Ecclesiastes, Edmund Spenser, Edward Reynolds, Matthew Poole, Poetry, Shakespeare, Westminster Standards
Edward Reynolds on Ecclesiastes 3:1:
That all events in the world, both natural and contingent, voluntary or fortuitous, are all of them limited and bounded in their beginning, duration, and ending, and by the providence of God (Psalm 31:15; Job 14:15; Acts 17:26)….That whatever are the thoughts or cares of men, yet the purposes of God must stand; no man can, by his anxious fears or contrivance, mend or alter his condition. Means we must use in obedience to God, and expectation of his promised blessing; but events and successes we must wholly leave to him….That all things are under the sun subject to continual changes; there are various revolutions and vicissitudes of events, now one thing, and anon the contrary, to the intent that men should neither be wanton in prosperity, nor desperate in adversity, but should always fear before the Lord and seek for a kingdom which cannot be shaken.
In these statements Reynolds lies well within the Westminster Confession, as appropriate for a Divine of the Assembly.
Chapter Three: Of God’s Eternal Decree:
1. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
And from Chapter Five: Of Providence:
God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will,to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.
2. Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, He orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.
3. God, in His ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure.
By noting the consistency of his exegesis with his theology, I do not mean that Reynolds has read anything into the text. Rather, Reynolds theology is consistent with his exegesis. Stability can only be anchored in God – who can change the world but cannot be changed against his will. His understanding is quite similar to contemporary Matthew Poole, who writes in his commentary:
A season; a certain time appointed by God for its being and continuance, which no human wit or providence can prevent or alter. And by virtue of this appointment or decree of God, whether comforts or calamities, do come to pass; …that both free and comfortable enjoyment of the creatures which some have and the crosses and vexations which others have with them are from the and counsel of God; partly, to prove the principal proposition of the book that all things below are vain and happiness is not to be found in them, because of their great uncertainty, and mutability and transitoriness, and because they are so much out of the reach and power of men, and wholly in the disposal of another, to wit, God, who doth either give or take them away, either sweeten or imbitter them, as it pleaseth him; and partly to bring to the minds of men into a quiet and cheerful dependence upon God’s providence and submission to his will, and state of preparation for all events. …Not only natural, but even the free and voluntary actions of men are ordered and disposed by God to accomplish his purpose.
An interesting comparison comes from the existing philosophy and writing of the time. The conflict between what will stand and what will change appears throughout much writing. Thus, Spenser anchors stability in God; while Shakespeare anchors a permanence in art:,
When I bethink me on that speech whilere,
Of Mutability, and well it weigh:
Me seems,that though she all unworthy were
Of the Heav’ns Rule; yet very sooth to say,
In all things else she bears the greatest sway.
Which makes me loathe this state of life so tickle,
And love of things so vain to cast away;
Whose flow’ring pride, so fading and so fickle,
Short Time shall soon cut down with his consuming sickle.
Then gin I think on that which Nature said.
Of that same time when no more Change shall be,
But steadfast rest of all things firmly stayed
Upon the pillars of Eternity,
That is contrare to Mutability:
For, all that moveth, doth in Change delight:
But thence-forth all shall rest eternally
With Him that is the God of Sabbaoth hight:
O that great Sabbaoth God, grant me that Sabbaoth’s sight
Or Shakespeare’s sonnets, such as 18:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.