We bring our years to an end like a thought, is the proper rendering of these words, according, to an eminent translator. But as the essential idea of the Psalmist is preserved in the common version, I employ it as peculiarly illustrative and forcible. It will be my object, in the present discourse, to show the fitness of the comparison in the text; -- to suggest the points of resemblance between human life and a passing narrative.
I observe, then, in the first place, that the propriety of this simile is seen in the brevity of life. What more rapid and momentary than a story? It is heard, and passes. Though it beguiles us for the time, it dies away in sound, or melts from before, the eye. And this I say, strikingly illustrates the brevity of life. The brevity of life! It is a trite truth, and yet how little realized! Probably there is nothing, more common, and yet there is nothing, more pernicious, than the habit of virtual dependence upon length of days. Thus the best ends of our mortal being are lost sight of; the solemn circumstances, the suggestive mysteries of life, are misconstrued. The heavens, which give a myriad hints of worlds beyond the grave, are, to many, impenetrable walls, shutting them in to mere pursuits of sense, -- the upholstery of a workshop or bazaar; and this earth, which is but a step, -- a filmy platform of our immortal course, -- is to them the solid abiding place of all interest, and of all hope.
It is well, then, to break in upon this worldly reliance, -- to consider how fleeting and uncertain are the things in which we garner up so much. Therefore, in order that we may more vividly realize the brevity of life, -- how like it is to a passing tale, -- let us consider the rapidity of its changes, even in a few short years. We are, to some degree, made aware how fast the current of time bears us on, when we pause and remark the shores; when we observe how our position to-day has shifted from what it was yesterday; how the sunny slopes of youth have been changed for the teeming uplands of maturity; yea, perhaps, how already the stream is narrowing, and rushing more swiftly as it narrows, towards those high hills that bound our present vision, upon whose summits lingers the departing light, and around whose base thickens the solemn shadow.
This rapidity of change is most strikingly illustrated when, after a few years' absence, we return to the scenes of our youth. We plunged into the current of the world, buoyant and vigorous; our thoughts have been occupied every hour, and we have not noticed the stealthy shadow of time. But we come back to that early spot, and look around. Lo! The companions of our youth have grown into dignified men, -- the active and influential citizens of the place. Care has set
"Busy wrinkles round their eyes."
They meet us with formal deportment, or with an ill-concealed restlessness, as though we hindered them in their work, -- work! Which, when we parted with them, would have been flung to the winds for any idle sport. How quickly they have changed into this gravity and anxiety! On the other hand, those who stood where they stand now, -- whose names occupied the signs and the records which theirs now fill, -- have passed away, or, here and there, come tottering along, bent and gray-headed men. Those, too, who were mere infants-those whom we never saw-take up our old stations, and inspire them with the gladness of childhood. And exactly thus have we changed to others. We are a mirror to them and they to us.
From this familiar experience, then, let us realize that the stream of life does not stop, nor are we left stationary, but carried with it; though our condition may appear unchanged, until we lift up our eyes, and look for the old landmarks. The brevity of our life! my friends. Amid our daily business, -- in the sounding tumult of the great mart, and the absorption of our thoughts, -- do we think of it? Do we perceive how nearly we approach a goal which a little while ago seemed far before us? Do we observe how quickly we shoot by it? Do we mark with what increasing swiftness the line of our life seems reeling off, and how close we are coming to the end? Time never stops! Each tick of the clock echoes our advancing footsteps. The shadow of the dial falls upon it a shorter and shorter tract, which we have yet to pass over. Even if a long life lies before us, let us consider that thirty-five years is high noon with us, -- the meridian of that arc which comprehends but threescore years and ten!
But we may be more vividly impressed with the fact of the brevity of life, if we adopt some criterion wider than these familiar measurements. The narrative, the story, engages our ears, in the pauses of care and labor. We listen to it in the noonday rest, and around the evening fire. It is a slight break in the monotony of our business, -- an interlude in the solemn march of life. And thus, in some respects, is life itself. It is so, if we take into view a long series of existence, such as the succession of human generations, or, still more, the periods of creative development, and the computations of time as applied to the forms and changes of the material universe. In this vast train of being, our individual existence, however important to ourselves, is but an interlude-a tale. Let us, then, for a while, lay aside any conventional method of estimating our life, -- a method in which that life fills a large space, simply because it is brought near to the eye, -- and let us endeavor to take a view of it, as it were, from the fixed stars, or from the elevation of the immortal state.
Compare, then, if you will, this life of yours or mine, not with the personal standard of threescore years and ten, but with the whole course of human history; and instantly we appear but as bubbles in the stream of ages. But, again, consider how history itself is as "a tale that is told;" and then, indeed, what a mere incident in it all is your life and mine! If we stand off at the distance of a few centuries, so that we have no present interest in them, it is strange how the proudest empires assume an empty and spectral aspect. Their growth and decline occupied ages; but what a brief achievement it appears now! Why puzzle ourselves about their origin, or seek to disengage the true from the fabulous in their history? Why strain laboriously to settle names, and dates, and dynasties? What mere point they have occupied in the processes of the great universe! Their hieroglyphic pillars, their gray old pyramids; -- what are they to the age of Uranus, or the new planet? Each of these empires fulfilled its mission, and relatively that mission was a great one; but in the long sweep of God's providence, and among the phenomena of absolute being, what a brief link, a subordinate climax, it was! The huge ribs of the earth, and the coral islands of the sea were longer in building; and even these are transitory manifestations of God's purposes, which stream around us through constant change and succession. And what, then, are these nations-these epochs of humanity-but waves rising and breaking on the great sea of eternity? Mysterious Egypt, haughty Assyria, glorious Greece, kingly Rome; -- how spectral they have become. They stand out in no relief. As we recede from them, they sink back, flat and inanimate on the horizon. Each is a tale that has been told. Surely, then, if such is the life of nations, I need not labor to impress upon you a sense of the brevity of our individual existence.
But, for a moment, turn your thoughts to estimates that far exceed the periods of history, and confound all our ordinary measurements. What is our mortal existence, into which we crowd so much interest, -- over the anticipated length of which we slumber, -- into whose uncertain future we project our lithe plans so confidently, -- compared to the age of the heavens, -- the lifetime of worlds? -- compared to their march, from the moment when they obeyed the creative fiat to that when they shall complete their great cycle? It takes three years for light to travel from the nearest fixed star to the earth; from another it takes twelve years; while, on its journey from a star of the twelfth magnitude, twenty four billions of miles away, it consumes four thousand years. And yet we speak of long life! Why, when the light that wraps us now shall be changed for the light that is just leaping from that distant star, where in the gray bosom of the past shall we be? Sunken, forgotten, crumbled to imperceptible atoms; the ashes of generations-the dust of empires-heaped over us! And when we compare those wide estimates to that divine eternity that evolves and limits all things, how does our individual existence on the earth dwindle and vanish! -- a heart-throb in the pulses of the universal life, -- a quivering leaf in the forest of being, -- "a tale that is told"!
And yet, my friends, our realization of existence is so intense, -- the horizon of the present shuts us in so completely, -- that it really requires an effort for us to pause and remember that we are such transitory beings. It cannot be (we may unconsciously reason), that we to whom this earth is bound with ligaments so intimate and strong; whose breathing and motion-whose contact and action here-are such realities; whose ears hear these varying sounds of life; whose eyes drink in this perpetual and changing beauty; to whom business, study, friendship, pleasure, domestic relations, are such fresh and constant facts; to whom the dawn and the twilight, the nightly slumber and the daily meal, are such regular experiences; to whom our possessions, our houses, lands, goods, money, are such substantial things; -- it cannot be that we are not fixed permanently here, -- that the years like a swift river, sweep us nearer and nearer to a point where we must sink and leave it all, -- that the corridors of the earth echo our footsteps only as the footsteps of a successive march-myriads going before, and myriads coming after us-and soon they will catch no more murmurs of our individual life; for that will be as "a tale that is told."
The whole train of thought I am now pursuing strikes us with peculiar force, in reading the biographies of men who have lived intensely, who have realized the fulness of life, who have mingled intimately with its varied experiences, and occupied a large place in it. We see how to them life was, as it is to us, an absorbing fact, -- how they have planned, and thought, and acted, as though they were to live forever; and yet we have noticed the premonitions of change, the dropping away of friends, the failing of vigor, the deepening of melancholy shadows, and the coming of the end; the business closed, the active curiosity and intermeddling ceased, the familiar haunts abandoned, the home made desolate, the lights put out, the cup fallen beneath the festal board, and all the earnest existence stopped forever. And this, too, so quick, -- filling so small a space in absolute time! From their illustration let us, then, realize that our life, too, amid all these real conditions, is unfolding rapidly to an end, and is "as a tale that is told."
But life is like a tale that is told, because of its comprehensiveness. It is a common characteristic of a narrative that it contains a great deal in a small compass. It includes many years, and expresses many results. Sometimes it sweeps over different lands, and exhibits the peculiarities of various personages. In one word, it is characterized by comprehensiveness. And this, I repeat, is also a characteristic of human life. When the consideration of the brevity of our mortal existence excites us to diligence it is well; but when we make it an argument for indolence, disgust, and despair, we should be reminded of the fact I am now endeavoring to illustrate, -- the fact that even the briefest life contains a great deal, and means a great deal; and that, if we estimate things by a spiritual standard, a man's earthly being may contain more than all the cycles of the material world. From the best point of view, life is not merely a term of years and a span of action; it is a force, a current and depth of being. Indeed, considered in its most literal sense, as the vital spark of our animal organism, it is something more than a measurement of time; -- it is a mysterious, informing essence. No man has yet been able to tell us what it is, where it resides, or how it acts. We only know that when we gaze upon the features of the dead we see there the same organs that pertained to the living; but something has gone, -- something of light, power, motion; and that something we call life.
But it is chiefly in a moral sense that I make the remark that life is something more than a term of years or a span of action. In fact, life is a sum of spiritual experiences; and thus one act, or result, often contains more than a century of time. Who does not understand the fact to which I now refer? Who has not felt something of it? Has not each one of us, at times, realized that he lived a year in a single day, -- in a moment, -- in an emotion or thought? Nay, could that experience be measured by any estimate of time? And if we should compute the length of any life by such experiences, and not by a succession of years, would it not be a long life? At least, would it not be a full and immeasurable life?
But, while every man's history will furnish instances of what I mean, let us, for the sake of clearer illustration, consider some of the experiences which are common to all. Defining life to be depth and intensity of being, then, -- a current of spiritual power, and not a mere succession of incidents, -- how much we live when we acquire the knowledge of a single truth! What an inexhaustible power! -- what an immeasurable experience it is! We are made absolutely stronger by it; we receive more life with it, -- a new and imperishable fibre of being. Fortune cannot pluck it from us, age cannot weaken it, death cannot set limits to it. And now, with the fulness of this one experience as a test, just consider our whole mortal experience as filled up with such revelations of truth. Suppose we improve all our opportunities; into what boundless life does education admit us, and the discoveries of every day, and the ordinary lessons of the world! Tell me, is this life to be called merely a brief and worthless fact, when by a little reading, for instance, I can make the experience of other men, and lands, and ages, all mine? When in some favored hour, I can climb the starry galaxy with Newton, and pace along the celestial coast to the great harmony of numbers and unlock the mighty secret of the universe? When of a winter's night, I can pass through all the belts of climate, and all the grades of civilization on our globe; scan its motley races, learn its diverse customs, and hear the groaning of lonely ice-fields and the sigh of Indian palms? When, with Bacon, I can explore the laboratory of nature, or with Locke, consult the mysteries of the soul? When Spenser can lead me into golden visions, or Shakespeare smite me with magic inspiration, or Milton bathe me in immortal song? When History opens for me all the gates of the past, -- Thebes and Palmyra, Corinth and Carthage, Athens with its peerless glory, and Rome with its majestic pomp? -- when kings and statesmen, authors and priests, with their public deeds and secret thoughts are mine? When the plans of cabinets, and the debates of parliaments, and the course of revolutions, and the results of battle, are all before my eyes and in my mind? When I can enter the inner chamber of sainted souls, and conspire with the efforts of moral heroes, and understand the sufferings of martyrs? Say, when all these deep experiences-these comprehensive truths-may be acquired through merely one privilege, is life but a dream, or a breath of air? Thus, too, do immeasurable experiences flow in to me from nature, -- from planet, flower, and ocean. Thus, too, does more life come to me from contacts in the common round of action. And, I repeat, every truth thus gained expands a moment of time into illimitable being, -- positively enlarges my existence, and endows me with a quality which time cannot weaken or destroy.
Consider, again, how much we really live in cherishing good affections, and in performing noble deeds. We have the familiar lines of the poet, to this point:
"One self-approving hour whole years outweighs
It is true. There is more life in one "self-approving hour,"-one act of benevolence, -- one work of self-discipline, -- than in threescore years and ten of mere sensual existence. Go out among the homes of the poor, lift up the disconsolate, administer comfort to the forlorn; in some way, as it may come across your path, or lie in the sphere of your duty, do a deed of kindness; and in that one act you shall live more than in a year of selfish indulgence and indolent ease, -- yea, more than in a lifetime of such. The poet, with his burning, immortal lines, while doing his work, lives all the coming ages of his fame. From every marble feature he chisels, the sculptor draws an intensity of being that cannot be imparted by a mere extension of years. The philanthropist, in his walks of mercy and his ministrations of love, lives more comprehensively than another may in a century. His is the fathomless bliss of benevolence, -- the experience of God. The martyr, in his dying hour, with his face shining like an angel's, does not live longer, but he lives more than all his persecutors.
Consider, too, the experiences of religion, of worship, of prayer. In the act of communion with God, in the realization of immortality, in the aspirations and the idea of perfection, there is a depth and scope of being from which all sensual estimates of time drop away.
Our mortal life, then, is very comprehensive. If we measure it, not by its length of years, but by its spiritual results, be they good or evil, it is a full and large life. It then appears, like the immortal state, not as a fact of succession, but of experience. Christ has defined eternal life as such a fact. "Eternal life," he says, "is to know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." The life of the blessed in heaven is not marked by years and cycles; it is not so much protracted being, as a power of knowledge, -- a depth of glad and holy consciousness, -- a constant pulsation of harmony with God.
Again, every life may be compared to "a tale that is told," because it has a plot. In the narrative there is a combination of agencies working to a crisis. There is a main-point with which all the action is involved. And so every human life has its main-point.. I will not now take up time to carry out this illustration minutely. The mere suggestion that each one is working out a peculiar destiny invests even the meanest life with a solemn dignity, and counteracts any disparaging argument drawn from its brevity.
But still I would urge, that the propriety of this comparison between the peculiar tendency of an individual life and the plot of a story, is seen in the fact that every man is accomplishing a certain moral result in and for himself. This is inevitable. We may be inactive, but that result is forming; the mould of habit is growing, and the inward life is unfolding itself, after its kind. We may think our career is aimless, but all things give a shape to our character. And does not this consideration make our mortal life of deep consequence to us?
All circumstances and experiences are chiefly important as affecting this result. One of the highest views we can take of the universe is that of a theatre for the soul's education. We are placed upon this earth not to be absorbed by it, but to use it for the highest spiritual occasions. We are placed among the joys and sorrows of our daily lives to be trained for immortal issues. Our business, our domestic duties, and all our various relations, constitute a school for our souls. Here our affections and our powers are acted upon for good or for evil. Grief strengthens our faith and elevates our thoughts; joy quickens our gratitude, our obedience, and our trust; temptation forms in us an exalted and spontaneous virtue, or enfeebles and enslaves us. Chiefly, then, should we be solicitous about character, the plot of our life; and in this solicitude our earthly existence rises to the highest importance.
Let us, then, feel that our mortal career is not vague and aimless. Let us realize that each life is a special history. The poorest, the most obscure, has such a history; and although it may be unnoticed by men, angels regard it with interest. The merchant, every day, in the dust, and heat, and busy maze of traffic, unfolds a history. The beggar by the way-side, it may be, outrivals kings in the grandeur and magnitude of his history. In sainted homes, -- in narrow nooks of life, -- in the secret heart of love, and prayer, and patience, -- many a tale is told which God alone sees, and which he approves. The needy tell a tale, in their unrelieved wants and unpitied sufferings. The oppressed tell a tale, that goes up into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. The vicious tell a tale of wo, and misspent opportunity, and wasted power. Let us think of it, I beseech you! Each one of us in his sphere of action is developing a plot which surely tells in character, -- which is fast running into a great fixed fact.
Once more, we may compare every life to "a tale that is told," because it has a moral. Any story, good or bad, -- the most pernicious work of fiction, the most flimsy narrative, as the grandest history, -- has its significance. So it is with the life of a man. As all his conduct he is building up the intrinsic results of character for himself, -- establishing in his own soul a fabric of welfare or of wo, -- so is he furnishing a lesson for others, and accomplishing an end by which they are affected. The purpose for which any one has lived, the point which he has attained, the personal history which he has unfolded, constitute the moral of his life.
For instance, here is a man whose life is frivolous, -- divided between aimless cares and superficial enjoyments. He has no resources in himself, no fountain of inward peace and joy. His spirit leaps like new wine in the whirl of exciting pleasure, but in the hour of solitude and of golden opportunity, it is "flat, stale, and unprofitable." He marks off the year by its festivals, and distributes the day into hours of food, rest, and folly. In short, he holds no serious conception of life, and he is untouched by lofty sentiment. The great drama of existence, with its solemn shifts of scenery and its impending grandeur, is but a pantomime to him; and he a thoughtless epicurean, a grinning courtier, a scented fop, a dancing puppet, on the mighty stage. And surely, such a life, a life of superficiality and heartlessness, a life of silken niceties and conventional masquerade, a life of sparkling effervescence, has a moral. It shows us how vain is human existence when empty of serious thought, of moral purpose, and of devout emotion.
Another is a skeptic. He has no genuine faith in immortality, in virtue, or in God. To him, life is a sensual opportunity closing up with annihilation and to be enjoyed as it may. It is a mere game, and he who plays the most skilful(sic) hand will win. Virtue is a smooth decency, which it is well to assume in order to cover and artful selfishness; and it is a noteworthy fact, too, that, in the long run, those who have trusted to virtue have made by it. At least, vice is inexpedient, and it will not do to make a public profession of it. Religion, too, he says, is well enough; it does for the weak and the ignorant; though shrewd men, like our skeptic know that it is all a sham, and, of course, scarce give it a serious thought. What is religion to a keen-minded, hard-headed, sagacious man of the world? What has it to do with business, and politics, and such practical matters? Pack it away for Sunday, and then put it on with clean clothes, out of respect for the world; but if it lifts any remonstrance in the caucus or the counting-room, why, like a shrewd man, laugh it out of countenance. What has our skeptic to do with the future world or with spiritual relations? Keep bugbears to frighten more timid and credulous persons. But only see how he uses the world, and plays his scheme, and foils his adversary and twists and bends his plastic morality, all because he is not troubled with scruples, and has no faith in God or duty!
And yet, to the serious eye, that scans his spiritual mood, and looks all around his shrewd, self-confident position, there is a great moral in the skeptic's life. It teaches us, more than ever, the value of faith, and the glory of religion. That flat negation only makes the rejected truth more positive. The specimen of what existence is without God in the world, causes us to yearn more earnestly for the shelter of His presence, and the blessedness of His control. From the dark perspective of the skeptic's sensual view, the bleak annihilation that bounds all his hopes, we turn more gladly to the auroral promise of immortality, to the consolations and influences of a life beyond the grave. Yes, in that tale that is told, in that skeptic history, there is indeed a great moral. It shows how meaningless and how mean, how treacherous and false, is that man's life who hangs upon the balance of a cunning egotism, and moves only from the impulses of selfish desire-without religion, without virtue, repudiating the idea of morality, and practically living without God.
Or, on the other hand, suppose we call up the image of one who has well kept the trusts of family, and kindred, and friendship; -- one who has made home a pleasant place; who has filled it with the sanctities of affection, and adorned it with a graceful and generous hospitality; -- before whose cheerful temper the perplexities of business have been smoothed, and whose genial disposition has melted even the stern and selfish; -- who, thus rendering life around her happier and better, attracting more closely the hearts of relatives, and making every acquaintance a friend, has, chief of all, beautifully discharged the sacred offices of wife and mother; encountering the day of adversity with a noble self-devotion, enriching the hour of prosperity with wise counsel and faithful love; unwearied in the time of sickness, patient and trustful beneath the dispensation of affliction; in short, by her many virtues and graces evidently the bright centre of a happy household. And now suppose that, with all these associations clinging to her, in the bloom of life, with opportunities for usefulness and enjoyment opening all around her, death interferes, and suddenly quenches that light! Is there not left a moral which abides a sweet and lasting consolation? That moral is-the power of a kind heart; the worth of domestic virtues; the living freshness of a memory in which these qualities are combined.
Thus, then, in its brevity and its comprehensiveness, with its plot and its moral, we see that each human life is like "a tale that is told." To you, my friends, I leave the personal application of these truths. Surely they suggest to each of us the most vital and solemn considerations. Surely they call us to diligence and repentance, -- to introspection and prayer. What we are in ourselves, -- what use we shall make of life; -- is not this an all important subject? What lesson we shall furnish for others, -- what influence for good or evil; -- can we be indifferent to that? God give us grace and strength to ponder and to act upon these suggestions!
Finally, remember under whose dominion all the sorrows and changes of earth take place. Let your faith in Him be firm and clear. To Him address your grief; -- to Him lift up your prayer. Of Him seek strength and consolation; -- of Him ask that a holy influence may attend every experience. And while all the trials of life should quicken us to a loftier diligence, and inspire us with a keener sense of personal responsibility, surely when our hearts are sore and bleeding, -- when our hopes lie prostrate, and we are faint and troubled, it is good to rise to the contemplation of the Infinite Controller, -- to lean back upon the Almighty Goodness that upholds the universe; to realize that He does verily watch over us, and care for us; to feel that around and above all things else He moves the vast circle of his purpose, and carries within it all our joys and sorrows; and that this mysterious tale of human life-this tangled plot of our earthly being-is unfolded beneath His all-beholding eye, and by His omnipotent and paternal hand.