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THE CONTRASTS OF LIFE.
Ecclesiastes, xi. 7-9. “Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun: but if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all, yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity. Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.”
LIFE is full of perplexing contrasts. Its lights -^ and shadows intermingle in many a strange and pathetic picture, and it is difficult sometimes to catch its full meaning, and whither all its changes tend. They seem the sport of accident rather than the evolution of law. The tangled spectacle baffles comprehension and hope, and the spectator looks on amazed and distrustful. Is there a moral purpose beneath it all? Do not “all things come alike to all,” however they may live—“one event to the righteous, and 233to the wicked; to the good, and to the clean, and to the unclean:”160160 Ecclesiastes, ix. 2, 11. time and chance to all alike? “There is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever.”161161 Ibid. ii. 16. Nay, is man better than the beast? “That which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; . . . they have all one breath: so that a man hath no preeminence.”162162 Ibid. iii. 19. The wheel of life goes on in endless maze; and our portion in it of good or evil, of happiness or misery, is beyond our control. “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done, is that which shall be done.”163163 Ibid. i. 9. Nature is a ceaseless routine,—duty, a laborious repetition—study, a wearying toil—pleasure, an exhausting excitement. Who will show us any good? and why should we not take life as it comes, without any high thought or anxious aims? “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?”164164 Ibid. i. 2, 3.
This is not a high tone; but it is not always an unnatural one in the face of many perplexities. A certain cynicism may lie near to broad and sympathetic thoughtfulness; and the 234Preacher seems not to have been free from traces of such a feeling, as he surveyed the course of his experience, and tried to interpret it. At times the interpretation baffles him, and he sees nothing in life beyond its incessant alternations and the wearying round of activities which lead to nothing, and have no meaning beyond themselves. We begin to wonder if he has anything to tell us beyond the vanity of desire, the disappointment of hope, and the negation of all noble ambitions as well as lower enjoyments.
But there is a higher spirit also running throughout the book, and rising into a clear and consistent meaning. In all the changes of life there is a purpose, obscure as it may often seem. In the day of health man needs to be reminded of his weakness. The mere enjoyment of life should never terminate in itself, for there is always more in life than the passing hour. It is running on, and taking new shapes before we are well aware. “Truly the light is sweet, and it is a pleasant thing for the eyes to behold the sun.” But clouds may follow the sweetest morning, and days of darkness will come in the most rejoicing life. A man may live many years and rejoice in them all, and his heart cheer 235him in his youth. He may fondly take pleasure as it comes, and find happiness in many happy objects. But he is always to remember that there is another side to life than that of enjoyment. And he should keep before him not the half, but the whole of the picture. This of itself will give a meaning to life which the mere experience of its transitory moments will never give, and still less the abandonment of thought, in which many pass their lives, taking what comes of good and evil without ever trying to unite them into a consistent picture.
But more than this. Life is not only to be looked at on its darker as well as its lighter side. It must further be regarded on its moral side. It is not enough to be reflective, and to remember the days of darkness. We must get beneath all the superficial changes of life to the great fact of responsibility which underlies it, and alone gives it a complete meaning. It is this fact, above all, which is to be set against the fact of enjoyment as its great counterpart, and the conjunction of which with the other serves to glorify it and raise it into an ideal. The moral element is never absent from life. We must read it everywhere if we would not fall below its true 236end and purpose. Our highest moments of exhilaration should never dispense with it, or put it out of sight. For it is always there, whether we heed it or not. The handwriting is on the wall while the feast is advancing, and the characters of judgment come forth when the wine-cup is drained, and the guests are disappearing from the board. “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.”
Let us dwell shortly on the thoughts suggested by the text, so striking in the picture of contrasts which it sets before us.
I. And first, it may be well to recall the reality of the contrasts presented in life. Nothing might seem less necessary, seeing how these contrasts meet us everywhere in the world, and in our own experience. But, full as life is of pathetic meanings, we are often strangely insensible to them. We may not regard them with indifference, but we fail to realise them. We may be free from the ignorant contempt which looks on all life as a chance, and its good and evil as 237alike contingent and worthless; but how few are able to enter with a sympathetic intelligence into phases of life of which they themselves have no experience! If we are well and happily circumstanced, we have difficulty in putting ourselves in the place of others who are otherwise. We know that life is full of misery, but we may have never known its burden, nor the days of darkness, which are many. Instinctively we put away all thought of pain and wretchedness, and sometimes even our imagination can lay but feeble hold of them. When we stand in the calm strength of morning, with radiance flooding the awakened earth, and “all nature apparelled in celestial light,” we have difficulty in recalling the night which has fled. Or when in summer-time the sunshine broods in every hollow of the hills, or sleeps in softness on the sea, we can barely imagine the wintry storm or the dreary gloom of an unlifted sky. So the man who rejoices in health and strength, with all his faculties of mind and body in full play, can hardly imagine sickness and weariness, languor and depression nigh unto death. The young man, in the pride of his youth and eager hopefulness—how little can he understand the old man, full of years and cares, and looking 238backwards rather than forwards with burdened eyes! The rich man, walking in the ways of his heart, with no material want unsatisfied and no wish unanticipated, may know that there are not far from his door poor and miserable wretches without bread enough to eat or raiment to cover them—but how little can he enter into all the difference between his own fulness and their poverty! The well-born and happy girl to whom no harm has ever come, who has been shielded by domestic care and social convention from the evil that is in the world—how little is she able to know the very name of the misery under which thousands of her sisters are perishing day by day! The horrors of war are a byword; but how little can any that dwell at ease realise them truly—the agonies of the wounded, the desolated homes, the bleeding hearts, the outraged sanctities, the inexpressible terror and horror and suffering which follow in its train!
And yet these are all facts in life. Everywhere weakness mingles with strength, sickness with health, poverty with riches, war with peace. The darker colours are everywhere wrought into the picture, and form a part of it as real as the other. Whatever be our experience, we are never to forget this. Especially if we are rejoicing 239in the light, we are to remember the darkness. This is the special caution of the Preacher, because it is that which is specially needed. The experience of pleasure is more selfish than that of sorrow—not always so, perhaps, yet commonly so. The strong man is apt to be insensible to weakness. He looks abroad upon life as if it were all his own and he has only to gather its ample treasures into his embrace. But all the while, even in his own case, dire change may be at hand. The springs of his strength may be sapping, and many days of weakness before him. The rich man may be near to poverty, while his gains seem growing and his spending lavish. The name of stainless honour may be gathering an unheard-of shame; the pride of innocence may be near to a fall; the light which has lightened others may sink in darkness.
Life is made up of this endless play and vicissitude of circumstance, often rising into a tragic pathos. The artist finds in it his materials—the preacher his moral. The one gives the picture—the other shows its lesson. Both help us to realise it; and the work of imagination lies nearer to the work of religion than is often allowed. No doubt it is possible to have the imagination quickened, and even the heart 240touched, without Christian sympathy being kindled into action, or any labour of self-denial for the good of others being ever undertaken. It is marvellous how little what are called softhearted people sometimes do for the world, while fond of talking of its wrongs and miseries; how much, on the contrary, is sometimes done by rough and plain people, who say nothing of their sympathies or affections. All the same, the imaginative and reflective elements lie close to the religious in our nature; and undoubtedly one of the greatest obstructions to spiritual culture and progress everywhere is incapacity or deadness of sympathy. Men and women are apt to be engrossed with their own little share of life. They are unable to conceive life as a whole even in their own case; its breadth of shadow as well as of light—or how the one is meant to fit into the other, and harmonise the whole to a higher meaning than it would otherwise have. They are content with the passing hour, especially if it be an hour of enjoyment. They would put away reflection, or sometimes it never comes to them. They feel that the light is sweet, and that it is pleasant for their eyes to behold the sun; and beyond this their thoughts do not carry them.241
It is needless to say that this is an essentially irreligious frame of mind barely a rational one. One of the first instincts of religious reflection is to realise the possibilities of life, and how perishable are all enjoyments, even if they last “many years.” The Preacher warns us to look ever from the present to the future,—from the light to the darkness,—and even from the opening portals of life to a judgment to come.
