Chester Cathedral, Nave Service, Evening. May 1872.
Proverbs xi. 31. "Behold, the righteous shall be recompensed in the earth: much more the wicked and the sinner."
This is the key-note of the Book of Proverbs--that men are punished or rewarded according to their deeds in this life; nay, it is the key-note of the whole Old Testament. "The eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and His ears are open unto their prayers; the countenance of the Lord is against them that do evil, to root out the remembrance of them from the earth."
But here, at the beginning of my sermon, I can fancy some one ready to cry--Stay! you have spoken too strongly. That is not the key-note of the whole Old Testament. There are words in it of quite a different note-- words which complain to God that the good are not rewarded, and the wicked are not punished: as for instance, when the Psalmist says how the ungodly men of this evil world are filled with God's hid treasure, and how they have children at their desire, and leave the rest of their substance for their babes. And again, "I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no bands in their death; but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men. . . . They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walketh through the earth. Therefore his people return hither; and waters of a full cup are wrung out to them. And they say, How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the most High?" And though the Psalmist says that such persons will come to a sudden and fearful end, yet he confesses that so long as they live they have prospered, while he had been punished all day long, and chastened every morning. And do we not know that so it is? Is it not obvious now, and has it not been notorious in every country, and in all times, that so it is? Do not good men often lead lives of poverty and affliction? Do not men make large fortunes, or rise to fame and power, by base and wicked means? and do not those same men often enough die in their beds, and leave children behind them, and found families, who prosper for generations after they are dead? How were they recompensed in the earth? Now this is one of the puzzles of life, which tries a man's faith in God, as it tried the psalmists and prophets in old time. But that the text speaks truth I do not doubt. I believe that the prosperous bad man is recompensed in the earth--is punished in this life- -often with the most terrible of all punishments--Impunity; the not being punished at all; which is the worst thing in this life which can happen to a sinner. But I am not going to speak of that, but rather of the first part of the text, "The righteous shall be recompensed in the earth."
Now is not the answer to the puzzle this: That God is impartial; that He is no respecter of persons, but causing His sun to shine on the evil and on the good, and His rain to fall on the just and on the unjust; and so rewarding every man according to his work, paying him for all work done, of whatever kind it may be? Some work for this world, which we do see, and God gives them what they earn in this life; some work for the world above, which we cannot see, and God gives them what they earn in this life, for ever and ever likewise. If a man wishes for treasure on earth, he can have it if he will, and enjoy it as long as it lasts. If a man wishes for treasure in heaven, he can have it if he will, and enjoy it as long as it lasts. God deals fairly with both, and pays both what they have earned.
Some set their hearts on this world; some want money, some want power, some want fame and admiration from their fellow-men, some want merely to amuse themselves. Then they will have what they want if they will take the right way to get it. If a man wishes to make a large fortune, and die rich, he will very probably succeed, if he will only follow diligently the laws and rules by which God has appointed that money should be made. If a man longs for power and glory, and must needs be admired and obeyed by his fellow-men, he can have his wish, if he will go the right way to get what he longs for; especially in a free country like this, he will get most probably just as much of them as he deserves--that is, as much as he has talent and knowledge enough to earn. So did the Pharisees in our Lord's time. They wanted power, fame, and money as religious leaders, and they knew how to get them as well as any men who ever lived; and they got them. Our Lord did not deny that. They had their reward, He said. They succeeded--those old Pharisees--in being looked up to as the masters of the Jewish mob, and in crucifying our Lord Himself. They had their reward; and so may you and I. If we want any earthly thing, and have knowledge of the way to get it, and have ability and perseverance enough, then we shall very probably get it, and much good it will do us when we have got it after all. We shall have had our treasure upon earth and our hearts likewise; and when we come to die we shall leave both our treasure and our hearts behind us, and the Lord have mercy on our souls.
But again, there are those, thank God, who have, or are at least trying to get, treasure in heaven, which they may carry away with them when they die, and keep for ever. And who are they? Those who are longing and trying to be true and to be good; who have seen how beautiful it is to be true and to be good; to know God and the will of God; to love God and the will of God; and therefore to copy His likeness and to do His will. Those who long for sanctification, and who desire to be holy, even as their Father in heaven is holy, and perfect, even as their Father in heaven is perfect; and who therefore think, as St Paul bade them, of whatsoever things are just, true, pure, lovely, and of good report, if there be any true manhood, and if there be any just praise--in three words--who seek after whatsoever is true, beautiful, and good. These are they that have treasure in heaven. For what is really true, really beautiful, really good, is also really heavenly. God alone is perfect, good, beautiful, and true; and heaven is heaven because it is filled with the glory of His goodness, His beauty, and His truth. But wherever there is a soul on earth led by the Spirit of God, and filled by the Spirit of God with good and beautiful and true graces and inspirations, there is a soul which, as St Paul says, is sitting in heavenly places with Christ Jesus--a soul which is already in heaven though still on earth. We confess it by our own words. We speak of a heavenly character; we speak even of a heavenly countenance; and we speak right. We see that that character, though it be still imperfect, and marred by human weaknesses, is already good with the goodness which comes down from heaven; and that that countenance, though it may be mean and plain, is already beautiful with the beauty which comes down from heaven.
But how are such souls recompensed in the earth? Oh! my friends, is not a man recompensed in the earth whenever he can lift up his heart above the earth?--whenever he can lift up his heart unto the Lord, and behold His glory above all the earth? Does not this earth look brighter to him then? The world of man looks brighter to him, in spite of all its sins and sorrows, for he sees the Lord ruling it, the Lord forgiving it, the Lord saving it. He sees, by the eye of faith, the Lord fulfilling His own promise--"where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them"; and he takes heart and hope for the poor earth, and says, The earth is not deserted; mankind is not without a Father, a Saviour, a Teacher, a King. Bad men and bad spirits are not the masters of the world; and men are not as creeping things, as the fishes of the sea, which have no ruler over them. For Christ has not left His church. He reigns, and will reign, till He has put all enemies under His feet, and cast out of His kingdom all that offend, and whatsoever loveth and maketh a lie; and then the heavenly treasure will be the only treasure; for whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are true, pure, lovely, and of good report, if there be any valour, and if there be any praise, those things, and they alone, will be left in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Is not that man recompensed in the earth? Must he not rise each morning to go about his daily work with a more cheerful heart, saying, with Jeremiah, in like case, "Upon this I awaked, and beheld, and my sleep was sweet to me?"
Yes, I see in experience that the righteous man is recompensed in the earth, every day, and all day long. In proportion as a man's mind is heavenly, just so much will he enjoy this beautiful earth, and all that is therein. I believe that if a man walks with God, then he can walk nowhither without seeing and hearing what the ungodly and bad man will never see and hear, because his eyes are blinded, and his heart hardened from thinking of himself, his own selfish wants, his own selfish sins. Which, for instance, was the happier man--which the man who was the more recompensed in the earth this very day--the poor man who went for his Sunday walk into the country, thinking of little but the sins and the follies of the week past, and probably of the sins and the follies of the week to come; or the man who went with a clear conscience, and had the heart to thank God for the green grass, and the shining river, and the misty mountains sleeping far away, and notice the song of the birds, and the scent of the flowers, as a little child might do, and know that his Father in heaven had made all these?
Yes, my friends, Christ is very near us, though our eyes are holden by our own sins, and therefore we see Him not. But just in proportion as a man walks with God, just in proportion as the eyes of his soul are opened by the Spirit of God, he recovers, I believe, the privilege which Adam lost when he fell. He hears the Word of the Lord walking among the trees of the garden in the cool of the day; and instead of trying, like guilty Adam, to hide himself from his Maker, answers, with reverence and yet with joy, Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.
Nay, I would go further still, and say, Is not the righteous man recompensed on the earth every time he hears a strain of noble music? To him who has his treasure in heaven, music speaks about that treasure things far too deep for words. Music speaks to him of whatsoever is just, true, pure, lovely, and of good report, of whatsoever is manful and ennobling, of whatsoever is worthy of praise and honour. Music, to that man, speaks of a divine order and a divine proportion; of a divine harmony, through all the discords and confusions of men; of a divine melody, through all the cries and groans of sin and sorrow. What says a wiser and a better man than I shall ever be, and that not of noble music, but of such as we may hear any day in any street? "Even that vulgar music," he says, "which makes one man merry, another mad, strikes in me a deep fit of devotion, and a profound contemplation of God, the first composer. There is something more of divinity in it than the ear discovers. It is an hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole world, and of the creatures of God. Such a melody to the ear as the whole world, well understood, would afford to the understanding." That man, I insist, was indeed recompensed on the earth, when music, which is to the ungodly and unrighteous the most earthly of all arts, which to the heathens and the savages, to frivolous and profligate persons, only tempts to silly excitement or to brutal passion, was to him as the speech of angels, a remembrancer to him of that eternal and ever-present heaven, from which all beauty, truth, and goodness are shed forth over the universe, from the glory of the ever-blessed Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Does any one say--These things are too high for me; I cannot understand them? My dear friends, are they not too high for me likewise? Do you fancy that I understand them, though my reason, as well as Holy Scripture, tells me that they are true? I understand them no more than I understand how I draw a single breath, or think a single thought. But it is good for you, and for me, and for every man, now and then, to hear things which we do NOT understand; that so we may learn our own ignorance, and be lifted up above ourselves, and renounce our fancied worldly wisdom, and think within ourselves:--Would it not be wiser to confess ourselves fools, and take our Lord's advice, and be converted, and become as little children? For otherwise, our Lord says, we shall in nowise enter into this very kingdom of heaven of which I have been telling you. For this is one of the things which God hides from the wise and prudent, and yet revealeth unto babes. Yes, that is the way to understand all things, however deep--to become as little children. A little child proves that all I say is true, and that it knows that all I say is true. Though it cannot put its feelings into words, it acts on them by a mere instinct, which is the gift of God. Why does a little child pick flowers? Why does a little child dance when it hears a strain of music? And deeper still, why does a little child know when it has done wrong? Why does it love to hear of things beautiful and noble, and shrink from things foul and mean, if what I say is not true? The child does so, because it is nearer heaven, not further off, than we grown folk.
Ah! that we would all lay to heart what one said of old, who walked with God:--
"Dear soul, could'st thou become a child, Once more on earth, meek, undefiled, Then Paradise were round thee here, And God Himself for ever near."