For we were born yesterday and know nothing; our days on earth are but a shadow.
I. IT IS TEMPORARY. Passing away as the "rush without mire, or the reed without water." Quickly it grows up, but as quickly withers. The promise of it is vain. "While it is yet in its greenness, and not cut down, it withereth before any other herb."
II. IT IS UNSUBSTANTIAL AND UNTRUSTWORTHY. AS "the spider's web." It is weak, unworthy of any confidence. As the gossamer thread is broken by a touch or even a breath of wind, so his expectation is cut off by the most trivial incident. It has no firmness, no endurance, no permanence.
III. IT IS IMMATURE AND NEVER COMES TO PERFECTION. "It is green before the sun" With rapid haste it strides forth, but only with equal haste to fail. In its own judgment it is firm and enduring as a stone structure. With proud self-confidence so he prides himself. But it is that all may fall to ruin. The destroyer is at hand, even he who casts away.
IV. IT IS FORGOTTEN AND DISAPPOINTING, AND PASSES OUT OF MIND. Its very place denies it. "I have not seen thee." No greater joy or reward can the hypocrite's hope afford him. Disappointment is his lot. He sows the seeds of vanity; vanity he reaps. He leans upon a thread which a breath may break. Deceitful himself, his hopes are as the heart which gave them birth. They return to their own. He created them; they are as their maker. From this rude disappointment men may guard
(1) by sincerity of spirit,
(2) by basing their hopes upon a true foundation, for which nothing prepares them but
(3) a thorough honesty and cherished truthfulness. - R.G.
For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, because our days upon earth are a shadow.
Homilist.The two unquestionable truths that Bildad here expresses are the transitoriness and the intellectual poverty of our mortal life. We "know nothing." Bildad seems to indicate that our ignorance arises partly from the brevity of our life. We have no time to get knowledge.
1. We know nothing compared with what is to be known. This may be said of all created intelligences, even of those who are the most exalted in power and attainment. "Each subsequent advance in science has shown us the comparative nothingness of all human knowledge." — Sir R. Peel.
2. We know nothing compared with what we might have known. There is a vast disproportion between the knowledge attainable by man on earth, and that which he actually attains. Our Maker sees the difference.
3. We know nothing compared with what we shall know in the future. There is a life beyond the grave for all, good and bad, a life, not of indolence, but of intense unremitting action, — the action of inquiry and reflection.
I. IF WE ARE THUS SO NECESSARILY IGNORANT, IT DOES NOT BECOME US TO CRITICISE THE WAYS OF GOD. How often do we find some poor mortals arrogantly occupying the critic's chair, in the great temple of truth, and even suggesting moral irregularities in the Divine procedure.
II. DIFFICULTIES IN CONNECTION WITH A REVELATION FROM GOD ARE TO BE EXPECTED. Place in the hands of one deeply conscious of his ignorance, written with profundity of thought, and extensiveness of learning, and would he not expect to meet with difficulties in every page? How monstrous then it is for any man to expect to comprehend all the revelation of the Infinite Mind. The man who parades the difficulties of the Bible as a justification of his unbelief, or as an argument against its Divinity, is pitiably ignorant of his own ignorance. Were there no difficulties, you might reasonably question its heavenly authorship. Their existence is the signature of the Infinite.
III. THE PROFOUNDEST MODESTY SHOULD CHARACTERISE US IN THE MAINTENANCE OF OUR THEOLOGICAL VIEWS. It is the duty of every man to get convictions of Divine truth for himself, to hold these convictions with firmness, and to promote them with earnestness; but at the same time, with a due consciousness of his own fallibility, and with a becoming deference to the judgment of others. The more knowledge, the more humility. True wisdom is ever modest. Those who live most in the light are most ready to veil their faces.
IV. OUR PERFECTION IS TO BE FOUND IN MORAL QUALITIES RATHER THAN IN INTELLECTUAL ATTAINMENTS. If our well-being consisted in exact and extensive information of our great Maker and His universe, we might well allow despair to settle on our spirits. Few have the talent to become scientific, fewer still the means; but all can love. And "love is the fulfilling of the law"; and love is heaven.
V. THERE MUST BE AN AFTERLIFE AFFORDING OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE ACQUISITION OF KNOWLEDGE. We are formed for the acquisition of knowledge. If we are so necessarily ignorant, and there be no hereafter, our destiny is not realised, and we have been made in vain.
VI. WE SHOULD WITH RAPTUROUS GRATITUDE AVAIL OURSELVES OF THE MERCIFUL INTERPOSITION OF CHRIST AS OUR GUIDE TO IMMORTALITY. Unaided reason has no torch to light us safely on our way. Our gracious Maker has met our ease, He has sent His Son. That Son stands by you and me, and says, "Follow Me."
1. To the narrowness of our faculties.
2. To the lateness of our existence. We are but of yesterday.
3. To the disadvantageousness of our situation for observing nature and acquiring knowledge.We are confined to a point of this earth, which itself is but a point compared with the rest of creation. Our subject ought to teach us the profoundest humility. There is nothing we are more apt to be proud of than our understanding. Our subject may be of particular use in answering many objections against providence, and in reconciling us to the orders and appointments of nature. There is an unsearchableness in God's ways, and we ought not to expect to find them always free from darkness. Our subject should lead us to be contented with any real evidence which we can get. And our subject should lead our hopes and wishes to that future world where full day will break in upon our souls.
(R. Price, D. D.)
Our days upon earth are a shadow.
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.)
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