The Consolation of the Sick
Documents in the Back of Our Psalter
In the back of the Psalter used in our Free Reformed Churches we find a relatively unknown treatise called The Consolation of the Sick. The subtitle is: The Consolation of the Sick Which is an Instruction in Faith, and the Way of Salvation to prepare Believers to die willingly. It is a remarkable document because of its contents. In a very practical way it offers spiritual comfort to sick and dying people. This comfort is not given as we find in many modern “self-help” books. Instead, The Consolation of the Sick offers comfort by giving an overview of the doctrines of God’s Word as they relate to man’s salvation.
In addition to being unknown, it also seems to be a forgotten document, because it is never used, or read publicly, as far as I know. Yet it is part of our inheritance. Every time we hold the Psalter in our hands, we hold this treatise. But who reads it?
In the latest edition of the Psalter (March 2010), The Consolation for the Sick is followed by two shorter articles: “Some Comforting declarations from the Holy Scriptures to be used in Prayer when death is imminent” and “Additional expressions derived from Scripture which are suitable for the sick who are upon their deathbed.” Together with The Consolation of the Sick, these documents intend to supply comfort and support for God’s children during sickness and to prepare them for death.
As early as the 1570s, The Consolation of the Sick was published in the Dutch psalm books and it has remained there ever since. Because our churches stand in the Dutch Reformed tradition we have it in our Psalters too. Yet these three documents have never been approved by a synod or classis and do not officially belong with the Psalter. The confessions, the forms, the psalms and the church order all have ecclesiastical standing, but not the Consolation of the Sick, nor the two other named articles of Scripture texts to comfort the dying. Officially, they have never been approved, but none will object to them, as they are biblical expositions of doctrines that focus on being sick and on dying, conditions to which all of us are subjected.
The Pandemics of the Middle Ages
To understand the origin of The Consolation of the Sick we must consider the historical background and setting in which it was written. For that we must go back to the Middle Ages when many people died suddenly and death was always very close. During these times the bubonic plague, also called Black Death, killed millions. In 1347 a huge plague swept across Europe killing an estimated 25 million people, one third of the population. Dead bodies littered the streets everywhere; cattle and livestock roamed the country unattended; brother deserted brother.
An eyewitness testified: “Fathers abandoned their sick sons. Lawyers refused to come and make wills for the dying. Friars and nuns were left to care for the sick, but monasteries and convents were soon deserted too, as they were also stricken. Bodies were left in abandoned houses; there was no one to give them a Christian burial.” Large European cities lost half their population to these plagues. Besides death by the plague, there were also many other causes of death. Many people died at a young age. Infant mortality was high.
The Need for Consolation
People were in desperate need of comfort. This need was sharpened by the official doctrine of the church, which painted terrible scenes of the suffering in purgatory that awaited people after death. The people were literally kept in terror and fear. Fearful thoughts of death filled the hearts and lives of our ancestors who lived during the Middle Ages. Therefore, even before the invention of the printing press, books were written to comfort and prepare people for death. These books were popular and were best sellers. They were often illustrated so that even if one could not read or write, the illustrations could still comfort people. Originally, these writings were intended for the clergy and priests whose role it was to give comfort to the sick and the dying. But soon the common people also made use of these booklets. In the Middle Ages dying was considered to be an art to be mastered and one had to learn the art of dying well. In medieval Dutch this was called the welstervensconste, the art to die well, also known as ars moriendi.
In the late Middle Ages a particular strand of piety arose that became known as the movement of common devotion, de moderne devotie, with an emphasis upon personal piety and dedication to God. It was an inwardly directed piety focusing on the inner man. The adherents of this movement lived in agreement with the official doctrines of the Roman church but emphasized personal devotion, prayer, good works and godliness. It was their desire to attain the assurance and comfort of personal salvation. The Reformers and Puritans would later adopt some elements of this piety. These men of the moderne devotie also sought to give true comfort to the dying and sick by pointing them to Christ who alone merited salvation.
