He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous…
These very solemn words have been used again and again to illustrate and enforce the lessons of this great truth of permanency of character - the fact that after a while character becomes fixed, stereotyped as it were, and therefore unalterable; so that he that is unrighteous remains unrighteous still, and, thank God, he that is holy remains holy still. But this is not their true meaning, though by their form and sound they seem to teach this. But their purport is to exhort and encourage the faithful, by bidding them yet hold on, yet persevere; for the time of recompense, the Lord's coming, is at hand. Let the unrighteous, since they are so determined, be unrighteous still; and let the foul, since they love to be so, be foul still; let them, if they will have it so, if men will be wicked they must; but let you righteous and holy ones be righteous and holy still; your trial wilt soon be over, and your day of reward have come. The parallel passage in Daniel 12:9 confirms this interpretation, and seems to have been in St. John's mind when he wrote our text (cf. also Ezekiel 3:27). But because what a man wills to be he eventually and increasingly comes permanently to be, therefore we may yet use our text as teaching that tendency of character to become permanent, let the character be what it may. He that is righteous will go on doing righteousness; whilst he that is filthy will go on making himself yet more foul. Both will have it so, and it comes to be so, blessed as is the fact for the righteous, terrible as it is for the unrighteous, Now, this is a subject appropriate to the closing year. For at such times we are wont to look back along the way we have come, and to ascertain where we stand. We do so in regard to our business, our health, our position in society, our attainments in know ledge, etc. And such review is right. Look back, then, on the paths along which we have gone during the past year. There have been some in which we have made too little progress, in which we have halted too often, and at times turned back - the paths of prayer, of trust, of obedience, of love to God and man, of service, of charity, and the like. And there have been others in which it would have been well if we had not gone at all, or had halted in them, and come away from them - paths sinful, foolish, injurious to ourselves and others. Halt now, if any be in such paths, and forsake them at once. But there are others in which we cannot halt. This dying year tells of one such - the path that leads to death and eternity.
"Our hearts, like muffled drums, keep beating
Funeral marches to the grave." Along that path, whether we will or no, we must go, without halt or pause; and here we are, a long stretch of that way left behind us in this past year. And another of these paths along which we are ever proceeding is that one which leads to fixity of character, the permanent bent and bias of the will. It is to this that our text specially summons our thought. We are ever engaged in gathering together the materials which go to the formation and fixing of character, no matter whether it be good or ill. All our pursuits, pleasures, companionships, books, work; all our thoughts, words, and deeds are busy, like a very colony of ants, all at work, and all tending to that ultimate result in character which binds us down to be ever still the same. Each day finds that work nearer done, and a year must make, does make, a great difference. The walls of the building may have risen hardly above the foundation a year ago, but now, at the year's end, they are a good way up; and a year hence, if we be spared so long, the whole structure will be much nearer completion. What inquiry, then, can be more important than this, as to the direction which our character is taking? It would not matter so much, though even then it would be serious enough, if our varied, separate acts were isolated and independent, without linking on the one to the other; and not, as they are, all tending to fix and stereotype character in one direction or the other, for good or for evil. It would not matter if at any time we could, as we say, "turn over a new leaf;" if it were "never too late to mend." But there comes a time when that new leaf will not be turned over, and it is too late to mend. A time when, like Esau, we find no place of repentance, though we seek it carefully with tears, as he did (cf. Proverbs 1:24-32). When the great suspension bridge over the Niagara Falls was built, first of all a slender wire was carried over by a kite to the other side; that drew over a stronger one; that a chain; and that, one heavier; and so by degrees the bridge was put together and completed. So is it with our characters. Some slight, insignificant action, as we deem it, draws after it some others which are not so insignificant; and these draw others more important still; and so at length the whole structure of our completed character, whatever it be, is brought together and remains permanently fixed. There are harbours round our coast within whose shelter large and numerous ships were wont to gather, so that important towns grew up on their banks, and much trade was done. But rivers that flowed into those harbours brought down with them, year after year, such amount of sandy deposit, though only a very little each year, that after a while the accumulation became so great that a huge bar began to stretch across the harbour mouth; and this increased until at length the port was blocked and all its prosperity at an end. That result was brought about by the sum of small and trifling additions, each one but little in itself, but together accomplishing so much. And so with the myriad minute acts that go to make habits, and habits form character. Well, then, looking back over the year, what does the retrospect declare? How is it with our souls? The year cannot but have done much in regard to them. Is it leaving us nearer God, more in sympathy with his will, more desiring to be, and more actually, what he would have us be? With some, no doubt, it is so, and let such give thanks; for, indeed, they have cause so to do. Others may have mournfully to confess that they are further off, that they have gone back, have lost much of their religion, its joy, strength, and peace. Let such cry unto the Lord and turn unto him with all their hearts; for they have need so to do, lest they fall further away still. "I remember, some time ago, hearing a remarkable circumstance related by a public speaker to whom I was listening. It happened that a ship was being towed across the Niagara river, in America, some little distance above the well known falls. Just as she got into the middle of the stream the hawser parted, and the unfortunate ship began to drift down the river, stern foremost. Efforts were made to save her from impending ruin, but every effort failed, and the unfortunate ship kept drifting further and further down the stream towards the terrible abyss below. The news of the disaster spread along the banks of the river, and in a very short time there were. hundreds of people, and they soon swelled to thousands, looking on in breathless anxiety to see what was to become of this unfortunate crew. There is a point that stretches into the river, which bears the name of 'Past Redemption Point,' and it is believed in the neighbourhood that nothing that passes that point can escape destruction. The current there becomes so strong, the influence so fatal, that whatever goes by Past Redemption Point is inevitably lost. The excited multitude upon the banks of the river watched the helpless ship drifting down farther and further, till she was within a few hundred yards of the fatal point. One after another were efforts made, but of no avail; still she drifted on. Only a few moments, and she passed the point. There was a kind of sigh of horror from the vast multitude as they saw that she had passed, for they knew she was lost. But just as they rounded the point the captain felt a strong breeze smite upon his cheek. Quick as thought, he shouted at the top of his voice, 'All sails set!' and in almost less time than it takes to tell, every stitch of canvas on board the ship was stretched to catch the favouring gale. A cheer broke from the multitude on shore as they witnessed this last effort for salvation. But would it succeed? The ship was still drifting, though the wind was blowing against it, and she was still moving downwards, stern foremost, though the wind was bulging out all her sails. It was a battle between the wind and the current. With breathless anxiety they watched the result. She slacks! Another moment - they scarcely dare whisper it - she stands! Yes, that terrible, downward course was actually stopped. There she was, still as a log upon the water. Another moment, and inch by inch she began to forge her way up the stream, until the motion was perceptible to those on shore, and one great shout of victory burst forth from a thousand voices, 'Thank God, she is saved! Thank God, she is saved!' In a few moments more, with considerable headway upon her, she swept right up the stream, by Past Redemption Point, right into the still water, saved from what appeared to be inevitable destruction, just because in the very moment of moments she caught the favouring breeze" (Aitken). Now, if any have, like this all but lost ship, drifted ruinwards and away from God during this past year - and, doubtless, some have - and if conscience be now rebuking and the Holy Spirit pleading with you by quickening in you desires after a truer, better life, do not delay, but at once take advantage of the favouring breath of the Spirit of God, and let him waft you away from where you are to where you fain would be. "On your knees fall down and pray," lest you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. - S.C.
Parallel VersesKJV: He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.