But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities…
For the tree itself, says the botanist, the leaf is both stomach and lungs.
1. A single elm has been computed to possess in one summer five acres of leaves; each leaf a wonderful tissue of nerves and pores and cells and veins. In these countless cells, invisible to the unassisted eye, the sunlight enables the living plant to do its work. In these cells the mineral matter ascending from the roots dissolved in the sap, and the gaseous matter drunk in through the pores from the air, are mingled, and converted by the chemistry of the sunbeam into food for the tree. This then is carried by the leaf-veins into the twigs, adown the branches and the trunk, and is deposited under the bark in a ring of woody fibre. Another portion also goes to form the nutritious fruit and another the reproductive seed. Thus the frail leaf, gay, beautiful, musical as it is, is yet ever at God's work, providing man with material for the necessities, comforts and luxuries of his life. Most true, in creation as well as in redemption, is the apostle's saying, that "God hath chosen the weak things of the world, and things which are despised hath God chosen."
2. But this is not all of the useful duty to which God has chosen the fair and short-lived leaf. The gas which the leaf-cell sucks from the air, and helps to change into fibre, is poisonous to animal life, and must not accumulate in the atmosphere. The same office that the coral insect performs for the sea, to keep the great fountain of waters pure, the leaf performs for that aerial ocean from whose pure tides we drink our life. A mark of dignity has the Creator bestowed on all useful labour, however humble, by giving the glory of the forest, and the beauty of the many-coloured coralline gardens beneath the waves, to organisms that discharge for Him the duty of scavengers! The carbonic acid gas produced by all our fires, and by the myriads of breathing creatures, is absorbed from the air by the leaf through its countless pores. In the leaf-cells, this noxious element is decomposed; part is worked up into food for the tree, and the residue, containing all that is fit for animals to breathe again, is given back to the vital air. Measure, if it were possible, by cubic feet of wood, all the trees upon the globe. Forty-five per cent. of the whole mass is the solidified poison of the atmosphere, extracted by the subtle chemistry of the leaf. How grandly beneficent is its humble life?
3. The leaf draws water from the ground through the thousands of tubes in its stem — eight hundred barrels, says a scientist, from every leaf-covered acre every twenty-four hours. This it gives out to the atmosphere in the form of invisible vapour, to be condensed into clouds and fall in showers — the very water which, were it not for the leaf, would either escape in freshets or filter through the ground to the caverns below. Thus the leaf works to bring upon the earth the early and the latter rain.
4. And now comes on its change. It is a change that comes most naturally and honourably as the leaf fulfils its beneficent tasks. It is in and by its useful work that the leaf changes from the pulpy thing it was in May to a thing of firmer texture. And so we learn to look upon it rather as a ripening than a decaying, when, as its work draws near the end, it begins to borrow less from earth and more from heaven. The splendours of October, surpassing the tenderness of May, and the sober dignity of August, fitly crown the close of a life that has been so useful.
(J. M. Whiton, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.