"The Lord went before them by night in a pillar of fire."
"I said, In the noontide of my days I shall go into the
gates of the grave."—Isaiah 38:10 (R.V.).
"The Lord will strengthen him upon the bed of
languishing: You will make all his bed in his sickness."—Psalm 41:3.
"This sickness is…for the glory of God, that the Son of
God may be glorified thereby."—John 11:4.
"O Lord, by these things men live."—Isaiah 38:16.
One desert experience to which we may well early
advert, an experience to which truly may be given the designation of
"Night," is the season of bodily pain and suffering. Is there no
flash of the Pillar of Fire, in the shape of consolation and comfort, here?
Let none make light of physical prostration. Only those
who have passed through the ordeal can tell of its severity; specially where
prostration is combined with acute anguish. Afflictions cannot well be
compared. It is wrong and needless to do so. But, while mental agony, the
pang of bereavement, as well as other forms of unspoken suffering intenser
still, have their terrible environments, the couch of sickness has a
gloom all its own. In other phases of trial there are mitigations—lulls in
the storm; the sweet influences of nature, the sympathy of friends, and so
on. But calm rest is simply impossible when every nerve is racked with
torture. Day and night seem to have no room for other than the one
monotonous dirge—the passionate questioning—"When shall I rise and the night
be gone?"—"Would God it were evening! would God it were morning!"
"All night I kept my lone and silent vigil,
And looked in vain
For kindly sleep to soothe my restless tossings
And set me free from pain.
I watched until the dawn's first doubtful glimmer
Stole through my curtained room,
And broke with pale grey lights and greyer shadows
Its formless gloom."—Caillard.
And then, say as we may, there is generally deepest
mystery in these experiences. Bereavement has its appropriate,
accepted solaces; the sweet memories of buried love; above all, the thought
of the bright Beyond. But these weary vigils of throbbing pain seem to
forbid respite. The world's pleasures, lavishly granted to others, seem
strangely, I had almost said cruelly, denied and withdrawn. In many cases
the poor flickerings of life are all that remain; the long fierce battle is
too surely a losing one—
"And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave!"
Yes, to many, bereavement has its higher, loftier
solaces: the Bible, with its promises; prayer, with its strengthenings; the
House of God, with its teachings. But in the case of the sufferer on his
couch, even Holy Scripture for the time is, in many cases, a sealed book:
the gates of prayer are closed; the footpath to the Mercy-seat is
weed-grown. The distant Sabbath bells only convey the remembrance of
hallowed associations with "the multitude that kept holiday." There is
around nothing but an immensity of darkness! Other broken harps have their
surviving strings and lingering chords; but the sick man gazes only on "the
harp on the willows"—life's sweetest music fails to charm, loving looks fail
to be recognized, loving words wake up no responsive smile—the vital springs
of being are shattered. In bereavement, God's righteousness is "like the
great mountains": it is patent, visible. But often, in sickness, His
judgments are hidden from human view in an unsounded "deep!" What then?
After such an indictment as this, does light from the wilderness Column for
the first time seem impossible? "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no
Physician there?" Can we only discern the dismal side of the Pillar—all
cloud, no brightness. If we see our Lord, is it only as the disciples saw
Him in their midnight sea? Supposing Him to be an avenging angel, a spirit
from the deep, "they cried out for fear!" Or, if the peril increases, can we
do no more than hold our breath while life is trembling in the balance and
the King of terrors passing by?
There is balm, not from Gilead and its mountains
of myrrh, but from the everlasting hills of heaven. The flaming Presence
is there; and "gives light by night to these." Let us seat ourselves
under its gleam and gather a few thoughts of comfort.
Tried one, think of all you are now suffering as
needed discipline—the strange but sure pledge of a Father's love. These
weary days and nights, be assured, are "appointed," to train you for
Himself, His work and service now, and for His beatific presence hereafter.
Builders at times construct new houses out of ruins. God often does so. From
ruined shattered frames He builds up new spiritual dwellings, everlasting
habitations. Without that discipline you would miss precious lessons. You
would willingly evade these; but the evasion would involve sensible loss—a
deprivation of moral and spiritual strength. It is no mere hollow sentiment,
but a proved experience from the memory of long sickness: "It is good for me
that I have been afflicted" (Psalm 119:71). "O Lord, by these things men
live, and in all these things is the life of my spirit: so will You recover
me, and make me to live" (Isaiah 38:16).
"If any of you have ever stood and watched moth or
butterfly emerge from the cocoon, you will have noticed, after the first
little opening, with what seemingly pained struggle the young wings are
striving to free themselves. In your pity you take up the cocoon, and end
the struggle by carefully cutting open the useless shroud and freeing the
living winged creature. It is said that any such kindness simply means an
undeveloped wing-power, by which the butterfly will never be able to soar
and enjoy its life. That struggle is the needful condition of full
wing-power. Men who cannot struggle can never soar" (Lovell).
