The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Hear the word of the LORD, ye children of Israel: for the LORD hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land.The Lord's Controversy
Hosea 4:1-6 "Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land" (
"Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land" (Hosea 4:1).
It was a wonderful thing to try to conceive—supposing it to be merely an act of the imagination—what God would say if he condescended to use human speech. Who can find words fit for the lips of such a God as is described in Holy Scripture? We have been so accustomed to read words said to have been uttered by God that our familiarity has deprived us of a good deal of rich profit that would have arisen from a deep consideration of the inquiry, What words are worthy of the lips of such a God as is portrayed in the Bible? There are gods for whom we could find words too good; we would not allow their livid lips to touch some of our words; they would spoil them. They are mean gods—images that are nailed to their own timber; idols that are stained into the plaster of the wall; frescoed divinities, imaginary deities, who revel and riot and practise wickedness in their cloudy residences. There are words of ours we would not allow them to touch—as father, mother, child, home, love, purity, honour; if they ventured to touch one of these words, and turn it to their own uses, we should say, Stop, thief! Our inquiry relates to the kind of God, the quality of deity, that is indicated in the Bible. Who can find words for such a God? Who can make him speak in fit eloquence? It must be dignified, lofty without measure; yet it must have in it a mystery of condescension, a touch of familiarity, a home colour that will not affright even the eyes of children.
This question of inspiration is a much larger one than comes within the four corners of any mechanical theory. Here is a God, real or invented; if invented, a greater wonder than if he is real. Invented by whom? Here is a choice of words that cannot be amended. Men may try to elevate and refine this language, and they confessedly fail. Even when they want to speak their mother tongue they come back to the old Bible; when they want to touch the heart most deeply, and bring it to humiliation and tears of sympathy and heroic act, they go to the uninspired man-made Bible for their eloquence. Can this be so? The heart has its rights here as well as the intellect; the natural and cultivated instincts have their claim as well as the pedantic critical faculty. Man is not all finger, he is not all mere criticism; he has within him, and as necessary parts of him, soul, feeling, sympathy, conscious need, a wondrous other deeper self that is sure of the spiritual, the supernatural, the angelic, the divine. The Bible is full of "the word of the Lord," and the claim of prophet, major and minor, is, Hear it! We are brought, as it were, together in this conversation, namely, God and man. Here is no mysterious attempt to mediate between the speaker and the hearer, as who should say, I only, selected functionary of heaven, have heard God speak, and I will tell you what he has said to me, and you must not go further than myself; you must finish your inquiry with my personality; my priestly authority must begin and end the limit of the interview. There is no such intolerable impiety and senselessness in the Scripture. The great word is, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." Know your election to this apostleship of hearing by the sensitiveness of your ears. There are ears that hear nothing, eyes that see nothing, hearts that understand nothing; he who has the faculty has the election, and is chosen of God to hear the word immediately and directly, and to answer it with many prayers and rivers of tears.
What is announced by the prophet after this bold appeal to human attention? "The Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land." All controversy does not lie between man and man; it is not an affair of words, it is not a contention of rival claims, or a collision of competitive ambitions; when we have adjusted and settled all our little uproars by some method of arbitration the world is still not at rest; there is an unsettled claim, there is a plea that cannot be easily silenced. We may try to stifle the utterance of that plea, but at unexpected times the plea reasserts itself with aggravated poignancy. What are these broader and grander contentions that trouble our history, and will not let us find rest on the pillows of our compromises? They are God's challenges, appeals, scrutinies, and judgments. There are religious questions to settle before the world can be tranquillised. This fact is not realised by many students of history. They do not touch the reality of the cases because they deal with policies, covenants, commercial treaties, social relationships, and the like; as if the world were complete in itself, and had no relation to the highest court; as if the world were self-existing, forgetting that it hangs upon the hands of God. We cannot settle questions by coming to an understanding amongst ourselves. Nothing is right until we have acquainted ourselves with God through his Son Jesus Christ, the Priest of the universe, and have realised peace through the Cross. After that all adjustments become easy. Why is it that even human contentions are difficult of settlement? Simply because they lack atmosphere. What is meant by the term "atmosphere" in this connection? Spirit. The actions themselves are square, well cut, cleverly arranged, and the policy drawn with a skilled hand, away to its last iota; but the atmosphere of good feeling, high reason, noble philanthropy, Christianised humanity is wanting, and for lack of spiritual atmosphere our mechanisms cannot cohere; they fall to pieces, and require continual rebuilding that they may perpetrate the trick of continual dissolution. Realise God's action, divine providence, the ghostly ministry; and remember that right is a word which is not to be defined by other words, but is to be realised after communion with the eternal righteousness.
Why has God a controversy? The reason is self-commending and self-vindicating. "Because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land." We can subject this charge to the test of facts; here we are upon ground which admits the claim and the function of reason and criticism. God will have a controversy so long as truth is wanting; he will have every wall built plomb; if the wall is not plomb it must come down; the sun will not have it; the stars are annoyed by it; it is a cripple that might be healed and will not, therefore it must be torn to pieces; every star that swings itself around the eternal centre is offended by things that will not bear the test of geometry. God will not have truthlessness, falsity, painted falsity worst of all, for the paint is lost upon it, and the money that paints it might have been given to the poor. God will have all things square, upright, real, good through and through, as good under the cloak as above it, and round about it, and until that is brought about he will have a controversy with the land and with the individual, and with the house and with the business; and when you have piled your money millions high, yet there is at the heart of it a thief; he will tear it down, he will throw it away, and he will leave you to find out the reason of this act of deprivation and scattering. Think; consider; do not play the fool. God will not rest his criticism at the point of truth only; he says there is no "mercy." In the Hebrew this word "mercy" is a full word; it involves and necessitates everything that is of the nature of love, pity, kindness, brotherly fellowship, philanthropic obligation; it is not a condescending act, as who shall say, I will have mercy upon you, exercising a prerogative almost divine; it is a word that means natural love, spiritual love, real, true, self-sacrificial love. God notices the absence of this; he will not let the earth alone; he will drown it, he will burn it, he will utterly wreck it, and then he will put the pieces all together again, and start afresh. God cannot be at rest whilst there is an unhealed hand in all his universe. The universe was not built as a cripple house. So long as one tongue is silent something is wrong; so long as one act of mercy, pity, love, compassion, tenderness is not done, the anthem cannot be sung in all the infinite breadth and grandeur of its meaning. What a wondrous man he Was who invented this God! We are to infer therefore that God will cease the trouble on the return of truth, mercy, and spiritual knowledge. A mechanical consolation is impossible; only a spiritual revolution and settlement will determine the harmony and tranquillity of the universe.
Thus far, however, the charge may be said to be negative,—
"No truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God." (Hosea 4:1).
But the impeachment now assumes a positive aspect:—
'By swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out, and blood toucheth blood" (Hosea 4:2).
We cannot tell the meaning of this in English. In the language in which Hosea wrote these are known as nouns of action; they have nothing abstract or merely suggestive or memorial about them; they are solid actions, as who should say, Turn where you may you will meet swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and the like. The image is awfully concrete. You are not dealing with lying only, but with visible, actual, bare-faced lies; lying has come out of its abstract retirements and gradations of approach, and stands there a concrete effrontery. Well might God have a trouble with the land. The land cannot rest in merely negative impiety. We cannot be agnostics only. The negative prepares for the positive. Where there is no truth the lie will certainly come in and say: Here is an open place where I can build my black house, and invent my next imposture. Where there is no love, no pity, no mercy, cruelty and oppression can come in and say: Here I will whet my axe, and trim the edge of my sword, that I may go out tomorrow and slay and desolate the world. A man cannot rest at not going to church; it is impossible to remain at the point of saying, We will not read the Bible. That "not," that dreary, desolate negative, becomes an opportunity for the display of all evil ministries and mischievous actions. Take care how you begin the deprivation of the soul. To deplete the mind is to invite ignorance and make it welcome. The Lord, therefore, is himself exercising pity in the very act of delivering this judgment, for he says, "They break out"—the action is that of violence; a wicked, malignant, determined trespasser, who will not stop at bounds and lines, but who will outrage all moral limitations,—"and blood toucheth blood"; literally bloods touch bloods; and God never made this green earth for any such spectacle. He made the earth for flowers and fruits; he started the world himself with a garden, and he meant that garden to grow until it covered every inch of the responsive land. When therefore blood touches blood, when war goes forth to desolate the nations of the earth, and when through exercise of cruelty and wrong and injustice the whole social fabric bleeds from head to foot, God says he will controvert the case, and plague the doers of the wrong.
"Therefore shall the land mourn, and everyone that dwelleth therein shall languish, with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven; yea, the fishes of the sea also shall be taken away" (Hosea 4:3).
The bad man not only spoils his spiritual relations, he spoils the whole earth; the fishes of the sea are uneasy because the altar has been thrown down; the birds of the air, once so clear of voice, so tender and expressive in note, are choked and stifled because the sanctuary is violated and the Cross is abandoned by scornful hearts; the earth that brought forth autumnally will bring forth no more; she will not feed the beasts that have spoiled her. Behind all mysteries there is an explanation. There is nothing profound in the suggestion of certain scientific men who say, Do not blame God for bad harvests. After all that suggestion is not so awfully profound. When we first heard it we thought it was marvellous; we have lived to see that there is nothing in it. Bad harvests may, after all, under some circumstances have to be accounted for religiously. We are inclined to think that there may be quite as much wisdom on the one side as on the other, and that, after all, the religious suggestion may have in it the more force of reason. The Bible never hesitates to connect the earth and the heaven, the facts of history with the government of God's throne. It is easy to deny all this; but denial is not a necessary expression and proof of supernatural genius. We may be cheated by the denials of other men. The more positive the denial the more positive should be the assertion; and the more positive the assertion the more exemplary and beautiful should be the life by which that assertion is repeated and sustained.
Perhaps some kindly soul will intervene and endeavour to reconcile God in this matter, but such a suggestion is anticipated and repudiated. "Yet let no man strive, nor reprove another." By this word the Lord means: This is more than a merely human contention; do not let any man arise and suppose that he can daub this wall effectively or usefully, for he has only untempered mortar at his disposal. This is a divine fight; in this battle it is God against godlessness. The discussion is universal. No man is fit to arbitrate as between the contention of God on the one hand, and the claim of human nature on the other. Human nature must be silent; it is human nature in its totality that is impeached. Where shall a mediator be found? Is there no daysman that may lay his hand upon both, and make a speech that shall represent the actuality of the case and issue in reconciliation and peace, pardon and heaven? Out of such necessities there arises a cry that if it could explain itself would mean the Cross.
The impeachment does not end here: "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge." This representation is cold; it is not the representation which the prophet made; there is a word omitted which gives accent and force to this impeachment. We should read, literally, "My people are destroyed for lack of the knowledge." There is only one knowledge worth acquiring. Away with information if it be made to take the place of inspiration. Information is useful within very narrow limits, for information is a changeable quantity—changing by the very fact of enlargement and self-correction; but inspiration is the spirit, the genius that unites all things, interprets all things, and in a sense governs and directs all things. "My people are destroyed for lack of the knowledge,"—the one knowledge, the only knowledge worth having, the knowledge of God. The Bible is consistent in its claim; never does it lower its spiritual tone; not in one instance will it modify the claims and challenges of God. If God be not first, then there can be no settlement of the contention. With God at the right place, all other considerations and ministries and interactions assume their right relation and process. Who has not heard of the man who sold all his possessions that he might buy one with it, called a pearl of great price? Not that all the others represented in their totality the value of the one; when the one was obtained it was not merely a transference of value, it was an added treasure, a treasure beyond all price or arithmetical expression of superiority.
So with the knowledge of God. What a fool is he who knows everything but God! There are men who are so involved in getting scraps and fragments and little pieces of things together that they do not realise the totality of things. A man has a whole sack filled with little pieces of he does not know what, and he does not know what to make of it; he would be a comparatively happy man if he could part with that sack that is filled with little bits of things; he calls them phenomena, and does not get much comfort out of the word. It is possible so to use a microscope as to become its victim. There is a telescope as well as a microscope; there are stars as well as invisible insects. He who knows God knows the totality of the universe. He may be to a large extent ignorant of details; he may not have a microscope, he may not have a telescope, but he has that peculiar spiritual faculty which grasps the whole, and hears a solemn music in the march of the whole which is not heard by persons who take the organ to pieces that they may find where the music came from. Who would not give all he has for one sight of the invisible? Who would not consider all possessions worthless as compared with one face-to-face interview with God? Compared with that conference how small the debates of men, the collisions of human intellect, the uproar of social conflict and contention. We may belittle the very conception of knowing God. We are called upon to enter into a large conception of that fact, and the larger our conception of what is meant by knowing God, the more important will that knowledge become in actual reality. We do not know God who can only spell his name; we know nothing of God who have only heard of him; he only knows God who has lived with him; we live and move and have our being in God. Even this is insufficient, for there is needed one who can reveal God, in all the fulness of his character and being; the only Begotten of the Father, who dwelleth in the Father's bosom, he hath revealed him. Only Jesus Christ can tell us what God is. The Hebrew piled its epithets that it might scale the height of the divine abode, but Jesus operated in the other direction; instead of scaling his way to the unscalable infinite, he proceeded forth and came from God, and when he arrived, we called him God with us, God Incarnate, God the Son, God the Saviour. We need both the actions: we need a Hebrew in its sublimity that can only get to the clouds, and we need that universal language which comes down and speaks to old men and little children, wisest philosopher and unlettered peasant, in a mystery of simplicity that can be understood, but not explained, felt, but not accounted for, so that it shall be true that a man shall know God by his heart when he cannot comprehend him by his intellect.
Almighty God, thine eye is upon us continually; there is not a word on our tongue, there is not a thought in our heart, but, lo! O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. Oftentimes dost thou cause us to exclaim in wonder, sometimes in terror, sometimes in joy, All things are naked and open to the eyes of him with whom we have to do. The eyes of the Lord run to and fro through the whole earth; the darkness and the light are both alike unto thee: how then shall we stand before thy judgment seat, in what guise shall we there appear? Thou dost tear away the clothing of the hypocrite; thou dost send a fire upon the simulations of men. Enable us always to remember that thine eye is upon us for good, and not for judgment only; thou shalt guide us with thine eye. The opening of thine eye upon our life shall be as the dawning of the day upon the earth that has long been hidden in darkness. The Lord grant unto us the assurance that his criticism is gracious, and that in judgment he seeks a way for his mercy. The law came by Moses, but grace and truth by Jesus Christ. We live in the Christian light; we assemble within the shadow of the Cross; we meet at the altar of propitiation. Jesus Christ loved us and gave himself for us—the just for the unjust, and now thou art able to grant unto us justification through faith and the peace which comes of being right with God. Show us that we are still under law, but under the larger law of love, under the wider judgment of regulated liberty; and thus may we walk with dignity, steadfastness, patience, humbleness of mind, and all trust of heart, and at the last may we see that thou hast led us by a right way. The mountain was right and the valley, the cold wintry day and the bright summer flowery path, all was right; it was the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes. Amen.
Hosea 4, Hosea 5 "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children" (
"My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children" (Hosea 4:6).
The Lord must in some way find our life that he may either reward it or chastise it. In this case he will get at the parents through the children. He would not have done this if there had been any other way into their rebellious and obdurate hearts. We must leave him to explain himself in reference to the children; he will do that which is right and merciful; we need not plague ourselves about that aspect of mystery; rather let us fasten attention upon the fact that God means for our good to get at our souls somehow. He will try all the gates, and even if he has to break down the child-gate he will come in. That is the point upon which we are to fix our devout attention. We can of course be tempted in another direction: why attack the children, why conduct himself towards the innocent as if they were guilty? Why punish the innocent for those who have transgressed? So we metaphysically fritter away God's noblest meaning; we endeavour to solve the insoluble, when we might be accepting with grace and gratitude the inevitable, the disciplinary, and the high administration of divine righteousness.
Then he will proceed with his punishment, and "change their glory into shame." He shall make the noblest horse as a mean and stumbling ass; he will cause the genius that set itself against him to do menial work, to sing unworthy songs, to paint pictures for the walls of hell; he will turn their eloquence into a new method of lying; that which was once their crown shall be their disgrace; that which was once their chief glory shall be a cloud upon their lives. God will turn things upside down; he will have night at midday, if thereby he can do good to the sons of men. The lesson is that somehow, at some point, divine judgment will lay hold upon us, that it may prepare the way for divine mercy. Judgment will not come alone if he can help it; judgment is God's strange work. When the fire comes it is only to burn the stubble; when God strikes it is that he may awaken attention; when God takes away the little child it is that we may look up—the look that stirs heaven, the look that means, There must be something beyond; the inexplicable look, the attitude religious, even when the tongue is dumb as to praise. So we recur again and again to the deep sweet true lesson that whatever happens in the way of divine discipline, or in the administration of divine law, is meant not only to rebuke us for sin and judge us with tremendous judgment, but to invite us to thought and prayer, to penitence, and through contrition to pardon.
How vividly the sin of the people represented itself to God. We ought to ask, How do other people view our actions? For we are not judges at all times of our own behaviour. But the question should not end there; that inquiry is itself but a hint of broader criticism. We should ask, How does this life appeal to God? God has a right to be heard upon this subject. It is not for man to say that he is judge, and he knows all, and can settle everything, and that his opinion is final. Even art appeals to criticism; even music seems to say in all its undulation, in all its wizardry of sound: Do you feel this? Does it touch you, heal you, inspire you, have some effect upon you? And man must submit his life to divine criticism; his question should be, Lord, this looks well to me, but I can only see it from one point of view; how does it look from heaven? Things are in reality as God sees them, for God sees them in their reality.
"They eat up the sin of my people, and they set their heart on their iniquity." They live upon it, they pander to people rather than expose their sins, and so long as those sins are profitable the priests seize the produce, and spend it on their own lust, vanity, and ambition. Think of anointed men living on the produce of sin and shame! The people go out and do the sin, and those who are in the sanctuary say, Bring your gains; we will not ask how you got them; only plentifully dispense them to us, and we will ask nothing concerning processes. So the priest was made fat by the iniquity of the people, and the Lord was moved in heaven in the direction of controversy and judgment, and he shook the heaven in his wrath, and condemned those whom he called by the endearing name "My people." It is something to have a righteous God, whoever invented him. Say these prophets were inventors of a God, it was a noble God they dreamed. His moral character disposes of the theory of invention; it does not lie within the scope of iniquity to dream holiness; it is not within the power of diseased corrupt humanity to invent a spotless God, walking in righteousness, and judging the earth in equity. The Lord inquires about our gains and our produce and our enjoyments, and he will not have upon his altar the result of sin. We are willing to receive it because we are imperfect. A man who has made money by evil practices may bring it to the Church, and with a kind of Protestant papality we say, The end will sanctify the means; we will take this blood-money, and build holy walls with it; we will accept this treasure of shame, and pray it into a kind of purity. The Lord will not have such sacrifice. He loves honesty, truth, righteousness, reality, and he will not close his eyes in connivance when iniquity would seek to bribe the altar. These are the teachings of the Old Testament; verily those teachings might make it a New Testament every day; this morality never grows old; in this ineffable righteousness there is an infinite novelty. Here is the security of the universe, and the security of the Church.
Then we come to words which are often quoted as a proverb: "And there shall be, like people, like priest." The people may have what they like, and the priest will say, "You could not help it." The priest will reproduce what the people are doing, and the people will take encouragement from the priest to go out and do double wickedness, and thus they shall keep the action even. To this degree of corruptness may holiest institutions be dragged. The priest—meaning by that word teacher, preacher, minister, apostle—should always be strong enough to condemn; he can condemn generally, but not particularly; he can damn the distant, he must pet and flatter and gratify the near. He will outgrow this—when he knows Christ better; when he is enabled to complete his faith by feeling that it is not necessary for him to live, but it is necessary for him to speak the truth; when he comes to the point of feeling that it is not at all needful that he should have a roof over his head, but it is necessary that he should have an approving conscience; when he completes his theology by this divinest morality, he will be a rare man in the earth, with a great voice thundering its judgments, and with a tender voice uttering its benedictions and solaces where hearts are broken with real contrition. Priests should lead; priests should not neglect denunciation, even where they are unable to follow their denunciation by examples to the contrary. The word should be spoken boldly, roundly, grandly. It will be a woesome day for the nation when the word is not sounded out in all its simplicity, purity, rigour, and tenderness.
The Lord says, "I will punish them for their ways, and reward them for their doings." When we find this word "doings" in the Old Testament associated with God it means great doings. This is one of those words which is at once both substantive and adjective. "Doings" associated with the divine name is a word meaning great things—marvellous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty—and when the word doings in the old Hebrew is associated with men, it means bold doings, audacity, impudence at its highest height; doings that seek to accomplish by boisterousness and audacity and madness what cannot be accomplished by quietness and wisdom and moral strength. The Lord will crush the impertinence and the folly of sinners.
A wonderful discovery the Lord makes as to the sin of the people; he says, "They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and burn incense upon the hills." That is the bold aspect, that is the public phase; instead of doing all these things, as Ezekiel would say, in a chamber of imagery far down, at which you get through a hole in the wall, they go up to high places, and invite the sun to look upon them; they kiss the calf in public. Some credit should be due to audacity; but there is another sin which cannot be done on the tops of the mountains, so the charge continues—"under oaks and poplars and elms, because the shadow thereof is good." Here is the secret aspect of rebellion. Do not believe that the blusterer lives only in public as fool and criminal; do not say, There is a fine frankness about this man, anyhow; when he sins he sins in high places; he goes upon the mountain and stamps his foot upon the high hills, and the great hill throbs and vibrates under his sturdy step. That is not the whole man; he will seek the oak, the poplar, and the elm, because the shadow thereof is good. It is a broad shadow; it makes night in daytime; it casts such a shadow upon the earth which it covers that it amounts to practical darkness. So the blustering sinner is upon the mountain, trying to perpetrate some trick that shall deserve the commendation of being frank, and when he has achieved that commendation he will seek the shadow that is good, the shadow at daytime, the darkness underneath the noontide sun. How the Lord searches us, and tries our life, and puts his fingers through and through us, that nothing may be hidden from him! He touches us at every point, and looks through us, and understands us altogether. There is not a word upon our tongue, there is not a thought in our hearts, but lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether; thou knowest our thought afar off; ere it is quite rounded into shapeliness thou dost know it in its plasm, in its earliest hint; before the mind knows its own thinking thou knowest it all, and seest it in overt act, in positive malignant disposition.
So the Lord proceeds with his charge, and in a tone of intolerable mockery and irony he returns to Bethaven.
"Though thou, Israel, play the harlot, yet let not Judah offend; and come not ye unto Gilgal, neither go ye up to Bethaven, nor swear, The Lord liveth" (Hosea 4:15).
Bethaven substitutes Bethel. In the old, old history Bethel meant house of God, and still means that etymologically; but it has so changed its character that no longer is it Bethel, but Beth-aven—house of vanity. Thus the sanctuary may be made a stable; thus the altar may be sold for bread that shall minister to the hunger of wickedness; thus is glory turned into shame: on the temple door is written Ichabod—the glory hath departed; the walls are there, let the owls and satyrs find within them what hospitality they can, for the Lord hath gone up with a shout of derision, and Beth-el is Bethaven. Thus do we lose our character; thus the names in which we are baptised become associated with every form of shame, debasement, and disgrace; thus may sweetest memories be depraved; thus may the wine of love become the sour drink of remorse, disappointment, and alienation. How is the fine gold become dim; how are the lofty brought low; and see swirling yonder in the abyss of space the star that made the morning glad! Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.
"For Israel slideth back as a backsliding heifer: now the Lord will feed them as a lamb in a large place" (Hosea 4:16).
This metaphor is full of suggestion, and full of high philosophy. Israel complained of limitation; Israel was chafed by the yoke, and Israel resented the puncture of the goad. Israel said, "I want liberty, I do not want this moral bondage any longer; I do not want to be surrounded by commandments, I do not want to live in a cage of ten bars called the ten commandments of God: I want liberty; let me follow my reason, my instincts, let me obey myself." The Lord said, So be it. "The Lord will feed thee as a lamb in a large place": thou shalt have liberty enough, but it shall be the liberty of a wilderness. You can have liberty, but you will find no garden in it; if you want the garden you must have the law. Here is a lamb that says, "I want liberty; I do not want this pasture and this fold, and this shepherdliness; I want to go where I like." Very good, saith the great Shepherd in heaven, go: you shall have place enough, but it shall be the place of a wilderness. Let us take care how we trifle with law, obligation, responsibility, limitation. When we are tethered down to a centre it means something; we are tethered for our good. Our brain can only do a certain amount of work: if we want a larger liberty we may take the liberty of insanity. That is open folly. He is the wise man who says, I have but a certain capacity, I have so many talents, I have so much time in which to work: Lord, teach me how to make the best of what thou hast given me to begin the world with; I will not pine for five talents or ten, thou hast given me two: help me to double them; I should like to do as large thinking as some other men, and be as brilliant as they are, but I know I never should be what they are in thy great Church and world; therefore make me contented with what I have, obedient, simple-minded, frank-hearted, always seeking opportunities of doing what little thing or great thing may be in my power. Poor foolish lamb! it was not content with the home pasture; it said, There is food enough here, but I want more than food; the grass is rich and succulent, and green and plentiful, but I want liberty. And the lamb vaulted over the stone wall, or pushed itself through the sheltering hedge, and away it went into the liberty of a stony desert. We still need the commandments, we still need the beatitudes; we are yet mortal. Blessed is he who knows the number of his days, and who spends them in a spirit of wisdom. Do not seek too much liberty. The moment you pass beyond the appointed boundary you are lost, and only he can find you who is willing to leave the unfallen, that he may seek and save that which is lost. Do not run the risk. The devil is so acute that you may be tempted, even in the wilderness, to think you can feed your hunger with stones. Consider and be wise, for there may a time come when the Lord will say, "Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone;" that is to say, Give him rest; let him get out of his idols what he can; let there be no longer any expostulation, entreaty, beseechment, importunity, care, anxious love, solicitous philanthropy; he is lost, now let him alone. Awful word, tremendous judgment! For God to let us alone is hell.
The Lord is not content with calling one class to judgment; he is universal in his claim. He says, "Hear ye this, O priests;"—that is one class—"and hearken, ye house of Israel;"—that is another class—"and give ye ear, O house of the king;"—that is the greatest dignity. So you have the sacerdotal and the popular and the royal; and the reason is that "judgment is toward" them, "because ye have been a snare on Mizpah and a net spread upon Tabor." The Lord charges them all with having been "profound to make slaughter"—deep in iniquity, wonderful power of scheming in the art of destruction. Men can be clever in wickedness. There is a bungling criminality that any vulgar mind can imitate; but even crime may be carried on to the point of a fine art; the mind takes eagerly with a fine willingness to certain species of sin and evil. If men would turn these great talents which are prostituted in the cause of wickedness to honest ways of obtaining a livelihood, to what eminence they might attain! How is it that the heart loves to be skilled in evil? Is there no meaning in this? Is it a mere chance in the mystery of life, or does it indicate the solemn tremendous fact that we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; there is none righteous, no, not one?
The Lord says, "I know Ephraim, and Israel is not hid from me" (Hosea 5:3). In English we do not get the meaning of this fully. The "I" is emphatic. Very seldom in English rhetoric is any emphasis to be laid upon a word like "I"; we should throw the emphasis upon the word "know." "I know Ephraim," and in English that would be equal to what it is in Hebrew, namely, "I, even I, know Ephraim": whether he is on the hill, or whether he is in the shadow which he considers good, wherever he is, whatever he is doing, my eye is fixed upon him; he does not escape criticism; God's mind is watching judicially everything that the sinner is doing, "Thou God seest me"—not in the sense of thou protectest me, and thou knowest me; but in a critical sense—thou dost penetrate my reins and my heart, my thought and my unconfessed purpose, and it is not in man to find an inviolable solitude.
"They will not frame their doings to turn unto their God: for the spirit of whoredoms is in the midst of them" (Hosea 5:4).
They cannot set up any framework of God; they are poor moral carpenters: their fingers lose all skill when they seek to put up something that shall have the appearance at least of morality and goodness. They no sooner set up one side of the edifice than the other falls down, and the framework will not hold together, because the spirit is wrong. Away with your mechanical morality; away with your frameworks of honour and social security, even of education when it is meant as a substitute for moral earnestness and purity. It is the spirit that must be renewed; we do not want a framework, but a genius of heart, an atmosphere of soul, a new manhood—"Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again." Make the tree good, and the fruit will be good. Do not trouble yourselves about the framework. You are not carpenters, you are men; you are not mechanics, you are souls. Do not trifle with the tragedy of life.
Almighty God, we need thy sweet Word evermore. It is not enough to live to-day; we must never cease to live. This is the mystery of life; with all its pain and shadow, its weakness and disappointment, still it clings to itself, it lingers and yearns after immortality. Thy commandment is exceeding broad, but so is thy promise: thy mercy endureth for ever. This is our joy; into this holy place we come from time to time to renew our life, to sing our hymn of praise and thanks, and to take again into the world redoubled and ennobled strength. Thou hast been our God; thou wilt not forsake us; thou wast our father's God, and thou didst never exclude the children from thine overflowing and redundant blessing. When didst thou speak alone to those who were living? Thou didst speak beyond them, to all the ages that should come. Why should the Lord speak twice? Doth not his breath fill infinity? Is not the look of his love the look of eternity? We bless thee, therefore, for thy Word once spoken, once delivered unto the saints, once made clear to the hungry, yearning, agonised heart of man. It is enough, it is finished; the river of God is full of water. Pity us in all our littleness; have mercy upon us in all the aggravation of our sin. We thought of sin like an infinite cloud until we saw the Cross; then understood we the Word. Where sin abounded grace hath much more abounded; heaven is broader than perdition; God is mightier than all his enemies; the throne of the Lord covereth all space and all duration. If we have rendered any service to thee, the praise be thine; if aught has been done to make thy kingdom appear in its truest beauty, the vision was from heaven. We praise thee, therefore, with undivided tribute and eulogy for all thy tender grace, for all thy lovingkindness. Bind us up in the bundle of life; see to it that no man pluck us out of thine hand. May we never perish in sight of land, but be brought safely home, quite home, right into the innermost place of home; there not to change, but to continue and heighten our Christian song. Amen.