SERMON XVI.--TERROR BY NIGHT
(Preached in Lent.)
PSALM xci. 5.
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night.
You may see, if you will read your Bible, that the night is spoken of
in the Old Testament much as we speak of it now, as a beautiful and
holy thing. The old Jews were not afraid of any terror by night.
They rejoiced to consider the heavens, the work of God's fingers, the
moon and the stars, which he had ordained. They looked on night, as
we do, as a blessed time of rest and peace for men, in which the
beasts of the forest seek their meat from God, while all things are
springing and growing, man knows not how, under the sleepless eye of
a good and loving Creator.
But, on the other hand, you may remark that St. Paul, in his
Epistles, speaks of night in a very different tone. He is always
opposing night to day, and darkness to light; as if darkness was evil
in itself, and a pattern of all evil in men's souls. And St. Paul
knew what he was saying, and knew how to say it; for he spoke by the
Holy Spirit of God.
The reason of this difference is simple. The old Jews spoke of God's
night, such as we country folks may see, thank God, as often as we
will. St. Paul spoke of man's night, such as it might be seen, alas!
in the cities of the Roman empire. All those to whom he wrote--
Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, and the rest--dwelt in great cities,
heathen and profligate; and night in them was mixed up with all that
was ugly, dangerous, and foul. They were bad enough by day: after
sunset, they became hells on earth. The people, high and low, were
sunk in wickedness; the lower classes in poverty, and often despair.
The streets were utterly unlighted; and in the darkness robbery,
house-breaking, murder, were so common, that no one who had anything
to lose went through the streets without his weapon or a guard; while
inside the houses, things went on at night--works of darkness--of
which no man who knows of them dare talk. For as St. Paul says, 'It
is a shame even to speak of those things which are done by them in
secret.' Evil things are done by night still, in London, Paris, New
York, and many a great city; but they are pure, respectable,
comfortable, and happy, when compared with one of those old heathen
cities, which St. Paul knew but too well.
Again. Our own forefathers were afraid of the night and its terrors,
and looked on night as on an ugly time: but for very different
reasons from those for which St. Paul warned his disciples of night
and the works of darkness. Though they lived in the country, they
did not rejoice in God's heaven, or in the moon and stars which he
had ordained. They fancied that the night was the time in which all
ghastly and ugly phantoms began to move; that it was peopled with
ghosts, skeletons, demons, witches, who held revels on the hill-tops,
or stole into houses to suck the life out of sleeping men. The cry
of the wild fowl, and the howling of the wind, were to them the yells
of evil spirits. They dared not pass a graveyard by night for fear
of seeing things of which we will not talk. They fancied that the
forests, the fens, the caves, were full of spiteful and ugly spirits,
who tempted men to danger and to death; and when they prayed to be
delivered from the perils and dangers of the night, they prayed not
only against those real dangers of fire, of robbers, of sudden
sickness, and so forth, against which we all must pray, but against a
thousand horrible creatures which the good God never created, but
which their own fancy had invented.
Now in the Bible, from beginning to end, you will find no teaching of
this kind. That there are angels, and that there are also evil
spirits, the Bible says distinctly; and that they can sometimes
appear to men. But it is most worthy of remark how little the Bible
says about them, not how much; how it keeps them, as it were, in the
background, instead of bringing them forward; while our forefathers
seem continually talking of them, continually bringing them forward--
I had almost said they thought of nothing else. If you compare the
Holy Bible with the works which were most popular among our
forefathers, especially among the lower class, till within the last
200 years, you will see at once what I mean,--how ghosts,
apparitions, demons, witchcraft, are perpetually spoken of in them;
how seldom they are spoken of in the Bible; lest, I suppose, men
should think of them rather than of God, as our forefathers seem to
have been but too much given to do.
And so with this Psalm. It takes for granted that men will have
terrors by night; that they will be at times afraid of what may come
to them in the darkness. But it tells them not to be afraid, for
that as long as they say to God, 'Thou art my hope and my stronghold;
in thee will I trust,' so long they will not be afraid for any terror
It was because our forefathers did not say that, that they were
afraid, and the terror by night grew on them; till at times it made
them half mad with fear of ghosts, witches, demons, and such-like;
and with the madness of fear came the madness of cruelty; and they
committed, again and again, such atrocities as I will not speak of
here; crimes for which we must trust that God has forgiven them, for
they knew not what they did.
But, though we happily no longer believe in the terror by night which
comes from witches, demons, or ghosts, there is another kind of
terror by night in which we must believe, for it comes to us from
God, and should be listened to as the voice of God: even that terror
about our own sinfulness, folly, weakness which comes to us in dreams
or in sleepless nights. Some will say, 'These painful dreams, these
painful waking thoughts, are merely bodily, and can be explained by
bodily causes, known to physicians.' Whether they can or not,
matters very little to you and me. Things may be bodily, and yet
teach us spiritual lessons. A book--the very Bible itself--is a
bodily thing: bodily leaves of paper, printed with bodily ink; and
yet out of it we may learn lessons for our souls of the most awful
and eternal importance. And so with these night fancies and night
thoughts. We may learn from them. We are forced often to learn from
them, whether we will or not. They are often God's message to us,
calling us to repentance and amendment of life. They are often God's
book of judgment, wherein our sins are written, which God is setting
before us, and showing us the things which we have done.
Who that has come to middle age does not know how dreams sometimes
remind him painfully of what he once was, of what he would be still,
without God's grace? How in his dreams he finds himself tempted by
the old sins; giving way to the old meannesses, weaknesses, follies?
How dreams remind him, awfully enough, that though his circumstances
have changed,--his opinions, his whole manner of life, have changed--
yet he is still the same person that he was ten, twenty, thirty,
forty years ago, and will be for ever? Nothing bears witness to the
abiding, enduring, immortal oneness of the soul like dreams when they
prove to a man, in a way which cannot be mistaken--that is, by making
him do the deed over again in fancy--that he is the same person who
told that lie, felt that hatred, many a year ago; and who would do
the same again, if God's grace left him to that weak and sinful
nature, which is his master in sleep, and runs riot in his dreams.
Whether God sends to men in these days dreams which enable them to
look forward, and to foretell things to come, I cannot say. But this
I can say, that God sends dreams to men which enable them to look
back, and recollect things past, which they had forgotten only too
easily; and that these humbling and penitential dreams are God's
warning that (as the Article says) the infection of nature doth
remain, even in those who are regenerate; that nothing but the
continual help of God's Spirit will keep us from falling back, or
Again: those sad thoughts which weigh on the mind when lying awake
at night, when all things look black to a man; when he is more
ashamed of himself, more angry with himself, more ready to take the
darkest view of his own character and of his own prospects of life,
than he ever is by day,--do not these thoughts, too, come from God?
Is it not God who is holding the man's eyes waking? Is it not God
who is making him search out his own heart, and commune with his
spirit? I believe that so it is. If any one says, 'It is all caused
by the darkness and silence. You have nothing to distract your
attention as you have by day, and therefore the mind becomes
unwholesomely excited, and feeds upon itself,' I answer, then they
are good things, now and then, this darkness and this silence, if
they do prevent the mind from being distracted, as it is all day
long, by business and pleasure; if they leave a man's soul alone with
itself, to look itself in the face, and be thoroughly ashamed of what
it sees. In the noise and glare of the day, we are all too apt to
fancy that all is right with us, and say, 'I am rich, and increased
with goods, and have need of nothing;' and the night does us a kindly
office if it helps us to find out that we knew not that we were poor,
and miserable, and blind, and naked--not only in the sight of God,
but in our own sight, when we look honestly at ourselves.
The wise man says:-
'Oh, would some power the gift but give us,
To see ourselves as others see us!'
and those painful thoughts make us do that. For if we see some
faults in ourselves, be sure our neighbours see them likewise, and
perhaps many more beside.
