(For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, because our days on earth are a shadow:)
The author of "Ecce Homo" has remarked that Westminster Abbey is more attractive than St. Paul's Cathedral. The reason is obvious. Westminster Abbey is full of human interest. There lie our kings, poets, and conquerors. Statues of great men in characteristic attitudes confront us at every turn. St. Paul's, on the contrary, is comparatively barren in this respect. An imposing temple it is, nevertheless, almost empty. As much may be said of Dante and Milton. The poems of the former are occupied with the hopes and fears, loves and hates of those who were "of like passions with ourselves," whereas the productions of the latter are occupied with heaven and hell rather than with our own familiar earth. To which of these classes the Bible belongs we need not state. While Divine in its origin, it is intensely human in its theme, end, and sympathies. Man's dangers and duties, character and condition, absorb the anxiety of each sacred writer. The text reminds us of this. It speaks of life. Our existence is compared to a shadow. The figure is a favourite one in the Old Testament. No less than eight times is it used. What does it mean?
I. A SHADOW IS DARK. We always associate the word with that which is gloomy and sombre. And, alas! how dark is life to many! To them the statement of Holy Writ emphatically applies, "Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery." As Sydney Smith observed, "We talk of human life as a journey, but how variously is that journey performed! There are those who come forth girt, and shod, and mantled, to walk on velvet lawns and smooth terraces, where every gale is arrested and every beam is tempered. There are others who walk on Alpine paths of life against driving misery and through stormy sorrows, over sharp afflictions; walk with bare feet and naked breast, jaded, mangled, and chill." Yonder is a poor lad, a wretched city arab. He cannot read or write. He does not know that there is a God. He has hardly heard the name of Christ. Father and mother he does not recollect. His "days upon earth are a shadow." Here is a young widow, scarce out of her teens. Less than twelve months ago she was a blooming bride; now she weeps at her husband's grave. Her fondest earthly expectations are blasted. Her "days upon the earth are a shadow." There is a large and prosperous household. Father and mother, son and daughter, have a noble ambition — to excel each other in kindness. Brothers and sisters emulate one another in affection. On a certain morning, however, a letter is laid upon the breakfast table which tells them that, by one blow of misfortune, they are ruined. The home nest is destroyed. They must go forth, separated for life, in order to procure their subsistence. Their "days upon earth are a shadow." All lives are more or less shadow-like.
II. A SHADOW IS NOT POSSIBLE WITHOUT LIGHT. Natural or artificial radiance is essential to shade. As much may be affirmed of our troubles. They are accompanied by the light of the Sun of Righteousness. To console us in all trial we have the light of God's presence. "When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee." A vessel crossing the Atlantic was suddenly struck with a terrible wind. She shivered and reeled under the stroke. Passengers and crew were thrown into confusion. The captain's little girl awoke during the disturbance, and, raising herself in bed, said, "Is father on deck?" Assured that he was, she laid herself down quietly and slept again. We may do the same. Calmly ought we to trust our Heavenly Father, who is always with us in life's storms. Does the reader remember the dying words of John Wesley? As he was drawing near his end he tried to write. But when he took up the pen he discovered that his right hand had forgotten its cunning. A friend offering to write for him asked, "What shall I write?" "Nothing but this: The best of nil is, God with us." Such was the support of the expiring saint, and such is an unfailing source of strength to us in every hour of trial. We have also the light of God's purpose. The very meaning of certain commonly used words bears important testimony to the kindly and wise object of the Lord in afflicting us. "Punishment" is derived from the Sanskrit "pu," to cleanse. "Castigation" comes from "castus," pure. "Tribulation" has grown out of tribulum, a threshing instrument, whereby the Roman husbandmen separated the corn from the husks. To quote from a living author: "A Chinese mandarin who has a fancy for foreign trees gets an acorn. He puts it in a pot, places a glass shade over it, waters it, and gets an oak; but it is an oak only two feet high. God does differently. He puts the sapling out of doors; He gives it sunshine and pure air. Is that all? No. Hail whistles like bullets in its branches, and seems as if it would tear them to ribbands. But is the tree the worse for it? No; it is cleansed from blight and mildew. Then come storm and tempest, bowing the tree until it appears as if it must fall. But only a few rotten boughs are removed, and the roots take a firmer hold, making the tree stand like a rock. Then comes the lightning, like a flaming sword, rending down huge pieces. Surely the tree is marred and injured now! Not at all. The lightning has made a rent through which the sunlight reaches other parts." This is a picture of God's dealings with us. The storms of trouble develop holiness and virtue. Two men stand by the ocean. As he looks at the grand green waves, galloping like Neptune's wild horses, and shaking their foaming manes with delight, one of them sees in the ocean an emblem of eternity, a symbol of infinitude, a manifestation of God. But the other, as he glances at it, sees in it nothing but a fluid composed of oxygen and hydrogen, forming a convenient means of sending out shiploads of corn and iron, silk and spices. "To the pure all things are pure." Let us be righteous, and we shall find spiritual help in everything. If we have but a heart yearning after Christ, we shall never fail to get strength and solace from nature, revelation, and mankind. The same bee has a sting for its foe and honey for its friend. The same sun sustains and ripens a rooted tree, but kills the uprooted one. The sane wind and waves sink one ship and send another to its destination.
