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Westminster Sermons, 18 - DEATH

By Charles Kingsley

      PSALM CIV. 20, 21.

      Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. The lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.

      Let me say a few words on this text. It is one which has been a comfort to me again and again. It is one which, if rightly understood, ought to give comfort to pitiful and tender-hearted persons.

      Have you never been touched by, never been even shocked by, the mystery of pain and death? I do not speak now of pain and death among human beings: but only of that pain and death among the dumb and irrational creatures, which from one point of view is more pitiful than pain and death among human beings.

      For pain, suffering, and death, we know, may be of use to human beings. It may make them happier and better in this life, or in the life to come; if they are the Christians which they ought to be. But of what use can suffering and death be to dumb animals? How can it make them better in this life, and happier in the life to come? It seems, in the case of animals, to be only so much superfluous misery thrown away. Would to God that people would remember that, when they unnecessarily torment dumb creatures, and then excuse themselves by saying--Oh, they are not human beings; they are not Christians; and therefore it does not matter so much. I should have thought that therefore it mattered all the more: and that just because dumb animals have, as far as we know, only this mortal life, therefore we should allow them the fuller enjoyment of their brief mortality.

      And yet, how much suffering, how much violent death, there is among animals. How much? The world is full of it, and has been full of it for ages. I dare to say, that of the millions on millions of living creatures in the earth, the air, the sea, full one-half live by eating each other. In the sea, indeed, almost every kind of creature feeds on some other creature: and what an amount of pain, of terror, of violent death that means, or seems to mean!

      We here, in a cultivated country, are slow to take in this thought. We have not here, as in India, Africa, America, lion and tiger, bear and wolf, jaguar and puma, perpetually prowling round the farms, and taking their tithe of our sheep and cattle. We have never heard, as the Psalmist had, the roar of the lion round the village at night, or seen all the animals, down to the very dogs, crowding together in terror, knowing but too well what that roar meant. If we had; and had been like the Psalmist, thoughtful men: then it would have been a very solemn question to us--From whom the lion was asking for his nightly meal; whether from God, or from some devil as cruel as himself?

      But even here the same slaughter of animals by animals goes on. The hawk feeds on the small birds, the small birds on the insects, the insects, many of them, on each other. Even our most delicate and seemingly harmless songsters, like the nightingale, feed entirely on living creatures--each one of which, however small, has cost God as much pains--if I may so speak in all reverence--to make as the nightingale itself; and thus, from the top to the bottom of creation, is one chain of destruction, and pain, and death.

      What is the meaning of it all? Ought it to be so, or ought it not? Is it God's will and law, or is it not? That is a solemn question; and one which has tried many a thoughtful, and tender, and virtuous soul ere now, both Christian and heathen; and has driven them to find strange answers to it, which have been, often enough, not according to Scripture, or to the Catholic Faith.

      Some used to say, in old times; and they may say again--This world, so full of pain and death, is a very ill-made world. We will not believe that it was made by the good God. It must have been made by some evil being, or at least by some stupid and clumsy being--the Demiurgus, they called him--or the world-maker--some inferior God, whom the good God would conquer and depose, and so do away with pain, and misery, and death. A pardonable mistake: but, as we are bound to believe, a mistake nevertheless.

      Others, again, good Christians and good men likewise, have invented another answer to the mystery--like that which Milton gives in his 'Paradise Lost.' They have said--Before Adam fell there was no pain or death in the world. It was only after Adam's fall that the animals began to destroy and devour each other. Ever since then there has been a curse on the earth, and this is one of the fruits thereof.

      Now I say distinctly, as I have said elsewhere, that we are not bound to believe this or anything like it. The book of Genesis does not say that the animals began to devour each other at Adam's fall. It does not even say that the ground is cursed for man's sake now, much less the animals. For we read in Genesis ix. 21--"And the Lord said, I will not any more curse the ground for man's sake." Neither do the Psalmists and Prophets give the least hint of any such doctrine. Surely, if we found it anywhere, we should find it in this very 104th Psalm, and somewhere near the very verse which I have taken for my text. But this Psalm gives no hint of it. So far from saying that God has cursed His own works, or looks on them as cursed: it says--"The Lord shall rejoice in His works."

      Others will tell us that St Paul has said so, where he says that "by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin." But I must very humbly, but very firmly, demur to that. St Paul shews that when he speaks of the world he means the world of men; for he goes on to say, "And so death passed upon all men, in that all have sinned." By mentioning men, he excludes the animals; he excludes all who have not sinned: according to a sound rule of logic which lawyers know well. What St Paul meant, I believe, is most probably this: that Adam, by sinning, lost his heavenly birthright; and put on the carnal and fleshly likeness of the animals, instead of the likeness of God in which he was created; and therefore, sowing to the flesh, of the flesh reaped corruption; and became subject to death even as the dumb beasts are.

      Be that as it may, we know--as certainly as we can know anything from the use of our own eyes and common sense--that long ages before Adam, long ages before men existed on this earth, the animals destroyed and ate each other, even as they are doing now. We know that ages ago, in old worlds, long before this present world in which we live, the seas swarmed with sharks and other monsters, who not only died as animals do now, but who did devour--for there is actual proof of it--other living creatures; and that the same process went on on the land likewise. The rocks and soils, for miles beneath our feet, are one vast graveyard, full of the skeletons of creatures, almost all unlike any living now, who, long before the days of Adam, and still more before the days of Noah, lived and died, generation after generation; and sought their meat--from whom--if not from God?

      Yes, that last is the answer--the only answer which can give a thoughtful and tender-hearted soul comfort, at the sight of so much pain and death on earth--In every unknown question, to take refuge in God. And that is the answer which the inspired Psalmist gives, in the 104th Psalm--"The lions roaring after their prey do seek their meat from God." And if they seek it from God, all must be right: we know not how; but He who made them knows.

      Consider, with respect and admiration, the manful, cheerful view of pain and death, and indeed of the whole creation, which the Psalmist has, because he has faith. There is in him no sentimentalism, no complaining of God, no impious, or at least weak and peevish, cry of "Why hast Thou made things thus?" He sees the mystery of pain and death. He does not attempt to explain it: but he faces it; faces it cheerfully and manfully, in the strength of his faith, saying--This too, mysterious, painful, terrible as it may seem, is as it should be; for it is of the law and will of God, from whom come all good things; of The God in whom is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. Therefore to the Psalmist the earth is a noble sight; filled, to his eyes, with the fruit of God's works. And so is the great and wide sea likewise. He looks upon it; "full of things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts," for ever dying, for ever devouring each other. And yet it does not seem to him a dreadful and a shocking place. What impresses his mind is just what would impress the mind of a modern poet, a modern man of science; namely, the wonderful variety, richness, and strangeness of its living things. Their natures and their names he knows not. It was not given to his race to know. It is enough for him that known unto God are all His works from the foundation of the world. But one thing more important than their natures and their names he does know; for he perceives it with the instinct of a true poet and a true philosopher--"These all wait upon thee, O God, that Thou mayest give them meat in due season."

      But more.--"There go the ships;" things specially wonderful and significant to him, the landsman of the Judaean hills, as they were afterward to Muhammed, the landsman of the Arabian deserts. And he has talked with sailors from those ships; from Tarshish and the far Atlantic, or from Ezion-geber and the Indian seas. And he has heard from them of mightier monsters than his own Mediterranean breeds; of the Leviathan, the whale, larger than the largest ship which he has ever seen, rolling and spouting among the ocean billows, far out of sight of land, and swallowing, at every gape of its huge jaws, hundreds of living creatures for its food. But he does not talk of it as a cruel and devouring monster, formed by a cruel and destroying deity, such as the old Canaanites imagined, when--so the legend ran--they offered up Andromeda to the sea-monster, upon that very rock at Joppa, which the Psalmist, doubtless, knew full well. No. This psalm is an inspired philosopher's rebuke to that very superstition; it is the justification of the noble old Greek tale, which delivers Andromeda by the help of a hero, taught by the Gods who love to teach Mankind.

      For what strikes the Psalmist is, again, exactly what would strike a modern poet, or a modern man of science: the strength and ease of the vast beast; its enjoyment of its own life and power. It is to him the Leviathan, whom "God has made to play in the sea;" "to take his pastime therein."

      Truly this was a healthy-minded man; as all will be, and only they, who have full faith in the one good God, of whom are all things, both in earth and heaven.

      Then he goes further still. He has looked into the face of life innumerable. Now he looks into the face of innumerable death; and sees there too the Spirit and the work of God.

      Thou givest to them; they gather:
      Thou openest thy hand; they are filled with good:
      Thou hidest thy face; they are troubled:
      Thou takest away their breath; they die, and are turned again to their dust.

      Poetry? Yes: but, like all highest poetry, highest philosophy; and soundest truth likewise. Nay, he goes further still--further, it may be, than most of us would dare to go, had he not gone before us in the courage of his faith. He dares to say, of such a world as this--"The glory of the Lord shall endure for ever. The Lord shall rejoice in His works."

      The glory of the Lord, then, is shewn forth, and endures for ever, in these animals of whom the Psalmist has been speaking, though they devour each other day and night. The Lord rejoices in His works, even though His works live by each other's death. The Lord shall rejoice in His works--says this great poet and philosopher.

      But what Lord, and what God? Ah, my friends, all depends on the answer to that question. "There be," says St Paul, "lords many, and gods many:" and since his time, men have made fresh lords and gods for themselves, and believed in them, and worshipped them, while they fancied that they were believing in the one true God, in the same God in whom the man believed who wrote the 104th Psalm.

      Do we truly believe in that one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

      Let me beg you to consider that question earnestly. The Psalmist, when he talked of the Lord, did not mean merely what some people call the Deity, or the Supreme Being, or the Creator. You will remark that I said--What. I do not care to say, Whom, of such a notion; that is, of a God who made the world, and set it going once for all, but has never meddled with it; never, so to speak, looked at it since: so that the world would go on just the same, and just as well, if God thenceforth had ceased to be. No: that is a dead God; an absentee God--as one said bitterly once. But the Psalmist believed in the living God, and a present God, in whom we live and move and have our being; in a God who does not leave the world alone for a moment, nor in the smallest matter, but is always interested in it, attending to it, enforcing His own laws, working--if I may so speak in all reverence--and using the most pitifully insufficient analogy--working--I say--His own machinery; making all things work together for good, at least to those who love God; a God without whom not a sparrow falls to the ground, and in whose sight all the hairs of our heads are numbered.

      In one word, he believed in a living God. If anyone had said to the Psalmist, as I have heard men say now-a-days--Of course we believe, with you, in a general Providence of God over the whole universe. But you do not surely believe in special Providences? That would be superstition. God governs the world by law, and not by special Providences. Then I believe that the Psalmist would have answered--Laws? I believe in them as much as you, and perhaps more than you. But as for special Providences, I believe in them so much, that I believe that the whole universe, and all that has ever happened in it from the beginning, has happened by special Providences; that not an organic being has assumed its present form, after long ages and generations, save by a continuous series of special Providences; that not a weed grows in a particular spot, without a special Providence of God that it should grow there, and nowhere else; then, and nowhen else. I believe that every step I take, every person I meet, every thought which comes into my mind--which is not sinful--comes and happens by the perpetual special Providence of God, watching for ever with Fatherly care over me, and each separate thing that He has made.

      And if a modern philosopher--or one so called--had said to him,--'This is unthinkable and inconceivable, and therefore cannot be. I cannot "think of"--I cannot conceive a mind--or as I call it--"a series of states of consciousness," as antecedent to the infinity of processes simultaneously going on in all the plants that cover the globe, from scattered polar lichens to crowded tropical palms, and in all the millions of animals which roam among them, and the millions of millions of insects which buzz among them:'--Then the Psalmist would have answered him, I believe,--'If you cannot, my friend, I can. And you must not make your power of thought and conception the measure of the universe, or even of other men's intellects; or say--"Because I cannot conceive a thing, therefore no man can conceive it, and therefore it does not exist." But pray, O philosopher, if you cannot think and conceive of the omnipresence and omnipotence of God, what can you think and conceive?'

      Then if that philosopher had answered him--as some would now-a-days--'I can conceive that the properties of very different elements,--and therefore the infinite variety and richness of nature which I cannot conceive as caused by a God--that the properties--I say--of different elements result from differences of arrangement arising by the compounding and recompounding of ultimate homogeneous units'--Then, I think, the Psalmist would have replied, as soon as he had--like Socrates of old in a like case--recovered from the 'dizziness' caused by an eloquence so unlike his own--'Why, this proposition is far more "unthinkable" to me, and will be to 999 of 1000 of the human race, than mine about a God and a Providence. Alas! for the vagaries of the mind of man. When it wants to prove a pet theory of its own, it will strain at any gnat, and swallow any camel.'

      But again--if a philosopher of more reasonable mood had said to him--as he very likely would say--'This is a grand conception of God: but what proof have you of it? How do you know that God does interfere, by special Providences, in the world around us; not only, as you say, perpetually: but even now and then, and at all?'

      Then the Psalmist, like all true Jews, would have gone back to a certain old story which is to me the most precious story, save one, that ever was written on earth; and have taken his stand on that. He would have gone back--as the Scripture always goes back--to the story of Moses and the Israelites in Egypt, and have said--'Whatever I know or do not know about the Laws of nature, this I know--That God can use them as He chooses, to punish the wicked, and to help the miserable. For He did so by my forefathers. When we Jews were a poor, small, despised tribe of slaves in Egypt, The God who made heaven and earth shewed Himself at once the God of nature, and the God of grace. For He took the powers of nature; and fought with them against proud Pharaoh and all his hosts; and shewed that they belonged to Him; and that He could handle them all to do His work. He shewed that He was Lord, not only of the powers of nature which give life and health, but of those which give death and disease. Nothing was too grand, nor too mean, for Him to use. He took the lightning and the hail, and the pestilence, and the darkness, and the East wind, and the springtides of the Red sea; and He took also the locust-swarms, and the frogs, and the lice, and the loathsome skin-diseases of Egypt, and the microscopic atomies which turn whole rivers into blood, and kill the fish; and with them He fought against Pharaoh the man-God, the tyrant ruling at his own will in the name of his father the sun-God and of the powers of nature; till Egypt was destroyed, and Pharaoh's host drowned in the sea; And He brought out my forefathers with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, because He had heard their cry in Egypt, and saw their oppression under cruel taskmasters, and pitied them, and had mercy on them in their slavery and degradation.' That is my God--the old Psalmist would have said. Not merely a strong God, or a wise God; but a good God, and a gracious God, and a just God likewise; a God who not only made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that therein is, but who keepeth His promise for ever; who helpeth them to right who suffer wrong, and feedeth the hungry.

      Yes, my friends, it is this magnificent conception of God's living and actual goodness and justice, which the Psalmist had, which made him trust God about all the strange and painful things which he saw in the world--about, for instance, the suffering and death of animals; and say--'If the lion roaring after his prey seeks his meat, he seeks his meat from God: and therefore he ought to seek it, and he will find it. It is all well: I know not why: but well it is, for it is the law and will of the good and righteous and gracious God, who brought His people out of the land of Egypt. And that is enough for me.'

      Enough for him? and should it not be enough for us, and more than enough?--We know what the Psalmist knew not. We know God to be more good, more righteous, more gracious than any Prophet or Psalmist could know. We know that God so loved the world, that He spared not His only- begotten Son, but freely gave Him for us. We know that the only-begotten Son Jesus Christ so loved the world that He stooped to be born and suffer as mortal man, and to die on the cross, even while He was telling men that not a sparrow fell to the ground without the knowledge of their heavenly Father, and bidding them see how God fed the birds and clothed the lilies of the field. Ah, my friends, in this case, as in all cases, rest and comfort for our doubts and fears is to be found in one and the same place--at the foot of the Cross of Christ. If we believe that He who hung upon that Cross is--as He is--the maker and ruler of the universe, the same from day to day and for ever: then we can trust Him in darkness as well as in light; in doubt as well as in certainty; in the face of pain, disease, and death, as well as in the face of joy, health, and life; and say--Lord, we know not, but Thou knowest. Lord, we believe, help Thou our unbelief. Make us sure that Thou, Lord, shalt save both man and beast. For great are Thy mercies, O Lord; and the children of men shall put their trust under the shadow of Thy wings.

      Yes, my friends, this is, after all, a strange world, a solemn world, a world full of sad mysteries, past our understanding. As was said once by the holiest of modern Englishmen, now gone home to his rest--whose bust stands worthily in yonder chapel--This is a world in which men must be sometimes sad who love God, and care for their fellow-men.

      But it is not over the dumb animals that we must mourn. For they fulfil the laws of their being; and whatever meat they seek, they seek their meat from God.

      Rather must we mourn over those human beings who, being made in the likeness of God, and redeemed again into that likeness by our Lord Jesus Christ, and baptized into that likeness by the Holy Spirit, put on again of their own will the likeness of the beasts which perish; and find too often, alas! too late, that the wages of sin are death.

      Rather must we mourn for those human beings who do not fulfil the laws of their being: but break those laws by sin; till they are ground by them to powder.

      Rather must we mourn for those who seek their meat, not from God, but from the world and the flesh; and neglect the bread which cometh down from heaven, and the meat which endureth to eternal life, whereof the Lord who gives it said--Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all other things shall be added unto you.

      Rather must we pray for ourselves, and for all we love, that God's Spirit of eternal life would raise us up, more and more day by day, out of the likeness of the old Adam, who was of the earth, earthy; of whom it is written that--like the animals--dust he was, and unto dust he must return; and would mould us into the likeness of the new Adam, who is the Lord from heaven, into the likeness of which it is written, that it is created after God's image, in righteousness and true holiness; the end of which is not death, but everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

      And so will be fulfilled in us the saying of the Psalmist; and the Lord shall rejoice in His works: for we too, not only body and soul, but spirit also, shall be the work of God; and God will rejoice in us, and we in God.

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