But more: these sad thoughts make us see ourselves as God sees us.
For if we see faults in ourselves, we may be sure that the pure and
holy God, in whose sight the very heavens are not clean, and who
charges his angels with folly, sees our faults with infinitely
greater clearness, and in infinitely greater number. So let us face
those sad night thoughts, however painful, however humiliating they
may be; for by them God is calling us to repentance, and forcing us
to keep Lent in spirit and in truth, whether we keep it outwardly or
'What,' some may say, 'you would have us, then, afraid of the terror
by night?' My dear friends, that is exactly what I would not have.
I would teach you from Holy Scripture how to profit by the terror,
how to thank God for the terror, instead of being afraid of it, as
you otherwise certainly will be. For these ugly dreams, these sad
thoughts do come, whether you choose or not. Whether you choose or
not, you all have, or will have seasons of depression, of anxiety, of
melancholy. Shall they teach you, or merely terrify you? Shall they
only bring remorse, or shall they bring repentance?
Remorse. In that is nothing but pain. A man may see all the wrong
and folly he has done; he may fret over it, torment himself with it,
curse himself for it, and yet be the worse, and not the better, for
what he sees. If he be a strong-minded man, he may escape from
remorse in the bustle of business or pleasure. If he be a weak-
minded man, he may escape from it in drunkenness, as hundreds do; or
he may fall into melancholy, superstition, despair, suicide.
But if his sadness breeds, not remorse, but repentance--that is, in
one word, if instead of keeping his sins to himself, he takes his
sins to God--then all will be well. Then he will not be afraid of
the terror, but thankful for it, when he knows that it is what St.
Paul calls, the terror of the Lord.
This is why the old Psalmists were not afraid of the terror by night;
because they knew that their anxiety had come from God, and therefore
went to God for forgiveness, for help, for comfort. Therefore it is
that one says, 'I am weary of groaning. Every night wash I my bed,
and water my couch with my tears,' and yet says the next moment,
'Away from me, all ye that work vanity. The Lord hath heard the
voice of my weeping. The Lord will receive my prayer.'
Therefore it is that another says, 'While I held my sins my bones
waxed old through my daily complaining;' and the next moment--'I said
I will confess my sins unto the Lord, and so thou forgavest the
wickedness of my sin.'
Therefore it is that again another says, 'Thou holdest mine eyes
waking. I am so feeble that I cannot speak. I call to remembrance
my sin, and in the night season I commune with my heart, and search
out my spirit. Will the Lord absent himself for ever, and will he be
no more entreated? Is his mercy clean gone for ever, and his promise
come utterly to an end for evermore? And I said, It is mine own
infirmity; but I will remember the years of the right hand of the
most Highest. I will remember the works of the Lord, and call to
mind the wonders of old.'
And another, 'Why art thou so heavy, O my soul, and why art thou so
disquieted within me? O put thy trust in God, for I shall yet give
him thanks, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.'
And therefore it is, that our Lord Jesus Christ, in order that he
might taste sorrow for every man, and be made in all things like to
his brethren, endured, once and for all, in the garden of Gethsemane,
the terror which cometh by night, as none ever endured it before or
since; the agony of dread, the agony of helplessness, in which he
prayed yet more earnestly, and his sweat was as great drops of blood
falling down to the ground. And there appeared an angel from heaven
strengthening him; because he stood not on his own strength, but cast
himself on his Father and our Father, on his God and our God. So
says St. Paul, who tells us how our Lord, in the days of his flesh,
when he had offered up prayers and supplications, with strong crying
and tears, unto him that was able to save him from death, and was
heard in that he feared--though he were a son, yet learned he
obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he
became the Author of everlasting salvation unto all them that obey
Oh, may we all, in the hour of shame and sadness, in the hour of
darkness and confusion, and, above all, in the hour of death and the
day of judgment, take refuge with him in whom alone is help, and
comfort, and salvation for this life and the life to come--even Jesus
Christ, who died for us on the cross.