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187

THIRD SECTION.

THE QUEST OF THE CHIEF GOOD IN WEALTH, AND IN THE GOLDEN MEAN.

Chaps. VI., VII., and VIII., vv. 1-15.

In the foregoing Section Coheleth has shown that the Chief Good is not to be found in that Devotion to the affairs of Business which was, and still is, characteristic of the Hebrew race. This devotion is commonly inspired either by the desire to amass great wealth, for the sake of the status, influence, and means of lavish enjoyment it is assumed to confer; or by the more modest desire to secure a competence, to stand in that golden mean of comfort which is darkened by no harassing fears of future penury or need. By a logical sequence of thought, therefore, he advances from his discussion on Devotion to Business, to consider the leading motives by which it is inspired. The questions he now asks and answers are, in effect, (1) Will Wealth confer the good, the tranquil and enduring satisfaction which men seek? And if not, (2) Will that moderate provision for the present and for the future to which the more prudent restrict their aim?

188

The Quest in Wealth. Ch. vi.

His discussion of the first of these questions, although very matterful, is comparatively brief; in part, perhaps, because in the previous Section he has already dwelt on many of the drawbacks which accompany wealth; and still more, probably, because, while there are but few men in any age to whom great wealth is possible, there would be unusually few in the company of poor men for whose instruction he wrote. Brief and simple as the discussion is, however, we shall misapprehend it unless we bear in mind that Coheleth is arguing, not against wealth, but against mistaking wealth for the Chief Good.

The Man who makes Riches his Chief Good is haunted by Fears and Perplexities: Ch. vi., vv. 1-6.

Let us observe, then, that throughout this sixth Chapter the Preacher is dealing with the lover of riches, not with the rich man; that he is speaking, not against wealth, but against mistaking wealth for the Chief Good. The man who trusts in riches is placed before us; and, that we may see him at his best, he has the riches in which he trusts. God has given him "his good things," given him them to the full. He lacks nothing that he desireth—nothing at least that wealth can command. Yet, because he does not accept his abundance as the gift of God, and hold the Giver better than the gift, he cannot enjoy it. But how do we know that he has suffered his riches to take189 an undue place in his regard? We know it by this sure token—that he cannot leave God to take care of them, and of him. He frets about them, and about what will become of them when he is gone. He has no son, perchance, to inherit them, no child, only some "stranger" whom he has adopted (ver. 2)—and almost all childless Orientals adopt strangers to this day, as we have found, to our cost, in India. A profound horror at the thought of being dead to name and fame and use through lack of heirs was, and is, very prevalent in the East. Even faithful Abraham, when God had promised him the supreme good, broke out with the remonstrance, "What canst Thou give me when I am going off childless, and have no heir but my body-servant, Eliezer of Damascus?" Because this feeling lay close to the Oriental heart, the Preacher is at some pains to show what a "vanity" it is. He argues: "Even if you should beget a hundred children, instead of being childless; even though you should live a thousand years, and the grave did not wait for you instead of lying close before you: yet, so long as you were not content to leave your riches in the hands of God, you would fret and perplex yourself with fears. An abortion would be better off than you, although it cometh in nothingness and goeth in darkness; for it would know a rest denied to you, and sink without apprehension into the 'place' from which all your190 apprehensions cannot save you (vv. 3-6). Foolish man! it is not because you lack an heir that you are perturbed in spirit. If you had one, you would find some other cause for care; you would be none the less fretted and perturbed; for you would still be thinking of your riches rather than of the God who gave them, and still dread the moment in which you must part with them, in order to return to Him."

For God has put Eternity into his Heart; Ch. vi., vv. 7-10.

From this plain practical argument Coheleth passes to an argument of more philosophic reach. "All the labour of this man is for his mouth:" that is to say, his wealth, with all that it commands, appeals only to sense and appetite; it feeds "the lust of the eye, or the lust of the flesh, or the pride of life," and therefore "his soul cannot be satisfied therewith" (ver. 7). That craves a higher nutriment, a more enduring good. God has put eternity into it: and how can that which is immortal be contented with the lucky haps and comfortable conditions of time? Unless some immortal provision be made for the immortal spirit, it will pine, and protest, and crave, till all power of happily enjoying outward good be lost. Nay, if the spirit in man be craving and unfed, whatever his outward conditions, or his faculty for enjoying them, he cannot be at rest. The wise man may be able to extract from the gains of time a pleasure denied to the fool; and the poor191 man, his penury preventing him from indulging passion and appetite to satiety, may have a keener enjoyment of them than the magnate who has tried them to the full and has grown weary of them. In a certain sense, as compared the one with the other, the poor man may have an "advantage" over the rich, and the wise man over the fool; for "it is better to enjoy the good we have than to crave a good beyond our reach;" and this much the wise man, or even the poor man, may achieve. Yet, after all, what advantage have they? The thirst of the soul is still unslaked; no sensual or sensuous enjoyment can satisfy that. All human action and enjoyment is under law to God. No one is so wise, or so strong, as to contend successfully against Him or his ordinances. And it is He who has given men an immortal nature, with cravings that wander through eternity; it is He who has ordained that they shall know no rest until they rest in Him (vv. 8-10).

And much that he gains only feeds Vanity; Ch. vi., v. 11.

Look once more at your means and possessions. Multiply them as you will. Still there are many reasons why if you seek your chief good in them, they should prove vanity and breed vexation of spirit. One is, that beyond a certain point you can neither use nor enjoy them. They add to your pomp. They enable you to fill a larger place in the world's eye. They swell and magnify the vain show in which you192 walk. But, after all, they add to your discomfort rather than your comfort. You have so much the more to manage, and look after, and take care of: but you yourself, instead of being better off than you were, have only taken a heavier task on your hands. And what advantage is there in that?

Neither can he tell what it will be good for him to have, Ch. vi., v. 12.

Another reason is, that it is hard, so hard as to be impossible, for you to know "what it is good" for you to have. That on which you have set your heart may prove to be an evil rather than a good when at last you get it. The fair fruit, so pleasant and desirable to the eye that, to posses it, you were content to labour and deny yourself for years, may turn to an apple of Sodom in your mouth, and yield you, in place of sweet pulp and juice, only the bitter ashes of disappointment.

Nor foresee what will become of his Gains. Ch. vi., v. 12.

And a third reason is, that the more you acquire the more you must dispose of when you are called away from this life: and who can tell what shall be after him? How are you so to dispose of your gains as to be sure that they will do good and not harm, and carry comfort to the hearts of those whom you love, and not breed envy, alienation, and strife?

These are the Preacher's arguments against an undue love of riches, against making them so dear a good that193 we can neither enjoy them while we have them, nor trust them to the disposal of God when we must leave them behind us. Are they not sound arguments? Should we be saddened by them, or comforted? We can only be saddened by them if we love wealth, or long for it, with an inordinate desire. If we can trust in God to give us all that it will be really good for us to have in return for our honest toil, the arguments of the Preacher are full of comfort and hope for us, whether we be rich or whether we be poor.


The Quest in the Golden Mean. Ch. vii., viii., vv. 1-15.

There be many that say, "Who will show us any gold?" mistaking gold for their god or good. For though there can be few in any age to whom great wealth is possible, there are many who crave it and believe that to have it is to possess the supreme felicity. It is not only the rich who "trust in riches." As a rule, perhaps, they trust in them less than the poor, since they have tried them, and know pretty exactly both how much, and how little, they can do. It is those who have not tried them, and to whom poverty brings many undeniable hardships, who are most sorely tempted to trust in them as the sovereign remedy for the ills of life. So that the counsels of the sixth chapter may have a wider scope than we sometimes194 think they have. But, whether they apply to many or to few, there can be no doubt that the counsels of the seventh and eighth chapters are applicable to the vast majority of men. For here the Preacher discusses the Golden Mean in which most of us would like to stand. Many of us dare not ask for great wealth lest it should prove a burden we could very hardly bear; but we have no scruple in adopting Agur's prayer, "Give me neither poverty nor riches; Feed me with food proportioned to my need: Let me have a comfortable competence in which I shall be at an equal remove from the temptations whether of extreme wealth or of extreme penury."

Now the endeavour to secure a competence may be, not lawful only, but most laudable; since God means us to make the best of the capacities He has given us and the opportunities He sends us. Nevertheless, we may pursue this right end from a wrong motive, in a wrong spirit. Both spirit and motive are wrong if we pursue our competence as if it were a good so great that we can know no content unless we attain it. For what is it that animates such a pursuit save distrust in the providence of God? Left in his hands, we do not feel that we should be safe; whereas if we had our fortune in our own hands, and were secured against chances and changes by a few comfortable securities, we should feel safe enough. This feeling is, surely,195 very general: we are all of us in danger of slipping into this form of unquiet distrust in the fatherly providence of God.

The Method of the Man who seeks a Competence. Ch. vii., vv. 1-14.

Because the feeling is both general and strong, the Hebrew Preacher addresses himself to it at some length. His object now is to place before us a man who does not aim at great affluence, but, guided by prudence and common sense, makes it his ruling aim to stand well with his neighbours and to lay by a moderate provision for future wants. The Preacher opens the discussion by stating the maxims or rules of conduct by which such an one would be apt to guide himself. One of his first aims would be to secure "a good name," since that would prepossess men in his favour, and open before him many avenues which would otherwise be closed.4141   "There are three crowns; of the law, the priesthood, and the kingship: but the crown of a good name is greater than them all."—Talmud. Just as one entering a crowded Oriental room with some choice fragrance exhaling from person and apparel would find bright faces turned toward him, and a ready way opened for his approach, so the bearer of a good name would find many willing to meet him, and traffic with him, and heed him. As the years passed, his good name, if he kept it, would diffuse itself over a wider196 area with a more pungent effect, so that the day of his death would be better than the his birth—to leave a good name being so much more honourable than to inherit one (chap. vii., ver. 1).

But how would he go about to acquire his good name? Again the answer carries us back to the East. Nothing is more striking to a Western traveller than the dignified gravity of the superior Oriental races. In public they rarely smile, almost never laugh, and hardly ever express surprise. Cool, courteous, self-possessed, they bear good news or bad, prosperous or adverse fortune, with a proud equanimity. This equal mind, expressing itself in a grave dignified bearing, is, with them, well-nigh indispensable to success in public life. And, therefore, our friend in quest of a good name betakes himself to the house of mourning rather than to the house of feasting; he holds that serious thought on the end of all men is better than the wanton foolish mirth which crackles like thorns under a kettle, making a great sputter, but soon going out; and would rather have his heart bettered by the reproof of the wise than listen to the song of fools over the wine-cup (vv. 2-6). Knowing that he cannot be much with fools without sharing their folly, fearing that they may lead him into those excesses in which the wisest mind is infatuated and the kindest heart hardened and corrupted (ver. 7), he elects rather to197 walk with a sad countenance, among the wise, to the house of mourning and meditation, than to hurry with fools to the banquet in which wine and song and laughter drown serious reflection, and leave the heart worse than they found it. What though the wise reprove him when he errs? What though, as he listens to their reproof, his heart at times grows hot within him? The end of their reproof is better than the beginning (ver. 8); as he reflects upon it, he learns from it, profits by it, and by patient endurance of it wins a good from it which haughty resentment would have cast away. Unlike the fools, therefore, whose wanton mirth turns into bitter anger at the mere sound of reproof, he will not suffer his spirit to be hurried into a hot resentment, but will compel that which injures them to do him good (ver. 9). Nor will he rail even at the fools who fleet the passing hour, or account that, because they are so many and so bold, "the time is out of joint." He will show himself not only wiser than the foolish, but wiser than many of the wise; for while they—and here surely the Preacher hits a very common habit of the studious life—are disposed to look fondly back on some past age as greater or happier than that in which they live, and ask, "How is it that former days were better than these?" he will conclude that the question springs rather from their querulousness than from their wisdom,198 and make the best of the time, and of the conditions of the time, in which it has pleased God to place him (ver. 10).

