The Folly of Strife, Etc.
"Meddling" is a word which might be rendered "showing his teeth"; then the text would read—Every fool would be showing his teeth, snarling, threatening to bark and to bite, as if his dignity were threatened. The subject is strife, and the wise man is teaching that he who ceases from strife gets to himself a distinguished honour; he sees through the folly of striving and through its uselessness, and he perceives that life can only be wisely and beneficently conducted by a policy of conciliation and sympathy: on the other hand, the fool does not take this view; he proves his folly by showing his teeth, by asserting his dignity, by insisting upon his rights, by declaring that he will never have anything settled until he has it settled his own way. The Bible never hesitates to call such a man a fool. We have come to regard the word "fool" as a vulgarism, and we hesitate to use it; but in the Old Testament it is used with great freedom, and always in relation to moral shortcoming and perverseness. To call a man a fool in a vindictive spirit, or merely to accomplish his humiliation in the eyes of others, is wholly anti-Christian and positively wicked; but to describe a man as a fool who is always standing upon his rights and asserting his dignity is but to adopt the very spirit of the Bible. The great man will show his greatness by his love of peace: the fool will show his littleness by his love of controversy. In a life like ours it is impossible for every man to have his own way, or for each one to see as every other man sees; society is so constructed as to require the inspiration of mutual regard and mutual deference; otherwise society would fall to pieces. It is easy to get up a controversy; easy to show the teeth; easy to insist upon punctilious rights; easy to turn ceremony into a moral ordinance; but all this is opposed to the spirit of the revelation which we believe to be divine. It is indeed humbling to human pride to have to retire from some controversies; on the other hand it is a mortal insult to moral dignity to have to continue certain contentions. We may obtain our little and temporary rights, but in obtaining them we sacrifice the eternal right of love, conciliation, and peace. Never give away the greater for the sake of the less: never surrender the substance in order merely to seize the shadow.
"The sluggard will not plow by reason of the cold; therefore shall he beg in harvest, and have nothing" ( Proverbs 20:4).
The sluggard has his reason for not acting, and he thinks that reason of sufficient consequence to justify his abstention. He says it is cold, and he will wait until the sun shines. He forgets that the Very act of ploughing overcomes the inconvenience of cold, that if he would exercise himself he would soon be warm, and that it is within the power of man to do without the sun for a certain period and for certain purposes. The sluggard insists upon being warmed from the outside, and not from the inside; he will have his skin warmed by the sun, he will not warm his own blood by exercise. What is the consequence? He will not know the full issue of his conduct until harvest comes, and he finds in desolate fields the rebuke of his indolence and the condemnation of his neglect. Whatever we obtain in this life should be the result of labour: that labour may be of the mind or of the hand, but it must in some way be true labour; otherwise whatever is obtained will bring with it little of sanction and little of blessing. What applies to the sluggard in the culture of a field applies to the sluggard in all the relations and bearings of life. The student who will not study shall beg in examination and have nothing to show as the result of the expenditure which his schooling has occasioned. The man who will not think shall beg in the time of action, and shall have nothing; because his mind was neglected his hands shall be empty. This is the great rule which binds society in happy consolidation. In all labour there is profit, and the profit is oftentimes as surely in the labour itself as in the substantial advantages which it brings. The huntsman declares that it is not for the sake of the prey but for the sake of the exercise that he pursues his sport. Virtue is said to be its own reward; so is study, so is all painstaking, so is all real devotion of heart. If we could apply this doctrine in all its fulness we should destroy a good deal of religious selfishness. Sometimes men are good merely that they may obtain heaven. Where that is the motive goodness is impossible. We are to find heaven in the goodness itself, in the exercise of prayer, in the service of charity, in the cultivation of all virtue. There are many sluggards who are not known by that contemptuous term. He who does not give to philanthropic appeals is a sluggard. He who does not religiously watch the evolution of providence and apply its solemn lessons is a sluggard. He who does not spend the strength which is renewed in sleep in doing good to others is a sluggard. In all cases the issue is the same: the harvest will be a desolation, and in the end there will be emptiness, disappointment, and grievous shame.
"Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: but a faithful man who can find?" ( Proverbs 20:6).
The "faithful man" is one who carries out what he has promised to do. If he has sworn to his hurt he will still fulfil his vow. He has determined not to preach his goodness, but to realise it, to embody it, to make it the principal fact of his life. Most men will claim theoretical goodness, or acknowledge some philosophy of virtue, or prate about the shortcomings of other men, and thus indirectly magnify and glorify themselves: many men can talk about religion, can enter into controversy respecting its doctrines, and display great zeal and eloquence respecting its dogmas; all this amounts to nothing unless it be followed by that faithfulness which realises, executes, embodies the goodness that is talked about. The wise man in his day found it difficult to discover a faithful man. The question which he asks is proposed in a tone that is deeply pathetic. Who can find a faithful man? Where is the man whose action is equal to his word? whose heroism is equal to his theory? whose self-abnegation is equal to his professions of obedience? Although the wise man asks the question and leaves it without reply, we are not to suppose that it is incapable of being answered. Truly it cannot be answered unless there be a motive higher than any known within the limits of human nature: there must be inspiration from on high: direct action of the Holy Spirit upon the human mind and heart: this is the miracle of Jesus Christ, and it can only be wrought within the shadow of the Cross. It is time men had done talking about goodness. One action is better than a thousand theories. To lead the blind by a way that they know not, to be a helper of the helpless, to give shelter to those who are houseless, is better than to talk fluently and copiously about theories of virtue, philosophies of goodness, and airy schemes of impracticable reformation. One act of charity will outweigh ten thousand romantic dreams of amelioration.
"Divers weights, and divers measures, both of them are alike abomination to the Lord" ( Proverbs 20:10).
Not here only, but elsewhere, is this doctrine laid down in the Bible. It is indeed laid down in this very chapter, in the23verse, wherein we read, "Divers weights are an abomination unto the Lord; and a false balance is not good." The meaning of this declaration is evident: it cannot be right to have one weight for the rich and another weight for the poor, one weight for those who can test our honesty, and another weight for those who must take our honesty on credit. Men must not tamper with the standard weights and measures of the country. Such standards are not human and social only, they have a direct religious significance, as we infer from the fact that any violation of them is an abomination to the Lord. We need not limit the doctrine actually to weights and measures of a commercial kind; there are weights and measures in speech, in criticism, in moral judgments, in rewards and penalties, and indeed in all the economy of social life. In society we must have certain standards common to the whole body, otherwise disorder will ensue, and misunderstanding may lead to war. Take the doctrine, for example, in the matter of language: there is a national language with which no man may tamper; we must not have words used in other than patent and well-established senses; otherwise we shall have a system of criticism which may lead to endless confusion and practical difficulty of every kind. The English language must be interpreted by the English lexicon. It will not do for moralists to employ common language in uncommon senses, otherwise the populace will be unable to follow their teaching or to determine their meaning. As a man must not interfere with the metallic currency of his country, so he must not interfere with its verbal currency. We can have no mental reservations, no reading between the lines, no saying one thing and meaning another; private glossaries must not be allowed; our Yea must be yea, and our Nay, nay. To this frankness and simplicity and reality of life will the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ conduct us. Many a man who would shrink from the idea of giving short weight in a mercantile sense may be guilty of giving short weight in a moral sense or in a verbal sense. He will so curtail his speech, or reserve himself in the declaration of his vow, or avail himself of recondite criticism in the construction of his utterances, as to destroy their meaning, and turn them in a direction precisely opposite to that in which they are accepted by the common mind. Words are given to us that we may speak the truth, not that we may conceal it or serve a lie.
"The hearing ear, and the seeing eye, the Lord hath made even both of them" ( Proverbs 20:12).
The meaning would be, that therefore he who made the ear can hear, he who made the eye can see. Our faculties are all numbered, and their force is precisely determined by the Judge of all the earth. He knows how much we can hear, how much we can see, how much we can do, and when the evening comes and the hour of reckoning strikes he will only expect little from those to whom little has been given, and much will be expected from those to whom great gifts have been entrusted. It is curious to observe how continually the Bible refers to the fact that the ear and the eye are of God"s making. There is a great moral conveyed by this fact, namely, the moral just stated, that he who made our faculties understands them, controls them, and exercises them himself on an infinite scale. If we could once realise the idea that God hears every word we utter and every breath we draw, the whole spirit of our life would instantly change. It is because we befool ourselves in these matters, imagining that the Lord can neither see nor hear, that we do the things which are roots of evil and occasions of burning shame. The true man always lives under the distinct conviction that his life is daily judged by heaven. "Thou God seest me" is the motto of the wise man. But even this motto may be perverted, for we may endeavour to serve God with eye-service, and so escape the discipline of the heart, the inner service, the deeper obedience, which can only spring from divine inspiration. We are to do good as certainly and as copiously as if the Lord paid no heed to us. We are to be as careful about our words, whether uttered to ourselves or to others, as if the Lord did not hear our speech. Seeing, however, that we are but of the dust and that our poor life is marked most conspicuously by frailty, it is needful that we should view every motive and impulse of a concrete kind, that we may be lifted out of our moral sluggishness, and become animated by a spirit of hopefulness, a hopefulness which leads us to desire that at the end the Master may say, "Well done, good and faithful servant." It is noticeable, however, that even in that judgment it was the servant who had to return the record of his life. There are two distinct methods pursued in the awarding of honour and shame: in the first instance the servants come forward and tell the Lord what they have done with the talents with which they have been entrusted, and upon their own statement they are appointed to wider rulership: in the other set of cases the Lord himself states the record, points out the good that had been done and the good that had been neglected, and upon his own statement he awards honour and dishonour. That we are under the continual criticism of heaven is an encouragement to us when we are trying to do good, but is a fearful and appalling reflection, if we are endeavouring to deceive the eyes of Omniscience and to find a place where the presence of God is not realised.
"He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets: therefore meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips" ( Proverbs 20:19).
What relation is there between a flatterer and a talebearer? There may be a subtle flattery in the suggestion that the man is fascinating the attention of the hearer and probably making some inroad upon his confidence. It happens, however, that there is no reference to what is commonly understood as flattery: but the text should be read, He that is open with his lips:—meddle not with a man who cannot keep his lips closed. There are men who are dying of a flux of words. They run themselves out in endless streams of vapid talk; they multiply words to no purpose; what is lacking in moral emphasis they seek to make up by a multiplicity of words or an aggravation of noise, as we speak loudly to those who do not understand our language, thinking that by heightening the voice we are elucidating our meaning. Have nothing to do with wordy men, would seem to be the injunction of the text. Society could not live if it were not for the sacred principle of secrecy, which may be called honour or confidence or trustworthiness; at the same time, there remains the fact that man must be upon confidential terms with Prayer of Manasseh, otherwise business would become an impossibility, and friendship would soon degenerate into hypocrisy. The good man prays every day that God would keep the door of his mouth and watch over the entrance of his lips, that he sin not with his tongue. Here again we come upon the necessity for religious culture, as distinguished from merely artistic stipulation or Spartan discipline. Unless the heart be under the control of the highest religious motives, the tongue will reveal every secret and the lips will stand open like a door continually ajar.
"It is a snare to the man who devoureth that which is holy, and after vows to make inquiry" ( Proverbs 20:25).
This is a peculiar expression, greatly in need of simplification. The idea is that a man gets himself into trouble when he rashly says concerning anything, "it is holy": having thus put himself into a thoughtless relation to his property, he afterwards vows to inquire whether he can keep his word: he plays fast and loose with religious principles and obligations. In order to escape a duty he pleads that he has nothing wherewith to respond to the appeal of charity or the claim of righteousness, because he says that all he is possessed of is "holy," that is to say, dedicated to religious uses. When the appellant has gone away and left the man in the possession of his gain, the man begins to enquire whether after all his property is really dedicated; then he begins to shuffle, to change his ground, to trifle with principles, and to proceed to a selfish use of that which he had declared to be sanctified. So the man gets wrong through a profession of over-religiousness. He is a hypocrite. He assumes a most pious air in the presence of men who seek his assistance, and no sooner are they gone than he recalls his vow and declares that he has a right to do what he will with his own. Is it not true that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked? Is not piety sometimes put on as the protection of selfishness? Is it not needful for us to place ourselves constantly under the scrutiny and inspiration of the Holy Ghost, lest we tell lies to ourselves and to God?
"A wise king scattereth the wicked, and bringeth the wheel over them" ( Proverbs 20:26).
A passage of this kind may easily be perverted by being used for the purpose of supporting a doctrine of persecution. To bring the wheel over a man seems to be a figurative expression for the very direst cruelty. If a man is wicked, crush him with the wheel, tear him limb from limb, decapitate him, in some way show that there is a power that can terminate not only his enjoyment and his liberty, but his life. That, however, is not the meaning of the text We are not urged by these words to persecute those who differ from us, or who are even desperately wicked. Always distinguish between persecution and righteous penalty: between mere oppression and the assertion of that righteousness which is essential to the consolidation of society. When the stacks of corn were spread upon the threshing-floor the grain was separated from the husk by a sort of sledge or cart which was driven over them. The process was for the purpose of separating the chaff from the wheat; the process therefore was purely beneficent: so with the wise king; he winnows out evil persons, he signalises them, he gives them all the definiteness of a separate position, and by bringing them into startling contrast with persons of sound and honest heart he seeks to put an end to their mischievous power. Indiscrimination is the ruin of goodness. We have only to bring evil men into the conspicuousness of their real character—that Isaiah, to show others what they really are—in order to terminate their corrupting influence. Whilst the tares and the wheat are both to grow together until the harvest the tares are never mistaken for the wheat; it is not so in moral relations; sometimes there may be such an association of the evil with the good as to demand prompt and vital separation the one from the other. Men are separated by different ways, not by imprisonment, not by merely personal penalty, not by stigma and brand of an offensive character; they are separated by contrariety of taste, aspiration, feeling, sympathy; in proportion as the good are earnest do they classify themselves, bringing themselves into sacred association with one another, and by sensitiveness of moral touch they feel the evil and avoid it; they know the evil person at a distance and are careful to put themselves out of his way and reach. What is represented as being done by the wise king is done by the cultivation of high principle and Christian honour.
"If instead of the miserable platitudes, or good-for-nothing gossip, which now does so much to kill our time and enervate the intellect, some really refreshing interchange of thought could be effected, how much more we should act like human and immortal beings! And yet, so vitiated is the social taste, that any attempt to realise this, by the use of wise and well-chosen language, would most likely secure contempt, and the intruder would probably be the object of derision.
"But ponder a few sentences which good English writers have left on this subject: "The first ingredient in conversation is truth; the next, good sense." "He who sedulously attends, pointedly asks, calmly speaks, coolly answers, and ceases when he has no more to say, is in possession of some of the best requisites of man." "The secret of tiring is to say everything that can be said on the subject." "Speak little and well, if you wish to be considered as possessing merit." "When I meet with any that write obscurely, or speak confusedly, I am apt to suspect two things: first, that such persons do not understand themselves; and, secondly, that they are not worth being understood by others." "Eschew fine words as you would rouge; love simple ones as you would native roses on your cheeks. Act as you might be disposed to do on your estate; employ such words as have the largest families; keep clear of foundlings, and of those of which nobody can tell whence they come, unless he happens to be a scholar."...
"Make Christ the theme of your converse, and take him as your pattern. "In him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." "And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth." Trace the records of his ministry with respect to conversation. He condemned the trifler and the jester, as much as the cynic and the hypocrite. No light and wanton words came from his lips, but words of purity and truth. Let us imitate our glorious Pattern, and by a sensible, earnest, and spiritual conversation, "seek to minister grace unto the hearers.""
—Gervase Smith, D.D.
Almighty God, we praise thee with a loud voice and a cheerful heart, because thy gifts are many, thy love is constant, thy mercy is very tender. We are often walking in the cloud, yet even in the cloud we hear a voice saying, This is my Song of Solomon, hear ye him! and when the cloud has dissolved we see no man save Jesus only. We are often in mystery and pain and agony, and we say in the morning, Oh that it were night! and at night, Oh that it were morning! for we are tossed to and fro, and made weary with many a vexation, and behold our souls are fretted in anxiety and care. Yet then thou dost come to us with healing. Thou art the God of all comfort; thou hast innumerable solaces, so that we say, There is balm in Gilead; there is no sorrow which our Saviour cannot understand and sanctify. Then we glory in tribulations also, not for their own sake, but because thou hast so ordained that tribulation shall work experience, and experience hope, and thus out of the darkness we shall get our light, and out of the sorrows of life we shall gather our harvest of joy. This is the Lord"s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes. We count our griefs as treasures, we count our losses as gains, and we reckon up all our chastisement as part of our education. Continue to handle our poor little life as thou wilt: we can make nothing of it; we cannot direct it, we cannot see to-morrow, but thou knowest all that is meant by life, its possible immortality in heaven, and thou hast so set before us thy truth and thy kingdom and thy promise that we shall know what thou wouldst have us be and do. We are redeemed, not with corruptible things as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Jesus Christ; we are sanctified by the Holy Spirit, we are daily meetened for some higher school and nobler society: may we not be fools wasting our hours, but wise men buying up the opportunity, redeeming the time, and making it large and rich with usefulness. Save us from the laughter of the fool, from the joys that are like foam dying as it rises; save us from all mean, corrupting, and debasing society; may we never condescend to drink at the troughs of time when we may slake our thirst at the fountains of eternity; from all that is low, and mean, and worldly, and selfish, Lord, deliver us by thine almighty grace. Help us to spend our little life-day well, wisely: may we sprinkle it with tears as with dew; may we work in it as a garden of the Lord which the Lord himself will one day visit to look at the fruits and the flowers which we have grown; may we try to be better and to do better every day; may we be gentle, sympathetic, condescending, kind, courteous, loving where love is possible, and saving men where thy grace will reach them. Make our homes castles of security, defences against all that is unruly, confused, and tumultuous; may our houses be temples of the divers estates of body, soul, and mind, let thy blessing rest upon each of us according to the speciality of our need; let it come first upon the great mountains of prosperity, health, strength, confidence in the goodness of God, so that they who have no pain and no weakness may receive according to their present happy condition an increase of the benediction of God. May all the mountain of their strength be offered to thee on the altar as a tribute of thankfulness and obligation to thy beneficence. Then regard those who are in great fear and distress because of the plague of sin, the torment of remorse, the bitterness of memories which they seem to be unable to quench and to destroy—pursued by ghosts of evil days, tormenting spirits, and affrighting recollections of things that have been done; that shall burn as an eternal shame, and to such do thou speak the great gospel of forgiveness of sins and the total oblivion of iniquity on thy part, seeing that thou dost cast it behind thee like a stone into the depths of the sea. Regard any upon whom sudden calamity may have fallen,—unexpected bereavement, great, solemn, startling sorrow, whose houses have been suddenly darkened, and the light of whose eyes has been suddenly quenched. Thou alone canst help the heart in such agony; we do, therefore, lovingly commend to thy tender care, to thy merciful regard, and thy healing benediction, those upon whom the strokes have fallen, that stagger and shake the very life of man. Give such a vision of thy providence that shall be itself a new redemption from fear. Enable them to take wide views, to form just estimates of thy way, lest, being suddenly overbalanced, they may yield to the human distress in forgetfulness of the divine grace. Look upon those who are honestly and honourably endeavouring to live the life of earth in the sight of men, and who yet have to contend with much difficulty, whose days are periods of contention and fierce struggling; help us in every honest purpose and in every just design, and in thine own time send such success as shall save the mind from despair and create in the heart a flame of praise. Regard our country, defend our shores, save Her Majesty the Queen, and add many to the days of her reign; establish her throne in righteousness, and let her house be favoured of God. Guide us in all times of peril, in all crises; in all national emergencies and dangers help us to be simple, sincere, just, and honourable. Save us from all foolish panic and unreasonable alarm; enable us to walk in paths of wisdom and of honour, and to delight above all things in discovering and doing thy holy will. The Lord now come to us during this day; may it be a day of spring in our hearts, when buds shall open in widening blossoms, when that which has hitherto been apparently unfruitful shall bring forth according to the bounty of the divine purpose. May we all be clothed with some vernal grace, some spring beauty, so that we may give, each of us, a new tribute to the Lord who made the seasons, and causes them to pass in perpetual procession. Dry our tears, lift our burdens from our shoulders, and if they must needs be imposed again, we shall at least be stronger for the rest, and better able for the remaining difficulties and dangers that are before us. So let thy blessing come upon every one of us, that out of each heart there may go a song of his own, of tender, grateful recollection, of childlike and loving trust. May our whole life be set to the music of thy will and to the purpose of thy government. Lead us into all truth; save us in the time of trial and temptation; as gold is tried in the fire, so may we be tried in the furnace of thy providence, and after thou hast wrought thy will in us and upon us, through a manifold and often inscrutable discipline, bring us from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, a redeemed household, a holy family, a noble priesthood, a royal generation, to inhabit the courts of the upper sanctuary, to abide in the abiding Zion. Amen.
A Gospel Question
This is a gospel question before the time of the gospel. Every indication of great human pain and unrest, fierce trouble and tumult that will not be calm, is of the greatest consequence as enabling us to form some opinion of the mysteriousness of human nature and the purpose of God in its constitution. It would be a false supposition that all this moral pain, fear, shame, distress, and sense of moral impotence came upon men in consequence of the birth of Christ into the world, who came with a new revelation of human nature, and consequently to suppose that if Christ had not come into the world no such self-humiliation and self-despair would have been experienced. All the great conditions of the human mind we find as distinctly in the Old Testament as in the New: all the questions that sharpen themselves into fierce agonies are in the nature of man and part of the mystery of his constitution. They are not learned from books or derived from external teaching; they rise up in the heart of man to assert a mysterious purpose and an incalculable and solemn destiny. It would be impossible for any man seated at the Lord"s table, or seated at the Cross itself, to put a more intensely evangelical question than is put in the text, which occurs actually in the Proverbs—"Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?"
When the lawyer stood up and tempted Christ, saying: "Master, which is the great commandment in the law? What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" Jesus Christ did not make a new answer for the occasion: he threw the mocking inquirer back upon the first ages—upon the law, his favourite study, thus showing that all the great questions of the human heart were anticipated in the Old Testament, and that, properly read, the Old Testament is in its own degree as evangelical a book as is the New Covenant written with the precious blood of Christ. Does any man suppose that if we did not come to church we should not be troubled by great and solemn inquiries? Let us first of all do away with that mischievous sophism in our moral thinking. A man has only to look into his own heart, as the enlightened and foremost pagans did, to find in that heart questions that demand a Revelation, agonies that can find no healing balm away from God. The inquiry of the text is a purely personal one; it comes to each of us: if any man can answer the question in the affirmative let him do so. We do not find anything in the inquiry that forecloses any novel and peculiar experience on our part, so that if there be a man who can say, "Yes," to the inquiry of the text, he will entitle us to put to him some very searching cross-examination.
