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The Plan of Life
This chapter may be considered as laying down the sacred and stimulating doctrine that our life is planned and ordered for us as to its divine side and moral obligation. We are not called upon to consider the great questions of moral duty or righteousness or good conduct in any of its vital springs, with a view to conceiving some plan of our own as to the realisation of perfect character. The idea of this chapter is that all moral duties have been defined and all moral limits have been divinely described and imposed, so that all we have to do is to concede the homage of rational and thankful obedience. This is a difficult lesson for the unrenewed human heart to learn; it is, however, the one lesson which runs through the entire scope of revelation from end to end. It would seem to be a tribute to human sagacity, and even a recognition of human responsibility, to have left every man to define right and wrong for himself and to discover on his own account the shortest and safest way to heaven. A conception of this kind represents a profound and fatal mistake; that mistake being that we are in any sense upon equal terms with the Creator and Preserver of our spirits. To begin truly we must begin with the assumption that we are of yesterday and know nothing, and that appearances alone reveal themselves to our imperfect vision, the spiritual and eternal reality of things being of necessity hidden from faculties which could not comprehend it. Thus the Biblical doctrine is one of human dependence upon divine revelation. All our quests after first principles and final issues are in reality expressions of the heart's desire to find and understand the will of the eternal God. We may shrink from that form of expression as being perhaps almost superstitious to our present incomplete reason, but viewed in its largest issues it comes to this that man is everywhere seeking for the complete word, the divine term, the sure and everlasting rock. Having the spirit of little children, and coming to the Bible tenderly reverent to know definitely what God would have us do, we shall receive from the sacred page light for every day, comfort for every sorrow, and inspiration for every duty. If we appeal to the law and the testimony for the sake of finding materials for argument or abstract philosophy we shall kick against the pricks and involve ourselves in endless vexations. The Bible has nothing to say to such a spirit. It will only speak to the meek and lowly in heart, and to men who ask with reverent earnestness what God would have them do.
The plan of life is happily vindicated by the experience of life. Moses calls upon Israel to "remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years." This is the happy issue of faith. Faith began without evidence of an external and positive kind, but as life advanced one day after another shaped itself into indisputable testimony, and so fortified the faith with a sacred and unimpeachable experience. We must begin with the faith and end with its verification. God will not allow us to begin at the other end: his plan is to train by trust, and to vindicate himself by the illumination which he vouchsafes to every day, so that the night shall corroborate the morning, and at eventide men shall praise God for the trust with which they began the day. Israel was not called upon so much to remember the literal road, but "the way," that is the manner or method, or, as we might say, the genius of the whole journey. In the Acts of the Apostles the Christian life is more than once called "the way." The journey of life is not made up of mere details and separate incidents; all these are strung upon what we may describe as the thread of a divine purpose, and it is to that thread we must constantly look if we would see the unity and the direction of the divine intent. It comes to this then, that every Christian believer must fall back upon his personal experience of "the way." To personal knowledge the Christian may add the history of the whole Church. Individual experience and universal history concurring in an indivisible testimony, the result is a conviction which no mere argument or intellectual scepticism can either obscure or disturb. When Christian life is thus verified, Christian testimony will assume a lofty and definite tone. No longer will Christianity be found in the attitude of a mere apologist; it will rise to the dignity of a living witness conscious of perfect and even divine veracity. Without such consciousness what is preaching? what is public profession? what are Christian institutions? Everything depends upon the reality of the personal life, the true, deep joy of the renewed heart; to these experiences there is no answer, the attempted reply of mere words being without point and without effect.
In the third verse Moses lays down by inspiration the sublime doctrine that the sustenance of life is not confined to one method. His words are most remarkable: "And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live." These words were used by Jesus Christ in reply to the temptation of Satan. The sustenance of human life has ever been a divine mystery on which God has never condescended to cast any light. God will sustain life in his own way. He gives it "manna," a term which itself requires definition, and which has baffled all the attempts of investigators adequately and finally to solve. It is an utter mistake to suppose that God could not sustain human life or any other life without what is known as bread. We call bread the staff of life, and, as a general expression, the term is sufficiently accurate: but God is not dependent upon the processes of nature; he could support human life as he supports the angels in heaven: if he has made the eating of bread apparently necessary to the sustenance of the bodily frame, it is that he might make the cultivation of bread a practical means of human training and a bond of social union. It is not God who is dependent upon the bread as an instrument; it is man who is dependent upon it as a condition of commerce and the unit of the commonwealths of the world. By allowing the mind to assume that by bread only man can live, we direct our thoughts into a narrow and unworthy channel. We make man a debtor to the earth and a debtor to his own invention. The sublime doctrine of inspiration is that we live and move and have our being in God, and are in no sense, other than is involved in the divine sovereignty, either children of the dust, or debtors to anything which the ground can supply. He who is most conscious of his highest nature is least conscious of his bodily requirements. Now and again we have had happy experiences which at least remotely indicate that a time may come when life will be an expression of thought and feeling and worship, rather than a result of gratified appetite, or the cultivation of meaner things. All this cannot be expressed in words. We are thankful to have now and again a hint of that larger being, that holy consciousness which is best described by the thrilling word Immortality. Wonderful are the words of Christ upon this matter of the sustenance of life: "He that doeth the will of God abideth for ever."
The seventh verse reminds us that obedience is always associated with reward: "For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills," and so the promise rolls on in noble eloquence, "A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil, olive, and honey." This has been the divine method of cultivating and ennobling the human race from the beginning. Men can understand reward, or the coming in to great and abundant possession of such things as can be immediately used in the promotion of human comfort and human security. God has always availed himself of the principle of rewards and punishments in the training of mankind. His delight has been in pointing to an infinite and glorious heaven as the crown and glory of human obedience. It is not to be supposed that any appeal is thus made to the meaner nature, or the baser motives by which conduct is moved. Man needs kindly stimulus, a gracious impulsion on the way towards the city of light. It is possible that Christians may have outgrown the whole idea expressed by terms which ancient Israel could understand, but the very outgrowth is itself a testimony to the reality of the principle which is found in this chapter. A purely spiritual heaven would have had no meaning in the days of the Israelites. Moses and his people could only understand such words as brooks, fountains, wheat, barley, vines, fig trees, and pomegranates; God meant all these words to be the beginning of spiritual terms, and the spirituality of the terms never could be realised until human experience had passed through all the consciousness excited and sustained by these practical promises.
