Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble.Job 14:2
'I will not now ask, writes Charlotte Bronte in 1848, 'why Emily was torn from us in the fullness of an attachment, rooted up in the prime of her own days, in the promise of her powers; why her existence now lies like a field of green corn trodden down, like a tree in full bearing struck at the root. I will only say, sweet is rest after labour, and calm after tempest, and again that Emily knows that now.'
What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!
The Apparently Ridiculous
Throughout the Bible we shall find that we are always startled by the apparently ridiculous.
I. Take the instance of the text: 'Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?' You must not read that in a schoolboy tone. The meaning of it is in the emphasis or in the very colour of the voice with which it is read. Bring a clean thing out of an unclean?—impossible! Bring a clean thing out of an unclean?—absurd! God must reduce us to that intellectual confusion before He can make anything good of us.
II. Take another instance, equally potent, and strikingly illustrative of the fundamental position of the discourse. You find it in John 3:4 : 'How can a man be born when he is old?' You see the text does not stand alone; Job is corroborated by John. How can a man be born again when he is old? It does not stand to reason; it is ridiculous; I do not like to say so to this fair young man who has wrought all these wondrous miracles, but in my soul I feel that he is out of his head, for he is an innocent or an inoffensive idealist; he dreams well, he talks badly. 'Except a man be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.' 'How can a man be born when he is old?' Thus literalism confronts spiritualism, and they enter into their old and their eternal quarrel. Nicodemus, though a master in Israel, was a literalist; he knew only the alphabet, and then a few of the words, but his words never ran into poetry, never quivered into revelation and apocalypse and idealism. He was great within the four corners of the alphabet; outside of that alphabet he was weak as other men.
III. I read in Jeremiah 13:23, 'Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?' Why, it stands to reason that he cannot, it is ridiculous to think that he can, and yet this is what God is supposed to be calling upon man to do; why, it cannot be done! There you come upon the original difficulty; here is the appeal to the ridiculous with which we are so far familiarly acquainted; we saw it in Job, we heard it in John, and now we go back into the Old Testament and find Jeremiah suggesting or teaching the same doctrine, and making the same appeal to the ridiculous and the impossible. Christianity is an appeal to the impossible.
IV. You will find from the beginning of the Bible to the end inquiries that suggest an appeal to the ridiculous. When men wish to disobey God or when men want to get rid of the Christ, they will say, The incarnation?—why, it stands to reason that the incarnation, as it is usually understood, is quite a mistake, something worse than a dream; that God, eternal, omnipotent, infinite, majestic beyond all conceived majesty, should become a little crying babe in the manger or a stable, why, it is surprising that the world could tolerate the notion for one little moment. So it is, and the world never can entertain it; but this is not an appeal to the world, this is an appeal to the world that is within the world and above the world, and that will outlast it. Faith itself must often be ridiculous to reason, that is, to narrow uncultivated and unsanctified reason; but to reason, when God has undertaken its sanctification, faith is the culmination of reason, the very glory of logic.
—Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. VII. p. 174.
Reference.—XIV. 4.—Spurgeon, Sermons, No. 2734.
He sendeth us to His world as men to a market, wherein some stay many hours, and eat and drink, and buy and sell, and pass through the fair, till they be weary; and such are those who live long and get a heavy fill of this life. And others again come slipping in to the morning market, and do neither sit nor stand, nor buy nor sell, but look about them a little, and pass presently home again; and these are infants and young ones, who end their short market in the morning, and get but a short view of the fair. Our Lord, who hath numbered man's months, and set him bounds that he cannot pass, hath written the length of our market, and it is easier to complain of the decree than to change it.
This verse is rendered in the Vulgate: 'Dimitte me paululum, ut quiescam, donec optata veniat dies'—'Let me free for a little that I may have quiet till the longed-for day come'. This text is inscribed on a memorial tablet in one of the old churches of Troyes.
Even as are the generations of leaves such are those likewise of man; the leaves that be the wind scattereth on the earth, and the forest buddeth and putteth forth more again, when the season of spring is at hand.
—Homer, Iliad, VI. 146 f. (tr. W. Leaf).
In his autobiographic sketches De Quincey, after telling how one of his little sisters died when he was in childhood, adds: 'So did my acquaintance (if such it should be called) commence with mortality. Yet, in fact, I knew little more of mortality than that Jane had disappeared. She had gone away; but, perhaps, she would come back. Happy interval of heaven-born ignorance! gracious immunity of infancy from sorrow disproportioned to its strength! I was sad for Jane's absence. But still in my heart I trusted that she would come again. Summer and winter came again—crocuses and roses; why not little Jane?'
How to Die Well
Death doth not bring about an end of being, but only a change of state; it is not a goal but a gate. Of what infinite importance is it that we should die well! Is it not wise to learn how to do that which it is of infinite importance to do well?
I. Unless our death be sudden and unexpected, there will come to us all a moment when we shall realize that our life on earth is over, and that our last moments have come. Now it is plain that the time, the circumstances, the causes of our death are beyond our power. There is one thing—and that the essential thing—within it. It matters comparatively little when or where we die, and these things are decided for us. It is of infinite importance how we die, and that depends on ourselves.
II. What, then, is the secret of dying well? The secret is no secret for us, i.e. it is a secret which has been revealed long ago: to die well, the hand of the dying man must clasp the hand of the Lord of Life. This is the one thing needful for us all. Gaining that, we have not lived in vain, whatever we have lost. Losing that, though we have gained the whole world, better were it for us that we had not been born. That our dying hand should grasp the living Christ's, or better still that His hand should grasp ours—this should be our lifelong aim, longing, and prayer.
III. Die a penitent and you cannot die ill. One would wish to be prepared for the last difficult steps of our journey by the ministrations of the Church—to be encouraged to make acts of faith and hope, and love, to have our wandering gaze constantly directed to that Lamb of God Who takes away our sins. The conclusion to be drawn from this is plain. We ought to live as men who have to die some day and may die any day. The thought 'Can I meet Jesus thus?' should be a continual restraint to us in our business and our pleasure, in our sorrows and in our joys.
—F. Watson, The Christian Life Here and Hereafter, p. 207.
Reference.—XIV. 10.—D. G. Watt, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xxv. p. 260.
An Answer to a Great Question
I. What does Nature say about it? The economy of Nature says, yes! There is nothing wasted in all God's works, and surely man, the chief of His creation, shall not perish eternally; he shall live again.
II. What does Reason say about it? In all human beings there is a strong repugnance at the thought of death. Reason suggests the answer to the question, 'God will have a desire to His handiwork'.
III. What does Revelation say about it? Our present body is called a natural body, fit only for the soul, the intelligence, to live in. The second body is called the spiritual body, fit for the spirit to live in—an environment of pure affection and absolute holiness. We are, as it were, half in the old life and half in the new.
—J. Bentley, The Church Homilist, p. 134.
References.—XIV. 14.—A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—Job, p. 43. J. Baines, Sermons to Country Congregations, p. 136. R. J. Campbell, City Temple Sermons, p. 161. Bishop Matthew Simpson, Sermons, p. 331. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xiii. No. 764. XIV. 14, 15.—J. Vaughan, Fifty Sermons (10th Series), p. 265. XIV. 15.—H. Melvill, Penny Pulpit, No. 2161.
'It is the bitterest element in the vast irony of human life,' says Mr. Morley in his Life of Cobden, 'that the time-worn eyes to which a son's success would have brought the purest gladness, are so often closed for ever before success has come.'
Reference.—XV. 4.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. li. No. 2943.
He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.
And dost thou open thine eyes upon such an one, and bringest me into judgment with thee?
Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one.
Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with thee, thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass;
Turn from him, that he may rest, till he shall accomplish, as an hireling, his day.
For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.
Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground;
Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.
But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?
As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up:
So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep.
O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave, that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me!
If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come.
Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee: thou wilt have a desire to the work of thine hands.
For now thou numberest my steps: dost thou not watch over my sin?
My transgression is sealed up in a bag, and thou sewest up mine iniquity.
And surely the mountain falling cometh to nought, and the rock is removed out of his place.
The waters wear the stones: thou washest away the things which grow out of the dust of the earth; and thou destroyest the hope of man.
Thou prevailest for ever against him, and he passeth: thou changest his countenance, and sendest him away.
His sons come to honour, and he knoweth it not; and they are brought low, but he perceiveth it not of them.
But his flesh upon him shall have pain, and his soul within him shall mourn.