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Righteous art Thou, O Lord, when I plead with Thee.
Communion with God in affliction
I. Why God sees fit to afflict His children by the dispensations of His providence.
1. God sometimes afflicts His children to reclaim them from their delusions in religion. They are naturally bent to backsliding.
2. God sometimes afflicts His children to try their sincerity, and give them an opportunity of knowing their own hearts.
3. God sometimes afflicts His children for the purpose of displaying the beauty and excellence of true religion before the eyes of the world. In some cases, at least, we can hardly discover any other important end to be answered by afflicting His peculiar friends, than this, of displaying their superior virtue and piety.
II. Why they are disposed to converse with Him under His afflicting hand.
1. Because they want to know why He afflicts them.
2. They wish to know how they should feel and conduct themselves in their afflicted state.
3. They desire to obtain Divine support and consolation.
III. What methods they take to converse with God in time of trouble.
1. By meditating upon the history of His providence.
2. By reviewing the course of His conduct towards themselves through all the past scenes and stages of their lives.
3. By prayer, while they are suffering His fatherly chastisements. For this they are greatly prepared, by musing on His past and present dispensations towards themselves and others. These fill their mouths with arguments, and constrain them to draw near to God, and make known their wants and desires, their hopes and fears. This subject may teach the children of God--
(1) to restrain their unreasonable expectations of outward prosperity in the present life.
(2) That adversity may be much more beneficial to them than prosperity.
(3) This subject exhibits a peculiar and distinguishing mark of grace, by which everyone may determine whether he is or is not a real child of God. It is the habitual disposition of the true children of God to converse with Him from day to day, under all the various dispensations of His providence. (N. Emmons, D. D.)
Let me talk with Thee of Thy judgments.
The judgments of God a lawful subject of human study and consideration
1. It is lawful for the saints to enter into the mystery of Divine providence. Providence is the work of God. In its movement we may discern the actings of the Almighty, and if we are properly attentive to it, we may trace the marks of His power, wisdom, faithfulness, goodness, and holiness.
2. The saints are permitted to use familiarity with God in these inquiries. He permits them to state their objections, and to make replies to His answers, to plead with Him, in the language of our text. “Let us plead together,” says He, “put Me in remembrance,” state your objections to any part of My conduct, “declare thou, that thou mayest be justified.” Wonderful condescension!
3. It is of the first importance in the inquiries into the dispensations of Providence, that we retain on our spirits an abiding sense of the essential moral attributes of the Disposer of events. (T. M’Crie, D. D.)
Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper?--
The reasons why the wicked are permitted to prosper
I. It discovers the ingratitude of the human heart, and shows the monstrous abuse which men often make of the Divine goodness. Wealth and influence, power and dominion, are the gifts of God, and if suitably improved, are valuable talents. They give individuals many opportunities of being extensively useful, and of doing much good. But, when influence and power are made subservient to gratify the pride, the vanity, and ambition of the sons of men, they are to be accounted the greatest evil. Yet, it will not be denied, that these are sometimes the sad effects which they have produced upon particular individuals. Have not some been guilty of oppression and tyranny, of plunder and robbery, of cruelty and murder? I acknowledge that it is natural enough to wish for prosperity and affluence, power and influence; but, if these blessings were to have the same effect upon us which they have produced in others, would we not account them the greatest curse with which we could be visited? But, though prosperity may not have so shocking an influence upon us as upon some others, if it should minister to covetousness, is it not to be dreaded? Are not these the dispositions which it sometimes excites? Instead of enlarging the heart, and making it more liberal, does it not render men sometimes narrow and contracted? Is not this defeating the end of providence, and perverting its gifts?
II. To be the means of chastising the rest of mankind. They are allowed to gratify their own bad passions, that they may inflict that punishment upon their fellow creatures which their irreligion and wickedness deserve. Though we may flatter ourselves that we do not merit correction at the hands of men, none will maintain that we do not deserve it at the hand of God. Have we not been froward and undutiful children? God hath told us, in His Word, that He doth not willingly grieve the children of men; but, when correction becomes necessary, a principle of affection leads Him to inflict it. He hath often made wicked men the instruments of His vengeance, to bring His people back to their duty, and to make them learn righteousness.
III. To aggravate their guilt and to heighten their condemnation. God often setteth the wicked on high and slippery places, that He may bring them down suddenly, and make their fall the greater. They may move heaven and earth with their ambition, and think that their mountain standeth strong; when, lo! their feet are made to stumble upon the dark mountains, and they go down to the silent grave, where there is neither work, wisdom, knowledge, nor device.
IV. That we may hold higher in esteem those good men who make their wealth and influence subservient to the glory of God and to the happiness of mankind. Blessed be God, there are not a few, who, instead of abusing their prosperity, employ it for the benefit of their fellow creatures! So far from gratifying their pride, and indulging in luxury, they exert themselves to promote works of industry and charity. They are ready to deny themselves particular enjoyments, that they may contribute to the comfort of those around them. Instead of being selfish and worldly, they are humane and generous. What a blessing is prosperity, when it is the means of doing good! Our goodness, it is true, cannot extend to God, and He can receive no benefit from it; but it may be exercised towards His necessitous creatures, and He considers a kind office done to them as done to Himself.
V. That those in inferior circumstances may be thankful and contented with the situation in which God hath placed them. Perhaps you are apt to envy those who live in ease and plenty. But are you aware of the temptations to which prosperous and rich men are exposed, and into which they are too apt to fall? What if affluence should lead you to indulge in pride and vanity, and make you think of yourselves above what you ought to think? What if it should attach you so much to the world, as in a great measure to overlook eternity altogether? Oh, never appear dissatisfied with your condition, or give way to discontent. The very meanest have cause for gratitude, because they have still more than they deserve. Let all of us aspire after being poor in spirit and heirs of the kingdom of God! This is the true riches, of which none can possibly deprive us. (D. Johnston, D. D.)
The prosperity of bad men and adversity of good men accounted for
I. Wicked men, how prosperous soever their outward condition in this life, are not in reality so happy as we are apt to imagine. The reason why those wicked men that prosper in the world are reckoned happy is, because the generality of men entertain a wrong notion of happiness. They fancy it consists in having abundance of riches. Whatever real satisfaction or comfort riches can afford, we are bound by the frame of our nature to seek after that satisfaction. But in reality do we not often see health of body, tranquillity of mind, dwelling in a cottage, whilst bodily pains and restless anxieties fly daily about the palaces of kings? Which shows that happiness is something distinct from riches, something which riches alone can never give us.
II. Supposing the wicked men are more happy, and meet with less trouble than other men, let us inquire upon what accounts God almighty may permit this, consistently with the character of a wise, just, and good Governor of the world. Besides the moral enjoyment which springs from virtue only, there are other delights accruing to us from the possession of riches, honour, and secular power. Of these, many wicked men have a greater portion than the virtuous.
1. And the reason is, because some good men are weak in their judgments, and imprudent or indolent in managing their secular affairs; which exposes them to many inconveniences, and hinders their rising in the world. Now, if we ask why the Almighty permits this to the disadvantage of good men, it is the same as if we should ask why He made men free agents. The disadvantages virtuous men labour under at present, will doubtless be recompensed, one day or other, by the just and merciful Governor of the world. In the meantime, the solid pleasure they enjoy as the immediate consequence of their goodness, is surely preferable to any external advantages the wicked may procure themselves by their superior cunning and sagacity.
2. Another reason why God may permit wicked men to prosper in the world seems to be the natural effect of His overflowing goodness. He would give them more time for repentance.
3. Perhaps another reason why the Supreme Being withholds some temporal benefits from good men, which the wicked possess, may be, because He foresees they will prove hurtful to them. Alteration of circumstances often creates a change of manners. And there are some tempers which, I believe, would keep steady to virtue in a scene of adversity, and yet run into open and extreme degrees of vice in a scene of prosperity.
II. The objection in the text should not in reason make us entertain any dishonourable thought of the Divine dispensations, but rather teach us to infer the reasonableness and necessity of a future state. To know the justness of any scheme, it is necessary to be acquainted with all its parts, and all their mutual relations. How, then, can we determine every particular in the scheme of Providence, of which we must confess ourselves utterly ignorant? Should a man take upon him to condemn a well wrought tragedy by only reading one of its scenes, without considering how it was interwoven with the main plot and contrivance of the work, would he not be justly blamed for his partiality! And is not he more inexcusably partial, who censures the beautiful drama of the Divine government, without knowing the secret contrivance by which it is carried on? I shall only add one observation more to justify Providence against the objection in the text, which is, that we are frequently mistaken who are really good, and who otherwise; and, consequently, are very incompetent judges when men are equitably dealt by. (N. Ball.)