Moses does not shrink from propounding the apparent contradiction that even a life of obedience must also be a life of chastening: "Thou shalt also consider in thine heart, that, as a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee. Therefore thou shalt keep the commandments of the Lord thy God to walk in his ways, and to fear him" ( Deu 8:5-6 ). It might be thought that obedience would escape chastening, and no doubt it would if the obedience were perfect; but obedience itself being, under present conditions, partial or imperfect, chastening is needed for the purification of motive and the subjugation of will. The wise man says that a wise parent seeketh chastening for his son. "Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth" is a doctrine which the greatest teachers of Christianity have not shrunk from declaring. Chastening does not always mean what is generally understood as punishment. Chastening may mean a trial of patience, so that the will may be taught the habit of waiting, and expectation may become the beginning of prayer. God has always recognised the value of the element of time in the schooling of the human race. He did not give all his revelation at once, he did not send his Son into the world at the beginning: he does not immediately answer all prayers: the mystery of the operation of time has never yet been fully understood; day is to be added to day, and one event is to be linked on to another, periods of rest are to intervene between periods of activity, and the judgment which man may pronounce upon God is to be deferred until the divine way has been perfectly accomplished. The purpose of chastening is to reveal a man unto himself: "To humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart;" we do not know ourselves until after the test cf many days. We are surprises unto ourselves. By the utterance of language, the adoption of policies, the accumulation of companionships and responsibilities we amaze ourselves by the variety, the subtlety, and the persistency of life. We learn in hunger what we could never understand in fulness. To be kept standing throughout the night dews and knocking at inhospitable doors may give us definitions of home and security which the enjoyment of such blessings might never originate. The humble and obedient soul rejoices that life has not one burden too many to carry, or one tear too hot to shed, or one difficulty too severe to encounter; it says, All these things are appointed as gracious necessities in the perfecting of my education; I know that my Redeemer liveth; I know that all things work together for good to them whose love is set upon the living God. This spirit drives away the demon of impatience and blesses and tranquillises the soul with the angel of heavenly confidence. If the children of God suffered nothing but punishment, those who look on from the outside might well wonder as to the rewards and issues of virtue even in this world: but chastening is not punishment, it is training, it is education, it is experience, it is part of an inscrutable but beneficent method. Blessed are they who wait until the end, and who speak not of the judgments of God until they have seen all the glory of heaven.
It would seem that in this direction the thought of Moses steadfastly moved. What was God's object in bringing out Israel from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and leading the people through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents and scorpions and drought, where there was no water? Why did God bring forth water out of the rock of flint? Moses gives the tender and noble reply: "That he might humble thee, and that he might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end." That is the sublime purpose! If we exclude the "latter end" from our view of divine methods we shall certainly be entangled in the thicket of details. The latter end is not in our keeping; but it is set before us in order to restrain our passion and attemper our imagination and cultivate our patience. It is something to know that at the end God means to do us good. That should be a steadfast fact in the mind, and may be used in many different relations, but all for the same purpose. What of the difficulties of the way if the end is to be bright and beautiful heaven? What of the battle and storm here and now if according to our steadfastness and loyalty to divine principles is to be the splendour of the divine recognition in the land of glory? Thus we draw ourselves on by the latter end. Again and again we tenderly exclaim: "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his." The latter end will explain everything. On the last day of life we may see more than we have ever beheld during the whole course of our pilgrimage. Sudden glory may drive away every cloud and shadow, and bring in eternal day. One whisper from the upper spheres spoken to the dying may dissolve every doubt, break down every bound and barrier separating the soul from God, and admit the spirit into celestial liberty. We will not be deterred by today's difficulties. We shall not be tempted by sneering opponent or bitter sceptic or godless life to regard the providence of heaven as bounded by any one day. Give God whatever time he requires, and when he has accomplished the hours claimed by his purpose and has declared the consummation of his design in our life, we may be permitted to give some opinion as to "the way" by which we have been led and the method by which our best life has been sustained.
But Moses will not stop at this point. He becomes eloquent in lofty religious warning. Towards the close of the chapter he says: "And it shall be, if thou do at all forget the Lord thy God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I testify against you this day that ye shall surely perish. As the nations which the Lord destroyeth before your face, so shall ye perish; because ye would not be obedient unto the voice of the Lord your God" ( Deu 8:19-20 ). Thus the way of the Lord is equal. Disobedience means penalty as certainly as obedience means reward. The two courses are openly set before us. It is undoubtedly within our liberty to oppose God, to set up an altar of our own, to invent commandments out of our own imagination, and to serve whom we will and as we will; in these matters we have no right, but according to our moral constitution we have the liberty: but God has not hidden from us the consequences of such perverseness and idolatry: nor are those consequences partial in their operation or alterable in their pressure; they are tremendous consequences, too awful to be expressed in words, too appalling to be encompassed by the imagination. This is where I rest in the matter of everlasting punishment. What that term may mean it is impossible for any human mind to conceive. It would seem as if God himself felt the inadequateness of language to express the infinite idea. The prayer of every man should be, My soul, come not thou into this secret. Men should never trifle with the idea of the punishment of sin; it is everlasting punisnment; it is eternal penalty; it is an expression of the horror of God as his infinite holiness looks upon the abomination of sin. "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." This is not a one-sided law; it is the impartial law which holds within its ample scope all that is terrible in the idea of perdition and all that is sublime in the promise of heaven.
Almighty God, we seek the truth. Jesus Christ said: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." We would see Jesus; we would fix the attention of our love and expectation upon thy Son, and receive from him what he alone can give life, pardon, peace. Without him we can do nothing. We are powerless when cut away from the Vine and the upper life, the divine and eternal; then we fall back into the dust: we are without spirit or force or goodness of will. We can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth us, yea, we can bear much fruit and make the Father glad. May we abide in Christ; may we look to the Son of God; may we fix our whole love upon Jesus, and, studying his law with a complete attention, may we obey it with a consenting will. We thank thee for all the words spoken by the Son of God; they are spirit, they are life, they are full of tenderest love; they lift the cloud from the outlook of the mind and shed eternal glory on things beyond. Never man spake like this Man. We wonder at the gracious words which proceed out of his mouth, how full of wisdom! how tender with heavenly unction! how adapted to our necessity and pain! When he concludes his speech the heart, grateful and enraptured, says, My Lord and my God! May Christ ever speak to us, ever abide with us, walk with us on the evening road, and begin at Moses and all the Prophets and the Psalms, and show unto us the things concerning himself; and as the wondrous speech proceeds our heart shall burn within us, and we shall know that we are near the bush out of which the Lord spake unto Moses. We bless thee for thine house, its security, its quietness, its spirit of holy peace. Be near us, every one. Touch the sad heart, and give it one hour's release from burdensomeness. Look upon the struggling life, and the glance of thine eye shall be as a guarantee of hope and conquest Bring back the prodigal; he has many a weary mile to return, but if it shall come into his heart that thou art expecting him and longing for him with all the yearning of love his steps may be hastened, and the miles will soon be passed. Comfort us in our sorrow; carry our burdens a while for us. Seal our eyelids in peaceful sleep, and on the morning we shall rise invested with new energy and inspired with new hope.
This prayer we say, every word of it, in the name of him who, once crowned with thorns, is now crowned with all the crowns of heaven Amen.
