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God's Judgment of Self-will
The tone in which God expostulates with Israel, and the figures by which he represents the kind of punishment which he will bring upon them, are really startling. The house of Jacob and all the families of Israel are charged with having forgotten God; priest and lawyer, pastor and prophet, had turned from the true testimony; they had become unto God as the degenerate plant of a strange vine; they had said to a rock, Thou art my father, and to a stone, Thou hast brought me forth. The threatened retribution was very terrible: they were made to feel that it was an evil and a bitter thing to sin against the Lord their God; they were to encounter the lion from the thicket, and the destroyer of the Gentiles; the enemy was to come up as clouds, and his chariots as a whirlwind, with horses swifter than eagles, a wolf of the evening was to spoil them, and a leopard was to watch over their cities; God's word was to be as fire, and the people were to be as wool before it. This is how the case stands as presented by the prophet Jeremiah. The text is part of a message which was to be declared in the house of Jacob and published in Israel. It shows that three results were produced by self-assertion against the rule of God; will the same cause produce the same effect? Has any change occurred in the nature of God, or in the constitution of man, to warrant a rupture of the original relations subsisting between God and men? Let us see the results of self-will as shown in the text, and compare them with the testimony of our own consciousness and experience.
(1) Self-will in relation to the divine government destroys the natural capacities and faculties of man. "Foolish people, without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not." How different this description to the original portraiture of man! Foolish, blind, deaf such is man when he has turned his back upon God, and taken life into his own hands. The fine gold becomes dim, the great power is laid in the dust. It would seem as if all the faculties of our nature were dependent for continuance upon their religious use; moral paralysis is equivalent to intellectual stagnation; not to pray is to die. Is it not much the same as if a flower should be shut out from the light and dew? The soul is, so to speak, withdrawn from the source of its being cut off from the fountain of life, and allowed to exhaust its little resources, to languish in loneliness, and to die of hunger. The gifts of God are daily; our bread is a morning mercy; our sleep is an evening benediction. If, then, we leave God, how soon does our poverty come as an armed man, and our want as one that travaileth! We shall most clearly see how the natural faculties of man are impaired, and indeed destroyed, by irreligion, by considering that the same truth holds good in the ordinary business of life, separation from God means folly, blindness, and general incapacity, even in earthly things. Take the case of our daily bread, and see how the doctrine is sustained. Certain means are divinely appointed to secure given results: the earth is to be cultivated; the seed is to be sown; the influences of the atmosphere are to be unobstructed. This is the religious, the divinely appointed method of obtaining the common bread of life. Mark that it is God's method, and therefore, without straining language, may be termed the religious method. Whatever is right is religious, whatever is rightly religious is of God. What is agriculture but a branch of natural theology? Bread is to the body what truth is to the soul, and God's method is as essential in the one case as in the other. But suppose that self-will should prevail in the natural as it does in the moral sphere, what would be the result? Let any man set aside God's plan of obtaining daily bread, and call upon his own genius to supply it; let the earth remain uncultivated; let the seed remain unsown: can it be doubted that the insane man would soon be taught by famine what he would not learn from reason or infer from revelation? Self-will in that particular department would soon work its own cure, because man feels more the importance of the body than the soul: he has inverted original relations and become a practical materialist. For the lower life, the life dependent upon the products of the earth, man must be religious; even the atheist in name becomes a deist in practice when he puts the plough into the ground. He will not confess it; to his own consciousness even he will not own that ploughing is a religious act; but in point of fact it is: the process of growing corn is a permanent protest against the self-will and self-idolatry of man, and a continual assertion of the benign and omnipotent sovereignty of God.
There is no violence in transferring the argument from the body to the soul: on the contrary, such transference would seem to be a logical necessity; for if God is essential to the inferior, is he not essential to the superior? If man cannot do the less, how can he do the greater? If by taking thought he cannot add one cubit to his stature, how can he, apart from God, nourish and strengthen his soul, and so train himself to the perfectness of moral manhood? The inquiry founded upon natural experience and justified by the common instincts of men, necessitates, if man would be faithful to himself, further inquiry as to spiritual theology, and challenges contradiction of the statement, that a people of "a revolting and a rebellious heart" soon prove themselves to be foolish, blind, and deaf. A man who would not eat bread because he could not make his own will dominant through every detail of the process of germination would be pitied or despised; yet men who cannot by their own will or power make one grain of corn for the support of the body are often found resenting God's offers of enlightenment and guidance of the soul! What wonder that God should call upon the heavens to be astonished and the earth to be horribly afraid! And what wonder, repelled and dishonoured as he is, that he should say: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will fend a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: and they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it." Think of God sending a famine upon the soul, of minds pining and dying because divine messages have been withdrawn! We know what the effect would be if God were to withhold the dew, or to trouble the air with a plague, or to avert the beams of the sun: the garden would be a desert, the fruitful field a sandy plain, the wind a bearer of death, summer a stormy night, and life itself a cruel variation of death, so penetrating, so boundless is the influence of God in nature. Is it conceivable that the withdrawment of God's influence would be less disastrous upon the spirit of man? The question is pressed upon the attention of those who, while cheer-fully acknowledging God's presence and work in nature, are less willing to recognise the entire dependence of the soul upon the Holy Ghost.
The point which is before us is, that self-will, usurping divine functions, impairs and destroys the natural faculties of man, makes him foolish, blind, deaf. He may be shrewd in worldly affairs, sagacious in ordinary speculation, but so far as the great universe is concerned he is deaf, blind, foolish; he who might have soared in a light above the brightness of the sun, grovels like an insect upon the earth. A right idea of God is held to be a powerful instrument in the development of the human intellect. Naturally and obviously so: it is the primal idea, it is the very germ of life; in the most inclusive sense we live and move and have our being in God. Out of God there is no true being; the spasm, the convulsion, which is mistaken for existence is an impious sarcasm upon life. There is everything in deep and intelligent religious conviction to evoke the latent energies of the spiritual nature; it carries the spirit from particulars to universals, from detailed accidents to fundamental principles, it transfigures all outward nature into a splendid symbol of God, it overpasses the narrow limits of time and draws lessons from eternity, it pours a gladdening light upon the darkness of the grave, it promises magnificent possibilities of service in the endless day of the better world. Such conviction never calls any man downward, never gives him a degrading view of human nature, never vexes the soul with reproaches about its littleness, but ever teaches that so long as the soul grows according to God's law, it moves towards "a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory."
(2) Another point, related though varied, is, self-will in relation to the divine government plunges the soul into irreverence:
"Fear ye not me? saith the Lord: will ye not tremble at my presence, which have placed the sand for the bound of the sea by a perpetual decree, that it cannot pass it: and though the waves thereof toss themselves, yet can they not prevail; though they roar, yet can they not pass over it? ( Jer 5:22 ).
Turn from the sea to the sun. God's remonstrance is continued against the creed of Sight. "Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place?... Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof?... By what way is the light parted, which scattereth the east wind upon the earth?... Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?" Here we come again to realise the impotence of self-will. We cannot control the morning; no star hears our voice; the light is not a suitor in our court. What then? We are to draw spiritual lessons from these natural facts, and to say with the Psalmist, "The day is thine, the night also is thine: thou hast prepared the light and the sun." It is surely a most suggestive consideration that there are in nature limits to man's will, boundaries which enclose his power. As a mere matter of fact, he cannot escape them: he may turn sullen, he may fret and vex his soul, yet nature remains as a perpetual testimony of God's wisdom and power. The sea lifts up its voice for God, the sun is bright with his glory, the moon and the stars are fixed by his ordinance. From all this, is it possible to resist the conclusion that man, who is limited in nature, cannot have all power in thought? But the mournful fact is recognised that, though man is limited in his relations to nature, he can look at her wonders without any religious concern; he can traverse the sea without fearing God; he can make a mere convenience of the sun, and pass through the seasons without prayer or praise. This is the natural working of self-will. It turns the heart in upon itself. It is blind to beauty, it is deaf to music. It says, If I cannot be sovereign, I will not be dependent. It is quite clear that self-will and veneration are incompatible; it is as clear that sin is the outward expression of self-will, and that nothing will restore the soul to its proper relations to God but that which attacks and destroys the sinful spirit. So long as man is morally wrong, he cannot understand the deepest teachings of the outward world; he will not worship as he walks by the sea, he will not sing to God, however bright the light of morning. An appeal to human experience would verify the doctrine of revelation, for all men must have felt how self-esteem has lowered veneration, and how self-satisfaction has undervalued or ignored the works of God. The self-idolatrous man has eyes that see not, ears that hear not, a heart that does not understand; by his very ambition he has laid himself in the dust; his building with one hand has been thrown down by the other; thinking himself to be God, he has been placed among the beasts of the field; he has been poisoned by the incense of his own vanity. This is the way in which retributive law works. If a man will obstinately and defiantly persist in committing trespass, he must be the victim of his own presumption, for sentence of death is pronounced against him who, unbidden, attempts to ascend the mount of God.
A mind destitute of veneration is deprived of holy stimulus. Nature is darkened, revelation is sealed, history is withdrawn. The soul sits amidst its own ruins, and in its insanity mistakes the part for the whole. The fire of religion is extinguished, and in its ashes the noblest capabilities of manhood are buried. Self-will having destroyed the natural faculties of man and plunged the soul into irreverence, it is not to be wondered at that
(3) Self-will dissociates the gifts of nature from the Giver.
"Neither say they in their heart, Let us now fear the Lord our God, that giveth rain, both the former and the latter, in his season: he reserveth unto us the appointed weeks of the harvest" ( Jer 5:24 ).
When God is deposed from his spiritual sovereignty of the individual life, his practical exclusion from material nature is a necessary consequence. Revolted man will accept the rain because he cannot live without it, but the Giver will not be so much as named; the corn will be gathered, but those who bear the sheaves will have no harvest-hymn for God. How rapid, tumultuous, fatal, is the course of moral revolt! The purpose of God was evidently to have his name identified with the common mercies of life, that our very bread and water might remind us constantly of his gentle and liberal care. He was not to be confined to purely spiritual contemplation, to be the subject of the soul's dream when lost in high reverie, or to be thought of as a Being far off, enclosed within the circle of the planets, or throned in the unapproachable palaces of an undiscovered universe: he desires to be seen spreading our table in the wilderness, causing the earth to bring forth and bud for our benefit, turning our weary feet towards the water-springs, and nourishing us in the time of weakness; verily, "he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness." "Are there any among the vanities of the Gentiles that can cause rain? or can the heavens give showers? art not thou he, O Lord our God? therefore we will wait upon thee: for thou hast made all these things." Men may eat unblessed bread, and be bodily the stronger for it, but it is a sore and lasting reproach to the soul. The course of moral revolt ends in this, ends in the deposition of God and in the worship of self. Man ploughs, sows, reaps, and considers all the influences which co-operate in the production of results as mere features of inanimate nature, existing and working apart altogether from intelligent or moral will. The universe becomes a stupendous machine; they who get good crops have used the machine skilfully, and they whose fields are fruitless have misunderstood or misapplied the machine. The universe was designed to be the temple, the very covering, of God; but the worship of self has wrought a bad transfiguration upon it, and now the thief, the unclean beast, and the lying prophet prevail on every hand.
The demoralisation of man may have a mischievous effect upon nature itself. We sometimes speak of a bad harvest: what if behind it there has been a bad life? When the soul has deadened itself in relation to God, when it has become foolish, blind, and deaf, God's only opportunity of asserting his sovereignty may be through a physical medium. Where doctrine fails plague may succeed. Where the Holy Ghost has been grieved and quenched, the blight may fall upon the wheatfield and the vineyard; where love has been mocked, the sword may prevail. Again and again physical retribution has followed moral disorder. "For thus the Lord said, The whole land shall be desolate; yet will I not make a full end. For this shall the earth mourn, and the heavens above be black;" "your iniquities have turned away these things, and your sins have withholden good things from you;" "be thou instructed, O Jerusalem, lest my soul depart from thee; lest I make thee desolate, a land not inhabited." Here, then, is one phase of the law of retribution physical chastisement of moral evil. The same law operates in the common walks of life. The parent, the employer, the magistrate, all adopt it; the body is made to suffer for the soul; and, in the divine government, a harvest thanklessly received may be exchanged for unfruitfulness and death. Why should men complain, when they do precisely the same thing in their own sphere? When the child sins, physical punishment is awarded; when the citizen breaks the law, bodily imprisonment or material loss is the consequence, why, then, should impious and unreasoning wonder be excited when for the sins of men God shuts up the rain, or sends a plague upon the days of harvest? When the heart is right towards God, God will not withhold his blessing from the earth: "Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee: then shall the earth yield her increase." Physical blessing will follow spiritual worship; no good thing will be withheld from them that walk uprightly. "If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; then will I give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit."
In the light of these statements we have a double view of the unity of the moral and material systems of government. One view is from the human side: when man sins, commits a trespass in the spiritual region, he finds the result of his sin in the physical department, the reflection of his spiritual misrule is seen in dried fountains and fruitless fields, in devastating storms and fatal plagues; the universe takes up arms in defence of law. Another view is from the divine side. God shows favour upon the earth for reasons derived from the spiritual character of the people, and demonstrates the superiority of the soul over the body by making its condition the measure of his material benefactions. How terrific, how hopeless, then, is the condition of the sinner! He finds God in all places; the system of government is one; the Judge is everywhere, filling heaven and making earth his footstool, walking upon the wings of the wind, clothing himself with light as with a garment! Poor and short must be the dominion of self-will if it cannot be broken by the gentle persuasion of God's love, it will be subdued by the withdrawment of temporal mercies; for there can be but one God, and his dominion must be absolute and permanent.
Almighty God, we are afraid of thy power: by terrible things in righteousness dost thou work amongst the nations of the earth: our God is a consuming fire. Yet are we not afraid of thy mercy; we come to it as to a sure refuge; because thy compassions fail not, therefore are we not consumed. God be merciful unto us sinners! Thou didst not send thy Son to destroy men's lives, but to save them; thou hast no pleasure in the death of the wicked; thou dost cry unto those who leave thee, saying, Turn ye, turn ye! why will ye die? Thy Son, when he came near the city, wept over it, and said he would have gathered it together as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings; but the rude city would not, and stoned the prophets, and killed the Saviour. Yet dost thou spare us marvellously: thy forbearance is to us a daily astonishment. Thou dost not bring down thy power upon us or we should die, but with all patience and gentleness thou dost continue thy ministry amongst us, if haply some poor soul may turn again and begin to pray. But thy spirit will not always strive with men: is there not an appointed hour when mercy shall cease to be? is it not fixed in thy decrees that thy Gospel shall be withdrawn, and no longer with music of heaven beseech and importune the souls of men? We bless thee that the Cross is still standing amongst us, that the Saviour's name is still proclaimed with the unction of gratitude, and with the energy of conviction. We bless God that we are upon praying-ground. We would, in the Name that opens heaven, come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. Spare us yet a little longer! Spare the tree another year! Thou delightest to spare; thou hast no joy in anger: thou art the Creator; thou wouldst not be the destroyer. May we look to thy love as our refuge! In thy compassion and thy tender pity oh spare us, that we may even yet utter our prayers and tell thee how brokenhearted we are, that we have not kept thy statutes or walked in the way of thy commandments. Show us thy love in Christ; reveal the mystery of the Cross, and may we answer it with the tears of our hearts, and with the obedience of our lives. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Jeremiah 5". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany