The Woman, the Serpent, and the Fall
What a vain wrangling of words there has been about this serpent talking! I pass by that altogether, and settle myself on the unquestionable fact that the woman did actually eat of the fruit and that human nature has ever since suffered from the effects of her doing so. Evidently something has disagreed with the world. We do not trust, love, honour, and help one another; we are selfish, mean, irascible, unforgiving; we know that our respectability is the thinnest part about us and that the faintest scratch will touch the wolf. If, when I am most conscious of this, some one should say to me, "This is the serpent"s work," I should answer, "Very likely." That is how I should take it in my highest moods; the natural history difficulty would never occur to me in the holy excitement of my moral anger. The serpent itself is the best comment upon the text. Look at it: glittering, lithe, cunning, cold, smooth, poisonous—truly, it looks as if it might have done it! I don"t think the lion could, or the elephant, the eagle, or the ox; but the serpent brings with it a high probability of baseness and mischief. Then, again, what do you mean by talking? Is there no talking but what is done by the tongue? Men talk with their eyes, their hands, their shoulders, their attitudes—and sometimes we say, "He said as plainly as if he had spoken," when the man in question has adopted a clever posture or an eloquent action of the eye. So a single suggestion may start a long train of reasoning, and we justly charge upon that suggestion all the consequences that have flowed from it, A clever serpent, truly, to begin using words in a double sense! That is pre-eminently a serpent-like trick. Observe how the word die is played upon. It is used by the serpent in the sense of dropping down dead, or violently departing out of this world; whereas the meaning, as we all know by bitter experience, is infinitely deeper. We lose our life when we lose our innocence; we are dead when we are guilty; we are in hell when we are in shame. Death does not take a long time to come upon us; it comes in the very day of our sin—"in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."
"And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves aprons" ( Genesis 3:6-7).
A beautiful gate it is that opens upon ruin! It is well shaped, well painted, and the word Welcome illuminates it in vivid letters. We have all eaten of this tree, and we eat of it every day. A thing looks nice and therefore we take it; a sound is very pleasant and therefore we listen to it; an action promises pleasure and therefore we do it When did ever a man do anything because it looked hard, uninviting, and severe? When did he drink much gall? or when did he eat much of the bitter aloes? His temptation does not lie in that direction, but contrariwise; it is when the tree is "pleasant to the eyes" that he rushes upon it with suicidal frenzy. Offer to him pleasure, and you may lead him like a sheep to the slaughter. Now every appetite of man points in the direction of pleasure, and every appetite pleads to be satisfied. To satisfy it and yet control it is the supreme trial of life. It cries, Give, give; and if you give it one inch of undue liberty it will drag you down to the chambers of death.
Wonderful in its depth of meaning is this expression, "the eyes of them both were opened"! They saw before; no new organs of vision were created; yet they saw what they had never seen, as we ourselves have done. Temptation blinds us, guilt opens our eyes; temptation is night, guilt is morning. In guilt we see ourselves, we see our hideousness, we see our baseness: we see hell!
"Their eyes were opened" and they saw that their character was gone! You can throw away a character in one Acts, as you throw away a stone. Can you go after it and recover it? Never! You may get something back by penitence and strife, but not the holy thing exactly as it was. A stone that is thrown along the road you may recover, but a stone thrown at night time into the sea who can get back again!
"They sewed fig-leaves together and made themselves aprons." And this we have been doing ever since! We try to replace nature by art When we have lost the garment sent from heaven we try to replace it with one woven from earth. But our deformity shows through the finest robe! The robe may be ample, brilliant, luxurious, but the cripple shows through its gorgeous folds. Ever since this fig-leaf sewing, life has become a question of clothes.
The legs of the lame are not to be made equal by the tailor. Clothes are irreligious. Clothes are liars. Clothes are letters of credit, but they are forgeries. The clever tailor is only a clever impostor, and the best-dressed man is the most successful hypocrite. Of course we blame the climate for being cold, and we say we must use the bounties of providence: yes, yes, but all this is secondary talk: primarily, clothes are the trappings of guilt.
And now let us follow the development of the story. The Lord came into the garden in the cool of the day ( Genesis 3:8), and Adam and his wife hid themselves among the trees of the garden. So there is a consistency in sin: they hid themselves from one another; hid themselves from the presence of the Lord. Sin is the only separating power. Goodness loves the light. Innocence is as a bird that follows the bidding of the sun When your little child runs away from you, either you are an unlovely parent, or the child has been doing something wrong.
Adam was afraid of the Lord! ( Genesis 3:10). Afraid of him who had made the beautiful garden, the majestic river, the sun, and the moon and the stars! How unnatural! Instead of running to the Lord, and crying mightily to him in pain and agony of soul, he shrank away into shady places and trembled in fear and shame. We do the same thing today. We flee from God. Having done some deed of wrong, we do not throw ourselves in utter humiliation before the Lord, crying for his mercy and promising better life: we stand behind a tree, thinking that he will pass by without seeing us. This sin makes a fool of a man as well as a criminal: it makes him ridiculous as well as guilty. It makes its own judgment day!
"And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat" ( Genesis 3:12).
And much Adam has been blamed for so saying, yet it was the plain fact, and about as good a thing as there was to be said. It would be a mean thing now for a man to blame a woman, but in this case Adam was really blaming himself. Besides, we sometimes pay a compliment to the very person whom we seem to blame. Our action is this: "Can it be wrong to do what such a person told me to do? Is not the person the best apology for the deed? If I cannot believe an angel, whom am I to believe?" You say that Adam blamed the woman, but he blamed God still more, if there was really any blaming at all in the case, which is doubtful. The man cured of his blindness did not blame Jesus when he said—"He that put clay upon mine eyes, the same said unto me, Wash in the pool of Silmam." Besides, who are we that we should scowl upon Adam? Whatever Adam did, we did; Adam was not an individual only, he was the type of manhood. And even if he were not, there is not a man amongst us who would not skulk out of his guilt at the expense of the fairest woman or sweetest child that ever breathed. "He that is without sin let him cast the first stone." A woman would do infinitely more for a man than any man would do for a woman.
Then come the penal clauses, and it is wonderful how the curse is tempered with mercy, so much so indeed that it is difficult to tell whether there is not more blessing than cursing in the sentence. The seed of the woman is to be mighty enough to crush the serpent; and the ground is to be difficult of tillage for man"s sake. Hard agriculture is a blessing. To get harvests for nothing would be a pitiless curse indeed. To be sentenced to "hard labour" is really a blessing to great criminals; it breaks in upon the moodiness that would become despair; it taxes invention; it keeps the blood moving; it rouses energy. Many a man has been made by the very hardness of his task. But terrible are the words—"unto dust shalt thou return." According to these words it is plainly stated that man was to be exactly what he was before he was made at all,—he was to be dead dust, by reason of his sin. Whether any way of escape can be found out remains to be seen. The law is plain; whether mercy can modify it will be revealed as we proceed in the wondrous story. Perhaps there may yet be made a Man within a Prayer of Manasseh, a Spirit within a body, a Son within a slave. That would be glorious, surely! Night has fallen upon the guilty pair, but in the night there are stars, large, bright, like tender eyes shining through the darkness,—perhaps these stars will lead on to a manger, a Child, a Saviour!
Then come words which no man can fully understand, about Adam becoming as God, and about the cherubim and the flaming sword keeping the way of the tree of life. Yet, though there be much mystery, there is also some warm light, and what there is of such light is as a glint of summer kindling upon the desolate scene. Observe, the tree of life was not cut down; nor was it withdrawn from the trees of the field,—no, the tabernacle of God was left with men upon the earth. Well was the way watched until the time should come for approach: strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life, yet men may travel now up to the blessed tree and take the fruit of immortality! God has never taught us to set little store by life. He has always watched it and guarded it as with hosts of armed angels.
