Great Texts of the Bible
The Discipline of Change
Moab hath been at ease from his youth, and he hath settled on his lees, and hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel, neither hath he gone into captivity: therefore his taste remaineth in him, and his scent is not changed.—Jeremiah 48:11.
Jeremiah, in levelling this indictment against Moab, throws his accusation into figures of speech which every Moabite would understand, because they were drawn from the industry most closely related to the life of that country. The process was a simple one. The wine-juice was strained out into a great vessel, and there allowed to stand until the lees—the dregs—settled at the bottom. Then it was emptied to another vessel, and other impurities were allowed to settle, and again it was strained off. This process was repeated many times until the wine-juice was perfectly pure and clear. The virtue of the wine depended entirely on this emptying from vessel to vessel. If the juice were allowed to stagnate, and remain settled on its lees, it would inevitably grow sour. Something of the contamination of the dregs would be communicated to the wine. The dregs would never be disposed of, and the purification would never be achieved. To the eye of the prophet, here is a picture of the life of the Moabites. It is a life of stagnation and consequent defilement. They have not hearkened to the truths uttered in their hearing through the processes of their principal manufacture. Ignoble and ignominious ease, with its consequent lethargy and indolence, has produced staleness. There is no virtue left in the life of Moab. He has become wholly selfish and averse to taking trouble or facing a sacrificial life. He has not been emptied from vessel to vessel. He has ceased even to be interesting. He has no gifts for the world; he has no satisfaction for his own people. “His taste remaineth in him, and his scent is not changed.”
Jeremiah applies to nations the dictum of Polonius—
Home-keeping youths have ever homely wits,
and apparently suggests that ruin and captivity were necessary elements in the national discipline of Moab—
“Moab hath been undisturbed from his youth;
He hath settled on his lees;
He hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel;
He hath not gone into captivity:
Therefore his taste remaineth in him,
His scent is not changed.
Wherefore, behold, the days come—it is the utterance of Jehovah—
That I will send men unto him that shall tilt him up;
They shall empty his vessels and break his bottles.”
As the chapter, in its present form, concludes with a note—
“I will bring again the captivity of Moab in the latter days—it is the utterance of Jehovah”—
we gather that even this rough handling was disciplinary; at any-rate, the former lack of such vicissitudes had been to the serious detriment of Moab. It is strange that Jeremiah did not apply this principle to Judah. For, indeed, the religion of Israel and of mankind owes an incalculable debt to the captivity of Judah, a debt which later writers are not slow to recognize. “Behold,” says the prophet of the Exile—
“I have refined thee, but not as silver;
I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.”1 [Note: W. H. Bennett.]
The text depicts in vivid imagery an undisturbed and easy life, with the natural penalty that overtakes it.
1. The kingdom of Moab had long enjoyed tranquillity, though there were troublesome neighbours near, and though it was a state of no great power; it had pleased God to order it so. Moab had “been at ease from his youth.” Moab had not been subjected to captivity or to other changes and troubles which are to a nation what pouring from one vessel to another is to wine. He had not been tried with processes which might indeed have been painful, but in which he would have got rid of a good deal of the evil that was in him at the first. Moab had been secure in prosperity; and so he had remained the same as at the beginning—all his bad qualities being only confirmed by time and use. If Jeremiah had put into modern phrase his indictment of Moab, he would not have said the Moabite was devoid of the military spirit; he would have judged him void of the civic spirit, which is just the religious spirit in activity. He would have called him low-spirited because he was not high-minded. He would have arraigned him at the bar of Time because he gave to the senses what he would not give to the soul. He would have called on us to behold the doom of self-indulgence and the culpable fate of luxury and ease.
Luxury was one of Bishop Frasers deepest aversions. He saw clearly the demoralization caused by luxury, and, both in word and act, he set his face steadfastly against luxury in every form. He delighted in bounty, in refinement, in elegance, but he simply hated all vulgarity of display. His estimation of things was fixed not by their market-value, but by their intrinsic worth. He preferred to take a dish of tea with a poor curate who was unselfishly struggling amid poverty to elevate his flock, than to dine off gold plate with a self-indulgent, extravagant millionaire. Upon one occasion he said:
“I never visit the Peel Park at Manchester without thinking what an amount of wisdom there is in the few words inscribed on the statue of Mr. Joseph Brotherton, who had been member for Salford—My wealth consisted not in the largeness of my means, but in the fewness of my wants. I am quite certain there is no system of life more likely to lead to disappointment than to surround ourselves with things which, to begin with, are luxuries, but soon get to be necessities. Many of us have been so long in the habit of surrounding ourselves with luxuries that if we were deprived of them we should think we were actually suffering a wrong, although perhaps twenty years ago they were luxuries beyond our reach, even in our wildest dreams.”1 [Note: J. W. Diggle, The Lancashire Life of Bishop Fraser, 17.]
2. The life of Israel was a singular contrast to that of Moab. The Hebrews had never been allowed to remain long undisturbed. Their very exodus from Egypt only resulted at first in their wanderings through the wilderness; and even after they had received possession of the Land of Promise they had no immunity from unsettlement. Indeed their entire national history is almost a perpetual alternation between prosperity and disturbance. At one time they groaned under the yoke of some oppressor; at another they rejoiced in the deliverance which, by the instrumentality of some “mighty man of valour,” the Lord had wrought for them. Under one king they delighted in the blessings of peace; under another they endured all the agonies of war. In one age they passed through the crisis of a revolution which rent the kingdom in twain; in another they were subjected to all the discomfort and humiliation of exile. Thus they were “emptied from vessel to vessel,” and so we account for the fact that, in the main, they grew in all the qualities which give greatness to nations, and were at last completely purified from the “lees” of that idolatry which had so long tainted them in the sight of God.
Similar contrasts might be instanced among the states and nations of our own time; in China, for example, and England; one standing motionless for long ages, and becoming an effete civilization, absolutely hopeless as regards the promise of a regenerated future; the other emptied from vessel to vessel, four times conquered, three times deluged with civil war, converted, reformed and reformed in religion, and finally emerging, after more than one change of dynasty, into a state of law, liberty, intelligence, and genuinely Christian manhood, to be one of the foremost and mightiest nations of the world.1 [Note: H. Bushnell, The New Life (1860), 293.]
3. Discipline is essential, if we are to be effectually loosened from our own evils, and prepared to do the will and work of God, and indeed it seems to be a law in every sort of business or trade that nothing shall stand on its lees. The very scheme of life appears to be itself a grand decanting process, where change follows change, and all are emptied from vessel to vessel. Here and there a man, like Moab, stands upon his lees, and commonly with the same result. Fire, flood, famine, sickness in all forms and guises, wait upon us, seen or unseen, and we run the gauntlet through them, calling it life. And the design appears to be to turn us hither and thither, allowing us no chance to stagnate in any sort of benefit or security.
(1) Our chequered experiences have a wonderful power of cleansing our view and revealing us to ourselves. Too often we are ignorant of the plague of our own hearts until, under some such afflictive visitation, we are led to examine ourselves, and to say with Job, “Shew me wherefore thou contendest with me.” The evil may have been of long standing, and yet, because of its blunting influence on the conscience, we may have been unaware of its existence until the fiery trial brought it into view. Sudden emergency is a sure opener of a mans eyes to his own defects. He may contrive to get on, in seasons of prosperity and outward calm, without becoming conscious of the weak points of his character; but let him be thrown, all at once, upon his own resources by the coming upon him of some crushing calamity, and he will then find out whether he has that within him which can stand the strain that has been put upon him. It was a shrewd remark of Andrew Fuller that “a man has only as much religion as he can command in the day of trial”; and if he have no religion at all, his trouble will make that manifest to him.
Just as the strain of the storm tells where the ship is weakest, and stirs up the mariner to have it strengthened there, so the pressure of trial reveals the defects of character which still adhere to the Christian. One affliction may disclose an infirmity of temper; another may discover a weakness of faith; a third may make it evident that the power of some old habit is not yet entirely broken; and thus, from this constant revelation to him of the evils that still remain in him, he is led, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, to the attainment of a higher measure of holiness than otherwise he could have reached. Paradoxical as it may appear, the occurrence of a railway accident now and then has led to most of the improvements in railway travelling, because it has directed attention to the weak places and evoked immediate effort to prevent the recurrence of the evil. Now much in the same way our spiritual “breaks-down” under the unsettlements of Gods providence make manifest to us the deficiencies of our souls.1 [Note: W. M. Taylor, The Limitations of Life, 363.]
(2) A radical change in our circumstances is sometimes necessary to break down our self-will. Sin is but another name for self-direction. We cast off the will of God in it, and set up for a way and for objects of our own. We devise plans to serve ourselves, and we mean to carry them straight through to their result. Whatever crosses us, or turns us aside, or in any way forbids us to do or succeed just as we like, becomes our annoyance. And these kinds of annoyance are so many and subtle and various that the very world seems to be contrived to baffle us. In one view it is. It would not be good for us, having cast off the will of God, and set up our own will, to let us get on smoothly and never feel any friction or collision with the will cast off. Therefore God manages to turn us about, beat us back, empty us from vessel to vessel, and make us feel that our bad will is hedged about, after all, by His almighty purposes. Sometimes we seem to bend, sometimes to break. Be it one or the other, we lost a part of our stiffness. By and by, to avoid breaking, we consent to bend, and so at last become more flexible to God, falling into a habit of letting go, then of consent, then of contrition. The coarse and bitter flavour of our self-will is reduced in this manner, and gradually fined away. If we could stand on our lees, in continual peace and serenity, if success were made secure, subject to no change or surprise, what, on the other hand, should we do more certainly than stay by our evil mind, and take it as a matter of course that our will is to be done; the very thing above all others of which we most need to be cured?
As the wine standing on its dregs or lees contracts a taste from the lees, and must therefore be decanted or drawn off, so as to have no contact longer with their vile sedimentary matter, so we, in like manner, need to be separated from everything pertaining to the former life, to be broken up in our expectations, and loosened from the affinities of our former habit. In our conversion to God we pass a crisis that, like fermentation, clears our transparency and makes us apparently new; we are called new men in Christ Jesus; still the old man is not wholly removed. It settles like dregs at the bottom, so to speak, of our character, where it is, for the present, unseen. One might imagine, for the time, that it is wholly taken away; and yet it is there, and is only the more likely to infect us that it is not sufficiently mixed with our life to cloud our present transparency. Our sanctification is not to be completed save by separation from it. And therefore God, who is faithful to us, continues to sever us, as completely as possible, from all association with the old life and condition; breaks up our plans, compels a readjustment of our objects, empties us about from vessel to vessel, that our taste may not remain.1 [Note: H. Bushnell, The New Life, 298.]
(3) It is in the changes and surprises through which we are continually passing that we are prepared for the gracious and refining work of the Spirit in us. When we are allowed to stand still, and are agitated by no changes, we become incrusted, as it were, under our remaining faults or evils, and shut up in them as wine in the vat where it is kept. And the Spirit of God is shut away, in this manner, by the imperviousness of our settled habit. But when great changes or calamities come, our crust is broken up, and the freshening breath of the Spirit fans the open chamber of the soul, to purify it. Now the prayer, “Cleanse thou me from secret faults,” finds an answer which before was impossible. Providence, in this view, is an agitating Power to break the incrustations of evil, and let the gales of the Spirit blow where they list in us. Under some great calamity or sorrow, the loss of a child, the visitations of bodily pain, a failure in business, the slanders of an enemy, a persecution for the truth or for righteousness sake, how tender and open to God does the soul become! “Search me, O God, and try me, and see if there be any wicked way in me,” is now the ingenuous prayer, and the Spirit of God comes in to work the answer, finding everything ready for an effectual and thorough purgation. And so, by a double process, Providence and the Spirit both in unity (for God is always one with Himself), we are perfected in holiness and finished in the complete beauty of Christ.
“Joy is a duty” was her inspiring motto. And the following quotation admirably expresses what she had discovered, both for herself and others, of the blessing concealed in suffering:—
“Often when I am carving a block of marble,” said a sculptor one day, “and when I see the chips flying in all directions, I feel a kind of compassion for the stone, and I try to comfort it by saying, Yes, I am wounding and hurting you now, but my purpose is to fashion you into a thing of eternal beauty. There is One who is a greater Sculptor than I, greater than Michael Angelo, or Phidias—God. Humanity is His marble … pain is His chisel … and when I pass through suffering, and see the way in which sorrow shatters my most lovely dreams, I softly murmur, God Himself is at work in my soul, and in His infinite mercy He is about to enrich and deepen my life far beyond my own imaginings! I thank Thee, my God! ”1 [Note: A Living Witness: The Life of Adèle Kamm (1914), 115.]
(4) These frequent unsettlements have a tendency to keep us from being wedded to the world, or from thinking of rooting ourselves permanently here. Johnson was not wrong when he said, “Whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present exalts us in the dignity of thinking beings.” That is precisely what frequent unsettlements in the present life, taken in connexion with his belief in the revelation of heavens blessedness, do tend to in the Christian. Therefore, they cannot but have a holy power on the character of the man who views them in that connexion. The more attractive heaven becomes to us the more shall we seek in the present to cultivate the heavenly spirit. To be weaned from earth is one of the means of making us seek our spiritual food from heaven; and the trials of earth, transplanting us from place to place and from plan to plan, tend to prepare us for the great transplanting which is to take us from this world altogether, and root us in the garden of the Lord above.
Some years ago, while I was rambling with a friend in the neighbourhood of the English Windermere, we came upon a house which was surrounded by the most beautiful shrubs I ever saw, and I was naturally led to make some inquiry concerning them. My companion, who lived in the locality, informed me that, by a judicious system of transplanting, constantly pursued, the proprietor was able to bring them to the highest perfection. I am not horticulturist enough to know whether that would produce such a result or not, but when I heard the statement I thought at once of the manner in which God, by continuous transplanting, keeps His people fresh and beautiful, and prevents them from becoming too closely attached to the world. Its possessions are taken from them. Its friends prove faithless to them. Its relationships are broken for them. Its joys give way in their experience to sorrows. And all this is to keep them from becoming wedded to the present life.2 [Note: W. M. Taylor, The Limitations of Life, 367.]
I would not ask Thee that my days
Should flow quite smoothly on and on:
Lest I should learn to love the world
Too well, ere all my time was done.
I would not ask Thee that my work
Should never bring me pain nor fear;
Lest I should learn to work alone,
And never wish Thy presence near.
I would not ask Thee that my friends
Should always kind and constant be;
Lest I should learn to lay my faith
In them alone and not in Thee.
But I would ask Thee still to give,
By night my sleep—by day my bread,
And that the counsel of Thy Word,
Should shine and show the path to tread.
And I would ask a humble heart,
A changeless will to work and wake,
A firm faith in Thy Providence,
The rest—tis Thine to give or take.1 [Note: Alfred Norris.]
The Penalty of Stagnation
1. This sterile, stagnant Moab, the good wine of whose life is vitiated by inaction and indolence, is surely the text for a thousand sermons. There are sins to which God shows no mercy; and this is one. Other sins do seem for a while to succeed. This one is always obviously fatal. Is there anything more pitiable than a people of fine possibilities sunk in moral degeneracy and decay? Nothing can live on these terms. These are the peoples who sink and soak in vice, whose brain-power withers, whose physique suffers, whose liberties and rights decay, whose whole social organization is full of rottenness and disease.
The great Oriental empires, Assyria and Babylon and Persia, European empires like Rome and Spain, took their rightful place of ascendancy through toil and struggle; then rotted at the heart, smothered by success, and shrivelled at a touch of Gods east wind. Plutarch, in his life of Alexander the Great, describes how he and his Macedonian troops became lax and flaccid amid the wealth and riot made possible by their wonderful victories. Alexander himself, from the extreme temperance and control of his youth, became self-indulgent, was sometimes almost mad with wine, and died of a carousal. The once hardy soldiers became dissolute and riotous, and the huge fabric of his empire crumbled down into dust.1 [Note: Hugh Black, Comfort, 73.]
Hawthornes dream of a railroad to the Celestial City ended in disillusion. Mr. Smooth-the-way, the conductor, showed himself at the last in fiends form; and the engine-driver was none other than Apollyon, who would deceive you into the belief that you can escape the fatigues and perils of the pilgrimage. The immortal garland, says Milton, is to be won not without dust and heat. There is no experience to be gained otherwise, no real beauty of Christian faith and character. Your taste will remain in you, and your scent be not changed. But if God has His will and His way with us, He will do His work of progress, of purification, till at the last He who is at once the Vine and the Vintner shall present the fruit of His vineyard—the wine of our faith and love—to the lips of His Father in the Kingdom of the redeemed.2 [Note: C. Silvester Horne.]
2. But even for the stagnant nation Jeremiah has a message of hope. Moab cannot save himself by the sword. He settled on his lees. He purged himself of none of the evils that were in his midst. He grew lewd, drunken, boastful, mammon-serving, pleasure-hunting; and in his fall he uttered in the ear of the world the tragic cry of a victim to the softer vices of an enervated and demoralized generation. How, then, is Moab to recover his soul, his purity, his character, his tone and flavour as a people? He must be emptied from vessel to vessel. He must be visited by the Eternal Vintner, who will not spare him either the crushing of his grapes or the agitation by which his wine is to be clarified. The God over all is too wise to err, too good to be unkind, and the last unkindness would be to leave Moab to stagnate, settled upon his lees. Here is an interpreter who can reconcile cataclysms and upheavals and catastrophes with the process necessary to produce the higher order. To him the seeming cruelty of Moabs fate is actual kindness to Moabs soul. What people call the “malice of events” is the mercy of Providence. Moab in the hands of his enemy is Moab in the hands of God.
There are tears in this mans heart for Moab, and they drop upon his pages. Noble words are here, not of vindictive hatred, but of human-hearted compassion for even merited suffering. Even while he sees that it is pride that has done it, contempt of Gods will, which is the same for all nations, he pays his tribute of humanity. This broken people moves him to honourable sorrow. Their military pride is humbled to the dust. “They shall howl, saying, How is it broken down! how hath Moab turned the back with shame!” Yet there is a possible way back out of captivity, for this breaking of the vessels and emptying of the wine is the one and only method of Moabs redemption. This visitation may even yet be the salvation of a people.
When I tell you that war is the foundation of all the arts, I mean also that it is the foundation of all the high virtues and faculties of men.
It is very strange to me to discover this; and very dreadful—but I saw it to be quite an undeniable fact. The common notion that peace and the virtues of civil life flourished together, I found to be wholly untenable. Peace and the vices of civil life only flourish together. We talk of peace and learning, and of peace and plenty, and of peace and civilization, but I found that those were not the words which the Muse of History coupled together; that, on her lips, the words were—peace and sensuality—peace and selfishness—peace and death. I found, in brief, that all great nations learned their truth of word, and strength of thought, in war; that they were nourished in war, and wasted by peace; taught by war, and deceived by peace; trained by war, and betrayed by peace—in a word, that they were born in war, and expired in peace.
Yet now note carefully, in the second place, it is not all war of which this can be said—nor all dragons teeth, which, sown, will start up into men. It is not the rage of a barbarian wolf-flock, as under Genseric or Suwarrow; nor the habitual restlessness and rapine of mountaineers, as on the old borders of Scotland; nor the occasional struggle of a strong peaceful nation for its life, as in the wars of the Swiss with Austria; nor the contest of merely ambitious nations for extent of power, as in the wars of France under Napoleon, or the just terminated war in America. None of these forms of war build anything but tombs. But the creative, or foundational, war is that in which the natural restlessness and love of contest among men are disciplined, by consent, into modes of beautiful—though it may be fatal—play: in which the natural ambition and love of power of men are disciplined into the aggressive conquest of surrounding evil; and in which the natural instincts of self-defence are sanctified by the nobleness of the institutions, and purity of the households which they are appointed to defend. To such war as this all men are born; in such war as this any man may happily die; and out of such war as this have arisen, throughout the extent of past ages, all the highest sanctities and virtues of humanity.1 [Note: Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive, § 93 (Works, xviii. 464).]
3. That which is true of nations is true of men. There are other passages of Holy Scripture which help us to the spiritual meaning of all this statement concerning Moab. Says the Psalmist, “Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.” And in the book of the prophet Zephaniah we read, “It shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.” Now the great lesson from all this is, that there is spiritual danger in the quiet lot, and in the quiet heart; that it is not Gods purpose that those He loves should enjoy entire worldly tranquillity; that there is something good in care, unrest, disquiet, sorrow, bereavement, disappointment, perplexity—in all that breaks up that perilous calm in which we grow too well satisfied with this world and feel ourselves too little dependent on our Saviour and our Comforter, and in which we come too much to feel as if things went on in their way forgetting that God directs them all, and fail to realize that the one thing needful is something quite different from worldly enjoyment or worldly gain.
Staying for a while in the valley of Aosta, in Northern Italy, we found the air to be heavy, close, and humid with pestilential exhalations. We were oppressed and feverish—ones life did not seem worth a pin. We could not breathe freely, our lungs had a sense of having a hundred atmospheres piled upon them. Presently, at midday, there came a thunder-clap, attended by big drops of rain, and a stiff gale of wind, which grew into a perfect tornado, tearing down the trees; then followed what the poet calls “sonorous hail,” and then again the lightning flash, and the thunder peal on peal echoing along the Alps. But how delightful was the effect, how we all went out upon the verandah to look at the lightning, and enjoy the music of the thunder! How cool the air and bracing! How delightful to walk out in the cool evening after the storm! Then you could breathe and feel a joy in life. Full often it is thus with the Christian after trouble. He has grown to be careless, lethargic, feverish, heavy, and ready to die, and just then he has been assailed by trouble, thundering threatenings have rolled from Gods mouth, flashes of lightning have darted from providence: the property vanished, the wife died, the children were buried, trouble followed trouble, and then the man has turned to God, and though his face was wet with tears of repentance, yet he has felt his spirit to be remarkably restored. When he goes up to the house of God it is far more sweet to hear the word than aforetime. He could not pray before, but now he leans his head on Jesus bosom and pours out his soul in fellowship.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
Light human nature is too lightly tost
And ruffled without cause,—complaining on,
Restless with rest—until, being overthrown,
It learneth to lie quiet. Let a frost
Or a small wasp have crept to the innermost
Of our ripe peach, or let the wilful sun
Shine westward of our window,—straight we run
A furlongs sigh, as if the world were lost.
But what time through the heart and through the brain
God hath transfixed us,—we, so moved before,
Attain to a calm. Aye, shouldering weights of pain,
We anchor in deep waters, safe from shore,
And hear, submissive, oer the stormy main,
Gods chartered judgements walk for evermore.2 [Note: E. B. Browning, Sonnets.]
The Discipline of Change
Bennett (W. H.), The Book of Jeremiah (Expositors Bible), 239.
Boyd (A. K. H.), The Graver Thoughts of a Country Parson, ii. 18.
Bushnell (H.), The New Life, 292.
Christopherson (H.), Sermons, 135.
Matheson (G.), Thoughts for Lifes Journey, 185.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xiii. (1867),
Taylor (W. M.), The Limitations of Life, 358.
Wilson (S. L.), Helpful Words for Daily Life, 304.
Christian World Pulpit, lxxxii. 312 (C. S. Horne)