by James W. Alexander
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." (Hebrews 13:5)
As if it were not enough that God has given us his Son, and with him all things—we are continually repining and distrusting. Not instructed by a thousand instances in our past lives, in which God has extricated us from difficulties, and been better to us than all our fears; and forgetful of the great fact in our history that not one good thing has failed, of all that the Lord promised, we act over again the murmurings and the incredulity of Israel in the desert. "They forgot God their Savior." "Yes, they despised the pleasant land, they believed not his word—but murmured in their tents, and hearkened not unto the voice of the Lord." Ps. 106. In such circumstances, it would be infinitely just in God, to take us at our word, and leave us to sink in our own unbelief, and suffer all we fear. But blessed be his holy name, his ways are not as our ways, nor his thoughts as our thoughts. He condescends to reason with the wayward, ungrateful child, and to bring his promises into view. So in that remarkable passage of the epistle to the Hebrews, in regard to anxieties about temporal support, the apostle says, "Be content with such things as you have; for He has said, I will never leave you nor forsake you." It is not certain what particular passage of the Old Testament is here quoted, for such are the riches of promise that the meaning is found in many passages. The reference may be to the case of Abraham (Gen. 28:15)—"And behold I am with you, and will keep you in all places where you go—for I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have spoken to you of." Or to the case of collective Israel—(Deut. 31:6)—"Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will not fail you, nor forsake you."
There is a gracious mystery about covenant promises, which we should earnestly seek to understand. What God promises to any one of the Old Testament saints, he promises to every believer—with such modification as suits his particular case. For all these promises are different leaves of the same tree of life, different expressions of the same covenant of grace. In this sense, whatever things were written aforetime, were written for our learning, that we through scriptural patience and comfort might have hope. It is in this way that thousands of believers have drunk at the same fountain; and what God said to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been the refreshment of many souls in all generations. This principle of interpreting promises is implied in the verse just quoted. The apostle clearly invites all Christians to receive, collectively and individually, that comprehensive promise, which may originally have been addressed to an individual or to "the church in the wilderness." He gives it a form so general that it is not so much one promise, as all promises in one. And he adds a force of assertion, which our language cannot reach; for in the Greek these few words contain no less than five negatives; to give the full force of which we should have to read it thus—"I will never, never leave you, I will never, never, never forsake you." The precious truth therefore which I commend to you for all coming years, is this—God engages in covenant, to be with the believer, for all needful good, now, henceforth, and forever.
When God says that he will never leave, it is of course a promise to be ever present. But this means more than that omnipresence which reaches equally to all creatures. This indeed sustains their existence—but does not insure their happiness; because the worst and most wretched of men might say with the Psalmist, "If I make my bed in hell, behold you are there!" It means more than that providential sustentation and help, in regard to which God causes his sun to rise and his rain to fall, on the evil and the good. It is not only a benignant and bountiful but a gracious presence, founded on the provisions of the covenant of grace. God will not forsake his Son, the head of the mystical body, and therefore he will not forsake any one of those who are joined to his Son.
Let us clearly apprehend this connection. There is no gracious dealing with any—but through the Mediator. There is no adoption of any—but in the only begotten of the Father. There are none reconciled—but through the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There are none accepted—but "in the Beloved." All the wealth of blessing is treasured in his hand; and in him all the promises are Yes, and in him Amen. Which will serve to answer a question that no doubt has been rising in the reader's mind, namely—To whom is the promise of the text made? It is made to believers, and to none others. To all men, without exception, God is loving and bountiful; but his promise never to forsake, is made to such only as by receiving Christ make all the promises their own. That God will leave and forsake the finally impenitent, and that to all eternity, is a truth which ought to thunder in the ear of every ungodly reader.
How can I expound such a promise as this? It is simple and clear as light. It needs not so much exposition, as belief and application. It is not the promise of one blessing—but of all. It does not so much say what God will do—as declare that there is nothing which he will not do. The Lord God is a sun and shield; no good thing will he withhold from those who walk uprightly. In these words he offers not simply his gifts—but himself. Whatever there is in God of help and comfort, is herein made over to the believer, through Christ Jesus; for he says, I will never leave you nor forsake you. It contains provision for body and for soul, in life, in death, and in eternity. It covers every instance, addresses itself to every circumstance, and meets every emergency. Resting on the veracity of Jehovah, it needs no proof. Rising beyond all qualification and exception, it requires no elaborate comment. But it does require to be illustrated and amplified, so that it may be seen to apply to our several cases.
As originally urged, it was addressed to those early Christians who were in worldly straits. "Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have." To the Church, Christ says, "The poor you have always with you." In primitive days, a large proportion both of preachers and hearers were literally poor. To the poor the gospel is preached. God has chosen the poor rich in faith. It has been so in all ages; it is so at the present time. Some who read this at once make the case their own. At those seasons of the year, when careful people look into their affairs, balance their books, take account of their stock, and provide for their liabilities, there are many whose hearts fail them. The future is very dark in respect to their daily bread. Such cases are not beneath the notice of Him who feeds the young ravens; they should not be neglected by the Christian disciple. Let such rejoice to know that their accounts are audited in heaven. As their cry is, "Give us this day our daily bread," so the answer is, "Your bread shall be given you, and your water shall be sure." Cast all your care upon him, for he cares for you, and gives you this as the primary and literal meaning of the promise, "I will never leave you nor forsake you."
But the supply of food and raiment is not the only temporal blessing which a believer may want. Other things there are, connected with health and illness, cheerfulness of temper, place of abode, safety by land and sea, treatment by friends, neighbors, or enemies, social relations, connections in life, among parents, children, husband and wife, master and servant, education, learning, good name among men, strength for labor; in a word, all the lights and shadows of our common journey; all these awaken our solicitude; and in regard to all, our only security is in having God with us. This he graciously promises. It is our part to lay hold on this immutable word. It has been the support of thousands—it is strong enough to be ours.
Mark well the nature and extent of the promise—God does not say you shall have no afflictions, or that you shall never fear, or that his presence shall never be doubted. Indeed, in other places, he says the very reverse. "In the world you shall have tribulation—but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." Ah, brethren, we are sometimes brought into perils, where we need a new, special, and divine application of the promise to our hearts, or we sink into despair. The trial seems unlike all we ever had before, and all that others have endured. The enemy whispers, "There is no help for him in God." The sun of your common day has set in clouds. The stars of your common night are hidden. The wind howls tempestuously, and the sea is chafed into deadly fury. Your helm is broken, your sail rent, and your bark all but sunk. The only light is the appalling flash, and perdition opens its chasm to swallow you up. I specify not the sort of affliction—your own heart will tell you that; and it makes no difference here.
One in ancient times, in such a case, could say, "For you had cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about; all your billows and your waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of your sight; yet will I look again toward your holy temple." The thought of God in such moments affords the only hope. And it is heard, above all the commotion of the elements, saying, "It is I, be not afraid!" God does not forsake his people in their extremities; if he would do so, all would be despair. As if to prepare them for extraordinary encounters, he often throws his promise into a form which indicates great and sore trial; thus showing us that no one is to be dismayed, or to doubt his loving-kindness, because danger is great and imminent.
It is not said, You shall never be in pestilence; but it is said, "A thousand shall fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand—but it shall not come near you!" It is not said, You shall never go through fire and flood; but it is said, "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through rivers, they shall not overflow you." You may not promise yourself that you shall never be an orphan; but you may declare assuredly, "When my father and mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up," that is, he will never leave me, nor forsake me.
The promise before us fully justifies the persuasion that there is no variety of circumstance, no stage of life, no peculiarity of temporal distress in which the believer may not count on God's presence, protection, aid, deliverance, and comfort. And a believing view of this will give our religion such a cast, that it will be our habit of soul to rejoice in God himself, rather than in his gifts. Still the song will arise—"Though the fig tree does not bud and there is no fruit on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will triumph in the Lord; I will rejoice in the God of my salvation!"
That God does not forsake his people is a foundation-truth of true religion, established by the history of all saints, in Scripture, and in the history of the Church. Innumerable are the instances in which their greatest extremity has been the juncture of his gracious interposition. So it was with Abraham, when his hand was stretched out over the son of promise, in his greatest earthly trial; and ever since the name of the place has been a holy watchword, Jehovah-Jireh—"In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen." If this presence had a single moment of intermission, that might be the moment of ruin; but "I will never, never leave you." The presence and the power are unintermitted and perpetual, reaching to the smallest cares as well as to the greatest terrors. "Such honor have all his saints." And this is the grand consolation of life.
But this promise has a bearing, yet more important, on our SPIRITUAL life. We need not wonder that God should continue to stand by the new creature in all its emergencies. His plan is not to be disappointed; nor does he lay hold of a resisting rebel, and subdue and transform him, in order to be baffled by the adversary. If we had nothing stronger than the persistency of human will to depend upon, our reliance would be on the weakest of all causes. One moment of caprice or carelessness might ruin the soul forever. But grace is determined to complete what it has begun, and to perform the good work unto the day of redemption. The whole church is given to Christ in covenant, and every individual believer has his share in the blessed security. Looking at the internal strength of the church, we may say it is endangered; but looking at the covenant, it is safe. "In that day sing you unto her, A vineyard of red wine. I the Lord do keep it; I will water it every moment—lest any hurt it, I will keep it night and day."
God's honor is concerned to bring the disciple through, in spite of all enemies. This is felt in time of temptation, when the sound of unearthly armies marshalling around us is heard on every side; "for we wrestle not against flesh and blood—but against principalities, against powers against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." Let God forsake us but an instant when thus beleaguered, and we would be torn to pieces by the fiery talons of a thousand hellish destroyers. But still the voice is, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." What else saved Peter in the hour of darkness? "I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not!" Precious words, which are applicable to all of us in our times of temptation! "The devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour;" and all the fold would be a desolation were it not for the good Shepherd, who knows his sheep, and is known by them. The more deeply we drink of gospel grace, the more shall we value this assurance of God's never-ceasing help, as knowing that we are not sufficient of ourselves so much as to think a good thought; but that all our sufficiency is of God.
There are moments of despondency in which the believer is ready to take up David's lamentation and cry, "I shall one day perish by the hand of Saul." But the promise gleams forth among the stars of heaven, and he rejoices in the sure mercies of David. It is wonderful how Scripture makes provision even for these moods of weakness and distrust in his people. Out of the clouds and darkness, the well-known voice is heard, saying, "For a small moment have I forsaken you—but with great mercies will I gather you. In a little wrath I hid my face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on you, says the Lord your Redeemer. For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from you, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, says the Lord, who has mercy on you."
It is this covenant which still remains as the foundation of confidence. Yet the individual believer may take up the language of Zion in the hours of desertion—"The Lord has forsaken me, and my Lord has forgotten me! Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yes, they may forget, yet will I not forget you."
Come what will, God's mercies cannot fail, nor his presence be removed. Even sin, his abhorrence, and our greatest enemy, shall not be allowed to break the hallowed alliance. This is a delicate point in Christian experience, and one which requires to be treated with caution. It is no part of the covenant, that the believer may live as he wishes—and yet have God's favor; that he may continue in sin, that grace may abound; that God does not hate and chastise his sins; or that he may walk in ungodliness, and yet persevere. This were to assert contradiction, absurdity, and impossibility. "Sin shall not have dominion over you." "This is the will of God, even your sanctification." To be left in sin is to be forever forsaken of God. It is to secure your deliverance from sin, that he says, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." Indwelling corruption may rear its head, and sometimes threaten to prevail—but the presence of the Holy Spirit, working repentance and faith in the soul, will crush the monster. God is perpetually carrying on a hidden but mighty process to this very intent; and there is no aspect of the promise which is more acceptable to the true disciple, who, having these promises, is induced to lay aside all filthiness of flesh and spirit, and to perfect holiness in the fear of God. Though the Master may leave the gold in the furnace, he does not abandon it. The flames may rage—but they are only consuming the dross; and at length the refulgent mass issues from the glowing heat fit for the use of its Lord.
There are junctures in the soul's history when there is a combination of enemies, and when God seems departing. External affliction presses in unexpected forms; to increase the anguish, Satan and his angels assault the soul with manifold temptations; and to complete the calamity, treachery is found within, and the will begins to yield consent to evil. Job was in such case, as was also David. But he that is with us is mightier than those who are against us. The conflict would be fatal if God now were to depart; but he abides. It is agreeable to his covenant so to do. How insufficient would the favor be if he were to cling to us in our outward distress, and leave us to ourselves in the infinitely greater hazard of spiritual assault! Such is not the manner of his grace. In the present endurance of such evils, and in the expectation of those that are future, we are authorized to assure ourselves, that he will never leave us nor forsake us. "There has no temptation taken you but such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above that you are able; but will with temptation also make a way to escape, that you may be able to bear it."
My fellow-Christians, in looking forward towards infirmity, old age, and the decline of life, you have sometimes sunk in spirit, and feared lest the stock of strength which you now possess might not be sufficient for that sad and disheartening part of the pilgrimage. To clear away such doubts, you need only hearken to the paternal voice, which says, "Even to old age, I am He, and to hoary hairs will I carry you;" that is, "I am he whose promise has been given, I will never leave you, nor forsake you." Combine in your imagination all the forces of outward distress, poverty, weakness, pain, desertion, and despondency; all the temptations of a cruel and experienced foe; all the surviving evils of your own partially sanctified nature—all shall prove unable to break the covenant. And as you go down the harsh descent into the last valley, though fears may be in the way, you shall still say, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us!"
And then, in that dreaded trial which awaits us all, what is our assurance for the death bed—but this same declaration of God's gracious purpose? Can we rely on any powers of which we are now conscious for the conflict with the last enemy? Thanks be unto God, he has not left us to so feeble a source. If there is on earth a spot where his covenant mercies are especially shown, it is the dying chamber. There, when friends have fallen back, because they cannot help; when earthly sights have failed before the glassy eye; when earthly sounds, even of devotion and love, have ceased to reach the ear; when the soul, almost free from a body that is cold and stiffening, almost reduced to that nakedness and loneliness with which it is to explore the unknown future, is already forsaken of all that is created—a gentle, well-remembered whisper is saying to the inward sense, "I will never, never leave you—I will never, never, never forsake you." And the accomplishment of all is just at the door; for when the last breath is gone, and the silence around is broken by sudden wailing and preparations for the tomb, that spirit, nearer to God than ever before, is enrapt forever in the embrace of love, no more to fear, to sorrow, or to sin. O you who have no God, and who know you are afraid to die, it is worth your instant labor and importunate prayer; it is worth toils and sufferings of a lifetime to be prepared for such a departure.
This, indeed, is vast and glorious—but is this all? Does God conduct his beloved child to the gate of bliss, and then cancel his promise, and abandon it? O no! All that precedes is but a single momentary breath before a lifetime. We have arrived at the true birth of the soul. Now it emerges into tracts of endless expansion, where there is no danger, because there is no evil. Perfect holiness is perfect bliss, and both are increasing forever. Now the union of the soul with God, often sighed for, is consummated; and so shall they "be ever with the Lord." Such is the value, my brethren, of the truth here revealed, that God engages to be with the believer, for all needful good, now, henceforth, and forever.
It would not be difficult to show the consolatory bearing of this sacred truth on some particular cases of trial which are common among God's suffering people. For example, these pages may fall under the notice of one who has been bereaved of the guide of her youth, and is left to pursue, in solitary weakness, that part of the journey in which the support of a loving friend is most needed. The support has been removed from the sinking frame. The best, and nearest, and most sympathizing counselor is removed. He upon whom the great burden of responsibility was so constantly devolved that it was scarcely felt, is no longer present. That heart, which of all others had most forbearance and compassion for her weaknesses and sorrows, no more beats on earth. To this may be added, in some cases, the pressure of poverty, the failure of health, and the infirmity of old age. It is not to be denied that this is a moment of unusual affliction. But God has not left it without promise; since he has named himself the "Judge of the widows." He will plead their cause; he will never leave them nor forsake them. However desolate in regard to human prospects, the widowed heart may confidently throw itself upon the tender mercies of him who is at once Maker and Husband. A thousand testimonies might be adduced, if departed saints could speak, of God's faithfulness in this very relation, to daughters of afflictions who have fled to him for support, and have been sustained and cheered throughout the days of forlorn and otherwise hopeless pilgrimage.
In general, it may be asserted, that the gospel covenant secures to us the presence and support of God, for all the future. Let no moody clouds obscure this prospect, nor any temporary adversities discourage us from hoping boldly in our all-sufficient Helper. The worst that shall ever befall us, if we are within the pale of his grace, shall be so ordered in time and measure, as only more distinctly to show that his purposes are full of mercy. Let go this confidence for a moment, and we become wretched indeed. But it is not to be omitted, that God not only gives this promise—but causes his servants to believe it. Without this the word of assurance, however certain of fulfillment, would for the time being be a dead letter. And the suffering soul is sometimes allowed to reach the very brink of such a despondency. But he who works in us both to will and do of his good pleasure, utters the word of promise, opens the wistful ear of woe, pours in the grace of faith, irradiates the soul's chamber with the light of hope, and lifts up the head that was hanging down in apprehension. Then it is, that amidst the reverberation of the tempest, Christ's own voice is heard, giving peace and assurance. From which we learn the value of faith, as an instrument of consolation.
Preparation for trials yet to come is a principal part of Christian prudence. It is too late to make ready the safeguards of the vessel, when the storm has begun to rage. He who is wise will bethink him of the hour of darkness, long before its arrival. He will store his mind with provision of truth from the word of inspiration; above all, with promises adapted to each emergency of this changeful life. He will, in ways already indicated, seek to make his calling and election sure; lest in the time of peril he be plunged into doubt respecting his own acceptance, and thus into an incapacity of receiving comfort from the most explicit promises of the Scripture. And he will, by repeated acts of faith, acquire such a habit of mind as shall not be shaken from its moorings when winds prevail upon the sea. It is therefore earnestly to be pressed upon the consideration of all professing Christians, that their support in affliction will bear proportion to their vigilance and holiness in ordinary times. All observation of religious experience tends to verify this remark.
None are so immediately prostrated by a great distress, none so prone to exclaim that God has forsaken them, as those who have been conformed to the world, and have lived as if God were not their portion. Melancholy indeed is the case of that servant of Christ, who is surprised by some desolating stroke, at the very time, when, backsliding and carnal, he is in full pursuit of earthly idols. Even him, supposing that he is a child of the kingdom, God will not forsake. But fearful must be the paroxysms of fear and compunction, through which his way of return will lie to the confident reliance of the heavenly word. Whereas, he who walks humbly with his God, delights in him, communes with him, and enjoys him, as the daily tenor of his life, sees the night of adversity darkening around him without consternation. His apprehensions of God's nature and providence, his relation to Christ as his covenant head and ever present advocate, and his certainty that no jot or tittle of promise shall remain unfulfilled—avail to lift his head, when the tumultuous waves run highest. In these shakings of the earth and sea he does not behold the tokens of a departing God. On the contrary, he can sing with the psalmist, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea—though the waters thereof roar and be troubled though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof." Psalm 46:1-3.