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Certain of the elders . . . sat before me.
The elders before Ezekiel
1. True religion is emphatically a walking with God, not a mere occasional coming to Him. The precise manner in which the date is given may possibly be taken as conveying a reproof to those who, instead of making it their constant business to know God’s will, were contented to let a year elapse between two successive visits to the prophet.
2. The need of leaving our sins behind us when we come to inquire of God. The severe answer which the elders received was due chiefly to the fact that they canto without first repenting and bringing forth fruits worthy of repentance
3. Prayer, or indeed coming to God in any way, must not be made a mere matter of convenience, but must be regarded as a matter of constant spiritual necessity. These elders came when they thought it would answer their purpose; they forgot God when all went well, they sought Him when they were at their wits’ end; they did not look upon communion with God as the one great spiritual need of their souls. Were they singular in this? The habitual lives of nine out of ten persons in this Christian country would rise up and contradict us if we said that they were. I am not now contemplating the case of notoriously evil men, but only that of easy-going worldly persons who live without church, prayer, Scriptures, passing a quiet animal kind of life, with no cares except those of getting daily bread. These persons will, many of them, cry to the Lord in trouble; put them upon a sickbed, and they will say their prayers for the most part vigorously enough, and the prayers so offered up may possibly be the beginning of a more Christian life, yet I do not at all the less maintain that this is no right use of prayer, but a most egregious and unchristian abuse. (Bp. Harvey Goodwin.)
Cherished sin disqualifies for prayer
Manton says, “Empty the bucket before you go to the fountain.” Wise advice. If the pail be full of the best and cleanest water it is idle to carry it to the well, for its fulness disqualifies it for being a receiver. Those who think themselves full of grace are not likely to pray aright, for prayer is a beggar’s trade, and supposes the existence of need. What does a full bucket want with the well? Let it stay where it is. Fitness for mercy is not found in self-sufficiency, but in emptiness and want. He can and will receive most of the Lord who has least of his own. If the bucket is full of foul water, it is wise to throw it away as we go to the crystal spring. We must not come to the Lord with our minds full of vanity, lust, covetousness, and pride. “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” He will not make His grace the medium of floating our unclean desires. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
A land . . . which is the glory of all lands.
The glory of all lands
Palestine, as it appears to the modern traveller, is so totally different from the land as it is described in the Bible, that anticipations are disappointed on seeing it. One never sees the brooks, or the fountains, or the milk and honey. A more sterile--save for the plains along the seaboard--a more forbidding country it is scarcely possible to conceive. Is there anything that by any stretch of imagination could justify us in turning to the world with the Bible in our hands and saying, “Here is the glory of all lands”? Has its geographical position given it that prominence? A rugged strip of country, with a confused mass of rugged hills, many of them, especially towards the south, absolutely forbidding, so bare, so barren, so scarred are they that one would think some cancer had eaten into them. And this is the land, no bigger than Wales, half the size of Scotland, with a population not equal to a fourth-rate town in Scotland, that is said to be the glory of all lands. It is not its position, therefore, or anything we can see in its towns. What, then, is it? Its beauty? Why, no one would ever dream of going to the Holy Land for its scenery. No doubt the Lake of Galilee is a pleasant sheet of water, but anyone who has stood on the shores of Loch Lomond would never for a moment dream of comparing them. There is nothing in the scenery. No one who is a mere pleasure seeker, no artist, would ever dream of spending time and strength in such a land. Nor would the mere holiday seeker find anything to justify or anything to repay his visit. Travelling through the land is toilsome and perilous for lack of roads, and even where roads are, they are extremely dangerous. Suppose the scientist goes, there is no attraction for him. The botanist will add nothing particular to his store. Even the boasted Rose of Sharon is but a bastard poppy. A scientist has nothing to gain, nor an archaeologist, nor a student. There are no old libraries, there is no native literature, no great school. And those who go for gaiety have gone to the wrong place. There is no theatre, no music hall. No poet could weave romance round such a land as Palestine. What, then, is the attraction? It is the religious. The Crusaders left home, birth, everything, not to add to territory, not for the mere love of conquest. It was the Cross that was the emblem carried before them, and that accustomed them to all the hardships they endured and the triumphs that they won. So, too, with the modem traveller. There is but one Holy Land, and the one thing that makes it holy is that there the Word was made flesh. It is that that makes the land holy, that makes it the glory of all lands. They can take the obelisks of Egypt, and bring them to Paris and to London, and so in some measure transfer the glory of the past; but there is a glory upon that land that no power can take from it or transfer to another land. The Galilean has triumphed. And if He had not, where would have been the glory of the land? There is nothing to make it in one’s mind conceivably associated with grand events; and yet see how they flock to it, how many hearts draw to it, how many hearts throb at the mere mention of it--all because Christ has made it the glory of all lands. (G. Davidson, B. Sc.)
The Divine conditions of nationality
I. A country was chosen and assigned to them, and this was the very first step in the process of preparation for the national existence. It is very evident that the repeated references to the land in connection with the prophecies and promises of a national existence and mission made the impression upon the mind of the patriarchs that the possession and enjoyment of the country was essentially a condition of nationality. Accordingly the occupation of Canaan became the object of their highest hopes and the goal of their aims in labour and patience (Genesis 50:24-26). And the land was adapted to furnish all the needful conditions of support and unification of the nation.
1. It was described as a land flowing with milk and honey. It was able to afford not merely subsistence, but the means of wealth ample for the material and appliances of an advanced civilisation.
2. The means of communication were sufficient. For the land was not large, and although broken by ranges of hills, was permeated by valleys and torrent beds dry for a considerable portion of the year, and bordered by the sea, which was the highway of the ancient peoples.
3. The land was separated from the surrounding peoples by the sea and the deserts; passable for purposes of commerce, natural barriers in time of war.
II. At the time of founding of the nation a code of laws was given and promulgated. The principles of government may be gathered by analysis of the statutes and synthesis of the results. There can be no doubt that there was an intention to provide for the greatest good and largest liberty of the individual compatible with association, at least in view of the state of the people in that early age, and in their rise from a servile condition. And in the first instance a popular form of government was contemplated rather than a monarchy. The latter was considered as dependent upon certain contingencies, and if it was foreseen as a necessity it was only because it was to be made a necessity by the people themselves. Provision was made for education and discipline in the knowledge of the law, and in habits of obedience. The first, the best, and the only really effective school of instruction and culture was secured and guarded, namely, the family. The infant child was marked with the sign and seal of his rights and duties in the commonwealth, and the household was ordained as a means of training and practice in obedience to righteous precepts. Besides this domestic education, provision was made for public teachers of the law. These were not merely instructors in specifically religious duties, but in social and civil duties also. It would be impossible to cite all the passages in the history which makes it manifest that the Lawgiver expected obedience to be secured through the moral judgment and sensibility. Indeed, the careful student of his teaching cannot fail to find abundant sources for the impression that he intended to secure his people a distinctively and intense ethical life. His aim was righteousness. The accomplishment of this was necessary in his view to the fulfilment of the mission of the nation in the earth. And, finally, to the moral motives to obedience he added the sanctions of religion. He taught that the law came from God Himself, that obedience to the law was loyalty to God, and disobedience was rebellion against God.
III. Provision was made for the nurture of patriotism and for the strengthening of the national bond. The people were attached to the soil by the law of the permanence of the tenure of it in the families and tribes to whom it was assigned after the conquest. The title to each estate was perpetual. And ample provision was made that the life of toil might be lightened and graced by the enjoyments and ceremonies of domestic, social, and national festivals. The seasons of the year of labour were marked by the gathering of the families, and common participation in the fruits of the earth and the more joyful services of religion. Three times each year the heads of families were summoned to the metropolis and the common altar, and in their journeyings to and from the Holy City, and their fellowship within its walls, its dwellings, and its temple courts, they were knit together in personal friendships and united in the common bond of citizenship.
IV. The national spirit was animated and nourished by the call to a mission for all the peoples on the earth. At the very beginning it was said to the father of the Hebrew people, “In thee and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” And this was repeated again and again in ampler form by lawgiver, and teacher, and king, and prophet, and it became the matter of the highest reaches of patriotic eloquence and the burden of the loftiest inspirations of national song. The Messianic hope was the very life of the nation in its greatest days, send the anchor of its faith in the darkest days of humiliation and suffering. And by it the fainting national life was revived and reinvigorated after the deliverance from captivity, and sustained in the conflicts of the Maccabean age and the struggle of the Grecian conquest, and the endurance of the Roman domination. (J. T. Duryea, D. D.)
I wrought for My name’s sake.
The glory of God, His principle of action
It is an admitted axiom of all enlightened legislation, that with man as a moral agent human lawmakers have nothing to do; that they must overlook many considerations of natural infirmity and educational bias, to which due weight will nevertheless be given in the merciful estimate of Heaven, confining their attention solely to what will most uphold the majesty of the law, and thus secure “the greatest good of the greatest number.” Now with some difference in form, this is the very thing which takes place with the great rule of the Divine procedure. What the honour of the law is to earthly govermnents, the honour of His own great name is to Almighty God. Every decree that goes forth from the court of heaven is referred to this one rule.
I. Some reasons for this rule of the Divine procedure. The steps of the reasoning, whereby a moral necessity (as it were) is imposed upon God, to consult first the glory of His own name, as distinguished from anything He should see in His creatures, appear to us to be both simple and conclusive. For what is a part of God must have more glory than that which comes from God, seeing that the glory of the one is original and the glory of the other is derived. Another reason to be offered for this rule of the Divine procedure is, that God designs to show to us, that in all the deliverances He has hitherto wrought, or any which He may be expected hereafter to work, He could be influenced by no considerations foreign to Himself: to show that He would put forth or withdraw His arm, according as He did or did not apprehend dishonour would be charged upon the rectitude of His government, or “His name be polluted in the sight of the heathen, from whom He brought them forth.” We have yet another reason to urge why the glory of His own name should be chosen by God as the governing principle of His administration, in preference to seeking for that governing principle in anything that man does, or in anything that man is: that by so choosing He gives to men themselves the only security they can have, that the administration of heaven shall be free from all inconstancy, from all fluctuation, and from all change. It would not, however, we think, be sufficient that we should merely justify the principle laid down in our text, that in all which God hath done He hath “wrought for His name’s sake”; the solemnity and frequency with which we see it repeated seem to require from us a distinct recognition, that it is designed to exert some direct influence on our faith and practice. And this influence we take to be, that in all our judgments of His ways, and in all our petitions for His help, we should have a uniform regard to that end, which He avows to be the ruling principle of the heavenly administration, namely, the glory of His own name. It is good to give back something of glory, for what hath been so largely bestowed of grace; and on all occasions of perplexity and of doubt which may arise, it will ever afford us comfort in the retrospect, to have known that we acted neither from ourselves, nor for ourselves, but that we “wrought for His name’s sake.” There is, however, another reason why we think God so frequently insists on the glory of His own name, as being the ruling principle of His government; and that is, because He would teach us that what is to Him the rule of action should be to us both a measure and a plea of prayer.
II. A few observations in evidence of this.
1. God had an eye to His glory in the works of creation. It is obvious, that had the necessities of man been the only motive to the Divine beneficence, Deity might have provided for man a less noble theatre for the exercise of his powers, and a less gorgeous home for the place of his rest. His design in creation is to lead us from the seen to the unseen; from the measured to the infinite; from the top of heights, which sense would apprehend and scale, to the loftier pinnacle of “His own eternal power and Godhead.”
2. God has never lest sight of this great end in the various departments of His providence. It may be true--it must be true--that seeing as we do only a part of our Maker’s ways, the mere fragments of the stupendous plan, the detached pieces of providence, we shall be prone to ask, Wherein is God’s name exalted here? But ye must wait to see these pieces of providence put together; ye must wait to see all the wheels and springs of the great Timepiece adjusted and fitted in; and then shall ye find that the most inscrutable act of the Divine administration formed one of the letters of His own great Name.
3. It was with a view to the glory of His own great name that the Creator of all the ends of the earth devised, effectuated, and wrought out the plan of man’s redemption. (D. Moore, M. A.)
The Divine motive of action
The conception that Jehovah acts only for His own name’s sake, to sanctify His great name, is capable of being set in a repellent light. It seems to make the Divine Being egoistic, and His own sense of Himself the source of all His operations. The way too in which He brings the nations to know that He is Jehovah, through judgments mainly, invests the idea with additional harshness. The conception is not found in the earlier prophets, but is familiar in the age of Ezekiel. Perhaps two things, if considered, would help to explain the prophet’s idea. One is his lofty conception of Jehovah, God alone and over all, and his profound reverence before Him. The “child of man” cannot conceive the motive of Jehovah’s operations to be found anywhere but in himself. But that name for whose sake he works is a “great name” (Ezekiel 36:23) and a “holy name” (Ezekiel 39:25), it is that of Him who is God. The prophet thinks of Jehovah as one of his predecessors did. “For Jehovah your God is the God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great God, the mighty and the terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward” (Deuteronomy 10:17). And the second thing is this: the conception arose out of the conflicts of the times. There were antagonisms within Israel, and more powerful antagonisms without, between Israel and the nations. The conflicts on the stage of history were but the visible forms taken by a conflict of principles, of religions of Jehovah God with the idolatries of which the nations of the earth were the embodiments. The prophet could not help drawing up this antagonism into his conception of God; and not unnaturally he inflicted his own feeling upon the mind of God, and conceived Him thinking of Himself as he thought of Him. If it was but half a truth, it was perhaps the half needed for the age. When the fulness of time was come, the centre of Divine motive was shifted. God so loved the world, etc. Coming from the bosom of the Father, and knowing Him, the Son’s mind was altogether absorbed in the positive truth the stream of which was so broad and deep that all antagonisms were buried beneath it. (A. B. Davidson, D. D.)
I gave them My Sabbaths.
The practical duties of the Christian Sabbath
Let two remarks be premised. We enforce not the duties of the Jewish but of the Christian Sabbath. Everything in the Christian Sabbath is tender and considerate on the one hand, everything is spiritual and elevated on the other; and is, in both views, adapted to the real state and exigencies of our nature, under the last and most perfect dispensation of religion. But then the determination of what is really spiritual, of what is really for the welfare of man, of what ale the real duties and employments of the day, must be taken from the Scriptures themselves, and not from the opinions, much less from the inclinations and fashions, of a corrupt world.
I. Keep ever in view the great end of the institution--which is to be a visible sign of the covenant between God and us, and a principal means of that sanctification which it is one object of that covenant to produce. What an exalted end and design of the institution! Sanctification is the work of God’s Holy Spirit by His secret but effectual influences upon the heart, separating man from the love and service of sin, and turning him to God and holiness. And how important is the thought, that the design of the Almighty in sanctifying and hallowing a day of Sabbath was that man, His moral and accountable creature, might be sanctified and dedicated by means of it--that the external consecration of the season ends in the internal consecration of the heart of man to his Creator and Redeemer! We awake to the true importance of the institution when we feel our fallen and sinful state, when we receive the covenant of grace as proposed in the Gospel, when we seek to be sanctified, body, soul, and spirit, to be the Lord’s. A Divine life infused into the soul of man--a perception of the nature and excellency of spiritual things--a view of the glory and majesty of the great Redeemer--a reliance upon His death and resurrection--a dependence upon the influence of His Holy Spirit--these bring the Sabbath and the human heart together.
II. The public and private duties of it.
1. The public exercise; of God’s worship, and the fellowship of Christians with each other in common acts of prayer and praise, are the leading business of this holy season.
2. The care of our families must not, however, be neglected, whilst we first discharge our public duties.
3. The private and personal duties must prepare for and succeed the public and domestic.
4. The duties of the Christian Sabbath extend to our dependents--to “the stranger within our gates”--to all over whom we have any natural influence--and even to the irrational creatures who subserve our comfort, and whose repose is commanded both for their own sakes and to render more completely practical the duty of religious rest enjoined upon man, their lord.
III. In order to keep holy the Lord’s day, we must carry the true spirit of the Christian dispensation into these duties. We must not celebrate a Jewish but a Christian festival. We must imbibe that spirit of rest and delight in God, that sense of refreshment and repose, in His more immediate service, which the liberty of the Gospel breathes, and without some degree of which we can never discharge these duties aright. Can any picture be more inviting than that of a family, a neighbourhood, a parish, honouring the day of God with cheerful and grateful hearts--meditating on that sanctification which is the great design of the day of rest--filling up its hours with the various and important exercises of public and private devotion--and imbuing every act of duty with the Christian temper, with the filial spirit--the spirit not “of bondage again to fear, but the spirit of adoption, crying, Abba, Father”?
IV. Especially glorify God for those mighty blessings which are appointed to be commemorated on the Lord’s day--Creation, Redemption, Heaven. (D. Wilson, M. A.)
The national observance of the Sabbath day; its deep importance and present peril
I. Its bearing on the health and the enjoyment of the community. Man was not made, even in Paradise, to be idle; and if even there wholesome toil contributed to keep his happiness from stagnating and corrupting, how much more is toil a merciful provision for man in his fallen lot! There is perhaps as much mercy in the institution that “six days we shall labour and do all that we have to do,” as in the institution that on the seventh day we shall “do no manner of work.” But whilst labour in moderation is thus beneficial for man, incessant toil would infallibly tend at once to break the spirit, to degrade the mind, to ruin the health, and to curtail the life. It would at the same time have a fearful and melancholy influence on social enjoyment, on the domestic circle, on the mutual endearments and reciprocal kindly sentiments that constitute so much of the stream of earthly happiness. How gracious, therefore, and how merciful, in its bearing merely on the physical strength and health, and upon the general individual and social and domestic enjoyment of the mass of the people, is that provision of a gracious Father, who, in giving us all our time for our daily labour, yet reserved a seventh to be kept holy to Himself, in which we should rest from every toil, and the master and the servant, and the sovereign and the subject, and the brute beast of the field that serves man, should all together, unyoked and disburdened from labour and from care, exult and rejoice in the freedom and the liberty with which God hath blessed them!
II. Its bearing upon the kindly feelings and the mutual charities of the nation in which it is observed. How much depends upon the internal magnetic attraction and influence of kindliness and benevolence and mutual good will! If you could take out from the community all that tends to soften mutual asperity and knit heart to heart, all that tends to make the poor man feel a sense of honest independence accompanied with unfeigned humility, and the rich man to feel that his external condition is as nothing in comparison with the moral distinction that differences one intelligent being from another--who can tell what would be the frightful result? But how beautifully does the Sabbath day prove the medium of the circulation of kindly and tender feelings! Much as the day is broken, and often as it is spent in savage and in sensual scenes, yet nevertheless it does wonderfully tend, with its balmy hebdomadal influence, to calm ruffled spirits, to allay feverish anxieties, and to soften petulant and foolish tempers.
III. Its bearing upon the morality and the religion of the people. Take away that one purchase, on which rests all the spiritual and moral machinery in the land--let that be gone, and the whole moral and religious machinery in the land falls rapidly to pieces, because it has no fixed ground, no standing point on which to be placed. It cannot go on; it must suffer disturbance, disorganisation, and rapid destruction. Let there be no national Sabbath; where were our Sabbath ceremonies? Let there be no national Sabbath; in vain almost would our houses of prayer be thrown open, and the bell that used to sweetly tell the day of rest was come send out its notes, drowned amid the din and the uproar of the never-checked deluge of worldly anxiety, tumult, conflict and struggle, gathering fresh force and fury because the only barrier that at all checked their onward progress was withdrawn, and rushing headlong on without an obstacle to impede their current.
IV. Its bearing on the favour of God towards a people. I look upon the Sabbath, in its national observance, as the most direct and plain and palpable index of a nation’s relationship towards God. It is (if we may so speak) the standard of heaven waving from the battlements of our national Zion, and telling that this great people recognise God, and in testimony and tribute of their loyalty they pay Him that which is His own, and give Him the seventh of their time, secured to Him by whom their sovereign reigns and on whom all their blessings depend. And as the observance of the Sabbath by the nation is an outward and visible sign of their fealty and fidelity to God, so is it an outward and visible sign of God’s gracious faithfulness and love towards them. While that broad seal, therefore, remains intact and unbroken, how confidently may the people rest upon God!
V. The growing difficulties of maintaining the observance of the sabbath day and at the same time the growing importance of maintaining it in our land.
1. We find in the spread of infidel sentiment and spirit in the land, a fearful source of difficulty to the maintenance of the due observance of the Sabbath day.
2. The latitudinarian and unhallowed speculation indulged in by many who bear the name of Christian, and sanctioned and smiled at by others, who ought to raise the voice of holy and wholesome reprobation.
3. The increasing excitements and the increasing facilities for the violation of the holy day.
4. The lamentable spiritual destitution of masses of our people, and the consequent spiritual ignorance, utter demoralisation, and absolute barbarism which exist throughout wildernesses of human beings in this baptized and nominally Christian country.
VI. The growing importance of maintaining the observance of the sabbath day in our land. (H. Stowell, M. A.)
The Sabbath day
I. The Sabbath is of universal and perpetual obligation.
II. It has its own peculiar employments: “Hallow My Sabbaths.” They are to be days of rest from labour, and refreshment for the soul. Let them be sacred days; devote them to the praise and cause and glory of God.
III. There was a most blessed design in its institution: “Hallow My Sabbaths; and they shall be a sign,” etc.
1. They were to be a sign between God and His people--a sign more frequently brought before them than the bow in the clouds. That told they should not be destroyed; but this tells of eternal life--is a type and symbol of the Sabbath of rest in His everlasting kingdom.
2. Another design mentioned is the edification and instruction of His people, “that ye may know that I am the Lord.” (G. Phillips, M. A.)
The Sabbath a sign between God and His people
I. How properly the sabbath is a sign of the true God.
II. The institution of it is of the greatest use and advantage to man, considered under what respect and circumstances soever.
III. What is meant by “hallowing the sabbath,” or in what manner we are to observe it, so as to answer the end of its institution, so as to reap the advantages which were proposed by it.
1. To hallow the Sabbath is to set it apart to God’s honour and service; and, of course, implies that we should abstain from all the ordinary employments of life, from all such things as would be apt to debase our minds, and hinder them from fixing upon heavenly objects.
2. We should, this day above all, make Him the constant subject of our thoughts and our desires, of our prayers and of our praises. We should meditate upon His nature and His attributes, His Word and His works; and particularly upon those two grand instances of the Divine power and goodness which the institution itself, more especially, directs us to commemorate--the creation of the world, and the redemption of mankind.
IV. To neglect paying God so easy a tribute as one day out of seven must at least imply a forgetfulness of our obligations; as that must, necessarily, imply ingratitude. Shall we grudge the seventh day to His use, when He hath, so freely, allowed us the other six for our own? Shall we refuse so small a part of our time to Him, who had so just a right to the whole? (D. Lloyd.)
The Sabbath needed by man
Those who have served a battery upon the battlefield tell us that, at intervals, they are forced to pause, that the guns may cool, and that the smoke may lift to furnish accurate aim; yes, and because ammunition is exhausted. No Christian can fight the battle of the week without the quiet Sabbath to cool off his guns. He needs repose of soul. He wants heavenly breezes to lift the earth-lowering shadows. He must replenish his store from the secret place of prayer and meditation. (E. J. Haynes.)
I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live.
The judgment of invincible ignorance
These words have often formed the ground of infidel cavils, and therefore require perhaps to be explained; also they open up to us a very important subject, namely, that of our responsibility to God, not only for our actions, but for our opinions. There is a great tendency now to consider that moral guilt can hardly be incurred by a purely intellectual act. It is assumed by the majority that no alarm need he felt about the future life on the score of a man’s principles. If he is mistaken in his ideas of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, his mistake, it is urged, will not injure him. Now we believe the tenour of Scripture to be opposed to this. It distinctly states that the thoughts of the heart and the words of the mouth shall be brought into judgment; and it speaks of false opinions on points of religion as strongly as of unrighteous actions. Ezekiel announces a very solemn judgment of God upon those who refuse truth. The chiefs of the nation are before the prophet, requiring to know how God might be propitiated, so as to bring them again to their country and their homes. “Then,” it is written, “came the word of the Lord to Ezekiel.” Suddenly, yet perceptibly to himself and them, the Eternal Spirit entered into him, so that the words he spake were no longer his own. Possessed by this awful Indweller, he recapitulates the history of the Jews from the beginning; their repeated sins, God’s reiterated forgiveness; their falls, their chastisements, their restoration to favour. Amongst these mingled visitations of wrath and mercy is described that on which we propose now to dwell.
1. It has been supposed by some that the statutes and judgments here alluded to were those of the Mosaic Law, and that in describing them as statutes not good, the Almighty designed to express their deficiency, as contrasted with the Gospel system, in future times to be made known. A short consideration, however, of the context will show that this theory is unsound, and at the same time explain the real meaning of the text. God having first promulgated to the Israelites laws of life, upon their indifference to these gave them laws of death; and the general principle here involved is, that the punishment of transgressing or refusing holy laws is to have unholy laws assigned us. If we will reject truth we shall be caused to take falsehood for our guide. If a man have truth proposed for his acceptance, and reject it; if he turn away through carelessness, or shut his heart through perverseness of will to the truth as it is in Jesus, what we should most fear for such an one is not famine, or pestilence, or sword. There is a more terrible vial still than these in the treasury of God. Of those who having ears hear not, the punishment would appear to be, that eventually the capacity of understanding shall be taken from them. We cannot, of course, in any particular case pronounce whether the curse of invincible ignorance has been poured out, and the veil drawn finally over the heart; but we urge it upon yea as strong ground for never playing with your convictions, or shutting your souls against the voice of instruction.
2. But now we can imagine that many and great objections present themselves to your minds in connection with the foregoing doctrine. Is this, you ask, agreeable to the goodness and justice of the Deity? Can it be reconciled with His attributes, that He should thus, at any period of human life, take away the power of belief, and Himself blind the soul and make dull the heart? Now let us pause for a moment upon the nature of God’s punishment, so far as we may discover it. We may trace one grand principle pervading and colouring all the visitations of Divine vengeance; the principle is this, that the punishment should in its quality bear a resemblance to the sin. Adam and Eve, presuming to eat the fruit of the tree of good and evil, were debarred access to the tree of life. Jacob, deceiving his father Isaac, was in his turn deceived by his own sons. And it is not difficult to perceive why this should be. The punishment of sin is to preach against sin. How much more striking this preaching becomes when the penalty inflicted is of a sort to call to remembrance the precise iniquity of which it is the penalty. Now, if this be correct, the particular judgment spoken of in the text is just what we might expect would overtake those who will not when they may amend their opinions and embrace the truth. If the sin be to resist truth, what should the penalty be but the being incapacitated from embracing truth? (Bishop Woodford.)
We will be as the heathen.
The paganism of the heart
I. As an evil to which the godly are liable.
1. The force of early habits. The spirit of self-indulgence and sensualism was the first spirit that animated us all. Its death requires time. Hence in unguarded moods it comes up again.
2. The force of social influence. In our industries, recreations, our literature and institutions, the spirit of Paganism breathes in all, and it tends to possess us of itself.
3. The force of satanic agency. The devil’s great wish is that men should endeavour to get their “bread”--their happiness--out of “stones.”
II. As an evil against which the godly should struggle.
1. By the growth of heavenly sentiments.
2. By closer fellowship with the Divine.
3. By a moral conquest over spiritual foes.
4. By a translation into the heavenly world. (Homilist.)
A vain imagination
The Jewish people had grown tired of Jehovah’s service. Whatever its advantages and its righteousness, it was irksome, tedious, and severe. Other nations had not the same restrictions and the same punishments. “Look,” they said, “at the people who serve idols, they have no law to fetter their inclinations and limit their pleasures, while on every side we are hedged in and forbidden and punished heavily if we transgress. Let us give up Jehovah’s service and be as other nations are, do as they do, and find the same freedom and enjoyment.” All this is very natural, and is constantly recurring. Many feel as the Jews felt. Religion’s ways have become tiresome to them. They compare their lives with the lives of men of the world, and they seem to suffer from the comparison. We meet with the same thing in the realm of intellectual experience. Men give up religion, they tell us, to escape from the mental anxieties that have troubled them; to escape from the strife of sects, the clamour and conflict of opinions. The vanity of such a spirit and of such conduct is the subject of the text. “It shall not be at all.” Utter disappointment is almost inevitable. Why?
I. Because the thought of their minds is opposed to the principles of their nature and the facts of their history. The Jewish people spoke in denial and forgetfulness of their own condition. They assumed what was impossible, namely, that they could dismiss and annihilate all the past, and bow down before gods of wood and stone, and enter upon a course of unregulated enjoyment, with a satisfaction equal to theirs who had never known Jehovah and His holy law. It could not be. There is no river of forgetfulness in which men can bathe. We may think as they did, but “it shall not be at all,” for--
1. We have an enlightened conscience, and that will prevent it. What others call pleasure would be to us sin--sin against God.
2. We have the memory of better things, and that will prevent it. The heathen knew nothing better than his heathenism. The Jew could look back, was often compelled to look back, upon much that made his fallen position hateful. We turn from religion, but bitter memories remain to us.
3. We bring to it the knowledge of Divine truth, and that will prevent it. Truth once imparted and received cannot be wholly lost. It will live, and often present itself to trouble the soul. This applies specially to those who turn to superstitious courses. There is something significant in the expression “to serve wood and stone.” It seems to intimate that to the Jew, with his knowledge, the gods of heathenism could never be anything better. A man who loses his sight by disease or accident can never equal in cheerfulness and in free unembarrassed movement a man who was born blind. No more can those who have known religious truth and religious experiences be equal with those who have never risen above the world, and whose lives throughout have been shadowed by error and falsehood.
II. Because it is subject to the counteracting operations of the great God. There are two ways in which God defeats the thought of their minds.
1. By His correcting providences. The afflictions, losses, bereavements, sorrows of life.
2. By His pursuing love. By His Spirit making memory a living picture of the better past.
1. The weakness and littleness of fallen human nature. Men who have tested the heavenly manna can yet turn from it to the coarsest food.
2. The safeguards against such a spirit. Ponder the truth here asserted. Patient, earnest work; the cultivation of a cheerful, joyous frame; the glorious future.
3. The folly and evil of such conduct. And if it has been yours, come back to Christ at once. (William Perkins.)
Men endeavouring to be like the heathen
I. The illustration of the text on the history of the people. The Israelites had the most distinguished privileges. No other nation had a history like theirs. It was the history of Divine interpositions, manifestations, and revelations. No other nation had such statutes and laws. They had heard the blast of the trumpet which no earthly lips could have blown. No other nation had such songs; they were the odes in which they rehearsed in their homes and in the sanctuary God’s wonderful dealings with their race, so that the history of the past was perpetuated. God had a local residence in their midst. He had His palace and His court. The symbol of the Divine presence dwelt between the outstretched wings of the cherubim, and as the worshipper bowed down he could almost see the veil of the temple wave, as if by the presence of Him who dwelt in the Holy of Holies. The God of Israel had His altars and sacrifices, His ministers and priests. Other nations had their gods, but they had never at any time heard their voice; there had been no manifestations of their power and glory. Others nations had their sacrifices, but no fire had ever come down from heaven on their altars. Idolatry was perpetuated by the heathen; they made no change in their gods. It mattered not how uncouth and grim the idol, it was not exchanged for another. It mattered not how revolting and debasing the superstition, it was perpetuated. The Israelites sought to extinguish the last ray of Divine light, to obliterate the last traces of the Divine law, to silence the faint echoes of the Divine voice which yet lingered around them. They sought to become as “the heathen, and as the families of the countries, that worshipped wood and stone.” But God said, “That which cometh unto your mind shall not be at all.” He interposed to prevent this fearful consummation. He visited them with chastisement upon chastisement. The Jews are the aristocracy of Scripture without their coronets. They are like a river running through the deep sea, but never mingling with its waters. They are yet separate and distinct, thus proving the truth of the text.
II. The application of the great principle contained in the text to yourselves. Our privileges are greater than those of the Israelites, so that we may even say that the past “had no glory by reason of the glory that excelleth.” There has been a manifestation of God; but it has been in the flesh. There has been a sacrifice for sin, of which all other sacrifices were but the prefiguration. There has been a diviner Pentecost; for the Holy Ghost rent the heavens and came down. There has been a more glorious Gospel; for we have a Gospel of facts. The truth is the highest and divinest power in the world, and has authority over men. All human laws and polities may change, the world may be burnt up to its last cinder, the heavens may pass away with a great noise; but the truth is eternal--it can never pass away. It is the light; it illumines or blinds: it is the fire; it softens or hardens: it is the power that saves or destroys; it is either “life unto life or death unto death.” Men cannot believe the truth if they have never heard it; but we cannot justify our unbelief through our want of acquaintance with the truth. With what authority it comes to us! The truth overawes you, and, unconsciously it may be, you do partial homage to it, but you have no true affinity with it; your heart returns no response to its voice; you do not want to believe. There is an awful power in man by which lie comes into collision with God, by which he puts an affront on the truth, and refuses to believe or obey it. Men would change all things, they would change the true into the untrue. The truth is as though it were untrue to them. They would have no law with its majestic sanctions and awful penalties. They would have no everlasting distinction between right and wrong. They would have no Gospel with its Saviour and its Cross--with its blessed words of promise and of hope for guilty men. Man’s unbelief is his protest against truth. It is the manifestation of the disloyalty of his whole nature to the truth. Men may let go their hold on the truth, but the truth does not let go its hold on them. If a man has stood on an exceeding high mountain, and has seen the grand panorama unfold itself to his view, can he ever forget it? If he has seen the sea when the tempest has passed over it and the floods have lifted up their hands, can he ever forget it? And can a man who has heard the truth ever forget it? It is graven on his memory as in characters of eternal fire--he can never divest himself of the associations and recollections of truth. God interposes to prevent the utter apostasy of nations and of men. “And I will bring you into the wilderness of the people,” etc. We have been brought into the wilderness--into the scene of utter desolation--we have been stript of everything, and in fearful silence God has come to us and pleaded with us. And what has been the character of His pleadings? Has He upbraided us--has He threatened us with terrible punishment? We were silent, and we heard Him say, “Come now, and let us reason together.” We had no excuses, no arguments, but to our utter amazement He said, “Though your sins be as scarlet,” etc. Or we have been sent into captivity, a foe mightier than the Chaldean has led us away, and there in the deep degradation and fearful servitude of sin, our eyes have been opened to our folly and wickedness. We have thought of the past, and its remembrance has awakened the bitterest regrets. Our responsibilities are proportionate to our privileges. (H. J. Boris.)
