By J.R. MacDuff
(Preached Before a Young Men's Christian Association)
"For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell asleep and was laid to his fathers." Acts 13:36
David, "the man after God's own heart" had been consigned to his grave. He had passed away like the sun of a summer or autumn evening from his place among his fellows.
But has the glory of that lustrous orb finally departed, as he sinks in the horizon? Do no surviving rays linger after his earthly course has run? Is his harp now left to moulder on the willows of Zion? Nay, nay, there is music to this hour in those silent strings. The light of his life, and influence, and character survives the tomb — the beams of the vanished luminary loiter and linger on the hoary mountain tops. As we stand by the mausoleum on the brow of his own holy hill, we listen to the eulogy pronounced over him by one who had imbibed much of his spirit, and is now sharing his own crown. "For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep and was laid to his fathers."
In deducing from these words moral and spiritual lessons, I would observe generally, that each individual in this life has some great purpose to fulfill. "David served his own generation."
Everything in the wide universe has its special mission. The flower fulfills its design by unfolding its colors or scattering its sweet fragrances wherever it blooms. As we see it dropping one by one its decayed and withered leaves, we feel its little destiny in its own little world has been attained.
The lark as it mounts in the air, and chants its carol ("singing up to Heaven's gate") fulfills its mission by these tuneful melodies.
If we take a loftier survey, and ascend amid the glories of the firmament, we see the sun fulfilling his great appointment to give light to the system: coming forth "like a bridegroom from his chamber, and rejoicing as a strong man to run his race." Or the moon, that faithful sentinel, lavishing her nightly care on the earth — a majestic beacon-light to land and ocean.
Turn to whatever page we may in the vast volume of creation, we shall find in each, the record of some peculiar office and vocation. Mountains and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and vapor, stormy wind — all fulfill the word and decree and design of God.
And is it different with man?
Has he alone no momentous work to perform in the economy in which he is placed?
Is our whole earthly destiny to eat and drink, and sleep and die?
Are we to fritter away our brief hour on life's stage; to be ushered in with a few rejoicings at our birth, followed by a few tears at our departure? And when our sun has gone down, when the grass of the grave covers our resting places — shall we be as if we never were?
How many there are who, to all appearance, think so! They have never yet awakened to a sense of their high destiny, as having a part to act, and a sphere to occupy. Their inward feeling seems to be that in this great world, with its teeming millions, that . . .
it signifies nothing how they live;
they soon shall be as though they never existed;
when they sink into the tomb — it will be like the vessel going down in mid-ocean. There will be a few plungings and heavings as it momentarily wrestles with the storm; but the tempest sweeps, the sea opens its yawning mouth, the waves close over it — and then resume their usual play! Not a trace or vestige remains; the place that once knew it, knows it no more!
My brethren, that solemn, that momentous reality they call life is no plaything! It was given as the mightiest of possessions, and loaded with immeasurable responsibilities. The weighty saying, which many a tongue was taught earliest to lisp was this, "Man's chief end is to glorify God!"
Have you ever, in sober seriousness, realized what is the meaning of these two simple words, "I LIVE"? Have you ever, in due solemnity, thought of the familiar utterance in prayer, "O Lord, I bless You for my creation"? Nay, that not only with reference to yourself, but with reference to others — that creation is either a blessing or a curse, and must be perpetuated as such; that if it be not the one it must be the other? Yes, you and I are now living, and in spite of ourselves we must live eternally after death.
The remains of ancient Nineveh — its winged symbols of power have been untombed from the dust of ages. Its hieroglyphics of forty centuries shed a light on the past and have sent their words to the ends of the earth. The coral and alabaster rocks are the monuments and mementos of thousands of years, records of hoary time silently discoursing on eras long antecedent to the creation.
Just so with man, and the more enduring influence of mind and character. His influence, unknown to him, descends from age to age. Nineveh and all its living throng have long ago passed away. The world's rocks and mountains have this carved on their stupendous brows: "They shall perish!"
But the human mind, the record of thought, and character, and example, is imperishable. Little did David think when he was humbly serving his God, either in early days amid the flocks of Bethlehem, or in later years in the palaces of Zion, that he would form one of the great waymarks of all time, his name and words recounted by unborn multitudes. Speaking only of the better and brighter phase of his history, little did he think, when he was mentally maturing the building of a material temple, that in his own priceless Psalms, he was uprearing for every age a glorious edifice, whose walls were salvation and its gates praise; thus not only serving God in his own generation, but, as he himself expressed it. Writing "for the generation to come, that the people which should be created- might praise the Lord!"
His position was in one sense indeed peculiar and unique. He formed a conspicuous landmark among his fellows. "The fierce light that beats upon a throne" brought out in bold relief the features of his varied and chequered life alike in their grandeur and their baseness.
But what may have been in a greater sense with him, is equally true in a lesser sense with every one of us, though our names are unknown and our spheres limited.
