Francis Bourdillon, 1864
The Father's Chastening
"And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: 'My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you — because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.'
Endure hardship as discipline — God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while, as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees."
We are apt to forget — just when we ought most to remember. While all is well with us — then we can take a right view of trial; but when the trial comes, this is not so easy. At such a time, pain and grief seem often to swallow up all other feelings — and the sense of God's love and mercy is lost.
We are reminded here who it is that sends trouble, and why He sends it. It comes from God — as a fatherly chastisement. It is not mere purposeless trouble — it is trouble sent with an object; and that object is our good. It is "the Lord's discipline." When God thus chastens us — He deals with us as His children. If He did not chasten us — we would be without one proof that we are His children. For as every wise earthly parent disciplines his child when necessary, so does our Heavenly Father discipline those whom He loves and scourges every son whom He receives. Unbroken prosperity, with no check or drawback, is no proof of God's favor.
But our Heavenly Father is not like an earthly parent. He is . . .
wiser than the wisest,
kinder than the kindest,
better than the best!
When we were children, we were disciplined by our parents, and we submitted to their discipline. Yet perhaps they were not always perfectly right in what they did to us. They might sometimes be mistaken in their judgment, or misled by anger. They might occasionally punish us more from feeling angry with us — than from a calm and loving desire for our good. If we submitted to them thus, and rightly too — then how much more should we meekly submit to our Heavenly Father when He chastises us! He . . .
never chastises us amiss,
never fails to love us, and
never afflicts us but in wisdom and kindness.
He knows exactly what kind and what measure of discipline we need — and deals with us accordingly.
A weak, though loving, earthly parent might spare for his child's crying — but our heavenly Father is too wise and too faithful to do so.
One earthly parent more firm in character, but lacking in tenderness — might deal too harshly or continue the punishment too long — but our heavenly Father loves too well for that. In perfect wisdom and perfect love, with unfaltering firmness, yet with tenderest compassion — our Father in Heaven disciplines His children.
Let us not despise His discipline. Let us not make light of it, thinking much perhaps of the affliction itself — but little of Him who sends it. Let us not harden their hearts against it, or refuse to see His hand in it, or look upon it only as a misfortune that has befallen us. Let us receive it as His discipline — in meekness, prayer, and faith.
Let us not faint, when disciplined by Him. Let not our spirit fail. Let us not despond. It is He who is dealing with us. He will not let the discipline be too sharp — or the trial too heavy or too long. He will send with it comfort, grace, and support. Even while smiting — He will heal. Even in the act of rebuking and chastising — He will show some tokens of His mercy and love.
Yet we cannot love the sore trial for its own sake. Pain, sickness and loss are not good in themselves. We must feel them to be afflictions. "No chastening for the present seems to be joyous, but grievous." It could not answer its purpose, if it were otherwise. There must be pain — that there may be profit. And the very trial that will try us most — our Father will appoint for us; another's trial would do us no good.
But we are to look beyond the present. "Nevertheless afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto those who are exercised thereby." When the pain is over — then the benefit will remain. When the chastening hand is withdrawn — then the blessing of its touch will still be felt. This will be the case with all sanctified affliction — and we are to strive to realize it, even while the affliction is upon us.
Can we not trust our Father? Can we not feel sure that all will be well — because He Himself is dealing with us? In our prosperity, we have often prayed that He would order all our concerns and guide us and bless us and send us all that should be for our good. And what is He doing now, in this time of affliction? Just answering our prayers and doing what we besought Him to do! Shall we complain because He is answering us in a way which we did not expect? Did we not beg Him to deal with us in His own wise way? Did we not often acknowledge our own ignorance and blindness? Let us believe that He heard us — and is answering us. Let us accept His answer, His dealing, His chastisement — in humble faith, nay with thankfulness to Him for His goodness.
Is this hard? His grace is sufficient for us. He can bring us even to this, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!" Even an apostle could do nothing without Him.
Look within. Examine your heart and life. See if you can find no cause for this discipline . . .
no fault that needed correction,
no evil habit,
no love of the world,
no pride or carelessness or self-indulgence.
Humble yourself before God and ask Him, by His Holy Spirit, to give you a deeper knowledge of yourself, and to bring you to true contrition of heart. And pray that you may be enabled more to look to God as your father in Christ Jesus — and to realize that you are His child.
"My son!" says the Lord by His apostle. Strive to take to yourself the comfort of that title — and to hear God speaking to you as His child. "Whom the Lord loves, He disciplines." Try to believe that He loves you — and therefore chastises you.
Put away all hard thoughts of God. Have only humble, submissive, trustful, loving thoughts. Think of your Father as near to you now, as dealing with you in a special way — and cast yourself upon His mercy and love in Christ Jesus.
Then, "the peaceable fruits of righteousness" will surely follow; and even now much quiet peace, the peace of God, will be given in the midst of trouble!
The Appeal of the Upright
Judge me, O Lord; for I have walked in my integrity. I have trusted also in the Lord; therefore I shall not slip. Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my mind and my heart. For Your loving-kindness is before my eyes, and I have walked in Your truth. I have not sat with vain persons, neither will I go in with hypocrites. I have hated the congregation of evil-doers and will not sit with the wicked. I will wash my hands in innocence, so will I go about Your altar, O Lord, that I may publish with the voice of thanksgiving and tell of all Your wondrous works. Lord, I have loved the habitation of Your house and the place where Your honor dwells. Gather not my soul with sinners, nor my life with bloody men in whose hands is mischief, and their right hand is full of bribes. But as for me, I will walk in my integrity; redeem me and be merciful unto me. My foot stands in an even place; in the congregations will I bless the Lord.
Was David, then, a self-righteous man? Did he pride himself on his own goodness? Never! In many of his other psalms we see most fully his deep humility — and even here we find words that show plainly that his trust was not in himself: "I have trusted also in the Lord; therefore I shall not slip"; and again, "Redeem me and be merciful unto me." Yet we certainly do find in this psalm a kind of justifying of himself, an appeal to God that he had walked with integrity and had not been like the wicked. How are we to understand this?
He had many enemies, wicked men — enemies to God, as well as to him; and these enemies are evidently here in his mind. They had spoken much against him and had laid to his charge many things of which he was innocent. In his thoughts and prayers he appeals to God against them: "Judge me, O Lord; for I have walked in my integrity. . . . Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my mind and my heart. For Your loving-kindness is before my eyes, and I have walked in Your truth." Thus he appeals from the judgment of men — to the judgment of God. His enemies accused him falsely. He lays his cause before the Searcher of hearts.
But does he venture to make this appeal as if he were pure in God's sight and free from sin? Not so. He speaks throughout as one in need of mercy. However free he might be from those crimes of which his enemies accused him — yet he knew himself to be a sinner in the sight of God. We all are. None can approach God in any other character. Men may accuse us falsely, and we may appeal to Him who knows our hearts for our innocence. But we must still draw near to God as sinful and unworthy creatures, needing His pardoning mercy and His strengthening grace.
Yet David does venture, in all humility, to appeal to God as to three things:
his integrity or sincerity,
his forsaking the company of the wicked,
and his delight in the worship of God.
Many around him had no religion but in external forms — thus in their worship they were but pretenders, hypocrites, dissemblers with God. But David was not such. He was no hypocrite or dissembler. At least he was sincere. He could appeal to God Himself for this: "Judge me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity."
Again, he had shunned the company of the wicked, the careless, and the false: "I have not sat with vain persons, neither will I go in with hypocrites. I have hated the congregation of evil-doers and will not sit with the wicked." The very persons who accused him, were of this number. He had refused to join himself to them, and perhaps on that very account they were his enemies. For so it often is. But he chose rather to bear their ill-will, than to join them in their sinful life; and now he humbly prays to God not to reckon him among their number or to deal with him as with them: "Gather not my soul with sinners, nor my life with bloody men in whose hands is mischief, and their right hand is full of bribes." He had never loved the company of the ungodly — and he prays to be preserved from their fate. We too, if we would not share their condemnation, must not walk in their ways. Balaam's wish was, "Let me die the death of the righteous!" But David's was a far better wish. He would have neither the death nor the life of the wicked.
Another thing about which he humbly appeals to God is his love for His house and worship: "Lord, I have loved the habitation of Your house, and the place where Your honor dwells." This was a main point in David's character. To worship God in His temple was his greatest delight; to be shut out from doing so was his greatest sorrow.
If we at any time are kept from the house of God by sickness or any other cause, it is comforting to look back upon the great pleasure and profit we have found there in times gone by. The benefit of public worship and of the hearing of the gospel is not past when we leave the house of God. A sweet savor of prayer and of praise and of God's Word still remains in the mind, and long after we can recall such times.
It is grievous when the case is otherwise, and when he who is now cut off from the means of grace has to look back upon past neglect of them. Many a sick person thinks sadly of years gone by, when he was called continually to the house of God, but seldom or never went. He cannot go now. Such a person is unable to address God as David did: "Lord, I have loved the habitation of Your house." He must come in a far different way: "Lord, forgive me for my past neglect. For Jesus Christ's sake pardon me, that I have turned away from Your worship and refused to listen to Your Word. Blot out my sin from Your book." The God of mercy and patience will hear that prayer, for Christ's sake.
Another thing to be noticed is that David does not speak of the past only, but of the future also. A self-righteous man is well satisfied with himself as he is, and makes no resolutions and puts up no prayers for the future. Not so with David. Not only had he in time past been upright and sincere and kept himself from the company of the wicked and loved the worship of God — but he would follow the same course in time to come, and that more earnestly than ever. He would not go in with dissemblers or sit with the wicked; he would still walk in his integrity. "I will wash my hands in innocence," he says, "and so will I go about Your altar, O Lord." Whatever of sin there was in him, if there was anything wrong in his life or in his habits — he would strive to cleanse himself from it, and thus to approach God with pure hands and a pure heart. He would wash his hands in innocence; that is, he would put away completely everything that was evil.
We who walk in the light of the gospel should use these words in a gospel sense. There is only one thing which can wash us clean — the blood of Jesus. Thanks be to God for that fountain which has been opened for sin and for all impurity! Let us wash and be clean; let us go to it again and again, as fresh need arises; let us never bear about with us the burden of unconfessed sin, while the blood of sprinkling is ready to be bestowed.
Yet always bearing this in mind, we may also use David's words in David's sense: "I will wash my hands in innocence" — I will strive to put away all sin. This should be our humble, earnest, prayerful resolution.
Many such resolutions are indeed made in a time of sickness. Never again will he live wickedly or carelessly — so the sick man resolves. If he has kept bad company — he will forsake it. If he has neglected the house of God — he will neglect it no more. Should God raise him up again — he will be a different man. These are good resolutions — yet too often they come to nothing, because made in a man's own strength. Never let them be made so. Let there be a true and humble looking to God for His grace. The blood of Jesus alone can take away the guilt of past sin; the Holy Spirit alone can strengthen us against sin for the future. Only he who can say, "I have trusted in the Lord," can say also with any truth, "Therefore I shall not slide." "My foot stands in an even place." By all means let the sick resolve that henceforth he will live to God; but let him make the resolution with a deep sense of his own frailty, a casting aside of all self-dependence, and an earnest and full reliance on God's promised help. Thus he will be able to say, "When I am weak — then am I strong."
Joshua the High Priest
"And he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him. And the Lord said unto Satan, 'The Lord rebuke you, O Satan; even the Lord that has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you. Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?'
Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and stood before the angel. And he answered and spoke unto those who stood before him, saying, 'Take away the filthy garments from him.' And unto him he said, 'Behold, I have caused your iniquity to pass from you, and I will clothe you with change of clothing.'
And I said, 'Let them set a clean turban upon his head.' So they set a clean turban upon his head, and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord stood by."
Satan, who stood thus to resist Joshua, is our enemy too — the enemy of our souls. He "walks about, seeking whom he may devour," and strives against us in various ways, so far as God allows him; setting temptations in our way, putting evil thoughts into our hearts, and accusing us before God. We have reason to think that he stands by us to resist us even when we are especially in the presence of God, as when we are engaged in public worship or in private prayer.
What a comfort that we have a greater than Satan to stand by us as our friend! Satan speaks against us as our accuser — but the Lord Jesus Christ speaks for us, as our Mediator and Intercessor. It was He who spoke for Joshua. For most likely we are to understand our Lord Jesus Christ to be meant when it is said, "And the Lord said unto Satan." And perhaps the angel of the Lord, in the first verse, means the Lord Jesus Christ too, for He is sometimes so described in the Old Testament.
We could not stand before God without Him. We would have nothing to say against the accusations of Satan. Alas! They are too true. We do not know how Satan resisted Joshua, but conscience tells us in some measure of what he may accuse us before God: our sins and shortcomings, our neglect of duty, our carelessness and slothfulness, and a thousand things that we have forgotten — our great enemy doubtless remembers too well. How could we answer him without Christ? How can we answer even the stings of our own conscience? But even we ourselves may now rebuke Satan in the Name of our Lord and Master, our Savior and Surety, "The Lord rebuke you, O Satan!"
"Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?" Thus was Satan answered. Whatever Joshua might be in himself, it had pleased the Lord to have mercy upon him, and he would not be left in Satan's hand. In Joshua's case, this may refer in part to the captivity at Babylon from which he had been freed, or to the state of lowness and misery out of which he had been raised. Yet it is plain from what follows, that it refers also to his being saved from what his sins had deserved. In our case we must certainly apply the words so. It is true of every person who is brought into a state of salvation and pardoned and accepted in Christ — that he is "a brand plucked out of the fire!"
Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, even while he stood before the Angel. Here again, in his case, his low and poor condition may be partly what is meant. What follows — the taking away of the filthy garments and the clothing him with change of clothing and the setting a clean turban on his head — may also mean, in a measure, though not alone, his being restored to honor as God's high priest, and wearing again the beautiful robes of his office. But, as applied to us, the filthy garments mean our sins that stain and defile us in God's sight, and what follows means our being pardoned and cleansed through Christ.
Joshua stood there in his filthy garments, and until they were taken from him and a change of clothing given him, he had no power to cleanse himself. We too have no power to cleanse ourselves from guilt. We must appear before the throne of grace just as we are — poor, sinful creatures. Some who hear the Gospel invitations think they are not worthy to accept them and to go to Christ for salvation without a change; they dare not go as they are; they imagine that they must mend themselves first. True, they are not worthy. But they never will be worthy. And if they wait until they are worthy, they will never go to Jesus at all. Blessed be God — unworthy sinners are invited!
These "filthy garments," I said, represent our sins. But you remember that the prophet Isaiah, speaking in prayer to God, says, "We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags"; so that it is not only our sins that are our "filthy garments," but our righteousnesses too. In other words, we have no righteousness of our own. Our best actions, without Christ, are not righteous in the sight of God. We ourselves are an unclean thing — not our sins alone, but we ourselves. Even Paul said, " I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwells no good thing."
It is a great point to know this about ourselves. Paul knew it, but many do not know it. They think there is some good in them; they do not know that they stand before God in "filthy garments." Yet whether they know it or not — it is so. It is a great thing to be brought to know it, for then we shall be glad to hear of forgiveness and "a change of clothing." We shall never care for them otherwise.
By the Lord's command, Joshua's filthy garments were taken away from him; and then the Lord spoke to him thus: "Behold, I have caused your iniquity to pass from you, and I will clothe you with change of clothing." This shows plainly that the filthy garments did not mean Joshua's poor and low condition alone, but also and chiefly his state as a sinner; it was his iniquity that was to pass away from him, not his poverty and captivity.
In like manner, God causes our iniquity to pass from us when we come to Him by Jesus Christ. Then the blood of Jesus takes away our guilt, and we stand accepted in Him and are looked upon as clothed in His righteousness. All that is past is forgiven. He who, until he believed with the heart in the Lord Jesus, was truly guilty in the sight of God — now stands before Him cleansed, justified, and accepted.
What follows about the "clean turban" we can perhaps hardly apply closely to ourselves. It seems to relate to Joshua's office as high priest. Yet, in a general way, we may take it to mean that God not only forgives those who come to Him by Christ — but also brings them to great honor and glory; as we read in the eighth Chapter of the epistle to the Romans, "and those whom He justified — those He also glorified."
There is peculiar comfort in the whole of this passage, because it shows so clearly that it is to us as sinners — that God's pardoning mercy in Christ comes. The "filthy garments" represent how a sinner appears in the sight of God. If you feel that you are a sinner, if you have learned to mourn for your sins with true contrition of heart — then do not these words, strong as they are, exactly express what you feel about yourself? "Filthy garments!" Yes, you can find no goodness in yourself, nothing but unworthiness and sin. You think of your past days with deep sorrow — the burden of guilt lies heavy upon you; and even the present brings you no comfort; for still you feel your own helplessness and sinfulness. You are ready to despond.
Do not despond! It was even while Joshua was clothed in "filthy garments" that the word went forth, "Take away the filthy garments from him!" "Behold, I have caused your iniquity to pass from you, and I will clothe you with change of clothing." You are in "filthy garments" too — you feel it — you grieve over it; seek the blood of Jesus even now, and believe that you too shall be made clean. Is it not just what you need, and what you most earnestly desire — that your iniquity may pass from you, that your sins may be blotted out?
This is the very thing that this history encourages you to believe. God does forgive, fully and at once, all who come to Him by Christ Jesus. He takes away their iniquity, pardons their sins, and receives them into His favor. He will do so for you!
"A brand plucked out of the fire!" seems to express a state of past misery and danger — even greater than being clothed in "filthy garments." Your fears may make you think that you are even now in that danger. And indeed perhaps you are, for all are so who are without Christ. But none are so, who have sought and found Christ. Whatever their danger was before — they are now saved from it by Him. They are "plucked out of the fire!"
The very words, so strong and startling, seem to express the greatness of the deliverance. God offers it to you in Christ:
to save you from all that your sins have deserved,
to deliver you from an evil conscience,
to set you free from your load of guilt,
to pluck you as a brand out of the fire!
Oh, believe this! Embrace the offer, so full and free. All sinful as you are — cast yourself upon the mercy of God in Christ Jesus. It is a matter of life and death; it is a thing that will admit of no delay. Happy will you be when God by His Spirit shall speak pardon and peace within your heart: "Behold, I have caused your iniquity to pass from you! Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?" Lord, grant it for Christ's sake!
At Peace with God
Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ — by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation works patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope. And hope makes not ashamed — because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given unto us. For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commends His love toward us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son — much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.
Even to lie on a sick-bed, at peace with God, is happy. For to be at peace with God must be happy, under any circumstances. The apostle begins with the happiness — and then goes on to speak of the tribulations; as if he would have the afflicted Christian first be filled with thoughts of his happy state, as being justified by faith and at peace with God — and then look at his trials in the light of that happiness.
What comforting words! "Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ." The believer is justified from his sins — that is, he is reckoned innocent by God. This is by his faith, his faith in Christ. He is guilty, but for Christ's sake, he is reckoned guiltless. For Christ has died for him, and he believes. When he is thus justified — then he is at peace with God. It was sin that made him at enmity with God. Now that the sin is forgiven and taken away by the blood of Christ — he is at peace with God. But all through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is all of grace, through faith.
When we are thus at peace with God through Christ, then we can draw near to Him without fear. "We have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand" — into this state of favor and acceptance to which God has brought us, and in which we live, and by His help stand fast. And living thus, we are able to rejoice. We can rejoice even in present things, in the peace with God which we feel, in the happy thoughts of God that we have, in the many inward comforts which He gives us. But much more we can rejoice in hope of the glory of God. In the midst of suffering — we can think of what God has prepared for them that love Him, of that glorious place where we hope to dwell forever with Him. And when we can do this, how light do our sufferings seem!
But the apostle goes further: "And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also." Glory in them, or rejoice in them, for it is exactly the same word as before. Now this seems strange. We could understand being patient in tribulations, but this goes beyond that. This is rejoicing in them. And we could perhaps understand rejoicing in them; that is, rejoicing in the midst of them, rejoicing when suffering them, on account of our forgiveness and acceptance in Christ and the happy home which lies before us. But the apostle, from what follows, seems to go even beyond this. He seems to mean rejoicing in the very tribulations themselves — on account of the good which they do to us; actually rejoicing in them, not in spite of them.
What good do they do to us? "Tribulation," he says, "works patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope." This is all good. Patience is good; experience is good; hope is good. But they all come from tribulation, in a kind of chain, one following on another. Therefore tribulation is good too, when rightly improved, as here. And therefore he rejoices in it.
But let us look at this a little more closely. "Tribulation works patience." How so? In this way. We cannot bear trouble aright — if we have none to bear. We cannot be patient — if we have nothing to be patient under. Graces grow by exercise. Besides, tribulation, when taken aright — brings down our pride and humbles us under the hand of God. And so we often see that a person who was anything but patient when first affliction fell on him — becomes patient as the trial goes on, and more and more patient. He is in God's school. God Himself is teaching him patience by tribulation. Thus "tribulation works patience."
"And patience works experience." This means probably experience of God's grace and love. We never feel them more than when we are patiently bearing His will — never so much perhaps. God gives special comfort for special sorrow — and special help in special need. Sometimes an unspeakable sense of His love is given to one in affliction — such as even turns a time of deep affliction into a time of joy. And often such help and support are given to the patient sufferer as carry him through what he would have thought he never could bear. This "experience" of God's grace and love is precious indeed.
It leads to a fuller and firmer hope. One who has thus found God to be a very present help in trouble, is strengthened to hope that He will be so in all trouble that may yet come. God's Word is one source of hope to us; as the Psalmist says, "I hope in Your Word." Our own experience of His goodness is another: "Because You have been my help — therefore in the shadow of Your wings will I rejoice." It is one of the greatest helps against despondency, to remember what God has done for us in past troubles. Thus experience works hope.
And this hope is a sure hope, one that will never make us ashamed or disappoint us. For it is built upon the love of God to us in Christ; and that love, or a sense of it, is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given unto us. We believe it — we feel it — God has taught us to do so.
Well may we believe in that love! It brought the blessed Son of God from Heaven to die for sinners. "In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because God sent His only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him." "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." And we were not even friends when Jesus gave His life for us. "For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly." It would be much that one should be willing to die for the best and kindest of men — for one who was not merely righteous and good but also kind, affectionate, unselfish, and engaging; yet we can just conceive such a thing possible. But "God commends His love towards us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Yes! Before we loved Him, before we believed in Him, before we even had any desire toward Him — while we were yet in our sins, Christ died for us! Even "when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son."
If we are no longer enemies, if through grace we have repented and sought mercy through Christ, if we have come unto God by Him and have thus become reconciled, justified, and at peace — then we may well hope in His love. If He sought us when we were afar off — then will He not receive us now that we have come near? If He had compassion on us while we were yet in our sins — then well may we think with comfort of His mercy and love when we have turned to Him and sought Him in Christ Jesus. "If, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son — then much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life."
For He is a living Savior. "He ever lives to make intercession for us." There is no blessing which we may not seek through Him. There is nothing really for our good, which God will withhold. "If He spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all — then how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?" All things. More than safety, more than pardon, more than the blotting out of our sins. He will give us all things in Christ.
Already we have "received the atonement," already we have become reconciled to God — and now we are able to rejoice in Him through our Lord Jesus Christ. Not merely to look forward to rejoicing hereafter, but to rejoice now. To "rejoice in God," to feel happy in thinking of Him and praying to Him, to take pleasure in realizing His presence and in holding communion with Him in secret. This is what every true believer may do. This is what God would have him do. "Rejoice in the Lord always," says the apostle, "and again I say, rejoice!"
Man Born to Trouble
"Affliction does not come from the dust — nor does trouble sprout from the ground. For man is born unto trouble — as surely as sparks fly upward. I would seek unto God, and unto God would I commit my cause, who does great and unsearchable things; marvelous things without number; who gives rain upon the earth, and sends waters upon the fields, to set up on high those that are low; that those who mourn may be exalted to safety."
Affliction does not come of itself; it does not spring up from the dust of the earth, nor grow naturally from the ground, as plants do; nor has chance anything whatever to do with it. As common as it is — affliction does not come without a cause, or without being sent on purpose by God.
Yet affliction does fall to the lot of all. No one, however prosperous, is without sorrow and trial. Sooner or later: "Man is born unto trouble — as surely as sparks fly upward." As surely as sparks go up from anything burning, or from iron beaten on the anvil — so surely does trouble in some shape befall every man that is born into the world.
Whence does it come? God sends it — or at least allows it to come. But it is not saying too much to say that He sends it.
When Adam fell and sin and death entered into the world — then trouble came too. This was God's appointment. He said to Adam, "Because you have listened unto the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you — cursed is the ground for your sake; in sorrow you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to you; in the sweat of your face shall you eat bread, until you return unto the ground; for out of it were you taken — for dust you are, and unto dust shall you return."
This was what God said to Adam. And though Christ has come and brought us life and salvation and given us a blessed hope — yet still we are but dust; and still, as long as we are here, sorrow is our appointed portion; sorrow, mixed with many blessings — yet sorrow nevertheless.
And not only is trouble in general appointed to man by God — but each man's particular trouble is of God's appointment too. Your troubles and mine do not come forth of the dust or spring out of the ground. They do not arise by chance or accident. God sends them! Sickness and sorrow are ordained for us by Him — each sickness and each sorrow as it comes. We do not see the hand that sends them, but a hand there is — the hand of God!
Eliphaz, therefore, says here to Job, "I would seek unto God, and unto God would I commit my cause." Job's troubles were many and great — yet let him not despair. Everything was in God's hand. All that happened was ordered by Him; all was subject to His control. Let Job in his affliction seek God and commit his cause unto Him. This was good advice for Job, and for all.
God's wonderful power is one reason why we should seek Him in trouble. He "does great and unsearchable things — marvelous things without number." He is doing such things continually. Surely then He is able to help us in our trouble. There is nothing that He cannot do. He is Almighty.
We see further that He takes notice of man's needs and uses His Almighty power continually for his good. He "gives rain upon the earth, and sends waters upon the fields." Thus He graciously provides for us, and that regularly and constantly. And will He not care for us and help us in any special trouble? He who has all nature at His command, He who is providing for man's support every day — can He not, and will He not, hear those who cry to Him and send them comfort and relief?
We find in this passage that He certainly will: "To set up on high, those that are low; that those who mourn may be exalted to safety." This is said of God. He will do this. He not only orders all the great things of nature and of the world, but He also pays attention to each person's needs. He lifts up those that are low and raises the mourner to safety. None are beneath God's notice; none are beyond His power to help. Whatever they may be, low in station, low in circumstances, low in spirit, low in comforts and in friends — God cares for them and is able to raise them. Whatever they may be mourning for, He pities them and can send them comfort. Well might Eliphaz say, "I would seek unto God; and unto God would I commit my cause." He is the best of friends in distress — and the most mighty and most loving helper in all trouble. If trouble comes from Him — yet surely the God of love will send help and comfort too.
To all who truly know God — it is a most comforting thought that their affliction comes from Him. It seems to take away the strangeness and the bitterness of it. When once they can realize His hand, then in all their sorrowful thoughts about their afflictions — they think about God too, and this comforts them. It is no longer mere trouble — but trouble which God has sent. If He has sent it — then it is wisely and kindly sent. Is there not a hidden blessing in it? Then the heart goes in search of the blessing and begins to ask why the trouble was sent, what it was meant to do, and how far it has done what it was sent for. And this is the very way to find the blessing.
Besides, when the sufferer thus sees the hand of God in trouble — he reasons that God will never let the trouble be too great. If He sends it — He will not send it too sharply, nor too heavily. There is no chance about it. All is measured and dealt out by an omnipotent hand of wisdom and love. The affliction, therefore, cannot become too sore. When the right point has been reached, when the fit time has come — then He who sent it will say, "Hitherto shall you come, but no further."
But perhaps the afflicted person may be one who does not know God — he is a stranger in heart to Him up to this time. Ah! Then, in this time of trouble, if never before, let God be sought: "I would seek unto God — and unto God would I commit my cause." Let those who have often sought God before — seek Him again. Let those who have never yet sought Him in truth — seek Him now. There must be with all a beginning — a first seeking. Let this be the beginning, this time of trouble.
When the pain is sore,
when the body is weak,
when the heart is heavy,
when the sorrow is great and deep
— then let God be sought. Is not this the gracious reason for which sickness and sorrow come?
Let none be afraid to seek God. True, we are unworthy. Past sins and past neglect might well cause fear. But we have a Friend, a Savior, a Mediator. Jesus Christ died for us and lives for us. By Him we may go boldly to the throne of grace. Boldly, that is, not proudly or with self-confidence, but in the humble belief that we may go, that the way is open, that we may speak freely all that is in our mind, and that we shall be heard and accepted for Christ's sake. A troubled heart, humbly seeking God through Jesus Christ, will never be rejected. Pardon, grace, comfort, help, guidance, peace — may all be sought of God through Him from the very midst of trouble, and will not be sought in vain: "He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and not despise their prayer."
The Vine and the Branches
"I am the true vine, and My Father is the gardener. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit — He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit — He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit. Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself — except it abide in the vine; neither can you — except you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him — the same brings forth much fruit: for without Me you can do nothing.
If a man abides not in Me, he is cast forth as a branch and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you — you shall ask what you will, and it shall be done unto you. Herein is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit — so shall you be My disciples."
In this parable our Lord teaches us that all our spiritual life and all our fruitfulness in good works, are drawn from Him. It is a very plain parable. In that eastern country vines were more common than they are with us, but even we know enough about them to be able to enter into the meaning of the parable.
All our spiritual life is drawn from Christ. "I am the vine, you are the branches." A branch could not live if it were not joined to the vine. In the same way, a soul can have no spiritual life, if it is not joined to Christ by faith. The sap, which is the life of the tree, flows naturally from the vine into the branches and keeps them alive and makes them bring forth buds and leaves and fruit. In like manner, the grace and life that are in Christ Jesus flow spiritually from Him into the hearts of believers, causing them to live and grow and bear fruit, to the glory of God.
The life and fruitfulness of the soul, therefore, depend on its abiding in Christ. So our Lord says, "Abide in Me" — that is, remain, or stay, in Me. "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abides in the vine — no more can you bear fruit — except you abide in Me." And afterwards He says, "Without Me you can do nothing." "Without Me," that is, apart from Me, separated from Me. We must cleave to Christ — we must watch and pray against everything that might come between us and Him and break or loosen our communion with Him. We must be much with Him in private; we must often hold secret communion with Him; we must diligently use all the means of grace, with the earnest desire that they may bring us into a closer union and communion with Him.
Observe, our Lord thinks nothing of any spiritual life that does not produce fruit. In grace, there is no real life unless it produces fruit — though there may be in nature. We do sometimes see a fine flourishing branch bearing nothing but leaves — but we never see a true Christian without the fruits of holiness. A fruitless branch or a fruitless tree is worthless in the sight of Him, who is the Gardener of souls. The barren fig-tree in the vineyard was perhaps a fine-grown tree, well covered with leaves; but because it bore no fruit, it was to be cut down.
In this parable, God the Father is the Gardener, and what does He do to every branch which bears not fruit? He takes it away. Just what a common gardener or gardener would do to a fruitless branch — God does to a barren professor. He may let him remain, perhaps, for a time — but at last He takes him away.
But a gardener does something to the fruitful branch also. "While every branch that does bear fruit — He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." He is not content with a little fruit from it — he wants more. So he takes his knife and prunes it — and that not once only, but again and again. Not roughly or hastily — but with great skill and care, that it may bear as much fruit as possible.
Does not this show us the meaning of our afflictions? God is the Gardener of souls. What is He doing when . . .
He sends sore trouble on the Christian,
or lays him on a bed of sickness,
or takes away comforts,
or removes some who were very dear?
What is the meaning of this? God has taken the pruning-knife in hand and is pruning the branch, that it may bring forth more fruit.
People are sometimes surprised at seeing trouble fall on the godly and not on the wicked. But this parable makes it quite plain. The godly man is a fruit-bearing branch; he is joined by faith to Christ, the true Vine, and does already bear fruit. But God, the heavenly Gardener, desires more fruit, and therefore prunes him by means of affliction.
It may be a sharp pruning knife that He makes use of; but He has sharpened it for the very purpose. It is not too sharp. In His wise and gracious hands, it will do its work well. The Christian will rise from his sick-bed, or come forth from the house of mourning — all the better for God's dealing with him — more humble, more spiritually-minded, more sober-minded, more zealous and in earnest. Henceforth the world will be less to him — and his Savior more.
Cannot every Christian, who has been under God's pruning-knife, bear witness to the gentle firmness with which it has been used? There is no weakness or wavering in God's dealings — yet no roughness. There is no lack of decision, no half-work — yet no rashness, no mistake.
The gardener's hand may make a slip, and he may cut too deep or cut where he did not mean to cut. Not so with the hand of God. When He takes the knife, He uses it . . .
with perfect firmness,
with unerring wisdom, and
with tender and compassionate love.
He will make no slip.
He will not cut too deep.
He will give no needless pain.
He will take away no comfort that would better have been left.
Sometimes, though not in general, the gardener puts an ointment to the place where the cut has been made, lest the branch should "bleed" too much, as they say.
Just so, God is always ready to apply a healing ointment to the wounds which He makes.
Oh, what comfort He sends in trouble!
Oh, what soothing, happy thoughts!
Oh, what a sense of His love!
Oh, what answers to prayer!
Oh, what grace and peace, what thankfulness and love!
These are His precious ointments. This is how He binds up the wounds which He has made.
It is for God's glory that we should bear much fruit. Our Lord says so: "Herein is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit." But how can a poor, suffering creature do anything for the glory of God? In many ways. By the grace of God, by a close union and communion with Christ — he may even now, in the midst of suffering, bear fruit, much fruit; and all the fruit he bears will promote God's glory.
"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance." Even while he lies on his sick-bed, cannot he through grace be meek and gentle and patient? Cannot he exercise faith? Cannot he love? Cannot he rejoice? Cannot he have peace within?
The gardener prunes the branch, that it may bring forth more fruit hereafter — but the spiritual branch, unlike the natural branch, may show an increase of fruit already, even while the knife is being applied.
"So shall you be My disciples." This is to be the mark — not fruit merely — but increasing fruit, more fruit. God is always dealing with us in various ways for the good of our souls, for our growth in grace, for our greater fruitfulness. How are we thriving under His hand? What effect do His dealings produce? Are we proved more and more to be real disciples of Christ — living and fruitful branches of the true Vine?
There is something here also bearing upon prayer, which is the chief comfort of the Christian, especially in affliction. Our Lord says, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you shall ask what you will, and it shall be done unto you."
We must understand this by what has gone before. Abiding in Christ means here abiding or remaining closely joined to Him by faith, as a branch is to the vine. If we do thus abide in Him, then He assures us that our prayers shall be granted. There are many other such promises in Scripture, but this is a special one.
This then is the happy state of the suffering believer. He is joined to his Savior — his loving Father is even now chastening him, and every prayer that he makes, will be heard and answered.
"So shall you be My disciples," said our Lord. And to be His disciples, taught and trained and owned and loved by Him — is the happiest lot on earth. Do not fear anything that may come to you as His disciple. Do not shrink from your Father's hand — even though the knife is in it. Trust Him, love Him. He will do all wisely, tenderly, faithfully. Let it be your heart's desire to abide more closely to Christ, and to bring forth more fruit to the glory of God.
Let this be your desire and your prayer. If our blessed Lord said, "You shall ask what you will, and it shall be done unto you," surely this will not be withheld.
Then he answered and spoke unto me, saying, "This is the word of the Lord unto Zerubbabel, saying, 'Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty. Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain — and he shall bring forth the headstone thereof with shoutings, crying, 'Grace, grace unto it.'
Moreover the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, "The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also finish it; and you shall know that the Lord Almighty has sent me unto you. For who has despised the day of small things? For they shall rejoice, and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel with those seven; they are the eyes of the Lord, which run to and fro through the whole earth."
The prophet Zechariah had seen a vision which he did not understand — a golden candlestick, with a bowl and seven lamps and seven pipes to the seven lamps, and two olive-trees, one on each side of the bowl. An angel was sent to explain it to him, and these verses contain the general explanation. A more particular explanation is given in the verses which follow.
This Zerubbabel was the governor of those Jews who went back to Jerusalem by command of Cyrus, to settle in their own land and to rebuild the temple. It was a work full of difficulty and danger. For the Jewish nation had been for seventy years in captivity, and meanwhile their own land had been occupied by strangers, who, on the return of the Jews, hindered them in every way. After so long a time, and in the face of so many enemies — it was a very difficult work to put things on their old footing at Jerusalem, to rebuild the temple, and to restore the worship of God.
The vision was sent to encourage the prophet, and through him Zerubbabel and the Jews, in the work. It was a work that was not to be done by might or by power, but by God's Spirit. There seemed, as it were, a mountain of difficulty in the way — yet before Zerubbabel it would be brought down and become like a level plain. Zerubbabel had begun to build the temple — he would also finish it, in spite of all hindrances. The Jews were indeed few and weak — yet let them not despise "the day of small things." God would put forth His mighty power on their behalf — grace and strength should be given to them, and they would yet rejoice in the happy end of their work. As the golden candlestick in the vision was abundantly fed with oil through the pipes from the olive trees — so was there a full supply in God, for all the need of the Jews and their leader.
In the same way, we must not despise "the day of small things" — small means of usefulness, or seemingly small success in our efforts to do good, or the weak beginnings of faith and love in the heart. Are not even those weak beginnings from God? Are they not His gift, His work, the fruit of His Spirit? Then they are not to be despised.
We may well be humbled that our faith is so weak, and our love so cold. Yet let us not deny that we do sincerely believe and love, for that would be to deny God's work of grace and to despise "the day of small things."
When the body is weak and the spirits low and we are withdrawn from active exertion — then there is often a temptation . . .
to underrate what God has already done for our souls, to be too much cast down as to spiritual things,
to think we can do nothing in God's service,
and to take a desponding view of the future.
But if the work of grace within us is real — then we should thank God for it as for an unspeakable blessing. And if, as they certainly are, our present circumstances are such as God has placed us in — then He will not leave us without the opportunity of doing Him service. As weak as we are — weak, and unworthy, and prone to go astray — yet He will still be with us, to guide and keep and bless us.
The difficulties that look so great to us — what are they to Him? Nothing at all! He can open a way for us, where there seems none. He can take away the cause of our greatest anxiety. He can . . .
help us to overcome our strongest temptation,
and quicken us by His grace,
and strengthen our faith,
and draw our hearts to Him in love,
and give us brightness for darkness.
"Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain!" Thus would God have us to speak, as it were, to our fears and difficulties.
We think, in our despondency, that we have no power or might. It is quite true — we have none. But in this very thought the Word of God meets us. "Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit — says the Lord Almighty." It is not in our own strength that we are to work for God. It is not by our own grace that we are to stand. It is not we that can resist temptation and make progress in the way of God. All our sufficiency is of God — and He is all our strength.
"Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit — says the Lord Almighty." He says it to us, as well as to Zerubbabel. He says it to us, that we should not trust in ourselves, or be cast down when we find no help or strength in ourselves. He says it to us also, that we should look to His Holy Spirit for might and power.
We are slow to learn this. The very despondency that we feel, shows that we are in a measure looking to ourselves. We would not easily be cast down — if this word of God were engraved upon our hearts: "Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit — says the Lord Almighty."
"By My Spirit," that is, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Sanctifier — promised by our Lord when He went away, and promised to all who seek. The difficulties in the way of Zerubbabel were of an outward kind — yet even these were within the power of the Spirit of God.
We may have outward difficulties also — but our chief difficulties are in our own hearts. Now the heart is where the Holy Spirit especially dwells and works. The words seem therefore to apply most strongly to inward and spiritual difficulties. "Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit — says the Lord Almighty."
We are to use all the means within our power. We are to read and hear and strive. But above all, we are to seek the enabling of the Holy Spirit. In Him lie our might and our power. He can . . .
and comfort our hearts,
and cheer us in our despondency,
and enable us to realize the presence of God,
and remove our fears,
and strengthen our faith.
It is not man, but God, who directs us to look to the Holy Spirit. "Says the Lord Almighty" — this is our warrant for doing so.
The Lord never forgets those who are looking to Him. He was with His servant Zerubbabel — but He was also at the same time with His servants everywhere. He is so still. "The eyes of the Lord run to and fro through the whole earth." "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good." He sees all, but He looks especially upon those who are seeking Him — and that most of all in any time of trouble or fear. There is not a sick-room into which He does not see. There is not a bed of pain on which His eye does not rest. There is not a sad or anxious heart which He does not know, even in its most secret feelings.
Let the thought of this lead the sick and sorrowful to look up to Him in humble hope and trust and love. He is not far off. He sees them, notices them, cares for them. He would have them seek Him. The way is open. Jesus is the way, God's dear Son, the Savior of sinners, our Mediator at God's right hand. With Him there — no one need fear to draw near. "Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." Hebrews 4:16
More than help is promised here. Help would be given; difficulties would be cleared away, and then at last there would be joy. "He shall bring forth the headstone thereof with shoutings, crying, Grace, grace unto it." "They shall rejoice, and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel."
We read elsewhere, that He will give "beauty, for ashes; the oil of joy, for mourning; the garment of praise, for the spirit of heaviness." And in the New Testament it is said yet more plainly, "The kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." God will make all happy, who truly seek Him by Jesus Christ and trust in Him. He will not only save them and help them — but make them happy. To be at peace with God through Christ and to have the presence of the Spirit in our hearts — this is happiness indeed — and this may be had even here below! The fullness of joy will be in Heaven; but there is joy even here, true joy, joy in the Holy Spirit. Lord, grant to us this peace, this presence, this joy!
"In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, "This is what the LORD says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not live." Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, "Remember, O LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes." And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah: "Go and tell Hezekiah, 'This is what the LORD, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city. "'This is the LORD's sign to you that the LORD will do what he has promised: I will make the shadow cast by the sun go back the ten steps it has gone down on the stairway of Ahaz.'" So the sunlight went back the ten steps it had gone down.
A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah after his illness and recovery: I said, "In the prime of my life must I go through the gates of death and be robbed of the rest of my years?" I said, "I will not again see the LORD, the LORD, in the land of the living; no longer will I look on mankind, or be with those who now dwell in this world. Like a shepherd's tent my house has been pulled down and taken from me. Like a weaver I have rolled up my life, and he has cut me off from the loom; day and night you made an end of me. I waited patiently till dawn, but like a lion he broke all my bones; day and night you made an end of me. I cried like a swift or thrush, I moaned like a mourning dove. My eyes grew weak as I looked to the heavens. I am troubled; O Lord, come to my aid!"
But what can I say? He has spoken to me, and he himself has done this. I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul. Lord, by such things men live; and my spirit finds life in them too. You restored me to health and let me live. Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back. For the grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living — they praise you, as I am doing today; fathers tell their children about your faithfulness. The LORD will save me, and we will sing with stringed instruments all the days of our lives in the temple of the LORD. Isaiah had said, "Prepare a poultice of figs and apply it to the boil, and he will recover." Hezekiah had asked, "What will be the sign that I will go up to the temple of the LORD?"
Hezekiah had a double warning. His sickness was itself a warning, and God sent him another special warning by the prophet: "Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not live!"
God does not in general send these special warnings; but we have His holy Word continually to warn us, and every sickness is a warning too — and both come to us with this message: "Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not live!"
The Word of God tells us that we must die — and sickness also should remind us of death and lead us to prepare. Not that we ought to put it off to a time of sickness. Far from it. We ought always to live in a state of preparation. But God is so gracious that He sends us warnings to make us more serious and in earnest — and sickness is one of them. It says to us, "Put your house in order!" That is, not merely put your worldly concerns straight — but also and above all, attend to your soul.
Hezekiah wished much to live longer, and that even when God plainly told him that it was His will that he should die. Hezekiah wished to live. The apostle Paul, on the other hand, desired to die, "to depart and to be with Christ."
What are we to think? Was Hezekiah wrong? We must not say that, for God granted his wish and let him live longer. He was not wrong — and yet, as far as we can judge, it seems that Paul had reached a higher point in spirituality of mind than he.
God has given us a natural love of life — and it is not wrong to wish to live. But one who, like the apostle, desires "to depart and to be with Christ" — has received a still higher gift from God. Yet Paul was quite willing to stay in this world, as long as he could be useful in his Master's cause; in fact, he placed himself entirely at the will of God, to live or to die. And this is just what we all should do.
And after all, perhaps there was not so much difference between the two, as appears at first sight. Paul was willing to live, if he could be useful in God's service. Hezekiah, it appears, wished to live, not merely for the enjoyments of life, but that he might praise God and make known His truth. "The grave," he says, "cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living — they praise you, as I do this day."
Besides, even godly people do not always feel alike on all points, and the love of life is stronger in some believers than in others.
It was a very remarkable thing that God should not only prolong Hezekiah's life in answer to his prayer — but also tell him exactly how much longer he was to live.
In general we know not how long we have to live, nor which year will be our last — but Hezekiah had God's own word that he would live fifteen years after his illness. To assure him that he would live and not die, a miracle was wrought — the sun-dial went back ten degrees. It was a solemn thing to be brought so near to the grave — and then to be restored to life. Through all the years that followed, Hezekiah can never, one would think, have lost the impression of that time. After all, death was but put off for awhile. Looking back upon the fifteen years as we do now, the difference between the two times seems almost nothing — so completely does a short space of time become swallowed up in a long space. Fifteen years, more or less, seem of small consequence — now that two thousand, five hundred years have passed since.
But what are two thousand years compared to eternity? How short will seem all our spaces of time, nay, our whole life here below — when we look back on them from the endless ages of eternity!
We do not know how soon this short life will end. We do not know how near we are to eternity. Our circumstances, therefore, are even more solemn than those of Hezekiah. He knew that he was to live fifteen years longer — we know not that we shall live even so many days. Everything bids us to set our house in order and be ready for the great change. Everything warns us not to put off the great work of preparation.
If sickness comes — that is a direct warning from God. If health is continued — still we have warnings all around us, that life is only for a time. It is in very mercy that God places us where we must continually have to do with sickness and death in some way or another — that so we may not live, as if we were to live here forever.
Yet how many seem to forget this simple truth: "You shall die — and not live!" And how many are taking no pains to put their house in order! They acknowledge that they must die, and that they know not when, and they profess to feel the deep importance of being prepared; but there is a sad lack of consistency between what they say and what they do. All around them bids them be serious — yet they are thoughtless; many a warning comes to tell them to prepare — yet day after day and year after year, they live unprepared! How foolish!
Sickness is one warning — and recovery from sickness is another. God still hears prayer, and often, no doubt, delivers from death in answer to prayer. When life is thus, as it were, given afresh — then how solemn should the thoughts be — and how earnest should be the desire to live henceforth to God! Life is restored, but no one knows for how long — let what remains be devoted to God! Let there be . . .
no more carelessness about the soul,
no more forgetfulness of God, and
no more giving up of oneself to the things of the world.
Death has been near — let it not be forgotten. The eternal world has been in view — let it be always henceforth borne in mind.
Was the house out of order before? Was the soul not right with its Maker? Was the heart not at peace? Had there been no seeking of Christ, no heart-belief in Him, no repentance for sin? How gracious that life was not cut short! The barren fig tree has been spared, though we know not for how long. May fruit now appear.
God does not spare us, simply that we should live as we did before. A recovery from sickness, should leave its mark upon us. Whatever we were before — it should be seen now that we are living, not for time — but for eternity; not to self — but to God!
Jacob in Despondency
"And Jacob their father said unto them: You have bereaved me of my children! Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and you will take Benjamin away. All these things are against me!"
It did seem so indeed. Joseph, his best and dearest son, had long been lost. Simeon was kept behind in Egypt. And now they wanted to take Benjamin away — Benjamin, his youngest son, the child of his old age, and next to Joseph, his best beloved son.
Yet by the very things that looked so dark — God was about to bring him peace and comfort in his latter days. All things were even now working together for his good. Simeon was to be restored to him. Benjamin must indeed go away — but he would come safe back. And Joseph, the long-lost Joseph, would be found again — happy and prosperous, a great man in Egypt, but the same in heart as ever, his dutiful and loving son.
Little did Jacob know what all that was taking place, meant. Little did he know the goodness of God toward him, when he said in his despondency, "All these things are against me!"
We too are sometimes disposed to say the same. There are times when all things seem against us. One trouble comes upon another. We can see no help — and no hope. Nothing but trouble seems around us — nothing but trouble seems before us. We feel quite broken-hearted. "All these things are against me!" exactly expresses the state of our minds.
But is it the truth? It was not the truth in Jacob's case. All things seemed against him — but they were not really against him. So it is in many other cases. Things are not so bad as they seem. Nay, perhaps when all seems as bad as can be — at that very time a happy change may be just about to come — and by means of the very things that look so dark! When Jacob had found his long-lost son and was happily settled in the land of Egypt and lived there in peace and plenty and honor, free from anxiety and with all his children round him — then perhaps then he remembered his own desponding words, "All these things are against me!" If so, what must he have thought of them then?
If we look at things with no eye to God — then we shall often be ready to say, "All these things are against me!" But if we remember God — then surely we cannot say so — at least if we have any knowledge of Him, any faith in Him, any love to Him.
Put aside the thought of God, and forget for a moment the end of Jacob's history, and how dark do his circumstances appear at the time of his using these words!
On the other hand, remember God — see His hand in all that had happened from the first sad loss of Joseph, all through the ups and downs of Joseph's life in Egypt, and all through the famine in the land of Canaan, up to the very moment when Jacob's heart failed him, but when God was just about to make him happy. See all in this light — and how different does it look!
We who know the history to its end, and how God was ordering all for good, and how soon the happy discovery was to be made — can hardly bear to hear Jacob say, "All these things are against me!" We do indeed feel for the aged man in his distress and despondency — but we know that all is on the point of turning out happily. A little more waiting in anxious fear, and Jacob will feel and speak very differently: "Joseph my son is yet alive! I will go and see him before I die."
Oh! How different it is, to see and to believe. Jacob was full of comfort when the happy end was come — and we can think of him with pleasure all through his troubles — because we know the end that was to be. But this is sight, not faith. If we walked by faith and not by sight, and if our faith were strong — then we would find comfort and encouragement even before deliverance came. For we know that without our Father, not a sparrow falls to the ground. And have we no words of His to encourage us, no promises, sure and steadfast? Why do we not believe, even when we cannot see? Why are we so downcast, when circumstances seem against us, though all the while we profess to believe in God as ordering all things and as hearing prayer? How weak is our faith, and how prone to fail! How apt are we to let dark appearances obscure all the light of God's Word! If we could see — then we would believe. True faith believes — even when it cannot see.
There is a sentence in the Book of God which alone should keep the believer from ever feeling as Jacob did. It is this: "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." Romans 8:28
One of the most striking instances of the truth of these words was the very man who said, "All these things are against me!" The words themselves seem to show that often the things do not seem as if they were for good.
"We know" — as if it were said, "notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary — yet we know." And again, "that God causes all things to work together for good" — as if many of the things seemed in themselves to be working for evil, but were, nevertheless, joining in with other things and making up with them the whole design of God, and thus would turn to good in the end. Thus, even in this most comforting verse — there is room for faith. Indeed, without some measure of faith — we cannot get comfort from the Word of God at all.
It is the believer's happy privilege to know that, even when all things seem against him — they are not so really. For he has committed himself and all his concerns into his Father's hands — and He is all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving, and has promised that He will never fail those who trust in Him. He will surely keep His word. He will . . .
never forget them,
never overlook them, and
never cease to care for them.
He will . . .
watch over them for good,
preserve them from all real evil,
and bless them continually.
Things may look dark at times, but it is only the outside of things that we can see. However things may look, the same unchanging God and Father is still ordering all — nothing can happen without Him, and He does all things well!
Let us keep fast hold of this truth, and we shall never say, "All these things are against me!" Rather, in the darkest trouble — we shall see some light, some tokens of the hand of love that is doing all, some gracious sign that God has not forsaken us. And we shall gratefully join in the words of the Psalmist, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil — for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me."
Christian! When all things seem against you, believe that God is thus dealing with you in order to humble you and lead you to Himself. He pities you — even while you are far off from Him. He would bring you near. Perhaps these very troubles — are God's appointed means to restore you. Seek Him from the very midst of them, from the very depth of pain, sorrow, anxiety, and fear. Seek Him in earnest prayer. Seek His mercy, His pardon, His grace. Plead the Name of Jesus. Approach the mercy-seat through Him. Ask that His blood may take away your guilt. Cast yourself upon the mercy of God in Christ — and then beseech Him to help you in every trouble.
Will He refuse your prayer? Surely not! All His Word says that He will hear and answer and bless His redeemed people.
If trouble is thus the means of bringing you to God — then it will prove your greatest blessing. Then you will never say, "All these things are against me," but rather, "Before I was afflicted I went astray — but now have I kept Your word! It is good for me that I have been afflicted — that I might learn Your statutes."
The Lord Our Portion
"The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my cup. You maintain my lot. The lines have fallen unto me in pleasant places — yes, I have a goodly heritage. I will bless the Lord, who has given me counsel; my heart also instructs me in the night seasons. I have set the Lord always before me — because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved!"
The Psalmist was very happy in his mind when he wrote this Psalm: "The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places — yes, I have a goodly heritage." What made him happy? The presence and blessing of God. Most likely at this very time he was in some danger or trouble outwardly, for he begins the Psalm with a prayer for preservation: "Preserve me, O God — for in You have I put my trust." Some think that it was when he was living with the Philistines through fear of Saul. If so, there was indeed much to trouble him. Yet he says, "The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places."
The truth is that David's happiness was not drawn from outward things, but from God. He says, "The Lord is the portion of my inheritance, and of my cup. You maintain my lot." This was David's happiness, and this is the only true happiness for us all and the only happiness that will last. We never know real happiness or peace — until we seek them in God.
He does not say merely that God gave him a portion — but that God was his portion. Not only does God make those who trust in Him both safe and happy — but their safety and happiness are in Him; He Himself is their portion. So that if it were possible that He should bestow on them all manner of gifts, and yet withhold or withdraw Himself — they would then be in want; they would have no portion:
"Give what You will — without You we are poor;
And with You rich — take what You will away."
"The Lord," he says, "is the portion of my inheritance, and of my cup." Now these two words, "inheritance" and "cup," seem to have a different meaning. An inheritance means an estate or some other valuable possession that is ours by law because we are heirs to it. It maintains us; we live by it; it forms the provision for our needs. In this sense God is the portion of our inheritance. He has made us His children by adoption and grace, "and if children — then heirs." He has given us Himself as our portion; and in Him we have a sure provision for soul and body. Having Him, we have all — perfect safety and a full supply.
The word "cup" seems to point more to the pleasures of true religion. "The Lord is the portion of my inheritance, and of my cup." The Lord not only gives me in Himself the full supply of my needs; He also gives me pleasure, joy, happiness. "My cup runs over," says David in another Psalm — that is, my cup of happiness. God would have every true and humble Christian find happiness in Him. Not the vain joy of the world — but true joy, joy in the Holy Spirit, joy in believing.
He Himself is the giver, the author, the object of this joy — God reconciled in Christ Jesus; God known and trusted; God ever near; God loving us and loved by us. "Rejoice in the Lord always," said the apostle, "and again I say rejoice."
This portion is a satisfying portion. At least it ought to be. And indeed it is — in proportion as it is enjoyed. As a grown-up person no longer cares for toys — so a spiritually-minded person does not care for the things of the world, as he used to care for them. The world's pleasures are but toys to him — he has found something better. The Lord is his portion. That is enough. He wants no more.
All that comes to him, he takes as part of his portion, because it is from the hand of God. Be it much or little, be it what he would have chosen or not — it is what God sends, his allotted portion. So he is content — content and thankful and happy; for with all that He gives, God does not withhold Himself, the sense of His favor and blessing, the humble yet firm persuasion of His pardoning mercy, His love and grace in Christ Jesus. What portion can the world give like this?
And it is a sure portion too. An earthly inheritance, however safe it may seem, may be lost. Earthly joy may quickly be turned into sorrow. Everything earthly may be changed or lost. But the Christian's portion is a sure one — for God is his portion — and God never changes. As if to assure himself of this, the Psalmist adds, "You maintain my lot."
It is very needful to bear this in mind: "You maintain my lot"; else the first check that we receive — any disappointment or loss of comfort, friends forsaking, circumstances changing, anything happening to make our outward life less bright or our spirits less high — might lead us to think our portion lost. But it is not lost. God maintains it, and maintains it through all changes.
God was maintaining Job's lot all through his sore afflictions, and David's in all his many trials; and God will maintain ours, if we cleave to Him as the Rock of our salvation. There is the greatest comfort in these words, "You maintain my lot."
He who could feel thus, had not reached this point all at once. He had received many gracious warnings, and many a time had he searched his own heart and sought God's guidance and grace. No doubt he had passed through some painful seasons — times of inward conflict, times of disappointed hope, times when God caused him to be humbled under a sense of his sins. "I will bless the Lord," he says, "who has given me counsel" — or, as it is in another version, "I will thank the Lord for giving me warning." God's warnings are not the least of His mercies. They come in various shapes — a text, a sermon, a sorrow, a sickness. It is well when we can see by faith, the wisdom and the love that send them, and the profit which they bring, and thus say, "I will bless the Lord, who has given me counsel."
Many a night had David spent in self-examination and prayer: "My heart also instructs me in the night seasons."
"My heart," that is, his thoughts. Often, in the still hour, when all but he were sleeping, often had he thus thought and prayed. Our souls cannot thrive without much of this private, secret work. We should often be searching and trying our ways, and then turning again to the Lord.
And what time better than a sleepless night? And what better place than a sick-bed? Sickness and lack of sleep are not good in themselves — but they may be turned to good if we use them thus. And doubtless God often sends them for this very purpose. The mind is often unusually lively and active at night, when one cannot sleep. Many thoughts come to us then. They should be . . .
thoughts of the soul,
thoughts of eternity,
thoughts of God,
thoughts of Jesus, and
thus wholesome, profitable, peaceful thoughts.
"I have set the Lord always before me." He always remembered God, realized His presence and sought His help, and never did anything without Him. This had long been his habit, and this had given him a happy confidence in God.
So he could say, "Because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved." At his right hand, near him, quite close to him — to guide and help and strengthen him. Therefore, "I shall not be moved." There were many things to make him afraid, but he would not be afraid because the Lord was at his right hand.
This was his prayer: "Preserve me, O God, for in You do I put my trust." This was his practice and his confidence: "I have set the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved."
The lines had indeed fallen unto him in pleasant places — he had a goodly heritage. The Lord was his portion, the portion of his inheritance and of his cup, his salvation, and his joy. He was full of thankfulness and trust. He could thank God even for His warnings and chastisements — for he saw how good they were. He looked back to many secret thoughts, many searchings of heart, many earnest prayers — and traced the blessing that had thus come to his soul. He kept up the same habit still, and found both profit and comfort in it — and he felt sure that God would never forsake him. He in whom he trusted, would maintain his lot and would not let him be moved. For time and for eternity, he was full of hope, comfort, trust, and joy. The Lord was his portion.
Why is this written, but to encourage us to seek the same things which David sought? They may be ours:
the joyful feeling,
and the sure trust.
God invites us to seek Him as our portion. He calls us away from sin and the world — and bids us seek our all in Him.
All blessings are offered to us freely in Christ Jesus. David spoke by prophecy of Christ. But we live in gospel times — we have learned of Him as our Savior, who died for us and rose for us and lives for us. David himself did not have such clear light as we have in the gospel. All blessings may be ours in Christ. And all are free — a free pardon, a free salvation, free grace — free to all who will seek them — "without money and without price!"
Sown in Weakness — Raised in Power
1 CORINTHIANS 15:42-49.
"So also is the resurrection of the dead.
It is sown in corruption — it is raised in incorruption.
It is sown in dishonor — it is raised in glory.
It is sown in weakness — it is raised in power.
It is sown a natural body — it is raised a spiritual body.
There is a natural body — and there is a spiritual body.
And so it is written, "The first man Adam was made a living soul"; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy — the second man is the Lord from Heaven. As is the earthy — such are they also that are earthy; and as is the heavenly — such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy — we shall also bear the image of the heavenly."
This "so also" refers to what goes before. The apostle has been likening the resurrection of the body, to the springing up of seed. The seed falls into the ground and seems to die — but after a time it springs up again — yet not as it was before; it is no longer a seed; it is now a plant, a plant of wheat or of something else, according to what the seed was.
"God gives it a body, as it has pleased Him." What was sown in the ground was nothing but a little seed — but God makes it grow into a plant or a tree — just of that size and shape which He pleases, and every different seed becomes a different plant or tree.
"So also," he says, "is the resurrection of the dead." There is a likeness between the two cases. It is God who works in both. There is no difficulty with Him. He who can make a little seed that has lain long in the ground, spring up and become a plant — can also raise to life a body that has long lain in the grave.
The grain of wheat was but a little thing when it was sown, and then it lay long in the ground and to all appearance rotted and died. But now it springs up as a green blade and grows into a beautiful plant and bears an ear which becomes food for man.
In the same way, the body dies. Sense and feeling and breath leave it. It must be buried. It is laid in the grave — and there goes to corruption. But it will be raised again, and then it will go to corruption no more, for it will rise incorruptible.
The bodies that we now have are mortal bodies — bodies which are not fit to live forever, bodies which must die and decay. Not so the bodies that will rise again. They will never die. They will be immortal — made to live forever. It is a natural body which dies and is laid in the grave — it is a spiritual body which will rise again. A great change will have taken place. Instead of a dying body — the body will now be an undying one.
He speaks also of the body being sown, or buried, in dishonor and in weakness — and raised in glory and in power. Now it is dishonor and weakness, that it cannot live any longer and that it must be buried out of sight and go to decay. On the other hand, it is glory and power, that it will hereafter be able to live forever, and that in a far more beautiful and glorious state than ever before.
But we may take the words also in another way. Very often a person suffers much before death, and is brought very low. Long sickness has worn and wasted his frame; he has not the strength of a child; another's hand must even turn him on his bed; he is torn by a distressing cough; his breathing is labored; perhaps he suffers sharp pain, and it may be that his body is full of sores — painful to himself and trying to all around him. In such a case, those who wait on him, seeing how much he is reduced and how greatly he suffers, often say, "It will be a happy release when God takes him home!"
And they say truly, if he is indeed a child of God — and more truly perhaps than even they themselves are aware. Yes, it will be a happy release — a blessed change! "It is sown in dishonor — it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness — it is raised in power."
No more pain or weariness,
no more distressing nights and days,
no more of what is full of anguish to himself,
no more of what is offensive to others —
no more of this when once the last breath has been drawn.
The worn body will be laid in the grave, at rest from suffering — and the spirit will return to God who gave it. At length the body itself will rise again, all glorious and strong. Not a trace of suffering will be left on the face, not a remnant will there be of weakness or disease. The body that will rise, will be free from all infirmity — a glorious body, made to live with God forever. The same person, but clothed with a new body. The very same person as lay on that bed of pain and was buried in the silent grave; the same — yet how different! "Sown in dishonor — raised in glory. Sown in weakness — raised in power."
This will be when the Lord from Heaven comes. He was "the first-born from the dead." He conquered death and the grave. "Now is Christ risen from the dead and become the first fruits of those who sleep." "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." We shall rise with Christ. We shall rise to meet Him when He comes. We shall rise in His likeness.
At present we have only natural, physical bodies. "The first man Adam was made a living soul" — and he sinned and died. Our present bodies are such as his was. "The last Adam was made a quickening spirit." The last Adam means the Lord Jesus Christ, and "quickening" means making alive. He will quicken us, or make us alive. He will give us life for the body again. But not such bodily life as we have now — a dying life. He will give us a better life — and a spiritual body.
"The first man is of the earth — earthy. The second man is the Lord from Heaven." Adam is the first man — and the Lord Jesus Christ is the second. The children of Adam are like their father: "As is the earthy — such are they also that are earthy." But those who are the children of God in Christ Jesus, will be far different: "As is the heavenly — such are those also who are heavenly." We all now have natural and corruptible bodies like our first father Adam — but the children of God will have heavenly bodies hereafter; for "as we have borne the image of the earthy — we shall also bear the image of the heavenly."
Here, then, is great comfort — a blessed hope — a sure and happy prospect! Pain and sickness, weakness and weariness, are not forever. Grant that the sickness is unto death — grant that the days of mourning are at hand — yet what is death to the believer? It is no longer the king of terrors — but a gate, a passage, a change, a falling asleep. Death is to such a one . . .
the gate of Heaven,
the passage from time — to eternity,
the change from a sinful world — to a sinless world,
the passing from a valley of tears — to the place where God shall wipe all tears away,
a falling asleep in Jesus,
to be with Him forever — and to be like Him,
to "bear the image of the heavenly."
Wonderful — yet true! Wonderful, that such as we should have so bright a prospect. We, with our poor, frail, suffering bodies — we, so unworthy, so sinful, so helpless. Yet it is all true. The Lord Jesus has gone before to prepare a place for those who love Him. He said in His prayer, "Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world!" (John 17:24). And John writes thus: "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be. But we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is!" (1 John 3:2).
"As we have borne the image of the earthy — we shall also bear the image of the heavenly." The one is as sure as the other, to every true believer. And thus the very weakness of the body — the pain, the weariness, the sickness which we suffer while yet we bear the image of the earthy — may strengthen our hope of being freed from them all forever; and instead of bearing the image of the earthy, of hereafter bearing the image of the heavenly!
Joseph in Prison
"Joseph's master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king's prisoners were confined. But while Joseph was there in the prison — the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph's care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did."
Joseph had done no wrong, and yet he was put into prison. Far from doing wrong, he had done right, quite right, in the face of great temptation — and yet we find him in prison. The wicked woman who had tempted him to sin, accused him falsely when she found that he would not do as she wished — and her husband, believing her tale, cast Joseph into prison.
So it is sometimes. God ordains it to be so. The wicked prosper — and the righteous suffer. We must not be surprised at this. The Lord Jesus Christ suffered death upon the cross to save us — though He had done no wrong. And sometimes He calls His followers to bear ill-treatment which they have not deserved. They must bear it meekly for His sake. "For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you — leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps." (1 Peter 2:19-21).
And if, when we suffer for doing right, we are even then to bear it patiently — then how much more when suffering comes in a common way, or when we can trace it to something wrong that we have done! Is it not sent by God? And can we say that it is more than our sins have deserved?
A prison is not in itself a happy place, and probably an ancient prison in such a country as Egypt was even more miserable than our prisons are. Yet Joseph was not unhappy in prison, because the Lord was with him. No place can be miserable in which the Lord is with us. God's presence can brighten a dungeon, a sick-room, a house of mourning. It is God's presence and favor, perfectly enjoyed, that will make the happiness of Heaven. God's presence can make happiness anywhere in this poor world of ours.
"The Lord was with Joseph, and showed him mercy." Doubtless Joseph felt and knew that the Lord was with him. Even there in the prison, in the worst of company, in the "place where the king's prisoners were bound," most of them probably not unjustly punished, like Joseph — but wicked men suffering for their crimes — even there Joseph enjoyed the presence of God in his heart. The Lord showed him mercy, extended kindness unto him, gave him a comforting sense of His goodness and love, and enabled him to feel that though He let him suffer — yet He was still gracious toward him.
Is not this enough to make any place, a place of comfort? Our happiness depends far more on inward peace, than on outward things. If our thoughts are happy — then outward things matter but little.
But little comparatively. They do make a difference to us. It would not be true to say they do not. No one would choose a prison — who might be free; none would be sick — who might be well. Yet happy thoughts, inward peace, and God's presence — can do wonders, even when all outward circumstances are against us.
When the disciples were most unhappy, this was the comfort which their Lord gave them — He told them that He would make His abode in their hearts by the Spirit; that is, that God's presence would be with them.
Ah! We must be happy wherever we are, if the light of God's countenance shines upon us — if we believe that we are pardoned and accepted in Christ — and that God loves us as His reconciled children in Him!
A prison? Why, Joseph's prison was no prison to him — while the Lord was with him. God's presence in the heart, makes every place a palace.
But God's favor was shown to Joseph in more ways than one. He not only gave him happy thoughts — He also gave him favor with others, and thus greatly improved his outward circumstances.
God is very gracious. Even when He is pleased to afflict us, we may always find some traces of the hand of love. It made a vast difference to Joseph's comfort, whether the keeper of the prison were kind to him or not. Humanly speaking, he was not very likely to be kind — a servant accused of such a crime against his master, and that master one of the king's great men, would in all likelihood be treated with great severity. Yet God "gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison." It was God's work. He inclined the heart of the jailer toward him, He made him kind.
God often shows mercy to the afflicted in this way — by inclining others to be kind to them. How often have the sick been quite surprised at the kindness shown to them! How often have those in sorrow been comforted beyond measure by the unlooked-for sympathy of others! This is of the Lord. He has compassion upon us in our trouble — and comforts us by means of the kindness of our fellow-creatures. Often He raises up friends for us where we least expected to find them — and leads even strangers to show us kindness. It is sweet to see the hand of God in this, and to trace all love and kindness shown to us by men — to the love of God Himself toward us. Every comfort is doubled, when we gratefully receive it as from the hand of God.
It was unlikely that Joseph should receive kindness from the jailer. But it was more unlikely that he should get any authority in the prison, or have any power of doing good. Yet so it turned out. God not only made the keeper of the prison kind to him — but even led him to commit all the other prisoners to Joseph's care. In fact, he trusted him so much that he gave over everything into his hands, and all that was done in the prison was done by Joseph.
Who can tell what good Joseph may have done there? He who had received such kindness himself, would certainly show kindness to others. There was no harshness or cruelty in that prison while Joseph was in charge. And perhaps so true a servant of God found means to speak of Him to the prisoners, and made use of his influence to lead those Egyptians to the knowledge of true religion. Certainly his conduct was such as to lead his fellow-prisoners to trust him, for in the next Chapter we find two of them putting confidence in him about their concerns. And, whether he spoke or not — his example was always before them. He lived in their sight.
The true servant of God is the servant of God everywhere; wherever he is — his influence is felt. Much good may be done within the walls of a prison. The prisoner Paul was made the means of converting the jailer at Philippi and his household. The same apostle, when again in bonds, preached the gospel to both Felix and Agrippa, in such a way as to cause the one to tremble and the other to declare, "You almost persuade me to become a Christian!" And afterwards at Rome, his preaching and his life, while still a prisoner, led to the conversion of numbers, both high and low, and were blessed to the strengthening and establishing of the brethren in the Lord.
Other instances are not lacking. It has often happened that a servant of Christ, imprisoned unjustly, has done great good among his fellow-prisoners; and sometimes even a real criminal, himself changed by grace while in prison for his offences, has been the means of leading others to God.
A sick-room is something like a prison. The sick person is confined there. He cannot get up and go about like other people. He must stay where he is. Yet he may do good there — his influence may be felt. Words spoken from a bed of sickness, perhaps of death, have more than usual weight. And even without many words, the sight of a Christian bearing patiently what God sends, submitting to His will, and able in the midst of suffering to be peaceful and cheerful through faith in his Savior — such a sight must impress those who behold it. Many a nurse of the sick has received a blessing to her soul in this way — and many a clergyman has come from the bedside of a suffering believer with the feeling that he has been a learner there rather than a teacher.
So we see that there may be true prosperity, even in the midst of outward trouble — and that God can both bless us and make us a blessing in any place and under any circumstances. "The Lord was with him; and that which he did, the Lord made it to prosper." God's presence and blessing make true prosperity — and no time or place can separate us from these!
1 CORINTHIANS 9:24-27.
"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize!"
The apostle's faith did not fail. He did not think that he would be a castaway. In another place he says, "I know in whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He will keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day." But he knew that if he would win the prize — he must run the race, and run it aright, keeping his body under control and bringing it into subjection.
We all have this race to run — this prize to win. The race means our Christian course — our life here on earth. The prize is Heaven. It is a race that requires all our exertions and all our self-denial — but the prize is so great that it will repay them all a thousand-fold. No one who gets to Heaven will say that it was not worth so many pains as he took. No one who knows anything now of the happiness of being with God — will say that to be with Him forever is not worth more than heart can think. And this is the very thing that God promises — this is the prize — to be with Him forever. We do not know a great deal about Heaven yet — but we do know that there we shall always be with God, loving Him, serving Him, and rejoicing in Him.
Paul led an active life, and it does not seem strange that such a life as his should be compared to running a race. But people whose life is very quiet and retired, nay, those whose health is weak so that they can do but little, and even sick people — have the race to run as well. God appoints the race for us; and, outwardly, it is not the same for all. The chief part of the race is not outward, but inward. It is a thing of the heart, quite as much as of the conduct, or even more so. One lying on a sick-bed may be running this race — and running it faithfully and well.
Paul writes as if he had many enemies. In fact, in one part of what he says, he changes the figure from a race to a battle: "Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air." They were real enemies. But they were not all outward, such as the persecuting Jews and the unbelieving heathen. Some of them, and those the worst, were inward — evil thoughts and wrong desires.
Now a sick person may have these. Indeed, wherever we may be, we are never out of danger from enemies of this kind. Impatience, discontent, fretfulness, a rebellious feeling against God's dealings — these are some of the temptations of a sick-bed. They are so many enemies to be fought against in running the race.
The apostle did not give way when he was tempted. "I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize." We must never yield. We must watch and strive and pray against every wrong thought and feeling. Many a battle is fought on a sick-bed; many a battle is fought — and many a victory won. A sick person, lying day after day, weak and weary and in pain, is as much in the race and the battle as any can be. It is often a hard struggle, and a weary race. But think of the crown and the prize!
"Run in such a way as to get the prize," he says. We may get the prize. Yes. Because Jesus Christ has won for us. He endured the cross, despising the shame. He bore our guilt. He died to save us. He redeemed us by His blood. And more than this. When He had finished His work and went back to His Father, He did not stop caring for us. He still knows all our difficulties — and still cares for us and helps us by His Spirit. In all our temptations and struggles, in all our fight, in all our race — He is with us, if we seek Him.
There is not a poor suffering Christian on earth, whom He is not able and willing to help and comfort. There is not a sick-room, in which His presence may not be found. We could never win, if we were left to ourselves. But we are not left to ourselves, and we are not to run as if we were. We are to "run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith!" No one who looks to Him, will look in vain.
Yes, we may obtain, through Him. In a common race, only one can win: "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run — but only one gets the prize?" But here there is a prize for all who run the heavenly race aright.
"Run in such a way as to get the prize," he says. Run the race as earnestly as if there were but one prize — yet run with the happy thought that there is certainly a prize for you, if you run aright. If only we run the race with patience, looking unto Jesus — then no one will be able to rob us of the prize by running better. On the contrary, in this race all the true runners are helpers to each other, not hinderers. They love to see one another getting on in the race. They cheer one another along the course.
They build their hopes on the same foundation;
they love the same Savior;
they are led by the same Holy Spirit;
they look up to one reconciled Father;
and they hope to dwell together in one home.
There is no hatred or strife among them. They are bound to one another — as travelers along the same road, and soldiers in the same army.
It is comforting to think of this. It makes us feel not alone in the race. But the greatest comfort of all, is that God is with us. He who has set us in the race and will give the prize — He is with us all through. If we do but cleave to Him by faith, then He will never forsake us. His grace is sufficient for us. There cannot come to us any trial or difficulty too great for His power, His Wisdom, His love. He can help, and He will help!
Jesus, Both Able and Willing to Forgive
While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, "Lord, if you are willing — you can make me clean."
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" And immediately the leprosy left him.
There were many sufferers then, as there are now — and this leprosy seems to have been almost worse than any of the diseases which we have. It did not generally prevent people from going about; but it was very painful to the sick man, and very disagreeable to others — and there was no cure for it. No cure, that is, by common means. Jesus Christ could cure all sickness, and this poor leper came to Him. Happy for him that he did!
It seems to have been a bad case, for the man is not called a leper merely, but "a man covered with leprosy." Whether lesser cases could be cured by medicine or not — certainly this one could not. A man would not continue a leper, if medicine could cure him. But this man was "covered with leprosy" still. Doubtless he had tried all the means in his power, but all in vain.
Yet, as bad as his case was, he believed that Jesus could make him well. We do not know what led him to believe this. Perhaps he had seen some who had been healed by Jesus. Perhaps he had even been present (though keeping at a distance, as lepers were obliged to do) when Jesus cured some sick person by a word. We do not know what led him to believe — we are only told that he did believe. He came to Jesus with these words: "Lord, if You will, You can make me clean."
It was much for the poor leper to say. It was faith. Feeling, as he did, that dreadful disease upon him and finding that nothing that he did made him any better, it was a great thing that he should come and fall down on his face before Jesus, and say, "Lord, if you are willing — you can make me clean."
But why any IF? Why did he not believe that Jesus was as willing as He was able? Whatever it was that made him believe that Jesus could heal him, might just as well have taught him that He would. Jesus had healed some, and he knew it. But this could not have been if Jesus had not been willing, as well as able. He had been both, and therefore the sick had been made well. This poor leper had no more reason for thinking that He was able, than for thinking that He was willing. He had full reason for believing that He was both.
Still, though he came with an IF — he must have had some faith, or he would not have come at all. He "fell with his face to the ground and begged him." His words were a prayer. There was hope, there was faith, in them. They showed what was the feeling in his heart: "I know He has healed others, and I believe He can heal me — perhaps He will."
And Jesus did. Without a word of rebuke for the weakness of his faith, "Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. 'I am willing. Be clean!' And immediately the leprosy left him."
Blessed hand, that touched so many, and never without healing in the touch! Blessed lips, that spoke so often to the afflicted, and never without bringing comfort! Blessed, these few and simple words of Jesus, "I am willing. Be clean!" Here was the answer to the IF.
"Lord, if You will," said the man.
"I will," was the Savior's reply.
Sometimes it pleases God that we should wait for our blessings. But this man had not to wait. "Immediately the leprosy left him." Probably he had borne it for a long time. He would now bear it no longer. He was cured in a moment — he went away quite well.
The Lord Jesus can do just the same now, as He did then. All diseases are still subject to Him. If He were to put forth His power, He could make the sick quite well in a moment. But He does not always do so. It pleases Him to act differently now, from what He used to do when He was on earth. Then He used to go about healing the sick everywhere — and we do not read of one brought to Him whom He did not heal. Such was His will then.
But now He often lets people be sick still — though they pray to Him. He could heal them — but He does not. He always does what is right, perfectly right — but He does not always answer prayer in the same way.
This makes the case of the sick now, rather different from that of the sick then. The leper who saw or heard of Jesus going about everywhere healing all who came to Him, need not have said, "IF You will," for He showed plainly that it was His will to heal the sick. But those words of his seem just suited to a sick person now; "Lord, IF You will, You can make me whole." We may be quite sure that He can — but we are not quite sure that He will.
But if He will not — then why is it? Not because He is not as kind as He used to be; not because He is not as full of love and pity as ever. No! He never changes — His compassion never fails. He feels for those who suffer, just as He did in His days on earth. But He knows more than we know. He both knows what is best — and does what is best. If it pleases Him not to cure the sick who call upon Him — then that is best.
Therefore, I say again, this prayer (for it is a prayer) seems just the prayer for a sick person who desires to lay his sickness before God. "Lord, if You will — You can make me whole. Take away my sickness — if such is Your will. But if not — then Your will be done. I leave myself in Your hands. I know that You have all power, all wisdom, and all love. Do with me what seems good in Your sight."
But there should be no IF — when we come to Jesus with contrite hearts for the healing of the leprosy of our souls. This leprosy is sin! And Jesus came to take away sin. And all are invited to seek forgiveness through Him — and forgiveness is promised to all who do so. The pardon of sin, therefore, is not like the healing of the body. We do not know that it is the will of God to make the physically sick well; but we do know that it is His will to forgive all who come to Him by Christ. There should be no if here. There is a sure and free forgiveness for all who seek it through the blood of Jesus.
When He was upon earth, Jesus claimed the power of forgiving sins. In this very chapter, we read of their bringing a paralyzed man to Him — and His first words to the sick man were, "Man, your sins are forgiven!" And when the scribes and Pharisees objected to His pretending to the power of forgiving sins, He proved His power by curing the man of his paralysis. He who could do the one — could do the other also. "Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins — I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." He had both the power and the will. He could forgive — and He did forgive.
He has both the power and the will still. He is as willing as He is able. We need not approach Jesus with an if. We may go to Him, pleading that He loved us and gave Himself for us. We may say, "Lord, You can forgive my sin — You can take away my guilt by Your precious blood, for You died for sinners; and You have invited me to come to You and have promised not to cast me out when I come. I do come to You — I come to You with all my heart. I wish for Your forgiveness above all things — pardon me, cleanse me, save me for Your mercies' sake!" Thus we may pray, and pray in faith.
For when the leper came, though with an if — yet because he came, Jesus cured him at once. When the sinner comes with a true and humble faith — though it may be a trembling faith; and owns his sin and casts himself upon the merits of his Savior — he will surely receive healing for his soul. His sins will be forgiven; his guilt will be blotted out; he will be accepted in Christ Jesus.
It was much that the leper was made clean. It is more that the sinner is forgiven — a greater cure, a more wonderful work of mercy. It is the same gracious Savior in both cases — He who both can and will. "I will — be clean!" He said. Let faith hear those words. Let the penitent sinner who comes to Jesus for pardon, receive them as the answer to his cry, "I will — be clean!" Sweet words, when brought home to the heart by the Holy Spirit — words that can soothe soul pain and relieve anxiety and make even a restless night a time of peace; the words of Him who has both the power and the will to forgive: "I will — be clean!"
The Synagogue at Nazareth
He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and, as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And there was delivered to Him the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord."
And He closed the book, and He gave it again to the minister and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on Him.
And He began to say unto them, "This day this scripture is fulfilled in your ears." And all bore Him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth!
If our Lord Jesus Christ had not said, "This day this scripture is fulfilled in your ears" — we would not have known for certain that those words from the 61st Chapter of Isaiah referred to Him; but now we are sure that they did. Sometimes, it is true, prophecies have more meanings than one; many of the prophecies of Isaiah have; and perhaps this prophecy is one of them. Isaiah may have been speaking in part of himself and of the good news which he was appointed to bear to the Jewish nation. But certainly he spoke also of Christ. And what he said was much more fully made good in Christ than in himself.
How much the people in the synagogue must have been surprised when Jesus, after reading the passage, said, "This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears!" Some of them perhaps had never taken the words to refer to any one but Isaiah himself; but many no doubt had thought, and thought truly, that they pointed to the promised Messiah. How surprised they must have been, when Jesus said that the words were fulfilled that very day, and that He therefore (for that was His meaning), was the promised Messiah!
They knew Him well — for this took place at Nazareth, where He had been brought up. He had grown up among them, and they had looked on Him as only the son of Joseph and Mary. Yet now He came into their synagogue, or church, and said that He was the person meant in the prophecy — the great Deliverer that was to come.
All were struck with what He said. But it does not appear that any believed. For though they "wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth" — yet immediately after they were so angry with Him, that they tried to kill Him. They heard His words, but they did not receive them as "gracious words" to themselves. But they were gracious words, and are so still, to all who humbly receive them.
The Lord Jesus said that He was anointed, or solemnly appointed, to preach the gospel to the POOR — that is, to carry good news to the poor. We know what the good news is — the tidings of free pardon and salvation through Christ. This is made known and offered to the poor — the poor in every sense: the poor of this world, the humble, the unlearned; but also the poor spiritually, as having nothing which they can offer to God in order to find favor with Him — no goodness, no righteousness, no merit. No one is so poor, so humble, so unworthy, so bad — but that the gospel comes to him offering him pardon and salvation through Jesus Christ. Are not these "gracious words"?
He said also that He was sent "to heal the BROKEN-HEARTED." Perhaps He meant especially those who are contrite for sin. But none of the broken-hearted are beyond His healing. He . . .
heals the wounded conscience,
comforts the sorrowing heart, and
speaks peace to the troubled spirit.
There cannot be a stronger word for describing the sad and afflicted than this word "broken-hearted," yet He can comfort even the broken-hearted. No one else can. If one is smitten with a sense of sin — then none but Jesus can give him peace. If one is in very deep trouble — then none but He can bring comfort. Kind friends may comfort us in smaller troubles — but a broken heart is beyond their power. He, and He only, can "heal the broken-hearted."
He also has come "to preach deliverance to the CAPTIVES." This must mean captives spiritually, those who are under the power and bondage of sin. And the words that come afterwards, "to set at liberty those who are bruised," have much the same meaning.
A lost sinner is like a miserable prisoner in a dungeon, who has been buffeted and bruised and cannot escape. Sin and Satan hold him fast. Many a sore fall has he had. Many a scar has sin left on him. The Lord Jesus Christ comes to such a one and sets him free. He invites him to repent and seek mercy, offers him hope, and promises him forgiveness and acceptance. By His blood He has made atonement for sin, and in the gospel He offers to every sinner the benefit of that atoning blood. Happy are those who hear and obey His voice! Happy are those who turn at His call and humbly accept the offered mercy! Then their chains, as it were, fall off, and the prison-doors fly open, and they go forth free. Not free to sin — but free to serve. Free from the burden of guilt and from the yoke of Satan, but bound by gratitude and love to a new Master, whose service is perfect freedom.
He also gives sight to the BLIND. When He was on earth, He made many blind people to see — Bartimeus and others. But blindness of heart is even worse than blindness of the eyes, and Jesus Christ cures this sort of blindness too. He came to preach, or proclaim, "recovering of sight to the blind."
For instance, a poor ignorant creature, who has never thought or cared for his soul and has never known of Jesus and His salvation — is like a man who cannot see — he is spiritually blind. But Jesus can make him see. Many such have learned to know and to love Him, and have been brought by His grace to light and life and salvation.
Again, though a man may have more head knowledge of the gospel than this last person — he may still be blind in heart. For many are blinded . . .
by the god of this world,
by the love of sin,
by the darkness of an unrenewed heart.
But Jesus can enlighten these also. Many a time perhaps have they listened to man's words, and yet gone away unchanged. Their reason was convinced, but their heart was not affected — they were blind still. But the grace of God can soften the hardest heart and convince the most obstinate person. The Lord Jesus Christ, by His Spirit, enlightens not only the understanding, but the heart. Thus He gives sight to the blind — not merely showing them good things, but enabling them to see them; not only telling them glad tidings, but inclining their hearts to hear.
One thing more He said that He was come to do: "to PREACH the acceptable year of the Lord." He came to open the way by which sinners might be reconciled to God, and to tell them of it. "The acceptable year," means gospel time, the time in which God will accept or receive returning sinners. This very time in which we are now living is "the acceptable year."
The blood of Jesus has been shed for sinners; mercy is offered to us through Him; the throne of grace is open to us. "Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2). How blessed a thing it is, to live in the accepted time, the day of salvation! How happy that now, even this very day — any poor sinner may lift up his heart to God through Jesus Christ and ask for mercy, and that God has promised to hear him!
But any such word as "day" or "year" means a time that has a limit, or an end. It is so with this "acceptable year of the Lord." It will not last always. It will have an end. The time will come when the day of grace will be past, and when those who would not listen to the voice of mercy — will find it too late to cry to God.
"We, then, as workers together with Him, beseech you also that you receive not the grace of God in vain." Our day of grace will soon be gone; let us lose no time; let us not delay. Now, at once, in this accepted time — let us turn and seek God in Christ Jesus.
When He closed the book, "the eyes of all those who were in the synagogue were fastened upon Him." Even so let our eyes be fastened upon Him — not our bodily eyes, but the eyes of our understanding. Let us look to Him by faith, truly and earnestly, as our only Savior. He is the promised Deliverer. He will deliver us, heal us, enlighten us, and save us!
The Entrance of God's Words
"Your testimonies are wonderful — therefore does my soul keep them. The entrance of Your words gives light — it gives understanding unto the simple. I opened my mouth, and panted — for I longed for Your commandments.
Look upon me, and be merciful unto me, as You have done unto those who love Your Name. Order my steps in Your word — and let not any iniquity have dominion over me. Deliver me from the oppression of man — so will I keep Your precepts. Make Your face to shine upon Your servant and teach me Your statutes. Rivers of waters run down my eyes, because they keep not Your law."
There are times when the Word of God is brought home to us with peculiar power — when we seem to see in it a new and deeper meaning than before, and a closer application to ourselves. It then enlightens, impresses, and comforts us. We feel its value more than ever. We are conscious of a fresh admiration and love for it. Then we are ready to say with the Psalmist, "Your testimonies are wonderful — therefore does my soul keep them. The entrance of Your words gives light — it gives understanding unto the simple."
This is what we should seek — for it is the gift of God, the work of the Spirit, God's blessing on His own Word. We should pray that the words of God may thus find entrance into our hearts — that they may not be to us a mere outward thing, but the voice of God speaking within us. We should ask God Himself, by His Holy Spirit, thus to teach us out of His Word, so that as simple and unlearned as we may be, we may yet have an understanding of the things of God.
The more we have of a true and heartfelt understanding of the Word of God — the more shall we prize and love it, treasuring up what we have learned already and earnestly desiring to learn more. "I opened my mouth, and panted — for I longed for Your commandments."
One thing that we find written in the Bible, is the gracious dealings of God with those who love Him. This should lead us to desire that He may deal graciously with us too. Thus the Psalmist prays, "Look upon me, and be merciful unto me — as You have done unto those who love Your Name." When we read of the mercy of God toward others — how He has forgiven them, blessed them, helped them, delivered them from danger, comforted them in sorrow — then we should be encouraged to seek the same for ourselves. For thus we are taught how God has acted towards those who love His Name, and we may pray that He will deal with us in like manner. David cheered in despondency, Peter was forgiven and restored, Paul was singing praises in prison — such cases should encourage us greatly. God dealt so with them — will He not deal so with us, when we pray to Him?
Another effect of the Word when it reaches the heart, is to give us a hatred of sin and a great desire to walk in God's ways. We see this here: "Order my steps in Your Word — and let not any iniquity have dominion over me." It is a happy thing when a man is led thus to pray against sin. There must be a change in him — a good work, it is to be hoped, begun; for we do not by nature wish to be kept from sin. And when a man prays against sin — it seems that he must besides have learned something of his own weakness. If he thought he could keep from sin by his own strength — then would he seek help of God?
"Order my steps in Your Word." This is what we should seek. That our common daily course, and every step of it — may be according to the Word of God. That in all things, great and small — we may be governed by that rule. Not by the customs or opinions of men, by what others do or what others think — but simply by the Word of God. This is the only true and safe rule.
"Let not iniquity have dominion over me." A man who lives in sin, is the slave of his sin. He flatters himself that he does what he likes and is his own master — but in reality, sin is his master. "Don't you know that to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants you are to whom you obey, whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?" Christ has set us free from this bondage. The true believer in Him is no longer the servant of sin. It is as much a promise as a command: "Sin shall not have dominion over you." Now, wherever there is a promise, there is a warrant for prayer; so we may use this prayer in faith, "Let not any iniquity have dominion over me."
Sometimes we have troubles of other kinds. Man is unjust or unkind towards us. Something of this sort the Psalmist was suffering under; for he says, "Deliver me from the oppression of man." In any trouble, whatever it may be — we should pray. It is our greatest comfort and our greatest help. "Deliver me!" we may say. God
can deliver us. We need hardly say more — if we say that from the heart. For God knows all — and the way, the means, and the time, it is best to leave to Him.
The Psalmist puts up that short petition as the thought of his oppressors comes over him, but then he goes back again directly to what he had been praying about before: "So will I keep Your precepts." This was his chief desire. If he were delivered from the oppression of his enemies — then he would be more free perhaps to serve God. And not only so, but he would consider this gracious deliverance as a fresh motive for serving God. Come what might, this was his earnest desire and his fixed purpose: "So will I keep Your precepts."
And now he seems to draw even nearer to God and to raise his thoughts and desires yet higher. Before he had prayed, "Look upon me, and be merciful unto me." Now he prays, "Make Your face to shine upon Your servant." Yes, he was God's servant. He delighted to consider himself so. He draws near to God, therefore, not as a stranger, but as one of His servants, humbly yet in hope and trust. He asks to be made happy — but happy in God, in God's favor and love,
"Make Your face to shine upon Your servant"! Beautiful figure! As on some dark and gloomy day, if the sun breaks forth from the clouds, in a moment all is bright, and nature seems to smile again; so it is with the soul when God shines upon it with the light of His countenance. This is what the Psalmist asks for. This is what we too may seek for Christ's sake. For He is our peace. He has reconciled us to God by His blood. Through Him, we may draw near in faith and seek mercy, pardon, and acceptance, the favor of God, the light of His countenance. Nothing else can make us truly happy. In His favor is life.
But there can be no true happiness apart from duty. Once more the Psalmist goes back to his former subject: "Make Your face to shine upon Your servant — and teach me Your statutes." It is not pleasure and happiness, apart from keeping God's commandments, that he asks for. He joins the two. He asks in one breath for God's
favor and God's teaching — that God will make His face to shine upon him — and also that He will teach him His statutes.
In the same way, if we would be truly happy, we must follow his example. Our happiness and our duty are linked together. God Himself is the only source of happiness, and it is only when we are humbly striving to walk in His ways, that we can find happiness in Him. Sin indulged and happiness in God, cannot be together. "Teach me Your statutes!" How good, how right a prayer! Teach me not only to know, but to believe and feel and do them. Teach, incline, dispose my heart. Teach me from Your Word; teach me by Your Spirit; teach me by Your providential dealings. By all Your providential dealings — by sickness, by sorrow, by trial. It is a good prayer, and a fit prayer for us all — a prayer which God will not refuse to hear: "Teach me Your statutes!"
When a man has such thoughts and such desires for himself, he is sure to care for others too. "Rivers of waters run down my eyes — because they do not keep Your law." Has this anything to do with what has gone before? At first sight it may seem not, but a moment's thought shows us that it has. The Psalmist has been thinking and praying about the Word of God. He has been under the impression of the Word — of . . .
its great truths,
its solemn warnings,
its deep importance,
The Word has entered his heart — he has felt it deeply.
He has also been praying for deliverance from his oppressors, for light, guidance, mercy, comfort, happiness. His last words of prayer were, "Teach me Your statutes." What wonder, that his thoughts should turn to the multitudes who were not walking in God's statutes (his own oppressors among them perhaps), and who were thus far from God, from the light of His countenance, from safety, and happiness. There is no great change in his thoughts. It is but a natural turn for the mind to take.
There is no true servant of God, but must grieve for the ungodly. And that, on account both of God dishonored — and of their souls endangered. He who has learned to know and love God in Christ Jesus feels a tender pity for sinners, even for those who have done him wrong. Their sins, their carelessness, their danger, are a trouble to his mind. He can enter into the Psalmist's words; nay, he can truly say the same of himself: "Rivers of waters run down my eyes, because they keep not Your law."
What is the next step? To pray for them. Ah, what a comfort, that when we can do nothing else for others — we can pray! Many an earnest prayer goes up from a sick-bed — not only for oneself but also for others. A sick person has much time for thought, and many thoughts come into his mind about his family, his friends, his old acquaintances and neighbors, his enemies perhaps, and the world at large. Let him pray for them! He may do them good which he little thinks of. He may do more for them now, perhaps, than ever he did before. He may thus return good for evil to some. Let him freely forgive all who have injured him. Let a tender sorrow for sinners fill his mind. And let him plead for them at the throne of grace for Jesus' sake!
Our Conversation in Heaven
For our conversation is in Heaven; from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our lowly body, that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body, according to the working whereby He is able even to subdue all things unto Himself.
"Our conversation" here does not mean our talking together, as we generally use the word now, but something quite different. It means our citizenship, our home. So that when the apostle says, "Our conversation is in Heaven," his meaning is something of this kind: "We are strangers and pilgrims on the earth — and we desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Already in heart and by title we belong to that country — Heaven is our home."
He speaks in fact somewhat as an Englishman might speak, who is living abroad for a time, but hopes to return to his native land. Such a man might say, "My conversation, my home, is not here — in this country I am but a stranger. I belong to England — there is my home, and there I hope some day to live."
An Englishman, it is clear, may speak thus of England — but who may speak thus of Heaven? Every true believer, every humble disciple of Christ, everyone who has given his heart to Him and is pressing toward the mark for the prize! There is no presumption in such a one saying, "Our citizenship is in Heaven"; for our Lord Himself told His disciples when He was about to leave them, that He was going to prepare a place for them, and that it was His will that where He was, there they should be also; and, before that, He bade them lay up for themselves treasures not upon earth, but in Heaven, and added, "For where your treasure is — there will your heart be also."
He Himself therefore has made Heaven the home of all who love Him, and it is His will that they should have their hearts there already. How happy that He lets us say even now, "Our citizenship is in Heaven!" How happy, that we may not only look forward to being there hereafter — but may even reckon ourselves to belong to that heavenly home already! This is a foretaste of Heaven itself.
But this word "conversation," though it does not mean talking together — yet does seem to relate to our conduct as well as to our home. "Our conversation is in Heaven" means that our home is in Heaven, and that our way of life is also heavenly.
We shall understand this better if we think again of the Englishman abroad. I have supposed him to remain an Englishman still, though living in a foreign country. But sometimes a man gives up his country altogether and never seeks to come back to it. Having long lived abroad, he has so entirely left off English habits and fallen into the ways of the country in which he lives — that he would not be known any longer to be an Englishman. Such a man would hardly say, "My home is in England."
Now, the true citizen of Heaven is not such a citizen as this. He not only has his home in Heaven, but his heart is there too. Not only does he look forward to dwelling there hereafter, but even now he seeks to be holy and heavenly in life and character. Thus he is known by all that he does and says — to be one who belongs to Heaven, and that more and more, as he gets nearer to his home. "They admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them!" Hebrews 11:13-16
Those who live the life of faith, and love their Savior, and strive to serve God — are different in their whole conduct from men of the world. It is plain that they are not of this world. Their life shows it. Their conduct is in Heaven. It is so in a measure — but it ought to be so far more.
There ought to be no mistaking a citizen of Heaven. But, alas! There is too much of worldliness and carelessness even in those who are in the narrow way. Too often it would be hard to know them as travelers towards Zion, seeking the heavenly country. We ought often to stir ourselves up by the thought of what we humbly believe God has prepared for us for Christ's sake. What! Shall those who are to live forever with God — have so little fellowship with Him now? Shall those whose treasure is there, where no rust nor moth can corrupt — care so much for the perishing things of this world? Shall those for whom Jesus has gone to prepare a place — fret against the little hardships and discomforts along the way? Thus the Christian should often remind himself of the home to which he belongs. It would help him to be heavenly in heart and life.
But perhaps the thought that would help him most of all, is the thought of Jesus coming again. "For our citizenship is in Heaven, from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." We look for Him; we expect Him; we are waiting for Him. He said that He would return, and told us to watch for His coming. We do not know when He will come — but He will come. He has told us to be ready, so that when He comes, we may receive Him with joy. This is the position of the Christian on earth — waiting for his Lord.
We do not know when He will come, and we do not know how He will come. Some will be alive when He comes and will see Him appear in the clouds — some will have died before He comes. We do not know how it will be with us. He may come while yet we are living — or we may die before His coming; no one knows. But whether dead or living, all will see Him when He comes; for then the dead will rise to life again; nay, it is said, "the dead in Christ shall rise first." Besides, when the believer dies, his soul goes to be with Jesus; so that death is to him, in one sense, the coming of the Lord, the coming to take him home to rest; as Jesus Himself said, "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto Myself, that where I am, there you may be also."
Now it is plain that to be thus looking for the coming of the Lord — must have a great effect on a man's character and life. It must keep him from living in sin or in carelessness. It must make him watchful, diligent, and in earnest. It must lead him to draw off his affections from the world — and to fix them upon eternal realities. It must tend greatly to a spiritual mind. And this seems, in fact, to be just what our Lord meant when He said, "Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning, as though you were waiting for your master to return from the wedding feast. Then you will be ready to open the door and let him in the moment he arrives and knocks."
Thinking of Him,
looking for Him,
wishing for Him,
doing His will,
engaged in His work —
this is what Jesus would have us to do and be.
Lord, make us so more and more! Teach us to have our conduct in Heaven! Teach us to look for You, dressed for service and our lamps burning!
But our body, there is something said at the end about that. It is called "our vile body" — that means a poor, weak, sinful body. And so it is indeed. It is subject to pain and sickness — and it has many weaknesses. How can such a body live forever? How can this "vile body" dwell in that heavenly home? It will not be a vile body then. It is to be changed! The Lord Jesus Christ will change it when He comes. He Himself has a glorious body now, no longer subject to pain and hunger and fatigue, as when He was upon earth. And He will change our bodies, so as to be like His glorious body! Then we too shall have bodies without weakness, sickness, or pain — glorious and immortal bodies, able to live forever in happiness!
When we think of our present bodies, with all their infirmities, we are ready to ask, "How can this be?" Jesus will do it! He who died for us overcame death for us — rescued us from the power of Satan. He who is able even to subdue all things unto Himself, He will do this for us too. He, by His mighty working, will change our vile body into a glorious body; and then He will take us to be with Him forever!
All glory be to His Name, the First and the Last, the Author and Finisher of our faith — who lives and was dead and is alive for evermore!
He redeemed us by His blood!
He called us by His grace!
He is present with us by His Spirit even now!
He will come again!
He will change us into His own likeness!
He will take us to Himself!
"And so shall we be forever with the Lord."
All glory to His Name!
The Christian's Armor
"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should." Ephesians 6:10-20
We have a great enemy — and we have no strength of our own against him. All our strength is in God; therefore the apostle says, "Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God."
But this was written first to those who were leading an active life, a life full of work and of duties, a life of danger and temptation. Does the enemy of souls attack the weak and sick also? Must they too be armed against him?
Yes. They are not safe from him. They are withdrawn from the world, from work and business and society — but they are not withdrawn from the temptations of Satan. Did he not tempt our Lord in His retirement, and at a time when He was weak through fasting? He does not keep away from the sick-room. He does not spare any. Thank God, the armor which He has provided for us is armor which will suit all, and at all times!
Observe however, before considering the armor, that the apostle would have us think very seriously of the power of our enemy, the devil. "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."
There is something solemn in these words. They give us an idea of a mysterious, unseen, spiritual power always at work against us. Not "flesh and blood," not a human power — but wicked spirits, very powerful and very crafty. This is what we have to wrestle against.
We are to take and put on "the whole armor of God." There is comfort in the very words. Here is a complete suit of armor, and a whole set of weapons, provided for us by God Himself. No defense of man's making, no weapons of his contriving, but all of God, full and sufficient even against such an enemy: "Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand the whole armor of God."
It is a figure of speech, made use of to show us the help and defense which God has prepared for us. Christians are called soldiers of Christ — and this is their armor. Now a soldier's armor consists of various parts and weapons. And carrying on the figure, the apostle goes on to describe the various parts of the Christian's armor — that is, the various means which God has given him for resisting Satan.
We are to stand — mind that word; we are not to yield at all, but to stand firm — having the belt of truth buckled around your waist. You see, truth comes first. We must not trust in anything that is not true. All our defense must be built on the truth of God. And not only so — but we ourselves must be true, perfectly sincere and upright before God. The ancient soldier used to gird up his loins while he mounted guard, and before he went into battle, that he might be ready for everything. We too must be ready, prepared to bring against Satan the truth of God, a true faith, a true heart.
The breastplate was an important part of ancient armor. It guarded the heart. We are to have a breastplate, "the breastplate of righteousness." What does this mean? It cannot mean our own righteousness. Paul himself explains it, when he writes to the Philippians of his great desire to be found in Christ, "Not having my own righteousness, which is of the law — but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith." It is the righteousness of Christ that is meant — justification by faith in Him. We are to have this on as a breastplate, to wear it as a defense against Satan, never to put it off or let it go.
Part of the armor is for defense — and part for offense. Now we come to a part that is for offense: "And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace." We are to go forward in the spirit of the gospel — our faith fixed on Christ, our hearts filled with gospel truth and gospel love, prepared to meet everything that may befall us in a kind and Christian way; ourselves at peace within, peacemakers wherever we go, and ready and zealous to make known the gospel to others.
The very figure shows that we are not to be idle. The feet are shod for active exertion. We are to be active. Slothfulness lays us open to the attacks of Satan. Even if our bodily strength is small, our opportunities few, our sphere narrow — yet we are to be ready, each for what his Lord calls him to. A fervent spirit will find something to do.
Next we come to the shield. That was a piece of armor that was held before him by the ancient soldier, to ward off the darts and other weapons of the enemy. Our shield is our faith, "the shield of faith." We are to take this "above all"; not above all, as being more important and necessary than the other parts of the armor — but over all, as being held in front of them, and so forming an additional defense.
With this "shield of faith" we are to "quench," or turn aside, "all the fiery darts of the wicked one." All of them — implying that they are many and various. And so they are. Evil thoughts are among them. Thoughts that come, we know not how. Thoughts, for instance, of murmuring, of rebellion, of mistrust, of doubt, of despair. Against all these darts of Satan — we are to hold forth the shield of faith. A personal, living faith in Christ Jesus — a faith that He died for us and lives for us — a faith in all God's promises in Him — a faith in the Comforter who He said should come to us, the Holy Spirit. Thus we are to meet the enemy.
"The helmet of salvation" is more fully described in the first epistle to the Thessalonians, "and for a helmet, the hope of salvation." It means a well-founded, scriptural hope of being saved by Christ. This we are encouraged to have and to keep and to make use of as another defense against the enemy.
"The sword of the Spirit" is what we are to fight with, "which is the Word of God." For we are not only to wear armor to defend us against Satan — but we are also to make attacks upon him and his kingdom. We are soldiers of Christ, and a soldier must not be content to be always on the defensive. What is preaching, what is every effort to extend the gospel and to do good to souls — but an attack on Satan's kingdom? We must all, as God gives us opportunity — take to the sword, as well as wear the armor. Our sword is the Word of God. No other weapon will do any service against Satan. Human wisdom, human eloquence, human power, are nothing against him — only the Word of God will prevail.
Thus the apostle has gone through all the parts of the Christian's armor: the girding of his loins, his breastplate, the covering for his feet, his shield, his helmet, and his sword. He is to take them all. They are all parts of "the whole armor of God." He must not neglect any.
One thing more he mentions, not as a part of the armor — yet as absolutely necessary — prayer. "And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should."
Prayer is thus put alone, apart from the armor. Perhaps this is because all the parts of the armor must be used in a spirit of prayer — of prayer and watchfulness, for watching is mentioned too. Yes, we must "pray without ceasing." Whatever else we do, we must pray! "Praying always," he says, "with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit." Without prayer, we cannot really use any part of the armor.
But for whom are we to pray? For ourselves, certainly. That Satan may not prevail against us, that our armor may defend us indeed, that we may be good soldiers of Christ. But this is not what the apostle says here. "Praying always ... for all saints;" that is, for our fellow-Christians, and for all of them. Do not we often forget to do this? Yet it is a real duty, a part of every Christian's duty. If Christians did it more for one another, how greatly would Satan's power be lessened, how much strength and help would surely be given! And we can pray, wherever we are.
But again, the apostle begs them to pray for him, that he might open his mouth boldly to preach the gospel. Christians should pray much for the ministers of the gospel, especially for their own ministers. Thus they may help forward the work of Christ, though they themselves be laid aside from it. Sometimes an active laborer in Christ's service is laid aside by sickness or by some other cause. He used to be of great service — zealous, active, persevering, ready for every good work, he was the minister's right hand. He is much missed.
Ah, but he can still work — for he can pray, and pray for his minister. His help is not really withdrawn as long as he can pray; it is only changed to another kind of help. Perhaps he was so busy before, that he did not pray enough. Now let him pray more. From his retirement, from his sick-room, let him beseech God to bless the preaching of the Word in the place in which he lives, to give boldness, zeal, and faith to ministers, to send down the gift of His Holy Spirit, to quicken souls into spiritual life. Thus he will be a worker and a helper still — a soldier of the cross, a true yoke-fellow.
We Need Stirring Up!
2 PETER 1:12-15.
"Therefore I will not be negligent to put you always in remembrance of these things, though you know them, and are established in the present truth. Yes, I think it right, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up by putting you in remembrance; knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ has shown me. Moreover I will endeavor that you may be able after my decease to have these things always in remembrance."
In spiritual things we need putting in mind — even of that which we know well. For spiritual things are not like common things. Though we may know them well — yet we are apt to lose the impression of them on our hearts, to leave off feeling them, to grow cold and careless about them. We need putting in mind and stirring up. We need to hear the same things again and again, "line upon line — line upon line."
There is something very solemn in the way in which Peter writes here. He was now an old man and expected soon to die. "Knowing," he says, "that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ has shown me." He was at present in a tabernacle or tent only, meaning his mortal body; but he was soon going to put off the tabernacle and to leave the world. As long as he stayed, he would remind them of the truth and press it home to their hearts and consciences. Moreover, he would do his best that even when he was gone, they should still remember what he had taught them; and, with that view, as well as for their instruction at the time, he wrote these letters to them. God has preserved these writings for us to this very day.
For eighteen hundred years they have helped to bring men to the knowledge of the truth, and to put them in mind of it. Perhaps the apostle himself little thought how long his words would last, and how many millions would read them and hear them and receive good from them.
We shall all put off our tabernacle in a short time. How important is it that we should not let the things we have heard slip — that we should be giving diligence to make our calling and election sure — that we should not be negligent, careless, forgetful, or slothful!
The words of the aged apostle, so near his end, must have come to the early Christians with a solemn force. Let us also take them, not only as a portion of the inspired Word — but also as the parting charge of the dying servant of God. When eternity is near — solemn things seem yet more solemn. It was in this frame of mind that Peter wrote. In the same spirit let us receive his words.
We need stirring up — not so much to be taught something new, as to be stirred up as to what we have learned already.
Most of us have long ago been taught the facts and doctrines of the gospel. Probably we know them well. Perhaps we are even firmly "established in the present truth." We have learned of Heaven and Hell and eternity. We have been taught our lost estate as sinners, and that Jesus died for sinners — that His precious blood has atoned for sin, that He has opened the way for us to the throne of grace and to acceptance with God. We have heard of death and of judgment — and of the uncertainty of life and the shortness of time. We have been told . . .
of Satan's devices,
of the value of prayer,
of the mercy and love of God in Christ,
and of the work of the Spirit.
What is our spiritual state, after so much teaching? Alas, how cold are our hearts, how trifling are our thoughts, how small is our zeal and love! How little we have of deep sorrow for sin — and how little sincere faith in Jesus! Where are the fruits of the Spirit in us? Where is . . .
that deep concern,
that earnest desire,
that warmth of feeling,
that pressing toward the mark —
which might be expected in those who have learned such things?
We need stirring up!
The prophet Isaiah speaks of stirring up oneself: "There is none who calls upon Your Name — none who stirs up himself to take hold of You." We should stir ourselves up thus. We should think of the great concerns of our souls. We should wake up from sleep. We should rouse ourselves to lay hold by faith afresh and more earnestly, on Christ our Savior.
We should stir ourselves up also by the Word of God.
Let us apply it to ourselves and take it as if addressed to us.
Let us not listen to it or read it carelessly.
Let us not be hearers only — but doers of the Word . . .
receiving it as God's message,
pondering it in our minds,
applying it to ourselves,
believing it, and
striving to live by it!
Peter wrote as an aged servant of God, soon about to depart, but he wrote also as an inspired apostle — his words therefore are to be taken as the message of God to us.
Once more, let us pray for the quickening influence of God's Holy Spirit. This alone can really stir the depths of our hearts and rouse us from spiritual sloth and give us new earnestness and zeal.
Will He not hear our prayer for the quickening influence of His Spirit? Let us not doubt that He will. In all the coldness and deadness of our hearts, let us pray to Him for this; not waiting until we feel a glow of warmth and earnestness, but asking for that very thing. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself said of the promised Comforter, "He shall teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance whatever I have said unto you."
O God, our Father, for Jesus Christ's sake, send the quickening influence of Your Holy Spirit into our hearts. Leave us not in coldness and carelessness. Leave us not in the mere profession of faith. Preserve us from being barren or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Teach us to feel more deeply our need of Him; teach us to believe in Him more simply and fully; stir us up to lay hold on Him by faith, and help us to find peace in Him. Renew in us past impressions and convictions of Your Word — renew and strengthen and deepen. Help us to have these things always in remembrance. Revive Your work within us. Thus, even while in this tabernacle, may grace and peace be multiplied unto us; and hereafter may an entrance be ministered unto us abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Lord, hear us for His sake. Amen.
"How long will You forget me, O Lord? Forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and hear me, O Lord my God. Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death; lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed against him!"; and those who trouble me rejoice when I am moved. But I have trusted in Your mercy; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing unto the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me."
The Lord did not really forget David — no, not for a moment. It was only the downcast heart of the Psalmist which made him think himself forgotten. God never forgets us. In our darkest moments, when our spirit is overwhelmed within us, when we feel most lonely, helpless, and forlorn — we are not forgotten by God. Even then our gracious God is remembering us — His all-seeing eye is upon us, and those very feelings are known and regarded and cared for by Him.
David was in deep despondency, a despondency that had lasted some time; for he says, "How long will You forget me, O Lord? Forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?" So long had he been without the comforting sense of God's presence, that it seemed as if he never would enjoy it again: "How long will You forget me, O Lord? Forever?" God does sometimes try His servants so. Not with a mere momentary gloom, but with gloom long continued, day after day. It seems long indeed to them, for they have learned to seek their comfort in God alone, and without Him they can find none.
At such times God does not forget them — yet the light of His countenance is hidden. He is not changed — but they can see Him no longer. It was so with David when he wrote this psalm. It is so still at times with those who love God. God lets it be so.
Who the enemy was of whom David speaks, we do not know. But we have an enemy too — a spiritual enemy, the enemy of our souls. And one of his great objects is to rob us of the comfort of God's presence and to make us think that God forgets us and turns away His face from us. David thought of his enemy in his despondency; but we do not always think of ours. It would be well if we did. For then we would often be able to see that it was he who put these desponding and unbelieving thoughts into our hearts and made us think that God was forgetting us.
Alas! We often believe our enemy — more than our friend. When God speaks comfort — we are slow to believe; when Satan tempts to unbelief and despondency — how readily we listen! If we knew the voice to be his and remembered what he is and what is his object — then surely we should resist and not give way.
Long and sad were David's thoughts. "How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily?" It is right to think at such times — to take counsel with our own hearts. It may be that we shall find something to account for our lack of comfort in God — some sin indulged, some carelessness, something wrong. It is right to "search and try our ways," but it is neither right nor wise to sit brooding over our sorrows.
We do not know exactly what David's thoughts were while he thus sorrowfully took counsel in his heart; most likely they were right thoughts. But this we see plainly — that it was not until he addressed himself to God that comfort came. He begins in great despondency, in a tone almost of complaint — yet he does address himself to God, and soon his tone changes. From complaint — he goes on to prayer.
His first petition is merely that God will attend to him: "Consider and hear me, O Lord my God." But even this was much. Just now he thought that God had forgotten him — but now he begs that He will remember him; there was some hope the moment he turned his thoughts toward God. The hope grows; the prayer becomes more like a prayer still.
Now he prays for a special blessing: "Enlighten my eyes — lest I sleep the sleep of death." Here he lays before God his peculiar trouble, the absence of God from his soul, the hiding of His face: "Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death." Agreeing much with that other prayer of his in the 28th Psalm, "Be not silent to me — lest if You be silent to me, I become like those who go down into the pit." And lastly, he prays directly and plainly about that which was, as it seems, the chief source of his trouble and despondency, and beseeches God that his enemy might not be able to boast that he had prevailed against him.
Thus we see a kind of progress in prayer, a going on step-by-step from the first cry to God — to a full petition for help and relief. And so it is in general. Prayer teaches prayer. Even while praying — we learn how to pray. Turn your desponding thoughts upward; no longer brood over your sorrows — speak of them to God in Christ, and at once a great step is gained. You have gone to God. You have approached the mercy-seat. You have placed yourself in the eternal presence. The very act has wrought a change.
Now you pray more. Your wants, your distresses, your fears, your sorrows, take the form of prayer. You lay them before God. You are able now to name them one by one. You ask God to relieve and help you. You ask for the special blessings you stand in need of. While you looked down on yourself and your sorrows — you were in gloom; now that you look up — you can pray again, and a little light begins to appear.
Nay, more than a little. See how it was with David. How speedy, how almost sudden, the change in his tone! He desponds and he complains — then he looks up and he prays; and now at once we find him trusting, rejoicing, praising. "But I have trusted in Your mercy; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing unto the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me." What was this but the answer to his prayer? God had not forgotten him — he knew it now. God's face was no longer hidden from him — it had only seemed to be so before.
Ah! Let us learn, in moments of despondency — to turn at once to God. Often it is one of the temptations of the evil one, to try to make us think that God will not hear us. But let us not listen to that father of lies. God will hear. For Jesus Christ's sake, who died for us, lives for us, pleads for us — God will hear us.
Yes, it is true, we are unworthy to pray; the enemy whispers it to us, and it is true. But shall we for that keep back from prayer? Never! Does not God invite the unworthy? Did not Jesus die for the unworthy? Has He not made open the way for them to the throne of grace, and does He not plead for them there? Yes, we are unworthy, and Satan would have our unworthiness keep us from prayer.
Rather let our unworthiness lead us to pray. If we need so much, if we need all — then let us pray the more. Let us go, all unworthy as we are, all sad and downcast — to God in prayer. Let us go in the Name of Jesus Christ, pleading His Name, resting on His merits — and truly we shall be heard. In all gloom, in all despondency, arising from whatever cause, it must be right; it is right, to pray. God is not offended even when we can but mourn and complain before Him, "How long, O Lord! How long?" He will surely hear us, when we pray to Him in truth: "Consider and hear me, O Lord my God."
We must pray for faith. We must seek to be able to say, "But I have trusted in Your mercy." In most cases, it is lack of faith which causes gloom. We must earnestly pray for faith, as a special gift of God, the work of the Holy Spirit. And then, in His own good time — joy and praise will follow. When we can trust — then we shall rejoice; and when we rejoice — we shall praise. For all is of God, His free and gracious gift to us in Christ Jesus — the light of His countenance, comfort in trouble, pardon and peace, happy thoughts returning, the humble assurance of His love — all is of His undeserved mercy! To Him be all the praise! "My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing unto the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me."
The Epistle to the Laodicean Church
And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, "These things says the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God: 'I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I would you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot — I will spew you out of My mouth. You say, "I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing" — and know not that you are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from Me gold tried in the fire — that you may be rich; and white clothing — that you may be clothed, and that the shame of your nakedness does not appear; and anoint your eyes with eye-salve — that you may see. As many as I love — I rebuke and chasten. Be zealous therefore, and repent.'"
The Laodicean Church represents the lukewarm professor in every age. He is "neither cold nor hot." He is not what would be called a careless or ungodly person. He knows the truth and approves of it. He makes a right profession and pays an outward respect to religion. Yet he is not hearty and zealous. He is not really in earnest. His soul is not the great concern with him. Christ is not first in his affections. Decent and respectable as he is in conduct — he has no love to God and has not given his heart to his Savior. He is but lukewarm — neither cold nor hot.
What does the Lord Jesus say of such? Something very awful, something that is even startling in its strength and plainness. "I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I would you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth!" That is, I will cast you forth — I will utterly reject you — I will disown you altogether. Such was His mind toward the Laodiceans — such is His mind toward the lukewarm now, for He does not change. What was displeasing to Him then — is displeasing to Him now.
The root of lukewarmness seems to be the lack of a due sense of sin. "Because you say, 'I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing' — and know not that you are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked." This may refer in part to worldly riches, for Laodicea is said to have been a rich place at that time. If so, their pride of wealth was a help to their lukewarmness — and a hindrance to their spirituality. Without great watchfulness, riches are always a hindrance! Our Lord Himself taught us so.
But worldly riches are certainly not all that is meant here. The Laodiceans thought they were spiritually rich too. They imagined they had some righteousness of their own, some strength and resources in themselves. They did not know themselves. They had not learned truly and deeply, that they were sinners. Hence their lukewarmness — their lack of life and warmth and zeal.
The very first lesson we must learn — is what we are. We may seem to make great progress in religion, we may learn much of doctrine, we may increase greatly in knowledge. But if we have never learned to know ourselves, and if we are not growing continually in that knowledge — then our progress is no real progress after all — and we are building a house without a foundation. We are like a man pretending to mount a ladder, without beginning at the lower rounds.
What are we, then? Just what the Laodiceans were, but did not know themselves to be, "Wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked!" What, all of us? Yes, all of us, in ourselves; all of us, until we have really done what this message to the Laodiceans bids us do.
We are "wretched," for we are in great misery and danger — and all the more wretched because we do not know it.
We are "miserable," worthy to be pitied, even while we flatter ourselves that all is well with us, for we are but deceiving ourselves.
We are "poor," for we have no spiritual wealth, no supply whatever for the needs of our souls.
We are "blind," ignorant of our own hearts, ignorant of God, ignorant of truth and of the way of life.
We are "naked," with no righteousness of our own in which we can appear — no covering, no defense, no refuge.
We are all this — and, worst of all, we do not know it! If we knew it and bewailed it — then our case would not be so bad; for then we would be more likely to seek elsewhere, what we have not got in ourselves. In other words, if we knew ourselves to be sinners — then it might be hoped that we should seek the Savior of sinners. But we shall never seek Him — until we feel our need of Him!
There is One who knows just what we are. The Lord Jesus Christ says, "I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot." His eye is always upon us. He knows us exactly as we are, each one of us. Profession does not deceive Him. Knowledge does not pass with Him for repentance, faith, and holiness. He knows our hearts — and He knows our lives. The mockery of an empty profession, the mere pretense of a religion that is all in the head or on the lips, the unhumbled heart, the coldness, the hardness, the lack of faith and gratitude and love — He knows them all.
What then? Does He cast off the lukewarm? Does He put an end at once to this empty religion, so displeasing as it is to Him? So displeasing that He even says, "I would you were cold or hot." How gracious He is! How merciful and long-suffering! He will indeed reject the lukewarm — if they continue so; but He kindly and faithfully warns them not to remain as they are.
"I counsel you," He says. He is called, you remember, "the Counselor." "I counsel you" — I, who know all, all your state, and all your need — I, who cannot be deceived — I, the Counselor, counsel you — I give you this advice. Ah, let us listen to what He says! Let us hear with reverence what He would have us do.
"I counsel you to buy from Me gold tried in the fire — that you may be rich; and white clothing — that you may be clothed, and that the shame of your nakedness does not appear; and anoint your eyes with eye-salve — that you may see."
The lukewarm thought they had all this before: riches and clothing and sight — but they had none of it. Now the Lord Jesus bids them seek it in truth, and seek it of Him.
Sight — to see themselves in their wretched and helpless state; the enlightening and convincing of their hearts by the Holy Spirit; true riches, "the unsearchable riches of Christ".
"White clothing," the wedding garment which He gives to every true believer — robes washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb.
But may we indeed hope to obtain all this? Yes, for He who gives the advice — is also He in whom all fullness dwells. He sends us nowhere else for it. It is to be had of no one else. He bids us to seek it from Him. Will He not then bestow it?
But He says, "I counsel you to buy from Me." But we have nothing to pay. We thought we had before. But now we have learned, for He Himself has taught us that we are poor. He tells us to buy — and we have nothing to offer Him. How shall we obtain? We are to buy on gospel terms, and they are these: "Ho! everyone that thirsts, come to the waters! And he who has no money — come, buy, and eat! Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!" This is gospel buying — these are gospel terms: "without money and without price," the very terms that are suited to the poor, the only terms on which we could ever buy. Thanks be to God, that He bids us buy thus!
Has what the gracious Savior has said, seemed sharp and stern? He would not have us think of Him so. "As many as I love," says He, "I rebuke and chasten — be zealous therefore, and repent." It was not in anger that He spoke — but in love. Even when He said, "So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth!" — even then, it was but that the lukewarm might have his eyes opened to his state and might be zealous and repent. He sends this message to us in love. His rebukes and chastenings are but the dealings of His love, to lead us to Himself and to happiness.
Do His words seem sharp? Yet there is love and faithfulness in them — they are much needed — He will not leave us in a cold and lifeless state. Do His chastenings and His dealings, seem painful? Is the sickness sore? Is the trial long? Yet all is in love still. "As many as I love — I rebuke and chasten."
Gracious Savior! Teach us . . .
to know Your love,
to hear Your voice,
to feel Your hand.
We thank You for every faithful warning and for every loving chastisement. We thank You for all that You do toward us — to humble us, to teach us, and to draw us in heart to You. We thank You for Your gracious counsel and for Your free offers. We come to You according to Your Word. May our eyes be anointed, that we may see! Give us of Your unsearchable riches! May our sins be washed away in Your precious blood — and may we stand before You in pure white robes! Lord, give us Your Holy Spirit — deepen our sense of sin — show us what we are — increase our faith. Take from us all lukewarmness — may we no longer be neither cold nor hot. Touch our conscience, impress our hearts, make us truly in earnest. Help us by Your grace to be zealous and to repent.
"Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches!" Revelation 3:20-22
This is the conclusion of the epistle to the Laodicean Church. The Lord Jesus Christ in the former part sharply rebukes that church for lukewarmness, because they were "neither cold nor hot." Now He ends with these gracious words of invitation.
He speaks to us as well as to the Laodiceans, for He says, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." He who has an ear — to whomever these words may come, whoever has the power of hearing or reading them — let him hear what the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, says to the churches; and let him take the words as spoken not merely to them, but to him also. Let us receive them so. The Lord Jesus Christ by the Spirit speaks to us.
"Behold, I stand at the door, and knock." What door? The door of our hearts — our unworthy and sinful hearts. The Lord Jesus (speaking figuratively) stands there and knocks. He, so high, so great, so holy — the Son of God stands at the door of our hearts. Stands there, and knocks.
Why does He knock? To be let in. That we may open the door of our hearts and admit Him. He desires to find entrance there.
But why should He desire to find entrance there? It is not a place worthy of Him. It is a lowly and unworthy place for Him to come to. The poor man knocks at the door of the rich and asks alms; the friend knocks at the door of his friend, that he may go in and converse with him — but why should Jesus knock at the door of our hearts? Yet does not a kind rich man sometimes knock at the door of the poor, and even of the wicked — that he may go in and carry them help and do them good? Somewhat in this way, only with far more condescension, kindness, and love — the Lord Jesus knocks at the door of our hearts. It is to bring us help, to do us good, to make us happy, to save us.
Do we not think it double kindness, if the rich and kind themselves come to help the poor? It would be kind to send them help — it is doubly kind to bring it. The Lord Jesus sends us messages; but He also comes Himself, by the Spirit. He comes Himself, that He may be let in. And indeed nothing else would meet our need. We need Him. Not merely His gifts — but He Himself. He comes therefore, and knocks for admittance — that He may enter and be our Savior.
What does He say that He will do for us, when we open the door and let Him in? "If any man hears My voice, and opens the door — I will come in to him, and will eat with him, and he with Me." Ah, gracious Lord! The centurion thought himself unworthy that You should come under his roof, even to heal his servant — and will You indeed come into our poor hearts? You ate with publicans and sinners — and now You will come in to such as us. You sought and saved those who were lost then — and You do the same now!
He says, "I will come in and eat with him — and he with Me." This shows that He will not merely come in, but will also be kind to us and hold fellowship with us and give us food for our souls and supply our needs and make us happy. For in the Bible, a feast is often used to show spiritual plenty and comfort and happiness. The blessedness to come is represented to us under the figure of "the marriage supper of the Lamb" — and when Jesus comes and makes His abode in the heart, there is a foretaste of that blessedness.
Yes, when He comes in, He will come to be our Savior — to save us, to bless us, to supply our need, to satisfy our souls, to give us peace, comfort, and happiness in union with Himself.
"And he with Me" — the poor sinner, all unworthy in himself, will not be afraid of One so gracious. He will venture to hold communion with Him, and it will be the strength and happiness of his soul.
What follows expresses even more, a higher glory and happiness still. "To him who overcomes, I will grant to sit with Me in My throne, even as I also overcame, and sat down with My Father in His throne." What! Shall repentant sinners sit with Him in His throne? Will He raise us as high as that? We can hardly raise even our thoughts so high. Yet He says so. And though we may not be able fully to understand what He means — yet this is plain, that He will give a share in His glory to all who overcome.
But mark, this is for "him who overcomes." When Christ is admitted into the heart — the course of the Christian does but begin. Thenceforward he is a soldier of Christ. The battle is before him. It will last until his Captain calls him home. We must endure hardness. We "must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God." We shall meet with dangers, difficulties and temptations. The promise is to "him who overcomes" — to "him who endures unto the end" — not to him who grows careless, yields, and goes back to sin and the world.
But He Himself will help us to overcome — and to bear what He sends: trial, sickness, loss. He Himself will help us . . .
to withstand the tempter;
to persevere in our course to the end;
to remain steadfast in the faith.
Our strength is in Him — in His presence with us by the Spirit — in His abiding within us. If He were to leave us — we could never persevere. But He will never leave us. "Abide in Me, and I in you," He says. That is a promise — as well as a precept. Let us but watch and pray and seek the Spirit's help continually, and maintain an unbroken fellowship with our Savior by faith — and we shall be "more than conquerors through Him who loved us." He is both the Author and the Finisher of our faith.
But have we heard His voice and opened the door? That is the great question.
Even if not — yet He is so gracious that He knocks still. The very words show this. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." I have taken My stand there — I am standing there now. Yes, He is standing there now — even at the door of those hearts into which He has never been admitted.
Would the kind man who came with gifts stand knocking still at the poor man's door — who refused to open to him? Yet the Lord Jesus stands and knocks — even after long neglect and many refusals. Ah, how often has He knocked . . .
by His Word,
by His warnings,
by His mercies,
by the voice of conscience,
by death of friends.
By sickness — perhaps He is knocking so now! Oh, let the sick and suffering hear the sound and open and let Him in! Why do you lie on that bed? Why do you suffer so much? Why are you laid aside from everything? You do not know. Does not this explain it: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock"? Yes, it is He Himself who laid you there — and He did it in mercy and love. He calls you — He invites you — He seeks admittance into your heart. If you hear His voice and open to Him — then He will come in and be your Savior and make you happy now and forever. Will you refuse? Will you stop your ears? Will you keep the door closed? Will you run the risk of His going away?
Lord! Bring home Your Word with power to the hearts of those who hear it. "He who has an ear — let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches!"
The Barren Fig Tree
He also spoke this parable: "A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then he said unto the dresser of his vineyard, 'Behold, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and found none. Cut it down! Why does it cumber ground?'
And he answering said unto him, 'Master, let it alone this year also, until I shall dig about it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well; and if not, then after that you shall cut it down.'"
This is a solemn parable — but not a difficult one.
The owner of the vineyard means God Almighty.
The unfruitful fig tree means any person who is a Christian in name only.
The dresser of the vineyard means the Lord Jesus Christ.
The parable represents the fig tree as planted in the vineyard — not growing wild by the wayside, but set in an enclosed place like our gardens and orchards, and taken care of.
The person here meant therefore is not a heathen man — but one who has had religious teaching and has learned about God and His ways. Our Lord spoke the parable to Jews — and doubtless it first pointed to them. Now it applies to those who bear the Name of Christ — but are not real Christians. The vineyard represents the visible Church of Christ — the general body of those who call themselves Christians. Every baptized person belongs to this body. He is like a tree planted in a vineyard.
The parable shows us that God takes notice of the Church, for we find the owner of the vineyard coming to see it year after year. And not only of the Church at large, but of every member of it; for the man came continually to look at this one tree.
Yes, we live under the constant observation of God. He takes notice of each one of us. His eye is on us continually. He marks our spiritual condition, the state of our hearts, and the course of our lives. He observes all and knows all.
What does He look for in us? Just what this man sought to find on his fig tree — fruit. Only the fruit that God looks for is spiritual fruit, the fruits of holiness, the fruit of the Spirit. Would leaves satisfy the owner of the fig tree? Would he be content with great branches and a strong growth? No! He set the tree there that it might bear fruit — and nothing but fruit would satisfy him.
Just so, God looks for more than the mere name of Christian. He looks for more than mere knowledge and profession and talk. These are but like leaves. He seeks fruit — and nothing but fruit will be accepted with Him. He discerns what is real, from what is merely pretended. As easily as the man in the parable could tell fruit from leaves — so easily does God distinguish between the real and the nominal Christian.
Yet the man had patience with this tree. True, it ought to have borne fruit the first year he came to look. Yet he was not hasty with it. It would stand for another year. Another year's sun would shine on it; another year's dews and rains would moisten it — perhaps it might bear fruit then. And even when he was disappointed again, he still had patience; he would wait another year; he would try the tree yet once more.
And what unprofitable nominal Christian can say that God has not had patience — long patience, with him? Has he not lived on in the enjoyment of the means of grace? Have not time and opportunities been given to him? Year after year, for many more years than two or three — he has been borne with in his unfruitfulness; an unprofitable servant, a Christian in name only, not loving or serving God, and yet allowed to remain.
But the fig tree took up valuable space! The longer it stayed there and the larger it grew — the more did it cumber the ground, occupying the room to no purpose, and hindering the growth of other trees. So when the owner came for the third time and still found no fruit, his patience was exhausted — he would have such a tree in his vineyard no longer. "Cut it down!" said he, "why does it cumber the ground?"
The unfruitful Christian is like the unfruitful tree. Far from doing any good — he even does harm. His example is evil. Even if he is not a gross outward sinner — yet such religion as his tends to bring all religion into discredit. When people see that a man may be called a Christian — that he may know so much, and talk so loud — and yet show nothing of the spirit of the gospel in his life — they are led to think that religion itself must be a mere pretense; and that there is, after all, no truth, no power, no reality in it.
Thus the nominal Christian is a cumberer of the ground. He is useless, and worse than useless, in the Church of Christ.
We do not hear the voice of the Almighty commanding that such a one shall be taken away; but that is what the parable represents to us. "Cut it down!" Ah, what awful words, when applied so! "Cut it down!" Let him be taken away; let him stay no longer; let him die! We do not hear the voice — but do we not often see the cutting down, the taking away?
But the fig tree was not cut down. The dresser of the vineyard begged for another year. "Master," he said — "Let it alone this year also, until I shall dig about it, and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well; and if not, then after that you shall cut it down." If it might stay another year — he would take double pains with it; he would dig the ground around it; he would fertilize it well; he would do all that could be done. Perhaps it might bear fruit after all. If so, it would be well — a tree would be gained. But if not, then he would ask for no more delay — then let it be cut down. It was the fig tree's last chance!
The Lord Jesus Christ pleads for sinners — for the useless, the formal professor, the impenitent, the unbelieving; for those who do no good, but rather harm; for cumberers of the ground. Once He died for sinners — and now He pleads for them. Not merely for sinners in general, but for this person and for that person, one by one. That he may not be cut down, that more time may be granted — more yet after so many years of patient longsuffering, another year: "this year also." Yes, perhaps sometimes that very space of time — who knows? "Let it alone this year also." He is pleading thus for the unprofitable professor continually.
Then the gracious Savior uses further means with him who is thus spared; for He is Lord of all, He has all means and instruments within His power. Perhaps He orders a man's lot so that he shall hear the gospel message more faithfully and forcibly delivered, than previously. Perhaps He leads him away from worldly acquaintances and gives him new friends of a better sort, who love God and seek to obey Him. Perhaps He tries him with affliction, disappoints his worldly plans, lays him on a sick-bed, or sends death into his family. Meanwhile conscience speaks within; thoughts arise in the heart; the Spirit strives there. Thus the Lord Jesus deals with the soul for whom He has pleaded.
"If it bears fruit, well!" If he who was so long unprofitable, begins now to serve God, if the conscience is awakened and the heart changed, if he be brought to know himself a sinner and to believe in Jesus as his Savior, if thus he becomes "a new creature in Christ Jesus" and begins thenceforth to live to God — then it is well indeed! Angels rejoice; glory is brought to God; another useful member is added to the Church on earth — and a soul is saved!
But if not. Ah, how sad an "if" is this! We do not know the end of the fig tree. The parable leaves off at this point: "If not — then after that you shall cut it down." We are not told whether it bore fruit and was allowed to stand — or was unfruitful still and was cut down at the end of the year. This seems to make the parable apply with peculiar force to those who are even now being dealt with as the fig tree was to be dealt with during that year.
It may be that you have been unfruitful hitherto — and that now God is dealing with you in some new way. Are you in trouble of any kind? Has sorrow visited you? Has your health failed? Has sickness fallen upon you? Are you laid aside?
May not the reason be that the Lord Jesus has pleaded for you that you might have more time, and that now He is dealing with you as the dresser of the vineyard was to deal with the fig tree? If so, how gracious is He in this very affliction! It is for your soul's good. It is to humble you, to soften you, to teach you your need, and to lead you to your Savior. It is to take you from a sinful, worldly, careless, unprofitable life — and to bring you into the happy and holy life of a servant of God. It is through mercy and love, that this very time is yours. It is because Jesus pleaded for you, "Let it alone this year also!"
Yet how solemn a time is it! Perhaps this is the last season of opportunity for turning to God — the time that has been added on, the one year more. Nay, not a year perhaps, in your case. The fig tree had a year — but you may have much less. But at least today is yours. God has given it to you. Today you may seek Him; today you may pray, and He will hear; today the door is open.
Ah, do not let so precious a season slip away! Let not one day slip away! All may yet be well — if you will turn to God with all your heart and seek mercy through the blood of Jesus and begin to live to God.
Let there be no "if" in your case; no "not." Let the great question be settled at once. Do not delay. Seek your Savior now. "Behold, now is the accepted time — behold, now is the day of salvation!"
The Fear of Death!
"Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same — that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their life-time subject to bondage."
It is a solemn thing to die. Yet a Christian need not fear death. For Jesus Christ has taken away its sting. "The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
"Flesh and blood" means here our human nature, which is subject to death. The Lord Jesus Christ took our nature upon Him and became man, and so He became subject to death. But it was that He might overcome death for us. He did overcome it. He overcame it through death itself; for He died.
But the grave could not keep Him. He rose again from the dead. And so, by His dying and rising again — He overcame death, took away its sting, and made it such that the believer need not fear it any more. For the death of Jesus atoned for sin — and sin is the sting of death. When sin is gone — then the sting of death is gone. Thus Jesus has delivered us from the fear of death. He who believes with the heart, need not be afraid to die.
Nothing else can really take away fear. At least nothing else can take away the cause for fear. For some do not fear — who ought to fear! They look forward to death without fear — only because their hearts are hard, and they do not feel their sins; and false friends perhaps tell them that they have done no one any harm, and that God is merciful — but without speaking to them of the blood of Jesus, the only thing that can take away sin. But this is a false peace.
True peace can only come by believing in Christ. He has taken away our guilt and made our peace by dying for us. By His death He has overcome death. It is only in Him that true peace is to be found. And these have not fled to Him to take their sin away, and so to take away the sting of death. Oh, let them seek Him while yet they may! Nothing else will bring them true peace.
But, while some are without fear who have good reason to fear — there are others who live in fear from which they might be free. They are not careless or hardened; they think seriously; they are alive to the deep importance of their souls; they are sorry for their sins; and they do in a measure look to Christ. Yet they are still in bondage to fear — the fear of death.
Nor is this a passing feeling. They have it continually, in health as well as in sickness. It might be said of them, that through fear of death they are all their lifetime subject to bondage. Why is this? Because they do not look to Christ with a full and simple faith. Though they have some little faith in Him — yet they do not cast aside all else and rest their souls entirely on Him. They have need to pray thus, "Lord, I believe; help mine unbelief." For it is unbelief which keeps them in fear. They need a clearer view of the all-sufficiency of Christ's atonement — and a closer and more personal application of it to themselves by faith. He died to deliver them from this fear. Let their faith lay hold on Him more simply and firmly — and they will be delivered; for it is a true deliverance that He has wrought.
This fear is a different feeling from that natural shrinking from the moment of death which some Christians experience — some who have yet been truly delivered from bondage through faith in Christ. God has planted in us all a love of life, and this kind of fear of death seems naturally joined to it. It is not that he doubts his pardon and salvation through Christ; it is not that he does not enjoy the peace of God and a sure hope. He believes. He believes fully. Yet, even while believing, many a Christian feels a shrinking from the moment of the great change.
Did not even Paul feel it in a measure? "Not that we would be unclothed, but clothed, that mortality might be swallowed up by life." Yet he said also, "Having a desire to depart and to be with Christ — which is far better." Probably there are many Christians who feel the same. They desire to depart and to be with Christ. They feel that to be far better than anything here below. Yet they have a natural shrinking from the actual unclothing, the putting off of this mortal body.
Sometimes the Christian is distressed at finding in himself such a feeling. Yet it is not in itself a wrong feeling. Only let it not be allowed to get the mastery; rather let Christ's great salvation and full deliverance so fill the mind as to swallow up even this natural shrinking.
It often is so. Often one who has in times past suffered much from this natural fear — quite loses it as the hour of his departure draws near. He who delivered us from all cause of fear — takes away the last lingering remnant of the fear itself; and one who is worn and weakened with suffering — is able to look forward with perfect calmness to that which he shrank from when strong and well. Even the parting struggle has no longer anything terrible in his eyes.
And how graciously and compassionately does God deal with even the weakness and the fears of His people! Often the dreaded struggle does not take place. All is tranquil and painless. A faltering of the breath, a last sigh — and all is over! A true falling asleep in Jesus.
Such, indeed, is the death of the Christian always. In whatever way it pleases God to order the dying moment — the death of the Christian is but a falling asleep in Jesus. Stephen died a violent death — yet it is written of him that "he fell asleep." And Paul writes in like manner of those Thessalonian Christians who had died, and of all Christians who shall have died before the coming of the Lord. "Those who are asleep," he calls them; "those also who sleep in Jesus." Even when he does speak of them as dead — he calls them "the dead in Christ."
Let us not be afraid to die, then — let us not fear to fall asleep in Jesus. Have we not believed in Him? Have we not fled to Him to wash away our sins? Then why fear? The sting of death is taken away. Jesus, our Savior, has delivered us. The strong man armed, has been overcome by a stronger. There is nothing to fear from a conquered enemy. Even the last moment, the parting of soul and body — need not be feared. For it is said, "When you pass through the waters — I will be with you; and through the rivers — they shall not overflow you!" We need fear nothing in which God will be with us — our Savior, our Father; to cheer, help, and strengthen. "I will be with you!" The promise is sure. We need no more. He will never leave us nor forsake us. Never! Not even in the last moment.
And oh! What a happy shore, when that river is crossed! What a blessed and glorious change will that short passage bring! "For to me to live is Christ — and to die is gain." "Having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ — which is far better." "In My Father's house are many mansions — I am going to prepare a place for you."
Desires after God
As the deer pants after the water brooks — so my soul pants after you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God — when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they continually say unto me, "Where is your God?"
When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me; for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holiday.
Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted in me? Hope in God — for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance.
O my God, my soul is cast down within me; therefore will I remember You from the land of Jordan, and of the Hermonites, from the hill Mizar. Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and Your billows are gone over me. Yet the Lord will command His loving-kindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life. I will say unto God my rock, "Why have You forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?" As with a sword in my bones, my enemies reproach me; while they say daily unto me, "Where is your God?"
Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.
Though our circumstances may not be exactly like those of the Psalmist — yet this need not hinder us from receiving good from his words. Often the same thoughts, feelings, and prayers are suitable to very different circumstances.
Who or what these people were who said to David, "Where is your God?" We do not know. They may have been enemies, taking pleasure in his afflictions, reviling him and taunting him. Or they may have been friends or servants of his, who had no faith in God and who added to David's troubles by trying to make him as unbelieving as themselves. Very likely we have neither such enemies — nor such friends. Yet there is much in this Psalm that may be profitable to us.
In one point, it is especially suited to the sick. David was kept away from the house of God. Probably it was when he was driven from Jerusalem by the rebellion of Absalom. The sick also are kept from the house of God.
David was very sad at heart. He thought of the happy days when he used to go up with the congregation to the temple, "with the voice of joy and praise." He longed to go there again. Of all his troubles, this was perhaps the greatest in his eyes — to be cut off from the public worship of God. "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God — when shall I come and appear before God?"
Some who lie on a sick-bed feel the same. They loved the house of God when they were well. It was a true delight to them to join in prayer and praise and to hear God's holy Word. They look back with regret on these past Sundays. Now they cannot go. It is what they miss most of all. Ah! How thankful would they be for those opportunities which thousands of the strong and healthy are neglecting every Sunday!
David was sad at heart when he thought thus. Yet he blamed himself for being sad. "Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?" He encouraged himself to trust and to look for brighter days. "Hope in God — for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance." God would help him in some way, and it might be that He would soon even restore him to the worship which he loved.
Desponding thoughts are apt to come in sickness. At such times we should encourage ourselves in God. "Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?" Thus we should speak to ourselves. We should nourish hope; never despairing as if God had forsaken us, but hoping in Him, even against hope — that is, when all ground of hope seems gone. For it is not gone really. The ground of the Christian's hope is God — God in Christ. And God does not change. His love, His faithfulness, His Word, remain unaltered.
Our circumstances often change — from sickness to health, from calm to trouble; but He never changes. We should hope in Him through all. Can He not raise the sick? Can He not bring him again to worship in His house? Can He not help him and comfort him? And will He not do all that is wise and good and kind — for those who seek Him and trust Him?
There seems a strange mixture of thoughts here: despondency — and hope; complaining — and rejoicing. Yet there is nothing strange in this really. Thought is quick, and different feelings pass swiftly through the mind, one following on another. Do we not find this in ourselves? At one moment trouble presses heavily upon us, and our feeling is like that of David: "Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and Your billows are gone over me." Then hope revives, and a gleam of light and comfort appears: "Yet the Lord will command His loving-kindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life." "My prayer," yet a prayer taking sometimes almost the form of complaining: "I will say unto God my rock, 'Why have You forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?'"
With all these changes of feeling, we see that David still addresses himself to God. In his despondency — it is to God that he speaks: "O my God, my soul is cast down within me!" His hope is in God; his prayers are to God; his complaints are to God. In all his thoughts, he still clings to God.
In the same way, God loves us thus to speak all our thoughts to Him. He would be no stranger to us. Every change of feeling, we may make known to Him. In our distress, we may use much boldness in speaking to Him — a humble boldness: "Why have You forgotten me?"
Yet, even while using such words, David did not really believe that God had forgotten him, for he says, "I will say unto God my rock, 'Why have You forgotten me?'" It was faith that cried — though faith in weakness and distress. Ah, never let us, in any trouble or fear, lose sight of God as our rock, our strength and defense, our refuge and shelter, firm and unchangeable.
Some, when they lie on a bed of sickness, cannot think as David did about the house of God. They had no love for it while they were in health. They neglected it. Perhaps they are sorry now. Wasted Sundays, and slighted means of grace — rise up to their remembrance and make their hearts sad. But God is very gracious. He will forgive all who seek forgiveness through the blood of Jesus. Let them ask God, for Christ's sake — to pardon their past neglect. It was a great sin, but Jesus is the great Savior of great sinners — there is forgiveness in Him.
If God should raise them up again — then how gladly will they attend His house and worship Him and hear His Word! So they think now. Yet let them not trust their own thoughts and resolutions. Let humble and earnest prayer be made, that God will incline their hearts to what is right and help and strengthen them by His Holy Spirit; that so, if they are indeed restored, they may live to His glory, and love and serve Him all their days.
David longed for the house of God — but we see that absence from the temple did not cause entire absence from God, for his heart was with God still. And we, though shut out from the great blessing of God's house and laid upon a bed of sickness — may still draw near to God in heart and pray and praise and hold sweet communion with Him.
God is never far off. David found Him near when he sought to remember Him "from the land of Jordan and of the Hermonites, from the hill Mizar." And all who seek Him in Christ Jesus will find Him near — wherever they may be. When He gives us (for it is His gift) a hungering and thirsting after righteousness — when He inclines our soul to desire His presence, to pant after Him "as the deer pants after the water brooks," and to thirst for God, for the living God — then we need not ask in despondency, "When shall I come and appear before God?"
Even then, at that very time, and in that very place — we may find God present with us by the Spirit. Earnestly as we may desire to join once more with the congregation in prayer and praise — yet let us not think that we are altogether shut out from prayer and praise. Not so! Even then, we may come and appear before God. Even then, we may find access to the throne of grace through Jesus, our Mediator and Advocate. And all such access to God will be a happy foretaste of that time when, in a yet higher and better sense, we shall "come and appear before God" in His kingdom of glory.
O God, raise our thoughts and affections toward You. Give to us by Your Holy Spirit, this longing for Your presence, these ardent desires after You. Bless to us all Your providential dealings — sickness, pain, weakness, sorrow. Sanctify them to us by Your Spirit. In all despondency — be our Comforter; in all weakness — be our strength; in all fear — be our hope. Deepen our sorrow for past sins. Increase our faith in Christ our Savior. Pardon us for our past sins. Give us right desires and holy thoughts and spiritual affections. May the light of Your reconciled countenance shine upon us. Grant us Your peace. Hear us and bless us, for our Savior's sake. Amen.
"Leave your fatherless children, I will preserve them alive; and let your widows trust in Me."
The sick are often troubled with anxiety about those whom they must leave behind — when it shall please God to call them home.
The father of a family sees his wife and children round his sick-bed — and wonders how they will fare when he is gone. His labor has been their main support; already, during his illness, they have been without some of the comforts which they were used to while he could work for them — what will they do in time to come?
The sickly mother of a large family, feeling her strength decline day by day — has many an anxious thought for her children. Who will train them aright? Who will comfort them in trouble — and help them in difficulty? Who will do for them what she has always done for them — but can do so no longer? Who will be a mother to them, when she is no more?
Even when the sick person has been able to commit his soul in faith to his Redeemer and can humbly believe that he is forgiven and accepted in Christ — anxiety is still often felt about wife, children, husband. And this anxiety disturbs the peace of the soul and sometimes brings a cloud over a bright and well-founded hope.
This verse from the prophet Jeremiah exactly meets and answers all such anxious thoughts: "Leave your fatherless children, I will preserve them alive; and let your widows trust in Me." It is true, there is some difficulty about the words as originally spoken. It seems likely that these words were addressed to Israel. Edom was the enemy and persecutor of Israel — and was to be punished severely. While threatening the Edomites, God comforts the people of Israel. Let them not be afraid. Their enemies should not make an end of them entirely. Many women were made widows, many children were made fatherless — yet God would take care of the widow and the orphan. The meaning to us is plain. God speaks by these words to the dying believer — and bids him to trust wife and children to Him.
There are many other places in scripture in which comfort of the same kind is given. For instance, the Psalmist addresses God thus: "You are the helper of the fatherless." In another Psalm we read, "A father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows — is God in His holy habitation." And again, "The Lord preserves the strangers; He relieves the fatherless and widow." So in the prophecy of Hosea we read, "In You the fatherless finds mercy."
In other places we find God's severe displeasure declared against any who would oppress the widow and the fatherless — and throughout Scripture we cannot fail to see God's special care for them. It was for a widow, that the miracle of the barrel of meal and the cruse of oil was wrought. It was a widow, whose only son Jesus restored to life at Nain. One of the first things we read of in the history of the Church after our Lord's ascension, is the provision made for the needs of widows — and this was the work of the apostles, who acted under inspiration of God.
We see plainly then from Scripture, that God has a special care for the widow and the fatherless. And have we not observed the same in our own experience? Have we not often seen how God raises up friends for the widow, and provides for the orphan? God does not change. The God of the Bible is our God still. What He there declares to be His gracious will regarding the widow and the fatherless — is His will still. What we read in His Word — we may also observe in His dealings. He is the God of the widow. In Him the fatherless finds mercy.
Let those who have committed their souls to their God and Father in Christ Jesus — also commit all their concerns to Him. He who can save your soul — can He not preserve your children? He who has shown you so great mercy as to bring you to peace in Christ — will He not also give you peace about all things? He has heard your prayer for your soul; He does hear your prayers continually, and every day as you lie on your bed, it is your greatest comfort to pray and to believe that He hears you. Pray for those whom you must soon leave — those most dependent on you — your nearest and dearest. Pray for them in faith. Commit them to God. In humble faith, place them under His protection — and in His hand.
He bids you to do so. He says, "Leave your fatherless children — I will preserve them alive; and let your widows trust in Me." You see, He claims the charge of them. He does not bid you cast in your mind, what earthly friend you can commit them to, or what means you can take beforehand for their good. Do all you can in this way. That is but right. But when you have done all in your power, or if you find that nothing whatever is in your power — then commit them to God Himself. "I will preserve them alive," He says; "let your widows trust in Me."
You cannot see what friends He will raise up for them, when you are gone; or what provision He will make for them. You cannot see. If you could, what room would there be for faith? And these words are addressed to faith.
Do not be anxious, then. Cast all your care upon God — for He cares for you. He has compassion upon you now in your anxiety for those so dear. He will extend the same pity toward them when you are gone. Trust them to Him — to His love, His wisdom, His power. Trust them fully to Him. He can do more for them — than ever you could have done. He will not fail them. Let no anxious fears for them disturb your mind.
"I know in whom I have believed," said the apostle, "and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day." Be persuaded of the same promise for those who are dear to you. Commit your soul to His mercy in Christ Jesus — and commit wife, children, and all to Him also. Do not doubt His word.
No Pangs in Their Death
"Truly God is good to Israel — even to such as are of a clean heart.
But as for me, my feet were almost gone — my steps had well near slipped! For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pangs in their death — but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men. Therefore pride compasses them about as a chain — and violence covers them as a garment."
There are many lessons to be learned from this psalm, and several even from these few verses of it — but I wish now to draw attention to one point only, the easy death of the ungodly.
"For there are no pangs in their death — but their strength is firm." The Psalmist says this of the wicked. But he does not mean that it is so with all the wicked. Only he had observed it to be so with some — and his mind had been perplexed by it.
"There are no pangs in their death." They die easily — without pain of body, or distress of mind. "Their strength is firm." They have enjoyed good health — and even to the last, their strength is beyond their years. So they have lived, and so they die.
The Psalmist had known such cases, and most of us must have known such too.
Yet these are wicked people — he calls them so — wicked and foolish. Not loving or serving God; not seeking His mercy in earnest even in death. They are careless and ungodly people. Can such die in peace? We know that many such enjoy health and prosperity through life — but can they die without fear?
Yes. It is so sometimes. It was so in the Psalmist's time, and it is so still. "There are no pangs in their death." There is no distress of mind, and no violent bodily struggle — they pass away quietly.
What does this arise from? Remember, it is the wicked and foolish who are spoken of. Not from a sense of pardon — for they have never sought pardon in earnest. Not from a desire "to depart and to be with Christ" — for they would gladly stay here on earth if they could. Not from the peace of God, not from a good hope through grace, not from faith in the Lord Jesus, not from the witness of the Spirit. Alas! Faith and grace and hope and the peace of God and the work of the Spirit — they have never experienced them.
How is it, then, that they are so calm? How can they face death as they do? Why are they not afraid?
Because they have no sense of guilt, no knowledge of themselves as sinners, and no view of God as just and holy! Their heart is hardened — and their conscience is asleep. A person asleep may be close to the greatest danger, and yet not fear. And they are asleep — spiritually asleep. They are on the brink of eternity — and yet asleep! They are just about to meet God — and yet sleeping still! They are unpardoned — and yet slumbering in imagined safety!
Is this a happy and secure state? Ah, no! They are undone forever — if they are not aroused from their spiritual stupor.
What can arouse them? Nothing but the Word and Spirit of God. His Word is living and powerful. It tells of sin and judgment — and of Heaven and Hell. It shows man what he really is — truly guilty in the sight of God. It strips off all vain excuses, and makes known the simple truth. The Holy Spirit works mightily in the heart . . .
applying the Word,
touching the conscience,
awaking new thoughts,
convincing of sin,
leading to Christ.
It is eternal damnation to remain unconcerned, impenitent, unbelieving. That peace, is not the peace of God — but a false peace. That calmness, is the calmness of spiritual death. The only hope is to arise and call upon God. There is yet time. While there is life, there is hope. True, it is awful danger to put off the great work to a dying hour. Yet even in a dying hour the door of mercy is not shut. Still God is ready to forgive. Still the blood of Jesus can cleanse. Still salvation may be found in Him. "Awake, you who sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light."
A Cry from the Dungeon!
Why does a living man complain — a man for the punishment of his sins? Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the Lord.
Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens. We have transgressed and have rebelled; You have not pardoned. You have covered with anger and persecuted us; You have slain; You have not pitied. You have covered Yourself with a cloud, that our prayer should not pass through.
If these last words, and the other mournful complainings of the prophet, exactly described our case and described it fully, so that there were nothing besides to be said in the way of hope and comfort — even then we could not justly complain. If God had indeed covered us with anger and persecuted us; if He had slain and not pitied us; if He had covered Himself with a cloud, that our prayer should not pass through — even in that case, we could not say that this was more than our sins deserved. "Why does a living man complain — a man for the punishment of his sins?" Have we not transgressed and rebelled? Have we not worthily deserved to be punished?
The prophet Jeremiah is describing his deep affliction. It seems from what follows, that he is speaking of what he felt when in the dungeon. He can hardly find words for his wretchedness. Yet when he has said all, this is the conclusion he comes to: that God was not unjust, that He had sent no affliction that was not well deserved by reason of sin. Perhaps, indeed, the prophet speaks in part in the name of his people — rebellious and backsliding Israel; yet he makes himself one of them, and takes to himself a share in this guilt and unworthiness. A sense of sin pressed heavily upon him.
Still we find traces of hope in his words. He did indeed, in his deep despondency, find himself unable to take comfort in prayer. It seemed to him as if God would not hear or forgive. But this was not the case — nor did the prophet himself really give up all hope. Almost in the same breath he says, "Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the Lord. Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens."
He scarcely believed, then, his own desponding words. He would not have prayed — if there had been no hope that God would hear. He would not have lifted up heart and hands to God and called upon others to do the same — if he had really thought that there was no pity or pardon with God. Nay, he would not have called to self-examination; far less would he have invited to turn to God — unless he had had some hope, however faint, that God would receive the returning penitent. Through all his despondency, seeming in words to reach almost to despair — hope makes itself heard even in the dungeon. Some belief in the mercy and love of God still remained.
And God does not despise even the feeblest faith. Further on in the same Chapter we find him speaking thus, "I called upon Your Name, O Lord — out of the depths of the dungeon. You heard me when I cried, 'Listen to my pleading! Hear my cry for help!' Yes, You came when I called — You told me, 'Do not fear!'
Here he seems to be looking back, from a happier time, upon his thoughts and prayers in the dungeon. He now thankfully acknowledges that God did hear him then. In his despondency he had let himself use such words as these, "You have covered Yourself with a cloud, that our prayer should not pass through." Now he says, " You heard me when I cried — You came when I called."
But in the lowest depth of his misery, even in the pit itself, he had found the falseness of his own desponding thoughts. God had not covered Himself with a cloud. God had heard his voice. Even there, the presence of God had been with him. Even there, faith reviving had heard the voice of God saying, "Do not fear!"
Had God changed then? Would He hear at one time — and did He refuse to hear at another? He drew near in the day that the prophet called upon Him — was He not always ready to draw near? Yes, He was always ready. He was not changed. We change, but God changes not. Our feelings vary, from gloomy to bright, from desponding to hopeful. We feel at one time that God is near; at another we can find no sense of His presence. Yet God remains unchangeably the same — near to all who call upon Him, near at all times, ready always to receive the returning sinner; never shutting His ear to the cry of the poor and destitute — never refusing to pardon one who comes to Him in the Name of Jesus.
What are place and time and circumstances — to the All-wise and All-powerful God? What was it to the God of Jeremiah, that His servant had been cast by his enemies to the bottom of a filthy dungeon? His God was as near to him there as ever! He was as able and as willing as ever to hear and save — and that, from the very first moment that he found himself in that place.
The servant of God must never give way to desponding fears, as if God were one who changed. God does not change. At all times, in all places, under all circumstances — He may be sought and found. He is a very present help in times of trouble. There is no difficulty with Him — and no unwillingness to help and save.
It is right, in all trouble and despondency, to "search and try our ways" — but no sense of our sins should lead us to think that God does not hear and will not forgive. Let us feel and own that . . .
if we were cast off entirely,
if never a prayer of ours were heard,
if never anything but affliction befell us
— we should but receive what we deserved.
But let us remember that One has died for us — and that He now cares for us, loves us, and pleads for us. Jesus is the hope of the sinner. In His Name we may draw near to the Father and plead for pardon — in all the confidence of a true and humble faith. By Him we may "turn again to the Lord." Even when by searching our ways, we have discovered a depth of evil not suspected before. By Him, we may approach God as His children.
Not even the just accusations of conscience,
not the deep sense of unworthiness,
not all depressing circumstances —
should be allowed to interfere with that hope in Christ, which is held out to all who will believe.
While we may plead the blood of Jesus — never let us think that God will not pardon. He will pardon, and that fully. Not only shall we not receive to the uttermost what our sins have deserved — but all will be forgiven for Christ's sake! While we may approach the mercy seat by Him — let us never fear that God has covered Himself with a cloud and will not hear. A cloud there may be — but it is the cloud of our own unbelief. In our deepest distress, "out of the low dungeon," as it were, let us call upon God, and call in faith. Assuredly He will hear our cry, and faith will enable us to realize His drawing near to us and to hear His voice saying to us, "Do not fear!"
The Self-abhorrence of Job
Then Job replied to the LORD: "I know that You can do all things; no plan of Yours can be thwarted. You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?' Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."
Before Job's trials began, we read of him that he was "perfect and upright — and one who feared God, and turned away from evil." Nay, the Lord Himself spoke of him thus to Satan: "Have you considered My servant Job — that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one who fears God and turns away from evil?"
But Satan got permission to try him — and then trial after trial came upon him. His children died; his property was lost; and he was smitten with a loathsome disease! How did Job bear it?
Let him answer the question himself. "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know." Here he speaks of himself and describes how he had felt and spoken under his afflictions. With all his patience and trust in God, such trust as led him even to say, "Though He slays me — yet will I trust in Him" — yet we do find in him some signs of a lack of thorough submission to the will of God, some repinings and complaints, some rash and inconsiderate words. And if we can trace such things in him — much more doubtless did his own heart accuse him of, when he became truly and deeply humbled before God.
But did such a man as Job need humbling? It seems so. As good and upright as he was — we find in him at first some disposition to justify himself and to take his stand upon his own integrity. It is not until he has been long and sorely tried, that we hear him say, "Therefore I despise myself — and repent in dust and ashes." It is said of him indeed at the very first, that he was a perfect man. But this does not mean that he was without fault, but only that he was sincere and upright before God, desiring to do all His will. He had much to learn — and much did God teach him by means of affliction. The chief lesson seems to have been humility. He was a far more humble man after his trials, than before them.
Satan meant to do him harm — but God intended him nothing but good. The tempter overshot his mark. His design was to lead this holy man into sin, and to bring him in his distress to curse God. But God brought this design to nothing, and overruled all for the good of His servant. Far from rebelling against his Master — he was brought into a more entire submission to His will. The trials that were designed by Satan to separate him from God — brought him nearer than ever; and, not to speak of the prosperity which God restored to him, it was perhaps the greatest blessing of his life that he was brought to say from the heart, "Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes!" Thus did God, in infinite wisdom and goodness — disappoint the design of Satan, and turn that to good which was meant for evil.
This history throws light upon the case of many of God's servants. We all need humbling. We need to have all remaining self-righteousness brought down and to be led to that deep self-abasement which is expressed in the words of Job, "Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes!" God often does this work in us, by means of affliction. Sometimes perhaps the affliction is more allowed — than sent, by Him, as in the case of Job. But whether sent or only allowed — it comes by the will of God (it could not come without), and God works good by it to the soul.
Satan means the affliction to cause pain, sorrow, vexation of spirit, and departure from God. But God ordains it to produce humility, patience, trust, resignation to His will, and the drawing of the heart nearer to Himself. How wonderful are His dealings — how wise, how gracious! We can see a little of this now — we shall see more hereafter.
It was a happy thing for Job, to be brought to such deep humility. It is a happy thing for any. But why? Merely for the sake of the humility itself? Merely that we may cast away pride, and take our right place before God? No — far more than that.
To speak now not of Job, but of ourselves — the more deeply we repent, and the more we abhor ourselves for the sin which we discover in ourselves — the more simply and firmly shall we cling to the hope set before us in Christ. It is not until a man learns in heart that he is a sinner — that he looks to Christ in faith at all. And even after he has learned to look to Him — still, as he grows in the knowledge of his own sinful heart — so does he grow in the knowledge of Christ as his all-sufficient Savior.
Some would call it poor progress, to be ever finding out more and more our own unworthiness. But it is in fact true progress — the progress which Job made under his trials, the progress which all who are truly taught of God are continually making, many of them like Job in the school of affliction. None do so trust in and love their Savior — as those who have been brought to a very deep sense of unworthiness. To none does the blood of Jesus seem so precious — as to those who have been led in very deed to abhor themselves for sin. There is much so-called repentance that stops short of this. It lacks depth — and, lacking depth, it is not likely to be followed by a full rejoicing in Christ.
At the close of his long trial Job said, "I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear — but now my eye sees You!" Job 42:6
What did he mean? Probably, that while he had long known God, as having heard of Him, and in a measure believed in and served Him, yet . . .
now he knew Him far more deeply and closely,
now he had experienced His dealings,
now he had had great searchings of heart,
now he had learned far more of God than ever he knew before.
How many can say the same! How many can think of some time of sore affliction — and see that at that season and by that means, they learned to know God in a way they had never known Him before — more closely, more deeply, more lovingly. Yes, more lovingly. For this is what God is leading His children to by all His dealings — to know His love to them more, and to love Him more in return.
How many inward comforts does He send in the time of trial!
What deep searchings of heart go on in the silence of a sick-room!
How many earnest prayers are sent up thence!
What sweet thoughts of Christ are given — what a sense of pardon, what peace, what love, what a manifestation of Christ to the soul!
These are the gifts of God — the work of His Spirit the Comforter — the blessings of sanctified affliction!
Shall we repine when God's chastening hand is laid upon us? Ah, no! Rather let us . . .
look well into our own hearts,
and search out the root of self-righteousness,
and humble ourselves before God,
and shelter ourselves more closely under the shadow of His wing.
He is teaching us and blessing us now. And if, under His teaching, we find ourselves distressed by a new and deeper feeling of sin — yet let us then think that we are but learning Job's lesson; and let us be led to cast ourselves more earnestly and entirely upon the merits of Christ our Savior, that in Him we may find rest to our souls.
The Sinner Invited to Seek God
Seek the Lord while He may be found — and call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts — and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways," says the Lord. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth — so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts."
God speaks in His Word — not to the righteous only, but also to the wicked. What does He say to them? He sets before them the evil of their doings — and warns them that if they continue in sin, they must surely perish eternally. But He also speaks to them of mercy and forgiveness — and invites them to turn to Him.
How gracious! After so many sins, so much neglect — He might well cast them off, turn away from their prayers, and leave them to themselves. But He does not do so. Even now He . . .
seeks them out,
sends them kind invitations,
offers them mercy, and
calls them to Himself.
They are poor, helpless sinners — and can do nothing to atone for the past; yet, lost sinners as they are — He calls them. See, He speaks here to the wicked — to the unrighteous man. Just as he is, in his present state — the Lord speaks to him. All unworthy and sin-stained, with the load of years of iniquity upon him — the Lord speaks to him and bids him to seek Him.
"Seek the Lord while He may be found — and call upon Him while He is near." He may be found then — He is near. Yes, He may still be found by every sinner who will seek Him — He is still near to all who will call upon Him. Now, today, He is near — He may be found. Happy for poor sinners, that it is so! He might have been far away — so that no prayer could reach Him. He might have gone forever — so that He could no longer be found. But this is not the case. He is near. He may be found. And that — by all, by you.
Seek Him — call upon Him. If you never sought Him before — then seek Him now. If you never in all your life called upon Him — then call upon Him today. Do it at once, without delay — while it may be done. For the time will come when He will not be near — when He will not be to be found. "Then shall they call upon Me — but I will not answer; they shall seek Me early — but they shall not find Me." But that awful time has not yet come. Oh! Seek Him before it comes!
Seek Him and call upon Him in earnest — not merely with the lips, but with the heart, in sincerity and truth.
"Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts." Let there be no vain idea of obtaining mercy — and at the same time cleaving to sin. Let there be a real change — a real forsaking of sin — a real giving up of all that is evil, even in thought.
"Abhor that which is evil." Thus let the unrighteous man return unto the Lord. Not seeking to come as righteous, for he cannot do so. He is unrighteous — and as unrighteous he must come. He can only be made righteous by coming. But let him come in sorrow for his sins, bewailing and lamenting his past life, and earnestly desiring to forsake every evil way.
Then God will have mercy upon him. The gospel tells us more of this, than even the words of the prophet show. God gave His dear Son to die for sinners — and for His sake, He will have mercy on all who sincerely come. Let the sinner come pleading the Name of Jesus, and looking in faith to Him — and He will certainly find mercy. Not because he deserves it, not because he has any ground in himself to expect it — but because Jesus shed His blood upon the cross and thus made open the way of reconciliation and peace.
This mercy will be shown in that which the sinner needs above all — the pardon of his sins. Let all besides, be offered to one who feels the burden of his sins; without pardon — all could not give him comfort. Pardon is his first need — to have his load of guilt removed and his sins blotted out, and thus to find peace of conscience. This is what God will give to the returning sinner for Christ's sake. "He will abundantly pardon."
What! Pardon all? Yes, all. "Abundantly pardon" — fully, completely, bountifully. So that if his sins were as many as the sands on the seashore — this pardon should cover them all. Thus God pardons for Christ's sake. Not a little, not by halves, but "abundantly."
Yet sinners doubt. Even those who feel the burden of their sins and are truly sorry for them and earnestly desire to be forgiven — often doubt this full and free pardon. Their sins are so many, sins against light and knowledge, sins against conscience, sins against their own resolutions, repeated sins, long-continued sins — how can they hope that sins so many and so great will be forgiven? Man does not forgive so. They themselves would not expect to be forgiven, if they had so deeply offended a fellow-creature. How can they hope that God will forgive?
The doubt, the fear, is met and answered, and that by God Himself. True, man would not forgive so — but God is not like man. "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts." Man's mercy and compassion are no measure for God's mercy and compassion. Man will forgive a little — but God forgives all. Man may pardon sparingly — but God pardons abundantly. The sinner has to do with God — not with man; and God will forgive in His own way — far above all our ways and all our thoughts!
Oh, take this message as coming from God to you. It comes to you as a sinner — it comes from Him who knows all that you are, and all that you have done — yet it offers you mercy and pardon, abundant pardon. It calls you to turn from sin to God — to turn to Him, not as an angry Judge, but as a merciful and gracious Father in Christ Jesus. Let not a sense of sin keep you away from God. He calls you to turn to Him — though He knows just what you are, that you may be forgiven all. The blood of Jesus was shed to take away sin. It is sufficient to take away your sin — all of your sin. It will take away your sin — if you humbly seek it. Believe this.
It is Satan that would lead you to doubt. God would have you believe. He says to you, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ — and you shall be saved."
But, once more, remember it must be now. Time passes quickly. Your time here may be short. Let not a day more be lost. God seeks you, calls you, and offers you mercy and pardon in Christ, full and free. But all is for today — not for tomorrow. "Seek the Lord while He may be found — and call upon Him while He is near." He may be found — He is near, today. Oh, seek Him today — call upon Him now!