The Vanity of the World!
Ezekiel Hopkins, 1663
"Vanity of Vanities, says the Preacher. Vanity of Vanities, all is Vanity!" Ecclesiastes 1:2
The Preacher here mentioned, is no less a person than King Solomon—and this whole book is no other than his Recantation Sermon. The text he preached on, is the same that I have chosen; and it contains the true and honest judgment he passed upon all things under the sun. Certainly, he who had riches as plentiful as the stones of the street: and wisdom as large as the sand of the sea: could lack no advantages, either to try experiments, or draw conclusions from them. And yet, when he had employed both, in the vital search for true happiness and contentment, and had dissected and ransacked the whole world to find it—he returns disappointed of his hopes, and tired with his pursuit; and begins the sad narrative of his long wanderings and errors, with "Vanity of Vanities, all is Vanity!"
The whole verse is laden with emphases. And it is first observable, that he does not glide into it by any smooth connection of sense or sentences; but suddenly breaks upon us with a surprising abruptness, "Vanity of Vanities!" which shows a mind so full of matter, that it could not attend the circumstance of a prologue to usher it in.
Again, it is all expressed in the abstract. It sufficed not to censure all things to be vain, but they are vanity itself .
And this abstract has another heaped upon it, vanity of vanities . Now this reflection of the same word upon itself, is always used to signify the height and greatness of the thing expressed, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, denotes the highest King and the most absolute Lord. So, here, vanity of vanities intimates to us the most exceeding superlative vanity imaginable.
Again, this is not only once pronounced, but doubled and repeated: partly, the more to confirm this truth to our belief, and thus Pharaoh's dream was doubled. And partly, the more to imprint it upon our consideration. "Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
But, though this is expressed in most general and comprehensive terms, yet it must not be taken in the utmost latitude, as if there were nothing at all of solid and real good extant. It is enough, if we understand the words in a sense restrained to the subject matter whereof he here treats. For the Wise Man himself exempts the Fear and Service of God, from that Vanity under which he had concluded all other things. God and true religion have in them a solid and substantial good. God, as our utmost end and happiness. And true religion, as the best proportioned means to attain it.
When, therefore, he pronounces all to be Vanity, it must be meant of all worldly and earthly things; for he speaks only of these.
And, if we inquire what these worldly things are, that have this censure of vanity so vehemently passed upon them, John has drawn up a full and true inventory of all the goods that are to be found in this great house of the universe: 1 John 2:16, "All that is in the world, is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life."
The lusts of the flesh are the pleasures of the world; which are all of them suited to gratify the sensual and fleshly part of man.
The lusts of the eye , are riches; so called, because their greatest serviceableness is only to make a glittering and dazzling show. Which sense Solomon approves in Ecclesiastes 5:11, "As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them?"
The pride of life is honor and dignity; that empty and airy notion which puffs up men's pride and vain-glory, and makes them look upon their inferiors as though they were beneath them, and not their fellow-creatures. This is all that the world can show, Pleasures, Riches, Honors . This is that ALL , concerning which the wise man pronounces that it is Vanity.
For these things, though they make a fair and gaudy show, yet it is all but show and appearance. As bubbles blown into the air, will represent great variety of orient and glittering colors: not, as some suppose, that there are any such really there; but only they appear so to us, through a false reflection of light cast upon them: so truly this world, this earth on which we live, is nothing else but a great bubble blown up by the breath of God in the midst of the air where it now hangs. It sparkles with ten thousand glories: not that they are so in themselves; but only they seem so to us through the false light by which we look upon them. If we come to grasp it—then like a bubble it breaks, and leaves nothing but wind and disappointment in our hands.
As histories report of the fruits that grow near the Dead Sea, where once Sodom and Gomorrah stood, they appear very fair and beautiful to the eye, but, if they are crushed, turn straight to smoke and ashes.
The subject which I have propounded to discourse of is the Vanity of the World, and of all things here below: that, being hereof convinced, we may desist our vain pursuit of vain objects; and may set our affections on those things which are above, which are alone valuable, because they are the only permanent and stable good.
Whence is it that we are become so degenerate, that we, who have immortal and heaven-born souls, should stake them down to these perishing enjoyments? Whence is it, that we, who should soar aloft unto God, and were to that end fitted with the fleet wings of meditation and affections, to cut through the heavens in an instant, and to appear there before the throne of the great God—that we should lie here groveling in the thick clay and muck of this world, as if the serpent's curse has become ours, to creep upon our bellies, and to lick up the dust of the earth? Do we not shamefully degrade ourselves, when we stoop to admire what is so vastly below us, and barter away our precious souls-souls more worth than ten thousand worlds, only to gain some small part of one?
Certainly, the God of this world has blinded men's eyes, and cast a strange mist before them, that they cannot discern, what is most evident and obvious; even the instability and vanity of all sublunary enjoyments.
That I may therefore contribute somewhat to scatter this mist, I shall endeavor to represent to you the obvious vanity that is in all earthly things, free from that deceitful varnish which the Devil usually puts upon them; and so to deform and wound that great sorcerer, that his charms may have no more power to prevail over you.
I. Now, that we may rightly proceed in this, I shall PREMISE these two or three things.
1. There is nothing in the world vain in respect of its natural being.
Whatever God has made, is, in its kind, good. And so the Great Creator pronounced of them, when he took a survey of all the works of his hands. Genesis 1:31, 'God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good.' There is a most harmonious order and beauty in all the creation, and every part of it. And therefore Solomon must not be here so interpreted, as if he disparaged the works of God, in pronouncing them all Vanity. Certainly he does not libel his Creator; nor upbraid him, as though he had filled the world only with vain toys and trifles.
If we regard the wonderful artifice and wisdom which shines forth in the frame of nature, we cannot have so unworthy a thought, either of the world itself, or of God who made it.
View the Sun , next unto God, the great father of lights: view the numerous assembly of the Stars —observe their influences, their courses and measures. Is it a vain or impertinent thing, for God to spread forth the heavens, and to beat out a path for every one of these to walk in!
View the Air, that thin and subtle veil, that God has spread over the face of nature!
View the Earth , that God has poised in the midst of the air.
View the whole Universe , in the midst of a vast and boundless nothing.
View the great Sea , whose proud waves God binds in with a belt of sand; and checks its rage by a body almost as unsettled and rolling as itself
View the various kinds of creatures , that God governs by a wonderful economy: the great family of brute Beasts, which God brings up and educates without disorder.
View especially Man , the lord and chief of the world, that knot that God has tied between Heaven and earth, that sacred band of time with eternity.
If we consider the frame and composure of all these things in themselves, or their usefulness and subserviency unto us, we shall be so far from branding them with vanity, that, unless our contemplations lead us from natural things to the great God who formed them, we might rather fear lest their beauty and excellency should cajole us, as it did the heathen, to look no farther for a Deity, but worship them as gods.
2. There is nothing vain in respect of God the creator.
He gains his ends out of all; for they all glorify him according to their several ranks and orders. To rational and considerate men, are most evident demonstrations of God's infinite being, wisdom, and power. In which sense the Apostle tells us in Romans 1:20, 'The invisible things of God are clearly seen, being understood by the things which are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.'
God has composed two books, by the diligent study of which we may attain to the knowledge of himself: the Book of Creation, the Book of the Scriptures.
The Book of Creation is written in those great letters of Heaven and earth, the air and sea; and, by these, we may spell out somewhat of God. He made the creatures for our instruction, as well as for our service. The least and vilest of them read us lectures of his glorious attributes; nor is it any absurdity to say, that, as they are all the works of his Hand, so they are all the words of his Mouth.
Indeed, this knowledge that the creatures give us of the Creator, cannot suffice to make us saved, though it may be sufficient to make us inexcusable. We could never have collected from them those mysterious discoveries of God which the scriptures exhibit, and which are so necessary to our eternal bliss: for what signature is there stamped upon any of the creatures of a Trinity in Unity; or the incarnation of the Son of God? What creature could have informed us of our first fall into sin, and guilt contracted by it? Or where can we find the copy of the Covenant of Works or of Grace, printed upon any of the creatures? All the great sages of the world, though they were nature's secretaries, and ransacked its most abstruse secrets—yet all their learning and knowledge could never discover that sacred mystery of a Crucified Savior. These are truths which nature and reason are so far from finding out, that they can scarcely receive them when discovered: and, therefore, God has manifested them to us by the light and revelation of the Holy Scriptures.
But yet so much of God as belongs to those two great titles of Creator and Governor of the World, our reason may collect from created and visible things; running up their consequences, until they are all resolved into the first cause and origin of all.
3. Therefore, all the vanity that is in worldly things, is only in respect of the sin and folly of man. For those things are said to be vain, which neither do nor can perform what we expect from them.
Our great expectation is happiness; and our great folly is, that we think to obtain it by the enjoyments of this world. This makes men pursue pleasures, hoard up riches, court honors and preferments—because they look with excessive expectations on these things, as such as can make them truly happy. Whereas to seek for happiness among these worldly things, is but to seek the living among the dead. Yes, it is but to search for happiness among those things which are the very root and occasion of all our misery. They are all of them leaky and broken cisterns, and cannot hold this living water. This is it which makes them charged with vanity, because, in our perverted imagination, we look upon them as stable, permanent, and satisfactory. We fix them as our journey's end, which ought only to be used by us in our passage. We expect much more from these vain things than they can yield.
There are some things which must be only enjoyed, other things that must be only used. To enjoy, is, to cleave to an object by love, for its own sake: and this belongs only to God. What we use, we refer to the obtaining of what we desire to enjoy: and this belongs to the Creatures. So that we ought to use the Creatures, that we may arrive at the Creator. We may serve ourselves with them, but we must alone enjoy God.
Now that, which makes the whole world become vanity, is when we break this order of use and fruition; when we set up any particular created good as our end and happiness, which ought only to be used as a means to attain it. All things in the world are in themselves good; but, when we propound them as the greatest and highest good that we expect satisfaction from—this turns them all into vanity; and so everything, besides God, becomes nothing.
And thus we have a brief account whence proceeds this Vanity of the World. It is not from the nature of the things; but from those vain hopes and expectations we build upon them for that happiness which they cannot deliver.
II. It remains, therefore, to DISPLAY before you this Vanity of the World, in some more remarkable particulars.Whereof take these following instances.
1. The vanity of the world appears in that all its glory and splendor depends merely upon opinion and imagination.
It is not so much what things are, as what we account them—which makes them good or evil. What can be vainer, than that which borrows its worth from so vain and fickle a thing as our estimation? And, therefore, we find the things of the world rated diversely, according to the esteem that men have of them. Of what worth would gold and silver be, had not men's imagination stamped upon them an excellency far beyond their natural usefulness? This great idol of the world was of no value among those barbarous nations, where abundance made it vile. They preferred glass and beads before it; and made that their treasure, which we make our scorn! They despise our riches—and we theirs. True reason will tell us, that both the one and the other are in themselves alike despicable; and it is only our imagination which puts such an foolish and extravagant price upon them, far above their natural worth. Should the whole world conspire together to depose gold and silver of that worth they have usurped over us, they might forever lie hid in the belly of the earth, before their true usefulness would entice any to the pains and hazard of digging them out into the light.
Indeed, the whole use of what we so much dote upon, is merely imaginary: and, to make ourselves needy, we have invented an artificial kind of riches; which are no more necessary to the service of sober nature, than jewels and bracelets were to that tree which Xerxes so ridiculously adorned. And, although we eagerly pursue these things, and count ourselves poor and indigent without them: yet possibly right reason will dictate that they are no more needful to us, than to brute or senseless creatures; and that it would be altogether as ridiculous for a man to be decked with them, as for a beast or plant! These precious trifles, when they are hung about us, make no more either to the warmth or defense of the body, than if they were hung upon a tree, they could make its leaves more verdant, or its shade more refreshing.
Does any man sleep the sounder, because his bed-posts are gold? Does his food and drink taste the better, because it is served up in gold? Is his house more useful, because it is adorned with fine paintings? Or are his clothes more useful, because more fashionable than another's? And, if they are not necessary to these natural uses, all that is left them is but imagination and opinion.
Indeed, by setting a value upon things that are rare, men have made many think themselves poor: whereas God and nature made all equally wealthy, had they not artificially impoverished themselves. It is nothing but conceit, that makes the difference between the richest and the poorest, if both enjoy necessities: for what are all their superfluous riches, but a load that men's covetousness lays upon them? Whatever is more than barely to satisfy the cravings of nature, is of no other use but only to look upon . Your lands, your houses, and fair estate, are but pictures of things. The poorest people who view them, enjoy as much of them as yourself. Yes, and if men could be contented with reason, all that they behold with their eyes, is as much theirs, as it is the owner's!
And, indeed, if we strip all these admired nothings to their naked principles, we shall find them as base and sordid, as the meanest of those things which we spurn and despise! Only, are or nature put new shapes upon them; and imagination puts a price upon those shapes.
What are gold and silver, but earth—hard and shining clay? The very place where they are bred, the entrails of the earth, upbraids us for accounting them precious.
The best and richest perfumes , what are they, but the clammy sweat of trees, or the mucous froth of beasts?
The softest silks are but the excrement of a vile worm. The most expensive wines are nothing else but puddle-water strained through a vine. Our choicest delicacies are but dirt, cooked and served up to us in various forms. The very same things which we despise under one shape, we admire in another; and, with this, imagination and custom have conspired together to cheat us.
Think, O Worldling! when you cast your greedy eyes upon your riches, think, "Here are bags that only imagination has filled with treasure, which else were filled with dirt. Here are trifles, that only imagination has called jewels, which else were no better than common pebbles. And shall I lay the foundation of my contentment and happiness upon imagination; a thing more light and wavering than the very air?"
Nay, consider, that a distempered imagination can easily alter a man's condition, and put whatever shape it pleases upon it. If a black and sullen melancholy seizes the spirits, it will make him complain of poverty, in the midst of his abundance; or pain and sickness, in the midst of his health and strength. It is true, these are but the effects of a distorted imagination; but, though his sickness and poverty are not real, yet the torment of them is. It is all one, as to our disquiet, whether we be indeed unhappy, or only imagine ourselves so.
Again: If the imagination is more merrily perverted, some think that they are kings or emperors. A straw is as majestic as a scepter. They will speak of their rags as magnificently as if they were robes. They will look upon all that come near them, as their subjects or servants. They make every stone a gem, every cottage a palace. All they see is their own; and all their own is most excellent.
Now, what do you think: are these things vain, or not? I doubt not but you will conclude them most extremely vain; and yet they serve their turns as well, and bring them in as much solace and contentment, as if they were really what they imagine them!
Thus Thrasyllus noted down all the ships that arrived at the port of Athens; thinking them and their merchandise to be all his own: and, when cured of that pleasant madness, confessed, that he never in his whole life enjoyed so much contentment, as in that conceited wealth those ships brought him.
Indeed, I know not whether these things are more vain in the imagination, or in the reality! Such is the exceeding Vanity of all things in the World, that, were it not for the eternal concerns of the soul, which cannot be so well regarded under a suspension or distraction of reason—I would make no difficulty to account and prove these crazed men as the happiest men on earth.
If then there be so great a power in imagination, then how vain must all those things be, which you pursue with eagerness and impatience! since a vain imagination, without them, can give you as much satisfaction, as if you enjoyed them all. A vain imagination can, on the other hand, in the greatest abundance of worldly riches, make your lives as wearisome and vexatious, as if you enjoyed nothing.
That is the First Demonstration.
2. The vanity of the world appears in its deceitfulness and treachery.
It is not only vanity , but a lying vanity ; and betrays both our hopes and our souls.
(1.) The world betrays our Hopes, and leaves us nothing but disappointment, when it promises satisfaction and happiness. What strange confidences do we build upon the false flatteries of the world! In our prosperity we say, our mountain is so strong, that it shall never be moved: Psalm 30:6, 7 but, within a while, God has shaken it, like that of Sinai; and wrapped it about with clouds and thick darkness.
(2.) The world betrays the Soul to guilt and eternal condemnation: for, usually, the world entangles it in strong, though secret and insensible snares; and insinuates into the heart that love of itself, which is inconsistent with the love of God.
The world is the Devil's accomplice, and drives on the designs of Hell. The Apostle has told us, 1 Timothy 6:9. Those who will be rich, fall into temptation, and a snare, and many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition!
And, because of the enticement of worldly enjoyments to men's lusts, it is almost as impossible a thing to moderate our affections towards them, or to bound our appetites and desires, as it is to keep that fire from increasing into which we are still casting new fuel. And, therefore, our Savior has pronounced it as hard for a rich man to enter into Heaven, as for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
As Judas gave a sign to the officers that came with him to apprehend Jesus: The one I kiss is the man—arrest him! The same sign does the world give the Devil: "Whoever I shall caress and favor, whoever I shall heap honor and riches on, whoever I shall embrace and kiss, is the man—arrest him." Such a darling of the world is too often fast bound in the silken bands of voluptuousness, and consigned over to be fast bound in massy chains and thrown into outer darkness.
3. As all things in the world are lying vanities, so are they all VEXATIOUS.
They are infamous, to a proverb: "uncertain comforts, but most certain crosses." And, therefore, the Wise Man concludes them all to be, not only vanity, but vexation of spirit.
There is a Fourfold Vexatiousness in all worldly things.
(1.) There is a great deal of turmoil and trouble in getting them. Nothing can be acquired without trouble. The sweat of Adam's brow has streamed down along upon ours; and the curse, together with it, that in sorrow we would eat of that which toil and labor has provided for us. Men rise early, and go to bed late, and eat the bread of anxiety; and such is either their curse or their folly, that they make their lives uncomfortable, only to get the comforts of life .
(2.) Whether they get them, or not, yet still they are disappointed in their hopes . If they cannot obtain their designs, then they are tormented; because they fall short of what they labored for. If they do obtain them, yet still they are tormented; because what they labored for, falls short of what they expected from it.
The truth is, the world is much better in show than substance . Those very things which we admire before we obtain them, yet afterward we find much less in them than we expected. As he, that sees a falling star shoot through the air and draw after it a long train of light, runs to the place, and, thinking to get some bright and glittering thing, catches up nothing but a filthy jelly; such is the disappointment we find in our pursuit after the enjoyments of this world: they make a glorious show at a distance; but, when we come near them, we find our hopes deluded, and nothing upon the place but a vile slime .
(3.) They are all vexation while we enjoy them. Be it what it will, that we possess of the world, it is but by spurts at most, that we take any great pleasure in it: and then, what between cares and designs to secure the continuance of it, and fears of losing it—the comfort of enjoying it is wholly swallowed up. For strong affections, begetting strong fears, do always lessen the delight of present enjoyments. This is the unhappiness of all things in the world, that, if we set any value upon them, we lose much of the sweetness of them, by fearing to lose them.
(4.) They are all vexatious, as in their enjoyment, so especially in their loss . Whatever we set our hearts upon, we may assure ourselves, and experience will teach it us, that the pleasure of possessing it will not near countervail the bitterness of losing it. And, as if God had on purpose so ordained it to take off our hearts from the world, the better we esteem anything, the more vanity and vexation shall we find in it; for the more will our care and perplexity in keeping it, and the more our grief and torment in losing it, be increased.
That is a Third Demonstration.
4. The Vanity of the World appears in this, that a little cross will embitter great comforts.
One dead fly is enough to corrupt a whole box of the world's most fragrant ointment. How much will only the aching of a tooth, a fit of the stone or gout, deaden and dishearten us to all the joys and pleasures of life! Certainly, the world must needs be vain, that cannot bear the brunt of a little pain or sickness. The least affliction is enough to discompose all our delights . And, indeed, there are so many ingredients required to make up worldly felicity, riches, health, friends, honor, good name, and the like; that, if any of these are lacking, the whole composition is spoiled, and we conclude that we are miserable. For, such is the peevishness of our nature, that, if we have not all we desire, we take no contentment in anything we have .
And, besides, we are apt to slide off from the smoother part of our lives, as flies from glass, and to stick only on the rougher passages. For, neither is sense capable to be so much or so long affected with the impressions of pleasure, as of pain; since never could there yet be any delights invented, as piercing as there are many torments: nor yet is our busy remembrance so officious, in calling back the pleasant passages of our days to our review, as those that have been more gloomy and dolorous. And though it be our sin to look more upon the crosses we have, than the comforts we enjoy; yet here we may likewise see how vain a thing it is for us to expect happiness and contentment from the world, whose crosses as they are more, so they are more considerable than its comforts.
5. Consider, the longer we enjoy any worldly thing, the more flat and insipid does it grow.
We are soon at the bottom of our pleasures, and find nothing but dregs there. In all the pleasures of life, either our spirits sink and fall under the continuance of them, as not able to bear a constant tension and emotion; or the delight consists merely in the novelty and variety of the objects, which when we are made more familiar with, are but dull, because ordinary: and so they either tire our appetites, or deceive our hopes. And, therefore, the most extreme voluptuaries have always allowed themselves an intermission in their pleasures, to recruit nature and sharpen their sensual desires: without which, they would but cloy and sicken; and, instead of pleasures, prove only a waste and oppression to the spirits.
Epicurus himself, the great Master and Servant of Pleasure, who made it the highest good and chief happiness of man, set himself certain days of abstinence in course, wherein he would but niggardly satisfy his stomach; well knowing, that the pleasure of gluttony could never be so much enhanced, as by an interval of hunger.
For what is a well-furnished table, to him whose constant meals overtake one another, but only the heaping of food unto gluttony? What the titles of honor, to a person born noble? They signify no more to him, than it does to another man, when he hears himself called by his ordinary name. What is respect and honor, to a man long accustomed to it? It brings him no great contentment when he has it, but torments him when he fails of it.
Give these things to those who are unacquainted with them, if you would have them valued. Bring a poor man to a table of delicacies: invest an ignoble person with honors and dignities: give respect to a despised person; and, for the present, you bless them. But time and custom will wear off this contentment : and the tediousness even of such a life as this will make them willing, at least for their recreation, to retire to their homely cells and station. For, as it is with those that are accustomed to strong perfumes, they themselves cannot smell those scents, which to others who use them not are most sweet and fragrant. Just so it fares with us in the long continuance of worldly enjoyments: our senses are so stuffed and even suffocated with them, that we cannot perceive them; and, unless we purchase pleasures by alternate sorrow, they are but lost upon us.
Now, how vain must the world needs be, whose comforts are not valuable while we have them, but only while we have them not! And how vain are those joys, for which we must pay down as much grief, as the joys themselves are worth! So that, upon balancing the account, there remains nothing to us: and it had been altogether as good, to have enjoyed nothing!
6. Again, consider that all the pleasure of the world, is nothing else but a tedious repetition of the same things.
Our life consists in a round of actions: and what can be duller, than still to be doing the same things over and over again?
Ask the most frolic sportsman, whose only study it is how he may pass his time merrily and live happily: what account can he give of his pleasures, but that from his bed he rises to his table, from his table to his sports, from them he tumbles into his bed again? This is the most genteel and fashionable life.
And are these the great joys that a world so prized and so admired can afford? One half of his pleasant life he spends in sleep, a dull state, which we may rather reckon to death than life. The other half he spends in clogging his appetite, and tiring his body, and then to sleep again. What honorable and noble designs are these! The rich spend their life in pleasure, so called: while the contemptible peasants are left to do the drudgery of the world, and to be the only serviceable men in it. Nay, rather what a pitiful circle is this, still to be doing the same things, and things which we have before searched and often found all that is in them! So that even a heathen could say, That not only a valiant or a miserable man might desire to die; but a voluptuous man, as disdaining the irksome repetition of the same things.
7. The vanity of the world appears in this, that it cannot assist us when we have the greatest need of support and comfort.
There be two seasons especially, in which the soul wants relief and comfort; and they are: in Trouble of Conscience, and at the Hour of Death.
Now in each of these the world shows itself to be exceeding vain and useless.
(1.) The world appears to be vain, when we are under Trouble of Conscience .
What choice comforts the soul then stands in need of, those who have felt the sting and terrors of conscience, can best tell. The torments they then feel, next to those of the damned, are the most intolerable, and the most unutterable. God sets them up as his mark; and shoots his arrows, dipped in flaming poison, into the very midst of their souls. He kindles a secret fire in them, that consumes their bones, dries up their marrow, and scorches their entrails; and, such is the spreading rage of it, that oftentimes it smokes out at their mouths in despairing outcries.
The spirit of a man, says Solomon, Proverbs 18:14, will bear his infirmity. That is, the natural cheerfulness and vivacity of a man's spirit, will enable him to bear up under bodily pains: but a wounded spirit, who can bear? When our prop itself is broken, we must needs sink; and fall under the most gloomy apprehensions that guilt and Hell can create in a soul, already singed with those eternal flames into which with unspeakable horror it daily expects to be plunged.
Oh! think what exact torture you must needs endure, when God shall make deep wounds in your spirit; and let fall great drops of his burning wrath, on that part of your soul, that is infinitely more tender and sensible than the apple of your eye.
Imagine what sharp and intolerable pains those martyrs sustained, who, as the Apostle tells us, Hebrews 11:37, were sawn asunder. Or, suppose that you yourself were now under the ragged teeth of a saw, drawn to and fro upon the tenderest parts of your body; tearing your flesh, your nerves, and sinews; grating and jarring upon your very bones: yet all the extremity of this, is nothing to what torments the conscience feels, when God causes his sword to enter into it, to rive it up; when he makes deep and bloody wounds in it, and, instead of pouring in healing balm, with a heavy hand chafes them with fire and brimstone.
Now in such a time of anguish and distress as this, what is there which can relieve the afflicted soul?
The worldling , who heaps up his ill-gotten treasures and wallows in thick clay, when God comes to ransack his conscience and to set before him the guilt of his sins, will then know, with terror and amazement, that there is a justice which gold and silver cannot bribe.
The voluptuous person will no longer relish any savouriness in his carnal delights, when once God writes bitter things against him: Job 13:26. What is mirth and music to him, who can now hear nothing but the screeches of his own conscience? What is a full cup to him, that can now taste nothing but the cup of fury and trembling?
Little contentment will the noble take in his honorable titles, if all this while his conscience call him reprobate. A title of honor will no more abate the torments of conscience, than it does mitigate Beelzebub's torments to be styled Prince of the Devils. All the world's honey will not serve to allay the envenomed stingings of conscience. That is a fiery serpent, a deaf adder, that will not be charmed by all the alluring pleasures of the world. These are vain and impertinent to one, whose thoughts are wholly possessed with the fear of wrath and Hell, from which these cannot deliver him. When God makes a wound in the spirit, the whole world cannot make a plaster broad enough to cover it!
(2.) The world is a vain and useless thing at the Hour of Death .
Possibly, many of us may never conflict with the Terrors of Conscience, nor have that conviction of the World's Vanity: but yet we must all conflict with death, that King of Terrors.
Suppose, therefore, what must certainly once be: that we were now gasping our last, our tongues faltering, our eye-strings breaking, our limbs quivering, a dead cold and stiffness invading us; were our souls tossed to and fro upon our expiring breath, and, like wrecks at sea, sometimes cast up, and by and by sucked back again—what could stand us in stead, and make our passage happy at such a time as this?
Now the soul requires the strongest, the richest cordials. Prepare it one mingled of the best ingredients the whole world can afford; cast into the cup riches, honor, pleasure, the quintessence of all that is here desirable: yet, alas! what is all this world to a dying man, who is just leaving it?
Your wicked companions, with whom you have laughed and sinned away your freshest years, will in this your last extremity forsake you; or, if they do attend so sad a spectacle, alas, what miserable comforters will they be! They will then prove another bad conscience to you; and bring to your remembrance with horror the sins, which you have committed by their enticement, or they by yours. Your mirth and jollity will then be turned into groans and howlings . All things will stare ruefully upon you; and, when you call upon them for help, confess their impotency to rescue you from the gripe of death and from the doom of justice.
Sickness is usually a busy time with conscience; and, when it is packing up for a remove into the other world, it will be sure to gather together all the sins of a man's life, and bind them as a heavy and insupportable burden upon his soul. Can your sensual pleasures divert you now? As they have served you to pass away the tediousness of time, can they serve to pass away the infinite tediousness of eternity? Nay, how can it otherwise be, but that a mind, long soaked and softened by these, should be made the more capable of receiving deep impressions of grief, anguish, and despair?
Indeed, while we eagerly pursue any of these worldly enjoyments, we are but running after a shadow . As shadows vanish, and are swallowed up in the greater shade of night; so, when the night of death shall cast its thick shade about us, and wrap us up in deep and substantial darkness, all these vain shadows will then disappear and vanish quite out of sight.
Now could we have the same opinion of the world in the time of our health and prosperity, as we shall certainly have when we lie languishing and drawing on to eternity—we would be able then with a generous scorn to live above it and despise it. Shall we prize those comforts, which will be no comforts to us—when we have the greatest need of comfort? Shall we glue our affections to that, which either is so faithless that it will not, or so weak that it cannot help us?
Shut but your eyes, and what becomes of all the pomp and luster, the beauty and splendor, that we so much admire in the world? It all vanishes into darkness and nothing. Sleep snatches us from it; and, for the time, we have no more enjoyment of it than if we were dead. Every night we die in our beds; and yet every day are so immersed in the pleasures and businesses of the world, as if we were never to die indeed.
Since, therefore, we have higher and nobler objects to fix our affections on, let us not lavish them out upon these worldly vanities, which can at no time prove real comforts unto us; and then least of all, when we have most need of comfort.
That is a Seventh Demonstration.
8. All things in the World are vain, BECAUSE THEY ARE UNSUITABLE.
True, indeed, that worldly things are suited to the necessities of the body, and serve to feed and clothe that. But he is a beast, or worse, who reckons himself happy, when only his bodily needs are supplied. Have we not all of us precious and immortal Souls, capable and desirous of happiness? Do not these crave to be satisfied? Do they not deserve to be heard? Shall our vile bodies, which are but dust and worms'-food, engross all our care how to please and pamper them, and shall the necessities of our never-dying souls be neglected? What have you laid up in store for these? Alas! that, which most men busy themselves about, is to heap up temporal riches, to join house to house, and land to land, that they might dwell alone upon the earth: Isaiah 5:8.
But know that you do but give your soul husks and swine's-food, when you prefer the world's baubles before it. And, therefore, our Savior justly brands the rich man in the Gospel for a fool, that, when he had stuffed up his barns with corn, said to his soul, Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years: Luke 12:19 a fool indeed! to measure the soul's goods by the barn, or by the bushel.
The very same is the folly of most men, who think they are in all respects well provided for, if they can but scrape together a great estate; whereas the soul can no more live upon these things, than the body can upon a thought or notion.
There is a three-fold unsuitableness between worldly things and the soul.
(1.) The soul is Spiritual. Worldly things are drossy and material. Of all things belonging to a man, his breath is the most subtle, invisible, and spiritual. But now the soul is called the Breath of God; and therefore must needs be spiritual in a high degree.
And what then has a spiritual soul to do with clods of earth, or acres of land; with barns full of corn, or bags full of gold? These are too thick and gross to correspond with its refined nature.
But rather bring spiritual things to spiritual. God who is the Father of Spirits, his love and favor, a saving interest in him, and communion with him, the consolations of the Holy Spirit, the actings of grace, and the hopes of glory; these are spiritual realities, which a carnal eye cannot see, nor a carnal judgment value; these are most suitable to the soul, that is a spirit, and ought not to be unequally yoked to the dregs and dross of earthly enjoyments.
(2.) The soul is Immortal. But all worldly things are perishing, and wear out in the using. And, therefore, it was but small comfort, when the rich man sang his requiem, to say, "Soul, take your ease, you have many goods laid up for many years." You fool! what is an estate for many years to a soul whose duration is not measured by years, but by eternity? What then, when those years of plenty are expired? How destitute will your soul be when it shall have out-lived all your good things! It may out-live them, even in this world. God may nip and blast all that you set your heart on ; and make all your comforts fall off from you, like so many withered leaves. However, if you have no other than what this miserable world can afford, you shall certainly out-live them in the world to come: and what will you do in that eternity of soul famine?
As it is with those who are invited to feast in some noble family, the furniture is rich, the entertainment splendid and magnificent; but, when they depart, they cannot, of all that pomp and bravery, carry anything away with them. So is it here: the world is God's great house, richly furnished, and we well entertained in it: we have all things liberally afforded us for our use; but nothing of all is ours. And, therefore, God has set that grim porter, Death, at his gate; to see that, as we brought nothing into the world, so we carry nothing out of it.
What a sad parting-hour will it be to the soul, when it must go into the eternal world, and leave all that it admired and loved, behind in this poor fleeting world! How will it protract, and linger! How reluctant will it be to enter upon so great a journey, and carry nothing to defray the charges of it! Certainly, dying must needs be a terrible thing to those who have gotten nothing but what they can no longer keep, when their souls must be set on shore in a vast and black eternity, all naked and destitute, having nothing to relieve or support them.
(3.) The Necessities of the soul, are altogether of another kind, than those, which worldly things are able to supply: and therefore they are wholly unsuitable.
Natural things may well serve for natural wants: food will satisfy hunger, and clothing will fence off the injuries of the weather, and riches will procure both.
But the soul's necessities are spiritual, and these no natural thing can reach.
It needs a price to redeem it: nothing can do this, but the precious blood of Christ.
It needs pardon and forgiveness: nothing can grant it, but the free and abundant mercy of God.
It needs sanctification and holiness, comfort and assurance: nothing can effect these, but the Holy Spirit.
Here, all worldly things fall short. They may supply the needs of the outward man; but the greatest abundance of them can never quiet a troubled conscience, nor appease an angry God, nor remove the condemning guilt of the least sin. No, the redemption of the soul is precious—more precious than to be purchased by these poor things. Psalm 49:8.
Possibly, now, in the time of your peace and prosperity, you regard not these spiritual needs; but, when the days of sorrow and darkness shall come upon you, when God shall drop into your consciences a little of his wrath and displeasure—then you may as well seek to cure a wound in your body, by applying a plaster to your garment, as seek to ease a wounded spirit by all the treasures, pleasures, and enjoyments of this world.
Riches, says the wise man in Proverbs 11:4, profit not in the day of wrath: for, indeed, they cannot reach the soul, to bring any true solace to it.
Thus you see how unsuitable the world is to the soul. The world unsuitable to the Nature of it, for the soul is spiritual , but all earthly enjoyments are drossy and material; the soul is immortal , but these are all perishing: unsuitable also to the necessities of the soul, which they can never reach nor supply.
9. The Vanity of the World appears in its INCONSTANCY and FICKLENESS.
God's providence administers all things here below in perpetual vicissitudes. His hand turns them about, like so many wheels: to which they are compared in Ezekiel 1. The same part is now uppermost; and shortly, lowermost: now, lifted up in the air; and, by and by, dragged through the mire.
This is the mutable condition of the world. Therefore, we find it compared to the moon in Revelation 12:1, where the Church is described to be clothed with the sun, and to have the moon, that is, the world, under her feet. And well may it bear the resemblance: for it is still waxing and waning; sometimes full of brightness, at other times scarcely a small streak of light to be discerned.
There are none of us, but have had experience, in some kind or other, of the inconstancy of these sublunary enjoyments.
When the sun shines bright and warm, all the flowers of the field open and display their leaves, to receive him into their bosoms; but, when night comes, they fold together, and shut up all their glories: and, though they were like so many little suns shining here below, able, one would think, to force a day for themselves; yet, when the sun withdraws his beams—they droop, and hang the head, and stand neglected, dull and obscure things.
Just so, has it fared with us: while God has shone upon us with warm and cherishing influences, we opened, and spread, and flourished into a great pomp and glory. But then he hides his face, draws in his beams—and all our beautiful leaves shut up, or fall to the ground, and leave us a bare stalk, poor and contemptible.
Or, if there have been no such considerable mutations in what concerns us, yet the revolutions that God has of late years brought upon others, so beyond expectation or example, may well instruct us in the Vanity of the World; and make us no less despise it, than admire that Infinite Wisdom that governs it.
It is said of the wheels in Ezekiel 1:17, that they went upon their four sides: for, one wheel intersecting and crossing another, the whole must needs consist of four sides or semi-circles; and moving upon these four sides, it must of necessity move by jolts and jerks.
So, truly, the Providences of God do sometimes move unevenly; as cross wheels would do, moving upon their sides. Great and sudden changes are often brought to pass, without being ripened by sensible degrees: but happen by the surprisal of some unexpected Providence; and, as it were, by the sudden jerk of the wheel, shaking off those who sat on the top, and crushing them in its passage over.
'Tis true, these variations which to us seem so confused and tumultuary, are all orderly and harmonious in the divine counsel and foreknowledge. There is not a Providence that breaks its rank; nor a wheel that moves out of its track: and there is a destined end for them all—the Glory of the Almighty Creator; to which, while every creature pursues its own inclinations, he sweetly and yet efficaciously sways them. They are all like arrows shot at a mark by an unerring hand : some are shot point-blank, and some by compass; but none so carelessly as to miss it.
Though changes may surprise us, yet they do not surprise God. But, as it is a great pleasure to us to see our designs and forecasts accomplished; so, Infinite Wisdom delights itself to look on, and see how all things start up into their place and order, as soon as called forth by his efficacious decree and foreknowledge.
Among all the weighty and arduous cares of governing the world, it is, if I may so express it, the Recreation of Providence, to amuse mankind with some wonderful events: that, when we cannot find out the connection and dependence of Second Causes, we may humbly acquiesce in adoring the absolute sovereignty of the great First Cause; and, by observing the mutations of affairs here below, may be taught to repose ourselves in Him, who alone is immutable. Thus God administers the various occurrences of the world according to the counsel of his own will; and makes the inconstancy of it serve both for his delight and our admonition .
It is in vain, therefore, to expect happiness from what is so uncertain. All worldly comforts are but like fading flowers, that, while we are looking on them and smelling to them, die and wither in our hands.
Is it Pleasures we seek? These must vary: for where there is not an intermission—it is not pleasure, but a glut and surfeit. And hence it is, that those who are used to hardships, taste more sweetness in some ordinary pleasures; than those, who are accustomed to a voluptuous life, do in all their exquisite and invented delights.
Do you pursue Honor and Applause in the world? This hangs upon the wavering tongues of the multitude. To follow Honor and Applause, is but to pursue a puff of wind; and, of all winds in nature, the most fickle and changeable. The people's Hosanna! and Crucify! are oft pronounced in the same breath. And, besides that it is no great matter that those should think or speak well of you, who have but too much reason to think ill of themselves; besides this, consider how soon public fame grows out of breath. Possibly people may talk of you for a short; but this is like successive echoes, that render the voice still weaker and weaker, until at length it vanishes into silence. Yes, could you fill whole chronicles with your story, yet time or moths will eat you out: and the fresher remembrance of other men's actions will bury your in oblivion.
Is it Riches you desire? These, too, are uncertain. 1 Timothy 6:17, Charge them that they trust not in uncertain riches . Riches are uncertain they are in getting ; and uncertain in keeping , when gotten. All our treasures are like quicksilver, which strangely slips between our fingers, when we think we hold it fastest. Says the Wise Man, "Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle!" Proverbs 23:5. It would be a most strange folly, to fall passionately in love with a bird upon his wing, who is free and unconfined as the air in which he flies, and will not stoop to your call or lure. How much better were it, since they will fly, for yourself to direct their flight towards Heaven, by relieving the necessitous servants and members of Jesus Christ! Then will their flight be happy and glorious, when they carry on their wings the prayers and blessings of the poor, whose affections you have refreshed. This is to lay up treasure in Heaven; to remit your monies to the eternal world, where they shall be truly paid back to you, with abundant interest. This is to lay up a stock for hereafter, that you may have whereon to live splendidly and gloriously to all eternity. And thus to lay out, is to lay up, to lay up uncertain riches in a safe repository. God's promises shall be your security, and every star in Heaven a seal set upon the treasury-door, which none can break or violate.
Thus you see how mutable and inconstant all worldly things are. So that we may truly apply that, which the Psalmist speaks of the earth in another sense, That God has founded it upon the sea, and established it upon the floods, Psalm 24:2. Such is the waving and fluctuation of all things here below, that they are no more constant than if they were merely built upon the ebbing and flowing of the tide.
