The thing that has been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done…
One of the things which strike an observer of human beings is the disposition they perpetually betray to imagine and expect something in the future, different from all that has been in the past. We not only anticipate futurity, but anticipate it as bearing a character, and doing a work, peculiar to itself. This habit is seen in all, and is revealed in nearly every way. Futurity is to do wonders. It is to cure all diseases, to correct all mistakes, to purge from all vices. To realize our conception, it must possess the mysterious powers of magic. The past is not permitted to afford any guidance in our mental wanderings into time to come. It will be affected by no such vulgar laws as have been used to operate. It will have a sphere and dominion of its own. It will present an improved series of life and providence. We speak of it as "doing," "bringing," "making" things, often forgetting that it is only the duration in which they are done, and brought, and made, by God and men.
I. The first application we make of the sentiment is to LIFE. Who does not entertain a vague notion that some considerable variety will be introduced into his future life, some great change in the mode and manner of his outward existence? Yet this is a notion which a little reflection and a little memory may serve to rebuke. There is, perhaps, no solid ground on which to hope that in respect to circumstances this year will not be, to you, as the last. There is no reasonable probability, perhaps, that you will go into a different way of business, a different sphere, a different station. And as to more directly personal matters, it is certain that the common processes and ways of life will continue the same. Eating and drinking, sleeping and waking, thinking and speaking, weeping and rejoicing, will continue to be the daily experiences and occupations of all. There is something appalling in all this, when considered alone. This monotony of life is very solemn, and very sad. And it is because men feel it to be so dismal and distressing, that they constantly do violence to all sense and fact in fancying that the future will afford, they know not how, a different kind of being and of occupation. Hope is the safety-valve of tribulation and satiety: but for it, verily there would be more suicides. What are we but, in a figure, drivers over the same ground of life, with little variety but that of a fine or a wet day, a summer or a winter season, good or bad roads? And what is the remedy? As to hoping, that is a poor and an insufficient one. It is rather an excuse than a reason for peace and contentment. When men take no interest in food, what is the cure? We seek to create an appetite, by rectifying the system, giving the powers health and tone. And this must be the cure here. Men are miserable; they complain of the world, of their fellows, of their lot; this dish is bad, that is badly dressed, and so on. The fault is in the men. They want an appetite for life. Let there be that, and however common and plain the provision, there will be no lack of relish. But while that is wanted, the costliest delicacies and nicest preparations will impart but a mean and meagre gratification. A fictitious taste will always be a fickle one. Men tire of that for which they have no strong and healthy craving. Even stimulants lose their power, and to sustain the effect you must increase the consumption. The greater part of men have no serious purpose in life. They are destitute of great and abiding purposes, towards which to direct their energies, and which may give importance and continuity to their existence. Their history is not one united whole, but is made up of scraps; it is not a stream flowing on to one specific point, but so many unconnected pools. They labour not in continuous service, but chance-work. They are not filled with a solemn and spiritual idea, not engrossed by a momentous truth, not moved by an all-absorbing passion. Be assured that nothing can give zest and vivacity to life but a deep interest in the soul, and that nothing can secure that like the minding of the things of the Spirit. The only way to realize the charm, and fulness, and power of your being, is to live yourselves, in the Bible sense of the expression; to live spiritually, to live for Christ, to live toward God. This is the life that you were made for, and redeemed for; and, without it, the end of your being cannot be attained, its large capacity cannot be filled, its rich privilege cannot be enjoyed. Having this, you will not complain of the littleness of events and lots, for everything is great to him who connects it with responsibility, eternity, and God; or of their meanness, for everything is glorious to him who regards it as the occasion and the instrument of a Divine service and a spiritual salvation; or of their staleness, for everything is new to him who brings to it an eager will, a full purpose, and affections renewed and stimulated by the love of Jesus and the love of men. "Newness of life" must be sought for, not in strangeness of condition, but ever-quickened spirituality of soul. And let me, in this connection, press home to you the thought, that you have before you an everlasting future. The provision you have to make is not for time, but for eternity. Even if a skilful management of your materials could infuse something like freshness into your existence here, what is your resource for the endless hereafter? The mistake you ere making now, even did not more solemn considerations interpose, would be a mistake in the world to come. It is a solemn business to provide for the immortal interest of souls like yours, to secure them against the oppressive monotony of changeless being. All external expedients must of necessity fail, and the only hope remains in an intellect ever opening upon some fresh view of the truth of God, and a heart ever growing into a closer likeness to His holiness, and a fuller fellowship in the eternal Spirit.
II. We apply the sentiment to RESPONSIBILITY. Every one who has noticed his own heart or the hearts of others must have perceived how prone is man to rely on time for the production of mental, moral and spiritual changes in himself. They know there are intellectual defects, but they expect them to be supplied; they know there are improper habits, but they expect them to be corrected; they know there are sinful principles, but they expect them to be removed. They do not intend to continue ignorant, or irregular, or ungodly. Now, it is of the first importance to remember and possess, as a practical conviction, that time does nothing, in the ease of any of the changes that take place in men's minds and hearts and lives, besides the affording a season in which they may be effected. He who expects to be mended merely by time, whatever the nature or measure of his defects, will find himself in as poor a plight as he who should stand by the stream till all the waters have passed along. Time will not change the nature of the seed sown, but only afford opportunity for its growth. Men will never be learned without study; will never be purged of bad habits without self-denial and decision and perseverance; will never become Christians, or, as Christians, abound in grace, without repentance, earnest faith, mortification of the flesh, crucifixion of the members, the entire and unconditional conversion of the heart to God and godliness. Is it not, after all, the moral pains, the effort of will, the self-sacrifice required, that let and hinder you? Is not your case exactly like that of a man who begrudges the toil and trouble of clearing a field that is overrun with weeds, and postpones them, in hope that hereafter the labour needed may be less? We implore you to take counsel of past experience. The hope of this present time was the hope of years ago. As you think or rather dream now, you used to dream. With what result? You have not attained the expected change. Will not holiness and duty involve renewal, a labour, a fight? Will it not always require the utmost unity of heart, and strength of will, and application of power? "Ah," say you, "but there is the Holy Spirit." But does He dispense with sorrow for sin, and subjection to Christ, and strenuous exertion? Will He weep for you, repent for you, believe for you, obey for you? Does He work without means and motives? The question then returns, What do you now? No reasonable man can look into the future with any confidence, while he is going on in sin; and he who says, "Time works wonders, I shall be wise, though now a fool, I shall be correct and consistent, though now far from being so, I shall be holy though now cherishing worldliness," only postpones, but thereby augments, not diminishes, the labour.
III. We apply the sentiment to PROVIDENCE. The term "providence" is used here, of course, in a restricted sense, to denote the course of events taking place upon the globe. All events are under the control and direction of God; and all are connected, directly or indirectly, with the establishment and extension of His spiritual kingdom. We know of no distinction between ecclesiastical and worldly providence. All things are given into the hand of Christ, and He orders and governs all for the sake of His Body, the Church. The principles of spiritual providence will remain the same. Sometimes we fear. The question is suggested, "If the foundations be destroyed, what shall the righteous do?" It is highly probable that we are fast entering upon scenes to try the faith and fortitude even of "the elect." It would, however, be a grievous error to suppose that, whatever the materials and outward forms of providence may be, its principles and purposes are not abiding and immutable. The laws which govern all physical and spiritual things "change not." To fulfil the blessed designs of the Gospel is still His end. Christianity is the reason and the rule of all things. Whatever happens is a step towards the final and full attainment of the highest, holiest and most gracious purposes. That which seems to hinder is made to help. The path may be strange, but the Guide will bring them home. The prescription may be in an unknown tongue, but the Physician will complete their cure. God's dispensations may be hidden, but God is not; and "all things are yours, for ye are Christ's, and Christ is God's." Are you Christ's? The scenes and processes of Providence are more alike in every ago than many, at first sight, may suppose. Sometimes the past, especially the ancient ages of the world, seem to have been very different from our own. And, doubtless, in some respects, thank God, they were. But when their spirit is separated from their form, and allowance is made for the fact that they are ancient, that we have, therefore, their great and prominent events and features, without the filling up of things minor and multitudinous, they are not so peculiar after all. What a different earth would ours appear to him who saw nothing but its mountains! God does not work so much by sudden and violent operations as in a gradual and silent way. The most important processes in Nature and in Providence are the most silent. The moral instrument of God's providence is the same. Whatever change may take place in the human mind, in social customs and relations, in outward and material circumstances, truth will still be the means of advancing the Divine designs respecting our world. Our duty is therefore as plain as it is important, to study, to feel, to speak, to act, to spread the truth; in particular, the living and abiding truth of Christianity. Let us not, then, spend our time and waste our powers in a vain attempt to comprehend or predict events, but let us set about wholesome and unchanging duty. We are not called to be moral astrologers but moral husbandmen, and a miserable thing it would be for us to cast nativities and — die.
(A. J. Morris.)
Parallel VersesKJV: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.