Click here to join the effort!
I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth.
I. The rich and glowing description of youthful piety here given.
1. Ardent affection.
2. Union of the soul to Christ.
3. A going after God.
4. Not discouraged by difficulties and troubles.
5. A religion of holiness.
II. The aspect which the Divine remembrance of youthful piety may have on different circumstances of life.
1. A view of approbation.
(1) When you are successfully struggling with the temptations of the world.
(2) When you act under the influence of youthful impressions in promoting the cause of truth and holiness.
(3) When sunk in deep affliction.
(4) When young people come to be old people.
2. A remembrance of regret and displeasure. (R. Winter, D. D.)
“Thy first love”
I. God remembers with grace the best things of His people’s early days.
1. I think that it is, first, because all these were His own work. If there was in thee any light, or life, or love, it was the gift of the Spirit of God.
2. God also remembers with pleasure those best things in His people’s early days because they gave Him great delight at the time. Those first tears, which we tried to brush away secretly, were so precious to the Lord that He stored them away in His bottle.
3. It is very sweet to reflect that, when God says that He remembers the love of our espousals, and the kindness of our youth, He does not mention the faults connected with our early days. Our gracious God has a very generous memory.
4. The Lord so remembers the best things of our early days that He recounts them. He says, “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth.” Let us try whether we can recollect how we showed our kindness to our God in our early days. Then the Lord adds, “I remember thee the love of thine espousals.” Oh, some of us did love God very fervently in our early days! Observe that the Lord speaks in our text of Israel’s going after Him into the wilderness: “I remember thee . . . when thou wentest after Me in the wilderness.” Perhaps some of you, when you became Christians, had to give up a situation, or to quit some evil trade. Perhaps you had to run the gauntlet of a workshop where everybody laughed you to scorn. Some of you had hard times in those days; yet I will not call them hard, for you never had in all your life such joy as you had then. When everybody gave you an ill word, then Christ was most precious to you, and your love to Him burned with a steady flame.
II. God remembers with a gracious purpose the best things of our early days.
1. He remembers them that He may make use of and honour us in our after days. There is many a man, now honoured in the service of God, who would not have been if he had not been faithful to God as a youth; and I believe that there is many a man who has missed his opportunity of serving God through not beginning well.
2. God remembers these early faithful ones, to instruct them, and to reveal Himself to them.
3. The Lord also remembers what we do in our youthful love and kindness, that He may sustain us in the time of trouble.
4. Especially do I think that this must be true in the time of old age. “I remember how you worked for Me when you could work for Me; and now that you are getting grey and old, and can do but little in your last days, I will uphold you, and bear you safely through.”
III. God would have us remember the best things of our early days for our rebuke. Ah, you are not what you used to be, not so decided, not so joyous, not so faithful! What have you been at? Do you not owe more to God now than you did then! You have come a good way on the road since then; ought you to love Him less? He has blessed you; He has preserved you; He has forgiven you; He has manifested Himself to you. You have had some grand times when your heart has burned within you; you have sometimes had a taste of heaven upon earth. Should you not, therefore, love Him much more than at the first? Oh, come back with tears of deep regret, and give yourself again to God! Have you ever seen a water-logged ship towed into harbour? She has encountered a storm; all her masts are gone, she has sprung a leak, and is terribly disabled; but a tug has got hold of her, and is drawing her in, a poor miserable wreck, just rescued from the rocks. I do not want to enter heaven that way, “scarcely saved.” But now look at the other picture. There is a fair wind, the sails are full, there is a man at the helm, every sailor is in his place, and the ship comes in with a swing, she stops at her proper place in the harbour, and down goes the anchor with cheery shouts of joy from the mariners who have reached their desired haven. That is the way to go to heaven; in full sail, rejoicing in the blessed Spirit of God, who has given us an abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
God’s remembrance of our covenant with Him
I. A solemn dedication to God and entering into covenant with Him.
1. A contract founded in love. The soul is under the influence of a supreme love to God, a high esteem of His infinite excellences, and a grateful sense of His innumerable benefits.
2. This contract consists of mutual, unalterable engagements. The soul gives itself to the Lord; enters into covenant to be wholly devoted to His service and interest, and to admit no rival with Him. God avouches such a soul for His; and promises to be its God, its father, portion, and happiness.
3. This covenant, like the marriage covenant, is never to be dissolved.
II. The pleasing remembrance which God has of an early dedication to Him. God accepts it as double kindness.
1. Because in youth the affections are most warm and lively.
2. Because it is rare and uncommon. (Job Orton.)
1. Behold in God a disposition to commend, rather than condemn. While we admire this tenderness, let us learn also to resemble it. Let us approve as far as we can; and, in examining characters, let us observe the good more largely than the evil. Let us beware of indiscriminate reflection; of speaking severely of persons in the gross; of branding a whole course of life with the reproach of a particular action.
2. God remembers the past. Our memories soon fail us. Old impressions soon give place to new ones, and we often find it difficult to recall, without assistance, an occurrence that happened a few months ago. But “a thousand years are in His sight but as yesterday,” etc.
3. It is well to be informed of what we once were, and to be led back to our former experience. It is useful for a preacher sometimes to remind us of our natural state; that we may “look to the rock whence we are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence we were digged.” We need everything that is favourable to self-examination and self-knowledge.
1. To Christians under declensions in religion. How dreadful is it that, when everything requires our advancement, we should be stationary! that, when means and ordinances, mercies and trials, unite to urge us forward; that, when our obligations to God are daily increasing, and the day of account every hour approaching so we should not only stand still--but even draw back!
2. To those who promises fair in their youth, and are now become irreligious. Perhaps you say, “But we are not vicious and profligate.” So far it is well. And oh that this was true of all! but, alas! we have swearers now, who in their youth feared an oath; we have Sabbath breakers now, who in their youth revered the sacred hours; we have sceptics and scoffers now, who from a child knew and admired “the Scriptures, which are able to make us wise unto salvation.” You say, “We are not like them. But they were not thus drawn aside all at once; they became wicked by degrees. This is always the course of sin. They “proceed from evil to evil”: they “wax worse and worse.”
3. To those who in their early days are truly devoted to the service and glory of God. To such the words are applicable--not in a way of reproach, but honour--not in a way of rebuke, but encouragement. (W. Jay.)
“Many a fine morning has been overspread with clouds, and followed by foul weather. Many a tree in spring has been covered with blossoms, which have never settled into fruit.” King George had it in his mind to build a marble palace, and he has left behind him nothing but a marble arch. All failures. (W. Jay.)
Changed moral conditions
It is difficult to think that the mighty rocks which are as hard as flint were once as soft as the flesh of a little child, and that your finger dent would have left a mark upon them as upon dough kneaded for the next batch of bread. Upon some rocks there is the impression of leaves and ferns. In our great museums there are stone slabs with the marks of raindrops that fell in gentle showers hundreds and hundreds of years ago, while on other rocks may be seen the footprints made by wild birds upon the soft beach by the side of some rushing stream in some remote age. Gradually the clayey soil hardened into stone, and from the tracery and marks upon the rocks it is possible to tell what kind of trees and birds grew and flourished in those early times. As with the hard rock, so with the hard heart. It was once soft and gentle. God said to the children of Israel, whose hearts had become like stone, “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth” (Jeremiah 2:2). (A. Hampden Lee.)
What iniquity have your fathers found in Me.
The evil nature of sin committed after conversion
I. Violation of solemn vows and covenant engagements. At that time we took Christ’s cause for our cause, His people for ours, His will for our law, His glory for our end, and Himself for our portion. Did we love Him too well then?
II. Without any provocation whatever on God’s part.
1. Was He wanting in forbearance when we were in rebellion?
2. Did He act unfeelingly when we were ruined, in that He gave His own Son to die for us?
3. Has He been a hard master since we entered His service?
4. Has He ever been a churlish father to us?
5. When we have returned to Him with our whole heart, has He not always been ready to receive us, and bury all in forgetfulness? (Daniel 9:7.)
III. Peculiar and horrible ingratitude.
1. He has given, not Egypt or Ethiopia for our ransom, but His own blood.
2. He has redeemed us, not from Egyptian thraldom, but “from the Power of darkness,” etc.
3. We never were supported by miracles in lonesome deserts of Arabia, but “having obtained help of God, we continue.”
4. We did not possess Canaan, but “God hath provided some better thing for us.”
IV. Extreme and singular folly.
1. It is a foolish exchange--of liberty for drudgery, peace for remorse, joyfulness for anguish, abundance for penury and misery.
2. It is singular folly. The people of the only true God alone prove untrue! (Andrew Fuller.)
Heaven’s appeal to the sinner
1. The sinner is divinely described.
1. Sin is departure from God. Alienation of sympathy and soul.
2. Sin is a progress of vanity. A going from the real to the unreal.
(1) The pleasures he seeks are unsatisfactory; all empty, and outside him.
(2) The honours he aspires to are unreal; neither enrich nor ennoble the soul.
II. The sinner is divinely challenged.
1. If iniquity were found in God, there would be some justification for apostasy.
2. The discovery of such iniquity is an absolute impossibility. (Homilist.)
God’s mercies should evoke gratitude
Selim, a poor Turk, had been brought up from his youth with care and kindness by his master, Mustapha. When the latter lay at the point of death Selim was tempted by his fellow servants to join them in stealing a part of Mustapha’s treasures. “No,” said he, “Selim is no robber! I fear not to offend my master for the evil he can do me now, but for the good he has done me all my life long.” May not many Christians learn a lesson from Selim?
Neither said they, Where is the Lord, that brought us up?--
Three shameful possibilities in human life
I. The possibility of dishonouring the great memories of life. “Neither said they, Where is the Lord?” etc. The dark night was forgotten, and Israel did not know who had lifted upon it the brightness and hope of morning.
1. The great memories of life are dishonoured--
(1) When the vividness of their recollection fades.
(2) When their moral purpose is over looked or misunderstood.
(3) When their strengthening and stimulating function is suspended.
2. What would human life be without its hallowed memories? Man must have facts as well as hopes,--something to which he can go back with confidence; back to some place where he met God. There is, however, a possibility of forgetting sacred scenes, and of cheating the soul of reminiscences which ought be a perpetual inspiration. Let each man find the proofs in his own history: Sickness, poverty, danger, etc.
II. The possibility of underestimating the interpositions of God.
1. Look at the case in the text,--through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and pits, through a land of drought and of the shadow of death, through a land that no man passed through, and where no man dwelt. Viewed prospectively, men shrink from such difficulties; viewed retrospectively, a good many of the terrors are forgotten. Granted that we have not the same outward difficulties, will any man deny that his moral pilgrimage is beset by many perils, and that the grave is constantly open at his feet? Not only was the dark side of history forgotten, but the bright side was overlooked. “I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof.” What was the result? Did they erect the altar, and bow in long-continued prayer, and unite in the loud, sweet psalm of thankfulness? “Ye defiled My land, and made Mine heritage an abomination.”
2. If we try our own lives by these historical disclosures, shall we shame Israel by our purity and love? Remember the Deliverer! Remember the Giver!
III. The possibility of the leading minds of the Church being darkened and perverted (Jeremiah 2:8). The priests, the pastors, and the prophets, all out of the way!
1. In all ages there have, of necessity, been foremost men; men whose capacity, culture, and Divine election have entitled them to leadership; men whom God Himself has acknowledged as the guides of the people. How easy it is for such men to succumb in periods of general corruption is too evident from universal history. What then?
(1) Such men should watch themselves with constant jealousy.
(2) Such men should never be forgotten by those who pray.
2. The most affecting of all subjects to contemplate is,--God grieved, God complaining! Would He complain without reason? Would He startle the universe for some trifling cause? It is as the cry of one whose heart is breaking; His great deliverances have been forgotten; His heritage has been defiled; His power has been despised, and His mercy been treated as an empty sentiment; what if the throb of His great sorrow should send a shudder of distress through the heavens and the earth! Look at Calvary for the full expression of all this Divine emotion. Seeing that such pain was inflicted by sin, let us avoid it as the abominable thing which God hates. (J. Parker, D. D.)
The priests said not, Where is the Lord?. . .the rulers also transgressed . . . and the prophets, etc.
The three ruling classes accused
1. The priests, part of whose duty was to “handle the law,” i.e., explain the Torah, to instruct the people in the requirements of Jehovah, by oral tradition and out of the sacred law books, gave no sign of spiritual aspiration; like the reprobate sons of Eli, “they knew not Jehovah,” that is to say, paid no heed to Him and His will as revealed in the book of the law.
2. The secular authorities, the king and his counsellors, not only sinned thus negatively, but positively revolted against the King of kings, and resisted His will.
3. The prophets went further yet in the path of guilt, apostatising altogether from the God of Israel, and seeking inspiration from the Phoenician Baal, and following worthless idols that could give no help. (C. J. Ball, M. A.)
The corruption and ignorance of the priests and prophets
Two centuries ago the religious state of the English-speaking world was bad, and was rapidly becoming worse. Infidelity was fast spreading among the people, and, consequently, there was an open and professed disregard of religion and morals. The secret of this sad state was simple. The clergy, though their lives in general might not be scandalous, were, as a rule, ignorant of all spiritual truth, and in too many cases even devoid of a sound intellectual apprehension of scriptural teaching. As Cowper, referring to those clergy, tersely put it--
“Except a few with Eli’s spirit blest,
Hophni and Phinehas may describe the rest.”
Hath a nation changed their gods, which are yet no gods?
The text may be put into other words, thus: “Go over to the islands of the Chittim, the isles and coast lands of the far west; then go to Kedar, away in the eastern desert,--go from east to west,--and ask if any heathen land has given up its idols, and you will find that no such thing has ever taken place; but whilst the heathen have kept to their gods as if they bad strong love for them, My people, for whom I have done so much, whose names are on the palms of My hands, have turned away from Me, and have given up their living and loving God for that which can do them no good.” There must be some way of accounting for conduct so clearly unreasonable and ungrateful. We may perhaps find our way to the secret step by step, if we notice one or two things that we ourselves are in the habit of doing. We all know how much easier it is to keep up the form of religion than to be true to its spirit. Say that religion is a number of things to be done, some at this hour and some at that, and you bring it, so to speak, within range of the hand, and make it manageable; but instead of doing this, show that religion means spiritual worship, a sanctified conscience, and a daily, sacrifice of the will, and you at once invoke the severest resistance to its supremacy. Or say that religion simply means a passive acceptance of certain dogmas that can be fully expressed in words, which make no demand upon inquiry or sympathy, and you will awaken the least possible opposition; but make it a spiritual authority, a rigorous and incessant discipline imposed upon the whole life, and you will send a sword upon the earth, and enkindle a great fire. Earnest religious controversy seems to be but the higher aspect of another controversy which has vexed man through all time. The study of God is the higher side of the study of man. It is a singular thing that man has never been able to make himself quite out, though he has been zealously mindful of the doctrine that “the proper study of mankind is man.” He wants to know exactly whence he came and what he is; but the voice which answers him is sometimes mocking, and nearly always doubtful. Is it wonderful that man, who has had so much difficulty with himself, should have had proportionately greater difficulty with such a God as is revealed in the Bible? On the contrary, it will be found that the two studies--the study of man and the study of God--always go together, and that the ardour of the one determines the intensity of the other. In this view the text might read thus: Pass over the isles of the Chittim, and see; and send unto Kedar, and consider diligently, and see whether the inhabitants thereof have studied the physiology and chemistry of their own bodies; but the philosophers of Christendom have built themselves upon protoplasm. Kedar cared nothing about humanity, and therefore it cared nothing about divinity. When man is not deeply interested in himself it is not likely that he will be deeply interested in God. In the doctrine that the very greatness of God is itself the occasion of religious controversy, and even of religious doubt and defective constancy, we find the best answer to a difficulty created by the words of the text. That difficulty may be put thus: If the people of Chittim and of Kedar are faithful to their gods, does it not prove that those gods have power to inspire and retain confidence? and if the people of Israel are always turning away from their God, does it not show that their God is unable to keep His hold upon their occasional love? Such a putting of the case would be valid if inquiry be limited to the letter. But if we go below the surface we must instantly strip it of all worth as a plea on behalf of idolatry. Clearly so; for, not to go further, if it proves anything it proves too much; thus--the marble statue which you prize so highly has never given you a moment’s pain; your child has occasioned you days and nights of anxiety; therefore a marble statue has more moral power (power to retain your admiration) than has a child. Your clock you understand thoroughly; you can unmake and make it again, and explain its entire mechanism down to the finest point of its action; but that child of yours is a mystery which seems to increase day by day: therefore you have more satisfaction in the clock than in the child. So the argument in favour of Kedar proves nothing, because it not only proves too much, but lands the reasoner in a practical absurdity. The foundation of this argument is, that of all subjects that engage the human mind, religion (whether true or false) is the most exciting; that in proportion as it enlarges its claims, will it be likely to occasion controversy; and that, as the religion of the Bible enlarges its claims beyond all other religions, assailing the intellect, the conscience, the will, and bringing every thought and every imagination of the heart into subjection, and demanding the corroboration of spiritual faith by works that rise to the point of self-crucifixion, the probability is that there will not only be a controversy between man and man as to its authority and beneficence, but also a controversy between man and God as to its acceptance; and that out of this latter controversy will come the very defection complained of in the text, and will come also the vexatious human controversies which may really be but so many excuses for resisting the moral discipline of the Gospel. This is the whole argument. Specially is to be noted that the principal controversy is not between man and man, but between man and God; our hearts are not loyal to our Maker; His commandments are grievous to souls that love their ease. The God of grace, rich in all comfort and promise, we do not cast off. We want such a God. But the God of law, of purity, of judgment, terrible in wrath and not to be deceived by lies, our hearts can only receive with broken loyalty, loving Him today, and grieving Him tomorrow. It is in this sad fact that we find the only satisfactory explanation of the slowness of the spread of the Christian kingdom. Evil hates goodness, hates light, hates God; and as truth cannot fight with carnal weapons, or force, itself upon the world by physical means, it can only “stand at the door and knock,” and mourn the slowness which it cannot accelerate. It is God’s will that the rock grow slowly, and that the forest hasten not its maturity; but it is surely not the will of the Lord that His children should grieve Him long, and provoke Him to wrath through many generations. We have been speaking of the controversy respecting the Unseen and Invisible God. There is a distinct effort made in our day to turn the controversy out of historical channels, and to fasten it upon abstract speculation. We must resist this effort, for we, at all events, believe that the discussion concerning essential Deity was started from a new centre when Jesus Christ came into the world. No name given under heaven amongst men has occasioned, and is now occasioning, so much controversy as the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Men do not know what to make of Christ. You cannot get rid of Christ: you exclude Him from your schools by Act of Parliament, but He, passing through the midst of you, says, “Suffer Me and the children to meet; let the flowers see the sun”; you find Him in statute books, in philanthropic institutions, in literature; you find Him now just as His disciples found Him, in out-of-the-way places, doing out-of-the-way things;--“they marvelled that He spake with the woman,”--the eternal marvel, the eternal hope! This leads us to remark that how strong soever Christianity may be in force and dignity of pure argument--and in that direction it has proved itself victorious on all fields--its mightiest force for good is in its vital and inexhaustible sympathy. Christianity as a sympathetic religion, tender, hopeful, patient, with morning light forever falling on its uplifted eyes, leaning with all its trust upon the Cross of the atoning Son of God, calling men from sin, ignorance, and death, is a figure the world will not willingly spare in its day of anguish and sore distress. It will be interesting to observe how God Himself meets the controversy which He deplores, for in doing so, we may learn a method of reply. When God answers, His reply must be the best. Look at the Divine challenge: “What iniquity have your fathers found in Me, that they are gone far from Me?” This sublime challenge you cannot find in all the sayings of heathen gods. And this is the invincible defence of the Christian religion in all ages and in all lands,--you have purity at the centre, you have holiness on the throne! Those who have read Augustine’s immortal work, The City of God, will remember with what fierce eloquence he scourges the gods of pagan Rome. How biting his tone, how keen his retorts, how broad his sarcasm! “Why,” he sternly demands, “did the gods publish no laws which might have guided their devotees to a virtuous life?” And again, “Did ever the walls of any of their temples echo to any such warning voice? I myself,” he continues, “when I was a young man, used sometimes to go to sacrilegious entertainments and spectacles; I saw the priests raving in religious excitement, and before the couch of the mother of the gods there were sung productions so obscene and filthy for the ear that not even the mother of the foul-mouthed players themselves could have formed one of the audience.” History, as you know, is full of such instances. Remembering these things, you may see the force of the inquiry, “What iniquity have your fathers found in Me?” This is the invincible defence of the Christian religion today. Observe how Jesus Christ repeats the very challenge we find in the text,--“Which of you convinceth Me of sin?” And, later on, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil.” They had accused Him often, but had convicted Him never! We apply this doctrine with timidity, for who would wilfully slay himself, or bring judgment upon a thousand men? Yet the application is this: When the Church is holy, the Christian controversy is ended in universal and immortal triumph! (J. Parker, D. D.)
