Do not turn aside after worthless things that cannot profit you or deliver you, for they are empty.
1 Samuel 12:8-12. (GILGAL.)
1. THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD (ver. 8). "It hath pleased the Lord to make you his people" (ver. 22). Of his own free and gracious will, always founded in perfect wisdom, he raises up a people from the lowest condition, confers upon them special blessings and privileges, and exalts them to the most eminent place among the nations of the earth (Deuteronomy 32:8; Acts 17:26, 27). As it was with Israel, so has it been with other peoples. His right so to deal with men cannot be questioned, his power therein is manifested, his undeserved goodness should be acknowledged, and the gifts bestowed employed not for selfish ends, but for his glory and the welfare of mankind.
II. THE SINFULNESS OF MEN. "They forgat the Lord their God" (ver. 9). So constantly and universally have men departed from God and goodness as to make it evident that there is in human nature an inherited tendency to sin. "It is that tendency to sinful passions or unlawful propensities which is perceived in man whenever objects of desire are placed before him, and laws laid upon him." As often as God in his great goodness has exalted him to honour, so often has he fallen away from his service; and left to himself, without the continual help of Divine grace, his course is downward. "In times past the Divine nature flourished in men, but at length, being mixed with mortal custom, it fell into ruin; hence an inundation of evils in the race" (Plato. See other testimonies quoted by Bushnell in 'Nature and the Supernatural'). "There is nothing in the whole earth that does not prove either the misery of man or the compassion of God; either his powerlessness without, or his power with God" (Pascal).
III. THE CERTAINTY OF RETRIBUTION. "He sold them into the hand of Sisera," etc. (ver. 9).
"The sword of Heaven is not in haste to smite,
IV. THE BENEFICENCE OF SUFFERING. "And they cried unto the Lord, and said, We have sinned," etc. (ver. 10). Underneath what is in itself an evil, and a result of the violation of law, physical or moral, there is ever working a Divine power which makes it the means of convincing men of sin, turning them from it, and improving their character and condition. A state of deepest humiliation often precedes one of highest honour. It is only those who refuse to submit to discipline (Job 36:10) and harden themselves in iniquity that sink into hopeless ruin.
V. THE EFFICACY OF PRAYER. "And the Lord sent...and delivered you," etc. (ver. 11). "Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distresses" (Psalm 107:6, 13, 19, 28). As it was with Israel throughout their history, so has it been with others, even those who have had but little knowledge of "the Hearer of prayer."
"In even savage bosoms
VI. THE PREVALENCE OF MEDIATION. "Then the Lord sent Moses and Aaron" (ver. 8). "And the Lord sent Jerubbaal, and Bedan, and Jephthah, and Samuel" (ver. 11). He sent help by men specially raised up and appointed, and deliverance came through their labours, conflicts, and sufferings. One people also has been often made the medium of blessing to others. And herein we see a shadowing forth of the work of the great Mediator and Deliverer, and (in an inferior manner) of his people on behalf of the world.
VII. THE INCREASE OF RESPONSIBILITY on the part of those who have had the experience of former generations to profit by, and who have received higher privileges than they (vers. 12, 19). "Now all these things were written for our admonition," etc. (1 Corinthians 10:11). "Two things we ought to learn from history: one, that we are not in ourselves superior to our fathers; another, that we are shamefully and monstrously inferior to them if we do not advance beyond them" (Froude). - D.
I. The first point of instruction addressed to such is, THAT THEY SHOULD NOT PROCEED ANOTHER STEP IN THEIR BACKSLIDING.
Turn ye not aside.
I. THESE POINTS OF DEPARTURE ARE NUMEROUS. Men begin to live afresh, to live a better and still better life, prompted by most diverse occasions. On the other side, from all kinds of happenings men begin to gravitate. Beginning school awakes in one child a higher sense, whilst for another it is the loss of innocence and the beginning of evil, proving, as Michelet writes, that the real fall is the day when a boy leaves him me, her. Leaving school initiates one youth into a more serious, manly life, whilst another takes advantage of the change to relax discipline and begins to play a baser part. A change of residence or situation leads one to greater devotion and circumspection, whilst another from that time forward is distinctly poorer in character, the change destroying old habits of good. Marriage proves a truly golden day in the life of some — the beginning of higher thought, love, and purpose; for others the same event is altogether disastrous to their moral and religious life. After Methuselah was born, Enoch his father walked with God. Events are always happening which are occasions of the rising or falling of souls, and herein lies the real seriousness of life. The danger comes from opposite directions. "Thou shalt not go aside...to the right hand, or to the left." Directly opposite phases of experience and circumstance prove equally fatal.
II. THESE POINTS OF DEPARTURE ARE SLIGHT. We do not go off at an acute angle, or down a steep incline, leading right away from the Christian course; we simply get a little wrong, and this may end with ruin. The first departure from God is of really tremendous significance, and yet it may appear absolutely trifling. The descent into error is rarely violent. We speak of men falling into error, but more commonly they slide into it. There are half-way houses to superstition. There is a literature which deftly saps solemn convictions, and which, like the thief in the night, despoils men of a faith infinitely more precious than gold. The "down grade" in belief is a masterpiece of engineering, and many who follow it are all the time unconscious of any declination. The lapse into worldliness is usually a process of fine shadings off. The "little rift" in the lute slowly widening stills the music; but that rift is never more subtle and slow than it is in the lute which makes musical the hearts and lives of righteous men. The descent into wickedness is equally gentle. The beginning of sin is always obscure. Insidious are the beginnings of evil. The agents of darkness, as our poet says,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray us
In deepest consequence.The slow and subtle way in which practical iniquity takes shape is one of the tragedies of life. M. Joly has recorded the experience of the police concerning the thefts that take place at the great Parisian shops. "This is the beginning. From a gallery one sees a woman — rich or well-to-do — who buys a certain number of objects and pays for them, but without asking permission she takes some little, almost insignificant, object — a little ribbon to fasten a parcel, more commodious paper bag. No one will say she is stealing; no one will think of speaking to her or disturbing her. But she is observed, and even watched; for one expects to see her again some time after taking, as she walks along, say, a flower worth twenty-five centimes. A little later she will appropriate an article of greater value, and henceforth she will take for the pleasure of taking." Amid the glaciers of the Alps an explosion is sometimes heard announcing the birth of a crevasse. At first the young fissure is almost too slight to be seen, and at no place is it wide enough to admit a knife blade. But the almost imperceptible fracture eventually becomes a gaping, impassable chasm. So it is when we break with good; the great gulf fixed between the lost and paradise began in a flaw hardly to be discerned.
III. THESE POINTS OF DEPARTURE ARE SPECIOUS. It seems in the hour of temptation as if we should secure a great advantage by departing from a strict, literal fidelity to the path of duty. When Israel first dabbled with idolatry, they had no thought of renouncing God. They imagined that certain advantages were to be gained by intercourse with idolatrous nations, and that such advantages might be secured without losing in any measure the blessing of Jehovah. They became worse than the heathen. Very specious still are many of the things which draw us from God. The point of departure to worldliness is often similarly specious. Care for his family — this is the reason why Demos abates his religious enthusiasm and applies himself to business. James Hinton said, "Wishing to tempt an Englishman, the devil generally appears in the shape of the man's wife and family." And how plausible he is in this shape! How much is to be said for prudence and diligence! Oh, very rational, promising, enticing seem those openings which lead to a lower life! This is what Shakespeare meant when he wrote:
But 'tis strange:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths.At Bypath meadow Christian said to Hopeful, 'If this meadow lieth along by our wayside, let's go over into it.' Then he went to the stile to see, and behold a path lay along by the way on the other side of the fence. 'Here is the easiest going,' said he; 'let us go over.' Many paths on the other side of the fence seem to run parallel with Christian principle and doctrine, and yet they lead to death. The fence may be very narrow. Andrew Bonar writes: "Often I have wondered that I did not feel the temptations of Satan more frequently and plainly. But now I discover his plan. In short, he succeeds in reversing in my case, 'Seek first the kingdom of God.'"
IV. THESE POINTS OF DEPARTURE ARE ALWAYS SERIOUS. Even if they do not lead us altogether astray or far astray, turnings aside are great evils. A tree grows so grandly because without vagary it develops itself according to its nature; the flower is so glorious because it concentrates itself on bud and blossom; the bee is so rich in honey because it follows the shortest line: and if we are to attain wealth and glory of character we must avoid lapses, eccentricities, obliquities, waste of time and power by diversions and repentances. These branchings off from the King's highway may lead to utter ruin. All wanderings of heart or life begin in a lack of faith either in the prize or in the path. Let us keep alive, then, an ardent faith in the grand prize of life. Life is not like a suddenly twisted kaleidoscope which at every turn discloses startling scenery, events, and experiences; still there will not be a day without its stepping stones to higher things, and there will be critical, privileged days, bringing memorable chances and inspiration.
(W. L. Watkinson.)
II. The second point of instruction which the prophet addressed to these trembling backsliders was, that THEY SHOULD HAVE A FILIAL CONFIDENCE IN GOD, IN ORDER THAT THEY MIGHT NOT DEPART FROM HIM. "Fear not, ye have done all this wickedness; yet turn not aside from following the Lord with all your heart."
III. This leads us to the third point of instruction addressed by the Prophet to the people, namely, THE GROUND UPON WHICH THEIR CONFIDENCE WAS TO REST. "Turn ye not aside; for then should ye go after vain things, which cannot profit nor deliver, for they are vain. For the Lord will not forsake his people."
IV. THE REASON WHY THE LORD THUS DELIGHTS TO BE GRACIOUS. "For the Lord will not forsake his people, for His great name's sake: because it has pleased the Lord to make you his people."
1. A case supposed, which is, That they should turn aside from the Lord; and having done so, they have the wide world to choose upon, let them take to the right hand, or to the left, choose the best they can pitch on, some or all, that what is wanting in one, may be made up in another. This is the utmost extent to which it can be carried. There is,
2. The determination in this case, which is expressed in the text with all confidence. Ye shall not, ye cannot for your hearts, turn aside, but after vain things; I defy you to find out a substantial good for yourselves in the whole creation, separate from God. Doctrine, That no man shall mend his condition, but will ruin it, by turning aside from the Lord, let him turn to what hand soever he will. For illustrating this doctrine, I shall —
I. TO OFFER SOME THINGS FOR EXPLAINING THE POINT. Here I observe,
1. That no man, by turning aside from the Lord, shall mend his condition, but ruin it, in point of rest to his heart, and satisfaction to the desires of it (Isaiah 57:19, 20).
2. That no man, by turning aside from the Lord, shall mend his condition, but ruin it, in point of comfort and ease to his conscience.
3. That no man, by turning aside from the Lord, shall mend his condition, but ruin it, in point of his interest and advantage (Jeremiah 2:13).
4. That no man, by turning aside from the Lord, will better his condition, but ruin it, in point of security from evil (Proverbs 28:18), "Whoso walketh uprightly, shall be saved; but he that is perverse in his ways, shall fall at once."
II. TO EVINCE THE TRUTH OF THIS WEIGHTY POINT. That no man shall mend his condition, but will ruin it, by turning aside from the Lord, let him turn to what hand soever he will.
1. We are to evince the truth of this weighty point, by considering to what a person turns aside when he turns from God. It is but vanity, which cannot proof or deliver. There are but two things to which a person can turn aside, though the particulars are numberless. The character agrees either,(1) To sin, that is, to sinful ways, courses, or practices. And while there is a God in heaven to avenge the affront, no man shall mend his condition in this way.
2. To the creature, to which, when men are turning aside from God, they turn to seek happiness. This comprehends all created comforts whatsoever. Of them we have two things to say. They are all uncertain, a person can never get a sure hold of them: (Proverbs 23:5), "Wilt thou set thine eyes upon that which is not? for riches certainly make themselves wings, they flee away as an eagle towards heaven." They are utterly insufficient. It is not in them to answer the cravings of the human heart, of an immortal soul (Isaiah 55:2). There is no suitableness in them to the soul They have no Divine appointment for that end.
2. For evincing the truth of this weighty point, consider what a person turns aside from, when turning aside from God He turns from an upmaking portion; (Psalm 73:25), "Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee." Cleave to the Lord, turn not aside from him: for,(1) Thou art enriched for time: (1 Timothy 4:8), "Godliness is profitable unto all things, having the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come" (Psalm 37:3).(2) Cleave unto the Lord, turn not aside from Him, and thus thou art enriched for eternity (1 Timothy 4:8), quoted above. Come death when it will, what then? thou shalt be carried where thy happiness shall be completed: (John 14:2). The law cannot debar thee from this happiness, it is satisfied; justice has nothing to say against thee, for the debt is paid: God is thy God; and the tongue of men, nor of angels, cannot fully express this privilege.
3. The truth of this weighty point in the text will farther appear, by inspecting the pretended gain which is acquired by turning aside from the Lord. It may all be summed up in these two particulars.(1) It is nothing (Proverbs 23:5). All the gain is but children's gain, which they have won off their fellows, of which grown persons make no account. It is a poor trade where a person is not gaining for his soul; and no person will gain for this by turning aside from God.(2) It is worse than nothing. Whatsoever thou thinkest thou gainest by turning aside from the Lord, a thousand times more is going to destruction in the meantime. Count what thou givest out, as well at what thou gettest in, and thou wilt soon see the gain worse than nothing (Matthew 16:26). From all which it is evident, that no man shall better his condition, but ruin it, by turning aside from the Lord; let him turn to what hand soever he will. I now proceed,
III. TO MAKE SOME IMPROVEMENT OF THIS SUBJECT, IN AN USE OF INFORMATION.
1. You who have never yet turned to the Lord, but have been going aside from him all your days, know, that ye are yet in a ruinous condition; there is nothing you can call yours, but what is vanity, and cannot, profit or deliver.
2. Backsliders, be all of you convinced of the foolish choice ye have made, repent, and turn again unto the Lord. What have you gained by your departure from him?
3. Ye who have got near God in this ordinance, ye may see that it is your duty and interest, by a holy tender walk, a living by faith, to hold where you are.
4. Disappointed communicants may hence be satisfied, that if you love your own souls, it is not for your profit to go aside to another door, to get your loss at the door of God's house made up another way. Be peremptory in your resolutions that you will wait upon the Lord, and not give over, how long soever ye be without sensible success (Genesis 32:26).
5. Ye carnal ones, who are weary of waiting about the Lord's hand, and are longing to be back to the world as your element, saying in your heart, "When will the Sabbath be over?" Ye may see the propriety of checking these carnal notions: stir up yourselves to seek the Lord.
(T. Boston, D. D.)
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
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