ISAIAH xxxviii.18, 19.
The grave cannot praise thee, death cannot celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. The living, the living, he shall praise thee.
I may seem to have taken a strange text on which to speak, -- a mournful, a seemingly hopeless text. Why I have chosen it, I trust that you will see presently; certainly not that I may make you hopeless about death. Meanwhile, let us consider it; for it is in the Bible, and, like all words in the Bible, was written for our instruction.
Now it is plain, I think, that the man who said these words -- good king Hezekiah -- knew nothing of what we call heaven; of a blessed life with God after death. He looks on death as his end. If he dies, he says, he will not see the Lord in the land of the living, any more than he will see man with the inhabitants of the world. God's mercies, he thinks, will end with his death. God can only show His mercy and truth by saving him from death. For the grave cannot praise God, death cannot celebrate Him; those who go down into the pit cannot hope for His truth. The living, the living, shall praise God; as Hezekiah praises Him that day, because God has cured him of his sickness, and added fifteen years to his life.
No language can be plainer than this. A man who had believed that he would go to heaven when he died could not have used it.
In many of the Psalms, likewise, you will find words of exactly the same kind, which show that the men who wrote them had no clear conception, if any conception at all, of a life after death.
Solomon's words about death are utterly awful from their sadness. With him, 'that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; as one dieth, so dieth the other. Yea, they have all one breath, so that a man hath no pre-eminence over a beast, and all is vanity. All go to one place, all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?'
He knows nothing about it. All he knows is, that the spirit shall return to God who gave it, -- and that a man will surely find, in this life, a recompence for all his deeds, whether good or evil.
'Remember therefore thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them. Fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.'
This is the doctrine of the Old Testament; that God judges and rewards and punishes men in this life: but as for death, it is a great black cloud into which all men must enter, and see and be seen no more. Only twice or thrice, perhaps, a gleam of light from beyond breaks through the dark. David, the noblest and wisest of all the Jews, can say once that God will not leave his soul in hell, neither suffer His holy one to see corruption; Job says that, though after his skin worms destroy his body, yet in his flesh he shall see God; and Isaiah, again, when he sees his countrymen slaughtered, and his nation all but destroyed, can say, 'Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of the morning, which brings the parched herbs to life and freshness again.' -- Great and glorious sayings, all of them: but we cannot tell how far either David, or Job, or Isaiah, were thinking of a life after death. We can think of a life after death when we use them; for we know how they have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ our Lord; and we can see in them more than the Jews of old could do; for, like all inspired words, they mean more than the men who wrote them thought of; but we have no right to impute our Christianity to them.
The only undoubted picture, perhaps, of the next life to be found in the Old Testament, is that grand one in Isaiah xiv., where he paints to us the tyrant king of Babylon going down into hell:-
'Hell from beneath is moved for thee, to meet thee at thy coming; it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations. All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us? Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee. How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!' -- Awful and grand enough: but quite different, you will observe, from the notions of hell which are common now-a-days; and much more like those which we read in the old Greek poets, and especially, in the Necyomanteia of the Odyssey.
When it was that the Jews gained any fuller notions about the next life, it is very difficult to say. Certainly not before they were carried away captive to Babylon. After that they began to mix much with the great nations of the East: with Greeks, Persians, and Indians; and from them, most probably, they learned to believe in a heaven after death to which good men would go, and a fiery hell to which bad men would go. At least, the heathen nations round them, and our forefathers likewise, believed in some sort of heaven and hell, hundreds of years before the coming of our blessed Lord.
The Jews had learned, also -- at least the Pharisees -- to believe in the resurrection of the dead. Martha speaks of it; and St. Paul, when he tells the Pharisees that, having been brought up a Pharisee, he was on their side against the Sadducees. -- 'I am a Pharisee,' he says, 'the son of a Pharisee; for the hope of the resurrection of the dead I am called in question.'
But if it be so, -- if St. Paul and the Apostles believed in heaven and hell, and the resurrection of the dead, before they became Christians, what more did they learn about the next life, when they became Christians? Something they did learn, most certainly -- and that most important. St. Paul speaks of what our Lord and our Lord's resurrection had taught him, as something quite infinitely grander, and more blessed, than what he had known before. He talks of our Lord as having abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light; of His having conquered death, and of His destroying death at last. He speaks at moments as if he did not expect to die at all; and when he does speak of the death of the Christian, it is merely as a falling asleep. When he speaks of his own death, it is merely as a change of place. He longs to depart, and to be with Christ. Death had looked terrible to him once, when he was a Jew. Death had had a sting, and the grave a victory, which seemed ready to conquer him: but now he cries, 'O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?' and then he declares that the terrors of death and the grave are taken away, not by anything which he knew when he was a Pharisee, but through our Lord Jesus Christ.
All his old Jewish notions of the resurrection, though they were true as far as they went, seemed poor and paltry beside what Christ had taught him. He was not going to wait till the end of the world -- perhaps for thousands of years -- in darkness and the shadow of death, he knew not where or how. His soul was to pass at once into life, -- into joy, and peace, and bliss, in the presence of his Saviour, till it should have a new body given to it, in the resurrection of life at the last day.
This, I think, is what St. Paul learned, and what the Jews had not learned till our blessed Lord came. They were still afraid of death. It looked to them a dark and ugly blank; and no wonder. For would it not be dark and ugly enough to have to wait, we know not where, it may be a thousand, it may be tens of thousands of years, till the resurrection in the last day, before we entered into joy, peace, activity or anything worthy of the name of life? Would not death have a sting indeed, the grave a victory indeed, if we had to be as good as dead for ten thousands of years?
What then? Remember this, that death is an enemy, an evil thing, an enemy to man, and therefore an enemy to Christ, the King and Head and Saviour of man. Men ought not to die, and they feel it. It is no use to tell them, 'Everything that is born must die, and why not you? All other animals died. They died, just as they die now, hundreds of thousands of years before man came upon this earth; and why should man expect to have a different lot? Why should you not take your death patiently, as you take any other evil which you cannot escape?' The heart of man, as soon as he begins to be a man, and not a mere savage; as soon as he begins to think reasonably, and feel deeply; the heart of man answers: 'No, I am not a mere animal. I have something in me which ought not to die, which perhaps cannot die. I have a living soul in me, which ought to be able to keep my body alive likewise, but cannot; and therefore death is my enemy. I hate him, and I believe that I was meant to hate him. Something must be wrong with me, or I should not die; something must be wrong with all mankind, or I should not see those I love dying round me.
Yes, my friends, death is an enemy, -- a hideous, hateful thing. The longer one looks at it, the more one hates it. The more often one sees it, the less one grows accustomed to it. Its very commonness makes it all the more shocking. We may not be so much shocked at seeing the old die. We say, 'They have done their work, why should they not go?' That is not true. They have not done their work. There is more work in plenty for them to do, if they could but live; and it seems shocking and sad, at least to him who loves his country and his kind, that, just as men have grown old enough to be of use, when they have learnt to conquer their passions, when their characters are formed, when they have gained sound experience of this world, and what man ought and can do in it, -- just as, in fact, they have become most able to teach and help their fellow-men, -- that then they are to grow old, and decrepit, and helpless, and fade away, and die just when they are most fit to live, and the world needs them most.
Sad, I say, and strange is that. But sadder, and more strange, and more utterly shocking, to see the young die; to see parents leaving infant children, children vanishing early out of the world where they might have done good work for God and man.
What arguments will make us believe that that ought to be? That that is God's will? That that is anything but an evil, an anomaly, a disease?
Not the Bible, certainly. The Bible never tells us that such tragedies as are too often seen are the will of God. The Bible says that it is not the will of our Father that one of these little ones should perish. The Bible tells us that Jesus, when on earth, went about fighting and conquering disease and death, even raising from the dead those who had died before their time. To fight against death, and to give life wheresoever He went -- that was His work; by that He proclaimed the will of God, His Father, that none should perish, who sent His Son that men might have life, and have it more abundantly. By that He declared that death was an evil and a disorder among men, which He would some day crush and destroy utterly, that mortality should be swallowed up of life.
And yet we die, and shall die. Yes. The body is dead, because of sin. Mankind is a diseased race; and it must pay the penalty of its sins for many an age to come, and die, and suffer, and sorrow. But not for ever. For what mean such words as these -- for something they must mean? -
'If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.'
And again, 'He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and he that liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.'
Do such words as these mean only that we shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day? Surely not. Our Lord spoke them in answer to that very notion.
'Martha said to Him, I know that my brother shall rise again, in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus said unto her, I AM the resurrection and the life;' and then showed what He meant by bringing back Lazarus to life, unchanged, and as he had been before he died.
Surely, if that miracle meant anything, if these words meant anything, it meant this: that those who die in the fear of God, and in the faith of Christ, do not really taste death; that to them there is no death, but only a change of place, a change of state; that they pass at once, and instantly, into some new life, with all their powers, all their feelings, unchanged, -- purified doubtless from earthly stains, but still the same living, thinking, active beings which they were here on earth. I say, active. The Bible says nothing about their sleeping till the Day of Judgment, as some have fancied. Rest they may; rest they will, if they need rest. But what is the true rest? Not idleness, but peace of mind. To rest from sin, from sorrow, from fear, from doubt, from care, -- this is the true rest. Above all, to rest from the worst weariness of all -- knowing one's duty, and yet not being able to do it. That is true rest; the rest of God, who works for ever, and yet is at rest for ever; as the stars over our heads move for ever, thousands of miles each day, and yet are at perfect rest, because they move orderly, harmoniously, fulfilling the law which God has given them. Perfect rest, in perfect work; that surely is the rest of blessed spirits, till the final consummation of all things, when Christ shall have made up the number of His elect.
I hope that this is so. I trust that this is so. I think our Lord's great words can mean nothing less than this. And if it be so, what comfort for us who must die? What comfort for us who have seen others die, if death be but a new birth into some higher life; if all that it changes in us is our body -- the mere shell and husk of us -- such a change as comes over the snake, when he casts his old skin, and comes out fresh and gay, or even the crawling caterpillar, which breaks its prison, and spreads its wings to the sun as a fair butterfly. Where is the sting of death, then, if death can sting, and poison, and corrupt nothing of us for which our friends have loved us; nothing of us with which we could do service to men or God? Where is the victory of the grave, if, so far from the grave holding us down, it frees us from the very thing which holds us down, -- the mortal body?
Death is not death, then, if it kills no part of us, save that which hindered us from perfect life. Death is not death, if it raises us in a moment from darkness into light, from weakness into strength, from sinfulness into holiness. Death is not death, if it brings us nearer to Christ, who is the fount of life. Death is not death, if it perfects our faith by sight, and lets us behold Him in whom we have believed. Death is not death, if it gives us to those whom we have loved and lost, for whom we have lived, for whom we long to live again. Death is not death, if it joins the child to the mother who is gone before. Death is not death, if it takes away from that mother for ever all a mother's anxieties, a mother's fears, and lets her see, in the gracious countenance of her Saviour, a sure and certain pledge that those whom she has left behind are safe, safe with Christ and in Christ, through all the chances and dangers of his mortal life. Death is not death, if it rids us of doubt and fear, of chance and change, of space and time, and all which space and time bring forth, and then destroy. Death is not death; for Christ has conquered death, for Himself, and for those who trust in Him. And to those who say, 'You were born in time, and in time you must die, as all other creatures do; Time is your king and lord, as he has been of all the old worlds before this, and of all the races of beasts, whose bones and shells lie fossil in the rocks of a thousand generations;' then we can answer them, in the words of the wise man, and in the name of Christ who conquered death:-
'Fly, envious time, till thou run out thy race,
And glut thyself with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more than what is false and vain
And merely mortal dross.
So little is our loss, so little is thy gain.
For when as each bad thing thou hast entombed,
And, last of all, thy greedy self consumed,
Then long eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss,
And joy shall overtake us as a flood,
When everything that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine,
And truth, and peace, and love shall ever shine
About the supreme throne
Of Him, unto whose happy-making sight alone
When once our heavenly-guided soul shall climb,
Then all this earthly grossness quit,
Attired with stars, we shall for ever sit
Triumphant over death, and chance, and thee, O Time!'