The Setting Sun
by William Bacon Stevens
"The daylight is fading, and the shadows of evening grow long." Jeremiah 6:4
There is something at once grand and solemn in a setting sun. It is the sinking to rest of the great king of day; the withdrawing from the busy world, the light that has called out its activity; and the covering up with the veil of darkness, the scenes that glistened with the radiance of noon.
As the sun rose in the morning, it awoke the world from slumber, and sent its teeming millions to their tasks and pleasures. As it poised itself for a moment in the meridian, it shone upon an active, bustling, life-filled hemisphere; and now that it touches the edge of the western sky, and gradually shuts its burning eye — it proclaims a day of work ended, a night of rest advancing, the cessation of toil and business, and the coming in of quiet, sleep, and silence. This change, though so little considered, is very marvelous and striking: from brightness — to darkness; from noonday with its garish light — to midnight with its somber blackness; from the din and bustle of intense activity — to the repose and silence of hushing slumber; from scenes mirthful and blithe in all the adornments of art, and decked with the painted splendors of meridian light — to scenes of stillness, darkness, and death-like sleep.
There is, however, in the setting of the sun of life that which is equally grand, still more solemn, and surpassingly sublime. For,
The sun is but a spark of fire —
A transient meteor in the sky;
The Soul, immortal as its Sire,
Shall never die.
The Soul, of origin divine,
God's glorious image, freed from clay,
In heaven's eternal sphere shall shine,
A star of day!
Though the soul, by virtue of its immortality, and the eternal interests connected with it, is thus infinitely superior to the sun, which is but a mass of inanimate matter, and which, when it has served its purpose, shall be blotted out — yet there are several striking analogies between the setting of the sun of nature, and the setting of the sun of life, which suggest profitable considerations. In speaking of a human sunset — we restrict our thoughts to those only who die in the Lord, and so sleep in Jesus.
The sun when it sets, has run a whole day's circuit; his pathway has apparently traversed an entire arch of the heavens, and slowly, patiently — but surely, it has done its allotted work. And just so the aged Christian, when he dies, is described as having "run his race," as having "finished his course." He has perhaps traversed the allotted distance of human life. He has passed each of its threescore-and-ten milestones, and now stands at the verge of the horizon, waiting to sink to rest in the everlasting arms. He has toiled a whole day of life, and has come to his grave at a "good old age," having "finished the work which was given him to do." And though all his labors have been imperfectly done, though he himself feels more deeply than he can express, his unprofitableness before God — yet he looks for acceptance, not to any merit or deservings of his own — but only for Christ Jesus' sake, who of God and by faith is made unto him "wisdom and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption."
We can contemplate with satisfaction, then, the aged disciple, having "borne the burden and heat of the day," patiently waiting for the stretching out of the evening shadows, and the hour of his own sunset. His life has been consecrated to Christ. He has endeavored to walk by faith, not by sight. He has set the Lord always before him, and has run with patience the Christian race, "looking unto Jesus." He has relaxed his hold upon the world; he has renounced all righteousness in and of himself. He looks alone for salvation to the perfect and finished work of his blessed Redeemer; and, resting his whole soul and its eternal interests in the pierced hands of Him who died that he might live — he quietly awaits his appointed time, and, strong in the abounding grace of God, he is enabled to say, with a modest, though well assured triumph, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of glory, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me in that day!"
Another point to be considered is, the fact that the setting of the sun is not always like the day which it closes. The morning may have been bright — and the evening hour dark with tempests; or the sun-rising may have been obscured by clouds and mists, which gradually faded away and left a clear sky at sunset. How often, after nearly a whole day of rain and dullness, has the descending sun broken through the clouds on the horizon, and shone out between the rifted vapors with a gorgeousness all the more glorious, because of the preceding gloom! Nay, how have those very storm mists, which gathered around the west in dark and heavy folds, or which rolled upwards in murky convolutions, been so gilded with his light as to shine like burnished metal, as if the sky was plated with Solomon's "three hundred shields of beaten gold," making the whole west a scene of inexpressible glory.
So the sunset hour of Christian life does not always correspond to his previous day. We have seen the last hours of the believer shrouded in impenetrable gloom — and we have seen them gilded with hope and radiant with the forecast glories of the upper world.
The way in which a Christian dies, is not always an index of his spiritual condition. He is to he judged by his life — not by his death. The great virtues which make up Christian character are neither developed nor called into action on a dying bed; and it is not in the emotions and feelings manifested there, that we are chiefly to look for evidences of a gracious state.
the mortification of our passions,
the crucifying ourselves to the world,
the resisting of earthly temptations,
the putting into active exercise, and amidst opposing difficulties, the whole class of Christian graces which flow out from the simple principle of loving our neighbor as ourselves; and the manifestation of that life of faith, of prayer, of holiness, of zeal, which necessarily results from the constraining love of Christ in the heart — all these qualities and tests of character scarcely find a place on a dying bed, so that people thus situated have few opportunities to develop the true evidences of the work of grace.
We read, indeed, of many marked and happy deathbeds — but we also read of many closing hours of Christian life, where the believer had no special manifestations of divine favor, where no time even has been given for the utterance of feelings, and where even a melancholy bordering on despair, has cast a somber hue over the going down of the disciple's sun. We have in our mind's eye, cases of each of these, where, however, not the slightest doubt existed as to the real conversion of the individual, or as to his final acceptance in the Beloved.
There are some Christians who may be called weepers and mourners nearly all their days; their deep consciousness of sin, their extreme sensitiveness to evil, their ever present fear to offend God — make their eyes to run down with tears night and day; and so perhaps it continues until the evening sun bursts through the falling mists, and paints a beautiful rainbow of promise on the raindrops of penitential sorrow.
There are others whose faith is blurred and indistinct; they have no clear and well defined appreciation of the great truths of the Bible; their sky of religious experience is overcast with a thin layer of cloud, which, while it does not shut out the light or heat of the sun, prevents the eye from viewing it distinctly, or from enjoying its unveiled splendor. They live, perhaps for years, in this almost twilight Christianity — but as they approach the grave the vapors become thinner and thinner, until a clear strip of blue lies above the horizon, and the descending sun shines out full-orbed and glorious before he sinks to his evening rest.
There are others, whose experience is April-like: a fleckered sky is over their heads, and alternate light and shadow fall upon their path: and sometimes these come to the grave rejoicing — and sometimes sorrowing; sometimes they go down amidst a blaze of golden glory — and sometimes massive doubts and fears are banked up like clouds over the west, so that they seem to set in darkness.
These varieties of Christian experience are literally innumerable; but whatever their nature, we must not judge of the validity of one's hope, or the genuineness of one's conversion — by his dying hour. Yet, when that dying hour accords with a long life of piety, or a true profession maintained in health and strength; when it is but a concentrating within itself of the glories which have been more or less visible in the whole track of his experience — then is it eloquent in its revelations of the riches and peace and joy, which God generally gives to those who are faithful unto death.
And though we cannot order when or how our lives shall close upon earth — yet it should be our aim so to live as to secure, if God pleases — a serene, if not a triumphant exit, that our setting sun may, like the sun in the skies, grow large and more resplendent as it declines, until passing away, it shall leave behind it a trail of glory spread all over the place of our departure.
Another interesting thought connected with this subject is, that the sun is not lost or extinguished when it sets. This may seem a very trite remark concerning the natural sun — but it is not so trite when we speak of the soul-set in death. For are we not apt to grieve over the going down of our friends to the grave — as if they were to be forever hidden in its dark chamber, or as if the bright spark of their immortality had been suddenly quenched? They have gone from us; the horizon of death shuts them out of view; their light of love, of hope, of piety, shines no more upon us, and we shall never again behold them in the flesh. But they are no more lost, than the sun is lost when his red disc rolls down behind the western hills! They are no more extinguished, than the burning orb of day is quenched when he sinks beneath the waves of the ocean. For, as the sun leaving us in darkness still lights up other lands — so our departed ones shine in another sphere of existence still, not lost, not extinguished — but, if the friends of Christ, made to glow with a brighter light and a more enduring glory.
When, therefore, we stand by their coffins, by their graves, or return sad and heavy-laden to their vacant dwellings — we should not mourn for them as those without hope, we should not give vent to grief as though they were lost to us altogether. They are hidden — but not lost, removed from our sight — but not extinct. They are still alive, only with a more exquisite vitality unfettered by sin, unencumbered by flesh, undefiled by the world, dwelling as redeemed spirits in the paradise of God.
And this remark leads us to make one final observation, namely, that when we see the sun set — we know that it will rise again. And so when we see the body of our friends borne to the voiceless dwelling of the tomb — we know that they also shall rise again.
Every night of death is followed by a resurrection morning. How precious is the thought as connected with God's people, that they shall rise from the dead! How rise? With glorified bodies, upon which the second death has no power. Rise by what power? By the mighty power of God. Rise when? "When the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from Heaven with all his mighty angels, then shall they be caught up to meet him in the air!" Rise to what? To glory, honor, and immortality in the presence-chamber of God.
How these thoughts light up with brightness, every sepulcher of the righteous! How the doctrine of the resurrection throws a halo over every Christian's head-stone, and makes each open grave a little gate leading into glory!
Reader, have you lost a father, mother, brother, sister, wife, husband, child, or loved one — and were they Christ's before they died? Then lift up your heads, wipe away your tears, cheer up your hearts — for they shall come forth again before your face. Their sunset, though it left you in gloom and midnight sorrow — will soon be followed by the dawn of Resurrection day. And when the archangel's trumpet shall sound out over land and sea, awaking the myriads who slumber in earth's bosom, then shall your beloved ones who sunk to rest in Jesus — rise again, and go forth to meet and glorify their adorable Redeemer.
Thoughts like these cluster around the setting sun of the aged disciple of Jesus. Why should we wish to detain him? His work is done. Why desire to hold him back from the grave? It is through the gate and grave of death, that he passes to his inheritance above. Why be inconsolable at his departure? He is not lost, neither is the light of his mind or heart extinguished. Why mourn as those who have no hope, beside his tombstone? He shall not lie there long. He is planted there in the likeness of Christ's death — that he may rise with Christ to the resurrection of eternal life. And not many more days shall roll over you, before you and they shall all rise again; "those who have done good to the resurrection of life — and those who have done evil to the resurrection of damnation."
Rejoice rather when one you love, who is full of days and full of grace — sets like a sun behind the horizon of life. Rejoice, for he shall rise again! And when that morning of the resurrection dawns, it will usher in a day that has no clouds, a day that has no sunset — and a day that is followed by no night of sorrow or of death!
As calmly sinks the setting sun
To realms of gold in gorgeous skies;
When day and all its toils are done —
In glorious peace the good man dies.
As glow the stars when darkness falls,
To cheer the close of fading day,
So, brightening hopes, when death appalls
From Heaven gleam to light his way.
As peaceful clouds along the sky
Retain the glories of the sun.
In memory bright are floating by
His deeds of love in meekness done.
He dies! — as passed the dreary night.
The sun 'mid streams of light appears;
So, passed the valley, a holier light
Bespeaks the glorious crown he wears.
You, who art enthroned on high!
To me Your saving grace be given
To live, and like the good man die;
Like him, be crowned of you in Heaven!