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Bunyan Characters Second Series: 26. THE SWELLING OF JORDAN

By Alexander Whyte


      "The swelling of Jordan."--Jeremiah.

      "Fore-fancy your deathbed," says Samuel Rutherford. "Take an essay," he says in his greatest book, that perfect mine of gold and jewels, Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himself--"Take an essay and a lift at your death, and look at it before it actually comes to your door." And so we shall. Since it is appointed to all men once to die, and after death the judgment; and since our death and our judgment are the only two things that we are absolutely sure about in our whole future, we shall henceforth fore-fancy those two events much more than we have done in the past. And to assist us in that; to quicken our fancy, to kindle it, to captivate it, and to turn our fancy wholly to our salvation, we have all the entrancing river-scenes in the Pilgrim's Progress set before us; a succession of scenes in which Bunyan positively revels in his exquisite fancies, clothing them as he does, all the time, in language of the utmost beauty, tenderness, pathos, power, and dignity. Let us take our stand, then, on the bank of the river and watch how pilgrim after pilgrim behaves himself in those terrible waters. We are all voluntary spectators to-night, but we shall all be compulsory performers before we know where we are.

      1. On entering the river even Christian suddenly began to sink. Fore-fancy that. All the words he spake still tended to discover that he had great horror of mind and hearty fears that he would die in that river; here also he was much in the troublesome thoughts of the sins he had committed both since and before he began to be a pilgrim. Fore-fancy that also, all you converted young men. Hopeful, therefore, had much to do to keep his brother's head above water; yea, sometimes he would be quite gone down, and then in a while he would rise up again half-dead. Then I saw in my dream that Christian was in a muse a while; to whom also Hopeful added this word, "Be of good cheer; Jesus Christ maketh thee whole." And with that Christian broke out with a loud voice, "When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee, and through the rivers they shall not overflow thee." Then they both took courage and the enemy was after that as still as a stone till they were gone over. Fore-fancy that also. There is one other thing out of that crossing that I hope I shall remember when I am in the river: "Be of good cheer," said Hopeful to his sinking fellow--"Be of good cheer, my brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good." "Hold His hand fast," wrote Samuel Rutherford to Lady Kenmure. "He knows all the fords. You may be ducked in His company but never drowned. Put in your foot, then, and wade after Him. And be sure you set your feet always upon the stepping-stones." Yes; fore-fancy those stepping-stones, and often practise your feet upon them before the time.

      2. "Good woman," said the post to Christiana, the wife of Christian the pilgrim; "Hail, good woman, I bring thee tidings that the Master calleth for thee, and expecteth thee to stand in His presence in clothes of immortality within this ten days." Fore-fancy that also. Now the day was come that she must be gone. And so the road was full of people to see her take her journey. But, behold, all the banks beyond the river were full of horses and chariots which were come down from above to accompany her to the city gate. So she came forth and entered the river with a beckon of farewell to those that followed her to the river-side. And thus she went and entered in at the gate with all the ceremonies of joy that her husband had done before her. Fore-fancy, if you can, some of those ceremonies of joy.

      3. When Mr. Fearing came to the river where was no bridge, there again he was in a heavy case. Now, he said, he should be drowned for ever and never see that Face with comfort he had come so many miles to behold. And here also I took notice of what was very remarkable; the water of that river was lower at this time than ever I saw it in all my life. So he went over at last not much above wet-shod. Fore-fancy and fore-arrange, if it be possible, for a passage like that. When he was going tip to the gate Mr. Greatheart began to take his leave of him, and to wish him a good reception above. "I shall," he said, "I shall." Be fore-assured, also, of a reception like that.

