|RPM, Volume 17, Number 51, December 13 to December 19, 2015|
Ezekiel, Daniel and the Minor Prophets
CHAMBERS OF IMAGERY (Ezekiel viii. 12)
A COMMON MISTAKE AND LAME EXCUSE (Ezekiel xii. 27)
THE HOLY NATION (Ezekiel xxxvi. 25-38)
THE DRY BONES AND THE SPIRIT OF LIFE (Ezekiel xxxvii. 1-14)
THE RIVER OF LIFE (Ezekiel xlvii. 1)
YOUTHFUL CONFESSORS (Daniel i. 8-21)
THE IMAGE AND THE STONE (Daniel ii. 36-49)
HARMLESS FIRES (Daniel iii. 13-25)
MENE, TEKEL, PERES (Daniel v. 17-31)
A TRIBUTE FROM ENEMIES (Daniel vi. 5)
FAITH STOPPING THE MOUTHS OF LIONS (Daniel vi. 16-28)
A NEW YEAR'S MESSAGE (Daniel xii. 13)
THE VALLEY OF ACHOR (Hosea ii. 15)
LET HIM ALONE' (Hosea iv. 17)
PHYSICIANS OF NO VALUE' (Hosea v. 13, R.V.)
FRUIT WHICH IS DEATH' (Hosea x. 1-15)
DESTRUCTION AND HELP (Hosea xiii. 9)
ISRAEL RETURNING (Hosea xiv. 1-9)
THE DEW AND THE PLANTS (Hosea xiv. 5, 6)
A PAIR OF FRIENDS (Amos iii. 3)
SMITTEN IN VAIN (Amos iv. 4-13)
THE SINS OF SOCIETY (Amos v. 4-15)
THE CARCASS AND THE EAGLES (Amos vi. 1-8)
RIPE FOR GATHERING (Amos viii. 1-14)
GUILTY SILENCE AND ITS REWARD (Jonah i. 1-17)
LYING VANITIES' (Jonah ii. 8)
THREEFOLD REPENTANCE (Jonah iii. 1-10)
IS THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD STRAITENED? (Micah ii. 7)
CHRIST THE BREAKER (Micah ii. 13)
AS GOD, SO WORSHIPPER (Micah iv. 5, R.V.)
A DEW FROM THE LORD' (Micah v. 7)
GOD'S REQUIREMENTS AND GOD'S GIFT (Micah vi. 8)
THE IDEAL DEVOUT LIFE (Habakkuk iii. 19)
ZION'S JOY AND GOD'S (Zephaniah iii. 14, 17)
VAIN TOIL (Haggai i. 6)
BRAVE ENCOURAGEMENTS (Haggai ii. 1-9)
DYING MEN AND THE UNDYING WORD (Zechariah i. 5, 6)
THE CITY WITHOUT WALLS (Zechariah ii. 4, 5)
A VISION OF JUDGMENT AND CLEANSING (Zechariah iii. 1-10)
THE RIGHT OF ENTRY (Zechariah iii. 7)
THE SOURCE OF POWER (Zechariah iv. 1-10)
THE FOUNDER AND FINISHER OF THE TEMPLE (Zechariah iv. 9)
THE PRIEST OF THE WORLD AND KING OF MEN (Zechariah vi. 13)
A DIALOGUE WITH GOD (Malachi i. 6, 7)
BLEMISHED OFFERINGS (Malachi i. 8)
A DIALOGUE WITH GOD (Malachi ii. 12, 14, R.V.)
THE LAST WORD OF PROPHECY (Malachi iii. 1-12)
THE UNCHANGING LORD (Malachi iii. 6)
A DIALOGUE WITH GOD (Malachi iii. 7, R.V.)
STOUT WORDS,' AND THEIR CONFUTATION (Malachi iii. 13-18; iv. 1-6)
THE LAST WORDS OF THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS (Malachi iv. 6; Revelation xxii. 21)
Then said He unto me, Son of man, hast thou seen what the ancients of the house of Israel do in the dark, every man in the chambers of his imagery!'--EZEKIEL viii. 12.
This is part of a vision which came to the prophet in his captivity. He is carried away in imagination from his home amongst the exiles in the East to the Temple of Jerusalem. There he sees in one dreadful series representations of all the forms of idolatry to which the handful that were left in the land were cleaving. There meets him on the threshold of the court the image of jealousy,' the generalised expression for the aggregate of idolatries which had stirred the anger of the divine husband of the nation. Then he sees within the Temple three groups representing the idolatries of three different lands. First, those with whom my text is concerned, who, in some underground room, vaulted and windowless, were bowing down before painted animal forms upon the walls. Probably they were the representatives of Egyptian worship, for the description of their temple might have been taken out of any book of travels in Egypt in the present day. It is only an ideal picture that is represented to Ezekiel, and not a real fact. It is not at all probable that all these various forms of idolatry were found at any time within the Temple itself. And the whole cast of the vision suggests that it is an ideal picture, and not reality, with which we have to do. Hence the number of these idolaters was seventy--the successors of the seventy whom Moses led up to Sinai to see the God of Israel! And now here they are grovelling before brute forms painted on the walls in a hole in the dark. Their leader bears a name which might have startled them in their apostasy, and choked their prayers in their throats, for Jaazan-iah means the Lord hears.' Each man has a censer in his hand--self-consecrated priests of self-chosen deities. Shrouded in obscurity, they pleased themselves with the ancient lie, The Lord sees not; He hath forsaken the earth.' And then, into that Sanhedrim of apostates there comes, all unknown to them, the light of God's presence; and the eye of the prophet marks their evil.
I have nothing to do here with the other groups which Ezekiel saw in his vision. The next set were the representatives of the women of Israel, who, false at once to their womanhood and to their God, were taking part in the nameless obscenities and abominations of the worship of the Syrian Adonis. And the next, who from their numbers seem to be intended to stand for the representatives of the priesthood, as the former were of the whole people, represent the worshippers who had fallen under the fascinations of a widespread Eastern idolatry, and with their backs to the house of the Lord were bowing before the rising sun.
All these false faiths got on very well together. Their worshippers had no quarrel with each other. Polytheism, by its very nature and the necessity of its being, is tolerant. All its rabble of gods have a mutual understanding, and are banded together against the only One that says, Thou shalt have none other gods beside Me.'
But now, I take this vision in a meaning which the prophet had no intention to put on it. I do not often do that with my texts, and when I do I like to confess frankly that I am doing it. So I take the words now as a kind of symbol which may help to put into a picturesque and more striking form some very familiar and homely truths. Look at that dark-painted chamber that we have all of us got in our hearts; at the idolatries that go on there, and at the flashing of the sudden light of God who marks, into the midst of the idolatry, Hast thou seen what the ancients of the children of Israel do in the dark, each man in the chambers of his imagery?'
I. Think of the dark and painted chamber which we all of us carry in our hearts.
Every man is a mystery to himself as to his fellows. With reverence, we may say of each other as we say of God--Clouds and darkness are round about Him.' After all the manifestations of a life, we remain enigmas to one another and mysteries to ourselves. For every man is no fixed somewhat, but a growing personality, with dormant possibilities of good and evil lying in him, which up to the very last moment of his life may flame up into altogether unexpected and astonishing developments. Therefore we have all to feel that after all self-examination there lie awful depths within us which we have not fathomed; and after all our knowledge of one another we yet do see but the surface, and each soul dwells alone.
There is in every heart a dark chamber. Oh, brethren! there are very, very few of us that dare tell all our thoughts and show our inmost selves to our dearest ones. The most silvery lake that lies sleeping amidst beauty, itself the very fairest spot of all, when drained off shows ugly ooze and filthy mud, and all manner of creeping abominations in the slime. I wonder what we should see if our hearts were, so to speak, drained off, and the very bottom layer of every thing brought into the light. Do you think you could stand it? Well, then, go to God and ask Him to keep you from unconscious sins. Go to Him and ask Him to root out of you the mischiefs that you do not know are there, and live humbly and self-distrustfuliy, and feel that your only strength is: Hold Thou me up, and I shall be saved.' Hast thou seen what they do in the dark?'
Still further, we may take another part of this description with possibly permissible violence as a symbol of another characteristic of our inward nature. The walls of that chamber were all painted with animal forms, to which these men were bowing down. By our memory, and by that marvellous faculty that people call the imagination, and by our desires, we are for ever painting the walls of the inmost chambers of our hearts with such pictures. That is an awful power which we possess, and, alas! too often use for foul idolatries.
I do not dwell upon that, but I wish to drop one very earnest caution and beseeching entreaty, especially to the younger members of my congregation now. You, young men and women, especially you young men, mind what you paint upon those mystic walls! Foul things, as my text says, creeping things and abominable beasts,' only too many of you are tracing there. Take care, for these figures are ineffaceable. No repentance will obliterate them. I do not know whether even Heaven can blot them out. What you love, what you desire, what you think about, you are photographing on the walls of your immortal soul. And just as to-day, thousands of years after the artists have been gathered to the dust, we may go into Egyptian temples and see the figures on their walls, in all the freshness of their first colouring, as if the painter had but laid down his pencil a moment ago; so, on your hearts, youthful evils, the sins of your boyhood, the pruriences of your earliest days, may live in ugly shapes, that no tears and no repentance will ever wipe out. Nothing can do away with the marks of that which once hath been.' What are you painting on the chambers of imagery in your hearts? Obscenity, foul things, mean things, low things? Is that mystic shrine within you painted with such figures as were laid bare in some chambers in Pompeii, where the excavators had to cover up the pictures because they were so foul? Or, is it like the cells in the convent of San Marco at Florence, where Fra Angelico's holy and sweet genius has left on the bare walls, to be looked at, as he fancied, only by one devout brother in each cell, angel imaginings, and noble, pure celestial faces that calm and hallow those who gaze upon them? What are you doing, my brother, in the dark, in your chambers of imagery?
II. Now look with me briefly at the second thought that I draw from this symbol,--the idolatries of the dark chamber.
All these seventy grey-bearded elders that were bowing there before the bestial gods which they had portrayed, had, no doubt, often stood in the courts of the Temple and there made prayers to the God of Israel, with broad phylacteries, to be seen of men. Their true worship was their worship in the dark. The other was conscious or unconscious hypocrisy. And the very chamber in which they were gathered, according to the ideal representation of our text, was a chamber in, and therefore partaking of the consecration of, the Temple. So their worship was doubly criminal, in that it was sacrilege as well as idolatry. Both things are true about us.
A man's true worship is not the worship which he performs in the public temple, but that which he offers down in that little private chapel, where nobody goes but himself. Worship is the attribution of supreme excellence to, and the entire dependence of the heart upon, a certain person. And the people or the things to which a man attributes the highest excellence, and on which he hangs his happiness and well-being, these be his gods, no matter what his outward profession is. You can find out what these are for you, if you will ask yourself, and honestly answer, one or two questions. What is that I want most? What is it which makes my ideal of happiness? What is that which I feel that I should be desperate without? What do I think about most naturally and spontaneously, when the spring is taken off, and my thoughts are allowed to go as they will? And if the answer to none of these questions is God!' then I do not know why you should call yourself a worshipper of God. It is of no avail that we pray in the temple, if we have a dark underground shrine where our true adoration is rendered.
Oh, dear brethren! I am afraid there are a great many of us nominal Christians, connected with Christian Churches, posing before men as orthodox religionists, who keep this private chapel where we do our devotion to an idol and not to God. If our real gods could be made visible, what a pantheon they would make! All the foul forms painted on that cell of this vision would be paralleled in the creeping things, which crawl along the low earth and never soar nor even stand erect, and in the vile, bestial forms of passion to which some of us really bow down. Honour, wealth, literary or other distinction, the sweet sanctities of human love dishonoured and profaned by being exalted to the place which divine love should hold, ease, family, animal appetites, lust, drink--these are the gods of some of us. Bear with my poor words and ask yourselves, not whom do you worship before the eye of men, but who is the God to whom in your inmost heart you bow down? What do you do in the dark? That is the question. Whom do you worship there? Your other worship is not worship at all.
Do not forget that all such diversion of supreme love and dependence from God alone is like the sin of these men in our text, in that it is sacrilege. They had taken a chamber in the very Temple, and turned it into a temple of the false gods. Whom is your heart made to enshrine? Why! every stone, if I may so say, of the fabric of our being bears marked upon it that it was laid in order to make a dwelling-place for God. Whom are you meant to worship, by the witness of the very constitution of your nature and make of your spirits? Is there anybody but One who is worthy to receive the priceless gift of human love absolute and entire? Is there any but One to whom it is aught but degradation and blasphemy for a man to bow down? Is there any being but One that can still the tumult of my spirit, and satisfy the immortal yearnings of my soul? We were made for God, and whensoever we turn the hopes, the desires, the affections, the obedience, and that which is the root of them all, the confidence that ought to fix and fasten upon Him, to other creatures, we are guilty not only of idolatry but of sacrilege. We commit the sin of which that wild reveller in Babylon was guilty, when, at his great feast, in the very madness of his presumption he bade them bring forth the sacred vessels from the Temple at Jerusalem; and the king and his princes and his concubines drank in them and praised the gods.' So we take the sacred chalice of the human heart, on which there is marked the sign manual of Heaven, claiming it for God's, and fill it with the spiced and drugged draught of our own sensualities and evils, and pour out libations to vain and false gods. Brethren! Render unto Him that which is His; and see even upon the walls scrabbled all over with the deformities that we have painted there, lingering traces, like those of some dropping fresco in a roofless Italian church, which suggest the serene and perfect beauty of the image of the One whose likeness was originally traced there, and for whose worship it was all built.
III. And now, lastly, look at the sudden crashing in upon the cowering worshippers of the revealing light.
Apparently the picture of my text suggests that these elders knew not the eyes that were looking upon them. They were hugging themselves in the conceit, the Lord seeth not; the Lord hath forsaken the earth.' And all the while, all unknown, God and His prophet stand in the doorway and see it all. Not a finger is lifted, not a sign to the foolish worshippers of His presence and inspection, but in stern silence He records and remembers.
And does that need much bending to make it an impressive form of putting a solemn truth? There are plenty of us--alas! alas! that it should be so--to whom it is the least welcome of all thoughts that there in the doorway stand God and His Word. Why should it be, my brother, that the properly blessed thought of a divine eye resting upon you should be to you like the thought of a policeman's bull's-eye to a thief? Why should it not be rather the sweetest and the most calming and strength-giving of all convictions--Thou God seest me'? The little child runs about the lawn perfectly happy as long as she knows that her mother is watching her from the window. And it ought to be sweet and blessed to each of us to know that there is no darkness where a Father's eye comes not. But oh! to the men that stand before bestial idols and have turned their backs on the beauty of the one true God, the only possibility of composure is that they shall hug themselves in the vain delusion:--The Lord seeth not.'
I beseech you, dear friends, do not think of His eye as the prisoner in a cell thinks of the pin-hole somewhere in the wall, through which a jailer's jealous inspection may at any moment be glaring in upon him, but think of Him your Brother, who knew what was in man,' and who knows each man, and see in Christ the all-knowing Godhood that loves yet better than it knows, and beholds the hidden evils of men's hearts, in order that it may cleanse and forgive all which it beholds.
One day a light will flash in upon all the dark cells. We must all be manifest before the judgment-seat of Christ. Do you like that thought? Can you stand it? Are you ready for it? My friend! let Jesus Christ come to you with His light. Let Him come into the dark corners of your hearts. Cast all your sinfulness, known and unknown, upon Him that died on the Cross for every soul of man, and He will come; and His light, streaming into your hearts, like the sunbeam upon foul garments, will cleanse and bleach them white by its shining upon them. Let Him come into your hearts by your lowly penitence, by your humble faith, and all these vile shapes that you have painted on its walls will, like phosphorescent pictures in the daytime, pale and disappear when the Sun of Righteousness, with healing in His beams, floods your soul, leaving no part dark, and turning all into a temple of the living God.'
He prophesieth of the times that are far off.'--EZEKIEL xii. 27.
Human nature was very much the same in the exiles that listened to Ezekiel on the banks of the Chebar and in Manchester to-day. The same neglect of God's message was grounded then on the same misapprehension of its bearings which profoundly operates in the case of many people now. Ezekiel had been proclaiming the fall of Jerusalem to the exiles whose captivity preceded it by a few years; and he was confronted by the incredulity which fancied that it had a great many facts to support it, and so it generalised God's long-suffering delay in sending the threatened punishment into a scoffing proverb which said, The days are prolonged, and every vision faileth.' To translate it into plain English, the prophets had cried Wolf! wolf!' so long that their alarms were disbelieved altogether.
Even the people that did not go the length of utter unbelief in the prophetic threatening took the comfortable conclusion that these threatenings had reference to a future date, and they need not trouble themselves about them. And so they said, according to my text, They of the house of Israel say, The vision that he sees is for many days to come, and he prophesieth of the times that are far off.' It may be all quite true, but it lies away in the distant future there; and things will last our time, so we do not need to bother ourselves about what he says.'
So the imagined distance of fulfilment turned the edge of the plainest denunciations, and was like wool stuffed in the people's ears to deaden the reverberations of the thunder.
I wonder if there is anybody here now whom that fits, who meets the preaching of the gospel with a shrug, and with this saying, He prophesies of the times that are far off.' I fancy that there are a few; and I wish to say a word or two about this ground on which the widespread disregard of the divine message is based.
I. First, then, notice that the saying of my text--in the application which I now seek to make of it--is a truth, but it is only half a truth.
Of course, Ezekiel was speaking simply about the destruction of Jerusalem. If it had been true, as his hearers assumed, that that was not going to happen for a good many years yet, the chances were that it had no bearing upon them, and they were right enough in neglecting the teaching. And, of course, when I apply such a word as this in the direction in which I wish to do now, we do bring in a different set of thoughts; but the main idea remains the same. The neglect of God's solemn message by a great many people is based, more or less consciously, upon the notion that the message of Christianity--or, if you like to call it so, of the gospel; or, if you like to call it more vaguely, religion--has to do mainly with blessings and woes beyond the grave, and that there is plenty of time to attend to it when we get nearer the end.
Now is it true that he prophesies of times that are far off'? Yes! and No! Yes! it is true, and it is the great glory of Christianity that it shifts the centre of gravity, so to speak, from this poor, transient, contemptible present, and sets it away out yonder in an august and infinite future. It brings to us not only knowledge of the future, but certitude, and takes the conception of another life out of the region of perhapses, possibilities, dreads, or hopes, as the case may be, and sets it in the sunlight of certainty. There is no more mist. Other faiths, even when they have risen to the height of some contemplation of a future, have always seen it wrapped in nebulous clouds of possibilities, but Christianity sets it clear, definite, solid, as certain as yesterday, as certain as to-day.
It not only gives us the knowledge and the certitude of the times that are afar off, and that are not times but eternities, but it gives us, as the all-important element in that future, that its ruling characteristic is retribution. It brings life and immortality to light,' and just because it does, it brings the dark orb which, like some of the double stars in the heavens, is knit to the radiant sphere by a necessary band. It brings to light, with life and immortality, death and woe. It is true--he prophesies of times that are far off' and it is the glory of the gospel of Christ's revelation, and of the religion that is based thereon, that its centre is beyond the grave, and that its eye is so often turned to the clearly discerned facts that lie there.
But is that all that we have to say about Christianity? Many representations of it, I am free to confess, from pulpits and books and elsewhere, do talk as if that was all, as if it was a magnificent thing to have when you came to die. As the play has it, I said to him that I hoped there was no need that he should think about God yet,' because he was not going to die. But I urge you to remember, dear brethren, that all that prophesying of times that are far off has the closest bearing upon this transient, throbbing moment, because, for one thing, one solemn part of the Christian revelation about the future is that Time is the parent of Eternity, and that, in like manner as in our earthly course the child is father of the man,' so the man as he has made himself is the author of himself as he will be through the infinite spaces that lie beyond the grave. Therefore, when a Christian preacher prophesies of times that are afar off, he is prophesying of present time, between which and the most distant eternity there is an iron nexus--a band which cannot be broken.
Nor is that all. Not only is the truth in my text but a half truth, if it is supposed that the main business of the gospel is to talk to us about heaven and hell, and not about the earth on which we secure and procure the one or the other; but also it is a half truth because, large and transcendent, eternal in their duration, and blessed beyond all thought in their sweetness as are the possibilities, the certainties that are opened by the risen and ascended Christ, and tremendous beyond all words that men can speak as are the alternative possibilities, yet these are not all the contents of the gospel message; but those blessings and penalties, joys and miseries, exaltations and degradations, which attend upon righteousness and sin, godliness and irreligion to-day are a large part of its theme and of its effects. Therefore, whilst on the one hand it is true, blessed be Christ's name! that he prophesies of times that are far off'; on the other hand it is an altogether inadequate description of the gospel message and of the Christian body of truth to say that the future is its realm, and not the present.
II. So, then, in the second place, my text gives a very good reason for prizing and attending to the prophecy.
If it is true that God, speaking through the facts of Christ's death and Resurrection and Ascension, has given to us the sure and certain hope of immortality, and has declared to us plainly the conditions upon which that immortality may be ours, and the woful loss and eclipse into the shadow of which we shall stumble darkling if it is not ours, then surely that is a reason for prizing and laying to heart, and living by the revelation so mercifully made. People do not usually kick over their telescopes, and neglect to look through them, because they are so powerful that they show them the craters in the moon and turn faint specks into blazing suns. People do not usually neglect a word of warning or guidance in reference to the ordering of their earthly lives because it is so comprehensive, and covers so large a ground, and is so certain and absolutely true. Surely there can be no greater sign of divine loving-kindness, of a Saviour's tenderness and care for us, than that He should come to each of us, as He does come, and say to each of us, Thou art to live for ever; and if thou wilt take Me for thy Life, thou shalt live for ever, blessed, calm, and pure.' And we listen, and say, He prophesies of times that are far off!' Oh! is that not rather a reason for coming very close to, and for grappling to our hearts and living always by the power of, that great revelation? Surely to announce the consequences of evil, and to announce them so long beforehand that there is plenty of time to avoid them and to falsify the prediction, is the token of love.
Now I wish to lay it on the hearts of you people who call yourselves Christians, and who are so in some imperfect degree, whether we do at all adequately regard, remember, and live by this great mercy of God, that He should have prophesied to us of the times that are far off.' Perhaps I am wrong, but I cannot help feeling that, for this generation, the glories of the future rest with God have been somewhat paled, and the terrors of the future unrest away from God have been somewhat lightened. I hope I am wrong, but I do not think that the modern average Christian thinks as much about heaven as his father did. And I believe that his religion has lost something of its buoyancy, of its power, of its restraining and stimulating energy, because, from a variety of reasons, the bias of this generation is rather to dwell upon, and to realise, the present social blessings of Christianity than to project itself into that august future. The reaction may be good. I have no doubt it was needed, but I think it has gone rather too far, and I would beseech Christian men and women to try and deserve more the sarcasm that is flung at us that we live for another world. Would God it were true--truer than it is! We should see better work done in this world if it were. So I say, that he prophesieth of times that are far off' is a good reason for prizing and obeying the prophet.
III. Lastly, this is a very common and a very bad reason for neglecting the prophecy.
It does operate as a reason for giving little heed to the prophet, as I have been saying. In the old men-of-war, when an engagement was impending, they used to bring up the hammocks from the bunks and pile them into the nettings at the side of the ship, to defend it from boarders and bullets. And then, after these had served their purpose of repelling, they were taken down again and the crew went to sleep upon them. That is exactly what some of my friends do with that misconception of the genius of Christianity which supposes that it is concerned mainly with another world. They put it up as a screen between them and God, between them and what they know to be their duty--viz., the acceptance of Christ as their Saviour. It is their hammock that they put between the bullets and themselves; and many a good sleep they get upon it!
Now, that strange capacity that men have of ignoring a certain future is seen at work all round about us in every region of life. I wonder how many young men there are in Manchester to-day that have begun to put their foot upon the wrong road, and who know just as well as I do that the end of it is disease, blasted reputation, ruined prospects, perhaps an early death. Why! there is not a drunkard in the city that does not know that. Every man that takes opium knows it. Every unclean, unchaste liver knows it; and yet he can hide the thought from himself, and go straight on as if there was nothing at all of the sort within the horizon of possibility. It is one of the most marvellous things that men have that power; only beaten by the marvel that, having it, they should be such fools as to choose to exercise it. The peasants on the slopes of Vesuvius live very careless lives, and they have their little vineyards and their olives. Yes, and every morning when they come out, they can look up and see the thin wreath of smoke going up in the dazzling blue, and they know that some time or other there will be a roar and a rush, and down will come the lava. But a short life and a merry one' is the creed of a good many of us, though we do not like to confess it. Some of you will remember the strange way in which ordinary habits survived in prisons in the dreadful times of the French Revolution, and how ladies and gentlemen, who were going to have their heads chopped off next morning, danced and flirted, and sat at entertainments, just as if there was no such thing in the world as the public prosecutor and the tumbril, and the gaoler going about with a bit of chalk to mark each door where were the condemned for next day.
That same strange power of ignoring a known future, which works so widely and so disastrously round about us, is especially manifested in regard to religion. The great bulk of English men and women who are not Christians, and the little sample of such that I have in my audience now, as a rule believe as fully as we do the truths which they agree to neglect. Let me speak to them individually. You believe that death will introduce you into a world of two halves--that if you have been a good, religious man, you will dwell in blessedness; that if you have not, you will not--yet you never did a single thing, nor refrained from a single thing, because of that belief. And when I, and men of my profession, come and plead with you and try to get through that strange web of insensibility that you have spun round you, you listen, and then you say, with a shrug, He prophesies of things that are far off.' and you turn with relief to the trivialities of the day. Need I ask you whether that is a wise thing or not?
Surely it is not wise for a man to ignore a future that is certain simply because it is distant. So long as it is certain, what in the name of common-sense has the time when it begins to be a present to do with our wisdom in regard to it? It is the uncertainty in future anticipations which makes it unwise to regulate life largely by them, and if you can eliminate that element of uncertainty--which you can do if you believe in Jesus Christ--then the question is not when is the prophecy going to be fulfilled, but is it true and trustworthy? The man is a fool who, because it is far off, thinks he can neglect it.
Surely it is not wise to ignore a future which is so incomparably greater than this present, and which also is so connected with this present as that life here is only intelligible as the vestibule and preparation for that great world beyond.
Surely it is not wise to ignore a future because you fancy it is far away, when it may burst upon you at any time. These exiles to whom Ezekiel spoke hugged themselves in the idea that his words were not to be fulfilled for many days to come; but they were mistaken, and the crash of the fall of Jerusalem stunned them before many months had passed by. We have to look forward to a future which must be very near to some of us, which may be nearer to others than they think, which at the remotest is but a little way from us, and which must come to us all. Oh, dear friends, surely it is not wise to ignore as far off that which for some of us may be here before this day closes, which will probably be ours in some cases before the fresh young leaves now upon the trees have dropped yellow in the autumn frosts, which at the most distant must be very near us, and which waits for us all.
What would you think of the crew and passengers of some ship lying in harbour, waiting for its sailing orders, who had got leave on shore, and did not know but that at any moment the blue-peter might be flying at the fore--the signal to weigh anchor--if they behaved themselves in the port as if they were never going to embark, and made no preparations for the voyage? Let me beseech you to rid yourselves of that most unreasonable of all reasons for neglecting the gospel, that its most solemn revelations refer to the eternity beyond the grave.
There are many proofs that man on the whole is a very foolish creature, but there is not one more tragical than the fact that believing, as many of you do, that the wages of sin is death, and the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ,' you stand aloof from accepting the gift, and risk the death.
The times far off' have long since come near enough to those scoffers. The most distant future will be present to you before you are ready for it, unless you accept Jesus Christ as your All, for time and for eternity. If you do, the time that is near will be pure and calm, and the times that are far off will be radiant with unfading bliss.
Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. 26. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. 27. And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes, and ye shall keep My judgments, and do them. 28. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be My people, and I will be your God. 29. I will also save you from all your uncleannesses: and I will call for the corn, and will increase it, and lay no famine upon you. 30. And I will multiply the fruit of the tree, and the increase of the field, that ye shall receive no more reproach of famine among the heathen. 31. Then shall ye remember your own evil ways, and your doings that were not good, and shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and for your abominations. 32. Not for your sakes do I this, saith the Lord God, be it known unto you: be ashamed and confounded for your own ways, O house of Israel. 33. Thus saith the Lord God; In the day that I shall have cleansed you from all your iniquities I will also cause you to dwell in the cities, and the wastes shall be builded. 34. And the desolate land shall be tilled, whereat; it lay desolate in the sight of all that passed by. 35. And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are become fenced, and are inhabited. 36. Then the heathen that are left round about you shall know that I the Lord build the ruined places, and plant that that was desolate: I the Lord have spoken it, and I will do it. 37. Thus saith the Lord God; I will yet for this be enquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them; I will increase them with men like a flock. 38. As the holy flock, as the flock of Jerusalem in her solemn feasts; so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of men: and they shall know that I am the Lord.'--EZEKIEL xxxvi. 25-38.
This great prophecy had but a partial fulfilment, though a real one, in the restored Israel. The land was given back, the nation was multiplied, fertility again blessed the smiling fields and vineyards, and, best of all, the people were cleansed from all their idols' by the furnace of affliction. Nothing is more remarkable than the transformation effected by the captivity, in regard to the idolatrous propensities of the people. Whereas before it they were always hankering after the gods of the nations, they came back from Babylon the resolute champions of monotheism, and never thereafter showed the smallest inclination for what had before been so irresistible.
But the fulness of Ezekiel's prophecy is not realised until Jeremiah's prophecy of the new covenant is brought to pass. Nor does the state of the militant church on earth exhaust it. Future glories gleam through the words. They have a springing accomplishment' in the Israel of the restoration, a fuller in the New Testament church, and their ultimate realisation in the New Jerusalem, which shall yet descend to be the bride, the Lamb's wife. The principles involved in the prophecy belong to the region of purely spiritual religion, and are worth pondering, apart from any question of the place and manner of fulfilment.
First comes the great truth that the foundation, so far as concerns the history of a soul or of a community, of all other good is divine forgiveness (v. 25). Ezekiel, the priest, casts the promise into ceremonial form, and points to the sprinklings of the polluted under the law, or to the ritual of consecration to the priesthood. That cleansing is the removal of already contracted defilement, especially of the guilt of idolatry. It is clearly distinguished from the operation on the inward nature which follows; that is to say, it is the promise of forgiveness, or of justification, not of sanctification.
From what deep fountains in the divine nature that clean water' was to flow, Ezekiel does not know; but we have learned that a more precious fluid than water is needed, and have to think of Him who came not by water only, but by water and blood,' in whom we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of our sins. But the central idea of this first promise is that it must be God's hand which sprinkles from an evil conscience. Forgiveness is a divine prerogative. He only can, and He will, cleanse from all filthiness. His pardon is universal. The most ingrained sins cannot be too black to melt away from the soul. The dye-stuffs of sin are very strong, but there is one solvent which they cannot resist. There are no fast colours' which God's clean water' cannot move. This cleansing of pardon underlies all the rest of the blessings. It is ever the first thing needful when a soul returns to God.
Then follows an equally exclusively divine act, the impartation of a new nature, which shall secure future obedience (vs. 26, 27). Who can thrust his hand into the depths of man's being, and withdraw one life-principle and enshrine another, while yet the individuality of the man remains untouched? God only. How profound the consciousness of universal obstinacy and insensibility which regards human nature, apart from such renewal, as possessing but a heart of stone'! There are no sentimental illusions about the grim facts of humanity here. Superficial views of sin and rose-tinted fancies about human nature will not admit the truth of the Scripture doctrine of sinfulness, alienation from God. They diagnose the disease superficially, and therefore do not know how to cure it. The Bible can venture to give full weight to the gravity of the sickness, because it knows the remedy. No surgery but God's can perform that operation of extracting the stony heart and inserting a heart of flesh. No system which cannot do that can do what men want. The gospel alone deals thoroughly with man's ills.
And how does it effect that great miracle? I will put My Spirit within you.' The new life-principle is the effluence of the Spirit of God. The promise does not merely offer the influence of a divine spirit, working on men as from without, or coming down upon them as an afflatus, but the actual planting of God's Spirit in the deep places of theirs. We fail to apprehend the most characteristic blessing of the gospel if we do not give full prominence to that great gift of an indwelling Spirit, the life of our lives. Cleansing is much, but is incomplete without a new life-principle which shall keep us clean; and that can only be God's Spirit, enshrined and operative within us; for only thus shall we walk in His statutes, and keep His judgments.' When the Lawgiver dwells in our hearts, the law will be our delight; and keeping it will be the natural outcome and expression of our life, which is His life.
Then follows the picture of the blessed effects of obedience (vs. 28-30). These are cast into the form appropriate to the immediate purpose of the prophecy, and received fulfilment in the actual restoration to the land, which fulfilment, however, was imperfect, inasmuch as the obedience and renewal of the people's hearts were incomplete. These can only be complete under the gospel, and, in the fullest sense, only in another order than the present. When men fully keep God's judgments, they shall dwell permanently in a good land. Israel's hold on its country was its obedience, not its prowess. Our real hold on even earthly good is the choosing of God for our supreme good. In the measure in which we can say Thy law is within my heart,' all things are ours; and we may possess all things while having nothing in the vulgar world's sense of having. Similarly that obedience, which is the fruit of the new life of God's Spirit in our spirits, is the condition of close mutual possession in the blessed reciprocity of trust and faithfulness, love bestowing and love receiving, by which the quiet heart knows that God is its, and it is God's. If stains and interruptions still sometimes break the perfectness of obedience and continuity of reciprocal ownership, there will be a further cleansing for such sins. If we walk in the light, the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin' (v. 29).
The lovely picture of the blessed dwellers in their good land is closed by the promise of abundant harvests from corn and fruit-tree; that is, all that nourishes or delights. The deepest truth taught thereby is that he who lives in God has no unsatisfied desires, but finds in Him all that can sustain, strengthen, and minister to growth, and all that can give gladness and delight. If we make God our heritage, we dwell secure in a good land; and the dust of that land is gold,' and its harvests ever plenteous.
Very profoundly and beautifully does Ezekiel put as the last trait in his picture, and as the upshot of all this cornucopia of blessings, the penitent remembrance of past evils. Undeserved mercies steal into the heart like the breath of the south wind, and melt the ice. The more we advance in holiness and consequent blessed communion with God, the more clearly shall we see the evil of our past. Forgiven sin looks far blacker because it is forgiven. When we are not afraid of sin's consequences, we see more plainly its sinfulness. When we have tasted God's sweetness, we think with more shame of our ingratitude and folly. If God forgets, the more reason for us to remember our transgressions. The man who has forgotten that he was purged from his old sins' is in danger of finding out that he is not purged from them. There is no gnawing of conscience, nor any fearful looking for of judgment in such remembrance, but a wholesome humility passing into thankful wonder that such sin is pardoned, and such a sinner made God's friend.
The deep foundation of all the blessedness is finally laid bare (v. 32) as being God's undeserved mercy. For Mine holy name' (v. 22) is God's reason. He is His own motive, and He wills that the world should know His name,--that is, His manifested character,--and understand how loving and long-suffering He is. So He wills, not because such knowledge adds to His glory, but because it satisfies His love, since it will make the men who know His name blessed. The truth that God's motive is His own name's sake may be so put as to be hideous and repellent; but it really proclaims that He is love, and that His motive is His poor creatures' blessing.
To this great outline of the blessings of the restored nations are appended two subsidiary prophecies, marked by the recurring Thus saith the Lord.' The former of these (vs. 33-36) deals principally with the new beauty that was to clothe the land. The day in which the inhabitants were cleansed from their sins was to be the day in which the land was to be raised from its ruin. Cities are to be rebuilt, the ground that had lain fallow and tangled with briers and thorns is to be tilled, and to bloom like Eden, a restored paradise. How far the fulfilment has halted behind the promise, the melancholy condition of Palestine to-day may remind us. Whether the literal fulfilment is to be anticipated or no seems less important than to note that the experience of forgiveness (and of the consequent blessings described above) is the precursor of this fair picture. Therefore, the Church's condition of growth and prosperity is its realisation in the persons of its individual members, of pardon, the renewal of the inner man by the indwelling Spirit, faithful obedience, communion with God, and lowly remembrance of past sins. Where churches are marked by such characteristics, they will grow. If they are not, all their evangelistic efforts' will be as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.
The second appended prophecy (vs. 37, 38) is that of increase of population. The picture of the flocks of sheep for sacrifice, which thronged Jerusalem at the feasts, is given as a likeness of the swarms of inhabitants in the waste cities.' The point of comparison is chiefly the number. One knows how closely a flock huddles and seems to fill the road in endless procession. But the destination as well as the number comes into view. All these patient creatures, crowding the ways, are meant for sacrifices. So the inhabitants of the land then shall all yield themselves to God, living sacrifices. The first words of our text point to the priesthood of all believers; the last words point to the sacrifice of themselves which they have to offer.
For this moreover will I be inquired of by the house of Israel.' The blessings promised do not depend on our merits, as we have heard, but yet they will not be given without our co-operation in prayer. God promises, and that promise is not a reason for our not asking the gifts from Him, but for our asking. Faith keeps within the lines of God's promise, and prayers which do not foot themselves on a promise are the offspring of presumption, not of faith. God lets Himself be inquired of' for that which is in accordance with His will; and, accordant with His will though it be, He will not do it for them,' unless His flock ask of Him the accomplishment of His own word.
1. The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, 2. And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry. 3. And He said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, Thou knowest. 4. Again He said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5. Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: 6. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord. 7. So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. 8. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. 9. Then said He unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. 10. So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army. 11. Then He said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts. 12. Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O My people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. 13. And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up out of your graves. 14. And shall put My spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord.'--EZEKIEL xxxvii. 1-14.
This great vision apparently took its form from a despairing saying, which had become a proverb among the exiles, Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost: we are clean cut off' (v. 11). Ezekiel lays hold of the metaphor, which had been taken to express the hopeless destruction of Israel's national existence, and even from it wrings a message of hope. Faith has the prerogative of seeing possibilities of life in what looks to sense hopeless death. We may look at the vision from three points of view, considering its bearing on Israel, on the world, and on the resurrection of the body.
I. The saying, already referred to, puts the hopelessness of the mass of the exiles in a forcible fashion. The only sense in which living men could say that their bones were dried up, and they cut off, is a figurative one, and obviously it is the national existence which they regarded as irretrievably ended. The saying gives us a glimpse into the despair which had settled down on the exiles, and against which Ezekiel had to contend, as he had also to contend against its apparently opposite and yet kindred feeling of presumptuous, misplaced hope. We observe that he begins by accepting fully the facts which bred despair, and even accentuating them. The true prophet never makes light of the miseries of which he knows the cure, and does not try to comfort by minimising the gravity of the evil. The bones are very many, and they are very dry. As far as outward resources are concerned, despair was rational, and hope as absurd as it would have been to expect that men, dead so long that their bones had been bleached by years of exposure to the weather, should live again.
But while Ezekiel saw the facts of Israel's powerlessness as plainly as the most despondent, he did not therefore despair. The question which rose in his mind was God's question, and the very raising it let a gleam of hope in. So he answered with that noble utterance of faith and submission, O Lord God, Thou knowest.' With God all things are possible.' Presumption would have said Yes'; Unbelief would have said No'; Faith says, Thou knowest.'
The grand description of the process of resurrection follows the analogy of the order in the creation of man, giving, first, the shaping of the body, and afterwards the breathing into it of the breath which is life. Both stages are wholly God's work. The prophet's part was to prophesy to the bones first; and his word, in a sense, brought about the effect which it foretold, since his ministry was the most potent means of rekindling dying hopes, and bringing the disjecta membra of the nation together again. The vivid and gigantic imagination of the prophet gives a picture of the rushing together of the bones, which has no superior in any literature. He hears a noise, and sees a shaking' (by which is meant the motion of the bones to each other, rather than an earthquake,' as the Revised Version has it, which inserts a quite irrelevant detail), and the result of all is that the skeletons are complete. Then follows the gradual clothing with flesh. There they lie, a host of corpses.
The second stage is the quickening of these bodies with life, and here again Ezekiel, as God's messenger, has power to bring about what he announces; for, at his command, the breath, or wind, or spirit, comes, and the stiff corpses spring to their feet, a mighty army. The explanation in the last verses of the text somewhat departs from the tenor of the vision by speaking of Israel as buried, but keeps to its substance, and point the despairing exiles to God as the source of national resurrection. But we must not force deeper meaning on Ezekiel's words than they properly bear. The spirit promised in them is simply the source of life,--literally, of physical life; metaphorically, of national life. However that national restoration was connected with holiness, that does not enter into the prophet's vision. Israel's restoration to its land is all that Ezekiel meant by it. True, that restoration was to lead to clearer recognition by Israel of the name of Jehovah, and of all that it implied in him and demanded from them. But the proper scope of the vision is to assure despairing Israelites that God would quicken the apparently slain national life, and replace them in the land.
II. We may extend the application of the vision to the condition of humanity and the divine intervention which communicates life to a dead world, but must remember that no such meaning was in Ezekiel's thoughts. The valley full of dry bones is but too correct a description of the aspect which a world dead in trespasses and sins' bears, when seen from the mountain-top by pure and heavenly eyes. The activities of godless lives mask the real spiritual death, which is the condition of every soul that is separate from God. Galvanised corpses may have muscular movements, but they are dead, notwithstanding their twitching. They that live without God are dead while they live.
Again, we may learn from the vision the preparation needful for the prophet, who is to be the instrument of imparting divine life to a dead world. The sorrowful sense of the widespread deadness must enter into a man's spirit, and be ever present to him, in order to fit him for his work. A dead world is not to be quickened on easy terms. We must see mankind in some measure as God sees them if we are to do God's work among them. So-called Christian teachers, who do not believe that the race is dead in sin, or who, believing it, do not feel the tragedy of the fact, and the power lodged in their hands to bring the true life, may prophesy to the dry bones for ever, and there will be no shaking among them.
The great work of the gospel is to communicate divine life. The details of the process in the vision are not applicable in this respect. As we have pointed out, they are shaped after the pattern of the creation of Adam, but the essential point is that what the world needs is the impartation from God of His Spirit. We know more than Ezekiel did as to the way by which that Spirit is given to men, and as to the kind of life which it imparts, and as to the connection between that life and holiness. It is a diviner voice than Ezekiel's which speaks to us in the name of God, and says to us with deeper meaning than the prophet of the Exile dreamed of, I will put my Spirit in you, and ye shall live.'
But we may note that it is possible to have the outward form of a living body, and yet to have no life. Churches and individuals may be perfectly organised and perfectly dead. Creeds may be articulated most correctly, every bone in its place, and yet have no vitality in them. Forms of worship may be punctiliously proper, and have no breath of life in them. Religion must have a body, but often the body is not so much the organ as the sepulchre of the spirit. We have to take heed that the externals do not kill the inward life.
Again, we note that this great act of life-giving is God's revelation of His name,--that is, of His character so far as men can know it. Ye shall know that I am the Lord' (vs. 13, 14). God makes Himself known in His divinest glory when He quickens dead souls. The world may learn what He is therefrom, but they who have experienced the change, and have, as it were, been raised from the grave to new life, have personal experience of His power and faithfulness so sure and sweet that henceforward they cannot doubt Him nor forget His grace.
III. As to the bearing of the vision on the doctrine of the resurrection little need be said. It does not necessarily presuppose the people's acquaintance with that doctrine, for it would be quite conceivable that the vision had revealed to the prophet the thought of a resurrection, which had not been in his beliefs before. The vision is so entirely figurative, that it cannot be employed as evidence that the idea of the resurrection of the dead was part of the Jewish beliefs at this date. It does, however, seem most natural to suppose that the exiles were familiar with the idea, though the vision cannot be taken as a revelation of a literal resurrection of dead men. For clear expectations of such a resurrection we must turn to such scriptures as Daniel xii. 2, 13.
Waters issued out from under the threshold of the house '--EZEKIEL xlvii. 1.
Unlike most great cities, Jerusalem was not situated on a great river. True, the inconsiderable waters of Siloam--which flow softly' because they were so inconsiderable--rose from a crevice in the Temple rock, and beneath that rock stretched the valley of the Kedron, dry and bleached in the summer, and a rainy torrent during the rainy seasons; but that was all. So, many of the prophets, who looked forward to the better times to come, laid their finger upon that one defect, and prophesied that it should be cured. Thus we read in a psalm: There is a river, the divisions whereof make glad the City of our God.' Faith saw what sense saw not. Again, Isaiah says: There'--that is to say, in the new Jerusalem--the glorious Lord shall be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams.' And so, this prophet casts his anticipations of the abundant outpouring of blessing that shall come when God in very deed dwells among men, into this figure of a river pouring out from beneath the Temple-door, and spreading life and fertility wherever its waters come. I need not remind you how our Lord Himself uses the same figure, and modifies it, by saying that whosoever believeth on Him, out of him shall flow rivers of living waters'; or how, in the very last words of the Apocalyptic seer, we hear again the music of the ripples of the great stream, the river of the water of life proceeding out of the Throne of God and of the Lamb.' So then, all through Scripture, we may say that we hear the murmur of the stream, and can catch the line of verdure upon its banks. My object now is not only to deal with the words that I have read as a starting-point, but rather to seek to draw out the wonderful significance of this great prophetic parable.
I. I notice, first, the source from which the river conies.
I have already anticipated that in pointing out that it flows from the very Temple itself. The Prophet sees it coming out of the house--that is to say, the Sanctuary. It flows across the outer court of the house, passes the altar, comes out under the threshold, and then pours itself down on to the plain beneath. This is the symbolical dress of the thought that all spiritual blessings, and every conceivable form of human good, take their rise in the fact of God's dwelling with men. From beneath the Temple threshold comes the water of life; and wherever it is true that in any heart--or in any community--God dwells, there will be heard the tinkling of its ripples, and freshness and fertility will come from the stream. The dwelling of God with a man, like the dwelling of God in humanity in the Incarnation of His own dear Son, is, as it were, the opening of the fountain that it may pour out into the world. So, if we desire to have the blessings that are possible for us, we must comply with the conditions, and let God dwell in our hearts, and make them His temples; and then from beneath the threshold of that temple, too, will pour out, according to Christ's own promise, rivers of living water which will be first for ourselves to drink of and be blessed by, and then will refresh and gladden others.
Another thought connected with this source of the river of life is that all the blessings which, massed together, are included in that one word salvation'--which is a kind of nebula made up of many unresolved stars--take their rise from nothing else than the deep heart of God Himself. This river rose in the House of the Lord, and amidst the mysteries of the Divine Presence; it took its rise, one might say, from beneath the Mercy-seat where the brooding Cherubim sat in silence and poured itself into a world that had not asked for it, that did not expect it, that in many of its members did not desire it and would not have it. The river that rose in the secret place of God symbolises for us the great thought which is put into plainer words by the last of the apostles when he says, We love Him because He first loved us.' All the blessings of salvation rise from the unmotived, self-impelled, self-fed divine love and purpose. Nothing moves Him to communicate Himself but His own delight in giving Himself to His poor creatures; and it is all of grace that it might be all through faith.
Still further, another thought that may be suggested in connection with the source of this river is, that that which is to bless the world must necessarily take its rise above the world. Ezekiel has sketched, in the last portion of his prophecy, an entirely ideal topography of the Holy Land. He has swept away mountains and valleys, and levelled all out into a great plain, in the midst of which rises the mountain of the Lord's House, far higher than the Temple hill. In reality, opposite it rose the Mount of Olives, and between the two there was the deep gorge of the Valley of the Kedron. The Prophet smooths it all out into one great plain, and high above all towers the Temple-mount, and from it there rushes down on to the low levels the fertilising, life-giving flood.
That imaginary geography tells us this, that what is to bless the world must come from above the world. There needs a waterfall to generate electricity; the power which is to come into humanity and deal with its miseries must have its source high above the objects of its energy and its compassion, and in proportion to the height from which it falls will be the force of its impact and its power to generate the quickening impulse. All merely human efforts at social reform, rivers that do not rise in the Temple, are like the rivers in Mongolia, that run for a few miles and then get sucked up by the hot sands and are lost and nobody sees them any more. Only the perennial stream, that comes out from beneath the Temple threshold, can sustain itself in the desert, to say nothing of transforming the desert into a Garden of Eden. So moral and social and intellectual and political reformers may well go to Ezekiel, and learn that the river of the water of life,' which is to heal the barren and refresh the thirsty land, must come from below the Temple threshold.
II. Note the rapid increase of the stream.
The Prophet describes how his companion, the interpreter, measured down the stream a thousand cubits--about a quarter of a mile--and the waters were ankle-deep another thousand, making half a mile from the start, and the water was knee-deep. Another thousand--or three-quarters of a mile--and the water was waist-deep; another thousand--about a mile in all--and the water was unfordable, waters to swim in, a river that could not be passed over.' Where did the increase come from? There were no tributaries. We do not hear of any side-stream flowing into the main body. Where did the increase come from? It came from the abundant welling-up in the sanctuary. The fountain was the mother of the river--that is to say, God's ideal for the world, for the Church, for the individual Christian, is rapid increase in their experience of the depth and the force of the stream of blessings which together make up salvation. So we come to a very sharp testing question. Will anybody tell me that the rate at which Christianity has grown for these nineteen centuries corresponds with Ezekiel's vision--which is God's ideal? Will any Christian man say, My own growth in grace, and increase in the depth and fulness of the flow of the river through my spirit and my life correspond to that ideal'? A mile from the source the river is unfordable. How many miles from the source of our first experience do we stand? How many of us, instead of having a river that could not be passed over, waters to swim in,' have but a poor and all but stagnant feeble trickle, as shallow as or shallower than it was at first?
I was speaking a minute ago about Mongolian rivers. Australian rivers are more like some men's lives. A chain of ponds in the dry season--nay! not even a chain, but a series, with no connecting channel of water between them. That is like a great many Christian people; they have isolated times when they feel the voice of Christ's love, and yield themselves to the powers of the world to come, and then there are long intervals, when they feel neither the one nor the other. But the picture that ought to be realised by each of us is God's ideal, which there is power in the gospel to make real in the case of every one of us, the rapid and continuous increase in the depth and in the scour of the river of the water of life,' that flows through our lives. Luther used to say, If you want to clean out a dunghill, turn the Elbe into it.' If you desire to have your hearts cleansed of all their foulness, turn the river into it. But it needs to be a progressively deepening river, or there will be no scour in the feeble trickle, and we shall not be a bit the holier or the purer for our potential and imperfect Christianity.
III. Lastly, note the effects of the stream.
These are threefold: fertility, healing, life. Fertility. In the East one condition of fertility is water. Irrigate the desert, and you make it a garden. Break down the aqueduct, and you make the granary of the world into a waste. The traveller as he goes along can tell where there is a stream of water, by the verdure along its banks. You travel along a plateau, and it is all baked and barren. You plunge into a waCUR^1, and immediately the ground is clothed with under-growth and shrubs, and the birds of the air sing among the branches. And so, says Ezekiel, wherever the river comes there springs up, as if by magic, fair trees on the banks thereof, whose leaf shall not fade, neither shall the fruit thereof be consumed.'
Fertility comes second, the reception of the fertilising agent comes first. It is wasted time to tinker at our characters unless we have begun with getting into our hearts the grace of God, and the new spirit that will be wrought out by diligent effort into all beauty of life and character. Ezekiel seems to be copying the first psalm, or vice versa, the Psalmist is copying Ezekiel. At any rate, there is a verbal similarity between them, in that both dwell upon the unfading leaf of the tree that grows planted by rivers of water. And our text goes further, and speaks about perennial fruitfulness month by month, all the year round. In some tropical countries you will find blossoms, buds in their earliest stage, and ripened fruit all hanging upon one laden branch. Such ought to be the Christian life--continuously fruitful because dependent upon continual drawing into itself, by means of its roots and suckers, of the water of life by which we are fructified.
There is yet another effect of the waters--healing. As we said, Ezekiel takes great liberties with the geography of the Holy Land, levelling it all, so his stream makes nothing of the Mount of Olives, but flows due east until it comes to the smitten gorge of the Jordan, and then turns south, down into the dull, leaden waters of the Dead Sea, which it heals. We all know how these are charged with poison. Dip up a glassful anywhere, and you find it full of deleterious matter. They are the symbol of humanity, with the sin that is in solution all through it. No chemist can eliminate it, but there is One who can. He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.' The pure river of the water of life will cast out from humanity the malignant components that are there, and will sweeten it all. Ay, all, and yet not all, for very solemnly the Prophet's optimism pauses, and he says that the salt marshes by the side of the sea are not healed. They are by the side of it. The healing is perfectly available for them, but they are not healed. It is possible for men to reject the influences that make for the destruction of sin and the establishment of righteousness. And although the waters are healed, there still remain the obstinate marshes with the white crystals efflorescing on their surface, and bringing salt and barrenness. You can put away the healing and remain tainted with the poison.
And then the last thought is the life-giving influence of the river. Everything lived whithersoever it went. Contrast Christendom with heathendom. Admit all the hollowness and mere nominal Christianity of large tracts of life in so-called Christian countries, and yet why is it that on the one side you find stagnation and death, and on the other side mental and manifold activity and progressiveness? I believe that the difference between the people that sit in darkness' and the people that walk in the light is that one has the light and the other has not, and activity befits the light as torpor befits the darkness.
But there is a far deeper truth than that in the figure, a truth that I would fain lay upon the hearts of all my hearers, that unless we our own selves have this water of life which comes from the Sanctuary and is brought to us by Jesus Christ, we are dead in trespasses and sins.' The only true life is in Christ. If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink. He that believeth on Me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'
But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king's meat, nor with the wine which he drank; therefore he requested of the prince of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself. 9. Now God had brought Daniel into favour and tender love with the prince of the eunuchs. 10. And the prince of the eunuchs said unto Daniel, I fear my lord the king, who hath appointed your meat and your drink; for why should he see your faces worse liking than the children which are of your sort? then shall ye make me endanger my head to the king. 11. Then said Daniel to Melzar, whom the prince of the eunuchs had set over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 12. Prove thy servants, I beseech thee, ten days; and let them give us pulse to eat, and water to drink. 13. Then let our countenances be looked upon before thee, and the countenance of the children that eat of the portion of the king's meat; and as thou seest, deal with thy servants. 14. So he consented to them in this matter, and proved them ten days. 15. And at the end of ten days their countenances appeared fairer and fatter in flesh than all the children which did eat the portion of the king's meat. 16. Thus Melzar took away the portion of their meat, and the wine that they should drink; and gave them pulse. 17. As for these four children, God gave them knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom; and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams. 18. Now at the end of the days that the king had said he should bring them in, then the prince of the eunuchs brought them in before Nebuchadnezzar. 19. And the king communed with them; and among them all was found none like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; therefore stood they before the king. 20. And in all matters of wisdom and understanding, that the king enquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers that were in all his realm. 21. And Daniel continued even unto the first year of king Cyrus.'--DANIEL i. 8-21.
Daniel was but a boy at the date of the Captivity, and little more at the time of the attempt to make a Chaldean of him. The last verse says that he continued even unto the first year of king Cyrus,' the date given elsewhere as the close of the Captivity (2 Chron. xxxvi. 22; Ezra i. 1; vi. 3). From Daniel x. 1 we learn that he lived on till Cyrus's third year, if not later; but the date in i. 21 is probably given in order to suggest that Daniel's career covered the whole period of the Captivity, and burned like a star of hope for the exiles. The incident in our passage is a noble example of religious principle applied to small details of daily life, and shows how God crowns such conscientious self-restraint with success. The lessons which it contains are best gathered by following the narrative.
I. The heroic determination of the boyish confessor is first set forth. The plan of taking leading young men from the newly captured nation and turning them into Babylonians was a stroke of policy as heartless and high-handed as might be expected from a great conqueror. In some measure, the same thing has been done by all nations who have built up a world-wide dominion. The new names given to the youths, the attaching of them to the court, their education in Babylonish fashion, all were meant for the same purpose,--to denationalise them, and strip them of their religion, and thus to make them tools for more easily governing their countrymen.
Most men would yield to the influences, and be so lapped in the comforts of their new position as to become pliable as wax in the conqueror's hands; but here and there he would come across a bit of stiffer stuff, which would break rather than bend. Such an obstinate piece of humanity was found in the Hebrew youth, of some fifteen years, whose Hebrew name (God is my judge') expressed a truth that ruled him, when the name was exchanged for one that invoked Bel. It took some firmness for a captive lad, without friends or influence, to take Daniel's stand; for the motive of his desire to be excused from taking the fare provided can only have been religious. He was determined, in his brave young heart, not to defile' himself with the king's meat. The phrase points to the pollution incurred by eating things offered to idols, and does not imply scrupulousness like that of Pharisaic times, nor necessarily suggest a late date for the book. Probably there had been some kind of religious consecration of the food to Babylonian gods, and Daniel, in his solitary faithfulness, was carrying out the same principles which Paul afterwards laid down for Corinthian Christians as to partaking of things offered to idols. Similar difficulties are sure to emerge in analogous cases, and do so, on many mission fields.
The motive here, then, is distinctly religious. Common life was so woven in with idolatrous worship that every meal was in some sense a sacrifice. Therefore Touch not, taste not, handle not,' was the inevitable dictate for a devout heart. Daniel seems to have been the moving spirit; but as is generally the case, he was able to infuse his own strong convictions into his companions, and the four of them held together in their protest. The great lesson from the incident is that religion should regulate the smallest details of life, and that it is not narrow over-scrupulousness, but fidelity to the highest duty, when a man sets his foot down about any small matter, and says, No, I dare not do it, little as it is, and pleasant as it might be to sense, because I should thereby be mixed up in a practical denial of my God.' So did not I, because of the fear of God' (Neh. v. 15), is a motto which will require from many a young man abstinence from many things which it would be much easier to accept.
II. This young confessor was as prudent as he was brave; and the story goes on to show how wisely he played his part, and how willing he was to accept all working compromises which might smooth his way. He did not at all want to pose as a martyr, and had no pleasure in making a noise. The favour which he had won with the high officer who looked after the lads before their formal examination (graduation we might call it), is set down in the narrative to the divine favour; but that favour worked by means, and no doubt the lad had done his part to win the important good opinion of his superior. The more firm is our determination to take no step beyond the line of duty, the more conciliatory we should be. But many people seem to think that heroism is shown by rudeness, and that if we are afraid that we shall some time have to say No' very emphatically, we should prepare for it by a great many preliminary and unnecessary negatives. The very stern need for parting company, when conscience points one way and companions another, is a reason for keeping cordially together whenever we can.
The prince of the eunuchs' made a very reasonable objection. He had been appointed to see after the health of the lads, and had ample means at his disposal; and if they lost their health in this chase after what he could only think a superstitious fad, the despot whom he served would think nothing of making him answer with his head. His fear gives a striking side-light as to the conditions of service in such a court, where no man's head was firm between his shoulders. Why should the prince of the eunuchs have supposed that the diet asked for would not nourish the lads? It was that of the bulk of men everywhere, and he had only to go out into the streets or the nearest barrack in Babylon to see what thews and muscles could be nurtured on vegetable diet and water. But whatever the want of ground in his objection, it was enough that he made it. Note that he puts it entirely on possible harmful results to himself, and that silences Daniel, who had no right to ask another to run his head into the noose, into which he was ready to put his own, if necessary. Martyrs by proxy, who have such strong convictions that they think it somebody else's duty to run risk for them, are by no means unknown.
This boy was made of other metal. So, apparently he gives up the prince of the eunuchs, and turns to another of the friends whom he had made in his short captivity--the person in whose more immediate charge he and his three friends were. He is named Melzar in the Authorised Version; but the Revised Version more accurately takes that to be a name of office, and translates it as steward.' He did the catering for them, and was sufficiently friendly to listen to Daniel's reasonable proposal to try the vegetable diet for ten days'--probably meaning an indefinite period, sufficiently long to test results, which a literal ten days would perhaps scarcely be. So the good-natured steward let the lads have their way, much wondering in his soul, no doubt, why they should take as much trouble to avoid good living as most youths would have taken to get it.
III. The success of the experiment comes next. We do not need to suppose a miracle as either wrought or suggested by the narrative. The issue might have taught the steward a wholesome lesson in dietetics, which he and a great many of us much need. A man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth,' and his bodily life consisteth not in the abundance and variety of the things that he eateth. The teaching of this lesson is, not that vegetarianism or total abstinence is obligatory, for diet is here regarded only as part of idolatrous worship; but certainly a secondary conclusion, fairly drawn from the story, is that vigorous health is best kept up on very simple fare. Many dinner-tables, over which God's blessing is formally asked, are spread in such a fashion as it is hard to suppose deserves His blessing. The simpler the fare, the fewer the wants: the fewer the wants, the greater the riches; the freer the life, the more leisure for higher pursuits, and the more sound the bodily health.
But the rosy faces and vigorous health of Daniel and his friends may illustrate, by a picturesque example, a large truth--that God suffers no man to be a loser by faithfulness, and more than makes up all that is surrendered for His sake. The blessing of God on small means makes them fountains of truer joy than large ones unblessed. No man hath left anything for Christ's sake but he receives a hundred-fold in this life, if not in the actual blessings surrendered, at all events in the peace and joy of heart of which they were supposed to be bearers. God fills places emptied by Himself, and those emptied by us for His sake.
IV. The conscientious abstinence of Daniel had limits. The learning of the Chaldeans' was largely ritualistic, and magic, incantations, divination, and mythology constituted a most important part of it. Did not the conscience, which could not swallow idolatrous food, resent being forced to assimilate idolatrous learning? No; for all that learning could be acquired by a faithful monotheist, and could be used against the system which gave it birth. Like Moses, or like the young Pharisee Saul, these Jewish boys nurtured their faith by knowledge of their enemies' belief, and used their childhood's lessons as weapons in fighting for God's truth. It is not every man's duty to become familiar with error, or to master anti-Christian systems. But if it become ours, we are not to turn away from the task, nor to doubt that God will keep His own truth alight in our minds, if we realise the danger of the position, and seek to cling to Him.
V. So we have the last scene in the youths' appearance before Nebuchadnezzar. A three years' curriculum was considered necessary to turn a Jewish boy into a Chaldean expert, fit to be a traitor to his nation, an apostate from his God, and a tool of the tyrant. So far as knowledge of the priestly and astronomical science went, the four Hebrews came out at the top of the lists. The great king himself, with that personal interference in all departments which makes a despot's life so burdensome, put them through their paces, and was satisfied. His object had been to get instruments with which he could work on the Captivity, and, no doubt, also to secure servants who had no links with anybody in Babylon. Foreigners, kinless loons,' are favourites with despots, for plain reasons. But Nebuchadnezzar could not fathom the hearts of the lads. An incarnation of unbridled will would find it difficult to understand a life guided by conscience, and religious scruples would have sounded as an unknown tongue to him. But yet, as he and they stood face to face, who was stronger, the conqueror or the youths who feared God, and none besides? They were in their right place at the head of the examination lists. They had not said, We do not believe in all this rubbish, and we are not going to trouble ourselves to master it,' but they had set themselves determinedly to work, and been all the more persevering because of their objection to the diet. If a young man has to be singular by reason of his religion, let him be singularly diligent in his work, and seek to be first, not merely for his own glory, but for the sake of the religion which he professes.
Plain living and high thinking' ought to go together. England and America have many names carved high on their annals, and written deep on their citizens' hearts, who have nourished a sublime, studious youth in poverty, cultivating literature on a little oatmeal,' and who all their lives have scorned delights and lived laborious days.' It is the temper which is most likely to succeed, but which, whether it succeeds or not, brings the best blessings to those who cultivate it. Such a youth will generally be followed by an honoured manhood like Daniel's, but will, at all events, be its own reward, and have God's blessing.
Daniel continued unto the first year of king Cyrus.' These simple words contain volumes. During all the troubles of the nation, from the king's insanity, and the murders of his successors, amidst whirling intrigues, envies, plots, and persecutions, this one man stood firm, like a pillar amid blowing sands. So God keeps the steadfast soul which is fixed on Him; and while the world passeth away, and the fashion thereof, he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
This is the dream; and we will tell the interpretation thereof before the king. 37. Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory. 38. And wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heaven hath He given into thine hand, and hath made thee ruler over them all. Thou art this head of gold. 39. And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth. 40. And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise. 41. And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potters' clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; but there shall be in it of the strength of the iron, forasmuch as thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay. 42. And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken. 43. And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay. 44. And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever. 45. Forasmuch as thou sawest that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it brake in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold; the great God hath made known to the king what shall come to pass hereafter: and the dream is certain, and the interpretation thereof sure. 46. Then the king Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face, and worshipped Daniel, and commanded that they should offer an oblation and sweet odours unto him. 47. The king answered unto Daniel, and said, Of a truth it is, that your God is a God of gods, and a Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets, seeing thou couldest reveal this secret. 48. Then the king made Daniel a great man, and gave him many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon. 49. Then Daniel requested of the king, and he set Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, over the affairs of the province of Babylon: but Daniel sat in the gate of the king.'--DANIEL ii. 36-49.
The colossal image, seen by Nebuchadnezzar in his dream, was a reproduction of those which met his waking eyes, and still remain for our wonder in our museums. The mingled materials are paralleled in ancient art. The substance of the dream is no less natural than its form. The one is suggested by familiar sights; the other, by pressing anxieties. What more likely than that, in the second year of his reign' (v. 1), waking thoughts of the future of his monarchy should trouble the warrior-king, scarcely yet firm on his throne, and should repeat themselves in nightly visions? God spoke through the dream, and He is not wont to answer questions before they are asked, nor to give revelations to men on points which they have not sought to solve. We may be sure that Nebuchadnezzar's dream met his need.
The unreasonable demand that the Chaldeans' should show the dream as well as interpret it, fits the character of the king, as an imperious despot, intolerant of obstacles to his will, and holding human life very cheap. Daniel's knowledge of the dream and of its meaning is given to him in a vision by night, which is the method of divine illumination throughout the book, and may be regarded as a lower stage thereof than the communications to prophets of the word of the Lord.'
The passage falls into two parts: the image and the stone.
I. The Image.
It was a human form of strangely mingled materials, of giant size no doubt, and of majestic aspect. Barbarous enough it would have looked beside the marble lovelinesses of Greece, but it was quite like the coarser art which sought for impressiveness through size and costliness. Other people than Babylonian sculptors think that bigness is greatness, and dearness preciousness.
This image embodied what is now called a philosophy of history. It set forth the fruitful idea of a succession and unity in the rise and fall of conquerors and kingdoms. The four empires represented by it are diverse, and yet parts of a whole, and each following on the other. So the truth is taught that history is an organic whole, however unrelated its events may appear to a superficial eye. The writer of this book had learned lessons far in advance of his age, and not yet fully grasped by many so-called historians.
But, further, the human figure of the image sets forth all these kingdoms as being purely the work of men. Not that the overruling divine providence is ignored, but that the play of human passions, the lust of conquest and the like, and the use of human means, such as armies, are emphasised.
Again, the kingdoms are seen in their brilliancy, as they would naturally appear to the thoughts of a conqueror, whose highest notion of glory was earthly dominion, and who was indifferent to the suffering and blood through which he waded to a throne. When the same kingdoms are shown to Daniel in chapter vii. they are represented by beasts. Their cruelty and the destruction of life which they caused were uppermost in a prophet's view; their vulgar splendour dazzled a king's sleeping eyes, because it had intoxicated his waking thoughts. Much worldly glory and many of its aims appear as precious metal to dreamers, but are seen by an illuminated sight to be bestial and destructive.
Once more there is a steady process of deterioration in the four kingdoms. Gold is followed by silver, and that by brass, and that by the strange combination of iron and clay. This may simply refer to the diminution of worldly glory, but it may also mean deterioration, morally and otherwise. Is it not the teaching of Scripture that, unless God interpose, society will steadily slide downwards? And has not the fact been so, wherever the brake and lever of revelation have not arrested the decline and effected elevation? We are told nowadays of evolution, as if the progress of humanity were upwards; but if you withdraw the influence of supernatural revelation, the evidence of power in manhood to work itself clear of limitations and lower forms is very ambiguous at the best--in reference to morals, at all events. Evil is capable of development, as well as good; and perhaps Nebuchadnezzar's colossus is a truer representation of the course of humanity than the dreams of modern thinkers who see manhood becoming steadily better by its own effort, and think that the clay and iron have inherent power to pass into fine gold.
The question of the identification of these successive monarchies does not fall to be discussed here. But I may observe that the definite statement of verse 44 (in the days of these kings') seems to date the rise of the everlasting kingdom of God in the period of the last of the four, and therefore that the old interpretation of the fourth kingdom as the Roman seems the most natural. The force of that remark may, no doubt, be weakened by the consideration that the Old Testament prophets' perspective of the future brought the coming of Messiah into immediate juxtaposition with the limits of their own vision; but still it has force.
The allocation of each part of the symbol is of less importance for us than the lessons to be drawn from it as a whole. But the singular amalgam of iron and clay in the fourth kingdom is worth notice. No sculptor or metallurgist could make a strong unity out of such materials, of which the combination could only be apparent and superficial. The fact to which it points is the artificial unity into which the great conquering empires of old crushed their unfortunate subject peoples, who were hammered, not fused, together. They shall mingle themselves with the seed of men' (ver. 43), may either refer to the attempts to bring about unity by marriages among different races, or to other vain efforts to the same end. To obliterate nationalities has always been the conquering despot's effort, from Nebuchadnezzar to the Czar of Russia, and it always fails. This is the weakness of these huge empires of antiquity, which have no internal cohesion, and tumble to pieces as soon as some external bond is loosened. There is only one kingdom which has no disintegrating forces lodged in it, because it unites men individually to its king, and so binds them to one another; and that is the kingdom which Nebuchadnezzar saw in its destructive aspect.
II. So we have now to think of the stone cut out without hands.
Three things are specified with regard to it: its origin, its duration, and its destructive energy. The origin is heavenly, in sharp contrast to the human origin of the kingdoms symbolised in the colossal man. That idea is twice expressed: once in plain words, the God of heaven shall set up a kingdom'; and once figuratively as being cut out of the mountain without hands. By the mountain we are probably to understand Zion, from which, according to many a prophecy, the Messiah King was to rule the earth (Ps. ii.; Isa. ii. 3).
The fulfilment of this prediction is found, not only in the supernatural birth of Jesus Christ, but in the spread of the gospel without any of the weapons and aids of human power. Twelve poor men spoke, and the world was shaken and the kingdoms remoulded. The seer had learned the omnipotence of ideas and the weakness of outward force. A thought from God is stronger than all armies, and outconquers conquerors. By the mystery of Christ's Incarnation, by the power of weakness in the preachers of the Cross, by the energies of the transforming Spirit, the God of heaven has set up the kingdom. It shall never be destroyed.' Its divine origin guarantees its perpetual duration. The kingdoms of man's founding, whether they be in the realm of thought or of outward dominion, have their day, and cease to be,' but the kingdom of Christ lasts as long as the eternal life of its King. He cannot die any more, and He cannot live discrowned. Other forms of human association perish, as new conditions come into play which antiquate them; but the kingdom of Jesus is as flexible as it is firm, and has power to adapt to itself all conditions in which men can live. It will outlast earth, it will fill eternity; for when He shall have delivered up the kingdom to His Father,' the kingdom, which the God of heaven set up, will still continue.
It shall not be left to other people.' By that, seems to be meant that this kingdom will not be like those of human origin, in which dominion passes from one race to another, but that Israel shall ever be the happy subjects and the dominant race. We must interpret the words of the spiritual Israel, and remember how to be Christ's subject is to belong to a nation who are kings and priests.
