Isaiah 49:4
Then I said, I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain. Oft-repeated words. Human ignorance, surveying the fields, says, "No harvests; or at best no harvests accordant with the toil and tears of the sowing." What folly! As if we could see beneath the soil the slumbering seed waiting to spring forth; or the seeds that have been carried as by the birds of the heavens to far-away acres.

I. THE SORROWFUL WORKERS. The words have pain in them. "I have laboured in vain." No man likes to feel that. These are not the tears of indolence, but the sorrows of the toiler. We can sympathize with them; for we have all at seasons felt thus. But the words are:

1. Mistaken in their main idea. Who knows what success is, or where success is? "In vain?" Sometimes the largest harvests grow above the sower's grave.

2. Mistaken in their central object. "I said." Yes; but who are you? God is the Judge. Let no man make the attempt to enter the Divine observatory.

II. THE SAVING CLAUSE. "Yet!" Here comes wisdom after mistake. "Surely my judgment is with the Lord."

1. This quickens inspiration to duty.

2. This sanctifies the sorrow of disappointment.

3. This keeps alive the hope of reward.

What a beautiful sentence! - "My work is with my God" It is in good hands. - W.M.S.







Then I said, I have laboured in vain.
These prophetic sayings go to Christ, not outside of and separate from man's struggle, but in and through it. As all true Christians are living over again, in an imperfect way, the details of Christ's own experience, so were all true godly men, before His coming, feeling their way into it, being guided by Christ's spirit, and having the throb of His life, which is the life of God, already palpitating in their bosoms.

(J. Ker, D. D.)

These words bring before us a feeling that belongs to the human heart in all places and times — the complaint of man for frustrated aims. It is not easy to say in what distinct form it is present to the mind of the original speaker here. Sometimes he appears to express the feeling as his own personal experience — a man among his fellow-men — and sometimes he seems to personify the nation to which he belongs. Probably both are struggling together in his heart. The people of his race were selected by God for a great purpose — to hold up His name and knowledge pure and unsullied in the midst of the world's defections. But the purpose is, for the while, an apparent failure. The world has corrupted those who should have purified it, and God's judgment has fallen on their unfaithfulness till they are scattered among the heathen and ready to perish. It seems as if Israel's history were labour in vain. For himself, the prophet thought that he had been chosen to bring back his people to the way of truth and righteousness. But the people have erred, the prophet has failed, and he speaks both for himself and for the best part of the nation, the true Israel of the Covenant.

(J. Ker, D. D.)

I. SORROW FOR THE FAILURE OF LABOUR. In thinking of this we may go down to a still lower stage than that from which these words sprang in the heart of this man of God. The complaint is made by many who have never sympathised with his high aim or shared in his Divine work.

1. Take the first of the two great objects that call man to labour — the gratification of self. How few prizes are drawn for the many blanks! When some one spoke to Napoleon of his Italian campaign, and asked if that marvellous part of his career did not give him exquisite pleasure, he replied: "It did not give me one moment of peace. Life was only incessant strife and solicitude. The inevitable battle of the morrow might" annihilate all memory of the victory of to-day." We may call to mind the saying of poor Keats when dying: "I have written my name in water"; nor would it probably have comforted him much more at that time to think he had engraved it in marble. Even affection and sympathy — how often are they not reciprocated, or returned with ingratitude, or felt to be not of the deep kind the heart had yearned for!

2. The second is God and the good of His world. The higher a man's idea of what the condition of the world Should be — of what a reign of righteousness and happiness there might be if God had His due place — the more likely is he to be depressed at times by the view of things around him, and the slow way in which all our effort is bringing us to the goal.

II. SOME OF THE TEMPTATIONS TO WHICH THIS SORROW FOR THE FAILURE OF LABOUR IS SUBJECT.

1. Take first, again, that class of men who have set before them in life some personal object, and have been disappointed in it. The great temptation in such cases is to brood over and magnify their disappointment.

2. Then, as to those who have a higher aim in life than any mere personal one — who are truly seeking the glory of God and the good of their fellow-men — they have also their temptations under failure. We are so ready to judge of the plan of the world by our own little share in it, and to think all the war is lost when our small detachment suffers a check.

