It is even as a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." -- JAS. iv.14.
AN OLD YEAR SERMON
TO-MORROW, the first day of a new year, is a day of wishes. To-day, the last day of an old year, is a day of questions. Tomorrow is a time of anticipation; to-day a time of reflection. To-morrow our thoughts will go away out to the coming opportunities, and the larger vistas which the future is opening up to even the most commonplace of us. To-day our minds wander among buried memories, and our hearts are full of self-questioning thoughts of what our past has been.
But if to-morrow is to be a day of hope, to-day must be a day of thought. If to-morrow is to be a time of resolution, to-day must be a day of investigation. And if we were to search the Bible through for a basis for this investigation, we should nowhere find a better than this question, "What is your life?"
We must notice, however, that life is used here in a peculiar sense -- a narrow sense, some would say. The question does not mean, What quality is your life? What are you making of life? How are you getting on with it? How much higher is the tone of it this year than last? It has a more limited reference than this. It does not refer so much to quality of life as to quantity of life. It means, How much life have you got? What value do you set upon your life? How long do you think your life will last? How does it compare with eternity?
And there are reasons which make this form of the question particularly appropriate, not only to this last day of the year, but, apart altogether from that, to the state of much religious thought upon the subject at the present moment. These reasons are mainly two. There is a large school just now who utterly ignore this question. There is a large school who utterly spoil it. There may be said to be two ways of looking at life, each of which finds favour just now with a wide circle of people.
1. The theory that life is everything.
2. The theory that life is nothing.
Or, adding the converse to these:
1. The theory that life is everything and eternity nothing.
2. The theory that life is nothing and eternity everything.
Now, those who hold the first of these, object to the time-view of life altogether. And there can be no doubt that this is the favourite of the two. For one thing, it is decidedly the fashionable view. It is the view culture takes, and many thinking men, and many thoughtful and modern books. Life, these say, life is the great thing. We know something about life. We are in it -- it is pulsating all around us. We feel its greatness and reality. But the other does not press upon us in the same way. It is far off and mystical. It takes a kind of effort even to believe it. Therefore let us keep to what we know, what we are in, what we are sure of.
The strength of this school is in their great view of life; their weakness and error, in their little view of time. Their enthusiasm for the quality of life makes them rush to the opposite extreme and ignore its quantity. The thought that life is short has little influence with them. They simply refuse to let it weigh with them, and when pressed with thoughts of immortality, or time-views of life, they affirm, with a kind of superiority, that they have too much to do with the present to trouble themselves with sentimentalisms about the future.
The second view is the more antiquated, perhaps the more illiterate. Life, with it, is nothing at all. It is a bubble, a vapour, a shadow. Eternity is the great thing. Eternity is the significant thing. Eternity is the only thing. Life is a kind of unfortunate preliminary -- a sort of dismal antechamber, where man must wait, and be content for a little with the view of eternity from the windows. His turn to go is coming; meantime let him fret through the unpleasant interval as resignedly as he can, and pray God to speed its close.
The strength of this school is that it recognises eternity, its weakness, and its great error, that it refuses to think of life and spoils the thought of eternity for those who do. The first school requires to be told that life is short; this, so far from having to be told that it is short, has to be told that life is long -- for life to it is nothing.
It is clear, of course, that each of these views is the natural recoil from the other. The mistake is that each has recoiled too far. The life-something theory cannot help recoiling from the life-nothing theory; but it need not recoil into life-everything. So the eternity-something theory cannot help recoiling from the eternity-nothing theory; but it need not recoil into eternity-everything.
It is plain, then, that both these theories are wrong, and yet not altogether wrong. There is a great deal of truth in each -- so much, indeed, that if the parts of truth which each contains were joined into one, they would form a whole -- the truth. And if the sides were nearly equal, -- as many who think life nothing as think life everything, -- there could be no attempt more useful than to find a harmony between. But the sides are not equal, and hence the better exercise will be to deal with the side which has the truth the furthest in arrear.
This, undoubtedly, is the life-school -- the life-everything school. The other is, comparatively, a minority. At least, those who hold the extreme form of it are a minority. It is a more obvious and striking truth that life is something; and it is not difficult to convince the man who makes eternity everything to allow something to life. But to get the man who makes life everything to grant a little to eternity is harder; for the power of the world to come may be yet unfelt and unproved, and the race of life be so swift that the rival flight of time remains unseen.
There are mainly two great classes who swell the ranks of the majority, who refuse to think of the flight of time.
1. The great busy working and thinking class, who are too careful of time ever to think of eternity as its successor. These have too little time to think of time.
2. The great lazy worldly class, who are too careless of time ever to think that it will cease. These have too much time to think of time -- so much of it that they think there will be always much of it.
Now it is to these two classes that this Old Year's question comes home with special power, "What is your life?" And it is no reason why the majority should decline to face the question, that a fanatical minority have made the subject nauseous by the exaggeration of eternity. For if these men suffer in their lives by treating life as a thing of no importance, the others certainly suffer more by exaggerating life at the tremendous expense of eternity.
The great objection to thinking about eternity, or, to take the other side, about the brevity of life, is that it is not practical. The life-school professes to be eminently utilitarian. It will have nothing to do with abstractions, nothing that does not directly concern life. Anything that is outside the sphere of action is of little consequence to practical men. The members of this school feel themselves in the rush of the world's work, and it is something to think of that. It is something to live in the thick of it, to yield to the necessities of it, to share its hopes, and calmly endure its discipline of care. But when you leave life, they protest, you are away from the present and the real. You are off into poetry and sentiment, and the meditations you produce may be interesting for philosophers and dreamers, but they are not for men who take their stand on the greatness of life and crave to be allowed to leave the mystical alone.
Now the answer to that, -- and it may be thoroughly answered, -- may be given in a word. First of all, who told you eternity was nothing? Who told you it was an unpractical, unprofitable dream? Who told you to go on with your work and let time and other abstractions alone? It was certainly not God. God takes exactly the opposite view. He is never done insisting on the importance of the question. "O that they were wise . . . . that they would consider their latter end" -- that is what God says. "Make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days what it is" -- that is what David, the man after God's own heart, says. "Teach me to number my days" -- that is what Moses, the friend of God, says.
And you will notice the reason God gives for thinking about these things. It was enough, indeed, for Him to say it, without any reason; but He has chosen to give us one. Why are we to number our days? "That we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." That is the reason for thinking about time. It is to make us wise. Perhaps you have thought this is merely a piece of sentiment, a flower of rhetoric for the poet, a harmless, popular imagination for ignorant people who cannot discourse upon life, a dramatic truth to impress the weak to prepare their narrow minds for death? But no; it is not that. God never uses sentiment. And if you think a moment you will see that it is not the narrow mind which needs this truth, but his who discourses on life. The man who discourses most on life should discourse the most on time. When you discourse on life, you plead that it is in the interests of life. You despise the time view as unpractical in the interests of the new life school who care too much for life to spend their strength upon the sentiment of time. Ah! but if you really cared for life, this sentiment would only make you love it the more. For time is the measurement of life. And all in life must be profoundly affected by its poor, scant quantity. Your life on earth is a great thing, a rich and precious possession. It is true that it is full of meaning and issues which no man can reckon. But it is ten thousand times greater for the thought that it must cease. One of the chief reasons why life is so great is just that life is so short. If we had a thousand years of it, it would not be so great as if we had only a thousand hours. It is great because it is little. A man is to be executed, and the judge has given him a month to prepare for death -- one short month. How rich every hour of it becomes, how precious the very moments are! But suppose he has only five minutes. Then how unspeakably solemn! How much greater is the five minutes life than the month life! Make eternity a month and life five minutes -- if such a tremendous exaggeration of life could be conceived. How much greater does it become for being so very small!
How precious time is to a short-lived man! I am to die at thirty, you at sixty; a minute is twice as dear to me, for each minute is twice as short. So a day to me is more than a day to Methuselah, for he had many days, and I have but few. Oh! if we really felt the dignity of life, we should wonder no less at its brevity than at its dignity. If we felt the greatness of life at this moment, how much keenness would this further thought add to it -- that we might be dead before this sermon was done! How many things we permit ourselves on the theory that life is great, would be most emphatically wrong on the theory that time was also great! How many frivolous things, -- yes, how many great things even, -- should we have to turn out this moment from our lives for just this thought, if we believed it, that time is short! For there is no room among the crowded moments of our life for things which will not live when life and time are past. So no one who does not feel the keen sense of time flying away at every moment with the work he has done and the opportunities he has lost, can know the true greatness of life and the inexpressible value of the self-selected things with which he fills its brief and narrow span. The thought of death must change at every point the values of the significant things of earth not less than the thought of life, and we must ever feel the solemn relations given to our life and work from the overwhelming thought that the working-life is brief.
A modern poet has described, in strangely suggestive words, the time when first the idea of time and death began to dawn upon this earth. The scene is laid in some Eastern land, where a great colony had risen from the offspring of Cain, the murderer of his brother. Cain knew what death was -- he had seen it. But he alone, of all his scattered family, for he kept his burning secret to himself. Cain's family grew and spread throughout the land, but no thought of death came in to check the joyous exuberance of life; till one day, in boyish pastime a hurled stone strikes Lamech's son, and the lad falls to the earth. Friends gather round him as he lies, and bring him toys and playthings to wake him from his sleep. But no sleep like this had ever come to Lamech's son before, and soft entreating words bring no responsive sound to the cold lips, or light to the closed eyes. Then Cain comes forward, whispering, "The boy is dead," and tells the awe-struck family of this mystery of death. And then the poet describes the magic of this word, how "a new spirit, from that hour, came o'er the house of Cain." How time, once vague as air, began to stir strange terrors in the soul, and lend to life a moment which it had not known before. How even the sunshine had a different look. How "work grew eager, and device was born." How
It seemed the light was never loved before,
Now each man said, "Twill go, and come no more."
No budding branch, no pebble from the brook,
No form, no shadow, but new dearness took
From the one thought that Life must have an end.
So the thought that life will be no more, that each day lived is hastening on the day when life itself must stop, makes every hour of ours a million times more great, and tinges every thought, and word, and act, with the shadow of what must be.
From all this, it will now be clear that the man who is really concerned to live well must possess himself continually of the thought that he is not to live long. And that it is in the highest interests of great living, to stimulate life, not to paralyze it, that God asks us all to-day, "What is your life?"
But the Bible has done more than ask this question. It has answered it. And when the Bible answers a question, it gives always the best answer. We could do no better, therefore, than consult it a little further now, for it so happens that there are few subjects which the Bible goes into so thoroughly as this one -- few thoughts which rise more often or more urgently to the surface of the great Bible lives than "What is your life?"
And, besides, there is a peculiarity in the Bible answers which makes them particularly valuable, and which has tended, more than anything else, to impress them profoundly upon the deeper spirit of every age. And that peculiarity is this, that the answer is never given in hard, bare words, but is presented, wrapped up in some figure of such exquisite beauty, that no mind could refuse to give it a place, were it only for the fineness of its metaphor. Take, as an example, the answer which follows the question in the text, "What is your life?" "It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." Who could afford to forget a thought like that, when once its beauty had struck root within the mind? And if God did not rather choose a few hard solid sentences of truth to perpetuate an answer to one of the most solid thoughts of life, is it not just because He wanted it to be remembered evermore -- because He wanted the thought of the shortness and uncertainty of life to live in every living soul, and haunt the heart in times when other thoughts were passionless and dull? In childhood, before deeper thoughts had come, He would paint this truth, in delicate tints, on every opening soul; and in riper years, when trouble and sickness came and weaned the broken mind from sterner thoughts, He would have the man still furnished with these ever-preaching pictures of the frailty of his life.
Why is it that there is such strange attractiveness to many hearts in the Bible thoughts of time, and why the peculiar charm with which the least religious minds will linger over the texts which speak of human life? It is because God has thrown an intensely living interest around these truths, by carrying His images of the thoughts He most wanted remembered into the great galleries of the imagination, where the soul can never tire. Had such thoughts been left to reason, it would have stifled them with its cold touch; had they been sunk in the heart, it would have consumed itself and them in hot and burning passion; but in the broad region of the imagination there is expansiveness enough for even such vast truths to wander at their will, and power and mystery enough to draw both heart and reason after them in wondering, trembling homage. And if no day almost passes over our heads without some silent visitation to remind us what we are, it is because the Bible has utilised all the most common things of life to bring home these lessons to the soul, so that no shadow on the wall, nor blade of withered grass, is not full of meanings which every open heart can read.
Now, it is a remarkable fact, in this connection, that the Bible has used up almost every physical image that is in any way appropriate to the case. And if we were to go over the conceptions of life which have been held by great men in succeeding ages of the world, we should find scarce anything new, scarce anything which the Bible had not used before.
There lie scattered throughout this Book no fewer than eighteen of these answers, and all in metaphor, to the question, "What is your life?" And any one who has not before gathered them together, cannot but be surprised at the singular beauty and appropriateness of the collection. To begin with, let us run over their names. "What is your life?" It is
A tale that is told. A sleep.
A pilgrimage. A vapour.
A swift post. A shadow.
A swift ship. A flower.
A handbreath. A weaver's shuttle.
A shepherd's tent removed. Water spilt on the ground.
A thread cut by the weaver. Grass.
A dream. Wind. Nothing.
Generally speaking, the first thing to strike one about these images is that they are all quick things -- there is a suggestion of brevity and evanescence about them, and this feeling is so strong that we might fancy there was only one answer to the question, What is your life? namely, Your life is short. But if we look closer at them for a moment, shades of difference will begin to appear, and we shall find the hints of other meanings as great and striking, and quite as necessary to complete the conception of "your life."
First of all, then, and most in detail, three of these metaphors give this answer: --
I. Your life is a very little thing. We have admitted that life is a very great thing. It is also a very little thing. Measure it by its bearing on eternity; there is no image in God's universe to compare with it for majesty and dignity. It is a sublime thing -- Life. But measure it by its bearings upon time, by its results on the world, on other lives; there is no image too small to speak of its meanness and narrowness, for it is a little thing, "Your life." It is "a shadow," it is "a shepherd's tent removed," it is "a tale that is told."
A Shadow. It is unreal; it is illusory. It falls across the world without affecting it; perhaps it only darkens it. Then it rises suddenly, and is gone. It leaves few impressions; and if it could, shadow cannot act much on other shadows. So life at the best is a poor, resultless, shadowy thing.
A Shepherd's Tent Removed. Just before sunset the slopes of the Eastern hills would be dotted with Arab tents. And when night fell, the traveller in these lands, as he lay down to rest would see the glimmering of their fires and hear the noisy bleating of their flocks. But in the morning, when he looked out, both herds and herdsmen would be gone. Hours ago, perhaps, the tents had been struck, and the hills would be silent and lonely as if no foot had ever stirred the dew on their slopes before. So man, the Bible says, traces out his trackless path through life. He is here to-day, in the noise of the world's labour; to-morrow, when you look for him, he is gone. Through the night sometime his frail tent has been struck, and his place is empty and still. His life has left no track to tell that it was there -- except a burnt-out fire to show that there a shepherd's tent had been removed.
But the best of these images is the third -- A Tale that as told. Some think this means a thought or meditation. "Your life is a meditation," as the margin has it. But as the psalm in which the words occur was written by Moses, it is probable that the obvious meaning of the words is the correct one. In their journeyings the children of Israel would have many weary, unoccupied hours. There would be no books to relieve the monotony, and no doubt the people would attempt to beguile the tedious marches and the long hours by the camp fires at night, with the familiar Oriental custom of narrating personal adventures in the form of stories or tales. Night after night, as this went on, the different tales of the storytellers would begin to get mixed, then to confuse their audience, then even to weary them. The first tale, which made a great impression once, would lose its power, and the second, which was thought more wonderful still, would be distanced by the third. Then the third would be forgotten, and the fourth and the fifth; till all would be forgotten, and last night's tale would be the vivid picture in every mind to-day. But the story-teller would know that to-night another would have his turn, and sit in the place of honour, and tell a more vivid tale than he told the night before, and his would be forgotten and ignored.
So we do spend our years as a tale that is told. The dead have told their tales; they have said their say. They thought we would remember what they did and said. But, no; they are forgotten. They have become old stories now. And our turn will come -- our turn to stop; our turn for the Angel of Death to close the chapter of our life, whether it be a novel or a psalm, and write the universal "Finis" at the end. What though a sentence here and there may linger for a few brief years to find a place -- without quotation marks -- in some tale better told, the tale itself must close and be forgotten, like the rest, an ill-told, ill-heard, and ill-remembered tale.
II. There is, next, and briefly, another set of metaphors which bring out the more common answer (which, therefore, it will only be necessary to name), that Life is a short thing. Shortness, of course, is different from littleness. A lightning flash is short, but not little. But life is both short and little. And there are two ways in which life is short: (1) Measured by growth. (2) Measured by minutes. Those who are growing most feel time shortest. They have started with the wrecks of being to fashion themselves into men, and life is all too short to do it in. Therefore they work out their salvation with fear and trembling -- fearful lest death should come, trembling lest life should stop before it is worked out. But they who measure life by its minutes have nothing to say of its brevity; for their purpose it is long enough. It is not more time they want, but "the more capacious soul," as some one says, "to flow through every pore of the little that they have." But there is no distinction in the Bible treatment of the two. Time is the same to all. It is a handbreadth; a weaver's shuttle; nothing; an eagle hasting to the prey; a swift post; a swift ship. David used to pray to God to give him a measure for his days. Well, he got it. It was the breadth of his hand. We carry about with us continually the measure of our days. "My days are as an handbreadth."
The others are familiar symbols enough. The weaver's shuttle -- is it the monotony, the sameness, the constant repetition of life? Rather the quickness, the rapid flight through the thin web of time; the shuttle being then, perhaps, the quickest image men had.
Then those in the country in early times could know nothing more rapid or sudden than the swoop of an eagle on its prey; then, by the seaside, nothing more fleet than the swift sailing away of a ship driven by the unseen wind, or the hasty arrival of the "swift post" or messenger with tidings from afar. And it was not for want of opportunity if they did not learn their lessons well in those simple days, when the few changes life had were each thus stamped with the thought of the great change into eternity.
III. The next thought is so closely allied to this that one can scarcely separate it but for convenience. It suggests the idea of transitoriness. Your life is a transitory thing. It is a thing of change. There is no endurance in it, no settling down in it, no real home to it here. Therefore God calls it a pilgrimage -- a passing on to a something that is to be. Still closely allied to this, too, is the simile of the text -- that life is a vapour. It means there is no real substance in it. It is a going and coming for a moment, then a passing away for ever. And then there are two or three metaphors which advance this idea still further. In their hands life passes from transitoriness into mystery. This life of ours, they show us, is a mysterious thing. And, it is true, life is a mysterious thing. We do not understand life -- why it should begin, why it should end. There is some meaning in it somewhere that has baffled every search; some meaning beyond, some more real state than itself. So the Bible calls it a sleep, a dream, the wind. No book but the Bible could have called our life a sleep. The great book of the Greeks has called death a sleep: --
"Death's twin-brother, sleep."
But the Bible has the profounder thought. Life is the sleep. Death is but the waking. And the great poets and philosophers of the world since have found no deeper thought of life than this; and the greatest of them all has used the very word -- our little life is rounded with a sleep. It seems to have been a soothing thought to them, and it may be a sanctifying thought to us, that this life is not the end; and therefore it is a wise thing to turn round sometimes in our sleep, and think how there is more beyond than dreams.
There are but two thoughts more to bring our questions to a close, and they will add a practical interest to what has gone before.
IV. What is your life? Life is an irrevocable thing. We have just finished an irrevocable year. As we look back upon it, every thought and word and act of it is there in its place, just as we left it. There are all the Sabbaths in their places, and all the well-spent days or ill-spent days between. There is every sin and every wish and every look still in its own exact surroundings, each under its own day of the month, at the precise moment of the day it happened. We are leaving it all at twelve o'clock to-night; but, remember, we leave it exactly as it stands. No single hour of it can be changed now, no smallest wish can be recalled, no angry word taken back. It is fixed, steadfast, irrevocable -- stereotyped for ever on the past plates of eternity. Our book has a wonderful metaphor of this -- "water spilt upon the ground, which cannot be gathered up again." No; we cannot gather up these days and put them back into Time's breaking urn, and live them over again. They are spilt upon the ground, and the great stream of Time has sucked them up, and cast them already on the eternal shores among all bygone years, and there they bide till God's time comes, and they come back, one by one, in order as they went, to meet us again and Him before the Judgment Bar. To-morrow is to be a time of resolution, is it? Well, let this resolution take the foremost place of all, that, when this day of next year comes, and we look once more at the irrevocable past, there shall be fewer things to wish undone, or words to wish unsaid, and more spots where memory shall love to linger still, more steps which, when retraced in thought, will fill the heart with praise.
V. Lastly: life is more than an irrevocable thing, it is an uncertain thing -- so certainly uncertain, that it is certain we shall not all be here to see this next year close. What means the grim image in the Bible of the weaver's thread suspended in the air, and the blade of the lifted knife just touching it with its edge? It means that you must die. The thread of your life is to be cut. The knife may be lifted now, the keen blade just touching it; one pressure of the hand, and it is done. One half, left unfinished, still hanging to the past -- the other, dropped noiselessly into eternity. Oh, life is an abruptly closing thing! Is it not as grass? In the morning, it groweth up and flourisheth in the evening, it is cut down and withereth. Is your life ready for the swiftly falling knife, for the Reaper who stands at your door? Have you heard that there is another life -- a life which cannot die, a life which, linked to your life, will make the past still bright with pardon and the future rich with hope? This life is in His Son.