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Flee, save your lives.
The Christian’s flight
Such was the warning addressed to Moab by the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel. The Chaldeans were about to lay waste the land of the Moabites--a punishment which they justly deserved for their iniquities and for their long-continued opposition to the people of God But even “in wrath the Lord remembers mercy”; or, to use the beautiful language of the prophet, “He stayeth His rough wind in the day of the east wind.” Though Moab shall be punished, her cities overturned, and the country laid waste and desolate, her princes, people, and priests carried into captivity, yet an opportunity is afforded for at least a remnant to escape. “Flee, save your lives, and be like the heath in the wilderness.”
I. From what are we to flee? In a word, from everything that would wean his heart from God and endanger the safety of his soul, the Christian is to flee--“from all evil and mischief, from sin, from the world, the flesh, and the works of the devil, from hardness of heart and contempt of God’s Word and commandment.”
II. For what are we to flee? The life of your soul is concerned; and unless you flee from what stands in your way to God, and blocks up your return to Him, the wrath of God will assuredly overtake you, and you will become a prey to your enemies, to those who seek your life. It is for glory, and honour, and immortality we should flee--blessings of infinite value, prizes beyond all price--nay, far beyond the power of human tongue to tell of their inestimable preciousness; we should flee for the favour of God, the forgiveness of our sins, the worth of our souls, the love and glory of Christ, and the beauty and happiness of holiness. And we should hasten our flight, for the time is short, and death advancing.
III. Where should we flee? “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life; and we believe,” &c. Such was Simon Peter’s declaration. Such is the confession of God’s people still. To the Lord Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, must the sinner flee. He must go as he is, and “he like the heath in the wilderness,” destitute of fruit or value, fit only for fuel, and seek to be engrafted in the living Vine. For Moab, we may observe, was commanded merely to “flee.” Whatever would oppose their progress should be put away. (C. A. Maginn, M. A.)
Flee for your life
I. Whence you are to flee.
II. where you are to flee.
III. How you are to flee.
IV. When you are to flee
V. Why you are to flee. (H. Macmillan, D. D.)
Cursed be he, that doeth the work of the Lord deceitfully.
The sin of lukewarmness in acquiring, and advancing, a knowledge of Christ
I. As it concerns our religious belief and resolution. Some, professedly earnest in their search of truth, make no other use of the light that is given them than to dispute and philosophise about it. Others, acknowledging the testimonies advanced in favour of it, are discouraged by the difficulties which it presents: consulting, yet dreading to be instructed; the slaves of their appetites, more than of their errors, rejecting truth manifested to them, because it would break the fetters which they love. Others again, still more deceitful in their work, convinced, in a great degree, of religious truth in their own minds, yet judge not of it by the light which it leaves there, but by its effect on the rest of mankind. The knowledge of Divine truth must spring from penitence and humility. Cease to have an earthly interest in wishing to find religion false, and you will soon perceive it to be true. Humble yourself before the mighty hand of God; His grace shall then be sufficient for you, and will lead you into all truth. But cursed is he that doeth any work of that God deceitfully, who, whilst He giveth His grace to the humble and sincere, has always scorned the prevaricating and the proud.
II. The silence which we observe in defence of Christ, amidst the clamours of the profane against Him. God wants not your aid to support His truth. But He wants to see His pretended servants not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ: and, although He actually wants not your aid, if He choose to adopt any other method of preserving His truth in the world, yet it appears to be the method, which in His wisdom He has adopted, to disseminate it by means of man to man. Your silence will be taken advantage of by the enemies of your Saviour: and they will think that he, who says nothing, has nothing to say. He, that is not with Me, saith our Saviour, is against Me. Let it not be said that the world has its defenders, and that Jesus Christ has none.
III. An accommodation of the solemn truths of the Gospel to the wishes or prejudices of those with whom we are concerned. Thousands are the miseries that might have been spared this world if the professed believers in God had all been true to their trust. How many a brother might have been prevented from imbruing his hands in a brother’s blood, if they, to whom the cause of dispute was referred, had been firm to the dictates of truth. But the false notions of honour which their friends felt in the moment of anger, they in their cool moments will sanction and applaud: and, palliating, by every modification, the sin of murder, will deliberately second a black and wicked passion, and calmly behold two fellow-creatures, who trusted to their decision, attempting to hurl each other into the presence of their eternal Judge! (G. Mathew, M. A.)
Of lukewarmness and zeal
I. Here then is the duty of us all.
1. He that serves God with the body without the soul serves God deceitfully. “My son, give Me thy heart”; and though I cannot think that nature was so sacramental as to point out the holy and mysterious Trinity by the triangle of the heart, yet it is certain that the heart of man is God’s special portion, and every angle ought to point towards Him.
(1) For to worship God with our souls confesses one of His glorious attributes; it declares Him to be the searcher of hearts.
(2) It advances the powers and concernments of His providence, and confesses all the affairs of men to be overruled by Him; for what He sees He judges, and what He judges He rules, and what He rules must turn to His glory; and of this glory He reflects rays and influences upon His servants, and it shall also turn to their good.
(3) This service distinguishes our duty towards God from all our conversation with man, and separates the Divine commandments from the imperfect decrees of princes and republics.
(4) He that secures the heart, secures all the rest; because this is the principle of all the moral actions of the whole man.
(5) That I may sum up many reasons in one: God, by requiring the heart, secures the perpetuity and perseverance of our duty, and its sincerity, and its integrity, and its perfection: for so also God takes account of little things; it being all one in the heart of man, whether maliciously it omits a duty in a small instance or in a great; for although the expression hath variety and degrees in it, in relation to those purposes of usefulness and charity whither God deigns it, yet the obedience and disobedience are all one, and shall be equally accounted for.
2. He that serves God with the soul without the body, when both can be conjoined, “doth the work of the Lord deceitfully.” Paphnutius, whose knees were cut for the testimony of Jesus, was not obliged to worship with the humble flexures of the bending penitents; and blind Bartimeus could not read the holy lines of the law, and therefore that part of the work was not his duty; and God shall not call Lazarus to account for not giving alms, nor St. Peter and St. John for not giving silver and gold to the lame man, nor Epaphroditus for not keeping his fasting days when he had his sickness. But when God hath made the body an apt minister to the soul, and hath given money for alms, and power to protect the oppressed, and knees to serve in prayer, and hands to serve our needs, then the soul alone is not to work.
3. They are “deceitful in the Lord’s work,” that reserve one faculty for sin, or one sin for themselves; or one action to please their appetite, and many for religion. We reprove a sinning brother, but do it with a pompous spirit; we separate from scandal, and do it with glory, and a gaudy heart; we are charitable to the poor, but will not forgive our unkind enemies; or, we pour relief into their bags, but please ourselves and drink drunk, and hope to commute with God, giving the fruit of our labours or effluxes of money for the sin of our souls: and upon this account it is, that two of the noblest graces of a Christian are to very many persons made a savour of death, though they were intended for the beginning and the promotion of an eternal life; and those are faith and charity.
4. There is one deceit more yet, in the matter of the extension of our duty, destroying the integrity of its constitution: for they do the work of God deceitfully, who think God sufficiently served with abstinence from evil, and converse not in the acquisition and pursuit of holy charity and religion. Many persons think themselves fairly assoilzied, because they are no adulterers, no rebels, no drunkards, not of scandalous lives: in the meantime, like the Laodiceans, they are “naked and poor”; they have no catalogue of good things registered in heaven, no treasures m the repositories of the poor, neither have t e poor often prayed concerning them, “Lord, remember Thy servants for this thing at the day or judgment.”
5. Hither are to be reduced as deceitful workers, those that promise to God, but mean not to pay what they once intended; people that are confident in the day of ease, and fail in the danger; they that pray passionately for a grace, and if it be not obtained at that price, go no farther, and never contend in action for what they seem to contend in prayer; such as delight in forms and outsides, and regard not the substance and design of every institution; that pretend one duty to excuse another; religion against charity, or piety to parents against duty to God, private promises against public duty, the keeping of an oath against breaking of a commandment, honour against modesty, reputation against piety, the love of the world in civil instances to countenance enmity against God; these are the deceitful workers of God’s work; they make a schism m the duties of religion, and a war in heaven worse than that between Michael and the dragon; for they divide the Spirit of God and distinguish His commandments into parties and factions; by seeking an excuse, sometimes they destroy the integrity and perfect constitution of duty, or they do something whereby the effect and usefulness of the duty is hindered: concerning all which this only can be said, they who serve God with a lame sacrifice and an imperfect duty--a duty defective in its constituent parts--can never enjoy God; because He can never be divided.
II. The next inquiry is into the intention of our duty. “Cursed is he that doeth the work of the Lord negligently,” or remissly: as our duty must be whole, so it must be fervent; for a languishing body may have all its parts, and yet be useless to many purposes of nature. And you may reckon all the joints of a dead man, but the heart is cold, and the joints are stiff and fit for nothing but for the little people that creep in graves: and so are very many men; if you lure up the accounts of their religion, they can reckon days and months of religion, various offices, charity and prayers, reading and meditation, faith and knowledge: catechism and sacraments, duty to God, and duty to princes, paying debts and provision for children, confessions and tears, discipline in families, and love of good people; and, it may be, you shall not improve their numbers, or find any lines unfilled in their tables of accounts; but when you have handled all this, and considered, you will find at last you have taken a dead man by the hand, there is not a finger wanting, but they are stiff as icicles, and without flexure as the legs of elephants.
1. In every action of religion God expects such a warmth and a holy fire to go along, that it may be able to enkindle the wood upon the altar, and consume the sacrifice; but God hates an indifferent spirit. Earnestness and vivacity, quickness and delight, perfect choice of the service, and a delight in the prosecution, is all that the spirit of a man can yield towards his religion. The outward work is the effect of the body; but if a man does it heartily and with all his mind, then religion hath wings, and moves upon wheels of fire; and therefore, when our blessed Saviour made those capitulars and canons of religion, to “love God,” and to “love our neighbour,” besides that the material part of the duty, “love,” is founded in the spirit, as its natural seat, he also gives three words to involve the spirit in the action, and but one for the body: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” and, lastly, “with all thy strength.” If it be in motion, a lukewarm religion is pleasing to God; for God hates it not for its imperfection, and its natural measures of proceeding; but if it stands still and rests there, it is a state against the designs, and against the perfection of God: and it hath in it these evils:
(1) It is a state of the greatest imprudence in the world; for it makes a man to spend his labour for that which profits not, and to deny his appetite for an unsatisfying interest: he puts his moneys in a napkin, and he that does so, puts them into a broken bag; he loses the principal for not increasing the interest.
(2) The second appendant evil is, that lukewarmness is the occasion of greater evil; because the remiss easy Christian shuts the gate against the heavenly breathings of God’s Holy Spirit.
(3) A state of lukewarmness is more incorrigible than a state of coldness; while men flatter themselves that their state is good, that they are rich and need nothing, that their lamps are dressed, and full of ornament. These men are such as think they have knowledge enough to need no teacher, devotion enough to need no new fires, perfection enough to need no new progress, justice enough to need no repentance; and then, because the spirit of a man, and all the things of this world, are in perpetual variety and change, these men decline, when they have gone their period; they stand still, and then revert; like a stone returning from the bosom of a cloud, where it rested as long as the thought of a child, and fell to its natural bed of earth, and dwelt below for ever.
2. It concerns us next to inquire concerning the duty in its proper instances, that we may perceive to what parts and degrees of duty it amounts; we shall find it especially in the duties of faith, of prayer, and of charity.
(1) Our faith must be strong, vigorous, active, confident, and patient, reasonable and unalterable, without doubting, and fear and partiality.
(2) Our prayers and devotions must be fervent and zealous, not cold, patient, easy, and soon rejected; but supported by a patient spirit, set forwards by importunity, continued by perseverance, waited on by attention and a present mind, carried along with holy, but strong desires; and ballasted with resignation, and conformity to the Divine will; and then it is as God likes it, and does the work to God’s glory and our interest effectively.
(3) Our charity also must be fervent: “He that follows his general with a heavy march, and a heavy heart, is but an ill soldier.” But our duty to God should be hugely pleasing, and we should rejoice in it; it must pass on to action, and do the action vigorously; it is called in Scripture “the labour” and travail of love.” He that loves passionately, will not only do all that his friend needs, but all that himself can; for although the law of charity is fulfilled by acts of profit, and bounty, and obedience, and labour, yet it hath no other measures but the proportions and abundance of a good mind; and according to this, God requires that we be “abounding, and that always, in the work of the Lord.” (Bp. Jeremy Taylor.)
These words form a scriptural bomb which might with advantage be thrown into the midst of a great many of our Churches, where everything pertaining to the service is gone through in a precise and proper manner, but where there is an utter absence of zeal, enthusiasm, and Christlike earnestness. In the A.V. this passage does not attract much attention. That a curse should be hurled at the head of the traitor who does “the work of the Lord deceitfully” surprises no one. But to find a curse aimed at the merely negligent worker makes us pause, and think, and ask ourselves questions. The persons here referred to are amongst those who are doing “the work of the Lord.”--They profess and call themselves Christians. They have entered the kingdom of God, and by so doing they have enrolled themselves as servants of Christ, and are pledged to do His will. For be it never forgotten, the two must go together--namely, salvation and service. When in the sixteenth century Martin Luther blew the reveille of the Reformation, the slumbering Churches were roused and rallied by the call; and breaking off the fetters of delusion and superstition which had previously bound them, they joyously inscribed on their banner “Salvation by faith.” And for three centuries that blessed truth has been floating before the eyes of reformed Europe. But “Truth” though it is, it is not the whole truth. The time has more than come for the uplifting of another banner with an inscription completing and explaining the first, by declaring that “Faith without works is dead.” Soul-saving faith makes soul-saving men. I do not think that any man is ever saved except by the direct or indirect intervention of some other man. Christ alone can call the Lazarus forth, but there is a stone to be rolled away before, and there are wrappings to be removed after the miracle is wrought. And hence God is but working out His own economy in demanding that every member of His kingdom shall be a servant and a worker. Through all time the test of saintship is service. But this is not all. The Divine claim is not exhausted by the mere demand for work. It is declared again and again that no service is acceptable unless it be rendered with the whole heart. Partial, perfunctory, half-hearted service He sternly rejects; and upon those who mock Him by offering it He pours His righteous wrath. What think you is the greatest of all the obstacles which impede the progress of the kingdom of Christ? It is the negligence or laziness of its members. To be an idler in the world is bad enough, but to be an idler in the Church is ten thousand times worse. It is an act of impious and audacious hypocrisy, and he who is guilty of it stands before God and man self-branded as an impostor. We often Bear and speak of “Church work,” but if we would speak correctly that phrase must be discarded. There is no such thing as “Church work.” The work in question is God’s work, and as such if for no other reason claims our best energies. If any of us were commissioned to do work for the king would we not tax our powers to the very uttermost in order to present it as perfect as possible? Much more should we do so when the commission comes from the Court of heaven. “The King’s business requireth haste,” and all who are engaged in it must acquit themselves as servants of “the Most High God.” Dull sloth must be shaken off, and with hearts aglow with zeal and eyes aflame with earnestness we must give ourselves to the task committed to our care. Remember also the intrinsic importance of the work itself. Have you ever been present at a critical surgical operation? What earnestness, what concentrated attention, what careful precautions against the dreaded possibility! How is all this tension of faculties brought about? It is created by the importance of the work in hand. It is a case of life or death, in which negligence would mean murder. Ay! and when the Christian worker is alive to his duty, and all that it involves, negligence is impossible. It is fraught with possibilities which cannot be told. Its issues belong not to time but eternity. Look around you and see how active and earnest are the forces arrayed against us. From centre to circumference the kingdom of darkness thrills and throbs with earnestness. Every subject is a soldier, and being s soldier he fights. Every subject is a servant, and being a servant he serves. There is no dilly-dallying or make-believe in the enemy’s camp. Then why should there be any in ours? Has the Cross no longer its power? Has the sacred passion exhausted its inspirations? Does the love of Christ no longer constrain and the Holy Ghost no longer energise? (Joseph Muir.)
If you are not to make religion the principal thing in your lives, don’t go in for it. It is better, and much easier, to go in for it entirely, than half and half--merely flirting with it. It was the saying of a shrewd thinker: “If it is worth while being a Christian at all, it is better to he a downright Christian”
Moab hath been at ease from him youth, and he hath settled on his lees.
The shrill trumpet of admonition
For a considerable season the country of Moab had been free from the inroads of war and the terrors of pestilence. The nation had, therefore, become so conceitedly secure, that the lord said, “We have heard the pride of Moab (he is exceeding proud), his loftiness, and his arrogancy, and his pride, and the haughtiness of his heart.” The people became vain, hectoring, and boastful, and mocked at their afflicted neighbours the Israelites, manifesting ungenerous joy in their sorrows. “For was not Israel a derision unto thee? was he found among thieves? for since thou spakest of him, thou skippedst for joy.” From this pride sprang luxury and all those other vices which find a convenient lair in the repose of unbroken prosperity. The warriors of Moab said, “We are mighty and strong men for the war”; as vainglorious sinners, they defied all law and power; trusting in Chemosh, they despised Jehovah, and magnified themselves against the Lord. The prophet compares that country to wine which has been allowed to stand unstirred and unmoved: it settles on its lees, grows strong, retains its aroma, and gathers daffy fresh body and spirit. “But,” saith he, “the day shall come when God shall shake this undisturbed liquor, when He shall send wandering bands of Chaldeans that shall waste the country, so that the bottles shall be broken and the vessels shall be emptied, and the proud prosperity of Moab shall end in utter desolation.” The fact that continued prosperity breeds carnal security, is not only proved by the instance of Moab, but is lamentably confirmed in the history of others.
I. I shall first speak to the unconverted, the godless, the prayerless, the Christless.
1. The bold offenders who are at ease in open sin. They began life with iniquity, and they have made terrible progress in it. They go from iniquity to iniquity, as the vulture from carcass to carcass; they labour in the way of evil, as men dig for hid treasure; “And they say, How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the Most High?” “And if He doth know,” say they, “what care we? Who is Jehovah, that we should obey Him? Who is the Almighty, that we should tremble at His word?” Yet, Oh, ye haughty ones, take heed, for Pharaoh, who was your prototype in the olden days, found the way of pride to be hard at the end.
2. A far more common form of that carelessness which is so destructive, is that of men who give themselves wholly up to the world’s business. Such men, for instance, as one whom Christ called “Fool.” Gain is the world’s summum bonum, the chief of all mortal good, the main chance, the prime object, the barometer of success in life, the one thing needful, the heart’s delight. And yet, Oh, worldlings, who succeed in getting gain, and are esteemed to be shrewd and prudent, Jesus Christ calls you fools, and He is no thrower about of hard terms where they are not deserved. “Thou fool,” said He, and why! Because the man’s soul would be required of him; and then whose would those things be which he had gathered together?
3. A third case is more common still, the man who forgets God and lives in slothful ease. It is not enough to abstain from outward sin, and so to be negatively moral; unless you bring forth fruits unto righteousness, you have not the life of God in you; and however much you may be at ease, there shall come a rough awakening to your slumbers, and the shrill sound of the archangel’s trumpet shall be to you no other than the blast of the trumpet of condemnation, because ye took your ease when ye should have served your God.
4. There are many in the professing Christian Church Who are in me same state as Moab. They have the virgin’s lamp, but they have no oil in the vessel with their lamps; and yet so comfortable are these professors, that they slumber and sleep. Remember, you may think yourself a believer, and everybody else may think so too, and you may fail to find out your error until it is too late to rectify it; you may persevere for years in “the way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” Be ye not, Oh, ye professors, like Moab, that had settled upon his lees!
5. Equally true is this of the mass of moral men who are destitute of faith in Jesus. “I have no doubt but what it will be all right with me at last. I pay my neighbours their own; I give a guinea to a hospital, when they ask me for it; I am a first-rate tradesman. Of course, I have sown a few wild oats, and I still indulge a little; but who does not? Who dares deny that I am a good-hearted fellow?” Do you envy him? You may sooner envy the dead in their graves because they suffer no pain.
II. We speak to the believer. A Christian man finds himself for a long time without any remarkable trouble: his children are spared to him, his home is happy, his business extremely prosperous--he has, in fact, all that heart can wish; when he looks round about him he can say with David, “The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.” Now, the danger is that he should think too highly of these secondary things, and should say to himself, “My mountain standeth firm, I shall never be moved.” He has not been poured from vessel to vessel; he has not been sternly tried by Providence, or sorely tempted by the devil; he has not been led to question his own conversion, he has fallen into a profound calm, a deep dead peace, a horrible lethargy, and his inmost heart has lost all spiritual energy. The great disease of England is consumption, but I suppose it would be difficult to describe the causes and workings of consumption and decline. The same kind of disease is common among Christians. It is not that many Christians fall into outward sin, and so on, but throughout our Churches we have scores who are in a spiritual consumption--their powers are all feeble and decaying. The rapid results of this consumption are just these: a man in such a state soon gives up communion with God; it is not quite gone at first, but it is suspended. His walk with God is broken and occasional. His prayers very soon suffer. By degrees, his conversation is not what it used to be. He was once very earnest for Christ, and would introduce religious topics in all companies. He has become discreet now, and holds his tongue. He is quite ready to gossip about the price of wheat, and how the markets are, and the state of politics, and whether you have been to see the Sultan; but he has no words for Jesus Christ, the King in His beauty. Spiritual topics have departed from his general conversation. And now, strange to say, “the minister does not preach as he used to do”: at least, the back-slider says so. The reason why I think he is mistaken, is, that the Word of God itself is not so sweet to him as it once was; and surely the Bible cannot have altered! After a while the professor slackens a good deal in his liberality; he does not think the cause of God is worth the expense that he used to spend upon it; and as to his own personal efforts to win souls, he does not give up his Sunday-school class, nor his street preaching, nor distributing of tracts, perhaps, but he does all mechanically, it is a mere routine. He might just as well be an automaton, and be wound up, only the fault is, that he is not wound up, and he does not do his work as he should do; or, if he does it outwardly, there is none of the life of God in what he does. Very much of this sluggishness is brought on by long-continued respite from trouble. It were better to be in perpetual storms, and to be driven to-and-fro in the whirlwind, and to cling to God, than to founder at sea in the most peaceful and halcyon days. The great secret danger coming out of all this is, that when a man reaches the state of carnal security, he is ready for any evil. We have heard of two negroes who were accustomed to go into the bush to pray, and each of them had trodden a little path in the grass. Presently one of them grew cold, and was soon found in open sin; his black brother warned him that he knew it would come to that, because the grass grew on the path that led to the place of prayer. Ah! we do not know to what we may descend when we begin to go down hill; down, down, down, is easy and pleasant to the flesh, but if we knew where it would end, we should pray God that we might sooner die than live to plunge into the terrors of that descent. I must pass on to observe God’s cure for this malady. His usual way is by pouring our settled wine from vessel to vessel. If we cannot bear prosperity, the Lord will not continue it to us. We may pamper our children and spoil them; but the Divine Father will not. Staying for a while in the valley of Aosta, in Northern Italy, we found the air to be heavy, close, and humid with pestilential exhalations. We were oppressed and feverish--one’s life did not seem worth a pin. We could not breathe freely, our lungs had a sense of having a hundred atmospheres piled upon them. Presently, at midday, there came a thunder-clap, attended by big drops of rain and a stiff gale of wind, which grew into a perfect tornado, tearing down the trees; then followed what the poet calls “sonorous hail,” and then again the lightning flash, and the thunder peal on peal echoing along the Alps. But how delightful was the effect, how we all went out upon the verandah to look at the lightning, and enjoy the music of the thunder! How cool the air and bracing! How delightful to walk out in the cool evening after the storm! Then you could breathe and feel a joy in life. Full often it is thus with the Christian after trouble. What ought we to do if we are prospering? We should remember that prevention is better than cure, and if God is prospering us, the way to prevent lethargy is--be very grateful for the prosperity which you are enjoying; do not pray for trouble--you will have it quickly enough without asking for it; be grateful for your prosperity, but make use of it. Do all you possibly can for God while He prospers you in business; try to live very close to Him. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Ease injurious to Christian character
I have somewhere read the following incident in the life of a distinguished botanist. Being exiled from his native land, he obtained employment as an under-gardener in the service of a nobleman. While he was in this situation, his master received a valuable plant, the nature and habits of which were unknown to him. It was given to the gardener to be taken care of; and he, fancying it to be a tropical production, put it into the hothouse (for it was winter), and dealt with it as with the others under the glass. But it began to wither away and decay. And the strange under-gardener asked permission to examine it. As soon as he looked at it he said, “This is an Arctic plant; you are killing it by the tropical heat into which you have introduced it.” So he took it outside, and exposed it to the frost, and, to the dismay of the head-gardener, heaped pieces of ice around the flower-pot; but the result vindicated his wisdom, for straightway it began to recover, and was soon as strong as ever. Now, such a plant is Christian character. It is not difficulty that is dangerous to it, but ease. Put it into a hothouse, separate it from the world, surround it with luxury, hedge it in from every opposition, and you take the surest means of killing it. (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)
Emptied from vessel to vessel.
The blessing of disturbance
The illustration is taken from the manner in which wine is prepared. The juice of the grape, at first thick and impure, is allowed to ferment. Then it is left for a time undisturbed, until a sediment, here called “lees,” is precipitated. After that it is drawn off into another vessel so carefully that all the matter so precipitated is left behind, and this emptying of it “from vessel to vessel” is repeated again and again, until the offensive odour that came at first from the “must” is gone, and it becomes clear and beautiful. Now, by the analogy of this process, familiar even to the common people of a vine-growing country, the prophet accounts for the character and condition of Moab as a nation. In the providence of God nothing had come to unsettle that people. No external enemy had attacked them. No great national disaster had ever fallen on them. We have here explained to us the reason why we are, as we phrase it, so frequently “upset” in life. We complain that we are never allowed to become “settled.” Ever, as we think we have reached some place of rest, there comes a new upheaval to shake us up and out, so that we cry, “Is there to be no end of these changes?” As well talk of a ship as settled in the midst of the ever-restless, ever-changeful ocean, as talk of a man being settled in life. But, in the light of this verse, such repeated disturbance is recognised as a blessing.
I. What there is in these “emptyings” that fits them to promote our spiritual advancement.
1. Such dispensations have in them an influence which is well calculated to reveal us to ourselves. Sudden emergency is a sure opener of a man’s eyes to his own defects. He may contrive to get on, in seasons of prosperity and outward calm, without becoming conscious of the weak points of his character; but let him be thrown, all at once, upon his own resources by the coming upon him of some crushing calamity, and he will then find out whether he has that within him that can stand the strain that has been put upon him. It was a shrewd remark of Andrew Fuller, that “a man has only as much religion as he can command in the day of trial”; and if he have no religion at all, his trouble will make that manifest to him. Just as the strain of the storm tells where the ship is weakest, and stirs up the mariner to have it strengthened there, so the pressure of trial reveals the defects of character which still adhere to the Christian. One affliction may disclose an infirmity of temper; another may discover a weakness of faith; a third may make it evident that the power of some old habit is not yet entirely broken; and thus, from this constant revelation to him of the evils that still remain in him, he is led, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, to the attainment of a higher measure of holiness than other-wise he could have reached.
2. The frequent unsettlements which come upon us in God’s providence have a tendency to shake us out of ourselves. We find that where we thought ourselves wise we have been supremely foolish. Where we imagined that we had taken all possible contingencies into the account, we discover that we had left no place for God. So our most matured schemes have been abortive, our most cherished hopes have been blasted; yea, just when we conceived that now at length we had reached our ultimatum, and were beginning to congratulate ourselves on the prospect of repose, there came a sudden reverse, which emptied us out again, and we were compelled to begin anew. Thus we are brought to distrust ourselves. We find that it will not do to “lean” always “to our own understanding.” By many bitter failures we are made to acknowledge that “it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps,” and then by the Spirit of God we are led up to confidence in Jehovah. We have heard enough of the success of the millionaire; let us hear more now of the success of the unsuccessful--yea, of the success of soul that sometimes comes through the ruin of earthly fortune and the blighting of our fondest plans. Character is nobler than riches or position, and the growth of that in holiness and stability ought to be the highest aim, as it will be the noblest achievement of life.
3. These frequent unsettlements have a tendency to keep us from being wedded to the world, or from thinking of rooting ourselves permanently here. Some years ago, while rambling with a friend in the neighbourhood of Windermere, we came upon a house surrounded by the most beautiful shrubs I ever saw, and I was naturally led to make some inquiry concerning them. My companion informed me that, by a judicious system of transplanting, constantly pursued, the proprietor was able to bring them to the highest perfection. I thought at once of the manner in which God, by continuous transplanting, keeps His people fresh and beautiful, and prevents them from becoming too closely attached to the world. To be weaned from earth is one of the means of making us seek our spiritual food from heaven; and the trials of earth, transplanting us from place to place and from plan to plan, tend to prepare us for the great transplanting which is to take us from this world altogether, and root us in the garden of the Lord above.
II. The particular qualities of character which providential unsettlements are most calculated to foster.
1. Purity of motive and conduct; and where shall we find a better illustration of that than in the history of Jacob? He began life as a supplanter. He out-bargained Esau. He imposed on Isaac. He out-generaled Laban. We cannot admire him, and we are not drawn to him then. But when he lay on his death-bed, no characteristics strike us more than his honesty in dealing with his sons, and his sincerity in dealing with God. And how was that transformation wrought? “By the Spirit of God,” you answer, and you answer well; but I would supplement your statement by putting it thus, “By the Spirit of God, through and in connection with the frequent unsettlements to which he was subjected.”
2. They tend to foster strength, either for endurance or for action. Take for example, here, the case of Abraham. He was tried in Canaan and in Egypt; he was tested by the long delay in the fulfilment of the promise in regard to Isaac, and by the domestic discord that arose concerning Ishmael; and his wrestlings with these afflictions developed in him, by the grace of God, that spiritual might in which he conquered on the mount of the Lord, when he earned for himself the title of “the father of the faithful.”