Preachers of Consolation
During the late Middle Ages there were itinerant preachers, very popular among the common people, who warned them of hell and proclaimed salvation in Christ, focusing on the need to prepare oneself for death. Examples of such preachers were Johannes Brugman (1400-1473) and Geert Groote (1340-1384). It was not uncommon in those days that individuals would withdraw themselves from society and enter a monastery to prepare themselves for death.
To assist the sick and the dying, booklets were written offering comfort. Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) wrote a series of questions to facilitate the spiritual needs of the dying by posing questions to help them pass into death. Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471) wrote The Imitation of Christ as a preparation for death. “A blessed death is the fruit of a perfect despising of the world” (De contemptu mundi). He taught people to flee from sin rather than fleeing from death. People were terrified of death and purgatory and they would pray to make a good end of their life. The better one came through death the less severe the sufferings of purgatory would be.
Other writers of this period explained systematically what was required of the sick and dying. They were exhorted to make good use of the time God still allotted them and to focus on their personal salvation and caring for their loved ones. They were questioned as to their faith, what they believed and whether they had contrition and a genuine desire to love and obey God. They were pointed to the death of Christ, but also to the merits of the saints. They were encouraged to pray and many examples of prayers were provided. These prayers would be directed to God the Father, Jesus, Mary, the saints and the angels. Such booklets on dying and preparation for death were very popular, especially during the late Middle Ages.
When the Reformation swept through Europe, the need for preparation for death was still present. But the way these needs were met changed. Several medieval notions of how to prepare for death were adopted but were placed in a different light, in the light of the doctrines of God’s Word.
The Reformation was a continuation of the Middle Ages but at the same time there was great discontinuity. New insights were received from the Word of God. Faith in Christ and His merits received full emphasis as well as one’s true and only comfort in life and death. Grace was no longer viewed as a welcome supplement to what man had achieved, but was viewed as the only reason why man could be saved. It was taught that the law could not save, neither the works of the law. The dying were no longer kept in fear of purgatory. Assurance of salvation, based on the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ was encouraged. The theology of the Reformers was used to comfort the sick and to prepare them for death.
The result was that also in the Reformation period and the Post-reformation period booklets were written to comfort the dying. In 1519 Luther published a little booklet entitled: Ein Sermoen von der Bereitung zum Sterben. Calvin dedicated a complete chapter in his Institutes on meditating on the future life (meditatio futurae vitae).
The need for comfort in the face of sickness and death remained. Examples can be given of Puritan authors who wrote explicitly about preparation for death and consolation for the sick. William Perkins (1558-1602) wrote: A balm for a sick man, based on Ecclesiastes 7:1: A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth. He argues that we need to be incorporated into Christ by a true faith. We need to be flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone. This mystical union with Christ is founded on the resurrection of the dead and eternal life with the Lord in glory.
Joseph Hall (1574-1656) wrote a treatise, The art of divine meditation, in which he shows two extensive patterns of meditation. The one is on eternal life as the end and the other is on death as the way. By meditating on death one can meditate on the future life laid open for God’s children.
In 1651 the French Reformed minister, Charles Drelincourt (1595-1669), published Consolations de l’ame fidele contre les frayeurs de la mort (“Consolations of the believing soul against the terrors of death”). In his day it was translated into nearly every European language and had fifty reprints, although it is now virtually forgotten.
In The Netherlands
In 1531 William Gnaphaeus (1493-1586) wrote, A comfort and mirror for the Sick. It encouraged the reader to live by faith alone and it warned against trust in church rituals. It was a 100-page booklet written according to the insights of Luther. It consists of a dialogue between a sick person called Lazarus and a comforter called Timothy. Emphasis is placed on personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as a result of the grace of regeneration. The need for God to create a clean heart is emphasized. Warnings are issued against counterfeit faith, because there are two kinds of Israelites, those according to the flesh and those according to the promise. Faith is defined as a living and firm trust in our hearts that we are pleasing to God our Father and that He is gracious to us through His dear Son, Jesus Christ, in all we do and in all that may happen to us, in life and in death. The power of this faith is more certainly felt and tasted by the believer than that the tongue can express it.
Another booklet written during this period was The Consolation of the Sick, as we know it in the back of our Psalter.
Comforters Of The Sick
The Reformation era showed the need to comfort the sick and to prepare them for death. Therefore there were men officially appointed to visit sick and dying people in their homes to counsel and comfort them. In Holland they were called Ziekentroosters, who were especially active during the early days of the Reformed church in the Netherlands. The first Reformed Synod, the Council of Wezel in 1568, had already assigned the task of visiting the sick to the ministers of the Gospel. They might call on the assistance of elders and deacons, but visiting the sick was primarily the task of the ministers. This consisted also of mentioning the sick by name in the congregational prayers. They had to visit every one of the sick, sometimes as often as twice a week, and they had to visit them in even the remotest parts of their congregation. This was very time-consuming work.
The ministers were so occupied by this work that they sought help from their elders. But the elders did not provide this assistance. Instead, they opted to appoint men, especially designated for doing this work, who would be paid to do it. Although the 1574 Synod of Dort stipulated that church orderly it could be “risky” to appoint such people for this work, and that the ministers should do this, assisted by the elders and deacons, many churches opted for this more “risky” avenue of appointing non-office bearers to the official position of Comforter of the Sick, a position not mentioned in the church order. They were appointed because of the need of the day and because of the unwillingness of the elders and deacons to properly assist their ministers.
Visiting The Sick Was Risky
The same 1574 Synod of Dort had to answer the question whether ministers should visit those who suffered from the bubonic plague. The synod decided that this was their task, for it belonged to their official duties of providing loving pastoral care. It was their duty to visit the sick, even without receiving a request to do so.
Yet in spite of this synodical decision many thought that ministers should not be doing this kind of work. Therefore, increasingly local authorities in the cities appointed comforters of the sick. In Amsterdam this was done in 1589, in Leiden in 1595 and in Rotterdam in 1596. These men were civil servants who were officially employed to visit the sick instead of the ministers doing the visiting. Moreover, the magistrates thought that such work could be a good training practice for future ministers. The congregations did not like to see their ministers visit the sick who had been stricken by the often deadly plague, and the ministers themselves would rather use their time for study and other work. Obviously, it was not without danger to visit the sick. It could cost a visitor his life.
No official training was required of these appointed visitors of the sick. The only examination these men had to undergo was to demonstrate to the magistrates how they would comfort the sick. They were not allowed to preach and had no official authority in the churches.
Apparently they wanted to guard against the possibility, already noted by the Synod of Dort in 1574, that such an appointment could easily become a shortcut to official ministerial work.
Many of the major cities employed comforters of the sick. They were also enlisted on the merchant ships that went overseas, as well as on the Dutch warships. Many sailors died during these voyages and there was an urgent need for comforters. They were also assigned to read sermons and prayers on board of the ships on the Lord’s Day (Bouwman, Gereformeerd Kerkrecht I, pp. 360, 361).
How Comfort Was Given
The way in which the comforters of the sick would give such comfort was not as we might expect. It was common for comforters to enter a home and remain standing while exhorting the sick. They would admonish the sick by reading from a standard form or booklet. It was all done in a rather formal way and not very personal. The admonition and the comfort would be read from an officially prescribed document or book.
One may have questions about this method and wonder whether pastoral contact actually took place, but the fact is that these comforters did their work with little or no training and they performed this task at the risk of their own lives.
They went to places where there was deep suffering and they were exposed to dangerous, life-threatening diseases, places where ordinary members of the congregation, even ministers did not dare or desire to enter. If it would become known that ministers had been visiting mortally ill people, healthy members of the congregation would not want to receive these ministers in their homes. In places where there was great need, the comforters of the sick brought the Word of God. In that respect these men, who often have been looked down on in church history, are a commendable example for us today as they courageously brought God’s Word to intensely suffering people. One of the books the comforters of the sick used was The Consolation of the Sick.
Cornelius van Hille
The Consolation of the Sick was written by Cornelius van Hille (1540-1600) in 1571. He was born in Yperen to God fearing parents who adhered to the Reformation. In 1568 he fled with his mother to England after he had been summoned to appear before the Inquisition in Brussels. It is probable that from England he went to Geneva to study under Beza. He returned to England to the town of Norwich, where he in 1571 wrote The Consolation of the Sick to support the Dutch Christians. That same year his booklet was already so well received that it was published together with the Heidelberg Catechism. In 1572, The Consolation of the Sick was inserted in the Dutch psalm book together with the New Testament and the Heidelberg Catechism.
The Consolation of the Sick became very popular and was soon widely used and read. Also the two additional documents we find in our Psalter: “Some Comforting declarations from the Holy Scriptures to be used in Prayer when death is imminent” and “Additional expressions derived from Scripture which are suitable for the sick who are upon their deathbed,” were compiled by Van Hille.
Van Hille himself had a turbulent life. In 1575 he served the Dutch refugee church of Yarmouth in England. In 1576 he left to serve the church of Haamstede in the Netherlands. In 1577 he became minister of Oudenaarde and after that, until 1584, he was minister in Gent. He then fled to Rotterdam because of persecutions and was minister there until his death in 1600.
The Consolation of the Sick
The Consolation of the Sick contains many Scripture references and doctrinally explains sin and death, and salvation by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It refers to the desire for heaven that should be present in the Christian’s life. It explains the struggles that the Christian goes through in order to see this desire for heaven fulfilled. It speaks of the need of a holy life to show the sincerity and truthfulness of personal faith. It expounds the future resurrection of the dead.
The Consolation of the Sick is still applicable to us today. It focuses on the Word of God by giving many appropriate texts of Scripture. It is a very objective treatise and it might seem that personal struggles and the subjective element are neglected. But is there not often the danger that the sick are overly focused upon themselves so that they neglect the objective truths of God’s Word? The sick can be too concentrated on their feelings and sentiments rather than the truth and reality of the Word of God.
When we read the Consolation of the Sick we see that the sick person is not viewed in a special way. He is simply viewed as all other people: all are sinners in need of salvation. He is helped here to find comfort in Scripture, independently of any office bearer. He is cast upon the Word of God and not on his own feelings or sentiments. He is not led to feel sorry for himself but he is led to realize that he is a sinner before God in need of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The words of Scripture are laid, as it were, upon the lips of the sick and dying person. He is taught to use God’s Word as a confession, as a prayer, but also as consolation and as promise. That is why Van Hille’s work is still relevant today.
Prayers To Be Offered By The Sick
Originally, Van Hille added certain prayers, which could be used by the sick and dying in the following different circumstances:
- When the sick person is assaulted by the devil: O heavenly Father, have mercy upon me and help me in this terrible and frightening attack and terrors of the evil enemy. (Isaiah 33:2 – “O LORD, be gracious unto us; we have waited for thee: be thou their arm every morning, our salvation also in the time of trouble.”) Deliver O Lord, my soul from this great affliction because of the hellish dogs, so that they will not bring forth any accusation against me. Amen.
- When the sick person is impatient: O Lord, Thou knowest that the flesh is weak and impatient. (Matthew 26:41 – “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”) Yet Lord, keep me, punish me, purge and chastise me as it pleases Thy divine will to do so. I only ask Thee for patience and meekness. Amen.
- When then sick person is in despair: O Lord Jesus Christ, increase my faith and trust in Thee (Luke 17:5 – “And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith”) so that I would not doubt Thy divine grace, nor Thy blessed gospel and that I would not fall into the greatest sin which is unbelief. O Lord, keep me from that sin. (Psalm 20:9 – “Save, LORD: let the king hear us when we call.” Psalm 31:24 – “Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the LORD”). Thy promised grace is contained in the Holy Gospel. Let this not depart from my heart. Thou art my only comfort and hope. Stand now with me in this great fear. (Psalm 50:15 – “And call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.” Psalm 91:15 – “He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him.”). Do not let my poor soul fall into the hands of my terrible enemies and do not grant them any strength or power, neither any authority over me. But show me in this Thy Fatherly goodness, for thou only art my Saviour and Redeemer.
