The Plowing of the Wicked, Etc.
By "the plowing of the wicked" we are to understand the whole scope of their work; all that the wicked man does is sinful. Here we see an operation of the law of cause and effect. Sometimes it is supposed that a man may be very bad, and yet may do good deeds; we say a man is a drunkard, and yet he is most generous to the poor; we say that a man is cruel, and yet that he is disposed to take a charitable view of certain actions; we say that a man is covetous, and yet that he is magnanimous in judgment. The text will have nothing to do with such reasoning. It first establishes the character of the Prayer of Manasseh, and having determined that, everything else falls into proper position and value. Whatever the bad man does is itself bad, not relatively but essentially. A drunkard may give an alms to a poor person, and that alms may be well bestowed and most acceptable; yet it counts nothing to the credit of the drunkard himself, for he may be but bribing his conscience, or enlarging his opportunities for self-indulgence, or yielding to a merely animal sentiment: the act itself is bad because the actor is bad. Beware of the discrimination which seeks to distinguish between the doer and the deed. If a bad man could do good deeds, then the necessity for regeneration would be disproved. If a good tree could bring forth bad fruit, or a bad tree could bring forth good fruit, essential relations would be changed. The Bible teaches us everywhere that everything depends upon the state of the heart, and that though deeds may be relatively good and temporarily of great value, yet as water cannot rise above its level, so no deed can rise above the moral level of the doer "Ye must be born again." Only the good man can do the really good deed.
"The thoughts of the diligent tend only to plenteousness; but of every one that is hasty only to want" ( Proverbs 21:5).
"Every one that is hasty" points to those who the more haste they make the less speed they realise; they do things carelessly or perfunctorily; they wish to get them out of hand; instead of being critical, patient, painstaking, looking into everything carefully with a view of securing exactness, they hurry their work, they drive along with thoughtlessness, anxious only to gain a goal, and utterly careless as to the way through which they pass to its attainment. This policy of life is utterly condemned because of its consequences; there is nothing abiding that is not in itself really good; the harvest depends upon the seedtime; if we have not been correct in our moral basis and just in our moral policy, no matter what our gain may be it will evaporate, or take to itself wings and flee away, or be only an aggravation of our discontent. Only that is done which is well done. Only that is settled which is settled rightly. Only that will bring forth a great harvest which is in harmony with the structure and the purpose of the universe. We must work by the ways of God, and by eternal ordinances: all our short cuts, and ready methods, and accelerated policies, tend to confusion, and disappointment, and want. This is the affirmation of the wise Prayer of Manasseh, and how far it is correct can be judged by the open page of human history, and can certainly be tested at once by reference to our own experience.
"The way of man is froward and strange: but as for the pure, his work is right" ( Proverbs 21:8).
The meaning is that if a man himself is bad, all the way or track which he makes in life will be marked by crookedness or sinuousness. The bad man cannot go straightforwardly. When a man is intoxicated he reels from side to side of the road; when a man is carrying a burden that is too heavy for him he cannot keep steadfastly on his feet, and the way which he leaves behind him is marked by irregularity: this is the teaching of the text; if a man is laden with sin he will leave a tortuous track behind him; he will be here and there, he will be unsteady and uncertain; it is impossible for him to go straightforwardly because of the oppression of the weight under which he reels. The contrary is the case with the pure: his work is right or straight; he has nothing burdensome to carry; his eyes look right on and his feet are set down with solidity and precision. If we could mark the way by which the pure man passes through life we should see how comparable it is to a straight line. The bad man is continually dodging, eluding, or evading some real or imaginary danger; the wicked flee when no man pursueth, but the righteous are bold as a lion. The pure man walks straightforwardly, and by the mere force of his pureness he makes a way where there is none, and those who would have opposed him shrink out of his path, recognising in him the representative of truth and honour.
"The righteous man wisely considereth the house of the wicked: but God overthroweth the wicked for their wickedness" ( Proverbs 21:12).
The "righteous man" should rather be the "righteous one," and by that one we are to understand the Almighty himself: the text would then read: The righteous God marks the house of the wicked, and God throws down the wicked for their destruction. Here is the solemn principle of judgment applied to individual life and individual habitation. The picture is that of God seated in the heavens, and marking the house of the wicked Prayer of Manasseh, noting all that goes on under its roof, marking all the history that is enclosed by its walls, and at the right time bringing upon the roof of the wicked man"s house the rod of lightning, so that it is cleft in twain, and the wicked are overthrown even in the midst of their orgies and the very madness of their delight. For a long time the house of the wicked seems to be secure; every window is aflame with a rosy light through the long nighttime, and through the open door are heard noises of music and of dancing; the rejoicing is for a time only; God is watching the whole process, and at the right moment he will overthrow the house and plough up its foundations. Better to be in a little house of honesty and righteousness and truth than in a great palace of dishonesty and unrighteousness and falsehood. He that is righteous lives in a rock that cannot be overthrown, a pavilion within which there can be no fear of the violence of raging storms. How is this to be obtained? What is the rock within which the heart of man can safely live? Has it been named? Has it not been called the Rock of Ages? And have not they who have fled to it been assured day by day of ever-increasing security? That rock is open to us all,—the very granite bears upon it an inscription indicative of hospitality and welcome. Blessed are they who flee to it that they may find rest and sustenance.
"It is joy to the just to do judgment: but destruction shall be to the workers of iniquity" ( Proverbs 21:15).
A curious apposition of sentences. The doctrine is that workers of iniquity cannot do right without being afflicted with a sense of terror. So debased are they by the spirit of evil that even to do right brings with it a sensation of doing wrong, or of drawing too near to God to be safe from the stroke of his lightning. It would seem that wickedness so affects the character and the tone of the whole life that bad men cannot trust divine promises. Bad men cannot commit themselves to spiritual policy or spiritual trust; it is like asking blind men to go into danger without any guidance or protection; bad men feel that if they would live they are bound to be dishonest; it seems utterly impossible to them that honesty can be the best policy, or that truth can bring itself to successful issue and satisfaction. See what ravages are made in the judgment and in the heart by long-continued processes of sin. When a man loves iniquity he cannot love God; he cannot pray; he cannot think aright; the Sabbath is a burden to him; the Bible is a continual offence to his corrupted reason; and the whole way of life seems to be a way of danger and trouble and manifold terror. The bad man can do wickedly as if by a species of right, earned by long custom; but when he opens his mouth in prayer he feels as if he were committing a trespass against himself and the universe.
"The sacrifice of the wicked is abomination: how much more, when he bringeth it with a wicked mind?" ( Proverbs 21:27).
The supposition is that a wicked man feels that he must offer sacrifices, but in the very act of being religious he is secretly imagining himself in a position to make God a confederate in his sin. The idea is that when the wicked man is offering a sacrifice he is buying permission to do wrong. It is as if by going to church occasionally a man earned the right to do selfishly and unjustly all the week long. Or as if a man by giving an alms to poverty earned the right to cheat the simple-minded and overthrow those who put their trust in him. Yet we are told that the doctrine of original sin is a mere phantasy! Can the debasing influence of sin go further than this, that it shall make a merchandise of religion itself, and turn prayer into a species of investment, and draw profits from the very act of attempting to worship God? The picture is that of a man who is offering a sacrifice at the altar, and yet at the same time is plotting future wickedness. He says to himself, All this shall turn to my advantage; I am really not so much at the altar as I am in the mart, or in the exchange, or at the place where merchants most do congregate: all this looks very religious on my part, but I am simply setting up a ladder by which I may scale higher worldly eminence,—all this will presently turn to my advantage; do not imagine me to be superhumanly religious, I am only pre-eminently clever; this is not piety, it is policy; this is not sacrifice, it is elaborate scheming. Can we see these revelations of human nature without asking ourselves how that nature can be vitally changed? And can we consider that great inquiry without feeling that "Ye must be born again" is the only doctrine that is radical, vital, complete, and enduring in its happy effects?
Almighty God, we can say with our heart"s consent, The Lord is mindful of his own, he remembers his children; like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. Thou hast made us in thine own image and likeness, and towards thyself thou art continually calling us by the whole ministry of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. We are called to bear the divine image in our souls, to be as perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. The call overwhelms us: but where thou dost send the call thou dost send the helpful and needful grace. Thy call is a call of life and love, and thou dost sustain those who obey it, giving them grace upon grace, yea, to fulness of joy and peace, so that in their increase of power they say, We can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth us. Our praise be evermore to Christ! If we forget thee, Immanuel, may our right hand forget its cunning and our tongue cleave to the roof of our mouth. Behold thou art the Son of God; to us thou art God the Son. We cannot tell thy beginning, or thine ending, or the way of thy mediation and sovereignty: but we put our trust in the living Christ, and from him would draw the life we daily need. We have no faith in our own bow and spear and sword; we have renounced our invention and mental fertility, and power of planning ways out of infinite difficulties; and now we stand still, like so many little children, and see the salvation of God, beginning in mystery, showing itself momentarily in a great light, withdrawing for our accommodation, appealing to us in whispers and tender entreaties, and showing us daily the way of deliverance and safety. Blessed be God, this is thy way; we are now led to accept it; we praise God for his redemption in Christ Jesus, and call ourselves men redeemed. We cannot follow the mystery of thy love in the atonement wrought by thy Song of Solomon, but we can follow the mystery of thy love in daily providence; we see the rising sun; we feel the summer warmth; we are made glad by the fruitfulness of the healing earth consenting to the ministry of light and the baptism of rain, and answering the heavens in orchards and wheatfields rich with fruit and bread. We can see how we ourselves have been led along the way of life. We remember the days of long ago—the days of darkness and difficulty, when every hill was steep, when every mountain was hanging over us in a threatening attitude, and when there was no blessing pronounced by human lips; we have seen the angel delivering us, leading us forth, showing us the way where we should find health, peace, companionship, and service worthy of our spirits. Thou hast fed us day by day; in the night season thou hast ministered to us; there is no day void of God; thy love is set upon each hour as the king"s seal. Knowing all these things, we are filled with hope; we say, The end shall be better than the beginning; thou art able to do more than we ask or think, yea, exceeding abundantly above our prayers: so we are rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, confident in the sovereignty and grace of God. Continue thy miracle; complete it in our heart"s experience; give us liberty of soul, confidence of spirit, obedience of will, aptitude of mind, docility of heart, so that we may receive thy will, and do it all, with patience and love and thankfulness. We pray for one another. We need so to do. In this way we can help our lives: seeking blessing for one another, we are blessed ourselves. We pray for those who are deaf in thy house, who hear nothing but noise, who miss all the music and all the tenderness. We pray for those who are dumb, who do not even sigh or secretly say Amen, or cause their voice to be heard in the singing of thy praise. The Lord pity the deaf and dumb. Perhaps some of them hardly mean it all; perhaps they hear more than we suppose,—yea, they may, for ought we know, be secretly sighing their sorrow, or singing their praise; but we leave them in thine hands, O gentle One. Look upon those who are perplexed, distracted, bewildered; men of fine impulse and noble intention, but who are baffled and struck in the face by a thousand hands, so that they cannot tell one way from the other. They do not mean all their sin, or thou, even thou, merciful One, couldst not keep them out of hell. They are distracted: they are half-praying even whilst they are denying the altar: they are looking into thy Book if haply they may find something in it for their hearts" healing at the very moment when they are raising questions about its inspiration. Thou knowest the heart—strange, wild, perverse heart. Thou understandest all the mystery of its motion and impulse and desire, passion and madness; thou didst make it: its intricacy attests thine own creation. And look upon those who have half-turned home, who are looking towards abandoned altars and forsaken securities, and who are saying to themselves they will arise and go to their Father, but have yet kept their intention a secret, so that they have not the advantage of public support and countenance in their holy resolve. Lord, now determine them! May they take the first step this very moment, and may they be found at home at the time of the setting of the sun. Look upon all wasteful spirits—men who do not know what life Isaiah, who have begun a wrong arithmetic concerning it, who have been adding whilst they should have been subtracting, and who have been multiplying cyphers by cyphers in the hope that they might find a substantial result; strange men, worldly men; men who have had to murder themselves in order to begin this way of folly and vanity; men who dare not speak to themselves because every word spoken by the spirit would be a contradiction of every deed done by the hand. Thou knowest them altogether; search them, and try them, and let them know that the candle of the Lord is being held over their inmost life: perhaps—who can tell?—they may repent. Comfort us with an assured forgiveness. Let every soul feel that for Christ"s sake his sin has been pardoned. Let a great joy, as a joy of liberty and release, seize the heart. God the Father, God the Song of Solomon, God the Holy Ghost: we need this Triune God to save us. We bless Thee for the Cross, for the sacrificial blood, for the infinite atonement; we rest at the Cross, for at the Cross we find pardon and peace. Help us the rest of our lives; thou knowest every man"s struggle, his peculiar battle and special agony; according to the need of each heart send angels from heaven. Amen.