It is not to be wantonly plucked. It is God"s choice gift. He has, too, alway kept the line very distinct between himself and his creatures,—"the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil;" not really as "one of us," but imaginatively so; he thinks he now knows all that there is to be known, but this imagination must be corrected by the imposition of high discipline: he thinks he has discovered the sham and failure of things and found out the scheme of God; he must be undeceived; throw a skin upon his back, drive him out of the garden, keep the tree of life, and let him learn by long and bitter experience that there is no short road to dominion and immortality.
Almighty God, though thou art unsearchable, yet in Jesus Christ we have seen the brightness of thy face. We have long sought for thee, but thou didst not come closely to us in all the works of thy hands; we said, Surely we shall find God in the light, and his face will shine upon us through the congregation of the stars; we have gone forward, but thou wast not there; backward, but we could not perceive thee; on the left hand where thou dost work but we could not behold thee; thou didst hide thyself on the right hand, so that our eye could not see thee. We heard that thy way was in the sea and thy path in the great waters, but in all the floods we did hot hear the voice for which our hearts longed in sadness. We have wandered wearily through the temple of Nature, but it was a chamber in which there was no light; we have watched all the seasons, yet they have been to us only as the beautiful garments of an unknown guest All this has often made bur heart ache, and destroyed the balance of our thoughts; we have felt very lonely, and sometimes in our sorrow we have wished to die. This morning we glorify thee that Jesus Christ has satisfied all our hunger and thirst, and has given rest to eyes tired with long watching; thine only begotten Song of Solomon, who dwelt from inbeginning time in the bosom of his Father, has risen upon us as the dayspring from on high; and our hearts are sufficed. We thank thee for his human form, because it brings him so near us; and we thank thee for his great sorrows, because their recollection often lifts us above our own griefs. Truly thou didst in Jesus Christ give us an unspeakable gift; we can sooner stretch a line upon the foundations of the earth, and comprehend the dust of the earth in a measure, than find out the length and breadth, the depth and height of thy love, which passeth understanding. Why didst thou so enrich us with all this love? Surely we had destroyed our beauty and perverted all the comeliness of thine image, and all our dignity had been thrown down into the dust and covered with shameful dishonour; yet thou didst come after us as if thy heart was troubled by our absence, and thou didst call us with a voice that was made tremulous by anxiety, so tender and overflowing was thy love. Feeling our own poverty and littleness, we have often wondered how thou couldst love us so much; why didst thou not throw us into a pit of forgetful ness, and call around thee the unfallen children of light, and throne thyself above their adoring praises? Surely thou hast purposed a great destiny for us, and in ages to come we shall know somewhat of the meaning of our amazing redemption: we confine our view within the dying day and are lost in troubled wonder; but when we lay hold of our immortality in Jesus Christ, and think of the revelations which thou hast yet in tore for us, we are made strong and glad by a great hope. Amen.
You do not suppose, and therefore I need not waste your time in answering the delusion, that Almighty God took revenge upon the ground because Adam, the first Prayer of Manasseh, had broken the Divine law. Yet, at first reading, it is easy to see how that mistake might be made. Adam had broken the Divine Revelation, and he was now in the presence of Almighty God for the purpose of receiving sentence. In the midst of that sentence occurs the remarkable words of the text, "Cursed is the ground for thy sake." Yet possibly there may be a tone of beneficence even in that denunciation. It was for man"s advantage in many respects that the ground should be made hard to till and cultivate, and it is to that point that I wish to direct attention.
The ground is our first lesson-book. We must follow the law of the ground. I must get you away, as far I can, from manufactures, and science, and politics, and fix your attention upon the great law of the land. The land is the true wealth of the nation. Manufactures are a flash in the pan—they succeed, they fail, they change, they die; they go abroad, they are unsteady, vagrant, almost unreckonable—rising or falling now and then—but the stability, the wealth, the greatness of the country is the land. Where agriculture is bad, manufactures cannot advance; where farming is poor, the jeweller cannot live. Have you fully considered the moral meaning of this, or have you lived all your time in the city and have not known that there is a great place called the country, and that London would go down if the land went down?
Not only is the land important in that political and economical sense, but—and this is the point to which we must speedily come—the land is a grand lesson-book. Study the law of land and agriculture, and let that be your first lesson in the cultivation of your own life. If you have been taking your lessons from the book of manufactures, I do not wonder at your being sometimes ill-regulated and ill-behaved. If you have been making politics your model and standard, I do not wonder at your being all twisted and gnarled and ill-conditioned wholly. You should have lived on the land; let us hasten to the green fields, and teeming plains, and learn what we can of God"s great law of true and abiding progress.
A man does not cultivate the land to any great extent simply by waving his hand majestically over it. It is a curious land; you would have thought that a man with six diamond rings upon his fingers would have subdued the land and made it bring forth anything he wished it to produce, by waving majestically several diamonds across the astounded meadows. Yet that is exactly how some persons wish to live: they do not want to give a quid pro quo; they do not want to pay fair and square on the world"s counter for what they get; they wish to throw up the window and call Fortune, and say, "Fortune, obey me; lay your gold here, and go and get more and bring it also." There are certain very grand persons who wish to live well and yet do nothing in return. That is not the law of land; that is not the first lesson that is written in the great ground-book. The land says, "If you want anything out of me you must work for it; I answer labour, I respond to industry, I reply to the importunity of toil." That is the great law of solid progress: ploughing, digging, harrowing, rolling, watering, and then the sickle and the garner. You wanted to get your living, you remember, without ever putting your coat off, and the ground will not be tilled by men who go to it with their coats on and look round, and wonder why they were called to labour.
I have also observed that the ground does not obey the dashing and angry passion of any man. You can go into your mill and smash your looms, you can go into your laboratories and put out your fires—but when you go into the fields how little you are! The green field does not turn white, though you curse over it till you foam again at the mouth. You cannot get usefully into a passion with old Grandame Nature. You can spur a horse, you can goad an ox, you can lash a dog—what can you do with the old mother earth? Suppose now you should jump twenty feet into the air and come down again bang on the ground; what would happen? Nothing to the earth; if anything did happen it would happen to the foolish jumper.
This, then, is my first lesson-book. "If my horse, if my ox, it my dog, do not do as I want them to do," says the angry Prayer of Manasseh, "I make them," and then with his blood boiling hot he goes out into the fields, and he can do nothing! The ground says, "If you want to do anything with me you must do it with hopeful patience; I am a school in which men learn the meaning of patient industry, patient hopefulness. I never answer the anger of a fool or the passion of a demented man. I rest." We cannot compel nature to keep pace with our impatience; man cannot hasten the wheel of the seasons; man cannot drive nature out of its calm and solemn movement; his own fields keep him at bay. He would like to get on faster, faster—it would please him to have three wheat harvests every year, it would delight him to have an orchard-stripping on the first day of every month. He makes his dog go out when he likes—his own trees put out their branches without him and mock his fury. Nature says, "I must have my long holiday"; nature says, "I must have my long, long sleep." Without recreation and rest, man"s life would not be solidly and productively developed; he may be lashed and scourged and overdriven and maddened, but broad, massive, enduring growth he never can realise unless he operates upon the law of steady slowness.
Such is the great lesson of nature. We sometimes think we could improve the arrangements of Providence in this matter of the ground. A man standing in his wheat-field is apt to feel that it would be an exceedingly admirable arrangement if he could have another crop of wheat within the year. He thinks it could be managed: he takes up the roots out of the earth and he says, "This will never do; why, I have lost my year herein—now I will command the ground to bring forth another crop," and this agricultural Canute, having waved his hand over the fields, is answered with silence. That must be your law of progress. There is the very great temptation to hasten to be rich. I see a man in yonder corner, not half so able as I Amos, never had half the education I have had, and by a lucky swing of the hand he makes ten thousand pounds, and I am labouring at my mill, or at my counter, or in my field, and am getting very little—and very slowly. I look in the other corner and see exactly such another Prayer of Manasseh, and Hebrews, too, by a lucky twist of the hand, makes ten thousand a-year; and I never make one, by long, patient, steady work. I know what I will do: I"ll put off this old labourer"s coat, and buy a new fine one, and go and join these men and do as they do, and I will have a hundred thousand pounds in a month, and horses and carriages and estates, and I will not go at this slow snail pace any longer—why should I? I go—and I fail, as I deserve to do. Society never could be built upon the action of such men as have now been described. They may be doing nothing dishonourable, they may be acting in a very proper way, there are no laws that have not exceptions attached to them—I broadly acknowledge the honourableness of many exceptions to this law of land-like slowness of cultivation and growth, but the solid everlasting law of human life is labour, patience, expenditure, hopefulness, little to little, a step at a time, line upon line, and if you trifle with that law you will bring yourself into a state of intellectual unhealthiness, into a condition of moral exaggeration, and you will labour upon wrong principles, and reach, by rapid strides, unhappy conclusions.
Still there is a great temptation to hasten to be rich; to be learned, to be great, in some way or other. We are impatient with processes; we like the conjuror; and yet, young men, young citizens of London, the law of progress is steadiness, getting up early in the morning, and going at it all day, Nil Desperandum on the banner, and "Excelsior" the burden of the song. I know you heard of that runaway boy from your town who went out, and by some happy stroke of fortune, as he called it, made a thousand pounds, and laughed at "the whole concern," and asked you how the "old fogies" were getting on at Song of Solomon -and-so. That was an exception: I do not know the value of it because there has not been time to test it, but the law, solemn, grand, sublime, Divine, is the law of agriculture, the plough, industry, patience: works and faith, as well as faith and works, and a contented hopefulness and belief that the harvest will be more plentiful than the seedtime.
Thus I see God stooping and writing with his finger upon the ground, while we students stand before him in dumb amazement, wondering at the tracery of his finger, and when he erects himself and withdraws, behold the Bible he has written. "Behold the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it until he receive the early and latter rain." That is the first verse he has written for you in the dust. Another—still he speaks, still he writes, and this is the reading thereof. "Be not deceived; God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." Still he speaks and still he writes upon the verdant earth, "He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully." And yet again he speaks and writes with that wondrous finger, "In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good." See the earth inscribed with terms like these, and learn from the land how to live.
All these analogies and illustrations lead up to the great truth concerning spiritual cultivation, which I wish to urge upon my own mind and yours. Spiritual cultivation, like the culture of the land, cannot be hastened. I know that you have forcing pits and hothouses and frames made for the purpose of rapidly feeding the roots, and almost compelling the sun to do double duty upon their glass. But what are all these when gathered together compared with the hundreds and tens of hundreds of thousands of acres which make up the total area of the globe"s cultivatable land? They are as nothing. It is as if a man should imagine that because he can have a warm bath in his own room, therefore it is possible to heat the Atlantic. You must not judge by little exceptions and by small experiments—you must seek out the central quantity and the abiding law, and that is a law of slow but steady succession: holiday, rest, sleep, patience, toil, well-directed industry. "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise."
So it is in spiritual cultivation—you cannot grow a character in a week. There are some long thin stalks that you can buy in a garden market for about a shilling a dozen, and you put up these, and say, "Do grow, if you please; do get up, and do broaden yourselves and make something like a garden about us," and the long thin stalks, spindle-shanks, look at you, and cannot be hastened, though you mock them with their leanness, and scourge them with your unruly tongue. Look at those grand old cedars and oaks and wide-spreading chestnuts. Why are they so noble? Because they are so old. They have been rocked by a hundred wintry nurses, blessed by a thousand summer visitants, and they express the result of the long processes. They have told their tale to fifty winters, caught the blessing of fifty summers, waved musically in the storm, guested the birds of the air, and all the while have been striking their roots deeper and deeper, farther and farther into the rich soil. So must it be with human character: you cannot extemporise moral greatness, it is a slow growth. Money cannot take the place of time: time is an element in the development and sublimising of character: time stands alone and cannot be compounded for by all the wealth in all the gold mines of creation.
This spiritual cultivation not only cannot be hastened, but sometimes it is very hard. As a general rule, indeed, it is very difficult; it is not easy to grow in grace. Some of us live too near the smoke ever to be very great trees, or even very fruitful bushes. Circumstances are heavily against us; we are not placed in favourable localities or under very gracious conditions. The house is small, the income is little, the children are many and noisy, the demands upon time and attention and patience are incessant, health is not very good and cheerful, the temperament is a little despondent and very susceptible to injurious influences, and how to grow in Christ Jesus under such circumstances as these, the Saviour himself only knows. Do not suppose, therefore, that I mock any of you, that I taunt you with your moral leanness and want of progress in your life that is in the Son of God. We do not all grow under the same sunny conditions; how some of you grow at all is one of the practical mysteries of my life—under any circumstances I feel as if I could not grow at all. Be thankful to God, therefore, that the bruised reed is not broken, that though you are faint, still you are pursuing; that though you are very weak in the limb and cannot run hard in this uphill race, your eye is fixed in the right quarter; and the fixing and sparkling of your eye has a meaning which God"s heart knows well.
Cheer thee, then! Though growth is not so broad and obvious as thou wouldst like it to be, yet God is Judge: to whom little is given, from him shall little be expected. I do not look for such flowers in the poor man"s little painted flower box, set upon his one-paned window-sill, as I look for in the great man"s ample grounds in which is called into exercise the highest horticultural ability of the day. Yet—and, blessed be God, this is the supreme proof—yet nothing is lost that is meant in the way of moral growth and progress. Weary not in welldoing, for in due season ye shall reap if ye faint not. There are some things beyond your control. Shall I meet a farmer coming out of his well-tended fields with a few lean ears of corn as his only harvest, and mock him because he is not bringing in a thousand golden-headed sheaves? I know the labour he has expended, I know the sleepless nights he has had—more or less foolishly it may have been, but still he passed them; I know his labour and anxiety, and when he says to me, "This is all the result," do I encounter him with taunting and mockery? God forbid! So when I see some of you come out of your long moral labours, your many prayers and. tears, your strong and urgent desires to be better men, and you say, "Look here, this is what we are, not worth looking at, so mean, so ill-favoured, so blighted "—am I the Prayer of Manasseh, as Christ"s minister, to laugh at you and mock you? I ask about the labour you have expended, and God rewards the diligence, God has regard to the spirit, God knows what we mean; he interprets the set and stress of the will, and if we would have built a temple for him, though we have not laid one stone upon another in its real erection, he takes the purpose of the honest heart as the execution of the industrious hand, and writes in his book that we have built temples to his name.
What is true in the land, and in attainments, is true, with infinite extension of meaning, in the spiritual realm. I want to preach like some dear old father in God, whose words are light, whose sentences are music, and I cannot until twenty more years have come and gone, and mellowed me into richer ripeness. I want to sing like some voice that makes the air melodious, and I cannot unless I practise hour after hour, every day, and obey the discipline of the severest and yet gentlest teachers. I want to be massive, noble in all truthfulness, and brilliant in all moral splendour, and I cannot be until long time has elapsed. The path of the just is not a flashing blaze that comes and goes, it is as the shining light, shining more and more unto the perfect day. Walk by the same rule, mind the same thing, persevere, go on, "never stand still, till the Master appear." Be this your purpose, and God will do the rest!
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Genesis 3". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent