Mischievous Lips, Etc.
"Evil men" is a very emphatic and inclusive expression. Men may sometimes be said to be bad in parts, and yet to have excellent qualities; but in the case of this verse the men are evil through and through; the whole head and the whole heart, the entire inner nature, will, conscience, fancy, may be said to be steeped in iniquity, saturated with all the qualities that constitute the very devil himself. They may indeed be prosperous outwardly, and may attract great attention by their ostentatious living, and by their loud promises and vain speeches; but they are as insubstantial as the wind, as worthless as an empty cloud. Young souls may be tempted and fascinated by them, because there is so much glittering surface, and there is such an uproar of pretension; but experience will show that the whole castle is founded on the sand, and that everything that is good fights against it, and will certainly overthrow it Evil men never construct any building; their aim is destruction, their talk is of mischief; wherever they can tear down or despoil or blight, they find an appropriate sphere for the exercise of their mischievous talents. After spending an hour with a wicked Prayer of Manasseh, what is the impression left upon the mind but that a great cloud has covered the sky, a great blight has darkened the earth, reputations that were held dear have been for the moment thrown down, and altars that were regarded as sacred have been strewn with ruin? There is no health in evil-mindedness; no bloom of vigour is upon its cheek; no breath from the high heaven comes with it to refresh those who are round about; no word inspired with gospel music ever drops from the lips of evil. What wonder if we are taught to pray, "lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil"? There is no rest in the course pursued by iniquity; there are no green places in all the wilderness of evil. Jesus Christ came to redeem the world from this infinite night, this ruin of all light and trust and hope, this intolerable bondage and oppression; he came to seek and to save the lost, and to make the chief of sinners chief of saints.
"Through wisdom is an house: builded; and by understanding it is established: and by knowledge shall the chambers be filled with all precious and pleasant riches. A wise man is strong; yea, a man of knowledge increaseth strength. For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war: and in multitude of counsellors there is safety." ( Proverbs 24:3-6).
Here evil is contrasted with wisdom: evil throws down, wisdom builds up; evil brings darkness, wisdom brings light. Understanding is represented as a factor continually engaged in the establishment of goodness, establishing, that Isaiah, founding upon a rock, consolidating, making strong at every point, so that wind and wave and great tumult of the elements should not prevail against its security. Wisdom is represented as a builder; one who builds with a plan, not merely putting stone upon stone for the sake of building a high tower without purpose or utility, but building a house, signifying arrangement, commodiousness, security, hospitality: a very home that should have in it the elements of a school, the beginning of a sanctuary, and a hint of heaven itself. Wisdom is represented as strength, and knowledge as power. What we account a modern proverb Isaiah, therefore, really an ancient saying. We have proved the philosophy of these words. The fool cannot build; when he rears a few courses of stonework he throws down what he has put up, and rejoices with the laughter of madness over the ruin which he has wrought. True building is not to be hurried. Sometimes the builder rests from his labours, that he may give the wall time to settle, lest by overpowering the foundation he brings the work to destruction. True life-building means that a plan and a specification has been provided, whereby the work as to its scope and purpose is clearly indicated, and the materials with which the work is to be executed are named one by one, as to their quality and their proportions. It is not to be supposed that men go forth into the open field, and begin to build as on the spur of the moment When an excavator puts his spade into the ground he begins to carry out something that is written in detail, and that has been thought out by the carefulness of experience and practical skill. We do not see all that is behind the building. It is supposed that a man begins to build suddenly; whereas if we could know the whole history of the case we should find quiet observation of the site, silent contemplation of possibilities; then we should see the pen or pencil taken out, and a sketch made, suggesting what can be done under the special circumstances of the case; we should see a ground-plan and an elevation and a section. All this time the building is confined to paper, but it is not therefore a mere theory or fancy or dream. Behind every life-building there is a great writing, yea, a writing that is done by the finger of God; every wise builder hears a voice in the ear of his soul saying, "See that thou build according to the pattern that I showed thee in the cloud." Every building will speak for itself. If the perpendicular has been broken, if the horizontal line is out of course, if doors and windows are out of proportion, even the fool can see how abortive has been the labours of the builder. Where everything expresses thoughtfulness, experience, and skill, the trained eye will approve the figure of the building, and all men will feel that no encroachment has been made upon the propriety of life. Every duly considered and well-built house comes into existence as if by right; it establishes its own claim to abide among the homes of men. So it is with a heart-house, a life-house, a house representing character and action and purpose; there is nothing violent about the building, and when it is set forth in all its proportions it needs no vindication, for its strength is a defence, and its beauty is an explanation.
"Wisdom is too high for a fool: he openeth not his mouth in the gate. He that deviseth to do evil shall be called a mischievous person. The thought of foolishness is sin: and the scorner is an abomination to men" ( Proverbs 24:7-9).
Fix attention upon the distinction which is here made between wisdom and the devices of evil, between the fool and the wise Prayer of Manasseh, and, again, between the wise man and the mischievous person. These are not merely intellectual distinctions and contrasts; such distinctions and contrasts we must always look for in a world constituted as ours. What is pointed out in this connection is that there is no mere foolishness, in the sense of error, mistake, or mischance of judgment; on the contrary, the thought of foolishness is sin, that which we laugh at as a mistake, or condone as a momentary error, may really represent moral corruption and moral obliquity; therefore we are not to dismiss many things as merely foolish, we are to brand them as sinful and abominable. It is not uncommon to speak of men as guilty of indiscretion, but not of positive wrong; in making this distinction it may be charity that errs, not criticism that delivers its solemn judgment. On the other hand, we are not called upon to make sins, to force mere aberrations, negligences, omissions, or mistakes into the rank and quality of positive sin; the man himself will always know whether his foolishness indicates momentary mental imbecility, or whether it expresses some deep and abominable purpose of the heart
Almighty God, we have tried to count it all joy when we have fallen into clivers temptations, but we have failed in the attempt. It is hard to count it joy. The temptations are hot, swift, strong, coming without notice, urging themselves upon us without pity: how can we count it all joy when we are in the midst of the tremendous assault? And other temptations come: our house is thrown down, our children are carried away as by a great storm or by a subtle poison in the air, all our business prospects become one great cold cloud, the plans and purposes of our life are thrown into confusion; how, then, can we count it all joy amid the wreck and utter overthrow? Yet we will try to learn the lesson. This is thy purpose concerning us, that we should hold everything with a light hand, saying, The Lord gave, and the Lord may at any moment take away; we are but trustees and stewards: blessed shall we be if we can give a faithful account. Train us to this high-mindedness, this noble reverence, this rational and religious submission. This only can be done at the Cross of Jesus Christ thy Son; there is no other school in which we can learn such wisdom: otherwhere we may become indifferent, callous, hardened, fatalistic; but here only, at the Cross, clinging to the Cross, can we learn to say, Lord, this pain is severe, this loss is great, this burden is heavy; nevertheless, thy will be done; then shall we be thy sons indeed. So we do not ignore the burden, or the difficulty, or the pain, or the distress; we look at each and say, This is hard to bear; nevertheless, even this may be borne by the omnipotence of the grace of God. This is the teaching we have received in the school of Christ—the blessed teaching, so deep, so large, so true, and at the last so tender: help us to receive it gratefully, to realise it obediently; then shall men know that we have been with Jesus, and have learned of him. We are here but for a little while. We are going from the place where we say we are even at the moment when we declare we are present in it: behold, one foot is always lifted up in the air in sign of pilgrimage and progress; if we take off our sandals it is but to prepare ourselves for a longer walk to-morrow; if we lay down the staff, it is that we may presently resume it We seek a country; here we have no abiding city. We behold the glory of things, and it fades whilst we look at it, and here there is nothing worth gathering for its own account; it is only worth gathering because of the use which may be made of it. May we be wise arithmeticians, men who can count and reckon correctly, and set down figures, and dare look at them, and say, Their value is thus much, and no more; then shall we know that the days of our years are threescore years and ten, and after that all is speculation, uncertainty, conjecture, doubt, fear, hope, mingled in one strange emotion. Then shall we say, The days of the years of thy servants have been few and evil upon the earth; then shall we know that the grave is next door, and that there is but a step between us and death. Realising all this, we shall become wise, we shall set a right value upon things, and see life in all its right proportions, and conduct ourselves with sobermindedness, and with assurance that the reality is behind and beyond. That we may attain this sublimity of life, Holy Spirit, dwell with us. We are rude, and fleshly, to begin with: but what shall the end be? First that which is natural, afterwards that which is spiritual—the winged power, the invisible strength, the very almightiness of God, the perfected refinement, and assimilation with the spirit and thought of the Eternal. It doth not yet appear what we shall be. We shall go no more down into the earth; we are rising upward, climbing to the sun, hailing the light, and saying to it in our struggles, Stop, and help us, and at last take us up into thyself, thou angel of brightness, thou symbol of God. For all these religious aspirations we thank thee: they do the heart good, they lift up the whole life, they bring morning into the soul which has sat in long, cold, bitter night; we bless thee for these desires, these upward looks, these far penetrations into things beyond. We walk by faith, not by sight. At midnight we sing songs in the prison, and make the foundations of the dungeon shake. Behold, thou dost turn our affliction into sacrament, our pain becomes a disguised blessing, and at the last we say, It was good for us that we were afflicted, for the black angel brought us home again, and made us pray even when we had thought to give up the altar. We give one another to thy tender care. Weary life, mysterious life: now a laugh loud and merry, now a groan full of pain and despair; now young, but young only for a day, and to-morrow quite old and grey, and almost taken for the last stage of decrepitude—a walk by the graveside, and feast in the presence of death. Yet thou didst make this life: it is thy miracle; it is not beyond thy power, it lies within the palm of thy hand. Guide us, then; help us; love us always; be patient with us: we are dull scholars; at the best we have had but little time for schooling, and the little time we have had we have not always used well: be patient still, merciful evermore, pitiful even unto tears. The Lord send his blessing upon us according to our need, make us glad in the Son of God who died for us and rose again, and give us the joy of pardon, the blessing of peace, the prospect of heaven. Amen.
Strength of Character
The special object of all the training and discipline through which we pass in life is the increase of strength. There are some things which we do, not so much for their own sake as for the sake of their strengthening effect upon the body, mind, or the character. No man goes through gymnastic exercises, for example, merely for their own sake. I do not suppose that any man plays with the dumb-bells simply because he finds in such play amusement enough to satisfy his idea of pleasure. Why, then, does a man pass through gymnastic engagements and exercises? It is to harden himself, to train his body, his muscles, that he may become agile, active, capable of walking, running, enduring, as the case may be. The object is not in the thing itself; it lies beyond the exercises. He says, "For every spin I have at these things I feel more muscular, more active, and better able to endure the fatigues of the day." Song of Solomon, also, there is much which a child learns at school, which Hebrews, in all probability, forgets; yet the very act of learning it is itself an advantage. A child may not be able seven years hence to tell you much about the technicality of the education through which he passed at school, yet there will be left in the child"s mind and character a strength which nothing could have given but the trial and discipline through which he passed during his school-days. A father has sometimes said, "Why should this boy of mine learn Latin, when he is going into trade? he will have no occasion then for the Latin language. A little good sound grammatical English will answer all the purpose of his engagements in life; why should I put myself to the trouble of teaching him a dead language?" Not for the sake of the Latin; in all probability, by the time he has been three years away from school he will be utterly unable to quote one rule in Latin syntax. This is more than probable. Probably many of us, who have been tossed about a good deal in the world, would find it difficult to quote anything of the kind; yet the getting of it, the drill we went through in our Latin exercises, has left upon us a beneficial effect. We cannot explain it; we cannot tell the measure thereof; but there has been an influence at work in the mind, strengthening and quickening us, so that we are now—in utter forgetfulness, it may be, of all scholastic and technical Latin—able to look on subjects with a robuster intellect and keener eye than we otherwise could have done. The boy who is not very fond of doing much work at school says, "Why should I commit "Paradise Lost" to memory, when I am only going to be a clerk in a warehouse? What can I do with "Paradise Lost"? I am invited to commit the whole of the books to memory, and to repeat them aloud. What possible use can such an exercise as that serve in my case?" I answer frankly: "Probably, as a clerk in a warehouse, you will never meet persons who will judge of your abilities by the number of quotations you make from any book in "Paradise Lost"; probably you will be able to get on in the world and make a fortune without ever quoting a solitary argument that Milton ever set himself to discuss in verse. Yet it will be an advantage to you as a clerk in a warehouse to commit Milton"s "Paradise Lost" to memory." "How so?" "Because it will be a tax upon your attention; it will compel you to read carefully; it will cultivate, develop, strengthen the memory; and though you may never have occasion to quote it, yet the intellectual exercise through which you have passed will give you strength which you may bring to bear upon what may be called the soberer and graver paths and pursuits of after life." So in all these things we are undergoing preparation. The things themselves, strictly looked at, may be of very little use to us; but they leave behind them influences which will tell in the whole scheme and tone of our after life.
So it Isaiah, then, in all the higher concerns of being! The events that are passing around us are to be studied in their moral bearings. Are you suffering to-day? If you rightly accept your suffering, it will prepare you to bear the still keener agonies that are coming to-morrow. The little worries and vexations of daily experience are to prepare us for the martyrdoms and the tragedies which lie beyond. There is no particular object to be served, may be, in the special affliction which you are now undergoing; it looks to you like mere worry, the thing you might have been spared at all events. You say, "I could lay down this right hand upon the block, and have it struck off by the axe of the executioner; something of that kind I should like to do. But to be bitten by these mosquitoes, and to be worried and fretted and chafed by the ten thousand little ills of everyday experience, oh! this is the thing I cannot submit to"—not knowing that all these Song of Solomon -called little taxations, these visitations of anxiety and care, which are comparatively insignificant, are to be accepted as a preparation for higher engagements, for more energetic service, for more patient endurance. These things are educational. I know that we may go through them without learning anything from them; or we may so accept them that when the next great trial comes we shall be by so much the better prepared to bear it, and the better qualified to find honey in unexpected places, and joy in storm and darkness and trouble.
With what familiarity the writer of the text speaks of "the day of adversity"! It is not introduced with explanatory words; he does not speak of it as if it were a day for a particular latitude; he does not attach a marginal note, saying, "Probably this will not be known beyond a certain line of longitude, and therefore I wish to explain that by the day of adversity I mean so and so." No; he speaks of the day of adversity as if it needed no introduction, no hint,—as if it were part of the universal language. He proceeds upon the assumption that he has only to name the day to be instantly understood by every living man under the sun. And so it is. Yet we see so many youthful, bright, glowing faces around us! So it is: every life has its day of adversity. Some lives are one long day of trial. There seems in some lives to be a great preponderance of depression, difficulty, disappointment, sorrow, pain; so that a streak of blue sky brings laughter to the face and gladness to the eye,—it comes as an astonishment, as a surprise upon the beholder. The strongest of us, with the merriest and loudest laugh, has his bitter hours, his experience of keen pain and agony; and though he may not show all, yet he could, were he to take us into his confidence, tell us that the element of tragedy mingles strangely with that apparently mirthful and joyous life of his. It Isaiah, then, in the day of adversity that a man"s character is tested. We do not know what we are until we have fallen into diverse temptations. You point out to me a particular building, and say, "Does not that look strong, beautiful? is it not well-proportioned architecturally? is it not most beautifully decorated?" I say, "So it Isaiah, but I cannot pronounce any further opinion upon it till I see how it bears up when the whirlwind gets hold of it." The house looks well,—yes; but I shall defer my judgment until the wind blows and the rain falls and the floods come, and they all conspire and beat upon that house,—then I shall know what it is. The paint is fresh and well laid, but what if the building rot at the foundations? It is the day of adversity that tests us; it is affliction that assails us and discovers whether we are gold or not, whether we be not red-lead with a little silver and a good deal of gilding. The day of adversity is the acid that tests us, the aquafortis that bites down through the surface. Trial is the force that gets hold of us and reveals us to ourselves. It says nothing to us, but just lays us before our own vision that we may form our own conclusions. Many a man promises well when there is no fear or difficulty at hand, who cuts up but badly in the time of distress and pain. Many a man speaks you fairly, but what will he do when the clouds gather and the storms break upon your fortunes? Young Prayer of Manasseh, you don"t know yourself, you don"t know what life is until you have been ploughed up in your heart, till your affections have been torn, till your hopes have been turned into disappointment, until the wine of your supposed joy has turned to bitterness in your mouth. You will not be wise in these things till you have encountered the day of adversity.
Adversity makes or mars a man. A man is either the better or the worse for the trial through which he has passed. Afflictions, trials, temptations, either make a man worse or they make him better; they throw him down deeper, nearer the pit, or they lift him up nearer God; they either harden his heart, or they make the heart mellow, tender, sensitive, sympathetic. But rest assured of this, that no man knows himself until he has been caught in the storm, until he has been tried in the fire, until he has passed through the discipline of manifold temptations. Let us be gentle with one another whilst we are undergoing the process. It is one thing to stand off from the furnace and see a brother in it, and to be ourselves undergoing the trial of flame. Do not let us be impatient with our brother who is being tried. Give him time, that he may get his breath again; do not mock his tears. He says, "I know it looks unmanly to be seen in this way." He who can stoop gracefully to such unmanliness will rise to be a king! This is the result of my pastoral observation. I have watched the ways of men; up many a rickety staircase have I climbed to see the poor in their sorrow and pain and dying; beside the bed of many a rich man have I stood in his last spasms and convulsions. I know what life is a little, therefore. And this—taking the whole breadth of a lifetime, not looking at this particular case or at that, but taking the great average of human experience—this is my testimony: That Christianity does sustain and comfort and refine men beyond all other influences. It enables them to see that labour itself is rest, and pain is sweet, when accepted in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ It gives elevation to suffering, a new meaning to dark providences and painful visitations; and where it does not lift a man up to the point of praise and triumph it enables him to be quiet as a weaned child, to be submissive, to fall into his Father"s hands, offering all prayers in one, all desires in one grand liturgy,—"Thy will be done"! I have seen a man suffer until his suffering has actually tormented me. It has been a pain to myself. I have called upon him, from time to time, during a period of five years; I have heard his moanings and his complaints; and I have heard him mingle all the utterances of his sufferings with praises and with prayers and with hopes which I dare not Revelation -echo. I have stood in silence as I have heard him—I had not been in the same agony, I had not caught that highest lesson of human experience—I wondered at his heroism, and felt myself but a craven and a coward! Christianity does sustain and does comfort men in the time of affliction.
An infidel lecturer was explaining his view, his creed, and his method of looking at things; and in concluding his discourse he told his audience that he was quite willing to answer any question that should be put, or any contrary statement that should be made. Whereupon a poor woman, bent and tottering upon a staff, came to the platform, and there was a rustle in the audience as though this poor creature was demented and had utterly forgotten herself. But with a true, strong, yet feminine voice she said: "Mr. Chairman, I have heard the lecture. Twenty years ago I was left a widow with eight children; I had not a crust in the house, I had nothing in the world that was worth calling my own; I may say that I was in a friendless condition. I was then converted by the preaching of the gospel; I was enabled to give my heart to God, through Jesus Christ, his Son; the promises of the Scriptures have been very sweet and precious to me; I have been able to give all my children a bit of schooling; I have never known them to want; we have had but little, but that little has been blessed to us. Now, Mr. Lecturer, what have your principles done for you?" A right challenge! "That," said Hebrews, "is not the question." "But," she said, tapping her staff on the platform, "it is the question. What have your principles done for you?" The woman had had a day of adversity; she had tried Christianity in the time of darkness, poverty, pain, and desolation, and Christianity had sustained and comforted her; and now that she heard an enemy attempting to tear it in pieces, she had a right to ask what his principles had done for him. Yes, we must wait till that day comes,—the day of adversity, of cloud, of storm, and the shaking of things. Then we shall know what men"s principles have done for them. It is one thing to chatter a blasphemous argument; and another to live a true, profound, beautiful and useful life!
Two men sustaining a great loss in business, the one a Christian and the other an atheist, the Christian man ought to bear his loss very differently from the way in which the atheist bears his. The atheist may have a louder Ha, ha! he may have a more defiant tone; he may stand in some rougher attitude; but the Christian will be more quiet and devout. He will have his pain; he will feel what it is to be crushed in heart; and yet under it all he will know that the everlasting arms are there, and that he is called upon, in the time of loss and desolateness, to glorify the Master whose name he bears.
Now it is here that we as Christian men can show what Christianity has done for us. But if we be as peevish, as restless, as excitable, as men who have no religious faith, what is our faith worth? It we be loud in our reproaches and complaints, in our weakness and moanings, and if we be hardly articulate in our praises and supplications, and utterances of loyalty, what is our faith worth? It is not easy to leave your house and go out into the cold streets, to give up everything; it is not easy, I say; I do not expect a Christian believer to do all this as if it cost him nothing. There will be a wrench, a time of pain, a crisis almost intolerable; and yet, under the pressure of all these contrary and difficult events, there will be a spirit of sweet submission, of deep religious confidence, that where right has been done, if it has ended in failure, joy will assuredly come after a nighttime of weeping. I would preach this to all who need it. Things have gone wrong with some of you, they have gone awry; though you have risen early, sat up late, and schemed and planned and racked your brain, so as to do that which was right towards both God and Prayer of Manasseh, yet things have gone contrary with you, and the day of adversity has set in with all cloudiness and coldness upon your life. It is now you are to show the value of your faith, the value of your prayerfulness; it is now that you are to glorify God. This is the day of your martyrdom; men are watching you; and if out of the darkness of your present obscurity, and the pain of your present adversity, they hear a low, soft, sweet voice of resignation and prayer and praise, they will be constrained to say, "Truly this man is near to God."
Think what it is to faint as a Christian. It is to distrust God. Circumstances are contrary, winds seem to be beating upon us from all points of the compass, the sea is very rough and the vessel is all but unmanageable, and we faint. What does it mean? Our fainting means that we have lost somewhat of our old confidence in God. We cannot at least sit down and say, "It will be right yet,—the sea is God"s, the boat is mine; I myself am his; he has redeemed me by the precious blood of his Son; he will not cast me away, or if he do cast me away it will be that he may find me again; he will be sowing me as a farmer sows his seed, that I may bring forth fruit to his honour and his glory." We cannot triumph, perhaps, in our desolation; in our friendlessness and poverty we cannot utter the pean of victory; but we can say, though it be with a sob and a terrible spasm of grief, "Thy will be done!" A man who says that with his heart when the wolf is at the door, when there is no fire in the grate, no bread in the cupboard, no money in the bank, no friends about him, has spoken all the lessons that the Cross of Christ can teach the heart of man!
Will you faint in the day of adversity? Then you will be unlike the men who have made history glorious by their much-enduring, uncomplaining heroism. Job was one. He said, when things were breaking to pieces before him, when the earth was being dried up, when the very footprints of his children were being blown out by the cold, cruel wind, when all the earth was to him one gigantic graveyard, "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!" He did not faint in the day of adversity. Habakkuk came up afterwards and said, "Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation." He was prepared for the day of adversity. With what preparation was he qualified? With a deeply religious preparation. Nothing can break through the darkness of such days but the light of divine truth; nothing can heal such wounds but the balm of the grace of the Cross of Christ. Have there been no Christian heroes? Job and Habakkuk were Old Testament men. Are there not men in the New Testament who hold an equally high tone and an equally noble attitude? Yes. And Paul shall represent them. When they told Paul that the day of adversity was at hand, that bonds and imprisonments awaited him in every city, that every step he took was a step into danger, he said, "None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I may finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus." That was his tone in the day of adversity. When he was plagued with a thorn in the flesh, when his nights and days were but experiences of pain, and he cried mightily unto the Lord for the removal of his torment, and God said unto him, "My grace is sufficient for thee," he was quieted like a child in his father"s arms. He spoke no more about the day of adversity, but the day of prayer and renewed consecration. As for the grand old men that come up from olden time, behold their port! "They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth!" See how they deported themselves in the day of adversity! We are in this great succession. They are no medium men who are in front; it is over no common dust that our pathway lies; we set our feet in the footprints of the giants, and we are to follow them as they followed Christ Yes, it was the Saviour who showed us how to act in the day of adversity, in Gethsemane pains, in Gethsemane darkness; it was he who taught us that all-including prayer, "Thy will be done!" That was the Lord"s prayer. That other prayer of his was a prayer that children may learn; but this is a prayer that consecrates Gethsemane for ever! This should be the first prayer that a man learns; and when he has learned that prayer thoroughly, the next thing to learn is the song of heaven! God grant that when the battle is set, and the foe comes upon us in the fierceness of his wrath, we may be more than conquerors through him that loved us!
Opportunity and Obligation, Etc.
Thus a great fire is set to the excuses which men make in regard to their negligence of opportunity. We are not merely called upon to do the work that we see, we are also called upon to go out and see if there be not more work to be done. A man may enclose himself within walls of luxury and beauty, and declare that he sees no poverty, no weakness, no need of exertion on his own part; but he has put himself in a false relation to society, and that false relation will not save him from divine inquest and judgment. We do not destroy the poverty of the world by declining to look upon it. We are not released from moral obligation by moral indifference. Job says, "The cause which I knew not I searched out"; I made inquiry about it; I cross-examined men who could give information, and in conducting this course of inquest I was not gratifying curiosity, but creating a basis for beneficent action. Were we in proper mood of heart towards God and towards Prayer of Manasseh, we should call upon poverty in its retreats, we should cause all human necessity to breathe its prayer into the ear that we might according to our means relieve its distress. Whoever pleads that he would do more good if he could see more occasion for doing it is guilty before God of falsehood. Poverty is at the door; if it is not on the broad thoroughfare, we have but to turn down a little to the right or to the left, and there we find every form of human want. God will not allow us to say we do not know; Jesus Christ himself protested against this foolish plea, when the men on his left hand said, "When saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or naked, or sick, or in prison?" He was not moved by the suggestion to release them from their obligations. The things we do not know we ought to know. Thus we are called upon to work with both hands diligently; we are called upon both to find the opportunity and to use it for God. If we sit until everything is made ready to our hands probably we should complain of having little to do; but if we go out in the early morning, and spend the whole day in anxious inquiry, we shall soon discover how large is the field within which our labour is to be spent. The poor and the neglected, the sore in heart and the helpless, should find from this verse that the divine eye is engaged on their behalf, and the divine judgment will follow those who neglect opportunities which might have been discovered. Poverty and want and helplessness are set in our midst as opportunities for the culture of the soul, as opportunities for proving that giving is the true receiving, that sacrifice is the true life, and that good-doing is the assured immortality. When is God represented in the Bible as other than the friend of the poor, the judge of the fatherless, and the saviour of all men? More people will be driven away into darkness on account of moral neglect than on account of intellectual heresy. Nowhere are we taught that mere opinion will save men, but everywhere we are assured that he who does justly, loves mercy, and walks humbly with God shall be received into everlasting habitations. Here, then, is a point at which all men may begin, without knowing aught of grammar, philosophy, or theology; salvation is not by metaphysics, salvation is not by works; salvation is a consciousness of the free gift of God, and a response to that free gift in the form of personal purity and social beneficence. Away with excuses, with shallow pleas, with selfish devices; let the overflowing river destroy them, and let the judgment from above burn them up.
"Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: lest the Lord see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him" ( Proverbs 24:17-18).
What can be more intensely evangelical than this exhortation? Although it may appear to be but a moral maxim, yet in its outworking we shall require all the aid of God the Father, God the Song of Solomon, and God the Holy Ghost. Never was human nature put to such strain and stress as at this point. How difficult it is not to wait for the halting of our foe, and not to rejoice in the fall of our enemy! Even when we restrain our lips from ostentatious delight, there may be hidden in the heart a subtle and secret congratulation, because our prophecies have been fulfilled and our estimates have been verified. The spirit of the gospel operates in a directly contrary way: "Love your enemies" is the golden motto of the Christian faith; "Feed those that would destroy you" is the holy exhortation of the Cross of Christ. The reason given for this self-repression is profoundly religious, namely, "lest the Lord see it, and it displease him." We know that the Lord looketh not on the outward action only, but on the inward and inspiring motive. Can we truly say that we are not glad when the enemy falls? Are we quite sure that in our heart there is no secret felicitation in consequence of the mischief which has come upon the head of him that opposed us? Do we not quietly say, it may be with assumed reverence, that we are not surprised, because we were sure that such conduct must be followed by such consequences? It is difficult for a personal enemy to be just; it is almost impossible for us, when we are prejudiced against a Prayer of Manasseh, not to hear of that man"s disasters without inwardly rejoicing that they have fallen upon him. We are called upon to be Godlike in our magnanimity; we are to have no merely personal enemies; we are to regard ourselves as parts of a great whole, and to consider that all evil-doing is directed against the Holy One rather than against ourselves. To these sacred realisations we are called by the Holy Spirit: how difficult it is to attain them, and to give practical utility to them, they know best who have seen most of the tragedy and horrible-ness of actual life. It is hard for Christians to be Christlike. We have certain theological opinions behind which we are too prone to perpetrate certain moral delinquencies; we mistake the nature of the kingdom of heaven, and we wound the very spirit of Christ, when we suppose we are right morally because we are right intellectually. Moreover, there can be no intellectual rectitude that does not stand upon moral righteousness; the words may be right, the form of the speech may be unquestionable, the nominal and formal orthodoxy may be beyond all successful contention, yet, because of the want of moral earnestness, integrity, love of honour, and love of equity, all that we profess in words and set forth in form shall be accounted worse than worthless. To him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin; to him who has a fine intellectual conception that is not balanced by a faithful moral consecration shall be given to feel the weight and the bitterness of the judgment of God.
"Fret not thyself because of evil men, neither be thou envious at the wicked; for there shall be no reward to the evil man; the candle of the wicked shall be put out" ( Proverbs 24:19-20).
Thus we come again and again upon the commonplaces of moral behaviour. Why this repetition? Is it because of intellectual inability? Is it indicative of a failure of moral imagination? Far deeper than this lies the reason of the reiteration of such exhortation and injunction. It is because we are so weak, it is because temptations are so numerous, it is because the enemy is so industrious, that we require to be guarded at every point and that we need to be exhorted constantly, lest our inspiration should fail and our impulses should cool and vanish. After every period of intellectual excitement there should come a period of moral instruction and comfort, lest the excitement should leave us in a state of weakness, and so should leave us a prey to the ever-watchful enemy. A wonderful piece of mosaic is this Biblical literature: here we have intellect, there we have imagination; here is reasoning, there is music; here is a statement of doctrine in the sublimest terms, and there is a persuasion to obedience in tenderest words; here is a battle illustrative of great principles, and there is a prayer expressive of conscious need: we must comprehend the Bible in its totality and in its unity; we must be Biblically learned even if we are textually ignorant,—that is to say, although we cannot quote separate and independent texts we should have within us the spirit of the Bible, the very genius of Revelation, that shall prevent us foisting upon Jesus Christ any sentiment which is unworthy of his history or of his Cross. The reasoning which follows the exhortation is once more profoundly religious,—"there shall be no reward to the evil Prayer of Manasseh," for "the candle of the wicked shall be put out." We are to look at the end rather than at the beginning; where we cannot understand the beginning we may be able to comprehend the end; if men are continually sowing seed and no harvest comes, we know that the seed that has been sown was worthless or has been sown only in seeming and not in reality. Every action is known by the fruit it bears: first there comes the motive, then there comes the deed, then there comes the consequence of the deed; and not until we have seen the whole process are we qualified to judge any part of it. Beautiful and suggestive is the figure that the light in which the wicked man walks is but the light of a candle, an exhaustible flame, a perishing glory, a merely flickering spark; whereas the righteous man walketh in the glory of the sun, the splendour that is round about him is the radiance of the eternal throne; he walks not in a light of his own creation, but in the very radiance of heaven. Jesus Christ is the light of the world, and Christians are the light of the world only in a reflective sense. Many there be who light their own candles, who speak their own praise, who live upon their own theories and speculations, but in the end there is nothing but darkness. The earth receives its light from above, the flowers drink in the glory of the sun; so in our earthly light we should be related to the eternal fire, and in all the expansion of our character we should be fed and sustained, comforted and blessed, by ministries far beyond. We cannot struggle up by some poor intellectual effort to the moral dignity which does not fret itself because of evil men; all this superiority of circumstance comes out of our communion with God: he who is hidden with God in heaven can come down to the affairs of earth and time with a dignity which reckons correctly, and which abstains from the debasements which attach themselves to the earth. The man who has seen eternity makes a proper estimate of the bubble of time. He who has seen a light above the brightness of the sun is not dazzled by the candles of this world; he who has entered into the spirit of the triune God can look upon the prosperity of the bad man as upon an idle dream, coming out of nothing, and vanishing into nothing evermore.
Almighty God, show us somewhat of the wonders of thy way, that we may be rebuked and kept in expectant silence, and restrained from interfering with the course of thy providence even by our words. Thou hast set us in a great mystery of life; one thing belongs to another; all the lines travel up towards thyself; the right hand of the Lord is full of power, and the Lord"s throne is at the head of all. We are lost for want of view. All things are too near us. We are too near ourselves. We cannot see ourselves until we stand in God; then do we behold our littleness and frailty, and then do we begin to kindle with the consciousness of immortality. But we are looking down to the dust; we are mistaking all things as to their size and colour and use, and our very ability becomes a snare, and our inventiveness is but a new way to destruction. Oh that we were wise, that we were often silent, that we could breathe out our life in quiet prayer, and that many a time we could but look up when we wish to interfere. What an effectual working is thine. How thou dost commingle all things, and curiously relate them, so that men cannot take them to pieces, and understand the mechanism thereof. We always leave out the principal item; our calculation is always wrong in the first line, and therefore all our multiplication is but an elaborate mistake. Oh that we could stand still and see the salvation of God. Oh that we had grace enough to let things alone. If we could but watch thy wonder-working hand, we should see how thou dost crown all things with perfectness. Yet thou wilt keep us in our own sphere, and there we can do our little day"s work with industry and patience, and with some measure of success. Yet help us to know that it is only an intermediate sphere, not a portion cut off from thy creation, without any relation to central life and thought; show us that we are working in a corner which is vitalised from the centre. May we be diligent cultivators; may we answer the opportunity which comes to us—yea, may we buy it up as a precious pearl, and use it well, to the master"s praise. May we be found at the last to have been wise, seeing things that are afar off, reckoning up forces that lie away at a great distance from the vision of the body; and thus as the ages come and go, may the word of the Lord, as known by us and spoken by us, appear, reappear, and shape the moulding of all time, and direct every thought and impulse, and sanctify every ambition. We bless thee for the religious life. How it warms the heart; how it stirs the mind; how it feeds the best forces of our nature; how it keeps us back from littleness, meanness, malevolence, impurity, injustice, wrong! Verily, it is the presence of God in the soul: may it never be taken away from us. All these things we have learned through Jesus Christ thy Son. He was like unto a man—yea, he was in all points tempted like as we are: he hungered, thirsted, and was often tired and sat down by the roadside; but still when we came near him we fell back from him again: there was a line of limit—there was a point of approach, and yet a point of separation. Never man spake like this man. Never man looked like this man. There was healing in the very hem of his garment; there was heaven in his gracious smile. He died for us, and rose again; he paid the price of his blood for our redemption: we will therefore not think of our littleness by reason of our sin, but of our value because of the price paid for our ransom. Amen.
Intellectual Conflict, Etc.
It has been suggested that we should read for "them that are given to change," "those who think differently." Here the caution is not directed against variety of intellectual method, but against variety of moral judgment. Thus we have been reading that there shall be no reward to the evil Prayer of Manasseh, and that the candle of the wicked shall be put out; and now the wise father would seem to say to his Song of Solomon, If any man shall teach thee any other doctrine than this, meddle not with them that think differently. Intellectual variety or contention should within proper limits be encouraged, because out of intellectual conflict there may come intellectual light; but men must not have moral variety—that is to say, different definitions of moral obligation; there must not be any interfusion of right and wrong, as if there were some things partly morally right and partly morally wrong; the distinction must be vital, deep, unchangeable, otherwise we shall be led into such confusion as shall be used for the purpose of excusing selfishness and delinquency. It would be unworthy of the Bible to exhort its readers to have nothing to do with men who are given to intellectual change because intellectual change may be indicative of progress; but it is worthy of the Bible to point out that moral distinctions must not be trifled with, and that where a moral course has been vividly indicated in holy writ it should never be regarded as open to the criticism and revision of dissenting minds. Sometimes we may vainly imagine that there is an intellectual force superior to that which is discovered in Biblical literature; but we must never delude ourselves with the idea that there is a morality loftier than the ethics of revelation. We cannot go beyond the purity of the commandments, we cannot transcend the moral lines indicated by the beatitudes; beyond the boundaries of the Sermon on the Mount there is nothing worthy of the name of morality. Intellectual difference may be a sign of vitality, but moral confusion is a sign of moral obliquity.
"Prepare thy work without, and make it fit for thyself in the field; and afterwards build thine house" ( Proverbs 24:27).
Life should proceed upon method. For want of method how little progress is made by some people! By beginning at the wrong end, men"s best devices and most arduous endeavours come to nothing. The words to be taken notice of are "prepare," and "make fit," and "afterwards." Here are three things to be done,—get ready, adapt one thing to another, so as to avoid all confusion, and when the material is brought together and part is adapted to part, then proceed vigorously to build. Here is a whole philosophy of life and progress. In early life education is preparation: after merely technical or scholastic education should come a kind of apprenticeship to practical service: men should not rush at their ultimate work in a desperate hurry, but should take time to test their qualifications, and to gather a little initial experience: but surely there comes a time when a man should say to himself, I must now arise and build, with a view to permanence. Many people waste all their time in fruitless industry. If they could be charged with indolence, a case might be got up against them on moral grounds; but they are very far from being indolent: if possible they are much too energetic and industrious, but, unfortunately for themselves and for others, they are energetic and industrious about the wrong things. Some men are qualified to deal with details, and are never so happy as when arranging minute points, and describing precise lines, and seeing that all manner of punctilious observances are realised; other men can only deal with great principles and with ultimate conceptions, being utterly regardless of details: if such men were to change places, see what confusion would occur. The man of detail may know nothing of principles, and the man who is devoted to the philosophy of principles may be incapable of dealing with detail. Sometimes our work has to be made ready for us by other people. It does not follow that life is incoherent or inconsistent because some part of it is done by one man and some part by another. There are instances in which the sculptor adds but the final strokes to the statue—by which it is made almost to breathe: he says that all the preliminary work can be done by the mechanic, and that it is his province alone to give the artistic and final touch. So with painting: the great artist may add but a few tints or lines or shadows at the last, but these comparatively small additions give the whole value to the picture; it does not therefore follow that the picture was not done by the artist who gave it whatever it possesses of artistic energy and significance. According to the modern distribution of functions and occupations, we shall soon come to the time when life will be the upbuilding of society rather than that of a mere individual. We have betaken ourselves to the study of specialism; no longer does one physician undertake the cure of the entire body; it would seem as if each part of the frame of man had a physician appropriated to itself. So with this work of preparation: one man writes the alphabet, another the primer, another the advanced book, and another the higher and the highest literature. But in reality the whole work is one. Who would think of commencing to write a book without a knowledge of the alphabet? Yet some men commence the building of a life without the knowledge of first principles, without the realisation of moral instincts and duties; hence confusion, hence industry worse than indolence, and hence results absolutely devoid of beauty and utility. Educate thyself, gather information, study the history of the world, watch the ways of other men, and do not begin to build until ample preparation has been made for the successful carrying out of the building project. On the other hand, do not spend all your time in preparation. There are men who are ever learning, never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. Others have been getting ready for the production of a great book all their lives, and yet the book will never be produced. We all probably have acquaintances who assure us that by-and-by they will be able to vindicate their methods by a realisation of labour which will astound the world; yet all this boasting or promising or vapouring comes to nothing. Be moderate in your preparation, if you would be successful in your building. Building is only to be learned by building. No man can ever learn to swim who simply stands on the shore and looks at the sea: no man can ever learn to build who simply frames fine theories of architecture, but never puts one stone upon another. Be not discouraged by early blunders, by introductory mistakes of any kind, but recognise them, confess them, and avoid their repetition. In all life-building the first thing to be assured of is the security and fitness of the foundation; then let every man take heed how he buildeth!
"Be not a witness against thy neighbour without cause; and deceive not with thy lips. Say not, I will do so to him as he hath done to me: I will render to the man according to his work" ( Proverbs 24:28-29).
This does not refer only to witnessing in a court of law; it includes talking about a man behind his back, gossiping respecting his character and service, or making him the subject of casual criticism: hence the verse might read, Do not bring thy neighbour"s faults under review simply for the sake of talking; do not turn him into a text for the purpose of giving information regarding his faults and blemishes: if thou hast anything to say against thy neighbour, name him plainly, speak to him personally, adduce evidence precisely and circumstantially, and thus proceed with solidity and solemnity. How wonderfully are evangelical principles anticipated in the29th verse, "Say not, I will do so to him as he hath done to me." That would be mere resentment, mere pettishness; there would be in it nothing of real judgment or equity. When a man takes the law into his own hands, he himself becomes the victim of the rash proceeding. The value of law is that it is not to be privately administered, but that it is to express itself in human life with all the dignity of an impersonal influence Wherever mere individuality expresses judgment and penalty there is a necessary limitation; the penalty may be regarded as expressive of resentful feeling: but where the law comes without immediate reference to personality, it comes without limitation, it seems to express, so far as can be done, the Eternal and the Infinite. In human nature there is of course a strong tendency to resent every injury. This tendency can only be overcome by the larger tendency created and inspired by the spirit of Jesus Christ. Here again the Lord of glory becomes the pattern of men: when he was reviled, he reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. That is the ideal relation we are to sustain to one another. We are not to be discouraged because we cannot attain to it at once. If our spirit is operating in the direction of its realisation, that should be accounted to us as a completed service. The heart may easily be discouraged by momentary outbreaks of the old nature: we may so to say detect ourselves in evil passion or purpose, or even in the plotting of some scheme that should bring retribution upon the head of the man who has offended us: let not the enemy turn such experience into an accusation against us of an overwhelming kind; true it is an accusation, but where sin abounds grace may much more abound; and the very fact that we had caught ourselves in the fault may lead us into deeper penitence, and enable us to offer more comprehensive and pathetic prayer.
Almighty God, we cannot tell anything as it really Isaiah, for what light have we, and what time for thought? We are driven, we are hastened away; a great wind impels us forward; where we would stop and linger, and think and pray, behold the darkness comes down suddenly, and blots out the appearance of the very altar itself. From all this we think thou hast a good purpose concerning us; in itself this cannot be the way of wisdom or of love; we feel that afterwards we shall see how it was, and be glad with a great joy, exultant with an inexpressible thankfulness. Meanwhile, the night is cold and dreary, and the hills are very high, and all the gardens seem to be barren; there is no fruit in the orchard; oftentimes all nature seems to be withering under thy displeasure: but it is by such circumstances that thou dost train us; all this is part of the soul"s hard drill, that it may see things as they are, value them by a right reckoning, set down their price and force, and understand them as they exactly are; and all this leads us away, first in vague wonder, then in reasoning hopefulness, towards the heavens, if haply this be not an empty universe, but a great church in which there is a suffering Priest. We have found the Priest of the universe; we have seen him upon the Cross; we have heard his cry of weakness, and his utterance of pain; we have watched where they laid him; we have gone in the morning and found him risen, having made time anew, and set all history in an unexpected light, and brought to bear upon the human family, and all its interests and destinies, a wondrous and gracious influence. We have come to Christ, we have felt the mystery and the power of his blood: it cleanseth from all sin; after its application there is no stain, or taint, or memory of guilt; thou dost cast our sin behind thee, and none can find it—yea, though the enemy search for it, and would bring it back in fatal accusation against us, he shall not succeed in his cruel quest. Thou hast trained us by many processes, and now our faith is strong and our hope is clear, though there be many cloudy days, and many remaining difficulties, and much has yet to be done; yet we know what the faith-life is—the better sense, the spiritual faculty, the marvellous thing that takes hold of God, and will not let him go. Lord, increase our faith. By increase of faith we shall have access of love, accumulation of all things good and true and wise and beautiful,—yea, the accumulation shall advance even unto riches immeasurable, unsearchable, inexhaustible. We bless thee for all newness of heart, for all regeneration of life, spirit, and purpose—these are thy miracles, thou Holy Spirit. Continue and complete thy sacred work. Thou wilt bring us home, thou wilt not be baffled in thy purpose; at the last thou shalt crown us with a crown of righteousness. But for these hopes we should die; but for these inspirations we should deem life a mistake and look upon to-morrow not as a friend but a foe, which comes to frown upon us with new displeasures: now we await to-morrow in hopefulness; it can bring with it nothing that may not be sanctified to our good—come as it may, thou wilt come along with it, and thou wilt give us strength to bear the burden. Help us in time of trouble and sadness to remember all the wise answers ever given to human inquiry in the hour of pain and sore distress. May the word of God dwell in us richly, so that to every temptation we may have a reply, and to every suggestion of evil we may return a gospel of peace. We live in God; we trust to his Song of Solomon, equal with the Father; we cry for a baptism of the Holy Ghost; and we know, by the very prayer, hat it cannot be lost. Now unto him that is able to keep us from falling, and to present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.
The Fool"s Vineyard
By such allusions the Bible constantly shows us how much the generations of mankind resemble one another. In every age the sluggard and the fool have had a place, as well as the labourer and the wise man. In this respect the village has been as the great city, the great city as the greater kingdom, and the kingdom itself has been a world in miniature. Truly, then, we may go back to old scenes and read the unequal and troubled story of our own life. That which is now hath already been; and as for our originalities, the ancients knew them, and pronounced them stale. Any difference that may appear in the history of the world or in the development of human life is rather a difference of incident than of essence. Let us see if many modern experiences have not been anticipated by this dreary scene of the fool"s field, as it was looked upon by the wisest man of his age.
The scene shows that if we will not have flowers and fruits, we shall certainly have thorns and nettles. Let us clearly understand that we are living under an economy which we cannot change, and to which we must submit with grace, or which in its turn will avenge itself upon our negligence and unfaithfulness. We cannot set aside the laws of nature. On they roll, grinding all things that come in their way, or making all things beautiful that were intended by the Creator to assume the image and aspect of loveliness. We can neglect the laws of nature, but we cannot set them aside and expect to realise the advantages of obedience. Man must give in, for law never will succumb. We cannot say to nature, "I am going to sleep, so you must stand still until I awake." There is a law of growth in the very ground: we may co-operate with it, and turn it to our advantage; we may, so to speak, throw the reins of our discipline upon it, and turn it to good uses; but, though we sit down and fold our hands slumbrously, that great law will go steadily on, and thorns and nettles will show how inexorably it proceeds. It is the same with the character of man. We cannot simply do nothing. Life has its laws. We may pay them no heed, but they will assert themselves notwithstanding, and show by painful proofs that neglect is crime. A man may resolve, for example, not to cultivate his mind. He says he will be a child of nature; he will leave himself to the development of external and internal forces, without any exercise of his own will; he will have no purpose about himself, but at the end will be precisely what nature chooses to make him. Is his mind then simply a blank? Impossible! The weeds of false notions, the thorns and nettles of prejudice, the undergrowths of superstition, will prove his intellectual indolence, and he who would not carry the generous bounty of harvest shall be weighted with noxious and worthless plants. Nature will do nothing for a man except with the man"s own co-operation, and even that co-operation must be modified, cultivated, rearranged day by day, and only as the result of faithful devotion to the altar of wisdom will nature cause all her issues to result in strength and nobleness of manhood. A man may purposely neglect to cultivate his moral nature. He says he will leave all that to the forces that are above him and around him, and they can make of him just what they please. He despises religious service and exhortation; he holds in contempt all ideas of self-control; he derides the suggestion that he should consider the religious aspects of the uncertain future; he says in one decisive sentence that he has made up his mind to have nothing whatever to do with religion. What then? Can he keep himself in a strictly negative condition? Is it possible for an atheist to have no religion? Is he at the end of ten years the innocent lamb that he proposed to himself to become? Look at his false ideas, his superstition, his narrowness, his want of veneration, his superficial judgment, and see how far he has succeeded. We must understand that there will be growth even if we do not attend to cultivation. There is a great law of production evermore in operation. We can use it for our highest purposes, or we can neglect it, and it will avenge our neglect by weeds, thorns, thistles, and all manner of worthless growths. It is impossible to stand still. It is impossible to become merely nothing. There is no law of negation in God"s well-ordered universe. If men would consider this they would be wise; failing to consider it, we can account for nearly all the folly in the world.
The scene clearly shows that the sluggard and the fool cannot hide the results of their neglect. Every man is a living witness to the life which he lives, how secretly soever he may conduct that life. In this case the results were observed and reported. We must see more or less of each other"s work. We are in the same world—a small and crowded world it Isaiah, too—we belong to one another—we hold mutual rights of inquiry—in short, we cannot hide ourselves from our fellow-men. We cannot confine the results of a wasted life within our own bounds. The drunkard says he injures nobody but himself, than which there is no greater fallacy in all human misthinking. The man deludes himself with the notion that he only is suffering pain of body, wreck of mind, loss of understanding, and forfeiture of property: he little thinks that every child he has will suffer for the outrage of appetite of which he stands convicted. His children will be tainted in health, and will be clouded or dwarfed in mind, in consequence of their father"s excesses. The spendthrift says he is only spending his own money; but in this sense of the term no man has any money of his own to spend. Every penny we hold we should hold in a spirit of trusteeship, and our object should be to discover how much good we may do with it; for it we waste it, not only is the money itself gone but our mental economy is injured, our moral integrity is impaired, our sense of honour has undergone modification or collapse. It is impossible to tell a lie without injuring other people. It is impossible to disobey the laws of cleanliness without affecting the health of society. In the deepest, largest, truest sense, no man liveth unto himself; every breath we draw would seem to affect the atmosphere in which we live. This being the case, we have not a right to do as we please with what we call our own. First of all, there is nothing which we can call our own. Life itself is not. Life is a precious trust. We have to account for life in some cases even to our fellow-men. In ordinary intercourse we see again and again proofs of the fact that society will not allow us to do what we please with our own. Surely a man may say that his own child is his, and his only; but such is not the fact; no man has a child which is exclusively his own; the child sustains not only family but social relations; if you were to attempt to lay violent hands upon your child"s life society would arrest you and forbid you, and, if you persisted in your foul purpose, society would imprison you, or, if you succeeded in it, society would hang you. You cannot do what you like with your own life. If you were to attempt to take it, society would again arrest you and show you that your life is not your own. Let your garden become covered with weeds, let those weeds come to seed, and when the seed is blown into other people"s gardens, see if they do not protest. Surely, a man may say, I have a right to neglect my garden if I please, and let it grow whatever may come by nature. But even your own neighbours would protest against this superficial and mischievous notion. The neighbours would say, If you have a right to injure your own garden, you have no right to injure ours, and no man can let weeds come to maturity in his garden without injuring the gardens of the whole neighbourhood. We are bound together by singular but vital ties, and we cannot touch one of the filaments by which society is connected without sending a thrill to the very centre of social existence. What is true of weeds growing in gardens is true of other nuisances. You may not even build a chimney that will throw its black smoke over your neighbours" property. Society claims a right of judgment. Public sentiment insists upon being respected. There is not only a written law of protection but an unwritten law of protection; and indeed written laws would have no force and effect but for the laws that are unwritten: it is the spiritual judgment, the moral sentiment, the indwelling and all-ruling conscience that settles and determines public law.
The scene shows how possible it is to be right in some particulars and to be grievously wrong in others. The legal right of the slothful man to the possession of the field might be undisputed. The vineyard might have fallen into the hands of the fool by strictly lawful descent. So far, so good. The case is on this side perfectly sound. Yet possession was not followed by cultivation, and possession without cultivation is of necessity diminution. It is not enough to possess; we must increase. We must make the world a thousand times larger than it is; not in mere miles, but in its power of production. The man who had one talent buried it, and although he restored it, yet was condemned as a negligent, unfaithful, and wicked servant. We do not, if we are wise, allow even a house to fall into decay. There is no right of abuse. Let this be clearly understood; it applies to the whole compass of life: there is no right of abuse in property, in social usage, in social confidence, in personal cultivation. Society holds us all as trustees and stewards, and demands an account of our procedure. Is that dog yours? Surely a man may call a dog his own. Nothing of the kind. Society will protest against its starvation or other cruel treatment. Only let society know that even a dog which you call your own is cruelly treated, and you will find that society will assert its rights and bring you to punishment. You have not a right to be unclean, to be ignorant, to be careless of life; on that line no rights have ever been established. We have only the right to hold property for the good of others, to hold it for cultivation, to hold it for multiplication, in order that social life may be benefited and strengthened by its appropriation. Coming to examine these things in a practical light, apart altogether from theories and exhortations, we see that we are living in an economy that is self-watchful, self-guarded, and self-avenging. It is a solemn and awful thing to live.
The scene shows that even the worst abuses may be turned to good account. "Then I saw, and considered it well: I looked upon it, and received instruction." So even the fool may be accounted a teacher, through no will or purpose of his own. The good man is an eloquent example; the bad man is a loud warning. Keep your eyes open, and you will read moral lessons everywhere; watch the men who go regularly to business, who are faithful to their engagements, who are steadfast, sober-minded, zealous in all goodness, and you will see to what rich estate they will come,—not necessarily rich in mere money, but morally and spiritually rich, blessed above all things with a contented and thankful mind. You will see that the finest possessions may be wasted: property, talent, influence, opportunity, may all be thrown away. There is no wealth which may not be utterly exhausted. Beware! even mountains may be levelled—even rivers may be dried up. The fool thinks that there is no limit to his wealth, but his very thinking so brings it the more quickly to an end. We prosper in true wealth only by care as to details. A leak will ruin a reservoir. There are many men who pay much attention to what they consider the larger and more important affairs in life, but who allow little things to take their own course. In the result such men are proved to have acted a foolish part. If they had acted from the other point—that is to say, if they had been careful about little things—they would have found that the great things would have fallen into happy economical arrangement. In looking abroad upon society in all its action, you will see that wickedness always moves in the direction of destruction. It must do so. Remember the awful words, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die,"—not die in the sense of a mere threat, but die as a necessity—cannot help dying. Sin is the broad and open way to destruction. "He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy." All indolence must go down—down in moral fibre, down in moral volume, down in moral dignity; all wickedness not only goes down, as if a step at a time, but rolls and plunges down with an infinite and irresistible velocity. All sin forces itself in the direction of perdition. In all this reasoning we are not relying upon our invention or imagination; we are simply writing sententiously the history of the whole world. The proofs which the Christian teacher has to adduce are not always to be found in books, are not always concealed in learned languages, but are often lying upon the wide page of daily life. No man well considers facts, realities, circumstances, within his own knowledge, who does not see that there is a great law in nature and in life, binding and ruling all things, and eventuating in solemn and impartial judgment. How did the wise man know that the man was void of understanding? What right had he to speak of another man as a fool? He spoke because he saw the state in which the vineyard was. We know a man by his surroundings; we know him by his habits; we know him by the very tone of his voice: there is character in everything. Society cannot help judging every one of its members. Does not this social judgment point to a higher arbitrament? Is there not an outline even in all natural economies of great spiritual realities and holy ministries? It is because wise men have diligently considered the bearing of these things that they have felt no difficulty in passing from what is called the material to what is denominated the spiritual. The road has been clear and open, and has invited the pilgrimage of reverent travellers. It is because we have seen sin that we hate it; it is because we have seen righteousness that we are prepared to affirm that all the worlds are related to one another, and that all laws originate in a sublime moral purpose, and that all life is ultimately to be brought not only to social but to divine and unalterable judgment. A man may so live as to be pronounced void of understanding; he may so act as to be pronounced a fool. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Almighty God, who can answer thee when thou dost arise to shake terribly the earth? Then are we filled with fear, and cry unto thee for pity, for no answer is found in our mouths concerning thy righteousness and judgment. In such hours thou dost teach us how little and frail we are; and yet in our feebleness thou dost show us how great, we may become by living and moving and having our being in thee, drawing our strength from the fountain of all true power, and living evermore under the benediction of the all-ruling God. But these things are too high for us; we cannot attain unto them; they rise above us and defy our pursuit: what then hast thou done that we may know thee, and approach thee, and look upon thee with the eyes of love? Thou hast sent thy Song of Solomon, Emmanuel—God with us. He took not upon him the nature of angels, but the seed of Abraham; he is bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh, and he condescends to speak our language as if it were his own, and to teach us through the words we know the best. He speaks to us of light and love and peace; of forgiveness, and release, and joy, and holiness: we understand thy Song of Solomon,—this Man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them, turning their common food into sacramental flesh, and their wine into a token of his blood. We love the Saviour; we wonder at the gracious words which proceed out of his mouth; we see him on the hill, and hear him teaching the disciples; we watch him in the house, and mark all his gentle ways; we see him surrounded by sinners, taking up little children and blessing them; going onward to the Cross, his soul exceeding sorrowful, even unto death. We know the power of his resurrection, having had fellowship with his sufferings; now we have peace with God, being justified by faith through our Lord Jesus Christ. Henceforth we would know no man but Jesus; we would crown him Lord of all; we would wait for his law, we would do his bidding, we would imitate his example, we would fill our memory with his words and enrich our hearts with his promises. This is our one desire, that we may be found not having on our own righteousness, but being clothed with the righteousness of Christ as a man might be clothed with a garment: then shall we be accepted in the Beloved, we shall know that all things are for Christ"s sake,—yea, the very church, beautiful in virginity, beautiful with the comeliness of heaven. Enable us to do what appeals to us as thy law and bidding; may we be found constant in our faith, undivided in our consecration, simple in our motive, endeavouring to realise in all things the purpose and decree of heaven. We are of yesterday, what can we know? Tomorrow we shall be gone, what can we do? Help us by thy Spirit to see how every moment may be turned to account, how every breath may become sacred as a prayer, and how our whole life may be lifted up in practical and loving aspiration. Pity us in our sinfulness; wash us, O thou Christ of God, anointed from all eternity, in thine own blood: then shall we be without spot or wrinkle or any such thing,—the very miracle of thy grace. Holy Spirit, teach us; teach us all the innermost things of the sanctuary; lead us past the first gate, and the second gate, even unto the holy of holies, and having seen what is there, the very secret of God, the very mystery of eternity, we shall be solemn for ever, yet glad with ineffable joy. Come to us, thou Triune God, Father, Song of Solomon, and Holy Spirit, and we shall have strength and rest and hope and joy; we shall have all things, and abound. We commend one another to thy care whilst we tarry at thine altar. Some are sad of heart; some are tired of labour that brings no profit; some are weary because the road is long and the burden is very heavy; others are distracted and disappointed and bewildered because whatever they do comes back upon them only in mockery: some are full of joy because they are the companions of prosperity and honour; when they go abroad success goes with them; when they return at eventide they have to pull down their barns and build greater, so plentiful is the harvest of the day. Look upon us whatever our state. May we not faint in the day of adversity, and thus show that our strength is small; may we not boast in the day of prosperity, and thus in our presumption lose our faith. May we feel that all things work together for good to those whose hearts are in the heart of God. Be with our sick, and heal them at least with hope which is better than health of body. Be with our loved ones who have gone abroad to find honest bread under other skies. Watch over them and bless them night and day. If they are in sore straits, do thou send an angel of deliverance. The Lord thus direct us, guide us, enrich us, sanctify us, wash us in the precious blood of his own dear Song of Solomon, and make us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light. Lord, hear our cry, and thy hearing shall be as an answer of peace. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Proverbs 24". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34