Nature and Practice
Proverbs 21:10, Proverbs 21:15
Here are men working according to their nature. That is a universal necessity. Here are men who are not only doing evil but desiring to do it; not doing evil in one passionate and hurried Acts, but doing it constantly; liking to do it, doing it in anticipation, planning it; making all things concur and focus upon it; making evil part of a plot, a plot conceived and wrought out in the burning, vehement heart The mere doing of the evil itself is momentary, and is not worth doing. The devil will not give us time enough when he has brought us to the point of absolute transaction; it is one mouthful of the interdicted fruit, and then sudden hell. Where the enemy gives time is in anticipation, fore-arranging; as who should say, How shall this be done? and when? under what circumstances? What condiment can we add to this to make it titillate the palate? what contributory circumstances can we arrange so as to make the feast long? The devil gives no long feasts. He gives long notice, long preparation; he causes the soul to delight in the outlook upon the positive occasion that is coming; but when it comes it is a sudden opening and a sudden shutting,—a baleful light, an everlasting darkness.
"The soul of the wicked desireth evil,"—likes it, longs for it, delights in it. That was not Paul"s particular state of mind as described in the seventh chapter of his Epistle to the Romans. He did evil, and did not want to do it; he put forth his hands to actions which he hated. There is all the difference in the world between desiring to do evil and simply doing it Many a man does the evil who does not desire to do that which is wrong. I have not hesitated to teach that many a man who drinks deeply is no drunkard. His body is drunk, but his soul is sober. Herein is a great mystery—the eternal conflict between passion and reason, body and soul, the dust we carry and the deity that burns within us. Paul set forth the experience of such conflict in vivid and graphic terms. He would not do the evil, and then he did it; he would do the good, and then he found himself unable to accomplish his own purpose; he hated the evil and then went out and did it; he longed to serve the good, and when he went out to do it he forgot his road and was brought home a blind man. Do not confuse this state of heart and soul with the disposition that wallows in evil. Many a man is drunk who is a total abstainer. That is the converse truth. We are what we want to be. Out of the heart proceed murders, thefts, adulteries, blasphemies. O thou well-dressed and heavily protected hypocrite! Thou art now caught in a shower of darts; it is no rain that beats upon thee, or thou mightest keep it off, but sharp steel sent down from God"s heaven, and thou hast no protection against that assault. What is the state of your heart? Do you wear the saint, and keep the blackguard well concealed? Do you say your prayers, and live your desires? Let every man search himself, whether he preach the judgment, or only hear its proclamation.
So subtle are the operations of the heart, so incalculable are the temptations of the enemy, that even here we have to be very particular lest we take comfort to which we have no right. We must not deceive ourselves; we must not suppose that we are those who would not do evil and yet do it, if in our hearts there is a testimony against us, urgent, not to be kept down, resurgent, that comes up through all temptations and all illusions, and asserts itself as the leading and dominant fact in our spiritual consciousness. Besides, the doing, even the reluctant doing, may excite the desire to do with a will. If we go very frequently back and back to our bad habits they may become easy to us; we shall not always remain in the state of doing the evil which we do not want to do. Presently we may want to do it, we may desire to do it. Observe how wondrously that word "convenient" is used in the New Testament. It is used in connection either with excuses or with debaucheries. "When a convenient day was come." Herod can make his own conveniences. He had arranged that he should be called at this hour and that his interview with unpleasant interlocutors should be interrupted five minutes later, and that his door should be thundered at by an importunate fist, and that he should have wine ready when the simulated spasm tears his breast; and he can arrange that by accident the tempter come upon the scene: whereas the tempter"s name was written upon the programme a week ago. "A convenient day"—a coming-together day, when lines and threads, and arrangements and appointments, can be made to con, to get together, to form a Song of Solomon -called necessity.
The way of evil is not always agreeable at first. Evil brings its own immediate penalties. It is so with uncleanly practices, with undesirable habits that may afterwards grow into luxuries. Many a young man has had to fight his way into slavery. When he first tasted the thing, it was deadly; he said he revolted from it. The enemy said, Try it again. He tried it again; it was little better. A third time, and it was not so unmanageable; a fourth time, a twelfth time, and then he desired it. Think of a free young soul fighting its way determinedly into bondage! This is possible. Oh, mysterious human nature! "how abject, how august!" When does a man lose his soul? We speak of the loss of the soul sometimes as if it were a momentary and complete act. There is a sense in which the loss of the soul is both momentary and complete. There is a sense in which death may be sudden, though it has been looked for for years. Is not death always sudden? Can any man wholly prepare himself for that grim guest? When he takes his seat does he not take it suddenly, and blight the little festival by his presence? There is another sense in which a man loses his soul little by little. That is the loss to fear. The soul goes down in volume, the soul loses its fine bloom wrought by the summer of God: the will is more reluctant in good directions; the heart has lost its eagerness to pray. The church is not now the sweet necessity of the week; the soul no longer says, When will the Sabbath dawn? when will the golden gates be thrown back that I may enter into fellowship with the saints and into the common prayer and worship addressed to Almighty God the Father? Religious enthusiasm has cooled; we can not adopt an excuse and magnify it into a reason when it is on the side of delay or inactivity. We now look at the barometer, and can be easily persuaded that we are not well enough to go to the sanctuary! Ah, we are losing our souls, we are going down to hell a step at a time. Didst thou think, poor fool, that men went into perdition by one sudden leap? To some men, to go to hell is only the next thing, the next natural thing, the next easy thing; it is not a mile, it is but a span. How solemn is life! The man looks as he has looked for many a day, and yet if you could see him interiorly he is wasted. By what disease? Consumption. Consumption of what? Of the soul; the enemy has nearly eaten it all up. There are those who do not want our preachers to speak of perdition. What is their reason? Hath not the devil some trick of this kind which he plays with a master"s hand? Think!
Blessed be God, the rule operates also on the other side: "It is a joy to the just to do judgment." He not only does judgment or justice, but he joys in doing it. He is delighted with the opportunity of doing it; he longs to make men glad, to set the oppressed free, to open the prison door to them that are bound unjustly. When he has to make reparation to any man on his own account he does it magnanimously; he says to the wronged Prayer of Manasseh, I thank God for this opportunity of telling you what injustice I have inflicted upon you; I did not understand you, in the sight and fear of God I must own I did not want to understand you; I closed my eyes and then struck in the direction where I thought a blow would tell upon you: I was wrong: God has now given me the spirit of righteousness and integrity and justice, and I will lie down at your feet and say, Have mercy upon me! I have done wickedly. When Christian men learn to do this they will know what the Cross means. We are not to do our duty merely, barely, grudgingly, with critical nicety; we are to carry up duty to the point of generosity and over-soul and overflowingness of all good feeling; we are to do it again, and again, and again, with the abundance, the wave-chasing-wave fulness of the sea. We never can apologise for doing wrong. We must repeat the apology, and study the eloquence of penitence; where we have done wrong it may take the rest of our lifetime to make reparation, and then we shall need all the help of God to heal the heart or the life we have wronged. Sometimes, however, we can only begin at the point of duty. We must begin good-doing where we can. All men have not the same largeness and richness of nature. There are those who tell us that all men are equal—simply because they do not know what they are talking about. No two men are equal. Some men never get beyond the point of servitude—a day"s wages for a day"s work. They can only do what they call their duty, and any man who sets himself simply to do his duty never does it. Duty can only be done from above; we cannot carry up our actions to the point of duty, we must rise above them, and with Heaven"s help work according to Heaven"s gravitation, and thus do our duty with a masterly hand, as with an eager and grateful heart.
Some men cannot be other than little. They cannot help it; if they are only little in judgment they must be taken for what they are worth, but if their littleness of judgment interferes with their moral integrity then we must watch and rebuke and restrain them. It is impossible for some men to be good. Down to the very last it is impossible for some men to pray—to pray in that way that is almost praise, to utter a prayer that has a hymn in the heart of it, to commune with God in some heaven-dissolving way that tears aside all veils and screens, and that sees the Father through the Song of Solomon, and delights in the ineffable presence. Still we must pray where we can. Sometimes the prayer may be hard and may therefore be costly in the sight of God—that Isaiah, of great price in the estimation of him who knows through what difficulties we have come to the altar. On the other hand, it is comparatively easy for some men to pray. Let them take care lest they are offering prayers that are not steeped in blood, prayers that are not sacrificial, bleeding at every syllable, prayers that are merely eloquent breath. Each man must examine himself and come to his own conclusion, accepting help from pulpit or press or friend as it may be offered to him. To the last it is hard for some men to give. They cannot part with money. They could part with any amount of good advice—in fact, they make themselves the servants of the church in this matter: but in their soul—their what?—let courtesy prevail over judgment—in their soul they are avaricious. Did you ever see Avarice? It is a thing mainly of hands—hooked, crooked, grasping hands. Avarice never had a good dinner; even when it dined at others" expense the food went for nothing, because Avarice was thinking what it would do to-morrow. There is avarice in the church, a bargaining spirit in the sanctuary; a spirit that would settle once for all with God in order to get it over: whereas God will not have it so; he would not have it so in Judaism,—he must have the sacrifice every morning, every evening, no intermission. He will have the giving to-day and to-morrow and every day, regularly as he gives the sunshine. By such detail and discipline, by such sharpness of exaction and criticism, he brings us to the last refinement of consent and joy.
Blessed be God, the law is equal. As the law operates in one direction, so it operates in the other: as we lose our souls little by little, we may gain them little by little. You may be more a man to-day than you were seven years ago. You delight more in the law of God, in the expectation of the kingdom; you have begun to say, After all there is something in this religious mystery that is necessary to the completeness of human nature, and to the fulfilment of human hope and human destiny. Be glad of that admission. That is a point to begin at. You say that though you cannot make out the mysteries, here and there you come upon a clear point of reason in your studies of these great religious appeals. Now you are beginning to live. Once you could not sing in the sanctuary, but lately you have joined the hymn in a note or two, blessed be God! We shall have you yet; the Lord will hold you as his willing captive. Once you could not speak to others about spiritual affairs, and latterly you have begun almost to design an attack upon some friend in whose spiritual interests you are deeply concerned, and it may be ere the week is out you will venture the first word. God grant it may be so! Then your friend will tell you he has been waiting for, and expecting this; or if he cannot speak to you in words he will send to your heart the thrill of a masonic grip that says, God be thanked for this touch of human sympathy!
Seeing that the whole matter is so intensely spiritual, that it penetrates to the heart and core and essence of things, what can we do with mere theories, inventions, reforms, propositions, and the like? If we are so spiritually constituted we must be spoken to spiritually. If the beginning, continuance, and end of all this mystery of growth is so intensely spiritual, we must be brought into contact with God the Holy Ghost. It is his work; he must take the things of Christ and show them unto us; he must interpret the Cross in all the meaning of its blood to the aching, wondering, despairing heart. You cannot be brought into divinest relations by merely intellectual argument. "If ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?" Let your prayer be for the gift of the Holy Ghost. He only can throw back all the hindrances that keep him from the heart; he alone can find his way into the recesses of the soul, the innermost chambers of our mysterious life. Pray for the Holy Ghost. Say, Take not thy Holy Spirit from me! Say, "Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove, with all thy quickening powers." Wait upon God for this. Say to him plainly, Father, this is not a human matter, this is not to be done by human thought and human scheme; this mystery lies between thyself and myself—oh, help me! Dost thou believe? saith the voice from above. Let your answer be, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief."
The False Witness, Etc.
The mystery is that there should be such a character in society as a "false witness." We are apt to take the existence of such characters as a matter of course. If, however, we look carefully into the case we shall regard a false witness not only as a curiosity in nature but as an unspeakable monstrosity. Consider how awful a thing it is to violate truth, to trifle with uprightness, to give a false colour or accent to human action or language: what possible motive can there be for such wantonness and profanation? Searching into the matter, we shall find here, as everywhere, that selfishness explains the whole of that mischievous action. The man has some object to gain, either money, fame, influence, or flattery of himself; on the other hand, he may be fearing danger, penalty, loss, or affliction in some form; whatever may be the details of the case, there remains the suggestive and alarming fact, that it is possible for man to tell lies about his brother man and to swear falsely in the very courts of truth and justice. In this direction we find the miracles that ought to astound us. If by familiarity we have become accustomed to the possibility of false-witnessing, that does not at all diminish the awfulness of the act in the first instance. Who was the first liar? Who began the mystery of falsehood? Whose name towers out into a bad eminence as the original witness against the truth and light? Whilst we are searching into the ancestry of the bad man we may possibly overlook the reality of contemporaneous wickedness. We need not go back to the original for false-swearing, inasmuch as each man may find a false witness in his own heart Bad as it is to bear false witness against our neighbour, we should remember that it is possible for a man to bear false witness to himself; he may deceive his own imagination, he may bribe his own conscience, he may over-persuade himself that this or that course is right; he may silence the voice divine which would guide him into the upward way, and for some avowed or unconscious reason he may take the way that ends in death. When a man can bear false witness to himself, there will be no difficulty in his bearing false witness concerning others. The end of the false witness is declared in the text—"shall perish." We know not the meaning of that awful term; it would seem to be more than destruction, even more than annihilation; it is an outgoing and vanishing from the sphere of life, amid sneers, detestation, execration of every kind, as if the universe were glad to be rid of so black and cold and noisome a shadow.
Contrasted with the false witness is "the man that heareth," literally, heareth carefully, and repeats with exactness and precision what he does hear, so that not a word is lost, not a tone is changed, not a single colour is varied; the man speaks constantly, that Isaiah, consistently with himself, all the parts of his speech are equal and mutually illuminative, and in the whole there is a solidity or constancy that shall not decay. The word "constantly" is put in opposition to the word "perish"; the one abides, the other departs; the one is unvarying in its testimony, the other is ambiguous, equivocal, and self-destructive. Here, then, we have as usual the two aspects of moral life, namely, falsehood and truthfulness, the false witness and the exact speaker, the child of night and the child of midday. It is curious and instructive to observe how perfectly this twofold division of character is maintained throughout Biblical history. Each man can take his position under one or other of the divisions of this verse: we have only a right hand and a left, we have only falsehood and truth: there is no middle place in which a man may lodge himself in security and honour: when the Son of man cometh in his glory he shall divide the gathered nations into sheep and goats, and third division or modification there shall be none. With such a fact before us we may realise the day of judgment now,
"There is no wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against the Lord" ( Proverbs 21:30).
This is a religious philosophy of life. If there is a Lord according to the Biblical revelation and description of his character, it is impossible that he can be opposed with ultimate success. Even if we empty this word "Lord" of its personality, and regard it as a term symbolical of righteousness, judgment, truth, and goodness, it may still be affirmed that in the long run these must prevail over every form of wickedness. It would seem to be impossible that evil should be eternal. From the beginning there has been in human consciousness a hope, yea an assurance, that by-and-by light will expel darkness, and righteousness will occupy the place of wickedness. Account for it as we may, that hope has sustained the human race in all the agony of its transition, in all the battles and storms of its manifold progress. Upon an instinct of this kind is built many a temple of religion and many an altar of sacrifice and service. Religious rites and ceremonies would be too costly and arduous to maintain simply in their mechanical bearings and aspects; there must be under the whole of them something that is stronger than themselves: call it an instinct, a persuasion, a conviction, a consciousness of divine revelation—it is in that depth that we must find the reason of all that is external in religious pomp, circumstance, or simplicity. Men would become weary of doing things that are merely superficial and mechanical; it is the ineffable motive, the profound conviction, that explains all the deepest religious action of life, and that sustains men in the maintenance and defence of their religious purposes. Undoubtedly there is an opposition to everything that is of the quality of purity and nobleness: there are passions in men which clamour for gratification, and those passions are instantly opposed and threatened with destruction by everything that is heavenly and divine. Man grows, and in his growth he undergoes processes of trial which are essential to his development. Many a combat is to be traced, not to the evil that is in a Prayer of Manasseh, but to the good that is rising within him and claiming pre-eminence. We may be too apt to trace all battle and conflict to evil purpose or motive, whereas, in many cases, it will be found upon a correct and complete analysis that there would have been no conflict but for the good that was rising to assert itself and claim dominance over the mind. If there were no good there would be no bad; it is because we are more conscious of the evil than of the good that we sometimes do ourselves injustice. Who can tell how much good is going with a man even when he enters upon a course of depravity and practical suicide? We only see him pass out of his door and hasten away into forbidden paths; we cannot tell what voices are clamouring after him and within him, and how awful is the conflict from which he is vainly seeking to escape. Then, again, there is another aspect to the whole tragedy: when the man turns his face homeward he is already a victor; when he breathes one sigh of regret he has already begun to pray; when he brands himself as a fool in the sight of God, he has already entered into the agony and the joy of spiritual resurrection. The universal lesson of the text is that all evil will come to nought, that every counsel that is uninspired with the spirit of truth and beneficence will go up as smoke and leave nothing behind it of which men shall speak with honour and thankfulness. Only the good can stand for ever; only the counsel of the Lord is charged with all the honour and dignity of eternity, and will abide through all the ages, in their coming and their going, an unchangeable, an infinite blessing. Here is the strength of the good man; this is the very secret of divine communion and spiritual hopefulness. The eternal God is the refuge of his saints because he is eternal. A God that could change would be no God: the unchangeableness of God is not an attribute only, it is the very essence of his Being.
"The horse is prepared against the day of battle: but safety is of the Lord" ( Proverbs 21:31).
Horses had been imported largely from Egypt in Solomon"s time, and the importation of horses was a direct breach of the law as laid down in 1 Kings 4:26, and before that in Deuteronomy 17:16. Man has always been trying to be "as God." He has never escaped the first temptation offered by the serpent in Eden,—Do this, and ye shall be as gods; eat this, and your eyes shall be opened; change your point of view, and the whole universe will give up its length and breadth, its depth and height, to your enjoyment. So man has prepared himself a horse, and set the horse in battle, and assured himself that the animal would win the victory; he has laid his hand upon the horse"s neck, and declared that neck to be clothed with thunder; he has lifted the horse"s hoof, and declared it to be as a flint; he has looked into the horse"s eye, and has seen already in the lustre of that eye the assurance of complete triumph over every foe. In all this process man has been looking at the wrong object, or looking in the wrong direction, or making his calculation upon a false basis. In reality, the horse has nothing to do with the battle, nor has the sword of the warrior; in the last result safety is of the Lord, that is to say, only in proportion as a man is right is he safe, only in the degree of his true religion is he assured of prosperity and final peace. But we must be minor gods! Such is the perversity of our will, and such the disease of our imagination, that we continually suppose that we should be able to construct for ourselves a new and better base of action. It would seem impossible to expel this idea from the human mind. By some change of ceremony, by some variation of policy, by some new dream which we are presently to realise, we shall escape all ghostly dominion and enter into the enjoyment of consciously personal mastery over matter and mind; yet age comes after age and leaves behind it unspeakable disappointment and mortification: still we dream, and hope; still we delude ourselves with imaginations of greatness, and thus we continue the tragedy which often becomes farcical, and the farce which often becomes tragical. We shall never be right until we see that we are creatures, not creators; subordinates, not principals: that we are under the direction and inspiration of God, and are not sources and fountains of self-inspiration. We must be brought to the holy resignation which says, "Not my will, but thine, be done: Lord, what wilt thou have me do? Lord Jesus, into thy hands I commend my spirit": in that holy state of resignation and confidence we shall look no longer to the horse, to the helmet, or to the sword, but to the God of battles, and shall find in his direction and consolation all that we need in order to throw down our enemies, and enter into the sanctuary of victory and the temple of peace.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Proverbs 21". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34