Man's Universal Epitaph:
William Bacon Stevens
"And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred and sixty-nine years — and he died." Genesis 5:27
The book of Genesis is the only one that takes us back to the morning of the world's creation. Others begin with the origin of various tribes and kingdoms; this, alone, traces the lineage of humanity to the first man, Adam, as he stood forth fresh from the molding hand of God.
This is, indeed, a point of vast importance; but it is not on this alone that the value of this book depends. The single chapter from which our text is borrowed, though its few short verses are taken up by mere genealogical records, is yet of more worth, in a moral view, than the teeming folios of a hundred historians, aiming only to emblazon the deeds of a nation, or set off the glory of some mighty king. This single chapter is the headstone at the grave of the world before the flood, and its verses are but the epitaphs of departed generations.
The verse of my text, forming only two lines, is the record of nearly a thousand years of the world's history; and what then better fitted to teach us . . .
the transitoriness of earthly scenes;
the vanity of life;
the certainty of death —
than a passage which, in so few words, sums up the life of the oldest man that ever lived; but only recounts his age to tell us at his end, "He died!"
To get a proper idea of the life which Methuselah lived, let us imagine that he had just died, and been gathered only this year to his patriarchal fathers; and, going back to his childhood, observe the space of time which it would cover.
He would then have been . . .
over one hundred years old when paper was first introduced into Europe;
over four hundred years old when the mariner's compass was invented;
four hundred and fifty years old when the English language began to be spoken in England;
over five hundred years old when printing was invented;
over six hundred years old when America was discovered by Columbus;
nearly seven hundred years old when the Reformation of Luther began, and
seven hundred and twenty when the first English colony was planted in Virginia.
These facts are mentioned merely to give you some idea of the compass of a life which, like that of Methuselah, spanned nearly a millennium; and yet that life, the sacred historian condenses into a single sentence. Nay, more, the whole record of antediluvian history, embracing a period of over sixteen hundred years, from Adam to the Deluge, contains but twenty-seven names, twenty-three males and four females; and of one-half of these nothing is recorded but their names and the names of their first born.
How humbling is this view of human littleness! Swarming millions reduced to a few units, and the history of fifty generations condensed into six pages!
Yet every one of the thronging millions who lived in this period, carried in his own heart a history as wonderful as that which is preserved. They were each immortal; each necessary in the machinery of life, and each, however humble or obscure, contributed to the character of the age in which he lived, and the government which protected him. He was born — he lived — and he died — is the biography of individual life for nearly two thousand years.
Take another period of the many ages from the downfall of the Roman Empire to the revival of learning in the fifteenth century, embracing nine hundred years; what is the history? More names, indeed, appear upon its meager records. More acts diversify its pages; but it was, after all, a great moral and intellectual wilderness. The mind can find in it nothing but barrenness and sand; a weary, dreary wasteland of humanity. Such is the powerful winnowing process which is going on in the annals of the world; the chaff of earth's myriads sink away before it; the great mass of men are represented by but a few — "the dust of an entire nation, or the humanity of a whole age — hardly suffices to form one hero."
CITIES have fared the same as individuals. Babylon, the glory of kingdoms — is now the abode of wild beasts and doleful creatures. Palmyra, the dwelling place of Zenobia; Nineveh, "that exceeding great city, of three days' journey;" Persepolis, Ecbatana, Thebes, Athens — where are they? The very locality of some of them is disputed, and "Ichabod" is written upon all — memorials that they once lived. What then is firm ground? Where may one plant his feet and feel immutable? Nowhere — but on the Rock of Ages! "Here is firm footing — all is sea beside."
So, also, of NATIONS. Many have been swept away completely, and their names only abide in history! We turn not to the old world for illustration of this — we find its most striking examples in the new. Copan, Palenque, Uxmel, and Merida, tell of nations now extinct, leaving no written annals of their existence — the very language of their inscriptions is lost. The mysterious stones which guard, like hoary sentinels, their ruins — alone evince their greatness and their fall. This is, indeed, a humbling picture of human grandeur. But it is as true as it is humbling — and does it not show the transitoriness of everything human and earthly?
Men die, though they live, like Methuselah, many hundred years.
Cities die, and their skeleton remains lie scattered about the plains on which they once stood in pride, or else their very graves are unknown.
Nations die, and leave nothing but barren names as memorials.
Perhaps there is no passage in the Bible which more clearly shows the fleetingness of human life, than the words of the text. The life of Methuselah was the longest ever lived by man; and yet it passed "swiftly as a weaver's shuttle" — and a few strokes of the pen suffice to tell of his birth, his life, and his death!
Could we say, as we stand over a cradled infant — 'this babe shall live a hundred years' — the period would seem almost interminable, and it would require an effort of mind to grasp the space. Could we say, five hundred shall be the number of the years of this child — we would scarcely hope to conceive it. How vain, then, to send our thoughts forward nine hundred and sixty-nine years as the span of one human lifetime; and yet year followed year, and century was followed by century just as slowly as they now seem to do; but when gone, how swift appeared their flight, how brief the days which they numbered!
Now, though we may not live the twentieth part of the days of Methuselah — yet our stay on earth is sufficiently long to teach us something of the transient, fleeting, changeful state of being in which we exist. We may not see the mountains depart, nor nations fade away, nor cities crumble into ruins — but we see death ever in our midst; change ever active in the pursuits around us. Nothing today, is as it was yesterday, or as it will be tomorrow; and yet the very frequency of these changes, is one great reason why we so little note them. Nor are we able to feel how transitory everything is, until we take two different points of observation, separated by an interval of years. Look upon the sun as long as you may, and you cannot see it move; and yet between the time you saw it in the morning, and the hour you beheld it in the evening — it has run nearly the circuit of the heavens!
Just so with life! Look back upon the changes of the last ten years. Changes in yourselves, your fortunes, your position, your friends, your family. Changes in your town, your state, your country. Changes in the political, and moral, and religious aspect of things. Changes in business, in offices. In summary — changes everywhere; causing you to feel, in very truth, the vanity of everything within and around you! For "the things which are seen are temporal," and "the fashion of this world passes away."
But my text also illustrates the vanity of life. Life is not vain when viewed in its proper aspect — as the period of the soul's discipline and probation — prior to an eternal state beyond the grave. But life is vain when regarded only in its temporal aspect. When life is looked upon as a stage, and its men and women as so many actors and players. When it is regarded as an arena where the contests of mental and physical strength are to be displayed. When conceived of in the light of an Epicurean philosopher, which says, "let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" — then life is vanity, and then does my text most forcibly illustrate it by showing that though that life is prolonged hundreds of years — yet the end is, "And he died."
Now let us suppose that Methuselah, throughout his long life, had every joy and pleasure which his heart could desire; that he sought for all the delights of sense — and found them; that he courted fame — and it came to his embrace; that he desired knowledge — and obtained it; coveted glory — and it crowned his brow; asked for wealth — and it filled his coffers. Let us suppose that the glory, and wisdom, and riches of Solomon — were Methuselah's all his days; but that his heart, absorbed in these things, never prepared itself for the hour of death, and then, at last, after the slow rolling by of nine hundred and sixty-nine years — death put his cold hand upon his heart, and laid him in the tomb.
Would you not, do you not say, that such a life is vanity? What are nine hundred and sixty-nine years of unalloyed joy — compared to the mighty roll of countless ages in the eternity to come? What are nine hundred and sixty-nine years — to the mind of him who has declared that with him "a thousand years are as one day, and one day as a thousand years?" What are nine hundred and sixty-nine years of joy — when it is passed as "a watch of the night," or as a dream from which the soul wakes — to a doleful eternity?
Those two words, "he died," at the end of all these records of longevity, tell, in startling language, that life, at the best, at the longest, is vanity!
But, coming down from these antediluvian days to the present time, let your attention rest for a little while on a few pertinent examples of this solemn, but little considered truth.
