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Sermon XII: Progress

(Preached before the Queen at Clifden, June 3, 1866.)

ECCLESIASTES vii. 10,

Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.

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This text occurs in the Book of Ecclesiastes, which has been for many centuries generally attributed to Solomon the son of David. I say generally, because, not only among later critics, but even among the ancient Jewish Rabbis, there have been those who doubted or denied that Solomon was its author.

I cannot presume to decide on such a question: but it seems to me most probable, that the old tradition is right, even though the book may have suffered alterations, both in form and in language: but any later author, personating Solomon, would surely have put into his month very different words from those of Ecclesiastes. Solomon was the ideal hero-king of the later Jews. Stories of his superhuman wealth, of magical power, of a fabulous extent of dominion, grew up about his name. He who was said to control, by means of his wondrous seal, the genii of earth and air, would scarcely have been represented as a disappointed and broken-hearted sage, who pronounced all human labour to be vanity and vexation of spirit; who saw but one event for the righteous and the wicked, and the wise man and the fool; and questioned bitterly whether there was any future state, any pre-eminence in man over the brute.

These, and other startling utterances, made certain of the early Rabbis doubt the authenticity and inspiration of the Book of Ecclesiastes, as containing things contrary to the Law, and to desire its suppression, till they discovered in it--as we may, if we be wise--a weighty and world-wide meaning.

Be that as it may, it would certainly be a loss to Scripture, and to our knowledge of humanity, if it was proved that this book, in its original shape, was not written by a great king, and most probably by Solomon himself. The book gains by that fact, not only in its reality and truthfulness, but in its value and importance as a lesson of human life. Especially does this text gain; for it has a natural and deep connection with Solomon and his times.

The former days were better than his days: he could not help seeing that they were. He must have feared lest the generation which was springing up should inquire into the reason thereof, in a tone which would breed--which actually did breed--discontent and revolution.

But the fact seemed at first sight patent. The old heroic days of Samuel and David were past. The Jewish race no longer produced such men as Saul and Jonathan, as Joab and Abner. A generation of great men, whose names are immortal, had died out, and a generation of inferior men, of whom hardly one name has come down to us, had succeeded them. The nation had lost its primaeval freedom, and the courage and loyalty which freedom gives. It had become rich, and enervated by luxury and ease. Solomon had civilised the Jewish kingdom, till it had become one of the greatest nations of the East; but it had become also, like the other nations of the East, a vast and gaudy despotism, hollow and rotten to the core; ready to fall to pieces at Solomon's death, by selfishness, disloyalty, and civil war. Therefore it was that Solomon hated all his labour that he had wrought under the sun; for all was vanity and vexation of spirit.

Such were the facts. And yet it was not wise to look at them too closely; not wise to inquire why the former times were better than those. So it was. Let it alone. Pry not too curiously into the past, or into the future: but do the duty which lies nearest to thee. Fear God and keep His commandments. For that is the whole duty of man.

Thus does Solomon lament over the certain decay of the Jewish Empire. And his words, however sad, are indeed eternal and inspired. For they have proved true, and will prove true to the end, of every despotism of the East, or empire formed on Eastern principles; of the old Persian Empire, of the Roman, of the Byzantine, of those of Hairoun Alraschid and of Aurungzebe, of those Turkish and Chinese- Tartar empires whose dominion is decaying before our very eyes. Of all these the wise man's words are true. They are vanity and vexation of spirit. That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. The thing which has been is that which shall be, and there is no new thing under the sun. Incapacity of progress; the same outward civilization repeating itself again and again; the same intrinsic certainty of decay and death;--these are the marks of all empire, which is not founded on that foundation which is laid, even Jesus Christ.

But of Christian nations these words are not true. They pronounce the doom of the old world: but the new world has no part in them, unless it copies the sins and follies of the old.

It is not true of Christian nations that the thing which has been is that which shall be; and that there is no new thing under the sun. For over them is the kingdom of Christ, the Saviour of all men, specially of them which believe, the King of all the princes of the earth, who has always asserted, and will for ever assert, His own overruling dominion. And in them is the Spirit of God, which is the spirit of truth and righteousness; of improvement, discovery, progress from darkness to light, from folly to wisdom, from barbarism to justice, and mercy, and the true civilization of the heart and spirit.

And, therefore, for us it is not only an act of prudence, but a duty; a duty of faith in God; a duty of loyalty to Jesus Christ our Lord, not to ask, Why the former times were better than these? For they were not better than these. Every age has had its own special nobleness, its own special use: but every age has been better than the age which went before it; for the Spirit of God is leading the ages on, toward that whereof it is written, 'Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive, the things which God hath prepared for those that love Him.'

Very unfaithful are we to the teaching of God's Spirit; many and heavy are our sins against light and knowledge, and means, and opportunities of grace. But let us not add to those sins the sin (for such it is) of inquiring why the former times were better than these.

For, first, the inquiry shows disbelief in our Lord's own words, that all dominion is given to Him in heaven and earth, and that He is with us always, even to the end of the world. And next, it is a vain inquiry, based on a mistake. When we look back longingly to any past age, we look not at the reality, but at a sentimental and untrue picture of our own imagination. When we look back longingly to the so-called ages of faith, to the personal loyalty of the old Cavaliers; when we regret that there are no more among us such giants in statesmanship and power as those who brought Europe through the French Revolution; when we long that our lot was cast in any age beside our own, we know not what we ask. The ages which seem so beautiful afar off, would look to us, were we in them, uglier than our own. If we long to be back in those so-called devout ages of faith, we long for an age in which witches and heretics were burned alive; if we long after the chivalrous loyalty of the old Cavaliers, we long for an age in which stage-plays were represented, even before a virtuous monarch like Charles I., which the lowest of our playgoers would not now tolerate. When we long for anything that is past, we long, it may be, for a little good which we seem to have lost; but we long also for real and fearful evil, which, thanks be to God, we have lost likewise. We are not, indeed, to fancy this age perfect, and boast, like some, of the glorious nineteenth century. We are to keep our eyes open to all its sins and defects, that we may amend them. And we are to remember, in fear and trembling, that to us much is given, and of us much is required. But we are to thank God that our lot is cast in an age which, on the whole, is better than any age whatsoever that has gone before it, and to do our best that the age which is coming may be better even than this.

We are neither to regret the past, nor rest satisfied in the present; but, like St. Paul, forgetting those things that are behind us, and reaching onward to those things that are before us, press forward, each and all, to the prize of our high calling in Jesus Christ.

And as with nations and empires, so with our own private lives. It is not wise to ask why the former times were better than these. It is natural, pardonable: but not wise; because we are so apt to mistake the subject about which we ask, and when we say, 'Why were the old times better?' merely to mean, 'Why were the old times happier?' That is not the question. There is something higher than happiness, says a wise man. There is blessedness; the blessedness of being good and doing good, of being right and doing right. That blessedness we may have at all times; we may be blest even in anxiety and in sadness; we may be blest, even as the martyrs of old were blest--in agony and death. The times are to us whatsoever our character makes them. And if we are better men than we were in former times, then is the present better than the past, even though it be less happy. And why should it not be better? Surely the Spirit of God, the spirit of progress and improvement, is working in us, the children of God, as well as in the great world around. Surely the years ought to have made us better, more useful, more worthy. We may have been disappointed in our lofty ideas of what ought to be done. But we may have gained more clear and practical notions of what can be done. We may have lost in enthusiasm, and yet gained in earnestness. We may have lost in sensibility, yet gained in charity, activity, and power. We may be able to do far less, and yet what we do may be far better done.

And our very griefs and disappointments--Have they been useless to us? Surely not. We shall have gained, instead of lost, by them, if the Spirit of God be working in us. Our sorrows will have wrought in us patience, our patience experience of God's sustaining grace, who promises that as our day our strength shall be; and of God's tender providence, which tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, and lays on none a burden beyond what they are able to bear. And that experience will have worked in us hope: hope that He who has led us thus far will lead us farther still; that He who brought us through the trials of youth, will bring us through the trials of age; that He who taught us in former days precious lessons, not only by sore temptations, but most sacred joys, will teach us in the days to come fresh lessons by temptations which we shall be more able to endure; and by joys which, though unlike those of old times, are no less sacred, no less sent as lessons to our souls, by Him from whom all good gifts come.

We will believe this. And instead of inquiring why the former days were better than these, we will trust that the coming days shall be better than these, and those which are coming after them better still again, because God is our Father, Christ our Saviour, the Holy Ghost our Comforter and Guide. We will toil onward: because we know we are toiling upward. We will live in hope, not in regret; because hope is the only state of mind fit for a race for whom God has condescended to stoop, and suffer, and die, and rise again. We will believe that we, and all we love, whether in earth or heaven, are destined--if we be only true to God's Spirit--to rise, improve, progress for ever: and so we will claim our share, and keep our place, in that vast ascending and improving scale of being, which, as some dream--and surely not in vain--goes onward and upward for ever throughout the universe of Him who wills that none should perish.

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Charles Kingsley