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II.—If, as Milton sings,

"To know

That which before us lies in daily life

Is the prime wisdom,"

we are surely much indebted to the Hebrew Preacher. He does not "sit on a hill apart" discussing fate, freewill, foreknowledge absolute, or any lofty abstruse theme. He walks with us, in the common round, to the daily task, and talks to us of that which lies before and around us in our daily life. Nor does he speak as one raised high above the folly and weakness by which we are constantly betrayed. He has trodden the very paths we tread. He shares our craving and has pursued our quest after "that which is good." He has been misled by the illusions by which we are beguiled. And his aim is to save us from fruitless researches and defeated hopes by placing his experience at our command. He speaks, therefore, to our real need, and speaks with a cordial sympathy which renders his counsel very welcome.

We are so made that we can find no rest until we210 find a supreme Good, a Good which will satisfy all our faculties, passions, aspirations. For this we search with ardour; but our ardour is not always under law to wisdom. We often assume that we have reached our chief Good while it is still far off, or that we are at least looking for it in the right direction when in truth we have turned our back upon it. Sometimes we seek for it in the pursuit of knowledge, sometimes in pleasure and self-indulgence, sometimes in fervent devotion to secular affairs; sometimes in love, sometimes in wealth, and sometimes in a modest yet competent provision for our future wants. And if, when we have acquired the special good we seek, we find that our hearts are still craving and restless, still hungering for a larger good, we are apt to think that if we had a little more of that which so far has disappointed us; if we were somewhat wiser, or if our pleasures were more varied; if we had a little more love or a larger estate, all would be well with us, and we should be at peace. Perhaps in time we get our "little more," but still our hearts do not cry, "Hold, enough!"—enough being always a little more than we have; till at last, weary and disappointed in our quest, we begin to despair of ourselves and to distrust the goodness of God. "If God be good," we ask, "why has He made us thus—always seeking yet never finding, urged on by imperious appetites which are never satisfied, impelled by hopes211 which for ever elude our grasp?" And because we cannot answer the question, we cry out, "Vanity of vanities! all is vanity and vexation of spirit!"

"Ah, no," replies the kindly Preacher who has himself known this despairing mood and surmounted it; "no, all is not vanity. There is a chief Good, a satisfying Good, although you have not found it yet; and you have not found it because you have not looked for it where alone it can be found. Once take the right path, follow the right clue, and you will find a Good which will make all else good to you, a Good which will lend a new sweetness to your wisdom and your mirth, your labour and your gain." But men are very slow to believe that they have wasted their time and strength, that they have wholly mistaken their path; they are reluctant to believe that a little more of that of which they have already acquired so much, and which they have always held to be best, will not yield them the satisfaction they seek. And therefore the wise Preacher, instead of telling us at once where the true Good is to be found, takes much pains to convince us that it is not to be found where we have been wont to seek it. He places before us a man of the largest wisdom, whose pleasures were exquisitely varied and combined, a man whose devotion to affairs was the most perfect and successful, a man of imperial nature and wealth, and whose heart had glowed with212 all the fervours of love: and this man—himself under a thin disguise—so rarely gifted and of such ample conditions, confesses that he could not find the Chief Good in any one of the directions in which we commonly seek it, although he had travelled farther in every direction than we can hope to go. If we are of a rational temper, if we are open to argument and persuasion, if we are not resolved to buy our own experience at a heavy, perhaps a ruinous, cost, how can we but accept the wise Hebrew's counsel, and cease to look for the satisfying Good in quarters in which he assures us it is not to be found?

We have already considered his argument as it bore on the men of his own time; we have now to make its application to our own age. As his custom is, the Preacher does not develop his argument in open logical sequence; he does not write a moral essay, but paints us a dramatic picture.

The Quest in Wealth. Ch. vi.

He depicts a man who trusts in riches, who honestly believes that wealth is the chief Good, or, at lowest, the way to it. This man has laboured diligently and dexterously to acquire affluence, and he has acquired it. Like the rich man of the Parable, he has much goods, and barns that grow fuller as they grow bigger. "God has given213 him riches and wealth and abundance, so that his soul"—not having learned how to look for anything higher—"lacks nothing of all that it desireth."

The Man who makes Riches his Chief Good is haunted by Fears and Perplexities. Ch. vi., vv. 1-6.

He has reached his aim, then, acquired what he holds to be good. Can he not be content with it? No; for though he bids his soul make merry and be glad, it obstinately refuses to obey. It is darkened with perplexities, haunted by vague longings, fretted and stung with perpetual care. Now that he has his riches, he goes in dread lest he should lose them; he is unable to decide how he may best employ them, or how to dispose of them when he must leave them behind him. God has given them to him; but he is not at all sure that God will show an equal wisdom in giving them to some one else when he is gone. And so the poor rich man sits steeped in wealth up to his chin—up to his chin, but not up to his lips, for he has no "power to enjoy" it. Burdened with jealous care, he grudges that others should share what he cannot enjoy, grudges above all that, when he is dead, another should possess what has been of so little comfort to him. "If thou art rich," says Shakespeare,

"thou art poor;

For like an ass whose back with ingots bows,

Thou bearest thy heavy riches but a journey,

And Death unloads thee."


But our rich man is not only like an ass; he is even more stupid: for the ass would not have his back bent even with golden ingots if he could help it, and is only too thankful when the burden is lifted from his back; while the rich man not only will plod on beneath his heavy load, but, in his dread of being unladen at his journey's end, imposes on himself a burden heavier than all his ingots, and will bear that as well as his gold. He creeps along beneath his double load, and brays quite pitifully if you so much as put out a hand to ease him.

Much that he gains only feeds Vanity. Chap. vi., v. 11.
He cannot tell what it will be good for him to have; Chap. vi., v. 12.
Nor foresee what will become of his Gains: Chap. vi., v. 12.

It is not of much use, perhaps, to argue with one so besotted; but lest we should slip into his degraded estate, the Preacher points out for our instruction the source of his disquiet, and shows why it is impossible in the very nature of things that he should know content. Among other sources of disquiet he notes these three. (1) That "there are many things which increase vanity:" that is to say, many of the acquisitions of the rich man only augment his outward pomp and state. Beyond a certain point he cannot possibly enjoy the good things he possesses; he cannot, for instance, live in all his costly mansions at once, nor eat and drink all the sumptuous fare set on his table, nor carry his whole wardrobe on his back. He is hampered with superfluities which breed care, but yield him no comfort.215 And, as he grudges that others should enjoy them, all this abundance, all that goes beyond his personal gratification, so far from being an "advantage" to him, is only a burden and a torment. (2) Another source of disquiet is, that no man, not even he, "can tell what is good for man in life," what will be really helpful and pleasant to him. Many things which attract desire pall upon the taste. And as "the day of our vain life is brief," gone "like a shadow," he may flit away before he has had a chance of using much that he has laboriously acquired. (3) And a third source of disquiet is, that the more a man has the more he must leave: and this is a fact which cuts him two ways, with a keen double edge. For the more he has the less he likes leaving it; and the more he has the more is he puzzled how to leave it. He cannot tell "what shall be after him," and so he makes one will to-day and another to-morrow, and very likely dies intestate after all.

Is not that a true picture, a picture true to life? Bulwer Lytton tells us how one of our wealthiest peers once complained to him that he was never so happy and well-served as when he was a bachelor in chambers; that his splendid mansion was a dreary solitude to him, and the long train of domestics his masters rather216 than his servants. And more than once he depicts, as in The Caxtons, a man of immense fortune and estate as so occupied in learning and discharging the heavy duties of property, so tied and hampered by the thought of what was expected of him, as to fret under a constant weight of care and to lose all the sweet uses of life. And have not we ourselves known men who have grown more penurious as they have grown richer, men unable to decide what it would be really good or even pleasant for them to do, more and more anxious as to how they should devise their abundance? "I am a poor rich man, burdened with money; but I have nothing else," was the saying of a notorious millionaire, who died while he was signing a cheque for £10,000, some twenty years ago.

And because God has put Eternity into his Heart, He cannot be content with Temporal Good. Ch. vi., vv. 7-10.

But the Hebrew Preacher is not content to paint a picture of the Rich Man and his perplexities—a picture as true to the life now as it was then. He also points out how it is that the lover of riches came to be the man he is, and why he can never lay hold on the supreme Good. "All the labour of this man is for his mouth," for the senses and whatever gratifies sense; and therefore, however prosperous he may be, "yet his soul cannot be satisfied." For the soul is not fed by that which feeds the senses. God has "put eternity" into it. It craves an eternal sustenance.217 It cannot rest till it gains access to "the living water," and "the meat which endureth," and the good "wine of the kingdom." A beast—if indeed beasts have no souls, which I neither deny nor admit—may be content if only he be placed in comfortable outward conditions; but a man, simply because he is a man, must have a wholesome and happy inward life before he can be content. His hunger and thirst after righteousness must be satisfied. He must know that, when flesh and heart fail him, he will be received into an eternal habitation. He must have a treasure which the moth cannot corrupt, nor the thief filch from him. We cannot escape our nature any more than we can jump off our shadow; and our very nature cries out for an immortal good. Hence it is that the rich man who trusts in his riches, and not in the God who gave them to him, carries within him a hungry craving soul. Hence it is that all who trust in riches, and hold them to be the Chief Good, are restless and unsatisfied. For, as the Preacher reminds us, it is very true both that the rich man may not be a fool, and that the poor man may trust in the riches he has not won. By virtue of his wisdom, the wise rich man may so vary and combine the good things of this life as to win from them a gratification denied to the sot whose sordid heart is set on gold; and the poor man, because he has so few of the enjoyments which wealth can buy, may218 snatch at the few that come his way with the violent delight which has violent ends. Both may "enjoy the good they have" rather than "crave a good beyond their (present) reach:" but if they mistake that good for the Supreme Good, neither their poverty nor their wisdom will save them from the misery of a fatal mistake. For they too have souls, are souls; and the soul is not to be satisfied with that which goes in at the mouth. Wise or foolish, rich or poor, whosoever trusts in riches is either like the ass whose back is bent with a weight of gold, or he is worse than the ass, and longs to take a burden on his back of which only Death can unlade him.

The Quest in the Golden Mean. Ch. vii., v. 1-Ch. viii., v. 15.

2. But now, to come closer home, to draw nearer to that prime wisdom which consists in knowing that which lies before us in our daily life, let us glance at the Man who aims to stand in the Golden Mean; the man who does not aspire to heap up a great fortune, but is anxious to secure a modest competence. He is more on our own level; for our trust in riches is, for the most part, qualified by other trusts. If we believe in Gold, we also believe in Wisdom and in Mirth; if we labour to provide for the future, we also wish to use and enjoy the present. We think it well that219 we should know something of the world about us, and take some pleasure in our life. We think that to put money in our purse should not be our only aim, though it should be a leading aim. We admit that "the love of money is a root of all evil"—one of the roots from which all forms and kinds of evil may spring; and, to save ourselves from falling into that base lust, we limit our desires. We shall be content if we can put by a moderate sum, and we flatter ourselves that we desire even so much as that, not for its own sake, but for the means of knowledge, or of usefulness, or of innocent enjoyment with which it will furnish us. "Nothing I should like better," says many a man, "than to retire from business as soon as I have enough to live upon, and to devote myself to this branch of study or that province of art, or to take my share of public duties, or to give myself to a cheerful domestic life." It speaks well for our time, I think, that while in a few large cities there are still many in haste to be rich and very rich, in the country and in hundreds of provincial towns there are thousands of men who know that wealth is not the Chief Good, and who do not care to don the livery of Mammon. Nevertheless, though their aim be "most sweet and commendable," it has perils of its own, imminent and deadly perils, which few of us altogether escape. And these perils are clearly set before us in the sketch of the Hebrew220 Preacher. As I reproduce that sketch, suffer me, for the sake of brevity, while carefully retaining the antique outlines, to fill in with modern details.

The Method of the Man who seeks a Competence. Ch. viii., vv. 1-14.

Suppose a young man to start in life with this theory, this plan, this aim, distinctly before him:—he is to be ruled by prudence and plain common sense: he will try to stand well with the world, and to make a moderate provision for future wants. This aim will beget a certain temperance of thought and action. He will permit himself no extravagances—no wandering out of bounds, and perhaps no enthusiasms, for he wants to establish "a good name," a good reputation, which shall go before him like "a sweet perfume" and dispose men's hearts toward him. And, therefore, he carries a sober face, frequents the company of older, wiser men, is grateful for any hints their experience may furnish, and takes even their "reproof" with a good grace. He walks in the beaten paths, knowing the world to be impatient of novelties. The wanton mirth and crackling laughter of fools in the house of feasting are not for him. He is not to be seduced from the plain prudent course which he has marked out for himself whether by inward provocation or outward allurements. If he is a young lawyer, he will write no poetry, attorneys holding literary men in suspicion. If he is a young doctor, homœopathy, hydropathy, and all new-fangled221 schemes of medicine will disclose their charms to him in vain. If he is a young clergyman, he will be conspicuous for his orthodoxy, and for his emphatic assent to all that the leaders of opinion in the Church think or may think. If he is a young manufacturer or merchant, he will be no breeder of costly patents and inventions, but will be among the first to profit by them whenever they are found to pay. Whatever he may be, he will not be of those who try to make crooked things straight and rough places plain. He wants to get on; and the best way to get on is to keep the beaten path and push forward in that. And he will be patient—not throwing up the game because for a time the chances go against him, but waiting till the times mend and his chances improve, so far as he can, he will keep the middle of the stream that, when the tide which leads on to fortune sets in, he may be of the best to take it at the flood and sail easily on to his desired haven.

In all this there may be no conscious insincerity, and not much perhaps that calls for censure. For all young men are not wise with the highest wisdom, nor original, nor brave with the courage which follows Truth in scorn of consequence. And our young man may not be dowered with the love of loves, the hate of hates, the scorn of scorns. He may be of a nature essentially prudent and commonplace, or training and habit may have superinduced a second nature. To him a222 primrose may be a primrose and nothing more; his instinctive thought, as he looks at it, may be how he can reproduce its colour in some of his textures or extract a saleable perfume from its nectared cup. He may even think that primroses are a mistake, and that 'tis pity they were not pot-herbs; or he may assume that he shall have plenty of time to gather primroses by-and-bye, but that for the present he must be content to pick pot-herbs for the market. In his way, he may even be a religious man; he may admit that both prosperity and adversity are of God, that we must take patiently whatever He may send; and he may heartily desire to be on good terms with Him who alone "can order all things as He please."

The Perils to which it exposes him. Ch. vii., v. 15-Ch. viii., v. 13.
He is likely to compromise Conscience; Ch. vii., vv. 15-20.

But here we light on his first grave peril; for he will carry his temperance into his religion, and he may subordinate even that to his desire to get on. Looking on men in their religious aspect, he sees that they are divided into two classes, the righteous and the wicked. As he considers them, he concludes that on the whole the righteous have the best of it, that godliness is real gain. But he soon discovers that this first rough conclusion needs to be carefully qualified. For, as he studies men more closely, he perceives that at times the righteous die in their righteousness without being223 the better for it, and the wicked live on in their wickedness without being the worse for it. He perceives that while the very wicked die before their time, the very righteous, those who are always reaching forth to that which is before them and rising to new heights of insight and obedience, are "forsaken," that they are left alone in the thinly-peopled solitude to which they have climbed, losing the sympathy even of those who once walked with them. Now, these are facts; and a prudent sensible man tries to accept facts, and to adjust himself to them, even when they are adverse to his wishes and conclusions. He does not want to be left alone, nor to die before his time. And therefore, taking these new facts into account, he infers that it will be best to be good without being too good, and to indulge himself with an occasional lapse into some general and customary wickedness without being too wicked. Nay, he is disposed to believe that "whoso feareth God," studying the facts of his providence and drawing logical inferences from them, "will lay hold of both" wickedness and righteousness, and will blend them in that proportion which the facts seem to favour. But here Conscience protests, urging that to do evil can never be good. To pacify it, he adduces the notorious fact that "there is not a righteous man on earth who doeth good, and sinneth not." "Conscience," he says, "you are really too strict and straitlaced, too hard on224 one who wants to do as well as he can. You go quite too far. How can you expect me to be better than great saints and men after God's own heart?" And so, with a wronged and pious air, he turns to lay one hand on wickedness and another on righteousness, quite content to be no better than his neighbours and to let Conscience sulk herself into a sweeter mood.

To be indifferent to Censure; Ch. vii., vv. 21, 22.

Conscience being silenced, Prudence steps in. And Prudence says, "People will talk. They will take note of your slips, and tattle about them. Unless you are very very careful, you will damage your reputation; and if you do that, how can you hope to get on?" Now as the man is specially devoted to Prudence, and has found her kind mistress and useful monitress in one, he is at first a little staggered to find her taking part against him. But he soon recovers himself, and replies: "Dear Prudence, you know as well as I do that people don't like a man to be better than themselves. Of course they will talk if they catch me tripping; but I don't mean to do more than trip, and a man who trips gains ground in recovering himself, and goes all the faster for a while. Besides we all trip; some fall even. And I talk of my neighbours just as they talk of me; and we all like each other the better for being birds of one feather."


To despise Women; Ch. vii., vv. 25-29.

At this Prudence smiles and stops her mouth. But being very willing to assist so quick-witted a disciple, she presently returns and says: "Are you not rather a long while in securing your little Competence? Is there no short cut to it? Why not take a wife with a small fortune of her own, or with connexions who could help you on?" Now the man, not being a bad man, but one who would fain be good so far as he knows goodness, is somewhat taken aback by such a suggestion as this. He thinks Prudence must be growing very worldly and mercenary. He says within himself, "Surely love should be sacred! A man should not prostitute that in order to get on! If I marry a woman simply or mainly for her money, what worse degradation can I inflict on her or on myself? how shall I be better than those old Hebrews and Orientals who held women to be only a toy or a convenience? To do that, would be to make a snare and a net of her indeed, to degrade her from her true place and function, and possibly would lead me to think of her as even worse than I had made her." Nevertheless, his heart being very much set on securing a Competence, and an accident of the sort which he calls "providences" putting a foolish woman with a pocketful of money in his way, he takes both the counsel of Prudence and a wife to match.


And to be indifferent to Public Wrongs. Ch. viii., vv. 1-13.

The world, we may be sure, thinks none the worse of him for that. Once more he has proved himself a man whose eye is stedfastly bent on "the main chance," and who knows how to seize occasions as they rise. But he, who has thus profaned the inner sanctuary of his own soul, is not likely to be sensitive to the large claims of public duty. If he sees oppression, if the tyranny of a man or a class mounts to a height which calls for rebuke and opposition, he is not likely to sacrifice comfort and risk either property or popularity that he may assail iniquity in her strong places. It is not such men as he who, when the times are out of joint, feel that they are born to set them right. Prudence is still his guide, and Prudence says, "Let things alone; they will right themselves in time. The social laws will avenge themselves on the head of the oppressor, and deliver the oppressed. You can do little to hasten their action. Why, to gain so little, should you risk so much?" And the man is content to sit still with folded hands when every hand that can strike a blow for right is wanted in the strife, and can even quote texts of Scripture to prove that in "quietness, and confidence" in the action of Divine Laws, is the true strength.

The Preacher condemns this Theory, and declares the Quest to be still unattained. Ch. vii., vv. 14, 15.

Now I make my appeal to those who daily enter the world of business—is not this the tone of that world?227 are not these the very perils to which you lie open? How often have you heard men recount the slips of the righteous in order to justify themselves for not assuming to be righteous overmuch! How often have you heard them vindicate their own occasional errors by citing the errors of those who give greater heed to religion than they do, or make a louder profession of it! How often have you heard them congratulate a neighbour on his good luck in carrying off an heiress, or speak of wedded love itself as a mere help to worldly advancement! How often have you heard them sneer at the nonsensical enthusiasm which has led certain men to "throw away their chances in life" in order to devote themselves to the service of truth, or to forfeit popularity that they might lead a forlorn hope against customary wrongs, and thank God that no such maggot ever bit their brains! If during the years which have lapsed since I too "went on 'Change," the general tone has not risen a whole heaven—and I have heard of no such miracle—I know that you must daily hear such things as these, and worse than these; and that not only from irreligious men of bad character, but from men who take a fair place in our Christian congregations. From the time of the wise Preacher to the present hour, this sort of talk has been going228 on, and the scheme of life from which it springs has been stoutly held. There is the more need, therefore, for you to listen to and weigh the Preacher's conclusion. For his conclusion is, that this scheme of life is wholly and irredeemably wrong, that it tends to make a man a coward and a slave, that it cannot satisfy the large desires of the soul, and that it cheats him of the Chief Good. His conclusion is, that the man who so sets his heart on acquiring even a Competence that he cannot be content without it, has no genuine trust in God, since he is willing to give in to immoral maxims and customs in order to secure that which, as he thinks, will make him largely independent of the Divine Providence.

The Preacher speaks as to wise men, to men of some experience of the world. Judge you what he says.

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