"The firstling of his flock."—Gen. 4:4
"Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love."—Gen. 22:2
"As one mourns for his only son."—Zech. 12:10
"As on whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you."—Isa. 66:13
Such a title, to many a child of affliction, is touchingly suggestive. Solemn is the present hour on which you have entered. The shadows of death, for the first time, are falling around you. Your dwelling has been entered and despoiled—not of the aged and decrepit and toilworn—but of life in its earliest prime. Often before have you heard of trial. You may have visited over and over again the house of mourning. You may even have dealt out lessons of comfort to others. The doors of neighbors and friends you have seen darkened, but the King of Terrors has until now passed you by. Your turn has at last come!—The invader has broken into your own fond circle. For the first time yours is a house of death—yours the bitterness of a First Bereavement. "Ah, what lessons our dear Lord is now teaching you—lessons which angels can never learn—teaching by heart what was only known before by rote!" (Lady Powerscourt's Letters.)
I know not what may be the special feature in this your early lesson in the school of trial. Possibly some darling child, who has imperceptibly been entwining its every heartstring around you, wrenched from your embrace.
The trial may have overtaken with appalling suddenness.
The hurricane may have swept your loved one down in the midst of brightest
sunshine. The summons may have come at the time when the joy of your heart
could be least spared; when most prized, most needed. It may have been a
cherished life, rich with the promise of usefulness to the Church or the
world. It would seem as if some anticipated piece of music had scarce its
prelude or overture played, when the voices in a moment ceased; the music is
hushed, the lights are extinguished; the program only begun when ended. With
the drooping and blighting of that tender flower, your present feeling is—
How altered your feelings amid the world's familiar din and bustle! The unsympathizing crowd, all unconscious of what is transacting within your threshold, are hurrying by as before. They are exchanging with one another the same joyous recognitions, they are clad in the same gay attire, the same merry chimes mark the passing hour; and yet, to you, all is sicklied over with enduring sadness; every scene and association which whispers gladness to others, wakes no response but that of sorrow in your heart. The silent chamber!—it echoes to your lonely voice. The happy fireside circle!—there is a vacant seat. The favorite walk—the cherished haunt!—the smile that made it so, is gone. Ah! life has indeed become like the "flat, bare, oozy tide-mud, when the blue sparkling wave, with all its company of gliding boats and white-winged ships, the music of oars and chiming waters, has gone down." Your mind is filled with ten thousand conflicting feelings, to which you dare not give utterance; the holy visions of the past flitting before you like shadows on the wall; the future all darkness and mystery. Your pining spirit, in the first gush of its bitterness, turns away, refusing to be comforted; the feelings of an old sufferer are too truthfully the transcript of your own—"Call me not Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me" (Ruth 1:20). In one terrible sense is the Scripture saying expounded, "Old things have passed away, and all things have become new."
"Oh, you afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted," unschooled and undisciplined in these fiery trials—He who brought you into the furnace will lead you through! He has never failed in the case of any of His "poor afflicted ones" to realize His own precious promises. All is mystery to you now—nothing but wrecked plans and blighted hopes—a future of unutterable desolation. But He will yet vindicate His dealings. Even on earth He often leads us to see and learn "the need be." And if not on earth, at least in glory, there will be a grand revelation of ineffable wisdom and love in this very trial which is now bowing your head like a bulrush, and making your eyes a very fountain of tears. "He is in all providences," says Bunyan, "be they ever so bitter, ever so afflicting, ever so smarting, ever so destructive to our earthly comforts. Every bitter cup is of His preparing; it is Jesus, your best friend (O you poor, poor believers), who most dearly loves you, that appoints all providences, orders them all, overrules, moderates, and sanctifies them all, and will sweeten them all, and in His due time will make them profitable unto you, that you shall one day have cause to praise and bless His name for them all."
Though I have dwelt on the depth of your bereavement, I do not write to aggravate your sorrow. My design is rather to solace, and to lead you submissively to say, "Your will be done." Let me only throw out one or two simple reflections; and may "the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulations," make us able to "comfort those who are in any trouble, by the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted of God" (2 Cor. 1:3, 4)
A FIRST EARLY TRIAL!—Was it not NEEDED? The world may have been becoming too engrossing; alienating your love, dimming your view of "the better country." Commune with your own heart, and say, Was not this (sad though it be) the very discipline required? Less would not have done to wean me from earth. I was lulled in self-security—living in a state of awful forgetfulness of my God—insensible of His mercies—unmindful of His goodness—taking my blessings as matters of course—a secret atheism! More than this—of the magnitude of "things not seen" I had no vivid and realizing consciousness. I felt as if death could never disturb 'my dream of happiness'. He had been going his rounds on every side, but I never could anticipate the time when the spoiler could rush upon my beloved family circle and make such a gap as this!
If such be anything of a truthful picture, was it not love and kindness in Him who woke (though with a voice of thunder) from this perilous dream? He saw it needful, "by terrible things in righteousness," to bring back your truant, wandering heart, and fix once more its affections on Himself as their only satisfying portion. "Your Heavenly Father never thought this world's 'painted glory' a gift worthy of you, and therefore He has taken out the best thing it had in your sight, that He might Himself fill the heart He had wounded with Himself." (Evans.) The threads of life may have been weaved into a bright web. He gave you prosperity—but it was that awful thing, "unsanctified prosperity"—"because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God."
He would not allow you thus to be left alone, to settle in the downy nest of self-ease and forgetfulness. He has roused you on the wing; and pointed your upward soarings to their only true resting-place, in His own everlasting presence, and friendship, and love. "Ah! it is indeed humiliating," says the same devout man whose words we have last quoted, "that we require so many stripes to force us, as it were, to God—when there is enough in Him to draw us to Himself, and to keep us with Himself forever!" But better surely all these painful stripes than to be left unchecked in our downward career. It has been well said, "The sorest word God ever spoke to Israel was, 'Why should you be stricken any more?'" This wayward heart was throwing out its fibers on every side and rooting them down to earth. He had to unroot them from things that are of "earth, earthy," and fasten them on Himself as all in all!
A FIRST EARLY TRIAL!—Had it not its GRACIOUS MITIGATIONS? At first sight this may appear a strange admission. There may seem no alleviating drop in your cup. But such there always are. "Have you ever marked," says a writer who knew well what the furnace was—"have you ever marked His gentleness when bringing a painful message? how He usually calls by name, 'Abraham, Abraham!' 'Moses, Moses?'"
Yes! I truly believe that there are few afflicted children of God but can echo the expression of the tried Psalmist, "I will sing of mercy and of judgment." (Mercy first, then judgment!) Let each of these mercies be a voice of comfort to you. Have there been kind friends sent to share the bitterness of your sorrow and give you the tribute of their valued sympathy? Ask those who, from peculiar circumstances, may have been denied this boon—who in their hour of trial have been left unbefriended to weep in silence and in solitude their first tears—if there be no mercy in this?
Again, your chief blessing may have been taken away from you; but many precious ties yet remain, and the loss you have sustained knits together the broken links in holier and more sacred bonds than before. Ask those who have carried their all to the grave—who have been left like a solitary tree of the forest, alone—if there be no blessing in having the voice of doubly-endeared survivors to mingle together common sympathy and recount the hallowed memories of the departed?
Or, better than all, Is the loss you mourn the eternal gain of the absent one? Oh! ask those who have to muse in silent agony over the thought of those gone unprepared to meet their God, Is it no mercy (no, rather is it not the most exalted of consolations—that which disarms death and bereavement of all its bitterness) that "the loved and lost" are the crowned and glorified? "We may not here below," says Cyprian, "put on dark robes of mourning, when they above have put on the white robes of glory." "The birds are fled away, having outgrown our care, to fill a bough on the tree of life, and charm us on to follow after them." "I have had six children, and I bless God for His free grace that they are all with Christ or in Christ, and my mind is now at rest concerning them. My desire was that they should have served Christ on earth, but if God will choose to have them rather serve Him in heaven, I have nothing to murmur at; His will be done." (Elliot.) "All our dear relations that died in Christ," in the words of Bunyan, the great Puritan, "are in the highest heavens. While we are fighting, sighing, and sobbing here below, they are with blessed Jesus above, according to His prayer for them, seeing His glory and participating in it."
A FIRST EARLY TRIAL!—Is there not A SPECIALLY LOUD VOICE in it? You may have heavier trials and severer losses than this, but never will God's voice speak louder to you than now. It is the loudest knock that can be heard at the door of your heart! Felix might have heard another (perhaps even a more powerful) sermon from Paul "on righteousness, temperance, and the judgment to come"—but I believe he would not have again trembled, as he did, when for the first time these appalling realities were presented to his mind.
So with a first bereavement—and therefore it has its solemn responsibilities! Let it not die away in fainter and yet fainter echoes, like the subsiding thunder. Let it be accompanied with the response—"Lord, what would You have me to do?" Seek to feel that God has some great end in view—some wise meaning to subserve—some gracious lesson to teach. Let it be as a 'warning angel' telling you to strike your tent and pitch it nearer heaven—"Arise and depart, for this is not your rest!" As we have seen the timid bird hopping from bough to bough until it reach the topmost branch, and then winging its flight to the sky; so is affliction designed to drive the soul from perch to perch, from refuge to refuge, higher and still higher, until at last it soars upward to the heaven of its God."
THE FIRST TRIAL!—Is it not the most befitting season either for a first, or for a renewed CONSECRATION to God's service? Like a vessel driven from its moorings, you may be drifting unpiloted on a tempestuous sea. Let these raging waters lead you to take shelter in the quiet haven. "Build your nest upon no tree here; for you see God has sold the forest to death—and every tree upon which we would rest is ready to be cut down; to the end we may flee and mount up, and build upon the Rock." (Samuel Rutherford,) If at this season you are a stranger to the power of vital religion, uncheered by its precious, gracious promises, you are to be pitied indeed. There is no sadder spectacle than the unbefriended, orphaned, widowed, or withered heart—ungladdened by one beam of Bible consolation—the dark valley traversed with no ray of Gospel hope to pierce its shadows!
Equally mournful if the heart be unhumbled—if it refuses to bear the rod—if the death chamber only re-echo with your murmurings, and the chastened soul be unable to point to any "peaceable fruit of righteousness," as the result of the Divine dealings! There is a depth of meaning in what a son of consolation has said, as he mingles exhortations with solaces—"Unsanctified trials become deep afflictions."
On the other hand, if you are no stranger to Him who is "the God of all comfort," or if until the present a stranger, you are ready to avail yourself of the solitary solace in such an hour, what a hallowed experience yours is! With all the unutterable, untold depths of your sorrow, I know not a time fuller of more chastened joy than the mourning Christian's chamber—when the world is shut out, and he is alone with God! The sun of his earthly happiness set; but this only allowing the clustering constellations of Divine consolation to shine the brighter—the stars of Bible promise coming out, one by one, like ministering angels—the revelation of scenes which "eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor heart conceived!"
As in a time of rain and cloud the distant hills look nearer, so do the everlasting hills of glory appear, in the cloudy and dark day, nearer, more glorious—sparkling with ten thousand rills of love and covenant-faithfulness. You breathe their bracing stimulating atmosphere as you have never done before! If thus cheered, yours is indeed an enviable experience. You have One by you and with you, who can fill all blanks and compensate for all losses; who can make your solitary chamber of mourning a Patmos—bright as the Aegean Isle was to John, with manifestations of a Savior's presence and love. "If death did come alone to us," again says Bunyan, "it would be terrible indeed; its ghastly countenance would affright us. But here is the comfort—that Christ our dearest Lord will come with death to sweeten it to us, and support us under it.…Though it be the King of Terrors in itself, and a grim porter, yet by Jesus' coming with it, it shall be the King of Comforts."
Remember, affliction has always been God's peculiar method of dealing with His own people. It is because He loves them He chastises them. "I have chosen you," says He, "in the furnace of affliction." As an old writer says, "He instructs His scholars in the school of the Law, and in the school of the Gospel, but He has a third class for advanced learners, and that is the school of Trial." A sublime dialogue between a saint on earth and a saint in heaven represents each member of the white-robed multitude as having graduated in this same school. "Who are these who are clothed in white? Where do they come from?" "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation." Rev. 7:13-14
Seek alike to exercise simple faith in the wisdom of God's dealings—the unswerving rectitude of His dispensations, and to magnify His name by the sweet exercise of the grace of patience. This is a grace peculiar to the saints on earth. It is unknown in heaven, where there are no trials to call it into exercise. Think what a drop in the ocean of suffering is your trial, in comparison with what the Prince of sufferers underwent for you, whose exceptional experience was this, "ALL Your waves and Your billows have gone over Me!" He could make a challenge to a whole world of sufferers, which to this hour remains unanswered, and ever will remain, "Was there ever any sorrow like unto MY sorrow?" Child of God! believe it, there is not one drop of wrath in the bitter cup you are now drinking. He took all that was bitter out of it, and left it a cup of love!
A little while and the night of weeping will be over, and a gentle hand in a tearless world will dry up the very source of tears. "There is no night THERE,"—no bereavement either to be experienced or dreaded! Every day is bringing you nearer that blissful reality, nearer reunion with the glorified—nearer Him who is now standing with the hoarded treasures of eternity in His hand, and the hoarded love of eternity in His heart! How will one brief moment there banish in everlasting oblivion all the pangs and sorrows of the valley of weeping! "When you have passed," says a man of God who is now realizing the truth of his own words, "to the other side of that narrow river, to the which we shall so shortly come, you will have no doubt that all you have undergone was little enough for the desired end."
Meanwhile, return to life's duties with the spirit of "a weaned child," exhibiting meek acquiescence in the sovereign will of your God. Your trial was not designed to absolve you from earth's avocations. God has given you, indeed, a season of quiet calm and seclusion during these first overwhelming hours of sorrow. He has taken you, kindly and mercifully, out from the world's noise and bustle into the secret of His own presence, that no secular, harassing earthly thoughts or anxiety may obtrude themselves upon you. In His own beautiful figure, "Behold, I will allure her and bring her into the wilderness (the silent place, the silent season), and will speak comfortably unto her. And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor (trouble), a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt." (Hosea 2:14).
You remember how Jesus dealt with His own disciples when He first startled them with the announcement of their greatest sorrow, that is, 'that He, their beloved Lord and Master, was to die a shameful death on the cross.' There was the cessation, for a whole week, of public teaching and miracle. He and they seemed to have spent that week of superhuman sadness in meditative loneliness and abstraction from ordinary duty. For it was "after six days," says one Evangelist, that the time of seclusion and silence was broken, and He took them up to the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2; Luke 9:28). Oh, glorious result of that season of soul-sadness—the announcement to the twelve of their impending desolating bereavement!—because it ended in what? In the grand and glorious result of all trial to God's children—seeing their Lord transfigured before them!
You may, like these disciples, at first, "fear to enter into the cloud." But you need not! He takes His people still, up from the valleys of trial and sorrow to be on the Mount of glory with Himself—giving them new manifestations of His grace and love—leading from the place of mourning up to the very gates of heaven—"they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only." (Mark 9:8). Yet, carefully observe, that bright, transcendent, transfiguration-scene is not to last. The week of sorrow and its elevating experiences are at an end, and they are summoned once more down from the Sabbatic mount to the old scene of trial and of conflict. Yes! return to life's duties! It is by no means the smallest part of your trial thus to go out to breathe the cheerless air of the world again—and mingle with a saddened and crushed spirit amid scenes where all is uncongenial. But impossible as it may now seem, "the waves of life," to use the words of a writer already quoted, "must and will settle back to their usual flow where that treasured bark has gone down. For how imperiously, how coolly, in disregard of all one's feeling, does the hard, cold, uninteresting course of daily realities move on! Still must we eat and drink, and sleep and wake again—still bargain, buy, sell, ask and answer questions—pursue, in short, a thousand shadows, though all interest in them be over—the cold mechanical habit of living, remaining after all vital interest in it has fled."
But "as your day, so shall your strength be." You know not, until you make trial of it, all the blessed fullness and truthfulness of this precious assurance. "You are about," says one deeply experienced, "to enter into realities of consolation you have never imagined to be in God." You have heard ten thousand broken hearts tell in no pretend words, what their experience has been. "We have been wonderfully supported." And what was the secret of it? Let the Apostle Answer—"The Lord stood by me and strengthened me!" He proportions grace to trial. Your extremity is His opportunity.
"They went through the flood on foot," says the Psalmist—"There did we rejoice in Him." Beautiful picture! or rather, glorious testimony to the sustaining grace of God; a firm footing amid the threatening waves—no, more, "THERE!" (when the billows were around us; in the very midst of our affliction)—"THERE did we rejoice in Him!" He will deal tenderly, wisely, lovingly with you. He does not "pour down waterfloods on the mown grass." He considers His people's case.
There is no Bible figure on which the Christian mourner dwells with such delight as that of the Refiner of silver sitting by the furnace of His own lighting—tempering its heat—regulating the fury of its flames—quenching the violence of the fires—designing all, ALL—not to consume and destroy, but to purify and brighten. That REFINER, too, from deep-felt experience, knows your sorrows. "I have had a deep, a very deep wound," says Lady Powerscourt; "the trial has been very severe, but how would I have known Him as a Brother born for adversity without it?…He has gone through every class in our wilderness-school; He seems intent to fill up every gap love has been forced to make. One of His errands from heaven was to bind up the broken-hearted."
You can hear, as it were, the voice of the departed stealing down from the heights of glory, and thus, as Boaz said to Ruth, gently rebuking your fast-falling tears—"It is true that I am your near kinsman, howbeit there is a Kinsman nearer than I!" (Ruth 3:12). Though earthly ties have been severing, He still "lives and loves." "She was," said good old Philip Henry, when writing of Lady Puleston, who died in 1658, "She was the best friend I had on earth, but my Friend in heaven is still where He was, and He will never leave me nor forsake me."
"Whatever, whomsoever you have lost, you have not lost your Jesus, your best Friend. You have His eye, His tender, watchful, provident eye upon you still; you have His ear open to your cries still; yes, you have His everlasting arms underneath you to sustain you still, for else you would sink…To have a Friend in heaven, and such a Friend, so wise, so powerful, so faithful, so merciful, so sensibly affected with all our misery—so tender, so able, and so willing to bear and help us!—I say this is infinitely better than all the friends that ever we had or could have on earth." (Bunyan.)
Trust Him. He will "guide you (no, He is guiding you) by His counsel—and afterward"—"AFTERWARD!"—It is not for you to scan that word! It may be one of painful significance; it may be after much discipline; it may be after a rough and rugged and thorny road—trial upon trial. Remember what follows that "AFTERWARD"—"He will receive you into Glory!" Soon the last ripple of affliction will be heard, and then its sound will die away forever! Entering the triumphal arch of heaven, you will read in living characters the history of a sinless, sorrowless future—"And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain—for the former things are passed away" (Rev. 21:4).