To use a different illustration, no stroke of the chisel
in the hand of the Great Craftsman is unnecessary. The soul, like the facets
of the diamond, needs the best and sharpest tools to fashion it into a gem
for the Redeemer's crown. This is specially true of those to whom the
present meditation is addressed. Many an angel of resignation speeds up to
heaven from the sick-couch with the message, "Made perfect through
Remember this, you who are now undergoing the desert
experience, wandering through the wilderness "in a solitary way." There is
no place, no occasion (just because of its dreariness and weariness) where
God can be more glorified than on a couch of pain, or where more real
spiritual strength is imparted. In the words of one of our motto-verses,
"The Lord will strengthen him upon the bed of languishing. You will
make all his bed in his sickness" (Psalm 41:3). To use the familiar earthly
phrase, how many in that peculiar school of suffering have "graduated with
honors." They came out of "great tribulation." Tribulation—the
threshing-flail—the grain-sifter, as the root-word imports, winnowing the
husk from the seed. And this "tribulation" (taking the Apostle's words in
his great chapter) "works" (not impatience, as we would have
expected, but) "patience; and patience, experience; and experience,
It was the smitten rock of the desert that yielded
the refreshing waters. Your own feeling, perhaps, may be that with you there
can be no such stream; that pent up in that couch of disease and suffering,
life is useless—effort for good is denied. You are like the wounded bird
with broken wing struggling in the furrow; envying those around you in their
capacity of flight and soaring. Perhaps, though reluctant to own it, you may
be among the faithful toilers who have broken down, by reason of your very
fidelity to duty. The bow was overstrained, and the bowstring has snapped;
the harp-chord was overstrained, and the music has ceased. This is the
history of many an arrested ministry at home or in the Mission-field. The
life of excessive consecration has only paid its martyr penalties. Many a
sick-bed sufferer reminds one of the Marechal Niel rose that flowers so
luxuriantly as often to bloom itself to death. By the very profusion of
goodness the root becomes weakened, the overloaded blossom exhausts the
mortal energy. But, be still; God has work for you to do, when the wings are
clipped and the eye is filmed. If activities are impossible, not so
the exercise of the passive virtues.
While you may be bewailing curtailed opportunities and
baffled purposes, you can in other ways "glorify Him in the fires." You may
see in that shattered body of yours only the house in ruins of which I have
spoken, while, in His sight and under His loving discipline, you may in
truth be noiselessly rearing an angel-visited temple. Yours is a shadowed
couch; but it is in "the shadow of His hand" He has "hidden you." You
may be able to say nothing and to do nothing; yet you can remember, in your
very helplessness, Milton's noble line—"They also serve who only stand and
"The Lord is good to those who wait for Him." Thus
have many stricken souls, by patience and resignation under protracted
anguish, been made preachers of righteousness; the chamber of suffering and
the bed of languishing made as the House of God and the Gate of heaven! They
have been unconsciously singing "Songs without words," and if called to
depart, have left a trail of light behind them. The bereft, who long loved
to watch that couch, will recall the "patience with joyfulness" of its
The following verses are from the "Swan-Song"—written on
his death-bed, and found after his departure—of one of the best and best
known of our hymn-writers. The place where Horatius Bonar penned the words
gives emphasis to the silent farewell testimony—
"Long days and nights upon this restless bed
Of daily, nightly, weariness and pain!
Yet You are here, my ever-gracious Lord,
Your well-known voice speaks not to me in vain
'In Me you shall have peace!'
"The darkness seems long, and even the light
No respite brings with it, no soothing rest
For this worn frame; yet, in the midst of all,
Your love revives. Father Your will is best.
'In Me you shall have peace!'
"Sleep comes not, when most I seem to need
Its kindly balm. Oh, Father, be to me
Better than sleep; and let these sleepless hours
Be hours of blessed fellowship with Thee.
'In Me you shall have peace!'
"Father, the hour has come; the hour when I
Shall with these fading eyes behold Your face,
And drink in all the fullness of Your love.
Until then, oh, speak to me Your words of grace—
'In Me you shall have peace!'"
Above all, look, suffering one, to Him who among His
other experiences as the Man of Sorrows knew, as no one else did, the
combination of mental and bodily anguish. "He Himself bore our
sicknesses." He, the Great Physician, has, in His Divine-human Person,
walked the wards of the Hospital of humanity. If, as we believe, the
strongest natures feel deepest—are often most sensitive to pain, surely in a
Divine sense was this true of the Ideal Man—the Prince of sufferers—who
alone could make the challenge, "Was there ever any sorrow like unto My
sorrow?" "Can you drink of the cup that I drink of, and be baptized with the
baptism that I am baptized with?" "Yet learned He obedience by the things
which He suffered." "The Lord," said Savonarola on the morning he was
led out to execution, "suffered as much for me."
We cry in our agony, in weakness, failure, perplexity of
heart, that there is no hope nor help. No hand seems to direct the storm, no
pity listens. "God has forsaken us," we say. Do we say so and not recall the
words which fell on that great victory on Calvary—fell from the Conqueror's
lips, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" "Blackness of darkness and
despair, and feebleness sinking without a stay: these are not failures. In
these characters was written first the character of our deliverance: these
are the characters in which it is renewed" (Hinton).
There is no verse in all the Bible that carries with it a
more wondrous message of consolation to the couch of sore suffering than
this—it identifies you with the suffering Christ—"Beloved, think it not
strange concerning the fiery trial that is to try you, as though some
strange thing had happened to you: but rejoice, inasmuch as you are
partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when His glory shall be revealed,
you may be glad also with exceeding joy" (1 Peter 4:12, 13).
"O trust yourself to Jesus,
When you are tried with pain,
No power for prayer—the only thought
How to endure the strain.
"Then is the hour for proving
His mighty power in thee;
Then is the time for singing,
'His grace suffices me.'"
Come, O sufferer! and like the peasant woman of Galilee
touch the hem of His garment. Listen, O sufferer! to the dual chimes
floating across the river, under the last gleam of the Wilderness
Pillar—"Neither shall there be any more pain." "The inhabitant shall not
say, I am sick."