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SERMON X X XIV.
THE LIVING GO TO THE DEAD.
I SHALL go to him, but he shall not return to me. --- 2 SAMUEL, xii 23.
While David's child was sick, he put on sackcloth, lay in the dust, fasted, and besought the Lord to spare his life. But as soon as he perceived the child was dead, he arose from the earth, and washed and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the Lord, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat. This sudden change in his appearance and conduct was surprising to his servants, who expected that the death of his child would increase rather than abate the anguish of his heart. They accordingly said unto him, “ What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child while it was alive; but when the child was dead thou didst arise and eat bread. And he said, while the child was yet alive I fasted and wept; for I said, who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may
live? But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me." Such a reflection as this ought to strike the minds of the living, whenever they see any of their relatives, friends or acquaintance called out of this into another world. We are much more apt to realize that our departed friends will not return to this world, than that we shall follow them into another. The truth, therefore, which 'lies upon the very face of the text, deserves a very serious consideration:
That the dead will not return to the living, but the living will go to the dead.
The subject naturally divides itself into two branches, which I shall distinctly consider.
I. Let us consider, that the dead will not return to the living.
We know there is often a strong desire in the living, that the dead might return to them in this world. They want to see them and converse with them about both temporal and eternal things. This is more frequently the case when they have lost their friends at a distance, and had no opportunity of making or receiving communications of serious and weighty importance. And there is another more common motive for desiring the deceased to return, which is, to know their final condition. Many who would not wish to go into the eternal world to see their departed friends, would yet be highly gratified to see them once more in this life. And it is very probable, on the other hand, that many or all the deceased would be very glad to return to the living, either to say or do something, that they did not or could not say or do before they left the world. But such mutual desires of the living and of the dead to meet again in this world, will not be indulged, because the dead will not be allowed to revisit the earth, where they finished their course, and performed the last act on the stage of life. “ As the cloud is consumed, and vanisheth away: so he that goeth down to the grave shall come up no more. He shall return no more to his house, neither shall his place know him any more.” God has placed a barrier between this and the other world; but what that barrier is we know not: we only know that it is completely sufficient to prevent all intercourse between the living and the dead. The living have sometimes requested the dead, before they left the world, to break over this barrier and appear to them again; and they have engaged to do it if it should be in their power.
But there has been no well authenticated instance of the dead returning from the world of spirits. In this case, as well as in many others, God confirms by his providence what he has declared in his word. He says the dead shall not return, and he does not allow them to return. It is true, in several instances he has raised the dead miraculously, to answer some important purpose. But such instances serve to confirm the general truth, that the dead shall not return to this world again. Why God will not suffer the dead to return, we can only conjecture. It may be, as the apostle Paul suggests, because neither the happy nor the miserable can communicate to the living what they have seen or known among the dead; or it may be because, as Christ intimates, that no communications that either the happy or the miserable could make, would be of any real service to convince VOL. III.
the living. It is certain, however, that for wise and good reasons God has absolutely determined that the dead shall not return to this world after their spirits are absent from their bodies. They have gone to their long home, where they must abide for ever; and where the living can never see them without going to them. And this,
II. They must all sooner or later do.
Immediately after the apostacy of Adam, God told him, and through him every one of his posterity, “ Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." This sentence of mortality assures all the living that they must go to the dead. The inspired writers sensibly realized and repeatedly taught this solemn truth. Joshua says, “ This day I am going the way of all the earth ;” that is, I am going where all mankind have gone and are going. David expresses the thought in the same language. "I go the way of all the earth.” Job “ Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down; he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. His days are determined, the number of his months is with thee, thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass." As for himself he says to God, " I know that thou wilt bring me to death, and to the house appointed for all living.” And speaking of one that was dead, he says, “ The clods of the valley shall be sweet unto him, and every one shall draw after him, as there are innumerable before him." David says, “ Hear this, all ye people; give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world : both low and high, rich and poor together. They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; none of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him :- that he should still live for ever, and not see corruption.” And it is said, “There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death : and there is no discharge in that war.” It does not depend upon the choice of the living whether they shall die and go to the dead. They are under a natural necessity of dying, either by disease, accident, violence, or the infirmities of old age, which none can escape who escape all other causes of death. And when the dust returns to the dust, the spirit must go to God who gave it. All the art of man can do no more than to retard the stroke of death, it cannot prevent its fatal effect. This has been demonstrated by the experience of nearly six thousand years. During such a long period of time, every mineral, vegetable, and animal substance has been explored to discover means of preserving and prolonging life; and yet human life has been gradually shortening from age to age. The word and providence of God have, therefore, put it beyond the possibility of doubt, that death must come, and all the living must go to the dead. But here a very serious question arises, which deserves a serious attention: What is it for the living to go to the dead ?
Though we cannot say any thing upon this question to gratify curiosity ; yet we may say some things which we all ought to know and realize. Here then it may be observed,
1. That for the living to go to the dead implies their passing through the change of death. This is undoubtedly in all cases a very great change, and cannot be known any otherwise than by actual experience. I know it is supposed that some have suffered all the anguish or distress of dying, without being dead. They refer to instances of those who have been recovered from long fainting, swooning, and merely apparent drowning. Though persons who have lain long in a fit
, or swoon, or trance, or in a state of drowning, may remember and relate their peculiar views and sensations in such circumstances, yet neither they nor others can certainly determine that they really experienced all the pain or pleasure of dying. The pleasure I say, because it is more than possible for God to give some an easy and pleasant passage out of time into eternity. But so far as our observation extends, it appears that death is generally extremely painful. Hence the "agonies of death" has become a familiar expression to denote the exquisite pains of dying. And it is principally on account of what is supposed to be endured in death, that it is called and feared as the king of terrors. The pains of death are usually correspondent to the causes which produce it. Those whose natures are exhausted by old age, often seem to die in more ease than many others. Those who die with a lingering disorder seem to die in nearly the same manner. Those who die in their early days, by acute diseases, often experience greater distress in dying. And those who fall by casualty, or violence, generally suffer the keenest agonies of death. But though the living may be most affected by the apparent distress of the dying, yet they themselves may endure much more than they appear to endure. So that none can know what it is to pass through the great change of death, until they are actually called to endure it. And this all the living must experience, in order to go to the dead. Death is the only door through which the living can go to departed spirits. By whatever means they are brought to their dying hour, it will be a serious and solemn scene to pass through the dark entry which leads out of time into eternity.
2. For the living to go to the dead, implies their committing their bodies to the dust from which they were taken. Whether their bodies are emaciated or full of vigor and activity when they leave them, they must see corruption, which is the natural and unavoidable effect of death. As soon as the soul departs from the body, the body tends to dissolution, and must be consumed, whether it be laid in a costly tomb, or be deposited in a common grave, or thrown into the ocean, or lie neglected and unburied on the surface of the earth. The ancient heathens were very solicitous about the body after death. They had a strange notion that departed spirits could have no rest so long as their bodies lay unburied. Though this be a groundless and absurd opinion, yet it must be a serious consideration to the living, that they must go to the dead through the grave, that dark and silent and dreary mansion, appointed for all men. If it be something solemn and revolting to go into a tomb, or a grave-yard, or a field where thousands have been slain and left their bones to whiten in the sun, how much more solemn and striking must be the thought of actually lying in the grave and mouldering into dust, as the dead have done for thousands of years past. "How many human bodies have been devoured by monsters in the sea! how many have been devoured by beasts of the desert! and how many have gradually mouldered to dust and mixed with their mother earth! No mark or vestige can be found on the earth, of Adam and Eve, and of their numerous posterity for four or five thousand years past; and were it not for sacred and profane history, we could not have known that they ever existed in this world. And all the living are now constantly following those departed inhabitants of the earth into the land of silence and oblivion. When the living go to the dead, they go to the grave, which will cover them in darkness, and blot out their names from under heaven. They will soon become unknown and forgotten, by those who come after them. Who can tell where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lie? Who can tell where Moses and Aaron lie? Who can tell where the kings of Judah and Israel lie? Or who can tell where the prophets and apostles lie? They are all gone to the dead through the grave, where all the living must follow them. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh.” All who are now living will soon be gathered to their fathers, and mingle with the great congregation of the dead, “alike unknowing and unknown."
3. For the living to go to the dead implies, that they must follow them not only into the grave, but into eternity. The Bible gives abundant evidence of the existence and activity of the soul after it leaves the body. Our Saviour spoke of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as still living. Moses and Elias appeared with Christ on the mount of transfiguration. We read