Verse 9. Surely men of low degree are vanity. Here the word is only again; men of low degree are only vanity, nothing more. They are many and enthusiastic, but they are not to be depended on; they are mobile as the waves of the sea, ready to be driven to and fro by any and every wind; they cry "Hosanna" today, and "Crucify him" tomorrow. The instability of popular applause is a proverb; as well build a house with smoke as find comfort in the adulation of the multitude. As the first son of Adam was called Abel or vanity, so here we are taught that all the sons of Adam are Abels: it were well if they were all so in character as well as in name; but alas! in this respect, too many of them are Cains.
And men of high degree are a lie. That is worse. We gain little by putting our trust in the aristocracy, they are not one whit better than the democracy: nay, they are even worse, for we expect something from them, but get nothing. May we not trust the elite? Surely reliance may be placed in the educated, the chivalrous, the intelligent? For this reason are they a lie; because they promise so much, and in the end, when relied upon, yield nothing but disappointment. How wretched is that poor man who puts his trust in princes. The more we rely upon God, the more shall we perceive the utter hollowness of every other confidence.
To be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity. Take a true estimate of them; judge them neither by quantity nor by appearance, but by weight, and they will no longer deceive you. Calmly deliberate, quietly ponder, and your verdict will be that which inspiration here records. Vainer than vanity itself are all human confidences: the great and the mean, alike, are unworthy of our trust. A feather has some weight in the scale, vanity has none, and creature confidence has less than that: yet such is the universal infatuation, that mankind prefer an arm of flesh to the power of the invisible but almighty Creator; and even God's own children are too apt to be bitten with this madness.
EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS
Verse 9. Other doctrines, moral or civil instructions, may be delivered to us possibly, and probably, and likely, and credibly, and under the like terms and modifications, but this in our text, is assuredly, undoubtedly, undeniably, irrefragably, Surely men of low degree, etc. For howsoever when they two are compared together with one another, it may admit discourse and disputation, whether men of high degree, or of low degree, do most violate the laws of God; that is, whether prosperity or adversity make men most obnoxious to sin; yet, when they come to be compared, not with one another, but both with God, this asseveration, this surely reaches to both: "Surely men of low degree are vanity, and, as surely, men of high degree are a lie." And though this may seem to leave room for men of middle ranks, and fortunes, and places, that there is a mediocrity that might give an assurance, and an establishment, yet there is no such thing in this case; (as surely still) to be laid in the balance, they are all (not of low, and all of high degree, all rich, and all poor), but all, of all conditions, altogether lighter than vanity. Now, all this doth destroy, not extinguish, not annihilate, that affection in man, of hope and trust, and confidence in anything; but it rectifies that hope, and trust, and confidence, and directs it upon the right object. Trust not in flesh, but in spiritual things, that we neither bend our hope downward, to infernal spirits, to seek help in witches; nor miscarry it upward, to seek it in saints or angels, but fix it in him who is nearer to us than our own souls -- our blessed, and gracious, and powerful God, who in this one Psalm is presented unto us by so many names of assurance and confidence: "my expectation, my salvation, my rock, my defence, my glory, my strength, my refuge," and the rest... Men of high degree are a lie. The Holy Ghost hath been pleased to vary the phrase here, and to call men of high degree not "vanity," but a lie; because the poor, men of low degree, in their condition promise no assistance, feed not men with hope, and therefore cannot be said to lie; but in the condition of men of high degree, who are of power, there is a tacit promise, a natural and inherent assurance of protection and assistance flowing from them. For the magistrate cannot say that he never promised me justice, never promised me protection; for in his assuming that place, he made me that promise. I cannot say that I never promised my parish my service; for in my induction I made them that promise, and if I perform it not I am a lie: for so this word chasab (which we translate a lie) is frequently used in the Scriptures, for that which is defective in the duty it should perform: "Thou shalt be a spring of water" (says God in Isaiah), cujus aquae non mentiuntur, "whose waters never lie;" that is, never dry, never fail. So, then, when men of high degree do not perform the duties of their places, then they are a lie of their own making; and when I over magnify them in their place, flatter them, humour them, ascribe more to them, expect more from them, rely more upon them than I should, then they are a lie of my making... To be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity. Vanity is nothing, but there is a condition worse than nothing. Confidence in the things or persons of this world, but most of all a confidence in ourselves, will bring us at last to that state wherein we would fain be nothing, and cannot. But yet we have a balance in our text; and all these are but put together in one balance. In the other scale there is something put too, in comparison whereof all this world is so light. God does not leave our great and noble faculty and affection of hope, and trust, and confidence without something to direct itself upon, and rectify itself in. He does not: for, for that he proposes himself. The words immediately before the text are, God is a refuge; and, in comparison of him, To be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity. John Donne.
Verse 9. Surely men of low degree are vanity.
"Who over the herd would wish to reign, Fantastic, fickle, fierce, and vain! Vain as the leaf upon the stream, And fickle as a changeful dream; Fantastic as a woman's mood, And fierce as Frenzy's fevered blood, Thou many headed monster thing, O, who would wish to be thy king!" Walter Scott (1771-1832).
Verse 9. Surely men of low degree are vanity, etc. Or, sons of Adam; of the earthly man; of fallen Adam; one of his immediate sons was called Hebel, vanity; and it is true of all his sons, but here it designs only one sort of them; such as are poor and low in the world; mean men, as the phrase is rendered in Isaiah 2:9 ; these are subject to sinful vanity; their thoughts are vain, their affections vain, their minds vain, their conversation vain, sinful, foolish, fallacious, and inconstant. John Gill.
Verse 9. Men... are a lie. An active lie -- they deceive others; and a passive lie -- they are deceived by others; and they who are most actively a lie, are most usually and most deservedly a passive lie, or fed with lies. Joseph Caryl.
Verse 9. Lighter than vanity. If there were any one among men immortal, not liable to sin, or change, whom it were impossible for any one to overcome, but who was strong as an angel, such a one might be something; but inasmuch as every one is a man, a sinner, mortal, weak, liable to sickness and death, exposed to pain and terror, like Pharaoh, even from the most insignificant animals, and liable to so many miseries that it is impossible to count them, the conclusion must be a valid one: "Man is nothing." Arndt.
HINTS FOR PASTORS AND LAYPERSONS