Practical Christian Theology
Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage

“I will go and see him before I die” (Genesis 45:28).

Jacob had long since passed the 100-year milestone (cf Genesis 47:9, 28). In his day persons were distinguished for longevity. In the centuries after, persons still lived to great age. Galen, the most celebrated physician of his time, took so little of his own medicine, that he lived to be 140 years old. A man of undoubted veracity on the witness stand in England swore that he remembered an event that happened 150 years before. Lord Bacon speaks of a countess who had cut three sets of teeth, and died at 140 years. Joseph Crele, of Pennsylvania, lived 140 years. In 1857 a book was printed containing the names of 37 persons who lived 140 years, and the names of eleven persons who lived 150 years.

Among the grand old persons of whom we have record was Jacob, the shepherd of the text. But he had a bad lot of boys. They were jealous, ambitious, and in every way unprincipled. Joseph, however, was an exception; but he had been gone many years, and the probability was that he was dead. As sometimes now in a house you will find kept at the table a vacant chair, a plate, a knife, a fork, for some deceased member of the family, so Jacob kept in his heart a place for his beloved Joseph.

There sits the old man, the flock of 140 years in their flight having alighted long enough to leave the marks of their claw on forehead, cheek, and temple. His long beard snows down over his chest. His eyes are somewhat dim, and he can see farther when they are closed than when they are open, for he can see clear back to the time when beautiful Rachel, his wife, was living, and his children shook the Oriental abode with their merriment.

The centenarian is sitting dreaming over the past when he hears a wagon rumbling to the front door. He gets up and goes to the door to see who has arrived, and his long absent sons from Egypt come in and announce to him that Joseph, instead of being dead, is living in an Egyptian palace, as prime minister, next to the king in the mightiest empire of all the world! The news was too sudden and too glad for the old man. His cheeks whiten, he has a dazed look, his staff falls out of his hand, and he would have dropped if the sons had not caught him, led him to a lounge, put cold water on his face, and fanned him a little.

In that half-delirium the old man mumbles something about his son Joseph. He says, “You do not mean Joseph, do you? my dear son who has been dead so long? You don’t mean Joseph, do you?” But after they had fully resuscitated him, and the news was confirmed, the tears begin the winding way down the crossroads of the wrinkles, the sunken lips of the old man quiver, and he brings his bent fingers together as he says, “Joseph is yet alive. I will go and see him before I die.”

It did not take the old man a great while to get ready, I warrant you. He put on the best clothes that the shepherd’s wardrobe could afford. He got into the wagon, and though the aged are cautious and like to ride slow, the wagon did not get along fast enough for this old man; and when the wagon with the old man met Joseph’s chariot coming down to meet him, and Joseph got out of the chariot, got into the wagon, and threw his arms around his father’s neck, it was an antithesis of royalty and rusticity, of simplicity and pomp, of filial affection and paternal love, which leaves us so much in doubt about whether we had better laugh or cry, that we do both. So Jacob kept the resolution of the text: “I will go and see him before I die.” And if our friends the reporters would like to have an appropriate title for this sermon, they might call it “The Old Folk’s Visit.”

What a strong and unfailing thing is parental attachment! Was it not almost time for Jacob to forget Joseph? The hot suns of many summers had blazed on the heath; the River Nile had overflowed and receded, overflowed and receded again and again; the seed had been sown and the harvests reaped; stars rose and set; years of plenty and years of famine had passed on; but the love of Jacob for Joseph in my text is overwhelmingly dramatic.

Oh, that is a cord that is not snapped, though pulled on by many decades! Though when the little child expired, the parents may not have been more than 25 years of age, and now they are 75, yet the vision of the cradle, the childish face, and the first utterances of the infantile lips are fresh today, in spite of the passage of a half-century. Joseph was as fresh in Jacob’s memory as ever, though at 17 years of age the boy had disappeared from the old homestead.

I found in our family record the story of an infant that had died 50 years before, and I said to my parents, “What is this record, and what does it mean?” Their chief answer was a long deep sigh. It was yet to them a very tender sorrow.

What does that all mean? Why, it means our children departed are ours yet, and that cord of attachment reaching across the years will hold us until it brings us together in the palace, as Jacob and Joseph were brought together. That is one thing that makes old people die happy. They realize it is reunion with those from whom they have long been separated.

I am often asked as pastor—and every pastor is asked the question—”Will my children be children in heaven, and forever children?”

Well, there was no doubt a great change in Joseph from the time Jacob lost him, and the time when Jacob found him—between the teenager and the man in midlife, his forehead developed with a great business estate; but Jacob was glad to get back Joseph anyhow, and it did not make much difference to the old man whether the boy looked older, or looked younger. And it will be enough joy for that parent if he can get back that son, that daughter, at the gate of heaven, whether the departed loved one comes as a cherub or a full-grown adult. There must be a change wrought by that celestial climate and by those supernal years, but it will only be from loveliness to more loveliness, and from health to more radiant health.

O parent, as you think of the darling panting and white in membranous croup, I want you to know it will be gloriously better in that land where there has never been a death and where all the inhabitants will live on in the great future as long as God! Joseph was Joseph notwithstanding the palace, and your child will be your child notwithstanding all the raining splendors of everlasting noon.

What a thrilling visit was that of the old shepherd to the prime minister Joseph! I see the old countryman seated in the palace looking around at the mirrors, the fountains, and the carved pillars, and, oh, how he wishes that Rachel, his wife, was alive and she could have come there with him to see their son in his great house! “Oh,” says the old man to himself, “I do wish Rachel could be here to see all this!”

I visited at the farmhouse of the father of Millard Fillmore when the son was President of the United States, and the octogenerian farmer entertained me until eleven o’clock at night telling me what great things he saw in his son’s house at Washington, what Daniel Webster had said to him, and how grandly Millard had treated his father in the White House. The old man’s face was illumined with the story until almost the midnight. He had just been visiting his son at the Capitol.

And I suppose it was something of the same joy that thrilled the heart of the old shepherd as he stood in the palace of the prime minister. It is a great day when your old parents come to visit you. Your little children stand around with wide-open eyes, wondering how anybody could be so old. The parents cannot stay many days, for they are a little restless, and especially at nightfall, because they sleep better in their own bed; but while they tarry, you somehow feel there is a benediction in every room in the house. They are a little feeble, and you make it as easy as you can for them, and you realize they will probably not visit you often—perhaps never again. You go to their room after they have retired at night to see if the lights are properly put out, for the old people understand candle and lamp better than electricity.

In the morning, with real interest in their health, you ask them how they rested last night. Joseph did not think more of his father than you do of your parents. Probably before they leave your house, they will half-spoil your children with kindness. Grandfather and Grandmother are more lenient and indulgent to your children than they ever were with you. And what wonders of revelation in the pocket of the one and the sleeve of the other!

Blessed is that home where Christian parents come to visit. Whatever may have been the style of the architecture when they come, it is a palace before they leave. If they visit you 50 times, the two most memorable visits will be the first and the last. Those two pictures will hang in the hall of your memory while memory lasts. You will remember how they looked, where they sat, what they said, at what figure of the carpet, and at what doorsill they parted, giving you the final good-bye. Do not be embarrassed if your father comes to town having the country manners of the shepherd, and if your mother come to town without costly millinery. The wife of Emperor Theodosius said a wise thing when she said, “Husband, remember what you lately were, and remember what you are, and be thankful.”

By this time you notice what kindly provision Joseph made for his father Jacob. Joseph did not say, “I can’t have the old man around this place. How clumsy he would look climbing up these marble stairs, and walking over these mosaics! Then, he would be putting his hands on some of these frescoes. People would wonder where that old greenhorn came from. He would shock all the Egyptian court with his manners at table. Besides that, he might get sick on my hands, and he might be querulous [petulant], and he might talk to me as though I were only a boy, when I am the second man in all the realm. Of course, he must not suffer, and if there is famine in his country—and I hear there is—I will send him some provisions; but I can’t take a man from Padanaram and introduce him into this polite Egyptian court. What a nuisance it is to have poor relations!”

Joseph did not say that at all. He rushed out to meet his father with perfect abandon of affection, brought him up to the palace, introduced him to the Emperor, and provided for all the rest of the father’s days. Nothing was too good for the old man while living; and when he was dead, Joseph, with military escort, took his father’s remains to the family cemetery at Machpelah and laid them down beside Leah, his first wife. Would God all children were as kind to their parents!

If the father have large property, and he be wise enough to keep it in his own name, he will be respected by the heirs; but how often it is when the son finds the father in famine, as Joseph found Jacob in famine, the young people make it hard for the old man. They are so surprised he eats with a knife instead of a fork. They are chagrined [embarrassed] at his antediluvian [pre-Flood] habits. They are provoked because he cannot hear as well as he used to; and when he asks, and the son has to repeat it, he bawls in the old man’s ear, “I hope you hear that!”

How long he must wear the old coat or the old hat before they get him a new one! How chagrined they are at his independence of proper grammar! How long he hangs on! Seventy years and not gone yet! Seventy-five years and not gone yet! Eighty years and not gone yet! Will he ever go? They think it of no use to have a doctor in his last sickness, go up to the drugstore, get a dose of something that makes him worse, economize on a coffin, and beat the undertaker down to the last point, giving a note for the reduced amount which they never pay!

I have officiated at obsequies [funerals] of aged people where the family have been so inordinately resigned to the Providence that I felt like taking my text from Proverbs: “The eye that mocks its father, and refuses to obey its mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it” (Proverbs 30:17). In other words, such an ingrate ought to have a flock of crows for pallbearers! I congratulate you if you have the honor of providing for aged parents. The blessing of the Lord God of Joseph and Jacob will be on you.

I rejoice to remember that though my father lived in a plain house most of his days, he died in a mansion provided by the filial piety of a son who had achieved a fortune. There the octogenarian sat, the servants waited on him, and there were plenty of horses, plenty of carriages, and a bower in which to sit on long summer afternoons, dreaming over the past. There was not a room in the house where he was not welcome, and there were musical instruments of all sorts to regale him; and when life had passed, the neighbors came out, expressed their honor, carried him to the village Machpelah, and laid him beside the “Leah” with whom he had lived more than a half-century.

Share your successes with the old people. The probability is that the principles they inculcated achieved your fortune. Give them a Christian percentage of kindly consideration. Let Joseph divide with Jacob the pasturelands of Goshen and the glories of the Egyptian court.

And here I would like to sing the praises of the sisterhood who remained unmarried that they might administer to aged parents. The brutal world calls these self-sacrificing ones by ungallant names, and says they are peculiar or angular; but if you had had as many annoyances as they have had, Xantippe [wife of Socrates] would have been an angel compared with you. It is easier to take care of five rollicking, romping children than of one childish old man.

Among the best women of Brooklyn and of yonder transpontine [transatlantic] city are those who allowed the bloom of life to pass away while they were caring for their parents. While other maidens were sound asleep, they were soaking the old man’s feet or tucking up the covers around the invalid mother. While other maidens were in the cotillon, they were dancing attendance on rheumatism, spreading plasters for the lame back of the septuagenarian, and heating catnip tea for insomnia.

In almost every circle of our kindred there has been some queen of self-sacrifice to whom jeweled hand after jeweled hand was offered in marriage, but who stayed on the old place because of the sense of filial obligation until the health was gone and the attractiveness had vanished. Brutal society may call such a one by a nickname. God calls her “daughter,” Heaven calls her “saint,” and I call her “domestic martyr.” A half-dozen ordinary women have not as much nobility as could be found in the smallest joint of the little finger of her left hand.

Though the world has stood 6,000 years, this is the first apotheosis [high point] of maidenhood. In the long line of those who have preferred celibacy that they might be qualified for some special mission are Annie Ross, Margaret Breckinridge, Mary Shelton, Annie Etheridge, Georgiana Willetts, the angels of the battlefields of Fair Oaks, Lookout Mountain, Chancellorsville, and Cooper Shop Hospital.

Single life has been honored by three of the grandest men of the Bible—John the Baptist, Paul of Tarsus, and Jesus of Nazareth were celibates.

Let the ungrateful world sneer at the maiden aunt, but God has a throne burnished for her arrival. On one side of that throne in heaven is a vase containing two jewels, the one brighter than the Koh-i-Noor of London Tower, and the other larger than any diamond ever found in the districts of Golconda—the one jewel by the lapidary of the palace cut with “Inasmuch as you have done it to your father,” the other jewel by the lapidary of the palace cut with “Inasmuch as you have done it to your mother, you have done it to Me” (cf Matthew 25:40).

“Over the Hills to the Poorhouse” is the exquisite ballad of Will Carleton, who found an old woman who had been turned out by her prospered sons; but I thank God I find in my text “Over the Hills to the Palace.”

As if to disgust us with unfilial conduct, the Bible presents us the story of Micah, who stole the 1,100 shekels from his mother (Judges 17:1-4), and the story of Absalom, who tried to dethrone his father (2 Samuel 15:1-18:33). But all history is beautiful with stories of filial fidelity. Epaminondas, the warrior, found his chief delight in reciting to his parents his victories. There goes Aeneas from burning Troy, on his shoulders Anchises, his father. The Athenians punished with death any unfilial conduct. There goes beautiful Ruth escorting venerable Naomi across the desert among the howling of the wolves and the barking of the jackals (Ruth 1:16-19). John Lawrence burned at the stake in Colchester, was cheered in the flames by his children, who said, “O God, strengthen Your servant and keep Your promise!” And Christ in the hour of excruciation provided for His mother (John 19:26, 27). Jacob kept his resolution, “I will go and see him before I die,” and a little while after we find them walking the tessellated [mosaic] floor of the palace, Jacob and Joseph, the prime minister proud of the shepherd.

To those of you whose parents have perhaps visited you for the last time, or will soon pay you such a visit, consider if they will ever visit you in the King’s palace.

“Oh,” you say, “I am in the pit of sin!” Joseph was in the pit.

“Oh,” you say, “I am in the prison of mine iniquity!” Joseph was once in prison.

“Oh,” you say, “I didn’t have a fair chance; I was denied maternal kindness!” Joseph was denied maternal attendance.

“Oh,” you say, “I am far away from the land of my nativity!” Joseph was far from home.

“Oh,” you say, “I have been betrayed and exasperated!” Did not Joseph’s brothers sell him to a passing Ishmaelitish caravan? Yet God brought him to that emblazoned residence; and if you will trust His grace in Jesus Christ you, too, will be empalaced.

Oh, what a day that will be when the old folk come from an adjoining mansion in heaven, and find you among the alabaster pillars of the throne room, living with the King! They are coming up the steps now, and the epauletted guard of the palace rushes in and says, “Your father’s coming, your mother’s coming!” And when under the arches of precious stones and on the pavement of porphyry you greet each other, the scene will eclipse the meeting on the Goshen highway, when Joseph and Jacob fell on each other’s neck and wept.

But, oh, how changed the old folk will be! Their cheek smoothed into the flesh of a little child. Their stooped posture lifted into immortal symmetry. Their foot now so feeble, then with the sprightliness of a bounding roe. They will say to you, “A spirit passed this way from earth and told us that you were wayward and dissipated after we left the world; but you have repented, our prayer has been answered, and you are here. As we used to visit you on earth before we died, now we visit you in your new home after our ascension.”

Father will say, “Mother, don’t you see Joseph is yet alive?”

Mother will say, “Yes, Father, Joseph is yet alive.”

Then they will share their earthly anxieties in regard to you, the midnight supplications in your behalf, and recite the Scripture passage that cheered their staggering faith: “I will be a God to you and to you seed after you” (Genesis 17:7).

Oh, the palace, the palace, the palace! That is what Richard Baxter called The Saints’ Everlasting Rest. That is what John Bunyan called the Celestial City. That is Edward Young‘s “Night Thoughts” turned into morning exultations. That is Thomas Gray‘s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” turned to resurrection spectacle. That is Robert Burn‘s “Cotter’s Saturday Night” exchanged for the Cotter’s Sabbath morning. That is Hannah More‘s “Shepherd of Salisbury Plain” among the flocks on the hills of heaven. That is the famine-struck Padanaram turned into the rich pasturelands of Goshen. That is Jacob visiting Joseph at the emerald castle.

“When you have brought up kids, there are memories you store directly in your tear ducts.” ~Robert Brault

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Wedding Rings

*Adapted from “The Old Folk’s Visit,” 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.