"And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation. And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly and multiplied."
Exodus i. 6, 7.
These remarkable words occur in a short section linking the books of Genesis and Exodus. The writer recapitulates the list of the immigrants into Egypt, and then, as it were, having got them there, he clears the stage for a new set of actors. These few words are all that he cares to tell of a period of centuries. He notes but two processes — silent dropping away, and silent growth. "Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation;" plant by plant the leaves drop, and the stem rots and its place is empty. Seed by seed the tender green spikelets pierce the mould, and the field waves luxuriant in the breeze and the sunshine; "the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly."
That twofold process is ever at work. The very structure of the sentences here seems to reproduce the one fate and the varying times at which it befell. "Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation "—the clauses are like the three-fold falls of earth on a coffin. They went one by one till, at last, all had gone. The two things that appeal to our imagination, and ought to appeal to our consciences and wills, in reference to the succession of the generations of men, are given very strikingly, namely, the stealthy assaults on single lives and the final complete victory of Death. As the white crests of the breakers in mid-ocean disappear, as if some force acting from beneath had pulled them under, and the blue sea runs over the spot which they had occupied for a moment, so men disappear on the great sea of Time. As some strong swimmer is dragged under by sharks, so man after man is twitched down till, at last, "all that generation" have gone under.
But another process goes on simultaneously. In nature, spring and autumn are widely apart. It is far from May's buds and nests to December's "bare ruined choirs." But the impressive fact, which we are often too careless to note, is the cotemporaneousness of the two seasons in human experience. The world, looked at from one side, seems a charnel house and "the place of a skull," while, seen from the other side, it is full of budding young life and glad growth. In many a house there are a coffin upstairs and a cradle downstairs. The children play in the churchyard. One end of the web is being run down while the end is being woven.
"Every moment dies a man;
Every moment one is born."
But through the twofold process God's purpose marches unhindered to completion. The great vizier who seemed to be Israel's only protector is lying in a coffin in Egypt, the truculent brothers who had sold him for a slave are gone, and the whole generation is swept away. What then? They were the instruments of God's purposes for a while. Are His purposes dead because the instruments are laid aside? The homely proverb says that there are as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it, and that is especially true when God casts the net.
We should keep both halves of the process clear before us. Let us be quite sure that we never give an undue weight to the one half of the whole truth. There are people far too much, constitutionally and perhaps (by reason of a mistaken notion of religion) religiously, inclined to the contemplation of the more melancholy side of these truths; and there are people far too exclusively disposed to the contemplation of the other. But the bulk of us never trouble our heads about either the one or the other, but go on, forgetting altogether that swift, sudden, stealthy, skinny hand that is put out to lay hold of the swimmer and then pull him underneath the water; and which will clasp us by the ankles one day, and draw us down. Do we ever think about it? If not, surely, surely, we are leaving out of sight one of what ought to be the formative elements in our lives. The ignoring of it is but too natural, and robs life of dignity, gravity, and strenuousness.
And then, on the other hand, when our hearts are faint, or when the pressure of human mortality—our own, that of our dear ones, or that of others—seems to weigh us down, or when it looks to us as if God's work was failing for want of people to do it, let us remember the other side—"And the children of Israel . . . increased . . . and waxed exceeding mighty; . . . and the iand was filled with them." So we shall keep the middle path, which is the path of safety, and so avoid the folly of extremes.
Such thoughts should stimulate us to service. Our little task should be in the same line of direction with God's "increasing purpose," which runs unbroken "through the ages." Our individual lives are but like tiny pools on the shores of some fiord or loch that runs far inland; but the great tidal wave that rolls away out over the broad Atlantic tells on them, and both the ebb and the flow help to make even their shallow waters wholesome. If my work is done in atid for God, I shall never have to look back and say, as we certainly shall say one day, either here or yonder, unless our lives be thus part of the divine plan, "What a fool I was! Seventy years of toiling and moiling and effort and sweat, and it has all come to nothing; like a long algebraic sum that covers pages of intricate calculations, and the pluses and minuses just balance each other: and the net result is a round nought." So let us keep in view the twofold process, and let it stir us to make sure that " in our embers " shall be " something that doth live," and that, not "Nature," but something better — God — " remembers what was so fugitive." It is not fugitive, if it is a part of the mighty whole.
The contemplation of this double process should make us content to do insignificant and unfinished work. Joseph might have thought, as he lay dying, that he had not effected much to further his people's possession of Canaan, by bringing them down to Egypt. But he had helped forward the realisation of God's designs some small distance, and that is enough for any man. All our work in this world has to be only what the physiologists call functional. God has a great scheme running on through ages. Joseph gives it a helping hand for a time, and then somebody else takes up the running, and carries the purpose forward a little further. A great many hands are placed on the ropes that draw the car of the Ruler of the world, and one after another they get stiffened in death; but the car goes on. We should be contented to do our small piece of the work, whether or not it can be isolated from the rest and held up, and people can say "He did that entire thing unaided." That is not the case for most of us. A great many threads go to make the piece of cloth, and a great many throws of the shuttle to weave the web. A great many cubes of glass make up the mosaic; and there is no reason for the red cube to pride itself on its fiery glow, or the grey to boast of its silvery coolness. They are all parts of the pattern, and as long as they keep their right places they complete the artist's design. Thus, if we think of how one soweth and another reapeth, we may be content to receive half-done works from our fathers, and to hand on unfinished tasks to them that come after us. It is not a great trial of a man's modesty, if he lives near Jesus Christ, to be content to do but a very small fragment of the Master's work.
This double process should lift our thoughts to Him who lives for ever. Moses dies, Joshua catches the torch from his dying hand, because God said: "As I was with Moses, so will I be with thee." Therefore we can turn away from thoughts of the darkness that has sucked down so much, which our own hearts or Christ's Church seem to need so sorely, and turn to the Christ who "became dead and is alive for evermore." He lives! He lives! No man is indispensable for public work or for private affection and solace, so long as there is a living Christ for us to hold by. We need that conviction for ourselves often. When life seems empty and hope dead, and nothing is able to fill the vacuity or still the pain, we have to look to the vision of the Lord sitting on the empty throne, high and lifted up, and yet very near the aching and void heart. Christ lives, and that is enough.
So the separated workers in all the generations who did their little bit of service, like the many generations of builders who laboured through centuries upon the completion of some great cathedral, will be united at the last; "and he that soweth, and he that reapeth, shall rejoice together " in the harvest which neither the sower nor the reaper had produced, but He who blessed the toils of both. "Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation." But Jesus lives, and therefore His people "grow and multiply.