The Empty Place: A Christmas Day Sermon
“And David’s place was empty.” — 1 Samuel xx. 25.
THERE may be much to learn from an empty place. The world thinks much of the places which have been emptied through the home-going of its celebrated men. Those who have served the world are remembered by it; those who have served the Church are remembered, too; and empty chairs in the world, in the Church, and in the family, awaken a great many recollections.
I do not intend to keep to one subject to-night; I think I have, in these words about David’s place, a roving commission; and keeping to my text, I shall be able to consider a great many subjects, and to speak briefly upon each.
I. First, then, let us think of THE EMPTY PLACE IN THE PERSECUTOR’S HOUSE: “David’s place was empty.”
David had good reason for vacating his place at Saul’s table, for the passionate king was so malicious, and so embittered against him, that he sought his life. Saul had, on several occasions, in his fits of mad anger, hurled javelins at the man to whom he owed so much, and the envious king determined to put his rival to death at the first convenient opportunity. David, therefore, very properly left a place in which his life was continually in peril.
Oh, how happy are we, in these days, that we are not subjected to the fierce sufferings, and the cruel persecutions, which the early Christians, and even our own forefathers had to endure! How often, in a Jewish family, as soon as a young man had become a follower of Christ, from that moment none of his household would acknowledge him. He was a follower of the hated Nazarene! “A curse be upon him,” said his father; and oven a mother’s tenderness seemed to be dried up, so that she could not think of him without bitterness and gall. A like thing happened also in the old Roman families. The child of a Roman noble had stepped into some little place where humble and unlettered people met to hear the gospel preached, to sing songs in the name of Jesus, and to keep holy one day in the week; and there that youthful heart had learnt the story of the cross, and by the grace of God had been brought to love the Saviour. As soon as the fact was made known, the officers of justice would take away the child from the father’s house, and hale the young believer off to prison, and so another seat was empty. When persecution grew very hot in the old Roman times, you know how the good, and the great, and the true, the strong and the old, the young man and the maiden, had alike to flee for their lives. If they remained, it was only to be dragged before the Roman praetor, and short work was made of them at the stake or in the arena. After a little while, nothing was left of them but a heap of ashes from the martyr fire, or a few bones that the wild beasts did not care to eat. Thus another “David’s place was empty.”
Horrible work was wrought, too, when the Church of Rome had its full power, and the officers of the Inquisition, at dead of night, knocked at the door of some Christian man, and demanded either himself, or his wife, or son, or daughter. They had to surrender themselves without a word, that they might be immured in the damp, dark vaults of that hellish institution, never to be seen again, except, on some dreadful day, when they were marched out, in derision, to be burnt alive because they would not bow before images of ivory and wood, and call those idols the Christ to whom homage and reverence should be paid. You know how it was in our own land, how many a seat was empty during the persecutions of Queen Mary; and after that, when our noble sires would not conform to the established Church of this land, and, therefore, were hunted into the dens and caves of the earth, as though they had been wild beasts, instead of men of whom the world was not worthy. Many of the bravest and best of England’s sons and daughters fled away to America, and found another and a safer home there, in New England, where the wild rocks were less flinty than the hearts of men here in England.
Often and often, when persecution has arisen for the truth’s sake, David’s seat has been empty. If martyr days should come back again, could we vacate our places? Could the husband let his wife and children go for Christ’s sake? Could the child again give up the father’s love? Could you wrench yourselves away from all your dear ones, to prove that you were truly Christ’s, and that you loved him better than father or mother, husband or wife, or any of your kin? God grant that the true martyr spirit may not die out of our heart, even if, in God’s gracious providence, it be not called into terrible exercise as among the brave peasants of Switzerland, or the noble covenanters of Scotland, or the old Nonconformists of this country! At any rate, whatever we are called to endure, may we be true and loyal to the gospel for which our fathers bled and died; and if the times of persecution should ever come again, and come they may, may we be ready again to vacate the place of comfort, luxury, and peace for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake!
II. There is another place which sometimes becomes empty, that is, THE TRACE OF SINFUL PLEASURES. This empty place is the result of the working of God’s grace in the heart.
I know that, concerning some here, it may be said, with very great thankfulness, that David’s place is empty. Ah, dear friend, where was your place, seven years ago, on such a night as this in our so-called Christian land? Ah, well, we do not want you to tell where it was, you had better be silent about that; but, with a holy blush, and then with devout thankfulness to God, rejoice that, so far as you are concerned, David’s place in the seat of the scornful is empty now. You know that the ale-bench would not suit you now, nor the place where the lascivious song awakens enthusiastic applause from the ribald throng; you would be out of place in the company of the flippant, the foolish, the blasphemous, and those who find their pleasures in forgetting their God, and think it no sin to break through his laws. No, thank God, that place is empty now!
Grace makes a wonderful change in a man. It is not so much that he dares not go where he used to find delight; he would not go if he were paid for it, nay, if he were even flogged to make him go. Old pleasures are not given up by us simply because we think them wrong; we know they are evil, and that would be one reason for abandoning them; but we give them up also because they are no longer pleasures to us. We have no delight whatever in them now, nor would we have them if we were free to choose them for ourselves. Were the law of God suspended, and we were permitted to take as much of the pleasure of sin as we liked, we would decline to take any, since it is not pleasure to us. Oh, be thankful, dear friend, that grace has made such a change in you, and resolve in your heart that, as grace has done this for you, you will use your utmost endeavours to get the same gracious work done for your friends, that others may be captured from Satan’s ranks. Oh, what a gap God sometimes makes in the devil’s army, when he takes one of his most active soldiers, and enlists him in the army of Jesus Christ, and then makes a recruiting-sergeant of him to enlist others for his new Captain! There are no servants of God like those who have been valiant soldiers of Satan. Saul of Tarsus, when once made into an apostle, was not only not a whit behind the very chief, but we may venture to say that he was the very foremost of all the apostles, and did more for Christ than any of them. Oh, may many a David’s place, among those who are seeking sinful pleasures, be speedily emptied by God’s almighty grace! And if the devil should fill it up with another of his foolish votaries, may God be pleased to empty that place again and again! May many, like Moses, choose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.
III. Now I shall speak of other empty places which are better than those I have mentioned. During the past year, it has happened several times, to some of us, that David’s place has been empty. I mean that, for a time, THE PLACE OF OUR OCCUPATION HAS BEEN EMPTY.
Perhaps some of you have not had a single hour’s sickness during the past year; I will remind you of your mercies that you may be very grateful to God for them. Some of us have had days, some have had weeks, and some have had even months, when David’s place was empty. Not long at a time, perhaps, but usually some time or other during the year, this pulpit has had to be empty, so far as the regular preacher was concerned. Infirmities lay aside the preacher, for a while, at any rate; and with many here there comes, every now and then, a season when they have to be away from the chapel, and from the business, and from the family circle, and there is extra watchfulness in the household, and there is special care, and it may be that, sometimes, there is cause for anxiety and fear. Perhaps, in some of your cases, there has been much of needful concern. Remember those nights when the fever was about to turn, those hours when there were anxious whisperings by the loved ones around your bed, “Will he get over it? Can he survive?” You remember those trying experiences; I want you to remember them, in order that you may bless the Lord, who has spared your life, and raised you up again to health and strength. If David’s place has not been often empty, be grateful for the health that God has given you; if it has been empty for a while, but you are still in the land of the living, be grateful for the restoration which the Lord has granted to you.
But brethren and sisters, I want to ask you, and myself also, are we rendering unto God due recompense for all that he has given to us? He has favoured us with prolonged life; is that life being spent for him? It may be that, on that sick-bed, we turned our face to the wall, and prayed in the bitterness of our spirit, and we then vowed what we would do if the Lord would spare our lives; or, if we did not put it absolutely into the form of a vow, we resolved that if we were raised up again, we would be more fervent and more diligent in the Master’s cause than we had been aforetime. Have we redeemed those promises? Do I awaken any memories of shame? Methinks I should; I do in my own heart, and I should not wonder if I do in yours also. If so, then let the prayer go up from each heart, “My Lord, thou hast redeemed me with thy precious blood, and made me thine; thy vows are upon me, and I bring myself again to thee on this last Sabbath night of another year, and I say, bind the sacrifice with cords, even with cords to the horns of the altar!
‘My life, which thou has made thy care,
Lord, I devote to thee!’
Show me what thou wouldest have me to do; give me strength and wisdom to do it; keep me diligently in thy service, steadfast in thy fear, until David’s place be empty here below for the last time, and thou dost take me up to fill another place which thou hast prepared for me at thy right hand!”
I thought it might be well to awaken these thoughts in the minds of those of you who are specially concerned in this part of my subject.
IV. During the past year, many of you now present have had A PLACE IN THE ASSEMBLY OF GOD’S PEOPLE.
I do not quite like to put the question about how often David’s place in the congregation of the righteous has been empty. I have very little need ever to say anything to you, dear friends, about any want of regular attendance upon the means of grace. I think no people I have ever heard of are more commonly found listening to the preaching of the Word, or joining in religious service. Yet there may be some of you who have absented yourselves when you should have been present; or there may be members of other congregations who have fallen into lax and loose habits with regard to forsaking the assembling of themselves together, “as the manner of some is,” even as it was in Paul’s day. Let any such who may be with us check those habits as soon as they begin. They are very detrimental to all spiritual growth. I do not think you will find a man in good health if he takes his meals at all sorts of irregular hours. As a rule, the body needs its regular periods of receiving nourishment and sustenance; and it is the same with the soul. You will scarcely find a Christian to be in sound health if he neglects the appointed time for being fed with spiritual meat.
You who are unconverted should take special notice of this part of my theme. I think that I need not say very much to the Christian about attending the Lord’s house, for he loves the place where God’s honour dwelleth. He can say,—
“I have been there, and still would go,
’Tis like a little heaven below.”
But as for you who are not converted, I delight to see you in the house of God, willing and even anxious to listen to his Word; for who can tell, who can tell, but what God may bless it to you? “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” When you are away from the sound of the preacher’s voice, there seems less probability that grace will meet you, to awaken your conscience, and turn you to Christ. While you are gathered with the Lord’s people, I would fain hope that God will bless to your soul’s salvation the truth that is preached. Be often, then, in that place of worship where Jesus Christ is lifted up; and seek to obtain a personal interest in his great salvation.
I love to see you hovering round the Word, listening to the preaching of the gospel; but do not, I pray you, let it always be true that you are hearers only; for, if you are hearers only, and not doers of the Word, you are simply destroying your own souls. Do you know what is your great danger, you who are hearers only, and who are not always hearers? You are running a fearful risk of losing your souls.
What I fear concerning some of you is, that you will postpone your decision, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, till you will not feel as much interest as you now do in listening to the gospel, and gradually you will come to the house of prayer less often, and David’s place will be more often empty; and, by-and-by, the gospel will grow so stale to you, and this poor voice of mine will sound with so dull a tone, and my message will seem so commonplace, that your seat will be found always empty. When this comes to pass, I fear that you will be found wandering further and further from the paths of right, and truth, and hope, and that you will be utterly and hopelessly lost. May God decide you for Christ Jesus ere this year of grace has passed away! May it be, even now, the year of our Lord to your soul, the year in which the Lord himself shall come into your spirit, and take possession of your entire nature! Then I know that David’s seat in the assembly of God’s people will not be often empty.
V. I have now to say just a few words specially to the members of the church about TIIEIR PLACE AT THE PRAYER-MEETING.
“David’s place was empty.” What was being done then? “Well, it was only a prayer-meeting!” Yes, but, but, but, but, but, but, that is saying a great deal. Did any member of the church give that answer? I do not think even one would do so; but I would like to enquire of all the members of this church, “How many times have you been to the prayer-meeting this year?” There are some of you who are never away unless something absolutely prevents you from coming. I am glad even to see some of you come in late on Monday nights. If you cannot come at seven, come at half-past seven, or come at eight; come at any time that you can, so that you may but throw in your portion of supplication with the rest of the brethren and sisters. But I am ashamed of some of our members. They will say, “Whom do you mean?” Last Sunday week, a little boy came to this Tabernacle for the first time; so, when I stood up and began to preach, the little fellow said to his nurse, “Nurse, is Mr. Spurgeon talking to me?” I wish you would all say that, if my words apply to you; for I am talking to some of the members of the church when I say that I am ashamed of you who never come to the prayer-meetings. I do not mean this rebuke for you who live at a very great distance, or who are fully occupied with your families or business cares; for you would be wrong to come. God forbid that I should ask you to present to him one duty stained with the blood of another duty! But there are some who might be here, and ought to be here at our prayer-meetings; and they are spiritually suffering positive mischief in their own souls through their absence, besides the loss that they are causing to the treasury of the church; for the wealth of the church lies in the power of intercession. The measure of the church’s influence will be found to be in exact proportion to the amount of prayer presented by the members; for if there is not much prayer, there cannot be much power. “But we can pray at home,” says one. Yes, I know you can; but, as a rule, I think the people who pray at home are those who pray at prayer-meetings, too. The assembling of ourselves together for prayer, is very generally (special circumstances being taken into consideration) the exponent of our private prayer. Do let me stir up any of you whose places at the prayer-meetings have been empty, and let it not be so again.
My beloved in the Lord, my fellow-soldiers in Christ, what has been the source and secret of our strength, as a church, up till this time? It has been our prayer. How well do I remember what prayer-meetings we had in Park Street! When we began, we were so very few and feeble that, in most of the prayer-meetings we had, we met in a little vestry; but we soon had to burst open our doors, and get into the chapel, and we have never gone back into the vestry since then. And oh, the power that the Lord graciously gave us in prayer! I felt there, and many of you felt, that we seemed by our supplications to bring down the blessing of God upon us; and then our numbers were speedily increased, souls were converted, and God was glorified. If we slacken prayer, we shall condemn ourselves. We have proved, not by hearsay, but by personal experience, that prayer is power; and if we relax our prayer oven to a small extent, or even for a little while, we shall deserve to have this place made a by-word and a hissing, and all our prosperity taken from us, and Ichabod written upon our walls. May God grant that this voice may be silent in death ere this people shall ever cease to be a praying people! Rather may our prayerfulness be quickened, and our intercessions multiplied; and let it not be said of any men or women here who fear the Lord, that their place is empty when God’s people assemble together for prayer.
VI. There is another David’s place that is sometimes empty, and that ought not to be so, it is THE PLACE OF CHRISTIAN SERVICE.
My dear brethren and sisters, our gifts are various; God has been pleased to place us in different positions, and to give us different talents; but every saved man or woman has some work to do for Christ. Are we doing that work? There is our Sunday-school; it troubles me if I ever know that teachers are wanted there. There are many other schools where members of this church are occupied as teachers. We are supplying, I might say without any exaggeration, half the Sunday-school teachers of half the denominations in the district; for I have always said to you, “Go anywhere that you can find an opportunity of doing good; never mind where it is. If you have ability to teach, go and teach in anybody’s school where your services are needed.” Yet there are some among us who hide their talents in a napkin, and do not use them; and, as a consequence, there is some David’s place empty.
You are not all called to the same work for Christ. I like to miss to-night some of those I saw here this morning; and I should not mind missing some of you for the same reason. Why? Because they are gone to teach in the Ragged-schools, or to speak at the mission-stations, or in the lodging-houses. When a Christian man says to me, “There are workers needed at such and such a Ragged-school, or mission-hall; I should like to be hearing a sermon, but I would rather be doing good than getting good,” I say to him, “Right, my brother, while London is what it is, you must be content to get one sermon a-day, and feed your soul on that, and then go and do all you can for your Lord the rest of the Sabbath.” It would be well for the younger members of our churches to be for a time in constant attendance on the means of grace, because they need to be instructed in divine things; but every instructed Christian is bound to be a worker for Christ among the perishing masses all around us.
Seek to serve your Saviour wherever he opens a door of usefulness. You need not go to-night into the street to preach, the weather is not suitable for open-air services just now; but when the summer comes, let every corner of the street have its evangelist, and let every man, woman, and child, who love the Lord, do the work he desires them to do; and let it not be said of any one of us that “David’s place was empty.” Oh, the joy of doing good! Brethren, next to heaven, the greatest joy that can be found is the joy of doing good to others. Did you ever meet some poor man, who said to you, “Bless your heart, you led me to the Saviour”? Did you ever see a woman look you in the face with unspeakable love, and say to you, “You are my father in Christ Jesus; you brought me to the Saviour’s feet”? If you once knew this joy, you would always be hungering after more of it; you would never be fully satisfied with what you have done, and would be ever wanting to do yet more and more. I have tasted of this sweetness, and I have found it so refreshing to my spirit that I would have every member of this church taste of it, too. When our Lord reads the roll of those who are doing all the good they can in Sunday-school, and Ragged-school, and in preaching, teaching, visiting, tract-distributing, or what not, I hope you all will be able to answer, humbly but firmly, “Here am I, my Master, doing thy work as thou dost enable me.”
