"Beware lest He take thee away with His stroke: then a great ransom can not deliver thee."--JOB xxxvi: 18.
Trouble makes some men mad. It was so with Job. He had lost his property, he had lost his physical health, he had lost his dear children, and the losses had led to exasperation instead of any spiritual profit. I suppose that he was in the condition that many are now in who sit before me. There are those here whose fortunes have begun to flap their wings, as though to fly away. There is a hollow cough in some of your dwellings. There is a subtraction of comfort and happiness, and you feel disgusted with the world, and impatient with many events that are transpiring in your history, and you are in the condition in which Job was when the words of my text accosted him: "Beware lest He take thee away with His stroke and then a ransom can not deliver thee."
I propose to show you that sometimes God suddenly removes from us our gospel opportunities, and that, when He has done so, our case is ransomless. "Beware lest He take thee away with His stroke: then a great ransom can not deliver thee."
I. Sometimes the stroke comes in the removal of the intellect.
"Oh," says some man, "as long as I keep my mind I can afford to adjourn religion." But suppose you do not keep it? A fever, the hurling of a missile, the falling of a brick from a scaffolding, the accidental discharge of a gun--and your mind is gone. If you have ever been in an anatomical room, and have examined the human brain, you know what a delicate organ it is. And can it be possible that our eternity is dependent upon the healthy action of that which can be so easily destroyed?
"Oh," says some one, "you don't know how strong a mind I have." I reply: Losses, accident, bereavement, and sickness may shipwreck the best physical or mental condition. There are those who have been ten years in lunatic asylums who had as good a mind as you. While they had their minds they neglected God, and when their intellect went, with it went their last opportunity for heaven. Now they are not responsible for what they do, or for what they say; but in the last day they will be held responsible for what they did when they were mentally well; and if, on that day, a soul should say: "Oh, God, I was demented, and I had no responsibility," God will say: "Yes, you were demented; but there were long years when you were not demented. That was your chance for heaven, and you missed it." Oh, better be, as the Scotch say, a little "daft," nevertheless having grace in the heart; better be like poor Richard Hampson, the Cornish fool, whose biography has just appeared in England--a silly man he was, yet bringing souls to Jesus Christ by scores and scores--giving an account of his own conversion, when he said: "The mob got after me, and I lost my hat, and climbed up by a meat-stand, in order that I might not be trampled under foot, and while I was there, my heart got on fire with love toward those who were chasing me, and, springing to my feet, I began to exhort and to pray." Oh, my God, let me be in the last, last day the Cornish fool, rather than have the best intellect God ever created unillumined by the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
Consider what an uncertain possession you have in your intellect, when there are so many things around to destroy it; and beware, lest before you use it in making the religious choice, God takes it away with a stroke. I know a good many of my friends who are putting off religion until the last hour. They say when they get sick they will attend to it, but generally the intellect is beclouded; and oh; what a doleful thing it is to stand by a dying bed, and talk to a man about his soul, and feel, from what you see of the motion of his head, and the glare of his eye, and from what you hear of the jargon of his lips, that he does not understand what you are saying to him. I have stood beside the death-bed of a man who had lived a sinful life, and was as unprepared for eternity as it is possible for a man to be, and I tried to make him understand my pastoral errand; but all in vain. He could not understand it, and so he died.
Oh! ye who are putting off until the sick hour preparation for eternity, let me tell you that in all probability, you will not be able in your last hour to attend to it at all. There are a great many people who say they will repent on the death-bed.
I have no doubt there are many who have repented on the death-bed, but I think it is the exception. Albert Barnes, who was one of the coolest of men, and gave no rash statistics, said thus: that in a ministry of nearly half a century--he was over seventy when he went up to glory--he had known a great many people who said they repented on the dying bed, but, unexpectedly to themselves, got well; and he says, How many of those, do you suppose, who thought it was their dying bed, and who, after they repented on that dying bed, having got well, lived consistently, showing that it was real repentance, and not mock repentance--how many? not one! not one!
