If thou wilt return,. . .and if thou wilt put away thine abominations . . . then shalt thou not remove.
The pleadings of God
A strange ministry is that of Almightiness. It is almightiness--almost. So we come upon a mysterious “if” in all the history of God’s administration. “If thou wilt return”--why not make them return? Here man is stronger than God. We have seen in innumerable instances how true it is that God, who can handle universes, can do nothing with the heart He has made except with the heart’s consent. Behold God, then, as a pleader. “If thou wilt return, O Israel, saith the Lord, return unto Me: and if thou wilt put away thine abominations out of My sight,”--if thou wilt swear, “The Lord liveth, in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness,”--if thou wilt do these things, the issue will be glorious; it will also be beneficent, it will have an evangelistic effect upon the world. The meaning is, the heathen nations round about shall see thy return, and they will begin to own the power of God. That is the converting force that must be brought to bear upon the whole of the nations. The Church must be so beautiful as to attract attention. When Christians do right, pagans will believe; when Christians claim their uniqueness of quality and exemplify it, the men who get up arguments against Christianity will be ashamed of their own ingenuity, and run away from the things their hands have piled, saying, We cannot build fortresses against such quality of character. This is true missionary work. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Putting away of sin
A great warrior was once persuaded by his enemies to put on a beautiful robe which they presented him. Not suspecting their design, he wrapped himself tightly in it, but in a few moments found that it was coated on the inside with a deadly poison. It stuck to his flesh as if it had been glued. The poison entered into his flesh, so that in trying to throw off the cloak, he was left torn and bleeding. But did he for that reason hesitate about taking it off? Did he stop to think whether it was painful or not? Did he say, Let me wait and think about it awhile? No! he tore it off at once, and threw it from him, and hastened away from it to the physician. This is the way you must treat your sins if you would be saved. They have gone into your soul. If you let them alone you perish. You must not fear the pain of repentance. You must east them from you as poison, and hasten away to Jesus Christ. Do this, or your sins will consume you like fire. (T. Meade.)
And thou shalt swear.
I. The command. Did Christ countermand this? (Matthew 5:34.) The Son forbid in the Gospel what the Father bids in the law? God bids thee swear, so thy oath be truthful and needful; Christ forbids swearing which is truthless and needless.
II. The form. God bade us swear; now He tells us how. “The Lord liveth.” It is, then, impiety to swear by creatures. God prevents all evasion by the name He here gives--“the Lord”; not any god the swearer would substitute, as some swear by angels, called in Scripture “Elohim,” and superstition worships them as gods.
III. Three particulars.
1. “In truth.” Perjury is impious--makes that which is the sign and seal of truth, the cloak of falsehood.
2. “In judgment.” Swear not upon guess only.
3. “In righteousness.” To any act against right or religion bind not thyself, let not any bind thee. (R. Clerke, D. D.)
Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.--
I. Proper attention to the soil.
1. Variety of condition.
2. Capability of improvement.
II. Proper attention to the seed.
1. Care in selection of true spiritual seed. The Gospel--
2. Attention must also be paid to its growth.
III. Proper attention to the season.
2. The season of moral seriousness, when the heart has been softened. (Homilist.)
The life of the sinner a foolish agriculture
The people referred to as sowing among thorns are those, perhaps, who are endeavouring by religious study and effort to get the seeds of Divine good into them when their hearts remain full of worldly things.
I. A grand evil. Sowing precious seed in bad soil involves three things.
1. Loss of seed. The precious grain has been thrown away.
2. Loss of labour. All the efforts employed go for nothing.
3. Loss of hope. All the bright anticipations of a glorious future frustrated.
II. An urgent duty. “Break up your fallow ground.” This means in one word evangelical repentance for sin.
1. This in moral, as well as material, agriculture is hard work. A skilful ploughman, a strong plough and a vigorous team are necessary. It is hard work to repent.
2. This in moral, as well as in material, agriculture is indispensable work. (Homilist.)
The fallow ground broken
I. The necessity of fallowing the ground is obvious to all who are practically acquainted with tillage: and such as are experimentally informed on the subject of the evil and barrenness of their own hearts, will admit the absolute requirement of a similar mental process. All your carnal hopes, and criminal opposition to the Divine will, must be completely eradicated.
II. The nature of this part of a farmer’s business will well Illustrate the correspondent toil of a believer. No attempt to cleanse the heart, however disagreeable, is intentionally neglected by the sincere believer--no effort is relied upon; all is subservient to the expected influences of heaven.
III. The advantages of this procedure. Those who make thorough work with their own hearts, will find that their religious joys and better hopes, though delayed, shall be most vigorous; their subsequent sufferings from the grieving thorn and pricking brier shall be fewer; and a richer harvest shall at length crown their toil.
1. If you desire permanent prosperity and joy in the Holy Ghost, break up the fallow ground--sow not among thorns.
2. Be personal in this labour. Turn your eyes from others to yourself.
3. Remember your own unworthiness, and the poverty of your unassisted endeavours. (W. Clayton.)
Ploughing and sowing
This season of spring, with its ploughing, and sowing, and opening of life, typifies the time which God has given for forming in us enlightened principles and virtuous habits, holy motives and pure desires, and for becoming possessed of the grace and goodness which Jesus has to impart, in order that we may grow up into the Divine life of God, which shall abide with us through old age as the source of true enjoyment, and as the first beginnings of eternal glory. The ploughshare of the Divine Word must pierce into us, and break up our hardness and indifference, and make us impressible and movable, to fit us for bringing forth the fruits of righteousness. For example, the seedtime of life, like that of spring, regulates and determines the moral results which the future shall unfold, whether in time or in eternity. Our life on earth is the scene of moral causes and operations--the sowing time of our spirit--the period for the earnest cultivation of our moral nature; and it is to us all the more important, because it is far-reaching in its effects, stretching beyond the present earthly existence into eternity, bearing the flowers and blossoms of spiritual beauty and grace, a manifestation of Deity in humanity. And if these moral causes do not operate--if the seed time of life be wasted--if the cultivation of the moral nature be neglected, equally true the effects of such a life are eternal, stretching beyond the present earthly existence, and bearing into eternity the fruits of moral depravity and corruption. Now, this cultivation of our moral nature is no easy task. Even in matters connected with this life, if we neglect any duty from time to time, or if we delay entering upon any employment necessary to our material or social well-being, indolence increases, disinclination to perform the duty strengthens, dislike to the employment springs up, until habit entirely unfits us for action. In the same way, to ignore religious truth in its relation to our heart, and to neglect religious duties, is to deepen false impressions, strengthen ignorant prejudices, and confirm evil habits. This also is certain, that if good seed is not germinating in our hearts, thorns of evil are, do what we will. If, for instance, our mind is not exercised with religious truth, and no effort made on our part to understand intelligently the revelation which God has made of human salvation; or if the heart be unopened to the power of the Divine Spirit and the moral impressions of Divine truth; and if we continue to refuse accepting Christ as the Saviour of our soul; then our mental and moral nature will become as hard-baked fallow ground, almost impenetrable to the ploughshare of heaven. The indifference of the mind to religious truth keeps the heart spiritually cold, and the coldness of the heart induces in the mind a distaste for spiritual things. On the other hand, any powerful awakening in connection with religion or religious truth, whether it affect the mind alone, or the heart alone, or both together, is in the highest sense beneficial to our soul. Whatever acts on the mind so as to turn it in upon itself, whatever makes the soul depend upon God, and believe in an invisible spiritual world as a reality, though accompanied with strong excitement or inward conflict, is good, and leads to spiritual power. Besides, the precise form of treatment that does good to one spiritual nature, is not always successful with every other, even in like circumstances, any more than the same culture would be successful with different soils in the same climate. We cannot, therefore, project our own feelings and experience into the mind and soul of others, as if we were examples of the only way in which Divine grace and power plough all human souls for the seed of salvation. This breaking up of our moral nature is nothing else than the softening of our hearts under the influence of Divine truth--a humble, penitent spirit, a constant sense of the evil of sin, a willingness to be reconciled to God, whom our transgressions have offended, and an earnest desire after a holier life in God. It is only in such a heart as this that Divine truth will take root, and grow up and bring forth fruit. As the ground must be broken before the tiny fibrils of the root can descend into the earth, which they do, as by a sensitive instinct, in search of vegetable nourishment and life; so the spiritual nature must be humbled and made penitent--broken under a sense of sin, and under the operation of Divine law--in order that the seed of the Divine Word may hide itself deep down into the subsoil of the soul, until it establishes itself firmly there. While the tangled threads of the root are shooting themselves downwards, and gathering strength and nourishment from the soil, the blade in spiral form shoots itself upwards to the light, and the leaf opens, then comes the ear, and then the full corn in the ear, ripe for the sickle of harvest. In the same way Divine truth and heavenly principles, spiritual thought, emotion, and life descend and ascend, as by an unchangeable law. In every truly spiritual life there is this two-fold operation--a movement upwards and downwards, a working within and without, a meditative disposition expressing itself in active habits, believing prayer, conjoined with earnest effort in doing good. (W. Simpson.)
The duty of moral cultivation
Our nature at its largest is but a small farm, and we had need to get a harvest out of every acre of it, for our needs are great. Have we left any part of our small allotment uncultivated? If so, it is time to look into the matter and see if we cannot improve this wasteful state of things. What part of our small allotment have we left fallow? We should think very poorly of a farmer who for many years allowed the best and richest part of his farm to lie altogether neglected and untilled. An occasional fallow has its benefits in the world of nature; but, if the proprietor of rich and fruitful land allowed the soil to continue fallow, year after year, we should judge him to be out of his wits. The wasted acres ought to be taken from him and given to another husbandman who would worthily cherish the generous fields, and encourage them to yield their harvests. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
A fallow field
Do you know what happens to a fallow field? how it becomes caked and baked hard as though it were a brick? All the friable qualities seem to depart, and it hardens as it lies caked and unbroken; I mean, of course, if year succeed year, and the fallow remains untouched. And then the weeds! If a man will not sow wheat, he shall have a crop for all that, for the weeds will spring up, and they will sow themselves, and in due time the multiplication table will be worked out to a very wonderful extent; for these seeds, multiplying a hundredfold, as evil usually does, will increase and increase again, till the fallow field shall become a wilderness of thorns and briars and a thicket of dock nettle and thistle. If you do not cultivate your heart, Satan will cultivate it for you. If you bring no crop to God, the devil will be sure to reap a harvest. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
A dry wind of the high places in the wilderness toward the daughter of My people, not to fan, nor to cleanse.
The prophet intimates that God will one day send a judgment upon His people comparable only to the sirocco of the desert. The harvestman welcomes almost all the winds of the summer time but this. Their gentle currents lend themselves to the winnowing processes that are necessary to complete the toil of the year. But the sirocco comes with no element of helpfulness or beneficent service in its terrible wings. It is the agent of unmixed ruin, overthrow, death; the symbol of judgment without mercy. The successive invasions that were soon to close in upon the Holy Land were to be of this unmixed character. The flower of one generation was to perish in the overthrow. Whole districts were to be depopulated and re-peopled by alien races. The wind that came from the desert Came to crash and to scorch and to destroy. It was “not to fan, nor to cleanse.” Some men claim that all judgment must be ultimately puttying. This inspired utterance however assures us that there is such a thing in the Divine economy as punishment that is purely punitive and not disciplinary.
I. Let us inquire if this penal element has a place in the best human governments. If we work out to its logical conclusion the theory that all punishment must be disciplinary only, we shall be bound to adopt methods of procedure in our law courts more grotesque than the most audacious caricature has ever imagined. We must have no short sentences if all penalty is to be educating. We have no right to discharge a man, however slight his transgression, till he has given sufficient assurance that his character has been entirely transformed. Judge and jury would no longer need to concern themselves with the particular category into which his crime came. The only question for them to ask would be, how far does the root of evil go down in this man’s character? and what amount of force will be necessary to pull it up? Some men, who are incapable of amendment through pain, can perhaps be stirred to better desires, or at least taken away from their criminal tendencies, by wholesome excitements. Experts would have to step into the witness box. In some cases it might be found that a garrotter would be more sensibly improved by wholesome excitements than by flogging. Carlyle inveighed from time to time against this unhealthy sentimentalism which would sap the foundation of all human and Divine law alike. In the “Life of Bishop Wilberforce” reference is made to a party at which Monckton Milnes, Thomas Carlyle, and other distinguished men were present. The conversation turned upon the question of capital punishment. Mr. Monckton Milnes was arguing against death-penalties, on the ground that we could not know how far the offender was responsible and consciously wrong. Carlyle broke out, “None of your heaven-and-hell amalgamation companies for me! We do know what is wickedness. I know wicked men I would not live with: men whom under some conceivable circumstances I would kill or they should kill me. No, Milnes; there is no truth or greatness in that. It’s just poor, miserable littleness. There was far more greatness in the way of your German forefathers, who, when they found one of those wicked men, dragged him to a peat bog, and thrust him in, and said, “There! go in there. There is the place for all such as thee:”
II. If this penal element is admitted into human governments, upon what conceivable principle can it be excluded from the Divine? Many causes combine to weaken the sense we have of our own authority to punish wrong-doing. It is a strictly delegated authority. We always feel ourselves bound to greater restraint and circumspection in the exercise of delegated than original rights. We often feel ourselves incompetent judges of all that has transpired. We judge and punish in dim twilights. That tends to make us hesitating and indeterminate. And then the sense of our own authority to judge and to punish is weakened by the recollection we have of our own desert of punishment in many things. Unless the offence is very flagrant, we fear to incriminate ourselves by judging another. And yet, notwithstanding all these things, we are absolutely sure of our clear abstract right to punish even in cases where the punishment has no educating purpose to fulfil to the individual, whatever it may have to the community. How much stronger is God’s right! His authority is original, and not delegated. He guarantees in every soul He judges the sufficiency of the past training and discipline. He dwells in the perfect light. His judgment can never be unnerved by the fear of error.
III. Disciplinary are distinguished from penal judgments, not so much by any quality in the judgments themselves, as by the temper of those who become the subjects of such judgments. The question whether purely penal elements can enter into God’s government is one that must be looked at from the standpoint of the transgressor rather than that of the Judge. Are there incorrigible elements in human nature? As a matter of fact, judgments very often fail to sober and to purify here. There are men who can never be taught wisdom by the longest succession of business reverses. There are men who, humanly speaking, can never be taught common morality, however heavy the penalties they are made to pay for its breach. There are worldly men whom no number of sicknesses and providential bereavements can discipline into religiousness. Where there are unreformable elements in human character, disciplinary judgment necessarily passes into the purely punitive stage. It is often argued that the keener judgments of the life to come will produce penitence in those who have continued stubborn under the milder judgments of the present life. There is not only no proof of that, but nothing even to suggest that it is probable. We cannot predicate anything from the cumulative power of pain. The wind does not become purifying by mere increase of the force with which it blows. After reaching a certain pitch of violence it can neither “fan nor cleanse.”
IV. The judgment that has passed out of the disciplinary into the penal stage for the individual is still disciplinary in its significance for the race at large. The wind that blows to crush and to scorch and to uproot in one zone of the earth, after it has passed into new latitudes, and been tempered by the seas over which it travels, may become a wind of winnowing beneficence. The penal visitation of one generation may become the saving chastisement of the generation that follows it. We must not get into the habit of supposing that God’s purposes ever terminate in the individual. That mystery of unending punishment, which seems to frustrate the Divine purpose of mercy to the individual, may fulfil a purpose of gracious admonition to the race. The law of vicariousness pervades the moral universe just as widely as the law of gravitation overspreads the natural universe. There is a priesthood of vicarious judgment as well as of mercy. As great fires are kindled in times of plague to burn up the germs of infection floating in the air, so the atmosphere of God’s universe may need to be kept pure by the flames of a quenchless Gehenna. (T. G. Selby.)
Wash thine heart from wickedness.
Purity necessary to salvation
I. The natural depravity of the human heart.
1. This doctrine requires definition. Depravity of the heart includes--
2. This doctrine demands evidence.
II. The spiritual purity which the lord requires.
1. The possibility of obtaining purity of heart. This appears from--
2. The important duty of seeking purity of heart.
III. The absolute necessity of personal holiness.
1. A necessary property of religion.
2. A necessary meetness for heaven. (Sketches of Four Hundred Sermons.)
The heart to be kept pure
“You have seen,” said Spurgeon, “the great reservoirs provided by our water companies, in which the water to supply thousands of houses is kept. Now the heart is the reservoir of man, and our life is allowed to flow in its proper season. That life may flow through different pipes--the mouth, the hand, the eye; but still all the issues of hand, of eye, of lip derive their source from the great fountain and central reservoir, the heart; and hence there is great necessity for keeping this reservoir in a proper state and condition, since otherwise that which flows through the pipes must be tainted and corrupt.” How long shall thy vain thoughts lodge within thee?--Vain thoughts:--
I. Characteristics. Those thoughts are vain--
1. From which we do not and cannot reap any good.
2. Which cannot associate in any agreement with useful and valuable ones.
3. Which have to be kept out in order for the mind to attend to any serious or good purpose.
4. Which dwell largely and habitually on trifling things.
5. Which trifle with important things.
6. Which are fickle, not remaining with any continuance on a subject.
7. When the mind has some specially favourite trifle, some cherished, idolised toy.
8. Which continually return to things justly claiming a measure of attention, when the thinking of them can be no advantage.
9. When the mind dwells on fancies of how things might be or might have been, when the reality of how they are is before us.
10. Which men indulge concerning notions and schemings of worldly felicity.
1. Have specified subjects of serious interest to turn to when thought reverts to these vanities.
2. Make a sudden charge of guilt on your mind when vain thoughts prevail.
3. Have recourse to the direct act of devotion.
4. Interrupt and stop them by the question, What is just now my most pressing duty?
5. Have recourse to some practical occupation, matter of business, or a visit to some house of mourning.
6. Constrain your habitual thinking to go along with the thoughts of those who have thought the best, by reading the most valuable books.
7. Think to a certain purpose--towards a purposed end.
8. Reflect on how many things we have to do with which vain thoughts interfere; and also, what would have been the result of good thoughts instead of so many vain.
9. Discipline of the thoughts greatly depends on the company a man keeps (Proverbs 13:20).
10. If the complaint be urged, that this discipline involves much that is hard and difficult, we answer, It is just as hard as to do justice to a rational and immortal spirit placed here a little while by God for its improvement, and then to go where appoints. Hard, but indispensable. (John Foster.)
Bad lodgers, and how to treat them
I. Here are certain bad lodgers.
1. Many thoughts may be called vain because they are proud, conceited thoughts. Thus, whenever a man thinks himself good by nature, we may say of his thoughts, “Vanity of vanities: all is vanity.” If you are unrenewed, and dream that you are better than others because your parents were godly, it is a vain thought. Every thought of self-righteousness is a vain thought; every idea, moreover, of self-power--that you can do this and do that towards your own salvation, and that at any time when it pleases you you can turn and become a Christian, and so there is no need to be in a hurry, or to seek the help of the Holy Spirit:--that also is a vain thought.
2. Another sort of vain thoughts may be ranged under the head of carnal security. The poet says, “All men think all men mortal but themselves,” and often as the saying is quoted never was a proverb more generally true.
3. I know another set of thoughts: they are better looking, but they are equally vain, for they promise much and come to nothing: they are vain because they are fruitless. These vain thoughts are like the better order of people in Jerusalem--good people after a sort--that is to say, they really thought that as God threatened them with judgments, they would turn to Him. Certainly they would. They had no intention of being hard hearted. Far from it; they owned the power of the prophet’s appeal; they felt a degree of awe in the presence of the just God as He threatened them, and of course they meant--they meant to wash their hearts, and they meant to put away all their forbidden practices; not just yet, but by and by. Some men brood so long over their future intentions that they all of them become addled eggs, and nothing whatever is hatched. O man, “whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it,” do it, do it “with thy might.”
II. Now, let me show what bad lodgers they are.
1. First, they are deceitful. The man that says, “When I have a more convenient season I will send for thee,” does not send for Paul any more: he never intended to do so. A man says, “Tomorrow”; but tomorrow never comes. When that comes which would have been “tomorrow” it is “today”; and then he cries, “Tomorrow,” and so multiplies lies before God.
2. Vain thoughts are bad lodgers, for they pay no rent; they bring in nothing good to those who entertain them. There is the ledger of self-righteousness, for instance: what good does self-righteousness ever do to the man who entertains it? It pretends to pay in brass farthings: it pretends to pay, but the money is counterfeit. What good does it do to any man to harbour in his mind the empty promise of future repentance? It often prevents repentance.
3. The next reason for the ejectment of these lodgers is this: that they are wasting your goods and destroying your property. For instance, every unacted resolution wastes time, and that is more precious than gold. It also wastes thought, for to think of a thing and to leave it undone is a waste of reflection. It is a waste of energy to be energetic about merely promising to be energetic; it is a great waste of strength to be forever resolving to be strong, and yet to remain weak.
4. Worst of all, these vain thoughts are bad lodgers because they bring you under condemnation. There have been times when to entertain certain persons was treason, and many individuals have been put to death for harbouring traitors. Rebels condemned to die have been discovered in a man’s house, and he has been condemned for affording them a hiding place. Now, God declares that these vain thoughts of yours are condemned traitors. Are you going to harbour them any longer?
III. Let us see what to do with these bad lodgers.
1. The first thing is to give them notice to quit at once. Let there be no waiting. When a man is converted it is done at once. There is a line, thin as a razor’s edge, which divides death from life, a point of decision which separates the saved from the lost.
2. Suppose that these vain thoughts will not go just when you bid them begone. I will tell you what to do to get rid of them: starve them out. Lock the door, and let nothing enter upon which they can feed.
3. The best way in all the world that I know of to get rid of vain thoughts out of your house--these bad lodgers that have gone in and that you cannot get out--is to sell the house over their heads. Let the house change owners. When you have dope that, you know, it will be the new owner that will have the trouble of turning them out; and He will do it. I recommend every sinner here that wants to find salvation to give himself up to Christ. Ah, now the stronger than they are has come, and He will bind the strong ones, and He will fling them out of window, and so break them to pieces with their fall that they shall never be able to crawl up the stairs again. He knows how to do it. He can expel them; you cannot. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Heart compared to house, to entertain and lodge guests; into which, before conversion, all the light wanton thoughts that post up and down in the world have open access; while they, like unruly gallants, revel day and night, and defile those rooms they lodge in. “How long?” whilst I, with My Spirit, and Son, and train of graces, stand and knock, and cannot find admittance?
I. What is meant by thoughts?
1. The internal acts of the mind; reasonings, resolutions, consultations, desires, cares, etc.
2. What vanity is.
II. The particulars wherein this vanity of the thinking, meditating power of man consists.
1. In regard to thinking what is good.
2. The readiness of the mind to think on evil and vain things.
III. Remedies against vain thoughts.
1. Get the heart furnished and enriched with a good stock of sanctified and heavenly knowledge in spiritual truths.
2. Endeavour to preserve and keep up lively, holy, and spiritual affections in the heart.
3. Get the heart possessed with deep and powerful apprehensions of God’s holiness, majesty, omniscience, and omnipresence.
4. In the morning when thou awakest, as did David (Psalms 119:18), prevent the vain thoughts the heart naturally engenders by filling it with thoughts of God.
5. Have a watchful eye upon thy heart all day; though vain thoughts crowd in, let them know that they pass not unseen.
6. Please not thy fancy too much with vanities and curious flights (Job 31:1; Proverbs 4:25).
7. Be diligent in thy calling (2 Thessalonians 3:11; 1 Timothy 5:13); only, encumber not the mind too much (Luke 10:41).
8. In thy calling and all thy ways commit thy goings to the Lord (Proverbs 16:3). (T. Goodwin, B. D.)
I. What are vain thoughts?
1. Unprofitable imaginations.
2. Unscriptural opinions.
3. Unholy desires.
4. Unseasonable ideas.
II. The solemn inquiry. “How long?”
1. Shall it be till some temporal judgment be sent to awaken you out of your carnal security?
2. Till habit rivets these vain thoughts, and makes repentance and conversion harder than ever?
3. Till the grieved Saviour forsakes thee, and the resisted Spirit ceases to strive with thee?
4. Till the sentence goes forth, cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground? (J. Jowett, M. A.)
The vanity of man as a thinker
I. It is the glory of man that he can think.
1. Thought brings the outward universe into man’s soul, and thus makes it his own.
2. Thought enables us to subordinate the outward world to our service.
3. By the power of thought we construct new universes.
4. Thought determines our condition.
II. It is the curse of man that he thinks wrongly.
1. Vain thoughts find a lodgment in the minds of some. If the thoughts cherished be vain, the life pursued will be vain. In order in some measure to estimate the amount of vain thought cherished by men, let us do three things. Compare the true theory of happiness with the conduct which men pursue in order to obtain it; the true theory of greatness with the efforts which they put forth in order to realise it; and the true theory of religion with their conduct in relation to it.
2. The expulsion of vain thoughts is a matter of urgent importance.
I. The evil of permitting vain thoughts to lodge within us. By vain thoughts may be meant all unlawful desires, vile affections, wicked tempers, and mischievous imaginations of every kind. If these, or any other evil thoughts to which we are subject, lodge in our breasts, they must render our persons abominable to God, corrupt all our performances, and produce many bitter fruits.
II. The necessity of washing our hearts from wickedness. As it would be madness in the husbandman to sow his seed upon ground that was covered with thorns, so it is equally foolish to expect the fruit of good living in any person whose heart lies fallow, unbroken, and overspread with the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things, which our Saviour calls thorns. (W. Richardson.)
The place of thought in the making of character
Anyone who has visited lime stone caves has noticed the stalactite pillars, sometimes large and massive, by which they are adorned and supported. They are nature’s masonry of solid rock formed by her own slow, silent, and mysterious process. The little drop of water percolates through the roof of the cavern and deposits its sediment, and another follows it, till the icicle of stone is formed, and finally reaching to the rock beneath, it becomes a solid pillar, a marble monument which can only be rent down by the most powerful forces. But is there not going forward oftentimes in the caverns of the human heart a process as silent and effective, yet infinitely more momentous? There in the darkness that shrouds all from the view of the outward observer, each thought and feeling, as light and inconsiderable perhaps as the little drops of water, sinks downward into the soul, and deposits--yet in a form almost imperceptible--what we may call its sediment. And then another and another follows, till the traces of all combined become more manifest; and if these thoughts and feelings are charged with the sediment of worldliness and worldly passion, then all around the walls of this spiritual cavern stand in massive proportions the pillars of sinful inclination and the props of iniquity, and only a convulsion like that which rends the solid globe can rend them from their place and shake their hold. (American National Preacher.)
John Huss, seeking to reclaim a very profane wretch, was told by him that his giving way to wicked, wanton thoughts was the original of all those hideous births of impiety which he was guilty of in his life. Huss answered him, that although he could not keep evil thoughts from courting him, yet he might keep them from making a lodging place in his heart; as, he added, “though I cannot prevent the birds from flying over my head, yet I can keep them from building nests in my hair.”
A true Christian, who, by experience, knows what it is to deal with his own heart, finds it infinitely more difficult to beat down one sinful thought from rising up in him than to keep a thousand sinful thoughts from breaking forth into open act. Here lies his chief labour, to fight against phantasm and any apparitions, such as thoughts are; he sets himself chiefly against these heart sins, because he knows that these are the sins that are most of all contrary to grace, and do most of all weaken and waste grace. Outward sins are but like so many caterpillars that devour the verdure and flourishing of grace; but heart sins are like so many worms that gnaw the very root of grace. (Bp. E. Hopkins.)
I am pained at my very heart.
The prophet’s lamentations over his people’s doom
I. The complaint or lamentation itself.
1. The parts affected. The soul and inward man.
2. The grief of those parts.
3. The passage or vent.
II. The ground or occasion of his lamentation.
1. The tidings or report itself.
2. The conveyance of it to the prophet.
(a) God’s excellency: He speaks.
(b) Man’s duty: he hears.
3. The improvement or use he makes of it.
(a) This is the aim of a revelation.
(b) We should endeavour to bring revelations for others to our own spiritual advancement and profit.
(a) An or at his people’s obstinacy.
(b) Fear of the coming judgment.
(c) Grief at his people’s state and doom (T. Herren, D. D.)
The alarm of war.
“The alarm of war.” A dreadful alarm; one that conjures up horrors and miseries that can scarcely be too deeply coloured. It sends a shudder through the system to think of the wealth of faculty and of resource that is expended over the problem how men can most effectually blow up and slay their fellows, and spread ruin and devastation upon the earth. Strip the thing of all the plumage of romance; look at it in its naked literalness, and it is simply horrible. That is true, too true, undeniably true. But let us learn a lesson. What capacities of heroism, of lofty patriotism, of courageous and unstinting self-sacrifice are called forth by the sound of the trumpet! Well, if only this potency of action, this burning enthusiasm, could be transferred to the Holy War that we are called to wage--ay, what then? Who are the real world heroes? An Alexander, a Napoleon? No, not the wakeful conquerors whose path has been as the whirlwind, but the men and women of whom the world often heard little, for the world does not know its best benefactors--the men and women who have broken the chains of the slave; who have lifted the poor from the dunghill; who have spoken the word of truth for which the soul of man was waiting; who have helped their kind to nobler and higher life; and all and only for God and for humanity. To them the statues and the monuments should be reared, and the canvas animated, and the laurel entwined. They are your leaders, O Christian people. Their fight is your fight, and it is His fight who is the Captain of our salvation. If I were to say to you in regard to this highest and noblest warfare, as Marshal Blanco said to the Cuban Spaniards, “Do you swear to follow in this fight?” would you reply “Yes, we do”? I suppose you would. But just pause. Have you ever parted with a single comfort, with an enjoyment, with something that you feel to be good, if not necessary for your well-being; a something to which you are quite entitled; to secure an unselfish end; to better some cause; to get more into the inner place of human soul; to spread the knowledge of God’s Christ and of your Father’s kingdom in our world? Oh, that as we raise the vision of one kind of war that is blistered all over with mourning, lamentation, and woe, oh, that there might rise upon our souls the vision of that other war that has no such blisters, that is written all over with the characters of true, noble, glorious life or death! Oh, that this vision might take some shape and some consistency and some solidarity within us. There is no life that is worth anything that is not a fighting life. God made us to fight; He set us in the world to fight. The enemy is around us, before us, without us, aye, and within us. I ask, who of you are ready, humbly, reflecting, but earnestly, to lift up your hand to Him, your risen Lord, who is beckoning you, and say, “By Thy help, Lord, I will. Here am I. I have been but a laggard; I have been content to fight in the rear. Take me on to the van, and let me have some worthy part with Thee in this great holy war. Here am I, Prince of Peace, send me.” (J. M. Lang, D. D.)
The alarm of war
I. Of hearing the sound of the trumpet and the alarm of war.
1. We ought to have our ears open to the voice of God in the dispensations of His providence (Micah 6:9).
2. When we hear the sound of the trumpet, and the alarm of war, we ought to consider the causes of these alarms. The prophets often denounce war as a judgment of God against His people, or against the Gentiles. In publishing such threatenings they, for the most part, speak of the sins that have provoked God to afflict His creatures with this calamity; and when they do not specify the grounds of the Lord’s controversy, as in chap. 49, they leave no room to doubt that God is justly displeased. God has just reason, for our sins at present, not only to threaten, but to punish us with His vengeance. We ought to wonder at His forbearance, that He has not long since caused the sword to reach unto the whole of the nation, to avenge the quarrel of His covenant.
3. The probable or possible consequences of these alarms of war ought to come under our view when we hear the sound of the trumpet and the alarm of war. When we make that preparation which religion enjoins against possible evils, if these evils should not overtake us, we are no losers, but gainers. The fear of evil has often been productive of much good. “Happy is the man who feareth always,” and especially in times when there is peculiar cause of fear; “but he who hardeneth his heart shall fall into mischief.”
II. The impression which the sound of the trumpet and the alarm of war ought to make upon us.
1. Those external scenes of distress which are the consequences of war must give pain to a heart that is not contracted and hardened by a reigning selfishness of spirit.
2. Souls precipitated into an eternal world must awaken awful sensations in those who believe that, when the dust returns to the earth as it was, the spirit returns to God who gave it.
3. The influence that wars may have upon the interests of religion is a source of anxious concern to the lovers of God (Lamentations 1:9; Lamentations 2:6-7; Lamentations 2:9). Amidst the ravages of war, even in our own times, we have too often heard of the alienation or destruction of houses ordinarily employed in the services of religion. Should God, in His wrath, refuse us His help against those who threaten the subversion of our liberties, who can foresee what dismal consequences in the state of religion would ensue?
4. God’s indignation, apparent in the alarms of war, ought to impress every mind with deep concern.
III. What improvement is to be made of the sound of the trumpet and of the alarm of war?
1. Let us consider our ways, and inquire how far we are chargeable with those provocations of the Divine majesty which expose us to danger from our enemies. When God threatens judgments, He observes our behaviour. He returns and repents when men are ready to acknowledge their offences, and to forsake them; but woe to those who are at ease in their sins, and never inquire what are the causes of the Lord’s contendings with them.
2. We ought to humble ourselves before God, on account of our iniquities. Observe in what manner Ezra and Daniel bewailed and confessed their own iniquities, and the iniquities of their people (Ezra 9:1-15; Daniel 9:1-27). What would we think of a child that did not mourn when his father was justly displeased with him? We would think that he was cursed with a disposition that totally disqualified him for enjoying the sweetest pleasures that man can taste. By this similitude the Scripture teaches us how unnatural a thing insensibility to the chastisements of the Divine hand ought to be reputed (Numbers 12:14).
3. Supplications for pardoning and reforming grace ought to accompany our humiliation. We are greatly encouraged to pray by the many examples of successful petitioners for public mercies in Scripture. The ways of God are everlasting. He delights in mercy. He puts words into our mouth for imploring His mercy. He hath left us many promises of merciful returns to our prayers, that we may be encouraged to come boldly to His throne of grace for mercy to ourselves, to our friends and brethren, to the Church, to our king and country.
4. We are warned by the sound of the trumpet and the alarms of war to make God our refuge, and the Most High our habitation. To trust to ourselves is the fruit of atheism. If there is a God, He rules in the army of heaven and amongst the inhabitants of the earth; and He does according to His pleasure. He sits upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers. He bringeth the princes of the earth to nought; He maketh its judges as vanity. “But the name of the Lord is a strong tower of defence,” some may say, “only for the righteous (Proverbs 18:10). And we are conscious of so many evils, that we have no reason to hope for protection from the Holy One, who takes no pleasure in wickedness, and will not suffer evil to dwell with Him.” It is true, the Lord our God is holy; but it is true likewise, that He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin. “Him that cometh unto Me,” says Jesus, “I will in no wise cast out.” You have perhaps heard some ridiculous stories of men that, by some magical secret, were rendered invulnerable in battle. You would not be afraid to encounter the most formidable armies if you were masters of such a secret; but, if thou canst believe, “all things are possible to him that believeth.” “He that liveth, and believeth in Me, shall never die.” Who is he that can kill those who cannot die? The words, you will say, must be figuratively understood; for who is the man that liveth, and shall not see death? But, however they are to be understood, they are true and faithful sayings of the Amen, the faithful and true Witness, of Him that liveth, and was dead, and is alive for evermore, and holds the keys of the spiritual world, and of death. You are called to mourning in days of danger, but not to that kind of mourning which swallows up the soul. You are called to mourn, that you may rejoice; to be afflicted for your sins, that you may flee from wrath to Christ, and find in Him safety, security, and joy.
5. The sound of the trumpet and the alarm of war is a loud call to us to cease to do evil, and to learn to do well. Our faith in God is a delusion if we hold fast our iniquities. Our faith in Christ, if it is genuine, will purify our hearts and lives. We are exposed to danger, not only from our own personal sins, but from the sins of our fellow subjects; and therefore we ought not only to forsake sin, but to use all our influence to turn other sinners from the error of their ways. It is a righteous thing with God, that those who do not duly oppose the prevalence of sin should share in the miseries which it brings. We ought not only to renounce all iniquity, but to live in the habitual practice of every duty which God requires. (G. Lawson.)
Suddenly are my tents spoiled, and my curtains in a moment.
Jeremiah was describing the havoc of war, a war which was devastating his country and bringing untold miseries upon the people. How grateful we ought to be that war is not raging in our own land. Blessed be the Lord, who has given centuries of peace to the fertile hills and valleys of His chosen isle. There are, however, in this land, and in all lands, whether at war or peace, many calamities which come suddenly upon the sons of men, concerning which they may bitterly lament, “How suddenly are my tents spoiled and my curtains in a moment.” This world at its best is not our rest. There is nothing settled below the moon. We call this terra firma, but there is nothing firm upon it; it is tossed to and fro like a troubled sea evermore. We are never for any long time in one stay; change is perpetually operating. Nothing is sure but that which is Divine; nothing is abiding except that which cometh down from heaven.
I. A sudden spoiling happens to human righteousness.
1. Let us look at the history of human righteousness, and begin in the garden of Eden, and lament the fall. Adam in his perfection could not maintain his righteousness, how can you and I, who are imperfect from the very birth, hope to do so?
2. A second instance of this very commonly occurs in the failure of the moralist’s resolutions. See yonder young people, tutored from their childhood in everything that is good: their character is excellent and admirable, but will it so abide? Will not the enemy despoil their tents?
3. Another liability of human righteousness is one which I must not call a calamity, seeing it is the commencement of the greatest blessing: I mean when the Spirit of God comes to deal with human righteousness, by way of illumination and conviction. Here we can speak of what we know experimentally. How beautiful our righteousness is, and how it flourishes like a comely flower till the Spirit of God blows upon it, and then it withers quite away, like the grass in the hot sirocco. The first lesson of the Holy Ghost to the heart is to lay bare its deceivableness, and to uncover before us its loathsomeness, where we thought that everything was true and acceptable. I would ask all who are under conviction of sin to answer this question, “When thou art spoiled, what wilt thou do?” May you reply, “We know what we will do. We will flee from self to Jesus. Our precious things are removed, and our choice treasure is taken from us; therefore do we take the Lord Jesus to be our all in all.”
4. But there will come to all human righteousness one other time of spoiling, if neither of those should happen which I have mentioned before. Remorse will come, and that very probably in the hour of death, if not before.
II. The words of our text are exceedingly applicable to the spoiling of all earthly comforts.
1. Sudden destruction to all our earthly comforts is common to all sorts of men. It may happen to the best as well as to the worst. As darts the hawk upon its prey, so does affliction fall upon the unsuspecting sons of Adam. As the earthquake on a sudden overthrows a city, so does adversity shake the estate of mortals.
2. Sudden trial comes in various forms. Here below nothing is certain but universal uncertainty. One way or another, God knoweth how to bring the rod home to us, and to make us smart till we cry out, “How suddenly are my tents spoiled, and my curtains in a moment.”
3. Now this might well be expected. Do we wonder when we are suddenly deprived of our earthly comforts? Are they not fleeting things? When they came to us did we receive a lease of them, or were we promised that they should last forever? All that we possess here below is God’s property; He has only loaned it out to us, and what He lends He has a right to take back again. We hold our possessions and our friends, not upon freehold, but upon lease terminable at the Supreme Owner’s option; do you wonder when the holding ceases?
4. Since these calamities may be expected, let us be prepared for them. “How?” say you. Why, by holding all earthly things loosely; by having them as though you had them not; by looking at them as fleeting, and never expecting them to abide with you.
5. Let us take care to make good use of our comforts while we possess them. Since they hastily fly by us, let us catch them on the wing, and diligently employ them for God’s glory. Let us commit our all to the custody of God, who is our all in all. Such a blessed thing is faith in God that if the believer should lose everything he possesses here below he would have small cause for sorrow so long as he kept his faith.
6. But let us solemnly remind you that in times when we meet with sudden calamity God is putting you to the test, and trying the love and faith of those who profess to be His people. “When thou art spoiled, what writ thou do?” You thought you loved God: do you love Him now? You said He was your Father, but that was when He kissed you; is He your Father now that He chastens you?
III. There may come a sudden spoiling of life itself. In a moment prostrated by disease and brought to death’s door, frail man may well cry out, How suddenly are my tents spoiled, and my curtains in a moment!”
1. It is by no means unusual for men to die on a sudden.
2. Not one man or woman here has a guarantee that he or she shall live till tomorrow. It is almost a misuse of language to talk about life insurance, for we cannot insure our lives; they must forever remain uninsured as to their continuance here. “When thou art spoiled, what wilt thou do?” When on a sudden the curtains of our tent shall rend in twain, and the tent pole shall be snapped, and the body shall lie a desolate ruin, what shall we then do? I will tell you what some of us know that we shall do. We know that when the earthly house of this tabernacle is dissolved we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. As poor, guilty sinners we have fled to Christ for refuge, and He is ours, and we know that He will surely keep what we have committed to Him until that day: therefore are we not afraid of all that the spoilers can do. We are not afraid of the spoiler; but, O worldling, when thou art spoiled, what wilt thou do? (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The wailing of the bereaved
I. Our first sorrowful theme is sudden bereavements. Alas! alas! how soon may we be childless; how soon may we be widowed of the dearest objects of our affections! Ah! this were a sad world indeed, if the ties of kindred, of affection, and of friendship all be snapped; and yet it is such a world that they must be sundered, and may be divided at any moment.
1. Let us learn to sit loose by our dearest friends that we have on earth. Let us love them--love them we may, love them we should--but let us always learn to love them as dying things. Oh, build not thy nest on any of these trees, for they are all marked for the axe. See thou the disease of mortality on every cheek, and write not “eternal” upon the creature of an hour.
2. Take care that thou puttest all thy dear ones into God’s hand. Thou hast put thy soul there, put them there. Thou canst trust them for temporals for thyself, trust thy jewels with Him. Feel that they are not thine own, but that they are God’s loans to thee; loans which may be recalled at any moment--precious benisons of heaven, not entailed upon thee, but of which thou art but a tenant at will.
3. Further, you who are blessed with wife and children and friends, take care that you bless God for them. Sing a song of praise to God who hath blessed you so much more than others.
4. And then permit me to remind you that if these sudden bereavements may come, and there may be a dark chamber in any house in a moment, and the coffin may be in any one of our habitations, let us so act to our kinsfolk and relatives as though we knew they were soon about to die.
II. Sudden death, as we view it more particularly in relation to ourselves. There are a thousand gates to death. How many there be who have fallen dead in the streets! How many sitting in their own homes! Well, our turn must come. Perhaps we shall die falling asleep in our beds after long sickness, but probably we shall be suddenly called in such an hour as we think not to face the realities of eternity. Well, if it be so, if there be a thousand gates to death, if all means and any means may be sufficient to stop the current of our life, if really, after all, spiders’ webs and bubbles are more substantial things than human life, if we are but a vapour, or a dying taper that soon expires in darkness, what then?
1. Why, first, I say, let us all look upon ourselves as dying men, let us not reckon on tomorrow. Oh! let us not procrastinate; for taken in Satan’s great net of procrastination, we may wait, and wait, and wait, till time is gone, and the great knell of eternity shall toll our dissolution.
2. And then take care, I pray you, that you who do know Christ not only live as though you meant to die, but live while you live. Oh, what a work we have to do, and how short the time to do it in!
3. And let us learn never to do anything which we should not wish to be found doing if we were to die. We are sometimes asked by young people whether they may go to the theatre, whether they may dance, or whether they may do this or that. You may do anything which you would not be ashamed to be doing when Christ shall come.
III. The sudden change which a sudden death will cause. You see yonder Christian man, he is full of a thousand fears,--he is afraid even of his interest in Christ, he is troubled spiritually, and vexed with temporal cares. You see him cast down and exceeding troubled, his faith but very weak; he steps outside yon door, and there meets him a messenger from God, who smites him to the heart, and he is dead. Can you conceive the change? Death has cured him of his fears, his tears are wiped away once for all from his eyes; and, to his surprise, he stands where he feared he should never be, in the midst of the redeemed of God, in the general assembly and church of the first-born. If he should think of such things, would he not upbraid himself for thinking so much of his trials and of his troubles, and for looking into a future which he was never to see? See yonder man, he can scarcely walk, he has a hundred pains in his body, he is more tried and pained than any man. Death puts his skeleton hand upon him, and he dies. How marvellous the change! No aches now, no casting down of spirit, he then is supremely blest, the decrepit has become perfect, the weak has become strong, the trembling one has become a David, and David has become as the angel of the Lord. But what must be the change to the unconverted man? His joys are over forever. His death is the death of his happiness--his funeral is the funeral of his mirth. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Wise to do evil.--
Readier to do evil than good
This is a mystery, and yet nothing is more palpable and provable. How easily we learn to go down to hell! What a toil it is in all life to climb, until we get into the meaning of it, and become real mountaineers; then we say, Let us go upward, for we feed upon the very wind, we grow strong by the very exercise; we pant to stand upon the highest pinnacles of nature. But how easy it is not to obey! how easy not to go to church! How delightfully easy to throw off the yoke and to terminate the discipline of life! Employers of labour know this; labourers themselves are well acquainted with it; all schoolmasters and trainers of the young would assent to the proposition instantly and without reserve, and every living man would say, That is true. If that is true, the whole point is yielded. Why should it be true? The direct contrary ought to be the case: it ought to be hard to be crooked and rough and foolish and vain and worldly. It ought to be almost impossible for a man made in the image and likeness of God to drink himself to death, to rob his neighbour, to play the fool, to sleep with the devil. Given creation at the beginning, and it never could occur to the finite intellect as a possibility that man should think one ignoble thought, utter one untrue word, commit himself to one dishonourable policy; the exclamation would be, It is impossible! But we have done it I We have broken all the ten commandments one by one; we have shattered them in their totality; we have run away from God. We have done miracles which have astounded the heavens. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Godlessness is supreme folly
Do you count him a wise man who is wise in anything but in his own proper profession and employment, wise for everybody but himself, who is ingenious to contrive his own misery and to do himself a mischief, but is dull and stupid as to the designing of any real benefit and advantage to himself? Such a one is he who is ingenious in his calling but a bad Christian, for Christianity is more our proper calling and profession than the very trades we live upon; and such is every sinner who is “wise to do evil, but to do good has no understanding.” (J. Tillotson.)
Piety-the truest wisdom
If any man’s head or tongue should grow apace, and all the rest of the body not grow, it would certainly make him a monster; and they are no other that are knowing and talkative Christians, and grow daily in these respects, but not at all in holiness of heart and life, which is the proper growth of the children of God. (H. G. Salter.)
Though thou rentest thy face with painting, in vain shalt thou make thyself fair.
This renting of the face is, literally, enlarging of the eyes through kohl or antimony--a trick of artificial beauty. And the poor creature has taken out her best clothes, painted herself with the fairest colours, done all she could from the outside, and behold the issue is: “Thy lovers will despise but after all is over men feel that this is unreal, untrue, utterly rotten at the core; they say this is “a goodly apple rotten at the heart.” Let us understand the, that whether we be discovered now or then, we shall be discovered. The hollow man shall be sounded, and shall be pronounced void. Thou art weighed in the balances, and found wanting; and thou, poor fool, hast covered up the hectic flush of consumption with indigo that will wash off, or with some other colour that can be cleansed away; thou hast made thyself look otherwise than as thou art: but all that is external shall be taken from thee, and thou shalt be seen in thy naked hideousness and ghastliness. This is right! The revelation will be awful; but it ought to be made, or heaven itself will be insecure. Oh, what disclosures then! The canting hypocrite without his cloak; the skilful mocker who has lost his power of jesting; the knave who always said a grace he had committed to memory before he cut the bread he had stolen; the preacher who knew the right, and yet the wrong pursued; the fair speaker, who knew the very subtlety of music as to persuasion, and yet decoyed souls down the way at the end of which is hell. Then the other revelation will also be made. There may be men of rough manners who shall prove to have been all the while animated by a gentle spirit; there may be those who have been regarded as Philistines who are God’s gentlemen; there may be those who have been thought as unworthy of courtesy who shall be set high among the angels. (J. Parker, D. D.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Jeremiah 4". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany