Rev. xiv. 13.
"And their works do follow them"
TO those who can read it aright, few books are more full of sublime comfort,—few books are more illuminated with the glory of a heavenly hope,—than the Revelation of St. John. To any one who reads this book with a quiet and truth-loving heart, it is full of the most unspeakable wisdom. Marvellous indeed was the vision unrolled before the eyes of him whose young head had rested on the bosom of the Lord! From the sulphurous mine, from the rugged island, from the loneliness of exile, from the convict's company and the felon's chain, he is raised into the very presence of the mightiest Immortalities; the glorious spectacle of innumerable multitudes sweeps before him, and the hymns of the highest heaven melt in their speechless sweetness upon his mortal ears. True it is that there are other scenes which he must witness;—the seven great plagues, and the seven vials full of wrath, the woe-trumpets, and the scorpion army, and Death riding on his livid horse, and the judgment of her who was drunken with the blood of the prophets, and " the hues of earthquake and eclipse." But mingled ever with these scenes of Retribution,— preceding and following and out-dazzling them,—are the visions of the Lamb and the Lion, and the white-robed, palm-bearing procession of happy human souls, and the crowned elders, and the victor angels, and Jerusalem the Golden descending out of heaven with its walls of jasper and gates of pearl. Fitly indeed do the melodies of this book rest last upon our ears; fitly does it close the gate of Revelation, which alone displays to man one brief glimpse of the glories of Paradise. When life is weary and sad, when sorrow and selfishness are oppressive, when aspirations wax feeble and hope grows faint, I know no book so well fitted as this dying strain of Revelation to raise, to ennoble, to purify, to cheer.
It is from one of these awfully intermingled visions that the words of my text are taken ; from that grand poem contained in the 14th chapter. First, amid voices like the sound of thunders and of many waters, St. John hears the voice of harpers harping with their harps,— the virgin multitude on whose forehead is the Lamb's seal; then an angel flies through the midst of heaven having the Everlasting Gospel in his hand; a second angel cries aloud, " Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great;" a third angel tells how the torment of them who worship the beast shall ascend like smoke for ever;—and then the end of the chapter is like a garment rolled and drenched in the blood of wrath; a crowned and awful figure is sitting on a white cloud, who thrusts his sharp sickle into the harvest, and wrings and tramples the blood of judgment from the purple clusters of earth until the horrid seas of blood are rolling for a thousand furlongs bridle-deep;—but in the very midst, between the denunciation and the vengeance, as though a dove were floating over the waves of that crimson deluge, a voice falls from heaven,—a sweet single voice like a falling star in a dark night, saying unto me, "Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth : Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them".
Ah ! how often have we heard those words as we laid our best-beloved under the sod.
There is perhaps no book from which we may learn so much about the condition of the dead as from the Book of Revelation. But after all it is but one little corner of the curtain that is lifted ; let those who will lift it more if they can, and strive to peer behind it. For us let it be enough that the dead, as well as the living, are in God's hand. I ask no more. I know no more. I pretend to know no more. For us too the veil shall be one day drawn, and we too shall know. Till then, as one who from the shore watches a friend sail away towards the sunset, and the vessel sinks behind a round of lighted sea, and the sacred darkness follows, even so we look after the dead, and know little or nothing of the new, strange regions which they have sought.
This verse calls us to consider the dead, not in their new condition, but in their immortal memory; not as what they are in death, but as what they were in life; and not the dead generally, but the dead who die in the Lord, that is, the noble dead. I say the noble dead, not the useless and the worthless dead,—" for the hope of the ungodly is like dust that is blown away with the wind; like a thin froth that is driven away with the storm; like as the smoke which is disturbed here and there with the tempest; but the righteous live for evermore, their reward also is with the Lord, and the care of them with the Most High".
And mark ! it says that they are blessed that they may rest from their labours. It does not contemplate the possibility of any dead, i. e. of any blessed dead, who have not laboured. He whose sweet voice fell from heaven, bearing comfort to the mourning souls of earth, He knew of none such. There are none such. " Sweet is rest when work is done." But if there have been no work there can be no rest. It was the first law that God gave in Eden, Work;—it is the last blessing that He utters, Enter, now that thy work is over, into thy rest. Here is thy place of work : the great garden of the earth to be tilled; the great vineyard of the earth to be tended, and its fruits rendered, and its waste places cleared. Work, till death release thee; then shalt thou have earned, thus only canst thou obtain, thus only couldst thou enjoy, thy rest. For the idle, for the useless, for the self-indulgent, there is no place in heaven. Dante says, "For not on downy plumes, or under shade Of canopy reposing, heaven is won".
O how pitiful, how dreary, how unutterably despicable will appear, when the end cometh, a life spent in doing nothing;—how dreary, when the end cometh, will appear the life of the worldling and the sluggard, the life of the unlit lamp and the ungirded loin, the life of the buried talent and the neglected vine !
"Their works do follow them." Not necessarily works which the world calls great; not necessarily works which the world ever hears of at all. What is there in the letters of a man's name being handed down here on earth if they be unforgotten by the Angel-witnesses? O my brethren, let us strive rather to be forgotten on earth, if thereby we may be remembered in heaven. I stood once in a little church in Rome, dedicated to St. Stephen, the earliest martyr, opened once a year only, on his day, and bearing on its frescoed walls the memory of that glorious Christian army who fell in the earliest persecutions. With but one or two exceptions their names are utterly unknown. Standing in such a place it was impossible not to think what work these men had done, and what reward they had received. What had they done ? They had " through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens;" in a word, they had Christianised the world. This is what they had done; and how had they been rewarded? By trial of cruel mock-ings and scourgings, by bonds and imprisonment, by being stoned, by being sawn asunder, by being tempted, by being slain with the sword,—by being destitute, afflicted, tormented,—in a word, by being obscurely huddled into malefactors' graves. Yet, standing in the very midst of those ghastly memorials of forgotten names, was it not possible to see that their honoured blood had been the seed of the Church;—that their monument was more perdurable than the very pyramids ;—that their works had followed them ? Against them were kings, and emperors, and armies,—the flame of the stake, and the wild beast of the arena, and the torture of the executioner; but God was for them, and His whole blue heaven was their shield, and though men obliterated their poor memories from every earthly record, and trampled out their lives with crushing scorn, all the powers of the banded universe were impotent against them whose names were written in the Book of Life.
Has all this nothing to do with ourselves ? Is it those only who are great, or those only who are splendidly good, whose works do follow them ? God forbid. What are among these works ? Are there not, as He Himself has told us, such little things as the widow's mite, and the cup of cold water given for His sake ? There is a greatness in unknown names, there is an immortality of quiet duties, attainable by the meanest of human kind; and when the Judge shall reverse the tables many of these last shall be the first. Do not be dazzled by the world's false judgments. The slave is often nobler than the sovereign, and the common soldier than the general. Yes, because they have done their obscure duty, their unknown, unnamed, unhonoured, unrewarded duty, because it is their duty, and done it well. Nor is it otherwise on the battle-field of life. There is, believe me, yet a higher and a harder heroism;—to live well in the quiet routine of life, to fill a little space because God wills it, ' to go on cheerfully with a petty round of little duties, little avocations; to accept unmurmuringly a low position ; to be misunderstood, misrepresented, maligned, without complaint; to smile for the joys of others when the heart is aching; to banish all ambition, all pride, and all restlessness in a single regard to our Saviour's work. To do this for a lifetime is a greater effort, and he who does this is a greater hero, than he who for one hour stems a breach, or for one day rushes onward undaunted in the flaming front of shot and shell. His works will follow him. He may not be a hero to the world, but he is one of God's heroes; and though the builders of Nineveh and Babylon be forgotten and unknown, his memory shall live, and shall be blessed, and he shall sit down before earth's noblest and mightiest at the marriage supper of the Lamb.
The Fall of Man, p. 200.