(1 CORINTHIANS 7:29-31.)
THE first act introduces those that have wives. It opens with a wedding.
The bride and bridegroom advance to the altar in bridal attire. The bells are ringing; crowds are cheering at the door, white overflowing mirth is supreme within. In another scene we observe domestic happiness and prosperity, a loving husband and a happy wife. Yet, further on in the performance, rosy children are climbing the father’s knee; the little prattlers are lisping their mother’s name. “Now,” says our companion as he gazes with rapture, “This is real and enduring, I know it is; this wilt satisfy me; I crave for nothing more than this. Home is a word as sweet as heaven, and a healthy, happy race of children is as fine a possession as even angels can desire. On this rock wilt I build all my hope; secure me this portion, and I cheerfully renounce the dreamy joys of religion.” We whisper in his ear that all this is but a changing scene, and will by-and-by pass away; for time is short, and wife and children are dying creatures. The man laughs at us, and says, “Fanatics and enthusiasts may seek eternal joys, but these are enough for me.” He believes that if there be anything permanent in the universe it is marrying and being given in marriage, educating and bringing up a family, and seeing them all comfortably settled. He is right in valuing the blessing, but wrong in making it his all. Will he see his error before the curtain falls?
Or will he continue to found the hopes of an immortal spirit upon dying joys? See the green mounds in the cemetery, and the headstone with “Here he lies.” Alas for thee, poor deluded worldling, where is thy soul now?
Doth it console thee that the dust of thine offspring shalt mingle with thine ashes? Where hast thou now a home? What family hast thou now to care for? The first act is over; take breath and say, “This also is vanity.”
The tenor of the drama changes, alas, how soon! Household joys are linked with household sorrows. They that weep are now before us in the second act. The cloudy and dark days have come. There are parents wringing their hands; a beloved child has died, and they are following its corpse to the tomb. Anon, the merchant has suffered a tremendous loss; he puts his hand to his aching head and mourns, for he knows not what will be the end of his troubles. The wife is smitten by the hand of death; she lies on her bed, blanched with sickness and wan with pain; there is a weeping husband at her side, and then there is another funeral, and in the dim distance I see the black horses again and again. The woes of men are frequent, and sorrow’s visits are not like those of angels, few and far between. Our man of the world, who is much moved at this second act, foreseeing his own sorrows therein, weeps, until he fairly sobs out his feelings, clutches us with earnestness, and cries, “Surely this is awfully real; you cannot call this a fleeting sorrow or a light affliction. I will wring my hands for ever; the delight of my eyes has been taken from me; I have lost all my joys now; my beloved in whom I trusted has withered like a leaf in autumn before my face; now shall I despair; I shall never look up again!” “I have lost my fortune,” says the afflicted merchant, “and distress overwhelms me; this world is indeed a wilderness to me; all its flowers are withered. I would not give a snap of my finger to live now, for everything worth living for is gone!”
Sympathizing deeply with our friend, we nevertheless venture to tell him that these trials to the Christian, because they are so short and produce such lasting good, are not killing sorrows. “Ah!” says he, “you men of faith may talk in that way, but I cannot; I tell you these are real things.” Like an English sailor, who, seeing a play, sprung upon the stage to help a lady in distress, believing that the whole was real, so do such men weep and sigh, as if they were to mourn for ever, because some earthly good has been removed. Oh, that they knew that the depths of sorrow were never yet explored by a mortal mourner! Oh that they would escape from those lower deeps where immortal spirits weep and wail amidst an emphasis of misery! The sorrows of time are trifles indeed when compared with the pains of everlasting punishment; and on the other hand we reckon that they are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
They are but light afflictions, which are but for a moment, a mere pin’s prick to the man of faith. Happy is the man whose eyes are open to see that heirs of heaven sorrow not as those who are without hope. A real joy of heavenly origin is ever with believers, and it is but the shadow of sorrow which fails upon them. There let the curtain drop — let us enter into an eternal state, and what and where are these temporary griefs?
But the third act comes on, and presents us with a view of those who rejoice. It may be that the first-born son has come of age, and there are great festivities. They are eating and drinking in the servants’ hall, and in the master’s banquet-chamber; there are high notes of joy, and many compliments, and the smiling sire is as glad as man can be. Or it is the daughter’s wedding, and kind friends implore a thousand blessings on her head, and the father smiles and shares the joy. Or it is a gain in business, a fortunate speculation; or the profits of industry have come flowing in, slowly perhaps, but still surely, and the mart is full of rejoicing; he has a house, and home, and friends, and reputation, and honor, and he is, in the eyes of all who know him, happy; those who do not know him, think he has no cares, that he can have no sorrows, that his life must be one perpetual feast, and that, surely there can be no spot in his sun, no winter in his year, no ebb to follow his floods. Our friend by our side is smiling at this sunny picture. “There,” says he, “is not that real? Why, there must be something in that! What more do you want? Only let me get the same, and I will leave you the joys of faith, and heaven, and immortality, to yourselves; these are the things for me; only let me laugh and make merry, and you may pray as you will fill high the bowl for me; put the roast and the viands on the table, and let me eat and drink, for to-morrow I die.”
If we gently hint to our friend that all this passes away like a vision of the night, and that we have learned to look on it as though it were not, he laughs us to scorn, and accounts us mad when he is most mad himself. As for ourselves, so far from resting upon the softest couch that earth can give us, we spurn its vain delights.
But the fourth act of the drama is before us, and they that buy demand our attention. The merchant is neither a mourner nor a man of mirth; in the eyes of certain Mammonites he is attending to the one thing needful, the most substantial of all concerns. Here feast your eyes, ye hard, practical, earth-scrapers. There are his money-bags; hear how they thump on the table! There are the rolls of bonds, the banker’s books, the title-deeds of estates, mortgages and securities, and the solid investment in his country’s own consoles. He has made a good thing of life, and still he adheres to business, as he should do; and, like a painstaking man, he is accumulating still, and piling up his heap, meanwhile adding field to field and estate to estate, till soon he will possess a whole county. he has just new been buying a large and very fine house, where he intends to spend the remainder of his days, for he is about to retire from business; the lawyer is busy making out the transfer; the sum of money is waiting to be paid, and the whole thing is as good as settled. “Ah! now,” says our friend, who is looking on at the play, “you are not going to tell me that this is all a shadow? It is not; there is something very solid and real here, at least, something that will perfectly satisfy me.” We tell him we dare say there is something that will satisfy him , but our desires are of a larger span, and nothing but the infinite can fill them. Alas for the man who can find satisfaction in earthly things! It will be only for a time; for when he comes to lie upon his dying-bed, he will find his buyings and his sellings poor things wherewithal to stuff a dying pillow; he will find that his gainings and his acquisitions bring but little comfort to an aching heart, and no peace to a conscience exercised with the fear of the wrath to come. “Ah, ah!” he cries, and sneers sarcastically, putting us aside as only fit for Bedlam, “Let me trade and make a fortune, and that is enough for me; with that I shall be well content!” Alas, poor fool, the snow melts not sooner than the joy of wealth, and the smoke of the chimney is as solid as the comfort of riches!
But we must not miss the fifth act. See the rich man, our friend whom lately we saw married, whom we then saw in trouble, afterwards rejoicing and then prospering in business, has entered upon a. green old age; he has retired, and has now come to use the world. The world says he has been a wise man and has done well, for all men will praise thee when thou doest well for thyself. Now he keeps a liberal table, a fine garden, excellent horses, and many servants; he has all the comforts in fact that: wealth can command, and as you look around his noble park, as you gaze at his avenue of fine old trees, or stay a day or two at the family mansion and notice all its luxuries, you hear your friend, saying, “Ay, there is something very real here; what do you think of this?” When we hint that the grey hairs of the owner of all these riches betoken that his time is short, and that if this be all he has, he is a very poor man, for he will soon have to leave it, and that his regrets in leaving will make his death more pitiable than that of a pauper, our friend replies, “Ah! ah! you are always talking in this way. I tell you this is not a play. I believe it is all real and substantial, and I am not, by any talking of yours, to be made to think that it is unsubstantial and will soon be gone.”
O world, thou hast fine actors, to cheat men so well, or else mortal man is an easy fool, taken in thy net like the fishes of the sea. The whole matter is most palpably a show, but yet men give their souls to win it. Wherefore, O sons of men, are ye thus beside yourselves? “Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labor for that which satisfieth not?”