"But what, is thy servant a dog, that he should do this great thing?" -- 2 KINGS viii.13.
Hazael was the chief minister and prime favourite of Benhadad, the Syrian king. He had been raised from a humble lot and promoted to that high post by the partiality of his sovereign, who had doubtless discerned his exceptional abilities, and certainly placed implicit trust in him. Just now the king was dangerously ill, and Hazael had been sent to inquire of the prophet of Israel as to the probable issue of the sickness. He put the question with seeming anxiety: "Will my master recover?" He spoke as if that was his dearest wish; perhaps he did wish it. But there were evidently other thoughts half-formed, lurking and hiding themselves in the background. Suppose the king should die and leave the throne vacant, what then? May there not be a chance for me? Elisha read these hidden thoughts, and looked the man in the face long and steadfastly, until the face turned crimson and the head was lowered with shame. And then the prophet said, "Thy master need not die of the sickness; nevertheless, he will die, and I see you filling a throne won by murder, and I have a picture before me of the terrible things which you will do to my dear land of Israel." And as this vision passed before the prophet's eyes, he wept. Then Hazael gave the answer which stands at the head of this paper.
It is open to two interpretations. The Authorised Version gives one and the Revised Version the other. According to the first, it is an indignant denial; he recoils with horror from the picture of perfidy, cruelty, and enormous criminality which the prophet has sketched for him. I am not capable of such a thing, he says; "Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this great thing?" According to the other reading it is not the crime that he revolts from, but the kingship and the greatness that he refuses to believe in. It seems so improbable and all but impossible that he, a man of obscure birth, should climb to such eminence. He exclaims against it as a piece of incredulous and extravagant imagination. "What is thy servant, which is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?"
Now, I doubt not that both readings may be allowed. For certainly both thoughts were in the speaker's mind. He did not believe at that moment that he could ever be brought to commit such infamous deeds, and he did not believe that he could ever attain such high ambitions and power. There was a dark moral depth predicted for him to which he was sure he would never fall, and there was a certain grandeur and elevation to which he was confident he would never rise. To both things he said, "It is impossible," and yet the impossible came to pass.
Now I would have you observe that this is one of the prominent lessons of the Bible; on many a page does it bring out an unexpected development like this. Again and again it is the unlikely that happens in the lives which figure on its pages. They rise or they fall in a way that no one looked for, and which they, least of all, anticipated themselves. We seem to hear them saying with Hazael, "Impossible," and then, before we get far, the thing is done. Impossible, we say, that king Saul should ever descend so low as to deal in witches; or that Solomon, the wise, God-fearing youth, should give himself up to the sway of lustful passions and idolatries. Yet that comes to pass. Impossible, we say, that the cunning, lying Jacob should ever develop into a man of prayer; and the outcast beggar, Jephthah, ever grow into a hero-patriot and king. Yet we see it. In the Bible stories greatness always comes to those who have neither marked themselves out for it, nor deemed themselves fit for it; and, on the contrary, its most infamous deeds are done, and its most shameful lives lived, by those who have given promise of fairer things, and who in their early manhood would have scouted the possibility of descending so low. The men whom it describes have no suspicion, to begin with, of the great power for good that is in them, or the equally great possibilities of evil. Tell the shepherd youth, David, that he has in him the making of a king and an immortal poet, and he will think you are poking fun at him. Tell him that he will one day fall into the crimes of adultery and murder, and make all Israel blush for him, and he will be indignant enough to strike you to the ground. Speak to the fisherman, Peter, of the commanding influence which awaits him in some coming kingdom of God, and he will think you are beside yourself: and then tell him that he will one day deny and curse his sworn Master and kindest Friend, and he will ask you, Do you think I am a dog or a devil that I should do this? Impossible! And yet the thing comes off.
Why do the sacred writers give us so many stories of this kind? Surely it is because we need both the warning and encouragement. It is to prove to us that on one side of our nature we are greater than we think, and on the other side weaker and lower than we believe. It is to inspire the diffident with courage, and the despairing with hope, while it pulls up the forward, the careless, and the over-confident with the wholesome and humbling word, "Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall." These men of the Bible were strangely mixed. They were conspicuous instances of the contradictions and surprises which are in us all. For that is the point: the thing comes home to us.
Believe me, we are all a riddle to ourselves. Each man is to himself, and each woman too, the greatest of all mysteries save the one greater mystery, God. None of us know of what elements he is composed, and how strangely the good and evil mix and mingle and clash and strive in each day's doings, and through the whole of life. They who believe that the saint is all saint, and the sinner all sinner, are blindly and pitiably ignorant of human nature. God has made no man without putting some little bit of the Divine image in him. The worst has some lingering trace or ruin of it. And the best is not so entirely the temple of the Holy Ghost that no fouler spirits ever obtain entrance there. You may say that you do not believe in a devil. Well, that may be; but there is something like a devil in all of us at certain times, and I would rather believe that it comes from the outside than that it is born and bred and originates within. At any rate, there are in all of us the strange oppositions, the darkness and the light overlapping each other, the evil and the good ever contending, like Esau and Jacob, in the birth hour. The awful and the blessed possibilities are there, and which shall get the uppermost depends first on God, and then upon ourselves.
Remember first, then, that we have all a lower side.
There is in us what I may call a lurking, crouching, slumbering devil, which needs constant watching and holding down with the strong hand of self-mastery and prayer. "Praying always with all prayer, and watching thereunto," says the apostle. In every one of us there is the possibility of falling, however high we stand and however near God we walk. Bunyan says, in his immortal story, "Then I saw in my dream that by the very gate of heaven there was a way that led down to hell." No man, however ripe in goodness, however firmly rooted and grounded in faith, love, and Christian qualities, ever gets beyond the need of vigilant sentinel work -- watching himself. He must always be buffeting himself, and keeping under his body, as Paul did, lest he himself should be a castaway. Let him grow careless, presumptuous, neglectful of prayer, and all the old tempers and passions slowly steal in, and bit by bit obtain the mastery, and the Christian disgraces his profession, and the saint becomes a sinner again. Every Christian knows this. He knows the evil powers that are in him.
It is the man who has never fought with his temptation, never prayed, who especially needs to be reminded of it; young men and women who have been well brought up, who have kept themselves moderately straight so far, and who are full of good resolutions. I hear them say, "Oh I am strong enough. I am not such a fool as to throw myself away in the stupid game of the prodigal, in drunkenness, and gambling, and unclean living. I can hold myself in. I can go just as far as I please. I can indulge to a certain extent, and pull myself up just at the moment I please; and as for prayer and seeking God's help, thank my stars I can clear a safe course without all that. I shall not overstep the line you may depend upon it." "Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this?"
And I answer, yes -- there is quite enough of the dog in you, or of the devil, if you like the word better, to do this and to do worse things -- if you play with the dog and let it loose, and let it have a free run now and then. In my time I have heard scores of young men talk in this way. I have heard them laugh scornfully when danger was mentioned to them, and I have seen a few of them fortunate enough to grow up to manhood with a fairly unspotted character; a few, but not many -- the greater part have gone wrong, and some deplorably wrong. There is hardly one of us can keep that dog fastened up and chained down always, unless we rely upon a stronger power than our own. It gets loose at times with the best of us -- it runs wild and plays dreadful havoc with those who are not the best; there is always in you the baser self -- always the dry torches of evil passions which a spark may kindle -- always the moral weaknesses and lusts, half-sleeping, which some stronger blast of temptation may awaken and bring out; and if you wish to escape the evil and hold fast to the good, you will commit your way unto the Lord, and put on the Christian armour, and strengthen yourselves by prayer. Do not presume too much -- better men than you have fallen every day. God only can save you from yourselves.
It is just as needful to remember the other side -- the side of better possibilities.
Some of you are tempted to say at times with Hazael, "Thy servant is but a dog; how can he do these great things?" You are disposed to underrate your gifts, your opportunities, your happy chances in life -- in a word, your possibilities. You despair of finding any opening; you are sure that you will never hear a call to come up higher; you think your lives must always be ill-paid drudgery, with no promotion. It is sad to work with a conviction of that kind. You never work well if there is nothing to look forward to, and it is cowardly to give way to a conviction of that kind. Perhaps you are not specially clever -- no, but there are better things than cleverness in the world, and things which have more to do with life's real successes.
If you have in you some power of plodding, to do steady work, doing it always honestly; if you have perseverance, self-control, a sense of duty, a determination to do always the thing that is right, all will be well -- these are the qualities which lift a man up to the best places, and one of those places is being prepared for you if you are worthy to fill it. You say, perhaps, "I can never be a good man. I can never be a Christian. I am not made for these high things; it is not in me." I answer, "It is in you, or if it be not in you now, God will put it in you if you diligently ask Him."
Nay, truly, there are the germs of goodness in every one of us. Thy servant is something more than a dog, though he calls himself that, and nothing else. There is something of the religious emotion in you, and that means there is something of the Divine. You have dreams at times of a beautiful life, you have longings for it, sometimes you even set out to reach it -- and these are all touches of God. They all prove that the Holy Ghost sometimes pays at least a passing visit to your hearts. You do not know what God can make of you until you trust and try Him. There are greater things by far in you than you have guessed. Have confidence in Him, and He will bring them out. I can see a man of God in you, a pillar in the Church, an honour to the town. I can see a Christian mother in you, a half-sainted woman full of good works, bringing children up to noble lives. It is there in many of you, if you do not despise and neglect the gift that is in you, but use it and cultivate it prayerfully, and let God bring it to perfection.