[From "Lamps and Paths," by courtesy of Houghton, Mifflin & Co.]
Be noble! and the nobleness that lies
-- James Russell Lowell: Sonnet IV
Restore to God his due in tithe and time:
-- George Herbert
O Lord, that lends me life,
-- King Henry VI., Part II.; i. I
"And David longed, and said, Oh that one would give me drink of the water of the well of Bethlehem, that is at the gate! And the three brake through the host of the Philistines, and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem, that was by the gate, and took it and brought it to David: but David would not drink of it, but poured it out to the Lord, and said, My God forbid it me, that I should do this thing: shall I drink the blood of these men that have put their lives in jeopardy? for with the jeopardy of their lives they brought it. Therefore he would not drink it." -- I Chronicles xi.17-19
If any of my young friends ask why I have read this long-time-ago Bible-story as a text for a sermon to-day, I will not only answer, but thank them for the question; for nothing helps a speaker at the start so much as a straight, intelligent question. I have read this story from the Chronicles, because I want to connect this beautiful occasion with some beautiful thing in the Bible; for beautiful things go together.
My main object and desire in this service is to have everything beautiful and pure and high. For I know how well you will remember this day in after years; I know how every feature and incident is imprinting itself upon your minds; I know how, twenty and forty years hence, when we older ones will be dead and gone, and you will be scattered far and wide, some in the great cities -- New York, Chicago, St. Louis -- some in California, and some further off still -- I know how, on quiet June Sundays years hence, you will recall this Festival of Flowers in North Adams. You may be in some of the great cities, or on the broad prairies, or among the park-like forests of the Sierra, or in Puget Sound, but you will never forget this day. These familiar walls; this pulpit and font and chancel decked with flowers; this service, made for you and in part by you -- you will never forget it. And because you will always remember it, I want to have it throughout just as beautiful, just as pure and inspiring, as possible. The flowers will do their part; they never fail to speak sweet, pure words to us. Your Superintendent always does his part well, and I hope you will all thank him in your hearts, if not in words, for his faithful and laborious interest in you. And your teachers and others who have brought together this wealth of beauty, this glory of color and perfume, this tribute of sweetness from mountain-side and field and garden -- they have done well; and you will remember it all years hence, and when far away, and perhaps some tears will start for "the days that are no more."
But this occasion would not be complete to my mind if there were not linked with it some noble and inspiring trutn. I want to make all these flowers and this music the setting of a truth, like a diamond set round with emeralds, or an opal with pearls. You have brought the pearls and the emeralds; I must bring a diamond or an opal to set in the midst of them. I am very sure that I have one in this old story -- a diamond very brilliant if we brush away the old Hebrew dust, and cut away the sides and let in a little more light upon it. I am not sure, however, but I ought to call it a pearl rather than a diamond; for there is a chaste and gentle modesty about it that reminds one of the soft lustre of a pearl rather than of the flashing splendor of a diamond. St. John, in naming the precious stones that make the foundation of the heavenly city, omits the diamond -- and for some good reason, I suspect -- while the twelve gates were all pearls. Now, I think David stood very near one of those gates of pearl at the time of this story. To my mind, it is nearly the most beautiful in all this Book; and I know you will listen while I tell it more fully.
I have this impression of David -- that if you had seen him when he was young, you would have thought him the most glorious human being you had ever looked on. He was one of those persons who fascinate all who come near them. He bound everybody to him in a wonderful way. They not only liked him, but they became absorbed in him, and were ready to obey him, and serve him, and to give themselves up to him in every way possible. I am not at all surprised that Saul's son and daughter and Saul himself fell in love with, and could hardly live without, him. It was so all along; and even after he became an old man everybody was fascinated by him -- even his old uncles -- and stood ready to do his bidding and consult his wishes.
It was somewhat so with Richard Coeur de Lion and Napoleon and Mary Stuart and Alexander and Julius Caesar; but the personal fascination of none of these persons was so great as that of David. In some respects he was no greater than some of these; but he had a broader and more lovable nature than any of them, for he had what not one of them had in anything like the same degree -- a great and noble generosity. David deserved all the love that was lavished upon him, because -- let men love him ever so much -- he loved more in return.
There was not apparently, at this early time of his life, one grain of selfishness about him. You know that the word chivalry was not used till about a thousand years back, while David lived almost three times as long ago; but he was one of the most chivalrous men that ever lived. By chivalry I mean a union of honor, purity, religion, nobleness, bravery, and devotion to a cause or person. David excited this chivalric devotion in others because he had so much of it in himself. And here I will stop a moment just to say that if you want to awaken any feeling in another toward yourself, you must first have it in yourself. I think there is a very general notion that in order to awaken admiration and love and regard in others one must have a fine appearance. There is a great deal of misplaced faith in fine clothes and bright eyes and clear complexions and pretty features; but I have yet to learn that these ever win genuine love and admiration. And so far as I have observed, a true sentiment only grows out of a corresponding sentiment; feeling comes from feeling; in short, others come at last to feel toward us just about as we feel toward them. And I never knew a person, young or old, to show a kind, generous, hearty disposition to others who was not surrounded by friends. And I have seen -- I know not how many -- selfish and unobliging and unsympathetic persons go friendless all their days in spite of wealth and fine appearance. Now, put this away in your memory to think of hereafter.
It was David's great-heartedness that bound others to him. At the time of this story he was a sort of outlaw, driven without any good reason from the court of Saul. But he was a man of too much spirit to allow himself to be tamely killed, and he loved Saul and his family too well to actually make war upon him, and he was too good a patriot to give trouble to his country -- a pretty hard place he had to fill, I can assure you. But he was equal to it, and simply bided his time, drawing off into the wild and rocky regions where he could hide and also protect himself. But he was not a man whom people would leave alone. The magnetic power that was in him drew kindred spirits, and some that were not kindred who found it pleasanter to follow a chief in the wilds than to live in the dull quiet of their homes. But the greater part of them were brave, generous, devoted souls, who had come to the conclusion that to live with David and fight his battles and share his fortunes was more enjoyable than to plod along under Saul and his petty tyrannies. There were, in particular, eleven men of the tribe of Gad -- mountaineers -- fierce as lions and swift as roes, terrible men in battle, and full of devotion to David. In this way he got together quite a little army, which he used to defend the borders from the Philistines, who were a thieving set, and also to defend himself in case Saul troubled him. It was not exactly the best sort of a life for a man to live; and had not David been a person of very high principles, his followers would have been a band of robbers living on the country. But David prevented that, and made them as useful as was possible. His headquarters were at the cave of Adullam, or what is now called Engedi. While here, the Philistines came on a foraging expedition as far as Bethlehem, and with so large a force that David and his few followers were shut up in their fortress -- for how long we do not know -- probably for some days. It was very dull and wearisome business, imprisoned in a rocky defile and unable to do anything, while the Philistines were stealing the harvests that grew on the very spot where he had spent his boyhood.
It was then that what has always seemed to me a very touching and beautiful trait of David's character showed itself, and that is -- a feeling of homesickness. Now, there is very little respect to be had for a person who is not capable of homesickness. To give up to it may be weak, but to be incapable of it is a bad sign. But in David it took a very poetic form. Close by was the home where he was born. There, in Bethlehem, he had passed the dreamy years of his childhood and youth amid the love of his parents and brothers, whom he now had with him; there he fed his sheep and sang to his harp; and there, morning and evening, he gathered with others about the well -- the meeting-place of his companions -- loved with all the passionate energy of his nature, and still loved in spite of the troublous times that had come upon him. As David broods over these memories, he longs with a yearning, homesick feeling for Bethlehem and its well. And, like a poet as he was, he conceives that if he could but drink of its water, it would relieve this feverish unrest and longing for the past. It was a very natural feeling. You are too young to know what it means; but we who are older think of these little things in a strange, yearning way. It is the little things of childhood that we long for -- to lie under the roof on which we heard the rain patter years and years ago; to gather fruit in the old orchard; to fish in the same streams; to sit on the same rock, or under the same elm or maple, and see the sun go down behind the same old hills; to drink from the same spring that refreshed us in summer days that will not come again -- you are too young for this, but we who are older know well how David felt. He was not a man to hide his feelings, and so he uttered his longing for the water of the well by the gate of Bethlehem. His words are overheard; and three of these terrible followers of his -- fierce as lions and fleet as deer -- took their swords and fought their way through the Philistines, slaying we know not how many, and brought back some of the water. It was enough for them that David wanted it.
Now, some people would say that it was very foolish and sentimental of David to be indulging in such a whim, and still more foolish in these men to gratify it at the risk of their lives; but I think there is a better way of looking at it. If David had required them to procure the water at the risk of their lives, it would have been very wrong; but the whole thing was unknown to him till the water was brought. I prefer to regard it as an act of splendid heroism, prompted by chivalric devotion, and I will not stop to consider whether or not it was sensible and prudent. And I want to say to you that whenever you see or hear of an action that has these qualities of heroism and generosity and devotion, it is well to admire and praise it, whether it will bear the test of cold reason or not. I hope your hearts will never get to be so dry and hard that they will not beat responsive to brave and noble deeds, even if they are not exactly prudent.
But David took even a higher view of this brave and tender act of his lion-faced, deer-footed followers. It awoke his religious feelings; for our sense of what is noble and generous and brave lies very close to our religious sensibilities. The whole event passes, in David's mind, into the field of religion; and so what does he do? Drink the water, and praise his three mighty warriors, and bid them never again run such risks to gratify his chance wishes? No. David looks a great deal further into the matter than this. The act seemed to him to have a religious character; its devotion was so complete and unselfish that it became sacred. He felt what I have just said -- that a brave and devoted act that incurs danger is almost if not quite a religious act. And so he treats it in a religious way. He is anxious to separate it from himself, although done for him, and get it into a service done for God; and he may have thought that he had himself been a little selfish. To his mind it would have been a mean and low repayment to these men to drink their water with loud praises of their valor. They had done a Godlike deed, and so he will transfer it to God, and make it an act as between them and God. I do not know that those lion-faced, deer-footed warriors understood or appreciated his treatment of their act; but David himself very well knew what he was about, and you can see that he acted in a very high and true way. He will not drink the water, but pours it out unto the Lord, and lets it sink into the ground unused, and, because unused, a sort of sacrifice and offering to God. Water got with such valor and risk was not for man, but for God. Much less was it right to use it to gratify a dreamy whim that had in it perhaps just a touch of selfishness. The bravery and danger had made the water sacred, and so he will make a sacred use of it.
If any one thinks that David was carried away by sentimentality, or that he was overscrupulous, one has only to recall how, when actually in want, he took the consecrated bread from the Tabernacle at Nob, and ate it and gave it to his followers. His strong common-sense told him that even consecrated bread was not too good for hungry men; but that same fine common-sense told him that water procured at the risk of life, when not actually wanted, had become sacred, and had better be turned into a sort of prayer and offering to God than wantonly drunk.
And now, having the story well in mind, I will close by drawing out from it one or two lessons that seem to me very practical.
Suppose we were to ask, Who acted in the noblest way -- the three strong men who got the water, or David, who made a sacrifice or libation of it? It does not take us long to answer. The real greatness of the whole affair was with the three men, though David put a beautiful meaning upon it, and exalted it to its true place. Their act was very brave and lofty; but David crowned it with its highest grace by carrying it on into religion -- that is, by setting it before God.
I see a great many people who are living worthy lives, doing a great many kind acts and rendering beautiful services, but do not take God into their thoughts, nor render their services as unto Him. I think everybody must see that this act of these lion-faced men was more complete when David took it before God than as rendered for himself. Why, it might take long to tell; but, briefly, it was because the nameless grace of religion has been added to it, and because it was connected with that great, dear Name that hallows everything brought under it.
Many of you have brought here offerings of flowers, sweet and fit for this day and place and purpose. Some may have brought them simply with the thought of helping out the occasion, or to please your teacher, or because it is beautiful in itself to heap up beauty in this large way; but if, as you worked here yesterday, or brought your flowers to-day, your thoughts silently rose to God, saying, "These are for Thy altars -- this glory of tint and perfume is not for us, but for Thee" -- then, I think, every poet, every person of fine feeling, every true thinker, would say that the latter is more beautiful than the former. I hate to see a life that does not take hold of God; I hate to see fine acts and brave lives and noble dispositions and generous emotions that do not reach up into a sense of God; I hate to see persons -- and I see a great many such nowadays -- striving after beautiful lives and true sentiments and large thoughts without ever a word of prayer, or thought of God, or anything to show they love and venerate Christ. I hate to see it, both because they might rise so much higher and because at last it fails; for God must enter into every thought and sentiment and purpose in order to make it genuine, and truly beautiful, and altogether right. That God may be in your thoughts; that you may learn to confess Him in all your ways, to serve and fear and know and love him -- this is the wish with which I greet you to-day, and the prayer that I offer in your behalf.
I found, the other day, some lines by Faber -- a Catholic poet -- so beautifully giving this last thought of our sermon that I will read them to you:
"Oh God! who wert my childhood's love,
"I know not what I thought of Thee;
"With age Thou grewest more divine,
"Thou broadenest out with every year
"Father! what hast Thou grown to now?
"With gentle swiftness lead me on,