The records of all ages exhibit the strange obstinacy with which the heathen usually cling to their superstitions. If we except the triumphs obtained over paganism by the Gospel of Christ from the apostolic age up to the present, some of which even in our own day have been most signal, the idolatrous nations of the world still perpetuate the absurd and unholy practices transmitted to them by their fathers. Most urgent then is it upon all Christians to feel pity for their fellow creatures sunk in the darkness and guilt of heathenism, and by Christian teachers to rescue them from their fearful condition. But there is also another practical consideration connected with a survey of the obstinate blindness and superstition of the heathen, and their devotion to their idolatrous worship, namely, the contrast which it affords to the conduct of too many who consider themselves worshippers of the one true God, and of Jesus Christ whom He hath sent. May it not too truly be said, “Hath a nation changed their gods, which are yet no gods? but My people have changed their glory for that which doth not profit.”
I. We have set before us evil conduct of the people.
1. The first step in the career of evil is “forsaking God.” This is the fountain and root of all other sins. While the prodigal son remained contented under his parent’s roof he knew nothing of the want, the hunger, which he afterwards experienced. His first sin, and that which led to all the evils which overtook him, was his neglect towards his parent, his indifference to his approbation, his wish to cast off the duties he owed to him. If then we would guard against evil, we must watch over our hearts, and beware of forsaking God. The more gross violations of His law are readily discovered, while perhaps we think little or nothing of that great sin which is the foundation of all others.
2. But this sin leads to another; for we are not content when we forsake God, that our hearts should continue a mere blank; we seek to fill up the void which His absence has made, and to find our satisfaction in other objects, which can never afford us true repose. Having forsaken God, we choose to ourselves idols. In the words of the Almighty in the chapter before us, “they are gone far from Me, and have walked after vanity, and become vain”; they even refuse His offers of peace and reconciliation.
II. Such is the universal offence of mankind against God: we proceed now to show the sinfulness, the ingratitude, and the folly, which are involved in it.
1. Its extreme sinfulness. Persons are apt to speak and to think of these subjects with the most careless indifference. They do not consider themselves as virtually addressed in such words as those in the chapter which precedes our text, where Jehovah says by His prophet, “I will utter My judgments against them, touching all their wickedness, who have forsaken Me, and have burned incense unto other gods.” They do not open their eyes to the aggravation of their crime, as pointed out even by our natural sense of obligation to our Creator, of which the very heathen are examples; for, says the Almighty, “hath any nation changed their gods, which are yet no god?” The light of natural reason taught them that they ought to obey their Creator, their preserver, and their benefactor. But the proof of our sinfulness in forsaking God, and in placing our trust and happiness in the things of this present life, does not depend upon the mere light of natural conscience; for we have in our possession a revelation from Himself, in which He plainly declares to us His own unerring decision upon the subject. “Ye shall walk after the Lord your God, and fear Him, and keep His commandments, and obey His voice; and ye shall serve Him, and cleave unto Him.”
2. But the sinfulness of forsaking God, and preferring other things to His service, is greatly aggravated by the ingratitude involved in the offence. The Almighty reminds His rebellious people of the miracles of mercy which He had performed on their behalf; how He had brought them out of the land of Egypt, etc. He gave them His law to guide them, and pastors to teach them; and He challenges them, as it were, to point out any instance in which He had acted unjustly or unkindly towards them: “what iniquity have your fathers found in Me?”
3. But there is still another consideration dwelt upon by the prophet in reference to this sinful and ungrateful course of conduct, namely, its unparalleled folly. The very heathen would not give up their vain hope of benefit from the supposed protection of their images of wood and stone; yet the professed worshippers of the one living and true God are too often willing to sacrifice the inestimable blessings of His favour for the most trifling gratifications of a frail and sinful life. “My people have changed their glory, for that which doth not profit.” No! it is the height of folly thus to choose the worldly mammon before the true riches; to forsake God for the creature; and to prefer earth to heaven, and time to eternity. Are we not conscious that we have seen guilty of the sin of forsaking God? (Christian Observer.)
“Hath a nation changed their gods?”
Xenophon said it was an oracle of Apollo, that these gods are rightly worshipped which were delivered them by their ancestors; and this he greatly applaudeth. Cicero also saith, that no reason shall ever prevail with him to relinquish the religion of his forefathers. The monarch of Morocco told an English ambassador that he had lately read St. Paul, and that he disliked nothing in him but this, that he had changed his religion, (John Trapp.)
Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this.
Parents of olden time were wont to tell their eager children of seven wonders:
(1) The Pyramids.
(2) The Temple of the great Diana of the Ephesians.
(3) The Statue of Jupiter at Olympia.
(4) The Tomb of Mausolus. What a satire on immortality! Who was Mausolus? We know not, but the mausoleum is with us. He gave his name and glory to his tomb.
(5) The Colossus at Rhodes.
(6) The Pharos at Alexandria.
(7) The Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
We have to do, however, at this moment with marvels in the province of the spiritual life. There are some things here touching our relations with the spiritual world whereat heaven must wonder. A thoughtful man will find it impossible to explain them.
I. An unclaimed crown. God made man in His likeness, with a splendid birthright and glorious possibilities before him. He was of the line royal, the blood of the King of kings flowing in his veins. Where is the man to whom God extends this crown? See him yonder chasing butterflies, pursuing thistle down. He calls this pleasure. See him toiling with a muck rake, his eyes downcast, plucking coins out of the garbage and loading himself with them. He calls this wealth. See him climbing laboriously the rocky side of yonder cliff that he may carve his initials upon its face--and fall. And this is fame! All the while the windows of heaven are open above him and the glory of the celestial realms is unveiled before him. He gives no heed.
II. A secret sin. Here we touch the lowest part of our nature. A dog with a bone sneaks off to a corner of the garden and buries it, watching meanwhile out of the corners of his eyes that none may know his secret. So we bury our darling sins; so we flatter ourselves that none shall ever find us out. An Egyptian princess died four thousand years ago, and her body was committed to a company of priests for embalming. They said, “Let us save ourselves the trouble; it will never be known.” So they dipped the body of a common Egyptian into bitumen and placed it in the princess’ casket. It was a clever trick; but a few years ago, before a company of scientists at Tremont Temple, gathered together to witness the unswathing of the royal mummy, the bands of byssus were unwound, and the fraud perpetrated by those priests, now forty centuries dead and turned to dust, was detected. There is, indeed, nothing hidden that shall not be brought to light, and that which is done in a corner shall be proclaimed on the housetop.
III. A reprobate’s laugh. Not long ago I heard the merry laughter of a girl and looked that way. A carriage was passing by. Through the open window I saw two women, the one old, haggard, bedizened--it was easy to discern her vocation--the other a sweet-faced girl late from some country home, going garlanded to death. God help her! How dare they laugh who are hurrying on unprepared to the judgment bar? Yet they are making merry everywhere. O men and women, let us De safe and then be merry.
IV. A Christian’s groan. We profess to believe that the past is forgiven, all gone like a nightmare, and that heaven is open before us and that Christ walks with us, an ever-present and helpful friend. If a man believes these things, how can he ever hang his head like a bulrush? Surely something is wrong. One night in Newgate prison a man sang cheerily and swung like a boy on the post of his bed. “Fine shining shall we have tomorrow!” Who is this, and what “shining” shall there be? This is John Bradford, and tomorrow he is to die at the stake. But what matter, if the day after tomorrow he shall be in the midst of the merry making of heaven? Why, shall he not with gladsome heart be praising God?
V. A tattered livery. Our Lord tells of a marriage feast whereat a certain one was found who had not on the wedding gown. His host remonstrated with him, “Friend, how earnest thou in hither in this garb?” And the man was silent. We are going to the marriage supper of the Lamb. Our heavenly Host has provided for us fine linen, clean and white, which is the righteousness of the saints. To appear in that heavenly presence clad in our own righteousness is to be found arrayed in rags and tatters, for all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.
VI. An averted face. A few days ago, at a hanging in a neighbouring State, it is said that twenty thousand people left town and tramped four miles along a country road to see a poor wretch swung from the gallows tree. There is, indeed, something brutal in our human nature. When our Lord was dying on the accursed tree it is written, “The people stood beholding.” Is it strange that men should look on anguish with a calm delight? Was it strange that men could look at Jesus dying and feel no responsive thrill of sympathy? Ah! a thousand times stranger is it that some of us should refuse to look upon Him! We hide, as it were, our faces from Him; He is despised and we esteem Him not.
VII. A waiting God. “Behold, I stand at the door,” etc. Wonderful patience! Love that passeth knowledge! His arms are loaded with the dainties of the kingdom, apples and pomegranates from the King’s gardens, and bread of life. Oh, let us draw the bolts that He may come in and sup with us! (D. J. Burrell, D. D.)
There is something unaccountable and unnatural about sin, which, if we were not the victims of its power every day, would startle and make us horribly afraid. If we merely heard of it as existing in some other of God’s worlds, we should doubt whether the report could be true. We should demand more than the usual amount of testimony before believing so unnatural a story, and when it was proved, should not cease to wonder, and to ask what cause beyond our experience had brought to pass a thing so marvellous.
I. It prevents men from pursuing what they own to be the highest good. There is a passage of Ovid where a person in a conflict between reason and desire is made to say, “Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor”; and in a like strain we hear Paul, or rather the man made aware of the bondage of sin saying through him, “That which I do, I allow not: for what I would, that do I not, but what I hate, that I do.” So true to human nature such words are, that no one ever thought of them as being misrepresentations of the real state of man. Everywhere we see examples of this sacrifice of a higher good to a lower, of acknowledged greater happiness to less, of the improvement of the mind to the enjoyments of the body, of future hopes to present pleasure, of an object of desire felt to be praiseworthy and exalted to one which is base and low and sure to be followed by remorse. We find this cleaving to the best of men and to the wisest: the influences of the Gospel may weaken but never remove this tendency. It belongs to mankind. Is there not, now, something very strange in this fatal proclivity toward the low, in this constant, wide-spread, unalterable folly of choosing wrong within the moral sphere of action. Suppose we found the same obliquity of judgment and choice elsewhere--that, for instance, a scholar, aware what was the right meaning of a passage according to the laws of thought and language, deliberately chose a wrong meaning; or a merchant, acquainted with the laws of trade, undertook an adventure with his eyes open, from which only ruin was to be expected; or a general, patriotic and discerning, adopted a plan of battle which all his experience had condemned as sure to end in his defeat: should we not regard such a person as a kind of moral prodigy, as fit to be put away in a museum of morbid psychology among the deranged men who have believed themselves to he two persons, or that their souls had gone from their bodies?
II. It is not dependent on a weak capacity, but the very highest intellects are often employed in its service. It is indeed true, that sagacity and folly will differ in their ways of sinning and of escaping detection. An absurd, or ill-contrived, crime will be committed by a boy or a half-witted person, and not by a man of shrewdness. Whence it may happen that the criminals in a penitentiary may be, in the average, below the ordinary range of intellect. In other words, the vigour of mind will show itself, either by abstaining from certain crimes, or by committing them in such a way that they will not be brought to light. But we do not find that the highest abilities keep men from sinning, from a life of pleasure, from deadly selfishness, from feelings which carry with them their own sting. Great minds lie like wrecks all along the course of life; either they disbelieve against evidence, or give themselves up to monstrous pleasures, or destroy the welfare of society by their self-will, or gnaw upon themselves with a deadly hatred of others.
III. Its existence involves the contradiction of the freedom and the slavery of the will. This is but another aspect of the truth which we have already considered--that the soul steadily chooses in some strange way an inferior good before a superior; but it is too important a view of our nature not to be noticed by itself. Mankind, in choosing the evil, have been an enigma to themselves and to the philosophers who have studied human nature. We see our nature exercise its freedom in various ways,--choosing now a higher good in preference to a lower, and now a lower before a higher,--doing this over and over within the sphere of earthly things, yet when it looks the supreme good full in the face unable to choose Him, unable to love Him, until, in some great crisis which we call conversion, and which is as marvellous as sin is, we find the soul acting with recovered power, acting out itself, and soaring in love to the fountain and life of its being. It is as if a balance should tell every small weight with minutest accuracy, and when a large weight was put on, should refuse to move at all. It is as if the planets should feel each other’s attraction hut be insensible to the force of the central sun. Is not sin then as unaccountable as it is deep seated and spreading in our nature?
IV. It has a power of resisting all known motives to a better life. This, again, is only another form of the remark, that we are kept by sin from pursuing our highest good; but under this last head we view man as opposing God’s plan for his salvation, while the other is more general. Here we see how causeless and unreasonable are the movements of sin, even when its bitterness has been experienced, and the way of recovery been made known. The way in which the Gospel comes to us is the most inviting possible--through a person who lived a life like ours on earth, and came into tender sympathy with us; through a concrete exhibition of everything true and good, not through doctrine and abstract statement. It has been the religion of our fathers, and of the holy in all time. It is venerable in our eyes. It is God’s voice to us. Where else can so many motives, such power of persuasion be found; and yet where else, in what other sphere where motives operate, is there so little success? Even Christians who have given themselves to the Gospel confess that all these weighty considerations often fail to move them; that they stand still or turn backwards a great part of their lives rather than make progress. So marvellous is the power of sin to deaden the force of motives to virtue, even in the minds of the best persons the world contains.
V. It can blind the mind to truth and evidence. Of this we see numberless examples in daily life. We see men who have been accustomed to judge of evidence within the same sphere in which religion moves, that of moral and historical proof, rejecting the Gospel and afterwards acknowledging that they were wilfully prejudiced, that their objections ought to have had no weight with a candid mind. We see prejudice against the Gospel lurking under some plausible but false plea, which the man has never taken the pains to examine, although immense personal interests are involved. We see men rejecting the Gospel unthinkingly, repeating some stale argument scarcely worth refutation, as if a great matter like the welfare of the soul might be trifled with, and made light of. It is strange, too, how quick the change is, when for some reason the moral or religious sensibilities are awakened after long slumber, how quick, I say, the change is from scepticism, or denial of the Gospel, or even hostility, to a state of belief. Multitudes of intelligent men have passed through such a conversion, and have felt ever afterwards that truth and evidence were sufficient, but that their souls were in a dishonest state. Now, how is this? Is this a new prejudice which has seized upon them, at their conversion, and has their candid scepticism given way to dishonest faith; or did sin,--that which in a thousand ways, through hope and fear, through indolence, through malignity, through love of pleasure, blinds and stupefies, did sin destroy their power of being candid before?
VI. The inconsistency of sin is marvellous in this respect that we allow and excuse in ourselves what we condemn in others. Men seem sometimes to have no moral sense, so open are their violations of morality, and so false their justifications of their conduct. And yet, when they come to pass censure upon others, they show such a quickness to discern little faults, such an acquaintance with the rule of duty, such an unwillingness to make allowances, that you would think a new faculty had been imparted to their minds. These severe critics of others are all the while laying up decisions and precedents against themselves, yet when their cases come on, the judges reverse their own judgments. They condemn men unsparingly for sins to which they are not tempted, although the radical principle in their own and in others sins is confessedly the same. Marvellous inconsistency! Strange that the same mind balances between two standards of conduct so long. Why does not the man, whose own rules condemn himself, begin to sentence himself, or to excuse and pardon others? Is not this an unnatural state of mind; impossible, save on the supposition that it is effected by some strange perversion of its judgments? (T. D. Woolsey.)
My people have committed two evils.
Two astounding evils
I. The force of human freedom. Mightiest rivers cannot break from their source, nor greatest planets from their centre, but man can from centre and fountain of his being.
1. This freedom is a matter of personal consciousness.
2. It invests human existence with transcendent importance.
II. The enormity of human wickedness.
III. The egregiousness of human folly.
1. In withdrawing from the satisfying to toil for the unsatisfying.
2. In withdrawing from the abundant to tell for the scanty (Homilist.)
The two-fold sin of mankind
I. The nature of sin. This will be seen by observing--
1. What men leave. God--a “fountain of living waters” to them. The sum of all excellency, the source of all happiness.
2. What the follow. “Broken cisterns.”
(1) Worldly business.
(2) Worldly pleasure.
(3) Earthly distinction.
(4) Worldly ease.
II. How we should regard sin. As God regards it--with loathing and abhorrence. Learn--
1. The emptiness of mere outward profession.
2. God’s remedy for man’s sin. (C. Clayton, M. A.)
They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters.
The fountain of living waters
In a land like this, perpetually green with Atlantic showers, which at once refresh the thirsty soil and replenish the subterranean reservoirs, it is not easy to understand the gratitude, reverence, almost affection, with which men who live under a fiercer sky, and upon a parched earth, look upon a “fountain of living waters.” Some remnant of the feeling, descending to us from an earlier and simpler time, may be noticed in connection with such a strong outgush of pure waters as, at Wells or at Holywell, springs into the upper air, at once a river: men have thought that there must be some healing efficacy in so bountiful a manifestation of one of nature’s most beneficent forces; and soon they have imagined a legend, and built a shrine, and to the natural holiness have added a superstitious sanctity. But it is almost the same in the thirstier lands of the East with any rill of water, so it be perennial. A spring becomes a natural landmark of a kind to which expectation points, round which memories are wont to gather. When all the long day the caravan has toiled patiently through the pitiless brightness, and the path has lain for many a weary mile over the sand slopes shimmering in the heated air, or by the mountain pass where the sun-smitten rocks reflect the intolerable rays,--how grateful, as the shadows are lengthening, to descry afar off the fringe of palm trees on the horizon, and to quicken the march, till at last there is a bubbling in the cool grass, and shade overhead, water for the thirsty lips, rest for the tired feet! And how terrible the disappointment, if, when the journey has tended to some less fortunate spot, where the care of man has provided--poor substitute for the bounty of God!--a cistern to catch a precarious and failing supply, the travellers have found at nightfall only a broken reservoir, and the trace of help and refreshment passed away! What resource, but a night as comfortless as the day had been toilsome, and on the morrow, a renewed effort, with diminished strength and a courage sustained by despair, to reach some happier island in the desert, where the waters of God never fail to flow! There is a depth of spiritual meaning in this passage, which, ignorant as we may be of the precise occasion to which it applies, forbids us to interpret it in any but a religious sense. It was, so to say, the nature, the destiny, of the Jewish people to be always committing the two evils of which it speaks. Theirs was indeed a mixed character, in which elements as opposite almost as light and darkness perpetually struggled for the mastery. Their distinguishing mark as a nation was insight into God: they had discerned Him as one; they had learned that He was holy; they had fixed, for all coming time, the true point of contact between God and man in the god-likeness of humanity; and yet in their history, as told by their own lips, they show themselves false, fickle, sensual, cruel, as hardly any other people. In Judah of old, a distracted State, the sport of fierce political passions within and beyond her own borders, falling back now upon a hard Levitical religiousness, now madly rushing upon alien idolatries, now again wakened to better life by the thunder of prophetic rebuke;--in Judah of old it was possible for a man to climb, like Isaiah, to such heights of rapt communion with the all-holy God as human feet have since but rarely trodden, or to find a downward way to abysses of foul sensuality, masking itself in a pretence of religion, such as it is not good even to speak of. It is enough surely to forsake God; to pass through the dry and thirsty land of life as if no fountain of living waters sprang up to cheer and to fertilise it; to choose the sun-smitten sand, to toil up the parched torrent bed, when it is possible to rest beneath the palm trees’ shade, and to drink of the brook that murmurs through the grass. And yet this can hardly be: the thirst for the Divine cannot wholly die out of the human heart: there must be some reaching forth to the unseen, some attempt to find a stay in the Eternal. So the first evil has its natural issue in the second. Those who have turned away from the living fountain bend their wandering steps towards a cistern of their own making, a broken cistern which will hold no water; a cistern which, as the traveller draws nigh, offers to his thirsty lips only the slime, where water was long ago, baking in the sun. This it is to forsake the solemn worship of Jehovah for the wild dance of the devotees of Baal. It may not be easy to expound this passage; but, as it stands, it is impossible not to feel how deep and how vivid it is. It contains all the secret of religion; the secret which it is the object of preaching of every kind to reveal and to enforce; the one truth which prophets present in every form of living and burning words,--that all life worthy of the name is life in, and with, and for God; that life without God is a dream likest death, except that by God’s mercy it is always possible to awake from it. So I take this particular metaphorical representation of the central truth to indicate that an essential element of human nature is a longing for the Divine, as heat and weariness thirst for cool water: a sense of a higher law, a holier will, to which it would be peace and happiness to conform: a desire to find, amid the perplexity of things, a hand of guidance, and in their mutability and sorrowfulness a heart on which to rest: a yearning after something fixed and changeless, to set against the daily experience of loss and decay and death. The thirst is in us all: when sorrow strikes us down upon the sand; when disappointment bars our way in the mountain pass; when the mirage of earthly affections first allures and then deceives us, we feel it, and all the more keenly that we hardly know where to seek the spring that will refresh us. Would that always we had the courage to listen to the promptings of our nobler nature, and to enter upon the impossible task of quenching the soul’s thirst for God! Would that always we could recognise the demand of our true need, and bring our parched lips through every desert and over every obstacle to the living spring “whereof who drinks shall never thirst again”! (C. Beard, B. A.)
The fountain and the cistern
Jeremiah was the medium rather than the source of these words; and it is noteworthy that he does not lay claim to them. We find lying between the two verses a clause which invests them with Divine authority, namely, “saith the Lord.”
I. The character which God gives Himself. It is a fact, that all that God has made and sustains speaks to us of God; and it is essential to morality and religion, as well as to our happiness, that God should reveal Himself. Before we can know that He is worthy of our supreme love, reverence, and trust, and that we should obey His will, He must make Himself known. We cannot conceive of God giving Himself a false character. God sets Himself forth as “the fountain of living waters.” His estimate of Himself is high, but not too high. He does not speak of Himself as a stream or reservoir of water. He is a “fountain,” and not merely a fountain among other fountains, but “the” fountain. If there be other fountains, they spring from Him; and He casts them completely into the shade. He is not content with representing Himself as the fountain of waters. He applies the epithet “living” to the waters that issue forth from Him. He is a fountain that is ever gushing. There is no exhausting of Him. There is an immense difference between the water that is taken from a reservoir and that which is drawn from a fountain. The water which is taken from a fountain is peculiarly fresh, pure, sweet, and wholesome. For ages the angels have been enjoying God. Has He become distasteful to them? The waters that flow from Him never grow stale and fiat. They are living and life-giving. They undergo no change for the worse. This language--“the fountain of living waters”--is, of course, figurative, and on that account all the more beautiful and expressive. The grand idea which they suggest is--that God alone can satisfy individuals and communities. Creatures are good and useful. As things are, we cannot do without them. Earth is not a superfluous gift. We require light and air; we require bread and human society, and a multitude of other things; but creatures are not absolutely needed. If God chose, He could dispense with them. Assuredly, it is not in creatures to satisfy us. They yield us more or less pleasure; and it would ill become us to despise them; but we have a mind above them. Deal with them as we may, they leave us unsatisfied. We were made for God, and, till we find Him, there is a void within. He is “the fountain of living waters,” and besides Him there is no fountain. Thirst has an injurious effect upon the body’s life, beauty, health, and strength, and is a most painful sensation. Well, what do the thirsty need? Lead them to a bubbling fountain, and they are satisfied.
II. The two evils with which Judah is charged.
1. The first evil is desertion of God. “They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters.” To forsake God in any physical sense, in the sense in which birds sometimes forsake their nests, and children home, is impossible. We can put local distance between us and our fellow creatures, but not between us and God. The forsaking referred to is departure of a moral kind, or departure in thought and affection. This species of departure from God was possible to the inhabitants of Judah. Like ourselves, they were morally free. They might either think about God or not, either love Him or not, either trust in Him or not, either do His will or not, either seek their happiness in God or not; and how did they act? It seems that the departure from God which we have characterised as possible, became actual. God did not turn His back on them; but they deserted Him, and in deserting Him they “forsook the fountain of living waters.” They forsook Him as a people, and in forsaking Him they committed an “evil.” They neither did God nor themselves justice, Morally, they backslided from Him--dismissed Him from their minds and hearts, and lapsed into A state of sin and idolatry. Instead of seeking their happiness in God, they began to seek it in other objects. What God pronounces an evil must be an evil. It is criminal to forsake God; and, as we would expect, it is as injurious as it is criminal.
2. The second evil is attempting to find a substitute for God. “And hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns,” etc. These two evils go together. The one naturally leads to the other. The religious is perhaps man’s strongest instinct. There is something which men of the world ever supremely fear and love, to which they look and pray in times of danger and distress, and on which they lean for happiness. Accordingly, when we cease to worship God--the right object of worship--there is not with us an end of all worship. There is merely a change of worship. Wrong objects are put in the place of God. Man is not competent to the supply of his own wants, and he knows it. He cannot rid himself of the consciousness of limitation and dependence. Hence, when he departs from God, he precipitates himself on a variety of objects, and devotes himself to a variety of pursuits, with the view of indemnifying himself, Nothing will do for those who renounce God, but trying their hand at cistern making They are driven to exert themselves in order to the discovery of a substitute for God; and are they successful? No. One cistern may be larger than another, or differ from another in shape, or other respects; but the best cisterns are leaky. Water may be poured into them, but, alas! they let it through. Whatever may be thought of them by the maker, they fall infinitely short of God, “the fountain of living waters.”
III. The summons to astonishment addressed to the heavens. “Be astonished,” etc. Were a fountain of living waters and a leaky cistern put before a person suffering from thirst, it would excite wonder were he to prefer the cistern to the fountain. We would be strongly tempted to call in question his sanity. Were a youth to leave a happy home--to forsake a father well able to provide for, protect, school, guide him, advance his temporal and spiritual interests, how would we feel on being introduced to him as a deserter from home? We would look on him with no small measure of pity and surprise; and how can we help being affected with the profoundest astonishment when with the mind’s eye we contemplate an intelligent and free creature turning his back upon God? (G. Cron.)
The misery of forsaking God
I. What has man substituted in the place of the happiness which might have been found in God?
1. Philosophy. They have sought enjoyment in calm contemplation on the relation of things, and on the abstract questions of philosophic inquiry. They have sought to raise themselves above suffering by rendering the mind insensible to the common ills of life, and they attempt to separate themselves from the common herd of mortals by their insensibility to the woes which affect the mass of men.
2. A part, men of leisure and of taste, fly to the academic grove, and look for happiness there. They go up the sides of Parnassus, and drink from the Castalian fount, and court the society of the Muses. Their enjoyment and their solace is in the pursuit of elegant literature. Their time is spent in belles-lettres--in the records of historic truth, or in the world of poetry and of fiction.
3. Another portion have substituted the pursuit of wealth in place of religion, and their happiness is there. This has’ become almost the universal passion of civilised man. Yet is not happiness so much sought in the pursuit of wealth itself as in that which wealth will procure. He looks on to the old age of elegant retirement and leisure which is before him; he sees in vision the comforts which he will be able to draw round him in the splendid mansion and grounds, and in the abundance which his old age will enjoy.
II. Has the plan succeeded?
1. What is happiness?
(1) It must be adapted to the nature of man or fitted to his true rank or dignity. There must be some permanency, some solid basis on which the superstructure is to be reared.
(2) There must be a recognition of immortality. This must be, because man is so made that he cannot wholly forget it.
(3) True happiness must be of such a nature that it will not be materially disturbed by the prospect of sickness, the grave, and eternity. “My Athenian guest,” says Croesus to Solon, “the voice of fame speaks loudly of your wisdom. I have heard much of your travels; you have been led by a philosophic spirit to visit a considerable portion of the globe. I am here induced to inquire of you what man, of all you have beheld, has seemed to you most truly happy.” After one or two unsatisfactory answers, and being pressed still for a reply, Solon said, “I shall not be able to give a satisfactory answer to the question you propose till I know that your scene of life shall have closed with tranquillity. The man of affluence is not in fact more happy than the possessor of a bare competency, unless in addition to his wealth his end be more fortunate. Call no man happy till you know the nature of his death. It is the part of wisdom to look to the event of things; for the Deity often overwhelms with misery those who have formerly been placed at the summit of felicity” (Herod. 1:24, 32). Our happiness must not be of such a nature as to be disturbed by the recognition of death, and the anticipation of a future world.
2. Can happiness be found away from God? My appeal is mainly to experience; and here the argument need not be long. The experience of the world on this point may be divided into two great parts--the recorded and the unrecorded. Of the recorded testimony of the world, I appeal to the records made on sick beds, and in graves; to the disappointments, and cares, and anxieties, evinced all over the world as the result of the revolt in Eden, and of wandering away from God. Recall for one moment what the forsaking of God has done. Whence is sorrow, disappointment, pain, death? The misery of our world all began at that sad hour when man ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. What might not this world have been if man had never forsaken the fountain of living waters! Alexander wept on the throne of the world. Charles V and Diocletian descended from the throne to seek that happiness in the vale of private life, which could never be found in the robes of royalty. Goethe, the celebrated German author, said of himself, in advanced age, “They have called me a child of fortune, nor have I any wish to complain of the course of my life. Yet it has been nothing but labour and sorrow, and I may truly say that in seventy-five years I have not had four weeks of true comfort. It was the constant rolling of a stone that was always to be lifted anew.” Who shall record the disappointment of those who seek wealth as their portion? The most instructive part of the history of our world is unwritten--at least is not written among mortals. It is recorded in the book that preserves the memory of human deeds with reference to the judgment, and will be developed only on the final trial It is the record of numberless individual failures and disappointments; the total history of that which makes up the vast experiment in our world to find enjoyment without the friendship of the Most High. (A. Barnes D. D.)
Broken cisterns that can hold no water.--
I. A sinner’s life is laborious. Have your dreams of ease in sin been fulfilled? Have you not found the life of sin to be a toilsome, thankless drudgery? Be honest to your own heart if you cannot confess it to man. Has not sin been an universal deceiver, a cruel, remorseless taskmaster? Have not all the fairy visions of our fancy been converted into bushes of thorns and barren rocks of desolation? God has made the broad road thus to prevent His children walking therein.
II. A sinner’s work is worthless. Our grandfathers could tell us what a great noise sounded through Europe in the days of their early youth at the strokes of a great cistern hewer. By a series of marvellous steps the mightiest military genres of modern days reached the cold and tottering summit of imperial power. He had devoted almost superhuman energies of body and mind to the task of hewing out a cistern, he had compelled millions of slaves to assist in this gigantic construction. Strong and glorious as the fabric was, God could not be outwitted; His decree went forth against the cistern, by His iron rod it was broken into a thousand shivers, and the exile of St. Helena sat himself down for weary months and years in the chill shadow of his own “broken cistern which could hold no water,” till his own heart broke, and he passed away, to render his account unto God. Power, glory, fame, are but a broken cistern to the soul of man. You may get it by becoming a vestryman, an alderman, a popular novelist, a member of Parliament, a Cabinet minister, or a hundred other ways, but the end will be the same dissatisfaction and unrest which overwhelmed the great Napoleon. Ah, when will saints give as much diligence to their high and holy calling as the servants of pleasure give to theirs?
III. A sinner’s state is appalling. Shall we witness the blindness, madness of our own friends and neighbours, of our fellow citizens, and have no bowels of compassion for them? Let us fervently, kindly, personally appeal to them; lot us watch for their souls, invent wise contrivances, and lovingly use them till the scales fall from their eyes, and we bring them to the Fountain of living waters.
IV. A sinner’s condition is not hopeless. God is still the Fountain of living waters. In Him abides the fulness which alone can supply all the lawful and infinite longings which rise up within the mysterious nature of man. Do we want knowledge, wisdom, love, life, peace, rest, immortality? They are all in God. From Him is ever issuing a stream bearing upon its bosom the richest spiritual blessings His mercy can provide. The grace of God is wider, deeper, richer, than in the era when the prophet of lamentation poured forth his sorrowful strains over the folly of sinners. (W. A. Esscry.)
Think over these cisterns which have been built, and have been offered to us in our time, and ask whether, after all, they are not broken, obviously broken before our eyes.
1. I thought of the immense part that, a few years ago, secularism seemed to play in the thought of London. A cistern offered to us of this kind, that man should confine his attention to the world in which he lives; that we should seek to make the most of our material and intellectual opportunities here; that we should use our time honestly and well, we should instruct one another in the affairs of the world and of life, but we should remit the consideration of religion and thoughts of God to another world if it ever comes, and not trouble ourselves with them here. That cistern of secularism, at which the men of England have been requested to drink, must always be an unsatisfying cistern--a broken cistern indeed. For what reason? Because you never can silence the deep craving of the human soul; you never can bring man within the limits of time and space, and get him quietly to remain there. If secularism could give us, as we wish, a more equal distribution of opportunities, and if every man had all that the world could offer, every man would still remain unsatisfied. Count Leo Tolstoi has told us himself how in his youth he was a nobleman with every advantage of wealth and education and social position, and, moreover, he was a man in perfect health, and there seemed to be not a cloud to cross his sky. And yet he has told how at that time his deep dissatisfaction and misery were such that he was constantly contemplating suicide.
2. And then I thought of that cistern which has been offered to us under the name of socialism. That cistern is so well constructed, and is so attractive, that I would be the last to deny that waters of a satisfying kind might for a time be stored within it. It proposes to make a framework of society in some future day complete and satisfying, but meanwhile it has no message to the millions of human souls that are passing, as it were, in a dull, dead flood, week by week, day by day, into the silent grave.
