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fices of earth forever past, the welcome of the King extended to us, the rapture of acceptance thrilling our hearts, with what transports of joy shall we look upon the happy objects of our earthly charities, and with them join the procession of the glorified, which will move with triumphal anthems to the pearly gates and the golden streets of that city of God, where no poor shall be found, no inhabitant shall say, I am sick, no sufferer press the bed of death. O mammon of unrighteousness, we will make of thee friends in this scene of want, that when we fail they may receive us to everlasting habitations !
Go on, my friends of the Benevolent Society, go on in the fulfilment of your Christ-like mission. You reach a class of cases which are not touched by State provision, and are only met by such delicate offices as those which you discharge. You may seek no other reward than the privilege of expressing your love for your Savior, and the intrinsic gratification—the sweet satisfaction, which flows from abating human want; but for every pang you assuage on earth there may await you a joy in heaven, for every tear you wipe from the cheek of suffering, a smile from the face of your Lord.
THE SIGNS OF THE TIMES IN THE
Matt. xvi. 3: “O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times."
In these words, in which our Savior rebukes the Sadducees and the Pharisees, three things are taught: First, That as the signs of the weather are observable, so are the signs of the times: as there is a natural meteorology, there may be a sacred sematology; secondly, that we both have the right and are under obligation to observe the signs of the times: that in doing so we are not enthusiasts and fanatics, but discharge a legitimate and praiseworthy function; thirdly, that not to observe the signs of the times implies negligence and guilt. As every age has its own characteristic genius, dispositions and tempers, which we call the spirit of the times, and which no philosophic mind can afford to disregard, so there are peculiar signs that mark every religious period which no pious mind is at liberty to slight.
I. In considering this subject, let us first notice some of the prominent qualifications for a proper observation and discernment of the signs of the times, in their religious bearings.
NOTE. This sermon and the one following were first preached in the Second Presbyterian Church, now the Arsenal Hill Presbyterian Church, Columbia, S. C., on the Sabbath afternoons of January 31, and February 7, 1892. They were afterwards preached, probably as one sermon, in Manning, McClellanville, Mt. Pleasant, and Charleston, South Carolina, and in Savannah, Georgia.
1. Spiritual sagacity is required. Some sagacity, some sound common sense, some calm, solid, practical judgment is of fundamental importance in any attempt to discern the governmental, political, social signs of an age, viewed in their secular relations. Together with this quality should be associated some knowledge of the principles of human society and of the progress of historical events, so that one age may be compared with another in view of certain well-ascertained standards of appeal. So is it in the religious sphere. Some spiritual sagacity, some sanctified common sense, some practical judgment enlightened by the Holy Ghost, combined with some acquaintance with the truths of God's Word, the principles of the church as a supernatural society, and the development of ecclesiastical history, are necessary to scan the signs of the religious firmament, to institute a judicious comparison of our own times, religiously considered, with those which have now passed away. Without these qualifications for the study of the signs of the times we would be prone to superstition with its brood of erroneous conclusions. We should be in the moral and religious sphere like those in the natural, who construe an eclipse, an unusual conjunction of the planets, a shower of meteors, into a portent of some disastrous change in the order of nature. Especially ought there to be, in connection with these qualifications, a reverent, sober, devout study of the prophecies of Scripture. It has been sneeringly said in regard to unfulfilled prophecy, that “its study either finds men mad or leaves them so.” The answer to that profane jibe is the didactic statements of the Bible. “None of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand.” “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy,
and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.” “And he said unto me, These sayings are faithful and true: and the Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly be done. Behold, I come quickly: blessed is he that keepth the sayings of the prophecy of this book.” He that reads the prophecies on his knees, and has the eye of faith open to see, will understand what, instead of making him mad, will save him from the insane frenzy of a carnal indifference to the momentous issues of the future. It behooves us to be like "the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding to know what Israel ought to do.”
2. Thoroughness of observation is requisite. This is demanded in every domain of inquiry in order to the attainment of correct generalizations. It is necessary, therefore, to the formation of proper conclusions touching the signs of the times. Two things are supposed: patience in the prosecution of our inquiries, for hastiness here, as in every other exploration of a field, is death; and a wide induction of particular facts. An induction too narrow makes the conclusion top-heavy.
3. Freedom from prejudice and passion is necessary. This is so obvious, it is so often insisted upon by writers in every department of inquiry, that it needs not to be pressed at length. Nothing is more common than that men are governed in their views by the prejudgments derived from early training, from the instructions of parents and teachers, and from the circumstances of their environment, and not by an unprejudiced, independent examination of evidence. Look, for instance, upon the religious denominations. How many of the adherents of a particular sect have subjected its claims to a patient and unbiased examination? There are few
who are not controlled simply by their antecedents. This also leads to party feeling, not unfrequently amounting to passion. It need scarcely be said that if one, so conditioned, is right, he is not consciously right because he has fairly and impartially examined his position.
If I may without offence allude to personal experience, I would remark that in relation to the special question before us, the conclusions which will be announced in this discourse are the opposite of those which were imbibed from influences exerted upon my early education and even ministry. That fact, it is true, does not prove those conclusions to be right; but it does prove that they have been reached in the teeth of prejudice and in consequence of candid investigation. To a like temper I humbly but confidently submit them.
4. Earnest prayer for divine illumination is also demanded. A right discernment of the signs of the times, is only possible to one posessed of those spiritual qualities which have been already mentioned, and they are God's gifts. They must, therefore, be sought by prayer, and the proper direction of them by the Holy Ghost, in accordance with His inspired Word, must also be an object of importunate supplication. For one, without prayer for special guidance with reference to this subject, to say: "I think so," "Such is my opinion," is to be presumptuous and profane. Only the student of the Scriptures and the suppliant for divine light is entitled either to form or to utter any conclusion in regard to the question.
II. What are the materials of judgment in discerning the signs of the times?