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NUMBERS xxiii. 10.
“ Let me die the death of the righteous ; and let my last end be like his."
It is observable that many persons who are no cordial friends to religion, yet have a conviction on their minds of the excellency and advantage of it, and often wish to share in its important blessings. This seems to have been the case with Balaam, the speaker in our text. His character in general was bad; yet, to answer wise purposes, God, for a season, endowed him with the spirit of prophecy : He, as well as “Saul, was among the prophets." He loved the wages of unrighteousness; and in order to obtain them, was willing to curse God's people Israel ; but by a superior influence on his mind and tongue, God turned his curse into a blessing : He showed him that Israel were a people singularly dear to him, and on that account happy above any other nation. He seems, by the light communicated to him, to have viewed their happiness as not confined to the present life, but extending to death, and beyond it. This led him to utter the wish in our text, expressive of a desire to share in their felicity, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his."
This passage hath been alleged as a proof that a future state was believed in ancient times, though not so clearly expressed in the prophetical writings, as other things are. Bishop Patrick suggests, that the expression let my last end be like his, might be a wish that his posterity, or those that come after him, might be like the descendants from Israel; as the word translated last end, often signifies posterity, and is so rendered in Psalm cix. 13, Dan. xi. 4. But without any further critical examination of the words, I shall endeavor, in a serious and practical way, to illustrate several instructive truths which they suggest.
1. The first is, That the righteous, as well as others, must die. Many passages of sacred Scripture besides our text, speak of the death of the righteous. Numerous and great as the blessings and privileges are which flow from true religion, to those who know and practice it, an exemption from temporal death is not among them. As to this, " there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked.” Wise men die, likewise the fool and the brutish person, Psalm xlix. 10. How dieth the wise man? as the fool. Eccl. ji. 16. What man is he that liveth and shall not see death? Psalm lxxxix. 10. David, in asking this question, in effect asserts, and that with a strong emphasis, that there is no exemption to any person, be his character and circumstances in life what they may. Solomon referring to death says, "there is no discharge in that war.” Eccl. viii. 8, “ The living know that they shall die.”
Indeed, the Jews conceived our Saviour to intimate, that faith in him, and obedience to his doctrine, would secure persons from death, when he said, John viii. 50, “If a man keep my saying he shall never see death ;” and with warm indignation they undertook to confute what they thought he asserted. Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead and the prophets ; and thou sayest, If a man keep my saying he shall never taste of death." They did not apprehend Christ's meaning; he spake of death in its full latitude, and most dreadful consequences, as including a state of future and everlasting punishment—sometimes called the second death, Rev. xx. 6; and sometimes eternal damnation, Mark iii. 29: To this the righteous are not obnoxious ; from this all are delivered who believe and obey the gospel of Christ.
But temporal death is the lot of all men : none are exempt by character and circumstances. None, except a few wrong-headed enthusiasts, ever pretended that religion, and the highest attainments in it, to which any rise in this world, would free them from it. Persons of solid and rational piety do not expect it; nor can they be properly said to desire it. They acquiesce in God's wise and righteous determination that they must pass through the dark valley of the shadow of death, in order to enter the regions of light, purity, and joy in heaven. Gloomy as the aspect of death, is to nature, they can say as Job, “I would not live always." And with the apostle, I have " a desire to depart and be with Christ." Phil. i. 23.
It may perhaps be a difficulty in the minds of some, to discover the consistency of the true Christian's obnoxiousness to death,
since the gospel teaches, that Christ suffered to make atonement for sin—since it is evident that it was sin which brought death into the world—and that death was the penalty to which Christ submitted, when he “bare our sins in his own body on the tree." 1 Peter ii. 24.-" And tasted death for every man.” For the removal of this difficulty, I shall only observe at present ; that death to the true Christian is not to be considered as a curse or a punishment. The nature and properties of it, to him, are happily changed-the sting of it is taken away—it hath no power to hurt him. The apostle, speaking of it, uses the language of triumph, as to a vanquished enemy. I Cor. xv. 59. O death, where is thy sting! O grave, where is thy victory ! And when enumerating the Christian's privileges, and, as it were, making an inventory of his treasure, he says, “all things are yours-whether life, or death.” 1 Cor. iii. 22. But more may be said of the nature, and properties of the good man's death, under the next head of discourse. Certainly none ought to make it an objection against true religion, that it does not free its sincerest votaries from temporal death.–For it may be observed, in the next place,
II. That there are several things in the death of the righteous which render it desirable. It may be spoken of as desirable not only as being preferable to the death of the wicked, but also as being, in some cases, to be preferred to life, and the continuance of it. The apostle spake of departing to be with Christ, as better than to be here. Phil. i. 23.
It is obvious, that all the considerations which render the death of the righteous to be desired, go on the supposition of the immortality of the human soul; and of a different state to be entered on by the righteous and the wicked, after death. If death put a final period to the existence of men, how could we consider the death of the righteous, as more desirable that that of others ?-In the external manner and circumstances of dying, we see no distinction. Men of the best character are liable to the same mortal, and painful diseases, or fatal accidents as those of the worst ; and the struggles and agonies of dissolving nature may be as great in the former as in the latter. But religion, my hearers, makes the death of the righteous in many respects, widely and happily different from that of the wicked : As
1. The righteous hath hope in death, but so bath not the wicked. So Solomon observes, Prov. xiv. 32. The wicked is driven away in his wickedness, but the righteous hath hope in his death. It is the peculiar privilege of the righteous to have hope in death. They only have any solid foundation for hope in that solemn hour. A wicked man may indeed have bis mind buoyed up by something which he calls hope, even in the near views of death. He may say, “I hope to be happy in another world. I hope to go to heaven, and to be blessed for ever in the paradise of God.” But the impenitent sinner has no just ground for such an hope : And had be a proper view of his own state and character, and of the terms which the gospel establishes, of admission into celestial glory, he must see his hope to be ill founded, and that it is nothing more than a presumptuous expectation. The gates of heaven will never be opened to receive unholy, unsanctified souls. Our Saviour says, “ Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Matt. v. 8. And the apostle to the same purpose :
6. Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” Heb. xii. 14. Heaven is a holy place, into wbich nothing can enter that defileth. Rev. xxi. 27.
Yea, is it were possible that the wicked could gain admittance into heaven, in their present temper of mind, do you imagine they would be happy? They certainly could not : All the employments-all the entertainments of that world must be disagreeable to them. They must be wretched in the presence of that glorious Being, whose presence constitutes the felicity of the celestial mansions, and imparts full and unceasing joy to his saints. The hope therefore of a wicked man at death, and his expectation of happiness beyond the grave, must be groundless. “What is the hope of the hypocrite, when God taketh away his soul ?” It is like the spider's web; it ends in shame and disappointment. Though it might prevent horror and distress at the approach of death, yet it will vanish at once, when the curtain of mortality is drawn, and leave the poor self-deceived creature to the most painful reflections on his folly, in building his hope on the sand. His last breath and bis last hope expire together. “How is he brought into desolation in a moment and utterly consumed with terrors ! This is the portion of a wicked man from God.”
I have insensibly enlarged in showing that the wicked have no hope in their death. The case of the righteous is a contrast to theirs. The gospel lays a solid foundation for hope to persons of their character—the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, hath promised to them that love him. The righteous, in a gospel-sense, are those who are accepted as righteous in the sight of God, through the righteousness of Christ, reckoned 10 their account; and who are also become inherently righteous, by the sanctifying influence of the divine Spirit, engaging to the love and practice of true virtue and religion. The gospel contains a thousand promises of happiness afier death, to such, on which they may build the most exalted hopes, and entertain the brightest prospects. Old-Testament saints appear to have had such a view of these promises, and such a faith in them, as gave them hope in death, and enabled them to meet the solemn change, with serenity and fortitude. Job said, “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day on the earth: And though, after my skin, worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall i see God.” Job xix. 25, 26. And David, “
And David, “ Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." Ps. xxiii. 4.
The gospel dispensation reflects stiil clearer light on the future state of happiness reserved for the righteous, and so affords more ample encouragement, and support to their hope. It bath enabled not a few to adopt the language of the aposile Paul. “ I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him, against that day.” 2 Tim. i. 12.-“ For we know that if the earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” 2 Cor. v. 1.
Now though all true Christians have a foundation for such firm supporting hopes in death, yet we cannot say that all have them, in real and comfortable exercise. I can hardly suppose, however, that any truly pious person, who possesses his rational faculties at death, expires without some hope in exercise; though it may be attended with doubts and fears. As some Christians, of a dark and glooiny cast of mind, may be all their lifetime subject to bondage, through fear of death, so when that great change comes, they may be under fear and discouragement, and their sun may, as it were, set in a cloud; a case to be earnestly deprecated. It is a very desirable thing to finish our course with joy, as well as with safety. And in order hereto, we should labor, through life, to obtain, and keep, clear evidence of our adoption into God's family, and of our title to the privileges of his children in the coming world. We should guard against those sins which might provoke God to hide bis face from us, and leave us to walk in darkness, to the close of life.
2. Safety is another thing which distinguisheth the death of the righteous from that of others, and makes it desirable. The sting of it, as I said before, is taken away by the death of Christ; and it is disarmed of its power to hurt them. “ The sting of death is sin," as the apostle remarks, 1 Cor. xv. 56. “And the strength of sin is the law," which condemns the impenitent sinner. But the sin of the true believer is pardoned through the atoning blood of Christ ; "he is the end of the law for righteousness, to every one that believeth. There is therefore no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus."
Death indeed produces a change in the righteous, as well as in others, which to an eye of sense, hath a gloomy appearance.-It reduces the body to a state of insensibility ; it soon becomes putrid,