The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
The LORD shewed me, and, behold, two baskets of figs were set before the temple of the LORD, after that Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon had carried away captive Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah, and the princes of Judah, with the carpenters and smiths, from Jerusalem, and had brought them to Babylon.Figs Good and Bad
There was an immense advantage in living in Old Testament times. The evidence of that advantage is to be found on every page of the Old Testament itself. Men had a living Lord then. They spoke with him in a very reverent familiarity; although they named his name every day, never does the familiarity go below the point of reverence. You could not speak to an Old Testament man without hearing something about "The Lord"; for he said, with a child's frankness, The Lord said; The Lord told me; I saw the Lord; The Lord sent me; The Lord afflicted me; The Lord gave me deliverance; The Lord healed my diseases, and loaded me with benefits. There was nothing strained about the confession: it was simply, sweetly, gratefully uttered. Where is that Lord today? He was a great Lord; it required the Hebrew tongue to furnish epithets and descriptives by which he could be adequately set forth to the imagination. Is it language we are short of? or is the Lord God himself absent from our thinking? Is it possible to think much about him, and never mention his name? Is it possible to perform the miracle of being so absorbed in the claims of God as never to mention the King? Has it come to this crowning miracle, the devil the miracle-worker, that men can love Christ, and never acknowledge him? We are not insensible to the plea that we must beware of what is denominated for no known reason "cant." But love surely is inventive enough to find ways of self-expression and self-revelation; surely love must now and then have courage enough to test a popular fear, and to lift itself up in noble testimony, notwithstanding those who would affright it into silence. We now have theories, hypotheses even—things so useless as hypotheses! we have laws, persistent forces, marvellous, all-grinding continuity: would God we had the living Father, the gentle, benignant, merciful, redeeming Saviour! It was better to be an old prophet, who even dreamed himself into this sublime association with motive, thought, and destiny eternal, than to be crammed, filled with notions we cannot understand, and theories we never think of applying.
"What seest thou, Jeremiah?" "Two baskets of figs set before the temple." What is the meaning of these baskets? We cannot tell. Perhaps they were votive offerings. The people who set them there had some object in view. The same baskets are standing in the same place today. Did the Lord see only the baskets of figs? When does the Lord put a final meaning to anything? There is no final meaning to the humblest bird that flutters in the air; it is a minister of Providence, a minister of grace. There is no end to the meaning of a field of wild flowers. We can run past that marvellous display of power, wisdom, and goodness; but God himself is still there, nourishing every root, and filling every cup as with the wine of beauty. Things mean more than they seem to mean: it is the interpreter that is wanting. It is even so with the Bible. We do not want a new writing, we want a new reading; we do not want a new Bible, we simply need the old one to be properly read. The Bible is in the reader: you get out of the Bible what you bring to it. So it is with everything. If this were a philosophical law relating to the Bible only, we might question it because of its uniqueness and singularity, but this law holds good everywhere. We get what we give: our prayers are their answers; no man can pray above the answer he has already in his heart Why do we not see? To look is one thing; to see is another. We have not the same drapery that we find in Oriental narrative or parable, but that is an advantage rather than a disadvantage, because poor readers, superficial observers, never get further than the drapery. They never see the prodigal son; if they saw him they would fall upon his neck before he left his father's house, and would have the battle out then. The drapery conceals, not reveals, unless we have the living, penetrating eye that pierces through all clothing and accident, and fixes itself intelligibly and critically upon the core, the meaning that roots in the heart. There are many who have seen nothing but clouds in the sky: there are some who have never seen the sky. There are some who have never seen their own children. There are blind hearts, blind understandings, that never see anything as it is, in all its outgoing of suggestion, poetry, apocalypse, possibility: what wonder that they have become the victims of monotony and complain cf commonplace and weariness and tedium, and are always sighing for something that will simply startle them out of the degradation into which they have brought every faculty?
What is the abiding quantity? Remove the drapery, with all its amplitude and colouring, and get at the heart of things, and what is the permanent quantity, which the world might hold as stock to trade with? What is it which around this simple fellowship gathers in order that it may wisely calculate, expend, record its accounts, and divide its balances? The central quantity is History,—events, actions, providence. The baskets are not here, the particular literal figs are not here, but all the meaning is present with us through enduring time. History must be read, events must be looked at; for now the world has grown a history; the world has grown a library. Jeremiah had none, Isaiah and Ezekiel had to look around at nature, and endeavour through nature to look telescopically upon infinite distances; in their day there was nothing of what we call with modern significance a literature, a history. Now God is taking shape in events, is robed with incidents, deliverances, interpositions—all the marvellous garment which we denominate by the name of Providence. We see only the detail, and therefore we are lost, and sometimes we are almost atheists. If we would see anything like an outline of the sum-total, we must pray, and fear, and trust, and love. We have a mischievous habit of breaking up our lives into little morsels, and looking only at the disintegration; we have not yet: learned the mystery of putting things together into all their meaning, and getting into the rhythm of the divine movement: otherwise there would be no atheists, there would be fewer agnostics, there would be a marvellous multiplication of worshippers; men would be brought to say, Explain it how you will, there are invisible fingers at work in all this machinery of things: history is an argument, history is a theology, history is a Bible: of another kind, yet rooted in the old Bible as to all its philosophies, possibilities, reverences, and divinest outlook and outcome. Thus through the vestibule of history men can walk arm-inarm a thousand strong, saying, Let us enter into the Temple, for it is the hour of prayer, and bless the God of history for the other Temple which he is building, and by which he is vindicating his throne and his providence. If men would read history, Christianity would be safe. If men would read their own history, there would be less need of argument. Some of us have come to a point at which we have perfect rest in God. There may be those who need to have an elaborate and irrational and unintelligible argument by which to prove the existence of God; but no man who has lived a reflective life can look back upon his yesterdays without saying, They came as links, but they have been welded or attached or connected into chains; each day came, it was taken up, looked at, used, laid down; but the days are now a thousand in number, multiplied by ten, and by fifty, and lo! they are not links but chains, golden, strong, and by a mysterious process they uplift themselves, and are hooked on to something stronger than rocks, something brighter than planets.
Who then can wonder at the young being eccentric, having a tendency to intellectual vagary and vagabondage—who can wonder? A man cannot read other people's history until he has read his own; we cannot understand biography until we understand autobiography. We hear the words: the eloquent lecturer expounds the ways historical, the mysteries of course and consequence, and we listen as students wonderingly—our principal wonder being why he ever began: but as we advance in life we see that there is an under-current, an under-building, an outer structure, and when we compare the outer with the inner, the material with the spiritual, history with the Bible, we say, All things are one; there is at the heart of all life's wondrous mystery a Power, inspiring, guiding, shaping, refining, spiritualising,—call it by what name you may, at last you will come to call it by the name divine. Why do men not read events? If they would read events they would be believers in providence.
Events are divided. "What seest thou?" I see two kinds of events, one good, and the other vile: and there they are in life. It is so in families: how do you account for it that one son prays, and the other never saw the need of prayer? The one is filial; the other has a heart of stone. The one is always at home; the other never was at home in all his life—the meaning of that term in music he never understood. Look at life broadly. What seest thou, O prophet, O man of the piercing eyes, what seest thou? Two events, or series of events, one excellent, the other vile; one leading upward, the other downward. What seest thou? Heaven—hell. The vision is still before us; we need to have our attention called to it. He who deals in singularities, in isolations, never enters into the philosophy of providence, the method of the sublime organisation which is denominated the universe. We have perhaps been unjust to the idea of individualism. A man says he can read the Bible at home. We have denied this. He can read it there if he has no other opportunity of reading it; but let him come into the great fellowship, and he will find another reading, in another tone, and he will feel that he needed that marvellous, inexplicable thing called touch, sympathy, fellowship, in order to make him see himself, in the real quality and quantity of his being. We must have public prayer. We can pray alone and must pray there; but we can only pray there with sufficient profitableness for the holy exercise in proportion as we crowd our solitude with memories of the great congregation. How difficult it is for any man to see the intercessor in another man! When we listen to prayer in the public congregation we are not listening to one man, we are not listening to a man confessing his own sins, we are not reduced to that contemptible relation to the universe; if the man who is praying be an intercessor, one to whom is given the gift of public expression, we hear in his voice a thousand voices—when he sobs it is because a thousand hearts have broken, when he cries for mercy it is because the world is on its knees. So with events, processes of events, marvellous action and interaction: we must see the whole if we would really say, How awful is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
In Old Testament times the Lord communicated his will to special men. Here we have Jeremiah as representing that whole thought. This would be peculiar, and would be open to a species of objection, if it did not hold good in all the relations of life. Here again we come upon the marvellous distribution of the figs, excellent and vile, full of noble meaning, and full of distressing suggestion. Jeremiah was called to interpret the symbols. Men are called today who have the faculty of interpretation. They do not speak from the point of information, else then they would be but articulate newspapers; they speak from the point of inspiration, consciousness, communion with the Eternal; therefore there is about their words an aroma not to be found otherwhere. One man is a poet, and another—not to put it offensively—is not a poet: how is that? One man weeps when he sees the morning come: the dawn is so tender, so condescending, so hospitable, so full of promise, and so full of that which cannot at once be apprehended: what is that dawn? Is it an opening battlefield? is it a sick-bed? is it a bright opportunity for doing noble things? The poet cannot tell, but he says, God will be in the centre of it, and if he will reveal himself the day shall be a blessing, though it be full of battle, or though it be quiet with the spirit of peace. One man is a statesman, and another is not; one man can see the whole question, and the other can hardly see any part of it. The man who can only see one point gets credit for being very definite. Poor soul! he gets a reputation for being very clear. If he could see a horizon instead of a point, he would hesitate, he would look about for another and larger selection of words; he would be critical, he would pause between two competitive terms, not knowing which exactly held all the colour of his thought. Some heads are vacant temples. What then? Let us be thankful to God for the Isaiahs, Jeremiahs, Ezekiels, Pauls, and Johns, who have risen to tell us what the Lord meant. Who was it that saw the Lord first on that marvellous morning referred to in the fourth Gospel? It was John. There was a figure on the seashore, a mere outline, a spectre; the people in the boat wondered what it was, and John said, "It is the Lord." It required John to turn that figure into a Christ: but this is the faculty divine, this is the prophetic function, this is the inworking of that mystery which we call inspiration. It required God to see his own image and likeness in the dust; it required Christ in the very agony of his love to turn common supper wine into sacramental blood. Let us be thankful tor our teachers. Some of us are but echoes—we can only tell what we have heard other men say: but let us maintain our friends who have the gift of prayer; if we cannot join them we can listen to them, and say, Hear how he knows us, how he loves us, how he interprets our desires, how by some gift we: cannot understand he puts into words the very thoughts that have been burning in our hearts. These are the men who should lead the civilisation of the world.
The Lord says he will send his people into captivity "for their good,"—"Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel; Like these: good figs, so will I acknowledge them that are carried away captive of Judah, whom I have sent out of this place into the land of the Chaldeans for their good." How marvellous is the action of love! The parent sends away the child he cannot live without for the child's good; men undertake long and perilous and costly journeys that they may accomplish a purpose that is good. Jesus Christ himself said to his wondering disciples, "It is expedient for you that I go away." Who can understand this action of love? It would seem to us to be otherwise: that it would be best for Jesus to remain until the very last wanderer is home; it would seem to our poor reason, which has everything but wings, that it would be best for Jesus Christ to remain upon the earth until he saw the very last little lamb enfolded on the mountains of Israel—then he himself could come to be shepherd of the flock. Yet he was hardly here before he said, "It is expedient for you that I go away." Are we not sent away? have we not lost fortune, station, standing? have we not been punished in a thousand different ways—chastised, humiliated, afflicted? have we not been suddenly surrounded with clouds in which there was no light—yea, and clouds in which there was no rain, simply darkness, sevenfold night? Yet it was for our good; it was that our vanity might be rebuked, that the centre of dependence might be found, that the throne of righteousness might be seen and approached. "It was good for me that I was afflicted: before I was afflicted I went astray." Let us look upon our afflictions, distresses, and losses in that light. Life is not easy; life is a sacrifice, an agony, a battle that ends only to begin again, a fight mitigated, not ended, by a night's repose. Are we to live always the accidental life, the life of mere detail, the life that only happens? or are we to live the life that is governed by law, inspired by a purpose, riveted in God, and travelling through infinite circuits back again to the fountain of its origin? This is the religious life.
What became of the evil figs? The Lord himself could not cure them. The only mercy that could be shown to them was to destroy them. How is it with ourselves? There would seem to be men who cannot be cured, healed, restored; God himself has wasted his omnipotence upon them. There are men who have resisted the Cross, who have gone to perdition over a place called Calvary. Did they see it on the road? Yes. Did they know who died upon that central cross? Yes. Did they hear his voice of love? Yes, outwardly. How have they come to perdition? By pressing their way past the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; if you go back all the miles they have travelled you will find that they crushed under their feet father, mother, home, pastor, friend, companion, wife, child, Bible, altar: what can become of them? God himself can do no more. He is at the gate of the vineyard now, saying, as he looks upon the wild grapes, What could I do for my vineyard more than I have done? Be just, be honest, and say in clear, articulate terms that your soul can hear, I am self-ruined, I am a suicide.
But who can end here? who can turn aside and say, This is the end? May it not be that one more appeal will succeed? may not God himself be surprised by the returning prodigal? may not Omniscience be startled into a new consciousness? We are obliged to use these terms with human meanings: but may it not be that some who are thought to be lost are not lost after all? To be in God's house is a proof that the loss is not complete. To have even intellectual attention bestowed upon an appeal is to show that life is not extinct. "Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die?" "As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked." If any man dies it will be because God cannot help it.