“He being dead, yet speaketh.”
A sermon delivered to the Reformed Presbyterian Congregation, Great Hamilton Street, Glasgow, Feb. 9, 1862, being the Sabbath after the funeral of their late pastor, the Rev. William Symington, D. D., Professor of Systematic Theology to the Reformed Presbyterian Church, by the Rev. James M’Gill
To Mrs. Symington, the beloved and worthy partner through life of him whose memory we revere and cherish, this discourse is, with most sincere Christian regard and sympathy, respectfully inscribed by her old and attached friend, the author.
“By faith – he being dead, yet speaketh.” – Heb ix. 4
We are met to-day in circumstances of profound interest, and of very deep and mournful solemnity. This congregation has lost its senior Pastor; our Theological Seminary has lost its most distinguished minister; and this city has lost one of its brightest ornaments.
The comparative suddenness of this stroke, arrests our attention. Only a few weeks ago, he whom we now mourn, appeared among you in all his usual health and vigour, seemingly as full of life and warmth and energy, as in the fresh days of his youthful ministry. We can scarcely, even yet, realize, in all its sad certainty, the calamity that has befallen us. Even now, although we know that more than ten days have elapsed since his eyes were closed in death, we can scarcely help asking if it is indeed a reality, and not some strange and terrible dream. But, alas! The mournful fact is only too apparent; its tokens are around us on every side. He whom you so loved and revered, and on whose instructions you were so delighted to wait, has indeed departed; and you will never see his face, or hear his well-known voice, any more in this world. But it is our consolation that the Lord reigneth. He that is holy hath done it, and blessed by His name. Let us be humbled under His mighty hand; and let us ask the aid and direction of His Holy Spirit as, with fear and trembling, we endeavour to make some improvement of this most afflictive and sorrowful dispensation.
Our text refers to Abel, who, by faith, offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain; whose faith received the testimony of the Divine approbation, and qualified him to be the teacher of all coming generations. “Being dead, he yet speaketh.”
There are two things in our text to which we would invite your attention: - First, there is the fact of death; and, Secondly, there is the circumstance that, although the believer dies, he yet continues to speak to us.
[After expositing the text, M’Gill went on to make the following remarks about the congregation’s recently deceased pastor]
You anticipate, my dear hearers, the relation of these remarks, to the circumstances in which we are this day placed. You do not need to be told that your revered pastor, now deceased, does, in all these ways, still speak to us. Besides his numerous contributions, from first to last, to the religious periodical literature of the day, he was, and from his position could not but be, often requested to preach sermons on public occasions. Many of the discourses delivered on such occasions were issued from the press; and most of them were republished several times. They are in your hands, and as you now re-peruse them with deep and mournful interest, you will perhaps see more in them than you ever say before; you will fancy you hear the very accents in which they were delivered; and you feel that it is something far more than a fancy to regard him as still speaking to you. His volume on the “Atonement and Intercession of Jesus Christ,” and its companion, entitled “Messiah the Prince,”, are among the standard theological works of the country and will continue to instruct Christians and students of Divinity long after we have been gathered to our fathers. It is not for me to anticipate the future, but I shall perhaps be forgiven for expressing the belief, that in the many years preparations of such lectures, sermons and addresses of all kinds as you have been accustomed to hear, regularly from this pulpit, and frequently from the platform and in the lecture-room, there must be materials for many a precious volume which the Christian public would not willingly lose.
And oh! my hearers, how many the words that have been spoken from this pulpit – words earnest, powerful, full of instruction, of warning, of expostulation, of encouragement – words of Christian love and tenderness, which you can never forget. As often as you recall them, they remind you of the ability and fidelity of him by whom they were spoken; but still more they continue to bring before you that great Saviour, whom it was his privilege and his delight to exhibit and to press upon your acceptance. Many of the well-remembered words of your late pastor will continue to speak to you as you journey through life – will warn you in the hour of temptation – will comfort you in the time of trouble, and by the blessing of God, may sustain you in your dying moments. The Gospel which he preached is the “power of God unto salvation.”
Of the enduring works accomplished by your late pastor, and by which he still speaks, what shall I say? To witness the effect of his labours, we have not far to go. One great effect is now before us, in the prosperity of this large congregation – with all its influence, and agencies, and schemes of Christian usefulness. “Ye are his epistle; known and read of all men.” And will not the last day declare that this congregation contains many who are the seals of his ministry – many who will be his joy and his crown? “Are not ye his work, in the Lord?”
