Things Unseen to be Preferred to Things Seen
by Samuel Davies (1724 –1761)
Comparative View of the Visible and Invisible
2. The infinite disparity between [the invisible things and the visible things] as to duration. This is the difference particularly intended in the text: "The things that are seen are temporal; but the things that are not seen are eternal."
The transitoriness of visible things implies both that the things themselves are perishable, and they may soon leave us; and that our residence among them is temporary, and we must soon leave them.
And the eternity of invisible things implies quite the contrary, that the things themselves are of endless duration; and that we shall always exist to receive happiness or misery from them.
Before we illustrate these instances of disparity, let us take a view of time and eternity in themselves, and as compared to one another.
Time is the duration of creatures in the present state. It commenced at the creation, and near six thousand years of it are since elapsed; and how much of it yet remains we know not. But this we know, that the duration of the world itself is as nothing in comparison of eternity. But what is our duration compared with the duration even of this world? It is but a span, a hair’s-breadth; sixty, seventy, or eighty years, is generally the highest standard of human life, and it is by far the smallest number of mankind that arrives to these periods. The most of them die like a flower blasted in the morning, or at noon; and we have more reason to expect it will be our fate than to hope the contrary. Now the span of time we enjoy in life is all our time; we have no more property in the rest of it than in the years before the flood. All beside is eternity. "Eternity!" We are alarmed at the sound! Lost in the prospect! Eternity with respect to God is a duration without beginning as well as without end. Eternity, as it is the attribute of human nature, is a duration that had a beginning but shall never have an end. This is inalienably entailed upon us poor, dying worms: and let us survey our inheritance. Eternity! It is a duration that excludes all number and computation; days, and months, and years, yea, and ages, are lost in it, like drops in the ocean. Millions of millions of years, as many years as there are sands on the sea-shore, or particles of dust in the globe of the earth, and these multiplied to the highest reach of number, all these are nothing to eternity. They do not bear the least imaginable proportion to it, for these will come to an end, as certain as day: But eternity will never, never come to an end. It is a line without end; it is an ocean without a shore. Alas! What shall I say of it! It is an infinite, unknown something, that neither human thought can grasp, nor human language describe.
Now place time in comparison with eternity, and what is it? It shrinks into nothing, and less than nothing. What then is that little span of time in which we have any property? Alas! It is too diminutive a point to be conceived. Indeed, properly speaking, we can call no part of time our own but the present moment, this fleeting now: future time is uncertain, and we may never enjoy it; the breath we now respire may be our last; and as to our past time, it is gone, and will never be ours again. Our past days are dead and buried, though perhaps guilt, their ghost, may haunt us still. And what is a moment to eternity? The disparity is too great to admit of comparison.
Let me now resume the former particulars, implied in the transitoriness of visible and the eternity of invisible things.
Visible things are perishable and may soon leave us. When we think they are ours, they often fly from our embrace. Riches may vanish into smoke and ashes by an accidental fire. We may be thrown down from the pinnacle of honour, and sink the lower into disgrace. Sensual pleasures often end in satiety and disgust, or in sickness and death. Our friends are torn from our bleeding hearts by the inexorable hand of death. Our liberty and property may be wrested from us by the hand of tyranny, oppression, or fraud. In a word, what do we enjoy but we may lose? On the other hand, our miseries here are temporary; the heart receives many a wound, but it heals again. Poverty may end in riches; a clouded character may clear up, and from disgrace we may rise to honour; we may recover from sickness; and if we lose one comfort, we may obtain another. But in eternity every thing is everlasting and unchangeable. Happiness and misery are both of them without end, and the subjects of both well know that this is the case. It is this perpetuity that finishes the happiness of the inhabitants of heaven; the least suspicion of an end would intermingle itself with all their enjoyments, and embitter them: and the greater the happiness, the greater the anxiety at the expectation of losing it. But oh, how transporting for the saints on high to look forward through the succession of eternal ages, with an assurance that they shall be happy through them all, and that they shall feel no change but from glory to glory!
On the other hand, this is the bitterest ingreadient in the cup of divine displeasure in the future state, that the misery is eternal. Oh, with what horror does that despairing cry, "For ever, for ever, for ever!", echo through the vaults of hell? Eternity is such an important attribute, that it gives infinite weight to things that would be insignificant, were they temporary. A small degree of happiness, if it be eternal, exceeds the greatest degree that is transitory; and a small degree of misery that is everlasting, is of greater importance than the greatest degree that soon comes to an end. Would you rather endure the most painful tortures that nature can bear for a moment, than an eternal toothache or headache? Again, should we consider all the ingredients and causes of future happiness and misery, we should find them all everlasting. The blessed God is an inexhaustible, perennial fountain of bliss; His image can never be erased from the hearts of glorified spirits; the great contemplation will always be obvious to them; and they will always exist as the partakers and promoters of mutual bliss. On the other hand, in hell the worm of conscience dieth not, and the fire is not quenched; divine justice is immortal; malignant spirits will always exist as mutual tormentors, and their wicked habits will never be extirpated.
And now, need I offer anything farther to convince you of the superior importance of invisible and eternal to visible and temporary things? Can a rational creature be at a loss to choose in so plain a case? Can you need any arguments to convince you that an eternity of the most perfect happiness is rather to be chosen than a few years of sordid, unsatisfying delight? Or that the former should not be forfeited for the sake of the latter? Have you any remaining scruples, whether the little anxieties and mortifications of a pious life are more intolerable than everlasting punishment? Oh! It is a plain case: what then mean an infatuated world, who lay out all their concern on temporal things, and neglect the important affairs of eternity? Let us illustrate this matter by supposition. Suppose a bird were to pick up and carry away a grain of sand or dust from the globe of this earth once in a thousand years, till it should be at length wholly carried away; the duration which this would take up appears a kind of eternity to us. Now suppose it were put to our choice, either to be happy during this time, and miserable ever after, or to be miserable during this time, and happy ever after, which would you choose? Why, though this duration seems endless, yet he would be a fool that would not make the latter choice; for, oh, oh! behind this vast duration, there lies an eternity, which exceeds it infinitely more than this duration exceeds a moment. But we have no such seemingly puzzling choice as this; the matter with us stands thus—Will you choose the little sordid pleasures of sin that may perhaps not last an hour, at most, not many years, rather than everlasting pleasure of the sublimest kind? Will you rather endure intolerable torment for ever, than painfully endeavour to be holy? What does your conduct, my brethren, answer to these questions? If your tongues reply, they will perhaps for your credit give a right answer; but what say your prevailing disposition and common practice? Are you not more thoughtful for time than eternity? More concerned about visible vanities than invisible realities? If so, you make a fool’s choice indeed.
But let it be further considered, that the transitoriness of visible things may imply that we must ere long be removed from them. Though they were immortal it would be nothing to us, since we are not so in our present state. Within a few years at most, we shall be beyond the reach of all happiness and misery from temporal things.
But when we pass out of this transitory state, we enter upon an everlasting state. Our souls will always exist, exist in a state of unchangeable, boundless happiness or misery. It is but a little while since we came into being out of a state of eternal non-existence; but we shall never relapse into that state again. These little sparks of being shall never be extinguished! They will survive the ruins of the world, and kindle into immortality. When millions of millions of ages are past, we shall still be in existence: and oh! in what unknown region? In that of endless bliss or of interminable misery? Be this the most anxious inquiry of our lives?
Seeing then we must soon leave this world, and all its joys and sorrows, and seeing we must enter on an unchangeable, everlasting state of happiness or misery, be it our chief concern to end our present pilgrimage well. It matters but little whether we lie easy or not during this night of existence, if so be we awake in eternal day. It is but a trifle, hardly worth a thought, whether we be happy or miserable here, if we be happy for ever hereafter. What then mean the bustle and noise of mankind about the things of time? Oh, sirs, eternity! Awful, all important eternity! is the only thing that deserves a thought.
The Influence of Seeing Things Aright
I now come, to show the great and happy influence a suitable impression of the superior importance of invisible to visible things would have upon us. This I might exemplify in a variety of instances with respect to saints and sinners.
When we are tempted to any unlawful pleasures, how we would shrink away with horror from the pursuit, had we a due sense of the misery incurred, and the happiness forfeited by it!
When we find our hearts excessively eager after things below, had we a suitable view of eternal things, all these things would shrink into trifles hardly worth a thought, much less our principal concern.
When the sinner, for the sake of a little present ease, and to avoid a little present uneasiness stifles his conscience, refuses to examine his condition, casts the thoughts of eternity out of his mind, and thinks it too hard to attend painfully on all the means of grace, has he then a due estimate of eternal things? Alas! no; he only looks at the things that are seen. Were the mouth of hell open before him that he might behold its torments, and had he a sight of the joys of paradise, they would harden him into a generous insensibility of all the sorrows and anxieties of this life, and his inquiry would not be whether these things required of him are easy, but whether they are necessary to obtain eternal happiness, and avoid everlasting misery.
When we suffer any reproach or contempt on a religious account, how would a due estimate of eternal things fortify us with undaunted courage and make us willing to climb to heaven through disgrace, rather than sink to hell with general applause!
How would a realizing view of eternal things animate us in our devotions? Were this thought impressed on our hearts when in the secret or social duties of religion, "I am now acting for eternity," do you think we should pray, read, or hear with so much indifferency and langour? Oh no; it would rouse us out of our dead frames, and call forth all the vigour of our souls. With what unwearied importunity should we cry to God! With what eagerness hear the word of salvation!
How powerful an influence would a view of futurity have to alarm the secure sinner that has thought little of eternity all his life, though it be the only thing worth thinking of!
How would it hasten the determination of the lingering, wavering sinner, and shock him at the thought of living one day unprepared on the very brink of eternity!
In a word, a suitable impression of this would quite alter the aspect of things in the world, and would turn the concern and activity of the world into another channel. Eternity then would be the principal concern. Our inquiries would not be, "Who will show us any temporal good? What shall we eat, or what shall we drink?", but rather, "What shall we do to be saved? How shall we escape the wrath to come?" Let us then endeavour to impress our hearts with invisible things, and for that purpose consider, that:
We shall, ere long, be ingulfed in this awful eternity, whether we think of it or not. A few days or years will launch us there; and oh, the surprising scenes that will then open to us!
Without deep impressions of eternity on our hearts, and frequent thoughtfulness about it, we cannot be prepared for it.
And if we are not prepared for it, oh, how inconceivably miserable our case! But if prepared, how inconceivably happy!
"Look not then at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal."