FOR everything, says Solomon, in the Book of Ecclesiastes,
there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven : a proposition
which, like a flower full blown, he spreads out into such particulars as
these" a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time
to pluck up; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to weep, and a time to
laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time
of peace, and a time of war." Religion, it may be observed, has no place in
this remarkable catalogue; and, paradoxical as the assertion seems, its absence
only makes it the more conspicuous. It has no place among births or deaths,
saving or slaughter, feasts or funerals, the calm of peace or the tempests of
war, because, unlike these, it belongs to no season, but to all seasons, to
every period and time of life. Its functions are like those of breathing,
which, distinguished from eating, resting, or working, are carried on
throughout all the years of our existence, nor cease even when reason sleeps
and the bodily senses are all steeped in slumber.
Notwithstanding, there is a sense in which religion also has its season. As there is a time to be born, there is a time to be born again: to turn to God; to die to sin, and live to righteousness. And which of all the periods of human life will prove most favourable to that great change, is a question we can neither too soon nor too carefully determine. Interests are involved here more important far than those which belong to any, or to all those other times; to the loves or hatreds, the wars or peace, the births or burials of a life, whose joys and sorrows in a few more years will be nothing to usno more than the suns that shine, or the storms that beat upon our grave. The great English dramatist, accepting the threescore years and ten of Scripture as the ordinary span of life, divides it into seven decades; and, borrowing imagery from the stage and shifting scenes of his own profession, represents each as an act played out on the boards of a theatrebeginning and closing his famous description thus:
" All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. At first the infant . . . . .
.........Last scene of all, That ends this strange, eventful history, Is second childishness, and mere oblivion."
Without following the French, to regard all children under fourteen years as being, to use their term, sans discernement, and not properly amenable to punishment, let us kere exclude infancy and mere childhood from consideration; periods, these, when many, hardly able to act for themselves, are plastic as a piece of claytaking shape and form from the hands into which they fall. And of the three remaining periods, youth, manhood, and old age,which is the most fitted for working out our salvation, for giving all diligence to make our calling and election sure, for fighting the good fight, for running the Christian race? The very terms of the question supply the answer. Solomon says the first. Well, if he is right, if in this judgment he sustains his fame as the wisest of the sons of men, if he spake thus in the noontide of that wisdom which dawned in his early choice and rose like a sun on the eyes of a dazzled world,I need not ask, if he is right, how many are wrong ? Not but that they intend some day or other to become religious; only not now, when their blood is hot, and the reins lie loose on the neck of passion, and the cup of pleasure is foaming to the brim. Were the plans and wishes of many expressed in words, they would take the very shape of the striking but shocking prayer of Augustine, Lord, convert me ! but not nownot now !
They have no wish to die as they are. On the contrary, knowing, at least fearing," that they have never been converted, and are not at peace with God, they recoil from such a thought;their type, one in whose company we once happened to be placed in alarming circumstances. The carriages flew along the iron rails; they flashed by stations, post, and pillar; and began so to sway from side to side, that my fellow-traveller, by profession a minister of the gospel, got much alarmed, and asked, " Do you think there is danger?" " Think there is danger !" I gravely replied; "we may be in eternity in another moment." Struck to the heart as by a knife, his full and florid countenance turned pale as death, while, with an emphasis no acting could imitate, and and a look of horror never to be forgotten, he raised his hands to exclaim, "God forbid!" Equally dreading a present and sudden death, how many live and sin on in the hope that, after spending their days as lovers of pleasure, they shall end them as lovers of God ; that they will turn over a new leaf when they are old ; and that, to use a common expression, it will be all right in the end? Bubbles, fair to look on, but fragile as those the touch of a finger breaks! and the breath that blows up such vain expectations is the belief that of all the periods of human life none is so favourable to religion as old age. A great, yet not a wonderful, mistake! one into which, on the contrary, it is very natural for unreflecting and inexperienced youth to fall.
