Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the LORD.Lengthening the Cords and Strengthening the Stakes (A Sermon to Clergymen)
My subject is steadfastness and then extension. We have the same connexion of thought in that pair of parables which ought never to be separated—the Parable of the Ten Virgins and the Parable of the Entrusted Talents—the connexion between secret faith in the heart and the life of active obedience—life in Christ and life for Christ. I shall consider the subject in two aspects:—
I. As to our individual inner life.
II. As to our special position as ministers of Christ. I. To 'strengthen the stakes'—to drive in the tent-pegs—is a striking picture of the deepening and establishing of the inner life, and the lengthening the cords is a no less striking image of the gradual extension of our area of usefulness in the Church of God and in the world. As I shall dwell almost entirely on the first figure, let me remind you that the two must go together. The proportion must be complete. If you lengthen your cords, but do not strengthen your stakes, your tent will be liable to be swept away by the blast of temptation and trial. On the other hand, it is in vain to deepen your stakes unless you lengthen your cords, for the end of all religion is consecration of God and His service, to be used for His honour and glory.
There is one more point which must be settled before we proceed. That is the underground upon which we are building. If the foundation be sand, we drive in our tent-pegs in vain. They will not hold. Years ago I had an experience in the Lebanon. A sirocco was expected. My tent was pitched on rocky ground. I drove in my pegs to the hilt in narrow crevices in the rocks. The hurricane came in all its violence. My tent was shaken, but it stood. Let us ask ourselves once again the old, old question, Am I building upon the rock? Am I vitally united to Christ by faith? Is the living Christ the author of my salvation, the object of my faith, the inspiration of my love, the source of my power? If not—if some blast of temptation should assail me—if I should grievously fall, then should I have to cry in the words of the prophet, 'My tent is destroyed, and all my tent-pegs are plucked up; my children are gone away from me and are not, and there is none to spread out my tent any more, or to set up my tent curtains' (Jeremiah 10:20).
Let me mention two stakes which need to be strengthened.
1. First, we must rivet our souls more firmly on the Word of God.
2. The second 'stake' of which I would speak is prayer. Do we not all feel amid the endless claims upon our time that there is special danger of minimizing our seasons of private devotion? The very distraction of our work demands and necessitates increased carefulness in the habit of prayer. I have often sought refuge from the din and noise of the Strand in the repose and stillness of the Temple Gardens. The very act of prayer is soothing to the mind apart from the blessing we look for in return, just as we are refreshed in the darkness by the fragrance of the garden, even though we cannot see to cull the flowers. St. Paul constantly realized this. He tells us that one of the five conditions upon which the peace of God is to be maintained in the soul amid the distractions of life is this: 'In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. So the peace of God which passeth all understanding shall fortify your hearts and minds'.
But not only for repose but for safety's sake wo must pray. If our souls are not strengthened by prayer we shall certainly fall a prey to temptation. We marvel that some mighty tree is broken by the blast, until we discover the inner decay. The great Origen, under fear of death, denied his Lord. The heathen were exultant They did not know that; Origen that morning had left his chamber without his wonted prayer. His last biographer denies the recantation, but his sermon in Jerusalem on Psalm 50:16-17, seems to authenticate the fact. Even if it be not true, the instinctive feeling that it is likely is a proof of our consciousness that all our inconsistencies, every yielding to temptation, each fall, secret it may be, is to be traced up to the neglect of habitual communion with God. Let the old question come back with all its ancient force: 'Will you be diligent in prayer?' For our own soul's sake, for our ministry's sake, we must be more and more men of prayer. All mighty works for God are done by His saints upon their knees. The man of prayer is the man of power in the Church of God.
II. I must now look at a wider field. The tent, or tabernacle, is an emblem of the Church; and here we will use the command, 'Spare not; lengthen thy cords and strengthen thy stakes,' in a more catholic sense.
I would guard myself against three dangers in my pulpit ministrations:—
1. The danger of forgetting the only remedy for sin. All reading must be subject to this. When the mind is full of the theme, and your motto is 'Nihil humani a me alienum puto,' and you have notes on your desk from theology, history, poetry, fiction, biography, science, and you feel and know that you can interest your people, beware! Is there a remedy for sin amongst it all?
2. Let us guard against the danger of vanity. 'Why is it, father,' said one of the friends of St. Francis d'Assisi, 'that all the world goes after you?' 'Why,' he replied, 'even for this. The Lord saw no greater sinner in the world than I—none less wise, none viler, and so He chose me above all to accomplish a wonderful work on the earth.' 'Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints,' said St. Paul, 'is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.'
3. Let us not forget our entire dependence upon God the Holy Ghost, that we may not be left to our own barrenness and blindness, but that our faculties for teaching may be directed and perfected.—J. W. Bardsley, Many Mansions, p. 89.
From this text William Carey preached his famous sermon before his fellow-ministers at Nottingham in 1792. He divided the passage under two heads, which as Mr. Eugene Stock says, have been an inspiration to the whole Church of Christ from that day to this. (1) Expect great things from God. (2) Attempt great things for God. The sermon was preached on 30 May, and on 2 October the Baptist Missionary Society was formed. In the following year Carey himself sailed for India as its first missionary.
Lengthening and Strengthening
This splendid and glowing chapter is a magnificent example of prophetic faith. The people were exiles in what looked like a hopeless captivity. Yet this chapter throbs and burns with the prophet's passionate conviction that many years shall not pass before he and his are restored again to their native land. His nation had been overwhelmed with disaster and political extinction, and when the people had been deported beyond the Euphrates, it looked as if the last chapter in the history of Judah had been written, and that its very name had been blotted out for ever from the roll-call of nations. But in this chapter the Prophet dares to predict for that ruined, desolate and wellnigh extinguished kingdom, a future greater even than its heroic past.
I. 'Lengthen your cords' is the Divine appeal to the Church. We must enlarge the place of our tent. We must continually be making more room. The danger of the Church is ever to be content with narrow boundaries, to be satisfied with less than God has in store for her. And so, to a Church always ready to sit at ease, God has always to be saying, 'Lengthen thy cords, stretch forth the curtains of thy habitations'. In many directions we must 'Lengthen our cords'.
1. We must be ever lengthening our cords in the way of seeking to win new territories and heathen lands for Jesus Christ.
2. We must be ever lengthening our cords in the way of seeking to bring daily life more and more under the sway of religion.
3. There must be a lengthening of the cords in the way of opening our minds to receive the new ideas and the larger truth that God from age to age reveals. For God does, from age to age, reveal new truth. No one can study the history of the centuries without seeing it. The Spirit is from time to time taking of the things of Christ and revealing them unto us.
II. But we must not only lengthen our cords, we must strengthen our stakes. There must be the inward confirmation as well as the outward development. Seek to win heathen countries for Christ; bring more and more of daily life under the sway of religion; keep an open mind for the larger truth; but see to it that the strengthening goes hand in hand and keeps pace with the lengthening; strengthen your hold upon the great Gospel verities, upon foundation truths, upon bottom facts. Strengthen your stakes, the great beliefs of your life; strengthen them, confirm them; in a word, while extending on this side and that, see to it that you are tightening your own grip upon Jesus Christ.
The lengthening without the strengthening can only issue in disaster.
—J. D. Jones, Elims of Life, p. 155.
References.—LIV. 2, 3.—A. T. Pierson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xli. 1892, p. 360. J. Clifford, ibid. vol. xli. 1892, p. 344. J. Thoburn, ibid. vol. li. 1897, p. 267. LIV. 4.—Hugh Black, ibid. vol. lx. 1901, p. 138. LIV. 7-10.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxii. No. 1306. LIV. 9.—Ibid. vol. xxxvi. No. 2176; vol. li. No. 2962.
The Kindness of the Lord
There are features of this earth which suggest eternity, voices which mysteriously speak of infinity. The sea is such a feature. Yet we are assured the time shall come when 'there shall be no more sea'. The mountains are another such feature; we read of the 'everlasting hills'. Yet, as the text assures us, 'The mountains shall depart and the hills be removed '. They serve to symbolize the Divine nature and attributes. But there is a contrast drawn. These stable things of earth shall pass away; but, saith the Lord, 'My kindness shall not depart from thee'. The Lord's loving-kindness towards His people is set forth in three clauses of this verse.
I. His Gracious Disposition is Revealed—Very human and very encouraging is the language in which our God speaks of Himself and His feelings towards us. His kindness is not mere indulgence; it is a desire for our holiness as well as our happiness.
II. His Tender Mercy is Recorded.—Mercy is not a mere feeling; it is practically displayed. He 'hath mercy upon' us. Whilst righteousness alone might condemn, mercy forbears and forgives.
III. The Covenant of Peace is Established.—A covenant here is not a bargain, but a faithful declaration of Divine purposes. The former covenant was with Israel; the new covenant is with the race which Christ redeemed, the Church which Christ purchased. The element of the covenant is peace with God, with self, with men.
IV. The Unchangeableness of the Lord's Love.—This is shown by contrast, viz. with earthly objects, as mountains and hills; and implicitly by contrast with earthly possessions and with human friends.
a. It is independent of us, i.e. of our desert, had we any; of our feelings, which are always varying.
b. It cannot be affected by anything outside us. 'Who, what shall separate us from the love of Christ?'
c. It is part of God's unchanging nature, whose power cannot fail and whose promises cannot be broken.
d. It is assured to us in Jesus Christ, who by His advent and by His sacrifice reveals and ratifies a love which never changes and a faithfulness which never betrays.
V. Our Response.—What shall be our response? Let us think not how we feel towards the Lord, but how He feels towards us. Let us not misinterpret the changes, losses, and sorrows which, so far from being evidences of changes in the Divine heart, are ministrations of His kindness. But in all weakness and discouragement let us rely upon Him Who is independent of all our variableness and inconstancy.
Reference.—LIV. 10.—A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—Isaiah XLIX.-LXVI. p. 125.
Ruskin says: 'How will you evade the conclusion, that there must be joy, and comfort, and instruction in the literal beauty of architecture, when God, descending in His utmost love to the distressed Jerusalem, and addressing to her His most precious and solemn promises, speaks to her in such words as these: "Oh, thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted,"—What shall be done to her?—What brightest emblem of blessing will God set before her? "Behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and thy foundations with sapphires; and I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones." Nor is this merely an emblem of spiritual blessing; for that blessing is added in the concluding words, "And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of thy children ".'
References.—LIV. 13.—T. G. Selby, The Holy Spirit and Christian Privilege, p. 197. Morgan-Dix, Sermons Doctrinal and Practical, p. 169. LIV. 14.—S. Barnett, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lix. 1901, p. 110. LIV. 17.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. 1. No. 2918. LV.—Ibid. vol. xxxviii. No. 2278. J. H. Jowett, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lv. 1899, p. 282.
Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes;
For thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left; and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited.
Fear not; for thou shalt not be ashamed: neither be thou confounded; for thou shalt not be put to shame: for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more.
For thy Maker is thine husband; the LORD of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall he be called.
For the LORD hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth, when thou wast refused, saith thy God.
For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.
In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the LORD thy Redeemer.
For this is as the waters of Noah unto me: for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth; so have I sworn that I would not be wroth with thee, nor rebuke thee.
For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the LORD that hath mercy on thee.
O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and lay thy foundations with sapphires.
And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones.
And all thy children shall be taught of the LORD; and great shall be the peace of thy children.
In righteousness shalt thou be established: thou shalt be far from oppression; for thou shalt not fear: and from terror; for it shall not come near thee.
Behold, they shall surely gather together, but not by me: whosoever shall gather together against thee shall fall for thy sake.
Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy.
No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their righteousness is of me, saith the LORD.