The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,Rulers Reproved
This chapter contains a divine reproof of "the shepherds." It will be necessary first of all to understand the meaning of that word as it occurs in this connection. We think of pastors, bishops, Christian overseers, and the like. There is no reference to them whatsoever in this tremendous indictment In this case the meaning of "shepherd" is ruler. It may be king, or magistrate, or prince; but the idea is magisterial, governmental, and not of necessity priestly or pastoral. Here is God, if we may so say without irreverence, standing up for the people. When did he ever do otherwise? Verily this is a People's Bible. The Lord has never been kindly to kings and rulers and merely nominal and official magistrates; they have done their utmost to disestablish the theocracy. Every king is by so much an enemy of Heaven. He cannot be otherwise. From the beginning the history is a history of protest on the part of God. We forget the introductory arrangement; we have obliterated from our minds the practically atheistic prayer which said, Give us a king, that we may be like the other nations of the earth. God often answers prayers that he may plague people with the effect of their own supplication. God knows how to conduct the school; we are in a place of education and of discipline; he knows that it is better to answer some prayers than to neglect them, and he knows that every answer means disappointment, humiliation, chagrin, and possibly ultimate confession, penitence, and restoration. The Lord is condemning shepherds who feed themselves and neglect the flocks. Is not God the God of classes, aristocracies, west-ends, and official personages generally? Is he not for the popes and kaisers and czars and men who head and lead the armies? Never. They are conducting as far as they can a process of disestablishment of the Church; they are trying to disestablish the theocracy, the rule of God. The whole tendency of their personality and government is towards materialism, force, spectacular display, military pomp and grandeur. Give them guns, and they want no other church or altar; multiply their horses, and they ask not for your missionaries, teachers, and instructors in moral sentiments: whereas God is all on the side of the invisible, the moral, the spiritual, the metaphysical. His kingdom cometh not with observation: the sun never rises noisily, when he wakes the whole heaven knows it, but not by any noise or tumult he has made—knows it by the quiet ministry of all-blessing light.
Here then is the Lord God of heaven and earth leading the cause of the "flock"—the mean, the weak, the neglected, the despised. What is God's policy towards the peoples of the world? By these words let us stand as Christian Churches for ever. Here is our charter; this we learn from a negative point of view is what God would have the nations be and do:—
"The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost" (Ezekiel 34:4).
What! is God interested in the sick, the broken, the outcast, the lost? Why do we not then one and all fall down and worship him, and say, The Lord he is God? He would defend us, espouse our cause, break in upon our solitude with heaven's own companionship. Why should there be any atheist? Even ideally this is the grandest conception in the whole universe with which we are acquainted; as an ideal representation of shepherdliness there is nothing in all poetry to compare with this domestic, tender music. He does not complain that no battles have been fought, no victories won, no renown acquired. His list is worth reading again—"sick," "broken," "driven away," "lost" That is God's record. He wants vouchers on all these points. What about the sick? he says. What is our answer? Lord, we had a theory about the sick and the broken—we thought the weak ought to go to the wall; we assembled and discussed the matter, and we all voted for the survival of the fittest Is that an answer to Eternal Righteousness? You left the sick man behind because he was sick. Will that do in any day of judgment that is governed by the spirit of right? What then did the shepherds or rulers do to the people? What they are doing today: "with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them." There is nothing modern in coercion, there is nothing startlingly original in cruelty. God will not have it so; he will have a ministry of light, intelligence, persuasion, reason. Is God then opposed to law and judgment and penalty? By no means: but he prefers to administer them himself—"Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." He will balance all things; he himself will make all things right in the end. It is a dangerous thing for any man to ascend the judgment seat; it is an infinite peril for any man to say, This is right, and that is wrong, in relation to disputed or controverted questions. All such exercise of right or office leads to the accession of vanity and self-trust on the part of the administrators and judges. We are all men—poor, frail, fallible men. "To err is human; to forgive, divine." "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy."
Can rulers misbehave themselves without the people feeling their misbehaviour either directly or indirectly? It would appear not: the indictment reads, "And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd." It is the place of the ruler to be a pastor, a father, a pater in Deo. Beautiful even up to the point of sweetest music is the title "father in God"—the great broad-hearted father, skilled in excusing things that other people would turn into grounds of accusation and condemnation and expulsion; that fatherliness which keeps all doors open, so that if there be any return on the part of the wanderer there shall be no difficulty in getting into the house softly, stealthily, and to be found there next morning as if the place had never been vacated. There is a music of love; there is a skill of affection; there is a masterliness in redemption. We cannot amend the ways of God. What will the Lord do to the shepherds? He says: "Behold, I am against the shepherds." What a challenge is that! Omnipotence speaks, Almightiness marks the battlefield and sounds the battle bugle. But will he not visit the flock with tremendous indignation? A beautiful answer is given to this inquiry in pronouns: "My sheep," "my flock"; and again, in Ezekiel 34:11, "my sheep," and in Ezekiel 34:12, "my sheep,"—"my," "mine," though so neglected, bruised, desolated, orphaned; still mine. His mercy endureth for ever: when my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up; never so much the Lord as when my poor heart needs him most. He comes for you to the public-house, to the den of iniquity, to the place consecrated to blasphemy, and he says, You are still mine: I want you, I have come for you: let us go home together, as if our companionship had never been interrupted. Oh skilled love, masterly pity!
When God gathers all the sheep together again what will he do with them?
"I will feed them in a good pasture, and upon the high mountains of Israel shall their fold be: there shall they lie in a good fold, and in a fat pasture shall they feed upon the mountains of Israel. I will feed my flock, and I will cause them to lie down, saith the Lord God" (Ezekiel 34:14-15).
There is joy in the shepherd's heart when he brings back that which was lost. The parable says the shepherd has more joy over the sheep found than over the ninety-and-nine that went not astray, and likewise there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth, more than over the ninety-and-nine just persons which need no repentance. We are to look upon this people not so much in the light of moral aliens from God as of people who have been unjustly treated or basely neglected; we make all the distinction between the one class and the other when we speak of outcast Israel and outcast nations, and people who have voluntarily and shamelessly left the kingdom of heaven. Yet it is wondrous to observe how even in the latter case mercy prevails against judgment, softens judgment by the sheer force of tears.
There is one class described which is most noteworthy. It is described repeatedly, notably in Ezekiel 34:16 : "That which was driven away." Some people go away, some people are driven away; we must make a distinction between the two. Are we driving away men from churches? That is quite a possible mischief. We may be so hard, so unreasonable, so pharisaic, so wanting in all the tenderness of practical sympathy, that people will be simply driven away. I would not present myself before any harsh ministry; I would never sit to listen to any man who simply and exclusively denounced the judgment of God against my life; I can do that myself: I want a great shepherd-brother, a great pastor-king, who will assure me over and over again—for such repetition will never be tedious—that God really does love and wants me to go home again at once. Some may condemn this as sentimental, but I do not take the cue of my life from such foolish persons. I am so weak, frail, self-helpless that I want a thousand ministers to tell me at the rising of every sun that today I may be a better man than I was yesterday. We need ministries of comfort, encouragement; and in such ministries we shall often find skilfully introduced the element of fear; but when it is introduced by men who talk thus the music of life, it will be introduced with a thousandfold force: it will come upon us with such unexpectedness, and it will be associated with such an atmosphere of pathos, that we shall no longer rebel, but rather say, "The judgments of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether." Are we driving people away? Are we driving people away from the family? I have known children driven away because their fathers were fools in discipline. When children have to go out from the fireside to seek their innocent recreations and amusements; when they have to steal away to these, and come back in the guise of hypocrites and liars, I do not expect them to turn out Christian men. The home should be the brightest place on earth; then the Church: the Church should be the larger home.
How one evil leads to another, and how iniquity gathers as it rolls, is strikingly illustrated in this chapter:—
"Seemeth it a small thing unto you to have eaten up the good pasture, but ye must tread down with your feet the residue of your pastures? and to have drunk of the deep waters, but ye must foul the residue with your feet? And as for my flock, they eat that which ye have trodden with your feet; and they drink that which ye have fouled with your feet" (Ezekiel 34:18-19).
To live at such a table, who can do it? We do get some little things, but they are all bespattered, they are all fouled; they do not come to us like virgin snow from heaven: we get them at secondhand, after they have been mauled and crushed, after the bloom has been rubbed off them; or if they be streams they have been fouled by other feet. What do many of us ever get but something that has been thrown to us, or something that other people else could not themselves devour? If they could have devoured it we should have never seen it. I owe all I have in the world to the people. I owe nothing to the upper classes; in so far as they are the upper classes in mere name, I hate them. I take up the indictment of history against them. What then? Are they all personally bad? Nothing of the kind: some of the choicest souls the Lord ever made have been found amongst them. I am not speaking of all persons, I am speaking of official designations, functions, appointments; and I am speaking not of them only, but of them as they are misconceived, abused, and administered, in malfeasance or in selfishness. There are good men in all classes; there may have been good kings. We must take care how we drive people away from law. The driving away policy is always a bad policy, if it be possible to substitute for it the policy of reason, persuasion, sympathy, and love. Let us be just to all men.
The Lord is against all monopoly and tyranny, against all heedlessness of the flock, against every form of neglect; he will never sympathise with the few against the many, with the strong against the weak, with the mighty against the frail. I know a family at this time who have been a hundred years on the land, and they dare not ask my lord god the duke to put a little annexe to their house that they might be able by some arrangements to mitigate the pressure of their rent. Is God with the duke or with the tenant? If he is with the duke he has belied the revelation of his providence. We must live quietly, without rebelliousness or revolutionariness, merely for their own sake. "God's mills grind slow." The ages are to us a long time in coming, and a long time in going; but God must not be judged by today, yesterday, or tomorrow, but by the whole scope and purpose of his throne. So judged, my faith is that one day we shall say, "God is love," and we shall hail one another in the language of true companionship and brotherhood, saying, After all, we are the stronger and the tenderer for our conflicts and sufferings below.
Then God says he will make all his flock and the places round about his hill a blessing; he will cause the shower to come down in his season; there shall be showers of blessing: and God will raise up for his flock "a plant of renown,"—rather, a plantation renowned for plentifulness: the fruit of it shall be heard of; the fruit of it shall be free; the fruit of it shall satisfy the hunger of the world.
The concluding words are very sweet, "And ye my flock, the flock of my pasture" (Ezekiel 34:31). This seems to be an individual and direct address; princes and rulers are no longer within the purview of God; but turning to the flock itself he says, "And ye my flock, the flock of my pasture, are men." The meaning is, You are only men, made yesterday, and very frail. "And I am your God": here is a great and necessary contrast. God's condescensions are never any abdications of his majesty. When he stoops it is with the stoop of a King; he is never less than King, never less than God. He knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are dust; he knoweth that we are of yesterday and know nothing; he describes us as "a wind that cometh for a little time, and then passeth away," but he pledges his Godhead that manhood is precious and shall not be lost if love can save it. Here is the gospel before the incoming of the historical Christ. But Christ was always in the world. Christ is the God of the Old Testament, according to Christian interpretation. He was in the world, and the world knew him not. Abraham, he says, rejoiced to see his day; he said, "Abraham saw my day, and was glad," and beginning at Moses and all the prophets he expounded to two auditors in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. When therefore we preach an Old Testament gospel, we are in reality preaching a New Testament gospel. There is only one Testament—old as God, new as the present day.
Almighty God, thou hast measured all things, and set all things in order. The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord; the hairs of our head are numbered; not a sparrow falleth to the ground without our Father. All things are thine, and thou knowest them one by one; if one be gone astray, thou dost go after it, and thou wilt not return until thou hast found it. Thou art the Good Shepherd; the Good Shepherd giveth his life for the sheep; the Shepherd lives for the flock. Our Saviour liveth, ever liveth, to make intercession for us, and thou art thyself thinking about us alway. We cannot understand thy thought; sometimes we reproach the action of God, not knowing what we are doing, saying, This is wrong, when afterwards thou dost prove it to be right. Thou dost rebuke our will; thou wilt not permit us to go our own way, and lo, when all is concluded we see that thy way was right, thou didst lead the blind by a way that they knew not. Now at the Cross of Christ, gathered loyally and lovingly, and trusting our whole soul to Christ for salvation, we would trust our whole life to our Father in heaven for guidance. We are unwise, we are foolish, we know it all, our own experience witnesses against us; so now in the sanctuary, at the Cross, with all holiest, sweetest ministries acting upon us, we would renounce the self-considering past, and put ourselves wholly into the hands of God. Guide us, O thou great Jehovah; Jesus, still lead on. Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? Help us to cut off our right hand, or pluck out our right eye, if we have offence from either, and to do everything at thy bidding. We do sometimes, yea, even now, wish to live the divine life, that has no self, no interest, no narrow solicitude; the great, broad, generous, everlasting life of passionate love to God. Canst thou work this miracle for us? Lord, if thou canst do anything for us, help us herein. Why should we go astray when we might rise upward day by day towards fuller and clearer light? Why should we mistake a scorpion for an egg? Why should we seize the stone supposing it to be bread? Lord, help us, guide us, and with all thine almightiness of wisdom, strength, and grace do thou endeavour to make us better. Thou shalt yet have a man upon the earth that shall serve thee, a redeemed and perfected humanity, an Adam as thou didst mean him to be—pure, holy, simple, childlike, loving; having no self, having only God. Amen.