The Sovereignty of God in Calamity!
Delivered on September 20, 1857, by Ebenezer Rogers — two days after the steamship "Central America" sank during a hurricane. 560 of the 626 people on board lost their lives.
"Be still, and know that I am God!" Psalm 46:10
There is no lesson so hard to learn as that of Divine sovereignty and human dependence. Yet there is none which is inculcated so constantly in the teachings of the Bible — none illustrated so sternly in the dispensations of Providence. No man can study the dealings of God with men, either in the operations of his Providence, or in the plan of salvation, without seeing that they tend to this end, "that the lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day." Isaiah 2:11
Creatures of a day as we are, whose habitation is in the dust, and who are crushed before the moth, whose strength is weakness and whose wisdom is folly — we yet presumptuously and impiously rebel against the absolute sovereignty of an infinitely perfect God, and desire to find out some more palatable and less humbling reason for occurring events — than his absolute, sovereign, indisputable will. Whenever therefore we can discover what are called second causes, which seem to be adequate to the effects which are occurring around us — we go no farther in our investigations. We confine ourselves to these second causes — and forget that mighty Being who sits behind them all, who "does according to his will in the army of Heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay His hand or say unto Him: What have you done." Daniel 4:35
The immediate agent, the proximate cause of any startling or extraordinary event, seems to fill and engross the mind — to the virtual dethronement of Jehovah from his exalted position as the Absolute and Omnipotent Sovereign of the Universe. But this foolish and wicked forgetfulness of God's sovereignty is sometimes rebuked with amazing distinctness and appalling severity. Events sometimes occur in our world in isolated cases, or in a dreadful succession which confound our sagacity, baffle our shrewdness, cast contempt on our philosophy, contradict our expectations, abash our presumption, humble our pride, and drive us with irresistible pressure to the very footstool of our Maker — wringing out from our bewildered and troubled hearts the exclamation, "It is the Lord! Let him do what seems him good to him!"
Such my brethren are often the sad lessons of the times in which we live. The history of the various casualties, and public calamities which have occurred in our country during the last three or four years, is a most extraordinary and melancholy history. I remember when such a catastrophe was comparatively rare, what awful desolation was occasioned by the non-arrival of an expected ocean steamer at the city of Philadelphia, where I then resided. How heart-sickening the suspense which reigned over the city. "Has anything been heard from the Glasgow!" was the universal inquiry. Day after day passed away, and hope faded and died a slow and lingering death, and many bleeding hearts which had clung desperately to the idea that they might yet see again their expected friends, gave themselves up to the despairing conviction that they were buried in the ocean, and would be seen no more until the great day, when at the call of the summoning angel the sea should give up its dead.
Oh how fearful thus to be parted forever from those we love, without even the mournful satisfaction of knowing the nature of the agency or instrument that removed them from our sight; unable even to visit the place where they lie, and keep the turf above them green with the moisture of our tears. Alas! how many fond hopes lie buried in that cemetery without a monument — the insatiable ocean!
Then by the fiat of the Almighty came a fierce and devouring drought upon the land. The heavens were brass above us — the earth iron beneath us. The bloom of nature faded, and her myriad forms of life and beauty sickened and drooped. The heart of the gardener sunk within him, as he saw the work of his hands devoured and wasted by the burning heats, and longed and prayed in vain for the latter rain. The poor man groaned as he thought of the scarcity of food that was to come — and looked on his helpless children soon to need bread. It may be that then fear exaggerated the extent of the evil; yet though it may be now forgotten, I suppose it is rarely that so extensive and destructive a visitation of this kind has been permitted to scourge our broad and fertile land.
Then came fraud on a gigantic scale, and of the blackest dye — breach of trust and confidence of the most astounding character, involving millions of dollars in property, and throwing the circles of business into the deepest consternation. Fair characters were blasted; honorable and honored names were indelibly stained; years of reputation, success and confidence were wrecked in an hour; and men who had stood among the noble and trusted, and powerful in the land, were driven into dishonorable exile, or remained to be the scorn of their enemies, the miserable pity of their friends.
Then at the bidding of the Almighty, the pestilence went forth to its dreadful work. In some states the dreaded cholera swept off its hundreds of victims. In other states the fearful yellow fever mowed down and broke "the strong staff and the beautiful rod." Some with whom we ourselves had taken sweet counsel together; to whom we had often preached the word of life; some whom we had pointed to the Lamb of God and invited to the Good Shepherd's fold; some whom we had united in the holiest bonds to those they loved, and in whose society had spent many of our happiest hours — were suddenly swept away before the march of the pestilence, and laid in untimely graves.
From a distant state the tidings came to our sorrowful ears of the ravages of that "pestilence which walks in darkness, and the destruction that wastes at noon-day," until our hearts were overwhelmed with anguish, and we cried, Oh, Lord how long?
Then (not to speak of dreadful railroad collisions and casualties,) came that fearful catastrophe of the Arctic, which chilled the land with horror and dismay. Then we thought that the climax of woe was reached, and that no tale of deeper anguish would be written on the pages of the deep. But now what fresh tale of horror is borne to our ears on the wailing southern blast! What fearful tidings burst upon us again from the devouring sea! Another gallant steamer, one of those which make our ships the admiration of the maritime world — sailing proudly over the deep and approaching her port, is met by the storm and checked; yes, checked forever in her glorious motion.
For hours, for days she battles with the storm. The sun sheds no light by day. The moon and stars desert her by night. All the the artillery of the skies combines to hurl the bolts of destruction upon her. In vain is all the skill and devotion of her officers and crew. The tempest gains upon her with its relentless power. The huge ship is like the toy of a child in a giant's grasp.
At last, amid the wild howlings of the tempest, amid the thick blackness of the night, amid the shrieks and cries of affrighted hundreds — the fated vessel succumbs. Through her ports and over her bulwarks, the eager waters — over which she rode in triumph, rush — exulting in their hour of mastery. And she must yield to them yes, she must give up to them all the wealth of gold and merchandise with which her capacious recesses were crowded.
But oh more appalling tribute, she must give up her hundreds of human hearts, just now beating high with mirthful and joyous anticipations of a speedy and prosperous outcome of their voyage — laughing, feasting, rejoicing, thinking of everything but of a fate so fearful and so near! A few brief hours of agonizing struggles between hope and fear — and the noble ship with the hundreds of souls is gone, and on the wide waste of waters is seen no more!
Oh! who can describe the horrors of such a scene? Let no man attempt it. Who can estimate the amount of the desolation and woe which it spreads over this broad land, and in lands beyond the sea? What wealth of affection — what stores of hope — what jewels of memory and anticipation — went down and were engulfed forever in that mighty ruin! How many hearts, in days to come, will shiver with agony as they think of the sea, and how it is rioting over their richest treasures.
What a wail goes up from this stricken land to mingle with the dirges of the wind and the moanings of the sea. How wide-spread the desolation that has come upon fireside circles and happy homes. He who can contemplate such a catastrophe, so gigantic, so overwhelming — without the deepest emotion, without shuddering and dismay, is unworthy of the name of man. It is true that we have not as yet full and satisfactory accounts of the details of this solemn event. It may be that we shall yet hear of more who have been snatched from the waves by passing vessels, and rescued from a dreadful death. Hope, which "springs eternal in the human breast," still whispers that Death may not have had such a tremendous triumph as we feared at first. There is doubtless a bare possibility that others may yet be heard from, who are now supposed to be hopelessly lost. God grant that it may be so.
But after making all allowance, there remains a fearful margin. At the best, we must believe that few events of this sort have proved so extensive and so unmitigated in their awful results. In this appalling calamity whose ramifications are so wide-spread, and whose range of destruction is so comprehensive — our own city, yes our own congregation may have its portion of bereavement and of woe!
Though the seal of absolute certainty has not been placed upon the awful statement, yet it seems to be almost certain that among those who perished there was a young and gallant spirit who bore a name ancient and honored in the history of this his native town. He had chosen the treacherous element as his home, and had often crossed and recrossed its waves in safety. On board that ill-fated steamer he filled, and nobly filled, the highest post save one. At that post he was found bravely, faithfully standing, when the hour of danger came. No doubt, amid all the awful terrors of those last hours, with hundreds of helpless and horror stricken souls around him and death staring all grimly in the face — he had no thought but of his duty. Life was as sweet to him as to any of that shuddering crowd. The tide of young manhood's life was bounding merrily in his veins, and all that is pleasant and desirable in existence appealed to him to save himself if possible, from the general wreck. But we have no reason to believe that one thought of deserting his post ever entered his brave heart. His thoughts and efforts in connection with his beloved commander, were devoted to the safety of the helpless and defenseless women and children. To them he gave his last labors and cares. He cheered them with his brave words; he supported them with his manly arm; he saw them all safely borne away from the sinking ship, and then he turned with calm resolution to meet his fate. If indeed he has perished, as we alas! must fear, he has perished nobly, faithful to his duty.
But oh God, have mercy on those who . . .
"The hand of the reaper
Takes the ears that are hoary,
But the voice of the weeper
Wails manhood in Glory!
The autumn winds rushing
Waft the leaves that are searest,
But our flower was in flushing
When blighting was nearest.
Like the dew on the mountain,
Like the foam on the river,
Like the bubble on the fountain,
Then are gone, and forever!"
To be indifferent to such events, as have thus been hastily and imperfectly sketched, is not the dictate of reason or piety. It is also rebuked by the admonitions of the Word of God, and by the example of our Divine Redeemer and Teacher. In the discharge of his earthly ministry, he adapted his instructions in the best sense to the peculiarities of the times. He addressed himself to men's present duties, and their present sins and snares; and the passing events of the day, or the scenery of the spot where he taught, furnished him with ready and pertinent illustrations. The news of a cruel butchery or a melancholy calamity, the tidings of the Galileans slaughtered over their sacrifices, or of the unhappy victims in Siloam crushed by a falling tower — the news that for the time was the burden of all tongues, and made all ears to tingle, was seized by him as affording the occasion of riveting some keen truth upon the memory and conscience of the multitude.
And so it is both the dictate of duty and piety, to look carefully at the record of daily events; to learn from their varied history how God governs his world, and orders human destiny. For all that occurs in his wide empire, from the falling of a leaf — to the extinction of a race; from the death of a sparrow — to the blotting out of a star, is only the fiat of Him, who is from everlasting to everlasting God; whose counsel shall stand and who will do all his pleasure.
The teachings of appalling calamity such as has just occurred, are very impressive and solemn on the great point of the absolute sovereignty of God. As just now remarked, the appearance of second causes is apt to obscure this sublime truth.
When death accomplishes his fearful work through the agency of years, or by the process of wasting and incurable disease — we think we see a sufficient explanation of the catastrophe in the immediate instrument, and are content to leave the matter there. But when a pestilence breaks out in the midst of a community, without any visible exciting cause — when its career is marked by arbitrary and indiscriminating devastation — when no age, no condition, no peculiarity of physical constitution escapes the visitation, and all remedial agents are used in vain — then the reflecting mind, driven from the ordinary resources, and reasons, baffled and perplexed by the impotence of philosophy, and the ignorance of experience — is forced to remember that there is a God who reigns in the earth! "Affliction does not come forth from the dust; neither does trouble spring out of the ground" — but "the Lord God omnipotent reigns!"
So such a disaster, as that which has now occurred, drives the bewildered and affrighted mind directly back to the same great truth, and forces the appalled and stricken observer to remember that God is sovereign on His throne! All the powers and processes of nature, are but the ministers who do his pleasure. Rising above the roaring of the ocean, above the moaning of the blast, above even the shrieks of drowning men — is heard the solemn voice of the Almighty, saying in tones of overwhelming majesty, "Be still and know that I am God!"
A catastrophe, so sudden, so unexpected, so appalling in its nature, and so extended in the desolation which it causes, is a sore trial to the faith and submission of the Christian. The climax as it is, of all that is fearful and destructive — it is hard for us to acquiesce in its wisdom, its justice, or its goodness. The mind stunned and overwhelmed with a sense of loss and desolation, viewing only the solemn wreck of hope and joy — involuntarily asks: Is there indeed a just and benevolent and Sovereign God, on the throne of the universe — and is this the method of his administration? It seems like a cold and harsh way of solving the difficulties that encircle an event like this — to refer it to the sovereignty of God, and say, it is, because it is the will of God. Does not the infidel find his triumph in scenes like these, as he points to their terrible features, and says, "See what your God has done!"
No! my brethren, take from this catastrophe the idea that it is the doing of a Sovereign God — and you take away the only star that illumines its fearful darkness. You abandon the whole scene to the undisputed sway of gloom and despair! What if the stroke is overwhelming and crushing in its heaviness? Is it not more tolerable from a father's hand — than from the hand of an enemy? If you take away God, and God in his absolute sovereignty from this event, able to have prevented its occurrence, but deciding that it should occur — what can you put in his place that can better satisfy or support the mind?
Will the doctrine of a fixed inevitable necessity, the cold and forbidding dogma of an inexorable fate — afford more light and comfort? Will a lawless or frantic chance afford you more satisfaction and relief? No! Let us enthrone above these scenes of apparent disorder and arbitrary infliction — a Sovereign God, a God of wisdom, a God of power, a God of love, who sees the end from the beginning, and orders all things according to the counsel of his will — and here at least we have an anchorage for Faith, a place where she can cling, and look up amid the jarring elements, and say, "Even so, Father, for so it seems good in your sight!"
So far then from the truth is the assertion that the bare sovereignty of God, furnishes a cold and barren source of comfort in a catastrophe like this — that on the other hand, we find in this fact abundance of strength and consolation. Who would not prefer, if called on to submit uncomplainingly and absolutely to the most trying circumstances and dealings — that these should be ordered by a wise, just and good Being — one whose infinite wisdom enabled him to know the best things, whose infinite power enabled him to accomplish them, and whose infinite goodness disposed him to exert that power. Who would not choose that a Father's hand should pour the bitter cup which he was to drink even to the dregs?
If God is taken away from our prosperity we might be able to bear it — but who or what can supply the place of an unwavering trust in Him in our adversity? Oh! to be taught that a Sovereign God rides upon the billows and directs the storms which have swept all our idols away and left us beggared and forlorn — is a lesson worth to the tried and tempted soul of man all that it costs to learn it.
There are some dispensations of God's Providence, whose errand is to teach just this one great lesson. This is one of them. It is adapted to impress on the reflecting mind the fact, that "God gives not account of his matters!"
We are astounded at the suddenness of the calamity. We are heart broken at its severity. We wonder, we suffer, we bleed — but yet faith rallies where reason is staggered and says, "Clouds and darkness are round about Him — yet righteousness and justice are the habitation of his throne." His path is in the great waters, and we can not follow its windings and turnings, but we know his feet are there. Those deep waters go over us — they engulf our fondest hopes; they swallow up our most precious things; our idols all go down into the abyss! All his waves and billows go over us, but the rushing tide cannot sweep away from us the conviction that the storm is guided by infinite wisdom and perfect goodness, and that the crested billows are rolling on His great and wise designs to a complete and glorious fulfillment!
To those who have lost kindred and friends by the solemn calamity which has just occurred, we regard this great thought as of inestimable value. And that is a cruel, yes a murderous hand that would tear away from them this refuge of faith, this anchor of hope. It is not an enemy who has done this! God is sovereign, and this is the hand of God!
Plant above that solemn scene an inexorable Fate with its iron will forcing that gallant vessel down beneath the wave; let a senseless and lawless Chance ride frantic on the breast of the billow and laugh at the wreck — and have you given comfort or help to those who mourn in the bitterness of their bereavement? Oh no! give them a God, though his way be in the sea and his path in the deep waters; give them a God, though clouds and darkness are round about him; give them a God, though his ways are as much higher than ours as Heaven is higher than earth. If you would not wrench away from them, the only support and solace of the soul when everything else forsakes it — let them listen to his voice as he speaks to them from yonder scene of terror, saying "Be still, and know that I am God!"
Upon the whole history of this solemn event is stamped the record of the absolute sovereignty of God. Our noble steamers, another of which lies at the bottom of the ocean, have been the boast of our country. We exulted in the evidence they furnished of the superiority of our naval architecture over hers who so long has held the proud title of the "Mistress of the seas." Their trips had been made with such unvarying regularity and safety, that we had come to regard the passage across the ocean as involving no more danger than a journey on the land. A sense of dependence exciting to humility, to prayer and to faith, had become blunted even in the minds of good men, by repeated successes and triumphs over the most uncontrollable of the forces of mature.
But God has taught us again and again how vain is all the skill and strength of man, when He commissions his ministers for the work of destruction. When He lifts his finger — how suddenly, how completely, how fearfully is that work accomplished. At the word of his power, how are the strongest and proudest works of man crushed and swept away in a moment! Perhaps no greater monument of man's skill and power can be furnished, than such a gallant vessel careening proudly over the waves, walking the waters like a thing of life, and spurning the waves from her foamy prow as she dashes onward to her port. Yet met in mid ocean by the hand of God, in a moment she is arrested in her career, given up as a prey to the waves over which she rode in triumph, swallowed up by the insatiable deep — while scarcely a spar or plank remains to tell the dreadful tale! While from the hoarse murmurs of the tide as it sweeps over the spot and obliterates all vestiges of the solemn ruin, comes in impressive and solemn accents, the admonition, "Be still, and know that I am God!"
Let us then be reminded by this solemn calamity of the fact, that "the Lord reigns." We are in great danger of looking too much
for some secondary cause of calamity. We reason that if the vessel had been more strongly built, if her pumps had been in better order, if this or that had not occurred, if one expedient or another had been adopted, if something had been different from what it was — then the catastrophe might have been averted. But these things did not occur, these expedients so obvious to us and so feasible, were not used. It did not please God to order it thus — and this is the only account which we can give of the matter.
To my own mind this fearful event in all its horrors is full of teaching on that great point which lies at the foundation of all religion, but which men are so constantly prone to forget — that there is a Sovereign God in the heavens before whom all must bow, and to whom all must give account!
It has well been said, "that some of the judgments of Divine Providence need no interpreter. Sorrow and guilt are in the natural workings of man's conscience, and in the general estimate of mankind are closely conjoined. And there are times when a Nadab perishes before the altar he has desecrated, or an Uzzah is blasted beside the ark, or when the storm of fire comes down upon the cities of the plain, or the ark of Noah rides on the overwhelming waters past the despairing sinners who had derided his warnings. When God's judgments follow so closely man's transgressions, that he who runs may read the purpose of the visitation and see in the peculiar guilt of the sufferers, the reason of their peculiar doom."
But it is not so in this case. This is not the lesson of this calamity. Our fellow men and fellow citizens who perished there were not sinners above all those who traverse the deep, or who abide upon the shore. There were doubtless among them the people of God, in whose favor no distinction was made in the visitation of Death. Beyond the sea of death, the grand discrimination is made. Amid its cold and bitter waters engulfing all — were some who were swept up to the eternal glories of Heaven — while others swept away to the endless wailings of Hell.
The death of the body proves the universal sinfulness of the race — but the time and place and manner of death do not always prove their relative or comparative sinfulness. No! the lesson which I would take to my own soul from this great catastrophe, is that which is contained appropriately in the words of my text, "Be still, and know that I am God!"
This is a very needful and profitable lesson. I find myself daily prone to be oblivious of the fact that God reigns in the earth, and will do all his good pleasure. This is unfavorable to that humility, faith and submission which are not only so appropriate to the relations of man, but which are so constantly called for by the peculiarities and exigencies of his earthly condition. We cannot be too deeply impressed with this truth. It not only is needful to stimulate us to duty and to excite us to humility — but it is sometimes the only truth on which we can lean, when all other reliances are swept away and we are left defenseless and forlorn.
