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…
But although spiritual decay may be the literal application of these words, they truly express the universal law of our mortal life.
I. THE LEAF FADES BY A NECESSARY LAW. There is no power that can keep the foliage on the tree. So we must decay. Man may and does dread death; he may and does seek to prolong life; but he cannot by any invention or art counteract that resistless law of decay that has swept all past generations to the dust, and that is day after day, and hour after hour, working out his dissolution.
II. THE LEAF FADES BY A GRADUAL PROCESS. So it is with life. In infancy, childhood, manhood, as well as old age, the fading process goes on. The gradualness of decay is a blessing. It allows time to prepare for the future. It prevents a stand-still in the machinery of the world's work.
III. THE LEAF FADES INTO ITS PRIMITIVE ELEMENTS. It is only organized dust. It falls and to dust it returns. So it is with man. These bodies will in a few years be trodden on by the beast or borne away by the winds. What a great variety there is in the foliage of nature. Some leaves are larger and decked in more lovely hues than others. Some grow in a richer soil, and are breathed on by more salubrious winds than others. But let a few weeks pass away and all these distinctions will be lost, all will be dust. It is ever so in society. We see there great variety. Some are in wealth, some in poverty; some in velvet, some in fustian; some in beauty, some in deformity; some in the pomp of power, and some in the misery of oppression. But let a few years pass round, and our princes and peasants, sovereigns and subjects, despots and serfs, masters and menials will be dust.
IV. THE LEAF FADES AS PREPARATORY TO A NEW LIFE. The leaf falls, but its place is soon supplied. It falls, in fact, because the new life, rising from the root, has pushed it off. So with us. We die, but others will step into our place, and the world will go on. The race will carry on its governments, its commerce, its literature, its religion, without our help. It may require our death, make our very death serve its interests. Let us, then, not be proud of our position.
V. THE LEAF FADES AS A PROGRESSIVE STAGE OF LIFE. The tree from which the leaf fell is not dead. It threw off the sere leaf to put on another and lovelier garment. As the vitality of the tree continues when the leaf falls, the life of man will remain when the body dies. And like the tree, that life will dress itself in another garb. I would call your attention to four states of mind existing in relation to this fact, one of which must be yours —
1. Unreasoning indifference. "Oh that men were wise that they would consider their latter end!"
2. Intellectual stoicism. There are some who look at death as the end of existence. It must be done, by reasoning down reason into folly, mind into matter, God into nature. How few can do this; and when they do it, have they rest?
3. Terrible foreboding.
4. Christian composure. Which of these states of mind in relation to our approaching mortality is the rational one? I need not ask which is the happiest one; that is obvious.
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.