The prosperity of the wicked
I. When you are repining at the prosperity of the wicked, and feel a consequent inclination to relax from your faith in Christ, remember that, in the revelation through Jesus Christ, we are nowhere led to expect that the wicked shall not be prosperous here. “Ye will not come to Me that ye may have life,” was the remonstrance of our Saviour. “This do, and thou shalt live,” the injunction everywhere implied:--live,--not amidst the joys of this transitory scene, but at the right hand of God forever! The treasures of earth were never mentioned by Him to the faithful, but to guard them against their danger, and remind them of a “treasure in heaven.” Christ knew the natural opposition of worldly prosperity to the lowly virtues of the Gospel; and, earnest for the everlasting interests of men, guarded them against the desire of things, the possession of which might be fatal:--and, if men would, by ways unwarranted by God, seek what God had forbidden, it was at the double peril of disobeying His commands, and disregarding His counsels.
II. The Gospel has not only forbidden us to be surprised, or envious, at the prosperity of the wicked, but has positively shown us that a life of tribulation for Jesus’ sake is the proper passport to heaven. Nothing can be so glorious as the scenes which the Gospel has opened to our faith; but nothing so solemn as those through which we must pass to reach them. We are, in this life, in a state of dangerous apostasy from God: and the glare of prosperity is a light but very ill suited for us to behold. The sufferings of our Lord are held out to our view, that, “looking unto Jesus,” who “left us an example, that we should follow His steps,” we might take up our cross to do it. Why, then, do you ask, does the way of the wicked prosper? Why, rather ought ye to ask, should the believer in Christ repine at it? Why should he sigh for a state the very opposite to that in which His Saviour walked, and, if gained by sin, gained by means which brought that Saviour to the Cross, and would now open His wounds afresh?
III. Another argument which I would use, to check repining at the outward prosperity of sin, is, that it is, at best, extremely overrated, and its nature very ill understood. It is by no means true that prosperity is confined to “the treacherous dealer and the wicked.” God has indeed told us, that, to enter into His kingdom, we must meet with opposition, wrestle with contending evils, and pass the time of our sojourning here in fear. But the path, even to temporal blessings, is open to the believer in Christ, though He commands us not to make them the object of our ambition, nor expect them as the consequences of our faith. But, even were this not so, were prosperity confined to sin alone, we surely mistake its nature if its attractions dazzle us, and think but imperfectly of God if we mistrust His goodness. He has not so balanced the good and evil, of this life as to make every attraction and every joy lie on the side of sin. “There is no peace to the wicked.” “They may live in affluence,--but it is not peace. They may live in indolence,--but it is not peace.” They may live in thoughtlessness,--but it is not peace. It is not that peace which a God of everlasting mercy can bestow, of which the soul of man, that was made for God, is capable, and for which it unceasingly longs. In talking of that peace of God, we talk of what it is impossible for those who have not experienced it to conceive.
IV. But the comprehensive argument, which closes at once all discussion and all doubts, is the disclosure and adjustment of all the ways of God in the great day of general retribution. If there be a subject of contemplation sublimer than another, or completely interesting to the soul of reasonable man, it is surely the thought of being led hereafter to behold all the glorious works of the great and eternal God:--to see how, through all the amazing vicissitudes of time, He has conducted the affairs of worlds on worlds; and kept distinct, through all the crossings and confusions of myriads of foes, the strait and narrow path to heaven:--how from the jarring elements He reared the goodly frame of nature, and settled it in peace; and, uniting the still more jarring passions and infidel contentions of mankind, made all conspire to His eternal glory, and cooperate for the universal good! (G. Mathew, M. A.)
Thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins.
God comes nearer to the hearts of His people in their duties than He doth to any hypocritical or formal professor
By God’s nearness we understand not His omnipresence (that neither comes nor goes), nor His love to His people (that abides), but the sensible, sweet manifestations and outlets of it to their souls (Psalms 145:18). Note the limitation of this glorious privilege; it is the peculiar enjoyment of sincere and upright-hearted worshippers.
1. Sincere souls are sensible of God’s accesses to them in their duties, they feel His approaches to their spirits (Lamentations 3:57). The heart fills apace, the empty thoughts swell with a fulness of spiritual things, which strive for vent.
2. They are sensible of God’s withdrawment from their spirits; they feel how the ebb follows the flood, and how the waters abate (Song of Solomon 5:6).
3. The Lord’s nearness to the hearts and reins of His people in their duties is evident to them from the effects that it leaves upon their spirits. For look, as it is with the earth and plants, with respect to the approach or remove of the sun in the spring and autumn, so it is here as Christ speaks (Luke 21:29).
(1) A real taste of the joy of the Lord is here given to men, the fulness whereof is in heaven; hence called (2 Corinthians 1:22), “The earnest of His Spirit.” And in 1 Peter 1:8, glorified joy, or a short salvation.
(2) A mighty strength and power coming into their soul, and actuating all its faculties and graces. When God comes near, new powers enter the soul; the feeble is as David (Psalms 138:3).
(3) A remarkable transformation and change of spirit follows it. The sight of God, the felt presence of God, is as fire, which quickly assimilates what is put into it to its own likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18).
(4) A vigorous working of the heart heavenward; a mounting of the soul upward.
1. Then certainly there is a heaven and a state of glory for the saints.
2. But, oh! what is heaven? And what that state of glory reserved for the saints? Doth a glimpse of God’s presence in a duty go down to the heart and reins? Oh, how unutterable, then, must that be which is seen and felt above, where God comes as near to man as can be! (Revelation 22:3-4.)
3. See hence the necessity of casting these very bodies into a new mould by their resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:41).
4. Is God so near to His people above all others in the world? How good is it to be near to them that are so near to God:
5. If God be so near to the heart and reins of His people in their duties, oh, how assiduous should they be in their duties!
6. What steady Christians should all real Christians be! For lo, what a seal and witness hath religion in the breast of every sincere professor of it! (John Flavel.)
If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses?
The heroism of endurance
Jeremiah had to pay the price of singularity. He had to learn not only to do without the sweet incense of popular favour, but also to stand unflinching even when it turned into the hot breath of hatred. He had to submit not only to be without friends, but to see friends become foes. This experience through which the prophet passed is a cruel one It either makes a man or mars him, and nearly always hardens him. It creates an indignation, a holy anger sometimes against men, sometimes against the strange, untoward state of affairs, sometimes against God. Jeremiah here is kicking against the pricks which have wounded the feet of men for centuries: how to account for the fact that in a world governed by a righteous God righteousness should often have to suffer so much. His indignant soul, on fire for justice, cries out that it ought not to be so. Jeremiah’s wherefore about the wicked is really a why about himself. Why am I bared to the blast in following Thy will and performing Thy command? why are tears and strife my portion? why am I wearied out and left desolate, though I am fighting the Lord’s battle? That is the prophet’s real complaint. Notice the answer, surely the strangest and most inconsequent ever given. The complaint is answered by a counter-complaint. Jeremiah’s charge against God of injustice is met by God’s charge against Jeremiah of weakness. “If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses? Though in a land of peace thou art secure, yet how wilt thou do (O faint-hearted one!) in the pride of Jordan?” The “pride of Jordan” means the dangerous ground by the river, where the heat is almost tropical and the vegetation is rank. It is jungle, tangled bush wherein wild beasts lurk, leopards and wolves and (at that time also) lions. The answer to the complaint against the hardness of his lot is just the assertion that it shall be harder still. Does it seem an unfeeling answer? It was the answer Jeremiah needed. He needed to be braced, not pampered. He is taught the need of endurance. Only a heroic soul could do the heroic work needed by Israel and by God; and it was the greatest heroism of all which was needed, the heroism of endurance. Nothing worth doing can be done in this world without something of that iron resolution. It is the spirit which never knows defeat, which cannot be worn out, which has taken its stand and refuses to move. This is the “patience” about which the Bible is full; not the sickly counterfeit which so often passes for patience, but the power to bear, to suffer, to sacrifice, to endure all things, to die, harder still, sometimes, to continue to live. The whole world teaches that patience. Inch by inch each advance has to be gained, fought for, paid for, kept. It is the lesson of all history also, both for the individual and for a body of men who have espoused any cause. Christ’s Church has survived through her power to endure. The mustard seed, planted with tears and watered with blood, stood the hazard of every storm, gripped tenaciously the soil, twining its roots round the rocks, reared its head ever a little higher, and spread out its branches ever a little fuller, and when the tempest came held on for very life; and then, never hasting, never resting, went on in the Divine task of growing; and at last became the greatest of trees, giving shelter to the birds of the air in its wide-spreading branches. It is the same secret of success for the individual spiritual life. “In your patience ye shall win your soul. This method is utterly opposed to the world’s method of insuring success, which is by self-assertion, aggressive action, force for force, blow for blow. Patience, not violence, is the Christian’s safety Even if all else be lost it saves the soul, the true life. It gives fibre to the character. It purifies the heart, as gold in the furnace. What do we know of this heroic endurance? In our fight with temptation, in our warfare against all forms of evil, have we used our Master’s watchword, and practised our Master’s scheme? Think of our temptation in the matter of foreign missions, for example. We are easily made faint-hearted about it. We say that results are disproportionate to the effort; or rather (for that is not true) we are overpowered by the vastness of the work. If we find our small attempt a burden, how can we face the vaster problem of making the kingdoms of this world the kingdom of God and His Christ? If we are wearied in our race with footmen, how can we contend with horses? We are so easily dispirited, not only in Christian enterprise, but also in personal Christian endeavour. We are so soon tempted to give up. We need some iron in our blood. We need to be braced to the conflict again. We need the noble scorn of consequence. What have we done, the best of us, for God or for man? (Hugh Black.)
