"The Lord went before them by night in a pillar of fire."
"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His
Another gleam of the desert Pillar in the closing night
of all. Despite of prevailing unbelief and rebellion, the verse may
doubtless have served as an epitaph for the graves of not a few of the
Israelites in the course of their long travel from Egypt to Canaan; but
specially appropriate surely would its inscription be on the heights of
Never was "life" more "precious"; never death apparently
more baffling; never loss more irreparable. The great commander—the great
hero of that vast host, to be summoned away before his work was completed!
His eye was yet undimmed—his natural force unabated. His was manhood in its
highest consecration—manhood on which God had set His royal mark. It was in
a critical season, also, in the Exodus march, when sagacity and
forethought—all the astutest qualities of leadership were needed. Ten
thousand others might well be spared. But it was the indispensable one,
with his serene wisdom and inspiring presence, "the representative of
God," to whom the summons was addressed—"Go up and die!" (Deut. 32:49-50).
The call was meekly responded to. All alone he ascended
to his sepulcher, all alone he departed. If that departure took place at
night, he had better than symbol of fiery pillar—(the funeral candle of the
desert). The Jehovah of the radiant column was Himself close by. For not by
kinsman, or armed warrior, or stoled priest—not by man nor by angel were his
funeral rites performed. The legend on his grave is the strangest, grandest
in Scripture. It tells that the most honored of all the burial rites of
earth were his. "God buried him."
"Nobly your course is run;
Splendor is round it;
Bravely your fight is won,
Victory crowned it.
In the high warfare
Of heaven grown hoary,
You are gone like the summer's sun,
Shrouded in glory!"
We can imagine next day, as the sun rose on the mourning
camp, how the tribes or the best among them, as they realized their void,
would, with bated breath, give expression to their emotion by antedating, in
spirit at least, the words of the Psalmist: "Precious in the sight of the
Lord is the death of His saints!"
Reader, though in circumstances more personal and
domestic, you may at this moment be absorbed in grief over the enigma and
mystery—the havoc and defiances of death. The desire of your eyes and the
delight of your heart may have been taken from you. You may be, indeed you
are, unable yet to grasp hold of the words at the head of this meditation or
get beyond the natural expression of the broken heart—"Precious is the
Life!" You are standing by a sepulcher of buried hopes. The hush of
oblivion—a silence that almost may be felt is around you. It was but
yesterday existence was a "valley of vision" opening everywhere glades and
vistas. Now it is a yawning chasm spanned with a "Bridge of Sighs," from the
farther side of which seems to come the dirgeful, piteous accents—"Those who
would pass from hence to you cannot!"
All that seems left now are inanimate portraits looking
down from the walls. You have memories—doleful souvenirs and associations—no
more; the flower planted in the garden; the love-birds with drooping wings
in the untended cage; the hushed notes of favorite music; the unshared walk
by stream or meadow; it may even be the deserted plaything or unused toy.
The charm has retired from these life-pictures. The once long, prophetic
dream has vanished like summer lightning. You had fondly hoped to keep your
loved ones at your side—to claim their ministries of affection in times of
sickness, perplexity, trouble—saying, in the great Master's words, "Tarry
here and watch with me!" What havoc a few brief months have wrought! Your
castles of golden sand! One wave, or it may be wave upon wave, of calamity
has come, and swept them away. Whether it be beautiful natures, or strong
natures—the one like the graceful birch and its tresses, the other like the
ancestral oak "moored in the rifted rock." At morning they were bathed in
sunlight or fanned by gentle zephyrs; but the unforeseen storm has been let
loose, and the things of "beauty and strength" lie prone on the ground. As
you sit under your "Oak of Weeping," casting its shadows on the grave of the
loving and beloved, these lines of an unknown mourner may express simply and
pathetically your experience—
"What did the old year bring?
Six feet of sod in the acre of God
Where the robins sweetly sing.
"What did the old year bring?
A silent hearth and a saddened earth,
With the loss of everything."
Or words of pathetic tenderness and truth, better known—
"Break, break, break,
At the foot of your crags, O sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Shall never come back to me!"
No, say not "Never." That sick-bed, that grave, has a
better beyond. In the midst of your tears, listen to the words of this old
minstrel of Zion. Let them steal into the hushed chamber like a serenade of
angels—"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints!"
Death with its densest darkness to sight and sense (a pillar of cloud
indeed), is, in the words of the poet, "stricken through, with rays from the
inner glory"; the hopes full of immortality. As the Pillar that was all
gloom and mystery to the Egyptians was all light to Israel, so is the gate
of death when seen from within the heavenly portals. An iron gate on this
side; on that, "every gate was one of pearl" (Rev. 21:21).
"You grope, tear-blinded, in a darksome place,
And touch but tombs. Look up, these tears will run
Soon in long rivers down the lifted face,
And leave the vision clear for stars and sun."
Let not the depressing "nether voice and vision" recall
to you only the shrine once so sacred, now a heap of dust mouldering to
decay. Death is not annihilation. It is the blossom dropping, that the
immortal fruit may ripen. The bud forming—waiting to burst forth into
verdure next spring—is the cause of the old leaf falling off. It is truly to
make way for a better, a more blessed Easter, in which decay is unknown.
