"Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment."--ECCLESIASTES xi. 9.
Some people fancy that in this text God forbids young people to enjoy themselves. They think that the words are spoken ironically, and with a sneer, as if to say,
"Yes. Enjoy yourself if you will. Go your own way if you wish. Make a fool of yourself if you are determined to do so. You will repent it at last. You will be caught at last, and punished at last."
Now, I cannot think that there would be in Scripture or in any word of God a sneer so cruel and so unjust as that. For surely it would be unjust of God, if after giving young people the power to be happy, He then punished them for being happy, for using the very powers which He had given them, obeying the very feelings which He had implanted in them, enjoying the very pleasures which He had put in their way. God cannot be a tempter, my friends. He does not surely send us into a world full of traps and snares, and then punish us for being caught in the very snares which He had set. God forbid. Let us never fancy such things of God the heavenly Father, from whom comes every good and perfect gift. Let us leave such fancies for soured and hard-hearted persons, who make a god in their own likeness--a god of darkness and not of light--a grudger and not a giver. And let us take this text literally and plainly as it stands, and see whether we cannot learn from it a really wholesome lesson.
"Rejoice! oh, young man, in thy youth."
The Bible tells you to rejoice, therefore do so without fear. God has given you health, strength, spirits, hope, the power of enjoyment. And why, save but that you may enjoy them, and rejoice in your youth? He has given you more health, more strength, more spirits, than you need to earn your daily bread, or to learn your daily task. And why? To enable you to grow in body and in soul. And that you will only do if you are happy. The human soul, says a wise man, is like a plant, and requires sunshine to make it grow and ripen. And the heavenly Father has given you sunshine in your hearts that you may grow into hearty, healthy-minded men. If young people have not sunshine enough, if they are kept down and crushed in youth by sorrow, by anxiety, by fear, by over-hard work, by too much study, by strict and cruel masters, by dark and superstitious notions about God's anger, by over-scrupulousness about this and that thing being sinful, then their souls and minds do not grow; they become more or less stunted, unhealthy, unhappy, slavish, and mean people in after-life, because they have not rejoiced in their youth as God intended them to do.
Remember this, you parents, and be sure that all harshness and cruelty to your children, all terrifying of them, all over-working of them, body or mind, all making them unhappy by requiring of them more than the plain law of God requires; or by teaching them to dread, not to love, their Father in heaven--All these will stunt and hurt their characters in after- life; and all are, therefore, sins against their heavenly Father, who willeth not that one little one should perish, and who will require a strict account of each of us how we have brought up the children whom He has committed to our charge. Let their hearts cheer them in the days of their youth. They will have trouble enough, anxiety enough hereafter. Do not you forestall the evil days for them. The more cheerful their growth is the more heart and spirit they will have to face the trials and sorrows of life when they come.
But further, the text says to the young man, Walk in the ways of thy heart. That is God's permission to free men, in a free country. You are not slaves either to man or to God; and God does not treat you as slaves, but as children whom He can trust. He says, Walk in the ways of thine own heart. Do what you will, provided it be not wrong. Choose your own path in life. Exert yourselves boldly to better yourselves in any path you choose, which is not a path of dishonesty and sin.
Again, says the text, Walk in the sight of thine eyes. As your bodies are free, let your minds be free likewise. See for yourselves, judge for yourselves. God has given you eyes, brains, understanding; use them. Get knowledge for yourselves, get experience for yourselves. Educate and cultivate your own minds. Live, as far as you can, a free, reasonable, cheerful, happy life, enjoying this world, if you feel able to enjoy it. But know thou, that for all these things, God will bring thee into judgment.
Ah! say some, there is the sting. How can we enjoy ourselves if we are to be brought into judgment after all?
My friends, before I answer that question, let me ask one. Do you look on God as a taskmaster, requiring of you, as the Egyptians did of the Jews, to make bricks all day without straw, and noting down secretly every moment that you take your eyes off your work, that He may punish you for it years hence when you have forgotten it--extreme to mark what is done amiss?
Or do you look on God as a Father who rejoices in the happiness of His children?--Who sets them no work to do but what is good for them, and requires them to do nothing without giving them first the power and the means to do it?--A Father who knows our necessities before we ask for help and a Saviour who is able and willing to give us help? If you think of God in that former way as a stern taskmaster, I can tell you nothing about Him. I know Him not; I find Him neither in the Bible, in the world, nor in my own conscience and reason. He is not the God of the Bible, the God of the Gospel whom I am commanded to preach to you.
But if you think of God as a Father, as your Father in heaven, who chastens you in His love that you may partake of His holiness, and of His Son Jesus Christ as your Saviour, your Lord, who loves you, and desires your salvation, body and soul--of Him I can speak; for He is the True and only God, revealed by His Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and in His light I can tell you to rejoice and take comfort, ever though He brings you into judgment; for being your Father in heaven, He can mean nothing but your good, and He would not bring you into judgment if that too was not good for you.
Now, you must remember that the judgment of which Solomon speaks here is a judgment in this life. The whole Book of Ecclesiastes, from which the text is taken, is about this life. Solomon says so specially, and carefully. He is giving here advice to his son; and his doctrine all through is, that a man's happiness or misery in this life, his good or bad fortune in this life, depend almost entirely on his own conduct; and, above all, on his conduct in youth. As a man sows he shall reap, is his doctrine.
Therefore, he says, in this very chapter, Do what if right, just because it is right. It is sure to pay you in the long run, somehow, somewhere, somewhen. Cast thy bread on the waters--that is, do a generous thing whenever you have an opportunity--and thou shalt find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, and also to eight, for thou knowest not what evil shall be on the earth. Every action of yours will bear fruit. Every thing you do, and every word you say, will God bring into judgment, sooner or later. It will rise up against you, years afterwards, to punish you, or it will rise up for you, years afterwards, to reward you. It must be so, says Solomon; that is the necessary, eternal, moral law of God's world. As you do, so will you be rewarded. If the clouds be full of rain, they must empty themselves on the earth. Where the tree falls, there it will lie. As we say in England, as you make your bed, so you will lie on it. That does not (as people are too apt to think) speak of what is to happen to us after we die. It speaks expressly and only of what will happen before we die. It is the same as our English proverb.
Therefore, he says, do not look too far forward. Do not be double-minded, doing things with a mean and interested after-thought, plotting, planning, asking, will this right thing pay me or not? He that observeth the wind, and is too curious and anxious about the weather, will not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap. No; just do the right thing which lies nearest you, and trust to God to prosper it. In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand; for thou knowest not which shall prosper, this or that, or whether they shall both be alike good. Thou knowest not, he says, the works of God, who maketh all. All thou knowest is, that the one only chance of success in life is to fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
Whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
He does not say only that God will bring your evil deeds into judgment. But that He will bring your good ones also, and your happiness and good fortune in this life will be, on the whole, made up of the sum-total of the good and harm you have done, of the wisdom or the folly which you have thought and carried out. It is so. You know it is so. When you look round on other men, you see that on the whole men prosper very much as they deserve. There are exceptions, I know. Solomon knew that well. Such strange and frightful exceptions, that one must believe that those who have been so much wronged in this life will be righted in the life to come. Children suffer for the sins of their parents. Innocent people suffer with the guilty. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. And these exceptions are much more rare than we choose to confess. When a man complains to you that he has been unfortunate, that the world has been unjust to him, that he has not had fair play in life, and so forth, in three cases out of four you will find that it is more or less the man's own fault; that he has deserved his losses, that is, earned them for himself. I do not mean that the man need have been a wicked man--not in the least. But he has been imprudent, perhaps weak, hasty, stupid, or something else; and his faults, perhaps some one fault, has hampered him, thrown him back, and God has brought him to judgment for it, and made it punish him. And why? Surely that he may see his fault and repent of it, and mend it for the time to come.
I say, God may bring a man's fault into judgment, and let it punish him, without the man being a bad man. And you, young people, will find in after-life that you will have earned, deserved, merited, and worked out for yourselves a great deal of your own happiness and misery.
I know this seems a hard doctrine. People are always ready to lay their misfortunes on God, on the world, on any and every one, rather than on themselves.
A bad education, for instance--a weakly constitution which some bring into the world, with or without any fault of their own, are terrible drawbacks and sore afflictions. The death of those near and dear to us, of which we cannot always say, I have earned this, I have brought it on myself. It is the Lord. Let Him do what seemeth Him good.
But because misfortunes may come upon us without our own fault, that is no reason why we should not provide against the misfortunes which will be our own fault. Nay, is it not all the stronger reason for providing against them, that there are other sorrows against which we cannot provide? Alas! is there not misery horrible enough hanging over our heads daily in this mortal life without our making more for ourselves by our own folly? We shall have grief enough before we die without adding to that grief the far bitterer torment of remorse!
Oh, young people, young people, listen to what I say! You can be, you will be, you must be, the builders of your own good or bad fortunes. On you it depends whether your lives shall be honourable and happy, or dishonourable and sad. There is no such thing as luck or fortune in this world. What is called Fortune is nothing else than the orderly and loving providence of the Lord Jesus Christ, who orders all things in heaven and earth, and who will, sooner or later, reward every man according to his works. Just in proportion as you do the will of your Father in heaven, just so far will doing His will bring its own blessing and its own reward.
Instead of hoping for good fortune which may never come, or fearing bad fortune which may never come either, pray, each of you, for the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of right-doing, which is good fortune in itself; good fortune in this world; and in the world to come, everlasting life. Fear God and keep His commandments, and all will be well. For who is the man who is master of his own luck? The Psalmist tells us, in Psalm xv., "He that leadeth an uncorrupt life, and doeth the thing which is right, and speaketh the truth from his heart." "He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour. In whose eyes a vile person is contemned; but he honoureth them that fear the Lord: he that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not. He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent."
Whoso doeth these things shall never fall. And as long as you are doing those things, you may rejoice freely and heartily in your youth, believing that the smile of God, who gave you the power of being happy, is on your happiness; and that your heavenly Father no more grudges harmless pleasure to you, than He grudges it to the gnat which dances in the sunbeam, or the bird which sings upon the bough. For He is The Father,--and what greater delight to a father than to see his children happy, if only, while they are happy, they are good?