The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.Closing Prophecies
This is a prophecy; a prophecy of a day, a burning day; a prophecy of a coming Sun, called "the Sun of righteousness"; a prophecy of victory over the wicked; a prophecy of a prophet. Men cannot help prophesying. Prophecy is true; the thing prophesied may be false. For want of distinguishing between these two things, so simple that a child might comprehend them, the whole Christian Church is thrown into confusion, and a hostile world is fighting ignorant and futile battles. If we can establish this distinction we ought to bring about a totally new conception of the kingdom of God upon the earth. We must approach this subject in its highest aspect by beginning where we can amid the most infantile illustrations of the principle.
Walking is right; but you may be walking in the wrong direction. What is the good therefore of finding fault with walking? Why not confine your remonstrance or expostulation to the mere matter of destiny? You cannot alter the fact that man was made to walk. Speaking is right; speaking is of God: but you may be speaking the wrong thing, you may be speaking profanely, you may be speaking falsely. But why should there be any battle about speaking? Why not confine your attention to its misuse or abuse? It is easy to pass from these initial illustrations to higher ground. On that higher ground the argument is just as vivid and just as strong. Thinking is right, thinking is inevitable; but the thought may be all wrong. And yet men have confounded the thought and the thinking, as if they were one and the same thing, and hence we have battles of words, and great noises of contradiction, simply because we do not confine attention to the point that is right and the point that is wrong. You would not forbid speaking; you would rather cultivate the act and the art of utterance. When you deal with speaking you deal with something you have nothing to do with; what you have to do with is the use to which you put your speaking power: the one is God's gift, the other is men's use of that gift. On the latter fight as many battles as you please, but do not imagine that you can alter the infinite law of the divine decree and purpose in the creation of man. You cannot hinder speaking, you have no power in that direction; your power begins with the things that are spoken. Watch that point, be most critical and careful there; but for the sake of high reason do not interfere with the ordinance of heaven, which has made man a speaking creature.
Thus we come nearer to the purely and distinctively religious ground. We come, for example, first of all to faith. Faith cannot be destroyed by anything that man can say. Faith is one thing; creed is another. Faith is to creed as is walking to the point walked towards, or speaking in relation to the thing that is spoken. You may fight the creed, but you cannot touch faith; it does not come within the sphere of words: there is nothing you can lay hold of. You may as well fight life itself; faith is life's life. Your instruments, how long and keen soever, cannot get at that ghostly, divinely-human power. Men must believe. The world would fall to pieces without faith. At the same time, you may be believing the wrong thing; you may be putting your faith into false incarnations. There battle as much as you please—you are called to fight; insist upon holy, ineffable, divine faith embodying itself in the purest expression. Here it is that men can never destroy religion. The forms change, blessed be God, but the essential principle abides. Life always takes upon itself new expressions and new embodiments; but the life itself is everlasting, unchangeable, the very gift of God, and the very crown of humanity. Yet men suppose that when a creed is being attacked faith is being assaulted. Such men can never be taught to see the distinction between faith—the inward element, the spiritual principle, the highest characteristic of man—and the creed into which that faith is translated for the time being. The creed is not of equal value with the faith. Why do we not therefore confine our attention to essentials?
What applies to faith applies to prayer. You cannot help praying. It is altogether useless to ask whether prayer is ever answered; whether it is answered or not, you cannot give over; because you cannot give over, the presumption is that prayer is answered. Here we come upon a law, a decree, an ordinance, a holy church in the wilderness of life; here is something that we must do perforce. The prayer uttered may be all wrong, it may be unwise, it may be positively ignorant, it may indeed encroach upon the province of real wickedness, it may be selfish, thoughtless, narrow, shallow; that has nothing to do with the question; prayer is not the thing prayed for; it is a spirit, holding converse with faith and thought, and is not to be brought into the court of human criticism. When we say in broad terms that you cannot give over praying, the answer is not to be found in individual instances in which men have avowedly renounced all that belongs to prayer. First of all, they have not renounced it, they cannot renounce it; men may kill the body, but after that they have no more that they can do: the soul cries and prays in hell. You can kill the body, you can thrust your bodkin into the throat, and stop the prayer in the shape of words, but the soul will pray across the ever-separating gulf. How puerile is the talk therefore about prayer as to whether it is answered; the question is, Is some form of it answered, is some practical expression of it regarded benignantly and complacently in heaven? That is not the prayer; the prayer is behind that, independent of that; living, breathing, and crying out to the Infinite without words. If you take words from criticism, criticism has nothing to do; it is a grammarian, a philologist, a mere word-monger; if you do not speak to it you baffle it, you drive it to its wits' ends. The question therefore does not arise in the first instance, What do you think, what do you believe, what do you pray? The earlier question relates to the fact of belief and thought and prayer, and the whole mystery of our being, which is not to be rendered in speech. Where are all the battles fought? Outside; no assault can be made upon faith; therefore rest, O thou disquieted soul. If all the creeds in Christendom were burned tomorrow, faith would abide, for no fire can kindle upon that sublime and inexpressible force. By faith the world is saved: we are saved by faith. Faith is the gift of God; without faith it is impossible to please him. Yet so little, so mean, is man, that when he gets hold of a written creed he thinks he has got hold of Christian faith.
He thinks, moreover, that when he has made critical havoc of the written creed he has shaken the foundations of the Church. Where are those foundations? They are in God. When you have convicted your little child of a mistake in syntax, have you overturned the faculty, the power, and the right of speech? When you have detected your little boy going down the wrong road, do you say, This comes of walking; here is a palpable instance of the unphilosophicalness and the unreasonableness of walking? Yet when we find men proposing certain dogmas which we do not like, and writing other creeds with which we are not content, we say, Here is an evident and indisputable proof of the simple vanity and inutility of what is called religion. So foolish are men and ignorant! They are before God as creatures destitute of reason. We may have been supporting the wrong Church all our days; but the Church cannot be destroyed; the foundation of the Lord standeth sure; we can never get rid of the true Church. Amid all our misunderstandings and conflicts, our oppositions and exasperation, the Church abides, because the Church is divine and invisible as God. When men realise that thought, there will come over their spirit a great quietness, a holy enjoyable calm; when that thought rules, the Sabbath day dawns on human souls. Yet men think that when they have assailed the Church of Rome or the Church of England in any of its communions and departments, they have really brought a tremendous fusillade against the very bastions of heaven. Why, if all our Roman, and Greek, and Anglican, and Nonconformist Churches, as mere structures, were swept off the face of the earth tomorrow, the Church of God abides in all its integrity, in all its music and usefulness. Why do you confound the coat with the man? Why do you confound the body with the soul? Why do you confound the lame and infirm speech with the soul that wants to tell you something and cannot, because the vessel of your speech cannot hold the wine of its conception?
So we come to this matter of prophecy. All the prophets were right—all prophets are right; yet prophecies may be wrong in innumerable instances. But we have agreed that walking to the wrong place is no argument against walking; saying the wrong thing is no argument against speaking, and therefore we ought to agree that because a prediction is false within the narrow scope of its literalness therefore the spirit of prophecy is not destroyed, or may not be touched in its divine integrity, Our contention is that every word spoken by the biblical prophets was right. They were right not only in their election and inspiration, but they were right in the things which they uttered. They were moral prophecies, they were judgments of God. The word of the Lord thus abideth for ever. Men of false mind may have twisted and perverted and discoloured it, and may have utterly misapplied it, and may have lived feloniously upon it; yet that does not touch the Word itself. The life is greater than its incarnations. Men have abused their lives, but they cannot touch their life. Life is a larger term than lives, as faith is a larger term than creed. We know the true prophecy when we hear it. When this weird prophet comes amongst us and says, "For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly shall be stubble," we say, That man is right. We know it; the ages could not do without precisely such a voice. We must not turn music away when it approaches us and seeks our hospitality. The earth waits for this burning day; the stubble is increasing, the wicked are growing prouder day by day; whilst we look upon the confusions and difficulties we hear a voice saying, "Behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven," and we say, Hail, thou expected morning! Come, and with infinite conflagration burn all evil.
We cannot understand how utterly, how ineffably sublime these predictions are until we get into a certain spiritual mood, until we feel the wickedness of wickedness, and see all evil in some degree as God sees it. Blessed be God for fire; it is disinfecting, it is illuminating, it is destructive. God has a great fire, and he is going to bring it that it may burn up all the lies of hypocrisy, all the insincerity and selfishness of the world, cleansing it,—heaven's great fire: a glorious prophecy! The soul says on hearing that this day is coming, Amen! Come quickly! Yet we must not dictate to God as to the pace of his movements. He does not measure by our chronometers any part of his economy or advance. A thousand years are with the Lord as one day, one day is as a thousand years,—a phrase by which he shows us that he takes no note of time after our scale and pattern. He is always coming quickly; he always comes suddenly: so does all life; so does all death; so does all joy. The Lord cannot come other than suddenly to his temple. When he brings life it is in a moment. No matter how long the preparation for death, when it comes it comes suddenly. We say, It was very sudden at the last. Ay, that is God's way. And when our joy comes it always comes with the last drop. The vessel is almost brimful, now it is quite brimful, now the last drop falls, and the cup overflows, and we say at the last, it came with such a surprise, it came so suddenly, we could hardly believe the gladness. The advent of God cannot but be sudden. Do not therefore fear that God has forgotten the promise of this day. If we could see things as they really are from his point of view, we should know that the day had already come. All wickedness is being burned down. The wicked man has a terrible time of it to-day. Do not believe him when he laughs; his life is a lie; his last stroke of merriment is his last forgery. He cannot be happy—or God cannot; I must leave it between them. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, never give up the faith that all wickedness is in hell, and never was out of it. All wickedness is hell. We do not know it at the moment; there may be just one little speck of time in which wickedness presents another phase, but before you can measure the magnitude of that speck it has faded from the disc, and hell has set in, hell's winter of fire: a contradiction in terms, a parodox in words; an awful reality in consciousness.