But if any ask, "Why has he renounced the pursuit of that wealth on which many are bent who are less capable of using it than he?" the answer comes that he has discovered Wisdom to be as good as Wealth, and even better. Not only is Wisdom as secure a defence against the ills of life as Wealth, but it has this great advantage—that "it fortifies or vivifies the heart," while wealth often burdens and enfeebles it. Wisdom quickens and braces the spirit for any fortune, gives it new life or new strength, inspires an inward serenity which does not lie at the mercy of outward accidents (vv. 11, 12). It teaches a man to regard all the conditions of life as ordained and shaped by God, and weans him from the vain endeavour, on which many exhaust their strength, to straighten that which God has made crooked, that which crosses and thwarts his inclinations (ver. 13); once let him see that the thing is crooked, and was meant to be crooked, and he will accept and adapt himself to it, instead of wearying himself in futile attempts to make, or to think, it straight.

And there is one very good reason why God should permit many crooks in our lot, very good reason therefore why a wise man should look on them with an199 equal mind. For God sends the crooked as well as the straight, adversity as well as prosperity, in order that we should know that He has "made this as well as that," and accept both from his benign hand. He interlaces his providences, and veils his providences, in order that, unable to foresee the future, we may learn to put our trust in Him rather than in any earthly good (ver. 14). It therefore behoves a man whose heart has been bettered by much meditation, and by the reproofs of the wise, to take both crooked and straight, both evil and good, from the hand of God, and to trust in Him whatever may befall.4242   So in the hymn of Cleanthes to Zeus, as rendered by the Dean of Wells: "Thou alone knowest how to change the odd To even, and to make the crooked straight; And things discordant find accord in Thee. Thus in one whole Thou blendest ill with good, So that one law works on for evermore."

The Perils to which it exposes him. Ch. vii., v. 15-Ch. viii., v. 13.

So far, I think, we shall follow and assent to this theory of human life; our sympathies will go with the man who seeks to acquire a good name, to grow wise, to stand in the Golden Mean. But when he proceeds to apply his theory, to deduce practical rules from it, we can only give him a qualified assent, nay, must often altogether withhold our assent. The main200 conclusion he draws is, indeed, quite unobjectionable: it is, that in action, as well as in opinion, we should avoid excess, that we should keep the happy mean between intemperance and indifference.

He is likely to compromise Conscience: Ch. vii., vv. 15-20.

But the very first moral he infers from this conclusion is open to the most serious objection. He has seen both the righteous die in his righteousness without receiving any reward from it, and the wicked live long in his wickedness to enjoy his ill-gotten gains. And from these two mysterious facts, which much exercised many of the Prophets and Psalmists of Israel, he infers that a prudent man will neither be very righteous, since he will gain nothing by it, and may lose the friendship of those who are content with the current morality; nor very wicked, since, though he may lose little by this so long as he lives, he will very surely hasten his death (vv. 16, 17). It is the part of prudence to lay hold on both; to permit a temperate indulgence both in virtue and in vice, carrying neither to excess (ver. 18)—a doctrine still very dear to the mere man of the world. In this temperance there lies a strength greater than that of an army in a beleaguered city; for no righteous man is wholly righteous (vv. 19, 20): to aim at so lofty and ideal will be to attempt "to wind ourselves too high for mortal man below the sky;" we shall only fail if we201 make the attempt; we shall be grievously disappointed if we expect other men to succeed where we have failed; we shall lose faith in them, and in ourselves; we shall suffer many pangs of shame, remorse, and defeated hope: and, therefore, it is well at once to make up our minds that we are, and need be, no better than our neighbours, that we are not to blame ourselves for customary and occasional slips; that, if we are but moderate, we may lay one hand on righteousness and another on wickedness without taking much harm. A most immoral moral, though it is as popular to-day as it ever was.

To be indifferent to Censure: Ch. vii., vv. 21, 22.

The second rule which this temperate Monitor infers from his general theory is, That we are not to be overmuch troubled by what people say about us. Servants are adduced as an illustration, partly, no doubt, because they are commonly acquainted with their masters' faults, and partly because they do sometimes speak about them, and even exaggerate them. "Let them speak," is his counsel, "and don't be too curious to know what they say; you may be sure that they will say pretty much what you often say of your neighbours or superiors; if they depreciate you, you depreciate others, and you can hardly expect a more generous treatment than you accord." Now if this moral stood alone, it would be both shrewd and wholesome. But202 it does not stand alone; and in its connection it means, I fear, that if we take the moderate course prescribed by worldly prudence; if we are righteous without being too righteous, and wicked without being too wicked, and our neighbours should begin to say, "He is hardly so good as he seems," or "I could tell a tale of him an if I would," we are not to be greatly moved by "any such ambiguous givings out;" we are not to be overmuch concerned that our neighbours have discovered our secret slips, since we have often discovered the like slips in them, and know very well that "there is not on earth a righteous man who doeth good and sinneth not." In short, as we are not to be too hard on ourselves for an occasional and decorous indulgence in vice, so neither are we to be very much vexed by the censures which neighbours as guilty as ourselves pass on our conduct. Taken in this its connected sense, the moral is as immoral as that which preceded it.

Here, indeed, our prudent Monitor drops a hint that he himself is not content with a theory which leads to such results. He has tried this "wisdom," but he is not satisfied with it. He desired a higher wisdom, suspecting that there must be a nobler theory of life than this; but it was too far away for him to reach, too deep for him to fathom. After all his researches that which was far off remained far off, deep remained deep: he could not attain the higher wisdom he sought203 (vv. 23, 24). And so he falls back on the wisdom he had tried, and draws a third moral from it which is somewhat difficult to handle.

To despise Women: Ch. vii., vv. 25-29.

It is said of an English satirist that when any friend confessed himself in trouble and asked his advice, his first question was, "Who is she?"—taking it for granted that a woman must be at the bottom of the mischief. And the Hebrew cynic appears to have been of his mind. He cannot but see that the best of men sin sometimes, that even the most temperate are hurried into excesses which their prudence condemns. And when he turns to discover what it is that bewitches them, he finds no other solution of the mystery than—Woman. Sweet and pleasant as she seems, she is "more bitter than death," her heart is a snare, her hands are chains. He whom God loves will escape from her net after brief captivity; only the fool and the sinner are held fast in it (vv. 25, 26). Nor is this a hasty conclusion. Our Hebrew cynic has deliberately gone out, with the lantern of his wisdom in his hand, to search for an honest man and an honest woman. He has been scrupulously careful in his search, "taking things," i.e. indications of character, "one by one;" but though he has found one honest man in a thousand, he has never lit on an honest and good woman (vv. 27, 28). Was not the fault in the eyes of the seeker rather than in the204 faces into which he peered? Perhaps it was. It would be to-day and here; but was it there and on that far-distant yesterday? The Orientals would still say "No." All through the East, from the hour in which Adam cast the blame of his disobedience on Eve to the present hour, men have followed the example of their first father. Even St. Chrysostom, who should have known better, affirms that when the devil took from Job all he had, he did not take his wife, "because he thought she would greatly help him to conquer that saint of God." Mohammed sings in the same key with the Christian Father: he affirms that since the creation of the world there have been only four perfect women, though it a little redeems the cynicism of his speech to learn that, of these four perfect women, one was his wife and another his daughter; for the good man may have meant a compliment to them rather than an insult to the sex. But if there be any truth in this estimate, if in the East the women were, and are, worse than the men, it is the men who have made them what they are.4343   Not, however, that the sentiment was confined to the East. The Greek poets have many such sayings as, "A woman is a burden full of ills;" and, "Where women are, all evils there are found." Robbed of their natural dignity and use as helpmeets, condemned to be mere toys, trained only to minister to sense, what wonder if they have fallen below their205 due place and honour? Of all cowardly cynicisms that surely is the meanest which, denying women any chance of being good, condemns them for being bad. Our Hebrew cynic seems to have had some faint sense of his unfairness; for he concludes his tirade against the sex with the admission that "God made man upright"—the word "man" here, as in Genesis, standing for the whole race, male and female—and that if all women, and nine hundred and ninety-nine men out of every thousand, have become bad, it is because they have degraded themselves and one another by the evil "devices" they have sought out (ver. 29).

And to be indifferent to Public Wrongs. Ch. viii., vv. 1-13.

The fourth and last rule inferred from this prudent moderate view of life is, That we are to submit with hopeful resignation to the wrongs which spring from human tyranny and injustice. Unclouded by gusts of passion, the wise temperate Oriental carries a "bright countenance" to the king's divan. Though the king should rate him with "evil words," he will remember his "oath of fealty," and not rise up in resentment, still less rush out in open revolt. He knows that the word of a king is potent; that it will be of no use to show a hot mutinous temper; that by a meek endurance of wrath he may allay or avert it. He knows, too, that obedience and submission are not likely to provoke insult and contumely; and that if now and206 then he is exposed to an undeserved insult, any defence, and especially an angry defence, will but damage his cause (chap. viii., vv. 1-5). Moreover, a man who keeps himself cool and will not permit anger to blind him may, in the worst event, foresee that a time of retribution will surely come on the king, or the satrap, who is habitually unjust; that the people will revolt from him and exact heavy penalties for the wrongs they have endured; that death, "that fell arrest without all bail," will carry him away. He can see that time of retribution drawing nigh, although the tyrant, fooled by impunity, is not aware of its approach; he can also see that when it comes it will be as a war in which no furlough is granted, and whose disastrous close no craft can evade. All this execution of long-delayed justice he has seen again and again; and therefore he will not suffer his resentment to hurry him into dangerous courses, but will calmly await the action of those social laws which compel every man to reap the due reward of his deeds (vv. 5-9).

Nevertheless he has also seen times in which retribution did not overtake oppressors; times even when, in the person of children as wicked and tyrannical as themselves, they "came again" to renew their injustice, and to blot out the memory of the righteous from the earth (ver. 10). And such times have no more disastrous result than this, that they undermine faith207 and subvert morality. Men see that no immediate sentence is pronounced against the wicked, that they live long in their wickedness and beget children to perpetuate it; and the faith of the good in the overruling providence of God is shaken and strained, while the vast majority of men set themselves to do the evil which flaunts its triumphs before their eyes (ver. 11). None the less the Preacher is quite sure that it is the part of wisdom to trust in the laws and look for the judgments of God: he is quite sure that the triumph of the wicked will soon pass, while that of the good will endure (vv. 12, 13); and therefore, as a man of prudent and forecasting spirit, he will submit to injustice, but not inflict it, or at least not carry it to any dangerous excess.

The Preacher condemns this Theory of Human Life, and declares the Quest to be still unattained. Ch. viii., vv. 14, 15.

This is by no means a noble or lofty view of human life; the line of conduct it prescribes is often as immoral as it is ignoble; and we may feel some natural surprise at hearing counsels so base from the lips of the inspired Hebrew Preacher. But we ought to know him, and his method of instruction, well enough by this time to be sure that he is at least as sensible of their baseness as we can be; that he is here speaking to us, not in his own person, but dramatically, and from the lips of the man who, that he may secure a good name208 and an easy position in the world, is disposed to accommodate himself to the current maxims of his time and company. If we ever had any doubt on this point, it is set at rest by the closing verses of the Section before us. For in these verses the Preacher lowers his mask, and tells us plainly that we cannot and must not attempt to rest in the theory he has just put before us, that to follow out its practical corollaries will lead us away from the Chief Good, not toward it. More than once he has already hinted to us that this "wisdom" is not the highest wisdom; and now he frankly avows that he is as unsatisfied as ever, as far as ever from ending his Quest; that his last key will not unlock those mysteries of life which have baffled him from the first. He still holds, indeed, that it is better to be righteous than to be wicked, though he now sees that even the prudently righteous often have a wage like that of the wicked, and that the prudently wicked often have a wage like that of the righteous (ver. 14). This new theory of life, therefore, he confesses to be "a vanity" as great and deceptive as any of those he has hitherto tried. And as even yet it does not suit him to give us his true theory and announce his final conclusion, he falls back on the conclusion we have so often heard, that the best thing a man can do is to eat and to drink, and to carry a clear enjoying temper through all the days, and all the tasks, which God209 giveth him under the sun (ver. 15). How this familiar conclusion fits into his final conclusion, and is part of it, though not the whole, we shall see in our study of the next and last section of the Book.


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