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PSALM lv. 4.

“My heart is sore pained within me, and the terrors of death are fallen upon me.”

IN the version of the Psalter used in the Prayer-book, this verse stands with a more homely and expressive simplicity, “My heart is disquieted within me, and the fear of death is fallen upon me. Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, and an horrible dread hath overwhelmed me.” The fear of death is upon all flesh. It is no sign of manhood to be without it. To overcome it in the way of duty is courage; to meet death with patience is faith; but not to fear it is either a gift of special grace or a dangerous insensibility. No doubt great saints have been able to say, “I have a desire to depart.” And many have rushed to 353martyrdom, as to the love and bosom of their Lord: but for the rest, the multitude of His flock, who are neither wilful sinners, nor to be numbered among saints, the thought of death is a thought of fear. We see that on the first feeling of their having so much as set foot in the path leading to the grave, even good men feel the “terror of death,”—“a horrible dread,” which makes every pulse to beat with a hurried and vehement speed. Their whole nature, both in body and in soul, trembles to its very centre; and their heart is “disquieted,” “sore pained,” within them.

Now why is this? Let us try to analyse the feelings which swell so tumultuously, and to separate them into their distinct elements; that is, let us see what are the causes or reasons of this “fear of death.”

1. The first must needs be a consciousness of personal sinfulness. A sense of unfitness to meet God, our unreadiness to die, a multitude of personal faults, evil tempers, thoughts, and inclinations; the recollection of innumerable sins, of great omissions and lukewarmness in all religious duties, the little love or gratitude we have to God, and the great imperfection of our repentance;—all these make us tremble at the thought of going to give up our account. We feel as if it were impossible we could be saved. Shame, fear, 354and “a horrible dread” fall upon us. It is n answer to this to say, “We are not saved our own righteousness, but by the righteousness of Christ. We must look not at ourselves but at Him.” This is as true in the abstract as it may be untrue in the application. We must look to ourselves, when we would know whether we may so forget ourselves; for He Himself has said, “Not every one that saith unto Me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven.”211211   Matt. vii. 21. It is but an empty saying of “Lord, Lord,” to talk of faith, and trust, and the like, without a real living belief in Him; and this is to be known and tested by the facts of our life. The only cognisable form of faith is obedience; and alas for us, if we trust to it in any other shape. It is said that Satan, who can transform himself into an angel of light, has before now come to tempt men in many seeming appearances of Christ. But he never has shewn himself as upon the Cross. This one aspect is to him impossible, because it is divine and true. So it is with faith. We may be tempted by a faith of the reason, a faith of the imagination, a faith of pious desires, and a faith of good intentions. And all these may be no more than snares. But a faith 355embodied in obedience is Divine faith, which Satan cannot feign, and by this none can be deceived.

How few, then, when they are called suddenly to make ready, can say that their faith has been a life of holy obedience. For the most of us, we must confess that our sins are “more in number than the sand of the sea.” How, then, can we think of death without fear? whither, and to what doom would it carry us away?

It is very easy to talk theologically (and, therefore, in one sense truly) on the subject of our acceptance through the blood of the Cross; but examine your hearts at the time when you begin to realise the thought of being judged before God (how soon or when, you cannot tell), and say whether, after all, there is not a feeling of most just and reasonable fear, of which you could not divest your mind, without also putting off a part of your regenerate nature. Let any man say to himself, “I am now going to be judged before God;” and if he knows and believes the meaning of his words, it is impossible he should be without alarm. Let him say, “Now all my whole life must return upon me, as the consciousness of one moment. Childhood, boyhood, youth, manhood, with all their remembered sins, and, still more awful, with all their sins now forgotten.” What can be more alarming than the thought that the perpetual waste of memory is 356more profuse in nothing than in the remembrance of daily and hourly sins? Who knows what, after his often-repeated confessions, may still be against him? We shall know it all when we shall see God, and in Him see ourselves; but then will be the time not of repentance, but of judgment. How often do we discover some little danger, of which we are afraid, while others discern some much greater peril, of which we are altogether fearless. How often, in a sickness, people alarm themselves with trifling symptoms, or take full and confident hope at trifling amendments, when some vast and prominent danger, unperceived by themselves, stares every body else in the face. So it may be with our souls. We see some of our sins; we take comfort at marks of a better mind; but sins black, countless, and forgotten, are bare to the eyes of God, and of His holy angels. This, then, is one great reason for fear; and this explains the common saying, founded on a various reading of the first verse of the ninth chapter of Ecclesiastes, that “no man knows whether he is worthy of love or hatred;” that is, at most, he knows his own case so little, that after all his hope and trust in God’s mercy through Christ, he cannot shake off a fear that he may, in the light of God’s presence, see himself to be very different from what he believes now. No one can have used habitual self-examination, 357or watched the treacherous uncertainty of his memory, or measured the growth of his convictions of sin, without deeply mistrusting, at every stage, his knowledge of himself; and feeling it very possible that he may see himself before the throne of Christ to be as far different from what he thinks now, as he sees himself now to be from what he once thought before his conversion, or in the beginnings of his religious life.

2. Another reason, closely following upon the last, is the consciousness that death is judgment. At the death of each several being, a particular judgment upon the soul is passed and recorded before God. Wherefore in the thought of death, there is an awful sense that all is over, all is run out, wound up, sealed, stamped, and bound over for eternity: that all the predestination of God towards us is fulfilled; that life is spent, regeneration has been conferred upon us, with all holy inspirations of truth and grace, and all discipline of Providence and probation; that all which was once possible has now become either actual or impossible; that we have had our time and trial; and that, for weal or for woe, our eternal state is fixed for ever. There is something sorrowful and moving in the full end of any thing. It is sad to know for certain that we shall never go to any particular place again; never again see 358this or that person, do such or such definite act, or hear a certain strain of music, and the like. Even the end of a hard toil is mixed with sadness. The words “no more,” “never again,” are severe and melancholy; as they know, above all, who have wept over their dead: though with them, if they be Christ’s, such words are false, yet the thought of a full end, as if something were extinct for ever, is very sad. It clashes with the first instinct of our being. How much more when that which is over is the day of grace, the acceptable year of the Lord? No more hopes and restings on a future amendment; no more trust, half-blind, of a more devoted life; no more feasts or fasts; no more sacraments of cleansing; no more worship and adoration; no more secret abasement in the sanctuary; no more sacrifice and communion at the altar; no more words of hope, encouragement, and comfort; no more warnings, discipline, and chastisement; all the whole life of grace, with all the ministries of the Church, and all the loving expostulations of God, have been fully tried, exhausted, and, for us, brought to a full end for ever. Such as we are, such we shall be eternally.

And when this end is come, and the revelation of our doom is as yet uncertain, how can we but say, “Oh, if I had known, even I, at least in this 359my day, the things which belong unto my peace; if only a little earlier, what sins should I have avoided; if only I had taken this warning or that counsel; if only I had been more fearful, more fervent, more sincere: but now, such as I am, such I must go, with all these shreds and weeds of misery,—a memory laden with sins, a soul darkened by itself, and a heart beating itself asunder for fear. No time now; I am on my way to God. His bidding has overtaken me in my present disorder, full of active thought of ten thousand cares, under which the consciousness of His presence and will lies buried. I am going to hear that one great revelation which, to me, is heaven or hell.” This ought surely to abate the confidence with which people talk of dying; not fearing to die, because not knowing what death is. What is it but the absolute fulfilment either of God’s will in our salvation, or of our own will, if sinful, in our perdition? What is it but either the sealing of a saint, or the branding of a reprobate soul?

3. Thus far I have spoken only of the fears which arise from the departure of the soul. There is also in the body a reason for fearing death. The thought of pain and distress is very searching. Bodily pain is hard to bear. It is a fearful mystery. What is it? and whence does it come? God did not make pain. It is no part of the first 360creation, neither has it any place in the second. There was no pain in the world which He blessed in the beginning. His works were all good, and good only. But among the hosts of evil, pain is one of the foremost. It is the direct forerunner of death, and the scourge of hell. It so penetrates the whole of our being, that when it enters one part, it is felt throughout the entire reach of our consciousness: whether it be pain of the body or of the soul, it has the intensity of a focus, with an universality which knows no limit but our sensation. Who, then, can but fear the pains of death? Who can but tremble at the thought of an unseen and mysterious power entering, against our will, into the depths of our nature, and wasting the source of life? Pain is, in fact, the presence of death: and the only question is one of measure and time, that is, how soon it shall put forth its whole strength, and appear in its full array. It is a terrible thought to forebode the withering and corrupting of the body. All men must have a last sickness, which, when once begun, either is soon ended, or else keeps on its stubborn and stealthy way, in spite of the skill and science of healing. It is like a smouldering fire, which, when it breaks out, is for a while got under, and yet by suppression is but thrown in, to spread more widely and deeply than before. So death 361creeps on, under a fair aspect, till it has gained its entire hold; then it unmasks itself and reigns supreme. We may well shrink from the thought of helpless and motionless distress, palsied limbs, clouded eyes, broken speech, unsteady thoughts, and an impotent will. Such are the tokens of death in its short dominion. Who does not shrink from being that from which he has shrunk upon another’s deathbed? It is a bitter humiliation, with a living consciousness, to be changed into corruption; and to lie under the eyes of bystanders as a thing to be talked of and endured.

4. Again, there is another reason which is full of melancholy. Death is the end of a multitude of pure and blessed enjoyments. “A pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun.”212212   Eccles. xi. 7. Fallen as this world is, it is very beautiful. The sky and the earth, lights and clouds, colours and brightness, the lofty mountains, the teeming earth, the rank rich valleys, “the streams that run among the hills,” evening and morning, the long shadows of the east and west, the song of birds, and the voice of all things living these are blessed and soothing; much more the softness, peace, and loveliness which is shed abroad upon the earthly homes of those that fear God; fond affections, close friendships, bonds 362of gratitude; the joy of receiving, the blessedness of bestowing alms and kindness: but above all these, the bonds and order of mystical charity between pastor and flock, friends in the fellowship of God, between guests at the same altar, penitents and their guides, mourners and the messengers of consolation—all these make up an inner world of beauty fairer than the fairest aspect of this outward creation. We may a little understand what St. Paul meant when he said, “What mean ye to weep and to break my heart;” and what they felt who “sorrowed most of all for the word which he spake, that they should see his face no more.”213213   Acts xix. 38.

Feeble and earthly as we are, the love of earthly friends, and the company of others as weak, or weaker than ourselves, is very soothing. We bear each other’s burdens, are blind to each other’s faults; we make , allowances, give dispensations, lower ourselves to each other’s weakness, and create a sort of unexacting, compassionate world, in which we help and soothe each other’s sorrows and infirmities. This is wonderfully healing and grateful to our hearts when they are wounded, or bowed down, or galled by a sense of our own evils. We take refuge in each other, and in each other, for a while, forget ourselves. Even sorrows become sources of consolation, by unsealing the deepest 363affections, and laying foundations for the closest sympathies. All things bind together those that love God. Good things by the attraction of goodness; evil things by the force of evil. And the presence of God on earth, in which they “live and move and have their being,” makes the very element of being, motion, and life to be one in all. Now, unless a man be dead to the world with the deadness of a solitary, he must feel these strong bonds of love; these links of our common humanity, purified by the Incarnation, that is, the sympathy of the mystical body of Christ. Even the professedly religious, though separate from all the world beside, are bound to their brotherhood with a peculiar intimacy and power of love. Indeed, as men become dead to the world at large, these inner bonds of love become more intense. In one sense, life has more blessedness in it to those who are most dead to its allurements. That is to say, it is that very deadness which makes their perception of what is of God in the communion of the faithful so sensitive and keen.

Here, then, is another reason why Christians cannot but fear death. It strips them of a multitude of well-known, long-tried, and familiar joys. When they feel their summons, they begin to look abroad, and to call up round about them all the persons and the faces in whom they delight; the 364seasons of holy fellowship, whether in joy or sorrow, the mutual service of love, the acts and the thoughts of united worship, of solace, aspiration, and hope.

There is something cheerless and solitary in the thought of going out from this home of their spiritual life, and faring forth, one by one, into the valley of the shadow of death. The thought of such perfect isolation is full of awe. I am, of course, speaking only of the world we leave, not that to which we go, of which it will be time to speak hereafter. We know our present state, with all its sorrows and trials, to be blessed and soothing. We know not to what we may be going. This state is certain; that, to us, uncertain. And to let go all our certain enjoyments which have supported us these many long years, from our earliest consciousness, through every trial of life—to go out, as it were, from our kindred and our father’s house all alone into the uncertain shadows of the grave, is mournful and amazing. It appeals peculiarly to what is human in us, to the vivid emotions and sensations of earthly though purified hearts; they still sympathise with life and its imperfect realities, with its sensible beauty and its visible affections. This is another reason why the approach of death comes with terror even upon religious minds.

5. And, lastly, it may be objected, that in what 365has just been said, the thought of the rest and bliss of heaven ought not to have been excluded. It may be said, Why dwell on the beauty of earth, when the departing are on their way to the glory of heaven? Why speak of earthly affection and peace, when they are advancing to the love and rest of God? Why of loneliness, when to depart is to be with Christ and all His saints? The reasons are two: first, because whatever judgment may result by comparing them together, it is nevertheless certain that the earthly state is in itself absolutely and positively an object of love. For instance, what dying father ever left wife and children without a sensible sorrow? Even St. Paul said, “I have a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better; nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.”

But the other and the truer reason is this, that the reality of the eternal world is so severe and high, that, blessed though it be, it is in itself a thought of awe, from which, while we desire it, we cannot but also shrink.

Let any one try to realise what it would be, in any solitary place, as in a twilight church, or at any late hour, as in the night, when he is in prayer with every desire and thought of his heart in its most fixed intention,—let him conceive before him the form of Him who came and stood in the midst 366 when the doors were shut, or the presence of an holy angel, or the countenance of the most beloved among departed saints; even though such a vision should approach with all the tokens of tender, compassionate love, with the condescensions and humiliations of a Divine pity, would it not smite us to the earth as dead? Such a meeting of our earthly consciousness with their exalted spirit would almost break down the powers of the mind and of life. What, then, must be that change, when the eyes which close upon nurses and weeping friends, and the ministries of pity, shall open upon an “innumerable company of angels,” the “Church of the first-born which are written in heaven, and God the Judge of all?” We may trust that in the passage, God, through His tenderness, will endow the soul with a firmness of spiritual sight and being which shall endure the revelation of majesty and glory. But judging, as we must, by the conditions and presumptions of our present consciousness, we must be penetrated with a sense of the unutterable dread which must attend on such a transit. Blessed as these things are in themselves, they are blessed only to those who are in a spiritual capacity to perceive and embrace their blessedness. And is this our state? On what do we found our belief that we are meet for this vision of eternal light? Surely, if we know ourselves, and the clinging sympathies 367with which we hold to the infirmities of life, we must confess that nothing but new spiritual endowments will suffice to sustain us under this effluence of the Divine glory. In saying this, nothing is detracted from the love, tenderness, compassion of our Divine Lord, and of God, who is love. I am speaking only of that Majesty before which the beloved disciple fell as dead; of the unimaginable awe with which even the least of all saints and the last of the angelic hosts would strike us. How much more the whole hierarchy of heaven, the gathered election of God’s people, the visible presence of the Word made flesh, the uncreated splendour of the Godhead?

These seem to be some of the reasons why the thought of dying is so alarming at first to all. Can it be otherwise when you are brought to say, “Now it is my turn; now He has sent for me; now all my life is at a stand; all things fall off from me as if they had nothing in me; I seem to stand alone, and no one can come near me; the kindest friend cannot so much as touch me now; my soul has withdrawn itself out of his reach into my inmost self; and there is only one thought upon which I can throw myself, and that is, the love of God in His Son Jesus Christ. My sinfulness overwhelms me; I am full of fear that I have been flattering myself, and that my soul 368in God’s sight has ten thousand stains where I see one; that where I remember ten, I have forgotten ten thousand times ten thousand. But now the time of repentance and self-chastisement is over: all that can be done for eternity is done for ever; and on the strength of this most imperfect preparation, I must go and hear the sentence of my everlasting lot. It is fearful to lie down upon a death-bed, and to give up myself to the power of corruption. Who knows what may be the last straits and anguish of my passage? Even He who gave Himself for me shrunk from the sharpness of death. ‘I have a baptism to be baptised with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished.’ Moreover, it is sad to go alone from all I hold so dear; and my whole soul shrinks from the realities of the world unseen. To dust and ashes, to a worm, and a sinner, such as I, it is terrible to die. ‘My heart is disquieted within me, and the fear of death hath fallen upon me.’”;

I do not know that there is either religion or safety in trying to throw off such thoughts as these. They are plainly real and true. They are evidently founded both on revelation and on the consciousness of our regenerate nature. Their office is, to penetrate us with a holy fear, which is akin to abasement, to pure and humble confession, to devout and earnest prayer, and to a repentance 369both perfect in its extent, and fervent in its spirit. On this fear of death is raised the best and surest preparation for our last passage. The more we feel it, the more we realise in truth the change that is before us. Above all things, then, let us avoid false comforts, which excite the heart, and make the pulses beat for a while with a fictitious hope. Let us avoid all high feelings, and attempts to persuade ourselves that we are what we are not; that God is not what He is; and that the first meeting of a sinner with Him can be any thing but awful. If there is one thing more essential than any other to deep repentance, true peace, and to a holy death, it is perfect truth, perfect reality in these first perceptions. They are surely gifts of God, issuing out of the dictates and discernment of our spiritual consciousness. Let us thoroughly receive them into our heart; and though they brood in darkness, from the sixth hour unto the ninth, over the whole face of our soul, we may be sure, without a wavering of doubt, that in His good time we shall, through the darkness, see the Cross, and upon it the Son of God, pierced for us, our spotless sacrifice, our perfect atonement with the Father.

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