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their common difficulties and dangers. It is a remarkable expression in one of the offices of the Church-"In the midst of life, we are in death." The truth of the sentiment appears in daily occurrences, which we hear of, which we see, and which are sometimes brought home to our feelings. If so, the whole of human life may be considered as the valley of the shadow of death; and every part of life, as saddened by some portion of the darkness hanging over its end.
Still, the expression must have been designed by the Psalmist in its strictest sense and it having been so stated, we may proceed,
II. Secondly; To consider the text as providing a remedy against the fear of the event contemplated. This is the sentiment of the other clause of the passage "I will fear no evil : for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."
"I will fear no evil." There was a certain philosophy of ancient times, which, while it set itself in just opposition to the placing of happiness in sensual delights, ran into a visionary extreme; pretending, that death, with its kindred ills of pain, poverty, and whatever else is formidable to human nature, are no evils. The holy Scriptures are in a medium between the affected severity of the one system, and the licentiousness of the other so that while the soul is fortified against the slavish fear of ills incident to our condition, we are not required to be void of sensibility in the endurance of them. The text is an instance of this. The inspired penman does not say, that there is no evil in the contemplated appointments of Providence; but opposes certain consolations, which he had found a remedy for their terrors. "For," says he, "thou art with me;" meaning not merely in the sense, in which we read in another of the Psalms
"Thou art about my path and about my bed, and spiest out all my ways;" but in that which may be collected from the words following; being a repetition of the sentiment, with greater clearness as to its meaning "Thy rod," that is, the sceptre of thy authority, held out for my protection, "and thy staff," or the emblem of the guiding of my steps, "they comfort me."
The lowest sense in which the words can be taken, is as applicable to the providential care of God. This is significatively expressed by the shepherd's rod and staff, extended over his flock for their protection. The sentiment may be applied, so far as Providence is concerned, to the universe of being; of whom it is said – “These wait all upon thee, and thou givest them their meat in due season.” But to render this rod and this staff a matter of consolation to the mind, they must be seen, they must be felt, they must be confided in. The prophet Isaiah pathetically complains — “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib; but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” Agreeably to the lesson intimated in this complaint, we must know our almighty Owner, and feel ourselves the feeders at his crib, before the truth of his superintending providence can either present a pleasing idea to the understanding, or awaken a delightful feeling in the heart.
But the words reach to a stronger sense; and set before us the admonitions, the strivings, and the consolations of the divine spirit. This is evident from the connexion of the verse with that preceding it; where it is said — “Thou shalt convert my soul, and bring me forth into the paths of righteousness.” For, when it is immediately added — “Even in the valley of the shadow of death, thy rod and staff comfort me;" it must include all that had gone before ; that is, not only the mercies of God in his providence, but also the inward suasions of his grace.
Further, the words suppose the sense of divine love and approbation. The psalm is full of a well-grounded confidence in the favor of God; and certainly, nothing short of this can cheer the soul in its descent into the dark vale of death.
If it be asked - On what ground can so animating a confidence be founded? The answer is, that in circumstances not favored with the light of revelation, it may arise, although in a less clear degree, from the source which St. Peter points to where he says "In every nation he that feareth God and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” Under the law given to the Jews, it was the living according to the conditions of the covenant; in which, although “the fearing of God and
the keeping of his commandments” was, as it must be under all circumstances, the whole ultimate “duty of man;" yet there were intermediate duties, not only for the purpose of security to the greatest duties of all, but to be the figures of truths which should be manifested, and the inspirers of hopes which should be accomplished in due time. Under the Christian dispensation, it is the embracing of its offers, and the living agreeably to its precepts. In this respect, its leading sense cannot be better expressed than in the Collect of the late season; in which we prayed, that “ being regenerate, and made the children of God by adoption and grace;" meaning, in the act of our admission to the Christian Church ; "we may daily be renewed by the Holy Spirit.” It is of the mercy of God, that we are admitted within the Christian covenant; and the meritorious ground of that admission has been accomplished for us, independently on our desires or our deserts. This benefit being extended to us of the free grace of God, his favor is to be cultivated, the conditions of the covenant are to be performed, and the happiness of heaven is to be prepared for, by living under the influence of the principle of evangelical righteousness; which, being daily strengthened by prayer, and by sincere endeavors to be conformed to the divine will, maintains a controlling influence over our hearts and over our actions.
There is still another sense, in which the Psalmist must have contemplated the shepherd's protecting “rod and staff.” It is, as being extended over him, not only in his passage through the dark vale, but to whatever condition may have awaited him beyond it. He must have felt his mind sustained by the persuasion, that he could not pass to any region where the divine presence would not accompany him; that there could be no event in which the promises of God would fail; and, that there could be no state of being in which his goodness would cease to manifest itself to the devout and holy heart. In short, the prospect of the Psalmist must have reached the blissful state which, in another place, he so rapturously anticipates, where he says — “In thy presence is the fulness of joy, and at thy right hand there is pleasure for evermore.” This shows the error of
an opinion censured in one of the articles of our Church; that under the old dispensation, there was a looking to temporal promises only. Although such promises might have led to the contemplating of the providential care of God, in “the feeding in
green pastures and the leading beside the waters of comfort," it could not have represented him as guiding through “the valley of death;” and much less, as pointing beyond its darkness to a light which gave an insight into the regions of eternal day.
All these things being included in the consolatory clauses of the text, there remains the third head; which was,
III. To consider the words as directing in what way the remedy may be the best applied, in reference to that “valley of the shadow of death,” for which it was designed as a preparation.
On this part of the subject there might be brought into view every call of religion, every duty of life, in short, every thing that has a tendency to a preparation for our dissolution. But, agreeably to the train of sentiment in the text, all shall be considered as included in this single point — the beginning and the continuing to live in the enjoyment and under the check of the consolations which have been stated; and which, having been thus made familiar to the mind, cannot fail to occur to and sustain it, in the crisis when they will be the most wanted.
That this is the use of the remedy furnished to us by the passage, is evident from the order which we may observe in the reflections of the Psalmist. First, he had contemplated the goodness of the Divine Being, in his protecting and sustaining providence. Then he had gone on to the converting energies of his grace. From this, the transition was easy to the support which nature would look for, in death's dreary vale; but which he anticipated in the days of health and strength.
This being the lesson dictated by such a train of reflections, it is easy to trace its influence in its application to different states of life. Of those who are in affluence, or in easy circumstances, it points the attention to a benefactor, who "gives them all things richly to enjoy;" telling them, that if what ought to excite their gratitude, should have the opposite effect of depraving their minds, of hardening their hearts, and of corrupting their morals, there happens to them what the Psalmist prophecies, not imprecates, in regard to the wicked, that “their table shall be made a snare to take themselves withal;" a snare, not laid for them by the Deity, but made such by their so perverting of his mercies as to render them the instruments of their ruin. Those who “eat the labor of their hands” it warns to look up to the same Being who gives strength proportioned to the exertions of industry, and who crowns it with success. And it directs them to confess His providence in the common ordering of life; that they may secure an easy retreat to it, when life shall be near to its end. Those who are in the vigor of youth, it instructs to secure so sure an alleviation of the sufferings and the infirmities of old age; and not only this, but so sure a preparation for those shafts of death which receive their commission not against the aged only, but against the young and healthy. Accordingly it instructs them to look up to the Author of their being and the bestower of their mercies,“ before the evil days come, and the times draw nigh in which they shall say, There is no pleasure in them.” Let them contemplate Him in his works; let them confess Him in His providence ; let them keep up a communion with this Father of their spirits, in the exercises of devotion. Thus will they maintain that sense of His essential presence, which will accompany them in the worst events. Finally, the subject holds out to persons of every description, that the season of health and strength and spirits is the time in which they should begin to cultivate the favor of God, who may then be considered as pledging his gracious promise, that “even to hoar hairs” he “ will sustain them” with his spiritual refreshments; and what is more, after “guiding them through life,” will enlighten for them the dark “vale of death,” through which he is to receive them to glory.”
What is it which principally occasions the gloom seen hanging over the retreat? In answering this question, allowance is to be made for a property of our nature, by which we shrink from death, however prepared to meet it: a property implanted for our preservation. But this does not account either for the fears