EVERY MAN’S UNIVERSAL EPITAPH: “AND HE DIED!”
William Bacon Stevens
“And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred and sixty-nine years — AND HE DIED.” Genesis 5:27
The book of GENESIS is the only one that takes us back to the morning of the world’s creation. Others begin with the origin of various tribes and kingdoms; this, alone, traces the lineage of humanity to the first man, Adam, as he stood forth fresh from the molding hand of God.
This is, indeed, a point of vast importance; but it is not on this alone that the value of this book depends. The single chapter from which our text is borrowed, though its few short verses are taken up by mere genealogical records, is yet of more worth, in a moral view, than the teeming folios of a hundred historians, aiming only to emblazon the deeds of a nation, or set off the glory of some mighty king. This single chapter is the headstone at the GRAVE OF THE WORLD before the flood, and its verses are but the epitaphs of departed generations.
The verse of my text, forming only two lines, is the record of nearly a thousand years of the world’s history; and what then better fitted to teach us . . .
the transitoriness of earthly scenes;
the vanity of life;
the certainty of death —
than a passage which, in so few words, SUMS up the life of the oldest man that ever lived; but only recounts his age to tell us at his end, “HE DIED!”
To get a proper idea of the life which Methuselah lived, let us imagine that he had just died, and been gathered only this year to his patriarchal fathers; and, going back to his childhood, observe the space of time which it would cover.
He would then have been . . .
over one hundred years old when PAPER was first introduced into Europe;
over four hundred years old when the MARINER’S COMPASS was invented;
four hundred and fifty years old when the ENGLISH LANGUAGE began to be spoken in England;
over five hundred years old when PRINTING was invented;
over six hundred years old when AMERICA was discovered by Columbus;
nearly seven hundred years old when the REFORMATION of Luther began, and
seven hundred and twenty when the first English colony was planted in Virginia.
These facts are mentioned merely to give you some idea of the compass of a life which, like that of Methuselah, spanned nearly a millennium; and yet that life, the sacred historian CONDENSES INTO A SINGLE SENTENCE. Nay, more, the whole record of antediluvian history, embracing a period of over sixteen hundred years, from Adam to the Deluge, contains but twenty-seven names, twenty-three males and four females; and of one-half of these nothing is recorded but their names and the names of their first born.
How humbling is this view of HUMAN LITTLENESS! Swarming millions reduced to a few units, and the history of fifty generations condensed into six pages!
Now, though we may not live the twentieth part of the days of Methuselah — yet our stay on earth is sufficiently long to teach us something of the TRANSIENT, FLEETING, CHANGEFUL STATE OF BEING in which we exist. We may not see the mountains depart, nor nations fade away, nor cities crumble into ruins — but we see DEATH ever in our midst; CHANGE ever active in the pursuits around us. Nothing today, is as it was yesterday, or as it will be tomorrow; and yet the very FREQUENCY of these changes, is one great reason why we so little note them. Nor are we able to FEEL HOW TRANSITORY EVERYTHING IS, until we take two different points of observation, separated by an interval of years. Look upon the sun as long as you may, and you cannot see it move; and yet between the time you saw it in the morning, and the hour you beheld it in the evening — it has run nearly the circuit of the heavens!
Just so with life! Look back upon the CHANGES of the last ten years. Changes in yourselves, your fortunes, your position, your friends, your family. Changes in your town, your state, your country. Changes in the political, and moral, and religious aspect of things. Changes in business, in offices. In summary — changes everywhere; causing you to feel, in very truth, the VANITY OF EVERYTHING WITHIN AND AROUND YOU! For “the things which are SEEN are temporal,” and “the fashion of this world passes away.”
But my text also illustrates the VANITY OF LIFE. Life is not vain when viewed in its proper aspect — as the period of the soul’s discipline and probation — prior to an eternal state beyond the grave. But life is vain when regarded only in its TEMPORAL aspect. When life is looked upon as a STAGE, and its men and women as so many actors and players. When it is regarded as an ARENA where the contests of mental and physical strength are to be displayed. When conceived of in the light of an Epicurean philosopher, which says, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” — then life is vanity, and then does my text most forcibly illustrate it by showing that though that life is prolonged hundreds of years — yet the end is, “AND HE DIED!”
Now let us suppose that Methuselah, throughout his long life, had every joy and pleasure which his heart could desire; that he sought for all the delights of sense — and found them; that he courted FAME — and it came to his embrace; that he desired KNOWLEDGE — and obtained it; coveted GLORY — and it crowned his brow; asked for WEALTH — and it filled his coffers. Let us suppose that the glory, and wisdom, and riches of Solomon — were Methuselah’s all his days; but that his heart, absorbed in these things, never prepared itself for the hour of death, and then, at last, after the slow rolling by of nine hundred and sixty-nine years — death put his cold hand upon his heart, and laid him in the tomb.
Would you not, do you not say, that such a life is vanity? What are nine hundred and sixty-nine years of unalloyed joy — compared to the mighty roll of COUNTLESS AGES IN THE ETERNITY TO COME? What are nine hundred and sixty-nine years — to the mind of him who has declared that with him “a thousand years are as one day, and one day as a thousand years?” What are nine hundred and sixty-nine years of joy — when it is passed as “a watch of the night,” or as a DREAM from which the soul wakes — to a doleful eternity?
Those two words, “HE DIED,” at the end of all these records of longevity, tell, in startling language, that life, at the best, at the longest, is vanity!
But, coming down from these antediluvian days to the present time, let your attention rest for a little while on a few pertinent examples of this solemn, but little considered truth.
Take the HERO. The man who has made his name lustrous with deeds of fearless valor; who has seen the grim and deadly front of war; who has borne off victory from his every battle-field; who has won applause from kings and senates and nations; whose name is synonymous with all that is great or glorious in the annals of military renown. Surely, the heart beats with increased pulsation as you look upon such a man. You gaze with admiration upon his person. You recount his martial prowess and his hundred conquests — and you lift up your voice with the voice of your fellows in paeans of praise to the heroic chieftain.
Is his life vanity? Yes! Why? Because it is written at the end of his life, “AND HE DIED!” — and his honors were all left on this side the grave! There are no martial glories or crowns of laurel, in the eternal world to which he goes.
Take the man who devotes his life to the pursuit of LEARNING. He obtains it. UNIVERSITIES strive to do him honor; the WISE acknowledge him as their leader; science presents to him her goodliest offerings; LITERATURE lays many a costly treasure at his feet, and WISDOM puts her hands upon his head to bless her favored child.
And is his life vanity? Yes! for “AND HE DIED!” is soon written upon his grave-stone — and “there is no knowledge, nor wisdom, nor device, in the grave where he goes.”
Look at the RICH man. His aim when he began life was to get wealth — and he has succeeded. His COFFERS are flowing over, his BARNS are filled with plenty, desire is satiated, and he says to himself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy — eat, drink and be merry!”
He gathers an unbroken family around his fireside; death seems to have been bribed off from visiting his domestic circle; his CHILDREN grow up beside him “like almug trees,” making the air redolent with the spicery of their flowering virtues. FRIENDS cluster around him; his name is as a charm in the marts of commerce, and he is hailed as lord of the exchange.
Is his life vanity? Yes! It is all summed up by the three words, “AND HE DIED!” — and the riches of earth are not counted RICHES in the world to come.
It matters not how you are regarded in your day and generation . . .
what HONORS are heaped upon you;
what PRAISES are awarded;
what EMINENCE you gain;
what WEALTH you possess!
Your life is vanity — if it has passed without seeking the salvation of your soul. It is the SOUL that alone gives life a value above that of the beasts which perish; and just in proportion as the soul is neglected — is life to no purpose — except to increase your condemnation when the words, “AND HE DIED!” shall be spoken over your coffin!
Give me a hope of acceptance by Christ, and, though you take from me everything else — life is not vain, but is full of glory! Take that hope from me, and give me everything else that the mind can conceive, or the heart desire — and life is vanity — of no purpose but to sink me deeper in eternal woe, by so much the more as I am elevated on earth. I would not barter a well-founded hope of pardon through the blood of Christ — for all the wealth that can be coined from every gold mine of the earth!
For all the HONORS which can cluster around the BROW OF FAME;
for all the LEARNING that can be stored up in the MIND OF WISDOM;
for all the GLORY that could flash from the concentrated crowns of a thousand Solomons
— one little hope, linking the soul to Christ by the GOLDEN THREAD OF FAITH — is richer, more glorious, more honorable than all.
There is no vanity in life — when devoted to God.
Life is all vanity — when not devoted to God.
And while to the WORLDLING the words “AND HE DIED,” close to him the door of joy, and open upon the portal of everlasting woe — to the believer in Jesus, those little words shut behind him the cares and trouble of this mortal life, and throw wide open before him those gates of pearl through which the Christian pilgrim enters into the golden streets of the Celestial City!
Praise the Lord!