George Herbert's thought of the passing from this world to glory, as "going
from one room to another," is a feeble exponent of the reality. I like
Mason's definition better, "Death is the funeral of all our evils, and the
resurrection of all our joys." It is a step in the infinite progression of
the soul. It is the encasing sheath taken from the cocoon to let the
incarcerated spirit free. It is God's own summons—"Come up higher." The
casket may perish—the jewel is indestructible. Jesus Himself encountered
death; He entered the dark valley and its darkest experiences with a hymn of
triumph "Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in Him!"
(John 13:31). In a lowlier sense, your dear departing ones, falling or
fallen asleep, can echo these words of their dying, ever-living Lord.
The last saying of a well-known Christian
senator—venerable in years as mature in faith, may be recalled: "You are
leaving," said his friend, "the land of the living." "Say not so," was his
reply; "I am leaving the land of the dying, and going to the land of the
"Farewell, farewell, my beloved!
We must say farewell again,
And I know that your heart is breaking
With a great and speechless pain.
Yet things are clear to the dying,
Which the living cannot see,
And God, in His infinite mercy,
Has comfort for you and me.
Soon we shall think on the parting,
And the sorrow it gave, no more;
Yet we could not have known such gladness
Unless we had wept before."—Caillard.
Ponder, also, the beautiful clause in our
motto-verse—"Precious in the sight of the Lord." Natural—only too
natural—is the clinging of the bereft heart rather to the preciousness of
the life. It is different with the great Life-giver. He sees His work
done—the mission of existence completed. Life is but a loan from Him. At His
good pleasure He revokes the grant and resumes His own. As a father rejoices
to welcome back again his son from the distant colony after years of
absence—as the shepherd of the parable rejoices with the angels of heaven
over the "lost and found"; so, in the sight of the great Lord of all,
precious is death: because it takes the pilgrim to his heavenly
Haven, the child to his heavenly Home. As with Moses, GOD "buries" your
loved ones yes, and "His own beloved ones," that He may leave all
that can die in the earthly valley, and take all that lives
forever to Himself in the eternal Canaan. Whether it be from the heights of
Pisgah, 4000 years ago, or from the grassy turf and "mouldering heap" of the
quiet British church-yard of today, there comes the chime—the blessed
requiem: "The beloved of the Lord shall dwell in safety by Him" (Deut.
Yet another thought, suggested casually in an interesting
volume describing simple Christian peasantry under the sunny skies of
Northern Italy, with a faith different from ours, but with hearts the same.
At times, with them, as with us, loved ones are taken, the knowledge of
whose preciousness is confined to the home circle. They die otherwise
unknown. While outwardly more distinguished lives and deaths are unfolded in
volumes to the world, their deeds, their gracious characters, loving words
and loving ways are left unchronicled. But, unrecognized by man, they are
not forgotten in heaven. There are recording angels in default of human
pens. The writer tells the beautiful myth (a poetical way of stating a
reality), "They have a story in the Veneto, that the angels come down into
the Campo Santo at night with their golden censers, and burn incense
at the grave of those saints whom nobody knows." "Precious," whether
in peasant garb, or in silent chamber, or in priestly clothing, or in royal
robe—"in the sight of the Lord" and of His angel-watchers, "is the death of
His saints." "The Lord knows those who are His."
Oh, 'tis a placid rest,
Who shall deplore it?
Trance of the pure and blest,
Angels watch o'er it!
Sleep of their mortal night,
Sorrow can't break it;
Heaven's own morning light
Alone shall wake it."
Bereaved mourner! let these gleams of the Pillar
irradiate your present desert darkness. Perhaps He who has taken your dear
one from the loves and affections of earth, wishes the more, and the better,
to raise your love to Himself. He points you to your withered and blighted
flower, and tests you with the challenge—"do you love ME more than
these?" Seek, as one of the results of your trial, to make Him increasingly
the focus of your being—the Center in the circumference of your present
sorrow. Earthly "presences" are gone. But thus would the unchanging God
speak from the cloudy pillar by day and the fiery pillar by night—"My
presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest." He would take you
now, as Christ did His disciples, from the Valley of trial up to the Mount
to get these glimpses and pledges of reunion—assurances that when those,
like Moses and Elias on the heights of Hermon, have departed, you are left
with better than the best of earthly friends: "They saw no man save Jesus
If blighted memories of the years that are fled be beyond
recall, look forward with confidence to everlasting fellowship in a
deathless heaven: they and you with Christ, and Christ and you with them.
Resume the midnight march saying, "Let Your loving Spirit lead me forth to
the land of righteousness" (Psalm 143:10).
Happy those, who, with love thus revived, and faith
strengthened, and resolves quickened, and ties with the glorified renewed,
can prolong the verses already quoted—
"What will the new year bring?
No more to roam from the heavenly home,
Where the joy-bells ever ring.
"What will the new year bring?
A year nearer rest with Him I love best,
In the presence of our King."
"I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in His word
do I hope."