Better than a Mother!
Archibald G. Brown, Stepney Green Tabernacle
"Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you!" Isaiah 49:15
The almost infinite variety of Scripture is one cause for its ever-varying charm.
Every experience, and every shade of every experience, finds its representation in this blessed Book. There is something for all — and something to suit all. There is some sweet portion that is certain to dovetail into the most singular experiences of God's most peculiar people. The desires and emotions of the heart, too great for utterance, find their expression here; and the most anxious questionings of the soul find their answers in its pages. We can turn to it and hear said for us what we wanted to say — but could not describe in our own language; and hear what we desired to hear — but which could not be heard elsewhere.
Is the soul full to overflowing with joy? Does divine mercy seem so great that the spirit in vain tries language to express its bliss? Does it have to say, with good old John Berridge:
"Then my tongue would gladly express
All Christ's love and loveliness;
But I lisp and falter forth,
Broken words not half His worth."
Then turning to the pages of this Book, the soul finds its song already written and set to sweetest melody, and it sings, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits."
On the other hand, is the experience the very reverse of this happy one? Does depression and sorrow unnerve the man, and does he with tears try and think of some strong cordial for his fainting soul? He finds his experience photographed, and the cordial mentioned in the inspiring words of the same psalmist, "Why are you cast down, O my soul? Hope in God! For I shall yet praise him who is the health of my countenance, and my God!" Psalm 42.5
The same is true if his experience is one of care. Restless he walks, trying in vain to escape the burden that breaks at the same time his spirit and his back — he finds he may as well run from his own shadow. Now he stops in his restless efforts after self-release, and begins to sink into the idleness of despair. Yet is there no relief. His face may appear with a deceptive calm — but eating into his very vitals, and hurrying him to an early grave, is that cancer of concealed care. As a last hope — and it should have been his first — he turns to the Book of God, to see if there is anything there that can meet so desperate a case as his. With what a revulsion of his former feeling he reads, "Cast your burden upon the Lord, and He shall sustain you," Psalm 55.22. Or "Casting all your care on Him, for He cares for you." 1 Peter 5.7. More precious than ever the book becomes; it was his dove with the olive branch amid the deluge of his griefs.
But I can imagine one of you saying, "My trouble is not from things without — but from a dark and hideous thought within. The thought is this: My Lord has forsaken me, and my Lord has forgotten me. His former mercies appear brightest by their contrast to my present gloom. His loving-kindness seems to have departed from me, and I fear I am like a dead man, forgotten and out of sight. Is there a passage that will suit my case, and re-assure me of his love and kind remembrance?"
There is! You will find it in this morning's text, and if it but comes home to your heart as it has to the speaker's, you will bless God for it, and find a solace and a joy unutterable. The verse breathes divine sympathy and it beams with unchanging love. In it we have stretching out before us a green pasture of richest food, through which there flows the sweetest water of quietness. May Jehovah-Jesus, the great shepherd of his sheep, now place himself at our head, and lead us to the spots where the sweetest pastures grow, and deepest waters flow. May he now make his flock to rest at noon, and with his presence shadow the weakest of his sheep.
The text itself is all that can be desired. There is music in every word, and a heavenly fragrance in every sentence. It is an alabaster box full of the most precious ointment for wounded spirits. May the Holy Spirit break it open, and fill this house this morning with its refreshing fragrance.
There are in the verse two things that will form our divisions.
First you have almost an impossibility for a mother to forget her child.
Secondly you have an utter impossibility for the Lord to forget his people. Our subject is, you will perceive, the superiority of an "utter" impossibility, over an "almost" impossibility. Let us get then to the subject.
I. Almost an Impossibility."Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne?" If it is not an impossibility for a woman to forget her nursing child — it is certainly next door to one. The Lord could not have obtained any higher earthly illustration of his tenderness and love.
In order to show it, you will see the Lord has pressed into his service a variety of words, all serving to increase the beauty of the simile. There are many little touches in the description that call for our special notice as they all give an extra intensity to God's own picture of his tenderness.
We will commence at the first word "mother." What thoughtfulness is displayed here, and what condescension. God who made the heart of woman as well as man, knows that there is a tenderness in her disposition exceeding that of man's; and therefore he chooses the highest type to illustrate His sympathy.
If for a moment or two we dwell upon the tender pity that characterizes woman — it is but to open up more fully the beauty of the comparison. We would reveal the height of the type, in order that the full significance of the God-chosen illustration may be beheld.
That there is in woman a tenderness of heart and a susceptibility to others' sorrows exceeding that found in man, none of us who have wives can doubt. Some unknown stranger perhaps comes to our house (with some of us this takes place nearly every day) and pours into our ears a long, long, tale of misery, poverty, and wretchedness — sick children, pawned clothes, and back rent. We hear the tale respectfully — but without any great emotion, for the simple reason that we have been 'taken in' so many times before, and have so strong an impression that this is but a similar imposture — that the heart is hardened.
We are about to utter the final denial to all his requests, when the wife comes in; she hears with tears the tale that left our heart unmoved. The sick children awaken all the woman's sympathies, and the stranger leaves rejoicing in the fortune that gave him a woman's ear into which to plead his cause. Very likely she was deceived, and you tell her so; but with a smile she answers, "Let it be so; better give to nine bad cases, and one good one — than let the one suffer for the sake of the nine. Besides, think of those little ones. Can we let them starve, when our own have everything?"
What can you say to such logic? Why nothing. You may remain unconvinced — but you would not have her womanly tenderness of heart abated for the world.
I have been much surprised with the manifestation of this dominant feeling of womanhood in conversation about the horrible war now raging. Listen to a number of men as in some railway carriage they try and pass the time with talk. What is the staple subject? They discuss the comparative merits of the generals, and the superiority or otherwise of the various weapons of destruction. The strategic positions are explained; the bloody conflicts of the day are discussed with gusto, if with horror. Strong expressions are employed, and stern measures described. The pomps and pageantry of war seem in a measure to veil its sorrows.
Now listen to a number of ladies conversing about the same war. What is the chief theme? You hear but little of the generals, weapons or strategy; their subject is the widows and orphans left, the homes made desolate and the hearts broken; the wounded in the hospitals, and the best way to care for them, or send support to them. The woman's heart instinctively dwells upon the sorrowing and suffering side of the picture, rather than on the military glory.
So it should be; the sphere of pain and grief is the sphere in which she shines the most. The abodes of sorrow and the wards of a hospital, are where her powers know no rival. Hers is the hand to smooth the pillow, give the medicine, and gently change the bandages — while at the same time, with words as delicate as her touch, she strives to heal the wounded spirit. Works of mercy are her mission, and in their performance the whole attributes of her character are seen delighting themselves in their natural element.
Behold then the beauty of the simile. God, longing to convey to His people's doubting heart some faint idea of His own matchless tenderness, selects as His illustration the compassionate heart of a woman. What a lesson this reads to some. What a rebuke it gives to those who seem to imagine that the one thing they have to veil as a thing of shame, is a soft place in the heart.
Have we not all met some who seemed to imagine that the only way to be manly, was to be harsh; and the only proof of manhood, was an utter lack of tenderness of character? Men who consider sympathy a proof of "softness," and delicacy of feeling a weakness of the head — men who sneeringly term anything that displays a heart less hard than a stone wall, "womanish." It would be a good thing for many men if they were more womanish than they are — if to be womanish means to have a heart open to the cares and sorrows of others, and a disposition that finds its joys in efforts to lighten the burden. If there are such "manly men" present, let them blush as they hear the God of Heaven and earth describing His own affections by the heart of a woman.
But the illustration goes higher. It is not merely the tenderness of the woman — but the tenderness of the woman who is a mother. God not only employs the highest type — but the highest specimen of that type. Mother! Mother! Mother! What associations of loving tenderness are in the very name, Mother! The word touches a secret spring in the heart, and conjures back scenes of the past. It brings to view in the dim distance, a sweet face that used to bend over our little cot at eventide, and impress a kiss upon our brow. It reminds us of one who used to smile when we were happy — and weep when obliged to correct us. It calls to remembrance one who always seemed interested in our little tales of adventure, and never laughed at our little sorrows that seemed so large to us. Mother! It was her face we gazed last upon, when we went away to school. And it was into her arms that we first rushed, when the holidays brought us home.
Mother! It was the thought of her that held us back with unseen silken cords, from sin. And when those dark locks of hers became silvered with advancing age, we only thought an extra charm had crowned her brow.
With many present that mother has long since fallen asleep in her Savior's arms — but you did not forget the love that was as strong as death, and escaped from her dying lips in words you treasure to this day. Forget? No! Her name still has a magic power, and the tears I see rolling down so many cheeks this morning are eloquent in their language. They declare that at least one word has neither lost its music or its charm, and that one word is mother.
I think I cannot better show the hold the memory has of a mother upon a man, than by quoting the words of Archibald Thompson. He says, "Mother!! How many delightful associations cluster around that word. When my heart aches at the world's wickedness, and my limbs are weary, and my feet bloody, traveling the thorny path of life--I am accustomed to sit down on some mossy stone, and closing my eyes on real scenes, to send my thoughts back to the days of early life--and in all these reminiscences, my mother arises. If I seat myself upon my cushion, it is at her side; if I sing, it is to her ears; if I walk the meadows, my little hand is in my mother's, and my little feet keep company with hers; if I stand and listen to the piano, it is because my mother's fingers touch the keys; if I survey the wonders of creation, it is my mother who points out the object of my admiring attention. There is . . .
no velvet so soft as a mother's lap,
no rose so lovely as her smile,
no path so flowery as that imprinted with her footsteps."
Thus he wrote testifying to the unbroken spell of a mother's affection. Thousands could bear the same testimony, though perhaps in less graceful language. It was but the other evening I read in one of the daily papers a touching anecdote bearing upon our subject. After one of the recent battles, a German soldier was seen supporting himself by grasping the top of a stone wall. The poor fellow had been shot through the body, and his life blood was pouring from him fast. A fellow soldier coming to him said, "Well comrade, is there anything I can do for you." "Yes," answered the dying man, "write to this address." "Willingly," said the friend, "but what shall I say." "Say, 'Dear mother'" — but while he uttered that last word, his hand relaxed its hold, and he sank, a corpse, into a pool of gore!
A short letter that was — but how full of pathos. Amid death and dying, with life fast ebbing, the thought that lingered longest with the soldier was his mother.
There is one feature in a mother's love that must be mentioned, as it constitutes, I think, the chief beauty of the type. Her love is not a love drawn forth by prosperity, or dispelled by adversity. She loves her son not because of what he has — but because of what he is. He is her boy, and in that statement, you have the secret of her love. Many present either have or have had butterfly friends. When successful, they are so numerous it is difficult to count them. But when adversity sets in, it is even more difficult to reckon them, only from a different cause — they have all vanished.
But amidst changing scenes, and consequently changing friends, who is it that has remained the same, or rather who is it whose tenderness has seemed to increase with your trials? Why, your mother! Your prosperity never had anything to do with her affection, so its loss cannot alter her feelings towards you. To whom would any of us go to tell our troubles, when through adverse circumstances we had been pushed back and back and back, until we were driven right against the wall? Why, to our mother. We need not fear to tell her the very worst. All she will think of is that the one against the wall is her own boy, and to desert him in his trial will never once enter her thoughts. O matchless, unselfish, undying love — love uninfluenced by any circumstance! Where can we find your equal? Nowhere but in Him who has stooped to make this love the illustration of His own.
Thus you will see God uses the sympathy of the woman, and that woman a mother, to reassure His people of His own unalterable affection.
There is yet one other delicate touch in the picture which gives to it the perfection of beauty. The tenderness described is not only that of a woman, or even that of a mother — but of a mother towards her nursing child. This crowns the description, and should drive away the last remnant of unbelief. Think for a moment of the conclusiveness of the argument.
I can imagine a mother sometimes forgetting her grownup son, who has long since attained the age of manhood, and is himself the head of a family. I can believe that the daughter married into some other family and well provided for — is not always in the thoughts of her mother. But it is almost impossible to conceive the nursing child is forgotten for a moment. Its very life is dependent on the mother's thoughtfulness, and its utter helplessness becomes its security. Yes, she could not forget it even if she desired; nature itself would become a sharp reminder, and her own pain would plead her infant's cause. Forget a nursing child? The cries of the little one would be sufficient to awaken the sleeping memory.
Behold, dear friends, how God has strengthened his illustration by every possible means. Not a circumstance that could give force to the argument has been omitted. Beginning high with the tenderness of a woman, he ascends step by step to the climax of a mother's love for her infant at the breast.
Then comes the question "Can she forget?" There is a moment's pause, and the answer is heard, "she may." Yes, improbable though it is, it is not impossible — although almost an impossibility, it still fails to reach an utter impossibility. Mothers may forget their nursing children. They can do so in two ways, either literally, or by acting as if they had.
Let us take the last mentioned way first. Sometimes as if to afford an awful illustration of the complete depravity of the human race, there comes a revelation that shocks society — such a one as just took place at Brixton. We read of infants sold like lambs; and while we read, we find ourselves mistaking the word mother, and reading it monster.
The workhouses can bear the same testimony. The little foundlings picked up by the watchmen off the steps, cry in their piteous tones, "They may forget!" It is a sad truth — but still a truth, that exceptions are found even in maternal love. Note this dark side of the picture, "They may forget," and do that literally.
In yonder room there lies a mother, burnt up and parched with fever. For a season her mind wanders, and in her delirium she talks the wildest nonsense; her children's voices are heard by others in the adjoining room — but she does not notice them. Though the tenderest and most thoughtful of mothers in health, she has now forgotten all, and the cry of the infant fails to arrest her attention. Thus you see in the golden chain of a mother's memory there may be a false link that will snap in the strain.
In the almost universal beauty of the mother's love there are dark blots and black exceptions. The almost impossibility breaks down in the trial. Sin and sickness both declare the woman can forget her nursing child, and fail to have compassion on the son of her womb.
Thus much for the first point, on which I have dwelt longer than I at first intended. Let us turn to the second, and behold —
II. An Utter Impossibility.The true magnitude of an object can only be understood by comparison, and it is by contrast that the mind grasps the reality.
It is only in this way, that the grand proportions of the mountain range can be perceived. Their very hugeness serves but to deceive the eye, and diminish in appearance their stupendous height. In order to realize the altitude of that topmost peak, you must view the successive tiers of hill-tops that it overlooks. The first of these would make the highest building but a molehill in comparison — but look, there are three, four, yes five other summits rising like giant steps, and still towering far aloft. And looking down upon the highest of them in disdain, the snow-crowned peak erects its head. It is only now the dizzy height is understood.
Just so it is in our text. We have been directing your attention to the different ranges of a woman's and a mother's love, in order that in some measure you might understand the height of God's love. As we stood at the foot of the hill and gazed upon the summit of a mother's tenderness towards her nursing child, we were ready to exclaim, "can anything overtop this?" Yes, for look yonder — rising like an Alpine — or rather like a peak of the Himalayas, and dwarfing into insignificance every other hill and mountain top — there stands the eternal love of Jehovah to His people, the apex of which is high as Heaven's eternal throne. These lower ranges may be scaled and measured — but this never! "God only knows the love of God." Its height and depth, its length and breadth, defy all measurement!
"They may forget, YET," and it is this word yet that shoots aloft beyond all human sight, "I will not forget you."
I will now give just a few reasons that make forgetfulness on the part of God an utter impossibility. I will give them to you in outline, and leave filling in the detail to private meditation.
1. His NATURE forbids it. We have already shown you that the secret of a mother's love, is her being a mother. A mother's nature must love — but her nature, like the nature of all, is depraved; and the best of human love is but human love at best. However high her love may reach, it can never reach perfection because her nature lacks perfection — the stream can never flow higher than the fountain.
But with God it is the reverse. In Him you have infinite perfection — and the stream rises to the fountain. "God is love!" Who can fathom that declaration? Who can understand it in all its fullness? God is not only 'loving' — poor mortals can be loving; but God is love! — love itself.
Now if imperfect love renders the forgetfulness of the child almost an impossibility, then how complete the impossibility must be when that love is the love of one who is love.
2. His PROMISES forbid it. There is one thing that even God cannot do — He cannot lie. Now if He were to forget a child of His, some of the most precious promises of the Word would be violated and become mere waste. Listen but to some of them:
"The mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed — but my kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall the covenant of my peace be removed, says the Lord that has mercy on you." Isaiah 54.10.
"I will betroth you to me forever; yes, I will betroth you to me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving kindness; and in mercies." Hos 2.19
"The Lord will not cast off his people, nor will he forsake his inheritance."
"Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world." Mat 28.20
These and a hundred other like precious promises all declare it is impossible for God to forget His people.
3. The TRAVAIL OF THE REDEEMER'S SOUL is alone a sufficient argument, that those for whom it was endured — shall be remembered. Men do not forget that which cost them much; but what was ever procured at so dreadful a price as "the church which he has purchased with His blood"? Acts 20.28
Gethsemane's horror of darkness and cup of agony,
Pilate's hall and bloody scourging,
Calvary's cross and shameful death
— these all have too deeply engraved upon His heart and memory, the names of those for whom he suffered, to allow them to ever become forgotten.
4. His HONOR renders it an utter impossibility. If a man is worthy of the name, there is something that he values more than wealth, position or anything beside; something before losing which, he would rather part with all. I mean his honor. Shall man be careful to his honor — and God indifferent to His honor? Never! For our God is "a jealous God!" The rolls of the chosen and the glorified must agree. If one redeemed soul, through its Redeemer's forgetfulness, were to find its way to Hell, the infernal region would have its laugh at Heaven's expense! That shall never be.
"His honor is engaged to save
The poorest of His sheep;
All that His heavenly Father gave,
His hands securely keep.
Nor death nor Hell shall e'er remove
His favorites from his breast;
In the dear bosom of His love,
They must forever rest!"
Cheer up then, every poor disconsolate heart. God remembers you. Listen yet again to His words: "Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you!" Isaiah 49:15