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DEATH OF MR. OLIVER SHEPHERD, OF WRENTHAM, OCTOBER 14, 1814, IN HIS
But the righteous hath hope in his death. -- PRO7. xiv. 32.
Hope is the principal source of happiness to all mankind, while they are passing through the shifting scenes of this present life. There is, however, a wide difference between the hopes of the righteous and the hopes of the wicked. The wicked place their hopes upon uncertain and unsatisfying objects, which subject them to continual disappointments in life, and never fail to plunge them deep in despair, in the hour of death. But the righteous build their hopes upon spiritual and divine objects, which never disappoint them in life, nor forsake them at death; but, in that most serious crisis, afford them "an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast; and which entereth into that within the vail.” This contrast between hope and despair, in the article of death, is emphatically expressed in the verse which contains the text. “ The wicked is driven away in his wickedness; but the righteous hath hope in his death."
It is proposed, in the present discourse, to describe the character here mentioned, and to illustrate the truth here asserted.
I. I shall describe the character of the righteous.
The inspired writers divide all mankind into two, and but two, essentially different classes, and distinguish them by the different appellations of the righteous and the wicked. This distinction runs through the whole Bible, but is more constantly kept up in the writings of Solomon than in any other parts of the scripture. He generally exhibits these two oppo
site characters in contrast with each other, which sets them both in the most conspicuous and striking light.
The peculiar distinction between the righteous and the wicked lies in the heart, and not in the understanding. The righteous possess that holiness of heart of which the wicked are entirely destitute. They are in a state of nature, and dead in trespasses and sins. They have a carnal mind, which is enmity against God, not subject to his law, neither indeed can be. Selfishness reigns in their hearts, and makes them enemies to all righteousness. But the righteous have a new heart and a new spirit
. They put off the old man, which is corrupt, and put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. They give God the supreme affection of their hearts, and delight in the law of the Lord after the inward man. They renounce all self-righteousness and self-dependence, and rely alone upon the atonement of Christ, as the ground of pardon and acceptance in the sight of God. They renounce the world and the things of the world, and choose God for their supreme portion. As they are new creatures, so they walk in newness of life. They express their love to God and to man, in all the various ways which the gospel requires. They live in the habitual practice of all godliness and honesty. They perform all the duties of devotion, whether secret, private or public, from day to day and from Sabbath to Sabbath. They cordially unite with the friends of God in espousing his cause, and promoting the prosperity of Zion. They do good to all men as they have opportunity, but especially to the household of faith. They live not to themselves, but to him who died for them, and redeemed them by his blood. They feel and act as pilgrims and strangers in the world, and plainly declare, by their uniform conduct, that they are looking for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. These are some of the peculiar traits in the character of the righteous which distinguish them from the wicked.
II. I proceed to illustrate the truth asserted in the text: “ The righteous hath hope in his death."
This assertion is true, as it respects righteous persons in general, though there may be some apparent exceptions. The righteous, as well as others, may leave the world under various circumstances. Some may die so suddenly, as to have no time for reflection or anticipation. Some may die in such a state of debility or derangement, as to be incapable of exercising either hope or fear. Some may die under the hidings of God's face, and involved in darkness respecting their gracious state, which may deprive them of peace and hope. Still it is true of all the righteous, that they have a solid foundation of hope, which death can neither shake, nor destroy. But as I have just observed, it is generally the happy lot of the righteous, to have hope in their death. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, died in hope. David closed his life in a lively hope of future blessedness. These were his last words : “ Although my house be not so with God; yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure; for this is all my salvation and all my desire." Simeon waited in hope of his dying hour, and prayed for its speedy approach. Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” Stephen expired, beholding the glories of heaven, and “calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus receive my spirit.” Paul's hope was enlivened and strengthened in a near and realizing view of death. He said, “I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous Judge shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” It was so common in David's day, for the righteous to die in hope, that he appeals to ocular evidence in proof of it. “ Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace.” How many men of eminent piety, in every part of the christian world, have finished their course in the full assurance of hope! Though there is no occasion for saying any thing more to establish the truth that the righteous have hope in their death, yet it may be proper and useful to inquire, why the righteous have hope in that solemn hour which involves the wicked in utter darkness and despair. There is one plain and sufficient reason to be given for this peculiar circumstance in the death of the righteous; it is because there is nothing preceding, attending or following death, which can destroy the foundation of their hope.
First. À clear and just sense of their guilt and ill desert in the sight of God, cannot destroy their hope in Christ. The prospect of death very naturally awakens in the minds of men a consciousness of their great and numerous offences, and of the justice of that law which they have broken, and by which they are condemned. The apostle says, “ The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.” Death brings a sting to the consciences of the wicked, who have spent their lives in doing nothing but what has been displeasing to God and a transgression of his righteous law. Their sins appear to them in their nature, in their number, and in their peculiar aggravations. They are alarmed at the justice of God, which may execute the penalty of the law upon them, and drive them away in their wickedness to hopeless ruin. This kills all their former flattering hopes, which they had built upon their own imaginary goodness, or upon the boundless mercy of God. But though the prospect of death
. gives the righteous as strong and as realizing a sense of their great criminality, yet they have had such a sense of it before, and have loathed and abhorred themselves for all their transgressions. Though they have a clear sight of the justice of God, which might pursue them to endless destruction, yet they have had such a sight of it before, and cordially accepted the punishment of their iniquity, and judged and condemned themselves, as the divine law judges and condemns them. And though they are fully convinced that they have nothing to recommend them to the mercy of God but wretchedness and guilt, yet they have before given up all their self-righteousness and self-dependence, and placed their whole trust in the atoning blood of Christ, to recommend them to the pardoning mercy of their offended sovereign. They know, as the apostle did, whom they have believed, and are persuaded that he is able to keep that which they have committed to him against that day. They believe that though their sins have abounded, yet the
grace of God can much more abound. This enables them to say with the primitive christians, “ O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be unto God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
That sense of sin and guilt which destroys the hope of the impenitent unbeliever, cannot destroy the hope of the penitent believer, in the hour of death.
Secondly. There is nothing in the thoughts of leaving this world, which can destroy the hope of the righteous. The wicked dread this circumstance of death. The very thought of leaving the world drinks up all their spirits, and destroys all their hopes. To leave the world is to leave all their treasures upon which they have built all their hopes; and when their treasures are lost, all their hopes and happiness must perish. What ground of hope had Dives, when he saw death approaching to strip him of all his affluence and grandeur ? What ground of hope had the wealthy worldling, when God told him, “ This night thy soul shall be required of thee?" What ground of hope can any of the men of the world have, when God shall take away their souls ?
Whenever death appears near and certain, it must fill their hearts with anguish and despair. But the righteous have nothing to fear from
leaving the world. They would not live alway. They place their hope in God, and can address him in the language of the Psalmist,“ Whom have I in heaven but thee, and there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee ? " They are crucified to the world, and the world to them, by the cross of Christ. They have a more enduring substance than the world can afford. They have a lively hope of an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for them. They have seen, and realized, and renounced, the vanities of the world. They have really complied with that indispensable condition of salvation which Christ has required. For they have in their hearts, forsaken houses, and brethren, and sisters, and father, and mother, and wife, and children, and lands, and every thing they have in this world, that in the world to come they may inherit everlasting life. They have nothing to give up at death, but what they have given up before. They have nothing to lose, but every thing to gain, by leaving the world; and of consequence, the prospect of death cannot destroy, but only strengthen and enliven their hope.
Thirdly. There is nothing in the prospect of having a more constant and realizing sense of the divine presence, which can destroy the hope of the righteous at the hour of death. Sinners say unto God, “ Depart from us.” If it were in their power, they would entirely banish from their minds a realizing sense of the divine presence. But death brings God near to them, which damps all the vain hopes which they had cherished and lived upon in the days of health and stupidity. The thought of appearing before God, and of realizing his holy presence, destroys every gleam of hope. They cannot conceive of enjoying the least degree of happiness, after death has removed all the objects of this world from their view, and fixed their whole attention upon God, whose presence they cannot shun, and whose wrath they cannot endure. But there is nothing in the prospect of going into the more immediate presence of God after death, which has the least tendency to destroy the hope of the righteous. They have been with God before. They know what it is to draw near to God, and to have God draw near to them. They love to see God every day, every where, and in every thing; and more especially in his sanctuary. Hear the language of David, who speaks the language of all the people of God upon this subject.
" One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple." “How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul