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The Effect of Biblical Theology

Sermon Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Wise at Charleston

My God and my Father! We appear devoutly and prayerfully be­fore the divine throne of thy grace to offer up to Thee our hymns and our psalms; to glorify thy sacred name by the inspired words that flow from the fountain of love, from the source of piety and veneration. Receive then graciously our souls, which rise on the wings of the sacred psalmody to the choir of Seraphim and Cherubim, to join with them in <<218>>thy praises, to utter with them, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Zebaoth, all the earth is full of his glory.”

We approach meekly thy divine presence, following the demands of our heart, to lay down before Thee our petitions, our prayers and our supplications, and do Thou grant unto us thy mercy and thy favour, and remember us among the pious and good! As for me, O Lord, remember me, and strengthen me also this time. Amen.

Brethren—I am a stranger and a sojourner amongst you; I am not acquainted with your sentiments, your tastes, your demands, your religious and moral condition; wherefore I can neither recommend nor reprove, neither moralize nor stimulate in general moral or religious subjects. But there exists a higher and holier region, in which the teacher of the divine word should move and breathe; which ought to be exclusively his home, his most pleasant abode, of which he should never lose sight. Yet it is greatly neglected by our contemporaries; the divines of our age delight to hear themselves, either in the thunder-like voice of reproof and rebuke, or in the sweet sounds, in the flattering tones of praise on virtue and piety, to incite the sentiments of their auditors, to play with the fancy of those easily persuaded. But that higher and holier region of religious discourses, the instruction, the demonstration, the evidence, on which the contemplative soul rests with joy, upon which the human reason feeds insatiably, to which alone we can resort, when the dim hours of doubt, the obscure moments of scepticism bewilder our spirit, is generally lost sight of; it is forsaken; it lies barren and disregarded; it has been driven from the pulpit, and the schoolmaster’s desk pointed out as its proper home; and so they have allowed sectarianism to defile the pulpit, since no argument is deemed necessary to fortify the word of the preacher.

This apology may suffice for the discourse which I intend to deliver before you, and which will be the antithesis of a modern sermon, as it will merely be of an instructive and demonstrative nature. The effect of biblical theology shall be our theme, and the 12th and 13th verses of the 33d chapter of Exodus be our text. We read there as follows “And Moses said unto the Lord, See, thou sayest unto me, Bring up this people; and thou <<219>>hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me; yet, thou hast said, I have chosen thee by name, and thou hast also found favour in my eyes.”

ועתה אם נא מצאתי חן בעיניך הוריעני נא את דרכיך ואדעך אמצא חן בעיניך וראה כי עמך הגוי הזה

“Now, therefore, I pray thee, if I have found favour in thy eyes, make known unto me thy ways, that I may know thee, in order that I may find grace in thy eyes; and consider, that this nation is thy people.”

If we analyze these words, we find in them, that Moses desired to know God by his ways or attributes; and he desired to know God in order to find favour in the sight of the Lord. Maimonides deduced from this verse the remarkable principle that, “Not he who only fasts and prays, but he who knows the Creator, it is who finds favour in his sight.” Thus also, king David told his son: “And thou, Solomon, my son, know thou the God of thy father, and serve him with a perfect heart, and with a willing soul,” (1 Chron. xxviii. 9.) We, therefore, have a right to sup­pose, that Biblical Theology, or rather Theosophy, must be of vital importance; it must be rich in its effect with regard to man’s moral conduct, his happiness and prosperity in this sublunary world; and as regards his prospects and hopes beyond the grave, the true home of the spirit.           

I.

Viewing these effects in a logical order, we will find, that a correct knowledge of Biblical Theology does not alone convey to us a correct knowledge of our duties, of our own powers and value, but also acts as a mighty stimulus to induce us to perform our duties; to exercise our powers for our own good and the welfare of mankind; and constantly to thank our Creator for the valuable treasures, for the precious gifts, with which He has graciously endowed the heart of man.

The Bible instructs us, that God is the Source of all intellect, that He is the primitive and the most perfect Reason; wisdom and reason, understanding and intellect are His; “The Lord has founded the earth with wisdom, he established the heavens with <<220>>understanding.” And, brethren, how can a mortal find words to express the wisdom of the Most High? I feel deeply my inability to do so, I know no terms in any language to depict that with which the heavens are filled, which the millions of suns proclaim, and which the unnumbered hosts of creatures re-echo, which one star whispers in the ear of the other.