II. Again: this stroke may come to you in the withdrawal of God's spirit.
I see people before me who were, twenty years ago, serious about their souls. They are not now. They have no interest in what I am saying. They will never have any anxiety in what any minister of the Gospel says about their souls. Their time seems to have passed. I know a man, seventy-five years of age, who, in early life, became almost a Christian, but grieved away the spirit of God, and he has never thought earnestly since, and he can not be roused. I do not believe he will be roused until eternity flashes on his astonished vision.
It does seem as if sometimes, in quite early life, the Holy Spirit moves upon a heart, and being grieved away and rejected, never comes back. You say that is all imaginary? A letter, the address of which I will not give, dated last Monday morning, came to me on Tuesday, saying this: "Your sermon last night (that is, last Sabbath night) did not fit my case, although I believe it did all others in the Academy; but your sermon of a week ago did fit my case, for I am 'past feeling.' I am not ashamed to be a Christian. I would as soon be known to be a Christian as anything else. Indeed, I wish I was, but I have not the least power to become one. Don't you know that with some persons there is a tide in their spiritual natures which, if taken at the flood, leads on to salvation? Such a tide I felt two years ago. I want you to pray for me, not that I may be led to Christ--for that prayer would not be answered--but that I may be kept from the temptation to suicide!"
What I had to say to the author of that I said in a private letter; but what I have to say to this audience is: Beware lest you grieve the Holy Ghost, and He be gone, and never return. Next Wednesday, at two or three o'clock, a Cunard steamer will put out from Jersey City wharf for Liverpool. After it has gone one hour, and the vessel is down by the Narrows, or beyond, go out on the Jersey City wharf, and wave your hand, and shout, and ask that steamer to come back to the wharf. Will it? Yes, sooner than the Holy Ghost will come back when once He has taken his final flight from thy soul. With that Holy Spirit some of you have been in treaty, my dear friends.
The Holy Spirit said: "Come, come to Christ." You said: "No, I won't." The Spirit said, more importunately: "Come to Christ." You said: "Well, I will after awhile, when I get my business fixed up; when my friends consent to my coming; when they won't laugh at me--then I'll come." But the Holy Spirit more emphatically said: "Come now." You said: "No, I can't. I can't come now." And that Holy Spirit stands in your heart to-night, with His hand on the door of your soul, ready to come out. Will you let Him depart? If so, then, with a pen of light, dipped in ink of eternal blackness, the sentence may be now writing: "Ephraim is joined to his idols. Let him alone! Let him alone!" When that fatal record is made, you might as well brace yourselves up against the sorrows of the last day, against the anguish of an unforgiven death-bed, against the flame and the overthrow of an undone eternity; for though you might live thirty years after that in the world, your fate would be as certain as though you had already entered the gates of darkness. That is the dead line. Look out how you cross it!
"'There is a line by us unseen, That crosses every path; The hidden boundary between God's patience and His wrath.'"
And some of you, to-night, have come up to that line. Ay, you have lifted your foot, and when you put it down, it will be on the other side! Look out how you cross it! Oh, grieve not the Spirit of God, lest He never come back!
III. This fatal stroke spoken of in the text may be our exit from this world. I hear aged people sometimes saying: "I can't live much longer." But do you know the fact that there are a hundred young people and middle-aged people who go out of this life to one aged person, for the simple reason that there are not many aged people to leave life? The aged seem to stand around like stalks--separate stalks of wheat at the corner of the field; but when death goes a-mowing, he likes to go down amid the thick of the harvest. What is more to the point: a man's going out of this world is never in the way he expects--it is never at the time he expects. The moment of leaving this world is always a surprise. If you expect to go in the winter, it may be in the summer; if in the summer, it may be in the winter; if in the night, it maybe in the day-time; if you think to go in the day-time, it may be in the night. Suddenly the event will rush upon you, and you will be gone. Where? If a Christian--into joy. If not a Christian--into suffering.
The Gospel call stops outside of the door of the sepulcher. The sleeper within can not hear it. If that call should be sounded out with clarion voice louder than ever rang through the air, that sleeper could not hear it. I suppose every hour of the day, and now, while I am speaking, there are souls rushing into eternity unprepared. They slide from the pillow, or they slip from the pavement, and in an eye-twinkling they are gone. Elegant and eloquent funeral oration will not do them any good. Epitaph, cut on polished Scotch granite, will not do them any good. Wailing of beloved kindred can not call them back.
But, says some one: "I'll keep out of peril; I will not go on the sea, I will not go into battle--I'll keep out of all danger." That is no defense. Thousands of people, last night, on their couches, with the front door locked, and no armed assassin anywhere around, surrounded by all defended circumstances, slipped out of this life into the next. If time had been on one side of the shuttle and eternity on the other side of the shuttle, they could not have shot quicker across it. A man was saying: "My father was lost at sea, and my grandfather, and my great-grandfather. Wasn't it strange?" A man, talking to him, said: "You ought never to venture on the sea, lest you, yourself, be lost at sea." The man turned to the other, and said: "Where did your father die?" He replied: "In his bed." "Where did your grandfather die?" "In his bed." "Where did your great-grandfather die?" "In his bed." "Then," he said, "be careful, lest some night, while you are asleep on your couch, your time may come!"
Death alone is sure. Suddenly, you and I will go out of life. I am not saying anything to your soul that I am not going to say to my own soul. We have got to go suddenly out of this life. If I am prepared for that change, I do not care where my body is taken from--at what point I am taken out of this life. If I am ready, all is well. If I am not ready, though I might be at home, and though my loved ones might be standing around me, and though there might be the best surgical and medical ability in the room, I tell you, if I were not prepared, I would be frightened more than tongue can tell. It may seem like cowardice, but I am not ashamed to say that I should have the most indescribable horror about going out of this world if I thought I was unprepared for the next--if I had no Christ in my soul; for it would be a plunge compared with which a leap from the top of Mont Blanc would be nothing.
But this brings me to the most tremendous thought of my text. The text supposes that a man goes into ruin, and that an effort is made afterward for his rescue, and then says the thing can not be done. Is that so? After death seizes upon that soul, is there no resurrection? If a man topples off the edge of life, is there nothing to break his fall? If an impenitent man goes overboard, are there no grappling-hooks to hoist him into safety? The text says distinctly: "Then a great ransom can not deliver thee."
I know there are people who call themselves "Restorationists," and they say a sinful man may go down into the world of the lost; he stays there until he gets reformed, and then comes up into the world of light and blessedness. It seems to me to be a most unreasonable doctrine--as though the world of darkness were a place where a man could get reformed. Is there anything in the society of the lost world--the abandoned and the wretched of God's universe--to elevate a man's character and lift him at last to heaven? Can we go into companionship of the Neroes and the Herods, and the Jim Fisks, and spend a certain number of years in that lost world, and then by that society be purified and lifted up? Is that the kind of society that reforms a man and prepares him for heaven? Would you go to Shreveport or Memphis, with the yellow fever there, to get your physical health restored? Can it be that a man may go down into the diseased world--a world overwhelmed by an epidemic of transgressions--and by that process, and in that atmosphere, be lifted up to health and glory? Your common sense says: "No! no!" In such society as that, instead of being restored, you would go down worse and worse, plunging every hour into deeper depths of suffering and darkness. What your common sense says the Bible reaffirms, when it says: "These shall go away into three months of punishment." I have quoted it wrong. "These shall go away into ten years of punishment." I have quoted it wrong. "These shall go into a thousand years of punishment." I have quoted it wrong. "These shall go into everlasting punishment." And now I have quoted it right; or, if you prefer, in the words of my text: "Then a great ransom can not deliver thee."
Now just suppose that a spirit should come down from heaven and knock at the gates of woe and say: "Let that man out! Let me come in and suffer in his stead. I will be the sacrifice. Let him come out." The grim jailer would reply: "No, you don't know what a place this is, or you would not ask to come in; besides that, this man had full warning and full opportunity of escape. He did not take the warning, and now a great ransom shall not deliver him."
Sometimes men are sentenced to imprisonment for life. There comes another judge on the bench, there comes another governor in the chair, and in three or four years you find the man who was sentenced for life in the street. You say: "I thought you were sentenced for life." "Oh!" he says, "politics are changed, and I am now a free man." But it will not be so for a soul at the last. There will be no new judge or new governor. If at the end of a century a soul might come out, it would not be so bad. If at the end of a thousand years it might come out, it would not be so bad. If there were any time in all the future, in quadrillions and quadrillions of years, that the soul might come out, it would not be so bad; but if the Bible be true, it is a state of unending duration.
Far on in the ages one lost soul shall cry out to another lost soul: "How long have you been here?" and the soul will reply: "The years of my ruin are countless. I estimated the time for thousands of years; but what is the use of estimating when all these rolling cycles bring us no nearer the terminus." Ages! Ages! Ages! Eternity! Eternity! Eternity! The wrath to come! The wrath to come! The wrath to come! No medicine to cure that marasmus of the soul. No hammer to strike off the handcuff of that incarceration. No burglar's key to pick the locks which the Lord hath fastened. Sir Francis Newport, in his last moment, caught just one glimpse of that world. He had lived a sinful life. Before he went into the eternal world he looked into it. The last words he ever uttered were, as he gathered himself up on his elbows in the bed: "Oh, the insufferable pangs of hell!" The lost soul will cry out: "I can not stand this! I can not stand this! Is there no way out?" and the echo will answer: "No way out." And the soul will cry: "Is this forever?" and the echo will answer: "Forever!"
Is it all true? "These shall go away into everlasting punishment, while the righteous go into life eternal." Are there two destinies? and must all this audience share one or the other? Shall I give an account for what I have told you to-night? Have I held back any truth, though it were plain, though it were unpalatable? Must I meet you there, oh, you dying but immortal auditory? I wish that my text, with all its uplifted hands of warning, could come upon your souls: "Beware lest He take thee away with His stroke: then a great ransom can not deliver thee."
Glory be to God, there is a ransom that can now deliver you, braver than Grace Darling putting out in a life-boat from Eddystone Light-house for the rescue of the crew of the Forfarshire steamer--Christ the Lord launched from heaven, amid the shouting of the angels. Thirty-three years afterward, Christ the Lord launched from earth to heaven, amid human and infernal execration; yet staying here long enough to save all who will believe in Him. Do you hear that? To save all who will believe in Him. Oh, that pierced side! Oh, that bleeding brow! Oh, that crushed foot! Oh, that broken heart! That is your hope, sinner. That is your ransom from sin, and death, and hell.
Why have I told you all these things to-night, plainly and frankly? It is because I know there is redemption for you, and I would have you now come and get it. Oh, men and women long prayed for, and striven with, and coaxed of the mercy of God--have you concentrated all your physical, mental, and spiritual energies in one awful determination to be lost? Is there nothing in the value of your soul, in the graciousness of Christ, in the thunders of the last day, in the blazing glories of heaven, and the surging wrath of an undone eternity to start you out of your indifference, and make you pray? Oh, must God come upon you in some other way? Must He take another darling child from your household? Must He take another installment from your worldly estate? Must life come upon you with sorrow after sorrow, and smite you down with sickness before you will be moved, and before you will feel?
Oh, weep now, while Jesus will count the tears! Sigh, now in repentance, while Jesus will hear the grief. Now clutch the cross of the Son of God before it be swept away. Beware, lest the Holy Spirit leave thy heart. Beware, lest this night thy soul be required of thee. "Beware, lest he take thee away with His stroke: then a great ransom can not deliver thee." Oh, Lord God of Israel, see these impenitent souls on the verge of death ready to topple over! See them! Is there no help? Is this plea all in vain? I can not believe it, blessed God. Oh, thou mighty One, whose garments are red with the wine-press of Thine own sufferings, in the greatness of Thy strength ride through this audience, and may all this people fall into line, the willing captives of Thy grace. Men and women immortal! I lay hold of you to-night with both hands of entreaty and of prayer, and I beg of you, prepare for death, judgment, and eternity.