The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
In that day the LORD with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.The Use of the Rough Wind
Many comforting discourses have been preached from this text Men eagerly seize consolation, whether it flows from the text, or is imported into it. Why this eager grasping after comfort? Simply because all men need it Look upon the largest congregation that can assemble, and any wise preacher who has had experience of his work will know that in the crowd that throngs around him are people with broken hearts, or are sensible of disappointment, anxiety, fear, or are apprehensive of coming distress. Hence I have never hesitated to advise the young preacher to remember that the most of his hearers are not geniuses or critics, but needy, pain-struck, and weary souls. He who preaches to that class will always be abreast of the times, will always keep step for step with any progress which civilisation can ever make. Venerable and pastoral preachers have comforted their flocks with this gracious text. They have used it in the sense that God would not send both the east wind and the rough wind at one and the same time—in the sense that God holdeth back the rough wind as a skilled rider might hold back some proud and urgent steed; they have not been slow to quote the words "He tempereth the wind to the shorn lamb," and so full of gracious poetry are these words that many have not hesitated to believe they were in the Bible. All beautiful words are in the Bible, if not literally yet spiritually, suggestively, in all the helpfulness of solace and stimulus. All Indian poetry is in the Bible. But how gracious and comforting soever the discourses may have been, they have had absolutely no relation to this text. Yet who that knows human nature ever credited human nature with being logical? The thing that was wanted was the comfort. But comfort of the kind which has been indicated is not in this text. All words of wise comfort are true in themselves, but when it becomes a question of direct exposition, our first business is to know what the words originally meant, then if we desire to proceed further, with the consent of our hearers we may bring comfort from the four quarters of heaven, for human life needs it all, so broken is it and so self-helpless.
The word "stayeth" is, in the first instance, a principal word. It is not a common term. We find it, however, in a strange place, even in the book of Proverbs. The fourth and fifth verses of the twenty-fifth chapter of that book will show what is meant—"Take away the dross from the silver, and there shall come forth a vessel for the finer. Take away the wicked from before the king, and his throne shall be established in righteousness." The word that is rendered "stayeth" is rendered in the passage now cited "take away." The literal meaning is that God's rough wind separateth. It is a wind that blows away the chaff, but allows the weighty wheat to remain:—Take away the dross—take away the wicked—take away the chaff. When God sendeth his rough wind it is to sift, it is that after it has done blowing there may be nothing left but the true wheat. God conducts evermore a great separating process in life. The process takes part in the individual life that longs to develop itself truly and wisely and divinely. Man is always losing something in the process of his education, as well as gaining something: God's wind bloweth through and through his character, shaking it, separating part from part,—a great ventilating process goes on, and a wondrous economy of sifting, separation, purification, so that at the last when the wind his sobbed itself to rest there is a man left marked by pureness, health, reality; all that was mean, unworthy, dross-like, wicked, has been blown away, and there now stands a man after God's own heart.
The object of punishment, then, is not destruction. When God sends his rough wind he does not send it as a wind of judgment, for the purpose of destroying men, carrying them tempestuously away into abysses on which the sun never shines. Let us understand the spirit and the purpose of Providence. When God tears a man down, it is to do the man good; when the rough wind comes into a man's estate and uproots the oldest trees, it is to make way for other growths of a kind more approved and more fruitful. If we could grasp this doctrine and commit ourselves to it, then the wind might blow at noonday and at midnight and we should say, The Lord is sifting, separating, taking away the dross, taking away the wicked, taking away the mean, and he will leave behind the pure silver, the true character, the noble soul. God will never destroy anything that has in it virtue, health, reality of value. Then let the great wind blow; let us be thankful for the sifting wind. Many of us would never sift ourselves. We are so blinded that we mistake chaft for wheat in many instances, and we think there is some value even in the dross when we cannot part with pleasures that give the palate even one moment's joy. The whole process of sifting must be done from without. The other processes, however conducted, indicate the same purpose. Wine is emptied from vessel to vessel, not for the purpose of destroying the wine, but for the purpose of purifying it, so that at the last there shall be no dregs, but real wine, fit for the drinking of the angels. All this is often done by the invisible hand of Providence through the visible action of events. What can we do to keep back the process of events? Nothing. We have only a sheet of paper to oppose to the great fires that are coming on. Our fences are wooden; when we oppose them to the fire we add to the conflagration which we meant to extinguish. Better yield ourselves to God, saying to him, Take away whatever is worthless; thou knowest all purposes, the end as the beginning is in thine hand; only at the last may we find that every stroke was delivered in love, every tempest roared in order to prepare the way for a sweet gospel, and every grave was dug only to hide that which was doomed to corruption.
Another rendering has been approved by critics who have established a claim to confidence. It is poetical rather than grammatical—"He sigheth with his rough wind." The idea is that whilst God is conducting processes of judgment he is sighing compassionately; he is not grieving the children of men willingly; his great soughing, sobbing, moaning wind is like the sigh of pity. All such processes are needful. Even this is allowable. It falls into line with all we have known through the medium of reading and experience and consciousness of the method of the divine rule. God is subject to emotion; that is to say, he is so represented to us, because he allows us to approach him along the only roads we can travel: he is so majestic that no humiliation of language can tarnish the glory of his excellency; so he will allow us to talk about him as if he were a man; we may speak of his seeing, hearing, grieving, pitying; as subject to disappointment, and as wailing because of the apparent failures of his providence. All this method of revelation is an accommodation to our littleness. When we talk to children we talk their language, not ours; we lay aside all the latest phrases and expressions, all linguistic gymnastics, and go right down to them and babble to them in their own prattle. God comes down to us and uses our words, enshrines his glory in our little vocables, and so permits us to have at least some hold upon him, that we may be rich with some hint and suggestion as to his infinity and glory. So when it is said the rough wind is as the sighing of God, the poetry is but a glorification of the grammar; it does not despise the syntax but flies above it and lightens it from on high. It is a sublime and gracious truth: God pities, God sighs.
This text may be regarded as the key of the whole chapter. A perusal of the chapter will show what rough reading there is here and there, and yet how all the reading is centralised by this gracious testimony, that God, in all the rough ways of providence and government, means to bring the sons of men at last to be fruitful olive-trees, and he himself, according to this chapter, will in the end take off the leaves "one by one"—such is the prophet's own term—and will rejoice in the abundant fruitfulness of that which was once condemned to infertility, nay, which was all but blasted, save one little green sprout, which was left in sign that God had not wholly abandoned the plant. Through how many images does the truth shine!—"In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword" (Isaiah 27:1). What is the sword of God in Biblical language? It is symbolised by the lightning: a sword all edge, a sword without a handle, a sword which only God can touch. Have we ever used the lightning as a whip? Has any man ever been clever enough to put the lightning into his hand, and to use it as a sword? In what sense? In a sense so limited that he himself would be the very last to claim it in any suggestion as is the very life of this passage. The Lord "shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent." These are symbolical expressions. All the ancient forms of tyranny were represented by monstrous forms, living animals; and here we have "the piercing serpent," and "that crooked serpent:" what is the meaning of that? The meaning relates to the rush of the aggressive Tigris; and the crooked serpent relates to the sinuous movement of the Euphrates; and God says he will lay his lightning-sword upon both the rivers and cut them in twain. The whole reference is to aggressive war, serpent-like policy; and whether it be the Tigris with all its rush, or the Euphrates with all its gliding movement, God shall cut the rivers in two: all controversial policies, self-seeking designs, all cunning diplomacy, all the infernal cleverness of men who use language to conceal their thoughts: God's lightning flash shall cut them and their policies in twain; he will "frustrate their knavish tricks;" he will "confound their politics;" he will send them home bleeding at every pore, and sad at heart that they ever attempted the ill-paying game of lying. Thus the Lord is in what we may term the greater providences—namely, the providences that relate to empires, nationalities, dynasties, thrones; as well as in the more limited providences that number the hairs of our head, that watch over us lest our steps should slide, or lest at any moment we should dash our foot against a stone. All things are little to God: all things are equally great to him: there can be no relation between the finite and the infinite; how vast soever the finite, it is only a vastness of littleness, an attempt to touch the intangible. So all things are God's. "In that day" a song shall be sung about "a vineyard of red wine." The judgment will hardly have taken off its clouds until those who were afflicted shall begin to sing of the goodness of God. Is it not so in practical life? Of what is life made up? Of tragedy, comedy; suffering, laughter; old age, and fresh childhood; trees gnarled and withered, and flowers that seem to have been dropped from heaven rather than to have come out of the cold earth. God will have a hymn sung, and he himself will dictate the words—
"I the Lord do keep it; I will water it every moment: lest any hurt it, I will keep it night and day. Fury is not in me: who would set the briers and thorns against me in battle? I would go through them, I would burn them together" (Isaiah 27:3-4).
"Let him take hold of my strength." The captive fleeing away from his pursuers made straight for the altar, and if he could seize the horns of the altar in the sacred house he was safe. This is the image of the verse—"Let him take hold of my strength, that he may make peace with me; and he shall make peace with me." Flee to the sanctuary, flee to the altar; lay hold of righteousness and truth, for the very action of laying hold of righteousness and truth is an action which means confession, humiliation, penitence, trust in God, and renunciation of self. That ought to be the meaning of all church-going. To see a man hastening to his accustomed place of worship or some other hospitable sanctuary, should mean—he is fleeing from pursuit, he is conscious of sin, he feels the heart's deepest necessity, he is going to the fountain for water, he is going to his father's house for bread. Is that the meaning of church-going? Were it so, the Sabbath would double its golden hours, and we should feel that seated within God's house we were homed within an impenetrable rock, our security complete, and our vision of heaven without a cloud.
What has been God's purpose in all this?—growth. He has always meant by his pruning, and his great wind, and his terrible judgments, to increase the growing power of life. "In measure, when it shooteth forth, thou wilt debate with it" (Isaiah 27:8). When it shooteth forth, he will prepare the way for its expansion; lie will so use his winds that growth shall be facilitated. He always means us to grow, to bring forth fruit. Herein is mercy, that whatever else has been taken away from us, growth-power has not been withdrawn. There lives not a man who may not this very moment begin to grow a better self, a nobler nature, a diviner humanity. Very much has gone: youthful enthusiasm has vanished, old resolutions have been forgotten, many a faculty has fallen into desuetude, but still there is power to sigh, to look, to put out, how feebly soever, a hand heavenward, though it can hold itself up but for one moment. The meaning of this is that we may even yet become fruitful; we may grow, we may reach a nobler humanity. This being so, the Gospel is a word of comfort, stimulus, encouragement. What sweeter word is there than this—"A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench"? The reed is bruised, and it is difficult to get any music through it: there is not only a rift in the lute, but the reed itself is broken, and the player can perform but brokenly on such an instrument. But God will not break it. An impatient man would take it, and dash it on the ground, and ask for some better reed through which he might pour his music. God says, This can be amended, this reed need not be thrust away, not one child need be cast out as worthless, hopeless. God will not break the bruised reed. He will not quench the smoking flax. He might put his foot upon it and turn it to blackness, but he takes it up, shakes it—that is the idea—shakes it gently, like a torch that will not bear much movement, and then the fire begins to be fed by the shaking in the air, and now it begins to spread, and the shaking proceeds, until the whole is recovered. That is God's meaning in all his providences with us—to repair us, reconstruct us, renew us, make us new creatures, and bring us through many a rough wind and many an east wind and many a graveyard, to perfectness, to nobler stature, to valour of spirit, to pureness of communion. Who will yield himself to this noble ministration? Let the prayer be—Great God of the winds, thou who hast the lightning flash in thine hand like a sword, thou who dost search men in rein and heart and innermost motive, do not let me fall out of thine hands or escape the ministry of thy love! Do what thou wilt with me, only at last may I take part in the sweet hymn with which angels praise thee, and with which the sons of men shall in immortal song celebrate thy redeeming power!
Almighty God, do thou deliver us from all false trusts, and lead us to repose our confidence in thee alone. We have gone astray from thy sanctuary. We have committed two evils: we have forsaken thee, the fountain of living waters, and we have hewn out unto ourselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water. We own it all; we are ashamed of it from beginning to end; we have returned, by thy grace, revealed in Christ Jesus the world's one Saviour, to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. Thou hast received us with open arms; thou hast fallen upon our neck, and kissed us, and clothed us, and given us the ornaments of heaven; and behold thou hast filled our life with all joy and sense of triumph. May we never stray any more; may we be like little children at home, asking God's will, anxious to do that will whatever it may be; and may our whole life be swallowed up of God, so that whatsoever be its service its reward shall be present and large. We rejoice that thou didst promise to the ancient church a king who should reign in righteousness: we have seen the true Hezekiah, we have come to live under the government of Immanuel, God with us. He is the King of grace; he is the King of glory: we will have this man to reign over us; we will not be the subjects of any other crown, we will live under the throne and sceptre of Christ. Mighty One, strong enough to bear the Cross for the sins of the world, rule us, dwell in us, make us like thyself, according to our degree, so that we too may be pure, may be sons of God, may be in the image and likeness of the Eternal. To this end continue to abide with us; break our bread at eventide, be our bright and morning star, be thou our midday glory. O Jesus, sweet Jesus, Christ of God, dwell with us, then we shall not be tempted to go elsewhere for succour and defence and gladness; thou wilt be all in all to us, and we shall know that thy riches are unsearchable, and thy wisdom past finding out, and that thou hast all things for the growing capacities of men. We rejoice that we love thee in some degree: but we would love thee wholly; we would that there were no rival affection, but that thou mightest sit upon the throne of our heart as with undisputed right. If we pray for this, surely this will be accomplished,—not today, nor tomorrow, but little by little, like a growing light, until the morning is lost in noontide. Hear us when we pray and when we praise; and may the end of all our education here be large wisdom, radiant holiness, and preparation for that lofty company to be found in the celestial city, white-robed, with palms in their hands, singing eternally, doing all thy will with a glad heart and an unwearying energy. Amen.