The bellows are burned, the lead is consumed of the fire; the founder melts in vain: for the wicked are not plucked away.…
We mean precisely the same thing as the Hebrew prophet meant when we say, as nowadays we are so apt to say, that life is a school. People still are puzzled by the punishments of life. The discipline is strict. The rules are rigid. Oftentimes we suffer. It is not by any means all play. But there are lessons to be learned, and forbearance to be used, and suffering to be borne. It seems to us narrow and foolish of Jeremiah to have fancied that the Lord raised up those great Assyrian and Babylonian nations simply for the purpose of trying and testing the Jewish people. It was narrow also of the Jews to fancy themselves the "chosen people," whom God particularly loved and wished to save. Yet all of us today are similarly narrow in one sense, and we have to be. We cannot free ourselves, you and I and others like us, from the conviction that we, as men and women, by virtue of the very life that is in us, are the centre and meaning of this entire universe. Believe this in some degree we must. Doubt it, and the very heavens are bleak and bare. Every system in philosophy, every article of religious faith, every discovery in science, is based, more or less directly, upon the supposition of this distinct relationship between the outer universe and the life of man. Let us use, for convenience' sake, the analogy of the prophet. We will suppose that we are placed here as the crude ore is thrown into the furnace, in order to be refined. Along what lines should the process of refinement work? Nothing is more familiar than the claim that sorrow chastens us, and hardships strengthen, and trials test. As Goethe said, "Talent is perfected in retirement, but character only in the stream of life." They tell this concerning Wendell Phillips. Whenever the great orator tended to become a little prosy in his speeches, and to lose some of his customary fire, certain young Abolitionists used to get together near the door and start a hiss. The note of disapproval never failed to arouse the lion in the speaker, and he was electrified at once into matchless eloquence. The world's agencies of trial and toil and difficulty are indeed in vain, the bellows of life are consumed most uselessly, if you and I are not made more courageous and calm and self-reliant by the process. And yet the hard things of this world ought not to be the only ones to have this refining influence. We are weak and ungrateful, and made of anything but precious metal, if we are not purified by the privileges of life, hallowed by its happiness, humbled by success. In everyday life most of us are not deficient in gratitude. We appreciate the kindness and generosity of our friends. But how few of us in comparison fall to our knees in an hour of newborn joy, or reverently think of life's higher meaning, and resolve on a rigider performance of our duties, when success has bathed us in its golden sunshine! There is no much surer test of character than this: What effect has good fortune had? If the person is innately weak to whom some power or privilege has come, he answers it by pride and selfishness and vain indulgence. He feels himself exalted; and, instead of looking up in reverence and humility to his God, he looks down with coldness on his fellow men. Shall I tell you what is to me one of the most inspiring, beautiful sights in all the wide range of human activity and character? It is to see and know of anyone truly great who has been humbled by success, and touched into infinite modesty by the consciousness of superlative ability. It is to find people refined into simplicity and gentle devoutness by the world's blandishments and distinctions and honours. And this has been the refining influence to which the noblest and the truest ones have answered. You all know, too, the saying of the distinguished, world-honoured discoverer, Sir Isaac Newton, — that he was nothing but a helpless child gathering pebbles on a boundless shore, with the great ocean of undiscovered truth stretching away beyond him. I have spoken of sorrow and of joy — the two extremes of existence — as having properly this purifying influence on life. Let, me now speak broadly of certain phases of refinement which ought to appear as the result of the world's great processes.
1. First, there is the refining fire of glory, which is so abundant in the outward world. It is for us to answer it by what is known as reverence. We have not the pure metal which is sought, if we are not so refined by the wonders of the world as to kneel in worship, and uplift our souls in awe. "This world is not for him who does not worship," said an ancient Persian sage; and our kindred souls give back the truth across the centuries, "This world is not for him who does not worship."
2. Again, there is the burning fact of law. All things around us are done with persistency. Everything is regular. The smallest function is precise. Surely the knowledge of such constancy should have its influence on us. It should take what is pure within us. It should appeal to the clear metal of our better selves, and make us trust.
3. Finally, the fire of utter impartiality surrounds us. The world is laid at each one's feet. The Divine bounty is not given to this person, and denied to that one; but all of us receive. And the answering refinement which should come from receptive human beings, who may doubt its nature or its need? A suggestive legend comes to us from Mohammedan writings. Abraham, it is said, once received an old man in his tent, who, in sitting down to eat, neglected to repeat a "grace." "My custom," he said, in explanation, "is that of the fire worshipper." — Whereupon the Jewish patriarch in wrath undertook to drive him from his door. But suddenly God appeared to him, and, restraining the churlish impulse, cried: "Abraham, for one hundred years the Divine bounty has flowed out to you in sunshine and in rain; and is it for you to deny shelter to this man because his worship is not thine?" Even thus does nature speak a silent yet severe rebuke to our narrowness, our lack of sympathy, our petty distinctions and rivalries in social life. "Be broad," she cries. "Let love control your acts; to those who need, extend a helping hand."
(P. R. Frothingham.).
Parallel VersesKJV: The bellows are burned, the lead is consumed of the fire; the founder melteth in vain: for the wicked are not plucked away.