Correspondence on Singing at the Graves of Our Brethren

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... I feel so thankful to know that there were no hymns sung at the graves of our dearly beloved... I have long felt how much out of place they are on the sorrowful occasion of our committing the body of a beloved fellow-laborer or fellow-pilgrim to the tomb. If there is ever a moment in which hearts are torn asunder with grief, it is then; and I feel much that those who mourn for the departed one would rather weep and cry to our Father in prayer than sing. “Is any merry, let him sing psalms,” is the thought of God (James 5). How sacred are the sorrows of His people in the sight of the Lord! He “putteth their tears in his bottle,” and He “knoweth their sorrows.”
When I think of Him weeping, in going to the grave of His friend Lazarus, I feel that singing could not be there. It may be said that His was not the weeping of a sorrow stricken heart as was that of those around Him; and I say, Be it so. Theirs was the cry of bereavement or of sympathy; but His were tears indeed, and I love that wondrous word of Scripture, “Jesus wept.” He wept to see the power of death on the hearts and souls of those whom He dearly loved.
The Lord would have us feel the sorrows of the way, and when are they so keen as in a moment when one who has companied with us, and whom He has loved, has been called away? For them “to depart and to be with Christ is far better”; but what achings of heart for those who remain!
It has grated upon my spirit to hear hymns sung at such a time. If souls are filled with such joy that singing is its only expression I can say nothing; but I doubt this. In no case in Scripture do I find a thought of doing so amongst God’s elect. I need not cite the Old Testament, which in itself gives abundant proof of the contrary. The full joy of the departed one was not then made known as now we have it in New Testament Scriptures. It was seen in more or less measure, as were the hopes of those beyond the tomb at that day. The living, loving Savior, whose perfect human heart of hearts is now in glory, had not then taken manhood into union with His Godhead glory as Eternal Son. God Himself was not revealed, and the bliss of the state beyond the tomb, as then known, did not embrace the wondrous thought of a departing to be “with Christ.” It could not then be known. When the elect at that day left this scene, it was their happiness, most surely, and the lines of the hymn which speaks of “soaring to worlds unknown” was, doubtless, more their experience than ours now. It could not be an unknown world to those who know Christ; for He occupies the scene.
Yet, while it is the joy of the departed, and in measure we may be able to rejoice because they have gone to be with Christ, what a blank they have left behind! Can we sing, then, at such a time? When the proto-martyr Stephen passed away, praying for his murderers, and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” we read that “Devout men carried Stephen to his burial and made great lamentation over him” (Acts 8:22And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. (Acts 8:2)). Singing could not have been at such scene. Yet here it maybe objected that these “devout men” were Jews, with their peculiar hopes and thoughts; that they may not, and very likely did not, know what has since been told us in Scripture. Yet I do not find Paul rebuking the dear Thessalonians for their sorrow for those who had fallen asleep from their midst. Nay, he owns the sorrow, but says that they should not sorrow as the rest, who had no hope beyond this scene. He would rather give the sorrow and mourning a divine character, as mingled with a hope by which they might “comfort one another.” (See 1 Thess. 4:13-1813But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. 14For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. 15For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. 16For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: 17Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. 18Wherefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13‑18).)
I would add here, too, that if any saints were in the tone of soul in which singing would be possible at such a time, it was those fresh-hearted, loving children of God at Thessalonica. In no place in Scripture do we find such bright freshness of soul portrayed as there. Yet we read of sorrow and mourning rather than joy and merriment of soul. Doubtless they needed to have the sorrow corrected in its hopelessness, rather than its existence, and this Paul does so blessedly here.
I say not a word if the hearts of mourners are so full of praise that it can find no other vent than in song. Far be it from me to quench the Spirit in any. But I do say that such will not frequently be found, and for my part I would rather hear the quiet, earnest prayer of those who surround the tomb of a loved one, ascending and rising up to praise, if such were in unison with the hearts clustered around, than to hear what so grates on the ear of most — the hymn or song of praise — Affectionately in the Lord, F. G. P.
Words of Truth 7:97, 98.
Dear — I am glad you have written to me, as to my letter in “Words of Truth,” of May (p. 97), on the above subject, for I wished to have added a thought or so more to what I had written.
The letter, you will doubtless have perceived, left the matter quite open in cases which sometimes arise when there were no sorrowing mourners laying their dead in the grave, for the singing of hymns, as the Lord might lead, in the happy expression of Christian fellowship amongst those who are there. I have not the least objection to this. But I believe that those who go to the graves of their brethren, ostensibly do so, to “Weep with those that weep” (Rom. 12:1515Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. (Romans 12:15)). If there are no weepers there, I am sure it is most happy to “Rejoice with those that do rejoice”; as it is to seize any occasion when we meet our brethren for Christian communion and joy.
I doubt if Paul could have sung at the grave of Epaphroditus had he died when performing this service for Paul, in bringing up the tender care — the “odor of a sweet smell,” of the beloved Philippians to his prison. “God had mercy on him,” says the aged prisoner, “and not on him only, but on me also, lest I should heave sorrow upon sorrow” (Phil. 2:2727For indeed he was sick nigh unto death: but God had mercy on him; and not on him only, but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. (Philippians 2:27)).
When the relative, husband of beloved wives, parents of beloved children, widows of beloved husbands, and the like, are surrounding the grave, the wrench has just come, and the deep wound of the tears is felt in its keenness (though, doubtless, it may be more keen later still), I should doubt it were spiritual power in their hearts to sing around the graves of those whom they had lost. I should (for myself at least), feel it were callousness and the want of “natural affection,” which characterizes the “last days” (2 Tim. 3). I am sure God would not have us think lightly — of these dealings of His hand. I would feel that His hand was upon me at such a moment, and that He was looking for a chastened, lowly spirit, that was bowing under the blow. I have no doubt but that “afterward” these things “yield the peaceable fruit of righteousness” to the exercised heart. But it is “afterward,” and not at the moment. Then, in the calm and quiet of an exercised heart, when the bitterness of the blow has passed away, we may surely rise above it all, and be able to praise Him, and be glad and rejoice for the joy of those who are “with Christ,” and away from the sorrows of this scene.
I believe that in John 14:2828Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I. (John 14:28), “If you loved me ye would rejoice because I said I go unto the Father,” the Lord seeks such an interest in our hearts for His happiness, that He looks for our being happy in the thought of His happiness and joy, as gone on high, no more to be a “Man of sorrows” in this scene. I am sure none of them could have understood it at the moment. And besides it is not rejoicing that they were then about to lose Him; but, as I have said, present rejoicing in the consciousness of the happiness of Jesus as exalted in the Father’s glory. It may be in principle true of those who are His, but the application and meaning of the passage refers to what I have said. Thus when our sorrow will have subsided for a loved one, we do learn to rejoice no doubt, that they are with Him.
The substance of my letter was written to a brother, on the occasion of the funeral of a beloved co-laborer, who was snatched away in the midst of his field of usefulness. The brother to whom I wrote showed it to others, who approved much of it, and no hymns were sung. For this I was deeply thankful. Another wrote to me of the funeral, and said, None of us could have sung, there was not a dry eye there. This was as it should have been. The Lord’s people should collectively feel that God’s hand is upon them, when a valued laborer is taken away. They should do so individually, in like manner, when a loved one, closely linked by ties of flesh, or special ties, is removed.
I would hesitate to speak of what Scripture does not — “The joy of the blessed Lord at receiving that loved one,” etc. I would rather speak of and enjoy His sympathy in the sorrow of the moment, when hearts are deeply feeling the death of one they loved.
Affectionately in the Lord, F. G. P.
Words of Truth 7:138, 139.