The King of Terrors
The book of Job refers to death as “the king of terrors” (Job 18: 14), and it is clear that death was worthy of the title that was given to him. His dominion was as wide as the world, his subjects, were all men except two (see Gen. 5: 24; 2 Kings 2: 11). His tyranny was inexorable: by no art, by no flight, by no concealment, by no resistance, could any escape. Death was the doom of every man, for “the wages of sin [is] death” (Rom. 6: 23). And for the unbeliever today this position remains the same. Whatever he does, wherever he is, the approach of death is relentless. Every moment lessens the narrow span between the soul and death. It is in vain for people to shut their eyes to the reality of his nearness; this only serves to make the surprise more terrible when death, at an unexpected hour, pounces upon them!
Death is terrible, because it cuts off the man of the world from all his possessions. However painfully and diligently wealth has been accumulated, and however cautiously the soul clings to its treasure, death forces it away. As “we have brought nothing into the world: [it is] [manifest] that neither can we carry anything out” (1 Tim. 6: 7). Death also severs the strongest, most tender bands of nature—it takes away the beloved wife at a stroke, or the kind husband in a moment. It snatches children from the affectionate embrace of their parents, and the only son or daughter is not spared. Bonds of friendship are rudely severed, and the affections of the heart are left torn and bleeding with hopeless sorrow. All the unbeliever’s plans and projects are in a moment frustrated, and anticipated pleasures and honours left behind.
Death is a terror to men, because it drives them into a world unknown. They look into the grave and inquire anxiously, ‘What is the condition of our departed friend? Does he still exist in some other way?’ They see no sign of life and the departed gives no token by which they can learn anything respecting him. Men consult the oracles of reason and science, but there is no satisfactory response and they cast no light on the darkness of the grave. Oh, how awful for man to be obliged to go down into a world of darkness, not knowing where he is going or what his destiny is to be!
This obscurity is not all that terrifies—there is something far worse. This king of terrors comes armed with a tremendous sting, for “the sting of death [is] sin” (1 Cor. 15: 56). Guilt and, above all, a feeling of deserved punishment, makes death a terrible prospect. In the gaiety and bustle of life, men may drown the voice of conscience, or by repeated violations of its warnings, they may enjoy temporary and delusional ease. But when death comes near, the voice of the monitor within sounds disquiet and alarm. The guilty soul would give worlds to be delivered from the accusations of conscience. A celebrated statesman and orator, when summoned by the king of terrors, wrote on a card the awful word remorse, and then died. What indescribable anguish is contained in that one word!
The time of death is commonly an honest hour. When a man is about to appear before his Judge, what need is there of any concealment? And yet sometimes the pride of character and dread of disgrace lead men to pretend even at the hour of death. What foolishness when “all things [are] naked and laid bare” before His eyes—the God “with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4: 13)! How solemn the transition, from time to eternity—from ignorance and unbelief to the realities of the judgment! If it is “the portion of men once to die, and after this judgment” (Heb. 9: 27), what good can bravado or courage do when “the dead, great and small” stand “before the throne” (Rev. 20: 12) and the books are opened? From the face of that Judge—that great discerner of “the thoughts and intents of [the] heart” (Heb. 4: 12)—even the earth and heaven flee. Awful prospect!
Thus far, there is nothing in death but terror. Has he no other aspect? Does no animating light from any quarter shine upon the darkness of the tomb? Thank God, indeed it does. I see, through the narrow vista of the grave, a shining light. One is rising from the sepulchre a conqueror, and I hear him proclaiming, “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes on me, though he have died, shall live; and every one who lives and believes on me shall never die” (John 11: 25, 26). Wonderful words! That glorious One has, through His own death, annulled him that had the might of death and “set free all those who through fear of death through the whole of their life were subject to bondage” (Heb. 2: 15)! And if we should rest from our labours, we have the promise that “Blessed” are “the dead who die in [the] Lord from henceforth” (Rev. 14: 13)! For the believer, death is then no more “the king of terrors” (Job 18: 14) for he has been given “the victory by our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15: 57). As the Scripture triumphantly declares, “Where, O death, [is] thy sting? where, O death, thy victory?” (vs. 55, 56). Gone, all gone, in that mighty victor, that King of kings—King even, of the king of terrors!