Ecc_2:2. I said of laughter, It is mad; and of mirth, What doeth it?
WHO is it that has ventured to speak thus respecting that which constitutes, in the world’s estimation, the great happiness of life? Was he an ignorant man? or one who from envy decried a thing which he was not able to attain? or an inexperienced man, who had no just means of forming a judgment? or an irritated man, who vented thus his spleen against an object that had disappointed him? Or was he one whose authority in this matter we are at liberty to question! No: it was the wisest of the human race, who had more ample means of judging than any other of the children of men, and had tried the matter to the uttermost: it was Solomon himself, under the influence of the Spirit of God, recording this, not only as the result of his own experience, but as the declaration of Jehovah, by him, for the instruction of the world in all future ages. He had been left by God to try the vain experiment, whether happiness was to be found in any thing but God. He tried it, first, in the pursuit of knowledge; which, to a person of his enlarged mind, certainly promised most fair to yield him the satisfaction which he sought. But partly from the labour requisite for the attainment of knowledge; partly from discovering how little could be known by persons of our finite capacity; partly also from the insufficiency of knowledge to satisfy the innumerable wants of man; and partly from the disgust which had been created in his mind by the insight which his wisdom gave him into the ignorance and folly of the rest of mankind; he left it upon record, as his deliberate judgment, that “in much wisdom is much grief; and that he who increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow [Note: Ecc_1:18.].” He then turned to pleasure, as the most probable source of happiness: “I said in my heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth: therefore enjoy pleasure.” But being equally disappointed in that, he adds, “Behold, this also is vanity [Note: ver. 1.].” Then, in the words of my text, he further adds, “I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?”
In discoursing on this subject, I shall,
Shew what that is which he here pronounces to be “vanity”—
It becomes us, in considering such weighty declarations us that before us, to attain the most precise and accurate views of the terms employed; neither attenuating the import of them on the one hand, nor exaggerating it on the other.
We are not, then, to understand the text as decrying all cheerfulness—
[The Christian, above all people upon earth, has reason to be cheerful. And religion in no way tends to destroy the gaiety of the human mind, but only to direct it towards proper objects, and to restrain it within proper bounds. The ways of religion are represented as “ways of pleasantness and peace.” And “the fruits of the Spirit are, love, joy, peace:” all of which suppose a measure of hilarity, and the innocence of that hilarity, when arising from a becoming source, and kept within the limits of sobriety and sound wisdom. Doubtless that tumultuous kind of joy which is generally denominated mirth, and which vents itself in immoderate laughter, is altogether vain and bad: but a placidity of mind, exercising itself in a way of brotherly love and of cheerful benevolence, can never be censured as unprofitable, much less can it be condemned as verging towards insanity.]
Neither, on the other hand, are we to restrict the text to licentious and profane mirth—
[That needed not to be stigmatized in so peculiar a manner: because the fully of such mirth carries its own evidence along with it. We need only to see it in others: and if we ourselves are not partakers of it, we shall not hesitate to characterize it by some opprobrious or contemptuous name. We need neither the wisdom of Solomon, nor his experience, to pass upon it the judgment it deserves.]
The conduct reprobated in our text is, the seeking of our happiness in carnal mirth—
[Solomon particularly specifies this: “I said in my heart. Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth.” I will see whether that will afford me the happiness which I am in pursuit of. And we may suppose, that, in the prosecution of this object. he summoned around him all that was gay and lively in his court, and all that could contribute towards the attainment of it. We may take a survey of the state of society in what may be called the fashionable world, and see how the votaries of pleasure spend their time. They go from one vanity to another, hoping that in a succession of amusements they shall find a satisfaction which nothing else can impart. Plays, balls, concerts, routs, the pleasures of the field, of the race-course, of the card-table, form a certain round of employment, which those who travel in it expect to find productive of happiness, of such happiness at least as they affect. And this. I conceive, is what Solomon intended particularly to reprobate as fully and madness. Of course, we must include also in the same description the more vulgar amusements to which the lower classes resort. All, according to their taste, or the means afforded them for enjoyment, whilst they pursue the same object, are obnoxious to the same censure. The degree of refinement which may be in their pursuits makes no difference in this matter. Whatever it be which calls forth their mirth and laughter, it is equally unprofitable and equally insane. So Solomon judged; and]
We now proceed—
To confirm his testimony—
Let us take a candid view of this matter: let us consider pleasure in its true light: let us consider its aspect on us,
[As men, we possess faculties of a very high order, which we ought to cultivate, and which, when duly improved, exalt and dignify our nature. But behold the votaries of pleasure; how low do they sink themselves by the depravity of their taste, and the emptiness of their occupations! A man devoid of wisdom may abound in mirth and laughter as well as he: and there will be found very little difference in their feelings; except, as the more enlarged men’s capacities are for higher objects, the keener sense will they have of the emptiness of their vain pursuits. In truth, we may appeal even to themselves in confirmation of what Solomon has said: for there are no persons more convinced of the unsatisfying nature of such pursuits, than those who follow them with the greatest avidity. But let Scripture speak: “She that liveth in pleasure is dead whilst she liveth [Note: 1Ti_5:6.].” It is the fool alone that can say, “Let us eat, drink, and be merry [Note: Luk_12:19.].”]
