Great Texts of the Bible
The Wideness of Gods Mercy
And the Lord said, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: and should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city; wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?—Jonah 4:10-11.
1. Jonah was the typical representative of a proud and exclusive nation. It was expected of Israel as the chosen people of God, to whom were committed the oracles of God, that they would be zealous in the cause of true religion, and spread its light and truth among those sitting in the darkness of heathenism. Their election and preparation for this high and noble mission had, however, a totally different effect upon themselves from that designed by God. It made them proud, arrogant, and exclusive, very unwilling to spread among the heathen the Divine truth lodged with them; at all events, at the time the Book of Jonah was written they were so. They considered themselves the favoured of Heaven, and as such possessing the exclusive right of enjoying Divine truth, whilst the Gentiles might live in the darkness of heathenism, and perish in it. If compelled to preach to them, they would be much more willing to announce Gods judgment upon them than His mercy and compassion. It is indeed true that the prophets have always been enthusiastic about the near or distant future, when the Gentiles would be made partakers of the same privileges and blessings as were enjoyed by the Jews, but the Jewish nation as a whole was always reluctant to entertain such liberal and humane ideas.
2. The Book of Jonah is meant to illustrate by an historical narrative, embellished no doubt to suit the taste of the time, the great and important truth that God is no respecter of persons, and that in every nation he that feareth Him and worketh righteousness is acceptable to Him. These bigoted and narrow-minded Jews had to be taught the humiliating lesson that the Gentiles were more ready and willing to accept the truth of God when preached to them than they themselves were. The repenting Gentiles saved, whilst the unmerciful Jews are reproved; the conversion of the Gentiles preceding the conversion of the Jews; the Gentiles rejoicing in the forgiving mercy of God, whilst the Jews are protesting, murmuring, and complaining that the promises of God have not been fulfilled in exactly the same manner as they have desired they should be—these are some of the leading principles this peculiar Book of Jonah is meant to set forth.
3. Jonah is the typical narrow and exclusive Jew; and the whole story of his narrowness and exclusiveness serves to throw into relief the wide and tender mercy of God. Than the text there is no more Christian utterance in the Old Testament. It raises the eternal protest that God is no less pitiful, but more pitiful, than we; that the pang of pity which a man feels for the withering of a flower or the autumnal fall of the leaf is felt a hundredfold in the heart of the Most High for the souls whom He has made in His image, and for whose growth in grace He has laboured and will labour.
I have read the Book of Jonah at least a hundred times, and I will publicly avow, for I am not ashamed of my weakness, that I cannot even now take up this marvellous book, nay, nor even speak of it, without tears rising to my eyes, or my heart beating higher. This apparently trivial book is one of the deepest and grandest that was ever written, and I should like to say to every one who approaches it, “Take off thy shoes, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.”1 [Note: C. H. Cornill, The Prophets of Israel, 170.]
Jonahs Hard Exclusiveness
1. At the court of Jeroboam the Second, Jonah prophesied success against Syria, and his prediction was fulfilled, for Jeroboam recovered Damascus and Hamath and restored the borders of Israel. The word of God now came to Jonah to go against the great city of Nineveh and pronounce its doom, unless it repented of its sins. The prophet was in an evil case. His patriotism forbade him to reach out a hand or foot to serve that great nation which would one day swallow up his own people, while his fear of God was a strong motive in his breast to obey. Before his eyes passed a vision of the time when the armies of Asshur and the fierce warriors of Chaldæa would swoop down from the northern plains upon that little nation and carry them away captive, planting the deserted villages and lands of Samaria with the people of Arva and Cutha and Sippara. These strange people with their strange gods would hold their riots in the halls that were once blest, while the Hebrews would be placed in Halah and Habor, cities by the river Gozan, separated from all they held dear, and surrounded by a proud idolatrous race. Such a nightmare hovered over Jonah, and compelled him to fly far from his homeland. In Balaam we have the case of a prophet who wished to carry a message contrary to the will of God. Here we have the instance of a prophet who wished to avoid performing a duty the Lord had laid upon him. In the long run, conscience proved stronger than fear or patriotism. But the battle was fiercely contested and protracted within the prophets soul. Loth to convey a message that might prove the salvation of his national foes, he took ship for Tarshish, a port in Spain, with Phœnician merchants. But his purpose was frustrated by the storm, and he was cast into the waters, and then from the depths of Sheol he cried with a bitter cry to Jehovah to save him from his peril. The Lord had mercy upon him, and, after an experience which we need not discuss now, he was cast out upon the shore. There, as he lay helpless on the beach, the word of the Lord came to him and bade him hasten to Nineveh and deliver his message.
The original opportunity indeed was now gone. The prophet had lost the honour of at once obeying the Divine commands; he had tasted the agony implied in preferring his own inclinations to the will of God. But God had brought good out of evil, had taught him the beauty of repentance and the greatness of His mercy. And, surest proof of all that he was quite forgiven, the Divine Spirit had come back, the great impulse arose, which formerly he had fought against and beaten down, “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it.” With a heart purified by repentance and softened by pardon, Jonah was now able to enter into the mind of God, to comprehend the feelings with which He looked down on a vast community of human beings who had forgotten His name and His nature. He himself had experienced the unfathomable pity that was in the Divine heart, Gods earnest desire to show mercy, His unwillingness that any should perish. He had discovered that the heathen were not necessarily destitute of every human virtue, and that they were not completely averse to the worship of the true God. So wonderful indeed are Gods ways of dealing with the hearts of men that Jonah was probably a fitter messenger to Nineveh after his attempted flight than he had been before. By our very failures, God educates us to do His will.
It seems hard that we should often be left to exert ourselves for things that fail—that even with the best intentions we do things which turn to harm, and leave us to self-reproach. But let us ask ourselves how we could construct a moral world otherwise than by concealing results. And what again if successful results were always to reward sincere effort? Would not this be antedating the judgment? The failure may be a success as a part of our training, and not so great a failure in its direct object as it seems. When our aim has been pure, we may save ourselves self-reproach, while we gather wisdom in the use of means. There is always responsibility in action, but responsibility also in inaction. The one may be unsuccessful, the other must.1 [Note: John Ker, Thoughts for Heart and Life, 216.]
2. But the evil spirit was not yet exorcised from Jonahs heart. When the Ninevites took him at his word and repented, and God spared them, he was bitterly disappointed. In the depth of his heart there lurked all along the secret hope that either they would not repent or repentance would come too late, and that in any case he would have the pleasure of seeing the great city destroyed. Was this feeling an unnatural one? We can hardly say so when we consider the past history of religion, and the feelings which have filled the hearts of undoubtedly religious men. We know that religious zeal has often been accompanied by atrocious cruelty, and that men have burned one another for the love of God. There was nothing wonderful in the fact that a Hebrew prophet should desire that a Divine judgment should fall on a heathen city, and that Jehovah should be magnified in His mighty power. It was accordingly with very human, but by no means creditable, feelings of vexation and anger that Jonah saw that Nineveh was not to be destroyed after all. There was but little excuse for him. He had had a large experience of Gods methods of working; he knew what God in His inmost nature was; and it is almost unaccountable that he should thus set himself in opposition to the Divine will, should grumble at Gods goodness to his fellow-creatures, and should in effect tell Him that He had done wrong.
And yet how full and how complete was Jonahs knowledge of the character of God. “I knew that thou art a gracious God, and full of compassion, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy, and repentest thee of the evil.” Surely this was a knowledge fitted rather to send a tide of joy surging through a human heart, to make a man happy all his life. Yet, strangely enough, it was this very thought that roused such bitter feelings in Jonahs mind, and made him wish rather to die than to live—a proof, if proof were needed, that when we think that we are most religious, our feelings may be by no means in accordance with the mind of God. Knowledge of Gods nature is one thing, sympathy with it is another. To have such sympathy we must drink in largely of the Divine Spirit.
As the end drew near, Romanes began to make notes for a work which he meant to serve as a correction of the teaching of his book, A Candid Examination of Theism. As the notes grew, his faith came. The process of reviewing his past, the looking back on the way by which he had come, not only gave to him a truer view of the proportion of things, but also brought to him, first, the consciousness of God, and then that momentous experience in religious life—the kindling of the soul with the realized love of God. After his death, the notes were published, with the title, Thoughts on Religion. Bishop Gore thus describes the main position which is set forth in the book:
“Scientific ratiocination cannot find adequate ground for belief in God. But the pure Agnostic must recognize that God may have revealed Himself by other means than that of ratiocination. As religion is for the whole man, so all human faculties may be required to seek after God and find Him—emotions and experiences of an extra rational kind. The pure Agnostic must be prepared to welcome evidence of all sorts.”
Romanes takes the positive side of the evidence for faith in God as shown by “the happiness of religious, and chiefly of the highest religious—i.e. Christian—belief. It is a matter of fact that, besides being most intense, it is most enduring, growing, and never staled by custom. In short, according to the universal testimony of those who have it, it differs from all other happiness, not only in degree, but in kind. Those who have it can usually testify what they used to be without it. It has no relation to intellectual status. It is a thing by itself and supreme.”1 [Note: H. Lewis, Modern Rationalism, 374.]
3. Notice the peculiar impiety of Jonahs words: “Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.” This is the language of petulance. A mans worth may be measured by the reverence he has for his life. It is well for us to be aware of the real impiety that lurks under a longing for death and weariness of the life which, day by day, God is bestowing on us here. The gospel which delivers us from a coward fear of dying was never intended to foster an equally coward fear of living.
My own dim life should teach me this,
That life shall live for evermore.
He who brought immortality to light through the gospel, brought also life to light. He claimed for God this daily being, wherein men toil and sorrow and are disappointed, and filled it with a spirit and a purpose, a presence and a power, that make it sacred as any after-life can be. To despise this high gift of God,—to set it in the balance against disappointments, or labours, or unwelcome duties, and the common daily demands; because of sadness or weariness, to stretch out hopeless hands, and long for death—this is not only the mark of a coward spirit, it is also dark impiety. Such a scorn of Gods rich blessedness is scorn of God Himself.
“To live,” says Sir Thomas Browne, “to live, indeed, is to be ourselves; which being not only a hope, but an evidence, in noble believers, tis all one to lie in St. Innocents churchyard as in the sands of Egypt, ready to be anything in the ecstasy of being ever, and as content with six foot as the Moles of Adrianus.” “Ready to be anything in the ecstasy of being ever,”—they are noble words, and breathe the very spirit of the Bible. “With thee is the fountain of life,” says the Psalmist in highest adoration of God. Christ, in claiming for Himself that He is one with the Father, speaks of the life that is in Him, and which He has power to give, as the proof of this. “As the Father raiseth up the dead, and giveth life to them; even so the Son giveth life to whom he will. As the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself … because he is the Son of man.”1 [Note: A. Mackennal, Christs Healing Touch, 92.]
4. No man is so angry as the man who is in the wrong. The angry prophet, leaving Nineveh still undestroyed, betakes himself to the low hills lying to the east of the city. He is half of opinion yet that Gods purpose of destruction is merely delayed, not altered. He will wait and see if the fiery shower will not still descend, and Nineveh become another Sodom. To shelter himself from the noonday sun, he makes a booth of twigs and foliage, and, sitting down, awaits the development of the Divine purposes.
Here in this bower he sits and anxiously longs for news respecting the destiny of the city and its inhabitants. He is exceedingly pleased with the comfort and protection this shady retreat affords him. May fire and brimstone destroy both the city and its inhabitants, as long as he is out of the reach of the destructive elements and can sit in his cool and shady bower undisturbed! He is prepared even to wait a little longer than he could have wished, for the rising of the smoke and flames of the burning city, and for the hearing of the cries and groans of its suffering inhabitants. He would have enjoyed nothing so much as to witness the effect of Gods wrath upon the Ninevites. But the heartless man is not allowed to remain long undisturbed in his comfortable self-complacency. Hardly has he begun to realize the luxury of his bower, when the very gourd, which has contributed so largely to his comfort, withers away, and at a time when its shelter is most needed. Then in the morning, as the sun rose and shed its scorching rays on the unprotected head of Jonah, he fainted and wished that he would die, saying, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
In this impatience of life as well as in some subsequent traits, the story of Jonah reflects that of Elijah. But the difference between the two prophets was this, that while Elijah was very jealous for Jehovah, Jonah was very jealous of Him. Jonah could not bear to see the love promised to Israel alone, and cherished by her, bestowed equally upon her heathen oppressors. And he behaved after the manner of jealousy and of the heart that thinks itself insulted. He withdrew, and sulked in solitude, and would take no responsibility nor interest in his work. Such men are best treated by a caustic gentleness, a little humour, a little rallying, a leaving to nature, and a taking unawares in their own confessed prejudices. All these—I dare to think even the humour—are present in Gods treatment of Jonah. This is very natural and very beautiful. Twice the Divine Voice speaks with the soft sarcasm: Art thou very angry? Then Jonahs affections, turned from man and God, are allowed their course with a bit of nature, the fresh and green companion of his solitude; and then when all his pity for this has been roused by its destruction, that very pity is employed to awaken his sympathy with Gods compassion for the great city, and he is shown how he has denied to God the same natural affection which he confesses to be so strong in himself.1 [Note: G. A. Smith, The Book of the Twelve Prophets, ii. 539.]
Whole sheets have been filled with the discussion as to what the kikayon, the Gourd, mentioned in the Old Testament only in Jonah was. The dispute is an old one, for when St. Jerome translated it Ivy, St. Augustine was so offended with the translation that he denounced it as heresy. The most popular rendering has been that which identified the kikayon with the Arabic El keroa, the Castor-oil (Ricinus communis). The Ricinus is a large shrub rather than a tree, and has large palmate leaves with serrated lobes, and spikes of blossom which produce the seed, from whence the well-known medicinal oil is extracted in small rough husks. It is wild in all Oriental countries, but it is not a tree used for shade, being of a straggling growth, though of course any one might find shelter from the sun under its large foliage. Generally, however, it would be useless for the purpose. It reaches a considerable size—twelve or fifteen feet in height in the warmer parts of Palestine.
The etymological argument in favour of the Ricinus is, no doubt, strong, but practical reasons cause me to lean strongly to the rendering of our English version, Gourd—i.e., the Bottle-Gourd (Cucurbita pepo). The Gourd is very commonly employed in Palestine for the purpose of shading arbours. Its rapid growth and large leaves render it admirably adapted for training on trellis work. In the warmer parts of America also, it is the favourite plant for shading arbours; and so rapid is its growth that it will often shoot a foot in a day. In the gardens about Sidon many an arbour of gourds may be seen. But the plant withers as rapidly as it shoots, and after a storm or any injury to the stem, its fruit may be seen hanging from the leafless tendrils which so lately concealed it, a type of melancholy desolation.
Now, we are expressly told in the history that Jonah “made him a booth,” and that after it was made God prepared the “kikayon” to cover it. This is exactly the office of the Gourd. Jonah had erected his fragile lodge of boughs, whose leaves would rapidly wither, and a further shade would be required. Then the tendrils of the Gourd would seize the boughs and provide shelter for the prophet. But no one who knows the Ricinus can conceive it affording any shelter over an existing arbour, nor has it the qualities of rapid growth and sudden decay so characteristic of the Gourd.1 [Note: H. B. Tristram, The Natural History of the Bible, 449.]
Within my garden was a flower
More fair than earth could know.
My heart upon it, hour by hour,
Did tender care bestow;
It opened wide to mornings light;
It closed at evenfall.
And, every day more fair and bright,
My flower was all in all.
The flower within my garden grew,
Than all my flowers more fair,
And, when my love it sweetly drew,
Became my only care;
While garden ways with weeds were wild,
And flowers neglected died,
Above my cherished bloom I smiled
And all the rest denied.
A morning came with bitter blight,
A morn with tears made wild—
My flower had perished in the night,
My heart had lost its child.
But when my eyes were washed by tears
And looked upon the light,
I gazed across the blinded years
And set my garden right.2 [Note: James Strang, Sunlight and Shadow.]
Gods Wide Mercy
1. The question of the text is an argument which is often used in the Bible. It is an argument from man to God, from pity in man to pity in God, from the best in man to an unimaginably better in God. “Thou hast had pity: and should not I have pity?” Will religious men with their narrowness and selfishness keep God from being pitiful as He sees best? Our Lord makes use of this argument in the Gospels: “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him.” Erring men can be trusted to give what is good; how much more can God be trusted to give us what is best—even His Spirit in our hearts? The best in man is only a faint image of the best in God. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His ways higher than our ways, and His thoughts than our thoughts.