The text may be applied to--
I. Duties. If in the ordinary duties of life you have been wearied, how will you be able to meet the higher and special duties to which you may be called? Manfully and courageously face these, and then you may hope to meet the others with strength equal to their performance.
II. Trials. If the trials which are common to man tax your patience, how will you do when called to pass through extraordinary? Do not give way under these, but endure them without shrinking, then when the Job-like trials come, you may bear them as he did.
III. Temptations. If those, common to man, have taxed your strength, and led you to complain of their severity, how will you do when special and more than ordinary temptations come upon you? Resist the devil in the first temptation, and you will be better able to resist him in the second, and so on.
IV. Troubles. Do the ripples on the waters of the sea of life affect you, then how will you do when the surges of the tempest come upon you? Do the dark clouds of the sky frighten you, then how will you feel when the lurid lightning and terrible thunders fill the heavens? (J. Bate.)
Comparative estimate of trials
I. The unhappy disposition which shows itself in many persons to disquiet themselves unduly on account of comparatively small trials. That man should, under any circumstances, seek to become his own tormentor is a singular anomaly, and strikingly proves how sin infatuates the human mind. The desire of happiness is a native and universal feeling in the breast. We do not assert that men are required to stifle all natural feeling, and to maintain a stoical apathy in reference to what we term “inferior trials.” The inconveniences and lighter evils of life must be felt. One person is seen to brood over what is called “the badness of the times”: another is in trouble, because his mercantile or household affairs are disarranged through the unfaithfulness of servants or dependants: a third is unhappy because the tongue of slander has gone forth against him: and a fourth is out of sorts because he had ardently aspired at something which he has failed to obtain. It is observable, moreover, that persons are often wont to complain in connection with those very points where they have the least possible ground for complaint. This man makes a trial of a bad speculation in trade, though his barns are filled with plenty, and his presses burst out with new wine; and that man makes a trial of certain domestic irregularities, while, in the main, he is thickly encompassed with domestic mercies.
II. The bearing which the disposition or propensity of which we have spoken, has upon the real afflictions of life, as well as upon the soul’s spiritual conflict.
1. In the natural course of things we may expect that man to be ill prepared for a season of sorrow, who is wont to fret and disquiet himself on common and frequently recurring occasions. The mind which is not inured to salutary discipline will, sooner or later, be found an enemy to its own peace.
2. But let us take higher ground, and view the subject in a spiritual light. In the case of the true believer, we cannot, for a moment, doubt that God designs every circumstance which befalls him, however minute, and every trial which comes upon him, however slight, to work for his good. Neither can we doubt that this gracious design is answered or defeated, according to the disposition of mind in which either comforts or crosses are received.
3. All the crosses and inconveniences of life should have the effect of sending the Christian to a throne of grace. No circumstance which threatens to harass the mind is too trivial to be carried to God in prayer, with a view to the obtaining of that assistance which is promised for every time of need. It will seldom, however, be found that persons who yield to the habit of magnifying inferior evils, and discomposing their minds with comparatively trifling occurrences, will see fit to pray for a right spirit in connection with these things, and for grace suited to the occasion. The consequence of the omission can hardly fail to be experienced in the darker day of adversity, when large supplies of strength are needed, and when increased exertion is called for.
4. In spiritual as well as in providential dispensations, the lesser has its bearing upon the greater. A propensity to be discouraged or alarmed, if perchance an envenomed dart is, now and then, hurled from Satan’s quiver, or if a cloud occasionally overcasts the soul’s experience, is by no means a desirable preparative for that severer discipline of the life of grace, with which few of the Lord’s people are entirely unacquainted.
1. The language of Divine reproof should put every Christian upon serious and faithful self-examination.
2. It is well, in a certain way, to anticipate seasons of heavy affliction. Think how soon health may be interrupted, friends removed, schemes defeated, and hopes forever blasted! Such thoughts, if sanctified in answer to prayer, will have a happy effect upon the general character of your experience.
3. Seasons of intense suffering are often made occasions of signal interpositions in behalf of God’s people. Your emergency shall prove your Heavenly Father’s opportunity; your heaviest trials shall be made the marked occasions of your realising the greatness of His power, and the intensity of His love.
4. It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ which imparts to the gloomy foliage of this wilderness world every particle of the radiance with which it is tinged. To see in Christ Jesus, the foundation of our every hope, the source of our strength, the channel of our consolations, the vitality of every spiritual principle and movement in our souls,--this is truly to know Him as “the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” (W. Knight, M. A.)
The Christian’s triumph
One of the greatest battles on record was fought and won, seven hundred years ago, by the merchants and artisans of Brussels against the arms of France. Reduced by famine to the greatest straits, the city one evening opened her beleaguered gates, not to admit the enemy, but that such as were able to carry arms might march out--to make their last throw in the bloody game of war. The night, which was falling down when they came in sight of the banners and tents of France, was spent by their enemies in riot and carousings. It was spent by these wise, brave burghers in seeking rest for tomorrow’s fight; and by their leaders, in making the most skilful arrangements. The men of Brussels rose with the dawn, and took what was to some, and might be to all, their last earthly meal. Knowing that they, a few rude townsmen, had no chance against the magnificent host of France unless God helped the fight for home, and wife, and children, and liberty, they cried to heaven for help. Every man made confession, and received the rites administered to the dying. The solemn service concluded, they rose from their knees; closed their ranks; levelled their pikes; and wheeling round so as to throw the glare of the sun in the eyes of the enemy, came down on their lines an avalanche of steel. The charge was irresistible. They bore cuirass and knightly lance before them; and these base-born traders scattered the chivalry of France, like smoke before the wind, and chaff before the whirlwind. This story illustrates a remarkable saying of one who fought many battles, and seldom, if ever, lost any. Asked to what he attributed his remarkable success, he replied, I owe it, under God, to this, that I made it a rule never to despise an enemy. To what warfare is this rule so applicable as to the Christian’s; to the battles of the faith; to those conflicts which the believer is called to wage with Satan, the world, and the flesh? In spiritual matters we are, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and of the Word of God, to steer right between the two; and, to help you forward in this safe and blessed course, let me explain and answer the question of the text.
I. Man is less a match for Satan now than when Satan, at their first encounter, proved himself more than a match for man. The bravest soldiers hang back from the breach, where, as it belches forth fire and smoke, they have seen the flower of the army fall; mowed down like grass. The bravest seamen dread the storm which has wrecked, with the stout ship, the gallant lifeboat that had gone to save its crew; men saying, If with her brave hands and buoyant power she, whelmed among the waves, could not live in such a sea, what chance for common craft? And what chance for us where our first parents perished? how can guilt stand where innocence fell? Hope there is none for us out of Christ.
II. If we were overcome by sin ere it had grown into strength, we are now less able to resist it. Fallen though we are, there remains a purity, modesty, ingenuousness, and tenderness of conscience, about childhood, that looks as if the glory of Eden yet lingered over it, like the light of day on hilltops at even, when the sun is down. It has wrung our heart, as we looked on some lost and loathsome creature--the pest of society, and the shame of her sex--to think of the days when she was a smiling infant in a mother’s happy arms, or, ignorant of evil, lisped long-forgotten prayers at a mother’s knee; when her voice rose in the psalms of family worship, or of the house of God, like the song of a seraph in the skies. Alas! “How is the gold become dim! how is the most fine gold changed!” Justifying this sad description, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies,”--alas, how soon does sin cloud life’s brightest dawn! If we were no match for the cub, how shall we conquer the grown lion? If we had not strength to pull out the sapling, how are we to root up the tree? Every new act of sin casts up an additional impediment in our way of return to virtue, and to God; until that which was once only a molehill swells into a mountain that nothing can remove, but the faith at whose bidding mountains are removed, and cast into the depths of the sea. I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me.
III. Show how these difficulties are to be overcome. The Spirit and the flesh, grace and nature, heavenly and earthly influences, are sometimes so fairly balanced, that like a ship with wind and tide acting on her with equal power, but in opposite directions, the believer makes no progress in the Divine life. He loses headway. He does not become worse, but he grows no better; and it is all he can do to hold his own. Sometimes, indeed, he loses ground; falling into old sins. Temptation comes like a roaring sea squall, and, finding him asleep at his post, drives him backward on his course; and farther now from heaven than once he was, he has to pray, Heal my backsliding, renew me graciously, love me freely--For Thy name’s sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity, for it is great. Are we never to grow fit for heaven? is our hope of it but a pious dream, a beautiful delusion? Daily called to contend with temptation, the battle often goes against us; in these passions, and tempers, and old habits, the sons of Zeruiah are too strong for us. Not that we do not fight. That startling cry, “The Philistines are on thee, Samson!” rouses us; we make some little fight; but too often resisting only to be conquered, we are ready to give up the struggle, saying, It is useless; and like Saul in Gilboa’s battle, to throw away sword and shield. We would; but that, cheered by a voice from above, and sustained by hope in God’s grace and mercy, we can turn to our souls to say, Why art thou cast down, my soul; why is my spirit disquieted within me?--rise; resume thy arms; renew the combat; never surrender--Hope thou in God, for I shall yet praise Him who is the health of my countenance, and my God. (T. Guthrie, D. D.)
I. The troubles of the mind in this life are often sharp and bitter, enough to tax its powers to the seeming limit of endurance. When the mind looks back upon its past history, views its present state, and anticipates its future destiny, and finds in them respectively occasions of regret, shame, and alarm, it is filled with acute suffering. And if this survey is directed to its moral condition and relations, if it is led to view itself as endowed with a capacity to know and choose good and evil, as having its being under the government of God, bound to obey His laws, and liable to answer at His throne for all its faults and offences, it tastes the bitterness of an accusing conscience, and is stung with keen remorse, and agitated with horrible dread. Yet, in such moments of unwonted moral illumination, we do but guess of that which shortly shall be. What the eye then sees, it sees, after all, but “through a glass darkly.” And oh! if the glimpse be so horrible, what shall be the naked vision? If such periods be so rich in suffering, what shall be the eternity they foreshadow? For memory is now exceedingly imperfect, and self-knowledge partial, and the horrors of the prospect before us mitigated by the medium of future opportunity and preparation, through which they are seen. Time covers up much of our wickedness from ourselves; and self-love and the “deceitfulness of sin” so ten the ugliness of our faults; and futurity presents a thousand avenues of escape, and “convenient seasons” of reformation. Thus we now have resorts and refuges whither we can betake ourselves from the arrows of conscience. Then, oh! “if in this land of peace wherein we trust,”--wherein there is so much in which the soul may confide, so much to stay it up, and give it quietness in reference to its controversy and reckoning with God,--we find the sense of our sinfulness and the apprehensions of wrath too much for us, a wearisome “burden too heavy to be borne,” what, oh! what “shall we do in the swelling of Jordan,” when “the waters shall overflow our hiding places”? And if “a wounded spirit we cannot bear,” now, while there are so many nostrums of our own to soothe its pains, while there is a sovereign balm at hand to heal it, and a good Physician near to bind it up; how, oh! how shall we endure its smart, when “indignation shall vex it as a thing that is raw” beneath its own eye; and the eye of God, shining into it with an insufferable brightness, shall give it a keen sense of what it has been, is, and shall be, and all the universe cannot afford it a covert, or a balsam to assuage its agony?
II. The body has its pains, too, in this life, and they are many and exquisite. We are “fearfully” as well as “wonderfully made,” compacted of an infinite number of frail, delicate, and sensitive fibres, which are broken and lacerated by very trivial causes and accidents. What, then, may be the sufferings of which an immortal and “spiritual body” may be capable? And how intolerable the anguish, of which the refined and exquisite texture of that indestructible and everlasting organisation which awaits us at the resurrection, may be susceptible!
III. We are here forced to endure distresses of estate, of outward and relative situation. Here is one who wears the outward paraphernalia of consequence and prosperity, but there is a worm gnawing at the heart of his happiness. There is some hidden mischief that spoils all; some vicious, or sickly, or idiot child, it may be, some wayward spirit in his family, some “root of bitterness” in his domestic circumstances, which men either do not see, or justly estimate, that poisons all his good things. Yonder is a man who might be happy, if there were not so many above him in society, whose level he cannot reach. A little matter will suffice to destroy the sweetness of a thousand blessings. Now, if we find it so hard to bear the inconveniences and annoyances of this life, where is the strength to endure the discomforts of a situation in a world, where all the society is vile and malignant, “hateful, and hating one another,” and all the circumstances fraught with nothing but mortification, disgrace, restraint, impotent desire, ineffectual effort, and hopeless resistance? Oh! then, let the exhaustion and vexation wherewith our Omnipotent Antagonist makes known His power in the milder visitings of His displeasure that reach us this side the grave, persuade us to leave off our mad rebellion, and seek a timely peace. (R. A. Hallam, D. D.)
Gradations of trial
I. To those who are discouraged by trifling difficulties, in the service of God. To renounce Christian service because of its difficulties, is to faint among the footmen, and ultimately to contend with the horses. For how will it be when awakened conscience, with its multiplied rebukes, assails thee? How wilt thou assuage the mourning over lost opportunities, and the deep remorse called up by the retrospect of a wasted life?
II. To those who succumb to but feeble temptations. Take the case of one who has recently fallen into the commission of sin--open, known sin. The inducements to commit the great transgression were not powerful in themselves, but the unhappy victim was ensnared almost without resistance; perhaps from want of vigilance, or it may have been through desperate carelessness. The circumstances may even have proved favourable for a triumph over the powers of darkness. A few urgent cries for deliverance would have been successful, escape was close at hand, but the effort, alas! was not made, or feebly made; and now the memory of that sin haunts the conscience, destroys the peace, and embitters all the joys of life. Falling thus easily into the wiles of Satan, what will become of you when he cometh in like a flood? How will you endure when resistance must be unto blood striving against sin? In that hour, unless the heart be established by grace, you will be driven like chaff from the threshing floor. Or, take the case of the young man who, while yet in his father’s house, surrounded by all the amenities of domestic love, and sheltered by the sanctions of a Christian home, has fallen, nevertheless, into sinful habits. What will become of him when all these restraints are removed?
III. To those who sink under light afflictions. It is not insensibility which is required of us, because there can be no courage in bearing what we do not feel; nor are we to sink into despair in the hour of suffering, because that would sacrifice the virtue of the trial. The happy medium is prescribed (Hebrews 12:5). It is, however, a very narrow pathway this, between too much and too little feeling of Divine chastisement. There is too much sensibility when we are rendered incapable of the worship of God, or are thrown out of sympathy with our fellow men, or when we are utterly absorbed in sorrow to the neglect of all the pressing claims of duty. There is too little feeling of Divine chastisement when we are not, by its agency brought to faithful heart searching, and to anxious inquiry respecting the purpose of our Heavenly Father in the correction. Let us look at all our trials as opportunities of personal advantage. The exercise of patience is of itself a grand moral lesson. To be joyous in tribulation is greater grace than to be zealous in the time of strength. It may help us in the season of depression and suffering to compare our condition with that of others. The most accumulated of distresses, the strangest combination of griefs, will not make us the worst off in the world. Least of all can we count our sorrows against His “who gave Himself an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour.” We can also in the midst of all afflictions anticipate the rapidly approaching hour of deliverance. We shall presently cast off all earth’s calamities as the drops of a summer shower that have scarcely penetrated through our garments.
IV. To those who are not profiting by favourable providences. One of the later Latin poets has an apologue on the missing of opportunity worthy of our attention. A visitor to the studio of Phidias having inspected the statues of the different deities, inquired the name of one unknown object. It had winged feet,--to show how swiftly it flies; its features were covered with hair,--because, when approaching the spectator, it is rarely identified; it was bald behind,--because when once gone none can seize upon it;--closely following at its heels was a slavish form. The first is Opportunity,--the last Repentance. Men miss the goddess Opportunity, and fall into the arms of Repentance. “So are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.” (W. G. Lewis.)
The progressive trials in life’s mission
The preceding verses display two things in the spiritual history of the prophet, which good men in all ages have often deeply felt--
1. An apparent incongruity between a fundamental article of religious belief, and the common facts of society. The righteousness of God he grasped with the tenacity of an earnest faith, it lay as the basis of all his religious views; and yet the facts of society, everywhere, seemed to contradict it. He saw, on all hands, the wicked prosperous and happy.
2. An incongruity between the fundamental spirit of religion and the passing feelings of the moment. The underlying spirit of religion is love; love to God and love to man--love even to enemies; but the prophet here expresses feelings in direct opposition to this spirit. How does he feel towards these wicked men? Commiseration? No, vengeance! Now, the text must be regarded as a gentle but impressive reproof, addressed by the great God to the prophet, for his want of forbearance and self-control.
I. The trials in life’s mission are of various degrees of power in the history of the same man.
1. None ever sailed the sea of mortal life and found every wind and tide propitious, the ocean always calm, and the horizon ever bright. But we are to speak of trials of a certain class, not the trials which come upon a man independent of his conduct, such as physical pain, bereavement, etc.; rather of such as are connected with the prosecution of his duties,--the trials of endeavour.
2. Every man has a mission; and every man who endeavours to fulfil it will meet with trials.
(1) There are trials in the endeavour to get knowledge. These obstruct the child in studying his alphabet, and the sage in grappling with the last problem.
(2) There are trials in the endeavour to get a living.
(3) There are trials in the endeavour to get moral excellence.
(4) There are trials in his endeavour to serve his age. What stolid ignorance--what warping prejudices--what base habits--what moral obtuseness--what indifference, ingratitude, and sometimes malignity!
II. The man who fails to contend successfully with the lesser trials, will not be able to withstand the greater. This principle is capable of application to all the departments of action to which we have referred: but we shall apply it exclusively to the comparative difficulties of getting religion in different periods of life.
1. We apply it to youth and age. With youth there are docility of disposition, tenderness of feeling, and freedom of intellect. As age comes on these disappear, and prejudices, indifference, and confirmed habits take their place.
2. We apply it to health and disease. There is required, especially in adult life and for investigating minds, a large amount of mental abstraction as the necessary means of attaining religion. Disease and suffering are not only unfavourable to such abstraction, but, in many cases, necessarily prevent its exercise.
3. We apply it to life and death. What is religion? The surrendering of our all to God,--the yielding up of ourselves as a living sacrifice. How can the man, therefore, who cannot resign himself to a commercial loss, or who responds most inadequately, if at all, to the claims of benevolence in life, be able, cheerfully, to yield his friends, property, and all he has, and is, to the great God in death? (Homilist.)
The less and the greater conflict
The Christian life is an exercise; necessarily a trial of strength and scene of discipline. But in the order of nature and providence there is a wise gradation, a benevolent introduction from the lesser to the greater ills of life. Steadfastness, patience, cheerful confidence in the smaller and less dangerous conflicts of life, will discipline and adapt us to bear the fiery assaults of the enemy.
I. Ordinary life, common everyday life, is the “running with the footmen,” is “the land of peace, where we are secure.” It tries our temper, our patience, our principles. It puts us to the proof whether we honour God most and best. Look where you will, be what you may, life is a trial. Riches, learning, piety, nothing can ward off trouble. It is a condition, not an accident of humanity.
II. There is a benevolent preparation and education for greater and more distressing conflicts by accustoming us to those which are common. The unerring eye sees the cup, the strong fatherly hand measures the draught. But we must bear in mind, when we have to tread the winepress alone, that God has a purpose in every vexation of daily life, in every cross, in every baffled enterprise, in every silent tear; and that that purpose is to prepare us by steadfastness in what is little and easy to bear, for confidence in Him under greater perils, in troubles which are hard to bear. The light in the darkness of today’s disappointment is designed to make us hold fast the lamp against the hour of that “darkness which may be felt.” Let no one think these lessons of daily life unimportant. “He that despiseth little things shall perish by little and little.” We must learn the secret of strength while running with the footmen.
III. In this Divine remonstrance it is distinctly implied that we shall be called to contend with the horsemen. The future is dark with shadows, but the Lord’s words will hold good of us all. Prepared or unprepared we must meet the storm, and if a little rain frighten us, how shall we meet it? Our sins, our weaknesses, our temptations, the virulence of the enemy, all render the coming struggles inevitable. Whatever you have gone through in this way is but a preparation for the hour of darkness; you will be called to contend with an enemy stronger than yourself, as a horseman is stronger than a footman; and you will be trodden down unless you are clothed with the strength of Him who is able to make you confident, “though a host should encamp against you.” (B. Kent.)
We condole with ourselves about troubles which are nothing but passing inconveniences; pin pricks are crucifixions. The fact is we bewail ourselves so continually and piercingly because we have little or no real trouble. Consider the sorrows of your neighbours, the misfortunes and crushing trials of your friends, and, in comparison, your troubles are absurd. Landsmen crossing the sea are full of anxiety and protest if only a slight breeze rock the ship; they are in anguish as if they suffered shipwreck; but the old salt, who has known the wrath of the ocean, smiles at their fretfulness and fear: and our neighbours and friends, who know what trouble is, listen with a compassionate smile to the glib recital of our toy tragedies. Our lamentations over this, that, or the other trifle, are convincing proof that we are well off; one genuine misfortune, one shattering thunderbolt, would hush our woeful tale. In the meantime we make more ado about a crumpled rose leaf than thousands of noble men and women do about a crown of thorns. The age in which we live tends to intensify sensitiveness, and we need to be on our guard against magnifying molehills into mountains and thistles into forests. We are taken care of on every side, our thousand artificial wants are promptly and ingeniously met, we have facilities and luxuries innumerable, until we become hypersensitive, and feel ourselves martyrs if the wind blows a little hot or cold, if we suffer toothache, or are overtaken by “the pleasant trouble of the rain.” The habit of observing these shallow troubles, nursing them, talking about them, making fax more of them than we justly ought to make, is to be carefully watched. It tends to impair the largeness, strength, and heroism of the soul, and to leave us unfortified against the real trials which most likely await us a little farther on. If the footmen weary us, how shall we contend with horses? A calm, wise, reticent way of bearing ordinary irritations, annoyances, and misfortunes will discipline and brace us to play our part worthily when we must battle with the avalanche, earthquake, and flood. (W. L. Watkinson.)
Prepare for greater things
If they cannot face the candle, what will they do when they see the sun? (Demosthenes.)
Effort easier now than it will be in the future
If, in early life, when sin was comparatively weak and conscience was comparatively strong, we were so easily and so often overcome by temptation, what hope for us when this order is reversed; when conscience has become weak and sin grown strong? If we were no match for the cub, how shall we conquer the grown lion? If we had not strength to pull out the sapling, how are we to root up the tree? If it exceeded our utmost power to turn the stream near its mountain cradle, how shall we turn the river that, roaring and swollen, pours its flood on to the sea? If we could not resist the stone on the brow of the hill, how shall we stop it when gathering speed at every turn, and force at every bound, it rushes into the valley with resistless might? Sin gaining such power by time and habit.
And if in the land of peace, wherein thou trustedst, they wearied thee, then how wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?--
The land of peace
1. God has appointed to all of us our peculiar trials; some have a heavy burden, and are inclined, on looking upon the events which befall them, to join in the complaint of the patriarch, “All these things are against me.” “Deep calleth unto deep,” etc. (Psalms 42:7); while that which has fallen to the lot of others is so slight as hardly to be called trial at all. The point in question, however, is not as to the degree of trial, but as to the way in which it is borne, and the results it is producing. All trials have their own work to perform, their result to produce, which could be produced in no other way; but then let us ask ourselves individually, Are these trials producing that result in my own case? We know what those fruits are; the patience, the bringing under the impatient and rebellious will, and the disciplining it to wait in humble submission upon God, the experience of self, and of the evil within, of God’s love as exactly suiting the need felt--the hope, not impulsive and uncertain, but sure and steady, and making not ashamed.
2. Similar thoughts may be suggested with regard to our conflict with sin and internal corruption. We are apt to complain of the difficulties of our Christian course. The way of self-denial and cross-bearing is found to be a hard way, the power of indwelling corruption is great, and love is cold. This is all true; but God warned us on our setting out, that the race we were engaging in was no easy matter, but that it would call for every energy, and that at no time could vigilance be laid aside with safety. The question is, then, have those difficulties complained of led to increased distrust of self--more constant watchfulness? There may be greater difficulties yet to be overcome, a greater and more important work to be done for the Master’s sake, and how can utter failure be avoided in these more difficult contests, unless we are gaining ground in that to which we have already been called? The question is (and this point is a most important one), not what success might you be gaining under other conditions, with temptations less strong, with fuller opportunities of good, and so forth; but in that particular conflict to which you are called, with those very besetting sins, prone to this infirmity or that, are you striving in the strength of the Lord earnestly and unremittingly?
3. There is a thought which may be brought to our minds by the typical idea familiarly attached to Jordan, as the emblem of death. Is there not often too wide a difference between a Christian employed in the active duties of life, and the same man when cast upon a bed of sickness, and knowing that perhaps his end may be near? There is necessarily a difference in the demonstration of feeling, but should there be this difference in the whole tone as it were of our religion? Unless now, while all is peaceful, and matters are going on in their accustomed course, there is the habitual living upon Christ, with a frequent sense of His presence, and delight in communion with Him, how shall we do in the swelling of Jordan?
II. Encouragement from the converse thought. If you have been faithful in that which is less, there is room for hope that you will be upheld in that which is greater, that if you have not been wearied and neglectful in the lesser conflict in which you have already been engaged, you will not be suffered to fall or be overcome in any that may yet threaten you. Have you misgivings and doubts as to future attacks of sin, and the strength of temptation under some new circumstances which may hereafter arise? As far as your own strength is concerned there is indeed much reason for that fear, but you know whom you have believed, whose strength has been put forth for you, on whose arm you have leant in the past, and therefore although your race were to become far more arduous than it is now, although hundreds of difficulties now unforeseen should spring up into being, yet you will not doubt His love, or distrust His power. What you have learnt of His past faithfulness and love forbids you to be apprehensive for the future; you will trust and not be afraid, knowing that you can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth you. The question is worthy of serious consideration, especially by those who, convinced of the vanity of earth’s gratifications, and of the value of the Christian portion, are yet withholding their hearts from Christ, and are yet unwilling to be wholly His. This, indeed, is the land of peace wherein you trust; but is yours indeed a true peace which will abide? Peace is truly offered, reconciliation provided, all ready on God’s part. Peace will surely follow upon pardon--upon the purging away of sin in the blood of Jesus, but is that peace truly yours now? (J. H. Holford, M. A.)
Then how wilt thou do In the swelling of Jordan?--
The swelling of Jordan
I. The historical significance and primary meaning of the words. Like many of the names that occur in Old Testament Scripture, that of Jeremiah--“raised up,” or “appointed by God,”--has a peculiar significance, if we consider the duties, important, yet hazardous, he was called upon to discharge during successive reigns. Jeremiah was very young when the Word of the Lord first came to him, in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah, while he was resident at Anathoth, his native city. There, after the prophetic gift was imparted, he continued to live for several years, until the hostility, not only of his fellow townsmen, but of the members of his own family having been aroused, on account, probably, of the holiness of his life, and the fidelity of his remonstrances, he quitted Anathoth, and took up his residence at Jerusalem. The finding of the Book of the Law, five years after he had begun to prophesy, must have had a powerful influence on the mind of Jeremiah, in whom, doubtless, the young and right-minded king Josiah found valuable help in the efforts he put forth with a view to promote national reformation. No sooner, however, was the influence of the court in favour of true religion withdrawn, than Jeremiah became an object of attack, as he had doubtless been long an object of dislike, on the part of those whose anger had been roused by his rebukes. This bitterness of opposition continued during successive reigns, and at various times his life was threatened. At the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, he was “put in confinement by Pashur, the chief governor of the house of the Lord”; but he seems soon to have been liberated, for we find that he was not in prison at the time when Nebuchadnezzar’s army commenced the siege of Jerusalem. The prophet Jeremiah had severe trials and manifold difficulties and discouragements to contend against. His counsels were rejected, and his voice was lifted up in the name of Jehovah seemingly in vain; his soul yearned with solicitude and tender affection towards those who turned a deaf ear to his admonitory voice, despised his “counsels,” and would have none of the reproofs he was commissioned to utter. By footmen some understand the Philistines and Edomites, whose armies were composed principally of infantry, and by “horses” the Chaldeans, who had abundance of cavalry and chariots in their army, and who subsequently ravaged Palestine, at the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion. But whether such be the force of the allusion or not, the gist of the argument seems to be as follows:--if lesser trials seem hard to be borne; if earthly losses have a sting of bitterness, and often inflict a severe wound; is there not need of holy resolution, based on a sure foundation, when, in addition to minor ills, as in the swelling of Jordan, which periodically overflowed its banks in the time of harvest, men’s lives might be placed in jeopardy, their flocks exposed to lions driven out of their lairs, and the produce of the harvest fields submerged or swept away; so the more ordinary trials of life, which yet demanded patience and meekness, would be followed by graver emergencies, such as a heaven-derived and supported hope, resting on no insecure or shifting foundation, but upon the Rock, the “Rock of Ages,” could alone enable men to bear up under; when, so to speak, the heavens grew dark, the waters raged, the banks were overflowed, the lashing hail fell, the earth “shook and trembled,” the lightning glanced and the thunder rolled, as in the severity of an almost tropical storm? “How wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?”
II. Practical lessons, applicable to various classes of persons.
1. To those who are careless about religion and its claims. It were almost ludicrous, if it were not also most melancholy, to notice man, who is indebted to God for all that he possesses, thus standing to “defy the Omnipotent in arms”; yet such is the attitude assumed by everyone who defies, maligns, insults the Great Benefactor, who, if strong to save, is also mighty to inflict just and condign punishment upon His foes. “Now, consider this,” says the Psalmist, “ye that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver.”
2. To the undecided. The position resembles that of a man on shifting sand, liable to the encroachment of the swiftly flowing stream. Ah! if at certain times uneasiness could not be banished, but care ate as a canker into the heart of what had the semblance of joy; an angry God, as it were, seen above; the abyss of darkness opening beneath; “blackness of darkness,” as if around; what need of arriving at a proper and satisfactory decision! Now, while, mercy can be found; while God’s invitation through Christ is heard, of “turning to the Stronghold as a prisoner of hope”; for if lesser difficulties have been perplexing; if grief and disappointment have already planted furrows on the brow, “what shall be the end of them that will not obey the Gospel of God”; who will not comply with a Saviour’s bidding, nor give their minds to the truth, nor allow of the Holy Spirit’s action upon the heart?
3. To such as are living in antagonism and opposition to God’s holy mind and will. Judgment may appear to be deferred; it is impending nevertheless--God hath spoken it.
4. To doubting Christians. Pilgrim, come: there “is bread enough, and to spare.” Tempted one, come: strength shall be given and decision imparted to repel the evil suggestion, as Paul at Melita cast aside the viper that sprang out of the fire, and fastened upon his hand. Mourner, approach; the Friend of mourners can support under earthly blanks and losses. (A. R. Bonar.)
The swelling of Jordan
I. Certain circumstances which make death more appalling than any other calamity.
1. Death must be met alone.
2. Not only the solace of thine accustomed society, but every other temporal result will then fail thee.
3. Death ushers us into a new and strange world. Well may flesh and blood shrink from the prospect of being effectually unhinged from all that is usual and accustomed--effectually divested of every material and earthly association, and of dipping its foot in the brink of that cold river, whose flood is appointed to roll over the head of all flesh.
4. Our great Enemy, as in all our trials so in this especially, will be at hand to improve it to our ruin.
II. To every sincere believer in Christ the horror with which the above circumstances invest death is entirely dispelled.
1. Although the Christian, in the trying hour of dissolution, cannot, any more than others, fall back upon the sympathy and support of his fellow men, still he is not left in the pitiful plight of the worldling and sinner to encounter death alone (Psalms 23:4).
2. What is it to him, if all earthly stays and confidences be broken up? He has not built his hopes of eternity on refuges of lies. He has “an anchor of the soul sure and stedfast.” He has first the sure word of promise, assuring him that his Lord will be with him when he passes through the rivers (Isaiah 43:2). And then he has the gracious and glorious work of atonement and mediation, upon which is based the everlasting covenant which God has made with him in Christ, and from the consideration of which he may draw up endless supplies of peace and satisfaction, even in those dark hours of disquietude.
3. It follows next to speak of the acquaintance which the Christian’s soul has during life contracted with the new sphere into which the swelling of Jordan bears him away. Some regards and respects to things terrestrial he must have entertained as dwelling on the earth--but this home, the home of his affections, has never, since he became a sincere Christian, been situated here below. This is only the house of his pilgrimage, and he accounts it so to be. While walking on the earth he has his “conversation in heaven.” Accordingly death ushers him into no strange scene, and introduces him to no strange company. No, he is already “come to Mount Sion,” etc. (Hebrews 12:22-24).
4. The “Lion of the tribe of Judah” is at hand to wrestle with the lion who “walketh about seeking whom he may devour,” and to bear away triumphantly from the conflict his own redeemed servant without the loss of a hair of his head, thus asserting his claim to “divide a portion with the great, and to divide the spoil with the strong.” (Dean Goulburn.)
The swellings of Jordan
If troubles, slow as footmen, surpass us, what will we do when they take the feet of horses? and if now in our lifetime we are beaten back and submerged of sorrows because we have not the religion of Jesus to comfort us, what will we do when we stand in death, and we feel all around about us “the swelling of Jordan”? What a sad thing it is to see men all unhelped of God, going out to fight giants of trouble; no closet of prayer in which to retreat, no promise of mercy to soothe the soul, no rock of refuge in which to hide from the blast. Oh, when the swift coursers of trouble are brought up, champing and panting for the race, and the reins are thrown upon their necks, and the lathered flanks at every spring feel the stroke of the lash, what can we on foot do with them? How can we compete with them? If, having run with the footmen, they wearied us, how can we contend with horses? We have all yielded to temptation. We have been surprised afterwards that so small an inducement could have decoyed us from the right. How insignificant a temptation has sometimes captured our soul. And if that is so, my dear brother, what will it be when we come to stand in the presence of temptation that prostrated a David, and a Moses, and a Peter, and some of the mightiest men in all God’s kingdom? If the footmen are too much for us, won’t the odds be more fearful against us when we contend with horses? But my text suggests something in advance of anything I have said. We must all quit this life. Oh, when the great tides of eternity arise about us, and fill the soul and surround it, and sweep it out towards rapture or woe, ah, that will be “the swelling of Jordan.” Our natural courage won’t hold us out then. However familiar we may have been with scenes of mortality, however much we may have screwed our courage up, we want something more than natural resources. When the northeast wind blows off from the sea of death, it will put out all earthly lights. The lamp of the Gospel, God-lighted, is the only lamp that can stand in that blast. The weakest arm holding that shall not be confounded; the strongest one neglecting that shall stumble and die. Oh, I rejoice to know that so many of God’s children have gone through that pass without a shudder. Someone said to a dying Christian: “Isn’t it hard for you to get out of this world?” “Oh, no,” he says, “it is easy dying, it is blessed dying, it is glorious dying”; and then he pointed to a clock on the wall, and he said: “the last two hours in which I have been dying, I have had more joy than all the years of my life.” General Fisk came into the hospital after the battle, and there were many seriously wounded, and there was one man dying, and the general said: “Ah, my dear fellow, you seem very much wounded. I am afraid you are not going to get well.” “No,” said the soldier, “I am not going to get well, but I feel very happy.” And then he looked up into the general’s face, and said: “I am going to the front!” But there is one step still in advance suggested by this subject. If this religion of Christ is so important in life, and so important in the last hours of life, how much more important it will be in the great eternity. Alas! for those who have made no preparation for the future! When the sharp-shod hoofs of eternal disaster come up panting and swift to go over them, how will they contend with horses? And when the waves of their wretchedness rise up, white and foamy, under the swooping of eternal storms and the billows become more wrathful and dash more high, oh, what, what will they do “amid the swelling of Jordan”? (T. De Witt Talmage.)
Are you prepared to die
I. This is an exceedingly practical question. How wilt thou do? is the inquiry. There are some subjects which are more or less matters of pure faith and personal feeling; and though all Christian doctrines bear more or less directly upon the Christian life, yet they are not what is commonly meant by practical subjects. Our text, however, brings us face to face with a matter which is essentially a matter of doing and of acting: it asks how we mean to conduct ourselves in the hour of death. Christians may differ from me on some points, but I am sure that here we are united in belief--we must die, and ought not to die unprepared.
II. It is undoubtedly a personal question. How wilt “thou” do? It individualises us, and makes us each one to come face to face with a dying hour. Now we all need this, and it will be well for each one of us to look for a minute into the grave. We are too apt to regard all men as mortal but ourselves. The ancient warrior who wept because before a hundred years were passed he knew his immense army would be gone, and not a man remain behind to tell the tale, would have been wiser if he had wept also for himself, and left alone his bloody wars, and lived as a man who must one day die, and find after death a day of judgment. Each one of you must die. We all come into the world one by one, and will go out of it also alone. We had better therefore take the question up as individuals, seeing that it is one in which we shall be dealt with singly, and be unable then to claim or use the help of an earthly friend.
III. It is one of the most solemn questions. Death and life are stern and awful realities. To say that anything “is a matter of life and death,” is to bring one of the most emphatic and solemn subjects under our notice. Now, the question we are considering is of this character, and we must deal with it as it becomes us, when we investigate a subject involving the everlasting interest of souls.
IV. This question was put by way of rebuke to the prophet Jeremiah. He seems to have been a little afraid of the people among whom he dwelt. They had evidently persecuted him very much, and laughed him to scorn; but God tells him to make his face like flint, and not to care for them, for, says He, If thou art afraid of them, “how wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?” This ought to be a rebuke to every Christian who is subject to the fear of man. There is an old proverb, that “he is a great fool that is laughed out of his coat,” and there was an improvement on it, that “he was a greater fool who was laughed out of his skin”; and there is another, that “he is the greatest fool of all who is laughed out of his soul.” He that will be content to be damned in order to be fashionable, pays dear indeed for what he gets. Oh, to dare to be singular, if to be singular is to be right; but if you are afraid of man, what will you do in the swelling of Jordan? The same rebuke might be applied to us when we get fretful under the little troubles of life. You have losses in business, vexations in the family--you have all crosses to carry--but my text comes to you, and it says, “If you cannot bear this, how will you do in the swelling of Jordan?” When one of the martyrs, whose name is the somewhat singular one of Pommily, was confined previous to his burning, his wife was also taken up upon the charge of heresy. She, good woman, had resolved to die with her husband, and she appeared, as far as most people could judge, to be very firm in her faith. But the jailer’s wife, though she had no religion, took a merciful view of the case as far as she could do so, and thought, “I am afraid this woman will never stand the test, she will never burn with her husband, she has neither faith nor strength enough to endure the trial”; and therefore, one day calling her out from her cell, she said to her, “Lass, run to the garden and fetch me the key that lies there.” The poor woman ran willingly enough; she took the key up and it burned her fingers, for the jailer’s wife had made it red hot; she came running back crying with pain. “Ay, wench,” said she, “if you cannot bear a little burn in your hand, how will you bear to be burned in your whole body?” and this, I am sorry to add, was the means of bringing her to recant the faith which she professed, but which never had been in her heart. I apply the story thus: If we cannot bear the little trifling pangs which come upon us in our ordinary circumstances, which are but as it were the burning of your hands, what shall we do when every pulse beats pain, and every throb is an agony, and the whole tenement begins to crumble about the spirit that is so soon to be disturbed?
V. The question may be put as a matter of caution. There are some who have no hope, no faith in Christ. Now I think, if they will look within at their own experience, they will find that already they are by no means completely at ease. The pleasures of this world are very sweet; but how soon they cloy, if they do not sicken the appetite. After the night of merriment there is often the morning of regret. “Who hath woe? who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine.” It is an almost universal confession that the joys of earth promise more than they perform, and that in looking back upon them, the wisest must confess with Solomon, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Now if these things seem to be vanity while you are in good bodily health, how will they look when you are in sickness? If vanity while you can enjoy them, what will they appear when you must say farewell to them all?
VI. I use the question as exciting meditation in the breasts of those who have given their hearts to Christ, and who consequently are prepared to die whenever the summons may come. Well, what do we mean to do, how shall we behave ourselves when we come to die? I sat down to try and think this matter over, but I cannot, in the short time allotted to me, even give you a brief view of the thoughts that passed through my mind. I began thus, “How shall I do in the swelling of Jordan?” Well, as a believer in Christ, perhaps, I may never come there at all, for there are some that will be alive and remain at the coming of the Son of Man, and these will never die. A sweet truth, which we place first in our meditation. I may not sleep, but I must and shall be changed. Then I thought again, “How shall I do in the swelling of Jordan?” I may go through it in the twinkling of an eye. When Ananias, martyr, knelt to lay his white head upon the block, it was said to him as he closed his eyes to receive the stroke, “Shut thine eyes a little, old man, and immediately thou shalt see the light of God.” I could envy such a calm departing. Sudden death, sudden glory; taken away in Elijah’s chariot of fire, with the horses driven at the rate of lightning, so that the spirit scarcely knows that it has left the clay, before it sees the brightness of the beatific vision. Well, that may take away--some of the alarm of death, the thought that we may not be even a moment in the swelling of Jordan. Then again, I thought, if I must pass through the swelling of Jordan, yet the real act of death takes no time. We hear of suffering on a dying bed; the suffering is all connected with life, it is not death. A dying bed is sometimes very painful; with certain diseases, and especially with strong men, it is often hard for the body and soul to part asunder. But it has been my happy lot to see some deaths so extremely pleasing, that I could not help remarking, that it were worth while living, only for the sake of dying as some have died. Well, then, as I cannot tell in what physical state I may be when I come to die, I just tried to think again, how shall I do in the swelling of the Jordan? I hope I shall do as others have done before me, who have built on the same rock, and had the same promises to be their succour. They cried “Victory!” So shall I, and after that die quietly and in peace. If the same transporting scene may not be mine, I will at least lay my head upon my Saviour’s bosom, and breathe my life out gently there.
VII. “How wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?” may be well used by way of warning. You grant that you will die, and you may die soon. Is it not foolish to be living in this world without a thought of what you will do at last? A man goes into an inn, and as soon as he sits down he begins to order his wine, his dinner, his bed; there is no delicacy in season which he forgets to bespeak, there is no luxury which he denies himself. He stops at the inn for some time. By and by there comes in a bill, and he says, “Oh, I never thought of that--I never thought of that.” “Why,” says the landlord, “here is a man who is either a born fool or else a knave. What I never thought of the reckoning--never thought of settling day!” And yet this is how some of you live. You have this, and that, and the other thing in this world’s inn (for it is nothing but an inn) and you have soon to go your way, and yet you have never thought of settling day! “Well,” says one, “I was casting up my accounts this morning.” Yes, I remember a minister making this remark when he heard of one that east up his accounts on Sunday. He said, “I hope that is not true, sir.” “Yes,” he said, “I do cast up my accounts on Sunday.” “Ah, well,” he said, “the day of judgment will be spent in a similar manner--in casting up accounts, and it will go ill with those people who found no other time in which to serve themselves except the time which was given them that they might serve God.” You have either been a dishonest man, or else you must be supremely foolish, to be spending every day in this world’s inn, and yet to be ignoring the thought of the great day of account. But remember, though you forget it, God forgets not.
VIII. Before I close I must guide your thoughts to what is the true preparation for death. Three things present themselves to my mind as being our duty in connection with the dying hour. First seek to be washed in the Red Sea of the dear Redeemer’s blood, come in contact with the death of Christ, and by faith in it you will be prepared to meet your own. Again, learn of the Apostle Paul to die “daily.” Practise the duty of self-denial and mortifying of the flesh till it shall become a habit with you, and when you have to lay down the flesh and part with everything, you will be only continuing the course of life you have pursued all along. And as the last preparation for the end of life, I should advise a continual course of active service and obedience to the command of God. I have frequently thought that no happier place to die in could be found than one’s post of duty. If I were a soldier, I think I should like to die as Wolfe died, with victory shouting in my ear, or as Nelson died, in the midst of his greatest success. Preparation for death does not mean going alone into the chamber and retiring from the world, but active service, doing the duty of the day in the day.” The best preparation for sleep, the healthiest soporific, is hard work, and one of the best things to prepare us for sleeping in Jesus, is to live in Him an active life of going about doing good. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Who shall carry me over the river
A prominent business man thus expressed himself to a Christian minister: “I am interested in Church matters, and always glad to see ministers when they call. But I have thought the subject over long and carefully, and have come to the deliberate decision that I have no need of Jesus.” A single week had not passed before that man was taken sick. His disease was accompanied with such inflammation of the throat as forbade his speaking at all. This enforced silence continued until the hour, of death, when he was enabled to utter simply this one despairing whisper: Who shall carry me over the river?”
The swelling of Jordan
These words are a remonstrance which God addresses to His prophet, Jeremiah. He had the most shrinking, sensitive nature of all the Hebrew prophets. Yet his task was to make a stand for God in the time of his nation’s direst need. Babylon, the great heathen power, had thrown a cord round the neck of Israel which it tightened every year. Its forces were closing round Jerusalem with the slow but sure pressure of a military advance. And the people all the while were unaroused, like sleeping children in a house that has caught fire. The politicians trusted to their diplomacy; they hoped to fight the brute force of the enemy with their wits. The priests and the prophets drugged the conscience of the nation with the facile phrases of a lazy and stupid trust. Jeremiah stood out alone, like Athanasius against the world, hated alike by the statesmen and the leaders of the religious world. There are usually, we say, two sides to every question, and the case for Jeremiah’s foes was something like this. He seemed to them a tiresome herald of ill, prating always of fateful things because he had a gloomy nature. He seemed to be without any patriotic feeling, constantly saying hard things about his own country, and glorifying Babylon as the avenging instrument of God. So it had come about, long ere the last crisis of Jerusalem, that the Jews felt a bitter hatred of Jeremiah. We have read (Jeremiah 11:18; Jeremiah 12:6) how, somewhat early in his history, some of them tried to kill him. The prophet was paying a visit to his native village of Anathoth, a few miles from Jerusalem. He was ignorant of danger. And all the while his own townsmen and brethren were plotting his death. But for some special providence of God his career would have reached a too early close. But now, when the danger is past, a strange thing is seen. There is no record of any psalm of deliverance to help the praise of our later generations. But, as if in its place, there falls on the prophet one of those terrible moods of depression when, in Bunyan’s language, he is held in the grasp of Giant Despair and thrown into Doubting Castle. Why must he face with single hand the troops of the wicked? Why cannot God strike in and cut short the struggle? He who by nature was sensitive as a reed became by God’s grace as an iron pillar and a brazen wall. And so it is here. In the words of the text, the demon of depression is driven off and retires for a season. Jeremiah crushes the cowardly thoughts that had arisen within him by the vision of sterner trials in the future. The brush with the men of Anathoth is a small affair, a mere race with footmen; Jerusalem in the days to come will see him try his speed against horses. Soon he will look back to the present time as to a mild land of peace, girdled by a summer-dried river. Ah, you say, we have little in common with a great prophet. He was set to do a loud-resounding task, while our days are passed in obscurity, far away from the roar of a battle of the nations. Yes, but all human lives run up to a centre. The inner struggle of every soul is the same, whether it is fought out in the cottage, or in the tent of the soldier, or in the fiery heart of the prophet. It has come readily to men to liken human life to a stream descending to the sea. But it is not the precise image of the text, which rather compares the life of man to the flat meadows that adjoin some mighty stream. For long months of the year there is a time of holy quiet. The flowers are gay, the grass is green, the river murmurs gently as if singing a song of rest, the boys and girls are shouting at their play. But one day a change seems to come over the stream. Its gentle murmur swells into a threatening roar. The days of dreadful ease are gone; desolation looks men in the face with a grey and grim reality; the evil days have come. That is the image of the text. What of its practical meaning? There are times when our duty seems almost easy, when it is not hard to beat off temptation. Such times are our “land of peace.” But there are other times, when the need is sore and the contest cruel. Every nerve is strained. Such times are for us as “the swelling of Jordan.” The text puts into heightened and rhythmic words a very obvious truth, which surely wins emphasis and illumination from the stern history to which it belongs. It should make us cease moaning over our trivial griefs, when we find that God speaks so lightly of a serious trouble. Jeremiah had barely escaped with his life, yet his foretaste of the bitterness of death is compared to “a land of peace.” He gets no petting, and is promised no relief from such trial in the future. He is merely asked to reflect on the principle that underlies all moral heroism. “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much.” Let us follow out this principle in two or three illustrations. Take first of all the everyday calls of duty, what Keble has named “the trivial round, the common task.” To all of us, at some time in our lives, there come periods of crisis when a heavy demand is made on our store of courage and endurance. Then it is that the dire need sifts our character and declares the moral poverty or wealth. As the man is, so is his strength. The text tells us that this great clay of “the swelling of Jordan” is bound together with our easy days in “the land of peace.” Those deeds of vast renown, which the grace of God calls out on occasion, do not come flashing out of a background of moral laxity or shame. They are not idle, lawless lights of heaven, coming we know not whence, going we know not whither. They have been prepared for by long and quiet days of lowly service. In the “Character of the Happy Warrior” Wordsworth insists that a soldier’s brave feats of daring in battle are just the outcome of faithfulness to duty in days of peace. In “the mild concerns of ordinary life” the genuine hero is training for a mightier task. Suddenly he confronts some awful moment, weighty with solemn issues. Then the hidden strength leaps forth. He is “attired with sudden brightness, like a man inspired.” Water; we say, does not rise higher than its source, and certainly men and women do not leap to a height and marvel of self-sacrifice until their daily practice has subdued them to a resolute self-mastery. Take, as a second illustration of the principle of the text, our everyday experiences of temptation and moral defeat. The man who brings his conscience to bear on his everyday tasks is training for higher things in a future that may rush on him at any moment. But there is also the sad opposite of that truth. Neither for good nor for evil can we wholly cut ourselves away from our past life. The years that are no more have a part on shaping the years that are to be. The fall from grace today was easier because yesterday you did not strive mightily against sin. Habits and desires move on to their climax and fulfilment. Alike in the kingdom of God and the kingdom of sin, you have no permission to stand still. Every day of our lives puts us to some proof or trial. These things are so, yet it is only in our high moments that we fully realise and act upon them. We forget that the oft-repeated story of a ruined life tells not of one great fall, but of many little ones. Men overlook the tiny breaches which sin has made in the wall of resistance. They are weary of this endless running with the footmen. After long days there steals on them the drowsiness of the enchanted ground. But the weariness is fatal, as the soft sleep of the tired traveller amid the falling snow. Let us remember that those periods of moral crisis struck even upon the stainless Christ. He was tempted, an apostolic writer tells us, in all points as we are. But temptation concentrated its powers in great turning points of His history, in the wilderness and in the agony of the garden, in the remonstrance of a chosen apostle and in the hour of darkness on the Cross. All the disastrous forces with which the moral atmosphere was charged gathered themselves together and burst in furious storm. And the life of Jesus resembles in this the life of men. All our history is in part a history of temptation. But there are times in the lives of all of us when temptation concentrates its powers. Our life is no longer a series of skirmishes. Now at length it is a pitched battle with the enemy in full armour, and all his forces set in array against us. (D. Conner, M. A.)
Mine heritage is unto Me as a speckled bird.
A speckled bird
Mine (God’s) heritage is unto Me as a speckled bird. As an owl, say some, that loveth not the light; as a peacock, say others, as oft changed as moved. God, that could not endure miscellany seed, nor linsey-woolsey, in Israel, can less endure that His people should be as a speckled bird, here of one colour, and there of another; or as a cake not turned (Hosea 5:4). (John Trapp.)
God’s people as speckled birds
“Mine heritage (the godly man’s) is unto me as a speckled bird.” When living at Cambridge Mr. Spurgeon was appointed to preach at a village lust outside the city, and during the day, after much reading and meditation, he was unable to light upon a suitable text, and was, as Bunyan would say, “much tumbled up and down” in his thoughts. Rising from prayer and the reading of the Scriptures he walked to the window, and, looking out, espied on the other side of the narrow street a solitary canary upon the roof ridge, surrounded by a crowd of sparrows that were all pecking at it. At that moment the verse quoted flashed into his mind, and he started off upon his country walk, restful in heart and mind, and composed his sermon as he journeyed, the main points of his discourse being the peculiarity of God’s people and the persecutions they suffer in consequence. He thus speaks of the episode himself: “I preached with freedom and ease to myself, and, I believe, with comfort to my rustic audience. The text was sent to me, and if the ravens did not bring it, certainly the sparrows did.” (Chas. Spurgeon.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Jeremiah 12". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20