Having faced the fact that we must die, Sibbes now turns to the fact that we must live:
Obs. 2. The estate of the soul continues after death.
This point is nearer to what Balaam desires. If he merely desired the death of the righteous, and if the righteous died in precisely the same way as the wicked, that would be nothing. Balaam did not desire the death, but the life which surpasses death:
For here he wisheth to die the death of the righteous, not for any excellency in death, but in regard of the subsistence and continuance of the soul after death.
This, of course, raises the question, is there life which consists after death? The near contemporary of Sibbes, Shakespeare has his hero Hamlet ask this question:
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
Sibbes affirms that life does persist – and he makes two points, both Scripture and reason:
Scripture and reason and nature enforceth this, that the soul hath a subsistence of itself, distinct from the life it communicates to the body. There is a double life, a life proper to the soul, and the life it communicates to the body. Now when the life it communicates to the body is gone to dissolution, itself hath a life in heaven. And indeed it is in a manner the whole man; for Abraham was Abraham when he was dead, when his soul was in heaven, and his body in the grave. It is the whole man.
First, there is a principle in the soul which is segregable from the body:
Reas. 1. And it discovers, indeed, that it hath a distinct life and excellency in itself, by reason that it thwarts the desires of the body when it is in the body. Reason, if there be no grace in the soul, that crosseth the inclination of the body, grace much more.
Second, the soul seems to operate separate from and above (if you will) the operation of the body:
Reas. 2. And we see ofttimes, when the outward man is weak, as in sickness, &c., then the understanding, will, and affections, the inward man, is most sublime, and rapt unto heaven, and is most wise. Take a man that hath been besotted all his lifetime, that hath been drunk with the pleasures of a carnal life, that hath been a covetous wretch, an earth-worm, that enjoys not heaven, but lives as his wealth and lusts carry him in slavery, yet at the hour of death, when he considers that he hath scraped together, and considers the way that his lusts have led him, and that all must leave him, now he begins to be wise, and speaks more discreetly. He can speak of the vanity of these things, and how little good they can do. Indeed many, nay the most men, are not wise until that time. Therefore the soul of itself hath a distinct being, because, when the body is lowest, it is most refined and strong in its operations.
There is a principle of the soul which concerns itself with the future. If we were merely animals confined to a single life, then there would be no purpose in the soul:
Reas. 3. Likewise it appears by the projects that it hath of the time to come. The soul, especially of men that are of more elevated and refined spirits, it projects for the time to come what shall become of the church and commonwealth, what shall become of posterity and of reputation and credit in the world. Certainly, unless there were a subsistence of itself, it would never look so much beforehand, and lay the grounds of the prosperity of the church and commonwealth for the time to come. I will not stand further on it, but rather make some use of it.
If the soul continues to exist, then we must be careful of how it is used now:
Use. Let us know which is our best part, namely, the soul, that hath a being after death, that we do not employ it to base uses, for which it was not made nor given us.
First, our soul must be used for that which it was created:
Do we think that these souls of ours were made and given us to scrape wealth? to travel in our affections to base things worse than our souls? Are they not capable of supernatural and excellent things? Are they not capable of grace and glory, of communion with God, of the blessed stamp of the image of God? Let us use them, therefore, to the end that God gave them. And let us not deserve so ill of our souls as to betray them, to cast them in the dirt, to lay our crown in the dust. This is our excellency.
Living merely for the bestial operation of the body (which is a misuse of the body) is the life of too many men:
What can keep our bodies from being a deformed, loathsome thing, if the soul be taken away? Yet so we abase this excellent part! Ofttimes we abase it to serve the base lusts of the body, which is condemned to rottenness. What is the life of most men but a purveying and prowling for the body? The lusts of the body set the wit and affections on work to prowl for itself. What a base thing is this! Were our souls given us for this end? And especially considering this, that our souls are immortal, that they shall never die, but be forever.
If our soul lives forever, the proper object of its happiness must be something fitting to an eternal existence. If our soul is fitted to a happiness which is dependent upon things which will perish with our death, then our soul will outlive its happiness:
Let us not altogether spend this precious time that is given us to save our souls, and to get the image of God stamped upon them, I say let us not spend this precious time in things that will leave us when our souls shall live still; let us not carry the matter so, that our souls shall outlive our happiness. All worldlings and base creatures, they outlive their happiness. For where do they plant it? In the base things of this life. All their life long they are prowling for those things that they must leave when they die, whereas their souls shall not die, but everlastingly subsist.
Here is a basis for eternal sorrow, to have souls fitted for that only which has perished and which shall never be regained:
What a misery is this, that these souls of ours shall have a being when the things wherein we placed our happiness, and abused our souls to gain them, they shall have an end! The souls of such men that seek the things of this life shall have a being in eternal misery. Indeed, so it is; for these souls of ours, the same degree they have in excellency if they be used as they should, if we do not abase them, the same degree they shall have in baseness and misery if we abuse them, and make them slaves to earthly things.
This degeneracy is seen in the devils who fell from their height of glory:
For as the devils, the same degree they had of excellency when they were angels, the same degree they have in misery now they be devils. The more excellent the creature is when it keeps its excellency, the more vile it is when it degenerates. So these souls of ours that next to angels are the most excellent creatures of God, the more excellent it is if it get the image of God stamped upon it, and the new creature, and have the life of grace, the more cursed is the state of the soul if it subsist to everlasting misery.
This again is theme sounded in Shakespeare, Sonnet 94, which ends with the lines,
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
Sibbes ends with a closer application of the point: it is not only those who are utterly outside the church, but often those within the church who live as if their souls would not continue after their death:
It were happy if the souls of such creatures were mortal that labour for a happiness in this life. Oh that we would think of this! Most men in the bosom of the church, which is lamentable to think, they live as if they had no souls. They overturn the order that God hath set, and hath given us our bodies to serve our souls. They use all the strength and marrow of their wits, all the excellencies in their souls, for the base satisfaction of the lusts of the body. So much for that point.
In making this point, Sibbes echoes and applies a point from Paul:
1 Corinthians 9:24–27 (ESV)
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.