3. The recurrence of these “emptying” processes deepens the sympathy and widens the charity of the Christian. Indeed hazard the assertion that no man can be called complete in character who has not been subjected to them. It is in this very relation that our Lord Himself is said to have been “made perfect through suffering,” and each of us has doubtless had an experience of his own which enables him to understand what seems at first so strange. Experience is thus the mother of sympathy and charity. The older a Christian grows he learns to feel for others more, and to condemn them less, and he is a true “son of consolation” only in the proportion in which be is able to comfort them which are in any trouble by the comfort wherewith he himself is comforted of God. What I have been saying, then, all tends toward these two propositions, namely, that unbroken prosperity would be a curse to a man, and not a blessing; and that providential unsettlements, when rightly interpreted and improved, are really favours, though they do come draped in sadness. (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)
The discipline of sorrow
I trust it is the wish of each of us that God’s will be done in us and about us: I trust it is our daily prayer, not so much that God would give us what we wish, as that He would teach us, simply and completely, to submit our will to His, and that He would give us grace and strength to bear whatever He may send. Let us seek that the utterance of our hearts may be that of the blind Galileo; who said, “It has pleased God that it should be so; and it must please me too.” And yet it is natural to us to wish that it might please God to lead us by as easy and pleasant a way as may be: that it might please God to appoint us as peaceful and happy a life as possible, and to send us just as little evil and sorrow as may suffice to work upon us the wholesome results of evil and sorrow. God has made us so, that we wish for what is pleasant, and shrink from what is painful. But it does not follow that the thing we like best is the best thing for us. And the text tells us that a life of unbroken ease, a life in which all goes well with us, is a most perilous thing. The kingdom of Moab had enjoyed long tranquillity, though there were troublesome neighbours near, and though it was a state of no great power: it had pleased God to order it so. “Moab had been at ease from his youth.” Then comes the comparison to wine: Moab had not been subjected to captivity, nor to other changes and troubles which are to a nation what pouring from one vessel to another is to wine: thus he had remained standing upon the lees, losing no part of his original strength and flavour. The suggestion is, that Moab was not good to start with: and he had not been tried with processes which might indeed have been painful, but in which he would have got rid of a good deal of the evil that was in him at the first. Moab had been secure in prosperity: and so he had remained the same as at the beginning,--all his bad qualities being only confirmed by time and use. Now the great lesson from all this is, that there is spiritual danger in the quiet lot, and in the quiet heart: that it is not God’s purpose that those He loves should enjoy entire worldly tranquillity; that there is something good for you and me, in care, unrest, disquiet, sorrow, bereavement, disappointment, perplexity--in all that breaks up that perilous calm, in which we grow too well satisfied with this world, and in which we feel ourselves too little dependent on our Saviour and our Comforter; and in which we come too much to feel as if things went on in their own way, forgetting that God directs them all; and in which we fail to realise it, that the one thing needful is something quite different from worldly enjoyment or worldly gain. So you see, how in love and mercy, and tender consideration for our best good, our Father sends us trouble. Philosophers vex and bewilder themselves in trying to explain how there is such a thing as evil in this world: we do not pretend to understand that, but one thing we do know perfectly, we know why evil and sorrow have been sent into our own lot and heart. They have come to make sure that we shall not “settle on our lees”: they have come to keep this world from engrossing our affection: they have come to wean us from this world by making us feel its bitterness: they have come to teach us the grand, all-comprehending lesson, that if we want what will satisfy our souls, we must go to Christ and find it there. Yes, it is not good for us in this world to be evenly at peace: and thus sorrow is God’s discipline, and disappointment, and bereavement,--in short, everything that is painful and disquieting,--all being sanctified by the Holy Spirit of God. And here is a truth we cannot remember too seriously. In all our troubles we cannot too earnestly and constantly pray for the presence and influence of the Holy Ghost. For sorrow does not necessarily sanctify; it is just as likely to sour, if left to its natural tendencies. You who have known many trials: you who have watched by the dying bed, and bent over the grave: you who set your heart on things which God said were never to be: you whose sensitive nature makes the little worries of daffy life sit very heavily on you, and whose quick heart and fancy eat the enjoyment out of your life by suggesting a hundred anxieties and fears: let me ask, Have all these things been sanctified to wean you from this world, and make you feel that your portion must be in Christ and seek it there: or do you still cling to the earth, and refuse to profit by your Heavenly Father’s teaching through all these trials and cares? Every grief that these hearts have ever known was a sharp lesson given by the best Teacher: and was meant to show us that this world will not do; and that if we want peace and rest for our souls, we must look for them in our Saviour. Now, do you accept that lesson heartily? (A. K. H. Boyd, D. D.)
1. How God manages, on a large scale, in the common matters of life, to keep us in a process of change, and prevent our lapsing into a state of security such as we desire. The very scheme of life appears to be itself a grand decanting process, where change follows change, and all are emptied from vessel to vessel. Here and there a man, like Moab, stands upon his lees, and commonly with the same effect. Fire, flood, famine, sickness in all forms and guises, wait upon us, seen or unseen, and we run the gauntlet through them, calling it life. And the design appears to be to turn us hither and thither, allowing us no chance to stagnate m any sort of benefit or security. Even the most successful, who seem, in one view, to go straight on to their mark, get on after all, rather by a dexterous and continual shifting, so as to keep their balance and exactly meet the changing conditions that befall them. Nor is there anything to sentimentalise over in this ever-shifting, overturning process, which must be encountered in all the works of life; no place for sighing--vanity of vanities. There is no vanity in it, more than in the mill that winnows and separates the grain.
2. That the radical evil of human character, as being under sin, consists in a determination to have our own way, which determination must be somehow reduced and extirpated. Hence the necessity that our experience be so appointed as to shako us loose continually from our purpose, or from all security and rest in it. The coarse and bitter flavour of our self-will is reduced in this manner, and gradually fined away. If we could stand on our lees, in continual peace and serenity, if success were made secure, subject to no change or surprise, what, on the other hand, should we do more certainly than stay by our evil mind, and take it as a matter of course that our will is to be done; the very thing above all others of which we most need to be cured. It would not even do for us to be uniformly successful in our best meant and holiest works, our prayers, our acts of sacrifice, our sacred enjoyments; for we should very soon fall back into the subtle power of our self-will, and begin to imagine, in our vanity, that we are doing something ourselves.
3. That our evils are generally hidden from us till they are discovered to us by some kind of trial or adversity. What good man ever fell into a time of deep chastening who did not find some cunning infatuation by which he was holden broken up, and some new discovery made of himself? The veils of pride are rent, the rock of self-opinion is shattered, and he is reduced to a point of gentleness and tenderness that allows him to suffer a true conviction concerning what was hidden from his sight. Nor is anything so effectual in this way as to meet some great overthrow that interrupts the whole course of life; all the better if it dislodges him even in his Christian works and appointments. What was I doing, he now asks, that I must needs be thrown out of my holiest engagements? for what fault was I brought under this discipline?
4. That we are prepared in this manner for the gracious and refining work of the Spirit in us. Under some great calamity or sorrow, the loss of a child, the visitations of bodily pain, a failure in business, the slanders of an enemy, a persecution for the truth or for righteousness’ sake, how tender and open to God does the soul become!
5. Too great quiet and security, long continued, are likely to allow the reaction or the recovered power of our old sins, and must not therefore be suffered. Suppose a man is converted as a politician--there is nothing wrong certainly in being a politician--but how subtle is the power of those old habits and affinities in which he lived, and how likely are they, if he goes straight on by a course of prosperous ambition, to be finally corrupted by their subtle reaction. When he is defeated, therefore, a little further on, by untoward combinations, and thrown out of all hope in this direction, let him not think it hard that he is less successful now in the way of Christ, than he was before in the way of his natural ambition. God understands him, and is leading him off, not unlikely, to some other engagement, that He may get him clear of the sediment on which he stands. In the same way, doubtless, it is that another is driven out of his business by a failure, another out of his family expectations by death and bereavement, another out of his very industry and his living by a loss of health, another out of prayers and expectations that were rooted in presumption, another out of works of beneficence that associated pride and vanity, another out of the ministry of Christ, where, by self-indulgence, or in some other way, his natural infirmities were rather increased than corrected. There is no engagement, however sacred, from which God will not sometimes separate us, that He may clear us of our sediment and the reactions of our hidden evils.
1. It brings a lesson of admonition to the class of worldly men who are continually prospering in the things of this life. “Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.” I commend it to your deepest and most thoughtful attention.
2. Others, again, have been visited by many and great adversities, emptied about from vessel to vessel all their lives long, still wondering what it means, while still they adhere to their sins. There is, alas! no harder kind of life than this, a life of continual discipline that really teaches nothing. Is it so with you, or is it not? There is no class of beings more to be pitied than defeated men, who have gotten nothing out of their defeat but that dry sorrow of the world which makes it only more barren, and therefore more insupportable.
3. It is necessary, in the review of this subject, to remind any genuine Christian what benefits he ought to receive in the trials and changes through which he is called to pass. Receive them meekly, rather, and bow down to them gladly. Bid them welcome when they come, and, if they come not, ask for them; lift up your cry unto God, and beseech Him that by any means He will correct you, and purify you, and separate you to Himself. (H. Bushnell, D. D.)
Alternations in religious experience
Transitions from elevation to depression of soul, from “joy and peace in believing,” to spiritual anxiety, arc beneficial as disturbing perilous security, as leading to such critical scrutiny of conduct and of the motives which underlie it, as reveals shortcomings which there would be no effort to detect were spiritual enjoyment to continue unbroken, In such ease of soul the feeling of security--though not, perhaps, finding audible expression in the words, “I shall never be moved, Thou, Lord, of Thy goodness, hast made my hill so strong,” might find in them a fitting description. Then, a season comes when God, for a time, hides His face and causes trouble, when the chastened soul is taught humility, and mercifully roused from a dangerous state of over-confidence. To be left, Moab-like, “at ease,” so as never to be subject to apprehensions and doubts, would indeed be detrimental to the health of the soul, and therefore, by wisely contrived changes, alternations experienced in that life which “is hid with Christ in God,” the Christian is experimentally taught that salvation is not promised to the experience of feelings, however ardent, but to “patient continuance in well-doing,” to “endurance unto the end,” to gradual progress in conformity to the will of Him who has made obedience to His commandments the test of the genuineness of professed discipleship. In the way by which heaven is to be reached, there are salutary changes from one kind to another of spiritual experience, and by their means invaluable lessons are conveyed to the soul. If there be a tendency to become less vigilant, to “restrain prayer before God,” to grow remiss in religious exercises, public and private, there is a change to the experience of some humiliating conviction. If, on the other hand, there be a tendency to spiritual dejection, which if too long dominant, would have the effect of paralysing effort, there is a change to an experience animating and consolatory. Whether God manifests His power in the soul by gladdening it with tokens of His favour, or depresses it with a painful sense of their withdrawal, He is, all the while, educating it for immortality. But further. For all who carefully observe it there is spiritual teaching in what the Church terms, in one of her comprehensive prayers, “the sundry and manifold changes of the world.” Evidences of mutability and uncertainty in the world external to us, are set before us in order that we may be disciplined for that “life immortal,” which is promised to those who “walk by faith.” The present state is designed to be one of pupilage for a higher and a nobler, and no sadder aspect of it can be imagined than when it is viewed as a season of opportunity wasted, a life in which nothing has been learned which is of profit to the imperishable soul. Of momentous import, therefore, is the consideration, whether you be really advantaged by the teaching of those mutabilities. The manner in which prosperity and adversity are borne, the effect which these opposite experiences produce upon character, the spirit in which benefits upon the one hand, and trials upon the other, are received--it is to that you must look if you be desirous of arriving at a reliable conclusion as to whether or not you be spiritually disciplined under God’s providential dispensations. May the mutable nature of all sublunary things be so impressed upon you, as an influential conviction, that the result may be the sure fixing of your hearts “where true joys are to be found.” (C. E. Tisdall, D. D.)
Divine plan in changes
Why these constant removals from town to town; from church to church; from situation to situation? Why this perpetual change and revolution in our plans? Why this incessant going into captivity to irksome and trying circumstances? All this is part of God’s manufacture of the wine of life. We must be emptied from vessel to vessel, else we should settle on our lees, and become thick and raw and unpalatable, when the next change comes in your life, do not fear it. The blessed God will see to it that no drop of the precious fluid shall be spilt on the ground. With the tenderest care He conducts the whole operation. Perhaps there is a counterpart to this incessant change from place to place in the perpetual flux of our emotions. We never feel the same for long together. We are constantly being emptied from one blessed frame into another, not quite so joyous or peaceful. We have to hold the most heavenly emotions with a light hand, not knowing how soon they may have passed. And it is well. Otherwise we should never lose the taste of our proud self-complacency. (F. B. Meyer, B. A.)
How is the strong staff broken.
The strong staff and the beautiful rod
I. The purposes of our Heavenly Father in great bereavements.
1. To teach us that we should not misplace our trust.
2. To convince us of our sins and to sever us from them.
3. To teach us His own independence of the instruments He employs.
4. To remind us of the sovereignty of God.
5. To exhibit His wise and watchful providence.
II. The duties to which we are, and such scenes, specially called.
1. We are to exercise submission.
2. That we should profit by the example of those who have died in the Lord.
3. That we should cease from man and put our trust in God. (W. R. Williams.)
The horn of Moab is cut off.
The history of Moab
The first charge brought against Moab is self-confidence, self-trust, self-sufficiency (Jeremiah 48:7). This makes us contemporaries of the Moabites. We thought they were an ancient people, but behold how human they are, how English, how like ourselves and our children! They were so pleased with the stone wall they had put up; they measured it, and admired it, and said that it would save them from the high wind and the mighty storm. It was enough--high enough, broad enough, impenetrable, invincible. Now that is the kind of reasoning which God will not allow in human life. He demands that human life be lived in Himself, and not in things that our own hands have made. We are to be taught distinctly that we do not live in ourselves; that in ourselves we have actually no life; that we have nothing that we have not received, and in that spirit alone we are to hold life and to live. It would seem to be easy to put our whole trust in the living God, and yet it is the most difficult of all lessons. We will persist, even in opposition to many theories of our own to the contrary, that we are self-contained, self-consisting, and self-managing; and herein arises God’s perpetual controversy with mankind. There is, too, so much to favour the temptation. It looks as if we could do most things; that as we have so much we might easily have more. God says to us in every day’s providence, You are here for a purpose; you are here for a little time; you now but begin to be; every lesson you must learn, and every commandment you must keep. It is against that arrangement that we chafe, just as the little child chafes against parental authority and loving restraint. From the history of Moab we see that even blessings may be perverted, and sacred privileges may be turned into occasions of self-destruction (Jeremiah 48:11). Too much ease, too little upset, too little anxiety, too little trouble will kill any soul. To come into a business made to your hands, to have a fortune left you, and to have everything prearranged, is to be exposed to very peculiar and urgent temptation. Thank God for the rough places in your lives. They are unpleasant, but they are disciplinary. They are like steep hills, but remember that great temples and blessed sanctuaries stand at the top of them. When discipline is not endured gradually it is brought to bear upon the life as an overwhelming judgment. This is the burden of the text. Two classes of persons should consider this. First, those who have daily discipline; they should say, Better have discipline a little at, a time, as we are able to bear it. “Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.” “No chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.” These daily chafings and frettings are nard to bear, these daily disappointments are sharp thorns thrust into the very eyes; yet who knows what the judgment would be were it all to come at once? I will rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him: no temptation has happened unto me but such as is common to men; by and by the explanation will come, and then I shall be able to say, He hath done all things well. Then the lesson should be well considered by those who seem to escape discipline of God. The volcano is a long time in gathering all its fiery energy, but the outburst is momentary, and who can measure the destruction which follows? Christ may well say, “What I say unto one, I say unto all, Watch,”--even those who have apparently least necessity to watch, should not relax their vigils for a moment. “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall See how frightful m the humiliation to which God can bring a man or a people. Look at the picture of Moab--horn cut off, the arm broken, the man drunk but not with wine, and reeling in helplessness, the proud one wallowing in his vomit and laughed to derision! We cannot, however, rest here: for the mercy of the Lord endureth for ever. Mercy triumphs over judgment. The destruction, therefore, was not arbitrary, but moral, being based upon an assigned reason. “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” We should say, therefore, that this verse was the concluding verse in the whole history of Moab. What can there be after destruction? With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. The chapter does not end with the forty-second verse, but with the forty-seventh, and this is how it reads, “Yet will I bring again,” &c. One would fain construe these words into a hopeful omen. Out of what extremities cannot God deliver mankind? Let the most desponding rekindle their hope, and the most distant prodigal hear his father’s voice. Who can set bounds to the mercy of God? Yet must there be no trifling, even with a Gospel of hope. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Dwell in the rock, and be like the dove.
Dove and rock
I. God shows much compassion not only to friends but to foes.
1. It is for Moab--guilty, apostate, persecuting Moab--that God expresses all this compassionate concern.
2. The New Testament is filled with warnings, invitations, and promises, addressed to those who are farthest off from God, intermingled with signal instances of the conversion of hardened transgressors.
II. God would have us forsake false refuges and avail ourselves of the true. The wild doves and pigeons of the East delight in cool and inaccessible places. They build their nests in cliffs and caverns, overhanging fearful precipices, where man cannot tread. Learn the importance of shunning false confidences, and of resting our hope of salvation where alone it can be safe. God would have human weakness rely on almighty strength; human ignorance on almighty wisdom; human sinfulness on almighty mercy. The finite needs the Infinite; the sinner, the Saviour.
III. Contemptuous neglect of warnings and mercies aggravates final consequences. This was the case with Moab.
1. We may not presume on God’s mercy and forbearance. The longer the judgment delays, the heavier its weight of woe.
2. Despair is to be banished. The atonement is all-sufficient.
3. Delay must be avoided. God’s voice is always “To-day”; Satan’s. To-morrow.” 4, We must not be satisfied with our own safety, but aim at leading others to flee as doves to “the Rock.” (Homiletic Magazine.)
Because the riches that he hath gotten are perished.
Riches are ever liable to perish
Prosperity is not to be deemed the greatest security. The lofty unbending cedar is more exposed to the injurious blast than the lowly shrub. The little pinnace rides safely along the shore, while the gallant ship advancing is wrecked. Those sheep which have the most wool are generally the soonest fleeced. Poverty is its own defence against robbery. Who would snake those trees upon which there is no fruit? (T. Secker.).
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Jeremiah 48". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 12 / Ordinary 17