III. THE RESOURCE WE HAVE IN THE MIDST OF THIS SORROW FOR FAILURE. "Yet surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God." There are two things this speaker fixes upon, and they are a powerful stay if we can bring them as clearly and confidently to God as he did. "My judgment is with the Lord." I can appeal to His decision for the character of my motive. It was, so far as I knew it, pure and true. "My work is with my God." I can cast on His decision the result of my labour. I do not say that any mere man can do this with a perfect assurance that all is right with him, and that He who searches the hearts, and tries the reins, can absolve him as faultless; but I do say that there are men who, by the grace of God, can appeal to God Himself for the sincerity of their aim. Let us see how it should influence both the classes we have been considering.

1. Those men who have been seeking some personal object in life, and have failed in it, may learn much here. Let us take it for granted that there was nothing sinful in your aim, and that you did not wish for any good, inconsistent with the rights and the happiness of your fellow-creatures. It seems very hard to you that you should be denied what many of them enjoy, and you can scarcely help comparing your lot with theirs, with a sense of bitterness, at least of regret. Here is a more excellent way of it. Instead of putting your life beside theirs, refer yourself to God's judgment. If you can put the case truly before the Judge and Controller of life, you may find something in your life to correct, and something also that will give comfort. May it not be that you have been making the aim of your life too narrow, even as it concerns your own welfare? You have been thinking, perhaps, of worldly position and acknowledgment, more than of the building up of your character in what is true and pure and godlike — more of your outward than of your inward and real life. These failures may be to teach you to begin again, and to aim at a wider basement and a higher top-stone — to take into your edifice the soul's interests, and to let its front look Godward and heavenward. And you have been making, perhaps, the aim of your life too narrow as it concerns your fellow-men. You have made self too exclusive. If you come, after all the failures of life, in this submissive spirit to God for His judgment, He will give you not only means of correction, but comfort. Though you may have lost what you once reckoned the good of life, there is another and higher good still open to you, not merely hereafter, but here. God can teach you how to build on the ruins of former hopes — nay, He can show you how you may take the very stones of them that have fallen and lie scattered around, and may joint them into a new and most beautiful and enduring structure. You may never in this world have the keen thrill of joy your heart once panted for, but a conscious and deep peace will recompense its absence, — more satisfying and more abiding.

2. There is a resource here, also, for that nobler style of men, who have laboured for the cause of God and their fellow-creatures, and have failed to find the success they sought. It may seem strange at first sight that there should be such failures. Yet there are some things which make it not so strange, if we will but reflect. Are we sure that our motives are always as high as we ourselves fancy, and may not failure be meant to send us back to sift and purify them? Our very despondency may arise from our having looked too much to success and too little to duty. God must have standard-bearers who are ready to make a shroud of their colours, and how can they be known but in hours of defeat? And, though our motives are pure, is our work always wise? Are Christians to expect that carelessness and rashness will succeed, simply because of good intentions? After all, however, the great resource we have is to fall back on this appeal "My judgment

is with the Lord, and my work with my God." Man judges by success, God by simplicity of heart; and many an unnoticed effort and inarticulate prayer that never seemed to touch the conflict shall share in the full triumph of the victory. Those who have failed to find position or comfort, fame or sympathy in the world, may have One who can bear His share with you here, who chose this place in life, which you call loss, that He might be nearer you, and show you that life has greater things than all you have coveted. Those of you who complain that you have laboured for your fellow-men and God with small return, have One here who gave up infinitely higher things, and met from men a more cruel award. Let all be done under the cover and trusting in the strength of Him who alone "works all our works in us." Let the sinful past come under this shadow to find forgiveness; the narrow and selfish life, to find a new and lofty aim; and all our fears and griefs and disappointments, to find comfort and hope in Him who entered the world to redeem it from fall and loss, and to make every true life succeed at last, even where it seemed to fail.

(J. Ker, D. D.)

Think of the worth and greatness of a human life in that elect society and holy city which is the servant of God. If the corporate consciousness of the city should become a judgment and recompense with God; if the sense of God and His holy presence should envelop the whole city in its power, and reach every man in it, even as the morning light comes into every home; if the city should awake with God; if, throughout the day, in the mind of the city, the thought of God should have its dwelling-place, and if in the government of the people the law of God should have its throne; if some awe of the Divine righteousness should pervade the business of the city, and some deep sense of Divine blessedness, like a fountain of life, should well up and abound in the happiness of the city, and some greatness of the Divine purpose should enlarge all the work of the city, and make the least faithfulness a service of God; if some peace of the Divine eternity should rest upon all life's changes in the city, and the hope of some Divine event bend over every new-made grave, and the comfort of some Divine omnipresence fill as with an all-pervasive love every heart in the city that had been left in loneliness of grief; — if, in one word, a whole city should become, what Isaiah beheld in the far future, a city of God, a Messianic city, the elect servant of God, — think you that in that city "Sought out, a city not forsaken," any human life could seem to be a life for nought, and its labour in vain? — a worthless thing to be trodden under foot, or only a moment's flash of pleasure? — a life not to be prized and kept as a sacred, immortal trust? Would not every least life in a city of God, full of the consciousness of God, become a life of moral worth, a birth into an immortal consciousness, a part in some universal good, a fellowship with something celestial, an anticipation and a share in some eternal triumph and joy of life?

(N. Smyth, D. D.)

Assuming that these words express Christ's experience, they cannot be taken in an absolute sense. He laboured in vain, compared with what the kind and amount of agency employed were suited to effect. We shall look at this fact as revealing certain other facts in relation to human nature.

I. IT REVEALS MAN'S FREEDOM OF ACTION. We cannot conceive of a mightier moral energy being brought to bear upon mind than that which Jesus brought to bear upon the Jewish mind, and yet it was resisted. The Jews resisted moral omnipotence. He appealed in the most powerful way to three of the most influential principles in our nature.

1. Belief. If you want to influence men, you must take your stand upon their faiths. There were, especially, two faiths which Christ appealed to; the one instinctive, and the other attained. The former was, that miracles are the works of God; the latter, that their Scriptures predicted a Messiah. Christ appealed to these predictions.

2. Conscience. His character, doctrines, and precepts bore directly on the conscience.

3. Interest. He revealed the judgment-day, unfolded heaven, uncovered hell. Thus He assailed their souls; and yet they resisted. Do not say that man has no moral power; he has proved himself, by the comparative ineffectiveness of our Saviour's labours, to have power to resist the mightiest moral influences of God.

II. IT REVEALS MAN'S PERVERSITY OF CHARACTER. The possession of the capacity to resist the highest moral influences is the gift of God. It is neither subject for blame nor praise, but for thankfulness to God. But the using of that capacity to oppose holy and Divine influences is our guilt and ruin. There were three perversities in the Jews that led to this resistance. 1: Perversity of judgment.(1) Their judgments were sensuous. They "judged after the flesh," In the Scriptures they read of a coming king, priest, conqueror; they identified that king with pageantry — that priest, with flowing robes and sacrifices — that conqueror, with mighty armies. When the true King, Priest, and Conqueror came, He had none of these, and they would not have Him.(2) Their judgments were servile. The Scribes and Pharisees were their theological masters. They allowed them to manufacture their creed. Christ came and denounced their great leaders as heretics and hypocrites, and they waxed indignant. This sensuous, servile judgment in religion is ever an obstruction to the spread of truth.

2. Perversity of feeling. There were two perverse feelings, especially, that led them to reject Christ.(1) An undue reverence for the antique. They loved the antiquity of Judaism. Men who tie themselves to precedents rather than principles, can never advance.(2) An undue respect for worldly greatness. They thought a deal about worldly wealth and pomp; Christ had none.

3. Perversity of life. Josephus informs us that so corrupt was the Jewish nation in the time of Christ, that had not the Romans come and destroyed them, God would have rained fire from heaven, as of old, to consume them. These perversities of judgment, feeling, and life, have ever been impulses stimulating man to oppose Christianity.

III. IT REVEALS MAN'S EXCLUSIVE SUPPORT IN HIS HIGHEST LABOURS. The highest labour is that in which Christ was engaged. What was His support? Not adequate success; for He complains of not having it. Here it is, "Surely My judgment is with the Lord, and My work with My God." Two supporting ideas are here involved —

1. That the cause in which we are engaged is the cause of God. "My work is with my God"

2. That the reward of our efforts is from God. "My judgment" (reward) "is with the Lord." The good will he rewarded, not according to the success of their labours, but according to the purity of their motives, and the devotion of their power.

(D. Thomas, D. D.)

1. This is just the language which we find at times forcing its way from the lips of most of those great men who have felt most conscious of having a mission from God. Those who have most deeply and radically influenced for good the minds of their generation have been usually distinguished by fits of profound melancholy; regret that they have ever entered on their heroic course; weariness at the opposition which they meet with; distrust of their own fitness for the task; doubts whether God has really commissioned them to act on His behalf. Why is this? It is because God's results are for the most part secret. A man who sets a great example is hardly ever conscious of the effect which his example produces. If his plans are not carried out precisely in the way and to the end which he had originally contemplated, he persuades himself that they have been an utter failure, that no good can have arisen from them; whereas the truth is, and other persons see it, that the particular plans were from the outset worthless, in comparison with the exhibition of character by which the very attempt to execute them was accompanied.

2. The Cross of Christ is the true guide to the nature and value of real success. What a failure was the life of Christ, if we measure it by immediate results! No wonder that the Cross was to the Jews a sore stumbling-block, and to the cultivated Greeks utter foolishness, just as it would now appear to most of us. For even we, the heirs of eighteen centuries of faith in the Crucified One, seem hardly yet to have learned the lesson that the suffering, self-sacrifice, devotion to principles, and heedlessness of immediate consequences, are the indispensable foundations of all permanent success.

(H. M. Butler, D. D.)

1. Some persons give themselves much unnecessary pain by underrating their real service in the world. The question of good-doing is one of great subtlety. The quiet worker is apt to envy the man who lives before society in a great breadth of self-demonstration. It is as if the dew should wish to be the pattering hail, or as if the soft breeze should disquiet itself because it cannot roar like a storm. We forget that whirlwind and earthquake, fire and cloud, tempest and silence, have all been God's messengers; and it would be foolish of any of them to suppose that it had been of no use to the world.

2. The text shows the true comfort of those who mourn the littleness and emptiness of their lives. "My judgment is with the Lord," &c. God knows our purposes, our opportunities, and our endeavours, and He will perfect that which concerneth us. The intention of the heart, which it was impracticable to realise, will be set down to our favour, as if we had accomplished it all.

(Y. Parker, D. D.)

Each epoch has its special temptations and trials. For Christians of to-day, one of these maladies is discouragement. Discouragement! not in that acute and passionate form which strikes us in the bitter and despairing complaints of the prophets and believers of other centuries. We suffer from a less violent ill, less dangerous in appearance, but dull, slow, and treacherous.

1. Many causes explain it to us. The human mind, in its progressive march, passes by turns through phases of assurance and disturbance.(1) At an epoch when analysis is carried to excess, the vital powers of the soul become weak and are in danger of dying. One of the first fruits of this tendency in religious minds, will be languor. How can one love, act, and believe, when at each of its aspirations the soul finds planted before it a "perhaps"? If this spirit of analysis is destructive to individual enthusiasm, it acts in a still more enervating manner upon the collective life. Every one asserts his independence, his right to examine; and often the spirit of party alone replaces the unity which disappears.(2) Our age has another character — it wants to be practical. A scorn scarcely dissembled confronts inquiries, which reach beyond the world of sense or of pure logic. The supernatural passes for mysticism, and this word, with many, is a condemnation without appeal. This tendency reacts on the Church. It is certain that the same utilitarianism is invading it.(3) Add to these causes the influence of certain tendencies of spirit and temperament, causes entirely physical, which act in a mysterious but powerful manner on the moral state. Add to these that inclination which the most serious minds have to look on the sad side of human things. Add those tendencies which exist in all ages, but which, in the general condition I have described, develop with much more power and rapidity; — and you will comprehend why nothing is rarer in these days than that joyous, heroic, serene faith which characterised other ages.

2. In certain circles it is sought to escape from it by excesses of feverish zeal. The imagination is excited by the prospect of the immediate realisation of the promises of prophecy. These fictitious but intermittent flashes only terminate in changing this languor into incredulity. What must be done then? Build up your life on another foundation than that of your passing impressions; fix it upon the central, eternal truth which dominates over the fluctuations of opinions and beliefs; live in Jesus Christ; and upon the heights to which this communion lifts you, breathe the vivifying air which alone can give you strength. Then only can you oppose faith to sight, the eternal to the transitory, and thanksgiving to discouragement. But this is to tell you that you must be, must (it may be) become again, Christians. Now this remedy is not to be reached in a single day.

3. In going to the bottom of things I discover two principal causes of the discouragement of the Christian. The first is the greatness of the task which God sets before him; the second is his inability to accomplish it.(1) We are so constituted that every time the ideal of love and holiness to which the Gospel calls us is presented to us in its sublime beauty, our heart vibrates with a profound assent, and we feel that it is for this end that we were created. But when we must not only admire but act, then we measure with dismay the distance which separates us from it, and discouragement seizes us. It prescribes for us not only that love of our neighbours, which is after all only an enlarged selfishness, but charity, and, if need be, charity which goes even as far as sacrifice.(2) The ill success of his labour is the second cause of the Christian's discouragement. What Christians mourn the most deeply over the ill success of their efforts? They are almost always the most active and advanced Christians. It enters into God's plan to conceal from us almost always the results of what we do for Him. Why does God will it? Doubtless, that faith may be exercised. God does not wish to be served by mercenaries. He often hides from His children the fruit of their labours, to the end that they may work for Him and not for themselves; He hides it from them in order that they may find in Him their recompense, and not in the result of their work, nor in the outward success which would take the place of His approbation, nor even in the progress of a sanctified life, for perfection apart from Him might become an idol It is also to humble us. How seldom is it that man can bear success, and not bend under its weight! He teaches them, moreover, gentleness and compassion. Success alone will never develop these. However, this fruit is only hidden; it will appear in due time. No one in serving the Lord has the right to say, "I have laboured in vain." Even when the indifference of the world shall seem to conceal for ever your labours and your sacrifices, there will be left you the consolation of the prophet, "My judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God."

(E. Bersier.)

Draw near to those giants of the spiritual order, those workmen of God who in different ages have been called Elijah, St. Paul, Chrysostom, St. Bernard, Luther, or Whitefield, and who confound you by the immense work which they have accomplished, you will hear them groan under the small results of their works. Elijah cries out to God: "Take away my life; I am not better than my fathers." Isaiah pronounces the words of my text: "I have spent my strength for naught, and in vain." St. Paul trembles in fear of having been a useless labourer; St. Bernard expresses in his last letters the painful feeling of having accomplished almost nothing. Calvin, dying, said to those who surrounded him: "All that I have done has been of no value. The wicked will gladly seize upon this word. But I repeat it, all that I have done has been of no value, and I am a miserable creature." What must we conclude? That these men did nothing? No, but that, in the presence of the ideal which God has put in their heart, their work appeared to them almost lost.

(E. Bersier.)

I. A LAMENTABLE COMPLAINT, wherein our Lord complaineth, that although He came to the house of Israel, where He published the Divine doctrine, wrought many miracles, and showed admirable holiness of life, yet for most part He had lost His labour. "I have laboured in vain," &c.

II. A CONSOLATION of Himself upon this complaint, wherein He reareth up Himself with the consolations of God in the midst of all those oppositions that were made against Him, and all His lost labour. "My judgment is with the Lard, and My work with My God."

III. A CONFIRMATION of this consolatory part, by three arguments —

1. From the assurance of His calling. "And now thus saith the Lord that formed Me from the womb to be His servant."

2. From His own faithfulness. "Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord"; I do My duty faithfully.

3. From the faithfulness of God. "My God shall be My strength": as if He had said, I know that God called Me to this office, and that I am faithful in it, and therefore He will assist and stand by Me, and reward Me.

(T. Taylor, D. D.)

Of Livingstone, on his last journey, his biographer, Dr. Blaikie, says: "During all past life he had been sowing his seed weeping, but so far was he from bringing Pack his sheaves rejoicing, that the longer he lived the more cause there seemed for his tears. In opening Africa, he had seemed to open it for brutal slave-traders, and, in the only instance in which he had yet brought to it the feet of men "beautiful" upon the mountains, publishing peace, disaster had befallen, and an incompetent leader had broken up the enterprise. After twenty-three years of labour, he wrote: By the failure of the Universities Mission, my work seems vain. No fruit likely to come from J. Moffat's mission either. Have I not laboured in vain?'"

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