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[Here it is that the vanity of earthly things pre-eminently appears. For in what respect can they advance our eternal happiness? Would to God that they did not so generally and so fatally obstruct it! Truly, “neither riches nor honours can profit us in the day of wrath.” With our holy and heavenly Judge “ there is no respect of persons." The rich and the poor will be dealt with according to one equal law: only the rich, and the great, and the learned, will be called to a more severe account in proportion to the influence they possessed, and the advantages they neglected to improve.]
But as the testimony is unquestionably strong, I shall, II. Qualify it
Beyond all doubt, the Scriptures generally contain the same language: “ Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: to be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity.” But stronger still is the language of the Psalmist in another place, where he says, “Verily every man, at his best estate, is altogether vanity.” Consider how strong and how unqualified these expressions are, and you will not expect me to say much in mitigation of them. Yet I must say, that the vanity of the creature, though the same in itself, is differently felt,
1. According to our mode of acting in reference to it
[If we give ourselves up to creature comforts, we shall be dreadfully disappointed --- But if we enjoy them in subserviency to God, and in subordination to higher pursuits, we shall not find them so empty as may be imagined. For God has given to his people all things richly to enjoy :" and provided only we enjoy God in them, they are both a legitimate and an abundant spring of pure delight. For, whilst we derive from them the happiness which they are calculated to impart, we taste not the bitterness which is infused into the cup of the mere worldling. Our enjoyments are elevated and sanctified; our pains, moderated and changed into an occasion of praise and thanksgiving. Only let them be sought in their proper place, and they are comforts in the way to heaven, though they can never stand to us in the place of heaven.]
2. According to the degree in which we blend religion with it
[Religion raises us above the creature altogether. If we have much of this world, we shall have a high enjoyment of it, b Ps. lxü. 9.
c Ps. xxxix. 5.
because we shall make it the means of benefiting our fellowcreatures, and of honouring our God. If, on the other hand, we have little of this world, we shall still be happy; because, in having God for our portion, we can lack nothing. There are but two lessons for the Christian to learn : the one is, to enjoy God in every thing; the other is, to enjoy every thing in God. The one ennobles the rich; the other elevates the poor: and all who have learned these lessons are, and must be, happy.
Whilst, therefore, I grant the general position, that the creature is vanity, I must say, that the experience of its vanity, depends altogether on our undue pursuit of it and expectations from it. Let us only take it in the manner that God approves, and for the ends for which he has sent it, and we shall still find it, like Jacob's ladder, unsubstantial indeed it itself, but still a medium of communication between heaven and earth; a medium of God's descent to us, and of our ascent to him.]
But, in our consideration of this testimony, let us further, III. Improve it
Much, very much, may it teach us. We may learn from it to be, 1. Moderate in our expectations
[If we will foolishly look for that in the creature which God never designed to be put into it, we may well expect disappointment. Even in Paradise it was not intended to stand in the place of God, or to be to us any source of solid satisfaction: how much less, then, can it be so, when sin has infused a curse into it; agreeably to what is written, “ Cursed is the ground for thy sake." Let us estimate it aright, and expect from it no more than God has ordained it to impart; and we shall prove but little of its emptiness, whilst we have a rich and becoming enjoyment of it. The direction of St. Paul is that which comes immediately to the point, and exactly suits the present occasion : “ The time is short. It remaineth that both they that have wives be as though they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoice not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as not abusing it. For the fashion of this world passeth away.” Only use the creature in this way, and you will find it no injury to your souls.] 2. Patient in our trials
[Trials of different kinds must come: for “the whole creation has, through the sin of man, become subject to vanity.”
d 1 Cor. vii. 29–31.
But, in our present state, this is in reality a benefit; for, if it were not so, we should be ready to take up our rest in this world, instead of seeking “ that which remaineth for us” in the world to come. Troubles serve to bring us nigh to God for the supports and consolations which we stand in need of. And shall we complain of that which brings us near to him, and proves an occasion of richer communications from him? No, verily: we should taste love, and love only, in our diversified afflictions; and look to God as sending them "for our profit, that by means of them we may be made partakers of his holiness,” and meet for his glory.]
3. Diligent in our pursuit of better things
[In heavenly things there are no drawbacks, except those which are caused by our own defects in seeking after them. There is no vanity in love to God, or love to man: and the more we labour after them, and delight ourselves in them, the happier we shall be. Could we but give ourselves wholly to these things, we should find in them a very heaven upon earth. To every one of you, then, I would recommend that prayer of David, “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity, and quicken thou me in thy way.”]
e Ps. cxix. 37.
DCCCXXVIII. THE CREATURE IS VANITY AND VEXATION. Eccl. i. 14, 15. I have seen all the works which are done under
the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. That which is crooked cannot be made straight; and that which is wanting, cannot be numbered.
THE Book of Ecclesiastes is generally supposed to have been written by Solomon, after he had repented of his manifold transgressions : and it is pleasing to view it in this light: for, if it be not so, we have no record whatever of his penitence. But in this view its declarations are doubly interesting: as inspired by God, they are of Divine authority; and, as resulting from actual experience, they carry a much deeper conviction with them to our minds. Had one of the fishermen of Galilee spoken so strongly respecting the vanity of the world, we might have said that he had never had any opportunity of knowing experimentally what attractions the world possessed: but Solomon had an ampler range for enjoyment than any other human being. As a king, he had the wealth of a nation at his command. As endued with a greater measure of wisdom than all other men, he could combine all kinds of intellectual pleasure with that which was merely sensual. As having a peaceful reign, he was free from all the alarms and disquietudes of war, and able to prosecute pleasure as the one object of his life. Every species of gratification being thus easily within his reach, he was amply qualified to judge of what the world could give: and yet, after having made the experiment, and “ seen all the works that are done under the sun,” he pronounced them all to be “vanity and vexation of spirit.”
Two things in our text are to be noticed ; I. The general assertion
Never was any truth more capable of demonstration than this, that the world, and every thing in it, is,
[If we view the creature in itself, what a poor worthless thing is it! Take gold, for instance : much as it is in request, it has in itself no value: the value put on it is merely arbitrary, arising not so much from its usefulness to us, as from the scarcity of it. Iron is of infinitely greater service to mankind than gold: and would be more valued by us, if it did not happen that it is to be found in much larger quantities than gold. So it is with jewels: the value of them is quite ideal: in themselves they are of no more use than common pebbles; and he who possesses them in the greatest abundance, is in reality no richer than if he possessed so much gravel out of the pit.
Nor is any thing that wealth can purchase, or any thing that is associated with it, worthy of any better name than vanity. What are high-sounding titles, but a mere sound that has its value only in the estimation of men; and that, by a change of its acceptation (such as not uncommonly takes place in language, as, for instance, in the term Despot), may convey the most painful feelings, instead of such as are agreeable to the mind? We may ask the same in reference to pleasure: What is it? Let but a very small change take place in the circumstances of the person, and the pleasure shall become a pain. Or let it be enjoyed in all its fulness ; whom did it ever satisfy? To whom did it ever impart any permanent delight? The more exquisite it is, the sooner does it cloy; insomuch that we are soon forced to flee from it through very lassitude and disgust. And a recurrence to the same sources of gratification is far from producing the same emotions in the soul : by use and habit we become indifferent to the very things which once we most ardently affected: so poor, so empty, so transient is all that passes
under the semblance and the name of pleasure. We may say therefore of "all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life," that it is not only vain, but“ vanity" in the abstract: “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanitya."] 2. Vexation of spirit
[So far is the creature from affording any real happiness, that it is an occasion of constant vexation to the mind. The pursuit of earthly things is attended with much labour, and with much uncertainty also as to the attainment of them. When attained, they excite nothing but envy in others, and disquietude in ourselves. By reason of the casualties to which the possession of them exposes us, we are filled with care; insomuch, that those who only behold our acquisitions, often derive more pleasure from them than we who are the owners of them. Besides, the more we have attained, the more our desires are enlarged after something unpossessed ; so that our labours are never at an end: and the pain issuing from a single disappointment frequently outweighs the pleasure arising from manifold successes. Indeed, the things from which we promise ourselves most pleasure, generally become, by some means or other, the sources of our keenest anguish ; and our most sanguine expectations usually terminate in the bitterest disappointment: yea, it not unfrequently happens, that after having attained the object of our wishes, we welcome the period of our separation from it, and bless ourselves more in the loss of it, than ever we did in the acquisition.
Say then whether Solomon's testimony be not strictly true. Young people, when they hear such a sentiment avowed, are ready to think it an effusion of spleen, and a libel on the whole creation : but this testimony is the very truth of God, and shall sooner or later be found true in the experience of every living man: the world, and every thing in it, is a broken cistern, that disappoints the hopes of the thirsty traveller, and becomes to him, not only vanity, but“ vexation of spirit:” and he that has most sought to satisfy himself with it, finds after all his labours, that he has only “filled his belly with the east wind b."]
Such is the import of the general assertion. We now proceed to notice, II. The particular confirmation of it,
Two things are here specified by Solomon, as
a ver. 2.
b Job xv. 2.