Solomon, in a fret, had praised the dead more than the living (Eccl. 4:2); but here, considering the advantages of life to prepare for death and make sure the hope of a better life, he seems to be of another mind.
I. He shows the advantages which the living have above those that are dead, Eccl. 9:4-6. 1. While there is life there is hope. Dum spiro, spero—While I breathe, I hope. It is the privilege of the living that they are joined to the living, in relation, commerce, and conversation, and, while they are so, there is hope. If a man’s condition be, upon any account, bad, there is hope it will be amended. If the heart be full of evil, and madness be in it, yet while there is life there is hope that by the grace of God there may be a blessed change wrought; but after men go to the dead (Eccl. 9:3) it is too late then; he that is then filthy will be filthy still, for ever filthy. If men be thrown aside as useless, yet, while they are joined to the living, there is hope that they may yet again take root and bear fruit; he that is alive is, or may be, good for something, but he that is dead, as to this world, is not capable of being any further serviceable. Therefore a living dog is better than a dead lion; the meanest beggar alive has that comfort of this world and does that service to it which the greatest prince, when he is dead, is utterly incapable of. 2. While there is life there is an opportunity of preparing for death: The living know that which the dead have no knowledge of, particularly they know that they shall die, and are, or may be, thereby influenced to prepare for that great change which will come certainly, and may come suddenly. Note, The living cannot but know that they shall die, that they must needs die. They know they are under a sentence of death; they are already taken into custody by its messengers, and feel themselves declining. This is a needful useful knowledge; for what is our business, while we live, but to get ready to die: The living know they shall die; it is a thing yet to come, and therefore provision may be made for it. The dead know they are dead, and it is too late; they are on the other side the great gulf fixed. 3. When life is gone all this world is gone with it, as to us. (1.) There is an end of all our acquaintance with this world and the things of it: The dead know not any thing of that which, while they lived, they were intimately conversant with. It does not appear that they know any thing of what is done by those they leave behind. Abraham is ignorant of us; they are removed into darkness, Job 10:22. (2.) There is an end of all our enjoyments in this world: They have no more a reward for their toils about the world, but all they got must be left to others; they have a reward for their holy actions, but not for their worldly ones. The meats and the belly will be destroyed together, John 6:27; 1 Cor. 6:13. It is explained Eccl. 9:6. Neither have they any more a portion for ever, none of that which they imagined would be a portion for ever, of that which is done and got under the sun. The things of this world will not be a portion for the soul because they will not be a portion for ever; those that choose them, and have them for their good things, have only a portion in this life, Ps. 17:14. The world can only be an annuity for life, not a portion for ever. (3.) There is an end of their name. There are but few whose names survive them long; the grave is a land of forgetfulness, for the memory of those that are laid there is soon forgotten; their place knows them no more, nor the lands they called by their own names. (4.) There is an end of their affections, their friendships and enmities: Their love, and their hatred, and their envy have now perished; the good things they loved, the evil things they hated, the prosperity of others, which they envied, are now all at an end with them. Death parts those that loved one another, and puts an end to their friendship, and those that hated one another too, and puts an end to their quarrels. Actio moritur cum personâ—The person and his actions die together. There we shall be never the better for our friends (their love can do us no kindness), nor ever the worse for our enemies—their hatred and envy can do us no damage. There the wicked cease from troubling. Those things which now so affect us and fill us, which we are so concerned about and so jealous of, will there be at an end.
II. Hence he infers that it is our wisdom to make the best use of life that we can while it does last, and manage wisely what remains of it.
1. Let us relish the comforts of life while we live, and cheerfully take our share of the enjoyments of it. Solomon, having been himself ensnared by the abuse of sensitive delights, warns others of the danger, not by a total prohibition of them, but by directing to the sober and moderate use of them; we may use the world, but must not abuse it, take what is to be had out of it, and expect no more. Here we have,
(1.) The particular instances of this cheerfulness prescribed: “Thou art drooping and melancholy, go thy way, like a fool as thou art, and get into a better temper of mind.” [1.] “Let thy spirit be easy and pleasant; then let there be joy and a merry heart within,” a good heart (so the word is), which distinguishes this from carnal mirth and sensual pleasure, which are the evil of the heart, both a symptom and a cause of much evil there. We must enjoy ourselves, enjoy our friends, enjoy our God, and be careful to keep a good conscience, that nothing may disturb us in these enjoyments. We must serve God with gladness, in the use of what he gives us, and be liberal in communicating it to others, and not suffer ourselves to be oppressed with inordinate care and grief about the world. We must eat our bread as Israelites, not in our mourning (Deut. 26:14), as Christians, with gladness and liberality of heart, Acts 2:46. See Deut. 28:47. [2.] “Make use of the comforts and enjoyments which God has given thee: Eat thy bread, drink thy wine, thine, not another’s, not the bread of deceit, nor the wine of violence, but that which is honestly got, else thou canst not eat it with any comfort nor expect a blessing upon it—thy bread and thy wine, such as are agreeable to thy place and station, not extravagantly above it nor sordidly below it; lay out what God has given thee for the ends for which thou art entrusted with it, as being but a steward.” [3.] “Evidence thy cheerfulness (Eccl. 9:8): Let thy garments be always white. Observe a proportion in thy expenses; reduce not thy food in order to gratify thy pride, nor thy clothing in order to gratify thy voluptuousness. Be neat, wear clean linen, and be not slovenly.” Or, “Let thy garments be white in token of joy and cheerfulness,” which were expressed by white raiment (Rev. 3:4); “and as a further token of joy, let thy head lack no ointment that is fit for it.” Our Saviour admitted this piece of pleasure at a feast (Matt. 26:7), and David observes it among the gifts of God’s bounty to him. Ps. 23:5; Thou anointest my head with oil. Not that we must place our happiness in any of the delights of sense, or set our hearts upon them, but what God has given us we must make as comfortable a use of as we can afford, under the limitations of sobriety and wisdom, and not forgetting the poor. [4.] “Make thyself agreeable to thy relations: Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest. Do not engross thy delights, making much of thyself only, and not caring what becomes of those about thee, but let them share with thee and make them easy too. Have a wife; for even in paradise it was not good for man to be alone. Keep to thy wife, to one, and do not multiply wives” (Solomon had found the mischief of that); “keep to her only, and have nothing to do with any other.” How can a man live joyfully with one with whom he does not live honestly? “Love thy wife; and the wife whom thou lovest thou wilt be likely to live joyfully with.” When we do the duty of relations we may expect the comfort of them. See Prov. 5:19. “Live with thy wife, and delight in her society. Live joyfully with her, and be most cheerful when thou art with her. Take pleasure in thy family, thy vine and thy olive plants.”
(2.) The qualifications necessary to this cheerfulness: “Rejoice and have a merry heart, if God now accepts thy works. If thou art reconciled to God, and recommended to him, then thou has reason to be cheerful, otherwise not.” Rejoice not, O Israel! for joy, as other people, for thou hast gone a whoring from thy God, Hos. 9:1. Our first care must be to make our peace with God, and obtain his favour, to do that which he will accept of, and then, Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy. Note, Those whose works God has accepted have reason to be cheerful and ought to be so. ‘Now that thou eatest the bread of thy sacrifices with joy, and partakest of the wine of thy drink-offerings with a merry heart, now God accepts thy works. Thy religious services, when performed with holy joy, are pleasing to God; he loves to have his servants sing at their work, it proclaims him a good Master.
(3.) The reasons for it. “Live joyfully, for,” [1.] “It is all little enough to make thy passage through this world easy and comfortable: The days of thy life are the days of thy vanity; there is nothing here but trouble, and disappointment. Thou wilt have time enough for sorrow and grief when thou canst not help it, and therefore live joyfully while thou canst, and perplex not thyself with thoughts and cares about to-morrow; sufficient to the day is the evil thereof. Let a gracious serenity of mind be a powerful antidote against the vanity of the world.” [2.] “It is all thou canst get from this world: That is thy portion in the things of this life. In God, and another life, thou shalt have a better portion, and a better recompence for thy labours in religion; but for thy pains which thou takest about the things under the sun this is all thou canst expect, and therefore do not deny this to thyself.”
2. Let us apply ourselves to the business of life while life lasts, and so use the enjoyments of it as by them to be fitted for the employments: “Therefore eat with joy and a merry heart, not that thy soul may take its ease (as Luke 12:19), but that thy soul may take the more pains and the joy of the Lord may be its strength and oil to its wheels,” Eccl. 9:10. Whatsoever thy hand finds to do do it with thy might. Observe here, (1.) There is not only something to be had, but something to be done, in this life, and the chief good we are to enquire after is the good we should do, Eccl. 2:3. This is the world of service; that to come is the world of recompence. This is the world of probation and preparation for eternity; we are here upon business, and upon our good behaviour. (2.) Opportunity is to direct and quicken duty. That is to be done which our hand finds to do, which occasion calls for; and an active hand will always find something to do that will turn to a good account. What must be done, of necessity, our hand will here find a price in it for the doing of, Prov. 17:16. (3.) What good we have an opportunity of doing we must do while we have the opportunity, and do it with our might, with care, vigour, and resolution, whatever difficulties and discouragements we may meet with in it. Harvest-days are busy days; and we must make hay while the sun shines. Serving God and working out our salvation must be done with all that is within us, and all little enough. (4.) There is good reason why we should work the works of him that sent us while it is day, because the night comes, wherein no man can work, John 9:4. We must up and be doing now with all possible diligence, because our doing-time will be done shortly and we know not how soon. But this we know that, if the work of life be not done when our time is done, we are undone for ever: “There is no work to be done, nor device to do it, no knowledge for speculation, nor wisdom for practice, in the grave whither thou goest.” We are all going towards the grave; every day brings us a step nearer to it; when we are in the grave it will be too late to mend the errors of life, too late to repent and make our peace with God, too late to lay up any thing in store for eternal life; it must be done now or never. The grave is a land of darkness and silence, and therefore there is no doing any thing for our souls there; it must be done now or never, John 12:35.