These words form part of a great prophetic vision. The prophet is standing among his countrymen like a watchman on the walls of Jerusalem. And far away, as he looks, the distant horizon of his stormy sky is bright with Messianic hopes, but around him the shadows lie dark and heavy.
It was his destiny to speak to a people whose ears were dull of hearing and their hearts without understanding; but he never lost the conviction that the holy seed of God's spirit was alive in them. Amidst all present discouragement he lived in the hope of a brighter and better day, when the eyes of those around him would be opened, and their hearts changed, and a new spirit would take hold of them, and righteousness, peace, prosperity, and gladness would prevail. And no man's life is worth much which is not inspired by some such hope.
What Isaiah saw immediately around him was sin and moral blindness. What he saw immediately in front of him was the consequence of these in woe and desolation. "Year upon year," he cries, "shall ye be troubled, ye careless ones: thorns and briers shall come upon the land of my people: until the spirit be poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness shall become a planted field." But in the day of that outpouring, the heart of the people would turn and be uplifted, renewed, and purified, the wilderness would become a planted field. And this thought brings him to the final outburst of the text I have just read to you, which is a blessing on those true Israelites who realised the high calling of God's people, and were inspired to fulfil it, sowing everywhere and always the seeds of Divine influence. The whole vision is highly instructive, for it is the vision of what occurs again and again in all human history; but it is of this blessing with which it closes that I desire to say a word or two to-day.
Amidst all the threatening and discouraging symptoms of the national life, Isaiah turned to the bright vision of those servants of God whose faith should never fail, and in whom there should be no variableness, and no wavering. "Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters." Sow your seed of good influence, he seems to say to them, in good times, in bad times; sow it in this place, and in every place, sow it in the wastes of the moral wilderness, sow it in the face of every enemy, sow it in faith and hope and without fear. It is on them he depends to prepare for that happier season when the wilderness of the spiritual life around him should become as a planted field; and with prophetic insight he perceives that it is on such as these that the Divine blessing always rests. "Blessed are they that sow beside all waters." It is a text to be taken with us whenever any change comes over the circumstances of our life. If we are changing from a life of rule or discipline to a life of free choice, from school to home, from boyhood to manhood, this blessing declares that there should be no change in the attitude and purpose and aim of life.
It is another way of saying that the laws which should guide our conduct, and the principles which should inspire and direct us, are of universal application; that they know no difference of time or place, and that if they bind you here they should bind you everywhere. And simple and obvious as this may seem, it is not altogether an easy truth to carry into practice. "Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters." Your seed field is not here or there only; it lies on every side of you, and in all places; it spreads into the future farther than your eye can travel, and it will extend itself before you as you go; and the reality and vigour of good purpose in you will be determined by your recognition of this truth.
Let us consider it with reference to our own case at such a time as this.
There are always growing up here in every generation those who feel a pride in their school, and in the spirit of it, who strive honestly and earnestly to sow in their society the seeds of manliness, and truthfulness, and good tone, and purity. It would soon go very ill with this or any other society if it were not so. And those who grow up in this way are continually leaving us in their turn, and they will remember with affection the place of their high purposes and earnest and manly efforts. They go out into a new world, and travel along other streams; and blessed are they, if they continue faithful, sowing still beside all waters.
But every change brings with it some element of risk. There is nearly always something of surprise to us in the new forces that confront us in any society which we enter as strangers; and the first feeling that rises is sometimes a feeling of our own weakness or insignificance.
In such a case it is well if we have realised beforehand that our laws of conduct should not vary, and that the call of God, which we have recognised once, is a call which never ceases, and which no circumstances should make inaudible.
When we approach any change we all need this kind of warning; because there are so many things in our life which we are apt to allow our circumstances to regulate for us. Experience tells us only too plainly how much we depend upon the influences that are around us, and how often we fail to carry with us the strength we have gained in one field when we pass over to the next. With the holy we learn in some degree to be ourselves holy; with a perfect man we too are able to walk perfectly; but on the other hand, in our imitative way, as the scene changes, we sometimes find ourselves learning frowardness with the froward, practising indifference with the indifferent, if not actually slipping with the vicious into some vicious way. There is always some risk of such changes; and it is always well for us to be taking care that our better life has its root in our own heart and spirit, and that we do not wear it as a garment suited to the society in which we happen to be, and change it for the worse, if there comes any corresponding change in outward influences.
Hence it is that at these times, when we are about to separate, these words of Isaiah come to us with a very appropriate reminder: "Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters."
To those who are leaving our society to begin a new life elsewhere, as to those of us who go in the hope of returning by-and-by, they are charged with the same lesson. They bid us all alike take care and see that what is good in our present life has become our own personal and permanent possession, independent of surroundings; that it has sunk in some degree into the fibre of our character; that it is settled in us by conviction and principle, to guide and direct us everywhere, and is not merely a circumstantial garment, a sort of livery of this or that particular place, which will slip off us as we leave it.
Many of you have learnt, I feel sure of it, to feel during these your school days, the satisfaction of living here a true and worthy life; you have tasted of that pleasure which the careless, the indifferent, and the sinful hardly taste at all, the pleasure that dwells with the consciousness of earnest effort and sincere striving after the best things within us. The love of Christ may have taken hold upon you; the associations of your school and its inheritance of great and good examples, or the sense of honour may have stirred you; the feeling of your closeness in life to those around you, and of the strong currents of mutual influence, may have opened your eyes to what you owe to your neighbour and to the claims of social duty. Some one of these causes, or it may be some other cause, may have given you strength and power to walk amongst us in the narrow way of good habit and good influence. And wherever this is so, we thank God. But the question to-day is, What assurance do you feel that this will continue? When we go elsewhere, what habits, what tendencies, what fixed bent of spirit and character shall we exhibit? Knowing as we do how strongly the forces of the outer world will act upon us, it is never a useless warning which bids us take care that in new spheres we do not forget our old principles, or lay aside any good habits. "Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters."
We have learnt to look upon certain laws of conduct and feeling, certain duties, certain standards of life, as beyond dispute, and fundamental. If so, they are also of universal application; and we should hold them as things which are altogether independent of the customs, traditions, or tone of any society into which we may go.
It is probable that some of you may find this doctrine not altogether free from difficulties before many weeks are over. You may find yourselves young and apparently uninfluential members of some society in which the standards of life are low, and you may be tempted to think, under the pressure of surrounding opinion, that you are not called upon to set up or display any standard of your own; and there is always a chorus of voices ready enough to echo any such tempting suggestions.
But if ever you are tempted thus to let slip the things you have learnt and accepted, the voice of Isaiah should prove a help and a safeguard. And its exhortation is supported by the respect and admiration you feel for any one who has the courage to stand alone in such a case, true to his rooted convictions.
Another word may be added. We met, a great many of us, this morning at that table to which men do not come unless they entertain the purpose of treading in the footsteps of Christ, and of nursing His Holy Spirit in their hearts. As we lifted up our hearts there, as we ate of that bread and drank of that cup, as we prayed to be kept safe from the sins that most easily beset us, as we sealed in each other's presence the resolutions which are to direct our steps in safe paths, it was not of circumstances or places that we were thinking -- it was the vision of Christ our Saviour that was before our eyes, and we pray that this vision may remain with us. When we think of all our diverging paths as we separate just now, and of the uncertainty how many of us may meet again in that far horizon, and how many may have wandered out of the way in the wilderness, we do not doubt that we shall often need the strengthening influence of this vision of Christ, if we, too, hope to inherit the blessing which is reserved for those who are faithful under all circumstances, and who sow beside all waters.