Practical Christian Theology
Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage
“And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at eventide: and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, the camels were coming” (Genesis 24:63).
A bridal pageant on the back of dromedaries! The camel is called the ship of the desert. Its swinging motion in the distance is suggestive of a vessel rising and falling with the billows. Though awkward, how imposing these creatures are as they move along, whether in ancient or modern times, sometimes carrying 400 or 4,000 travelers from Baghdad to Aleppo, or from Bassora to Damascus!
In my text comes a caravan. We notice the noiseless step of the broad foot, the velocity of motion, the merry caparison [covering] of saddle, girth, and awning, sheltering the riders from the sun, and the hilarity of the mounted passengers. We cry, “Who are they?”
Well, Isaac has been praying for a wife, and it is time he had one, for he is forty years of age. The family steward, directed by the Lord, has selected Rebekah, a near kinswoman. With her companions and maidens, she is on her way to her new home, carrying with her the blessing of family and friends.
THE NUPTIAL MEETING
Isaac is in the fields, meditating on his proposed passage from celibacy to monogamy. And he sees a speck against the sky, then groups of people, and after a while he finds that the grandest earthly blessing that ever comes to a man is approaching with this merry caravan.
In this my series of discourses on “The Wedding Ring,” having spoken of the choice of a lifetime companion, I take it for granted, O man, that your marriage was divinely arranged, and that the camels have arrived from the right direction and at the right time, bringing the one that was intended for your consort—a Rebekah and not a Jezebel. I proceed to discuss how you ought to treat your wife, and my ambition is to tell you more plain truth than you ever heard in any three-quarters of an hour in all your life.
THE RESPONSIBILITY UNDERTAKEN
First of all, I charge you: realize your responsibility in having taken her from the custody, care, and homestead in which she was once sheltered. What courage you must have had, and what confidence in yourself, to say to her practically, “I will be to you more than your father and mother, more than all the friends you ever had or ever can have! Give up everything and take me. I feel competent to see you through life in safety. You are an immortal being, but I am competent to defend you and make you happy. However bright and comfortable a home you have now, and though in one room is the armchair in which you were rocked, in the garret is the cradle in which you were hushed and the trundle-bed in which you slept, and in the sitting room are the father and mother who have grown wrinkle-faced, stoop-shouldered, and dim-eyesighted in taking care of you, yet you will do better to come with me.”
I am amazed that any of us ever had the sublimity of impudence to ask such a transfer from a home assured to a home conjectured and unbuilt.
A RISKY VOYAGE
You would think me a daring and hazardous adventurer if I should go down to one of the piers on the North River, at a time when there was a lack of ship captains, and should, with no knowledge of navigation, propose to take a steamer across to Glasgow or Havre, saying, “All aboard! Haul in the planks and swing out,” and, passing out into the sea, plunge through darkness and storm. If I succeeded in getting charge of a ship, it would be one that would never be heard of again!
But that is the boldness of every man that proffers marriage. He says to his woman, “I will navigate you through the storms, the cyclones, the fogs of a lifetime. I will run clear of rocks and icebergs. I have no experience and I have no seaport, but all aboard for the voyage of a lifetime! I admit that there have been ten thousand shipwrecks on this very route, but don’t hesitate! Tut! Tut! There now! Don’t cry! Brides must not cry at the wedding.”
THE WIFE’S TEMERITY
In response to this the woman, by her action, practically says, “I have but one life to live, and I entrust it all to you. My arm is weak, but I will depend on the strength of yours. I don’t know much of the world, but I rely on your wisdom. I put my body, my mind, my soul, my time, my eternity, in your keeping. I make no reserve. Even my name I resign and take yours, though mine is a name that suggests all that was honorable in my father, all that was good in my mother, and all that was pleasant in my brothers and sisters. I start with you on a journey that will not part except at the edge of your grave or mine.
“Ruth, the Moabitess, made no more thorough self-abnegation than I make, when I take her tremendous words, the pathos of which many centuries have not cooled: ‘Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die will I die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me and more also, if anything but death part you and me’ (Ruth 1:16, 17). Side by side in life. Side by side in the burying ground. Side by side in heaven. Before God and man, and with my immortal soul in the oath, I swear eternal fidelity.”
Now, my brother, how ought you to treat her? Unless you are an ingrate infidel you will treat her well. You will treat her better than anyone in the universe except your God. Her name will have in it more music than in all that Chopin, Bach, or Rheinberger composed. Her eyes, swollen with three weeks of night-watching over a fevered child, will be to you as beautiful as a May morning.