The Design of Affliction
It can never be inappropriate to address men upon the subject of affliction. In that one solemn fact there is a whole philosophy. How conies it that in this green world, with its blue skies, it can never be inappropriate to address a large assembly of human creatures on the subject of human sorrow? Laughter would often be out of place, and merriment would be a sin; but tenderness, sympathy, recognition of tears and heartache and weariness why, almost at the wedding feast such allusions would evoke an assenting sigh. There must be some reason under all this. There is not a man living but knows what is meant by grief and pain, trouble and fear, suffering and sorrow. These are the well-known words that need no explanation their utterance is their exposition. The heart knoweth his own bitterness. Every man's sorrow has an accent of its own, as every man's joy has a smile that he could find nowhere else. It is a notable fact that everywhere the Bible recognises the existence of affliction. In no other book is affliction so minutely and pathetically delineated. It seems to have been written on purpose to talk about affliction, sorrow, pain, death. It would seem as if the Book could have had no existence but for darkness and trouble, sorrow and anxiety. No feature of affliction escapes the attention of the Bible. The black image throws its fretted shadow over the whole area of the Book. You find affliction in Genesis. The Bible cannot begin except in the night-time, in the hour of darkness and under the gloom of sin. You cannot find a single historical book without finding the black line of affliction running through all the moving narrative. And the Psalms why, affliction is the mournful inspiration of the Psalter. The Psalter would not be a book were there no affliction in the world. All that is noblest in its pathos, sublimest in its solace, and grandest in its outlook, it owes to the fact that at the root of human life is the worm of human sorrow. Why is not the Bible all joyful? Why is it not a series of military marches? Why does it not sound the timbrel and beat the cymbal and cause the trumpet's blare of triumph and joy to be heard on every page and through every scene? Do let us get at the reason of the mournful tone which pervades the holy revelation. That reason we give in one word. It may admit of controversy in terms; but it admits of no dispute in facts. The brief, grim, tremendous answer is SIN. But my immediate purpose does not lead me in that direction. The one inquiry which challenges my mind, and to which I would venture to call attention, is this: Granted that sin is the parent of sorrow, and of affliction and death, what are God's uses of affliction? What does God mean when he afflicts the children of men? Has he condescended to explain his intention? Does he thunder and lighten upon the world without cause? Do the arrows of his wrath fly without moral intent, or gracious control? What is the meaning of chastening, loss, grief, disappointment, affliction, in any, in all its dark and trying phases? Happily we are not left to conjecture. We go to the Book that speaks about affliction, to receive an answer to our urgent inquiry. What is God's design in troubling and chastening human life? Here is one reason which I will quote directly from the Book itself. Let us be silent, let us cause our nimble, but often faulty, fancy to sit down whilst we listen with the attention of the heart to the inspired explanation of human discipline: "Remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee, these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee and to prove thee to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments or no." There is a twofold design of chastening. The first is self-revelation," to know what was in thine heart." Some things can only be got at by fire. There are depths in our consciousness that nothing can sound but pain, anguish, bitterness, sorrow. And these are not all bad; sometimes pain works its way down to our better nature, touches into gracious activity our noblest impulses, and evokes from our heretofore dumb lips the noblest prayer. Sometimes we see farther through our tears than through our laughter. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting. Many a man owes all that he knows about himself, in its reality and in its best suggestiveness not to prosperity, but to adversity. Not to light, but to darkness. The angel of trouble has spoken to him, in whispers that have found their way into the inmost hearing of the heart.
The next design of affliction given in this quotation is "whether thou wouldest keep his commandments or no." Obedience is the purpose which God has in view. There can be no grand life until we have learned to obey. It is good for a man to have to obey. It is a continual lesson, a daily discipline. He gathers from it a true consciousness of his own capacity and his own strength, and he begins to ask questions of the most serious intent. From the beginning God's purpose was that we should obey. You cannot obey in any good and useful sense the spirit of evil. You only get good from the exercise of obedience when that exercise goes against your own will and chastens it into gracious submission. I say this the more clearly, lest some should imagine that there is no good in obedience in the abstract. A young person might say, "Then I will obey the spirit that bids me indulge myself, evade my lessons, my duties; trifle with my engagements. That will be obedience." So it may. But it is an obedience that brings no good along with it. It goes with the current of your own evil nature. It is an acquiescence that pleases you, not a discipline that tests your noblest and most useful qualities. It is good for a man to obey it shows him that he is not God. It brings him down to his proper level. It enables him to say, "I do not wish to do this. I would rather not do it; the thing in itself is right, but I wish to evade it or do something that may be supposed to be equivalent to it, but in a pleasanter way." Now a man has that battle to fight; every battle must begin in a man's heart. You cannot fight your battles with your hand, you must have thrown the devil in a secret encounter and crushed his head in the concealment of nightly agony of prayer and thought, and then in the open light and the broad highway your victories will come easily to you. Obedience is not abstinence of the hand; it is acquiescence of the heart. The Lord therefore says, "I sent this trouble upon thee to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep my commandments or no." Self-revelation and filial obedience these are part of God's design in sending afflictions upon us.
Take another explanation: "I will forsake them, and I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall befall them, so that they will say in that day, Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us?" Sometimes God's withdrawments evoke from the heart conscious of his absence the most poignant and eager prayers. He says, "I will go away that they may miss me." He says, "I will withdraw and cause the walls of their security to tremble and the roof of their defence to let the storm pour down through it in order that they may begin to ask great questions." He will not have us fretting the mind with little inquiries and petty interrogations. He will force us to vital questionings: "Are not these things come upon us, because our God is not among us?" Why deal with symptoms and not with real diseases? Why try merely to clean the window when you have shut out the sun? Why paint the cheek when you know the disease is in the heart? It is thus that men awake oftentimes to a great interest in spiritual things. They build up walls so far, and in the morning they find them thrown down. They say, "It is the wind." They build them again, and again they are thrown down, and they say, "It was the vibration caused by passing vehicles." They build them up again, and again they are thrown down. And now they say, "How is this? Are the spiritual presences against us? Are the secrets of the universe turned into our enemies? Are we working along forbidden lines? Why this overturning? Why this daily mockery?" And then, with faces upturned, they catch the secret in the light, not in the dust, and find that it was God himself who prevented their bricks cohering and who melted their cement God who caused his geometry to fight against their bad masonry. That may be the reason why you sustained the tremendous disaster last week. That may be the reason why the postman brings you no deliverance, why every letter brings fire with it, why every envelope is full of stings, and why every communication becomes a threat and a fear. O man, that may be the reason, and you, poor fool, have been thinking all the time that it was some little accident or matter of detail; not thinking that God's round heaven was fighting against you and from its every inch sending out stings and rebukes of fire. Here is an exact explanation of the law. God says: "I will withdraw, I will forsake them, I will go away that they may ask, 'Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us?'" That may be the reason you have no joy at home; it is a God-forsaken house. You may have your altar there, you may utter your morning and evening prayer there, you may turn over the sacred leaves as if seeking for something in the dust there. But you have no God great, fatherly, ever-shining presence, gentle benediction, brooding heart, and tender pity. That may be the reason why your table is not steady, why the bread turns sour in your mouth, why the water is all fire-drinking, why the fire goes out suddenly and you know not why. That may be the cause. Search for God in the house, ask him to come back again, say you have found the reason now and you mourn it, and ask him to return.
Take another answer: "They shall bear the punishment of their iniquity... that the house of Israel may no more go astray from me." Punishment meant to bring men home again. That is God's weapon, and you cannot steal it. You do wrong, and the scorpion stings you. You cannot bribe the scorpion, or tame it, or please it. Do what you will, it is a scorpion still. You say you will eat and drink abundantly, and grow your joys in your body, and the blood saith: "No!" And every bone says: "No!" And the head and the heart say: "No! we are God's, and not in us shall you grow any joy that is not of the nature of his own purpose and will." The bones, the joints, the sinews, the nerves, the whole scheme of the physical constitution of man, all fight for God. You have your enmities in the intellect and your oppositions in the imagination, and your troubles of a technical kind, and you try to wriggle your way out of the morality of Christianity. By some theological jugglery, by posing as an "honest doubter," you want to drink the wine of the dishonest glutton and wine-bibber. But God will cause his laws to speak for him and defend him; so you shall be beaten and punctured and troubled. You shall have no sleep, or in sleep a hell in sleep! And what a hell there can be in a bad dream! What is God's purpose in this? To bring you home again, and nothing else.
Take another statement of the cause and purpose of God in this matter of afflicting men: "I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant... there shall ye remember your ways, and all your doings, wherein ye have been defiled; and ye shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for all your evils that ye have committed." There again is the internal mystery. It is not the heart that needs must be revealed. You cannot argue with a man who is running down to hell with the consent of all his powers. Argue with him! Your argument and eloquence would be thrown away upon him. You must so show the evil of his doings as to work in the man self-loathing. You may show him pictures of evil, and he will gaze upon them nay, he will buy them and hang them up in his rooms at home and point them out to his friends as works of vigour and power and wondrous artistic skill. He will not regard them as mirrors reflecting his own image. The work must be done in his soul. He must so see evil as to hate himself self-disgust is the beginning of penitence and amendment. When the Prodigal came to himself saw himself as he really was he said: "I have sinned against Heaven." Every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. That is another purpose of God in affliction. God sent his servant Paul a thorn in the flesh that he should not be exalted above measure. And to the text, "that he might humble thee and that he might prove thee," there is the sweet answer After thou hast tried me thou wilt bring me forth as gold. How much education some of us need! I envy some men, because they so soon, to all seeming, get through their lesson and are good, and others of us require time after time affliction upon affliction, and still the furnace fire is heaped up, and still we remain in the burning, and we seem to become no better. One man had a death in his family, and from that moment he became a new creature. Others have carried out child after child, and still the home is without God and the life without hope in the world. Some men, after one debauch, have hated themselves so that hatred turned into prayer and penitence and trust in God; and they stood straight up, renewed, redeemed, emancipated. And others have been for years in the mire and in the filth, and wallowed there and enjoyed it. Debauch after debauch, and become the worse for every experience. Some men have seen the error of their ways quite early, and yet seem to still go on repeating evil thought and deed without learning anything. The object of God is to do us good at our latter end. If the end of digging grave after grave is that we see our sin as God sees it, and hate it as Christ hated it, then all the loss has been for our good. God means us to be men, he means to purify us and sanctify us, to make us holy, to restore his image and likeness in us in Christ, through Christ, by the power of Christ, by the ministry of his sacrificial blood, and the ministry of God the Holy Ghost. This is the will of God, even your sanctification, and to get that will accomplished he has to take away the first-born and the last-born, the dear old father or mother, the dearest friend, the kindliest presence, health, fortune, position. He has to get us down to the root, branch and stem and all, right down; but he says: "The root shall remain and become good and strong and young again, and out of this root shall come beauty and fruitfulness such as shall please the heavenly Husbandman." We all have affliction. Yours seems to be greater than mine mine may seem to be greater than yours. But let us know that there cannot be affliction in our life without its being under God's control, and he will not suffer us to be tried above that we are able to bear it, and with every trial he will make a way of escape. He does not willingly grieve the children of men. He is pruning us, cutting us, nursing us, purifying us by divers processes to the end that he may set us in his heavens princes that shall go out no more for ever.
Let us now look at some portions of Biblical testimony, and see how far they cover what we ourselves know of the afflictions and distresses of life. Let us begin at the lowest point, and step by step move onward to the higher altitudes. Take as a starting testimony this pitiful speech of an ancient offender, "We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us." Afflictions do not spring out of the ground. Behind the meanest action there is a whole philosophy. We could almost write a Bible ourselves, so much have we seen of life, of guilt, of consequential pain, and of possible hell. The brethren of Joseph were self-convicted. They did not refer their distress to some high theory of the universe, with which they had little or nothing to do. Placing their finger on the black line which that finger itself had written, they said in candour (which is one element of penitence), "This is our doing." What a world it would be if distress did not follow crime! Life would be insupportable. Society would be impossible. It is the biting serpent that keeps us right. We make broad ways, along which the penal hosts of God come armed with weapons of righteous vengeance to inflict upon us the punishment appropriate to our guilt. You are in distress; ask the reason why. We have seen that distress is not always a sign of divine indignation, because distress is not always a consequence of personal guilt. But, looking at the matter from the standpoint of the text which is before us, let us ask ourselves this plain question, "How did this distress come upon me?" It is a pain of the body. You can easily account for it. It is a pain in the conscience the witnesses are at the door. It is a dread fear of to-morrow. The reason is in the way you lived yesterday. There is no mystery about many a case of distress. If you have not a home, a place of security and of defence and sacred retreat, you know how you came to be in that position. You broke the law. You were unkind to your brother. You neglected your natural dependants. You sinned away your opportunities. You know the reason why; so do not make a mystery of it and add to the distress consequent upon actual guilt the intellectual pain of making mysteries out of plain and indisputable facts.
Take another instance of the result of affliction, which will show a very pitiful aspect of human nature. "Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them, I have sinned this time: the Lord is righteous, and I and my people are wicked." That was the right result. Wherein, then, is the pitifulness of the aspect of human nature which is herein disclosed? It is in the fact that Pharaoh's speech was the expression of an insincere spirit. He did not mean what he said. He was ready to repent in words, but not in deeds. If confession of the lip would placate the angry heavens he would utter any number of confessions. But far down in his heart was the untamed spirit of rebellion and alienation and self-idolatry. Is it not so with you? "If God will take away this pain that troubles my life and makes existence intolerable, I will confess my sin." "If God will be gracious this time, I will never offend against his law and sanctuary any more." "If the Lord will enable me to tear this lion in pieces, and rend this bear, then surely I will go up to his house, and mine shall be the loudest and sweetest voice in the holy psalm." You do not mean it. You want to get rid of a burden. This is not genuine repentance. You want to escape consequences, not to hate sin. And thus to the original criminality you add the petty offence of cowardice. Men do not like to walk in the hell which they enkindle. It is no love of heaven that makes them pray for a speedy and complete escape. But the criminal in every case is not a hero, but a coward. Sin is never valorous. Boastful it may be for a time; but valour, nobility, courage, and chivalry are inconsistent with its nature. It lights its hell, and then would flee away from the flames. That is the reason why you are so far back in your moral progress. When you were last afflicted you said, "If God will raise me up this time, I will devote to him so much of my income, so much of my strength, and so much of my time." God did raise you up, and from that day to this your vow has lain upon his altar a dead letter. Do not escape the impeachment; it is meant to be heavy, terrific, emphatic with the thunder of God's own anger. You will be laid down again, and prayer shall mock your pain, and the leaden heavens shall send back your piteous cry. Awake, thou that sleepest! Remember your obligations, and now say, I will no longer withhold performance of a vow plighted under circumstances that can never be forgotten.
Take another instance of the effect of affliction, also an instance of the lower kind. "The people came to Moses and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord that he take away the serpents from us." What a mean request! You breed serpents, and are then afraid of them. You are responsible for their existence, and then you cry to God to kill your own progeny. I cannot find one instance of valour and nobleness in all the ranks of sin. God teaches us by fear. It is impossible to look upon life in all its scheme and outline without seeing that fear has an important part to play in the education of mankind. The child is often ruled by fear. Imagination is called upon to magnify penalties in the case of the child. Many a threat, inspired by love, is directed to the child that the attention of the little offender may be more completely and usefully awakened. And no preaching can be complete that does not, now and again, remind the people of the terrors of the law. It is no light thing to sin; and, come to what conclusion you may about the future of the wicked soul, there can be no doubt that that future is one of tremendous agony. Who will dare it? Who will willingly go forward to it? I know of no theory of the Future of the soul which by some point or other does not bring in the righteous punishment of offending man. You can only affect some persons through fear. Without imagination of the better kind, without high sentiment, without noble education, without generous impulses they can only be touched along the line of fear. So I do not visit with criticism of an embarrassing kind the efforts of men who preach hell rather than heaven to certain classes of hearers. High discourse about the nobler spaces, the infinite liberties, the glorious sanctuaries yet to be revealed and enjoyed, would be lost on an audience so debased. God, therefore, has again and again in his process of educating the human race, availed himself of fear for the purpose of awakening the attention of the lost Take another instance. "After all that is come upon us for our evil deeds, and for our great trespass, seeing that thou our God hast punished us less than our iniquities deserve." Man can only be taught that lesson by suffering. Without suffering he would be as a worker in cold iron. He must be made to see that at the root of all suffering is sin. Hence the grandeur of the mission of Christ; hence its royal sublimity and its divine beneficence. He came not to deal with symptoms, but with realities interior essences and facts; so he taketh away the sin of the world. It is an inclusive act. To take away the root is to take away the branches. To remove the sin is to destroy the disease. To heal the heart is to bring the flush of health to the cheek that was blanched through suffering. Do not look at secondary causes, and so play the practical fool. Look at beginnings, at springs, at fountain-heads, and, find in sin the one secret of all suffering.
Now let us go to the higher ground, and let us hear this good confession: "Thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly." That word "just" is a word which cannot be dropped out of the history of divine Providence without destroying the idea of Providence itself. "Thou art just." Hell opens its lips and says, "Thou art just." All sufferers who have come to the root and foundation of their suffering have said, "Thou art just." The pain is intolerable, but it is just. The night is dark, but not so black as the sin which gathered the appalling cloud. Confession must be kept in its right place in every review of Providence. It is not enough that we confess that Providence is royal, divine, wonderful, mysterious, perplexing; we must come to a moral word somewhere in our criticism and discourse, and that one moral word which is needful to give dignity to our survey and estimate is the eternal word, " just ." So says the suffering world; not a pain too many, not an agony too keen, not a night too dark, not a wind too cold, not a stream too deep or swift, not a sting too burning thou, O Lord, King of angels, only Potentate, thou art just. When a man can truly say that, with the emphasis of his intelligence and affection, he is not far from the kingdom of God.
Take a still loftier instance. "Thou, O God, hast proved us: thou hast tried us, as silver is tried. Thou broughtest us into the net; thou laidst affliction upon our loins... but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place." The road was difficult, but the end was grand. We came through thickets and thorns and stony places and rocky heights and over wildernesses, but the end is paradise the end is heaven. A wealthy place here means a large place. God would enlarge our inheritance and add to our liberty, and no roof that we can build over our heads is grand enough for us, so he builds the roof of the sky, and sows it with the beauty of stars. He means to bring you into a large place; into new ideas, new relations, new opportunities, new hopes. "In my Father's house are many mansions." "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be." We are now learning the alphabet hard work; it is difficult to bring together into picture and music and harmony; but presently a great light will shine upon us, and a new inspiration will seize our intelligence and our whole moral nature and lift it up to a sublimer plane, which shall read the revelation of God with new capacities and new sensations. Your affliction ought to have made you richer richer in experience, richer in every department of life and thought; and if it has failed to do so God's design has not been successful.
Now let us hear an individual testimony. So far the testimony has been uttered in the plural number. Here is a man who will speak for himself, and in speaking for himself shall speak for the whole world. "Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word... It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes." You cannot read the Bible in health with any true edification, or with any deep perception of its inner meaning. It is not in fatness and prosperity to deliver the music of revelation with effect upon the attention of those who are listening. The Bible can be best read when the throat is choked with some sob of penitence, or when the reading is made incoherent because the print is punctuated with falling tears. The Bible cannot be rhetorically read, so as to bring out its spiritual purpose and intent and force. It is best read when the voice shakes, when the eyes are dim, and when the whole heart is alive with conflicting joy and sorrow. Do not go to men of shallow and narrow experience to know what the Bible is. Religious questions cannot be discussed in cold blood. Religion, in the Christian acceptation of the term, is blood, is sacrifice, is agony, is life at its highest point. To refer to the figure just used to come to the Bible in a merely cold and critical mood is attempting to unite pieces of cold iron by beating them. Without fire progress is impossible. So the flippant man can never be a great critic or a great preacher. The man destitute of veneration can never make his influence deeply and lastingly felt in the review or the recitation of the divine word.
Then comes the crowning result: "Remembering mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall. My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me." Here we have mellowness of character. Your dignity, your energy, have fallen into their proper places, and the supreme characteristic of your life and spirit now is mellowness. Affliction has been sanctified to us, and so the character is enriched, the tone is subdued, our judgment of other people is larger and nobler, our capacity of sympathy is enhanced and ennobled, and now we can speak out of the heart, rich with the manifold treasures of God. Once there was uppermost in our thinking and our speech a feeling of cleverness, sagacity, intellectual force, or even some gleams of genius; but since we have had the grave dug and filled, and another dug by its side since the favourite flower has been blighted and the heart has been taken away; since the delight of the eyes has been removed; since the roof has been battered in by the fierce and destructive storm; since the sky has been blackened with one fatal night, our voice has become mellow, tender, sympathetic, and the touch of our hand has been as the touch of a redeeming, saving power. Are we the better for our affliction? Are we the richer in all the higher elements of character? Let each ask the question for himself. Or has the wine of God become sour through neglect or misuse? What then? What is the preacher's last cry? This: "Come, and let us return unto the Lord; for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up." Could a broader gospel be preached? Could a tenderer tone be uttered? "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way." Is there any voice to address us in faraway places in tones that can be well heard down in the soul? Yes. What does it say? "Come, and let us return unto the Lord." What then? "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." These are great words, these are grand offers. All other words and offers become mean and commonplace and contemptible in the presence of a word which means Love, an offer which means Pardon, and a return which means Heaven.
Let us next consider in what spirit affliction may be accepted. We have studied God's design in afflicting men, and we have seen some instances of the success of that method. Let us now see how variously as to spirit and interpretation affliction may be received at the hands of God. By "affliction" do not narrowly understand mere bodily suffering, but trial of every kind; yea, the whole burden and discipline of life. Understand that affliction in this large sense must be endured. The question is not whether we will have affliction or not. Affliction we must have. No door can be made to shut so closely as to keep affliction out of the house. Seeing, therefore, that in some form or other we must receive discipline; or undergo trial; or endure pain, the question is, In what spirit shall we receive the inevitable discipline of life? Here we have choice of methods. At this point what is called "free-will" operates most fully. We can be wise we can be foolish. It is for us grasping, so far as we may be able to include it, the whole purpose of God, in the constitution and education of our life to say in what spirit we shall regard our subordination and the discipline which it inevitably implies. The question is a great one, and as it must come before every mind in some form, let us endeavour to give it adequate consideration and becoming reply.
