We have here another eclipse of young life in the land of Palestine. It is one that occurred not in Old Testament, but in gospel times—a memory hallowed and consecrated, too, by holier footsteps than those even of the great Elijah.
On one of the descending slopes of Mount Tabor, in the vast plain of Esdraelon—the golden granary of the Holy Land and the battlefield of Hebrew history—the traveler still discovers the ruins of the city of NAIN. It is invested with imperishable interest from this one solitary but touching event, with which its name is associated in gospel story.
Jesus and His disciples, along with "many people," took this journey of twelve miles from the city of Capernaum; and as the shadows of evening were beginning to fall, they found themselves approaching the village by its one entrance on the slopes of the wooded mountain. Jewish cemeteries were always situated outside the walls of their towns, and the time of burial was at sunset. The coffin was carried on the shoulders, with the face exposed, until they came to the place of burial. Here the lid was nailed on the coffin, and the funeral rites were completed.
Funerals, to the least impressible, are affecting spectacles. None can fail to be solemnized as the mournful procession wends along the highway, or the street of the crowded city. But we often think how little uninformed wayfarers can gauge the depths of many such sorrows, or measure the yawning chasms in the hearts of those who are thus, in mute and pensive silence, passing by!
The words of the sacred narrative touchingly describe to us such a burial scene. A funeral was seen emerging from the gate of Nain as the sun was setting. Bitter sobs and weeping from the midst of the crowd arrest the ear of Him whose mission it was to heal the broken-hearted. There was everything to aggravate the pangs of that lacerated heart, and make it the sorest of trials. The whole village had turned out to sympathize with the mourner. "A large crowd from the city was also with her."
But, in the deep agony of her grief, she stood alone. In more than one feature her case was identical with that we last considered. These tears of hers were not of yesterday. She could once tell of a happy home! The world to her had once been all sunshine. The exuberance of outer nature in her Hebrew hamlet, its summer fruits and purple clusters, had its reflection and counterpart in her own joyous heart—itself a garner of cherished blessings. Her first, and, as she supposed, her most desolating blow came! The smile of gladness was all at once exchanged for the blight of bereavement. The desire of her eyes was taken away with a stroke. A thousand fond hopes and cherished dreams vanished in the twinkling of an eye, and were buried in that grave. She was left solitary, to toil on her pilgrimage path—"she was a widow."
But in seasons of saddest trial God often gives supporting solaces. To this poor woman, amid her hours of sorrow, there was one object, like that in the home at Sarepta, still surviving, around whom her heart-strings were fondly entwined. The partner of her joys was gone; but he had left behind him a sacred legacy of affection! One little child remained, to cheer the lonely hearth of the widowed parent. Often, doubtless, did she clasp the treasured gift to her bosom; and as she dropped the silent tear over his cradle, or watched the innocent glee of childhood as he played by her side, would she love to trace in his countenance the image of him who was not! If the past was bitter, the future would have been darker, sadder still, but for this precious link that still bound her to life. Often, in her solitary moments, would she weave visions of happiness around the coming years of her boy, saying, with Lamech, "This one shall comfort us." In him every ulterior plan is wrapped up and concentrated; and the last thought, associated with life's close, is that of his hands closing her eyes, performing to her the final offices of affection, and bearing her to "the house appointed for all living."
How often are we brought to learn that our chief blessings may be removed just when we most need them! When was Jonah's gourd, already referred to, smitten and withered? Not when the evening breeze was fanning his brow, but "in the morning when the sun rose," and the suffocating heat beat on his fevered head. When, as we shall find in a future page, was Lazarus of Bethany taken away? Just when his sisters—when his Lord—when the Church—seemed as if they could least spare him.
One day a sudden sickness prostrates the widow's son on a couch of languishing. There may have seemed at first no cause for anxiety. It is but a passing cloud; no gloomy vision of anticipated evil dare cross for a moment that doating heart. Soon the young pulse and buoyant frame will be vigorous as ever.
Alas! the tale is soon told—that house, too, is darkened with the shadows of death—the last glimmering light in that desolate heart and dwelling is put out. He who, we may infer from the crowds which followed him to the grave, was all that a fond parent could wish him to be, lies lifeless in his chamber!
We can imagine (though we cannot attempt to describe) the succession of bitter hours the bereaved mother must have spent, previous to the time at which the sacred narrative reveals her first to view at the gate of her native town—the sorrowful night-watchings by the tossed and sleepless couch—the dread anxieties of suspense, vibrating alternately between hope and fear—the glad symptoms of revival; but these again only succeeded by the too faithful monitors of approaching dissolution. And then, when all was over—when left to herself to brood over the dream of bygone bliss and the wrecks of her happiness scattered around her—realizing the bitterness of that which, in her land and in all hearts, has passed into a proverb—the loss of "an only son;"—while the sympathy of neighbors and friends, each having some kindly word to speak of her boy, unsealed the well-springs of her affection anew, and brought fresh warm tear-drops to her cheek.
And now the tramp of the mournful crowd is heard pacing along the streets. In another brief hour, she will have to retrace her steps to a swept household, leaving the prop of her earthly existence laid low in "the long home."
They have reached the gate of the city—they have crossed its threshold. The gloomy walls of the cemetery may be already in view.
But the Lord of life and the Abolisher of death is approaching! There was only ONE in the wide world who could dry that widow's tears and give her back her beloved. That ONE is in sight!
To all appearance, it is but a motley crowd of wayfarers that are seen approaching from the opposite direction. They are coming along the Capernaum road, weary and worn and dust-covered, after the heat of a sultry summer's day. But, in the midst of them, there is a voice which can speak in tones of mingled authority and tenderness—"Leave your fatherless children; I will preserve them alive; and let your widows trust in Me."
JESUS approaches! He required no interpreter of the scene of sorrow—no messenger to carry the tidings of the loss sustained by that mother in Israel. "He needed not that any should testify of man, for He knew what was in man." Before He left, that morning, the shores of Gennesaret, well He foresaw, as the omniscient God, all the peculiarities in that case of sore trial. He had marked every throb of that breaking heart. He had predetermined and prearranged the apparently 'accidental meeting' at the village gate. And now, at the appointed moment, the dead man is borne in his coffin, as the Lord of the dead and the living draws near.
We need not dwell on the sequel. In other cases, the Savior's intervention and healing power are importunately solicited. There is a singular exception in the present instance. No voice pleads with Him to perform the miracle. The crowd are silent. The mourning widow is too deeply absorbed in her own grief to observe the presence of the Prophet of Nazareth. Besides, notwithstanding His other miraculous deeds, He had never yet raised the dead; so that even if she had known, or perhaps personally witnessed His ability to heal the sick and cure the diseased, she would never imagine He had power to reverse the irrevocable sentence, and unlock those gates of Hades, which for nine hundred years (since the time of Elisha) had been closed to all miracle.
Without parade or ostentation, the Divine Redeemer enters amid the crowd. But observe, it is to whisper, in the first instance, in the ear which most needed it, the balm-word of comfort, "Weep not." And even when the word of power is about to be uttered (that word which is to summon back a soul from the spirit-land), all is done in unobtrusive silence—in silence He touches the coffin. In silence He beckons to the bearers to stand still; and, as the two meeting crowds have now mingled into one—amid the same hush of impressive silence He sounds the omnipotent summons over the sheeted dead—"YOUNG MAN, ARISE!" Life's pulses begin again mysteriously to beat—well-known tones again meet a mother's ears. Oh, who would mar the touching simplicity of the inspired narrative by endeavoring to depict the burning tears of wonder, and love, and praise, which roll down these wasted, furrowed cheeks, as, in the simple words of the description—the very same with those of the former miracle—"they delivered him to his mother!"
We have heard of the joy occasioned by the sudden appearance of the sailor-boy in his native cottage, many a long year after she who had loved him best had thought of nothing but of her child in a watery grave, the wrecks of his vessel tossed on distant shores. We have heard of the soldier returning to his long-lost home, when his children were accustomed to talk of their father's grave in the far East, with the palm-trees and thick grass waving above it; and we may imagine the joy when the sad dream of years was reversed, and he stood alive before them, locking them by turns in his embrace. What must have been the joy of this Hebrew mother when the new lease of a prized existence was granted by a gracious Savior, and as she returned, holding that hand she had never thought to clasp again on earth, exclaiming—"This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found!"
Let us gather a few PRACTICAL TRUTHS and REFLECTIONS from this suggestive story.
I. We have herean attestation to the Savior's divinity.
We have other examples in Scripture of individuals raised from the dead. We have lately beheld Elijah, at Sarepta, raising another widow's son—we have Elisha raising the son of the Shunamite—Peter raising "the certain disciple named Tabitha." But all these cases were effected 'permissively'—by mere delegated power. These holy men stormed Death in his grim stronghold; but it was not with their own weapons. Their language was either, "Thus says the Lord," or else, "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth." They ever disowned and repudiated the thought of any inherent ability over life—any usurpation of the Divine prerogative. They acted only as servants. But here there is no acknowledgment of derivative power. "As a son over His own house," Christ gives forth the mandate of uncontrolled Omnipotence, "Young man, I say unto you."
O blessed assurance! that that Being to whom I owe every blessing I enjoy—every hope for time and for eternity; who was nailed on the cross for me, and for me closed His eyes in the sleep of death—that He had infinite Godhead in mysterious union with suffering, sorrowing, woe-worn, death-stricken humanity and, now that He is upon the throne, and "all power is committed to Him both in heaven and in earth," that nothing can resist His commands, nothing baffle His behests and purposes. There is no evil but his power can ward off—there is no calamity but He can avert—if He pleases. The "I SAY UNTO YOU," He uttered over the coffin at Nain, is His omnific formula FOR all times and AT all times. "He speaks, and it is done!"
II. Let us learnthe tenderness and compassion of Christ as Man.
It is striking to observe, in the more prominent events of our Lord's public ministry, how the manifestations of His Manhood and Godhead go together. There is generally a joint exhibition of majesty and tenderness, proclaiming that while He is God, He is yet the partaker of our nature.
It is the case here. We have just marked the unmistakable proofs that He who arrests that weeping crowd is indeed Divine! Omniscience brought Him there—the act of Omnipotence demonstrates His deity in the eyes of the beholders.
But He is more than this. His look of compassion, His tear of sympathy, proclaim that in that same bosom where resides the might of Godhead there beats also all the tenderness of human affection. Observe, it was the sight of woe (the contemplation of human misery) which stirred to its depths that Heart of hearts. It would seem as if He could not look on earthly grief without that grief becoming His own. In the similar case of Lazarus, as we shall afterwards find, it was not the bitter thought of a lost and dead friend which unsealed the fountain of His own tears; for when He stood in the graveyard, He knew that, in a few moments, the victim of death would have his eyes rekindled with living luster. At Bethany (as here at Nain), it was simply the spectacle of those in suffering that made its irresistible appeal to His emotional nature. The Rod of human compassion touched the Rock of Ages, and the streams of tenderness gushed forth. He hears the widow's heartrending weeping in the midst of the mourners; and, as we already noted—for it is worthy of observation—utters the soothing, sympathetic word, before He utters the Godlike mandate.
Nor should we overlook the fact that it was only a word He uttered. This reveals an exquisite and touching feature in the Savior's humanity. It attests how intensely delicate and sensitive, as well as true, that humanity was. When we meet a mourner after a severe trial, we shrink from the meeting; glad, perhaps, when the sad and dreaded call of courtesy is over. There is a marked reserve in making a reference to the blank; or, if that reference is made, it is short—a studied brevity. The press of the hand often expresses what the lips shrink from uttering. In that touching picture we have of patriarchal grief, as a writer observes in commenting on this passage, Job's friends and mourners sat for seven days at his side, and not a syllable was spoken. It was so here with Jesus. He (even He) does not intrude with lengthened, commonplace condolence. With a tear in His eye, and a suppressed sob, all He says is, "Weep not."
Behold, then, the beautiful and touching sympathy of a fellow-mourner—"the Brother born for adversity." "When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her!" We have seen that that weeping, forlorn woman had no lack of other sorrowing friends. Her case seemed to be matter of notoriety. Many went out to mingle their grief with hers. But the sympathy of all these could only go a certain way. They could not be expected to enter into the peculiarities of her woe. Human sympathy is, at best, imperfect; sometimes selfish, always finite and temporary. Not so the sympathy of Him who had just joined the funeral procession. He could say, as none else can, "I know your sorrows." The sympathy of the kindest friend on earth knows a limit—Jesus' sympathy knows none.
Who can tell but, in that gentle utterance of tender feeling, and in the deep compassion which dictated it, the Son of Man, the Virgin-born, may have had in view another "Mother," whose hour of similar bereavement was now at hand, when His own death was to be "the sword" which was to "pierce her soul." "Weep not;"—that is often an unkind arrest put by man on the sacredness of human grief, as if it were unworthy to weep tears which Christ wept before us. But He (the Great Savior) who came to stem more fearful floods of sorrow, could, in His compassionate tenderness, speak His own calming word. That hour was a presage and foreshadow of a happier time, when, in a sorrowless world, "God shall wipe away ALL TEARS from off all faces."
Comforting in our seasons of trial to meditate upon this fellow-feeling of the Prince of Sufferers—that Divine compassion, in comparison with which the tenderest and best human sympathy is but as dust in the balance. The Savior and sympathizer of Nain is ever the same. He had compassion—He has compassion still. He who stopped the mourning procession on that summer's night, in the plains of Jezreel, still lives, and loves, and supports, and pities; and will continue to pity, until pity be no longer needed, in a world of light and joy—of purity and peace! "He will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax."
III. This leads us, once more—expanding the same thought—to note that the narrative before us isfull of special comfort to the bereaved.
"WEEP NOT!" I repeat, He does not mean, by uttering that word, to forbid tears—He seems by it rather to say—"Do not shed tears by mistake. If you knew all the design and purpose I have in that bitter sorrow—that aching trial—you would chase these tears away. Give expression to no hasty surmises with regard to my doings."
Look at the scene here described. We read that those present at the funeral—the attendant crowd of mourners and spectators—"glorified God." Yes, and could we rend these heavens and ascend up amid the heavenly worshipers—who knows but perhaps we might see there two glorified forms bending over the memories of that sunset hour at Nain—the Widow and her Son—telling, with tearless eyes, that it was that death-scene which had led them to their thrones and crowns!
God is ever saying to us, "Trust Me in the dark." There shall yet be a revelation of mercy and love in these your trials. That "Weep not" of Nain was intended to carry its message of solace and consolation to the myriad hearts of all time, crushed with their ever-varying sorrows—and more especially to those bearing their most cherished treasures to the custody of the tomb. He would proclaim to us, even now, that He has "power over death"—that the King of terrors must own the scepter of the King of kings. He prepares His whole Church, in this miracle, for singing the prophetic song—"O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?" He gives to the world a pledge of the summons which will one day be addressed to its slumbering myriads—"Arise!" "Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust!"
Nor is the simple statement here made with reference to the young man without its inferential meaning, "He delivered him to his mother." We may recur to it, although we have already alluded to its suggestiveness, in the narrative of Elijah's kindred miracle.
Jesus rested not with the mere summons to life; nor with beholding the young man raising himself up on his coffin and giving utterance to articulate sounds; but He takes him by the hand, and places it, like His great Prophet of Cherith, in that of the rejoicing parent! The first act, in both cases, is to restore the resuscitated dead to the hearts that mourned them, and to permit the resuming of the old joyous communion. In this, too, as in the former, may we not rehearse the same inference—borne out, too, by other Scripture statements and references? May it not lead us to cherish the joyful and delightful prospect of reunion with those we have loved? that those tender affections, nurtured and hallowed on earth, shall only be for a time interrupted by death, to be resumed in better and brighter worlds—where the pang of bereavement, and orphanage, and widowhood, shall no longer be either felt or feared! The great "ARISE!" which shall startle the sleeping dead (the sleepers in Jesus), will be followed by personal recognitions, restored fellowships—the old smiles lighting up the countenance, the voice, with its familiar tones, tuned and prepared for nobler services and loftier songs!
Meanwhile, let the bereaved and sorrowful bow with a calm unmurmuring submission to the will of God—rejoicing in the present possession of the compassion of Jesus; and looking forward, with triumphant hearts, to that cloudless morning when "the sun" of earthly prosperity shall "no more go down, neither shall the moon withdraw itself"—but when (rejoined to death-divided friends, and with no tear to dim their eyes) "the Lord shall be their everlasting light, and the days of their mourning shall be ended."