Young people fancy that when the days are come when they shall say they have no pleasure in them,when, in other words, there are no pleasures to enjoy,it will be easy to cease being lovers of pleasure, and become lovers of God; they fancy that when they have fallen "into the sere and yellow leaf," fading sight and health and hearing cannot fail to warn them of the approach of death, and prepare them for his coming; they fancy that religion, like ivy, which gets no hold of a close and firm wall, grows best on what is old; and that as the weathered stones, the cracks and gaping rents of the shattered ruin, by offering a hold to its arms, helps it to climb till it crowns the summit and clothes the grim old tower in a green, graceful mantle, so the infirmities and decays of age will prove helpful to pietygiving it a hold on our hearts it had not obtained, but that they have been shattered by the disappointments, and trials, and shocks of life.
Alas for those who embark their salvation on such bad bottoms, such ventures, and worthless speculations ! Experience is the true test here. Youth speaks from fancy, but old men from facts; and all experiencewhether that of Solomon, or of others much less wise than hepronounces these hopes to be utterly false, mere delusions. Old fruit, still hanging on the tree, comes away to the touch; but it is seldom without a wrench that old people part with life. Have not I seen, and wondered to see, how some aged saints would cling tenaciously to life, and be almost as happy on recovering as one in the green spring, or flower and summer of their days? Earthly joys are like the sun, which never looks so big as at his setting; and be it life, or children, or pleasure, or money, it is natural to love that which we are soon to lose, not less, but more.
"I loved him much, but now I love him more.
Like birds whose beauties languish, half-conceal'd,
Till, mounted on the wing, their glossy plumes
Expanded shine with azure, green, and gold:
How blessings brighten as they take their flight'."
Then as to the effect on man of the near approach of death, youth has to learn what experience teaches age, that death resembles the horizon. Within the lessening circle of advancing years, death may seem much nearer than once it did, and the expression, " If God spares me," may be oftener in the thoughts and on the lips; still it presents this remarkable feature of the visible horizon that, whether it seems near in a misty, or distant in a clear, fair, open day, as we advance, it recedes ever flies before us. Youths count on forty or twenty years ; and where is the old man who does not, even from his stand-point by the grave, see one or two years, at least some days or months, before him ?
Suppose it otherwise; suppose also that the powers of the mind do not fail with those of the body; suppose that no aged Christian ever had to complain of the evil days when he could not pray, nor meditate, nor fix his thoughts, nor rise, as on eagles' wings, in heavenly meditations, as once he did; suppose that none ever blessed God on their death-bed that they had not left their peace to seek amid the weakness and infirmities of age; suppose that sin may be safely yielded to till it becomes habitual; suppose, so to speak, it were found as easy to bend an old tree as a young one, to turn a swollen river as a tiny stream; suppose it is not true that habits gather by unseen degrees, "As brooks run rivers, rivers run to seas;" suppose that for once Solomon is wrong, and that of all the periods of life old age is best for getting a change of heart, an interest in Christ, peace with God, a title and a meetness for the kingdom of heaven,yet, I say, it were well and wise not to delay, because we may not live to lie old.
The oak lives a thousand years. The yew reaches a much greater age: a churchyard among our Scottish mountains boasting one, specially mentioned by Humboldt, under whose green canopy we have sat, which flourished in the days of Solomon, and stood, white with snows or hoar frost, a mighty tree that Christmas eve on which our Lord was born. In contrast with the giant forms and stubborn lives of trees that, yielding slowly to their doom, look down on the graves of many generations, are their leaves. Fragile and fading, these are often nipped in the bud; they are easily crushed ; their life does not extend beyond a few months; the cold of autumn is their death, and the snows of winter are their shroud. For these reasons a leaf has been a favourite emblem with poets, both sacred and profane, of man, of his feebleness,of his mortality. So, when stripped of all his property, his children suddenly whelmed into a common grave, these dead griefs and his wife a living one, his few friends the "miserable comforters" whose unskilful hands widened the wounds they sought to close, so spake Job : turning to God, he plaintively expostulates with Him, crying, " Wilt thou break a leaf driven to and fro ?" Thus also spake the prophet who saw a picture of a man, his sins and sorrows, where the wind at the close of autumn, tearing through the tinted woods, swept off their leaves in showers, and scattered them swirling and eddying along the ground"We all," he exclaimed," do fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have carried us away."
We fade as a leaf! In one sense we do, and in another we do not. Most leaves live out all their days, but not many menfewer than half of them. Of all our race, nearly the half die in infancy, and are torn from mother's bosoms to lie in the cold arms of death. Another large proportion drop into the grave ere the summer of life is past. The woods retain their foliage till days grow short, and fruits grow mellow, and fields fall to the reaper's sickle; but how small the number of men who survive, in grey hairs and stooping form, slow step and shuffling gait, to wear the marks of age ere they follow their companions to the tomb? Ask that hoar old man where are the playmates of his childhood, where the boys who sat by him at the desk in school, where the youths, flushed with health and full of hope, with whom he started in the race of life, where the guests of his board, his competitors or his partners in business? In the grave!all mouldering in the grave : save one and another who, amid new faces, now find themselves to be strangers on this earth, and remain the last vestiges of their generation,clinging to life just as I have seen a few brown leaves hanging on the tree, and whirling in the winter wind when skies were dark with storms, and fields were white with snow.
To the eye of faith this survey, these bills of mortality present nothing melancholy. An early death to those who are in Christ is but another expression for an early deliverance; and if, in place of being long becalmed, or tossed about by storms, and perhaps driven out once and again to sea when their ship was in sight of land, those voyagers who make a short passage count themselves happy, fortunate, are not they rather to be envied than pitied who, by an early death, escape much of the sins and sorrows of this world ?like birds of passage, they just light on it, rest for a little while, and then, as if they found nothing tempting them to prolong their stay, take wing and soar up to heaven. Viewed in this aspect, but for the cold, the cruelties, the hunger, the wants and sufferings which, springing to a large extent from parental vices, account for the circumstance, there is nothing melancholy in the shortness of many lives, and that nearly the half of all born die under five years of age; leaving but a small fraction to see the threescore years and ten. But what more melancholy, more marvellous, than to see thousands setting at nought these well-established facts; delaying their salvation, and, where interests of the highest moment are concerned, counting on years which not one in a hundred of them shall ever reach ? No wise man acts with such infatuation in other, and far less important matters.
For example. Prudent men insure their lives; and why? Because, they answer, life is uncertain; because there is nothing more uncertain; because the chances are that they shall not live to be old. And if I should be cut off, suddenly, early, what, says a man, is to become of my family? The children of this world are indeed wise in their generation. Oh, that men would reason as soundly, and act as wisely, where higher interests are at stake ! If you should be cut off suddenly and early, what is to become of your family ? Well, let me change but a little the terms of the question, and ask him who, reckoning on years, is putting off the things that concern his peace, If you should die suddenly and early, what is to become of your soulyour precious soul ?
Prudent men, again, make their wills when their bones are full of marrow, and there is not a grey hair in their head. The deed shows their name written with a firm hand ; nor is it by their death-bed that, hastily summoned to the scene, the lawyer, the physician and the. minister of the gospel meet. In many respects it would prove much more convenient, saving the trouble and expense of codicils, to delay the settlement of their affairs to future years to old age, should they ever reach it when they shall have retired from business and realized their fortune. Should they ever reach it! But they know that few reach it, and that they may never do so; and therefore, with health bounding in every artery, and blooming on their cheeks, they sign their last will and testament. In matters where the interests and peace of families are concerned, wise men repudiate delay, nor venture anything on the chance of living to be old. Is the peace of our souls less worthy of our care ? " Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die," said the prophet to the king; but how much more need, with a higher foresight, that we should set our hearts than our houses in order? We may die tomorrow " Thou foql, this night thy soul shall be required of thee."
Prudent men, again, by the practice of economy and self-denial, make provision for dying in their prime. Young, they seem to have reasonable ground for expecting that many years are before them and that they may live to see their children standing on their own feetfighting their own battle, altogether independent of a parent's help. Why should not they then, launching on the tide of prosperity, take their enjoyment of the world?in place of being haunted by fears of a widow and children left with a scanty provision, why should not they anticipate a venerable, green old age, a long day and a quiet evening, with their children's children climbing their knee and playing at their feet? Why? Because, they answer, though many fancy such a picture, there are few that sit for it. Few live to be old; nor on such an unlikely chance will they venture the happiness and well-being of their childrennot they. Would to God we were all as wise in what involves the happiness and well-being of our souls! and that every sinner without an hour's delay turned to Jesus, to embrace Him as his Saviour, to cry, in his great extremity, Save, Lord, I perish!
Old age is a most unsuitable period.
The work to which we are called, which must be done by all in this world, and by some this day, or never done, is well described in the words of Nehemiah," I have a great work to do, therefore I cannot come down." It requires our utmost energies. You have seen a man who had thrown himself into the crowd that blocked up a narrow door, battling his way through, with broad shoulder throwing the living mass aside, as the vessel does the water that breaks and foams and flashes from her brow so we are to strive to enter in at the strait gate. You have seen the smith swinging his heavy hammer at the glowing forge, with the veins standing out on his brawny arms, and the sweat on his swarthy browso we are to labour for the bread that never perisheth. You have seen the sinewy frame of a lithe and young competitor in the race go by like the wind, as with flowing hair, expanded nostrils, eager eye, heaving breast, and flying feet, he bends to the courseso we are to run the race set before us; so, forgetting the things which are behind, and looking to those which are before, we are to press toward the mark of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
Whoever sat to Solomon for this graphic picturethe keepers tremble, the strong men bow themselves, the grinders cease, the windows be darkened, the almond tree flourishes, and the grasshopper is a burdenit is plain that neither the old man he painted, nor any at his age, is fit for tasks like these. The Scriptures, whatever figures they employ, everywhere represent the work of salvation as one demanding the highest energy, powers untouched by time and unimpaired by decay. Look at the subject in the light of that figure, where the kingdom of heaven is represented as a city taken by assault. Defenders man, and assailants swarm round the beleaguered wall. It is breached; the breach is pronounced practicable; the forlorn hope lie in the trenches, ready when the bugle sounds to spring to their feet, and with a run and a dash to throw themselves headlong into the yawning chasm; but this must be bravely, quickly, vigorously done, for the breach is bristling with bayonets, and men within stand by their guns to sweep it with showers of death.
Now when the stormers are waiting a leader whom they expect to come with elastic step, and bold carriage, and manly form, and eagle glance, and sword flashing in the sun, and a voice that, crying, Follow me, rings through the ranks, and starts all to their feet, let an old man advance, tottering on a staff, with panting breath and piping voice, to bid them follow, who would follow? Artid all the solemnities of an hour that should be the last to many, they would laugh his grey hairs to scorn. Let these and like feeble steps keep the garrisons at home; but the assault of cities, and storming of the deadly breach, require the pith of manhood, the fire and flower of youth. So does the work of salvation. It is inconsistent with the feebleness and decay of age; for "the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent," says our Lord, " take it by force." True, salvation is not of works. " By grace," as St. Paul says, " are ye saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves ; it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast; for we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." And since God occasionally magnifies and illustrates the exceeding riches of His grace by calling one, and another, at the eleventh hour, making them, after being grafted into Christ, bring forth fruit even in old age, making, so to speak, "the barren woman to keep house and be a joyful mother of children," there is no age and no case hopeless. The words, " Is anything too hard for the Lord?" are as applicable to the new birth of an old man as to the birth of Isaac by an old woman. So fast as their tottering steps can carry them, in the last lingering lights of day, let hoary-headed sinners hasten to Jesus. He will not reject them. He might, but He will not say. When I spake ye would not hear, and when I called ye would not answer; now when ye speak I will not hear, and when ye call I will not answer; I will laugh at your calamity, and mock when your fear cometh. Fear not that " As long as life its term extends, Hope's blest dominion never ends; For while the lamp holds on to burn, The greatest sinner may return."
Notwithstanding this, and that the Word of God assures us that whosoever cometh unto Him He will in nowise cast out; the homage we owe to truth, and the duty we owe to souls, require us to say, that, judging by results, old age is, of all the ages of life, the least fitted for the work of salvation. No doubt we have read of hoary sinners becoming as little children, and turning to God; but in the experience of more than thirty years we have never met with one such case.
At the close of a dark and stormy day we have seen the sun break forth at his setting, to bathe the whole landscape in a flood of glory, and having painted a rainbow on the storm-cloud, to sink to rest amid the odours of flowers, and the joyful songs of groves and skies. But whatever others may have done, we have met nothing corresponding to this in the realm of spirits; not one old man who lived the life of the wicked, and died the death of the righteous. I am not speaking of those who, in circumstances that were more their misfortune than their fault, had no opportunity of knowing the truth till they were oldwho, like the penitent thief, perhaps, received their first as well as last offer of a Saviour at death; never had Christ in their offer, as Simeon never had Him in his arms, till their eyes were dim, and their heads were grey with age;I speak of those who have gone Sabbath after Sabbath to the house of God, whenever Christ was brought forward, to reject Him, and cry, like the Jews of old, "We will not have this man to rule over us;" who have put Him off, again and again, with the most miserable excuses ; who have resisted the influences of the Holy Spirit of God who have wilfully shut their eyes to the truth; who have obstinately refused to be saved; who have spent long years in fighting neither with the devil, nor the world, nor the flesh, but with their own conscience; and wounding it to the death, have at length won the victory.
Now they have no qualms in sinning ; and they may have no bands in their death. They have triumphed; but their victory reminds us of the saying of the king who, holding the ground after a hard-fought day, but seeing it covered with the bodies of his bravest knights and stoutest men-at-arms, exclaimed, Another such victory and we are ruined! So fatal are victories obtained over conscience. Delay till your head is hoary, your conscience seared, and you are, as they say, "gospel - hardened," and there is none to whom these words of hope are less applicable and appropriate, " Thou art not far from the kingdom of heaven."
Still God does not shut the door in an old man's face. The blood of Christ cleanseth from all sineven from his and the door of mercy stands open to the chief of sinners. Only, none can come too soon. Our position resembles his who, sole survivor of the wreck, was seized by a mountain wave, and, borne upon its crest onward to the cliff, was flung into a cave midway between the top where anxious spectators had gathered and the sea that raged and foamed below. Over a precipice no foot could scale, dangling above a sea where no boat could live, friendly hands lower a ropebut, alas! the beetling rock overhung his place of shelter; and though he stood poised on its utmost ledge with outstretched arms, the rope hung beyond his reach, mocking his misery. Quick to devise and prompt to act, like all seafaring men, his brave friends haul in the life-line, and, now loading its end, they toss it once more over the crag, but seaward this time. It has got the motion of a pendulum, and now swinging back, it comes in beneath the beetling cliff. With eager eye watching its coming, he makes a grasp; but alas! his hand closes on the empty air, and the rope swings out again to sea. Ere long it returns, but to be as far, or farther, from his reach; and he now observes with horror that each time it swings it comes less near him. A few more oscillations, and the line dangles in the aira lifeline could he reach it, but beyond his utmost reach. If, balancing himself on the utmost ledge, he leap to catch it at its next approach, he may still be savednot otherwisenor shall this long be possible. Once more, again, it comes; and a voice seems to ring in his ear, Now, or Never! With a prayer on his lips, and his eye on the rope, he bends to the spring, and, rising into the air, makes one desperate bound out from the cliff. The line is caught; he is saved; and cheers from above that go up to heaven greet him, when, swinging out from below the overhanging crag, a living burden hangs on that rope with the grasp of death.' So are we to understand the words, " Lay hold on eternal life." Such is the diligence we are to give to make our calling and election sure. For here, as there, Soon and Saved, or Late and Lost, are very near the truth. For anything, indeed, we can tell, it may be Now, or Never.
Go To Chapter Three
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