Great Texts of the Bible
A Ministering Woman and a Grateful Saviour
She hath done what she could.—Mark 14:8.
1. The pathetic story of the woman and the alabaster box of ointment is related by three out of the four Evangelists by way of introduction to the record of the Passion of Christ. It has always kept a peculiarly strong hold upon Christian thought and sentiment, partly because of the beauty and pathos and unique character of the incident itself, partly because the woman’s act won for her a commendation such as no other person ever received from Him, when He declared that her story should be told throughout the whole world wherever His Gospel should be preached.
We have a word in our language called “unction.” It signifies thorough devotedness and enthusiasm of heart, incited by the outpouring of God’s Spirit; and it effects spiritually what the ointment poured over the body does naturally. Unction and the act of anointing, in their primary meaning, are the same. Mary’s anointing of our Lord was figurative of the unction of her own heart which led her to break the alabaster vase, and scatter its perfumes round. There are many others who, like her, in the unction and devotion of their hearts, have their vase to break, and their perfume to shed around. Do not, then, coldly scorn in the present that which you applaud in the past.1 [Note: J. C. M. Bellew.]
2. The incident was the very beginning of the end. The public ministry of our Lord closes with the twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew: “When Jesus had finished all these words, he said unto his disciples, Ye know that after two days the passover cometh, and the Son of man is delivered up to be crucified” (Matthew 26:1-2). Then the Evangelist lets us look forth from the quiet home in Bethany to see the dreadful forces that are at work. “Then were gathered together the chief priests, and the elders of the people, unto the court of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas; and they took counsel together that they might take Jesus by subtilty and kill him.”
3. The darkness of that hour begins to creep over Him with its exceeding sorrow. He looks upon the disciples and sighs—they all are to be offended because of Him. There is Peter, who shall deny his Lord thrice. There is Judas, counting up how much he can make out of his Master. And Jesus with all His sensitiveness, shrinking from that awful loneliness, looks into the deep dark gulf that yawned at His feet. Is there no love that discerns His grief; no tender sympathy that makes haste to minister to it? The disciples are stunned and bewildered by His words; and they are afraid to ask Him what they mean. Martha is busy about the housework; so large a company arriving from Jerusalem needs much providing for. She wishes Mary were more handy and useful. And Mary sits and sees it all with the clear sight of her great love. Her Lord must go to be betrayed! He must die! And she, what can she do?
One thing she has—it had been a treasure, but her great love sees it now as poor indeed—an alabaster box of very precious unguent. And now she comes hiding her gift, and hastens to the side of her Lord, and ventures reverently to pour it on His head.
Judas frowned, and said what others thought, “What waste!” To these simple fishermen it was a fortune, enough to keep a poor man’s household for a year. And, adds St. Mark, “they were angry with her,” and their murmurings broke out on every side. Poor Mary! condemned by these indignant looks and words, she sank down beside her Lord and hid her face afraid. Was He angry with her? Was her love so clumsy that it but added to His grief? No, indeed, His hand is lovingly laid upon her. He saw her meaning. “Let her alone,” said He; “why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me. She hath done what she could: she hath anointed my body aforehand for the burying.”1 [Note: Mark Guy Pearse.]
She hath done what she could. She never preached; she never wrought any wonderful work; she never built a church, or endowed a hospital, or founded a mission. What then hath she done? She hath loved her Lord with a deep, tender devotion that gladdened and strengthened and comforted Him. He who is love sets most store by love. Love that delights in Him; love that communes with Him; love that is ever seeking to bring Him its best and richest; love that finds its heaven in His pleasure, its hell in His grief, its all in His service; love that blesses Him with adoring joy for His great love; that rests triumphantly in His presence, and wanders restlessly if He be gone—this is to Him earth’s richest gift.1 [Note: Mark Guy Pearse.]
The subject is a Ministering Woman and a Grateful Saviour. The text contains these three topics:—I. Our Lord’s Recognition of Mary’s Service; II. The Character of Mary’s Service; III. The Perfected Service of the Future Life.
Our Lord’s Recognition of Mary’s Service
1. This saying, with the occasion of it, stands out as one of the most noticeable among the few instances, each of them strongly and distinctly marked, on which our Lord vouchsafed to utter words of personal praise to individuals in their own hearing. There are some ten or twelve such instances, five of which relate to women, and two of the five to Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus. Of her, in her hearing, Christ had said some time before, “Mary hath chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Now He says: “She hath wrought a good work on me. She hath done what she could. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever the gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, that also which this woman hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.” O blessed woman! To be so spoken of by Him who shall come to be her Judge, the Judge of us all! To be assured out of His own mouth that she was not deceiving herself, that the part which she was professing to have chosen was really the good part! That she had really chosen it, and that it should never be taken away from her! What would any one of us poor uncertain backsliders give to be quite sure of having pleased our Lord in but one action of our lives; as sure as Mary of Bethany was in pouring the ointment on His head?
Could I have sung one Song that should survive
The singer’s voice, and in my country’s heart
Find loving echo—evermore a part
Of all her sweetest memories; could I give
One great Thought to the People, that should prove
The spring of noble action in their hour
Of darkness, or control their headlong power
With the firm reins of Justice and of Love;
Could I have traced one Form that should express
The sacred mystery that underlies
All Beauty; and through man’s enraptured eyes
Teach him how beautiful is Holiness,—
I had not feared thee. But to yield my breath,
Life’s Purpose unfulfilled!—This is thy sting, O Death!1 [Note: Sir Noël Paton.]
2. “That which this woman hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.” Mary had been attacked and needed defence. It was not the first time that her actions had been criticised. Before, it had been her own sister who found fault, now it was Judas Iscariot, backed up by some other or others of the disciples; but both times it was the same kind of censure, though passed on her by very different persons, and with very different intentions. There was plausibility enough in what they alleged to disturb a mind in the least degree scrupulous. What sort of devotion is this, which leaves a sister to serve alone? which lays out on ointments and perfumes, offered to Him who needs them not, a sum of money which might go a good way in feeding the hungry or clothing the naked? Who can say that there is nothing in such a remonstrance? But He that searches the hearts interfered,—as He never fails to do sooner or later, on behalf of His humble and meek ones,—and spoke out words of wisdom and power which have settled the matter for ever to her and to the whole Church. Twice He spoke: once to the traitor and once to those whom the traitor was misleading. To Judas apart, Do thou “let her alone. Against the day of my burying hath she kept this”; by His manner and look as well as His words, speaking to what was in His betrayer’s conscience, and startling him, it may be, with the thought, “Surely this thing is known.” To the rest, “Let her alone: why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me”: to all, “For ye have the poor always with you, and whensoever ye will ye can do them good: but me ye have not always.”
He whom no praise can reach, is aye
Men’s least attempts approving:
Whom Justice makes All-merciful,
Omniscience makes All-loving.
Yes, they have caught the way of God
To whom Self lies displayed
In such clear vision as to cast
O’er others’ faults a shade.
A bright horizon out to sea
Obscures the distant ships:—
Rough hearts look smooth and beautiful
In Charity’s Eclipse.1 [Note: F. W. Faber.]
3. What, then, is the lesson or true import of this so much commended example? What but this?—do for Christ just what is closest at hand, and be sure that thus you will meet all His remotest or most unknown times and occasions. Or, better still, follow without question the impulse of love to Christ’s own person; for this, when really full and sovereign, will make your conduct chime, as it were, naturally with all God’s future.
It is on personality that religion rests. This is why Jesus Christ, building Christianity upon Himself, commended Mary’s act of loving self-devotion. Had He merely taught the philosophy of religion—had He simply inculcated, however persuasively, the principles of theism and morality, warning men against vice and painting bright pictures of virtue—He would have been no more than one of those many teachers who have enlightened but not saved the world. But He was more than a teacher, more than a philosopher; He was a living and loving Person, the magnet of the human soul, drawing men irresistibly to Himself.
St. Paul says, “To me to live is Christ.” There are those who affect to think that so long as the principles and moral ideas of religion are well understood and clearly enforced, and the general tone of society has a colouring of Christianity, the person of Christ may be allowed, without much loss, to fall into the background. Such a belief seems to take little account of the actual facts of human life, or of the way in which experience shows that character is usually influenced and developed. Philosophy, after all, is not enough to save men; what they know to be right, it does not follow (as even the Roman poet saw) that they will straightway go and do; for persons, far more than principles or ideas, move us both to good and to evil. “Ideas,” says George Eliot, “are often poor ghosts; our sun-filled eyes cannot discern them; they pass athwart us in their vapour, and cannot make themselves felt. But sometimes they are made flesh; they breathe upon us with warm breath, they touch us with soft, responsive hand, they look at us with sad, sincere eyes, and speak to us in appealing tones; they are clothed in a living human soul, with all its conflicts, its faith, and its love. Then their presence is a power, then they shake us like a passion, and we are drawn after them with gentle compulsion, as flame is drawn to flame.” What men need to help them is the force of personality, the example of wife or husband or friend, the sight and touch of another person, human like themselves, yet still hoping, still aspiring, still rising on the stepping-stones of a dead past. Persons, not principles, count for most in the great struggle.1 [Note: S. A. Alexander.]
Do you say with a sigh, “Oh, if I had nothing to do but just to be with Christ personally, and have my duty solely as with Him, how sweet and blessed and secret and free would it be!” Well, you may have it so; exactly this you may do and nothing more. Come, then, to Christ, retire into the secret place of His love, and have your whole duty personally as with Him. Then you will make this very welcome discovery, that as you are personally given up to Christ’s person, you are going where He goes, helping what He does, keeping ever dear bright company with Him in all His motions of good and sympathy, refusing even to let Him suffer without suffering with Him. And so you will do a great many more duties than you even think of now; only they will all be sweet and easy and free, even as your love is. You will stoop low, and bear the load of many, and be the servant of all, but it will be a secret joy that you have with your Master personally. You will not be digging out points of conscience, and debating what your duty is to this or that, or him or her, or here or yonder; indeed, you will not think that you are doing much for Christ at all—not half enough—and yet He will be saying to you every hour in sweetest approbation, “Ye did it unto me.”1 [Note: Horace Bushnell.]
4. In praising Mary’s act, Christ not only accepts her personal service, but through her He graciously accepts and welcomes the service of women. From the very beginning of the Gospel, our gracious Master has condescended to make use of women’s work in preparing men’s hearts for His Kingdom, and in promoting it when the time came. It is observable how from time to time, doubtless not without a special providence, women were selected to be His agents on occasions for new steps to be taken, new doors to be opened in the progress and diffusion of His marvellous mercy. Thus when He would shew Himself to the Samaritans, half heathen as they were, and prepare them for the coming of His Spirit, He drew a certain woman to Jacob’s well, and caused her to inquire of Him the best way and place of worship. Thus a woman was His first messenger to that remarkable people, though He afterwards sent His Evangelist to convert and His Apostles to confirm them. To a woman was given, in reward of her faith and humility, the privilege of being the first to have revealed to her the healing—might we not say the sacramental?—virtue which abode in the very hem of His garment, to meet the touch of faith. Women, as far as we are told, were the first who had the honour allowed them of ministering to Him of their substance. In His last journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, in His lodging at Bethany, on His way to Calvary, around His cross both before and after His death, beside His grave both before and after His resurrection, we all know what a part women took, and how highly they were favoured. The narrative in the Acts clearly implies that the Holy Spirit actually descending, found the women praying with the Apostles with one accord in one place, and made them partakers of Himself, sealing them with His blessings, variously, according to the various work He had prepared for them. Thenceforward the daughters as well as the sons began to prophesy, the handmaidens as well as the servants had the Spirit poured out upon them.
It takes a woman disciple after all to do any most beautiful thing; in certain respects, too, or as far as love is wisdom, any wisest thing. Thus we have before us here a simple-hearted loving woman, who has had no subtle questions of criticism about matters of duty and right, but only loves her Lord’s person with a love that is probably a kind of mystery to herself, which love she wants somehow to express.1 [Note: Horace Bushnell.]
She brought her box of alabaster,
The precious spikenard filled the room
With honour worthy of the Master,
A costly, rare, and rich perfume.
O may we thus, like loving Mary,
Ever our choicest offerings bring,
Nor grudging of our toil, nor chary
Of costly service to our King.
Methinks I hear from Christian lowly
Some hallowed voice at evening rise,
Or quiet morn, or in the holy
Unclouded calm of Sabbath skies,—
I bring my box of alabaster,
Of earthly loves I break the shrine,
And pour affections, purer, vaster,
On that dear Head—those feet of Thine.
What though the scornful world, deriding
Such waste of love, of service, fears,
Still let me pour, through taunt and chiding,
The rich libation of my tears.
I bring my box of alabaster,—
Accepted let the offering rise!
So grateful tears shall flow the faster
In founts of gladness, from my eyes!2 [Note: C. L. Ford, Lyra Anglicana, 24.]
The Character of Mary’s Service
Do we wonder why Christ selected Mary for this special praise? Evidently there was something about her action which touched His heart. We cannot but conclude that He set His mark upon it simply because it was the expression of the deepest personal love towards Himself.
A service which springs from love finds many outlets. Such service may be characterised in various ways.
1. It is Spontaneous.—No service is so beautiful as the spontaneous. We cannot subscribe to the doctrine that men are not to do good unless their heart is free to do it. Wesley called that “a doctrine of devils.” We must do good when it goes against the grain, when our heart most vehemently protests. We must give when the coins are glued to our fingers, sacrifice when nature urges that we cannot afford it, forgive when we feel vindictive. Such service as this—unwilling, ungracious—God will not reject. But, after all, spontaneous service is the best—that which springs unforced, uncoerced, cheerfully from the heart.
In the intellectual sphere we know that splendid masterpieces are unforced, unlaboured; they are marked by perfect ease and spontaneity. We feel sure that Shakespeare wrote the “Tempest” as a flower opens to the kiss of the sun; that Shelley wrote the “Skylark” freely as the bird itself sings from the cloud; that Mozart’s music flowed from his mind as the wind makes music among the branches; that Turner’s grand pictures sprang out of his brain as a rainbow springs out of a shower. Plodding workers, overcoming difficulties with determination and fag, do respectable and valuable work, but it is still true that the grandest works cost the least. The spontaneous is more than the correct, inspiration is more than elaboration, a fountain has a glory beyond a pump. Mary’s act was of the sublimest: it came welling forth from the depths of her soul, born of a love of the purest, the divinest.1 [Note: J. Pearce.]
Love much. There is no waste in freely giving,
More blessed is it, even, than to receive.
He who loves much alone finds life worth living;
Love on, through doubt and darkness; and believe
There is no thing which Love may not achieve.2 [Note: Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Poems of Love and Life.]
2. It is Self-Sacrificing.—It is marvellous how vital contact with Jesus will bring out the best that is in man or woman. Mary had already loved the Master, for sitting at His feet she had chosen that good part which was not to be taken away from her. His power had stirred her life to its very depths. Can she express the gratitude that is flowing like a flood through her heart? Her act may well be called “the extravagance of gratitude.” That the disciples considered it wastefully extravagant is proved by their criticism of her act, as the prosaic mind has always considered all great sacrifice.
But sincere gratitude is always utterly unreasonable. It will go to any length in seeking full expression. It never stops to reason concerning the wisdom of sacrifice. The cost of real sacrifice is never, can never, be counted. Its only question here is, “What can I do for Him who has done so much for me?”
In the cheaper meaning sacrifice is giving up; it is suffering; it may be the suffering of real pain for some one or something. And this is sacrifice, let it be said. In the deeper, richer meaning there is suffering too; but that is only part; and, however keen and cutting, still the smaller part. Sacrifice is love purposely giving itself, regardless of the privation or pain involved, that thus more of life’s sweets may come to another. Sacrifice is love meeting an emergency, and singing because able to meet and to grip it.
A lady was calling upon a friend whose two children were brought in during the call. As they talked together the caller said eagerly, and yet with evidently no thought of the meaning of her words, “Oh! I’d give my life to have two such children.” And the mother replied, with a subdued earnestness, whose quiet told of the depth of experience out of which her words came, “That’s exactly what it costs.” Yet there was a gleam of light in her eye, and a something in her manner, which told more plainly than words that though she had given much, she had gotten more, both in the possession of the children, and in the rare enrichment of her spirit.1 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Home Ideals, 161.]
Do we want an illustration of self-sacrificing love in our own time? We may fall abashed before the high-born, gifted, and admired English girl who came to Kaiserswerth as a pupil, and then reproduced the same wonders of consolation and healing for sick and destitute governesses, not amidst the rural quiet and sweet verdure of her own paternal home in Hampshire, but in a dismal street in London. Yet we ought all to remember that Florence Nightingale, too, only did what she could; that, if we do that, God’s honours are impartial; that if we do not that, then ours is indeed the shame of the shortcoming. We follow this minister of angelic mercy along the horrid and bloody path of war to the banks of the Bosphorus, and read how, in the hospital of Scutari,
Through miles of pallets, thickly laid
With sickness in its foulest guise,
And pain, in forms to have dismayed
Man’s science-hardened eyes,
A woman, fragile, pale, and tall,
Upon her saintly work doth move,
Fair or not fair, who knows? but all
Follow her face with love.
While I bow with reverent confession before this transcendent realised vision of celestial pity, I still believe we ought not to forget that God may have, that He asks, that He requires of us that there shall be servants of His love as self-denying, as heroic, as resolute, of whom hospital never knew and poetry never sang, here in these homely houses and these prosaic streets. For the hour will come when every soul that hath done what that soul could, shall be seen on the right hand of the throne of God.1 [Note: F. D. Huntington.]
3. It is Singular and Courageous.—Mary’s was a new type of ministry. The disciples had their own ways of ministering, which were more servile and stereotyped. “Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence and given to the poor?” Poor blind critics! They could see only one way in which money could be wisely expended—their eyes were holden. They needed an example like Mary’s to make their scales fall. She was not indifferent to the necessities of the poor—but she was not tied down to just one way of doing good. She was original and creative, not slavishly imitative. She conceived a new way of serving Christ, and fearlessly carried out her programme. It was love—a warm heart—that made her thus inventive, and gave a note of distinction to her ministry. Love is always thoughtful and creative; it must strike out new paths for itself, must clothe itself in new forms. Love cannot be commonplace; it delights in innovations, surprises, singularities, felicities. It is impossible to put love in fetters, dictate its course, or rule it by convention. It stores away the vase until the opportune moment arrives for dispensing its contents—and then it confounds us with its goodness.
It was early in September a good many years ago. The winter storms had begun early that year. One morning, after a wild night, Grace Darling heard human voices mingling with the voices of the storm. And going out, she saw a vessel on the rocks of the farthest island. What was she that she should bestir herself at such a time? A feeble girl, with the seeds of an early death at work on her already! But she roused her father and pointed out the wreck. Were the human beings clinging to it to be allowed to perish? The old man saw no help for them. He shrank from the entreaty of his daughter to go out to them. It seemed to him certain death to venture on such a sea. The brave girl leaped into the boat of the lighthouse and would go alone; and then the old man’s courage was roused. And so, on the morning of that sixth day of September, those two, risking their lives for mercy, pulled through the tempest to the wreck. Nine human beings were there, in the very grasp of death. And these nine, one by one, this brave girl and her father, going and coming, rescued and carried to the lighthouse, and nursed them till help came. O! the land rang with praises of this heroic maiden. And poets sang these praises. And royal people sent for her to their houses to see her. But this was her glory in the sight of God, that she had made beautiful for evermore, so that it shines to this day in the memory of men, the lonely and humble lot in which God had placed her.1 [Note: A. Macleod, Talking to the Children, 171.]
4. It is Timely.—Blessed are the ministries which are not mistimed. How oft, alas! the kindnesses of people come too late! Instead of acting like Mary, aforehand, too many act like Joseph and Nicodemus, who brought their sweet spices when the Saviour was in His garden grave. There is something peculiarly sad about these belated kindnesses. If we have flowers to give, why not give them to our friends ere they enter on the long sleep?2 [Note: J. Pearce.]
Mary anointed her Lord aforehand. Too many alabaster boxes are sealed up and put on the top shelf at the back. They are reached down only at funerals. It was said concerning the monument erected to Burns, “He asked of his generation bread, and after he was dead they gave him a stone.” George Eliot pathetically says—
Seven Grecian cities vied for Homer dead
Through which the living Homer begged for bread.
After his wife’s death Carlyle wrote in his diary—“Oh, if I could but see her once more, were it but for five minutes, to let her know that I always loved her through it all. She never did know it—never!” Think of it! That splendid alabaster box of a great man’s love sealed up for twenty years.1 [Note: H. Cariss J. Sidnell.]
’Tis easy to be gentle when
Death’s silence shames our clamour,
And easy to discern the best
Through memory’s mystic glamour.
But wise it were for me and thee,
Ere love is past forgiving,
To take this tender lesson home—
Be patient with the living.
The Perfected Service of the Future Life
Perfect service may be said to comprise three things: willingness, activity, and completeness.
1. Willingness.—Our Lord’s words to Mary, “She hath done what she could,” at once suggest the reflection that all our service here must be more or less limited. Imperfections will mark our work. “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Christ’s praise of Mary’s simple act announces the great principle that ability is the measure of responsibility, and the practical outcome of this principle is a readiness to use the “several ability” which we possess.
It is the duty of every Christian to do something for Christ, something for His honour, His cause, or His servants. Neutrality is antagonism. To stand, doing nothing, is to be obstacles in the way of those who work. Not to “hold forth the word of life,” not to “shine as a light in the world,” is to lie in the way, a big opaque stone, through which the beams of truth cannot pierce.
But it is a very serious subject of thought, that there are so many of those who do something that never exert the half of their ability. They do not honestly do what they can. Obligation and capacity are commensurate. God does not desire “to reap where he has not sown, nor to gather where he has not strawed,” but where He has given “much,” of them He will expect “the more.” He does not expect from a brute the service of a man, or from a man the obedience of an angel; He does not expect from him that has one talent the results of five, or from him that has five the results of ten; but He does expect everywhere, and from all beings, that each shall serve according to his actual and several ability.
Young men, try to serve God. Resist the devil when he whispers it is impossible. Try, and the Lord God of the promises will give you strength in the trying. He loves to meet those who struggle to come to Him, and He will meet you and give you the power that you feel you need.1 [Note: Bishop Ryle.]
There is a fable which says that one day a prince went into his garden to examine it. He came to the peach tree and said, “What are you doing for me?” The tree said, “In the spring I give my blossoms and fill the air with fragrance, and on my boughs hang the fruit which men will gather and carry into the palace for you.” “Well done,” said the prince. To the chestnut he said, “What are you doing?” “I am making nests for the birds, and shelter cattle with my leaves and spreading branches.” “Well done,” said the prince. Then he went down to the meadow, and asked the grass what it was doing. “We are giving up our lives for others, for your sheep and cattle, that they may be nourished”; and the prince said, “Well done.” Last of all he asked the tiny daisy what it was doing, and the daisy said, “Nothing, nothing. I cannot make a nesting place for the birds, and I cannot give shelter to the cattle, and I cannot give food for the sheep and the cows—they do not want me in the meadow. All I can do is to be the best little daisy I can be.” And the prince bent down and kissed the daisy, and said, “There is none better than thou.”2 [Note: F. B. Cowl.]
If you cannot on the ocean
Sail among the swiftest fleet,
Rocking on the highest billows,
Laughing at the storms you meet,
You can stand among the sailors,
Anchored yet within the bay,
You can lend a hand to help them,
As they launch their boats away.
If you are too weak to journey
Up the mountain steep and high,
You can stand within the valley,
While the multitudes go by.
You can chant in happy measure,
As they slowly pass along;
Though they may forget the singer,
They will not forget the song.
2. Activity.—Love is active; men prove their love not so much by their words as by their actions. Work is the way to strength. Inactivity is the way to infirmity. The running water clears itself; the still water becomes stagnant. The active soul serves its Master; the idle soul is the devil’s workshop. How can you better honour the Bridegroom than by honouring the Bride?
All activity out of Christ, all labour that is not labour in His Church, is in His sight a “standing idle.” In truth time belongs not to the Kingdom of God. Not, How much hast thou done? but, What art thou now? will be the question of the last day; though of course we must never forget that all that men have done will greatly affect what they are.1 [Note: Archbishop Trench.]
O the rare, sweet sense of living, when one’s heart leaps to his labour,
And the very joy of doing is life’s richest, noblest dower!
Let the poor—yea, poor in spirit—crave the purple of his neighbour,
Give me just the strength for serving, and the golden present hour!
3. Completeness.—Here notice two things—
(1) Our life here is only the beginning. In order to serve Christ acceptably we have neither to revolutionise our lot, nor to seek other conditions than those which Providence supplies. The place is nothing, the heart is all. Obscurity, weakness, baffled plans—a thousand nameless limitations of faculty, of opportunity, of property—all these are witnesses of silent but victorious faith. In all of them God is glorified, for in all of them His will is done. Out of all of them gates open into heaven and the joy of the Lord.
(2) All “work” here is wrought with “labour,” but we have a vision which reaches beyond: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; for their works follow with them.” At the very heart of this word “labours” there is a sense of faintness and exhaustion. It is a tired word which has lost its spring. But when we are told that the dead in Christ “rest from their labours,” we are not to take it as meaning that they rest from their work, but from the weariness of work, which is a far nobler emancipation. To take away the faintness is infinitely more gracious than to take us out of the crusade. The redemption of our blessed dead is entry into the tireless life. “They serve him day and night in his temple.”1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, Our Blessed Dead, 19.]
So we too may say, in the spirit of Mary, who brought her best to Christ aforetime: “I would not seek heaven because I despaired of earth; I would bring my earthly treasures into heaven. I would not fly to Thee in the winter of my heart. I would come when my heart is summer—when its leaves were green. I would bring Thee the full-blown rose, the ripest fruit, the finest songs of the grove. I would break the alabaster box for Thee, not when it was empty, but when it was laden with perfume. I would make my sacrifice a sacrifice of praise.”2 [Note: G. Matheson, Times of Retirement, 186.]
We have read of the young artist, wearied and discouraged, who slept by the picture which he had done his best to perfect and complete. The master quietly entered the room and, bending over the sleeping pupil, unfolded on the canvas with his own skilful hand the beauty which the worn artist had striven in vain to portray. And when we, tired and spent, lay down earth’s toil, our own great Master will make perfect our picture for the Father’s many-mansioned house. From our life’s service He will remove every stain, every blemish, and every failure. To our life’s service He will give the brightest lustre and His highest honour. Shall we not then bring our best to the One who can make it better?
Rouse to some work of high and holy love,
And then an angel’s happiness shalt thou know,
Shalt bless the earth, while in the world above;
The good begun by thee shall onward flow
In many a branching stream, and wider grow;
The seed that in these few and fleeting hours
Thy hands unsparing and unwearied sow,
Shall deck thy grave with amaranthine flowers,
And yield thee fruits divine in Heaven’s imperial bowers.
A Ministering Woman and a Grateful Saviour
Alexander (S. A.), The Mind of Christ, 19.
Bellew (J. C. M.), Sermons, ii. 188.
Binney (T.), Sermons in King’s Weigh-house Chapel, 2nd Ser., 188.
Brandt (J. L.), Soul Saving, 23.
Bushnell (H.), Christ and His Salvation, 39.
Cowl (F. B.), Digging Ditches, 23.
Hopps (J. P.), Sermons of Hope and Sympathy, 53.
Huntington (F. D.), Sermons for the People, 134.
Jowett (J. H.), Our Blessed Dead, 19.
Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year, xi. 58.
Pearce (J.), The Alabaster Box, 9.
Pearse (M. G.), In the Banqueting House, 107.
Thompson (J. R.), Burden Bearing, 135.
Drew Sermons on the Golden Texts for 1910, 259 (Neff).
Christian World Pulpit, lviii. 305 (Wilberforce).
Treasury, xix. 585 (Gerrie).
When they had Sung a Hymn
And when they had sung a hymn, they went out unto the mount of Olives.—Mark 14:26.
1. With this statement the first two of the Evangelists conclude their narrative of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Our blessed Lord had acted as President in the observance of the Jewish Feast of the Passover, and had engrafted the new Christian rite upon the Paschal celebration. That venerable ordinance, commemorative of the redemption from the bondage of Egypt, has now served its purpose and found its full meaning. The lamb of which Jesus and His disciples partook in the upper room was, as it were, its last victim: the true Passover, “the Lamb of God,” is to be “sacrificed for us” to-morrow on Calvary.
2. The Jews had long ago, with the change of outward circumstances, departed from the original form of observing their great feast. On the night of the Exodus they had eaten the Paschal meal in haste,—sandals on feet, staff in hand,—and with the same eager hurry as is shown in our day by passengers in the restaurant of a railway station. But in our Lord’s time they partook of the feast at leisure, reclining at the table upon couches. On the first occasion the lamb had been eaten only with unleavened bread and bitter herbs; but now there was red wine on the table, and the custom was for even the poorest Israelite to drink four cups of it. In the Books of Moses there is no mention of any service of praise at the Passover; but now all devout Jews sang at the table the series of six Psalms called “the Hallel” (that is, Hallelujah), from Psalms 113 to Psalms 118 inclusive,—very much as the Scottish Church has been in the habit of singing Psalms 103 at the Communion Table.
There was no Divine authority for the changed observance. It was simply that the natural feeling of the nation brought into it this element of thanksgiving. Even the Pharisees and Scribes, who strangled the Jewish religion with red tape, and literalness, and rigid precision, themselves thus kept the feast. And the Lord Jesus fell in with the custom, and Himself thus celebrated the Passover.
Long years ago I happened to be crossing the Simplon on the day of some great Church festival. The bell of the little chapel had tolled for the service, and the simple peasants were gathering for worship. I looked into the church and stood with rigid Protestant defiance. But as I watched the devout congregation, I thought that they were worshipping my Lord and my God—and I knelt with them and gave myself up to a season of communion with God. Then I walked away alone over the Pass, yet not alone; with such a joyous sense of God’s presence that few places or days have come to be more memorable than that June day amidst the glorious mountains. I have sometimes thought that its influence has never died out of my life.1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]
Jesus Singing a Hymn
1. Jesus Singing.—It is good to think of our Blessed Master singing. He who taught us to pray, and who spake as never man spake, says, “Let us sing.” Music has a new meaning and singing a richer charm since He sang. He who sang at such an hour surely loves to hear us sing as we gather at His table. Since the Master sang a hymn, let us be like Him. I am sorry for those who cannot sing, and sorrier still for those who can sing and do not. Whatever else you do, do sing. Prayer is needful, but prayer itself will one day die. And preaching is needful, but let us thank God that there are no preachers in heaven. But singing will last for ever and ever. Everybody there is in the choir. And Heaven’s highest bliss will surely be to sing with Him, in sweeter strains than earth can hear, the new song at the marriage supper of the Lamb.2 [Note: Ibid.]
We sometimes think of Jesus as an austere man. In Quentin Matsy’s masterpiece He is represented with dishevelled locks, hollow cheeks, eyes dimmed and brows overarched with anguish—a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He was, however, no cynic, no anchorite, but a man among men. It is not recorded that He ever laughed, yet His heart must have been full of laughter; for, seeing the sorrow of the world, He saw the joy beyond it. All men laugh unless they are stolid or dyspeptic, and He was neither. On this occasion He was passing into the dark shadow of the cross, yet He joined in the great Hallel, “Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endureth for ever.”1 [Note: D. J. Burrell.]
Why should not Jesus sing?
(1) His heart was in sympathy with all things pure and lovely and of good report. The town where He spent His boyhood is overlooked by a precipitous hill six hundred feet above the level of the sea. It is not to be doubted that oftentimes He climbed up yonder to commune with God. The mountain flowers were about His feet, and every one of them was like a swinging censer full of perfume. All about Him were orchards and vineyards and verdant pastures, and every grass-blade was inscribed with His Father’s name. He watched the eagles poising in the cloudless azure, and heard the hum of busy life in the village below; saw Tabor to the eastward clothed with oak and terebinth, and beyond the western hills the mists rising from the Great Sea; to the south lay the plain of Esdraelon, scene of a hundred battles, and far beyond were the gleaming domes of the Holy City. His heart gave thanks with the leaping of the brooks; the birds sang and He sang with them.
(2) Why should not Jesus sing? He had a clear conscience, of all living men the only one who knew no sin. He alone could go to His rest at eventide with no cry, “Have mercy on me, O God! against thee have I sinned and done evil in thy sight.” For Him there were no vain regrets, no “might have beens.” There was no guile in His heart, no guile on His lips. He was conscious of no war in His members, His soul was set on the discharge of duty.
(3) Why should not Jesus sing? He clearly foresaw the ultimate triumph of truth and goodness. “For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame.” He knew that, whatever rebuffs and reverses there might be, truth and righteousness were sure to triumph in the end.
The eternal step of Progress beats
To that great anthem, strong and slow,
Which God repeats.
There would be martyr-fires and persecutions, and the souls of the faithful would tremble within them, but His trembled not.
Take heart, the waster builds again;
A charmed life old Goodness hath.
The tares may perish, but the grain
Is not for death.
He knew that through all the vicissitudes of history the irresistible God would sit upon His throne, that everything would be overruled to His ultimate glory. Oh, if we could only perceive this! If only we had somewhat of the Master’s faith!
God works in all things; all obey
His first propulsion from the night;
Wait thou, and watch, the world is gray
With morning light.
2. The Hymn.—The “hymn” here spoken of by Matthew and Mark was probably the second portion of the Hallel. The first part, consisting of Psalms 113, 114, was commonly sung before the meal; and the second part, comprising Psalms 115-118, after the fourth cup of wine. The Jews chanted these holy songs at the paschal table as their eucharistic hymn; and to truly devout souls they were laden with Messianic music.
What a peculiar interest gathers round these particular Psalms, when we remember that they were sung on that memorable night by the human heart and the human lips of Jesus! And how pregnant with meaning must many of the verses have been both to Himself and the disciples! For example: “The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. Then called I upon the name of the Lord; O Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul.” “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.” Again, “Thou hast thrust sore at me that I might fall: but the Lord helped me. The Lord is my strength and song, and is become my salvation.” “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.” “God is the Lord, which hath shewed us light: bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar.”1 [Note: C. Jerdan.]
The word “hymn” has a different meaning from “psalm.” In the margin we have “psalm.” But according to the highest authorities, from Augustine down to our day, there is a distinct difference—though it is not always easy to define it—between the word translated “psalm” and that translated “hymn.” We have those two words and one other word used together in Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians and his Epistle to the Ephesians (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19)—“psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” or “odes.” The Apostle attached a special significance to each of these words. It has been noted as a striking fact that in the Old Testament there is no general Hebrew word for the Psalms; but the translators of the Old Testament into the Greek, in the Septuagint, in referring to the songs of David and others, use the word “psalm.” That word denotes primarily a “touching” or “twanging”; then the harp; and, finally, the song that was sung to the accompaniment of the harp or lyre. Hence the word first of all means a “touching,” then that which is touched, and then the music which comes out as a result of the touching with the finger or the ancient plectron. Therefore, the word “psalm” denotes any spiritual song that is sung to the accompaniment of an instrument. Then there comes the word “hymn.” While the psalm, as Archbishop Trench reminds us, may be a “De profundis,” the hymn is always a “Magnificat.” It is pre-eminently a song of praise. The ancient Greeks sang hymns of praise of their gods and heroes; hence apparently the long time that was allowed to pass before the word “hymn” became a familiar one in the Christian Church. The Greeks would naturally understand it to be an ascription of praise to some one other than the true God; but gradually it gained a prominent place in Christian phraseology. Augustine asserted that a hymn first of all must be a song; in the second place it must be praise; and in the third place it must be praise to God. Accepting this definition, a hymn, while it may be a psalm, is a psalm of a particular kind—it is an ascription of praise to God.2 [Note: D. Davies.]
O to have heard that hymn
Float through the chamber dim,
Float through that “upper room,”
Hushed in the twilight gloom!
Up the dark, starry skies
Rolled the deep harmonies;
Angels, who heard the strain,
How ran the high refrain?
How rose the holy song?
Triumphant, clear, and strong
As a glad bird uplift
Over the wild sea-drift?
Or was its liquid flow
Reluctant, sad, and slow,
Presage and prophecy
Of lone Gethsemane?
Was it a lofty psalm,
Foretelling crown and palm?
Soared it to heights of prayer
On the still, vibrant air?
When the last feast was spread,
And the last words were said,
Sang the Lord Christ the hymn
In the old chamber dim?1 [Note: Julia C. R. Dorr.]
The Occasion of the Hymn
It is a striking fact that here and in the parallel passage in the Gospel according to St. Matthew we have the only recorded instance of Christ and His disciples singing. It is extremely probable that they sang on many occasions; but it is specially recorded now because of its exceptional significance.
1. We are apt to marvel, indeed, that the Redeemer was able to sing at all at such a time. He has bidden His sorrowful disciples farewell, and uttered the words—“Arise, let us go hence.” He and they sing the Hallel immediately after they have risen from the table, but before they go out into the night. Jesus is on His way to Gethsemane, and Gabbatha, and Golgotha. He is about to be betrayed by Judas and condemned by Pilate. He has immediately before Him His agony and bloody sweat, His cross and Passion, His physical anguish and desolation of soul upon the accursed tree. He is the “Man of Sorrows,” about to be “wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities”; and yet on the way to His doom He “sings a hymn”! This fact shows us how pure His faith was, and how unflinching His courage. It proves to us how whole-hearted He was in His work, and how absolute was His devotion to His Father’s will. He has been saying for some time past, “For this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name.”
It is a singular incident in the life of the God-fearing Jehoshaphat, that he (2 Chronicles 20:21), before the commencement of a decisive engagement, placed a band of singers at the head of his army, that they might “praise the beauty of holiness,” and go forth to fight as to a festival; but what was this contest compared with that which awaited the Saviour? Yet He too goes forth to meet the insolent foe with the hymn of praise upon His lips; and when the hymn was ended, He calmly steps across the threshold which divides the hall from the street, security from danger, life from death.1 [Note: J. J. van Oosterzee.]
2. What did the singing of the hymn signify?
(1) It meant the fulfilment of the Law.—Because it was the settled custom in Israel to recite or sing these Psalms, our Lord Jesus Christ did the same; for He would leave nothing unfinished. Just as, when He went down into the waters of baptism, He said, “Thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness,” so He seemed to say, when sitting at the table, “Thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness; therefore let us sing unto the Lord, as God’s people in past ages have done.”
(2) It meant surrender to the Father’s Will.—If you knew that at—say ten o’clock to-night—you would be led away to be mocked, and despised, and scourged, and that to-morrow’s sun would see you falsely accused, hanging, a convicted criminal, to die upon a cross, do you think that you could sing to-night, after your last meal? I am sure you could not, unless with more than earth-born courage and resignation your soul could say, “Bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar.” You would sing if your spirit were like the Saviour’s spirit; if, like Him, you could exclaim, “Not as I will, but as thou wilt”; but if there should remain in you any selfishness, any desire to be spared the bitterness of death, you would not be able to chant the Hallel with the Master. Blessed Jesus, how wholly wert Thou given up! how perfectly consecrated! so that, whereas other men sing when they are marching to their joys, Thou didst sing on the way to death; whereas other men lift up their cheerful voices when honour awaits them, Thou hadst a brave and holy sonnet on Thy lips when shame, and spitting, and death were to be Thy portion.
Thus the first thing Jesus did was to set His great sorrow and Passion to music. Burdened, as the world’s Saviour, with the weight of the world’s sin, He nevertheless made all His sorrow and even His agony harmonious. We have read in the Psalms about singing the statutes of the Lord in the days of our pilgrimage. That is the highest spiritual attainment when we not merely obey God but make obedience musical, when we get praise out of our very service and suffering for God’s sake. It is there that the Saviour, as in so many other instances, has become our great example.1 [Note: D. Davies.]
(3) It meant the sacrifice of Himself on behalf of the work given Him to do.—He has a baptism to be baptized with, and He is straitened until it be accomplished. The Master does not go forth to the agony in the garden with a cowed and trembling spirit, all bowed and crushed in the dust; He advances to the conflict like a man who has his full strength about him. Taken out to be a victim (if I may use such a figure), not as a worn-out ox that has long borne the yoke, but as the firstling of the bullock, in the fulness of His strength, He goes forth to the slaughter, with His glorious, undaunted spirit fast and firm within Him, glad to suffer for His people’s sake, and for His Father’s glory.2 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
(4) It meant the assurance of victory.—The death-song of Jesus is a song of triumph uttered before the agony came. He knew absolutely that the Father would not fail Him, that evil could not prevail, and that the sacrifice would be a great victory. But mark this: He could not see beyond Calvary. He knew, but He could not see. Faith never can do otherwise than that; it knows, but it cannot see.
Two great mysteries stand out here. First, the mystery of His agony. As a Roman Catholic theologian has put it, the agony in the garden and the dereliction on Calvary present to the gaze an ocean of sorrow on the shores of which we may stand and look down upon the waveless surface, but the depths below no created intelligence can fathom. Never speak lightly of the agony of Christ, for you do not know what it was, or how terrible, or how overwhelming even to the Divine Son of God. The second mystery is the mystery of His deliverance. He saw through the first mystery, but not the second. He saw the agony as we never can see it, but He did not see beyond. We see the second, but not the first. We never can look on Calvary except over the empty tomb. We see on this side of the Cross; Christ looked on the other. Think, then, of the grandeur and the magnificence of that august Figure, standing pathetic and lonely in the upper room, singing, “Bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar.… O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever.”
About the close of the Civil War in America some Confederate officers were once listening to some Union officers singing the songs that were most popular in the camps of the Northern army during the Civil War. After the singing had gone on for some time, one of the Confederate officers said, “If we had had your songs we could have defeated you. You won the victory because you had the best songs.”
A little while ago, when the most notorious infidel of this century lay dead in his home on the shores of the Hudson, the telegraph which bore the message to the ends of the earth, when telling of the kind of funeral service that would be held over the body, said: “There will be no singing.”1 [Note: L. A. Banks.]
The hymn, “Fear not, O little flock,” is known as the hymn of Gustavus Adolphus. In Butterworth’s The Story of the Hymns, the following graphic incident is told of the battle of Lützen: As we read the stirring lines a vision rises before us of two mighty hosts encamped over against each other, stilled by the awe that falls on brave hearts when momentous events are about to be decided. The thick fogs of the autumn morning hide the foes from each other; only the shrill note of the clarion is heard piercing through the mist. Then suddenly in the Swedish camp there is a silence. With a solemn mien Gustavus advances to the front rank of his troops, and kneels down in the presence of all his followers. In a moment the whole army bends with him in prayer. Then there bursts forth the sound of trumpets, and ten thousand voices join in song:
Fear not, O little flock, the foe
Who madly seeks your overthrow,
Dread not his rage and power.”
The army of Gustavus moved forward to victory, an army so inspired with confidence in God could not but be victorious: but at the moment of triumph a riderless horse came flying back to the camp—it was that of the martyred king.
The Disciples Singing with Him
It was wonderful that the disciples could sing on such a night as this. It had been to them a night of perplexity, and awe, and wonder. Their Master had been saying and doing things most solemn and strange. There had been the feet-washing, the disclosure of the traitor, the institution of the Sacrament, the eager questions, the deep discourse, and the farewell greeting. What a night of emotion and expectation! Only with sad countenances and in muffled tones could the Eleven, when their Lord is on the point of leaving them, join in the refrain of the Hallel—“O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.”
How much it meant for them! The solace of that song, and the voice of their Lord blending with their voices, was the most tender and effectual way of comforting them. It was as the mother soothes her little one by singing. Could they fear since He sang? For them too the words were a strength as well as a solace.
Take, Shepherd, take Thy prize,
For who like Thee can sing?
No fleece of mingled dyes,
No apples fair, I bring;
No smooth two-handled bowl,
Wrought with the clasping vine—
Take, take my heart and soul,
My songs, for they are Thine!
Oh, sing Thy song again,
And these of mine may pass
As quick as summer rain
Dries on the thirsty grass.
Thou wouldst not do me wrong,
Thou wilt not silent be;
Thy one, Thy only song,
Dear Shepherd, teach to me!1 [Note: Dora Greenwell.]
1. They were Israelites.—Remembering the fact commemorated by the Paschal supper, they might well rejoice. They sang of their nation in bondage, trodden beneath the tyrannical foot of Pharaoh; they began the Psalm right sorrowfully, as they thought of the bricks made without straw, and of the iron furnace; but the strain soon mounted from the deep bass, and began to climb the scale, as they sang of Moses, the servant of God, and of the Lord appearing to him in the burning bush. They remembered the mystic rod, which became a serpent, and which swallowed up the rods of the magicians; their music told of the plagues and wonders which God had wrought upon Zoan; and of that dread night when the first-born of Egypt fell before the avenging sword of the angel of death, while they themselves, feeding on the lamb which had been slain for them, and whose blood was sprinkled upon the lintel and upon the side-posts of the door, had been graciously preserved. Then the song went up concerning the hour in which all Egypt was humbled at the feet of Jehovah; whilst as for His people, He led them forth like sheep, by the hand of Moses and Aaron, and they went by the way of the sea, even of the Red Sea. The strain rose higher still as they tuned the song of Moses, the servant of God, and of the Lamb. Jubilantly they sang of the Red Sea, and of the chariots of Pharaoh which went down into the midst thereof, and the depths covered them till there was not one of them left. It was a glorious chant, indeed, when they sang of Rahab cut in pieces, and of the dragon wounded at the sea, by the right hand of the Most High, for the deliverance of the chosen people.
2. They sang with a New Meaning.—For Jesus had set ancient words to new harmonies. The very words which had been sung often before, and which had profound meaning on the lips of ancient saints, had never such a meaning on human lips as they had this night. There are some words of God—some extraordinary utterances—that go on disclosing new depths of meaning throughout the ages, and are set to music now and again; but no music to which they are set can give expression to the fulness of their meaning.
It was so with regard to the great Hallel and other inspired utterances. David and others had first uttered them, and ancient saints had repeated them. As the ages moved, they seem to have accumulated meaning; but not until the Christ Himself came to utter the words did they find full and adequate expression. For instance, “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner,” Christ had said in so many words before, but He had not sung it until now. “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes. This is the day which the Lord hath made”—so true of many other days, but not so true of any day as this. “We will rejoice and be glad in it.” What! be glad in it! Under the very shadow of the Cross, with all the agony and the shame before Him; and we know by the record how keenly He felt all.
In Wesley’s whole life there was perhaps nothing that made so deep an impression on him as, when crossing the Atlantic in a great storm, the ship’s sails blown away and the seas breaking over the ship, and everybody else screaming in terror, the simple Moravians gathered together with their women and children and sang a hymn of praise to God. It was what Luther always did when evil tidings reached him and things looked threatening. He rang out cheerily the words—
A safe stronghold our God is still,
A trusty shield and weapon.1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]
Let Us Sing
1. It is meet and proper that we should sing in the services of the sanctuary. In Solomon’s temple, when the sons of Asaph in their white linen raised the tune, accompanied with the great orchestra of harps and cymbals and followed by the mighty choirs shouting back from the galleries in antiphonal service, the cloudy Presence came forth from behind the fine-twined curtains and filled the sacred place; so, while we sing, the doors of the sanctuary move upon their hinges and He enters whose presence brings to us fulness of life and joy.
When friends are few or far away,
Sing on, dear heart, sing on!
They rise to sing who kneel to pray,
Sing on, dear heart, sing on!
The songs of earth to heav’n ascend,
And with adoring anthems blend,
Whose ringing echoes ne’er shall end;
Sing on, dear heart, sing on!1 [Note: V. J. Charlesworth.]
2. Let us sing as we go about our tasks. The carpenter does better work if he whistles as he drives his plane. The Puritan girl in The Minister’s Wooing, humming the old Psalm tunes, might well make her lover think of heaven and angels. The soldiers, a hundred locked to every one of the great guns, vainly sought to climb the steep ascent of St. Bernard until the flutes struck up La Marseillaise, “Ye sons of freedom, wake to glory!” We also lift our burdens the more easily, meet our sorrows the more resignedly, perform our services and tasks the more joyously, when God’s praises are ringing in our hearts.
Fill Thou my life, O Lord my God,
In every part with praise,
That my whole being may proclaim
Thy being and Thy ways.
Not for the lip of praise alone,
Nor e’en the praising heart,
I ask, but for a life made up
Of praise in every part.
Praise in the common words I speak,
Life’s common looks and tones;
In intercourse at hearth and board
With my beloved ones.
Not in the temple crowd alone,
Where holy voices chime,
But in the silent paths of earth,
The quiet rooms of time.
So shall no part of day or night
From sacredness be free,
But all my life in every step
Be fellowship with Thee.1 [Note: H. Bonar.]
3. Let us sing in times of trouble. God giveth His people “songs in the night.” Paul and Silas at Philippi, their feet in the stocks, their backs tingling with the pain of recent scourging, made the dungeon ring with song, insomuch “that the prisoners heard them.” It was a most unusual sound. Those dark corridors had rung with oaths and curses many a time; but who were these that could uplift at midnight the melodies of thanksgiving? “The prisoners heard them.”
Martin Luther, in the darkest times, used to say to Melanchthon, his fellow-labourer in the Reformation, “Come, Philip, let us sing the forty-sixth Psalm, and let them do their worst.” One of Longfellow’s lyrics on American slavery has for its subject “The Slave singing at Midnight”—
Loud he sang the Psalm of David!
He, a and enslaved,
Sang of Israel’s victory,
Sang of Zion, bright and free.2 [Note: C. Jerdan.]
I have heard of a young mother, whose means of livelihood was her gift of song, and once when her only child was lying ill at home she had to sing for bread before a gaping crowd, and refuse an encore that she might escape from the footlights and get back to that suffering bedside. When she got there it was only to hear that there was no hope. This was the last request of her dying child—“Mother, sing to me!” Can you think of anything more terrible than that midnight agony? In the very presence of the shadow of death the brave little woman gathers her baby to her breaking heart and paces that death-room, singing—
I think, when I read that sweet story of old,
When Jesus was here among men,
How He called little children as lambs to His fold,
I should like to have been with them then.
The child was going home, the mother was to live, but it was she and not the child who sang the death-song of Jesus, and sang it well for love’s sake.3 [Note: R. J. Campbell.]
Thou Heart! why dost thou lift thy voice?
The birds are mute; the skies are dark;
Nor doth a living thing rejoice;
Nor doth a living creature hark;
Yet thou art singing in the dark.
How small thou art; how poor and frail;
Thy prime is past; thy friends are chill;
Yet as thou hadst not any ail
Throughout the storm thou liftest still
A praise the winter cannot chill.
Then sang that happy Heart reply:
“God lives, God loves, and hears me sing;
How warm, how safe, how glad am I,
In shelter ’neath His spreading wing,
And then I cannot choose but sing.”1 [Note: Danske Carolina Dandridge.]
4. Let us sing as we meet Death. The Christian can rejoice even in the near approach of death, and under the dark shadow of bereavement. John Bunyan’s “Miss Much-Afraid” “went through the river singing.” Dr. Thomas Guthrie, when he was dying, asked those who were about him to sing him “a bairn’s hymn.” John Angell James was accustomed to read Psalms 103 at family prayer on Saturday evenings; but on the Saturday of the week in which his wife had died he hesitated for a moment, and then looked up and said, “Notwithstanding what has happened this week, I see no reason for departing from our usual custom of reading Psalms 103; ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me, bless his holy name.’ ”2 [Note: C. Jerdan.]
I once heard of a young father who fought a battle with fate on this wise. He was smitten with a deadly disease; he knew it, and was told that his only chance of life was that he should suffer some one to minister to him, and for the rest of his days—short days, too—he should take things quietly and rest and wait for death. “Let others suffer, and let others strive; be still,” said the doctor, “that is your only chance of life.” But he had two little babes, so he took another course. He might have turned bitter, and cursed and railed against fate, and, with it, God. Or he might have pitied himself and taken the easier course, and called upon others to provide for these his loved ones. But he did not; he went out as if nothing had happened, back to his work with double intensity. He could not leave his children to the mercy of the world. It is not that the world is so very unkind, but it forgets. He determined they should have their chance when he himself was gone. He uttered no complaint; he never presented to them any story of his own heroism. He just went on with brave heart and cheerful face. For years that man sang the death-song of Christ, and no martyr going to the stake ever sang it better.1 [Note: R. J. Campbell.]
There are many different ways in which brave men go forth to meet suffering and death. Some face the last enemy with defiant front, some with reckless abandonment, some with absolute gaiety. The Christian, no less brave than the bravest of all, meets it in a way entirely his own—with a sacred song upon his lips. That was how Margaret Wilson met it at the water of Blednoch in the days of the Covenant. Hoping that the sight of her comrade’s last agony would dismay her into submission, they bound the older woman to the stake farthest out in the stream, and when the drowning waves of the incoming tide were doing their pitiless work, they asked the girl what she thought of her companion now. But in that awful hour of trial she neither faltered nor failed. Opening her New Testament, she read aloud the eighth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans—the great chapter which tells how the condemnation of sin is cancelled by the Saviour; and how the spirit of adoption delivers from bondage and fear; and how nothing, neither death nor life, can separate from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. The chapter finished, she sang her farewell psalm—
My sins and faults of youth
Do thou, O Lord, forget;
After thy mercy think on me,
And for thy goodness great.
And so singing she went forth to be done to death by cruel and wicked hands. Was she not treading the ancient track which the Lord had trod before her; and in the same spirit and style too?2 [Note: A. Smellie, Men of the Covenant, 345.]
When Bishop Hannington was taken prisoner by Mwangu, he says: “Suddenly about twenty ruffians fell on us, and threw me to the ground. Feeling that I was being dragged away to be murdered at a distance, I sang, ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus,’ and then laughed at the very agony of the situation.” At the same time three native Christian lads were taken prisoners. They were tortured; their arms were cut off, and they were bound alive to the scaffolding, under which a fire was made, and so they were slowly burned to death. Their enemies stood around jeering, and told them now to pray to Jesus, if they thought that He could do anything to help them. The spirit of the martyr at once entered into these lads, and together they raised their voices and praised Jesus in the fire, singing till their shrivelled tongues refused to form the sound, Killa siku tunsifu—a hymn translated into the musical language of Uganda. These were the words they sang—
Daily, daily, sing to Jesus,
Sing, my soul, His praises due;
All He does deserves our praises,
And our deep devotion too:
For in deep humiliation,
He for us did live below;
Died on Calvary’s Cross of torture,
Rose to save our souls from woe!1 [Note: Hymns and their Stories, 188.]
When they had Sung a Hymn
Baines (J.), Twenty Sermons, 125.
Banks (L. A.), Hidden Wells of Comfort, 1.
Burrell (D. J.), The Morning Cometh, 235.
Campbell (R. J.), Sermons Addressed to Individuals, 23.
Cox (S.), Expositions, ii. 217, 229.
Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women, and Children, v. 223.
Jerdan (C.), For the Lord’s Table, 265.
Oosterzee (J. J. van), The Year of Salvation, i. 225.
Pearse (M. G.), In the Banqueting House, 119.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Till He Come, 211.
Christian World Pulpit, xxxii. 172 (Darnton).
Preacher’s Magazine , 164 (Pearse).