'As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand.' -- ECCLES. v.15.
'... Their works do follow them.' -- REV. xiv.13.
It is to be observed that these two sharply contrasted texts do not refer to the same persons. The former is spoken of a rich worldling, the latter of 'the dead who die in the Lord.' The unrelieved gloom of the one is as a dark background against which the triumphant assurance of the other shines out the more brightly, and deepens the gloom which heightens it. The end of the man who has to go away from earth naked and empty-handed acquires new tragic force when set against the lot of those 'whose works do follow them.' Well-worn and commonplace as both sets of thought may be, they may perhaps be flashed up into new vividness by juxtaposition; and if in this sermon we have nothing new to say, old truth is not out of place till it has been wrought into and influenced our daily practice. We shall best gather the lessons of our text if we consider what we must leave, what we must take, and what we may take.
I. What we must leave.
The Preacher in the context presses home a formidable array of the limitations and insufficiencies of wealth. Possessed, it cannot satisfy, for the appetite grows with indulgence. Its increase barely keeps pace with the increase of its consumers. It contributes nothing to the advantage of its so-called owner except 'the beholding of it with his eyes,' and the need of watching it keeps them open when he would fain sleep. It is often kept to the owner's hurt, it often disappears in unfortunate speculation, and the possessor's heirs are paupers. But, even if all these possibilities are safely weathered, the man has to die and leave it all behind. 'He shall take nothing of his labour which he can carry away in his hand'; that is to say, death separates from all with whom the life of the body brings us into connection. The things which are no parts of our true selves are ours in a very modified sense even whilst we seem to possess them, and the term of possession has a definite close. 'Shrouds have no pockets,' as the stern old proverb says. How many men have lived in the houses which we call ours, sat on our seats, walked over our lands, carried in their purses the money that is in ours! Is 'the game worth the candle' when we give our labour for so imperfect and brief a possession as at the fullest and the longest we enjoy of all earthly good? Surely a wise man will set little store by possessions of all which a cold, irresistible hand will come to strip him. Surely the life is wasted which spends its energy in robing itself in garments which will all be stripped from it when the naked self 'returns to go as he came.'
But there are other things than these earthly possessions from which death separates us. It carries us far away from the sound of human voices and isolates us from living men. Honour and reputation cease to be audible. When a prominent man dies, what a clatter of conflicting judgments contends over his grave! and how utterly he is beyond them all! Praise or blame, blessing or banning are equally powerless to reach the unhearing ear or to agitate the unbeating heart. And when one of our small selves passes out of life, we hear no more the voice of censure or of praise, of love or of hate. Is it worth while to toil for the 'hollow wraith of dying fame,' or even for the clasp of loving hands which have to be loosened so surely and so soon?
Then again, there are other things which must be left behind as belonging only to the present order, and connected with bodily life. There will be no scope for material work, and much of all our knowledge will be antiquated when the light beyond shines in. As we shall have occasion to see presently, there is a permanent element in the most material work, and if in handling the transient we have been living for the eternal, such work will abide; but if we think of the spirit in which a sad majority do their daily tasks, whether of a more material or of a more intellectual sort, we must recognise that a very large proportion of all the business of life must come to an end here. There is nothing in it that will stand the voyage across the great deep, or that can survive in the order of things to which we go. What is a man to do in another world, supposing there is another world, where ledgers and mills are out of date? Or what has a scholar or scientist to do in a state of things where there is no place for dictionaries and grammars, for acute criticism, or for a careful scientific research?
Physical science, linguistic knowledge, political wisdom, will be antiquated. The poetry which glorifies afresh and interprets the present will have lost its meaning. Half the problems that torture us here will cease to have existence, and most of the other half will have been solved by simple change of position. 'Whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away'; and it becomes us all to bethink ourselves whether there is anything in our lives that we can carry away when all that is 'of the earth earthy' has sunk into nothingness.
II. What we must take.
We must take ourselves. It is the same 'he' who goes 'naked as he came'; it is the same 'he' who 'came from his mother's womb,' and is 'born again' as it were into a new life, only 'he' has by his earthly life been developed and revealed. The plant has flowered and fruited. What was mere potentiality has become fact. There is now fixed character. The transient possessions, relationships, and occupations of the earthly life are gone, but the man that they have made is there. And in the character there are predominant habits which insist upon having their sway, and a memory of which, as we may believe, there is written indelibly all the past. Whatever death may strip from us, there is no reason to suppose that it touches the consciousness and personal identity, or the prevailing set and inclination of our characters. And if we do indeed pass into another life 'not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness,' but carrying a perfected memory and clothed in a garment woven of all our past actions, there needs no more to bring about a solemn and continuous act of judgment.
III. What we may take.
'Their works do follow them.' These are the words of the Spirit concerning 'the dead who die in the Lord.' We need not fear marring the great truth that 'not by works of righteousness but by His mercy He saved us,' if we firmly grasp the large assurance which this text blessedly contains. A Christian man's works are perpetual in the measure in which they harmonise with the divine will, in the measure they have eternal consequences in himself whatever they may have on others. If we live opening our minds and hearts to the influx of the divine power 'that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure,' then we may be humbly sure that these 'works' are eternal; and though they will never constitute the ground of our acceptance, they will never fail to secure 'a great recompence of reward.' To many a humble saint there will be a moment of wondering thankfulness when he sees these his 'children whom God hath given him' clustered round him, and has to say, 'Lord, when saw I Thee naked, or in prison, and visited Thee?' There will be many an apocalypse of grateful surprise in the revelations of the heavens. We remember Milton's noble explanation of these great words which may well silence our feeble attempts to enforce them --
'Thy works and alms and all thy good endeavour
Stood not behind, nor in the grave were trod,
But as faith pointed with her golden rod,
Followed them up to joy and bliss for ever.'
So then, life here and yonder will for the Christian soul be one continuous whole, only that there, while 'their works do follow them,' 'they rest from their labours.'