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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
J. R. Scott
From The Baptist Preacher, February 1846
“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow: for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:10)
(A sermon, preached in Hampton, Va., Nov. 2, 1845, at the funeral of Miss Courtney Brough, who died Oct. 31, at the venerable age of 104 years and six months.)
It is an extraordinary occasion, my friends, that has called us together at this time—an occasion, which, in itself, is more instructive than any sermon it can call forth. Such an event as this is of exceedingly rare occurrence, and one which seems almost to stamp an air of falsehood on our very text. Those inspired words declare the limit of human life to be seventy years, with a bare possibility, in cases of uncommon vigor of constitution, that eighty may be reached. But we are now attending the funeral solemnities of one who was spared through the revolution of more than a century, and thus by more than twenty years exceeded the outer limit assigned by the sacred writer.
There is no necessity, I presume, for any labored attempt on my part, to reconcile this seeming discrepancy between God in his providence and God in his Word. The Psalmist was not ignorant of the fact that instances do occur of persons surviving the period of fourscore years; nor did the spirit of inspiration conceive of so futile a design as to delude men into an error in respect to the possible duration of human life. The text is descriptive of man's frailty; and what the Psalmist would be understood to say, is, that he who presumes on living beyond eighty years, presumes where the odds are all against him—where he has no ground for his expectation—where the common course of nature turns all the reasons in opposition to his presumption.
So few are the cases in which persons live to a greater age than fourscore, that to speak of any age beyond, and especially of a century, would render a picture of human frailty untrue to the reality. To introduce into the description so rare an occurrence, would be doing like the artist, who, in painting a landscape, should distinctly bring out those minute and distant objects which truth to nature requires be left out of the canvas. And yet, my friends, it is one of these very occurrences, so exceedingly rare, that has brought us together this morning. We are witnesses of a scene, which many pass long lives without witnessing—the funeral of one who has survived a hundred years.
Our departed friend was indeed spared to a great age—one hundred, four and a half years! In that time, how many, and how great events have transpired! No less than five monarchs have sat upon the throne of England, one of them for sixty years; and our own great nation has come into existence! At the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte, the deceased was within a few months as old as your speaker. In her life-time, how many thousands have fallen on a thousand battle fields! But, what is delightful to contemplate, is how many great movements have been set on foot, and successfully carried out, to liberate, to elevate, and to save mankind!
Probably few, if any, in this congregation, have ever before been present on such an occasion. And what should be the effect on us? Should it be to diminish our sense of the shortness of life, seeing that the days of the deceased were so lengthened out? Should it be to increase our feeling of security, and to flatter us so with the notion that our lives may be long protracted, as to embolden us in putting off attention to the insuring of our souls' salvation? If such, dear hearers, is the use to which we put this occasion, we most grossly pervert it. I conceive that this event, instead of weakening the force of those lessons so impressively taught us by our text, ought only to augment the force with which they should come home to our minds; and I pray God that what is so out of the common course in this dispensation of his providence, may only serve to imprint the more deeply in our minds both the ordinary lessons of mortality, and those particular lessons which are suggested by our text.
Let me then proceed at once to direct your attention to the instruction of this passage. "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow : for they are soon cut off, and we fly away."
I. From these words we learn, in the first place, that human life, however lengthened out, MUST come to an end. Our lives as compared with the lives of others may be long, but impartial death will come to us at length. Mortality is our common lot. There is no discharge in this war. "His days," says Job, "are determined; the number of his months are with thee; thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass." (Job 14:5) The days of our years may be threescore years and ten; they may reach even to fourscore; nay, they may, as in the case of our departed friend, be increased even very considerably beyond that; but the shaft of the insatiate archer cannot be escaped; sooner or later, it will pierce us, and we must fall.
But he is only the messenger of another. It is God who issues the decree. It is the author of life who is the arbiter of life's close. "Thou turnest man to destruction, and sayest Return, ye children of men." (Ps. 90:3) It is the same Being in whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind, who taketh away their breath, so that they die, and return to the dust. And why is it that death is thus inevitable? The reason is suggested in the connection of our text. Says the Psalmist, "we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance." (Ps. 90:7, 8)
When we consider the goodness and the power of God in connection with the fact of our mortality, we cannot but feel that in some way our race has been subjected to his displeasure, and that this is the cause of our mortality. Such we find to be the case. It is because we are a corrupt and sinful race, that we are a dying race. We inherit depravity, and this has infused the poison into our veins which must issue in our dissolution.
The sentence pronounced originally on our general father in Eden, was pronounced on him as the representative of his race—" dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." (Gen. 3:19) That sentence continues in full force against all his posterity. "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned." (Rom. 5:12) It was part of the direful penalty of Adam's transgression, and probably no little aggravation of his own personal punishment, that he should transmit to the remotest generation of his descendants, a sinful, diseased and mortal constitution; that he should not merely die himself, but that all who should trace their origin to him should die.
My hearers, it is not for us to arraign our Maker, and question the equity of this arrangement. That the principle holds, not only in our relation to Adam, but in all the relations of life, is beyond dispute. It is one of the great principles of God's moral government. Our Sovereign has so ordered it that no one of us can sin, without others being more or less affected by the consequences. The child must feel the effects of his father's vicious excesses. He feels them in the diseased and debilitated body he has derived from his parent. The spendthrift head of a family not only brings penury and sorrow upon himself, but also reduces all who are dependent on him to want and wo by his prodigality. And so throughout society.
We may presume to question the justice of this arrangement as much as we please, but we cannot deny that it exists. God has so constituted us, and has so constituted society, that it must be so—it cannot be otherwise. But is there nothing to counterbalance this gloomy and mysterious part of his plan? It is true that we suffer from sins and vices not our own. Is it not equally true, that we derive benefits from good deeds and virtues not our own? Does the child profit nothing from the excellencies of the parent? How many owe their fortune, and good name, and standing in society far more to others with whom they are, or have been connected, than to themselves.
The jealous God who visits the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate him, delights also to show mercy unto thousands of them that love him and keep his commandments. What claim have these latter to the blessings which fall to them? And what claim, we demand, has the child, on the score of equity, to be freed from the inconveniences entailed on him by his father's vices, which does not prove also that he has no right to derive advantages from his father's virtues? Men do not complain of this arrangement so far as it affects them favorably ; but when it involves them in misery, they hesitate not to murmur, and accuse their righteous Sovereign of injustice ; and this notwith¬standing the plan is so admirably adapted at once to restrain men from wickedness, and excite them to the highest moral excellence.
And has God revealed nothing in his plan, as an offset to the unhappiness of our condition in consequence of our relation to Adam? Yes, dear hearers, there is not only a first Adam, in whom we fell, but there is also a second Adam, in whom we may be restored. A glorious provision has been made for our redemption. As in Adam we have death, so in Jesus Christ we may have life, and life eternal. The original sentence must indeed be inflicted on our bodies; but if we believe in Jesus, the day is coming when both soul and body shall be gloriously wrested from the hand of the destroyer. Hear the voice of death's conqueror: "I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." (John 11:25, 26)
Hear an apostle: "For if by one man's offence, death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness, shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ. Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one, the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous." (Rom 5:17-19)
Here, my friends, you see the offset to the unhappy con-sequences of Adam's fall, which accrue to us. So far as original sin is concerned, the second Adam has doubtless cancelled the guilt of that, and removed from us its retribution in eternity. And so far as our own actual personal sins are concerned, be stands ready to take those upon himself, and secure our perfect justification, if we will but believe in him, and thus accept the proffer of his grace. "There is therefore now no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit." (Rom. 8:1)
Having by faith laid hold of this precious provision, we may triumphantly exclaim, "Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, who is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us." (Rom. 8:33, 34) By this arrangement, we are placed under conditions even more favorable for securing eternal life, than those under which Adam was originally placed in Eden. So, should we persist in neglecting so great salvation, just indeed will Jehovah be seen to be, not merely in rendering it impossible for us to escape the natural death, which is the lot of all, but that second death also which he has denounced against all obstinate unbelievers.
I have thus stated, as fully and clearly as my limits allow, the facts and principles pertaining to the first lesson of our text—that our lives, however lengthened out, must come to an end. Much more might be said, but I am compelled to pass on.
II. The text teaches us, in the second place, that human life, at longest, is very short. When the Psalmist speaks of threescore years and ten, and fourscore, he speaks of this advanced age very differently from most men. We do not hear him exclaiming, how astonishingly long do some people live! To what a wonderful extent the lives of many are drawn out! No, no, he does not say this. He would bring up vividly before our minds how frail and transitory is that earthly sojourn which can be protracted no longer. "It is soon cut off, and we fly away." What a span is that existence whose longest duration is embraced within such narrow limits. The simple reading of the text is enough to show that this is the idea intended.
But it is necessary for us to observe the connection in which this passage stands, in order to understand clearly the light in which the brevity of man's life was presented to the mind of the inspired penman. It was in contemplating the eternity of God's existence, that man's appeared to him so short. "Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting thou art God." (Ps. 90:2) He was thinking of God as "the high and holy One, who inhabiteth eternity," (Isa. 57:15) whose "name is from everlasting," (Isa. 63:16) whose "years are throughout all generations," (Ps. 102:24) in whose sight "a thousand years are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night." (Ps. 90:4)
Ah! He cries, what a contrast between the existence of the infinite Jehovah, and that of the worm upon his footstool! It is thought little short of a miracle that a man should still be able to totter about under the burden of fourscore years—but what a nothing is this, when brought into comparison with the eternity of Him who has "been our dwelling place in all generations."
This, my hearers, is the most impressive view that can possibly be taken of the shortness of human life ; and when, in this light, the question is asked, " What is your life? " what other answer can be given save that which inspiration has itself returned—" it is even a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." In this view, even the age of Methuselah, nine hundred sixty and nine years, appears short. How much more the space within which the longest life at the present day is contracted. In how many ways might we compare our stay on earth, and it would seem short.
Man's days are few when compared with the duration of his own works even. There is hardly anything he makes which does not outlive him. But what are finite things in comparison with the infinite? They can all be traced back to a beginning; and as far as this world is concerned, we can set a time in futurity, and say they shall then be known no more. How different is it with God.
The mind may stretch back into the dim past, before the first stone of the pyramids was laid; it may reach back to a time when the names of Rome, and Greece, and Egypt, and Assyria, had never been uttered ; nay, to that time when the earth itself "was without form and void;" (Gen. 1:2) but an eternity still stretches out back of all this, and the mind staggers and halts in its attempt to reach a period when God was not; and glancing forward, it finds him still, "the living God, and stedfast for ever." (Dan. 6:26) It was this contrast that impressed the mind of the Psalmist so powerfully with a sense of the shortness and frailty of human life.
With our stay on earth being at longest so brief, what, my dear hearers, is the inevitable inference? Is it not that our Maker created us for something more than earth? Is it not, that whatsoever our hand findeth to do in the accomplishment of life's great end, we should do it with all our might? How often have you been told that you were sent into this world to prepare for another?
Short as life is, it is long enough for its design. If perverted—if not put to that use which God requires, a short life is too long; for every added day is only augmenting the fearful weight of that wrath which we are treasuring up against the day of wrath, and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God. Already, sinner, art thou involved in guilt and condemnation. The thunders of Sinai are out against you, and except you repent, you must certainly perish. I point you to Calvary! “Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) There, there is your only refuge; hasten for your life! To day, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” (Heb. 3:15) As “ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us, we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. (2 Cor. 5:20)
III There is one lesson more suggested by the text. I accordingly remark, we are taught in the third place, that what is added to the ordinary duration of human life, is after all, what is little to be desired. If, by reason of strength, our years be fourscore, "yet," says the Psalmist, "is their strength labor and sorrow." That is, what is added to life to make it of extraordinary length, embraces in it but little of enjoyment. The extending of our years beyond the period of health and vigor, so far from increasing, can only lessen the balance of our happiness. Of course, the solace of those religious comforts with which we sometimes see old age rendered serene and happy, are here to be thrown out of the question. So far as this world goes, it is certain that extreme old age brings with it a crowd of infirmities, inconveniencies and distresses, which far overbalance all the pleasures that can attend it. How striking are the Psalmist's words: "Yet is their strength labor and sorrow."
Even that vigor of constitution which protracts life beyond the ordinary limits, serves only to lengthen it out for the experience of weariness and pain. And is not this true? The days of life's decline are at best dying days. The vital current is fast ebbing away. The senses are blunted, if not destroyed—the channels of pleasure are dry—the body is crippled and infirm—the mental faculties have sunk into the imbecility of second childhood—the friends and associates of former years have all gone down to the grave. The subject of all this—and of how much more!—asks, "Where is the world into which I was born?"
He feels that he is a mere fragment cast up from the wreck of a bygone generation—a mere dependent and burdensome thing, incapacitated alike to add to the happiness of others, or to enjoy happiness himself. If this be true, surely the fact that some, here and there one, survive to an extraordinary age, does not at all throw light over the lamentable picture of human frailty; it rather deepens and darkens the gloomy colors, but above all, affords a still stronger argument for the importance of religion. If it is possible that before our departure from earth, we may be called to linger through a period, in which, if we have not the comforts of religion to cheer us, we shall be bereft of all solace, surely that period should be provided for.
Be assured, my dear friends, both you who are young, and you who are in middle age, the only effectual preparation for old age is the preparation for eternity. But here I find in God's own word an exhortation so much better than any I can frame, that I choose to address that to you: "Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth"—why? mark what follows; how direct it is to the point: "while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them; while the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars be not darkened; nor the clouds return after the rain: in the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves; and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened." (Eccl. 12:1-3)
This exhortation is couched in highly figurative language, but its general drift, I presume, is sufficiently obvious. The infirmities and maladies of old age are graphically depicted, and this for the purpose of showing the importance of remembering our Creator in the days of our youth. Yes, my friends, it is true that duty and interest imperatively demand that in early life we give our hearts to God. He who puts off this business to old age, or at all to the future, puts it off to a period he may never, he probably will never see; and he who shall reach old age will find that he has postponed the matter to a time the most unfavorable of all his life.
We cannot doubt that some have cried to God in the eleventh hour, and he has heard and saved them; but such cases fall little short of miracles. So infrequent are they, as to evince the folly and presumption of drawing encouragement from them to delay preparing for eternity. Besides, how difficult it is for an aged person to arouse himself, recall his wandering, bewildered, absent powers, and bring them to bear connectedly and energetically on any subject. Who shall attempt to kindle emotion in that bosom, bound up in the frosts of so many years of worldliness and sin?
Who shall attempt to turn that current, whose volume has been swollen and force augmented by the contributions of so long a period? Who shall presume to hope, after resisting so long a series of warnings and invitations, expostulations and entreaties, that, when the cup of life is drained to the dregs, Jehovah will then hear his call and be merciful to him? I do not say that it will not be so, but I do say, that it is presumption to expect it. And moreover, I declare, there is not one probability in a thousand, that under such circumstances there will be either the disposition or the energy of will to utter such a cry for mercy. Listen then now to your Maker's voice and regard it—"I love them that love me, and those that seek me early shall find me." (Prov. 8:17)
I have thus, my hearers, endeavored to lay before you the lessons which I conceive are taught us by our text. We have seen that our life on earth, however lengthened out, must come to an end; that at the longest, it is but short; and that what is added to make up extraordinary old age is, after all, an addition of little that is to be desired. I have also endeavored, as I have proceeded, to apply and urge home on you these truths for your individual improvement. I have addressed this subject to you, because I could think of none more suitable to the occasion. I doubt not that if our aged and highly respected friend, whose decease has called forth this sermon, could return to earth, she would bear her testimony to the truth and the importance of every sentiment that has been advanced.
We trust that after so long a delay on the shores of time, our friend has been welcomed to a better world. For a very considerable time before her decease, and before the prospect of speedy departure, she was accustomed frequently and with the utmost fervor, to offer up prayer to God. Her situation has not admitted of my having many conversations with her, which, in themselves, could afford much satisfaction, although in one I was struck with the simplicity and evident sincerity with which she acknowledged the goodness of God in sparing her life, and bestowing on her so many blessings through so long a series of years. That, notwithstanding her eccentricities and the abruptness of her address, she possessed one of the kindest of hearts, all who knew her will bear witness.
In the relationships of this life, I am confident not one can be found who will deny that she was an affectionate relative, an indulgent mistress, a most excellent neighbor, and an ardent friend. We leave her in the hands of the merciful God, satisfied that the Judge of all-the earth will do right, and hoping, through the Redeemer's blood, to meet her one day in the bright and blissful presence of our Heavenly Father.
May all those who are left behind to mourn her loss, be comforted under this bereavement, and find their affliction sanctified to them for their spiritual and everlasting good. Especially, may our beloved sister, herself in the decline of life, and encompassed with the infirmities of age, be sustained and blessed in this trying season. May her last days be her best days; and when it shall please God to remove her hence, may she be gathered, like a shock of corn fully ripe in its season, into the garner of her Lord.
And may God, of his infinite mercy, enable each one of us to heed the admonitions both of his providence and of his Word. May he so teach us all to number our days, that we shall apply our hearts unto wisdom. Amen.