      4. In process of time there came a post to the town again, and his business was this time with Mr. Ready-to-halt. So he inquired him out and said to him, "I am come to thee in the name of Him whom thou hast loved and followed, though upon crutches. And my message is to tell thee that He expects thee at His table to sup with Him in His kingdom the next day after Easter." After this Mr. Ready-to-halt called for his fellow-pilgrims and told them, saying, "I am sent for, and God shall surely visit you also. These crutches," he said, "I bequeath to my son that he may tread in my steps, with a hundred warm wishes that he may prove better than I have done." When he came to the brink of the river, he said, "Now I shall have no more need of these crutches, since yonder are horses and chariots for me to ride on." The last words he was heard to say were, "Welcome life!" Let all ready-to-halt hearts fore-fancy all that.

      5. Then Mr. Feeble-mind called for his friends and told them what errand had been brought to him, and what token he had received of the truth of the message. "As for my feeble mind," he said, "that I shall leave behind me, for I shall have no need of that in the place whither I go. When I am gone, Mr. Valiant, I desire that you would bury it in a dung-hill." This done, and the day being come in which he was to depart, he entered the river as the rest. His last words were, "Hold out faith and patience." Fore-fancy such an end as that to your feeble mind also.

      6. Did you ever know a family, or, rather, the relics of a family, where there was just a decrepit old father and a lone daughter left to nurse him through his second childhood? All his other children are either married or dead; but both marriage and death have spared Miss Much-afraid to watch over the dotage-days of Mr. Despondency; till one summer afternoon the old man fell asleep in his chair to waken where old men are for ever young. And in a day or two there were two new graves side by side in the old churchyard. Even death could not divide this old father and his trusty child. And so when the time was come for them to depart, they went down together to the brink of the river. The last words of Mr. Despondency were, "Farewell night and welcome day." His daughter went through the river singing, but none could understand what it was she said. Fore-fancy that, all you godly old men, with a daughter who has made a husband and children to herself of her old father.

      7. As I hear Old Honest shouting "Grace reigns!" I always remember what a lady told me about a saying of her poor Irish scullery-girl. The mistress and the servant were reading George Eliot's Life together in the kitchen, and when they came to her deathbed, on the pillow of which Thomas A'Kempis lay open, "Mem," said the girl, "I used to read that old book in the convent; but it is a better book to live upon than to die upon." Now, that was exactly Old Honest's mind. He lived upon one book, and then he died upon another. He lived according to the commandments of God, but he died according to the comforts of the Gospel. Now, we read in his history how that the river at that time overflowed its banks in some places. But Mr. Honest had in his lifetime spoken to one Good-conscience to meet him at the river, the which he also did, and lent him his hand, and so helped him over. All the same, the last words of Mr. Honest still were, "Grace reigns!" And so he left the world. Fore-fancy whether or no you are making, as one has said, "an assignation with terror" at that same river-side.

      8. Standfast was the last of the pilgrims to go over the river. Standfast was left longest on this side the river because his Master could best trust him here. His Master had to take away many of His other servants from the evil to come, but He could trust Standfast. You can safely trust a man who takes to his knees in every hour of temptation, as Standfast was wont to do. "This river," he said, "has been a terror to many. Yea, the thoughts of it have often frighted me also. The waters, indeed, are to the palate bitter, and to the stomach cold; yet the thoughts of what I am going to, and of the conduct that awaits me on the other side, doth lie as a glowing coal at my heart. I see myself now at the end of my journey, and my toilsome days are all ended. I am going now to see that head that was crowned with thorns, and that face that was spit upon for me. His name has been to me as a civet-box, yea, sweeter than all perfumes. His word I did use to gather for my food, and for antidotes against my faintings. He has held me up, and I have kept myself from mine iniquities. Yea, my steps hath He strengthened in the way." Now, while he was thus in discourse his countenance changed, his strong man bowed down under him, and after he had said, "Take me, for I come to Thee," he ceased to be seen of them. Fore-fancy, if you have the face, an end like that for yourself.

      This, then, is how Christian and Hopeful and Christiana and Old Honest and all the rest did in the swelling river. But the important point is, HOW WILL YOU DO? Have you ever fore-fancied how you will do? Have you ever, among all your many imaginings, imagined yourself on your deathbed? Have you ever thought you heard the doctor whisper, "To-night"? Have you ever lain low in your bed and listened to the death-rattle in your own throat? And have you still listened to the awful silence in the house after all was over? Have you ever shot in imagination the dreadful gulf that stands fixed between life and death, and between time and eternity? Have you ever tried to get a glimpse beforehand of your own place where you will be an hour after your death, when they are putting the grave-clothes on your still warm body, and when they are measuring your corpse for your coffin? Where will you be by that time? Have you any idea? Can you fancy it? Did you ever try? And if not, why not? "My lord," wrote Jeremy Taylor to the Earl of Carbery, when sending him the first copy of the Holy Dying,--"My lord, it is a great art to die well, and that art is to be learnt by men in health; for he that prepares not for death before his last sickness is like him that begins to study philosophy when he is going to dispute publicly in the faculty. The precepts of dying well must be part of the studies of them that live in health, because in other notices an imperfect study may be supplied by a frequent exercise and a renewed experience; but here, if we practise imperfectly once, we shall never recover the error, for we die but once; and therefore it is necessary that our skill be more exact since it cannot be mended by another trial." How wise, then, how far-seeing, how practical, and how urgent is the prophet's challenge and demand. "How wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?"

      1. Well, then, let us be practical before we close, and let us descend to particulars. Let us take the prophet's question and run it through some parts and some practices of our daily life as already dying men. And, to begin with, I have such a great faith in good books, whether we are to live or die, that I am impelled to ask you all at this point, and under shelter of this plain-spoken prophet, What books have you laid in for your deathbed, and for the weeks and months and even years before your death bed? What do you look forward to be reading when Jordan is beginning to swell and roll for you and to leap up toward your doorstep? If you get good from good books--everybody does not--but supposing you are one of those who do, what books can you absolutely count upon, without fail, to put you in the best possible frame for the river, and for the convoy across, and for the ceremonies of joy on the other side? What special Scriptures will you have read every day to you? "Read," said John Knox to his weeping wife, "read where I first cast my anchor." An old lady I once knew used to say to me at every visit, "The Fifty-first Psalm." She was the daughter of a Highland minister, and the wife of a Highland minister, and the mother of a Highland minister, and of an elder to boot. "The Fifty-first Psalm," she said, and sometimes, "One of Hart's hymns also." What is your favourite psalm and hymn? Mr. James Taylor of Castle Street has several large-type libraries in his catalogue. Mr. Taylor might start a much worse paying speculation than a large-type library for the river-side; or, some select booklets for deathbeds. The series might well open with "The Ninetieth Psalm" in letters an inch deep. Scholars die as well as illiterates, and there might be provided for them, among other things, The Phaedo in two languages, Plato's and Jowett's. Then The Seven Sayings from the Cross. Bellarmine's Art of Dying Well would stand well beside John Bunyan's Dying Sayings. And, were I the editor, I would put in Bishop Andrewes' Private Devotions, if only for my own last use. Then Richard Baxter's Saint's Rest, and John Howe's Platonico-Puritan book, Blessedness of the Righteous. Then Bernard's "New Jerusalem," "The Sands of Time are sinking," "Rock of Ages," and such like. These are some of the little books I have within reach of my bed against the hour when the post blows his first horn for me. You might tell me some of your deathbed favourites.

      2. Who will be your most welcome minister during your last days on earth? For whom would you send to-night if the post were suddenly to sound his horn at your side on your way home from church? I can well believe it would not be your own minister. I have known fathers and mothers in this congregation to send for other ministers than their own minister when terrible trouble came upon them, and both my conscience and my common sense absolutely approved of the step they took. Five students were once sitting and talking together in a city in which there was to be an execution to-morrow morning. They were talking about the murderer who was to be executed in the morning, and about the minister he had sent for to come to see him. And, like students, they began to put it to one another--Suppose you were to be executed to-morrow, for what minister in the city, or even in the whole land, would you send? And, like students again, they said--Let each one write down on a piece of paper the name of the minister he would choose to be beside him at the last, and we shall see each man's last choice. They did so, when to their astonishment it was discovered that they had all written the same minister's name! I do not know that they all went to his church every Sabbath while they were young and, well, and not yet under sentence of death. I do not think they did. For when I was in his church there was only a handful of old and decayed-looking people in it. The chief part of the congregation seemed to me to be a charity school. And I gathered from all that a lesson--several lessons, and this among the rest--that crowded passages do not always wait upon the best pastors; and this also, that a waft of death soon discovers to us a true minister from an incompetent and a counterfeit minister.

      3. Writing to one of his correspondents about his correspondent's long-drawn-out deathbed, Samuel Rutherford said to him, "It is long-drawn-out that you may have ample time to go over all your old letters and all your still unsettled accounts before you take ship." Have you any such old letters lying still unanswered? Have you any such old accounts lying still unsettled? Have you made full reparation and restitution for all that you and yours have done amiss? Fore-fancy that you will soon be summoned into His presence who has said: "herefore, if thou bring thy gift before the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him." You know all about Zacchaeus. I need not tell his story over again. But as I write these lines I take up a London newspaper and my eyes light on these lines: "William Avary was a man of remarkable gifts, both of mind and character. He dedicated the residue of his strength wholly to works of piety. In middle age he failed in business, and in his old age, when better days came, he looked up such of his old creditors as could be found and divided among them a sum of several thousand pounds." Look up such of your old creditors as you can find, and that not in matters of money alone. And, be sure you begin to do it now, before the horn blows. For, as sure as you take your keys and open your old repositories, you will come on things you had completely forgotten that will take more time and more strength, ay, and more resources, than will then be at your disposal. Even after you have begun at once and done all that you can do, you will have to do at last as Samuel Rutherford told George Gillespie to do: "Hand over all your bills, paid and unpaid, to your Surety. Give Him the keys of the drawer, and let Him clear it out for Himself after you are gone."

      4. And then, pray often to God for a clear mind between Him and you, and for a quick, warm, and heaven-hungry heart at the last. And take a promise from those who watch beside your bed that they will not drug and stupefy you even though you should ask for it. Whatever your pain, and it is all in God's hand, make up your mind, if it be possible, to bear it. It cannot be greater than the pain of the cross, and your Saviour would not touch their drugs, however well-intended. He determined to face the swelling of Jordan and to enter His Father's house with an unclouded mind. Try your very uttermost to do the same. I cannot believe that the thief even would have let the gall so much as touch his lips after Christ had said to him, "To-day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise!" Well, if your mind was ever clear and keen, let it be at its clearest and its keenest at the last. Let your mind and your heart be full of repentance, and faith, and love, and hope, and all such saying graces, and let them all be at their fullest and brightest exercise, at that moment. Be on the very tip-toe of expectation as the end draws near. Another pang, another gasp, one more unutterable sinking of heart and flesh as if you were going down into the dreadful pit--and then the abundant entrance, and the beatific vision! What wilt thou do then? What wilt thou say then? Hast thou thy salutation and thy song ready? And what will it be?

      * LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH

Back to Alexander Whyte index.

See Also:
   1. IGNORANCE
   2. LITTLE-FAITH
   3. THE FLATTERER
   4. ATHEIST
   5. HOPEFUL
   6. TEMPORARY
   7. SECRET
   8. MRS. TIMOROUS
   9. MERCY
   10. MR. BRISK
   11. MR. SKILL
   12. THE SHEPHERD BOY
   13. OLD HONEST
   14. MR. FEARING
   15. FEEBLE-MIND
   16. GREAT-HEART
   17. MR. READY-TO-HALT
   18. VALIANT-FOR-TRUTH
   19. STANDFAST
   20. MADAM BUBBLE
   21. GAIUS
   22. CHRISTIAN
   23. CHRISTIANA
   24. THE ENCHANTED GROUND
   25. THE LAND OF BEULAH
   26. THE SWELLING OF JORDAN

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