Grant me Lord, that in this last hour I may struggle and persevere in sure faith and that I may piously and bravely fight against the devil, until, most precious Lord Jesus Christ, I have conquered him by Thy help and assistance, and may enter into the eternal rest and peace. For to Thee be the praise and glory together with the Father and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Sickness And Sin
The Consolation of the Sick explains that sickness and sin are connected. It is because of man’s sin and fall in Adam that sickness and suffering have entered our lives. For God’s children sickness is a chastisement or discipline, which teaches them valuable lessons. That is what we also see in the subtitle of this document: An instruction in faith and in the way of salvation to prepare believers to die willingly. The life of faith leads to life eternal and everlasting salvation. Sickness is seen in that same light. By means of sickness God’s children enter eternal life where there will be no more sickness, suffering or tears.
Christ Gives Everlasting Life
On our sickbed God does not merely comfort, but He also exposes our depravity, shows us our guilt and corruption, and makes room for Christ in us. In that way we are made willing to submit to the One who alone can save. In the first Adam we have become mortal, but the second Adam wrought everlasting life for all who are in Him. We, as mortal people, need to be incorporated into the second Adam, for then we are incorporated into His life, and we share in His everlasting life. We become different persons because we belong to a different Person. Jesus Christ opens the way for our flesh to inherit life everlasting. In the midst of all the questions man may have, those who are in Christ have eternal life. For God’s people there is a glorious and most blessed life ahead and they may say with Psalm 118:16, I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the LORD.
Death Is Dying To Sin
When we are incorporated into Christ, our death is no longer a payment for sin but a dying to sin. Our death becomes an entrance into life everlasting. Even death works for the good of God’s children. In death, God’s child is not separated from the love of God, which is revealed in Christ Jesus.
Eternal life is not to be seen as an addendum to our existing life, but it actually is true life. The only perfect manifestation of the Christian life is to be with the Lord. God may use sickness and hardship, Calvin says, to cause us to reject the present life and to look for the life to come. That is not dreaming outside reality, but we have found true reality when we have life in Christ
God’s child is no longer under the wrath of God, for the Lord Jesus has become his Surety who bore the wrath of God on the cross. Through the blood of Christ we receive reconciliation to God. God’s wrath is removed and He demonstrates His Fatherly love and compassion to us.
Sins And Sickness
The connection between sins and sickness can often weigh heavily on people who suffer. But when you see yourself as lost and miserable, remember that we have to do with a God who delights in mercy and is very compassionate. God takes your sins and depravity and view them as fully paid for by His Son, who has totally overcome sin and guilt, even death. What glorious comfort this is for those who are sick and afflicted. The comforting reality is that He lets us, poor sinners, share in His victory. He redeems His people like He saved Jonah from the belly of the fish, Daniel’s three friends from the fire, David from Goliath, Abraham from Chedor-laomer, and so on.
Love To God
The Consolation of the Sick states: “Therefore we must embrace Him in faith and be thankful to Him with love and obedience and who would not love Him who first loved us?” The love of Christ shed abroad in our hearts is so powerful that it responds with love to Him. Love to God and Christ is the result of God’s love working in our hearts.
Even if we will never be healthy again in this life, the Lord delivers us from the power of sickness and death. We are redeemed by His life and His people will live with Him. Even when people around us say that we are physically deteriorating and getting worse, we shall live, because Christ lives and His people shall live with Him.
Christ was obedient to the death of the cross. He descended into the depths of the curse, which rests on us. His obedience justifies, sanctifies, redeems and merits eternal life for us. He is the true Samaritan, who pours oil and wine into our wounds. He delivers from the power of darkness and translates us into the kingdom of Christ, through Whom we have redemption through His blood.
Christ Bears Our Suffering
It may happen that when a pastor visits the sick, he shows some shyness and hesitation. That is because the pastor himself has never experienced what this sick person is going through and he cannot identify with him. He cannot take this suffering upon himself. But this is something that Christ has done. He took our sicknesses upon Himself. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows (Isa. 53:4). He not only represents two parties, but He takes their place. He becomes the suffering One.
Therefore, we ought to remember that no one can be closer to you than Christ. Not your wife or husband, not your mother or your child, only Christ can be very close to you, because He is God in human flesh. He comes to you to do what no one else can do. He comes to take away your sin and to bear its punishment in your place. He paid with His own life.
Heaven Is The New Home
Through Christ there is access to the holy place. He wants us to seek Him in the place where He is now working. That place is in heaven at the right hand of God. Heaven is the place where all God’s children will one day be. Heaven will be their new home. Therefore, they should now already become acquainted with heaven.
When you have a new house built, do you wait until the house is finished and then take a look? Of course not, you are often at the jobsite to see the progress that is being made. The future home of God’s children will be in heaven and therefore they are called to look now already to see what their future home will be like.
You may answer: that is impossible; we cannot go to heaven and take a look there. That is true, but then why do we read in Scripture that our walk is to be in the heavens? For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:20). That means setting your love and desires upon the Lord. It means that your desire is to know more about your Saviour and you long to live according to His will. You desire to study His Word to find divine truths about Christ and heaven. Then your walk is already in heaven.
When these matters are reality in your life, do not be cast down because of remaining sins that are still present in you against your will. Isaiah 1:18 tells you that your sins, though crimson, will become white as wool. Even if faith is weak or seems so small, as long as it is true faith, it will unite the sinner to Christ and all His benefits. Living in this expectation, a sickbed is not just passively endured, but will be an active waiting, looking forward to and yearning for the full redemption in Christ.
Defeatism And Self-Gratification
There are two dangers when we are sick. There is the danger of being passive and fatalistic, acquiring a defeatist attitude. But there is also another danger: To experience a certain measure of satisfaction in aches and pains and obtain self-gratification in our deprivation. There are some who delight to dwell on their sufferings, sicknesses and afflictions. They may even boast about the way they bear suffering so that it becomes an end in itself.
This differs from the apostles’ experience: And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name (Acts 5:41). The apostles’ emphasis was on Christ’s name. People who delight to dwell on their suffering focus on themselves. For some, sickness is a way to get attention. But that is not the biblical way to deal with sickness. Tribulations and trials are meant to bring forth spiritual fruit. Such fruit must have the emphasis because that fruit is Christ Himself. Sickness is never an end in itself, but only the means to gain something better. Suffering ought to lead us to bring glory to God and never to promote self.
Danger Of Rebellion
Another danger in sickness is to become rebellious. The Consolation of the Sick refers to that by quoting James 1:2: Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations. Through temptations and suffering the Lord is chastising and purging us so that we would bring forth fruit for Him. Hebrews 12 refers to such chastisement. For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth (Heb. 12:6).
Through suffering and enduring chastisements God’s children learn patience. We do not have that by nature. It is a gift the Lord especially teaches in the way of suffering. Where there is expectation for future life with the Lord, patience is experienced and can be seen on a sickbed
Resurrection Of The Dead
The Consolation of the Sick ends with the resurrection of the dead. We might have expected this earlier for that is where God’s people find much comfort. When their earthly tabernacle is broken down, the Lord will make all things new. Their dead bodies will be raised from the grave and will be made like unto Christ’s glorified body. This will happen because they have been made one with Christ. If they are one with Him in His suffering, they will also share in His glorification.
Maybe we wonder: How will it be with me when I am called to suffer and die? We may know that there is power in God’s abundant grace. He who elects and saves is also the One who causes His people to persevere until the end. They will receive the blessed resurrection of the dead.