Although most kindly requested by his colleague and family, to appear before you here to-day, I would not have presumed to attempt this most solemn duty had I not possessed the one qualification for it to which I can lay claim – that, namely, of being very intimately acquainted with his earlier career, and of having felt and witnessed the great power of his influence throughout his whole course. I have a very lively recollection of his settlement in his former charge, now nearly forty-three years ago. The services of that day were chiefly conducted by his late revered brother, Professor Symington of Paisley, in the presence of a vast assembly in the open air. The tall and elegant figure of the youth, who, on that solemn day, received his ordination vows, deeply impressed with the responsibility of the arduous office he was undertaking, is still vividly before me. A most warm and hearty welcome did he receive from the people, who were justly proud of their young minister. The name he bore was, even then, well known and honoured throughout the Church. The people expected much, and they were not disappointed. Well do I remember the remarks of the rural patriarchs of those days – men of godliness and integrity – familiar with their Bibles, well read in the olden divinity, and well instructed by their previous pastors – as on the evening of Sabbath after Sabbath they travelled on foot to their distant homes – recalling with grateful and admiring affection, the rich and eloquent discourses to which they had just listened. By refreshing each other’s memories with the previous truths they had been hearing, they easily beguiled the length of the journey. These discourses were to myself, as they were to many others, the chief source of mental stimulus, and of spiritual instruction, at that most important period of life when the character is being formed.
The congregation over which he was placed rapidly increased in numbers. A new and larger pace of worship had to be provided. An impulse was given to the cause of religion in the whole district. A relish for evangelical preaching was widely and rapidly diffused, which not only caused his own church to be densely crowded, but which led to the erection of new churches, and the settlement of additional ministers, in other denominations as well as our own. Bible and missionary and educational societies, libraries and Sabbath schools, sprig up in the town and neighbourhood. A mighty power was felt to be at work. In short, what in those days Dr. Chalmes was to Glasgow, and Dr. Andrew Thomson to the west end of Edinburgh, that in many respects was your late pastor in Wigtonshire and Galloway.
Of the work he has done in this great city, I need not speak. You know with what power he has preached the gospel within these walls for nearly twenty-three years. You know with what enthusiasm the audiences of this vast community were accustomed to greet his appearance in their halls, whenever any great and important question was about to be discussed. You know how his eloquence used to command and sway the mighty multitude. And you know that the great power which he exercised, was ever employed on the side of righteousness and truth, and mercy.
And assuredly your late pastor continues to speak to us, by his character and life. I refer not to his lofty endowments – his singularly well-balanced mind – his clear perception of truth – his marvellous power of presenting it in the most luminous and impressive form, or to the extraordinary degree in which he combined great powers of observation, piercing discernment of character, and sound practical judgment, with metaphysical acumen and abstract thought. I would rather point to those other qualities in which all, and especially the young, may, by the blessing of God, hope in some degree to follow his example – to his love of order – the perfect regularity of all his habits – his accuracy and diligence – his careful and conscientious improvement of time, never in haste, never forgetting anything – his ceaseless activity, always performing a vast amount of labour. These qualities were continually operating on those around him. His vary appearance was enough to shame away from his presence, everything like sloth, or idleness, or disorder, or the slovenly performance of any kind of duty.
As a preacher he had no equal in our own Church, and very few equals in any other – in the beautiful arrangement of his discourses – the transparent clearness of his statements – the elegance and force of his language – the warmth and earnestness of his appeals – accompanied by that complete command of his subject which arose from habits of perfect preparation.
As a theological professor he was eminently qualified to impart a healthful stimulus to the young men under his care. His acquaintance with theology was accurate and profound. His lectures, full of soil instruction, lucidly and eloquently expressed, were the fruit of many years study, and of extensive acquaintance with Christian literature. If these lectures are ever given to the world, they will, we are persuaded, prove the most complete system of Calvinistic theology that has yet appeared. His ready and warm sympathy with the feelings and aspirations of the youthful mind, qualified him to be the guide, counsellor, and friend of his students.
His house was ever the abode of hearty and generous hospitality. His fund of wit and humour – which imparted a charm to his private intercourse, and gave a zest to many of his public appearances – was under the habitual regulation of strictly conscientious feeling, and of high Christian principle; and, except where there was folly or vice to chastise, his irony was innocent and playful. Cultivation constant familiarity with the Word of God, and maintaining habitual communion with his Saviour, there was yet nothing about him of mere sanctimoniousness; - but no one could know him without feeling that he was living a life of faith and prayer.
There seemed a rational probability that his life would yet be spared to the church for a good many years. His thoroughly well regulated mind and his perfect habits of order had enabled him to go through, with success and apparent safety, an amount of work under which almost any other man would have broken down. But the most laborious part of his work was accomplished – his eldest son had most appropriately been appointed his colleague and successor – his health for the last twelve months had seemed even better and more vigorous than formerly; and there appeared a fair prospect that he would yet live to train many youths for the holy ministry, and to give the benefit of his wisdom and experience to his brethren in the various courts of the Church, and in those committees which have the direction of her missionary schemes; and perhaps, also, to prepare for the press many of the valuable writings that had accumulated under his hand.
But our heavenly Father, who doeth all things well, has ordered it otherwise. Nor does it become us to repine. He lived to perform a great work. He was privileged to see his family grow up happy and prosperous – two of his sons following his steps in the ministry – and all his children comfortably settled in life. He was permitted the great privilege of continuing in the active service of his Master till the very end of his days. It is just four weeks since he preached his last sermon to you on the words, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed.” – Lam. Iii. 22. You had no idea then of what was approaching, although the attack which proved so fatal had commence two days before. On getting home from the church he retired to his bed, from which he did not again rise, except for a very short time on the mornings of Monday and Tuesday.
On the evening of the following Thursday, he had an engagement to lecture to a young men’s society. This duty was performed for him by his youngest son who, hearing of his indisposition, had come to him from Dumfries. On Friday morning he requested his son to pray with him, he was asked what portion of scripture he would like to have read, and he mentioned the Twenty-fifth Psalm.
It is the opinion of those who knew him best, that he himself anticipated death from the first, but avoided saying so, that he might not alarm his family, and especially he beloved partner, whose own health was exceedingly delicate. One little circumstance, trifling in itself, yet very characteristic, and indicating the state of his feelings, I may perhaps be forgiven for repeating. Shortly after the commencement of his illness, he requested that some small accounts should be brought to him, mentioning with his usual accuracy, the place where they were to be found. He ordered them to be settled. He said nothing then or afterwards of his reason for so doing; but it is not doubted that – like a wise and composed Christian, not knowing whether he should ever rise from his bed of sickness- he wished to set his house in order even in the smallest matters, to have everything ready for his departure, and to die – should such be the appointment of God – owning no man anything. Indeed it is believed that, for some time before, he had a presentiment that his end was approaching. Not that he was depressed in spirits – for he always retained his natural buoyancy and cheerfulness – but the tone of his conversation, at times, impressed more than one of his friends with the painful apprehension, that he was thinking of his work on earth as drawing to a close. To himself this was no gloomy prospect.
On one occasion he asked his son regarding the revival in Dumfries, and inquired as to the great joy and assurance which young converts were said to have sometimes expressed. This led to some little conversation respecting the comforts of religion. His son referring to the words of the Psalmist (Psa. Xxxv. 3) “Say unto my soul, I am thy salvation.” Ventured to remark that believers still need God to say to them “I am thy salvation.” He replied, “I think if I were to be taken away in this illness, I could exercise a calm confidence in the Redeemer.” About the same time a warmly attached member of the congregation, in whose Christian character he had entire confidence, called to see him, and being admitted to his chamber, he conversed with him on the subject of being ready to depart. He then requested that he and his wife should, that day, set apart an hour for special prayer in his behalf, adding, “I have had, last night and this morning, very sweet meditations on the glories of the heavenly state”.
His eldest son, your now remaining and beloved pastor, who, some weeks before, had been obliged to leave home on account of his health, hastened to see him as soon as he knew there was danger and found him labouring under considerable oppression, but able to ask after his health, and to express, quite distinctly, how glad he was at his return. His family were now all near him; but strict orders had been given that he was to be kept in a state of perfect quietude, and this prevented anything like sustained conversation with any of them. Up till the morning of the Sabbath before his death, they clung to the hope that he might not be taken from them; but on the evening of the following day – the very time when this congregation was assembled for special supplication in his behalf – the sad truth became obvious that his end was approaching. Indeed, the event seemed nearer than it proved.
During the night of Monday the 27th, and till about five o’clock on Tuesday morning, his wife and family had repeated interviews with him. He was still able to recognise them, and to ask that they would pray with him. His broken words, overheard from time to time, indicated that he was much in the exercise of prayer; and he had a firm and undisturbed trust in that living Saviour whom he had so often and so earnestly recommended to others. Notwithstanding great difficulty of utterance, he responded, by words or by signs, to many texts of Scripture that were quoted in his hearing. When the words were repeated – “Our soul waiteth for the Lord; He is our help and shield,” – (Psalm xxxiii. 20,) – he distinctly said – “my help, and my shield.” To the words – “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory,” – 2 Cor. iv. 17,) – he responded by repeating the concluding words – “Eternal weight of glory.” And the last words he was heard to utter were – “There remaineth, therefore, a rest to the people of God.” – (Heb. iv. 9) He lingered till half-past three in the afternoon, when he breathed his last, without a struggle or a sigh. His end was perfect peace. All who were present at that death-bed scene, and who witnessed the calm and noble expression that came over his features after life had fled, unite in declaring that the impressions of that hour can never be effaced.
To the kind and skilful medical gentlemen who attended him he was much attached, complying cheerfully with all their directions. Indeed, from first to last, not a murmur or word of impatience of any kind escaped him. It may be satisfactory to his sorrowing people to know, that the examination which afterwards took place proved that no professional aid of any kind could have restored him; and that every thing had been done which medical solicitude and skill could do to save his valuable life.
Thus passed away this great and good man. He rests from his labours, and his works do follow him. “Being dead, he yet speaketh.” His life speaks to us – his death also speaks. They call upon us to work while it is day – to realise eternity as near at hand – to be prepared at any moment for our departure – and to cling more closely than we have ever done to that Great Shepherd, brought again from the dead – the High Priest who ever liveth; – who will convert our sorrow into joy, and our calamities into blessings. Oh, if such effects shall indeed result from this sore bereavement, our present loss shall be unspeakable gain.