Scripture Characters

"Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." John xi. 21, 32.

"IT is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning: but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth." Such is the voice of wisdom (Eccl. vii. 2-4). If this is true generally as to the effect which should be produced by familiarizing the heart with the devout contemplation of death, and of the grief which death occasions, it must be especially true when we have Jesus as our companion.

It was our Lord’s custom, in his visits to Jerusalem at the feasts, to retire in the evening, after the toils and trials of his daily ministry in the temple, to the quiet village of Bethany, and the peaceful abode of Lazarus. There he found the rest and repose which he needed, in the holy endearments of a congenial family circle; the nearest approach, for him who "had not where to lay his head," to the warm heartiness of home. That house is now the house of mourning. Let us visit it in the company of Jesus, and let us observe how he is received there, and how his presence cheers the gloom.

The sisters, Martha and Mary, greet him with the same pathetic salutation, "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." And this might seem to indicate an entire similarity in their sorrow. But if we look a little closer, we see a striking difference of demeanour, corresponding to the manifest difference of their characters generally. And this difference is marked in our Lord’s different treatment of them. In every view, this record of sisterly affection is an interesting study. We may learn from it, in the first place, how much sameness there is in grief; secondly, how much variety; and, lastly, how much compass there is in the consolation of Christ, as capable of being adapted to all varieties of grief to grief of every mould and of every mood. We speak chiefly throughout of the grief of true Christians; for we are surely warranted in assuming that, notwithstanding their great contrast in respect of natural temperament, the two sisters were partakers of the same grace.

At present we advert to the similarity of their common sorrow, the sameness of their grief. For it is remarkable, that two persons so different in their turn of mind, as we shall afterwards see that these sisters were, so apt to view things in different lights, and to be affected by them with different feelings, should both utter the very same words on first meeting the Lord Jesus: "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." It shows how natural such a reflection is in such a season how entirely the heart, when deeply moved, is the same in all; and how much all grief is alike. The sisters, however otherwise dissimilar, were united in their fond affection for their departed brother, as well as in their grateful reliance on that Divine Friend, "who loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus." They had sat and watched together beside their brother’s bed of sickness. They joined together in "sending unto Jesus, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick." In their distress they both thought of the same remedy, and applied to the same Physician. It was a joint petition that they despatched, and they did not doubt that it would prevail. Together they waited anxiously for his coming. They reckoned the very earliest moment when he could arrive; and as they looked on their brother’s languid eye, and saw him sinking every hour and wasting away, ah! they thought how soon their benefactor might appear, and all might yet be well. But moments and hours rolled on, and no Saviour came. Wearisome days and nights were appointed to them. Often did they look out and listen; often did they fancy that they heard the expected sound, and the well-known accents of kindness seemed to fall upon their ears; but still he came not. Ah! what were their anxious thoughts, their earnest communings, their fond prayers, that life might be prolonged at least for a little longer, to give one other chance, one other opportunity, for the interposition of Him who was mighty to save even from the gates of death; and how were their own hearts sickened, as they whispered to the sick man a faint hope, to which they could scarcely themselves any longer cling! Still the time rolls slowly on. The last ray of expectation is extinguished; the dreaded hour is come; it is over; their brother has fallen asleep, Lazarus is dead.

And now four days are past and gone since he has been laid in the silent tomb. The first violence of grief is giving place to the more calm, but far more bitter pain of a desolate and dreary sadness, the prolonged sense of bereavement which recollection brings along with it, and which everything around serves to aggravate and embitter. The house of mourning, after the usual temporary excitement, is still. It is the melancholy stillness of the calm, darkly brooding over the wrecks of the recent storm. And amid the real kindness of sympathizing friends, and the formal attentions of officious strangers, the sisters, as each familiar object recalls the past, are soothing, or suppressing as best they may those bitter feelings which their own hearts alone can know, when suddenly they are told that Jesus is at hand!

He is come at last, but he is come too late. His having come at all, however, is a comfort. He is welcome as their own and their brother’s friend; he is welcome as their Lord. They never doubt his friendship; they do not question his willingness, or his power, to do them good. But still, as they meet him, they cannot but look back on the few days that are gone; and as all their anxieties and alarms, their longing hopes and cruel disappointments, rush again upon their minds, they are constrained to give utterance to the crowded emotions of their hearts in the irrepressible exclamation of regret, "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died."

It is the voice of nature that speaks in these words, the voice of our common nature mingling its vain reflections with the resignation of sincere and simple faith. There is here, first, the feeling that the event might have been otherwise: "If thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." We know not what has detained thee. Some call of duty may have prevented thee from coming; or perhaps our message did not reach thee in time; or it may have been some merely casual circumstance that hindered thee. If this sickness had happened but a little sooner, when thou wast in Jerusalem at the feast; or if we had taken alarm early enough, so as to send for thee before our brother was so ill; or if our messenger had been more expeditious, and had used more despatch; or if we had but been able to lengthen out, by our care, our brother’s sickness for a single week; had we not been so unfortunate in the occurrence of this evil just when it did occur; or had we, when it occurred, used more diligence, and taken better precautions; then thou mightest have been here, and "if thou hadst been here, our brother had not died."

Is it not thus that the heart speaks under every trying dispensation? Is it not thus that an excited imagination whispers to the forlorn soul? Who has ever met with any affliction who has ever lost any beloved brother or dear friend without cherishing some such reflection as this? ‘If such or such a measure had been adopted; if such or such an accident had not happened; if it had not been for this unaccountable oversight, or that unforeseen and unavoidable mischance; so grievous a calamity would not have befallen me, my brother would not have died.’ Alas! alas! The reflection, however natural, is only a sinful and sad delusion, proceeding upon a very limited view of the power and the providence of God our Saviour. How did these sisters know that, if Jesus had been there, their brother would not have died? How could they tell whether he might not have ends to serve, which would have required that, even though he had been there, he must have permitted their brother to die? And were they not aware that, though he was not there, yet, if he had so chosen and so ordered it, their brother would not have died? Had they not heard of his being able, at the distance of many a long mile, to effect an immediate and complete cure of the most deadly disease? Did they not believe that he had but to speak, and it would be done; he had but to say the word, and, however far off he was, his friend and their brother would be healed? Ah! they had forgotten who it was to whom they made this most touching and pathetic appeal; that he was one who, though not actually present, could have restored their brother if it had been consistent with his wise and holy will; and that he was also one who, even if he had been present, might have seen fit, for the best reasons, to suffer their brother to die.

And are not these the very truths concerning the Lord Jesus Christ which you in your distress are tempted to forget, when you dwell so much on secondary circumstances and causes instead of at once and immediately recognising his will as supreme? You are overtaken by misfortune; you are overwhelmed in the depths of sorrow. You ascribe your suffering to what seems to be its direct occasion; whether it be your own neglect of some precaution which you might have taken, had you thought of it in time; or the fault of others, with whose skill or diligence your dearest hopes were inseparably connected; or something perhaps, in the course of events, over which neither you nor they could have any control. You fix upon the very date, the very scene, when and where your brother’s doom seems to have been sealed. And this is your train of thought: ‘If we had but suspected what was about to be the issue, or if the help which we now see would have been available had then been within our reach; if we had been warned in time, or had taken the warning, or had been able to employ the right means of escape; we might not now have been left disconsolate; our beloved one might still have been spared to cheer us with his smiles, and share with us all our cares, our brother might not have died.’

So you are apt to think and feel. But however natural the reflection, is it not in reality the very folly of unbelief, the dream of a soul forgetting that the Lord reigneth? What! is it come to this, that you conceive of Him as limited by events which he himself ordains, as the slave of his own laws? You think that if a certain obstacle had not come in to prevent relief, the calamity which you bewail might not have happened But, notwithstanding that obstacle, might he not, if he had seen fit, have found means to avert the calamity? And are you sure that, even if the obstacle had been removed, he might not have seen fit still to let the calamity come? "If thou hadst been here," say the mourning sisters, "our brother had not died." ‘Nay’, he might have answered, ‘I could have been here if it had seemed good to me; and, though I was not here, I might have kept your brother alive; and, though I had been here, I might, in very love to him and to you, have allowed your brother to die.’

Look, ye afflicted ones, beyond second causes, to Him who is the first cause of all things! Believe and be sure that the circumstances which you regret as the occasion of your misfortune, are but the appointed means of bringing about what he determines. If evil comes upon you, if your brother dies, it is not because this or that accident prevented relief; it is not because your Lord and Saviour was not with you in sufficient time but because it was his will. Be still, and know that he is God! But further, secondly, there may be in this address of the sisters somewhat of the feeling, that the event not only might, but should have been otherwise. There is at least an intimation of their having expected that the event would have been otherwise: "If thou hadst been here, our brother had not died." ‘And why wert thou not here? We sent to thee, we sent a special message, a special prayer, and surely thou mightest have been persuaded to come. Ah! why didst thou linger for two whole days after tidings of our threatened loss reached thee? Why didst thou not make haste to help us? We could not believe that thou wouldest have treated us thus. Thou wast not unmindful of us before. Thou didst regard us as thy friends. Thou didst bless our house with thy presence; making it thy resting- place, thy home. Thou didst choose us before thine own kinsmen. Thou didst select our brother as the object of thine especial affection. And we thought it would have been enough to touch thy heart simply to send to thee, saying, "He whom thou lovest is sick." We thought thou hadst but to hear of his illness to hasten at once to his relief. True, we had no right to dictate to thee, and now we have no right to complain. But we cannot help feeling that "if thou hadst been here our brother had not died;" and that surely thou mightest have been here. It was not so very great a favour that was asked of thee; and was he not worthy for whom thou shouldest do this? He loved thee, he trusted in thee; and thou mightest have come, if not to preserve his life, at least to soothe and satisfy his dying hours. He looked for thee, and thou didst not appear. To the very last he waited for thee, and thou didst hide thyself. He missed thee, and he was not comforted.’

Such are the instinctive complaints of. nature in a season of sore trial, of bitter bereavement. Thus the wounded soul rises against the stroke that pierces it, and turns round upon the hand that smites it. It is very hard for flesh and blood to believe, in regard to any crushing load of woe, that it is God who directly and immediately ordains it. It is far harder to believe, that in ordaining it he does not do wrong. Simply to be still, and know that he is God, is no easy exercise of resignation. To be sure that what he does is right, that all he does is done well, is even more difficult still.

You fancy that, if He had really been here, it would have happened otherwise, your brother would not have died. And you feel as if you had had some right to expect that he should have been here, that it should have happened otherwise, that your brother should not have died. And you can give, perhaps, many reasons. You can point out many ends which might have been served had your brother been spared, how faithful and successful he might have been, how noble a course he might have run. He was just prepared for entering into active life; he was just newly fitted for the service of God in the world; and it does seem strange and unaccountable, that at the very time when his life seemed to have become most valuable, when his character was ripened for increased usefulness, and when the mere word of the great Physician would have brought him back from the gates of death, he should yet have been suffered to die.

