The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death…
We are accustomed to conceive of our experience of bodily affliction as a land of "the shadow of death." Just as there was a preparation for receiving good in the moral shadow which enveloped the Galileans, so is there also good in the pain and abasement of bodily suffering. There is a breaking down of pride, and a clearer insight into our own utter weakness. There is new openness to spiritual realities, and in this, at least a preparation for being dealt with according to the light of our relation to eternity.
I. One almost invariable sight revealed to us in the shadow of death is THE IMPERISHABLENESS OF THE PAST. I remember reading some years ago an account of an exploration of one of the pyramids of Egypt. The impression of the darkness upon the explorers at first was very oppressive. On every side and overhead, piled one above another in prodigious lengths and masses, rose the polished blocks of granite which formed the walls and ceiling. There was not a window, nor open chink from top to bottom. The torches of the guides only deepened the sense of awe, blinking as they did like mere glow. worms in the gloom. As the travellers crept and slid along the dismal passages, through the almost solid darkness, an undefined and painful consciousness of something like terror arose within them, from the felt want of any really satisfactory knowledge of the purpose which could be intended in such a building. At length they came to what seemed to them a coffin of stone. When they struck it, it rung like a bell. Everything else had had a baffling and perplexing effect on their minds. Here was one object they could thoroughly understand — the monument of a purpose, even if not the main purpose, which the building was intended to serve. And in the midst of that darkness they found their minds summoned by that coffin into the presence of the past. Something not very unlike this takes place when we are sent in, under some serious illness, to explore the land of the shadow. At first we are oppressed by the mere darkness — the deepening out on every side of the possibilities of the disease. Then, the ignorance of the purpose for which we are afflicted perplexes us. But at last, more or less in every case, we find our minds settling upon the past. Sometimes it is our instinctive forward looking, our attempt to penetrate the dim, unsounded future which thus leads us back into the past. The consciousness that we are passing onwards into its territory will not let sleep the question, "What sort of past am I carrying thither with me?" More frequently it is the consideration of unfinished purposes which recalls the past. Often, however, there is something in the very circumstances of the affliction, some appropriate word, perhaps, suggested and pressed upon our attention, which leads us in this direction of the past. Joseph's brethren, e.g., in the Egyptian prison, by the simple utterance of the words, "Your youngest brother," had the past which related to themselves and Joseph recalled to their minds. It was this which Job complained of when he cried to God: "Thou makest me to possess the iniquities of my youth." His youth was not dead as he had supposed; nor had its actions altogether passed. The threads of these were still in His hand who was afflicting him. And now, in his distress, they are drawn up and placed like network around his soul. But there is good in this revision of the past. For one thing, the very sight of the fact is good that nothing of our lives passes utterly into oblivion. It is good to know that the past as much as the present is real, that our deeds lie there, imperishable, dormant, but yet dead. For a second reason it is good. The remaining hours of our time here are more likely to be encountered and occupied with serious hearts. But, for a third and still deeper reason, it is good to have made this discovery. One of the main purposes of redemption is to deal with this imperishableness of the past, and solve the problems which arise out of that and our responsibility. Our Redeemer came to put away the guilt of our past lives, and to lift us into a position from which the consequences of our guilt would shut us out forever. But nothing more disposes us to listen to the offers of Divine mercy, than a clear unambiguous view of the actual past of our lives.
II. Another and most important sight vouchsafed to us in serious illness, is THE SIGHT OF THE WORLD WE LIVE IN DWARFED TO ITS TRUE PROPORTIONS. It is a great loss to anyone to see the world he lives in only from the side of health. The true proportions of things are almost sure to be hidden from his view. This is especially the case with respect to the common pursuits of life. It requires the discipline of a sick bed to reveal our error — to discover to us that we have transgressed the bounds of mere necessity, and have been giving them more thought than they demand. I would liken the false value which we put on our lower vocations to the shadow cast by a manor house on the lawn. The house itself may represent the actual legitimate thought, which we may put into our daily toils. The shadow of the house is the added, illegitimate thought — the burdensome, down crushing care, thrusting and pushing from their centres our higher affections and hopes. At two different moments there is no shadow. There is none when the sun is in the centre of the heavens, and pouring his light down upon the roof of the house; there is none until he bends from the centre. But then the shadow begins to lengthen out its neck. The sunlight comes forth in horizontal beams, and the shadow stretches out its arms and spreads its wings, and lies prone and black on all the colour of the neighbouring field. At last the sun goes down, and the shadow has disappeared again. Night has rolled its shadow over the land, and the greater has swallowed the less. The house is there, but not its shadow. A most true picture this of the different values we put on our pursuits in the hours of health and at the gates of the grave! For with us also there are two moments when no shadow falls. There is no false estimate so long as God is in the centre of our heavens. At last death is rolling his shadow over our earthly life. And we are enveloped in the gloom of that. And then, looking outward, we discover how all other shadows have disappeared, and have been to us but vanity and vexation of spirit.
III. A third experience in serious illness is, that AWAY FROM THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST, THERE IS NO LIGHT FOR THE WORLD TO COME. The lights which surround us in our daily walks, when all is well with us, forsake us in the shadow. The light of friendship, for example. It cannot pierce the blackness of the shadow of death, nor search forward into the dimness of unrevealed futurity. Next to our friends, as lights of life to us, are our books. They are our inner lights. But away from the Book which specifically tells us of the resurrection of the Son of God, the light of no book in our keeping abides with us in the shadow to give us one gleam of hope. But it is worth while being sent into the shadow, if we come out with this experience.
IV. A fourth experience is generally reached in serious illness, of which it is not so easy to see the good. This is THE LONELINESS OF SUFFERING. Our spirits are gadders about too much. Our lives spread themselves too far upon society. A serious illness carries us away from this folly. It takes us out into the solitude, and leaves us there. This loneliness of great suffering is the shadow sent forth to bring us home. Society is not our home. The dearest, innermost circle of it is not our home. God is our home — our present home.
V. TO THE CHILDREN OF GOD AFFLICTION IS IN EVERY WAY A GOOD. Its shadow is a retirement for renewed and deeper insight into the character and purposes of their Father. As much as unspiritual sufferers they feel the distress of their circumstances. The difference is, that over and through this distress they discern the loving purpose towards themselves of Him who chasteneth. Every way their condition is different. The world which death is bringing close to them is the habitation of their best and most beloved Brother. Sustaining promises are suggested to them by the Spirit, which have new and unthought of appropriateness to their case. Light from heaven, in inexpressible fulness, comes down into familiar passages of the Bible, revealing unimagined depths of Divine love for human souls. There is a nearer, sweeter, more experimental view of the Cross of Christ. Sin is felt to be the evil thing on which God cannot look, in a way to deepen the abhorrence of it, and to excite a more cleaving love to Him who is making all things work together to deliver us from its marks and power. And glimpses of the sinless land, holy, beautiful as morning light, come glowing and reddening through the clouds. And the hour of weakness is changed into an hour of strength.
(A. Macleod, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.