Therefore I hated life; because the work that is worked under the sun is grievous to me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
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, authorize 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 wisdom inspires, so there is a hatred of the world, that ariseth from evil dispositions.
1. We may hate life because we are melancholy. Only he whose ideas are disconcerted by a dark and gloomy temper can say fully and without qualification, "I hate life." To attribute such a disposition to the wise man is to insult the Holy Spirit who animated him.
2. Some are disgusted with life from a principle of misanthropy. What is a misanthrope, or a hater of mankind? lie is a man who avoids society only to free himself from the trouble of being useful to it. He is a man who considers his neighbours only on the side of their defects, not knowing the art of combining their virtues with their vices, and of rendering the imperfections of other people tolerable by reflecting on his own. What a society would that be which should be composed of people without charity, without patience, without condescension! My text doth not inculcate such sentiments as these. The wise man had met with a great many disagreeable events in society which had given him a great deal of pain, but, far from being driven out of it, he continued to reside in the world, and to amend and improve it by his wise counsel and good example.
3. Sometimes a spirit of discontent produces disgust with the world, and contempt of life. To hear the people I mean, one would think it was impossible that this world should be governed by a wise being, because, forsooth, they are doomed with the rest of mankind to live in a valley of trouble. But who art thou, thou miserable man, to conceive ideas so false, and to form opinions so rash!
4. We are sometimes disgusted with the world through an excess of fondness for the world, and hate life through an over-valuation of it. Man enters the world as an enchanted place. While the charm lasts, the man I speak of is in raptures, and thinks he hath found the supreme good. He imagines that riches have no wings, that splendid fortune hath no reverse, that the great have no caprice, that friends have no levity, that health and youth are eternal; but as it is not long before he recovers his senses, he becomes disgusted with the world in the same proportion as he had been infatuated with it, and his hatred of life is exactly as extravagant as his love of it had been.
5. It is not in any of these senses that the wise man saith, "I hated life." He would have us understand that the earth hath more thorns than flowers — that our condition here, though incomparably better than we deserve, is, however, inadequate to our just and constitutional desires — that our inconveniences in this life would seem intolerable unless we were wise enough to direct them to the same end that God proposed by exposing us to suffer them — in a word, that nothing but hope in a future state formed on another plan can render the disorders of this world tolerable. So much may serve to explain the meaning of the wise man.
II. LET US NOW PROCEED TO JUSTIFY THE SENSE GIVEN. The phantoms that seduced Solomon during his dissipation may be reduced to two classes. The first suppose in the dissipated man very little knowledge, and very little taste; and it is astonishing that a man so eminently endowed with knowledge could set his heart upon them. The second may more easily impose on an enlightened and generous mind. I put these into three classes. In the first I put the advantages of science — in the second the pleasures of friendship — in the third the privileges, I mean the temporal privileges, of virtue and heroism. I will endeavour to unmask these three figures, and to prove that the very dispositions which should contribute most to the pleasure of life, mental abilities, tenderness of heart, rectitude and delicacy of conscience, are actually dispositions which contribute most of all to embitter life.
1. If ever possessions could make man happy, Solomon must certainly have been the happiest of mankind. Imagine the most proper and the most effectual means of acquiring knowledge, joined to an avidity to obtain it, both were united in the person of this prince. Now what saith this great man concerning science? He acknowledgeth indeed that it was preferable to ignorance, the wise man's eyes, saith he, are in his head, that is, a man of education is in possession of some prudential maxims to regulate his life, whereas an illiterate man walketh in darkness; but yet saith he, "it happeneth even to me, as it happeneth to the fool, and why was I then wise?"(1) Observe first, the little progress made in science by those who pursue it to the highest pitch. As they advance in this immense field they discover, shall I say new extents, or new abysses, which they can never fathom. The more they nourish themselves with this rich pasture, the more keen do their appetites become.
(2) Remark next the little justice done in the world to such as excel most in science.
2. The second disposition, which seems as if it would contribute much to the pleasure of life, but which often embitters it, is tenderness of heart. It is clear by the writings of Solomon, and more so by the history of his life, that his heart was very accessible to this kind of pleasure. How often doth he write encomiums on faithful friends (Proverbs 17:17; Proverbs 18:24). But where is this friend who sticketh closer than a brother? Where is this friend who loveth at all times? What an airy phantom is human friendship!
3. If anything seem capable to render life agreeable, and if anything in general render it disagreeable, it is rectitude, and delicacy of conscience. I know Solomon seems here to contradict himself, and the author of the Book of Proverbs seems to refute the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes. The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes informs us that virtue is generally useless and sometimes hurtful in this world; but according to the author of the Book of Proverbs virtue is most useful in this world. How shall we reconcile these things? To say, as some do, that the author of Proverbs speaks of the spiritual rewards of virtue, and the author of Ecclesiastes of the temporal state of it, is to cut the knot instead of untying it. Of many solutions there is one that bids fair to remove the difficulty; that is, that when the author of the Book of Proverbs makes temporal advantages of the rewards of virtue, he speaks of some rare periods of society, whereas the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes describes the common general state of things. Perhaps the former refers to the happy time in which the example of the piety of David being yet recent, and the prosperity of his successor not having then infected either the heart of the king or the morals of his subjects, reputation, riches and honours were bestowed on good men; but the second, probably, speaks of what came to pass soon after. In the first period life was amiable, and living in the world delicious; but of the second the wise man saith, "I hated life because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me." To which of the two periods doth the age in which we live belong? Judge by the description given by the Preacher, as he calls himself. Then mankind were ungrateful, the public did not remember the benefits conferred on them by individuals, and their services were unrewarded (Ecclesiastes 9:14, 15). Then courtiers mean and ungrateful basely forsook their old master, and paid their court to the heir apparent (Ecclesiastes 4:15). Then the strong oppressed the weak (Ecclesiastes 4:1). Then the courts of justice were corrupt (Ecclesiastes 3:16). Such is the idea the wise man gives us of the world. Yet these vain and precarious objects, this world so proper to inspire a rational mind with disgust, this life so proper to excite hatred in such as know what is worthy of esteem, this is that` which hath always fascinated, and which yet continues to fascinate the bulk of mankind.
Parallel VersesKJV: Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit.