But Naaman became angry and stalked away. "Behold, I thought he would surely come out to meet me! I expected him to wave his hand over the leprosy and call on the name of the Lord his God and heal me!" 2 Kings 5:11
In the preceding pages, we have described Naaman's journey from Damascus—his discouraging reception by the King of Israel—the message sent from Elisha which brought him with his chariot, horses, and servants to Gilgal—and his haughty rejection of the cure propounded to him by the prophet.
Before we pass to consider other historical incidents in the sequel, the three simple words which are placed at the head of this chapter arrest our attention. The lips of the Syrian captain were not the only ones that have uttered them. They are, it is to be feared, a formula used by thousands and tens of thousands among ourselves. Let us suspend, for a little, the thread of the narrative; and, standing in imagination by that lowly door on the heights of Jericho, gather a few solemn reflections from the exclamation of the leper-chief—"Behold, I thought!"
(1.) How often are these words employed with regard to the dealings of PROVIDENCE. In the midst of mysterious dispensations which befall us, whether as individuals or as communities, how apt are we to impugn the Almighty's faithfulness, question the wisdom of His procedure, and set up our wills in opposition to the divine. Is not this oftentimes the silent utterance of the misgiving heart—"Behold, I thought"—it were better had such an event been ordered otherwise?
"Behold" (to take no unfrequent illustration, in which not personal interests but the welfare of the Church seems involved), here was an honored Ambassador of Christ, a faithful witness of the truth, unwearied in his endeavors to awaken the careless, comfort the mourner, soothe the suffering, and befriend the dying. Though others might be arrested in the midst of health, and laid on couches of languishing, "I thought," that for the world's good, and the glory of the Master he served, a rampart of defense would have been thrown around a life of earnest love and zeal and unselfishness like this! Yet while other weaklings and "Ready-to-halts" are spared, this standard bearer—this Asahel, swift of foot and daring in deed, has fallen in the field, just when his courage and heroism and example were most needed to nerve his comrades and turn the tide of battle.
Many decayed, gnarled 'trees' are left to occupy their place in the forest, while the strong of stem, and green of leaf, and majestic in form, are rooted up. Old crumbling 'pillars' are allowed to remain, while polished shafts, fresh from the quarry, have been struck and shattered with lightning. Where is He who guides with unerring rectitude the destinies of the universe? "Has God forgotten to be gracious?" "Surely the Lord does not see, neither does the God of Israel regard!"
Or, to take the case which comes most deeply home to the individual heart, where is the mercy or tenderness in that sudden vanishing of life's summer dream—that crude demolition of the most cherished vision of earthly bliss? "Behold, I thought" that His dealings to His own, were those of a Father; not retributive and judicial, but paternal—that I could see no hand and hear no lullaby but love. Why has the promised parental solicitude been superseded by the harsh voice and the rebuking rod? Why has the All-loving belied His own saying, "Lord, look down from heaven and see us from your holy, glorious home. Where is the passion and the might you used to show on our behalf? Where are your mercy and compassion now? Surely you are still our Father! Even if Abraham and Jacob would disown us, Lord, you would still be our Father. You are our Redeemer from ages past." (Isa. 63:15, 16).
What is the answer to these and suchlike unworthy surmisings? "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord" (Isa. 55:8). To the eye of sense, however baffling and mysterious be the ways of the Supreme Disposer, it is not for us to "think," but to believe; not to question, but, like Job, to kneel and to adore—not to say, "Behold, I thought" that Your judgments are right, and I have been deceived; but, I know that they are right, and that You in faithfulness have afflicted me—not, "I thought" that "all things are working together for good;" but, "I know" they are so. If we allowed our own shortsighted wisdom to sit in judgment on the divine procedure, each one of us would at times be a Naaman, tempted to turn away in sullen discontent and anger from many a providential message.
The disciples on their way to Emmaus were cherishing such a spirit. With their back to their Lord's cross, and their faces bent on the ground, they muttered in despair, "We had hoped ('behold, we thought') it had been He who would have redeemed Israel." Little did they dream, amid these pensive musings and carnal reasonings, that the Messiah of their nation and of the world was walking by their side! Martha and Mary were cherishing such a spirit, when they rushed to the uplands of Bethany and gazed with wistful eye across to the Moab mountains, "as to a world beyond the grave," for a tarrying Lord. If their inmost souls had been disclosed—if we could have listened to their words, we should have heard them thus pouring out their disconsolate soliloquy—'"Behold, we thought" Jesus would not have lingered so; we thought His omniscient eye and omnipotent love would have discerned and pitied our tempest-tossed bark in its sea of sorrows. It is unlike His kind heart thus to mock our grief. It is unlike His righteous wisdom thus to single out His and our loved brother for a premature grave. "Behold, we thought" that, darkened and desolate as other homes in Judea might be, the last light He would have extinguished would be that in our Bethany dwelling—the last star expunged from the skies, one so bright with promise.' No, hush, unbelieving one, your thoughts; "Did I not say unto you, if you would BELIEVE, you should see the glory of God?"
Oh for an unquestioning faith! Naaman "thought" when, in the circumstances, he had no right to think; when alike his privilege and his duty was to listen to and obey the voice of Jehovah's prophet. So ought it to be with us; not venturing to arraign the faithfulness and love even of dispensations the most inscrutable; but rather, in reverent submission to say, amid crossed wills and frowning providences, "I will hear what God the Lord will speak. He will speak peace to His people and to His saints."
(2.) But these three brief words admit of more solemn interpretation, and more solemn lessons still—if we connect them with the sinner and with an eternal world—or rather, with that Great day when God's mundane providential government—the season of probation being ended, He shall judge the world in righteousness, and apportion everlasting awards; rendering "to every man according to his deeds—to those who, by patient continuance in well-doing, seek for glory, and honor, and immortality—eternal life; but unto those who are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that does evil." If we can dare, at such a crisis of the spirit's history, to suppose a remonstrance, would it not be framed or prefaced by this—"BEHOLD, I THOUGHT?"
Let us anticipate the scene. Let us conjure up some of those "thoughts" which, up to that moment, may have deluded and deceived—but which will then dissolve like a rope of sand.
"Behold, I thought," we may suppose one to say, "that I was as good as my neighbors." I saw no reason for curbing passion and leading an overstrict life. I brought myself to regard the tendencies and vices of a corrupt nature as 'pardonable weaknesses', too readily crediting the condoning verdict of my fellows, as they laughed at my scruples, and told me that there was no great harm after all in indulging these failings and foibles—that I was but a child of Adam at the best, and that no perfection was to be looked for here. If I were selfish and worldly, or the victim of lawless appetites, I thought I was at least no worse than crowds of loveless, narrow-minded, depraved souls around me, who had no higher law dominating their actions than this—"All seek their own." I was satisfied with conforming to the conventional habits and tastes and maxims prevalent in the society among which my lot was cast. Associating religion with sackcloth, self-denial and gloom, I shook off the oppressive burden, and came to glory in my imagined freedom, trusting—"thinking"—that all would go well with me at the last."
And is not this the very dream which many are daily cherishing—the false and fatal rationalization, which is lulling and luring them to destruction? They are content to measure themselves by themselves, and to compare themselves among themselves. With blunted moral sensibilities, and confounding moral distinctions, they invoke upon themselves the doom of the prophet—"Woe unto those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light, and light for darkness!" Their lives are regulated and their characters molded by the principles and practice of the world around them. In the quaint words of an old writer, "they set their souls by the town clock, and not by the sun in the heavens." Their creed is, "Religion may be well enough in its way, but we must keep it in its own place;" and they mandate it as an intruder, into the poorest and lowest corner of their daily life. They hear its warnings as they listen to some funeral bell tolled on rare occasions. Flippant pleasure, keen moneymaking, unrighteous mammon, seductive vice—these are the guests to whom they throw open house and hall, while the other is treated as the beggar at their doors, to whom they toss a coin to get rid of intrusive importunity.
"Why"—we may interpret their inward musing—"why this grim strictness, this 'puritanical punctilio' about the moralities of life? A plentiful and lenient allowance must be made; and will be made, at the last, for constitutional frailty and passionate impulse. If betrayed into deflections from the path of duty and rectitude—if the TEKEL of the old palace-wall be written on the chambers of conscience, it is the motto which belongs to millions as well as ourselves. We have looked behind the world's hollow pretenses and gilded professions, and our comfort is, that we are at all events, not worse than the average specimens of frail humanity. Let others, if they please, dwell within curtains of sackcloth and in the tents of Mesech; be it ours to fill the luscious bowl of pleasure—with the old Epicurean, to "live while we live"—to enjoy life's capricious sun while it shines—the haunt of folly, the dazzle of amusements, the jovial song, the sparkling wine-cup. "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."
Should there be one whose eye traces these lines, who may be harboring, even in a modified form, such perilous fallacies, trusting to such refuges of lies—risking the bridging of the eternal abyss with a few rotten and worthless planks—thus tempted to say, with multitudes of self-deceived, "Behold, I THOUGHT I was standing all secure." My brother! take home to yourself this timely word of warning—"When you THINK you stand, take heed lest you fall." "Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth, and walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know this—that for all these things God will bring you into judgment" (Eccles. 11:9).
Let us again take our place amid the congregation at the Great Assize. Another, we may suppose, will then be ready to say, "Behold, I thought" I might with safety procrastinate. I thought I could presume on a strong pulse and vigorous arm and unwrinkled brow. I thought I had a long future yet to build upon—not an autumn-tint seemed to be on the leaf—the sun was yet far from the western sky—I was floating down the stream with arms folded, apparently secure in my bark, little imagining that the waterfall was around the bend. I was convinced of my folly, when I found myself suddenly in the swirl and vortex of the dark waters. I am here to bear dreadful testimony to the truth often listened to, but listened to in vain, that "as men live, so do men die!"
And is not this, too, the daily reasoning of multitudes? Procrastinator! if the hand of death were now to arrest you; if you were now to be laid on the pillow from which you are never again to rise—the dream of life, with all its vanities and hopes and schemes vanishing in an instant, what would you say? Would it not be, "Behold, I thought it was yet time enough; I never anticipated a summons so sudden as this. True, conscience, the unsparing monitor and messenger, visited other doors—the gloomy funeral-crowd I saw passing along the street, ought daily to have reminded me of my own certain mortality. But I did not expect the 'fatal rider' would so soon drive his steed at my own dwelling. My 'golden castles' were not completed; my fields were not yet added to. I was weaving for the future, endless purposes regarding a religious life—but death has come when I was all unprepared and unready—like the leap of the forked lightning, or as the lurking assassin. Oh! I never dreamt of this rush and invasion of "the thief in the night! Behold, I thought"—and the voice fails and falters; it cannot complete the sentence. The swiftly moving spirit from the region of thought, passes at a bound into the region and world of dread realities!
Why, it may be asked, revert so often to this unwelcome theme of 'the peril of postponement'? Just because it forms the submerged rock that has strewn the sea of life with more of mournful wrecks than any other. Every returning Lord's-day, sermons in thousands of British churches are preached, in which the danger of delay is made special subject of faithful monition—God's servants enforcing the abstract lesson by instances in their own experience—strong frames prostrated, gleaming eyes dimmed, young voices silenced, the boom of the great billows thus brought solemnly and impressively near. Yet what is the effect? Awed into solemnity while the message is delivered and the warning brought home, how many go away worldly and callous—neglectful and godless as ever! Tomorrow finds the impressive exhortation stifled and overborne in the hum of business, just as if it had never been spoken—or, if it does recur, the old soliloquy will recur along with it, and hush it into new oblivion—"Soul, you have goods laid up for many years; eat, drink, and be merry!"
Moreover, what often tends to foster procrastination in the case of such, is, that the crude "thought" and theory of the spiritual life which they entertain, is a false and defective one. That "thought" frequently shapes itself into a 'religion' consisting in a series of outward impersonal acts—or, to express it differently, enrolment in a spiritual society called "the Church"—that enrolment involving little more than subscription to a few doctrinal truths and formulas—a mechanical process which can be satisfactorily effected at any time—thus leading to rest in the comforting anticipation of what is called "a deathbed repentance"—a safe and ready transportation into a world of spirits, aided by priestly absolution and the supposed efficacy of sacramental grace. (MacDuff is here referring to the "Sacrament of the Sick" which Roman Catholics depend upon to convey them to heaven—editor.)
We dare not limit the power and sovereignty of divine grace, even at the close of a misspent life. Doubtless it is a possible thing for a soul (like the Prophet's predicted nation) to be "born in a day"—for the spiritually blind, like our own globe emerging from its enshrouding chaos, to be translated at once out of darkness into marvelous light. But not so is God's 'customary and normal method' of procedure. Moreover, religion is an education—the outcome of a life. The mature Christian is not he, who, a stranger to all spiritual progress and development, is content with being fenced round with orthodox articles of faith, unimpeachable dogma and forms. But rather, one who has set before him, as his grand object and goal, conformity to the divine character—assimilation to the divine image.
The crude and shapeless block, as it comes fresh from the quarry, is not fashioned and transformed by a touch—for its place in the heavenly temple. Only after laborious efforts in the workman's hands, is it fitted to be a cornerstone, "polished after the similitude of a palace." A day of solemn reckoning will wake up many to the consciousness of present self-deception, who are now cherishing the delusion that they can safely and indefinitely relegate to a dying hour, the work of soul preparation—in other words, the remolding and reconstruction of their spiritual character—and by the muttering of a confession at life's close, pass at once into the fruition of a holy heaven and a holy God!
True it is (we cannot too often reiterate the cheering truth), that the unlimited invitation is given, irrespective of all times, unhampered by all conditions—"Him that comes unto me, I will never cast out." True it is, the faithful trader even on one talent, will not be excluded from the promised recompense of the Great Creditor. The hired laborers of the eleventh hour will not be forgotten or disowned by the Lord of the vineyard. True also it is, that in the Father's house there are many mansions. There are those who are "least" as well as "greatest" in the kingdom; those who are to move in distant orbits, as well as those who are to bask in the near radiance of the Central Sun—yes more, we doubt not many a prodigal, on whom we may have uttered our harsh verdict of exclusion, will find his way to the paternal halls, and be hailed with the paternal welcome. But yet, nevertheless, neither dare we fail to remember the words of "Him that is holy, Him that is true; who opens and no man shuts, and shuts and no man opens." Listen to these words! In the blaze of that righteous tribunal they will flash condemnation on many daring and presumptuous ones—"Him that overcomes will I grant to sit with me on my throne." "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life." "Then shall the righteous" (those who have made it their aspiration to reach the lofty divine ideal) "shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father."
Again, let us pass down the gulf of time to the same solemn hour. We may imagine the avowal of another to be this—"Behold, I thought that God would be too merciful to punish. I thought that He would never surely visit such stern retribution on the creature of His own hands. I thought, when I came really to confront His bar, that He would either modify His recorded threatenings—or else, perhaps, by a great unbounded exercise of His love, would grant a universal reprieve and amnesty. I thought, when I gazed on His outer visible creation—I saw no hieroglyphic of wrath. I saw love pencilled on every flower—I heard it murmured in every breeze, sung in the chorus of birds, proclaimed by the gleaming sun by day, and serenaded by the silent stars at night. Moreover, in looking around me on the moral world, I imagined some dim foreshadowings might be seen of the divine oblivion of sin and reluctance to punish. Sentence against an evil work was not, in the earthly economy, executed speedily. I saw, ofttimes virtue languishing unrewarded, and vice raising unrebuked her brazen forehead. When the Almighty did these things, and 'kept silence', behold, I thought that He was 'altogether such an one as myself!' I dreamt not of the necessity of the exercise of His justice—that though He pities the sinner, the holiness of His nature requires him to punish sin. The first glimpse of His righteous judgment-seat has dissipated the delusion. I am brought to read in the name and memorial of a merciful God— that He will by no means clear the guilty."
To refute similar "thoughts," to which, it is feared, multitudes are clinging, and who, in doing so, reduce the unchangeable Creator to a level with the vacillating creature—it is enough, surely, to point to the Incarnation and Passion of the Divine Redeemer, and the dreadful lessons which cluster around them. Can we—dare we, for a moment venture on the supposition, that God would have visited His innocent Son with such unparalleled anguish—that He would have inflicted on Him that shameful death, if He could otherwise have revoked the penalties annexed to transgression—if that mercy which endures forever, could have silenced the voice of righteous retribution, and conferred on the sinning, an unconditional pardon? The entertainment of the idea is equivalent to representing Gethsemane's garden and Calvary's cross as two superfluous scenes of woe—and the Eternal Father (we say it with reverence) as subjecting the Prince of Life and Lord of Glory to a needless tragedy of blood and suffering!
Let that "cross and passion" read another and far different lesson. If sin required so dreadful an expiation from the Innocent, what will it require from the guilty? If God poured out the vials of imputed wrath on the head of a spotless Immaculate Surety—what will He do to the bold, defiant scorner of His grace—the rejecter of "so great salvation." "If they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?"
Once more. From another crowd in that Great day of retribution, there will be heard the utterance of a more fearful "thought" still—"Behold, I thought that the whole world of spiritual realities was a myth—that religion was a falsehood—that God and heaven were illusions of fond fancy—that hell was 'a tale and nightmare of priestly terror'—Revelation a repertory of artful and antiquated forgeries which superstition had palmed from age to age on a gullible world. I thought that there was light enough in my own intellectual nature to guide me. I heard the priests of the Temple—the recognized interpreters of the oracles of God—proclaim truths which were unaccredited and unauthenticated by any other testimony. External nature seemed to belie them. They spoke of 'the end of all things'—the dissolution of the existing world order—the coming of the Son of God in the clouds of heaven. I looked abroad on the material earth, with its canopy of skies—it seemed to anticipate and echo my own skeptic thought—"Where is the promise of His coming?" All things continued as they were. There was no cloud in all the horizon—no shadow to warn of coming vengeance. Seasons revolved, and suns rose and set, and men bought and sold—the world seemed as buoyant with youth as ever. I thought to myself—Why practice a life of self-denial, as I see others do, on a 'mere possibility'? The visible testimony of the globe I live on, is more reliable than the conjectures of some old parchment scrolls and devout dreamers. I shall take my chance of these alleged premonitions of coming wrath. Reason shall be the priestess of my altar, and Pleasure the enshrined goddess. Mine shall be the happy creed, of death an eternal sleep, and the grave a last, long home, whose slumbers no fictitious trumpet-peal of Judgment shall ever break!"
How many, in this age of rampant infidelity and unbridled licence, are deluding themselves with these very "thoughts"—the infidelity of the head, stimulated by the worse infidelity of the heart, (for it is "in his heart" the fool has said, "There is no God"). None, doubtless, who peruse these pages, are thus wrecked on such unhappy shoals of error; despite of an outward religious profession, clinging to the horrible creed and vague hope, that, after all, there may be no personal Deity—no retributive judgement—that death may be annihilation—eternity a blank! But we may well give the needful word of warning—"Take heed, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief!" "Beware lest you also, being led away by the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness."
There is no subject more important than the relation of 'Reason' to 'Faith'—and Faith to Reason. We do not dethrone the latter from her own place—her God-assigned place—in the moral economy; "We speak that we do know." Reason, if rightly employed, ought to have her own mission; not as the antagonist—but as the sister and handmaid of Faith. But the command of Christ is not, "REASON yourself unto me," but, "Come unto me." "BELIEVE in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved." Do not begin, first, to cavil at the doctrine—to raise up mists of unbelief between you and the Sun of righteousness—to find out flaws and scars in the temple-pillars. Enter the sacred shrine. "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God." The Divine injunction, with reference to those skeptic imaginations, is a message of tender compassion and love—"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 unto our God, and He will abundantly pardon!" (Isa. 55:7)
Finally, what is the great lesson to us all from this subject? That it is now time to take God at His word. Like Naaman, we "think," and pause, and hesitate, when the divine injunction and exhortation is, "Only believe." When a child receives a command from his parent, he does not first weigh, and ponder, and question its propriety—he does not say, "Behold, I thought" that so and so would have been better; but he DOES it; he obeys. With him the parent's word is law. Reader, that is what God expects and demands of you. Not to subject to a hard and rigid analysis His dealings either in providence or grace, but simply to ask, "Lord, what would You have me to do?"
Oh! let there be no hard thoughts on your part with reference to Him. His thoughts, towards you, are thoughts of mercy. "How precious also are Your thoughts unto me, O God; how great is the sum of them. If I could count them, they are more in number than the sand." Be it yours to breathe the prayer of simple faith, docile reverence, filial love—"Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know MY THOUGHTS, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."