Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 015. The Death

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Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 015. The Death

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The Death

And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.- Gen_4:8.

And wherefore slew he him? Because his works were evil, and his brother's righteous.- 1Jn_3:12.

He being dead yet speaketh.- Heb_11:4.

1. The direct cause of Abel's death, as we are told, was his righteousness-“And wherefore slew he him? Because his works were evil, and his brother's righteous.” Here was the consummation of Abel's faith. By faith he offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain; by faith he was accounted worthier to die. It was a fact pregnant with awful meaning for the future, that the first righteous man in Adam's family should also have become the first martyr to righteousness; yet it was not without hope, since Heaven distinctly identified itself with his testimony, and espoused the cause of injured rectitude and worth. In such a case, the ascendancy of evil could not be more than temporary.

To speak of Abel as the first martyr to righteousness is to recall a striking incident in which the same word was used of Mazzini, the Italian patriot. Carlyle was out of touch with some of Mazzini's aspirations, and indeed they had recently quarrelled over them. Yet when Mazzini was unfairly attacked in England, Carlyle wrote to the Times in his defence. This is the letter:

“Whatever I may think of his practical insight and skill in worldly affairs, I can with great freedom testify to all men, that he, if I have ever seen such, is a man of genius and virtue, a man of sterling veracity, humanity, and nobleness of mind, one of those rare men, numerable unfortunately but as units in this world, who are worthy to be called martyr souls; who in silence, piously in their daily life, understand and practise what is meant by that.”1 [Note: Bolton King, Mazzini, 85.]

2. St. Paul, mentioning Abel as the first in the catalogue of saints, uses the memorable words that he “being dead yet speaketh,” which seem to attach an emphatic teaching to his death. Abel speaks through his righteousness, through his martyrdom. He represents in all countries unto the end of time those to whom the Father, it may be in some hidden manner unknown of man, reveals His Son, and by some secret bond in the mystery of godliness, knits them unto Him. They are not their own; they are of Him, and in Him, and depart to be more intimately with Him. The world knoweth them not as it knew Him not-it knoweth not whence they come nor whither they go. These are strangers upon the earth; the world hateth them because they are of God. Their treasure and their heart are with Him; their treasure, because they give Him the first and best; and their heart, because their affections must needs follow their actions. They devote to Him the first and the best of all; the first and best of their substance, the first and best of their time, the first and best of their affections. They are ready to die for their faith. Thus in every age and nation Abel yet speaketh; each carries on his example, confirms it by others of like character and circumstance, and leaves it yet to speak as it will unto the end.

The best apology for Christianity is a life which makes the supernatural visible to ourselves and others. The more we find by experience that Christianity condemns in us all that is evil and brings forth all that is good, the more our personal faith in its Divine right and power will grow, even amidst our growing sense of failure and imperfection; and the same conviction must spread to others, as faith is shown by works, and as the rule is brought into fresh application, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” … The brightness of every Christian example will not only preserve, but indefinitely multiply, the illuminating power of all the evidences of Christianity, as the polished surface of the concave reflector at once mirrors and multiplies the illuminating power of the lighthouse; and thus the heaven-enkindled Pharos will send a broad and kindly beam over the waste of waters in a troubled period, and guide through storm and darkness those who “are afar off upon the sea” to safety and rest.1 [Note: John Cairns, in Life, by A. R. MacEwen, 562.]

Tongues of the dead, not lost,

But speaking from death's frost,

Like fiery tongues at Pentecost!

Glimmer, as funeral lamps,

Amid the chills and damps

Of the vast plain where Death encamps!2 [Note: Longfellow, L'Envoi.]

In Abel we have the first-fruits of the City of God; the fulness of the last and crowning beatitude; “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “For not only,” says St. Augustine, “from the bodily presence of Christ and His Apostles but from righteous Abel unto the end of time, amidst the persecutions of the world, and the consolations of God, the Church advances onward in her pilgrimage.”3 [Note: I. Williams, The Characters of the Old Testament, 19.]

So when a great man dies,

For years beyond our ken

The light he leaves behind him lies

Upon the paths of men.4 [Note: Longfellow, Charles Sumner.]