It is a truth we need to learn more deeply, as individuals and as a nation — that God is sovereign! It has therefore been my design to connect with this solemn event, the single lesson of the absolute sovereignty of God. And having attempted this, I leave all its other and impressive lessons. This single, sublime thought, if duly received and pondered by us — will be quite enough for our profitable consideration.
The Sovereign of the sea, is also the Sovereign of the shore. His scepter waves over all worlds. "All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing! He does according to His will in the army of Heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand Or say to Him: What have You done?" Daniel 4:35
With this great fact then, every man is deeply and personally concerned. What then, my hearer, are your relations to this Sovereign God? How important this inquiry is to those who were swept into eternity from the deck of the America. If reconciled to Him, by faith in Jesus — then what does it matter if their summons came in such a sudden and fearful shape? It was not a summons of terror to the Christian. He could reach his promised Heaven just as soon from those ocean-washed planks — as from his bed at home. The angels were there to bear God's people safely home from the sinking vessel. What though his body should find its last resting place on a bed of coral — it would sleep as sweetly there wrapped in the seaweeds under the green wave, as beneath the green turf and the falling tears of sorrowing friends. And it would hear the archangel's trumpet as well at the rising day.
For the day is coming when the sea shall give up its dead.
"The gold and the jewels it has accumulated; the buried merchant vessels with all the rich freight which it has swallowed up — will be permitted to slumber unreclaimed. But no relic which has formed part of the body of a child of Adam will be left unreclaimed or unsurrendered in that day. The invalid, who in quest of health, embarked on the sea, and perished on the voyage, committed to the deep with the solemn ceremonies of religion — the pirate flung into the waves from a deck which he had made slippery with blood — the emigrant's child, whose corpse its weeping parents surrendered to the deep, on their way to a land of strangers — the whaler, going down quick into death amid his adventurous employment — the wretched slave, perishing amid the horrors of the passage — the sailor, dropped from the mast in some midnight gale — the wrecked and the dead in battle — all will arise at the last summons. The mariners of old times, who have died on their beloved element; those who rowed on the galleys of Tyre and Carthage, or manned the swift ships of Tarshish — will be there, together with the dead of our own days. The idolater, who went down from some Chinese ship while invoking his graven images; and the missionary of the cross, who perished on his way to preach the Gospel to the heathen — all, all shall be there!"
The sea may long hide them in her unfathomed caves — but when the last trumpet sounds, she must give up her dead!
So to the Christian, in that hour of death — the call to depart was not the call of terror. The Sovereign of the seas, whose power was so solemnly displayed — was both his Father and his Friend! It matters not where the child is, when the Father's message comes — it is a summons' home, and he is glad to go. "Blessed are the dead (of the sea) who die in the Lord — for they rest from their labors, and their works do follow them."
But oh! my hearer, how do you stand with the Sovereign of the land? Are you reconciled to God? It is just as important for you in your quiet home, to be at peace with God, as it was for your fellow men upon that steamer's deck. God and eternity may be just as near to you, as to them. There is but a step between you and death! It matters not where or how that step is taken; whether from the sick chamber, from the counting house, from the railway, from the ship — it matters not, if it be only taken in faith and hope.
The dead of the sea, and the dead of the land, must stand side by side before the same judgment bar. They must meet the same Sovereign God! They must look upon the same pierced Savior! They must hear the same blessing — or the same anathema. They must rise to the same Heaven — or sink to the same Hell. Upon your present relations to your eternal Sovereign, depends the position you will take when earth and sea give up their dead.
What are those relations tonight? Are you a loving, obedient, faithful subject of the sovereign King — or are you a disobedient and rebellious one? Is the Sovereign God your friend — or your foe? Are you ready for his last call? It may come as suddenly to you on the land, as to those sufferers on the sea. But no matter how sudden, if you are a Christian.
To the Christian, "Sudden death is sudden glory!"
To the unrepentant sinner, on the land or on the sea, "Sudden death is sudden damnation!"