Proverbs Having a Semi-christian Character
Scepticism, Book, Solomon, Life, Ecclesiastes, Truth
Proverbs Showing Shrewdness of Observation
Proverbs Wittily Expressed
But what are human wisdom and glory? It seems that Solomon was to illustrate its emptiness. See the king, in his old age, sinking into idolatry and empty luxury, falling away from his God, and pointing the moral of his own proverbs. He himself was the drunkard, into whose hand the thorn of the proverb penetrated, without his heeding it. This prudent and wise king, who understood so well all the snares of temptation and all the arts of virtue, fell like the puppet of any Asiatic court. What a contrast between the wise and great king as described in I Kings iv. 20-34 and the same king in his degenerate old age!
It was this last period in the life of Solomon which the writer of Ecclesiastes took as the scene and subject of his story. With marvellous penetration and consummate power he penetrates the mind of Solomon and paints the blackness of desolation, the misery of satiety, the dreadful darkness of a soul which has given itself to this world as its only sphere.
Never was such a picture painted of utter scepticism, of a mind wholly darkened, and without any remaining faith in God or truth.
These three books mark the three periods of the life of Solomon.
The Song of Songs shows us his abounding youth, full of poetry, fire, and charm.
The Proverbs give his ripened manhood, wise and full of all earthly knowledge,—Aristotle, Bacon, Socrates, and Franklin, all in one.
And Ecclesiastes represents the darkened and gloomy scepticism of his old age, when he sank as low down as he had before gone up. But though so sad and dark, yet it is not without gleams of a higher and nobler joy to come. Better than anything in Proverbs are some of the noble sentiments breaking out in Ecclesiastes, especially at the end of the book.
The Book of Ecclesiastes is a wonderful description of a doubt so deep, a despair so black, that nothing in all literature can be compared to it. It describes, in the person of Solomon, utter scepticism born of unlimited worldly enjoyment, knowledge, and power.
The book begins by declaring that all is vanity, that there is nothing new under the sun, no progress in any direction, but all things revolving in an endless circle, so that there is neither meaning nor use in the world. It declares that work amounts to nothing, for one cannot do any really good thing; that knowledge is of no use, but only produces sorrow; that pleasure satiates. Knowledge has only this advantage over ignorance, that it enables us to see things as they are, but it does not make them better, and the end of all is despair. Sensual pleasure is the only good. Fate and necessity rule all things. Good and evil both come at their appointed time. Men are cheated and do not see the nullity of things, because they have the world in their heart, and are absorbed in the present moment.
Men are only a higher class of beasts. They die like beasts, and have no hereafter.
In the fourth chapter the writer goes more deeply into this pessimism. He says that to die is better than to live, and better still never to have been born. A fool is better than a wise man, because he does nothing and cares for nothing.
Success is bad, progress is an evil; for these take us away from others, and leave us lonely, because above them and hated by them.
Worship is idle. Do not offer the sacrifice of fools, but stop when you are going to the Temple, and return. Do not pray. It is of no use. God does not hear you. Dreams do not come from God, but from what you were doing before you went to sleep. Eat and drink, that is the best. All men go as they come.
So the dreary statement proceeds. Men are born for no end, and go no one can tell where. Live a thousand years, it all comes to the same thing. Who can tell what is good for a man in this shadowy, empty life?
It is better to look on death than on life, wiser to be sad than to be cheerful. If you say, "There have been good times in the past," do not be too sure of that. If you say, "We can be good, at least, if we cannot be happy," there is such a thing as being too good, and cheating yourself out of pleasure.
Women are worse than men. You may find one good man among a thousand, but not one good woman.
It is best to be on the right side of the powers that be, for they can do what they please. Speedy and certain punishment alone can keep men from doing evil. The same thing happens to the good and to the wicked. All things come alike to all. This life is, in short, an inexplicable puzzle. The perpetual refrain is, eat, drink, and be merry.
It is best to do what you can, and think nothing about it. Cast your bread on the waters, very likely you will get it again. Sow your seed either in the morning or at night; it makes no difference.
Death is coming to all. All is vanity. I continue to preach, because I see the truth, and may as well say it, though there is no end to talking and writing. You may sum up all wisdom in six words: "Fear God and keep his commandments."
The Book of Ecclesiastes teaches a great truth in an unexampled strain of pathetic eloquence. It teaches what a black scepticism descends on the wisest, most fortunate, most favored of mankind, when he looks only to this world and its joys. It could, however, only have been written by one who had gone through this dreadful experience. The intellect alone never sounded such depths as these. Moreover, it could hardly have been written unless in a time when such scepticism prevailed, nor by one who, having lived it all, had not also lived through it all, and found the cure for this misery in pure unselfish obedience to truth and right. It seems, therefore, like a Book of Confessions, or the Record of an Experience, and as such well deserves its place in the Bible and Jewish literature.
The Book of Job is a still more wonderful production, but in a wholly different tone. It is full of manly faith in truth and right. It has no jot of scepticism in it. It is a noble protest against all hypocrisies and all shams. Job does not know why he is afflicted, but he will never confess that he is a sinner till he sees it. The Pharisaic friends tell him his sufferings are judgments for his sins, and advise him to admit it to be so. But Job refuses, and declares he will utter no "words of wind" to the Almighty. The grandest thought is here expressed in the noblest language which the human tongue has ever uttered.
|Written By James Freeman Clarke|
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