II. THREE ASPECTS
This complaint is urged with a threefold consideration.
A. “First, How eager is the worldling for wealth and earthly things!”
1. Contrasting effort and neglect
Though they loiter about the meat which endureth to eternal life,
yet they can labour for the meat that perisheth;
though they are so negligent about the kingdom of heaven,
yet the kingdom of earth suffereth violence.
The point of this passage is to impress upon the reader the extraordinary efforts which are made to obtain wealth. To make this impression, Swinnock uses a number of repetitions. He begins with three “What” sentences. On the third, he shifts to a number of dependent clauses to describe the work of the husbandman. This ends with “all for earthly mammon”. He then contrasts this with a conclusion: he neglects heavenly things. To see this more clearly, the sentence is broken down into clauses:
What pains do the mariners take for treasure!
What perils doth the soldier undergo for plunder!
What labour and industry doth the husbandman use for profit!
he riseth early,
sits up late,
loseth his sleep,
rides and runs to and fro,
is eaten up almost with cares and fears,
all for the earthly mammon;
whilst the heavenly mansions are like the unknown part of the world, which no man regardeth or looketh after;
2. The misdirected diligence of men compared to animals
Although the break here is in the middle of a sentence, the tone changes here. It is darker and the desire for money is described in bestial terms:
they ‘pant after the dust of the earth,’ as greedily as hot creatures do after the air to cool their scorched entrails, Amos 2:7.
The Authorized Version (KJV) at Amos 2:7 contains the condemnation of those “That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor.” The ESV has “those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth.”
The animal imagery is based upon Serpent in the Garden. In the next sentence he uses “trample upon difficulties” – which recalls the trampling of the serpent in Genesis 3:15. I don’t know whether Swinnock is deliberately using the allusion in an ironic sense.
They laugh at dangers, and trample upon difficulties, they force their way through darkness and the shadow of death, through stifling damps and overflowing floods, through rocks and mountains, in the pursuit of earthly treasures, Job 28:9–11.
The reference to Job is that men engage in this diligent search throughout the earth – but do not find wisdom by digging in the ground. We then get this sigh, Why do we work so hard for this, but so little to obtain heaven?
It is said of the Dutch, they are so industrious at navigation, that, if it were possible to sail in ships to heaven, they would not come short of that haven. Ah, what pity is it that this jewel should hang in a swine’s snout, which would so well become the Christian’s finger; that this diligence, this violence, should be exercised about men’s earthly and particular, which would so well suit their heavenly and general, calling.
The panther is understood as a strange animal among the British writers, their only knowledge coming from Aristotle and Pliny, “Pliny saids, all beasts are strangely allured by this sent, but frighted by the mishapen head, which hee therefore hides.” (A description of the nature of four-footed beasts with their figures en[graven in brass] / written in Latin by Dr. John Johnston ; translated into English by J.P.)
The ambitious person, like the panther, is so greedy of the poisonous aconite (hung up by the hunters purposely in vessels above their reach) of air and honour, that he never leaves leaping and straining thereat till he breaks and bursts himself in sunder.
Here the covetous man is made less than a horse and is in service to his horse:
The covetous man, saith one, that hath more than enough, yet perplexeth himself with his own wants, look how like a fool he goeth, leading his horse in his hand, and carrying his saddle on his back, till he be pickled in his own sweat, and killed with cares, when his horse would with ease carry him and his saddle. The voluptuous man, like the drone, is busy about the glass of water baited with honey; in it he labours and wearieth himself, even till he be drowned.
3. Allusions to Exodus
At this point, he draws on allusions and illustrations from Exodus. Perhaps the word “drowned” suggested the drowning the Egyptian army to Swinnock’s mind. The use of these images has the suggestion that striving after wealth is like being a slave to the Egyptians rather than take the Exodus out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land:
How do men, like the Israelites in the Egyptian bondage, travel up and down, and even weary themselves to gather straw! What pains do they take to hew unto themselves broken cisterns! [Jer. 2:13]
This is a biting line:
Their chief strife is, with the toads, who shall fall asleep with most earth in their paws, who shall leave this world with most wealth in their hands;
They think themselves wiser than everyone else and in the end they die with only “earth in their paws” having used their life to acquire that they cannot keep.
their parts and gifts, their time and talents, are all improved to help forward their earthly trade; they are ‘wiser in their generation than the children of light.’
Oh how lamentable is it that the onions and garlic of Egypt are preferred before the milk and honey of Canaan!
This allusion is to the complaint of the freed slaves in the Wilderness: When they faced any difficulty, they grew romantic about their slavery and wished they were in Egypt.
Luther tells us of a nobleman at Vienna, in the time of his abode there, which made a great supper, and in the midst of his mirth belched out this windy and blasphemous speech, If God will leave me this world to live and enjoy my pleasure therein but a thousand years, then let him take his heaven to himself.
This man spake what most men think; the bramble of their bodies reigneth, and fire ariseth out of it to consume the cedar of their souls. [Judges 9:15] Their efforts to meaningless things will destroy their better ends, like a fire which starts in the weeds and ends up burning the forest.
4. Observations from the Classical World
The heathen have admired and bemoaned man’s industry about earth; they have wondered what made man, who is of an erect countenance looking up to heaven, thus to bow down and bury himself alive in the earth.
That is a striking phrase. A consul was a preeminent political position. To become a consul took enormous effort and often great expense. Why would you do so much to have a single year’s “joy”?
Tertullian stood amazed at the folly of the Romans, who would undergo all manner of hazards and hardships to be consul, which he fitly calls one year’s fleeting joy.
“A thing of nought” is a worthless thing. A concept he finds in the prophets, he illustrates by means of a pagan moralist:
The prophet tells such that they ‘rejoice in a thing of nought,’ Amos 7. Nay, the forementioned moralist tells us, that such worldlings, operose nihil agunt, take a great deal of pains to do nothing. That their whole life is but a laborious loitering, or at most a more painful kind of playing; their account will be nothing but ciphers; like children, they run up and down, and labour hard to catch a gaudy butterfly, which, when caught, will foul their fingers and fly from them. O mortal men, ‘how long will ye love vanity, and follow after leasing?’ Ps. 4.
Is it not sad, that so noble a being as man’s soul should be wholly taken up with such mean, sordid things? That phrase in Ps. 24:5, ‘That hath not lift up his soul unto vanity,’ is read by Arius Montanus, ‘He that hath not received his soul in vain.’ Oh how many receive their souls in vain, making no more use of them than the swine, of whom the philosopher observes, Cujus anima pro sale, their souls are only for salt to keep their bodies from stinking. Who would not grieve to think that so choice a piece should be employed about so vain a use!
5. Illustrations from Kingship: the equating here is with the infinite value of an eternal soul.
Reader, if one should be entrusted with the education of a great prince, (who was descended of the blood-royal, and heir to a large empire,) and should set him only to rake in dunghills, or cleanse ditches, thou wouldst exceedingly condemn such a governor. Wouldst thou not think, It is pity, indeed, that so noble a person should be busied about such low, unworthy projects?
The above-illustration would gain ready acceptance. He now turns to apply the principle to the reader: If this absurd in a king, isn’t it absurd in you?
God hath entrusted thee with a precious soul, descended highly, even from God himself, claiming kindred with the glorious angels, and capable of inheriting that kingdom, to which the most glorious empires of the world are but muck-heaps.
Art thou not one of them that employ this princely soul altogether about unsuitable and earthly practices, and causing it (as the lapwing, though it have a coronet on its head) to feed on excrements?
That puts a point on the argument.
It was one cause of Jeremiah’s sad lamentation, that ‘the precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold,’ should be esteemed as ‘earthen pitchers, the work of the hands of the potter;’ that they which were ‘brought up in scarlet,’ should ‘embrace dunghills,’ Lam. 4:2, 5.
The point is then made more broadly. Consider this argument in light of the many political arguments that made by someone such as Marx, about how the laborer is abused and neglected and treated as merely a means to an end. Swinnock makes a broader point: Marx would have the worker be satisfied with a “fair” share of the total. Swinnock says the billionaire is no better off and may have even been more absurd in the use of his life.
Have not we more cause of sorrow that men’s souls, the precious sons of God, should be put to no better use than earthen pitchers; that they which should be brought up delicately in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, should be busy about dross, and embrace dunghills; that thy precious soul should thus lackey after earth and vanity, when it should, like an angel, be always standing and waiting in the presence of God?
The point is brought home with ridiculous examples. He speaks of a king doing something absurd: The point is then applied: You are the king and acquiring dirt you cannot keep is equally absurd:
Who can read the stories how Domitian the king spent his time in catching flies; Solyman the Magnificent in making arrow-heads; Achmat the last in making strings for bows; Harcatius, the king of Persia, in catching moles; Caligula, the emperor, in playing the poet; Nero, the emperor, in fiddling; and not admire at their folly, that such great princes should busy themselves in things so infinitely below their places.
Having gained agreement, he says, You are the one I am writing about:
But thy folly, reader, (if one of them I am writing of,) is far greater, in that thy practices are more below thy spiritual and heavenly principle. May I not say to thee, as Philip to Alexander, when he heard him singing, Art thou not ashamed, being a king’s son, to sing so well? Art thou not ashamed, being an immortal angelical substance, the offspring of God, and capable of his likeness and love, to be glued as a toad-stool to the earth, to spend thy time and strength, venture the perishing of thy mortal body, and immortal soul too, for that meat which perisheth?
It would take great effort to be that good at singing. How have you taken so much time to do so?
It is storied of Pope Sixtus the Fifth that he sold his soul to the devil, for seven years’ enjoyment of the popedom. What fool ever bought so dear? what madman ever sold so cheap? yet every worldly person doth implicitly the same with this pope. He selleth what is more worth than all the world for a little wind. Ah, how costly is that treasure which makes him a beggar to all eternity!
O Lord, what a foolish, silly thing is man, to prize and take pains for husks before bread, vanity before solidity, a shadow before the substance, the world’s scraps before the costly feast, the dirty kennels before the crystal water of life, an apple before paradise, a mess of pottage before the birthright, and the least fleeting and inconstant good before the greatest, truest, and eternal good.