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A man’s wisdom maketh his face to shine and the boldness of his face shall be changed.
The human face
In all the works of God there is nothing more wonderful than the human countenance. The face is ordinarily the index of character. It is the throne of the emotions, the battlefield of the passions. It is the catalogue of character, the map of the mind, the geography of the soul. Whether we will or not, physiognomy decides a thousand things in commercial, and financial, and social, and religious domains. From one lid of the Bible to the other there is no science so recognized as that of physiognomy, and nothing more thoroughly taken for granted than the power of the soul to transfigure the face. The Bible speaks of the “face of God,” the “face of Jesus Christ,” the “face of Esau,” the “face of Israel,” the “face of Job,” the “face of the old man,” the shining “face of Moses,” the wrathful “face of Pharaoh,” the ashes on the face of humiliation, the resurrectionary staff on the face of the dead child, the hypocrites disfiguring their face, and in my text the Bible declares, “A man’s wisdom maketh his face to shine and the sourness of his face shall be sweetened.” And now I am going to tell you of some of the chisels that work for the disfiguration or irradiation of the human countenance. One of the sharpest and most destructive of those chisels of the countenance is--
I. Cynicism. That sours the disposition and then sours the face. It gives a contemptuous curl to the lip. It draws down the corners of the mouth and inflates the nostril as with a mal-odour. It is the chastisement of God that when a man allows his heart to be cursed with cynicism his face becomes gloomed, and scowled, and lachrymosod, and blasted with the same midnight.
II. But let Christian cheerfulness try its chisel upon a man’s countenance. Feeling that all things are for his good, and that God rules, and that the Bible being true the world’s floralization is rapidly approaching, and the day when distillery, and bomb-shell, and rifle-pit, and seventy-four pounders, and roulette-tables, and corrupt book, and satanic printing press will have quit work, the brightness that comes from such anticipation not only gives zest to his work, but shines in his eyes and glows in his cheek, and kindles a morning in his entire countenance. The grace of God comes to the heart of a man or woman and then attempts to change a forbidding and prejudicial face into attractiveness. Perhaps the face is most unpromising for the Divine Sculptor. But having changed the heart it begins to work on the countenance with celestial chisel, and into all the lineaments of the face puts a gladness and an expectation that changes it from glory to glory, and though earthly criticism may disapprove of this or that in the appearance of the face, Christ says of the newly-created countenance that which Pilate said of Him, “Behold the man!”
III. Here is another mighty chisel for the countenance, and you may call it revenge, or hate, or malevolence. This spirit having taken possession of the heart it encamps seven devils under the eyebrows. It puts cruelty into the compression of the lips. You can tell from the man’s looks that he is pursuing some one and trying to get even with him. There are suggestions of Nero, and Robespierre, and Diocletian, and thumbscrews, and racks all up and down the features. Infernal artists with murderers’ daggers have been cutting away at that visage. The revengeful heart has built its perdition in the revengeful countenance. Disfiguration of diabolic passion!
IV. But here comes another chisel to shape the countenance, and it is kindness. There came a moving day, and into her soul moved the whole family of Christian graces, with all the children and grandchildren, and the command has come forth from the heavens that that woman’s face shall be made to correspond with her superb soul. Her entire face from ear to ear becomes the canvas on which all the best artists of heaven begin to put their finest strokes, and on the small compass of that face are put pictures of sunrise over the sea, and angels of mercy going up and down ladders all a-flash, and mountains of transfiguration and noon-day in heaven. Kindness! It is the most magnificent sculptor that over touched human countenance. It makes the face to shine while life lasts, and after death puts a summer sunset between the still lips and the smoothed hair that makes me say sometimes at obsequies, “She seems too beautiful to bury.”
V. But here comes another chisel, and its name is hypocrisy. Christ with one terrific stroke in his Sermon on the Mount described this character: “When ye fast be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance; for they disfigure their faces that they may appear unto men to fast.” Hypocrisy having taken possession of the soul it immediately appears in the countenance. Hypocrites are always solemn. They carry several country graveyards in their faces. They are tearful when there is nothing to cry about. A man cannot have hypocrisy in his heart without somehow showing it in his face. All intelligent people who witness it know it is nothing but a dramatization.
VII. Here comes another chisel, and that belongs to the old-fashioned religion. It first takes possession of the whole soul, washing out its sins by the blood of the Lamb and starting heaven right there and then. This is done deep down in the heart. Religion says, “Now let me go up to the windows and front gate of the face and set up some signal that I have taken possession of this castle. I will celebrate the victory by an illumination that no one can mistake. I have made this man happy, and now I will make him look happy. I will draw the corners of his mouth as far up as they were drawn down. I will take the contemptuous curl away from the lip and nostril. I will make his eyes flash and his cheeks glow at every mention of Christ and heaven. I will make even the wrinkles of his face lock like furrows ploughed for the harvests of joy. I will make what we call the ‘crow’s feet’ around his temples suggestive that the dove of peace has been alighting there.” There may be signs of trouble on that face, but trouble sanctified. There may be scars of battle on that face, but they will be scars of campaigns won. (T. De Witt Talmage.)
Gospel of the shining face
(with Matthew 17:2):--Note the variation of the Douay version: “The wisdom of a man shineth in his countenance.” We would have been glad to stand with the disciples on the mountain to see Jesus when His face shone.
I. What is the final secret of a radiant face like that of Jesus?
1. “A man’s wisdom maketh his face to shine.” The genuine radiance of wisdom is not an outside application. Outward polish desirable, but not to be substituted for inward character.
2. There is a human wisdom in man that comes up through nature that seems to have some radiating quality. The reign of life begins with the creature fiat on his face. Ascending orders are, on the whole, increasingly erected, until man comes, the only creature with wisdom to turn his face upward. He is the “being with the upturned face.”
3. But the light of nature in man was not that which shone in the transfigured face of Jesus. This light does not come up through nature, but down from God. Entering man, it changes the qualities of the nature light. It is only when it streams out again that we also get transfiguration experiences. This light in us is the “wisdom” that makes the face shine.
II. How may we have and show this shining face?
1. Companying with Christ. The true disciple’s face will always reflect the Master’s light.
2. Busy interest in a great aim pursued for Jesus’ sake. In cheerful work the face will shine.
3. Faith in the coming triumph of the kingdom.
4. The immortal hope. Upon the disciple’s face the light is always that of the eternal city. Dying saints in pain comfort us with shining faces when we go hoping to comfort them. “Let your light shine.” (Homiletic Review.)
I counsel thee to keep the king’s commandment, and that in regard of the oath of God.
Obedience to the civil government
Notwithstanding men differ so much in their several opinions concerning human authority, and entertain such various notions about the rise and original foundation of civil government: yet it is generally agreed upon by all sides that it is absolutely necessary that there should be such a thing as government; and the common voice of reason (as well as the practice of all ages) plainly declares that the universal good of mankind can in no wise be carried on without it. From hence it appears to be the interest of mankind in general that government should be kept up and maintained; but because men are so partial to themselves, as through pride, ambition, or revenge, to overlook and disregard the public good, when it stands in competition with their own private advantage: God in His wisdom has thought fit not to leave us to the guidance and direction of natural reason only, but has also by His revealed will more strongly enforced our obligation to contribute in our several capacities towards promoting the public good and common welfare of society. In discoursing upon which words I propose to consider them--
I. As they related particularly to the people of Israel. They may admit of this paraphrase: I advise and counsel you to pay all dutiful submission to your king and governor, to obey his commands in all instances which are not contrary to God’s laws; and thus I counsel thee to observe the king’s commandment, not only in point of prudence and humane policy, because he can do whatsoever pleaseth him, and has an absolute power to inflict punishment upon such as shall dare to disobey his commands; but upon a more weighty and religious account, because your disobedience will not only render you obnoxious to the wrath and displeasure of a powerful earthly prince, but provoke to anger the great God of heaven and earth, in whose presence you have obliged yourself by an oath to bear true allegiance to your sovereign; and who (as you very well know) has denounced severe threatenings against all such as shall presume to swear falsely by his name, and has positively declared that he will not hold him guiltless who is not careful to perform unto the Lord his oath.
II. As containing the ground and reason of our obedience to government. That obedience is due from subjects to their governors is a truth fairly deducible from natural reason; and that it is the duty of all men to comply with the laws of the particular constitution of the place where they live, the Scriptures evidently declare. They acquaint us that governors are the ministers of God, appointed for the common good of society, that whosoever resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God. As for the grounds and reasons upon which our obedience to government is founded, they are many and various; some take their force from those laws which the voice of reason dictates; some from those precepts and commands which are contained in the books of Scripture; some from that personal security which it has been the custom among many nations for the supreme authority to require of the several members which are under its jurisdiction; and from those engagements and promises which subjects have given the government to which they belong, that they will obediently submit to such rules and orders as the legislative power shall think fit to enjoin them to observe. An oath is a solemn appeal to Almighty God, as a Witness and Avenger. As a Witness to the truth of what we affirm, and the sincerity of our resolution to perform and do what we promise. As an Avenger in case we deliver for a truth what we know or believe to be false, and do not actually design to perform what we promise. It is therefore a most shameful and abominable practice to play fast and loose with things of so sacred a nature: it is one of the vilest as well as most dangerous sins a man can commit, one of the greatest indignities he can offer to his Creator; it is in a manner as enormous a crime as the calling in question God’s infinite truth and knowledge, and near as hazardous a provocation as that of bidding defiance to His almighty power. (T. Payne, M. A.)
Where the word of a king ii there is power.
The king’s word
The reference is, doubtless, to certain kings who lived in ancient times, perchance, for instance, to Solomon himself. But we speak to-day not of an earthly ruler, but of a heavenly. There is another King, one Jesus, who shares with His Father the throne of the universe, whose word stands fast for ever. May we love Him so well, and trust Him so perfectly, that His word, whatever it is, shall have due power with us. There is power in it, and we shall do well to yield to it at once. Happy the subjects of this holy King whose word while it is powerful is always sweet, and true, and tender.
I. Throughout his vast dominions the word of God and Christ exercises indisputable and irresistible influence. How small are the kingdoms of this earth, how great and glorious are the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ. I know that as yet we see not all things put under Him, but even now the sun never sets upon His kingdom, and countless worlds, for aught we know, are rolling towards His feet. He is already “the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords.” Alike in nature, providence and grace, He sits supreme. He is ordaining end ordering all things. Let your doubts and fears be gone; He fainteth not, neither is He weary, He is neither sleeping nor hunting, nor journeying. His sceptre is still in His hand, and the hand is not shrunken nor feeble. While God lives and reigns all is well!
II. The word of a king has power--special power, perhaps--in his throne room. If God’s word and Christ’s have power in any place, they may be supposed to have special influence in the very centre of His palace. There He sits at His Father’s side, sharing the Father’s glory, rejoicing in His well-deserved renown; His word has power there if nowhere else. Elsewhere, rebellion may seek to lift its hideous head, but not there. The angels wait upon Him, bright servitors, whose only joy it is to fly at His command, to do His bidding, whatever it may be. The spirits of just men made perfect circle round Him, serving Him day and night in His temple; men and women, aye, and little children too, rejoice to run the errands of the King, and so to show their love; while mysterious living creatures bow before His face and help to swell the anthem that ever rises to His praise.
III. Even when the King was travelling in disguise there was still power in His word. He was King of hearts; He summoned men to join His train with just that irresistible “Follow Me.” He was King of the elements, so that the winds and waves hearkened to His voice, and laid themselves to rest like cowed beasts within their lairs. He was King of disease, so that however virulent or longstanding, it fled and ceased at His command. He was King of death: “Lazarus, co, me forth,” He cried, with a loud voice, and Lazarus came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes. He was King of Satan, for though the devil bade Him fall at his feet and worship him, Christ got the victory again and again. He was King of sin, for only He could say to those who had long been dead in trespasses and sins, “Be of good cheer, thy sins are forgiven thee.” He was a King, every inch of Him, from His cradle to His grave.
IV. The word of a king has special power in his audience chamber. In the palace of which I speak, there is an apartment set aside for the special purpose of holding interviews with those who would petition the king. To it subjects of every name, and race, and degree, are always welcome; nay, our King, if I may so say, sits even in the gate, so that applicants who have not boldness to venture to the palace can still approach Him. There He stretches out His silver sceptre, welcoming all who have petitions to present and pleas to urge. In this audience chamber the word of the King has power. He permits you to pray, and that permit none can cancel. He gladly hears your arguments, and if they are such as He has prompted, they will avail with Him. There is power in His word of promise; He has never recalled one. He has never failed to fulfil one. “The gifts and calling of God are without repentance.” He may keep you waiting a little while, according to His wisdom, but the blessing is already on the wing. If your heart is open for it, it will soon come fluttering in.
V. The word of a king is heard in his banqueting hall. Jesus is never so happy as when He feasts His saints. He loves them to commune with Him, he rejoices when their meditation of Him is sweet, and when, instead so much of speaking to Him, they employ their spiritual powers in hearing and listening to His voice. There is power in every word He speaks, power in the invitation that He issues, and in the welcome that He utters to all. What a knack He has of making His guests feel at home. How readily He sets them at their ease. How charmingly He makes them understand that all that He has is theirs, that the good things on the table are net for ornament, but can be taken, tasted and enjoyed.
VI. There is power is the king’s word, moreover, on the battlefield. “The Lord is a Man of war; the Lord is His name.” He fights, as we do, with weapons that are not carnal but spiritual. There is a sword that goeth out of His mouth, that is the word of the King’s power. It strikes terror like a barbed arrow into the hearts of the King’s enemies. When He sounds His battle cry, even Midian is put to confusion and to flight. On this same battlefield He inspires His followers. If He says “Up guards and at them,” though we be but a thin red line, we will charge the serried ranks of the enemy. If He bids us lie in the trenches, though it may not be such congenial work, we will do it, for there is a power in His word we dare not resist. There is, moreover, enabling power in it. We can hold ourselves in reserve if God bids us do so. If He sends us out on pioneer work, or on sentry-go--this is lonely work--we will do either, for there will be sufficient grace whatever the King’s orders are. His very word is omnipotent, and we are omnipotent if we obey it!
VII. There is power in the king’s word in foreign courts. We talk about “the Great Powers of Europe.” Comparatively speaking they are powerful, with their armies and their navies and their armaments and exchequers, but oh, there is a greater Power than all of these of both worlds rolled into one. And we are servants of that great Power, ambassadors of God who, in Christ’s stead warn arid rebuke and beseech. (T. Spurgeon.)
The word of a king
Kings in Solomon’s day had a vast amount of power, for their word was absolute. When such a monarch happened to be wise and good, it was a great blessing to the people; for “a king that sitteth in the throne of judgment scattereth away all evil with his eyes.” But if he was of a hard, tyrannical nature, his subjects were mere slaves, and groaned beneath a yoke of iron. We do not sufficiently give thanks for the blessings of a constitutional government. There is, however, one King whose power we do not wish in any degree to limit or circumscribe. God doeth as He wills amongst the armies of heaven, and amongst the inhabitants of this lower world; none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest Thou? In this we greatly rejoice.
I. First, we would see the power of the word of the Lord in order to excite our awe of Him. What are we poor creatures of a day? Man proposes, but God disposes; man resolves, but God dissolves; that which man expecteth, God rejecteth; for the word of the Lord standeth for ever, but man passes away and is not. Think of the day before all days when there was no day but the Ancient of Days, and when God dwelt all alone; then He willed in His mind that there should be a world created. “He spake, and it was done: He commanded, and it stood fast.” When the Lord created He used no hand of cherubim or seraphim: all that we read in the sublimely simple record of Genesis is, “God said, let there be,” and there was. His word accomplished all, and when He wills to destroy either one man or a million His word is able to work His will. Oh, how we ought to worship Thee, thou dread Supreme, upon whose word life and death are made to hang! I might in another division of this part of my subject remind you of the power which attends both His promises and His threatenings. God has never promised without performing in due time to the last jot and tittle. Hath He said, and shall He not do it? Hath He commanded, and shall it not come to pass? There is power in God’s word to foretell, so that, when He tells what is to be in the future, we know that it shall come to pass. “Seek ye out of the book of the Lord, and read: no one of these shall fail, none shall want her mate.” Thus saith the Lord, “I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.” In the word of the Lord also there is power to predestinate as well as to foretell, so that what He decrees is fixed and certain. “There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand.” Let us worship the great Ordainer, Benefactor, and Ruler, whose every word is the word of a King, in which there is power.
II. Secondly, we would think of the power of God’s word in order to ensure our obedience to it. Whenever God gives a word of command it comes to us clothed with authority, and its power over our minds should be immediate and unquestioned. The sole authority in the Church is Christ Himself: He is the Head of His Church, and His word is the only authority by which we are ruled. Every precept that He gives lie intends us to keep; He does not ordain it that we may question it; He commands that we may obey. Let me refer you to what Solomon says in verse 2: “I counsel thee to keep the king’s commandment.” This is admirable counsel for every Christian: if the commandment were of the wisest of men, we might break it, and perhaps do right in breaking it; but if it be the King who gives the command, even the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the King in Zion, then the advice of the Preacher is wise and weighty. Solomon goes on to say, “Be not hasty to go out of His sight.” There is such power in God’s word that I would have you also obey this precept, and seek to remain in His presence. Walk in communion with Christ in whatever path He may point out to you. Never mind how rough it is: do not imagine it is the wrong road because it is so rough; rather reckon it to be right because it is rough, for seldom do smoothness and rightness go together. Oh, to abide in Christ the Word, and to have His word abiding in us! Solomon then says, “Stand not in an evil thing.” There is such power in the word of God that He can readily destroy you, or heavily chastise you, therefore be quick to amend, and “stand not in an evil thing.” Repent, obey, submit, confess, seek pardon at once.
III. And now, thirdly, To inspire our confidence, let us think that “where the word of a king is, there is power.” If there is a heart here that is seeking mercy, if you can go before God with such a promise as this in your mouth, “Let the wicked forsake his way,” etc., that word of His is not a mere sound, there is the power of truth in it. If you do what He there bids you do you shall find that He can and will abundantly pardon. Do you tell me that you cannot conquer your evil passions and corrupt desires? Here is a promise from the word of the Lord, “From all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.” Now come and plead these precious promises, there is power in them, they are the words of a King, and if you plead them at the mercy-seat you shall become a new creature in Christ Jesus: old things shall pass away; all things shall become new. And are there any of you who are struggling at this time with a remaining corruption which you cannot conquer? Now come and lay hold of the promise that you shall overcome, and plead it before the mercy-seat. If you do but get any promise of God suited to your case, make quick use of it, for there is power in it; it is the word of a King! Then, also, are there any of you in great trouble? Remember His word, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of them all.” Go and tell him that He has thus spoken, and that He has therein pledged Himself to deliver you out of all afflictions: and be sure of this, He will be as good as His word. Do you expect soon to die? Are you somewhat distressed because sickness is undermining your constitution? Be not afraid, for His Spirit teaches you to sing, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me: Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.”
IV. I address myself to all people of God who are associated in Church-fellowship, and striving to do the Lord’s service; and to you who will be so associated here. My text is to be used to direct your efforts you need power; not the power of money, or mind, or influence, or numbers; but “power from on high.” All other power may be desirable, but this power is indispensable. Spiritual work can only be done by spiritual power. I counsel you in order to get spiritual power in all that you do to keep the King’s commandment, for “where the word of a king is, there is powers” Whatsoever you find in Scripture to be the command of the King, follow it, though it leads you into a course that is hard for the flesh to bear: I mean a path of singular spirituality and nonconformity to the world. Remember that, after all, the truth may be with the half-dozen, and not with the million. Christ’s power may be with the handful as it was at Pentecost, when the power came down upon the despised disciples, and not upon the chief priests and scribes, though they had the sway in religious matters. If we want to win souls for Christ we must use the Word of God to do it. Other forms of good work languish unless the Gospel is joined with them. Set about reforming, civilizing, and elevating the people, and you will lose your time unless you evangelize them. Then again, if you want power, you must use this Word in pleading. If your work here is to be a success, there must be much praying; everything in God’s house is to be done with prayer. Give me a praying people, and I shall have a powerful people. The Word of the King is that which gives power to our prayers. There is power in accepting that Word, in getting it into you, or receiving it. You never keep the truth till you have received this Word of a King into your spiritual being, and absorbed it into your spiritual nature. Oh, that you might every one of you eat the Word, live on it, and make it your daily food! And then, there is power in the practising of it. Where there is life through the King’s Word, it will be a strong life. The sinner’s life is a feeble life; but an obedient life, an earnest Christian life, is a life of strength. Even those who hate it and abhor it cannot help feeling that there is a strange influence about it which they cannot explain, and they must respect it. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
A wise man’s heart disoerneth both time and judgment.
A watchnight meditation
Of all seasons of the year the present one inclines us most to thought. If, when the old year is dying, or when the new is being born, men will not think, it is very doubtful if they will ever think at all.
I. A man who is not utterly unwise will see that this is a time for review. It is said of the Emperor Titus that he used to review each day as it drew to its close, and if he could not recall anything which he had done for the good of others he set it down in his note-book that he had lost a day. It was not a bad rule for a heathen king, but hardly good enough for a Christian man. And yet some of us who live in the mid-day of the Gospel do not aim so high, with the poor result that we hit something very much lower than the mark set before us. We come short of the glory of doing the Divine will. It is bad enough to lose one day, but how about losing three hundred and sixty-five? Yes, unless it has been lived in God, consciously in Him and for Him, we may set it down as lost. Let us all find opportunity for a quiet, earnest talk with the hours of the year that has gone. Look well at the old before you greet the new. It will make the new all the better, and when in its turn it becomes old the task of reviewing it will not be so unpleasant.
II. A man of wisdom will see that this is an appropriate time for reconciliations. Has there been a little rift in friendship’s lute? Now is a good time for mending the instrument and bringing back the harmony, music for the King of kings. Take the tide of good feeling at the flood, and be reconciled to those whom for a while thou mayest have been alienated. “When death, the great reconciler, has come, it is never our tenderness we repent of, but our severity.” Let us see to it that we enter the new year at peace with God. He is reconciled in Christ to us. Why should we stand out?
III. The wise man who observeth time and judgment will hear a voice at this particular time appealing to his generosity. Yea, there is more than one voice speaking to us on this behalf. There is the very voice of poverty itself speaking in plaintive tones to those who have the sympathetic ear. There is the voice of our own joys and comforts reminding us of the distress of those who are devoid of these things.
IV. This is a time for consecration. To consecrate ourselves to God is to recognize the supreme fact of our existence and to act upon it. This is the time of all times for consecration, while the goodness of God is passing before us. As the mercies of the year marshal past us in grand and swift review let us listen to their pleading and present ourselves to God. (T. Jackson.)
The wise man’s improvement of time
I. The Christian’s spiritual discernment of time.
1. The wise man marks with a discerning eye the successive developments which time has made of God’s gracious purposes towards our guilty race.
2. The man who is spiritually “wise,” and divinely taught, solemnly ponders the devastations of time. And how fearful have been his ravages! He has overturned the mightiest empires, sapped the loftiest towers, and laid low the proudest cities. But above all, time has with irresistible flood swept away in succession the countless millions of our race. Tamerlane the Tartar reared a vast pyramid, formed of the skulls of those victims whom he had slain in battle; but death wages a more fatal contest over a wider field; and for us “there is no discharge from that war.” Diseases in all their sad variety are his ministers; and were a pyramid to be erected by him of human bones, it would pierce the clouds of heaven.
3. The Christian marks and ponders the shortness of time. What are six, or ten, or a hundred thousand years? They are but units in eternity’s countless reckoning; they are but drops in eternity’s unfathomable and shoreless ocean. But when we reckon time by the period of man’s life, “the days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength” in some “they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for we are soon cut off, and we flee away.” Life is truly like the bridge which the moralist describes; a mighty multitude presses to cross it, but it is filled with openings through which the passengers are continually dropping into a dark and rapid river beneath, and but a few are left; and as these approach the other side they, too, fall through and perish. The Christian, “knowing the time,” learns to die daily; he cherishes more and more of the pilgrim spirit, and in all his plans and prospects he acts continually under the practical influence of the apostle’s appeal (James 4:13-15). Ye merchants and busy tradesmen, I ask, is it thus in your case? Is such wise discernment of the shortness of time yours?
4. The wise man’s heart also discerneth the swiftness of time. And thus it is that human life is compared to “a tale that is told,” to “the weaver’s shuttle” flying rapidly across the web.
5. Finally, the Christian discerns that time is a precious talent for which he must give an account.
II. The lessons and duties suggested by the year that is past, and that which has now begun.
1. In a public and national sense this has been a truly memorable year.
2. The past year is memorable in the review of it, in your history as families.
3. How solemn and affecting to you as a congregation is the review of the past year!
III. In reference to the year on which we have now entered, what important duties devolve upon us!
1. Let us never forget that as we live in a world of change, it becomes us to expect changes and trials, and to calculate upon the probability of being called away by death, ere the year has closed.
2. Let the disciples of the Lord Jesus remember their solemn responsibility to live for the glory of God.
3. Finally, let us unite our prayers with those of the people of God of every name who are met at this season to supplicate, with one accord, the outpouring of the Holy Ghost on the Church and the world. (John Weir.)
There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit.
Death an unpreventable exit of the spirit
1. It is implied that man has a spirit.
2. Man’s power over his spirit is not absolute.
He has some power over it; power to excite it to action, direct its thoughts, control its impulses, train its faculties, and develop its wonderful resources. Self-government is the duty of every man. But whatever the amount of power he may have over his spirit, he is utterly unable to “retain” it here, to keep it in permanent connection with the body. From this fact I deduce three practical lessons.
I. We should take proper care of this “spirit” while we have it with us.
II. We should keep this “spirit” ever in readiness for its exit. It requires to have its errors corrected, its guilt removed, its pollutions cleansed away.
III. Efforts for the permanent entertainment of this “spirit” here are to the last degree unwise. What are men doing here? On all hands they are endeavouring to provide for their spirits a permanent entertainment. “Soul, thou hast much goods,” etc. “Wherefore do ye spend your labour for that which satisfieth not?” (Homilist.)
The uncertainty of life
Autumn, with its tinted leaves, its slanting shadows, and brief sunshine, points out the same truth as the text. Man is powerless--much as he might wish it--to check the fast falling shower of faded foliage, or to throw back the shadows of the sundial. The fortune of the world could not procure a moment’s respite from that silent and regular work of decay which is going on in the surrounding world. So, likewise, “No man hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit.” Each one of us must gradually pass away from the visible universe. When that solemn moment arrives, there will be those who would long to retain us by their side--those who have yet to learn that the “communion of saints” is not broken by the accident of death. And yet it cannot be; we must let go our hold of the departing soul. Others will long and vainly struggle to remain behind themselves. As we contemplate the prospect of death, a new stimulus should be given to duty and action. For it has been well said, “Duty is done with all energy then only when we feel ‘the night cometh when no man can work’ in all its force.” Let me lead your thoughts then for a brief space in this direction. “Redeem the time.” This is the precept, the echo of a past inspiration, which the Holy Spirit of God would still sound in our ears as we look forward to the termination of present life. Spend the life in earnest, and as if the whole future depended upon it. Spend to-day as if there were no certain to-morrow. Be watchful about little things, and especially the brief moments of time. The few pence and the fragments of food have their value. (A. WilIiamson, M. A.)
There is no discharge in that war.--
The battle of life
The leaves are always falling from the forest trees in autumn-time. Unheard, unnoticed, they flutter every morning to the ground, but anon there is a crash in the forest as a giant tree, decayed, comes headlong to the earth, and the winds that helped to bring it down seem to moan among the trees that still stand firm. “Howl, fir-tree, for the cedar has fallen.” Sometimes even the falling of a leaf is noticed, if it happens to tumble down exactly at one’s feet, or even the falling of a little branch or twig will startle one, should it chance to light upon one’s head or hand. It is even so with mortals in the matter of death.
I. There is no “casting off” of weapons in the war. In every other war there is, for one or other of the contending parties obtains a return in triumph, a blowing of the trumpet and a beating of the drums, an unharnessing of armour and a laying by of sword and spear and shield, a tide of congratulations flowing in from king or queen, and from a grateful country that has been delivered from impending danger. “But,” says the Preacher, “there is no casting off of weapons in that war.” It must be fought out to the bitter end, it must be waged till the vanquished combatant at last surrenders at discretion to the Black Prince of death. The struggle begins at birth. What tussles the infants have for life! Have we not seen them from their earliest breath fighting with the dragon that, as it were, waited for their birth? Fight, little stranger, fight! Fight thou must if thou wouldest live at all, for there are, even in thy weakest days, a thousand enemies who fain would drain thy life away! Moreover, the fight is specially fierce at times. When sickness threatens, and disease invades, and when we are called to pass through places specially unwholesome, or to engage in occupations peculiarly perilous, oh, how hot the battle then becomes.
II. Another rendering of this remarkable expression will give us this idea, there is no “casting off” weapons in that war. By this, I understand that there is not in any mortal hand a weapon, of whatsoever a description, that is likely to avail against this king of fears. You know how it is in the present day with the art of war, as some are pleased to call it. If one man invents a gun of special calibre, or a bullet of peculiarly penetrating powers, another forthwith invents an armour that resists them both; this has no parallel in the matter of life and death. There can be found for death’s shot and shell no armour that can resist it. Goliath’s spear, though it be like a weaver’s beam, will not defend him from the stroke of death; Saul’s javelin, though he aim it better than when he cast it at active David, is not likely to pin death to the wall; and the gilded sword of bribery, with its jewelled hilt, is vain against this adversary. Elizabeth exclaimed, “All my possessions for a moment of time!” but there was no casting of the weapons in that war, even for the virgin queen. We are virtually defence-less. “It is appointed unto man to die.”
III. Yet, again, there is this rendering of the passage. “there is no sending of a substitute in that war,” I believe that the conscription, where it obtains, allows for substitution; that one may, at least on certain conditions, send another in his place to serve his country; but there is no such provision here. There is, indeed, the possibility of one taking another’s place temporarily. A brave miner, for instance, has said to another in equal peril with himself, “Only one of us can get out of this: you may go, and I will die.” “Death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” If this be true, is it not very marvellous how unconcerned most are! It was enjoined upon the ancient Thebans that before they erected a house they should build a sepulchre in its neighbourhood, and the Egyptians were wise enough to bring round at their feasts an image of death, that the guests might be reminded of their mortality. “Ponder, O man, eternity,” for “there is no sending of a substitute in that war.”
IV. There is no exemption from fighting in this battle--no excuse from joining in this campaign. We all are hastening to the bourne from which no traveller returns. You know that in the days of Moses there were certain exemptions and excuses in connection with the military service. Such was the mercy of God that He arranged that, if a man had built a new house, he was not called to take up arms, he must go and dedicate it. After the house-warming he might go to the battle, but not before. Or if one had planted a vineyard, he should wait till he had eaten of it: lest another should reap the result of his labours. ‘Twas the same with the newly-married man; and for the faint-hearted there was this kind provision made, that they should go back to their homes; not, indeed, so much for their own sakes, aa lest their brethren should become faint-hearted too. There are no such considerations in this case: there cannot be. I heard only last week of one who was married for two short days, and was taken under heartrending circumstances from his bride. We sometimes talk about sudden death, and it is awfully sudden for those who are looking on and living still, but I believe there should be no such thing as sudden death to any who know the power of death and the certainty of it. (T. Spurgeon.)
I would use our text as an illustration of the Christian life and the Christian’s life allegiance: “There is no discharge in that war.”
I. So runs the summons. Now, this Book of God is full of sentences which bind the conscience of every believer, and compel an irrevocable self-consecration. But, aside from all the direct expressions of Scripture, is the spirit of the Christ life to which we are conformed, commanding in the consecration which it exhibits and influences. Oh, how soon the soldier comes to mirror his captain! There was somewhat of Napoleon in every member of the Old Guard--somewhat of his fortitude, his steadfastness, his untiring perseverance, whatsoever might be the harassing or hindering circumstances of the march. Even so does he who has given his pledge to Christ, and who persistently avows his relationship to Him, come to receive somewhat of the spirit of Christ and His constancy of devotion. There are no vacations, there are no furloughs, there are no personal interests. “If any man will come after Me, let him take up his cross and follow Me”--day by day, year by year, even unto the end--saith the Lord who hath redeemed us.
II. But beyond the summons, “There is no discharge in that war,” so gladly responds the soldier. There is no joy like that of those who go forth to those daily battles against sin in the name of the God of Israel. Their battle songs would befit a banquet, and their triumph of spirit is a presage and earnest of their triumph of possession.
1. Gratitude inspires consecration. “There is no discharge in that war,” responds the soldier gladly. “What shall I render unto the Lord?” is the constant self-inquiry. Such a grateful soul is covetous most of all of opportunities. He does not check the calls upon him for exertion. He seeks everywhere for occasions to manifest the love which swells and rules within him.
2. But hope expects coronation! It is the mainspring of the wheel. It is the life-preserver on the tide. It is the double wing of the soul in its effort to rise above the things restraining and hindering it. And every believer responds, “There is no discharge in that war”: I want none; for hope expects coronation. It is not presumptuous hope, because it is founded upon the purposes of the Word of God.
III. So requires the service. Thus does our Divine Saviour sum up the work He does for us, in us, and by us. That which He makes the great impulse of our hearts is also a necessity of our work.
1. We have the conflict with evil about us. John Wesley’s old motto is the grand talisman of success: “We are all at it; we are always at it.” Such steadfastness in Christian example and influence is that for which the times most imperatively cry.
2. But beyond that there is the conquest of sin in thine own soul to which thou art called; for “better is he that ruleth his own spirit than he that taketh a city.” Time after time God’s people are tempted to return to the city from which they have set out, and there is that within them which is constantly hinting, suggesting, constraining them to return. Now, if thou art to meet this, thou must battle by little and by little. Character is not built up in a day; it is a very slow process, even as God changes the contour of the earth. No volcanic action in the sudden manifestation of power is to be expected. No man grows instantly very good or very bad. By steps we descend, and by steps we ascend in our tendency towards God. But there is never a time when we outgrow this necessity of conflict in this world. (S. H. Tyng, D. D.)
All this have I seen, and applied my heart unto every work that is done under the sun.
The contemplation of human life
The writer means, by “applying his heart,” the exercise of his attention and his judgment. He observed, thought, and formed opinions on the works of men spread over the earth. We are placed in a very busy world, full of “works,” transactions, events, varieties of human character and action. We witness them--hear of them--think of them--talk of them. Now, it is a matter of great importance that we should do this wisely, so as be turn these things to a profitable account. In the first place, if this attention to the actions and events of the world be employed merely in the way of amusement, there will be little good. It is so with many. They have no fixed, serious interest and purpose to occupy their minds; no grand home-business within their own spirits. Yet they must have something to keep their faculties in a pleasant activity, or cull it play. The mind, therefore, flies out as naturally and eagerly as a bird would from an opened cage. The attention rambles hither and thither, with light momentary notices of things; great and small;--here, there or yonder; it is all one; “welcome!” and “begone!” to each in turn. Now, how useless is such a manner of “applying the heart”! But there may be another manner much worse than useless. For attention may be exercised on the actions, characters and events among mankind in the direct service of the evil passions; in the disposition of a savage beast, or an evil spirit; in a keen watchfulness to descry weakness, in order to make a prey of it:--in an attentive observation of mistake, ignorance, carelessness, or untoward accidents,-in order to seize, with remorseless selfishness, unjust advantages;--in a penetrating inquisition into men’s conduct and character in order to blast them; or (in a lighter mood) to turn them indiscriminately to ridicule. Or there may be such an exercise in the temper of envy, jealousy or revenge; or (somewhat more excusably, but still mischievously) for the purpose of exalting the observer in his own estimation. But there would be no end of describing the useless and pernicious modes of doing that which our text expresses. Let us try to form some notion of what would be the right one. In doing so there is one most important consideration to be kept in mind; that is, the necessity of having just principles or rules to be applied in our observation of the world. With the aid of these we are to look on this busy mingled scene of all kinds of actions and events. And we might specify two or three chief points of view in which we should exercise this attention and judgment. And the grand primary reference with which we survey the world of human action should be to God; we should not be in this respect “without God in the world.” We are exercising our little faculty on the scene; let us recollect One whose intelligence pervades it all, and is perfect in every point of it! Let us think, again, while we are judging He is judging! “There is at this instant a perfected estimate in an unseen mind of this that I am thinking how to estimate!--if that judgment could lighten on me, and on its subject!” Our minds, also, should be habituated, in looking at this world of actions, to recognize the Divine government over it all; to reflect that there is one sovereign, comprehensive scheme, proceeding on, to which they are all in subordination. Again, our exercise of observation and judgment on men’s actions should have a reference to the object of forming a true estimate of human nature. How idle to be indulging in speculative and visionary theories about this in the midst of a world of facts! In connection with this, we may add that the observant judgment of the actions of mankind should have some reference to the illustration and confirmation of religious truths. These truths may thus be embodied, as it were, in a substantial form of evidence and importance. We may just name, for instance, the doctrine of the fall and the depravity of man. Look, and impartially judge, whether “the works done under the sun” afford any evidence on that subject! The necessity of the conversion of the soul. For whence does all the evil in action come from? Is the heart becoming drained into purity by so much evil having come from it? Alas! there is a perennial fountain, unless a Divine hand close it. We may name the doctrine of a great intermediate appointment for the pardon of sin--its pardon through a propitiation, an atonement. We look at the life of a sinner, a numerous train of sins. Think intently on the malignant nature of sin; and, if there be truth in God, it is inexpressibly odious to Him; then if, nevertheless, such sinners are to be pardoned, does it not eminently comport with the Divine holiness--is it not due to it--that in the very medium of their pardon, there should be some signal and awful fact of a judicial and penal kind to record and render memorable for ever a righteous God’s judgment, estimate, of that which He pardons? The necessity of the operating influence of a Divine Spirit is also illustrated. A faithful corrective reference to ourselves in our observation of others is a point of duty almost too plain to need mentioning. The observation should constantly turn into reflection, which yet it is very unapt to do, except when self-complacency can be gratified. Might we suggest one other point of reference in our looking on the actions of men, namely the comparison and the difference between what men are doing “under the sun,” and what they will all, ere long, be doing somewhere else? Think of all that have done all “the works under the sun,” ever since that luminary began to shine on this world,--now in action in some other regions! Think of all those whose actions we have beheld and judged--those recently departed--our own personal friends! Have not they a scene of amazing novelty and change; while yet there is a relation, a connecting quality between their actions before and now. Lastly, our exercise of attention and judgment on “every work that is done under the sun” should be under the habitual recollection that soon we shall cease to look on them; and that, instead, we shall be witnessing their consequences; and in a mighty experience also, ourselves, of consequences. This thought will enforce upon us incessantly, that all our observation should be most diligently turned to the account of true wisdom and our own highest improvement. (J. Foster.)
And so I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of the holy, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done: this is also vanity.
The wicked man’s life, funeral and epitaph
I. In the first place, here is some good company for you; some with whom you may walk to the house of God, for it is said of them that they did come and go from the place of the holy. By this, I think we may understand the place where the righteous meet to worship God. God’s house may be called “the place of the holy.” Still, if we confine ourselves strictly to the Hebrew, and to the connection, it appears that by the “place of the holy” is intended the judgment-seat--the place where the magistrate dispenses justice; and, alas I there be some wicked who come and go even to the place of judgment to judge their fellow-sinners. And we may with equal propriety consider it in a third sense to represent the pulpit, which should be “the place of the holy”: but we have seen the wicked come and go even from the pulpit, though God has never commanded them to declare his statutes. Happy the day when all such persons shall be purged from the pulpit; then shall it stand forth “clear as the sun, fair as the moon, and terrible as an army with banners.” “I have seen the wicked come and go from the place of the holy.”
II. And now we are going to his funeral. I shall want you to attend it. There is a man who has come and gone from the place of the holy. He has made a very blazing profession. He has been a county magistrate. Now, do you see what a stir is made about his poor bones? There is the hearse covered with plumes, and there follows a long string of carriages. The country people stare to see such a long train of carriages coming to follow one poor worm to its resting-place. What pomp! what grandeur! Will you just think of it, and who are they mourning for? A hypocrite! Who is all this pomp for? For one who was a wicked man; a man who made a pretension of religion; a man who judged others, and who ought to have been condemned himself. But possibly I may have seen the wicked man buried in a more quiet way. He is taken quietly to his tomb with as little pomp as possible, and he is with all decency and solemnity interred in the grave. And now listen to the minister. If he is a man of God, when he buries such a man as he ought to be buried, you do not hear a solitary word about the character of the deceased; you hear nothing at all about any hopes of everlasting life. He is put into his grave. As for the pompous funeral, that was ludicrous. A man might almost laugh to see the folly of honouring the man who deserved to be dishonoured, but as for the still and silent and truthful funeral, how sad it is! We ought to judge ourselves very much in the light of our funerals. That is the way we judge other things. Look at your fields to-morrow. There is the flaunting poppy, and there by the hedge-rows are many flowers that lift their heads to the sun. Judging them by their leaf, you might prefer them to the sober-coloured wheat. But wait until the funeral when the poppy shall be gathered and the weeds shall be bound up in a bundle to be burned--gathered into a heap in the field to be consumed, to be made into manure for the soil. But see the funeral of the wheat. What a magnificent funeral has the wheat-sheaf. “Harvest home” is shouted as it is carried to the garner, for it is a precious thing. Even so let each of us so live, as considering that we must die. But there is a sad thing yet to come. We must look a little deeper than the mere ceremonial of the burial, and we shall see that there is a great deal more in some people’s coffins besides their corpses. If we had eyes to see invisible things, and we could break the lid of the hypocrite’s coffin, we should see a great deal there. There lie all his hopes. The wicked man may come and go from the place of the holy, but he has no hope of being saved. He thought, because he had attended the place of the holy regularly, therefore he was safe for another world. There lie his hopes, and they are to be buried with him. Of all the frightful things that a man can look upon, the face of a dead hope is the most horrible. Wrapt in the same shroud, there lie all his dead pretensions. When he was here he made a pretension of being respectable; there lies his respect, he shall be a hissing and a reproach lev ever. But there is one thing that sleeps with him in his coffin that he had set his heart upon. He had set his heart upon being known after he was gone. He thought surely after he had departed this life he would be handed down to posterity and be remembered. Now read the text--“And they were forgotten in the city where they had so done.” There is his hope of fame. I have often noticed how soon wicked things die when the man dies who originated them. Look at Voltaire’s philosophy; with all the noise it made in his time--where is it now? There is just a little of it lingering, but it seems to have gone. And there was Tom Paine, who did his best to write his name in letters of damnation, and one would think he might have been remembered. Butt who cares for him now? Except amongst a few, here and there, his name has passed away. And all the names of error, and heresy, and schism, where do they go? You hear about St. Austin to this day, but you never hear about the heretics he attacked. Everybody knows about Athanasius, and how he stood up for the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ; but we have almost forgotten the life of Arius, and scarcely ever think of those men who aided and abetted him in his folly. Bad men die out quickly, for the world feels it is a good thing to be rid of them; they are not worth remembering. But the death of a good man, the man who was sincerely a Christian--how different is that! And when you see the body of a saint, if he has served God with all his might, how sweet it is to look upon him--ah, and to look upon his coffin too, or upon his tomb in after years!
III. We are to write his epitaph; and his epitaph is contained in these short words: “this also is vanity.” And now in a few words I will endeavour to show that it is vanity for a man to come and go from the house of God, and yet have no true religion. Why, although you must deplore a wicked man’s wickedness as a fearful crime, yet there is some kind of respect to be paid to the man who is downright honest in it; but not an atom of respect to the man who wants to be a cant and a hypocrite. (C.H. Spurgeon.)
The funeral of the wicked
I. Wicked men buried.
1. A truly sad scene. Wicked men going to their graves, their probation over, the means of improvement ended.
2. A common scene. Death does not wait for a man’s repentance.
II. Who were once in connection with religious ordinances. “Who had come and gone from the place of the holy.” This suggests:--
1. The religious craving of human nature. The soul everywhere is restless for a God. All feel the want, whatever their character.
2. The power of man to resist Divine impressions.
3. The surest way to contract guilt. “it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha,” etc.
4. There is no necessary power in religious means to improve men.
III. Passing from the memory of the living. There is a greater tendency in the living to forget the wicked than the good. It is true that some giants of depravity have stamped their impress on the heart of ages; such as Nero, Caligula, Napoleon, etc.; but the great mass of wicked men sink into oblivion, whilst the “righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance.” What are the powers of mind that prompt men to remember the departed?
1. Gratitude is a commemorative power. Men instinctively remember the good, but what benefits have the wicked wrought?
2. Love is a commemorative power. Those who have had power to draw out the esteem and admiration of the soul will not easily, if ever, fade from the memory. The mystic hand of love will hold them close to the heart. But who can love in a moral sense the wicked?
3. Hope is a commemorative power. Those from whom we anticipate good we do not easily forget. What good can be anticipated from the wicked? Future meetings, should they ever take place, will be very fearful things. (Homilist.)
Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.
Present forbearance no argument against future retribution
Solomon had looked abroad, and had seen sin abounding;--men revelling in iniquity, vainly counting that, because God kept silence, He world never awake to judgment. Who can deny that this is true of our own day?
I. The operation of the principle.
1. It has its influence amongst merely professing Christians. It lies at the root of their indecision.
2. It has its influence upon the religiously indifferent. To them there is nothing threatening in the horizon. What may come they know not, nor are they much concerned to know. They hope to be prepared for things as they turn up upon the wheel of fortune. To them there is a powerful argument in--“All things as they were.” A change may come, certainly, but there is no promise of Such change coming now. Were the penalty of transgression suspended over their heads, ready to fall upon the commission of sin, they might be restrained; but it is in the future,--how far they know not, nor do they care to inquire.
3. There is yet another class by whom the principle is embraced, and held as a part of their determined creed--the professedly infidel (2 Peter 3:3-4). To the eye of one who cares not to analyze the past, or to indulge in serious thoughts of the future, things appear to be now as they have been, and as they must ever be; and thus present, living, undeniable facts are made to give the lie to everything predictive of a change.
II. The evils of the principle.
1. It erects a false standard between right and wrong. Punished or not punished, now or in the future--or, if such a thing might be, never punished at all--such a fact could in no way affect the character of an essentially evil deed.
2. It argues a deplorable ignorance of, or dishonesty towards, other parts of the Divine administration. If God be the universal Lawgiver; if the same hand which penned the Decalogue impressed upon Nature her laws, and fixed the principles of her movements; then there is something to be apprehended from a course of sin, even though a just recompense may be long delayed. Our sky may be bright, but our sins, in the meantime, may be gathering into one big thunder-cloud on the horizon, which is destined to break upon us in one overwhelming torrent of direst woe. Even so when this life and another are taken as the periods. We may sin for a season--“sentence against an evil work” may not be “executed speedily”--but all nature joins testimony with the Bible in declaring that sin shall not go unpunished.
3. The conduct is opposed to the entire economy under which we live. Man is sinful: human nature is fallen. God designs to raise it; but in a manner consistent with His own character and the character of man. Moral agents have to be dealt with;--He therefore employs moral means. Divine patience and longsuffering are essential to probation; and thus we see that the forbearance which God exercises toward a sinner is fundamental in that gracious economy under which we live. According to the terms of the evangelical covenant, sin cannot adequately be punished at once. It would be to frustrate His own designs--to do violence to His own arrangements.
4. The conduct is abusive of the richest mercy, and the highest privileges of Heaven. We pity the blindness and impenitence of the antediluvians, who, in spite of the warnings of a righteous God, brought down the death-floods of a wakened wrath;--but ours is a more fearful portion; and a bitterer verdict awaits us if, “because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, our hearts are more fully set in us to do evil.” (J. H. Rylance.)
The longsuffering of God with individuals
The wise man points out in the text one general cause of the impenitence of mankind. “The heart of the sons of men is fully set to do evil.” Why? “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily.” This shameful, but too common, inclination we will endeavour to expose. What are the perfections of God? They are, ye answer, truth, which is interested in executing the threatenings that are denounced against sinners: wisdom, which is interested in supplying means of re-establishing order: and particularly justice, which is interested in the punishing of the guilty. I reply, your idea of truth is opposite to truth: your idea of wisdom is opposite to wisdom: your idea of justice is opposite to justice. The delay of the punishment of sinners, ye say, is opposite to the truth of God: on the contrary, God hath declared that He would not punish every sinner as soon as he had committed an act of sin. The delay of the punishment of sinners, ye say, is opposite to the wisdom of God: on the contrary, it is this delay which provides for the execution of that wise plan which God hath made for mankind, of placing them for some time in a state of probation in this world, and of regulating their future reward or punishment according to their use or abuse of such a dispensation. The delay of the punishment of sinners, ye say, is repugnant to the justice of God. Quite the contrary. The delay of the punishment of sinners will not seem incompatible with the justice of God unless ye consider that perfection detached from another perfection, by which God in the most eminent manner displays His glory--I mean His mercy. What would have become of David if Divine mercy had not prolonged his days after he had fallen into the crimes of adultery and murder; or if justice had called him to give an account of his conduct while his heart, burning with a criminal passion, was wishing only to gratify it? It was the longsuffering, the patience of God that gave him time to recover himself, to get rid of his infatuation, to see the horror of his sin, and to say under a sense of it, “Have mercy upon me, O God,” etc. What would have become of St. Peter if God had called him to give an account of himself while, frightened and subverted at the sight of the judges and executioners of his Saviour, he was pronouncing those cowardly words, “I know not the man”? It was the longsuffering and patience of God that gave him an opportunity of seeing the merciful looks of Jesus Christ immediately after his denial of Him. What would have become of St. Paul if God had required an account of his administration while he was breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord? It was the long-suffering of God that gave him an opportunity of saying, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’’ It was the patience of God which gave him an opportunity of making that honest confession, “I was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy.” (J. Saurin.)
The impunity of bad men in the world
I. Show some very dangerous mistakes that are about this matter.
1. This has been the great objection of atheists in all ages against the being of a God. The story of Diagoras is well known, who, seeing a wretch forswear himself and remain unpunished, became a professed atheist.
2. Others admit the being of a God, but deny His providence in the administration of human affairs, because they see bad men unpunished in the world.
3. Bad men that own a God and a providence, seeing their crimes unpunished, fall into another error. Ii raises them to a great confidence about the nature of those actions, which, because God does not punish, they think cannot be bad. Dionysius said the gods were pleased with his sacrilege when they sent him a prosperous voyage after he had robbed their temples.
4. There is a fault incident to many otherwise good men. They are uneasy at the impunity of bad men in the world. They repine at the patience and longsuffering of God towards them. And this undoubtedly is a sin. Ought they not to acquiesce in the Divine methods and dispensations and adore the righteousness of God’s ways in the world, although, perhaps, they cannot comprehend them?
5. But the great and common evil that is among men, arising from the impunity of bad men in the world, is that there are very few that from thence do not take encouragement to go on securely in their sins, not dreading that punishment which some think will never come; others look on at such a distance that the apprehension of it is not strong enough to make them turn from their evil ways.
II. Expound this riddle of providence, the impunity of bad men in the world.
1. Public societies or bodies of men are punished in this world, though particular persons may not. By public societies I mean kingdoms, nations, and states, and churches; these being also considered as societies of Christian men, who have special rules set them for their conduct in that relation wherein they stand to each other. National judgments for national sins are immoderate droughts, excessive rains and inundations of waters, contrary seasons, and a conflict in the elements, all which cause famines and barrenness in the earth; pestilences, and other contagious and malignant distempers.
2. As for particular bad men, they are a punishment to themselves. A bad man always bears a secret punishment within him. Every ill action he does exposes him to the severe rebukes of his own conscience. Moreover, the tumult and disorder of his passions, which clash with each other, and often meet with exasperating difficulties in the pursuit of unlawful object, his restless desires, his awakening fears, and jealousies, and distrusts, and thirst of revenge, these, and a thousand things more of the like nature, disturb the peace of his soul.
3. Nor are bad men secure even against outward punishment. For wickedness and vice are not always prosperous in the world.
4. The end of Divine punishment in this world must be the correction or the destruction of the offender. But there are very good reasons why God does not always punish bad men in this world with respect to either of these.
(1) With respect to the first, God does not always punish bad men in this world, because He considers men as rational creatures, and who ought therefore to be dealt with by rational methods. Present and frequent punishments would not be congruous to the nature of man. The rod and the whip are only fit for beasts, creatures void of understanding, but of quick sense, not to be argued but lashed into duty by the pungency of present pain. God does not always punish bad men in this world, because man is a free agent; but present punishment, would bring a force and a compulsion upon him inconsistent with that freedom; and his obedience to God would not be voluntary, because it were not free.
(2) With respect be the second, God does not always punish bad men in this world, because He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men. God does not always punish bad men in this world that He may set mankind an example of longanimity, and meekness under injuries, and of mutual forbearance to each other. And the world needs such an example. God does not always punish bad men in this world, that they may have time to repent and grow better. God does not always punish bad men in this world because this world is a state of probation and trial, and such a state will not admit of present punishment. For in order to be proved men must be left in a manner to themselves. God does not always punish bad men in this world because they are to have their portion in it. Thus, the wicked rich man was told in hell that in his lifetime he had received his good things. God does not always punish bad men in this world because they are so intermixed with the good that the one cannot be punished but the other must participate in their punishment; God therefore spares the bad in pity and compassion to the good. God does not always punish bad men in this world that He may exercise the faith of good men. God does not always punish bad men in this world because, says Plutarch, He reserves them to be a punishment to others. Even good men may need correction. When they do so, and God will have the hands of men to intervene in it, He does not usually employ the ministry of other good men to chastise them; He employs bad men, as fittest for that work: and He makes the bad punish one another. God does not always punish bad men in this world because their sins are not yet ripe for punishment. God does not always punish bad men in this world because lie has appointed a day wherein He will pass a strict and impartial judgment upon all men, and will finally render to every one according to his works. (P. Falle.)
I. God’s forbearance. Though strict, to mark iniquity, He is slow to punish it. The crimes of the old world cried long to heaven. Drunkards, blasphemers, extortioners, murderers, and sinners of all sorts, are permitted to live on and sin on for years, whilst their richly-merited doom is not visited upon them.
II. Man’s perverseness. We would suppose that such displays of Divine forbearance would be softening and restraining to men’s hearts; and some it does lead to repentance. There is a potency in kindness. The roughest natures often surrender to its power, and even the maniac’s madness often yields to its softening touch. But, alas for poor human nature I the very leniency of God is often turned into licence for crime. As a vessel at sea, headed for the destined port, with sails set, canvas filled, and speeding on in one unvarying course, so the sinner, because he is not at once dashed upon the reefs, or beaten back by judgments, all the capacities of his being are bent on evil.
III. The certainty of retribution. The sentence against every evil work has been passed where nothing is ever taken back. Even for the saved Christ had to suffer and die. The trampled Law will assert its dignity and avenge its insults some day. As Jehovah lives, His decrees must go into effect. For every soul, and for every sin, judgment must come. It cannot be otherwise. God is just and holy, and can in no wise clear the persevering guilty. We may question, equivocate, and disbelieve; but that will not serve to stay the chariot-wheels of an avenging God. There is mercy now, but mercy despised is certain death. (Joseph A. Seiss, D. D.)
The abuse of Divine forbearance
I. Sin is deservedly called an evil work. It is “the work of the devil. It is folly, ingratitude, rebellion, treason. It degrades and defiles the soul. It robs us of the likeness, the presence, the favour of God. How deplorable are its consequences! It cannot go unpunished. There is a sentence denounced against it. God is the governor of the world. But there is no governing without laws, and laws are nothing without sanctions--from these they derive their force and their efficacy. Laws issued by a legislator, unaccompanied with threatenings, would be harmless, and, inspiring no terror, would be trifled with or considered only as advice. Thus the notion of punishment follows from the very constitution of law. Accordingly, a sentence the moab tremendous is denounced against every transgressor. Do you ask where it is recorded? Look within thee, O man, and read it there: read it in the trouble, the remorse, the forebodings of thy own conscience. Examine the history of mankind, and read it there. See it in the expulsion of the happy pair from Paradise; in the flood which destroyed the world of the ungodly; in the fire and brimstone which consumed the cities of the plain. Open the Bible, and peruse it there. There you read that the soul that sinneth, it shall die.
II. Sentence against an evil work is not speedily executed. With much longsuffering God endures the provocations of the ungodly, and delays from day to day the wrath which they have deserved. Patience is one of the distinguishing glories of His character; it is often ascribed to Him in Scripture; and the exercise of it appears in numberless instances. And are not you, are not all of you examples? Can you consider the time of your provocation--the number of your offences--the aggravations of your iniquities, and not say, with wonder and admiration, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not”? We are obviously intended for a social state: but the intercourse we are required to maintain with our fellow-creatures exposes us to innumerable provocations and offences; and the effects of sudden and uncontrolled resentments would be fatal to ourselves and others. Hence we are commanded to be “slow to wrath”: and to be “patient towards all men.” And in this forbearance God places Himself before us as our example. If the commission of sin were always immediately followed with the punishment of it, this world would not be a state of probation, His “judgments” would not be “a great deep,” and the whole nature and design of religion would be subverted. If the wrath of God instantly crushed every transgressor, He would be the destroyer rather than the governor of the world. To destroy is comparatively easy, and discovers little perfection: but the wisdom of God appears in reigning over the extravagance of the world; in making the wrath of man to praise Him. It is also worthy of our remark that many who deserve destruction are useful in the present state of the world; they are able to promote the arts and sciences, and are qualified to render great services to a country. Such men are links in the chain of Providence, and their destiny secures them. There are also purposes which the wicked can only accomplish. God calls the Assyrian the rod of His anger and the staff of His indignation; and says, “I will send him against an hypocritical nation; and against the people of My wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire in the streets.” The ungodly, by their continuance, are useful to the righteous: they exercise their patience, call forth their zeal, and wean them from the present world.
III. The depravity of man turns Divine clemency into presumption, and abuses the patience which bears with him to purposes the most vile.
1. Nothing is more common than this abuse. Perhaps many of you are examples of it. To decide this I ask, Would you have continued in your sinful courses to this hour, had you not been persuaded that God would bear with you? Would you now perpetrate another crime if you supposed that God would instantly destroy you for it?
2. Nothing can be more vile and base than this abuse. Clemency affords you a shelter from the storm, and you enter, and then wound your kind Benefactor, and wound Him because He had pity upon you.
3. Be assured nothing will be more fatal. Mercy is your final resource; and, when this is provoked, to what can you turn? (W. Jay.)
God’s delay of executing the sentence of condemnation against ungodly men often miserably abused by them
I. There is a sentence passed in the court of heaven, and standing, against ungodly men, evil-workers, however easy they be under it for a time. To explain the nature of this sentence, consider, Every evil work is a breach of God’s law; and every sinful thought, word, or action is an evil work (1 John 3:4). The grounds of it more particularly are--
1. The sin of nature, original sin imputed (Romans 5:12).
2. The sins of the heart (Psalms 24:4; Matthew 5:28-29).
3. The sins of the tongue (Matthew 12:37). It is a channel by which the heart vents much of its inbred corruption, contempt of God, etc.
4. The sins of the life, wicked actions, whether of impiety against God, unrighteousness against men, or intemperance against ourselves (Jude 1:15).
II. The Lord often-times does not soon come to the execution of the sentence against ungodly men, evil-workers; but delays it for a time.
1. We shall take a view of the method of Providence in this matter.
(1) There is a swift method the Lord sometimes takes with sinners (Malachi 3:5). Sometimes the sinner has an ill work in design, and the Lord counts his will for the deed, and prevents by a speedy execution; as in Haman’s case. He hatched the mischief, but be did not see it come forth. Sometimes the sinner is in actual motion to the ill work, and execution is done on him ere he get it performed. So it fared with the rebellious Israelites, in their attempting to go into the promised land (Numbers 14:44-45). And so it fared with Jeroboam, putting forth his hand to lay hold on the prophet (1 Kings 13:4); and with Uzziah having the censer in his hand (2 Chronicles 26:19). Sometimes the execution trysts with the very doing of the ill work, so that the sinner is taken away with the stroke in his sin. Thus fared it with Nadab and Abihu offering strange fire (Leviticus 10:1-2); with Zimri and Cozbi cut off in the act of uncleanness (Numbers 25:8); and with Herod, who was eaten up of worms for his atheism and blasphemy (Acts 12:23). Sometimes as the ill work is done out and ended, the execution begins. So it fared with Sennacherib’s blasphemous letter (2 Kings 19:14; 2 Kings 19:35). Sometimes the execution keeps pace with the ill work, and the one goes on as the other does; judgment in the several degrees following hard at the heels of the sin. So it fared with Hiel in his building of Jericho (1 Kings 16:1-34.). Sometimes execution begins with the sinner’s beginning to reap the fruit of his sin when he leans upon his wall, a serpent bites him. So it fared with Ahab taking possession of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:18-19), and with the lusters in the wilderness (Psalms 78:30-31). Sometimes when one’s sin begins to work, in its bitter fruits and effects on others, it recoils on the sinner himself. So it fared with Judas the traitor (Matthew 27:3-5).
(2) There is a slow method the Lord takes oftentimes with sinners (Nehemiah 9:17). They commit their evil works; the sentence is presently passed for them: but then the execution is delayed (Psalms 50:21). The sinner may get his evil work contrived and accomplished, without any let in this way from Heaven, by any execution against him. The ill work being done without let, the sinner may also for a time pass unpunished, and as little notice may seem to be taken of it as if there were not a God to judge upon the earth (Ezekiel 9:9). Nay, sinners may prosper in an ill course. So far may they be from execution done against them, that they may thrive in the world in it (Psalms 37:35). When execution is at length begun, it may be carried on very leisurely for a time: the drops may come very few and soft before the shower (Isaiah 9:1). More than all that, the execution may be entirely put off during this life.
2. We shall account for this slow method of Providence.
(1) This method is taken to bring sinners to repentance, and prevent their ruin (2 Peter 3:9); and it is becoming the perfections of a merciful God therefore to use it.
(2) In the slow method God takes with sinners, He often has an eye to posterity. Though the slow method seems strange to us short-sighted creatures, it is not at all strange being viewed in the glass of the infinite perfections of the Divine nature. God is eternal, from everlasting to everlasting (Psalms 90:2). If men do not soon pursue their quarrels, death may snatch them away, and they can have no access more to do it: but however long the Lord delays pleading His quarrel, He can lose no time, for He is eternal. In God’s eternal duration there are no differences of time; all is present to Him. He sees exactly the time appointed for execution against every impenitent sinner, and will not let it pass beyond that one moment (Habakkuk 2:3). He knows what He intends to do, and none can hinder (Daniel 4:37). He is infinitely blessed in Himself, and nothing the creature can do against Him can hurt Him, nor in the least disturb His repose in Himself (Job 35:6; Job 35:8). There is a necessity for both the swift and slow methods being used by Providence in the government of the world; it is so corrupt and atheistical. The swift method is necessary to show that there is a God to judge upon the earth (Psalms 58:10-11). The slow method is necessary to show there is a judgment to come (2 Thessalonians 1:4-7). Let sinners be spared never so long, not one of all their ill works will, or can be, forgotten. The longer sinners are spared, their counts will be the greater, and all will come on at once (Luke 11:50-51; 1 Samuel 3:12). When it comes on the impenitent sinner, God will charge both the interest and the principal sum together.
III. God’s delay of execution is often miserably abused by sinners, to the filling of their hearts to do evil, and sinning more and more.
1. I shall point out the abuse of God’s patience in the delay of execution that ungodly sinners make, to the filling of their hearts to do evil.
(1) They abuse it to carnal security (Psalms 10:6).
(2) They abuse it to a sensual life, wherein their aim is not to keep a clean conscience, but to gratify their senses, as their circumstances in the world will permit, as the rich man did (Luke 12:19).
(3) They abuse it to impudence in sin (Jeremiah 6:14-15).
(4) They abuse it to contempt of God and all that is sacred (Psalms 73:9).
(5) They abuse it to sinning more diffusely, giving loose reins to their several lusts (Jeremiah 7:9-10).
(6) They abuse it to sinning more eagerly (Ephesians 4:19).
(7) They abuse it to incorrigibleness and obstinacy in sin (Jeremiah 22:21).
2. How comes it to pass that sinners so abuse God’s patience with them?
(1) Sin reigning in the ungodly, fear of wrath is their highest motive to good, and most forcible restraint from evil: and so when that restraint is taken off by the delay of execution again and again, the heart naturally goes to its own bias, and is like the wild ass’s colt snuffing up the wind at her pleasure.
(2) They mistake the design of Providence. They construe it as if God approved of their ways, or had such a regard for them that He will not be so angry with them as one would make them believe; they cannot think that He is so very angry at their sin while they prosper in it by His providence.
(3) There is a root of atheism in the hearts of all men naturally, and it reigns in the ungodly (Psalms 14:1).
(4) The Lord often in that way carries on a holy hardening work. In which case Satan and the evil heart conspire to this abuse. (T. Boston, D. D.)
Sin and its sentence
(with Numbers 32:23):--
I. The apparent slowness of God to punish sin. “Sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily.” That is how it seems to be. It seems as if sin were not the dangerous thing it is represented to be; as if it were a harmless thing, and one might commit it without any consequence being forthcoming. And this is one way in which people are ensnared to go on sinning. They are misled and deceived by appearances. They think they will have nothing to pay now for what they are doing. You all know what an alluring thing credit is to some people. There are plenty of people who buy things which they would not buy if they had to pay for them at the time. Now, just as credit in worldly affairs is to some people a snare, so in relation to sin some people think that they can sin upon credit; that they can sin and have nothing to pay at once. Then, too, there is the thought that there may be even exemption from penalty. People think that they will get off altogether. They think “there is a kind of miscarriage of justice in the moral world; there are some who escape; why may not I?”
II. The certainty of penalty. “Be sure your sin will find you out.”
1. Every sin has its appropriate penalty. A man suffers according as he transgresses. Sometimes this penalty for sin is twofold in its nature. It is outward; that is to say, a man suffers in his body, in his circumstances, in his social position, in his reputation. He suffers, also, inwardly; that is, in his character, in his spirit, in the higher life of the man. Sometimes both these penalties go together, hand in hand, and visit the transgressor.
2. The penalty begins with the beginning of sin. The dropping of water wears away a stone. You see the stone crumbled and disintegrated. When did the process of wearing away begin? Did it begin with the thousandth drop? No, it began with the first drop. If, perhaps, you had looked at that stone when the first drop had fallen, you would not have detected anything, but, nevertheless, the impression was made. It began to wear away as much after the first drop had fallen upon it as after the thousandth or ten thousandth. And it is like that With the penalty for sin. As we commit the sin the penalty follows close upon its heels. The sentence is never divorced from the evil work. They go together step by step, hand-in-hand. They are twin companions. They are never broken or separated from each other.
3. The penalty increases as we go on sinning. God is inexorable in this matter. Follow out the history of those who sin by thoughtless indulgences, such as idleness, drunkenness, love of pleasure, gambling, and what do you behold? Situations are lost, self-respect is gone, social respect is withdrawn, poverty comes in at the door and at the window, too; the body gets enfeebled, begins to tremble, unequal to its work; the brain ceases to have its vitality and vigour; memory becomes a poor decrepit thing, and sometimes reason loses its balance and is overthrown. There is the man, in himself and in his surroundings, ruined. (T. Hammond.)
The longsuffering of God
I. That men are very apt to abuse the longsuffering of God, to the encouraging and hardening of themselves in an evil course, the experience of the world, in all ages, does give abundant testimony.
II. Whence this comes to pass, and upon what pretence and colour of reason men encourage themselves in sin, from the longsuffering of God. And there is no doubt but this proceeds from our ignorance and inconsiderateness and from an evil heart of unbelief, from the temptation and suggestion of the devil. All these causes do concur to the producing this monstrous effects: but that which I design to inquire into is, from what pretence of reason, grounded upon the longsuffering of God, sinners argue themselves into this confidence and presumption. I shall endeavour to show what those false conclusions are, which wicked men draw from the delay of punishment, and to discover the sophistry and fallacy of them.
1. Those conclusions which are more gross and atheistical, which bad men draw to the hardening and encouraging of themselves in sin, from the delay of punishment (which we, who believe a God, call the patience or longsuffering of God), are these three: either that there is no God; or, if there be, that there is no providence; or that there is no difference between good and evil.
2. But because those who are thus are but few, in comparison, there being not many in the world arrived to that degree of blindness and height of impiety as to disbelieve a God and a providence; and I think none have attained to that perfect conquest of conscience as to have lost all sense of good and evil; therefore I shall rather insist upon those kind of reasonings which are more ordinary among bad men, and whereby they cheat themselves into everlasting perdition; and they are such as these:--
(1)Because sentence against an evil work is not speedily executed, therefore sin is not so great an evil.
(2) Therefore God is not so highly offended and provoked by it.
(3) God is not so severe in His own nature as He is commonly represented.
(4) Therefore the punishment of sin is not so certain.
(5) It is at a distance, and may be prevented time enough by a future repentance in our old age or at the hour of death.
III. If the longsuffering of God be the occasion of men’s hardness and impenitency, then why is God so patient to sinners, when they are so prone to abuse his goodness and patience? And how is it goodness in God to forbear sinners so long, when this forbearance of His is so apt to minister to them an occasion of their further mischief and greater ruin? It should seem, according to this, that it would be much greater mercy to the greatest part of sinners not to be patient toward them at all.
1. I ask the sinner if he will stand to this: wouldest thou, in good earnest, have God to deal thus with thee, to take the very first advantage to destroy thee, or turn thee into hell, and to make thee miserable beyond all hopes of recovery?
2. It is likewise to be considered that the longsuffering of God towards sinners is not a total forbearance: it is usually so mixed with afflictions and judgments of one kind or other, upon ourselves or others, as to be a sufficient warning to us, if we would consider and lay it to heart, to “sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon us.” And is not this great goodness to warn us, when He might destroy us? to leave room for a retreat, when He might put our case past remedy?
3. Nothing is further from the intention of God than to harden men by His longsuffering (2 Peter 3:9).
4. There is nothing in the longsuffering of God that is in truth any ground of encouragement to men in an evil course; the proper and natural tendency of God’s goodness is to lead men to repentance, and by repentance to bring them to happiness (Romans 2:4).
5. That through the longsuffering of God sinners are hardened in their evil ways is wholly to be ascribed to their abuse of God’s goodness; it is neither the end and intention, nor the proper and natural effect of the thing, but the accidental event of it through our own fault. And is this any real objection against the longsuffering of God?
6. But because this objection pincheth hardest in one point, viz. that God certainly foresees that a great many will abuse His longsuffering, to the increasing of their guilt, and the aggravating of their condemnation; and how is longsuffering any mercy and goodness to those, who He certainly foreknows will in the event be so much the more miserable for having had so much patience extended to them? Therefore, for a full answer, I desire these six things may be considered:--
(1) God designs this life for the trial of our obedience, that, according as we behave ourselves, He may reward or punish us in another world.
(2) There could be no trial of obedience, nor any capacity of rewards and punishments, but upon the supposition of freedom and liberty; that is, that we do not do what we do upon force and necessity, but upon free choice.
(3) God, by virtue of the infinite perfection of His knowledge, does clearly and certainly foresee all future events, even those which are most contingent, such as are the arbitrary actions of free and voluntary agents.
(4) The bare foreknowledge of things future hath no more influence upon them to make them to be, than the sight and knowledge of things present hath upon them to make them to be present.
(5) Consequently, foreknowledge and liberty may very well consist; and, notwithstanding God’s foreknowledge of what men will do, they may be as free as if He did not foreknow it.
(6) God doth not deal with men according to His foreknowledge of the good or bad use of their liberty, but according to the nature and reason of things; and therefore, if He be longsuffering toward sinners, and do not cut them off upon the first provocation, but give them a space and opportunity of repentance, and use all proper means and arguments to bring them to repentance, and be ready to afford His grace to excite good resolutions in them, and to second and assist them, and they refuse and resist all this; their wilful obstinacy and impenitency is as culpable, and God’s goodness and patience as much to be acknowledged as if God did not foresee the abuse of it; because His foresight and knowledge of what they would do laid no necessity upon them to do what they did.
IV. Some inferences from this whole discourse upon this argument.
1. This shows the unreasonableness and perverse disingenuity of men, who take occasion to harden and encourage themselves in sin from the longsuffering of God, which, above all things in the world, should melt and soften them.
2. This may serve to convince men of the great evil and danger of thus abusing the longsuffering of God. It is a provocation of the highest nature, because it is to trample upon His dearest attributes, those which He most delights and glories in, His goodness and mercy; for the longsuffering of God is His goodness to the guilty, and His mercy to those who deserve to be miserable.
3. To persuade us to make a right use of the patience and longsuffering of God, and to comply with the merciful end and design of God therein.
(1) It is the design of God’s longsuffering to give us a space of repentance.
(2) The longsuffering of God is a great encouragement to repentance. (J. Tillotson, D. D.)
Yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God.
The Christian’s welfare certified
In this verse the character and condition of sinners are contrasted with those of the righteous. However long the sinner lives in sin, and however prosperous he may seem to be, yet it shall be ill with him; but however it may seem sometimes to be with the righteous man, in the long run, it shall be well with him. The text is well calculated to check the folly and presumption of the sinner, and to comfort the righteous man in the trials of life; and especially in the apparent delay of justice in permitting the triumphs of the ungodly.
I. The persons who are here described--“them that fear God.” This is in the Word of God a common designation of the people of God. The fear of the Lord is emphasized as the beginning of wisdom. What is meant by this fear? What kind of fear is it? It is not servile fear. It may have that characteristic in its beginning; but it will not long continue in that atmosphere. The man who is learning a new language, or to speak his own correctly, speaks for a time laboriously under the fear of violating some grammatical rule; but after a time the knowledge of the language becomes a part of his very nature, and he rises above the fear of violating the rules of grammar and comes into the love of correct speech. So, starting in the Christian life on the low plane of fear in its lower senses, we rise into the perfect love of God which casteth out all fear; we love truth, holiness and God for their own sake; we would serve God if there were no hell to be shunned and no heaven to be won; we think little of either; the love of Christ constraineth us. We fear simply lest we may offend God, our Father, Friend, and Redeemer. This fear is filial. It is the fear of a son, and not that of a slave.
II. The promise concerning the people of God: “It shall be well with them.” It is not said that believers shall not have their share in the ordinary trials of life. The Bible nowhere promises us exemption from these trials. It does not assure us that we shall not go into the furnace, nor into the deep waters; but it does promise that the fire shall not consume us and the waters shall not overflow us. It is not said that Christians shall not have extraordinary trials. Christianity develops manhood; vastly enlarges the sphere of life. It gives a broader surface across which the winds of adversity may sweep. It gives greater possibilities of enjoyment; and these make greater trials certain. A Christian man is higher, deeper, and broader than other men are. He has more fully developed all his capacities both for joy and sorrow. The more our natures are developed, the greater, also, will be our responsibilities. Loyalty to God put Joseph into prison; made Elijah face cruel Ahab and wicked Jezebel; drove Daniel into a den of lions; hurled the three faithful Hebrews into the seven-times heated furnace; put Peter into the common prison, and Paul and Silas into the inner prison, with their feet fast in the stocks. But it was still well with them. This fact is the glory of our faith; this is the joy of our life in God. Joseph finds his prison the vestibule to the palace of the Pharaohs; Elijah’s fiery mission is but the prelude to the chariot of fire which carried him to glory and to God.
III. The absolute certainty here expressed. “Yet surely I know.” The inspired preacher had good grounds for his knowledge. Because of God’s character men may be sure that it will be well with those who fear Him. God must be right, God must do right. (R. S. MacArthur, D. D.)
Well with these who fear God
I. The character here mentioned--“them that fear God.” The fear of God is that principle which reverences God and respects His authority. It is one of the great blessings of the new covenant, produced in the heart by the Holy Spirit.
1. This fear is the result of regeneration. An unrenewed man does not fear God (Romans 3:18). But regeneration turns the heart from unlawful objects to God as the chief good.
2. This fear is the result of adoption. God is regarded as a Father, worthy of reverence and love.
3. This fear is manifested by hatred to that which is hateful to God.
4. Manifested by delighting in that which is pleasing to God. The fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Delight in His house, in His people, in His service, etc.
5. This fear is submission to His will. Their will is revealed in His Word; it is manifested in His appointments. As to doctrines, ordinances and precepts, I do not follow my own mind. In afflictions I do not resist or repine. “It is the Lord; let Him do as seemeth good in His sight.”
II. The happiness here referred to--“It shall be well with them.”
1. It is well with them already. Are they not saved from guilt and condemnation? Have they not hope? They “fear God,” and from that principle arises their happiness.
2. It shall be well with them hereafter. They are under the conduct of Divine providence. God appoints the bounds of their habitations. It shall be well in adversity. Well in death. The retrospect of life will give no pain. “The righteous hath hope in His death.” Well in the resurrection. The rearers of God will be raised to immortal life (Romans 8:11; Philippians 3:20-21). Well in the judgment day. It shall be well with them then. It shall be well with them for ever--“Their sun shall no more go down.”
III. The certainty here affirmed--“Surely I know.”
1. I know from experience. I never found happiness in sin--I have found it in the fear of God.
2. I know it from observation. “Mark the perfect man.” “Let me die the death of the righteous.” (Homilist.)
Now, you will notice that fear may be yoked into the service of God. True fear, not fearing, but believing, saves the soul; not doubt, but confidence, is the strength and the deliverance of the Christian. Still, fear, as being one of those powers which God hath given us, is not in itself sinful. Fear may be used for the most sinful purposes; at the same time it may be so ennobled by grace, and so used for the service of God, that it may become the very grandest part of man. In fact, Scripture has honoured fear, for the whole of piety is comprehended in these words, “Fear God”: “the fear of the Lord”: “them that fear Him.” These phrases are employed to express true piety, and the men who possess it.
I. There is, first, the fear caused by an awakening conscience. This is the lowest grade of godly fear; here all true piety takes its rise. We shall never forget, to our dying day, that hour of desperate grief when first we discovered our lost estate. Sinner, it shall be well with thee if thou art now made to fear the wrath of God on account of thy sin; if God the Spirit hath poured forth the vials of Almighty wrath into thy soul, so that thou art cast down and sore vexed. Think not thou shalt be destroyed; it shall be well with thee. Your distresses are very painful, but they are not singular; others have had to endure the same. But I will tell thee something else to comfort thee; I will put this question to thee--Wouldst thou wish to go back and become what thou once wast? Sins are now so painful that thou canst scarce eat, or drink, or sleep.
II. There are many who have believed, and are truly converted, who have a fear which I may call the fear of anxiety. They are afraid that they are not converted. They are converted, there is no doubt of it. Sometimes they know they are so themselves, but, for the most part, they are afraid. First, they will tell you they are afraid they never repented enough; the work in their heart, s, they say, was not deep; it was just superficial surface-ploughing, and never entered into their souls. Then they are quite sure they never came to Christ aright; they think they came the wrong way. How that can be no one knows, for they could not come at all except the Father drew them; and the Father did not draw them the wrong way. They say they can trust Christ, but they are afraid they do not trust Him aright; and they always, do what you may, come back to the old condition; they are always afraid. And now, what shall I say to these good souls? Why, I will say this, “Surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before Him.” Not only those who believe, but those who fear, have got a promise, I would to God that they had more faith; I would that they could lay hold on the Saviour, and had more assurance, and even attain unto a perfect confidence; but if they cannot, shall I utter a word that would hurt them? God forbid; “Surely it shall be well even with them that fear God, with them that fear before Him.”
III. And now, in the next place, there is a fear which works caution. When we get a little further advanced in the Christian life, our present state is not so much a matter of anxiety as our future state. These persons say, “I dare not join the Church, because I am afraid I shall fall.” That fear is good, in itself. But do you think that you would not bring disgrace on Christ’s cause as it is? You are always at the place of worship; you are never away. You were always looked upon as being one of the Church, though you have not made a profession. Now, if you were to sin, would it not dishonour the Church even now? And then I will ask you this question, Where do you think a man is safest,--in the paths of obedience, or in the paths of disobedience? You are afraid you will fall into sin--“Surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before Him.” If you should tell me you were not afraid of falling, I would not have you in the Church for the world; you would be no Christian. I love your fear, and love you, too, for it; you are my brother and sister in Jesus ii you can truly say that you fear lest you should sin. Seek then, my friends, to grow in this fear of caution; obtain more and more of it; and whilst thou dost not distrust the Saviour, learn to distrust thyself more and more every day.
IV. I notice, in the next place, the fear which I may call the fear of jealousy. Strong love will usually promote jealousy. The true believer, when he gets his Saviour in full possession, and in blissful communion, is so jealous lest any rival should intrude in his heart; he is afraid lest his dearest friend should get more of his heart than the Saviour has. He is afraid of his wealth; he trembles at his health, at his fame, at everything that is dear to him, lest it should engross his heart. Oh, how often does he pray, “My Lord, let me not be of a divided spirit; cast down each idol--self-will, self-righteousness.” And I tell you the more he loves, the more he will fear lest he should provoke his Saviour by bringing a rival into his heart, and setting up Antichrist in his spirit; so that fear just goes in proportion to love; and the bright love is congenial, and must walk side by side with the deepest jealousy and the profoundest fear.
V. I will conclude by just mentioning that fear which is felt when we have had divine manifestations. Did you never, in the silence of the night, look up and view the stars, feeding, like sheep on the azure pastures of the sky? Have you never thought of those great worlds, far, far away, divided from us by ahnost illimitable leagues of space? Did you never, whilst musing on the starry heavens, lose yourself in thoughts of God? and have you never felt, at such a time, that you could say with Jacob, “How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and the very gate of heaven”? Now, this kind of fear if you have ever felt it, if it has been produced in your heart by contemplation of God, is a high and hallowed thing, and to you this promise is addressed--“Surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before Him.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
There be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked.
Apparent discrepancy between character and circumstances
There is doubtless a law for everything in heaven and on earth; a systematic connection between cause and effect, alike in the physical, moral and spiritual existences. Our wise men acknowledge this, and find in the heavens above and the earth beneath, as far as their intellects can penetrate, a sequence and an irrevocable destiny in everything they study. But as for the laws that morally govern the world, that give rise to its convulsions and preserve its peace, that dismay us now and overjoy us then, that frustrate our plans or help us to attain our desires, from the dismemberment of a kingdom to the trivialities of existence--these laws are unwritten. The Almighty has set the machinery of nature in motion, and its action is unchangeable till its destiny is attained. But He sits with the sceptre of His moral government in His hands, and the rules by which He governs, and the ends He means to attain, we know not; and it is this ignorance of the Almighty’s plans which baffles our little hopes. It is with this dissimilitude of events as they occur with those we had hoped and striven for, and by probability led ourselves to expect, that our text has to do. It deals with the apparent reversal in many cases of an ordinary law, and shows the utter impossibility of human minds gaining any clue to the moral events which happen, or may happen, around us. Men make use of their limited wisdom to produce a desired effect. If that effect is not gained they abandon their attempts. The initiative is their own, and they abandon it as they please. Far otherwise is it, however, in matters of moral or spiritual import. The initiative is not man’s, but the Almighty’s. Eternal life is not a bait held out for our greed to clutch at, but rather a spontaneous reward for our obedience and love. That this is clearly a principle, our text teaches, and everyday life verifies. The good man in this world often meets with the treatment, and is placed in the circumstances, which attend the career of the vilest; while the wicked man oft sits in the highest place, and mockingly sways his prostrate courtiers with the arrogant pretentiousness of a usurped power. He thinks his position is the reward of his genius, and scoffs at the idea of anything having to do with his elevation but himself. These reversed positions clearly show that the reward or punishment of the good or wicked does not necessarily begin, and clearly does not end, with this mortal life. This, to a good man, is a source of joy. He forgets his present ignominy in his future hopes: the present calamity he takes as an earnest for his future bliss. The wicked man, however, often has somewhat of his own way in the world. He takes the present as his all, and is satisfied therewith. He wants no future reward: his enjoyment now is ample, and instead of taking warning from the position of the good man as indicative of what his position ought possibly to be, his gratified senses and pampered vanity stifle his reason and destroy his conscience, and he descends to the grave in a false position to open his appalled eyes in the one belonging to him. (Homilist.)
Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.
The benefits of wholesome recreation
Viewed by itself, and apart from its context and from the rest of the argument of the wise king, this sentiment might seem to partake very much of the spirit of the Epicureans, so strongly condemned by St. Paul--“Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die”: but when we come to look closely into it, we find that it would be a manifest perversion of the whole passage to apply it in any such Epicurean sense. The man to whom he refers, as the one who is encouraged “to eat and to drink and to be merry,” is not the idle drone whose whole life is spent in self-indulgence, or in the pursuit of pleasure; not the Dives who fares sumptuously every day while so many around have scarcely wherewithal to purchase the scanty meal--but he, whose whole attention has been hitherto absorbed in some toilsome and laborious pursuit; he who has, so to speak, been the slave of wealth, or ambition, or pleasure, or business--the seeker after worldly wisdom--or, in fine, the man so filled with anxiety and care about the objects of his desire, as to need this salutary warning how better to employ his days. Thus, if we might venture to paraphrase the passage, we should assume it to bear some such an import as the following:--“Be not so wrapt up in the cares or concerns of this life, oh! ye foolish sons of men, as to forget the grand end and aim of your being. There are, indeed, many things well worthy of your attainment, but none of so solid and enduring a character as to justify your total absorption in the pursuit of them. Lose not the real enjoyment of life by devoting it thus unremittingly to any earthly end. While thus toiling to secure some fancied good, you are really allowing to escape those fleeting moments which should be devoted to some loftier purpose. Aim first and chiefly to attain the heavenly wisdom, for ‘this alone will bring peace at the last.’ And then, with regard to all earthly schemes of happiness, let not your pursuit of the problematic future deprive you of the lawful enjoyment of present good, but ‘having food and raiment be therewith content.’ ‘Eat, drink and be merry.’ Cultivate a cheerful and a happy frame of mind, as opposed to that gloomy, over-anxious, ever-toiling disposition, which you now possess--as is the cold, cheerless mantle of night to the glow and warmth of the midday sun--for this calm and tranquil state shall abide with you, and give you enjoyment in the midst of your labour all the days of your life which God giveth you under the sun.” And who does not perceive the consonance of this advice with the more plain and direct teaching of our Lord and His inspired apostles? Who does not recognize in this Old Testament warning the foreshadowing of those deep and wholesome truths which Christ announced in tits famous sermon from the Mount? “Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?” But rather “seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Who does not trace in the language of Solomon the workings of that same Spirit which inspired St. Paul to say, “Whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God”--“Rejoice in the Lord alway; and again I say, Rejoice”? Not, then, in antagonism to the spirit of the New Testament, but in perfect accordance with it, does Solomon, in the words of my text, recommend the rational enjoyment of the good things of this life. In what, then, does rational enjoyment or recreation consist? I think we may safely answer this question by the obvious reply--“In the moderate use of all the gifts of God’s good providence, and in the healthful cultivation of all these faculties the improvement of which can tend to His honour or glory.” Under this head, then, as you will perceive, so far as bodily refection is concerned, we should include the temperate use of all healthful articles, whether of food or of drink. “Not that which entereth into the mouth defileth a man.” God makes no distinction either of meats or drinks, provided we use all lawfully, to the just refreshment and strengthening of the body, not to its undue pampering, or mere carnal gratification. And so, also, with regard to questions of bodily or mental recreation. Healthful exercise, whether for the body or mind, may allowably be included under the Preacher’s commendation of rational “mirth.” The Scriptures have net prescribed to us what species of mirth to select, nor what to avoid. They have evidently left it as a matter of conscience, to the feelings and experience of every Christian, to choose his own most appropriate mode of rejoicing, provided, as in the former case, that even allowable mirth be not carried beyond the limits of moderation, and degenerate into senseless hilarity. It is true that St. James exhorts, “Is any merry? let him sing psalms”: but this advice is more of the nature of a permission than a command; and it is clearly evident, that with very many the literal interpretation of this precept, if it be correctly translated, would be impracticable, seeing that they are altogether devoid of musical tendencies. This passage, then, so far from limiting, as it has been supposed to do, the exhibition of our cheerful tendencies to psalm-singing alone, seems to me to make quite for the opposite view, and would apparently sanction the employment of any musical agency, and, by a parity of reasoning, of any other equally harmless and humanizing source of amusement as a justifiable mode of exhibiting a mirthful spirit before the Lord. (F F. Statham, B. A.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ecclesiastes 8". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28