Practical Christian Theology
Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage
“Whose son are you, young man?” (1 Samuel 17:58).
Never was there a more unequal fight than that between David and Goliath. David five feet high; Goliath ten. David a shepherd boy, brought up in rural scenes; Goliath, a warrior by profession. Goliath, a mountain of braggadocia; David, a marvel of humility. Goliath, armed with an iron spear; David, armed with a sling and five smooth stones.
But you are not to despise these latter weapons. There was a regiment of slingers in the Assyrian army and a regiment of slingers in the Egyptian army, and they made terrible execution. They could cast a stone with as much precision and force as now can be hurled shot or shell. The Greeks in their army had slingers who would throw lead plummets inscribed with the irritating words: “Take this!” So a slingshot was a mighty weapon.
A Jewish rabbi says Goliath was probably in such contempt of David, that in a paroxysm of laughter he threw his head back, and his helmet fell off. David saw the uncovered forehead, saw that his opportunity had come, and taking his sling and swinging it around his head two or three times, and aiming at that uncovered forehead, he crushed it in like an eggshell.
The battle over, behold a tableau: King Saul sitting, little David standing, his fingers clutched into the hair of the decapitated Goliath. As Saul sees David standing there holding in his hand the ghastly, reeking, staring trophy, evidence of the complete victory over God’s enemies, the king wonders what parentage was honored by such heroism, and he asks David, “Whose son are you, young man?”
The king saw what you and I see, that this question of heredity is a mighty question. [Why else but genetics would make pedigree of a horse or a dog, for instance, so important?]
The longer I live, the more I believe in blood [nature over nurture]—good blood, bad blood, proud blood, humble blood, honest blood, thieving blood, heroic blood, cowardly blood. A trait may skip a generation or two, but it is sure to out somewhere sometime. In a little child you sometimes see a similarity to a great-grandfather whose picture hangs on the wall. That the physical, mental, and moral qualities are inheritable is patent to anyone who keeps his eyes open.
The similarity in the bloodline is so striking sometimes as to be amusing. Great families, regal or literary, are apt to have the same characteristics all down through the generations, and what is more perceptible in such families may be seen on a smaller scale in all families. A thousand years have no power to obliterate the difference.
The large lip of the House of Austria is seen in all the generations; it is called the Hapsburg lip. The House of Stuart means in all generations cruelty, bigotry, and sensuality. Witness Mary Queen of Scots. Witness Charles I and Charles II. Witness James I and James II. Witness all the other scoundrels of that imperial line.
Scottish blood means persistence, English blood means reverence for the ancient, Welsh blood means religiosity, Danish blood means fondness for the sea, Indian blood means roaming disposition, Celtic blood means fervidity, Roman blood means conquest.
The Jewish facility for accumulation is traceable clear back to Abraham, of whom the Bible says, “And Abraham was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold” (Genesis 13:2) and to Isaac and Jacob, who had the same family characteristics. Some families are characterized by longevity, and they have a tenacity of life positively Methuselahish. Others are characterized by Goliathian stature, and you can see it for one generation, two generations, five generations, in all the generations.
Vigorous theology runs on in the line of the Alexanders. Tragedy, in the Kembles. Literature, in the Trollopes. Philanthropy, in the Wilberforces. Statesmanship, in the Adamses. Henry and Catharine of Navarre religious, all their families religious. The celebrated family of the Casini, all mathematicians. The celebrated family of the Medici—grandfather, son, and Catharine—all remarkable for keen intellect. The celebrated family of Gustavus Adolphus, all warriors.
This law of heredity asserts itself without reference to social or political condition, for you sometimes find the ignoble in high place and the honorable in obscure place. A descendant of Edward I was a tollgatherer. A descendant of Edward III, a doorkeeper. A descendant of the Duke of Northumberland, a trunkmaker. Some of the mightiest families of England are extinct, while some of those most honored in the peerage go back to an ancestry of hard knuckles and rough exterior. This law of heredity is entirely independent of social or political condition.
On the other hand, you find avarice, jealousy, sensuality, and fraud having full sway in some families. The violent temper of Frederick William is the inheritance of Frederick the Great. It is not a theory to be set forth by worldly philosophy only, but by divine authority. Do you not remember how the Bible speaks of “a chosen generation” (1 Peter 2:9), of “the generation of the righteous” (Psalm 14:5), of the “generation of vipers” (Matthew 3:7), of an “untoward generation” (Acts 2:40), of “a stubborn and rebellious generation” (Psalm 78:8), of “the iniquity of the fathers visited on the children to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20:5)? So that the text comes today with the force of a projectile hurled from mightiest catapult: “Whose son are you, young man?”
“Well,” says someone, “that theory discharges me from all responsibility. Born of sanctified parents, we are bound to be good and we cannot help ourselves. Born of unrighteous parents, we are bound to be evil and we cannot help ourselves.”
You could say, “The centripetal force [toward the center] in nature has a tendency to bring everything to the center, and therefore all things come to the center. Or the centrifugal force [away from the center] in nature has a tendency to throw out everything to the periphery, and therefore everything will go out to the periphery.”
You know as well as I do that you can make the centripetal overcome the centrifugal, and you can make the centrifugal overcome the centripetal.
A mighty tide of good in a family may be overcome by determination to evil, as in the case of Jonathan Edwards’ son Pierpont Edwards, the Freemason, and grandson Aaron Burr Jr, the libertine. On the other hand, some of the best men and women of this day are descended from ancesters, of whom it would not be courteous to speak in their presence.
The practical and useful object of this sermon is to show to you that if you sprang from godly ancestors, you are solemnly bound to preserve and develop the glorious inheritance. If you came from depraved ancestry, then it is your duty to brace yourself against the evil tendency by all prayer and Christian determination. Find out your family’s frailties, arm the castle, and put the strongest guard at the weakest gate. With these smooth stones from the brook I hope to strike you, not where David struck Goliath, in the head, but where Nathan struck David, in the heart (2 Samuel 12:1-14). “Whose son are you, young man?”
First, to those of Christian ancestry: I do not mean to suggest your parents were perfect, as we understand the meaning of that word. There is no perfect person now; there was no perfect person then. Perhaps there was sometimes too much blood in their eye when they chastised you. From what I know of you, you got no more than you deserved, and perhaps a little more chastisement would have been salutary.
But you are willing to acknowledge, I think, that your parents wanted to do right. From what you overheard in conversations, and from what you saw at the family altar and at church, you know that they had invited God into their heart and life. There was something that sustained your parents supernaturally. You have no doubt about their destiny. You expect if you ever get to heaven to meet them as certainly as you expect to meet the Lord Jesus Christ.
That early association has been a charm for you. There was a time when you got right up from a house of iniquity and walked out into the fresh air because you thought your mother was looking at you. You have never been happy in sin because of a sweet old face that would present itself. Tremulous voices from the past accosted you until they were seemingly audible, and you looked around to see who spoke.
There was an estate not mentioned in the last will and testament: a vast estate of prayer, holy example, Christian entreaty, and glorious memory. The survivors of the family gathered to hear the will read, this was to be kept, that was to be sold, and it was share and share alike.
But there was an unwritten will that read something like this: “In the name of God, I, being of sound mind, bequeath to my children all my prayers for their salvation. I bequeath to them all the results of a lifetime’s toil. I bequeath to them the Christian religion that has been so much comfort to me, and I hope may be solace for them. I bequeath to them a hope of reunion when the partings of life are over: share and share alike may they have in eternal riches. I bequeath to them the wish that they may avoid my errors and copy anything that may have been worthy. In the name of the God who made me, and the Christ who redeemed me, and the Holy Spirit who sanctifies me, I make this my last will and testament. Witness, all you Hosts of Heaven. Witness, Time. Witness, Eternity. Signed, sealed, and delivered in this our dying hour. Father and Mother.”
You did not get that will proved at the surrogate’s office; but I take it out today and I read it to you. I take it out of the alcoves of your heart. I shake the dust off it. I ask you, “Will you accept that inheritance, or will you break the will?”
O you of Christian ancestry, you have a responsibility vast beyond all measure! God will not let you off with just being as good as ordinary people when you had such extraordinary advantage. Ought not a flower planted in a hothouse be more thrifty than a flower planted outside in the storm? Ought not a factory turned by the Housatonic [a river of Southern New England] do more work than a factory turned by a thin and shallow mountain stream? Ought not you of great early opportunity be better than those who had a cradle unblessed?
A father sets his son up in business. He keeps an account of all the expenditures. So much for store fixtures, so much for rent, so much for this, so much for that, and all the items aggregated, and the father expects the son to give an account. Your heavenly Father charges against you all the advantages of a pious ancestry—so many prayers, so much Christian example, so many kind entreaties—all these gracious influences one tremendous aggregate, and He asks you for an account of it.
Ought not you to be better than those who had no such advantages? Better have been a foundling picked up off the city commons than with such magnificent inheritance of consecration to turn out indifferently.
Ought not you, my brother, to be better, having had Christian nurture, than that man who can truly say this morning: “The first word I remember my father speaking to me was an oath. The first time I remember my father taking hold of me was in wrath. I never saw a Bible till I was ten years of age, and then I was told it was a pack of lies. The first twenty years of my life I was associated with the vicious. I seemed to be walled in by sin and death.”
Now, my brother, ought you not—I leave it as a matter of fairness with you—ought you not to be far better than those who had no early Christian influence?
Standing as you do between the generation that is past and the generation that is to come, are you going to pass along the blessing? You are the trustee of piety in that ancestral line, and are you going to augment or squander that solemn trust fund. Are you going to disinherit your sons and daughters of the heirloom your parents left you?
Ah, that cannot be possible, that cannot be possible that you are going to take such a position as that! You are careful about life insurance, careful about deeds, careful about mortgages, and careful about the title of your property, because when you step off the stage you want your children to get it all. Are you making no provision for grandfather and grandmother’s faith?
Oh, what a last will and testament you are making, my brother! “In the name of God, I, being of sound mind, make this my last will and testament. I bequeath to my children all the money I ever made and all the houses I own; but I disinherit them, I rob them of the ancestral grace and the Christian influence that I inherited. I have squandered that on my own worldliness. Share and share alike must they in the misfortune and the everlasting outrage. Signed, sealed, and delivered in the presence of God and men, angels and devils, and all the generations of earth, heaven, and hell, March, 1886.”
O you of highly favored ancestry, wake up this morning to a sense of your opportunity and your responsibility!
I think there must be an old cradle, or a fragment of a cradle somewhere, that could tell a story of midnight supplication in your behalf. Where is the old rocking chair in which you were sung to sleep with the holy nursery rhyme? Where is the old clock that ticked away the moments of that sickness on that awful night when there were but three of you awake—you, God, and Mother?
Is there not an old staff in some closet? Is there not an old family Bible on some shelf that seems to address you, saying: “My son, my daughter, how can you reject that God who so kindly dealt with us all our lives and to whom we commended you in our prayers living and dying? By the memory of the old homestead, by the family altar, by our dying pillow, by the graves in which our bodies sleep while our spirits hover, we beg you to turn over a new leaf for the new year.”
Oh, the power of ancestral piety! Oh, the power of ancestral prayer. Hear it! Hear it!
But I turn for a moment to those who had evil parents, and I want to tell you that the highest thrones in heaven, the mightiest triumphs, and the brightest crowns will be for those who had evil parents, but who by the grace of God conquered. As useful, as splendid a gentleman as I know of today had for father a man who died blaspheming God until the neighbors had to put their fingers in their ears to shut out the horror. One of the most consecrated and useful Christian ministers of today was born of a drunken horse jockey. There is in some families a tremendous tide of evil. It is as powerful and as raging as Niagara Falls. Yet, despite its mighty current, some men have clung to a Rock and been rescued.
There is in New York a family, whose wealth has rolled up into many millions, that was founded by a man who, after he had vast estate, returned a paper of tacks because they cost two cents more than he expected to pay. Grip, grind, and gouge in the fourth generation—I suppose it will be grip, grind, and gouge in the twentieth generation.
In another family the thirst for intoxicants has burned down through the arteries of a hundred and fifty years. In yet another family, pugnacity or combativeness. Sometimes it is one form of evil, sometimes another, but it may be resisted.
If the family frailty be avarice, cultivate unselfishness and charity, and teach your children never to eat an apple without offering somebody else half of it.
Is the family frailty be combativeness, keep out of the company of quick-tempered people, and never answer an impertinent question until you have counted a hundred both ways. After you have written an angry letter, keep it a week before you send it, and then burn it up!
Is the family frailty be timidity and cowardice, cultivate backbone, read the biography of brave men like Joshua or Paul, and see if you cannot get a little iron in your blood. Find out what the family frailty is, and set body, mind, and soul in battle array. Conquer your will.
The genealogical table was put in the first chapter of the New Testament not only to show our Lord’s pedigree, but to show that a man may rise up in an ancestral line and beat back successfully all the influences of bad heredity. See in that genealogical table that good King Asa came of vile King Abijah. That Joseph and Mary and the most illustrious Being that ever touched our world, or ever will touch it, had in their ancestral line scandalous Rehoboam, Manasseh—Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba.
If this world is ever to be Edenized, all the infected families of the earth will have to be regenerated. In each family line someone must arise and open a new genealogical table. There must be a Hezekiah to reverse the influence of evil Rehoboam. There must be a Mary to reverse the influence of vile Athaliah (cf 2 Chronicles 22:1-4). Perhaps the star of hope may point down to your manger. Perhaps you are to be the hero or the heroine that is to put down the brakes, stop that long train of genealogical tendencies, and switch it to another track from that on which it has been running for a century. You do that, and I will promise you as fine a palace as the architects of heaven can build, the archway inscribed with the words “more than conqueror” (Romans 8:37).
But whatever your heredity, let me say, you may be sons and daughters of the Lord God Almighty. Estranged children from the homestead come back through the open gate of adoption. There is royal blood in our veins. There are crowns in our escutcheon [coat of arms]. Our Father is King. Our Brother is King. We may be kings and queens to God forever (cf Revelation 1:6).
Come and sit down on the ivory bench of the palace. Come and wash in the fountains that fall into the basins of crystal and alabaster. Come and look out of the upholstered window on the gardens of azalea and amaranth. Hear the full burst of the orchestra while you banquet with potentates and victors.
Oh, when the text sweeps backward, let it not stop at the cradle that rocked your infancy, but at the cradle that rocked the first world; and when the text sweeps forward, let it not stop at your grave, but at the throne on which you may reign forever and ever!
“Whose son are you, young man?”
Son of God! Heir of mortality!
Take your inheritance!
“One father is more than a hundred schoolmasters.” ~George Herbert
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Wedding Rings
*Adapted from “The Children’s Patrimony,” 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.