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This prospective event was an appropriate revelation, in order to clear up, to the mind of the apostle, the otherwise disturbed aspect of the world's affairs; to assure him that Jehovah would in the end rectify apparent disorders, and vindicate before the universe the principles and decisions of his government.
His mind is carried even beyond this scene of solemn grandeur; and the images of sadness which may be supposed to have rested on his imagination are chased away, amid the sun-light of heaven and the harmonies of the blessed. Let us enter into the scene of wonders, and so far as possible, sympathise with the seer of Patmos, under the awful disclosures of a yet unaccomplished providence.
Deep is the interest which each of us should feel; for the events not only respect ourselves, but 1800 years have placed us, as it were, on the verge of fulfilment. If it be true, as is plausibly affirmed, that every two thousand years is to be marked by a great moral epoch, the signal lights of heaven may soon be expected, announcing in the third era of our race, disclosures analogous in moral grandeur to the destruction of the old world, and the advent of Christ.
But our text, in painting the scenery of a future judgment, brings before our consciences that personal investigation which is far more solemn in its bearings than any or all of the attending circumstances., “And I saw," says the apostle," a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heavens fled away, and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead small and great stand before God; and the books were opened ; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books according to their works.”
Your attention is invited more especially to the clause," and the books were opened.” It will be my aim to explain, to illustrate, and to apply this sentence, in order to impress each of us with the responsibility of our existence, and the solemnity of our approaching destiny.
It is manifest, at a glance, that the imagery of the text is taken from the formality and solemnity of a judicial process.
In all ages of the world, where civilization has prevailed, it has been found necessary to erect and maintain a judicial tribunal. Human responsibility has been recognized ; and the violator of law, after a fair opportunity for exculpation, has been obliged to submit to the stern decrees of justice. In some countries the formalities of the judgment-seat have been invested with an imposing solemnity. This was the case under the Roman government, where the tribunal was at times the throne itself; and where even the poorest citizen had the right of carrying his appeal up to the imperial decision. Hence we discover in the text and context allusion to this earthly tribunal, but amplified and exalted by the unapproachable grandeur of the scene and
circumstances. “I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it.” Vastness and purity are here ascribed to the very throne itself. Earthly tribunals are not always stainless. Justice, when delegated to the human administrator, may be outraged in her own sanctuary; but when she sits upon her great white throne, and holds the balances in her own hand there is no possibility of mistake or of partiality. He who shall occupy this throne has no sinister ends to answer. Justice, as said the immortal Hooker, makes her home in the bosom of God. When that great white throne comes into view, it will be the signal for the dissolution of the material universe. The first act of homage will be given by the heavens and the earth, which will flee away before it. It will stand forth amid the unobstructed expanse eternity. What saw the prophet next? “I saw the dead small and great stand before God.” The universe of accountable beings arraigned, standing in awful expectation of their joyous or their dread reward. “And the books were opened." No arbitrary decision is announced ; but a deliberate investigation forms the basis of heaven's concluding verdict. This we must infer from the opening of the books, and the investigation according to their recorded items. “And the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books."
Without further preliminary, we will consider what must be the nature of those books out of which we are to be judged.
They manifestly refer to the past. Without imagining a literal volume, we may suppose them to express some clear method of revealing to us, and to the universe, all past transactions. They must have reference to the entire period of our accountability. Hence they must embrace, in the first place, THE BOOK OF DIVINE PROVIDENCE. The providence of God is concerned in the creation, support, and destiny of every accountable creature. It enters into the arrangements of the natural world, which, however, are but subordinate to the rational and accountable universe. External nature becomes important as the machinery by which Providence acts upon the mind. It is felt to have a great influence in the formation of character; in modifying human responsibility; and its influence must enter largely into the final account which each inhabitant of earth is to render. Hence we cannot separate Providence from the complex operations of nature any more than we can from the confused affairs of nations and of individuals.
It would be impossible, if not inappropriate, to trace this thought in all its bearings. That angel to whom may be committed the task of our moral biography, called sometimes the recording angel, great as is his intellect, could not, it seems to me, trace the connection of Providence in its entire bearing on our moral history. But there is a Mind which can,—which embraces the end from the beginning—which “numbers the hairs of our heads, and understands even our thoughts afar off.”
The first leaf in this book of Providence is our birth, and the circumstances of it. That a Sovereign Providence is concerned in the introduction of every human being into the world, none will deny who admit in any form the doctrine of providence. When we begin to be we begin to Act ; and if our existence began under circumstances more favorable than that of another, our responsibility is enhanced by these circumstances. A pious parentage, early religious instruction, and the favoring influences of a christian community, arranged by Providence to meet us at the threshold of existence, must surely lay a greater responsibility upon us than if our infancy was marked by a total reverse of these circumstances. We have no right to suppose that the book of Providence, wherein is recorded our'moral history, will fail to notice these things. When the seals of the judgment are unloosed, the dread account will commence far back in our history ; the amount of our guilt will be measured by the light and advantages against which we have sinned. Thať Providence which ushers us into being, and which orders the circumstances of our earliest years, never withdraws from us its care and its control. “It is not in man that walketh to direct his steps ; and whilst the HEART of man deviseth his way, the Lord directeth his paths.” Hence, under the constant action of Divine Providence, every human soul is receiving an impress from circumstances which enter largely into the formation of a permanent moral character. This occurs in a way not to lessen the responsibility of man, nor to impair his liberty of choice. His circumstances elicit moral character, and confirm it; whilst the good or the evil is the result of his unobstructed preference of heart. This for the present we must take for granted. It would involve the necessity of too much abstract reasoning to make it plainer. It is easy, however, to see that one's early companions and acquaintances must have a direct bearing on the formation and fixedness of moral character. Creatures of imitation and of sympathy, we take imperceptibly the type of character with which we are most constantly in contact. If this companionship be accidental, the effect may not be so great as where it is the result of a sympathic preference. One thing, however, must be observed, that the tendency of social influence, where the grace of God does not intervene, is generally to increase the amount and power of depravity. For this reason it is that we find the base and the vile will more generally succeed in poisoning the principles of the moral, than the virtuous, by their efforts, can effect a reformation from vice and error.
When the book of Providence is opened many a soul will be found to have received an important bias from its social relations. One will be seen whose early training justified the hope of a good moral character; but a companionship was preferred which blasted these hopes in the bud. On the part of the seducer from virtue, we do not deny, there exists a deeper criminality than in his unpractised victim ; but the latter is far from being guiltless. In answer to excuses and palliations, we would say
that Providence may be vindicated in the following manner, at least I think it will so appear in the judgment-day: When the vitious are thrown into the company of the virtuous, the first impulse with the former is that of respect for moral character. There is an instinctive homage paid to virtue. The vilest feel this. Milton makes even the devil to partake of this sentiment; for, in presence of the yet unsullied Eve," he felt how awful goodness is, and virtue in her form how lovely.” Is it not the design of Providence to force upon his depraved mind, by the power of contrast, a sense of his own guilt-to lead him to see and deplore his own melancholy fall ? Yet such is not in general the effect. Satan-like, he sets himself to work, with a malicious selfishness, to reduce this companion to his own grade of infamy. He abuses the opportunity of self-improvement, and in making his companion like himself
, he makes himself ten-fold more the child of hell than before.
But is the companion who falls into the snare guiltless ? By no means. Why did Providence place him in contact with the seducer? We might answer this by asking why he placed himself there? But admitting that he is there by the action of Providence, what are his first emotions at the sight of a deeper depravity than his own ? Is it not, in the first instance, revulsion-condemnation? Does not the conscience revolt, and cry out against all contact with such pollution? Are not these feelings the sentinels of God in the soul? And must not repeated efforts be made before a hearty companionship can be enjoyed ? Do you ask, then, why Providence placed you in contact with evil companions? Manifestly to do them good; not to accede, but to resist; and the moment you did accede was a moment of guilt. If your moral character has been shaped in this way, blame not PROVIDENCE, but blame youRSELF; for, whilst the voice of God within called you to resistance, your own stronger inclinations hurried you into conformity. We are responsible every one of us for our social influence upon others, and for their allowed influence upon us.
This we shall see more fully and clearly in the day of judgment. “No man liveth to himself” is a fact as well as a divine maxim. Social sympathy will be seen at last to have had a powerful influence in making heaven more blessed and hell more dreadful.
AGAIN, Providence arranges our business and pleasures so that they become to us unconsciously the instruments in the formation of our moral character.
Amidst its avocations, the busy mind reflects but seldom on the fact that the pliant moral powers are affected constantly by all we do and all we say in the varied transactions of life. Yet such is the solemn fact. We can scarcely perform an act which hås not some remote bearing on the awful future. Character is elicited and confirmed by the very occupations which we pursue. We may make such occupations conduce to holiness or confirm the soul in sin. We may prosecute them for the glory of God or for the aggrandizement of self. In the one case we shall grow better, in the other we shall
In the one instance, we may be maturing for heaven; in the other, driving with more headlong impetus to hell. Those things which men are apt to imagine relate only to this life, will be found to reach forward into eternity, and will meet us as witnesses for God in the last solemn adjudication. Think you that a man's business will have nothing to do in settling and sealing his eternal destiny? Will he who thrives on the miseries of his fellow-men—who “builds on their ruin "--who lives on their death-will he have nothing to answer for at God's awful tribunal ?
When the book of Providence is opened, what terrific lines will be found there in relation to millions whose earthly prosperity exacted the transient homage of a selfish world, but whose whole course through life was one continuous training for DAMNATION.
Mercies and judgments enter into the arrangements of Providence, and modify moral character by their influence on the mind and beart. With what a lavish hand does the Almighty bestrew with blessings the path of mortals! This goodness of God may lead to repentance, or it may be abused to increasing obduracy of heart. So also the judgments of God may become the occasions of humiliation; or, as in the case of Pharaoh, may lead to a spirit of defiance. The subject of these mercies and judgments is responsible for their effect upon his soul. Every dispensation of Providence is intended to have a moral bearing; and such it WILL have and will be seen to have when the record of its proceedings shall be unfolded.
The talents and privileges conferred enter largely into the action of Divine Providence, and by their use or abuse serve to give emphasis to our final account. What and how many these talents are, will be seen more fully when the books are opened. How they have been neglected or improved, employed or buried, well-directed or perverted, will also then be seen.
These, and a thousand other circumstances dependent on Providence, go to make up an influence bearing directly or indirectly on the formation of character, and consequently on the final issues of the judgment. All these employ the thoughts-draw forth conversation--lead to action; and thus modify the whole man, whose history and destiny are interwoven with every movement of Providence. What a solemn and important book will that be, which, commencing with our birth, covers the entire history of our responsible existence! And this is one of the books to be opened !
II. Another book, whose seal will then be broken, is the buok of conscience.
Conscience is a sort of moral memory ; but may be said to an