3. Then it occurred to me how much we had heard in our time of natural science and physical science as cisterns at which human beings were to quench their thirst. And I remembered how, in my earlier ministry, we were constantly told that the discoveries of science would take the place of religion, and that man would learn to live his life in the world, subject to its many limitations, in the clear light that science sheds upon the development of human life and its possible goal. Then I took up the utterance of a great scientific man today, Sir Henry Thompson, who has published his little pamphlet called “The Unknown God,” in order to show us what the creed of science really is. I turn over the pages of Sir Henry Thompson’s book and see what a great and candid and earnest scientific man makes of this universe, and of this life in the light of science. When I read his broken and halting conclusions, and see what he offers me as the cup of cold water to quench the ardent thirst of my soul, I cannot hesitate to say, with all reverence to so good, so honest, and sincere a thinker: “My friend, you have brought me to a broken cistern, which can give no water for the thirsty soul of man.”
4. And then I thought of that which is much commoner than secularism, socialism, and science, as the solution of human life--I mean the widespread and absolute indifference to all higher things into which so many of our unhappy people fall. The men who seem agreed to live as if they were merely animals upon the earth, like the beasts with lower pleasures, like the beasts with lower pains. The men who put aside altogether ideals and dreams. The men who do not ask for either God or life or eternity. The men who do not concern themselves about moral improvement or the benefit of their fellow creatures, but drift along the path of life an aimless crowd, careless of the world, careless of themselves, indifferent to all that makes life truly worth living and significant. And it seemed to me that this was not so much a cistern which is offered, or even a broken cistern, but a dull, flat pool, a mere stagnant pond where men can never quench their thirst, but where they can be and must be poisoned by the malaria that rises from the stagnant waters. What is to happen to these men if the soul thirst should ever awaken within them? And when I thought of all these broken cisterns that can hold no water, I remembered from my text that meanwhile there is a fountain; it rises there in the far-off Galilean hills, and the stream flows through the thirsty centuries, and where it flows the margin of the stream is green and fertile. And today it seems as if it were in a sense easier to get to the spring than in any other day that has ever been. “If any man thirst let him come unto Me and drink.” (R. F. Herren, D. D.)
True happiness to be found not in the world, but in God
I. The soul of man naturally thirsts after happiness.
1. This affords a strong argument for the dignity of the soul, and the certainty of a future state.
2. These inward and insatiable cravings, amidst the high enjoyments of sense and the world, should lead us to God, who alone can felicitate the soul He hath made; should deaden our desires towards the delights of life, and quicken them after those of religion.
II. Notwithstanding this native thirst in the souls of men after happiness, yet they are generally mistaken in their choice of it.
1. There are many who quite mistake the object of their happiness, and place it in those things which are not only foreign from but opposite to it. Wealth, ambition, pleasure.
2. Some are right in their notions of happiness, but seek it the wrong way. Instead of seeking God’s favour in the way of righteousness, through the mediation of Christ, by the assistance of His Spirit, they build their hopes of it either on a zeal for speculative opinions, party notions, formal services, modes of worship, voluntary mortifications, impulses of fancy, deep knowledge, rigid faith, or unscriptural austerities.
3. How many are they who have not only right notions of happiness but of the way to it, who yet fall short of it through neglect and indolence; and the fatal influence which the world and the things of it have upon their hearts! whereby they are rendered quite cold, lukewarm, and indifferent, in the things which concern their eternal salvation.
III. Mankind are naturally disposed to seek their happiness from this world, where it is not to be found.
1. The pleasures of this life are very scanty and confined. They are but cisterns of water--which can hold no very large quantity--not sufficient to answer all the occasions we may have for it, at least not for any considerable time.
2. They are also insipid and unsatisfying; like water in a cistern, stagnated and exposed to the sun; whereby it not only loses its quick taste and freshness, but contracts scum and dirt and foulness.
3. They are at the same time uncertain, and continually wasting away. The vessel that holds them is leaky.
4. They are not to be had without much pains. Even these broken cisterns we are obliged to hew out to ourselves, and be at great labour to procure.
IV. Men are naturally backward and averse to seek their happiness from God where alone it is to be found. The folly of this will appear by considering that the pleasures of piety have properties just the reverse of those belonging to worldly pleasures.
1. They are most full and capacious. Not contracted and limited, not diminished by successive draughts, as water in a cistern is--but free, and full, and ever flowing, as water at the fountain head.
2. They are the most exquisite and satisfying delights.
3. They are most durable and imperishable.
4. They are easy to be had. Freely offered. (J. Mason, M. A.)
The sin of people’s forsaking God and betaking themselves to the creature in His stead
I. Forsaking of God in Christ, and betaking oneself to the creature in His stead, are two signally ill things.
1. The forsaking of God in Christ.
(1) The object forsaken by the hearers of the Gospel must be considered as--God in our nature, for communion with guilty men (Matthew 1:23). God in our nature, ready to communicate His fulness to us, for making us happy in time and eternity (John 4:10). A God we have professed to betake ourselves to for our happiness (Jeremiah 16:19).
(2) How sinners forsake God in Christ. Lowering their esteem of Him, the value and honour they had for Him sinking low (Psalms 50:21). The heart’s falling off its rest in Him, and turning restless, so that the fulness of God cannot quiet it (Isaiah 30:15). Ceasing to cleave to Him by faith, and letting go believing gripes of the promise (Hebrews 3:12). Looking out some other way, for something to rest their hearts in (Psalms 4:6). Growing remiss in duties, and slighting opportunities of communion with God a form of duties may be kept up, but the heart is away, what avail they? Having no regard to please Him in their ordinary walk (Ezekiel 23:35). Laying aside the Word for a rule, and regulating themselves by another standard (Psalms 119:53). Forsaking His people for their companions (Proverbs 13:20). Forsaking ordinances and the communion of saints therein (Hebrews 10:25-26). Throwing away the form of religion, casting off the mask, and giving the swing to their lusts.
(3) Why they forsake Him. There is a natural bent to apostasy in all (Hosea 11:7). Many were never truly joined to the Lord, though they seemed to be so: so having never knit with Him, no wonder they fall away from Him (1 John 2:19). They often have some idol of jealousy secretly preserved when they are at their best; and that upon a proper occasion does the business; like the young man in the Gospel, that went away from Christ grieved, because “he had great possessions.” Their not pressing it to the sweet of religion, in an experimental feeling of the power of it (Psalms 34:8). The want of a living principle of grace in the heart, that may bear out in all changes of one’s condition (Psalms 78:37). They cool like a stone taken from the fire, and wither like a branch that takes not with the stock. Unwatchfulness. Thereby men are stolen off their feet (Proverbs 4:23). A conceit of being able to live without Him (Jeremiah 2:31). Ill company carries many away from God (1 Corinthians 15:33).
(4) The ill of sin that is in forsaking God in Christ. It is a downright perversion and deserting of the end of our creation. There is in it a setting up another in the room of God. Fearful ingratitude for the greatest mercy and kindness (Jeremiah 2:2; Jeremiah 2:12). Notorious unfaithfulness to our kindest Head and Husband (Jeremiah 2:20). Notorious unfaithfulness to our own interest and folly with a witness. An affronting of God before the world, casting dishonour on Him, bearing false witness against Him (Jeremiah 2:31). A practical commendation of the way of the world, contemning God, and seeking their happiness in things that are seen (Proverbs 28:4). A sinning against the remedy of sin, making one’s case very hopeless (Hebrews 10:26). An opened sluice for all other sins. The man that forsakes God, exposes himself a prey to all temptations, to be picked up by the first finder (Proverbs 27:8).
2. The betaking of oneself to the creature in God’s stead.
(1) The object taken up with in God’s stead.
(a) It is not God (Deuteronomy 32:21).
(i) It cannot satisfy.
(ii) It cannot profit.
(b) It is the world (1 John 2:15); the great bulky vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2); the passing world (1 John 2:17); the present evil world (Galatians 1:4).
(2) How sinners take up with the creature in God’s stead. Raising their esteem of and value for the creature, till it come to overtop their esteem of God in Christ, like Eve with respect to the forbidden fruit. Bending their chief desire towards the creature (Psalms 4:6) to obtain it, and the satisfaction they apprehend is to be found in it. Embracing and knitting with it in love (2 Timothy 4:10). Seeking a rest for their hearts in it. Trusting in it, and having their chief dependence on it, notwithstanding the curse pronounced against such trust (Jeremiah 17:5-6). Using their chief and most earnest endeavours for it. Rejoicing most in their enjoyment of it, and delighting most in it. Sorrowing most of all for the want of it, under the frowns of it.. Still cleaving to it, under never so many disappointments from it; nor forsaking it, but trying another means, when one misgives (Isaiah 57:10). Following the creature, whithersoever it goes, even quite over the hedge of the law of God.
(3) Why sinners take up with the creature in God’s stead. Because the heart of man is naturally wedded to the creature; and that bond not being truly broken, it is apt to return upon occasion to its natural bias. Because man’s corrupt nature finds a suitableness and agreeableness in the creature to itself (Isaiah 57:10). Because the creature takes by the eye and other senses; God and His favour is the object of faith, which is rare in the world. Because the creature promises a present good, whereas the greatest things of God are reserved to another world. Because, by the power of a strong delusion, conveyed into the nature of man by the serpent in paradise, they expect a satisfaction and happiness in the creature (Genesis 3:5-6). Because they must needs betake themselves to something within themselves, not being self-sufficient; so, having lost God, they fall of course to the creature in His stead.
(4) The ill of this practice, taking up with the creature in God’s stead. It is an egregious wrong done to God, and His infinite excellency (Jeremiah 2:11). It is a wrong done to the creature, as being a putting it out of its proper place (Romans 8:21-22). It is a wrong done to the whole generation of the saints (Psalms 73:12-15). It is an egregious wrong to the sinner’s own soul, putting the arrantest cheat upon it that one is capable of (Proverbs 8:36).
II. To forsake God in Christ, and take the creature in His stead, is a wretched exchange.
1. It is an exchanging of a fountain for a cistern.
(1) The water in the cistern is borrowed water; that in the fountain is from itself.
(2) The water must needs be sweeter and fresher in the fountain than in the cistern.
(3) The water in the cistern is no more but a certain measure in the fountain it is unmeasurable.
(4) The water in the cistern is mostly very scanty; the fountain is ever full.
(5) The water of the cistern is always dreggy; the fountain clear and pure.
(6) The water of the cistern is soon dried up; the fountain, never.
2. It is an exchanging of a fountain made ready to our hand, for a cistern that remains to be hewed out by ourselves.
(1) The fountain is always ready for us; the cisterns often are unready. There is access at any time to be had unto God, through Christ, by faith (Psalms 46:1). But the creature is an unready help, so that the man’s case is often past cure, ere help can be had.
(2) The fountain is made ready for us by another hand, the cistern must be prepared by our own (Zechariah 13:1; John 7:37).
(3) At the fountain one has nothing to do but drink; but it is no little pains that is necessary to fit out the cistern for us. Hard and sore work (Habakkuk 2:13). Longsome work, that one comes but little speed in. Weary work.
3. It is an exchanging of a fountain for many cisterns.
(1) None of them are sufficient, but all defective.
(2) There is something disagreeable and vexing in them all (Ecclesiastes 1:14).
(3) They enlarge the appetite, but do not satisfy it (Habakkuk 2:5). As one draught of salt water makes the necessity of another, so the gratifying of a lust doth but open its mouth wider; as is evident from the case of those, who having once given themselves loose reins, nothing can prevail to bind them up, till the grace of God change them. They go from ill to worse. Now, this is a wretched exchange; for the access to one fountain is far more ready than to many cisterns. He that has but one door to go to for sufficient supply is certainly in better case than he that must go to many; so he that has the fulness of a God to satisfy himself in, is in circumstances a thousand times better than he who must go from creature to creature for that end. The water is better that is altogether in one fountain, than that which is parted into many cisterns. United force is strongest; and that which is scattered, the farther it is scattered abroad, it is the weaker. It is with greater ease of mind that one may apply to the one fountain, than to the many cisterns. O what ease has the man that goes to God’s door for all, in comparison of him who begs at the doors of the creatures, ranging up and down among them! Use--Repent then of this folly, and take the one fountain instead of your many cisterns; go to one God instead of the multitude of created things.
Motive 1.--This will contract your cares now so diffusive, lessen your labour, and spare you many a weary foot.
Motive 2.--Ye shall find enough in God, that ye shall see no necessity of seeking any happiness without Him (John 4:14); more than shall supply the want of the corn and wine (Psalms 4:7); that shall be commensurable to your whole desire (2 Samuel 23:5). (T. Boston, D. D.)
Forsaking the fountain for the broken cistern
I. The object forsaken.
1. Sin is an ungrateful rejection of God. The parental bond is broken, the conjugal tie is dissolved, the oath of suretyship is annulled.
2. We cannot forsake God without forsaking our own mercies. Sin is always the act of a suicide; we cannot reject the counsel of God against ourselves without rejecting His blessings also.
3. What is the fountain which Israel hath thus forsaken? Oh! it is deep as the unfathomed sea; free as the unbought air; more healing than Bethesda’s pool; fresh as the stream which comes forth from the throne of God and of the Lamb.
II. The object preferred.
1. The deadening character of all worldly enjoyments. For all the ends of consolation and encouragement and hope the resources of the world are worse than unavailing; The cisterns are not so empty as they are poisonous.
2. Poor as the world’s enjoyments are, they are to be obtained only at great cost and labour. In drinking of “the fountain” you will have to stoop much, to kneel long, and to lie low. In drinking from the “cistern,” you will have to labour hard, to drag heavily, and to climb high.
3. Another characteristic of worldly enjoyments is their instability, their transitoriness, their incapacity for yielding any continued happiness, or for “giving a man peace at the last.” They are not “cisterns” only, but “broken cisterns”; vessels which let out their contents as fast as they put them in; cisterns “which can hold no water.” The world not only palls upon its votaries while drinking of its waters, but its tide is always ebbing away. Not only may we write upon it “Marah” for the bitterness of its taste, but also “Ichabod” for the evanescence of its glory. (D. Moore, M. A.)
I. The first cistern which attracts our attention is one of sensualism. The youth who is working at it with mallet and chisel, and with hot and fevered face, dreams that the highest enjoyment of life is that which comes through the senses. He will inform you that he regards man as an animal more than anything else, and that it behoves him to listen to the cry of his passions and to satisfy it. He will demand of you why his passions were lodged in his heart, if they were not to govern him. But the sensualist reasons as if he forgets two most important points. He forgets that the passions are no longer what once they were. He reasons as if the soul were still as it was when it came bright and sinless from its Creator’s hands; as if its original harmony and balance were undisturbed; as if there had been no obscuration of the moral sense and no inflammation of the passions. And he forgets, too, that while the soul has passions they have their due place assigned them in the economy of our constitution, and that that place is not the throne but the footstool. They can never sit in the throne but by revolt, rebellion, and usurpation. Their position is one of service, a service, too, assigned them by a pure conscience and an enlightened judgment. I said the sensualist forgets these two important points rebut does he not forget another? He strives to hew out a cistern of satisfaction by gratifying his passions; but has he not yet learned from observation, if his own experience has not taught him, that from their very nature the passions can never yield a constant happiness? The more they are indulged, the less they can be gratified. The pampered appetite becomes the jaded appetite, and at length becomes the diseased and ruined appetite. And the man who is hewing out for himself a cistern of sensual pleasure is like the dram drinker, who derives less stimulus and delight from the same quantity every day, who has accordingly to increase the dose to supply the same excitement; who at length gets beyond the range of gratification, but finds that the passion holds him fast in its serpent coils even when all its joys are forever fled.
II. We find another earnest worker who is hewing out a cistern of wealth. No sooner do we reach him than he begins to pour out his contempt of the man we have just left. He wonders how it is possible for any one with an atom of sense to spend his life and strength at such a cistern as that--a cistern which, even if it could be made to hold water, proclaims the mean and degraded character of the man who could drink it. Then turning to his own cistern he points with evident pride at this monument of his superior wisdom; expatiates on the various powers of wealth; tells us how “money answereth all things,” how it has ministered to the growth of nations, to the development of civilisation, to the creation and sustentation of commerce, to the advancement of the arts and sciences, to the physical and moral improvement of mankind, and even to the extension of the Gospel itself. Now what shall we say to this man? It will not serve any good purpose to call him hard names. You cannot scold a man out of any sin, still less out of the sin of covetousness. Nor must we bluntly deny all that he has said in praise of wealth. It is when we find men mistaking its functions and properties, and labouring to hew out of it a cistern of satisfaction, that we are constrained to remind them that such a cistern will hold no water. Christ speaks of the deceitfulness of riches. I wonder where the man is who can raise an intelligent and experienced protest against the epithet. Wealth is the feeder of avarice, not its satisfaction. It inflames the thirst, it does not quench it. But, would you learn the weakness of wealth as well as its power, look at the narrow limits within which after all its efficacy is bounded. If there are times when one feels that money answereth all things, there are times when one feels still more keenly that it answereth nothing. When the brain becomes bewildered, or its substance begins to yield and soften, what can a man’s wealth do for him then? If you travel on the sea, and a destructive storm falls upon your vessel, will the waves that engulph the poor retire in bashful respect for a wealthy man? The digger of this well has said something about the power of wealth: is it not well that he should learn, too, its powerlessness in regard to many of the great needs and sorrows of life? It cannot give you health; it cannot give you talent; it cannot give you the real and abiding respect of your fellow men; it cannot give you peace of mind; it cannot save your wife or children; it cannot avert death and its preliminary horrors and pains from yourself.
III. But we must leave this worker, and make our way to another who is hewing out the cistern of intellectualism. He is clearly a higher type of man. There is a refinement about his appearance which shows that his communion has been with the thoughts of poets and philosophers He expatiates on the intrinsic greatness of man; on his immortality; on his reason, that “vision and faculty divine”; on the unapproachable supereminence of man over all the universe around him. Knowledge, he says, is the thing for man. For this we were made. It is the element in which we are to live, and without this there is no life worthy of man. And yet, somehow, there seems a shade of sadness upon that face now that his glowing excitement has passed away. Aye, it is even so. He tells us that he is not yet satisfied; that he is hoping to be; that with all his knowledge he feels more ignorant than wise; that if he gets fresh light he seems only to realise more fully the fact that he is standing on the border of a vaster territory of darkness; that if he solves one mystery it serves but to show a thousand more; and that he has been striving, too, for many years at some difficulties which have hitherto beaten him back in hopeless confusion. We assure him that this need not distress him, for with his limited capacities he cannot expect to understand all things at once, and that while it is true that death will for a moment interrupt his speculations and researches, there is eternity before him with its illimitable scope and opportunities. He is paler now than ever, and seizes convulsively his mallet and chisel, and works away with averted face at his cistern, muttering between every stroke, Death, death; ah! it is death which troubles one. What is death?--what will it be to me? Why should I die? and if I must die, why should I fear to die?
IV. While thus he muses and mutters, let us visit the cistern of morality. Its owner accosts us at once as follows: “And so you have been visiting my learned neighbour yonder. He is incurable, and I would fain believe, insane, He has the fancy, that man is nothing but intellect, and that our whole mission in this world is to acquire knowledge. I have told him once and again, that if this were the chief end of man he need not to have had either affections or conscience, and that we are moral creatures as well as intellectual ones. Now, the cistern which I have been working at for years is the cistern of morality and good living, for it is clear that we ought to love God with all our hearts, and minds, and strength and our neighbours as ourselves; and that, in fact, our happiness lies in this, and in nothing else. And it is delightful to have something which one’s own hands have made, to have a righteousness we ourselves have wrought out, and for which we are indebted to no one.” Thus speaks the man, and while he speaks we have been looking at the cistern, which is not without its beauty, and which shows traces and proofs of long and careful working; and we have seen, or think we have seen, chinks great and small which do not promise well for the serviceableness of the cistern, if it be meant, as it is meant, to hold water. Has it been made exactly according to the pattern which you have specified, namely, that you love God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and your neighbour as yourself? Will it hold any water? And the man, chagrined to have the perfectness of his work called in question, replies: “I know that as yet it will hold no water, but it is not finished. I am striving to fill up the defects and openings with mortar--with the mortar of sorrow for the past, and endeavours to do better for the future.” But what, we ask, if the mortar be as porous as the stone? What if it will not hold water any more than the cistern? What if future obedience cannot repair the mischief of the past? What if repentance without Christ itself needs to be repented of? What if even an awakened conscience itself refuses to accept the part for the whole? And what if God say, “By the deeds of the law shall no flesh living be justified”? And what if there be a special condemnation for those who, “going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God”?
V. As we retrace our steps and visit the other cisterns, lo! we find that the workers work no more. The end has come to all. And on the cistern of the scholar we find the inscription, as if traced by a mystic hand, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” And on the cistern of the worldling we find, “So is every man that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God.” And on the cistern of the sensualist we find, “To be carnally minded is death.” And as we look within we find that all is parched and dry as summer dust, and that the description is awfully exact and literal: “Cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” (E. Mellor, D. D.)
Whilst two evils are specified, we are not to suppose they are ever committed separately: no man forsakes the living fountain who does not also hew out the broken cistern--for there is a search after happiness in which all men naturally engage; and if they do not seek happiness in God, where alone it may be found, they will inevitably seek it in the creature, though only to be disappointed. Yet notwithstanding that these truths are attested by universal experience, there is continually going on the same forsaking of the fountain, the same hewing out of the cistern, so pathetically and indignantly denounced in the text. There is something very striking in the expression “hewed them out cisterns.” What labour does it indicate, what effort, what endurance! Had the cisterns been ready made to their hands, there had not been so much with which to upbraid them. But God has caused that it shall be actually toilsome thing for men to seek happiness in the creature. Witness the diggings, so to speak, of avarice: the painful climbings of ambition: the disgusts and disappointments of sensuality. God makes it an aggravation of the sin of his being forsaken that He is forsaken for that which must demand toil, and then yield disappointment. He sets the “fountain of living waters” in contrast with “broken cisterns”--as though He would point out the vast indignity offered Him, in that what was preferred was so unworthy and insufficient. It is the language not only of jealousy, but of jealousy stung to the very quick by the baseness of the object to which the plighted affection has been unblushingly transferred. “Wonder, O heavens, and be astonished, O earth.” God speaks of His people as offering Him this indignity; but He does not speak to His people. He tells His grievance to the material creation, as though even that were more likely to feel and resent it than the beings who were actually guilty of the sin. And ye who are setting up idols for yourselves, ye who, in spite of every demonstration of the uselessness of the endeavour, are striving to be happy without God, we will not reason with you: it were like passing too slight censure on your sin, it were representing it as less blinding, less besotting, than it actually is, to suppose that you would attend to, or feel the force of, an ordinary remonstrance. It may move you more, ye worshippers of visible things, to find yourselves treated as past being reasoned with, than flattered with addresses which suppose in you the full play of the understanding and the judgment. Ye will not hearken: but there are those who witness and wonder at your madness: the visible universe, as if amazed at finding itself searched for that which its own sublime and ceaseless proclamations declare to be nowhere but in God, assumes a listening posture; and whilst the Almighty publishes your infatuation, He hath secured Himself an audience, “whether ye will hear, or whether ye will forbear”; for the accusation is not uttered till there have been this astounding call: “Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this,” etc. But let us proceed to the case which is perhaps still more distinctly contemplated by the passage before us--that of the abandonment of the true religion for a false. If ever God discovered Himself as a “fountain of living waters,” it was when, in the person of His own Divine Son, He opened on this earth a “fountain for sin and for uncleanness.” The justifying virtue of the work of the Redeemer, the sanctifying of that of the Spirit--these include everything of which, as sinful but immortal beings, we can have need: by the former we may have title to the kingdom of heaven, and by the latter be made meet for the glorious inheritance. Nevertheless, can it be said that men in general are ready to close with the Gospel, to partake of it as the parched traveller of the spring found amid the sands? Even where religion is not neglected, what pains are bestowed on the making some system less distasteful to pride, or more complacent to passion, than practical, unadulterated Christianity! What costly effort is given to the compounding the human with the Divine, our own merit with that of Christ; or to the preparing ourselves for the reception of grace, as though it were not grace by which, as well as for which, we are prepared, grace which must fashion the vessel, as well as grace which must fill it. Truly, the cistern is “hewn out,” when the fountain is forsaken. Let Christ be unto you “all in all,” “made unto you of God, wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption,” and the fountain gives a river which, like the rock struck in Horeb, never ceaseth to make glad the believer. But turn away, though by a single step, from Christ, and, oh, the toil, the dissatisfaction, of endeavouring to make--what? “a broken cistern,” “a cistern that can hold no water”--if creature comforts are such cisterns to those who seek happiness, creature systems must be to those who seek immortality. For what shall endure the severity of God’s scrutiny, but that which is itself of God’s appointing and providing (H. Melvill, B. D.)
A broken cistern
The mother of Hume, the philosopher, was once a professor of Christianity. Dazzled by the genius of her son, she followed him into the mazes of scepticism. Years passed and she drew near to the gates of death, and from her dying bed she wrote him the following: “My dear son,--My health has failed me. I am in deep decline. I cannot live long. I am left without hope or consolation, and my mind is sinking into a state of despair. I pray you hasten home to console me, or, at least, write to me the consolations that philosophy affords at the dying hour.” Hume was deeply distressed at his mother’s letter. His philosophy was “a broken cistern” in which was no water of comfort.
Is Israel a servant?
is he a home-born slave? why is he spoiled?
Israel a home-born slave
Is this a contemptuous inquiry?--Israel a servant, Israel a home-born slave. Is there not scorn underlying the interrogation, as who should say, Thou art a worm, a thing to be crushed by the foot, or a servile thing to be made no account of by the auditor of the universe? Nothing of the kind. There is a tone of tenderness in this inquiry. In Bible times to be a home-born slave was to be next the son of the family; there was a domestic interest in such a slave, full of pathos, and the condition brought with it its own advantages and rights; a slave born in the house took rank almost with the son, certainly immediately after the son; and the Lord seems to say, Is not Israel a servant, a home-born slave,--has he not rights at home, has he not domestic interests and family claims, a status which he can assert and maintain, and the fruit of which he is at liberty to enjoy? Why then is he spoiled; why has he thrown his inheritance away; why does he not seize the possessions to which he is entitled, and live within the light and the security of the privilege which belongs to him in his domestic relations? So there is no scorn in the words “home-born slave.” The Divine voice infused the pathos of emphasis into the word “homeborn.” Who can say “home” in a tone that is worthy of its music? Surely only He who has made the universe a home for His creatures, and offered them the hospitality of His infinite love. God comes after us, and says, Are ye not Mine; do you not belong to My house; are you not in the covenant of My love; is not your name upon the record of My memory; and goes not out after you all the solicitude of My heart? Why then have you spoiled your destiny, perverted your way, gone in a forbidden course, and exposed yourselves to the paw and the teeth of the lion? (J. Parker, D. D.)
The young lions roared upon him, and yelled.
Dangers outside the Divine bounds
That comes of going from home, leaving sacred discipline, taking life into one’s own hand, assuming the mastership of one’s own fortune and destiny. Woe betide the man who goes beyond the bounds which God has fixed! Immediately outside those bounds the lion waits, or the plague, or the pestilence, or the pit hardly hidden but deep immeasurable. Luther said: Who would paint a picture of the present condition of the Church, let him paint a young woman in a wilderness or in some desert place; and round about her let him figure hungry lions whose eyes are glaring upon her and whoso mouths are open to devour her substance and her beauty. Is the Church in a much better condition today? That is the natural condition of the Church. The Church always challenges the lion, tempts the devourer, excites the passions of evil men. When an evil generation tolerates the Church, applauds its dogmas, and flatters its ministry, it is because that Church has surrendered her prerogatives and trampled her functions in the dust. All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. Know that the Church of the living God is alive, and is fulfilling her destiny, when all round about her are men more cruel than ravenous beasts. Israel, the home-born slave, who ought to have walked arm-in-arm with the son of the house, left the precincts of the family and plunged into the way of lions. (J. Parker, D. D.)
What hast thou to do in the way of Egypt.
Words of expostulation
I. Addressing myself to the Christian, I shall use the text in three senses, while I expostulate with you in regard to sin, to worldly pleasure, and to carnal trust.
1. O true believer, called by grace and washed in the precious blood of Christ, “What hast thou to do in the way of Egypt, to drink the waters of the muddy river?” What hast thou to do with the sins which once delighted thee, and which now find happy pastime for the world? A vision flits before my eye. The Lord God hath made a great feast; armies have met together; terrible slaughter has been the consequence. Men’s arms have been red up to the very elbow in blood; they have fought with each other, and there they lie strewn upon the plain--thousands of carcasses bleeding. The vultures sniff the prey from far-off desert wilds; they fly, keen of scent. God hath made a great feast to the fowls of heaven, and to the ravenous beasts of the earth. But what is that I see? I see a dove flying with the same speed as the vulture towards the carrion. O dove, what hath brought thee there in dangerous connection with thy fierce enemies? Whither art thou going? Is there anything in that bloody feast that can content thee? Shall thy meek eyes glare with the fires of anger? Shah thy fair white plumage be stained with gore, and wilt thou go back to thy dove cote with thy pinions bloody red? The question then cannot be answered, because when a Christian goes into sin he commits all inconsistent act--inconsistent with the freedom which Christ has bought for him, and inconsistent with the nature which the Holy Spirit has implanted in him. Christian, what hast thou to do with sin? Hath it not cost thee enough already? What, man! hast thou forgotten the times of thy conviction? There is yet another light in which to put the sin of the believer. Let me repeat the question once again--“What hast thou to do in the way of Egypt, to drink the waters of the muddy river?” There is a crowd yonder. They have evidently assembled for some riotous purpose. They are attacking one man. There are very many of them. They give Him no space to take His breath, no time to rest. Let me press through the throng and look at the man, I know Him at once. He hath visage more marred than that of any other man. ‘Tis He; it is the Crucified One, it is none other than Jesus, the Son of man, the Saviour of the world. Hark to the blasphemies which are poured into His ears! See how they spit in His face, and put Him co an open shame. Onward they bring Him, and you hear them cry, “Crucify Him! crucify Him! crucify Him!” They are doing it: they have nailed Him to the tree: yonder is a man with the hammer in his hand who has just now driven in the nail. Look round upon the mob. I can well comprehend why yonder drunkard, why yonder swearer, why the whoremonger, and the like of infamous notoriety, should have joined in this treacherous murder; but there is one man there--methinks I know his face. Ay, I have seen him at the sacramental table, eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ: I have seen him in the pulpit saying, “God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”: I have seen him on his knees in prayer, pleading what he called “The precious blood.” What hast thou to do in this counsel of the ungodly, this scene of sin without a parallel?
2. The pleasures of this world do sometimes entice the people of God, and they find some degree of mirth therein. To those Christians who can find pleasure in the common amusements of men, this question may be very pertinently put--“What hast thou to do to drink the water of that muddy river?” I can never understand that Christianity which alternately goes out to find joy in worldly amusements, and returns home to have fellowship with Christ. In the life of Madame Guyon I have read an anecdote something to this effect. She had been invited by some friends to spend a few days at the palace of St. Cloud. She knew it was a place full of pomp, and fashion, and, I must add, of vice also; but being over-persuaded by her friend, and being especially tempted with the idea that perhaps her example might do good, she accepted the invitation. Her experience afterwards should be a warning to all Christians. For some years that holy woman had walked in constant fellowship with Christ; perhaps none ever saw the Saviour’s face, and kissed His wounds more truly than she had done. But when she came home from St. Cloud she found her usual joy was departed; she had lost her power in prayer. She felt in going to the lover of her soul as if she had played the harlot against Him. She was afraid to hope that she could be received again to His pure and perfect love, and it took some months ere the equilibrium of her peace could be restored, and her heart could yet again be wholly set upon her Lord. He that wears a white garment must mind where he walks when the world’s streets are so filthy as they are.
3. We are all tried with the temptation to put our trust in things which are seen, instead of things which are not seen. The Lord hath said it--“Cursed is he that trusteth in man and maketh flesh his arm,” but “blessed is he that trusteth in the Lord.” Yet Christians often do trust in man, and then our text comes home--“What hast thou to do in the way of Egypt, to drink the water of that muddy river?” “Some trust in horses and some in chariots, but we will stay ourselves upon the Lord God of Israel.”
II. Convinced sinner, you feel your lost estate; God’s Holy Spirit has kindly looked upon you, and begun a good work in your soul. And yet during the past week you have fallen into your old sin. Ah! smarting and yet sinning! wounded and yet rebelling! pricked with the ox goad, and yet kicking against the pricks! It is hard for thee! And what was the cause of your sin after all? Was it worth sinning for--to grieve your conscience and vex the Holy Spirit? I have heard of a man who had just begun the Christian life, and he had some months of sorrow owing to a hasty temper. His neighbour had let some of his cattle stray into the field; he asked him to fetch them out again and mend the fence; his neighbour would not, and he flew into such a passion with him that afterwards he sat down and cried. Said he, “Why, if all the cows in the field were sold, and I had lost the money, they were not worth the bother I made about them, nor worth one moment of the grief which I have to suffer.” Oh! what fools we all are! Let us, however, write ourselves fools in capital letters, if when conscience is tender we yet go and do the very thing which we hate, and choose the very cup which was so bitter to our taste, so nauseous to us just now. You are under conviction of sin, and you have been lately--as it is a festive season--you have been frequenting the dancing room, or the theatre. Now these are amusements for worldlings; let them have them; I would not prevent them for a moment; let every man have his own amusement and his own joy. But what is this to you? What hast thou to do with it?
III. Lastly, to any who are careless. I have a hard task to bring a reasonable question to unreasonable men. Ye tell me that ye love the vanities of this world, and that they content you. I look you in the face and remind you that there have been many madmen in this world besides yourselves. Yet as there is some spark of reason left, let me see if I can kindle a flame of thought therewith. Sinner, God is angry with the wicked every day. What have you to do with joy? you are condemned already, because you believe not on the Son of God. What have you to do with peace--a condemned man dancing in his cell at Newgate with chains about his wrists? What have you to do with merriment? You! If you were sure you should live a week you might spend six days, if you would, in sin; but you are not sure you will live an hour. What have you to do with sin and its pleasures? God is furbishing his sword today; it is sharp and strong as the arm which shall wield it. That sword is meant for you except you repent. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The believer’s portion superior to the world’s
Thou hast tasted of better drink than the muddy river of this world’s pleasure can give thee. If thy profession be not a lie thou hast had fellowship with Christ, thou hast had that joy which only the blessed Spirits above and the chosen ones on earth can know. Hast thou eaten the bread of angels, and canst thou live on husks? Good Rutherford once said, “I have tasted of Christ’s own manna and it hath put my mouth out of taste with the brown bread of this world’s joy.” “What hast thou to do,” etc.
Thine own wickedness shall correct thee.
Sin its own punishment
I. In the dealings of God with good men.
1. Neglect secret devotion, and God will refuse His blessing on other means of grace.
2. Indulge secret sin, and God will bring that sin into open light and condemnation.
3. Idolise created good, and God will take from us an idol, or make it a plague to us.
4. Act with faithlessness to others, and God will permit us to suffer from the treachery of others.
5. Undutifulness to parents punished by the defiance of our own children.
6. Indifference as to home piety returned upon us in the irreligion of those in the home.
II. In the dealings of God with wicked men.
1. Those who resent religious persuasions, and strive to stifle conviction, are deprived of godly parents and friends, and left to a fatal peace.
2. Those who repel the Gospel because of its humiliating truths, are allowed “to believe a lie,” etc.
3. In death and judgment, the punishment of the sinner will reflect his sin. (Andrew Fuller.)
The uses made by God of sin
I. Precautionary observations.
1. Sin, in its own nature, is inexpressibly bad. Not only the negation of all that is good, but the absolute plenitude of all that is evil. It is wrong raising itself against the order, purity, and happiness of the universe. The originating, exclusive, and prolific source of all human woe.
2. If in any circumstances sin appear in a beginning, and good and happiness in the end, the latter will not be, in any sense, the proper conduct of the former. Good comes of evil through causes exterior to evil, independent of evil, hostile to evil, and which turn evil to good account against evil. Imagine a man sleeping in a wood. A serpent strikes its fangs into one of his limbs. The man is stung into consciousness, and starts up from his slumber just in time to escape the pounce of a hungry tiger, whose eyes are glaring in the thicket. The serpent had no intention of saving him. It attacked him for itself; but the sudden anguish of the bleeding wound was the occasion of rescue from the two-fold destruction. So, often, man “dead in trespasses and sins” is maddened into activity by the remorse of wickedness, and ultimately rushes away from the adjacent coils of Satan and the gaping jaws of hell.
3. To turn evil to good account is one of the sovereign prerogatives of God. It is only through Divine interference and interworking that sin fails, at any time, to effect “evil, only evil, and that continually.” This is one of the express laws of the Divine conduct in the Bible. Joseph and his brethren. David and Shimei. Preaching Christ out of envy, etc.
II. What attitude God actually assumes and maintains towards sin.
1. God has surrounded sin by limits and restrictions. The moral sentiments of men--the moral restraints of society--the moral utterances of revealed religion--the moral corrections of the invincible laws of the material economy--have conspired to bind sin hand and foot, in its most monstrous and demoniacal forms.
2. Sin is permitted, but anticipated; defiled, but used; unscathed, but bridled and harnessed, till the reluctant monster shall be firmly yoked to the car of the mighty victor and swell the final triumph.
(1) God uses sin to punish sin. When God employed the passion and ambition of hostile monarchs to chastise the apostate Israelites, or when God directed warring kings, raging with the lust of empire, to relieve His afflicted and repentant people--in either case the Jews recognised the operation of an inter-working and over-ruling providence, and recorded the principles which we are explaining.
(2) God uses sin to defeat sin. Very often when two persons, two coteries, two nations, it may be, are struggling to obtain a false object, and both the parties or communities are equally profligate in the means which they employ to secure success, the plans of the unprincipled tricksters clash; all are overwhelmed with defeat and disgrace together, and the field is left free for right quietly to triumph. In the history of every kingdom and hierarchy, political and priestly despotism may be seen committing suicide by outdoing its ordinary amount of enormity.
(3) God uses sin to reprove sin. God does not turn sins into whips exclusively, by the pains and disappointments of iniquity, merely to scourge the sinner. The element of moral reproof is uniformly associated with the anguish of punishment. We ask not here how sin can at all become the means of moral instruction; we only state the fact. Without seeking the remote or proximate cause of such a phenomenon, it is sufficient for our present purpose to say that one act, or a few acts of sin, and the immediate consequences are often, to a man apparently established in irreligion, the occasion of godly sorrow for the sins of his whole life.
(4) God uses sin to promote goodness. The odiousness of sin, when visible in the conduct of the ungodly, is ever felt by Christians to be promotive of piety. It undoubtedly increases their gratitude when they are reminded, by contrast, of the obvious and revolting abominations from which they have been rescued. The daffy sinfulness, too, of which the best are conscious, which they frankly acknowledge, however unaffectedly deplore, becomes a source of sincere and growing humiliation. The transgressions, also, of the past are never remembered without grief; and the spirit is chastened into meekness at the recollection of even bygone and forgiven iniquities. And, beyond this, what salutary spiritual consequences are derived from a conscious proneness to sin in the future! To what self-renunciation does it conduct! what acts of self-consignment to God does it prompt! and how much possible sin does it annihilate!
(5) God uses sin to display the matchless glory of His Divine perfections. (H. Batchelor.)
It is an evil thing and bitter.
The evil of sin
I. Inquire wherein sin consists, according to the description of the prophet.
1. Every sinner has forsaken God.
(1) He does not desire Him as his portion, but other things in preference.
(2) He is not mindful of His favour, but esteems the friendship of a fellow creature more than His.
2. As God is not loved, so neither is He feared, at least, not in such a way as to depart from evil.
3. From these two sources proceed all the evils that are in the world.
(1) Forsaking God has been the cause of every abomination: hence all the wars, oppression, and injustice, between nations and individuals.
(2) From the same source also arises a rejection of Christ and the Gospel; a contempt of religion and of religious people.
(3) Hence, also, that hardness and indifference to the Gospel in many who attend upon it.
(4) Hence the most solemn warnings and tender expostulations are without effect, and all the mercy of the Saviour is neglected.
II. Consider the evil and bitter nature of sin.
1. We may “know and see how evil and bitter a thing sin is,” by the precepts of God’s holy law, which forbid it; and we must measure it by this rule to see what evil there is in it.
2. We may “know and see” by the awful threatenings of God’s Word, by which it stands condemned (Deuteronomy 28:15).
3. We may know and see by the bitter sorrows of true penitents (Psalms 38:1-6; Psalms 51:1-4; Zechariah 12:10).
4. Know by the bitter fruits it has already produced.
5. By the still more bitter fruits it would have produced if God had not restrained it.
6. By the bitter pains of eternal death.
7. Know it also by the bitter sufferings of the Son of God.
III. Enforce the exhortation: “Know therefore and see that it is an evil and bitter thing.”
1. Unless we know and see this, we can neither know nor see the salvation of God.
2. Without a knowledge of the evil of sin, we shall neither repent of it nor depart from it to any good purpose.
3. If we know and see it not truly in this world, we shall be made to know and see it to our cost in the world to come.
4. If we are brought to know and see it aright, we shall come to Christ; and herein will be the proof of our knowledge being in some measure what it ought to be (John 6:45). (Theological Sketchbook.)
The evil and bitterness of sin
I. Introductory observations.
1. Men in general think lightly of sin. They consider it rather as a failure or infirmity of nature, than as positive transgression, guilt, or vileness. Nay, “fools make a mock of sin.”
2. The great reason why men think so lightly of sin is, that they think lightly of God. Our judgment of anything is always in proportion to our esteem or disesteem of its opposite. God and sin are two contraries; and we will unavoidably form our estimate of sin, according to that which we form of essential holiness.
3. There is an infinite evil in sin. This may appear impossible, because man, its subject, is a finite being. But although viewed in man, or in any creature, as its subject, it can be only finite; with respect to God, the object against whom it is directed, it is infinitely evil: for it is an affront to His infinite perfections.
4. All sin has an infinite evil in it. The guilt of one sin exposes to eternal wrath. The least sin implies in it ingratitude, unbelief, rebellion, and atheism.
II. The evil of sin.
1. Because contrary to the nature of God, who is the supreme standard of truth and righteousness. Men may talk as they will of moral rectitude and the fitness of things. But these are terms without meaning, unless we understand them as relating to the perfections of the Divine nature; for there can be no notion of rectitude, fitness, or propriety, abstracted from the nature of God.
2. Because contrary to His holy law. This notion of sin is usually illustrated by the situation of a person under a bodily disease, who not only labours under the want of a proper temperament of humours, but hath a positive disorder among them. So sin, which is a moral disease, not only implies a want of proper conformity to the law, but a real opposition to it.
3. It is an attempt against the moral government of God in the world. This is the necessary result of its being a transgression of the law.
4. It is abominable to God. Nothing else in the universe is the object of Divine hatred, or nothing else but on account of sin.
5. That sin is an evil thing is evident from that malignity which is in its nature. Does the justice of God proclaim the guilt of sin? Do we learn its filth from its contrariety to Divine holiness? Its malignity also appears by its opposition to the alluring perfection of love.
6. Because it makes man the slave of Satan. By the law of his creation, he is the subject of God. To Him he owes his service, and to Him only.
1. That those who have never seen sin to be evil and bitter have no fear of God.
2. The danger of entertaining trivial thoughts of sin.
3. The dreadful ingratitude that is in sin.
4. The impossibility of delivering ourselves from sin. The necessity of washing in the blood of Christ.
III. The bitterness of sin.
1. Sin is so bitter in its consequences that it has deprived us of all good. It has robbed us of the Divine image and favour.
2. Sin has subjected us to all penal evil. The curse of the law; afflictions; death
3. Sin has introduced disorder into the whole creation of God.
IV. By what proofs sinners may know and see that sin is evil and bitter.
1. By the commands and threatenings of the law. It threatens death in all its extent: temporal, spiritual, and eternal.
2. By terrors of conscience.
3. From the complaints of God’s people, on account of sin. They everywhere, when rightly exercised, represent it as their heaviest burden; and however great their afflictions, they consider sin as greater than any ether.
4. By the punishments inflicted on sinners in this life. Flood: Sodom and Gomorrah.
5. Many see and know the evil and bitterness of sin by their own eternal misery. Hell.
6. In the sufferings of the Son of God. (J. Jamieson M. A.)
Sin evil and bitter
Many and great are the benefits arising from a proper view of the evil of sin. It teaches us our true relation to God, and the value of Christ’s salvation. It shows us the necessity of repentance, and serves to form in us that spirit of humility, which so well state, a fallen creature. To promote this necessary branch of Christian knowledge, therefore, I propose to set before you some of the evils contained in sin.
1. Sin is an act of rebellion against God, our supreme governor. We all feel it to be right that a master should govern his servant, a parent his child, a king his subjects:--and, in these cases, if obedience be refused, we immediately censure it as wrong. Now, all the relations of father, master, and king, do not confer a thousandth part of the right to rule, and to be obeyed, which centres in God. If authority is attached to property, the world is His, and the fulness of it;--if to high station, He is King of kings, and Lord of lords;--if to natural right, whose claim can be so little liable to dispute as that of the Creator of all things, by whom all things subsist? The language of sin is, “Who is the Lord that I should obey Him?” Now, when we consider the infinite glory, power, and goodness of God, whose authority is thus trampled upon; the meanness of man--dust of the earth quickened into life by God; the slightness of the motive by which in many cases he is induced to disobey God; and the desperate boldness or unthinking carelessness with which he dares to transgress, often showing neither reluctance, nor apprehension, nor sorrow, surely we shall see in this one view of the subject how “evil and bitter a thing it is that we have forsaken the Lord God, and that His fear is not in us.” But to all this it may be objected, that guilt lies chiefly in the intention; and that it is not the intention of the sinner to offend God, much less to rebel against Him: his end is only to please himself. This may be true; but is it not rebellion against God not to intend to obey Him? No criminal directly proposes to insult the laws of his country. He intends only to please himself; to serve some selfish end of his own. But when the act which he commits is forbidden by the law, we consider him as justly liable to suffer the penalty of disobedience. But it is pleaded, “We have no distinct idea, when we sin, of acting against the will of God, but are drawn, by thoughtlessness, to do that which in our more serious moments we condemn.” Is thoughtlessness itself, in respect to God and our duty, no crime? This is to excuse the guilt of the single act, by acknowledging a general principle of evil. Men, for the most part, know that what they are about to do is forbidden by God. Their conscience reproves them; their guilt is placed full in their view, and yet they proceed in their course.
2. The evil of sin will further appear from this consideration, that by every act of sin we do in effect arraign the wisdom and goodness of God. Every one who sins decides against the wisdom and goodness of God. He declares by actions, which always speak more strongly than words, that God would have more promoted the happiness of man had He allowed him to indulge his lusts; that His yoke, therefore, is hard. Now, is it not an unpardonable presumption in us thus to set up our judgment against that of God?
3. The evil of sin appears also from its tendency to defeat the designs of God. It introduces disorder into His dominions. It spreads desolation through His works. It destroys the happiness, harmony, and glory of the world, and fills it with misery and discord. All sin has this tendency. For, be it remembered, we are not to measure the evil of sin by its effects, but by its tendency. If God, by His power, prevents the effects which it would otherwise produce, this does not take away from its proper malignity.
4. The evil of sin will further appear when we consider the ingratitude contained in it. Is there, then, no guilt in sin which injures and insults our best Friend; no evil in that disposition which allows us to be even negligent in our conduct towards Him to whom we owe such obligations?
5. Sin manifests also an abject and grovelling spirit. It proposes to gratify the corrupt appetites of the flesh, and considers only the present moment: for this, reason is dethroned, while the flesh is allowed to rule: for this, honour, conscience, and the fear of God, are trampled under foot: for this, eternity is sacrificed to time. It belongs only to fallen beings; it is the badge of their shame, and the rod of their punishment.
6. Lastly, the evil of sin appears in the injury it does to others. It is the excellence of holiness that it spreads happiness around; but it is the effect of sin, like a pestilence, to spread ruin and desolation. All I have said of sin in general applies, of course, to every act of sin; and yet how very different an appearance does sin usually bear to us from what has been described! Is God, then, an angry tyrant, who marks in secret the weaknesses and follies of His creatures, in order, at length, to pour out His vengeance on them? Far from us be such an idea of our gracious and merciful God. He is slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth Him of the evil. (Christian Observer.)
1. The nature of sin. Forsaking the Lord as our God.
2. The cause of sin. Because His fear is not in us.
3. The malignity of sin. An evil and bitter thing.
4. The fatal consequences of sin. Without God.
5. Use and application. Repent of thy sin. (Matthew Henry, D. D.)
How then art thou turned into the degenerate plant.
A mysterious action is this of spiritual deterioration. It does not set in with obvious energy all at once, so that in one short week a man ceases to be a healthy and fruit-bearing vine; but little by little he goes down, his tone changes, his prayers are depleted of elements that once made them rich with spiritual significance; a carelessness comes upon all his personal discipline; we say, he is no longer the man he once was; then he falls again, and still further he goes down, until at last we begin to be ashamed of his society, or to say that we never come near him without being chilled: once he was so warm, so cordial, so affectionate, so spiritually-minded, that to touch him was to receive virtue; but now all is changed,--his talk has fallen to a lower level, and there comes now and then a look into his face which means that the better self is being displaced by another identity. “What I say unto one,” said Christ, “I say unto all, Watch.” Let us be careful lest whilst we slumber the enemy take an advantage over us. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Though thou wash thee with nitre.
One of the shortest, but most pregnant, words in our language is sin. And yet it is one of those words least understood. The whole system of the Gospel rests on the fact of sin, and on the dreadful evil of sin, and on the inexpiable character of sin by any human means whatsoever. Our text puts the truth with a very startling clearness. The nitre here mentioned was a mineral substance, and the soap was a vegetable substance, both employed for the purpose of removing spots; and the meaning is, adopt what means you may and all the means within your power, and still your sin will remain, it will strike through again, and be as fresh as the day on which it was committed. This is true of sin in both its aspects of guilt and stain: as guilt or wrong you cannot remove it; and as a blot you cannot remove it. Let us look at it as guilt or wrong. Who can expiate it as a matter of right? If the question be asked, but may not God waive His right? We answer that, if He did this, it would be an act of grace; it would be a voluntary surrender on His part of what He had a right to claim and to inflict. But it does not require much thought to teach us that God could never give to any of His creatures the power of expiation consistent with the stability of His own throne and government. To grant that a man has power to expiate a sin, would be to grant that he has a right to insult God and to sin whenever he desires. Such an engagement would place God in the position of a being who was trafficking in selling the right to do iniquity. You can conceive of a foolish father or mother possessing an imperious nature, and anxious to display supreme authority, incessantly commanding and forbidding their children to do certain trifling things--things which, whether done or left undone, would be of no injury to the children. This is not government. It is irritation. This is not encouraging obedience; it is promoting rebellion. It frets the will by the assertion of needless and unreasonable claims. But surely, the commands of God are not of this character. The commands of God are God Himself in expression, and not merely the power of God or the will of God, but the sense of right and justice and holiness, without which He could have no claim on the obedience and reverence of any creature. But this is not all. Not only do God’s commands express His own eternal nature, and not only do they appeal to our moral nature, so that we cannot treat them as if they were simply suggestions, or pieces of advice, or matters of taste; but they are commands which contemplate and secure, in so far as they are obeyed, our happiness. In other words, they not only enjoin the right way, but the happy way. To sin, therefore, is not only to disobey, but to derange; it is not only to set at nought a Divine injunction, but to outrage your own nature. If therefore the line of obedience to the Divine will is also, as it most assuredly is, the line of blessedness to yourself, do you not see that there can be no expiation for disobedience? Will punishment for a certain time be an expiation? In no country is it held that imprisonment for theft is as good as honesty; in no country is a fine for drunkenness as good as sobriety. But if punishment is not an expiation for sin in human government, in the sense of being regarded as an equivalent for the offence which has been committed, if it does not restore to a man either the character or the standing which he occupied before, so neither is it an expiation for sin in our relations to God. It is true that He too says, If you sin you will also suffer; but He does not say, Your suffering will stand good instead of your obedience. When God punishes, He says first, I cannot be trifled with, and I cannot have My laws set at nought. The punishment means that in the first instance; it must mean that, whether it means anything else or not. If it be asked whether punishment is not meant to be corrective, and whether it is not meant also to be preventive, by way of example to others who see the suffering which follows sin, I admit that these are among the purposes of punishment; but they are secondary purposes. God says to us, If you sin punishment will follow whether you are corrected by it or you are not, and whether others take warning by it or not. It may be said that suffering is not the only nitre and soap by means of which men seek to wash off the guilt of sin; that there is repentance, and future amendment; and that these are sufficient as a set-off against any amount of transgression. Now, it is impossible for us to determine what repentance can do or what future amendment can do, in reference to past sin, without the light which Scripture gives us. Repentance is a change of mind and heart and life; and in the dispensation under which we live, repentance is connected with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And it must not be torn from this connection. The parable of the prodigal son teaches us, that as a son must return to his father, and will be received if he returns, so if a man return to God he will be received. But it was not meant to expound the whole Gospel. The great truth is set forth that a returning child is received; but the way of return Christ explains again and again in His other teachings, as for example when He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh to the Father, but by Me.” The question which we have all to consider is, how is the guilt of our sins to be dealt with that it will not be laid at last to our charge? The answer of the Gospel is not that repentance will stand between it and us. It is that Christ will stand between it and us. Repentance does not bear our sins; Christ bears our sins. (E. Mellor, D. D.)
How canst thou say, I am not polluted.
Self-vindicating sinners reproved
I. The self-vindicating ways of sinners.
1. Direct denial (Genesis 4:9).
2. Vain excuse (1 Samuel 15:13-15).
3. Hypocritical palliation (Genesis 3:11-13).
II. God substantiates His charge against His offending people.
1. By an appeal to fact.
2. By a most apt comparison.
Dromedary and wild ass, when seeking their mate, are so bent upon attainment of desire, that efforts to catch them are vain; no one will weary himself with so fruitless a labour. But when their time of pregnancy has advanced, they fall comparatively an easy prey to the pursuer. So, to little purpose that you are followed with invitations and entreaties: you “will not hear the voice of the charmer,” etc. (C. Simeon, M. A.)
Know what thou hast done.
What hast thou Done?
Look at thy life in the light of--
1. God’s Divine purpose.
2. Your social position, and the circumstances by which you have been surrounded.
3. The responsibilities of the domestic relationship.
4. Your relationship to the best and tenderest of fathers.
5. The tender dealings of the Holy Spirit.
6. Your relationship with Him who, because He loved you, was content to hang upon the Cross. (W. H. M. H. Aitken, M. A.)
Have I been a wilderness unto Israel?
The people were required to answer two questions: “Have I been a wilderness unto Israel? have I been a land of darkness unto Israel?” Speak out. If you have an impeachment to bring even against God, do not fear to bring it. He asks for it. A wondrous tenderness inspires the inquiry. It seems, indeed, to bring its own answer with it. So the father might plead with his child, “Have I been a wilderness unto thee, or a land of darkness? have I been deaf to entreaty? have I been without sympathy in the time of affliction? have I but half-opened the door when you have sought to return to my love and my confidence?” The very inquiry is a defence; the very method of the inquiry means, It is impossible to answer this but in one way. Having answered a question respecting God, they have next to answer a question respecting themselves: “Wherefore say My people, We are lords; we will come no more unto Thee?” Literally, Why do My people say, We will rove at will? That is licence, not liberty. They have lost the centre, and are plunging evermore in chaos, without being able to give an account of themselves or to use what benefit might lie within their power. Why this new cry, namely, We will do as we like? Why this so-called free thought? why this progress which means running round and round and never advancing by one measurable inch? How very early men begin to be free-thinkers! How soon sin says to a man, Rove at will; do what you like: you are a man! Then the poor fool thinks he is a man, and begins to “play fantastic tricks before high heaven.” He forgets that we have only, liberty to obey. Then the Lord seems to adopt a kind of taunting tone: “Can a maid forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire?” When did either of them forget a pin, a jewel, a toy, a feather? What, a memory for little things, for dressing, for adornment, for outgoing, for public excitement! What a recollection for dates, when the date is filled up with an amusement, a new sensation! But no memory for sacrifice, for prayer, for holy sacrament, for consecrated day, for revelations from heaven,--a memory that will hold all the fiction that ever was written, but a memory like a sieve in respect of everything that is written in the Bible! What a voice is the Lord’s! How strident, how mocking! how tender, beseeching, importunate, full of lamentation! “My people have forgotten Me days without number.” Could the complaint have been stated more pensively? The very voice in which it is uttered adds to the poignancy of the distress. Who likes to be forgotten? Who likes to be the one member of the family for whom no flower is brought, for whose birthday no provision is made, for whose little wants, or great, no one cares? Now the voice changes, and the element of accusation enters into it very sharply (Jeremiah 2:33): “Why trimmest thou thy way to seek love? “--why this continual invention in incidental reforms? why not go to the root of the matter? A corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit. It is useless to paint the branches, or hang bird cages upon them, or tie to them fruit gathered from other orchards. Down with the tree, up with the roots, burn them, and in its place let there be a tree of the Lord’s right-hand planting. But all this trimming and adaptation and partial reform indicates a species of ingenuity and cleverness--“therefore hast thou also taught the wicked ones thy ways.” The substantive is feminine--“therefore hast thou also taught wicked women thy ways”: you have been inventive, you have issued new programmes of evil; you have said in effect: See how clever we are: here is a new method of profanity, here a novelty in blasphemy, here a cloak that baffles scrutiny, here an impervious garment--waterproof and fireproof, deluge and lightning cannot get through this covering. No doubt there is a great deal of ingenuity in wickedness. Bad men have wonderful sagacity in some cases, great mental penetration, and quite a striking method of doing their own work in their own way; they are inventive, mentally fertile; as to their fecundity in the way of devising evil methods and evil practices, it is immeasurable. But God knows it, and founds a charge upon it. Mark the hardening process of sin in the thirty-fourth verse: “Also in thy skirts is found the blood of the souls of the poor innocents: I have not found it by secret search, but upon all these.” The blood of the prophets was found in the skirts of those who had slain the good men. But “in thy skirts,”--is not that a term which indicates concealment? God says, I have not found out this blood, or the sin with which it is connected, by secret search--by digging down and finding a hole in the wall, as the prophet Ezekiel found a hole in the wall and entered into the chamber of imagery; this is not a cellarful of blood; this sin is not confined to the basement of the life house: you have advanced beyond that. Cain, who introduced social sin into the world, performed his murder in secret, wiped his lips, and stood before God as an innocent man. We have made advances upon that infantile crime. Now our crime is public. The sin which you are half afraid of today, you will make a boon companion of before very long. The words you now use with blushing and trembling of voice, you will use familiarly by continued practice. We cannot rest at a certain point, saying, I will go no farther than this. Such may be our intention at the time being, but we subtly and imperceptibly advance until we become adept in evil. “Why gaddest thou about so much to change thy way? thou also shalt be ashamed of Egypt, as thou wast ashamed of Assyria” (verse 36). Literally, Why all these shifting policies? why all these new alliances? why be performing a kind of moral conjuring? Are there not many people who are all things by turns and nothing long--men who are wanting in conviction and thorough persuasion of soul, incapable of enthusiasm, driven about by every wind of doctrine; men who have called at all the hovels of heresy, and have, never settled in the sanctuary of truth? We need not alter the terms; they are simple as our best-known mother tongue, and they will stand for the purposes of scrutiny all the while, not needing change or modification. Be something. Belong to somebody. Do not mistake roving at will for a safe dwelling at home. What was the result of this trimming and gadding about, this changing between Assyria and Egypt? “Yea, thou shalt go forth from him, and thine hands upon thine head,” etc. (verse 37). Observe the expression, “Thine hands upon thine head.” It was the Oriental sign of dejection and despair. Seeing a man in that attitude, the meaning was: He has no more hope; his spirit is full of chagrin; he has been utterly disappointed, and his soul is dead within him; and his confidences are all battered down; the day of prosperity, even nominal and superficial, is gone forever. There are many confidences, and they look well. What can look better from the outside than golden wealth: the foundations silver, the gates made of precious stones, the front of the house gleaming white marble, the roof of the house one sheet of gold; and behind horses and chariots, and man servants and maid servants, and a retinue endless? What can look better as a confidence than health--rude health, rosy-cheeked health, bright-eyed health: the voice as sound as a bell, the arm as strong as iron, a strength that never knew what it was to be weary--real genuine health of blood and bone and sinew and skin; a man whom death dare not touch? Or the confidence of invention--that fertility of mind which always has a new shift, which can always see a back door out of every difficulty? Or pleasure--sunny, merry, dancing pleasure, with a tune for every hour of the day, and as happy in the night season as in the daytime; bells ringing the whole four-and-twenty hours round; and as for laughter and joke and all kinds of mirthfulness, why here they are? “The Lord hath rejected thy confidences.” One bolt of lightning, and the whole gold house has gone down. One chill some damp night, and the health house is ruined from attic to basement. One touch by the invisible hand, and the brain that had in it a thousand inventions trembles, and cannot remember. One keen disappointment, and pleasure is struck dead; its face is an annoyance, its rattle is an insult, its invitations are blasphemies, in face of a woe so terrible. There is but one abiding confidence--“Rock of Ages, cleft for me.” There is but one refuge from the storm--“Jesus, refuge of my soul,” (J. Parker, D. D.)
An unjust imputation repelled by Jehovah
To an ingenuous mind God never appears so irresistible, so overpowering, as when He addresses His creatures in the language of tender expostulation. Did all men possess such a disposition, He would seldom address them in any other language, and even now, destitute of it as they naturally are, He condescends occasionally to employ it one instance of its use we have in our text.
I. Show when professed Christians treat their God and Redeemer as if he were to them a wilderness, a land of darkness. The mention of a wilderness, especially of a wilderness as it appears at night, when darkness prevails, suggests to us ideas of dreariness, solitude, and gloom; of a place where there is nothing to cheer, to nourish, or shelter us, where numberless obstacles impede the wanderer’s progress, and through which is no discoverable path. Every declining professor of religion, every one who serves God with reluctance, who does not find pleasure in His service, regards Him precisely in this light, and treats Him as if He were a wilderness, a land of darkness. When a professor becomes slack and remiss in waiting upon God, careless in walking with Him, and negligent in seeking communion with Him, does he not practically say, God is, to me, a wilderness? In the same manner does every one regard it, who in any place of worship, whether private, social, or public, feels as if he were detained there, and as if he would prefer some other situation or employment. Still more loudly does the professing Christian declare that he regards God as a wilderness, when he repairs, in search of happiness, to the scenes of worldly pleasure, or to the society of worldly-minded men. He then says to them in effect, the ways of wisdom are not ways of pleasantness; a religious life is a life of constraint and melancholy; I should die with hunger and thirst, did I not occasionally forsake the wilderness in which I am doomed to live, and refresh myself with the fruits on which you are feasting.
II. Apply to all, who have treated him in this manner, the pathetic, melting expostulation in our text.
1. The temporal blessings which you enjoy. Look at your comforts, your possessions, your children, your friends, your liberty, your security. Did you find all these blessings in a wilderness, or did they come to you out of a land of darkness?
2. The religious privileges with which you have been favoured. Did you find the Bible, the sanctuary of God, and the Gospel of salvation, in a wilderness? Surely, a wilderness, where such blessings are to be found, must be preferable to the most fertile spot on earth!
3. Those who are professors of religion, we may remind of the spiritual blessings which they have, or profess to have enjoyed.
(1) You have found the table of Christ spread for your refreshment. You have enjoyed precious seasons of communion with Him. You have tasted the first-fruits of the heavenly inheritance, celestial fruits, the food of angels, such as earth does not produce. Was it a wilderness which produced the celestial fruits, on which you have feasted?
(2) Has God been a wilderness, a land of darkness to this Church, considered as a body? Look back and see what it was twenty years since. Consider how it has been preserved, blessed, increased, during the intervening period.
4. Yet, notwithstanding all that has been said, there are probably some who feel as if, in one respect at least, God has been to them no better than a dark and dreary wilderness. We allude to those who, though they have professedly paid some attention to religious subjects, and have perhaps enrolled themselves among the visible followers of Christ, have found no happiness in religion. Such persons often say in their hearts, We have spent much time in religious pursuits, and have made many endeavours to find that rest and peace and consolation which Christ promises to His disciples, and of which many Christians talk so much. But all our endeavours have been in vain; and we must say, if we speak the truth, that our way has been like that of a man travelling through a wilderness, where he finds no path, no refreshment, but meets with thorns and briars and obstacles at every step. In reply to such complaints, we remark, that the persons who make them compose several different classes, and that the complaints of each of these classes are wholly unreasonable and without foundation.
(1) The first class we shall mention, is composed of those who, to use the apostle’s language, go about to establish their own righteousness, and do not submit to the righteousness of God. That such persons find no happiness in God, in religion, is not wonderful; for to God, and to religion, they are entire strangers. It is only by believing in Jesus Christ, that men are filled with joy and peace.
(2) The second class we shall mention, is composed of the slothful. That they should find no happiness in religion, is not surprising; for inspiration declares, that the way of the slothful man is a hedge of thorns.
(3) A third class of complainers is composed of such as an apostle calls double-minded men, who are unstable in all their ways. They are engaged in a vain attempt to reconcile the service of God and that of mammon. In making this attempt they wander from God, and lose themselves in a wilderness; and then inconsistently complain, that wisdom’s ways are not paths of peace, that God is to them a land of darkness. But their complaints are as unreasonable as those of a man, who should bury himself in a dungeon, and then complain that the sun gave no light. Permit me now to improve the subject--
1. By applying it to the members of this Church, and to all the professed disciples of Christ before me. Let me say to each of them, Have you never treated your God and Redeemer as if He were a wilderness, a land of darkness?
2. In the second place, let me apply this subject to impenitent sinners. (E. Payson, D. D.)
God no barren wilderness
I. A demand.
1. It has the force of a remonstrance or protestation. Men are wrongly opinionated respecting God.
(1) Because God is pleased sometimes to suspend and delay the expressions of His goodness to them.
(2) Because God does not always reward them as they desire and expect.
2. It has the force of a remembrance or seasonable intimation; i.e., I have been the contrary, I have in reality been a paradise.
3. It has the force of a reproach; i.e., Israel hath rather been a wilderness to Me! And so it represents to us the unfruitfulness of God’s people. Three things aggravate this.
(1) The mercies they enjoy.
(2) The means (of improvement, advantages) they partake of.
(3) The expectations which are upon them.
4. It has the force of an appeal or provocation to them; i.e., let Israel speak what they know of Me.
II. An expostulation.
1. The charge is two fold.
(1) Their assertion: “We are lords,” whereby they hold forth their own greatness, self-sufficiency, and independence.
(2) Their resolution: “We will come no more,” etc.
2. The censure, “wherefore?” signifies that--
(1) It was without reason.
(2) Against reason. Consider--
(a) Their relation. “My people.”
(b) Their indebtedness.
III. An invitation. By “generation” He meant the people of the time. There is a reflection in the phrase upon the sinfulness and wretchedness of the age, as if to say, Into what a time and age are we fallen!
1. Unto what this generation is invited. To “see the Word of the Lord,” i.e., mind it and attend to it.
2. The weightiness and seriousness of it.
(1) As it respects God’s own justification.
(2) As it respects Israel’s condemnation. (T. Horton, D. D.)
A just challenge
You cannot hear such a text as this without feeling greatly solemnised. I do not suppose they said this literally, but practically they said, “We are lords; we will come no more unto Thee.” Also, how the words impress us with the necessity of a better dispensation,--in other words, of a better covenant, of a better religion, that should take a saving hold of the people, and make them all that which the Lord Himself would approve.
I. The just challenge.
1. What the Lord was to them. Salvation. Those among them who were spiritually minded, and were taught of God, saw in the Paschal lamb, Christ Jesus; saw in the salvation from Egypt, Christ Jesus; saw in the victory that was wrought for them, Christ Jesus.
2. How it was they failed. They defiled the land.
II. The self-exaltation. “We are lords.” What does it mean? It means that they set their authority above the truth of God. Now it becomes us to see that all the parts of our religion are of Divine authority. So far from the Christian as he goes on finding that he is lord over his own self, and lord over this, and that, and the other, he finds out, as he goes along, more and more of his poverty; he decreases more and more. Ah! he says, If I were black in my own eyes a few years ago, I am blacker now: if vile in my own estimation a few years ago, I am viler now. And thus as we sink the Saviour rises, grace reigns, and we glory in being poor sinners at the feet of Jesus, indebted to God from first to last for our eternal salvation.
III. The blind decision. “We will come no more unto Thee.” I do not apprehend that this means that they would give up the supreme God, but that they would come no more unto Him in that representation of Him which His truth gave, in that representation of Him which His prophets gave. We will thus come no more unto Thee--not in that way. In Isaiah 29:1-24 you have these instructive words, “This people draw near Me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour Me, but have removed their heart far from Me.” They are not conscious of that, You say to the Pharisee in the Saviour’s day, Do you love God? Of course I do. But is not your heart removed from Him? No;--they were not conscious of it. Every erroneous seeker says he loves God; what, then, is the sense in which their hearts were removed from God? what is the sense in which they would come no more to Him? “Their fear,” saith Isaiah (29), “toward Me is taught by the precept of men.” The Saviour comes to the same point when He says, “Ye will not come unto Me that ye might have life.” And when He had opened up the beauties of the everlasting Gospel in John 6:1-71, it was not the supreme God abstractedly, but it was God in His own way of saving a sinner that they hated, and they went back and walked no more with Him. (J. Wells.)
Can a maid forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire?
yet My people have forgotten Me.
The bride and her ornaments: the sin of forgetting God
It is a clear proof of the great love of God to His people that He will not lose their love without earnest expostulation. He loves us too well to suffer us to go on in our iniquity. He will scourge rather than abandon; chide rather than lose.
I. A very grievous sin. “My people have forgotten Me days without number.”
1. Observe whom they had forgotten: it will help us to see the sin of it. It would not have mattered half as much if they had forgotten their dearest friends--the husband his wife, or the mother her child; but here are favoured men and women who have forgotten their God, their Father, their life, their all. God, the good, the best, who has a chief right to be remembered. There is great evil in our hearts, or it would be so hard to forget God as to be impossible. A friend has gone away from us, and we do not see him; but he has left so many tokens of his goodness that we are reminded of him every day. Is it not so with God? Has He not left us innumerable tokens of His affection for us? Ought we to forget when so many forget-me-nots are round about us? But, supposing that friend has not gone away at all, but is living with us in the house, and enters even into our chamber, what shall we say if we forget one who is constantly with us? No man is so present with his friend as God is with His people.
2. Who were they that forgot God? Not strangers, not heathen; but “My people.” That is to say, a people not only chosen and redeemed, but brought to know Him, brought into fellowship with Him, brought into relationship with Him, brought absolutely into union with Him,--they have forgotten Me.
3. Observe sadly the space in which they had forgotten: in the case of Israel, it is added, “days without number.” How long is it since you were in the habit of walking with God? How long is it since you have seen the face of the Well-Beloved? I ventured to put that question once to a professor, and, shaking his head, he replied, “Don’t ask me that: if you will ask me whether I have been a drunkard, whether I have been dishonest in business, whether I have done any positive action by which I have degraded the Christian name, I can answer you without fear; but if you ask, How long since I have had fellowship with Christ, I cannot--I dare not--answer you.”
4. How is God forgotten? What are the manifestations of this offence?
(1) Some professors evidently forget God by their worldliness They have been fattened with the treasures of the world, but their souls have been starved to very skeletons, for they have not fed upon the things of God.
(2) Some have forgotten God by self-seeking. They live unto themselves.
(3) Some, too, show that they forget God by the failure of their trust. They are in trouble, and they are very anxious. Why? Because they have forgotten God, though He has promised to help them.
(4) Alas, there are some who add to this a forgetfulness of God through neglect of private devotion. Prayers are slurred over; drawing near to God becomes a form and a pretence.
(5) And you and I can do it in a very high sense by a breach of communion, by getting out of fellowship with God, by walking contrary to Him, so that He walks contrary to us. It is very bad walking and very bad living when God and ourselves are at cross purposes.
5. If ever we do forget God, it leads to all sorts of mischief. We lose our joy and our comfort; and then we lose our strength and our watchfulness; and then we backslide by little and little; and then, probably, we fall into one sin, and then into another sin, if not into a third more grievous still
II. The chiding question which is the very marrow of the text. “Can a maid forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire?”
1. I suppose that question is put, first, because there are many trivial things which occupy minds so that they cannot forget them. How sad it is that the grandest things, the best things, should not equally engross our thoughts!
2. If a bride did forget her attire, or a maid did forget her ornaments, it would be very unreasonable behaviour. But how infinitely more unreasonable it is that you and I should forget God. He is our diadem of glory: He is our beauty of holiness. In Christ we are arrayed in raiment of needlework, and our garments are of wrought gold. Can we, shall we forget Him?
3. It would have been a most unseasonable thing for a maid to forget her attire at her wedding. A bride who forgets her attire would be something like the foolish virgins who forgot to take oil in their vessels with their lamps. And, certainly, it is a most unseasonable thing for me and you to forget our God while we are here. Let the soldier, when the arrow is flying from every bush, forget his armour, but let us not forget our God. Let the hungry man, when famine rages through the land, forget his store of bread, but let us not forget the food of our souls, which is our Lord Jesus.
4. Notice the conduct of the maid or the conduct of the bride, with regard to her ornaments.
(1) She labours hard to obtain her ornaments and to gain her attire. Many women in the East save up every coin that they have, and turn all into silver. It is their life’s work to provide themselves with ornaments against the marriage day. While they do this, let us do better: let us store up the thoughts of Christ, and the words of Christ, and the things of Christ, and let us labour to get more and more of Christ, that we may be adorned with Him and made comely in His comeliness.
(2) When the Eastern woman has with great difficulty obtained her ornaments and her attire, then she thinks a great deal of them: she preserves them with much care; she will, if possible, prevent a thief from taking away a ring or gem; she locks them up carefully. Oh, that we did store up every bit we get of our Lord’s loves and put it by to keep it, never losing any pearl that we find, or any ring that we fashion by experience.
(3) How joyfully the Eastern woman puts on her jewels, puts on her attire. She has these things to wear them. I am ashamed of those Christians who are ashamed of Christ. They have jewels: I hope they have; but they are very chary of ever showing them.
III. A few words of call to repentance, if we have in any measure forgotten God. I am sure, first, that our God does not deserve to be treated so. “You use no other friend so ill.” Have you forgotten? Will not the time past suffice for that? A half a minute’s forgetfulness of God is half a minute too long. Let it not come to be “days without number.” But, if the number be ever so small, let us weep to think we should have forgotten Him at all. Think, if He had forgotten you--forgotten you in your merriest moment, ay, in your holiest moment, what would have been your portion? (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The Almighty entered this grave charge against His ancient favoured nation, “My people have forgotten Me days without number.”
I. The same charge lies with too great force against all Christendom. The true secret of this lurks in the obstinate ungodliness of the carnal mind. This hinders the recollection of God in the following modes--
1. In habitual inattention to Divine truth, when presented to the mind. Some try to excuse their ignorance of God and His inspired Word, pleading, “I have such a bad memory,” when the memory is quite good enough, if Divine truths were once welt lodged in it by due attention. No memory, however excellent, can retain that which was never allowed to make an impression (Hebrews 2:1).
2. In neglect of reflection on Divine truth read or heard. Where there is little meditation on God and His Word, it is vain to expect a rich experience, or a solid religious character.
3. In the occupation of the mind with comparative trifles. Filling our measures with chaff, we leave no room for good and solid grain. The maid thinks of her ornaments, and the bride of her attire. The young--and not they only, but many to whom increasing years have brought no wisdom--fill their thoughts and conversation with the fashions, the amusements, and entertainments of the season; and so can have, in their foolishly occupied minds, no grave recollection of that God with whom they have to do. It was a judicious answer of Themistocles to Simonides, who had offered to teach him the art of memory, “Rather teach me the art of forgetfulness; for the things which I would not I remember, and cannot forget the things I would.”
4. In excess of worldly cares. There are grave anxieties regarding success in business, or the attainment of a coveted position, that so press upon the soul as to preclude the earnest recollection of religious truth. Hence it happens that shrewd men, who easily remember whatever affects the markets, cannot remember how to “buy the truth”; and readily quoting the stock and share lists of commercial enterprise, cannot accurately quote the verses of the blessed Word of God.
II. To show the evil of forgetfulness, let it be considered how much a religiously stored memory tells on the development of the Christian mind and formation of the Christian character. It constitutes knowledge, it deepens repentance, it fortifies faith, it supplies comfort, and moves continual thankfulness. (D. Fraser, M. A.)
Thou sayest, I have not sinned.
1. Blind to its own guilt.
2. Blasphemes God by accusing Him of unjust anger.
3. Will not escape just punishment. (Naegelsbach.)
Denial of guilt
At one of our seaside resorts, a cab proprietor was fined £10 and costs for not having licences for twenty-seven carriages. His excuse was that they were relics of antiquity, kept to lend out while others underwent repair. Some make a like plea when their sins are discovered: they do not sin as a regular business, though it is true they keep some of the old relics of antiquity. If we keep the devil’s carriages, even under such a pretence, we will find them turn into funeral cars ere long. Do not keep wine in the cellar, and you will not drink it. He who has a pistol may shoot. “Make not provision for the flesh” (Romans 13:14). “Neither give place to the devil” (Ephesians 4:27). Do not keep even an old stool for him. Away with all his furniture. “Old things are passed away.”
Why gaddest thou about so much to change thy way?
Living to purpose
I. The importance of having an object in life. There is a vast difference between the state of a man when running a race, and when sauntering about to kill time. There is an equal difference between the men who pass through this city on business, and those who come to the metropolis merely to see sights. Plant yourself upon London Bridge, the city side, about nine o’clock in the morning, and look into the faces of the men who are crossing that bridge. Go into the National Gallery, or into the British Museum, any day when these places are thronged, and look into the faces of the persons who are there. A very different state of thought and feeling you will find revealed by those faces. Now in this difference we see the importance of a well-defined and all-commanding object. An object in life sufficient for a man, brings him out, educates him. The prize calls out the school boy who contends for it; the honours of the university elicit the mind, and the scholarship of the man who wrangles for them--and any object has a similar effect, the pursuit of which fully calls out a man’s powers. This is education. Instruction is not education. Education, as the very word implies, is the calling forth of what is within a man; and the objects and subjects of pursuit do more in our education than the mere reading and study of books. Desiring a particular end, and determining to obtain it, the man asks, What have I that I can use in order to reach this end? An object calls out a man. And an object keeps the man out. It calls him out, and maintains the manifestation and the development. He is not like the snail, but is like the bee, or as the ant. His powers are never withdrawn--in all working time they are outstretched. Neither is there incessant and useless change in his operations. He who gads about to change his way, having no fixed and definite object, but changing his object almost with the change from month to month, and from season to season, never lays hold of anything that is worth securing. But a man with a good object, with a commanding object, and a sufficient object, cannot afford to be unstable. Now, if a man’s powers he called out, and kept out amid obstacles and conflicting circumstances, the education of the man is yet further advanced. He is opposed, say, in the pursuit of his object. Well, this opposition keeps the earnestness and the seriousness alive within him. It is a great advantage to be opposed in the pursuit of our object. If men will only take opposition with good temper, and be quiet, and of a meek and patient spirit, they will always be the better for it. Annoyances arise--he feels that if he yields to them he shall be unfitted for his pursuit. What does he? He keeps down his susceptibilities to fretfulness, and he learns quietness of heart. How soon the man learns this, who is in constant intercourse with the Saviour about all the objects of his pursuit, and who tells Him everything that dwells on his mind about everybody, and about every circumstance! He can see the invisible; he can assure his heart of what his hand does not now grasp--and thus he is educated by his object.
II. While it is important that every man should have some object, it is more important that the object of pursuit to every man should be good. Say that a man sets out with fame as his end. He means to be known; he means to get into every newspaper. Such a one does everything to be seen and to be spoken of. That which will not tell upon his reputation he will not do. He wishes the trumpet to call attention to everything which he executes; he wishes to be called the best scholar, or the noblest patriot, or the richest merchant, or the most devoted philanthropist of his day. He wishes to be called first; and he pursues that end. Now, such an end will make a man proud and vain. In all matters of morality and religion such a man will be most unsteady. Consider wealth a man’s object. He plans and labours to get money--to get it for spending or for hoarding; and money is the man’s goal. This will make him narrow-minded, and selfish in heart. Men will rise and fall in his estimation according to their possessions, and objects will be pursued as they secure to him money. Perhaps this was the goal of Judas; and see what effect it produced upon him. He lost his soul in running to it. Consider power a man’s end. He lives and toils to subdue others to himself. This makes a man ungenerous, cruel, unjust, and often impious. Admit pleasure to be a man’s object. This destroys the proportions of the human constitution, and throws out of their right and proper place the several parts of our human nature. Now, put in contrast with fame, money, power, as the chief end of man, the good of others. Say that men are living to effect some object in connection with the well-being of their fellows; then you have such a character as that of John Howard, Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, Buxton. Howard’s object, as you know, was the release and the relief of the prisoner; and while John Howard’s disposition led to the choice of this pursuit, that disposition to do good grew marvellously under the training influence of his object. Wilberforce was naturally sympathetic, but his efforts for the slave marvellously enlarged his heart. Buxton would have been a noble man anywhere, but his pursuit of the extinction of slavery made him grow like the palm tree, and flourish like the cedar in Lebanon. Many a female culprit would confess their obligations to Mrs. Fry; but Newgate was a school of grace to the prisoners’ friend and teacher: and if she could hear us talking of her now, she would say to us, “Speak not of anything I did, but rather tell what all this did for me. It was far more blessed for me to communicate, and to give, and to strive in that prison to do good, than it ever was simply to receive.” (S. Martin, M. A.)
As to gadabouts
The illustration by which this prophet of tears deplores the vacillation of the nation to whom he wrote, is a homely one. Now they wanted alliance with Egypt, and now with Assyria, and now with Babylon, and now they did not know what they wanted, and the behaviour of the nation reminded the prophet of a man or woman who, not satisfied with borne life, goes from place to place gadding about, as we say, never settled anywhere or in anything, and he cries out to them: “Why gaddest thou about so much to change thy way?” Well, the world has now as many gadabouts as it had in Bible times. Gadabouts among occupations, among religious theories, among churches, among neighbourhoods, and one of the greatest wants of the Church and the world is more steadfastness and more fixedness of purpose. It was no small question that Pharaoh put to Jacob and his sons when he asked, “What is your occupation?” Getting into the right occupation not only decides your temporal welfare, but may decide your eternal destiny. Last summer a man of great genius died. He had the talents of twenty men in surgical directions, but he did not like surgery, and he wanted to be a preacher. He could not preach. I told him so. He tried it on both sides of the sea, but he failed, because he turned his back on that magnificent profession of surgery, which has in our time made such wonderful achievement that it now heals a broken neck, and by the X-ray explores the temple of the human body, as if it were a lighted room. For forty years he was gadding about among the professions. Do not imitate him. Ask God what you ought to be, and He will tell you. It may not be as elegant a style of work as you would prefer. It may be callous and begrime your hands, and put you in suffocating atmosphere, and stand you shoulder to shoulder with the unrefined, but remember that if God calls you to do one thing you will never be happy in doing something else. All the great successes have been gained through opposition and struggle. “Hard pounding,” said Wellington at Waterloo,--“hard pounding, gentlemen; but we will see who can pound the longest.” Yes, my friends, that is the secret, not flight from obstacles in the way, but “who can pound the longest.” The gadabouts are failures for this life, to say nothing of the next. There are many who exhibit this frailty in matters of religion. They are not sure about anything that pertains to their soul or their eternal destiny. Now they are Unitarians, and now they are Universalists, and now they are Methodists, and now they are Presbyterians, and now they are nothing at all. They are not quite sure that the Bible was inspired, or, if inspired, whether the words or the ideas were inspired, or whether only part of the book was inspired. Gadding about among religious theories, and never satisfied. All the evidence is put before them, and why do they not render a verdict? If they cannot make up their mind with all the data put before them they never will. If it is a good book, your eternal happiness depends upon the adoption of its teachings. Once and forever make up your mind whether it is the book of God or the book of villainous pretenders. So, also, many are unfixed in regard to their spiritual condition, and day after day, and year after year go gadding about among hopes and fears and anxieties. Why do you not find out whether you are His or not? There are all the broad invitations of the Gospel. Accept them. There are all the assurances. Apply them. This moment you have all the information pointing to the road that terminates at the gate of the Golden City, and the voyage that anchors in the haven of eternal rest. Why go on guessing when you have all the facts before you? My text also addresses those who in search of happiness are going hither and yonder looking for that which they find not. Let all the gadabouts for happiness know that in kindness and usefulness and self-abnegation are to be found a satisfaction which all the gaieties of the world aggregated cannot afford. Among the race of gadabouts are those who neglect their homes in order that they may attend to institutions that are really excellent, and do not so much ask for help as demand it. One bad habit these gadabouts, masculine or feminine, are sure to get, and that is of scandal distribution. Such gadabouts have little prospect of heaven. If they got there they would try to create jealousy among the different ranks of celestials. Therefore let us resolve that we will concentrate upon what is right thought and right behaviour, and waste no time in vacillations and indecisions and uncertainties, running about in places where we have no business to be. Life is so short, we have no time to play with it the spendthrift. (T. De Witt Talmage.)
The Lord hath rejected thy confidences, and thou shalt not prosper in them.
The danger of false confidences
In the state and conduct of Judah we have a picture of the state and conduct of the world, in religious matters, at the present day; and as that nation, by their distrust of God and want of reliance on His power and goodness, wrought for themselves the degradation and the miseries of a long captivity, so those who are seeking for themselves present and eternal peace by any other means than those which God has appointed, and are lulling their souls into security by false confidences, are “heaping up for themselves wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”
I. The general mercy of God is the ground of confidence with many, but this is a confidence which the Lord hath rejected. The Scriptures are full of declarations which show the utter fallacy of this trust. We may assure ourselves that those who hold to it have ideas of sin very different from those given us in “that sure Word of Prophecy unto which we do well that we take heed.” Let us ponder the fact, that if man, as the Scriptures tell us, was formed in the image of God, by every act of transgression we must be effacing that image, and spoiling God’s most glorious workmanship; and if God can look upon such a thing with indifference, and allow it to pass with impunity, He must be reckoned as altogether heedless of the grossest interference with His wise purposes which we can possibly, suppose. Now, is such a thing at all countenanced in the Scriptures? No. “God is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity. Evil cannot dwell with Him, nor fools stand in His sight.” And so jealous is He of His glory, that in His dealing with the first of our race He annexed the penalty of death to transgression. Adam transgressed, and he died, spiritually and temporally. And where in this is the evidence of a God all mercy? Why did not paradise smile on our first parents as before? Why did the sword of the cherubim keep them out from their first and most beauteous habitation? It was because God is a God of justice, and His veracity stood pledged for the fulfilment of His righteous threatening. And He stands as pledged still with regard to all but those who, being in Christ Jesus, have escaped condemnation. “Upon the wicked He shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest; this shall he the portion of their cup.” And hath He said it, and will He not do it; hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?
II. Many trust to their own righteousness for acceptance with God, but this also is a confidence which the Lord hath rejected. Do and live is the motto of the religion of such persons. They purpose to get to life, and their way to it is by keeping the commandments. God, say they, has annexed the promise of future felicity to obedience, and we obey that that felicity may be ours for a reward. Now, this would do very well, did we retain our original standing with God; but whether man be now that holy being he was when God pronounced him to be very good, let the state of the world, let your own hearts witness. The conscience of every man who knows aught of the law of God, and is at all accustomed to compare his conduct and his feelings with its requirements, will testify, that it is as true now as on the day when it was written that all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God: But many, who trust to themselves that they are righteous, will endeavour to get rid of these considerations, by saying, that though they have sinned, they have repented: that is, they have felt sorry for their sin, and that God will receive penitence as an atonement. This is trifling with the character of God, and with that righteous government which it is His immutable purpose to maintain throughout the whole of His dominions. Even human legislators have not failed to see how subversive such a principle would be of the good of civil society if put in practice in the world. Would it be right--would it be consistent with good government, that crime should go unpunished, if the criminal, when brought to the bar of justice, should express sorrow for his offence? All know that it would not. And will God fail to vindicate His law, His justice, His veracity because of a few sorrowing tears and sighs? But it is said that Jesus, by His obedience and suffering, has obtained an abatement of the law; that He has softened it down in order to fit it to human infirmity; that it is not a perfect, but a sincere obedience that is required; and that if we fall short in any thing, the merit of Christ comes in to supply the deficiency.
1. We observe that Christ came for no such purpose as to temper the law to our infirm circumstances; for if the law was originally right, if that wisdom which enacted it, and which cannot err, saw it to be fit and necessary, it must be immutably so. What! did Christ die that we should not be obliged to love God and our neighbour, so much as we were originally bound to do? Did He give Himself to procure for us a liberty to sin with impunity? No one in soberness of spirit will say so.
2. But, with regard to the merit of Christ supplying only for the little that we may have fallen short, we observe, that it is altogether at variance with every dictate of Scripture on the subject of the sinner’s salvation. Was not the sacrifice of Christ a full satisfaction to Divine justice? Did He not magnify the law, and make it honourable? And can it be necessary that to His infinite satisfaction and merit we should add our obedience, soiled and imperfect as it must be at best, in order to obtain pardon and acceptance with God? What an unhallowed mixing of the clean and unclean; what a confounding of Christ and Belial would be here! Besides, why will men be so perverse as to seek justification by the law, whether it be abated, as it is not, or whether it stands in its original force, as it does to those who are under it, and as a rule of life to all? Why will men be so perverse, when it is said so pointedly, that “by the deeds of the law no living flesh shall be justified”? We apprehend that, to every candid person, the foregoing considerations are sufficient to show how unsafe a foundation, on which to build for eternity, are our own righteousness, and those things connected with it which we have noticed. What, then, is the confidence, by depending on which we may look forward securely to eternity? It is the righteousness of Jesus, made ours by imputation, and received by that faith which is of the operation of God.
III. Too many content themselves with a bare speculative knowledge of the true way of salvation and this is a confidence which the Lord hath rejected. There is a form of godliness without the power. In order to a real saving knowledge of the subject of redemption, we must have a deep impression of the truths which the subject involves: the deep depravity of our nature; our alienation from God; the hatefulness and repugnancy of sin to the Divine nature; our inability to rescue ourselves from perdition; the love, the wisdom, the condescension, all infinitely displayed in the plan and the execution of our redemption, and the readiness and ability of Christ to save. (P. M’Guffie.)
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Jeremiah 2". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent