By Frederick W. Robertson
Preached July 7, 1850
"Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity. For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool forever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool."-Eccles. ii. 15, 16.
This is the inspired record of a peculiar view of life. Paul, with his hopefulness of disposition, could not have written it, neither could John, with his loving, trustful spirit. We involuntarily ask who wrote this? Was it written by a voluptuary-a skeptic-or a philosopher? What sort of man was it?
We detect the sated voluptuary in the expressions of the first eleven verses of this chapter. We see the skeptic in those of the 19th to the 22d verses of the third chapter. And the philosopher, who in avoidance of all extremes seeks the golden medium, is manifested in such a maxim as "Be not righteous overmuch; neither make thyself overwise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself? Be not overmuch wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?" Or was it written by a man deeply and permanently inspired?
I believe it to have been written by none of these, or rather by all four. It records different experiences of the same mind-different moods in which he viewed life in different ways. It is difficult to interpret, or to separate them; for he says nothing by which they can be marked off and made distinct from each other. Nowhere does Solomon say, "I thought so then, but that was only a mood, a phase of feeling that I have since seen was false, and is now corrected by the experience and expressions of the present." Here is, at first sight, nothing but inextricable confusion and false conclusions.
The clue to the whole is to be found in the interpreter's own heart. It is necessary to make these few preliminary remarks, as there is a tone of disappointment which runs through all this book, which is not the tone of the Bible in general. Two lines of thought are suggested by the text.
I. The mysterious aspect presented by death.
II. That state of heart in which it is mysterious no longer.
I. To Solomon, in his mood of darkness, "there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool forever." But it is not only in moods of dark perplexity, it is always a startling thing to see the rapidity with which the wisest and the best are forgotten. We plough our lives in water, leaving no furrow; two little waves break upon the shore, but no further vestige of our existence is left.
[An accident happens to one of England's greatest sons; an announcement is made which stagnates the blood in a country's veins for a moment, and then all returns to its former channel.-(Tennyson. "In Memoriam." "Let them rave," he sleeps well.)
Country church-yard-yew-tree-upheaving roots clasping round bones-a striking fact that vegetable life outlives and outlasts animal life.]
There is something exquisitely painful in the thought that we die out and are forgotten; therefore it is, that in the higher walks of life people solace themselves with the hope of posthumous reputation; they think, perhaps, that then only their true worth will be known. That posthumous reputation! when the eye is forever closed, and the heart forever chilled here-what matters it to him, whether storms rage over his grave or men cherish his memory? he sleeps well. The commentators on this book have disagreed among themselves about Solomon's character-some have even doubted whether he was finally saved or no. What matters it to him now what is said of him? what does it signify to him what posterity thinks of him? And so with us all: to the ear that is turned into dust the voice of praise or of censure is indifferent. One thing is certain. God says, "Time is short, eternity is long." The solemn tolling of the bell seems to cry, There is something to be done; there is much to be done; do it! and that quickly!
Then again there are some who say, "What use is there in doing any thing in this world? It scarcely seems worth while, in this brief span of life, to try do any thing." A man is placed in a high situation, receives an expensive education at school and college, and a still more expensive one of time and experience. And then, just when we think all this ripe wisdom, garnered up from so many fields, shall find its fullest use, we hear that all is over, he has passed from among us, and then the question, hideous in its suggestiveness, arises, "Why was he then more wise?"
Asked from this world's stand-point-if there is no life beyond the grave, if there is no immortality, if all spiritual calculation is to end here, why, then the mighty work of God is all to end in nothingness: but if this is only a state of infancy, only the education for eternity, in which the soul is to gain its wisdom and experience for higher work, then to ask why such a mind is taken from us is just as absurd as to question why the tree of the forest has its first training in the nursery garden. This is but the nursery ground, from whence we are to be transplanted into the great forest of God's eternal universe. There is an absence of all distinction between the death of one man and another. The wise man dies as the fool with respect to circumstances.
In our short-sightedness we think there ought to be a certain correspondence between the man and the mode of the man's death. We fancy the warrior should die upon the battle-plain, the statesman at his post, the mean man should die in ignorance: but it is not so ordered in God's world, for the wise man dies as the fool, the profligate man dies as the hero. Sometimes for the great and wise is reserved a contemptuous death, a mere accident; then, he who is not satisfied unless the external reality corresponds with the inward hope, imagines that circumstances such as these can not be ordained by Eternal Love, but rather by the spirit of a mocking demon.
There is always a disappointment of our expectations. No man ever lived whose acts were not smaller than himself. We often look forward to the hour of death in which a man shall give vent to his greater and nobler emotions. The hour comes, and the wise man dies as the fool. In the first place, in the case of holiness and humbleness, thoughts of deep despondency and dark doubt often gather round the heart of the Christian in his last hour, and the narrow-minded man interprets that into God's forgetfulness; or else delirium shrouds all in silence; or else there are only commonplace words, words tender, touching, and gentle, but in themselves nothing. Often there is nothing that marks the great man from the small man. This is the mystery of death.
II. It depends on causes within us and not without us. Three things are said by the man of pleasure:-1. That all things happen by chance. 2. That there is nothing new. 3. That all is vanity, and nothing is stable.
Here is a strange special penalty which God annexes to a life of pleasure: Every thing appears to the worldly man as a tangled web-a maze to which there is no clue. Another man says, "There is nothing new under the sun." This is the state of the man who lives merely for excitement and pleasure-his heart becomes so jaded by excitement that the world contains nothing for him which can awaken fresh or new emotions. Then, again, a third says, "All is vanity." This is the state of him who is afloat on the vast ocean of excitement, and who feels that life is nothing but a fluctuating, changeful, heartless scene.
Some who read the Book of Ecclesiastes think that there is a sadness and uneasiness in its tone inconsistent with the idea of inspiration-that it is nothing but a mere kaleido-scope, with endlessly shifting moods. Therein lies the proof of its inspiration. Its value lies as much in the way of warning as of precept. Live for yourself here-live the mere life of pleasure, and then all is confusion and bewilderment of mind; then the view which the mighty mind of Solomon took, inspired by God, will be yours: life will seem as nothing, and death a mere mockery. Be in harmony with the mind of Christ, have the idea He had, be one with Him, and you shall understand the machinery of this world. "The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him." To the humble pious heart there is no mystery. The world is intelligible only to a mind in harmony with the Mind that made it. Else all is confusion, unless you are in possession of His idea, moved by His Spirit.
Hence it lies in a pure heart much more than in a clear intellect, to understand the mystery of life and death. Solomon's wisdom has left us only a confused idea.
Turn we now from the views of Solomon to the life of the Son of Man. Men asked, "How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?" He gave a different explanation of His wisdom. "My judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.
He gives directions to us how to gain the same discernment. "If any man will do His will, he shall know."
[One has just been taken from us to whom all eyes turned-Sir Robert Peel.]