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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 which distract the minds of some, or for the expedients which, for the silencing of those fears, others have recourse to, in order to keep away the apprehension from the minds of their dying friends. No; it is the painful conviction, that in the crisis in question, there will be need of consolations, which it is the least fit season to begin to have recourse to. If we were to pursue the sentiment, it would appear, that the duty of remembering our latter end, so as to give it a controlling influence over our conduct, is as conspicuous as any duty which we infer from our condition; or as any truth, which we found on our observation of nature. Why else do we, by an involuntary impulse, anticipate that last crisis? Why do we look beyond it for something still to come? Has God, who made nothing else in vain, unnecessarily ordained that man, when no alarm is heard, and when no danger threatens, shall have a monitor occasionally reminding him that he is to die? It is for the purpose of humbling his pride; of making him moderate in his enjoyments; of calling his attention to the Author and the Preserver of his being; of awakening bis sensibilities to the rights and to the sorrows of his fellow-men; and finally, of transferring his hopes and of drawing his affections to that better life, in which “death will be swallowed up in victory."
In the opening and the illustrating of a single sentiment, there has been pointed out the application of the consolation of the text, to the remedy of the evil there also contemplated. The doing of this at the entrance on a new year, has been with the view of exhorting the hearers to govern their conduct on such a plan as shall be fruitful of the reflections which they cannot but wish to adorn the close of it; or sustain them under any events which may arrest them during its course.
Who can foretel in what way the next year will end; or what extraordinary calamities of war, of pestilence, and the like, inay mark its progress ? This is not said to imbitter life by an anticipation of its possible ills, but to suggest the sentiment, that the circumstance of our being aware of them must have been designed for some useful purpose. Can it be believed, that a
benevolent Being has subjected his creatures to a knowledge of the many dangers which surround them, without having provided for them the armor of a correspondent preparation of mind? No, thou great Creator and Preserver of men! Let them but habitually discern thy Almighty arm, as well in thy mercies as in thy judgments; and then no dangers shall drive them from their duties; no sorrows shall make them cast away their confidence in thee; and, even in the vale of death, they shall feel thy staff, sustaining and guiding them through its darkness.
Without having recourse to ills which may be thought barely possible, it is enough, that in the ordinary calamities of life, and in every portion of time, we behold death waving high his standard. It is enough, that in such an assembly as the present it cannot be supposed, that to all of us there remains another year of our probation. How awful is the thought, that of those whom death is marking as his victims, some may be unprepared for his stroke! It is with the hope of awakening them from such a state, that there has been now a train of reflections, which, if applied, will elevate them above the fear of the king of terrors, and guard them against its unhappy consequences.
Brethren; in a survey of this assembly, it might be uncbaritable to contemplate any portion of them as looking forward to another year with intentional indulgence in any kind of conduct, for which they are already liable to the just judgments of a holy God. But it is not uncharitable, and it is conformable to experience to believe, that there are many anticipating another year, and perhaps an indefinite number of other years, without the thought of the casualties which may interfere to disappoint their expectations. This is a state of mind which gives ground for the apprehension of the want of preparation for an unexpected change. It would be a happy effect of the considerations which have been offered, that to the heart of any individual present, there should be brought a truth which must be known to be as evident as any that can come before our understandings; there being, within and around us, causes of dissolution which may be brought into action by the slightest occurrences ; so as to break in an instant the silken ties of this mortal life.