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SERMONS ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS.
SERMON LIX.-On Eternity.
"From everlasting to everlasting, thou art God," Psa. xc, 2.
1. I WOULD fain speak of that awful subject, eternity. But how can we grasp it in our thought? It is so vast, that the narrow mind of man is utterly unable to comprehend it. But does it not bear some affinity to another incomprehensible thing, immensity? May not space, though an unsubstantial thing, be compared with another unsubstantial thing, duration? But what is immensity? It is boundless space. And what is eternity? It is boundless duration.
2. Eternity has generally been considered as divisible into two parts; which have been termed eternity a parte ante, and eternity a parte post, —that is, in plain English, that eternity which is past, and that eternity which is to come. And does there not seem to be an intimation of this distinction in the text? "Thou art God from everlasting:"-Here is an expression of that eternity which is past: "To everlasting:"-Here is an expression of that eternity which is to come. Perhaps indeed some may think it is not strictly proper to say, there is an eternity that is past. But the meaning is easily understood: we mean thereby, duration which had no beginning; as by eternity to come, we mean that duration which will have no end.
3. It is God alone who (to use the exalted language of Scripture) "inhabiteth eternity," in both these senses. The great Creator alone (not any of his creatures) is "from everlasting to everlasting :" it is duration alone, as it had no beginning, so it cannot have any end. On this consideration it is, that one speaks thus, in addressing Immanuel, God with us:
And again :
"Hail, GOD the Son, with glory crown'd
Throned with thy Sire through half the round
"Hail, God the Son, with glory crown'd
Throned with the Father through the round
4. "Ere time began to be."-But what is time? It is not easy to say, as frequently as we have had the word in our mouth. We know not what it properly is: we cannot well tell how to define it. But is it not, in some sense, a fragment of eternity, broken off at both ends? That portion of duration which commenced when the world began, which will continue as long as this world endures, and then expire for ever? That portion of it, which is at present measured by the revolution of the sun and planets; lying (so to speak) between two eternities,
that which is past, and that which is to come. But as soon as the heavens and the earth flee away from the face of Him that sitteth on the great white throne, time will be no more; but sink for ever into the ocean of eternity!
5. But by what means can a mortal man, the creature of a day, form any idea of eternity? What can we find within the compass of nature to illustrate it by? With what comparison shall we compare it? What is there that bears any resemblance to it? Does there not seem to be some sort of analogy between boundless duration and boundless space The great Creator, the infinite Spirit, inhabits both the one and the other. This is one of his peculiar prerogatives: "Do not I fill heaven and earth, saith the Lord ?" Yea, not only the utmost regions of creation, but all the expanse of boundless space! Meantime, how many of the children of men may say,
"Lo, on a narrow neck of land,
A point of time, a moment's space,
6. But leaving one of these unbounded seas to the Father of eternity, to whom alone duration without beginning belongs, let us turn our thoughts on duration without end. This is not an incommunicable attribute of the great Creator; but he has been graciously pleased to make innumerable multitudes of his creatures partakers of it. He has imparted this not only to angels and archangels, and all the companies of heaven, who are not intended to die, but to glorify him, and live in his presence for ever; but also to the inhabitants of the earth, who dwell in houses of clay. Their bodies indeed are crushed before the moth;" but their souls will never die. God made them, as an ancient writer speaks, to be "pictures of his own eternity." Indeed all spirits, we have reason to believe, are clothed with immortality; having no inward principle of corruption, and being liable to no external violence.
7. Perhaps we may go a step farther still: is not matter itself, as well as spirit, in one sense eternal? Not indeed a parte ante, as some senseless philosophers, both ancient and modern, have dreamed. Not that any thing had existed from eternity; seeing, if so, it must be God; yea, it must be the one God; for it is impossible there should be two Gods, or two eternals. But although nothing besides the great God can have existed from everlasting,-none else can be eternal a parte ante; yet there is no absurdity in supposing that all creatures are eternal, a parte post. All matter indeed is continually changing, and that into ten thousand forms; but that it is changeable, does in no wise imply that it is perishable. The substance may remain one and the same, though under innumerable different forms. It is very possible any portion of matter may be resolved into the atoms of which it was originally composed but what reason have we to believe, that one of these atoms ever was, or ever will be annihilated? It never can, unless by the uncontrollable power of its Almighty Creator. And is it probable that ever he will exert this power, in unmaking any of the things that he hath made? In this also, God is not "a son of man that he should repent." Indeed every creature under heaven does and must continually change its form, which we can now easily account for; as it clearly appears
from late discoveries, that ethereal fire enters into the composition of every part of the creation. Now this is essentially edax rerum: it is the universal menstruum, the discohere of all things under the sun. By the force of this, even the strongest, the firmest bodies are dissolved. It appears from the experiment repeatedly made by the great lord Bacon, that even diamonds, by a high degree of heat, may be turned into dust; and that in a still higher degree, (strange as it may seem,) they will totally flame away. Yea, by this the heavens themselves will be dissolved; "the elements shall melt with fervent heat." But they will be only dissolved, not destroyed; they will melt, but they will not perish. Though they lose their present form, yet not a particle of them will ever lose its existence; but every atom of them will remain, under one form or other, to all eternity.
8. But still we should inquire, What is this eternity? How shall we pour any light upon this abstruse subject? It cannot be the object of our understanding. And with what comparison shall we compare it ? How infinitely does it transcend all these? What are any temporal things, placed in comparison with those that are eternal? What is the duration of the long lived oak, of the ancient castle, of Trajan's pillar, of Pompey's amphitheatre? What is the antiquity of the Tuscan urns, though probably older than the foundation of Rome; yea, of the pyramids of Egypt, suppose they have remained upwards of three thousand years; when laid in the balance with eternity? It vanishes into nothing. Nay, what is the duration of "the everlasting hills," figuratively so called, which have remained ever since the general deluge, if not from the foundation of the world, in comparison of eternity? No more than an insignificant cipher. Go farther yet: consider the duration, from the creation of the first-born sons of God, of Michael the archangel in particular, to the hour when he shall be commissioned to sound his trumpet, and to utter his mighty voice through the vault of heaven,
Arise, ye dead, and come to judgment!" Is it not a moment, a point, a nothing, in comparison of unfathomable eternity? Add to this a thousand, a million of years, add a million of million of ages, "before the mountains were brought forth, or the earth and the round world were made:" what is all this in comparison of that eternity which is past? Is it not less, infinitely less, than a single drop of water to the whole ocean? Yea, immeasurably less than a day, an hour, a moment, to a million of ages! Go back a thousand millions still; yet you are no nearer the beginning of eternity.
9. Are we able to form a more adequate conception of eternity to come? In order to this, let us compare it with the several degrees of duration which we are acquainted with. An ephemeron fly lives six hours; from six in the evening, to twelve. This is a short life compared to that of a man, which continues three score or four score years; and this itself is short, if it be compared to the nine hundred and sixtynine years of Methuselah. Yet what are these years, yea, all that have succeeded each other, from the time that the heavens and the earth were erected, to the time when the heavens shall pass away, and the earth with the works of it shall be burned up, if we compare it to the length of that duration which never shall have an end?
10. In order to illustrate this, a late author has repeated that striking thought of St. Cyprian: Suppose there were a ball of sand, as large as
the globe of earth; suppose a grain of this sand were to be annihilated, reduced to nothing, in a thousand years; yet that whole space of duration, wherein this ball would be annihilating, at the rate of one grain in a thousand years, would bear infinitely less proportion to eternity, duration without end, than a single grain of sand would bear to all the mass !
11. To infix this important point the more deeply in your mind, consider another comparison: Suppose the ocean to be so enlarged, as to include all the space between the earth and the starry heavens. Suppose a drop of this water to be annihilated once in a thousand years; yet that whole space of duration, wherein this ocean would be annihilating, at the rate of one drop in a thousand years, would be infinitely less, in proportion to eternity, than one drop of water to that whole ocean.
Look then at those immortal spirits, whether they are in this or the other world. When they shall have lived thousands of thousands of years, yea, millions of millions of ages, their duration will be but just begun they will be only upon the threshold of eternity!
12. But besides this division of eternity into that which is past, and that which is to come, there is another division of eternity, which is of unspeakable importance: that which is to come, as it relates to immortal spirits, is either a happy or a miserable eternity.
13. See the spirits of the righteous that are already praising God in a happy eternity! We are ready to say, How short will it appear to those who drink of the rivers of pleasure at God's right hand? We are ready to cry out,
"A day without night
They dwell in his sight,
But this is only speaking after the manner of men for the measures of long and short are only applicable to time, which admits of bounds, and not to unbounded duration. This rolls on, (according to our low conceptions) with unutterable, inconceivable swiftness; if one would not rather say, it does not roll or move at all, but is one still, immovable ocean. For the inhabitants of heaven "rest not day and night," but continually cry, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord, the God, the Al mighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come!" And when millions of millions of ages are elapsed, their eternity is but just begun.
14. On the other hand, in what condition are those immortal spirits who have made choice of a miserable eternity? I say, made choice; for it is impossible this should be the lot of any creature, but by his own act and deed. The day is coming when every soul will be constrained to acknowledge, in the sight of men and angels,
"No dire decree of thine did seal,
Or fix the unalterable doom;
Or damn me from my mother's womb."
In what condition will such a spirit be after the sentence is executed; "Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels?" Suppose him to be just now plunged into "the lake of fire burning with brimstone," where "they have no rest, day or night, but the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever." Why, if we were only to be chained down one day, yea, one hour, in a lake of fire, how amazingly long would one day or one hour appear! I know