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Who hopeless lays his dead away,
The vanity of earthly glory is a theme as old as human history—the easiest theme in which to prove one's proposition.
The author turns the subject over and over, views it from every aspect, cites cases for example, and elucidates his thought with great poetic art, till he has left no room for doubt that life under the sun comes to a lame and impotent conclusion. Its glory fades, its pleasures disappoint, its successes are achieved too late, and all our cherished achievements must be left to the man who comes after us, and, as he says rather bitterly, "Who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool.”
But the book is after all a hopeful book. Like so much of Hebrew literature, the dark shadows which are so faithfully depicted serve to brighten the luster of the hope which is not grounded on anything "under the sun."
"This," he concludes, "this is the end of the matter; all hath been heard; fear God and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment whether it be good or whether it be evil.”
This is not the conclusion of despair, nor the creed of pessimism. It is not at all the spirit of those who say, "Nothing matters much. We somehow muddle through and come to our end some time.”
"And even the weariest river winds somewhere safe to sea."
It is the logical conclusion from the premises that this is God's world, and God is wise and God. He shall bring our work into judgment. Whatever man may say of our work, or of us, the ultimate decision, the only approval that matters is His.
“Only the Master shall praise it,
“The evil days come, and the years draw nigh when thou shalt say, 'I have no pleasure in them'."
“The sun and the moon and the stars shall be darkened, and the clouds return after the rain.”
“And the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit return unto God who gave it."
All that is under the sun is vanity. Our life is a vapor that appeareth for a little and vanisheth away, but the purposes of God go grandly on, and thus by another road we come to the same abiding place of hope and faith.
As Job found, "The conclusion of the whole matter" in the proposition,
"Behold the fear of the Lord that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding."
So the “Preacher” of this book answers the ancient question, "Where shall wisdom be found?” in the parallel phrases,
"Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”
CANTICLES, OR SONG OF SONGS
“Love is strong as death;
The book called The Song of Songs is one of the most remark
able in all the Bible. Regarded frankly as a love song, it is an exquisite poem, singing in impassioned fervor the joy and delight of the tender passion. Love is its theme, and the lines we have quoted above give the gist and flavor of the whole song. There is no hint or suggestion in the book that it is anything more or less than it appears to be-a love song. But the propensity to allegory was so strong in the later Hebrew writings, and the habit of setting forth deep spiritual truth in poetic imagery drawn from every field of human experience, that the interpreters of such literature are apt to look for spiritual teaching in words that on the surface had no such meaning, and possibly to find much that the authors never dreamed of teaching.
This tendency to allegorize in the interpretation of Scripture is still strong in the minds of many, and has led to the most diverse and sometimes fanciful views as to the teaching of certain passages-notably the later chapters of the book of Daniel.
It is indeed extremely difficult to know just how far the words of some parts of Scripture are to be taken literally, and how much is poetic and picturesque. The only rule that seems safe to follow is to interpret literally the words of every passage unless there is some clear intimation in the book itself that they are intended in some figurative sense.
In the great majority of cases there is no difficulty in applying this rule. In the prophecies of Zechariah, for example, or Ezekiel, while we may not always find it easy to determine just what the author does mean, we are quite sure that he does not mean to be taken literally—that he is teaching something in parable or allegory.
In the case of the Song of Songs, the interpreters have differed widely in their views. Very soon after the book was written we find it understood as a parable, in which the relation of Jehovah to his chosen people is presented under the form of an allegory of the lover and his bride. In the Christian Church this interpretation has very generally prevailed, only substituting Christ
and his Church in the place of Jehovah and Israel.
But this view has very often been disputed, and in recent years the more common interpretation has taken it as literal—a love song, celebrating just what on the face of it it seems to celebrate, that is, the joys and felicities of conjugal affection-love. The lines quoted above are from the latter part of the book and seem to sum up and embody the gist and message of the whole: “Love is stronger than death."
And it is certainly fit and proper that a great moral compendium, as the Bible is, should give consideration to this emotion, for there is no other affection or impulse or passion that is more influential in our lives. There is no holier emotion, none whose purity and right direction is so fundamental to the happiness and welfare of the human race. It is the sweetest and most sacred of all human affections.
It is most unfortunate that our conscious concupiscence has made us unduly reticent on this subject, and has promoted a sort of monkish prudery in respect to all that pertains to love and marriage.
Never was religious zeal more grossly misapplied than when it disparaged the relation of holy matrimony and gave the place of highest honor to the unnatural state of celibacy.
In thus assigning to virginity a higher place than that of motherhood, and honoring the monk above the father, it did violence to Nature, and condemned the very ordinance of the Creator; separated that which God has joined together and taught a false and dangerous doctrine.
Very much of the shameful disorder of our social life and the misery of domestic relations, and the disgusting revelations of our divorce courts, with their long train of social evils are due to a false attitude of mind toward this affection. This love, which should be an intense and holy passion drawing one man and one woman together and binding them in the sacred bonds of true marriage, has been treated so lightly or so grossly that it
has come to mean almost anything, from the coarest form of bestial lust to the silly infatuation of light-headed fancy. The prudery of misguided modesty and the prurience of corrupt imagination combine to form a false and foolish notion of love, and it is for the most part treated either as a pretty sentiment, rather soft and undignified; or as a mere sensuous passion, more or less lascivious. Both these conceptions are utterly unworthy of the name, and their current acceptance in literature and art and common usuage is most pernicious.
The Holy Scriptures never descend to the silly simpering conventionality of regarding this tender emotion as a joke, nor do they ever disparage it by any suggestion that it is unholy or undignified. To the pure all things are pure, and "evil is to him who evil thinks." The Song of Songs is the love song of love songs. It is the fervid, ingenuous and unabashed outpouring of a lover's joy and devotion. It is the sweetest and purest and noblest of all amatory poems, a worthy expression of the strongest and sweetest of human affections. As the Psalms are the best expression of our religious' emotions of the joys and hopes and aspirations of our religious nature, so this poem is the outburst of the natural affections which are the very crown and Aower of our social nature.
It is the inspired revelation of the place and dignity of love in the divine order of human society.
THE BOOK OF LAMENTATIONS
There seems to be no reasonable doubt that this book was written by the prophet Jeremiah; though the zeal of some distinctive critics has led them to attack its genuineness. The arguments against the belief that it is his seem very feeble and farfetched, and utterly inadequate to the task of overthrowing tre well-established tradition of its authorship, or to account for the obvious similarity of thought and point of view between these poems and Jeremiah's book of prophecy.