by Charles Bridges
THE Book of Ecclesiastes has exercised the Church of God in no common degree. Many learned men have not hesitated to number it among the most difficult Books in the Sacred Canon. Luther doubts whether any Exposition up to his time has fully mastered it.2 The Patristic Commentaries, from Jerome downwards, abound in the wildest fancies; so that, as one of the old interpreters observes, 'the trifles of their allegories it loatheth and wearieth me to set down.' Expositors of a different and later school have too often "darkened counsel by words without knowledge" (Job, 38:2); perplexing the reader's mind with doubtful theories, widely diverging from each other. The more difficult the book, the greater the need of Divine Teaching to open its contents. However valuable be the stores of human learning, they will not throw one ray of true light upon the word, without the heavenly influence of the Great Teacher. Separate from Him, "the light that is in us is darkness." (Matt. 6:23.)
The Author confesses that he has felt his measure of difficulty as to some of the statements of this Book. But the result of his inquiry into its Divine credentials has been solidly satisfactory. The conclusion therefore was natural, that a Book that 'had God for its Author,' must have 'truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.' Some of its maxims have indeed been too hastily supposed to countenance Epicurean indulgence. Nay—even Voltaire and his Monarch disciple have dared to claim detached passages as favouring their sceptical philosophy. But 'all of them'—as Mr. Scott observes—'admit of a sound and useful interpretation, when accurately investigated, and when the general scope of the book is attended to.'2 If any difficulties still remain, as Lord Bacon remarks—'If they teach us nothing else, they will at least teach us our own blindness.' Thus Pascal profoundly remarks on the Scriptures—'There is enough brightness to illuminate the elect, and enough obscurity to humble them. "All things work together for good" to the elect; even the obscurities of Scripture, which these honour and reverence on account of that Divine clearness and beauty, which they understand.' There is, however, a wide difference between what appears upon the surface, and what a thoughtful mind in a prayerful spirit will open from the inner Scripture. It is most important to study the Bible in the spirit of the Bible—to exercise a critical habit in a spiritual atmosphere. Prayer, faith, humility, diligence, will bring rest and satisfaction to minds exercised in the school of God. As an able preacher remarks—'We expect to find some difficulties in a revelation from a Being like God to such a creature as man. We even rejoice in these difficulties. They are the occasion of our growth in grace. They exercise our humility. They are like the leaves and flowers, of which the crown of faith is woven. They remind us of our own weakness and ignorance, and of Christ's power and wisdom. They send us to Him and to the Gospel.'
Our last testimony on this anxious point we draw from the highest school of instruction—the death-bed. 'We must acknowledge'—said the late Adolph Monod—'that in the beginning of the study of Scripture, there are many difficulties, and much obscurity. Some labour is necessary to dissipate them; and the mind of man is naturally slow and idle; and he easily loses courage, and is satisfied with reading over and over again, without penetrating further than the surface; and he learns nothing new; and the constant perusal of the same thing causeth weariness, as if the word of God was not interesting; as if we could not find some new instruction in it; as if it were not inexhaustible as God Himself. Let us ever'—he adds—'beware of thinking these difficulties insurmountable. We must give ourselves trouble. For here, as in every part of the Christian life, God will have us to be labourers with Himself; and the knowledge of the Bible, and a relish for the Bible, are the fruit and recompence of this humble, sincere, and persevering study.'
But to come more closely to the difficulties connected with this Book—Besides the objections brought against its principles, the peculiar construction of some of its maxims occasionally gives rise to perplexity. Mr. Holden adverts to the mistake of—'taking in their utmost extent expressions designed to convey a qualified and limited signification.' He wisely remarks—'General propositions are not always to be received in the strictest sense of the words. And particular observations must not be stretched beyond the intention of the writer. This results from the inherent imperfection of language, that his expressions ought to be interpreted with such restrictions, as are necessarily required by common sense, and the scope of the context. If several expressions in the Ecclesiastes, which have been condemned, be understood in this qualified sense—a sense clearly suggested by truth and reason—they will be found in every respect worthy of the inspired Author, from whom they proceed.'
But with all its difficulties, we must admit the book to be fraught with practical interest. It teaches lessons peculiarly its own—lessons, which we are too slow to learn; and yet, which we must thoroughly learn for our own personal profit and happiness. They are essential, as preparatory to our enjoyment of the Gospel. The precise place of the Book in the Sacred Canon is somewhat remarkable. Its juxtaposition with 'The Song' illustrates a fine and striking contrast between the insufficiency of the creature and the sufficiency of the Saviour. 'What a stimulus to seek after the true and full knowledge of Christ is the realized conviction of the utter vanity of all things else without Him.' To "drink and thirst again" is the disappointment of the world. To "drink and never thirst" is the portion of the Gospel.
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