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I hated life, because the work that is wrought under the sun is
grievous unto me.
W ERE we to estimate life by the idea, which
VV Solomon gives of it in the words of the text, it should seem, there was very little wisdom in our congratulating one another this morning on beginning a new year. There should seem better reasons for deploring our fate because we are alive, than for congratulating one another on the happiness of seeing another new years day. Ye desolate fainilies, in which death hath made such cruel breaches! Methinks, while this day naturally brings to your remembrance those dear parts of yourselves, you ought rather to shed tears of joy than of sorrow! And you, Rachel, weeping for your children, you ought rather, to be comforted for the children that are, than for those that are not. It should seem, that the benedictions of the servant of God, who preceded us this morning in this pulpit, and to which we are going to join ours, were very unsuitable to the tender affection we
* Preached on the first day of the year 1728.
owe you, and to which this solemnity adds a new degree of activity and force.
Long may you live, said we this morning to one another, may God bless you, your fellow citizens, your relations, your friends, and your children, long may they live! Enjoy the blessings of peace, prosperity in commerce, stability in freedom, riches and plenty in abundance ! Attain, and, if it be possible, go beyond the usual limits of the life of man, and may every day of that life be distinguished by some new prosperity. These were the benedictions and prayers, which our friends uttered to us and we to them. And yet the wise man tells us that riches and plenty, that the best established liberty and the most prosperous trade, that the blessings of peace and all the advantages of this life are nothing but vanity. He doth more, after he had experienced all the pomp of worldly grandeur, an immensity of wealth, the utmost refinement of pleasure, and the most extensive reputation, after he had been the happiest mortal, that ever lived upon earth, he tells us in the words of the text, I hated life, because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me.
What then, must we revoke the congratulations of this morning? Do we come to pray God to send out his destroying angels, to return us that mortality, which hath been ravaging our towns and provinces ? are we come to collect all our prayers into this one of Jonah, O Lord take, I beseecha thee, my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live, chap. iv. 3. or in this of Elijah, It is enough, now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am not better than my fathers, 1 Kings xix. 4.
It is this contrast, of ideas that we will endeavor to reconcile, for in this point of light we
are going to consider the words of the text, and to treat of disgust with the world and contempt of life. Happy! If we be able by any observations of ours to abate the asperity of your minds in regard to the hateful things of life, and to engage you to make a holy use of every thing agreeable in it. Happy ! if, by turning your attention to the amiable side of life, we may inspire you with gratitude to God for preserving it, in spite of the many perils to which it is exposed; and if, by shewing you the other side, we may incline you to quit it with joy, whenever it shall please God to require it. This is the substance of all our acclamations and prayers in your favor to-day. Almighty and most merciful God, condescend to ratify in heaven what we are sincerely endeavoring to effect on earth! Amen.
I suppose, it is Solomon himself who speaks the words of the text, and not any one of the interlocutors, whom he introduces in his book. I suppose he expresses in the words his own sentiments, and not those of any other person ; and that he tells us not what he thought while his reason was wandering, and he was pursuing the vanities of the world, but what he thought after his recovery, and when he was under the direction of divine wisdom.
This observation is absolutely necessary for the understanding of the text. The great difficulty of the book of Ecclesiastes, is owing to the great variety of persons, who are introduced there, each of whom proposes maxims conformable to his own principles. Is it the same man, who says in one place, Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart. Live joyfully all the days of thy vanity, for that is thy portion in this life, and God now accepteth thy works, chap. ix. 7, 9. And in another place, Rejoice, O
young man in thy youth, and walk in the ways of thy heart : but know thou, that for all these things God will bring theė into judgment ? chap. xi. 9. Is it the same man, who saith in one place, I commend mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun than to eat, and to drink and to be. merry, chap. viii. 15. and in another place, I said of laughter it is mad ; and of mirth, what doeth it? chap. ii. 2. Is it the same man, who saith in one place, The dust shall return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it, chap. xii. 7. and in another place, The dead have no more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten: to him that is joined to all the living there is hope, but the dead know not any thing, for a living dog is better than a dead lion ? chap. ix. 4, &c.
Expositors of this book, perhaps, have not always paid a sufficient attention to this variety. Which of us hath not, for example, quoted against the doctrine of invocation of saints these words, The living know that they shall die, but the dead know not any thing ; their love and their halred is now perished, neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun? chap. ix. 5,6. Yet I think we have sufficient reasons to presume, that the wise man puts these words into the mouth of a libertine, so that though they contain a truth, yet they cannot be proposed in proof of a doctrine. I suppose we must entertain the same idea of another passage, which seems to establish one of the finest maxims of morality, 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, chap. ix. 10. · But if you consider, that this is a consequence drawn from the irony just before, Go, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart, ver. 7. you will suppose, as we do, that it contains a pernicious maxim, like that mentioned by the prophet, let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we shall die, Isa. xxii. 13.
There are other inspired books, as well as this of Ecclesiastes, subject to the same misinterpretation. Under pretence that the scripture is divinely inspired, people quote texts indiscriminately. Certainly it is divinely inspired, and for this reason we should always reject such maxims as would tend to defeat the design of it. Without this precaution you may prove by scripture things the most opposite to the design of scripture; you may prove that God hath violated his promises, because it is said in scripture, where is the promise of his çoming! Or you may prove that atheism is preferable to religion, because the scripture saith, there is no God; and so by a hundred other passages you may prove a hundred similar absurdities.
But the connection of our text with preceding and following verses, and its perfect harmony with the design of the wise man, which was to decry the world and its pleasures, and by his own experience to undeceive such as made idols of them, confirm, in my opinion, the judgment we have formed of them; the whole authorizes us to consider the words as proceeding from the mouth of Solomon himself, expressive of his own sentiments and not those of others, and what he thought after his reconversion, and not what his opinion was during his dissipation.
I. On this principle, we will first rid the text of several false meanings, which it may seem at first sight to countenance ; for as there is a disgust with the world, and a contempt of life, which wis