The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
For, behold, in those days, and in that time, when I shall bring again the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem,The Valley of Decision
In the second verse of this chapter the Lord says, "I will plead with them." This would seem to put the Lord into a position of humiliation. He will ask a favour of the heathen; he will say to them, Why do ye persecute my people? will ye not relax your hold? It would be an act of magnanimity on your part, and they would receive the concession with thankful spirits. To "plead" may be regarded as equivalent to entreaty, desiring, persuading, conciliating. It has no such meaning here. "I will plead" means rather, I will judge,—I will bring every action to the light; I will pronounce upon every deed, I will avenge the wrong. The Lord is judge; he reigneth upon a throne of righteousness, and nothing that is impure, vicious, unworthy, unlovely can escape criticism and penalty. Read the chapter in its opening paragraphs, and you will discover that God is intimately acquainted with everything that is done to his Church. All the ways of the heathen are known to the Most High; all theft, all felony upon human rights, all insults offered to human dignity, the Lord knoweth right well, and he will speak all of them aloud when no human tongue dare utter the outrage in words. It is something to know that nothing has occurred to our life with which God is unacquainted; he knows who has done us wrong, he is well acquainted with the plots infernal, inhuman, cruel, malignant, which have been concocted with a view to our overthrow and ruin. It is something for the heart to know that every word that has been spoken against us when we have been doing God's will is well known to him who is our Father. For God to know is enough; such intelligence is not lodged with him in vain; it does not remain mere information, it brings with it moral issues, judgments, retaliations, and the display of the whole artillery of providence.
Here are words we may not read aloud; the eye itself will scarcely rest upon them any more than it would rest upon metal heated to a scorching heat. But the Lord can write all words in his book; the sunbeam is a pen that cannot be polluted. The Lord can tell all the wickedness of human life, and so speak it that there shall be no stain left upon his lips. Who can touch pitch and not be defiled? Not one; yet the Lord can work among this pitch, and there shall be no taint upon his fingers. The one thing to be remembered is this: Whatever has happened to us, how bad soever, the Lord knows it. When the Lord knows the Lord judges. Men can receive information, and let it lie in the mind inactively; the Lord does not look upon the children of men and form indifferent opinions about their action; when the Lord sees an undeserved stroke he writes it down in his book, and he will retain it. This is not resentment; resentment is small, spiteful, narrow-minded, impetuous; resentment wishes to be satisfied at once, resentment strikes in hot temper. Law is not resentment; before the crime was committed the law fixed the penalty. Even law would cease to be law if it could be impassioned; it must be cold, stern; it must have no feeling; before circumstances are brought to it which can excite feeling, it must decide the penalty due to transgression. When the Lord judges the Lord is not in ill-temper, he is not petulantly excited; he never gives a stroke too much. When he appointed "forty stripes, save one," in that "save one" you have the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, the spirit of correction in measure, the spirit of calculated penalty, the spirit that will not strike for striking's sake; that will only chastise until the offending Adam has been whipped out of our nature. So when we read words that appear to be charged with the spirit of retaliation we are really admitted to a vision of what is truly meant by divine rights, complete judgment.
"And I will sell your sons and your daughters into the hand of the children of Judah, and they shall sell them to the Sabeans, to a people far off: for the Lord hath spoken it" (Joel 3:8).
If man had written these words they would have been indicative of excited temper; we should have said, Calm your passion; overrule yourself; do not return evil for evil. But written in this book, and charged upon the lips of God, they simply show the harvest of an evil seedtime. Be not deceived, God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap. And you can only get at the bad sower by showing him what a bad harvest he has brought about. At some natures you can only get by touching the harvest field, the flesh, the purse of money, the barns that were enlarged but a year ago. The Lord knows how to direct his providence and to bring his judgment to fruition; let him alone; he dwells in Zion,—that is, in peace, in calm; the whole heritage of life is laid wide open before his vision; not a line escapes him, not a bird falleth to the ground without our Father. The Lord comes specifically into human history at certain points. It would seem as if he were looking upon the affairs of men, and forming his own judgment as to when he would appear, visibly, penally, beneficently, as the case may be.
