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The Waves of Time

"The times that went over him."—i Chronicles xxix. 30.

This fragment from the Chronicler's close of his account of King David suggests solemn and stimulating conceptions of life. The words bring before us the strange vicissitudes and extremes in the career of the man who was shepherd boy, soldier, court favourite, outlaw, all but brigand, fugitive, rebel, king, saint, sinner. "The times that went over him " were very unlike each other, and few of us have such a chequered web, but the thought which underlies this phrase is true of us all.

Now, by the expression here the writer does not merely mean the succession of moments, but he wishes to emphasise the view that these are epochs, each with its definite characteristics and its special opportunities, unlike the rest that lie on either side of it. The broad field of time is portioned out, like the strips of peasant allotments, which show a bit here, with one kind of crop upon it, bordered by another morsel of ground, bearing another kind. So the whole is patchy, and yet all harmonises in effect if we look at it from high enough up. Thus each life is made up of epochs, in each of which there is some special work to be done, some grace to be cultivated, some lesson to be learned, some sacrifice to be made; and if it is let slip it never comes back any more. "It might have been once, and we missed it, lost it for ever," and are the poorer to all eternity for not having had in our heads the eyes of the wise man which "discern both time and judgment." It is the same thought which is suggested by the well-known words of the Book of Ecclesiastes—"To everything there is a season and a time"—an opportunity, a definite period—" for every purpose that is under the sun." It is the same thought which is suggested by Paul's words, "As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good to all men. In due season we shall reap if we faint not." It is the same thought that is expressed in the threadbare lines about a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. The alchemists believed that there was "the moment of projection," at which, if the magic powder were dropped into the crucible, its heaving, molten contents would turn to gold, but if an instant earlier, there would be no effect, and if an instant later, explosion and ruin. So God's moments come to us, every one of them a crisis, affording opportunity for something for which eternity will not offer a second opportunity. How solemn that thought makes life! How it destroys the monotony which sometimes presses on us; how it heightens the low and greatens the small! We must have sharpened attention, that we miss not the lesson of the moment and the duty incumbent on us in it. We must keep in touch with God, and stand, as servants should, girded and ready for work, with the question on lips and in hearts: "What wilt Thou have me to do, and what wilt Thou have me to do now?"

"The times" went over David as a river might flow over a man's head. But was there any power impelling and guiding the flow of the stream? Life is dreary, if all we can say of it is that it passes, like the mechanical current of a river or the wash of the sea along the coast, eating away here and casting up banks there, but all the work of eyeless, purposeless chance, or of natural causes.

David thought otherwise; for, in one of the Psalms that go by his name, he uses the same expression with a very significant modification, when he says: "My times are in Thy hand." The stream is guided. Therefore, if at any time it seems to overwhelm us, we can look up through the transparent mass above our heads, and say: "Thy waves and Thy billows have gone over me, and because they are Thine, I am sure that they will not drown me." God orders the times, and therefore, though as the bitter ingenuity of Ecclesiastes, on the look-out for proofs of the vanity of life, complained in a one-sided view, as an aggravation of man's lot, that there is a time for everything, yet that aspect of change is not its deepest or truest. True it is that sometimes birth and sometimes death, sometimes joy and sometimes sorrow, sometimes building up and sometimes casting down, follow each other with monotonous uniformity of variety, and seem to reduce life to a perpetual heaping up of what is as painfully to be cast down the next moment, like the pitiless sport of the wind amongst the sandhills of the desert. But the futility is only apparent, and the changes are not meant to occasion man's "misery to be great upon him," as Ecclesiastes says they do. One purpose runs through all the diversity. The web is one, however various the patterns worked on it. The resulting motion of a great engine is one, though wheels in it turn opposite ways. Summer and winter, tempest and fair weather, work to one end—to ensure the well-filled, nodding ears of the harvest-field. The meaning of all our times is to bring us nearer to God, and fill us more full of His grace, and mould us more perfectly into His likeness.

How eloquently that phrase of the Chronicler suggests the transiency of all our times! They pass over as the wind whistles through an archway and cometh not again. "This also will pass," said an old Rabbi about each task and circumstance, and thereby possessed his soul in peace and patience. There is a wholesome sense of transiency, which spoils no worthy joys, nor weakens any legitimate interest. Rather the more it is cherished, the greater will all earthly "times" seem. Time is "the ceaseless lackey to eternity," and the times that pass over us may become as the waves that wash us towards, and at last cast us high and safe on, the eternal shore. If only in the midst of joys and sorrows, of heavy tasks and corroding cares, of weary work and wounded spirits, we could feel, "but for a moment," all would be different, and joy would come, and strength would come, and patience would come, and every grace would come, in the train of the wholesome conviction that "here we have no continuing city."

That thought will spoil nothing the spoiling of which will be a loss. It will heighten everything the possession of which is a gain. It will teach us in the darkness to trust, and to believe in the light. And when the times are dreariest, and frost binds the ground, we shall say, "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?" The times roll over us, like the seas that break upon some isolated rock, and when the tide has fallen, and the vain flood has subsided, the rock is there. If the world helps us to God, we need not mind though it passes, and the fashion thereof.

This phrase may teach us another thought. The transitory times that went over Israel's king are recorded imperishably on the pages here. And so, though condensed into narrow space, the record of the fleeting moments lives for ever, and " the books shall be opened, and men shall be judged according to their works." We are writing an ineffaceable record by our fleeting deeds. Half a dozen pages carry all the story of that stormy life of Israel's king. It takes a thousand rose-trees to make a vialful of essence of roses. The record and issues of life will be condensed into small compass, but the essence of it is eternal. We shall find it again, and have to drink as we have brewed, when we get yonder. "Be not deceived, God is not mocked; whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap." There is a time to sow, and that is the present life; and there is a time to gather the fruits of our sowing, and that is the time when times have ended and eternity is here.