Ah! but remember that in all this the Lord may have many purposes in view with which you may be unacquainted, which indeed you could not as yet comprehend. Only wait patiently for a little, and you will see that "this sickness is not" really "unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified thereby"(ver. 4). ‘Would that thou hadst been here! Thou surely mightest have been here!’ is the natural language of the mourner to his Lord. Nay, says the Lord himself to his own disciples, "I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe."(ver. 15). A hard saying this, who can always hear it? But consider who it is that speaks. It is your friend, your Saviour. He might have been here, and might have taken care that your brother should not die. And may you not be sure that, if it had been for his glory, and for your good, he would have been here, and would have taken care that your brother should not die? He might have ordered this matter otherwise, you say; and you almost think that he ought to have ordered it otherwise. But may you not believe that, had it been right and good, he would have done so; and that, if he has not, it must be for the best of reasons? What these may be you cannot tell. He may have need of your brother’s services elsewhere. He may intend to make his death the occasion of showing forth his glory, and blessing your soul. Only be patient, and hope unto the end. What he doeth you may not know now, but you shall know hereafter. Meantime, as you are tempted to fancy that he might have interfered nay, that he should have interfered to prevent the calamity under which you suffer, may not that very feeling, on second thoughts, suggest the conviction, that if he has not so interfered, it must be because he intends to make to you some gracious discovery of himself, and to confer upon you some special benefit? Be not hasty, then, to judge, but rest in the assurance that all things shall work together for good to them that love God. And though he may seem to stand aloof when you would most desire, and when you most need, his interposition, yet when he does come, be sure that you receive him gladly as did the sorrowing sisters.

For, lastly, there is apparent in the address of the sisters a sincere, though melancholy, satisfaction in meeting with Jesus when he comes. He has not come so soon as they expected; he has not come at the very time, in the very way, for the very purpose, that they could have wished: still, when he does come, at whatsoever time, and for whatsoever purpose, he is welcome. He is come too late to do them that particular favour which they solicited: still he is come for good, and gratefully do they receive him. True, they say, as if almost in complaint, ‘Lord, if thou hadst been here sooner, our brother had not died. But thou art here now; and it is enough. Our brother, indeed, is dead, and, if it had been possible, we would have had it otherwise. We expected that thou wouldest have come; we wondered that thou didst not come; for a time, perhaps, we entertained some doubtful and hard thoughts of thee, as if surely thou mightest have come. But now that thou hast come, we are satisfied. We are sure that had it been possible, consistently with the high ends of thy ministry, and consistently with our own real interest, thou wouldest have been here. We see that thou lovest and carest for us; and though thou didst not at once grant our request precisely as we desired, yet not the less on that account do we take thy visit kindly. Thou art still our best friend, our gracious Lord. "We know that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee." At thy feet we will still lie down. That thou hast come at all, at our solicitation, is great condescension; that thou hast come in such an hour of trouble, is a peculiarly seasonable act of friendship.’

Happy will it be for you who mourn, if in like circumstances you are enabled to feel as these sisters felt, and to meet your Saviour’s gracious advances as they did. In the hour of blighted prospects and disappointed hopes, when the evil which you deprecated has befallen you, you may think that consolation comes too late. Like Rachel, you may weep, and refuse to be comforted; like Jonah, when your gourd withers, you may almost be tempted to say that you do well to be angry. You may turn away when your Saviour draws near; you may sit disconsolate when he calls. ‘If he had come for the purpose of averting the calamity, if he had been here sooner, and had interposed his power to help, it had been well, for then my brother had not died. But the calamity has overtaken me, my brother is dead; and what avails it that He is here now?’

Beware of all such impatience, such natural irritability of grief. Reject not the Saviour’s visit of sympathy now, because he did not come to you exactly as you in your ignorance would have had him to come, and did not do for you exactly what you would have had him to do. It is enough that he is with you now, to speak comfortably to you, to bind up your broken heart, to fill the aching void in your affections, and be to you instead of all that you have lost. True, if he had been here before, your brother might not have died, and your brother, alas! is dead. But he is here now, he who is better than a thousand brothers, he who hath the words of eternal life, he who can speak a word in .season to the weary soul, and who, when flesh and heart faint, will be the strength of your heart and your portion for ever. Such might be the feelings common to the two sisters, such are the feelings of nature mingled with grace common to all sanctified grief, as indicated in the affecting address, "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died."

Go To Scripture Characters No. 13


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