After the last rose petal has dropped out of her cheek, after the last feather of the raven’s wing has fallen from her hair, after across her forehead, under her eyes, and across her face there are as many wrinkles as there are graves over which she has wept, you will be able truthfully to say, in the words of Solomon’s song: “Behold, you are fair, my love! Behold, you are fair!” (Song of Solomon 1:15; 4:1). And perhaps she may respond appropriately in the words that no one but the matchless Robert Burns could ever have found pen or ink, or heart or brain to write:
John Anderson, my jo, John,
When we were first acquent,
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonnie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snow;
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my jo.
John Anderson, my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither;
And mony a canty day, John,
We’ve had wi’ ane anither:
Now we maun totter down, John;
But hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo! ~Robert Burns
If anyone assail her good name, you will have hard work to control your temper; and if you should strike him down, the sin will not be unpardonable. By as complete a surrender as the universe ever saw—except that of the Son of God for your salvation and mine—she has a first mortgage on your body, mind, and soul, and the mortgage is foreclosed. You do not more thoroughly own your two eyes or your two hands than she owns you. The longer the journey Rebekah makes and the greater the risks of her expedition on the back of the camels, the more thoroughly is Isaac bound to be kind, indulgent, and worthy.
Now, be honest and pay your debts. You promised to make her happy. Are you making her happy? You are an honest man in other things, and feel the importance of keeping a contract. If you have induced her into a conjugal partnership under certain pledges of kindness and valuable attention, and then have failed to fulfill your word, you deserve to have a suit brought against you for getting goods under false pretenses, and then you ought to be mulcted [fined] for damages.
Review now all the fine, beautiful, complimentary, gracious, and glorious things you promised her before marriage and reflect whether you have kept your faith. Do you say, “Oh, that was all sentimentalism, romance, a joke. They all talk that way!”
Well, let that plan be tried on yourself! Suppose I am interested in Western lands, and I fill your mind with roseate speculation, and I tell you that a city is already laid out on the farm that I propose to sell you, that a new railroad will run close by, will have a depot for easy transportation of the crops, that eight or ten capitalists are going to put up fine residences close by, that the climate is delicious, that the ground, high up, gives no room for malaria, and that every dollar planted will grow up into a bush bearing $10 or $20.
My speech glows with enthusiasm until you rush off with me to an attorney to have the deed drawn, the money paid down, and the bargain completed. You can hardly sleep nights because of the El Dorado, the Elysium, on which you are soon to enter.
You give up your home at the East, you bid good-bye to your old neighbors, you take the train, and after many days’ journey you arrive at a quiet depot, from which you take a wagon thirty miles through the wilderness to reach your new place. You see a man seated on a wet log, in a swamp, shaking with the fifteenth attack of chills and fever, and you ask him who he is.
“I’m a real estate agent, having in charge the property around here.”
You ask him where the new depot is. He tells you that it has not yet been built, but no doubt will be if the company get their bill for the track through the next legislature. You ask him where the new city is laid out.
He says, with chattering teeth, “If you will wait till this chill is off, I will show it to you on the map I have in my pocket.”
You ask him where the capitalists are going to build their fine houses, and he says, “Somewhere along those lowlands out there by those woods, when the water has been drained off.”
That night you sleep in the hut of the real estate agent, and though you pray for everybody else, you do not pray for me. Being more fortunate than many men who go out in such circumstances, you have money enough to get back, and you come to me. Out of breath in your indignation, you say, “You have swindled me out of everything. What do you mean deceiving me about that Western property?”
“Oh,” I reply, “that was all right; that was sentimentalism, romance, a joke. That’s the way they all talk!”
But more excusable would I be in such deception than you, O man, who by glow of words and personal magnetism induced a womanly soul into surroundings that you have taken no care to make attractive, so that she exchanged her father’s house for the dismal swamp of married experience—treeless, flowerless, shelterless, comfortless, and godless. I would not be half so much to blame in cheating you out of a farm as you are in cheating a woman out of the happiness of a lifetime!
Compare the promises you made, and see whether you have kept them. Some of you spent every evening of the week with your betrothed before marriage. Since then you have spent every evening away, except when you have influenza or other sickness and the doctor says you must not go out. You used to fill your conversation with interjections of adulation, and now you think it sounds silly to praise the one who ought to be more attractive to you as the years go by, as life grows in severity of struggle and becomes more sacred by the baptism of tears—tears over losses, tears over graves. Compare the way some of you used to come in the house in the evening, when you were attempting to capture her affections with the way some of you come into the house in the evening now.
