By John Angell James, 1859


"The wicked is driven away in his wickedness—but the righteous has hope in his death." Proverbs 14:32.

Death is a dreadful event. It is that monster, from the sight and touch of which, all sensible beings recoil with instinctive alarm and dread. Had death occurred but in one single instance, it would fill with surprise and horror all who beheld it. We can form no conception of the feelings of our first parents, when they saw the dead body of their murdered Abel, and for the first time understood the meaning of that word, death. By one of the boldest and most impressive personifications of Scripture imagery, death is called "The King of Terrors." "They are torn from the security of their tent, and they are brought down to the king of terrors." Job 18:14.

And who that has witnessed it or duly considered it, will say the metaphor is too strong? O most dreadful point, death—which is the end of time, and beginning of eternity! O most fearful instant, death—which ends the pre-determined term of life, and determines the business of our salvation—what things, and how many, and how vast are to take place in you! In the same instant, life is to finish, all our works are to be examined, and that state fixed which is to last through all eternity! Merciful God, prepare us by your grace for that event, so pregnant with eternal consequences.

"It is appointed unto man once to die." What is only to be once done, should be well done. If a person dies wrongly, it cannot be mended by dying well at another time. God gives some of our senses and our limbs by pairs, that if one be lost or injured, we might not be totally disabled—but of deaths he gives us but one; so that if that miscarry, all is lost, and we are ruined for eternity. Is it not a solemn and a fearful case, that the thing which most concerns us—which is to die—has neither trial, experience, nor remedy? We have but one life on earth, for which no previous existence can prepare us. We imprint our history as we write it action by action—but a bad life may be mended, through God's rich grace, so far at least, as to prevent its disastrous consequences—by a holy death.

But for a bad death, that is an impenitent and unbelieving death, there can be no remedy. The seal of eternity is set upon that. As the tree leans, so it falls; as it falls, so it lies; as it lies, so it rots. As our life leaves us, so death generally finds us; as death leaves us, so judgment finds us; and as judgment leaves us, so eternity will find us. Since, then, eternity depends upon death, death upon life, and life upon a brittle thread which at any moment may be snapped by accident, or cut through by sudden disease; let us all take up, with far more intelligence, seriousness and earnestness, than he did who first uttered it, the prayer of the hireling prophet, and say, "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my latter end be like his."

I now turn to the very striking contrast presented in the passage which stands at the head of this section. Both the wicked and the righteous die. Even for the latter, there is no road to immortality around the grave—but only through it. No translation by chariots of fire is granted to them. They must be conformed to their Lord, not only in his life—but in his death. They must die in order that his power might be displayed in sustaining them in the prospect of dissolution, and in their glorious resurrection. His victory over Satan, who had the power of death, will thus be rendered more illustrious by the triumphant resurrection of the saints.

But how different the death of the saint and the sinner. The wicked is driven away in his wickedness. He would like to live—but he cannot. He does not want to die—but he must. He does not go away willingly—but is driven away. He is not led out—but is forced out. His hands grasp the earth, he clings to it—and with a wrench is forced to loosen his tenacious hold. Yes, he is dragged out of life, as a criminal—from his home to a place of execution. Cases have occurred in which hell seemed to have begun this side of eternity. The sinner has sometimes been tortured on the rack of his own horrified imagination, before he was slain by the sword of Divine justice. Blair, in his poem entitled "The Grave," has strikingly portrayed this:

"How shocking must your summons be, O Death!
To him that is at ease in his possessions;
Who, counting on long years of pleasure here,
Is quite unfurnished for that world to come.
In that dread moment, how the frantic soul
Raves round the wall of her clay tenement,
Runs to each avenue and shrieks for help—
But shrieks in vain! 'How wistfully she looks
On all she's leaving, now no longer hers.'
A little longer, yet a little longer,
Oh, might she stay, to wash away her stains,
And fit her for her passage—Mournful sight!
Her very eyes weep blood—and every groan
She heaves is big with horror—but the foe,
Like a staunch murderer, steady to his purpose,
Pursues her close through every lane of life,
Nor misses once the track—but presses on;
Until, forced at last to the tremendous verge,
At once she sinks to everlasting ruin.
Surely, it is a serious thing to die!"

Still we must admit that this is not always the case. Even wicked men sometimes die with apathy, petrified into stones by a stoical or atheistical philosophy, "there are no bands in their death, and their strength is firm." While others go still further, and through the power of ignorance and self-deception have a false peace. They may, and do sometimes, die like lambs—but only to wake with the rage, and fury, and misery of wounded snakes. Their case has been set forth in the section that speaks of the hope of the hypocrite.

But I now turn with delight to the bright and beautiful contrast, "The righteous has hope in his death." This is one of the few passages in the Old Testament which refer to a future state. "A splendid testimony of the knowledge of the Old Testament believers of a future life. The wicked in his calamity, is agitated with the greatest terror. He knows not where to turn. But the godly, in this last evil, has no fear, he knows to whom to flee, and where he is going. He dies in God's grace, and in an assured confidence of the salvation of his soul, and of the glorious resurrection of the body."

That same hope which sustained the Christian under the afflictions, and purified him amid the temptations and corruptions of life, follows him to the sorrows of death, and the pains of the grave. The same grand and glorious object which had excited his desires and raised his expectations in life, appears still more glorious as it is now near at hand. He rests upon the same foundation, and Christ is still his hope. He may be able, thankfully and even triumphantly, to say, with the apostle, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous Judge shall bestow upon me in that day." He does not leave the Savior's righteousness to trust his own. The labors, the sacrifices, the holy doings of a whole life, spent in the service of God—add nothing to the entireness and strength of his dependence upon Christ.

Never, no never, do the sins of his life appear more sinful, nor his righteousness more defective and worthless, to the believer, than when he is dying. Never does he appear less meritorious, less worthy—than when he views his character, his conduct, himself—in the light of an opening eternity. It is then, that with a deeper humiliation than ever, he cries, "God be merciful to me a sinner." It is then, that he strips off with a holy indignation the last rag and tatter of self-righteousness, and wraps himself more closely in the robe of Christ's righteousness. And he does hope. Yes. Even the near prospect of his naked soul standing in the immediate presence of a holy God, and with a clear view of all his past sins—does not deprive him of his hope. "I can die," he says; "I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded he is able to keep that which I have committed to him until that day."

Then, when all other hopes are extinguished, this remains. The worldling's expectations all die, not only with him—but before him. He sees one after another failing him. As regards his health, he struggles long against the evidence of increasing decay, and approaching death; until at length the last possibility of recovery vanishes, and he sullenly says, "Well, I feel I must die." In that sentiment is included the failure of all other expectations—his flattering prospects in life, his incipient prosperity, his cherished connections—all fade before his eye like some beautiful vision vanishing in thin air—and he has nothing left. Even the Christian is subject to all this; he too, sees every earthly hope about to expire in death. Yes—but as these stars of the night pale before him, they are lost in the blaze of the rising sin. His earthly expectations dissolve in the bright illumination of heaven's eternal day which already dawns upon his soul. To the question, "What do I have left—when wife, children, home, fortune, prospects, are taken from me?" he exultingly exclaims, "heaven and immortality!"

This makes him willing to go. He dies by his own consent. It is a glad surrender—not a forcible ejection. It is a voluntary departure—not an unwilling separation. The Christian mariner weighs anchor, sets the sails, catches the breeze, turns the helm and prow of his vessel towards the shore of eternity, and sails with an abundant entrance into the haven of eternal rest. He is not driven in, as by the force of the tempest, against his will, and half a wreck. He can take death by his cold hand without a shudder, and bid him welcome. "I can smile at death," said a dying saint, "because my Savior smiles on me." He finds it a solemn thing to die, to go from world to world, to plunge into eternity, to meet God face to face—but he can do it with composure, and, in many cases, with triumph. He descends to the dark valley with the triumphant challenge, "O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? Rejoice not against me, O my enemy, for though I fall, I shall arise; and however unworthy, I shall live and reign through our Lord Jesus Christ."

It is not an uncommon case for those whose hope was feeble all through life, to have it increased and strengthened in their dying moments. The hands that have hung down—have then been lifted up. The knees that were ever feeble—have been then strengthened. The harp, so often unstrung and hung upon the willows, has then been taken down, tuned afresh, and struck to the swan-like song of the dying saint, whose lips, until then, had uttered only strains of doubt and fear. It is marvelous to see in how many cases the timid and desponding have become bold, confident, and rejoicing in the very face of the last enemy, and under his uplifted arm, brandishing the fatal dart—which for anything they knew, would the next hour pierce them through. What an encouragement to the living, to anticipate that they shall be enabled to hope in death.

Go forward, you fearful believer, there is nothing so terrible to a Christian in death, as your perturbed imagination leads you to suppose. Like every other evil, death diminishes in appearance as you approach it. The Sun of Righteousness often shines vertically over the valley of death. The "excellent glory" sends out its beams into that gloomy pass, to allure the traveler onward. The lights are seen in the windows of his Father's house, and Christ will send out the ministering angels to convoy you to his presence; and, more than this—he himself will come to meet you. He has told you so. Believe him. Expect him. He says, "Fear not, I am with you." Respond to the gracious promise, and say, "I will fear no evil, though I walk through the valley, not only of the shadow of death—but the valley of death itself, if you are with me."

But is there no need of admonition, admonition, and rebuke, to many professing Christians on this subject? Is there not a "sinful love of life" to be overcome, and an equally "sinful dread of death"? Is there not a practical denial of their hope of immortality in the dread with which many, yes, most, look on to the hour of dissolution? Do not infidels and worldlings, with cutting irony, sometimes reproach us, and tell us that we do not believe in heaven, or we would be more willing to go to it. We belie our professions of faith and hope, and should have less love of life and fear of death. "If we believed," they say, "as you do, we would be impatient to die." We deserve the rebuke, and let us profit by it. How forcibly does John Howe expostulate with us, in reference to this unwillingness to die, in the last chapter of his transcendently glorious work, entitled "The Blessedness of the Righteous," a work which as a whole is one of the most sublime treatises in the English or any other language. And how earnestly does Baxter follow up the same subject in the words with which I will close this section.

"What was it that rejoiced you all your life, in your prayers, and sufferings, and labors? Was it not the hope of heaven? And was heaven the spring and motive of your obedience, and the comfort of your life? And yet will you pass into it with heaviness? And shall your approaches to it be your sorrows? Did you pray for that which you would not have? Have you labored for it, and denied yourself the pleasures of the world for it—and now are you afraid to enter in? Fear not, poor soul! Your Lord is there; your husband, and your head, and life is there, you have more there, a thousand-fold more, than you have here. Here you must leave poor mourning friends, that languish in their own infirmities, and troubled you as well as comforted you while you were with them—and that are hastening after you, and will shortly overtake you. And there you shall find the souls of all the blessed saints that have lived since the creation until this age. There all are unclothed of the rags of their mortality, and have laid by their frailties with their flesh—and are made up of holiness, and prepared for joy, and will be suitable companions for you in your joys.

"Why should you be afraid to go the way that all the saints have gone before you? Where there is one on earth, how many are there in heaven? And one of them is worth many of us. Are you better than Noah, and Abraham, and David? than Peter, and Paul, and all the saints? Or do you not love their names, and would you not be with them? Are you hesitant to leave your friends on earth? and have you not far better and more friends in heaven? Why then are you not as hesitant to stay apart from them? Suppose that I, and such as I, were the friends that you are hesitant to leave; what if we had died long before you? If it be our company that you love, you should then be willing to die, that you may be with us. And if so, why then should you not be more willing to die, and be with Christ, and all his holy ones, that are so much more excellent than we? Would you have our company? Go, then, willingly, to that place where you shall have it to everlasting; and be not so hesitant to go from here, where neither you nor we can stay. Had you rather travel with us, than dwell here with us? And rather here suffer with us, than reign in heaven with Christ and us?

"Oh! what a brutish thing is flesh! What an unreasonable thing is unbelief! Shall we believe, and fly from the end of our belief? Shall we hope, and be hesitant to enjoy our hopes? Shall we desire and pray, and be afraid of attaining our desires, and lest our prayer should be heard? Shall we spend our lives in labor and travel, and be afraid of coming to our journey's end? Do you love life—or do you not? If not, why are you afraid of death? If you do, why then are you hesitant to pass into everlasting life? You know there is no hope of immortality on earth. Hence you must pass, whether you will or not, as all your fathers have done before you. It is therefore in heaven, or nowhere, that endless life is to be had. If you can live here forever, do. Hope for it, if any have done so before you. Go to some man of a thousand years old, and ask him how he made shift to draw out his life so long. But if you know that every man walks here in a vain show, and that his life is a shadow, a dream, a vapor—and that all these things shall be dissolved, and the fashion of them passes away—is it not more reasonable that we should set our hearts on the place where there is hope of our continuance, than where there is none? And where we must live forever, than where we must be but for so short a time?

"Alas! poor darkened, troubled soul! Is the presence of Christ less desirable in your eyes than the presence of such sinful worms as we, whom you are hesitant to part with? Is it more grievous to you to be absent from us—than from your Lord? Is it more grievous to you to be absent from earth—than from heaven? Is it more grievous to you to be absent from sinners—than from blessed saints? Is it more grievous to you to be absent from trouble and frailty—than from glory? Have you anything here that you shall desire in heaven? Alas, that we should thus draw back from happiness, and follow Christ so heavily and sadly into life! But all this is owing to the enemies that now molest our peace. Indwelling sin, and a flattering world, and a brutish flesh, and interposing death—are our discouragements that drive us back. But all these enemies shall shortly be overcome!

"Fear not death, then, let it do its worst. It can give you but one deadly grasp that shall kill itself, and prove your life. It is as the wasp that leaves its sting behind, and can sting no more. It shall but snuff the candle of your life, and make it shine brighter when it seems to be put out. It is but an undressing, and a gentle sleep. That which you could not here attain by all our preaching, and all your prayers, and cares, and pains—you shall speedily attain by the help of death. It is but the messenger of your gracious Lord, and calls you to him—to the place that he has prepared for you!"