[As sinners we have a great work to do; even to call to mind, and to mourn over, the sins of our whole lives, and to seek reconciliation with our offended God — — — The time, too, which is afforded us for this is very short and very uncertain — — — And, oh! what an issue awaits our present exertions; even heaven with all its glory, or hell with all its inconceivable and everlasting terrors! Have persons so circumstanced any time for mirth, or any disposition to waste their precious hours in laughter? Is it not much more suitable to them to be engaged according to the direction of St. James, “Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep; let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness; humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up [Note: Jam_4:9-10.]?” — — —]
As the redeemed of the Lord—
[What redeemed soul can contemplate the price paid for his redemption, and laugh? Go, my Brother, to Gethsemane, and see thy Saviour bathed in a bloody sweat. Go to Calvary, and behold him stretched upon the cross. Hear his heart-rending cry, “My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken me?” See the sun himself veiling his face in darkness, and the Lord of glory bowing his head in death: and then tell me, whether you feel much disposition for mirth and laughter? or whether such a state of mind would become you? Methinks, I need add no more. Your own consciences will attest the justice of Solomon’s remarks. But if there be an advocate for mirth yet unconvinced, then I put it to him to answer that significant question in my text, “What doeth it?”]
Are any disposed to complain that I make religion gloomy?
[Remember, it is of carnal mirth that I have spoken: and of that, not in its occasional sallies, from a buoyancy of spirit, and in combination with love, but of its being regarded as a source of happiness, and of its constituting, as it were, a portion of our daily employment. And if I wrest this from you, do I leave you a prey to melancholy? Go to religion; and see whether that do not furnish you with mirth and laughter of a purer kind: with mirth that is not unprofitable, with laughter that is not mad? The very end of the Gospel is, to “give you beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heariness:” and if you believe in Christ, it is not merely your privilege, but your duty to rejoice in him, yea, to “rejoice in him with joy unspeakable and glorified.” If the Church, on account of temporal deliverances, could say, “Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing [Note: Psa_126:1-2.]:” much more may you, on account of the salvation which has been vouchsafed to you. Only, therefore, let the grounds of your joy be right, and we consent that “your mourning be turned into dancing, and that to the latest hour of your lives you put off your sackcloth and gird you with gladness [Note: Psa_30:11.].” Instead of pronouncing such mirth madness, we will declare it to be your truest wisdom.]
Are there those amongst you who accord with Solomon?
[Remember, then, to seek those as your associates who are like-minded with you in this respect. Affect not the company of those who delight in laughter, and in carnal mirth; for they will only draw you from God, and rob you of the happiness which you might otherwise enjoy. If they appear happy, remember that “their mirth is like the crackling of thorns under a pot [Note: Ecc_7:6.]:” it may make a blaze for a moment; but it soon expires in spleen and melancholy. Be careful, too, to live nigh to God, and in sweet communion with your Lord and Saviour: for if you draw back from God in secret, you will, in respect of happiness, be in a worse condition than the world themselves: for whilst you deny yourselves the pleasure which you might have in carnal things, you will have no real pleasure in spiritual exercises. But be true to your principles, and you never need envy the poor worldlings their vain enjoyments. They drink of a polluted cistern, that contains nothing but what is insipid and injurious, and will prove fatal to their souls; but you draw from the fountain of living waters, which whosoever drinks of, shall live for ever.]