Oh, truly it is a solemn thought that each one of you is exercising some influence, either for good or for evil. If you are not serving your day and generation for the better — then you must be serving it for the worse. There can be no such thing as mere neutral influence. You must either, like the aromatic plant, be diffusing a grateful fragrance — or, like the fabled lethal Upas tree, be casting a deadly shadow all around. And if so, it well befits us individually to address to ourselves the personal question: "Am I fulfilling the great end and design of my being?"
Or, is it that I have done nothing to serve my God, or to benefit my fellow-men? Am I one of the men of Meroz — the "do-nothings," on whom the curse formerly fell! Were I summoned to my dying hour this day, could I point to one thing, in this blank existence of mine, in which I had sought the promotion of God? Would no gap be made or felt by my absence?
Yonder fig-tree on the way to Bethany is a parable designed to warn and instruct in every age. See it — stinted, shriveled, withered. It had borne no fruit. It had not fulfilled the design of its creation; and a tender, gracious Savior pronounces upon it the cumberer's sentence and the cumberer's awful doom!
Happy are those who, like the minstrel King of Judah, have been led to regard life as a golden talent — who have realized its momentous requirements and stern responsibilities.
True, the old Hebrew monarch failed, grievously failed, in maintaining loyalty to the God of Heaven without blot or stain. How lamentably low he fell beneath his once divine ideal! His sun, as glorious as it was, went down amid weeping clouds — and bitterer tears still would he have shed could he have foreseen the many taunts and scoffs with which the enemies of truth have pointed to his crimson crimes.
His influence, however, on the whole was good. The dark passages of his life-story are left to warn — while the loftiness of his aspirations is still bequeathed for our imitation and rebuke. Yes! sleep on, mighty hero! Peace to your ashes! You served your God, and that too in high places in your day and generation. If you had never lived, this great world would have been the loser. Without you, Zion would have missed her temple, kings and monarchs a consecrated example; the Church would have forfeited that glorious inspired legacy of sanctified genius, which has dried many a mourner's tear and healed and soothed many a heart crushed with sorrow! If you were to break your slumbers, or rather, to come a visitant from the spirit-land, you would hear a teeming chorus of voices this day in the Church throughout all the world, like the noise of many waters, chanting your undying words!
There would be a blank in our Bibles, there would be a blank in our memories; there would be a blank in our sublimest solaces — if the harp of the sweet singer of Israel had never been strung, and his lips never tuned to pour out these jubilant and soothing numbers. He may well fall asleep and be gathered to his fathers: for he has stirred a noble ripple, which extends, and will extend, to remotest shores! He has left his indelible footprints on the sands of time! More than a million suns have risen and set on his grave; but his voice is still heard: "he being dead yet speaks."
But let us note, farther (and this is the only other point to which I shall advert), the special sphere and limit of influence spoken of in the text. It is "his own generation."
We have thus spoken of David's influence as extending far beyond his own age. But observe that there is nothing specially said in the text about posthumous influence; nothing said about his serving posterity. Nay, rather, it is "his own generation."
And not only was this the peculiar vocation he was called to discharge, but he seems powerfully to have been impressed with the same idea himself: for in the seventy-first Psalm, which was penned in the close of life, he says: "Now when I am old and gray-headed, O God forsake me not, until I have showed Your strength unto this generation.''
We have thus brought before us the practical, all-important truth, that our duties and sympathies are mainly to be occupied with the age in which we live, among our fellow men. And though it is true with regard to each one of us also, as with David — that our influence reaches beyond death — that the wave which touches one age must affect following ages — yet the specific claim and responsibility is with our own generation.
Here, too, it behooves us to interpose the personal interrogatory, What is the peculiar ability with which God has invested me, and with which I can best serve Him? Is it wealth. Is it intellect, or art, or science, or literature? Is it public station, or private influence? Whatever it is, let me seek to occupy it until my Lord shall come; that when He comes, He may receive His own with interest.
Nor should any ability be regarded as too small and insignificant. It is in the moral and spiritual as in the natural world, the tiniest particle, the invisible globule helps to load the cloud which descends either in gentle showers or in terrific storms. The lowliest and humblest rower propels the vessel. The lowliest and humblest, can help directly or indirectly to untie the bandages from a sin-stricken, woe-worn world, and send it forth from its fevered couch, walking and leaping, and praising God. If from peculiarity of disposition or situation some may feel as if they were unequal to the outward activities of Christian work and service, yours may be the silent but equally potent example of a holy, meek, loving, peaceful life.
In outer nature there are varieties of forces; some active, energetic, busy, noisy, and obvious to all. There are others not less striking and important — working secretly, and only known by their effects.
The foaming torrent and thunderous waterfall is gradually wearing away the rock on which it lands. Around it, up the steep ascent, are the winter trees. In their bare and leafless stems, more quickly, though noiselessly, another and far different process is going on. The sap, unseen and unnoticed, is creeping up their pores. Silently they are "with verdure clad," until they come to wave in their summer glory.