God is all-wise, and we must understand this sublime term as nature and history expound it. hence, we are instructed in the holy Scriptures, that the Lord is gracious to all his creatures, all men, that inhabit the thousands of earths which He has created; all men without exception or distinction are the objects of his unbounded and unrestricted love; as the father is gracious to his children, so is God, the Father of all men, gracious to all men. His love is endless and omnipresent as He himself is; his grace is like the sun, which shines upon the good and upon the bad, upon the pious and upon the sinner, upon man and upon beast; which gives light, and heat and life to every plant, every tree and every flower, that deck the fair bosom of nature. God is benevolent, we are told in the Bible; with loving care He provides food for all his creatures; He blesses the heights and the depths of the earth with strength to produce abundantly, that his creatures may eat and be satisfied; water flows from the flinty rocks, that his creatures may drink and be refreshed; He clothes the earth in a thousand different colours, He spreads a carpet of fragrant flowers beneath our feet, He encircles us with a blue ethereal sky, that his creatures might behold it with pleasure, their eyes be charmed and their heart be made happy; He fills the forests and the trees with sweet singers to charm our ear, and He perfumes the air by the odour of flowers, that his children may breathe it, and be happy. Just and righteous is the Lord, we are told in the Bible, and history re-echoes these words on every page; reward, heavenly reward is the inheritance of the pious and good, the gates of Paradise are widely opened to receive the man who bears victoriously the crown of morality and piety; and this paradise is on earth and in heaven, in life and in death, within and without man, in the proud palace of the rich, and in the humble cottage of the poor; it is <<221>>wherever piety, virtue, morality, and humanity are.

But punishment overcomes the wicked; evil-doers are chastised, that they may awake from their sinful sleep, and dream no longer of fictions and of vain imaginations; that they may acknowledge the injustice of their doings, and sin no more; that they may be healed of their mortal disease, and be sound members of the human family, “As the father chastiseth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee.” God is merciful, so the Bible tells us, “He forgives iniquity, transgression and sin,” if the sinner repents of his sins and returns truly and honestly to God and virtue.

“Who is a God like unto thee,” says the prophet Micah, “that pardoned the iniquity, and passed by the transgressions of the remnant of his heritage? He retained not his anger for ever, because he delighted in mercy.”

By these few attributes of God, which we have copied from the Bible, we learn, that God is the purest wisdom, love and justice; that mercy and goodness are with Him; He is not that imaginary Deity, who casts in fierce anger his thunderbolts on the trembling earth, so that her foundations are shaken, and man and beast melt away in the fire of his wrath; nor is He that intolerant Deity, who excludes from his paternal love the majority of mankind, and is graciously disposed to but a few believers; He is not that terrible Deity, who kindled an everlasting fire, which is constantly fed by innumerable evil spirits, to punish cruelly infidels, deists, atheists, and all other sorts of sinners; no, He is a God of love and mercy, who delights in goodness, righteousness and mercy; is our benign Father, and we are His children.

This is the God of Israel according to the Bible. God is the centre of all moral virtues, wherefore the idea of God is the basis of morality on one side, and the stimulus to live and to act up to its requirements on the other; a man’s views of God are also the same he entertains of right and wrong; and the exception of a few atheists prove the correctness of the general rule. And in fact, history teaches us, that the moral condition of a nation was always high or low, just as their general idea of a Supreme Being was. Where the gods  were subjected to the iron hand of fate, there fatalism destroyed liberty and the freedom of will, the best gift <<222>> which man has received. Where human infirmities and wild passions were ascribed to the gods, there the foulest vices were sanctioned by a law regarded as divine. Where inhuman intolerance, cruel treatment towards unbelievers, bloody sacrifices and everlasting vengeance were attributed to the Deity, there did the sword and fire rage, and murders and persecutions were perpetrated by the hand of men, to avenge the offended Godhead, in order to introduce the particular views about God and his will which they entertained.

Such is the effect of theology on the moral character of man; and none can deny what history records. Let us assume even that such false ideas were entertained concerning God, His will and His attributes, because of the ignorance and wickedness of bygone centuries; because uninformed people sought a divine sanction for their infirmities and vices, which they could only find by applying such infirmities to the gods they worshipped; it yet serves a strong evidence for our proposition, that “a man’s views about God are also those he entertains about right and wrong.”

And if all nations on earth would have been fit to possess, and would have possessed the same sublime doctrines about God as the Scriptures teach: if all would have known the Supreme Being to be the God of wisdom, love, justice and mercy: a better race of men than the present would have long since peopled the earth, and the golden light of virtue and love would have ere this warmed and enlightened all hearts. And in fact, the more our sublime theology found way into the hearts of nations, the more man­kind was convinced of our godly truths: the more also they became civilized and elevated to the proper dignity of our nature, the more the mists of persecution and intolerance were dispersed by the power of love and science, and liberty and fraternity, hap­piness and prosperity were allowed to raise their heads in the midst of men; and we may fearlessly assert, that our theology was the basis of and the mighty stimulus to the civilization of mankind, and what is still unaccomplished will yet have to yield before the irresistible power of truth.

You will thus perceive, my friends, that the effect of Biblical Theology is to teach us, that practical love, benevolence, <<223>>justice, mercy, truth, and knowledge are virtues, and the opposites of them are vices; hence, to stimulate us to practise virtue and piety, and to abhor vice and sin, is to serve the God of love, mercy, and justice, by the practice of all the noble attributes He possesses in the utmost degree of perfection; wherefore the Bible charges us to go in the ways of the Lord. Biblical Theology has the tendency to implant into our spirit noble principles, to make us pious and good, happy and prosperous; and the more we reflect on it, and the better we know it, the better shall we know the nature of piety and virtue, and the more will our heart be inclined to do what is righteous, wise, and good.

“Let me know thy ways,” prayed Moses, “that I may know thee, in order to find favour in thy sight;” for he that knows Him as a God of love will serve him by the practice of all the virtues which the Scriptures demand; and blessed is the man who leads a moral life, who delights in goodness and mercy, who elevates his spirit to the height of human perfection; for it is he who will find favour in the sight of the Lord.

II.

Biblical Theology impresses us also with the following additional principle and heart-elevating truth: “Man is empowered and able to serve his God by the practice of the noblest virtues.” The Lord of hosts is a God of love; each creature of his is dear and precious unto her; and as He loves us, He must have enabled us to be happy; he must have enabled us to rule over misery and anguish. Who knows not, that virtue and goodness are the requisites of human happiness? Who can be ignorant of the truth, that vice and sin are the parents of misery and distress?

Brethren, God loves us, wherefore He must have endowed us with the ability to be pious and good, so as to become prosperous and happy. God has imbued the heart of man with such sentiments that he feels happy only when he eats the fruits of his own labour; our own house, which we have built in the sweat of our face, is the abode of true satisfaction; the garment, which we ourselves have woven, covers a happy heart ; the con<<224>>sciousness of having done what is right and good, and of having omitted doing what is evil, is only then a source of happiness to us, if our acts were the result of our own free choice; because the act of necessity is void of pleasure, without happy consequences for the heart of man.

God loves us, and wishes us to be happy and joyful; we must therefore have been enabled by our benevolent Creator to be pious and good, happy and prosperous, solely by our own acts, resulting from a free choice; we must be able to eat the fruit of our own labour and be happy. Just and righteous is the Lord, and He made known unto us his divine attributes, that we might walk in his ways; He requires of us to be just and righteous like Him; He must therefore have given us the means to judge properly the wishes of our heart and the thoughts of our soul, our actions and those of our neighbours; if we were not endowed with this faculty, never, never would God in his justice require of us to be just and righteous as He is.

Merciful is the Lord, He extends his paternal love over the sinner and evil-doer ever, and He requires of us to be merciful like himself. Mercy is a radiant beam of love, and where love bears the sceptre, there is mercy the basis of law. Therefore, rejoice all ye sons of Adam; for, as God requires of us to be merciful, He must have imbued our heart with the spirit of love; we must have been enabled by our Creator to love all his creatures, to embrace all mankind with a loving heart; for He charged us to be merciful to all, even to him whom the laws of man have abandoned, and banished from society. Benevolent is the Lord towards man and beast, and He requires of us to be benevolent to the poor and needy, to open widely our hands to those that need our assistance, the widow and the orphan, and the stranger within our gates; the sick and the helpless and the weak, are recommended to our care by the hand of Providence; they are poor and we rich, they are weak and we strong, to try us and to tempt us, whether we are benevolent or not; and we must thank God for the opportunity which is offered unto us to be practically benevolent; yea, we should even not wait until they come as beggars before our doors, but we ought to seek the home of misery, and grant help ere we are yet asked to do it.

As God charged us to be benevolent, He must have <<225>>endowed our heart with the ability, with the mental power to do so, and our heart must have the inclination to do good to others. Wisdom is the most precious gem in the crown of the Most High, and we, the first-born of his creation, are charged to walk in his ways, to long for wisdom, to seek for knowledge, to desire instruction; we are charged to know our God and his glorious works, which proclaim his name from pole to pole, from sunrise to sunset. And as he charged us to be wise, to increase our knowledge, to improve our intellect in order that we may know Him, He must have planted wisdom and reason in our soul, He must have endowed us with the ability to develop and enrich our faculties, He must have imparted to us the capacity to understand and to obey his commands and to execute his will.

Thus Biblical Theology convinces of the precious truth, that “man is empowered and able to serve God through means of the practice of all the noble virtues;” and this conviction, this knowledge of our own faculties, is not only a sufficient cause to inspire us with the most sincere gratitude towards the Creator, to elevate our heart to devotion and true worship, to imbue our heart with confidence and true love to our God and Benefactor; it is not only a powerful incentive to love and esteem our fellow-men, in whom God has been pleased to place his image, blessed as it is by God with such noble abilities and sacred faculties but it is also the most powerful stimulus to enable us to become as pious, and good, and pure, as our Father in heaven requires us to be.

He, in his attribute of grace, endowed us with the best abilities to be happy by our free choice; to lead a life of joy among blessed and happy brethren; how then could we be unmindful of God’s intention to us, to throw from us this kindness and be miserable? Should we be unmindful of God’s blessing, and of his grace so evidently bestowed on us, so as to crush our faculties by embracing vice and sin, and to be of necessity ashamed of ourselves? Should we disregard our own prosperity, our own happiness, so as to sacrifice our godlike abilities on the defiled altar of immorality and inhumanity, of crime and shame, and become a curse to ourselves and to mankind? No; no one is so unmindful, so foolish, so brutal, as to forget himself and to lose sight of <<226>>the exalted faculties with which he is endowed, if he once becomes aware of them. He, who truly knows his God as a God of love and mercy, of benevolence, justice, and wisdom, will surely know his own worth and the useful faculties with which he has been endowed; and whoever knows himself will walk in the ways of the Lord; he will earnestly strive to obtain piety, goodness, purity of heart, wisdom, and knowledge. He will be thankful to his God, kind and beneficent to his fellow-man, and true to himself. This, my friends, is the effect of Biblical Theology on the moral character of man, and therefore said our immortal teacher “Let me know, I pray Thee, thy ways, that I may know Thee, in order to find grace in thy sight.”

III.

Brethren, if we examine our heart carefully we will discover a feeling, which may be justly termed the fear of death, the dread of annihilation. We cannot satisfy ourselves with the idea of a final and total cessation; our heart, our inmost feeling, all our ideas revolt against it; so that the thought of annihilation is the unhappiest of thoughts, the most painful of ideas, that can arise in the region of speculation; and even those, who go astray all the days of their lives, in the dark labyrinth of a misconceived philosophy, and suppose themselves strong enough to bear the idea of annihilation, tremble, doubt, and are discouraged in the very moment when strength, constancy, and courage are most required.

Yea, even the strongest among us cannot bear the idea of total annihilation. In examining our heart, we discover also a positive desire for immortality and eter<<227>>­nity heroes and artists, scholars and philosophers, strive for that fame which future generations will bestow on their names and on their works; princes, statesmen, and soldiers thirst for a monument, which shall praise and glorify them in coming gene­rations; the reward which they receive from their contemporaries is lightly esteemed, in comparison with the fame, which they hope to enjoy after death.

All this is because our soul has a positive knowledge of, and an irresistible desire for immortality and eternity. That this knowledge or this desire is the birthright of every man is sufficiently demonstrated by the remarkable fact, that history has left us no record of any nation which had not some knowledge of the immortality of the soul. In Athens and in Rome, in Tyre and in Carthage, in Babel and in Persepolis, in Nineveh and in Memphis, on the Ganges and on the Oxus, on the Nile and on the Niger, on the Rhine and on the Thames, in the icy region of the pole and in the primeval forests of America, wherever, whenever, and however men have lived, they have had a notion of immortality, and never did the desire for life after death expire in the heart of men. God is the purest and most gracious Being, as the Bible teaches us; all men are the objects of his paternal love; this pleasing hope, therefore, cannot be a fiction, a loving father cannot deceive his son by false hopes and vain imaginings.

The Lord is a God of love, and He cannot destroy what He loves—He cannot annihilate what is dear and precious in his sight. Have you ever heard that a man crushed the object of his love? or that he annihilated what was dear unto his heart? And what reason have we to assume, that a man is more benevolent than his God? The Lord is a God of truth; falsehood and deceit are abominable in his sight; He, the eternal truth, cannot have implanted untruth in our heart; what He impressed on our spirit must be a truth, eternal and holy as He himself is. The pleasing hope, therefore, of immortality, being impressed on every soul, must be a sacred and eternal truth as God himself is. The Lord is just and righteous; but what justice would there be in creating a miserable wretch, that is tortured and afflicted all the days of his life by the painful knowledge of his speedy death and annihilation? What justice would there be in promising us, through our own heart, an eternal reward, if it be a mere fiction?

But the Lord is just and righteous; wherefore, man must be immortal. Whoever has not travelled the path of life with blind eyes and deaf ears, must have seen the pious and good, the virtuous and pure often living in misery; the thunders of misfortune roll over their heads, and chase away sleep from their eyes; the lightnings of misery destroy their house; the hailstones of bitter calamity crush their <<228>>seeds, the tender plants of their labour, whilst the wicked obtain honey from the rock, and oil from the flinty stone. He must also have frequently heard the sighs of those who are oppressed, though virtuous—the groans of those who are poor and forsaken, though pious and honest; he must have heard the savage triumph of the wicked and ungodly over the righteous; and every observer must have asked himself: “Is this the justice and righteousness which we see displayed in the government of God?” Still does the Bible answer, the Lord is just and righteous; and, therefore, man must be immortal, reward must await the pious, and punishment the ungodly, beyond the grave, in the world of spirits.

With wisdom God created the earth, and with understanding He expanded the heavens; wisdom and understanding are His as well as the world which He has created. God’s divine wisdom is proved in a thousand ways by the prevailing order of nature, by the everlasting duration of the laws which He implanted in the creation, by the admirable chain of creatures which, opposing and pursuing each other, are yet rendered happy through each other. God is the Source of wisdom and intellect; so does the Bible teach us; but what wisdom is there in endowing a creature with the best and noblest faculties, with love and reason, with goodness and intellect, with greatness and power, as we find man endowed by the Creator, if the grave is to swallow up all this greatness and excellency? if this reason and this love would only serve the base purpose of feeding crawling worms?

Reason and love and the other excellencies of man increase as he advances in years; and still, after he has reached the highest attainable point of intellectual greatness, death seizes on him and casts him down into the yawning mouth of the earth. Brethren, have you ever seen a rational man, who gathered riches, and after he had a considerable quantity of them, cast them into the sea to feed the fish? Have you ever seen a rational man, who carefully selected diamonds and precious stones from the sand of the desert, and after he had been happy enough to possess a considerable portion, bury them in the dust of the earth, that the creatures which are revelling below the surface of the soil might <<229>>have their sport with the fruit of his labour? Only he who is void of reason and understanding can commit such folly; but God is the most perfect reason; He cannot, therefore, commit a folly; hence, the soul of man must be immortal; eternity must await us beyond the grave; this love, this reason, these excellent endowments, cannot be annihilated; if the grave swallows our bodies, our soul will ascend to the true home of spirits.—Love and grace are God’s attributes, to man also, was given the capacity to love all beings, to be graciously disposed towards all mankind; reason and wisdom are God’s attributes, to man also, was given the capacity to know and understand and to reason; goodness and mercy are with God, man, also, is gifted with these noble capacities, to pardon his enemies and to do good unto them, despite of their wickedness; just and righteous is the Lord, man, also, was qualified to be just and righteous in all circumstances therefore, we are told in the Bible, that we are sons of the Lord our God, that we are an image of our Creator; therefore, we must be immortal as our Father in heaven is.

But we see with our eyes that the body dies and is given over to dissolution; consequently, our soul must be that image of God, which lives for evermore; and if the mountains die and the hills are dissolved in the lapse of time; if the skies be worn out and the sun lose his splendour still our soul will live and be happy in the delight, in the presence of the Most High, in the association of kindred spirits.

This is the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, as we are taught in the Theology of our Bible. The effect of this sublime doctrine upon the moral character of man is indescribably important. Our present life is a school in which we have to learn to be pious, good and pure; and the more perfectly we have acquired this knowledge, the more fitted shall we be to enter into bliss everlasting. In this school we must learn to despise the earth with all her treasures, to conquer vice, to triumph over vile passions, to laugh at the snares of sin, to rejoice in the riches of the spirit, in the treasures of the soul, in the beauties of virtue, in the luxuries of goodness, to be happy and prosperous in God and through God.

The more we have learned to act <<230>>in this manner, the better shall we be prepared to meet our Father’s presence in the abode of spirits, and the better fitted shall we be to join the choir of praising spirits in the life everlasting. And as the duration of our earthly life is but brief, while eternity is a chain of everlasting years, it would be foolish to enjoy this life at the expense of our future happiness; to love those actions by which we may be bereft of everlasting joys; for no man of a sound mind would willingly exchange an everlasting joy for a pleasure of brief duration. This, my friends, is the influence of that sublime doctrine upon the moral character of man; and this is the consequence of our Biblical Theology, by which it is proved beyond the least doubt; by which our own desire for immortality is shown to be an everlasting truth, not a vain imagination, but a reality, a heavenly property; and, therefore, Moses prayed: “Let me know, I pray thee, thy ways that I may know thee, in order to find favour in thy sight.”

You see then, my friends, the effect of our Theology is to teach the nature and the value of real virtue, which we meet with in God, who possesses all the qualities of goodness in the highest degree of perfection. Hence, we are charged to serve God by the practice of those noble virtues, in which God is our example, and to which end God has endowed us with those capacities, which to develop and to exercise is the problem of our life. Hence, our soul is immortal, and that we reap beyond the grave what we have sown in this life, wherefore we must view this state of life as a school of preparation for a future and everlasting life.

Maimonides was, therefore, perfectly in the right, when he stated “Not he, who only fasts and prays, but he who knows his Creator it is who finds grace in his sight.” And King David was in the right to say: “And thou, Solomon my son, know thou the God of thy father, and then thou wilt serve him with a perfect heart, and with a willing soul.” And I shall be in the right to state, “That it is by no means a matter of indifference, what knowledge we have of our God and Creator, how we know Him and what we think about Him.”—Not every one’s, Theology is calculated to be a sound basis of a code of morals as is the case with Biblical Theology; and therefore we have a par<<231>>ticular reason to protest against every addition to our biblical doctrines of God and of his attributes. It will now be clearly understood, why it was so strictly prohibited to pay homage to anything but to God alone, and why such severe punishments are threatened against those that worship other gods, not because of the jealousy of God, but because of the moral influence it would have on the character of man.

Let us now, my friends, thank our Creator for the law which He entrusted to our care, and to our perusal; let us sincerely thank Him for the noble capacities which He has bestowed on us to be wise, pious, and good, happy and prosperous all the days of our life. Let us pour forth the affections of our heart before the Lord our God, that we may leave this house purified and sanctified, to be filled with confidence and strength to worship Him while we live on the earth. Let us glorify His holy name, by song and praise, that our soul may rise to the choir of Seraphim, who chaunt his praise in the everlasting hallelujah.— Amen.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the loving Father of the universe may bless you with his best blessings; may joy and happiness surround you; may peace and prosperity accompany you upon the path of life, in your homes and in your hearts; may love and kindness be wherever you turn your eyes; blessed be you, when you come home, and blessed be you when you go forth, blessed he you in the city, and blessed in the field, and may your children and your children’s children, joyfully surround you; may your life be happy, peaceful your last hour, and sweet your repose.—Amen.