He who digs a pit may fall into it, and he who breaches a wall may be bitten by a snake.
I. THE SIGNS AND THE SIN OF MALICE. The case is one of intentional, deliberate malevolence, working itself out in acts of mischief and wrong. Such a spirit so expressing itself may be characterized
(1) as a perversion of natural sentiment;
(2) as a wrong to our social nature, and a violation of the conditions of our social life; and
(3) as in flagrant contradiction to the commands of God, and the precepts of our gracious and compassionate Savior.
II. THE RETRIBUTION OF MALICE. The proverbial language of the text is paralleled by somewhat similar apophthegms in various languages, as, for example, in the Oriental proverb, "Curses, like chickens, come home to roost."
1. Such retribution is often wrought by the ordinary operation of natural laws. The story of the pirate-rover who was wrecked upon the crags of Aberbrothock, from which he himself had cut off the warning bell, is an instance familiar to our minds from childhood.
2. Retribution is sometimes effected by the action of the laws enforced in all civilized communities. The lex talionis, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," may be taken as an example of a principle the applications of which are discernible in all the various states of society existing among men.
3. Those who escape the penalties of nature and the indignation of their fellow-men cannot escape the righteous judgment of God; they shall not go unpunished. - T.
Whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him.
I. GUARD THE SENSE OF SHAME. Whatever tends to lessen the acuteness of the soul to things false, ugly, or foul is sharply to be shunned. Beware of the literature that tends to reconcile to odious things! If the soul is to keep its virgin purity, it must turn away even from the reflection of foulness in a mirror. Beware of the company whose conversation and fellowship in some way, not perhaps very apparent, blights the bloom and dims the lustre of pure feeling! Beware of the amusements that filch away the quick delicacy which has been evolved in our nature at an infinite expense! Beware of the fashion that sets lighter store by old-fashioned modesty! Better pluck out as useless appendages the tender eyelashes which guarantee the sight than consent to destroy the instincts of purity which preserve the spirit. The sense of shame is a sacred thing; it is the saintliness of nature, and we ought sedulously to guard and heighten it in the fear of God. The man or woman who heedlessly violates this ethereal hedge puts himself or herself outside what is elsewhere called a wall of fire.
II. RESPECT THE CODE OF COURTESY. Even in domestic life and between chief friends are interposed hedges, if they be not rather flower borders, which must be respected, if mutual regard and veneration are to continue. United most closely as we are, certain delicate observances and deferences fix the isolation of our personality, and imply the attention that must be paid to our rights and feelings. The grievous misunderstandings and animosities which wreck the peace and prosperity of households not uncommonly originate in excessive familiarities between brothers and sisters; these fail to see that refined proprieties guard the several members of a family as a scarlet cord reserves special places in great assemblies, and that "good form" must be observed in private as well as in public. Some one has wisely said, "It is no worse to stand on ceremony than to trample on it." No, indeed, it is often a great deal better; for social ceremonial is the fence that protects the delicate forms and flowers which are so difficult to rear. Let young people revere the pale of ceremony, for when it is broken down beauty, purity and peace are at the mercy of a ruthless world.
III. OBEY THE RULES OF BUSINESS. Regulations touching hours of going out and coming in, minute directions for household conduct, rules about the handling of cash, usages in keeping accounts, and petty laws directing twenty other details of duty, are based in an expediency which really and simultaneously conserves the rights and safety of masters and servants alike. The beginner may not see the reasonableness of a system of delicate network which comprehends eating, drinking and sleeping, and the almost infinite ramifications of daily duty; but there is more reasonableness in all these worrying precepts than he sees. The laws of business are the outcome of the experience of generations, and are not lightly to be set aside. A young man can hardly pay too much deference to the customs and traditions of the establishment in which his lot is cast; he cannot; be too exactly conscientious about the prescribed obligations of time, usage, method, goods and cash: to tamper here is to be lost. Beware of the slightest infraction of your official duty, of all informality and unauthorized action, of all illicit and contraband ways and things, deadly serpents without rattles wait behind the violated precepts! Whilst, on the other hand, if you keep the least of these commandments, it shall keep you, and the discipline of obedience on a lower level will strengthen you to comply with the sublimest laws of all on the highest levels of thought and conduct.
(W. L. Watkinson.)
I. ALL LIFE IS GIVEN US RIGIDLY WALLED UP. The first thing that the child learns is that it must not do what it likes. The last lesson that the old man has to learn is, you must do what you ought. And between these two extremities of life we are always making attempts to treat the world as an open common, on which we may wander at our will. And before we have gone many steps some sort of keeper or other meets us and says to us, "Trespassers I back again to the road!" Life is rigidly hedged in and limited. There are the obligations which we owe, and the relations in which we stand, to the outer world, the laws of physical life, and all that touches the external and the material. There are the relations in which we stand, and the obligations which we owe to ourselves. And God has so made us as that obviously large tracts of every man's nature are given to him on purpose to be restrained, curbed, coerced, and sometimes utterly crushed and extirpated. God gives us our impulses under lock and key. All our animal desires, all our natural tendencies, are held on condition that we exercise control over them, and keep them well within the rigidly marked limits which He has laid down, and which we can easily find out. We sometimes foolishly feel that a life thus hedged up, limited by these high boundaries on either side, must be uninteresting, monotonous, or unfree. It is not so. The walls are blessings, like the parapet on a mountain road that keeps the traveller from toppling over the face of the cliff. They are training-walls, as our hydrographical engineers talk about, which, built in the bed of a river, wholesomely confine its waters and make a good scour which gives life, instead of letting them vaguely wander and stagnate across great fields of mud. Freedom consists in keeping willingly within the limits which God has traced, and anything except that is not freedom, but is licence and rebellion, and at bottom servitude of the most abject type.
II. EVERY ATTEMPT TO BREAK DOWN THE LIMITATIONS BRINGS POISON INTO THE LIFE. We live in a great automatic system which, by its own operation, largely avenges every breach of law. I need not remind you, except in a word, of the way in which the transgression of the plain physical laws stamped upon our constitutions avenges itself; but the certainty with which disease dogs all breaches of the laws of health is but a type in the lower and material universe of the far higher and more solemn certainty with which "the soul that sinneth, it shall die." The grossest form of transgression of the plain laws of temperance, abstinence, purity, brings with itself, in like manner, a visible and palpable punishment in the majority of cases. Some serpents' bites inflame, some paralyze; and one or other of these two things — either an inflamed conscience or a palsied conscience — is the result of all wrongdoing. I do not know which is the worst.
III. ALL THE POISON MAY BE GOT OUT OF YOUR VEINS IF YOU LIKE. Christ has received into His own inmost life and self the whole gathered consequences of a world's sin; and by the mystery of His sympathy, and the reality of His mysterious union with us men, He, the sinless Son of God, has been made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. For sin and death launched their last dart at Him, and, like some venomous insect that can sting once and then must die, they left their sting in His wounded heart, and have none for them that put their trust in Him.
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
I. READ IT IN THE LIGHT OF HISTORY, and take it as a piece of experience. It is given us by a man who brings it out of his own heart, for he had felt the bite of the serpent himself. There was scarcely a hedge upon which he did not set his foot, and there were few penalties of sin which he did not feel. Although every means was at his command for avoiding sin's consequences, he felt the serpent's sting; and if you will take his experience of sin, and rest satisfied in his verdict on it, it will save you from untold sorrow and infinite regrets. But this is not the experience of one man. Look around society and question men for yourselves. Hear the intemperate man express the shame and contempt which follow his intemperance; hear the worldly man as the day of life draws to its close bemoan the hollow cheat the world has played upon him; listen to the experience of those who have climbed out of the mire and have now their feet set upon the rock; and the unqualified answer you will get will be that this language is true. Or open the volume of history, and mark the solemn retributions of God upon every page. Read the history of Jacob, of Haman, of Ahab and Jezebel. Or open the book of secular history. Glance at the history of Greece and Rome, or any nation under heaven. Thrones gained by the sword have been lost by it. Fortunes won by fraud have cursed in turn every one that has held them; and tear at random any page from the archives of the world, and it will comment to you on these words, for the experience of men through 6,000 years has confirmed these truths, and they express the settled experiences of mankind.
II. READ THIS NOT ONLY IN THE LIGHT OF HISTORY, BUT IN THE LIGHT OF REVELATION, and take it not only as a piece of experience, but as the revelation of a Divine law. God's government has another world as its theatre as well as this. Men may sin here and in some cases be comparatively free from any terrible outward consequences; in that other domain of God's the effects of their sin will reveal themselves in all their fearfulness and terror. Poison does not always work immediately, but sometimes after days of health and happiness the serpent's bite begins to show itself. And so although violation of moral order may bring with it no instantaneous punishment, punishment for all that will follow. It is a law of the eternal universe. Now, these hedges are both physical, social and moral. Break one of the laws of health, and you will induce disease; and that disease is the bite of the serpent. Or break one of the laws of society, and society will distrust you, and that distrust, that loss of respect and position, is the bite of the serpent. But break one of the higher laws — the laws of morality — and what, probably, will follow? Why, penalties severe and terrible. Even in this world the resources of God to punish are infinite. He may punish you in yourself, in your circumstances, by means of your children. He can punish you through prosperity as well as through adversity.
III. TAKE THESE WORDS AND READ THEM IN THE LIGHT OF THE CROSS. God, in His infinite love, has provided salvation in Christ. The temporal effects of sin He does not remove — Divine forgiveness will not repair the shattered constitution, or mend the broken fortune. The bite of the serpent works death; but God suffers it not to work the second death. Yet do not misunderstand this, as though it were a light thing to see now that salvation through Christ is offered to all. You can never be what you might have been but for its committal. The damage you do to the sapling appears in the massive trunk of the oak, and all your machinery cannot straighten it. And though sin may be forgiven, the very omnipotence of God cannot undo that which has been done; and though in future ages you ultimately burn as a seraph or worship as an archangel, you can never be what you might have been.
I. GOD'S LAWS.
1. If we go for a moment into the natural world, we find there are certain principles, or laws, received and acted upon. The law of the centre of gravity; even the clown knows that if he guides his vehicle to the edge of the precipice, so that the centre of gravity falls beyond the bounds of safety, his conveyance will fall over and be destroyed! In relation to our physical being, there are laws which we must keep, or the grave will receive us before due time. A Hercules must take nourishment; every man must inhale air, and that air must be composed of certain ingredients.
2. Consider man morally, and the same principles apply.
II. MAN'S LAWLESSNESS.
1. Suppose a man were to reach a dangerous spot, and were to see a warning to that effect, but yet persisted in going right into destruction, he would be regarded as not competent to take care of himself; still in such a man we have an illustration of the folly of the lawless conduct of the unbeliever. God, by His providence, in His Word, and by His Spirit's teaching, has set up a warning, in every by-path; plain enough to be read. "Trespassers shall be punished," meets us everywhere. Would that men read, understood and obeyed!
2. We see in human nature the mischievous tendency developed in daily acts of folly. If we were compelled to do what we often choose to do, heaven would be besieged by lamentations, and the multitude would mourn over the hardness of their lot.
III. THE RETRIBUTION.
1. Present retribution. Look at the debauched; his face is a sign-board of hell, his heart a seat of woe.
2. Future retribution.
(H. Parrish, B. A.)I. THE HEDGES WHICH GOD HAS PLACED AROUND US.
1. God's commandments.
2. Parental restraints. Hedges with respect to associates, books, habits, and places of amusements.
3. Imparted principles. Teachers are anxious to fix truths, sentences from Scripture, holy maxims, in the minds of the young, that they may be in them as moral hedges in the time of temptation.
II. THE YOUNG WILL BE TEMPTED TO BREAK THESE HEDGES.
1. By their own evil hearts.
2. By evil companions.
3. By the evil one.
III. THERE IS A SERPENT BEHIND THE HEDGE. If we do wrong we shall certainly suffer. The path of sin is full of serpents. The way of transgressors is hard. Punishment not always visible, but surely follows the deed. In the sense of shame, in the stings of conscience, in the displeasure of God, the serpent's bite is felt.
(W. Osborne Lilley.)
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