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THE SHORTENING OF HUMAN LIFE.
DEATH OF DEACON PETER WHITING, DECEMBER 9, 1805, IN HIS 60TH YEAR.
I am deprived of the residue of my years. -- IBAIAH, xxxviii. 10
These are the words of Hezekiah, who was a man of strict integrity and extensive usefulness. We read, “ Hezekiah began to reign when he was five and twenty years old, and he reigned nine and twenty years in Jerusalem. And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done.” This beautiful miniature of his character is followed by a more minute detail of his public services. He is represented as employing his power and influence, in repairing and purging the temple, in restoring the public worship of God to its former purity, in calling the whole kingdom together to keep the passover, and in bringing about a general reformation of religion. “And thus," says the inspired historian, “ did Hezekiah throughout all Judah, and wrought that which was good and right and truth, before the Lord his God. And in every work that he began in the service of the house of the Lord, and in the law, and in the commandments to seek his God, he did it with all his heart, and prospered.” But after he had done all these things, it pleased God to visit him with a severe disease, which immediately threatened him with the loss of life. And to increase his apprehensions, the prophet came to him, and in the name of the Lord admonished him to prepare for a dying hour. “ In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amos, came unto him, and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, set thine house in order: for thou shalt die and not live.” Such a solemn admonition deeply impressed his mind, and led him to call upon God to remember him in mercy, and regard the sincerity of his heart. 66 Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed unto the Lord, and said, Remember now, O Lord, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in truth, and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight. And Hezekiah wept sore." This prayer God graciously heard, and added fifteen years to his life. But though he recovered his health, yet he wished to retain some of those serious thoughts which passed in his mind, while he lay, in his own apprehension, on the borders of eternity; and for this purpose he committed them to writing. As he was hardly forty years old when he was taken sick and expected to die, so he deeply lamented being called off from the stage of action before he had reached even the meridian of life. “I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave. I am deprived of the residue of my years." Though for certain reasons God did not inflict this dreadful evil upon Hezekiah, yet for as good reasons he has inflicted it upon many others, from age to age. Accordingly, the words of the text naturally suggest this general observation:
That God deprives many of the human race of the residue
of their years.
I shall first consider when God does this; and then inquire why he does it.
I. Let us consider when God deprives any of mankind of the residue of their years. The text and the doctrine suppose that he does not shorten the lives of all men, but allows some to live in the world until they have completely filled their days. It is, therefore, worthy of serious consideration when he does, properly speaking, diminish or curtail the lives of any of our dying race. Here I would observe,
1. That God deprives all those of the residue of their years, whom he calls out of the world before they have reached the limits of life which are to be found in scripture. Sacred history assures us, that the lives of men were once protracted to a much greater length than they are now, or have been for many ages past. About the time of Moses, the common period of life was reduced down to the short space of seventy or eighty years. Hence he says in his funeral psalm, “ The days of our years are three-score years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be four-score years; yet is their strength, labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away." This is generally the full measure of a useful life. Mankind often retain both their bodily and mental vigor till they are seventy years old, so as to be capable of serving both God and their generation with a good degree of activity and zeal. But after this stage in life, they are commonly subject to those infirmities of body and mind which always destroy or weaken their active powers and faculties. Now, since the scripture allows mankind to extend their hopes of a useful life to the term of threescore years and ten, we may justly consider all those as deprived of the residue of their years, who die in infancy, or in childhood, or in youth, or in any period of life short of seventy. Hezekiah undoubtedly numbered his days according to this scriptural standard, when he expected to be deprived of the residue of his years. He had hoped to live as long as he could be useful in the world; but when he was told that he must die at forty, he regretted the loss of thirty years, which he had sincerely intended to employ in the service of God, and for the good of his people. And who is there now, in health, among the young and middle-aged, who does not desire, and in some measure expect, to reach that period of life, to which the scripture allows him to extend his hopes of living? Whenever, therefore, God sends death to any such person, he disappoints his hopes, and deprives him of the residue of his years.
2. God deprives all those of the residue of their years, whom he calls out of the world before they have reached the bounds of life fixed by providence. Though the scriptures limit life to seventy or eighty years, yet providence often extends it to a longer period. And the expectations of mankind are greatly governed by the ordinary course of providence. What God has done frequently, they very naturally expect he will do again. He has frequently lengthened out life to eighty-five, ninety, ninety-five, and even to a century of years.
These limits of life are as firm a foundation of hope, as those which are fixed by scripture. As the young have a right to number their days by scripture, so the aged have a right to number their days by providence.
Those who are eighty or ninety years old, have still ground to hope that God will lengthen their days, and give them to experience more of his goodness in the land of the living. There are some such aged persons now alive, who enjoy a large measure of health, of strength, and of activity, and have a fair prospect of living ten or twenty years longer. And should any of these be suddenly cut down by disease or accident, they would be deprived of the residue of their years, which they had anticipated, according to the course of divine providence in fixing the limits of life to the aged. It may be farther observed,
3. That even those are deprived of the residue of their days, who die before they have reached the bounds of life which are imposed by the laws of nature. Nature sets bounds to every kind of life in this world. By the laws of nature all vegetables VOL. III.
spring up, flourish, and increase to a certain degree, and then gradually decline, decay and die. And by the same regular operations of nature, all kinds of animals grow in strength, activity and magnitude, till they come to years of maturity, and gradually decay, and drop into the dust. Just so the laws of nature absolutely limit the lives of men. The seeds of mortality are implanted in their constitution. Their bodies must, according to a fixed law, return to the dust from which they were taken. All, therefore, who die by sickness, or accident, or violence, or any other cause than the course of nature, are really deprived of the residue of their days.
As we are not perfectly acquainted with the laws of nature, so we cannot absolutely determine that any of those who are dead did actually reach the natural bounds of life. We may, however, form some conjecture upon this subject, by the very few instances of those who have lived an hundred and twenty, or thirty, or forty, or fifty years. So far we know the course of nature may extend the bounds of life, and so far, perhaps, it would always extend the bounds of life, if it were not obstructed by either sickness, violence, or casualty. Hence we have great reason to conclude that God has most commonly deprived mankind of the residue of their years, and never allowed one in a thousand or a million of the human race to reach the bounds of life which nature has set. Let us now inquire,
II. Why God thus shortens the lives of men, and cuts off their expected years. Notwithstanding the sentence of mortality which he passed upon mankind in consequence of their first apostacy, he might have carried them all to old age, and brought them to the grave as a shock of corn fully ripe in its season. But as he has never done this in time past, so we have little reason to expect that he ever will do it in time to come. There is a strong probability, if not a moral certainty, that he will continue to sweep off myriads and myriads of mankind, before they have filled their days, and reached the natural bounds of life. Let us then seriously inquire why he deprives so many of our mortal race of the residue of their years, and suffers them not to enjoy a longer term to prepare themselves and others for their future and eternal state. Though his ways are above our ways and his thoughts above our thoughts, yet we may discover some plain and important reasons for his executing the sentence of mortality in such a sovereign manner.
1. He may deprive men of the residue of their years, to teach the living that he is not dependent upon them in the least degree. Though he can and does employ them in his service, yet he can lay them aside whenever he pleases, and carry on his designs without their aid or assistance. There are no children, nor youths, nor men, so promising or useful, but he can cut them down, and still accomplish his own purposes and promote his own glory, while they are sleeping in the dust. He undoubtedly threatened to call Hezekiah from the stage of life, in the midst of his days and of his usefulness, to teach him and others that he was not dependent upon his life or services, in order to fulfil the designs of his providence. And whenever he shortens the lives of his most faithful and useful servants here on earth, he proclaims by his conduct, that he has no farther service for them to do in this state of existence. This important truth he could not so clearly and sensibly impress upon the minds of men, if they were all permitted to fill their days, and leave the world by the course of nature. But when he cuts down so many in the morning of life, and in the midst of their most vigorous exertions and benevolent designs, he solemnly impresses that important truth upon all, which Eliphaz endeavored to impress upon Job : “ Can a man be profitable unto God, as he that is wise may be profitable unto himself ? Is it any pleasure to the Almighty, that thou art righteous ? Or is it gain to him, that thou makest thy ways perfect?" God is a supreme, independent sovereign; and it becomes him to make all the inhabitants of the earth realize his sovereignty and independence, by giving them an ocular demonstration, that he can manage any of the concerns of this world, without their efforts or coöperation.
2. God may deprive men of the residue of their days, to teach mankind their constant and absolute dependence upon himself. They are extremely inclined to forget that they are supported and preserved, every moment, by his powerful visitation. And their forgetfulness arises in a great measure from the consideration of the general bounds of life, which scripture, providence and nature, have set. To these well-known periods they naturally extend their views, their desires, and their expectations. But to make them sensible that they still live, and move, and have their being, in himself, God continually deprives one, and another, and much the largest portion of mankind, of the residue of their years. He has not put them out of his own hand, by letting them know the utmost limits of life. Notwithstanding these limits, he has an absolute right to lengthen or shorten their lives, at his pleasure. They are just as liable to be cut down in any stage of life, as if there were no common boundaries fixed, beyond which they could not pass without a miracle. Though they have reason to believe that a few of mankind will live to three-score years and ten, and a fewer still arrive to eighty or ninety years, yet no individual in