In the ninth verse the Lord will come down. "Prepare war" is his cry; literally, Sanctify war, separate it from all other war. This is not a war of bloodshed, of strength against weakness; there is no element of tyranny or oppression in this conflict; it is a holy war. The Lord will have the mighty men awake out of their stupefaction, and he will have the weak man to stand up as if he were strong, and on the other side shall be only the Lord himself. He will show his enemies how to make weapons:—"Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruninghooks into spears": turn the metal of agriculture into the metal of war; turn the things that were intended for peace into instruments of assault and vengeance: get yourselves ready. There is a mocking tone in all the challenge. Then the Lord will plead with them, and his words shall be as sharp instruments, the opening of his lips shall be as the discharge of devastating artillery; a look will mean destruction, one sound of his voice shall be terrible as an infinite tempest. How singularly words are found in unexpected places! We have been so accustomed to say, "Beat your swords into plowshares," that when we first read the words, "Beat your plowshares into swords," we look again to see if it can possibly be so. Look, scan the verses well, for thus they read, "Beat your plow shares into swords, and your pruninghooks into spears." Micah had a different vision; he saw the Lord judging among many people, and rebuking strong nations afar off—"and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." All processes of this kind have a history; when you see the sword beaten into a plowshare you think, This is an act complete in itself; you do not know that that sword is itself a perverted and ill-treated plowshare. We do not know what we handle. There is history in everything; every weapon can tell its own story of transformation, old history, new purposes; behold, God has touched all things, and they are sacred because of that touch. There is nothing without meaning; every shadow is a dark writing of the finger of God; the broad, bright summer day is another way of declaring the Gospel, and proclaiming how bright and glorious is the kingdom of heaven. Count nothing common, vulgar, unclean. The earth has a history, and the sky has its own story to tell of what it has beheld among the children of men. A great picture is here presented:—
"Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision: for the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision" (Joel 3:14).
We are tempted to make our own comments upon this word. Honoured men have preached from these statements rousing and profitable discourses; but we are bound, in the first instance, to know what the text really means: Multitudes in the valley of judgment; multitudes come together that they may be examined, criticised in the light of heaven, judged by the standard eternal and unchangeable. Why not accept that as the basis of an appeal to human intelligence and human conscience? There is to be a time of judgment, when the right and the left shall be specifically distinguished; when the bad and the good shall be known one from the other and separated for ever. Who undertakes this marvellous classification? Blessed be God, not man; thanks be unto heaven, we are to be judged by the Creator and not by the creature. What man could judge his brother? What does man know about his dearest friend? He knows nothing. We live upon appearances: life watched like a thief has yet a thousand cunning tricks of its own; the soul that would apparently walk in whiteness has visors thin as films which it draws over itself, and through which the most penetrating human eye cannot pierce. We might go further in this psychology and say, No man knows himself. To himself every man is a surprise; he stands back from many an action, and says, I did not think I could have acted so; I must have been possessed. When does the evildoer fail to plead suddenness of attack? He says he was surprised into this policy, or into this course of procedure. He says, excusing himself, If I had taken time to consider the whole circumstances, I should not have done so. He pleads that he was precipitated, that he was attacked when he was in a sort of panic, and therefore he begs that the sentence of the court of justice may be, if not annulled, yet graciously mitigated.
Blessed be God, he is the Judge, and we bless his name in the capacity of judge, because he knows all. Man when judging can know but a little part God knows the mystery of heredity; the Lord knows what ancestor it is in us that is doing this deed or that. The Lord knows that he has a hard lot who was born last. Adam had nothing mysterious, perplexing, distracting; he was fresh from the Maker's hand. Be that Adam whom he may, the Adam of the Bible or the Adam of geology, no matter what Adam, the man that began the series of men had an easy lot compared to the lot the child will have who was born yesterday. All past tributaries flow into the river of the last birth. A man is not himself in any little, narrow, minute, measurable sense. Elizabeth said she felt the blood of a hundred kings in her veins, burning in anger, or rising in pride; we who are not in the line of kings nominally may be in a mysterious line nevertheless. The drunken ancestor; the diseased mind; the relative that died two hundred years ago a raving maniac; the saintly mother and the saintly grandmother, Eunice and Lois; the man that prayed all day, and thought the day too short because he had more to say to God; all these are in a man. What wonder if in the morning he blaspheme, and at night he pray, if this moment he rave like one in whose disordered brain "reason has lost her way," and the next moment be giving himself out in acts of love, in alms of tender pity and all-including charity? Who can judge him? Only the Lord. The Lord knows every drop of blood that is in the fountain of the heart; the Lord, the mighty Judge, presides over that fountain, and says concerning each drop, This tells of five centuries ago: this drop tells of the praying soul that importuned my throne, and took many blessings by gracious violence; this drop has in it bodily disease, poison generated a century since. He knows our frame, he remembereth that we are but dust; let him judge; let no man ascend the judgment seat. Many shall be first who were last, and many shall be last who were first; a great reversion of positions shall take place, because the Lord knoweth all things. He knows whether Iscariot wanted to murder Christ. If there be one good speck in Iscariot the Lord will lay his finger upon it; and he who said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," will save Iscariot if he can be saved.
The Lord must portray us to ourselves; what surprise will then startle us when the Lord tells us what we have been doing, and we never knew it. Yet there are base men who take salary on quarter days as the result of judging the souls of other men. There are those—hucksters, stall-keepers—who feed their virtue on the price they get for denouncing the vices of other men. The Lord will have them in the valley of judgment some day, and he will burn them with unquenchable fire; and many an outcast, breadless, homeless, friendless, will be set among the white-robed angels, because of elements of character not known to the magistrate who sentenced to prison and to the self-elected judge who condemned without mercy. There are more good men in the world than we have reckoned in our statistics; when the sifting time comes it will be the Church that will supply the dust-bin. Read the lives of men who never made any nominal profession of religion, and see how often you find consideration, pity, benevolence, great services, partaking of the nature of sacrifice, rendered by them without ostentation, or without claim upon those who give reputations to men.
In the light of this fact every man must judge himself. Every man knows whether he is good or bad. Every man must determine himself by majorities. We have amplified this thought in former Bible readings. Every man carries his own actions by a majority vote. Can a single man know the mystery of minority and majority? Certainly. Every man who reasons upon life says he will carry out such a policy for so many reasons; on the other hand, he says there are so many more reasons against that policy; if there be six reasons for it, and nine reasons against it, the action is taken upon the majority. You know whether you are a bad man or a good one; do not whine and cant and analyse yourself so as to draw attention to the leanness of your virtue, or the subtlety of your piety: "Brethren, if our heart condemn us—" that is the standard. Ask no pastor whether you are good or not; the answer is in yourself. But you are called drunkard by men? That is nothing; you may not be a drunkard, though you have reeled in the streets by reason of wine; the question is, Are you drunk in your soul? You may be thought to be violent, but men do not know what violence is. Do you feel gentle in heart, and is it your daily struggle to be gentle in manner? Then the Lord will judge you, and set you among his gentle ones. Are you sober? You may be sober according to the flesh, and drunk in the soul every night; no drunkard shall enter the kingdom of heaven. A man is what he is in his soul. There are those who have been excommunicated from altars which the Lord never sanctified who have been better than the priests who condemned them to outer darkness. Let us inspire ourselves by this reflection—the Lord will judge. If we can say to him, after cursing, swearing, denial, blasphemy, cowardice, "Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee," all the black night work shall be forgotten, and on the shore in the morning we shall begin our new heaven. Be severe with yourselves; thrust the knife still further in; hold the light nearer, nearer. The Cross is the bar of judgment.
If by accommodation we turn the word "decision" into its ordinary meaning, we may even by accommodation avail ourselves of some useful thoughts. Think of the idea of numerous multitudes, multitudes upon multitudes, in the valley of decision, in the sense of each saying, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." That is decision. How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, serve him; if Baal, serve him, and name him aloud, and do not be ashamed of your silent impotent deity. Give him all the praise you can; he could only exist nominally upon eulogium, he could not survive the curses of his idolaters; he lives on praise; do not be ashamed of him—except when you call upon him to do anything for you; avoid the shame by never asking a favour at his hands. There is no need to halt. The Lord is waiting, his mercy is ready: "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found: call ye upon him while he is near." All the sound argument is on the side of spiritual decision. There is not an argument against Christianity that is worthy of one moment's consideration. It is important to us all to know truth, and fact, and reality. We have taken a course of infidelity; we have perused the writings of the enemy, and we have risen from the perusal, saying, The Lord he is God: the Lord he is God.
It is supposed that Christian teachers have some interest in bolstering up superstition. They have not; they are honest men; it is because the Bible is strong at every point, and able to carry all the weight of life, that they return to it, saying, The word of the Lord abideth for ever. It is of importance to the Christian preacher that he should not be making a fool of himself. He cannot afford to trifle with the future any more than other men can; he must be taken, therefore, on the ground of his intelligence and his conscience and his general character, and if he live on the food he offers to others, and if the result of that living is stature, massiveness of character, nobility of soul, beauty of disposition, charity of temper, let justice be rendered to the nutriment upon which he subsists. There is no time to halt Time is earnest, passing by. Behold our days are like a post, yea, our moments outfly the weaver's shuttle; it is scarcely morning before it is night; men hardly have time to hail one another with kindly salutes on the dawn of the year before their feet are walking over the shed leaves of autumn, and the men themselves are talking of the shortening days and the closing year. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might, for the grave is dug; in the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand; rise early and be amongst the first who go into the Lord's field that they may till and cultivate the appointed ground. There is no time to lie, to forswear thyself, to neglect thyself, to starve thy soul, to gratify thy passions which are secretly eating up thy heritage of immortality—there is no time. Say we have a century at our disposal, we could allot the decades, and say the first for the devil, the second for God, the third for ourselves, the fourth for Christ, and so on; and thus befool ourselves, and try to live the ambiguous or ambidextrous life. Thou knowest not what a day may bring forth. He that judgeth thee is at the door; set thy house in order, for this year thou shalt die; thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee. God has always this hold upon us—the hold of the uncertainty of life. Behold the giant rises and says, It shall be with me to-day as yesterday,—and at night they are measuring his cold clay for a coffin. The proud man's eyes kindle as he looks upon his fields, his continually increasing estates; and behold, whilst he is looking he reels, he is blanched by some invisible blight, and the man who came out like a king is carried back home a helpless load of flesh. Thou canst not tell what a day may bring forth; thy breath is in thy nostrils: O haste thee, for the time is short. Again hear the sweet word, its silver tones coming over hill and sea, coming from eternity: Seek ye the Lord while he may be found: call ye upon him while—while—while: a measured word—while he is near.