Why I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion…
These words seem to mean that a man had better get all he can, and then enjoy what he has gathered, for that is his share of the world's good things, and as life is short it is best to spend it as pleasantly as possible. The advice has been often given; it will, I expect, be often given again. We are familiar with it in many forms. Seize the passing day and make it a day of enjoyment. Beauty and brightness, wine and song — make the most of them while you can, for neither you nor they will be long here. This is the sum of many men's idea of life. Whether gross or refined in its outward forms, the idea remains essentially the same. We sometimes speak of it as an Epicurean view, naming it from the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Not that it originated with him, for it is older far; as old, in fact, as human nature. But Epicurus reduced it to a system, gave it form and logical consistency, so as to make it a philosophy. He, too, presented it under its least repulsive features, for he seems to have been personally an estimable man. But nothing, not even genius, can redeem such a mode of thought from reproach, for it is altogether earthly and of the senses. It makes much of the animal element in our nature; ii lives intoxicated with the outward and visible. Yet, for this very reason it has always been popular both in theory and practice, especially in practice. Great numbers have an intense love for the pleasures of sense, though they would shrink from confessing oven to themselves how great a part of their lives these pleasures occupy. But if men have any touch of cultivation, they cannot be content to live the life of unmixed animalism. A sense of dignity, always awakened by thought, protests and rebels. They must take their pleasure with something to qualify its grossness. I know no better type of the class of which I am thinking than King Charles II. No one can compliment the purity of the pleasures in which he indulged. And yet the man of cultivation and refinement flashes out from the very midst of those scenes of revelry. There is an urbanity, a kindliness, a moderation even, which are not without their charms, tie never went to the extremes which injure health and inspire disgust. He was a lover, too, of art and science. If the king spent the evening in banqueting, as he did, he passed the earlier parts of the day in chemical experiments, and other forms of scientific research. Easy in temper, good-natured, self-indulgent, indolent; such is the man. The type of character is common, and it is common partly because it is so popular. Men of such nature are considered "good fellows," and treated with boundless indulgence. But these light-hearted men, who seem not so much to sin as to be unconscious of responsibility, are really the poison of social life. They are corrupt and corrupting to others. Of them it is by emphasis true, "One sinner destroyeth much good." King Charles lulled the nation into a lazy, voluptuous sleep, the ruin of liberty and progress. And those who, in more private life, repeat his character, will shrink into the shame and remorse of perdition when they are brought face to face with the generous impulses they have blighted, the aspirations they have chocked, and the opening faith and love they have destroyed. Worldliness, however, is a larger fact, and one more widely spread than the conscious pursuit of pleasure. There are men whose lives are most "respectable," men at any rate laborious and earnest, whose course is guided at bottom by the Epicurean theory of action. They have a god and a worship whose rites and ceremonies are most exacting. Their deity is money. They worship the power of gold. They hold with Napoleon, that not only every thing but every man has his price, and that there is no door which will not open to a golden key. No doubt there are many facts which suggest such a view and seem to give it support. Money will do many things. It will bring houses, and land, and luxuries. It will secure almost unbounded social influence. And yet there is a limit to its potency. Money is not almighty. Its powers are hedged about by strict limitations. It cannot greatly alter you. The essential self of every man is beyond its sway. Neither can money alter the permanent conditions of well-being. That vice leads to sickness and death, to feebleness of thought and deadened petrifaction of feeling, is a fact which no money can touch. There is a form of worldliness which is even more strange than the love of money. It shows itself in an eager desire for what is called social position. Social display and pretensions are starving bodies and souls, and often plunging men into the vortex of fraudulent crime. Position in society is a good thing, no doubt, but it is not worth having at the price of honour and self-respect. These are different forms assumed by the gospel of worldliness. In a very intelligible sense it is "good news," a veritable gospel to the outward or sensuous man; it has the promise of the life that now is. And we need not deny that the promise is redeemed. Give yourself to the world, and the world will probably give itself to you. You may, if you go heartily for it, have pleasure, or wealth, or social honour. Will you, then, accept this gospel of the worldly life? I do not know. Many of you, I am afraid, will. But to me it seems open to the gravest objections. My intellect and my feelings rise in protest against it. Shall I try and tell you why? First, it is a selfish good which is offered to us after all. Worldliness must be selfish, for it is clear that the pursuit of pleasure only becomes possible when we centre our thoughts on self. How will this affect me? is the one question which every event suggests to thought. Accordingly in its more vulgar forms the worldly life disgusts us by a selfishness which is "naked and not ashamed." It recommends us coarsely, to "take care of number one," as though "number one" were not, as it is, about the most worthless thing in the universe of being. Or it sings most untunefully about "a little pelf to provide for yourself," with a mean-spirited glorying in its purblind limitation of view. The same spirit, in its more refined forms, speaks with contempt of the "herd," and wraps itself in a mantle of supercilious pride. Yet a selfish life is essentially a life of misery. By one of those moral paradoxes which are so strange, and yet so beautiful, the only way to happiness is to give up seeking for it and to seek for something better and higher. "Go teach the orphan boy to read, or teach the orphan girl to sew;" forget your narrow, restless self; let your heart flow out in sympathy with others, and you have taken one step toward inward peace. He who has no love for others will one day cry in vain for others to love him. For love is life, and those who live without it are dead while they live. I object, further, to the gospel of worldliness that it fails to bring satisfaction to those who follow its rules. This is singularly true. The most discontented, unresting class of men in the world are those who give themselves to the pursuit of pleasure on system. As they grow older, they almost always become cynics, as we say — that is, they sneer and snarl at everything and everybody. The emptiness, the vanity, the sham is in the worldling's heart, and he sees other things through the mist of his own thoughts. Depend upon it there is no satisfaction to be had for men in mere pleasure-hunting. And I will tell you why. There is that in our souls which is related to the Infinite and Eternal. We are thirsting after the water of life, though we know it not. The aching void in the worldling's heart is an indirect testimony to the nobleness of his nature. The prodigal would fain have stayed his hunger with the husks that the swine did eat, but a man cannot live on swine's food, and that precisely because he is a man. Oh, sirs, there standeth One among you whom ye know not. His face is so marred more than any man, and His form than the sons of men. And yet, oh, blessed Lord, to whom shall we go but unto Thee? Thou, Thou only, hast the words of eternal life. I object, finally, to the gospel of the world as being irreligious. Religion, or the sense of a boundless destiny, is a fact in the nature of man. It is the mightiest fact in his history also. It has built temples, woven creeds, invented ceremonies, animated heroisms, and written itself in a thousand ways upon all human things. You may try to put it down, but it will be too strong for you. What happens when a power or faculty of our nature is forcibly suppressed? I will tell you; men go mad. The oppressed tendency, like the volcanic fires of the earth, smoulders underground till it gathers ungovernable force, and then bursts forth scattering devastation and death. So it is with man's religious nature. Every attempt to keep it down, however it may succeed for a time, only brings it out in the long run in violent and perverted forms. Men try to live on this world and cannot, and then they Lake to revolution and bloodshed, with the worship of some abstraction of liberty or equality, or else they descend into spiritual idiotcy, and finish by turning tables, and finding mighty revelations in raps upon the floor. The superstition of the day is in near relation to its worldliness. I know only one deliverance from either, and that, thank God, is a deliverance from both. It is found in rational spiritual religion, or, as the apostle expresses it, "repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ."
(J. F. Stevenson, LL. B.).
Parallel VersesKJV: Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?