For our Sunday Sermon, what follows is, I dare say, a funeral sermon unlike any you are ever likely to encounter. Moreover, it is profound, and it is, I think, a funeral sermon well suited to our time.
The Rev. Dr. Robert Smith Candlish [1806-1873] was one of the founding members of the Free Church of Scotland and a noted pastor and expositor of the Scriptures. Our sermon today is taken from the first portion of the sermon offered up by the Rev. Dr. Buchanan in memory of Dr. Candlish, preached in Free St. George’s, Edinburgh, on Sabbath, November 2, 1873. To read the full text of this sermon, click here.
Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Robert Buchanan.
“The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart; and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come.–Isaiah 57:1.
There could hardly be a more fatal sign of the condition and prospects of any community than the existence in it of such a state of things as our text describes. When a people cease to cherish and venerate moral and religious worth; when the death of eminently good and holy men hardly attracts notice and awakens no regret, and when the solemn lessons which so great a public calamity is fitted to teach are totally disregarded, the fact is ominous of coming wrath and ruin. It painfully indicates that the cement which binds human society together is undergoing a process of dissolution.
In the course of its eventful history, our fallen world has often exemplified this truth. In the days that were before the flood the righteous perished, and no man laid it to heart. The sons of God—those who had the spirit of an Abel, a Seth, or an Enoch, disrelished and opposed by the ungodly spirit of the age in which they lived—were at length, in God’s divine displeasure, taken, one after another away. And what was the terrible consequence? The earth became corrupt and was filled with violence. Engrossed with their eating and drinking, their planting and building, their marrying and giving in marriage, the men of that sensual, antediluvian world considered not that the righteous, in whose gradual disappearance they rather rejoiced than grieved, had been taken away from the evil to come. But their reckless levity and selfish unconcern did not hinder the evil, from which the righteous were being removed, from overtaking themselves. The heavens grew dark with judgment, when the despised lights that once shone in it, had all sunk back into the depths of the sky. The vengeance of the Almighty was let loose, and the flood came and took them all away!
The same truth was illustrated, in a hardly less terrible form, subsequently to the coming and the crucifixion of our Lord, in the case of Jerusalem and the Jews. Piety had long been upon the decline among God’s ancient people. The men who sat in Moses’ seat, and who ought to have been the guides and guardians of the nation’s moral and spiritual life, had become the chief transgressors. Even that partial awakening to a sense of sin, and that temporary revival of religious thought, which attended the solemn preaching of John the Baptist, and which spread still wider abroad under the ministry of our Lord, served only, in the long run, to rouse into intenser activity the ungodly spirit of the time, and to turn it with a fiercer enmity against the cause and kingdom of God. The righteous and merciful One HImself, after being publicly disowned and rejected, was, by a national act, put to a cruel and ignominious death, and neither princes, nor priests, nor people laid it to heart. Loving and God-fearing men, like Stephen, were stoned and slain; and none considered that, by such savage deeds, they were only taking these righteous and merciful men away from the evil to come. Piety and purity, goodness and holiness, systematically discouraged in the midst of this abounding wickedness, fled up to Heaven. And the salt being thus withdrawn from the increasingly corrupt mass of Jewish society, its crimes, ere long, rendered it intolerable alike to God and man. The measure of the nation’s iniquity had come to the full. He who is slow to wrath, but who is also of great power, and who will not at all acquit the wicked, uplifted His avenging arm, and their city, their temple, and their nation perished.
Nor is it only in the records of Scripture that we can trace the fatal influences of such a state of things as that to which our text refers. The thoughtful student of history will not fail to recognize that state of things as the sure precursor of disaster and overthrow wherever it has appeared. In his great work on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, its author, sceptic though he was, and little either disposed or qualified to mark the operations of God’s mighty hand, is, nevertheless, constrained to acknowledge that not the power of Rome’s external foes, but the canker of her own internal corruptions, brought on her ruin. Such virtues as even Pagan Rome once knew,—severe simplicity of manners—patient industry—indomitable hardihood and courage—a proud sense of honour and truth—stern, self-sacrificing devotion to the interests of the state,—were no longer held in esteem. The few who retained and cherished such virtues, perished; and no man laid it to heart. The very soldiers, enervated by luxury and ease, pusillanimously abandoned both the nation’s defence and their own. The material prosperity of the empire died out with the virtues of its citizens. Want and misery grew apace. And yet at the very time when destitution and disease and death were at the height in one class of the population, the wildest excess and extravagance were running riot in another. “The mad prodigality,” the historian says, when speaking of this unnatural and revolting spectacle, “which prevails in the confusion of a shipwreck or of a siege, may serve to explain the progress of luxury amid the misfortunes and terrors of a sinking nation.”
It needs not to say, that examples of the same thing have not been awanting in more modern times. I shall content myself with singling out and specifying only one. It belongs to the history of a neighbouring kingdom, and may be said, without a particle of exaggeration, to have been written again and again, in characters of fire upon its palace walls. For two centuries France had not only seen the righteous perish, without laying it to heart; but during that long period it had done its very utmost to cause them to perish. By a series of remorseless persecutions, it had dyed its hands deep in their blood. The pure faith of the gospel, in which these righteous men had found life and peace, and from which they had derived all those Christian graces by which their character was adorned, France spared no pains to eradicate from its soil. The adherents of that faith it chased, at one time, by hundreds of thousands into exile; while, at other times, it slew them in numbers as great with the sword, or drowned them in its rivers, or burned them at the stake. And while men, full of that loving and merciful spirit which the gospel inspires, were being thus rapidly thinned out of the land, none considered that they were being taken away from the evil to come. But it not more true of individuals than it is of nations, that what men sow, that shall they also reap. By its ceaseless oppression of God’s cause and people, France had been sowing the wind,—sowing, that is, the seed of social storms and political convulsions. And, in the due time, it reaped the fitting harvest in the whirlwind of its terrific revolution : a revolution in which the whole social fabric was loosened from its foundations; and out of which a state of anarchy arose in which law was dethroned; in which all authority, human and divine, was trampled under foot; in which religion was abolished, the very name and being of God were disowned; in which atheism was adopted and proclaimed as the nation’s creed, death pronounced to be an eternal sleep, and the day of judgment to be a delusion and a dream; and when, as the fruit of these fiend-like enormities, human blood was shed like water, and no man could call his life his own.
Events like these—and all history is full of them—present a truly startling commentary on the words of our text, and may well stir us up to give to them the most earnest and prayerful consideration. They are fitted to remind us of what, perhaps, we had not before sufficiently adverted to,—that a great depth and force of meaning lies in the statement our text contains; and that it is no common danger and no common sin against which God is here putting us on our guard. When we proceed to look at the text more closely, there are two things that cannot fail to suggest themselves as plainly implied in it, and as constituting the chief lessons it is fitted, and no doubt intended, to convey. (1.) That the righteous and the merciful are among the most precious of God’s gifts to a community and to a Church. And, (2.) That to depreciate or despise these gifts is to provoke the Giver of them to take them away, and to visit with some signal token of His divine displeasure the people who are chargeable with this heinous sin.
1. First, then, let us for a little turn our attention to the fact, so plainly taught in the text, that the kind and class of men there spoken of are among the most precious of God’s gifts to a community and to a Church. By the men in question, we are evidently to understand the people of God. “The righteous,” is the most common and characteristic title by which, in Holy Scripture, God’s people are named and known. When God would single our Noah as the last remaining representative of true godliness, it was by this very word his character was summarily described. Thee, said the Lord, addressing him, “Thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation” (Gen. 7:1). Again, when God would hold up His own people, in contrast with those by whom He is dishonoured and disowned, He thus speaks: “The Lord will not suffer the righteous to famish; but he casteth away the substance of the wicked.” And, again, “The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life : but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked.” And, once more, when He would tell who those are who shall enter into His glory in the world to come, it is still the same distinctive term He employs : “The righteous shall go away into life eternal.” (Matt. 25:46).
It is hardly necessary to observe that the other descriptive expression, “merciful men,” is not intended to represent a class additional to, and different from, the righteous. It is meant simply to present another aspect of the character of the righteous. That this is so, is made conclusively manifest by the fact that, in this very text itself, the word merciful is used interchangeably with the word righteous. “Merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come.”
Thus understood, it can need no argument to prove how inestimable a blessing such men are to a community or a Church. Had even ten such men been found in Sodom, their presence would have saved it from destruction. For their sakes the sword of Divine vengeance, though already unsheathed, would have been returned to its scabbard without striking the fatal blow. They are the salt of the earth : they are the light of the world. It is on their account that the whole existing order of things is upheld. For no sooner shall God have gathered His elect, His righteous seed, from the four winds, than the heavens and the earth which are now shall be dissolved.
But not only,—as thus serving to throw a shield of protection over the cities and nations to which they belong,—is the presence of these men an inestimable blessing; it is still further a blessing, whose value is unspeakably great, in respect of the numberless beneficent influences which they exert—influences which purity and sweeten and elevate the whole condition of the society in which they mingle, and stamp it, often, with a nobler character and destiny for ages to come. Take, for example, such a man as Abraham, who commanded his children, and his household after him, to keep the way of the Lord, and to do justice and judgment; who, wherever he came, builded an altar to the only living and true God,—and by his consistent piety, and undeviating integrity and enlightened wisdom, restrained vice and wickedness on every side; and by his holy life and conversation diffused an atmosphere of goodness all around him, so that he became, by way of eminence, the father of the faithful, and friend of God. Or take such a man as Samuel, whose early devotedness to God, whose zeal for the divine glory, whose high integrity and commanding energy, rescued his country from disgrace and ruin, and raised it, for a long season, to dignity and honour. Or take such a man as the Son of Jesse, whose deep communings with God have fed the spiritual life of tens of thousands of God’s children in every succeeding age. Or, once more, take such a man as Paul, overflowing with love to the Lord that brought him, consumed with burning zeal for the conversion of perishing sinners, and counting not even his life dear unto himself, that he might finish his course and the ministry he had received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God, and to extend and establish that blessed kingdom, which is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. Take, I repeat, such examples as these, and say if it be possible sufficiently to estimate the amount of blessing which the presence of such men—even of a handful of such men—may, under God, be the means of bringing down upon this world.
At the same time, let me here take occasion to say that, in singling out such illustrious names as those now adduced, it is not at all intended to imply that, in this firmament of gracious and benignant influences, only stars of the first magnitude can be of any avail. Not so. Of the righteous there are tens of thousands who, in the deep obscurity of private and humble life, are, like their blessed Master, going about daily doing good. There are righteous mothers and grandmothers, like Lois and Eunice, who. by their godly lessons and holy example to their children, are training up future Timothys to minister to the Church and people of God. There are merciful disciples, like Tabitha, whose kindly services and sympathies are making the heart of many a poor widow, or fatherless child, to rejoice. There are righteous maidens, like her who served in the house of Naaman the Syrian, who know how to speak a word in season for Israel’s God. There are merciful widows who, out of their deep poverty, are casting in their little all into the Lord’s treasury, and helping forward His cause and kingdom by their believing prayers. And as there is not one of these whose presence in society or in the Church of God is not a precious boon, so, assuredly, there is not one of their number who shall lose his or her reward.
In a word, if we would desire to know how great a blessing the righteous are to this fallen world, we have but to think of the good which, collectively, they have wrought. The righteous are, in other words, the living members of Christ’s Church; and to them, instrumentally, it is due that pure Christianity has maintained its footing, and is still extending its humanizing, enlightening, sanctifying, and saving power among the inhabitants of this guilty and perishing world. But if, on the one hand, this fact abundantly proves how immense is the blessing the righteous are dispensing to their fellow-men, it goes, on the other, not less clearly to prove that the righteous are the gift of God. They are not the natural growth of fallen humanity. These trees of righteousness,—these plants of renown,—are plants of the Lord’s planting. They are the products of His own heavenly grace and truth. They are righteous, because God has made them so; because He has clothed them in the justifying righteousness of His blessed Son; and because He has wrought in them a personal righteousness by the regenerating and sanctifying grace of His Holy Spirit. They are merciful, because, in being born again, and in being made one with Christ, they have become, by adoption, sons and daughters of the Lord Almighty; and, as such, have learned to be merciful as their Father who is in heaven is merciful. And, accordingly, instead of taking praise to themselves for any services they may have been privileged to render to the cause of humanity and godliness, they are ever ready to say : “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us; but unto thy name give we glory for thy mercy and for thy truth’s sake.”
To continue reading, click here: In Memoriam: R. S. Candlish, D.D., died October 19, 1873. Sermons preached in Free St. George’s, Edinburgh, on Sabbath, November 2, 1873, by the Rev. Dr. Buchanan, Glasgow; and Rev. Dr. Rainy, Edinburgh. Edinburgh: T. Nelson and Sons, 1873.