“Thou hast pity on the gourd.” At first sight the argument does not seem quite in order. For Jonah was not angry for the gourds sake, but for his own, and indeed his feelings were not those of compassion, but of wrath. The word “pity” is applied by the author to Jonah and the gourd, because it is the true and appropriate word for God and the Ninevites. The parallelism is a little forced, but it is quite possible, as Professor Driver has had the great kindness to suggest to me in a private letter, that a sort of a fortiori argument was intended by the author. Jonah is allowed by God to have felt some pity for the gourd, although that pity was born of selfishness. He regretted its loss for its own sake as well as for himself. Now not only were the Ninevites incomparably more worthy to be spared than the gourd, but God was incomparably more ready to feel pity than Jonah; for not only was He their Creator and Sustainer, but pity in His case is an ever-present attitude of His nature, neither evoked by selfish considerations of personal advantage, nor assumed as the fair-seeming counterfeit of personal annoyance. God, the shepherd of man, is, as Plato would say, a true shepherd. His end or aim is the well-being of His flock, and only that. Nor does it matter to Him whether the sheep are light or dark, Aryan or Semitic.1 [Note: C. G. Montefiore, The Bible for Home Reading, ii. 415.]
2. But the text has a further contrast. It is an argument, not merely from man to God, but from the gourd to men, or rather to the young children and the cattle. “Thou hast had pity on the gourd; and should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” Here again the argument is repeated in the Gospels. Our Lord was found fault with by narrow bigots for healing a man on the Sabbath. He reminded them that they would rescue a sheep from a pit on the Sabbath because it was their property. “How much, then,” He asked, “is a man of more value than a sheep?” The text makes the noble claim that God cares for the dumb, driven cattle. But its main argument is, “How much is a child of more value than a gourd?” Men and women are more to God than the short-lived shrub to the sun-beaten and sulky prophet. As we sometimes sing in Ebenezer Elliotts Hymn of the People—
Flowers of Thy heart, O God, are they,
Let them not pass, like weeds, away.
In poor cottages, looking so destitute one hardly likes to enter them, women nurse flowers calling them “pets” and “beauties,” and cherishing them as gently as though the flowers could smile on them, and repay them for their care. These women know what it is to love the plants; and many a one is bound by this tenderness to a world of men and women which else she might regard with selfish, bitter scorn. The “little ewe lamb,” says Nathan, the prophet, that the poor man had, “lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.” Over the wretched, gloomy Jonah, sprung up the wondrous plant, and its leaves and tendrils drew off his thoughts from himself; and as he watched it grow, a new interest was awakened in him. His heart softened to the plant; and the man who, a little before, despised his own life and scorned all Nineveh, becomes strangely tender and reverential over a gourd. There is something wonderful in life, even though it be the life of a common weed. Such things speak to us, however faintly we may understand them, of an awful power that forms, and an ever watchful care that tends them: they are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Around us are manifold influences to wean us from perverse melancholy, and draw us out of ourselves. Jonah loves his gourd, and “has pity” on it when it is smitten.1 [Note: A. Mackennal, Christs Healing Touch, 96.]
3. Notice the exceeding gentleness with which God reproves and seeks to restore the angry prophet. He does not follow him again with terrors, as when He pursued him with shipwreck, and caused the depths to close around him, and wrapped his head about with weeds, and barred the earth about him, and made his soul to faint within him. The disobedient are constrained by a force too strong for them; but even the ungracious doing of duty brings the spirit into fitness for gentler discipline. The Lord cares for Jonah in his self-will: He “prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his evil case. So Jonah was exceeding glad because of the gourd.” And when He smites the gourd, and sends the vehement east wind and burning sun to beat on Jonahs head, it is that He may speak in words gentler than the gourd-shade, and reveal Himself to the stricken spirit as “the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.” How different is this from man! We should have said, “Let Jonah experience to the full the barrenness and bitterness he has brought upon himself; let the life he scorns be taken from him.” So we speak, repaying scorn with scorn, glad that the self-absorbed man is his own tormentor. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.”
What is the Divine gospel which, through this Book of Jonah, is revealed to us? In a word it is this: that God cares for the sinners of Nineveh as well as for the saints of Jerusalem; that little children and even dumb cattle are dear to Him; that His tender mercies are over all His works. Where in all the Old Testament is there so moving a parable of the love of God? Is not this the very tone and temper of Jesus Himself? “Out there, beyond the Covenant, in the great world lying in darkness”—this was the truth our author told into the prejudiced faces of his people—“there live, not beings created for ignorance and hostility to God, elect for destruction, but men with consciences and hearts, able to turn at His Word, and to hope in His Mercy—that to the farthest ends of the world, and even in the high places of unrighteousness, Word and Mercy work just as they do within the Covenant.” And so this little book, which to some of us, perhaps, has seemed little more than a strange fairy-tale, or a riddle of which we had lost the key, “opens out,” in the words of Mr. R. C. Gillie, “like an exquisite rose till we find in the heart of it the glowing crimson of the love of God.”1 [Note: G. Jackson, Studies in the Old Testament, 154.]
4. But there is an implied argument, which takes us deeper into the heart of God. The prophet pitied the gourd because it had been useful to him, giving him shelter from the fierce Eastern sun. But the gourd was not of his making; he had not spent labour of heart and brain upon its growth. God has a far closer relation to men than the prophet had to the gourd, “for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow.” God has done all that for men; He has laboured for them and made them grow. God is our Maker. That is an elementary thought of God, but the author of the Book of Jonah discovers a gospel in it. There are other names for God, richer, perhaps, more endearing—Shepherd, Father, Saviour. But here is the ground-fact of religion—God our Maker. The Hundredth Psalm says joyously, “It is he that hath made us, and we are his.” These words are the ground of Gods claim on us, and we may reverently add that they are the ground of our claim on God. It is part of Jobs pathetic appeal out of his agony of loss and pain, “Thine hands have made me and fashioned me together round about; yet thou dost destroy me.” Every man loves, to some extent, the thing he has made, which has taken something of himself into it, which he has watched with keen interest as it slowly arose to the fulness of its being. How much more must God love the souls whom He has made in His image, capable of unravelling and following His thoughts in the courses of the stars, and all the vast interplay of Natures forces, capable of reaching out to Him in love and aspiration after the highest. How beautifully and truly is it said in the Wisdom of Solomon, “Thou lovest all things that are, and abhorrest none of the things which thou didst make; for never wouldest thou have formed anything it thou didst hate it”! The fact that God has made us is a proof that He loves us. Creation is full of the loving joy of the Creator in His works.
The perennial miracle of love is this, that it increases in the ratio of the expenditure of our pains, and thrives on sacrifice. The more we bestow—the more we are prepared to spend. God had put out and expended long-suffering and patience and grief and holy striving on His Nineveh. And is He to have no return? No interest from this invested devotion? It is just the Old Testament version of the missing sheep, the lost coin, the wayward son. If we be straitened we are not straitened to God, but in ourselves.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measures of mans mind;
And the Heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
Robert Browning, in his poem Saul, represents the youthful David mourning over the sad decay that has fallen upon the powers of the first King of Israel, and rising as he communes with his own heart to this high faith, that his own pity for human sin and sorrow is but a spark from the glowing fire of pity in the heart of God.
Do I find love so full in my nature, Gods ultimate gift,
That I doubt His own love can compete with it? Here, the parts shift?
Here, the creature surpass the Creator,—the end, what Began?
Would I fain in my impotent yearning do all for this man,
And dare doubt He alone shall not help him, who yet alone ?Song of Solomon 1 [Note: D. Connor.]
5. The text sends a shaft of tender light into Gods dealings with mankind; it reminds us that as He looks down upon the millions of heathen, upon hordes of uncivilized men, among whom, after all, there is much innocent child life, full of just such enjoyment as abounds throughout the domain of nature, He sees much in which His fatherly heart can take pleasure. The world below the level of its perverted moral life is very dear to God. He delights in the works of His hands. The flowers of the field are beautiful, the birds of the air are blithe and full of song, the cattle upon the hills browse in contentment, because God loves them and cares tenderly for them.
(1) God has compassion on the children of godless parents. There is a magnificent limit to the omnipotence of God—the limit imposed by His love. His power cannot pass the boundaries of His heart. All the voices of the universe called for the death of Nineveh—all but one. Law called for it; prudence called for it; morality called for it; political economy called for it; the survival of the fittest called for it. But there was one thing which cried against it—Gods compassion for the infants. It was a solitary voice—a voice crying in the wilderness. It was unsupported by the voice of policy, the voice of worldly prudence, the voice of public opinion. It gave no cause for its cry. It did not say, “These infants may be good some day, great some day, believers some day.” It was the wilderness that made the cry; it was sheer pity for the helpless that opened the arms of God.
Mr. Sully, a great authority on Psychology, who has written most learnedly on the subject of children, has recently published a book containing some very striking and beautiful incidents in child life. But not one struck me more than this—a little boy in a moment of frankness and confidence, in speaking to his mother, said that if he could ask God for what he liked, he would ask God to love him when he was naughty. Truly as Christ said, we are taught the perfection of wisdom out of the mouths of babes.1 [Note: Hugh Price Hughes.]
(2) Gods tender pity reaches to the cattle. If we love all things both great and small, we are in good company. We remember Columba of Iona, and how the old white horse was so knit with him in fellowship that it discerned the approach of his death before Diarmaid and Baithene understood their impending grief; we remember Francis of Assisi, and how he tamed the wolf and preached to the twittering swallows; and John Woolman out on the Atlantic, and how he “observed the dull appearance of the fowls at sea, and the pining sickness of some of them, and often recalled the Fountain of Goodness who gave being to them all.” We think of Robert Herrick, lamenting the loss of his spaniel Tracie with “one teare” though the lowly friend “deserved a million”; of Matthew Arnold, singing the elegy of the dachshund Geist, with his “temper of heroic mould,” his “liquid melancholy eye,” and all his life and all his love crowded into four short years; of Dr. John Brown, celebrating the loyalty and affection of Rab. A man should wish to surround himself with the wisest and gentlest associates; and it will dignify one to move in so gracious a society.
William Blake has a sweet little poem to a lamb. He says—
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bade thee feed
By the stream and oer the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Then he tells the lamb who made it—God. God made the little lamb.
In another poem he asks the tiger the same question—
Tiger, Tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?
Yes, God made the tiger too. He made heaven and earth and all that in them is—all the angels in heaven, all the animals on earth. The same God made them all; and He loves all that He makes, and is sorry when an animal is hurt on earth, as He would be sorry if an angel were hurt in heaven.
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.1 [Note: J. M. Gibbon, In the Days of Youth, 115.]
In the popular traditions of East and West, Jonahs name alone has survived the Lesser Prophets of the Jewish Church. It still lives not only in many a Mussulman tomb along the coasts and hills of Syria, but in the thoughts and devotions of Christendom. The marvellous escape from the deep, through a single passing allusion in the Gospel history, was made an emblem of the deliverance of Christ Himself from the jaws of death and the grave. The great Christian doctrine of the boundless power of human repentance received its chief illustration from the repentance of the Ninevites at the preaching of Jonah. There is hardly any figure from the Old Testament which the early Christians in the Catacombs so often took as their consolation in persecution as the deliverance of Jonah on the seashore, and his naked form stretched out in the burning sun beneath the sheltering gourd. But these all conspire with the story itself in proclaiming that still wider lesson of the goodness of God. It is the rare protest of theology against the excess of theology—it is the faithful delineation through all its various states, of the dark, sinister, selfish side of even great religious teachers. It is the grand Biblical appeal to the common instincts of humanity, and to the universal love of God, against the narrow dogmatism of sectarian polemics. There has never been a “generation” which has not needed the majestic revelation of sternness and charity, each bestowed where most deserved and where least expected, in the “sign of the Prophet Jonah.”1 [Note: A. P. Stanley, History of the Jewish Church, ii. 305.]
The Wideness of Gods Mercy
Bell (C. D.), Night Scenes of the Bible, ii. 49.
Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women, and Children, iii. 454.
Fürst (A.), True Nobility of Character, 124.
Gibbon (J. M.), In the Days of Youth, 112.
Ingram (A. F. W.), Under the Dome, 43.
Mackennal (A.), Christs Healing Touch, 87.
Macnaughtan (G. D.), Two Hebrew Idylls, 171.
Matheson (G.), Rests by the River, 141.
Morrison (G. H.), The Footsteps of the Flock, 381.
Norton (J. N.), Golden Truths, 158.
Owen (J. W.), Some Australian Sermons, 61.
Smellie (A.), In the Secret Place, 186.
Christian World Pulpit, xv. 168 (E. W. Shalders); lii. 177 (H. P. Hughes); lxx. 212 (R. Hislop).
Church of England Pulpit, lvii. 158 (F. R. M. Hitchcock).
Church Family Newspaper, July 12, 1912, 8 (H. E. Ryle).
Churchmans Pulpit: Sermons to the Young, xvi. 449 (J. Edmond).
Homiletic Review, New Ser., xxxviii. 506 (G. C. Morgan).
Presbyterian, Feb. 27, 1913 (D. Connor).
Treasury (New York), xxii. 480.