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Dead flies cause the ointment . . . to send forth a stinking savour.
Among the Jews, oil rendered fragrant by being mixed with precious drugs was used for many different purposes. With it priests and kings were anointed when they entered upon their offices, guests at the tables of the rich were treated to it as a luxury. It was used medicinally for outward application to the bodies of the sick; and with it corpses, and the clothes in which they were wrapped, were besprinkled before burial. Very great care was needed in the preparation of the material used for such special purposes. Elaborately confected as the ointment was, it was easily spoiled and rendered worthless. It was accordingly necessary not only to take great pains in making it, but also in preserving it from contamination when made. A dead fly would soon corrupt the ointment, and turn it into a pestilent odour. So, says the Preacher, a noble and attractive character may be corrupted and destroyed by a little folly; an insignificant-looking fault or weakness may outweigh great gifts and attainments. The fault which shows itself in a character is not like a stain or flaw in a marble statue, which is confined to one spot, and is no worse after the lapse of years, but like a sore in a living body, which weakens and may destroy the whole organism. One cause why the evil influence spreads is that we are not on our guard against it, and it may grow to almost ungovernable strength before we are really convinced that there is any danger. We can recognize at once great errors and heinous vices, and the alarm and disgust they excite prepare us to resist them; but little follies and weaknesses often fill us with an amused contempt for them, which blinds us to their great power for evil. So numerous are the sources from which danger arises, that a long list might be made of the little sins by which the characters of many good men and women are often marred: indolence, selfishness, love of ease, procrastination, indecision, rudeness, irritability, over-sensitiveness to praise or blame, vanity, boastfulness, talkativeness, love of gossip, undue laxity, undue severity, want of self-control over appetites and passions, obstinacy, parsimony. Numerous though these follies are, they may be reduced into two great classes--faults of weakness and faults of strength.
I. Faults of weakness. This class is that of those which are largely negative, and consist principally in omission to give a definite and worthy direction to the nature; want of self-control, love of ease, indolence, procrastination, indecision, selfishness, unfeelingness. Want of self-control over appetites and passions led David into the foulest crimes, which, though sincerely repented of, were most terribly avenged, and have for ever left a stain upon his name. Love of case is the only fault which is implied in the description of the rich man in the parable (Luke 16:19), a desire to be comfortable and avoid all that was disagreeable, but it led him to such callous indifference to the miseries of his fellows, as disqualified him for happiness in the world to come. A very striking illustration of the deterioration of a character through the sin of weakness and indecision is to be found in the life of Eli. His good qualities have not preserved his memory from contempt. This is the sting of the rebuke addressed to the Church of Laodicea (Revelation 3:15-16). In Dante’s description of the lower world special infamy is attached to this class of offenders, that of those who have never really lived, who have never awakened to take any part either in good or evil, to care for anything but themselves. They are unfit for heaven, and hell scorns to receive them. “This miserable mode the dreary souls of those sustain who lived without blame and without praise.”
II. Faults of strength. This class includes those faults which are of a positive character, and consist largely in an abuse of qualities which might have been virtues. The very strength of character by which men and women are distinguished may lead by over-emphasis into very offensive deterioration. Thus firmness may degenerate into obstinacy, frugality into parsimony, liberality into extravagance, light-heartedness into frivolity, candour into rudeness, and so on. And these are faults which disgust and repel, and cause us to overlook even very great merits in a character; and not only so, but, if unchecked, gradually nullify those merits. We may find in the character of Christ all the virtues which go to make up holiness so admirably balanced that no one is over-prominent, and therefore no one pushed to that excess which so often mars human excellence. “His tender tone was the keen edge of His reproofs, and His unquestionable love infused solemnity into every warning.” (Homiletic Magazine.)
Our instances must be taken almost at random; for, like their Egyptian prototypes, these flies are too many to be counted.
I. Rudeness. Some good men are blunt in their feelings, and rough in their manners; and they apologize for their coarseness by calling it honesty, downrightness, plainness of speech. They quote in self-defence the sharp words and shaggy mien of Elijah and John the Baptist, and, as affectation, they sneer at the soft address and mild manners of gentler men. The question, however, is not between two rival graces--between integrity on the one side, and affability on the other; but the question is, Are these two graces compatible? Is it possible for a man to be explicit, and open, and honest, and, withal, courteous and considerate of the feelings of others? Is it possible to add to fervour and fidelity, suavity, and urbanity, and brotherly kindness? There never was one more faithful than the Son of God, but there never was one more considerate. And just as rudeness is not essential to honesty, so neither is roughness essential to strength of character. The Christian should have a strong character; he should be a man of remarkable decision. And he should be a man of inflexible purpose. When once he knows his Lord’s will, he should go through with it, aye, through fire and water. But this he may do without renouncing the meekness and gentleness which were in Christ. He may have zeal without pugnacity, determination without obstinacy.
II. Irritability. One of the most obvious and impressive features in the Saviour’s character was His meekness. In a patience which ingenious or sudden provocation could not upset; in a magnanimity which insult could not ruffle; in a gentleness from which no folly could extract an unadvised word, men saw what they could scarcely understand, but that which made them marvel. But many Christians lack this beauty of their Master’s holiness; they are afflicted with evil tempers, they cannot rule their spirits, or rather they do not try. Some indulge occasional fits of anger; and others are haunted by habitual, daily, life-long fretfulness. The one sort is generally calm and pellucid as an Alpine lake, but on some special provocation is tossed up into a magnificent tempest; the other is like the Bosphorns, in a continual stir, and even when not a breath is moving, by the contrariety of its internal currents vexing itself into a ceaseless whirl and eddy. But either form, the paroxysmal fury, and the perennial fretfulness, is inconsistent with the wisdom from above, which is peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated.
