John Angell James
Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment. —Ecclesiastes 11:9
I shall direct your attention to that solemn portion of sacred Scripture that you will find in Ecclesiastes 11:9…No one was more capable of forming a correct opinion on this subject than Solomon, since no man ever commanded more resources of earthly delight than he did or ever more eagerly availed himself of the opportunities that he possessed…His testimony, therefore, is to be considered not as the cynical declamation of an ascetic,40 who had never tasted sensual indulgence, but as that of a man who had drunk the cup to its dregs and who found those dregs to be wormwood, gall, and poison…
The text properly explained consists of an ironical41 address.
Under a seeming permission, this language contains a very strong and pointed prohibition. It is as if the writer had said, “Thoughtless and sensual young person, who hast no idea of happiness but as arising from animal indulgence, and who art drinking continually the intoxicating cup of worldly pleasure, pursue thy course if thou art determined on this mode of life. Gratify thy appetites. Indulge all thy passions. Deny thyself nothing—eat, drink, and be merry. Disregard the admonitions of conscience. Trample underfoot the authority of revelation, but think not that thou shalt always prosper in the ways of sin or carry forever that air of jollity42 and triumph. The day of reckoning is at hand, when for all these things thou wilt be called into judgment. God now witnesses and takes account of all thy ways and will one day call thee to His bar and reward thee according to thy doings.”
It is implied in this address that young people are much addicted to sensual pleasure. This has been the case with every generation and in every country. It is too common not only for the young themselves, but even for their seniors and their sires to justify or palliate43 their vicious excesses. We [do] not infrequently hear the abominable adage,44 “Youth for pleasure, age for business, and old age for religion.” It is not possible for language to utter or mind to conceive a more gross or shocking insult to God than this. [It] is saying in effect, “When I can no longer enjoy my lusts or pursue my gains, then I will carry to God a body and soul worn out in the service of sin, Satan, and the world.” The monstrous wickedness and horrid impiety of this idea is enough, one should think, to shock and terrify the most confirmed and careless sinner in existence when put clearly to him.
Many things tend to cherish in the youthful breast and to justify in the estimation of young people the love of sensual pleasure. At their age, care sits lightly on the heart, the passions are strong, the imagination is lively, the health is good, and the social impulse is felt in all its energy. The attractions of company are powerful. This, they imagine, is the halcyon45 time for them to take their fill of pleasure. They think that they shall be steady enough by and by when the season of youth is past and that sobriety, morality, and religion will all come in the proper order of nature. Worldly pleasure, decked in the voluptuous46 attire and the meretricious47 ornaments of a harlot, appears to their heated imagination with all the attractive charms of a most bewitching beauty. They yield themselves at once to her influence and consider her as abundantly able to afford them all the happiness they desire. Their great concern is to gratify their senses. The soul and all her vast concerns is neglected for the pleasures of fleshly appetites and is condemned to the degradation of acting as a mere waiting maid to minister to the enjoyment of the body.
Young people, can you justify, either at the bar of reason or revelation, such an appropriation of the morning of your existence, of the best and loveliest portion of your life? If there is indeed a God who made and preserves you, is it reasonable that the season of youth should be passed in a manner hateful in His sight? Is this the way to ensure His blessing on your future days?…Where is it said that young people may innocently walk in all kinds of sensual indulgences? On what page of the book of God’s truth do you find these allowances for the excesses of youth, which you make for yourselves and ill-judging friends make for you? “Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them! And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the LORD, neither consider the operation of his hands” (Isa 5:11-12). This is the testimony of the Lord, delivered as much against the sins of youth as those of riper years. And is it not mentioned amongst other vices by St. Paul that men should be “lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (2Ti 3:4)?…There is not one duty of true godliness binding upon you in future years that does not rest with all its authority upon you [now]. Is youth the season for sinful pleasure then? Is this best and most influential portion of your existence to be deliberately given up to vice? That is a dreadful idea, repugnant alike to reason and revelation.
40 cynical…ascetic – bitter, emotional speech of one that practices extreme self-denial.
41 ironical – meaning the opposite of what is expressed.
42 jollity – merrymaking; cheerfulness.
43 palliate – partially excuse.
44 adage – old saying.
45 halcyon – happy and carefree.
46 voluptuous – sensuous; suggestive of unrestrained pleasure of the senses.
47 meretricious – gaudy; befitting a prostitute.
From a sermon preached in Carrs Lane Meeting House, on Sunday Evening, January 4, 1824.
John Angell James (1785-1859): English Congregationalist preacher and author; born at Blandford, Dorsetshire, England.
Courtesy of Chapel Library