Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage
“And it came to pass on the morrow, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen in Mount Gilboa” (1 Samuel 31:8).
Some of you were at South Mountain, or Shiloh, or Ball’s Bluff, or Gettysburg, and I ask you if there is any sadder sight than a battlefield after the guns have stopped firing? I walked across the field of Antietam after the conflict. The scene was so sickening I shall not describe it. Every valuable thing had been taken from the bodies of the dead, for there are always vultures hovering over and around about an army, and they pick up the watches, the memoranda, books, letters, daguerreotypes, hats, and coats for their own use. The dead make no resistance. So there are always camp followers going on and after an army, as when [Gen Winfield] Scott went down into Mexico, as when Napoleon marched up toward Moscow, as when Von Moltke went to Sedan. There is a similar scene in my text.
Saul and his army had been horribly cut to pieces. Mount Gilboa was ghastly with the dead. On the morrow the stragglers came onto the field, lifted the latchet of the helmet from under the chin of the dead, picked up the swords, bent them on their knee to test the temper of the metal, opened the wallets, and counted the coins. Saul lay dead along the ground, eight or nine feet in length, and I suppose the cowardly Philistines, to show their bravery, leaped on the trunk of his carcass, jeered at the fallen slain, and whistled through the mouth of the helmet. Before night those cormorants [vultures] had taken everything valuable from the field. “And it came to pass on the morrow, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen in Mount Gilboa.”
Before I get through today I will show you that the same process is going on all the world over, and every day, and that when men have fallen, Satan and the world, so far from pitying them or helping them, go to work remorselessly to take what little is left, thus stripping the slain.
There are tens of thousands of young men every year coming from the country to our great cities. They come with brave hearts and grand expectations. They think they will be another Rufus Choates in law, Draper in chemistry, or AT Stewart in merchandise. The country lads sit down in the village grocery, with their feet on the iron rod around the red-hot stove, in the evening, talking over the prospects of the young man who has gone off to the city. Two or three of them think that perhaps he may get along well and succeed, but most of them prophesy failure; for it is hard to think that those whom we knew in boyhood will ever make any stir in the world.
But our young man has a fine position in a dry-goods store. The month is over. He gets his wages. He is not accustomed to have so much money belonging to himself. He is a little excited, does not know exactly what to do with it, and spends it in some places where he ought not. Soon there come up new companions and acquaintances from the barrooms and the saloons of the city. Soon that young man begins to waver in the battle of temptation, and soon his soul goes down.
In a few months, or few years, he has fallen. He is morally dead. He is a mere corpse of what he once was. The harpies of sin snuff up the taint and come on the field. His garments gradually give out. He has pawned his watch. His health is failing. His credit perishes. He is too poor to stay in the city, too poor to pay his way home to the country. Down! down! Why do the low fellows of the city now stick to him so closely? Is it to help him back to a moral and spiritual life? Oh, no! I will tell you why they stay; they are the Philistines stripping the slain.
Do not look where I point, but yonder stands a man who once had a beautiful home in this city. His house had elegant furniture, his children were beautifully clad, his name was synonymous with honor and usefulness; but evil habit knocked at his front door, knocked at his back door, knocked at his parlor door, knocked at his bedroom door. Where is the piano? Sold to pay the rent. Where is the hatrack? Sold to meet the butcher’s bill. Where are the carpets? Sold to get bread. Where is the wardrobe? Sold to get rum. Where are the daughters? Working their fingers off trying to keep the family together.
Worse and worse, until everything is gone.
Who is that going up the front steps of that house? That is a creditor, hoping to find some chair or bed that has not been levied [used as collateral]. Who are those two gentlemen now going up the front steps? The one is a constable, the other is the sheriff. Why do they go there? The unfortunate is morally dead, socially dead, financially dead. Why do they go there? I will tell you why the creditors, the constables, and the sheriffs go there. They are, some on their own account, and some on account of the law, stripping the slain.
An ex-member of Congress, one of the most eloquent men that ever stood in the House of Representatives, in his last moments said, “This is the end. I am dying—dying on a borrowed bed, covered by a borrowed sheet, in a house built by public charity. Bury me under that tree in the middle of the field, where I shall not be crowded, for I have been crowded all my life.”
Where were the jolly politicians and the dissipating comrades who had been with him, laughing at his jokes, applauding his eloquence, and plunging him into sin? They have left. Why? His money is gone, his reputation is gone, his wit is gone, his clothes are gone, everything is gone. Why should they stay any longer? They have completed their work. They have stripped the slain.
There is another way, however, of doing that same work. Here is a man who, through his sin, is prostrate. He acknowledges that he has done wrong. Now is the time for you to go to that man and say, “Thousands of people have been as far astray as you are, and gotten back.” Now is the time for you to go to that man and tell him of the omnipotent grace of God, that is sufficient for any poor soul. Now is the time to go to tell him how swearing John Bunyan, through the grace of God, afterward came to the celestial city. Now is the time to go to that man and tell him how profligate Newton came, through conversion, to be a world-renowned preacher of righteousness. Now is the time to tell that man that multitudes who have been pounded with all the flails of sin and dragged through all the sewers of pollution at last have risen to positive dominion of moral power.
You do not tell him that, do you? No. You say to him, “Loan you money? No. You are down. You will have to go to the dogs. Lend you a shilling? I would not lend you five cents to keep you from the gallows. You are debauched! Get out of my sight, now! Down! You will have to stay down!”
And thus, those bruised and battered men are sometimes accosted by those who ought to lift them up. Thus, the last vestige of hope is taken from them. Thus, those who ought to go and lift and save them are guilty of stripping the slain.
The point I want to make is this: sin is hard, cruel, and merciless. Instead of helping a man up, it helps him down; and when, like Saul and his comrades, you lie on the field, it will come and steal your sword, helmet, and shield, leaving you to the jackal and the crow.
But the world and Satan do not do all their work with the outcast and abandoned. A respectable, impenitent man comes to die. He is flat on his back. He could not get up if the house were on fire. Adroitest medical skill and gentlest nursing have been a failure. He has come to his last hour.
What does Satan do for such a man? Why, he fetches up all the inapt, disagreeable, and harrowing things in his life. He says, “Do you remember those chances you had for heaven, and missed them? Do you remember all those lapses in conduct? Do you remember all those opprobrious [shameful] words, thoughts, and actions? Don’t remember them, eh? I’ll make you remember them.” And then he takes all the past and empties it on that deathbed, as the mailbags are emptied on the post-office floor. The man is sick. He cannot get away from them.
Then the man says to Satan, “You have deceived me. You told me that all would be well. You said there would be no trouble at the last. You told me if I did so and so, you would do so and so. Now you corner me, hedge me up, and submerge me in everything evil.”
“Ha! ha!” says Satan, “I was only fooling you. It is mirth for me to see you suffer. I have been for thirty years plotting to get you just where you are. It is hard for you now—it will be worse for you after a while. It pleases me. Lie still, sir. Don’t flinch or shudder. Come now, I will tear off from you the last rag of expectation. I will rend from your soul the last hope. I will leave you bare for the beating of the storm. It is my business to strip the slain.”
While men are in robust health, their digestion is good, and their nerves are strong, they think their physical strength will get them safely through the last exigency [demand]. They say it is only cowardly women who are afraid at the last, and cry out for God. “Wait till I come to die. I will show you. You won’t hear me pray, nor call for a minister, nor want a chapter read me from the Bible.” But after the man has been three weeks in a sickroom, his nerves are not so steady, his worldly companions are nowhere near to cheer him, and he is persuaded he must quit life: his physical courage is gone.
He jumps at the fall of a teaspoon in a saucer. He shivers at the idea of going away. He says, “Wife, I don’t think my infidelity is going to take me through. For God’s sake don’t bring up the children to do as I have done. If you feel like it, I wish you would read a verse or two out of Fannie’s Sabbath school hymnbook or New Testament.”
But Satan breaks in and says, “You have always thought Christianity trash and a lie; don’t give up at the last. Besides that, you cannot, in the hour you have to live, get off on that track. Die as you lived. With my great black wings I shut out that light. Die in darkness. I rend away from you that last vestige of hope. It is my business to strip the slain.”
A man who had rejected Christianity, and thought it all trash, came to die. He was in the sweat of a great agony, and his wife said, “We had better have some prayer.”
“Mary, not a breath of that,” he said. “The lightest word of prayer would roll back on me like rocks on a drowning man. I have come to the hour of test. I had a chance, and I forfeited it. I believed in a liar, and he has left me in the lurch. Mary, bring me Tom Paine, that book that I swore by and lived by, pitch it in the fire, and let it burn and burn as I myself shall soon burn.”
And then, with the foam on his lip and his hands tossing wildly in the air, he cried, “Blackness of darkness! O my God, too late!” And the spirits of darkness whistled up from the depth, and wheeled around and around him, stripping the slain.
Sin is a luxury now; it is exhilaration now; it is victory now. But after a while it is collision; it is defeat; it is extermination; it is jackalism; it is robbing the dead; it is stripping the slain. Give it up today—give it up!
Oh, how you have been cheated, my brother, from one thing to another! All these years you have been under an evil mastery that you understood not. What have your companions done for you? What have they done for your health? Nearly ruined it by carousal. What have they done for your fortune? Almost scattered it by spendthrift behavior. What have they done for your reputation? Almost ruined it with good men. What have they done for your immortal soul? Almost insured its overthrow.
You are hastening on toward the consummation of all that is sad. Today you stop and think, but it is only for a moment, and then you will tramp on. At the close of this service you will go out, and the question will be: “How did you like the sermon?”
One man will say, “I liked it very well.”
Another man will say, “I didn’t like it at all.”
But neither of the answers will touch the tremendous fact that, if impenitent, you are going at eighteen knots an hour toward shipwreck! Yea, you are in a battle where you will fall. And while your surviving relatives will take your remaining estate, and the cemetery will take your body, the messengers of darkness will take your soul, and come and go about you for the next ten million years, stripping the slain.
Many are crying, “I admit I am slain, I admit it!”
On what battlefield, my brothers? By what weapon?
“Polluted imagination,” says one man.
“Intoxicating liquor,” says another.
“My own hard heart,” says another.
Do you realize this? Then I come to tell you that the omnipotent Christ is ready to walk across this battlefield, revive, resuscitate, and resurrect your dead soul. Let Him take your hand and rub away the numbness; your head, and cool the aching; your heart, and stop its wild throb. He brought Lazarus to life (John 11:43, 44); He brought Jairus’ daughter to life (Luke 8:41, 42, 49-56); He brought the young man of Nain to life (7:11-15). These are three proofs that He can bring you to life.
When the Philistines came down on the field, they stepped between the corpses, rolled over the dead, and took everything that was valuable. So it was with the people that followed after our army at Chancellorsville, at Stones River, and at Atlanta, stripping the slain. But the Northern and Southern women—God bless them!—came on the field with basins, pads, towels, lint, cordials, and Christian encouragement.
The poor fellows that lay there lifted up their arms and said, “Oh, how good that does feel since you dressed it!”
Others looked up and said, “Oh, how you make me think of my mother!”
Others said, “Tell the folk at home I died thinking about them.”
Another looked up and said, “Miss, won’t you sing me a verse of ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ before I die?”
Then the tattoo [bugle call] was sounded, the hats were off, and the service was read: “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). In honor of the departed the muskets were loaded, and the command given: “Take aim—fire!” And there was a shingle set up at the head of the grave, with the epitaph of “Lieutenant —— in the Fourteenth Massachusetts Regulars,” or “Captain —— in the Fifteenth Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers.”
And so tonight, across this great field of moral and spiritual battle, the angels of God come walking among the slain; and there are voices of comfort, voices of hope, voices of resurrection, and voices of heaven.
Christ is ready to give life to the dead. He will make the deaf ear to hear, the blind eye to see, the pulseless heart to beat, and the damp walls of your spiritual charnel house [burial vault] will crash into ruin at His cry, “Come forth!” I verily believe there are souls in this house who are now dead in sin, who in half an hour will be alive forever.
There was a thrilling dream, a glorious dream—you may have heard of it. Ezekiel closed his eyes, and he saw two mountains, and a valley between the mountains (Ezekiel 37:1-14). That valley looked as though there had been a great battle there, a whole army had been slain, and they had been unburied; and the heat of the land, and the vultures coming there, soon the bones were exposed to the sun, and they looked like thousands of snowdrifts all through the valley. Frightful spectacle! The bleaching skeletons of a host!
But Ezekiel still kept his eyes shut; and, lo, there were four currents of wind that struck the battlefield! And when those four currents of wind met, the bones began to rattle. The foot came to the ankle, the hand came to the wrist, the jaws clashed together, the spinal column gathered up the ganglions and the nervous fiber, and all the valley wriggled, writhed, throbbed, rocked, and rose up. There, a man coming to life. There, a hundred men. There, a thousand; and all falling into line, waiting for the shout of their commander. Ten thousand bleached skeletons springing up into ten thousand warriors, panting for the fray.
I hope that instead of a dream it may be a prophecy of what we shall see here today. Let this north wall be one of the mountains, the south wall another, and let all the aisles and the pews be the valley, for there are thousands here today without one pulsation of spiritual life.
I look off in one direction, and they are dead. I look off in another direction, and they are dead. Who will bring them to life? Who will rouse them up? If I should halloo [shout] at the top of my voice, I could not wake them.
Wait a moment! Listen! There is a rustling. There is a gale from heaven. It comes from the north, from the south, from the east, and from the west. It shuts us in. It blows on the slain.
There a soul begins to move in spiritual life; there, ten souls; there, a score of souls; there, a hundred souls. The nostrils throbbing in divine respiration, the hands lifted as though to take hold of heaven, the tongue moving as in prayer and adoration.
Life! immortal life coming into the slain! Ten men for God—fifty—a hundred—a regiment—an army for God!
Oh, that we might have such a scene here today! In Ezekiel’s words, and in almost a frenzy of prayer, I cry, “Come from the four winds, O Breath, and breathe on the slain that they may live” (37:9)!
You will have to surrender your heart today to God. You cannot take the responsibility of fighting against the Spirit in this crisis that will decide whether you are to go to heaven or to hell—to join the hallelujahs of the saved, or the lamentations of the lost. You must pray. You must repent. You must this day fling your sinful soul on the pardoning mercy of God. You must! I see your resolution against God giving way, your determination wavering. I break through the breach in the wall and follow up the advantage gained, hoping to rout [dismiss] your last opposition to Christ, and to make you “ground arms” at the feet of the Divine Conqueror. Oh, you must! You must!
The moon does not ask the tides of the Atlantic Ocean to rise. It only stoops down with two great hands of light, the one at the European beach, and the other at the American beach, and then lifts the great layer of molten silver. And God, it seems to me, is now going to lift this audience to newness of life. Do you not feel the swellings of the great oceanic tides of divine mercy? My heart is in anguish to have you saved. For this I pray, preach, and long, glad to be called a fool for the sake of Christ and your salvation.
Someone replies, “Dear me, I do wish I could have these matters arranged with my God. I want to be saved. God knows I want to be saved; but you stand there talking about this matter, and you don’t show me how.”
My dear brother, the work has all been done. Christ did it with His own torn hand, His lacerated foot, and His bleeding side. He took your place, and died your death, if you will only believe it—only accept Him as your substitute.
What an amazing pity that any man should go from this house unblessed, when such a large blessing is offered him at less cost than you would pay for a pin—“without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). I have driven down today with the Lord’s ambulance to the battlefield where your soul lies exposed to the darkness and the storm, and I want to lift you in, and drive off with you toward heaven.
O Christians, by your prayers help to lift these wounded souls into the ambulance! God forbid that any should be left on the field, and that at last eternal sorrow, remorse, and despair should come up around their soul like the bandit Philistines to the field of Gilboa, stripping the slain.
“The thief comes not but to steal, to kill, and to destroy; but I am come that they might life and that more abundantly” (John 10:10).
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Meat Riot, New York (1910)
Featured for this series are photographs of old New York.
*Adapted from “Stripping the Slain,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], New Tabernacle Sermons Vol I (New York: George Munro, 1886). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.