“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” – 2 Timothy 4:7 (NASB)
As a new year begins, many Christians set a goal to read the entire Bible in one year’s time. One popular Bible reading plan was developed by a 19th century Scottish preacher by the name of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. I was aware of this plan but had never used it in the past. After looking it over in December, I decided to use it for my Bible reading in 2012 (for more about the plan, click here). I also decided I wanted to know more about the “man behind the plan” – M’Cheyne himself. So this week I read a biography of his, written by his friend and contemporary Andrew Bonar, titled simply Robert Murray M’Cheyne.
M’Cheyne was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 21, 1813. There was a glimpse into the devoted life he was to be known for very early on when, as Bonar explains, “At the age of four, while recovering from some illness, he selected as his recreation the study of the Greek alphabet, and was able to name all the letters, and write them in a rude way upon a slate.” He lived and breathed the Word of God from his early years and was known throughout his life for his personal piety. M’Cheyne was also a talented poet and was often inspired by Scripture to write a poem of encouragement to someone he knew — or to lament someone choosing the world over Christ.
“Away, then – oh, fly
From the joys of earth!
Her smile is a lie-
There’s a sting in her mirth.
Come, leave the dreams
Of this transient night,
And bask in the beams
Of an endless light.”
M’Cheyne began to study theology at age 18 at the University of Edinburgh and became pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Dundee in 1836. M’Cheyne was hardly enamored with Dundee at the beginning however – “A city given to idolatry and hardness of heart. I fear there is much of what Isaiah speaks of, ‘The prophets prophesy lies, and the people love to have it so.'” He struggled at the outset with his own health, and the spiritual health of his congregation. From early on, he had heart palpitations, which probably were not helped by the schedule he kept for himself. He often preached three times on Sundays, and would often drop what he was doing throughout the week to speak to the sick or discouraged. In a diary entry dated January 2, 1840, he wrote, “Visited six families. Was refreshed and solemnized at each of them. Spoke of the Word made flesh, and of all the paths of the Lord being mercy and truth.” Hundreds would come to visit him in his office as well.
M’Cheyne was also a true evangelist, spending countless hours speaking to unbelievers as well as his own flock. “Is any one truly the Lord’s messenger who is not quite willing to go when and where the Lord calls?” asked M’Cheyne. To that end, he felt the call to visit Israel in the early years of his ministry to spread the Gospel there as well, joining with Bonar on the trip. Though he was refreshed and energized by the trip, he maintained a sense that his life on earth would not be a long one. While in Lebanon, he wrote, “It is a sore trial to be alone and dying, in a foreign land, and it has made me to feel, in a way that I never knew before, the necessity of having unfeigned faith in Jesus and in God.” He returned to his homeland in late 1839.
On his return, M’Cheyne’s burden for his own congregation, and the lost, was heightened. He joined with other pastors in his area for weekly prayer meetings: “The hearts of all seem really in earnest in it. The Lord answers prayer; may it be a great blessing to our souls and to our flocks.” He was concerned that on his return, his congregation esteemed him too highly, and like John the Baptist, constantly would seek to point them away from himself and instead to Christ: “O for closest communion with God, till soul and body – head, face, and heart – shine with divine brilliancy; but O for a holy ignorance of our shining.”
Similar to the resolutions of Jonathan Edwards, near the end of 1842 M’Cheyne wrote “an examination into things that ought to be amended and changed,” as Bonar explains. He felt a greater sense of his own sin and disenchantment with his prayer life. “I ought to avoid the appearance of evil,” M’Cheyne wrote. “God commands me; and I find that Satan has a singular art in linking the appearance and reality together.” He continued to preach throughout the early part of 1843, until struck by a fever and delirium in late March. Sadly, his long-standing concerns over his health were finally realized. M’Cheyne died on the morning of Saturday, March 25, 1843.
He was just 29 years old.
Throughout his life, M’Cheyne kept close communion with God. “An hour should never pass without our looking up to God for forgiveness and peace,” he wrote. He loved the Scriptures – all the Scriptures – and built his ministry on them. Bonar explained that M’Cheyne “felt that a single passage of the Word of God was more truly food to his fainting soul than anything besides.” He showed special concern for anyone he came in contact with, that all would come to salvation through Jesus Christ. Abraham Lincoln once remarked, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” Robert Murray M’Cheyne lived just 29 years, but his short life was one to be admired by all Christians.
*** On a personal note, I was struck by an instance in the book that illustrates M’Cheyne’s concern for children. Again exhibiting his poetic gifts, he wrote the following to a young boy in his congregation. My own son is a little over two months old, and I hope to share this with him someday.
Peace be to thee, gentle boy!
Many years of health and joy!
Love your Bible more than play-
Grow in wisdom every day.
Like the lark on hovering wing,
Early rise, and mount and sing;
Like the dove that found no rest
Till it flew to Noah’s breast,
Rest not in this world of sin,
Till the Saviour take thee in.