Thus we attempt to seize a proper conception of essentials. Thus we illustrate essentials by incidentals, such as talking, walking; thus we come to see that prayer is a necessity, faith is a necessity, thought is a necessity, life is a necessity; and all the hurlyburly of the world's hostility is directed against the outposts only. Bring in the prey you have taken from God, and let us count it, appraise it, hang it up, and label it. What have you taken from God? Nothing. You have taken a great deal from ignorance and from conceit and from intellectual vanity; you have made tremendous raids upon ground which man has bounded off for his own occupation and enjoyment; there criticism has wrought miracles of destruction: but what remains? God, thought, faith, prayer, love. Why, then, the enemy has taken nothing? That is all he ever could take; there is nothing else to lay his hands upon. And when the enemy comes in with tremendous force to take from us this creed and that standard and the other form of Church government, and makes great havoc of a critical kind, and we turn and say, "Lord Jesus, thy Church is having an awful experience," he says, with the eternal smile of love, "Fear not them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do." "Let not your heart be troubled; ye believe in God, believe also in me." Lord, increase our faith!
Closing Prophecies (Continued)
Here are two effects of fire. In the first instance here is the effect of destruction. When the burning day comes it shall leave the wicked "neither root nor branch." That may be called the negative action of fire. No man who is wicked can fight Omnipotence, and win. Why do the heathen rage? Why do the people imagine a vain thing? Why do men kick against the pricks? Why does the ox back upon the goad, and torment itself with keener agony? No man can fight Almightiness, and conquer. When the Lord's day of burning shall come, that great oven-day spoken of by the prophet, all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble. Who can fight fire with straw? Who will set up a wooden fence against a volcano? When all the burning is done how will the day's history total? Thus: "It shall leave them neither root nor branch"; nothing to be seen above ground, nothing to be found underground; the triumph of retribution is complete. It is well that men should thus be able to forecast their fate. The candle of the wicked shall be put out; the memory of the wicked shall rot. The ungodly are not like the righteous; they are like the chaff which the wind driveth away, as if in mocking and derisive sport. There need be no waiting for the judgment-day to know our destiny: this is the day of judgment. The Lord's right hand is evident, and the Lord's left hand is vividly displayed; and men can rank themselves. Conscience shall be judge, and personal history shall be found personal evidence. For the wicked there is nothing but a fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation. "The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God." These are terrible words; but the surgeon is a terrible man, who takes out his instrument that he may cut the diseased flesh or remove the diseased joint. But is he only terrible? On the contrary, his terribleness is an aspect of his beneficence. If your house is standing upon a bog, it is better that you should know it in time. Do not declare that the messenger is terrible and severe. He is not; he is wise, he is considerate, he is merciful; he has come to state the facts, that you may know what to do. Why should you be the victim of your own diseased sentimentality, saying, Do not tell us about ruin and burning days, but tell us about sunshine and flowers? Rather say to all God's angels and ministers of grace, Men of God, tell us the truth! A call for the truth will elicit the truth.
But there is another action of light or fire, there is the action of healing:—
"But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings" (Malachi 4:2).
A terrible Sun! Dead trees have a hard time of it when the sun shines; they do not understand one another; there is no point of co-operative contact. The tree that is dead is out of the solar system; it does not come into the current of its ministries: it stands in the soil, but is not rooted in the centre. All day the sun fights it, mocks it, blisters it, takes out of it drop by drop any lingering juice that may be in its veins, until the process of desiccation is complete. It is otherwise with the living tree. The sun kisses it into larger life; blesses it with reproductive and generous warmth; tells it messages from heaven; speaks to it of the larger trees on the other side of the river; tells the most blossoming and blooming and fruitful tree upon earth that it is only a dim emblem, a poor shadowy type, of God's real trees; and promises all living, true, and good things that they shall be lifted up into the ideals which now they imperfectly typify. Nor do the trees complain; they say, If we are only types, we can do God's work in that fashion; if we trees are to be carried on to a higher realisation, so be it, God's will be done. We are thankful for what we can do, now and the future we leave with him. What is this "Sun of righteousness"? Not a man; the grammar is against that view. In Hebrew the word for "Sun" is feminine:—Shall the Woman of righteousness, the She of beauty, arise with healing in her wings? The universe would be empty without the woman. Eden did not begin to grow until the woman came; and if she killed it, it was only because she first made it alive. We do not understand these allusions to gender. Is God Father and Mother? Is there a feminine element in God? When he made man he made him man and woman, and he made him after his own likeness. Who knows the meaning of these things? No man. Yet they are full of meaning to the soul—meaning which will not give itself up to words, but will hover above the soul, flutter near it, throw fragrances upon it, sing to it, startle it in the nighttime with visions of light. We must not part with these unseen presences and ministries. There is a cant that says we cannot go into the unseen world; we know nothing about the world unseen. It is the merest drivel to say so; it is also opposed to the simple facts of the case. We are all living in the unseen world; we are eternally living within ourselves when we suppose that we are only living within a sphere or circle that is visible. We are invisible to ourselves, we are invisible to one another; we only know one another by revelation. Behind the word lies the meaning; behind the meaning lies the motive; behind the motive lies eternity. And so there be fools that tell our young souls not to trouble about the unseen! Have you seen thought, spirit, life, motive? Have you seen the Self of yourselves? It is even so with these deeper spiritual interpretations. This woman-Sun is a fact.
Look at the effects of divine healing. They are stated by the prophet:—"Ye shall go forth." There shall be activity. This is the characteristic of divine religion; it will not let men stay at home, it develops the spirit of travel and locomotion. Where the divine religion has taken hold it says, When will the ship be sailing? When will the train be going? When will the coach be ready, that we may ride through the wilderness? Why not sit down here? We cannot. Why not? To "go forth" is the watchword of our faith. Missionaries cannot always give an account of themselves. We have already, in this People's Bible, come upon men who have said, "Let me go," and Pharaoh has said, Why, have I not been good to thee? Yes. Hast thou not had an abundance to eat? Yes. Hast thou not been as one of my own? Yes. Then why go? I do not know why, but I must go. That is the pressure of destiny. Pharaoh did not understand how a well-fed beast could wish to leave his pastures and his stalls; but the Lord, as we have seen, had spoken to the man, and filled him with the spirit of restlessness. Christianity is restless in that sense; it will not give itself any recreation or cessation from labour until the very last man has been saved from the shipwreck. Not only shall ye go forth, but ye shall "grow up as calves of the stall,"—a figure which signifies, Ye shall be sportive, ye shall realise the idea of youthfulness; you shall be vivacious, you shall not be old, cold, dead things, ye shall be as calves of the stall, full of life, leaping because of the very redundance of vitality. There is a hint here of spiritual enthusiasm. This is not an animal vivacity, it is a spiritual impulse and ambition; it is the new and deeper magnetism, it is the effect of being in touch with God. Where there is no enthusiasm there is no true realisation of the sunlight; we have seen that it is the sun that keeps us in obedience. The sun tells us what to do. The sun will tell you whether it is holiday-time or not. You cannot go out willingly to take your holiday in the rain; if for arbitrary reasons and appointments you are obliged to go, you go with discontent and complaining; but when the sun comes and fills the whole firmament with his glory, we say at once, Let us go. The sun tells you what coat to wear, what food to eat; the sun is master.
But there may be activity, that is to say, going forth, and there may be a sense of sportiveness and joy intimated by the words "grow up as calves of the stall." But what then? After that there will be conquest:—
"And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts" (Malachi 4:3).
Christianity goes forth to conquer. Christianity never fails; any failures are temporary and apparent and superficial. If Christianity could fail, arithmetic could fail; all truth could fail; geometry could fail; and we all know that geometry always wins within its own sphere. Geometry makes the builder take his plumbline with him; Geometry says, You must build according to me, or you cannot build at all; your little edifice will topple over if you do not build according to the sun, the moon, and the stars. All these essential things are settled for you. As for your so-called architecture, well, you can be Gothic, or Doric, or Grecian, or Italian, or Composite, or what you please; Geometry does not interfere with your architecture: but you must build according to Euclid, the gospel according to Euclid, or you cannot build at all. In proportion as anything is true, it must eventually succeed. There will always be found fools who will venture some other policy: there have been men who have ventured to build crooked walls, and the walls have fallen down upon them.
Now the oracle is about to cease; Malachi is about to resign the pen. What are his last words? There shall no prophet arise after him until John the Baptist come, and John the Baptist shall not come for four hundred years. What is to be in the meantime? Does God provide for the interstices of history? Has God taken note of gap and vacancy and hiatus in the wondrous evolution of history? Hear the word:—
"Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments" (Malachi 4:4).
With that Bible you must be content for four centuries. Keep in mind the law. In the Jewish synagogue a great distinction is drawn between the law and the prophets; in the Jewish synagogue there are two lessons in public worship, the one lesson is read from the law, and that lesson must be read by the highest functionary in the synagogue; the second lesson is from the prophets, and any boy may read it, any mean man or casual student may read the prophets; only the very highest officer of the synagogue may read the law. We do not believe in these distinctions; we believe that the utterances of God are one, that whatever he speaks is truth, is music, is poetry, is life. We are, however, dealing with men who did make certain distinctions, and we must respect them. For four hundred years the people were to remember the law of Moses. When Jesus Christ was asked what a man should do to inherit eternal life, he said, "What is written in the law?" That was a startling answer. He did not say, It hath been said of old time, but I say unto you, when it came to a matter of life and death. God has never left matters of life and death to be settled by arbitrary dogmas and statements, and by variable theories; when it has come to a face-to-face interview with God, when it has come to a question of life or death, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" we are referred to the very first chapters of the Bible. All great questions were answered in eternity; only little riddles, present problems may be discussed in variable terms. The lawyer answered, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God." Certainly, said Christ; that will never change: do that, and thou shalt live. So the Jewish Church was not left without witnesses through the four centuries of so-called silence. The law of Moses then prevailed. It would have given life if lovingly accepted and obeyed. All truth gives life; all truth brings light. But is it "the law of Moses"? That is only part of the description; the full description is, "the law of Moses my servant"—there is the supremacy of God; "which I commanded unto him"—there is the fountain of law. God commands, Moses interprets, Moses communicates; but all that man can do is to act instrumentally; the fountain and the origin of law we find in God.
Is there then no touch of prophecy, is there no widening of the horizon before the view of the Church? Is it simply the law, the law, the law,—iron, dogmatic, positive, unchangeable? Is there no sky above this poor earth of law? God never made earth without making sky. So in this instance we find the sky, the horizon, the far-away hint and promise:—"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet"—hot Elijah the Tishbite. We cannot distinguish always between the local and the universal. If the Lord had promised Elijah the Tishbite, then we might have expected one certain, definite, limited, local personality; we should have fixed our attention upon the word Tishbite, and unless a man had come with that locality attached to his name, we should have refused the man, though his eyes burned liked suns, and his voice was eloquent with thunder. We are great in technicalities, we are nisi prius men; we know all about precedents, and cases that have been in the court, and localities, and technicalities, and particularities: but we are nothing when it comes to great sky-action. The man who was to come was to be the prophet; the local, the parochial, the limited forgotten, and the prophetic, the inspired was to be predominant, illuminating the sky for the day of his sovereignty.
What shall this Elijah do when he comes? He shall work out a great reconciliation:—
"And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers" (Malachi 4:6).
This is not a family reference; the prophet is not speaking, or God is not speaking through the prophet, merely of the father of a family and the children of a family; he is speaking of fathers in the sense of leaders, teachers of the world;—and children, the populations and the flocks of the earth: and this prophet when he comes will be known by his desire to promote and his power to promote reconciliations. God's prophets always bring music, harmony, rest. If any man bring aught else, except in an initial and temporary sense, he is no prophet sent by God. "Lest I come and smite the earth with a curse"—with a ban: lest I so strike it that a great wale shall burn across its forehead. Would the Jew end the reading here? No; the Jew could never read a chapter and end it with such a word as "curse." He would go back to the preceding verse, and conclude with the words, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet." The Jew always concluded his biblical reading with a sweet verse, a tender benediction. Thus the Lord allows us to make beauteous images and beauteous issues out of his Word.
To close the Old Testament is a solemn act As commentator for the people upon the Old Testament, I now close the record. It is a wonderful story. We have gone through it from the first page to the last; yet we have not begun it. Herein is the inspiration of the Bible, that we end the book but not the revelation. Were we now to turn back to the opening of Genesis we should find the flowers waiting for us as if we had never gathered one, and all the trees of the Lord's right-hand planting, blooming, blossoming, bearing fruit, and in those trees we should find choirs of singing birds uttering music from heaven. I pray you be familiar with your Bibles. If you will only read your Bibles no man can ever take them from you.
Almighty God, thou hast made our life strangely wonderful; yet in it thou hast set pleasure above pain, light above darkness, thou hast made the summer longer than the winter. Thou givest joy where thou givest life; all young things laugh and play and gambol and sport themselves in the growing morning. May it be so with our souls; may no old age ever set in upon our hearts; in our spirit, thought, purpose, love, may we be young for ever; may we grow towards youth and not towards old age. We thank thee for this religion of cheerfulness, vivacity, music, and sense of triumph; this is the gift of God, this is the flash of immortality. The Lord reveal his purpose towards us more and more, little by little, that we may see the way of life, and walk in it with obedience and delight; not only with resignation and contentment, but with acquiescence and sense of being with God every moment. Thou knowest what our purposes are; if they are good, healthy, sound, useful, thou wilt bring them into happy fruition; if they are otherwise, crush them as the brood of the night, and may we never be able to find them again. May our lives be beautiful with truthfulness, and useful because we walk in the steps of him who went about doing good. May this be our one business, then we shall have no tediousness, no wearisomeness in life; our life shall pass like a sacred song. Be round about our homes; may there be flowers climbing up around the doorway, and around every window, honeysuckle and woodbine and roses, and flowers of all hues and fragrances; and may we know that our house is the house of God, because of the love that is there and the fulness of summer light. If any man would trouble his home, trouble him in return; vex his soul, send darkness upon his eyes, and drive away his malign purposes, and teach him that he who would spoil a home would wreck heaven itself if he could. Look upon our fatherless and motherless ones; be with all who are in trouble of heart and dare not say so; be with those who are dreading tomorrow morning's post because the letter may bring blackness and ruin; be with all who are anxious to pray, and yet cannot or dare not open their lips in intercession; soften hard hearts. Send a spirit of love into all our bosoms; and do this because we gather at the Cross, the Cross of Christ,—because we assemble on lovely, mournful Calvary. O Saviour of the world, make us glad this day! Amen.
A Gallery of Pictures
We have some pictures in the prophecy that are very vivid, and some of them very humiliating. For example, we have a picture of the utterest selfishness in Malachi 1:10 :—
"Who is there even among you that would shut the doors for nought? neither do ye kindle fire on mine altar for nought."
Yet they sang how good a thing it was to be but a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord. Men do not come to this kind of selfishness all at once. For some degrees of wickedness we must patiently and skilfully graduate. We do not attain the highest quality of iniquity at a bound; we cannot, speaking generally, extemporise the supremest kind of devilishness. We begin carefully, we proceed slowly, we take pains with the details of our action, and not until we have become inured to certain practices and usages do we take the final step that lands us in the very refinement and subtlety of evildoing. Nothing is so soon lost as spiritual apprehension, the power of taking hold upon the invisible, the eternal, the spiritual. There is so much against it We unhappily have eyes that can only see what we describe as the material, and in our folly we describe it as the real. That is the very lowest kind of philosophy. There is a metaphysic that denies the existence of everything we see; I would rather belong to that school of negation than to the school which affirms that there is nothing but what we can see with the eyes of the body. We are always tempted away from the higher lines. Who would shut his eyes and talk to nothing, and call it prayer? Who would have so many of his own aspirations dropping back upon his heart like dead birds, and still believe in an answering, benignant, loving God? Who would refuse the great bribe? There it is, visibly, tangibly, immediately; you can lay your hand upon it, and secure it, and if there is any need by-and-by to pray yourselves back again from the felony, and still retain its produce, then see the man of God and take his ghostly counsel. The distinction of Christianity is its spirituality. Christianity lives amongst the spirits. "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and truth." When we make Christianity a mere argument or a mere philosophy, we lose its whole genius and meaning. Christianity comes to kill the visible by putting it into its right perspective, and investing it with its right value, which is nothing beyond a mere convenience. Christianity comes to lift up the soul to God, and to fix the heart upon things unseen and eternal. Christianity comes to make a man blind to everything but God, and therefore to see everything aright because to see it in its relation to God. How far are we to blame for degrading Christianity from its proper level, and making it stand amongst so-called other religions to take its chance with the general mob? We can be attacked with some success, not to say with desperate savageness, if we fight the battle on wrong lines; but not when we stand upon Christ's lines, of direct living fellowship with God, doing everything for Christ's sake, glorifying God in our body, which is so-called matter, our soul, which plays a part in the psychical philosophies, and our spirit, the touch that makes us one with God. If we pray ourselves into higher prayers, ever-ascending until speech must be displaced by music, then we are upon a way where we shall find no lion, neither shall any ravenous beast go up thereon, it shall not be found there. And as for dying, we shall not die—"he was not, for God took him," shall be the rhythmic ending of a noble, beautiful, spiritual life. Losing this spiritual apprehension, what do we come to?—to men-service; we come to be men-pleasers, time-servers, investors, hirelings. When the true spirituality reigns in us we shall have no fear of man, we shall see the richest patron of all going out of the sanctuary, not because he is wounded in the back, but because he is wounded in the heart by the Spirit of God, on account of his unrighteousness, unfaithfulness, vanity, and worldliness; the Church will be the richer for his absence. Never let the spirituality of the Church go down, for then you open the door to every kind of invader; you make devastating encroachment possible; but laying hold of God, you shall be safe even from the insidious assaults and invasions of selfishness.
We have also a picture of the true priest:—
"The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity. For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts" (Malachi 2:6-7).
What was said of Levi should be said of every man in the varied ministry of the Church; he ought to be as beautiful as this. Yet not only beautiful, but massive, strong, pure, dominating; not asking permission to live and to preach, but granting permission to millionaires to chink their gold. It is quite true that here we have an ideal picture. It satisfies the imagination to have a word like "ideal" in its vocabulary. But may we not so use the word "ideal" as to find in it a temptation to a continual lowering of the spiritual stature, and a continual cooling of the spiritual temperature? Certainly these words are ideal; this is God making another Adam, this time out of marble, breathing into him the breath of life, and making him majestic and noble: this is God's conception of the true priest. Yet we call it ideal, and then go away to our commonplace. The minister of Christ cannot rise to perfection. If any man were to assume himself to be perfect he would justly discredit himself by that very assumption. What is it that is required of the true priest, preacher, minister, or pastor? It is required of him first that he be found faithful to his light, to his immediate inspiration; he is not to live for tomorrow, he is to live for this present day, with all its clamour and all its importunate necessity. But should not a man study consistency? Yes—No. Is it possible for an answer to be both in the affirmative and in the negative? Certainly. Wherein is to be the consistency of the preacher? In his spiritual sincerity. There he must never fail. As to his words and views, do we not live in an atmosphere? Are we not environed? Do not ten thousand ministries continually play upon every line and fibre of our nature? There may be inconsistency in words, phrases, terms, and statements, and yet there may be consistency of the finest quality and fibre in the moral purpose, the spiritual intent, the unchangeable loyalty to the Cross of God the Son. A preacher's perfectness should be found in the continuance of his aspiration, and the continuance of all practical endeavour to overtake his own prayers. Do not mock a man because his life is not equal to his prayer; when a man has no higher prayer to offer than he can live he may pass on into some other world in the Father's universe. Meanwhile, no man can pray sincerely, profoundly, continually, and want to be like Christ without growing,—not always upwards; there is a growth in refinement, in susceptibility, in moral tenderness, in sympathy of the soul for others, as well as a growth in knowledge, and stature in intellectual majesty. It is well to have an ideal before us. One of two things must happen in the case of the priest. "... Did turn many away from iniquity." That is a beautiful work for you, my preaching brother, to have done. You may never have been heard of beyond your own sphere, and yet within that sphere you may have been working miracles which have astounded the angels. You have kept or turned many away from iniquity. I have a brother who had great influence over one of his leading men, and that brother, though his name was never heard of beyond his own circle of ministerial exertion, laid himself out to save that man. That man's temptation was drink. The minister followed him, turned swiftly upon him at the public-house door, and said, No, not here! It was not much of a sermon to preach from a public point of view, but the poor tempted soul quailed under the interdict, and went home. Why, to have been the means of giving him one night's release from the devil was to have done a work worthy of the Cross! You cannot tell what your negative work amounts to—how many you have kept from going wrong, doing wrong, or speaking unwisely, untruly, or impurely; you do not know what your example has done. Be cheered, be encouraged; you do not always live in the miracle of Pentecost; sometimes you live in the quietness that can only do a negative work, but blessed be God, when he comes to judge our work there will be nothing negative about it He who has turned away a man from iniquity shall be accounted as one who has turned a soul to righteousness; he is a great judge, and he gives great heavens to those who serve him.
There is another line of thought—
"Ye have caused many to stumble" (Malachi 2:8).
How acute, how penetrating, how ruthless is the criticism of God! Here again we may not have been wanton in our irreligion, we may not have been irreligious at all in the ordinary sense of the term, but for lack of zeal, for lack of honesty, for lack of character, we may have caused the citizens of Gath to mock, and the daughters of Philistia to sneer at the Lord. "Caused many to stumble": how could they help it? They looked to the priests, pastors, guides, and teachers of the community for example, and they saw nothing but warning. They said, The speech of these men will be pure, gentle, courteous, gracious; they will especially speak of one another in terms of appreciation and brotherly regard. Hark! Why, this is talk we might have heard at the tavern; this is criticism we might have heard at hell's gate; this is censoriousness that would shame an infidel. What if they have gone away to mock the God whose name his own professors had forgotten? "Caused many to stumble"—by little-mindedness, by narrowness of soul, by lack of sympathy, by idolatry instead of worship, by pointing at a church-roof and calling it God's own sky. Here we should daily pray that we give offence to no man needlessly; here we should do many things that the Gospel be not hindered; here we may work miracles in the name and power of the Cross.
Another picture is that of a terrible judgment:—
"And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the Lord of hosts" (Malachi 3:5).
O God, send some man to testify against us, and we can contradict him; send the oldest and purest of thy prophets to charge us, and we can recriminate, and remind him of his human nature, and tell him to take care of himself lest he fall, rather than waste his criticism upon us who have fallen. Send Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel; send all the minstrels of Israel, let them mass themselves into a cloud of witnesses, and we can laugh them to scorn, and tell them not to mock our fallibility by an assumption of infallibility of their own; but thou wilt not do this, thou dost come thyself. Who can answer thunder? Who can reason with lightning? Who can avert the oncoming of eternity? "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." He will be not only a witness, but a "swift witness"; he will break upon us suddenly, he will come upon us from unexpected points; where we say, All is safe here, there shall the fire leap up, and there through a hedge, where we thought to make a resting-place, shall a serpent break through to bite us. "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." "Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe." Yea, I call mine a man's hand, but to thee it is the hand of a little child; take hold of it, for the way is slippery, the crags are here and there very sharp, and the steep is infinite, and the enemy is already breathing upon my neck. O God, save me, or I perish! In that modesty we have strength; in that reliance upon God we have a pavilion that the thunder cannot shake, that the lightning cannot penetrate. I would hide me in the house of my Saviour's heart.
Then we have a picture of a perfect restoration:—
"And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast her fruit before the time in the field, saith the Lord of hosts. And all nations shall call you blessed: for ye shall be a delightsome land, saith the Lord of hosts" (Malachi 3:11-12).
One nation cannot be good without another nation feeling it. When England is noble the whole world is aware of the transformation; when America has responded to the appeal of righteousness the whole globe feels as if a Sabbath were dawning upon the shores of time; when any nation does a noble deed it is as if all the world had prayed. Let us remember the might, the immeasurable might, of spiritual influence. Convert England, and you convert the world; convert London, and you convert England, speaking after the manner of men. Leave God to look after the results which you call material. Is there a devourer? God will rebuke him for our sakes. Does the vine cast her fruit before her time? Angels shall keep that fruit on the stem until it be purple with hospitality, yea, with the very love of God's heart; and as for the fields, their hedges will become fruit trees, and all the fences shall bloom and blossom because the Lord's blessing has fallen upon the earth. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." God will take care of the vine if we take care of the altar.
Then, lastly, we have a picture of a sun-lighted world:—
"But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings" (Malachi 4:2).
The last verse of the Old Testament is terrible; it reads"—"And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to the fathers"—that is good, but the last words—"lest I come and smite the earth with a curse." The Rabbi would never end with that; the Rabbi said, "No, I will go back and read the last verse but one." The Rabbi could not end with a curse. There are several books in the Bible that end with doleful words: "God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." The Rabbi could not defile the synagogue with making "evil" the climacteric word, so he read the verse before. Isaiah ends: "And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh." And the Rabbi said, We cannot end with that, we must end with the verse before. And the Lamentation,—"But thou hast utterly rejected us: thou art very wroth against us." And the Rabbi said, Read the verse before that; we cannot end with storm and darkness, and tempests of imprecation. Oh let us close with some word of comfort! So must it ever be with the true messenger of God. He will have to deliver his tremendous message; but blessed be the Cross of Christ, every sermon may end with music and light and joy. There is no text in the Bible that lies half a mile from Calvary. I do not care what the text is, there is a road from it right into Golgotha. Malachi has for his last word curse; but we may have for our last word blessing, we may have for our closing word peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters." "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." If we added to that we should be attempting to paint the lily and gild refined gold. There is but one word that can be added to it, and that is not our own: "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.