The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is a fading flower, which are on the head of the fat valleys of them that are overcome with wine!A Denunciation of Drunkenness
The prophet here denounces the drunkards of Ephraim. It has been well said that there is a "dry drunkenness." Men are drunk, but not with wine; sometimes they are drunk with prosperity, with vanity, with evil thoughts, passionate desires. Men may be sober, and yet may be drunk. Men may be total abstainers from wine, and may yet go straight down to hell. This ought to be very clearly understood. Some annotators have thought that reference is here made to this dry drunkenness. There is no need to avail ourselves of this interpretation; it is painfully evident that everything that is here said as against the princes of Ephraim belongs by all rights to the devil of literal drunkenness. The prophet himself is inflamed into a new intensity of feeling as he considers what has become of Ephraim, who never gave joy to any living soul. What man has a good word to say for Ephraim? It is a branded name. But the prophet cannot keep his prophecy within the old lines of Judah and Jerusalem, when he thinks of what is being done in the northern metropolis; he hears that the princes of that northern capital are drunk, and he pronounces woe from the very altar of heaven against the princes who are reeling through strong drink. There are moral rights, as well as geographical. Men may not on all occasions keep their denunciations to their own localities. Sometimes we are so affected by the depth, intensity, infamy of evil, that we feel within ourselves the right to denounce it, though it be done at the antipodes, and though the men who are doing it speak a language we cannot understand. Humanity overcomes locality. It will be a sad day when the prophets keep themselves within their own lines—parochial, metropolitan, imperial. Prophets ought to have no lines within which to minister their divine functions; they ought to make their voices heard wherever there is wrong to be denounced, wherever there is helplessness to be assisted. It is thus that the Lord enlarges the prophet himself, and often causes good to come out of evil. Life is an infinite complication. Were it so simple as some represent it to be, life would lose not only its mystery but its charm. Life needs its apocalypse as well as its alphabet.
How sad a thing that a glorious crown should ever come to be like a fading flower! "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." There is no genius that may not become an idiot. There is no son of the morning that may not quench his torch in the deepest degradation. God cares nothing for our crowns of glory, our high titles, our boasted pedigrees, our cloudy ancestries. He cares for character. His throne is built upon righteousness, and his criticism is conducted with reference to equity: what are the people morally, what are their prayers, what are their desires, what are their dispositions, what is their spiritual tone? Their poverty cannot hinder God's benediction, their obscurity shall be lighted with the candle of the Lord, and their prayers shall make the heavens bright because of the great answers which are sent down to the cry of the contrite heart.
The crown of Ephraim has become as a fading flower: then is all over in human history? When man fails, God seems to expand upon the vision of the universe with a new amplitude, and to glow with a new and unimagined splendour:—
"In that day shall the Lord of hosts be for a crown of glory, and for a diadem of beauty, unto the residue of his people" (Isaiah 28:5).
When the Lord reigns he shall be—
"For a spirit of judgment to him that sitteth in judgment, and for strength to them that turn the battle to the gate" (Isaiah 28:6).
Gladly would we omit the detail, but it is written here with a specific minuteness which conveys the impression that it was meant to be read, syllabled out slowly, solemnly—
"But they also have erred through wine, and through strong drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink, they are swallowed up of wine, they are out of the way through strong drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment" (Isaiah 28:7).
Observe how the word "erred" occurs three times in this indictment. It is not the best word in the sense of most fully expressing the prophet's meaning. A better word is "reeled":—"but they also have reeled through wine—the priest and the prophet have reeled through strong drink—they reel in vision." The picture is a vivid one, painful in its graphic clearness. We speak with some degree of horror of any man being drunk—if there be those who can laugh at a reeling drunkard, they know not what drunkenness is—but when it is a prophet who reels, a priest who staggers, a man of prayer who is blind through drink, then we say: How are the mighty fallen! Help, Lord; for the godly man ceaseth: when the righteous fail, what shall other men do? Howl, fir-tree; for the cedar is fallen.
"They are swallowed up of wine." This is how all debasement continues, aggravates itself, and brings itself to shameful issue. No man begins at the point of being swallowed up in any evil: he approaches it almost stealthily, he touches it experimentally, he retains for a certain time his self-control in relation to it,—he will handle it, but easily, so that he can set it down again, should it so please him. But at the end there is swallowing up, destruction—death is in the cup, and death must be drunk up by those who put their lips to the forbidden vessel. When Edward IV. condemned his own brother, George Duke of Clarence, to be killed, we are told that the duke desired to be drowned in a butt of Malmsey, and the historian well adds, "as became so stout a drunkard." To this end may men come who never dreamed of coming to it, who meant to show the world how easy it would be to toy with the devil, to touch him, set him back, smile at him, laugh at him, use him as a dog, bind him as a slave; and to all these initial usages will the devil submit himself, knowing that at some fatal unsuspected moment he will lasso the man who supposes he can take him captive, and he will carry him away to the chambers of death.
Nor did the matter end there. Drunken men have a speech of their own. There is a bad language of intoxication:—
"Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little" (Isaiah 28:9-10).
But what came to the men who mocked their prophets? Mark how consistent is the divine retribution. We have heard of bears coming out of the wood and destroying those who mocked Elisha; what saith the Scripture at this point?
"For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people" (Isaiah 28:11).
"To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear" (Isaiah 28:12).
"But the word of the Lord was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little" (Isaiah 28:13).
Almighty God, we bless thee for Jesus Christ thy Son, the gift of thy love, the seal of thy grace. He is fairest among ten thousand, and altogether lovely; his face was indeed marred more than any man's, yet through all the scar there shone a light not of earth. We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. The bruising could not disguise him; every wound he bore was but a new point of glory yet to shine. We gather around his Cross, and behold the amazing spectacle. Our hearts tremble within us because we know who wrought this deed of woe; our sin crucified the Son of God. There is none righteous; no, not one. We know who drove the nail, who thrust the spear, who plaited the crown of thorns, and pressed it on the temples of innocence; we take shame to ourselves. It is not historical, but personal; it did not occur long ago only, it occurs this day. God forgive us; God be merciful unto us sinners, and enable us to know that through all this mystery of suffering thou art bringing the eternal heaven of holiness and rest and perfectness. We do not end at the Cross; yea, at the Cross we do but begin; what thou shalt reveal, who can tell? what fancy can forecast? Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor can imagination suppose, what is yet to come. Thou wilt show the meaning of it all; the light shall be more than the darkness, the earth shall yield the root, but all heaven shall be too small for the blossom and the fruit. Enable men to flock to Christ, to run to him, to flee as one might flee to a city of refuge who had been guilty of bloodshed. Thus may we live in Christ, and live for Christ, that we may be Christ's at his coming. Amen.
Wherefore hear the word of the LORD, ye scornful men, that rule this people which is in Jerusalem.Foundations and Covenants
This is not the only "stone" referred to in this chapter; in the thirteenth verse we read words that refer to another quality of stone: "That they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken." The meaning is that the men to whom a great offer of rest and refreshing had been made had declined to fall in with the holy overture, and therefore, as they had rejected the stone, elect of God and precious, they must of necessity—not by arbitrary decree, but because of that system of alternatives on which the universe is based—encounter in a backward movement a stone of stumbling, striking which they fell back, and were broken. Thus it will ever be. Men cannot refuse the Gospel, and be right; reject God, and be at peace; take their own course, and rule an obedient creation. Alternatives are put before us, reason is invoked, statements upon both sides are made with critical care, and men are called upon to answer the solemn appeal. If we fall upon Christ we shall be broken; but if that stone fall upon us we shall be ground 1:0 powder. The Gospel message is found in the fact that it is for ourselves to decide which course we shall take. Blessed be God, no man is forced to hell.
What use did the apostles make of this rich and noble passage? The Apostle Paul used it (Ephesians 2:19-22):—"Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit." The Apostle Peter (1Peter 2:6-8) availed himself of the opportunity of commenting upon this great foundation:—"Wherefore also it is contained in the Scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded. Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, and a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient." Here again we face the solemn alternative of life. "A tried stone," literally, a stone of proof; and that may be regarded in either of two senses, or in both. First, it is a stone of proof, because it stands every test that can be applied to it. Praise no stone until you have tested it. Laud no doctrine until you have tried it in the market-place, in the sick chamber, in the valley of the shadow of the deepest distress; then come forward and say what the stone was worth, how it bore the strain, what it was in the sense of security, and comfort, and dignity and satisfaction. When you hear the last patented religion praised, pay no heed to the trivial eulogium; it is a patent that has not been put to the proof; it has done nothing for the world; it has no long, noble, dignified history behind it; it glitters, but it has not been proved in life's long night of pain and restlessness and sorrow. Be jealous of new inventions which relate to the kingdom of heaven. Have faith in nothing that does not come up from eternity. Believe not in any sacrifice that was not offered before the world began. Herein it is true that antiquity signifies experience, uses that can be employed for purposes of inference and solid deduction. In this sense Jesus Christ was a stone of proof: he was tried morning, noon, and night: in the cold and in the heat, in all the variation of life's changeful scene; and this is the record which is made of him by those who have followed him throughout "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and for ever,"—most precious when most needed, strongest when the enemy is most importunate, completest in all attribute, faculty, and grace when hell gathers itself up for final tremendous onslaught upon his dignity and worth. Is it too much to ask that those who have tested Christ and known him to be a stone of proof should say so publicly, privately, quietly, emphatically, and gratefully? and should so preach the Gospel to every creature with whom they come in contact? The preaching of the Gospel is not only a trumpet proclamation; it is a quiet speech, a sacred, private, personal assurance as well; it is man talking to man, and saying, I have tried Christ, and found him to be infinitely sufficient for all the need and pain of life.
The second sense in which the text would hold good would be that Jesus Christ tries every character. Not only is Jesus Christ himself tried, but he tries every man. Therefore many have left him. He tries whether the heart is giving itself in full consecration to his service, or whether it is trifling with the occasion, yielding to the spirit of compromise and concession,—a kind of giving and taking in which God and Mammon hold equal places. "If any man will follow me, let him take up his cross." In the church there is but one badge, one symbol, one password; it is not genius, learning, intellectual capacity, profound acquisition in difficult subjects,—it is the Cross. Therefore so few men understand Christianity. The one thing they omit from the statement of its range and claim is the Cross. Christianity is a disposition, not a tenet; a temper, not a dogma; a condition of heart, not a stored memory, not a grate of iron filled with unlighted fuel. He is a Christian who has no self: he has denied himself; he has said No to himself. This is a conquest which is only won in solitude; this is a victory of which a man need not speak, because his whole life tells the tale in simplest eloquence. If our will has not been taken and broken, shattered, we know nothing about Jesus Christ, though we be living catechisms, and animated encyclopaedias, and breathing theological dictionaries: we know Christ only as we have denied ourselves,—not pinched ourselves here and there, and treated ourselves to a little partial discipline of starvation, but obliterated ourselves,—then we are Christians. How different from this our daily attitude and feeling! We now go to preachers to hear whether they are right or wrong. He is right who has no self: he is wrong who consults his own will or feeling in anything. He prays who says, "Not my will, but thine, be done," and he never prays who does not say these words from his heart's core, the innermost plasm of his soul; though he speak to the condescending heavens in elaborate eloquence, he prays not till shedding, as it were, great drops of blood, he says—"Nevertheless!" Then he comes from the altar, and there can be no Cross to him in any sense that tries his fortitude: he has died; he now knows the mystery of grace. Thus Jesus Christ tries the quality of men. Have we been so tried? No preacher may elaborate that inquiry; he must whisper it, rather than loudly announce it, and he must even in whispering it feel that he has hardly the right to ask that question until he himself is the living reply.
What is the consequence of building upon such a foundation—namely, "a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation"? The result is—"He that believeth shall not make haste." In other words, faith means peace. How we fret and fume because we have no faith! We want to live in tomorrow, simply because we have no trust Did we really build ourselves upon the living foundation, we should have neither today nor tomorrow—we should be with God. Find a Christian who is in anxiety about anything, and you find a man who is only nominally Christian: he is excited about the state of the Church, about the condition of public feeling in relation to the Cross and to Christian doctrine; he heats himself, poor little soul, imagining that so much depends upon his puny arm. Be calm. Trust in the living God. He will take care of his own ark, his own truth, his own kingdom. Faith will give steadfastness. Faith is the inspiration of dignity and the security of hope. He who has once been with Christ in the sanctuary of vital communion comes away from the interview saying, All is well: why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? and why does the Church excite itself with little solicitudes and small inquiries and frivolous doubts? The kingdom cometh, and as the sun shineth from the east even unto the west, so shall Christ's lustre shine above all glory, filling the firmament of infinite space with morning everlasting. Church of the living God, thou shouldst be calm, strong, because deeply in sympathy with Christ, and acquainted in the very heart with all the sacred purpose of God. Confidence in the Eternal gives perfect calmness.
What shall become of other buildings? Many other edifices are proceeding at the same time: what shall become of them?
"Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet: and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding place" (Isaiah 28:17).
The test, therefore, you observe, is a fair one. Our building is to be tested by judgment and righteousness, not by man's judgment, not by man's partial righteousness, but by judgment and righteousness as God understands and applies these terms. Or there may be another meaning. The Gospel may be even here. Does it mean that God will punish according to measure? In administering the great system of retribution, will he lay judgment to the line and righteousness to the plummet, and say, These poor creatures have had no chance in life: the circumstances under which this nation has lived have been circumstances of infinite discouragement: no man cared for this man's soul, therefore I must measure the man himself accordingly; he never heard of Christ, Cross, sacrifice, cleansing blood, pardon through propitiation; he must not be damned? Were any to suggest that such meaning is hidden under these symbols, why should we reject a meaning so evangelical, so charged with the very wine of the Gospel, so like the Saviour, who said, "From him to whom much has been given shall much be expected; but from them to whom little has been given little shall be looked for"? O Son of Mary, Son of man, Son of God, thou wilt not beat him with many stripes who had few chances in life. We rest in thy grace.
What becomes of false securities, false treaties?—
"Your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then ye shall be trodden down by it" (Isaiah 28:18).
What if we have paid attention to everything but the foundation? That is possible. What if we have built a beautiful house, large, well-appointed, and have brought artists from afar to make the walls almost live with symbolic beauty. But suppose we have built the fairy palace upon a bog, and we knew it. Would that be approved in common life? Would the inspector or surveyor pass even for an insurance award a house that was so built? and shall we be wise on all these matters, and fools in life-building? Shall we be solid men, men of solemn mind, of real true judgment, with regard to all transitory matters, and fools with regard to affairs eternal? "According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise master-builder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is." Oh, look at that tongue of flame, that critic of fire! It will be your turn next! That man's house has just passed—barely passed; this man's house is burned down, but because he was on the right foundation, he himself was saved—"yet so as by fire." It required an angel to pluck him from that extremity. Now it is coming to your house. See the flame—long, blue, red, all colours—leaping, testing the work, seizing it: how fares it with the house? Doth it stand? It looks as if it were going to stand. It is built of gold and silver and precious stones. See the fire makes no impression upon it! Thank God! Now it is going up to the roof, and even there it can make no impression; and the flame falls back, and says in effect, This house is well built. The next is the fool's house. Ah me! Who can look at the trial? Oh that it might take place in the darkness! Oh that our ears might be deafened with sleep when the crash comes! for great shall be the fall of it.
Almighty God we have put our trust in the Rock of Ages, in the Eternal God, in the pavilion of the Most High, where we are hidden from the strife of tongues, and though the heathen rage and the people imagine a vain thing, yet is our confidence assured and our hope is without a cloud. All this high estate of faith and rest is given unto us through Jesus Christ our Lord. His are unsearchable riches; his blessedness is profound and never can be disturbed. In his peace we have tranquillity, in his sovereignty we reign as kings. We bless thee for the condescension of thy Son; for his life upon earth; for all his gracious and tender ministry; for his sacrificial death, for his resurrection from the dead, and his intercession on high; great mysteries of light, great mysteries of love: we have no answer to them; yet is there an answer in our own hearts from the heavens, which is one of peace and confidence and hope. Regard us in all the various relations we sustain; and may we, in the house, and in the church, and in the city, and in the market-place, and in the sanctuary of affliction, show that our faith sustains us, burns us like an unconsuming fire, lifts us up to the third heaven where we commune with God, and makes us pure, gentle, true, and noble towards one another. If thou wilt work this miracle in us, we will praise thee with a loud voice for thy marvellous works.
Doth the plowman plow all day to sow? doth he open and break the clods of his ground?The Parable of Agriculture
This is a kind of parable of agriculture. It has pleased God through the prophet to show somewhat of his method of discipline, and somewhat of his purpose of government. In effect, he says—Look at agriculture, and you will see on a small scale what I am doing on a scale immeasurably larger: look at the farmer, and see the spiritual cultivator; look at the method of producing food, and learn something of the method of producing character. This is an invaluable method of teaching, because it enables us to get quite close to the divine worker. When he himself fixes the symbol, when he calls attention to any actor or economy, and says, Watch there, and you will see as much as you now can see of my purpose and method, we should look with undivided attention, so that nothing shall escape out notice; for God himself has fixed the lesson book and told us to read with the utmost care. Let us yield ourselves to the spell of every vision, or parable, or sign that can help us to understand a little more than we can at present comprehend of the divine spirit and method and purpose.
What is ploughing? Does a man plough merely for exercise? Does ploughing express a whim for ground-cutting? Do we say, Every man has his occupation or his amusement, and this man has taken up with the fancy of cutting the ground, simply that he may exercise himself in a bodily way, and promote his own health? Ploughing is not an end. Ploughing is a means to an end. Everything depends upon our seizure of that simple fact. That is the explanation of discipline. There is nothing in the discipline itself. God does not smite, and cut, and bruise, and slay merely for the purpose of showing that he is much stronger than we are. He does not exercise almightiness in crushing feebleness. When he sends the red-hot ploughshare through our heart he has an object in view: that is an act preparatory to some other act. We miss the whole genius, and moral inspiration of discipline if we suppose that we are merely clay in the hands of a potter, merely objects upon which God plays off the miracles of his omnipotence. That view is full of insult to God's wisdom and God's love. When the Lord throws a man down it is not that he may trample him in the dust, but that he may work in him some wondrous ministry of grace and love. Let us understand, therefore, that all the discipline through which we pass is in itself nothing. We are no better for the discipline which we have not turned to account. Who is the better for the food he has not digested; for the books he has merely read in the letter without ever storing them in his mind, or digesting knowledge into wisdom? The mere fact of our having suffered a great deal amounts to nothing, if we have not made life through suffering. In fact, unless we have done that we are the worse for the suffering. It comes to one of two issues: either we are softened, subdued, chastened, purified, and refined by the discipline we have undergone; or, Pharaoh-like, our hearts are hardened, and our soul withdraws itself within a more obstinate induration, so that God's light and rain and smile cannot penetrate to the soul's hiding-place, and make it glad. We are to be co-workers with God in all this matter of discipline. To submit because we cannot successfully resist is not piety. To kiss the rod and say, Bless the hand that wields it! is true religion. Where God ploughs he means to sow. If we could realise that word it would be comfort to the comfortless, the very beginning of heaven to those who think they have been forsaken. Could the earth speak, it would say, I have felt the hard plough today; I know what is coming, I have now to do something; in due time I shall be sown with seed, and in a few days or weeks or months I shall be crowned with gold, or I shall be decorated with a robe of many colours: when the plough-point first struck me I was full of pain and distress, and I could have cried out for very agony, for the point was sharp, and the ploughman drave it through me with great energy; but, now I bethink me, this means the blade, the ear, the full corn in the ear, golden harvest, and harvest-home; and what a rest I shall have when I have done my duty, filled the barns of men, and driven hunger away from the streets and homes of the world. In all such apologues there is a veil of fine teaching, could we bow down ourselves in our intellectual vanity to accept it, and could we so far subdue our moral obstinacy as to receive the sacred lesson. When the plough of God's providence first cuts up a man's life, what wonder if the man should exclaim a little, yea, if he should give way to one hour's grief, and say he thought he had escaped all that kind of treatment! But the man may come to himself ere eventide and say, Plough on, Lord; I want my life to be ploughed all over that it may be sown all over, and that in every corner there may be golden grain or beautiful flowers: pity me that I exclaimed when I first felt the ploughshare; thou knowest my frame, thou rememberest that I am but dust, but now I recollect, I put things together, I see thy meaning; so drive on, thou Ploughman of Eternity. Then pain has a meaning, loss has a blessing, death is a great black door that swings back upon immortality.
If we are to read between the lines of this parable, and discover divine methods from human actions, then we should see that different characters require different treatment. There is a spirit of discrimination running throughout the whole statement For "fitches" read "fennel seed"; and fennel seed is amongst the very smallest of seeds, as indeed so is cummin. This is to be sown broadcast. It is not to be sown mechanically or geometrically, but is cast abroad, thrown out with a lavish hand on every side. Now wheat and barley, referred to also in the text, are larger, and they are to be dropped in more deliberately and carefully, and run into lines. The wise cultivator adopts different methods. Discrimination is a secret of power. With regard to character and its treatment, we are to have compassion on some, making a difference. It is even so with the wise teacher. He says, What can these scholars bear? what quality are they? what is their intellectual range? can I give strong meat to all, or must I give milk to some? Every one must have a portion of meat in due season. There are times when the preacher must broadcast his gospel, and speak in great general statements of invitation, exhortation, and appeal, so that all men may have an opportunity of catching somewhat of the heavenly voice, somewhat of the heavenly seed. Then there are times when he is quite a different man, so much so that they who only look upon the external say they would not have thought it was the same preacher. In the first instance he was sowing fennel seed, cummin,—something that required to be thrown abroad, cast forth with great liberality; and in the second place he was slowly, deliberately, carefully going through his exposition, his grammar, his statement of dogmatic truth, his vindication of great solemn doctrines; he was a careful husbandman, studying the field, studying the seed, studying the season; in that ministry, in so far as he was a devoted servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, he was faithful to his trust, giving to each what each could take, and using each occasion for its own special purpose. Herein there should be great co-operation between preacher and hearer, teacher and scholar, pastor and flock. Regarding the minister as a husbandman, those who are wise and who are looking on should say, To-day he is sowing fennel seed: watch with what a liberal hand he throws it abroad, even at the risk of a great deal of it being lost, inasmuch as it may fall into stony places or amongst thorns, and may bring forth nothing in the end; still, he goes forth hopefully, saying in effect, All this seed may come back again, some ten, some thirty, some sixty, some an hundred fold. Then they shall say, To-day he is busy with the rye and the wheat and the barley and another kind of seed or grain altogether; and now look how carefully he lays down the lines, and how sedulously he plies his vocation; in the whole of it he means that there shall be fruit, food, harvest, and at the end of all there shall be a great harvest-home sung by himself and those who have been with him in the mystery of his husbandry.
The ploughman is divinely instructed—"his God doth instruct him" (Isaiah 28:26). Literally—"he treateth each as is fitting, his God instructing him." There is nothing rough-and-ready; everything is studied, adapted, and directed to an end. In all labour there is profit. The difficulty is lest the field itself should start up and say, I want to be otherwise treated, especially I want to be let alone. Then the work of husbandry becomes very wearisome and impracticable. But where the field can say, Oh thou sent of God to make the most of me, I yield myself into thy hands! then every seed day is a harvest day: to sow is to reap, to scatter is to gather, and all the days are too short, so sunny are they and so rich and sacred with music. "His God doth instruct him." Ploughing is not an art of our discovery. We discover somewhat of the plough, but the ploughing is a far greater thing than the plough. We mistake the instrument for the music in many instances. We think that having fashioned a hammer we have sundered a rock; we suppose that because we have made a mechanical arrangement we have got into the very secret of creation and are working from the internal centre. Ploughing was in man at his very creation. Almost the first thought he had was about ploughing. But he had no plough. Given the inspiration of ploughing, and the plough will soon be found. Given the desire to find God, and God will soon be forthcoming. Given the passion for reading, and books will be procured if they cannot be bought or borrowed. The spirit of wisdom will find out the sanctuary of understanding. What is wanted is the spirit, the genius, the inspiration, the overwhelming spiritual impulse. You cannot keep a man back from making a plough who has the spirit of agriculture in him. With regard to his plough he would be very critical: it should be thus, and so, and he will offer prizes for improvements, and when it is finished, he will suppose that he thought of ploughing himself, and is the secret and inspiration of his own action. No. There is a metaphysic behind everything. There is a mystery in a plain deal. The agnostic takes up a beam of wood and says, All I can do is to say that it is forty inches long, six inches one way, and nine another: but what is in it I cannot tell. So with regard to all our civilisation, and culture, and progress; so with our hewing of marble into images that almost speak. The Lord doth instruct the cultivators, husbandmen, artists, painters, poets, teachers, merchantmen, all according to his own wisdom and purpose. Recognising this, we shall see in variety only a large display of divine wisdom; in eccentricity we shall see a divine action, not a human whim; in all out-of-the-way things we shall see the colonial dependencies and relationships of the great central crown. Ploughing may be praying. To work may be to worship. He who can truly say, "I got this plough from God," prays when he seizes it with both hands. He loves it as the musician loves his instrument.
But after ploughing and sowing there is something more; how is the food itself to be produced?—
"For the fitches are not threshed with a threshing instrument, neither is a cart wheel turned about upon the cummin; but the fitches are beaten out with a staff, and the cummin with a rod" (Isaiah 28:27).
What does all that mean? It means divine wisdom. This is a beautiful illustration of the way in which discipline is measured and administered. Fennel seed is not threshed with iron; when the crop comes the wise farmer takes a little rod and gently taps it, or he seizes it with a gentle hand and shakes it so as to get the fruit, the multiplied seed. But when he has to deal with wheat or barley, then he wants the flail, the threshing instrument. Things must be treated according to their nature. So it is with man. Some men require very little hard usage. A tap will do, a gentle stroke, a touch that hardly amounts to a blow, a ministry that may be wrought out with the tips of the fingers. Other men require flail, and iron instrument, and harrow, and cart wheel, and rough treatment: they are differently organised, they are differently constituted. What would be thought of a man who blew up birds' nests with gunpowder? Who would not say, There is great want of proportion in that man's method of looking at things; he is expending far too much energy upon the object? So with regard to the divine discipline. Some men could be almost brought to fulness or fruition by a smile. Of some men God says, Thou art not far from the kingdom of heaven; one little step would bring thee right home. God whispers some men into heaven. But what thunder he needs for others! It would seem as if he must almost tear the heavens asunder to arouse the attention of some men. God treats character according to the variety of character. With the wheat how gentle he is! He will not break the bruised reed; he will not quench the smoking flax. Christ will not lift up his voice, or cry, or cause himself to be heard in the streets; and at other times he will stand forth and pour out his woes like a cataract of maledictions. The divine economy has different aspects. The divine ministry works in different ways. We must not judge one another according to the processes through which we have passed. That is an unwise administration of the kingdom of heaven which insists that each man should have the same experiences, pass through the same processes, and be able to express himself in the same language with every other man. Nowhere is that unwisdom to be found in any book of God's writing. Everywhere God recognises differences, sometimes critical and infinitesimal, altogether concealed from human analysis, and he is Lord, not man, not the priest, not the minister, not the teacher. There is one Lord. Let him work according to his own counsel, for he moves from eternity.
The end of discipline is to produce fruit, satisfaction, solid result. But observe that whether in the case of the fennel seed or the wheat there is an instrumentality, a tapping or a bruising, something that amounts to test, trial, discipline. Here we find a word which occurs frequently in Scripture, and is associated with a very vivid and suggestive etymology, the word "tribulation." It comes from the word tribulum, and tribulum means a threshing instrument. Whatever the man used who was treating the growth in its latest phases was called a tribulum, and he tribulated the harvest into bread. The seed did not go from the field into the oven; it had to undergo the action of the tribulum. Watch it there: what is that seed now undergoing? tribulation. This is the bread that came out of much tribulating, tribulation, tearing asunder, shaking, beating. In order to get a real grip of any language one ought to have a dictionary all pictures. The great words of human speech represent some human action or invention or ministry or method. A hundred instances will occur at once. Here you see the tribulum, a threshing instrument; threshing or tribulating; tribulation necessary as a middle action between the growth and the bread that man can eat. Now that you see the thing before your eyes, now that it is pictured to the imagination, you can easily transfer the process to moral tribulating, tribulation. A man has grown all over—fennel seed or cummin, or wheat, or rye, or barley. Is that enough? No. Now all that he has grown must pass through the action of the tribulum; it must be tribulated into food that men can eat. So figure the language you speak that you shall be master of all its uses. Take an instance, given by one of the most acute etymologists. We had the word "desultory": what is the meaning of that word? Only he can tell who knows the picture; and only he can never forget it who knows the picture. To be in the dramatic history of the word is to be master of all its uses and is to be saved from its misapplication. Here is an amphitheatre: here is a great ring: within that ring there are many horses: guiding and using the horses is a man, who leaps from one horse to another; what is his name—official name? Desultor; he is the desultor—the leaper from one horse to another. So the desultory conversation is a conversation that leaps from one subject to another; the desultory book is the book that leaps from one topic to another,—here speaking of agriculture, there speaking of astronomy; here the gossip of the day, yonder the philosophy of the century. So this word tribulum also brings up its picture, and having once laid hold of it the mind keeps it for ever, and the sufferer takes it with him into the sanctuary of his sorrow, and he says, This is right; I have been in the open fields, I have been ploughed, I have been sowed, I have grown all this character: now I must be tribulated, or the whole thing would be lost; certainly I must undergo the action of the tribulum. "Yea," saith the apostle, "we glory in tribulations also, knowing that tribulation worketh"—and then comes the list of the virtues and the graces issuing from the action of the threshing instrument. Let the well-fed and the prosperous remember that if they have not been tribulated, whatever they may have grown in the field of their life, it has not come into utility for the blessing of others. "No chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous." The crop never said, I like the action of the tribulum; it rather said, I should be glad if I could do without this, it is unpleasant; but it is necessary. How good some of us might be if we could have a little more tribulation! but when every bargain means an increase of property; when every day means a battlefield in which we win the victory; when the putting out of the hand is equal to the giving of a command that cannot be disobeyed; when we say to one, Go, and he goeth, to another, Come, and he cometh; and when to breathe is to prosper,—how can we enter the kingdom of heaven? Others there are who seem always to be in tribulation: they are not strong, they have few opportunities in life; they are baffled and disappointed; their dreams are all turned into nightmares that afflict and affrighten them, and all life seems to be a process of pain. It is even so. It must be hard to bear. It is hardest, methinks, poor sufferer, when thou art silent. I would have thee talk. "It soothes poor misery listening to her tale." It is when thou art silent that I fear the tribulum is most severe upon thee. Oh that thou couldst cry a whole hour—yea, shed tears all the day long, for then next day would be a day of joy. Bear it. Say, Lord, it is hard, but not too hard if thou wilt stand near me: I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. Poor tribulated heart, God is now getting out of thee what is necessary for thine own sustenance. Let him alone. Do not interfere with him. Yield thyself and say, Thy will, my God, be done!