"Tell me, you whom I love, where you graze your flock and where you rest your sheep at midday. Why should I be like a veiled woman beside the flocks of your friends?"
"If you do not know, most beautiful of women, follow the tracks of the sheep and graze your young goats by the tents of the shepherds." Song 1:7-8

We have just been considering, in the preceding pages, that elevating subject, the imperishable life of the believer—the inviolable safety and security of the flock of the Great Shepherd. But, as it has been well remarked, there is often only a step between the third heavens and the thorn in the flesh. The child of God, triumphing at times in the indestructible privileges and blessings of the covenant—saying with the Psalmist, "The Lord is my life and my salvation, whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?"—may, like that same Psalmist, by reason of the seductions of temptation from without, or from remaining corruption within, be brought to wail through anguished tears —"My soul cleaves unto the dust"—"Iniquities, I must confess, do prevail against me!"

Sad fitfulness and waywardness of the vacillating, even though regenerate heart! The sheep that has been rescued from the pit of destruction—carried back in the arms of the Good Shepherd, caressed and fondled by its Divine Deliverer; with every conceivable motive to follow His steps and "abide in His love;" yet, once more a truant from the fold! This is our only comfort amid human changefulness—the ebbing and flowing in the tide of the spiritual life—that we can repose in the faithfulness, veracity, and immutability of Him "with whom is no variableness neither shadow of turning." The vessel may, for a while, drift from its moorings, but the Rock is immovable. "Though he falls, he shall not be utterly cast down; for the Lord upholds him with His hand." "The Lord lives, and blessed be my ROCK, and let the God of my salvation be exalted."

In the two portions of Scripture which head this chapter, we have the record and utterance of such an experience—the bleat of a wanderer who has strayed from the fold—the cry of a child who has strayed from the paternal home. Mournful is the theme, to trace the history of such aberration—to go down with a torch into the dark chambers of the soul, and discover the guilty secret of this quenching of its light. The humbling thing about spiritual declension, as we previously incidentally noted, is the often apparent triviality of its cause. Just as a child's breath on the window is sufficient to dull and obscure the loveliest landscape—or as that same child's breath puts out the candle as effectually as would the sweeping storm; so, little sins obscure the windows of the soul—they dim the spiritual and heavenly landscape—they put out the lights of faith and love, and leave the whole moral being in gloomy darkness.

How many can trace a long and dreary period of alienation to one unhappy incident—one omitted duty—one outburst of temper—one tampering with conscience. Any of these may, like the little jutting stone in the path, turn the sheep aside from the footsteps of the flock, and from the voice and leading of the Shepherd. Slowly, imperceptibly, the retrograde movement proceeds—slowly, the lethargy steals over the spirit. The backslider says, like Samson, "I will go out as at other times, and shake myself; and he know not that the Lord had departed from him."

Yes, in the case of not a few, that decay of spiritual health and energy, by means of many counterfeits of spiritual life, hides its own sad reality from the subject of it. It is like that specious and fatally common complaint, which simulates so many of the outward symptoms of health—the bright glow in the cheek, and the luster in the eye—while all the time the strength is being undermined, and disease is sapping the foundations of the natural life. So it is with this consumption of the soul. There is often the appearance of spiritual health; and many are content with this name to live, while they are dying or dead—deceiving others, and deceiving themselves.

The rustic figure of the Prophet Hosea is true to the letter—"Gray hairs are here and there on Ephraim, and he knew it not." With others, however, the fatal truth cannot be hidden or dissembled. The misery of this spiritual declension and apostasy cannot be concealed. The soul is only too conscious of the self-forfeiture of all its former spiritual blessings. From being once well fed—sitting under the Beloved's shadow, and catching the falling fruit from the laden branches; now it is forced to cry with no fake anguish—"My leanness, my leanness!"

Once it was like those flowers which open their petals to drink in the dews of heaven; but now, blighted and drooping, the cup closes, and the dew trickles down and falls unblessed on the earth—or like those plants, once covered with leaves and blossoms, but which have been imprisoned in the dark cellar—shut out from air and sunlight, now stretching their sickly tendrils towards every chink in the wall—gasping and sighing for the genial, loving influences from which they are excluded.

Among other fruitful causes, how often does WORLDLY PROSPERITY tend to this lapsing of the soul from God! How often do our very outward mercies and blessings super-induce this spiritual languor and decay! It is with believers individually as with the Church collectively—they are never in a condition less favorable to spiritual health and advancement than when they have no trial or cross to brace their energies and invigorate their graces. The soldier gets tired and listless after battle. History tells us how the bravest veterans of the great Carthaginian general got demoralized and degenerate, when (victory over) they sat down to rejoicing and revelry—they never were the same heroes again.

On the other hand, TRIAL is often made the means of rousing the lethargic soul. Affliction, in its many forms, is often instrumental in prompting the cry and the confession—"I went astray like a lost sheep." Then are we brought to see secret sins before undetected—pride, vanity, rebellion against God—unowned and unacknowledged mercies, of which we have been the daily recipients. We can imagine that it was in the cold, bleak night of the far country—when the sun had gone down—in the deep silence of some dreary solitude, that the prodigal first began to ponder his wretchedness. In that murky background, the gleaming memories of happier days were contrasted with the husks of the swine, and the garbage of the wilderness—there it was, that awaking suddenly to the consciousness of his misery, he rose from his stony pillow with the cry, "I am perishing with hunger!"

And so it is in the dark night of sorrow—in the solitude of the death-chamber and the stricken-heart, that many a man awakes to the first feeling of the wretchedness of his alienation from God, and that the blessed resolve is formed, "I will arise, and go to my Father." "Before I was afflicted I went astray." "Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me." The mount of "revival" is reached, not by walking along the flowery meadow, but the steep thorny path of "trouble!"

But let us pass from the wanderer and the wandering to consider more particularly THE WANDERER'S CRY. Cast down, he is not destroyed. The child is still conscious of the yearnings of home-love. The prodigal has not buried the remembrances of home-affection. The sheep, as it roams over the mountains, has not forgotten its Shepherd's voice and fold—"Tell me, O You whom my soul loves, where You feed—where You make Your flock to rest at noon!"

Backslider! In the midst of your guilty departures, can you make this averment—"O you whom my soul loves"? "Lord, You know all things; You know that I love you." "Seek," not a stranger, but "seek your servant. I have longed for many things in my seasons of estrangement, but none, O Savior God, have ever satisfied me but You. I have gathered pearls from many oceans, but none have been like the Pearl of Great Price. I have culled sweets from many flowers, but no perfume is like that of the Rose of Sharon. I have fled to many shelters! many bowers of earthly pleasure have spread over me their canopy, but none can compare to the True Refuge from the storm and covert from the tempest!"

Are there any perusing these pages who feel such to be their experience—who are sensible of the misery of their departure from God—who, in the retrospect of their spiritual life, have the sunny memories of other and brighter days—the springtime of love, when the garden of the heart was green with promise—while now all seems stunted, blanched, blighted, barren; like the significant description given by the Psalmist, "Like grass on the roof, which withers before it can grow; with it the reaper cannot fill his hands, nor the one who gathers fill his arms"? Melancholy, indeed, is your history. Dare I attempt to sketch it?

Once you soared on eagle pinions of faith; but these have collapsed—they have become leaden wings—and you have fallen powerless to the earth. Once you loved communion with God—the unspeakable privilege of fellowship with your Heavenly Father. That is now cold and dead—a piece of lifeless formalism. Once you loved prayer; you delighted to touch the golden scepter, to lay hold of the angel and wrestle; but now the soul's sinew is shrunk—your wrestling power is gone—the scepter is still there, but you are impotent to reach it. Once you loved the Word—the Scriptures read in the closet and in the sanctuary—the simplest of sermons in which Christ was preached were prized by you. Now the Bible gathers dust on your shelves—the sanctuary is attended more to criticize than to profit—to indulge the itching ear, rather than to benefit the needy soul.

Once you spent blessed hours of hallowed contemplation at the foot of the cross, or walked in Emmaus' journeys with your Lord—your heart burning within you, while, conscious of His invisible presence and love, He talked to you by the way, and opened to you the Scriptures. Now the world has hidden the cross—its din and bustle have drowned and overcome the Savior's voice. You call God still your Father; but you have no longer the filial, loving, childlike spirit which you once had. The tenderness of conscience is impaired; genuine spirituality is gone. The creature has vaulted on the throne of the Creator. Harsh thoughts of God have taken the place of loving ones. Unkind misconstructions of His ways and dealings have taken the place of reverend acquiescence in His sovereign will. The scroll of your life of faith, once all illumined with red and gold, is now covered with black lettering, "O Lucifer, son of the morning, how are you fallen!"

But do not despond. See, in both motto verses, the secret of such a wanderer's return. We have spoken of the sad case; let us look to THE CURE. The means of restoration is Prayer. It is by seeking anew the long-deserted and unfrequented mercy-seat. "Seek Your servant." "Tell me, O You whom my soul loves, where You feed." In the language of Hosea, addressed to backsliding Israel, "Take with you words, and turn to the Lord. Say unto Him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously."

At that crisis-hour of his history, when David was the most abject of wanderers, it was prayer which brought him back. His beautiful fifty-first Psalm is the liturgy of a penitent backslider, the loud and agonizing cry of a wandering sheep. And the Shepherd heard it! God restored his soul; and made good in his experience, as in the experience of all wanderers, His own promise, "Re turn unto Me, and I will return unto you." Do not keep back. Do not repress these penitential emotions, because of the sadness of your declension, and the extent of your divergence from the footsteps of the flock. Mountains of transgression may seem to separate you from the Shepherd. It matters not. If David had been influenced by a consideration of the enormity of his sin, before coming in broken-hearted penitence and conviction, to confess it, he might well have seen in it a wall of separation—an unbridged chasm, proclaiming eternal severance from the fold.

Listen to his plea. Listen to the backslider's entreaty. It is a strange and remarkable one, "Pardon my iniquity, FOR IT IS GREAT." Most transgressors would deem the greatness of their iniquity the very reason for God's withholding pardon. We might have expected to hear this presumptuous transgressor wailing out, through tears of despair, 'Lord, if my sin had been less heinous and aggravated, then I might have dreamt of forgiveness. If I had been untaught from my youth—untutored and undisciplined in Your ways, there might have been excuse or palliation for my offences, and room to hope on Your part for compassion and pardon. But I, guilty abuser of privileges, quencher of heavenly light, faithless requiter of abounding mercies, cannot expect, cannot ask You, to forgive these crimson iniquities. I must be content to be an outcast from Your fold forever.' No! He makes the very greatness of his sin his plea for the extension of God's mercy!

With man it would have been different. The turpitude of the crime would have closed the door of human sympathy and human hope. But God's ways are not man's ways, nor God's thoughts man's thoughts. "Let me fall into the hands of GOD, for great are His mercies, but let me not fall into the hands of man." "After Your loving kindness have mercy upon me. According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions." "GOD, be merciful to me, a sinner." "For Your name's sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity, FOR it is great!"

Reader, are you conscious that your iniquities have thus separated between you and your heavenly Shepherd? Are you conscious that you are not now as once you were? that you enjoy no longer, as once you did, sensible nearness to the mercy-seat? that you are restraining prayer before God? that the fine edge of conscience is blunted? that, in one word, you have lost ground in the Christian life? Arise, confess your sin, mourn your backsliding, and cry for mercy! Making a full and unreserved confession, the Great Shepherd will not spurn you away. He is waiting to be gracious. In the words of the woman of Tekoah, "But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him."

The Shepherd devises means for the reclamation of His erring sheep. He pities the backslider; just as the general on the field of battle pities the wounded who are carried bleeding by their comrades to the rear. "Go and proclaim these words towards the north, and say, Return, O backsliding Israel, says the Lord, and I will not cause my anger to fall upon you; for I am merciful, says the Lord, and I will not keep anger forever."

May it be yours to experience the blessedness of this true repentance! Yes. Strange as the expression may seem, the "blessedness of repentance." You have seen, when the rain and the storm had spent their fury on some landscape; when the thunder-cloud had passed, and blue vistas had again opened in the sky, and the sun had shone forth, silvering the dripping branches, how the woodland grove rang with the song of birds—all the sweeter and more gladsome seemed the notes of music, succeeding the gloom which had so long repressed them. Such is the image of the happiness and joy of the soul, in the hour of its restoration. Let this be your "new song," on being brought up from the miry clay, and your feet again set on the Rock of Ages, "O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise!"—"Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock of your inheritance, which lives by itself in a forest, in fertile pasture-lands. Let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in days long ago."

We close with a sentence of solemn admonition. Write "Beware" on every page of your future spiritual history. Wanderers once, see to it that you may not be wanderers again. "Be watchful and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die." If threatened with shipwreck once, before again putting to sea, "strengthen your mast,"—if decoyed once within the grim bars of Doubting Castle, be on your guard against the tempters with which Giant Despair has in these days studded the pilgrim's way. Hear the voice of God saying, as to the Church of Ephesus, "Remember, therefore, from where you are fallen, and repent, and do the first works."

Beware of forfeiting, even for a time, God's affection and love. In the case of human affections, after the sacredness of a friendship has once been broken, it is hard to reunite that broken link. It is hard to forget the treachery of a trusted friend, or to repose confidence where confidence has been misplaced and cruelly abused or wronged—it is easier to form a new affection than to patch up an old one. The same is true with regard to our relationship to God. It is hard for us to feel the tenderness of a first love again, if that love, on our part, have undergone coolness or lukewarmness. The bitter personal remembrance of having wounded the Highest, Truest, and Best of Friends, can never be obliterated. Peter (fully forgiven, and loving all the more because forgiven) could never cancel from his own memory the story of his denial—the deep wound he had inflicted on his loving Master; and he would carry that scar on his heart of hearts until the hour of his death!

Beware, too, of tampering with anything which may have periled your peace or dulled and deadened the life of God in your soul. Beware of walking on the edge of the precipice. You may escape falling; but the wiser plan is not to attempt it. Beware of walking too near the fire. You may escape the flames—but better not to run the peril of contact. Beware of navigating too near the rocks. You may carry your vessel through unscathed—but better not run the risk of making shipwreck of faith and of a good conscience. Beware of worldly associates—those whose principles and fellowship are apt to act as drags on the wheels of the spiritual life, and to retard the soul's advancement Godwards and heavenward. Cultivate the friendship of Christ's true people.

What was the reply to this wail of the wanderer in the Song, when, in pursuit of her lost Shepherd and Lord, she exclaims, "Why should I be as one that turns aside by the flocks of Your companions?" It was this—"Go your way by the footsteps of the flock, and feed your young goats beside the shepherds' tents." And while distrusting yourself, be it yours, with the Psalmist, to look away from your own weakness and wandering, to the Shepherd of Israel, as alike your Restorer and Keeper. How precious the double name—the double assurance! He is the RESTORER. "Seek Your servant," says the penitent suppliant. Well did he know that if the lost one is to be found—if the wandering sheep is to be brought to the fold again, the arms of the Good Shepherd can alone effect the restoration—"He restores my soul."

But He is more than this. "Seek Your servant;" and after seeking, keep Your servant! The Lord is Your KEEPER! "He who keeps Israel shall not slumber!" What can we desire more than this? All-sufficiency to restore, and All-sufficiency to keep; mercy to pardon, and grace to help. "Hear us, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock; you who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh. Awaken your might; come and save us. Restore us, O God; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved!"

Backslider! a gracious Savior thus gently chides you, "Will you go away also?" "You did run well, who hindered you?" No longer hazard your safety, or endanger your peace. "There are some sheep," says a traveler familiar with every phase of modern Palestine life, "incurably reckless, who stray far away, and are often utterly lost. I have repeatedly seen a silly goat or sheep, running here and there, and bleating piteously after the lost flock—only to call forth, from their dens, the beasts of prey, or to bring up the lurking thief, who quickly quiets its cries in death."

Although we cannot think of any true believer, however sad his wanderings, as perishing finally—consigned to hopeless and irremediable ruin; the earthly picture and symbol may well suggest solemn thought to all who are "ready to die," and who, by their own reckless waywardness and backsliding, are madly braving the perils of distance and alienation from the fold of God. Return, without delay, to the seeking Shepherd—rekindle the smouldering fires on the forsaken altar. If it has been for a time winter—spiritual winter, with your soul—all apparently lifeless and dead—every living grace drooping under the conscious absence of the true Sun—anticipate the spring-time of reviving energy. Cease not until you can respond to the gladdening notes of the revival hymn of the olden Church, "The winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."

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