They go from strength to strength, until each appears before God in Zion.
I. SPIRITUAL PILGRIMS MUST "KEEP ON." According to the figures of the text, they must not be stopping, or idling, or taking up any interests on the way; day by day, persistently, they must be going forward; every day getting a day's march nearer Zion. A pilgrim must just "keep on." So we are called to "patient continuance in well doing;" to day-by-day persistent goodness; and this of itself may become wearisome. It is the hardest thing given us to do, this keeping on, day by day, in the same scenes, and doing the same work. But it is never really a mere keeping on. We may not realize the joy of it, but the fact is that, in keeping on, we are going "from strength to strength."
II. IN "KEEPING ON," SPIRITUAL PILGRIMS FIND THEMSELVES EVER BETTER ABLE TO KEEP ON. Every difficulty overcome means a higher strength to overcome difficulties. Every joy felt in a spiritual triumph is cheer for dealing with new anxieties. Every day of Christian life is a step; from it we get power to take a step higher. The man who has lived well his Christian life today is in fact, and ought to be in feeling, a stronger man to live his Christian life tomorrow. And so, making the day's experience a step up, he finds power and joy increasing as he nears the city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem. A Christian life may be exhausting for the body, but "as the outward man perishes, the inward man is renewed day by day." - R.T.
They go from strength to strength.
Homilist.What is the true progress of man? We say progress of "man" in contradistinction to the progress of ideas, "graces," principles, faculties, or arts.
1. Progress in the accumulation of wealth is not the true progress of man.
2. Nor progress in the attainment of knowledge.
3. Nor progress in social influence.
4. Nor progress in theological zeal.
5. Nor the progress of any element in the soul distinct and separable from it.
I. TRUE PROGRESS IS THE PROGRESS OF THE SOUL IN APPROPRIATING, WITH HAPPINESS TO ITSELF, ALL EXTERNAL OBJECTS TO ITS HIGHEST USE. But how is this appropriation to be made? How is this outward universe to promote the growth of our souls? Not without our willing and earnest effort. Put the acorn into a congenial soil, and external nature, by a necessity, will draw all the particles of vitality from its "milky veins," and elaborate them into majestic forests. The seed has no resisting force; it is passive in the plastic hand of nature. But it is not so with mind; it has a choice in the matter. There must be investigation and application.
II. TRUE PROGRESS IS THE PROGRESS OF THE SOUL IN DISTRIBUTING, WITH HAPPINESS TO ITSELF, THE HIGHEST BLESSINGS TO THE CREATION.
1. Analogy indicates it. There is nothing made for itself — nothing whose powers and influences, are entirely circumscribed to self. Whatever a creature receives it gives out, with the modification and increase of its own force. The clouds borrow water of the ocean, but they pour it forth again in refreshing showers upon the thirsty hills, which, in their turn, send them amongst the valleys. The tree borrows from every part of the world in order to build up itself, but it gives out, in return, beauty, fragrance, and fruit. Thus all things give what they appropriate. The material is but the emblem of the spiritual, and thus all nature typifies man's distributive function.
2. Its instinct suggests it. "There are," says Bishop Butler, "as real, and the same kind of indications in Nature that we are made for society, and to do good to our fellow-creatures, as that we were intended to take care of our own life, and health, and private good; and that the same objections lie against one of these assertions as against the other."
3. It has a sphere for it. No two spirits, perhaps, throughout the intelligent universe are exactly alike: the one has what its neighbour requires, and thus to all there is a field for distribution. Now, true progress is, as we have said, the progress of the soul in distributing the highest blessings, with happiness to itself. What are the highest blessings? Spiritual thoughts. Ideas that will stimulate to duty, and nerve for nobler deeds; that will shed new light on being, and present the Eternal to the mind under aspects yet more lovely; that will guide to loftier walks of existence; that will touch new chords, develop new powers of being, awaken new hopes, and kindle higher aspirations; I call the highest blessings.
III. TRUE PROGRESS IS THE PROGRESS OF THE SOUL IN BOTH APPROPRIATING AND DISTRIBUTING, UNDER AN EVER-HEIGHTENING CONSCIOUSNESS OF THE CREATOR'S PRESENCE AND APPROVAL. Neither of the two former instincts to which we have referred — that of self or society — is more real, deep, or universal, than the Divine All men, in all periods, circumstances, and places, have developed their intuitive belief in the supernatural and Divine. This instinct is the ultimate fact in our spiritual constitution: it is the fountain-head of all religions. It has reared temples for the world, transformed men into priests, and wood and stone into gods. It is the breath of prayer, the song of thanksgiving, the soul of worship, through all lands and ages. To enjoy the approbation of the Deity is the grand desideratum of life. This last element of progress — namely, the ever-heightening consciousness of Divine approbation — transcends the other two, inasmuch as it involves them. It is only as this consciousness is felt that the spirit can succeed, either in the great work of appropriation or distribution. This is the spirit of advancement.
I. THE CHARACTER OF SPIRITUAL PROGRESS.
1. It is SLOW. From step to step Holiness and heaven are to be obtained slowly — little by little. If we cannot fly or run we must be willing to climb and walk, thankful to go forward, though slowly.
2. It is toilsome. Not only slow work, but hard work. The ascent is difficult and dangerous, like the ascent of some ice-bound mountains. Painfully does the traveller move upwards.
3. It is certain. "They go," etc. They rise. They are near heaven. They have more of Christ's likeness.
II. SOME OF THE INEVITABLE CONSEQUENCES OF CEASING TO PROGRESS.
1. Declension. If the soul is not gazing upward and Godward, it will gaze earthward. If Christ, the strong, loving magnet, does not draw the soul to Himself, the worldly magnet will draw it to itself.
2. Loss at every step; his prospects and hopes clouded, his peace gradually departs.
I. A GROWING SENSE OF GOD. His faith in God is a belief which stirs his mind, which sways his conscience, which animates his soul. Impatient, sometimes, in his fleshly thralls, he breaks away from time and sense, and strives to get at God. If he digs deep, he digs for God; if he soars high, he soars for God. Does he range creation? He finds God everywhere — in landscape, in field, in flower, and in flood. Nature is full of Him. Does he rehearse the ways of Providence? He sees the methods of God's wisdom, and the traces of His care. "The angel of the Lord encampeth round about him." Not only does he think of Him as the God of his life, but as his "reconciled God and Father through Jesus Christ." The spirit of estrangement is exorcised; and, in a filial and full assurance, he asserts his sonship by the cry of "Abba, Father!"
II. A GROWING DEPENDENCE UPON CHRIST. He strikes out the "I" both for the past and for the future, and puts in "Christ." It is not what I have done; but what Christ has done. Not what I can do; but what Christ can do. The Christian lives inversely, if we may so speak; the weaker he becomes, the stronger he becomes; — i.e. the weaker grows the man, the stronger grows the Christian. For just in proportion as he realizes he is not only weak and helpless, but that he is absolutely nothing without Christ; in that proportion is he impelled to take the firmer hold upon Him, till he who was weak, helpless, and nothing in himself, grows mighty, able, and everything through Christ who strengthened him. This growth in grace, moreover, is accompanied by increasing spiritual discernment.
III. INCREASING STEADINESS AND SUCCESS IN THE RESISTANCE OF TEMPTATION. The natural man makes no stand. He rather goes over to the enemy. Neither does the converted man, all at once, attain the full power of resistance, because he cannot, all at once, learn to look entirely to, and lean entirely on, Jesus. The young conscript will often show more apparent zeal against sin than the advanced Christian. The old soldier does not battle the less valiantly when the enemy is before him, because he does not brandish his sword so swaggeringly on parade. It is purpose, and not impulse, by which the old soldier is guided. And it is the veteran, not the recruit, who makes the fewest relapses, is most seldom disgraced by a repulse, and who gains the more frequent and most signal victories.
IV. DECREASING ABSORPTION IN WORLDLY OBJECTS AND ATTRACTIONS. He puts things in their proper place, and in their proper order. God and heaven stand first; self and earth stand second.
V. AN INCREASED UNSELFISHNESS AND DISINTERESTEDNESS OF RELIGIOUS EMOTION. He sees spiritual things now, absolutely; not merely in their relation towards himself, but as they are in themselves. He sees Jesus in a higher light than as a mere personal Saviour; he elevates Him to a loftier throne, for, as he beholds His moral excellency, he loves to commune with Him, and grows restless to be with Him face to face. The fully renewed heart wants to see Him take all His power, and reign.
VI. A DEEPENED COMPOSURE IN ANTICIPATING DEATH AND ETERNITY. Talk to him of death, and you talk to him of liberty; you tell him of one who strikes off the dungeon bars, and unclasps the detaining gives.
II. THE MEANS BY WHICH HE GATHERS INCREASING STRENGTH AND ENERGY FOR ITS PROSECUTION.
1. What the vale of Baca was to the Jewish pilgrims, the word and ordinances of God are to the heaven-bound traveller. Just as the little pits in the desert contained the rain which came from above to confirm the ancient inheritance of the Lord when it was weary, so are ordinances the instituted receptacles of the descending influences of Divine grace which come down like showers that water the earth to revive and invigorate the soul that thirsts for them.
2. The Israelites, in going up to Jerusalem, were strengthened and encouraged by the society of their fellow-pilgrims, who divided the toils of the journey, and whose presence and converse animated them to prosecute it to the end. Union and co-operation are powerful stimulants in any pursuit.
3. In going up to Jerusalem from the several parts of their country, to worship the Lord in the place where He had recorded His name, the Israelites, we are told, cheered their spirits and beguiled the weariness of the way by certain sacred melodies which they sang at intervals and in concert as they travelled along. The psalms entitled Songs of Degrees are generally understood to have been sung on these occasions. Now, this was a fruitful source of solace and refreshment. This made the journey pleasant and delightful. It is thus that the joy of the Lord is the strength of the Christian pilgrim. Every grace of the Spirit gives pleasure in its operation.
4. The Israelites were animated to the prosecution of their journey by the hope of reaching Zion and the prospect of the sacred enjoyments which awaited them there. "I had fainted," says the psalmist, "unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." As he advances onward in his Christian course, with the glow of spiritual health and activity, every fresh triumph over besetting sin — every fresh act of self-denial increased — every new habit of goodness acquired — every Christian virtue striking deeper root in his character — and every known duty more faithfully, fully, and cheerfully discharged, bear him record that now is his salvation nearer than when he believed. While he measures not his pace by his own strength, but leans upon the faithfulness of Omnipotence with all the confidence that one reposes on the arm of an old and well-tried companion, the oil of gladness is poured into his heart, and his soul becomes like the chariots of Aminadab, for he can run and not be weary, he can walk and not be faint.
III. THE BLESSED AND GLORIOUS TERMINATION. The final issue of the Christian's course rests not upon a peradventure, but upon the omnipotent power and faithfulness of God, that they may have strong consolation who have fled for refuge, to lay hold upon the hope set before them. The same hand which gave the new bias to direct the soul in its heavenward motion will continue to quicken and secure its progress (Philippians 1:6; John 10:28, 29).
(J. Anderson, M. A.)
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