II. And this points to the second and still higher view of life suggested in the text. It is not merely full of vicissitudes which should always awaken reflectiveness; but below all its vicissitudes, and behind all its joys and sorrows alike, there lies a law of retribution which is always fulfilling itself. It is only when we rise to this view of life that we rise to a truly moral or religious view of it. It is something, indeed, to have any serious thought at all, and to remember how frequently the darker colours are woven into the mingled web. No one who knows anything of the world, and the careless and selfish lives that many live, will undervalue any degree of thoughtfulness. For from the soil of a thoughtful sympathy 242much good by God’s blessing may grow. But as there may be thoughtfulness which runs out into cynicism, so there may be thoughtfulness which refuses to lift its eyes beyond the mere round of human experience of joy and sorrow, or which is even sceptical that there is anything beyond this round of experience. The darker side of life may be sufficiently felt, but the moral use of it all may be dimly seen or not seen at all.
It is the teaching of the passage before us, however, as of all Scripture, that life is only truly understood when realised as a moral development. It is not enough to rise above the passing hour, or to take a reflective view of the world and our own share in it. We must especially realise that all the moments of life have a divine meaning—that they are linked together by spiritual law—and are designed to constitute a spiritual education for a higher sphere. This is the true interpretation of the judgment which God has everywhere set up against life, and especially against its festive moments, as the most dangerous and self-absorbing. And therefore, while the young man is invited to rejoice in the days of his youth, and to walk in the sight of his eyes, he is to know at the same time that 243for all these things God will bring him into judgment.
It is wrong to forget the graver aspects of life in its lighter enjoyments; it is the mark of a poor, unimaginative, and selfish nature to do so. But life has more in it than any superficial moments of good and evil. It is essentially a spiritual order, or development of spiritual principles, always at work, and under the operation of which we are either growing into a higher good or sinking into a deeper evil. How many forget this! How do some views of religion even disparage it, in the manner in which they suppose life capable of dislocation, and delight to set one side of it against another! While in the world there is no more common delusion than that we may give our youth to vanity and rejoice with thoughtlessness, and yet catch up the duties of life at some onward point more vigorously than if we had not known youthful madness and folly. All such imaginations are broken against the great retributive law which runs throughout life and pervades every phase of it If we give the rein to our pleasure-loving tendencies, and walk in the ways of our heart, unmindful of higher things, the “lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and 244the pride of life,” will take hold of us till we not only do not think of higher things, but do not care to think of them—or even despise them as dreams of an impracticable Puritanism. There will grow from self-indulgence, deadness of heart; and from the love of pleasure, atheism of desire; till the very beauty of the natural life is worn away, and we fall into a selfishness which is capable neither of satisfaction nor of hope. Of this we may be very sure, that there is no unlawful gratification which does not bring sooner or later its own punishment—that there is no enjoyment which we have sought at the expense of temperance or purity which does not enclose a sting ready to burst forth and wound us in the hour of reaction, if not in the very hour of intoxication. This is an experience which never fails in some shape or another—an essential element of moral existence always asserting itself against every attempt to crush and destroy it—the undying witness of a higher meaning and a diviner end in life, even when it has fallen below all trace of a Divine ideal, and the Devil seems to have taken it as his own. So long as any vision of good survives, it will torment the evil-doer; and when all self-torment ends, and the vision 245vanishes, surely this is the most frightful retribution of all. The dead soul is already given over unto judgment, and only fit to be carried to the place of darkness.
Moreover, it is to be borne in mind that life is infinitely related to, as well as bound fast in, moral law. Impulses to good or evil—above all habits of good or evil—work outwardly, as well as inwardly—work often through many lives, as well as the one life, which has its own education to make or mar. The retribution which may seem delayed in the individual, is seen to assert itself in the family, or in surrounding society. This, indeed, is one of the darkest aspects of that law of judgment under which all human life lies, when in its inevitable operation it overwhelms the innocent with the guilty, and stretches its long-delayed penalty over victims who knew nothing of the wrong. The evil seemed escaped, but its curse was only wrought deeper than at first appeared.
The voice of the Preacher, therefore, is no empty voice, as he summons us in the days of our youth, or of our riper age, to know that for all these things God will bring us into judgment. If it be a higher message, which summons us to receive the good news of a higher life in Christ, 246and to pass from all the weakness and helplessness of our own moral strivings to the fulness of Divine grace and strength in Him, yet there is also a true warning and message in the lower and sterner key of the text. The one voice is truly as much needed by us as the other. Nay, there are those within the divine circle of faith who would do well to remember it, and the whole lesson of our passage—so tender and yet so solemn—so discriminating in what it allows as in what it condemns.
The light is acknowledged to be sweet, and life pleasant. A man may live many years, and rejoice in them all. There is no harm in that. It is good for a man: the Preacher goes the length of saying, in another passage, that there is “nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour.” A healthy naturalism is nowhere condemned in Scripture—is nowhere at variance with the demands of Divine law, or the impulses of Divine grace. Neither are we required to measure everywhere our share of enjoyment with a scrupulous caution, lest we pass bounds. The young man is acknowledged in his natural freedom. His heart is allowed to cheer him in the days of his youth, and he may walk in 247the ways of his heart, and the sight of his eyes. There are no tones in the passage of ascetic Puritanism, any more than of mere cynicism. Life is good, and to be enjoyed; yet it is always grave, and the account is alway running up against it.
The cynic is wrong who undervalues life either in its joys or sorrows. The Puritan is wrong who would stretch over it the shadows of an artificial religion, and follow all its steps with eyes of jealousy. The true view is at once earnest and genial, bright yet always thoughtful, looking to the end from the beginning, and forecasting the future, yet without anxiety in the experience of the present.
And this thoughtful insight, which is the best guide for our own lives, suggests also the highest view of life around us. The great advantage of looking below the mere surface to what has been called the “moral granite” beneath, which really makes the substance and power of human experience, is not merely that it makes us mindful of our own ways, and critical over ourselves lest we fall into condemnation, but that it helps us better to understand others. It feeds in us the springs of sympathy, and helps us to imagine difficulties other than our own. There may be good below many a surface where 248we see only evil. Wrong, no doubt, is always wrong, and selfishness we are never in ourselves or others to dignify with the name of amiable weakness. But every full-hearted man knows that there are forms of good more than his own—it may be better than his own—and that there are often higher thoughts and higher aims where he may fail to trace them.
A large and thoughtful view of life nourishes this tolerance towards others, as well as watchfulness over ourselves. Tenderness, charity, hopefulness—all spring from it. It is the man who grasps the deeper realities of his own life most wisely who will be most loving, and hopeful, and helpful towards others. As he knows how near weakness lies to strength in himself—failure to aspiration—selfishness to generosity—how inextricably the roots of sin and the shoots of virtue are entwined in his own heart,—so he thinks what good may lie near to what seems to him evil in other lives, how strength may come out of weakness, and God be glorified in ways that he knows not of. Let us be hopeful for others, while careful over ourselves, and leave lives around us to the judgment of God, while seeing always the awful finger of this judgment pointing to our own.249
And now, unto Him who hath given us the promise of the life that now is, as well as that which is to come, and whose grace can alone strengthen us to live now so that hereafter we may abide in His presence unto Him be glory for ever. Amen.250
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