Take the HERO. The man who has made his name lustrous with deeds of fearless valor; who has seen the grim and deadly front of war; who has borne off victory from his every battle-field; who has won applause from kings and senates and nations; whose name is synonymous with all that is great or glorious in the annals of military renown. Surely, the heart beats with increased pulsation as you look upon such a man. You gaze with admiration upon his person. You recount his martial prowess and his hundred conquests — and you lift up your voice with the voice of your fellows in paeans of praise to the heroic chieftain.
Is his life vanity? Yes! Why? Because it is written at the end of his life, "And he died!" — and his honors were all left on this side the grave! There are no martial glories or crowns of laurel, in the eternal world to which he goes.
Take the man who devotes his life to the pursuit of LEARNING. He obtains it. Universities strive to do him honor; the wise acknowledge him as their leader; science presents to him her goodliest offerings; literature lays many a costly treasure at his feet, and wisdom puts her hands upon his head to bless her favored child.
And is his life vanity? Yes! for "And he died!" is soon written upon his grave-stone — and "there is no knowledge, nor wisdom, nor device, in the grave where he goes."
Look at the RICH man. His aim when he began life was to get wealth — and he has succeeded. His coffers are flowing over, his barns are filled with plenty, desire is satiated, and he says to himself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy — eat, drink and be merry!"
He gathers an unbroken family around his fireside; death seems to have been bribed off from visiting his domestic circle; his children grow up beside him "like almug trees," making the air redolent with the spicery of their flowering virtues. Friends cluster around him; his name is as a charm in the marts of commerce, and he is hailed as lord of the exchange.
Is his life vanity? Yes! It is all summed up by the three words, "And he died!" — and the riches of earth are not counted riches in the world to come.
It matters not how you are regarded in your day and generation . . .
what honors are heaped upon you;
what praises are awarded;
what eminence you gain;
what wealth you possess!
Your life is vanity — if it has passed without seeking the salvation of your soul. It is the soul that alone gives life a value above that of the beasts which perish; and just in proportion as the soul is neglected — is life to no purpose — except to increase your condemnation when the words, "And he died!" shall be spoken over your coffin!
Give me a hope of acceptance by Christ, and, though you take from me everything else — life is not vain, but is full of glory! Take that hope from me, and give me everything else that the mind can conceive, or the heart desire — and life is vanity — of no purpose but to sink me deeper in eternal woe, by so much the more as I am elevated on earth. I would not barter a well-founded hope of pardon through the blood of Christ — for all the wealth that can be coined from every gold mine of the earth!
For all the honors which can cluster around the brow of fame;
for all the learning that can be stored up in the mind of wisdom;
for all the glory that could flash from the concentrated crowns of a thousand Solomons
— one little hope, linking the soul to Christ by the golden thread of faith — is richer, more glorious, more honorable than all.
There is no vanity in life — when devoted to God.
Life is all vanity — when not devoted to God.
And while to the worldling the words "And he died," close to him the door of joy, and open upon the portal of everlasting woe — to the believer in Jesus, those little words shut behind him the cares and trouble of this mortal life, and throw wide open before him those gates of pearl through which the Christian pilgrim enters into the golden streets of the Celestial City!
Not only does this brief record of Methuselah, tell us of the transitoriness of earthly things and the vanity of life — but it shows us the certainty of death. Now, as trite as the remark is, that death is certain — there is scarcely anything more unheeded! It is a truth so true — that it has ceased to startle us! And we live, saying with our lips that death is certain — but acting in our lives as if we expected it would never come! But, though a truism, I sound it in your ears again: DEATH WILL COME!
I tell the man of business, engrossed with his merchandise, buying and selling and getting gain, and all the while thoughtless of the future — "Death will soon come to you!"
I tell the man of pleasure, seeking only his personal ease and comfort, sporting in every scene of gaiety, and chasing every phantom of pleasure, that "Death will soon come to you!"
I tell the student, poring over the records of literature and science, and filling his mind to the brim with the treasures of thought and wisdom of bygone days, and who is so absorbed in the past as to forget the future, that "Death will soon come to you!"
I tell the man of ambition, aiming to climb the steep hill of fame that he may wield power over his fellows; or leave a name which a nation shall honor and history record, that "Death will soon come to you!"
Whoever you are, whatever your rank, age, condition:
your death is close at hand;
your life will soon end;
the grave will soon hold your body;
and your soul — where will that be for eternity?
This is our end; and, in view of the little concern which it gives, we can exclaim, in the language of inspiration, "O, that they were wise! O that they understood this! O that they would consider their latter end!"
Solomon spoke a solemn truth when he declared, "It is better to go to a house of mourning, than to go to a house of feasting — for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart!" Ecclesiastes 7:2.
There seems to be a delusion in the minds of most, as to the approach of death. It is always kept at a distance, as if putting death far off in our thoughts — would keep it away in fact. And, though we have many, yes, daily admonitions to the contrary — yet we . . .
banish the intruding thoughts of death,
and drive away the somber pictures of the grave,
and keep out of view the eternal realities of the world to come,
and steel our heart against . . .
a soon-coming eternity,
an all-knowing and all-holy Judge,
and a future eternal retribution!
And then we think that because . . .
our consciences are quieted by the opiates of deceit,
and our hearts are callous by the perpetration of guilt,
and our minds are reckless through absorption in seen and temporal things — that none of the prognosticated evils will come upon us! And thus we go on day by day, growing harder and harder — until death suddenly breaks in upon our dreams, and, before we can cry to God for mercy — we are hurried away to a place where mercy never comes!
This subject demands of us, a sincere and immediate preparation for death. The very uncertainty of death, which causes so many to defer preparing for it — is the very reason why we should most sedulously give it our attention. Yet, how few prepare for death — though death is the only certain event in human life!
Life is uncertain — yet you sedulously attend to its duties, cares, and pleasures.
Health is uncertain — yet you scrupulously guard it from disease.
Fortune is uncertain — yet you diligently plan new acquisitions of wealth.
Friends are uncertain — yet you aim to form new and deeper attachments.
Everything about you is uncertain — yet you live as if all things were to continue, and you will be continued with them.
But death is not uncertain! Here — all is certainty! No doubt hangs over this event! Death will come — solemnly, fully, surely. Death, amidst a thousand fluctuations and changes — is alone fixed and certain! And the question we have to settle is: How shall we meet it when it comes?
An immediate preparation, then, is necessary — because an immediate death may come. This preparation consists in an entire surrender of the heart to Jesus Christ — embracing him as our Mediator, Prophet, Priest, and King — in full and trusting confidence. So that the soul, refusing all other righteousness . . .
leans only upon the righteousness of Jesus,
clings solely to the merits of his atoning blood,
and gives to him its full and unreserved affections.
Thus, only by believing in Jesus and loving Jesus — you are fully prepared to meet death, come when it will; for you have the "faith that works by love, and purifies the heart," and in this faith, you can conquer your last enemy and shout victory over the open grave!
Nothing will enable you to meet and triumph over death — but this loving, living faith in the Lord Jesus. All other things have been tried in vain. This alone . . .
can give calmness and peace and a true hope;
can take away the sting of death;
make it a desirable and pleasant thing to die;
open before us bright visions of eternal joy in Heaven.
And when this faith is readily offered to you, when this preparation can be so easily attained, and when God himself assures you that it is the only preparation — then is it not daring rebellion to the Almighty God — to neglect to secure this offered grace, obtain this victorious faith, and be thus prepared for the approach of those days in which you must die?
Will you put off this preparation on the chance of living many years yet? What assurance from God justifies such madness? Can you even boast of having tomorrow? Do you really know what a day may bring forth? If not, how vain to hope for years, and cast off God, and peril your soul on such vain hopes — when you cannot foresee the events of a single day, or even the incidents of the coming hour! Put preparation off until next year, put it off until a convenient time, put it off one day, even — and you may have put it off forever!