10. The Vanity of the World appears in this, that it is ALTOGETHER UNSATISFACTORY.
That must needs be vain, which when we enjoy it in its greatest abundance, can give us no real nor solid contentment. Such an empty thing is the whole world. You may as soon grasp a bundle of dreams, or take up an armful of your own shadow, as fill the vast and boundless desires of your souls with these earthly enjoyments.
And, therefore, the Psalmist, speaking of prosperous sinners, sets forth their state by the most thin and empty things imaginable. Psalm 73:20, "They are like a dream after one wakes up." The images and representations that a dream makes, seem very real and lively; but, when we reflect upon them with our waking thoughts, we find them confused and impertinent. Such is all the prosperity of this world—it is but as the image and fiction of a dream.
As a hungry man who dreams that he is at a sumptuous feast and fills himself with all varieties of delicacies—how joyful and how pleased is he, how fully satisfied, if only he were not to awake again! But someone jogs or calls him; he awakes, and finds himself still hungry; nothing fed, but his imagination.
So is it with us in this world. While the soul lies under the coverlet of this body, it sleeps: and one thinks himself rich ; another, great and noble ; a third, learned and wise . But, alas! all this is only a dream! When either afflictions or death make a noise and call upon him, the sleepy soul awakes and finds itself empty and starved, after all the imaginary feast it enjoyed.
Now, the Unsatisfactoriness of the World, may be clearly evinced by these two things.
(1) In that the highest condition we can attain unto, cannot free us from cares and crosses . Yes indeed it is so far from freeing us, that it rather increases them. It does but make us spread the wider, and stand the larger mark for trouble.
And yet we are like children who think that the sky lies on yonder hill. Thither they run, hoping to touch it there. When they arrive there, they find it moved to another hill. After it they run, and pursue it from hill to hill. And, after all their pains and sweat, they find themselves as far below it as at first.
So it fares with us. We think that happiness and true contentment lies in some condition above us—thither we hasten, hoping we shall reach it there. When we arrive thither, we find the happiness we sought for has moved, and seems to us to rest in a condition above that. But when we attain this too, still we are as far below happiness and satisfaction, as we were in our lowest estate.
When we change our outward condition, be it to ever so great an advantage, we do not lose , but only change our cares. If we are freed from the cares and crosses of a poor and private life—we then fall into those cares of a pompous and envied greatness, which are both more numerous and more oppressive. The man who lies most compacted and in least compass in the world, is like to fare best: whereas the great ones, who take up much room, do only show in how many places and concernments they are liable to be wounded.
It is not, therefore, anything in this world which can give you satisfaction. All the enjoyments of it are to the soul, as air the stomach: they may gripe it; but they can never satisfy it. Indeed, so vain are all worldly enjoyments, that they scarcely have any other proof of their reality, but the pain and torment they bring with them.
(2) The world appears to be unsatisfactory, in that, be our condition what it will, yet still we desire change. We can no more rest content in a high estate, than in a low; but still we desire something further, and something better.
As sick men toss to and fro, from side to side, thinking to find ease, by changing their posture; whereas it is not their outward posture, but their inward distemper, that is the cause of their restlessness: so do we endeavor to change and shift conditions in the world, and lie sometimes in one posture and sometimes in another—but yet are restless in all; for, wherever we tumble, we carry our disease with us, false opinions, and foolish hopes, and impotent desires, and fond designs—which make us complain of our present state, and wish the amendment of that, when nothing needs cure but ourselves.
The servant thinks he shall be a happy man, when he is made free.
Is the free man happy? No, but he shall be, when he has gotten a larger estate.
Is the rich man happy? No, but he shall be, when he is invested with such an honor and dignity.
Is the honorable man happy? No, unless he be supreme.
And those, who are supreme, cannot think themselves completely happy, unless they be universal monarchs.
And those who were so, we find they could not rest there, but would needs be adored for gods.
Oh, where do the boundless desires of men hurry them! Nothing in this world can put a stop to them.
It was a pertinent discourse of Cineas, dissuading Pyrrhus from undertaking a war against the Romans "Sir," says he, "When you have conquered them, what will you do next?"
"Then Sicily is near at hand, and easy to master."
"And what when you have subdued Sicily?"
"Then we'll pass over to Africa, and take Carthage, which cannot long withstand us."
"When these are conquered, what will be your next attempt?"
"Then," says Pyrrhus, "we'll fall upon Greece and Macedon, and recover what we have lost there."
"Well, when all are subdued, what fruit do you expect from all your victories?"
"Then," says he, "we'll sit down and enjoy ourselves."
"Sir," replies Cineas, "may we not do it now? Have you not already a kingdom of your own? He who cannot enjoy himself with a kingdom, cannot with the whole world."
Such are the designs of men, and so we may answer them. Most are projecting how they may get such an estate ; then how they may raise themselves to honor . They think that their advancement in both, will bring them satisfaction. Alas! this will not do. Their desires will still run before them! They may as well sit down content where they are , as where they hope to be.
And the reason of this unsatisfactoriness in worldly things, is, because none of them are as good as the soul is. The soul is the very top and cream of the whole creation; other things are but dregs compared to it. Now that which is our happiness, must be better than ourselves; for it must perfect us. But these things being far worse and inferior, the soul, in cleaving to them, is secretly conscious that it abases and disparages itself; and therefore cannot find true satisfaction.
Nothing can fill the soul, but that, which eminently contains in it all good. But now, as light is only divided and parceled out among the stars, but is all united in the sun; so goodness is only parceled out among the creatures: this creature has one share, and that another: not any of them contains the whole sum of goodness—this is proper to God alone, who is the Author and Original of them all; in whom all excellencies and perfections are centered: and, therefore, in him alone can be found that rest and satisfaction, which the soul in vain seeks for, in anything besides himself.
These are the Demonstrations of the World's Vanity; which, though they be many and various, yet I doubt not but every man's particular experience may furnish him with divers others.
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