O Israel, you have destroyed yourself; but in me is your help.
These words are prophetic of the great disasters and that awful ruin which came upon God's chosen people, when the Assyrian led them into captivity, and desolated their land with fire and sword. They were spoken in a time of comparative security, when the cities of Israel were teeming with inhabitants, and the broad harvest fields were offering their rich reward to the labour of the husbandman. Amid the glitter and promise of material civilisation, God had discerned and denounced the real tendencies of this rebellious people. He declares that the ruin should be the natural consummation of the nation's progress, that they should be self-destroyed by the simple operation of the principles which they had adopted, and the institutions which they had founded. This brief address proclaims the solemn truth, that as he stands amid the bounties of God's providence and the natural arrangements of the world, man is continually perverting them from their Divine intent, and thereby bringing ruin upon his highest interests; and the only remedy for his abuse of mercies and disarrangement of established order is found in the constant interposition of Jehovah's arm in the processes of nature, providence, and grace. Our subject then is, the destructive tendency of human progress, and the remedy supplied by God to counteract the ruin. A weakness of the present age is the temper in which men are wont to glorify its institutions, its achievements, and its progress. As if by general consent the nineteenth century has been established upon a throne of honour, and around it have gathered the high priests of science and the leaders of opinion, to proclaim its successes and its destiny. But the object of all this idolatry is no less a shadow and a deceit than is that crowned and jewelled mortal whose life is flowing on to death, while his flatterers are extolling his immortality.
I. THE NATURAL PROGRESS OF MAN IN THE WORLD IS A STEADY LAPSE TOWARDS CORRUPTION AND DESTRUCTION. In spite of the arts, institutions, and triumphs of civilisation, the natural development of the race is a descent towards misrule, oppression, anarchy, and ruin. Reason, revelation, and history make this evident.
1. Consider the nature of the ideas of civilisation and progress as they are held by men, and as they operate in the world. That there is a "law of progress" in relation to man's material interests cannot be overlooked, and ought not to be denied. On behalf of his various needs, man is a ceaseless worker. Thus there is progress in the art of living, in mechanical inventions, in the range of the fine arts, and the scope of great enterprises, and in the fellowship of nations. One age profits by the mistakes and successes of those which have preceded it. Great results are produced, dazzling to the eye, and flattering to the pride of man. But when this process is closely surveyed, and its real tendencies are accurately noted, what is it more or better than a reconstruction of the tower of Babel, in which railroad iron, and telegraphic wires, and social comforts, are substituted for asphaltic brick, and the fine arts for the builder's lofty plan, but the intent of which is equally with that of the ancient enterprise, to exalt man upon the earth, and screen him from the scrutiny of God! Expand it, modify it, or disguise it as you will, the fact remains that a process of development which rests upon these ideas and aims at these results is rotten to the core, and from it there can only spring corruption. In material prosperity we have the real end of progress, so far as it is sought by any human institutions, and in this there cannot be a single element of conservative effect, or a single principle of enduring force.
2. This view is confirmed by the lessons of history. "History" is philosophy teaching by examples. In the light of the solid facts of history we learn the real tendencies of that refinement and civilisation of which those who see things in the present only, are so prone to boast. Every nation that has culminated in such a civilisation as has been described, has found thereto the elements of its decay and ruin. Illustrate from Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Rome, India, Ottoman Empire, States of Italy, South American Republics, etc.
3. Refer to our own land, and the influence of our own institutions. We have received a goodly heritage. Our institutions were founded in the hatred of oppression and the love of right. The broad Atlantic rolls between us and the corruptions which have vitiated the older nations of the world. But what has been the direction of our progress Has there been ascent or descent in the march of empire? It is true that, in our national career, we have gained in territory, and increased in revenue, and advanced in culture and refinement, but amid all this the primal vigour and intensity of the nation's life has wasted. Republicanism does not check depravity. Consider the fierce partisanship of politics, the strife of interests between different sections of the Union, the corruption of our legislators, the apologies for oppression, the insecurity of our cities, our eagerness in the pursuit of wealth for its own sake, the recklessness of our expenditure, and the fearful increase of crimes of darkest hue, and you cannot but acknowledge the general tendency towards license and corruption.
II. AMID THESE DESTRUCTIVE TENDENCIES THERE IS HOPE FOR MAN IN THE HELPING HAND OF GOD. God is continually averting perils, reconstructing ruined institutions, and infusing new life into the organisms which man has corrupted. Among the vivid creations of the Scandinavian mythology there is one which represents Life under the similitude of a Tree. Igdrasil, the ash-tree of existence, has its roots deep down in the very kingdom of death. At its base sit the three Fates, who water these roots from the sacred well, while its trunk mounts high towards heaven, and its branches spread into every land. Its boughs are the histories of nations. Its rustle is the sound of human life, swelling onward from of old. It grows there in spite of death below, and storms above, the true emblem of man's life and progress, by means of the forces through which God sustains him in the midst of moral evil. Out of the very elements of death He is evolving a progressive revelation which will change the tendencies of the race: The process by which this is being accomplished is not natural, as men understand the laws of nature. It is a process of miraculous effect, and supremely glorious to the grace of God. The formal statement of this Divine method we find only in the Word of God. It is by implanting living ideas of truth and righteousness, and by renewing sinful human hearts in the Divine likeness, that man's ruin is turned aside. In the spiritual influences of the Gospel lies the help which His Word has promised, and which His hand affords. Christianity is the one power of real progress in the world. Christianity saves the world from corruption and destruction. By it society would be truly civilised, the State be reared on the great principles of righteousness, and the highest welfare of the world be secured by a prosperity which should be at once material and spiritual, temporal and eternal.
(R. R. Booth.)
Parallel VersesKJV: O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thine help.