Lectures to Young People
William B. Sprague, 1830
DANGER OF A LIFE OF PLEASURE
"Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment." Ecclesiastes 11:9
A more cutting and solemn piece of irony than is contained in this passage, is, perhaps, not to be found, either in or out of the sacred volume. The wise man, in the first part of the verse, assumes the character of a mirthful and thoughtless libertine; and in the true spirit of a libertine, counsels the youth whom he is addressing, to give himself up to an unrestrained course of amusement and dissipation. He bids him abandon all serious thoughts of God, and eternity, and true religion. He welcomes him to the joys of an irreligious and profligate life; and gives him all the liberty which any sensualist could desire.
Having so far represented the wicked seducer and destroyer of the young, he suddenly lays aside his assumed character, and with all the solemnity of a preacher from the world of spirits, closes the verse, in a style of the most impressive admonition. The same young person, whom he had just before pointed into the path of forbidden pleasure, he now points to the final judgment; and alludes, with solemn emphasis, to that tremendous reckoning, which must follow such a life as he had recommended. "Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment."
Our subject, at once, lays itself before you. In the first part of the text, there is the ironic invitation to partake of sinful pleasure: in the latter part, the solemn admonition to remember the judgment. Let us endeavor, so far as we can, to enter into the spirit of both parts of the passage.
1. An IRONIC INVITATION"Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see"—almost the very language by which many youth at the present day are tempted into the path of forbidden pleasure. Coming from the lips of the sensualist, it is no irony; it is the honest language of his heart; and he rejoices when it is listened to and obeyed.
Hear the sentiment contained in these words, a little expanded—"You are now in the morning of life—the season most free from worldly care, and most adapted to worldly pleasure. However it may be with middle life, or old age, when the vigor of the body is spent, or the animal spirits have grown cool—certainly your youth is not the time for true religion. You were made to enjoy life; but true religion is only a course of mortification and penance; it is the bondage both of soul and body—the grave of all that is bright and goodly in the lot of man. Resist, then, the claims of true religion, at least for the present. If you should think it fit to beckon her to you in your last hour, as a companion through the dark valley, be it so; but while these years of youthful buoyancy are passing off, make no league with this 'damper of human joy'. Come with us into these scenes of mirth and revelry, in which reflection is drowned, and restraint is not known; and here let your heart be glutted with pleasure. What if, after having devoted hours to amusement, the thought should occur to you, while in the solitude of your chamber, that all that you had enjoyed was vanity? Endeavor to convince yourself of the contrary, by thinking how happy you were while you were listening to the festive song, or while you were dancing to the sound of the music. What if the open grave of some beloved friend should bring into your mind the gloomy thought of dying? Banish it as an intruder upon the joys of life; and think how useless it is to trouble yourself about what is inevitable. What if the thought should occur to you, while at the gaming table, or in scenes of profane and boisterous riot, that you have beloved friends who would weep blood, if they should know where you are, and how you are engaged? But what right have friends to abridge your pleasure, so long as you are willing that they should judge what is best for themselves, and you attempt no interference with their plans for enjoyment? In a word, let it be your grand object to drink as deeply at the fountain of worldly pleasure, as you can; and as the hours of this golden season whirl off, let there be no inquiry agitated in your bosom more gloomy, than how you shall crowd into each hour the largest amount of careless gaiety or sensual indulgence."
But, my young friends, I dare not proceed farther in this strain of irony, which is suggested by my text, lest some of you should forget that it is irony, and should begin to think that you have found an advocate for your youthful vanities. I pass therefore immediately to the other part of the subject, in which I am to enforce:
2. The SOLEMN WARNINGcontained in the closing part of the text. "But know that for all these things, God will bring you into judgment." What an awful contrast is here presented to the language of the libertine, to which we have just been attending!
Reflect on the certainty of your being brought into judgment. "Know!" says the wise man; that is, "be assured that the fact of which I speak, shall take place, without the possibility of failure." God has not left himself without witness on this subject, either in the constitution of our nature, or in the dispensations of his providence. The doctrine of a future judgment is written more or less legibly on the conscience of every man; else, how will you account for that painful restlessness which attends the remembrance of crimes long since committed, and the record of which is kept only in the perpetrator's own bosom? Moreover, the unequal distribution of rewards and punishments in the present life, in connection with the immutable justice of God—seems to constitute a ground of necessity for a future retribution; for in what other way shall the divine character be vindicated from the charge of partiality? But if reason has not spoken with sufficient distinctness on this subject, you cannot say that of the lively oracles; for here the doctrine stands written with God's own finger in letters of light. The text is decisive on this subject—"For all these things, God will bring you into judgment." And again: "God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." And again: "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive the things done in his body, according to that he has done, whether it be good or bad."
The evidence that you are to be brought into judgment, then, is complete. Whether you take counsel of reason, or hold communion with conscience, or open the volume of God's truth, this evidence glares upon you. Forget it you may; trifle with it you may; but the solemn fact you cannot change. I charge you then to remember, wherever you go, or whatever you do—that there is a tremendous reckoning before you. Go, if you dare, into the haunts of irreligious mirth, and hear God's name profaned, and join in heaping scandal upon the cross; go and hear the scoffer ask, "Where is the promise of his coming?" and let your heart overflow with sensual joy. But remember that other scenes await you; remember that it has gone out of the mouth of Him who is "the same yesterday, today, and forever"—that you are yet to be brought into judgment!
Contemplate the purpose for which you are to be brought into judgment—"For all these things," says the wise man; that is, the things specified in the preceding part of the verse—giving yourself up to a life of vanity and pleasure. You will be brought into judgment for the waste of your time; for every hour and moment which shall have been devoted to other purposes than those for which your time was given you. You will be brought into judgment for all your profane and idle discourse, which was fitted at once to affront your Maker, and to pollute your own mind, and close it against serious reflection. You will be brought into judgment for every scene of vain amusement; for every meeting for sensual excess; for every effort to stifle conscience and forget God. You will be brought into judgment for all that you have done in corrupting others; for the deadly poison which has distilled from your lips, and from your example, operating like the blast of death, wherever it has been communicated; for that fearful amount of sin and wretchedness which will have resulted from the accumulating influence of your life on many successive generations. In a word, for all that belongs to a life of pleasure, whether it respect action or enjoyment, its more immediate or more remote influences—you will be brought into judgment.
How differently will a life of sinful pleasure appear to you, when you come to view it in the light of the judgment, from what it does now, while your heart cheers you in the days of your youth! What you here plead for as innocent—will then be seen to have involved crimson guilt. What you here regard as fraught with no danger—will there be felt to have contained the elements of a heavy curse. What you here treat with levity as though it were a dream or a fable—will there gather all the importance that belongs to an appalling reality. How will your heart sicken, and your spirit die within you, when the light of eternity reveals your mistake in respect to the object of the present life! With what emotions will you realize that the period which you have spent in trifling—was the only period given you to escape hell and to obtain heaven!
Consider, farther, by WHOM you are to be brought into judgment. The text asserts that "God will bring you into judgment"—God, from whom came all the blessings which you have perverted to purposes of sinful pleasure; and against whom every sin that you have committed, has been an act of rebellion—God, whose heart-searching eye has always been intent upon you, noticing the birth, and progress, and accomplishment of every sinful purpose; who has been with you when you supposed yourself alone; and who has kept an exact record of all that you have thought, and spoken, and done—from the first moment of your existence—God, who, though long-suffering and gracious, is yet just and holy, and will by no means clear the guilty; who has all the means of punishment in the universe at his command, and can execute with infinite ease the penalty which his righteous authority ordains. And is this the great and dreadful Being, who is to bring you into judgment? Say, whether it will not be a fearful thing to fall into the hands of such a Judge?