Religious obligations irrevocable
It is taken for granted by many that persons are not under any obligation to act religiously if they do not profess to be religious. Some such thought as this came into the minds of the people to whom the text refers. They disliked the service of the God of Israel, and thought they should get free from it by laying aside the name and profession of Israelites, and by becoming like the heathen. What base ingratitude was this. The Lord had separated them, in order that they might be His own peculiar people; and as such He had wrought for them the greatest wonders, and enriched them with the highest privileges (Isaiah 5:1; Deuteronomy 4:32; Romans 9:4; Exodus 4:22). The thought was ungrateful, deeply ungrateful; but it was as foolish as it was ungrateful. It was utterly vain, for it could not be realised. They could not reduce themselves to the exact level of the heathen; they might become idolaters; but it was impossible for them to “be as the” Gentiles in respect to their responsibilities. And should the like thought come into the mind of any Christian--should he wish to make no profession of religion, but to be on a level with a mere natural man, to have no higher calling, no greater duties, no mightier obligations; he must be taught the vanity of such a wish; he must be told that the thing cannot be. No, we are in covenant with Christ, bound by the terms of that covenant, and we cannot, if we would, free ourselves from them. We are members of His Church, and not mere natural men, left to the light of reason and the promptings of human passion; and therefore as members of His Church, and not as mere natural men, we shall be judged. And if such a thought on our part is as vain as it was on the part of the Jews, is it not on our part equally ungrateful? We can look back on a series of mercies, more wonderful than that which marked out the history of Israel. We have been redeemed at a more costly price than that which redeemed their lives from destruction in the land of Egypt; we have been baptized with a holier baptism than that which they received in the cloud and in the sea; more heavenly food has been offered for our support than the manna on which they fed in the wilderness; a richer stream follows us in our journey than that which flowed from the rock in Horeb; and a far more glorious inheritance awaits us than their promised land, which flowed with milk and honey. Is there nothing in all tiffs to bind us in willing subjection to our Master and only Saviour Jesus Christ? (G. Bellett.)
The impossibility of becoming as the heathen
There is, perhaps, no subject on which has been lavished so much of lofty thought and splendid expression as on the immortality of the soul, considered as an article of what is called natural theology. And yet we must feel that these endeavours to establish the immortality of the soul apart from the Bible are at best unsatisfactory: they rather leave its immortality as a splendid conjecture than place it as an established fact. The soul may be capable of an immortality, but God may not choose to allow it to be immortal. He formed it; He can annihilate it. Who can tell? how can reason inform us whether He will be pleased to extinguish the soul at or after death, or whether He will permit and appoint it to burn forever as a spark from Himself? It is here that we are in darkness without the Bible; it is here that natural theology must give place to revealed. Reason shows us that the soul may live forever; Scripture alone certifies us that the soul shall live forever, even as Scripture alone instructs us how the soul may be happy forever. For a moment, and as introductory to our text, we would comment on one species of argument which has been freely adduced in support of the immortality of the soul, but which, however it may dazzle the imagination, possesses, we suspect, but little real strength. It is often confidently said that the soul shrinks from annihilation as from that which it instinctively abhors--that it loudly lifts up its voice against the notion of perishing with the body, and, by the earnestness with which it craves immortality, attests in a measure that it is not to die. We altogether question this. So far from a natural shrinking from annihilation, we believe that as to the great mass of men we might rather assert the natural wish for annihilation. I do not know why all men should shrink from the supposition of the soul’s perishing with the body; I see the strongest reasons why they should incline to the supposition, and wish even if they cannot prove it to be true. There are crowds of genuine Christians who virtually go far beyond the Israelites, whose wicked wish or purpose is recorded in our text. The Israelites longed to be “as the heathen, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone.” The people, you see, had so sinned against God, and they held His service in such utter loathing, that they would have been glad to forget it altogether, and to diminish their responsibleness by lapsing into the ignorance of actual idolaters. But this it is which God assures them can never be. Having known the true God, it was impossible they could be dealt with as though they had never known any but the false god. Wilful ignorance can never put a man in the same position as unavoidable ignorance; and if you attend to the statements of Scripture you will see that we are to be reckoned with hereafter for every talent committed to our care. Whether we have misused it, or whether we have let it go idle, the mere fact that we had it is to constitute an important item in our future account. Born in a Christian country, baptized with Christian baptism, placed under a Christian ministry, we are all immeasurably removed from unavoidable ignorance. Take a number of colonists,--transfer them to some distant land, where there are no temples but those of false gods: the colony thus transplanted may learn the ways of the heathen, adopt their superstitions, and bow at their altars; but think ye that therefore the birth and the baptism and the Christian institutions retain no effect? The heathen may teach the colonists their vices, and even convert them to their superstitions, and men who left their own country with some sense of awe of the God of their fathers may utterly forget Him in the strange land to which they have wandered for a home, in place of endeavouring to make Him known to their new and ignorant associates; they may dishonour His name by even exceeding the heathen in licentiousness, teaching and being taught new forms and measures of iniquity; but this is the sum of the change which can be wrought; there is no possibility of the colony getting rid of that vast and portentous accountableness which has been fastened on itself by its adhesion to Christian privileges and Christian rites. Will you say there is nothing in this supposed case of a colony to touch your own case? You are never likely to desire or design, you may tell me, what has been imagined. Not so; for we would now observe that it is no uncommon hope, that of wilful ignorance passing for unavoidable ignorance, and no uncommon endeavour that of occupying the position of those who have fewer moral advantages than ourselves. Take a very common instance. How many keep away from the sacrament of the Lord’s supper because secretly conscious that the receiving it pledges them to increased holiness of life, and certainly hoping that their sins will be more excusable whilst they do not partake of so solemn an ordinance! They neglect the holy communion, partly at least under the notion that the sins which they love and do not wish to abandon are less criminal and less dangerous in non-communicants than in those who obey Christ’s dying command--“This do in remembrance of Me.” But what is this, if not almost literally what was meditated by the Israelites in our text? Here is the hope, on the part of those who know of the sacrament, of being dealt with as those who never heard of the sacrament. Preposterous hope! It is the Israelite thinking that he may be as the heathen. He dies innocently who dies in actual want; he dies by suicide who starves himself with a meal within reach. “That which cometh into your mind shall not be at all, that ye say, We will be as the heathen.” There is, we believe, a yet more common endeavour to the getting rid of the responsibility which results from the possession of opportunities and advantages. Think ye not that many a man avoids reading the Bible, and putting himself in the way of knowing the exact truth in regard of his spiritual condition, under the impression, perhaps hardly acknowledged even to himself, that he is safer in his ignorance--that he shall escape with a lighter judgment if he remain uninformed as to his precise danger and duty? What gains he, what can he gain, by his wilful, his premeditated ignorance? Does he think--can he be so infatuated as to think--that truth, to which he shuts his eyes, is the same thing, the same in its accusing power, the same in its condemning power, as truth which has never been revealed? Does he think, can he think, that by living in a darkened room--a room which he has shut up and darkened of his own will and by his own act--he will have no more to answer for than those to whom God has never vouchsafed the beauty and the magnificence of the sunshine? Vain thoughts! vain thoughts! Know all of you, that live you may as those who shall perish at death, but judged you must be as those who were told their immortality. Live you may as pagans--judged you must be as Christians. Never can you pass the broad line of separation between the wilful and the unavoidable. Since, then, we must be judged as Christians, shall we not strive that we may be accepted as Christians? If an unimproved privilege must be an everlasting burden, here is fresh motive to the endeavouring so to use it that it may prove an everlasting blessing. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
Our obligation to serve God
I. We cannot, if we would, escape from the service of God. We are now, as Israel of old, instructed in His will by His word. If we dislike what we there learn to be our duty, there is no help for it. It will continue to be our duty nevertheless; and we shall be made to answer for non-performance. We may, by carelessness, or obstinate rejection of the Word, very much confuse our recollection of what we already know, and shut ourselves out from the attainment of any further knowledge; but we shall never be able to make our minds quite like a sheet of blank paper, clear from any notion of religion. The behaviour and conversation of his neighbours, the very sight of the house of prayer, which he has studied God’s commandments, he knows well enough that he has offended against them in many and glaring instances. He may keep them at bay when he is in high health and spirits, when his affairs prosper, and when he is surrounded by companions, ready to encourage him in his impiety. But what will he do when infirmity or sickness comes upon him? when misfortune has deprived him of all the worldly goods wherein he trusted; and when his friends have either deserted him, or been taken from him by some such visitation as shall make him tremble for his own safety? In times like these he will feel that. God is ruling over him with fury poured out. It will be well if he has grace to seek for refuge from that wrath where refuge may be found, through faith, attended by repentance and amendment of life. God’s dispensations will all be good to those that use them rightly; they will all be evil to those that do not receive them as from His hand. His chastisements will become mercies to those who undergo them with a penitent and obedient heart; His gifts will be turned into curses to those that revel in them without acknowledging the Giver.
II. All these evils are entirely brought upon men by their own hardness of heart. Will it be said that men ought to have had a choice whether they would have a revelation made to them or no; and that, not having been allowed such a choice beforehand, they ought now to be permitted to renounce religion if they please, and become unbelievers? That would be to pronounce the most precious gift that God has ever made to mankind, a gift purchased by the blood of His Son, to be of no value. The very desire of such liberty is a sin of the deepest dye. It is a refusal of the advice and admonition of God, and amounts to charging Him with folly and tyranny, as though He gave us commands not calculated for our benefit. For if we believe that His laws are for our good, how can we doubt that it is good for us to know them and to de them? And nobody does doubt it, but they whose hearts are enslaved to sin, and alienated from all that is holy and upright and godly. The wish, then, to be released from the obligation of God’s laws is practical atheism.
III. The impossibility of withdrawing from the obligations which our Christian covenant imposes on us need not alarm any truly pious mind. God will judge the heathen as well as us His chosen people; and though He will require more of us than He will of them, in just proportion to our greater advantages, yet the knowledge and power communicated to us more than compensate for the greater perfection and precision of the work expected from us. We have served a regular apprenticeship of Christian education; the designs and will of God, our employer, are fully made known to us; and we may seek for instruction from Him at any time in His Word, and for assistance from His Holy Spirit. It is no more than justice that much should be required of us, to whom so much has been given. (J. Randall, M. A.)
I will bring you into the wilderness of the people, and there will I plead with you face to face.
The spiritual wilderness
Many awful threatenings and delightful promises are scattered up and down in the Word of God. Our text seems to be of a mixed nature: the threatening and the promise are blended together, to excite a holy fear of God and a humble trust in Him.
I. “I will bring you into the wilderness of the people?”
1. God often brings His people into the wilderness gradually, by little and little. The terrors and dangers of the wilderness are concealed; slight convictions are at first impressed which afterwards grow stronger; small rumblings precede the loud claps of thunder; sometimes the clouds seem to break, and promise fair weather; then they grow thicker, and wear a more formidable aspect than ever.
2. The Lord brings them in with an high hand and an outstretched arm, as He did the children of Israel of old. However gently He may act, yet He acts powerfully, and the greatest mildness is attended with an irresistible energy. We may be fretful and impatient, unruly and unmanageable; but He who has taken the work in hand will not leave it unfinished. We may stifle our convictions, but God will revive them; may lull conscience asleep, but He will awaken it again.
3. God brings into the wilderness with a design to bring out of it again (Isaiah 57:16-18; Lamentations 3:32; Hosea 6:1-2).
II. “And there will I plead with you face to face.” He does not say that He would plead against them, nor yet that He would plead for them; but He would plead with them, and that face to face, so that they should both see and hear Him. And what would He plead with them about? Perhaps the sins they had committed, and the calamities thereby brought upon themselves. He will also plead the equity of His own proceedings, and the unreasonableness of their conduct. He also pleads with them on the futility of their attempts to help themselves, and the necessity of looking to another quarter for relief (Jeremiah 3:17; Jer 3:31; Jer 3:36; Jeremiah 8:22).
1. He pleads powerfully. How forcible are right words, says Job. And such are the words of God: they are founded upon truth, plain and direct, and carry with them an irresistible energy.
2. He pleads convincingly. God will overcome when He judgeth. When He is opponent, no man can be respondent.
3. He pleads tenderly and in love; His appeals are made to the understanding and the heart, and an ingenuous mind must feel their force (Micah 6:3; Isaiah 1:18). What has been said condemns three sorts of persons--
(1) Those who have always been in the wilderness of sin, but not in that of sorrow; who are merry and jovial, saying, “Tomorrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant.”
(2) Those who think they are in the wilderness of godly sorrow, but who mistake every transient pang for real conviction, and every motion of the affections for the work of the Holy Spirit on the heart.
(3) Those who are in the wilderness, and struggling to get out of it before the Lord’s time. It is better to be in the wilderness than in Egypt; yea, it is better, unspeakably better, to be in the wilderness, though we continue there all our days, than to be in hell. (B. Beddome, M. A.)
God’s tireless pleading
Manton says: “As one that would gladly open a door, trieth key after key, till he hath tried every key, in the bunch, so doth God try one method after another to work upon man’s heart.” His persevering grace will not be baffled. He frequently begins with the silver key of a mother’s tearful prayers and a father’s tender counsels. In turn He uses the church keys of His ordinances and His ministers, and these are often found to move the bolt; but if they fail He thrusts in the iron key of trouble and affliction, which has been known to succeed after all others have failed. He has, however, a golden master key, which excels all others: it is the operation of His own most gracious Spirit by which entrance is effected into hearts which seemed shut up forever. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
I will bring you into the bond of the covenant.
The bond of the covenant
This striking utterance was given forth by Ezekiel when Israel, scattered in every country, had begun to forget their nationality. They judged it prudent to disguise their distinctive character, and become like the heathen. Now, God, who chose His people of old, would not have it so, and He interposed with this striking passage. It is a dreadful thing to profess to belong to the people of God: it is a matter of great privilege if it is true, but if it is a lie it is an awful thing, involving sevenfold judgment. God will cause His professing people to be distinguished from other men, and they that come in among them who are not truly of them shall be so dealt with that both the ears of him that heareth thereof shall tingle. Special severities will overtake apostate professors.
I. The meaning of bringing men into the bond of the covenant.
1. If we take the passage as referring to the work of grace, it signifies that they shall know under what covenant they stand. Oh, the blessedness of being under such a sure covenant! This is what is aimed at, that God may bring His own from under the law, and place them under the covenant of grace. Though as yet they care nothing about it, He will bring them to know and realise that they are standing in the covenant of grace, with Christ as their Covenant-Head.
2. They shall be led to see how this covenant binds them to God. O mighty grace, thou dost hold us with the cords of a man from which we never desire to escape. We are the Lord’s people, and He is our God. He holds us, and we hold to Him.
3. To come under the bond of the covenant means also to come under the discipline of the covenant; for they that are in gracious covenant with God will find that He dealeth with them as with sons, and, inasmuch as He loves them, they shall know the truth of that word--“As many as I love I rebuke and chasten.”
4. This coming under the bond of the covenant means surely that they yield to its restraint. Can grace ever be a fetter? Oh yes, it is the most blessed of all fetters, for it holds us fast, and yet never violates our liberty. It binds the very heart in willing captivity. This is the bond of the covenant.
5. It means also the security of the covenant. “I will bring thee under the bond of the covenant,” must mean, I will bind thee to the Lord Jesus, thy Surety and Bondsman, and He shall secure thee forever.
II. The experience of some in coming under the bond of the covenant. These Israelites had gone very far into sin, as Jar as ever they could go: they had been false to their promises, wicked in their lives, and rebellious in heart against their God. With many of this character the Lord deals with a singular severity of love. He strikes them with a sword, for so only can their sins be slain. Of those processes of grace we will speak now.
1. First, He will cause them to come out from their present company. You shall find in your old sins such death and corruption that you shall turn from them as a man turns, from a rotting carcase.
2. Note next, that God said He would bring them into distress and loneliness--“And I will bring you into the wilderness of the people.” This is, indeed, a terrible wilderness; for you walk in the midst of crowds and yet you are perfectly alone; you mingle with the great congregation, and yet feel that none can enter into your secret, Where now your mirth and giddiness? Where now your comrades in iniquity? The Lord can soon make the gay worldling into the desponding solitary.
3. What does He say next?--“And there will I plead with you face to face.” When the Lord becomes so realised to the guilty conscience that there seems to be nothing anywhere except God and that poor sinner face to face with one another, then there is a time of fear and trembling indeed.
4. The Lord further declares He will plead with them as He pleaded with their fathers in the wilderness. How did He do that? Why, very terribly indeed. Is God pleading with you in that fashion? Does He bring judgment after judgment upon you? Do His threatenings follow each other like peals of thunder? Has He burned up all your comfort? Has He scorched and withered all your confidence? Are you brought unto the dust of death?
5. What more does God do? Well, it is said, “And I will cause you to pass under the rod.” I have frequently seen sheep when the shepherd has required to count them: he makes them pass through a half-opened gate, and there he numbers them. They would all come rushing through, but the shepherd blocks the way, and as they come out one by one, he touches them with his staff, and so counts them. The Lord makes His chosen to pass through a narrow place, even a strait gate, where only one can come at a time, and there and then He counts them, and causes them to give an account of themselves individually. Then mark this: as the shepherd by counting his own sheep declares and exercises his right of possession, so the Lord, when He wakens up our minds to feel our personality, causes us to recognise that we are not our own, but are bought with a price. Moreover, we come under the rod of rulership; for a rod in the old time was the usual sceptre of kings. It means, also, the rod of chastisement. “Happy is the man whom God correcteth.”
III. The ultimate design of all this.
1. The first design is to bind them to God. All the better crop comes in afterlife from having a deep ploughing before the seed is sown.
2. The next design of God is that He may entirely separate His people from the world. When God makes His servants bitterly to know the evil fruit of sin, then they no longer hunger for that forbidden fruit.
3. Furthermore, the Lord chastens His people, that thus He may bring them into their own land of promise, into the rest of His love.
4. The great end of all is that we may know the Lord. When a man has smarted because of his sin, and has been made to feel the burning coals of anguish in his own spirit; when the Lord has set him up as a target, and shot at him with arrows which drink up his life; and when afterwards he has been saved, and the splendour of infinite love has shone upon him, then he knows Jehovah. When God has brought the contrite man into the place of security, comfort, joy, and delight in Christ Jesus, then he knows the Lord. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
I will accept you with your sweet savour.
Acceptance with God
I. What is implied in our being accepted with God.
1. It supposes a drawing near to Him on our part. Acceptance on one part implies application on the other. Our whole life should be a continual coming unto God by Christ. Duties should closely follow one another, like the successive products of the field, and even our ordinary concerns in life should be so conducted as to bring us nearer and still nearer the Lord.
2. It implies approbation and delight on God’s part. “Him that cometh unto Me,” etc.
3. When God accepts, He not only approves, but grants some visible token of His favour. “I will accept you with your sweet savour,” and you shall know it; yea, and the world shall know it.
4. Our persons must be accepted before our services can be so, and the latter are accepted for the sake of the former.
II. What must accompany our being accepted of God: “I will accept you with your sweet savour.”
1. Our approaches to God must be accompanied with spiritual and holy dispositions, or they cannot be acceptable to Him. Duties without grace in exercise are like dead caresses, not fit to be presented before the Lord.
2. Though the exercise of grace in holy duties is pleasing to God, yet they are accepted only through the sacrifice of Christ.
(1) How dreadful, then, is the state of the unregenerate!
(2) How happy for the people of God to find grace in His sight, and what encouragement to abound in holy duties!
(3) Let acceptance with God be the great object aimed at in all our religious duties, and let us rest in nothing short of it. (B. Beddome, M. A.)
God does not cease to observe the sins of His people. Nay, if there be sins which are worse in God’s estimation than others, they are the sins of His own elect. But, notwithstanding this severe strictness, and although God must have a much clearer view of the evil of sin than any of us can ever obtain, He freely pardons those whom He reserves. He afflicts, but He does not afflict from the heart; and when He turns in a way of grace to His people, then He seems to be flying on the wings of the wind, for He comes with all His soul, most heartily and richly to display His favour and His love toward the objects of His choice.
I. The Lord accepts the persons of His people through the sweet savour of the Lord Jesus Christ. Whether we speak of the active or passive righteousness of Christ, there is alike an overpowering flagrance. Such was the merit of His active life by which He honoured the law of God, and exemplified every precept like a precious jewel in the pure setting of His own humanity. Such, too, the merit of His passive obedience, when He endured with unmurmuring submission hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness, and, with the ever-deepening stream of sorrow, at length yielded to that agony unknown when He sweat great drops of blood in Gethsemane, when He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked out the hair, stretched His hands to the nails, and was fastened to the cruel wood that He might suffer the wrath of God in our behalf. These two things are sweet before the Most High, and for the sake of His doing and His dying the Lord God of infinite justice accepts us with the sweet savour of Christ. Whenever the great God contemplates His own dear Son, He feels an intense delight in surveying His character, and in beholding His sufferings. You and I, so far as we have been taught of God, must find infinite and unspeakable delight in the person and work of Christ; but, alas! we are like common people who look upon a fine picture without a cultivated understanding in the art of painting, we cannot perceive the whole beauty, we do not know the richness of its colouring, and the wondrous skill of all its touches. Who but Jehovah understands holiness? Adhering to the metaphor of the text, the Lord our God is so holy and just and true that the coarser virtues of mankind, the best of all that we can bring, might disgust Him; but when He looks upon His dear Son, there is such a rarity of sweetness in the sacred confection of His blessed character that He takes delight in it, and the savour thereof is sweet unto Him. if I look at Peter, I admire his courage; I look at Paul, I wonder at his industry and devotedness to the cause of God; if I look at John, I see the loveliness and gentleness of his bearing; but when I look to the Saviour, I am not so much attracted by any one particular virtue as by the singular combination of the whole. There are all the spices--the stacte, and the onycha, and the galbanum, and the pure frankincense; the varied perfumes combine to make up one perfect confection. Still more remarkable is the perfect balance of the Saviour’s character, as typified to us in the exact proportions of these spices. He is a man--a thorough man throughout--a God-like man--gentle as a woman, but yet stern as a warrior in the midst of the day of battle. The character is balanced; as much of one virtue as of another. As in Deity every attribute is full orbed; justice never eclipses mercy, nor mercy justice, nor justice faithfulness; so in the character of Christ you have all the excellent things, “whatsoever things are lovely,” etc., you have them all; but not one of them casts a shadow on another; they shine each and all with undimmed splendour. Turning to the incense again, notice that all the ingredients of this incense were of the very finest kind: pure frankincense. And then again in the thirty-fifth verse, “pure and holy.” And then the thirty-sixth verse “most holy.” So all the virtues of Christ were the best forms of virtue. You will not fail also to observe that there is no stint as to quantity. The anointing oil had five hundred shekels’ worth of one principal spice, and two hundred and fifty shekels’ worth of another; but this is to be made without limit, as if to indicate that the merits of Jesus Christ know no bound whatsoever. Oh, when that sacred box of precious ointment was broke on the cross, who knows how far the merit of it extended? I would observe, that all through this incense is spoken of as being peculiarly holy, most holy unto God. The entire dedication of Christ’s life and death to God is most remarkable. You can never see a divided aim about the Saviour’s action. This incense, although little is said of it, was of course compounded when the ingredients were all brought together. It had to be compounded with great care, according to the art of the confectioner. Now, there certainly is great art, wondrous skill, in the composition of the Saviour’s life. Why, there is wondrous skill about the record of it. What is not there in the record is as wonderful as what is there; the whole life is a compound of the confectioner. But it seems that when compounded it had to be all bruised and broken. “Thou shalt beat some of it small,” says our version. Look at that “some of it”; how did it get there? “Thou shalt beat of it”; not “some of it,” but “all of it.” “Thou shalt beat of it small, very fine.” Now, certainly the whole life of the Saviour was a process of bruising Him very fine. He begins with grief; He concludes with agony. Now for two or three practical words before I pass on. Do you feel your need of this sweet savour? How can you hope to be accepted before God in yourselves? Well, then, when you feel this, will you, in the next place, prize that sweet savour; speak of it in the highest and most eulogistic terms?
II. It is certain from the connection that the text means that the Lord will accept the offerings of his people when He has accepted their persons. He will not only receive them into His love; all that they do for Him He will likewise receive. Many persons serve God sincerely, but from want of serving Him according to His ordained method their services cannot be accepted. God has given us a Statute Book, let us follow it. Let us not bring before God works of superstition or works of supererogation, but let us bring such as are commanded; for to obey is better than sacrifice, to hearken than the fat of rams. Let our lives be lives of obedience, not lives of fancy, superstition, and inventions of our own. Prayer, praise, consecration, almsgivings, holy living, these are all ordained. Let us be diligent in the mixing up of these sweet Savours. We must bring before God, if we would be accepted in our works, something of all virtues. It must not be all galbanum nor all stacte; not all intrepid courage without any subdued reverence, nor all the simplicity of affection without any of the sublimity of faith; it must not be all self-denial, though there must be some of it; gravity itself must be tempered with cheerfulness; there must be something of every form of virtue to make up the blessed compound. We must, above all, pay great attention to small things. If we would bring a holy life to Christ, we must mind our fireside duties as wall as the duties of the sanctuary. We must take care that this sweet incense of ours is not made for man nor used by man. May it be yours and mine to have a life which, both in its prayer and praise, its giving and its ordinary living, shall be redolent with the fulness of the Spirit of God--a perfume that may make our life like walking through garden, a fragrance that may make us like the king’s storehouse, wherein all manner of precious fruits are laid up, and all manner of sweet frankincense stored away! You will say, “But there will be so much imperfection notwithstanding.” Ah! that there will. “There may be much defilement when we have done our best.” Ah! so it is. The best of men are still men at the best. But the word comes very sweetly--“I will accept you with your sweet savour.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Acceptance with God
I. The meaning of acceptance with God. It doubtless expresses that God is well pleased with us, and our obedience. That He neither rejects nor overlooks us; but observes us, and that with an approving and gracious smile.
II. The way of acceptance.
1. None of the guilty, unworthy children of men, nor any of their works, can be accepted before a holy God, and honoured with His approval and good pleasure, except for the sake of Christ.
2. None are accepted through Christ but believers. Now, by this rule are excluded
(1) Hypocrites and their works.
(2) Formalists and their works.
(3) Pharisees and their works.
3. Believers only perform such services, and are made by grace such persons, as God can approve.
III. The blessedness of acceptance and of a hope, a sense of acceptance in the soul.
IV. The crown and finish of acceptance.
V. The use of acceptance with God. To put the life of hope into our obedience; to stimulate and cheer us amidst every duty, every struggle. (Essex Remembrancer.)
I. Some remarks upon the blessing promised. Acceptance stands opposed to condemnation, and is enjoyed through faith in Christ.
1. This blessing is the grand discovery of the Gospel. It is the design and end of all God’s communications with men “God in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.”
2. It is always the result of an experience of the work of grace upon the soul. It puts the life of hope into obedience. Our persons must be accepted before our works.
3. It secures the true and right enjoyment of all temporal blessings. To a man who has no sense of God’s friendship, the best earthly enjoyments lose their charm; and to a man who has hope of pardon through Christ, all outward trims lose their sting.
4. It is essential to a victory over death and a joyful eternity.
II. Some directions for the attainment and enjoyment of this blessing.
1. Look carefully to the fact of your own acceptance of Christ, and to the sincerity of your hearts in their covenant closure with Christ. See that you take Him, with the happiness He has promised, for your All.
2. Cherish habitual and confiding thought of the freeness and riches of God’s grace through a Redeemer. This will greatly kindle that love which brings its own evidence of its truth. This will make God appear more amiable in your eyes, and then you will love Him more abundantly; and as your conscious love to Him increases your doubts and apprehensions will give way. So much love, so much comfort.
3. Every day renew your apprehensions of the truth and value of the promised felicity. Consider the end of your faith, in order to see the vain and delusive character of things below. Let not heaven lose with you its attractive force through your forgetfulness or unbelief.
4. Guard against those snares and temptations which you know to be most hurtful to the life of religion in the soul.
5. Gather up and improve your own past experience of God’s mercy towards you and others. What a wrong it is to God in your next trial to forget His last deliverance! Have not mercies come so unexpectedly, and in such a wonderful manner, that you have (as it were) the name of God written on them? (Judges 13:23). (S. Thodey.)
And there shall ye remember your ways, and all your doings, wherein ye have been defiled; and ye shall loathe yourselves in your own sight.
God’s method of mercy used or abused by man
I. The method of mercy was very remarkable in the case of Israel. The loving kindness of God is infinite. Christ commanded “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Surely this single circumstance, viewed in connection with God’s ancient dealings with Israel, as brought before us in this chapter, is a proof that Christianity is the religion of the same God, and that “His mercy endureth forever.” And have not His dealings with the Christian Church been so similar as to show that He is still pursuing a method of mercy and of grace? He has not cut us off in our sins; He still follows us with invitations, He quite presses us with entreaties, to “be reconciled to God.” Is not Christ able and willing “to save to the uttermost,” any or all of us, “who come unto God by Him”? Have not some of us found already--and may not the rest find soon--that “with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him there is plenteous redemption”?
II. But suppose it so found; then what will be the gracious effect on us? Is it carelessness, or indifference, or licentiousness of living? Not so; surely “the goodness of God leadeth to repentance.” Then, when thus restored to the Divine favour--then, when this method of mercy shall have been successful--then “shall ye remember your ways,” etc. Here is work for the mind and memory. Do ye not remember some of “your ways” in former years--“ways” which certainly were wrong, perverse, and corrupt? Have ye forgotten all those “doings,” which certainly were not right? Do ye not remember the circumstances of your sins--how many things concurred to aggravate them in your cases? Therefore exercise your mind and memory, with prayer for the Holy Spirit, in recalling “our was” and “doings.” But if truly penitent, ye will also exercise the heart and soul on this subject; “and ye shall loathe yourselves,” etc. And if you “loathe yourselves” for having sinned, you will not return to sin. Men do not return willingly to look on a loathsome object. What they abhor they shun. (John Hambleton, M. A.)
Conversion: in its commencement and progress
I. In its commencement God accomplishes it in a variety of ways.
1. By the dispensations of His providence.
2. By the conversion of some pious friend.
3. By the public ministry of the Word.
4. By the secret operation of His Spirit upon the soul.
II. In its progress.
1. He reveals that covenant to us.
2. He enables us to lay hold on it.
3. He confers upon us all the blessings.
1. How sovereign God is in the dispensations of His mercy.
2. How mysterious are His dealings with the children of men.
3. How you may best answer all the purposes of His grace. (C. Simeon, M. A.)
Awakened memory of past sins
Manton says: “Old bruises may trouble us long after, upon every change of weather, and new afflictions revive the sense of old sins.” We know one who broke his arm in his youth, and though it was well set, and soundly healed, yet before a rough season the bones cry out bitterly; and even so, though early vice may be forsaken, and heartily repented of, and the mind may be savingly renewed, yet the old habits will be a lifelong trouble and injury. The sins of our youth will give us many a twist fifty years after they have been forgiven. How happy, then, are those who are preserved from the ways of ungodliness, and brought to Jesus in the days of their youth, for they thus escape a thousand regrets. It is well to have a broken bone skilfully set, but far better never to have had it broken. The fall of Adam has battered and bruised us all most sadly; it is a superfluity of naughtiness that we should incur further damage by our own personal falls. The aches and pains of age are more than sufficient when every limb is sound, and recklessly to add the anguish of fractures and dislocations would be folly indeed. Young man, do not run up bills which your riper years will find it hard to pay; do not eat today forbidden morsels, which may breed you sorrow long after their sweetness has been forgotten. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have wrought with you for My name’s sake.
Moral Tower: its Divine source
There is a force which fashions suns and impels the movements producing their huge stores of heat; a force which sustains the march of constellations through terms of time that mock our little earthly history, a force which drives the tides and sweeps through the tempests, a force which vivifies and upholds the restless and ever-extending mystery of life, a force which rules the rise and fall of empires and civilisation--and that force is infinite. But from the same spring there issues a less obtrusive force belonging to another order of operations--the force which detaches man from idols; the force which frees him from the legion evils that have trampled his greatness in the dust, which makes sympathies and antipathies strangely change places in his nature, so that he comes to hate what he loved, and to love what he once hated; the force which works out the new creation of the Gospel--and that force is no less infinite though it is dealing with persons rather than things. In the realms of thought, morals, human conduct, God’s power is just as far-reaching as in the realm of physics. (T. G. Selby.)
All flesh shall see that I the Lord have kindled it.
A vision of Divine judgment
I. Divine judgment is a terrific fact. God has His ideas about conduct; has a care about His moral universe. His ideas, when uttered in what we solemnly call judgments, are appropriately uttered. The flood, the fire on the cities of the plain, the destruction of Jerusalem, the death of the Saviour, the ghastly mysteries of hell--all utter God’s judgments on evil.
II. Divine judgment wrought by human agency. Judges, and parliaments, and kings; the frown of friendship, the hiss of outraged conscience in the home, or the Church, or the State; the pursuit of the police detective, and the grip of the gaoler; the revolutions of nations, and the catastrophes of commerce, may all, however blindly, be human agents in Divine retribution.
III. Divine judgments marked by naturalness. Let a man recall his life, break it up into the seven ages Shakespeare depicts, and he will find the resultant of the sins of each age in the retribution he has to suffer. The sinner finds, as has been strikingly said, that just as by abusing the body he brings a curse on it, so by abusing the soul.
IV. Divine judgment is very comprehensive in its influence. It is in accordance with historic facts, philosophic theory, and moral rectitude, that man should bring blessing or evil upon his fellow man. This fact, first, illustrates the extent of human influence; second, suggests the accountability of man to man for his moral conduct.
V. Divine judgment benevolent in its purposes.
1. The revolutions of life are under Divine control.
2. The result of these revolutions will be the victory of righteousness.
All the processes of repentance and doubt, of spiritual and of mental struggle, are designed by God to lead not to perpetual anarchy and revolt, but the rest and peace of submission to Christ. (Urijah R. Thomas.)
Ah Lord God! they say of me, Doth he not speak parables.
Mystery and dogma in religion
There is a tone of remonstrance and expostulation in these words of the prophet. He is evidently conscious that because of something in the nature of his message, that message will be unpopular with his hearers. There is in that which God has given him to speak, something that for this reason he would fain have altered--something, not in the substance, but in the style and form of his address, which he fain would phrase otherwise. “Ah Lord God, that which I have to say to these people comes to them in an unacceptable form; they say of me, Doth he not speak parables?” Whatever this stumbling block was, in the manner and form of the message, that lay in the way of its acceptance, he would fain remove it if possible. And so in his entreaty is implied a petition that he might be allowed and enabled to explain his parable. “Ah Lord God, if it may be so, may I but utter plainer speech; they say of me, Doth he not speak parables.” Most natural was the objection of the hearers?; most natural was the desire of the teacher to accommodate himself and his message to that objection, and yet distinctly sinful was the desire on both parts, for these words that the prophet had to speak were not his words to alter as he pleased; they were God’s words. What, then, was the demand of Israel, and what was the admission of the prophet? Was it not this, to doubt whether the form in which the Lord had cast His own message was the most perfect one, to doubt whether, in some way, He or they might not improve, or have it improved upon? And what was this but of the very essence of unbelief? The message of the Church to the world is like the message of the prophets of old, in part plain, in part mysterious, and as it were in parables. Very plain and very simple words has the Church of Christ, in the name of her Master, to speak to men when she tells us that “in the midst of life we are in death”; when she tells us that “we have erred and strayed from the right way like lost sheep”; when she bids us “Wash and make clean, and put away the evil of our doings, and seek to do justice, relieve the oppressed, and plead the cause of the fatherless and widow.” But then, she has other words to speak that are not so plain, and not so easily intelligible, words that are full of mystery, words that sound like parables in the ears of those who listen to them. She has to speak of a Father who sent an incarnate Son into the world to die for men. She has to speak of the mystery of the Incarnation, and the Resurrection, and the Atonement, and the Ascension, and the descending of the Spirit, the eternal life of man and the eternal life to come. And as she speaks these mysteries, and as she speaks them dogmatically in the name of Him who has commissioned her by His authority to press them, on that authority, for the acceptance of man, she meets the answer from the world the prophet met of old, “We will accept your plainer truths, but we revolt from your darker sayings; speak to us plainly, and in no proverb.” Is not that the difficulty that the Church encounters again and again? Is it not the difficulty which she encounters at this moment as she faces what is called “the spirit of the age,” and the century in which she lives? How often do we hear and read in almost familiar forms of modern literature expressing the heart and thought of the age: “Give us natural religion, but give us less of your dogma; we care not for your theology and its mysteries, give us religion only.” And the temptation of the Church is now, as of old, to yield to that cry, not for her own sake, but for the sake of her message, to soften down some of its difficulties, to explain away some of its strange sayings, in the hope that it may be more acceptable to men--in the vain and the utterly delusive hope that it will be so accepted. No, not so can we save our creed, and yet the temptation to do so is a sore one. Our duty is to say plainly to those who thus speak to us, “The words that you will have us alter, and the very form of those words--and we dare not distinguish between the form and the essence, for we believe the form to be Divine--are not our words to change, even to win your faith and your assent; they are God’s words. Mysterious they may be, but we are the stewards of the manifold mysteries of God, and we dare not for our own sakes, and we need not for yours, add to or diminish aught from the words of the message of our Lord.” But while the Church is thus sternly faithful to her mission; while she speaks and must ever speak the dogma or parables that our Lord has given her to speak; while she cannot give to men what they ask for from her, a religion without mystery,--she may at least strive to show to men the reasonableness of mystery and the necessity of dogma. We may not alter the parable we have to speak, but we may at least show them that there is some reasonableness in listening to that parable. Let us, for a moment or two, consider the attitude of the Church in the present day to those who denounce in her teaching its dogma and its mystery, and let us see if we can find something to help the difficulty of the objectors, and something at the same time to lead us ourselves to a deeper faith, and therefore to a real and bolder utterance of all the mysteries of our religion. And now, if we look at the objections that are commonly made on this ground in our popular literature or otherwise, to Christianity, we will find, I think, that they divide themselves under two heads. One is the objection to the mysteriousness and difficulty of Christian dogma, and another to what is described as the unreality of the language respecting Christian experience. Now a word or two upon each of these, and in the first we may just, in passing, remind the most scientific and logical of the objectors to dogma and mystery of this fact, that very much of the belief, the scientific belief, of mankind in their own teachings is, for the mass of those who receive it, nothing but dogmatism. Is it then altogether so inconceivable a thing, and so strange, that the all-wise and infinite intelligence of the Author of this world should deal with us, even the most learned and wisest of us, as the most learned and wise of us deal with inferior intelligences, and that He should give us in form of a dogmatic utterance that which we could never have discovered for ourselves? But passing on from this, let us ask next, is it possible for us to comply with this request that we should eliminate all dogma and all mystery from religion? Let us try to do it for one moment. Let us suppose that we have banished from Christianity, and from the word that Christianity has to speak to men, all those technical and mysterious terms about the Trinity and incarnation and atonement and regeneration, and that we have simplified our message. To what shall we reduce it? We may reduce it at least to two words, and beyond these it will not bear any reduction, if it is to be a religion at all. We must speak of God, and we must speak of man. For what is religion but the joining together of God and man? And when we name these two words--and these words must make part of all or any religion--have we got rid of mystery? Are there two words more fraught with mystery than these two? And for this reason, that God and man are not words, are not notions; they are facts. They are the facts of our life and of our being, and the difficulties that arise--the difficult thoughts of God and man--and the mysteries, parables, and dogmas that underlie these thoughts have vexed the hearts and souls of men before Christ was born, and they would vex them still if the name of Christ was forgotten. There are not merely difficulties and mysteries and parables in religion, but there are difficulties, mysteries, and parables in philosophy, and fact, and in human nature; you cannot escape them. The awful shadows of these mysteries wrap us round wherever we go; we cannot avoid them, we cannot escape them merely by bidding those who talk about them not to speak parables about them. Parables are in our hearts and souls and nature, and in the worm around us; in the very air, as it were, of our intellectual breath and thought, and we cannot cease to feel them without ceasing to exist, any more than we can live our natural life or cease to draw the vital air of the atmosphere without ceasing to live our natural life. We cannot, then, you see, escape from dogma, and parable, and we cannot escape from them in our speech or in our religion. It must and ought to be so. Can we escape from cant? What is the meaning of the word cant? Cant in its strictly etymological and historical meaning is this--the language of the initiated: a language known to those engaged in any business or occupation, the terms of which are terms of art, technical terms, and as such are only known and understood by those who practise the art. It means the technical language of any business, or art, or science. Religion is a science, and it is an art,--the science of the knowledge of God, and the art of holy living. And therefore it must necessarily have cant. But there is no more unreality in the cant of religion than there is unreality in the cant of medicine, or of law, or of trade, and the most offensive of all cant is the cant of irreligion and of scepticism. But although we have seen that Christianity must thus be mysterious in its doctrine at times, and must be peculiar at others, though we know that there is something apparently unreal and unmeaning in the words that describe its life, and although we must not shrink from dogma, nor shrink again from the accusation of religious cant, there is a warning for us Christians and us teachers of Christianity in this objection of the world and of the age that we do well to listen and give solemn heed to. It is quite true that men may be guilty of religious cant in a bad sense, and not in a good sense. And they are so whenever the words of their religious life--however true and important in themselves--are used by them without some corresponding emotion and experience in their own hearts; whenever the words that describe the Christian life become unreal upon our lips, that is to say, in other words, whenever our life falls below the level of our religious speech or our religious prayer. Then are we speaking cant, and cant that is mischievous and deadly to our own spiritual life. In the last place, we thank God for this--there is the power of bringing a better reality, a nobler life, into our speech by living our creed. Our creed becomes for us real. Men may so live that their prayers and their creeds are the living utterances of the new life that is day by day stealing into their very heart and life. And as the man becomes child-like, he is able to understand the meaning of the creed in which he expresses his belief in the Father. As the man becomes Christ-like, he can understand the meaning of the word Christ. As the man becomes spiritual, more and more does he understand the sentence in his creed which speaks of the giving of God’s Holy Spirit to dwell amongst us; and prayer and repentance, and conversion and approach to God, and assurance and hope, and every other word of Christian experience, become for him new words, because they become for him new facts in his fife. As he dwells more and more in the heavenly land, he learns more and more of the heavenly speech, and so the creed fills the life with light, and the life reflects back that light upon the creed. We are not to be as children, simply listening to parables of our faith, as children listen to nursery stories. We are not merely “children crying in the night,” we are not merely “children crying for the light.” Rather we are to live as Christian men, rather as brave and strong men, with patient and quiet and trusting hearts--walking along the hard ways of life: ways that are chequered by shadow of the Cross, and lightened with the glory of the crowned Christ; and it may be that, bent and bowed beneath the weight of difficulty and trial, and the weariness of life, our eyes rest upon the path lust where our feet can stand, and see even there such pure light from our creed that it becomes a great revelation from the Father in heaven, who has given us our lot to walk and work in life. (Abp. Magee.)
I. The too prevalent disposition in hearers to make light of what they hear, to turn sermons into fiction, and to put such flexible and accommodating constructions upon the heavenly message as shall divest it of all its point and application and purpose. Prove the moral sincerity of your faith in God’s Word, in the same way as you would prove your sincerity of your faith in any other word; in the word of a friend, for example, who had put some written instructions into your hands as to the path to be chosen and the dangers to be avoided, in some new expedition you were undertaking. If those instructions of your friend were scarcely looked at, or seldom read, or never studied, with a view to determine what you should do, or what you should not do, would any profession of trust in such guidance be entitled to the least credit? Would it not be evident that your course was shaped by other influences, and that you had no more respect for the instructions of your friend than for the counsels of one who had a love for the extravagant, and whose very truths were darkened by parables? Well, of this subtle and unacknowledged infidelity, it is to be feared very much will be found among us. Whenever they hear anything tending to disturb their settled opinions, it is always some extravagance or straining of metaphor, or licence of rhetoric, or trick of declamation to keep drowsy audience awake.
II. Some of those doctrines and statements with regard to which there seems to be a strong conviction in the minds of many, either that the Bible deals in designedly poetic representations, or else that ministers of the Gospel overstate their case. Parable, in the sense of fiction, invented conceits, fond imagination, it is plain there must be somewhere. Teachers and hearers cannot interpret the same book so differently, and yet both be right. Which speaks in parables? For example, which speaks in the language of parable, as to the moral dangers of our probation, whether from temptations without or from a treacherous heart within? Has the preacher needlessly magnified these dangers, in exhorting you to incessant watchfulness, to a jealous vigilance over the first springs of thought, to a sacred custody of the heart’s entrances and outgoings, as feeling that life and immortality were suspended on the issue? You demur perhaps to some of his descriptions of what that heart is, as the nursery of all evil, the fountain of all that is hateful and vile in human character, the ready slave to the purpose of Satan, whenever he has a design to accomplish against God and man; but strong as this language seems, is it stronger than saying, “The heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,” or “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, blasphemies, and such like”? Or perhaps he who speaks to you has given some dark sketches of an unseen and malignant foe, subtle in his plans, watchful for his opportunities, dreadful for the number of his emissaries, and fierce even unto the death. Doth not the Word that cannot lie declare of this enemy, that “his name is Legion,” and that “your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour”? Or, once more, the preacher has spoken disparagingly of the world. Dear as it is to you who have happy associations, happy friendships, happy thoughts, he has exhorted you to beware of it, to have as little to do with it as you can, to make it the servant of your necessities, and not the master of your hearts. But on this point do the law and the testimony speak a more guarded language? Far otherwise; they have affirmed that the whole world lieth in wickedness, and that he who will be a friend of the world must consent to be considered as an enemy of God. Another topic on which men must suppose we use an unnecessary strictness, or they could not live as they do, is with respect to the proper moral signs of their being in a state of reconciliation with God--of their being partakers of a genuine repentance and a saving faith. Surely on such subjects we ought to speak in very faithfulness, for neither to our own souls nor to yours could anything be more perilous than fiction--than an extravagance which should outdo itself. Oh, then, is it our fault if, on reading in the solemn commission given to us, that “without holiness no man shall see the Lord,” we pronounce as banished from the everlasting presence the man who does not even desire that holiness,--whose habits are utterly at variance with the temper and spirit of holiness,--whose converse with God is restricted to the service of lip and knee,--who neither knows, nor cares to know, what is meant by the believer’s struggles with sin, or conflicts with the law in his members, or aspirations, so broken and so feeble, after the purities of the heavenly state? There is yet one other topic on which, unless ministers of the Gospel be thought to speak in the most extravagant parables, the life of three-fourths of professing Christians is one continued mystery. I mean the retributions which await the Christless soul in another world. On this subject, to go in excess of the awful and thrilling description of the Word of God is not possible. No uninspired imagination could ever attain to such heights--the worm and the fire and the outer darkness and the separation ever widening between repentance and God, and hope. These, if they are parables, at least are not our parables, but the parables of One who must have chosen such a medium of illustration because the intense and overwhelming majesty of the subject could not be described in any other way. And yet, how are we to explain the fact--for fact you know it is--that if we were to collect all those revelations of Holy Writ together, and were to arrange them in such order that they who run might read, many would listen, would seem to be impressed, would profess entire belief in all that had been said, and yet afterwards they would neither love sin the less, nor fear God the more, nor examine their state more closely; but as they came so would they go away, unchanged, unresolved, unreconciled, unforgiven? Surely the fact admits of but one solution. Say what they will, they do not believe these things. Whatever the delusion be, certain it is that each one has sonic lulling process by which the penalties of the eternal world become stripped of their terribleness, insomuch that the words are all but uttered in regard to the man who preaches of them: “What doth this babbler say?” “Then said I, O Lord God! they say of me, Doth he not speak in parables?” (D. Moore, M. A.)
The mysterious aspect of the Gospel to the men of the world
1. There are certain experiences of human life so oft repeated, and so familiar to all our recollections, that when we perceive, or think we perceive, an analogy between them and the matters of religion, then religion does not appear to us to be mysterious. There is not a more familiar exhibition in society than that of a servant who performs his allotted work, and who obtains his stipulated reward; and we are all servants, and one is our Master, even God. There is nothing more common than that a son should acquit himself to the satisfaction of his parents--and we are all the children of a universal Parent, whom it is our part to please in all things. Now, so long as the work of religious instruction can be upheld by such analogies as these,--so long as the relations of civil or of domestic society can be employed to illustrate the relation between God and the creatures whom He has formed,--a vein of perspicuity will appear to run through the clear and rational exposition of him who has put all the mists and all the technicals of an obscure theology away from him. All his lessons will run in an easy and direct train. Can anything be more evident than that there is a line of separation between the sensual and the temperate, between the selfish and the disinterested, between the sordid and the honourable; or, if we require a distinction more strictly religious, between the profane and the decent keeper of all the ordinances? Here then at once we witness the two grand divisions of human society, in a state of real and visible exemplification; and what more is necessary than just to employ the most direct and intelligible motives of conduct for persuading men to withdraw from one of these divisions, and pass over to the other of them? It is needless to say how much this process is reversed by many a teacher of Christianity. It is true that they hold out most prominently the need of some great transition; but it is a transition most mysteriously different from the act of crossing that line of separation to which we have just been adverting. They reduce the men of all casts, and of all characters, to the same footing of worthlessness in the sight of God; and speak of the evil of the human heart in such terms as will sound to many a mysterious exaggeration--and, like the hearers of Ezekiel, will these not be able to comprehend the argument of the preacher when he tells them, though in the very language of the Bible, that they are the heirs of wrath; that none of them is righteous, no, not one; that all flesh have corrupted their ways, and have fallen short of the glory of God; that the world at large is a lost and a fallen world, and that the natural inheritance of all who live in it is the inheritance of a temporal death and a ruined eternity. When the preacher goes on in this strain, those hearers whom the Spirit has not convinced of sin will be utterly at a loss to understand him; nor are we to wonder if he seem to speak to them in a parable when he speaks to the disease,--that all the darkness of a parable should still seem to hang over his demonstrations when, as a faithful expounder of the revealed will and counsel of God, he proceeds to tell them of the remedy. Now, it is when the preacher is unfolding this scheme of salvation,--it is when he is practically applying it to the conscience and the conduct of his hearers,--it is when the terms of grace and faith and sanctification are pressed into frequent employment for the work of these very peculiar explanations,--it is when, instead of illustrating his subject by those analogies of common life, which might have done for men of an untainted nature, but which will not do for the men of this corrupt world, he faithfully unfolds that economy of redemption which God hath actually set up for the recovery of our degenerate species,--it is then that, to a hearer still in darkness, the whole argument sounds as strangely and as obscurely as if it were conveyed to him in an unknown language,--it is then that the repulsion of his nature to the truth as it is in Jesus finds a willing excuse in the utter mysteriousness of its articles and its terms; and gladly does he put away from him the unwelcome message, with the remark that he who delivers it is a speaker of parables, and there is no comprehending him.
2. Now, if there be any hearers present who feel that we have spoken to them, when we spoke of the resistance which is held out against peculiar Christianity on the ground of that mysteriousness in which it appears to be concealed from all ordinary discernment, we should like to take our leave of them at present with two observations. We ask them, in the first place, if they have ever, to the satisfaction of their own minds, disproved the Bible?--and if not, we ask them how they can sit at ease, should all the mysteriousness which they charge upon evangelical truth, and by which they would attempt to justify their contempt for it, be found to attach to the very language and to the very doctrine of God’s own communication? He actually does say that no man cometh unto the Father but by the Son--and that His is the only name given under heaven whereby men can be saved--and that He will be magnified only in the appointed Mediator--and that Christ is all and all--and that there is no other foundation on which man can lay--and that he who believeth on Him shall not be confounded. He further speaks of our personal preparation for heaven; and here, too, may His utterance sound mysteriously in your hearing, as He tells that without holiness no man can see God--and that we are without strength while we are without the Spirit to make us holy--and that unless a man be born again he shall not enter into the kingdom of God--and that he should wrestle in prayer for the washing of regeneration--and that he should watch for the Holy Ghost with all perseverance--and that he should aspire at being perfect through Christ strengthening him--and that be should, under the operation of those great provisions which are set up in the New Testament for creating us anew unto good works, conform himself unto that doctrine of grace by which he is brought to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present evil world. Secondly, let us assure the men who at this moment bid the stoutest defiance to the message of the Gospel, that the time may yet come when they shall render to this very gospel the most striking of all acknowledgments, even by sending to the door of its most faithful ministers, and humbly craving from them their explanations and their prayers. We never saw the expiring mortal who could look with an undaunted eye on God as his Lawgiver; but often has all its languor been lighted up with joy at the name of Christ as his Saviour. We never saw the dying acquaintance who, upon the retrospect of his virtues and of his doings, could prop the tranquillity of his spirit on the expectation of a legal reward. Oh no; this is not the element which sustains the tranquillity of deathbeds: it is the hope of forgiveness. It is a believing sense of the efficacy of the atonement. It is the prayer of faith, offered up in the name of Him who is the Captain of all our salvation. It is a dependence on that power which can alone impart a meetness for the inheritance of the saints, and present the spirit holy and unreprovable and unblamable in the sight of God. Now, what we have to urge is, that if these be the topics which, on the last half hour of your life, are the only ones that will possess, in your judgment, any value or substantial importance, why put them away from you now? (T. Chalmers, D. D.)
Obscurities in revelation
I. God may at times reveal His truth in a manner somewhat obscure. Much of His truth in nature is enigmatic and mystical In Providence the same. What confusion there seems to be in His moral government of mankind. In the Bible the same. I have no notion of telling people that the Bible is an exceedingly easy and simple book.
II. The obscurity in which truth is sometimes revealed is often felt to be painful by the teacher. “They say of me, Doth he not speak parables?” Preachers have to take great subjects, but how little they know of them; and they who know most of them are most conscious of their ignorance, and they speak with hesitation.
III. Sceptically disposed minds use the obscurity of the revelation as an objection against the truth. “It cannot be,” says the objector; “if God did condescend to reveal truth, no one can suppose that He would reveal it thus. No one could imagine that He would communicate it in that way: the thing on the face of it bears its own condemnation.” “They say of me, Doth he not speak parables?” “They,” who? All sceptically disposed men.
IV. However common the objection to Christianity on account of its obscurity, the objection is by no means valid.
1. Truth coming in this form is adapted to our condition in this state of probation and trial.
2. Truth coming in this form serves many useful purposes. It challenges inquiry and stimulates thought.
(1) Preachers should learn that it is for them to preach the truth of God in whatever form it comes to them, regardless of the objections of their hearers.
(2) Hearers should be cautious not to impose upon themselves by raising paltry objections to the truth.
(3) All should learn that religious truth should be reached, not so much by a reasoning process, as by a moral state of the heart. It is to be understood rather by the heart than the head. Looked at through the eyes of moral sympathy, rather than through the eyes of reason or logic. (Thomas Binney.)
I. The charge brought against the preachers of the gospel.
1. That they preach what is unreal;
2. What is unintelligible;
3. What is allegorical.
II. Some of the statements of preachers of the gospel on which this charge against them is founded.
1. Those which relate to the natural condition of mankind.
2. To the evidences of conversion.
3. To the happiness of religion.
4. To the future punishment of the finally impenitent. (G. Brooks.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ezekiel 20". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12