We must go to history for our illustrations; and, turning to history for my first illustration, I find that the discipline of life may be received impenitently. Hear these words in solemn and decisive proof: "If ye will not be reformed by me by these things, but will walk contrary unto me; then will I also walk contrary unto you, and will punish you yet seven times for your sins." That warning was addressed to impenitent hearts. The rain fell upon the rocks and melted them not. The sunshine poured its horn of light upon the sand, and it answered with no tiny flower. But the case is put with tremendous force. God will not yield. Who can last the longer, God or man? The Infinite or the finite? Whose arrows will give out soonest his who has but a handful, or his whose quiver is the universe? Clearly understand that God will not yield, and understand that his "will not" is not an instance of stubbornness or mere obstinacy. God cannot yield. Righteousness cannot give way. The standard of the sanctuary cannot alter its height. The balances of the sanctuary cannot accommodate themselves to conditions and circumstances. Right is right, and no tittle or jot of it can be abated. Not only so, God will increase punishment where affliction is misunderstood or impenitently received. "I will punish you yet seven times for your sins." That is, "I will give you sevenfold more punishment." He begins with the little penalty. He lays his finger-tip upon you to give you to know that you are on the wrong road. If you flee further from him, he increases the weight of his hand. If you repeat your sin, he smites you with cords. If you renew it, he chastises you with scorpions. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Now heed; say frankly with penitence and contrition, "Father, I have sinned; the blame is all mine; God be merciful unto me a sinner. I thought to make my way in the universe in spite of thee. I cannot do it I do not yield because I am foiled, but because I feel my folly and I sink under my sin. God pity me and save me." Will you say that? Then your affliction shall become your strength. The night shall break into light and beauty, and the wilderness shall blossom as the rose; and the place where your pain was keenest shall be the centre of your surest and noblest joys. But I warn you, God will not give way God cannot give way. The one thing God can do is to multiply your affliction seven times, and to cover up the arch of the sky with a night denser than has yet blackened the firmament.
Turning to history again, I find that affliction may be received self-approvingly, or self-excusingly, and so may fail of its benign purpose. The proof is in these words: "In vain have I smitten your children; they received no correction.... Thou sayest, Because I am innocent, surely his anger shall turn from me." The correction has been administered, but has not been received. It has been misunderstood. It has been taken in hardness. It has been resented as an injustice. It has been treated as if it came from an enemy, and not from a friend. The deadly sophism of your innocence must be rooted out before you can be cured. The Pharisee must be destroyed before the man can be saved. Will you understand that? So long as you have one little petty virtue that you indulge, and patronise, and exhibit, and trust to, God's back must be turned upon you. The difficulty of our life is our self-righteousness. The idea that we are good, and therefore do not deserve pain, sorrow, misfortune, loss, is the damning fallacy of life. We must die before we can live. We must feel ourselves to be empty-handed before we can be truly rich. Thou hast said, "I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked." God will not share the house of your trust with any rival deity. He is not one who will sit down upon equal terms with your respectability, and virtue, and excellence. Until we understand that we can make no religious progress. Here the superficial reasoner has the advantage over the Christian thinker, because he says to you, "It is impossible you can be so very bad; you are kind, you have good thoughts about people, you are neighbourly, you are hospitable, you are socially honourable, you are in good repute amongst your fellows, you are not ill-natured, but kindly disposed." The man is telling you lies. You are none of these things, except in a relative and superficial sense. In the sanctuary we deal with realities, not incidental relations. We go to the core and root of things, and not to surfaces and to passing incidents. Judging ourselves by ourselves, we are all that the non-christian thinker has described us to be. But we are not now instituting a comparison between one man and another, but between the best man and God. Let that idea get well into your mind and heart, and you will say, "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." The great difficulty is for us to get rid of our respectability. Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, the other a publican. The Pharisee lauded himself; the publican hated himself, and asked for mercy. The Pharisee was a Pharisee after his prayer; the publican was a justified man. Renounce excuses; drop the hollow plea of self-justification, and throw yourselves wholly into the arms, yea, into the heart, of the Saviour of the world. Then your afflictions will be like angels that have taken you home. Your discipline will be a minister of God. Your loss will be the beginning of your gain, and you will spring up into a new youth and a fresh immortal strength, saying, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." Other men have done it; why not we?
Turning again to history for illustration and argument, I find that affliction may be received self-deceivingly. The proof is in these words: "They have not cried unto me with their heart, when they howled upon their beds." Heart-crying is one thing, and mere howling is another. To howl is not to repent necessarily. We have howled enough, but our howling has not been of the right kind. There is a selfish howling. When some people are in pain they never think that they are paining their friends. They limit the suffering to themselves. Their thoughts never go out to those who watch and wait. They do not know that their pain inflicts distress upon the whole household. They confine themselves to themselves. There is no charity in their lamentations. There is no breadth in their sorrow, and therefore it is a selfish and a lost distress. Then there is a cowardly howling. Do not imagine that you are repentant merely because you are crying out. Perhaps you are only crying out because you have lost your property, lost your health, lost your standing not because you have offended God and grieved the Spirit of Righteousness. The Lord takes notice of the howling, but he says, "They have not cried unto me with their heart, when they howled upon their beds." It was a selfish, cowardly, resentful howling, and not the sigh of penitence, or the storm of contrition. Here we have great difficulty. Men come to us with sad stories of distress, and they make long moans about pain and fear, about poverty and uselessness. They use the words which penitents might use, but not in a contrite spirit. Analyse their howling, and it is all selfish. Take their crying to pieces, so to say, and it is all because the place smarts on which God's whip fell. It is the flesh that complains; it is not the spirit that repents. When a bad man complains of his head, is he complaining of his sin? Is he not only waiting till he can gather himself together again that he may renew the contest against Heaven, and endeavour to find on earth a root that was never planted there?
One more point there is which I dare scarcely touch. How few know that the passage is in the Bible. It is a passage that proves that affliction may be received, in the fourth place, despairingly. Are there in any poems made by men such words as these? Tell me if any poet dare write such word: "They gnawed their tongues for pain, and blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds." "My soul, come not thou into their secret." Some man wrote these words who had seen hell. We lightly utter the word. We try to modify its force and its meaning. We do what we can to mitigate the pressure of that tremendous punishment, which is implied in the use of such a term; but when we have done our utmost at modification and mitigation, there remains this terrible fact, "They gnawed their tongues for pain," and with their gnawed tongues they "blasphemed the God of heaven." They felt their "pains and their sores," but they "repented not of their deeds," and God cannot give way. "As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked;" but" the soul that sinneth, it shall die." Do not endeavour by any means to make God's hell a pleasure. Do not trifle with the idea of future punishment. Whatever it be, it is the last answer of Omnipotence to rebellious man. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." This is not a question to be argued. It is not a theme for speculation. When logician and speculatist have accomplished their task, there remains the unexplained word hell!
How are we receiving our afflictions? "Come now, let us reason together." Ephraim of old was described as a "bullock unaccustomed to the yoke." In some countries the bullock is used for ploughing and for drawing vehicles. The poor ox is yoked, and, being unaccustomed to the yoke, it chafes under it. Its great shoulders protest against the violation of liberty. By-and-by the bullock becomes accustomed to the treatment, and submits itself to the service of man. Ephraim receiving the discipline of God was "as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke." We do not take kindly to our troubles, afflictions, distresses, and losses. It is not natural that we should do so; but, seeing that we have incurred them, we must receive them at God's hand, and become accustomed to the discipline; and eventually submit ourselves to the service of God, which is the true liberty. How did Jesus Christ conduct himself under the afflictions which fell, in a plentiful rain, to his lot? He was "a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." His face was marred more than any man's. He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair. He bore the Cross. How did he deport himself under the daily affliction of his life? An affliction not self-incurred, an affliction borne for others, an affliction endured from before the foundation of the world? Answer that question. The reply is given: "Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame." Have we that long look? Is ours a narrow vision that sees the nearest wall, or a keen, far telescopic eye that sees the horizon and the land beyond? Take in more field, make the worlds balance one another and complete one another: life is not all earth. There is a future state, and the future must interpret and ennoble the present. How did Paul bear his afflictions? By looking at the things that are not seen. Keeping his heart's eyes fixed upon the invisible, he said, "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment." "We glory in tribulations also." What an "also" was that! What an inclusive term! How it dipped in and absorbed and glorified all the processes and all the trials of this weary earthly life! "We glory in tribulations also." Only Christ can win that conquest! That field was never fought and won but by one Captain, and his name is Christ. Receive your afflictions as of the Lord's sending. Say, "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." I would kiss his bereaving hand. "When he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold." "Thou hast been with me in six troubles, and in the seventh thou wilt not forsake me." All tribulations can be overcome in the grace and strength of Christ "One of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple... They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes." It is enough! It is heaven!
Almighty god, do thou put thy Spirit within us; then shall we do the thing that is right, and walk steadfastly in the way of thy commandments. We would find the house of wisdom; her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace. We would enter at her bidding, and partake of the feast which she has prepared. Yea, we would accept the hospitality which thou thyself hast offered: we would eat and drink abundantly at the table of the Lord, that we may renew our strength and be enabled to pursue our journey with fresh vigour, with burning zeal, with all-sustaining hope. They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; yea, they shall become young again: the burden of the years shall fall away from them, and they shall stand up in all the freshness and power and buoyancy of early life. Such is the blessing which follows true and loving waiting upon God. We have not because we ask not, or because we ask amiss; the fault is in the prayer, not in the Giver. We have mistaken thy purpose, or thou wouldst surely have answered our petitions with great replies. We have sought to renew our youth vainly at other sources, yea, we have hastened as if with frenzy to forbidden altars, that we might light the lamp of life with false fire; and, behold, the wind has blown out the flame, and we have been left in oppressive darkness. We will return unto the Lord; we will arise and go to our Father, and speak the language of penitence, and shed the tears of contrition, and make mention of the Cross, and avail ourselves of all the love of God. Thou hast guided us all our life long; not one day hast thou been absent from our life. Thou hast led thy people by a way that they knew not, and by paths they had not known. When we could not open the gate, thou hast thrown down the barrier; when the mountain was too high for our weariness to climb, thou didst touch the hill, and it vanished in smoke. Thou hast dried up for us rivers and seas; thou hast made solid the softest ground, yea, thou hast wrought great wonders in our life; many a miracle hast thou set up in it as a witness of thy presence and thy power, and we are here to bless thee with unanimous praise, with a psalm of gratitude, uttered with all the fervour which memory can throw into our service, remembering how great has been thy goodness and how tender thy mercy. We will not be ashamed of thy providence: we will own to it; though there be many who mock us, we will say, This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes: this is our Father's will, and it is our desire to accept and obey it; this is the disposal of the Lord of the lot which we cast into the lap: we will accept his appointment and follow out his purpose. Enable us with heavenly strength so to say and so to do; then our life shall be no longer shattered and frayed out in weakness, but shall be gathered up in great strength, and in holy power shall proceed to the execution of the divine behest. Guide us, O thou great Jehovah! Jesus, still lead on! Be thou our light by night, our Captain in the daytime, a high power to which we may continually resort, a sanctuary in the wilderness. Afflict our afflictors, and save us from taking vengeance into our own hands. We fall into thine hands, thou Loving One; we rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him. The coming of Christ Jesus our Saviour shall be with the quietness of the dawn, and we shall not know it until a great light is round about us; we shall come with the silence of the growing corn, and we shall hardly be aware of the plentifulness of the divine bounty until we find ourselves standing in the midst of fields laden with golden wheat. Such blessings and honours fall to the lot of thy people O may we be numbered in the host! Amen
The Theology of Money
A deep conviction of this fact would turn human history into a sacrament. Receive into the mind the full impression of this doctrine, and you will find yourself working side by side with God, in the field, the warehouse, the bank, the shop, the office, the pulpit. What a blow this text strikes at one of the most popular and mischievous fallacies in common life namely, that man is the maker of his own money! Men who can see God in the creation of worlds cannot see him suggesting an idea in business, smiling on the plough, guiding the merchant's pen, and bringing summer into a brain long winter-bound and barren. In the realm of commerce the Most High has been practically dethroned, and in his place have been set all manner of contemptible idols: we have put into the holy place trick and cunning, and to these we have sacrificed as if they had made our fortune and enriched our destiny with sunshine. We have locked up God in the church; or we have crushed him into the Bible like a faded rose-leaf; we have shut upon him the iron gate of the market-place; we have forced commerce into a kind of religious widowhood and compelled trade to adopt the creed of Atheism.
There is always danger in endeavouring to adjust the influence of second causes. The element of mediation enters very largely into God's government, one world being lighted by another, one man depending on another, and one influence diffusing itself in a thousand directions, and entering into the most subtle and complicated combinations; all this intercepts our vision of that which is original and absolute in energy. We have a difficulty in understanding anything but straight lines. If money fell from the sky like rain, or snow, or sunshine, we could perhaps more readily admit that it came from God; but because it comes through circuitous and sometimes obscure channels we do not feel upon it the warmth of the divine touch, and often we see upon it only the image of Caesar. We are guilty, like an ancient harlot, on whose wicked head God poured out his wrath: "She said, I will go after my lovers, that give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, mine oil and my drink." But God hedged up her way with thorns, he caused her to lose her paths, and said in a tone which combined complaint and anger, "For she did not know that I gave her corn, and wine, and oil, and multiplied her silver and gold, which they prepared for Baal." He who gives the light of the sun gives also the oil which man enkindles into a flame, and supposes that result to be an invention of his own. Lebanon and Bashan are not more certainly divine creations than are the wool and flax which cover the nakedness of man. To the religious contemplation, the sanctified and adoring mind, the whole world is one sky-domed church, and there is nothing common or unclean.
God wishes this fact to be kept in mind by his people. In this instance, as in many others, God makes his appeal to recollection: "Thou shalt remember. " The fact is to be ever present to the memory; it is to be as a star by which our course upon troubled waters is to be regulated; it is to be a mystic cloud in the daytime, a guiding fire in the night season. The rich memory should create a rich life. An empty memory is a continual temptation. Mark the happy consequences of this grateful recollection. First of all, God and wealth are ever to be thought of together. "The silver and the gold are mine ." There is but one absolute Proprietor. We hold our treasures on loan; we occupy a stewardship. Consequent upon this if a natural and most beautiful humility. "What hast thou that thou hast not received?" When the trader sits down in the evening to count his day's gains, he is to remember that the Lord his God gave him power to get wealth. When the workman throws down the instrument of his labour that he may receive the reward of his toil, he is to remember that the Lord his God gave him power to get wealth. When the young man receives the first payment of his industry, he is to remember that the Lord his God gave him power to get wealth. Thus the getting of money becomes a sacred act. Money is a mighty power; wealth occupies a proud position in all the parliament of civilisation. Trade thus becomes a means of grace and commerce an ally of religion. In one word, the true appreciation of this doctrine would restore every act of life to its direct and vital relation to the living God. There are men who say that the voice of the pulpit should never be heard in the market-place. They forget that they could not move a muscle but for the grace of God: nor could they originate or apply an idea but for the mercy of Heaven. Let us hold, in opposition to this atheistic commerce, that every ledger should be a Bible, true as if written by the finger of God; that every place of business should be made sacred by the presence of righteousness, verity, honour, and justice. The man who can be atheistic in business could be atheistic in heaven itself. The man who never turns his warehouse into a church can hardly fail to turn the church into a warehouse. Even nominally Christian men are often unduly anxious that too much of what they call religion should not be introduced into places of trade. They speak about God with a regulated whisper, as if they were speaking about a ghost whose unfriendly eye was fixed upon them. When they refer to God it is with the motion of a trembling finger or an inflection of the voice which indicates anything but moral repose. Filial joy is wanting: the leaping heart is not known in the experience of such fear-ridden professors of Christianity. Men who make money with both hands, who run greedily after gain, and serve mammon with fervent zeal, are not likely to remember that the Lord their God gave them power to get wealth. Memory is occupied with other subjects. The heart is foreclosed. The whole nature acts as if it had entered into a bond to entertain no religious recollections. In enumerating the happy consequences arising from a grateful recognition of God's relation to wealth, the check upon all wastefulness and extravagance might be mentioned. Christianity enjoins frugality upon its disciples; its command is, "Gather up the fragments." The man who wastes money would also waste his moral dowry. An extravagant Christian that is, a man who outruns his resources, his business, and his life is likely to become a subtle felony. Money is one of the limitations of power, and to overstep that limitation is a practical blasphemy, an unpronounced but most terrible reproach upon divine arrangements. The temptation is for men to put forth their hand and appropriate forbidden wealth. The point of interdict may be in the sum, and not in the quality of the thing which is forbidden. It may be sometimes easier to abstain altogether from the fruit of a tree than to stop at a particular point in gathering that fruit, and to say to desire and appetite, This is enough, and to take more is to commit theft in the sanctuary of God.
This, then, is the fundamental principle upon which Christians are to proceed namely, that God giveth man power to get wealth, and consequently that God sustains an immediate relation to the property of the world. Take the case of a young man just entering business. If his heart is uneducated and unwatched, he will regard business as a species of gambling; if his heart be set upon right principles, he will esteem business as a moral service, as the practical side of his prayers, a public representation of his best desires and convictions. In course of time the young man realises money on his own account. Looking at his gold and silver, he says, "I made that." There is a glow of honest pride on his cheek. He looks upon the reward of his industry, and his eyes kindle with joy. Whilst he looks upon his first-earned gold the Bible says to him, gently and persuasively, "Thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth." Instantly his view of property is elevated, enlarged, sanctified. He was just about to say that his own arm had gotten him the victory, and to forget that, though the image is Caesar's, yet the gold is God's, What, then, is the natural line of thought through which the successful man would run under such circumstances? It would lie in some such direction as this: What can be the meaning of this word "remember"? Does it not call me to gratitude? Is it not intended to turn my heart and my eye heavenward? As God has given me "power to get wealth," am I not bound to return some recognition of his goodness and mercy? A process of self-examination like this must drive away from the mind many thoughts and temptations which would subtract from its power and degrade its influence. For want of asking questions, the mind often goes without instruction and enrichment. The conscience should be required to put questions to the understanding and the reason, and should gently constrain these noble powers to make definite reply. Conscience is the great question-asking centre of our constitution. All its questions are of a moral kind, and a characteristic of them is that, however much they may be silenced at the time, they recur with intenser energy as life nears its solemn close. Better ask those questions at the outset, and come to a clear understanding respecting them, than stifle their purpose and condemn them to long speechlessness.
We speak of the "exceeding great and precious promises" of God, but often overlook those which apply to our so-called secular life. Is it to be imagined that Almighty God is an unconcerned spectator of our commercial life? Does he leave us without observation and sympathy in the field which is most thickly occupied with all manner of well-adapted and urgent temptations? The probability is that we need less protection in the public sanctuary than we need in the public market-place. Probably there is no point in all the mysterious line of life where a man is so persistently and seductively attacked as at the point of business. He sees how much he could do if he were not limited by moral considerations; he thinks that even moral breaches might be repaired by momentary compensations; he detects with too keen an eye to what religious uses money might be applied, whatever may have been the price of its acquisition. It is altogether improbable, therefore, that God would leave the tradesman without moral criticism and defence, and lavish all his divine attention upon those who intermeddle with theologies and philosophies. Very distinct, and even wonderful, are the references which are made in the Bible to the matter of trade, commerce, and business of every kind. "Honour the Lord with thy substance, and with the firstfruits of all thine increase." Supposing this to be done, what is the result which is promised to accrue? That result is stated in terms that are severely logical: "So shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine." We have already seen that God has laid his claim upon the whole property of man in many an instance. "Thou shalt not delay to offer the first of thy ripe fruits, and of thy liquors" ( Exo 22:29 ). "The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring into the house of the Lord thy God" ( Exo 23:19 ). The very fact of Christians having been redeemed at an infinite cost is turned into an argument why all things, material and physical, to which they can lay claim, are to be sanctified and turned to religious uses: "Ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body." God has made the outpouring of spiritual blessing dependent upon man's faithfulness in observing the law of tithes, and firstfruits, and religious tributes of all kinds: "Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it." We may keep back part of the consecrated price, but the loss will be ours rather than God's. We may account ourselves even clever in making calculations as to how much we can save from the cost of piety and charity, but the great law of compensation will proceed disastrously in our case because of this calculated and irreligious penury: "He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly." This law of compensation operates also in the other direction with noble impartiality: "He which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully." We imagine that all God's benefactions are spiritual; we have shut him out from the field and the vineyard; but hear his word: "The Lord shall command the blessing upon thee in thy storehouses, and in all that thou settest thine hand unto; and he shall bless thee in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee." But we must not attempt to make an investment of our charity: "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven." God cannot be outwitted in this matter. Not only must we sow the right seed at the right time, we must sow it in the right soil; in other words, all the conditions must be right, or the harvest will end in disappointment and sorrow. What is the true motive of all such action? "The love of Christ constraineth us;" "For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ;" "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus." We must operate from an intensely spiritual and religious point of view: "I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service."
The text has called us to an act of remembrance, and in doing so has suggested the inquiry whether there is any such act of remembrance on the part of God himself? The Scripture is abundant in its replies to this inquiry: "For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister." Jesus Christ himself has laid down the same encouragement with even minuter allusion: "Whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward." The Apostle Peter preached to Cornelius the same doctrine: "Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God." Thus, on the divine side and on the human side there is an act of remembrance. God is always writing "a book of remembrance." We cannot work for God without reward, yet the reward must form no part of the motive under which we work. The sacred and awful ordinance of Heaven is: "Them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed." Let us not suppose that we can ever owe anything to the oversight or forgetfulness of God. Everything is written down in the books which fire cannot consume, and we shall one day be called upon to face the minute and indisputable account.
Almighty God, we, too, are in trouble, and in our hearts there is pain. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? We have been looking in the wrong direction: we have been turning towards ourselves for health, forgetting that we are all weakness, without any answer to the accuser, without any justification of our conduct. God be merciful unto us sinners! We will not speak to thee of our righteousness, or of our claim, for we have none; we will speak of our unrighteousness and of our forfeiture of thy regard, and will not spare ourselves in the day of examination and account. The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. The whole life has gone astray; the life has become a lie. But thy mercy still beams above the sun; thy tender love is more gracious than the showers of summer; thy tears outnumber the dew of the morning. We come not to thy judgment but to thy compassion; we are sure of thy love; we understand it in some degree. Towards thy righteousness we dare not look; it has no voice for us other than the voice of rebuke: but our eyes are towards the Cross the living, dying, rising immortal mercy of the Cross; there we cannot die; there heaven's door stands wide open. We look unto the Bleeding Lamb; we feel the ministry of his blood; we cannot explain or understand, but in our soul there is a mystery of peace, a sense of newness of life, a beginning brighter than the dawning day; and this we accept as a seal and pledge of a covenant eternal as thine own duration and sure as the pillars of thine own throne. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 8". The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent