He brought the shadow ten degrees backward, by which it had gone down in the dial of Ahaz.—2 Kings 20:11.
In modern cities the watch and the clock are in great evidence. No other age has cared so much about marking carefully the passage of time. Some man curious in such things has found out that there are, according to the best figures, seven hundred and ninety-six thousand clocks and watches in use by the people of the city of New York alone. It is a rare thing to find a mature man or woman without a watch, and more children carry them now than did middle-aged men in their grandfathers' time. In addition to these one can scarcely walk a block in any modern city without having a great public clock with its dial open to his gaze.
But it was very different in the days connected with the record of our text. The dial of Ahaz was no doubt the only great public dial in the city, and though Ahaz was dead it was still known as "the dial of Ahaz." Hezekiah had come to be king and had fallen ill, and prayer was made for his recovery. It was given as a sign that God heard and answered the prayer that the shadow upon the dial of Ahaz, which it is quite likely the king could see through his bedroom window, should go backward ten degrees.
Bishop Balgarnie, commenting on this incident, remarks that it is the light that makes the shadow. Where the light is brightest the shadow will be darkest and its outline most clearly defined. One has only to stand still a moment under the electric light of the street or railway station and compare the black, sharply drawn outlines which it throws upon the pavement with the fainter images cast upon it by the old gas lamps to realize the fact that the brighter the light the deeper the shadow. The same writer thinks the astounding miracle recorded in the text could only have been effected by a light brighter than the sun rising on the other side of the sun dial of Ahaz. The setting sun had thrown the shadow across ten steps, it had gone down ten degrees, when suddenly from the gate or window, from the mercy seat behind the veil of the temple, there flashed forth the mystic light of divine glory that dwelt between the cherubim, turning back the shadow of the natural sun and converting for Hezekiah the shadow of death into morning, and he wonders if this scene did not have something to do with some of the outbursts to be found in Isaiah, in which God is referred to as a Light; such, for instance, as, "Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee." And again: "The sun shall be no more thy light by day; neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee: but the Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy glory. Thy sun shall no more go down; neither shall thy moon withdraw itself: for the Lord shall be thine everlasting light"
When we are thinking of the divine light as superior to the light of the sun we can but recall Paul's wonderful description to King Agrippa of his conversion and of the great light that came upon him. Years afterward, describing it, he said: "At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me." The light which shone upon Paul, brighter than the light of the sun, would have reversed all shadows that the sun had cast.
It is not our purpose to pursue farther any speculation concerning the special miracle here recorded, but to find in the turning back of the shadow on the dial of Ahaz a striking illustration of how the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ still turns back the shadows from the hearts of men and women.
The blackest shadow which is dispelled by the presence and glory of Christ is the shadow of sin. That is a shadow which only Christ has ever been able to dispel. Henry Drummond once gave an address on "The Changed Life," in which he stated four ways in which men undertake to drive back the shadow of sin. The first is by resolution, by force of will power; but it always fails in the end. The second is by concentrating efforts against one single sin. A man has one sin that especially shames him, alarms him, and he devotes himself to getting rid of that; but while he is doing that all other sins are growing rankly in his heart. The third way is by copying virtues, one after another; but such work always lacks balance and harmony. The fourth way is called the diary method. This undertakes to live up to certain rules of conduct; but that, too, fails through forgetfulness of the rules, and so Drummond came to the conclusion, as we all must, that the shadow of sin can only be permanently dispelled by coming into contact and fellowship with the perfectly good and pure and bright life of Jesus Christ. When men saw how good and brave Peter and John were they explained it by saying, "They have been with Jesus." Paul was going on the way to Damascus, full of egotism and pride, full of anger and hate and murder, and suddenly he became humble and gentle and loving and easy to be entreated, and when asked to explain how all this had come about he could only tell how at midday the light brighter than the sun had shone upon him, and how Jesus, whom he had been persecuting, had turned back the shadow of his ignorance and sin and given him heavenly visions, to which he had been true.
During the life of Jesus on earth the glory of his presence fell upon no sinner so black but he was able to lift the shadow. In the Tate Gallery in London there is a series of etchings by Rosetti. These pictures reveal a rich oriental banqueting hall filled with revelers. Costly tapestries hang about the windows, elegant furnishings are everywhere, while in the center is the Magdalene. The rich profusion of her golden hair falling upon her shoulders like waves of sunshine, her head garlanded with flowers, the grace of form and beauty of countenance, constitute the main attraction. When her laughter and song have reached their climax Christ appears in the doorway and looks upon the young woman, as one who understands but still can pity and save. The genius of the artist reveals the strange excitement which fills her heart She rises from her couch and with eyes big with wonder looks into the face of her Saviour, who stands before her in kingly majesty and divinely pure. Like a hunted deer she looks first toward those who would destroy and then to the one who would save her. Her appeal for life is not in vain. The palace becomes a hovel. She tears the garlands from her hair and crushes them beneath her feet. She flings the rings away and discards the silken garment in her desperate flight from the wrath to come. With the dawn of another day she has exchanged the palace for a garret and her silk robes for coarse black cloth. With a broken and contrite heart she finds her way to the house of Simon, and stoops down and kisses the hem of Christ's garment, while he freely forgives, and her tears dissolve her woe. The shadow of her sin had been lifted.
Sin throws many shadows so dark that it is beyond the power of any human being to lift them from the soul, even though the sin itself were forgiven. But Jesus Christ not only has power on earth to forgive sins, but he so illuminates the atmosphere in which the soul lives, so warms by his presence the affections and sympathies of the heart, that every shadow of sin is dispersed. A pastor tells the story of a little fellow who came early under the shadow of evil. He was a poor boy, and as the undertaker screwed down the lid of his mother's coffin he cried out with a child's breaking heart, "I want to see my mother."
"You can't! Get out of the way, boy! Somebody take the brat away."
"Only let me see her a minute, only once more," cried the orphan.
As the boy clung to him in his anguish, the man's anger rose, and he quickly and brutally struck the boy.
"When I am a man I will kill you for that," shrieked the now frantic and outraged child.
Years passed by. The boy nurtured his wrong and did not forget it. It rankled and festered in his bosom and blackened and stained his soul.
At the age of sixteen years he fell under Christian influences, and the Spirit of God spoke to him. After a long and terrible struggle, of which only those who have passed through similar trials can know anything, he found that he must forgive if he hoped for God's forgiveness. He gave his heart to God, and "passed from death unto life."
The undertaker led a life of sin, which finally brought him into the company of associates with whom he was found in the criminal's dock.
"Does any one appear as this man's counsel?" asked the judge, as he looked around the crowded court room.
There was a moment's silence, when a young man, but lately entered at the bar, stepped forward and said, "I will undertake his case."
When the time came for him to present his plea it seemed that he was inspired, and the electrified bench and jury looked at one another; a murmur of admiration ran around the court room. "Who was he?"
The man was acquitted. "May God reward you," he said, as he stepped out of the dock. "I can't."
"I want no thanks," replied the young man, "but I would refresh your memory. Twenty years ago you struck a heartbroken boy away from his mother's coffin. I was that boy."
Turning pale, the man asked, "Have you rescued me, then, to take my life?"
"No. 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.' I have saved the life of a man whose brutal deed has remained with me for twenty years. It embittered my young life and stood between me and God; but as he for Christ's sake forgave me, so do I for his sake forgive you. If you will but accept, he is as ready to forgive you; if not, go! and remember the tears of a friendless child. God bless you."
If anyone shall read this who has been so shadowed by sin and evil that he has breathed an atmosphere of hate and anger, let me encourage you from our theme to believe that our glorious Christ is able to completely dispel and turn away that baleful shadow.
Christ is able to turn back the shadow of sorrow and grief. Christ dispels human sorrow, first of all, by making us know that we are never alone or forgotten in the world. Somebody always cares for us, thinks about us, and is interested in us. A young girl who was visiting her aunt came to her friend the other day and inquired how she should abbreviate the phrase "in care of" in addressing her letters, and as she went away the young woman who had been inquired of reflected on the thought of how comforting it is to feel that we are always in the care of some kind friend. Jesus dispels the shadow of sorrow by assuring us that we may always be in the care of God, that by his direction the angels are always watching over us and ministering to us. When we get it deep into our hearts that this is true the ministry of every day in nature becomes tender and loving. Every morning's sunrise, every evening's sunset, the changing seasons as they come and go, all speak to us of the fact that we are in the care of our heavenly Father. No sorrow can go very deep, no wound be beyond cure, if we keep that teaching of Jesus close to heart.
The nearer we are to Jesus, the brighter his presence shines about us, the more complete the victory we have over the shadow of sorrow. One night when a mother was putting her little girl to bed she noticed the child kept close to one side of her pillow. Her mother asked her why she did so. Her answer was, "I want to leave room for Jesus, because he had not where to lay his head." There are no dark shadows over the pillow when the head that wore the crown of thorns rests beside our own.
Some of you are in the black darkness, wandering aimlessly under the shadow of some great sorrow and grief. I thank God that I can point you to the door of happiness. The other day in New York city a man who has made quite a success remarked to a friend that he made the mistake of his life when old Castle Garden was abandoned that he did not secure the old oaken doors leading into the rotunda. Continuing, he said: "I know one man who would give their weight in gold for them, just as an heirloom to hand down to his grandchildren and their successors. He is a man high up in public life and one of the great financial powers of the country. In his youth he came to this country, and entered through the old oaken doors of Castle Garden. Hundreds of those who passed through those doors to the land of their adoption, where they have since found prosperity and happiness, would give much to possess them as mementoes."
There is another door of happiness; it is the door of faith and obedience in Jesus Christ—a door that leads out of selfishness into unselfishness, where we work in fellowship with Christ to sweeten the sorrows of others. There sit about you those who have learned by happy experience the truth of all I offer you. Christ has dispelled their shadows and made their world new. For them the song of the poet has come true:
"Old sorrows that sat at the heart's sealed gate
Like sentinels grim and sad,
While out in the night damp, weary and late,
The King, with a gift divinely great,
Waited to make me glad:
"Old fears that hung like a changing cloud
Over a sunless day;
Old burdens that kept the spirit bowed.
Old wrongs that rankled and clamored laud—
They have passed like a dream away.
"In the world without and the world within
He maketh the old things new;
The touch of sorrow, the stain of sin,
Have fled from the gate where the King came in,
From the chill night's damp and dew.
"Anew in the heavens the sweet stars shine,
On earth new blossoms spring;
The old life lost in the Life Divine,
'Thy will be mine, my will is Thine,'
Is the new song the glad hearts sing."
Christ can turn back the shadow of death. He can dispel all its gloom and its sorrow. Only the divine presence can take the fear out of death. David says, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." Christ dispels the shadow of death by causing us to understand that death is as much a part of our inheritance as is life. This is only the school-time of preparation, and the immortal life lies beyond. Death is the angel sent to call us for our entrance upon immortality. He is not our enemy, he is not our foe, he is our servant. We do not sink away into nothingness when we take our departure from the shores of earth. It is a voyage upon a stanch ship, with a true captain and a sure haven. My friend who watched an ocean steamer pull out from dock in New York city to make her trip across the Atlantic Ocean was greatly impressed with the sight. Nearly one thousand passengers were on board, and the breaking hearts and flowing tears of many answered to similar expressions of sadness shown by friends on the wharf. As the mighty ship slowly swung out into the stream a cheery-toned bugle sent forth the notes of a happy, hopeful air. It was an antidote for the sorrows of parting. And my friend said, "May it not be true that the angels render like service for the saints embarking from the earth?" Surely it is true that it is no rare thing about Christian bedsides for the good man or the good woman who is about to set sail for heaven and immortality to exclaim: "O, what singing! Don't you hear them—the angels?"
Let us not fail in the study of our theme to keep in sight the great truth that light and not shadow, that joy and not sorrow, that courage and not cowardice, that victory and not defeat is the proper keynote for every human life. Sorrow will come, but it is not to have the victory. Jesus was known as "the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief," and yet he was the victor of the ages, and it was "for the joy that was set before him" that he endured the cross and won his triumph. And so it is "the joy of the Lord" that is our strength, and we have no right to carry about an atmosphere of sadness. If we walk in fellowship with Jesus the light of Him whose face was brighter than the sun will dispel our shadows and give us peace.