Let us examine the ground that is laid down in the text. The solemn, personal, direct, urgent inquiry is this—Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin? Can you? Then why those occasional doubts, and fears, and gloomy forecasts which trouble your conscience? The pure man ought to be lifted above fear, the clean soul ought to have a peculiar, a shadowless joy. Have you that gladness? Then why those nightmares of the soul, why those sudden fears, why those peculiar distresses, why those doubts and scepticisms and questionings—why so many indications of unrest and tumult? This ought to suggest that you have not completed the task which you supposed yourself to have accomplished in the heart Can you say yes to the inquiry? Then why those blemishes on your character which are so obvious to every observer? how comes it that you do not impress other people with having done this work, the purification and cleansing in your nature and conscience, and will and purpose—how account for this marvellous misconception of your character that prevails on every hand—so conceited, so peevish, so fretful, so truthless, so unreliable, so inconstant, so difficult of management, pleasant when you have your own way, disagreeable when you have to take some other course? Why so—where is the purity, where is the cleansing, where is the proof? Questions of this kind, in return for calm assertion of purity and cleansing, must considerably impair the integrity and wholeness of the claim. A man cannot have made his heart pure and clean without somebody knowing it. Where is the witness? Would your wife sign an affidavit to testify to your purity and cleansing—your husband—any two of your sons,—any two persons who have known you for the last ten years only—would they sign that this man A.B. has cleansed his heart and made his soul pure, so that there is now no flaw in all the integrity of his manhood: he is holy, complete, clean, and ineffably and superlatively true and right? The challenge is laid down, I await until it be taken up. But I cannot wait so long, for life is short—I must make more limited stipulations with you. And why with you? Because with myself. How do I know you so well? Because I know myself in and out How did you acquire all this knowledge of human nature? By studying my individuality and nothing else. He who knows himself knows everybody: humanity is one.
Have you made your heart clean and purified yourself from sin? How did you do it? You cannot hesitate to reveal the process if you have accomplished the result. We shall question the reality of the result if you hesitate one moment about revealing the process. Have we not seen little children, who have been set to do a puzzle, suddenly in the midst of the fierce buzz of conversation say, "There it is"? How did you do it? "I will not tell how I did it." But did you do it fairly and honestly? Just in proportion as you decline to say how it was done, we must think that it was done wrongfully, clandestinely, that some liberty was taken with the law of the case, and that there is a blemish in the process. How did you make your heart pure and clean from sin? how did you come to be able to do something which no other man in Biblical history has ever confessed that he did in any sense that God himself would accept and endorse? Where the nitre, the soap? Where the strange chemistry? Abana and Pharpar, and broad rivers and deep, in the east and in the west, have been useless for the removing of this deep ingrained stain of the devil,—how did you remove it? In the fifty-first Psalm, David, in the supreme agony of his self-abhorrence and contrition, desires God to be merciful to him, and to cleanse him, and to create in him a clean heart, and to renew within him a right spirit. Here we have David and David"s sin renouncing themselves, giving up the problem of self-purification and cleansing,—how then do you account for having done something which has been the supreme and impossible miracle of all antecedent human consciousness? We encounter an affirmative declaration with very stubborn doubt.
We must make a very broad distinction between crime and sin, between the overt act and the inner and spiritual motive, purpose, and inclination of the soul. Crime is the vulgarity of sin; crime is the blackguardism of evil nature. We must therefore leave that quarter altogether and go indoors, looking at the secret heart, looking into the mysterious constitution and operation of all the motive powers which impel us in our constant thinking and in our daily action. It is a question of the reins, of the heart, the desire of the soul, the motions of the will, the suggestions of the deep nature. This is not a matter of washing hands, but of washing hearts, and the rivers can supply no water that can get far enough in to touch the black blood of the rebel heart. This is the grand evangelical doctrine without which it would be impossible to understand the priesthood and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Suppose a man should say, "Yes, I have made my heart clean, and I am pure from sin." How would such a testimony affect the general judgment: of mankind—would it instantly secure implicit and grateful credence? Think a moment. I have heard a man say, "I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin," or words which seem to involve the precise meaning of that declaration—how did that testimony affect me? I do not want to take any pessimist view of human nature: I am so constituted that I always take the best view of every man until he has proved himself to be unworthy of confidence; I could not live under any other impulse or standard of judgment. When the declaration therefore was made, taking this optimist and brightest view of human nature, what impression did it make upon my mind? Did I at once invite the witness to my confidence, and offer him all the resources of every kind that were at my command? Instantly I encountered his testimony with incredulity, just as one would have done if he had said that by lifting up his shoulders he was preventing the planets from falling from their orbits. How is that testimony regarded in your place of business—would you allow the Prayer of Manasseh, upon that testimony, to become your debtor? Why then should you sentimentalise about a possibility which you would ignore in all the practical transactions of life? Why have a sentimental theory and a practical theory? Why be liberal and noble in all regions where you are not touched or implicated, and be thoroughly sceptical and stubborn in doubtfulness in all those lines where you are really summoned to a deep and solemn judgment upon appearances and realities?
Was the man then unanswered? Certainly not. Where then was the blemish? He did not know what he was talking about. He meant crime when he said sin; he meant outrage when he said wrong, evil. He thought of the magistrate, not of God; it was the constable he defied, not the Judge of the whole earth. Understand, therefore, that within a given region man may be honourable and upright and clean and pure. Relatively, socially, no one may be able to say one word against him. That proves nothing whatever as to his interior and spiritual condition before God. How can such a man be brought to a clear understanding of the realities of things? By talking? Never. By hearing profound and eloquent exposition of evangelical truth? You might as well speak to him in an unknown tongue. How will he be brought to a right standpoint? By scourging, by sorrow by bereavement, pain, loss, by earthquakes that shall make the fabric of his prosperity and his confidence tremble. Meet him coming back with slow and dragging step from his one child"s grave, and then he will have ears to hear what the Spirit saith to all mankind. Meet him sitting on the ruins of his prosperity, unable with palsied hands to put one stone on the top of another, and then with paralysed lips he may try to tell what a fool he was when he thought himself good and true and clean. Not the evangelical sermon but the evangelical Providence will take hold of that Prayer of Manasseh, and wring him till he cry out, "I abhor myself in dust and ashes." When such sorrow overtakes a man it is like morning falling upon a traveller: it is not darkness, it is light; it is not imprisonment, it is deliverance; it is not limitation, it is an expansion and enfranchisement in divine rulership and dominion and sacred, holy hope. So when the Providence darkens around us, it is a cloud full of bright stars and suns. Let the outer enclosure fall off, and the shining orb will beam and burn upon our eyes in ample, genial summer.
There is a tremendous responsibility in returning an affirmative answer to the inquiry of the text. The nature and extent of that responsibility throws immeasurable doubt upon an audacious and profane affirmative. If a man were to say, "Yes, I have made my heart clean, and am pure from my sin," the first thing he would do would be to contradict the whole testimony of Scripture. Nowhere in the Bible is it allowed that any man can purify his own nature. Everywhere in the Scriptures the exact contrary is explicitly and emphatically laid down. We ought not to forego the testimony of Scripture lightly upon the easy affirmation of a man who in all probability has not taken into consideration the full signification of the terms which he employs when he declares himself pure and clean.
The next thing he does is to supersede the work of Christ. The declaration of the gospel is that the blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin; without shedding of blood there is no remission. The gospel declaration is that "if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." The evangelical statement Isaiah, "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Ghost." He therefore undertakes a very grave responsibility who testifies that without Christ he has solved the problem of purity and self-cleansing.
The next thing he does is to withdraw himself from all the cleansing, purifying agencies which constitute the redeeming ministry of the universe. He commits the sin against the Holy Ghost—the unpardonable sin. Why unpardonable? Because he comes out of the region within which the Holy Ghost operates. Were it possible for an owner of many fields to withdraw one of them from the influence of the sun, and the dew, and the living air, he would commit the unpardonable sin in that department of action. That is the unpardonable sin—getting away from, cutting the connection with, all spiritual agency, all redeeming power, all the mediatorial scheme of Christ, involving and including his life, his doctrine, his example, his atoning sacrificial death, his divine resurrection, his priestly intercession, and his great gift of the ever-pleading, ever-living, ever-renewing Holy Ghost.
Seeing then that so much responsibility would be incurred by returning an affirmative reply to the text, who will dare say Yes? Let God be true and every man a liar. Blessed are those who know the power and the painfulness of conviction of sin. Until we know what sin is we cannot understand the meaning of grace. Only he who has been plagued as with the torment of fire till his tongue, a blistered tongue, has been unable to ask for the one drop of water that would cool its fever and renew the sufferer"s hope—only those who have known the hopelessness of that agony—are prepared for the Cross, the Christ, the Blood, the Gospel.
Are we trifling with little external terms and neglecting inner and spiritual realities? Are we debating etymologies when sin is drinking our blood, and leaving us withered, desiccated, at the Creator"s feet? Begin to be wise by beginning to be self-renouncing. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. There is no heaven along the line of self-hope, there is no pardon in the direction of self-trust. Could we see a man with condemnation written upon his own brow with his own hand, and the same word written upon his heart, upon his will, upon his understanding, upon his imagination—could we see a man who has written himself unworthy of God"s light and God"s love, we should see a soul in the right direction for receiving and appreciating the infinite gospel of the eternal God. May he who can give the hell of conviction bless us with the heaven of reconciliation!
Almighty God, every tone of hope in thy blessed word we praise thee, for our hearts are much cast down, and are in great pain and fear from time to time, so that we need some word from thy holy Book to touch our life in its shame, and to bring back the hope which we have sinned away. Thy word is full of light, the entrance of thy word giveth life to the heart. We have lost our first estate, and are no longer upright before God; we have sought out many inventions, every one of which has proved a deceit and a lie, so that we, who began in our own sagacity to give ourselves life, have utterly failed to do anything but aggravate our degradation and our shame. We come to the living for life, to the sun for light, to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for new creation, new manhood, new hope, for the purity which in itself is immortal, for the rest which is deep as the peace of God, and coming Song of Solomon, even along the line of thine own sweet welcome, thou wilt not say to our hearts one word to increase their discouragement or their distress. We live in thy Song of Solomon, who died for us; we live by faith on the Son of God; we live, yet not we, but Christ liveth in us, and the life which we now live in the flesh is a life of faith, a mystery that is full of light a wondrous enjoyment beyond the expression of words. For every hope of immortality we bless the Lord alone. He made us, and not we ourselves, and it hath pleased him to make us in his own image and likeness. We mourn our sin, for therein have we found the truth of thy word, "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." The wages of sin is death; the soul that sinneth it shall die; we are all dead men; before the Lord we are as if we had never been, and thou, blessed Christ, Eternal Son of the Eternal Father, art come as the Resurrection and the Life to bring life and immortality to light, so that in thee we live again, and in thee we cannot die. This day we keep holy festival; we take the Bread and the Cup, which typify the body and the blood of Jesus Christ. We need such memories; we bless thee for such tokens of recollection and such simple helps on the wilderness way. These things remind us of Christ"s presence here and Christ"s great ministry. We would eat and drink after examination of our souls in the sight of God—not that we may find no sin there, but that we may find an earnest and simple desire that our sin may be washed away and our souls be thoroughly cleansed. We come before this table of memorial, not as perfect men, but as souls that trust in Christ, that renounce themselves and their sins, that look away from their own strength unto the omnipotence of the loving Saviour, as men who, having tried sin and found it wanting, come to Christ the living Lord, and cast themselves upon his finished work, as men who do not deserve to be pardoned, and who yet, by the grace of God, may be forgiven. Inasmuch as we come before thee in living God, may our fire be kindled from the fire of the altar. Bless us in business, where it is almost impossible to be blessed, where lies are profits, where falsehood is canonized. Deliver us from double speech, from double meaning, from all manner of duplicity; may we be sincere, transparent, knowing that it is more needful for us to be good than that we should live. The Lord be with those for whom we ought to pray in special tenderness: be with the bereaved in their loneliness—oh, so cold, so cold! Be with those who are in great sorrow because of imminent calamity; thou knowest the power of the imagination, thou knowest how our enemy can operate upon our fancy and make great calamities out of small appearances; remember our frame, remember we are dust. Be with all the little children; they know not upon what scene they have come, they think of flowers and play and music and dance and revel of innocence; they know not that they are already in the enemy"s land: to thy keeping we commend them; they will not be lost if thou canst save them, thou Shepherd of the universe. Come out from thy dwelling-place, O thou that inhabitest eternity, and seek us, and find us, and save us. We pray at the Cross, for there alone may men pray; we behold the dying Saviour; we pray at the open grave where the angels say concerning our loved One, He is not here, he is risen; yea, we come to his seat of intercession and there pray, knowing that he will take up our supplication into his own great pleading and make it prevalent before the throne. The Lord help us, the Lord carry our burdens himself awhile, the Lord lead us, through many a dark place, into the land of the morning. Amen.
Texts of this kind show the quality of the Bible. No man can in one sentence adequately represent the contents of the Book of God. When we say "Bible," what part of the Bible do we mean? There are many Bibles in one. It is possible to admire the Bible. Admiration is an offence to God. God does not seek admiration, he seeks worship. When we admire and praise the Bible we may be thinking of its comforts and promises, its minor music, its tender speeches to the heart. That is not the Bible; that is part of the great Book—an essential, beautiful, indispensable part, because it is fitted to the valley and the darkness, the pain and the restlessness of life: but it would be a poor Bible if it were a Bible of promise only. We must go into other books it we would know what the Bible is in its totality. The bad man must hate the Book of Proverbs; the low-lived business man never looks into the book that rebukes him, the book that knows his little tricks, the book that exposes him in every line. He wonders who wrote the Proverbs. He is content to make it a historical question whilst he goes on with his low villainy. We think of the Bible as a Book of spiritual metaphysics, dealing with the unknown and the unknowable, the unthought and the unthinkable. The Bible does deal with these lofty subjects, but it also comes in and tests your yard-wand, saying, You thought this wand was thirty-six inches long, it is only thirty-five and a half. How glad we should be then if the Bible would deal with the unthinkable! Then we could be Agnostics in relation to it; but when it impertinently, with divine rudeness, takes up the yard-wand, what becomes of our little theory that "business is business, and religion is religion."? Not in the estimation of the Bible. We do not want men who talk so to know the Bible in any sense of patronising it; we do not want such men, we want them to be infidels. To have the Bible and disobey it is agnosticism; to cry, The Bible for ever! and never to practise its morality, is the direst, shame-fullest atheism. We do not want such people to come to church unless they come in the spirit of penitence, the spirit of men who are ashamed of themselves and want to be better and to do better. This Book of Proverbs should be the business man"s book: then he would sweat nobody, injure nobody; would help everybody; would say, The loaf of bread is mine to share with a man who has no loaf. The Book of Proverbs would soon make a new society. When the Bible is discussed, in what parts do men take refuge when they would oppose it? Why do they not go into those parts which they can understand and apply, and wait until the other door is open? There is a good deal in the Bible that men might do, and whilst they are doing that they might be waiting in holy expectation for brighter visions, for widening horizons; meanwhile, what doth thy God require of thee, O Prayer of Manasseh, but to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God? Begin there, and you will end there; you will sweep through an infinite firmament of thought, but you will come back to that in heaven. What more shall the bright souls do? It is a long way from the first note to the last in this great life-anthem, and yet the first note and the last are identical.
Texts like this throw responsibility upon the right parties Upon whom is the responsibility thrown in this text? Upon the seller, upon the inside of the counter. The man is not to stand up and say, I cannot be both buyer and seller; if the man does not know what a yard Isaiah, it is no business of mine to tell him; if he does not know how many ounces there are in the pound, I am not a schoolmaster to go over the table of weights and measures: he ought to have known all these things before he came to me. No, thou whited sepulchre! You should go upon the principle that you must do right whoever else does wrong; you should be a gentleman, whoever else is a clown. Your place of business should be the asylum, the refuge, of honesty and confidence, so that men shall say about you, We shall get justice here; we should like a few ounces more to the pound, but we shall get table measure and table weight here, for here is a man who would rather die than be dishonest—here is a man who says, It is not necessary for me to live, but it is necessary for me to maintain my character and to please God. If you have anything to sell you take the responsibility belonging to your superior knowledge; it is your business to point out the disadvantages of the situation. And yet we think the Bible is unknowable and unthinkable! Certainly it is in many instances, judging by the weakness and cupidity of men, impracticable. It is for the seller to say, On the whole I would advise you not to buy this; it is not so good as it looks, there is not so much of it as it appears in bulk; all the best are at the top, as you get down and down you get worse and worse: turn the matter over in your mind and come back to-morrow if you want it. Would that end business? Never! It would improve business, it would improve incomes, it would improve society, it would sweeten the heart and soul of things,—perhaps not to-day or to-morrow, but in the long run. The Bible is not so unthinkable as we supposed it was. We thought it was a supernatural book, dealing in spirits, and spectres, and ghosts, and cloudy outlines and impossibilities. It may do so in other parts, but just here a wayfaring Prayer of Manasseh, though a fool, need not err therein.
"A false balance is not good." Then there must somewhere be a true balance; somewhere there must be an authoritative standard. What is the meaning of this word "false"? Where you find false you expect to find true; when you find wrong how do you know it is wrong but by the right? Somewhere there is an equipoise. It is all there. Where is that authority? where is that plumb-line that will not tell lies to please any crookedness in the world? What a world of philosophy is in that one reflection that somewhere there must be a true balance, otherwise we could never know that there is a false balance. Somewhere there must be an essential standard of morality; somewhere there must be a moral authority that is infallible and unchangeable. Why palter with details and incidents and accidents and controversies in words? why not gird ourselves up and go in quest of the eternal and unchangeable standard? We could find it; it is not far from any one of us. Weigh your goods out to yourself before you weigh them to your customer; be your own customer first and see that you get the right weight, then pass it on. Beware of all casuistry: avoid men who are too fluent to be honest, too subtle to be true; who make so many distinctions and divisions and subdivisions and classifications that you despair of their ever reaching good, sound, honest conclusions. The casuist first votes on one side, then on the other; he gives you ten reasons for doing, and ten reasons decimal nine for not doing; and whilst you are balancing the one against the other he tells you that even then it is impossible to get at anything that is really and abidingly substantial in the matter. He will refer you to conscience, and when you are going to that court he will tell you that the judge is not sitting to-day; in fact, if he has to come to real matters of simple acknowledgment there is no judge to sit. All casuists are liars, and all liars are thieves. We have, even as laymen in the school of philosophy, come to the false conclusion that wrongs exist separately; so we draw one line, and say, Lying; another, and say, Stealing; another, and say, Hypocrisy; and so on: in reality they are all one. No man can be a liar without being; a thief, and no man can be a thief without being a liar, and no man can be either without being a hypocrite under some circumstances. We thought the Bible was a Book of spirits; it is a Book of morals.
All this we are more or less agreed upon with regard to weights and scales and measures; there is no discussion amongst us as to the pence-table, or avoirdupois or troy or apothecaries" tables, we know all their ounces and pounds and drams and pennyweights. But does not a text like this suggest the larger balancing of things? Even the balance on the counter is a preacher. The clock ticks for eternity; the dewdrop may be a lesson in astronomy. We thought it was a little wet jewel, and snipped it off the rose-leaf with our thumb and finger; in another sense it is the sun in miniature, one of the great planets come down into measurableness and visibility. So this plumb-line is the eternal measurement. The angels have nothing but that same cord with the little weight at the end of it, and that little weight will make the cord right presently. That little weight is seeking the centre of the earth, and the centre of the earth is seeking the centre of the sun, and the centre of the sun is seeking the centre of God. Is it so that a little dangling cord will shake and quiver until it says in stillness, This is right? Is it possible to be right in all these comparatively little matters, and to be wrong in matters that are vital, essential, everlasting? Is there not a great principle of equipoise here? Has not everything to be in harmony with everything else? Is there not a standard by which all things are to be meted and measured and adjusted? Let us beware sometimes of the merely individual conscience. It is possible to have a pedantic conscience, it is possible for a man to say that such and such arrangements do not suit his conscience. But, in the name of the soul of things, what is his conscience? How has he trained it? How has he treated it? Has he put out both its eyes? Has he choked its voice of reproach? Has he bribed it? Has he put it into a dead sleep with some chemical opiate? We treat men"s consciences with a healthy rudeness when they want to make too much of them in the pence-table, and when they want to buy by apothecaries" and sell by troy weight, and then say, "My conscience..." We soon get rid of these little pedants in the marketplace, but in the Church of God we encourage that species of pedantry, and a man with a pedantic conscience wants a whole pew to himself. Beware of unhealthiness; be on your guard against moral morbidity; know that everything is weighed by the sun, and all life ought to be weighed and estimated and settled by the sun"s Sun.
There is a false balance in the weighing of character. We are unjust to one another. We pinch one of the scales, we touch the balance subtly with our finger, and give advantage to one side; we add a little to the weight, it may be but a grain of sand, but yet a grain of sand is not without its value and influence. Even an atom has a shadow. We may have damped the weight; that water tells in the weighing: we may take up the weight and say, This is the right weight; so it is if it were dry. We do not give credit to one another in a spirit of justice, we see little points, we conceive small prejudices, we do not like the incident that may be changed in a moment, we do not deal with essentials, substantiate, continuing and abiding quantities, and thus we have measured even our friends with a false balance.
We may apply a false balance to the providences which make up our life. What skill some people have in dealing only in dark things, black aspects, wintry phases, deprivations, bereavements, losses! They are eloquent when they tell you what they have parted with. Who can be equally eloquent in numbering mercies? Who ever mentions the great mercies? Who ever gets beyond the outside of things, the mere rim, the palpable environment? Who gets into the soul, and who says, I have reason, how can I be poor? I have health, how can I fail? I have home, how can I be desolate? In balancing life take in all these reasons and thoughts and considerations, and so doing you will see that all the while God has been making you rich, or giving you the possibility and opportunity of acquiring and enjoying the true wealth. Who is there that keeps a right balance when he has to weigh the present and the future? The unsteady hand can never get an equipoise; the palsied fingers cannot hold the scales. You must have health in weighing. No drunken man can weigh out to you justly what you have asked him to give you; no man of biassed mind, prejudiced soul in any way, can give you right judgment in anything on earth. The present is here, the future is yonder, and when did "here" fail to carry the war against "yonder"? We have even formed little foolish proverbs about this, we have gone so far as to tell the lie that "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." Whoever says that is guilty of a palpable sophism. He seems to be speaking truth, he forgets that everything depends on the bird that is in the bush, and all the possibilities and contingencies and promises which relate to the possibility and certainty of its capture if the right way be pursued. We are the victims of the present. It would seem impossible for some men to do justice to spirituality. Spiritual teaching goes for nothing. There are people in certain rural districts who never have paid the schoolmaster, and they say they never will—the schoolmaster indeed! They pay the farrier, they pay the toll-keeper, but the schoolmaster—a man who deals in ideas, thoughts, culture, a man who addresses himself to the soul, how could they ever think of recognising his work? If you deal in clothing for the head you will get your money; there is a county court to support you—but if you give a man ideas, if you pray him into heaven, if you lift up his soul into a new selfhood, the county court would smile at you if you made application for assistance in any direction that you might think honest and equitable. And the very best of men play at that game. They cannot help it Pay a poet!
