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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: H. Hastings Weld :: The Women of the Scriptures

H. Hastings Weld :: Dorcas, or The Gazelle

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Is it not a proof of our fallen nature that we so much admire that which is merely beautiful? Would it not be required that goodness or utility should be added to beauty, to awaken admiration among the holy? We place much higher upon the roll of Fame the mighty conqueror than the active philanthropist. Say what we may of the excellence of true benevolence, Napoleon is far above Howard in the estimation of the world. A hedge of roses has more admirers than a field of wheat,-the sweet violets, breathing odorously in the spring‐time, awaken poetic sentiment, but who ever thought of praising in numbers the flower of the priceless potato? The gorgeous rainbow calls out emotions which the useful shower had left slumbering in the breast. Niagara, as its deep current sweeps along like the tramp of an armed host, as it foams amid the rapids, or dashes down the mountain‐side, attracts the attention of the world; its solemn music, like the organ of a cathedral, calls the worshippers of natural beauty and sublimity, from every land, to pay homage at this shrine. But we all feel that when this mighty cataract shall be employed in turning the wheels of numerous factories built upon its shore; when its unearthly tones shall be lost amid the clatter of the machinery it drives, the glory of Niagara will have departed.

Woman is more admired in her grace and beauty, shining in the gay assembly, flitting amid the mazes of the dance, or warbling at the harp, than when engaged in making garments for the poor.

This fact may be attributed to the different rates of movement of the taste and the judgment. The one is called into action by a glimpse, a faint odour, an echo. It pronounces instantly with judicial authority, and yet without examination, like the paid lawyer who decides each case, before the trial, in favour of the party by which he is retained. The other, calm and dignified, adopts no conclusion until in possession of all the facts, like the impartial judge, who is governed by law and equity in every decision.

To those who, in the perusal of an annual, seek the gratification of a literary taste, the character of Dorcas may present few points of interest; yet it does not seem proper, in grouping together the heroines of the Scriptures, to omit one who was so much honoured of God as to be raised from the dead. Amid all these exhibitions of feminine loveliness and faith and piety, from the Old Testament and from the New, the usefulness of Dorcas ought not to be passed over.

It is by no means certain, however, that her only attraction was her benevolence and usefulness. She may have been also beautiful in person and graceful in manner. Her name, in the Syriac, Tabitha, in the Greek, Dorcas, signifies a roe, or deer, or gazelle. Such names were often given from their fitness and significancy. Perhaps her large lustrous eyes, swimming in the tears of pity, or her swiftness to run upon these errands of mercy, suggested the name.

She dwelt in a place rich in historic association,-Joppa, now called Jaffa, or more properly Yafa,-a sea‐port upon the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, about forty‐five miles north‐west of Jerusalem, and owing its celebrity, as the principal port of Judea, to its situation with regard to the Holy City. Its origin is ascribed to Japheth, the son of Noah. This account may be fabulous, but it is certain that the city was in existence 1500 years before Christ. In the time of Pliny, the inhabitants pretended to show the marks of the chains by which Andromeda was fastened to the rock, when exposed to the sea‐monster. Near by was also shown the fountain where Perseus washed off the blood with which he had been covered in his deadly combat. At this port, the timber and other materials for building the temple at Jerusalem were landed. Here was the harbour of the navy of Tarshish and the navy of Hiram, as every third year they brought to the king of Israel gold and silver, ivory and apes and peacocks. At this port Jonah embarked when he was seeking to flee from the presence of the Lord. Its history has ever been most eventful. As the port of the holy city, it was always a prominent point in the invasion of Judea, and was taken again and again by the successive conquerors of that land. In the time of the crusades, it was the centre of the battle‐field,-and in later days, Napoleon displayed his prowess in the siege and capture of this city. It was here that this conqueror, who had no fear of death, visited the plague‐hospitals and touched the poisonous sores of those who were infected, that he might give courage to his affrighted soldiers.

Many of these events had already transpired in Joppa; but Dorcas, although subject to the influence of such associations, although thus tempted to spend her life in romantic dreams, is said to have been "full of good works and alms‐deeds which she did." (Act 9:36.) This is the expressive language of inspiration. In a few words, a whole history is given. She performed good works. She was kind and sympathizing. A disciple of Jesus Christ, she proved herself a possessor of pure and undefiled religion by visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction. Nor did she go empty‐handed; alms‐deeds were a part of her good works. Sympathy and advice were not all that she carried to the poor and the distressed. Nor had she merely a wish or a purpose to give alms. She is praised for her alms‐deeds. Nor were these occasional, only when some object of charity was thrust upon her, or when she could not preserve a reputation for benevolence, without giving assistance to the poor. She was full of good works and alms‐deeds. She was obedient to the apostolic command, though it was not written until twenty years after, "that women adorn themselves, not with broidered hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array, but (as becometh women professing godliness) with good works." (1Ti 2:9-10.) In these she abounded. She knew nothing of

""The leafless desert of the mind,
The waste of feelings unemployed?"

She was herself engaged in these works and charities. "She was full of good works and alms‐deeds, which she did." (Act 9:36.) Here is implied that she was personally engaged in this; she did not delegate her labours to servants. And more than this,-it is said that she did her work. She did not engage in an enterprise of benevolence and leave it half‐finished. Nor did she enter upon such labours for a time, and then turn from them altogether, but was diligent and faithful in them until she died. She did not belong to the class described in this homely but truthful verse:--

"How many are there, who would give
Their life to please the Lord,
Who daily 'mid the suffering live,
Nor think they can afford
A piece of bread, a garment, a kind word."

How many are there, even among the professed disciples of Christ, who would never relieve the afflicted, even if their shadow had the power, like that of Peter, to heal the sick: their forms never cast a shadow within the abodes of poverty and distress. Dorcas was not one of these. Her piety was not only ardent but active. She was not satisfied with the romance of religion. She was not waiting for an opportunity to distinguish herself as a Christian by some arduous missionary labour, or by the exhibition of a martyr's spirit. She did what was set before her as duty, under the constraining influence of the love of Jesus, and this is the highest attainment of piety on the earth.

Goodness and usefulness cannot avert the stroke of death. Amid her labours, Dorcas sickens and dies. In the upper chamber the corpse is laid, prepared for interment. There is the cold body, the lifeless features yet wearing the smile of benevolence, which had become habitual. It is the custom in that country to hire weepers to attend the funeral of the dead. There are professional mourners, who can give utterance to sighs and groans, and pour forth tears as if by weight and measure, according to their pay. But no such heartless lamentations fill this place of woe. A circle of real mourners surrounds the dead. The widows of Joppa are weeping around the bier of their benefactress. And, as they weep, they point to their clothing, the coats and garments they wear, saying, "This was the work of these fingers, now stiffened with the frost of death. Alas! what shall we do? We can get food for ourselves and our fatherless babes by constant toil, but what shall we do for clothing when this is worn out?" Upon the fresh breeze from the sea these lamentations are borne, and, amid the dwellings of the poor, sadness and sorrow prevail.

Another form appears in that upper chamber. The great Apostle to the Gentiles has been summoned from a neighbouring place to sympathize in this general grief,-perhaps with some hope that he may afford relief. He stands by the side of the dead, within the bereaved circle. Comes he simply to mourn with them that mourn? or as the messenger of God laden with blessings? He feels within him the working of the faith that is obeyed when it says to the mountain, "Be thou removed and be thou cast into the sea." (Mat 21:21; Mar 11:23.) He puts them all forth. He kneels down and prays. His fervent language may be overheard. How he wrestles with God! This is the prayer of faith, which it is declared shall heal the sick, and which may even awaken them that sleep in death. Now there is a pause. But hark! he is addressing the dead:-"Tabitha, arise!" (Act 9:40.) A breathless suspense holds those who are without; the tears of the weeping are checked in the hope awakened by the presence of Peter. Hark! he calls. They rush into the apartment. She is alive! The apostle has restored her to the saints, her brethren and sisters in the church of Jesus Christ, and to the widows, the objects of her pity and benevolence. And now, doubtless, the shout of gratitude to God is louder than the former wailing. There is joy like that of the widow of Nain and of the sisters of Bethany, when, through the power of Christ, they received again the beloved dead to their warm embrace.

The history of Dorcas, while in the slumber of death, is not given. Why some one of those, who were aroused from this sleep by the Saviour or by his apostles, has not given an account of the land of darkness, we cannot tell,-except that it is evidently God's intention that it should remain unto us "a land of darkness, as darkness itself and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness." (Job 10:22.)

Of the subsequent history of Dorcas, nothing is revealed. But can we doubt that she was more than ever diligent in her chosen employment? If the prospect of death may excite to better purposes and lead to the appropriation of property to objects of charity, can we suppose that the actual passage through the dark valley will not strengthen and confirm such habits of mind? Would not she, who had been quickened when dead in trespasses and sins, and who had been raised up also from actual death to begin life anew, be ready now to consecrate herself to her Master's work of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked? Are we to suppose that the poor of Joppa lost any thing by the interruption of her benevolence during her sickness and death? Did she not speedily redeem the time by increased labour and more abundant gifts?

We have thus a glimpse of the life of Dorcas, enough surely to entitle her to be ranked among the female worthies of the Bible. Whether she were lovely in person, or graceful in form, or brilliant in intellect, we know not; but, for her eminent usefulness, she deserves a niche in the temple erected to the memory of the illustrious women of the sacred Scriptures. She shall be mentioned with Ruth and Esther and the Marys, though her sweet name, Dorcas, may be already associated in the minds of many with old clothes and rag societies, and the daughters of fashion may sneer at her employment. Mere elegance, without usefulness, is not worthy of the admiration of the good. There is a small pale blue flower to be seen amid the fields, upon which the careless observer would not look with approving eye. It would never be transplanted into the garden for its beauty, and yet that flower supplies us from its stalk with our most useful summer covering. It gives up its very body to clothe us. It is a Dorcas, labouring to furnish garments for the destitute. Is not the flax‐flower more worthy of our regard than the gaudy tulip or the showy dahlia, whose life is elegance and ostentation without usefulness?

Let us learn by the teaching of this example of Scripture to bestow our admiration and praise where they are due. Let the sisters of Dorcas in these days learn that they were made for a life of usefulness, and not for pleasure only. Especially, let those who are her fellow‐disciples understand that they are "created in Christ Jesus unto good works." (Eph 2:10.)

"Work for some good, be it ever so slowly;
Cherish some flower, be it ever so lowly;
Labour-all labour is noble and holy;
Let thy great deeds be thy prayer to thy God."

Saratoga Springs.

The Sister of Lazarus ← Prior Section

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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