The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
A Prayer of Moses the man of God. Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.The Days of Our Years
On hearing this statement some may wonder that so well-known a fact should be used as a text. It is just because it is so well known, and, indeed, so universally admitted, that we wish to see what practical use can be made of it. So far as the fact itself is concerned, there is no opposition or difficulty amongst us. We receive the text with an assenting sigh. We bow our heads in homage to the tyrant death, knowing that it is useless to bruise our soft hands against his iron sceptre. In childhood we laughed at him as a fiction, in manhood we forgot him as a concealed ghost, in advancing age we accost him with reluctant respect, and offer him the grudged hospitality of mourning and sighing, with more or less of articulate distress and lamentation. We know our span; it is but a handbreadth, and it shortens as we measure it. All this is freely and universally admitted; but we wish to ask what kind of conduct ought to be based upon these solemn admissions. Let us grope, or find our way, little by little, from that which is admitted to that which is revealed, and which stands as a perpetual challenge of our attention and a constant appeal to our confidence.
Let us first of all look at our life a little in detail. The days of our years are threescore years and ten. There is more sound than reality in that statement. We do not live seventy years, though we die on our seventy-first anniversary. The figures are illusory. Take from the seventy years some five years of more or less irresponsible infancy, and the figure drops to sixty-five. From sixty-five subtract one-third of itself as spent in sleep, and the figure drops to some forty-three years, or a little more than five hundred and sixteen little months. That is, assuming that we live out the whole string of the seventy years. But let us take the obviously too high average of human life at fifty years make the same deductions, and we shall find the average of human life reduced to some thirty years, or three hundred and sixty short, swiftly passing months. It is but a breath, and just over it there glows a heaven and there burns a hell. Into that matter we do not now enter. But it is plainly before us that we have a certain portion of time to spend upon the earth, and we cannot be sure that any one of us will ever spend it. The breath we are now drawing may be our last; there is no guarantee of health, there is no surety given to us that we shall always have a clear intellect, a penetrating eye, a comprehensive mind. At any moment man may be deprived of this: he is followed by packs of wolves he cannot satisfy: on the right hand is an abyss, on the left hand is also an abyss: many a time in the sky there are lowering clouds—what is man to be and to do within this little span of about three hundred and sixty months?
We are told that wise men know exactly from time to time where their money is; they know what money they have, and they know where to find it or how to account for it. We should be as exact in measuring and accounting for our time as we are in respect to our money. Let us try to get at the religious use of time, and hold ourselves as the treasurers of the costliest jewel that can be committed to the care of creatures. The days of our years are threescore years and ten. Man cometh forth as a flower and is cut down, he fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not. See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time—literally, buying up the opportunity, buying up the chance—for the days are evil.
This course of reflection might easily become so misapplied as to lead to most mischievous results; we must, therefore, presently wholly change the tone. A foolish man hearing this might be led to measure everything by his own individual life, and thus never attempt any work except that of the most narrow and selfish kind. His dreary programme would read thus: "I am to be here at the best for some six hundred months; they are flying and perishing whilst I count them. I will buy me a Bible and retire to some mountain cave, and I will sit down and read it again and again till the months be gone. I will commit it all to memory; I will enter into no enterprises; I will venture nothing; I will have no high aspirations, no broad lines of work, no purposes that reach farther than the sunset of the present day—what is the use of it all? I might be gone at any moment; I will therefore spend my life in sighs, and the sooner the end comes the better." This would not be religion; it would be insanity. We are not to base our service on the narrow period of our individual existence: we are to remember that as the universe is larger than any star that shines within it, so humanity is larger than any of the personalities that people it, and we are to base our conduct upon the broadest conceptions of human life and human destiny.
Let me remind you that though life is short, yet it is immortal; both the statements are true, and are therefore reconcilable. The leaves of every summer fall and die, but the great forests fatten and strengthen, and wave in the winds of centuries. The king dies, the kingdom gets younger every day that lives a true life and sucks its juice from the heart of God. The preacher becomes an old man, withers and dies, and his pulpit sees him no more, but the ministry is immortal, the word of God abideth and is proclaimed for ever. An individual man dies and can no more be found than can the knell that dies upon his grave, yet humanity continues—continues building its cities, its temples and towers, weaving and spinning, carving and singing, going with a high joy, as if no grave had ever been cut in the breast of the green earth. We are not, therefore, to mope and moan about our own little day; we are not to lock ourselves up in the little prison of the uncertainty of our own existence; we are not to sit down and read the Bible till death tells us that it is time to go. We have to take in all the world as if it were our business to look after it; we must be inspired by our immortality, not discouraged by our frailty. Young man, you take your start from either of these two divergent points: you can make yourselves old men in an hour by reckoning upon your fingers the number of months you have to live, or you can start under the inspiration of your immortality, and say the work that you leave uncompleted will be carried on by others. You can lose your individuality in the great light, as the stars drop away into invisibleness when the firmament is ready to receive the infinite lustre of the one orb that can fill it from bound to bound. It is, therefore, to challenge your immortality that I now address you: it is not to make you go to the grave to weep there, but to go to your work, to live in the endless, not to die in the limited and narrow sphere of threescore years and ten.
It was thus that Jesus lived. He died ere he had lived out half his seventy years, yet he never died at all. He said: "Pull down what temple you like, that is good, and I will build it again: you cannot pull down God's temples except that they may be rebuilt and enlarged;" and whilst the enemy had him, the one on the left shoulder and the other on the right, and were hurrying him away to kill him, he turned his head over his shoulder, as it were, and said, "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world."
Some are in pain and distress by reason of thinking much upon the brevity of life, they have been looking at one side only of a very solemn subject. We ask you now to rise from your perusal of the brevity of life, to ponder the fact that this life is but the porch that opens upon immortality. Poetry hardly trifling with history has sometimes touched us to the very blood upon this point. The warrior dies, and says, "I am glad it is all over so far as I am concerned: I wish I had never entered into the war; I care not now what becomes of it."
The two men now being bound to that stake in Oxford are tailed Ridley and Latimer. In five minutes the fire will leap upon them and they will be killed. Quoth one to the other, just as the fire was being lighted, "Brother, we shall light such a candle in England today as shall never be put out." These were not men who moped over their threescore years and ten, who sighed themselves away into decorous oblivion, who lived little narrow respectable lives nowhere, and finally went into nothing: they were men who made England—who made heaven almost. Their very names are inspirations, and must not, cannot, be forgotten.
So Christ brought life and immortality to light. The Psalmist wrote: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten;" Christ said: "I came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it: in these threescore years and ten I will find enough for your immortality." He says, "Sit down;" he takes the years, breaks them with his hand, and lo! the seventy loaves spread out into an infinity of banqueting, and in this poor little germ life of mine he found the beginning and the spring of duration long continued as God's own.
Let me remind you further that though life is short, yet it is rich, and that is a consideration which invests life with responsibility. We must do the more on that account. Everything is made ready to our hands. There seems now to be nothing else to be done in the way of invention or of general civilisation. We are debtors to the past: we must consider how we can be the creditors of the future. Our forefathers laboured: we have entered into their labours—are we going to be content with them, or are we going to see what can be done to prepare for a great posterity? We now say that money is not so valuable as it was fifty years ago. If you tell your friends what your old father lived upon half a century since, they will say, "That is all very well, but a sovereign, then went as far, perhaps, as two sovereigns will go now, so it is no use your basing any economical laws upon such precedents as these." There is sense in that criticism. But what is true of money is exactly untrue of time. Time fifty years ago and time today are not to be compared; they are to be contrasted. We can do fifty times the work that could be done centuries ago in this very country. The library stands ready for the scholar; the steamship is awaiting the traveller; the earth is torn into mines and shafts for the scientific explorer; the telescope is turned towards the heavens, and asks for the exploring eye to use it. What chances are ours! It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for us, if we be faithless to our obligations. With telegraphs, telephones, and instruments of all kinds, with inventions of machinery the most subtle and wonderful, with all kinds of time-saving contrivances, to tell us that our seventy years are no longer than the seventy years of the Psalmist is to tell us what our own consciousness contradicts, and our own experience denies and repels. If he died at seventy, and we die at the same nominal period of time, we have had the chance of living fifty lives for his one.
What are you doing? What use are you making of the great facilities which are offered to you on every hand? Are you as slow as ever? are you going to read about the threescore years and ten as if they were figures that could be arithmetically measured? There is a moral measurement, there is a scientific measurement, there is a spiritual measurement, and it is to that higher measurement that we now call you. I cannot allow myself to say that I have only seventy years to live. It is true, arithmetically, but broadly it is false. I have a thousand years to live, and when the Psalmist and I meet at the great audit, and he hands in what he has done with his seventy years, I must require angels to help me to lift the burden of my conquests, if I have been a good and faithful servant.
With all this wealth of life, inventions, machineries, libraries, schools, opportunities of all kinds, with all these unreckonable riches of civilisation, we are still conscious of a gnawing and intolerable want. Civilisation has increased the pungency of that necessity. If civilisation had done less we might have thought it could have done more, and we might have been tempted to wait for it. We might have said, "Give civilisation time, and she will find the healing plant, she will bring up the golden store that will drive all poverty away, she will fetch the sage from far-off lands that will solve every problem, illuminate every mystery, unloosen every chain; give her time, and she will find the balm to lull my brain to rest and give me the freedom that comes of profound and renewing sleep." Civilisation has exhausted itself. There is nothing more possible to civilisation except in the matter of degree. You cannot put your finger down upon one thing and say, "Civilisation has not attempted this yet." It may not have gone to the full length which it is possible to overtake, but civilisation has refined our houses, given us education, dispelled many prejudices, gathered around us riches of all kinds: civilisation has put pictures upon our walls, songs into our mouths, filled our houses with musical instruments, made everything beautiful and rich, and yet we have covered up a worm that dieth not with most charming flowers, with most beautiful coverings of all imaginable kinds. The one thing our civilisation has not touched in us is our sin. We have seen pictures and have gone home to lay our head upon thorns. We have heard music, an eloquent lie, and have fallen down on bruised knees to utter a sobbing cry for pardon.
So Jesus Christ still keeps his place in civilisation. He begins where others end. Where they cry from exhaustion he puts on his strength. Where the mystery bewilders and blinds them, he dispels it by many a shaft of light He is the propitiation for my sins, he stands between me and God, and O, mystery of love, he stands between me and himself; for he too is Judge, and the sentence of life and death is upon his lips. He knows my days—he comforts me with many a promise. He knows my sin—he says he came to reply to its agony and to destroy its power. He knows my weariness, and he promises me rest in his own great heart, and let this be said about him—which can be said of no other man—he met the world's want, in words if not in realities. Say what we will about realities, this man mentioned the very thing we need most. He says, "You want life?" Yes, that is true. "You want rest?" Yes, above all things we want rest. "You feel hunger?" Yes, a gnawing hunger. "You are athirst?" Yes, aflame, afire with thirst. "Then," saith he, "I have mentioned your necessities: I will address myself to their direct and immediate and complete supply." As a poetical conception, taking that limited view only, the Carpenter's Son stands above kings and crowned ones of every name and suggests what they had not ventured to dream.
The days of our years are threescore years and ten. We look on one side and hardly think them worth living at all. We put stones one upon the other and a wind blows them down. We say, "I will go into this or that city, and abide there a year, and buy and sell and get gain," and lo! on the starting day we are too ill to move. We are consumed before the moth, the insect is an antagonist we cannot conquer; we see the grave of our friend, and written at the bottom of it is, "Yours will be dug to-morrow." We feel how mean is life and how poor is the measure of our time. Then it is that we want a man to come to us with revelations of a higher kind, to speak to us of possibilities that do not lie within the arithmetical compass of our seventy years.
My life—so frail that an insect can consume it, a lamp, flickering so that a breath might blow it out—that is my life in itself; but hidden in Christ, hidden in God, hidden in the living Vine, part of the fellowship divine, "I can the darkening universe defy to quench my immortality, or shake my trust in God."