All this leads up to the fact that there are men who are prizing the present in the highest relations in preference to the future. They set time against eternity, earth against heaven, the body against the soul. Have we not aforetime pictured the possibility of a man overfeeding his body and starving his spirit? "Beloved, I wish above all things thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth." What an irony is this—a body fed four times a day, a soul never fed at all! no book ever opened, no high authority ever consulted, no poetry ever learned, no study set apart for the culture and training and nurture of the mind. There are men who boast they never open a volume. So let it be. He that soweth to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption. He shall have his inheritance, he shall lie down with the worms and be forgotten. How are we weighing things? There are two forces that now seek to rule our lives—the force that tends downwards, the force that tends upwards. How long halt you between two opinions? The devil wants us, and Christ calls for us; the enemy of souls would ruin us by telling us comforting lies; the Saviour of souls would save us by bringing us to his sacred cross.
Divine Care of Life
Man is bound to be religious. Even atheism is a religion. In proportion to its supposed intelligence and sincerity is it one of the religions of the world. We cannot escape mystery. It has occurred to some minds, if they may be dignified by that appellation, that if we could close the Bible and burn the Church we should escape all mystery, and get into fine weather, and under clear skies, and breathe an air full of health The Bible does not make mysteries, it recognises them. That there is a Force somewhere, and of some kind, that controls and limits us, is undeniable. I will not ask you to give that Force any name. I simply ask you to recognise what has been recognised by the greatest and calmest thinkers of all times—the fact that there is above, below, behind all things a Force that limits us. I will not ask at this point whether that unknown Force directs us or blesses us. I confine my remarks in the first instance to the simple fact that it limits us. We cannot do all that we want to do. Sometimes we are mocked because our actions are less than our prayers. What say you to the taunt that your actions are less than your desires, your accomplishments are less than your ambitions? Who would you like to take his own medicine? That is exactly how the case stands. Some say in mocking tones, "Are these the men who pray? Behold, how inconsistent they are, how self-contradictory." So it is. "And are those the men that plot, and plan, and scheme, and go out on noble adventures, and come back with empty hands?" We must not taunt one another. The taunt is as complete on the one side as on the other, and it adds nothing to the illumination of the mystery which deeply concerns us all. Granted that there is such a Force, and, compared with inquiry into its nature, compass, and laws, all other investigation not only becomes common, but becomes contemptible. Consider that point well. If we get hold of that doctrine, we have got hold of a key that ought to open many a difficult lock. Let me repeat in other words this grand conviction. Granted that there is such a Force watching us, limiting us, guiding and directing our life, and finally bent on judging it; then inquiry into the nature and compass of that Force dwarfs all other inquiry; it becomes the supreme inquiry of the human mind. How little, how abject, how contemptible is every other inquiry as compared with the inquest into the unseen Spring and Secret of things. There is a learned book upon "Heat Considered as a Mode of Motion." Very good; but extremely trifling compared with this inquiry, What is it that moves and moulds and inspires all things? Whilst you are outside counting the bricks of the house, measuring them one by one, and making memoranda of what you call the phenomena of the building, I want to know who lives in it. It is the life that interests me, not the outer habitation. Do not suppose, therefore, that religion undervalues any inquiry on its own merits. Keeping upon its own ground, it may be excellent and useful, but no inquiry can touch the supremacy of religious investigation reverently conducted. It is customary to laugh at the religious fanatics; but granted that there is such a Force, written with very large capitals, and you have granted all I want to have admitted to justify me in the statement that, in inquiring into the nature of that Force, I take the leading position in human investigation. I may bring you false reports, and you may bring me false reports from your inquiries as well. I may in my little book write many things I must expunge, but your note-book is full of interrogations and marks indicating points that must be Revelation -investigated. Do not let us mock one another. If your note-books were all written in capitals, and read straight on, without erasure or correction, then you might wonder that our books were not kept so clearly. But when we read the memoranda of men of science, we find that they have been contradicting and correcting themselves all through. The object we have in view is to find out as much as we reverently can of the upper universe, and we, when conducting that inquiry, feel that we cannot come down and chaffer with those who are pursuing inferior objects so long as there is a glint of light in the sky by whose aid we can take another upward step. I do not feel that in pursuing these inquiries I am so remarkably foolish. I do not feel that I am at all fanatical in conducting these inquiries. You are looking at a man"s clothes; we want to see his heart. You say you are confining your attention to what you call phenomena. Many persons are the victims of that word. They do not understand it, but it has a rich, full sound in the mouth; it seems as though it meant something, or ought to. We are not engaged in the study of phenomena; we are engaged in the pursuit of the Unseen Secret that lies behind all phenomena and gives them shape and meaning. Do we then hold these phenomena in contempt? Nothing of the kind; only when we compare them with the Secret that gives them their place. They are assistances in our higher inquiries; they give us foothold, they supply points from which we can reckon progress. By putting them together and watching their wondrous ways, we find they shape themselves into a Revelation, and lift themselves into the dignity of a providence. Granted that it is possible for a man to read your soul"s thought, of what avail would it be for him to renounce that high prerogative and function, and to count the buttons upon your coat, to observe your general habits, to note the times of your rising and lying down, your times of taking exercise, and of replenishing the waste of the body? All these things have their importance,—we are not undervaluing them,—but if we keep ourselves to these inquiries when we might read your thought, we are abandoning a higher plane for a lower. Can we then find out the Lord unto perfection? No; but that is no reason why we should not go as far as he permits us to go. We have not yet found out phenomena to perfection—is that any reason why we should leave our inquiries? We, in trying to find out more and more of God every day, are rewarded, not by a full disclosure of his personality, but by a growing love, an increasing humility of spirit, and by a continual ennobling of our thoughts; we are made more restful, more tender, and more charitable, and other rewards we cannot ask for just now, it promises the consummation of heaven!
It is in this fact, as stated in the text, that we find the secret of superstition. No doubt there is a great deal of superstition in the world. Do not hold superstition in contempt I would rather trust my life with a man sincerely superstitious than with any man who denied the existence of God. Were I dying, and had a child to leave to the tender mercies of some guardian or friend, and did my choice lie between a man whose veneration was so excessive as to run up into the region of superstition and a man who blatantly denied the existence of a God, I could not hesitate for one moment into whose hands to commit the destiny of the child. Once let God go, and man goes along with him. Once let the Sabbath go, and the Monday goes at the same time. You cannot keep the one if you let the other escape. The second commandment grows upon the trunk of the first, and you may as well say that you will keep the apple and cut down the tree as say you will love your neighbour and deny your Maker.
Even superstition has its defences. We know not all that is about us; what wonder if some timid minds should bow down in fear? Be mine the friend who sees God in every age and scene, who calls the lightning his wings, and the clouds the dust of his feet, rather than the man so conceited and so unmanned as to say, "The name of God has no meaning for me." No more has the name of man. You must not imagine, however, that because there is superstition in the world that, therefore, there is no true worship. We believe, as Christian men, that we have a revelation of this unknown God. We do not accept the revelation simply because it professes to be one, but because it comes with ten commandments, a high morality, a noble patriotism, a force that frees the slave, deposes the oppressor, and gives to authority its necessary and rightful place. If the Bible came to us and said, "You must believe that or you will be damned," we might rebel against so peremptory and arbitrary a command. But it does not say so. Do not separate anything from its own atmosphere. What is the atmosphere of the Bible theology? It is righteousness and true purity. The Bible that says, "Man"s goings are of the Lord," says a wicked balance, an unrighteous balance, is hateful to the Most High. False weights are a temptation of God"s wrath. The Bible that introduces all this wondrous revelation and display of mystery says, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." Do not, therefore, imagine that you can separate the revelation from the morality, the mystery from the righteousness.
"How then can a man understand his own way?" We do not understand it. Why, for example, are you not as gifted as your brother? I do not ask why you are not as gifted as a man on another continent. You might plead difference of circumstance and surroundings; but why are you not as gifted as your own brother, born of the same mother, nurtured in the same family? He is a philosopher, you are a common man; he is a thinker, you are a worker; he is a statesman, you can take but a parochial view of any subject that challenges your attention. He is a painter, and you are no artist; he is an orator, and you can hardly stammer out your meaning in your native tongue. How is it? Do not ask me to explain the mysteries of the Bible—I ask you to explain the mysteries of your own family. Why cannot you guarantee the success of your purposes? Why cannot you say, "I have done this and that, and have made all my arrangements, and the result must be good"? What—what hinders you? Do answer that question. You see, if you renounced your seat in church, and never read a chapter in the Bible, you would only step out of one set of mysteries into another. Can you not explain the reasons of your actions? Why did you leave the town you resided in last? Why did you resign the work you enjoyed so much? Explain your actions so as to leave no doubt as to the motives from which they sprang. You cannot Life is a mystery, breathing is a mystery, the whole sum total of what we call our being is steeped in mystery. The lifting of a hand, the glancing of an eye, these things have their religious and inexplicable mysteries. Why, then, I will give myself right up to God. "Commit thy way unto the Lord." That is what I will do. I will not murmur at what pains; what pains is sometimes best, if mine is a filial spirit. I will have nothing to do with myself. I will go every morning as soon as I awake, and say, "Father, what wilt thou have me to do?" I will have no tastes, no whims, no fancies. I will say, "Thy will, not mine, be done." It is not necessary for me to live, but it is necessary foe me to be true. "Lord, undertake everything for me; put me here or there, high up or low down; if I do but know that thou hast chosen the place for me, that will do." "Thy will be done." Sometimes he allows me to tell a long tale of what I would like, and he is always pleased with it, if I end with "Nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done." We all have our times of ambition, and we want to live in such a place, and such and such a house, and under such and such circumstances. "Lord, this is my little programme, burn it if thou wilt, laugh at it if thou wilt; thy will be done." If I can say this with my whole heart my life cannot be a failure, the saying of it makes my life a supreme success.
Then my life has been so beautifully directed hitherto that I will not have anything to do with its directions, but leave it to be guided as seems best to God. How wonderfully he has trained us! I once heard one teacher say of another celebrated in his profession, "He does not reveal his system all at once, he leads his pupils on from point to point, enforcing the doing of things the meaning of which they do not fully understand, until lo! in the process of time the whole purpose is revealed and success is enjoyed." It is even so with God. I have said, "I do not want to go there, I would rather not go," but he has troubled my life until I said, "Then, Lord, I will go." I have not wanted to be associated with such and such persons, but he has said, "This is right, accept the association, and work out the result patiently."
Young Prayer of Manasseh, what are you going to do with your life? Your life is not a something four square, so many pounds" weight, measurable, and to be wholly accounted for. Your life has roots, your life is a mystery, is an agony, and I want you to give yourselves to Christ"s keeping. I want you to say, I will take Christ"s prayer as my prayer, "Not my will, but thine, be done." And if riches are good for you, you shall have more than you can put your arms around. If acres are good for you, you shall have mile on mile; and if these things would make fools of you, would dispossess you of natural dignity, you shall have none of them; just crust enough to be going on with. "Not my will, but thine, be done." Oh, my Father, thou hast done wondrous things for me in times that are gone. No weapon that has been formed against me has prospered! Those who have come out from their houses to injure me have been struck with blindness and have never got back again! Thou dost not do such great things to reverse them, and by their inversion prove thine own weakness.
Now for a holy row, a solemn, sacred, glorious vow, to give ourselves, body, soul, and spirit, to the divine guidance. Come, dear old traveller, a few days more thou hast; give thyself into the Father"s hand. And, dear little child—bless thee, a thousand blessings be thine!—say with thy dear little sweet mouth and most eloquent eyes, "Father, take care of me always, for Christ"s sake." Say that These are little words, but they are full of dewy meaning and sweet and happy thought. And you, poor, poor wanderer, who went out from your Father"s house with the portion of goods that fell to you to make your fortune in a distant land! Famine-bitten, come! Weary, hungry, drenched through and through, come! "I dare not." You dare. "I may not." You may. This Man—there is but one Man—this Prayer of Manasseh, Son of Prayer of Manasseh, receiveth sinners and eateth with them.
Almighty God, how delightful it is to sing thy praise! because how delightful to realise the tenderness of thy mercy. Thy love is a great love; it is like the sea, beating upon every shore. Thy mercy is an everlasting mercy; all the houses of history which have known it have said so one to another across the ages; and now we in our time take up the grand refrain and say, His mercy endureth for ever. Who can wear out the mercy of God? Yet thy Spirit will not always strive with man; there are appointed times which thou hast fixed and none can disarrange. We are in the hands of the living God; we are watched by the unslumbering eye; we are guided by the infinite counsel. Oh that we were wise, that we might know the meaning of all this blessedness, and receive it into our hearts, and repeat it in conduct worthy of its grace and music. But that we wish to do so is itself a blessing; the desire is the beginning of heaven. That such a purpose is in our heart is a miracle wrought by none but God. We would live in thy light; we would study thy will; we would do all thy bidding; we would be the slaves of the Son of God. We thank thee for these cleansing thoughts, for these high animations of soul, for these beginnings of immortality; this is the Lord"s doing—the very miracle of heaven. Once we were dead, once we strayed far and knew not where we were; but we have returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, and to-day we are found within the gates of the city of God, praising him with a loud voice and a fearless heart Thy word is very precious to us; it is most precious when we need it most. Who can find out all its meaning—deeper than all the depths we have fathomed, and higher than all the heights we have scanned? We are lost in wonder and in praise as we peruse the inspired pages. In all things give us the seeing eye, the receptive mind, the understanding and responsive heart; then shall our prayers be answers, our waiting shall be working, and our endeavour shall be success. Thou knowest every life—its joy, its sorrow, its innermost pain, its distress that may never be spoken, its penitence too sacred for created eyes to look upon. We are in thy hands: do thou answer us according to our necessity, and be pitiful to us because of our great weakness. The Lord help us to do all we know of his will, for in the doing of it shall we know more, and the doctrine shall be revealed through the practice. Direct us in all perplexity, strait, and embarrassment; comfort us in all sorrow, long-standing or newly-come, and help us to become chastened because of its action upon the soul. Where we realise our weakness most, may we realise thy strength as the help of our infirmity. When we hesitate between two opinions, incline us to the right, and make us strong in virtue and in goodness, and valiant in all truth and nobleness. Destroy the mean thought, the unworthy suspicion, the cruel jealousy, and set up thy kingdom within us, thou Christ of God, Son of David, Son of Mary, Son of man. Grant thy holy Spirit unto us to abide in the heart, to sanctify it, direct it; and make a temple of the living God of every affection which moves us. Heal the sick, thou loving, sympathising Christ, if not with bodily health, yet with spiritual hope and moral victory and saintly fearlessness; then shall they praise thee in the valley and conquer when they fall. Regard all our interests, and do not allow our minds to be distracted by them: for who can be in all the ends of the earth at the same time but God? We will watch at the altar, we will fight in the field, we will suffer in solitude, we will study thy word: as for all that belongs to us, thou wilt take care of it, for thou art our Father and Lord. We fall into thy hands. Thou didst give us Christ, and in him thou wilt freely give us all things; the Cross is the measure of thy love, and whilst we look at that we have no fear. Amen.
The Ways of Man
In very deed has he any way that is his own if he be at all moved by the spirit of obedience and trust? What we call our own may not after all be so very much our own. May not a man do what he will with his own? Let us grant that; but the further question will occur, what is his own? Will a man say that what he has in his hand is his own? Instantly that would be disputed, because though what he has in his hand may be his own, his hand is not his own. "Ye are not your own." The question is fundamental, vital, inclusive. What property we have may be our own in a certain sense, but we ourselves who have it are not our own. Thus the smaller is swallowed up of the larger, and he only takes the true view of life who says, "I am nothing, I have nothing but what I have been made and what I have received; you do not see the whole when you see me. Behind me, above me, beyond me, is the all-explaining but never-explained Secret." When a man touches that region of thinking, we call him a religious man. He is no longer a flippant creature or a person moved by such calculations as he can make upon a slate; he belongs to the general assembly and church of the firstborn. He is a point in a cir-cumference—a little light in a great firmament of planets—he belongs to the whole family. He Isaiah, therefore, distinctively and (I think) rationally called a religious man. That Isaiah, a man who acknowledges a Secret in the universe, which is not a puzzle but a Revelation, and by so much a contradiction, a Secret that watches him, claims him, inspires him, lifts him up by the locks of the head, bears him away, brings him back, uses him like a trumpet through which to announce the blast of battle, and lets him down like a shattered thing. "Ye are not your own." We are errand-bearers, little children, free slaves, contradictions to the vulgar and the patent, but happy, harmonious, sacred reconciliations and unities to those who know that Three may be One and One Three. You cannot deny that there is a secret in the world or in the heavens that baffles you and disappoints you, sets the winds laughing at you at night when you go out; or makes the summer into a great and gracious smile upon you when you turn your lace upwards in filial piety and saintly expectation. We may differ about the name, but there is the reality. One man may say, Secret, another may say, Force; another may say, Infinite; and another yet may say, Father. But there, under all the names and round about them, is the solemn reality that we do not see all things and cannot handle all force; but that there is in creation a mysterious and governing power. Consider this well. Once let the idea get into your mind, and every other idea that comes into the same mind must sit down at its feet, and all other ideas must look up to this sovereign force and take their tone and being from its royalty. You cannot escape that conclusion. Let the idea of God—present, ruling, fatherly, redeeming, actual—take possession of the human mind, and all other ideas stand back and bow themselves in duteous homage to that central and all-ruling thought. Hence we have what are called "religious men;" men of solemn mind, of thoughtful, sober, reverent habit of soul. Men who often put off their sandals and lay down their staves and call for quietness—silence more than silent—that they may hear in its ineffable quietude the music of the heavens. We cannot despise such men; they cannot be little men; they cannot be mean-minded men, they cannot be narrow and prejudiced men if faithful to their central and sovereign idea. When they do deserve such descriptive terms they have fallen from their high intellectual and spiritual estate and are no longer sons of the morning. It stands to reason that where the idea of God is in the mind all other ideas must of necessity be secondary.
Do you wonder, then, that Jesus Christ, who proceeded forth and came from God, who revealed God, who spent his eternity in the bosom of the Father, said, "Take no thought for the morrow," "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness;" "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell"? That was the tone of his ministry. God being his Father, all worlds, planets, constellations, universes interlinked with universes fall back into little flecks of light upon the disc of the Infinite, and Christ"s life was an oblation at the altar of his God. This is reason. This is true rationalism. He is a foolish man who is busy here and there gathering worthless things out of a worthless dust, and letting the king pass by without homage or recognition. This idea has taken possession of the human mind in all ages and places, and with varying, yet not inharmonious, results. Hence we have in one sphere of human progress what is termed superstition. There are people who will not begin important enterprises on certain days of the week. There are other persons who will not sit down at a dinner-table with a certain number of guests. Others observe the wind, and others steal out in the darkening eventide that they may forecast the future by the manner of the stars. Others are always hearing noises, seeing shapes, and allowing themselves to be moved by what they call "intuitions." Do we despise any of these phases of what we may call the religious thought, for there is a deep solemnity under them all? Certainly not. Have no faith in any man who is destitute of veneration. If any man can say jauntily, "All days in the week are alike to me," that man is not to be trusted in solemn hours and in great crises. Be it Friday that he fears, or be it Sunday that he sanctifies, he is a better man for his doing either of them. In that action you find the link that unites him with upper places and upper vitalities. By-and-by he will learn that Friday is no more to be feared than the day before or than the day after. But, meanwhile, do not mock him, he will not be taunted out of his superstition, he will be educated out of it in due time: presently he will learn that the Sabbath Day is to be sanctified in order that through its intense sanctification all the other days in the week are to be brought under a common sanction and a common benediction. In other cases, you have true worship; but whether in the case of superstition, or in the case of true worship, you find the secret of the perpetual influence of religion; so long as there is anything behind the scene, above the cloud, within the wind, which man cannot feel, grasp, and comprehend, you will find in him elements which admit of religious challenges, appeals, and education. If life were a flat ball, a superficies, a lineal surface, you could have no superstition as well as no religion, no poetry as well as no prayer. Everything goes down before the superficial, it is in the cubic mystery that you find poetry as well as prayer, and that you find religion as well as superstition or faith. God keeps one thing amongst us which exerts a continual education among the human faculties, and that one thing is—the future. Where is the future? How much is there of it? How near? How far? What is its tone? What is its mystery? So near, yet so far. Near as the next hour that will be chimed on the bells of the clock. Far away as ten billenniums multiplied by themselves, and then cubed into inconceivable magnitudes of years. A face at the window dimly seen; a voice that never speaks to you; an eye that never looks at you; a presence that never sits down with you—that is the future—mystic, ghostly, divine. And God sets that among the ages to touch men"s fears, and charm men"s hopes, and move them to noble destiny.
It is as impossible to comprehend the future as to comprehend God himself. On this reasoning the text founds a practical question—"How can a Prayer of Manasseh, then, understand his own way?" We are mysteries to ourselves. We are our own church. The man who mocks my faith has to take away ninety-nine hundredths of my life before I can join him in his bitter taunt. I have in a sense to commit suicide before I can give myself into his mischievous hands. Can you understand your own way? Can you explain anything? What is it that constitutes the difference between you and your brother? Why are you not intellectually of the same weight, the same volume, the same tone and quality? Why are you so fond of arithmetic and he so fascinated by poetry? Why will you always stay at home and he never can be persuaded to remain within the family circle? What is the difference? Explain it you cannot; but there is the fact. Or take it contrariwise. He is an abler man than you. You are given the same piece of work to do and he will succeed while you will fail? How is that? You go out on the same day in the same city to do the same kind of work, and he comes back bearing his sheaves with him and you come back having cut your fingers all to pieces with your sickle. Explain it. That is a mystery that exists independently of the church. The priests did not make that mystery, that is not a trick of priestcraft, nor is it a line in the Bible. There is the patent, mysterious, solemn fact. Account for it. Why can you not guarantee the success of your purpose? Why all this hoping? Why all this timidity and hesitation of tone about "possibilities"? Why those parenthetic annotations which speak of "contingencies," "ifs," "buts," "mayhaps"? Why do not you "stand up like a man" and rule the future? Your speech is riddled through and through with qualifying and limiting terms. The man who never prays on his knees is obliged to pray in a semi-dumb way by the parentheses with which he guards and limits his most impetuous declarations.
Why can you not always explain the reasons of your actions? You do a deed, and when you are asked to explain it you say you felt as if "I must do it." Why "must"? Why did you not accomplish that deed three months ago? Why did you ever hesitate about it? How did you come to do it at that particular time? What was it that whispered over your shoulder, "The opportunity is come, "There is a tide in the affairs of men" and this is the flood—quick"? What was it that spoke to me just now? Not a priest—I don"t know one. Not some one belonging to the church—I never go to church! What was the imp, the deity? Such is life. Not an empty thing, not a straight line, not a bubble seen upon a river, but a mystery, a wonder, a religious thing. This being the case, let us commit all our ways to God, and let us do it now. All our ways in business, in education, in proposals of every kind, in all thy ways acknowledge him, and he will direct thy paths. We acknowledge him in some of our ways, but I want to know whether I ought to go from this house to that; whether I ought to change my residence now or not now; whether, having written this letter, it is wise to send it; whether the child shall go to this school or to that school. I want to ask God about little things. But will he be troubled with little things? Yes, "the very hairs of your head are all numbered." Do nothing without God. Plunge right into his presence and say, "Unless thy presence go with me carry me not up hence." Say that with your whole heart and then act according to the best of your judgment, and the result will be right in the long run. Have no fear after you have given your heart away in one great love-gift to the Father. He will make the crooked straight; he will make the rough places plain. He will touch the mountains with his fingers and they shall smoke before you and shall be lost as a cloud dissolved. O trust in the Lord! Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him: and he will give thee thy heart"s desire.
Then let us escape the spirit of murmuring. Murmuring is worse than infidelity of an intellectual kind. In fact infidelity of an intellectual kind is nothing at all. Do not trouble yourselves with it for a moment. There is more infidelity than intellect when you speak of "infidelity of an intellectual kind." Murmuring is atheism, murmuring is blasphemy, this is high treason. What is it that you murmur against? All-Power, All- Wisdom of Solomon, All-Love? Then we should vividly realise and represent the Spirit by which we are ruled. Hearing two men speak about life and duty and future revelation and action, we ought to have no difficulty in distinguishing between the Christian and the non-Christian. To the Christian there is no future in any sense that awakens anxiety, or fearful and demoralising speculation. Tomorrow, Lord, is thine—not mine. I live in the present. If I and the Father are One in a sympathetic and deeply spiritual sense, then like him I live in one continual Now. Let it be seen amongst men that you have a bank that cannot be broken; that whatever fluctuations take place here and there, no fluctuations take place in your treasury. Let your religion be in your face. A man cannot see God with his soul"s eyes and then have a dull face. There will be shining on the very countenance, singular, penetrating, revealing radiance in the very skin. "Moses wist not that his face shone." Herein glorify the darkening end of life in having perfect trust; in committing all things into God"s care; in abstaining from murmuring as you would abstain from profanity, and in letting your light so shine before men that they may say, "This is not man"s doing." That lamp was never lighted by Prayer of Manasseh, and by man can never be blown out Christ realised all this mystery and duty in his brief, sweet, gracious, joyous life. He murmured not; he committed himself in all things to him that judgeth righteously. He had no future that was not secure, and wherever he was seen there streamed from him a radiance above the brightness of the sun.
I understand nothing; I do not know what I am going to do, how I am going to do it; I cannot tell by what impulses I shall be swayed and directed. I was born yesterday, and to-morrow I am going into the unseen. I do not behold anything as it really is. Just treat me, O Father, like a little, little child. "Not my will but thine be done." If it is thy will, labour will be rest, and pain sweet, and loss gain, and winter will be the beginning of summer. Into thy hands I commend my spirit.
Almighty God, thou hast not left thyself without witness. All around we see the fruits of thy presence and ministry. Thy presence is a great light, and thy ministry a great love. Once we were blind, and could see neither of them, but by thy grace we have received our sight, and now all nature is full of thy beauty, goodness, and Wisdom of Solomon,—a great wide-open volume written all over with the finger of God. It is a great sight: we will turn aside and see it; we will watch until thou dost speak to us from every burning bush, from every quiet hill, from every lovely flower. May we have ears to hear: then shall thy gospel come to us from all quarters; thy still small voice shall be heard in the thunder; in our souls there shall be a whisper not human. We bless thee for these hopes, yea, for these confident expectations, for we are as men who wait for their fulfilment: we know they will be realised; we shall not always have our ears filled with din and noise and tumult; there shall come a day when we shall hear as it were the going of God, the movement of the Eternal, and we shall say This is none other than the house of God, and this the gate of heaven. Train us away from all dullness, from all blindness and darkness of mind; give us sharpness of vision, great sensitiveness of soul: may we hear thee, and answer thee; may we behold thee, and fall down prostrate in loving adoration. Thou hast made us in a fearful and wonderful way: how complex is man! what a terror to himself! sometimes what a joy! now burning with intolerable agony, and now as it were on the wings of eagles, away up where the light is born, and where heaven is fully seen. How abject, how august is man! Help us to study ourselves in the light of thy Revelation, in the light of thy daily providence; enable us to ask great questions, to put reverent but fearless inquiries; may we not stand back in superstition and wondering ignorance, but approach quietly, lovingly, hopefully, to ascertain what we may of the mystery of things, and be ennobled by a higher veneration, softened and chastened by a sweeter consciousness of thy presence. We have been in all things too superstitious we have held thee to be a God afar off and not nigh at hand: but now we see thee in Christ Jesus thy Son—how tender, how majestic, how wise, how simple, how awful in spiritual grandeur, how condescending in spiritual brotherhood! May we know more of Christ, not in the letter, but in the spirit. We know all his outward history, but we would have him live in our hearts, be born in the Bethlehem of our spirits, the hope of glory; there we would have him, babe, and child, and man; teacher, friend, example, Saviour, priest: in our own hearts we would Revelation -live the story, and thus be able to speak out of our own experience concerning the largeness and brightness and purity of Christ"s kingdom. Thou knowest our need; it is manifold; its only name is legion. Yet thou art able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think: even when we have asked all heaven, still thou canst always add a line we never dreamed, a gift we never imagined. Fill us with all the fulness of God: the river of God is full of water. Give us light, comfort, joy, sense of duty, obedience of will, gladness of heart, so that our broken bread shall be as the body of Christ and every cup we take be filled with sacramental blood: thus life shall become a holy peace, a sacred duty, a period of school and discipline and training; then shall we be brought among thy saints and princes in the upper spaces—the great, white, beautiful heavens, home of the pure and good—and shall enter upon service that brings with it no pain of weariness, no shame of regret, the very Sabbath of heaven, the sanctuary of eternity. Amen.
The Scriptural Doctrine of Conscience
What is the Scripture doctrine of conscience? The Bible is before us; let us look at it, simply as a record, and inquire what is its particular doctrine on conscience. Does it recognise conscience at all? Does it concern itself about conscience? Does it ever become very earnest about conscience? Is the matter treated incidentally, in a measure casually and offhandedly, or remotely referred to? or does it constitute what may be called a principal line in the record? Observe, we treat the Bible in this initial argument simply as a document. We do not ask who wrote it, where it came from, by whose authority it speaks; we simply want to know, in the first instance, what the Bible says in reference to this great and anxious question of the human conscience.
It cannot be denied that from beginning to end the Bible recognises the fact that man has a conscience. I am not aware that the Bible says, There is a God; or that the Bible begins human history by saying, There is a conscience: in both respects it would seem that a great assumption is made. The very first sentence in the Bible is the greatest sentence in all literature. There Is nothing else that can cover it wholly for pregnancy, suggestiveness, comprehensiveness, sublimity; and so certain words were spoken to man which could not have been spoken to him except under certain assumptions and conditions. It is better that it is so. There would have been, perhaps, a more dignified formality in a specific sentence to the effect, There is a God: there is a conscience: there is a heaven; but the Bible, by whomsoever inspired or incited, makes great assumptions, starts upon certain conditions and propositions, and works its way from these, and so works its way as to justify the reasonableness and truthfulness of the assumptions upon which its mystery, argument, and exhortation are founded. Does a child come into the world with a conscience? That might be turned into a metaphysical inquiry, and might occasion the human mind great trouble as to analysis and specific statement. But there is a practical way of dealing even with an inquiry so profound. Does a child come into the world with responsibility, judgment, imagination, faculty of any kind? Verily appearances are against it. Looking fairly upon a child, without prejudice, appearances go heavily against it as to its being a responsible creature, as to its having any poetic fire, moral sense, spiritual faculty, or destiny beyond the little day in which its body breathes. But can we limit the argument to the area of appearances? Must we not go further? Must we not interpret one life by another? We have not to deal with a solitary or isolated infant, and get up a large amount of wonder about it, conjecturing whatever can it be, wherever has it come from, to what end can it be moving? Human history is now old enough to fall back upon itself, with certain lights and explanations. Therefore I do not see that language would be outraged, or reason put to any extremity, if we said, The child belongs to the human family; being a member of the human family, it must possess certain instincts, germs of reason, certain hints of faculty, certain suggestions of possibility: at present they amount to next to nothing; if you had to set them all down on paper by a separate estimate, and in easily-added figures, you would not have much to do in an arithmetical way. No doubt appearances are so far against the child. But human history is all in its favour. Who will believe that the child is dumb? When all the world has given the child up as dumb, the mother will still expect to hear some little articulation, and she will be quite sure she has heard it. So who will say the child has no conscience?—give it time. No understanding?—give it time: let it be developed. God has never spoken to lion or eagle, to whale, or largest, finest beast of the forest, as he has spoken to man. Every speech made to man has assumed that man could answer. "There is a spirit in man"—a ghost, another, truer self than is seen by the eye. You can find an oak in an acorn: no man ever found an oak in a paving-stone. We must, therefore, look into the plasm, that very first hint of life and purpose and issue; and so looking I, for one, cannot see, let me repeat, that language would be outraged if we said, standing over a little child, This child has judgment, sense, moral faculty, spiritual power,—all in germ, all undeveloped, all unawakened; but give time, bring the right ministries to bear upon the child, and then the issue will show how the child is constituted.
The Bible proceeds upon the assumption that man has what may be called a conscience, a moral sense, a faculty that can in some measure understand, worship, and serve God. I am not aware that there is any hint in the Bible that would serve as a proof that this moral sense is the gift of society or of law. It would seem to precede all society, and to be its beginning and extension; it would seem to lie deeper than all law, and to give law whatever real value it possesses. Society does not give a man imagination, or talent, or genius, or high faculty; it may sharpen all these, create opportunities for the exercise of all these, but the gift is within, the secret of God is in the heart, some sign, token, pulse, throb,—call it by what name we may—something in the man that says, I was made to keep society with God. One man says, I can think, therefore I am. Another might add, I can pray, and therefore I am spiritual, almost divine. It cannot but be interesting to find in ourselves—not round about ourselves, like so many decorations and investitures made by society—certain elements, pulsations, aspirations, which attest that we are better than the best beast, that between us and the greatest of the unintelligent creation there lies the diameter of an unmeasured universe. It seems to me, therefore, on reading the Bible through, that everywhere the existence of conscience is assumed, not as having been created by society or law, but as being in Prayer of Manasseh, part of man without which, indeed, he could not be man in the truest and highest sense of that complex term.
The Bible further declares that the conscience or moral sense may be trained upward or downward, may be sanctified or corrupted, strengthened or weakened. Conscience does not stand apart, taking no interest in the fray of life; it is in some sense the most active and energetic of all the ministries of our nature, and it cannot escape the general atmosphere in which we live. Even conscience may be desecrated; the choicest golden vessels of the temple may be stolen and may be carried away to the tents of the Philistines. Paul says, "Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men;" "Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience." There is a history of adjectives. There is a moral history and a natural history of epithets. Who could imagine that "good" would have come and set itself against "conscience," to explain it and to help it? Who would gild refined gold? Is not this painting the lily that a word like "good" should attach itself to conscience? Is not this a despicable patronage? Does "conscience" want adjectival commendation or exposition? Is not the very word itself a star to which nothing can be added by way of completing its magnitude or increasing its radiance? You will find in answer to this inquiry that many epithets or explanatory words have been attached to the high term conscience to show what was meant in particular relations and conditions and at special times. The natural history of words finds a copious and instructive chapter at this point. Conscience is not necessarily good, but it may be trained to goodness. I have so read the Bible as to believe that the Bible will never allow there can be a good conscience towards man until there is first a good conscience towards God. Am I right in my reading? I am not using the word in any secondary sense, as socially tolerable, decent, useful; but good in its own true sense—all pure, without flaw, sincere, transparent, profound goodness. The Bible always insists that there must be first a right relation to God before there can be a right relation to man. Thus the Bible is unlike any other book. It will not be content with secondaries, except as recognising them as such, saying, You are secondary, you are but reformers, you are helps, but what you must be at and get at is a right relation towards God. In no official or institutional sense, but in the profoundest sense, a man must be religious before he can be philanthropic. Man cannot understand man"s value until he has held communion with God. May we not justify this by Christ"s words? "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,"—namely: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself." The process cannot be reversed or inverted. Attempts may be made in that direction, but how much do those very attempts owe to high religious and Christian education in the first instance? To love your neighbour is impossible, in Christ"s sense of the term, until you have first loved God. The religious love brings with it all the ""acuity and fervour of the soul, makes the soul realise itself, and then sends it back into the world, solemn with reverence, tender with pity, hopeful with God"s own love, sacrificial as in sympathy with the very Cross of Christ. Meanwhile, observe how we stand. We are not asking, Is all this true or not true? We are simply endeavouring to find the doctrine of a particular book on a particular subject; and the contention is that Jesus Christ would never allow the possibility of neighbourly love, in its highest, deepest, and fullest sense, except as sequential upon true, honest, deep, sacrificial love of God. What applies to love would seem to apply at least to conscience. "Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men." Life is not a trick, a social arrangement, a series of attitudes, or exchanges of courtesies; social life itself is a great religious mystery when properly treated, and can only be handled effectually and beneficently by men who have been closeted with God in long solitude, in the solitude of a dual companionship—an irony and a contradiction in words, but easily reconciled by the soul who has spent much time with the Father. If this be at all true, it is simply vain for any man to attempt to have a good social conscience without his first having an honest religious conscience. Not that he may not be intermediately and secondarily very good, most useful, reliable in many respects, calculated to bear a certain amount of pressure with mathematical exactness; but the man who can endure all things, and can bear all sorrow, is the man who has been with God and learned of Jesus Christ; then no mathematician can calculate the amount of pressure which he can bear; then the mathematicians do not gather around the pillars of his life, and say, By so much may the rivers run without injuring the pedestal on which he stands;—they fall back and say, This is an equation that has never fallen within our mathematical reasoning; the man must be explained by God; he is right in the sanctuary, he has been weighed in the heavenly places, his heart is ideally, and by the law of aspiration at least, right with God; therefore he comes down and handles the affairs of life with a mastery and a beneficence impossible to any man who has not connected himself with the living fountain, the unseen and eternal spring. A poor, shifty, thriftless life, a surface pool, a little thing that the sunbeam can dry up, is that life that does not come up out of the Rock of Ages or flow down from the fountains of eternity. We live and move and have our being in God: otherwise we are plucked flowers, or artificial creations, and our destiny is to die.
Thus far and in this way have I read the Bible. So strong is the apostolic conviction upon this point that the apostle will insist upon the conscience itself being brought under what may be called evangelical conditions and discipline. Says Hebrews, "How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" "Having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience." So then he would treat life as being wrong at its very centre and spring; whether by personal conduct, whether by some mysterious action of the law of heredity, however it Isaiah, the apostles all concur in saying, The work must be done within, and all reforms that are to be complete and lasting must be interior reforms and must work out towards the exterior, carrying life, health, and beauty with them. Except the heart be clean the life cannot be pure; except the conscience adjust itself by the meridian of eternity it cannot tell to life what time it Isaiah, what duty Isaiah, and how duty is to be done. The apostle Isaiah, therefore, by so much argumentatively clear; he will not hold any dispute with us, or any conference that implies acquiescence and friendliness, unless we yield at once to the doctrine that we must be born again, we must pass through a regenerative process. Name it as you please, attach what verbal definition you may to the mere way of saying it, there must, according to apostolic doctrine, be a great mystery of Revelation -birth accomplished in the soul, heart, spirit, conscience, before the hands can be clean, or may put themselves lawfully forward to serve the altar of heaven.
But the conscience, on the other hand, may be corrupted, ill-used, slain. I have referred to the use of certain qualifying terms. Take another—"Having their conscience seared with a hot iron,"—having the pith taken out of it—the life, the fibre, the vitality, the meaning; having a conscience like a withered leaf, like a piece of burning wood; everything taken out of it that was divinely created, with voices and ministries meant to inspire and direct, control and ennoble, the whole life. Take another qualifying term—"Even their mind and conscience is defiled": the wreck is within, the ruin is spiritual, the tremendous collapse—whatever the theologians may choose to name it—has taken place within the man; his are no flesh-wounds, no cutaneous diseases; there is something the matter with him that cannot be touched by earthly physicians, or by invention or ingenuity of his own. The Bible says that all redeeming help must come from the creating God. This doctrine is applied to the conscience as well as to the soul in its more general and comprehensive definitions.
Then the conscience may not only be corrupted, seared, defiled, but it may be turned into a pedant and be forced to ridiculous uses. "If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!" The conscience may be made to do servile work, to patronise bad things. The conscience may be appointed managing-director of the most accursed confederacies ever invented by the depravity of man. Conscience, therefore, requires continual culture, watching, assistance; it must for ever draw its vitality from the God of righteousness.
Now we must in the uses of conscience distinguish between the eternal right and the secondary right. The word "right" requires continual definition. It does not always stand for the same thing. Like the term "law," in the apostolic reasoning, it must be distinguished in its uses, and only by an analytical discrimination can it be saved from perversions the most disastrous. But how are we to ascertain the eternal right? There should be no difficulty about that. How are we to ascertain the institutional or secondary right? There ought to be no difficulty about that. Let us see whether we can render one another any little assistance in that direction. I should say that rest is the eternal right: that the time when it should be taken is the institutional right. Never must we trifle with the eternal right of every human being to rest. As to whether it shall be on the first day, or on the last, or in the middle of the week, there you touch what is secondary and institutional; there you may have change, modification to your heart"s content; there indeed you may enjoy fullest liberty: but you have no liberty in the matter of treating the rest itself. One man esteemeth one day, another man esteemeth another day: let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind; but let no man lay wicked or violent hands upon the divine gift and ordinance of rest to every human creature.
Faith I should declare to be the eternal quantity—that mysterious life which may be called the faith-life, the living out of oneself, the tender dependence, the filial expectation, the assured relationship to God; that is the eternal quantity: but creed, catechism, church, institution, organisation,—these are secondary and intermediate, and there what liberty is offered by the very genius of the Bible! How the Apostle Paul gives lavishly of this gift of liberty, about eating, and washing, and fasting, and observance, and ceremony! He says: Be kind to one another; make allowances for one another: we cannot all think alike upon these matters; but no man must interfere with the central and eternal quantity of faith, larger than any creed, larger than any church. The creed is temporary. It may have been up to date the very best thing that could be written. But no creed can be permanent unless it be inspired. And when did God inspire a creed-maker? If we claim inspiration for the miscellaneous Bible, the multitudinous Bible, the unmethodised, unsystematised, yet coherent and harmonious Bible, we must not be claiming it too lavishly for mechanisms, formulas, human inventions. Change the creed as civilisation changes; readjust your terms as education advances; Revelation -set all your theological positions and dogmas if you please: but you must not interfere with the eternal quantity, Faith—that upper soul, that deeper life, that truer-self; that marvellous system of tentacles that hooks on to the Eternal Life—call him Jehovah, Jove, or Lord. You must not take away the idolater"s faith when you take away his idol. Even the idolater may know the mystery of self-translation, and may have no explanation of the mystery which makes his spiritual life august and grand. Do not destroy his idol even until you can substitute it with the living God. Destruction may be carried too far, unless you are prepared with the work of construction, which ought to go on almost concurrently with the destructive process.
I should say that worship is the eternal right, but that methods of worship are the secondary right. Worship with a written formula, if you so please, and can realise most profitably, and God bless you in the exercise and use of a noble, all but inspired liturgy; if you can worship God better by free, spontaneous, unprepared addresses to the throne of the heavenly grace, by all means approach your Father along the broadest, amplest, most hospitable way: but you must never interfere with the right of worship. You can address yourselves wisely to methods, operations, systems, plans, mechanisms,—all these may undergo continual change; you may change your form of worship every day in the week: but the worship itself abides, the eternal quantity.
Take a simple illustration which even a child can understand. Suppose we appoint that worship should begin at eleven o"clock in the morning. There you have two rights. There is nothing in the eleven o"clock; that is a point agreed upon, partly by compromise, partly by study of the situation, partly by cognisance of special circumstances in the city, in the parish: but it is right we should be there at eleven o"clock, because we have agreed upon it. What is the eternal right? Punctuality. No man must interfere with that He is a thief who palters with that. Punctuality is the eternal quantity, the eternal right; the eleven o"clock is but the point at which that right takes visible effect, or embodies itself in concrete realisation. But punctuality abides. You may change the eleven o"clock, you may change your time of meeting every Sabbath in the year, but having changed it you cannot interfere with the spirit of punctuality. There is a substance; there is also a shadow: there is the eternal right; there is the secondary accommodation.
But let us beware how we make a pedant of conscience, how we expend our strength on punctilios when we ought to spend it upon principle,—real things. Never have a conscience that is not founded upon reason. In so far as conscience can vindicate itself by reason it will make headway in society. Reason always triumphs. It has a long weary fight, a destructive struggle sometimes, but it comes up at the last, and sits by right upon the throne, judging all men. Do not judge another man"s conscience by your own on all these secondary matters. In proportion as you are addicted—and here we come back to the central principle—in love and loyalty to the eternal right will you be large and liberal in the uses of the secondary right. Find a man who is punctilious about little things, about details, about passing matters, and you find a man who has never been in the sanctuary of the inner right. Find a man who has communed with God, drunk the very spirit of Christ, become imbued with the very meaning of the gospel, and Hebrews, Paul-like, gives great liberty, looks with magnanimous complacency even upon the controversies of the Church, asking only that they shall be conducted gently, quietly, lovingly, and that a good deal of allowance should be made by one man for the peculiarities of another. When did Paul—a Pharisee of the Pharisees—learn this lesson? To what school did he repair to study this philosophy? The man who said this, who gave this liberty, also said, "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me." Out of such lofty tabernacles he came to distribute amongst men rights and franchises and opportunities and privileges with the lavish hand of a princely donor. But about this conscience in the house, and in business. You may be killing your children with your conscience, because it may be an irrational conscience. Children will have amusement. You never can put down drama and dancing and recreation and jubilance; you never can cut off the foam and efflorescence and blossoming of life without doing great injury; and in attempting to do all this you may defeat yourself. That child of yours, whom you have oppressed with your conscience because you will not allow certain recreations, comes quietly in every night after having been enjoying them, and looks at you in the face with a blankness which you would understand if you were not so conscientiously stupid. Why not make your home the great joy of life, saying, Boys and girls, let us all do here what we can to alleviate life"s burdens and life"s darkness, and let us all be children together, so far as we may: do nothing behind me you would not do before me, and if I can join you I will, and the old man shall be as young as any of you? Then home will be church, and church will be almost heaven. Beware of the perverted conscience, the soured conscience, the right that is only secondary being put in place of the right that is primary and eternal. How is all this to be learned? Only by communion with Christ. Blessed Christ, Son of God! what liberty he gives; he said, If you like to wash your hands, well; if you prefer not to do so because the ceremony is unmeaning and fruitless, then sit down and enjoy the hospitality of the house. The Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath. When men rebuked him because he went to eat with publicans and sinners, He said, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." When they said, "This man eateth with sinners," he did not disdain the sneer; he took it as the highest eulogium that could be pronounced upon him by such lips. But let us beware lest we enjoy the secondary liberty without sustaining the primary relation. Do not play with sacred things. Be right at both ends. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself:" "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Do not live an empty, superficial, linear life, but live a full, solid, cubic, square, all-round life—the very life of God. If any man says, "Such a life would I live," all God"s angels will take up their abode with him; yea, the Spirit of God will be his instructor, and sanctifier, and loving friend.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Proverbs 20". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34