DEUT. XXX.19, 20.
I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live: that thou mayest love the Lord thy God, and that thou mayest obey His voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto Him: for He is thy life, and the length of thy days: that thou mayest dwell in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.
These words, the book of Deuteronomy says, were spoken by Moses to all the Israelites shortly before his death. He had led them out of Egypt, and through the wilderness. They were in sight of the rich land of Canaan, where they were to settle and to dwell for many hundred years. Moses, the book says, went over again with them all the Law, the admirable and divine Law, which they were to obey, and by which they were to govern and order themselves in the land of Canaan. He had told them that they owed all to God Himself; that God had delivered them out of slavery in Egypt; God had led them to the land of Canaan; God had given them just laws and right statutes, which if they kept, they would live long in their new home, and become a great and mighty nation. Then he calls heaven and earth to witness that he had set before them life and death, blessing and cursing. If they trusted in the one true God, and served Him, and lived as men should, who believed that a just and loving God cared for them, then they would live; then a blessing would come on them, and their children, on their flocks and herds, on their land and all in it. But if they forgot God, and began to worship the sun, and the moon, and the stars, the earth and the weather, like the nations round them, then they would die; they would grow superstitious, cowardly, lazy, and profligate, and therefore weak and miserable, like the wretched Canaanites whom they were going to drive out; and then they would die. Their souls would die in them, and they would become less than men, and at last -- as the Canaanites had become -- worse than brutes, till their numbers would diminish, and they would be left, Moses says, few in number and at last perish out of the good land which God had given them.
So, he says, you know how to live, and you know how to die. Choose between them this day.
They knew the road to wealth, health, prosperity and order, peace and happiness, and life: and they knew the road to ruin, poverty, weakness, disease, shame and death.
They knew both roads; for God had set them before them.
And you know both roads; for God has set them before you.
Then he says -- I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing.
He called heaven and earth to witness. That was no empty figure of speech. If you will recollect the story of the Israelites, you will see plainly enough what Moses meant.
The heaven would witness against them. The same stars which would look down on their freedom and prosperity in Canaan, had looked down on all their slavery and misery in Egypt, hundreds of years before. Those same stars had looked down on their simple forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, wandering with their flocks and herds out of the mountains of the far north. That heaven had seen God's mercies and care of them, for now five hundred years. Everything had changed round them: but those stars, that sun, that moon, were the same still, and would be the same for ever. They were witnesses to them of the unchangeable God, those heavens above. They would seem to say -- Just as the heavens above you are the same, wherever you go, and whatever you are like, so is the God who dwells above the heaven; unchangeable, everlasting, faithful, and true, full of light and love; from whom comes down every good and perfect gift, in whom is neither variableness nor shadow of turning. Do you turn to Him continually, and as often as you turn away from Him: and you shall find Him still the same; governing you by unchangeable law, keeping His promise for ever.
And the earth would witness against them. That fair land of Canaan whither they were going, with its streams and wells spreading freshness and health around; its rich corn valleys, its uplands covered with vines, its sweet mountain pastures, a very garden of the Lord, cut off and defended from all the countries round by sandy deserts and dreary wildernesses; that land would be a witness to them, at their daily work, of God's love and mercy to their forefathers. The ruins of the old Canaanite cities would be a witness to them, and say -- Because of their sins the Lord drove out these old heathens from before you. Copy their sins, and you will share their ruin. Do as they did, and you will surely die like them. God has given you life, here in this fair land of Canaan; beware how you choose death, as the Canaanites chose it. They died the death which comes by sin; and God has given you life, the life which is by righteousness. Be righteous men, and just, and God-fearing, if you wish to keep this land, you, and your children after you.
And now, my dear friends, if Moses could call heaven and earth to witness against those old Jews, that he had set before them life and death, a blessing and a curse, may we not do the same? Does not the heaven above our heads, and the earth beneath our feet, witness against us here? Do they not say to us -- God has given you life and blessing. If you throw that away, and choose instead death and a curse; it is your own fault, not God's?
Look at the heaven above us. Does not that witness against us? Has it not seen, for now fifteen hundred years and more, God's goodness to us, and to our forefathers? All things have changed; language, manners, customs, religion. We have changed our place, as the Israelites did; and dwell in a different land from our forefathers: but that sky abides for ever. That same sun, that moon, those stars shone down upon our heathen forefathers, when the Lord chose them, and brought them out of the German forests into this good land of England, that they might learn to worship no more the sun, and the moon, and the storm, and the thunder-cloud, but to worship Him, the living God who made all heaven and earth. That sky looked down upon our forefathers, when the first missionaries baptized them into the Church of Christ, and England became a Christian land, and made a covenant with God and Christ for ever to walk in His laws which He has set before us. From that heaven, ever since, hath God been sending rain and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness, for a witness of His love and fostering care; prospering us, whensoever we have kept His laws, above all other nations upon earth. Shall not that heaven witness against us? Into that heaven ascended Christ the Lord, that He might fill all things with His power and His rule, and might send from thence on us His Holy Spirit, the Spirit whom we worship this day, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. By that same Spirit, and by none other, have been thought all the noble thoughts which Englishmen ever thought. By that Spirit have been spoken all the noble words which Englishmen ever spoke. By that Spirit have been done all the noble deeds which Englishmen have ever done. To that Spirit we owe all that is truly noble, truly strong, truly stable, in our English life. It is He that has given us power to get wealth, to keep wealth, to use wealth. And if we begin to deny that, as we are inclined to do now-a- days; if we lay our grand success and prosperity to the account of our own cleverness, our own ability; if we say, as Moses warned the Israelites they would say, in the days of their success and prosperity, not -- "It is God who has given us power to get wealth," but -- "Mine arm, and the might of my hand, has gotten me this wealth;" -- in plain words -- If we begin to do what we are all too apt to do just now, to worship our own brains instead of God: then the heaven above us will witness against us, this Whitsuntide above all seasons in the year; and say -- Into heaven the Lord ascended who died for you on the Cross. From heaven He sent down gifts for you, and your forefathers, even while you were His enemies, that the Lord God might dwell among you. And behold, instead of thanking God, fearing God, and confessing that you are nothing, and God is all, you talk as if you were the arbiters of your own futures, the makers of your own gifts. Instead of giving God the glory, you take the glory to yourselves. Instead of declaring the glory of God, like the heavens, and shewing his handiwork, like the stars, you shew forth your own glory and boast of your own handiwork. Beware, and fear; as your forefathers feared, and lived, because they gave the glory to God.
And shall not the earth witness against us? Look round, when you go out of church, upon this noble English land. Why is it not, as many a land far richer in soil and climate is now, a desolate wilderness; the land lying waste, and few men left in it, and those who are left robbing and murdering each other, every man's hand against his fellow, till the wild beasts of the field increase upon them? In that miserable state now is many a noble land, once the very gardens of the world -- Judaea, and almost all the East, which was once the very garden of the Lord, as thick with living men as a hive is with bees, and vast sheets both of North Africa, and of South and of North America. Why is not England thus? Why, but because the Lord set before our forefathers life and death, blessing and cursing; and our forefathers chose life, and lived; and it was well with them in the land which God gave to them, because they chose blessing, and God blessed them accordingly? In spite of many mistakes and shortcomings -- for they were sinful mortal men, as we are -- they chose life and a blessing; and clave unto the Lord their God, and kept His covenant; and they left behind, for us their children, these churches, these cathedrals, for an everlasting sign that the Lord was with us, as He had been with them, and would be with our children after us.
Ah, my friends, while we look round us over the face of this good land, and see everywhere the churches pointing up to heaven, each amid towns and villages which have never seen war or famine for now long centuries, all thriving and improving year by year, and which never for 800 years have been trodden by the foot of an invading enemy, one ought to feel, if one has a thoughtful and God-fearing heart -- Verily God has set before us life and blessing, and prospered us above all nations upon earth; and if we do not cleave to Him, we shall shew ourselves fools above all nations upon earth.
And then when one reads the history of England; when one thinks over the history of any one city, even one country parish; above all, when one looks into the history of one's own foolish heart: one sees how often, though God has given us freely life and blessing, we have been on the point of choosing death and the curse instead; of saying -- We will go our own way and not God's way. The land is ours, not God's; the houses are our own, not God's; our souls are our own, not God's. We are masters, and who is master over us? That is the way to choose death, and the curse, shame and poverty and ruin, my friends; and how often we have been on the point of choosing it. What has saved us? What has kept us from it? Certainly not our own righteousness, nor our own wisdom, nor our own faith. After reading the history of England; or after recollecting our own lives -- the less we say of them the better.
What has kept us from ruin so long? We are all day long forgetting the noble things which God did for our forefathers. Why does not God in return remember our sins, and the sins of our forefathers? Why is He not angry with us for ever? Why, in spite of all our shortcomings and backslidings, are we prospering here this day?
I know not, my friends, unless it be for this one reason, That into that heaven which witnesses against us, the merciful and loving Christ is ascended; that He is ever making intercession for us, a High-priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; and that He has received gifts for men, even for His enemies -- as we have too often been -- that the Lord God might dwell among us. Yes. He ascended on high that He might send down His Holy Spirit; and that Spirit is among us, working patiently and lovingly in many hearts -- would that I could say in all -- giving men right judgments; putting good desires into their hearts; and enabling them to put them into good practice.
The Holy Spirit is the life of England, and of the Church of England, and of every man, whether he belongs to the Church or not, who loves the good, and desires to do it, and to see it done. And those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, are the salt of England, which keeps it from decay. They are those who have chosen life and blessing, and found them. Oh may God increase their number more and more; till all know Him from the least unto the greatest; and the land be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
And then shall all days be Whit-Sundays; and the Name of the Father be hallowed indeed, and His kingdom come, and His will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.