Comforters and Flatterers
In reading through the Book of Job up to this point, how often we forget what may be termed the mental effects of the discipline Job was undergoing. We think of Job as smitten down bodily, yea, as grievously afflicted in his flesh; we think of his losses of children and of property; we see him sitting in the dust, a desolate man; all this is in accord with the simple facts of the occasion: but have we not forgotten that some disaster may have been wrought in the man"s mind? Has all this satanic discipline befallen the Prayer of Manasseh, and is his mind in equipoise, in tranquillity; able to look around the whole horizon of fact and purpose, and to consider it with undiminished and unbeclouded reason; does no kind of insanity accompany some temptations or trials? We shall find along that line of inquiry a large explanation of mysteries which perplex the imagination, and sometimes indeed aggravate and trouble the conscience. There is a psychological side to this discipline; Job"s soul was tormented as well as Job"s body afflicted. We think of the sore boils, of the grievous outbreakings of disease, of the rheum in the joints, of the gall shed upon the ground;—all that is incidental, external. The real trouble is in the soul; his reason rises, as it were, from the throne, and says, I will now leave thee; and a man in that state is more to be pitied than the man who has gone farther into the mystery of mental unbalancing and spiritual loss. It is in the process towards unconsciousness, yea, towards madness, when we are partly Prayer of Manasseh, partly beast, partly devil, with just one gleam of deity shot through the tumult, that we are most to be pitied. All proportions are altered—all colours, all harmonies, all the parable of nature, all the apocalypse of the universe; everything is out of course, out of square, out of balance, and the things we once relied upon as if they were solid rock, feel as if they were giving way under our uncertain feet. One would suppose that the devil"s work in the world has simply been to limit the days of our life, to throw us into a kind of social disorder, and to set up a black ruler called affliction to tyrannise over the strength and the fortune of man. The case lies deeper: our reason is beclouded, the whole inner man sits now in twilight, now in darkness; we see men as trees walking, we take hold of things by the wrong end, we misquote familiar sayings, we invert all that has been established and ordained. Unless we enter into this mystery of satanic power and discipline, we shall be dealing with the exterior and never touching the spirit of things. The devil has got hold of our hearts. We know that he has broken our bones, and filled our blood with poison, and scattered premature snow upon our heads, and that he has taken cruelly to dig our graves in our very sight—as if he might not have dug them in the dark, and said nothing to us until we went through the pathway of flowers into the last gloom. All that we know; but that is not enough to know: your thought is wrong—that marvellous quantity within you which makes you a Prayer of Manasseh, which lifts you by the measurement of a universe above the noblest fowl that ever spread its pinions in the sunlight: the soul has been twisted, perverted, depraved, sown thickly with black and pestilent ideas.
This is the explanation of all the intellectual tumult of the Book of Job up to this point. Even the comforters were as much under satanic temptation as Job was, in the broader sense; there was a keener accent for the moment in Job"s case than in theirs, but we must never think of Job as a man to be pitied by men who need no pity themselves. Job was a patriarch in more senses than one—a great world-father—and all his children are black with the same temptations and sad with the same distresses. Do not let us put away these old Bible men from us, as if they were figures upon a blackboard meant to illustrate something that occurred long centuries since. The Bible men are the men of all time. There are no other men. You will find yourself ull-drawn, coloured to the last hue, in God"s great book of portraiture.
Here, then, is Job with his ideas perverted, his hope covered over with midnight gloom, his whole soul upheaved and troubled with an unspeakable distress. He has lost the right conception of God. This is what occurred in Eden. Satan attacked the ideas of men. Satan did not afflict Adam or Eve with some poor curable bodily ailment: he whispered a question into the mind. Beware of question-asking. Who asked the first question in the Bible? The devil. We have seen that there is a question-asking which is reverent, which is part of the highest processes of education; but there is also a question-asking which doubles the mind down into the earth; troubles it with needless mysteries; throws across its adoration a dash of wonder which becomes presently a blot of scepticism. "Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?" If you were to eat of this tree you would be gods yourselves. So Job is now asking curious questions, which he never asked in the days when the enemy was far away, and his prayer was a broad petition, as it were a whole morning"s dew exhaling under the call of the sun. But now the very proverbs he trusted to as revelations he misquotes, and misplaces, and misapplies; and all established truth, to the great horror of Bildad the Shuhite, the typical traditionalist, becomes a kind of blurred thing which belongs to nobody. This accounts for the state of the world, and the state of what is temporarily called the Church. Once the world stood in God, waited for God, loved God, felt a sense of void and of hollowness in the absence of God: but ever since what invention, what wondering, what misapprehension! The right construction of this need not be harsh. When men are now plunging, groping, rushing forth with apparently irreverent and impetuous audacity, why not say of them, They have lost their God, and they must find him ere the sun go down?
Let us follow out a little in detail the experience of Job in this matter. Having lost the right conception of God, he has been filled with a sense of self-repugnance:—"My breath is corrupt, my days are extinct" ( Job 17:1); and then in another place he says, "When a few years are come, then I shall go the way whence I shall not return" ( Job 16:22). Throughout the whole of his speech he feels a sense of self-disgust A strange and beautiful thing is that in the development of the history of a soul. Man cannot be satisfied with himself; he says, There are lines of beauty, and lines of strength; there are qualities not to be denied; but oh, the monotony of myself! Why, it is Song of Solomon, as we have before said, with regard to nature. There is nothing more monotonous than sunshine. The sunlight would tire you long before the stars do. O weary, weary sunshine! we soon come to say, The grass is all burned up, and the flowers seem to be afraid, as if they had sinned and had been forsaken of the blessed Spirit; Oh send the clouds, the black rain-laden clouds, and let them come, and let us see rainbows, and hear the plash of liquid music, and observe the whole earth, as it were, rising in grateful appreciation of the long-needed visitation! So a man becomes intolerably monotonous to himself if he think about himself, and cannot complete himself by the idea of God; he sickens of himself; he says, This self-analysis must go no farther; I have nothing else to do; I am continually practising vivisection upon my own soul; I am tired of myself; my very breath is corrupt, my days are extinct; I am offensive to myself. That is the issue of human life without the right conception of God. We need God to give our manhood its right expression, to limit it by its proper boundaries, to set it in its right perspective, to give to it exceeding great and precious promises. Given a right conception of God, the great One, and greatest of all because he loves with ineffable affection, with infinite emotion, with tenderness that shrinks not from the agony of the cross,—then we ourselves are but a little lower than God, we have companionship that fits our necessity, that appeases the prayer of every instinct, and gives us rest and hope. We need to withdraw from ourselves, in order to return to ourselves with all our faculties in full force, and all our aspirations sanctified and transformed into prayers. Man cannot live always under a roof of wood however polished, or fresco however handled. Man was made to live under the sky. The roof affords a momentary hospitality, which is precious; but taking the years in fives and tens and twenties, carrying on human age to fifty, and farther on still, man says, Is there nothing higher than this poor roof, which seems to be coming nearer and nearer to me, threatening to crush me? Is there no firmament, no wide open sky? He feels like a young bird, moved by an inexplicable fluttering, which, being interpreted and magnified into its fullest meaning, signifies flying without wings and without fear. You know by your experience that when you have lost the right conception of God your life goes down into a sense of self-corruptness and self-loathing, which is made up for in some degree by the fool"s policy of excitement, amusement, dress, vanity, of every figure and every change: but the dead self is still rotting, and presently the pestilence will make the air intolerable. Be wise in time. Seek thy God, O Prayer of Manasseh, and in him alone wilt thou find true manhood, joy unstained as morning dew and beautiful as morning light.
Then Job, having lost the right conception of God, finds himself in utter loss and misery:—
"He hath made me also a byword... mine eye also is dim by reason of sorrow, and all my members are as a shadow" ( Job 17:6-7).
Who cannot sign this with his own name, saying, That is my experience; the letters may have been changed a little, but the spirit and the substance represent an actual fact in the spiritual life? Then we have again Invention. Man will invent something; he will build some altar to a forbidden god; he will invent a superstition; he will create a new arrangement and adjustment of social relations and responsibilities; he will try to cure himself, only to end the trial in the conviction that self-cure is impossible. Observe, self-cure has been attempted. It does not lie amongst the untried suggestions of human thought and human history. From the beginning, when fig-leaf was attached to fig-leaf, man has been trying to hide his sin, to cover his transgression, to conceal his shame; having fallen out of heaven, he has been building a kind of staircase back again to the sky; and, lo, in the very midst of his venture, the whole edifice has collapsed, and he has returned to the dust. This is the deep conviction of Christian faith and Christian experience, and this is the reason of Christian activity. We do not build churches for the purpose of beautifying landscapes; we do not put on church-roofs for the birds to build in; we build the sanctuary because our souls need it—not always in the same degree of consciousness. Sometimes we are hardly aware that we have souls; it would seem as if now and again we passed into the kind of unconsciousness which is mistaken for satisfaction; we are merry, we can sing and play and dance, we admire the beauties of nature, and say, with a sigh that has no deeper meaning than the words it utters, the world is very beautiful, call it a vale of tears who may. When a man is full of strength, when fortune goes well with him, then he needs, to his own immediate consciousness, no great sky of thought and hope, no God judging one day and redeeming another, and conducting all the mysterious process of human education: the man thinks he has attained the summit of human desire. But the day has changed; the year is not all June; the east wind blows, the frost seals up the fountains, the winter dismisses the labourer from the field, and darkness suddenly blots out the day, and death comes after affliction has fought a great fight against human strength—then grim, ghastly, pitiless, all-devouring death comes; then they who were so glad in June, when they thought themselves part of the great: system of bird and flower and light, begin to inquire for comfort, for Christian inspiration, for the strength which looks death in the face and bewilders the power of the tyrant. We must take an all-round life as the circuit of our judgment, if we would deal gravely and justly with this solemn subject.
Job found himself surrounded by flatterers.
"He that speaketh flattery to his friends, even the eyes of his children shall fail" ( Job 17:5).
This is the position of affairs today: we are surrounded by comforters,—that is to say, by men who do not understand us, and whose words have no relation to our experience. Hence oftentimes the empty church. The world knows that what the man of "words" is talking about has no relation to the killing pain, the intolerable sorrow, the unutterable agony of life. So the fool often beats the preacher herein, that he can at least often excite, or intoxicate, and create a momentary illusion apt to be mistaken for a permanent satisfaction. And we are surrounded by flatterers, men who tell us that after all we are not so bad. Look at your conduct: you pay your way, you keep your word, you are faithful to your marriage, you are known in the neighbourhood as an upright citizen—why, where will they match you? And the heart all the time says, Such talk is flattery, such talk is falsehood. I know all they say, but it was done by the hand; it is a trick of mine. I keep my clock right by putting the hands backwards and forwards just as the general time requires, and they think the clock keeps its own time; all my morality is etymological, and really a manner, an attitude; I pay my bills punctually because I have an object, which I will not disclose: but they are telling lies all the time, they are not touching my soul with any comfort; in my soul I despise their flattery, and I blow out the candles of hope which they would set in the window of my soul. Do not believe the flatterers. They will tell you that if you attend to sanitary discipline, to all personal rule and self-subjection, if you store your intellect, if you cultivate your taste, you will pass through the world honourably. Let your soul speak; ask it at midnight what it thinks of all the flare and garish ness held before it in the vulgar day. Let your conscience speak; speak to yourself. Do not make a noise in the ear,—that is not talking to yourself—but hold your soul to an exercise of spiritual attention, and the soul will tell you that everything that addresses itself to fancy, to manner, to custom, to bondage, is a lying deity, a false angel, a worthless gospel.
Observe how, without the right conception of God, all proverbs and maxims as quoted so fluently by the man of yellow hair from the land of pleasantness, Zophar and Naamathite, are turned upside down: they are quoted, but the old music does not come back with them:—
"The righteous also shall hold on his way, and he that hath clean hands shall be stronger and stronger" ( Job 17:9).
The words are quoted as if they ought to be true, as if once they had been known to be true: but now that I repeat them, Job might have said, They seem to mock me, because whilst the words are being uttered by my lips they are being contradicted by the facts which I embody. I am righteous, I have clean hands, I cannot hold on my way, I cannot get stronger and stronger; I am getting weaker and weaker: the proverb ought to have been right; it must have come down from heaven, this is not a flower grown in our gardens, it was a flower from heaven; but I am contradicting it,—I, the most reputable righteous man of my time, am lying here self-disgusted: my breath is corrupt, my whole flesh is a burden of fire, and as for my hope, it is put out, like a candle by a cross-blowing wind. Thus we cannot get comfort from the old maxims and commonplaces of history. Even the old wine of truth does not taste as it once did. An enemy hath done this; let him be named, described, set forth in every frightsome detail, that men may know him, and resist him when he would approach.
Then all life bears downwards:—
"My days are past, my purposes are broken off, even the thoughts of my heart. They change the night into day: the light is short because of darkness. If I wait, the grave is mine house: I have made my bed in the darkness. I have said to corruption, Thou art my father: to the worm, Thou art my mother, and my sister" ( Job 17:11-15).
This is the course of human nature without the divine sanctification and guidance. Do not quote appearances as against the philosophy. What can be more deceptive than appearances? "Things are not what they seem." Do not say that the world is well dressed. We know it. But a corpse may be shrouded in silver-cloth. We are not asking about fortune, property, display, appearances. We know a cripple by his lurch, whatever purple may be upon his shoulders. Byron, the poet of fire, the seer of perdition, knew he was lame, though he was a lord. You cannot cover up the evil, in the sense of extinguishing it. For a time it subsides; then it heaves. Oh, that initial heave! under whose influence the soul says, It is all coming back again. It is like poor Mary Lamb"s intermittent insanity. She would say to her brother, almost in tenderness an apostle of Christ, I feel it coming on again! She would have her little arrangements made whilst she could make them, because tomorrow the great darkness might settle upon her mind, and she would have to be led away to an appropriate place. The feeling of its coming on! So it is with conscience, with the presence of evil in the soul: a passion is lighted, an instinct is awakened, an old appetite begins to feel a burning thirst; the soul says—O my God. it is coming on again! corruption, thou art my father: worm, thou art my mother and my sister! This is part of human experience, and sometimes an appointed part; because it may be that God has withdrawn himself that we might feel our need of him. He has taken a time for withdrawment, but he himself has measured it; his sweet words are—"For a moment I have forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee." Thus he blots out our moments of darkness; thus he extinguishes our sensations of sin; "where sin abounds, grace doth much more abound." God pours the Atlantic of his blessing or grace over the black pebble of our iniquity: it is lost; it is at the bottom of the sea.
Then Job looks round and says, "And where is now my hope? as for my hope, who shall see it?" ( Job 17:15.) Thus he talks with a strange incoherence; thus he is true to the working of an intermittent insanity. Even the bad man looks round sometimes for his hope. Even the atheist tries to pray; he may have his own form of words, and may disdain all Christian formulas of worship, but the soul, label it atheist or theist, must sometimes say to all other powers within. Let us pray. What, then, is needed amid all this riot and tumult, this darkness, this storm of night? What is needed? The gospel is needed; the glorious gospel of the blessed God; the speech of blood. What is needed? A man is needed, beautiful as God, complete as the Father, holy as the eternal deity. A Lamb without spot and without blemish is needed. Bethlehem, Nazareth, Golgotha, are all needed. Son of God, we need thee! Blessed Jesus, Son of Mary, Son of Prayer of Manasseh, Son of God, Immanuel, Wonderful, Counseller, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,—names that seem to contradict one another—we need thee. Even Song of Solomon, Lord Jesus, come quickly.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"Mine eye also is dim by reason of sorrow, and all my members are as a shadow."— Job 17:7
The children of God need not hide the extremities to which they are put.—Whilst in one sense they are called upon to make the best of their circumstances, in another they are expected to realise all the discipline through which God is causing them to pass.—In any book invented for the purpose of deceiving the world, expressions of this kind would not have been found, for they are enough to turn away the reader from faith in the God who could permit such heavy distresses to fall upon his chosen children.—In the Bible, however, the utmost frankness is used in describing the reality of life.—Christ said, If any man will come after me, let him take up his cross.—Christianity means crucifixion.—Looking upon the sufferer in the text, who would say, Let me also be as Job is: let me believe in God; let me follow him in all the travail and sorrow of his life; for surely the God who permits such chastisement is merciful and tender in spirit? No man could make any such speech. Looked at, as he sits in sorrow and in dust and ashes, uncrowned, desolated, and abhorred, Job is rather calculated to turn men away from God, than to allure them to him.—Christians have suffered more than any other men have ever endured.—The higher the life the more susceptible is feeling: the nearer we are to God the more wicked does every sin appear to be.—It is not to be supposed that when a man lives and moves and has his being in God that he is exempt from loss, or pain, or want: but the case is not confined within the limits of such experience; the error which we are always tempted to commit is the error of supposing that we see everything, and grasp the whole case of life in all the variety of its detail. We forget such comforting words as "What thou knowest not now, thou shall know hereafter;" "Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid;" "Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations."—that Isaiah, trials or tests of character.—When the eye is dim by reason of sorrow, the eye of the soul is often made brighter and keener, that it may look further into all the mystery of love.—The real slate of the life does not depend upon the tearless eye of the body; when the eye of the body is brightest the eye of the soul may be dimmest It is in the darkness that we see the stars.—The eye of the body is meant to be extinguished, and all our members are intended to be but as a shadow; no uncommon thing has happened to us when we are in tears, or when we are beclouded by great apprehensions, or crushed under heavy burdens;—all that belongs to the present state of life and the present system of nature, as we now stand related to them in our character as transgressors.—When my heart and my flesh do fail, then the Lord will take me up.—It is in our extremity that God can best show the riches of his grace—
Many men would never have known Christ in all his dignity and tenderness, but for the sufferings they have undergone; they have been made acquainted with him in the companionship of affliction. We see more of Jesus Christ in Gethsemane than in any other place in all his history.—One day we may have reason to exclaim, "It is good for me that I was afflicted."—There are not wanting children of God who would not on any account surrender the trials they have undergone, because of the rich issues of wisdom and grace which they have realised in their hearts.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Job 17". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany