Ecclesiastes Chapter Seven
The benefit of a good name; of death above life; of sorrow above vain mirth. (1-6) Concerning oppression, anger, and discontent. (7-10) Advantages of wisdom. (11-22) Experience of the evil of sin. (23-29)
Commentary on Ecclesiastes 7:1-6
(Read Ecclesiastes 7:1-6)
Reputation for piety and honesty is more desirable than all the wealth and pleasure in this world. It will do more good to go to a funeral than to a feast. We may lawfully go to both, as there is occasion; our Saviour both feasted at the wedding of his friend in Cana, and wept at the grave of his friend in Bethany. But, considering how apt we are to be vain and indulge the flesh, it is best to go to the house of mourning, to learn the end of man as to this world. Seriousness is better than mirth and jollity. That is best for us which is best for our souls, though it be unpleasing to sense. It is better to have our corruptions mortified by the rebuke of the wise, than to have them gratified by the song of fools. The laughter of a fool is soon gone, the end of his mirth is heaviness.
Commentary on Ecclesiastes 7:7-10
(Read Ecclesiastes 7:7-10)
The event of our trials and difficulties is often better than at first we thought. Surely it is better to be patient in spirit, than to be proud and hasty. Be not soon angry, nor quick in resenting an affront. Be not long angry; though anger may come into the bosom of a wise man, it passes through it as a way-faring man; it dwells only in the bosom of fools. It is folly to cry out upon the badness of our times, when we have more reason to cry out for the badness of our own hearts; and even in these times we enjoy many mercies. It is folly to cry up the goodness of former times; as if former ages had not the like things to complain of that we have: this arises from discontent, and aptness to quarrel with God himself.
Commentary on Ecclesiastes 7:11-22
(Read Ecclesiastes 7:11-22)
Wisdom is as good as an inheritance, yea better. It shelters from the storms and scorching heat of trouble. Wealth will not lengthen out the natural life; but true wisdom will give spiritual life, and strengthen men for services under their sufferings. Let us look upon the disposal of our condition as the work of God, and at last all will appear to have been for the best. In acts of righteousness, be not carried into heats or passions, no, not by a zeal for God. Be not conceited of thine own abilities; nor find fault with every thing, nor busy thyself in other men's matters. Many who will not be wrought upon by the fear of God, and the dread of hell, will avoid sins which ruin their health and estate, and expose to public justice. But those that truly fear God, have but one end to serve, therefore act steadily. If we say we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves. Every true believer is ready to say, God be merciful to me a sinner. Forget not at the same time, that personal righteousness, walking in newness of life, is the only real evidence of an interest by faith in the righteousness of the Redeemer. Wisdom teaches us not to be quick in resenting affronts. Be not desirous to know what people say; if they speak well of thee, it will feed thy pride, if ill, it will stir up thy passion. See that thou approve thyself to God and thine own conscience, and then heed not what men say of thee; it is easier to pass by twenty affronts than to avenge one. When any harm is done to us, examine whether we have not done as bad to others.
Commentary on Ecclesiastes 7:23-29
(Read Ecclesiastes 7:23-29)
Solomon, in his search into the nature and reason of things, had been miserably deluded. But he here speaks with godly sorrow. He alone who constantly aims to please God, can expect to escape; the careless sinner probably will fall to rise no more. He now discovered more than ever the evil of the great sin of which he had been guilty, the loving many strange women, 1 Kings 11:1. A woman thoroughly upright and godly, he had not found. How was he likely to find such a one among those he had collected? If any of them had been well disposed, their situation would tend to render them all nearly of the same character. He here warns others against the sins into which he had been betrayed. Many a godly man can with thankfulness acknowledge that he has found a prudent, virtuous woman in the wife of his bosom; but those men who have gone in Solomon's track, cannot expect to find one. He traces up all the streams of actual transgression to the fountain. It is clear that man is corrupted and revolted, and not as he was made. It is lamentable that man, whom God made upright, has found out so many ways to render himself wicked and miserable. Let us bless Him for Jesus Christ, and seek his grace, that we may be numbered with his chosen people.
── Matthew Henry《Concise Commentary on Ecclesiastes》
 A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one's birth.
Of death — Seeing this life is so full of vanity, and vexation, and misery, it is more desirable for a man to go out of it, than to come into it.
 It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.
The house — Where mourners meet to celebrate the funeral of a deceased friend.
That — Death.
The living — Will be seriously affected with it, whereas feasting is commonly attended with levity, and manifold temptations.
 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
The wise — Are constantly meditating upon serious things.
 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity.
Thorns — Which for a time make a great noise and blaze, but presently go out.
 Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; and a gift destroyeth the heart.
A gift — A bribe given to a wise man, deprives him of the use of his understanding. So this verse discovers two ways whereby a wise man may be made mad, by suffering oppression from others, or by receiving bribes to oppress others. And this also is an argument of the vanity of worldly wisdom that is so easily corrupted and lost.
 Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
The end — The good or evil of things is better known by their end, than by their beginning.
The patient — Who quietly waits for the issue of things.
The proud — Which he puts instead of hasty or impatient, because pride is the chief cause of impatience.
 Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.
Better — More quiet and comfortable. For this is an argument of a mind unthankful for the many mercies, which men enjoy even in evil times.
For — This question shews thy folly in contending with thy Lord and governor, in opposing thy shallow wit to his unsearchable wisdom.
 Wisdom is good with an inheritance: and by it there is profit to them that see the sun.
Good — When wisdom and riches meet in one man, it is an happy conjunction.
By it — By wisdom joined with riches there comes great benefit.
To them — Not only to a man's self, but many others in this world.
 For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it.
Life — But herein knowledge of wisdom excels riches, that whereas riches frequently expose men to destruction, true wisdom doth often preserve a man from temporal, and always from eternal ruin.
 Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?
Consider — His wise, and just, and powerful government of all events, which is proposed as the last and best remedy against all murmurings.
For who — No man can correct or alter any of God's works; and therefore all frettings at the injuries of men, or calamities of times, are not only sinful, but also vain and fruitless. This implies that there is an hand of God in all mens actions, either effecting them, if they be good, or permitting them, if they be bad, and ordering and over-ruling them, whether they he good or bad.
 In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him.
Be joyful — Enjoy God's favours with thankfulness.
Consider — Consider that it is God's hand, and therefore submit to it: consider also why God sends it, for what sins, and with what design.
God also — Hath wisely ordained, that prosperity and adversity should succeed one another.
That — No man might be able to foresee, what shall befal him afterwards; and therefore might live in a constant dependance upon God, and neither despair in trouble, nor be secure or presumptuous in prosperity.
 All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness.
All — All sorts of events.
My vanity — Since I have come into this vain life.
Perisheth — Yea, for his righteousness, which exposes him to the envy, anger, or hatred of wicked men.
Wickedness — Notwithstanding all his wickedness.
 Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?
Be not — This verse and the next have a manifest reference to verse 15, being two inferences drawn from the two clauses of the observation. Solomon here speaks in the person of an ungodly man, who takes occasion to dissuade men from righteousness, because of the danger which attends it. Therefore, saith he, take heed of strictness, zeal, and forwardness in religion. And the next verse contains an antidote to this suggestion; yea, rather saith he, be not wicked or foolish overmuch; for that will not preserve thee, as thou mayest imagine, but will occasion and hasten thy ruin.
 It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all.
Take hold of — Embrace and practise this counsel.
Shall come — Shall be delivered from all extremes, and from all the evil consequences of them.
 Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten mighty men which are in the city.
Strengthen — Supports him in, and secures him against troubles and dangers.
 For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.
Sinneth not — Who is universally and perfectly good.
 Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken; lest thou hear thy servant curse thee:
Also — Do not strictly search into them, nor listen to hear them.
 All this have I proved by wisdom: I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me.
Proved — I have found to be true, by the help of that singular wisdom which God had given me.
I said — I determined that I would attain perfection of wisdom.
But — I found myself greatly disappointed.
 That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?
It — God's counsels and works, and the reasons of them.
 I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness:
And seek — He useth three words signifying the same thing, to intimate his vehement desire, and vigorous, and unwearied endeavours after it.
The reason — Both of God's various providences, and of the counsels and courses of men.
The wickedness — Clearly and fully to understand the great evil of sin.
 And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.
I find — By my own sad experience.
Shall escape — Shall be prevented from falling into her hands.
 Behold, this have I found, saith the preacher, counting one by one, to find out the account:
To find — That I might make a true and just estimate.
 Which yet my soul seeketh, but I find not: one man among a thousand have I found; but a woman among all those have I not found.
Yet seeketh — I returned to search again with more earnestness.
I find not — That it was so, he found, but the reason of the thing he could not find out.
One man — A wise and virtuous man.
A woman — One worthy of that name; one who is not a dishonour to her sex.
Among — In that thousand whom I have taken into intimate society with myself.
 Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions.
Lo, this — Though I could not find out all the streams of wickedness, and their infinite windings and turnings, yet I have discovered the fountain of it, Original sin, and the corruption of nature, which is both in men and women.
That — God made our first parents, Adam and Eve.
Upright — Heb. right: without any imperfection or corruption, conformable to his nature and will, after his own likeness.
They — Our first parents, and after them their posterity.
Sought out — Were not contented with their present state, but studied new ways of making themselves more wise and happy, than God had made them. And we, their wretched children, are still prone to forsake the certain rule of God's word, and the true way to happiness, and to seek new methods of attaining it.
── John Wesley《Explanatory Notes on Ecclesiastes》
07 Chapter 7
A good name is better than precious ointment.
The fragrance of moral worth
I. The elements of a good name. It is something more than being “well spoken of,” for often “what is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.” It is not even a good reputation, unless that be sustained by the good reality. Socrates, on being asked how one might obtain a good name, replied, “Study really to be what you wish to be accounted.” “A good name” is enshrined in “whatsoever things are honest, lovely, and of good report”--a “name” not only remembered on earth, but “written in heaven.” It includes--
II. The superior value of a good name. “Better than precious ointment.”
1. It is rarer. Rare as some oriental unguents are, they are plentiful compared with Scripture’s “good name” in this pretentious world.
2. It is more costly. Not a little did the alabaster box of ointment, poured by one on the Saviour, cost; but who shall estimate the expense at which a rebel against God has been so changed in state and character as to have a name, absolutely fragrant, not only in a sinful earth, but throughout a sinless universe? The sufferings of Jesus and the influences of the Spirit indicate a cost which no arithmetic can compute.
3. It is more enduring than ointment. The latter’s delectable properties will soon evaporate, as if it had never been; but a “good name,” earned in “doing the will of God, abideth for ever.” “The righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance.”
4. Than ointment, such a “good name” is “better” for the individual himself. It inlays the soul with satisfaction. “A good man shall be satisfied,” not with, but “from himself.” He secures a signal luxury. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Such “a good name” is “better” for society. It is stimulating. Barnabas’s “good name” was a passport to Saul of Tarsus among the Churches. Paul’s “good name” was all that was needed to secure large donations for the poor saints at Jerusalem. Such a name is absolutely beneficial. What woes have not fled before its odoriferous power! What songs has it not kindled on lips unaccustomed to “the music of the spheres”! (A. M. Stalker.)
A well-grounded good name
The improving of our life in this world to the raising up a well-grounded good name and savoury character in it, is the best balance for the present for the vanity and misery attending our life, better than the most savoury earthly things.
I. Some things supposed in the doctrine.
1. There is a vanity and misery that is the inseparable attendant of human life in this world. No man in life is free of it, nor can be (Psalms 39:6).
2. Every man will find himself obliged to seek for some allay of that vanity and misery of life, that he may be enabled to comport with it (Psalms 6:6). This makes a busy world, every one seeking something to make his hard seat soft.
3. It is natural for men to seek an allay to the vanity and misery of life in earthly things (Psalms 6:6).
4. But the best of earthly things will make but a sorry plaster for that sore; they will not be able to balance the vanity and misery of life, but with them all life may be rendered sapless, through the predominant vanity and misery of it.
5. Howbeit, the improving of life to the raising a well-grounded good name, will balance the vanity and misery of life effectually; so that he who has reached that kind of living, has what is well worth the enduring all the miseries of life for. There is an excellency and good in it that downweigh all the evils attending life.
II. What is the well-grounded good name that is the balance of the vanity and misery of human life?
1. It is the name of religion, and no less; for there is nothing truly good separate from religion (Matthew 7:18).
2. It is raised on the reality of religion, and no less; for a mere show of religion is but a vain and empty thing, which will dwindle to nothing with other vanities. We may take up that good name in three parts.
III. What is the improvement of life whereby that good name may be raised.
1. Improve your life by a personal and saving entering into the covenant of grace, and uniting with Christ, by believing on His name.
2. Improve your life to a living a life of faith in this world.
3. Improve your life to the living of a life beneficial to mankind, profitable to your fellow-creatures, diffusing a benign influence through the world, as ye have access; so that when you are gone, the world may be convinced they have lost a useful member that sought their good; so shall ye have the good name, “Useful to men” (Acts 13:36).
IV. Confirm the point.
1. This improvement of life is the best balance for the present, for the vanity and misery of life.
2. This improvement of life is better than the best and most savoury earthly things.
A good name
There are a thousand men in our cities to-day who are considering, “What is the best investment that I can make of myself? What are the tools that will cut my way in life best?” It sounds to them very much like old-fashioned preaching to say that a good name is the best thing you can have. Now, let us consider that a little. In the first place, what is included in a name? A man that has a name has a character; and a good name is a good character; but it is more than a good character; it is a good character with a reputation that properly goes with character. It is what you are, and then what men think you to be--the substance and the shadow both; for character is what a man is, and what men think him to be; and when they are coincident, then you have the fulness of a good name. In the world at large, what are the elements of conduct which leave upon society a kind of impression of you? The first foundation quality of manliness is truth-speaking. Then, perhaps, next to that is justice; the sense of what is right between man and man; fairness. Then sincerity. Then fidelity. If these are all coupled with good sense, or common sense, which is the most uncommon of all sense; if these are central to that form of intelligence which addresses itself to the capacity of the average man, you have a very good foundation laid. Men used, before the era of steam, to wearily tow their boats up through the lower Ohio, or through the Mississippi, with a long line; and at night it was not always safe for them to fasten their boats on the bank while they slept, because there was danger, from the wash of the underflowing current, that they would find themselves drifting and pulling a tree after them. Therefore they sought out well-planted, solid, enduring trees and tied to them, and the phrase became popular, “That man will do to tie to”--that is to say, he has those qualities which make it perfectly safe for you to attach yourself to him. Now, not only are these foundation qualities, but they are qualities which tend to breed the still higher elements. If with substantial moral excellence there comes industry, superior skill, in any and every direction, if a man’s life leads him to purity and benevolence, then he has gone up a stage higher. If it is found, not that the man is obsequious to the sects, but that he is God-fearing in the better sense of the term fear, that he is really a religious-minded man, that he is pure in his moral habits, though he is deficient in his enterprise and endeavours, so that his inspiration is not calculation, so that the influence that is working in him is the influence of the eternal and invisible; if all these qualities in him have been known and tested; if it is found that his sincerity is not the rash sincerity of inexperience, and that it is not the impulse of an untutored and untrained generosity; if it is found that these qualities implanted in him have been built upon, that they have increased, that they have had the impact of storms upon them, and that they have stood; if there have been inducements and temptations to abandon truth and justice, and sincerity and fidelity, but the man has been mightier than the temptation or the inducement--then he has built a name, at least, which is a tower of strength; and men say, “There is a man for you.” Now, how does a man’s name affect his prosperity? It is said that it is better than precious ointment. Well, in the first place, it works in an invisible way, in methods that men do not account for. It suffuses around about one an atmosphere, not very powerful, but yet very advantageous, in the form of kind feelings and wishes. Then consider how a good name, where it is real, and is fortified by patient continuance in well-doing, increases in value. There is no other piece of property whose value is enhanced more rapidly than this, because every year that flows around about a man fortifies the opinion of men that it is not put on, that it is not vincible, that it is real and stable. Then, a good name is a legacy. There is many and many a father that has ruined a son by transmitting money to him. There is no knife that is so dangerous as a golden knife. But there is no man that ever hurt his son by giving him a good name--a name that is a perpetual honour; a name such that when it is pronounced it makes every one turn round and say, “Ah, that is his son,” and smile upon him. A good name is worth a man’s earning to transmit to his posterity. And that is not the end of it, where men are permitted to attain a great name. Some such we have had in our history. Some such appear in every age and generation in European history--some far back over the high summits of the thousands of years that have rolled between them and us. But some names there are in European history, and some names there are in American history, that have lifted the ideal of manhood throughout the whole world. So a good name becomes a heritage not only to one’s children, to one’s country, and to one’s age, but, in the cases of a few men, to the race. (H. W. Beecher.)
A good name
Hitherto the book has chiefly contained the diagnosis of the great disease. The royal patient has passed before us in every variety of mood, from the sleepy collapse of one who has eaten the fabled lotus, up to the frantic consciousness of a Hercules tearing his limbs as he tries to rend off his robe of fiery poison. He now comes to the cure. He enumerates the prescriptions which he tried, and mentions their results. Solomon’s first beatitude is an honourable reputation. He knew what it had been to possess it; and he knew what it was to lose it. And here he says, Happy is the possessor of an untarnished character! so happy that he cannot die too soon! A name truly good is the aroma from virtuous character. It is a spontaneous emanation from genuine excellence. It is a reputation for whatsoever things are honest, and lovely, and of good report. To secure a reputation there must not only be the genuine excellence but the genial atmosphere. There must be some good men to observe and appreciate the goodness while it lived, and others to foster its memory when gone. But should both combine,--the worth and the appreciation of worth,--the resulting good name is better than precious ointment. Rarer and more costly, it is also one of the most salutary influences that can penetrate society. For, just as a box of spikenard is not only valuable to its possessor, but pre-eminently precious in its diffusion; so, when a name is really good, it is of unspeakable service to all who are capable of feeling its exquisite inspiration. And should the Spirit of God so replenish a man with His gifts and graces, as to render his name thus wholesome, better than the day of his birth will be the day of his death; for at death the box is broken and the sweet savour spreads abroad. There is an end of the envy and sectarianism and jealousy, the detraction and the calumny, which often environ goodness when living; and now that the stopper of prejudice is removed, the world fills with the odour of the ointment, and thousands grow stronger and more lifesome for the good name of one. Without a good name you can possess little ascendancy over others; and when it has not pioneered your way and won a prepossession for yourself, your patriotic or benevolent intentions are almost sure to be defeated. And yet it will never do to seek a good name as a primary object. Like trying to be graceful, the effort to be popular will make you contemptible. Take care of your spirit and conduct, and your reputation will take care of itself. (J. Hamilton, D. D.)
The day of death than the day of one’s birth.--
The day of the Christian’s death
This statement must be understood not absolutely, but conditionally. It is applicable only to those who “die unto the Lord,” and none can do so but those who are sincere believers in Christ, the sinner’s Savior.
I. The day of the Christian’s death brings deliverance from all suffering and grief. The end of a voyage is better than the beginning, especially if it has been a stormy one. Is not then the day of a Christian’s death better than the day of his birth?
II. In the case of the believer in Jesus, the day of death is the day of final triumph over all sin, It is the day in which the work of grace in his soul is brought unto perfection; and is not that day better than the day of his birth?
The believer’s deathday better than his birthday
You must have a good name,--you must be written among the living in Zion, written in the Lamb’s book of life, or else the text is not true of you; and, alas, though the day of your birth was a bad day, the day of your death will be a thousand times worse. But now, if you are one of God’s people, trusting in Him, look forward to the day of your death as being better than the day of your birth.
I. First, then, our deathday is better than our birthday: and it is so for this among other reasons--“Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof.” When we are born we begin life, but what will that life be? Friends say, “Welcome, little stranger.” Ah, but what kind of reception will the stranger get when he is no longer a new-comer? He who is newly born and is ordained to endure through a long life is like a warrior who puts on his harness for battle; and is not he in a better case who puts it off because he has won the victory? Ask any soldier which he likes best, the first shot in the battle or the sound which means “Cease firing, for the victory is won.” When we were born we set out on our journey; but when we die we end our weary march in the Father’s house above. Surely it is better to have come to the end of the tiresome pilgrimage than to have commenced it. Better is the day of death than our birthday, because about the birthday there hangs uncertainty. I heard this morning of a dear friend who had fallen asleep. When I wrote to his wife I said, “Concerning him we speak with certainty. You sorrow not as those that are without hope. A long life of walking with God proved that he was one of God’s people, and we know that for such there remains joy without temptation, without sorrow, without end, for ever and ever.” Oh, then, as much as certainty is better than uncertainty, the day of the saint’s death is better than the day of his birth. So, too, in things which are certain the saint’s deathday is preferable to the beginning of life, for we know that when the child is born he is born to sorrow. Trials must and will befall, and your little one who is born to-day is born to an inheritance of grief, like his father, like his mother, who prophesied it as it were by her own pangs. But look, now, at the saint when he dies. It is absolutely certain that he has done with sorrow, done with pain. Now, surely, the day in which we are certain that sorrow is over must be better than the day in which we are certain that sorrow is on the road.
II. The day of death is better to the believer than all his happy days. What were his happy days? I shall take him as a man, and I will pick out some days that are often thought to be happy. There is the day of a man’s coming of age, when he feels that he is a man, especially if he has an estate to come into. That is a day of great festivity. You have seen pictures of “Coming of age in the olden time,” when the joy of the young squire seemed to spread itself over all the tenants and all the farm labourers: everybody rejoiced. Ah, that is all very well, but when believers die they do in a far higher sense come of age, and enter upon their heavenly estates. Then shall I pluck the grapes from those vines that I have read of as enriching the vales of Eshcol; then shall I lie down and drink full draughts of the river of God, which is full of water; then shall I know even as I am known, and see no more through a glass darkly, but face to face. Another very happy day with a man is the day of his marriage: who does not rejoice then? What cold heart is there which does not beat with joy on that day? But on the day of death we shall enter more fully into the joy of our Lord, and into that blessed marriage union which is established between Him and ourselves. There are days with men in business that are happy days, because they are days of gain. They get some sudden windfall, they prosper in business, or perhaps there are long months of prosperity in which all goes well with them, and God is giving them the desires of their heart. But, oh, there is no gain like the gain of our departure to the Father; the greatest of all gains is that which we shall know when we pass out of the world of trouble into the land of triumph. “To die is gain.” There are days of honour, when a man is promoted in office, or receives applause from his fellow-men. But what a day of honour that will be for you and me if we are carried by angels into Abraham’s bosom! Days of health are happy days, too. But what health can equal the perfect wholeness of a spirit in whom the Good Physician has displayed His utmost skill? We enjoy very happy days of social friendship, when hears warm with hallowed intercourse, when one can sit a while with a friend, or rest in the midst of one’s family. Yes, but no day of social enjoyment will match the day of death. Some of us expect to meet troops of blessed ones that have gone home long ago, whom we never shall forget.
III. The day of a believer’s death is better than his holy days on earth. I think that the best holy day I ever spent was the day of my conversion. There was a novelty and freshness about that first day which made it like the day in which a man first sees the light after having been long blind. Since then we have known many blessed days; our Sabbaths, for instance. We can never give up the Lord’s day. Precious and dear unto my soul are those sweet rests of love--days that God has hedged about to make them His own, that they may be ours. Oh, our blessed Sabbaths! Well, there is this about the day of one’s death--we shall then enter upon an eternal Sabbath. Our communion days have been very holy days. It has been very sweet to sit at the Lord’s table, and have fellowship with Jesus in the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine; but sweeter far will it be to commune with Him in the paradise above, and that we shall do on the day of our death. Those days have been good, I am not going to depreciate them, but to bless the Lord for every one of them. When we say that a second thing is “better,” it is supposed that the first thing has some goodness about it. Aye, and our holy days on earth have been good; fit rehearsals of the jubilee beyond the river. When you and I enter heaven, it will not be going from bad to good, but from good to better. The change will be remarkable, but it will not be so great a change as thoughtless persons would imagine. First, there will be no change of nature. The same nature which God gave us when we were regenerated--the spiritual nature--is that which will enjoy the heavenly state. On earth we have had good days, because we have had a good nature given us by the Holy Spirit, and we shall possess the same nature above, only more fully grown and purged from all that hinders it. We shall follow the same employments above as we have followed here. We shall spend eternity in adoring the Most High. To draw near to God in communion--that is one of our most blessed employments. We shall do it there, and take our fill of it. Nor is this all, for we shall serve God in glory. You active-spirited ones, you shall find an intense delight in continuing to do the same things as to spirit as you do here, namely, adoring and magnifying and spreading abroad the saving name of Jesus in whatever place you may be.
IV. The day of a saint’s death is better than the whole of his days put together, because his days here are days of dying. The moment we begin to live we commence to die. Death is the end of dying. On the day of the believer’s death dying is for ever done with. This life is failure, disappointment, regret. Such emotions are all over when the day of death comes, for glory dawns upon us with its satisfaction and intense content. The day of our death will be the day of our cure. There are some diseases which, in all probability, some of us never will get quite rid of till the last Physician comes, and He will settle the matter. One gentle touch of His hand, and we shall be cured for ever. Our deathday will be the loss of all losses. Life is made up of losses, but death loses losses. Life is full of crosses, but death is the cross that brings crosses to an end. Death is the last enemy, and turns out to be the death of every enemy. The day of our death is the beginning of our best days. “Is this to die?” said one. “Well, then,” said he, “it is worth while to live even to enjoy the bliss of dying.” The holy calm of some and the transport of others prove that better is the day of death in their case than the day of birth, or all their days on earth. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Of the birthday and the dying-day
To one who has so lived as to obtain the good name, hie dying day will be better than his birthday, quite downweighing all the vanity and misery of life in this world.
I. Some truths contained in this doctrine.
1. However men live, they must die.
2. The birthday is a good day, notwithstanding all the vanity and misery of human life. It is a good day to the relations, notwithstanding the bitterness mixed with it (John 16:21). And so it is to the party, too, as an entrance on the stage of life whereby God is glorified, and one may be prepared for a better life (Isaiah 38:19).
3. The dying-day is not always so frightful as it looks; it may be a good day too. As in scouring a vessel, sand and ashes first defiling it makes it to glister; so grim death brings in a perfect comeliness. The waters may be red and frightful, where yet the ground is good, and they are but shallow, passable with all safety.
4. Where the dying-day follows a well-improved life, it is better than the birthday, however it may appear. There is this difference betwixt them, the birthday has its fair side outmost, the dying day has its fair side inmost; hence the former begins with joy, but opens out in much sorrow; the latter begins with sorrow, but opens out in treasures of endless joy. And certainly it is better to step through sorrow into joy than through joy into sorrow.
5. The dying-day in that case is so very far better than the birthday, that it quite downweighs all the former vanity and misery of life.
6. But it will not be so in the ease of an ill-spent life. For whatever joy or sorrow they have been born to in this world, they will never taste of joy more, but be overwhelmed with floods of sorrow when once their dying-day is come and over.
II. In what latitude this doctrine is to be understood.
1. As to the parties, those who have so lived as to obtain the good name. It is to be understood of them--
2. As to the points in comparison, the birthday and the dying-day, it is to be understood of them--
3. As to the preference, it stands in two points.
III. Demonstrate the truth of this paradox, this unlikely tale, That the saint’s dying-day is better than his birthday.
1. The day of the saint’s birth clothed him with a body of weak and frail flesh, and so clogged him; the day of his death looses the clog, and sets him free, clothing him with a house that will never clog him (2 Corinthians 5:1-8).
2. The day of his birth clogged him with a body of sin; the day of his death sets him quite free from it, and brings him into a state morally perfect (Hebrews 12:23).
3. The day of the saint’s death carries him into a better world than the day of his birth did.
4. The day of his death settles him among better company than the day of his birth did (Hebrews 12:22).
5. The day of his death brings him into a better state than the day of his birth did.
6. The day of the saint’s death brings him to, and settles him in better exercise and employment than the day of his birth did. He will spend his eternity in the other world better than he did his time in this world, how well soever he spent it (Revelation 4:8). (T. Boston, D. D.)
Comparative estimate of life and death
What are those circumstances of the Christian which give superiority to the time of death--which justify us in adopting the sentiment of the text as our own?
I. There is an essential difference in the condition of the Christian at the periods of his earliest and latest consciousness. At the day of birth you cannot distinguish the future king from the peasant; the hero from the coward; the philosopher from the clown; the Christian from the infidel. There is a negation of character common to them all; and the positive qualities of each are not to be distinguished from the other. What is there to give value to the birthday of such a being? We pass over the years of childhood and youth, during which the human being is acquiring varied knowledge, to the period when character is more fully developed. He feels his responsibility, and knows himself to be a sinner; but his heart has never submitted to Divine authority, he has never sought for the pardon of his sins, he is an utter stranger to the grace of the Gospel. What reason has such a man to exult in the day of his birth? to commemorate it as a joyous event? But imagine him spared by the goodness of God until he is brought to repentance. He is in an essentially different position to that in which he was on the day of his birth, not only by the enlargement of his faculties, and the exercise of his affections, but they are directed to nobler objects; he knows and loves the character of God, he aspires after the enjoyment of Him, looks forward to enduring happiness with Him after the toils and sufferings of earthly existence, and his faith becomes “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” On the day of his birth he was the mere creature of flesh and sense, but now he is born of the Spirit, and he lives by faith. Oh, let death come when it may to the Christian, his dying day will be better than his birthday.
II. Life is a period of probation, the successful termination of which is better than its commencement. It requires the utmost circumspection and watchfulness--the strictest examination of our motives and feelings, to preserve the evidences of our Christian character bright and unclouded. There are few Christians, faithful to their own hearts, who have not had seasons of darkness and gloominess, and been distressed with various doubts and fears. And when once these arise in the mind, they impart a character of uncertainty to our personal salvation. But as we draw nearer to the goal, our confidence increases; the decline of a Christian’s life is ordinarily marked by greater stability of mind--by a less wavering faith. God has been, in times past, better to us than our fears; He has frequently perfected His strength in our weakness, and carried us unexpectedly through deep waters of affliction; the ultimate issue appears more certain; we are more habitually confiding on the arm of omnipotence. And when we come to die, with our souls awake to our real condition, conscious that we have been upheld to the last moment, a vigorous faith may enable the Christian go say, with the apostle, in the near prospect of death, “I have fought the good fight,” etc. We mean not to say that every successful competitor has a feeling of triumph in the dying hour. The shout of victory may not be heard on this side the stream of death; but, when he has passed through its flood, and reached the opposite bank, his redeemed soul will be attuned to a song of glorious and everlasting triumph.
III. If we consider the evils to which the Christian is exposed in life, we shall see he has reason to regard the day of death as better than the day of his birth. On this side death there are bitter herbs for medicine, suitable to imperfect and diseased conditions of life; but on the other side are the fruits of paradise, not to correct the tendencies of an evil nature, but to feed the soul, to nourish it up unto everlasting blessedness.
IV. The present life is to the Christian a period of imperfect enjoyment. Here he is, at a distance from home, from his Father’s house, in which there are many mansions; here his graces are imperfect, and constitute very limited channels of happiness to his spirit; here he cannot always enjoy God. His weak faith fails to realize the loveliness and perfections of Jehovah. Here he cannot at all times hold fellowship with the Saviour; it is interrupted by doubts and fears--by unworthy suspicions and criminal feelings. Here he knows but in part, sees but through a glass darkly, and this state of imperfection will continue until the period of death. The better country which the Christian seeks is a heavenly country--it is an incorruptible, undefiled, unfading inheritance, not to be realized in mortal flesh not to be reached until the spirit, freed from the bonds of earth, ascends to God who gave it. (S. Summers.)
It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting.
On the benefits to be derived from the house of mourning
It is evident that the wise man does not prefer sorrow, upon its own account, to mirth; or represent sadness as a state more eligible than joy. He considers it in the light of discipline only. He views it with reference to an end. The true scope of his doctrine in this passage is, that there is a certain temper and state of heart, which is of far greater consequence to real happiness, than the habitual indulgence of giddy and thoughtless mirth; that for the attainment and cultivation of this temper, frequent returns of grave reflection are necessary; that, upon this account, it is profitable to give admission to those views of human distress which tend to awaken such reflection in the mind; and that thus, from the vicissitudes of sorrow, which we either experience in our own lot, or sympathize with in the lot of others, much wisdom and improvement may be derived. I begin by observing, that the temper recommended in the text suits the present constitution of things in this world. Had man been destined for a course of undisturbed enjoyment, perpetual gaiety would then have corresponded to his state; and pensive thought have been an unnatural intrusion. But in a state where all is chequered and mixed, where there is no prosperity without a reverse, and no joy without its attending griefs, where from the house of feasting all must, at one time or other, pass into the house of mourning, it would be equally unnatural if no admission were given to grave reflection. It is proper also to observe, that as the sadness of the countenance has, in our present situation, a proper and natural place; so it is requisite to the true enjoyment of pleasure. It is only the interposal of serious and thoughtful hours that can give any lively sensations to the returns of joy. Having premised these observations, I proceed to point out the direct effects of a proper attention to the distresses of life upon our moral and religious character.
1. The house of mourning is calculated to give a proper check to our natural thoughtlessness and levity. When some affecting incident presents a strong discovery of the deceitfulness of all worldly joy, and rouses our sensibility to human woe; when we behold those with whom we had lately mingled in the house of feasting, sunk by some of the sudden vicissitudes of life into the vale of misery; or when, in sad silence, we stand by the friend whom we had loved as our own soul, stretched on the bed of death; then is the season when the world begins to appear in a new light; when the heart opens to virtuous sentiments, and is led into that train of reflection which ought to direct life. He who before knew not what it was to commune with his heart on any serious subject, now puts the question to himself, For what purpose he was sent forth into this mortal, transitory state: what his fate is likely to be when it concludes; and what judgment he ought to form of those pleasures which amuse for a little, but which, he now sees, cannot save the heart from anguish in the evil day?
2. Impressions of this nature not only produce moral seriousness, but awaken sentiments of piety, and bring men into the sanctuary of religion. Formerly we were taught, but now we see, we feel, how much we stand in need of an Almighty Protector, amidst the changes of this vain world. Our soul cleaves to Him who despises not, nor abhors the affliction of the afflicted. Prayer flows forth of its own accord from the relenting heart, that He may be our God, and the God of our friends in distress; that He may never forsake us while we are sojourning in this land of pilgrimage; may strengthen us under its calamities. The discoveries of His mercy, which He has made in the Gospel of Christ, are viewed with joy, as so many rays of light sent down from above to dispel, in some degree, the surrounding gloom. A Mediator and Intercessor with the Sovereign of the universe, appear comfortable names; and the resurrection of the just becomes the powerful cordial of grief.
3. Such serious sentiments produce the happiest effect upon our disposition towards our fellow-creatures, as well as towards God. It is a common and just observation, that they who have lived always in affluence and ease, strangers to the miseries of life, are liable to contract hardness of heart with respect to all the concerns of others. By the experience of distress, this arrogant insensibility of temper is most effectually corrected; as the remembrance of our own sufferings naturally prompts us to feel for others when they suffer. But if Providence has been so kind as not to subject us to much of this discipline in our own lot, let us draw improvement from the harder lot of others. Let us sometimes step aside from the smooth and flowery paths in which we are permitted be walk, in order to view the toilsome march of our fellows through the thorny desert. By voluntarily going into the house of mourning; by yielding to the sentiments which it excites, and mingling our tears with those of the afflicted, we shall acquire that humane sensibility which is one of the highest ornaments of the nature of man.
4. The disposition recommended in the text, not only improves us in piety and humanity, but likewise assists us in self-government, and the due moderation of our desires. The house of mourning is the school of temperance and sobriety. Thou who wouldst act like a wise man, and build thy house on the rock, and not on the sand, contemplate human life not only in the sunshine, but in the shade. Frequent the house of mourning, as well as the house of mirth. Study the nature of that state in which thou art placed; and balance its joys with its sorrows. Thou seest that the cup which is held forth to the whole human race, is mixed. Of its bitter ingredients, expect that thou art to drink thy portion. Thou seest the storm hovering everywhere in the clouds around thee. Be not surprised if on thy head it shall break. Lower, therefore, thy sails. Dismiss thy florid hopes; and come forth prepared either to act or to suffer, according as Heaven shall decree. Thus shalt thou be excited to take the properest measures for defence, by endeavouring to secure an interest in His favour, who, in the time of trouble, can hide thee in His pavilion. Thy mind shall adjust itself to follow the order of His providence. Thou shalt be enabled, with equanimity and steadiness, to hold thy course through life.
5. By accustoming ourselves to such serious views of life, our excessive fondness for life itself will be moderated, and our minds gradually formed to wish and to long for a better world. If we know that our continuance here is to be short, and that we are intended by our Maker for a more lasting state, and for employments of a nature altogether different from those which now occupy the busy, or amuse the vain, we must surely be convinced that it is of the highest consequence to prepare ourselves for so important a change. This view of our duty is frequently held up to us in the sacred writings; and hence religion becomes, though not a morose, yet a grave and solemn principle, calling off the attention of men from light pursuits to those which are of eternal moment. (H. Blair, D. D.)
The house of mourning
Jesus, our Almighty Saviour, authoritative Teacher and perfect Exemplar, attended houses of feasting sometimes, but ever seemed more ready to go to, and more at home in, houses of mourning. His example suggests that while it may be good to visit the former, it is better to visit the latter.
I. It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to the house of feasting, because we can get more good there. We may get less good for the body, but we shall get more good for the soul. We may get less to minister to our present pleasure, but we shall get more that will minister to our future well-being. It is a schoolroom in which great moral and spiritual lessons are very lucidly and very impressively taught.
1. There we may thoroughly learn the terrible evil of sin.
2. There we best learn the vanity of the creature.
3. There we may best learn the value of time.
4. There we may learn the present blessedness of true personal religion.
II. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, because we can do more good there. Every man should be as much concerned about doing good as about getting good. In fact, doing good is one of the most certain ways of getting good. But, even apart from that, the man who has received great good from God should endeavour to dispense good to his fellow-men, and we can generally do more good in the house of mourning than we can in the house of feasting. For in the latter men are so given over to the business of pampering their bodies that they are usually little disposed to heed anything you may venture to say about the salvation of their souls. But in the house of mourning, where poverty, sickness or death has been busy, if you have shown an unmistakable interest in the family’s temporal welfare, you will usually find them disposed to listen to what you may have to say about their spiritual and eternal welfare. Thus shall you scatter much sorrow and let in much peace and comfort. Thus shall you benefit your fellow-creatures, enrich your own souls, and glorify that Christ who died for your salvation. (John Morgan.)
On the dangers of pleasure
Sensual pleasures are among the most dangerous enemies of virtue. But, ardent and prone to excess, they require to be subjected to a prudent and holy vigilance, and to be indulged with caution and circumspection.
I. Much indulgence in pleasure tends to weaken that watchfulness and guard, which a wise and good man will find it necessary always to maintain over himself. Pleasure seldom admits wisdom of her party. The wand of truth which she carries, would destroy all those unreal images and airy visions with which the deluded voluptuary is surrounded. There the heart is thrown loose from restraint, and laid open to the lively and warm impression of every seducing idea. Men abandon themselves without suspicion to the sweet neglect, and through the unguarded avenues enter a multitude of enemies, who were only lying in wait for this decisive moment.
II. Pleasure not only impairs the guard which a wise man should constantly maintain over his heart, but often lays it open to too strong temptations. Of this David affords us an instructive and affecting example. How much more certainly will pleasure corrupt those, who enter its purlieus without circumspection, and expose themselves unguarded to all the dangerous force of its temptations in the house of feasting! Here example, and sympathy, all the arts of seduction, all the allurements of ingenuity, all the decorations that wit can give to vice, unite their influence to betray the heart.
III. Scenes of pleasure and indulgence tend to impair the sentiments of piety towards God. A continual succession of pleasures is apt to efface from the mind that sentiment of dependence upon the Creator, so becoming the state of man. The mind, humbled by suffering, enjoys the smallest mercy with gratitude; while the greatest, by proud prosperity, is first abused and then forgotten.
IV. High and constant pleasures are unfriendly to the exercise of the benevolent affections. They tend to contract and harden the heart. The importunities of want, the sighs of wretchedness, are unwelcome intruders on the joyous festival. Who are disposed to seek out the retreats of sorrow and distress, and to administer there those consolations which the afflicted require? Are they not those who have themselves been educated in the school of misfortune, and who have been taught, by their own feelings, the claims of suffering humanity? Are they not those who often turn aside from the prosperous course, which Providence permits them to bold through life, to visit the receptacles of human wretchedness, and to carry comfort into the habitations of penury and disease? Who learn there to feel what is due to human nature? Pleasure is selfish. Attracting everything into its own centre, it loosens the bonds of society. Hence it is that luxury hastens the ruin of nations in proportion as it makes the love of pleasure the reigning character of their manners.
V. Pleasures tend to enfeeble the principle of self-government. Self-denial is necessary to self-command. In the midst of moderate enjoyments and corrected appetites, the sentiments of duty have opportunity firmly to root themselves, and to acquire ascendancy among the other principles of the heart, unrestrained indulgence corrupts them. And the passions, growing inflamed and ungovernable, hurry away their weak captives over all the fences of prudence as well as of piety. Moderation and self-denial are necessary to restore the tone of nature, and to create the highest relish even of the pleasures of sense.
VI. Pleasure is unfavourable to those serious reflections upon our mortal condition, and the instability of all human things, so useful to prepare the soul for her immortal destination. It is only when we recollect that we are united to this world by a momentary tie, and to the next by eternal relations, that we shall despise, as reasonable beings ought to do, the fantastic occupations of the dissipated and the idle, and cultivate the solid and immortal hopes of piety. These are lessons not taught in the house of seating. (S. S. Smith, D. D.)
Sorrow is better than laughter.
Sorrow better than laughter
Sorrow is set over against laughter; the house of mourning over against the house of mirth; the rebuke of the wise over against the music of fools; the day of death over against the day of birth: all tending, however, to this, that trouble and grief have their bright side, and that giddy indulgence and merriment carry a sting.
I. Sorrow is better than laughter, because a great part of worldly merriment is no better than folly. Here we take no extreme or ascetic ground. It would be morose and unchristian to scowl at the gambols of infancy, or to hush the laugh of youth, on fit occasions. Cheerfulness is nowhere forbidden, even in adult life; and we perhaps offend God oftener by our frowns than by our smiles. But you all know that there is a merriment which admits no rule, confines itself by no limit, shocks every maxim even of sober reason, absorbs the whole powers, wastes the time, and debilitates the intellect, even if it do not lead to supreme love of pleasure, profligacy, and general intemperance and voluptuousness.
II. Sorrow is better than laughter, because much of worldly merriment tends to no intellectual or moral good. Worldly pleasures, and the expressions of these, do nothing for the immaterial part. The utmost that can be pretended is that they amuse and recreate. In their very notion they are exceptions, and should be sparing. But there are a thousand recreative processes connected with healthful exercise, with knowledge, with the study of beautiful nature, with the practice and contemplation of art, and with the fellowship of friends, which unbend the tense nerve and refresh the wasted spirits, while at the same time they instruct the mind and soften or tranquillize the heart. Not so with the unbridled joys which find vent in redoubled peals of mirth and obstreperous carousal, or in the lighter play of chattered nonsense end never-ending giggle.
III. Sorrow is better than laughter, because worldly mirth is short. In the Eastern countries, where fuel is very scarce, every combustible shrub, brush, and bramble is seized upon for culinary fires. Of these the blaze is bright, hot, and soon extinct. Such is worldly mirth. “For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool.” It is noisy--more noisy than if there were anything in it. But it soon ceases. Physical limits are put to gay pleasures. The loudest laughter cannot laugh for ever. Lungs and diaphragm forbid and rebel. There is a time of life when such pleasures become as difficult as they are ungraceful; and there is not in society a more ridiculous object, even in its own circle, than a tottering, antiquated, bedizened devotee of fashion. Grief comes in and shortens the amusement. Losses and reverses shorten it. And, if there were nothing else, pleasure must be short, because it cannot be extended to judgment and eternity.
IV. Worldly mirth is unsatisfying. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” i.e. emptiness and disappointment. The man wonders why the toys and rattles which pleased him once please him now no more. They are vanity, and all is vanity; and every day that he lives longer will make it more formidable vanity. Now, pray observe, the case is directly the reverse with regard to sound intellectual and spiritual enjoyments; for which the capacity is perpetually increasing with its indulgence.
V. Sorrow is better than laughter, because sorrow breeds reflection. There can be no contemplation amidst the riot of self-indulgence; but the house of mourning is a meditative abode. Before they were afflicted, a large proportion of God’s people went astray; and, if they live long enough, they can all declare that the solemn pauses of their bereavement, illness, poverty, shame, and fear, have been better to them than the dainties of the house of feasting.
VI. Sorrow is better than laughter, because sorrow brings lessons of wisdom. Sufferers not only think but learn. Many sermons could not record all the lessons of affliction. It tells us wherein we have offended. It takes us away from the flattering crowd, and from seducing charmers, and keenly reaches, with its probe, the hidden iniquity. This is less pleasing than worldly joy, but it is more profitable. The Bible is the chief book in the house of mourning--read by some there who have never read it elsewhere, and revealing to its most assiduous students new truths, shining forth in affliction like stars which hays been hidden in daylight.
VII. Sorrow is better than laughter, because sorrow amends the heart and life. Not by any efficiency of good; of such efficiency, pain, whether of body or mind, knows nothing; but by becoming the vehicle of Divine influences. The ways of Providence are such, that troubled spirits, bathed in tears, are repeatedly made to cry with a joy which swallows up all foregoing griefs, “Before we were afflicted we went astray, but now have we kept Thy law!”
VIII. Sorrow is better than laughter, because sorrow likens us to Him whom we love. You know His name. He is the Man of Sorrows--the companion or brother of grief. His great work, even our salvation, was not more by power or holiness than by sorrows. He took our flesh that He might bear our sorrows. If we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him.
IX. Sorrow is better than laughter, because sorrow ends in joy. The very resistance of a virtuous mind to adversity--the bracing of the frame--the breasting of the torrent--the patience, the resignation, the hope amidst the billows, the high resolve and courage that mount more boldly out of the surge of grief, the silent endurance of the timid and the frail, when out of weakness they are made strong--these, and such as these, increase the capacity for future holiness and heavenly bliss. “These are they that have come out of great tribulation.” (J. W. Alexander, D. D.)
The service of sorrow
I. Sorrow serves to promote individualism of soul.
1. A deep practical sense of self-responsibility is essential to the virtue, the power, and progress of the soul.
2. Social influences, especially in this age of combinations, tend to destroy this and absorb the individual in the mass.
3. Sorrow is one of the most individualizing of forces. Sorrow detaches man from all, isolates him, makes him feel his loneliness.
II. Sorrow serves to humanize our affections. It helps us go feel for others; to “weep with those who weep,” etc.
III. Sorrow serves to spiritualize our nature. There are tremendous forces ever at work to materialize. Sorrow takes us away into the spiritual; makes us feel alone with God, and view the world as but a passing show.
IV. Sorrow serves to prepare us to appreciate christianity. The Gospel is a system to “heal broken hearts.” Who appreciates pardon, but the sorrowing penitent? Who values the doctrine of a parental providence, but the tried? Who the doctrine of the resurrection, but the bereaved and the dying? (Homilist.)
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning.
The advantages of visiting the mansions of distress
For so valuable a purpose it is well worth while to bear with all the gloominess of the house of mourning. For most useful lessons will the heart of the wise be able to learn there; and excellent rules of conduct, with respect to himself, to the memory of those who are deceased, and to such as they have left behind them.
1. With respect to himself. “Death is the end of all men, and the living will lay it go his heart.” It is because we do not lay it to our hearts that we most of us go on just as if we imagined there was to be no end at all; and though we do not, indeed, speculatively think so, yet we live and act upon that supposition; and our knowing it to be a false one hath no manner of influence for want of reflecting upon it as such. This could not be would we but stop a little at the house of mourning; and make the most obvious of all reflections there, from contemplating the end of others, how very quickly our own end may come, and how soon it must. Such thoughts will enliven our diligence in performing our duty here; in working, while it is day, the works of Him that sent us. And as the thoughts of death are excellently fitted to compose the vehemence of our other passions, so they are fitted particularly to check that very sinful kind of vehemence, which we are exceedingly prone to express, one against another. Another instruction, which the heart of the wise will learn in the house of mourning, is, never to flatter himself with expectations of any lasting good in a state so uncertain as this. You see, therefore, what improvement the heart of the wise may receive from a general consideration of the end of all men. But the further view of the different ends of different men is a subject of yet further advantage.
2. The heart of the wise, whilst it dwells in the house of mourning, will not only improve itself in a general sense of Christian piety, but also more especially in such precepts of it as constitute a proper behaviour with respect to the memory of those whose departure is at any time the object of our thoughts. The dead, indeed, are out of our reach: our goodness extends not to them, and our enmity can do them no harm. But for the sake of common justice and humanity, we are bound to the amiable duties of stowing candour in regard to their failings, and paying the honour which is due to their merit.
3. We may learn, from a considerate meditation on the examples of mortality, very useful instructions for our behaviour, not only with respect to the deceased, but those whom they have left behind any way peculiarly related to them. The death of a wise and good, of a near and affectionate friend, is unspeakably the greatest of all calamities. Whoever is capable of these reflections, if he allows himself time to make them, will sincerely pity all that have suffered such a loss, and equally esteem all that show they are sensible of it. (T. Secker.)
Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof.
The new year
The text expresses the general principle or doctrine, that by the condition of our existence here, if things go right, a conclusion is better than a beginning. The fruit is better than the blossom; the reaping is better than the sowing; the enjoyment than the reaping; the second stage of a journey to the happy home is better than the first; the home itself than all; the victory is better than the march and the battle; the reward is better than the course of service; the ending in the highest improvement of means is better than being put at first in possession of them. In all this we see it is conditionally, and not absolutely, that “the end is better than the beginning.” Now let us consider in a short series of plain particulars what state of the case would authorize us at the end of the year to pronounce this sentence upon it.
1. It will easily occur as a general rule of judgment on the matter, that the sentence may be pronounced if, at the end of the year, we shall be able, after deliberate conscientious reflection, to affirm that the year has been, in the most important respects, better than the preceding.
2. The sentence will be true if, during the progress of the year, we shall effectually avail ourselves of the lessons suggested by a review of the preceding year.
3. At the close of this year, should life be protracted so far, the text will be applicable, if we can then say, “My lessons from reflection on the departed year are much less painful, and much more cheering than at the close of the former”: if we can say this without any delusion from insensibility, for the painfulness of reflection may lessen from a wrong cause; but to say it with an enlightened conscience to witness, how delightful! To be then able to recall each particular, and to dwell on it a few moments--“that was, before, a very painful consideration--now,. . .” “This, again, made me sad, and justly so--now,. . .!” “What shall I render to God for the mercy of His granting my prayer for all-sufficient aid? I will render to Him, by His help, a still better year next.” And let us observe, as the chief test of the true application of the text, that it will be a true sentence if then we shall have good evidence that we are become really more devoted to God.
4. If we shall have acquired a more effectual sense of the worth of time, the sentence, “Better is the end of a thing than the beginning,” will be true. Being intent on the noblest purposes of life will itself in a great degree create this “effectual sense.” But there may require, too, a special thought of time itself--a habit of noting it--because it is so transient, silent, and invisible a thing. There may be a want of faith to “see this invisible,” and of a sense of its flight. For want of this, and the sense, too, of its vast worth, what quantities reflection may tell us we have wasted in past years--in the last year! How important to have a powerful habitual impression of all this! And if, this year, we shall acquire much more of this strong habitual sense--if we become more covetous of time--if we cannot waste it without much greater pain--if we shall, therefore, lose and misspend much lees--then the text is true.
5. It will again be true if, with regard to fellow-mortals, we can conscientiously feel that we have been to them more what Christians ought--than in the preceding year. “I am become more solicitous to act toward you in the fear of God. I am become more conscientiously regardful of what is due to you, and set a higher importance on your welfare. I have exerted myself more for your good. On the whole, therefore, I stand more acquitted towards you than I have at the conclusion of any former season.”
6. Another point of superiority we should hope the end may have over the beginning of the year, is that of our being in a better state of preparation for all that is to follow. Who was ever too well prepared for sudden emergencies of trial?--too well prepared for duty, temptation, or affliction?--too well prepared for the last thing that is to be encountered on earth?
7. It will be a great advantage and advancement to end the year with, if we shall then have acquired more of a rational and Christian indifference to life itself. “My property in life is now less by almost, 400 days; so much less to cultivate and reap from. If they were of value, the value of the remainder is less after they are withdrawn. As to temporal good, I have but learnt the more experimentally that that cannot make me happy. I have, therefore, less of a delusive hope on this ground as to the future. The spiritual good of so much time expended I regard as transferred t,o eternity; so much, therefore, thrown into the scale of another life against this. Besides, the remaining portion will probably be, in a natural sense, of a much worse quality. Therefore, as the effect of all this, my attachment to this life is loosening, and the attraction of another is augmenting.” (John Foster.)
The end of a good man’s life is better than the beginning
I. At the end of his life he is introduced into a better state.
1. He begins his life amidst impurity. The first air he breathes, the first word he hears, the first impression he receives, are tainted with sin; but at its end he is introduced to purity, saints, angels, Christ, God!
2. He begins his life on trial. It is a race--shall he win? It is a voyage--shall he reach the haven? The end determines all.
3. He begins his life amidst suffering “Man is born to trouble.”
II. At the end of his life he is introduced into better occupations. Our occupations here are threefold--physical, intellectual, moral. All these are more or less of a painful kind. But in the state into which death introduces us, the engagements will be congenial to the tastes, invigorating to the frame, delightful to the soul and honouring to God.
III. At the end of his life he is introduced into better society. We are made for society. But society here is frequently insincere, non-intelligent, unaffectionate. But how delightful the society into which death will introduce us! We shall mingle with enlightened, genuine, warm-hearted souls, rising in teeming numbers, grade above grade, up to the Eternal God Himself. (Homilist.)
The patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.--
The power of patience
The lion was caught in the toils of the hunter. The more he tugged, the more his feet got entangled; when a little mouse heard his roaring, and said that if his majesty would not hurt him, he thought he could release him. At first the king of beasts took no notice of such a contemptible ally; but at last, like other proud spirits in trouble, he allowed his tiny friend to do as he pleased. So one by one the mouse nibbled through the cords till he had set free first one foot and then another, and then all the four, and with a growl of hearty gratitude the king of the forest acknowledged that the patient in spirit is sometimes stronger than the proud in spirit. And it is beautiful to see how, when some sturdy nature is involved in perplexity, and by its violence and vociferation is only wasting its strength without forwarding its escape, there will come in some timely sympathizer, mild and gentle, and will suggest the simple extrication, or by soothing vehemence down into his own tranquillity, will set him on the way to effect his self-deliverance. Even so, all through the range of philanthropy, patience is power. It is not the water-spout but the nightly dew which freshens vegetation. They are not the flashes of the lightning which mature our harvests, but the daily sunbeams, and that quiet electricity which thrills in atoms and which flushes in every ripening ear. Niagara in all its thunder fetches no fertility; but the Nile, coming without observation, with noiseless fatness overflows, and from under the retiring flood Egypt looks up again, a garner of golden corn. The world is the better for its moral cataracts and its spiritual thunderbolts; but the influences which do the world’s great work--which freshen and fertilize it, and which are maturing its harvests for the garner of glory, are not the proud and potent spirits, but the patient and the persevering; they are not the noisy and startling phenomena, but the steady and silent operations. (J. Hamilton, D. D.)
Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these?
On the whole we may confidently affirm that the world improves, and yet in certain moods we are apt to regard its conditions as increasingly desperate. Thus is it sometimes with our religious life--we mistake the signs of progress for those of retrogression, and through this mistake de injustice to ourselves.
1. “I am not so happy as I once was,” is a lament from Christian lips with which we are almost distressingly familiar. We look back to our conversion, to the glittering joy which welled up in our soul in those days, and the memory moves us to tears. Then “all things were apparelled in celestial light, the glory and the freshness of a dream.” Then we turn to consider tile present phases of our experience, and conclude sadly that we are not so happy now as then--all the gold has changed to grey. Now, is this really so? We fully allow that it may be so. Through unfaithfulness we may have lost the joy and power of the days when first we knew the Lord. But may not the mournful inference be mistaken, and what we regard as a diminished happiness be really a profounder blessedness? The essence of religion is submission to the will of God, and that grave tranquillity of mind which follows upon deeper self-renunciation, the chastened cheerfulness which survives the strain and strife of years, is a real, although not perhaps seeming, gain upon the first sparkling experiences of our devout life.
2. “I am not so holy as I once was,” is another note of self-depreciation with which we are unhappily familiar, and with which, perhaps, we are sometimes disposed to sympathize. When we first realized forgiveness, we felt that there was “no condemnation” if the Spirit of God seemed to hallow our whole nature; our heart was cleansed, and strangely glowed. But it is not so now. We have not done all we meant to do, not been all we meant to be, and have a consciousness of imperfection more vivid than ever. With the lapse of years we have grown more dissatisfied with ourselves; and this more acute sense of worldliness leads us to the conclusion that we have lest the rarer purity of other days. Once more we admit that this may be the case. There may be a very real depreciation in our life; we may have allowed our raiment to be soiled by the world and the flesh. But may not this growing sense of imperfection be a sign of the perfecting of our spirit? It may be that we are not less pure than formerly, only the Spirit of God has been opening our eyes, heightening our sensibility, and faults once latent are now discovered; the clearer vision detects deformities, the finer ear discords, the pure taste admixtures which were once unsuspected. It is possible to be growing in moral strength and grace, in everything that constitutes perfection of character and life, when appearances are decidedly to the contrary. Watch the sculptor and note how many of his strokes seem to mar the image on which he works, rendering the marble more unshapely than it seemed the moment before, and yet in the end a glorious statue rises under his hand; so the blows of God, bringing us into glorious grace, often seem as if they were marring what little symmetry belonged to us, often as if knocking us out of shape altogether.
3. “I do not love God as I once did,” is another sorrowful confession of the soul. How glowing was that first level Your whole soul went out after the Beloved! But it is not so now. The temperature of your soul seems to have fallen, your love to your God and Saviour does not glow as in those memorable hours when first it was kindled “by the spirit of burning.” Once again, it may be so. The Church at Ephesus had “left” its “first love,” and we may not cherish the same fervid affection for God which once filled and purified our heart. But may we not misconceive the love we bear to God? Our more dispassionate affection may be equally genuine and positively stronger. Our love to God may not be so gushing, so florid in expression as it once was, but in this it only bears the sober hue of all ripened things.
4. “I do not make the rapid progress I once did,” is another familiar regret. Once we had the pleasing sense of swift and perpetual progress. Each day we went from strength to strength, each night knew our “moving tent a day’s march nearer home.” But we have not that sense of progress now, and this fact is to us, perhaps, a great grief. Our grief may be well founded; for those who “did run well” are sometimes “hindered” and fall into slowest pace. Yet impatience with our rate of progress is capable of another construction. Our first experiences of the Christian life are in such direct and striking contradistinction to the earthly life that our sense of progress is most vivid and delightful; but as we climb heaven, get nearer God, traverse the infinite depths of love and righteousness sown with all the stars of light, the sense of progress may well be less definite than when we had just left the world behind. And in considering our rate of progress, we must not forget that the sense of progress is regulated by the desire for progress. (W. L. Watkinson.)
Vain thoughts concerning the past
What a softening power there is in distance; how often an object, on which you gazed with great delight while beheld afar off, will lose its attractiveness when it is brought near. Every admirer of the natural landscape is thoroughly conscious of this. Now, we are inclined to suppose that there is much the same power in distance, with regard to what we may call the moral landscape, which is so universally acknowledged with regard to the natural. We believe that what is rough becomes so softened, and what is hard so mellowed through being viewed in the retrospect, that we are hardly fair judges of much on which we bestow unqualified admiration. If, however, it were only the softening power of distance which had to be taken into the account, it might be necessary to caution men against judging without making allowance for this power, but we should scarcely have to charge it upon them as a fault, that they looked so complacently on what was far back. But from one cause or another men become disgusted with the days in which their lot is cast, and are therefore disposed to the concluding that past days were better. Whence does it arise that old people are so fond of talking of the degeneracy of the times, and referring to the days when they were young, as days when all things were in a healthier and more pleasing condition? If you were to put implicit faith in the representations you would conclude that there was nothing which had not changed for the worse, and that it was indeed a great misfortune that you had not been born half a century sooner. And here comes into play the precept of our text--“Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.” To quote the words of a brilliant modern historian: “The more carefully we examine the history of the past, the more reason shall we find to dissent from those who imagine that our ago has been fruitful of new social evils. The truth is, that the evils are, with scarcely an exception, old. That which is new is the intelligence which discerns them, and the humanity which relieves them.” But we shall speak only of the religious advantages of different times, in endeavouring to prove “that the former days” were not “better than these.”
1. And first, it ought to be carefully observed in regard of human nature that it did not grow corrupt by degrees, but became all at once as bad as it was ever to be. The being who had been formed in the very image of his Maker became instantly capable of the most heinous of crimes; and so far was human nature from requiring long familiarity with wickedness, in order to the learning to commit it in its most atrocious shapes, that well nigh its first essay after apostatizing from God was one which still fills us with horror, notwithstanding our daily acquaintance with a thousand foul deeds. Sin was never an infant; it was a giant in the very birth; and forasmuch as we should have had precisely the same evil nature whensoever we had lived, it would be very hard to show that any former period would have been better for us than the present. You may fix on a time when there was apparently less of open wickedness, but this would not necessarily have been a better time for individual piety. The religion of the heart, perhaps, flourishes most when there is most to move to zeal for the insulted law of God. Or you may fix upon a time when there was apparently less of misery; but we need not say that this would not necessarily have been a better time for growth in Christian holiness, seeing that confessedly it is amidst the deepest sorrows that the strongest virtues are produced. So that if a man regard himself as a candidate for immortality, we can defy him to put his finger on an age of the past, in which, as compared with the present, it would necessarily have been more advantageous for him to live.
2. Now, we are quite aware that this general statement does not exactly meet the several points which will suggest themselves to an inquiring mind; but we propose to examine next certain of the reasons which might be likely to lead men to a different conclusion from that which seems stated in our text. And here again we must narrow the field of inquiry, and confine ourselves to points in which, as Christians, we have an especial interest. Would any former days have been better days for us, estimating the superiority by the superior facilities for believing the Christian religion, and acquiring the Christian character? In answering such a question, we must take separately the evidences and the truths of our holy religion. And first, as to the evidences. There is a very common and a very natural feeling with regard to the evidences of Christianity, that they must have been much stronger and much clearer, as presented to those who lived in the times of our Lord and of His apostles, than as handed down to ourselves through a long succession of witnesses. Many are disposed to imagine that if with their own eyes they could see miracles wrought, they should have a proof on the side of Christianity far more convincing than any which they actually have, and that there would be no room whatever for a lingering doubt if they stood by a professed teacher from God, whilst he stilled the tempest, or raised the dead. Why should such superior power be supposed to reside in the seeing a miracle? The only thing to be sure about is, that the miracle has been wrought. There are two ways of gaining this assurance: the one is by the testimony of the senses, the other is by the testimony of competent witnesses. The first, the testimony of the senses, is granted to the spectator of a miracle; only the second, the testimony of witnesses, to those who are not present at the performance. But shall it be said that the latter must necessarily be less satisfactory than the former? Shall it be said that those who have not visited Constantinople cannot be as certain that there is such a city as others who have? The testimony of witnesses may be every jot as conclusive as the testimony of your own senses. Though, even if we were forced to concede that the spectator of a miracle has necessarily a superiority over those to whom the miracle travels down in the annals of well-attested history, we should be far enough from allowing that there is less evidence now on the side of Christianity than was granted to the men of some preceding age. Let it be, that the evidence of miracle is not so clear and powerful as it was; what is to be said of the evidence of prophecy? Who will venture to deny, that as century has rolled away after century, fresh witness has been given to the Bible by the’ accomplishment of the predictions recorded in its pages? The stream of evidence has been like that beheld in mystic vision by Ezekiel, when waters issued out from the eastern gate of the temple. Yes, the Christian religion now appeals to mightier proofs than when it first engaged in combat with the superstitions of the world. Its own protracted existence, its own majestic triumphs, witness for it with a voice far more commanding than that which was heard when its first preachers called to the dead, and were answered by their starting into life. Away, then, with the thought that it would have been better for those who are dissatisfied with the evidences of Christianity, had they lived when Christianity was first promulgated on earth. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
Discontent with the present unreasonable
The matter in controversy is, the pre-eminence of the former times above the present; when we must observe, that though the words run in the form of a question, yet they include a positive assertion, and a downright censure.
1. That it is ridiculous to ask why former times are better than the present, if really they are not better, and so the very supposition itself proves false; this is too apparently manifest to be matter of dispute: and that it is false we shall endeavour to prove.
2. I shall now take it in a lower respect; as a case disputable, whether the preceding or succeeding generations are to be preferred; and here I shall dispute the matter on both sides.
3. That admitting this supposition as true, that the former ages are really the best, and to be preferred: yet still this querulous reflection upon the evil of the present times, stands obnoxious to the same charge of folly: and, if it be condemned also upon this supposition, I see not where it can take sanctuary. Now that it ought to be so, I demonstrate by these reasons.
Former things not better
As we grow older we are more prone to look back into the past. Our best days and brightest hours are those which have long since passed away. Most of the old poets have written and sung of a golden age. But it was away in the distant past. They have pictured it near the world’s beginning, in the days when the human race was yet in its youth. And so every nation has had its fancied golden age. Dreamers have dreamed of its charms. A time of peace, and love, and joy, when the earth yielded all manner of fruits and flowers, and all nations lived together in harmony and peace. And the Bible, too, tells of a golden age in the far distant past. As our thoughts go back to that blessed time, we can scarcely refrain from asking bitterly, “What is the cause that the former days were better than these?” But in our text the wise man cautions us that we do not inquire wisely concerning this. The tree is beautiful when it is covered with blossoms. But is it not a richer, though a different kind of beauty, when in autumn it is loaded with delicious fruit? The morning is beautiful when the rising sun bathes stream and flood, hill and dale with his glorious beams. But is it not another and a higher kind of beauty when, at the close of day, the sun is slowly sinking in the west, like a king dying on a couch of gold, and the fading hues of even light up the whole heavens with a glory that seems to have come down from the New Jerusalem! The field is beautiful when the fresh green blades appear, like a new creation, life out of death. But it is another and a higher order of beauty when, instead of the fresh young blade, you have the rich golden harvest. The spring is beautiful with all its stores of bloom and fragrance and song. But is it not a higher beauty, a more advanced perfection when the bloom of spring has given place to the golden sheaves and plentiful stores of autumn? Life’s opening years may be beautiful, but its close may be glorious. You may have seen the raw recruit, fresh from his country home, setting out to join the war in a distant land. His laurels are yet unsullied. The keen edge of his sword has never yet been blunted. See him years afterward, when he comes home, after a long service in some foreign land. His clothes are tattered and torn; his colours are in rags; his steps are feeble and tottering; his brow is seamed and scarred; his sword is broken. He seems but the wreck, the mere shadow of his former self. But in all that is true, and noble, and unselfish, he is a braver and a better man. His courage has been tried. The tinsel has been lost, but the fine gold all remains. And so is it with the youthful Christian. In the first days of his profession, when he has given his heart to Jesus for the first time, all his graces seem so fresh and lovely All his being is filled with joy unspeakable. Years pass on. The young professor grows into the aged Christian. His graces do not now seem so fresh and beautiful as they did forty or fifty years ago. His feelings do not flow out so steadily toward the Saviour whom he loves, nor do the tears come as freely now as they did long ago when he sits down at the table of the Lord. You would say that in his ease the former days were better than these. But you do not inquire wisely concerning this. His last days are his best days. The blossoms may have perished, but you have in their stead the mellow, luscious fruit. The golden age of a nation is not always behind, lost in the myths of its earliest existence. Years of conflict, ages of revolution, centuries of daring and doing nobly, freedom’s battle bequeathed by bleeding sire to son, through long decades of stern resistance to all oppression and tyranny. It is through such a fiery discipline as this that a nation becomes truly great in all those qualities that ennoble them in the sight of God. When they stand up as the champions of right, the defenders of the oppressed, then are they entering on their true golden age, the perfection of their national existence. Nor is it true in regard to the world that its former days were better than these. Its golden age has not all passed away. A still more glorious golden age awaits it in the ages that are to come. The curse of sin is to be fully and for ever removed. The old earth is to pass away. The destroying fire will burn out the footprints of evil And God will make all things new. A new heaven and a new earth. (J. Carmichael, D. D.)
The excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it.
The argument which I shall advance on behalf of this and of all other institutions with which it is the happiness of our country now to abound, having a similar object in view--the supply of wholesome education for the poor--is this, that, in providing instruction for the destitute, you confer on them a much more precious gift than in giving them pecuniary supplies for the relief of their outward and physical necessities. To this mode of stating the case I have been led by observing the remark of the wise man in the text--that “wisdom is a defence”--the possession of solid, but more especially of religious knowledge,
1. As the means of protecting a man from many dangers and many calamities “and money,” too, “is a defence”--as the medium of procuring the outward necessaries and comforts of life, it has the power of saving its possessor from numerous and painful sufferings and fears--but yet, if we compare these two defences with one another, “the excellency,” the advantage will be found upon the side of knowledge or wisdom, for this reason, “that wisdom giveth life to them that have it.”
1. The blessing of education is a more valuable gift of charity to the poor than the direct relief of their physical necessities, even in the way of supplying them with the resources of natural life. The gift of money will, no doubt, avail to procure the means of physical maintenance and enjoyment so far as it goes, and so long as it lasts; but then it perishes in the using--it has in it no self-preserving, no self-renewing power. What you give the poor man to expend on food and raiment, clothes and supports him for a season; but then food is consumed, and raiment waxes old, and it avails him no longer to remember that he has been warmed, that he has been filled. He cannot feed on the memory of food, nor yet array himself with that of clothing. But lay out, on the other hand, a comparatively trivial sum in bestowing on the indigent child, otherwise the heir of hopeless ignorance, a sound and suitable instruction, and then you bestow on him a source of support and comfort which really is inexhaustible. “Knowledge is power,” and being personal is permanent power. It is in a man, and therefore continues with him whatever changes may occur in his outward estate to strip him of that which is not inherent but attached--not in but about him; the gift of education gives him a means of support which is not exhausted by being used--which, if it is useful to-day, was useful yesterday, and will be so to-morrow--which is self-preserving, self-strengthening, self-renewing. And while, as the giver of life to those who have it, knowledge thus excels money in respect of permanence--no less does the former surpass the latter in respect of its efficiency. In the degree in which education is judiciously conducted does it give a human being the command of what are the highest, the mightiest, the most productive of human powers--the faculties of the rational and immortal mind--faculties which, whether acting by themselves or co-operating with corporeal energies to the production of what is needful for the support, the comfort, the refreshment, the convenience of the present state, give at once an elevated character, and an enlarged efficiency to all the individual’s exertions and pursuits. By implanting, too, and conforming, the habit of thinking--prospective, serious, considerate thinking--which is one great aim and effect of education, you put into the hands of man or woman what has been well denominated “the principle of all legitimate prosperity.” Not these habits alone, however, but all moral and religious principles are nursed and cherished by such an education as that of which we speak--the activity and temperance which are the parents of health--the industry and integrity, the benevolence and magnanimity, the prudence and public spirit, the rectitude and love, of which the progeny are substance, reputation, influence, domestic and social comfort--the morality which is connected by so general a law even with worldly prosperity--the godliness which “hath the promise of this life as well as of that which is to come.”
2. While “wisdom” is a defence, and money is a defence, the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth “intellectual” life to them that have it. “It is of the nature of our intellectual, as of all our other powers, to rust through want of use; so that in him who has never been accustomed to employ his mind, the very mind itself seems to fall into dormancy, and the man to become, at length, a merely sentient rather than a rational being. Have you never witnessed cases in which the spirit has seemed thus steeped in lethargy--persons who could be kept awake only by the necessity of manual labour and the stimulants of sensual excitement, and who deprived of these, seem to suffer the suspension of their whole spiritual existence, and sink straightway into utter apathy and listlessness, finding no resources within them to employ time, or keep alive attention, when the impulse from without has disappeared--who employ their minds, such as they are, but as the slaves and instruments of body, and have their whole being rightly defined, “of the earth, earthy”? Now, to prevent this death, as it may be called, of the intellectual soul within its clayey dungeon--whether it expire in stupefaction or in agony--the only means you can employ is to supply it with that knowledge, “the excellency of which is, that it giveth life to them that have it.” The capacity of intellectual exercise must be early provoked, and stimulated, and directed. The taste for intellectual enjoyment must be early implanted, and nourished, and improved. In providing, then, the means of education for the else deserted children of your city and your country, you are providing the only direct--the absolutely necessary means of rendering them worthy of the name of rational and intelligent creatures--of saving from being overborne and extinguished that which defines them human beings. You may, peradventure, give the first impulse to some master-mind which else might have remained for ever cramped and fettered without command or consciousness of its latent powers, but which, let loose by you, may mightily accelerate and advance the great march of human improvement. You may, peradventure, kindle some luminous spirit which else must have been finally absorbed amidst the gloom in which it had its birth, and which shall stream far-darting and imperishable lustre to distant generations and distant climes.
3. While we admit, in speaking of the case of our necessitous fellow-creatures, “that money is a defence and wisdom a defence,” still we say that “the excellency belongeth unto knowledge; because wisdom giveth life”--life spiritual and eternal--“to those that have it.” It is “the key of knowledge” that opens the kingdom of heaven; and if this be the constitution of the Gospel, very plain it is that the state of a human soul abandoned to utter ignorance is that of a soul devoted to inevitable death. Alas! what multitudes are in this condition. But there is still another circumstance which darkens and aggravates the view we are compelled to take of the spiritually deathful power of ignorance, and it is this--that, especially amidst a condensed and crowded population, those who grow up utterly uneducated are almost sure to grow up openly profligate. The first and most direct consequence of their early abandonment without the means of education is, that they are left to spend their time in utter idleness. Led by idleness follows the twin-plague evil company, under whose noxious breath every budding of thought or emotion congenial to virtue grows sickly and expires, while every plant of deathful odour and poisonous fruit expands into dense and overshadowing rankness. In process of time such childish associations in childish folly and childish vice ripen into combinations of licentiousness and leagues of iniquity. The means are in your power of possibly, of probably averting so sad a catastrophe in a multitude of cases. (J. B. Patterson, M. A.)
Christianity the guardian of human life
We may unhesitatingly charge upon heathenism, even if you keep out of sight, its debasing effect upon morals, and think of it only as a system of religious ceremonies and observances, the having a direct tendency to the destroying men’s lives. It has not been merely amongst the more savage of pagans, but also amongst those who have advanced far in civilization, that the custom has prevailed of offering human sacrifices. The Grecians made great progress in sciences and arts; yet it would seem to have been a rule with each of their states to sacrifice men before they marched against an enemy. The Romans, who emulated the Grecians in civilization, appear not to have been behind them in the cruelties of their religion; even so late as in the reign of Trajan, men and women were slain at the shrine of some one of their deities. As to the heathenism of less refined states, it would be easy to affix to it a yet bloodier character: nothing, for example, could well exceed the massacres, connected with religious rites, which appear to have been common among the nations of America: the annual sacrifices of the Mexicans required many thousands of victims, and in Peru two hundred children were devoted for the health of the sovereign. What a frightful destruction of life[ But we should vastly underrate the influence of Christianity in saving human life, were we merely to compute from the abolition of the destructive rites of heathenism. The influence has been exerted in indirect modes yet more than in direct. It has gradually substituted mild for sanguinary laws, teaching rulers that the cases must be rare which justify the punishing with death. And what but Christianity, giving sacredness to human life, ever taught men to erect asylums for the sick and the aged? Add to this the mighty advancings which have been made under the fostering sway of Christianity in every department of science. And how wonderfully, in promoting knowledge, has Christianity preserved life. The study of the body, of its structure and diseases; acquaintance with the properties of minerals and plants; skill in detecting the sources of pain, and applying remedies or assuagements--all this would appear peculiar, in a great degree, to ,Christian nations; as if there could be only inconsiderable progress in medical science, whilst a land were not trodden by She alone Physician of the soul.. And need we point out how knowledge of other kinds, cherished by Christianity, has subserved the preservation of life? Witness astronomy, watching the mariner, lest he be bewildered on the waters. Witness chemistry, directing the miner, that he perish not by subterranean fires. Witness geography, with its maps and charts, informing the traveller of dangers, and pointing him to safety. Witness architecture, rearing the lighthouse on rooks, where there seemed no foundation for structures which might brave the wild storm, and thus warning away navies which must otherwise have perished. Witness machinery, providing for the poorest what once the wealthy alone could obtain, the means of guarding against inclement seasons, and thus preserving health when most rudely threatened. But it were greatly to wrong Christianity as a giver of life, were we to confine our illustrations to the bodies, in place of extending them go the souls of men. We have higher evidence than any yet assigned, that Christianity is the only wisdom which will answer the description contained in our text. It may be said of the world, in every period of its history, “The world by wisdom knew not God.” Our liability to punishment is discoverable by human wisdom, but the possibility of our escaping it not without heavenly; and hence there is no life-giving power in the former. But the wisdom which the Holy Ghost continually imparts to such as submit to His influence is, from first to last, a quickening, vivifying thing. It makes the believer alive, in the sense of being energetic for God and for truth; alive, as feeling himself immortal; alive, as having thrown off the bondage of corruption; alive, as knowing himself “begotten again” “to an inheritance that fadeth not away.” “I live,” said the great apostle, “yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” And life indeed it is, when a man is made “wise unto salvation”: when, having been brought to a consciousness of his state as a rebel against God, he has committed his cause unto Christ, “who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” There is needed only that, renouncing all wisdom of our own, we come unto God to be taught, and we shall receive the gift of the Spirit, that Spirit which is breath to the soul, quickening it from the death of nature, and causing its torpid energies and perverted affections to rise to their due use, and fix on their due end. And the excellency of this knowledge is, that, having it, you will have life. You cannot have it, except in the heart; for no man knows Christ who knows Him only with the head. And having this knowledge in the heart, you have renewal of the heart; and with renewal of the heart forgiveness of sin, and the earnests of immortality. Are we not now, therefore, able to vindicate in all its extent the assertion of our text? In the former part of the verse the wise man had allowed that “wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence.” But “riches profit not in the day of wrath,” and “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” But they whose treasure has been above--they who have counted “all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ”--they shall have a defence, a sure defence, when the rich man is destitute and the wise man speechless. They have chosen that which cannot be taken away, and which, indeed, is then only fully possessed, when everything else departs from human hold. As they soar to inherit the kingdom obtained for them by Christ, and thus lay hold on an immortality of joy through having acquainted themselves with Him as “the way, the truth, and the life,” there may be none to say that “money is a defence, and wisdom is a defence”--none to say it in the face of the confounding witness of the elements melting with fervent heat, and of the shrinking away of those who have been “wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight”: but the whole company of the redeemed shall be joined by the thousand times ten thousand of the celestial host, in confessing and publishing that the excellency of knowledge is, “that wisdom,” Christian wisdom, “giveth life to them that have it.” (H. Melvill, B. D.)
In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider.
Prosperity and adversity
The life of man is made up of prosperity and adversity, of pleasure and pain, which succeed one another here below in an eternal rotation, like day and night, summer and winter. Prosperity and adversity usually walk hand in hand. The Divine providence hath joined them, and I shall not put them asunder, but offer some remarks upon them both.
I. I begin with the latter part of the sentence; in the day of adversity consider. In the day of adversity we should consider whether we can free ourselves from it. For it happens sometimes that whilst we complain, we have the remedy in our own hands, if we had heart and the sense to make use of it; and then we cannot expect that men or that God should assist us, if we are wanting to ourselves. But most commonly adversity is of that nature, that it is not in our power to remove it; and then we should consider how to lessen it, or how to bear it in the best manner we can. We should consider that adversity, as well as prosperity, is permitted or appointed by Divine providence. God hath so ordered the course of things that there should be a mixture and a rotation of both in this world, and, therefore, we ought to acquiesce in it, and to be contented that God’s will be done. Submission, patience and resignation are of a calm and quiet nature, and afford some relief, composure and peace of mind; but repining and reluctance only irritate the pain, and add one evil to another. To tell an afflicted person that it must be so, may be thought a rough and an overbearing argument, rather fit to silence than to satisfy a man. Therefore we should add this consideration, not only that adversity is proper because God permits it, but that God permits it because it is proper. Perhaps we have brought the adversity upon ourselves, by our own imprudence and misconduct. If so, it is just that God should suffer things to take their course, and not interpose to relieve us, and we ought to submit to it, as to a state which we deserve. Nature, indeed, will dispose us in such a case to discontent and to remorse; but religion will teach us to make a good use of the calamity. God may suffer us to fall into adversity by way of correction for our sins. If so, sorrowful we should be for the cause, and sorrowful we may be for the effect; but we have many motives to patience, resignation and gratitude. It is much better that we should receive our punishment here than hereafter; and if it produce any amendment in us, it serves to the best of purposes, and ends in peace and joy and happiness. God may visit us with adversity, by way of trial, and for our greater improvement, that we may correct some frailties and faults into which prosperity hath led us, or of which it could never cure us, that we may look upon the transitory vanities of the present world with more coldness and indifference, and set our affections on things above, that we may be humble and modest, and know ourselves, that we may learn affability, humanity and compassion for those who suffer, and likewise that we may have a truer taste for prosperity when it comes, and enjoy it with wisdom and moderation. Upon all these accounts adversity is suitable to us, and tends to our profit.
II. One of the ends of adversity is to make us better disposed and qualified to receive the favours of God, when they come, with prudence and gratitude, and, as Solomon directs us in the other part of the text, to rejoice in the days of prosperity.
1. We ought to be in such a temper as to be easily contented, and to account our state prosperous whenever it is tolerable.
2. We ought to remember that prosperity is a dangerous thing, that it is a state which often perverts the judgment, and spoils the understanding, and corrupts the heart, that it is never sincere and unmixed, that it is also of a precarious nature, and may leave us in an instant. By being sober and sedate, it will be more easily preserved, and the less liable to pass away, and to be turned into sadness. The truest joy is an even cheerfulness, pleased with the present, and not solicitous about the future.
3. We ought to consider what Solomon, who exhorts us to rejoice in prosperity, hath represented as the most important point: Let us hear, says he, the conclusion of the whole matter; Fear God, and keep His commandments; for this concerns us all. This is what every man may do, and this is what every man must do, and whosoever neglects it cannot be happy.
4. If we would rejoice in prosperity, we must acquire and preserve, cherish and improve a love towards our neighbour, an universally benevolent and charitable disposition, by which we shall be enabled to take delight not only in our own prosperity, but in that of others; and this will give us several occasions of satisfaction, which selfish persons never regard or entertain.
III. This subject which we have been discussing is considered in a very different manner in the old testament and in the new. Solomon, as a wise man, recommends it to his nation to be cheerful in prosperity and considerate in adversity. Further than this the wisdom and religion of his times could not conduct a man. But St. Paul, when he treats the subject, exhorts Christians to rejoice evermore, and consequently in adversity as well as in prosperity; our Saviour commands His disciples to rejoice and to be exceeding glad when they should be ill used for His sake; and it is said of the first believers, that they were sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, and that they had in all circumstances an inward serenity, of which nothing could deprive them.
1. Christianity represents God as a God of love and goodness, and removes all gloomy and superstitious apprehensions of Him.
2. It represents Him, indeed, as a God of perfect purity, holiness and justice, which must raise in mortal minds a dread proportionable to their imperfections and offences, that is, to those imperfections which are indulged, and to those offences which are wilful; but by the gracious doctrine of forgiveness to the penitent it allays all tormenting terrors and excludes despondence and despair.
3. It gives us rules of behaviour, which, ii carefully observed, have a natural and necessary tendency to secure us from many sorrows, and enliven our minds, and to set before us happy prospects and pleasing expectations.
4. It promises a Divine assistance under pressures and dangers, and losses and afflictions, which shall raise the mind above itself and above all outward and earthly things.
5. It promises an eternal recompense of well-doing, which whosoever believes and expects must be happy, or at least contented in all times and states: and without question, to a want of a lively faith, and of a reasonable hope in this great point, and to a certain degree, more or less, of doubt and diffidence, is to be principally ascribed the want of resignation and of composure.
6. When to these Christian considerations are also added reflections on the days of our abode here below, which are few, and on the world which passeth away, a sedateness and evenness of temper will ensue, which as it is patient and resigned under changes for the worse, so it is pleased with prosperity, accepts it as a Divine blessing, and uses it soberly and discreetly. (J. Jortin, D. D.)
I. The design of the visitation. It includes--
3. Trial or testing of character.
4. Instruction in righteousness.
5. Increased usefulness.
II. The relief which God is ready to bestow.
1. Your afflictions are not peculiar. It is not “a strange thing that has happened unto you.”
2. They happen not by chance. God’s wisdom plans, and His love executes, them all.
3. They are not unmixed evil. “It is good for me that I have been afflicted.”
4. They are not to endure always. Only for “a moment,” and then heaven!
5. We are not asked to bear these afflictions alone. (Homiletic Review.)
Compensations for a poor harvest
More than one person has said to me, in relation to the services we hold to-day, “There is no harvest worth being thankful for this year.” We are like children, ready enough to find fault with their parents’ arrangements, but not so ready to be thankful for the daily care and love around them in the home. These they take for granted. There is, if we have only eyes to discern it, a wonderful law of compensation running through all things. It may be discerned even in the recent harvest, failure though it seems to be. We may see this if we remember that what is usually called the harvest is, after all, only a part of the harvest of the year. The autumn is not the only harvest time, though that may be specially the time of ingathering. All the year is, in greater or less degree, productive. And this year, though a poor one in respect of the harvest of hay and corn, is, if I mistake not, an exceptionally good one in respect of grass and roots on which the cattle so largely depend for sustenance. There is another aspect of the present year’s weather which should not be overlooked. We have grumbled at the continuous downpour of rain; but let us not forget that the rain which frustrated so many plans and caused so much anxiety, has replenished the springs which, through the drought of last year, had become so low that more than one English city came very near to a famine of water. And this leads me to say that very often weather which is good for one part of tile country, and for one kind of crop, is anything but good for another part and for another kind of crop. And sometimes we must be content to suffer that others may prosper, whilst when we prosper others must be content to suffer. We can’t have it always our own way. Unbroken prosperity is not good for us men who are so disposed to settle on our lees, and to cry, “I shall never be moved.” For let us not forget that the Divine arrangements in the lower and material world have reference to man’s higher nature. They are intended to be a means of moral and spiritual discipline. And if it be so, and that it is, few who have carefully observed life, will deny; then harvest disappointment will be often counterbalanced by a more enduring spiritual gain. Ii earthly loss force us to lift our eyes to the hills from whence cometh our help, then the gain is greater than the loss. But this principle of compensation--that one thing is set over against another--has wider applications. It seems to run through all the Divine arrangements. It applies to the different positions and callings among men--e.g. the rich seem to be the people to be envied; their lot seems to have no drawbacks; they seem to have everything that heart can wish. But riches do not ensure happiness; indeed, they too often lead men and women to so purposeless a life, to such a neglect of work, that life becomes a burden, and time hangs heavy on their hands. The poor man’s condition, on the other hand, seems to be without any compensations--one utterly to be pitied. But, as a matter of fact, except in extreme cases, the very necessity for labour brings with it no small measure of happiness, for work has more of pleasure in it than idleness. The happiest people are those who work, whether such work be compulsory or voluntary. Nor is it otherwise with the different callings of life. Those in which men have to work with the brain seem the easiest and pleasantest, and those in which men have to work with their hands the least to be desired. But work with the brain has its drawbacks. It develops the nerves at the expense of the muscles. It brings a weariness of its own. Whilst, on the other hand, work with the hand develops the muscles at the expense of the nerves, and has its own kind of weariness. Then, too, the same remark applies to the various ages. Youth longs for manhood, that it may escape restraint; but when the restraint goes, responsibility begins. Manhood longs for rest from toil; but when the time for rest comes, the vigour of life usually wanes. In each season one thing must be set over against another--the youth’s freedom from responsibility against the restraint under which he lives; the vigour of manhood over against its toil; the rest of old age over against its feebleness. There are very few conditions of life which have not their compensations; and no estimate can be fair which does not take them into account. Plato, in his “Gorgias,” says to Callieles, “I exhort you also to take part in the grave combat, which is the combat of life, and greater than every other earthly conflict.” And if it is to be that, it would not do for life to be without drawbacks, disappointments, trials, changes. A life sheltered from all these would be a poor affair. But though these abound, yet there are always, or nearly always, compensations, which show a gracious design even in the midst of the discipline;that it is the order of One “who doth not afflict willingly, or grieve the children of men.” The laws under which we live look stern and hard; but in the heart of them is a loving purpose. (W. G. Herder.)
“Hard times!” That is the cry we hear, all the week long, wherever we go. And this, strange to say, in face of crops of unparalleled abundance!
1. We ask ourselves, what is the cause of these hard times? “Over-production,” say some; others, “under-consumption.” One party blames a “high tariff”: the other, “free trade.” I will not attempt to discues here the purely political or economical aspects of the case. But there is a moral cause at work, which it is the province of the pulpit to point out. At this moment, while commerce and manufactures are nearly stagnant, the money market is glutted with funds that cannot be used! Why? One answer is, for want of confidence. Monstrous frauds, disgraceful failures, outright robberies, and numberless rascalities, small and great, have paralyzed credit, and made sensitive capital shrink into itself. We want more plodding and patient industry, more incorruptible honesty. No man can revolutionize a community. But every good man has a certain power, more, perhaps, than he thinks. It is the honest men who keep society from going to pieces altogether.
2. Under cover of the proverb, “Desperate diseases require desperate remedies,” certain wild proposals are put forward by professed “friends of the working man,” who are really his worst enemies, whether they mean it or not. Take, for example, the Socialist idea of abolishing private property in land or anything else, making the State the universal proprietor and the universal employer, and all men’s conditions equal. It is only under the maddening pressure of hunger that just and reasonable men can entertain such schemes. In dragging down “bloated monopolists,” we bury the day-labourer in the common ruin. It is like setting fire to the house to get rid of the rats!
3. What a light is east by our present condition on the Bible sayings, “We are members one of another”: “No man liveth unto himself!” We live in a vast system of cooperation and interdependence. And this, whether we wish it or not. The ends of the earth are ransacked to furnish food and clothing. Sailors cross the seas, miners delve in the earth, woodmen hew down the forests, farmers sow and reap, mechanics ply their tools, merchants buy and sell, physicians study diseases and remedies, teachers instruct, authors write, musicians sing, legislators make, judges administer and governors execute laws--all for your benefit and mine. God has bound us up together, so many wheels in a vast machine, different members of one body. You cannot break away from it. It is as foolish as it is wicked to try to live apart, for ourselves alone, to take and not to give, to expect good only, and to complain of suffering through those around us.
4. That is a good time to “consider” what use we have made of past times of “prosperity” in preparing for days of “adversity.” We must learn the old-fashioned virtues of saving and “going without.” And these hard times are sent, among other things, to drive that lesson home. Those who came from the old and crowded lands of Europe are showing us examples in this that we should be wise to follow.
5. We do well to ask ourselves at this time how far the words of God by Malachi apply to our case: “Ye are cursed with a curse; for ye have robbed Me.”. . . “Wherein? In tithes and offerings.”
6. Not all of us feel the full pressure of hard times. If you are not thrown out of employment, if your pay is not reduced, if your investments yield as much income, if your business is nearly or quite as profitable, what special duties devolve upon you? First, great thankfulness to God. By the sharp sorrows of your less fortunate neighbours learn how good He has been to you. Do not think that if is because of your superior worth. One duly is to see that His cause of the Gospel does not suffer--to give double because others can only give one-half. Another is, to relieve the wants of deserving sufferers.
7. May I say a brotherly word to those who do feel the pressure of the times? If is a hard discipline you are passing through, very hard. But “your Father knoweth.” Money and goods are not everything. “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he poseesseth.” Your character, your soul, is more to you than your earthly condition. That is what God is training, and the wide sweep of this providential dispensation, affecting whole nations, also includes your individual case. Receive the chastening. Submit without murmuring. Exercise your heart in the strong virtues of patience and fortitude. “Hope thou in God.” “Walk by faith, not by sight.” (F. H. Marling.)
Sunshine and shadow
I. First, concerning this twofold word of exhortation. “In the day of prosperity be joyful.” Prosperity then is not in itself an evil thing. Undue prosperity is not to be coveted. “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me.” But prosperity which is obtained in honest fashion, accepted with a thankful heart, and employed for the glory of God, is surely one of the best boons that Heaven itself can send. Further, gladsomeness is by no means to be prohibited. Alas! for those who would stop our laughter. God Himself is glad, His Gospel is glad; it is the Gospel of the glory of the happy God. Christ Himself is joyous. Let your hearts have their sacred outpourings; let your souls rejoice before the Lord in the land of the living. “Be joyful in the Lord.” Spiritual prosperity is best of all. Be thankful and bless His name. But the other part of the exhortation is not less necessary, and is, perhaps, more appropriate to the most of my hearers. “In the day of adversity consider.” What are we to consider? Not the adversity only. “Consider the work of God.” So this adversity is the work of God. He may have employed agencies, but He is at the back of them. Even the devil works in chains, and can do nought apart from permission from the throne. “Consider the work of God.” Look away to first causes, trace the stream to its source. When you think of this adversity as being the work of God you come to the conclusion that it is all right, that it is the best thing that could happen. It is better than prosperity if it is the work of God.
II. Now we turn to the second point, As observation. “God hath even made the one side by side with the other.” Oh, what mercy there is here. If you had prosperity all the days of your life it would be the ruin of you. He has woven our web of time with mercy and with judgment. He has paved our path of life with mingled colours, so that it is a mosaic, curiously wrought; sunshine and shadow have been our lot almost from babyhood till now, and April weather has greeted us from the cradle, and will be with us till the tomb. If this is true in daily life, it is true also of religious experience. You must not be surprised that your way is up and down. So far as we are responsible for it it should not be so. Spiritual experience is of the switchback order after all, up towards heaven and down into the deep, but it matters little if we are going onward all the time, and upward to the glorious end. The Lord sets the one beside the other.
III. This word of explanation as we end. Why has God allowed it thus to be? Why does He give us joy to-day and grief to-morrow? It is that we may realize that His way is not of a set pattern; that He works according to a programme of His own choosing; that though He is a God of order, that order may be very different from our order; that we may come to no conclusion as to the probabilities of our experiences to-morrow, that we may make no plans too far ahead; that we may not peer behind the curtain of obscurity and futurity. (Thomas Spurgeon.)
Be not righteous overmuch.
The “righteous overmuch”
When the worldling sees another anxiously caring for the things of his soul or attending earnestly to the duties of religion, he is apt to refer to this text, and to say, “Be not righteous overmuch.” At first sight one might imagine, that of this warning in this wicked world there can be no special need. And if we search among our kinsfolk, shall we find many of whom we can say, that they are “righteous overmuch”? Do we remember ever having heard, or ever having met the man who has said, “I have boon ruined because I went to church too often--because I have engaged continually in meditation and prayer”? People seem to think that some degree of religion is necessary, but while they admit the fact that some degree of religion is necessary, and will take care of what is the minimum of faith and good works which will save them from damnation, they accuse other persons, who think it safer to obey the Gospel injunction which says, “go on unto perfection,” of the sin of being “righteous overmuch.” But look a little forward. A few years hence, the Lord Jesus will come again into this world to be our Judge. Before the judgment-seat of Christ, Satan, the accuser of the brethren, will stand; by our side he will stand; and when he says of any one, “I accuse him of being ‘righteous overmuch,’“ what think you will be the decision of the Divine Judge? Will He say, “Oh, thou wicked servant! thou hast been very scrupulous in thy conscience; thou hast prayed seven times a day instead of twice; thou hast fasted sometimes as well as prayed; thou hast gone to church every day, instead of confining thy devotions to the Sunday; because of these things, on account of thy committing these things, thou hast committed the great sin of being ‘righteous overmuch,’ and therefore thou shalt be ‘cast into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’; ‘depart from Me,’ ye ‘righteous overmuch,’ ‘into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels’”? The very thought of such a judgment proceeding from the mouth of the all-righteous Judge is so monstrous that we have only to state the case as I just have done, and by that statement we show the folly as well as the iniquity of those who would lower the tone of religion among us by this fear, lest their neighbours should commit this imaginary sin of being “righteous overmuch.” It is said, again, that too much religion makes men morose; and there are pretenders to religion both censorious and morose. Some, perhaps a vast number of those who assume to themselves the character of being religions, are like the Pharisees of old, mere hypocrites, men who deceive themselves by supposing that under the cloak of religion they may freely indulge the worst and most malignant passions of their nature. We frankly admit that they who preach against being “righteous overmuch” have here their strongest ground. But deal fairly with this case also--is it religion that has made these men what they are? Were they not morose in temper before they pretended to be religious? Were they not crafty in their dealings with the world before they became deceivers in things spiritual? You do not know any one who, having been frank, generous, disinterested, noble-hearted before his conversion, has become morose because he has learnt to love his God as well as his neighbour, and enthusiastically to labour for the promotion of his Saviour’s glory. It is true, he takes a new view of the amusements of the world; but is that of necessity a morose view? It is not moroseness but advancement, that raises the true Christian above the things of this world, which’ renders him independent of external things, while he can affectionately sympathize with those who are now what he once was, and whom he hopes to see ere long, by the mercy of God, even further advanced than he himself as yet may be. For true Christianity rejoices in the spiritual progress of another. Perhaps it may occur to some that in speaking thus I am speaking rather against than for the text. But it is merely against a wrong interpretation of the text that I am preaching. One part of our text shows at once that it is not to be understood literally--that part which says, “make not thyself over-wise.” Now, they who are very fearful lest they should be over-righteous, are seldom alarmed on the score of their being over-wise. I call upon you to dismiss from your mind all idle fears lest you should become “righteous overmuch”: and in the name of our God, I exhort you to take good heed, lest you become overmuch wicked, and be not righteous enough. Oh! here is the real danger; this is the sin against which we have really need to be warned. And, ask you, how are you to know whether you are righteous enough? That is a question to which neither I nor any one else can give an answer. What, then, is the conclusion but this--“be as righteous as you possibly can; go on improving; seek to grow in grace; attend to little things, as well as great; be always careful lest you should not be righteous enough, if God were this day to require your soul of you. Be very careful lest you should be overmuch wicked; let no man scare you from your duty, in seeking to advance in the straight and narrow path, which leadeth unto life, by their suggestions that ye be not “righteous overmuch.” (Dean Hook.)
This text may fairly be taken as a warning against strained piety. It is a common thing for religion to run wild; for goodness to be pushed on wrong lines; for it to be strained, arbitrary, inharmonious, and exaggerated.
I. It sometimes reveals itself in doctrinal fastidousness. Paul writes to Timothy, “Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” Hold fast the form, the pattern. The religion of Christ finds expression in the definite, the concrete, the intelligible. But some of us are not content until we have etherealized the great articles of our faith, made our creed vague, intangible, and generally such as it is not possible for a man to utter. De Quincey said of Coleridge, touching the poet’s endless refinements and transcendentalisms, “He wants better bread than can be made with wheat.” That is rather a common failure in our day, and especially with men of a certain temper. They refine and sublimate their creed until they nearly lose hold of the substantial saving verity.
II. It reveals itself in morbid introspectiveness. There is, of course, such a thing as a just introspection, that a man looks closely into his own heart and life. It is, indeed, a solemn duty that we should examine ourselves in the sight of God. And yet this duty is often misconceived and pressed to false issues. Men sometimes get morbid about the state of their health. For example, there are the people who are always weighing themselves. Their feelings go up or down with their weight; they are the sport of their gravity. We all feel that such solicitude is a mistake; it is the sign of a morbid, miserable condition. But good people are, not rarely, victims of a similar morbidity: jealous about their religious state, curious about obscure symptoms, always with beating heart putting themselves into the balances of the sanctuary. This habit may prove most hurtful. It makes men morally weak and craven; it destroys their peace; it robs their life of brightness.
III. It reveals itself in an exacting conscientiousness. It was said of Grote that “he suffered from a pampered conscience.” Many good people do. A fastidious moral sense. It is a legal maxim that “the law concerneth not itself with trifles,” and the court is specially impatient of “frivolous and vexatious” charges. But some of us are evermore arraigning ourselves at the bar of conscience about arbitrary, frivolous, vexatious things. It is a great mistake. A true and noble conscience is tender, quick, incisive, imperative; but it is also large, majestic, generous, as is the eternal law of which it is the organ. We cannot pretend to go through life with a conscience akin to those delicate balances which are sensitive to a pencil-mark; if we attempt such painful minuteness, we are likely to be incapable of doing justice to the weightier matters of the law.
IV. This strained piety not rarely reveals itself in the inordinate culture of some special virtue. For some reason or other a man conceives a special affection for a particular excellence; it engrosses his attention; it shines in his eye with unique splendour. But this extreme love for any one virtue may easily become a snare. A literary botanist says, “Most of the faults of flowers are only exaggerations of some right tendency.” May not the same be said about the faults of some Christians?
V. It reveals itself in striving after impracticable standards of character. It is a fine characteristic of Christianity that it is so sane, reasonable, practical, humane; it never forgets our nature and situation, our relations and duty. But many think to transcend the goodness of Christianity; they are dreaming of loftier types of character, of sublimer principles, of more illustrious lives than Christianity knows. Fanciful ideals exhaust us, distort us, destroy us. What sweet, bright, fragrant flowers God has made to spring on the earth--cowslips in the meadow, daffodils by the pools, primroses in the woods, myrtles, wall-flowers, lavenders, pinks, roses to bloom in the garden, an infinite wealth of colour and sweetness and virtue! But in these days we are tired of God’s flowers, and with a strange wantonness we have taken to dyeing them for ourselves: the world is running after queer blossoms that our fathers knew not--yellow asters, green carnations, blue dahlias, red lilacs. And in the moral world we are guilty of similar freaks. “Learn of Me,” says the Master. Yes; let us go back to Him who was without excess or defect. Nothing is more wonderful about our Lord than His perfect naturalness, His absolute balance, His reality, reasonableness, artlessness, completeness. With all His mighty enthusiasm He never oversteps the modesty of nature. (W. L. Watkinson.)
The danger of being over-righteous or over-wise
There may be several accounts given of these words if we take them as spoken by Solomon.
1. They seem to refer to the method of God’s dealing with good and bad men in this world; of which he spake (Ecclesiastes 7:15). Be not too strict and severe in passing judgment on God’s providence; be not more righteous and wise than God is; do not think you could govern the world better than He doth; pry not toe far into those mysteries which are too deep for you; why shoulder thou confound thyself?
2. They may refer to religion; but then they are not to be understood of what is truly and really so; but of what passes in the world for it; and men may esteem themselves very much for the sake of it. For although men cannot exceed in the main and fundamental duties of religion, in the belief and fear and love of God; yet they may, and often do, mistake in the nature and measures and bounds of what they account duties of religion.
3. They may be taken in a moral sense for that righteousness which men are to show towards each other, both in judgment and practice; and for that wisdom, which mankind is capable of, as a moral virtue; and in both these there are extremes to be avoided; and so they are not to be righteous overmuch, nor to make themselves over-wise.
4. The mischief they bring upon themselves, by being thus severe towards others.
5. We may be righteous overmuch in the moral practice of righteousness towards others.
6. To conclude all by way of advice as to the general sense of these words--
Many a really good man has made enemies to himself by his rigid adherence to, and unwise advocacy of, what might be called no more than a mistaken scruple; while not a few who seemed to be running well have fallen away altogether from the profession and practice of the truth, by mistaken views of their own liberty. Hence, says this instructor, beware of both extremes: “Be not righteous overmuch, neither make thyself over-wise”: or, in other words, do not imagine that thou hast a monopoly of the wisdom of the world. “Why shouldest thou destroy thyself?” But, on the other hand (I would that our scoffer, would quote this too), “Be not overmuch wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?”
I. Look at those things which this precept neither touches nor forbids.
1. It does not touch the idea that the whole man should be under the power of the truth. This, in fact, is needful, to have anything which the Word of God could call religion, or righteousness; for it is the heart that determines what the action is, and not the action which gives its character to the heart. The sulphurous spring, with its healing properties, takes its nature from the strata in which it has its source; and he would be a fool who should say that the water gave its properties to them. The fruit is determined by the nature of the tree, not the nature of the tree by the fruit. I admit, indeed, nay contend, that the fruit evidences what the nature of the tree is; but it does so only because the tree gives its nature to the fruit, and not the fruit to the tree. Now, in perfect harmony with this principle that pervades nature, it is the heart of a man which gives its character to the man, and to the man’s life; and hence, unless his heart be right with God, he has no religion worthy of the name, and is not, in the Scripture sense, a righteous man. Let no one who is unconverted, therefore, shelter himself under a false interpretation of these words. Conversion is not being righteous overmuch; regeneration is not too much of a good thing; but contrariwise. It is that one indispensable thing without which there is no righteousness at all, and the soul is still in sin.
2. This text neither touches nor condemns the idea that a man should be under the influence of the truth at all times; for, of course, if his heart be under its power, he cannot but be so always. Nevertheless, it is of importance enough to have a place by itself; for there are multitudes who have here, too, the most fallacious opinions. Religion, they say, is for Sabbath. Or, if they extend its province farther, and allow it to come into the week-day at all, they are careful to confine it to the closet, and never by any chance permit it to go farther. They write up on the door of their counting-room or their workshop, “No admittance, except on business”: and as they conceive Religion has no business there, she is unceremoniously shut out. “Everything,” say they, “in its own place; and this is not the place for Religion.” And if she is not suffered to enter the place of business, still less, if possible, is she perturbed to make her appearance in the hall of pleasure. There is a time for everything; is there? “Yes,” you answer, “so Solomon says.” But will you please to turn to the passage, and see if, amid his exhaustive enumeration of things for which there is a time, you will find this: “There is a time for religion, and a time to have no religion.” You will look for that in vain; and such an omission is of very great significance. No doubt you will say, “But then we cannot always be engaged in religious exercises.” Ah! but you have shifted your ground; religious exercises is not religion. There are many so-called religious exercises, I will venture to say, in which there is no religion at all; and there are many exercises, which are not so denominated, in which there is a great deal. Would you confine the blood to the heart, and not allow it to circulate to the extremities of the body? No more need you attempt to confine religion to one place, or to imprison her into one day. She will not be chained thus to one spot; she must, and she will, have free course; and if, in your view, it is being righteous overmuch, to seek always and everywhere to serve God, then it is a sure sign that you have yet to learn wherein true righteousness consists.
II. Now, consider what this precept does forbid.
1. When other important duties are neglected for the purpose of engaging in what are called, strictly speaking, religious meetings, such a case comes clearly under the prohibition of the text. The multiplication of religious meetings seems to me to be fast becoming one of the evils of the day. I have often admired the answer of a working-man, who, being asked by his neighbour one Monday morning why he did not come out a third time on the previous day, when the minister preached an able sermon on family training, replied, “Because I was at home doing it.” Now, this reply will help you to understand my meaning. I do not want the attendance on such meetings to interfere with the “at home doing it.” Unless this be watched, the religion will become a thing of mere spiritual dissipation, and thereafter it will dwindle into a lifeless form, and entirely lose its power.
2. This prohibition fairly enough applies to those who, by their religious fasting and asceticism, so weaken their bodies as to render them incapable of attending to their proper work. God asks no man to starve himself for His glory. He bids us rather attend to our bodily health, and spend our strength by working in His service.
3. This prohibition touches and forbids the magnifying of small points of religious opinion into essential importance, and the thinking of it a matter of conscience and of duty to have no fellowship with those who do not hold them.
4. The principle of my text touches and prohibits all trust in personal righteousness for acceptance with God. Every man who thinks to work out his own righteousness, is righteous overmuch. Indeed, I question very much if the idea of working out something which may have merit in God’s sight, is not, in one form or other, at the bottom of those things which I have enumerated. (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)
In considering the text we may, I apprehend, at once, with perfect safety, decide what cannot be the true meaning of the inspired writer. It cannot, in the first place, be his design to imply that our feelings of piety and devotion towards God can strike into our hearts with too deep a root, or can press upon us with too close and powerful an influence. In the second place, it cannot be his intention to convey the idea that the sincere endeavour of any human beings to secure the eternal salvation of their souls can be too strong, too constant, or too earnest. Neither, in the third place, can we possibly err, on the side of a faulty excess, in scrupulously endeavouring to discharge all the duties of morality. If we love God, we must keep His commandments. We cannot be too watchful against temptations, too guarded against the seductions of sinful pleasure, too careful to check every intemperate and irregular desire. Neither can we be too anxious to perform our duties towards our fellow-creatures; too kind, beneficent, and merciful, too just or honest in our dealings. It must, therefore, be perfectly clear that, when we are cautioned against “being righteous overmuch,” as well as against making ourselves “over-wise,” we are cautioned, not against extremes in respect to true righteousness, or true wisdom, but against mistakes in the pursuit of both these excellencies, and false pretensions to them. A person may be said to “make himself over-wise” when he mistakes the ends of true wisdom, or when he follows false wisdom instead of true, or when he pretends to possess it in matters where he is really deficient. And so, in a corresponding sense, he may become “righteous overmuch,” when he professes to be more righteous than others, and really is not so, wearing his religion merely on the outside, and not inwardly in the heart; or when he mistakes the means of righteousness for the end; or when, in some manner or other, he follows and exhibits a false kind of righteousness instead of that which the Word of God, rightly understood, prescribes and enjoins. (G. D’Oyly, D. D.)
Be not righteous overmuch
1. In general, they are righteous overmuch who run into any excess in the practice of those acts which are of a religious nature, which are good, and absolutely necessary in a certain degree; such, for example, as prayer, contemplation, retirement, reading the Scriptures and other good books, frequenting the public worship of God, instructing others, abstinence, mortification, almsgiving, and religious conversation. These things are overdone when the practice of any of them interferes with other necessary duties, so as to cause them to be omitted, or when they are carried further than the health of the body, or the attention of the mind, can accompany them, or the situation and circumstances of life can admit.
2. Over-righteousness consists also in everything that is properly called will-worship--the invention and the practice of such expedients of appeasing or of pleasing God as neither reason nor revelation suggest; and which, since they are not contained in the law of nature, or in the law of God, must either be wicked, or at least frivolous and foolish.
3. Religious zeal, being naturally brisk and resolute, is a warmth of temper which may easily run into excesses, and which breaks in upon the great law of charity, when it produces oppression and persecution. The zealot pleads conscience for his own behaviour, but never will allow that plea in those who dissent from him: and what a perverse and saucy absurdity is this!
4. Over-righteousness hath conspicuously appeared in indiscreet austerities, a solitary life, a voluntary poverty, and vows of celibacy. I join all these together, because they have very often gone together.
5. This leads us to another instance of over-righteousness, which was common amongst the ancient Jews or Hebrews, namely, making solemn vows to God, without duly considering the inconveniences which might attend them. Such vows either ended in neglecting to perform them, which was perjury; or in performing them with a slovenly sorrow and reluctance, and in offending God, who loveth a cheerful giver.
6. Zeal, or righteousness, is carried beyond its bounds when men run into unnecessary danger even for a good cause. The ancient Christians had a laudable zeal for the Gospel; but it carried some of them into excessive imprudence in provoking, insulting, and defying their Pagan enemies, and seeking out martyrdom when they were not called to it. But it was observable that several of these rash zealots, when it came to the trial, fell off shamefully, and renounced their religion; whilst other Christians, who were timorous and diffident, who fled and hid themselves, and used every lawful method to shun persecution, being seized upon and brought forth to suffer, behaved, by the gracious assistance of God, with exemplary courage and constancy.
7. Another instance of over-righteousness appears in a busy, meddling, intriguing forwardness to reform defects, real or supposed, in the doctrines, discipline, or manners of the Christian community. Every one is not qualified for the office of a reformer. He hath a call, he will say, but a call to be turbulent and troublesome is not a call from God.
8. Lastly, a modest and a prudent man will not be over-righteous in the following instances: he will not be forward to rebuke all evil-doers at all times, and on all occasions, when the bad temper, or the high station of the offenders may make them impatient of censure, and draw upon him for an answer, Who made thee a judge and a ruler over us? Mind thy own concerns, and mend thy own manners. He will not be fond of disputing with every one who is in an error. It may be observed that in almost all debates, even between civil and polite contenders, the issue is, that each departs with the same sentiments which he brought along with him, and after much hath been said, nothing is done on either side, by way of conviction. This will make a wise man not over-fond of the task of mending wrong heads. (J. Jortin, D. D.)
A perilous compromise
That is most soothing and comforting counsel for the indolent soul. “Be not righteous overmuch.” What an easy yoke! How mild the requirements! How delightfully lax the discipline! Why, the school is just a playground! Have we any analogous counsel in our own day? In what modern guise does it appear? Here is a familiar phrase: “We can have too much of a good thing.” Such is the general application of the proverb. But the Word is stretched out to include the sphere of religion. The counsel runs somewhat in this wise; we require a little religion ii we would drink the nectar of the world, and we require a little worldliness if we would really appreciate the flavour of religion. To put the counsel baldly, we need a little devilry to make life spicy. That is one modern shape of the old counsel. Here is the old counsel in another dress: “We must wink at many things.” We must not be too exactingly scrupulous. That is the way to march through life easily, attended by welcome comforts. Don’t be too particular; “be not righteous overmuch.” Here is a third dress in which the old counsel appears in modern times: “In Rome, one must do as Rome does.” Our company must determine our moral attire. We must have the adaptability of a chameleon. If we are abstainers, don’t let us take our scrupulosity into festive and convivial gatherings. Don’t let us throw wet blankets over the genial crowd. If some particular expedient, some rather shaky policy be prevalent in your line of business, do not stand out an irritating exception. “Be not righteous overmuch.” Now, let us pass from the Book of Ecclesiastes to another part of the sacred Word, and listen to a voice from a higher sphere. What says the prophet Isaiah? “Your wine is mixed with water.” The people had been carrying out the counsel of Koheleth. They had been diluting their righteousness. They had been putting a little water into their wine. The prophet proclaims that God will not accept any dilutions. He will not accept a religion that is watered down. He despises a devotion which has been thinned into compromise. In many parts of the Old Testament this perilous compromise is condemned. “They have given their tears to the altar, and have married the daughter of a strange god.” “They feared the Lord and served their own gods.” This is the type of broken fellowship and of impaired devotion against Which the prophets of the Old Testament direct their severest indictments. Let us pass on now to the day when the light is come, and the “glory of the Lord” is risen upon us. Let us hear the counsel and command of “the Word made flesh.” “Be ye perfect;” that is the injunction of the Master. We are to carry the refining and perfecting influences of religion into everything. Everywhere it is to be pervasive of life, as the blood is pervasive of the flesh. Everything in our life is to constitute an allurement to help to draw the world to the feet of the risen Lord. This all-pervasive religion, this non-compromising religion, is the only one that discovers the thousand secret sweets that are yielded by the Hill of Zion. It is the only religion that presses the juice out of the grapes of life, and drinks the precious essences which God hath prepared for them that love Him. “Be ye perfect;” sanctify the entire round, never be off duty, and life will become an apocalypse of ever-heightening and ever-brightening glory. (J. H. Jowett, M. A.)
Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight which He hath made crooked?
The power of God, and the duty of man
I. What we are to understand by “the work of God.” This is an expression often used in the Scriptures, and has different significations. In one place it refers to the two tables of stone, containing the Ten Commandments, written by the finger of God and given to Moses. In another to the reception of the Lord Jesus Christ by faith (John 6:29-30). In a third to the progress of the Gospel, and to the influence of the Holy Spirit in the heart, by which a radical change is effected, and holy tempers produced (Romans 14:20). In the text it is evidently used to point out to us the infinitely wise arrangement of all the situations and circumstances of the sons of men: that the bounds of their habitation are marked out by Him to whom all things in earth and heaven owe their existence.
II. The impossibility of altering or defeating the purposes of god. To prove this, might I not refer to the experience and observation of all people? Our fields may be cultivated with all imaginable care--we may sow the best corn that can be procured--but if the will of the Lord be so, we can reap nothing but disappointment. If He designs to chastise a guilty people by sending a famine upon them, lie can make a worm, or a dew, hail, storm, or lightning, to blast man’s hope in a moment, and to teach him that except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it; and that except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain (Psalms 127:1). If it be His will to fill a sinner with remorse of conscience, He can make him cry out with Cain, My punishment is greater than I can bear--or with Joseph’s brethren, when they imagined that vengeance was about to overtake them, We are verily guilty concerning our brother--or with Judas, I have sinned, in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. All hearts are in His hand; His power rules over all; none can stay that hand or resist successfully that power.
III. The duty incumbent on man to be satisfied with his lot. A sinner by nature and practice, man deserves no blessing from his Maker--he can lay no claim to a continuance of present mercies, nor has he in himself any ground to hope for fresh ones--of course everything he enjoys is unmerited. Is it for such a being as this to be dissatisfied with what he possesses, because others possess more? Is it for him to think that he is hardly dealt with, while oppressed by pain, sickness; hunger or thirst--when a moment’s reflection ought to convince him that anything short of hell is a blessing? The heart must be changed by the grace of God before it can rejoice in tribulation--and testify that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and it is through the belief of the Gospel that this change is effected.
IV. Consideration is an important and plainly enjoined duty--and when we take into account the character of man, and the distractions produced in his mind by visible things, its necessity is quite apparent. Let us then consider that we are not called upon to account for the Lord’s dealings, or to make the vain attempt of reconciling the seeming contrarieties in the Divine administration. If clouds and darkness are round about Him, we may yet be sure that righteousness and judgment are the habitation of His throne. His servants will one day understand, as far as is necessary, everything which now appears dark and perplexing, and in the mean season they are called to live by faith--to “take no thought for the morrow”--to “commit their ways unto Him,” and to be satisfied with the assurance that “the Judge of all the earth does right.” (P. Roe, M. A.)
The crook in the lot
A just view of afflicting incidents is altogether necessary to a Christian deportment under them: and that view is to be obtained only by faith, not by sense. For it is the light of the Word alone that represents them justly, discovering in them the work of God, and consequently designs becoming the Divine perfections. These perceived by the eye of faith, and duly considered, one has a just view of afflicting incidents, fitted to quell the turbulent motions of corrupt affections under dismal outward appearances.
I. Whatsoever crook is in one’s lot, it is of God’s making.
1. As to the crook itself, the crook in the lot, for the better understanding thereof these few things following are premised.
2. Having seen the crook itself, we are, in the next place, to consider of God’s making it.
II. What crook God makes in our lot, we will not be able to even.
1. Show God’s marring and making a crook in one’s lot, as He sees meet.
2. Consider man’s attempting to mend or even that crook in their lot. This, in a word, lies in their making efforts to bring their lot in that point to their own will, that they may both go one way; so it imports three things.
3. In what sense it is to be understood, that we will not be able to mend or even the crook in our lot?
4. Reasons of the point.
1. There is a necessity of yielding and submitting under the crook in our lot; for we may as well think to remove the rocks and mountains, which God has settled, as to make that part of cur lot straight which He hath crooked.
2. The evening of the crook in our lot, by main force of our own, is but a cheat we put on ourselves, and will not last, but, like a stick by main force made straight, it will quickly return to the bow again.
3. The only effectual way of getting the crook evened is to apply to God for it.
1. Let us then apply to God for removing any crook in our lot, that in the settled order of things may be removed.
2. What crook there is, that, in the settled order of things, cannot be got removed or evened in this world, let us apply to God for suitable relief under it.
3. Let us then set ourselves rightly to bear and carry under the crock in our lot, while God sees meet to continue it. What we cannot mend, let us bear Christianity, and not fight against God. So let us bear it--
Motives to press this exhortation.
1. There will be no evening of it while God sees meet to continue it.
2. An awkward carriage under it notably increases the pain of it.
3. The crook in thy lot is the special trial God has chosen for thee to take thy measure by (1 Peter 1:6-7). Think, then, with thyself under it. Now, here the trial of my state turns; I must, by this be proven either sincere or a hypocrite. For--
4. The trial by the crook here will not last long (1 Corinthians 7:31).
5. If ye would, in a Christian manner, set yourselves to bear the crook, ye would find it easier than ye imagine (Matthew 11:29-30).
7. If ye do not carry Christianly under it, ye will lose your souls in the other world (Jude 1:15-16).
III. Considering the crook in the lot as the work of God is a proper means to bring one to carry rightly under it.
1. What it is to consider the crook as the work of God.
2. How is it to be understood to be a proper means to bring one to carry rightly under the crook?
3. I shall confirm that it is a proper mean to bring one to carry rightly under it.
(with Isaiah 40:4):--These two passages contain a question and the answer to it. We are taught therefrom that God, and God alone, can make that straight which He has permitted to be made crooked--that He alone can make that plain which He has allowed to become rough.
I. The inequalities, or crookedness, of temporal things.
1. We must first of all grant that crooked things are not necessarily evil things. Many of them are very beautiful--many very useful. If all the limbs of a tree were straight, how curious would be our surroundings! If all the fields were flat, how monotonous the landscape, and how unhealthy the situation! It is when crookedness takes the place of that which ought to be straight that the crookedness becomes an evil.
2. We must, secondly, bear in mind that these crooked things are made so by God--“that which God hath made crooked.” There are many reasons why He has done so, but He has not revealed all those reasons to us. Some, however, are so evident that we cannot but see them.
3. Let us now glance at some of these crooked things.
II. No human power can put these things straight. How could we expect anything different? How can man contravene the purposes of an almighty God? No more can we expect to rectify things in this world than we could expect to create the world itself.
III. The grand consummation referred to in our second text--“The crooked shall be made straight.” Yes; but this is by God Himself, and not by man. God shall put things straight by going down to the cause of their disorder. He will not attack the details like man would when he finds a medicine to cure a pain; but He will set the springs right, and then all the wheels will run with smoothness and regularity. (Homilist.)
The crooked in life
I. What is here implied. It is something crooked. What is this? It is not the same in all, but it may easily be found.
1. It is sometimes found in the mind. One complains of the slowness of his apprehension; another of a narrow capacity; another of a treacherous memory.
2. It is sometimes found in the body. Some are defective in their limbs. Some are the subjects of indisposition and infirmity.
3. It is sometimes found in our connections. Perhaps it is a bad wife. Perhaps it is a brother. Perhaps it is a servant. Perhaps it is a treacherous or a frail friend.
4. It is sometimes found in our calling or business. Bad times. Untoward events. Dear purchases and cheap sales. Bad debts.
5. Sometimes it is found in our condition considered at large. Is the man wealthy? In the midst of his sufficiency he is afraid of poverty. Has he been crowned with success? There is some circumstance that tarnishes the lustre, or mars the joy. Has he honour? This bringeth along with it defamation. Has be exquisite pleasure? It soon cloys, and the repetition of the scene becomes insipid.
II. What is expressed--namely, that God is the author of this. There is no such thing as chance in our world. Nothing can befall us without the permission and appointment of the all-disposing providence of our Heavenly Father. Now, how rational this is. Why, surely it is not beneath God to govern what it was not beneath Him to create!
III. What is enjoined. It is to “consider.”
1. So consider the work of God as to be led to acknowledge that resistance to it is useless.
2. See and acknowledge the propriety of acquiescence.
3. So consider the work of God as to improve it and turn it to advantage.
For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.
Man’s inability to keep the law perfectly
Here is the undoubted character of all the human race, fixing imperfection and sinfulness on the best of the kind in this world, and so concluding all to be liable to sin, and under it.
I. What is legal perfection, or perfect keeping of the commands. It is a perfect conformity of heart and life to the commands of God; and implies--
1. A perfection of the principles of action (Matthew 22:37).
2. A perfection of the part, as of obedience. No part must be lacking, every command of whatsoever nature must be kept (Galatians 3:10).
3. A perfection of degrees in every part (Matthew 22:37). Sincerity is not enough in the eye of the law. In everything one must come to the highest pitch, or there is no perfection.
4. A perfection of duration or continuance (Galatians 3:10). One bad trip after a course of obedience will mar all.
II. The attainableness of this perfection.
1. Adam before the fall was able to have kept the commands perfectly; he might have attained it; for “God made him upright” (Ecclesiastes 7:29).
2. The man Christ, who was not a mere man, but God-man, who was not only able to keep the law perfectly, but actually did so.
3. The saints in heaven are able, and do actually perfectly obey whatever God’s will to them is (Hebrews 12:23).
4. But since Adam fell, no mere man is able, while in this life, either of himself, or by virtue of any grace now given, to keep the commands perfectly (James 3:2). This inability is owing to the remains of corruption that cleaves to every one of them in this mortal state (Romans 7:2)
III. How the saints sin daily, and break the commands.
1. How many ways the commands may be broken.
2. In what respect the saints sin daily, in thought, word and deed.
3. How these failures of theirs break the commands, while they sincerely endeavour to obey them. Why, the moral law is the eternal rule of righteousness, and in whatever state the creature be, he is bound to obey his Creator, whether in a state of nature or grace, glory or damnation. And though perfection be not attainable in this life, yet it is the saints’ duty as well as that of others. So every coming short of that perfection is their sin, needing to be taken away by Christ’s blood.
IV. Confirm the point, that perfection is not attainable in this life.
1. The Scripture attests that there is no man without sin (1 Kings 8:46; James 3:2). If any man set up for it in himself, the Spirit of God says he deceives himself (1 John 1:8). See an unanswerable question (Proverbs 20:9).
2. The best have a corrupt as well as a gracious principle, making the spiritual combat never ending till death give the separating stroke (Galatians 5:17).
3. We are taught always to pray for pardon, “Forgive us our debts”: but sinless creatures need no pardons. This clearly shows that all sin, and so come short of perfect obedience.
4. Consider the spirituality of the law and its extent with human weakness, and you will see this clearly. (T. Boston, D. D.)
Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken: lest thou hear thy servant curse thee.
Listeners hear no good of themselves
I. We should pay some attention to what others think and say about us. What a force public opinion is! We cannot see it, nor touch it; and yet it is a great factor in shaping the character and actions alike of men and nations. Public opinion may be utterly wrong; and then we must oppose it at any cost, even though we stand alone. And some of us might do well to pay a little more attention than we do to the tone of thought and feeling around us. If a man see that his acts and life are giving pain to others, that he is a stumblingblock to his neighbours, even though it only be to those whom he would consider weaker brethren; and if he go on his way recklessly, regardless of what men say or think, verily he will not be able to free himself from guilt. By such thoughtlessness we are apt to harden, to irritate, to mislead our fellows.
II. We should not be too curious to know what other people think of us. Some men are selfish or obstinate. They do what is pleasant; they follow the path which in their own eyes seems right. Am I my brother’s keeper? they exclaim, in answer to every remonstrance. We are all one family, closely united, and at every point we are hurting or helping one another. There are thousands, however, who err on the opposite side. They allow the opinion of the world, the fashion of the day, to shape their life and character. There are many whose life is darkened for a whole day because some one has said a severe word about them and the report of it has reached their ears. It is foolish to make so much of the world’s opinion. For think how much idle gossip is floating about everywhere. Sharp words are often spoken in a passion, or under a misconception, and the speaker regrets them bitterly afterwards. He is a wise man who is not anxious to hear too much.
III. We should always be anxious to know God’s opinion of us, and to have his approval. Some one may say, I do not mind what men say of me; but, oh, that I knew God’s opinion of me I It is easy to know it. “The Father Himself loveth you, because ye have loved Me.” Do you love Christ? Then you are loved by God.” He that believeth not the Son . . . the wrath of God abideth on him.” Have you never trusted Christ as your Saviour? Then God’s wrath has its resting-place upon you. (W. Park, M. A.)
A woman among all those have I not found.
Solomon’s estimate of woman
This sentence of Solomon has been often quoted to show the utter worthlessness of the female character. It is, however, an entirely worthless conclusion as regards woman when placed in her legitimate and appropriate sphere as the one sole companion of man’s life in love, cares and labours. As well might the tyrant who, by cruelty, has alienated his subjects, complain that he has failed to find loyal men, as the debauchee, who has subjected hundreds to his lust, that he had found no noble, virtuous woman. It is not thus that the commerce of love is carried on. Pearls are not to be exchanged for pebbles. The law of love which God has established is heart for heart; and the affections that are dissipated among a thousand objects must ever be without return of that which yet the soul seeks--the undivided love. Of this fact Solomon seems to have had a dim perception when he gives those never-to-be-forgotten advises to the young man, to avoid the strange woman whose steps take hold on hell, and to live joyfully with the wife of his youth. It was not given to Solomon, wise as he was, to limn the picture of the virtuous woman, but to another king whose wisdom was derived from the inspiration of his mother. The words of Lemuel are well worthy of our attention, both as neutralizing the false impression produced by Solomon’s philosophy, and as showing what the true woman is (Proverbs 31:10-31). (J. Bennet.)
God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions.
Man in his original and in his lapsed stage
I. God made man upright. Our text, then, teaches us that man was made in a state of perfect conformity to some rule. If it is asked, what rule? I answer, the law of God, for this is the only perfect, immutable and eternal rule to which God requires His creatures to be conformed, and in conformity to which rectitude or uprightness consists.
1. A state of perfect conformity to the Divine law implies the possession of an understanding perfectly acquainted with that law.
2. A state of perfect uprightness, or conformity to the Divine law, implies a memory which faithfully retains all its precept.
3. A state of perfect conformity to the Divine law implies a conscience which always faithfully applies it.
4. A state of perfect conformity to the Divine law implies a heart which perfectly loves that law.
5. A state of perfect conformity to the law of God implies a will perfectly obedient and submissive to that law; or, in other words, to the Divine government and authority.
6. There still remains one faculty possessed by man, which it is necessary to consider--that which is usually called the imagination. When man left the forming hand of his Maker, this faculty, like the others which we have mentioned, was entirely free from moral imperfection. Instead of filling the mind, as it now does, with vain thoughts, waking dreams, and worthless or sinful fancies, it presented nothing but holy images of spiritual and heavenly objects.
II. Though God made man thus upright, they have sought out many inventions.
1. Men have sought out or invented many new ways in which to walk, forsaking the good old way in which God originally placed them.
2. Men have forsaken the one living and true God, in whom they live, and move, and are, and sought out or invented innumerable false gods and created idols, to which they give that homage and attention which are due to Him alone.
3. Men have ceased to be conformed to the Divine law, and have sought out many other rules--rules more agreeable to their present sinful inclinations--by which to regulate and try their conduct. Some adopt for this purpose the laws of their country; others the opinion of some human teacher; while a third and more numerous class govern themselves by the maxims which pass currently in the society of which they happen to be members. Thus, in various ways, men measure themselves by themselves, and compare themselves among themselves, and therefore are net wise; for while they follow these rules of human invention, they have lost all that uprightness, that conformity to the Divine law, which has been described.
4. Notice, among the inventions of sinful man the innumerable excuses, pleas and apologies which he has sought out to justify his conduct, and to make himself appear unfortunate, rather than criminal. (E. Payson, D. D.)
The original state of man, and the covenant of works
I. The natural form or constitution of man, as man. The primitive bodies of our first parents were not subject to the deformities and infirmities, the fatigues of labour, and the injuries of climates, or seasons, nor to distempers, violence and death which we are now exposed to; and no doubt but they were built with various beauties of due proportions, colour and form vastly superior to all that now appear in the ruins of human nature. But the chief glory of the natural form of man lies in his soul, which is an incorporeal, invisible and immortal, intelligent, free and active being, and so bears the natural image of God, as He is a Spirit. The bands of union between soul and body, and the way of their influencing and impressing one ,another, lie among the unsearchable mysteries of nature of which we have no ideas. But this we know, that by their union with each other to constitute a human person, the glories of the upper and lower worlds are in a sort epitomized and shadowed out in man.
II. His moral state or condition as an upright man.
1. With respect to his rectitude.
2. With respect to his happiness.
III. The tenure by which or the terms upon which he was to hold this moral state. It was not entailed upon him by any absolute promise that he should continue in it; nor was it put upon a mere act of Divine sovereignty whether he should hold or lose it; the first would have left no room for a trial of his obedience, and the last would have taken away a grand article of his encouragement to that obedience and of his pleasure in it. But he was to hold it by a covenant of works, upon condition of perfect obedience to the end of that state of probation in which it became the wisdom of God to place him.
IV. The concern that all mankind had therein. He whom God created after His own image is to be considered as a public person, who was to hold or lose that happy state, not only for himself, but for all his natural offspring. Had he creed, we had all been blessed and confirmed in blessedness with him, as upon his fall, Scripture and experience assure us, we lost it with him. Use:--
1. This shows what dreadful work sin has made in the world.
2. This shows that all good is from God, and all evil from ourselves.
3. Let us be deeply affected with the present state of human nature.
4. Let us turn our eyes to the better covenant and the better Head which God has provided for our recovery. (J. Guyse, D. D.)
The state of innocence
I. The righteousness of this state wherein man was created. “God made him upright.”
1. This supposes a law to which he was conformed in his creation; as when anything is made regular, or according to rule, of necessity the rule itself is presupposed. Whence we may gather that this law was no other than the eternal, indispensable law of righteousness observed in all points by the second Adam, opposed by the carnal mind, and some notions of which remain yet among the Pagans, who, “having not the law, are a law unto themselves” (Romans 2:14).
2. From what has been said it may be gathered that the original righteousness explained was universal and natural, yet mutable.
3. It was mutable; it was a righteousness that might he lost, as is manifested by the doleful event. Let no man quarrel with God’s works in this; for if Adam had been unchangeably righteous, he must have been so either by nature or by free gift: by nature he could not be so, for that is proper to God, and incommunicable to any creature; if by free gift, then no wrong was done to him in withholding what he could not crave.
II. Some of those things which accompanied or flowed from the righteousness of man’s primitive state. Happiness is the result of holiness; and as this was a holy, so it was a happy state.
1. Man was then a very glorious creature. There was no impurity to be seen without; no squint look in the eyes, after any unclean thing; the tongue spoke nothing but the language of heaven; and, in a word, “the King’s son was all-glorious within,” and his “clothing of wrought gold.”
2. He was the favourite of Heaven. While he was alone in the world he was not alone, for God was with him. His communion and fellowship were with his Creator, and that immediately; for as yet there was nothing to turn away the face of God from the work of His own hands, seeing sin had not as yet entered, which alone could make the breach.
3. God made him lord of the world, prince of the inferior creatures, universal lord and emperor of the whole earth. The Lord dealt most liberally and bountifully with him--“put all things under his feet”: only He kept one thing, one tree in the garden, out of his hands, even the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But you may say, and did He grudge him this? I answer, Nay; but when He had made him thus holy and happy, He graciously gave him this restriction, which was in its own nature a prop and stay to keep him from falling. And this I say upon these three grounds:--
4. As he had a perfect tranquillity within his own breast, so he had a perfect calm without. His heart had nothing to reproach him with; conscience, then, had nothing to do but to direct, approve, and feast him; and, without, there was nothing to annoy him.
5. Man had a life of pure delight and unalloyed pleasure in this state. God placed him, not in a common place of the earth; but in Eden, a place eminent for pleasantness, as the name of it imports; nay, not only in Eden, but in the Garden of Eden; the mast pleasant spot of that pleasant place; a garden planted by God Himself, to be the mansion-house of this His favourite.
6. tie was immortal. He would never have died if he had not sinned; it was in case of sin that death was threatened (Genesis 2:17), which shows it to be the consequence of sin, and not of the sinless human nature.
III. The doctrine of the state of innocence applied.
1. For information.
2. This conveys a reproof to three sorts of persons.
3. Of lamentation. Here was a stately building; man carved like a fair palace, but now lying in ashes: let us stand and look on the ruins, and drop a tear. Ah, may we not now say, “0 that we were as in months past!” when there was no stain in our nature, no cloud on our minds, no pollution in our hearts! Had we never been in better case, the matter had been less; but they that were brought up in scarlet do now embrace dunghills. Where is our primitive glory now? (T. Boston, D. D.)
Man’s creation in a holy, but mutable, state
I. God endued the nature of man, in his creation, with a perfect and universal rectitude.
1. All created rectitude consists in conformity to some rule or law.
2. The highest rule of all created rectitude is the will of God, considered as including most intrinsically an eternal and immutable reason, justice and goodness.
3. Any sufficient signification of this will, touching the reasonable creature’s duty, is a law, indispensably obliging such a creature.
4. The law given to Adam at his creation was partly natural, given by way of internal impression upon his soul; partly positive, given (as is probable) by some more external discovery or revelation.
5. Adam was endued in his creation with a sufficient ability and habitude to conform to this whole law, both natural and positive; in which ability and habitude his original rectitude did consist.
II. Man’s defection from his primitive state was merely voluntary, and from the unconstrained choice of his own mutable and self-determining will.
1. The nature of man is now become universally depraved and sinful. This Scripture is full of (1 Kings 8:46; Psalms 14:1; Romans 3:10-19; Romans 3:23; Romans 5:12-13; Romans 5:17-19; 1 John 5:19, etc.), and experience and common observation put it beyond dispute.
2. The pure and holy nature of God could never be the original of man’s sin. This is evident in itself. God disclaims it; nor can any affirm it of Him without denying His very being (Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalms 5:4; 3 John 1:11).
3. It is blasphemous and absurd to talk of two principles (as the Manichees of old); the one good, and the cause of all good; the other evil, and the cause of all evil.
4. It was not possible that either external objects, or the temptation of the devil, should necessitate the will of man to sin.
5. The whole nature of sin consisting only in a defect, no other cause need be assigned of it than a defective; that is, an understanding, will, and inferior powers, however originally good, yet mutably and defectively so.
6. Man, being created mutable as to his holiness, must needs be so as to his happiness too. And that both upon a legal account (for the law had determined that if he did sin he must die), and also upon a natural; for it was not possible that, his soul being once depraved by sin, the powers of it vitiated, their order each to other and toward their objects broken and interrupted, there should remain a disposition and aptitude to converse with the Highest Good. (John Howe, M. A.)
I. Man’s primitive innocence.
II. Man’s acquired sin.
1. It is striking to observe that “many inventions” is in the plural. Righteousness is spoken of as oneness, singleness of heart. But the ways of sin are many.
2. These ways are of man’s seeking--sought out. All men have followed the example of Adam, seeking ways of happiness beyond what God has prescribed for them. True happiness is only to be found in His service, and if man seeks it elsewhere he will be disappointed.
1. The folly of palliating our condition, or assuming a character we do not possess. A man’s character may possess much that is lovely, but the best are fallen creatures.
2. The folly of casting the blame of our sinfulness on God. God originally made man upright.
3. The folly of supposing that we can recover ourselves from the fall.
4. The blessedness of comparing our own folly with the wisdom of God, and our present wretched condition with that which He has provided. He can restore and recover us through the sacrifice of Christ, and His vicarious atonement on our behalf. (Homilist.)
At first sight it would seem almost incredible that a being endowed and circumstanced as was Adam, probably informed that not only his own happiness, but that of an unnumbered posterity, depended on his obedience to a single command, should have signally failed in his probation, and provoked a curse which the least steadfastness might have averted. Our only business now, however, in examining this matter, is with the truth that “God made man upright,” and that in making him upright He had done enough for His creature. You may, indeed, say that God might have so constituted Adam that he should have been incapable of falling, and you may ask, “Why was he not thus constituted?” If you mean that human nature might have been such that to sin would have been impossible, we believe you to assert what is altogether incorrect. An incapacity of sinning is the property of no finite nature. The archangel, sublime in his prowess, is nevertheless finite--and what is finite may be measured and matched by temptation; add you must pass from the created to the uncreated, and bow down before Him who is every way infinite, ere you can find a being of whom to declare that he cannot sin because by nature inaccessible to evil. But then you will say, “If not by nature, undoubtedly by grace, our first parents might have been prevented from yielding; grace in sufficient measure to maintain them in their obedience had been granted to many angels, and might, if God had seen fit, have been granted to man.” Yes, it might; but grace, from its very nature, must be altogether free; God may give it or withhold it, according to His pleasure; and if there was no flaw in the original constitution of Adam, his powers having all that perfectness which consisted with creatureship, it could not have been at variance with any attribute of God to withhold that grace which should have kept him from falling. That God should have placed His creature in a share of probation, the trial being quite within the strength, and the reward of obedience unspeakably magnificent, you can imagine nothing more equitable, nothing more worthy every way of Deity; but there can be no probation where there is that prevention which you think might have been extended to Adam; if you allow it worthy of God to place His creature on trial, you make it indispensable that He should suffer him to fall. But if there still lurk a feeling in your minds--a feeling not to be met by argu-ment-that it was unlike a merciful God to permit His creature to work out for himself a heritage of woe and of shame, why, then, we call upon you to remember that, whilst allowing the evil, God had determined the antidote. I doubt not the glory of an unfallen man, I question not the splendour and loveliness of an unblighted paradise; very noble must Adam have been, and beautiful amidst the surrounding creation, when God conversed familiarly with man, and earth was as the shrine of its Maker; and sublime, indeed, would have been the spectacle, and majestic our inheritance, had each of us been born in the image of God, and secured against losing the resemblance; but I would not exchange what I am, if linked by faith with the Mediator Christ, for what I should have been bad Adam never transgressed. I know not what place would then have belonged to our nature amongst the orders of creation, but this I know, that now it is associated with the Divine, and imagination itself fails to measure its dignity. I know that by occupying my place, suffering and obeying in my stead, the Son of God has done vastly more than reinstate me in my forfeited possession: He has set me “far above principalities and powers”: He has opened to me happiness which is not to be reached by aught else created; He has brought me into a relationship with Deity, which could not have resulted from creation. Oh! then, to murmur because Adam was allowed to destroy us by his apostasy is to forget or deny that Christ redeemed us by His agony; to make it matter of complaint that we were suffered to fall is to repine at being placed unspeakably higher than we originally stood. It was not through any fault in his original constitution that Adam fell away. That constitution was, indeed, mutable, because Adam was a creature, and no created nature, not the very highest, can in itself be immutable. But there was no defect in Adam, unless you choose to reckon it a defect that he was finite. The understanding could immediately distinguish truth from error; the will was prompt to follow the verdict of the understanding; and the passions were all held in thorough subordination; so that, comparing the circumstances and the endowments of Adam, you may see that he possessed sufficient power for passing successfully through his probation, and that, having been created, he might, had he chosen, have continued in uprightness. Just, then, and true, and merciful was God in His dealings with the father of our race, for man could not have fallen had he not of his own will “sought out inventions.” This brief description has been applicable from the first. It was that they might “be as gods,” that they might “know good and evil,” that they might advance themselves in the scale of intelligence, for this it was that Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit and set at nought the positive command. They tried the experiment, and, with all the consequences of failure, bequeathed to their children the fatal wish to invent good for themselves rather than seek it in God. The many inventions which we seek out; the schemes, even where there is the light of revelation, for being ourselves the authors, either in whole or in part, of our own deliverance, these are continued evidences that we are the children of those who even in paradise planned their own exaltation and thought to be wiser than God. We imitate our forefather, resolving to be ourselves the architects of our greatness, and therefore building on the quicksand; neglecting, as he did, the simple declarations of revelation, we take our own way of acquiring knowledge and learn it by being lost. Oh! for the spirit of St. Paul--“I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” I read the history of human transgression and ruin. I read it in the pages of Scripture; I read it in the throes and the convulsions of a disorganized world. I then turn to the record of redemption. I find that God has graciously taken into His own hands the work of my salvation. I learn that, though fallen, He is ready to exalt me; though corrupted, He is willing to purify, though worthy of condemnation, He offers me forgiveness and pardon. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
──《The Biblical Illustrator》