Then what politeness, what distillation of smiles, what graciousness, sweet as the peach orchard in blossom week! Now some of you come in, put your hat on the rack, scowl, and say, “Lost money today!” You sit down at the table and criticize the way the food is cooked. You shove back before the others are done eating, snatch up the evening paper, and read, oblivious of what has been going on in that home all day.
The children are in awe before the domestic autocrat. Bubbling over with fun, yet they must be quiet; bubbling over with healthful curiosity, yet they must ask no question. The wife has had enough annoyances in the nursery, parlor, and kitchen to fill her nerves with nettles and spikes.
As you have provided the money for food and wardrobe, you feel you have done all required of you. Toward the good cheer, the intelligent improvement, and the moral entertainment of that home, which at the longest can last but a few years, you are doing nothing. It seems you are unconscious of the fact that soon these children will be grown and gone, far removed from your influence, that the wife will soon end her earthly mission, that house will be occupied by others, and that you yourself will be history.
Gentlemen, fulfill your contract. Christian marriage is an affectional bargain. In heathen lands a man wins his wife by achievements. In some countries wives are bought by the payment of so many dollars, as so many cattle or sheep.
In one country the man gets on a horse and rides down where a group of women are standing, seizes one of them by the hair, lifts her, struggling and resisting, on his horse; and, if her brothers and friends do not overtake her before she gets to the jungle, she is his lawful wife.
In another land the masculine candidate for marriage is beaten by the club of the one whom he would make his bride. If he cries out under the pounding, he is rejected. If he receives the blows uncomplainingly, she is his by right. Endurance, bravery, and skill decide the marriage in barbarous lands; but Christian marriage is a voluntary bargain, in which you promise protection, support, companionship, and love.
THE TERMS OF THE CONTRACT
Businessmen have in their fireproof safes a file of papers containing their contracts. Sometimes they take them out and re-read them to refresh their memory on what the party of the first part and the party of the second part bound themselves to do. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to re-read the terms of your contract with your wife to refresh your memory?
Different ministers have their own peculiar forms of marriage ceremony; but if you have forgotten what you promised at the altar of wedlock, you had better buy or borrow an Episcopal Church Service, which contains the substance of all intelligent marriage ceremonies. It says, “I take thee to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge thee my troth.” Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have that printed in tract form and widely distributed?
The fact is that many men are more kind to everybody else’s wife than to their own. They will let their own wife carry a heavy coal scuttle upstairs, and will at one bound clear the width of a parlor to pick up some other lady’s pocket handkerchief. There is an evil I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men—namely, husbands flirting. The attention they ought to give their own wife they give another. They smile on other women coyly and askance, and with a manner that seems to say, “I wish I was free from that old drudge at home. What an improvement you would be on my present surroundings!”
Bouquets are sent, accidental meetings take place, and late at night the man comes to his prosaic home, whistling and hilarious, and wonders that the wife is jealous. There are thousands of men who, while not overtly immoral, need radical correction of their gregarious habits. It is meanness immeasurable for a man by his behavior to say to his wife, “I will go where I please, and admire whom I please, and I defy your criticism.”
Why did you not have that put in the bond, O domestic Shylock? Why did you not have it understood before you were pronounced husband and wife that she should have only a part of the dividend of your affections; that when, as time rolled on and the cares of life had erased some of the bright lines from her face, and given unwieldiness to her form, you would have the reserved right to pay obeisance to cheeks more rubicund [rosy], and figure lither and more agile, and as you demanded the last pound of patience and endurance on her part you could, with the emphasis of an Edwin Forrest or a William Macready, have tapped the eccentric marriage document and have said, “It’s in the bond!”
If this modern Rebekah had understood beforehand where she was alighting, she would have ordered the camel drivers to turn the caravan backward toward Padan-aram.
Flirtation has its origin either in dishonesty or licentiousness. The married man who indulges in it is either a fraud or a rake. However high up in society such a one may be, and however sought after, I would not give a three-cent piece, though it had been three times clipped, for the virtue of the masculine flirt!
The most worthy thing for the thousands of married men to do is to go home and apologize for past neglects and brighten up their old love. Take up the family Bible and read the record of the marriage day. Open the drawer of relics in the box inside the drawer containing the trinkets of your dead child. Take up the pack of yellow-colored letters that were written before you became one. Rehearse the scenes of joy and sorrow in which you have mingled. Put all these things as fuel on the altar, and by a coal of sacred fire rekindle the extinguished light. It was a blast from hell that blew it out, and a gale from heaven will fan it into a blaze.
You who have broken marriage vows, reform! In the future, take your wife into your plans, your successes, your defeats, and your ambitions. Walk arm in arm with her into places of amusement, on the piazza of summer watering places, up the rugged way of life, and down through dark ravine. And when one trembles on the way, let the other hold steady. In no case pass yourself off as a single man, practicing gallantries. Do not, after you are fifty years of age, in ladies’ society, try to look and act young.
Interfere not with your wife’s spiritual nature. Put her not in that awful dilemma in which so many Christian wives are placed by their husbands, who ask them to go to places or do things that compel them to decide between loyalty to God and loyalty to the husband. Rather than ask her to compromise her Christian character, encourage her to be more and more a Christian, for there will be times in your life when you will want the help of all her Christian resources. When you remember how much influence your mother had over you, you do not want the mother of your children to set a less gracious example.
It pleases me greatly to hear the unconverted and worldly husband say of his wife, with no idea that it will get to her ears: “There is the most godly woman alive. Her goodness is a perpetual rebuke to my waywardness. Nothing on earth could ever induce her to do a wrong thing. I hope the children will take after her instead of after me. If there is any heaven at all, I am sure she will go there.”
THE PRIEST OF THE HOUSEHOLD
Ah, my brother, don’t you think it would be a wise and a safe thing to join her on the road to heaven? You think you have a happy home now, but what a home you would have if you both were believers! What a new sacredness it would give to your marital relation, and what a new light it would throw on the forehead of your children! In sickness, what a comfort! In reverses of fortune, what a wealth! In death, what a triumph!
God meant you to be the high priest of your household. Go home today, take the Bible on your lap, and gather your family around you. Then kneel down; and if you can’t think of a prayer to offer, I will give you a prayer; namely, “Lord God, I surrender to You myself, my beloved wife, and these dear children. For Christ’s sake forgive all the past and help us for all the future. We have lived together here, may we live together forever. Amen and amen.”
Emperor Joseph II was so kind and so philanthropic that he excited the unbounded love of most of his subjects. He abolished serfdom, established toleration, and lived in the happiness of his people.
One day on his way to Ostend to declare it a free port, riding at the head of a great procession, Emperor Joseph saw a woman at the door of her cottage in dejection. He dismounted and asked the cause of her grief. She said that her husband had gone to Ostend to see the Emperor, and had declined to take her with him. An alien, her husband could not understand her loyal enthusiasm. It was the one desire of her life to see the ruler for whose kindness, goodness, and greatness she had an unspeakable admiration. Her disappointment in not being able to go and see him was simply unbearable.
The Emperor Joseph took from his pocket a box decorated with diamonds surrounding a picture of himself and presented it to her. When the picture revealed to whom she was talking, she knelt in reverence and clapped her hands in gladness. The Emperor took the name of her husband, where he might be found at Ostend, and had him imprisoned for the three days of the Emperor’s visit. So it was that the husband returning home found his wife had seen the Emperor while he had not.
In many families of this earth the wife, through the converting grace of God, has seen the “King in His beauty” (Isaiah 33:17), and He has conferred on her “the pearl of great price” (cf Matthew 13:46), while the husband is an “alien from the covenant of promise, without God and without hope in the world” (cf Ephesians 2:12), imprisoned in worldliness and sin. Oh, that they might arm in arm go this day and see Him, who is not only greater and lovelier than any Joseph of earthly dominion, but “high over all, in earth, and air, and sky”! His touch is life. His voice is music. His smile is heaven.
“Husband, love your wife even as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25).
“Love your wife and be not bitter against her” (Colossians 3:19).
“Dwell with your wife, giving honor to the weaker vessel … Be of one mind. Have compassion one to another. Be caring. Be courteous” (1 Peter 3:7, 8).
“Let everyone of you in particular so love his wife even as himself”
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Wedding Rings
*Adapted from “Duties of Husbands to Wives,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], The Wedding Ring: A Series of Discourses for Husbands and Wives and Those Contemplating Matrimony (New York: Louis Klopsch, 1896). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.