The destructive power is graphically represented. The stone, detached from the mountain, and apparently self-moved, dashes against the heterogeneous mass of iron and clay on which the colossus insecurely stands, and down it comes with a crash, breaking into a thousand fragments as it falls. Like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors' (Daniel ii. 35) is the debris, which is whirled out of sight by the wind. Christ and His kingdom have reshaped the world. These ancient, hideous kingdoms of blood and misery are impossible now. Christ and His gospel shattered the Roman empire, and cast Europe into another mould. They have destructive work to do yet, and as surely as the sun rises daily, will do it. The things that can be shaken will be shaken till they fall, and human society will never obtain its stable form till it is moulded throughout after the pattern of the kingdom of Christ.
The vision of our passage has no reference to the quickening power of the kingdom; but the best way in which it destroys is by transformation. It slays the old and lower forms of society by substituting the purer which flow from possession of the one Spirit. That highest glory of the work of Christ is but partially represented here, but there is a hint in Daniel ii. 35, which tells that the stone has a strange vitality, and can grow, and does grow, till it becomes an earth-filling mountain.
That issue is not reached yet; but the dream is certain.' The kingdom is concentrated in its King, and the life of Jesus, diffused through His servants, works to the increase of the empire, and will not cease till the kingdoms of the world are the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ. That stone has vital power, and if we build on it we receive, by wonderful impartation, a kindred derived life, and become living stones.' It is laid for a sure foundation. If a man stumble over it while it lies there to be built upon, he will lame and maim himself. But it will one day have motion given to it, and, falling from the height of heaven, when He comes to judge the world which He rules and has redeemed, it will grind to powder all who reject the rule of the everlasting King of men.
Then Nebuchadnezzar in his rage and fury commanded to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. Then they brought these men before the king. 14. Nebuchadnezzar spake and said unto them, Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, do not ye serve my gods, nor worship the golden image which I have set up? 15. Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made; well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands? 16. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. 17. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. 18. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up. 19. Then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury, and the form of his visage was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego: therefore he spake, and commanded that they should heat the furnace one seven times more than it was wont to be heated. 20. And he commanded the most mighty men that were in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. 21. Then these men were bound in their coats, their hosen, and their hats, and their other garments, and were cast into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. 22. Therefore because the king's commandment was urgent, and the furnace exceeding hot, the flame of the fire slew those men that took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. 23. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. 24. Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonied, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counsellors, Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered and said unto the king, True, O king. 25. He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.'--DANIEL iii. 13-25.
The way in which the Chaldeans' describe the three recusants, betrays their motive in accusing them. Certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon' could not but be envied and hated, since their promotion wounded both national pride and professional jealousy. The form of the accusation was skilfully calculated to rouse a despot's rage. They have not regarded thee' is the head and front of their offending. The inflammable temper of the king blazed up according to expectation, as is the way with tyrants. His passion of rage is twice mentioned (vs. 13, 19), and in one of the instances, is noted as distorting his features. What a picture of ungoverned fury as of one who had never been thwarted! It is the true portrait of an Eastern despot.
Where was Daniel in this hour of danger? His absence is not accounted for, and conjecture is useless; but the fact that he has no share in the incident seems to raise a presumption in favour of the disputed historical character of the Book, which, if it had been fiction, could scarcely have left its hero out of so brilliant an instance of faithfulness to Jehovah.
Nebuchadnezzar's vehement address to the three culprits is very characteristic and instructive. Fixed determination to enforce his mandate, anger which breaks into threats that were by no means idle, and a certain wish to build a bridge for the escape of servants who had done their work well, are curiously mingled in it. His question, best rendered as in the Revised Version, Is it of purpose that ye' do so and so? seems meant to suggest that they may repair their fault by pleading inadvertence, accident, or the like, and that He will accept the transparent excuse. The renewed offer of an opportunity of worship does not say what will happen should they obey; and the omission makes the clause more emphatic, as insisting on the act, and slurring over the self-evident result.
On the other hand, in the next clause the act is slightly touched (if ye worship not'); and all the stress comes on the grim description of the consequence. This monarch, who has been accustomed to bend men's wills like reeds, tries to shake these three obstinate rebels by terror, and opens the door of the furnace, as it were, to let them hear it roar. He finishes with a flash of insolence which, if not blasphemy, at least betrays his belief that he was stronger than any god of his conquered subject peoples.
But the main point to notice in this speech is the unconscious revelation of his real motive in demanding the act of worship. The crime of the three was not that they worshipped wrongly, but that they disobeyed Nebuchadnezzar. He speaks of my gods', and of the image which I have set up.' Probably it was an image of the god of the Babylonian pantheon whom he took for his special patron, and was erected in commemoration of some victorious campaign.
At all events, the worship required was an act of obedience to him, and to refuse it was rebellion. Idolatry is tolerant of any private opinions about gods, and intolerant of any refusal to obey authority in worship. So the early Christians were thrown to the lions, not because they worshipped Jesus, but because they would not sacrifice at the Emperor's command. It is not only heathen rulers who have confounded the spheres of civil and religious obedience. Nonconformity in England was long identified with disloyalty; and in many so-called Christian countries to-day a man may think what he likes, and worship as he pleases in his chamber, if only he will decently comply with authority and pretend to unite in religious ceremonies, which those who appoint and practise them observe with tongue in cheek.
But we may draw another lesson from this truculent apostle of his god. He is not the only instance of apparent religious zeal which is at bottom nothing but masterfulness. You shall worship my god, not because he is God, but because he is mine.' That is the real meaning of a great deal which calls itself zeal for the Lord.' The zealot's own will, opinions, fancies, are crammed down other people's throats, and the insult in not thinking or worshipping as he does, is worse in his eyes than the offence against God.
The kind of furnace in which recusants are roasted has changed since Nebuchadnezzar's time, and what is called persecution for religion is out of fashion now. But every advance in the application of Christian principle to social and civil life brings a real martyrdom on its advocates. Every audacious refusal to bow to the habits or opinions of the majority, is visited by consequences which only the martyr spirit will endure. Despots have no monopoly of imperious intolerance. A democracy is more cruel and more impatient of singularity, and especially of religious singularity, than any despot.
England and America have no need to fear the old forms of religious persecution. In both, a man may profess and proclaim any kind of religion or of no religion. But in both, the advance guard of the Christian Church, which seeks to apply Christ's teachings more rigidly to individual and social life, has to face obloquy, ostracism, misrepresentation, from the world and the fossil church, for not serving their gods, nor worshipping the golden image which they have set up. Martyrs will be needed and persecutors will exist till the world is Christian.
How did the three confessors meet this rumble of thunder about their ears? The quiet determination of their reply is very striking and beautiful. It is perfectly loyal, and perfectly unshaken. We have no need to answer thee' (Revised Version). It is ill sitting at Rome and striving with the Pope.' Nebuchadnezzar's palace was not precisely the place to dispute with Nebuchadnezzar; and as his logic was only Do as I bid you, or burn,' the sole reply possible was, We will not do as you bid, and we will burn.' The If' which is immediately spoken is already in the minds of the speakers, when they say that they do not need to answer. They think that God will take up the taunt which ended the king's tirade. Beautifully they are silent, and refer the blusterer to God, whose voice they believe that He will hear in His deed. But Thou shalt answer, Lord, for me,' is the true temper of humble faith, dumb before power as a sheep before her shearers, and yet confident that the meek will not be left unvindicated. Let us leave ourselves in God's hands; and when conscience accuses, or the world maligns or threatens, let us be still, and feel that we have One to speak for us, and so we may hold our peace.
The rendering of verse 17 is doubtful, but the general meaning is clear. The brave speakers have hope that God will rebuke the king's taunt, and will prove Himself to be able to deliver out of his hand. So they repeat his very words with singular boldness, and contradict him to his face. They have no absolute certainty of deliverance, but whether it comes or not will make no manner of difference to them. They have absolute certainty as to duty; and so they look the furious tyrant right in the eyes, and quietly say, We will not serve thy gods.' Nothing like that had ever been heard in those halls.
Duty is sovereign. The obligation to resist all temptations to go against conscience is unaffected by consequences. There may be hope that God will not suffer us to be harmed, but whether He does or not should make no difference to our fixed resolve. That temper of lowly faith and inflexible faithfulness which these Hebrews showed in the supreme moment, when they took their lives in their hands, may be as nobly illustrated in the small difficulties of our peaceful lives. The same laws shape the curves of the tiny ripples in a basin and of the Atlantic rollers. No man who cannot say I will not' in the face of frowns and dangers, be they what they may, and stick to it, will do his part, He who has conquered regard for personal consequences, and does not let them deflect his course a hairsbreadth, is lord of the world.
How small Nebuchadnezzar was by the side of his three victims! How empty his threats to men who cared nothing whether they burned or not, so long as they did not apostatise! What can the world do against a man who says, It is all one to me whether I live or die; I will not worship at your shrines?' The fire of the furnace is but painted flames to such an one.
The savage punishment intended for the audacious rebels is abundantly confirmed as common in Babylon by the inscriptions, which may be seen quoted by many commentators. The narrative is exceedingly graphic. We see the furious king, with features inflamed with passion. We hear his hoarse, angry orders to heat the furnace seven times hotter, which he forgot would be a mercy, as shortening the victims' agonies. We see the swift execution of the commands, and the unresisting martyrs bound as they stood, and dragged away by the soldiers to the near furnace, the king following. Its shape is a matter of doubt. Probably the three were thrown in from above, and so the soldiers were caught by the flames.
And these three men fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace' Their helplessness and desperate condition are pathetically suggested by that picture, which might well be supposed to be the last of them that mortal eyes would see. Down into the glowing mass, like chips of wood into Vesuvius, they sank. The king sitting watching, to glut his fury by the sight of their end, had some way of looking into the core of the flames.
The story shifts its point of view with very picturesque abruptness after verse 23. The vaunting king shall tell what he saw, and thereby convict himself of insolent folly in challenging any god' to deliver out of his hand. He alone seems to have seen the sight, which he tells to his courtiers. The bonds were gone, and the men walking free in the fire, as if it had been their element. Three went in bound, four walk there at large; and the fourth is like a son of the gods,' by which expression Nebuchadnezzar can have meant nothing more than he had learned from his religion; namely, that the gods had offspring of superhuman dignity. He calls the same person an angel in Daniel iii. 28. He speaks there as the three would have spoken, and here as Babylonian mythology spoke.
But the great lesson to be gathered from this miracle of deliverance is simply that men who sacrifice themselves for God find in the sacrifice abundant blessing. They may, or may not, be delivered from the external danger. Peter was brought out of prison the night before his intended martyrdom; James, the brother of John, was slain with the sword, but God was equally near to both, and both were equally delivered from Herod and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews.' The disposal of the outward event is in His hands, and is a comparatively small matter. But no furnace into which a man goes because he will be true to God, and will not yield up his conscience, is a tenth part so hot as it seems, and it will do no real harm. The fire burns bonds, but not Christ's servants, consuming many things that entangled, and setting them free. I will walk at liberty: for I seek Thy precepts'--even if we have to walk in the furnace. No trials faced in obedience to God will be borne alone. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned.'
The form which Nebuchadnezzar saw amid the flame, as invested with more than human majesty, may have been but one of the ministering spirits sent forth to minister to the martyrs--the embodiment of the divine power which kept the flames from kindling upon them. But we have Jesus for our Companion in all trials, and His presence makes it possible for us to pass over hot ploughshares with unblistered feet; to bathe our hands in fire and not feel the pain; to accept the sorest consequences of fidelity to Him, and count them as not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed,' and is made more glorious through these light afflictions. A present Christ will never fail His servants, and will make the furnace cool even when its fire is fiercest.
Then Daniel answered and said before the king, Let thy gifts be to thyself, and give thy rewards to another: yet I will read the writing unto the king, and make known to him the interpretation. 18. O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour: 19. And for the majesty that he gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him: whom he would he slew; and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he set up; and whom he would he put down. 20. But when his heart was lifted up, and his mind hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him: 21. And he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses: they fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven; till he knew that the most high God ruled in the kingdom of men, and that he appointeth over it whomsoever he will. 22. And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this: 23. But hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of Heaven: and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou, and thy lords, thy wives, and thy concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know: and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified: 24. Then was the part of the hand sent from him; and this writing was written. 25. And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.' 26. This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. 27. TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. 28. PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians. 29. Then commanded Belshazzar, and they clothed Daniel with scarlet, and put a chain of gold about his neck, and made a proclamation concerning him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom. 30. In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain. 31. And Darius the Median took the kingdom, being about threescore and two years old.'--DANIEL v. 17-31.
Belshazzar is now conceded to have been a historical personage, the son of the last monarch of Babylon, and the other name in the narrative which has been treated as erroneous--namely, Darius--has not been found to be mentioned elsewhere, but is not thereby proved to be a blunder. For why should it not be possible for Scripture to preserve a name that secular history has not yet been ascertained to record, and why must it always be assumed that, if Scripture and cuneiform or other documents differ, it is Scripture that must go to the wall?
We do not deal with the grim picture of the drunken orgy, turned into abject terror as the fingers of a man's hand' came forth out of empty air, and in the full blaze of the candlestick' wrote the illegible signs. There is something blood-curdling in the visibility of but a part of the hand and its busy writing. Whose was the body, and where was it? No wonder if the riotous mirth was frozen into awe, and the wine lost flavour. Nor need we do more than note the craven-hearted flattery addressed to Daniel by the king, who apparently had never heard of him till the queen spoke of him just before. We have to deal with the indictment, the sentence, and the execution.
I. The indictment. Daniel's tone is noticeably stern. He has no reverential preface, no softening of his message. His words are as if cut with steel on the rock. He brushes aside the promises of vulgar decorations and honours with undisguised contempt, and goes straight to his work of rousing a torpid conscience.
Babylon was the embodiment and type of the godless world-power, and Belshazzar was the incarnation of the spirit which made Babylon. So Daniel's indictment gathers together the main forms of sin, which cleave to every godless national or individual life. And he begins with that feather-brained frivolity which will learn nothing by example. Nebuchadnezzar's fate might have taught his successors what came of God-forgetting arrogance, and attributing success to oneself; and his restoration might have been an object-lesson to teach that devout recognition of the Most High as sovereign was the beginning of a king's prosperity and sanity. But Belshazzar knew all this, and ignored it all. Was he singular in that? Is not the world full of instances of the ruin that attends godlessness, which yet do not check one godless man in his career? The wrecks lie thick on the shore, but their broken sides and gaunt skeletons are not warnings sufficient to keep a thousand other ships from steering right on to the shoals. Of these godless lives it is true, This their way is their folly; yet their posterity approve their sayings,' and their doings, and say and do them over again. Incapacity to learn by example is a mark of godless lives.
Further, Belshazzar lifted up' himself against the Lord of heaven,' and glorified not Him in whose hand was his breath and whose were all his ways.' The very essence of all sin is that assertion of self as Lord, as sufficient, as the director of one's path. To make myself my centre, to depend on myself, to enthrone my own will as sovereign, is to fly in the face of nature and fact, and is the mother of all sin. To live to self is to die while we live; to live to God is to live even while we die. Nations and individuals are ever tempted thus to ignore God, and rebelliously to say, Who is Lord over us?' or presumptuously to think themselves architects of their own fortunes, and sufficient for their own defence. Whoever yields to that temptation has let the prince of the devils' in, and the inferior evil spirits will follow. Positive acts are not needed; the negative omission to glorify' the God of our life binds sin on us.
Further, Belshazzar, the type of godlessness, had desecrated the sacrificial vessels by using them for his drunken carouse, and therein had done just what we do when we take the powers of heart and mind and will, which are meant to be filled with affections, thoughts, and purposes, that are an odour of a sweet smell, well-pleasing to God,' and desecrate them by pouring from them libations before creatures. Is not love profaned when it is lavished on men or women without one reference to God? Is not the intellect desecrated when its force is spent on finite objects of thought, and never a glance towards God? Is not the will prostituted from its high vocation when it is used to drive the wheels of a God-ignoring life?
The coin bears the image and superscription of the true king. It is treason to God to render it to any paltry Cae^3!r' of our own coronation. Belshazzar was an avowed idolater, but many of us are worshipping gods which see not, nor hear, nor know' as really as he did. We cannot but do so, if we are not worshipping God; for men must have some person or thing which they regard as their supreme good, to which the current of their being sets, which, possessed, makes them blessed; and that is our god, whether we call it so or not.
Further, Belshazzar was carousing while the Medes and Persians were ringing Babylon round, and his hand should have been grasping a sword, not a wine-cup. Drunkenness and lust, which sap manhood, are notoriously stimulated by peril, as many a shipwreck tells when desperate men break open the spirit casks, and go down to their death intoxicated, and as many an epidemic shows when morality is flung aside, and mad vice rules and reels in the streets before it sinks down to die. A nation or a man that has shaken off God will not long keep sobriety or purity.
II. After the stern catalogue of sins comes the tremendous sentence. Daniel speaks like an embodied conscience, or like an avenging angel, with no word of pity, and no effort to soften or dilute the awful truth. The day for wrapping up grim facts in muffled words was past. Now the only thing to be done was to bare the sword, and let its sharp edge cut. The inscription, as given in verse 25, is simply Numbered, numbered, weighed and breakings.' The variation in verse 28 (Peres) is the singular of the noun used in the plural in verse 25, with the omission of U,' which is merely the copulative and.' The disjointed brevity adds to the force of the words. Apparently, they were not written in a character which the king's wise men' could read, and probably were in Aramaic letters as well as language, which would be familiar to Daniel. Of course, a play on the word Peres' suggests the Persian as the agent of the breaking. Daniel simply supplied the personal application of the oracular writing. He fits the cap on the king's head. God hath numbered thy kingdom thou art weighed thy kingdom is divided' (broken).
These three fatal words carry in them the summing up of all divine judgment, and will be rung in the ears of all who bring it on themselves. Belshazzar is a type of the end of every godless world-power and of every such individual life. Numbered'--for God allows to each his definite time, and when its sum is complete, down falls the knife that cuts the threads. Weighed'--for after death the judgment,' and a godless life, when laid in the balance which His hand holds, is altogether lighter than vanity.' Breakings'--for not only will the godless life be torn away from its possessions with much laceration of heart and spirit, but the man himself will be broken like some earthen vessel coming into sharp collision with an express engine. Belshazzar saw the handwriting on the same night in which it was carried out in act; we see it long before, and we can read it. But some of us are mad enough to sit unconcerned at the table, and go on with the orgy, though the legible letters are gleaming plain on the wall.
III. The execution of the sentence need not occupy us long. Belshazzar so little realised the facts, that he issued his order to deck out Daniel in the tawdry pomp he had promised him, as if a man with such a message would be delighted with purple robes and gold chains, and made him third ruler of the kingdom which he had just declared was numbered and ended by God. The force of folly could no further go. No wonder that the hardy invaders swept such an Imbecile from his throne without a struggle! His blood was red among the lees of the wine-cups, and the ominous writing could scarcely have faded from the wall when the shouts of the assailants were heard, the palace gates forced, and the half-drunken king, alarmed too late, put to the sword. He that, being often reproved, hardeneth his neck shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy.'
Then said these men, We shall not find any occasion against this Daniel, except we find it against him concerning the law of his God.'--DANIEL vi. 5.
Daniel was somewhere about ninety years old when he was cast to the lions. He had been for many years the real governor of the whole empire; and, of course, in such a position had incurred much hatred and jealousy. He was a foreigner and a worshipper of another God, and therefore was all the more unpopular, as a Brahmin would be in England if he were a Cabinet Minister. He was capable and honest, and therefore all the incompetent and all the knavish officials would recognise in him their natural enemy. So, hostile intrigues, which grow quickly in courts, especially in Eastern courts, sprung up round him, and his subordinates laid their heads together in order to ruin him. They say, in the words of my text, We cannot find any holes to pick. There is only one way to put him into antagonism to the law, and that is by making a law which shall be in antagonism to God's law.' And so they scheme to have the mad regulation enacted, which, in the sequel of the story, we find was enforced.
These intriguers say, We shall not find any occasion against this Daniel, except we find it against him concerning the law of his God.'
Now, then, if we look at that confession, wrung from the lips of malicious observers, we may, I think, get two or three lessons.
I. First, note the very unfavourable soil in which a character of singular beauty and devout consecration may be rooted and grow.
What sort of a place was that court where Daniel was? Half shambles and half pigsty. Luxury, sensuality, lust, self-seeking, idolatry, ruthless cruelty, and the like were the environment of this man. And in the middle of these there grew up that fair flower of a character, pure and stainless, by the acknowledgment of enemies, and in which not even accusers could find a speck or a spot. There are no circumstances in which a man must have his garments spotted by the world. However deep the filth through which he has to wade, if God sent him there, and if he keeps hold of God's hand, his purity will be more stainless by reason of the impurity round him. There were saints in Cae^3!r's household, and depend upon it, they were more saintly saints just because they were in Cae^3!r's household. You will always find that people who have any goodness in them, and who live in conditions unusually opposed to goodness, have a clearer faith, and a firmer grasp of their Master, and a higher ideal of Christian life, just because of the foulness in which they have to live. It may sound a paradox, but it is a deep truth that unfavourable circumstances are the most favourable for the development of Christian character. For that development comes, not by what we draw from the things around, but by what we draw from the soil in which we are rooted, even God Himself, in whom the roots find both anchorage and nutriment. And the more we are thrown back upon Him, and the less we find food for our best selves in the things about us, the more likely is our religion to be robust and thorough-going, and conscious ever of His presence. Resistance strengthens muscles, and the more there is need for that in our Christian lives, the manlier and the stronger and the better shall we probably be. Let no man or woman say, If only circumstances were more favourable, oh, what a saint I could be; but how can I be one, with all these unfavourable conditions? How can a man keep the purity of his Christian life and the fervour of his Christian communion amidst the tricks and chicanery and small things of Manchester business? How can a woman find time to hold fellowship with God, when all day long she is distracted in her nursery with all these children hanging on her to look after? How can we, in our actual circumstances, reach the ideal of Christian character?'
Ah, brother, if the ideal's being realised depends on circumstances, it is a poor affair. It depends on you, and he that has vitality enough within him to keep hold of Jesus Christ, has thereby power enough within him to turn enemies into friends, and unfavourable circumstances into helps instead of hindrances. Your ship can sail wonderfully near to the wind if you trim the sails rightly, and keep a good, strong grip on the helm, and the blasts that blow all but in your face, may be made to carry you triumphantly into the haven of your desire. Remember Daniel, in that godless court reeking with lust and cruelty, and learn that purity and holiness and communion with God do not depend on environment, but upon the inmost will of the man.
II. Notice the keen critics that all good men have to face.
In this man's case, of course, their eyesight was mended by the microscope of envy and malice. That is no doubt the case with some of us too. But whether that be so or no, however unobtrusive and quiet a Christian person's life may be, there will be some people standing close by who, if not actually watching for his fall, are at least by no means indisposed to make the worst of a slip, and to rejoice over an inconsistency.
We do not need to complain of that. It is perfectly reasonable and perfectly right. There will always be a tendency to judge men, who by any means profess that they are living by the highest law, with a judgment that has very little charity in it. And it is perfectly right that it should be so. Christian people need to be trained to be indifferent to men's opinions, but they also need to be reminded that they are bound, as the Apostle says, to provide things honest in the sight of all men.' It is a reasonable and right requirement that they should have a good report of them that are without.' Be content to be tried by a high standard, and do not wonder, and do not forget that there are keen eyes watching your conduct, in your home, in your relations to your friends, in your business, in your public life, which would weep no tears, but might gleam with malicious satisfaction, if they saw inconsistencies in you. Remember it, and shape your lives so that they may be disappointed.
If a minister falls into any kind of inconsistency or sin, if a professing Christian makes a bad failure in Manchester, what a talk there is, and what a pointing of fingers! We sometimes think it is hard; it is all right. It is just what should be meted out to us. Let us remember that unslumbering tribunal which sits in judgment upon all our professions, and is very ready to condemn, and very slow to acquit.
III. Notice, again, the unblemished record.
These men could find no fault, forasmuch as Daniel was faithful.' Neither was there any error'--of judgment, that is,--or fault'--dereliction of duty, that is,--found in him.' They were very poor judges of his religion, and they did not try to judge that; but they were very good judges of his conduct as prime minister, and they did judge that. The world is a very poor critic of my Christianity, but it is a very sufficient one of my conduct. It may not know much about the inward emotions of the Christian life, and the experiences in which the Christian heart expatiates and loves to dwell, but it knows what short lengths, and light weights, and bad tempers, and dishonesty, and selfishness are. And it is by our conduct, in the things that they and we do together, that worldly men judge what we are in the solitary depths where we dwell in communion with God. It is useless for Christians to be talking, as so many of them are fond of doing, about their spiritual experiences and their religious joy, and all the other sweet and sacred things which belong to the silent life of the spirit in God, unless, side by side with these, there is the doing of the common deeds which the world is actually able to appraise in such a fashion as to extort, even from them, the confession, We find no occasion against this man.'
You remember the pregnant, quaint old saying, If a Christian man is a shoeblack, he ought to be the best shoeblack in the parish.' If we call ourselves Christians, we are bound, by the very name, to live in such a fashion as that men shall have no doubt of the reality of our profession and of the depth of our fellowship with Christ. It is by our common conduct that they judge us. And the Christian Endeavourer' needs to remember, whether he or she be old or young, that the best sign of the reality of the endeavour is the doing of common things with absolute rightness, because they are done wholly for Christ's sake.
It is a sharp test, and I wonder how many of us would like to go out into the world, and say to all the irreligious people who know us, Now come and tell me what the faults are that you have seen in me.' There would be a considerable response to the invitation, and perhaps some of us would learn to know ourselves rather better than we have been able to do. We shall not find any occasion in this Daniel'--I wonder if they would find it in that Daniel--except we find it concerning the law of his God.' There is a record for a man!
IV. Lastly, note obedient disobedience.
The plot goes on the calculation that, whatever happens, this man may be trusted to do what his God tells him, no matter who tells him not to do it. And so on that calculation the law, surely as mad a one as any Eastern despot ever hatched, is passed that, for a given space of time, nobody within the dominions of this king, Darius, is to make any petition or request of any man or god, save of the king only. It was one of the long series of laws that have been passed in order to be broken, and being broken, might be an instrument to destroy the men that broke it. It was passed with no intention of getting obedience, but only with the intention of slaying one faithful man, and the plot worked according to calculation.
What did it matter to Daniel what was forbidden or commanded? He needed to pray to God, and nothing shall hinder him from doing that. And so, obediently disobedient, he brushes the preposterous law of the poor, shadowy Darius on one side, in order that he may keep the law of his God.
Now I do not need to remind you how obedience to God has in the past often had to be maintained by disobedience to law. I need not speak of martyrs, nor of the great principle laid down so clearly by the apostle Peter, We ought to obey God rather than man.' Nor need I remind you that if a man, for conscience sake, refuses to render active obedience to an unrighteous law, and unresistingly accepts the appointed penalty, he is not properly regarded as a law-breaker.
If earthly authorities command what is clearly contrary to God's law, a Christian is absolved from obedience, and cannot be loyal unless he is a rebel. That is how our forefathers read constitutional obligations. That is how the noble men on the other side of the Atlantic, fifty years ago, read their constitutional obligations in reference to that devilish institution of slavery. And in the last resort--God forbid that we should need to act on the principle--Christian men are set free from allegiance when the authority over them commands what is contrary to the will and the law of God.
But all that does not touch us. But I will tell you what does touch us. Obedience to God needs always to be sustained--in some cases more markedly, in some cases less so--but always in some measure, by disobedience to the maxims and habits of most men round about us. If they say Do this,' and Jesus Christ says Don't,' then they may talk as much as they like, but we are bound to turn a deaf ear to their exhortations and threats.
He is a slave that dare not be In the right with two or three,'
as that peaceful Quaker poet of America sings.
And for us, in our little lives, the motto, This did not I, because of the fear of the Lord,' is absolutely essential to all noble Christian conduct. Unless you are prepared to be in the minority, and now and then to be called narrow,' fanatic,' and to be laughed at by men because you will not do what they do, but abstain and resist, then there is little chance of your ever making much of your Christian profession.
These people calculated upon Daniel, and they had a right to calculate upon him. Could the world calculate upon us, that we would rather go to the lions' den than conform to what God and our consciences told us to be a sin? If not, we have not yet learned what it means to be a disciple. The commandment comes to us absolutely, as it came to the servants in the first miracle, Whatsoever He saith unto you'--that, and that only--whatsoever He saith unto you, do it.'
Then the king commanded, and they brought Daniel, and cast him into the den of lions. Now the king spake and said unto Daniel, Thy God whom thou servest continually, He will deliver thee. 17. And a stone was brought, and laid upon the mouth of the den; and the king sealed it with his own signet, and with the signet of his lords; that the purpose might not be changed concerning Daniel. 18. Then the king went to his palace, and passed the night fasting: neither were instruments of musick brought before him: and his sleep went from him. 19. Then the king arose very early in the morning, and went in haste unto the den of lions. 20. And when he came to the den, he cried with a lamentable voice unto Daniel: and the king spake and said to Daniel, O Daniel, servant of the living God, is thy God, whom thou servest continually, able to deliver thee from the lions? 21. Then said Daniel unto the king, O king, live for ever. 22. My God hath sent His angel, and hath shut the lions' mouths, that they have not hurt me: forasmuch as before Him innocency was found in me; and also before thee, O king, have I done no hurt, 23. Then was the king exceeding glad for him, and commanded that they should take Daniel up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no manner of hurt was found upon him, because he believed in his God. 24. And the king commanded, and they brought those men which had accused Daniel, and they cast them into the den of lions, them, their children, and their wives; and the lions had the mastery of them, and brake all their bones in pieces or ever they came at the bottom of the den. 25. Then king Darius wrote unto all people, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth; Peace be multiplied unto you. 26. I make a decree, That in every dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: for He is the living God, and stedfast for ever, and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed, and His dominion shall be even unto the end. 27. He delivereth and rescueth, and He worketh signs and wonders in heaven and in earth, who hath delivered Daniel from the power of the lions. 28. So this Daniel prospered in the reign of Darius, and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian.'--DANIEL vi. 16-28.
Daniel was verging on ninety when this great test of his faithfulness was presented to him. He had been honoured and trusted through all the changes in the kingdom, and, when the Medo-Persian conquest came, the new monarch naturally found in him, as a foreigner, a more reliable minister than in native officials. Envy doth merit as its shade pursue,' and the crafty trick by which his subordinates tried to procure his fall, was their answer to Darius's scheme of making him prime minister. Our passage begins in the middle of the story, but the earlier part will come into consideration in the course of our remarks.
I. We note, first, the steadfast, silent confessor and the weak king. Darius is a great deal more conspicuous in the narrative than Daniel. The victim of injustice is silent. He does not seem to have been called on to deny or defend the indictment. His deed was patent, and the breach of the law flagrant. He, too, was like a sheep before the shearers,' dumb. His silence meant, among other things, a quiet, patient, fixed resolve to bear all, and not to deny his God. Weak men bluster. Heroic endurance has generally little to say. Without resistance, or a word, the old man, an hour ago the foremost in the realm, is hauled off and flung into the pit or den. It is useless and needless to ask its form. The entrance was sealed with two seals, one the king's, one the conspirators', that neither party might steal a march on the other. Fellows in iniquity do not trust each other. So, down in the dark there, with the glittering eyeballs of the brutes round him, and their growls in his ears, the old man sits all night long, with peace in his heart, and looking up trustfully, through the hole in the roof, to his Protector's stars, shining their silent message of cheer.
The passage dwells on the pitiable weakness and consequent unrest of the king. He had not yielded Daniel to his fate without a struggle, which the previous narrative describes in strong language. Sore displeased,' he set his heart' on delivering him, and laboured' to do so. The curious obstacle, limiting even his power, is a rare specimen of conservatism in its purest form. So wise were our ancestors, that nothing of theirs shall ever be touched. Infallible legislators can make immutable laws; the rest of us must be content to learn by blundering, and to grow by changing. The man who says, I never alter my opinions,' condemns himself as either too foolish or too proud to learn.
But probably, if the question had been about a law that was inconvenient to Darius himself, or to these advocates of the constitution as it has always been, some way of getting round it would have been found out. If the king had been bold enough to assert himself, he could have walked through the cobweb. But this is one of the miseries of yielding to evil counsels, that one step taken calls for another. In for a penny, in for a pound.' Therefore let us all take heed of small compliances, and be sure that we can never say about any doubtful course, Thus far will I go, and no farther.' Darius was his servants' servant when once he had put his name to the arrogant decree. He did not know the incidence of his act, and we do not know that of ours; therefore let us take heed of the quality of actions and motives, since we are wholly incapable of estimating the sweep of their consequences.
Darius's conduct to Daniel was like Herod's to John the Baptist and Pilate's to Jesus. In all the cases the judges were convinced of the victim's innocence, and would have saved him; but fear of others biased justice, and from selfish motives, they let fierce hatred have its way. Such judges are murderers. From all come the old lessons, never too threadbare to be dinned into the ears, especially of the young, that to be weak is, in a world so full of temptation, the same as to be wicked, and that he who has a sidelong eye to his supposed interest, will never see the path of duty plainly.
What a feeble excuse to his own conscience was Darius's parting word to Daniel! Thy God, whom thou servest continually, He will deliver thee!' And was flinging him to the lions the right way to treat a man who served God continually? Or, what right had Darius to expect that any god would interfere to stop the consequences of his act, which he thus himself condemned? We are often tempted to think, as he did, that a divine intervention will come in between our evil deeds and their natural results. We should be wiser if we did not do the things that, by our own confession, need God to avert their issues.
But that weak parting word witnessed to the impression made by the lifelong consistency of Daniel. He must be a good man who gets such a testimony from those who are harming him. The busy minister of state had done his political work so as to extort that tribute from one who had no sympathy with his religion. Do we do ours in that fashion? How many of our statesmen serve God continually' and obviously in their public life?
What a contrast between the night passed in the lions' den and the palace! Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage,' and soft beds and luxurious delights of sense bring no ease to troubled consciences. Daniel is more at rest, though his soul is among lions,' than Darius in his palace. Peter sleeps soundly, though the coming morning is to be his last. Better to be the victim than the doer of injustice!
The verdict of nightly thoughts on daily acts is usually true, and if our deeds do not bear thinking of on our beds,' the sooner we cancel them by penitence and reversed conduct, the better. But weak men are often prone to swift and shallow regrets, which do not influence their future any more than a stone thrown into the sea makes a permanent gap. Why should Darius have waited for morning, if his penitence had moved him to a firm resolution to undo the evil done? He had better have sprung from his bed, and gone with his guards to open the den in the dark. Feeble lamentations are out of place when it is still time to act.
The hurried rush to the den in the morning twilight, and the lamentable voice,' so unlike royal impassiveness, indicate the agitation of an impulsive nature, accustomed to let the feeling of the moment sway it unchecked. Absolute power tends to make that type of man. The question thrown into the den seems to imply that its interior was not seen. If so, the half-belief in Daniel's survival is remarkable. It indicates, as before, the impression of steadfast devoutness made by the old man's life, and also a belief that his God was possibly a true and potent divinity.
Such a belief was quite natural, but it does not mean that Darius was prepared to accept Daniel's God as his god. His religion was probably elastic and hospitable enough to admit that other nations might have other gods. But his thoughts about this living God' are a strange medley. He is not sure whether He is stronger than the royal lions, and he does not seem to feel that if a god delivers, his own act in surrendering a favoured servant of such a god looks very black. A half-belief blinds men to the opposition between their ways and God's, and to the certain issue of their going in one direction and God in another. If Daniel be delivered, what will become of Darius? But, like most men, he is illogical, and that question does not seem to have occurred to him. Surely this man may sit for a portrait of a weak, passionate nature, in the feebleness of his resistance to evil, the half hopes that wrong would be kept from turning out so badly as it promised, the childish moanings over wickedness that might still have been mended, and the incapacity to take in the grave, personal consequences of his crime.
II. We next note the great deliverance. The king does not see Daniel, and waits in sickening doubt whether any sound but the brutes' snarl at the disturber of their feast will be heard. There must have been a sigh of relief when the calm accents were audible from the unseen depth. And what dignity, respect, faith, and innocence are in them! Even in such circumstances the usual form of reverential salutation to the king is remembered. That night's work might have made a sullen rebel of Daniel, and small blame to him if he had had no very amiable feelings to Darius; but he had learned faithfulness in a good school, and no trace of returning evil for evil was in his words or tones.
The formal greeting was much more than a form, when it came up from among the lions. It heaped coals of fire on the king's head, let us hope, and taught him, if he needed the lesson, that Daniel's disobedience had not been disloyalty. The more religion compels us to disregard the authority and practices of others, the more scrupulously attentive should we be to demonstrate that we cherish all due regard to them, and wish them well. How simply, and as if he saw nothing in it to wonder at, he tells the fact of his deliverance! My God has sent His angel, and hath shut the lions' mouths.' He had not been able to say, as the king did before the den was opened, Thy God will deliver thee'; but he had gone down into it, knowing that He was able, and leaving himself in God's care. So it was no surprise to him that he was safe. Thankfulness, but not astonishment, filled his heart. So faith takes God's gifts, however great and beyond natural possibility they may be; for the greatest of them are less than the Love which faith knows to move all things, and whatsoever faith receives is just like Him.
Daniel did not say, as Darius did, that he served God continually, but he did declare his own innocency in God's sight and unimpeachable fidelity to the king. His reference is probably mainly to his official conduct; but the characteristic tone of the Old Testament saint is audible, which ventured on professions of uprightness, accordant with an earlier stage of revelation and religious consciousness, but scarcely congruous with the deeper and more inward sense of sin produced by the full revelation in Christ. But if the tone of the latter part of verse 22 is somewhat strange to us, the historian's summary in verse 23 gives the eternal truth of the matter: No manner of hurt was found upon him, because he had trusted in his God.' That is the basis of the reference in Hebrews xi. 33: Through faith stopped the mouths of lions.'
Simple trust in God brings His angel to our help, and the deliverance, which is ultimately to be ascribed to His hand muzzling the gaping beasts of prey, may also be ascribed to the faith which sets His hand in motion. The true cause is God, but the indispensable condition without which God will not act, and with which He cannot but act, is our trust. Therefore all the great things which it is said to do are due, not to anything in it, but wholly to that of which it lays hold. A foot or two of lead pipe is worth little, but if it is the channel through which water flows into a city, it is priceless.
Faith may or may not bring external deliverances, such as it brought to Daniel; but the good cheer which this story brings us does not depend on these. When Paul lay in Rome, shortly before his martyrdom, the experience of Daniel was in his mind, as he thankfully wrote to Timothy, I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.' He adds a hope which contrasts strangely, at first sight, with the clear expectation of a speedy and violent death, expressed a moment or two before (I am already being offered, and the time of my departure is come') when he says, The Lord will deliver me from every evil work'; but he had learned that it was possible to pass through the evil and yet to be delivered from it, and that a man might be thrown to the lions and devoured by them, and yet be truly shielded from all harm from them. So he adds, And will save me unto His heavenly kingdom,' thereby teaching us that the true deliverance is that which carries us into, or something nearer towards, the eternal home. Thus understood, the miracle of Daniel's deliverance is continually repeated to all who partake of Daniel's faith, Thou hast made the Most High thy habitation thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder.'
The savage vengeance on the conspirators and the proclamation of Darius must be left untouched. The one is a ghastly example of retributive judgment, in which, as sometimes is the case even now, men fall into the pit they have digged for others, and it shows the barbarous cruelty of that gorgeous civilisation. The other is an example of how far a man may go in perceiving and acknowledging the truth without its influencing his heart. The decree enforces recognition of Daniel's God, in language which even prophets do not surpass; but it is all lip-reverence, as evanescent as superficial. It takes more than a fright caused by a miracle to make a man a true servant of the living God.
The final verse of the passage implies Daniel's restoration to rank, and gives a beautiful, simple picture of the old man's closing days, which had begun so long before, in such a different world as Nebuchadnezzar's reign, and closed in Cyrus's, enriched with all that should accompany old age--honour, obedience, troops of friends. When a man's ways please the Lord, He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.'
But go thou thy way till the end be: for thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of the days.'--DANIEL xii. 13.
Daniel had been receiving partial insight into the future by the visions recorded in previous chapters. He sought for clearer knowledge, and was told that the book of the future was sealed and closed, so that no further enlightenment was possible for him. But duty was clear, whatever might be dark; and there were some things in the future certain, whatever might be problematic. So he is bidden back to the common paths of life, and is enjoined to pursue his patient course with an eye on the end to which it conducts, and to leave the unknown future to unfold itself as it may.
I do not need, I suppose, to point the application. Anticipations of what may be before us have, no doubt, been more or less in the minds of all of us in the last few days. The cast of them will have been very different, according to age and present circumstances. But bright or dark, hopes or dreads, they reveal nothing. Sometimes we think we see a little way ahead, and then swirling mists hide all.
So I think that the words of my text may help us not only to apprehend the true task of the moment, but to discriminate between the things in the unknown future that are hidden and those that stand clear. There are three points, then, in this message--the journey, the pilgrim's resting-place, and the final home. Go thou thy way till the end be: for thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of the days.' Let us, then, look at these three points briefly.
I. The journey.
That is a threadbare metaphor for life. But threadbare as it is, its significance is inexhaustible. But before I deal with it, note that very significant but' with which my text begins. The Prophet has been asking for a little more light to shine on the dark unknown that stretches before him. And his request is negatived--But go thou thy way.' In the connection that means, Do not waste your time in dreaming about, or peering into, what you can never see, but fill the present with strenuous service.' Go thou thy way.' Never mind the far-off issues; the step before you is clear, and that is all that concerns you. Plod along the path, and leave to-morrow to take care of itself. There is a piece of plain practical wisdom, none the less necessary for us to lay to heart because it is so obvious and commonplace.
And then, if we turn to the emblem with which the continuity of daily life and daily work is set forth here, as the path along which we travel, how much wells up in the shape of suggestion, familiar, it may be, but very needful and wholesome for us all to lay to heart!
The figure implies perpetual change. The landscape glides past us, and we travel on through it. How impossible it would be for us older people to go back to the feelings, to the beliefs, to the tone and the temper with which we used to look at life thirty or forty years ago! Strangely and solemnly, like the silent motion of some gliding scene in a theatre, bit by bit, inch by inch, change comes over all surroundings, and, saddest of all, in some aspects, over ourselves.
We all are changed, by still degrees, All but the basis of the soul.'
And it is foolish for us ever to forget that we live in a state of things in which constant alteration is the law, as surely as, when the train whizzes through the country, the same landscape never meets the eye twice, as the traveller looks through the windows. Let us, then, accept the fact that nothing abides with us, and so not be bewildered nor swept away from our moorings, nor led to vain regrets and paralysing retrospects when the changes that must come do come, sometimes slowly and imperceptibly, sometimes with stunning suddenness, like a bolt out of the blue. If life is truly represented under the figure of a journey, nothing is more certain than that we sleep in a fresh hospice every night, and leave behind us every day scenes that we shall never traverse again. What madness, then, to be putting out eager and desperate hands to clutch what must be left, and so to contradict the very law under which we live!
Then another of the well-worn commonplaces which are so believed by us all that we never think about them, and therefore need to be urged, as I am trying, poorly enough, to do now--another of the commonplaces that spring from this image is that life is continuous. Geologists used to be divided into two schools, one of whom explained everything by invoking great convulsions, the other by appealing to the uniform action of laws. There are no convulsions in life. To-morrow is the child of to-day, and yesterday was the father of this day. What we are, springs from what we have been, and settles what we shall be. The road leads somewhither, and we follow it step by step. As the old nursery rhyme has it--
One foot up and one foot down, That's the way to London town.'
We make our characters by the continual repetition of small actions. Let no man think of his life as if it were a heap of unconnected points. It is a chain of links that are forged together inseparably. Let no man say, I do this thing, and there shall be no evil consequences impressed upon my life as results of it.' It cannot be. To-morrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant.' We shall to-morrow be more of everything that we are to-day, unless by some strong effort of repentance and change we break the fatal continuity, and make a new beginning by God's grace. But let us lay to heart this, as a very solemn truth which lifts up into mystical and unspeakable importance the things that men idly call trifles, that life is one continuous whole, a march towards a definite end.
And therefore we ought to see to it that the direction in which our life runs is one that conscience and God can approve. And, since the rapidity with which a body falls increases as it falls, the more needful that we give the right direction and impulses to the life. It will be a dreadful thing if our downward course acquires strength as it travels, and being slow at first, gains in celerity, and accrues to itself mass and weight, like an avalanche started from an Alpine summit, which is but one or two bits of snow and ice at first, and falls at last into the ravine, tons of white destruction. The lives of many of us are like it.
Further, the metaphor suggests that no life takes its fitting course unless there is continuous effort. There will be crises when we have to run with panting breath and strained muscles. There will be long stretches of level commonplace where speed is not needed, but pegging away' is, and the one duty is persistent continuousness in a course. But whether the task of the moment is to run and not be weary,' or to walk and not faint,' crises and commonplace stretches of land alike require continuous effort, if we are to run with patience the race that is set before us.'
Mark the emphasis of my text, Go thy way till the end.' You, my contemporaries, you older men! do not fancy that in the deepest aspect any life has ever a period in it in which a man may take it easy.' You may do that in regard to outward things, and it is the hope and the reward of faithfulness in youth and middle age that, when the grey hairs come to be upon us, we may slack off a little in regard to outward activity. But in regard to all the deepest things of life, no man may ever lessen his diligence until he has attained the goal.
Some of you will remember how, in a stormy October night, many years ago, the Royal Charter went down when three hours from Liverpool, and the passengers had met in the saloon and voted a testimonial to the captain because he had brought them across the ocean in safety. Until the anchor is down and we are inside the harbour, we may be shipwrecked, if we are careless in our navigation. Go thou thy way until the end.' And remember, you older people, that until that end is reached you have to use all your power, and to labour as earnestly, and guard yourself as carefully, as at any period before.
And not only till the end,' but go thou thy way to the end.' That is to say, let the thought that the road has a termination be ever present with us all. Now, there is a great deal of the so-called devout contemplation of death which is anything but wholesome. People were never meant to be always looking forward to that close. Men may think of the end' in a hundred different connections. One man may say, Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.' Another man may say, I have only a little while to master this science, to make a name for myself, to win wealth. Let me bend all my efforts in a fierce determination--made the fiercer because of the thought of the brevity of life--to win the end.' The mere contemplation of the shortness of our days may be an ally of immorality, of selfishness, of meanness, of earthly ambitions, or it may lay a cooling hand on fevered brows, and lessen the pulsations of hearts that throb for earth.
But whilst it is not wholesome to be always thinking of death, it is more unwholesome still never to let the contemplation of that end come into our calculations of the future, and to shape our lives in an obstinate blindness to what is the one certain fact which rises up through the whirling mists of the unknown future, like some black cliff from the clouds that wreath around it. Is it not strange that the surest thing is the thing that we forget most of all? It sometimes seems to me as if the sky rained down opiates upon people, as if all mankind were in a conspiracy of lunacy, because they, with one accord, ignore the most prominent and forget the only certain fact about their future; and in all their calculations do not' so number their days' as to apply' their hearts unto wisdom.' Go thou thy way until the end,' and let thy way be marked out with a constant eye towards the end.
II. Note, again, the resting-place.
Go thou thy way, for thou shalt rest.' Now, I suppose, to most careful readers that clearly is intended as a gracious, and what they call a euphemistic way of speaking about death. Thou shalt rest'; well, that is a thought that takes away a great deal of the grimness and the terror with which men generally invest the close. It is a thought, of course, the force of which is very different in different stages and conditions of life. To you young people, eager, perhaps ambitious, full of the consciousness of inward power, happy, and, in all human probability, with the greater portion of your lives before you in which to do what you desire, the thought of rest' comes with a very faint appeal. And yet I do not suppose that there is any one of us who has not some burden that is hard to carry, or who has not learned what weariness means.
But to us older people, who have tasted disappointments, who have known the pressure of grinding toil for a great many years, whose hearts have been gnawed by harassments and anxieties of different kinds, whose lives are apparently drawing nearer their end than the present moment is to their beginning, the thought, Thou shalt rest,' comes with a very different appeal from that which it makes to these others.
There remaineth a rest for the people of God, And I have had trouble enough for one,'
says our great modern poet; and therein he echoes the deepest thoughts of most of this congregation. That rest is the cessation of toil, but the continuance of activity--the cessation of toil, and anxiety, and harassment, and care, and so the darkness is made beautiful when we think that God draws the curtain, as a careful mother does in her child's chamber, that the light may not disturb the slumberer.
But, dear friends, that final cessation of earthly work has a double character. Thou shalt rest' was said to this man of God. But what of people whom death takes away from the only sort of work that they are fit to do? It will be no rest to long for the occupations which you never can have any more. And if you have been living for this wretched present, to be condemned to have nothing to do any more in it and with it will be torture, and not repose. Ask yourselves how you would like to be taken out of your shop, or your mill, or your study, or your laboratory, or your counting-house, and never be allowed to go into it again. Some of you know how wearisome a holiday is when you cannot get to your daily work. You will get a very long holiday after you are dead. And if the hungering after the withdrawn occupation persists, there will be very little pleasure in rest. There is only one way by which we can make that inevitable end a blessing, and turn death into the opening of the gate of our resting-place; and that is by setting our heart's desires and our spirit's trust on Jesus Christ, who is the Lord both of the dead and of the living.' If we do that, even that last enemy will come to us as Christ's representative, with Christ's own word upon his lip, Come unto Me, ye that are weary and are heavy laden, and I'--because He has given Me the power--I will give you rest.'
Sleep, full of rest, from head to foot; Lie still, dry dust, secure of change.'
III. That leads me to the last thought, the home.
Thou shalt stand in thy lot at the end of the days.' Stand'--that is Daniel's way of preaching, what he has been preaching in several other parts of his book, the doctrine of the resurrection. Thou shalt stand in thy lot.' That is a reference to the ancient partition of the land of Canaan amongst the tribes, where each man got his own portion, and sat under his own vine and fig-tree. And so there emerge from these symbolical words thoughts upon which, at this stage of my sermon, I can barely touch. First comes the thought that, however sweet and blessed that reposeful state may be, humanity has not attained its perfection until once again the perfected spirit is mated with, and enclosed within, its congenial servant, a perfect body. Corporeity is the end of man.' Body, soul, and spirit partake of the redemption of God.
But then, apart from that, on which I must not dwell, my text suggests one or two thoughts. God is the true inheritance. Each man has his own portion of the common possession, or, to put it into plainer words, in that perfect land each individual has precisely so much of God as he is capable of possessing. Thou shalt stand in thy lot,' and what determines the lot is how we wend our way till that other end, the end of life. The end of the days' is a period far beyond the end of the life of Daniel. And as the course that terminated in repose has been, so the possession of the portion of the inheritance of the saints in light' shall be, for which that course has made men meet. Destiny is character worked out. A man will be where he is fit for, and have what he is fit for. Time is the lackey of eternity. His life here settles how much of God a man shall be able to hold, when he stands in his lot at the end of the days,' and his allotted portion, as it stretches around him, will be but the issue and the outcome of his life here on earth.
Therefore, dear brethren, tremendous importance attaches to each fugitive moment. Therefore each act that we do is weighted with eternal consequences. If we will put our trust in Him, in whom also we obtain the inheritance,' and will travel on life's common way in cheerful godliness, we may front all the uncertainties of the unknown future, sure of two things--that we shall rest, and that we shall stand in our lot. We shall all go where we have fitted ourselves, by God's grace, to go; get what we have fitted ourselves to possess; and be what we have made ourselves. To the Christian man the word comes, Thou shalt stand in thy lot.' And the other word that was spoken about one sinner, will be fulfilled in all whose lives have been unfitting them for heaven: Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place.' He, too, stands in his lot. Now settle which lot is yours.
I will give her the valley of Achor for a door of hope.'--HOSEA ii. 15.
The Prophet Hosea is remarkable for the frequent use which he makes of events in the former history of his people. Their past seems to him a mirror in which they may read their future. He believes that which is to be hath already been,' the great principles of the divine government living on through all the ages, and issuing in similar acts when the circumstances are similar. So he foretells that there will yet be once more a captivity and a bondage, that the old story of the wilderness will be repeated once more. In that wilderness God will speak to the heart of Israel. Its barrenness shall be changed into the fruitfulness of vineyards, where the purpling clusters hang ripe for the thirsty travellers. And not only will the sorrows that He sends thus become sources of refreshment, but the gloomy gorge through which they journey--the valley of Achor--will be a door of hope.
One word is enough to explain the allusion. You remember that after the capture of Jericho by Joshua, the people were baffled in their first attempt to press up through the narrow defile that led from the plain of Jordan to the highlands of Canaan. Their defeat was caused by the covetousness of Achan, who for the sake of some miserable spoil which he found in a tent, broke God's laws, and drew down shame on Israel's ranks When the swift, terrible punishment on him had purged the camp, victory again followed their assault, and Achan lying stiff and stark below his cairn, they pressed on up the glen to their task of conquest. The rugged valley, where that defeat and that sharp act of justice took place, was named in memory thereof, the valley of Achor, that is, trouble; and our Prophet's promise is that as then, so for all future ages, the complicity of God's people with an evil world will work weakness and defeat, but that, if they will be taught by their trouble and will purge themselves of the accursed thing, then the disasters will make a way for hope to come to them again. The figure which conveys this is very expressive. The narrow gorge stretches before us, with its dark overhanging cliffs that almost shut out the sky; the path is rough and set with sharp pebbles; it is narrow, winding, steep; often it seems to be barred by some huge rock that juts across it, and there is barely room for the broken ledge yielding slippery footing between the beetling crag above and the steep slope beneath that dips so quickly to the black torrent below. All is gloomy, damp, hard; and if we look upwards the glen becomes more savage as it rises, and armed foes hold the very throat of the pass. But, however long, however barren, however rugged, however black, however trackless, we may see if we will, a bright form descending the rocky way with radiant eyes and calm lips, God's messenger, Hope; and the rough rocks are like the doorway through which she comes near to us in our weary struggle. For us all, dear friends, it is true. In all our difficulties and sorrows, be they great or small; in our business perplexities; in the losses that rob our homes of their light; in the petty annoyances that diffuse their irritation through so much of our days; it is within our power to turn them all into occasions for a firmer grasp of God, and so to make them openings by which a happier hope may flow into our souls.
But the promise, like all God's promises, has its well-defined conditions. Achan has to be killed and put safe out of the way first, or no shining Hope will stand out against the black walls of the defile. The tastes which knit us to the perishable world, the yearnings for Babylonish garments and wedges of gold, must be coerced and subdued. Swift, sharp, unrelenting justice must be done on the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, if our trials are ever to become doors of hope. There is no natural tendency in the mere fact of sorrow and pain to make God's love more discernible, or to make our hope any firmer. All depends on how we use the trial, or as I say--first stone Achan, and then hope!
So, the trouble which detaches us from earth gives us new hope. Sometimes the effect of our sorrows and annoyances and difficulties is to rivet us more firmly to earth. The eye has a curious power, which they call persistence of vision, of retaining the impression made upon it, and therefore of seeming to see the object for a definite time after it has really been withdrawn. If you whirl a bit of blazing stick round, you will see a circle of fire though there is only a point moving rapidly in the circle. The eye has its memory like the soul. And the soul has its power of persistence like the eye, and that power is sometimes kindled into activity by the fact of loss. We often see our departed joys, and gaze upon them all the more eagerly for their departure. The loss of dear ones should stamp their image on our hearts, and set it as in a golden glory. But it sometimes does more than that; it sometimes makes us put the present with its duties impatiently away from us. Vain regret, absorbed brooding over what is gone, a sorrow kept gaping long after it should have been healed, like a grave-mound off which desperate love has pulled turf and flowers, in the vain attempt to clasp the cold hand below--in a word, the trouble that does not withdraw us from the present will never be a door of hope, but rather a grim gate for despair to come in at.
The trouble which knits us to God gives us new hope. That bright form which comes down the narrow valley is His messenger and herald--sent before His face. All the light of hope is the reflection on our hearts of the light of God. Her silver beams, which shed quietness over the darkness of earth, come only from that great Sun. If our hope is to grow out of our sorrow, it must be because our sorrow drives us to God. It is only when we by faith stand in His grace, and live in the conscious fellowship of peace with Him, that we rejoice in hope. If we would see Hope drawing near to us, we must fix our eyes not on Jericho that lies behind among its palm-trees, though it has memories of conquests, and attractions of fertility and repose, nor on the corpse that lies below that pile of stones, nor on the narrow way and the strong enemy in front there; but higher up, on the blue sky that spreads peaceful above the highest summits of the pass, and from the heavens we shall see the angel coming to us. Sorrow forsakes its own nature, and leads in its own opposite, when sorrow helps us to see God. It clears away the thick trees, and lets the sunlight into the forest shades, and then in time corn will grow. Hope is but the brightness that goes before God's face, and if we would see it we must look at Him.
The trouble which we bear rightly with God's help, gives new hope. If we have made our sorrow an occasion for learning, by living experience, somewhat more of His exquisitely varied and ever ready power to aid and bless, then it will teach us firmer confidence in these inexhaustible resources which we have thus once more proved, Tribulation worketh patience, and patience experience, and experience hope.' That is the order. You cannot put patience and experience into a parenthesis, and omitting them, bring hope out of tribulation. But if, in my sorrow, I have been able to keep quiet because I have had hold of God's hand, and if in that unstruggling submission I have found that from His hand I have been upheld, and had strength above mine own infused into me, then my memory will give the threads with which Hope weaves her bright web. I build upon two things--God's unchangeableness, and His help already received; and upon these strong foundations I may wisely and safely rear a palace of Hope, which shall never prove a castle in the air. The past, when it is God's past, is the surest pledge for the future. Because He has been with us in six troubles, therefore we may be sure that in seven He will not forsake us. I said that the light of hope was the brightness from the face of God. I may say again, that the light of hope which fills our sky is like that which, on happy summer nights, lives till morning in the calm west, and with its colourless, tranquil beauty, tells of a yesterday of unclouded splendour, and prophesies a to-morrow yet more abundant. The glow from a sun that is set, the experience of past deliverances, is the truest light of hope to light our way through the night of life.
One of the psalms gives us, in different form, a metaphor and a promise substantially the same as that of this text. Blessed are the men who, passing through the valley of weeping, make it a well.' They gather their tears, as it were, into the cisterns by the wayside, and draw refreshment and strength from their very sorrows, and then, when thus we in our wise husbandry have irrigated the soil with the gathered results of our sorrows, the heavens bend over us, and weep their gracious tears, and the rain also covereth it with blessings.' No chastisement for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous; nevertheless, afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness.'
Then, dear friends, let us set ourselves with our loins girt to the road. Never mind how hard it may be to climb. The slope of the valley of trouble is ever upwards. Never mind how dark is the shadow of death which stretches athwart it. If there were no sun there would be no shadow; presently the sun will be right overhead, and there will be no shadow then. Never mind how black it may look ahead, or how frowning the rocks. From between their narrowest gorge you may see, if you will, the guide whom God has sent you, and that Angel of Hope will light up all the darkness, and will only fade away when she is lost in the sevenfold brightness of that upper land, whereof our God Himself is Sun and Moon'--the true Canaan, to whose everlasting mountains the steep way of life has climbed at last through valleys of trouble, and of weeping, and of the shadow of death.
Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone.'--HOSEA iv. 17.
The tribe of Ephraim was the most important member of the kingdom of Israel; consequently its name was not unnaturally sometimes used in a wider application for the whole of the kingdom, of which it was the principal part. Being the predominant partner,' its name was used alone for that of the whole firm, just as in our own empire, we often say England,' meaning thereby the three kingdoms: England, Scotland, and Ireland. So Ephraim' here does not mean the single tribe, but the whole kingdom of Israel.
Now Hosea himself was a Northerner, a subject of that kingdom; and its iniquities and idolatries weighed heavily on his heart, and were ripped up and brought to light with burning eloquence in his prophecies. The words of my text have often, and terribly, been misunderstood. And I wish now to try to bring out their true meaning and bearing. They have a message for us quite as much as they had for the people who originally received them.
I. I must begin by explaining what, in my judgment, this text does not mean.
First, it is not what it is often taken to be, a threatening of God's abandoning of the idolatrous nation. I dare say we have all heard grim sermons from this text, which have taken that view of it, and have tried to frighten men into believing now, by telling them that, perhaps, if they do not, God will never move on their hearts, or deal with them any more, but withdraw His grace, and leave them to insensibility. There is not a word of that sort in the text. Plainly enough it is not so, for this vehement utterance of the Prophet is not a declaration as to God, and what He is going to do, but it is a commandment to some men, telling them what they are to do. Let him alone' does not mean the same thing as I will let him alone'; and if people had only read with a little more care, they would have been delivered from perpetrating a libel on the divine loving-kindness and forbearance.
It is clear enough, too, that such a meaning as that which has been forced upon the words of my text, and is the common use of it, I believe, in many evangelical circles, cannot be its real meaning, because the very fact that Hosea was prophesying to call Ephraim from his sin showed that God had not let Ephraim alone, but was wooing him by His prophet, and seeking to win him back by the words of his mouth. God was doing all that He could do, rising early and sending His messenger and calling to Ephraim: Turn ye! Turn ye! why will ye die?' For Hosea, in the very act of pleading with Israel on God's behalf, to have declared that God had abandoned it, and ceased to plead, would have been a palpable absurdity and contradiction.
But beyond considerations of the context, other reasons conclusively negative such an interpretation of this text. I, for my part, do not believe that there are any bounds or end to God's forbearing pleading with men in this life. I take, as true, the great words of the old Psalm, in their simplest sense--His mercy endureth for ever'; and I fall back upon the other words which a penitent had learned to be true by reflecting on the greatness of his own sin: With Him are multitudes of redemptions'; and I turn from psalmists and prophets to the Master who showed us God's heart, and knew what He spake when He laid it down as the law and the measure of human forgiveness which was moulded upon the pattern of the divine, that it should be seventy times seven'--the multiplication of both the perfect numbers into themselves--than which there can be no grander expression for absolute innumerableness and unfailing continuance.
No, no! men may say to God, Speak no more to us'; or they may get so far away from Him, as that they only hear God's pleading voice, dim and faint, like a voice in a dream. But surely the history of His progressive revelation shows us that, rather than such abandonment of the worst, the law of the divine dealing is that the deafer the man, the more piercing the voice beseeching and warning. The attraction of gravitation decreases as distance increases, but the further away we are from Him, the stronger is the attraction which issues from Him, and would draw us to Himself.
Clear away, then, altogether out of your minds any notion that there is here declared what, in my judgment, is not declared anywhere in the Bible, and never occurs in the divine dealings with men. Be sure that He never ceases to seek to draw the most obstinate, idolatrous, and rebellious heart to Himself. That divine charity suffereth long, and is kind' hopeth all things, and beareth all things.'
Again, let me point out that the words of my text do not enjoin the cessation of the efforts of Christian people for the recovery of the most deeply sunken in sin. Let him alone' is a commandment, and it is a commandment to God's Church, but it is not a commandment to despair of any that they may be brought into the fold, or to give up efforts to that end. If our Father in heaven never ceases to bear in His heart His prodigal children, it does not become those prodigals, who have come back, to think that any of their brethren are too far away to be drawn by their loving proclamation of the Father's heart of love.
There is the glory of our Gospel, that, taking far sadder, graver views of what sin and alienation from God are, than the world's philosophers and philanthropists do, it surpasses them just as much as in the superb confidence with which it sets itself to the cure of the disease as in the unflinching clearness with which it diagnoses the disease as fatal, if it be not dealt with by the all-healing Gospel. All other methods for the restoration and elevation of mankind are compelled to recognise that there is an obstinate residuum that will not and cannot be reached by their efforts. It used to be said that some old cannon-balls, that had been brought from some of the battlefields of the Peninsula, resisted all attempts to melt them down; so there are cannon-balls,' as it were, amongst the obstinate evil-doers, and the degraded and dangerous' classes, which mark the despair of our modern reformers and civilisers and elevators, for no fire in their furnaces can melt down their hardness. No; but there is the furnace of the Lord in Jerusalem, and the fire of God in Zion, which can melt them down, and has done so a hundred and a thousand times, and is as able to do it again to-day as it ever was. Despair of no human soul. That boundless confidence in the power of the Gospel is the duty of the Christian Church. The damsel is not dead, but sleepeth!' They laughed Him to scorn, knowing that she was dead. But He put out His hand, and said unto her Talitha cumi, I say unto thee, Arise!' When we stand on one side of the bed with your social reformers on the other, and say The damsel is not dead, but sleepeth,' they laugh us to scorn, and bid us try our Gospel upon these people in our slums, or on those heathens in the New Hebrides. We have the right to answer, We have tried it, and man after man, and woman after woman have risen from the sick-bed, like Peter's wife's mother; and the fever has left them, and they have ministered unto Him. There are no people in the world about whom Christians need despair, none that Christ's Gospel cannot redeem. Whatever my text means, it does not mean cowardly and unbelieving doubt as to the power of the Gospel on the most degraded and sinful.
II. So, the text enjoins on the Christian Church separation from an idolatrous world.
Ephraim is joined to idols.' Do you let him alone.' Now, there has been much harm done by misreading the force of the injunction of separation from the world. There is a great deal of union and association with the most godless people in our circle, which is inevitable. Family bonds, business connections, civic obligations--all these require that the Church shall not withdraw from the world. There is the wide common ground of Politics and Art and Literature, and a hundred other interests, on which it does Christian men no good, and the world much harm, if the former withdraw to themselves, and on the plea of superior sanctity, leave these great departments of interest and influence to be occupied only by non-Christians.
Then, besides these thoughts of necessary union and association upon common ground, there is the other consideration that absolute separation would defeat the very purpose for which Christian people are here. Ye are the salt of the earth,' said Christ. Yes, and if you keep the meat on one plate and the salt on another, what good will the salt be? It has to be rubbed in particle by particle, and brought into contact over all the surface, and down into the depths of the meat that it is to preserve from putrefaction. And no Christian churches or individuals do their duty, and fulfil their function on earth, unless they are thus closely associated and intermingled with the world that they should be trying to leaven and save. A cloistered solitude, or a proud standing apart from the ordinary movements of the community, or a neglect, on the plea of our higher duties, of the duties of the citizen of a free country--these are not the ways to fulfil the exhortation of my text. Let the dead bury their dead,' said Christ; but He did not mean that His Church was to stand apart from the world, and let it go its own way. It is a bad thing for both when little Christians gather themselves together, and talk about their own goodness and religion, and leave the world to perish. Clotted blood is death; circulated, it is life.
But, whilst all this is perfectly true--and there are associations that we must not break if we are to do our work as Christian people--it is also true that it is possible, in the closest unions with men who do not share our faith, to do the same thing that they are doing, with a difference which separates us from them, even whilst we are united with them. They tell us that, however dense any material substance may seem to be, there is always a film of air between contiguous particles. And there should be a film between us and our Christless friends and companions and partners, not perceptible perhaps to a superficial observer, but most real. If we do our common work as a religious duty, and in the exercise of all our daily occupations set the Lord always before' us, however closely we may be associated with people who do not so live, they will know the difference; never fear! And you will know the difference, and will not be identified with them, but separate in a wholesome fashion from them.
And, dear brethren, if I may go a step further, I would venture to say that it seems to me that our Christian communities want few things more in this day than the reiteration of the old saying, Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.' There is so much in this time to break down the separation between him that believeth in Christ and him that doth not; narrowness has come to be thought such an enormous wickedness, and liberality is so lauded by all sorts of superficial people, that Christian men need to be summoned back to their standard. Being let go, they went to their own company'--there is a natural affinity which should, and will, if our faith is vital, draw us to those who, on the gravest and solemnest things, have the same thoughts, the same hopes, the same faith. I do not urge you, God knows, to be bigoted and narrow, and shut yourselves up in your faith, and leave the world to go to the devil; but I do not wish, either, that Christian people should fling themselves into the arms and nestle in the hearts of persons who do not share with them like precious faith.'
I am sure that there are many Christian people, old and young, who are suffering in their religious life because they are neglecting this commandment of my text. Let him alone.' There can be no deep affection, and, most of all--if I may venture on such ground--no wedded love worth the name, where there is not unanimity in regard to the deepest matters. It does not say much for the religion of a professing Christian who finds his heart's friends and his chosen companions in people that have no sympathy with the religion which he professes. It does not say much for you if it is so with you, for the Christian, whom you like least, is nearer you in the depths of your true self than is the non-Christian whom you love most.
Be sure, too, that if we mix ourselves up with Ephraim, we shall find ourselves grovelling beside him before his idols ere long. Godlessness is infectious. Many a young woman, a professing Christian, has married a godless man in the fond hope that she might win him. It is a great deal more frequently the case that he perverts her than that she converts him. Do not let us knit ourselves in these close bonds with the worshippers of idols, lest we learn their ways, and get a snare into our souls.' Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers. What fellowship hath light with darkness? Wherefore, come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord. Touch not the unclean thing, and I will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and My daughters.'
When Ephralm saw his sickness, and Judah saw his wound, then went Ephraim to Assyria, and sent to king Jareb: but he is not able to heal you, neither shall he cure you of your wound.!'--HOSEA v. 13 (R.V.).
The long tragedy which ended in the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyrian invasion was already beginning to develop in Hosea's time. The mistaken politics of the kings of Israel led them to seek an ally where they should have dreaded an enemy. As Hosea puts it in figurative fashion, Ephraim's discovery of his sickness' sent him in the vain quest for help to the apparent source of the sickness,' that is to Assyria, whose king in the text is described by a name which is not his real name, but is a significant epithet, as the margin puts it, a king that should contend'; and who, of course, was not able to heal nor to cure the wounds which he had inflicted. Ephraim's suicidal folly is but one illustration of a universal madness which drives men to seek for the healing of their misery, and the alleviation of their discomfort, in the repetition of the very acts which brought these about. The attempt to get relief in such a fashion, of course, fails; for as the verse before our text emphatically proclaims, it is God who has been as a moth unto Ephraim,' gnawing away his strength: and it is only He who can heal, since in reality it is He, and not the quarrelsome king of Assyria, who has inflicted the sickness.
Thus understood, the text carries wide lessons, and may serve us as a starting-point for considering man's discovery of his sickness,' man's mad way of seeking healing, God's way of giving it.
I. First, then, man's discovery of his sickness.
The greater part of most lives is spent in mechanical, unreflecting repetition of daily duties and pleasures. We are all apt to live on the surface, and it requires an effort, which we are too indolent to make except under the impulse of some arresting motive, to descend into the depths of our own souls, and there to face the solemn facts of our own personality. The last place with which most of us are familiar, is our innermost self. Men are dimly conscious that things within are not well with them; but it is only one here and there that says so distinctly to himself, and takes the further step of thoroughly investigating the cause. But that superficial life is at the mercy of a thousand accidents, each one of which may break through the thin film, and lay bare the black depths.
But there is another aspect of this discovery of sickness, far graver than the mere consciousness of unrest. Ephraim does not see his sickness unless he sees his sin. The greater part of every life is spent without that deep, all-pervading sense of discord between itself and God. Small and recurrent faults may evoke recurring remonstrances of conscience, but that is a very different thing from the deep tones and the clear voice of condemnation in respect to one's whole life and character which sounds in a heart that has learned how deceitful and desperately wicked' it is. Such a conviction may flash upon a man at any moment, and from a hundred causes. A sorrow, a sunset-sky, a grave, a sermon, may produce it.
But even when we have come to recognise clearly our unrest, we have gone but part of the way, we have become conscious of a symptom, not of the disease. Why is it that man is alone among the creatures in that discontent with externals, and that dissatisfaction with himself? Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have roosting-places': why is it that amongst all God's happy creatures, and God's shining stars, men stand strangers in a strange land,' and are cursed with a restlessness which has not where to lay its head'? The consciousness of unrest is but the agitation of the limbs which indicates disease. That disease is the twitching paralysis of sin. Like the pestilence that walketh in darkness,' it has a fell power of concealing itself, and the man whose sins are the greatest is always the least conscious of them. He dwells in a region where the malaria is so all-pervading that the inhabitants do not know what the sweetness of an unpoisoned atmosphere is. If there is a worst man' in the world, we may be very sure that no conscience is less troubled than his is.