III. Selfishsess. The world expects self-denial in the Christian; and with reason, for of all men he can best afford it, and by his profession he is committed to it. Attention to the wants of others, care for their welfare, and consideration for their feelings are Scriptural graces for which all Christians ought to be conspicuous. Christianity allows us to forget our own wants, but it does not permit us to forget the necessities of our brethren. It requires us to be careless of our own ease, but it forbids us to overlook the comfort and convenience of other people. (J. Hamilton, D. D.)
A wise man’s heart is at his right hand, but a fool’s heart at his left.
Heart and hand
I. The wise man’s heart at his right hand means that his affections are at their proper objects. The heart is the moral power or seat of principle. “With the heart man believeth.” “A new heart also will I give unto you.” Then the hand is the active power, the faculty by which principles are carried into action. “Cleanse your hands, ye sinners.” “I will that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands to God.” The right hand, again, is the ideal hand. “The Lord hath sworn by His right hand.” Thus whatever a hand is or does, the right hand is and does pre-eminently. It is the perfection of all that is characteristic in a hand. When therefore, a wise man’s heart is said to be at his right hand, it is said by way of commendation. It means that his moral nature is as it ought to be. It occupies its right place. It sustains its right relations. It discharges its proper functions. It is altogether a heart right in God’s sight. Now, the heart is a most important portion of the body. It is the very seat and citadel of its life. Derangement in it means instantaneous derangement in every vital process. And in the spiritual life the thing we call the heart is no less essential. Out of it are the issues of life. It is the seat of principle. It is the home of the affections. It is the source of all the moral actions. The other powers are the heart’s executive to obey its rule and carry out its high behests.
II. The wise man’s heart at his right hand means that his principles are at the back of practical power. All through Scripture the right hand is the emblem of power. Our Lord styles the Father’s right hand “the right hand of power.” God is declared to have led Israel “by the right hand of Moses,” and Israel to have obtained the Land of Promise by “God’s right hand, and His arm, and the light of His countenance.” So men are spiritually saved by God’s “right hand,” and Christ in His resurrection was “by the right hand of God exalted.” The right hand of God, the right hand of man, is the organ of power in each. In the body the heart is in closest connection with the strongest hand. And in the spiritual department the same law holds. The godly man in whom exists the most perfect connection between heart and life, has for this reason a power all his own. That power is spiritual power, the mightiest power there is. It is an aspect of the force that regenerates hearts, that illuminates minds, that changes characters, that adorns lives with the transcendent beauties of holiness. Not more surely does a right hand of power connect itself with a healthy nourishing heart, than a forceful Christian life attends on and expresses the energies of a heart renewed by grace.
III. The wise man’s heart at his right hand means that his purposes are at the fittest agency for carrying them out. When the heart chooses God’s will, the hand chooses His way. It perceives the fitness of it. It believes in the policy of it. It would argue the suitableness of it in any ease from the fact that it is His way. This is true wisdom. No stronger reason for adopting a way than that it is God’s way.
IV. His resolutions are at a degree of strength in which they promptly take the form of action. There is a constitutional unreadiness in some people. They cannot be prompt. This unreadiness which distinguishes the dull from the smart, distinguishes also the left hand from the right. It responds more slowly to the will. It acts less readily in almost every work. The right hand is the hand of promptitude as well as the hand of skill. Now, in life, as every young man should consider, film element of promptitude has an important place. The few who succeed are the wise men who have their boat of action ready to launch on the advancing wave of opportunity. The many who fail are the foolish who are indolently unobservant, and therefore always off their guard. There is a perfectly identical treatment of the question of personal godliness. Religion has its times of opportunity which are its decisive hours. Some saving truth comes home. There are stings of conviction. There are half-formed resolves that choice shall be made of eternal things. But here the curse of spiritual unreadiness comes in. The man is not prepared for immediate action. He is a spiritual “Athelstone the Unready.” To God’s “now” he answers “soon.” To God’s “begin” he answers “wait.” The man whose heart is where and how it ought to be is a man who takes God directly at His word. The Divine “come” he takes to be the essence of duty, and the Divine “now” to be never untimely. And so, like doves to their windows, he flies for refuge to Christ. Then darting forth an eager hand, he lays hold on the hope set before him. (J. E. Henry, M. A.)
Influence of a good heart
I. A good heart is something which comprises all moral goodness, or everything truly virtuous and excellent. “God is love.” His love comprises holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. So a good heart in man consists in true benevolence, and comprises every holy and virtuous affection. And for this reason the Scripture calls a good heart a perfect heart, a pure heart, an honest heart, an upright heart, a wise and understanding heart.
II. A good heart fits men for every kind of duty.
1. A good heart fits men for all religious duties.
(1) A good heart evidently fits men to read the Scriptures. These were indited by the spirit of holiness, and ought to be read with the same spirit with which they were written.
(2) Devout meditation is a religious duty; and a good heart fits men to meditate upon God and Divine things with peculiar pleasure and satisfaction.
(3) Prayer is another religious duty of the first importance, and a good heart is the very spirit of grace and supplication.
(4) God looks at the heart in all religious services; and it is only a pure and upright heart that can prepare men to worship Him in spirit and in truth.
