"Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: For the end of that man is peace." *
* Preached at the funeral of Asa Witter, Esq. Oct.9th, 1792.
The subject of this psalm is the way and end of the righteous and the wicked. It is designed to calm the minds of good people when tried with adversity, and to reconcile them to the divine administration in the unequal distributions of Providence, and the apparent disregard of character, in those distributions. With these views, the writer, after glancing at the lives of saints and sinners, calls our attention to their end, noting the manner of their exit out of life.
The text relates to the righteous. In discoursing upon it, We shall consider the excellence of their characters, and their peaceful end; and add a few reflections.
I. We are to consider the excellence of their characters. Mark the perfect man and behold the upright. --
The perfect man. -- This may seem a strange representation of an imperfect creature -- a creature which viewed in the glass of the divine law appears deformed, and tried by the perfect rule must be condemned -- a creature whose best services can find acceptance with God, only on the plan of grace! For such is man since the apostasy -- such the saints feel and confess themselves. But however strange the representation, it is drawn by the pen of inspiration, and applied tothe saints.
Perfection is sometimes attributed to particular saints. "Noah was a just man and perfect in his generation." Similar is the description given of Job. "There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job: And that man was perfect and upright."
In the text, the term perfect, hath not a particular reference, but refers generally, to those who have been renewed by divine grace. But when applied to a fallen creature it must be understood with limitation. We have seen it applied to Job: Hear him then speaking of himself -- "If I justify myself, my own mouth shall condemn me. If I say I am perfect it shall prove me perverse."
St. John held a high rank among the faithful; yet speaking of the saints, and including himself, he observes -- "If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us -- If We confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins". * St. Paul had before declared that "there is none righteous, and that the Scripture hath concluded all under sin."
* 1 John i.8-10.
In what sense then are the saints perfect? And wherein consists the excellence of their character?
1. The saints are perfect in Christ. "In him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily." His righteousness is made theirs. "They are complete in him. He is made of God unto them wisdom and righteousness, sanctification and redemption." In this view every good man is a perfect man.
The saints before the gospel day were but very partially instructed respecting the way of salvation. They knew not how they were to be saved through a Redeemer who had not come in the flesh. But the matter was open to the divine eye. And it is observable that the term perfect is never assumed by the saints. They confess their own emptiness and abase themselves before God. Where perfection is attributed to them, it is always by those who spake as moved by the Holy Ghost.
2. The saints are the subjects not only of an imputed, but also of an inherent righteousness: And have been so from the beginning. Noah was a just man and perfect -- Job perfect and upright. In this respect they were not made to differ from other saints. All the saints are born of God -- they are renewed after the image of the Creator and made to bear the image of the heavenly. The change which takes place in them causes them to favor the things of God; to love holiness, and delight to do good as they have opportunity and ability.
They are just and upright; just toward man, and upright before God.
Justice respects the part which mankind act toward one another. It is opposed to fraud and injustice. The just man is fair in his dealings -- gives to all their dues -- is careful to fulfil every trust, and to do by others as he would others should do by him.
Such is the character given of him of old, who "was perfect in his generations," when "the whole earth was filled with violence, because all flesh had corrupted their way," And every good man follows his example; hath respect to all God's commandments, and hates every evil way. Perfection, in the strict sense of the term, is his wish, and his aim, though he doth not expect to attain it while resident in the body. But he "forgets the things which are behind and reaching forth to those which are before, he presses on," endeavoring a nearer conformity to the divine pattern.
While he is just toward man, he is sincere toward God, acting uprightly before him. He is really the good man he appears. His profession is not dissembled. His heart is right -- his eye single. Sincerity is gospel perfection. In this true religion very essentially consists: And it is found on all the saints.
The good man keeps in mind his covenant engagements. For the vows of God are upon him and he is careful to fulfil them. He doth not wish to be released from his obligations with which he is bound to be the Lord's and to serve him. He is concerned to honor God -- thinks nothing unimportant which he hath required, though the reasons of the requirement may lie out of sight. "Lord what wilt thou have me to do?" is his daily inquiry. And he seeks to know, that he may do his duty. He waits on God in the ways of his appointment, and is busy about the work assigned him. He is also steady in his counsels and uniform in his conduct. His heart is established by grace, and his life accords with the inward principle. He is not whiffling and unsteady, "carried about by every wind of doctrine" -- taken and drawn away by every new scheme of religion; but "holds fast the faithful word; and is able by sound doctrine both to exhort and convince gainsayers." He doth not "put his hand to the plough and look back," but perseveres to the end, and is faithful unto death. The fear and love of God reigning in his heart, govern his life and direct his way, rendering him an uniform character Therefore do those most intimately -- acquainted with him, convinced of his integrity -- : that he is free from duplicity, and that he abhors evil, and all approaches toward it, both value him themselves, and make him known to others; and by bringing him into public view, render him a public blessing. Neither doth he disappoint their expectations, but according to his ability, acquits himself with honor, and doth good to all around him.
Others may differ from him in speculative opinions; other good men. Such differences are unavoidable in this state of darkness and uncertainty. No two persons see alike in every thing, whatever may be pretended. But those who know the perfect and upright man, will generally allow that he acts sincerely towards God and man. While those who are connected with him by tender ties, who are so happy as to make with him the journey of life, are led by a thousand kind offices and nameless acts of benevolence and goodness to revere and love him.
Such is the character intended in the text -- Such the perfect man and upright in himself, and in the estimation of those who know him. Thus doth he pass through life, feeling and confessing his deficiencies, lamenting that he can do no more for God's honor, and relying on grace alone in Christ, for acceptance with him.
When a person of this description "having served his generation, by the will of God falls asleep," not only relatives and near connexions, but all who know his worth, mourn his exit, and weeping around his corse, bedew his hearse with tears. His name is revered, his memory is blessed, and even envy is silent.
II. We are to consider his peaceful end -- The end of that man is peace.
By a person's end, his death, the period of his mortal life is intended. It doth not intend the end of his existence -- the modern infidel terms used to express death. So in other scriptures; as when God foretold the destruction of the old world -- "The end of all flesh is before me." So Balaam, when looking forward to his exit out of life -- "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his." Had death been the period of his existence, it would have been a matter of indifference whether it found him righteous or wicked. As to hope in death there would have been no difference. But this is not the case. Man hath an immortal part within. At the period of mortal life, he enters on an interminable state.
Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: For the end of that man is peace. He finds peace at the approach of death -- in death, and after death. In order to a due estimation of the value of true religion in Himself, and in its reward, we are here called to observe the good man's end. It demands our careful attention. For the scene is peculiarly instructive. It animates to a discharge of the duties of life and supports under its troubles; especially at the approach of death, when worldly comforts fly away.
The wicked who live in habitual neglect of religion, or the indulgence of vicious desires, are commonly filled with dismay and horror, if reason remains, when they perceive their end draw nigh. The flights which they have cast on the gospel, and on the grace therein offered; their neglects of known duty; their acts of injustice, intemperance, uncleanness, or other immoralities, the remembrance of which were almost obliterated by time, at that awful period rise up before them! Conscience awakes; and when they consider the denunciations of divine wrath against those who do such things, and have pleasure in them, fear harrows up their souls! They anticipate eternal woe, and are filled with agonizing horror! Then do they appear all hurry and confusion! The great work of life to do, and opportunity gone forever! Bewailing past madness they cry undone! Undone! Such often continues their state, till the king of terrors driving them away without hope, shuts up the scene!
But the perfect and upright man, how happily different when death draws near? If possessed of himself, like the still summer's evening, he is calm and serene. He talks of death with as much composure, as one returning from a strange country, to his native land; or as one returning from captivity and slavery, to his father's house, to his family, and to the society of friends, dear as life, and with much more raised expectations!
Some ties of nature -- dear connexions, bind him indeed to earth, and would detain him here; but stronger bonds allure and draw him away toward a better world. If concern for dear ones he must leave behind intrudes and tempts him to wish a longer stay, he remembers that though he dies, his God lives -- that God hath stiled himself the "Father of the fatherless and judge of the widow;" that he hath said "Leave thy fatherless children with me, I will preserve them alive, and let thy widows trust in me." Supported by such comforting declarations -- such kind promises of a faithful God, and the allured belief of his mercy and truth, he resigns them to his care and leaves them with him, not doubting, but he will preserve them, or dispose of them, as shall be most for his own glory, and their good.
As to temporal matters, which often trouble those, who are chiefly concerned about worldly things, they cannot greatly affect one who believes himself heir to an eternal inheritance. For the comfort of those whom he leaves behind, he wishes to have his temporalities settled, and his accompts intelligible; that no disputes may arise, no injustice be done; but as to any concern which he personally takes in them, they appear in his view contemptible. He views them as unworthy his regard, as the beggar, who hath been called to the possession of a crown the rags which he casts off to put on his robes.
As death approacheth, the perfect and upright man, who realizeth his state, looks back with comfort, approving the part he hath acted, after renovation, and forward to the enjoyment of God, with stedfast hope and strong consolation.
We have this happiness of a dying saint, exemplified in St. Paul -- "I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand: I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid, up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day." -- His rejoicing was "the testimony of his conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, he had had his conversion in the world." In the testimony of his conscience, he read the evidence of his good estate -- of his sincerity towards God, and of his interest in Christ, He viewed nothing which he had done as meritorious -- as laying God under obligation, Grace in Christ was all his hope. But he considered his love to God, and his zeal in his cause, as evidential that he was born of God, and the subject of divine grace in the Redeemer. Thence he inferred his title to the inheritance, prepared of God for those who love him.
Other saints do the same. In the testimony of conscience that they love God, and have obtained grace to serve him, they read their interest in the covenant and in the promises, in all their divine fulness.
This is the best, yea, the only evidence, of an interest in them. Where this is found, the matter is determined; there can be no reasonable doubt of their good estate; but where it is wanting, every thing beside is of no avail.
It is natural for a servant, when he sees a reckoning day at hand, to look back, and inquire how he hath improved his trust, and what account he hath to give? And from the testimony of conscience, he anticipates the reception he may expect from his lord. MANKIND feel themselves accountable to God and naturally expect to receive from his impartial hand, according to their works; and when they perceive their probation drawing to a close, they naturally look about them, and inquire how they can appear before their Judge?
The dying Christian is sometimes heard observing to those about him -- "My glass is almost run. Would to God I had been more faithful, and done more for him who loved me, and gave himself for me. But blessed be his name, he hath enabled me to choose him for my portion, and enabled me to serve him in sincerity; though I have done it with much weakness and imperfection. Now I rely on his grace; his grace will be sufficient for me; it will support me in death, and reward my poor services with an eternal reward."
But if conscience, as death approacheth, speaks a different language -- If it testifies to a departing soul -- "You have neglected, the great salvation -- lived in pleasure and been wanton, minding only earthly things," it fills the soul with anguish unutterable, causing it to anticipate eternal horrors!
The perfect and upright, as he rejoiceth at the approach of death, if reason remains, often rejoiceth in death. "When he walks the dark valley, God's rod and staff comfort him -- He fears no evil because God is with him." He is sometimes, ready to exclaim in the triumphant language of the resurrection, "O death! where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory?"
Sometimes indeed, the upright, while here, "walk in darkness" -- Sometimes the lamp of reason goes out, before the departure of the soul; so that the dying Christian hath no sense of his situation. At other times, God may hide his face from those whom his soul loves, and cause them to go on their way sorrowing. Possibly this may continue to the close of life! But if it doth, the clouds are all dispersed at the moment of death, No sooner are the clayey tabernacles dissolved, than the veil is rent, and the brightness of celestial glory shines in upon them. Peace eternal and divine, is theirs forever. Clouds will no more hide God's face -- Fears and doubts, no more distress them; nor Satan call his fiery darts at them, again forever.
In the other world, God will dwell with his people, and "wipe away all tears from their eyes: There will be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain; for the former things will all have passed away. There will be no more curse, because no more sin. For the spirits of the just will be made perfect." They will then be with God and rejoice before him; for they will have "entered into his temple to go no more out."
I. The considerations which have been suggested afford comfort to the righteous, while groaning under the burdens and sorrows of life, and support in the solemn hour of death. They minister consolation also to those who mourn the loss of pious friends -- an occasion of sorrow which we often experience in this vale of tears.
Here all have trials and afflictions -- the perfect and upright not excepted. But the time is short. The good man's trouble terminates with mortal life. His end is peace -- his immortality glorious.
The wicked are dismayed when they look forward and consider their end, or the time of their departure. To the good man it is desirable -- "He then rests from his labors, and his works follow him." St. Paul, "had a desire to depart, and be with Christ." He knew that "a crown of righteousness was laid up for him which the Lord, the righteous Judge, would give him at that day." This was not peculiar to him; it is common to all those "who love Christ's appearing." Those now in glory were lately sufferers here: But their sufferings are ended -- "They have entered into peace: They rest in their beds, walking in their uprightness."
II. Our subject teacheth the conditions on which only we can hope for peace in death, and happiness after death. These depend on the use which we make of life -- on the manner in which we are affected by the overtures made us in the gospel; they are the fruit of receiving Christ and obeying the gospel; for it brings salvation only to those who obey it.
Would we "die the death of the righteous, and have our last end like his," our lives must be preparatory -- we must "mind the things which belong to our peace -- live in all good conscience before God, and not suffer ourselves to be moved away from the hope of the gospel."
III. Though when "the mystery of God shall be finished, his judgments will be made manifest;" hitherto, "his way is in the sea, and his judgments are a great deep." We know that his way is perfect; but witness many things in the divine administration, which we do not understand. We have no line to fathom the depths of providence.
Often the perfect and the upright are early removed out of life -- those who are friends of religion, and supporters of order and justice; whose hearts are filled with benevolence -- who are the excellent of the earth! While those of different characters, who we should suppose might well be spared, yea, whose removal, we should judge a mercy to the world, are left to prolong their days! Some who are early vicious, and daily grow worse are nevertheless continued, and permitted to dishonor God, and spread error and mischief among mankind, till at "an hundred years old they die accursed!"
Such events often occur, and under the divine administration! They are permitted of him who cannot mistake! In a sense, they are the Lord's doings, and marvelous in our eyes!
"The Lord reigneth, let the earth, rejoice -- Clouds and darkness are round about him: Righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne. Wait on the Lord; Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart; wait, I say, on the Lord."