"The Lord went before them by night in a pillar of fire."
"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints."—Psalm 116:15
Another gleam of the desert Pillar in the closing night of all. Despite of prevailing unbelief and rebellion, the verse may doubtless have served as an epitaph for the graves of not a few of the Israelites in the course of their long travel from Egypt to Canaan; but specially appropriate surely would its inscription be on the heights of Mount Nebo.
Never was "life" more "precious"; never death apparently more baffling; never loss more irreparable. The great commander—the great hero of that vast host, to be summoned away before his work was completed! His eye was yet undimmed—his natural force unabated. His was manhood in its highest consecration—manhood on which God had set His royal mark. It was in a critical season, also, in the Exodus march, when sagacity and forethought—all the astutest qualities of leadership were needed. Ten thousand others might well be spared. But it was the indispensable one, with his serene wisdom and inspiring presence, "the representative of God," to whom the summons was addressed—"Go up and die!" (Deut. 32:49-50).
The call was meekly responded to. All alone he ascended to his sepulcher, all alone he departed. If that departure took place at night, he had better than symbol of fiery pillar—(the funeral candle of the desert). The Jehovah of the radiant column was Himself close by. For not by kinsman, or armed warrior, or stoled priest—not by man nor by angel were his funeral rites performed. The legend on his grave is the strangest, grandest in Scripture. It tells that the most honored of all the burial rites of earth were his. "God buried him."
"Nobly your course is run;
Splendor is round it;
Bravely your fight is won,
Victory crowned it.
In the high warfare
Of heaven grown hoary,
You are gone like the summer's sun,
Shrouded in glory!"
We can imagine next day, as the sun rose on the mourning camp, how the tribes or the best among them, as they realized their void, would, with bated breath, give expression to their emotion by antedating, in spirit at least, the words of the Psalmist: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints!"
Reader, though in circumstances more personal and domestic, you may at this moment be absorbed in grief over the enigma and mystery—the havoc and defiances of death. The desire of your eyes and the delight of your heart may have been taken from you. You may be, indeed you are, unable yet to grasp hold of the words at the head of this meditation or get beyond the natural expression of the broken heart—"Precious is the Life!" You are standing by a sepulcher of buried hopes. The hush of oblivion—a silence that almost may be felt is around you. It was but yesterday existence was a "valley of vision" opening everywhere glades and vistas. Now it is a yawning chasm spanned with a "Bridge of Sighs," from the farther side of which seems to come the dirgeful, piteous accents—"Those who would pass from hence to you cannot!"
All that seems left now are inanimate portraits looking down from the walls. You have memories—doleful souvenirs and associations—no more; the flower planted in the garden; the love-birds with drooping wings in the untended cage; the hushed notes of favorite music; the unshared walk by stream or meadow; it may even be the deserted plaything or unused toy. The charm has retired from these life-pictures. The once long, prophetic dream has vanished like summer lightning. You had fondly hoped to keep your loved ones at your side—to claim their ministries of affection in times of sickness, perplexity, trouble—saying, in the great Master's words, "Tarry here and watch with me!" What havoc a few brief months have wrought! Your castles of golden sand! One wave, or it may be wave upon wave, of calamity has come, and swept them away. Whether it be beautiful natures, or strong natures—the one like the graceful birch and its tresses, the other like the ancestral oak "moored in the rifted rock." At morning they were bathed in sunlight or fanned by gentle zephyrs; but the unforeseen storm has been let loose, and the things of "beauty and strength" lie prone on the ground. As you sit under your "Oak of Weeping," casting its shadows on the grave of the loving and beloved, these lines of an unknown mourner may express simply and pathetically your experience—
"What did the old year bring?
Six feet of sod in the acre of God
Where the robins sweetly sing.
"What did the old year bring?
A silent hearth and a saddened earth,
With the loss of everything."
Or words of pathetic tenderness and truth, better known—
"Break, break, break,
At the foot of your crags, O sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Shall never come back to me!"
No, say not "Never." That sick-bed, that grave, has a better beyond. In the midst of your tears, listen to the words of this old minstrel of Zion. Let them steal into the hushed chamber like a serenade of angels—"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints!" Death with its densest darkness to sight and sense (a pillar of cloud indeed), is, in the words of the poet, "stricken through, with rays from the inner glory"; the hopes full of immortality. As the Pillar that was all gloom and mystery to the Egyptians was all light to Israel, so is the gate of death when seen from within the heavenly portals. An iron gate on this side; on that, "every gate was one of pearl" (Rev. 21:21).
"You grope, tear-blinded, in a darksome place,
And touch but tombs. Look up, these tears will run
Soon in long rivers down the lifted face,
And leave the vision clear for stars and sun."
Let not the depressing "nether voice and vision" recall to you only the shrine once so sacred, now a heap of dust mouldering to decay. Death is not annihilation. It is the blossom dropping, that the immortal fruit may ripen. The bud forming—waiting to burst forth into verdure next spring—is the cause of the old leaf falling off. It is truly to make way for a better, a more blessed Easter, in which decay is unknown. George Herbert's thought of the passing from this world to glory, as "going from one room to another," is a feeble exponent of the reality. I like Mason's definition better, "Death is the funeral of all our evils, and the resurrection of all our joys." It is a step in the infinite progression of the soul. It is the encasing sheath taken from the cocoon to let the incarcerated spirit free. It is God's own summons—"Come up higher." The casket may perish—the jewel is indestructible. Jesus Himself encountered death; He entered the dark valley and its darkest experiences with a hymn of triumph "Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in Him!" (John 13:31). In a lowlier sense, your dear departing ones, falling or fallen asleep, can echo these words of their dying, ever-living Lord.
The last saying of a well-known Christian senator—venerable in years as mature in faith, may be recalled: "You are leaving," said his friend, "the land of the living." "Say not so," was his reply; "I am leaving the land of the dying, and going to the land of the living."
"Farewell, farewell, my beloved!
We must say farewell again,
And I know that your heart is breaking
With a great and speechless pain.
Yet things are clear to the dying,
Which the living cannot see,
And God, in His infinite mercy,
Has comfort for you and me.
Soon we shall think on the parting,
And the sorrow it gave, no more;
Yet we could not have known such gladness
Unless we had wept before."—Caillard.
Ponder, also, the beautiful clause in our motto-verse—"Precious in the sight of the Lord." Natural—only too natural—is the clinging of the bereft heart rather to the preciousness of the life. It is different with the great Life-giver. He sees His work done—the mission of existence completed. Life is but a loan from Him. At His good pleasure He revokes the grant and resumes His own. As a father rejoices to welcome back again his son from the distant colony after years of absence—as the shepherd of the parable rejoices with the angels of heaven over the "lost and found"; so, in the sight of the great Lord of all, precious is death: because it takes the pilgrim to his heavenly Haven, the child to his heavenly Home. As with Moses, GOD "buries" your loved ones yes, and "His own beloved ones," that He may leave all that can die in the earthly valley, and take all that lives forever to Himself in the eternal Canaan. Whether it be from the heights of Pisgah, 4000 years ago, or from the grassy turf and "mouldering heap" of the quiet British church-yard of today, there comes the chime—the blessed requiem: "The beloved of the Lord shall dwell in safety by Him" (Deut. 33:12).
Yet another thought, suggested casually in an interesting volume describing simple Christian peasantry under the sunny skies of Northern Italy, with a faith different from ours, but with hearts the same. At times, with them, as with us, loved ones are taken, the knowledge of whose preciousness is confined to the home circle. They die otherwise unknown. While outwardly more distinguished lives and deaths are unfolded in volumes to the world, their deeds, their gracious characters, loving words and loving ways are left unchronicled. But, unrecognized by man, they are not forgotten in heaven. There are recording angels in default of human pens. The writer tells the beautiful myth (a poetical way of stating a reality), "They have a story in the Veneto, that the angels come down into the Campo Santo at night with their golden censers, and burn incense at the grave of those saints whom nobody knows." "Precious," whether in peasant garb, or in silent chamber, or in priestly clothing, or in royal robe—"in the sight of the Lord" and of His angel-watchers, "is the death of His saints." "The Lord knows those who are His."
Oh, 'tis a placid rest,
Who shall deplore it?
Trance of the pure and blest,
Angels watch o'er it!
Sleep of their mortal night,
Sorrow can't break it;
Heaven's own morning light
Alone shall wake it."
Bereaved mourner! let these gleams of the Pillar irradiate your present desert darkness. Perhaps He who has taken your dear one from the loves and affections of earth, wishes the more, and the better, to raise your love to Himself. He points you to your withered and blighted flower, and tests you with the challenge—"do you love ME more than these?" Seek, as one of the results of your trial, to make Him increasingly the focus of your being—the Center in the circumference of your present sorrow. Earthly "presences" are gone. But thus would the unchanging God speak from the cloudy pillar by day and the fiery pillar by night—"My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest." He would take you now, as Christ did His disciples, from the Valley of trial up to the Mount to get these glimpses and pledges of reunion—assurances that when those, like Moses and Elias on the heights of Hermon, have departed, you are left with better than the best of earthly friends: "They saw no man save Jesus only!"
If blighted memories of the years that are fled be beyond recall, look forward with confidence to everlasting fellowship in a deathless heaven: they and you with Christ, and Christ and you with them. Resume the midnight march saying, "Let Your loving Spirit lead me forth to the land of righteousness" (Psalm 143:10).
Happy those, who, with love thus revived, and faith strengthened, and resolves quickened, and ties with the glorified renewed, can prolong the verses already quoted—
"What will the new year bring?
No more to roam from the heavenly home,
Where the joy-bells ever ring.
"What will the new year bring?
A year nearer rest with Him I love best,
In the presence of our King."
"I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope."