Remember how short my time is: why have you made all men in vain?…
That men's lives are vain is the universal complaint. Men are perplexed and overwhelmed by the mystery of life and the world's misery. The Bible is full of it. Isaiah tells how "we all do fade as a leaf," and that plaintive thought was the same felt so keenly by Homer, too — "like leaves on trees the race of man is found." It is the solemn teaching and experience of the human heart, and of the sages and poets of all ages. "Sadness," said Savonarola, "besieges me day and night. Whatever I see, or hear, bears the standard of sadness. The memory of my friends saddens me, the meditation of my studies afflicts me, the thought of my sins sinks me down, and, as in a fever, the sweetest things taste as sadness in my mouth." It has been ever so; and apostles and prophets, however inspired, weep out the same sad notes. Christ alone, though he was "the man of sorrows," indulges no morbid note on man, for he saw too clearly the destiny of man to utter any words that could sound like a dirge over his being.
I. Yet, I think, I may first attempt to collect and press upon you THE EVIDENCE UPON THIS COMMON THOUGHT — THE TEMPTATION TO BELIEVE THAT MAN IS MADE IN VAIN. Everything rebukes vanity in man, since he himself, as well as the world, is vain. The idea often thrills through us that man is made in vain. Experiences are different, but the feeling is universal. All men feel it of all men. Job speaks of his being like a "hidden, untimely birth." Yes, and what a mockery there is, apparently, in the birth and death of little children. But I do not think that these are the most startling views of the vanity of life. I would rather fix the argument upon the utter disproportion between the powers and the position of man. It is then, I say and see, that man is made in vain. Nothing has more perplexed me than the sight in life of angels — I must call them so — who have lost their way; their lives seem to have been altogether in vain; a gifted sensibility, perhaps, in a hard, coarse family; a soul sensitive to every impression of gentleness and beauty, with a body unable to second the designs and desires of the soul — the soul soaring, the body limping. Our thoughts crush us — man was made to mourn, and man was made in vain. Unsatisfactory and miserable world, may we well exclaim, where nothing is real, and nothing is realized; when I consider how our lives are passed in the struggle for existence; when I consider the worry of life; when I consider how the millions pass their time in a mere toil for sensual objects; when I consider the millions of distorted existences; and the many millions! — the greater number of the world by far — who wander Christless, loveless, hopeless, over the broad highway of it; when I consider life in many of the awakened as a restless dream; when I consider this, and much else, I can almost exclaim with our unhappy poet —
" Count all the joys thine hours have seen,
Count all thy days from anguish free,
And know, whatever thou hast been,
'Twere something better not to be."I can conceive many a soul, and not an irreverent one, saying, "O God! what is my life? What am I? What have I done? I am a failure. Why have I had given me unoccupied affections; they have never met their response, their realization, their fulfilment. How I could have loved, how I could have wrought; I feel these things in me." Now, it is the fashion of infidelity to believe that God has no details, no specialities, and this thought sometimes drives in with a panic on the spirit; for we are caught up by the huge engine of the machine-god, and torn amidst the wheels of what does not care more for hearts than it does for oaks. Our lives seem spent in vain. I know the reply to all this with many is a cold and icy sneer of contempt at the egotism and conceit of it all. "The universe has done very well for you hitherto; trust the universe, let these inquisitive questions alone." To which I reply, Alas! they will not let me alone; moreover, if my fault is egotism and individuality, what is yours? Indifference, inhumanity, coldness, in a word — brutality. I do not desire to sink to the unconsciousness of "beasts that perish."
II. Notice THE STRUCTURE OF THE QUESTION, Is it possible to reconcile the vanity of man with the greatness of God? This vanity of man, is it consistent with thee, and with what thou art?
1. I believe that thou hast not a chief regard to thine own power. God is not a mere power. What should we think of him who, able to stamp upon the canvas the forms of Murillo, the colours of Tintoretto, able to hew his marbles to the shape of Flaxman, or to mould his pottery to Etruscan loveliness, yet treated all as a freak, and destroyed remorselessly as readily as he created? But what is the artist of the canvas to the artist of flowers, to the artist of the human eye, the artist of the bird's wing? The artist says, I made them, but I cannot preserve them; but the author of eternal beauty Thou art, and why hast Thou made not only things, but man himself in vain? The mother, indeed, goes to her little cot where the lamb of her bosom lies stretched out in its little shroud. She says, "Yes, my darling, I bare thee, and nursed thee; but I could not keep thee;" but God, "Why hast Thou made men in vain?"
2. God is not mere law. "I believe Thou art not heedless of Thy creatures' desire, though they seem to be mocked." We are not like children at play, blowing bubbles which break in non-existence even while they soar. This cannot be enjoyment to Thee.
3. Thou art pure being, Thou canst not, therefore, be pleased only to contemplate evanescence and decay. It is not consistent with Thy glory that "the whole creation should groan and travail in pain together." Dost Thou not "rejoice in Thy works"? and canst Thou rejoice in these? Is not Thy world one huge stone coffin, where every piece of limestone is but the record of death, and the fairest things float loathsomely out of existence into corruption and decay. And now these are, as you well know, the soliloquies and cries of our nature; and the appropriate answer to all is, Man is not made in vain. Unless I have mistaken myself, I believe that some of the topics I have suggested will convey a reply to this question, and show that the absolute vanity of man is incompatible with the glory and with the promise of God. There is something in him which God does not regard as vanity. "The sure mercies of David" are not vanity; "the covenant ordered in all things and sure" is not vanity; "the exceeding great and precious promises, by which we become partakers of the Divine nature," are not vanity. Mutation and change, indeed, surround us everywhere. But there are "two immutable," unchangeable "things" — the will of God, and the Word of God, as the expression of His will. There is an image, over which change never passes. It can suffer no defacement; nothing can mar it. And as we are conformed to this, a growing joy steals over us, and steeps us in its blessedness as we become "new creatures in Christ, Jesus"; as the "old things pass away," as "the Word" which "gives light" enters and sows itself in the heart, we gradually learn what it is for man not to be made in vain.
III. Hence I have conjoined with this poor human word; this elegy over unfulfilled lives; this other word; this WORD OF REPOSE ON DIVINE INTENTION AND COMPLETED BEING — "My times are in Thy hand." Nothing is more certain, nothing are men more indisposed to perceive than this — we have to
"Wait for some transcendent life,
Reserved by God to follow this."To this end God's real way is made up of all the ways of our life. His hand holds all our times. "My times are in Thy hand" — the hand of my Saviour. He regulates our life clock. Christ for and Christ in us. My times are in His hand. My life can be no more in vain, than was my Saviour's life in vain.
IV. AND THIS TRUTH RIGHTLY GRASPED AND HELD, WE SHALL NEVER THINK IT POSSIBLE THAT ANY LIFE CAN BE UNFULFILLED WHICH DOES NOT, BY ITS OWN VOLUNTARY PERVERSITY, FLING ITSELF AWAY. No doubt, men may be suicides to their own souls. Did not our Lord say, "Better were it for that man that he had never been born"? and there are beings for whom that would be the only appropriate epitaph. All in vain! O my soul, anything to escape that. Let life here seem increasingly vain; only save me from the vanity of eternity, and the horrors of that fearful looking for where nothing is realized but woe. Oh to reach "the fulness of joy," so that I and mine may say as we gaze upon our Redeemer in light, "No, through Thee and Thy merits, we have not been made in vain." But you solitary, suffering, disappointed hearts, take some comfort. "The best is yet to be."
(E. Paxton Hood.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Remember how short my time is: wherefore hast thou made all men in vain?