I believe that many of you will be doing Christ’s work best at home. You need not teach in the Sunday-school, you can have one in your own house. Many a daughter is better occupied in seeing after the younger ones of her own family than anywhere else. Yet with such exceptions as these, I beg you to take the general run of what I have said; I speak unto wise men, judge ye what I say, and believe me that there is something to be done by each one who loves the Lord. You are not accountable to me, or to the elders of the church; but you are accountable to the Crown Prince, the Prince Imperial of heaven, Christ Jesus, our Lord. He has bought you with his precious blood; you are his. Then, serve him; and let not your place of service ever be vacant through your neglect or indolence.
VII. Again, “David’s place was empty.” I hope that OUR PLACE AT THE LORD’S TABLE will not be empty at any time when it is possible for us to occupy it.
There are not any in this church, known to me, who absent themselves from the Lord’s table very grossly; but still there is room for improvement in this matter in the case of some of us. I like to go to that table every week; and my own solemn conviction is, that that is none too often. If there be any rule about it in Scripture, there certainly is no rule for going once a month, much less for once a quarter; if there be any rule, it is that, on the first day of the week, when we meet together, we should break bread in memory of our Saviour’s dying love. I commend it to our brethren and sisters to consider whether they keep the feast as often as they should, remembering our Master’s wondrous passion and death. It may be that they lose much spiritual benefit because their place at the Lord’s table is empty, when it should be filled.
VIII. But I must hasten on towards the conclusion. Brethren, to-morrow, when you will be keeping the Christmas feast, there will be many family gatherings, and in those family gatherings there will be SOME HOUSEHOLDS WHERE DAVID’S PLACE WILL BE EMPTY.
As I came here, I was thinking of what inroads death has made in this congregation this year. There have been many vacancies made, and there will be many more next year. I miss from one seat, a sister whom I saw upon her dying bed; and, from another part of the building, a brother whose cheering words in his last moments did my soul good. I miss here one and there another; I could run my finger along these pews in the area, and I could come up on this platform, and I could truly say, concerning one who has been called home this year, “David’s place is empty.” We can hardly say that literally, because his son fills it, and long may he fill it, and have God’s blessing resting upon him! But here and there, and everywhere in this Tabernacle, I miss some who have gone home. Our family gathering is gradually breaking up; thank God, it is being reformed up yonder, where there will be no death and no parting.
When you get to your family gathering, perhaps you will have to remember that your mother has died this year, or it may be that your father has gone home, or perhaps it was the eldest son, or that sweet curly-headed child. Perhaps, to-morrow, you will be merry; and I do not say to you, “Be not so,” but let these memories come over you, let them direct your thoughts upward, let them remind you that family gatherings are only for a time, and that the great gathering is above. There the immortals meet, there the feast never ends. Look away from earth with all its joys. Let them that have wives be as those that have none, let them that have children look on their children as dying ones. Let kinships, and friendships, and all these things, be regarded as they are, as evanescent, as things that perish in the using. Hear the trumpet sound, “Up and away,” and let your hearts be where Jesus is, and let your treasure be there also. Those dear ones who are in heaven beckon us to follow them, and we signal to tell them that we are on the way. Surely, they must look upon us with amazement if they see us hugging the things of earth as though we were to stay here for ever. Let our conversation be in heaven, and let our affection be set on things above, and not on things on the earth.
IX. My last reflection is this: TIIERE WILL BE NO EMPTY PLACE IN HEAVEN. In that great family gathering up above, they will not be able to say, “David’s place is empty.”
Beloved, if you are a believer in Christ, if you are the poorest saint, and the least worthy of consideration in the whole household, yet you shall have your place in heaven; you must have it, for God will not have one empty seat there, and nobody but yourself can fill your place. Our Lord Jesus Christ says,— mark his words,— “I go to prepare a place.” That is something; but note the next words, “I go to prepare a place for you” for you, not for somebody else, but for you. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you must have the place which Jesus Christ has gone to prepare for you. There is a crown in heaven which can fit no other head but mine; and there is a harp in heaven out of which no other fingers but mine can bring music. There is a mansion in the skies which nobody but you can ever occupy; and there are joys for you only, and a place in the complete circle of God’s elect that must be filled, and must be filled by you. Oh, what joy is this! Press onward, my brother, go on bravely; if the darkness thickens, and the dangers multiply, Christ is your life, and you cannot die. The everlasting wings shall cover you, and the everlasting arms shall be underneath you. You shall meet us in the place where all the family shall be present, and the great Father and the elder Brother shall welcome them all, and no “David’s place” shall be empty. May I be there, may we all be there; and God shall have the praise! Amen and amen.