CONTRAST OF THE DEATH OF THE GOOD AND THE BAD.
Ps. cxvi. 13.
"RIGHT DEAR IN THE SIGHT OF THE LORD IS THE DEATH OF HIS SAINTS."
THERE is, perhaps, nothing so striking as the tremendous contrasts which meet us in Holy Scripture. Out of the same mouth--the mouth of GOD Himself--proceed blessing and cursing. Given to instruct in all times and among all nations; treating of the entire condition of human nature, either lost in Adam or restored in JESUS; recording the history of the race of man from the beginning, and by prophecy stretching unto the consummation of all things; searching into the most hidden motives of the heart, reaching up to heaven, penetrating to hell;--Holy Scripture presents to us a generality of subject, and an extent of grasp, which nothing but a document combining law, promise, history, prophecy, morals, and revelation, could afford to us.
This generality of subject will necessarily exhibit itself in those striking contrasts which I said startle us in the Bible. So various in its subjects, it will be various in the manner of treating them. Having to show us the beauty of goodness and the deformity of sin, the wisdom of holiness and the folly of vice, the glories of heaven and the unutterable woes of hell, it will treat of these in such a manner as will place them in the most striking juxtaposition, and by the comparison teach us to choose the good and to avoid the evil.
And though all things connected with the eternal destinies of the human race are of infinite importance, yet some of them bear upon the future state more directly than others, and the more directly they do bear upon it, the more striking is that element of contrast which I have just alluded to.
Now there is no more sobering or solemnizing thought than that of death--of the separation for a time of the body from the soul--of the end of the trial of an immortal being, and very striking is the spirit of contrast with regard to this. The text says, "Right dear in the sight of the LORD is the death of His Saints." The end of the earthly sorrows of one of His Own is precious in the eyes of GOD Himself. He actually rejoices in the conclusion of the agony of His servant. The gentle Heart of JESUS is filled with unmistakeable emotions of joy, for that His friend's warfare is accomplished. The very unspeakable bliss in which the Eternal TRINITY essentially exists, is quickened by this new evidence of the fruit of the Redemption, by this fresh proof of the efficacy of the Holy Blood, and the whole heaven of saints and angels exult in the joy of its LORD.
But turn to an opposite picture: "The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully, and he thought within himself, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods, and I will say unto my soul, 'Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years, take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.' But GOD said unto him, 'Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee.'"
It is easy to translate this into the language of the nineteenth century. We may picture to ourselves the man of the world succeeding in his speculations, buying land with the proceeds of his business; the pattern of frugality, punctuality, and outward profession. We may imagine him sopping his conscience by a few ostentatious charities; constant at church, constant at the receipt of custom; gradual, but steady is his success; so much so that as time goes on, instead of ascribing it to Providence, he attributes it to his own parts and merit. Now perhaps a judicious marriage increases his importance; he begins to look coldly on the friends of his obscurer times, and courts the company of the class above him. Perhaps he builds himself a large house, and gives sumptuous entertainments; arid he begins to say, "I have laboured hard these thirty years, it is high time for me now to take mine ease;" or he tries to combine his business with his retirement, and retains a share of the profits while others labour for him; or he becomes ambitious, and seeks to represent his fellow-townsmen, and to be classed among the statesmen of the day; judging, not unwisely, that the same talents which have enabled him to make his money and buy his estate, will empower him to shine in a more conspicuous theatre; or he has his sons and his daughters to marry and settle in life. Well, he goes on, and he succeeds in all that he tries; and he begins to wonder that there should be any poor wretches in the world, and he advocates some harsh law that removes the poor out of sight, and he quotes himself as an example what care, and steadiness, and luck can do; or he recounts some sharp clever thing he did in early years; and so he goes on amid his fine friends, faring sumptuously every day, now and then embarking in a speculation, not that he wants the money, but that it interests him; till all of a sudden he has a shivering fit, or a neglected cold seizes upon his lungs, or the gout reaches his stomach, and he hears a voice, "Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee; then whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?"
Who but GOD would call such a one as this a fool? We should call him a clever man--an able administrator--a wise and longheaded individual. We should praise his frugality, his care, his foresight, his calculation. Yet GOD knows best; and if He calls him one, without doubt he is a fool--a fool, because he wants the true wisdom--a fool, because he has not taken into his calculations the next world of weal or woe that depended on his conduct here--a fool, because he has been duped and deceived by the Devil, who smiles (as none but the Devil can smile) at the worthlessness of those things, with which he has bought him, body and soul.
"Thou fool," there is (let us speak it with all reverence) a fund of sarcasm in these words of Almighty GOD. The poor man thought himself very wise; his friends and his flatterers had told him so; they really thought so; he had good proofs of his sagacity; and it was with as much surprise as disgust that he finds himself addressed by this epithet, "Thou fool." He cannot make it out--he never recollects saying a foolish thing--all his words were practical and sensible ones--his actions have been guarded, with a due respect for the main chance, and for the opinion of the world. Why should he be called fool? Alas! he recollects not that folly is synonymous with sin; and that to be wise in this generation only, is worse than madness in the world to come.
And then how short the summons, "This night," No time for repentance is given him. He has failed in his trial. The intellect whereby he ought to have apprehended GOD has been exercised only on gain. The time that was given him to serve GOD withal has been wasted on this earth. The opportunities whereby he might have made friends of the mammon of unrighteousness by obtaining the prayers of the poor he should have relieved have been squandered. Covetous-ness, the Christian's idolatry, has seared his conscience; and no long death bed, nor penitential sickness, will avail to recal him to himself. " This night," at once, without a note of warning, " thy soul shall be required of thee." Thy soul, that precious deposit, that blessed talent, with which thou wast entrusted, shall be asked back from thee, how hast thou guided it? Hast thou kept it pure and spotless, hast thou defiled it with sin, hast thou preserved in it the image of thy Maker? It shall be required of thee; required by GOD who made it and put it in thee; of thee, who wert appointed its custodier, its preserver. "Then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?"
It matters not. At least they cannot be thine.
"What boots it whether it be thy spendthrift son, or the proud son-in-law who despises thee, or the distant heir, or the State that succeeds thee in default of kin? In any case they cannot be thine, for thou must now go forth poor and naked, as when thou wert born into the land where thou layedst up so much; and thou shalt be stripped of all things, and thou shalt have nought but the deeds done in the flesh which follow thee to judgment! Oh! man of the world, is this thine end? Is it for this thou toilest? and "risest up early, and so late takest rest?" Is it for this that thou hast neglected thy GOD? Is it for this that thou hast quenched the Spirit? Is it for this that thou hast trodden down thy LORD underfoot? "Thou fool," the devils will echo the judge's award. "Thou fool," the sorrowing guardian angels abandoning thee shall utter through their tears. "Fool, fool that I am," thine own accusing conscience shall confirm the sentence. And yet, "Right dear in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints."
Now these words, dear brethren, spoken by the Spirit of GOD, have been given for the consolation of the Church in all ages, as you will see when you meditate upon them in their fullest and sublimest sense; for first of all, they assure us of the peace and mercy accorded to fallen man by the Death and Passion of the SON of GOD. For He is the holy One, the Saint of saints, the Type and perfect Exemplar of all saintship; and right dear is His death in the sight of the LORD. As in His Baptism so in His Transfiguration was the FATHER well pleased in Him. As when He condescended to receive an ordinance at the hands of His creature, to inaugurate His mission of mercy, so when He exhibited to the chosen disciples the solitary manifestation of that glory in which He ever had been, and now is, He was grateful unto Him; He was the obedient SON of an Almighty FATHER, and seeking in things His will and not His own, right dear was every action of His in that FATHER'S eyes. But as the end is the proof of all things, so His death was the final proof of His perfect submission. "He learned obedience by the things which He suffered," for, oh! mystery of mysteries! the impeccable Creator of man having become Man, goes through the same process of training by sorrow, and of sanctification by discipline that we must do; and that obedience was made perfect in His death, for "He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross." Right dear, then, was that death in His FATHER'S eyes. It fulfilled the Eternal counsels of the adorable TRINITY. It restored to man more than he had ever lost by Adam's fall. It exhibited to men and angels the eternal harmonies of the rule of GOD, and taught a lesson of submission to all creation, in the perfect obedience of the Creator.
And as the fruit of the LORD'S Passion was the plentiful harvest of souls, which He purchased by His own blood, so some portion of the merit of that propitiation was reproduced in the passions of those who laid down their lives for Him. "Right dear in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints;" so dear that they who have died for CHRIST are at once conveyed into the presence of GOD, and see Him in the face. They go not to the great receptacle of departed souls, but are at once gathered under the altar, and cry, how long? Already the noble army of martyrs praise Him; already are they classed among that great multitude which no man can number, who with palms in their hands and crowns on their heads, cry ever, Alleluia. For these the early Church made no supplication, "for it were dishonour to the martyr, to pray for the martyr," but for these she rendered high laud and hearty thanks for the wonderful grace and virtue declared in them, the choice vessels of GOD'S grace and the lights of the world in their several generations.
But we should lose the full blessedness of these holy words were we to confine their signification to the Passions of CHRIST and His martyrs. In an inferior yet most true sense, "right dear is the death" of every saint "in the sight of the LORD." And the word "saint," as you know, though in its highest signification applied to those who having walked before GOD blameless here, are now "in glory everlasting," yet also is applied to every one of the elect of GOD; to every Christian, if so be that he is in the state of grace. Whoever, then, however imperfect he may be, is in any sense numbered among the saints, his death is precious in the Eyes of GOD, and why it should be so will be apparent from the following considerations.
First of all, whatever occurs to us comes from the gracious Hand of GOD, and therefore whatsoever we accept lovingly and obediently as coming from Him, becomes dear to Him. Every good action done in the faith of CHRIST is grateful and acceptable to Him, and so kind is He, that even the inevitable things which come upon us as it were in spite of ourselves, may if patiently borne by us, acquire as it were a metaphorical will on our part, and so be transformed into good actions. Thus the pain and sorrow of our earthly pilgrimage, if patiently endured as coming from GOD, acquire a mighty power in making us fit for heaven. It matters not that the natural man shrinks from them, so much the greater conquest of the will; it is enough that we accept them in the spirit of penitence, and join them to the all-meritorious sufferings of the Cross of CHRIST. And it is the same with regard to bereavement or any other misfortune sent to us by GOD. It is no small grace to be able to render back that gift with which we have been intrusted; it is no slight exercise of submission to be able to say, the LORD gave and the LORD hath taken away, blessed be the Name of the LORD; but if so rendered, it becomes highly pleasing to GOD, and that which to the worldly man is the stern hand of a cold-hearted ruler, removing the gifts which He has grudgingly bestowed, to the Christian becomes the kind chastening of a merciful FATHER, laying His Hand on, only where necessary, and accompanying the misfortune with unspeakable consolations. And the same thing may be said of the act of death itself. In one sense it is the inevitable destiny of man, infinitely shrunk from, infinitely beyond his own control, but in another sense it is the heaven-enjoined penance of sin cheerfully undergone, the great sacramental ordinance for the destruction of original guilt humbly received, and the will of the Almighty with regard to all His creatures accepted by the intellect and will of that creature.
Thus, then, as every good action is right dear in the sight of the LORD, the death of His chosen ones, when accepted as coming from His Fatherly Hands, and submitted to as His gracious and loving will, is precious in His eyes.
Again, the death of the just is precious in GOD'S sight, inasmuch as it is a necessary stage in that great process of gradual perfection which commenced at the hour of our initiation into Christianity, and our first arrival at the use of reason, shall not be completed till GOD shall be all in all. It is a great era in the process of that CHRIST-likeness which is the true end of man. And think what an era! The temptations are gone for ever; the trial has been victoriously accomplished; the degrading body has been peeled off the soul, which it polluted, and that soul stands on the shore of eternity, imperfect perhaps, and crippled, yet sharing in the merits of the Passion. It has now no chance of forfeiting its inheritance, for its warfare is accomplished; there is now no fear of hell and of the second death; though it must wait "till its change come," it is in the hands of the LORD; it calmly bides the time when its companion body shall be restored to it, the very same body yet infinitely changed in state, a spiritual body instead of a natural body; the illusions of sin are now removed from it, and it sees the eternal verities of GOD which have been from the beginning; it calmly awaits that perfection which shall remove the soils and stains of earth from it, loving and blessing and praising GOD, who hath brought Israel out of Egypt, and redeemed it, even His own inheritance, from the infernal Pharaoh and his host, and has led it through the Red Sea of death, and now enables it on the shore to sing unto the LORD, "I will sing unto the LORD, for He hath triumphed gloriously. The LORD is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation: He is my GOD, I will prepare Him a habitation; my FATHER, GOD, and I will exalt Him." (Exod. xv. 1, 2.)
Lastly, the death of the saints is right dear in the sight of the LORD, because through it they are brought into closer relation with Him. It is His loving will to communicate Himself to His beloved creatures in many excellent and supernatural ways. It is His gracious intention that the creature, though subject to vanity, should rise to Him. This is the great object of the course of the world. This is the end of all the providences that surround us. This is the conclusion of that mighty process of discipline through which every son of man must go. Some fail, others succeed, but all must undergo the course which actually tends to GOD, so that the last repose of the creature, and the final end of its being, is in the Bosom and Heart of the Supreme.
Thus, if the death of the just be a necessary preliminary in this mighty and beneficent intention, you will look upon it with very different eyes from the worldling. As regards your own end, this thought will enable you, not only to accept it with Christian fortitude and resignation when it comes, but to "die daily," as the Apostle says, in will and intention; to live here redeeming the time, counting each day as so much respite, a respite given you in order to serve GOD better, and calmly waiting that tremendous hour, which terrible as it is to flesh and blood, shall be shorn of half its dread by the thought that it is the prelude to all those excellent things which are spoken of the inheritance of the saints, and of that union with the GOD of heaven, which is the final end and purpose of humanity.
And so with regard to the loss of those we have loved, how unutterably sweet are the consolations contained in the words of the text, "Right dear in the sight of the LORD is the death of the saints,"--to feel and to be sure that those we have parted with are safe in His custody, Who is the Keeper of Israel; to know that their end is no subject of indifference to Him, but the object of His desire; that He is with them in the valley of the shadow of death; that there they shall fear no evil, for that there His rod and His staff comfort them.