Human Life a Vapor!

Edward Griffin, 1807

"Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes!" James 4:14

This moral reflection was introduced by the apostle to reprove those calculations and forms of speech which make no account of a providence. "Now listen, you who say: 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes! Instead, you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.' As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil." James 4:13-16

All such presumptuous calculations, such vain boasting of what we will accomplish independently of God's blessing, are nothing short of practical atheism. Thus did the man who said in his heart, "This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself: You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry!"

But what was the answer of God? "You fool! This night your soul shall be required of you!"

"Boast not therefore of tomorrow for you know not what a day may bring forth." Surely then in vain do you spin your cobweb plans, and reckon with confidence on a train of events reaching through the year when you cannot control the matters of a single day. In vain do you grasp your future gains, as though your times were in your own hands, when your life itself is only "a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes!"

This recognition of a Providence and of our dependence, ought to be the constant thought of our hearts, and ought to be expressed in our ordinary conversation, so far at least as to distinguish us from atheists.

Paul used this form of speech did with the Ephesians: "I will return again unto you if God wills." And with the Romans: "I pray that now at last by God's will the way may be opened for me to come to you."

David lived under an habitual impression that "Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain!"

All ought to consider that though "a man's heart devises his way yet the Lord directs his steps!" "Though the lot is cast into the lap the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord." "In all your ways acknowledge him and he shall direct your paths."

But to promise ourselves worldly comforts without asking permission of God, is the height of presumption. "For what is your life?" This question implies something bordering on contempt, as did more fully the question of Nabal, "Who is David? And who is the son of Jesse?" And as did the question of David himself, "Lord, what is man, that you take knowledge of him? Or the son of man, that you make account of him?"

The question prepares the mind to anticipate the answer: "You are a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes!" A vapor is a frail, unsubstantial thing, of short continuance; which either darts across the sky and disappears, or glitters before the eye for a few moments and is gone!

Such is the life of man. Though it be protracted to threescore years and ten it is only a frail, uncertain thing. It glitters at a distance as something bright and glorious, it dances delusively before the bewildered sight and then suddenly disappears.

It is represented by various figures borrowed from the most unsubstantial and fleeting objects. It is compared . . .
to a passing shadow,
to the vanishing of a cloud,
to the disappearing of smoke,
to sleep,
to wind,
to a tale that is told,
to the grass and flowers of the field,
to the quick transition of a weaver's shuttle,
to the drying up of waters, and the like.

"Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow!" Psalm 144:4

"You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered!" Psalm 90:5-6

"The length of our days is seventy years   or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away!" Psalm 90:10

"As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more!" Psalm 103:15-16

"But man dies and is laid low he breathes his last and is no more." Job 14:10

"My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and they come to an end without hope. Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath. The eye that now sees me will see me no longer; you will look for me, but I will be no more. As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so he who goes down to the grave does not return. He will never come to his house again; his place will know him no more." Job 7:6-10

These poetic and melancholy effusions, these tender lamentations over a decaying world are peculiarly soothing to a mind softened by reflections on this tearful subject. Methinks they are pitched on the same tone with many a mind this day. This day on which we are assembled to bestow some still and mournful thoughts on a year which we lately knew, which traveled pleasantly with us along life's varying journey for twelve successive months but is now forever gone to rest. Eighteen hundred and six we shall see no more. It is now with the years beyond the flood.

Another year has taken its place, in the womb of which how many and what events are enclosed time alone can reveal. It is doubtless the appointed time for many thousands to die, and for many thousands to be born, and begin their immortal career.

How many widows and orphans will be made this year and how many mercies will be scattered from our Father's hand! How many revolutions will take place in families, in towns, in states, in nations!

Great changes may occur in our families. How many of our children and parents we shall follow to the grave, and whether our seats will not be left empty before another new-year's day, is left for the revolution of a few months to determine. Whether this year shall dash all our hopes, or bring increased prosperity depends wholly on God. We are vulnerable at a thousand points. All that we can hope or fear, depends upon Him. So many evils may befall us, if He does not prevent them.

O let us venture no further into the year without engaging His blessing to bring it to a prosperous close. If like those who calculated to "go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money" you are making calculations for the year without a sense of dependence on God, pause in God's name, pause! Settle it in your mind on whom your prosperity depends.

A number who were with us when the last year commenced, are no longer here. Their seats are vacant in this church building. Their houses are deserted. If you would seek their abode, you must search for it under the cold clods of the cemetery. But their souls where are they? They have been transported into a country from which there is no return, and fixed there in unchangeable weal or woe! In all probability some of us are destined to follow them in the course of the present year. And instead of partaking of a new-year's feast at the return of the season we will then be furnishing a feast for worms! Who, O who shall be of that number? It may be I myself! My friend, it may be you!

The commencement of a new year is a proper season for many solemn reflections. It is an epoch which has always been noticed in the Christian Church; and it is reasonable that it should awaken us from slumber . . .
to mark how rapidly time is rolling us into old age and into eternity;
to take our view of the blessings and mercies of the past year, and of all the years that have gone over our heads;
to consider the mercies which we shall need for the year to come;
to reflect how we have improved our talents, what we have done for God and His Church, and what progress we have made in our heavenly course;
to inquire what new desires and purposes, and what new degrees of diligence, are needful for the current year;
and finally, to look forward to the termination of all our years, when time in respect to us, will be no longer.

Let us spend a few minutes in these reflections. And O that the divine Spirit may carry them home to our hearts!

1. We are called upon by this occasion, to mark the steady and silent lapse of time, which in an uninterrupted course is rolling us into old age and into eternity; to observe how year after year is stealing on with a still and even pace, and without our notice is bearing us towards the darkness of the tomb! How imperceptibly we advance in years. How silently "gray hairs are gathering here and there upon us, while we know it not."

"Man comes forth like a flower." In the morning the flowers appear on the plain. They dance before the breeze. They smile in all the bloom and gaiety of youth, and charm the eye of every passing fellow. To an inexperienced eye, it would seem long before the freshness and beauty of their youth could pass away; but at the close of the first week, old age has withered their bloom and shaken their constitution, and at the close of the second week they expire!

Short is the youth of the flowers of the field and short is the youth of man. Yesterday we were children, just embarking on the ocean of life, spreading all our sails to catch the prosperous breeze, and looking forward with elated hopes to rich and balmy islands at which we should touch, and to the peaceful haven where we would cast anchor for a great many happy years.

We proceeded, but the sky was overcast, and cross winds drove us hither and thither. We saw those pleasant islands at a distance, but could not reach them.

We often took our observations to find the peaceful haven, where all our cares were to end. Often we thought we saw the rising spires, and hope glistened in our eye. At last we find that we have passed the long looked-for spot, and cannot return and that an irresistible current is carrying us directly into eternity!

Yesterday we were children, setting out in life with optimistic hopes of finding what had not been found before a paradise on earth replete with soul-satisfying comfort. We advanced, but did not find it yet the image of it glittered in our eye. We still dreamed that we were young and had time enough to overtake it. We pressed forward but the image kept before us. Sometimes we felt the sting of disappointment; but we comforted ourselves with the thought that the principal part, the most splendid and delightful part of life was yet before us, and that we would shortly come to the time when we could dismiss our cares, and commence a long period of peace.

We still dreamed that we were young until we awoke and found that we had got into old age and that the paradise we had been seeking, such as it was, was far behind us, and that we had then little to look forward to but death and eternity. Then it was that we first discovered that our life was indeed "a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes!"

We were not at all prepared to be old so soon. It was an unexpected shock. We had just been indulging the anticipation of long continued youth. We still fondly clung to the thought, unwilling to let it go. We said in our hearts, "It was but yesterday that I was a child. It is not yet time to be old! I have not yet found what I have been looking forward to all my days. When I was tasting the insipid comforts of former years I did not dream that they were the best that this life could afford."

Often did we attempt to recover our hold of youth but every revolving year carried us still further from it and pushed us down the hill. We recoiled from the descent. Nature made an involuntary effort to brace itself against the downward progress, and to hold back the wheels of time. But all in vain.

One year passes after another and carries us still further into the valley of old age. We are now advanced one more year nearer to the eternal world! And still another year has begun to waft us onwards. Unwilling as we are to go we must advance.

O Lord, break that bond which binds our hearts to this fleeting life and stretch them forward to eternity!

"One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus!" Philippians 3:13-14

O that we might improve this expiration of another year (the emblem of the moment when all time shall end), to impress our minds with the great lesson which we were sent into the world to learn! Here we stand in the middle of life, removed one year further from the sprightliness and hopes of childhood and with increasing haste hastening onward to the tomb.

2. This is a proper season to take a view of the preservations and mercies of the past year, and of all the years that have gone over our heads and to consider the mercies we shall need for the year to come. While thousands and millions have been swept from life in the course of the last year we are still spared to see a new year begun. While sore breaches have been made upon a thousand families most of our families continue in peace.

How many new years have we been spared to see. Let us awake, and cast our eyes back through the long ranges of time in which God has preserved us. Goodness and mercy have followed us all our days. Let us consider how God took care of us in our mothers' arms. Let us consider how He guarded us from sudden death in childhood when we were unprepared to die. Let us consider how near we sometimes came to death and to the gates of Hell and yet were spared.

And furthermore, let us consider how many gracious and remarkable interpositions of Providence have combined to shape the destinies of our manhood, to form our several relations, and to produce and continue every item of our prosperity. There is not a year nor a month nor a day, which has not been full of His mercies and strongly marked with His tender care. "What shall we render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward us? Is it too much to devote to Him, the worthless lives which He has thus preserved and blessed?

The present is a suitable time to turn in our minds also how many mercies we shall need for the year to come whence they can be derived and how much it behooves us to secure the favor of God by sincerely believing on His dear Son.

3. The present is a proper season to consider . . .
how we have improved our talents,
what we have done for God and His Church,
what progress we have made in our heavenly course.

The present is also a proper season to reflect what new desires and purposes and what new degrees of diligence, are needful for the current year.

If we have had real piety for a course of years we have hoped that we should yet do something for God in our day and generation. But so many years have come and gone and what, after all, have we ever done for Him or His Church? I confess for my own part, that I am terrified to find so little done in so many years, so little returns for talents and privileges bestowed, and myself advanced so near to eternity; life so nearly run out and so little done.

So many years have we all been in God's vineyard; and now many of us are about to return to our Master to give an account of what we have done and what will our account be? O that we could seize the fleeting years as they pass, and press them into the service of God and our souls, and do something yet for Him before we go hence to be here no more! O that we could escape from these worldly chains, that we could break these fetters of pride, that we could awake from this unbelief and stupidity and live like beings who must spend a whole eternity in another world! It is high time that we began to live to some good purpose that we began to live for God and eternity. If we would ever awake to renewed diligence, we must awake speedily. Our time is short whatever we do we must do quickly!

The present is a proper season to inquire also what improvements and advances we have made in the divine life. If we have been truly pious for a course of years, we have hoped that we would not always be children in grace; we have hoped that before this time we would become bright and happy Christians. But what advances have we made in the heavenly course? What progress did we make the last year?

How much more humble, holy, and heavenly, how much more dead to the world are we than we were the beginning of the last year? For one, I know that it is high time that I was a great way further advanced in my progress. How wretched to be obliged to confess: "I am old and yet a babe. I am advanced in years and yet an infant of days."

What then do we purpose to do for the time to come, that we may make greater advances in grace? This is the proper time to lay our plans of duty and improvement for the year, to form our purposes and offer our prayers for quickening grace during this period. O that we may obtain grace with a new year to begin new lives! O that we may double our diligence, for the time we have lost! O that the close of the present year, may find us advanced a great way in our journey towards the heavenly rest!

4. The present is a proper season to look forward to the termination of all our years when time in respect to us, shall be no longer. A few more revolutions and we shall all be gathered to the assembly of the dead! The places which now know us will know us no more. These seats will be filled by new worshipers, and not one of their fathers will be found in this house. A new voice will be heard from this pulpit. And in the mean time, you and I, my dear hearers, shall have gone together to our common Judge, to answer for our conduct on earth.

Where then, O where shall we each be eternally fixed? If I am so happy as to reach the kingdom of Heaven, I hope to meet many of my dear hearers there, and to have a common joy in reviewing the relation which existed between us in the Church on earth.

But O, shall I see any of you whom I now regard with hope forever driven from the assembly of the righteous? Shall I be compelled to testify against you? Shall I see you plunged into deeper misery by the very Gospel that I have preached? God knows I meant no such thing. I would not be the means of woe to one of you.

But O my hearers, consider the solemn account which some of you may have to render for wasted time, for misimproved privileges, and for a rejected Gospel which long pleaded in your ears. When years no more shall come and go, when all the changes of this world shall cease then your poor souls, without any change except from bad to worse, without any revolutions of time, may have to measure, in one unceasing duration, the horrid age of eternal damnation; from which may God deliver us, through infinite grace in Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.