Were your final retribution to be decided by a mere man, or a mere creature, you might suppose it possible that you should escape the woes which hang over your eternal destiny. You might hope something from his limited knowledge. Possibly he might not be acquainted with all your transgressions in all their aggravating circumstances; or he might form too low an estimate of the punishment which you deserve on account of them. Or you might hope something from his limited power. You might imagine that by some combination of energy or influence which could be formed, you might either resist the mandate which should summon you to judgment, or prevent the execution of the final sentence. Or you might presume upon the triumph of mercy over justice. You might hope that some appeal could be made to the heart of the Judge, which should lead him at least to abate the severity of your doom; even though such mitigation should tarnish his character, and weaken his government.
But surely you can form no such imaginations in respect to the infinite God! You cannot hope to evade the scrutiny of his eye, or to resist the might of his arm, or to awaken a blind and indiscriminate compassion in his heart. What though you may be courageous on every other occasion, yet can your heart endure, or your hands be strong—when you shall stand before the throne of Almighty power, beneath the searching look of Omniscience, to receive a just recompense for a life wasted in sinful pleasure?
Meditate on the time of your being brought into judgment. It would seem that the day of judgment, appropriately so called—the day which is to make a full revelation of the secrets of every heart, and to pour the light of a complete vindication over the character of God—is yet comparatively distant. There are purposes to be accomplished in the scheme of providence, preparatory to that grand occasion, which may require the lapse of ages. Nevertheless, there is an important sense in which it may be said that the judgment is near. The world into which the soul passes at death, is a world of retribution. Whatever means God intends ever to employ to bring the sinner to repentance, have been employed previous to that period: the first gleam of light from the eternal world reveals to the soul its destiny, which, though not yet published to the universe, is fixed by a decree which the whole creation could not change; and whatever the soul experiences, whether of joy or of woe, subsequently to that period, belongs to its everlasting retribution.
Dream not, then, my young friend, that the period of your being brought into judgment is remote. Will you presume upon youth as a security against it? So did that young man, who, the other day, was hurried into eternity, in the fullness of youthful vigor, and the bloom of youthful hope! Will you presume upon health as a security against it? Go, then, and read a lesson from yonder tombstone; and there you will find that a protracted sickness, and a lingering death-scene, are not the necessary accompaniments of dissolution. You will find that death may overtake you, while your hands are strung with vigor; and that your passage through the dark valley of death, may be the passage of a moment.
Or do you presume on promising worldly prospects? I could point you to many a father who would tell you weeping, that he once had a son whose prospects were, in every respect, as bright as yours; but that death had marked him as his victim, and he had sunk into an early grave.
Where, then, I ask, is your security against being early brought into judgment? When you go into a scene of amusement, how do you know, but that the summons may meet you there? When you mingle in the midnight revel, can you be certain that you are not passing the last hour of your probation? When you lay your head upon your pillow, without lifting your heart to God—who has given you the assurance that that is not the night in which your soul is to be required of you; that a voice from eternity may not break upon your ear amidst the stillness of midnight, calling you to judgment? But be it so that you should fill up seventy years—it would still remain true that you are on the threshold of the judgment. That period—long as it may now seem to you—is but as a hand's-breadth; while you are dreaming of its continuance, it will be spent, and your spirit will be rushing forth to meet its God.
And is it so, that the judgment is not only a reality—but that its amazing scenes are so soon to burst upon you? Tell me, then, O immortal soul, what account you are prepared to render of that wasted, perverted life, when you enter the invisible world, and stand before the dread tribunal?
Contemplate, moreover, the circumstances of your being brought into judgment. If you consider this expression as referring to the removal of the soul by death to a state of retribution, then the circumstances of this event must, in a great measure, remain concealed, until they are disclosed to you in experience. In respect to some of them, however, you may form at least a probable opinion. By the power of a burning fever, or the gradual inroads of some mysterious form of disease, you may expect before long to be laid upon the bed of death. It may be that, in that awful hour, you may be given up to delirium or insensibility, and may close your eyes upon the objects of sense without knowing where you are, or through what scenes you are passing. Or it may be that your rational powers will be active and bright, so that you will be conscious of all that happens to you in your passage through the dark valley. You may see around you beloved friends, who will alternately fasten upon you a look of mingled affection and agony, and turn away to smother the sobs which rise from a bursting heart. You may be sensible that the cold damps of death are already hanging upon your countenance; that the vital current is performing its last passage through your heart; that you are undergoing the convulsive struggle which is to dislodge the spirit from its clayey tabernacle.
And supposing that your life has been devoted to sinful pleasure, how probable is it that conscience will pour its accusations into your ears, and tell you of an offended Judge, and of coming wrath, and of interminable woe! How probable that the ghosts of wasted hours, and days, and years, will come up in frightful succession before you, as ministers of wrath, when you need so much to be attended by angels of consolation! Amidst some such assemblage of gloomy circumstances as I have now supposed, you may expect that your spirit will take its flight for the eternal world. And while your body is dressing for the grave, that spirit will be mingling in scenes of new and awful interest; and though it will have done with the agony attendant on the dissolution of the body, it will be convulsed by an agony far more dreadful—the beginning of a never-dying death! Oh what a moment will that be, when you shall first know by experience—the misery of the lost!
But if you consider the text as referring immediately to the great day of final decision; the circumstances which will attend your being brought into judgment, will be of a far different character from those which we have just described; and while, in the former case, we learn them principally from observation, in the latter, we derive our knowledge solely from the oracles of God. At the hour next previous to that in which the immediate preparation for the judgment shall commence, your body, dissolved into its original elements, will be slumbering with its kindred dust; and your spirit will be mingling with other lost spirits in the region of despair. Suddenly the skies will send forth a sound—it will be a blast of the trumpet of God, which will echo from one end of the earth to the other, bursting open the doors of every sepulcher, breaking up the slumbers of all their inhabitants, and re-collecting from the earth, the ocean, the air—the scattered dust of every child of Adam that shall have died since the creation. The union between body and spirit is restored—the same body that was laid in the dust, rises up to meet the same spirit which had animated it. The Judge descends from heaven, in the glory of his Father, and with all his holy angels; and around his throne are assembled all nations, and kindreds, and tongues, and people.
The righteous are placed in open, distinguished honor, at his right hand; the wicked, as a public proof of his indignation against their character, are summoned to the left. In this latter class—you, who have been devoted to sinful pleasure, will be found. There you will be obliged to contemplate the picture of your life, drawn only in black, without one bright stroke to relieve the eye from a uniform and sickening gloom. There you will be obliged, with all others who have been "lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God," to hear the appalling sentence, "Depart, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels!" Oh, when that piercing sound shall enter into your ear—will it not rend your heart with agony, and open your lips in wailing? For "who can stand before his indignation? And who can abide in the fierceness of his anger?"
Meditate, finally, on the consequences of your being brought into judgment. The consequence of your being summoned by death into a world of retribution—will be an entire separation from all the objects of sense, from all the means of grace, from all the hopes of salvation. You will remember, indeed, how you once mingled in scenes of unhallowed mirth and revelry; but with the remembrance of these scenes will be associated the reflection that they have gone by forever; while the effect of them remains to be felt in an interminable scene of anguish. You will think of sabbaths given you to prepare for heaven—but perverted to purposes of mere amusement: of invitations and warnings a thousand times pressed upon you—but as often treated with indifference or contempt; of friends who had come with the tenderest concern to speak to you of the things that belonged to your peace—but who returned to their closets mourning that they could gain no access to your heart. But you will be obliged also to reflect that there are no more sabbaths for you; that the last invitation of mercy, the last warning to repent, has died away upon your ear; that no Christian friend can come where you are, to unburden a full heart in prayers, and tears, and expostulations, for the salvation of your soul.
You may remember too, how, in all your mad pursuit of pleasure, you still clung to the hope of future repentance: but the delusion is broken up; even the atoning blood of Jesus can now no longer reach you. And while you are an exile from all the good, real or imaginary, which you once enjoyed—you will be subject to the corrosion of a guilty conscience, will be a companion of fiends and reprobates, and as you look forward into eternity, will see one woe rising after another, like the billows of the ocean, in a train that will never end!
The consequence of your being brought before the last tribunal, and of receiving a formal and final sentence from the lips of the Judge—will be still more tremendous. At the close of this dreadful transaction, you will behold, with a bewildered look of agony, all above, beneath, around—vaulted with the funereal fires of this great world! And when amidst this final wreck of nature, you look out for a refuge from the fiery storm, no refuge in the universe will be open for you, except that dungeon of woe, in which the wrath of God is to have its perpetual operation. Into that prison of the universe, that grave of lost but living souls, you will immediately enter; and there, in the hopelessness of unavailing anguish—there, amidst the curses and wailings of the lost—there, where the eye can fasten upon no object upon which the wrath of God has not fastened before it—you must run the dreary round of everlasting ages!
The sentence was, "Depart, you cursed, into everlasting fire." And is it so, that this prison is built for eternity—that these flames are kindled for eternity—that these bolts, and bars, and chains, bespeak an eternal residence in these vaults of despair? Will not some messenger come hither from yonder blissful regions, though it be ten thousand millions of ages hence—to tell you that this long night of suffering will yet be succeeded by a morning of peace and joy? No, sinner! There are no such tidings in store for you! You were sentenced there for a period as unlimited as the duration of God; and your sentence is irreversible!
I inquire now of the conscience of every youth present, who is devoted to sinful pleasure, whether these meditations upon the judgment, do not throw an aspect of terror over the course which he is pursuing; and whether he dare persist any longer in a course which must so certainly lead to such a dreadful result? If this life of vanity and pleasure had no connection with eternity—or if it were itself to be eternal, however pitiful a portion you might find in it—we might consent, with less reluctance, to leave you to your wretched choice. But connected as it is with a course of illimitable and unutterable suffering—do not wonder that we call upon you with pressing importunity to abandon it!
Do you ask whether you must abandon all the amusements of the world? I answer—Abandon all upon which you dare not ask the blessing of God—all which crowd out of your thoughts the realities of eternity—all which you are unwilling to think of in connection with the prospect of dying—all for which you would dread that God should bring you into judgment. Do you ask, again, what those amusements are in which you may safely indulge, while you are yet unreconciled to God? I reply—by asking what amusement you would choose if you were just ready to be enveloped in the flames of a burning house; or if you were under sentence of death, and had but one hour more, before you should ascend the scaffold? Do you spurn at the suggestion of trifling in circumstances like these? Then say not that we are superstitious when we tell you that you have no time to waste in amusement, while yet your whole work for eternity is before you, and for anything you can tell, each passing hour may be your last!
Do you plead for a single indulgence? Do you say, let me go into one more scene of vain recreation, and cheer my heart once more in these days of my youth, and then I will abandon the vanities of the world forever? My young friend, the very resolution is a cheat: but even if it were not, who has told you that that one scene of recreation may not occupy the whole period given you to prepare for eternity; and that you are not subjected to the alternative of turning your back upon it, or of certainly losing heaven? Is it rational—rather is it not the height of madness—to waste a single moment, while you are suspended between an eternal heaven and an eternal hell?
I leave this solemn subject, beloved youth, with your consciences. I entreat you to make a serious and practical application of it. I pray the God of all grace to bring it seasonably to your remembrance, and give it its legitimate influence over your feelings and conduct. But if all which has been said shall appear to you as an idle tale; if, after having been warned of the solemnities of the judgment, you are prepared to rush back to a course of sinful pleasure—then I must leave you with the same awful irony, and the same solemn admonition, with which I began this discourse. "Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment."
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