Blessed shalt thou be in the city.
The city is full of care, and he who has to go there from day to day finds it to be a place of great wear and tear. It is full of noise, and stir, and bustle, and sore travail: many are its temptations, losses, and worries. But to go there with the Divine blessing takes off the edge of its difficulty; to remain there with that blessing is to find pleasure in its duties, and strength equal to its demands. A blessing in the city may not make us great, but it will keep us good; it may not make us rich, but it will preserve us honest. Whether we are porters, or clerks, or managers, or merchants, of magistrates, the city will afford us opportunities for usefulness. It is good fishing where there are shoals of fish, and it is hopeful to work for our Lord amid the thronging crowds. We might prefer the quiet of a country life; but if called to town, we may certainly prefer it because there is room for our energies. Today let us expect good things because of this promise, and let our care be to have an open car to the voice of the Lord, and a ready hand to execute His bidding. Obedience brings the blessing. "In keeping His commandments there is great reward."
We have accustomed ourselves so long to think that the glory and beauty displayed on the open fields of the country, where life lies palpitating and warm with the impress of His creative hand, and where all the works of the Lord are ceaselessly singing His praise, must in itself impress more vividly those who linger amid its beauties, and do their work in the glow of its magnificence, than do the streets and lanes and the visible signs of man which stretch out through the city. And yet we do not seek from the hard-working farmer the highest appreciation of nature as such, nor from the toiling agricultural labourer the keenest poetic sentiment. Men are crowded into the city, the villages become more and more depleted. What does it mean? Ask them, and they would tell you that they are going to see life. To the labourer town life means a more stirring existence, he thinks he sees there a wider field, a quicker return, a more brilliant career, and too often he is bitterly disappointed in these hard times. To the pleasure seeker the city is the great lamp towards which he flies with outstretched wings to flicker for a short space around it, to scorch his wings, to burn himself in the nearest approach to nothingness. But life is a very real thing to seek for. In the city there are gathered together various forms of excellence. Here art treasures are collected, and art studies are at their fullest perfection; here music receives its fullest development; here perfection of all kinds tends to aggregate; here the blood courses fuller and stronger; here might be realised that which we speak of so often in the Creed — "the communion of saints."
Blessed shalt thou be in the field
So was Isaac blessed when lie walked therein at eventide to meditate. How often has the Lord met us when we have been alone! The hedges and the trees can bear witness to our joy. We look for such blessedness again. So was Boaz blessed when he reaped his harvest, and his workmen met him with benedictions. May the Lord prosper all who drive the plough! Every farmer may urge this promise with God, if, indeed, he obeys the voice of the Lord God. We go to the field to labour as father Adam did; and since the curse fell on the soil through the sin of Adam the first, it is a great comfort to find a blessing through Adam the second. We go to the field for exercise, and we are happy in the belief that the Lord will bless that exercise, and give us health, which we will use to His glory. We go to the field to study nature, and there is nothing in a knowledge of the visible creation which may not be sanctified to the highest uses by the Divine benediction. We have at last to go to the field to bury our dead; yea, others will in their turn take us to God's acre in the field: but we are blessed, whether weeping at the tomb or sleeping in it.
Blessed shall be thy basket and thy store.
Obedience brings a blessing on all the provisions which our industry earns for us. That which comes in and goes out at once, like fruit in the basket which is for immediate use, shall be blessed; and that which is laid by with us for a longer season shall equally receive a blessing. Perhaps ours is a hand basket portion. We have a little for breakfast, and a scanty bite for dinner in a basket when we go out to our work in the morning. This is well, for the blessing of God is promised to the basket. If we live from hand to mouth, getting each day's supply in the day, we are as well off as Israel; for when the Lord entertained His favoured people He only gave them a day's manna at a time. What more did they
need? What more do we
need? But if we have a store, how much we need the Lord to bless it! For there is the care of getting, the care of keeping, the care of managing, the care of using; and, unless the Lord bless it, these cares will eat into our hearts, till our goods become our gods, and our cares prove cankers. O Lord, bless our substance. Enable us to use it for Thy glory. Help us to keep worldly things in their proper places, and never may our savings endanger the saving of our souls.
The Lord shall open unto thee His good treasure.
This refers first to the rain. The Lord will give this in its season. Rain is the emblem of all those celestial refreshings which the Lord is ready to bestow upon His people. Oh, for a copious shower to refresh the Lord's heritage! We seem to think that God's treasury can only be opened by a great prophet like Elijah, but it is not so, for this promise is to all the faithful in Israel, and, indeed, to each one of them. O believing friend, "the Lord shall open unto thee His good treasure." Thou, too, mayest see heaven opened, and thrust in thy hand and take out thy portion, yea, and a portion for all thy brethren round about thee. Ask what thou wilt, and thou shalt not be denied, if thou abidest in Christ, and His words abide in thee. As yet thou hast not known all thy Lord's treasures, but He shall open them up to thy understanding. Certainly thou hast not yet enjoyed the fulness of His covenant riches, but He will direct thy heart into His love, and reveal Jesus in thee. Only the Lord Himself can do this for thee; but here is His promise, and if thou wilt hearken diligently unto His voice, and obey His will, His riches in glory by Christ Jesus shall be thine.
The head, and not the tail.
If we obey the Lord He will compel our adversaries to see that His blessing rests upon us. Though this be a promise of the law, yet it stands good to the people of God; for Jesus has removed the curse, but He has established the blessing. It is for saints to lead the way among men by holy influence: they are not to be the tail, to be dragged hither and thither by others. We must not yield to the spirit of the age, but compel the age to do homage to Christ. If the Lord be with us we shall not crave toleration for religion, but we shall seek to seat it on the throne of society. Has not the Lord Jesus made His people priests? Surely they are to teach, and must not be learners from the philosophies of unbelievers. Are we not in Christ made kings to reign upon the earth? How, then, can we be the servants of custom, the slaves of human opinion! Have you taken up your true position for Jesus? Too many are silent because diffident, if not cowardly. Should we allow the name of the Lord Jesus to be kept in the background? Should our religion drag along as a tail? Should it not rather lead the way, and be the ruling force with ourselves and others?
If thou wilt not hearken.
Does the Commination Service curse men? Are these good people (who are certainly right in their horror of cursing) right in the accusations which they bring against it? I cannot but think that they mistake when they say that the Commination Service curses men. For to curse a man is to pray that God may vent His anger on the man by punishing him. But I find no such prayer and wish in any word of the Commination Service. Its form is not "Cursed be he that doeth such and such things," but "Cursed is he that doeth them." Does this seem to you a small difference? A fine-drawn question of words? Is it, then, a small difference whether I say to my fellow man, I hope and pray that you may be stricken with disease, or whether I say, You are stricken with disease, whether you know it or not? I warn you of it, and I warn you to go to the physician! For so great, and no less, is the difference.
I. WE KNOW THAT THE WORDS OF THE TEXT CAME TRUE. We know that the Jews did perish out of their native land, as the author of this book foretold, in consequence of doing that against which Moses warned them. We know also that they did not perish by any miraculous intervention of providence, but simply as any other nation would have perished — by profligacy, internal weakness, civil war, and, at last, by foreign conquest. We know that their destruction was the natural consequence of their own folly. Why are we to suppose that the prophet meant anything but that? He foretells the result. Why are we to suppose that he did not foresee the means by which that result would happen? For even in this life the door of mercy may be shut, and we may cry in vain for mercy when it is the time for justice. This is not merely a doctrine: it is a fact; a common, patent fact. Men do wrong, and escape, again and again, the just punishment of their deeds; but how often there are cases in which a man does not escape; when he is filled with the fruit of his own devices, and left to the misery which he has earned; when the covetous and dishonest man ruins himself past all recovery; when the profligate is left in a shameful old age, with worn-out body and defiled mind, to rot into an unhonoured grave; when the hypocrite who has tampered with his conscience is left without any conscience at all. They have chosen the curse, and the curse is come upon them to the uttermost. So it is. Is the Commination Service uncharitable, is the preacher uncharitable, when they tell men so?
II. TRULY TERRIBLE AND HEART-SEARCHING FOR THE WRONG-DOER IS THE MESSAGE — GOD DOES NOT CURSE THEE: THOU HAST CURSED THYSELF. God will not go out of His way to punish thee; thou hast gone out of His way, and thereby thou art punishing thyself. Just as, by abusing the body, thou bringest a curse upon it; so by abusing thy soul. God does not break His laws to punish drunkenness or gluttony. The laws of nature, the beneficent laws of life, nutrition, growth, and health, they punish thee; and kill by the very same means by which they make alive. And so with thy soul, thy character, thy humanity.
III. LET US BELIEVE THAT GOD'S GOOD LAWS AND GOD'S GOOD ORDER ARE IN THEMSELVES AND OF THEMSELVES THE CURSE AND PUNISHMENT OF EVERY SIN OF OURS; and that Ash Wednesday, returning year after year, whether we be glad or sorry, good or evil, bears witness to that most awful and yet most blessed fact.
Look, first, at the intensity of the sufferings which it denounces upon the Jewish race. The prophet seems to labour under the weight of the theme, and strives to give it adequate expression, as though it were beyond his power. There is scarcely anything that could go to heighten human anguish bodily and mental that is not thrown into the frightful conglomeration, to make up such an assemblage of miseries as was hardly ever elsewhere known or imagined. Dante's pictures are terrific, but they are dispersed and distributed into portions, and every man has his own torment, from which other sufferers are exempt. But Moses concentrates his, and pours them all in one terrible mixture on the same devoted head. War, pestilence, and famine in their extremest terrors combine to swell the bitter grief, until they rise to those intolerable anguishes in which the bonds of society are dissolved, human sympathies are quenched, natural affection obliterated, and society transformed into a herd of ravening wolves, preying on one another without conscience and without pity. And this horrid state of things is to be without respite, affording no moment of relief; so that men are driven to madness, and rave with the frantic incoherence of despair. And now, if we turn to the page of history, we find the correspondence exact to a wonderful degree. No more revolting picture of human misery, and of the demoralisation and unhumanising effect of extreme distress is anywhere to be found in the annals of the world than that which is exhibited in the last days of Jerusalem as the accounts of it have come down to us. What in the prophecy might have seemed antecedently impossible, the faithful record of history has shown to be possible, because actual.
2. Look next at their dispersion, almost as wonderful as their miseries. This, too, Moses explicitly foretells (vers. 64, 65). Alone of peoples that inhabit the earth, foreigners everywhere, having no country that they call their own, and dwelling in all countries as a distinct element in their society, nay, always a society that adheres to general society only by a kind of parasitical life, sucking strength from its substance without assimilating to its character, it is a sort of mistletoe that drapes the branches of trees, and lives upon their sap, but sends no roots into the earth to draw from the soil a life of its own.
3. And now, finally, look at his preservation. I mean his preservation as a Jew. His physiognomy everywhere tells the tale of his lineage. And yet never was a people so unfavourably situated for the preservation of its identity. They did not go out in colonies to any considerable extent. Units they have been, floating like waifs and strays upon the great ocean of human society. Yet wherever he strays, there is the Jew, unabsorbed, unamalgamated, unmistakably a Jew. National bounds hedge in nations, and with some admixtures preserve substantially national marks and qualities. But this is a nation that has no such protection, without a country, without a home. Yet it remains a nation; and there is not another nation in all the limits of civilisation today that can boast so pure a blood, so unmixed and genuine a pedigree.
1. A lesson of danger. If the Israelites were punished beyond other men, it was because they had been favoured beyond other men. Privilege and responsibility are correspondent and parallel. The sins of Christians are far worse than the like sins of heathens, more criminal, more dangerous (Romans 11:20, 21).
2. A lesson of duty. None can look upon the ancient people of God in their fallen condition, it might seem, without sensibility and compassion. God has made their fall an occasion of benefit to the Gentile world. "We have obtained mercy through their unbelief." The fall broke through the wall that threatened to confine Christianity within the narrow precincts of Jewish pride and prejudice, and gave it to "have free course and be glorified." Surely, however, it becomes us not to look coldly or scornfully on the disfranchised heir.
Davison, in his Discourses on Prophecy
, uses the following beautiful illustration when speaking of modern Jews. Present in all countries, with a home in none; intermixed, and yet separated; and neither amalgamated nor lost, but, like those mountain streams which are said to pass through lakes of another kind of water, and keep a native quality to repel commixture; they hold communication without union, and may be traced as rivers without banks, in the midst of the alien element which surrounds them.
Because thou servedst not the lord.
The text brings before us a subject essentially important — that as the service of the Lord Jesus Christ must be such as answered the great end that was to be brought about, and did answer it, so the object of the service of the people of God is to bring them into possession of what the Lord has for them. Let us take a two-fold view of this service.
1. First, then, the true service of the Lord; it must be by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us hear what the Scriptures say upon this, for it is a most essential matter: either we are serving God as Abel did, acceptably; or as Cain did, not acceptably. We cannot serve God by the works of the law; for the apostle saith, "Whatsoever the law saith" — and I may mention two things which it saith: first, that "he that offendeth in one point is guilty of the whole." Now, that one thing said by the law is enough to stop the mouth of anyone. Then again, it saith, "Cursed is he that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them." There are three things especially essential to serve God acceptably; these must be knowledge, faith, and love. You cannot do without these three. It is true, there are many other excellencies arising from them.
2. Now, a word or two upon this — to serve Him with joyfulness and with gladness of heart. I think we need the spirit of prayer upon this subject. So then may the Lord give us the spirit of prayer, that we may pray to be quickened, and to be made more and more lively in the service and ways of the Lord; for it is sure well to repay us; as saith David, "In keeping His ways there is indeed great reward"; a reward that far surpasseth gold, even much fine gold; and there is a sweetness therein sweeter than honey and the honeycomb. So, I say, we need the spirit of prayer for the Lord to keep us more and more in His blessed ways.
Would God it were even!
This chapter is an awful communication: it threatens the Israelites with every conceivable evil if they departed from serving the Lord their God; it leaves them absolutely without hope unless they turned with all their hearts, and repented them of their disobedience. So the Israelites entered Canaan and took the lands of the heathen into possession, not without much to sober their prides and to make them not high minded, but fear. The severe judgments spoken of ill this chapter declare also another great law of God's providence, that "to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required." It was because the Israelites were God's redeemed people, because He had borne them on eagle's wings and brought them to Himself; because He had made known to them His will, and promised them the possession of a goodly land, flowing with milk and honey; it was for these very reasons that their punishment was to be so severe if they at last abused all the mercies which had been shown to them. For theirs was to be no sudden destruction, to come upon them and sweep them away forever: it was a long and lingering misery, to endure for many generations, like the bush which burned, but was not consumed. We know that Ammon, Amalek, Moab, Assyria, and Babylon have long since utterly perished; the three former, indeed, so long ago, that profane history does not notice them; its beginnings are later than their end. But Israel still exists as a nation, however scattered and degraded; they have gone through for ages a long train of oppressions, visited on them merely because they were Jews. Nay, even yet the end is not; however much their condition is bettered, still, taking them the world through, they have even now much to bear; their hope is still deferred, and as far as their national prospects are concerned, the morning dawns on them with no comfort, the evening descends upon them and brings no rest. This is one remarkable part in their history; and there is another which deserves notice. It is declared in this chapter that amongst the other evils they should suffer for disobedience, they should endure so long a siege from their enemies as to suffer the worst extremities of famine (ver. 56). Now, this has, in fact, befallen them twice over. Of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar we have, indeed, no particulars given; it is only said, in general terms, that after the city had been besieged for eighteen months the famine prevailed in it, and there was no bread for the people of the land, so that the king and all the fighting men endeavoured to escape out of the town as the only resource left them. But of the second siege, by Titus and the Romans, we have the full particulars from Josephus, a Jew, who lived at the time, and had the best authority for the facts which he relates. And he mentions it as a horror unheard of amongst Greeks or barbarians, that a mother, named Mary, the daughter of Eleazar, from the country beyond Jordan, was known to have killed her own child for her food, and to have publicly confessed what she had done. Now, we know that the horrors of war have been felt by many nations; but such an extremity of suffering occurring twice in the course of its history, and under circumstances so similar, as in the two sieges of Jerusalem, there is hardly another nation, so far as I am aware, that has experienced. Indeed, the history of the calamities of the last siege of Jerusalem, as given by Josephus, is well worthy of our attentive consideration: it is a full comment on our Lord's words (Luke 23:28, 30
; Matthew 24:22
). Eleven hundred thousand Jews perished in the course of the siege, by the sword, by pestilence, or by famine. I do not believe that the history of the world contains any record of such a destruction within so short a time, and within the walls of a single city. I said that this dreadful story was well worth our studying; and it is so for this reason. These miseries, greater than any which history mentions, fell upon God's Church, upon His chosen people, with whom He was in covenant, to whom He had revealed His name, while all the rest of the world lay in darkness. To us, each of us, belongs in the strictest sense the warning of the text. For us, each of us, — if we do fail of the grace of God, if Christ has died for us in vain, if, being called by His name, we are not walking in His Spirit, — there is reserved a misery of which, indeed, the words of the text are no more than a feeble picture. There is a state in which they who are condemned to it shall forever say: "In the morning would God it were even," etc. There is a state in which the tender and delicate woman shall hate those whom once she most loved; in which they who lived together hero in friendship wherein God was no party, will have their eyes evil against one another forever. For when selfishness has wrought its perfect work, and the soul is utterly lost, there love is perished forever, and the intercourse between such persons can be only one of mutual reproaches and suspicion and hatred. An eternal restlessness and eternal evil passions mark the everlasting portion of the enemies of God; just as an eternal rest and a never-ending life of love and peace are reserved for those who remain to the end His true children.
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