongs, their pleasures and their pains, we shall but share the defeat of the Preacher, and repeat his bitter cry, "Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities, all is vanity!" For, as he himself implies at the very outset (Ecclesiastes 1:13), "this sore task," this eternal quest of a wisdom which will solve the problems and remove the inequalities of human life, is God’s gift to the children of men, -this search for a solution they never reach. Age after age, unwarned by the failure of those who took this road before them, they renew the hopeless quest.
2. But if we cannot reach the object of our Quest in Wisdom, we may, perchance, find it in Pleasure. This experiment also the Preacher has tried, tried on the largest scale and under the most auspicious conditions. Wisdom failing to satisfy the large desires of his soul, or even to lift it from its depression, he turns to mirth. Once more, as he forthwith announces, he is disappointed in the result. He pronounces mirth a brief madness; in itself, like wisdom, a good, it is not the Chief Good; to make it supreme is to rob it of its natural charm.
Not content with this general verdict, however, he recounts the details of his experiment, that he may deter us from repeating it. Speaking in the person of Solomon and utilising the facts of his experience, Coheleth claims to have started in the quest with the greatest advantages; for "what can he do who cometh after the king whom they made king long ago?" He surrounded himself with all the luxuries of an Oriental prince, not out of any vulgar love of show and ostentation, nor out of any strong sensual addictions, but that he might discover wherein the secret and fascination of pleasure lay, and what it could do for a man who pursued it wisely. He built himself new, costly palaces, as the Sultan of Turkey used to do almost every year. He laid out paradises, planted them with vines and fruit trees of every sort, and large shady groves to screen off and to temper the heat of the sun. He dug great tanks and reservoirs of water, and cut channels which carried the cool vital stream through the gardens and to the roots of the trees. He bought men and maids, and surrounded himself with the retinue of servants and slaves requisite to keep his palaces and paradises in order, to serve his sumptuous tables, to swell his pomp: i.e., he gathered together such a train of ministers, attendants, domestics, indoor and outdoor slaves, as is still thought necessary to the dignity of an Oriental "lord." His herds of flocks, a main source of Oriental wealth, were of finer strain and larger in number than had been known before. He amassed enormous treasures of silver and gold, the common Oriental hoard. He collected the peculiar treasures "of kings and of the kingdoms"; whatever special commodity was yielded by any foreign land was caught up for his use by his officers or presented to him by his allies. He hired famous musicians and singers, and gave himself to those delights of harmony which have had a peculiar charm for the Hebrews of all ages. He crowded his harem with the beauties both of his own and of foreign lands. He withheld nothing from them that his eyes desired, and kept not his heart from any pleasure. He set himself seriously and intelligently to make happiness his portion; and, while cherishing or cheering his body with pleasures, he did not rush into them with the blind eagerness "whose violent property fore does itself" and defeats its own ends. His "mind guided him wisely" amid his delights; his "wisdom helped him" to select, and combine, and vary them, to enhance and prolong, their sweetness by a certain art and temperance in the enjoyment of them.
"He built his soul a lordly pleasure house,
Wherein at ease for aye to dwell:
He said ‘Oh, Soul, make merry and carouse,
Dear Soul, for all is well!’"
Alas, all was not well, though he took much pains to make and think it well. Even his choice delights soon palled upon his taste, and brought on conclusions of disgust. Even in his lordly pleasure house he was haunted by the grim, menacing spectres which troubled him before it was built. In the harem, in the paradise he had planted, under the groves, beside the fountains, at the sumptuous banquet, -a bursting bubble, a falling leaf, an empty wine cup, a passing blush, sufficed to bring back the thought of the brevity and the emptiness of life. When he had run the full career of pleasure, and turned to contemplate his delights and the labour they had cost him, he found that these also were vanity and vexation of spirit, that there was no "profit" in them, that they could not satisfy the deep, incessant craving of the soul for a true and lasting Good.
Is not his sad verdict as true as it is sad? We have not his wealth of resources. Nevertheless there may have been a time when our hearts were as intent on pleasure as was his. We may have pursued whatever sensuous, intellectual, or aesthetic excitements were open to us with a growing eagerness till we have lived in a whirl of craving and stimulating desire and indulgence, in which the claims of duty have been neglected and the rebukes of conscience unheeded. And if we have passed through this experience, if we have been carried for a time into this giddying round, have we not come out of it jaded, exhausted, despising ourselves for our folly, disgusted with what once seemed the very top and crown of delight? Do we not mourn, our after life through, over energies wasted and opportunities lost? Are we not sadder, if wiser, men for our brief frenzy? As we return to the sober duties and simple joys of life, do not we say to Mirth, "Thou art mad!" and to Pleasure, "What canst thou do for us?" Yes, our verdict is that of the Preacher, "Lo, this too is vanity!" Non enim hilaritate, nec lascivia, nec visu, aut joco, comite levitatis, sed soepe etiam tristes firmitate, et constantia sunt beati.
It is characteristic of the philosophic temper of our author, I think, that, after pronouncing Wisdom and Mirth vanities in which the true Good is not to be found, he does not at once proceed to try a new experiment, but pauses to compare these two "vanities," and to reason out his preference of one over the other. His vanity is wisdom. For it is only in one respect that he puts mirth and wisdom on an equality, viz., that they neither of them are, or lead up to, the supreme Good. In all other respects he affirms wisdom to be as much better than pleasure as light is better than darkness, as much better as it is to have eyes that see the light than to be blind and walk in a constant gloom (Ecclesiastes 2:12-14). It is because wisdom is a light and enables men to see that he accords it his preference. It is by the light of wisdom that he has learned the vanity of mirth, nay, the insufficiency of wisdom itself. But for that light he might still be pursuing pleasures which could not satisfy, or laboriously acquiring a knowledge which would only deepen his sadness. Wisdom had opened his eyes to see that he must seek the Good which gives rest and peace in other regions. He no longer goes on his quest in utter blindness, with all the world before him where to choose, but with no indication of the course he should, or should not, take. He has already learned that two large provinces of human life will not yield him what he seeks, that he must expend no more of his brief day and failing energies on these.
Therefore wisdom is better than mirth. Nevertheless it is not best, nor can it remove the dejections of a thoughtful heart. Somewhere there is, there must be, that which is better still. For wisdom cannot explain to him why the same fate should befall both the sage and the fool (Ecclesiastes 2:15), nor can it abate the anger that burns within him against an injustice so obvious and flagrant. Wisdom cannot even explain why, even if the sage must die no less than the fool, both must be forgotten well-nigh as soon as they are gone (Ecclesiastes 2:16-17); nor can it soften the hatred of life and its labours which this lesser yet patent injustice has kindled in his heart. Nay, wisdom, for all so brightly as it shines, throws no light on an injustice which, if of lower degree, frets and perplexes his mind, -why a man who has laboured prudently and dexterously and has acquired great gains should, when he dies, leave all to one who has not laboured therein, without even the poor consolation of knowing whether he will be a wise man or an idiot (Ecclesiastes 2:19-21). In short, the whole skein of life is in a dismal tangle which wisdom itself, dearly as he loves it, cannot unravel; and the tangle is that man has no fair "profit" from his labours, "since his task grieveth and vexeth him all his days, and even at night his heart hath no rest"; and when he dies he loses all his gains, such as they are, forever, and cannot so much as be sure that his heir will be any the better for them. "This also is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23).
And yet, good things are surely good, and there is a wise and gracious enjoyment of earthly delights. It is right that a man should eat and drink, and take a natural pleasure in his toils and gains. Who, indeed, has a stronger claim than the labourer himself to eat and enjoy the fruit of his labours? Still, even this natural enjoyment is the gift of God; apart from His blessing the heaviest toils will produce but a scanty harvest, and the faculty of enjoying that harvest may be lacking. It is lacking to the sinner; his task is to heap up gains which the good will inherit. But he that is good before God will have the gains of the sinner added to his own, with wisdom to enjoy both. This, whatever appearances may sometimes suggest, is the law of God’s giving: that the good shall have abundance, while the bad lack; that more shall be given to him who has wisdom to use what he has aright, while from him who is destitute of this wisdom, even that which he hath shall be taken away. Nevertheless even this wise use and enjoyment of temporal good does not and cannot satisfy the craving heart of man; even this, when it is made the ruling aim and chief good of life, is vexation of spirit.
Thus the First Act of the Drama closes with a negative. The moral problem is as far from being solved as at the outset. All we have learned is that one or two avenues along which we urge the quest will not lead us to the end we seek. As yet the Preacher has only the ad interim conclusion to offer us, that both Wisdom and Mirth are good, though neither, nor both combined, is the supreme Good; that we are therefore to acquire wisdom and knowledge, and to blend pleasure with our toils; that we are to believe pleasure and wisdom to be the gifts of God, to believe also that they are bestowed, not in caprice, but according to a law which deals out good to the good and evil to the evil. We shall have other opportunities of weighing and appraising his counsel-it is often repeated-and of seeing how it works into and forms part of Coheleth’s final solution of the painful riddle of the earth, the baffling mystery of life.
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany