The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them,Noah's Flood
This is exactly the tone of the creative chapters of the Bible. It is important to remember this, as showing that God's sovereignty has two distinct but consistent operations,—it creates, and it destroys, and the creature may not say, What doest thou? It is important, too, to remember that no middle point is proposed between creation and destruction; and as the one is taken literally, so the other must be taken in its plain and obvious meaning: when God "creates," he gives existence; when God "destroys," he takes existence away. It is in this view that I regard the narrative upon the consideration of which we are now entering as singularly important—viz., as showing the Divine sovereignty in creation and destruction. Let us look at the narrative and see what we can of God's method, that we may see how he ripens and executes his severest purposes.
It is happily clear that God is moved by what we would call moral considerations, and not by arbitrary impulse, in his government of mankind. The man who does an action simply to please himself is said to act arbitrarily; the action is not founded upon argument or reason, and is therefore arbitrary. In this case God gives his reasons, and discloses every step in the process of his pathetic and mournful argument. "God saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." That is the basis of action. God's purpose in creating man had been frustrated; its frustration involved the ruin of man, as if by a suicidal act. God, therefore, seeing that ruin must come, acted judicially, as in the first instance he had acted creatively. The question would seem to have been simply this: "Shall sin be left to kill the human race slowly, as if inch by inch, without my asserting judicial rights, or shall I distinctly interpose, as I did in Eden, and bring judgment down upon iniquity?" We ourselves would say, with all humility and reverence, that God was bound to take the second course, if be was to protect not only his own dignity, but the integrity of truth and righteousness. In this act we have on a large scale what in Eden we had on a small scale—a determination on the part of God to destroy evil; and by destroying evil I do not mean locking it up by itself in a moral prison, which shall be enlarged through ages and generations until it shall become the abode of countless millions of rebels, but its utter, final, everlasting extinction, so that at last the universe shall be "without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing"—the pure home of a pure creation.
But what is the meaning of there being no middle point between creation and destruction? Does it mean that there is no effort on the part of God to save man? It means nothing of the kind. God has never ceased to make this effort until he himself has proved the hopelessness of making it. In this very narrative the law of his working is most clearly defined: "My spirit shall not always strive with man." Many curious interpretations have been given of these words, but none, to my mind, so satisfactory as the one which is most obvious. It may be expressed thus: Man shall not die without remonstrance; i will plead with him; I will ply him with every consideration that can move his conscience and his heart; and not until hope is utterly extinguished will I release him from the importunity of my love. Thus, man is not coldly allowed to die: he is besought, importuned, urged; and by his own uncontrollable madness alone does he rush upon everlasting destruction.
In this chapter we see Divine forbearance exhausted. A very tender expression is here employed: "It grieved the Lord at his heart that he had made man on the earth." The apostle says, "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God." By putting the two expressions together, we see the wonderful unity of the Bible history and of human nature in all ages. We raise many curious questions about Divine providence, but there is one which ought to arrest our attention, perhaps more gravely than any other—Why did God create a creature that had the power to grieve him? It is because out of such power there comes the ability to worship and to serve God, and out of worship and service there comes a blessed progress in all purity and nobleness of life.
The Almighty is about to do here what some of us in our imperfect wisdom have often wished to see done: we have supposed that if all notoriously bad people could be removed at a stroke from the world the kingdom of heaven would be at once established on the earth. The idea may be put roughly thus: Bring together all prisoners, all idlers, drunkards, thieves, liars, and every known form of criminal; take them out into the middle of the Atlantic and sink them there, and at once society will be regenerated, and paradise will be regained. Now this is substantially the very course which the Almighty took in the days of Noah, with what results we know only too well. All our fine theories have been tested, and they come to nothing. The tree of manhood has been cut down to the very root, and it has been shown in every possible way that the root itself must be cured if the branches are to become strong and fruitful. If you were today to destroy all the world, with the single exception of one household, and that household the most pious and honourable that ever lived, in less than half a century we should see all the bad characteristics returning. Water cannot drown sin. Fire cannot burn out sin. Prisons cannot cure theft and cruelty. We must go deeper.
In the meantime it was well to try some rough experiments, merely for the sake of showing that they were not worth trying. If the Flood had not been tried there are some reformers amongst us who would have thought of that as a lucky idea, and wondered that it had never occurred to the Divine mind! After all, it is a very elementary idea. It is the very first idea that would occur to a healthy mind: the world is a failure, man is a criminal and a fool, sin is rampant in the land; very well; that being the case, drown the world. There are persons who seriously ask, Do you think the Flood ever did occur? and there are others who find shells on hill-tops and show them in proof of a universal deluge. O fools and slow of heart! This Flood is occurring every day; this judgment upon sin never ceases; this protection of a righteous seed is an eternal fact! How long shall we live in the mere letter and have only a history instead of a revelation,—a memorandum book instead of a living Father? That there was a flood exactly as is described in the Bible I have not so much as a shadow of a doubt; but even if I took it as an allegory, or a typical judgment given in parable, I should seize the account as one that is far more profoundly true than any mere fact could ever be. Look at it! God morally angry, righteousness asserted, sin judged, goodness preserved, evil destroyed,—it is true; it must be true; every honest heart demands that it be taken as true.
As we have a moral reason for the destruction of the earth, so we have a moral reason for the preservation of Noah. Observe this closely, so as to escape the idea that there is anything capricious or whimsical in the Divine government—"Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God" (Genesis 6:9). Of his great-grandfather, Enoch, the same testimony was borne,—"he walked with God." This man who so walked was spared. The judgments of God are not mere violences; they keep their course by a law at once merciful and terrible: they spare the good, they overpass the house sprinkled with blood, they throw down no holy altar. How calmly those judgments come! They seem indeed to come suddenly, but they really come up from eternity: slowly, surely, irresistibly! It is something to be able to challenge the severest inquiry into the moral reason of this solemn transaction,—something to be able to say that, in all the severity of his judgments, God never mingles the righteous and the wicked in one indiscriminating punishment.
What a rain it was! "All the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened, and the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights"; still the torrents came, and the great cataracts, so that men knew not the dry land from the sea; "and the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth"; they rose to the high windows, and the billows dashed upon the drenched roofs like angry seas; and men fled away to the mountains and watched the cruel pursuer from afar; and still it rose, obliterating their footsteps, and rising quickly like one impelled by mighty anger to seek the prey; the wolf, the lion, the leopard stood upon the crags, baying and roaring with fury that drove them mad, and high above the surging deep there screamed the affrighted eagle and the vulture, enraged by hunger: at last there was but one hill top left, and there the strongest and fiercest of the sons of men gathered, and there were heard prayers, and oaths, and curses, and cries that made the wild beasts quiet; and still the cold waters rose, the lightning at midnight showed the dreary waste on which no stars glittered, and amid thunders that shook the universe the last strong man plunged into the infinite gulf! "And all flesh died that moved upon the earth; all in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died." Oh, what a rain it was! What an outlook from the window of the ark! For many a long day no eye could venture to look out of that window; for who could bear to see the grey-haired man, and the fair woman, and the little child doomed to die! Who can steadfastly look upon the judgments of God, or bear the flash of his uplifted sword? "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
"The waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days." Then came the time of release. "God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged." At the end of forty days after, the tops of the mountains were seen; Noah opened the window of the ark and sent forth a raven; then he sent forth a dove, but the dove returned; a week after he sent out the dove again, and the dove returned in the evening with "an olive leaf pluckt off." In another week he sent forth the dove once more, and the dove came not again. And soon after the ark was broken up, and "Noah builded an altar unto the Lord, and the Lord smelled a sweet savour"; and thus a new beginning was made. We seem now to have a new Adam and a new Eve. How they will turn out remains to be seen. They have a great advantage over the original pair, for they have a solemn history behind them. They can never forget the surge that beat and dashed furiously against the ark; never can they forget that last lightning that flashed past the window, like an angel of destruction, and seemed to shake a sword threateningly in their own faces; never can these things be forgotten! Noah will do better than Adam, and make us grieve that the experiment of humanity was not begun with this noble and incorruptible man! We shall see.
And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.Making, Destroying, and Saving Man
If you could bring together into one view all the words of God expressive of his purposes concerning man, you would be struck with the changefulness which seems to hold his mind in continual uncertainty. He will destroy, yet the blow never falls; he will listen to man no more, yet he speeds to him in the day of trouble and fear; he will make an utter end, yet he saves Noah from the flood, and plucks Lot as a brand from the fire; his arm is stretched out, yet it is withdrawn in tender pity. So changeful is he who changeth not, and so fickle he in whom there is no shadow of turning! We cannot but be interested in the study of so remarkable a fact, for surely there must be some explanation of changefulness in Omniscience and variation of feeling in the Inhabitant of eternity. You never read of God being disappointed with the sun, or grieved by the irregularity of the stars. He never darkens the morning light with a frown, nor does he ever complain of any other of the work of his hands than man, made in his own image and likeness! he does indeed say that he will destroy "both man and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air," but it is wholly on account of man's sin; for, as everything was made for man, so when man falls all that was made for him and centred in him goes down in the great collapse. Why should there be blithe bird-music in the house of death? Why should the earth grow flowers when the chief beauty has lost its bloom? So all must die in man. When he falls he shakes down the house that was built for him. So we come again to the solemn but tender mystery of God's changefulness, and ask in wonder, yet in hope, whether there can be found any point at which are reconciled the Changeable and the Everlasting?
But let us be sure that we are not mistaken in the terms of the case. Is it true that there is any change in God? is not the apparent change in him the reflection of the real change that is in ourselves? I not only undertake to affirm that such is the case, but I go farther, and affirm that the very everlastingness of the Divine nature compels exactly such changes as are recorded in the Bible. If you say that man ought not to have been created as a changeable being, then you say in other words that man ought not to have been created at all. If you find fault with man's constitution, you find fault with God, and if you find fault with God I have no argument with you. I take man as he is, and I want to show that Divine love must manifest itself, either in complacency or anger, according to the conduct of mankind.
I must remind you that this principle is already in operation in those institutions which we value most, and that it is a principle on which we rely for the good order, the permanent security, and the progress of society.
This principle is in constant operation in family life. By the gracious necessities of nature the child is tenderly beloved. The whole household is made to give way to the child's weakness. The parents live their lives over again in the life of the child. For his sake hardship is undergone and difficulty is overcome. The tenderest care is not too dainty, the most persistent patience is not accounted a weariness. But sin comes: ingratitude, rebellion, defiance; family order is trampled on, family peace is violated; and in proportion as the parent is just, honourable, true, and loving, will he be grieved with great grief; he will not be petulant, irritable, or spiteful, but a solemn and bitter grief will weigh down his desolated heart. Then he may mourn the child's birth, and say, with breaking and most tearful voice, "It had been better that the child had not been born." Then still higher aggravation comes. Something is done which must be visited with anger, or the parent must lose all regard for truth and for the child himself. Now, all punishment for wrong-doing is a point on the line which terminates in death. Consider that well, if you please. It may, indeed, be so accepted as to lead to reformation and better life; but that does not alter the nature of punishment itself. Punishment simply and strictly as punishment is the beginning of death. Have you, then, changed in your parental love because you have punished your child? Certainly not. The change is not in you; it is in the child. If you had forborne to punish, then you would have lost your own moral vitality, and would have become a partaker in the very sin which you affected to deplore. If you are right-minded, you will feel that destruction is better than sinfulness; that sinfulness, as such, demands destruction; and if you knew the full scope of your own act you would know that the very first stripe given for sin is the beginning of death. But I remember the time when you caressed that child and fondled it as if it was your better life, you petted the child, you laid it on the softest down, you sang it your sweetest lullabies, you lived in its smiles; and now I see you, rod in hand, standing over the child in anger! Have you changed? Are you fickle, pitiless, tyrannical? You know you are not. It is love that expostulates; it is love that strikes. If that child were to blame you for your changefulness you would know what reply to make. Your answer would be strong in self-defence, because strong in justice and honour.
We have exactly the same thing in the larger family called Society. When a man is punished by society, it is not a proof that society is fickle in temper; it is rather a proof that society is so far conservative, and even everlasting in its substance, as to demand the punishment of every offender. Society is formed to protect and consolidate all that is good and useful in its own multitudinous elements, yet society will not hesitate to slay a man with the public sword, if marks of human blood are upon his hands. Is, then, society vengeful, malignant, or uneven in temper? On the contrary, it is the underlying Everlasting which necessitates all those outward and temporary changes which are so often mistaken as signs of fickleness and uncertainty. What the Everlasting cannot tolerate is dishonour, tyranny, wrong, or impureness in any degree. Society offers rewards today and deals out punishments tomorrow. At noon, society may crown you as a benefactor; at midnight, society may drag you forth as a felon: the same society—not fickle or coy, but self-protecting and eternal in righteousness.
These side-lights may at least mitigate the gloom of the mystery with which we started. I want to make you feel that God's changefulness, so called, is not arbitrary, but moral; that is to say, he does not change merely for the sake of changing, but for reasons which arise out of that very Everlastingness which seems to be impaired! Not to be angry with sin is to connive at it; to connive at sin is sinful; to be sinful is to be no longer Divine. When God is angry it is a moral fire that is burning in him; it is love in a glow of justice; it is his protest on behalf of those who may yet be saved from sin.
See how it is God himself that saves man! We trembled when he said he would destroy man, for we knew he had the power; and now that he says he will save man we know that his power of offering terms of salvation is none the less. If man can be saved, God will save him; but it is for the man himself to say whether he will be saved. "If any man open the door, I will come in to him." "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." This is the voice that said, "I will destroy," and the two tones are morally harmonious. Looking at the sin, God must destroy; looking at any possibility of recovery, God must save. "A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench." Christ lives to save. He would no longer be Christ if human salvation were not his uppermost thought. His soul is in travail; he yearns over us with pity more than all human pitifulness; he draws near unto our cities and weeps over them. But he can slay! He can smite with his strong arm! His hand can lay hold on justice, and then solemn is the bitter end! O, my soul, make thy peace with God through Christ. It is his love that burns into wrath. He does not want to slay thee; he pities thee; he loves thee; his soul goes out after thee in great desires of love; but if thou wilt not come to his Cross, his arm will be heavy upon thee!
How true, then, is it that there is an important sense in which God is to us exactly what we are to him! "If any man love me, I will manifest myself to him." That is the great law of manifestation. Have I a clear vision of God? Then am I looking steadily at him with a heart that longs to be pure. Can I not see him? Then some secret sin may be holding a veil before my eyes. I have changed, not God. When I seek him he will be found of me; but if I desire him not he will be a God afar off!