Characteristically says Luther, regarding his most faithful and beloved associate, Melancthon: "I was born to contend on the field of battle with factions and wicked spirits. This is why my works abound with war and tempests. It is my task to uproot the stock and the stem, to clear away the briers and brush, to fill up the pools and the marshes. I am the rough woodsman, who has to prepare the way and smooth the road. But Melancthon advances quietly and softly: he tills and plants the ground; sows and waters it joyfully, according to the gifts that God has given him with so liberal a hand."
"Timid before men," the historian of the Reformation thus aptly records regarding one of the English worthies, "timid before men — he was full of boldness before God; and day and night called upon Him for souls. But while kneeling in his closet others were at work in the world."
It is a noble influence, you truly say, that of the minister of the Gospel, swaying hundreds by pure and holy and heart-stirring appeal. But remember the aphorism, "While preaching moves earth — prayer moves Heaven!"
Further, with regard to this apportionment of duty and service of which I speak, we learn from our text the comforting truth, that all our situations and positions in life are Divinely ordained. "David served his own generation by the will of God" or, as the word means, "by the appointment of God." He gives us our allotted tasks, He sets the bounds of our habitation. Nay, more, He adapts us for the sphere or department which He wishes us to occupy. He suits the soldier to his place — and the place to the soldier.
It is He also, our text tells us, who appoints for us the hour of our death. It was by the will of God David "fell asleep." It was the Divine word and summons which silenced his earthly harp, and called him to a higher minstrelsy, amid ministering seraphim. "When your days are fulfilled," said God to him by the mouth of Nathan, "When your days are fulfilled" (not before) "you shall sleep with your fathers."
But on this and other suggested topics I shall not enlarge. Let me rather conclude by saying a few words in connection with the special occasion of this discourse.
"The Young Men's Christian Association" is a cheering title. It speaks of many of the youth of this place associated for mental and intellectual culture: but who are wishful to proclaim that a nobler and holier bond of union cement them: that they glory in the name of Christian. They are confederated to serve Christ in their day and generation.
My young friends and brothers, members of this society, I congratulate you on your recognition of the great truth which has been engaging us, that you can do something, and that you are doing something for God. I know well your trials and your temptations. I have seen more than once, in a rural sphere of labor, the tear standing in the parents' eyes as they bade farewell to their boy as he was being launched for the first time from the cottage of his birth, amid the evils and snares of a great city like this. There may be such here among us — someone who has not long ago left the sanctities of a distant home with all the hallowed memories of a mother's prayers and a father's counsels. You have not dishonored or abused the confidence they have reposed in you. You have manfully breasted the torrent; and in this momentous period of your existence — when your characters are just molding — when much depends on the stand you now make, the principles you now imbibe, the friendships you now form — you have wisely avouched the Lord to be your God, and resolved to follow the ways of holiness, which are the ways of happiness.
Make it your earnest endeavor and prayer, that whatever your lot or position or circumstances in life may be, that you may be enabled to glorify Him, either by some lowly services — or by the quiet unostentatious influence of a pure, consistent, godly life.
Others of your own age (perhaps your own associates in daily business), may allow themselves to become the prey of shallow minds and depraved companionships, suffering all that is noble in human nature to be drifted on the rocks, making shipwreck of faith and of a good conscience. Yes, and not only ruining themselves, but dragging other vessels freighted with immortality down the same dark whirlpool of perdition! Be it yours not only to serve your God, but so to live that the world may be the better for you, and that when you die and your hand lies withering in the grave — the seed dropped by that hand, years on years before, may spring up bearing fruit to the glory of God.
Yes! you young men who love Christ, and feel honored to be among what Bunyan calls "the Army of the Lord," yours is a vast responsibility, yours a glorious mission! The spiritual well-being of this country of ours for the next generation is, under Him, very much in your hands; your example for good may not only extend to those now around you and with whom you come in daily contact, but the seed we have spoken of may germinate from one age to another. Those you may never be spared to see, may thank God that you have lived.
Difficult undoubtedly it may be (situated as many of you are) to do something in the way of actively influencing others. We are aware of the opposition you are called to encounter, in these our days, when a rampant infidelity is coming in like a flood, when licentiousness walks with unblushing front our streets, when dens of dissipation and iniquity crowd our lanes, when thousands of unwary youth are engulfed in the awful vortex, and the broad way is still, as ever it was, the densely crowded one. We know the battle you have to fight, we know the inequality of numbers. Yet be not discouraged. We have seen lately in another land what a handful can do, with bold hearts in a sacred mission, grappling with hot suns and swarming foes! And shall it be otherwise in the moral warfare.
Only be strong and of a good courage. Go forth to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty. And if others scorn that holy name, and to treat with levity these words of truth and soberness we preach, be it yours (conscious of the grandeur of your destiny and the sacredness of your cause) to bear amid the world's fiery temptations and legion foes, the old watchword and battle-song, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ!" "Whatever others do, as for me I will serve the Lord."