Their father was dead. Of the left-behind sons, Bunyan’s Greatheart said:
If they see any place where the old pilgrim hath lain, or any print of his foot, it ministereth joy to their hearts, and they covet to lie or tread in the same.
Perpetuating the principles of the “old pilgrim” is a tribute of gratitude for the values he held and instilled.
When word comes that “Moses my servant is dead,” hopefully a Joshua will step up, plant his feet in the prints left behind, and take up the work where Moses left off. When Elijah is translated, hopefully an Elisha will step up, don his mantle, and continue his work.
In the eleventh chapter of Hebrews—the Westminster Abbey of the Bible—the writer reels off a memory-jogging list of names whose work has ended, and who now watch those who carry on where they had called it a day. With those names in neon-glow, chapter 12 begins: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses … let us run with perseverance the race marked out before us.”
That great cloud of witnesses—“a sky full of eyes” someone called them—are now spectators. They who fought in the arena yesterday, take their seats to observe those who are fighting there today. Having done their part, they now watch to see how those who follow them do theirs. When Napoleon pointed to the pyramids and said, “Soldiers, forty centuries look down upon you!” he was challenging them to honor the past by making sure it had a future.
A dying generation is apprehensive about the next one:
I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? … a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it (Ecclesiastes 2:18, 21).
More tormenting is a dying generation’s concern about how the following one will treat their religious heritage. The greatest grief of many a parent is that their children attach little importance to what was to them of utmost importance—and have no interest in perpetuating it. Their spiritual life-work dies without a successor. The standard-bearer’s heart aches in knowing that there is no hand to catch the flag as it falls from his grasp.
We have been blessed by a generation of men and women who were committed heart and soul to the Lord. Their fervent devotion built a church that is endangered by a generation of whom Christ may say, “You have forsaken your first love” (Revelation 2:4). “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die” (Revelation 3:2).
Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg portrayed a price paid and a debt owed:
We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men who struggled here have consecrated it far beyond our power to add or detract. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honoured dead we may take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.
Kingdom work, to borrow Lincoln’s prose, is an “unfinished work” that a previous generation “so nobly advanced.” And it is for us to be “dedicated to the great task remaining before us.” Let us not by indifference snuff the fire that was kindled by those who went before us. Let us gratefully plant our feet in the prints they left behind, and take up the work where they left off.