III. A SHADOW AGAINST WITH ITS SUBSTANCE. It corresponds in shape. The tree has a shadow, which is its precise similitude. It corresponds in size. A small house or stone has a small shadow. Life is a shadow. God is the sun. What is the substance? Eternity. Surely it is not outstraining the figure to say this. Life is a "shadow of good things to come" in the other world. But is it so? Is life a "shadow of good things to come"? That depends upon circumstances. The character of our being hereafter agrees with the character of our being here. The people of Ashantee believe that the rank and position of the dead in the other world are determined by the number of attendants he has. Hence, on the death of his mother, the king sacrificed three thousand of his subjects on her grave, that she might have a large retinue of followers, and therefore occupy a situation of eminence. In this horrible custom there is the germ of a solemn truth. Our moral and spiritual state in eternity are regulated by our experience in the present. "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." "He that is holy, let him be holy still; and he that is filthy, let him be filthy still." Oh, what a mighty argument on behalf of goodness! Be it not forgotten. God help us in our daily deeds to remember that our thoughts, feelings, acts, help to decide our everlasting destiny. May we so affectionately serve Christ and so zealously bless our fellows that our inevitable future may be bright and glorious.
IV. A SHADOW IS USEFUL. It is serviceable in many ways. Sometimes it saves life. The shadow of a great rock in a weary land is of more value than we in our climate can fully understand. Distance may be measured by shadows. The height of mountains has been discovered thus. Time, too, is ascertainable by shadows. Orientals are known to practise this method of finding the hour of the day. To be true followers of Christ, our fives, like the shadow, must be marked by utility. St. John closes his Gospel with these remarkable words, "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written." Nay (we feel inclined to say), not so, thou beloved disciple! Surely thou art wrong. Think again. Withdraw thy hyperbole of enthusiasm. We venture to correct thee. Less than "the world itself"; very much less will "contain" an accurate account of all thy blessed Master did. Peter gives us His whole biography in five words, "Who went about doing good." Doing good; that was the entire work of Jesus. Good, good, good, nothing but good. Good of all kinds, good at all times, good to all sorts of men. To be His real servants, then, we must distinguish ourselves by usefulness. We can do so. It is astonishing how much may be accomplished. We have before quoted Sydney Smith; we will borrow another thought of him. He argues that if we resolve to make one person in each day happy, in ten years we shall have made no less than three thousand six hundred and fifty happy! Is not the effort worth making? Let us try the experiment. It will not be in vain. Neither shall we go unrewarded. No bliss is like that which attends benevolence.
V. A SHADOW IS SOON GONE. It cannot last long. Speedily does it depart. Life is short. Our sojourn on earth soon ends. Do not then trifle with the Gospel. Your opportunity for seeking salvation will soon be gone.
(T. R. Stevenson.)
Parallel VersesKJV: (For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, because our days upon earth are a shadow:)