The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,Prophecy In Parable
The word "riddle" may in this connection mean parable, picture, symbol; whatever will excite and interest the imagination. "A great eagle with great wings, longwinged, full of feathers, which had divers colours"—this is a parabolical representation of Nebuchadnezzar—"came unto Lebanon"—came unto Jerusalem—"and took the highest branch of the cedar"—there was so much cedar in Jerusalem and in the holy edifice that the term "Lebanon" became not inappropriate as a description of the holy city itself. "He cropped off the top of his young twigs"—the reference here is to Jehoiakim; there was also a "vine of low stature," the reference being to Zedekiah; "There was also another great eagle"—the reference here is to Pharaoh. In order to see the whole image in its proper historical relation and perspective, compare 2Kings 24:8-20; 2Chronicles 36:9-13; Jeremiah 37, Jeremiah 52:1-7 : put all these passages together, and you feel the atmosphere of the sacred riddle or pictorial representation of a chapter in the marvellous history of divine providence.
Note God's method of creating interest in his administration or way of doing things—"Son of man, put forth a riddle." God will appeal to our interest in some way. If the zephyr has not voice enough to arrest us, God will employ the thunder; if the little silvery streamlet, hurrying through its green banks, has nothing to say to us, the great floods shall lift up their voices and compel us to attend. God is trying to get at our attention by every possible means; now by a star, now by a flower; now by a great social revolution, now by the overturning of dynasties; now by the pulling up of old trees in which men have built their nests for ages; now by taking away a little child, now by throwing down a fortune which had taken a lifetime to build; now by a solemn psalm, now by an appeal as if uttered by a lute: thus, and so, and every way, God is trying to get at our attention, to arrest our thought, to compel us to think, if afterwards he might constrain us to pray. The direct way is not always the best. There cannot be two masters of providence: let God be King. Some men are much too direct and practical; they do not allow for the variety which is characteristic of the human mind: such men are gifted with stubbornness, and it is often called steadfastness, a very different term—the one poor, iron-like, and altogether without accommodation or tenderness; and the other a fine mixture of elements, culminating in strength that may be leaned upon. Who shall say which is the best method of getting hold of people's attention? The circuitous way may sometimes be the shortest way. There are some people who have no imagination. When they hear the word imagination they are amused. Were we to charge, as we could well do, some preachers and theologians who are always full of fear about other people with the want of imagination, how merry they would be! They would almost be constrained to prolong the feast that they might laugh the more merrily at our folly; because they associate with imagination false meanings. Imagination is the highest faculty of the mind, it is almost that other mind that associates itself with the highest enjoyments and uses of immortality. There are others who have no practical judgment, or sound, prosaic, real reason; they are all feathers, like an owl; you do not know where they are, when they will return, or whether they will ever come home again God must arrest them with great stone pillars, with huge granite walls; to appeal to their imagination would be to appeal to what does not exist. Who will say there is only one way of preaching, teaching, educating young men? There are a thousand ways: what we want is that a man shall say when his way is not being adopted, This will suit a good many: God bless the teacher in this effort; he is not now speaking to me, but to persons who can understand that way alone; let Heaven's grace make hearts tender as he unravels his parable, as he takes up his harp and discourses upon it sweet, mysterious music. When a preacher is setting forth riddle and parable, the man who falsely thinks himself a logician—for there can only be a logician once in a generation—should pray that the parable may be blessed. When the preacher or teacher is seeking by hard, strong argument to force home a truth, those who live on wings should carry themselves as high as possible, that they may bring down a larger, riper blessing upon the teacher and his method. This is God's administration; this is the many-coloured robe of providence with which he would clothe our naked shoulders. Let us make room for all men, all talents: the Church of the living God is not constituted of one colour; it is that marvellous rainbow-like aggregation of hues which, when revolving with the speed of God's own thought, becomes a perfect white. What has come to us—a riddle, a parable, a dream, a process of logic, a historical induction? Take God's gift, and through it find the Giver.
Observe how God works through instrumentality. We do not know the full meaning of that word. Sometimes we stop at the instrument, and forget the Hand that is using it. What a great figure the king of Babylon makes in this chapter! Yet the king of Babylon knew nothing as to what he was doing; he held councils, and projected schemes, and elaborated policies, and thought himself a prime mover in the whole action of this dramatic and exciting story. What have kings to do with the order of the world? Nothing. What have noisy legislators, and pugnacious debaters, and dreadful theological controversialists to do with the final shaping and rule of all human processes? Nothing. God works by instrumentality. The Lord uses the king of Babylon, and the king of Babylon thinks he is using God. Who can measure the depth of human folly? Who built the prison which is a necessary structure in all society? God built it Who arrests the thief and hales him to the judgment seat? The constable? No: society takes up the felon. The constable's hand is not one of five fingers only, strong, muscular, lithe fingers; the constable would be thrown down and trodden upon if he did not represent society, conviction, justice, righteousness; and before that every Judas falls back, blanched, depleted, shamed. Yet kings nod their heads at one another and imagine themselves prime factors; and every man, in his own house, or business, or other little way, thinks himself a king. We know not that all things are governed by the Lord. Who erected the Cross of Christ? Not the Jews, except in an intermediate, transient way; God built the Cross, or it would only have been a Roman gallows. The Cross was fashioned in eternity. If we had eyes that could see, instead of the blurred vision that can really see nothing, we should discern the shadow of the Cross upon the face of every star and every flower, and on the disc of the whole scheme of things. Who kindled the fires of martyrdom? God. Let it never be supposed that the children of God were handed over to the merest tyrants and representatives of brutal temper and black blood, that they might wreak their vengeance on purity, simplicity, and godliness. There is a sense in which bad men did it, or in which infatuated good men did it, but God was all the while educating the world by suffering, by exhibitions of heroism; and who can tell what compensations thrilled the hearts of those who were unknown till persecution dragged them into fame and chased them up to heaven? We know not how God speaks to the heart. We have never had a message from quite the edge of the grave; words have been spoken to us, it may be, within ten feet of the tomb, but not from the very edge of the grave itself; what visions then shone on the departed soul we cannot tell; here and there some exceptional instance of triumph has been recorded: but who knows how God receives into his arms at last those who are ready for home? The Lord reigneth. There are no accidents. There are no mere tyrannies. There are no sub-gods. Nero was a creation of the Almighty. He did not know it; the poor, emaciated, gluttonous, bibulous soul did not know it: but the devil himself is a black servant in the great household. It will be explained at last: let the Lord reign.
Ponder God's interpretation of an oath. "Therefore thus saith the Lord God; As I live, surely mine oath that he hath despised, and my covenant that he hath broken, even it will I recompense upon his own head." Zedekiah plighted his oath to Nebuchadnezzar, and Zedekiah's oath is called the Lord's oath. That is a mistake which many persons make when they suppose that they are taking an oath: it is God's oath that they are taking, it is God's word that they are plighting. There is the upper side of an oath, that relates to the throne of God. Zedekiah swore in the name of God, and God said, That word must be carried out, because my name has been used in sanctioning and authenticating it. We must not bandy about the divine name, and imagine God takes no heed of it. There are many ways of setting aside God. God will not be set aside. We vote him out of our Parliament and out of our history, and we think we have got rid of him. He will come again, rendingly, judicially, penally; may he not come destructively! When an oath is taken profanely it is not done with. If you have used the king's seal, you are responsible for that stamp; the wax is no longer common wax. Where did you find the seal? How did you use it? Why did you employ it? What is the meaning of it? Have you been trifling with your best self, and not only doing so, but seeking to force eternity into your menial service? The Lord is a jealous God, in the sense of seeking the issues of all human actions, and showing men by divers providences that they are not acting on their own responsibility alone, until they renounce the name of God, and even then they suddenly stumble upon the throne of judgment. How many vows have we broken? Let every man answer the question himself; it is not the business even of a pastor to tear open wounds that are hardly cicatrised, gashes in the life out of which the red blood is still oozing. Let every man testify to himself and to God as to how he has broken vows and made oaths of no account, and so familiarised himself with altars at which he has sworn that the altars have become common stone, mud, without fire, or glory, or divinity. We best rebuke the oath-breaker by keeping the vows we have made ourselves. When we are careful about our own vows and oaths we shall be quiet but mighty examples, rebuking with severest accusation and reproach those who use human language merely for personal convenience.
What is the meaning of all these riddles and parables inspired by Heaven? The answer is given in Ezekiel 17:22-24. These verses have been accepted by Jewish commentators and by Christian commentators alike as referring to the Messiah, to be read and pondered and grasped as to their inner meaning and effect. God winds up the whole parable and its application by some marvellous words; he says, "And all the trees of the field shall know that I the Lord have brought down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry tree to flourish: I the Lord have spoken and have done it." Then what mistakes we have to correct! We had been thinking otherwise of the whole schemes of things. What a revelation there will be at last, what a different view, what a correction of our misinterpretations of providence! Everything has been of God. Is the high tree down? God felled it. Is the low tree exalted? God lifted it upwards to the blue heavens. Is the green tree dry, withered, utterly desiccated? God hath sucked its juice, and left it a barren, blighted thing in the meadow. Is the dry tree flourishing? Is the tree that men thought dead beginning to show signs of vitality? Are there spring buds upon it? Are the birds looking at it curiously, as if by-and-by mayhap they may build even there? The Lord hath made the dry tree to flourish. This is divine sovereignty. The God of the riddle and the God who works his will among the trees must be regarded as the same God. What is true in this verse which closes the chapter is true to all human life. Is one man successful? God made him so, in the degree in which his success was legitimate, healthy, righteous. Is a man vainly, viciously successful? The green tree shall be dried up. Is a man humbled, laid low in the dust? God may have done that for the man's salvation; after a day or two who can tell what may happen, if the overthrow has been accepted in the right spirit, and if instead of being turned in the direction of despair it has been turned in the direction of self-examination and self-accusation, and penitence, and broken-heartedness? Is the nation suffering from singular visitation? Is trade going away? Are men working much for nothing? Do men rise in the morning simply that they may sting themselves with disappointments all the day, and come back at night to seek rest from a world of tumult and worry? God is looking on, and he will know when to send the ships back to the ports, and when to revive commerce, and when to make the desert blossom as the rose. Is an enemy hard upon me? It is not the enemy, it is God: I have been doing wrong; when I have opposition to encounter I must ask myself serious questions; as for any man that can assail me, who is he? what faculty has he? what can he do? "Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do." The king of Babylon may be sent to smite me because I have forgotten the King of heaven. Have no fear of your enemies, but interpret their enmity aright. If a man's ways please the Lord he will make even his enemies to be at peace with him; if a man shall try to be right and good, virtuous, generous, and to live a divine life, no weapon that is formed against him shall prosper; it shall be forged, it shall be whetted, it shall be lifted up, but it shall never come down upon the head of him for whom it was intended. How joyous would be our life if we could live in this strong conviction! Some of us have had opposition enough, and we have now lived long enough to thank God for it. Opposition made us. Patronage will kill any man; success will turn almost any head. We cannot be helped by recommendation beyond a very little degree; but we can be helped all but infinitely by contempt, neglect, sneering, mockery, foolish, baseless reproach and accusation. There is no man in the front line of the section of life to which he belongs who has not been set there by hostility. But the hostility has been rightly interpreted, rightly accepted, piously applied. The man on whom the stroke has fallen has kissed the rod and said it is in the hand of God.
The Lord having discoursed by the medium of a parable upon the greatness and the glory of certain men, says, "Shall it prosper? shall he not pull up the roots thereof, and cut off the fruit thereof, that it wither? it shall wither in all the leaves of her spring, even without great power or many people to pluck it up by the roots thereof. Yea, behold, being planted, shall it prosper? shall it not utterly wither, when the east wind toucheth it? it shall wither in the furrows where it grew." "I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree. Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found." Asaph beheld the world, and thought it had turned itself upside down, that virtue was somewhere wailing like a lost child, and vice was eating up the banquet of heaven. He stepped into the sanctuary, and all was explained.
Almighty God, we know that thy word is right. We see the good: how to perform it we know not. We are assured that thy word is good and right, and the only word worth attending to; yet, how to do that which we know we find not. We cannot tell how this is. Thou hast made us, and not we ourselves: yet we feel that we have found out many inventions; that ours is a perverted judgment and a debased will. We know that, but we cannot account for it. We see the wrong thing, and go straight to it and do it: we could not do it more heartily had it been commanded from heaven to be done. We have done the things we ought not to have done, and we have left undone the things we ought to have done; and this we will do tomorrow, and do on our dying day; and all this afflicts us like a strange mystery in the night-time. We have no answer, we have no explanation. We mock ourselves with vain arguments, but still there remains the deadly fact that we are living away from God, turning our back upon the light, mistaking an opinion for a revelation, and regarding bigotry and obstinacy as religious veneration and firmness. Then how ignorant we are! We do not know the meaning of our own words; we fill our mouth with them, but the heart knows nothing of their meaning. God pity us! Let the Lord in heaven cry over us with tears of his own heart; for verily we are lost and undone, and we are strangers to ourselves, and in our heart there is a tremendous schism. Oh that we might recover ourselves by thy power, that we might hearken to the voice of thy Son, and answer his call with instant and glad obedience! Oh that we might keep thy law and walk in the way of thy commandments! then would our peace flow like a river, and our righteousness would be as the waves of the sea. May we fall into the divine movement; may we accept the divine will, and have no will of our own: then shall we revolve with the stars, and move on with the solemn forces of the universe; and wherever we are we shall see the gate of heaven standing wide open, and hear voices tender as the music of heaven. Amen.