So the question may well be urged on those so terribly numerous amongst us, whose very unconsciousness of their true condition is the most fatal symptom of their fatal disease. What is the worth of a peace which is only secured by ignoring realities, and which can be shattered into fragments by anything that compels a man to see himself as he is? In such a fool's paradise thousands of us live. Use and wont,' the continual occupation with the trifles of our daily lives, the fleeting satisfactions of our animal nature, the shallow wisdom which bids us let sleeping dogs lie,' all conspire to mask, to many consciences, their unrest and their sin. We abstain from lifting the curtain behind which the serpent lies coiled in our hearts, because we dread to see its loathly length, and to rouse it to lift its malignant head, and to strike with its forked tongue. But sooner or later--may it not be too late--we shall be set face to face with the dark recess, and discover the foul reptile that has all the while been coiled there.
II. Man's mad way of seeking healing.
Can there be a more absurd course of action than that recorded in our text? When Ephraim saw his sickness, then went Ephraim to Assyria.' The Northern Kingdom sought for the healing of their national calamities from the very cause of their national calamities, and in repetition of their national sin. A hopeful policy, and one which speedily ended in the only possible result! But that insanity was but a sample of the infatuation which besets us all. When we are conscious of our unrest, are we not all tempted to seek to conceal it with what has made it? Take examples from the grosser forms of animal indulgence. The drunkard's vulgar proverb recommending a hair of the dog that bit you,' is but a coarse expression of a common fault. He is wretched until another glass' steadies, for a moment, his trembling hand, and gives a brief stimulus to his nerves. They say that the Styrian peasants, who habitually eat large quantities of arsenic, show symptoms of poison if they leave it off suddenly. These are but samples, in the physical region, of a tendency which runs through all lire, and leads men to drown thought by plunging into the thick of the worldly absorptions that really cause their unrest. The least persistent of men is strangely obstinate in his adherence to old ways, in spite of all experience of their crooked slipperiness. We wonder at the peasants who have their cottages and vineyards on the slopes of Vesuvius, and who build them, and plant them, over and over again after each destructive eruption. The tragedy of Israel is repeated in many of our lives; and the summing up of the abortive efforts of one of its kings to recover power by following the gods that had betrayed him, might be the epitaph of the infatuated men who see their sickness and seek to heal it by renewed devotion to the idols who occasioned it: They were the ruin of him and of all Israel.' The experience of the woman who had spent all her living on physicians, and was nothing the better, but rather the worse,' sums up the sad story of many a life.
But again the sense of sin sometimes seeks to conceal itself by repetition of sin. When the dormant snake begins to stir, it is lulled to sleep again by absorption of occupations, or by an obstinate refusal to look inwards, and often by plunging once more into the sin which has brought about the sickness. To seek thus for ease from the stings of conscience, is like trying to silence a buzzing in the head by standing beside Niagara thundering in our ears. They used to beat the drums when a martyr died, in order to drown his testimony; and so foolish men seek to silence the voice of conscience by letting passions shout their loudest. It needs no words to demonstrate the incurable folly of such conduct; but alas, it takes many words far stronger than mine to press home the folly upon men. The condition of such a half-awakened conscience is very critical if it is soothed by any means by which it is weakened and its possessor worsened. In the sickness of the soul homoeopathic treatment is a delusion. Ephraim may go to Assyria, but there is no healing of him there.
III. God's way of giving true healing.
Ephraim thought that, because the wounds were inflicted by Assyria, it was the source to which to apply for bandages and balm. If it had realised that Assyria was but the battle-axe wherewith the hand of God struck it, it would have learned that from God alone could come healing and health. The unrest which betrays the presence in our souls of a deep-seated sin, is a divine messenger. We terribly misinterpret the true source of all that disturbs us when we attribute it only to the occasions which bring it about; for the one purpose of all our restlessness is to drive us nearer to God, and to wrench us away from our Assyria. The true issue of Ephraim's sickness would have been the penitent cry, Come, let us return to the Lord our God, for He hath smitten, and He will bind us up.' It is in the consciousness of loving nearness to Him that all our unrest is soothed, and the heaving ocean in our hearts becomes as a summer's sea and birds of peace sit brooding on the charmed waves.' It is in that same consciousness that conscience ceases to condemn, and loses its sting. The prophet from whom our text is taken ends his wonderful ministry, that had been full of fiery denunciations and dark prophecies, with words that are only surpassed in their tenderness and the outpouring of the heart of God, by the fuller revelation in Jesus Christ: O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God. Take with you words, and return unto the Lord, and say unto Him: Assyria shall not save us, for in Thee the fatherless findeth mercy.' The divine answer which he was commissioned to bring to the penitent Israel--I will heal their backslidings, I will love them freely; if Mine anger is turned away from Me'--is, in all its wealth of forgiving love but an imperfect prophecy of the great Physician, from the hem of whose garment flowed out power to one who had spent all her living on physicians and could not be healed of any,' and who confirmed to her the power which she had thought to steal from Him unawares by the gracious words which bound her to Him for ever--Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace.'
Israel is an empty vine, he bringeth forth fruit unto himself: according to the multitude of his fruit he hath increased the altars; according to the goodness of his land they have made goodly images. 2. Their heart is divided; now shall they be found faulty: He shall break down their altars, He shall spoil their images. 3. For now they shall say, We have no king, because we feared not the Lord; what then should a king do to us? 4. They have spoken words, swearing falsely in making a covenant: thus judgment springeth up as hemlock in the furrows of the field. 5. The inhabitants of Samaria shall fear because of the calves of Beth-aven: for the people thereof shall mourn over it, and the priests thereof that rejoiced on it, for the glory thereof, because it is departed from it. 6. It shall be also carried unto Assyria for a present to king Jareb: Ephraim shall receive shame, and Israel shall be ashamed of his own counsel. 7. As for Samaria, her king is cut off as the foam upon the water. 8. The high places also of Aven, the sin of Israel, shall be destroyed: the thorn and the thistle shall come up on their altars; and they shall say to the mountains, Cover us; and to the hills, Fall on us. 9. O Israel, thou hast sinned from the days of Gibeah: there they stood: the battle in Gibeah against the children of iniquity did not overtake them. 10. It is in my desire that I should chastise them; and the people shall be gathered against them, when they shall bind themselves in their two furrows. 11. And Ephraim is as an heifer that is taught, and loveth to tread out the corn; but I passed over upon her fair neck: I will make Ephraim to ride; Judah shall plow, and Jacob shall break his clods. 12. Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the Lord, till He come and rain righteousness upon you. 13. Ye have plowed wickedness, ye have reaped iniquity; ye have eaten the fruit of lies: because thou didst trust in thy way, in the multitude of thy mighty men. 14. Therefore shall a tumult arise among thy people, and all thy fortresses shall be spoiled, as Shalman spoiled Beth-arbel in the day of battle: the mother was dashed in pieces upon her children. 15. So shall Beth-el do unto you because of your great wickedness: in a morning shall the king of Israel utterly be cut off.'--HOSEA x. 1-15.
The prophecy of this chapter has two themes--Israel's sin, and its punishment. These recur again and again. Reiteration, not progress of thought, characterises Hosea's fiery stream of inspired eloquence. Conviction of sin and prediction of judgment are his message. We trace a fourfold repetition of it here, and further note that in each case there is a double reference to Israel's sin as consisting in the rebellion which set up a king and in the schism which established the calf worship; while there is also a double phase of the punishment corresponding to these, in the annihilation of the kingdom and the destruction of the idols.
The first section may be taken to be verses 1-3. The image of a luxuriant vine laden with fruit is as old as Jacob's blessing of the tribes (Gen. xlix. 22), where it is applied to Joseph, whose descendants were the strength of the Northern Kingdom. Hosea has already used it, and here it is employed to set forth picturesquely the material prosperity of Israel. Probably the period referred to is the successful reign of Jeroboam II. But prosperity increased sin. The more fruit or material wealth, the more altars; the better the harvests, the more the obelisks or pillars to gods, falsely supposed to be the authors of the blessings. The words are as condensed as a proverb, and are as true to-day as ever. Israel had attributed its prosperity to Baal (Hosea ii. 8). The misuse of worldly wealth and the tendency of success to draw us away from God, and to blind to the true source of all blessing, are as rife now as then.
The root of the evil was, as always, a heart divided--that is, between God and Baal--or, perhaps, smooth'; that is, dissimulating and insincere. In reality, Baal alone possesses the heart which its owner would share between him and Jehovah. All in all, or not at all,' is the law. Whether Baals or calves were set beside God, He was equally deposed.
Then, with a swift turn, Hosea proclaims the impending judgment, setting himself and the people as if already in the future. He hears the first peal of the storm, and echoes it in that abrupt now.' The first burst of the judgment shatters dreams of innocence, and the cowering wretches see their sin by the lurid light. That discovery awaits every man whose heart has been divided.' To the gazers and to himself masks drop, and the true character stands out with appalling clearness. What will that light show us to be? An unnamed hand overthrows altars and pillars. No need to say whose it is. One half of Israel's sin is crushed at a blow, and the destruction of the other follows immediately.
They themselves abjure their allegiance; for they have found out that their king is a king Log, and can do them no good. A king, set up in opposition to God's will, cannot save. The ruin of their projects teaches godless men at last that they have been fools to take their own way; for all defences, recourses, and protectors, chosen in defiance of God, prove powerless when the strain comes. The annihilation of one half of their sin sickens them of the other. The calves and the monarchy stood or fell together. It is a dismal thing to have to bear the brunt of chastisement for what we see to have been a blunder as well as a crime. But such is the fate of those who seek other gods and another king.
In verse 4 Hosea recurs to Israel's crime, and appends a description of the chastisement, substantially the same as before, but more detailed, which continues till verse 8. The sin now is contemplated in its effects on human relations. Before, it was regarded in relation to God. But men who are wrong with Him cannot be right with one another. Morality is rooted in religion, and if we lie to God, we shall not be true to our brother. Hence, passing over all other sins for the present, Hosea fixes upon one, the prevalence of which strikes at the very foundation of society. What can be done with a community in which lying has become a national characteristic, and that even in formal agreements? Honey-combed with falsehood, it is only fit for burning.
Sin is bound by an iron link to penalty. Therefore, says Hosea, God's judgment springs up, like a bitter plant (the precise name of which is unknown) in the furrows, where the farmer did not know that its seeds lay. They little dreamed what they were sowing when they scattered abroad their lies, but this is the fruit of these. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap'; and whatever other crop we may hope to gather from our sins, we shall gather that bitter one which we did not expect. The inevitable connection of sin and judgment, the bitterness of its results, the unexpectedness of them, are all here, and to be laid to heart by us.
Then verses 5 and 6 dilate with keen irony on the fate of the first half of Israel's sin--the calf. It was thought a god, but its worshippers shall be in a fright for it. Calves,' says Hosea, though there was but one at Beth-el; and he uses the feminine, as some think, depreciatingly. Beth-aven' or the house of vanity,' he says, instead of Beth-el, the house of God.' A fine god whose worshippers had to be alarmed for its safety! Its people'--what a contrast to the name they might have borne, My people'! God disowns them, and says, They belong to it, not to Me.' The idolatrous priests of the calf worship will tremble when that image, which had been shamefully their glory,' is carried off to Assyria, and given as a present to king Jareb'--a name for the king of Assyria meaning the fighting or quarrelsome king. The captivity of the god is the shame of the worshippers. To be ashamed of their own counsel' is the certain fate of all who depart from God; for, sooner or later, experience will demonstrate to the blindest that their refuges of lies can neither save themselves nor those who trust in them. But shame is one thing and repentance another; and many a man will say, I have been a great fool, and my clever policy has all crumbled to pieces,' who will only therefore change his idols, and not return to God.
Verse 7 recurs to the political punishment of the civil rebellion. The image for the disappearance of the king is striking, whether we render foam' or chip,' but the former has special beauty. In the one case we see the unsubstantial bubble,
A moment white, then melts for ever';
and in the other, the helpless twig swept down by the stream. Either brings vividly before us the powerlessness of Israel against the roaring torrent of Assyrian power; and the figure may be widened out to teach what is sure to become of all man-made and self-chosen refuges when the floods of God's judgments sweep over the world. The captivity of the idol and the burst bubble of the monarchy bid us all make Jehovah our God and King. The vacant shrine and empty throne are followed by utter and long-continued desolation. Thorns and thistles have time to grow on the altars, and no hand cuts them down. What of the men thus stripped of all in which they had trusted? Desperate, they implore the mountains to fall on them, as preferring to die, and the hills to cover them, as willing to be crushed, if only they may be hidden. That awful cry is heard again in our Lord's predictions of judgment, and in the Apocalypse. Therefore this prophecy foreshadows, in the destruction of Israel's confidences and in their shame and despair, a more dreadful coming day, in which we shall be concerned.
Verses 9 to 11 again give the sin and its punishment. The days of Gibeah' recall the hideous story of lust and crime which was the low-water mark of the lawless days of old. That crime had been avenged by merciless war. But its taint had lived on, and the Israel of Hosea's day stood,' obstinately persistent, just where the Benjamites had been then, and set themselves in dogged resistance, as these had done, that the battle against the children of unrighteousness might not touch them.'
Stiff-necked setting oneself against God's merciful fighting with evil lasts for a little while, but verse 10 tells how soon and easily it is annihilated. God's desire' brushes away all defences, and the obstinate sinners are like children, who are whipped when their father wills, let them struggle as they may. The instruments of chastisement are foreign armies, and the chastisement itself is described with a striking figure as binding them to their two transgressions'; that is, the double sin which is the keynote of the chapter. Punishment is yoking men to their sins, and making them drag the burden like bullocks in harness. What sort of load are we getting together for ourselves? When we have to drag the consequences of our doings behind us, how shall we feel?
The figure sets the Prophet's imagination going, and he turns it another way, comparing Israel to a heifer, broken in, and liking the easy work of threshing, in which the unmuzzled ox could eat its fill, but now set to harder tasks in the fields. Judah, too, is to share in the punishment. If men will not serve God in and because of prosperous ease, He will try what toil and privation will do. Abused blessings are withdrawn, and the abundance of the threshing-floor is changed for dragging a heavy plough or harrow.
Verse 12 still deals with the figure suggested in the close of the previous verse. It is the only break in the clouds in this chapter. It is a call to amendment, accompanied by a promise of acceptance. If we sow for righteousness'--that is, if our efforts are directed to embodying it in our lives--we shall reap according to mercy.' That is true universally, whether it is taken to mean God's mercy to us, or ours to others. The aim after righteousness ever secures the divine favour, and usually ensures the measure which we mete being measured to us again.
But sowing is not all; thorns must be grubbed up. We must not only turn over a new leaf, but tear out the old one. The old man must be slain if the new man is to live. The call to amend finds its warrant in the assurance that there is still time to seek the Lord, and that, for all His threatenings, He is ready to rain blessings upon the seekers. The unwearying patience of God, the possibility of the worst sinner's repentance, the conditional nature of the threatenings, the possibility of breaking the bond between sin and sorrow, the yet deeper thought that righteousness must come from above, are all condensed in this brief gospel before the Gospel.
But that bright gleam passes, and the old theme recurs. Once more we have sin and punishment exhibited in their organic connection in verses 13 and 14. Israel's past had been just the opposite of sowing righteousness and reaping mercy. Wickedness ploughed in, iniquity will surely be its fruit. Sin begets sin, and is its own punishment. What fruit have we of doing wrong? Lies'; that is, unfulfilled expectations of unrealised satisfaction. No man gets the good that he aimed at in sinning, or he gets something more that spoils it. At last the deceitfulness of sin will be found out, but we may be sure of it now. The root of all Israel's sin was the root of ours; namely, trust in self, and consequent neglect of God. The first half of verse 13 is an exhaustive analysis of the experience of every sinful life; the second, a penetrating disclosure of the foundation of it.
Then the whole closes with the repeated threatening, dual as before, and illustrated by the forgotten horrors of some dreadful siege, one of the unhappy, far-off things,' fallen silent now. A significant variation occurs in the final threatening, in which Beth-el is set forth as the cause, rather than as the object, of the destruction. They were the ruin of him and of all Israel.' Our vices are made the whips to scourge us. Our idols bring us no help, but are the causes of our misery.
The Prophet ends with the same double reference which prevails throughout, when he once more declares the annihilation of the monarchy, which, rather than a particular person, is meant by the king.' In the morning' is enigmatical. It may mean prematurely,' or suddenly,' or in a time of apparent prosperity,' or, more probably, the Prophet stands in vision in that future day of the Lord, and points to the king' as the first victim. The force of the prophecy does not depend on the meaning of this detail. The teaching of the whole is the certainty that suffering dogs sin, but yet does so by no iron, impersonal law, but according to the will of God, who will rain righteousness even on the sinner, being penitent, and will endow with righteousness from above every lowly soul that seeks for it.
O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in Me is thine help.'--HOSEA xiii. 9 (A.V.).
It is thy destruction, O Israel, that thou art against Me, against thy Help' (R.V.).
These words are obscure by reason of their brevity. Literally they might be rendered, Thy destruction for, in, or against Me; in, or against thy Help.' Obviously, some words must be supplied to bring out any sense. Our Authorised Version has chosen the supplement is,' which fails to observe the second occurrence with thy Help' of the preposition, and is somewhat lax in rendering the for' of the second clause by the neutral but.' It is probably better to read, as the Revised Version, with most modern interpreters, Thou art against Me, against thy Help,' and to find in the second clause the explanation, or analysis, of the destruction announced in the first. So we have here the wail of the parental love of God over the ruin which Israel has brought on itself, and that parental love is setting forth Israel's true condition, in the hope that they may discern it. Thus, even the rebuke holds enclosed a promise and a hope. Since God is their help, to depart from Him has been ruin, and the return to Him will be life. Hosea, or rather the Spirit that spake through Hosea, blended wonderful tenderness with unflinching decision in rebuke, and unwavering certainty in foretelling evil with unfaltering hope in the promise of possible blessing. His words are set in the same key as the still more wonderfully tender ones that Jesus uttered as He looked across the valley from Olivet to the gleaming city on the other side, and wailed, O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Therefore your house is left unto you desolate.'
We may note here
I. The loving discovery of ruin.
It is strange that men should need to be told, and that with all emphasis, the evil case in which they are; and stranger still that they should resent the discovery and reject it. This pathetic pleading is the voice of a divine Father trying to convince His son of misery and danger; and the obscurity of the text is as if that voice was choked with sobs, and could only speak in broken syllables the tragical word in which all the evil of Israel's sin is gathered up--his destruction,' or corruption.' It gathers up in one terrible picture the essential nature of sin and the death of the soul, which is its wages--inward misery and unrest, outward sorrows, the decay of mental and moral powers, the spreading taint which eats its way through the whole personality of a man who has sinned, and pauses not till it has reduced his corpse to putrefaction. All these, and a hundred more effects of sin, are crowded together in that one word thy destruction.'
It is strange that it needs God's voice, and that in its most piercing tones, to convince men of ruin brought by sin. A mortifying limb is painless. There is no consciousness in the drugged sleep which becomes heavier and heavier till it ends in death. There is no surer sign of the reality and extent of the corruption brought about by sin, than man's ignorance of it. There is no more tragical proof that a man is wretched, and miserable, and blind, and naked' than his vehement affirmation, I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing,' and his self-complacent rejection of the counsel to buy refined gold, and white garments, and eye-salve to anoint his eyes.' So obstinately unconscious are we of our ruin that even God's voice, whether uttered in definite words, or speaking in sharp sorrows and punitive acts, but too often fails to pierce the thick layer of self complacency in which we wrap ourselves, and to pierce the heart with the arrow of conviction. Indeed we may say that the whole process of divine education of a soul, conducted through many channels of providences, has for its end mainly this--to convince His wandering children that to be against Him, against their Help, is their destruction.
But, perhaps, the strangest of all is the attitude which we often take up of resenting the love that would reveal our ruin. It is stupid of the ox to kick against its driver's goad; but that is wise in comparison with the action of the man who is angry with God because He warns that departure from Him is ruin. Many of us treat Christianity as if it had made the mischief which it reveals, and would fain mend; and we all need to be reminded that it is cruel kindness to conceal unpleasant truths, and that the Gospel is no more to be blamed for the destruction which it declares than is the signalman with his red flag responsible for the broken-down viaduct to which the train is rushing that he tries to save.
II. The loving appeal to conscience as to the cause.
Israel's destruction arose from the fact of Israel having turned against God, its Help. Sin is suicide. God is our Help, and only Help. His will is love and blessing. His only relation to our sin is to hate it, and fight against it. In conflict of love with lovelessness one of His chiefest weapons is to drive home to our consciousness the conviction of our sin. When He is driven to punish, it is our wrongdoing that forces Him to what Isaiah calls, His strange act.' The Heavenly Father is impelled by His love not to spare the rod, lest the sparing spoil the child. An earthly father suffers more punishment than he inflicts upon the little rebel whom, unwillingly and with tears, he may chastise; and God's love is more tender, as it is more wise, than that of the fathers of our flesh who corrected us. He doth not willingly afflict nor is soon angry'; and of all the mercies which He bestows upon us, none is more laden with His love than the discipline by which He would make us know, through our painful experience, that it is an evil and bitter thing to forsake the Lord, and that His fear is not in us.' In its essence and depth, separation from God is death to the creature that wrenches itself away from the source of life; and all the weariness and pains of a godless life are, if we take them as He meant them, the very angels of His presence.
Just as the sole reason for our sorrows lies in our wrongdoing, the sole cause of our wrongdoing is in ourselves. It is because Israel is against Me' that Israel's destruction rushes down upon it. It could have defended its hankering after Assyria and idols, by wise talk about political exigencies and the wisdom of trying to turn possibly powerful enemies into powerful allies, and the folly of a little nation, on a narrow strip of territory between the desert and the sea, fancying itself able to sustain itself uncrushed between the upper millstone of Assyria on the north, and the under one, Egypt, on the south. But circumstances are never the cause, though they may afford the excuse of rebellion against our Helper, God; and all the modern talk about environments and the like, is merely a cloak cast round, but too scanty to conceal the ugly fact of the alienated will. All the excuses for sin, which either modern scientific jargon about laws,' or hyper-Calvinistic talk about divine decrees,' alleges, are alike shattered against the plain fact of conscience, which proclaims to every evil-doer, Thou art the man!' We shall get no further and no deeper than the truth of our text: It is thy destruction that thou art against Me.'
The pleading God has from the beginning spoken words as tender as they are stern, and as stern as they are tender. His voice to the sons of men has from of old asked the unanswerable question, Why should ye be stricken any more?' and has answered it, so far as answer is possible, by the fact, which is as mysterious as it is undeniable, Ye will revolt more and more.' God calls upon man to judge between Him and His vineyard, and asks, What could have been done more to My vineyard that I have not done unto it? Wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?' The fault lay not in the vine-dresser, but in some evil influence that had found its way into the life and sap of the vine, and bore fruits in an unnatural product, which could not have been traced to the vine-dresser's action. So God stands, as with clean hands, declaring that He is pure from the blood of all men; that He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked'; and His word to the men on whom falls the whole weight of His destroying power is, Thou hast procured this unto thyself.'
III. The loving forbearance which still offers restoration.
He still claims to be Israel's Help. Separation from Him has all but destroyed the rebellious; but it has not in the smallest degree affected the fulness of His power, nor the fervency of His desire to help. However earth may be shaken by storms, or swathed in mist that darkens all things and shuts out heaven, the sun is still in its tabernacle and pouring down its rays through the cloudless blue that is above the enfolding cloud. Our text has wrapped up in it the broad gospel that all our self-inflicted destruction may be arrested, and all the evil which brought it about swept away. God is ready to prove Himself our true and only Helper in that, as our prophet says, He will ransom us from the power of the grave'; and, even when death has laid its cold hand upon us, will redeem us from it, and destroy the destruction which had fixed its talons in us. All the guilt is ours; all the help is His; His work is to conquer and cast out our sins, to heal our sicknesses, to soothe our sorrows. And He has Himself vindicated His great name of our Help when He has revealed Himself as the God and Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.'
O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God; for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity. 2. Take with you words, and turn to the Lord: say unto Him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips. 3. Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses: neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods: for in thee the fatherless findeth mercy. 4. I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from Him. 5. I will be as the dew unto Israel: He shall grow as the lily, and cast forth His roots as Lebanon. 6. His branches shall spread, and His beauty shall be as the olive-tree, and His smell as Lebanon. 7. They that dwell under His shadow shall return; they shall revive as the corn, and grow as the vine: the scent thereof shall be as the wine of Lebanon. 8. Ephraim shall say, What have I to do any more with idols? I have heard Him, and observed Him: I am like a green fir-tree. From me is thy fruit found. 9. Who is wise, and He shall understand these things? prudent, and He shall know them? for the ways of the Lord are right, and the just shall walk in them: but the transgressors shall fall therein.'--HOSEA xiv. 1-9.
Hosea is eminently the prophet of divine love and of human repentance. Both streams of thought are at their fullest in this great chapter. In verses 1 to 3 the very essence of true return to God is set forth in the prayer which Israel is exhorted to offer, while in verses 4 to 8 the forgiving love of God and its blessed results are portrayed with equal poetical beauty and spiritual force. Verse 9 closes the chapter and the book with a kind of epilogue.
I. The summons to repentance.
Israel,' of course, here means the Northern Kingdom, with which Hosea's prophecies are chiefly occupied. Thou hast fallen by thine iniquity'--that is the lesson taught by all its history, and in a deeper sense it is the lesson of all experience. Sin brings ruin for nations and individuals, and the plain teachings of each man's own life exhort each to return unto the Lord.' We have all proved the vanity and misery of departing from Him; surely, if we are not drawn by His love, we might be driven by our own unrest, to go back to God.
The Prophet anticipates the clear accents of the New Testament call to repentance in his expansion of what he meant by returning. He has nothing to say about sacrifices, nor about self-reliant efforts at moral improvement. Take with you words,' not the blood of bulls and goats.' Confession is better than sacrifice. What words are they which will avail? Hosea teaches the penitent's prayer. It must begin with the petition for forgiveness, which implies recognition of the petitioner's sin. The cry, Take away all iniquity,' does not specify sins, but masses the whole black catalogue into one word. However varied the forms of our transgressions, they are in principle one, and it is best to bind them all into one ugly heap, and lay it at God's feet. We have to confess not only sins, but sin, and the taking away of it includes divine cleansing from its power, as well as divine forgiveness of its guilt. Hosea bids Israel ask that God would take away all iniquity; John pointed to the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.' But beyond forgiveness and cleansing, the penitent heart will seek that God would accept the good' in it, which springs up by His grace, when the evil has been washed from it, like flowers that burst from soil off which the matted under-growth of poisonous jungle has been cleared. Mere negative absence of evil' is not all that we should desire or exhibit; there must be positive good; and however sinful may have been the past, we are not too bold when we ask and expect that we may be made able to produce good,' which shall be fragrant as sweet incense to God.
Petitions are followed by vows. On the one hand, the experience of forgiveness and cleansing will put a new song in our mouths, and instead of animal sacrifices, we shall render the praise which is better than calves' laid on the altar. Perhaps the Septuagint rendering of that difficult phrase the calves of our lips,' which is given in Hebrews xiii. 15, the fruit of our lips,' is preferable. In either case, the same thought appears--that the penitent's experience of forgiving and restoring love makes the tongue of the dumb sing,' and it will bind men's hearts more closely to God than anything besides can do, so that their old inclinations to false reliances and idolatries drop away from them. The old fable tells us that the storm made the traveller wrap his cloak closer round him, but the sunshine made him throw it off. Judgments often make men cling more closely to their sins, but forgiving mercy makes them cast off the works of darkness.' The men who had experienced that in God, the Israel, which by its sins had brought down the punishment of His repudiation of being its father (i. 9), had found mercy, would no longer feel temptation to turn to Assyria for help, nor to seek protection from Egypt's cavalry, nor to debase their manhood by calling stocks and stones, the work of their own hands, their gods. What earthly sweetness will tempt, or what earthly danger will affright, the heart that is feeling the bliss of union with God? Would Judas's thirty pieces of silver attract the disciple reclining on Jesus' bosom? We are most firmly bound to God, not by our resolves, but by our experience of His all-sufficient mercy. Fill the heart with that wine of the kingdom, and bitter or poisonous draughts will find no entrance into the cup.
II. God's welcoming answer.
The very abruptness of its introduction, without any explanation as to the speaker, suggests how swiftly and joyfully the Father hastens to meet the returning prodigal while he is yet afar off. Like pent-up waters rushing forth as soon as a barrier is taken away, God's love pours itself out immediately. His answer ever gives more than the penitent asks--robe and ring and shoes, and a feast to him who dared not expect more than a place among the hired servants. He gives not by drops, but in floods, answering the prayer for the taking away of iniquity by the promise to heal backsliding, going beyond desires and hopes in the gift of love which asks for no recompense, is drawn forth by no desert, but wells up from the depths of God's heart, and strengthens the new, tremulous trust of the penitent by the assurance that every trace of anger is effaced from God's heart.
The blessings consequent on the gift of God's love are described in lovely imagery, drawn, like Hosea's other abundant similes, from nature, and especially from trees and flowers. The source of all fruitfulness is a divine influence, which comes silently and refreshing as the dew,' or, rather, as the night mist,' a phenomenon occurring in Palestine in summer, and being, accurately, rolling masses of vapour brought from the Mediterranean, which counteract the dry heat and keep vegetation alive. The influences which refresh and fructify our souls must fall in many a silent hour of meditation and communion. They will effloresce into manifold shapes of beauty and fruitfulness, of which the Prophet signalises three. The lily may stand for beauty of purity, though botanists differ as to the particular flower meant. Christians should present to the world whatsoever things are lovely,' and see to it that their goodness is attractive. But the fragrant, pure lily has but shallow roots, and beauty is not all that a character needs in this world of struggle and effort. So there are to be both the lily's blossom and roots like Lebanon. The image may refer to the firm buttresses of the widespread foot-hills, from which the sovereign summits of the great mountain range rise, or, as is rather suggested by the accompanying similes from the vegetable world, it may refer to the cedars growing there. Their roots are anchored deep and stretch far underground; therefore they rear towering heads, and spread broad shelves of dark foliage, safe from any blast. Our lives must be deep rooted in God if they are to be strong. Boots generally spread beneath the soil about as far as branches extend above it. There should be at least as much underground, hid with Christ in God,' as is visible to the world.
But beauty and strength are not all. So Hosea thinks of yet another of the characteristic growths of Palestine, the olive, which is not strikingly beautiful in form, with its strangely gnarled, contorted stem, its feeble branches, and its small, pointed, pale leaves, but has the beauty of fruitfulness, and is green when other trees are bare. Such beauty' should be ours, and will be if the dew' falls on us.
In verse 7 there are difficulties, both as to the application of the his,' and as to the reading and rendering of some of the words. But the general drift is clear. It prolongs the tones of the foregoing verses, keeping to the same class of images, and expressing fruitfulness, abundant as the corn and precious as the grape, and fragrance like the bouquet' of the choicest wine.
Verse 8 offers great difficulties on any interpretation. The supplement shall say' is questionable, and it is doubtful whether Ephraim is the speaker at all, and whether, if so, he speaks all the four clauses, and who speaks any or all of them, if not he. To the present writer, it seems best to take the supplement as right, and possible to regard the whole verse as spoken by Ephraim, though perhaps the last clause is meant to be God's utterance. The meaning will then come out as follows. The penitent Israel again speaks, after the gracious promises preceding. The tribal name is, as usual in Hosea, equivalent to Israel, whose penitent cry we heard at the beginning of the passage. Now we hear his glad response to God's abundant answer. What have I to do any more with idols?' He had vowed (verse 3) to have no more to do with them, and the resolve is deepened by the rich grace held forth to him. Hosea had lamented Ephraim's mad adherence to his idols' (iv. 17), but now the union is dissolved, and by penitence and reception of God's grace, he is joined to the Lord, and parted from them. His renunciation of idolatry is based, in the second clause, on his experience of what God can do, and on his having heard God's gracious voice of pardon and promise. If a man hears God, he will not be drawn to worship at any idol's shrine.
Further, in the third clause, Ephraim is joyfully conscious of the change that has passed on him, in accordance with the great promises just spoken, and with grateful astonishment that such verdure should have burst out from the dry and rotten stump of his own sinful nature, exclaims, I am like a green fir-tree.' That is another reason why he will have no more to do with idols. They could never have made his sapless nature break into leafage. But what of the fourth clause--From Me is thy fruit found'? Can we understand that to mean that Ephraim still speaks, keeping up the image of the previous clause, and declaring that all the new fruitfulness which he finds in himself he recognises to be God's, both in the sense that, in reality, it is produced by Him, and that it belongs to Him? He comes seeking fruit, and He finds it. All our good is His, and we shall be happy, productive, and wise, in proportion as we offer all our works to Him, and feel that, after all, they are not ours, but the works of that Spirit which dwells in penitent and believing hearts. Some have thought that this last clause must be taken as spoken by God; but, even if so taken, it conveys substantially the same thought as to the divine origin of man's fruitfulness.
The last verse is rather a general reflection summing up the whole than an integral part of this wonderful representation of penitence, pardon, and fruitfulness. It declares the great truth that the knowledge of the pardoning mercy of God, and of the ways by which He weans men from sin and makes them fruitful of good, makes us truly wise. That knowledge is more than intellectual apprehension; it is experience. Providence has its mysteries, but they who keep near to God, and are just' because they do, will find the opportunity of free, unfettered activity in God's ways, and transgressors will stumble therein. Therefore wisdom and safety lie in penitence and confession, which will ever be met by gracious pardon and showers of blessing that will cause our hearts, which sin has made desert, to rejoice and blossom like the rose.
I will be as the dew unto Israel: he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon. 6. His branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive-tree '--HOSEA xiv. 5, 6.
Like his brethren, Hosea was a poet as well as a prophet. His little prophecy is full of similes and illustrations drawn from natural objects; scarcely any of them from cities or from the ways of men; almost all of them from Nature, as seen in the open country, which he evidently loved, and where he had looked upon things with a clear and meditative eye. This whole chapter is full of emblems drawn from the vegetable world. The lily, the cedar, the olive, are in my text. And there follow, in the subsequent verses, the corn, and the vine, and the green fir-tree.
The words which I have read, no doubt originally had simply a reference to the numerical increase of the people and their restoration to their land, but they may be taken by us quite fairly as having a very much deeper and more blessed reference than that. For they describe the uniform condition of all spiritual life and growth,' I will be as the dew unto Israel'; and then they set forth some of the manifold aspects of that growth, and the consequences of receiving that heavenly dew, under the various metaphors to which I have referred. It is in that higher signification that I wish to look at them now.
I. The first thought that comes out of the words is that for all life and growth of the spirit there must be a bedewing from God.
I will be as the dew unto Israel.' Now, scholars tell us that the kind of moisture that is meant in these words is not what we call dew, of which, as a matter of fact, there falls, in Palestine, little or none at the season of the year referred to in my text, but that the word really means the heavy night-clouds that come upon the wings of the south-west wind, to diffuse moisture and freshness over the parched plains, in the very height and fierceness of summer. The metaphor of my text becomes more beautiful and striking, if we note that, in the previous chapter, where the Prophet was in his threatening mood, he predicts that an east wind shall come, the wind of the Lord shall come up from the wilderness'--the burning sirocco, with death upon its wings--and his spring shall become dry, and his fountain shall be dried up.' We have then to imagine the land gaping and parched, the hot air having, as with invisible tongue of flame, licked streams and pools dry, and having shrunken fountains and springs. Then, all at once there comes down upon the baking ground and on the faded, drooping flowers that lie languid and prostrate on the ground in the darkness, borne on the wings of the wind, from the depths of the great unfathomed sea, an unseen moisture. You cannot call it rain, so gently does it diffuse itself; it is liker a mist, but it brings life and freshness, and everything is changed. The dew, or the night mist, as it might more properly be rendered, was evidently a good deal in Hosea's mind; you may remember that he uses the image again in a remarkably different aspect, where he speaks of men's goodness as being like a morning cloud, and the early dew that passes away.'
The natural object which yields the emblem was all inadequate to set forth the divine gift which is compared to it, because as soon as the sun has risen, with burning heat, it scatters the beneficent clouds, and the sunbeams like swords' threaten to slay the tender green shoots. But this mist from God that comes down to water the earth is never dried up. It is not transient. It may be ours, and live in our hearts. Dear brethren, the prose of this sweet old promise is If I depart, I will send Him unto you.' If we are Christian people, we have the perpetual dew of that divine Spirit, which falls on our leaves and penetrates to our roots, and communicates life, freshness, and power, and makes growth possible--more than possible, certain--for us. I'--Myself through My Son, and in My Spirit--I will be'--an unconditional assurance--as the dew unto Israel.'
Yes! That promise is in its depth and fulness applicable only to the Christian Israel, and it remains true to-day and for ever. Do we see it fulfilled? One looks round upon our congregations, and into one's own heart, and we behold the parable of Gideon's fleece acted over again--some places soaked with the refreshing moisture, and some as hard as a rock and as dry as tinder and ready to catch fire from any spark from the devil's forge and be consumed in the everlasting burnings some day. It will do us good to ask ourselves why it is that, with a promise like this for every Christian soul to build upon, there are so few Christian souls that have anything like realised its fulness and its depth. Let us be quite sure of this--God has nothing to do with the failure of His promise, and let us take all the blame to ourselves.
I will be as the dew unto Israel.' Who was Israel? The man that wrestled all night in prayer with God, and took hold of the angel and prevailed and wept and made supplication to Him. So Hosea tells us; and as he says in the passage where he describes the Angel's wrestling with Jacob at Peniel, there He spake with us'--when He spake, He spake with him who first bore the name. Be you Israel, and God will surely be your dew; and life and growth will be possible. That is the first lesson of this great promise.
II. The second is, that a soul thus bedewed by God will spring into purity and beauty.
We go back to Hosea's vegetable metaphors. He shall grow as the lily' is his first promise. If I were addressing a congregation of botanists, I should have something to say about what kind of a plant is meant, but that is quite beside the mark for my present purpose. It is sufficient to notice that in this metaphor the emphasis is laid upon the two attributes which I have named--beauty and purity. The figure teaches us that ugly Christianity is not Christ's Christianity. Some of us older people remember that it used to be a favourite phrase to describe unattractive saints that they had grace grafted on a crab stick.' There are a great many Christian people whom one would compare to any other plant rather than a lily. Thorns and thistles and briers are a good deal more like what some of them appear to the world. But we are bound, if we are Christian people, by our obligations to God, and by our obligations to men, to try to make Christianity look as beautiful in people's eyes as we can. That is what Paul said, Adorn the teaching'; make it look well, inasmuch as it has made you look attractive to men's eyes. Men have a fairly accurate notion of beauty and goodness, whether they have any goodness or any beauty in their own characters or not. Do you remember the words: Whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, whatsoever things are venerable if there be any praise'--from men--think on these things'? If we do not keep that as the guiding star of our lives, then we have failed in one very distinct duty of Christian people--namely, to grow more like a lily, and to be graceful in the lowest sense of that word, as well as grace full in the highest sense of it. We shall not be so in the lower, unless we are so in the higher. It may be a very modest kind of beauty, very humble, and not at all like the flaring reds and yellows of the gorgeous flowers that the world admires. These are often like a great sunflower, with a disc as big as a cheese. But the Christian beauty will be modest and unobtrusive and shy, like the violet half buried in the hedge-bank, and unnoticed by careless eyes, accustomed to see beauty only in gaudy, flaring blooms. But unless you, as a Christian, are in your character arrayed in the "beauty of holiness,' and the holiness of beauty, you are not quite the Christian that Jesus Christ wants you to be; setting forth all the gracious and sweet and refining influences of the Gospel in your daily life and conduct. That is the second lesson of our text.
III. The third is, that a God-bedewed soul that has been made fair and pure by communion with God, ought also to be strong.
He "shall cast forth his roots like Lebanon." Now I take it that simile does not refer to the roots of that giant range that slope away down under the depths of the Mediterranean. That is a beautiful emblem, but it is not in line with the other images in the context. As these are all dependent on the promise of the dew, and represent different phases of the results of its fulfilment, it is natural to expect thus much uniformity in their variety, that they shall all be drawn from plant-life. If so, we must suppose a condensed metaphor here, and take "Lebanon" to mean the forest which another prophet calls "the glory of Lebanon." The characteristic tree in these, as we all know, was the cedar.
It is named in Hebrew by a word which is connected with that for "strength." It stands as the very type and emblem of stability and vigour. Think of its firm roots by which it is anchored deep in the soil. Think of the shelves of massive dark foliage. Think of its unchanged steadfastness in storm. Think of its towering height; and thus arriving at the meaning of the emblem, let us translate it into practice in our own lives. "He shall cast forth his roots as Lebanon." Beauty? Yes! Purity? Yes! And braided in with them, if I may so say, the strength which can say "No!" which can resist, which can persist, which can overcome; power drawn from communion with God. "Strength and beauty" should blend in the worshippers, as they do in the "sanctuary" in God Himself. There is nothing admirable in mere force; there is often something sickly and feeble, and therefore contemptible in mere beauty. Many of us will cultivate the complacent and the amiable sides of the Christian life, and be wanting in the manly "thews that throw the world," and can fight to the death. But we have to try and bring these two excellences of character together, and it needs an immense deal of grace and wisdom and imitation of Jesus Christ, and a close clasp of His hand, to enable us to do that. Speak we of strength? He is the type of strength. Of beauty? He is the perfection of beauty. And it is only as we keep close to Him that our lives will be all fair with the reflected loveliness of His, and strong with the communicated power of His grace--"strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might." Brethren, if we are to set forth anything, in our daily lives, of this strength, remember that our lives must be rooted in, as well as bedewed by, God. Hosea's emblems, beautiful and instructive as they are, do not reach to the deep truth set forth in still holier and sweeter words; "I am the Vine, ye are the branches." The union of Christ and His people is closer than that between dew and plant. Our growth results from the communication of His own life to us. Therefore is the command stringent and obedience to it blessed, "Abide in Me, for apart from Me ye can do"--and are--"nothing." Let us remember that the loftier the top of the tree and the wider the spread of its shelves of dark foliage, if it is steadfastly to stand, unmoved by the loud winds when they call, the deeper must its roots strike into the firm earth. If your life is to be a fair temple-palace worthy of God's dwelling in, if it is to be impregnable to assault, there must be quite as much masonry underground as above, as is the case in great old buildings and palaces. And such a life must be a life "hid with Christ in God," then it will be strong. When we strike our roots deep into Him, our branch also shall not wither, and our leaf shall be green, and all that we do shall prosper. The wicked are not so. They are like chaff--rootless, fruitless, lifeless, which the wind driveth away.
IV. Lastly, the God-bedewed soul, beautiful, pure, strong, will bear fruit.
That is the last lesson from these metaphors. "His beauty shall be as the olive-tree." Anybody that has ever seen a grove of olives knows that their beauty is not such as strikes the eye. If it was not for the blue sky overhead, that rays down glorifying light, they would not be much to look at or talk about. The tree has a gnarled, grotesque trunk which divides into insignificant branches, bearing leaves mean in shape, harsh in texture, with a silvery underside. It gives but a quivering shade and has no massiveness, nor symmetry. Ay! but there are olives on the branches. And so the beauty of the humble tree is in what it grows for man's good. After all, it is the outcome in fruitfulness which is the main thing about us. God's meaning, in all His gifts of dew, and beauty, and purity, and strength, is that we should be of some use in the world.
The olive is crushed into oil, and the oil is used for smoothing and suppling joints and flesh, for nourishing and sustaining the body as food, for illuminating darkness as oil in the lamp. And these three things are the three things for which we Christian people have received all our dew, and all our beauty, and all our strength--that we may give other people light, that we may be the means of conveying to other people nourishment, that we may move gently in the world as lubricating, sweetening, soothing influences, and not irritating and provoking, and leading to strife and alienation. The question after all is, Does anybody gather fruit off us, and would anybody call us trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified'? That is lesson four from this text. May we all open our hearts for the dew from heaven, and then use it to produce in ourselves beauty, purity, strength, and fruitfulness!
Can two walk together, except they be agreed?'--AMOS iii. 8.
They do not need to be agreed about everything. They must, however, wish to keep each others company, and they must be going by the same road to the same place. The application of the parable is very plain, though there are differences of opinion as to the bearing of the whole context which need not concern us now. The two,' whom the Prophet would fain see walking together, are God and Israel, and his question suggests not only the companionship and communion with God which are the highest form of religion and the aim of all forms and ceremonies of worship, but also the inexorable condition on which alone that height of communion can be secured and sustained. Two may walk together, though the one be God in heaven and the other be I on earth. But they have to be agreed thus far, at any rate, that both shall wish to be together, and both be going the same road.
I. So I ask you to look, first, at that possible blessed companionship which may cheer a life.
There are three phrases in the Old Testament, very like each other, and yet presenting different facets or aspects of the same great truth. Sometimes we read about walking before God' as Abraham was bid to do. That means ordering the daily life under the continual sense that we are ever in the great Taskmaster's eye' Then there is walking after God,' and that means conforming the will and active efforts to the rule that He has laid down, setting our steps firm on the paths that He has prepared that we should walk in them, and accepting His providences. But also, high above both these conceptions of a devout life is the one which is suggested by my text, and which, as you remember, was realised in the case of the patriarch Enoch--walking with God.' For to walk before Him may have with it some tremor, and may be undertaken in the spirit of the slave who would be glad to get away from the jealous eye that rebukes his slothfulness; and walking after Him' may be a painful and partial effort to keep His distant figure in sight; but to walk with Him' implies a constant, quiet sense of His Divine Presence which forbids that I should ever be lonely, which guides and defends, which floods my soul and fills my life, and in which, as the companions pace along side by side, words may be spoken by either, or blessed silence may be eloquent of perfect trust and rest.
But, dear brother, far above us as such experience seems to sound, such a life is a possibility for every one of us. We may be able to say, as truly as our Lord said it, I am not alone, for the Father is with me.' It is possible that the dreariest solitude of a soul, such as is not realised when the body is removed from men, but is felt most in the crowded city where there is none that loves or fathoms and sympathises, may be turned into blessed fellowship with Him. Yes, but that solitude will not be so turned unless it is first painfully felt. As Daniel said, I was left alone, and I saw the great vision.' We need to feel in our deepest hearts that loneliness on earth before we walk with God.
If we are so walking, it is no piece of fanaticism to say that there will be mutual communications. Do you not believe that God knows His way into the spirits that He has endowed with conscious life? Do you not believe that He speaks now to people as truly as He did to prophets and Apostles of old? as truly; though the results of His speech to us of to-day be not of the same authority for others as the words that He spoke to a Paul or a John. The belief in God's communications as for ever sounding in the depths of the Christian spirit does not at all obliterate the distinction between the kind of inspiration which produced the New Testament and that which is realised by all believing and obedient souls. High above all our experience of hearing the words of God in our hearts stands that of those holy men of old who heard God's message whispered in their ears, that they might proclaim it on the housetops to all the world through all generations. But though they and we are on a different level, and God spoke to them for a different purpose, He speaks in our spirits, if we will comply with the conditions, as truly as He did in theirs. As really as it was ever true that the Lord spoke to Abraham, or Isaiah, or Paul, it is true that He now speaks to the man who walks with Him. Frank speech on both sides beguiles many a weary mile, when lovers or friends foot it side by side; and this pair of friends of whom our text speaks have mutual intercourse. God speaks with His servant now, as of old, as a man speaketh with his friend'; and we on our parts, if we are truly walking with Him, shall feel it natural to speak frankly to God. As two friends on the road will interchange remarks about trifles, and if they love each other, the remarks about the trifles will be weighted with love, so we can tell our smallest affairs to God; and if we have Him for our Pilgrim-Companion, we do not need to lock up any troubles or concerns of any sort, big or little, in our hearts, but may speak them all to our Friend who goes with us.
The two may walk together. That is the end of all religion. What are creeds for? What are services and sacraments for? What is theology for? What is Christ's redeeming act for? All culminate in this true, constant fellowship between men and God. And unless, in some measure, that result is arrived at in our cases, our religion, let it be as orthodox as you like, our faith in the redemption of Jesus Christ, let it be as real as you will, our attendances on services and sacraments, let them be as punctilious and regular as may be, are all sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.' Get side by side with God; that is the purpose of all these, and fellowship with Him is the climax of all religion.
It is also the secret of all blessedness, the only thing that will make a life absolutely sovereign over sorrow, and fixedly unperturbed by all tempests, and invulnerable to all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.' Hold fast by God, and you have an amulet against every evil, and a shield against every foe, and a mighty power that will calm and satisfy your whole being. Nothing else, nothing else will do so. As Augustine said, O God! Thou hast made us for Thyself, and in Thyself only are we at rest.' If the Shepherd is with us we will fear no evil.
II. Now, a word, in the next place, as to the sadly incomplete reality, in much Christian experience, which contrasts with this possibility.
I am afraid that very, very few so-called Christian people habitually feel, as they might do, the depth and blessedness of this communion. And sure I am that only a very small percentage of us have anything like the continuity of companionship which my text suggests as possible. There may be, and therefore there should be, running unbroken through a Christian life one long, bright line of communion with God and happy inspiration from the sense of His presence with us. Is it a line in my life, or is there but a dot here, and a dot there, and long breaks between? The long, embarrassed pauses in a conversation between two who do not know much of, or care much for, each other are only too like what occurs in many professing Christians' intercourse with God. Their communion is like those time-worn inscriptions that archaeologists dig up, with a word clearly cut and then a great gap, and then a letter or two, and then another gap, and then a little bit more legible, and then the stone broken, and all the rest gone. Did you ever read the meteorological reports in the newspapers and observe a record like this, Twenty minutes' sunshine out of a possible eight hours'? Do you not think that such a state of affairs is a little like the experience of a great many Christian people in regard to their communion with God? It is broken at the best, and imperfect at the completest, and shallow at the deepest. O, dear brethren! rise to the height of your possibilities, and live as close to God as He lets you live, and nothing will much trouble you.
III. And now, lastly, a word about the simple explanation of the failure to realise this continual presence.
Can two walk together except they be agreed?' Certainly not. Our fathers, in a sterner and more religious age than ours, used to be greatly troubled how to account for a state of Christian experience which they supposed to be due to God's withdrawing of the sense of His presence from His children. Whether there is any such withdrawal or not, I am quite certain that that is not the cause of the interrupted communion between God and the average Christian man.
I make all allowance for the ups and downs and changing moods which necessarily affect us in this present life, and I make all allowance, too, for the pressure of imperative duties and distracting cares which interfere with our communion, though, if we were as strong as we might be, they would not wile us away from, but drive us to, our Father in heaven. But when all such allowances have been made, I come back to my text as the explanation of interrupted communion. The two are not agreed; and that is why they are not walking together. The consciousness of God's presence with us is a very delicate thing. It is like a very sensitive thermometer, which will drop when an iceberg is a league off over the sea, and scarcely visible. We do not wish His company, or we are not in harmony with His thoughts, or we are not going His road, and therefore, of course, we part. At bottom there is only one thing that separates a soul from God, and that is sin--sin of some sort, like tiny grains of dust that get between two polished plates in an engine that ought to move smoothly and closely against each other. The obstruction may be invisible, and yet be powerful enough to cause friction, which hinders the working of the engine and throws everything out of gear. A light cloud that we cannot see may come between us and a star, and we shall only know it is there, because the star is not visibly there. Similarly, many a Christian, quite unconsciously, has something or other in his habits, or in his conduct, or in his affections, which would reveal itself to him, if he would look, as being wrong, because it blots out God.
Let us remember that very little divergence will, if the two paths are prolonged far enough, part their other ends by a world. Our way may go off from the ways of the Lord at a very acute angle. There may be scarcely any consciousness of parting company at the beginning. Let the man travel on upon it far enough, and the two will be so far apart that he cannot see God or hear Him speak. Take care of the little divergences which are habitual, for their accumulated results will be complete separation. There must be absolute surrender if there is to be uninterrupted fellowship.
Such, then, is the direction in which we are to look for the reasons for our low and broken experiences of communion with God. Oh, dear friends! when we do as we sometimes do, wake with a start, like a child that all at once starts from sleep and finds that its mother is gone--when we wake with a start to feel that we are alone, then do not let us be afraid to go straight back. Only be sure that we leave behind us the sin that parted us.
You remember how Peter signalised himself on the lake, on the occasion of the second miraculous draught of fishes, when he floundered through the water and clasped Christ's feet. He did not say then, Depart from Me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!' He had said that before on a similar occasion, when he felt his sin less, but now he knew that the best place for the denier was with his head on Christ's bosom. So, if we have parted from our Friend, there should be no time lost ere we go back. May it be true of us that we walk with God, so that at last the great promise may be fulfilled about us, that we shall walk with Him in white,' being by His love accounted worthy,' and so follow' and keep company with, the Lamb whithersoever He goeth!'
Come to Beth-el, and transgress; at Gilgal multiply transgression; and bring your sacrifices every morning, and your tithes after three years: 5. And offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving with leaven, and proclaim and publish the free offerings; for this liketh you, O ye children of Israel, saith the Lord God. 6. And I also have given you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and want of bread in all your places; yet have ye not returned unto Me, saith the Lord. 7. And also I have withholden the rain from you, when there were yet three months to the harvest; and I caused it to rain upon one city, and caused it not to rain upon another city; one piece was rained upon, and the piece whereupon it rained not withered. 8. So two or three cities wandered unto one city, to drink water; but they were not satisfied; yet have ye not returned unto Me, saith the Lord. 9. I have smitten you with blasting and mildew: when your gardens, and your vineyards, and your fig-trees, and your olive-trees increased, the palmerworm devoured them: yet have ye not returned unto Me, saith the Lord. 10. I have sent among you the pestilence, after the manner of Egypt; your young men have I slain with the sword, and have taken away your horses; and I have made the stink of your camps to come up unto your nostrils; yet have ye not returned unto Me, saith the Lord. 11. I have overthrown some of you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and ye were as a firebrand plucked out of the burning; yet have ye not returned unto Me, saith the Lord. 12. Therefore thus will I do unto thee, O Israel; and because I will do this unto thee, prepare to meet thy God, O Israel. 13. For, lo, He that formeth the mountains, and createth the wind, and declareth unto man what is his thought, that maketh the morning darkness, and treadeth upon the high places of the earth, The Lord, The God of hosts, is His name.'--AMOS iv. 4-13.
The reign of Jeroboam II. was one of brilliant military success and of profound moral degradation. Amos was a simple, hardy shepherd from the southern wilds of Judah, and his prophecies are redolent of his early life, both in their homely imagery and in the wholesome indignation and contempt for the silken-robed vice of Israel. No sterner picture of an utterly rotten social state was ever drawn than this book gives of the luxury, licentiousness, and oppressiveness of the ruling classes. This passage deals rather with the religious declension underlying the moral filth, and sets forth the self-willed idolatry of the people (vs. 4, 5), their obstinate resistance to God's merciful chastisement (vs. 6-11), and the heavier impending judgment (vs. 12, 13).
I. Indignant irony flashes in that permission or command to persevere in the calf worship. The seeming command is the strongest prohibition. There can be no worse thing befall a man than that he should be left to go on forwardly in the way of his heart. The real meaning is sufficiently emphasised by that second verb, and transgress'. Flock to one temple after another, and heap altars with sacrifices which you were never bid to offer, but understand that what you do is not worship, but sin.' That is a smiting sentence to pass upon elaborate ceremonial. The word literally means treason or rebellion, and by it Amos at one blow shatters the whole fabric. Note, too, that the offering of tithes was not called for by Mosaic law, every three days' (Revised Version), and that the use of leaven in burnt offerings was prohibited by it, and also that to call for freewill offerings was to turn spontaneousness into something like compulsion, and to bring ostentation into worship. All these characteristics spoiled the apparent religiousness, over and above the initial evil of disobedience, and warrant Amos's crushing equation, Your worship = rebellion.' All are driven home by the last words of verse 5, So ye love it.' The reason for all this prodigal ostentatious worship was to please themselves, not to obey God. That tainted everything, and always does.
The lessons of this burst of sarcasm are plain. The subtle influence of self creeps in even in worship, and makes it hollow, unreal, and powerless to bless the worshipper. Obedience is better than costly gifts. The beginning and end of all worship, which is not at same time transgression' is the submission of tastes, will, and the whole self. Again, men will lavish gifts far more freely in apparent religious service, which is but the worship of their reflected selves, than in true service of God. Again, the purity of willing offerings is marred when they are given in response to a loud call, or, when given, are proclaimed with acclamations. Let us not suppose that all the brunt of Amos's indignation fell only on these old devotees. The principles involved in it have a sharp edge, turned to a great deal which is allowed and fostered among ourselves.
II. The blaze of indignation changes in the second part of the passage into wounded tenderness, as the Prophet speaks in the name of God, and recounts the dreary monotony of failure attending all God's loving attempts to arrest Israel's departure by the mercy of judgment. Mark the sad cadence of the fivefold refrain, Ye have not returned unto Me, saith the Lord.' The unto' implies reaching the object to which we turn, and is not the less forcible but more usual word found in this phrase, which simply means towards' and indicates direction, without saying anything as to how far the return has gone. So there may have been partial moments of bethinking themselves, when the chastisement was on Israel; but there had been no thorough turning,' which had landed them at the side of God. Many a man turns towards God, who, for lack of resolved perseverance, never so turns as to get to God. The repeated complaint of the inefficacy of chastisements has in it a tone of sorrow and of wonder which does not belong only to the Prophet. If we remember who it was who was grieved at the blindness of their heart,' and who wondered at their unbelief' we shall not fear to recognise here the attribution of the same emotions to the heart of God.
To Amos, famine, drought, blasting, locusts, pestilence, and probably earthquake, were five messengers of God, and Amos was taught by God. If we looked deeper, we should see more clearly. The true view of the relation of all material things and events to God is this which the herdsman of Tekoa proclaimed. These messengers were not miracles,' but they were God's messengers all the same. Behind all phenomena stands a personal will, and they are nearer the secret of the universe who see God working in it all, than they who see all forces except the One which is the only true force. I give cleanness of teeth. I have withholden the rain. I have smitten. I have sent the pestilence. I have overthrown some of you.' To the Prophet's eye the world is all aflame with a present God. Let no scientific views, important and illuminating as these may be, hide from us the deeper truth, which lies beyond their region. The child who says God,' has got nearer the centre than the scientist who says Force.'
But Amos had another principle, that God sent physical calamities because of moral delinquencies and for moral and religious ends. These disasters were meant to bring Israel back to God, and were at once punishments and reformatory methods. No doubt the connection between sin and material evils was closer under the Old Testament than now. But if we may not argue as Amos did, in reference to such calamities as drought, and failures of harvests, and the like, as these affect communities, we may, at all events, affirm that, in the case of the individual, he is a wise man who regards all outward evil as having a possible bearing on his bettering spiritually. If a drought comes, learn to look to your irrigation, and don't cut down your forests so wantonly,' say the wise men nowadays; if pestilence breaks out, see to your drainage.' By all means. These things, too, are God's commandments, and we have no right to interpret the consequences of infraction of physical laws as being meant to punish nations for their breach of moral and religious ones. If we were prophets, we might, but not else. But still, is God so poor that He can have but one purpose in a providence? Every sorrow, of whatever sort, is meant to produce all the good effects which it naturally tends to produce; and since every experience of pain and loss and grief naturally tends to wean us from earth, and to drive us to find in God what earth can never yield, all our sorrows are His messengers to draw us back to Him. Amos' lesson as to the purpose of trials is not antiquated.
But he has still another to teach us; namely, the awful power which we have of resisting God's efforts to draw us back. Our wills are ours, we know not how,' but alas! it is too often not to make them Thine.' This is the true tragedy of the world that God calls, and we do refuse, even as it is the deepest mystery of sinful manhood that God calls and we can refuse. What infinite pathos and grieved love, thrown back upon itself, is in that refrain, Ye have not returned unto Me!' How its recurrence speaks of the long-suffering which multiplied means as others failed, and of the divine charity, which suffered long, was not soon angry, and hoped all things!' How vividly it gives the impression of the obstinacy that to all effort opposed insensibility, and clung the more closely and insanely to the idolatry which was its crime and its ruin! The very same temper is deep in us all. Israel holds up the mirror in which we may see ourselves. If blows do not break iron, they harden it. A wasted sorrow--that is, a sorrow which does not drive us to God--leaves us less impressible than it found us.
III. Again the mood changes, and the issue of protracted resistance is prophesied (vs. 12, 13). Therefore' sums up the instances of refusal to be warned, and presents them as the cause of the coming evil. The higher the dam is piled, the deeper the water that is gathered behind it, and the surer and more destructive the flood when it bursts. Long-delayed judgments are severe in proportion as they are slow. Note the awful vagueness of threatening in that emphatic thus,' as if the Prophet had the event before his eyes. There is no need to specify, for there can be but one result from such obstinacy. The terror of the Lord' is more moving by reason of the dimness which wraps it. The contact of divine power with human rebellion can only end in one way, and that is too terrible for speech. Conscience can translate thus.' The thunder-cloud is all the more dreadful for the vagueness of its outline, where its livid hues melt into formless black. What bolts lurk in its gloom?
The certainty of judgment is the basis of a call to repentance, which may avert it. The meeting with God for which Israel is besought to prepare, was, of course, not judgment after death, but the impending destruction of the Northern Kingdom. But Amos's prophetic call is not misapplied when directed to that final day of the Lord. Common-sense teaches preparation for a certain future, and Amos's trumpet-note is deepened and re-echoed by Jesus: Be ye ready also, for the Son of man cometh.' Note, too, that Israel's peculiar relation to God is the very ground of the certainty of its punishment, and of the appeal for repentance. Just because He is thy God,' will He assuredly come to judge, and you may assuredly prepare, by repentance, to meet Him. The conditions of meeting the Judge, and being found of Him in peace,' are that we should be without spot, and blameless'; and the conditions of being so spotless and uncensurable are, what they were in Amos's day, repentance and trust. Only we have Jesus as the brightness of the Father's glory to trust in, and His all-sufficient work to trust to, for pardon and purifying.
The magnificent proclamation of the name of the Lord which closes the passage, is meant as at once a guarantee of His judgment and an enforcement of the call to be ready to meet Him. He in creation forms the solid, changeless mountains and the viewless, passing wind. The most stable and the most mobile are His work. He reads men's hearts, and can tell them their thoughts afar off. He is the Author of all changes, both in the physical and the moral world, bringing the daily wonder of sunrise and the nightly shroud of darkness, and with like alternation blending joy and sorrow in men's lives. He treads on the high places of the earth,' making all created elevations the path of His feet, and crushing down whatever exalts itself. Thus, in creation almighty, in knowledge omniscient, in providence changing all things and Himself the same, subjugating all, and levelling a path for His purposes across every opposition, He manifests His name, as the living, eternal Jehovah, the God of the Covenant, and therefore of judgment on its breakers, and as the Commander and God of the embattled forces of the universe. Is this a God whose coming to judge is to be lightly dealt with? Is not this a God whom it is wise for us to be ready to meet?
For thus saith the Lord unto the house of Israel, Seek ye Me, and ye shall live: 5. But seek not Beth-el, nor enter into Gilgal, and pass not to Beer-sheba: for Gilgal shall surely go into captivity, and Beth-el shall come to nought. 6. Seek the Lord, and ye shall live; lest He break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and devour it, and there be none to quench it in Beth-el. 7. Ye who turn judgment to wormwood, and leave off righteousness in the earth, 8. Seek Him that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night: that calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: The Lord is His name: 9. That strengtheneth the spoiled against the strong, so that the spoiled shall come against the fortress. 10. They hate him that rebuketh in the gate, and they abhor him that speaketh uprightly. 11. Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them. 12. For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right 13. Therefore the prudent shall keep silence in that time; for it is an evil time. 14. Seek good, and not evil, that ye may live: and so the Lord, the God of hosts, shall be with you, as ye have spoken. 15. Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate: it may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph.'--AMOS v. 4-15.
The reign of Jeroboam II, in which Amos prophesied, was a period of great prosperity and of great corruption. Amos, born in the Southern Kingdom, and accustomed to the simple life of a shepherd, blazed up in indignation at the signs of misused wealth and selfish luxury that he saw everywhere, in what was to him almost a foreign country. If one fancies a godly Scottish Highlander sent to the West end of London, or a Bible-reading New England farmer's man sent to New York's upper ten,' one will have some notion of this prophet, the impressions made, and the task laid on him. He has a message to our state of society which, in many particulars, resembles that which he had to rebuke.
There seems to be a slight dislocation in the order of the verses of the passage, for verse 7 comes in awkwardly, breaking the connection between verses 6 and 8, and itself cut off from verse 10, to which it belongs. If we remove the intruding verse to a position after verse 9, the whole passage is orderly and falls into three coherent parts: an exhortation to seek Jehovah, enforced by various considerations (vs. 4-9); a vehement denunciation of social vices (vs. 7, 10-13); and a renewed exhortation to seek God by doing right to man (vs. 14, 15).
Amos's first call to Israel is but the echo of God's to men, always and everywhere. All circumstances, all inward experiences, joy and sorrow, prosperity and disaster, our longings and our fears, they all cry aloud to us to seek His face. That loving invitation is ever sounding in our ears. And the promise which Amos gave, though it may have meant on his lips the continuance of national life only, yet had, even on his lips, a deeper meaning, which we now cannot but hear in it. For, just as to seek the Lord' means more to us than it did to Israel, so the consequent life has greatened, widened, deepened into life eternal. But Amos's narrower, more external promise is true still, and there is no surer way of promoting true well-being than seeking God. With Thee is the fountain of life,' in all senses of the word, from the lowest purely physical to the highest, and it is only they who go thither to draw that will carry away their pitchers full of the sparkling blessing. The fundamental principle of Amos's teaching is an eternal truth, that to seek God is to find Him, and to find Him is life.
But Amos further teaches us that such seeking is not real nor able to find, unless it is accompanied with turning away from all sinful quests after vanities. We must give up seeking Bethel, Gilgal, or Beersheba, seats of the calf worship, if we are to seek God to purpose. The sin of the Northern Kingdom was that it wanted to worship Jehovah under the symbol of the calves, thus trying to unite two discrepant things. And is not a great deal of our Christianity of much the same quality? Too many of us are doing just what Elijah told the crowds on Carmel that they were doing, trying to shuffle along on both knees.' We would seek God, but we would like to have an occasional visit to Bethel. It cannot be done. There must be detachment, if there is to be any real attachment. And the certain transiency of all creatural objects is a good reason for not fastening ourselves to them, lest we should share their fate. Gilgal shall go into captivity, and Bethel shall come to nought,' therefore let us join ourselves to the Eternal Love and we shall abide, as it abides, for ever.
The exhortation is next enforced by presenting the consequences of neglecting it. To seek Him is life, not to seek Him incurs the danger of finding Him in unwelcome ways. That is for ever true. We do not get away from God by forgetting Him, but we run the risk of finding in Him, not the fire which vitalises, purifies, melts, and gladdens, but that which consumes. The fire is one, but its effects are twofold. God is for us either that fire into which it is blessedness to be baptized, or that by which it is death to be burned up. And what can Bethel, or calves, or all the world do to quench it or pluck us out of it?
Once more the exhortation is urged, if we link verse 8 with verse 6, and supply Seek ye' at its beginning. Here the enforcement is drawn from the considerations of God's workings in nature and history. The shepherd from Tekoa had often gazed up at the silent splendours of the Pleiades and Orion, as he kept watch over his flocks by night, and had seen the thick darkness on the wide uplands thinning away as the morning stole op over the mountains across the Dead Sea, and the day dying as he gathered his sheep together. He had cowered under the torrential rains which swept across his exposed homeland, and had heard God's voice summoning the obedient waters of the sea, that He might pour them down in rain. But the moral government of the world also calls on men to seek Jehovah. He causeth destruction to flash forth on the strong, so that destruction cometh upon the fortress.' High things attract the lightning. Godless strength is sure, sooner or later, to be smitten down, and no fortress is so impregnable that He cannot capture and overthrow it. Surely wisdom bids us seek Him that does all these wonders, and make Him our defence and our high tower.
The second part gives a vivid picture of the vices characteristic of a prosperous state of society which is godless, and therefore selfishly luxurious. First, civil justice is corrupted, turned into bitterness, and prostrated to the ground. Then bold denouncers of national sins are violently hated. Do we not know that phase of an ungodly and rich society? What do the newspapers say about Christians who try to be social reformers? Are the epithets flung at them liker bouquets or rotten eggs? Fanatics and faddists' are the mildest of them. Then the poor are trodden down and have to give large parts of their scanty harvests to the rich. Have capital and labour just proportions of their joint earnings? Would a sermon on verse 11 be welcome in the suburbs of industrial centres, where the employers have their houses of hewn stone'? Such houses, side by side with the poor men's huts, struck the eye of the shepherd from Tekoa as the height of sinful luxury, and still more sinful disproportion in the social condition of the two classes. What would he have said if he had lived in England or America? Justice, too, was bought and sold. A murderer could buy himself off, while the poor man, who could not pay, lost his case. We do not bribe juries, but (legal) justice is an expensive luxury still, and counsel's fees put it out of the reach of poor men.
One of the worst features of such a state of society as Amos saw is that men are afraid to speak out in condemnation of it, and the ill weeds grow apace for want of a scythe. Amos puts a certain sad emphasis on prudent,' as if he was feeling how little he could be called so, and yet there is a touch of scorn in him too. The man who is over-careful of his skin or his reputation will hold his tongue; even good men may become so accustomed to the glaring corruptions of society in the midst of which they have always lived, that they do not feel any call to rebuke or wage war against them; but the brave man, the man who takes his ideals from Christ, and judges society by its conformity with Christ's standard, will not keep silence, and the more he feels that It is an evil time' the more will he feel that he cannot but speak out, whatever comes of his protest. What masquerades as prudence is very often sinful cowardice, and such silence is treason against Christ.
The third part repeats the exhortation to seek,' with a notable difference. It is now good' that is to be sought, and evil' that is to be turned from. These correspond respectively to Jehovah,' and Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba,' in former verses. That is to say, morality is the garb of religion, and religion is the only true source of morality. If we are not seeking the things that are lovely and of good report, our professions of seeking God are false; and we shall never earnestly and successfully seek good and hate evil unless we have begun by seeking and finding God, and holding Him in our heart of hearts. Modern social reformers, who fancy that they can sweeten society without religion, might do worse than go to school to Amos.
Notable, too, is the lowered tone of confidence in the beneficial result of obeying the Prophet's call. In the earlier exhortation the promise had been absolute. Seek ye Me, and ye shall live'; now it has cooled to it may be.' Is Amos faltering? No; but while it is always true that blessed life is found by the seeker after God, because He finds the very source of life, it is not always true that the consequences of past turnings from Him are diverted by repentance. It may be' that these have to be endured, but even they become tokens of Jehovah's graciousness, and the purified remnant of Joseph' will possess the true life more abundantly because they have been exercised thereby.
Woe to them that are at ease in Zion, and trust in the mountain of Samaria, which are named chief of the nations, to whom the house of Israel came! 2. Pass ye unto Calneh, and see; and from thence go ye to Hamath the great; then go down to Gath of the Philistines: be they better than these kingdoms? or their border greater than your border? 3. Ye that put far away the evil day, and cause the seat of violence to come near; 4. That lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall; 5. That chant to the sound of the viol, and invent to themselves instruments of musick, like David; 6. That drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments: but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph. 7. Therefore now shall they go captive with the first that go captive, and the banquet of them that stretched themselves shall be removed. 8. The Lord God hath sworn by Himself, saith the Lord the God of hosts, I abhor the excellency of Jacob, and hate his palaces: therefore will I deliver up the city with all that is therein.'--AMOS vi. 1-8.
Amos prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam, the son of Joash. Jeroboam's reign was a time of great prosperity for Israel. Moab, Gilead, and part of Syria were reconquered, and the usual effects of conquest, increased luxury and vainglory, followed. Amos was not an Israelite born, for he came from Tekoa, away down south, in the wild country west of the Dead Sea, where he had been a simple herdsman till the divine call sent him into the midst of the corrupt civilisation of the Northern Kingdom. The first words of his prophecy give its whole spirit: The Lord will roar from Zion.' The word rendered roar' is the term specially used for the terrible cry with which a lion leaps on its surprised prey (Amos iii. 4, 8). It is from Zion, the seat of God's Temple, that the roar' proceeds, and Amos's prophecy is but the echo of it in Israel.
The prophecy of judgment in this passage is directed against the sins of the upper classes in Samaria. They are described in verse 1 as the notable men to whom the house of Israel come,' which, in modern language, is just conspicuous citizens,' who set the fashion, and are looked to as authorities and leaders, whether in political or commercial or social life. The word by which they are designated is used in Numbers i. 17: Which are expressed by name.' The word carried back the thoughts of the degenerate aristocracy of Israel to the faith and zeal of their forefathers' (Pusey, Minor Prophets, on this verse). Israel, Amos calls The first of the nations.' It is singular that such a title should be given to the nation against whose corruption his one business is to testify, but probably there is keen irony in the word. It takes Israel at its own estimate, and then goes on to show how rotten, and therefore short-lived, was the prosperity which had swollen national pride to such a pitch. The chiefs of the foremost nation in the world should surely be something better than the heartless debauchees whom the Prophet proceeds to paint. Anglo-Saxons on both sides of the Atlantic, who are by no means deficient in this same complacent estimate of their own superiority to all other peoples, may take note. The same thought is prominent in the description of these notables as at ease.' They are living in a fool's paradise, shutting their eyes to the thunder-clouds that begin to rise slowly above the horizon, and keeping each other in countenance in laughing at Amos and his gloomy forecasts. They trusted in the mountain of Samaria,' which, they thought, made the city impregnable to assault. No doubt they thought that the Prophet's talk about doing right and trusting in Jehovah was very fanatical and unpractical, just as many in England and America think that their nations are exalted, not by righteousness, but by armies, navies, and dollars or sovereigns.
Verse 2 is very obscure to us from our ignorance of the facts underlying its allusions. In fact, it has been explained in exactly opposite ways, being taken by some to enumerate three instances of prosperous communities, which yet are not more prosperous than Israel, and by others to enumerate three instances of God's judgments falling on places which, though strong, had been conquered. In the former explanation, God's favour to Israel is made the ground of an implied appeal to their gratitude; in the latter, His judgments on other nations are made the ground of an appeal to their fear, lest like destruction should fall on them.
But the main points of the passage are the photograph of the crimes which are bringing the judgment of God, and the solemn divine oath to inflict the judgment. The crimes rebuked are not the false worship of the calves, though in other parts of his prophecy Amos lashes that with terrible invectives, nor foul breaches of morality, though these were not wanting in Israel, but the vices peculiar to selfish, luxurious upper classes in all times and countries, who forget the obligations of wealth, and think only of its possibilities of self-indulgence. French noblesse before the Revolution, and English peers and commercial magnates, and American millionaires, would yield examples of the same sin. The hardy shepherd from Tekoa had learned plain living and high thinking' before he was a prophet, and would look with wondering and disgusted eyes at the wicked waste which he saw in Samaria. He begins with scourging the reckless security already referred to. These notables in Israel were at ease' because they put far away the evil day,' by refusing to believe that it was at hand, and paying no heed to prophets' warnings, as their fellows do still and always, and as we all are tempted to do. They who see and declare the certain end of national or personal sins are usually jeered at as pessimists, fanatics, alarmists, bad patriots, or personal ill-wishers, and the men whom they try to warn fancy that they hinder the coming of a day of retribution by disbelieving in its coming. Incredulity is no lightning-conductor to keep off the flash, and, listened to or not, the low growls of the thunder are coming nearer.
With one hand these sinners tried to push away the evil day, while with the other they drew near to themselves that which made its coming certain--the seat of violence,' or, rather, the sitting,' or session.' Violence, or wrongdoing, is enthroned by them, and where men enthrone iniquity, God's day of vengeance is not far off.
Then follows a graphic picture of the senseless, corrupting luxury of the Samaritan magnates, on which the Tekoan shepherd pours his scorn, but which is simplicity itself, and almost asceticism, before what he would see if he came to London or New York. To him it seemed effeminate to loll on a divan at meals, and possibly it was a custom imported from abroad. It is noted that the older custom in Israel was to sit while eating.' The woodwork of the divans, inlaid with ivory, had caught his eye in some of his peeps into the great houses, and he inveighs against them very much as one of the Pilgrim Fathers might do if he could see the furniture in the drawing-rooms of some of his descendants. There is no harm in pretty things, but the ae^3'hetic craze does sometimes indicate and increase selfish heartlessness as to the poverty and misery, which have not only no ivory on their divans, but no divans at all. Thus stretched in unmanly indolence on their cushions, they feast on delicacies. Lambs out of the flock' and calves out of the stall' seem to mean animals too young to be used as food. These gourmands, like their successors, prided themselves on having dainties out of season, because they were more costly then. And their feasts had the adornment of music, which the shepherd, who knew only the pastoral pipe that gathered his sheep, refers to with contempt. He uses a very rare word of uncertain meaning, which is probably best rendered in some such way as the Revised Version does: They sing idle songs.' To him their elaborate performances seemed like empty babble. Worse than that, they devise musical instruments like David.' But how unlike him in the use they make of art! What a descent from the praises of God to the idle songs' fit for the hot dining-halls and the guests there! Amos was indignant at the profanation of art, and thought it best used in the service of God. What would he have said if he had been fastened into a front-row box' and treated to a modern opera?
The revellers drink wine in bowls' by which larger vessels than generally employed are intended. They drank to excess, or as we might say, by bucketfuls. So the dainty feast, with its artistic refinement and music, ends at last in a brutal carouse, and the heads anointed with the most costly unguents drop in drunken slumber. A similar picture of Samaritan manners is drawn by Isaiah (chap. xxviii.), and obviously drunkenness was one of the besetting sins of the capital.
But the darkest hue in the dark picture has yet to be added: They are not grieved for the affliction (literally, the breach' or wound') of Joseph.' The tribe of Ephraim, Joseph's son, being the principal tribe of the Northern Kingdom, Joseph is often employed as a synonym for Israel. All these pieces of luxury, corrupting and effeminate as they are, might be permitted, but heartless indifference to the miseries groaning at the door of the banqueting-hall goes with them. The classes' are indifferent to the condition of the masses.' Put Amos into modern English, and he is denouncing the heartlessness of wealth, refinement, art, and culture, which has no ear for the complaining of the poor, and no eyes to see either the sorrows and sins around it, or the lowering cloud that is ready to burst in tempest.
The inevitable issue is certain, because of the very nature of God. It is outlined with keen irony. Amos sees in imagination the long procession of sad captives, and marching in the front ranks, the self-indulgent Sybarites, whose pre-eminence is now only the melancholy prerogative of going first in the fettered train. What has become of their revelry? It is gone, like the imaginary banquets of dreams, and instead of luxurious lolling on silken couches, there is the weary tramp of the captive exiles. Such result must be, since God is what He is. He has sworn by Himself'; His being and character are the pledge that it will be so as Amos has declared. How can such a God as He is do otherwise than hate the pride of such a selfish, heartless, God-forgetting aristocracy? How can He do otherwise than deliver up the city? God has not changed, and though His mills grind slowly, they do grind still; and it is as true for England and America, as it was for Samaria, that a wealthy and leisurely upper class, which cares only for material luxury glossed over by art, which has condescended to be its servant, is bringing near the evil day which it hugs itself into believing will never come.
Thus hath the Lord God shewed unto me: and behold a basket of summer fruit. 2. And He said, Amos, what seest thou? And I said, A basket of summer fruit. Then said the Lord unto me, The end is come upon My people of Israel; I will not again pass by them any more. 3. And the songs of the temple shall be howlings in that day, saith the Lord God: there shall be many dead bodies in every place; they shall cast them forth with silence. 4. Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail. 5. Saying, When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn? and the sabbath, that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit? 6. That we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; yea, and sell the refuse of the wheat? 7. The Lord hath sworn by the excellency of Jacob, Surely I will never forget any of their works. 8. Shall not the land tremble for this, and every one mourn that dwelleth therein? and it shall rise up wholly as a flood; and it shall be cast out and drowned, as by the flood of Egypt. 9. And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord God, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day: 10. And I w ill turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; and I will bring up sackcloth upon all loins, and baldness upon every head; and I will make it as the mourning of an only son, and the end thereof as a bitter day. 11. Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: 12. And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it. 13. In that day shall the fair virgins and young men faint for thirst. 14. They that swear by the sin of Samaria, and say, Thy God, O Dan, liveth: and, The manner of Beer-sheba liveth; even they shall fall, and never rise up again.'--AMOS viii. 1-14.
There are three visions in the former chapter, each beginning as verse 1. This one is therefore intended to be taken as the continuation of these, and it is in substance a repetition of the third, only with more detail and emphasis. An insolent attempt, by the priest of Beth-el, to silence the Prophet, and the fiery answer which he got for his pains, come between. The stream of Amos's prophecy flows on, uninterrupted by the boulder which had tried to dam it up. Some courage was needed to treat Amaziah and his blasphemous bluster as a mere parenthesis.
We have first to note the vision and its interpretation. It is such as a countryman, a dresser of sycamore trees' would naturally have. Experience supplies forms and material for the imagination, and moulds into which God-given revelations run. The point of the vision is rather obscured by the rendering summer fruit.' Ripe fruit' would be better, since the emblem represents the Northern Kingdom as ripe for the dreadful ingathering of judgment. The word for this (qayits) and that for the end' (qets) are alike in sound, but the play of words cannot be reproduced, except by some clumsy device, such as the end ripens' or the time of ripeness comes.' The figure is frequent in other prophecies of judgment, as, for instance, in Revelation xiv. 14-20.
Observe the repetition, from the preceding vision, of I will not pass by them any more.' The first two visions had threatened judgments, which had been averted by the Prophet's intercession; but the third, and now the fourth, declare that the time for prolonged impunity is passed. Just as the mellow ripeness of the fruit fixes the time of gathering it, so there comes a stage in national and individual corruption, when there is nothing to be done but to smite. That period is not reached because God changes, but because men get deeper in sin. Because the harvest is ripe,' the long-delayed command, Put in thy sickle' is given to the angel of judgment, and the clusters of those black grapes, whose juice in the wine-press of the wrath of God is blood, are cut down and cast in. It is a solemn lesson, applying to each soul as well as to communities. By neglect of God's voice, and persistence in our own evil ways, we can make ourselves such that we are ripe for judgment, and can compel long-suffering to strike. Which are we ripening for--the harvest when the wheat shall be gathered into Christ's barns, or that when the tares shall be bound in bundles for burning?
The tragedy of that fruit-gathering is described with extraordinary grimness and force in the abrupt language of verse 3. The merry songs sung in the palace (this rendering seems more appropriate here than temple') will be broken off, and the singers' voices will quaver into shrill shrieks, so suddenly will the judgment be. Then comes a picture as abrupt in its condensed terribleness as anything in Tacitus--Many the corpses; everywhere they fling them; hush!' We see the ghastly masses of dead (corpse' is in the singular, as if a collective noun), so numerous that no burial-places could hold them; and no ceremonial attended them, but they were rudely flung anywhere by anybody (no nominative is given), with no accustomed voice of mourning, but in gloomy silence. It is like Defoe's picture of the dead-cart in the plague of London. Such is ever the end of departing from God--songs palsied into silence or turned into wailing when the judgment bursts; death stalking supreme, and silence brooding over all.
The crimes that ripened men for this terrible harvest are next set forth, in part, in verses 4 to 6. These verses partly coincide verbally with the previous indictment in Amos ii. 6, etc., which, however, is more comprehensive. Here only one form of sin is dealt with. And what was the sin that deserved the bad eminence of being thus selected as the chief sign that Israel was ripe and rotten? Precisely the one which gets most indulgence in the Christian Church; namely, eagerness to be rich, and sharp, unkindly dealing. These men, who were only fit to be swept out of the land, were most punctual in their religious duties. They would not on any account do business either on a festival or on Sabbath, but they were very impatient till--shall we say? Monday morning came--that they might get to their beloved work again.
Their lineal descendants are no strangers on the exchanges, or in the churches of London or New York. They were not only outwardly scrupulous and inwardly weary of religious observances, but when they did get to business,' they gave short measure and took a long price, and knew how to turn the scales always in their own favour. It was the expedient of rude beginners in the sacred art of getting the best of a bargain, to put a false bottom in the ephah, and to stick a piece of lead below the shekel weight, which the purchaser had to make go up in the scale with his silver. There are much neater ways of doing the same thing now; and no doubt some very estimable gentlemen in high repute as Christians, who give respectability to any church or denomination, could have taught these early practitioners a lesson or two.
They were as cruel as they were greedy. They bought their brethren as slaves, and if a poor man had run into their debt for even a pair of shoes, they would sell him up in a very literal sense. Avarice, unbridled by the fear of God, leads by a short cut to harshness and disregard of the claims of others. There are more ways of buying the needy for a pair of shoes than these people practised.
The last touch in the picture is meanness, which turned everything into money. Even what fell through the sieve when wheat was winnowed, which ought to have been given to anybody, was carefully scraped up, and, dirty as it was, sold. Is not nothing for nothing' an approved maxim to-day? Are not people held up as shining lights of commerce, who have the faculty of turning everything into saleable articles? Some serious reflections ought to be driven home to us who live in great commercial communities, and are in manifold ways tempted to learn their ways, and so get a snare unto our souls,' by this gibbeting of tempers and customs, very common among ourselves, as the very head and front of the sin of Israel, which determined its ripeness for destruction.
The catalogue of sins is left incomplete (compare with chapter ii.), as if holy indignation turned for relief to the thought of the certain judgment. That certainly is strongly affirmed by the representation of the oath of Jehovah. He can swear by no other,' therefore He swears by Himself'; and the excellency of Jacob' cannot with propriety mean anything else than Him who is, or ought to be, the sole ground of confidence and occasion of boasting' to the nation (Hos. v. 5). He gives His own being as the guarantee that judgment shall fall. As surely as God is God, injustice and avarice will ruin a nation. We talk now about necessary consequences and natural laws rendering penalties inevitable. The Bible suggests a deeper foundation for their certain incidence--even the very nature of God Himself. As long as He is what He is, covetousness and its child, harshness to the needy, will be sin against Him, and be avenged sooner or later. God has a long and a wide memory, and the sins which He remembers' are those which He has not forgiven, and will punish.
Amos heaps image on image to deepen the impression of terror and confusion. Everything is turned to its opposite. The solid land reels, rises, and falls, like the Nile in flood (see Revised Version). The sun sets at midday, and noon is darkness. Feasts change to mourning, songs to lamentations. Rich garments are put aside for sackcloth, and flowing locks drop off and leave bald heads. These are evidently all figures vividly piled together to express the same thought. The crash that destroyed their national prosperity and existence would shake the most solid things and darken the brightest. It would come suddenly, as if the sun plunged from the zenith to the west. It would make joy a stranger, and bring grief as bitter as when a father or a mother mourns the death of an only son. Besides all this, something darker beyond is dimly hinted in that awful, vague, final threat, The end thereof as a bitter day.'
Now all these threats were fulfilled in the fall of the kingdom of Israel; but that day of the Lord' was in principle a miniature foreshadowing of the great final judgment. Some of the very features of the description here are repeated with reference to it in the New Testament. We cannot treat such prophecies as this as if they were exhausted by their historical fulfilment. They disclose the eternal course of divine judgment, which is to culminate in a future day of judgment. The oath of God is not yet completely fulfilled. Assuredly as He lives and is God, so surely will modern sinners have to stand their trial; and, as of old, the chase after riches will bring down crashing ruin. We need that vision of judgment as much as Samaria did when Amos saw the basket of ripe fruit, craving, as it were, to be plucked. So do obstinate sinners invite destruction.
The last section specifies one feature of judgment, the deprivation of the despised word of the Lord (vs. 11-14). Like Saul, whose piteous wail in the witch's hovel was, God answereth me no more,' they who paid no heed to the word of the Lord shall one day seek far and wearily for a prophet, and seek in vain. The word rendered wander,' which is used in the other description of people seeking for water in a literal drought (iv. 8), means reel,' and gives the picture of men faint and dizzy with thirst, yet staggering on in vain quest for a spring. They seek everywhere, from the Dead Sea on the east to the Mediterranean on the west, and then up to the north, and so round again to the starting-point. Is it because Judah was south that that quarter is not visited? Perhaps, if they had gone where the Temple was, they would have found the stream from under its threshold, which a later prophet saw going forth to heal the marshes and dry places. Why was the search vain? Has not God promised to be found of those that seek, however far they have gone away? The last verse tells why. They still were idolaters, swearing by the sin of Samaria,' which is the calf of Beth-el, and by the other at Dan, and going on idolatrous pilgrimages to Beer-sheba, far away in the south, across the whole kingdom of Judah (Amos v. 5). It was vain to seek for the word of the Lord with such doings and worship.
The truth implied is universal in its application. God's message neglected is withdrawn. Conscience stops if continually unheeded. The Gospel may still sound in a man's ears, but have long ceased to reach farther. There comes a time when men shall wish wasted opportunities back, and find that they can no more return than last summer's heat. There may be a wish for the prophet in time of distress, which means no real desire for God's word, but only for relief from calamity. There may be a sort of seeking for the word, which seeks in the wrong places and in the wrong ways, and without abandoning sins. Such quest is vain. But if, driven by need and sorrow, a poor soul, feeling the thirst after the living God, cries from ever so distant a land of bondage, the cry will be answered. But let us not forget that our Lord has told us to take heed how we hear, on the very ground that to him that hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away.'
Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2. Arise, go to Nineveh, that great, city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me. 3. But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. 4. But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken. 5. Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep. 6. So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not. 7. And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah. 8. Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou? 9. And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land. 10. Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. 11. Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous. 12. And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you. 13. Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them. 14. Wherefore they cried unto the Lord, and said, We beseech thee, O Lord, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for Thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased Thee. 15. So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea; and the sea ceased from her raging. 16. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows. 17. Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.'--JONAH i. 1-17.
Jonah was apparently an older contemporary of Hosea and Amos. The Assyrian power was looming threateningly on the northern horizon, and a flash or two had already broken from that cloud. No doubt terror had wrought hate and intenser narrowness. To correct these by teaching, by an instance drawn from Assyria itself, God's care for the Gentiles and their susceptibility to His voice, was the purpose of Jonah's mission. He is a prophet of Israel, because the lesson of his history was for them, though his message was for Nineveh. He first taught by example the truth which Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue of Nazareth, and Peter learned on the housetop at Joppa, and Paul took as his guiding star. A truth so unwelcome and remote from popular belief needed emphasis when first proclaimed; and this singular story, as it were, underlines it for the generation which heard it first. Its place would rather have been among the narratives than the prophets, except for this aspect of it. So regarded, Jonah becomes a kind of representative of Israel; and his history sets forth large lessons as to its function among the nations, its unwillingness to discharge it, the consequences of disobedience, and the means of return to a better mind.
Note then, first, the Prophet's unwelcome charge. There seems no sufficient reason for doubting the historical reality of Jonah's mission to Nineveh; for we know that intercourse was not infrequent, and the silence of other records is, in their fragmentary condition, nothing wonderful. But the fact that a prophet of Israel was sent to a heathen city, and that not to denounce destruction except as a means of winning to repentance, declared emphatically God's care for the world, and rebuked the exclusiveness which claimed Him for Israel alone. The same spirit haunts the Christian Church, and we have all need to ponder the opposite truth, till our sympathies are widened to the width of God's universal love, and we discern that we are bound to care for all men, since He does so.
Jonah sullenly resolved not to obey God's voice. What a glimpse into the prophetic office that gives us! The divine Spirit could be resisted, and the Prophet was no mere machine, but a living man who had to consent with his devoted will to bear the burden of the Lord. One refused, and his refusal teaches us how superb and self-sacrificing was the faithfulness of the rest. So we have each to do in regard to God's message intrusted to us. We must bow our wills, and sink our prejudices, and sacrifice our tastes, and say, Here am I; send me.'
Jonah represents the national feelings which he shared. Why did he refuse to go to Nineveh? Not because he was afraid of his life, or thought the task hopeless. He refused because he feared success. God's goodness was being stretched rather too far, if it was going to take in Nineveh. Jonah did not want it to escape. If he had been sent to destroy it, he would probably have gone gladly. He grudged that heathen should share Israel's privileges, and probably thought that gain to Nineveh would be loss to Israel. It was exactly the spirit of the prodigal's elder brother. There was also working in him the concern for his own reputation, which would be damaged if the threats he uttered turned out to be thunder without lightning, by reason of the repentance of Nineveh.
Israel was set among the nations, not as a dark lantern, but as the great lampstand in the Temple court proclaimed, to ray out light to all the world. Jonah's mission was but a concrete instance of Israel's charge. The nation was as reluctant to fulfil the reason of its existence as the Prophet was. Both begrudged sharing privileges with heathen dogs, both thought God's care wasted, and neither had such feelings towards the rest of the world as to be willing to be messengers of forgiveness to them. All sorts of religious exclusiveness, contemptuous estimates of other nations, and that bastard patriotism which would keep national blessings for our own country alone, are condemned by this story. In it dawns the first faint light of that sun which shone at its full when Jesus healed the Canaanite's daughter, or when He said, Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold.'
Note, next, the fatal consequences of refusal to obey the God-given charge. We need not suppose that Jonah thought that he could actually get away from God's presence. Possibly he believed in a special presence of God in the land of Israel, or, more probably, the phrase means to escape from service. At any rate, he determined to do his flight thoroughly. Tarshish was, to a Hebrew, at the other end of the world from Nineveh. The Jews were no sailors, and the choice of the sea as means of escape indicates the obstinacy of determination in Jonah.
The storm is described with a profusion of unusual words, all apparently technical terms, picked up on board, just as Luke, in the only other account of a storm in Scripture, has done. What a difference between the two voyages! In the one, the unfaithful prophet is the cause of disaster, and the only sluggard in the ship. In the other, the Apostle, who has hazarded his life to proclaim his Lord, is the source of hope, courage, vigour, and safety. Such are the consequences of silence and of brave speech for God. No wonder that the fugitive Prophet slunk down into some dark corner, and sat bitterly brooding there, self-accused and condemned, till weariness and the relief of the tension of his journey lulled him to sleep. It was a stupid and heavy sleep. Alas for those whose only refuge from conscience is oblivion!
Over against this picture of the insensible Prophet, all unaware of the storm (which may suggest the parallel insensibility of Israel to the impending divine judgments), is set the behaviour of the heathen sailors, or salts,' as the story calls them. Their conduct is part of the lesson of the book; for, heathen as they are, they have yet a sense of dependence, and they pray; they are full of courage, battling with the storm, jettisoning the cargo, and doing everything possible to save the ship. Their treatment of Jonah is generous and chivalrous. Even when they hear his crime, and know that the storm is howling like a wild beast for him, they are unwilling to throw him overboard without one more effort; and when at last they do it, their prayer is for forgiveness, inasmuch as they are but carrying out the will of Jehovah. They are so much touched by the whole incident that they offer sacrifices to the God of the Hebrews, and are, in some sense, and possibly but for a time, worshippers of Him.
All this holds the mirror up to Israel, by showing how much of human kindness and generosity, and how much of susceptibility for the truth which Israel had to declare, lay in rude hearts beyond its pale. This crew of heathen of various nationalities and religions were yet men who could be kind to a renegade Prophet, peril their lives to save his, and worship Jehovah. I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel,' is the same lesson in another form. We may find abundant opportunities for learning it; for the characters of godless men, and of some among the heathen, may well shame many a Christian.
Jonah's conduct in the storm is no less noble than his former conduct had been base. The burst of the tempest blew away all the fog from his mind, and he saw the stars again. His confession of faith; his calm conviction that he was the cause of the storm; his quiet, unhesitating command to throw him into the wild chaos foaming about the ship; his willing acceptance of death as the wages of his sin, all tell how true a saint he was in the depth of his soul. Sorrow and chastisement turn up the subsoil. If a man has any good in him, it generally comes to the top when he is afflicted and looks death in the face. If there is nothing but gravel beneath, it too will be brought up by the plough. There may be much selfish unfaithfulness overlying a real devoted heart.
Jonah represented Israel here too, both in that the consequence of the national unfaithfulness and greedy, exclusive grasp of their privileges would lead to their being cast into the roaring waves of the sea of nations, amid the tumult of the peoples, and in that, for them as for him, the calamity would bring about a better mind, the confession of their faith, and acknowledgment of their sin. The history of Israel was typified in this history, and the lessons it teaches are lessons for all churches, and for all God's children for all time. If we shirk our duty of witnessing for Him, or any other of His plain commands, unfaithfulness will be our ruin. The storm is sure to break where His Jonahs try to hide, and their only hope lies in bowing to the chastisement and consenting to be punished, and avowing whose they are and whom they serve. If we own Him while the storm whistles round us, the worst of it is past, and though we have to struggle amid its waves, He will take care of us, and anything is possible rather than that we should be lost in them.
The miracle of rescue is the last point. Jonah's repentance saved his life. Tossed overboard impenitent he would have been drowned. So Israel was taught that the break-up of their national life would not be their destruction if they turned to the Lord in their calamity. The wider lesson of the means of making chastisement into blessing, and securing a way of escape--namely, by owning the justice of the stroke, and returning to duty--is meant for us all. He who sends the storm watches its effect on us, and will not let His repentant servants be utterly overwhelmed. That is a better use to make of the story than to discuss whether any kind of known Mediterranean fish could swallow a man. If we believe in miracles, the question need not trouble us. And miracle there must be, not only in the coincidence of the fish and the Prophet being in the same bit of sea at the same moment, but in his living for so long in his strange ark of safety.'
The ever-present providence of God, the possible safety of the nation, even when in captivity, the preservation of every servant of God who turns to the Lord in his chastisement, the exhibition of penitence as the way of deliverance, are the purposes for which the miracle was wrought and told. Flippant sarcasms are cheap. A devout insight yields a worthy meaning. Jesus Christ employed this incident as a symbol of His Death and Resurrection. That use of it seems hard to reconcile with any view but that the story is true. But it does not seem necessary to suppose that our Lord regarded it as an intended type, or to seek to find in Jonah's history further typical prophecy of Him. The salient point of comparison is simply the three days' entombment; and it is rather an illustrative analogy than an intentional prophecy. The subsequent action of the Prophet in Nineveh, and the effect of it, were true types of the preaching of the Gospel by the risen Lord, through His servants, to the Gentiles, and of their hearing the Word. But it requires considerable violence in manipulation to force the bestowing of Jonah, for safety and escape from death, in the fish's maw, into a proper prophecy of the transcendent fact of the Resurrection.
They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.'--JONAH ii. 8.
Jonah's refusal to obey the divine command to go to Nineveh and cry against it is best taken, not as prosaic history, but as a poetical representation of Israel's failure to obey the divine call of witnessing for God. In like manner, his being cast into the sea and swallowed by the great fish, is a poetic reproduction, for homiletical purposes, of Israel's sufferings at the hands of the heathen whom it had failed to warn. The song which is put into Jonah's mouth when in the fish's belly, of which our text is a fragment, represents the result on the part of the nation of these hard experiences. Lying vanities' mean idols, and their own mercy' means God. The text is a brief, pregnant utterance of the great truth which had been forced home to Israel by sufferings and exile, that to turn from Jehovah to false gods was to turn from the sure source of tender care to lies and emptiness. That is but one case of the wider truth that an ungodly life is the acme of stupidity, a tragic mistake, as well as a great sin.
In confirmation and enforcement of our text we may consider:--
I. The illusory vanity of the objects pursued.
The Old Testament tone of reference to idols is one of bitter contempt. Its rigid monotheism was intensified and embittered by the universal prevalence of idolatry; and there is a certain hardness in its tone in reference to the gods of the nations round about, which has little room for pity, and finds expression in such names as those of our text--vanities,' lies,' nothingness,' and the like. To the Jew, encompassed on all sides by idol-worshippers, the alternative was vehement indignation or entire surrender. The Mohammedan in British India exhibits much the same attitude to Vishnu and Siva as the Jew did to Baal and Ashtoreth. It is easy to be tolerant of dead gods, but it becomes treason to Jehovah to parley with them when they are alive.
But the point which we desire to insist upon here is somewhat wider than the vanity of idols. It is the emptiness of all objects of human pursuit apart from God. These last three words need to be made very prominent; for in itself every creature of God is good,' and the emptiness does not inhere in themselves, but first appears when they are set in His place. He, and only He, can, and does, satisfy the whole nature--is authority for the will, peace for the conscience, love for the heart, light for the understanding, rest for all seeking. He, and He alone, can fill the past with the light in which is no regret, the present with a satisfaction rounded and complete, the future with a hope certain as experience, to which we shall ever approximate, and which we can never exhaust and outgrow. Any, or all, the other objects of human endeavour may be won, and yet we may be miserable. The inadequacy of all these ought to be pressed home upon us more than it is, not only by their limitations whilst they last, but by the transiency of them all. The fashion of this world passeth away,' as the Apostle John puts it, in a forcible expression which likens all this frame of things to a panorama being unwound from one roller and on to another. The painted screen is but paint at the best, and is in perpetual motion, which is not arrested by the vain clutches of hands that would fain stop the irresistible and tragic gliding past.
These vanities are lying vanities.' There is only one aim of life which, being pursued and attained, fulfils the promises by which it drew man after it. It is a bald commonplace, reiterated not only by preachers but by moralists of every kind, and confirmed by universal experience, that a hope fulfilled is a hope disappointed. There is only one thing more tragic than a life which has failed in its aims, and it is a life which has perfectly succeeded in them, and has found that what promised to be bread turns to ashes. The word of promise may be kept to the ear, but is always broken to the hope. Many a millionaire loses the power to enjoy his millions by the very process by which he gains them. The old Jewish thinker was wise not only in taking as the summing up of all worldly pursuits the sad sentence, All is vanity,' but in putting it into the lips of a king who had won all he sought. The sorceress draws us within her charmed circle by lying words and illusory charms, and when she has so secured the captives, her mask is thrown off and her native hideousness displayed.
II. The hard service which lying vanities require.
The phrase in our text is a quotation, slightly altered, from Psalm xxxi. 6: I hate them that regard lying vanities; but I trust in the Lord.' The alteration in the form of the verb as it occurs in Jonah expresses the intensity of regard, and gives the picture of watching with anxious solicitude, as the eyes of a servant turned to his master, or those of a dog to its owner. The world is a very hard master, and requires from its servants the concentration of thought, heart, and effort. We need only recall the thousand sermons devoted to the enforcement of the gospel of getting on,' which prosperous worldlings are continually preaching. A chorus of voices on every side of us is dinning into the ears of every young man and woman the necessity for success in life's struggle of taking for a motto, This one thing I do.' How many a man is there, who in the race after wealth or fame, has flung away aspirations, visions of noble, truthful love to life, and a hundred other precious things? Browning tells a hideous story of a mother flinging, one after another, her infants to the wolves as she urged her sledge over the snowy plain. No less hideous, and still more maiming, are the surrenders that men make when once their hearts have been filled with the foolish ambitions of worldly success. Let us fix it in our minds, that nothing that time and sense can give is worth the price that it exacts.
It is only heaven that can be had for the asking; It is only God that is given away.'
All sin is slavery. Its yoke presses painfully on the neck, and its burden is heavy indeed, and the rest which it promises never comes.
III. The self-inflicted loss.
Our text suggests that there are two ways by which we may learn the folly of a godless life--One, the consideration of what it turns to, the other, the thought of what it departs from.
They forsake their own Mercy,' that is God. The phrase is here almost equivalent to His name'; and it carries the blessed thought that He has entered into relations with every soul, so that each man of us--even if he have turned to lying vanities'--can still call Him, my own Mercy.' He is ours; more our own than is anything without us. He is ours, because we are made for Him, and He is all for us. He is ours by His love, and by His gift of Himself in the Son of His love. He is ours; if we take Him for ours by an inward communication of Himself to us in the innermost depths of our being. He becomes the Master-Light of all our seeing.' In the mysterious inwardness of mutual possession, the soul which has given itself to God and possesses Him, has not only communion, but may even venture to claim as its own the deeper and more mysterious union with God. Those multiform mercies, which endure for ever,' and speed on their manifold errands into every remotest region of His universe, gather themselves together, as the diffused lights of some nebulae--concentrate themselves into a sun. That sun, like the star that led the wise men from the East, and finally stood over one poor house in an obscure village, will shine lambent above, and will pass into, the humblest heart that opens for it. They who can say, as we all can if we will, My God,' can never want.
And if we turn to the alternative in our text, and consider who they are to whom we turn when we turn from God, there should be nothing more needed to drive home the wholesome conviction of the folly of the wisest, who deliberately prefers shadow to substance, lying vanities to the one true and only reality. I beseech you to take that which is your own, and which no man can take from you. Weigh in the scales of conscience, and in the light of the deepest necessities of your nature, the whole pile of those emptinesses that have been telling you lies ever since you listened to them; and place in the other scale the mercy of God, and the Christ who brings it to you, and decide which is the weightier, and which it becomes you to take for your pattern for ever.
And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, 2. Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. 3. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days' journey. 4. And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall he overthrown. 5. So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. 6. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, nor drink water: 8. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God; yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. 9. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not? 10. And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that He had said that He would do unto them; and He did it not.'--JONAH iii. 1-10.
This passage falls into three parts: Jonah's renewed commission and new obedience (vs. 1-4), the repentance of Nineveh (vs. 5-9), and the acceptance thereof by God (ver. 10). We might almost call these three the repentance of Jonah, of Nineveh, and of God. The evident intention of the narrative is to parallel the Ninevites turning from their sins, and God's turning from His anger and purpose of destruction; and if the word repentance' is not applied to Jonah, his conduct sufficiently shows the thing.
I. Note the renewed charge to the penitent Prophet, and his new eagerness to fulfil it. His deliverance and second commission are put as if all but simultaneous, and his obedience was swift and glad. Jonah did not venture to take for granted that the charge which he had shirked was still continued to him. If God commands to take the trumpet, and we refuse, we dare not assume that we shall still be honoured with the delivery of the message. The punishment of dumb lips is often dumbness. Opportunities of service, slothfully or faintheartedly neglected, are often withdrawn. We can fancy how Jonah, brought back to the better mind which breathes in his psalm, longed to be honoured by the trust of preaching once more, and how rapturously his spirit would address itself to the task. Duties once unwelcome become sweet when we have passed through the experience of the misery that comes from neglecting them. It is God's mercy that gives us the opportunity of effacing past disobedience by new alacrity.
The second charge is possibly distinguishable from the first as being less precise. It may be that the exact nature of the preaching that I bid thee' was not told Jonah till he had to open his mouth in Nineveh; but, more probably, the second charge was identical with the first.
The word rendered preach' is instructive. It means to cry' and suggests the manner befitting those who bear God's message. They should sound it out loudly, plainly, urgently, with earnestness and marks of emotion in their voice. Languid whispers will not wake sleepers. Unless the messenger is manifestly in earnest, the message will fall flat. Not with bated breath, as if ashamed of it; nor with hesitation, as if not quite sure of it; nor with coldness, as if it were of little urgency,--is God's Word to be pealed in men's ears. The preacher is a crier. The substance of his message, too, is set forth. The preaching which I bid thee'--not his own imaginations, nor any fine things of his own spinning. Suppose Jonah had entertained the Ninevites with dissertations on the evidences of his prophetic authority, or submitted for their consideration a few thoughts tending to show the agreement of his message with their current opinions in religion, or an argument for the existence of a retributive Governor of the world, he would not have shaken the city. The less the Prophet shows himself, the stronger his influence. The more simply he repeats the stern, plain, short message, the more likely it is to impress. God's Word, faithfully set forth, will prove itself. The preacher or teacher of this day has substantially the same charge as Jonah had; and the more he suppresses himself, and becomes but a voice through which God speaks, the better for himself, his hearers, and his work.
Nineveh, that great aggregate of cities, was full, as Eastern cities are, of open spaces, and might well be a three days' journey in circumference. What a task for that solitary stranger to thunder out his loud cry among all these crowds! But he had learned to do what he was bid; and without wasting a moment, he began to enter into the city a day's journey,' and, no doubt, did not wait till the end of the day to proclaim his message. Let us learn that there is an element of threatening in God's most merciful message, and that the appeal to terror and to the desire for self-preservation is part of the way to preach the Gospel. Plain warnings of coming evil may be spoken tenderly, and reveal love as truly as the most soothing words. The warning comes in time. Forty days' of grace are granted. The gospel warns us in time enough for escape. It warns us because God loves; and they are as untrue messengers of His love as of His justice who slur over the declaration of His wrath.
II. Note the repentance of Nineveh (vs. 5-9). The impression made by Jonah's terrible cry is perfectly credible and natural in the excitable population of an Eastern city, in which even now any appeal to terror, especially if associated with religious and prophetic claims, easily sets the whole in a frenzy. Think of the grim figure of this foreign man, with his piercing voice and half-intelligible speech, dropped from the clouds as it were, and stalking through Nineveh, pealing out his confident message, like that gaunt fanatic who walked Jerusalem in its last agony, crying, Woe! woe unto the bloody city!' or that other, who, with flaming fire on his head and madness in his eyes, affrighted London in the plague. No wonder that alarm was kindled, and, being kindled, spread like wildfire. Apparently the movement was first among the people, who began to fast before the news penetrated to the seclusion of the palace. But the contagion reached the king, and the popular excitement was endorsed and fanned by a royal decree. The specified tokens of repentance are those of ordinary mourning, such as were common all over the East, with only the strange addition, which smacks of heathen ideas, that the animals were made sharers in them.
There is great significance in that believed God' (ver. 5). The foundation of all true repentance is crediting God's word of threatening, and therefore realising the danger, as well as the disobedience, of our sin. We shall be wise if we pass by the human instrument, and hear God speaking through the Prophet. Never mind about Jonah, believe God.
We learn from the Ninevites what is true repentance They brought no sacrifices or offerings, but sorrow, self-abasement, and amendment. The characteristic sin of a great military power would be violence,' and that is the specific evil from which they vow to turn. The loftiest lesson which prophets found Israel so slow to learn, A broken and a contrite heart Thou wilt not despise,' was learned by these heathens. We need it no less. Nineveh repented on a peradventure that their repentance might avail. How pathetic that Who can tell?' (ver. 9) is! We know what they hoped. Their doubt might give fervour to their cries, but our certainty should give deeper earnestness and confidence to ours.
The deepest meaning of the whole narrative is set forth in our Lord's use of it, when He holds up the men of Nineveh as a condemnatory instance to the hardened consciences of His hearers. Probably the very purpose of the book was to show Israel that the despised and yet dreaded heathen were more susceptible to the voice of God than they were: I will provoke you to jealousy by them which are no people.' The story was a smiting blow to the proud exclusiveness and self-complacent contempt of prophetic warnings, which marked the entire history of God's people. As Ezekiel was told: Thou are not sent to many peoples of a strange speech and of an hard language . Surely, if I sent thee to them, they would hearken unto thee. But the house of Israel will not hearken unto thee.' It is ever true that long familiarity with the solemn thoughts of God's judgment and punishment of sin abates their impression on us. Our Puritan forefathers used to talk about gospel-hardened sinners,' and there are many such among us. The man who lives by Niagara does not hear its roar as a stranger does. The men of Nineveh will rise in the judgment with other generations than that which was this generation' in Christ's time; and that which is this generation' to-day will, in many of its members, be condemned by them.
But the wave of feeling soon retired, and there is no reason to believe that more than a transient impression was made. It does not seem certain that the Ninevites knew what God' they hoped to appease. Probably their pantheon was undisturbed, and their repentance lasted no longer than their fear. Transient repentance leaves the heart harder than before, as half-melted ice freezes again more dense. Let us beware of frost on the back of a thaw. Repentance which is repented of' is worse than none.
III. We note the repentance of God (ver. 10). Mark the recurrence of the word turn,' employed in verses 8, 9, and 10 in reference to men and to God. Mark the bold use of the word repent,' applied to God, which, though it be not applied to the Ninevites in the previous verses, is implied in every line of them. The same expression is found in Exodus xxxii. 14, which may be taken as the classical passage warranting its use. The great truth involved is one that is too often lost sight of in dealing with prophecy; namely, that all God's promises and threatenings are conditional. Jeremiah learned that lesson in the house of the potter, and we need to keep it well in mind. God threatens, precisely in order that He may not have to perform His threatenings. Jonah was sent to Nineveh to cry, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,' in order that it might not be overthrown. What would have been the use of proclaiming the decree, if it had been irreversible? There is an implied if' in all God's words. Except ye repent' underlies the most absolute threatenings of evil. If we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end,' is presupposed in the brightest and broadest promises of good.
The word repent' is denied and affirmed to have application to God. He is not a son of man, that He should repent,' inasmuch as His immutability and steadfast purpose know no variableness. But just because they cannot change, and He must ever be against them that do evil, and ever bless them that turn to Him with trust, therefore He changes His dealings with us according to our relation to Him, and because He cannot repent, or be other than He was and is, repents of the evil that He had said that He would do' unto sinners when they repent of the evil that they have done against Him, inasmuch as He leaves His threatening unfulfilled, and does it not.'
So we might almost say that the purpose of this book of Jonah is to teach the possibility and efficacy of repentance, and to show how the penitent man, heathen or Jew, ever finds in God changed dealings corresponding to his changed heart. The widest charity, the humbling lesson for people brought up in the blaze of revelation, that dwellers in the twilight or in the darkness are dear to God and may be more susceptible of divine impressions than ourselves, the rebuke of all pluming ourselves on our privileges, the boundlessness of God's mercy, are among the other lessons of this strange book; but none of them is more precious than its truly evangelic teaching of the blessedness of true penitence, whether exemplified in the renegade Prophet returning to his high mission, or the fierce Ninevites humbled and repentant, and finding mercy from the God of the whole earth.
O thou that art named the house of Jacob, is the Spirit of the Lord straitened? Are these His doings?'--MICAH ii. 7.
The greater part of so-called Christendom is to-day1 celebrating the gift of a Divine Spirit to the Church; but it may well be asked whether the religious condition of so-called Christendom is not a sad satire upon Pentecost. There seems a woful contrast, very perplexing to faith, between the bright promise at the beginning and the history of the development in the future. How few of those who share in to-day's services have any personal experience of such a gift! How many seem to think that that old story is only the record of a past event, a transient miracle which has no kind of relation to the experience of the Christians of this day! There were a handful of believers in one of the towns of Asia Minor, to whom an Apostle came, and was so startled at their condition that he put to them in wonder the question that might well be put to multitudes of so-called Christians amongst us: Did you receive the Holy Ghost when you believed?' And their answer is only too true a transcript of the experience of large masses of people who call themselves Christians: We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.'
I desire, then, dear brethren, to avail myself of this day's associations in order to press upon your consciences and upon my own some considerations naturally suggested by them, and which find voice in those two indignant questions of the old Prophet:--Is the Spirit of the Lord straitened?' Are these'--the phenomena of existing popular Christianity--are these His doings?' And if we are brought sharp up against the consciousness of a dreadful contrast, it may do us good to ask what is the explanation of so cloudy a day following a morning so bright.
I. First, then, I have to ask you to think with me of the promise of the Pentecost.
What did it declare and hold forth for the faith of the Church? I need not dwell at any length upon this point. The facts are familiar to you, and the inferences drawn from them are commonplace and known to us all. But let me just enumerate them as briefly as may be.
Suddenly there came a sound, as of the rushing of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared cloven tongues as of fire, and it sat upon each of them; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.'
What lay in that? First, the promise of a Divine Spirit by symbols which express some, at all events, of the characteristics and wonderfulness of His work. The rushing of a mighty wind' spoke of a power which varies in its manifestations from the gentlest breath that scarce moves the leaves on the summer trees to the wildest blast that casts down all which stands in its way.
The natural symbolism of the wind, to popular apprehension the least material of all material forces, and of which the connection with the immaterial part of a man's personality has been expressed in all languages, points to a divine, to an immaterial, to a mighty, to a life-giving power which is free to blow whither it listeth, and of which men can mark the effects, though they are all ignorant of the force itself.
The other symbol of the fiery tongues which parted and sat upon each of them speaks in like manner of the divine influence, not as destructive, but full of quick, rejoicing energy and life, the power to transform and to purify. Whithersoever the fire comes, it changes all things into its own substance. Whithersoever the fire comes, there the ruddy spires shoot upwards towards the heavens. Whithersoever the fire comes, there all bonds and fetters are melted and consumed. And so this fire transforms, purifies, ennobles, quickens, sets free; and where the fiery Spirit is, there are energy, swift life, rejoicing activity, transforming and transmuting power which changes the recipient of the flame into flame himself.
Then, still further, in the fact of Pentecost there is the promise of a Divine Spirit which is to influence all the moral side of humanity. This is the great and glorious distinction between the Christian doctrine of inspiration and all others which have, in heathen lands, partially reached similar conceptions--that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has laid emphasis upon the Holy Spirit, and has declared that holiness of heart is the touchstone and test of all claims of divine inspiration. Gifts are much, graces are more. An inspiration which makes wise is to be coveted, an inspiration which makes holy is transcendently better. There we find the safeguard against all the fanaticisms which have sometimes invaded the Christian Church, namely, in the thought that the Spirit which dwells in men, and makes them free from the obligations of outward law and cold morality, is a Spirit that works a deeper holiness than law dreamed, and a more spontaneous and glad conformity to all things that are fair and good, than any legislation and outward commandment could ever enforce. The Spirit that came at Pentecost is not merely a Spirit of rushing might and of swift-flaming energy, but it is a Spirit of holiness, whose most blessed and intimate work is the production in us of all homely virtues and sweet, unpretending goodnesses which can adorn and gladden humanity.
Still further, the Pentecost carried in it the promise and prophecy of a Spirit granted to all the Church. They were all filled with the Holy Ghost.' This is the true democracy of Christianity, that its very basis is laid in the thought that every member of the body is equally close to the Head, and equally recipient of the life. There is none now who has a Spirit which others do not possess. The ancient aspiration of the Jewish law-giver: Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them,' is fulfilled in the experience of Pentecost; and the handmaiden and the children, as well as the old men and the servants, receive of that universal gift. Therefore sacerdotal claims, special functions, privileged classes, are alien to the spirit of Christianity, and blasphemies against the inspiring God. If one is your Master, all ye are brethren,' and if we have all been made to drink into one Spirit, then no longer hath any man dominion over our faith nor power to intervene and to intercede with God for us.
And still further, the promise of this early history was that of a Spirit which should fill the whole nature of the men to whom He was granted; filling--in the measure, of course, of their receptivity--them as the great sea does all the creeks and indentations along the shore. The deeper the creek, the deeper the water in it; the further inland it runs, the further will the refreshing tide penetrate the bosom of the continent. And so each man, according to his character, stature, circumstances, and all the varying conditions which determine his power of receptivity, will receive a varying measure of that gift. Yet it is meant that all shall be full. The little vessel, the tiny cup, as well as the great cistern and the enormous vat, each contains according to its capacity. And if all are filled, then this quick Spirit must have the power to influence all the provinces of human nature, must touch the moral, must touch the spiritual. The temporary manifestations and extraordinary signs of His power may well drop away as the flower drops when the fruit has set. The operations of the Divine Spirit are to be felt thrilling through all the nature, and every part of the man's being is to be recipient of the power. Just as when you take a candle and plunge it into a jar of oxygen it blazes up, so my poor human nature immersed in that Divine Spirit, baptized in the Holy Ghost, shall flame in all its parts into unsuspected and hitherto inexperienced brightness. Such are the elements of the promise of Pentecost.
II. And now, in the next place, look at the apparent failure of the promise.
Is the Spirit of the Lord straitened?' Look at Christendom. Look at all the churches. Look at yourselves. Will any one say that the religious condition of any body of professed believers at this moment corresponds to Pentecost? Is not the gap so wide that to fill it up seems almost impossible? Is not the stained and imperfect fulfilment a miserable satire upon the promise? If the Lord be with us,' said one of the heroes of ancient Israel, wherefore is all this come upon us?' I am sure that we may say the same. If the Lord be with us, what is the meaning of the state of things which we see around us, and must recognise in ourselves? Do any existing churches present the final perfect form of Christianity as embodied in a society? Would not the best thing that could happen, and the thing that will have to happen some day, be the disintegration of the existing organisations in order to build up a more perfect habitation of God through the Spirit? I do not wish to exaggerate. God knows there is no need for exaggerating. The plain, unvarnished story, without any pessimistic picking out of the black bits and forgetting ail the light ones, is bad enough.
Take three points on which I do not dwell and apply them to yourselves, dear brethren, and estimate by them the condition of things around us. First, say whether the ordinary tenor of our own religious life looks as if we had that Divine Spirit in us which transforms everything into its own beauty, and makes men, through all the regions of their nature, holy and pure. Then ask yourselves the question whether the standard of devotion and consecration in any church witnesses of the presence of a Divine Spirit. A little handful of people, the best of them very partially touched with the life of God, and very imperfectly consecrated to His service, surrounded by a great mass about whom we can scarcely, in the judgment of charity, say even so much, that is the description of most of our congregations. Are these His doings?' Surely somebody else's than His.
Take another question. Do the relations of modern Christians and their churches to one another attest the presence of a unifying Spirit? We have all been made to drink into one Spirit,' said Paul. Alas, alas! does it seem as if we had? Look round professing Christendom, look at the rivalries and the jealousies between two chapels in adjoining streets. Look at the gulfs between Christian men who differ only on some comparative trifle of organisation and polity, and say if such things correspond to the Pentecostal promise of one Spirit which is to make all the members into one body? Is the Spirit of the Lord straitened? Are these His doings?'
Take another branch of evidence. Look at the comparative impotence of the Church in its conflict with the growing worldliness of the world. I do not forget how much is being done all about us to-day, and how still Christ's Gospel is winning triumphs, but I do not suppose that any man can look thoughtfully and dispassionately on the condition, say, for instance, of Manchester, or of any of our great towns, and mark how the populace knows nothing and cares nothing about us and our Christianity, and never comes into our places of worship, and has no share in our hopes any more than if they lived in Central Africa, and that after eighteen hundred years of nominal Christianity, without feeling that some malign influence has arrested the leaping growth of the early Church, and that somehow or other that lava stream, if I might so call it, which poured hot from the heart of God in the old days has had its flow checked, and over its burning bed there has spread a black and wrinkled crust, whatsoever lingering heat there may still be at the centre. If God be with us, why has all this come upon us?'
III. And now, lastly, let us think for a moment of the solution of the contradiction.
The indignant questions of my text may be taken, with a little possibly permissible violence, as expressing and dismissing some untrue explanations. One explanation that sometimes is urged is, the Spirit of the Lord is straitened. That explanation takes two forms. Sometimes you hear people saying, Christianity is effete. We have to go now to fresh fountains of inspiration, and turn away from these broken cisterns that can hold no water.' I am not going to argue that question. I do not think for my part that Christianity will be effete until the world has got up to it and beyond it in its practice, and it will be a good while before that happens. Christianity will not be worn out until men have copied and reduced to practice the example of Jesus Christ, and they have not quite got that length yet. No shadow of a fear that the gospel has lost its power, or that God's Spirit has become weak, should be permitted to creep over our hearts. The promise is, I will send another Comforter, and He shall abide with you for ever.' It is a permanent gift that was given to the Church on that day. We have to distinguish in the story between the symbols, the gift, and the consequences of the gift. The first and the last are transient, the second is permanent. The symbols were transient. The people who came running together saw no tongues of fire. The consequences were transient. The tongues and the miraculous utterances were but for a time. The results vary according to the circumstances; but the central thing, the gift itself, is an irrevocable gift, and once bestowed is ever with the Church to all generations.
Another form of the explanation is the theory that God in His sovereignty is pleased to withhold His Spirit for reasons which we cannot trace. But it is not true that the gift once given varies in the degree in which it is continued. There is always the same flow from God. There are ebbs and flows in the spiritual power of the Church. Yes! and the tide runs out of your harbours. Is there any less water in the sea because it does? So the gift may ebb away from a man, from a community, from an epoch, not because God's manifestation and bestowment fluctuate, but because our receptivity changes. So we dismiss, and are bound to dismiss, if we are Christians, the unbelieving explanation, The Spirit of the Lord is straitened,' and not to sit with our hands folded, as if an inscrutable sovereignty, with which we have nothing to do, sometimes sent more and sometimes less of His spiritual gifts upon a waiting Church. It is not so. With Him is no variableness.' The gifts of God are without repentance; and the Spirit that was given once, according to the Master's own word already quoted, is given that He may abide with us for ever.
Therefore we have to come back to this, which is the point to which I seek to bring you and myself, in lowly penitence and contrite acknowledgment--that it is all our own fault and the result of evils in ourselves that may be remedied, that we have so little of that divine gift; and that if the churches of this country and of this day seem to be cursed and blasted in so much of their fruitless operations and formal worship, it is the fault of the churches, and not of the Lord of the churches. The stream that poured forth from the throne of God has not lost itself in the sands, nor is it shrunken in its volume. The fire that was kindled on Pentecost has not died down into grey ashes. The rushing of the mighty wind that woke on that morning has not calmed and stilled itself into the stagnancy and suffocating breathlessness of midday heat. The same fulness of the Spirit which filled the believers on that day is available for us all. If, like that waiting Church of old, we abide in prayer and supplication, the gift will be given to us too, and we may repeat and reproduce, if not the miracles which we do not need, yet the necessary inspiration of the highest and the noblest days and saints in the history of the Church. If ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?' Ask and ye shall receive,' and be filled with the Holy Ghost and with power.'
The Breaker is come up before them: they have broken up, and have passed through the gate, and are gone out by it: and their king shall pass before them, and the Lord on the head of them.'--MICAH ii. 13.
Micah was contemporary with Isaiah. The two prophets stand, to a large extent, on the same level of prophetic knowledge. Characteristic of both of them is the increasing clearness of the figure of the personal Messiah, and the increasing fulness of detail with which His functions are described. Characteristic of both of them is the presentation which we find in this text of that Messiah's work as being the gathering together of the scattered captive people and the leading them back in triumph into the blessed land.
Such is the image which underlies my text. Of course I have nothing to do now with questions as to any narrower and nearer historical fulfilment, because I believe that all these Messianic prophecies which were susceptible of, and many of which obtained, a historical and approximate fulfilment in the restoration of the Jews from the Babylonish captivity, have a higher and broader and more real accomplishment in that great deliverance wrought by Jesus Christ, of which all these earlier and partial and outward manifestations were themselves prophecies and shadows.
So I make no apology for taking the words before us as having their only real accomplishment in the office and working of Jesus Christ. He is the Breaker which is come up before us.' He it is that has broken out the path on which we may travel, and in whom, in a manner which the Prophet dreamed not of, the Lord is at the head' of us, and our King goes before us. So that my object is simply to take that great name, the Breaker, and to see the manifold ways in which in Scripture it is applied to the various work of Jesus Christ in our redemption.
I. I follow entirely the lead of corresponding passages in other portions of Scripture, and to begin with, I ask you to think of that great work of our Divine Redeemer by which He has broken for the captives the prison-house of their bondage.
The image that is here before us is either that of some foreign land in which the scattered exiles were bound in iron captivity, or more probably some dark and gloomy prison, with high walls, massive gates, and barred windows, wherein they were held; and to them sitting hopeless in the shadow of death, and bound in affliction and iron, there comes one mysterious figure whom the Prophet could not describe more particularly, and at His coming the gates flew apart, and the chains dropped from their hands; and the captives had heart put into them, and gathering themselves together into a triumphant band, they went out with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads; freemen, and on the march to the home of their fathers. The Breaker is gone up before them; they have broken, and passed through the gate, and are gone out by it.'
And is not that our condition? Many of us know not the bondage in which we are held. We are held in it all the more really and sadly because we conceit ourselves to be free. Those poor, light-hearted people in the dreadful days of the French Revolution, used to keep up some ghastly mockery of society and cheerfulness in their prisons; and festooned the bars with flowers, and made believe to be carrying on their life freely as they used to do; but for all that, day after day the tumbrils came to the gates, and morning after morning the jailer stood at the door of the dungeons with the fatal list in his hand, and one after another of the triflers was dragged away to death. And so men and women are living a life which they fancy is free, and all the while they are in bondage, held in a prison-house. You, my brother! are chained by guilt; you are chained by sin, you are chained by the habit of evil with a strength of which you never know till you try to shake it off.
And there comes to each of us a mighty Deliverer, who breaks the gates of brass, and who cuts the bars of iron in sunder. Christ comes to us. By His death He has borne away the guilt; by His living Spirit He will bear away the dominion of sin from our hearts; and if the Son will make us free we shall be free indeed. Oh! ponder that deep truth, I pray you, which the Lord Christ has spoken in words that carry conviction in their very simplicity to every conscience: He that committeth sin is the slave of sin.' And as you feel sometimes--and you all feel sometimes--the catch of the fetter on your wrists when you would fain stretch out your hands to good, listen as to a true gospel to this old word which, in its picturesque imagery, carries a truth that should be life. To us all the Breaker is gone up before us,' the prison gates are open. Follow His steps, and take the freedom which He gives; and be sure that you stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made you free, and be not entangled again with any yoke of bondage.'
Men and women! Some of you are the slaves of your own lusts. Some of you are the slaves of the world's maxims. Some of you are held in bondage by some habit that you abominate, but cannot get away from. Here is freedom for you. The dark walls of the prison are round us all. The Scripture hath shut up all in sin, that He might have mercy upon all.' Blessed be His name! As the angel came to the sleeping Apostle, and to his light touch the iron gates swung obedient on their hinges, and Roman soldiers who ought to have watched their prey were lulled to sleep, and fetters that held the limbs dropped as if melted; so, silently, in His meek and merciful strength, the Christ comes to us all, and the iron gate which leadeth out into freedom opens of its own accord at His touch, and the fetters fall from our limbs, and we go forth free men. The Breaker is gone up before us.'
II. Again, take another application of this same figure found in Scripture, which sets forth Jesus Christ as being the Opener of the path to God.
I am the Way and the Truth and the Life, no man cometh to the Father but by Me,' said He. And again, By a new and living way which He hath opened for us through the veil' (that is to say, His flesh), we can have free access with confidence by the faith of Him.' That is to say, if we rightly understand our natural condition, it is not only one of bondage to evil, but it is one of separation from God. Parts of the divine character are always beautiful and sweet to every human heart when it thinks about them. Parts of the divine character stand frowning before a man who knows himself for what he is; and conscience tells us that between God and us there is a mountain of impediment piled up by our own evil. To us Christ comes, the Path-finder and the Path; the Pioneer who breaks the way for us through all the hindrances, and leads us up to the presence of God.
For we do not know God as He is except by Jesus Christ. We see fragments, and often distorted fragments, of the divine nature and character apart from Jesus, but the real divine nature as it is, and as it is in its relation to me, a sinner, is only made known to me in the face of Jesus Christ. When we see Him we see God; Christ's tears are God's pity, Christ's gentleness is God's meekness, Christ's tender, drawing love is not only a revelation of a most pure and sweet Brother's heart, but a manifestation through that Brother's heart of the deepest depths of the divine nature. Christ is the heart of God. Apart from Him, we come to the God of our own consciences and we tremble; we come to the God of our own fancies and we presume; we come to the God dimly guessed at and pieced together from out of the hints and indications of His works, and He is little more than a dead name to us. Apart from Christ we come to a peradventure which we call a God; a shadow through which you can see the stars shining. But we know the Father when we believe in Christ. And so all the clouds rising from our own hearts and consciences and fancies and misconceptions, which we have piled together between God and ourselves, Christ clears away; and thus He opens the path to God.
And He opens it in another way too, on which I cannot dwell. It is only the God manifest in Jesus Christ that draws men's hearts to Him. The attractive power of the divine nature is ail in Him who has said, I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Me.' The God whom men know, or think they know, outside of the revelation of divinity in Jesus Christ, is a God before whom they sometimes tremble, who is far more often their terror than their love, who is their ghastliest doubt' still more frequently than He is their dearest faith.' But the God that is in Christ woos and wins men to Him, and from His great sweetness there streams out, as it were, a magnetic influence that draws hearts to Him. The God that is in Christ is the only God that humanity ever loved. Other gods they may have worshipped with cowering terror and with far-off lip reverence, but this God has a heart, and wins hearts because He has. So Christ opens the way to Him.
And still further, in a yet higher fashion, that Saviour is the Path-breaker to the Divine Presence, in that He not only makes God known to us, and not only makes Him so known to us as to draw us to Him, but in that likewise He, by the fact of His Cross and passion, has borne and borne away the impediments of our own sin and transgression which rise for ever between us and Him, unless He shall sweep them out of the way. He has made the rough places plain and the crooked things straight'; levelled the mountains and raised the valleys, and cast up across all the wilderness of the world a highway along which the wayfaring man though a fool' may travel. Narrow understandings may know, and selfish hearts may love, and low-pitched confessions may reach the ear of the God who comes near to us in Christ, that we in Christ may come near to Him. The Breaker is gone up before us; having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest of all by a new and living way, which He hath consecrated for us let us draw near with true hearts'
III. Then still further, another modification of this figure is found in the frequent representations of Scripture, by which our Lord is the Breaker, going up before us in the sense that He is the Captain of our life's march.
We have, in the words of my text, the image of the gladly-gathered people flocking after the Leader. They have broken up, and have passed through the gate, and are gone out by it; and their King shall pass before them, and the Lord on the head of them.' The Prophet knew not that the Lord their King, of whom it is enigmatically said that He too, as well as the Breaker,' is to go before them, was in mysterious fashion to dwell in that Breaker; and that those two, whom He sees separately, are yet in a deep and mysterious sense one. The host of the captives, returning in triumphant march through the wilderness and to the promised land, is, in the Prophet's words, headed both by the Breaker and by the Lord. We know that the Breaker is the Lord, the Angel of the Covenant in whom is the name of Jehovah.
And so we connect with all these words of my text such words as designate our Saviour as the Captain of our salvation; such words as His own in which He says, When He putteth forth His sheep He goeth before them'--such words as His Apostle used when he said, Leaving us an ensample that we should follow in His steps.' And by all there is suggested this--that Christ, who breaks the prison of our sins, and leads us forth on the path to God, marches at the head of our life's journey, and is our Example and Commander; and Himself present with us through all life's changes and its sorrows.
Here is the great blessing and peculiarity of Christian morals that they are all brought down to that sweet obligation: Do as I did.' Here is the great blessing and strength for the Christian life in all its difficulties--you can never go where you cannot see in the desert the footprints, haply spotted with blood, that your Master left there before you, and planting your trembling feet in the prints, as a child might imitate his father's strides, may learn to recognise that all duty comes to this: Follow Me'; and that all sorrow is calmed, ennobled, made tolerable, and glorified, by the thought that He has borne it.
The Roman matron of the legend struck the knife into her bosom, and handed it to her husband with the words, It is not painful!' Christ has gone before us in all the dreary solitude, and in all the agony and pains of life. He has hallowed them all, and has taken the bitterness and the pain out of each of them for them that love Him. If we feel that the Breaker is before us, and that we are marching behind Him, then whithersoever He leads us we may follow, and whatsoever He has passed through we may pass through. We carry In His life the all-sufficing pattern of duty. We have in His companionship the all-strengthening consolation. Let us leave the direction of our road in His hands, who never says Go!' but always Come!' This General marches in the midst of His battalions and sets His soldiers on no enterprises or forlorn hopes which He has not Himself dared and overcome.
So Christ goes as our Companion before us, the true pillar of fire and cloud in which the present Deity abode, and He is with us in real companionship. Our joyful march through the wilderness is directed, patterned, protected, companioned by Him, and when He putteth forth His own sheep,' blessed be His name, He goeth before them.'
IV. And now, lastly, there is a final application of this figure which sets forth our Lord as the Breaker for us of the bands of death, and the Forerunner entered for us into the heavens.'
Christ's resurrection is the only solid proof of a future life. Christ's present resurrection life is the power by partaking in which, though we were dead, yet shall we live.'
He has trodden that path, too, before us. He has entered into the great prison-house into which the generations of men have been hounded and hurried; and where they lie in their graves, as in their narrow cells. He has entered there; with one blow He has struck the gates from their hinges, and has passed out, and no soul can any longer be shut in as for ever into that ruined and opened prison. Like Samson, He has taken the gates which from of old barred its entrance, and borne them on His strong shoulders to the city on the hill, and now Death's darts are blunted, his fetters are broken, and his gaol has its doors wide open, and there is nothing for him to do now but to fall upon his sword and to kill himself, for his prisoners are free. Oh, death! I will be thy plague; oh, grave! I will be thy destruction.' The Breaker has gone up before us'; therefore it is not possible that we should be holden of the impotent chains that He has broken.
The Forerunner is for us entered and passed through the heavens, and entered into the holiest of all. We are too closely knit to Him, if we love Him and trust Him, to make it possible that we shall be where He is not, or that He shall be where we are not. Where He has gone we shall go. In heaven, blessed be His name! He will still be the leader of our progress and the captain at the head of our march. For He crowns all His other work by this, that having broken the prison-house of our sins, and opened for us the way to God, and been the leader and the captain of our march through all the pilgrimage of life, and the opener of the gate of the grave for our joyful resurrection, and the opener of the gate of heaven for our triumphal entrance, He will still as the Lamb that is in the midst of the Throne, go before us, and lead us into green pastures and by the still waters, and this shall be the description of the growing blessedness and power of the saints' life above, These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth.'
All the peoples will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.'--MICAH iv. 5 (R.V.).
This is a statement of a general truth which holds good of all sorts of religion. To walk' is equivalent to carrying on a course of practical activity. The name' of a god is his manifested character. So the expression Walk in the name' means, to live and act according to, and with reference to, and in reliance on, the character of the worshipper's god. In the Lord's prayer the petition Hallowed be Thy name' precedes the petition Thy will be done.' From reverent thoughts about the name must flow life in reverent conformity to the will.
I. A man's god is what rules his practical life.
Religion is dependence upon a Being recognised to be perfect and sovereign, whose will guides, and whose character moulds, the whole life. That general statement may be broken up into parts; and we may dwell upon the attitude of dependence, or of that of submission, or upon that of admiration and recognition of ideal perfection, or upon that of aspiration; but we come at last to the one thought--that the goal of religion is likeness and the truest worship is imitation. Such a view of the essence of religion gives point to the question, What is our god? and makes it a very easily applied, and very searching test, of our lives. Whatever we profess, that which we feel ourselves dependent on, that which we invest, erroneously or rightly, with supreme attributes of excellence, that which we aspire after as our highest good, that which shapes and orders the current of our lives, is our god. We call ourselves Christians. I am afraid that if we tried ourselves by such a test, many of us would fail to pass it. It would thin the ranks of all churches as effectually as did Gideon's ordeal by water, which brought down a mob of ten thousand to a little steadfast band of three hundred. No matter to what church we belong, or how flaming our professions, our practical religion is determined by our answer to the question, What do we most desire? What do we most eagerly pursue? England has as much need as ever the house of Jacob had of the scathing words that poured like molten lead from the lips of Isaiah the son of Amoz, Their land is full of silver and gold, neither is there any end of their treasures. Their land is also full of idols: they worship the work of their own hands.' Money, knowledge, the good opinion of our fellows, success in a political career--these, and the like, are our gods. There is a worse idolatry than that which bows down before stocks and stones. The aims that absorb us; our highest ideal of excellence; that which possessed, we think would secure our blessedness; that lacking which everything else is insipid and vain--these are our gods: and the solemn prohibition may well be thundered in the ears of the unconscious idolaters not only in the English world, but also in the English churches. Thou shalt not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images.'
II. The worshipper will resemble his god in character.
As we have already said, the goal of religion is likeness, and the truest worship is imitation. It is proved by the universal experience of humanity that the level of morality will never rise above the type enshrined in their gods; or if it does, in consequence of contact with a higher type in a higher religion, the old gods will be flung to the moles and the bats. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.' That is a universal truth. The worshippers were in the Prophet's thought as dumb and dead as the idols. They who worship vanity' inevitably become vain.' A Venus or a Jupiter, a Baal or an Ashtoreth, sets the tone of morals.
This truth is abundantly enforced by observation of the characters of the men amongst us who are practical idolaters. They are narrowed and lowered to correspond with their gods. Low ideals can never lead to lofty lives. The worship of money makes the complexion yellow, like jaundice. A man who concentrates his life's effort upon some earthly good, the attainment of which seems to be, so long as it is unattained, his passport to bliss, thereby blunts many a finer aspiration, and makes himself blind to many a nobler vision. Men who are always hunting after some paltry and perishable earthly good, become like dogs who follow scent with their noses at the ground, and are unconscious of everything a yard above their heads. We who live amidst the rush of a great commercial community see many instances of lives stiffened, narrowed, impoverished, and hardened by the fierce effort to become rich. And wherever we look with adequate knowledge over the many idolatries of English life, we see similar processes at work on character. Everywhere around us the peoples are walking every one in the name of his god.' That character constitutes the worshipper's ideal; it is a pattern to which he aims to be assimilated; it is a good the possession of which he thinks will make him blessed; it is that for which he willingly sacrifices much which a clearer vision would teach him is far more precious than that for which he is content to barter it.
The idolaters walking in the name of their god is a rebuke to the Christian men who with faltering steps and many an aberration are seeking to walk in the name of the Lord their God. If He is in any real and deep sense our God,' we shall see in Him the realised ideal of all excellence, the fountain of all our blessedness, the supreme good for our seeking hearts, the sovereign authority to sway our wills; the measure of our conscious possession of Him will be the measure of our glad imitation of Him, and our joyful spirits, enfranchised by the assurance of our loving possession of Him who is love, will hear Him ever whisper to us, Be ye perfect as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.' The desire to reproduce in the narrow bounds of our human spirits the infinite beauties of the Lord our God will give elevation to our lives, and dignity to our actions attainable from no other source. If we hallow His name, we shall do His will, and earth will become a foretaste of heaven.
III. The worshipper will resemble his god in fate.
We may observe that it is only of God's people that Micah in our text applies the words for ever and ever.' The peoples'' worship perishes. They walk for a time in the name of their god, but what comes of it at last is veiled in silence. It is Jehovah's worshippers who walk in His name for ever and ever, and of whom the great words are true, Because I live ye shall live also.' We may be sure of this that all the divine attributes are pledged for our immortality; we may be sure, too, that a soul which here follows in the footsteps of Jesus, which in its earthly life walked in the name of the Lord its God, will continue across the narrow bridge, and go onward for ever and ever' in direct progress in the same direction in which it began on earth. The imitation, which is the practical religion of every Christian, has for its only possible result the climax of likeness. The partial likeness is attained on earth by contemplation, by aspiration, and by effort; but it is perfected in the heavens by the perfect vision of His perfect face. We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.' Not till it has reached its goal can the Christian life begun here be conceived as ended. It shall never be said of any one who tried by God's help to walk in the name of the Lord' that he was lost in the desert, and never reached his journey's end. The peoples who walked in the name of any false god will find their path ending as on the edge of a precipice, or in an unfathomable bog; loss, and woe, and shame will be their portion. But the name of the Lord is a strong tower,' into which whoever will may run and be safe, and to walk in the name of the Lord is to walk on a way that shall be called the Way of Holiness, whereon no ravenous beast shall go up, but the redeemed shall walk there,' and all that are on it shall come with singing to Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.'
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