2. A good heart fits men for all secular as well as religious duties. It disposes them to propose a right end in all their secular concerns, which is the glory of God and the good of their fellow-creatures. So far as men are guided by a good heart, they act from noble and benevolent motives in all their pursuits. Whatever they do, they do it heartily, as to the Lord and not unto men.
3. A good heart fits men for all social duties. It naturally prompts those who possess it to speak and act with propriety in all companies, in all places, in all stations, and in all relations of life. It makes men quick to discover and practise the duties which they owe to each other.
4. A good heart fits men for doubtful duties, or duties in doubtful cases. If any are at a loss whether to embrace or reject any religious sentiment proposed, they have a standard in their own breasts by which to try it. It is only to appeal to their own conscience, and ask, What says benevolence in this case? Is this doctrine agreeable to disinterested benevolence, or is it an expression of selfishness? And therefore the good man’s heart is always at his right hand, and ready to decide what is true and what is false.
5. A good heart figs men for difficult duties. There is a great variety of difficult duties, but I shall mention only two sorts; dangerous duties and self-denying duties. These have always been difficult to perform. But a good heart will make them easy and pleasant, and dispose men to perform them with a degree of alacrity and delight.
1. If a good heart fits men for every kind of duty, then they can never find a solid and satisfactory excuse for their ignorance or neglect of duty.
2. If a good heart figs men for all kinds of duty, then those who have a good heart will be very apt to make it appear that their heart is good.
3. If a good heart fits men for every kind of duty, then those who have a bad heart will be very apt to show it. Men are as apt to discover their left hand as their right hand. They discover it both by not using it and by attempting to use it without ease and dexterity. As a good heart fits men for duty, so a bad heart unfits them for duty. It sometimes prevents their understanding their duty, but more frequently prevents their doing what they know to be their duty. Both their ignorance and neglect discover an evil heart at their left hand.
4. If a good heart fits men for all kinds of duty, then those who are destitute of it do no duty at all in the sight of God.
5. If a good heart fits men for all kinds of duty, then good men find a pleasure in performing every kind of duty.
6. If a good heart fits men for every duty, then all good men desire to grow in grace. They desire grace, not merely on account of the spiritual enjoyment that grace affords them, but principally because it fits them for every duty towards God and man.
7. If a good heart fits men for every duty, then those who are destitute of it continually live in darkness. This is certainly a very deplorable situation. (N. Emmons, D. D.)
Heart and hand
In the physical system the heart and the head are alike related to the hand. We associate the heart with feeling, the head with thought, and the hand with movement or action. Life is made up of feeling, thought and action. The motive power may be said to lie in the heart; the guiding principle in the head; and the efficient working element in the hand. But in the Scriptures the heart is almost always used to denote the whole inner being, as including the mental and moral nature, the intellect and the affections. Wisdom is the right direction of all our faculties and powers towards a given end, and it demands their harmonious co-operation. We want first of all to have concentration of power, and after that the direction of it along the right lines. In the harmony of head and heart we have wisdom in thought and action. In their contrariety we have folly. The heart or soul ought to control the hand. It is the business of a wise man to know what he can do and what he cannot do. A man need be in no doubt as to the end of his existence. If it is one’s deepest desire really to serve the Lord, He will lead one in the right way, and show one in specific form what he ought at all times to do. A wise man’s heart is at his right hand in this sense, that he always acts from within himself, or from the ground of his own personal feeling. This sentence of Solomon means that the wise man is a practical man--a man of action as well as of thought. The foolish man whose heart is at his left hand has separated thought from action. If he has a theory of life at all, his actual life is out of harmony with it. It is so with the religion of many: they have separated between their theory of the life to come and their practice in the present life. The man whose heart is at his right hand is always ready for action, and specially prepared to seize the opportunity when it comes. There is a general preparedness for action which always characterizes him, and makes him equal to the occasion, his mind being constantly made up to a very large extent. The true soldier is always ready for action. One’s facts and principles must always be at hand, ready for the occasion. To have one’s heart at his right hand is to do one’s work with his whole heart. He puts his mind and conscience into it, and really enjoys it. His motto is that what is worth doing at all ought to be done well. There is nothing so miserable as to have a work to do for which one has no heart. But to have as one’s daily work that in which he finds his highest happiness and culture is surely a most enviable condition. In opposition to all this, the man whose heart is at his left hand is living an essentially idle life. There is no unity of purpose in his existence. The deep spiritual forces of his being, separated from all that is practical and profitable, are wasted. Let us seek by all means the concentration of our powers, and the direction of them to the one true end of life. Our heart is in the right place when our supreme affection is that love to God in Christ which goes continually forth in earnest and prayerful endeavour for the good of others. When Sir Walter Raleigh had laid his head upon the block, he was asked by the executioner whether it lay aright; whereupon, with the marvellous calmness of a man whose heart was fixed, he replied, “It matters little, my friend, how the head lies, provided the heart be right.” (Fergus Ferguson, D. D.)
I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth.
A social scene in human life
I. This social scene is common.
1. In the political realm. We see small-minded men occupying influential offices in the State.
2. In the ecclesiastical department.
3. In the commercial department. How often do we see little men by trickery, fraud and lucky hits become the great men of the market.
4. In the literary department.
II. This social scene is incongruous.
1. It does not agree with what we might have expected under the government of a righteous God. That the race is not always to the morally swift and the battle to the morally strong is an undoubted anomaly in the government of God.
2. It does not agree with the moral feelings of humanity. Whilst there is a perversity in man which leads him to hurrah the successful and the prosperous, there is, nevertheless, down deep in the heart of all men a feeling that such a scene as that indicated in the text is something terribly incongruous, a great moral enormity.
III. This social scene is temporary.
1. Such a social scene does not exist in the other world. Death destroys all these adventitious distinctions and moral incongruities.
2. Such a social scene will not always exist here. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
Whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him.
Respect the hedge
We covet the apple on the tree and forget the snake in the grass; the consequence being, that when we essay to bite the apple, the snake bites us. Now, there are many protective hedges about us; and the trouble is, that we are variously tempted to play tricks with these, and upon occasion to set them at naught. Therein we usually discover how great is the mistake we have made.
I. Guard the sense of shame. Whatever tends to lessen the acuteness of the soul to things false, ugly, or foul is sharply to be shunned. Beware of the literature that tends to reconcile to odious things! If the soul is to keep its virgin purity, it must turn away even from the reflection of foulness in a mirror. Beware of the company whose conversation and fellowship in some way, not perhaps very apparent, blights the bloom and dims the lustre of pure feeling! Beware of the amusements that filch away the quick delicacy which has been evolved in our nature at an infinite expense! Beware of the fashion that sets lighter store by old-fashioned modesty! Better pluck out as useless appendages the tender eyelashes which guarantee the sight than consent to destroy the instincts of purity which preserve the spirit. The sense of shame is a sacred thing; it is the saintliness of nature, and we ought sedulously to guard and heighten it in the fear of God. The man or woman who heedlessly violates this ethereal hedge puts himself or herself outside what is elsewhere called a wall of fire.
II. Respect the code of courtesy. Even in domestic life and between chief friends are interposed hedges, if they be not rather flower borders, which must be respected, if mutual regard and veneration are to continue. United most closely as we are, certain delicate observances and deferences fix the isolation of our personality, and imply the attention that must be paid to our rights and feelings. The grievous misunderstandings and animosities which wreck the peace and prosperity of households not uncommonly originate in excessive familiarities between brothers and sisters; these fail to see that refined proprieties guard the several members of a family as a scarlet cord reserves special places in great assemblies, and that “good form” must be observed in private as well as in public. Some one has wisely said, “It is no worse to stand on ceremony than to trample on it.” No, indeed, it is often a great deal better; for social ceremonial is the fence that protects the delicate forms and flowers which are so difficult to rear. Let young people revere the pale of ceremony, for when it is broken down beauty, purity and peace are at the mercy of a ruthless world.
III. Obey the rules of business. Regulations touching hours of going out and coming in, minute directions for household conduct, rules about the handling of cash, usages in keeping accounts, and petty laws directing twenty other details of duty, are based in an expediency which really and simultaneously conserves the rights and safety of masters and servants alike. The beginner may not see the reasonableness of a system of delicate network which comprehends eating, drinking and sleeping, and the almost infinite ramifications of daily duty; but there is more reasonableness in all these worrying precepts than he sees. The laws of business are the outcome of the experience of generations, and are not lightly to be set aside. A young man can hardly pay too much deference to the customs and traditions of the establishment in which his lot is cast; he cannot; be too exactly conscientious about the prescribed obligations of time, usage, method, goods and cash: to tamper here is to be lost. Beware of the slightest infraction of your official duty, of all informality and unauthorized action, of all illicit and contraband ways and things, deadly serpents without rattles wait behind the violated precepts! Whilst, on the other hand, if you keep the least of these commandments, it shall keep you, and the discipline of obedience on a lower level will strengthen you to comply with the sublimest laws of all on the highest levels of thought and conduct. (W. L. Watkinson.)
Fences and serpents
What is meant here is, probably, not such a hedge as we are accustomed to see, but a dry stone wall, or, perhaps, an earthen embankment, in the crevices of which might lurk a snake to sting the careless hand. The “wall” may stand for the limitations and boundary lines of our lives, and the inference that wisdom suggests in that application of the saying it, “Do not pull down judiciously but keep the fence up, and be sure you keep on the right side of it.” For any attempt to pull it down--which, being interpreted, is to transgress the laws of life which God has enjoined--is sure to bring out the hissing snake with its poison.
I. All life is given us rigidly walled up. The first thing that the child learns is that it must not do what it likes. The last lesson that the old man has to learn is, you must do what you ought. And between these two extremities of life we are always making attempts to treat the world as an open common, on which we may wander at our will. And before we have gone many steps some sort of keeper or other meets us and says to us, “Trespassers I back again to the road!” Life is rigidly hedged in and limited. There are the obligations which we owe, and the relations in which we stand, to the outer world, the laws of physical life, and all that touches the external and the material. There are the relations in which we stand, and the obligations which we owe to ourselves. And God has so made us as that obviously large tracts of every man’s nature are given to him on purpose to be restrained, curbed, coerced, and sometimes utterly crushed and extirpated. God gives us our impulses under lock and key. All our animal desires, all our natural tendencies, are held on condition that we exercise control over them, and keep them well within the rigidly marked limits which He has laid down, and which we can easily find out. We sometimes foolishly feel that a life thus hedged up, limited by these high boundaries on either side, must be uninteresting, monotonous, or unfree. It is not so. The walls are blessings, like the parapet on a mountain road that keeps the traveller from toppling over the face of the cliff. They are training-walls, as our hydrographical engineers talk about, which, built in the bed of a river, wholesomely confine its waters and make a good scour which gives life, instead of letting them vaguely wander and stagnate across great fields of mud. Freedom consists in keeping willingly within the limits which God has traced, and anything except that is not freedom, but is licence and rebellion, and at bottom servitude of the most abject type.
II. Every attempt to break down the limitations brings poison into the life. We live in a great automatic system which, by its own operation, largely avenges every breach of law. I need not remind you, except in a word, of the way in which the transgression of the plain physical laws stamped upon our constitutions avenges itself; but the certainty with which disease dogs all breaches of the laws of health is but a type in the lower and material universe of the far higher and more solemn certainty with which “the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” The grossest form of transgression of the plain laws of temperance, abstinence, purity, brings with itself, in like manner, a visible and palpable punishment in the majority of cases. Some serpents’ bites inflame, some paralyze; and one or other of these two things--either an inflamed conscience or a palsied conscience--is the result of all wrongdoing. I do not know which is the worst.
III. All the poison may be got out of your veins if you like. Christ has received into His own inmost life and self the whole gathered consequences of a world’s sin; and by the mystery of His sympathy, and the reality of His mysterious union with us men, He, the sinless Son of God, has been made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. For sin and death launched their last dart at Him, and, like some venomous insect that can sting once and then must die, they left their sting in His wounded heart, and have none for them that put their trust in Him. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
The hedges of life
I look around upon the universe. It is a place of hedges. It is not barren moorland about which we are doubtful if it has an owner, for He has everywhere defined His rights and established His bounds.
I. Read it in the light of history, and take it as a piece of experience. It is given us by a man who brings it out of his own heart, for he had felt the bite of the serpent himself. There was scarcely a hedge upon which he did not set his foot, and there were few penalties of sin which he did not feel. Although every means was at his command for avoiding sin’s consequences, he felt the serpent’s sting; and if you will take his experience of sin, and rest satisfied in his verdict on it, it will save you from untold sorrow and infinite regrets. But this is not the experience of one man. Look around society and question men for yourselves. Hear the intemperate man express the shame and contempt which follow his intemperance; hear the worldly man as the day of life draws to its close bemoan the hollow cheat the world has played upon him; listen to the experience of those who have climbed out of the mire and have now their feet set upon the rock; and the unqualified answer you will get will be that this language is true. Or open the volume of history, and mark the solemn retributions of God upon every page. Read the history of Jacob, of Haman, of Ahab and Jezebel. Or open the book of secular history. Glance at the history of Greece and Rome, or any nation under heaven. Thrones gained by the sword have been lost by it. Fortunes won by fraud have cursed in turn every one that has held them; and tear at random any page from the archives of the world, and it will comment to you on these words, for the experience of men through 6,000 years has confirmed these truths, and they express the settled experiences of mankind.
II. Read this not only in the light of history, but in the light of revelation, and take it not only as a piece of experience, but as the revelation of a Divine law. God’s government has another world as its theatre as well as this. Men may sin here and in some cases be comparatively free from any terrible outward consequences; in that other domain of God’s the effects of their sin will reveal themselves in all their fearfulness and terror. Poison does not always work immediately, but sometimes after days of health and happiness the serpent’s bite begins to show itself. And so although violation of moral order may bring with it no instantaneous punishment, punishment for all that will follow. It is a law of the eternal universe. Now, these hedges are both physical, social and moral. Break one of the laws of health, and you will induce disease; and that disease is the bite of the serpent. Or break one of the laws of society, and society will distrust you, and that distrust, that loss of respect and position, is the bite of the serpent. But break one of the higher laws--the laws of morality--and what, probably, will follow? Why, penalties severe and terrible. Even in this world the resources of God to punish are infinite. He may punish you in yourself, in your circumstances, by means of your children. He can punish you through prosperity as well as through adversity.
III. Take these words and read them in the light of the cross. God, in His infinite love, has provided salvation in Christ. The temporal effects of sin He does not remove--Divine forgiveness will not repair the shattered constitution, or mend the broken fortune. The bite of the serpent works death; but God suffers it not to work the second death. Yet do not misunderstand this, as though it were a light thing to see now that salvation through Christ is offered to all. You can never be what you might have been but for its committal. The damage you do to the sapling appears in the massive trunk of the oak, and all your machinery cannot straighten it. And though sin may be forgiven, the very omnipotence of God cannot undo that which has been done; and though in future ages you ultimately burn as a seraph or worship as an archangel, you can never be what you might have been. (H. Wonnacott.)
Sin; and the serpent’s bite
We are supplied with motives be help the right-doing. But that is not all! Our humanity is surrounded, as it were, with a wall of fire. Of God’s great mercy we do not suffer for wrong-doing merely, but in wrong-doing also. Neither heavenly bliss on the one hand, nor the punishment of evil on the other, are exclusively matters of faith, for God has written the truth of his Divine utterances on the page of our daily history and experience.
I. God’s laws.
1. If we go for a moment into the natural world, we find there are certain principles, or laws, received and acted upon. The law of the centre of gravity; even the clown knows that if he guides his vehicle to the edge of the precipice, so that the centre of gravity falls beyond the bounds of safety, his conveyance will fall over and be destroyed! In relation to our physical being, there are laws which we must keep, or the grave will receive us before due time. A Hercules must take nourishment; every man must inhale air, and that air must be composed of certain ingredients.
2. Consider man morally, and the same principles apply.
II. Man’s lawlessness.
1. Suppose a man were to reach a dangerous spot, and were to see a warning to that effect, but yet persisted in going right into destruction, he would be regarded as not competent to take care of himself; still in such a man we have an illustration of the folly of the lawless conduct of the unbeliever. God, by His providence, in His Word, and by His Spirit’s teaching, has set up a warning, in every by-path; plain enough to be read. “Trespassers shall be punished,” meets us everywhere. Would that men read, understood and obeyed!
2. We see in human nature the mischievous tendency developed in daily acts of folly. If we were compelled to do what we often choose to do, heaven would be besieged by lamentations, and the multitude would mourn over the hardness of their lot.
III. The retribution.
1. Present retribution. Look at the debauched; his face is a sign-board of hell, his heart a seat of woe.
2. Future retribution. (H. Parrish, B. A.)
The serpent behind the hedge
I. The hedges which God has placed around us.
1. God’s commandments.
2. Parental restraints. Hedges with respect to associates, books, habits, and places of amusements.
3. Imparted principles. Teachers are anxious to fix truths, sentences from Scripture, holy maxims, in the minds of the young, that they may be in them as moral hedges in the time of temptation.
II. The young will be tempted to break these hedges.
1. By their own evil hearts.
2. By evil companions.
3. By the evil one.
III. There is a serpent behind the hedge. If we do wrong we shall certainly suffer. The path of sin is full of serpents. The way of transgressors is hard. Punishment not always visible, but surely follows the deed. In the sense of shame, in the stings of conscience, in the displeasure of God, the serpent’s bite is felt. (W. Osborne Lilley.)
Whoso removeth stones shall be hurt therewith; and he that cleaveth wood shall be endangered thereby.
Raising stones and cleaving wood
The precise meaning of the maxim is not quite clear. Some think the stone is part of a cairn that marks a neighbour’s property, which a man tries to move. The tree, likewise, belongs to a neighbour; and the teaching is, that one who commits acts of aggression upon the property of others will receive his punishment out of the acts themselves. Others find a political reference. The reformer tries to move stones, to remove ancient grievances, or to cut down trees, the upas-trees of hoary abuses, and finds that ancient and deep-seated evils have a deadly power of striking at those who dare to meddle with them. Or, again--and this, the simplest explanation, is to me at least as likely as any other--the cynical author who has found vanity of vanities in every successive sphere of human life observes in these homely words that ordinary honest labour must pay its due of misfortune in this sad world: a man cannot quarry stones to build his house, or cut logs to make up his fire, without risking the misfortune which a cruel fate seems to bring alike on the evil and the good. This interpretation fits in well with the Preacher’s view of life. Christ came to teach that in His right hand were pleasures for evermore. He came to join in every kind of innocent enjoyment, to teach men that the Father in heaven rejoiced in His children’s joy. He lifted stones and cleft wood in the builder’s workshop at Nazareth for more than twenty years out of His short life, to show that honest toil brought something else besides danger--that the stone could become a Bethel, and the wood an altar which raiseth the consecrated soul. (J. H. Moulton, D. D.)
If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge, then must he put to more strength.
The iron blunt, and the iron whetted
I. The less facilities in work, the greater is the strength required. The woodman who has to hew the old oak with a blunt axe must throw more muscular energy into the stroke than if his instrument were keen.
1. This principle applies to secular work. The men who are placed in such temporal circumstances as seem to doom them to destitution, must, if they would overcome difficulties and rise, be strenuous in effort.
2. This principle applies to educational work. Thousands have so employed the bluntest iron, that they have become the greatest apostles in science, and the most distinguished masters in art. Do not find fault with thy mental tools. Use the bluntest iron with all thy might, and thou shalt rise.
3. This principle applies to religious work. Most unfavourable are the circumstances in which the millions are placed for the cultivation of a truly godly life. Albeit, though the “iron” of such a man be blunt, let him use it, and he will succeed.
4. This principle applies to evangelizing work.
II. Practical sagacity in work serves to economize strength. “Wisdom is profitable to direct.”
1. Strength may be saved in commercial pursuits by a wise system of management. It is not the sweating bustler who does the most work in the world’s trade; it is the man of forecast and philosophical measures.
2. Strength may be saved in governmental action by a wise policy.
3. Strength may be saved in self-improvement by a philosophic method.
4. Strength may be saved in the work of diffusing the Gospel by an enlightened policy. (Homilist.)
God’s provision concerning labour
1. It may have often struck you, as a very surprising feature in God’s dealings with this earth, that though He has abundantly stored it with all the necessaries and comforts of civilized life, He has left both the discovery and employment of such materials dependent upon human industry and human ingenuity. The very metal mentioned in the text, to deprive the world of which would be to produce starvation, and which with mighty toil is wrung from the bowels of the earth, underwent many curious and necessary processes ere it came to the husbandman in the form of a plough. God no more directed men where to find, than how to prepare the iron. He only furnished them with faculties to discover the substance, and placed them in circumstances favourable to their development. Each man was left to his own ingenuity and industry; and after having experienced the benefit of these discoveries themselves, they naturally communicated them to others. And how marvellously has discovery gone on from age to age! how have new properties been discovered, new errors been exploded, new theories established! But with all our admiration, which the boundless stores thus laid open to us are calculated to exercise, there does seem room for something of surprise that God should have allowed a vast amount of the most beneficial productions to be brought to light, not merely by patient investigation but entirely by accident, so that the world has long been actually ignorant of many blessings which lay within its reach. This has been singularly the case with medicines. You might have expected that, having made so merciful provision for the alleviation of human pain, God would not have left the world so long ignorant of the existence of such antidotes and remedies. Yet it is very observable how close an analogy there is between God’s dealings in this respect, and those which relate to the scheme of salvation; for many ages God did not guide men, at least only a few, to the fountain open for sin and for uncleanness, and even now how many of the great mass of our race are kept in ignorance of the balm that is in Gilead. We may be sure there are some very wise ends, though not discoverable by us, subserved by this protracted concealment. And we cannot but observe a display of wisdom and benevolence in the arrangement by which our world has been peopled, by no moans inferior to that which furnished us with the treasures of the earth. If thousands of our race had been called into existence before science had been discovered, and the arts been invented, what could have resulted but universal wretchedness, inasmuch as every individual must have struggled with the ground for a disastrous subsistence, and have perpetually devoted himself to the warding off starvation! A beautiful thing in the present economy is that the labour of one man raises a sufficiency for numbers, and thus others devote themselves to various pursuit, and bring about the spectacle of a stirring and well-ordered community. But this is owing to the fact that the husbandman had the implements with which to work, whose manufacture is not to be procured and effected without much toil and thought and time. Man has not been left merely to his animal strength, but having been taught, as it were, not only to use the iron, but also to “whet its edge,” he is enabled to accomplish single-handed what, on any other supposition, must have required the joint energies of a multitude of his kind. And as it was God’s beneficent purpose to throw man, as it were, on his own industry and ingenuity, must we not always admit the goodness as well as the mercy of the appointment, through which it was ordered that there should be no excessive pressure on our race, but that we have been afforded time to advance in knowledge, equivalent to the increase and necessities of population? We have now taken a general view of the text, and one, we think, which has enabled us to survey Divine providence under a very interesting aspect. We will now bring before you more precise illustration of the passage, but still under such views as may best excite you to the observing the benevolence of God. It is a property, or we might rather say an infirmity of man, that he cannot give himself to incessant labour, whether it be bodily or mental, but what it soon causes him to seek relaxation and repose. The iron will grow blunt, if used a certain time; and if a man will then go on persevering in the using it, he must be prepared to the putting to more strength, which will certainly ere long bring about a total prostration, But if wisdom directeth him, so that he daily whet the edge by some lawful recreation, he may by God’s help be enabled for a long time to retain both his strength and his usefulness. And however it may be in general, there is far more cause for fear that men will be too inert rather than too active, though cases of a contrary nature frequently occur, in which the caution most needed is, that they always “whet the edge.” The proverbial saying which one so commonly hears, and which involves a great fallacy, “Better wear than rust,” would almost seem to contradict the great principle of our text; just as though it were necessary that iron should rust out, if it is not rapidly worn out, whereas the truth is, that though by putting to more strength, the iron will be worn out, it will not be rusted out through whetting the edge, seeing that the whetting of the edge brightens what it sharpens And it is melancholy to think of what frequently happens in our seminaries of learning, where youths of high promise, of fine powers of imagination, and large capacities for science, sink beneath the pressure of an overtasked mind, working out for themselves an early grave, and depriving the world of the benefit which they might have conferred on it by their literature or their piety, through that constant and incessant use of the iron, and continued neglect of whetting the edge. And it is yet more melancholy to think how many of the ministers of Christ have destroyed themselves by devoting themselves to work with an uncalculating ardour. We have, therefore, to derive an important lesson from the text; a lesson, that it is as much our duty to relax when we feel our strength overtasked, as it is to persevere when we feel that strength sufficient.
2. The man who spends his Sabbath religiously, remembering that it is God’s day, and therefore to be devoted to God’s service, necessarily abstracts his mind from secular cares, and thus allows it to recover that tone and elasticity which must have been greatly injured under one continued uniform pressure. And far more than this; in studying the Scriptures and meditating on heaven, in attending the ministrations of the sanctuary, praying with all fervency of purpose, the man is securing to himself fresh supplies of grace, which may strengthen him for the trials and duties of the week: The iron was blunt, and had he attempted to proceed without interruption in his labour, he must then have put to more strength, and thus have disabled himself for the fulfilment of his duties; but he possesses wisdom, that wisdom which cometh from above, and this taught him to withdraw himself to God, and bidding farewell to earthly concerns, forget time in his anxiety for eternity. He has been brought into contact with heavenly things, and the attrition has sharpened him again for his earthly occupations, so that when “the iron” is brought into use, “its edge” is so powerfully sharp, that what seemed adamantine was divisible, and what seemed inseparable might be cleft. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
Blunt tools: a counsel and consolation
The writer of this book had gone where the Blessed Master went, into the carpenter’s shop. And there as he looked about him he saw this--that it is not always the man who works hardest who does most: that the workman who had a blunt tool must sharpen it, or he must work harder if he would keep pace with the others.
I. Here is a lesson on service. Iron is the very emblem of service. The stone age is prehistoric, uncivilized and savage; the golden age is but a dream; the iron age is the true age. Think of the plough, the sword, the thousand uses of iron; the huge machinery with which men master the earth and lighten labour, the modern shipping, and above all, in these later times, the pen. These things build up our civilization and our strength. Iron may stand as the fittest emblem of service. Shall the dead stones be capable of such high uses and such gracious ends, and are we alone to be of no account? Is there no power that can uplift us and enrich us for worth and blessedness? For us there must be possibilities of good and blessing. For us somewhere, somehow, there must be high ends and glorious purposes--the dullest, darkest, deadest of us. The iron is enough to proclaim it.
II. Here is a lesson on fitness for service. The iron gets blunt--that you cannot help. What you can help and must help is this--that it do not remain blunt. Let it be a matter of conscience with us that we be ever at our best for our Lord. Do you ask how shall the iron be sharpened? The wise man gives us the method. “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” In this lonely London the sight of a friendly face, the touch of a kindly hand, the sound of a cheery voice is a very whetstone of the spirit. Yet better than the man’s prescription for dulness is contact and communion with the Friend of Friends, the Lord Himself. Nothing else will keep us fit for service. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. Contact and communion with Jesus Christ alone can keep us fit for service. Then, again, let there be a daily surrender of ourselves to Him for service.
III. Some consolation for blunt folks. If the iron be blunt, what then? Well, you must use more strength. Alas, some of us sigh within ourselves, “I am not made of fine material: I cannot take a keen edge: I am not one of your very clever people. No genius am I at anything, but only a plain blunt tool. I see the steel polished and graven; the flashing sword: and I know I shall never be like that.” Well, make up for your dulness by your energy; and say, “If I have not so many gifts, I must get more grace. If I am lacking in skill and learning, I will be richer in love.” Some tools are the better for not being oversharp. He who was the carpenter still needs hammers as well as chisels and planes. Only give thyself to Him. (M. G. Pearse.)
Solomon desires to impress upon us the truth of what a load of trouble a man may save himself by a little forethought. A little preparation, a little contrivance, will prevent in the end an enormous amount of work, whereas the neglect of common foresight must entail the waste of strength and time and toil.
I. Take education. An uneducated child growing up into man’s estate is a dull, stupid individual. He may get through a certain amount of labour, but it is only at the cost of a great expenditure of bodily strength. There are about him all the rules of science and mechanical laws, but not knowing them they cannot be used. A man who knows general principles can with a very little contriving apply those principles to almost everything he comes across. It is the man who knows the most who will make the best workman when he has learnt the trade. There is not a calling in life, from the ploughboy to the statesman, that may not be made more effective by the worker being educated in the general details of learning and science. The great error of the day is to suppose that general education may supersede particular training, and that if a child has been to school that therefore that child can turn his hand to anything.
II. Take mechanical appliances. There is just as much work done in England in one day by the help of machinery as it would take five hundred millions of men to perform without. The reason is that as a nation we sharpen our axes before we begin to work. The perfection of mechanical appliances, the power of steam, impresses into man’s service the forethought and preparation.
III. Take the principles of religion. Some may say, What has all this subject to do with religion? Much every way. Religion teaches us how to live here as well as to be saved hereafter. There is one notable thing which we should do well to lay to heart, and that is that it is in Christian nations, and in Christian nations only, that true progress in arts and science and knowledge has its being. Heathen nations, such as China and India, are the same as they were 3,000 years ago. Semi-heathen nations, such as Italy, Spain, and Turkey, are careless, dissolute, and remain as they were. But, more than this, the subject applies to the welfare and salvation of our souls to a larger extent than we should at first suppose. If men go about the world--as, alas! too many do--like a lot of blunt axes, annoying their fellow-creatures with the unnecessary toil they take to accomplish the most simple acts, they do not exalt the religion they profess. Learning and wisdom are useful to the Christian, and they are necessary to the Christian. (Homilist.)
Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child, and thy princes eat in the morning!
Wickedness in high places
(with Psalms 26:10):--Those two passages are descriptive of wickedness in high places.
The morals of a nation hardly ever rise higher than the virtue of the rulers. Henry VIII. makes impurity national and popular. A William Wilberforce in the Parliament ennobles an empire. Sin, epauletted and bestarred, comes to respect and canonization; vice, elevated, is recommended. Malarias rise from the marsh, float upward and away; but moral distempers descend from the mountain to the plain.
1. In unrolling, then, this scroll of wickedness in high places, the first thing that I mark especially is incompetency for office. If a man seeks for a place and wins it when he is incompetent, he is committing a crime against God and a crime against man. It is not a sin for me to be ignorant of medical science; but if, without medical attainment, I set myself up among professional men, and trifle, in my ignorance, with the lives of those whose confidence I have won, then my charlatanism becomes high-handed knavery. The ignorance that in the one case was innocence, in the other case becomes a crime. It is not a sin for me to be ignorant of machinery; but if I attempt to engineer a steamer across the Atlantic, amid darkness and hurricane, holding the lives of hundreds of people in my grasp, then the blood of all the shipwrecked is on my garment. But what shall we say of men who attempt to engineer our State and national affairs over the rough waters without the first element of qualification?--men not knowing enough to vote “aye” or “no” until they have looked for the wink of others of their party?
2. I unroll the scroll a little further and find intemperance and the co-ordinate crimes. Oh! it is a sad thing to have a hand tremulous with intoxication holding the scales of justice, when the lives of men and the destinies of a nation are in the balance; to have a charioteer with unskilful hands on the reins while the swift destinies of governments are harnessed on a road where governments have been dashed to pieces, and empires have gone down in darkness and woe!
3. I unroll the scroll of wickedness in high places still further, and I see the crime of bribery. It was that which corrupted Lord Bacon in his magnificent position--it was that which led Chief Justice Thorpe to the gallows.
There are four things for you to do:--
1. First, stand off from all political office unless your own principles are thoroughly settled. Do not go into the blaze of temptation unless you are fire-proof.
2. The second thing to do is to take the counsel of Paul, and pray for your rulers; pray for all in authority. Do you know that Shadrach and Abednego did not need the Son of God beside them in the fire so much as your rulers do?
3. In the next place, be faithful at the ballot-box. Make up your mind in a Christian way as to who are the best Men for office; then vote for the man who loves God and hates rum, and believes in having the Bible read every day, as long as the world stands, in all our common schools. But I have a better prescription than all.
4. It is the fourth thing that I have to say in the way of counsel, and that is, evangelize the people. Gospelize this country, and you will have pure representatives and pure men everywhere. (T. De Witt Talmage.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ecclesiastes 10". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28