Searchlights from the Word by G. Campbell Morgan: Ecclesiastes

Helpful outline sermon suggestion from every chapter from the Book of Ecclesiastes

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The Book of Ecclesiastes - "Searchlights from the Word" by G. Campbell Morgan.

Chapter 1

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 1:2

The sub-title of this book found in our translations, "or the Preacher," we owe to Luther, and it is misleading. As Dr. Plumptre has argued at length, and proved conclusively, the more correct rendering of the Hebrew word Koheleth would be "The Debater." This is important, for it at once reminds us that here we have Discussion, rather than Teaching. In these words we have the general proposition of the Debater. Everything he says from here on to the eighth verse of chapter eleven is in defence of this statement. Then in a paragraph, brief but pregnant (11:9-12), he gives an entirely different view of life, which is a corrective of this. Let us, then, at once face this opening declaration. It is an absolutely accurate statement of life when it is lived under certain conditions; but it is not true as a statement of what life must necessarily be. There are thousands of men and women today who cannot, and do not, accept this to be true of life as they find it; it is not vanity, vapour, emptiness, nothingness. To them life in every way is real, rich, full, glorious. It is well, then, that at the beginning we should understand the viewpoint of the Debater. His declaration is that things in themselves bring no satisfaction to the soul of man. To live on earth without recognition of the supreme wisdom which begins and continues in the fear of Jehovah, to deal only with that hemisphere which is "under the sun," is indeed to find things of exceeding wonder and beauty and power; but it is to find nothing that satisfies, and to be left at last without any reality, to find only vanity, vapour, emptiness.

Chapter 2

This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Ecclesiastes 2:26

These words occur at the close of a section of the debate, and are a refrain already oft repeated. In the first movement, after stating in general terms his conclusion, the Debater elaborated his statement by describing vividly his consciousness of the grind of the material universe (1:4-11). Then he began to mass his evidence in support of his contention that all is vanity. He first gave his own experience in personal life. He tried knowledge, giving himself up to a study of "all that is done under heaven." The result was that he "perceived that this also was a striving after wind" (1:12-18). He gave himself up to pleasure, to mirth, and found "this also was vanity" (2:1-3). He devoted himself to the amassing of wealth, and this with conspicuous success, only to look on everything and to discover that "all was vanity and a striving after wind" (2:4-11). He then contemplated life in the light of these disappointments, and came to the material conclusion that "there is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink"; and yet he was forced to admit that "This also is vanity, and a striving after wind." This is indeed graphic literature. It shows us a man, richly endowed in himself, living in the midst of marvellous things, of knowledge, of mirth, of wealth, of life; giving himself to these things with all the powers of his being - and yet finding nothing in them. He is starved, homeless, despairing. There is a side to life which he is not counting on, or considering. It is the side which is spiritual, the completion of the sphere over the sun, above the material. Forgetting that, everything is vanity. This is as modern as the ennui of every human soul which seeks knowledge, mirth, wealth, life - and forgets God.

Chapter 3

Wherefore I saw that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his works; for that is his portion; for who shall bring him back to see what shall be after him? - Eccles. 3:22

With this chapter the Debater begins to advance evidence of the vanity of all things, from a wider outlook than that of the purely personal. In six chapters (3-8) we find him dealing with relative considerations. First he returned to the mechanism of the Universe, already touched upon (1:4-11). He sees a recurrence of opposite circumstances continuously manifest, and concludes that man's wisest course is to adapt himself to these. It is to be observed throughout that this man was by no means an atheist. He believed in God, and in His government of all things. But his conception of man was that he is a being living in the midst of this government without any personal fellowship with the God Who is governing. Man is an animal only; he is like the beasts - at least this man was not sure that there is any difference. He was an agnostic. He inquired: "Who knoweth the spirit of man whether it goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast whether it goeth downward to the earth?" Therefore his outlook upon life lacked illumination, and his conclusion was that there is nothing better than that a man should make the best he could out of the things of the earth, that he should rejoice in his own works. This is perfectly natural and inevitable. To attempt to interpret God by circumstances, as they appear to man's partial vision, is to become pessimistic. It is only when the soul looks out upon circumstances from the standpoint of fellowship with God, and knowledge of Him, that it can be optimistic.

Chapter 4

Better than them both did I esteem him which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 4:3

In this chapter the Debater describes sociological conditions, as he observed them; and this is his terrible finding. The dead are better than the living; but better than either, is not to have been born at all! It is a terrible conclusion; yet it is a perfectly natural and justifiable one to any who looks only upon conditions of life, and has no interpretation gained in fellowship with God. Glance over life with the Debater. The oppressed are seen, and no one to comfort them. Dexterity in toil is seen, producing envy in the hearts of others. Men are seen gathering wealth and passing into loneliness. Age is seen with its folly and weakness, in spite of position, even that of kingship. The outlook is indeed dark and terrible. Life is not worthwhile. Death is preferable. Yet better than that, is not to have been. Granted that the things described are not all of life as it may be seen; they are yet so prevalent and so poignant as to make the observer unconscious of brighter facts. The existence of such things at all cancels all other considerations. And the conclusion is warranted. Blot out the things above the sun; deny, or be ignorant of the God Who reigns on high - and life as it is seen is a nightmare and a horror. Every joy becomes a mockery: every pleasure a delusion; every hope a mirage. It is only when we know God, and live in His fear, that we come to understand that all these discords will at last be resolved into perfect harmony. It is only as life is conditioned by spiritual facts and forces that it is delivered from despair.

Chapter 5

... But fear thou God.
Ecclesiastes 5:7

The relative considerations continue, as the Debater turns to the subject of religion and of political conditions. These words conclude the paragraph dealing with religion, and express the finding of one who is living "under the sun." As we have pointed out before, this man is a believer in God, but he has no knowledge of God. These words seem to harmonize with the central principle of true wisdom, which is that its beginning and maintenance depend upon "the fear of Jehovah"; but a careful consideration of the whole paragraph will show how utterly different is the conception. Fear, in the sense in which it is used here, is the fear of the slave rather than that of the son; it lacks the notes of confidence, of trust, and of love. All the advice given is good, in so far as it goes; but every word of it is born of the dread of doing anything which will offend a God Who is sovereign, but Whose ways are unknown. This conception of religion is that it consists of securing personal safety, by not doing things which are likely to offend God. I repeat, all is good so far as it goes; but it lacks the positive note, the glad note, the triumphant note; which notes are always present when life begins with the knowledge of the true God. Such knowledge issues in no irreverent familiarity; but it produces a reverent familiarity; it gives the soul freedom of utterance and of action in the presence of God. Men whose belief in God is merely intellectual, never rise above this level. Their religion, if they have any, is always characterized by this kind of fear, and becomes a burden, an oppression, something which robs life of joy.

Chapter 6

Whatsoever hath been, the name thereof was given long ago, and it is known that it is man; neither can he contend with Him that is mightier than he.
Ecclesiastes 6:10

After the paragraph on religion in the previous chapter, the Debater went on to look out upon political matters, those of poverty resulting from the maladministration of justice, and of the uselessness and futility of wealth, and even of knowledge, in the midst of such conditions. In these words we have the expression of fatalism. A man finds himself in the midst of these things, and is himself the creature of a destiny from which he cannot escape. He has no freedom in life, and no certainty of what may lie hidden in the great beyond. This is a hard and crushing view of God, and of the order of life; but it is logical. To this view men invariably come whose outlook is only that of the earth and of circumstances. It is only when man begins with a knowledge of God, coming by revelation rather than investigation, that he escapes from this crushing sense of a destiny which leaves him no room for action. It is impossible to read all this without realizing how great is the contrast between this outlook upon life, and that which inspired the poetry and prophesying of those men of the same nation who were familiar with the revelation of God as Jehovah; and yet how much greater is the contrast between it, and the outlook on life which is found in the New Testament as the result of the revelation of God in Christ! The value of these inspired confessions of one who lived under the sun is that they reveal this contrast.

Chapter 7

... God hath even made the one side by side with the other, to the end that man should not find out anything that shall be after him.
Ecclesiastes 7:14

"The one" and "the other" refer to "the day of prosperity," and "the day of adversity" (see earlier part of the verse). These words occur in the midst of a sustained argument, occupying the whole of this chapter and the next, in which, upon the basis of all the foregoing reflections, the Debater declares that the only way to live is to be indifferent to all the facts of life, or to manipulate them so as to make the best of things. Wisdom has its advantages, but it breaks down. Righteousness is good; but don't press it too far, it may destroy you. So also don't go too far in wickedness; it shortens life! Life is necessarily made up, by the ordering of God, of changing and varying experiences of prosperity and of adversity, of wickedness and righteousness; it runs on as a whole along the line of a sort of balanced average. God has so ordered it, that no man can discover the issue of any experience through which he passes. Therefore be sensible; don't worry; take things as they come; make the best of them! How futile and mistaken the whole conception is, we know; but let us not forget that it is really most reasonable, if a man have no light to guide him other than that which he finds within himself, or that which is discoverable in this material outlook. It is rational, all of it, if a man decline to seek the reason of life and all its experiences in the truth about God, which He gives to those who make His fear the first thing in life; and therefore is unable to see the whole of things.

Chapter 8

Then I commended mirth.
Ecclesiastes 8:15

When? When he had been convinced of the "vanity which is done upon the earth," in that "there are righteous men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked"; again, "there are wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous." Because of these inequalities, these injustices, let a man give himself to mirth, let him eat and drink and be merry! Again, as we read, we realize the folly of all this. But wherein lies the folly? Certainly not in the conclusion resulting from the premises as advanced. If this be so, that a righteous man reaps the reward of wickedness, and a wicked man that of righteousness, then let us ignore both righteousness and wickedness, and give ourselves up to our appetites. This is exactly what thousands of men are doing. The folly lies in the limitation of outlook. Watching life "under the sun," these things often seem to be so. Observing it as "a whole" - that is, taking in the larger view, seeing the things above the sun, beyond the material - it is at once evident that the righteous man reaps the reward of righteousness, and the wicked man that of wickedness. To take one illustration only from the New Testament. Our Lord, in that very solemn and revealing story of the rich man and Lazarus, shows that the final meaning of life is never found on this side of death. Death is but the separation of the essential man from the temporary tabernacle of the body. The issues of deeds done in the body are reached beyond that separation. Herein we discover the folly of all such indifference as is counselled by this man, attempting to interpret life by things seen, which are temporal, and ignoring things unseen, which are eternal.

Chapter 9

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave whither thou goest.
Ecclesiastes 9:10

With this chapter a new division of this book commences. It closes at the eighth verse of chapter eleven. As we saw, the book opened with the affirmation of the vanity of all things. This affirmation was followed by the massing of evidence in support of this view of life. The proofs given were those of the Debater's own experiences of life, and those derived from his general observation. Throughout, the outlook has been that of a man living "under the sun," and that in the fullest sense possible - that is, having all advantages, and so enabled to test life on this level thoroughly, and so to speak with authority. The result is the conviction that all is vanity. In the section now beginning, this man extols the kind of worldly wisdom at which he has already hinted; and then proceeds to exemplify it. The words I have stressed give a fair example of this worldly wisdom. The advice given is excellent, but the reason is utterly bad; and where it is the inspiration of earnestness and thoroughness, they in themselves become pernicious. Of course, it is good to do whatever we have to do with our might. But if the reason is that this life is all, that the inactive and dark region which this kind of wisdom supposes exists beyond, is to mean cessation, then the earnestness will inevitably be misdirected. James, the Wisdom-writer of the New Testament, speaks of a wisdom which is "earthly, sensual, devilish"; and this is it. Nevertheless, this is the rational decision of all who live "under the sun."

Chapter 10

Curse not the king, no, not with thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bed-chamber; for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shalt tell the matter.
Ecclesiastes 10:20

This is an excellent example of worldly wisdom. Having extolled it, this man of material outlook proceeds to give advice as to how to live according to it. From the seventeenth verse of the preceding chapter up to and including this verse, the burden has been that of the necessity for discretion (in the sense of cunning), that is, cautiousness which is bad in motive, and often dishonest in practice. Take this verse and look at it carefully. What does it amount to? This simply: Don't be found out! The fear which is manifested in such advice is not the fear of doing what is dishonourable; it is the fear rather that the dishonourable thing should be discovered. No man whose life is governed by the fear of Jehovah, in the true sense of that word, can ever be influenced by such advice as this. Such a man knows that the dishonourable deed is to be avoided because it is dishonourable. In the last analysis, fear of being found out is fear of punishment; while fear of Jehovah is fear of sin in itself. Herein is revealed the difference between the wisdom which is "earthly, sensual, devilish"; and "the wisdom that is from above," which "is first pure." It is true that "honesty is the best policy," but the man who is only honest because it is good policy is a rogue at heart. Thus all maxims which have a sound of wisdom need to be tested by the motive which inspires them.

Chapter 11

Yea, if a man live many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 11:8

These are the final words in the revelation of what life is when it is lived "under the sun," that is, on the material plane, in a hemisphere with no vital relationships with the spiritual world beyond an intellectual assent to its existence. The mind travels on to that which lies beyond this life, and discovers only darkness. That outlook leads to the statement: "All that cometh is vanity." This carries his opening affirmation, "All is vanity," out beyond the present. The man who sees nothing but vanity in the things of today sees nothing but vanity in that which lies beyond his ken. There is only darkness, no light, no knowledge, vanity. Therefore let a man take hold of the present, and get out of it all that he can; let him rejoice in the years, because they are the only things of which he can be sure! This is exactly the attitude of thousands toward life. Indeed, it is the only attitude possible to those who have no direct dealing with the spiritual world. This is all they can do, and it is a pre-eminently sensible thing to do. Yet what a vicious circle is that which the mind, so circumscribed, makes in its thinking! Everything here is vanity - that is, void, not worthwhile; yet because there is nothing beyond, but once again vanity, let a man take hold of and enjoy the present vanity! Can anything be more fatuous? Thus the Debater proves what the book is intended to prove, the utter folly of life "under the sun," that is, life endeavouring to realize itself, while shutting out of its reckoning those larger facts, above the sun, beyond the material.

Chapter 12

This is the end of the matter; all hath been heard; fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.
Ecclesiastes 12:13

With verse 9 of the previous chapter the final division of this book begins. It stands in direct and intended contrast to all that has preceded it. That contrast is immediately seen when verses eight and nine in chapter 11 are compared. Both call upon man to rejoice, but the motive is entirely different. The voice of worldly wisdom says: rejoice because all the future is dark and vanity. Now the higher wisdom speaks, and it says: rejoice, by remembering that God brings men into judgment as to the exercise of all their natural powers. Let it be remembered that judgment does not mean punishment, unless and until men abuse those natural powers. Wisdom says: life is to be full of joy, and the way to find joy is to order it under the judgment, that is under the government of God. This is urged in all that follows, until in these words everything is summarized. I cannot refrain from saying that this statement has suffered incalculably from the introduction by translators of the word duty. The word does not occur in the Hebrew text. Leave it out, and the statement is: "This is the whole of man." This at once emphasizes the outlook of all that has gone before. The outlook of the Debater has not been the whole of man. Life in its wholeness takes in the things above the sun, the spiritual facts and forces; it begins with the fear of God, and brings that fear to bear upon all the lower facts and forces, by walking in His commandments. No man who lives a whole life, ever says that "all is vanity." He, first finding God, finds also the joy and fullness of life in every aspect. To him life becomes a song and a gladness; it is full and glorious.